Short stories intrigue me. They allow the reader to see a snapshot of a time and place, of a person and character–even if that dim picture is incomplete. This particular one is perhaps a wee bit long for a blog post, but it’s appropriate. I’m off to the Colorado Plateau, a place desperately different, so I suppose it’s fitting to share a story set in the desert with those of you who cannot walk the edge of it with me.
Private Rowley took a long draw from his metallic canteen, the lukewarm water running down the wool cover and over his dirt-caked fingers. He leaned back and wiped his sweaty brow. Below him were four bodies; two Mexican, one Gringo and an Apache. Private Rowley hadn’t killed them all, the Apaches had, and he was just waiting it out, hoping they didn’t jump him too. He was far outnumbered in both numbers and firepower. The dozen or so braves carried Henry repeating rifles, each holding eleven cartridges. Private Rowley, he had his model 1871 Springfield breach-loading rifle. One shot, and he would have to spend half a minute preparing and loading another. In that time, twelve braves could unload six shots each, which added up to a pretty slim chance for Rowley.
The midday sun was baking Rowley as well as the bodies on the trail. He had scavenged their canteens, but he didn’t know if in the end it would matter. Heat wavered on the horizon, his wool uniform broiled his legs, the warmth trapped between his breeches and scuffed leather boots. The bodies had only been dead for an hour or so. Rowley and a comrade had been riding with two Mexican soldiers, a scouting party for a squad of U.S. and Mexican Cavalry working jointly to clear the Rio Grande country of hostile Indians. He was due back by nightfall, and boy did he want to get back. As a trooper, Rowley had ridden hundreds of miles on dusty patrol, searching for renegade Indians, fugitive cowboys and raiding comancheros. He had seen what a group of braves could do to a captured soldier. Rowley vowed to keep one round in his Colt Navy revolver for himself—he was not going to die pinned to the ground naked, with thousands of ants eating his eyes, coyotes tearing at his limbs. The three men would probably think themselves lucky. Although dead, they had bitten the dust quickly. Felled by bullets and arrows to the upper chest cavity, they did not suffer long. The American, a trooper from Kansas, lie sprawled facedown, his deep blue uniform spattered by droplets of blood and covered in fine trail dust. His rifle was secure in its scabbard, and his revolver still tucked in the holster at his side. He was the first to die, didn’t even have time to brandish a weapon. The first Mexican had time to draw his carbine from its scabbard. But before he could chamber a round he was struck by an arrow, falling from his horse where he was pelted by more missiles. The second Mexican had turned around on the trail with Rowley, intending on fleeing for their lives. An Apache brave jumped from a rock outcropping near the trail, knocking him off his horse. Rowley dismounted, and shot the brave in the back, but not before the Indian had cut the soldier’s throat. A stray arrow caught his mount in the neck and she bolted after the other horses. As the man died, and with arrows and lead hitting the dust, Private Rowley jumped into a boulder cluster, rifle in hand.
And here he was.
Now he was growing faint from the heat. Flies from the bodies annoyed him, flying in and out of his hair, darting into his eyes and ears. But it wasn’t the flies he feared; it was the warriors out in the wastes. Where were they? Were they just as scared of him as he of them? No, probably not. Each question stripped courage and resolve from Rowley’s mind. The thought of rushing into the open, guns blazing, crossed his mind. But he decided against it. When night fell, then he would die, then they would jump him from the shadows, knives in hand, intent on either ending him swiftly, or prolonging his ultimate demise through torture.
Private Rowley removed the fat cork from the neck of his canteen, wetting his lips and throat and dabbing a little on his forehead, easing the heat. The rock he sat against, just abreast of his head, exploded into fragments of granite. Pieces of rock and lead ricocheted into his face, the report of the rifle echoing through the gulley. Private Rowley dropped his canteen, clutching his left eye with his hand, blood pouring through his fingers. Rowley forgot his eye and replaced the cork on his canteen as water chugged out the spout. Then he seized his rifle, pulling the hammer back, primed and ready.
