The Elephant Ironclads
Jason StoddardJason Stoddard lives in Newhall, California, with his wife, Lisa (who writes under the name Rina Slayter), and a motley assortment of tortoises and cars. He has gone from the discipline of engineering to the halls of advertising, then on to the wild world of interactive marketing.
His short fiction has appeared in SCI FICTION, Interzone, Strange Horizons, Fortean Bureau, Futurismic, and GUD, and he was a finalist for both the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award and the Sidewise Award for Alternate History. Jason is currently working on novels based on his short fiction. His website is www.xcentric.com.
“The Elephant Ironclads” is another alternate history—based (as most of the best of the subgenre) on some unbelievable but actual historical events.
Ow, those are healthy elephants,” Niyol Chavez said.
Wallace Chee ground his teeth. Ahead of them, a caravan loaded with Mexican sugar was coming down the dusty road from the Albuquerque airfield. On top of the lead elephant, a fat merchant in a gaudy Hopi outfit bounced, wearing the satisfied grin of a man who has made an excellent deal.
“See how they almost prance,” Niyol said, pointing. “Healthy.”
“Stop it,” Wallace said.
“Look at how they shake their heads.”
“They even sound like—“
Wallace turned and pushed Niyol, hard. Wallace caught a glimpse of his friend’s broad, playful smile, then Niyol’s legs tangled and he fell sideways into the scrub.
“I was joking!” Niyol said, his dark eyes flashing anger.
I didn’t know the elephant was sick, Wallace wanted to say. Images of the dead elephant, lying in the dust outside the skeleton of his father’s burned-out workshop, came unbidden. The slack stares of Niyol and Patrick and Jose, who had given all their Diné pesos for Wallace’s tales of an elephant of their own, a trade route that would bring them riches before they were fourteen. The flaming anger of his mother when she’d discovered he’d taken her precious tourist dollars to fund his dream. Her tears when she saw the carcass. The way she looked from the elephant to the workshop and back again. And, finally, the few pesos he’d been able to get from the butcher as he began the grim job of rendering the elephant down to dog food and bonemeal.
“I told you I’d pay you back.”
“No. You won’t.” Niyol picked himself up and brushed dust from his jeans.
“We’ll both pay your mother back.” Niyol eyed the Diné airships that dotted the faraway field. “If there’s any work left, that is.”
“What do you mean?”
“The caravans are already coming south, so they’ve probably already unloaded.”
Wallace grimaced. Niyol was as sharp of mind as he was of tongue. He would probably go back to school next year, to The-Years-That-Finish- You. And after his years at the Americanized school, he’d be able to get a job in California or Mexico, rather than Dinétah.
“There’ll be other airships,” Wallace said.
Niyol scanned the empty blue sky and shrugged.
As the caravan passed, the elephants’ trumpeting sounded like laughter.
At the Albuquerque airfield, a half dozen airships hung motionless in the clear blue winter sky. On one of the ships, Diné airmen were making repairs to the skyshields, their bright orange-and-red-tunics in sharp contrast with the blue fabric that shielded the airships from the ever-watchful eyes of the Diyin Diné. None of the ships wore gray stormshields, so they must be expecting the clear weather to continue. The sun was bright, but the early-March chill still bit with every breeze.
On the ground, nothing moved. Stacks of crates and bags of sugar in the cargo shacks showed that the airships had already been unloaded. Big men lounged on the rough wood porches of the shacks, smoking cheap American cigarettes and telling poor jokes that poked fun at one another’s clans. Several of them gathered around a radio, which was chattering in English about a new war the Americans were starting in a place called Korea.
Wallace remembered the days when the Americans always seemed to be at war. His own war games with Niyol. Japs and Americans. Like Cowboys and Indians, or Elephant Ironclads and Cavalry. He was only nine when he’d heard about the end of the Second World War, coming in softly in Navajo over the Dinétah station. It was hard to believe the war had been over for five years.
Niyol hung back, so Wallace introduced himself to one of the men and said they were looking for work.
The man, cigarette dangling loosely from his lips, looked them up and down and laughed. In that moment, Wallace saw himself and Niyol through those men’s eyes, two scrawny kids looking to do heavy labor. Something seemed to crumple and collapse in his heart.
I’ll have to go back to Isleta, he thought. I’ll have to be a shepherd.
“You see?” Niyol said, after they’d walked out of earshot.
“Maybe I’ll become an airman,” Wallace said.
Niyol opened his mouth as if to say something, then seemed to think better of it. He grinned. “You, in Mexico? In America?”
