An intense gnawing in my gut told me something was not quite right, and for a single rider on the Jornada de Los Muertos, that spelled trouble.
My horse, Gabe, raised his head higher and pinned his ears back as if he too were aware that something was amiss, and his primal instinct in sensing danger was something I always paid attention to. Pulling Gabe to a stop, I turned in my saddle and looked off in the distance behind me. A cloud of dust was rising from the dry desert floor. My heartbeat quickened with the thought it might be Apaches. From the amount of dust being kicked up, there appeared several. Whoever it was they were not running their horses, merely hanging back and keeping their distance. This mystified me as I was unsure of the reason.
Turning back around, I reached down and rubbed Gabe's neck saying, "Well it looks like we got company coming up behind us Gabe, and they could be Apaches." Talking to Gabe helped to think through challenges I might incur when alone and away from home.
This was the start of our fourth day on the trail and while Gabe was good company, the loneliness was starting to wear on me. After leaving Albuquerque late yesterday, we had reached Belen a little after dark. There were no rooms available, and I spent a restless night having to spread my bedroll in the livery stable with Gabe and where the ground seemed a whole lot harder than what I remembered in my youth. Rising early, we left Belen before sunrise and now headed to Socorro, then hopefully on home to San Antonio before nightfall. It would be a hard ride, but I was in a hurry.
Urging Gabe on down the trail, I thought more about my situation, recalling when in Doc Tuttle's office yesterday how he had suddenly stopped what he was doing and said, "Ben, you might want to see about that horse of yours, right now there's a bunch of Indians looking mighty interested in him." I turned and looked out the window where four Apaches were walking around Gabe admiring him. "Excuse me a moment," I told the Doc and headed for the door. Walking outside, I made straight for my horse and asked them what they wanted. A big muscular Indian wearing a light-colored tunic, a deerskin loincloth, and knee-high moccasins turned to me and said, "Good horse, we trade?" I walked towards him and said, "My horse is not for sale or trade". Perhaps because of the forcefulness in the way I spoke or my hand resting on the Colt six-shooter hanging at my side, the Indians turned and left. I waited a while watching as they got on their horses and rode out of town. Turning, I went back into Doc's office.
The big sorrel had something of a reputation in this part of the country and always attracted a lot of attention, so I hadn't given it a lot of thought at the time. I now realized I should've. Most likely, it was that same bunch of Indians creating that cloud of dust behind us. Apaches are known for being great horsemen, and when they admired a horse, they often wanted it. And it's generally understood they weren't always in favor of buying them.
I again encouraged Gabe up a small rise, eager to try and get a better view. Stopping, I stood up in the stirrups, squinted to combat the bright sun, and tried to see how many riders there were. I couldn't tell, not from this distance. Maybe when younger, but at fifty-two, my eyes were no longer as good as they once were, nor for that matter was the rest of my body. Simply twisting in the saddle had caused my side to ache, the result of a wound from an Apache arrow. It had occurred when riding with several others looking for Jim Docken's ten-year-old daughter who had disappeared and was believed stolen by Apaches. We had followed tracks south of San Antonio and found her with a small group of Indians camped out in Rock Canyon. In the resulting skirmish to rescue her, I took an arrow in the side. It had damn near killed me, would've too, if Jim's Ute squaw wife and my Elaine hadn't worked a miracle. But if Apaches were on my tail, a failing body and old wounds were the least of my worries.
Reaching down I patted my big horse on the neck and said, "What do ya think Gabe, we gonna have to make a run for it?" No doubt talking with Gabe was as much for myself as for him. Over the years I've spent so many lonely hours riding trail, it became a habit. Besides, it was good to occasionally hear a voice, even if it was my own. I also had this belief that Gabe understood most things I said, and whether that was true or not, talking to him seemed to create a stronger bond between us. We had been through a lot together, and I trusted him more than I would a lot of men. Gabe was short for Gabriel, for he was as brave and swift as God's angelic messenger. I'd yet to find another horse that had his stamina or could outrun him. And in this country, a good horse, especially one with speed, could make the difference between living and dying.
