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.