“Come and get me, you son of a—”
A second bullet smashed into the brush to his right, interrupting his taunt. Rowley lurched deeper into the hot dirt. Could they see him? He removed his hat, peering around his cover; the shooter was above him, and had probably spent the last hour climbing into position. Rowley feigned movement with his leg, the shot rang out again, but this time he saw the puff of smoke. The brave was atop a huge boulder high on the bluff. Rowley was sure he could get him, the brave having exposed himself so foolishly. Private Rowley spit onto the rock, then dabbed some of the saliva onto his rifle sights of his carbine. At least the advantage of his outdated rifle was that it could shoot farther and more accurately than the quick repeaters. Rowley crouched in the dirt, rifle in hand, hat on the ground. He leaned against the boulder. Then he pushed his hand into his black cartridge pouch, removed two more shells and placed them in the dirt within accessible reach. Slowly, ever so slowly, he inched around the edge of the rock; hopefully the brave would not notice his slight movements. Rowley placed the butt of the rifle against his shoulder, and took aim, poised in concentration. His right forefinger gently pressed on the trigger, slowly, slowly. The rifle recoiled, smoke and dust swirled in the air, and the brave on the boulder arched his back in pain, his rifle slipping from his fingers, he collapsed and rolled a few feet, and finally stopped twitching.
Private Rowley began to reload, the other braves throwing up a harassing fire, surprised at the unexpected loss of a marksman. Lead crashed into dirt, rocks, and dry branches, whistling off the boulders. Private Rowley shoved a round into the breach of his rifle, and primed the hammer once more. Whoa!” he whooped, again wiping the wetness off his brow. That would even out the odds a bit, and give the braves a reason to second-guess the idea of nighttime attack. The shooting stopped, Private Rowley took a respite from the stress. The sun was dropping, a few clouds hinted at rain, and a dry wind blew through the gulley. Were it not for the men trying to kill him, Rowley thought the ditch was nearly pleasant. The dry lichen on the rocks matched the pasty buds sprouting from the branches of the dry scrubby undergrowth.
But death was in the air. Rowley glanced at the bodies, they were swelling, it was a disgrace they couldn’t be recovered and buried. Their dried blood caked the reddish dirt. The whole country was just begging for water; the existence of man and animal alike in these parts depended mostly on the availability of water. Range wars, fought between cattle farms, sheep farmers, or homesteaders were waged over the rights and usage of the liquid. Men died victims of pride and arrogance, or just a lack of usable water holes and wells. The Apache knew how to find water, knew how to keep perspiration to a minimum, how to keep water from turning bad. The U.S. Cavalryman just had his canteen, he rode when and where his squad commander went, whether there was water or not. And it was tough. Ever since news of Major T.T. Thornburgh and his troop of 200 were massacred by the Utes in Colorado, where, within moments of the ambush, every officer above the rank of Captain, including Major Thornburgh, were dead, the average trooper was less excited or enthusiastic about following his commander into the fray. The U.S. Army was learning, if ever so slowly, how to fight the nontraditional fighter, the fighter they so rudely underestimated. The Apaches, the “savage”, knew how to fight. They were not Mexican Regulars, CSA Infantrymen, or even British dragoons. They were better. And Rowley knew it: in terms of raw battlefield cunning and ability, the trooper did not measure up to an Apache brave. Therefore, Private Rowley needed a better situation.
Night fell shortly. The desert breathed a sigh of relief as the mountains shaded the countryside from the burning sun. The rocks and dirt were still warm to the touch. Private Rowley didn’t watch the beautiful desert setting of the sun; he kept his eyes from the light to help adjust to the darkening sky. He guessed the time to be about six thirty. A cursory glance in each direction showed no life, however, that didn’t mean they weren’t there. He tucked his pistol in his pants and checked his rifle. He thought about going down to the soldier’s bodies and scavenging for food and ammunition, but didn’t when he realized they expected just that. They would have the bodies under surveillance. Rowley bent down and pulled off his cavalry boots. The hard leather soles would cause noise on the dry leaves and twigs, so he’d be better off without them, despite the desert floor. He sneaked away from his hiding place; slowly, deliberately, and with his rifle hovering at his waist, ready to blast in an instant. Across a boulder, around a patch of sweet acacia, and under a blossoming cascalote, Rowley made his withdrawal from the trail. He crouched behind another boulder on the far side of the gulley. The dirt was pushing through his socks, and sharp twigs poked through and caused his soles to bleed. The twilight shone through the thin foliage, highlighting the outcropping of rocks on the bluff against the bluing sky. Rowley paused behind his boulder; his intent was on outflanking the braves, getting behind them and hopefully stealing a horse or slip into the vast desert to walk out.
He started again, this time taking the low ground; a natural drainage ditch, full of leaves, branches, and other debris. His feet crackled on the mess, causing more noise than he wished. About thirty yards down the ditch, he paused and looked up over the side. He could see a flickering light, probably a campfire. The horses would be in the vicinity, but he would stay clear of the fire itself. Private Rowley went up and over the side, rifle at the ready. Past some cacti, a stump and a grouping of scrub bushes, the campfire was closer, but still no sign of the animals. Rowley flanked farther to the right, intending on circling the entire camp. He did, and almost completed his circle when he saw a figure inspecting his recent trail on the opposite side. It was an Indian, he was unarmed, but had noticed Rowley’s tracks and was following him, unaware that his prey had closed in behind.
