Sheriff Nathan Degroth leaned back in his chair, legs on the wooden table. He peeked through his eyelids at the open doorway to the town of Bushes. It was very early morning and still dark. The sky was clear and stars sparkled ever so brightly over the town. Nathan would crack his eyes open, at the verge of unconsciousness, then close them again. Cowboys and drovers started to stir and go about their duties. When Nathan opened his eyes again, the sky had turned a light blue-grey. He yawned and sat up, scratching his grey-brown beard.
* * *
The cool morning air permeated the jailhouse. Nathan stood and yawned as he went about boiling some coffee on the potbelly stove in the corner of the room. The wooden walkway outside the jailhouse creaked with booted footsteps. A middle-aged man walked in. His trousers were held up by thin suspenders and his wrinkled and stained shirt was tucked into the waistband. A faded red kerchief hung loosely around his neck. The tan, leathern, creased face smiled slightly.
"Morning, Bob," Nathan said, his tired eyes hardly open.
"Mornin'," Bob answered in a chipper, yet slow voice.
"Coffee?" Nathan offered, holding up a tin cup. Bob nodded, reaching around and scratching the back of his neck. Nathan poured two hot cupfuls of coffee, handing one to Bob, then sitting back at his table. Bob pulled up a chair and leaned back against the jail bars. The two sat and drank coffee, watching the early risers go about their business through the jailhouse door.
Bob was a close friend of Nathan's. He wasn't his deputy, but everyone pretty much thought of him as one, being he was always around with the Sheriff. Nathan often called upon Bob for a hand in his daily duties.
A two-horse wagon rode across the dirt street, trailing a small cloud of white dust behind it. The now dark blue sky lightened a little as the sun crept up on the horizon. The quiet of the early morning was now the normal clamor of a small frontier town. The walkway creaked again with a pair of boots as two cowboys strode past the jailhouse, tilting their hats at Nathan and Bob as they passed.
Bob finished his coffee, looking around the jailhouse idly, then looking down the dirt street.
"You have breakfast?" Nathan asked as he stood from his creaking chair.
"No," Bob replied, shaking his head. The answer was the same every morning, and yet every morning, Nathan asked. So he refilled the tin cups, handed one back to Bob, then started frying some sourdough and bacon in a frying pan.
"Hear about them Injuns raiding over in Mexico?" Bob asked, sipping his coffee.
"A cavalry soldier rode through town yesterday, had a brief chat with 'im. Says there's a Comanche party ridin' through Texas, headin' west through the territory raiding any town they come across." Bob stopped for another long gulp of coffee.
Nathan pushed the bacon and sourdough around the pan with a fork.
"You don't say. I haven't seen a Comanche since my ranger days," Nathan said. He paused in thought and looked up at the wooden ceiling; remembering. Bob took notice.
"Think they'll come here?"
"Doubt it," Nathan answered in a low, shallow voice.
"Everythin' okay, Sheriff?"
"Oh, just thinking of times past." The bacon sizzled in its grease, as did the sourdough.
"How many did you kill, Nate?" Bob asked in a gentle, hushed voice, trying his best to be sensitive. Nathan turned around and looked at him with sorrowful face.
"Too many to count. I have tried to forget those days." Bob pursed his lips and went back to his tin cup. Nathan shook himself from his dark thoughts, flipped the bacon, then picked his own coffee cup up and sipped. Soon, he got two plates and dished the sourdough and bacon, then set them on the table. Bob began eating and chewed with his mouth open making a loud, squishy-wet sound. He scooped the fried dough up with a fork, and ate the bacon with his fingers.
"Chew with your mouth closed, please," Nathan said, swallowing a mouthful of fried sourdough. Bob obeyed. They ate their breakfast in silence. When they finished, a young man came running from the general store across the street. He burst into the jailhouse, gasping for breath. He yelled and babbled, pointed this way and then that way, waving his arms like a windmill. Nathan stood with both empty plates in his hand, blank expression on his face, as he listened to Burt Andrews spew nothing that could be understood. Mrs. Andrews came in next, eyes wide with fright then impatience with Burt's inability to speak. Bob smiled wryly at the scene as he finished his second cup of coffee. He then set the cup on the table.
"Get a hold of yourself, you darn fool," Sue Andrews snapped, slapping Burt across the face. Burt held his hand to his cheek and stared at his wife in surprise, then caught his breath.
