Tempeche, b. 1799 d. 1824

photo: outlaw chapbook c/o bannock street books

published here

Tempeche willed one of the bullets into his own skull. The fusillade threw his corpse backwards, still tied to the iron ring.

Monterey’s angry court officials were not to be swayed, so he had sung them quiet forgiveness. He chanted thankfulness to the four directions, to the earth, to the sky. While they convicted him of murder, he recalled the lush taste of raw salmon, the heart-pounding scramble ahead of a grizzly, the brief eternity of taking a woman.

Fickle Coyote was elsewhere, though he’d inspired Tempeche’s other escapes. Tempeche knew that even the chance to slash the Corporal’s throat while in custody was just a final trick, not a path of escape. Caught immediately. Execution guaranteed.

***

Four-year-old Tempeche hadn’t cried when his father died. Instead, a terrible tension sprang up in his spirit. If anchored in his chest, it would have torn his ribs apart. A loud, long, powerful cracking sound filled his ears and seemed to come from everywhere, as if in the deep woods during a dark rain. He froze by the sick bed in fear, heart pounding, as his father’s breathing stopped. The slow, massive crash, an ancient redwood shattering pines and oaks, seemed to be aimed directly at him.

Gone were the wrestling matches and the runs along the beach. There would be no hunts, no bleeding from his first kill or presentation by his father in the lodge of grown men. No song or wisdom, sacred story or talisman.

His father had shown him ways to find and kill squirrel, fish, quail and even the best places for certain plants and which branches to make into new bows, arrows and other tools. The family had favorite rocks for mussel, shallows for abalone, beaches for clams. But Tempeche remembered none of them precisely. He hadn’t learned. He was uprooted.

His mother had him fetch water and gather tule, seed and acorns and perform all of the chores of girls. When other boys mocked him or ignored him, the ache in his chest grew. He fought back by trying to show them all how a man did girl’s work. He carried double the water; he collected the tule and acorns faster and stayed at it longer. He was driven and unapproachable during this time. And every night, as he went to sleep, the duck hunters sought to bring him down.

He struggled, drowning, tangled in the coarse duck nets of the tribe. He woke, groaning, struggling to understand what was happening, desperate to ease his panic. He remembered one thing his father had said. He could understand anything if he observed well enough. So he breathed, slowed, trying to gather details.

He drifted back to sleep, shook free of the net that had leapt at him from out of the water and separated him from the rest of the flock. Four hundred strong, it still swam undisturbed thirty yards away. Six or seven of his brothers and sisters still struggled in the long hunting nets, drowning. He paddled in quick circles, then toward an approaching duck of confident bearing.

As he neared his fellow, he noticed the stiff neck and dead eyes and tried to bolt to the side, then to the sky. The native in the decoy headdress grabbed his feet from below. A mountain lion screamed on the bank of the marsh, just ten feet away. The hunter turned. Tempeche kicked free and swam away, heart pounding, gasping, panting, wings flapping without lift. The little boy woke suddenly in the dark before dawn to the morning songs of the birds.

Coyote smiled. He was ready.

Coyote’s spirit entered the boy one day as he gathered red bud with the old women. Soon he was stealing jerked meat from their huts. Other boys shaped arrows; unruly Tempeche was sent to the Mission near spring Delores. There he learned the hymns and stole food, candles, and knives from the Franciscans. The missionaries renamed him “Pomponio.”

At fourteen, he ran away to live like Coyote in a cave. Opportunist. Trickster.

To the local natives, he said: “Friends, give me food and weapons to fight the black-robed disease-bringers.”

To runaways, he said: “Stick together. They’re too weak to catch us. We’ll get rich in peace.”

They raided outposts. They killed the cattle of immigrants homesteading the north.

They were heroes to the native people.

Tempeche grew sassy. He took a wife near Olompali, until she became pregnant. He left her at San Rafael. He took another near Bodega. He rode away from her one day. He took any woman he wanted. Coyote chuckled. Tempeche’s name began to mean selfish and slippery. The dogs that ran with him thinned to two or three. The army searched for him. There was a bounty. He had narrow escapes.

The bishop’s chest of coins became Tempeche’s obsession. Slipping past the sleeping cleric in the dark, he reached the closet. An inadvertent noise, the guard too close, he was caught and shackled, awaiting a prison term.

Coyote paced. When the presidio was quiet, Tempeche unrolled a knife from his waistband. The big blade burned into his skin above his heel and sawed through the mass of flesh behind his ankle, down to the floor. The shackle scraped across the wound and passed his toes. The Coyote trembled in pain. He dragged himself to the window, streaming blood, and tripped the shutter latch. His group, expecting gold, waited beyond torchlight.

While Tempeche’s woman battled his fever, Coyote gloated that the Spanish embarrassment could never be undone. Against ingenuity of spirit, their authority was a torn net. Tempeche’s time was up, but his legend was made.

He was cornered weeks later in a poor cave. Stumbled on by accident. No battle. No ruse.

As Tempeche’s body hung from the courtyard post, his woman wondered who would want to know what she had seen. This serene prisoner was not Coyote.

Coyote was elsewhere, on to other things.

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