The world rapidly disappeared as thick, white, choking dust engulfed man and horse. Sliding out of the saddle, Bear Whitethorn did not have to urge the paint gelding to turn his rump to the wind. Sand driven by the fierce element bit into every exposed inch of skin. Salt in the air stung his lips and eyes as he collapsed onto the ground clutching the horse's reins in one hand. With effort, he pulled long legs to his chest and closed his eyes against the onslaught. Sticky wetness on his right side meant blood was still oozing. The only lucky part of the day was that the bullet had entered and exited between ribs without tearing up any vitals.
As he sat in pain, a desperate thirst overcame him, and his canteen hung around the saddle horn only a few feet away. Wind continued to shriek through taller yucca plants. There was no water to be had for a while, at least until he was able to stand. Hat secured by a buckskin string, it was an effort to pull the sweaty bandana from around his neck up and over his nose and mouth. There was nothing to do but wait out the dust storm and mull over events that brought him to this forsaken place.
Henry Wentworth Landis was dead with two bullets from Bear's Colt 1878 .44-40 pistol in his chest. Didn't matter much now that the most politically powerful rancher in southeastern New Mexico Territory had the biggest ranch, and was, Whitethorn figured, the biggest liar in the territory. What did matter was that two of the dead rancher's sons were ruthless killers who had escaped the noose more than once due to their father's influence. They led a gang of four no accounts that rode only for money. Landis had a third son who was away at school in the East becoming an attorney, but sadly, he shared the traits of the father.
The mistake he made was believing Landis was a man who respected the law. The U.S. Marshal's badge on his chest meant nothing to the man who wanted to be governor of the territory. Whitethorn explained that three of the men in the employ of the ranch were wanted for cattle rustling and murder in Texas. The rancher said they were not his men and ordered him off the ranch. When he refused to go Landis laughed at him and unexpectedly went for his pistol. The rancher got off one good shot before Whitethorn got off two of his own as he fell.
If there was anything good about the situation, it was that the two Landis boys, Seth and Zeke, and their men, including the three named in the arrest warrant, were bringing in a small herd of calf and cow pairs to brand and castrate the calves. Their dust indicated they were still a mile or so out. Unfortunately, the air was still, and despite the noise of moving cattle, the gunshots were loud enough to be heard by the men. Three cowboys split from the approaching herd and galloped toward the ranch house.
Whitethorn knew he was a dead man if they found the elder Landis dead and him there. Blood dripping from the wound, he got control of his gelding and struggled into the saddle. There would be no explaining to the boys or their men. His only chance was to run. Riding along the brackish Pecos River, he followed trails leading west until he hit the old Butterfield Stage trail. At Pine Springs he rested briefly, ate his last piece of jerky, refilled the canteen, and watered the horse. Darkness fell as they started down the old road headed toward El Paso two days distant—if he could stay in the saddle. Other lawmen would be there to offer help if the Landis gang didn't catch up to him first.
Bear was thankful that the gelding was tough. They plodded slowly on through the night with only stars and crescent moon to illuminate the steep, rocky road. Every so often he painfully turned to survey the trail behind for movement. Morning dawned hot and a stiff breeze blew out of the east with a promise of a storm moving in from the west. The temperature continued to increase as they set out across the salt flats and the wind grew in intensity. Dust devils whirled in a half dozen spots on the flat. Without warning a fierce gust of wind nearly toppled him out of the saddle. A dust devil swept sand, dirt, and bits of vegetation around and around man and horse.
Returning to the moment, Bear struggled for breath in the dirt-choked air, as he held the bandana over his face, breathing became easier. The wind was unrelenting, but the temperature was dropping. Unexpectedly, he thought he heard a distant voice, like someone calling—then nothing. A few moments later he was sure he heard voices, but he could not understand the words. He hoped it was not the Landis boys closing in. Time passed and there were more voices—then only the shriek of the wind.
Suddenly, the wind stopped, and the air cleared. He pulled the bandana down and gulped in good air. A gentle tug on the reins, and the gelding moved closer. Whitethorn struggled to stand using a stirrup and the saddle to pull himself upright. There was no sign of life except for the horse. He clutched the canteen and cautiously sipped warm, wonderful water. Looking around, he saw towering clouds of white dust formed an unmoving wall around him to the west. A cool breeze sprang up out of the east which struck him as odd. It carried pleasant aromas of pine and juniper from the high mountains. Maybe he was dead and in some kind of purgatory.
