by Larry Flewin
It was a blazing hot Texas afternoon, bone dry prairie grass crackling underfoot as they drifted along. Their last stop had been in an old riverbed, a long stretch of rock filled dryness snaking across the prairie. Water, brackish but plentiful, had collected in a small bowl at the base of an outcropping of ancient rock. There they rested for a spell, man and beast, before heading out again, slow and steady so as not to make themselves any hotter than they already were.
He let his horse take the lead, the big raw-boned mare moving along at an easy gait, looking forward to the end of the trail and a good rubdown and feed. The forage bag slung across the back of the saddle was filled with her favourite oats.
Colt McCord was the rider, a lanky six-footer, square shouldered and lantern-jawed, with a smile that charmed the ladies and a look that made men back away. He carried himself with the all the authority and self-reliance of a former Army scout. A newer Remington army style revolver, converted to .44-40, sat on his right hip and a Winchester .44-40 was snug in the saddle scabbard. He may have been all alone out here but it never hurt to be prepared.
As they moseyed along a dark spot appeared up ahead, wavering in the heat haze. Army scouts learned right quick that even the smallest shadow on the horizon could the head of Reb column or an Apache raiding party. It was too far away to tell exactly what it was but Colt made sure his revolver sat loose in its holster.
As they rode closer the spot became a smudge, then a smear and finally a wagon. And not just any wagon but an old Army Escort wagon with a stake bed box, something he hadn't seen in a month of Sundays. The two mules that drew it were a little further on cropping what spare vegetation they could find.
"Well now, ain't that something," he drawled. "What in the Sam Hill are you doing way out here." The mare shook her in agreement. She broke into a more determined trot as Colt slid his Winchester out of the scabbard and cradled it in his arms. This was too much of a mystery to pass up, especially way out here.
A young woman sat in the prairie dust, her back up against a rear wheel, in such shade as the wagon could give. The other rear wheel lay on the ground a short distance from the axle it was supposed to be riding on. The skein had dragged along in the dirt, stopping the wagon cold. The stake bed held a few small canvas sacks and a small water barrel was snugged into a corner by the seat.
She seemed to be asleep, their arrival so quiet that it wasn't until the mare whickered a greeting that she opened her eyes, saw them, and scrambled to her feet.
Colt tipped his hat in greeting. "Howdy ma'am."
"Howdy yourself," she replied warily.
"Name's Colt, ma'am, Colt McCord and this here's Daisy," he said, patting the mare's neck. "If you don't mind my asking what're you doing out here, it's a long way from anywhere and you all by your lonesome."
She shaded her eyes with her left hand, her right resting on the wheel rim. She didn't reply, just stared at him, swallowing hard. Youngish, slim, she was no more than a half a head taller than the rear wheel, dressed in the jeans and work shirt that made her a rancher's daughter. She wasn't packing but a man-sized Bowie knife hung off her left hip.
"Pretty name. Live around here, ma'am?"
"I've got a small spread a few miles west of here. Cattle. It's where I'm headed, or was," she said ruefully.
"Uh huh, so I see. Mind my my asking what happened? These old Army wagons are pretty tough, takes a lot to break them let alone lose a wheel."
"Yes ma'am, saw a lot of 'em during the war, mainly scouting for the Army. Mind if I take a look, might be I can fix it."
Her left hand drifted down from her brow to rest lightly on the knife hilt. Not that she was looking a gift horse in the mouth but she didn't know Colt from a hole in the ground.
"I'd appreciate that. I've been trying but as you can see to little success."
Colt couldn't help but notice the smooth speech, could be she'd had some schooling somewhere. More mystery.
"Be happy to ma'am, uh, Abby." He slid the Winchester back into its scabbard and slid easily from the saddle. This was going to require muscle, not lead. He could feel her eyes boring into his back as he walked slowly around the wagon, checking the condition and looking for whatever tools she might have on board. She was army all right, a faded US Army brand visible under the seat mount. The toolbox under the seat held a rusty nut wrench, an axe mounted to the underside of the lid, and̵most importantly—the wheel jack.
The wheel lay flat on the ground with clear signs all around that she'd been trying to heave the 57" rim upright and remount it herself. With the wheel weighing more than she did just getting it upright had proved impossible. Colt's arrival couldn't have been more welcome.
"So, what do you think," she asked plaintively. "Can you fix it?"
"Yes ma'am, but it'll take both of us. You might want to corral them mules before they wander off any further."
Abby nodded in agreement and marched off to rein them in. Colt dropped the tailgate, unbuckled his gun belt and draped it over the side of the bed. The sacks would have to come off, the weight might be too much for the jack. There were five of them, heavier than they looked because of their rocky contents. Of what, he wondered, was there a mine or some such out here or was she hauling something else? Didn't matter though, they had to come off in order to get the jack under the skein and lift it high enough to get the wheel back on.
It was heavy work in the Texas heat but they managed to get the wheel upright and back on the skein. Colt spun the nut back on and heaved on the nut wrench until it squealed to a tight fit. Hitching the mules went quickly and Abby shook out the reins to get them moving. Colt rode beside her, eyeing her as much as the repaired wheel, wondering what in tarnation was a woman, and a pretty one at that, doing out in the middle of nowhere.
As they rode through her spread, they passed a small herd of beef cattle grazing quietly on the dry scrub. Nothing much in conversation passed between them other than the weather and how cantankerous mules were. The ranch, when it finally came in sight, was a compact set of adobe buildings alongside a pole barn and a small corral.
Abby took a deep breath and invited Colt to stay for a meal and some coffee.
"Thank you ma'am, that would go down real well right about now. Been riding awhile so a little home cooking would be most welcome."
"Then you're in luck," she said brightly. "I've got a stew on the stove that'll put those trail beans to shame and then some. I've got fresh made pie too if you'd like some."
The mules and Daisy went into the corral beside the barn, welcome company for Abby's Pinto pony. Colt threw on some water out by the well and brushed off as much dust as he could. Come time to sit at the table he remembered his manners well enough to sit still while Abby served. And my but did it smell good! He couldn't help but take a deep sniff of appreciation which served to colour Abby's cheeks a little.
They chatted quietly of this and that until Colt's curiosity got the better of him.
"Mind my asking, Abby, what's in them bags? I don't mean to pry but I've done some mining in my time and I know ore bags when I see them. You got a stake somewhere?"
"NO," she said quickly. "Just some rocks I found on the trail. No harm in that is there?"
"No ma'am there isn't but I did come across some more back of the barn by the tool room. Might be you got quite a taste in rocks, or maybe something more? I'm just asking is all, mebbe I can help with your collecting?"
Abby hesitated with her serving, realising her secret was out and this stranger was taking an interest in it. As much as she was hoping he would just ride on, he seemed to be putting down roots. Question was could she trust him.
"They belonged to my Pa," she said quietly. "He found them along that old dried up wash a few miles back, out where you found me. He thought they might be worth something, maybe even gold, but he didn't get a chance to find out. He was killed before he could get them assayed."
"Well I'm right sorry to hear that ma'am, didn't mean to pry or anything just thought mebbe I could help a little. Just drifting westward myself, maybe sign on to a ranch somewhere, make a good trail hand." He said this as he helped Abby clear away the dinner plates and wash up, just like his Ma had taught him.
"Well, I could certainly use a hand, at least for a little while. There's a lot that needs to be done around here, but I'm afraid but I can't pay you much."
"Oh heck ma'am, Abby, you don't need to pay me if this is what ranch hands get to eat!" He held out his plate for another slice of pie. Abby smiled and served up another large slice. The look on his face told her all she needed to know.
He put his saddle roll down in the barn, declining the offer of a room in back of the main house. He didn't think it would be right, him being a stranger and she being a lady, and alone. The days flew by as he fixed fence, rounded up strays, rebuilt the crank for the well out back and replaced some missing shingles on the roof. Abby appreciated having a man around, especially one who could keep the rain off her while she cooked up a feast every night.
They made one last trip out to the creek bed and spent an afternoon collecting a few more rocks. When nothing more could be found Abby declared they were done with the effort and it was time to get them assayed. Colt agreed. He'd looked long and hard at some of them but for the life of him couldn't see any signs of anything, gold or otherwise. Maybe the assayer might know better.
Trouble rode up to the hitching rail out front not a day later. A large, heavily built hombre wearing expensive duds and riding a very elaborate Western saddle, escorted by two dusty cowpokes reined in and called out for miss Abby in a loud voice.
Abby appeared at the door to the main house, wiping her hands on her apron and flew into a rage when she saw who her visitor was. She reached behind the door and pulled out a double-barrelled shotgun which she held tight to her waist and aimed at the hombre.
"Get the heck off my property, Sullivan, I've got nothing to say to you! I told you before, you come around here again and I'll pull the trigger, I swear I will!" The barrels inched up a little, aimed right at the belly spilling over his gun belt.
He leaned forward in the saddle and spoke to her sternly, as if he was chastising a wayward daughter.
"Now look here, I told you before I'm willing to buy you out, cash money and a fair price! Them back taxes don't pay themselves and they're due right about now. If you can't pay, and I don't think you can, you're gonna have to sell out! I'm more than willing to offer you same as before."
Colt, out back washing up for dinner, appeared at Abby's side, his Winchester cradled loose in his arms.
Sullivan looked at him in surprise. "Well now I see you got yourself a hand, might be I can buy him out too. Don't you get too comfortable stranger, you'll be leaving soon both of you, see if you don't!" With that he yanked his horse's head around and rode off, followed closely by the two riders.
Abby, still cradling the shotgun, sank to her knees and burst into tears. Colt, not knowing what the tears meant, gently retrieved the shotgun and then helped the sobbing woman over to the bench by the door. She cuffed her tears away, apologising to Colt for the way she'd acted in front of that man.
"I'm sorry," she sniffed. "It's just been so hard without Pa. That's what he was hoping you see, that maybe the ore he was collecting might be worth enough to get us our land back from the bank. If not that . . . that . . . person Sullivan will take it all and throw me out."
"Not going to happen, Abby, not as long as I'm around," growled Colt. "You'll see. Maybe it is time we get them rocks of yours looked at. Town got an assay office?"
"Yes, yes it does. Sullivan owns it, just like he owns everything else in town, but I don't have a choice. Next nearest one is over at Silver Springs but it's a long ride and I can't leave the ranch."
"Well then we'll go to town together, might be he won't be so ornery with me riding shotgun. What do you say we go first thing in the morning?"
"Oh yes, that sounds wonderful, thank you." And with that she kissed him lightly on his cheek and went back inside to finish up.
They rode out at dawn the next day, wagon bed full of ore bags and hope. Colt took the reins and shook them out, the mules stepping out into a brisk trot. Abby was dressed in her best, praying that this was going to be a simple trip into town, for supplies and answers.
They were little more than a mile from town when a couple of riders approached from behind, kicking up a great cloud of dust as they came on hard. It was Colt that noticed them first, instinct maybe or just a nagging doubt, that lead him to look over his shoulder. One look and he handed the reins to Abby and picked up his Winchester.
"Friends of yours?" he asked.
She looked quickly over her shoulder and twitched the reins harder. The mules, sensing the approaching danger, gave it their all although they were no match for the shod hooves closing in on them.
If there was any doubt as to their intentions the riders made that pretty clear by drawing their irons. They opened fire from a distance, snapping off carefully aimed rounds as they closed in on the racing wagon. Colt returned fire as best he could but the rough road made aiming difficult. The riders came on hard despite the danger posed by the rifle fire, intent on their murderous business.
The Winchester model 1873 was a good all-around rifle, oil finished walnut stock, blue steel butt plate and a 24" barrel. Firing the same .44-40 ammunition as his revolver it was a reliable lever action friend no cowpoke should ever be without. Today was no exception. Exhausting the 15 rounds in the tubular magazine, Colt fed in rounds of his revolver ammunition and tried to keep up his rate of fire.
