Meaner Than Hell (2009)

This is the true story of the most spectacular failure of my life, the time I went for broke,swung for the fences, and made a feature film.

It was a ten day shoot, cost around ten thousand dollars, and clocked in around 89 minutes. It was a western.

It was Meaner Than Hell.

castwithsign2I moved from Chicago with my fiancée and son out to Los Angeles in the hope that I’d be able to make a living writing screenplays. I’d gone to school for it, graduated from Columbia College in Chicago with a degree saying I could do it, but had no ins. I spent my first two years out here temping at a major mortgage company, pretending to be busy in a cube, alternating between the same two pairs of beige slacks and basically hating my life.

Then in 2005 or so, Kaiser Permanente Hospital intervened in my future by buying the apartment building we’d been living in (we were now married and I had a little girl) and giving each of the residents $8500 to facilitate their move.

If I were smart, I would’ve put that money towards a down payment on a home which in the intervening years would have nearly quadrupled in value. We could’ve sold that house and lived almost anywhere in the country in comfort.

But I got the brainy idea to use the money to shoot an independent film. It was fresh off of Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel Without A Crew and my head was throbbing with Elmore Leonard stories, Blood Meridian, Leone and Corbucci.

Really, I think the idea germinated in the 20th Street Writers Group, an informal group of aspiring screenwriters who met irregularly of which I was a member.

I had once met Christopher McQuarrie, the writer of The Usual Suspects, the weekend before he won the Oscar, and he advised me to never pay attention to budgets or limit your writing according to what could be done conceptually. “If your script has to be filmed on location in space, don’t worry about it.”

So all my scripts had gone that route, big epic things that only Cecil B. Demille or James Cameron could put together.  A biopic about the abolitionist John Brown, a post-apocalyptic adventure about a kick ass trucker out to avenge the death of his dog, a story of rugby players in World War I Scotland.

topeandpicaro4But with this money coming in, and with my dear wife willing to take the plunge with me and let me use the kitty for this crazy movie, I started writing to a budget, thinking about what I could pull off. I came up with a cool concept for a western that I was sure was gonna revitalize the genre. It was dirty, brutal, clever, like Chato’s Land and The Great Silence had a baby that was adopted by Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man.  Westerns of late, I thought, had become bogged down by reality. I wanted to bring the coolness back to them, the muddy, bloody brawls and the insanely rich tough talk that led to the big shootout. I wanted to write a thinly veiled love story between two guys where the much anticipated kiss was a gundown.

I took the title, Meaner Than Hell, from a Johnny Cash song, and a line uttered by the nearsighted kid in Unforgiven.  A sadistic bounty hunter Tope Mullins, ambushes wild bespectacled outlaw Picaro’s gang and kills them all around the campfire one night. He shoots Picaro in the foot to induce him to share the location of the loot from his last robbery before he turns him into the authorities (adding a ticking clock element as Picaro’s foot begins to mortify).  Unfortunately when they wake up in the morning, Indians have stolen all the horses, and they have to make their way back to civilization on foot, contending with the threat of attack, the harsh elements, and of course, each other, the whole way.

thescalpingI wrote the thing in a couple weeks, shared it with the writer’s group, and sure enough, one of the guys in it, who would go on to become my Assistant Director, said, “I think we could shoot this ourselves.”

I took it as a sign.

Plans kicked into high gear.

I had gone to school with an absolutely brilliant cinematography student. He lived out in LA now, worked as a set electrician. He agreed to do it for five hundred bucks.

One of the guys in the group was a pretty talented SFX guy, another an editor with a home editing suite.

My dad had a collection of black powder revolvers.

My mother and wife were both talented seamstresses.

So I asked my aunt for an advance on my inheritance, got an HD camera for $3,000, put out a call for actors in Variety, and spent a year gathering props and costume material, and scouting Death Valley and unincorporated Lancaster.

I had a very talented group of guys respond to the casting call (though my ad for honest-to-God Native American actors went unanswered) and filled most of the bit parts with friends, expanding other roles as I went to give the guys that didn’t get cast in the principal roles more to do because I just thought they deserved it.

I budgeted the thing, set aside eleven days to shoot. Two of my best and oldest friends kicked in money and scheduled time to come out and help me with the thing, playing partially obscured Indians and corpses when needed and hoisting equipment.

As game time approached, I started to run into bumps.

First, with maybe two months to go, my extremely talented DP bailed for the chance to go be an electrician on The Gridiron Gang (I think it was).  He took a much better paycheck than I could offer, and continues to work steadily in the industry to this day on A-list productions as a Gaffer, Cameraman, and Electrician.  So be it. I lost his eye. I frankly think we all did.

