It was an old building; the buildings there were all old. Built in the early 1900s, they were red brick. Some would say they were Victorian. This was a three-story building, big and square with peaked roofs from those early days. This was an Indian boarding school with kids from places like Beclabito, Teec Nos Pos, Ute Mountain, White Mesa, Towaoc and Shiprock all going to school there.
Kids had been going to school there since way back in the early days, so long ago the dormitory aides were old and they had gone to school there as children themselves. Maybe some 300 kids, boys and girls. Some were seniors, some just little ones in the first grade.
There was this one boy, Nacho, who stayed on the ground floor with the little ones. They all slept together in one wing, a large room with iron bunk beds all lined up against the wall. Each child had their own closet to keep their things. Of all the kids there, Nacho was the smallest.
At meal times he was the first in line, to march to the dining hall just a little ways away. When you are first you get the biggest of what they have. Old Man Peacock, an Indian from Oklahoma, was the cook, and he always had the biggest hot dog for Nacho.
It was in the fall, the mountains of Colorado were blue and dull gray. The wind blows cold there in November with winds swirling the leaves up and around and finding a way through coats to let you know the winters are hard in this place, but Nacho liked to go outside and play anyway.
Pino was the main dorm man. He usually sat in his office just inside the main doors and was sort of the captain of the crew working there. His door was always open and the kids would sit on the hard vinyl government couches so common to Indian dorms. He made out work assignments, checked to see who was in the isolation room, which was for sick kids. There were a lot of boys there, all ages and sizes. Oftentimes in such a place the little ones stay around the office, finding something special about it. Each dorm aide or matron worked a eight hour shift or so and then went home.
In such a place you have an unwritten law that that the biggest and toughest do the best; they eventually get everything. The candy parents send their kids, the warmest coats, or maybe favorite comic book or warm blanket and they somehow ended up with the biggest and toughest. These things usually disappeared and went home on the weekend when their parents or relatives checked out kids for home visits. It is hard to keep something private because it is hard to hide some things in a locker, so you usually didn't bring good stuff to the dorm. It is just the way it is. No one can watch their stuff all the time and the big boys pick on the little boys. Some older ones are just bad apples all the way around.
Nacho hung around Pino's office a lot when he was 7 or so. Some say he was part Mexican, because his features looked that way. Some said he didn't know who his father was. His mother had dropped him off at the beginning of the year and left him. She liked to party. He was forgotten.
He wore a red shirt, a pullover kind that he wore every day for a month until some of the dorm aides found him some other clothes. When you looked at him he was just a kid with large, wide eyes and an easy smile. He followed the dorm aides around when they checked the building on their rounds and hung around the basement rec room. Little kids usually sat on the floor, while the big boys took control of the TV. The reception was poor but some of the boys never moved from the vinyl couches all year.
Fridays were busy. After school the kids would pile off the buses and run in the dorm and grab their stuff and wait for the cars and trucks that lined up to check out the kids. People drove windy back roads, some two to three hours from the reservations where they lived, to get their kids. Some parents came every weekend, others every once in a while. Nacho used to wait by the double white doors on the windowsill looking at the people as they came to pick up their kids.
He was always looking for his mom. Maybe this weekend she would be there, but he was always the one who stayed behind, waiting for her.
Thanksgiving was coming around and there were the usual pictures put up around the dorm of pilgrims, walking turkeys and the usual decorations that covered the white plastered walls. Nacho waited and waited and then he couldn't be found.
“Where is he?”
“I don't know, have you checked around for him?”
The dorm aides went through the building. It was Friday and he was gone. The checkout log was checked again and again and his name wasn't on it. They thought that maybe someone who was going home maybe took him along for a visit was discussed and each car was chased down on the back roads headed back to the rez to see if he was there. He was not with any of them.
The wind was blowing and it was cold out. A light snow was beginning to fall and the pine trees had white tips from the snow. There was a straight cut through the mountain to his home. Pino looked at the mountain and thought maybe he had run away.
There were big boys left in the dorm who went out with the staff and they searched the school grounds and found nothing. They went into the small town nearby and checked house to house and he was nowhere. The dorm principal didn't want to report the boy missing to the police because he would have to explain to his boss in Albuquerque through an incident report that a boy had run away. His Christmas bonus would disappear. He told the staff to call in everybody and send out a search party without telling the police.
Lonnie, a big rough and tumble boy from White Mesa; Jimmy King, a Ute wrestler; and Tsosie, a Navajo from Fruitland; all seniors, set out toward the mountain. They lived in the honor dorm, a small building next door to the main building . They wore two coats each and extra clothes. It was getting late in the day when they set out. Pino told them to go up the mountain; he may be trying to make a shortcut home. They followed the old trail; some say the Anasazis from way back used it. Some said that at the high point there was an old ruin and if you built a bonfire there, and one at Mesa Verde, one at Chaco Canyon, and one at Two Gray Hills you could see all four fires on a clear night.
They set out for the ruins. They moved fast, first walking fast and then they began to run, the three of them, walking and then running, outdistancing the dorm staff. They left the staff behind; they knew they had to get up there before the snow really started to fall.
When you are cold in the wet and snow and you walk a long ways through it, you get warm. You can sit in the snow and not feel cold at all and then you get tired and lay down in it. It is warm and you can go to sleep. When you sleep like that in the snow, you never wake up. It is what happens to runaways who take off in the winter.
They ran and ran up hill like they had never run before, pacing themselves for the long distance. It was as if it was in the old days. They spoke to each other in a way to keep themselves moving. Through the pine trees and forest valleys and thickets of scrub oak. There are trees where they used to gather pinons and a stream they crossed. They kept going up and up.
In the clearing they saw the the old ruins. In there were places where the rooms were small and painted white from centuries ago. Nacho liked the place; it was what he talked about. The people who lived in such a place, where they lived so close together, many families and the kids must have had so much to do and see there. He wanted to know what it would be like to be part of such a people, families like that? He sometimes spoke about it when he looked up at the mountain.
In the quiet of the night, in a room not too far from the kiva, they found him. He was curled up and by himself. His clothes were all wet and he was only wearing a thin coat. The room was small, painted white and maybe five feet high and five feet wide, and not so dark. He was in the corner, slumped over.
They went up to him and saw he was sleeping. The three big boys covered him with their extra coats. Then they built a fire, with wood gathered under the bottom of the pines, squaw wood, the white people call it, because it is dry to the touch and easy to burn and requires no axe.
Then a small banquet of foodstuffs came from their pockets. A small block of cheese, marshmallows, some blue cornmeal bread, a tin of Spam and some of Peacock's biscuits. They made wild tea, and gathered the remnants of chilchin (red buffalo berries) and made a feast. When Nacho woke up, he was surprised to see them there.
“I just wanted to go home for Thanksgiving.”
“We know….we know.”
Johnny Rustywire is Folded Rocks Clan People on his mother’s side, and born for Tsinahbiltnii, the Mountain People Clan on his father’s side. He comes from Toadlena-Two Gray Hills, New Mexico, where the mountain is cracked and the water flows. Father of six and grandfather of 12. Attended indian boarding schools and grew up on the Navajo Reservation and married to the same woman for 40 years who is a Ute from Fort Duchesne, Utah.