They tore along the trail with a rider now closing up on each side of the wagon, splitting Colt's fire and splintering the stake bed. It was at this point that he set aside his rifle and drew his Army revolver, snapping off careful shots at both riders.
Two things happened at once, Colt tumbled one of the riders out of his saddle while Abby gave a shout and slumped forward in the seat. He turned to see her clutching at a red stain on her right shoulder. She'd been hit! The mules kept on running as hard as they could, taking Colt and the wounded Abby to town.
With the riders falling back now, the one riding over to help the other, Colt turned to see to Abby. He ran the wagon at speed for a short distance before reining in. He quickly fashioned a rough and ready bandage with his bandanna and wrapped the wound with it, army style. It was high up on her shoulder, a through and through that didn't look to break the bone but was very painful. She gritted her teeth the rest of the way into town, saying not a word doubled over in pain as she was.
A short time later she was asleep in the Doctors front room, the bullet wound neatly bandaged and her arm in a sling.
"Mighty tough young lady" the Doctor noted. "I've known Abby and her Pa for some time, who was it put a slug in her I wonder."
"Don't rightly know," said Colt angrily. "But I aim to find out and repay the favour."
"You won't be paying anybody any favours," said a loud voice at the door. It was the Sullivan, the hombre from the earlier visit to the farm.
"Much as I hate to say it, she got what was coming to her. Told her a hunnerd times this ain't no place for a woman. All she's gotta do is sell out to me and she can be on her way, mebbe out east to Hannibal or someplace, where it's safer for the womenfolk."
The Doctor scowled when he saw his visitor. "What do you want, Sullivan, haven't you caused enough trouble for one day?"
"This ain't my doing," he growled. "Trails full of outlaws and such, no place for a woman. Some hand you are, letting your boss get shot like that. What's your game anyways you looking to steal her land or some such? Ain't gonna happen, not with me around!"
Colt ignored the insults. "Just passing through is all. Thought I might help the little lady out for a while. Nothing wrong with that is there?"
"No there ain't, but your time's up is all. Best you move along some before anything else happens."
"Anything else? That don't sound too friendly, you the law around here too?"
"Not hardly," snorted the Doctor, "he just thinks he is. We've got a lawman but our friend Sullivan here has him beat down with his threats."
"Just saying stranger, just saying," Sullivan said, easing his bulk fully inside the office. "You wouldn't know anything about them ore bags in that there wagon would ya, seems like she's been a little busy cleaning up the prairies."
"What're those bags to you?" asked Colt stiffly. "Those are my bags, bringing them for a little assay work, might be they're worth a little something. Nothing wrong with that is there?"
"No sir, none at all. Matter of fact I got me an assay office just down the street, could be I can get them assayed for you right way, mebbe see you on your way quicker."
"That would be mighty nice of you but I can't leave, not now. Got miss Abby to tend to and her farm and all."
"Don't you worry about miss Abby," said the Doctor, staring hard at Sullivan. "I'll tend to her. Long as she's in my care, nothing else will happen to her, I'll see to it personally."
"You sure, Doc?" asked Colt.
"Sure enough, son. You be on your way and I'll see to her care."
"Obliged Doc, mighty obliged," said Colt.
The assay proved disappointing.
"No gold if that's what you're after," whined the clerk behind the counter. Just plain ordinary river rock. Might be worth a dollar." Sullivan chuckled at that, winking at the clerk who kept his head down. A dollar coin spun across the counter to land in front of Colt. He rode back out to the ranch in silence, the anger within him starting to simmer.
A couple of days later Abby was sunning herself out front of the Doctor's office when a shadow crossed in front of her and sat down hard on the bench beside her. She let out a gasp of disbelief. Colt!
"You!" she gasped loudly. "What are you doing here, I thought you were long gone! I don't understand?"
"Nothing to understand," said Colt grinning. "I came back to see how you're doing. The ranch is all buttoned up tight for a day or two so I thought I'd mosey on in. Besides, I've got something for you."
"What, you've got what for me?"
Colt pulled a large bundle of notes out of his shirt pocket and laid them in Abby's lap. She stared at the money in disbelief.
"Oh my goodness gracious!" exclaimed Abby. "Where did you get all this money from? Why there must be . . . "
"Enough mebbe to pay off the ranch so's you can be it's rightful owner?"
"But but . . . I can't take your money," she spluttered.
"Not my money Abby, it's yours, all of it. Your Pa was right, all them rocks he was collecting did have some gold in them after all, leastwise that's what the assay man said. He was right nice about the whole thing, weighed them all out and paid me cash money."
Abby continued to stare at the bundle of money in her lap.
"Sullivan's assayer said they weren't worth nothing so I thanked him and took them to the next town. The assayer over at Silver Springs told me I was a lucky man, had enough gold flecks showing to make them worth his time. He smoothed off some of the edges, took a second look and gave me the good news! Got some good ones here he says."
Abby looked up at Colt, a tear dribbling down her blush hued cheeks. "Thank you. I don't know what to say, I mean you did this all for me and . . . "
"And nothing," said Colt getting to his feet. He held out a hand for Abby and helped her to stand. "C'mon, we've got to get to the bank right now and pay off what you owe."
They stepped out together down the street and up to the front door of the bank. Only to find Sullivan and those two dusty cowpokes lounging around the doorway, blocking the way in. Sullivan himself walked up to the top step of the boardwalk, thumbs thrust into his gun belt, looking down at Abby and Colt.
"Now where might you two be going," he inquired darkly.
"Never you mind," said Abby stoutly." We have business inside the bank. Kindly step aside so we may enter and do our business."
"Can't," said Sullivan, moving to block the door. "Bank's closed, no one's allowed in."
"But it's just past noon," said a surprised Abby. "Since when does it close before two in the afternoon?"
"Since it's my bank and I say when it opens and closes," He sneered. "Now, why don't you state your business and mebbe I might open it."
"Sam Sullivan that is none of your business! I demand you open up so we can enter!"
"No ma'am, not today. There's nothing in there for you. Besides you won't need a bank tomorrow, not when I own everything, so why don't you run along and get things tidied up for me."
"Oh you . . . you monster!" sparked Abby. "You won't own anything once I get in, I've got more than enough money now!"
"Abby, don't tell him anything!" whispered Colt in her ear, but too was too late. Sullivan saw the bundle of money in her hands. A look of surprise crossed his face when he realised what she was about to do. He'd waited a long time for this moment and now she was about to buy her way out.
"Consarn it woman!" growled Sullivan. "Yer as stubborn as your Pa ever was, I told him the same thing but he wouldn't listen neither! It was an accident what happened but he had coming, stubborn old mule! Now why don't you just move along. Bank's closed!"
"You?" shouted Abby in surprise. "You shot Pa? You great big liar, you told the Sheriff it wasn't you!"
"Mebbe I did, mebbe I didn't, ain't nobody gonna say otherwise, not in this here town. Like I said he wouldn't sell out to me, even when I offered cash money, more than the place was worth. He went for his gun first, had to defend myself. Ain't that right boys?" The boys yessirred but didn't move from the door, they were enjoying the showdown. Especially the one with a crude wrap around his left arm, showing a little red.
"That's not true!" yelled Abby. "Pa never carried a gun his whole life, you killed him!"
"Why you lying little . . . I oughta teach you a lesson too!" Sullivan went for his gun, held it tight in his palm for a moment before starting to draw.
Colt threw Abby aside, stepped back, and went for his own. There was a flurry of shots! Sullivan took a bullet high in his left shoulder, sending him staggering back against the door of the bank. His gun hand twitched, firing several bullets into the boardwalk before dropping the pistol. Colt's next shot passed between the two cowpokes, up on their feet and reaching. They froze in mid-draw when they realised Colt had them dead in his sights.
"Now I don't aim to kill anyone today," he said slowly. "I just want to see things done right is all. Now why don't you boys holster them irons, nice and slow like. Drop your belts. No need for any more trouble, 'specially from you," he said, pointing his shooter at the cowpoke with the wrap on his arm.
It was long towards nightfall when all was finally said and done. The Sherriff had come running up in time to witness the shooting, see Sullivan draw first and Colt defend Abby and himself. Sullivan sat behind bars, all bandaged up and cursing his luck. His two hands sat glumly in the next cell, waiting to see what they faced after Colt's talk with the Sherriff.
The deed to the ranch clutched tight in her hands, Abby couldn't resist smiling as hard as anyone had a right to. When it seemed like all was lost and she might have to head back east and to her sister, her faith in her Pa had seen her through. That and the arrival of a handsome stranger who seemed to care for her as much as her Pa had. Enough to step in front of her and draw down on all that iron! And he'd done it for her, someone he barely knew! It had been a long time since anyone had shown her anything other than anger and hurt.
Could be she'd found some ore of her own, just needing the rough edges smoothed out a little. Got a good one here.
Larry Flewin lives and writes in Winnipeg, Canada. His love of writing runs the gamut from children's books to mystery and western short fiction. He has many online publishing credits and several full-length novels. Larry is passionate about his craft and is never far from a pen; plots are where you find them. He is active in his community, works for a local food bank and is a long-time member of the Freelancers writing group.
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by David Jobe
I reined the black horse at the crest of a low hill. I removed my hat and wiped my forehead with a handkerchief as I looked around at the terrain before me. I'm headed due west into a country of red dirt and bluff rocks jutting from the ground, some a hundred feet or more. This is a dry and lonely land, born of fire and blazing sun.
It's the summer of 1870, and for the last year, I'd been drifting south and west out of Wyoming, doing odd jobs. I'm headed to California to see the ocean. Some say it's a mighty pretty sight. But right now I need work. The twenty dollars in my pocket won't go far, especially in a California town like San Francisco. I need to earn or win a stake. I'm a top hand with cattle, and I've ridden for some of the big brands, but since the war, I've been a drifting man. Now, I'm a young man, not big, but tall with broad shoulders and a slim waist, dark wavy hair and blue eyes. Some might even say handsome.
I heard a faint shot carried from a great distance on the hot still air. It could have come from one mile or five, but somewhere out on the desert in front of me, something had happened. I moved on with caution. I topped a low ridge and saw a figure sprawled in the shade of a boulder. There was a dark stain on his shirt. I swung down from the saddle and knelt next to him.
He raised a dusty head and spoke in a weak voice. "They bushwhacked me. Took my mule Rosie, and all I had and left me." A trickle of blood ran from the corner of his mouth into his gray beard.
"Don't try to talk old-timer. Just lie still and let me see how badly you're hit." They had shot him high in the chest. I could see the blood where he had crawled from the trail to the boulder. "Who did this?" I asked, "Injuns?"
"No, two white men, must have figured I had gold since I was coming out of the desert."
He was about sixty with rumpled gray hair and a full beard. His dusty clothes were ragged, and his boots worn down. He didn't have a gun on him, not even a knife, just an old unarmed prospector. I gave him water from my canteen and he relaxed a little. Blood caked his faded blue shirt, and he winced as I pulled the shirt open.
I've seen some bad wounds during the war, but this one was as ugly as any I had ever seen. It wasn't a pistol wound. It was from a large caliber rifle like one of those big Spencer .50s. The heavy slug had torn a hole through his upper chest and nicked the top of his lung. He lay very still, calm, his eyes upon my face.
"What's your name, old-timer?" I asked.
"Name's Tucker, Jack Tucker."
"Where you from?"
"Got any family, wife, brother?"
"No, got nobody, all dead."
He took another sip of water then lay there looking up at the sky. He coughed, and bloody froth came to his mouth. "I'm finished, no need to tell me, I'm dying. " His face was gray with pain. The air was still and hot, sweat beaded his forehead. It was over twenty miles to the nearest town, and both of us knew he couldn't make it. He tried to move, but the pain held him still. He was tough, but that heavy slug had done just what it was made to do. I made him as comfortable as I could. No man should die alone.
"I'm going to stay with you, Jack. I'll see to it no varmint or coyotes get to you."
