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It was one of those sleepy Sunday afternoons where the whole prairie seemed to be at peace, and nothing could possibly go wrong. A chubby two year old was happily handing laundry to his goddess mother. Suddenly he pointed an excited finger. “I see it!” And he chuckled in proud hysteria at his own cleverness. Jenny looked up at the approaching dust cloud and gave a mesmerizing smile. She was a thin and striking woman, with a bundle of xz auburn hair pulled back in a loose bun.
“Oh! Man, James is back.” She dropped the linens she was holding into the basket and swooped up the chubby one in her arms. “Let’s go see how he fared in town, shall we, Georgie?” Georgie chortled his consent and together they made their delighted way towards the fence at the edge of the yard. Man looked up from his paper, his calm face twitching almost inperceivably. Piercing dark eyes looked out from under a well worn rancher’s hat. James was just twelve and had been sent on his first ride alone to town, some twenty miles to the east.
As he approached, Man stood slowly and, forgetting himself, cursed. There was a single man with James, a man who slumped in the saddle like a game animal. He had on the blue uniform of a U.S. private. Man’s pipe slipped from his mouth. The paper rustled forgotten on the floor and he made his way with a quick stride to the fence, where his wife held Georgie, her face etched with concern.
James hopped off the horse before it reached the gate and led it towards Man. He was a ruddy youth, muscles defined in hard curves, and his face was dominated by the same thick brows of his father. The beautiful copper tousle belonged to Jenny. “Pa, Pa I’m sorry.” His voice was pleading, a despairing admittance of failure.
Man said nothing. He merely glanced at the strange man in the saddle, and then back at James. The man was unconscious, and his ragged uniform was stained with both his own blood, seeping from under a tattered bandage that enveloped his waist, and that of another, staining his hands, face, and arms. On his back was strapped a battered 22 rifle, and thrust in his belt was a hatchet, encrusted dark brown. An American flag was stitched into the shoulder of his shirt, and a dirty yellow private’s bandana encircled his neck.
“I didn’t make it to the town, Pa.” He face betrayed his anxiety. “I found him staggering by the river, seems like there was a battle.” Man shook his head. Quiet anger and disbelief played quickly across his rough features.
“We don’t get involved in this, James, you know that. Christ, when I give you an errand I expect it done. You have put us all in a bad place boy.” He said the words in a quiet deadly tone, glancing over his shoulder to the barn. “Get your Mother and Georgie inside while I deal with this mess.” James hesitated by the horse, eyes flicking to the wounded man, whose breathing was a ragged hiss. “Now, damn it!” Man let loose his anger in a raised hiss, his teeth clenched tight. Jenny, sensing the terrible rage held back in Man, grabbed James’ hand and led him quickly into the house without a word. She looked confused, and a little afraid. .
Man had turned to the man in the saddle, and led the horse to the barn without giving his family another glance. Damn the compassion in that boy. The mere presence of a soldier endangered all of their lives. The battles with the Indians were becoming more frequent and intense. James knew the trouble they were in; this was not the way to survive. Man swore as he opened the barn doors.
He called out to his two ranch hands to help him with the man; the two were father and son, Mexicans hired from the town in just the past week to bring in the harvest. Man was not easily bothered by rough men, but these were two of the riskier people that had been under his employment. The kind you locked your door in fear of.
Man knew he might as well try to help the soldier; he might get some information from him as well, anything to minimize the threat of invasion. These were not safe lands, and with the new railroads coming through the Indians were acting out more and more violently. With the help of the Mexicans, Man lifted the soldier onto a pile of hay, and inspected his bloody torso. He shuddered. The soldier had been hacked into several times with a semi-sharp weapon. The long gashes in his side revealed a splintered rib. This man would not survive long; death was simply biding its time. The hired hands stood by, keeping their distance from the stranger, as if they could feel a terrible threat in his presence.
Jenny floated into the barn with cloth, warm water, and a jug of whiskey, the medical accoutrements of the prairie. Man smiled sadly at her entrance. It was from her James got that damning compassion. She could see the man was dying, but could not sit easy and let it just happen. “Isn’t there more we can do? Why, he is barely twenty!” She was frightened, and curiously burdened, as if it were her own son that lay on the hay, caked in blood. Man slowly shook his head.