Stopping once more, I dismounted, removed my hat, and pulled out my kerchief and wiped my brow and face. The harsh July sun made the sweat run off me like summer rain, although in this part of New Mexico, summer rains are rare. They speak of monsoons, but they don't occur with any regularity. I reached for my canteen and shook it to see how much water remained. Even though my cracked lips and dry mouth made me thirst for water, I took only a short swig after spitting out a wad of chew, then taking my hat I poured the remainder in it for Gabe. As thirsty as I was, his thirst would be greater.
Reaching up on the saddle, I made sure the package tied there was secure, then I took a fresh plug of chew from my shirt pocket and bit off a big hunk. I pulled my Henry .44 caliber rifle from its scabbard, chambered a round into the barrel and placed it back. Mr. Henry had conceived this sixteen shot repeating rifle, one that gave a lone man enough firepower to do considerable damage to anyone seeking to cause trouble. A fast horse, a fresh chew, and my trusted Henry provided some comfort, but not so much I didn't need to remain vigilant.
I had made the trip to Albuquerque to get medicine for my boy, twelve-year-old Ely. Elaine and I thought he might have cholera because he had cramps and diarrhea. But Doc Tuttle thought it was enteritis and gave me some Laudanum and told me to keep him rested. Then staring at my weather-beaten face and worn-out appearance, the Doc said, "You know, Ben Johnson, I don't wish to involve myself in your business, but only a fool would be out on the Camino Real Trail alone. Why don't you wait until there's another party going south and tie-up with them?"
Of course, the doc offered sound advice for I sure wasn't wanting to add myself to the trail that had already claimed so many desperate souls over the years. And while I didn't like the idea of the Doc thinking me a fool, I couldn't wait. I answered, saying, "Well, my son's mighty sick, Doc, and he's a good boy, so the decision to come here didn't take a lot of thought, and I reckon it won't take a lot more for me to go back alone. I'm a little wore out, but I've seen worse."
The doc had stared at me with a grim look on his face, and then shook his head and said, "Well, it's your skin." Hearing the Doc's words made me recall earlier days when I saw just what Indians could do to a fellow's skin, and it wasn't a sight for those with a weak stomach. But I'd made it through tough spots before and believed I could do so again.
Doc's words were starting to reveal their truth as I thought more about the Indians behind us. Still, I had known the dangers beforehand and chosen to go alone. Turning towards Gabe, I rubbed his forehead, "Well Gabe," I said, "we've made one trip on this lonely old trail, we gonna get back down it one more time?" Gabe's ears pricked up at the sound of my voice, as if he understood what I was saying, and damn if sometimes I didn't think he could. There's something about him that seemed almost human at times. And I sure as hell liked being with him a lot more than some folks I've known.
This lonely stretch of the desert was notorious for raiding and plundering by Indians, and a single rider surely appeared an easy target. Apaches are fierce warriors and skillful strategists, a curious lot that requires understanding their changing disposition on any given occasion. They could be your friend one moment and your enemy the next if you had something they wanted.
It hadn't always been that way. Apaches, for the most part, had hated and fought with the Mexicans and been friends with Americans. That all changed five years ago, when a young, and incompetent Lieutenant George Bascom, from Fort Buchanan, entered the picture. He lured Cochise, chief of the feared Chiricahua Apache under the pretense of a "white flag" to discuss the disappearance of a young boy whom, Bascom believed, Cochise's tribe kidnapped. Cochise denied any part in the kidnapping, but Bascom accused him of lying and held him and his family captive. Cochise managed to escape but was wounded in the process. That single event set off a reign of terror with the Apaches and ever since a consistent pattern of trust had become difficult to establish. Then, it wasn't always easy determining truth from fiction when dealing with stories about Apaches anyway.
Remounting, I continued down the trail. The Apaches hadn't made any effort to catch up, and that bothered me. I wondered if there might be another group ahead. Bringing Gabe to a sudden stop, I mulled over that last thought. If there were Indians ahead, they would most likely be waiting south of Socorro in the Sierra Ladrones, a refuge of canyons and ravines from which the Apaches would often raid the Camino Real Trail. Many unsuspecting and weary travelers, who never reached their destination, littered that part of the trail. I didn't plan to join them. "Damn it, am I getting addle-headed?" I muttered, cursing the Apaches, and wondering if I might be losing a little of my edge with age. I should've thought of it earlier.