He nodded and then looked me straight in the eye. I'll never know why he said what he did, but he took hold of my shirtsleeve and pulled me closer. "There's gold out there. I hid it at the base of a little rock chimney." He paused a moment. "You dig for it there." He lay there breathing hoarsely and then spoke again. "West of here there's a ridge pushing out from the low hills with a spring at the end. Look for the chimney."
I sat there by his side watching him. An occasional gust of wind raised dust devils from the desert floor. The sun was high in a brassy blue sky. He gripped my arm, turning his face towards me. "I feel cold," he said. "It's getting dark, night must be coming on." He lay there gasping for air. Then he died.
There was a mound of huge boulders nearby with a crevice at the bottom. I put him there and covered him with rocks. That was two days ago, and since then I have been over what seems like a hundred ridges. I've seen no chimney or water. Somehow I missed that particular ridge.
The sun beating down on my back is almighty hot. Sweat burned the corners of my eyes and trickled down my neck. There is no wind, and the air is hot and heavy. The only thing moving is my boots as they hit the ground and tiny puffs of dust lifted. In front of me is nothing but shimmering heat waves distorting the looks of rocks and distance. I realized I was in trouble. I swallowed my last mouthful of water at dawn, and it's now well past noon. What had I gotten myself into? I'm in the middle of nowhere with nothing to drink. What I need right now is water and I need it badly. I'm dead tired and hungry, and my stomach feels hollow as a pit. The last meal I had was yesterday morning, which used up the last of my grub. To survive in this country the one sure thing you need is water, and I had none. At times you can find it in a canyon or the low point of a basin. Sometimes a fault in the rock will let a small stream from deep down seep through. Back on the Rocking B, the last place I worked, old man Anderson said to look for animal tracks or birds flying, they need water and would lead you to it, but I've seen neither. The sun was a blazing ball in the sky and it was mighty hot. It was an hour or more before I crawled into the shade of a large boulder. I had to have water.
I looked over my back trail and saw a black spot far off. That'll be Jake, my horse. He just slowed down then stopped. I didn't have the strength to pull him any further, so I dropped the reins and left him. Maybe he'll come to me and then maybe he won't. My throat is parched, and it hurts to swallow. My lips are cracked and my tongue feels like a piece of wood. Even in the shade, the heat from the ground seeps up through my pants burning my legs. For a long time, I sat there. That bright sun just seemed to stay in one place, blazing down, drying up everything it touched. I shifted my eyes right and left looking for tracks or birds, but the effort caused my eyes to hurt like they had fine sand in them. Finally, I gave up and closed my eyes to the burning world around me.
A cold shiver woke me. I tried to swallow, but my throat is so raw it just tightened up. I lifted my head to look around. It was very dark. I started to crawl and something moved near me, something large and dark against the night sky. It's Jake. He'd come to me. I got to my feet. My legs were weak, and I staggered and fell. Jake moved over to me, and I pulled myself up using the stirrup and saddle strap. I tried to speak, but no words would come. Jake knew what to do, and he started walking with me stumbling alongside, hanging on to the only hope I had. We moved through the dark, my body ached and I felt all torn up inside. I had no idea of the time, but I knew when the sun came up I was done for. I wouldn't last two hours in that heat.
I sucked in a mouthful of that cold air. It felt good, but it was dry. In my mind is fear. Fear of death. Fear of dying out here. I'm scared, and I'm fading fast. Jake began to move a little faster. I couldn't keep up and tripped over some rocks and lost my grip. I fell flat on the ground. Dust rose around my face and settled in my mouth and nose. I tried to move but could go no farther. This is it, the end. I tried to cough out the dust, but it hurt so bad I couldn't. I closed my eyes, waiting. How long I lay there I don't know, but I became aware of a faint sound nearby and then there was a movement near my head. I opened my eyes and could see hooves, and then a wet muzzle touched my face. I forced my mind to focus. Jake had found water and had come back for me. But how long had Jake been gone? How far to water?
I had hope, and with a burst of energy, I managed to loop my arm through the stirrup. Jake began to drag me over the rough ground. It could have been a few yards or a quarter of a mile. I had no mind to tell. Suddenly Jake stopped with his forelegs at the edge of a small pool. I crawled to it and sucked a little of that cool liquid into my mouth, and just held it there feeling the wetness of it. I let some trickle down my throat. The pain of it caused me to open my mouth, and I lost what water I had. I dipped up some more and tried again. It hurt easing down my raw throat. It was quite a while before I could swallow even a small amount. I lay there a long time in that cool wetness, taking small sips and letting that moisture build life in my body. After a while, I took a good drink and crawled out of the pool and lay alongside. Over the next hour, I took several long drinks and then I stretched out on that cold ground, closed my eyes and slept. When I awoke it was dawn, and the sky was crystal clear.
I gathered sagebrush and a few greasewood sticks for a fire and put water on to boil. From my saddlebag, I took the last of my coffee. I had just poured a cup when I saw them, two riders leading a pack mule coming over the ridge. I slipped the leather thong off the hammer of my Colt as they rode up. Now I'm no gunman and I don't look for trouble but I'm right handy with a gun and hit what I aim at.
The big man in front swung down from the saddle, followed by the second man. "Need water," he said. He was not tall but blocky and powerful looking. His neck was thick and his jaw wide and stubbed with a black beard. He wore a gray battered hat and his long black hair hung from under the brim. "Hope you don't mind if we join you, that coffee smells awful good. My name's Horton, my partner here they call Slim."
Slim was tall and lean with a dark thin narrow face and high cheekbones. He had a long angular nose and small black cold eyes. He wore his gun low and tied down. He slithered up to the fire like a rattlesnake with boots.
"If you got a cup, help yourself," I said.
The big man walked to the pack mule and as he approached, the mule turned to the side. Stamped on the pack in black letters were the initials J T. That could only mean Jack Tucker! I looked at their horses. Both had a Spencer.50 in the saddle boot. These men were the low down dirty coyotes that murdered the old prospector. Rattlesnake man stood on the other side of the fire with his black cold eyes staring at me. I shifted my coffee cup to my left hand and eased my right thumb in my belt with my palm close to the butt of my gun. I knew what these coyotes had in mind. They wanted to catch me off guard then shoot me.
Me being a Texas boy; I decided to force the issue. "That mule looks awful familiar. It looks like the one that belongs to an old prospector friend of mine, Jack Tucker. Her name's, Rosie, and Jack would have never sold his outfit. How did you come to have it?"
Slim had an ugly look in his eyes, and he went for his gun. I threw the hot coffee in his face. Horton's hand flashed and his gun stabbed flame. As I threw the coffee, I took one step to the side. I felt the bullet tug at my shirt as it cut a hot crease alone my ribs. As I said, I'm no gunman and my draw is slow but my shots are sure. I brought my gun up, and it bucked twice in my hand. The first bullet caught Horton through the center of his chest, the second one through the throat. His gun fired one more time into the dust then he fell backward. I swung my gun to Slim. He was wiping at his eyes with one hand, cussing. The gun in his other hand fired twice. One bullet zipped past my ear, the other went high overhead. I stepped into him, my Colt hammering fire. I put four bullets through his chest. He staggered back under the impact then fell face down.
I looked at both of them. "Those bullets were for Jack Tucker, you lousy low down skunks."
The horses scattered when the shooting started. The two horses belonging to the outlaws disappeared into the distance. Jake stood a little ways off and Rosie had trotted over the far side of the ridge. I knew Jake would come to me, so I crossed the ridge looking for Rosie. She stood at the bottom staring at me with her head up and ears pricked. As I approached, she walked a few steps to my left, which caused me to stop in my tracks. Behind her, a short distance was a little rock chimney. I walked over to Rosie, and from Jack's prospecting pack took out a shovel. At the base of the little chimney, I begin to dig. It was there all right, that gold was, and a lot of it. Now Jake, old Rosie and I are headed to California.
David Jobe is a retired salesman from the HVAC industry. He loves reading and writing about the old west, and historical novels are his favorite. This is a fictional story that may well could have happened. He lives in Texas, not far from the stockyards in Fort Worth.
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by Jason Crager
July 10, 1869
Jackson County, Indiana.
At the age of fifteen, Cole Harkins was wise well beyond his years. Try as they may, one would be hard pressed to pull the wool over his young eyes in any scheme. He simply knew things, and he understood the dangers of the times. He knew that the law had grown weak and the outlaws no longer feared retaliation for their crimes.
When his father, Thomas Harkins, had passed away less than two months ago, his family had tried to pawn it off to Cole as a tragic accident, a mishap where his dad had slipped and fell from a train in Marshfield. He knew better, though. Cole had heard the whispers around the dining room table and caught wind of the rumors being talked about between mail carriers over in Seymour. Aside from that, his father had worked for JM&I Railroad his entire life and could make his way around a train blindfolded.
The hijack in Marshfield was the largest train robbery to date, with the thieves making off with what was said to be upwards of ninety-six thousand dollars in cold hard cash. To add more clout to their already legendary status, it was reported that after the robbery, the gang had even managed to once again elude the mighty Pinkertons, and they all got away. Cole admired them. The youngster had decided years ago that should he ever choose the outlaw path, he'd want to run with the Renos.
What Cole could not understand, is why the gang had disposed of his father. His dad was a peaceful man who never even holstered a sidearm. He was only an express messenger, a telegrapher to keep trains on schedule. His duty was only to notify crews of any problems or unexpected trains, to send warnings to depots up and down the line of such things as runaway trains, faulty rails, or Indians on the war path. Defense against bandits was not in any way his responsibility. In Cole's opinion, train robbery was heroic until innocents lost their lives.
The Adams Express Company had hired the Pinkertons to track down the Renos after the gang made off with sixteen thousand dollars that they had insured in an incident that would go on record as the Renos first successful train heist. That was two years ago now and there still hadn't been a single arrest made. Cole was aware of all this because his uncle Stew was a privately contracted bounty hunter employed by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, and he would sometimes brag of his exploits to his nephew.
Early this morning, word had come through that Stew Harkins had scheduled to meet with a group of friends at the homestead of Cole's family. The meeting to come had been described as very secretive and highly important. Refusing to be left out of the loop, Cole had been hiding just inside the root cellar beneath his family's shack since before sunrise. There was a crack in the old, wooden door large enough to allow Cole to see anyone approaching and to clearly hear the words of anyone speaking outside. Cramped and tired, he was on the verge of giving the stakeout up when he felt the faint rumble of horses nearby. Peeking through the crack, he saw the silhouette of five riders drawing near.
The horses came to a halt before the shack and the rough looking riders clad in weathered tans dismounted, tying their steeds off to the hitching post on the front lawn. They were all openly armed with shining revolvers at their hips, and some also had rifles strapped to their saddles. These were hardened individuals, those quick on the trigger and unafraid to step outside of the law for the sake of honor. Cole recognized a couple of them as residents of Seymour, and knew them to be unsavory men whom the public steered clear of. He wondered what sort of business his uncle could have with such company.
There was not much conversation amongst the men. They stood in a circle, sucking on plugs of tobacco or smoking brown papered cigarettes, and passing around a large canteen. Even from his hiding place, the scent of strong booze tickled Cole's nostrils. He watched as the men continuously eyed the surrounding horizon in anticipation of their host's arrival. There was an intensity in the air that was not lost upon Cole Harkins.
Finally, the unmistakable thudding of a mount in full gallop could be heard in the not so far distance. One of the men quickly slipped the canteen into a saddle bag and all moved hands to the butt of their respective sidearms. It was a defensive instinct that came naturally to them and they remained ready to draw until the approaching rider became near enough to recognize as the man who had summonsed them to this gathering.
Stew Harkins, bare chinned and thickly mustached, clad in a black and white tuxedo beneath a thick, ebony duster and a round brimmed, Boss of the Plains Stetson atop his head, also black as night. The silver of his oversized spurs glistened in the late morning sun and the pearl white handles of his twin Colts stood out from beneath the black lapels of his coat. He gracefully came down from the back of his golden Palomino and patted the neck of the sweating horse before walking to the motley group of men.