He lined up a meeting with a friend of his, but the guy advised me to ditch the idea of making a feature and just concentrate on a short film. I recalled an anecdote Martin Scorcese related about how he made a short film and got it in front of some executive who shrugged and said, “Now go make a feature.” I was eliminating the middle step, I thought. Besides, I’d shot four shorts in college. I hadn’t come out to LA to make more shorts.

So I decided to shoot the thing myself.

More money for the budget, I figured.

Then, the whole cast and crew….I won’t say they totally mutineed on me, but we had a disagreement.

During a read-through of the script I mentioned that I intended to shoot the entire picture without live sound and foley all the dialogue and sound FX later.

Nobody wanted any part of that.

directingI argued that this was the way spaghetti westerns had always been shot, but I guess nobody liked the idea of trying to dub voices in later. The big worry was it would look stupid and amateurish, like a badly dubbed kung fu movie.

I think this was the part where I failed my movie. It was mine. Mostly my money, my vision, but I caved. If nobody wanted to do it that way, what could I do?

I scrambled to research boom mics and sound equipment, and I think, in the end, I was ill-prepared to shoot live sound and the end result suffered for it. The rattling of shingles on an old cabin by a howling desert wind can be evocative, but not when your actors are shouting over it. The sound quality of Meaner Than Hell varies pretty wildly from scene to scene.

But, mea culpa. I was the director, I shoulda put my foot down, but I didn’t.

So game day comes. My oldest friend flies in from Illinois and we bug out about how we’re shooting a movie in California over a table of In ‘N Out.

I gather up the actors, we drive out to the desert, shoot the first scene in a dry culvert.

My two principals are a great couple of guys.

Tope

Tope

Playing the bounty hunter Tope Mullins is Thomas Crnkovich, a guy whose father actually coached one of my relatives in football or something way back in the day, but who is twenty years older than me and whom I’ve never met, though we’re weirdly from the same general area. I could not write Tom as a character if I tried. When he sent me his portfolio, it included pictures of him wrestling with fucking tigers. He had worked for a time as a wild animal trainer for the shows in Las Vegas. He was a funny, funny guy, into Alice Cooper and his van. He was my pick for Tope from his first audition. Skin like leather, crazy eyes, I think his biggest role had been in Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD.  When I asked him in his audition what the first thing he had to do when training wild tigers was, he answered, in his Eastwoodian hiss, “Well the first thing I hadda do was teach the tigers not to kill me.”

picaro

Picaro

My pick for Picaro Gonnoff was a tough one. I left the ethnicity, nationality, body type, appearance, everything entirely to chance. I wanted to craft the role around the actor I chose. It was a hard pick for me between three guys, one of whom nailed the dangerousness of Picaro, the other who nailed the Tuco-esque craziness and humor, but only one of whom I thought could portray the balance between the two – be a charming, funny asshole one minute and be grinding his heel in your face the next. That was Jared Cohn (credited as Jared Michaels). Jared had a Colin Ferrel kinda look, but he brought this outrageous faux-southern accent that just won me over. He sounded like a guy that had gotten the shit kicked out of him at an early age and learned to kick back when you weren’t looking.  After I selected him for the role, I tailor made the character’s backstory for him, and wrote in some lines to incorporate who he was. I don’t know if a badass Jewish outlaw has ever been portrayed in film before or since, but that was Picaro/Jared.

jaredwithrifleguitarstyleAnyway, the guys were a little worried about my ability to point a camera in the right direction, and I remember Thomas asking to review the first shot after we’d done it. I remember it was a long take of the two of them stumbling down the gully into the foreground. It began with lots of negative space which the characters then gradually filled as they approached. I was proud of it, and apparently it alleviated their fears, because they both crowed over it and never questioned my framing again.

Film school, bitches! And extensive storyboards!

Well, storyboards which I swiftly abandoned as the day wore on and the light in the gully began to fade.

The second problem I ran into was my own insane scheduling. I really thought I could cram all these scenes into a set number of hours. I didn’t take sleep deprivation, egos, setup times, and getting lost driving in the freaking desert at night without GPS into account.

I reverted to a simple three shot set up for most of the early campfire scenes (one shot of each speaker, medium shot of the two of them).

edandcastI killed my minivan battery probably three times running the lights off of it. I remember too that Thomas had a hard time delivering his lines over the sound of the engine which he swore he could hear (but nobody else could) and we had to keep backing the van up behind boulders until he was happy. At the end of the shoot, my buddy Tom threw the wanted poster prop into the fire.

“WHAT THE FUCK DUDE?!” I hollered, snatching it out.

He had thought we were done with it. But eh, since it’s plucked off a corpse later, the big burn mark wound up looking cool. Happy accidents.

By the time we finished the initial shooting, it was dawn.

We pitched some tents and slept out there for about three or four hours and I got them up again to shoot the rest.