A man needs to stay alert to survive in this country. It didn't tolerate uncertainty. I understood the Indians who roamed it, or at least I thought I did.
I figured I'd covered about twenty-five miles and guessed that another twenty remained before reaching San Antonio. Gabe waas no doubt growing weary, yet experience told me he would be ready when called upon. I hoped that I would be too. I needed to stay alert. The Indians had enough of an advantage. Allowing self-doubt to creep into my thoughts wasn't going to get me through this scrape.
Riding alone, a person has a lot of time to think about his past. I'd been reacting and trying to survive dangerous situations a good part of my life. A man never knew what was in him until faced with trouble. Somehow, I'd always managed to find inner strength, as if something inside of me was saying, "You can do it, Ben, dig deeper." Not realizing the Indians might be setting a trap, now made me wonder if this voice wasn't becoming more distant with age. I'd ridden this trail many times. Every arroyo, mountain, valley, and bend in the Rio Grande River was familiar to me. I hoped that knowledge would be comforting, but my nerves were not completely supporting that thought.
Doubts continued to creep into my mind, and I thought back to younger days and my first experience fighting Indians. I was a brash young man who never harbored doubts about his ability to do most things. That was a long time ago and I'd gotten a lot older. Too many escapades with Indians over the years had given me a steadfast understanding of the meaning of fear. The intrepid spirit in that young man was no longer present, having as surely vanished over the years as a desert mirage. Thoughts about my younger self only provided evidence of someone who often had more daring than good sense. A smile crept across my face, but I fast suppressed it, knowing I still had Indians to deal with.
It was past noon. The blistering New Mexico sun continued to beat down, adding to my weariness. There was little shade in the upper reaches of the Chihuahuan desert. To most, a vast, dry, inhospitable place, which the early Spaniards fittingly called the Journey of the Dead. And for good reason, it was barren and treacherous with only the occasional Juniper and Pinion tree. Low lying chamisa, creosote bushes, a scattering of tall ocotillos, and the occasional Apache Plume dotted the rest of the terrain. Thinking of Apache Plume made me wince, as the Apaches used the strong limbs of this bush to make their arrow shafts.
Upon coming to this country, I was at first dismayed. Growing up in the hills of Missouri, there were rivers, trees, and greenery everywhere. In the beginning, New Mexico's red desolate terrain left me unsure of how I felt about it. But I soon discovered that there's something original about this raw land and only foreboding to those who saw it with just their eyes. You had to feel this country, to live it, to let it become a part of you. There was little doubt about it being a strong and difficult land, but that was the very thing that kept me here. Once acquainted, it had grabbed me and didn't let go. I'd found a hidden beauty in its rugged terrain, an enchantment, one that drew me to it as surely as a warm fire on a cold winter's night. And with any luck, I would be able to enjoy it a few years longer.
It was two o'clock when I rode into the small pueblo of Socorro, stopping once more to rest and water my
horse. It was risky to stop, but Gabe had been going since before dawn this morning, and it was necessary
to give him frequent short rests and water. It was siesta time and the narrow, dusty streets had little
activity. Spotting a young Mexican boy sitting in front of a small adobe house, I said, "Hola, Joven, està allí un poco de agua para mi Caballo?"
"Sí, sí aquí, señor." The young boy disappeared into his house and soon returned carrying a bucket of water.
"Gracias, Joven," and digging into my pocket, I pulled out five pennies and gave them to the boy.
"Muchas gracias, Señor," the boy said with a big smile, and then disappeared back into the house, no doubt eager to show off the unexpected good fortune he'd received.
I halfway refilled my canteen from the bucket and then gave the rest to Gabe. As I watched him drink, I thought about the friendliness of the people I'd come to know since first coming to this country twenty-eight years ago. I had been amazed at their willingness to help. The village of Socorro, which means "refuge", has always provided shelter for weary travelers on this trail.