Do I shoot him? Rowley thought. It seemed rather mean spirited to shoot a man in the back. But the report of the rifle would alert everyone within a miles’ radius. Rowley didn’t carry a knife, and he thought of clubbing the man over the head, silently. But now, the Indian had seen the prints until there were two pairs, he had gone full circle and whirled about, knowing who he would see. Private Rowley was waiting for him, or his rifle was at least. The brave opened his mouth to alert his comrades and grappled for his knife in his buckskin trousers. The Springfield rifle blew and the unfortunate brave was struck in the chest, the impact at such a close range blowing out his back. His mouth gaped open in surprise and shock. Then as his eyes rolled into his head as life passed, he collapsed to his knees and pitched face first in the dirt.
Private Rowley was stunned, after all, he had killed two men, and he had just watched a man die in front of him. However, if he had not shot, the brave would have knifed him for sure. It was either Rowley or him, and Rowley had the drop on the native. The rifle shot was loud, considering the only noise of the night had been the chirping cicadas. Rowley rushed past the dead brave, frantic for a horse, the other Indians were scrambling for their weapons, running out of the bush and crying out to each other. If they captured Private Rowley alive, they would have their fun. Rowley felt for the revolver in his pants; one bullet had his name on it.
He sprinted now, running in a half circle, eyes probing the darkness for the mounts and reloading his Springfield as he went. A pistol shot out, and a piece of lead whirled past his body, throwing up dirt. Rowley ran uphill, past the boulders, treading on sharp rocks, twigs, and cacti. His feet were a bloody state, but he hardly noticed. Halfway up the bluff he stopped and took cover behind a boulder. His heartbeat hammered in his chest, and fear was inching up his spine. He peered around his rock and saw half-dozen braves nimbly scramble up after. He cocked the hammer and took aim, then fired, not knowing whether he scored. Up farther he went, reloading once again. More firearms discharged behind, the bullets missing him by mere inches, hitting the rocks, scattering bits of granite. Rowley stopped; his heart pounding out of his throat now, his legs trembling uncontrollably, and lungs panicking for breath . He cocked the hammer, and tried to aim. He could see three Indians; he picked a target and brought his muzzle to bear. A slight aim and he squeezed the trigger off in a blast of smoke. A scream, and return fire. Up and up , farther and farther. It was becoming steep, the hill sloping off into erosion-gutted dirt and mud. Rowley looked at his pursuers; they were very close, and Rowley ripped the Navy revolver from his pants. He collapsed between three rocks, providing a redoubt.
Come and get me, he thought, if this is the end for me, it’ll be the end of five braves too. Six shots in the cylinder, they’ll all find a mark, of sorts. He cocked the hammer and waited, they would come, but they respected him now, he had killed two of the number and winged a third. Not only that, but he had survived their ambush—something that few ever did. Private Rowley leaned around the rock, no one yet. He fired a misplaced shot for cover and then took another last-ditch sprint up the steep incline. The loose dirt tumbled down the hillside, making a landslide of silt and rock. He clutched at some grass, but it tore loose. Just ten feet more and the crown would be reached. He struggled, then pistol and rifle shots rang out below, they saw him and he was an easy target. Another spring, Rowley grasped the tippy top, a solid rock. Then something painful slammed into his leg, it burned like hell. Private Rowley heaved himself over the top, and looked around.
The horses were tied off not twenty yards away, watching him nervously, all jumpy from the gunfire. Rowley picked his tired body up and clasped a hand over his wound. Warm blood ran down his leg over his foot. He had been hit. Rowley reached the first horse and grabbed her mane, pulling himself onto the mares’ back. The horse moved, and he almost fell off, but succeeded in retaining his mount. With his unwounded leg, he kicked the animal, and she shot off in a hurry. Over the grass, which they had been feeding on before, down the incline on the opposite side, rocks, boulders, stumps, and unsure footing made this extremely dangerous for man and horse alike. It was dark, but Rowley prayed the horse was good on her feet, because he had no idea what was in front of him. The animal hurdled a tree, nearly losing Rowley on landing. He turned her to the left, reaching the bottom of the bluff in a half minute. As the trail stretched into the darkness ahead, he raced past the dim bodies of his comrades, leaving them to the desert.