"Jon." Stew tipped his hat in acknowledgement of a thin man with yellow eyes and a bulging scar across his chin. Then, he came face to face with a barrel chested and full bearded, fierce looking giant who clenched a thick cigarette between his teeth.
"Five. That's all you could get, Robert?"
The big man squinted in a crooked grin. "Let's be real, Stew. Folk ain't too keen 'bout working with Pinks 'round these parts."
"This is not Pinkerton business. This is personal." Stew corrected.
"I'm with ya, old friend. These are the other four you get, take 'em or leave 'em."
The man in black closely examined the ragtag group one at a time, paying special attention to the determination in each individual's eyes. He saw them as an impressive lot. "They'll do just fine."
One of the nameless crew members retrieved the canteen from within a saddle bag and had himself a long drought before making stern eye contact with Stew. "Let's cut the bullshit, Pink. Why don't you go ahead and tell us why you got us here? I'm missing out on a hell of a five-card table back in town."
"Take it easy, partner. I'll give you the digs. But first, I need everyone's word that this discussion stays between us. Whether you're in or not, this meeting never happened. You break that code and I promise, I'll kill you myself. Agreed?"
Each man responded in turn with grunts or silent nods, and then Stew continued to speak. "The bounty business has been good to me and I've spent only what's been necessary. I have a stockpile of funds at my disposal, none of it dirty. Don't ask where because I won't tell you. If you care to muscle it out of me, I'm ready." He paused and waited for a welcomed challenge from the group, but none came.
"I can offer you each two thousand dollars for your service, to be made in a single payment when the job is complete."
"What kinda service we talkin', Stew?" The one named Jon inquired.
"Justice," Stew replied, plainly. "But I have to warn you, it will be ugly."
A dark-skinned man who had kept silently to himself thus far stuffed a large wad of tobacco under his cheek and spit into the dry dirt before making his voice heard. "Death?"
Stew did not respond with words, he only shrugged his shoulders to confirm that the man's assumption was, indeed, a possibility. The gesture sparked a flame behind the man's eyes and it was obvious that his interest had now been escalated.
"It makes no difference to me. I have nothing against murder. It's easy, it's fun, and I'm very good at it. Far as I'm concerned, there should be more of it. But for me to ride with some Pink, I need to know why. I need to know everything."
"Fair enough," Stew agreed. "A while back we got a tip from some cattle hand who worked at a ranch where the Renos were holed up in Scott County. He gave us information on what was being planned for the gang's next train lick. So, yesterday, me and nine more agents rode the target and waited for the scoundrels to make their move. Sure as shit, they boarded a couple stops later and drew down. As they made their way to the safe, one of them spotted our guys and opened fire. I put lead in two of the scumbags myself before they split. We did get our hands on little Volney Elliot and arrested him, though. Volney, the swine that he is, squealed on his partners and told us where some of them were headed. We tracked them down and busted Charlie Roseberry and Theodore Clifton in Rockport. All three of the prisoners are being transported to the Jackson County courthouse today to be tried for their crimes. I don't want sentencing, though. I want blood."
"Why?" Robert asked. "You done your job, why not let the law handle 'em now? Why you making this personal, Stew?"
"Wasn't me that made it personal, Robert. They did."
"When the Renos hit the JM&I back in May, they threw a civilian from the train and killed him. That civilian's name was Thomas Harkins, my little brother. The U.S Marshalls are refusing to charge any of the gang's underlings in the death of my brother. They plan to hold out until they can pin the murder on no other than Frank Reno himself. I want all the trash held responsible, and a jail cell ain't good enough."
"Look, Pink," spat the ugly stranger who was still a bit irked about having to miss his seat at high stakes poker, "all this damn yappin' you're doin' sounds fine and dandy. But just how do you expect to go about reachin' 'em? You think their guards are just gonna let you have 'em?"
"As a matter of fact, they will." Stew confirmed. "The guards are on my payroll; they will not get in our way. The prisoners are being transported to the county seat by train. They are being held in car three. The train is on the rails as we speak. We're gonna intercept that train."
"Ain't no stations between Rockport and the county seat." Jon pointed out.
"We don't need a station. The train's conductor is my own son. He can stop it at will."
Suddenly, the group of conspirators were startled by a disturbance from the direction of the Harkins' shack. All took a step back and skinned their weapons with lightning speed, leveling them at the creaking wooden door to the root cellar. The door slowly swung open on rusted hinges and a smooth, innocent faced teenager in a dusty bowler hat timidly emerged with his chin high, prepared to accept whatever punishment came as a result of his meddling.
"Stand down." Stew ordered the men. All initially ignored the command and remained intent on bringing death to their small target. "Do it now!"
Hearing the dire tone in Stew's voice and seeing that their benefactor had already holstered his own Colts, the rest of the men followed suit, albeit reluctantly. The youngster approached the team of vigilantes in short strides and stood before them as if waiting to be addressed before speaking.
"What the hell you doin' down there, boy?" Robert questioned in an obviously irritated manner. "Spyin' on grown folks' business is a damn good way to get yourself dead."
"Relax, Robert. That's my kin," Stew explained. "What gives, Cole? How long you been hiding?"
"Long enough to know what really happened to my Pa," said Cole, mustering as much courage into his soft voice as he could manage.
"You weren't supposed to hear that. You're too young for such things, boy."
"I'm fifteen, Uncle Stew. And with Pa gone, I'm the man of my family now. I deserve to know the truth."
"Fair enough," replied Stew. "So, you got the truth. Now what?"
"If ya'll are going out after them Renos, then I want in." The youngster's statement was spoken as a demand, and he left little room for dispute.
"You just a boy. This is the work of men." This, declared by the card playing killer.
"I'm just as much a man as any of you. I've been riding since I could walk and shooting just as long. I have the right to bring justice to the sumbitches that killed my Pa." After responding to the stranger's insulting words, Cole turned to face his uncle. "You said yourself that you wished you had more partners. I can hold my own. I have my Winchester in the house and my horse is fit. You don't even have to pay me. This is personal for me, just like it is for you, Uncle Stew."
Although from the mouth of one hardly more than a child, Stew knew every one of Cole's words to ring true. He may be young in life, but he is seasoned in skill, bold in heart, and understanding of retribution. Stew saw no fairness in denying a person of what will be his only shot at seeking revenge upon the gang who murdered his father. There was no time like now for his nephew to grow up fast.
"Run get your rifle, boy." Stew glanced around the circle to see if any of the other men intended to debate his decision and he found that all appeared to accept the addition to their crew. "Let's mount up."
So, the posse rushed off across the flatlands with a thundering of hooves kicking up a furious whirlwind of dust as they went, Stew Harkins leading the way. There were seven of them altogether, all bastards.
* * *
Three miles West of Seymour, Indiana
Stewart Harkins Jr. had been raised in the railyards. He began his chosen career as a mere child when he would be paid in five cent pieces for helping his uncle Thomas clean out cars for JM&I. Even before reaching adulthood, he became a mechanic's apprentice and learned his way around the engine's functions and how to perform general maintenance, as well as assist with minor repairs. At nineteen, he made the decision that being a grease monkey was not his ideal responsibility. He wanted to travel, to meet people, and to see more of the countryside than what surrounded the JM&I yards. So, he accepted a job with Ohio & Mississippi Railways as a public greeter on passenger cars.
After satisfying his urge to wander and learning the specifics of all regular rail routes, he was given the option of training for promotion to conductor. Stewart Junior took full advantage of the opportunity, excelled at his trade, and was soon taking the pilot seat of engines, as well as the leading role of entire crews for Ohio & Mississippi's cargo transport division. Eventually, he transferred back to JM&I, where he was entrusted with the task of running passenger cars across his beloved home state of Indiana, and beyond.
Stewart Junior had carried all facets of society in his cars, from the wealthiest cream of the crop to the lowliest farmhands; from politicians to gamblers. He'd escorted the prettiest women, along with the ugliest of men. He brought U.S. Marshalls halfway across the country and unknowingly assisted outlaws on the run as they made their escape to Old Mexico. Of them all, none of his passengers had ever been as high profile as those whom he had aboard at this time. Today, he was transporting three actual members of the infamous Reno Gang to stand trial for their crimes at the county seat.
It was a bright, sunny day and one could easily see for miles in every direction across the flat and barren midwestern lands of Jackson County. This was perfect for Stewart Junior, as it made it simpler for him to spot the lone, ancient oak rising above the distant horizon and extending up into the clear, wild blue yonder of the early afternoon sky and allowed the conductor ample time to ease into the brakes long before coming upon the giant tree. The tree stood at the center of a slight, lonely slope in an otherwise flat landscape.
The train, being rather short in length with just six cars total, easily ground to a screeching halt without overshooting the enormous, thick barked tree. There were no houses in sight, no traveling Indians to speak of, and not a single onlooker about. It was a deserted and undeveloped area, nothing more than a vacant tract of land, not yet utilized for its agricultural benefits.
Inside car number three, the prisoners were awakened from their slumber by the sudden jerk of their transportation coming to an abrupt stop. They looked around in an effort to try and catch a glimpse through the curtained windows, knowing that there was no chance that they'd arrived at their ultimate destination in such short time. "What the hell we stopped for?" Charlie Roseberry barked at the armed guards accompanying them.
"Something wrong with the train?" Theodore Clifton, the cleanest of the three outlaws asked.
The guards, a squad of six, rose to their feet and surrounded the shackled prisoners. "Get up," one ordered, removing a pistol from the concealed holster slung over his shoulder. "We're taking a walk."
Without any other option, the three ruffians stood and shuffled toward the car's exit, thick chains clinking and dragging across the metal floor. Prodded on by the guards, they descended the three short steps from the train to solid ground, their vision temporarily blinded by the shock of the high sun beating down after spending so much time in the dark. The guards remained inside the car and the prisoners heard the door swinging shut behind them, followed by the hiss of the train's brakes releasing and the slow wind of the engine building power before moving away over steel rails.
When their eyes made proper adjustment to daylight, the bound robbers found themselves surrounded by seven figures on horseback, all with revolvers or rifles pointed in their direction. The riders' identities were hidden beneath burlap sacks with only tiny holes cut and removed for them to see through. Instantly recognizing the situation for what it was, Volney Elliot took to trembling and sobbing.
"Oh, sweet Jesus, no." He bawled a pathetic, echoing cry.
The largest of the masked vigilantes, a wide shouldered and broad chested brute of a man, dismounted from the saddle of a black and white Pinto. He marched up to the cowardly and whining Volney, cocked back and let loose with a powerful right hook, shattering the outlaw's jaw in a terrific crunch and sending teeth floating through the air. Volney's body went stiff as a board and he dropped like a log, flat on his back and out cold. He cried no more. Robert stood over his fallen foe, admiring his handiwork.
"Why you doing this?" Clifton asked, the fear evident in his voice.
The man in the black duster came down off his steed, a pearl handled Colt in each hand, both leveled at Theodore Clifton. "This is what you've had coming, dirt bag. This is payback for the man you tossed off during your little robbery in Marshfield. Turns out, that man had friends."
While Clifton searched his memory in an effort to recall to exactly which person the masked vigilante in black referred, Charlie Roseberry interrupted, standing his ground and laughing a wicked chuckle.
"Oh yeah, I remember him. Sent him off myself. Hollered like a banshee as he went. May he rest in Hell." Charlie spat in the direction of the Colt wielding leader of the mob.
The smallest member of the posse, a scrawny man, out of place in less weathered attire and atop a well-manicured Quarter Horse of brick red with a flowing, black mane, tucked his legs back and took aim with the long barrel of a Winchester rifle pointed between the eyes of Charlie Roseberry, his killing finger beginning to squeeze the trigger. Just before he had the opportunity to scatter the unregretful outlaw's brains into the wind, the man in black stopped him.
"No!" Stew shouted. "Not like that, boy. That's too easy a way out for this lowlife." He smiled beneath the burlap sack. "We'll give him what he really deserves." With that, he lowered the level of one of the Colts and fired without hesitation, blowing out the kneecap of Charlie Roseberry, who made no sound aside from a painful grunt as he toppled over into the dirt.