As Gabe continued drinking, my thoughts drifted back to my first trip into New Mexico in 1846, two years before it became a U.S. possession. I was a strapping young man working my way west over the much-traveled Santa Fe Trail with a teamster hauling goods into Santa Fe. I'd been signed on in Springfield, Missouri because handling a gun and riding were second nature with me. I figured my size at six foot three and two hundred pounds hadn't hurt me either.
It was on my third trip to Santa Fe that I gained my first experience fighting Indians. We were twelve days out of Independence, Missouri, when spotted hanging back behind the caravan was a small band of Kiowa, no doubt with the intention of attacking when the opportunity arose.
That evening after we'd made camp and had our evening meal, I sat with Tom Singer around the fire. An older man and part Cherokee from Tennessee, Tom's dark weathered features reflected the many days he'd spent riding trail. His long black hair slid down from under an old Bowler crusted with sweat and dust. He wore a buckskin shirt with fringe across the front, said he'd traded a Bowie Knife won in a poker game for the shirt. At the time he'd been in the Idaho territory trapping and a Nez Perce had become overly excited at wanting the knife. He then added, he wasn't that good with it anyway and much preferred his Texas Colt 36 revolver in the event of trouble. I'd come to respect Tom and listened with interest to his many stories hoping to learn from his experiences.
While we were sitting there, John Sipes, the head drover came over and, looking at Tom, said, "Tom, those damn Indians trailing behind will never leave us alone until they steal some of our cargo or livestock or kill someone in the process of trying. Do you think you and Ben might be able to find where they're camped and run off their horses?"
With a frown on his face, Tom reached up, removed his hat, and scratched his head before answering as if needing to think about committing to such an endeavor. Then in a slow deliberate manner answered, "Well, John, I reckon we might give it a try. Could be dangerous though and someone might get hurt or killed."
Not yet having a full grip on the meaning of being fearful, and not paying attention to Tom's last words, I jumped in and said, "Yes sir, I reckon we can." Old Tom looked over at me and smiled, knowing my eagerness and enthusiasm were due to my youth and a lack of understanding the dangers involved in what was being asked.
Later that evening we experienced a heavy downpour. Tom and I had moved under a makeshift canvas cover and looking out into the darkness, Tom said, "Some Indians lack the strength of mind to fight during the night, afraid if killed, their spirit will roam forever in the darkness, but I'm unsure if that's true of Kiowa."
After some discussion, Tom thought the Indians might camp somewhere off to the south of us on the Arkansas River as it offered a source of water and forage for their horses. Waiting until close to midnight, we slipped out of camp.
It had stopped raining and the night was pitch black, offering good protection. Whatever moon existed remained hidden by a sky still filled with dark swollen clouds looking as if they might cut loose again at any moment. We were hopeful the Indians hadn't made camp until after the rain stopped, as that would make it easier to track them. We lost their trail a few times, and after nearly three hours searching, we were about to give up when we finally picked it up again and tracked them to a ravine beside the Arkansas, just as Tom had thought.
The darkness nearly became our downfall as we came close to stumbling into their camp while they lay rolled up in blankets asleep. Quietly backtracking, we led our horses to a grove of cottonwoods a hundred yards away. I suggested to Tom there was no need in both going back down there and that he should let me go. "I think we'll stand a better chance, don't you?"
Understanding that youth was perhaps better in this instance, Tom agreed, but not without some hesitation. He then stated, "Listen to me carefully Ben, I don't want to have to take you back to camp slung over your horse," and then gave instructions on how I should approach their camp. After he finished, I started off, crawling through Buffalo grass for the last few yards toward where we'd previously spotted their horses tied up. The closer I got to my destination, the more my heart tried its best to pound through my chest, no doubt caused by a little loss of the eagerness I'd displayed back in camp. I can hear old Tom's words now telling me, "You're beginning to grasp the difference between doin' and sayin'."