Two of the guys who had been rendered corpses needed to leave, but one of them was in the shot and I had to shoot several takes around the guy lying there dead and eventually getting scalped. Nightmarish.

I also remember this was the day my good friend Jeff Carter was scheduled to show up at the extremely remote cabin location of Ballarat in Death Valley to render a couple of the guys into living corpses for a dream sequence. The shoot felt so bad, I nearly abandoned the idea. We were far out of cell range, and I assumed because Jeff hadn’t heard from me, he would stay home. I very nearly went home without heading to the cabin, but decided at the last minute to do it anyway.

cabinWhen we showed up at the cabin, something like three hours late, Jeff was sitting there with his makeup kit on the porch of the little store run by the only two residents of Ballarat, a rawboned old father and son pair. I had to hide my freakin’ tears when I pulled up because I had nearly left him there and he had showed up to do his part. God bless that guy. We didn’t even end up using the ‘zombie’ shot, but we heard a passel of crazy ghost stories about Indian spirits in the mountains and jet fighters from Edwards Air Force Base crashing out in the dead lake where Charles Manson’s van still sat mired in the alkali.

That first day, nobody talked much on the drive home, and when I climbed into my bed I broke down when my wife asked me how it was going (did Sam Peckinpah cry like a girl so much while shooting The Wild Bunch? He probably just got drunk a lot – I wasn’t budgeted for booze) .  I remember saying I felt like I was trying to paint with boxing gloves on. I was in over my head.

The next day one of the actors slept late and we lost an hour knocking on his door and windows. We drove back up to the desert and had another grueling day/night shoot, but my AD Elliott McMillan, God bless HIM, suggested we not drive back and instead get a cheap hotel room out in the desert and thus get an early jump on the next day.

That was one of the most fun nights I ever had. It was Elliott, Jared, Tom, and I with my buddy Tom from kindergarten drinking beers and half-watching a monumental Dodgers game, laughing over Tom’s crazy sex stories and just being a buncha guys.

I think it was the next day’s shoot at the cabin that was one of the best days of my entire life.

I don’t know if you’ve ever made a movie, or seen something you’ve written adapted by actors, I mean…RIGHT.

jaredwithgunAt this point in the story, Tope and Picaro are holed up in a remote cabin. They have a heartfelt moment in the night, sharing their personal stories of killing and mayhem (this is the scene I think most suffered from live sound as the wind wouldn’t die down and we had to keep stopping to accommodate the jets flying maneuvers in the distance).  When Picaro tries to shoot Tope, they wind up beating the shit out of each other (in my storyboards, their crazy brawl across the cabin floor is portrayed like a sex scene with clenching hands and tangled feet – I don’t think it came through in the final project) and at this moment the Indians decide to attack.  Tope kills an Apache in the doorway and they both look on in shock as the guy’s corpse is whisked away by an unseen comrade.

Tope makes some remark about ‘His squaw must’ve had supper waiting’ which causes both of them to forget their enmity for the moment and share an honest laugh. And in the middle of that laugh, Picaro produces a hidden Derringer and blasts Tope through the face.

It was written to be a jarring moment, and of course I knew it was coming, but Jesus Christ, I swear, when it did….when Jared and Thomas played it PERFECT on the first take….I nearly ruined it by hissing an appreciative “FFFFFFUCK!” at the end of the scene. Haha.

I don’t know. Seeing that, something just clicked.

We had to beat the sundown to get the rest of this sequence finished. At first Thomas didn’t wanna roll around on the ground, which had old nails and glass scattered across it. So I, in a t-shirt, dove down to the ground and rolled around first to show him it was OK. I don’t know if it was OK but you wanna hear the funny part? You know what made me do that? It was a line from a Larry Hama GI Joe comic – or maybe it was the cartoon. But General Hawk told somebody ‘Don’t order men to do anything you aren’t willing to do yourself.’ And that stuck with me through years and years of adulthood, and reared its head in my mind at that moment.

Or maybe it was something from Patton’s War As I Knew It.

I don’t know.

edandtom

Magic day

But after that, and after I expressed such unbridled exuberance for what they were doing, it was like all of us were on the same page, and we were killing it. We zipped through the scenes. And Jeff was there, and he had to create a blossom of blood – a bullet hole in the side of Tom’s face, and it seemed like slow, meticulous work that was taking forever while I shot what I could of Jared. A gust of wind blew a cloud of particles into my wide angle lens and I unscrewed the thing and handed it over to my buddy Tom (from kindergarten). We were revolving, hunched around that cabin, grabbing the footage like war photographers.

In between takes I was jumping in place urging Jeff to hurry up with the makeup, saying it looked good enough, but professional as he was, he urged me to shut up till he got it right – till Thomas’ face was a mess of hamburger and powderburns, leaking Kayro all over the place.

