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An Apache Defilade in the Florida Mountains

Western Kingbird, San Antonio NM, April 15, 2010
Western Kingbird, San Antonio NM, April 15, 2010

Back in the day when the Apaches and the American Buffalo Soldiers were getting it on the Apaches had a view point in the Florida Mountains across from Rockhound State Park where they could get a few hours warning when an Army party left their Cook's Spring encampment.

Today, I'm searching for a place in the Floridas I'd found two years ago. It wasn't much, but I'd seen it a week earlier, and wanted to check it out again. I feel at peace here, in these rugged mountains, as if I'd always been here.

I choose a route I'd never used before to get to the top. I'd been intrigued by a rock outcropping on the ridge line, and wanted to investigate it. I'm not let down. After eating lunch, I come around a rocky bluff and find what I believe were once Apache breastworks. Notches had been cleaned out beneath large boulders: spaces that gave shelter from sun, heat, wind, rain, snow, if one wasn't looking for luxury. Between those large boulders I spot the suspected "breastwork." From behind them I can see Camel Mountain, 20 miles to the southeast, in the West Portillos, directly on the border. Beyond Camel Mountain, in Chihuahua, lies Laguna Guzman—a favorite watering hole for the Apache on their annual migrations in winter and spring.

In battle after battle, the Apaches automatically built rock breastworks for cover. Breastworks have been used by white men for centuries, but Chihinne survivor James Kaywakla humorously stated that his ancestors "invented trench warfare" when they built these defilade to hide behind in a gunfight. Whoever built these breastworks, they knew what they were meant to do. Apache or American? Americans always leave trash. An absence of trash, to me, suggests Apache. Even so, no prize, because I won't dig to confirm the origins of this rock wall.

Defilade. An odd word very important for soldiers. Webster's Encyclopedic Dictionary says: "def-e-lade: n. v., protection or shielding from hostile observation and flat projecting fire provided by an artificial or natural obstacle [such] as a hill . . . to shield from enemy fire by using natural or artificial obstacles." Crazy or not, I'd asked "them" to "show me what you want," and my curiosity and instincts had paid off by exploring this outcrop.

Go there! Take your time. See what is there! the Apache seem to urge.

Facing southeast, behind such a defilade, a rifleman would be covered, and could see Mexicans coming north for miles. If the Mexicans were chasing Apache, one warrior could hold them off for awhile. Facing north-northwest, the same man could see Americans coming into the canyon.

....

Another hour and a half and 500 feet more in elevation gain, across several talus slopes, and I find the cave I'd been looking for. I feel satisfied that my memory had served me so well. Crawling into the cave, it's clear a man could lie on his back and look north-northeast, towards Cooke's Peak and Fort Cummings, where American Buffalo Soldiers were stationed after the Civil War. From this small cave, one could stash gear, water and ammo, and remain hidden to anyone gazing south, towards the Floridas. There'd be no risk of sunlight glinting off metal or glass (the Apache valued binoculars very highly) they'd taken from Mexicans or Americans they'd killed.

The cave, roughly seven feet wide, perhaps two and a half high at the mouth, but eight to ten feet high inside, feels cool and felt safe as I take off my gear and slip inside.

Cooke's Peak, which some Apache called "White Rings Around Mountain" or "Standing Mountain," is partially lost in haze. No wind and plenty of exhaust fumes from I-10. The old Buffalo Soldier fort had been located south and slightly east of Cooke's Peak, at the mouth of Cooke's Canyon, near Cooke's Spring. Plenty of history, carnage, isolation and madness. People from all over the world have come and gone through here with the winds of time. Desperate mail riders and balking stagecoaches. At least 20 graves still litter the canyon. From this cave, knowing where those features were, an Apache could have seen dust clouds rising from cavalry headed out of the fort, prowling for Apache. A few hours' warning and then maybe they'd get behind those breastworks and fight the soldiers.

From Desert Exposure article HIKING APACHERIA - Who Walks with the Warriors? by Jerry Eagan

clipped March 25, 2009

Additional clippings in the Finger-Ring Draw collection

Additional clippings in the American History collection