Even though downwind from the horses, Tom had said there was still a chance they might spook upon seeing me. He warned, "When you get close to the horses, just hang there a while and let them catch a whiff of you, if they don't spook, then you can move on in slowly." With Tom's advice and good fortune guiding me that night, I was able to sneak up on them and cut them loose. The Kiowa got off some shots at me with the few old muzzleloaders they possessed, but in the darkness, they couldn't get a good target, and I got away unscathed. Old Tom looked relieved when I returned, perhaps no more so than I.
Gabe finished drinking, and I placed the empty wooden bucket back by the door. There would be no more stopping until we reached San Antonio.
I checked the cinch on my saddle, stretched my tired muscles from too many days away from home and remounted. As I threw my leg over the creaking saddle, I felt a pain on my left side, which I tried ignoring. Thinking better about it, I reached down with my hand and feeling moisture, knew the wound had broken open, and begun bleeding. Grabbing my kerchief, I stuffed it down inside my shirt, hoping to temporally stem the flow of blood. It would have to do.
"Well, we're about home Gabe, I guess about ten or twelve more miles. Think you're up to it, fella?" Reaching down, I stroked and patted the big sorrel's neck, telling him, "Okay Gabe, we're on the final stretch. We've made it this far, we can do the rest." I then headed east out of Socorro, slipping down into an arroyo just outside of town that would hide us from view, and headed towards the Rio Grande.
I'd decided in Socorro to leave the trail and take my chances by heading east toward the Rio Grande, and then follow it south. It would not cause a delay in getting home, as the town of San Antonio and my spread bordered the river. If there were any Indians ahead, leaving the main trail would force them out from their planned spot of ambush, and into the open where I might stand a better chance.
While stopped for only a few moments in Socorro, I knew the Indians following had gained ground. Still, with the Indians behind me, I liked my chances a whole lot better. It was the thought that there might be more in front that had me worried.
I'd come up out the arroyo and figured I was about seven miles south of Socorro when I noticed a cloud of dust coming from the southwest. The Apaches who had been waiting in the Sierra Ladrones either guessed I had changed directions or had someone located outside of Socorro that spotted me going down into the arroyo. But it made little difference how they knew for they were now coming straight at me, intent on cutting me off and blocking my route. My heart quickened at the thought of having Indians behind and in front of me.
Judging from the amount of dust kicked up from the group in front, I guessed there to be four or five Indians. If there were that many behind me, the odds were against me. I might have stood a better chance of slipping away if it were night. But wishful thinking wasn't going to help, and it appeared my only choice was to get my big horse to run and run hard. I clung to the hope that he would be able to get ahead of the Indians coming from the west. If not, I would have to stop and find a place with cover and make a stand. I didn't want to do that.
Spurring my big horse hard, I told him, "Okay, Gabe, it's time to go. Let's show those damn Apaches their little ponies ain't no match for you."
I loosened the reins and gave him his head to run as fast as he could. Gabe soon was tearing across the cracked desert floor, his strong legs eating up the ground so fast that he kicked up enough dust for three or four horses. I could feel the strength of his muscles beneath me as they contracted and expanded with each stride as he flew across the desert, his hooves barely touching the ground. His nostrils flared to their fullest, and if tired, he did not let it slow him down. Surefooted, Gabe soared over rocks and bushes, jumping small arroyos with ease.
Even with Gabe's speed, I soon realized the Indians coming from the west were going to intercept me before I could get by them. I thought if I can't beat them to that spot, I'd surprise them and head straight at them and start shooting, maybe that'll make them scatter. Reaching down I pulled my Henry from its scabbard. Riding and shooting had been something I'd learned after tiring of making many trips to Santa Fe. Joining up to hunt buffalo with the likes of Bill Tilghman and Thomas Nixon in Kansas and Oklahoma, I had learned to shoot well enough from the saddle.
Giving Gabe a kick on his left side, I headed him straight at the Apaches. Letting go of the reins, I raised my rifle and let loose with a volley over their heads, meant only to scare them in the hopes they would hold up and scatter. It soon became apparent this was not going to work. They not only continued towards me at a full gallop but were returning my fire with the few rifles they had in their possession. Hearing the bullets whiz by, meant they were shooting to kill. It was time I did the same.