We shot the hell out of that scene and it was goddamned beautiful. So beautiful that years later, when I brought a promised DVD copy of the finished product to the two guys that ran the Ballarat story, I walked through that ruined cabin (half of it is collapsed now), and I started crying like I had PTSD or something.

That day, I was a filmmaker. I was a freakin’ auteur, wearing every damn hat on the tree.

topesilhouetteWhen we finished, the sun was plunging into the desert and all the land was painted orange, and out of the mountains a flock of bats came spiraling out across the desert to light on a wading pool the residents kept out there behind their trailer. They whipped all around you, little flying mice, swarming erratically but taking no interest in you.

We were all of us buzzing. It was utterly awesome and one of the best days of my life.

We shot under a railroad trestle, Elliott mimicking Jeff’s makeup on Thomas’ face perfectly. I shot him pursuing a ghost through the stark, over exposed desert while Thomas assured my two year old daughter Magnolia that all that blood was just because he’d cut himself shaving.

We shot out near the Kill Bill church.

We shot Thomas’ last scene on a hilltop – the big climactic gunfight. It looked great, but I made the mistake of telling him he could keep the black hat that was part of his costume, so when he was supposed to get drenched in blood, he kept protecting that goddamned hat.

bodieWe applauded his last scene, and moved on the next day to the mountains near Bodie, California, where a perfectly preserved 1880’s mining town sits up there as part of the National Park Service. We spent the night in some absolutely freezing cabins (one of which John Wayne had apparently stayed in at some point), my friends playing guitar and drinking beer, smoking weed with the cast. Stayed up late, had a great time, got up at the crack and went to shoot the final scenes of the movie on the steps of a period church.

Now as I mentioned, I couldn’t get any real live Indians for the shoot because none responded to the casting call. So I put my eldest son in a black wig, and my buddy Dan, who is Mexican, and a guy named Maeis who was the only guy that came to the Indian casting and was Middle Eastern or something. On the ride up there I spied an Indian Casino, and I had the guys walk through there and offer seventy five bucks to anybody who’d come to the two hour shoot, suit up, and participate. I budgeted for three guys. Jared brought me one, a guy named Richard Sallee. But damn if he didn’t look the part.

tragedyWe put him in Apache costume, and set him front and center to offset the questionable Indians. I think he worked out great. Plus he got paid three times what I offered him since he was the only guy there.

Meaner Than Hell was a wrap. The back of my van looked like we had birthed a calf back there.

We moved into a slow editing process.

I inquired into getting the rights to two professional songs, Johnny Cash’s God Is Gonna Cut You Down for the credits (which we originally cut the ending to) and Bill Monroe’s haunting My Last Days On Earth, which I envisioned as the recurring theme throughout the picture, and which we cut the trailer to.

But the price was, in the words of the Duke, “absolutely re-god-damned-diculous.” indiansIt was almost two thirds of my entire budget. So I picked up a guitar, having never played before, brought a Jaw harp and a harmonica to my buddy and editor Ryan Gerossie’s apartment, and somehow he mixed the disparate elements together into a cohesive theme which you hear now on the soundtrack. We attributed it to John McGovern, a portmanteau of his relatives and mine, but that’s us. Believe it or not, I was originally in talks with Vince ‘Rocky IV’ DiCola to do the score, but it fell through.

We ended up having to foley some of the sound in a makeshift sound booth that basically consisted of Tom Crnkovich, Jared Cohn, and Robert Vertrees taking turns in Ryan’s hallway with a microphone and pillows and towels stuffed under the doors. I think those scenes have some of the best sound work of the movie.

bloodytiger2SFX, we had a blast doing those, selecting various gunshots (at one point Elliott and Ryan put this ridiculous cannon explosion over the shot of Jared’s Derringer going off which made all of us lose it hysterically). We did Rebel Yells, officer calls, volleys of fire, Indian screams, all from a Westwood apartment.

We shot pick ups out in the desert, and even brought the desert home to Ryan’s back alley for the shot of Picaro’s foot getting a bullet (it was actually, I think either my foot or Ryan’s).

We premiered the thing at a bar in Hollywood. Thomas and Jared showed up with their character’s hats. Jared introduced me to a few people who never called me. I got the drunk on hard hard liquor for the very last time in my life, until I puked up my guts in the street afterwards. It surprised me the people that turned out for the thing – old coworkers, friends of friends. It surprised me who didn’t show too.

5652_112203793691_112183918691_2319596_6612763_nI didn’t get to give a speech or anything before the movie ran for the only audience it ever had. I kept everybody waiting up to the last possible minute, affording no time for a proper introduction. I don’t know that I had anything to say. I think maybe by that time I hated Meaner Than Hell. It wasn’t precisely what I wanted to accomplish, and I was sick of it. Much of the crew had stopped believing in it, dismissing it as crap. I guess a lot of it is.