“He won’t last much longer, Jenny, not with that wound. It’s a straight up miracle he made the ride from the river, toughest son of a gun I e’r seen.” Man pulled off the remainder of the bloody shirt, and Jenny covered her mouth with a faint sob. The wound was indeed grotesque. Without another word she surrendered the whiskey and linens and returned to the house, murmuring prayers for the “poor child.”
As they cleaned the man and set the wound in clean cloth, Man gently poured a few drops of whiskey between his dry lips, wiping the caked blood from his face. Sputtering, the soldier’s face contorted in pain and he came into consciousness. Sweat poured from every pore in his body, and the clouded blue eyes darted around the room taking in everything with sporadic movements. He inhaled sharply and gasped in wild anguish. His hand shot to the whiskey jug and he took a hard gulp. Mann held his head,
“Easy boy, looks like you got it pretty good. The Indians pushed back at all?” He anxiously searched the young man’s dirty face; the family man in him wanting an answer he knew wasn’t there.
“You fools…” The soldier was caught by a violent spasm of pain, his eyes scrunched shut and his teeth snapped together in a grimace. “Bloody defeat, Indians swarming everywhere. Men screaming, dying, so much...!” He was raving, sputtering in horror, his body seized with trembling. “You must flee!” Wildly he tried to sit up and collapsed in convulsions while the three men stood, helpless and horrified. Man again offered the whiskey, and after pouring a good amount down the soldier’s throat, the convulsions relaxed.
Outside the barn there was a throaty whinny and a high pitched Indian whoop. “Hiyaaii!” Through the open great barn doors a lone Indian warrior, decked out in red paint and a brilliant feather headset could be seen by the gate. Man rose from his spot by the soldier, disbelief on his face. He did not want this to be happening. This man was a messenger. He knew how the local tribe worked, a messenger of war was sent, a harbinger of imminent doom. The message was always the same, and his mere presence was enough: “Flee or die.”
The soldier, hearing the war whoop, managed to sit up ashen faced, holding his side. The Indian guided his horse only thirty feet from the barn and moved toward them with a heinous grin. He seemed gleeful, no doubt with the terrifying threats poised on his lips.
Rage bubbled from the soldier’s throat in a scream that would startle Satan himself, and hatred illuminated his savage face. Before any of the men could process what they were seeing, he drew his hatchet from his belt and hurled it with the desperation of a dying soldier. It flew with trained accuracy and struck the messenger square in the chest with the dull “shhwack” of metal into meat. The brave’s eyes widened in shock, and his hands explored the handle growing out of his chest. His horse gave a screeching whinny, reared up at the smell of fresh blood; eyes wide and nostrils flaring it took off towards the West, where the sun was just starting to lower.
Standing in a last thrust of effort the man locked eyes with Man and grabbed him by the shoulders, “They’ll come...” He shuddered and fell quivering against Man. With incredible effort he rasped out, “You must flee...” Clutching at Man he sucked in air, shaking uncontrollably, “Good men … slaughtered.” With this last word he gave a gasping cry and fell, dead.
A dreadful silence filled the barn. Not one of them had spoken a word since the man gained consciousness, and now the silence carried a terrifying threat. Even the horses were struck dumb by the stench of death. Within a span of fifteen minutes the soldier came, killed, and died. Man heaved the man back onto the pile of hay.
Old Ramirez revealed nothing about his mind, but looked on the broken body with the eye of one deadened to such things. He was hard as stone, and seemed ready to ride out.
“What’s the order of the day boss? Are we packin’ up?” He was an experienced caballero, Mexican cowboy, of about fifty. His handlebar mustache was of steel grey, and his icy eyes reminded one of a wolf on the prowl. Dual revolvers hung at his hips, worn from use, and a filthy bandanna held back his greasy locks. His son, not much older than the soldier, was a thin, dangerous looking man. His sharp nose peaked above a rough five o’clock shadow, and he sported a small dingy sombrero. A single six shooter was stuck unceremoniously in the front of his pants.
His stance was threatening, and he stood, arms close to his hips. Man unsheathed his bowie knife almost carelessly, and inspected its acuity on his thumb, while he stood over the fast cooling soldier. In the whirl of recent events, his hard face had caught somewhere between remorse and anger. He instinctively felt the hostility of the men, knew they wanted payment, and they wanted to it now. When he spoke, his voice maintained dangerous calm.
“I will stay.” The narrow eyes closed to slits, and he pulled his broad hat a little lower. “I have worked too damned long just to flee like a varmint at the first raid.” He strode to the stable portion of the barn, where his stallion was standing idle. “I will not force any man to risk his life for my interests, you know that.” Old Ramirez walked closely behind him, hands at the ready.