Continuing to race straight towards them, I raised my rifle once more, this time taking careful aim at the lead Indian and squeezing the trigger; he immediately tumbled from his horse. No sooner had I shot than I felt a sharp pain as a bullet tore through the fleshy part of my left arm, nearly causing me to drop my rifle. Glancing down, blood had begun to cover my shirtsleeve at a point above my elbow. It hurt like hell, but I could do nothing about it now. Taking a quick look behind, I saw the following Apaches coming on strong. Both groups were fast coming together, and they numbered close to ten or more.
I hadn't always been a particularly religious man, and I wasn't yet ready to meet my Maker, as there were a few things hangin' loose that I needed to get straight with him. Still, if I didn't fast come up with a plan to get out of this mess, I might have to reckon with him sooner than I'd intended.
The group ahead only slowed for a moment when my last shot felled one of their members. I needed to think fast, or I would soon have both groups on top of me. I gave Gabe a kick on the right side, reining him hard to the left and headed for the Rio Grande, where the river was deep with a shallow but steep bank. Realizing this was my only choice, I replaced my rifle in its scabbard and spurred Gabe towards the river. As we got close, Gabe hesitated, I spurred him on, saying, "It's alright big guy, you can do it, let's go."
Once more, I loosened the reins and edged Gabe down the bank. As soon as we were in the water, I slipped off the saddle, hanging on to the saddle horn, my head barely visible above the water. This placed the horse between the Indians and me. Guiding Gabe to the far side of the river, I kept low so that the Indians wouldn't have a shot, sure they wouldn't risk shooting for fear of hitting Gabe. Both groups of Indians now joined on the bank, no more than fifty or sixty yards away considering their next course of action. Perhaps they had given up the chase. That thought soon proved wrong as several of the braves slipped down the bank and into the river almost directly across from me.
Urging Gabe on, I recalled that no more than a hundred yards downriver, maybe less, was an arroyo that emptied water into the Rio Grande during the rainy season. If I could reach it, I was sure we could make it home safe. Snorting and breathing hard, Gabe struggled to swim downriver, he wanted to feel firm ground under his feet, but I needed to keep him in the river until we reached that arroyo. Pushing Gabe from the side to keep him going downstream, I began talking to calm him down. "Steady Gabe. Just stay in the water. We'll get out of this mess soon, fella."
I spotted the arroyo and noticed at the same time the Indians who'd remained on the bank driving their horses into the river slightly ahead of my position. It was obvious they intended to cut me off, but they were too late as I had already reached the arroyo. Guiding Gabe towards it, he soon began to feel the river bottom. Waiting a little longer, I slipped my foot into the stirrup, throwing my other over the saddle. It was difficult because I couldn't use my left arm. Laying low I spurred Gabe hard and we came clear of the water and up into the dry arroyo. Reaching down and stroking the horse's neck, I said, "Okay, Gabe, one more time fella. Let's get the hell out of here."
As tired as he was, Gabe still responded, taking off at a full run. I spurred him on, wanting to place as much distance as possible before the Indians got out of the river. I hoped we could put a hundred yards between them and ourselves before they reached dry ground. I urged my big horse on, to once again race across the desert floor. San Antonio and safety were less than two miles away.
Gunshots rang out as the Indians came up out of the river and galloping at full speed in their attempt to catch me. The Indian ponies were tough, and the Indians wouldn't hesitate to run them into the ground. Gabe, however, was too fast for them and he'd already stretched his lead. Even so, the Apaches remained relentless, continuing to shoot at me.
Off in the distance ahead, dust rose in the air, I was hopeful it was men from San Antonio who had heard the rifle shots. Gabe continued to build his lead as he stretched his long powerful legs, literally flying across the ground. His breathing was labored, and he was sweating freely, but he didn't let up. Gabe's big heart was never more evident than right now.