"Now, start again, Burt," Nathan prompted as he set the plates back down on the table.
"Sorry, Sheriff," He said with cherry cheeks, "We was starti—"
"Want some coffee?" Bob interrupted.
"Quiet, Bob," Nathan said with an irritated glare.
Burt looked at Bob, then turned to Nathan and continued, "We was getting up and opening the store, and we noticed that Sue's father, Simon, was missing from the spare room downstairs." Bob got up, filling two more cups with warm coffee and handing them to Burt and offering one to Sue, who refused it, saying she didn't drink the stuff. Bob shrugged.
"Any idea where he might have gone?" Nathan asked, placing his hands on his belt.
Burt said, "No."
"He's been suffering from memory loss," Sue said with a worried look on her face. "I'm worried he may have wandered off somewhere."
"That is probably what happened, Mrs. Andrews," Nathan confirmed. "Might be wise to start asking around town. Of course we'll help you look." He nodded to Bob. Bob looked at all three of them. All four of them left the jailhouse. Bushes was an L-shaped town, with the adobe jailhouse being in the corner that faced southwest. It was fit snug against the downward slope of a rocky ridge that rose up out of the New Mexico desert. Most of the town was adobe, but some wooden buildings, such as the general store, coexisted.
Throughout the plain, as the sun rose, bush thickets and mesquite trees peppered the landscape. The desert began to heat up in the rising sun, returning it to a hellish landscape.
Cowboys began to drive their cattle wherever they were headed. Caravans left and caravans came. The saloon opened, but very few of anyone came in, being it was owned by a protestant that didn't serve more than one of any kind of alcohol to a person; if you wanted two shots of mescal, you were out of luck. The general store was open, but its owners were wandering around the town, looking for their father.
Nathan waited until Burt and Sue went down the boardwalk, then he and Bob stepped into the street. They crossed to the saloon and went through the worn swing doors. The bar and two tables were empty, aside from one cowboy who sat at the end of the bar. It was a small saloon, if it could even be called that.
"Sheriff," Tim Ruthers, the barkeep, greeted. He had all the beer and liquor glasses cleaned and shined on the shelves behind the bar. Nathan nodded at Tim, then turned his attention on the lone cowboy.
"What are you doing here?" Nathan asked, "Isn't your outfit headed out on the cattle drive to Los Elmos?"
James P. Emmerson looked from his small glass of whiskey. His leather chaps hung loose on his legs. Gloves were protruding from his vest pockets, and he wore no gunbelt.
"They cut me from the outfit," he said in a solemn, sober voice, "Didn't need another mediocre cattle-hand to hand dollars over to." He sipped his small glass of whiskey.
"Well if you're looking to get drunk," came Tim Ruthers, "This ain't the place." James snickered in response.
"That's too bad, Jimmy," Nathan said, pursing his lips and patting James on the shoulder. Bob went and sat next to James and asked for a glass of mescal. Tim Ruthers frowned and rolled his eyes, knowing that Bob would try and squeeze him for another drink after the first. Nathan looked around the bare adobe building, then looked at Tim Ruthers.
"You see Simon, Burt and Sue's father, this morning?" Nathan asked, leaning on the bar.
"No, can't say that I have," Tim Ruthers answered as he poured Bob a drink. "I didn't see him at church yesterday either."
"I guess he's been suffering a bout of dementia."
"He's old," Tim Ruthers said, "Heck, I'm old." Bob sipped his mescal; James finished his whiskey.
"How about you, James?"
"No," James answered, "Even if I had, I don't remember." He stood, slapped a coin on the bar and tipped his hat, pushing through the doors.
"Well, Tim," Nathan said as he looked after the cowboy, "Let me know if you find anything out."
"Will do sheriff," Tim Ruthers said. Bob slugged his mescal down and held out his glass for another. "Bob," Tim said sternly, "Every time you come in here, you try and get two drinks. And every time, I tell you no." Bob shrugged and tossed a coin on the counter. Nathan tilted his hat and walked back out to the street. He looked down the dusty street to his right. He saw Burt and Sue going from door to door and asking about their father.
"A bit early for drinking isn't it?" He asked Bob as he came out. Taking a cigar from his pocket and lighting it, Nathan smoked.