In the intervening years it garnered no attention. I submitted to all the big indie festivals and a lot of the small ones. Nobody wanted it.

I had, in my mind, taken the best shot I could, and nobody had turned their head. Nobody had noticed it. It sat on Ryan’s computer. I made half hearted attempts to put it on Netflix and Amazon over the years, but always turned to other projects. Thomas would call me out of the blue and ask about it now and then. Everybody had their DVD’s. Every actor had been paid (except Alex Bakalarz, who played the wounded soldier – I owe him fifty bucks for the two hour shoot still). I couldn’t even look at it anymore.

jaredwantedposterAnd over the years, as my tenuous connection to the film industry dwindled and my fiction writing began to supersede it in terms of success, Jared’s, conversely grew. I started doing script work for his projects, and now the guy seems to be directing a movie every other month. I see him on Netflix and all over Facebook, shooting in freaking Thailand. His movies show up in my newsfeed, getting reviewed on major websites. He’s a driven guy.

Thomas….last year, Thomas called me again. “This is Tope,” he said, as always, and by God he was.

He told me he was playing Dillinger, in an indie film shooting back in the Midwest, where he was currently living. He asked me about Meaner Than Hell as always, and about any other projects I had going. But I was just writing novels now and had nothing for him.

Elliott and I had such plans for Thomas. One late night ride back from the shoot we talked about how we wanted to do a kick ass Lone Ranger movie, and Thomas and Lance Henricksen would play the Cavendish brothers. Thomas would be a Lash LaRue type character with a bullwhip. When I was still writing scripts, I put a role for him in an unrealized zombie project, as a cantankerous caretaker of an amusement park. I even talked about redubbing Meaner Than Hell the way I wanted, if I could get Thomas and Jared together to do it.

5652_112212353691_112183918691_2319636_882466_nBut around Memorial Day Thomas got killed by a train, almost out of nowhere. Well, out of nowhere for me. That guy palled around with tigers. I thought he was unflappable, untouchable. The obituary said it was deliberate, though. I don’t know. Friends of his I’ve talked to doubt it. I don’t know what I think.

My affection for Meaner Than Hell grows with each subsequent viewing now, though.

It’s no masterpiece, but I really believe there is a good movie in there. Maybe I should have shown the Indians more. Maybe I should have cut the dialogue down. My biggest regret about the whole thing is that I feel like I failed the talent involved. There was a great group of guys that gathered together and believed in this thing while they were doing it, and in the end, I guess they got nothing from it. Or at least, it wasn’t something they felt proud of, could point to, or that (perhaps most importantly) got them more work.

But I’ll tell you what. I firmly believe that at the fifty five minute mark to the end, I made almost exactly the movie I wanted to make. It’s right there. It started for real on that day I wrote about above, when I nearly ruined a take with my own excitement.

And how many people can say they did that?

I like Meaner Than Hell. How can I not?

Anyway, if you want to watch it, we put the whole thing up on Youtube now. You can watch it here. And if you get bored out of your mind, fast forward to the 55 minute mark I guess and give it a half hour of your time.

It’s a very slow burn, but I lit it with the help of some good friends.

An Excerpt From Coyote’s Trail From Comet Press

July 1st marked the debut of my seventh novel, COYOTE’S TRAIL, from the folks at Comet Press, who previously published my feudal Japanese zombie novella NIGHT OF THE JIKININKI in DEADCORE (read about that one here) .

You can pick it up on Amazon right here – http://www.amazon.com/Coyotes-Trail-Edward-M-Erdelac/dp/1936964511/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1380297747&sr=8-1&keywords=coyote%27s+trail

Or from the publisher at – http://www.cometpress.us/books/coyotestrail.html

coyotestrail-largeFrom the back cover –

It is 1886. Geronimo and his followers, the last Apache resistance to white encroachment, have been transported east, and the blue wool defenders of The Fort settle into boredom, directing their cruel attentions to illicit liquor and prostitutes, their clearest enemy a weak officer’s bullheaded wife on a moral crusade.

One broken and battered Chiricahua boy, Na-e-te-nay, drags himself across the Arizona desert, held together only by a bleak vision of revenge; a vision that will cause him to abandon his warrior traditions and set his feet on Coyote’s Trail — the road of murder and evil.

After a brothel shootout between Na-e-te-nay and the US cavalry ends in fire and death, America, a broken young Mexican woman with her own reasons for hating the cavalry, finds herself pulled into his plot.

Enlisting the nominal aid of Rogerio, a shiftless, sadistic whiskey peddler who knows more about America’s hellish past than even she does, the three conspire to draw Na-e-te-nay’s remaining enemies out of the safety of The Fort, using America’s body as bait.