Two more of the revenge seekers dismounted. They produced a length of thick rope from a saddle bag and began a slow walk to the fallen Charlie, who lay clutching at his leg, dark blood pushing through the gaps between his fingers. He was forced to sit up by one silent stranger while the other, no longer thinking of card games, slipped a noose over the thick head of Charlie. The loose end of the rope was then tossed over an enormous limb of the giant oak tree before being tied securely around the front torso of the Quarter Horse ridden by the small man with the Winchester.
Cole laid his rifle across his lap and took hold of the reins, giving the sides of the beautiful beast below him a couple of gentle kicks with his heels. The horse began a slow and deliberate trot. Charlie Roseberry released the grip on his knee and took to clutching and clawing at the rope around his neck as he was dragged closer to the old oak tree, a trail of blood painted on the earth behind him. The murdering criminal offered no pleas and made not a sound but the gurgle of death as the rope lifted him off the ground. His eyes bulged and his face blued, his bowels loosened and he soiled his trousers, his feet kicked for a few moments, and then he went limp. The rat, Volney Elliot, and Reno loyal Theodore Clifton succumbed to the same fate as Charlie shortly afterwards, and the world became a better place because of it all.
Seven hoods were removed from the heads of the riders. Without a word said, the men turned to guide their horses away from the hanging tree and toward the distant horizon. They trotted single file, with Stew Harkins bringing up the rear. Cole stayed back, saddled over the strong back of his Quarter Horse, staring up at the dangling bodies of his father's murderers. Already, a pair of ravens circled the air above, hovering and gliding in anticipation of the feast to come.
Noticing Cole's absence behind him, Stew circled back and returned to the tree, bringing his mount in alongside that of his nephew's. He found Cole with a conflicting expression of both satisfaction and sadness on his face. He reached out to put his hand on the youngster's shoulder.
"Your father was a good man, Cole. He didn't deserve what these men done to him. What happened here today was necessary. It was the right thing to do. There's no shame in a thing like this. We live our entire lives hoping that our hands will never be forced, but if that time comes, when things have been pushed too far, there is no limit to what a man must do to protect his family's honor. Today, you are a man. Your father would be proud."
Cole nudged his horse and the beast took the few steps over to the oak's trunk. Lowering his head so that Stew would not see the tears welling in his eyes, Cole unsheathed a bone handled buck knife that he always kept strapped to his hip. The knife had been a gift from his father. Into the thick bark of the giant oak, Cole carved the initials of his father. Beneath them, he carved his own.
Cole Harkins went on to grow into a peaceful man, a successful and respected farmer who never had the need or reason to kill again. He claimed the land around the ancient oak outside of Seymour, Indiana and dubbed the plot Husk Knoll. He built a home there and turned the acreage into fruitful fields of corn. Generations of the Harkins family to come would make Husk Knoll their homestead, raising children and ploughing the fields, each continuing to carve their initials into the bark of the giant tree.
Jason Crager is the author of UNBRIDLED HUMANITY: A Collection of Disturbing Tales and ALONG A LIGHTER PATH: Selected Stories. he is one of seven co-authors to the western anthology THE SEVEN BASTARDS OF HUSK KNOLL and also a contributing author to ONE HUNDRED CROWS: Unique Stories and Poems and the SKITCH-BOT anthology. His western story "Black Appaloosa" was published on Rope and Wire. His work has been featured in volumes one through six of THE RONIN EXPRESS literary journal. Jason lives a happy life with his family in the beautiful river and bluff country of De Soto, Wisconsin, U.S.A.
Link for his books on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Jason-Crager/e/B076VSZ4QQ/ref
Link for his social media page: https://www.facebook.com/jasoncragerswriting
Link for his Authors Den page: www.authorsden.com/visit/author.asp?authorid=197597
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by Gabriel Stevenson
Reid was already a turncoat once or twice over before he had a hair on his chin, the way he figured it. Even though he was a half-breed—his ma was some kind of Pawnee, folks said—his pa had raised him as a white man until the Comanches rode in and killed all the grown folks on the homestead.
They took Reid and any other children they could catch back to their camp out west on the Pecos and made them work like dogs, most of them, but one old squaw took a liking to Reid, as he reminded her of her own son she'd lost just a year before. So she taught Reid to call her "mother" and her buck "stepfather," and his new red cousins taught him how to ride bareback and shoot a bow and arrow with the best of them. He knew it was wrong, but pretty soon Reid got to feeling he might make a decent Indian after all.
When he was thirteen, they sent Reid out into the bush with nothing but a skin of water and a handful of pinole and told him to pray to the Great Spirit, and he did, though he thought Jesus might not look too kindly on that. He didn't have any dream worth remembering, which he attributed to his being half white, but he knew how it was supposed to go, so he came back to camp and told everybody about how he saw a jackrabbit leap between the open jaws of a slavering wolf and come out alive on the other side.
They called him Jackrabbit after that, and told him he was ready to go raiding down in Old Mexico. Reid knew that was wrong too, seeing as Mexicans were almost like white folks, at least as compared to Comanches, but once he got a taste of blood—not to mention women and mescal—Reid figured there was no going back. If he was going to be an Indian, he'd be the best Indian he could be.
By the time he was sixteen, they couldn't raid in Mexico no more, since the Texas Rangers had started patrolling out west and killing whatever Indians they could find, before they could even make it to the border. The Comanches didn't take it lying down, of course. They raided every town and ranch from the Red down to the Rio Grande, and Reid was there alongside them, killing and scalping like a regular old Comanche.
But the tide was turning and Reid knew it. The whites had finished up their Civil War back east and now they were turning their full might against the Indians—not just the Comanches but all the tribes on the plains. General Sheridan, the one who'd burned every town in Georgia, came out west to burn every rancheria in Texas, and Reid was faced with a dilemma. He could let himself be herded onto a reservation like most of the Comanches to die slowly of smallpox and starvation, or he could follow Quanah Parker and live as a fugitive on the Llano Estacado until the cavalry eventually caught up with him.
Turncoat once again, Reid put on an old shirt and denim trousers and rode into Fort Stockton to sign on as a civilian scout.
"You a 'breed?" the personnel officer asked, eyeing Reid's sunburned face, narrow eyes and long, black hair.
"No," Reid lied, knowing full well that Indian scouts only earned half as much as their white peers. "My ma was part Mex. They say I got her coloring."
"Speak Spanish, then?"
"Good enough, I suppose. You can read sign?"
"My pa was a mountain man. I can track a trout in a creek on a moonless night."
"All right then. Get yourself some chuck, but keep your boots on. We ride at daybreak. Victorio's on the warpath again."
Along with a handful of other white trackers, a Mexican Indian named Joselito, a couple Kickapoos—eastern Indians who whistled to each other instead of talking—and a dozen White Mountain Apaches, Reid led General Sheridan's Army through the dry gorges and across the trackless desert expanses of Apacheria. They crossed and re-crossed the Mexican border at will, burning every rancheria they found, killing any buck older than twelve or thirteen and sending the women and children back east in chains.
Once the scouts led them to the Apaches, the blue-bellies did most of the killing, but sometimes the scouts ran into small parties of hostiles and had to shoot it out on their own. And sometimes, they came upon little Indian villages, if you could call half a dozen leaky teepees a village, and killed the women and children and took their scalps to sell down in Mexico, where the greaser army was paying a bounty for them.
Not long after one such "engagement," as the soldiers and scouts had silently agreed to call such massacres, Reid and Joselito were camped out together on the open desert, about a dozen miles from Sheridan's camp, drinking mescal. Joselito had turned out to be a chatty drunk.
"You know," he told Reid in what he must have thought was a whisper, though there was no one around for miles, "they pay fifty pesos for a warrior's scalp in Chihuahua. They pay twenty-five for a squaw or a cub, but the soldiers can't tell the difference. I tell them they're all warriors' scalps. They can't even tell if they're Apaches or Mexicans, as long as the hair is black."
Reid had taken enough Mexican scalps when he rode with the Comanches that it shouldn't have bothered him, but the thought of a Mexican killing other Mexicans to sell their scalps to the Mexican army didn't sit right with him.
"Sometimes they ain't dead yet," Joselito said. "I bet you never heard a woman scream like that."
Reid had heard enough. The mescal had lit a fire in his belly and Joselito's bragging was fanning the flames. "Your mother screamed louder last night," Reid said.
Joselito went for his knife, but he was drunk and clumsy, and Reid was on him before it cleared its sheath. He beat the Mexican nearly senseless, but not quite, not so much he wouldn't feel it when Reid scalped him.
Once it was done, Reid put Joselito out of his misery with a clean cut across the throat. Then he tossed the fresh scalp in the campfire along with about a thousand pesos worth of Indian and Mexican scalps he found in the dead man's saddlebag. The stench was so bad he had to break camp early.
He didn't know which way to turn. If he headed back to the whites' camp, they'd ask about Joselito. He could tell them the damn Mexican'd been captured by hostiles, but then he'd have to explain how he got away unscathed himself. The soldiers might not care about a dead greaser, but then again they might. You could never tell with white folks.
But his own people were all on the new reservation in Indian Territory, some seven hundred miles to the northeast, in what by rights was Wichita country. He didn't know anyone in Apacheria, and didn't expect a warm welcome after what he'd been up to.
He soon realized he wouldn't have much choice in the matter.
Dark silhouettes followed him at a distance, barely showing themselves along the rims of the canyons and arroyos. They would wait until he stopped to make camp, or until he fell out of the saddle out of sheer exhaustion, or until he ran out of water. One way or another, they would outlast him, and then they'd do to him the same thing he'd just done to Joselito.
But Reid had an idea.
"I know you're there!" he shouted in Apache, hoping the Mimbreños would understand his northern dialect. He dismounted, then made a show of placing his rifle on the ground and backing away. "Come on down and talk."
After a couple minutes, a brave showed himself from behind a boulder not too far ahead. He approached Reid on foot, keeping his carbine at the ready. Reid was sure there were three or four more rifles trained on him from up above.
"My name's Jackrabbit," Reid said. "Who are you?"
"You ride with Victorio?"
"Yes. You ride with Little Phil?"
Hearing Sheridan's hated nickname on the Indian's lips, Reid had to stifle a laugh. He just nodded.
"You don't speak like the other White Eyes," Snake Bite said. "You sound like Comanche."
Reid nodded again.
"I hate Comanches almost as much as I hate White Eyes. Tell me why I shouldn't kill you right now."
"I can help you."
Now it was Snake Bite's turn to laugh. "How will you help us? You can't even take care of yourself."
"You can kill me if you want. Little Phil will still have a dozen scouts to spy on the Mimbreños. How many scouts do you have to spy on the White Eyes?"
"I don't understand."
"Take me to Victorio and I'll explain."
Snake Bite led him through a bewildering maze of mountain passes and narrow canyons, until they reached Victorio's camp somewhere in Chihuahua. Of course Reid would be able to lead the whole blue-coat army there if he got out alive, but the Apaches would only let him out alive if they thought they could trust him.
Lucky for him, Victorio understood his purpose at once.
"You go back to Little Phil's camp and say you saw the Indians down in Los Juguetes, then you come find us here and let us know which route he is taking?"
"Exactly," Reid said.
"The White Eyes pay you greenbacks to spy on me. What do I have to pay you with? Why should I believe you won't go right back to Little Phil and tell him where I'm camped?"
Reid shrugged his shoulders. "I could, I suppose. I don't owe the Mimbreños nothing but my life, if you decide not to kill me. But something about this whole campaign rubs me the wrong way. The White Eyes make promises on Sunday and break them on Monday. I've taken their dollars because I have to eat, but I don't care to see them treat you like they treated Quanah Parker."
Victorio sat silent for a minute, then he called for his sister Lozen, the witch doctor. Victorio and Lozen exchanged words in the Mimbreño dialect, too fast for Reid to follow. She disappeared for a little bit, then returned leading a young girl by the hand.