"A bit early for smoking?" Bob asked with a grin. Nathan nodded and glanced down the street to his left. The livery stables stood at the edge of town to the east. Nathan began moving down the boardwalk toward the stables, tipping his hat to a few women as they passed. Bob smiled a polite kind of smile, keeping behind Nathan. When they made it to the livery, Nathan looked around for the hostler. Several horses nickered from their stables, including Nathan's tobiano paint gelding.
"Hola señor," A young Mexican boy named Rimando said as he laid some fresh hay down for the horses, "Can I help?"
Nathan nodded, puffing his cigar, "Did you happen to see an old man leave town this morning?" The boy scratched his shiny black hair as he thought.
"Si. Early this morning. Leaving town." The boy had a serious look on his face. "Is everything okay?"
"No," Nathan said, "He's missing now."
"He was headed straight out of town."
"Okay, thank you." Nathan turned, nearly walking into Bob.
"We goin' after 'im?" Bob asked.
"Might as well. He won't be coming back without help." Nathan looked at the ground as they walked back along the boardwalk. Then he heard a woman say sheriff. Sue came down the boardwalk toward him.
"We haven't found him," She said in a panic, "We have looked everywhere, asked everywhere. What should we do?" She was at the verge of tears, looking up at Nathan earnestly as Burt came up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders.
Nathan said, "Hostler saw him heading out of town. Probably east."
"Really?" Came Burt.
"Yeah. I'll go pick up his trail and find him, bring him back to you folks." Nathan rubbed his beard and puffed on his cigar some more.
"I can come with you," Burt suggested, coming from around his wife.
"That's not necessary. Me and Bob will head out and look for him."
"Thank you, sheriff," Sue said in relief.
"It's my duty to keep the citizens safe," Nathan said.
Burt and Sue went their way.
Nathan turned to Bob, "Saddle the horses. I'll go get some things from the jailhouse. Bob nodded and went back to the livery. Once in the jailhouse, Nathan took three canteens from the coat rack and slung them over his shoulder. After snatching up two Winchester from the rifle rack and his gunbelt, he went out to meet Bob. Nathan's tobiano paint was already saddled and waiting outside the livery. Nathan pushed one of the Winchesters into the saddle scabbard and hung the canteens on the saddle horn.
Bob came out with a chestnut horse and mule, both lightly equipped.
"Better move fast. He won't be very far out," Nathan said, squinting at the rising sun. Two cowboys came riding hard from around a bend of a rock outcropping, heading toward town. Bob stopped and watched them as they made their way. They stopped just before the sheriff, breathing hard. Dust had caked over their shirts and chaps. Their faces were streaked with salty sweat.
"What's the trouble?" Nathan asked the two men.
"We was just starting out when we seen some riders comin' from the south-east. Seven, eight, hell, could've been ten, Comanches!" He stopped and looked Nathan in the eye. Bob frowned and Nathan swore.
"How far?" Came Nathan.
"Six miles out." The cowboy turned and looked the town over. "We're going to go and regroup with our outfit."
"Alright," Nathan agreed. He watched the riders leave. "Looks like a group from the Comanche party coming up from the border," Nathan said to Bob. Bob nodded.
"You still goin' after the old man?" Bob asked.
"Yeah, I suppose," Nathan said, "But I'll need you to stay and keep an eye out."
"Why can't I go out and look for him?"
"Because, if that Comanche party is out there, someone who had dealt with their kind before should be the one to confront them."
"You think they're coming this way?"
"I don't know, but it is a possibility," Nathan said as he took the Colt revolver from his holster and loaded it. He set it back in his holster and loaded the Winchester, then mounted the horse and took the lead to the mule. Nathan could sense Bob's heavy gaze and looked at him
"See ya," Bob waved with a look of disappointment burrowed into his face.
"Yep," Nathan said cynically, nudging his mount and mule off and out of the town.
Heat waves shimmered over the chalky dust. Nathan headed east through the bush thickets. His shirt was wet at the armpits and small of his back; hat salt-stained. He squinted his eyes in the overwhelming brightness, affixing them in a wrinkled state. The canteens were still full, being he wanted to save as much water as possible.
* * *
An hour in, Nathan had rode in a wide arc and picked up the trail of a single person, wandering without a horse through the flatlands. He followed the trail in weary stature. From the northeast, a cloud of dust rose up. It was the cowboys pushing their cattle around the canyon that flanked Bushes to the north.