But America has her own vision of revenge…

COYOTE’S TRAIL is one of the bleakest, most violent stories I’ve ever written. The basic premise is that a vengeful Chiricahua Apache kid uses a Mexican prostitute to lure out his enemies and then murders them in flagrante delicto (‘in blazing offense’ or, in the collquial usage, in the midst of sex). It stems from my fascination in deviant outcast stories like the works of Paul Schraeder and  Jim Thompson, and I’d cite the westerns of Forrest Carter (particularly LOOK FOR ME ON THE MOUNTAIN) and Elmore Leonard as a direct influence.

The title and concept sprang practically full blown in my head when I read a passage from a book by Thomas E. Mails called THE PEOPLE CALLED APACHE, citing Morris Edward Opler’s AN APACHE LIFE-WAY.  The clownish figure of Coyote is known almost universally across Native American religions as a trickster, and tales of his misadventures are used to educate, but Mails (and Opler) posited a slightly darker perspective –

“Coyote makes death inevitable for mankind by throwing a stone into the water and declaring that if it sinks, living beings shall experience physical death. In fact, Coyote’s behavior creates a path that mankind has been obliged to follow. All the wicked things that man does, Coyote did first. Gluttony, lying, theft, adultery, incest, and the like were introduced by Coyote and have become inescapable for those who walk Coyote’s trail.”

coyote+eyes

Here’s an excerpt from the first few pages –

Na-e-te-nay did not know for how long he had been crawling. It was as though he were struggling up the sheer face of a precipice without summit or base, only a hard ascent without end. He clawed at the dry earth with twisted fingers, feeling if he released his precious hold he would fall end over end into the open sky, and be lost in the shapeless country between this world and the other.

Small bits of stone like calcified kernels scraped his body. Wherever he passed he left a bloody spoor that blackened in the murderous heat, painting the sand and rocks on either side of his slow moving form the color of spoiled fruit.

Creosote and broken blades of dry beargrass and chips of flint found their way into his open cuts and settled there, blanketed by a thin film of ghostly sand granules like glass in the furnace in the feel of their razor attack on his exposed flesh. The only sound he made was monotonous and grating, the dragging, the breathing, the noise of broken bone grinding on a slowly turning millstone.

But what were the wounds of his body? A malignancy had been planted in his very heart, as if by a stinger broken off in that quivering muscle which refused to cease its laborious regulation of his blood even as it was pumped from his broken body to scatter needlessly on the sand and on the broad leaves of the igaye plants. There was an outrage there which burned as fire undying but did not consume, like the spirit in the bush in the tales of the Indah priests.

The broken fingers of his right hand twitched as their unmarred brothers bore the brunt of his labors, scouting along the hot ground ahead and then dragging the better part of his weight along. His left hand flopped about beside his right in the well-meaning mimicry of an idiot child. A soldier’s saber had split that hand from the webbing between the second and third fingers down till almost the center of the palm.

Something small dressed in hard leather scuttled away from his elbow to burrow beneath a prickly agave stalk, but he couldn’t see it. Knuckles, boot leather, and gun butts had rendered his face a singular lump of fused flesh almost twice the normal size. His inflated eyelids had shut as if to spare him the image of his bleeding mother coughing red, blotting out the vacuous white stare of the sun overhead.

He thirsted, but there was no respite. Only the tang of blood that gave his teeth the flavor of grave spades. His throat was swollen. Soon it would pinch mercifully shut. Pinch out his life.

He had thought he was dead, and that Coyote had trapped his spirit in his body for a joke. He had lain there in a numb state of half-dreaming, wondering if what he was would still be there when the blowing sand and heat wore his skin away. He thought he might then climb out through one of the empty sockets of his bleached skull and join his family in the other place.

The sharp bite of a hungry coydog as it began to gnaw at his bloody leg had awakened him. He’d flinched alert and heard it go yipping across the desert in superstitious fear.

When he realized he was alive, he started off across the sand, with only pain-blurred memories and the lash of trembling cholla cactuses for a guide. It was the wail of newborn hatred alone that drove him out of the last sleep.

The land rose before him, changed all of a sudden. Gone was the intricate and malevolent variety of wild terrain; the spiny barrel heads and the dry bull grasses, the plaintive but obstinate round stones of the dry washes and the scourge of temperamental mesquite. The unpredictable mixture of angry brush and hot, crawling things had given way to a strange uniformity that made him stop to blindly consider its portent. The minuscule rise and fall of the earth had been shaved clean and level, bare and unnatural, uniform but for the indentations many years old which marked the passage of steel tires and the little arches left by the iron shod horses that had pounded this place flat.

It was a road of the Indah—the white man’s river.