Wallace frowned. He remembered black-and-white newsreels showing impossibly smooth streets and sleek, glossy cars. He remembered making fun of them, loudly, so the theater attendants came and made him and his friends leave.
“I could do it.”
Niyol looked doubtful.
“I could become an elephant tender.”
“Not elephants again!”
“I could earn it this time!”
Niyol shook his head. “Elephants are for rich men.”
“Elephants are the gift of the Diyin Diné!”
“To try our resolve,” Niyol said. Completing the common wisdom.
Wallace grimaced. He’d heard it from his mother. Elephants aren’t efficient pack animals. Their role in Diné independence was more luck than divine will. They ate too much. They tied us to the land. But he didn’t care. Just once, he wished the Diyin Diné would send a vision of the Elephant Ironclads, standing watch at the edges of the Four Corners. But that was just a story, too, if you believed the common wisdom.
Even if it was only a story, it should be true, Wallace thought.
“Let’s find some work,” Wallace said, and walked away, not caring if Niyol followed.
At the airstrip office, gaudy color posters of Benjamin Hatathlie hung outside. Block capitals declared, chieftain-ahnaghai. Wallace frowned. He knew from the newscasts that Hatathlie was running for president, but he frowned at the bald Americanization of the Diné word. They could have used the Diné alphabet, or tried to render the proper pronunciation.
“Brother,” Niyol said, smiling ironically.
“You share clan with him?”
“Yeah. We’re both Chiricahua Apache.”
“So if he wins, my friend is the president’s brother.”
Niyol grinned. “The president’ll have many brothers, all asking favors.”
Wallace laughed. That was a good joke.
Wallace went to talk to the white-shirted office keeper, but the story was the same. No work here, especially for youngsters. Try when you’re older. There’s a guide who might employ you in a couple of years.
Wallace saw himself a shepherd, old and bent, watching dirty and indifferent sheep. He felt tears gather at the corners of his eyes.
Outside the office, Niyol put his hand on Wallace’s arm. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right,” Wallace said.
But it wasn’t. It really wasn’t. Wallace looked down at the earth and asked the Diyin Diné, What have I done to offend you?
A distant buzzing came from the sky to the north. Wallace looked up and saw a white speck in the distance. As it drew closer, he could make out wings, sticking out stiffly from a bright white fuselage.
An airplane. Like the Americans used. Wallace grimaced. Loud, dirty, noisy . . . a terrible mockery of the powerful Thunderbird.
The little plane drew closer and dropped toward the airfield. The laborers came out from under the shed awnings to look up at it. The Diné airmen paused in the middle of their work to turn sun-brown faces at the apparition.
The airplane flashed across the sky, impossibly fast, impossibly loud, shattering the stillness of the day. Diné on the outskirts of Albuquerque came out of their hogans to squint up at the sky.
The plane lunged at a long dirt road that paralleled the airships, sunlight glinting off its windshield. It touched down and bounced along the dirt runway, sending a long streamer of dust toward the dun- colored hills.
“Come on,” Wallace said.
“Why?” Niyol said.
“Maybe they need to be unloaded.”
“I don’t think they have much to unload.”
“They’re rich men from America. They’ll need something.”
Niyol shook his head. “I don’t know.”
Wallace sighed. “I’m going to make some money,” he said, and walked off toward the plane. After a few moments, he heard Niyol’s footsteps behind him.
By the time they reached the runway, two men had emerged from the plane. They stretched in that big lazy American way and looked out across the plains, as if the distances were too far for them to grasp. One wore a dark brown suit and a thin black tie. The other wore a gray suit of some coarse fabric, with a royal blue tie knotted over an off-white shirt. Dark-tinted sunglasses covered their eyes. Their shoes, polished black, were already coated with the rich orangish dust of the Dinétah desert.
Not even dressed for the trip, Wallace thought. In men this stupid there had to be opportunity.
Brown-suit noticed them first. He tapped his companion on the shoulder. Two heads swiveled to look at him. Their eyes were completely hidden behind dark glasses, their faces motionless and expressionless. It was like being looked at by insects.
“What do you want, kids?” Brown-suit said.
“I’m Wallace Chee of Big Water Clan,” Wallace said.
“So?” Brown-suit said.
“Can I carry your bags for you? To your hogan?”
“No hotel. We have a car waiting.”
A car? In Dinétah? Wallace didn’t know what to say. When he found his voice, he croaked, “Guides. Do you have guides?”
Brown-suit snorted. “We have maps.”