A water hole, which sunk in the earth, appeared about a hundred yards to Nathan's front. His tobiano paint trotted into the depression. The mud around it was disturbed with more tracks. Nathan stopped his mount and mule in front of the watering hole and let them drink their fill. He took one of the canteens and gulped water greedily, then crouched to refill it. A dry creek bed snaked around and twisted north, then snapped back east. The tracks continued along the bed. Nathan mopped a kerchief along his sweaty brow, looking along the creek bed.
Standing, Nathan led his horse and mule down the creek bed. Some small cacti grew up the incline of the creek side. The horse hung its head low next to its rider.
Within a few hundred yards, Nathan came upon a deep crag that connected to the creek bed, slicing ten feet into the ground. Pinyon pine trees and mesquite grew around it. No pool of water was in the crag, but it attracted sparse vegetation. An old man sat hunched on a rock in the shade of a mesquite tree, almost looking dead. Nathan brought his horse down into the small gulch and came up next to the man.
"Hey," He shouted in the heat laden air, moisture evaporating out of his mouth. The old man's face that was empty twisted into a scowl of irritation.
"The hell you mean, 'hey'?" Simon said, looking up at the sheriff.
"Any particular reason you left town, Simon?" Nathan said as he sat on the rock next to the old man, feeling around for the cigar in his breast pocket.
"What?!" He screamed in a raspy-dry voice, face creasing into an ever more angry glare. Nathan rolled his eyes, remembering the dementia; he lit the cigar.
"Your daughter is looking for you. Says you left without saying anything. She and her husband are worried sick."
Simon's scowl changed into a puzzled look as he said, "Well, shoot. Sue ain't older than three years. And you say she got a husband?"
"Old man, she's older now. You are not remembering clearly." Nathan handed Simon a canteen. Simon nodded thanks and pulled the stopper out and drank until he needed a breath of air, then drank again. Nathan waited patiently, looking around the small gulch.
"How long you been here?"
"Oh," Simon said as he looked up from his canteen, "A year, I reckon."
"You only left this morning." Nathan looked at him, holding the cigar between his thumb and forefinger.
"What? I been wandering this desert for years." Simon squinted his old eyes at Nathan; Nathan looked away and decided to leave it alone. Nathan stood, clenching the cigar in the corner of his mouth. He climbed up the side of the gulch and looked around the vast, dry, land. To the southeast was a incline. A small dust trail coughed up from the top. Many small specks moved in the shimmering heat at the crest of the incline. Nathan took a deep breath of cigar smoke and swore to himself. He turned back and slid down the gulch.
"Hop on the mule, Simon," Nathan said hurriedly. Simon, still sipping from the canteen, looked up and saw Nathan's distressed face. Surprisingly, Simon obeyed like a young child, and hauled his aged body onto the animal. Nathan jogged up to his horse and slid the Winchester from the saddle scabbard when he heard the distant hoof thuds. He stopped, ear to the air, trying to pry out the sharpness of the sound. Telling Simon to stay, Nathan went up the far side of the gulch. He peered out from the thicket.
The specks at the top of the distant hill were now bigger and only about four hundred yards off. Nathan couldn't make them out, squinting through the heat waves at the shimmering figures. Simon stayed on the mule, humming to himself, forgetting what he was doing in the middle of the desert. Nathan turned and looked at Simon.
"Have some more of that water!" He said in a stressed whisper, pointing at the canteens. He whipped his head back to the coming riders. Simon took his canteen he was handed earlier and drank some more water. The riders came closer. Nathan's heart nearly sank. He was able to make out the feathers, yellow face paint, and buckskin. All carried repeaters.
"Comanches!" He whispered to himself, he felt like curling up in a ball. He looked back at Simon who sat completely unaware. Nathan crouched down again and ran over to Simon.
"Simon," Nathan said, "Simon!"
"What?" Simon snapped, forgetting the sheriff.
"Do you remember where Bushes is?" Nathan asked, hoping the old man would remember. Simon looked up in the air then rubbed his leathery hand across his scruffy, white beard.
"Bushes?" Simon asked.
"The town you live at."
"Oh," Simon seemed to remember with a confused face, "That way, I suppose." He pointed west.