“We would not leave you to fight alone, but this is not our land. We would need more payment to stay.” Quiet again took the floor. His voice had transmitted the steel in his character. The Mexican was a hard man, and a look of cold desire came into his eyes. The caballero was ready to kill. Man untied his horse from the stable, and began to lead it from the barn.
“Take the horses if you wish, I have nothing to give you.” The uneasy air grew even more uncomfortable. Man seemed to misinterpret the cold man’s threat, and Ramirez was left confused. Man started to walk out, leading the stallion. Ramirez pulled his weapons out in a swift movement, and stuck them in Man’s face.
“You are not that stupid, Senior.” He was snarling, the threat he offered was real and demanding.
“What do you wish? I am a rancher, not a banker; I have no gold stored, no riches hidden away. My wealth is my horses.” He looked straight into the Mexican’s eyes. “Have I not given you all you have needed? Was I unfair?” The Mexican lowered his guns, calmed by the sincerity of Man’s attitude.
“Get out, farmer. Flee while you have the option. We take your arms and horses.” Man nodded to him and quietly led out the stallion. As soon as the barn doors shut behind him he sprinted to the house.
Man rushed into the house. “James! Come here boy!” The lad didn’t need to be called for; he was waiting in earnest in the room adjacent, ready to spring into action, as if the ranch was being attacked at that moment.
“Pa! How is he pa?” Man merely shook his head, and took the boy by the arm. The house was centered around the living room, as it contained the fire place, and off of it jutted the kitchen to the front, two bedrooms to the back. Man looked him hard in the eyes, and directed him in low, rushed tones.
“Take my horse to town, its tethered outside the door. Tell the sheriff we got the Mexicans, and if he sends a posse he can keep the reward.” James nodded. This time around there was no room for error. He felt his father’s fear, and it in turn terrified him. His father was never fearful. “I want you to take your mother and Georgie. Get out as fast as that horse can take you, it is my best stallion, so remember, be assertive with it. It is fast but still on the wild side.” He ruffled the boy’s hair and then hugged him to his chest fiercely.
Jenny moved into the room, having heard it all, and was hugging Georgie close. She was a strong woman, and cast off her fear in acceptance of the situation. She embraced Man with the same intensity, and with a look that said “You damn well take care of yourself,” was out the door with the boys.
In the next few minutes, they were but a dust cloud in the distance. Man watched them become a dot on the horizon from the window. The Mexicans were in the barn, probably ransacking it for all it was worth. A few of his guns were of some value, and he had a few treasures stored away. He was a fool for trying to play them.
They had offered themselves as ranch hands to him on a trip to town, and he had greedily accepted. He was a fool to trust such obvious outlaws, but it was hard to find a hand these days, too much bloodshed for honest men. The sheriff had put an ad out in the paper describing them as outlaws, and he had sent James to collect the reward and send a posse. Instead he brought the soldier.
James was off for the second time. The sheriff wouldn’t respond to a call for Indians, he got that daily, but for men wanted by the government, a party just might show. Of course they would be wanted alive… but that was a minor detail. Man crouched at the kitchen window; he had pulled another rifle from the cellar, an older beat up black powder piece. He held it at his shoulder, locked and loaded. He could not risk facing a raid with this relic. He needed the weapons the Mexicans held.
He trained the gun on the barn doors, barrel hidden behind the shutters, which were barely cracked. The silence was unnerving. Nothing moved.
For half an hour Man trained his gun on the barn, not moving a muscle. His squinting eyes began to burn with nervous sweat, and the silence was only challenge with the wind rustling through the grass. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Time slid by like a lazy stream, and the barn held its quiet.
Then, with the violence of a rabid savage, the barn doors exploded open. The Mexicans burst out on horses, letting loose a barrage of bullets towards the windows of the house, shattering glass, shutters and splintering logs. Man, crouching low, took careful aim at their retreating backs and fired once. A single CRACK sounded amid the popping of their revolvers. The elder slumped in his saddle and fell. The younger bandit took off towards the west, the sun now only a glow of blood red in the darkening sky.
As soon it started it was over. Man remained unscathed, but the windows were shattered, and the only reason for help to arrive had just fled. The sheriff didn’t know that though, Man thought hopefully. If there was a full scale Indian raid he would depend on a posse from the town. Even with a well stocked arsenal, and backed against a cliff-like hill, Man knew he could not survive a full scale Indian attack.