I could see nine riders coming at me strong from straight ahead, rifles in their hands ready to fire once they'd got by me and Gabe. Glancing around, turning to look back, the Indians had begun reining up their horses and starting to turn around. The riders held up as they approached me, wanting to know that I was all right. I told them yes, and that I would go back with them, but they insisted they didn't need my help, spotting the blood on my shirtsleeve they told me to get on home and galloped off after the Apaches. I realized they would only chase them until they were sure they had crossed back over the river.
I was glad to be home as I rode my horse into the area in front of my house and dismounted. Having heard the gunshots, Elaina stood on the porch by the front step with a rifle in her hand. Placing the rifle next to the door she came running out and threw her arms around me, and then noticing the blood covering the sleeve of my left arm, "You've been shot."
"It's just a flesh wound, we can take care of it later. Besides, it doesn't hurt that much," I said lying.
A stern look on Elaine's face told me she didn't accept that. "Ben Johnson, you're not telling me the truth. With all that blood, there's no way it doesn't hurt."
Letting her words pass without comment, I reached back and untied the package from the saddle, handing it to her I asked, "How's Ely doing?"
"He's about the same, the sickness hasn't seemed to have gotten any worse. He's sleeping right now."
We walked into the house and straight to Ely's room. He was a big boy for his age, yet he looked helpless lying there. His eyes swollen and red, it looked like he'd lost weight, but his mother's cooking would take care of that once he was over his sickness.
And then, as if Elaina were reading my thoughts, she said, "He hasn't eaten much since you left, but I think his fever has broken. With luck, the medicine will help. I'll give it to him as soon as he wakes up." Ben reached down and felt his son's forehead and then bent over and lightly brushed his hair.
They both turned, looked at each other, and crept out of the room.
"I'm going to put Gabe up. When I get through, you can take a look at my arm."
"I'm worried about that wound. Why don't you let me look at it now? Besides, I can take care of Gabe and put him in the barn."
"No, that's alright. I'll take care of Gabe, then you can look at my arm." Starting for the door, I stopped, turned around, and stepped back close to Elaina. There was a smile on my face as I put my one good arm around her and drew her next to me in a warm embrace. Elaina was a woman whose strong Spanish blood had given her a fiery spirit and a bright free will, but who at night was as warm and pliable as warm butter, and I loved her for all she was. I kissed her with perhaps more passion than usual, then turned around and headed for the door, whispering at her as I was leaving, "I'm glad to be home."
Looking surprised and with a smile on her face, she answered, "So am I. Hurry up, Ben, all that blood on your sleeve makes me believe it's bad." Suddenly she gasped as she noticed the side of his shirt had blood all over it. "Your side's bleeding."
"My old wound, but you can fix that too," I said, walking out the door. No amount of pain was going to stop me from taking care of Gabe.
I grabbed the reins of the big horse and led him to the barn where I removed the saddle and wet blanket, rubbed him down, and then fed him. It was difficult with one arm, but I'd have done it with no arms if necessary. After finishing, I stood staring at the big horse, thinking about the events of the last four days. I had pressed him hard today and he'd responded with the courage he'd always shown. A man never needs a lot out of life, and I was blessed because I had more than most. Hesitating, I looked at Gabe and thought, yes, I had a whole lot more. This big powerful horse had never flinched when I asked him to run. He just gave his all, and no doubt had saved my life and given Ely a chance to live. I hoped he could sense my gratitude. I knew I would never own another horse as good as Gabe. I reached over and smoothed down his mane with my hand and said, "Thanks for getting me back home, big fella."
Reaching into my shirt pocket to grab a fresh chew, I pulled out a big soggy mess and threw it on the ground. I turned to leave, but once more I patted the huge sorrel on the neck. He turned his big bold head, his large eyes staring at me. I let my hand linger for a moment on his neck and he shook his head, as if acknowledging and responding to my touch, and I reflected on the special relationship that existed between us.
I thought about the three things when out on the trail that always made me feel good: a fast horse, a fresh chew, and my trusted Henry rifle. But in the end, only one of these gave me real satisfaction, and that was this big sorrel. I was tired, wore-out, and my body hurt. Grabbing my rifle to clean it, I headed for the house and hoped that the medicine would make Ely well.