The bright, desolate world of white surrounding him forced him to squint as he looked to the east—in the distance he detected movement. Someone or something was approaching through heat wave ripples as if drifting in the breeze. Maybe it was them. A few minutes passed and a solitary figure drew closer. It was a man with a long walking stick.
The man was an Indian, no mistaking that—and the oldest person he remembered seeing. The walking stick was a beautiful reddish-brown wood with leather strips attached at the top that secured large bird feathers, maybe eagle. He wore a light-colored shirt open at the top to expose a leather string that looped around his neck from which hung a single, large piece of turquoise. A bag fashioned from some kind of animal leather was slung over his shoulder. Although his skin was weathered and looked like old leather, his eyes were what fascinated Whitethorn. They were a deep emerald green that seemed to flash fire at the center. Using only those eyes, the old man scrutinized Bear in silence. The scent of pine and juniper was everywhere.
"Hello!" Bear said, not knowing what else to do. The old man was obviously unarmed and showed no sign of aggression.
"Aho," the old man replied with a term of greeting used by people of different tribal origins. "What are you called?"
"My name is Bear . . . Bear Whitethorn. And yours?" It was curious that the man's voice had no accent although he was not sure what he expected.
"I am called Cloud."
"Pleased to meet you Mr. Cloud." Bear extended his hand. "Do you live around here?"
Cloud took Whitethorn's hand for a moment, then released it. "Travel to and from many places. Have many homes."
"Do you have a home near here?"
Ignoring Whitethorn's question, Cloud's eyes went from the man's face to his badge and then the blood-soaked shirt. He gestured to the dripping blood. "You are a man of the law and you are wounded."
"Yes, a man shot me while I was doing my job. His sons are coming after me to get revenge."
"Was he a bad man?"
"I'm not sure, but two of his sons and their gang are killers. I was trying to bring in three of the men who worked for him."
Cloud said nothing but scrutinized Bear's face as he explained. "You sit now. I help you. They told me truth."
Whitethorn unceremoniously plopped down on the ground still clutching the gelding's reins. "Who told you truth?" he was confused.
"The others—spirits of the old ones. They found you and told me where you were. Let horse go free and remove shirt. Horse will not leave."
"I don't understand. Who are you . . . what are you?" Whitethorn let the reins drop to the ground but made no effort to remove his shirt.
"Some call me witch—some healer." The old man wasted no time pulling Whitethorn's saddle, saddlebags, and bedroll from the paint and placed the saddle for Whitethorn to rest against. The rectangle of bedroll canvas that protected its contents was quickly spread out on the ground and the thin blanket it contained set aside. He helped Whitethorn move onto the canvas. Finally, he sat on his knees, took the bag from around his neck, opened it, and studied its contents. Without looking up he ordered, "must remove shirt."
Whitehorn struggled to do as he was told and removed his shirt with difficulty and no little pain. He watched as the old man removed certain items from the bag and placed them on the edge of the canvas. A thin, flat rock from the pouch provided a working surface. Cloud ground and blended what looked like different leaves and colored, dried flowers. A small amount of water from the canteen was added to make a paste.
The old man pulled his shoulder to roll him onto his side. "Two wounds," he pronounced. "One on back is bad." Immediately he went to work washing the wounds with more canteen water and then spreading the paste over both wounds while softly murmuring a chant. Once the chant was finished, he spoke again. "Bear is strong name. Why you called that?"
Whitethorn obliged the shaman. "My pa told me a story that when I was a baby, a bear broke into our cabin in the mountains up north while he was out hunting. My mother tried to keep it away from me, but the bear swatted and knocked her down. She dropped me when she fell and it stood over me, sniffed me all over, and looked at me for a spell—then just turned and left. Pa said it was some kind of a sign, but I never gave it much thought." Whitethorn grimaced as greenish-yellow paste was pushed into his wounds.
"Hmm, I see. Your father was wise. The bear is powerful. It is a sign of strength and good medicine. To seek justice, protect, and heal make bear strong. It is good that you are man of the law."
A strange feeling washed over him—like he was suddenly disconnected from his body, from the real world. He shook his head and tried to remember. The voices in the wind seemed so real. The others Cloud said, what others? Spirits? Witch? His fingers tingled and unexpectedly he was floating like a leaf on water in a place he had never been before. Then all was darkness.