"This is Desert Owl," said Victorio. "She will be your wife. You will ride with the White Eyes, Jackrabbit, but you will always return to her."
Reid looked at the girl, not particularly attractive of face or figure, but her hair was black as night and her eyes were indeed as piercing as an owl's eyes. He knew it was true. Once he had swum in those eyes, he would always be drawn back.
"Whenever you go, she stays," Victorio said, "and that way I know you'll never desert me."
So Reid was stuck now, not that it bothered him too much. It didn't seem to bother Desert Owl either. Her first husband had been killed up in the Sacramentos and she figured Reid was as good as any other. They just had the one night together, then Reid had to ride back to give his report to the blue-bellies.
"Manolo and his Apache scouts have found traces of a sizable body of Indians out to the Tres Hermanas," the scoutmaster told him when he'd reported in. "But you say you seen 'em down across the border?"
"With my own eyes," Reid said. "I don't know what them 'Paches found in the Tres Hermanas. Might be hostiles. Might be friendlies. Might be a trick, too."
"True," said the scoutmaster. "Can't trust Apaches to spy on their own kin, if you ask me."
The Kickapoos hadn't found anything to speak of, and of course Joselito had never come back, so Sheridan sent a small detachment to investigate around the Tres Hermanas while the main body crossed the border. Reid rode ahead, reaching Victorio's camp before the blue-bellies had even made it ten miles.
While Reid got caught up with Desert Owl, and the rest of the women started breaking down the camp, Victorio and the men built a bonfire and sent a smoke signal for Nana's band, twenty miles to the north in the Tres Hermanas. Of course, Sheridan's men would see the smoke too and send patrols, but Victorio was on the move as soon as the signal was sent, and Reid was on his way back to intercept the cavalry and lead them astray in the tortuous canyons.
This scene repeated itself more than once, as Reid got the blue-bellies close enough to their quarry that they never doubted his skill or trustworthiness, but not close enough to capture Victorio or his men. The Mimbreños raided homesteads and ranches across West Texas and New Mexico, and down into Chihuahua, capturing enough horses that every brave had a remount and so many rifles that they didn't even bother to take the old smoothbore muskets when they wiped out a platoon of Mexican rurales.
Still, all good things must come to an end, and the Mexicans, who were not privy to Reid's misinformation, hired wild Tarahumaras from the sierra to track the Apaches down. Track them down they did, with a whole Mexican regiment, and they treed old Victorio in the Tres Castillos, a collection of three piles of rock in the otherwise open desert, sixty miles from the border.
Reid was at Fort Quitman, telling the telegraph operator that he'd seen Victorio's band just over the ridge in Bandejas, when an urgent wire came in from Sheridan's liaison in Chihuahua City about the Mexicans' campaign. After he finished dictating his own message, which no one was likely to believe now, Reid high-tailed it out of Texas faster than a mustang through an open gate, but by the time he reached Tres Castillos two days later, the Mexicans already had the place surrounded.
Trying to get closer without being seen, Reid crept from one rocky outcropping to another until he stumbled on a pair of Mimbreño women hiding among the creosotes a few miles away. One of them was the witch doctor, Lozen.
The other was Desert Owl. And she was in labor.
Of course Reid had noticed her swelling belly over the past few months, but she was such a skinny girl it was hard to tell how far along she was. He'd been doing some arithmetic, and he figured if she came up pregnant on their wedding night, she shouldn't be due for a while yet. So even if the baby was coming early, there was no way it was his.
But looking at Desert Owl, her eyes wide and tearful with pain or fear or both, Reid knew he didn't care about that. She was his woman and this would be his child, no matter what color it came out.
"Stay with your wife," Lozen commanded. "I must return to the battle."
"Please," Reid pleaded, "you stay with her. Your medicine will keep her and the baby safe. I will distract the soldiers and, if the Great Spirit pleases, your brother and his people will escape."
Desert Owl stifled a groan as a strong contraction racked her narrow frame. She tightened her grip on Lozen's arm.
"I will deliver the child," Lozen said, "and take her someplace safe. You have strong medicine, too, Jackrabbit. Now you must lead the wolves astray so the owl and her chick may fly free."
So he did.
He gave Desert Owl a kiss on the forehead and another on her swollen belly, and then he rode off toward the Mexican lines, whooping like a Comanche.
Reid didn't believe much in medicine, not his own anyway, but Lozen must've been onto something because he rode right up on the greasers, shooting his six-gun, and no matter how much they fired back with their muskets and rifles the bullets whistled harmlessly by.
At first the Mexicans mounted a pursuit, a whole cavalry troop with lances and funny helmets. They followed him a few miles across the mostly open desert, but when Reid dismounted among some boulders and dropped a few of them with his Winchester, the Mexes scattered. A dozen or so dug in and tried to keep him pinned down with rifle fire, but the rest went to rejoin their compadres at the Tres Castillos.
They started to maneuver around his flanks, but Reid got away easily enough. He tried the same trick a few more times, but fewer of the Mexicans chased him each time, and they never broke the cordon around Victorio's band. As the day wore on, the Mexicans continued firing at the Mimbreños, but the return fire dwindled to a few shots per minute, then one shot every few minutes, until it ceased entirely.
Victorio was out of ammunition.
Reid's plan had failed, but he couldn't give up yet.
He washed his face and brushed the dust off his cavalry-blue jacket, and, waving a white handkerchief over his head, he rode straight up to the Mexican colonel.
"Good afternoon," he said in his best gringo Spanish. "I am a scout for the U.S. Army. I come to warn you that Nana is on his way with two hundred braves."
The colonel looked him up and down. "You have cojones, I'll give you that. But your yanqui clothes won't fool me, cacique. I know you're the one my men have been chasing all day."
"Listen to me," Reid said, pretending not to understand the accusation. "I came to warn you—"
The colonel held up a hand. "If you want to give a warning, go warn your friend Victorio that we're coming for him."
Reid started to ride away but a Mexican soldier grabbed the reins.
"On foot," the colonel admonished. "And leave your guns."
As he walked toward Victorio's refuge and certain death, Reid tried to figure a way out, but came up empty.
He was so lost in thought, he didn't hear the whistling arrow until it struck him in the shoulder, swift and sharp as a snake's fang. He staggered back in shock.
Already confused as hell, Reid was less concerned about the wound itself than about why the Mimbreños would be shooting at him. It had to be the cavalry jacket! They thought he was a soldier.
"Don't shoot!" Reid cried, as he struggled to remove shirt and jacket, with the arrow still protruding from his shoulder. "It's me, Jackrabbit."
But it was too late. Another arrow struck him closer to the heart, with enough force to knock him back into the dirt.
So this was it? Reid let out a laugh. He knew he should say his prayers or sing his death song or something, but he couldn't stop laughing.
The witch doctor had told him he had strong medicine, but here he was, shot down by the very people he was trying to help.
Lying there in the sand, looking up at the desert sky and the two arrow shafts sticking up like tree trunks, he laughed until his whole body ached.
He heard heavy gunfire and shuffling feet, war whoops and bugle calls. The final assault had begun.
A few hours later, after they'd massacred the Mimbreño men and most of the women and children, and tied up the few survivors to be sold like livestock to hacendados in Veracruz, the Mexicans found Reid, lying in the brush half-dead, two arrows still jutting from his shoulder.
"I guess you are a gringo after all," said the colonel. "I still don't trust you."
Trust him or not, the Mexicans patched him up and sent him on his way. They didn't give him his horse back, or his guns, but Reid was in no position to argue.
That night, sleeping under the stars, Reid dreamt of a wounded jackrabbit, surrounded by snarling wolves. The wolves growled and snapped, but the jackrabbit escaped through a thicket of spiny cactus, following a solitary firefly into the night while an owl hooted in the distance.
Reid plodded northward in a feverish daze, keeping his distance whenever he saw signs of Sheridan's army. As he neared the Rio Grande, Reid stripped off his blue cavalry jacket, his shirt and trousers, and even his riding boots. The Apache police picked him up on the edge of the Warm Springs Reservation, barefoot, naked, sunburned, and babbling about rabbits and wolves and owls.
They took him to Lozen.
"My brother?" she asked.
Reid shook his head. "My wife?"
Lozen gave a tight-lipped smile, though her eyes were wet with tears. She rapped on the wall of the wickiup.
Desert Owl entered with the newborn in her arms, wrapped up in rabbit skins. Reid smothered mother and baby with kisses, and held the little one up to inspect her ears and nose, fingers and toes.
She was perfect.
"What is her name?" he asked.
"You name her," said Desert Owl. "You are her father."
Reid looked at Lozen, who nodded.
"Then we will call her Firefly," said Reid, "and she will be a beacon of light in the dark days to come."
A few months later, the Indian agent came around.
"General Crook is recruiting scouts to go after Geronimo. His scoutmaster asked for you by name."
Reid furrowed his brow, as if confused.
"Aren't you the one they call Reid?" asked the agent.
Reid shook his head. "No, sir. My name is Jackrabbit."
Gabriel Stevenson graduated from the University of Puerto Rico more years ago than he would care to admit, and has since wandered wherever Uncle Sam sends him. He currently lives in Delaware with his wife and children. His short fiction has appeared in 2020's Best Indie Speculative Fiction.
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by Diana Richter
Horses' hooves and wagon wheels churned up the parched desert until all she could see of the three figures were tiny dark silhouettes against the deep blue of the cloudless sky. She watched until even the dusty puffs they made as they rode blended into the stark sandy landscape, then disappeared completely.
Molly didn't move from the doorway of her adobe house until Inez spoke.
"Come inside now, señora," said the Mexican girl. "You've been there watching since sun-up. No more to see now, so come in and sit."
Molly moved slowly into the small room. She glanced at the beds, the one she shared with Sabino and the other one where their sons slept. They were 16 and 18 and had gone with their father to La Mesilla to testify at the trial of an American accused of shooting a man in cold blood. Tubac was soon far behind them.
Ever since Molly could remember, Tubac had been a lonely place, a little town deep in New Mexico Territory, not far from the border town of Nogales. Dominated by the crumbling presidio, it was kept alive by the presence of a few families like Molly's own, raising corn and squash and gathering peaches and pecans from trees they faithfully tended.
However, Molly's family was different. The others in the village were Mexican. She was the only American woman in town.
Until recently, that hadn't been true. Mrs. Robinson had that distinction. Molly hadn't counted as American when the beautiful lady from the East took her into her home and cared for her. She had been a wild thing, living with Utes and hardly able to speak English anymore. The Indians had fancied her golden curls and blue eyes and spared her when they attacked her family and slaughtered them all, leaving the small wagon train in bloody ruins. They took the little girl with them as their prisoner, treating her kindly but never fully accepting her into the tribe.
An Anglo raid on the Ute camp had resulted in her second capture, this time by Americans. They brought her to Tubac and into the household of the Robinsons, whose mistress took the teen-aged Molly to her heart. She taught the girl to read and write, to cook and to sew, and to speak proper English.
"Do you want coffee, señora?" Inez asked her. She spoke a little English. But living in Tubac, everyone learned Spanish. Molly answered her in that language.
"Por favor, Inez," she said. The girl brought the steaming mug to the table and set it before Molly. She sat beside her.
"I know how you worry, señora," said Inez. "I know why."
Molly looked at the girl and beyond her, at the rifle over the fireplace, mounted on iron bars driven into the adobe wall. It was a revolving rifle, it was new, and she knew how to use it.
She got up from the table and walked over to the rifle, taking it carefully from its place of readiness. She held it at her side and went to the door, looking out at the blazing noonday sky and the shimmering desert beyond.
"Just in case, Inez," she said.
Their day was quiet. In the scorching heat there was not much one could do except make sure there was enough water in the house. Later, when the desert heat fled and cool breezes brought them the gentle relief of evening, they would carry jugs of water to the garden and make sure their precious crops survived.
