An aging cowboy sat down on a smoothed, round rock in the middle of the high desert mesa under a scorching sun. Receding glaciers thousands of years ago left behind the smoothed, round rock. Restless renegades the day before left behind the dusty old cowhand taking his Colt.45, his hat and his horse. A cowboy without his six-gun, his hat or his horse is as naked as a smoothed, round rock in the middle of a high desert mesa under a scorching sun.
* * *
Apple Mac watched the gray, dry dirt swirl into a dust devil. The funnel twisted and jumped. A tumbleweed was lifted several feet into the air. His focus became entangled with the debris in the eddy rising high into the hot white sky. Staring upward, he reflected on the few good things this life had given him and how fickle the hold can be on those few good things.
His bald head baked under the sun. Without his horse he would surely succumb to dehydration before reaching any watering hole. Without his hat, heat stroke or boiled brains could kill him before dehydration. And, should he survive the lack of water and a singed scalp, without his revolver to bring down a cottontail or dove, he just might starve to death.
Apple Mac was in a real mess.
Selecting a couple of pebbles small enough to stick in his mouth, he stirred up the saliva glands keeping his tongue somewhat lubricated. It was late afternoon and he was well aware the gusty wind would bring on a bitter chill at night. The old cowboy surmised his only chance was to head northwest toward Black Butte. If luck would turn good, he just might make it to the Crooked or Bear Rivers in just a few days. His trek would take him over old lava beds. The chance of finding flint rock would be favorable. With flint he could spark a fire to keep him warm at night. Obsidian was common so he could fashion a knife or spear if need be. He reasoned all these things while not losing sight of how remote all this planning was from reality.
The old man had conjured a future, but he had to concentrate on more immediate concerns. All he had were his boots, a leather belt, pants, shirt and under garment. He took off his shirt and formed a Bedouin-like head cover to protect him from heat stroke as best he could. He figured he would soak up the sweat from his forehead and suck it from his shirt to slow down dehydration. Come evening, he would create a trap in the sand with his shirt and a stone to capture morning dew if any existed in the desert air.
He got up from his rock, dusted off his jeans and looked toward the northwest. He went over in his head what had happened the day before. Riding the high desert alone is still dangerous these days. He had left his companions Hank, Pelican Joe and Emmett near Juniper Mountain. They were set on heading east to check out work at the French-Glenn Livestock Company located on The "P" Ranch. Hank worked there in the early nineties for Peter French who owned the livestock company. Hank heard rumor Pete's neighbor Ed Oliver gunned him down over a road easement dispute. Even if it was true that Pete was dead, Hank figured it was the best chance for a job through the winter. Apple Mac could have gone with them, but he knew he was too old to be considered for a job on such a big spread as The "P" Ranch. He had ridden with these cowboys since early spring doing small time cowboy jobs here and there from Murphy, Idaho to Hardin, Oregon and now he decided it was best for him to continue west and try to find work in the Willamette Valley where winters were not so hard. It was the end of August and Apple Mac did not want to wait any longer. He bid his partners so long and headed off on his own.
That was his downfall. Now, here he was without a crumb of food or a drop of water. He was left in the desert to die. Paiutes had stolen all he owned. They spared him of a quick, merciful death saying he was too old and too stringy to cut up in jerky strips for their journey. They were a ragged bunch of four young men and two women on their way to Idaho or Nevada to join a Bannock Indian named Shoshone Mike. They were convinced Shoshone Mike would lead them in a life free from the reservation. The Indians looked haggard, but full of pride and they were no less for wear than the starving reservation Indians. Their leader upon mounting Apple Mac's horse, looked down on the old man and laughed at him saying, "You don't even have hair to scalp." The leader then kicked Mac hard under his ribs. Apple Mac bent over, unable to catch his breath, but did not fall to the ground. The old man would not give the young, brash Indian that pleasure.
