In The Desert
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Children of Toana
Written by Dave Taylor
"Could I set up my tent and sleep outside tonight?"
"Yes!" I bellowed, nearly spilling precious beer.
We had set up camp with our RV at a long abandoned horse stable, across the tracks from the ghost town of Cobre, Nevada. We called it China Camp. In the trash pile we had found the stem of an opium pipe, and bits of plates with calligraphy etched in them. There were underground hovels all around us as well, rough railroad ties for walls and roofs, hidden by sage and years.
The Wife looked over at me, miffed at my enthusiasm before turning back to the progeny.
"If you really want to -"
"Can me too?" Nick asked.
"Me too! Me too!" Kellian chimed in.
I imagined an RV devoid of children, self-imposed exile in Alex's tent. Be still my heart.
Once Alex had the tent up, blankets, pillows, stuffed animals, toys and canteens poured into the three-man tent. No need for an air mattress or cushion. Alex had set his tent in front of the stable. The ground is a pillow of a century's worth of fluffy horse apples.
After dinner, Alex lit his new electric lantern. No camp fire. The Great Plains is a different kind of desert. Hot, yes, dry, but the sage presses in from all sides, waiting for an errant ember.
The sky to the north turned red, purple, pink, the mountains to the west shrouded in haze. Though the sky was still blue, stars peeked between the scattered clouds.
And all the kids were going to sleep outside in the tent. I sipped my beer contentedly. The sun now truly set, the clouds hinted at thunderstorms. Still, the Taylor Horde huddled around the lantern.
"Anyone want to tell a story?" The Wife asked.
Kellian launched into a narrative about a princess and a witch and ghosts, really quite satisfying from the lips of a five-year old. Twin brother Nick took a stab at it, but with less success.
The Wife then told the story of the Toana children.
"Two miles north is the site of a town called Toana. Overlooking the townsite is a graveyard." "Appallingly' the graves here have been robbed. Only three are undisturbed, the final resting places of children."
The Mom told how bandits, hearing of a gold shipment in Toana, had attacked. The parents of the children buried the gold, then hid the children in one of the underground hovels that we were camped in and around that very moment, how the bandits, after killing all the people in Toana, found the children. Thinking the children knew where the gold was, they locked the children in the hole with nothing but a kerosene lantern, and would not let them out until they told the bandits where the gold was. But the children never did, and one by one, starting with the baby, they died of thirst and starvation.
The Sheriff's posse found the children, and buried them in the graveyard, after the bandits had dug up the graves of all the others, looking for the gold.
And sometimes at night, the children will come out with their lantern, the only thing the bandits let them have down in the dark hole. They come looking for playmates, other children their own age, just to play, nothing more. Just to pretend they're alive again, not robbed of their futures by the bandits from so long ago, to be happy again, like children should be, at least for a little while.
We stayed up pretty late, but the kids didn't forget. Mom finished the job later on.
"Do you see a light?" she asked, pointing in the direction of the cemetery. "I thought I saw a lantern swinging?"
The evacuation of the tent was disorderly, loud, punctuated with furtive glances into the darkness past the stable.
The next day The Wife suggested I take the kids to the Troana cemetery. Alex declined to join us, so it was just me and the twins.
"Daddy?" Kellian drawled. "The story Mommy told us, is it true?"
"No," I answered instantly as I drove. "Your mother pulled it out of thin air, fabricated it from her twisted mind."
"Bu'k d'e ligh'k -" Nick started.
"There was no light," I rebuked as we ascended the hill toward the graveyard. "Your mother placed the idea in your head, and you saw what she wanted you to see."
"Wha'k hab'en' d'o d'e bang'iks?" Nick asked. "Did d'e b'oss-ee catch 'em?"
"There were no bandits. Grave robbers tore up the graves. You'll see."
We stopped just outside the battered boot hill. A chain link fence limply marks the yard's boundaries. Mounds of dirt melt back into the depressions that once held the dead, and bits of rotting wood is everywhere, I assume from coffins.
Only three graves still have tombstones, the Children of Toana. The twins moved across the field, stepping around the short scrub, greasewood, and sage that chokes the cemetery, a blustery wind tugging at all of us. The sky grew cloudy. We walked up to one gated area, the wrought iron fence consumed by the rust. Within this enclosure there are two headstones. Marble lambs curl sedately atop the tablets. "In Memory of JOHN DAVID," one inscription started. "Son of John and Margaret LEWIS, Born June 15, 1891, Died Dec. 21, 1901" Ten years old. My Alex was eleven.
"What did they die of?" Kellian asked. I sighed.
"Well, sweetheart, diseases, flu, small pox, tuberculosis -"
"No!" my daughter countered. "The bandits killed them!"
"No," I countered back. "That's mom's totally fabricated, completely -"
"In Memory of MARY," the headstone next to John David read. "Daughter Of David & Olive MORGAN. Born Dec. 3 1878, Died February 14, 1880." A year and two months old.
"Over he'we!" Nick crowed from another fenced patch.
Why did Mary and John David share this yard for eternity? They didn't have the same family name, they died twenty years apart. I followed my children to the next fenced area, wrought iron decorated with ornate knobs, a lone weathered marble tombstone within.
"In Memory of WILLIE, Son of H. & M. Schodde, born April 26th, 1882, died Sep. 14, 1882."
Such a gilded grave for a baby. How they must have missed him.
"Are the bandits' ghosts here?"
I pulled myself back from my reverie and turned toward the twins.
"No," I said, "No. There are no bandits -"
"Wi' d'ey come and p'ay now?"
I looked down at Nick.
"D'e Toana chi'd'en."
"Come and play, Toana Children," Kellian called through the fence. She wrapped her pudgy fingers around the wrought iron and pleaded to Willie's headstone. "Come and play in the sun. We won't be afraid. We'll be your friends."
"Come and P'ay!" Nick bugled as he ran back to John David and Mary.
"You can come home with us," Kellian whispered.
I clapped my hands.
"Okay, guys. That's it! Back to the truck."
I looked again down the gently sloping mount we stood on, through Junipers toward the track, where Troana existed from 1868 to 1906.
Thought I would give you a little bit more information on the "Children of Troana"
John David Lewis and Mary Morgan were, in fact, related. John David Lewis's father, John Gibson Lewis, was a half-brother to the mother of Mary Morgan, Olive Matilda Lewis Morgan.
John Gibson Lewis was the son of David Lewis and his (plural) wife Ellen Gibson Lewis. Olive Matilda Lewis Morgan was the daughter of David Lewis and his (plural) wife, Mary Gibson Lewis. Ellen and Mary Gibson Lewis were sisters.
This information was supplied to the author by Aletta Moore, a distant relative of the children.
Photographs by Dave Taylor