The day passed uneventfully. Molly picked up a skirt she was mending and Inez peeled vegetables for their evening meal. They rested briefly at midday, then had tomatoes and tortillas which they washed down with beer, warm and malty, brought home by Sabino on his last ride down to Sonora.
Molly missed Sabino. She had married him when she was 16, shortly before the Robinsons moved away to Tucson. He was a strong, caring man from a fine old Mexican family. Sabino was much older—a man of 40 when they wed and a widower with nearly grown children. Now they had homes of their own in the village and had prospered well—at least, for Tubac. Their lands along the Santa Cruz River proved fruitful, and they endured.
But like all Tubaquenos, they feared the Apache hordes, the nomadic tribes that swept down from the mountains and raided villages, taking horses and cattle and killing anyone who stood in their way. Their attacks were sudden, swift, and violent and were an ever present danger to the villagers.
Molly moved a chair to the doorway and sat there for a while, resting the rifle across her knees. The sun set behind the Tumacacoris, silhouetting the evening clouds in gold before slipping out of sight and bringing night abruptly to the cooling desert.
Inez brought a lantern and set it beside her on the ground. The girl crouched there, resting her head on her knees. Molly began to hum a song and Inez glanced up, smiling. She started humming herself, harmonizing with Molly. Their voices were gentle and sweet. Overhead, stars spangled the black sky like a carpet of poppies in the springtime desert, dense and brilliant.
The song ended, and they both smiled in the serene darkness. The lantern spread a path of light from the doorway out into the yard, illuminating the corral fence beyond. The shed and stable were black silhouettes, indistinguishable from the shadows surrounding the house and outbuildings.
The whinny of one of the two horses Sabino had left behind pricked Molly's hearing into sharp alertness. Then she felt Inez's pull on her skirt and looked where the girl was looking, to the right of the corral fence. She heard the horse whinny again and heard its hooves on the hard ground. Suddenly she saw a shadow, moving swiftly as another shadow mounted the horse and rode off. Someone opened the corral gate and led the other horse through.
Molly stood and fired the rifle into the air. She felt something fly close to her head and turned just long enough to see an arrow sticking in the adobe doorway.
"Quick, Inez!" she said. "Into the house."
Inez rose and turned to follow Molly into the house. Suddenly she screamed and fell in the doorway. Molly grabbed the girl by her right arm and dragged her into the house, slamming the door just as another arrow whirred towards them and embedded itself in the wood.
Molly saw an arrow protruding from Inez's left arm. She gently worked it free and laid Inez on her straw mat. She stripped off the girl's shirt and washed the wound with cool water. She had a tincture that would be good for a dressing and started for the shelf where she kept medicinals, when she heard the lambs bleating and realized the Apaches were not gone.
Molly went to the biggest chink between the adobe bricks of the house, where they'd all watched out for Indians on more than one occasion. She saw two shadows herding their small flock across the yard. She poked her rifle through the chink, took aim and fired. One of the Apaches slumped forward on his horse.
"I got him, Inez!" Molly shouted. She ran to another aperture between bricks and fired again, this time at nothing. But the Apaches wouldn't know that.
"Hurrah!" she shouted again. "Another good shot!"
She ran to another crack and hammered at it with her rifle butt, making it bigger. "We'll shoot the loin skins off of them, won't we, boys?" She pulled the trigger and fired.
"I tell you, Sabino, we're going to get rid of those rotten thieves," Molly yelled, racing to her first vantage point and shooting at the distant, retreating figures of the Apaches, taking care not to hit the abandoned sheep.
She wanted to be sure her charade had worked. She crept to the adobe's only window, on the west side of the small building, and flattened herself against the wall. She could see obliquely across the side of the pen where the lambs were kept. A figure hunched stealthily toward the loose animals, and Molly saw a horse standing untethered a few yards away. She lifted the rifle to her shoulder, took aim, and fired. Her bullet struck the slinking Apache, and he fell to the ground in silence.
Molly waited, scarcely breathing. Then, uncertainly, she propped the rifle near the window and returned to her care of the wounded Inez.
The girl was crying quietly but there appeared to be little bleeding from the gash in her small, plump arm. Molly made a poltice and tied it over the wound with strips from an old petticoat.
She walked to the door, hesitated a moment, then said, "I'm going after our sheep, Inez."
She grasped the rifle and slowly pushed open the door, staying close to the wall as it swung towards the deep, clear night. She crouched low as she edged toward the paddock, moving with the stealth she'd learned from the Utes as she grew up among them. She paused to listen for any telling sounds, searching the night with the sense of a desert creature. Coyotes howled their eerie chorus in the far-off foothills but these were not the sounds she was listening for. There were insect chirps and the rustle of the cottonwoods down near the river, but no sound of soft moccasins in the dry dirt, or of whispered commands or warnings. It was still enough for her to move out.
Molly moved, still crouching. She could see the sheep silhouetted against the nearly full moon, standing quietly just beyond the paddock. A couple had remained within its confines, even though the gate was open. She circled the fence, reached the sheep and rounded up all of them with gentle prods and herded them back into the paddock. She had to stand upright to lock the gate behind them, and that was when she saw the Apache sprawled on the ground less than 20 feet away.
Molly stood still, watching for any movement, listening for any sound. The figure on the ground remained motionless, and the cottonwoods whispered in the soft riverside breeze.
She hoisted the rifle and felt its butt pressing against her hip, the cool metal of the barrel resting on her arm.
Again she crouched and scanned the night, then scuttled across the short distance to the Apache. She stopped within two feet of him, when she saw his chest moving with his breath and knew that he was alive.
Molly inched her way to the Indian. His bow lay beside him, a bent arrow a few feet away. His buckskin shirt was spattered with blood. He was lying on his back, face up, and his breathing was jagged and labored. She drew close enough to see his skinning knife sheathed at his hip. She slowly reached for it and began to slip it from the sheath when he moaned softly and his head rolled toward her.
She looked straight into his black eyes, and her heart pounded. She held herself motionless, silent as the cold moon shining down on them. Her hand was still on the half-sheathed knife.
The Apache held her gaze. His parched lips mouthed something she did not understand but she guessed his request.
"Quiere agua?" she asked. No response. "Water?" she tried again. Still he stared at her soundlessly.
She slipped the knife from the sheath and hid it beneath her skirt. She rose and stood over him. She had offered him relief from his thirst but now she thought, why should she help him? He had attacked her home, Inez lay seriously hurt, her horses had been stolen. Why not let him die of thirst and his bloody wound?
She looked down at the Apache. He was young, probably no older than her son Jaime. If she helped him, he might return the favor and persuade his tribe to bring back her horses.
"I'll get water," she said. She backed toward the barrel, keeping her eyes fixed on the Apache and pressing the rifle close to her side. She could feel the cold metal of the knife through her petticoat, where she had hastily knotted it into the hem of her chemise.
Molly grabbed the dipper and slid the lid from the barrel without taking her eyes off the Apache. He remained motionless but he was watching her. She returned to him, shakily holding out the dipper. But he did not move to take it from her.
She hesitated to touch him. But then she knelt and set the rifle on the ground so she could lift his head. He drank the water.
Molly placed his head on the ground. She saw blood oozing through the buckskin covering his left shoulder, and she moved around his body for a better look. His gaze followed her. He said something but she couldn't tell if it was a request or a warning. She stared down at his young face, debating whether to help him further or leave him there to die.
He moaned and turned his face away. Molly gingerly touched the shirt and realized the buckskin would have to be cut away from the wound.
Slowly, she slid the Apache's skinning knife from beneath her skirt. It gave off a glint of moonlight as she inched it towards his shoulder. She paused a moment, looked down at his impassive face, then began to cut away the blood-soaked buckskin.
The Indian flinched as she gently pulled the cloth from his wound. Then he closed his eyes and his face seemed to turn to stone, and the hatred she had felt during the raid rose up in her.
Molly looked at the exposed flesh and knew the bullet must have pierced through the shoulder into the back. She looked at the still face of the young Apache, and again thought of her son. She made her choice.
"I have to turn you," she said in English. She repeated the phrase in Spanish and in the language of the Utes, but the Indian did not respond.
So she gently rolled him onto his side, and when he did not react, she pushed him further so he was nearly face down on the hard ground.
Molly saw what she'd been looking for. A spent bullet lay beneath the Apache's broad back, having passed through the muscle and tissue of his shoulder without striking bone or moving on a deadly trajectory toward some vital organ. She knew she could help him.
She left him lying there and walked quickly to the house. A glance at Inez told her the girl was sleeping. She grabbed her medicine kit and a clean cloth and returned to the still form of the Apache. At the water barrel, she soaked the cloth and returned to wash away blood from his wound. He flinched but remained silent.
Molly applied ointment to the wound and bandaged it with cloth. She went back to the house and returned with a burlap bag and an old Mexican blanket. She rolled up the burlap and placed it under the Indian's head, then covered him with the blanket. She filled the dipper and left it on the ground within his reach. She backed toward the house, scanning the moonlit yard and the trail beyond, and listening for unwelcome sounds. All seemed well. She glanced over at the Indian's drowsy horse and decided to loosely tether it for the night. She entered the house and closed and locked the door.
The slow, quiet breathing of the Mexican girl on the floor was reassuring. Molly slipped off her dress, stained with the Apache's blood, and pulled her nightgown over her head. She lay listening to the sounds of the night for a while and thought of Sabino and her sons, camping somewhere in the desert—safely, she prayed. She slept uneasily, willing daybreak to end the unpleasant dreams that seemed like harbingers of more violence and pain.
When dawn crept rosily around the door frame, she got up and went to Inez's pallet. The girl asked for water. Molly pulled her shawl over her shoulders and slowly opened the door. She'd have to get the dipper back from the Apache.
Molly started toward the spot where she'd left him but stopped short. The dipper lay on the ground, and the blanket and burlap were there in a heap. But the Indian was gone.
She looked down the trail, shading her eyes from the sun blazing on the horizon. There was no one in sight.
A light breeze crept past her and fear rippled along her skin. She moved slowly along the parched earth, looking for footprints. Or hoof prints. There were none.
The Indian was young and strong. But he was terribly wounded and had lost much blood. How had he left without a trace?
Or had she lost her tracking skills?
Molly pondered this as she picked up the dipper and brought water into the house. The girl drank it in big thirsty gulps. Molly slipped Inez's nightgown over her head and gently peeled the bandage off her arm.
"Your wound is healing, Inez," she said. She applied another poultice and bound the gash in fresh cloth.
Inez struggled to her feet but grimaced with pain when she dressed herself. She went out to the paddock and began filling troughs with feed for the livestock while Molly brewed strong coffee and sliced bread for their breakfast.
"Inez, you're not strong enough to be out here," Molly called from the door. "Come in the house."
Inez staggered round the side of the lean-to and Molly ran to her.
"Your chores are way too much for you," she said, supporting the girl's small form. "You better go lie down again."
She wearily picked up the feed bucket from where Inez had dropped it. There was a job to be finished, and the animals eyed her in anticipation.
While the sheep and the old horse munched and the chickens pecked, Molly put away the bags of dried corn and oats, hung up the feed bucket and started across the dusty yard for the house. She stopped when she heard hoof beats. They came from more than one horse, and judging from the clouds of dust she could make out down the trail, there could be as many as three.
She shaded her eyes against the fierce sun and moved back toward the house, squinting toward the trail. A mounted figure came into view, leading two riderless horses.
"Jaime!" she cried, rushing toward her son. "Where's Juan and Pa?"
She held out her arms to him as he dismounted. She guessed the answer before he said, brokenly, "They're dead, Ma. Damned Apaches killed 'em as we were setting up camp. I hid and lucked out."
They held each other and let their grief out in choking sobs.
"Sabino, my husband," Molly cried into Jaime's shoulder, "and my little son . . . " Both had been murdered in the dry, barren land far beyond home.
Slowly, they made their way to the house. Jaime sank onto his cot and buried his face in his pillow.