Still, he was not too angry at the small band of Northern Paiute for treating him like they did. It was not that Apple Mac was a free thinker of the times. Hell, he would have done the same to any one of them if he had had the upper hand. Apple Mac understood the importance of freedom and these Indians were seeking the old way of life - to wander freely. What did not make sense to him were the liberal thinkers from the big cities back east who were so hell bent on changing things. These liberals wanted to educate and blend the Indians into White society. No damned way would that work and he was living proof standing in the middle of the high desert mesa all alone without his horse, his gun and his hat. The Indian folks hated the Whites and their way of life and that was the way it was going to always be.
Two days was near past and had old Apple Mac considering the worst. It was looking like a rotten end for a man who was smarter than most cowboys. Mac pondered if it might have been a better fate to have been a bit less cunning or even a tad slower as a young soldier during the War Between the States. He could have had a more honorable and, most likely, quicker death.
Mac laughed out loud. He could not remember a time he did so much thinking in one spot. He looked down at the solitary rock and considered the millenniums of time this rock has had to reflect on its lonely plight. As he started walking away he considered some kind of salutation to the rock, but thought better of it. He had never talked to a rock in his life and he was not about to start.
Twilight was waxing quickly with the Cascade Mountains blocking out the sunset you only see when riding the beaches of the Oregon Coast. Apple Mac had been to the coast and had seen a few sunsets on the ocean. Those times he would remember as damn fine evenings for reflecting. The night was going to be a bit colder than he figured. He took off his Arab headdress and wrapped the shirt over his torso. Any sweat had long dried up and left salt stains where his forehead had been. Mac had no luck finding flint so he had long given up on a warm night's rest. That is to say, he was resolved to his plight until he saw a dim light waving about in the distance. Maybe a quarter mile or so he figured. It was definitely a campfire. Now the question was who was hanging around it. The old man hoped it were not Paiute Indians or outlaws, but regular old cowboys.
* * *
Apple Mac slipped down a small gully and headed south of the campsite. He went southward because there were more junipers and sagebrush for hiding should he decide to do some sneaking up. Since he was unarmed and hungry he had to take a chance...so hide and seek seemed the best way to get close before introducing himself. Hell, if it was a single Indian or outlaw or cowboy he might just get close enough to jump the loner and take what he needed. Stealing a sidearm, hat and a horse would be ideal Apple Mac thought. There he went on again thinking too much of what might be and not paying enough attention on what was going on at the moment. Apple Mac paid for his inattentiveness by startling a group of resting quail. The quail covey, needless to say, stirred up a raucous of wings and whistling that could be heard by anybody at the campsite ol' Mac was trying to surprise. His advantage had been compromised. He really had no chance of keeping to his original plan so he had to decide whether or not to speak up and let whomever know he was approaching or hide in the gully until morning.
"No worry," yelled Apple Mac, "just a lone cowboy hoofin' it up to yer camp to see if you could spare a cup of hot coffee or something to eat if you've got enough." There was not an immediate answer so Apple Mac continued his introduction. "Thank God, the wind died down. Sure would have made for a miserable night don't you think?"
It was then that the old cowboy got a response, but it was in the form of a hammer being cocked back into the firing position and soon after followed by a voice saying, "Where is your horse, cowboy?"
Apple Mac could not see the man or the rifle, but he knew the man was to his left behind the 'Y' trunk juniper. "I'd like to tell you if I knew. I haven't seen her for days. She was southeast bound when I last saw her with the injuns that took her." Apple Mac had slowly raised his arms in the air to show the man he was unarmed. He figured if the mystery man were trigger-happy Mac's display of hands would make the man less inclined to squeeze off a round. Apple Mac's mind was racing like a politician in a tough debate. "I heard you cock what sounds like a Springfield. Maybe you were in Teddy's war? Cuba or even the Philippines?" Again, there was no immediate response from behind the juniper tree. Apple Mac's arms would not last too much longer in the up position.
"You look too old to have done any fighting with the Spaniards," said the stranger. "Ain't no recent Indian wars either. I find it a bit of a stretch your story, old man." The man could see in the last dim of twilight that this clumsy old fart was no danger. The old man was bare. No gun. No hat. No horse. "You can put your arms down," he said to Mac.