"Yes, Simon, that's it. Head that way." Nathan took his canteen and slung it over his shoulder, then reached into his saddle bags and grabbed boxes of ammunition. "Go as fast as you can. Take my horse and the mule. You can do it." The old man seemed unsure of himself and grimaced. Nathan stroked his horse, then looked up at Simon
"Don't you dare forget," He pointed at Simon, "I do not care if you have a memory problem, you get to Bushes and send help this way." Nathan looked back at the lip of the gulch. "Now go!" Simon nodded and started off with the horses. Nathan ran back to the lip of the gulch and poked his rifle out of the shrubbery. As Simon came out of the crag with the horses, the Comanches, who had ridden much closer, moved faster, going after Simon. Nathan held his rifle on the closest Comanche brave and fired. The rifle report clapped across the dust as the brave fell from the horse. The rest of them stopped and started circling their horses. Nathan levered another round.
He glanced over his shoulder to see Simon making off west. The braves started shouting and firing their carbines inaccurately toward the gulch. Nathan fired another shot, which kicked up dirt just below the brave's horses. One of the braves saw that the bullet had come from the shrubbery and charged. Nathan aimed carefully and fired, hitting the brave square in the chest, a spurt of red sprayed from the back. Again he glanced back, only to see Simon disappear into a mesquite thicket.
The braves backed off just a little bit at three-hundred yards. Nathan took the moment and refilled the Winchester's magazine with fresh cartridges. He started trembling, remembering times long ago; the anxiety and panic of Indian raids. Trying to keep the rifle steady, tears started to well up in the corners of his eyes. The sun dried his mouth out, and filled him with a big thirst. He grabbed the canteen and chugged, then returned to his rifle. Nathan couldn't see the details of the face paint, nor tribal decorations on their guns, but he imagined them and countless number of which he had seen.
Like wavy spirits, the braves moved through the heat waves, circling on their horses. The cowboy had said there were possibly ten, but there were sixteen. Nathan knew he was going to die. Then he saw one of the braves break from the group and come trotting toward the crag. A white strip of cloth was tied to the barrel of his carbine. Nathan adjusted the hold on his rifle, keeping the sights of his Winchester trained. The brave came closer at a slow pace while the others stayed back in a line. The tears that had welled up now came down in streams on Nathan's face, cutting through the layers of dried salt.
The brave moved across the chalky dust at a slow pace and stopped at a small clump of cacti, and waited, just twenty yards away. Nathan hesitated, shuddering as he thought. He urged himself out of cover, and stood at the lip of the crag, carbine aimed at the brave. The brave held his eyes coolly on Nathan. His tan-creased face made not an expression, just a calm look. The two stared at each other for a few moments. Nathan tried to keep from breaking down. The brave saw Nathan's red-wet eyes and the trails that tears had made.
"You kill two of my people," The brave said in a halting, deep voice, "Now I offer white flag, and you have gun on me."
Nathan said, voice quivering, "You started to go after my friend." The brave looked west where Simon had disappeared, then stared back at Nathan with piercing eyes. He saw the tin badge that was pinned on Nathan's shirt.
"You lawman?" The brave asked, nodding at the badge.
"Yes. I was looking for my friend."
"You find him?"
"That was him that rode off." The brave seemed to think about the statement, tilting his head.
"Then you must go with him," The brave said.
Nathan answered, disregarding him, "Are you the Comanches riding from Texas?"
"Yes. But we do not raid."
"How do you mean?" Nathan raised his head.
"We look for battle, but do not raid."
"But you started after my friend," Nathan pointed out again, "That is no fight."
"He could be cavalry scout."
"Well, he isn't," Nathan snapped. The brave looked at him curiously.
"It is law of the west: Survive. Is it not how white-man does it?" Nathan understood, but was still edgy, keeping the carbine on the brave. He did not answer the brave. "We will leave you, and your friend. We must bury our dead and collect their horses." The brave turned off without looking back and made for his companions. Nathan watched in utter disbelief as the brave left, leaving a trail of dust behind him.
The sun was close to dusk when Nathan made it back to Bushes. He wandered into the saloon and found Bob rounding up a posse of townsfolk, with Tim Ruthers refusing them second drinks. His eyes lit up when he saw Nathan saunter through the swinging doors.
"Sheriff!" He exclaimed, "We was just about to go lookin' for you!"
"Sure," Nathan said, sitting down at a small round table and on a wobbly chair. The protestant barkeep brought him a small glass of mescal, saying he didn't have to pay for it.
"Did Simon come back?" Nathan asked, nursing the mescal.
"Yes sir," Bob answered.
"He didn't say anything about sending help, did he?"
"No," came Bob again.
"I knew he wouldn't remember," Nathan concluded, throwing down his throat the rest of the mescal.