"We'll have to go back for them, son," Molly said gently. "We can't leave them out there."
"No, Ma!" he said vehemently, sitting up and grabbing her arm. "You can't go out there!"
He covered his face with his hands.
"But they're our flesh and blood!" she said. "I want to pray over them and bury them. We can't just leave them there."
"I couldn't let you see what they've done to them," Jaime said. "Anyway, there's cougars about."
She knew what he meant and felt sick at the thought.
Molly looked at her son. "Jaime," she asked, "how did you get away with all three horses? That seems almost a miracle."
He stood with his back to her.
"I went to water the horses at a little stream not far from where Pa and Juan were setting up camp," Jaime said. "Suddenly I heard horses coming so I hopped on Old Pedro and dragged the other two to a little rocky cove nearby, where I hid out. I couldn't see anything, but I heard it . . . "
He stopped speaking and choked back tears.
"A bunch of Apaches attacked Pa and brother. I waited . . . and after all was quiet again, I rode back a ways . . . "
Jaime couldn't say anything else. Molly wept quietly, and then her son said, "They butchered them, Ma. I couldn't get too close because I could see what they done to them. I didn't want to see."
Jaime looked up and dried his tears.
"I rode away from there as fast as I could," he said, "and the other two horses tore right along. Guess we must have rode nearly all night."
Molly wiped tears from her eyes and started wearily toward the door.
"We better water them horses now before they die of thirst," she said. Jaime followed her and untethered the animals to lead them to the corral. Near the gate, he stopped, staring at the ground.
"What are you looking at, son?" Molly called.
"Looks like a moccasin print," Jaime said. "Had some visitors?"
So the young Apache had circumvented the corral during his pre-dawn getaway.
"I see our black mare is missing," Jaime said.
"Yes, we got raided," Molly said. "That's how Inez got an arrow in her arm."
She didn't tell him about the help she'd given the young Apache. She knew his anger and grief would make her act of compassion seem unconscionable.
Molly wrapped an arm around her tall son and walked slowly with him back to the house.
"You better try to get some sleep," she said.
"I can't sleep, Ma," Jaime said. She knew sleep wouldn't come easily for either of them.
Jaime slumped onto his cot and sat with his head in his hands. He was silent for a long while. Then he looked at Molly. She was searching through a bureau drawer. She stopped suddenly, holding something small in her shaking hand. He recognized the worn brown leather case, for she had shown it proudly to her boys many times in the past. Within the case was a Daguerrotype of his parents on their wedding day.
Molly's tears blurred the image, and she wiped her wet cheeks on her sleeve as she held the small portrait out to her son, who took it from his mother's hand. He stared at the picture, his jaw clenched.
"Ma, I'm getting even with those bastards," he said, rising from the cot. He fastened his gun belt and checked his bullet supply.
"Jaime, you can't go looking for trouble," Molly said. "I don't want to lose you too!" She sank to the floor at his feet, her sobs wracking her slender body.
"Ma, they can't get away with this," the boy said. "I'd go back for Pa and Brother if it would do any good, but by now . . . " He bit his lip. The horror of what he'd been about to say was all too plain to Molly. She remembered an Apache attack years earlier that had left an entire family mutilated almost beyond recognition.
Inez stirred and asked for water. Molly got wearily to her feet and went to help the girl. She had just awakened and stared wide-eyed at Jaime.
"Where is señor? Where is Juan?" she asked.
"Dead," Jaime said. "Killed by the same redskins that put an arrow in your arm, Inez."
The girl burst into tears. She threw her undamaged arm around Molly's neck and clung to her.
Molly held Inez, rocking her gently as they both cried out their grief, compounded for Molly by the anguish of knowing there would be no burial for her son and husband.
They stayed in the house until midday, when the sun blazed down and the air was still in the dry desert heat. Their weeping ceased, and they sat in silence, drained of feeling.
Jaime opened the door and walked to the barrel for a dipper-full of water. He brought the dipper to the house for his mother and Inez, then returned it to the nail next to the barrel. He paused there, thinking he heard some distant sound. He listened closely but decided it was only the horses in the corral, shifting as the noonday flies buzzed over their flanks.
He turned toward the house. Then, unmistakably, he heard the far-off sound of hoofbeats.
He pushed open the door.
"Ma! Someone's coming!" Jaime grabbed the rifle from its place on the adobe wall and thrust it into Molly's arms. He checked his own gun barrel and adjusted his holster.
"You better stay inside till we find out what's going on," he said. He ducked out of the door and slid against the wall to a corner of the house.
Molly held the rifle against her side and opened the door a crack to peer out. She saw clouds of dust in the distance and heard the hoofbeats of more than one horse approaching.
"Get down, Inez," she told the girl, who was struggling to her feet. "You're better off lying down." Inez sank back down on her pallet.
The hoofbeats were loud enough now for her to make out the number of horses racing towards them. There were two. Her heart thundered in anticipation of another attack, this time in broad daylight.
Then she saw a rider down the trail. He was alone, leading another horse. He came close enough for her to see that he was bare chested, with a white bandage wrapped around his left shoulder.
Molly lowered the rifle and pushed open the door. She recognized the black mare the Apaches had taken the night before. She started forward as the young Indian rode into the yard.
When the shot rang out from the far side of the house, she stopped. The young Apache fell sideways from his horse. Jaime approached him, warily.
Molly and her son reached his body at the same time. Molly looked down at the dark handsome face that had been so close to hers in the moonlight. She looked at the blood seeping through the bandage she had wrapped around his shoulder. And she saw the bullet wound in the center of his chest and realized he was dead.
"This won't bring back Pa and Brother, but I feel good I got one of them bastards," said Jaime.
Molly said nothing. She sat beside the dead Apache and stared across the endless desert. The Indian boy had more than repaid her kindness to him. She felt no sense of retribution for the deaths of Sabino and Juan. Only sadness at the brief bond that had been between them, now broken by her own son's reckless grief.
She rose to her feet and turned to face Jaime.
"Guess you better help me bury him, son," she said.
Diana Richter writes short stories and has just completed a biographical novella. She is a retired newspaper editor who has lived in the southwest and loves its history.
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by Kelley J. P. Lindberg
Pearl stood in her doorway while the young man climbed off his horse. It was an awkward effort on his part. He was trying to keep the papers he clenched in one hand from flapping something fierce while the wind rushed past him to churn sand inside Pearl's cabin.
"I'm with the St. Louis Herald," he said, "and I'm writing a story about the women of the west."
Pearl figured if she were quiet, he'd explain himself. Men did that, sometimes. Not always.
"So I'm traveling around talking to women like yourself, asking them about their lives. Mind if I ask you what it's like to be a woman out west?"
Pearl scanned the horizon beyond the man's shoulders. Clouds were building up.
The young man looked ill at ease, standing there with that ridiculous tie whipping at his chin and his collar bent up on one side from the wind. She remembered men wearing that sort of thing back in Virginia, but it didn't make much sense out here. Not even a church for sixty miles.
"So can you tell me about the woman's west?" he asked again.
The woman's west is a lot like the woman's east, she thought, but with fewer trees to break the weather, fewer neighbors to complain to, fewer materials to fashion into necessities, and fewer options for surviving when your husband's plans fail. But truth to tell, I suppose life out west here looks pretty much the same for a woman as life back east did. There are children to feed and keep alive. There are clothes to mend and clean and food to put up for winter. Animals need tending—or killing—and crops need weeding. There's water to draw. Fire-fuel to gather. A man's dreams to shore up.
"About the same as back east, I guess," she said. Sheltered a little from the wind, a few flies buzzed around the table behind Pearl's back. She ignored them.
"What's the worst part of living out here?" he asked, his pencil poised above his paper, his eyes looking up at her. Sure, he was young, but still old enough to have lost that puppy-dog look of optimism in his eyes. St. Louis must be a gentler place than she'd thought. Or they just had more fools than was strictly necessary.
Pearl felt tendrils of her hair sketching against her cheek, her neck, getting in her eye. She brushed them away with one hand, but the wind kept at it, and she let them go.
It's the wind, really, that tests you, she thought. The wind comes in long and hard from Canada, sometimes, or maybe up from the south when it feels like a change. But no matter where it comes from, there's a relentless, lonesome draw to it. It has a harsh feel, the kind of wind that can strip the sap from your limbs and the sweet from a baby. It whips past with a vengeance most days, and sometimes comes back on you to get you again. Dry and hollow, it jerks the grasses around in waves, dulling their green to gray by noon.
"The wind takes some getting used to," she said. A hawk circled in the air. As she watched, it pulled in its wings and dove to the ground. In a moment, it rose again, talons empty.
The wind flies down from mountains so far away I can't see them, but I know they're there because I can taste them. It throws itself across this sun-baked prairie, and tugs hard at the roots of any bedraggled old brush in its path. And it comes all this way just so it can drag and snap at the shirts hanging on my clothesline, trying to tear them off and pull them into the far end of the country. I don't guess I'd miss them much if they were gone. But my husband would, and then where would I be? Not like I have cloth to make more, and it could be months before another trader comes along.
She kept one eye on the clothesline while she waited for the young man to ask another question.
"What's the best part of living here?" he asked.
He thinks there's a best part? What is this boy writing anyhow? Heaven help us all if he's trying to convince more Easterners to move here. The best part is when I close my eyes at night and actually fall asleep instead of lying there listening to the wind howl and the door creak and my husband snore. The best part is when I don't itch and nothing much hurts and I don't think about being hungry. The best part of living out west was thinking about it before we came.
Pearl shrugged, said, "Lots of elbow room."
"Do you have any children?"
She nodded. "My boy."
My boy that's living. Got three more out there to the south, under that old dead tree. Thank the good Lord they all died in the summer so we could bury them right away in the ground. Emily Johnson lost her husband last February. She had to keep him frozen in the rafters of the barn 'til spring, when the dirt thawed enough that she could dig a hole for him. No one knew she was out there all winter by herself, him all frozen up like that.
"Do you ever have any trouble with Indians?"
She shook her head slowly. "Had a couple ask me for some food once. Nothing I'd call trouble."
The man had been crippled—he dragged one leg behind him, and he used a stick to hold himself up. The woman was pregnant and sick as a poisoned lamb. Both were starving to death on their feet. Biscuits I gave them probably didn't keep them alive for very long, but it was all I had.
"How about wild animals? Any trouble with them?"
"Got a gun, don't I?"
The coyotes killed my chickens the first night we got to this place. I should have known better, but I was so tired I didn't pay enough attention. If there's one thing I miss about Virginia, it's going to sleep at night without hearing those blasted coyotes yelping and barking and egging each other on. I don't think the Lord had any intention of letting coyotes on the ark. I think the little beggars snuck on when Noah wasn't looking. Even their meat stinks.
The young man stood back a step or two, and folded his flapping pages as best he could. "Thank you ma'am," he said, tapping his hat, then grabbing at it as the wind took the opportunity to rip it from his head. "I sure appreciate you letting me talk to you. I admire you women and all the work you're doing taming this wild country." As he spoke, he looked around him at the rickety cabin, the dust curling in little drifts by the door, the dingy laundry fluttering on the line.
Pearl watched the young man mount his horse and head off. She shook her head, dusted off her hands, and looked again at the clouds. They were leveling off now. Soon they would spread and peter out. There wasn't even a whiff of that thunderstorm smell in the air. No chance of rain. The clothes were likely dry now, so she'd better get them down before her husband and boy came in for dinner.
Take a damned sight more than a clothesline or two to tame this country. Forgive me, Lord. I mean a blessed sight more.
In the distance a coyote yelped, just a little practice cry before nightfall.
Kelley J. P. Lindberg is a Colorado-based freelance writer who started her career writing best-selling how-to books about software. Now she's in demand as a contract medical and business writer, while also writing articles and essays for magazines, travel guides, and anthologies. In her so-called free time, she writes adult and young adult fiction. When she isn't writing, she's traveling as far and as often as she can. Visit her at www.KelleyLindberg.com.
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