It was hard to put an age on Jake. Sitting tall in the saddle, unshaved, and sweaty, he swept a layer of grime and dust from his well-travelled cotton shirt. Then he ran his enormous, calloused hands through his brown hair.
Those hands could do damage.
With care, he replaced the wide-brimmed Stetson low over his wrinkled forehead. His feisty white mare stood impatiently, pawing the dirt with her left front hoof.
Jake had gone West years earlier, intending to farm the land.
He had failed. Drought, disease, and loneliness had all taken their toll. Nowadays, he led wagon trains of hopefuls; mostly Dutch, Irish, and Scottish emigrants, with a sprinkling of poor Americans who’d nothing but the clothes on their backs. Banded together for protection, they hoped to build new lives for themselves and their families on the hostile, lawless frontier.
Jake had made the trip from Elm Grove, Missouri many times, but today on the South Pass, short of the Snake River, something didn’t seem right. Tumbleweed and wild grasses danced in the furnace heat. He watched and waited till, through the shimmering heat, a lone rider approached. It was Eagle Heart, his trusted Indian scout.
“All is quiet,” he said, jumping from his unsaddled, polka-dotted Appaloosa.
Maybe too quiet, thought Jake. Again, they scoured the high, sand-coloured rocks on both sides of the gorge. Not a sound except the warm breeze that whistled, then sighed as it blew through the Pass.
They rode to where the wagon train waited. Women held their children close, husbands busied themselves with chores, trying to conceal their fear.
“All’s clear,” said Jake. “Get them wagons rolling an’ don’t stop for nothin’ till ye reach the other end of the canyon.”
The lead wagon was halfway through when the attack came.
Whoosh. A salvo of steel-tipped arrows, streaked through the air, hitting their targets with deadly force. The man at the reins of the first wagon fell forward into the dust, bright red blood gushing, and his neck snapped on impact. The wagon veered like the horses were drunk with freedom, then overturned. And then the screaming started. Screaming crazed Apache thundered into the Pass. Geronimo had kept his promise; “no more white men will cross the lands where our spirits rest.” It looked like hundreds, maybe thousands of his braves had answered the call.
Panic was instant.
“Get the wagons in a circle. Get ’em in a circle,” roared Jake.
They had no chance. Flaming arrows scorched through the hot, dry air. Within seconds, the wagons were ablaze. Jake took a hit to the shoulder but hung on. Eagle Heart wasn’t so lucky. He fell to the swipe of a tomahawk and was trampled by ponies as hysterical as their riders. Thunderous noise echoed off the walls of the valley, making it sound like they were trapped inside a death-drum. Louder than the screeching of the Apache were the pathetic screams of the women and children as they tried to find cover that didn’t exist.
One piercing sound, however, drowned out everything.
That was Me.
It was our first time in the Adelphi Cinema Dublin and Da had me in his arms.
“It's only a film son, it's only pretending.”
I continued to wail, Da’s words meaningless against the pictures on the screen. Before me were flames and blood, men, women, and children screaming and roaring, Technicolour death and Apache vengeance. Nobody died from just pretending!
“Hey mister, will ye take the poor child outa here? Can’t ya see he’s scared?” came from the row behind us.
My eyes kept blinking when we hit the afternoon sun on O’Connell Street, where normal Saturday life was in progress. Buses belched fumes, horns honked and shoppers, mostly women, lugged bags laden with groceries.
“There now,” Da said, holding my hand. “The pictures are only makey-uppy.”
Makey-uppy. O’Connell Street was still there. Still real. There were no Apache riding down from Woolworths to murder us. My frantic blinking slowed. It was alright. Everything was alright.
Problem solved, we returned and took our seats next to the Ma and the Big Brother.
But it wasn’t long before Geronimo and his mates gave it one more lash. I launched into the vocals once again. The mood around us had changed. Gone was the sympathy for the ‘poor child.’
“Hey mister, will ya take that feckin thick eejit of a young fella outa here?”
This time we all left and got the bus home. The Da was raging. He loved westerns and had skipped a few visits to the Submarine bar to take us all. It was one of the first films to have Technicolour.
Apparently, this was some new technology where everything appeared more realistic. It worked. I could still practically feel those flames, could still almost feel the blood leaking out of the dead man’s chest.
After a few minutes’ silence I asked the Da:
“Hey Da, will Jake an’ all the little boys an’ girls be okay?”
I’ll never forget the way he looked at me. His forehead told of worries present and worries for the future. He lit a cigarette but said nothing. The Brother laughed; I started whinging. The Da lashed out and gave the Brother a backhander, and then he started bawling. Then, never one to be left out of a drama, the Ma joined in and started sobbing “Why can’t we be like every other normal family?”
Everyone was crying except for Da. He sighed.
Thus, ended another normal family outing.
Later, when the wailing had died down a bit, I washed my face and teeth and put on my pyjamas, and Da read me a story from the Beano like he did every night. As I hopped into bed, he gave me a big hug and kissed me on the forehead. He’d never done that before.
It was Saturday 24th August 1957. I was four and two-thirds on that momentous day.
Ten years passed before the Da took me to the pictures again.