He turned slowly so that his whole body lie upon it. The turning caused the bullet wound in his side to sting, and the exertion pushed glowing fingerprints against his darkened eyeballs, and made a ringing noise like a struck iron rod quake in the fore of his brain.

He did not know how long he lay there, but when he could, he began his slow crawl once again, letting Usen choose the direction.

One way or another he would come to the end of this road.

One Who Yawns

Having nearly reached the mid-point on the next installment in my Merkabah Rider series Have Glyphs Will Travel, I decided to take some time out to talk a little about one of the characters appearing in the second (and as yet unnamed) episode.

A lot happens in this book, as the series enters the home stretch. Key details of the Hour of Incursion plot will be revealed, the succubus Nehema will return, and the Rider’ s nemesis Adon will finally make an appearance.

Historical characters have appeared in Merkabah Rider before. ‘Mysterious’ Dave Mather and John ‘Doc’ Holiday featured prominently in The Mensch With No Name, as well as members of Las Vegas, New Mexico’s infamous Dodge City Gang. Tales of a High Planes Drifter had Josephine ‘Sadie’ Marcus, the future wife of Wyatt Earp, and her shiftless beau and soon-to-be Cochise County Sheriff, Johnny Behan.

With Have Glyphs Will Travel I decided to visit another historical persona, one whom I’ve admired for a good deal of my life.

Born Goyaałé in Arizona Territory in 1829 to the Bedonkohe band of the Apache (which is actually a misnomer, as are most popularly known Indian tribal names. Names like Sioux and Apache are usually attributed by adversarial tribes allied with European/Spanish/Mexican/American people, and more often than not – as in the case of ‘Sioux’ translate into ‘enemy.’ The origin of the term ‘Apache’ is lost to history, first being recorded in 1598), he lost took a wife at 17 and fathered three children, raising them in the traditions of his people, which included belief in one God, Usen.

The Apaches had been fighting off European incursion for decades by this time. Apacheria covered areas of southeastern Arizona, northern Mexico, New Mexico, western Texas, and southeastern Utah, southern Colorado, and parts of Oklahoma. Problems with Spanish colonists was inevitable, but sporadic, until shortly after Mexican Independence when the government began posting rewards for Apache scalps (a practice portrayed brilliantly in Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel Blood Meridian or, An Evening’s Redness In The West).  When the chief of the Mimbreno Apaches was killed for bounty money, this touched off a series of aggressive retaliatory raids by the succeeding chief, Mangas Coloradas.

Then in 1846 war broke out between Mexico and the U.S.  Having fostered a growing hatred for their Mexican neighbors in the preceding decade of brutality and mutual bloodshed, most Apache bands allowed free passage of American troops through their lands. When the war ended, a new peace treaty between the Apache and the Americans was signed, but the Mexicans hated the Apache more than ever.

At the age of 29, Goyaałé and the men of his village traveled to the Mexican town of Janos to trade, leaving a few warriors to guard the women and children. While they were away, 400 Mexican troops under the command of Colonel José María Carrasco attacked. Some women escaped and were found by the returning warriors, who resolved to hide until nightfall and then sneak into the silent village.  In the dark, Goyaałé  found his elderly mother, wife, and all three children dead.

“I stood until all had passed, hardly knowing what I would do. I had no weapon, nor did I hardly wish to fight, neither did I contemplate recovering the bodies of my loved ones, for that was forbidden. I did not pray, nor did I resolve to do anything in particular, for I had no purpose left. I finally followed the tribe silently, keeping just within hearing distance of the soft noise of the feet of the retreating Apaches….None had lost as I had, for I had lost all.”

A year later, Goyaałé had joined the ranks of Mangas Coloradas and successfully broached an alliance with the Chiricahua under Cochise and the Nedni under Juh. He guided this army of Apache into Mexico. Coming upon the town of Arizpe, which had been founded by the Jesuit missionary Jeronimo de Canal, Goyaałé recognized the same cavalry that had been involved in the massacre of his village and asked to lead the attack.

The ensuing battle lasted two hours, and ended with Goyaałé  killing the last two Mexican combatants himself, one with the man’s own sabre. It is said that it was at this fight that Goyaałé earned the name he was forever after known by among non-Apaches. Some accounts say that the Mexican soldiers prayed to St. Jerome to deliver them, but as Jerome is the patron saint of librarians and scholars, I’m sure it probably has something more to do with the Jesuit founder of the town.

Whatever the reason, Goyaałé  became Geronimo. 

In the years that followed, Vittorio and Mangas Coloradas both fell in battle with the Mexicans or the Americans. In 1886, after evading thousands of Mexican and U.S. troops for over a year, Geronimo finally surrendered to white authority, the last of the Apache to do so.

