Two Guns, Arizona
By Gladwell Richardson

Death Cave

By 1871 the Navajos were employing a new strategy of defense against raiding Apaches. When they appeared, one group gave battle while another raced south to block their exit over the Mogollon Rim. Almost always the Apaches followed the Navajo Trail along the east side of Canyon Diablo and through Chavez Pass. After this went on for sometime the Apaches began disappearing without trace. The Navajo group blocking the escape route never once saw them.

Then in 1878 they discovered the secret of this successful evasion. That June, Apaches struck a community of hogans at dawn in the Melgosa Desert. All the men, women and children, except three young girls taken prisoner, were slain. Robbing the dead and pilfering the hogans, the band of twenty disappeared into sered wastelands along the river.

At the same time a second raiding party hit a cluster of hogans near Garces Mesa and looted without taking any prisoners.

District leaders, sometimes called district chiefs, Natani, B'ugoettin and Redshirt, raced south with twenty-five fighting men. Ahead of the raiders, they lurked on Mogollon Rim trails waiting to ambush them. But the wily Apaches did not come through. Puzzled, the Navajo war party started home with scouts on its sides as flankers.

A messenger sent to find them delivered more tragic news. The same raiding bands had struck north of the river again. Many more Navajos had lost their lives in a blood holocaust.

This time a wounded man, thought to be dead by the raiders, had survived, He recognized their leader, known to them as "Crooked Jaw." Although not deformed, his jaws were not symmetrical. He was Nachise, son of the famed Chief Cochise.

The Navajos were badly puzzled by the raiders' failure to take good horses, and their mysterious vanishing act. Their several trails below the river split off, disappearing into the malpais and volcanic cinder country.

Scouts were dispatched in pairs on fast horses in a desperate attempt to locate the enemy before it escaped the country. B'ugoettin Begay and Bahe proceeded to the cave at Two Guns. In the late afternoon they approached undetected by crawling through the grass, tall weed and sagebrush towards the rim intending to reconnoiter.

As he moved slowly forward, Bahe was startled when hot air struck his face. At the same time the sound of voices reached his ears. Overcoming brief panic caused by this weird occurrence, he found an earth crack almost directly beneath his face. It obviously gave into the underground cavern; the Apaches were hiding in it!

Retreating to their ponies, the two scouts raced back to the river with this important news. The three leaders ordered their fighting men in motion at once, arriving as sunset glow marked the distant San Francisco Mountains. Waiting until full night shrouded the plateau world, the jubilant Navajos closed in.

The cave is situated in a side canyon of Diablo directly behind Two Guns. At that time the entrance was concealed by a solid stone natural bridge long since fallen in. A narrow tunnel-like passage, stone walls higher than a man's head, led under it into the cave. It was wide enough to lead a horse through. This the Apaches had done, therefore leaving no give-away pony herd grazing on the flat terrain around the side canyon.

Stealing in afoot, the Navajos blocked all possibility of escape for the hated enemy. The two outside guards were shot down. The Navajo leaders had decided their vengeance strategy.

Most of the party gathered dry sagebrush on the rims and driftwood on the canyon floor. Taken onto the land bridge and the close rims of solid stone, this flammable material was dropped into the passageway leading to the cave mouth.

On realizing the terrible end planned for them, the Apaches grew desperate. Sorties into the narrow space in attempts to drive the Navajos off were annihilated almost instantly by riflemen above. When the brush and wood filled the passageway the mass was set afire. As fast as it burned part way down more fuel was added.

The smoke and fumes sucking into the cave reappeared from several surface cracks on the plateau. Only once during the night this tell-tale death sign ended. The conflagration was allowed to die down in order to find out what had happened.
With what little water they had and blood from pony-cut throats, the Apaches had extinguished the fire directly in the cave mouth. They had then attempted to seal the entrance with rocks and quarters from killed ponies.

At this juncture a spokesman broke out of the heat-ridden barrier to beg for terms to save their lives. Although speaking only "pidgin" Navajo, he managed to make himself understood.

The proposal was an old custom among southwestern Indians: paying in goods and stock to evade corporal punishment for murder.

Natani asked where Crooked Jaw was and learned that he and two other Apaches had departed south early that day.

Pretending to be agreeable to blood payment, Natani said, "Send out the three girls and we will talk further."

The Apache spokesman hesitated overly long. His delay confirmed the Navajos' direst suspicions. The hapless prisoners had already been tortured to death for their captors' amusement the first day of raiding.

In a wild rage the Navajos poured a stream of bullets into the cave mouth but of course hit no enemy. Again the passageway was refurbished with flammable material and kept burning furiously like the pits of hell. At first not too much smoke poured up through the cracks but finally it drifted against the starlit sky unabated. The last desperate measure of the Apaches to escape death by asphyxiation had failed.

Men listening on the flat surface at the cracks reported only a few of the enemy able to sing the final death song. Slowly the chanting subsided until no sound whatever echoed upward with the smoke from the depths.

The great fire was allowed to die out but the masses of rock did not cool off until the following noon. An indescribable scene met the Navajos when they ventured into the charnel cavern. The last feeble attempt of the doomed to stave off death had been to pile more quarters from the killed ponies in the cave entrance. Noxious fumes had sapped their strength too fast, dropping them gasping in death.

The barbecued pony meat was punched out with poles, and drafts of air allowed to circulate through the cave. Just inside the narrow passage that turned right, a dozen partly burned Apaches lay sprawled in the confines.

The first cavern into which the runway gave was a macabre scene of horror. Most bodies lay on the stone platform above the pony carcasses.

Towards the inevitable end so many Apaches had bolted through the small entrance into the second cavern that it was blocked solid. Pulling the dead aside, it was inspected. Only five of the enemy managed to get clear into it. They lay prone in grotesquely twisted positions, frozen in death while choking for a final breath of fresh air that never revived them.

Altogether forty-two Apaches lost their lives in the cave. The bodies were stripped of valuables, and raid loot recovered. Navajo fighting men retreated from the cave quietly, awed by the terrible destruction they had wrought. The girl victims cruelly put to death had been avenged.

This incident put an end to further use of the mystery cave by the Apaches. In fact no raid in that direction was ever undertaken against the Navajos again.

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