* * *
Whitethorn blinked as light bathed his face from the sun rising over the Guadalupe Mountains. Slowly, he elbowed himself up and away from the saddle and looked around. There was no sign of Cloud, but a hint of juniper and pine remained in the air. A scene that seemed impossible surrounded him. A few feet away the paint gelding munched on grasses emerging from a fairly wide mound of earth that had a thin trickle of water flowing from it. The water disappeared into the surrounding flat of white a few feet away. Odd, but there was a small, smokeless fire burning a few feet away.
The thin bedroll blanket that covered him was shoved aside as he examined the wound he could see. A scab had formed over the bullet's entry point. Gingerly, he felt for the exit wound. Same result, a firm scab—strangely, neither hurt.
Motion caught his eye. He looked to the south and reached for his revolver.
From a distance, the old man spoke. "Aho, lawman Bear."
"Aho, Cloud," Whitethorn responded, holstering the revolver.
"You hungry." It was not a question, but a statement. "Brother rabbit offer his flesh and spirit to us."
A few minutes later, the aroma of roasting rabbit revived Whitethorn even more. For the first time, he moved so he could see all around their small campsite. The huge billowing clouds of dust were gone, and except for their tiny oasis, the desert looked to be starting a normal day.
"You eat for strength." Cloud shoved a piece of roasted rabbit at him and sat down on the ground with a piece for himself.
It was the most delicious meat he remembered having. Whitethorn thanked the old shaman profusely and leaned back against the saddle. Suddenly he sat upright and a shadow came over his features.
"You are troubled?" Cloud asked. "Rabbit is bad?"
"Oh, no . . . no. It's just that the Landis gang is still out there coming for me. If they find you helped me they will kill you too."
Cloud looked at him for many moments and for the first time a smile came to his ancient face. He grasped the turquoise stone that hung around his neck. "Sky rock protect and give me power to heal. It is sacred to ancient ones, my people, and the spirits."
Whitethorn didn't know what to say, but Cloud spoke again so he didn't have to.
"You are good and strong man. I go now, have much work to do and must speak with brothers. Remember the power of the bear and sky rock."
Whitethorn nodded, "Thank you, I will. I will never forget you."
The old Indian stood, looked down at him, and clutched the turquoise again. "Be at peace, lawman Bear."
Suddenly, Whitethorn was exhausted. His eyes refused to stay open. The gelding nickered and all went black.
* * *
A strong gust of wind woke him, and he immediately noted that the sun was low above the western horizon. Everything was the same—but different. The scent of juniper and pine was gone. Cloud was gone. Inexplicably there was no pain from his wounds. The horse studied him as he got to his feet. He actually felt good, but examination of the area proved confusing. A small amount of grass remained for the horse, but the trickle of water was less. A circle of ash marked where the fire had been. Other than that, he was surrounded by desert.
Cloud had placed his saddlebags next to the saddle. He opened the one nearest and found a thin piece of leather that held more roasted bits of brother rabbit. The other bag yielded a spare shirt which he quickly slipped into. With grass, water, and the sun beginning to set he decided to partake of some rabbit and stay the night. First light and he would start for El Paso.
The desert night was invariably cold with nothing to hold the day's heat. A quarter moon rose over the mountains but failed to diminish the brilliance of the stars in the sky. Sleep came easily.
Morning broke cool, but he knew that wouldn't last. A few more bites of rabbit and he made ready to go. As he lifted the saddle from the ground he stopped and set it aside. Underneath was a beautiful piece of turquoise—sky rock Cloud had called it. Whitethorn examined it and thought it felt unnaturally cool to the touch. Nickering of the horse interrupted moments of silent reflection, and he slid the gift into his pocket.
Paint saddled, bedroll and saddlebags secured, he checked to confirm the wounds were intact. As he stepped into the stirrup and threw his leg over the horse he marveled at the absence of pain. Old man Cloud for sure had some kind of magical healing power.
Two hours later, Whitethorn pulled the gelding up and took a sip of water. The day was getting hot, but they were off the worst of the flats and headed west. The expanse of West Texas that spread out in front of him was just about as desolate as the flats, but with more vegetation. Glancing back to the east, he saw dust. Dust from riders moving quickly in his direction. Urging his mount forward at greater speed, he rode as fast as he dared. Another hour and the riders were almost on top of him. Why they had not caught up to him before now was a mystery.
