Dwight Joy reached for another log and placed it carefully on the small fire. My young heart stirred with anticipation — another log meant another story, and I loved Dwight’s stories. We listened through the darkness, my father and I.
“Have you ever heard of Isadore Christopher?” Dwight asked when the fire-cracking juniper quieted.
“Ooh, I know.” I said. “He’s the headless man who rides his horse through the woods at night.”
“Nope,” Dwight laughed. “Isadore’s C.I. ranch spread across the huge meadow where the community of Christopher Creek is now. The place bears his name. He raised horses and pigs for the military in the late 1800s.”
It was a cold, fall morning when Isadore woke to the screams of a pig. From his loft, into his pants he moved with the agility of a young man, although he was not. He took two muskets and a brace of pistols into the dawn, toward the squealing swine. He moved slow, waiting for light. The screeching wails made silent by crunching bones. Most men would have turned back, but Isadore turned fighting mad. He could fire four shots before he would have to reload and the eastern sky grew bright.
Soon he saw a huge, dark lump in the middle of the corral. He inched closer, and the crunching grew louder. He heard the ripping of skin and the slurping of blood. Finally, from 50 feet away he fired both muskets, dropped them in the dirt, and drew his single shot pistols. He charged the brown lump. The wounded grizzly turned and tried to stand. From 10 feet away Isadore shot him straight in the face, twice. The bear fell, dead.
With a horse, he dragged the bear to his front porch, hung him, and skinned him. He left the head attached to the hide and took them to the barn for tanning later. The skinless bear hung on the front porch of Isadore Christopher’s cabin.
The Frenchman heard the clippidy-clopp of several unshod horses as he walked from his barn back to his cabin. A small band of Apaches came from downstream. They saw Isadore and split into two factions, one went for the cabin, and the other went for the horses. The homesteader ducked into an oak thicket and worked his way upstream toward the Rim. The Indians ran off his horses and burned his cabin. Isadore ran. They had caught him off guard, his guns and knife lay on the table in the cabin. If he had them, he could make a play to save his ranch. Still, he could always rebuild the ranch, but not if he was dead.
When the cabin engulfed in flames, the Apaches began to trail Christopher. He had already worked his way through the oaks and into the huge canyon north of the ranch. He climbed until he could see them on his back trail. They gained on him, and he knew that soon he would be dodging arrows. The wind blew up-slope and Isadore could smell them. He could smell their horses, their dirty, worn buckskins. When they got closer, he could smell their sweat. His legs burned from the climb. He could see his home’s smoke. Still they came. He reached the top of the sloping first ridge. Straight, sheer cliffs loomed above him and blocked his escape. If he could climb to the top, he would be free. The Indians would never leave their horses to climb the cliff, and if they did, he could crush them with rocks.
Isadore found a crevasse in the cliff. He pushed his back against one side and his feet and hands against the other. He chimnied up the slice in the cliff to safety.
Other homesteaders and ranchers saw smoke rising above the C.I. ranch. They came, some from a mile away, some from five. They came in a hurry, with guns and water buckets. Christopher’s neighbors found only ashes and a lonely black rock fireplace standing solo in the pasture next to East Tonto Creek. They found what appeared to be Isadore’s headless body in the ashes. The Indians must have taken his head.
High above them, Isadore reached the top of the Rim and watched the Indians give up the chase. They stayed under the cliffs and headed east.
From the Rim’s top, he could see his smoldering ash pile, and he saw busy people around his ranch. Isadore found an easy way down the cliff. The noon sun warmed the forest. The white man took a deep breath and headed home.
Quietly, and unnoticed, not wanting to disturb the funeral, he skirted his ranch and went into his unburned barn. From a small room in the back, the one with the still, he gathered a jug of moonshine and headed for his grave.
In a circle around the mound of dirt, they bowed their heads, closed their eyes, and prayed.
He slid quietly among them, and at their ‘Amen,’ Isadore Christopher blurted loudly, ‘Let’s have a drink to old Christopher and build him a new cabin.’”