"I thank you," said Apple Mac, "and I can tell you that the Indian band that took my mare is trying to hook up with some Bannock Indian who is trying to bring back the buffalo. I don't think there's an Indian war yet, but I'm sure this free thinkin' stuff has already stirred up trouble."
"I'd say so," said the man. "They're already stealin' horses." The man came out from behind his hiding place and lowered the U.S. Army issue Springfield, but left it cocked. "My name's Howard Fitch and I did some fighting in the war. I was with the 16th Pennsylvania under James Wilson."
"Wilson? I knew him during the Confederacy uprising. A good Union officer he was."
"He retired and then they called him back to fight Spain. I was with him in Porto Rico."
"Oh," said Apple Mac, "so you partook in the battle over Coamo?"
Fitch chuckled in a short burst. "That's what they wrote. There was some heavy artillery fire goin' on before we marched on the city, but I can't say it was much of a fight for the city itself." Fitch quietly released the rifle hammer and brought the barrel up over his head resting the rifle on his right shoulder. "When we got there two officers from the Commissariat were already there along with a reporter who handed the Spaniards' flag to Wilson and said he was now the Military Governor, Mayor and Chief of Police."
"They must have seen you all comin'. Victory in numbers, eh?" Apple Mac commented.
Fitch smiled. "No. It were seven men whose wild Porto Rico ponies got 'em to Coamo ahead of the army. Yep, all seven were green and still in knickers."
Apple Mac saw Fitch's relaxed stance and decided he could now move a bit more freely. "Sure can't believe what the Hearst papers say. Never could."
Fitch turned toward his camp. "I got some coffee brewed and some bacon for breakfast. Help yourself to coffee. I got an extra cup in my bags." He looked at the old man who was hatless. "Maybe even a spare blanket. You can keep warm by the fire tonight if you ain't in a hurry to get somewhere."
"Much obliged, Mr. Fitch. My name's Jonathan. Jonathan MacKinney, but most people, 'cept my ma, has been callin' me Apple Mac since I was about eight years old."
"Mac," said Fitch without offering his hand.
"Well, I guess it all started with my old man." Mac's father had often visited the town's jail to dry out and sometimes spent a night or two in a cell for getting into scrapes and being drunk and disorderly. Mac was constantly getting into fights with the other boys who would repeat what they heard about his father from their fathers or uncles. Most was true what they said about his dad, but he hated what it was doing to his mother. "One day after an altercation with one of my antagonists at school the teacher, Mr. Whittle, made mention 'the Jonathan does not fall too far from the tree...' - hence, my nickname Apple Mac."
"Too much talk. Go get some coffee. I'll be watchin' you while I scout about and check out your horseless story. You know I got a single shot, but I am also packin' a .357 Remington and I know how to use both."
"You go snoop about. The quicker you find out I'm tellin' the truth the easier I will feel about keepin' my hands at my sides," replied the old man. It now made some sense to Mac as to why the man was out here in the high desert alone. He had to be a reservation officer in pursuit of the Paiute group. His .357 was probably a Remington Police revolver and only reservation lawmen had those firearms out here Apple Mac figured.
Mac looked at the cloudless sky. It was going to be a salt-spilled-on-black-slate kind of night. No moon and one campfire. As he waded his way through the sagebrush and deep, soft dirt to Fitch's site he could smell the dry desert being kicked up by his boots. There was a comfort he got from inhaling this arid earth. He did not quite understand it. Maybe the years of riding throughout the parched lands of Eastern Oregon and Southern Idaho had turned his insides to a true westerner. Illinois was only a shadow of a past to him. He had not been east of the Rockies since '65 when he left the Union army. He was only fifteen at the time. All he really knew was this country. All he really learned was how to tend cattle and mend fences. All he really wanted was a good cutting horse, his Colt .45 and a hat that fit him right.
* * *
He sat himself down on a jagged lava rock with a flat top and stirred the firewood. He reached for Fitch's saddlebags that leaned up against the rock he was sitting on. Mac took the cup from the saddlebags and poured hot coffee. It smelled like coffee, but too hot for a taste test at the moment. The old man breathed softly over the hot cup. Things seemed to be looking up for old Apple Mac.