“Maps won’t help you when the car breaks,” Wallace said.
“Who says it’ll break?”
Wallace grinned. “No highways. No service stations.”
“We’re loaded with gas.”
“And a spare axle, for when you get caught in a rut?”
The two men looked at each other.
“And a guidebook to all the friendly Diné, who will help someone as strange as yourself?”
“And maybe some padding in those clothes to keep you from picking up some buckshot?”
“From the people who think you’re a skinwalker?”
“Dead returned to walk,” Gray-suit said. His English was thick with a strange accent.
Wallace started. An American who knew something about Diné? He didn’t know men like that existed.
“Okay, okay,” Brown-suit said. “How much? Will twenty do it?”
“Twenty dollars?” That was almost a thousand Diné pesos. More by half than he spent for the dying elephant.
Wallace struggled to keep his face expressionless. “We’re worth thirty,” he said.
Brown-suit frowned, rummaged in his pocket, and pulled out a thick leather wallet. He extracted a twenty-dollar bill and handed it to Wallace. “Do a good job, and maybe there’ll be another when we’re done.”
Wallace folded the bill out of sight quickly, resisting the urge to look around. He could feel the eyes of the laborers on them. Hopefully they weren’t watching close enough to see the bill.
“I am Wallace Chee, of Big Water Clan,” Wallace said. “Pleased to do business with you.”
Niyol stood stunned. Wallace elbowed him. “Niyol Chavez, of Chiricahua Apache Clan.”
“What’s with the clans?” Brown-suit said.
Gray-suit smiled. “They say that to honor you in formal greeting.” He held out a hand. “I am Frans Van der Berg, of no particular clan.”
Wallace took his hand, briefly, remembering that this was what white men did. It was cool and greasy.
The other didn’t offer his hand. “Herbert Noble. No clan.”
As the men started unloading their heavy, olive-colored canvas bags, Niyol leaned close to Wallace. “What are you doing?” he whispered, in slow Spanish.
“Making us a lot of money,” Wallace said.
“We don’t know where they’re going.”
“We’ll find out.”
“We don’t know what they want.”
“Does it matter?”
“You’re being male again.”
“I know,” Wallace said. But, as the drunks say, spend enough stupid and sometimes there’s a return.
The two men led them to a low shack that fronted stables, grinning as the boys struggled with the heavy bags. Wallace worked happily, the slick paper of the twenty-dollar bill sticking to his leg inside his jeans.
Outside, a small sign read: albuquerque horse stable and rent— nonlocal welcome. A smaller sign hung below, newly painted: automobile.
In front of the shack was an even more ramshackle stand that advertised friendly indian guides in faded sky-blue paint and shouted safe passage—unique sights—local hostesses in weathered white below. Smaller, it said, gerald manycows, hooghan ani, proprietor. A chubby Diné sat cross-legged in front of the low wood counter.
“Can I offer you gentlemen guide services?” the chubby Diné asked.
“Already have them,” Herbert said, nodding at Wallace and Niyol.
The chubby Diné—presumably Gerald Manycows—frowned. His eyes followed Wallace and Niyol as they passed, as if asking, Who are you to steal my custom? Wallace was glad that the rental shack was out of sight of the runway. There was no chance Gerald could have seen the money that changed hands. Still, his heart pounded.
The rental shack was little more than a front to the stables. Inside the front door was a tiny room and a low counter. A grimy window looked out onto a dirt area in front of the stables. Three horses grazed in the shade of the gray, warped wood roofs.
In the middle of the dirt area, a sleek Ford sedan sat. It was the color of new cream. Chrome sparkled in the sunlight. Around the Ford, traditionally dressed Diné chanted and whirled through a Blessingway ceremony.
Herbert and Frans pushed through the back door to the dirt area and watched the Diné, hands on hips. Eventually, a stable boy came forward to the office.
“Nice of them to do this all for us,” Herbert said, nodding at the ceremony.
Wallace hid a smile. He didn’t know what the Blessingway was for, but he knew it was more likely to protect the land from damage by the car than to assure the safety of a couple of foreigners. But of course they wouldn’t understand.
The stable boy pretended not to hear. After the Blessingway, money changed hands.
Wallace and Niyol loaded the bags into the car. The rental-office men watched them out of the corners of their eyes. None of them could be younger than fifty. Wallace felt he was being measured against some Diné standard he couldn’t hope to understand.
What was the bigger insult? Wallace wondered. Helping the men find their way around Dinétah, or renting them a car?
Copyright © 2008 by Ellen Datlow. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.