The country had changed to rolling hills becoming steeper as he rode west. Suddenly the angry buzz of a bullet zinged by him. It was time to stop and make a stand—now or never. At the bottom of a swale, Whitethorn reined in the paint and urged him to lay down. A sure-footed, experienced mount, he went down tucking legs and feet under him. Whitethorn jerked his Winchester Model 73 from its scabbard and ripped the saddlebags containing extra ammo off the horse.
Running to the top of the knoll, he tossed the saddlebag on the ground and hunkered down as more bullets whined overhead. He placed his revolver on the ground and levered a round into the rifle's chamber. The first man in view was an easy target. Bear fired, watched the man pitch out of his saddle, and levered another round. The gang spread out. There were five of them remaining. Two riders were going to try to get behind him and trap him in a crossfire. The Winchester roared and missed what looked to be a son of Landis.
Bear fired and fired again, another man fell from his horse, but they were playing with him now. No time to reload, he picked up the revolver and fired again and again until the hammer clicked on an empty casing. Unexpectedly and unbelievably, the air was filled with the sound of a bugle. What remained of the Landis gang turned tail and rode as fast as they could away from his position. Immediately, the sound of hooves and galloping horses enveloped him. Soldiers—buffalo soldiers— swept by, chasing and shooting at the departing gang. One of the remaining riders dropped from his saddle as Whitethorn watched.
He turned and he saw his gelding push up off the ground—thankfully unharmed. Beyond the horse, a cavalry officer rode toward him. "Marshal Whitethorn?" he shouted and waved.
"That would be me." Bear returned the gesture.
The officer halted and dismounted. "Lieutenant Caleb Marsden, ninth cavalry from Ft. Bliss at your service."
"Much obliged for the help, lieutenant. You and your men got here in the nick of time, but I surely don't understand how you found me—and them," he motioned toward the fleeing riders.
"A group of freighters stopped at Pine Springs only to be attacked and robbed by that bunch. Two of the teamsters were killed and the gang lit out for El Paso figuring the others would turn back. But one of the freighters was a good horseman and rode fast to Ft. Bliss. What the outlaws didn't know was that those freighters were on the way to the fort with much needed supplies for the Army. Along their way, the freighters heard about trouble east of the Guadalupe Mountains—a big time rancher was dead, a U.S. Marshal named Whitethorn had been shot up, and a gang of the rancher's men were out to kill him.
"When that bunch got to El Paso, they started drinking hard and bragging about the freighters they attacked. At some point they got drunk enough to leave and head back this way, but not before telling some of their new saloon friends they had unfinished business with a U.S. Marshal. An off-duty deputy overheard what was said. The troopers and I were saddling up to go investigate the freighter incident and escort them in when we received word from the El Paso City Marshal that the gang was heading east—apparently to settle up with you.
"We rode yesterday and all night tracking that group. We halted only once to rest a bit and water the horses. Dust from riders and sounds of the fight led us straight to you. From all appearances, you're in better shape than I expected. You were said to be shot up by that rancher. That would have been five days ago."
"Bullet in and out between my ribs," Whitethorn said lifting his shirt and pointing at the nearly healed wounds. "There was this old Indian. He found me out on the salt flats, treated my wounds, and fed me." If possible, Whitethorn was even more confused. Five days? That couldn't be right. What happened to time . . . how could he heal so fast?
The sounds of returning troopers interrupted their conversation. A muscular sergeant rode up to the lieutenant and saluted. "Sir, Troopers Gaston and Blevins wounded and being tended to. Two civilians captured with minor wounds, four dead including the two the marshal shot."
"Very good, sergeant. Have Corporal Ellis form a detail to bury the dead, then have him escort the wounded and prisoners back to Ft. Bliss. The remainder of the Company will proceed with us on to Pine Springs with Marshal Whitethorn—if he is in agreement." The sergeant saluted smartly and turned to carry out his orders.
"You have a choice marshal—what is your pleasure?'
"I'm with you, lieutenant. I surely would enjoy your company and I still have a job to get back to." Abruptly a cool breeze washed over the two men. Bear Whitethorn reached into his pocket and clutched Cloud's turquoise gift as the scent of juniper and pine surrounded them.