"There's a blanket and a bedroll next to my saddle. The bedroll is mine. You can have the blanket tonight," said Fitch from behind Mac. Fitch circled the fire and set himself down opposite Apple Mac. He slowly rested his Springfield on his lap keeping his revolver free from obstruction should he require quick use. "Here you go," grunted Fitch as he threw a piece of elk jerky at Apple Mac, "you look like you could eat somethin'. I'll cook up some bacon in the morning."
Fitch continued. "Seems you have walked for some ways just to get here. I guess you are damned lucky you didn't die before stumblin' on my campsite. Your double fortunate for making it all this way and not getting shot by me after all the trouble you went through to get this far. Just how long have you been without your horse?"
"It's been nearly three days."
Fitch pulled out a tobacco bag, slipped out papers from his pocket then rolled two smokes lighting one with a piece of kindling. He then gestured to Mac he was welcome to a smoke. Mac accepted. "Yep, you're damned lucky."
The fire crackled sending live cinders up into the black sky. "Listen old man, I'm headin' in the wrong direction as I see it. You are a number of days away from Bend by foot and I am pressed for time to keep going the way I am aimed. I cannot help you much more than coffee, a smoke and bacon in the morning. I don't know what else to tell ya."
"Like I said before, I'm much obliged as it is, Mr. Fitch. Besides, I assume you want to hasten your pace to catch up with those reservation escapees that robbed me of my horse, gun and hat."
Fitch gave Apple Mac a steely stare for a moment and then smiled slightly. "You assume pretty good. But, then I guess some things about this situation are fairly obvious." Fitch replied.
"Yes, sir," said Mac. "You're Police revolver was the big clue though I am wonderin' why you are still packin' a Springfield single shot. Is it Army issue from the war?" Mac asked.
"Nah. We were better supplied in Porto Rico. We had '96 Krags. They didn't let us take our rifles after the war. I got this old gal from a friend who does not need it anymore."
"Uh huh. Your friend settled down?" Mac inquired.
"Nope. He settled a poker debt with his life." Fitch said matter-of-fact like.
"That would explain why the initials on your rifle don't match your name," Mac commented.
Even though they were strangers the two weathered cowboys seemed to have a common thread. They rambled on for most of the night and rarely out in the desert do you say more than a word or two even to your traveling compadres. Both Apple Mac and Howard Fitch had experienced war. It was obvious to each soul that the other was a loner. And, both men knew their lot in life. Fitch said he took the first job available when he came back home to Pendleton from the Caribbean and that was policing the Warm Springs Reservation. Mac was destined to keep doing those cowboy tasks that he knew how to do and that kept him fed and warm for the most part. Both were two ears of corn from the same stalk.
The elk jerky and the hot coffee eased Apple Mac's current dire strait. He forgot about planning and relaxed in the moment. After his two days without one particle of food and very little sweat to drink, the meat and the coffee was the best he ever recalled consuming. He eased himself off the flat top rock and laid himself down on the dirt with the borrowed blanket. The fire was the only thing doing any talking now and Fitch's bay quarter horse and mustang paint pack horse were at ease themselves. Morning was just a few hours away and the air was going to get a bit colder before the dawn. Apple Mac covered his shoulders and swung his left arm under his head. He did not want to think much about tomorrow. He was warm and that was all that mattered now.
When morning in the high desert of Oregon is not too cold or not too hot you are waking up as close to heaven as you can get without dying. This was one of those mornings even though it brought stiffness deep in Apple Mac's bones. These days Mac never got up in a start. He had to take his time, even when he was in a rush. He always tried to be the first up when working. This morning was no different after all those years of self discipline. But, he was not the first one up. Fitch had already re-stoked the fire with fresh dead wood and the coffee pot was boiling. It was the bacon frying in the pan that opened Apple Mac's eyes.