Man recovered a rifle and the two six shooters from the bleeding Mexican. The rifle had done its work; a hole in the man’s chest had drained his life. Now he wished the soldier had not come. Now he wished he had taken the brave’s warning and left well enough alone. He wished his family had never come to this blood stained prairie. Muttering a prayer to no one in particular, Man began to blockade the windows, moving the solid wooden dining table in front of the door, and boarding up the windows entirely but for small cracks to shoot out of. He was alone for now, and would give them one hell of a fight.
Darkness began to steal upon the land. The bloody sky vanished into pitch black nothingness. No stars shone on the windswept grassland. The wind began to howl about the house, and the whole property seemed to tremble. Man sat in the gloom, shadows cast eerily about by the fire, which he had recently stocked up so it flared with life.
All he could do was wait. Wait for an imminent attack, hoping for the posse to show. Again he prayed to no one in particular, not much of a religious man, but needing the comfort of a hidden power to guide him to the safety of tomorrow. How he longed for tomorrow! Longed to see the dust cloud of horses, hear the laughter of Jenny and chortling squeal of Georgie. James came to his mind. The strong, compassionate boy infuriated him, but at the same time swelled his chest with pride.
It was then the high pitched cries reached his ears above the howl of the wind. Squinting through the crack in the window he saw distant shadows dancing towards the house. The flare of torches emitted long arms of light and flickering terror that reached for him. Man swallowed hard. The posse had not comes not here, but the war party, screeching and whooping like earth bound spirits, thirsting for mortal blood. Where was his son? The sturdy face framed with the copper tousle popped into his head, perhaps another prayer.
The two rifles were leaned against the wall, ready and loaded. Breathing deep, he slowed the beating of his heart. Time was the enemy. He needed to last; he needed to survive until the posse came. They would come. The sheriff would not pass up the opportunity. There was no way.
The dancing shadows reached the fence by the barn. Flares of light streaked from the bobbing torches, comets of hell trailing their fiery tails towards the barn. They were shooting fire arrows. Man opened fire. CRACK! One of the torches dropped to the dirt and screams of rage erupted into the night. Fire began streaking in, twenty comets at a time. The barn sprang into orange flames. The dry wood exploded in sparks and flowered in red hot tongues. The yard and surrounding area was then brilliantly illuminated, and Man despaired.
At least two score dark figures approached the house, their faces covered in red paint, made increasingly more terrifying by the firelight. The first arrows thudded into the side of the house, spurting flame. Man began to fire at the figures as fast as he could, quickly using up all four guns. He dropped at least ten of them, but they were closing in. The house was surrounded in a complete semicircle. The screaming spirits of hell bombarded it with a steady stream of fire. His ammunition was gone and they were still coming.
He had no way out. The cliff was behind him, the steady fire before. Something began to hack at the door. A relentless pounding gave way to a horrifying splintering, and then a victorious howl as a hatchet broke through the table. Man drew his bowie knife, and stood back from the door, crouching in a low coil of muscle. Smoke was already choking his lungs as it poured in the windows, flames licking around the boards.
The first leg smashed through the door. Three bodies followed, tumbling through with howls of rage and hunger. With the desperation of a cornered animal, Man hurled himself forward, screaming with all of his terror, love, and hatred. The knife in his hand glinted red, and flashed through the throat of the first man to enter. Man threw him to the ground and brought the 12 inch blade tearing through the belly of the next, afterwards ripping into the chest of the third. The house was consumed with fire, and a beam came crashing down just missing Man.
There was no more he could do. The fire was too hot, too threatening. Drenched with blood, shrieking with rage, and gasping through the smoke, he staggered towards the door, the crackling roar of fire in his ears. His dimming consciousness barely allowed him to stumble out into the night. When he managed it, he was surrounded by snarling faces. Men enraged by atrocities committing atrocities.
A hatchet buried itself in his chest. He fell to his knees. Blood spewed from his throat, dirty with ash and smoke. He fell hard in the dirt. A vicious moccasined foot rolled him onto his back, and held down his chest while the hatchet was pulled free.
Man saw the many feathered head leer down at him, splashed with red paint, and felt the hatched descend, removing his scalp. As the night faded from his eyes he saw his scalp added to a bloody string of prizes, one of which was a beautiful copper.