Legends about Geronimo abound. He was never a proper chief, but it was said he had the power to see the future and to stop bullets, and time itself. After being chased up into the Robledo (some accounts say Superstition) Mountains by U.S. soldiers, he and his band took shelter in a certain cave and never emerged. The soldiers finally gave up. Of course Geronimo popped up again somewhere else.

I don’t know what exactly resonates with me and the story of Geronimo. I’m not the least bit Indian. I guess I like an underdog, and to read about tenacious individuals. I think it’s people like Geronimo that form the concept of the American individual, even fighting the American government as he did (and as Americans have done and must still sometimes do). I believe Geronimo inspires the legacy of resistance to tyranny upon which the American ideal was founded.

So what happened to Geronimo?

Well, after a long life on three different reservations, he died in Oklahoma in 1909, far away from Apacheria. The legends didn’t stop there of course. In a fittingly ironic twist, rumors still persist today that Prescott Bush of the infamous Bush clan stole Geronimo’s skull while serving as an Army volunteer at Ft. Sill and spirited it to the Yale headquarters of the Skull and Bones society, assembly line of elitist oligarchs since 1839 . This is generally refuted as Geronimo’s grave was unmarked at the time.

Several movies were made about him, the best probably being Geronimo: An American Legend with Wes Studi in the title role.

Notice the actor playing Geronimo doesn't get top billing!

Chuck ‘The Rifleman’ Connors played him too. I like Chuck Connors.

Chuck Connors as Geronimo

John Wayne in 'The Conqueror'

I like John Wayne. John Wayne played Genghis Khan once…’nuff said.

Still no top billing for the actor playing the titular character....

Geronimo’s other legacy is the famous World War II paratrooper call mentioned above, which was first enacted by Georgian Private Aubrey Eberhardt of the fledgling Parachute Test Platoon at Ft. Benning.  The day before his first jump out of an airplane, Aubrey and some friends watched a 1939 Paramount movie starring the imposing Victor ‘Chief Thundercloud’ Daniels (a Cherokee actor who originated the role of Tonto in the early Lone Ranger serials) in the titular role of Geronimo. Chided about his nervousness later by his fellows, Eberhardt promised that to prove he could sustain his courage while plummeting thousands of feet, tomorrow he would call out to them a certain phrase as he jumped, to let them know he hadn’t lost his nerve.

The distinctive word he chose was ‘Geronimo.’

In the months to come, as the number of trainees grew into five full blown Airborne Divisions, the paratroopers carried the battle cry to the skies over Europe. The first division to be instated, the 501st Parachute Infantry Batallion, chose the name as their motto and insignia. The 50th PIR also adapted the name, and Geronimo’s warrior legacy (whether the soldiers were aware of it or not) landed at D-Day with the men of the 101st Airborne, who wore war paint and shaved their heads into mohawks (and still do).

Colonel Byron Page of the 11th Airborne wrote the classic paratrooper cadence Down From Heaven, which goes –

 
 
 Down from Heaven comes Eleven
and there’s Hell to pay below
shout “GERONIMO” “GERONIMO”.
It’s a gory road to glory
but we’re ready here we go
shout “GERONIMO” “GERONIMO”.
Hit the silk and check your canopy
and take a look around
The air is full of troopers
set for battle on the ground
killed on Leyte and Luzon
shout “GERONIMO” “GERONIMO”.
 

 

The ‘eleven’ refers to the number of jumpers in a plane (which coincidentally brings us back to Matt Smith, the 11th incarnation of Doctor Who, who yells Geronimo in his debut episode, The Eleventh Hour) .

Nifty, huh?

And that’s about all I have to say about Geronimo, the man and the phrase.

But how the hell does Geronimo fit into Merkabah Rider anyway?

1880 is dawning and The Great Old Ones are coming. 

A war to clear their path is being fought in the Southwest and the Outer Gods are fielding their Native American general, Misquamacus (of The Lurker On The Threshold and The Manitou), who drifts into the San Carlos Reservation preaching victory over the invading whites.  The greatest guerilla force extant is the Apache. Vittorio, Juh, and Nana are at the height of their powers, and Misquamacus calls a meeting at one of the great hidden strongholds deep within the Sierra Madres. All the Indian must do to defeat the white man and the Mexican forever is to turn from the veneration of Usen and fight for the Great Old Ones.

And among the gathered warriors is a broad, silent man with hatred in his ears, but the teachings of his murdered mother in his heart. A man who wrote;

“When a child my mother taught me the legends of our people; taught me of the sun and sky, the moon and stars, the clouds and storms. She also taught me to kneel and pray to Usen for strength, health, wisdom, and protection. We never prayed against any person, but if we had aught against any individual we ourselves took vengeance. We were taught that Usen does not care for the petty quarrels of men….while I live, I want to live well.”