Fitch had already saddled his horse and was ready to break camp right after breakfast. "You can keep the roll. It can give you shade in the afternoon and keep you warm at night though I doubt it'll help you get where you want to go." Fitch turned the bacon over and then poured coffee for Mac and set it down on a flat top rock. "You know you most likely ain't gonna make it. The closest water is days away. You got too much wasteland to cover, old man." Fitch stirred the bacon and set his eyes eastward. The sun seemed as slow to get up as Apple Mac. It was light out, but the bare hills kept everything in various shades of sleepy blue gray. "I can't be slowed down. I'm already days behind them."
Apple Mac nodded. "It won't take you long to make up that time." Mac sneered. "Hell, they got only one horse that's any good and that one's mine. They'll be eatin' the other two horses before they make it to Idaho.
Fitch fetched a plate and forked a chunk of bacon. Handing the plate to Mac he said, "I ain't too worried about catching up with them. I got to get 'em back sooner than later. The commander wants a speedy trial and quick punishment back at the reservation. There'll be no droppin' off the sorry lot anywhere else. The local newspaper got wind of the starvin' Indians slippin' out from under his nose. The story even made the Oregonian and that really has him riled." He paused. He was talking too much. Fitch stood up grabbing his saddlebag. "About your horse, Mac. If I find her you can pick her up in Madras."
Apple Mac pulled himself onto the flat top rock putting the plate on his lap. The bacon was hot to his fingers. He brought the slab of meat to his mouth and tore a healthy sized morsel of flesh to chew. Mac watched Fitch pack up the pan and pour the coffee and grounds on the fire. "You done with that plate, yet?" Fitch grumbled.
"Pretty much. Let me clean 'er up a bit. You got some water to spare?" Mac asked.
Fitch was too busy to turn around. "No water for washin', old man." Fitch checked the saddle cinch and dropped the stirrup. Turning to collect his saddlebags and the plate Mac was using he saw the old man behind his left shoulder. Before Fitch could react, Mac had come down on his head with a hard blow using a large tuff rock. Fitch felt a sharp pain on his cheekbone just before he saw the white light and then all went black. He crumpled to the ground like a saddle blanket.
Apple Mac dropped the rock to steady Fitch's steed. "Easy, boy." Apple Mac whispered in the gelding's ear. He stroked the horse slowly between its eyes to further calm the beast. Fitch was twitching a bit on the ground. Mac had hit him hard enough that it was unlikely Fitch would ever get up again. The old man patted Howard Fitch's shoulder then pulled the revolver from the holster. Apple Mac collected the bedroll Fitch gave him and stuffed the revolver inside. Mac rested the covered barrel on Fitch's temple before pulling the trigger. The wool roll muffled the sound of the shot. The horses did not spook. Apple Mac sighed in relief. All had gone better than anticipated. Fitch had been a good man, but Apple Mac could not be expected to survive in the high desert with only a blanket and a chunk of elk jerky.
Mac had considered his options and executed the most logical plan. Old Mac was always planning things and this time it proved to be a good habit.
Apple Mac scooped up the fine dirt with the plate he used at breakfast and poured the loose desert on the face of the dead man. It took the old man some time to completely cover the corpse with dirt and lava rock. The grave was not deep enough to keep the coyotes and Turkey Vultures away. It would not be long before Fitch, who was recently a living, breathing soul, would be scavengers' carrion. Apple Mac knew that someday, sooner than later, he would be buzzard meat himself. Death did not concern him all that much. It was just that he had a preference in how it came upon him and he had done what was necessary to prevent a long, lingering, parched death.
Smoothing out the gelding's hindquarters, Apple Mac found no brand. He found the mustang was also unmarked. This was good. He could now continue on his way to the Willamette Valley to find some work in a more tolerable climate come winter. He figured he would ditch the government issued .356 once he got on the other side of the Cascades, but keep the Springfield. God knows he would need both arms for his trek through Oregon's outback and over the mountains.
Before he hiked up on the saddle, the aging cowboy sat down on the flat rock. It was not so unusual for him to be sitting on a rock alone in the middle of the high desert mesa, directly under a scorching sun. In fact, things were almost as they should be. You could say Apple Mac was himself again; a dusty old cowhand with a horse, a six-gun and a cowboy hat that fit a bit too loose.