I finished carving the last numbers on the singed board as the sun turned the desert blood red. I read the words aloud:
John & Sarah Garnett
I didn't know when or where they were born. Not any more than I knew why they had to die. I only knew one thing. I'd better get out of here before those Apache's returned. I'd already salvaged some flour, salt pork and a small pan from the burning wagon. They weren't going to need it any more and I didn’t know how long it would be before my next meal. I glared at the wagon, wishing I could have retrieved some clothes before it burned. If anyone spotted me in this garb, they'd have me pegged right off.
I slung the sack of food over my shoulder and started off into the desert. The round toed boots were a size too large for me. I was short and lean - small for sixteen, but I was strong. I shifted the heavy gun on my hip. I'd feel a lot better if I'd come by it honest. All the same, it might come in handy if I came across those Indians again. People were presented with choices during their lives and a percentage of them weren’t going to be the right ones. I sure hoped I was getting the wrong decisions over with first, because I’d hate to think my life was going to continue this way.
I walked into the night, hoping I didn't step on a rattler or a Gila Monster. To my right, a big scorpion scrambled across the sand. I shuddered. The heat was my logic for walking all night and resting during the day. Hopefully neither scorpions nor Indians would be out at night. Maybe I'd run across some little ranch or something, where I could steal some respectable clothes - then go on to the next settlement. Nobody would ever know. Just like nobody would ever know about that heavy gun.
At dawn I found a seep and filled my canteen. Luck was with me. I crawled up in the rocks and lay down. I must have been asleep when my head hit the ground, 'cause the next thing I knew, the sun was directly over me. Thanks to the loose clothing, I wasn't burned. I started to move to a shady spot underneath an overhanging rock when I heard a noise by the seep. I froze. I knew the sound of Moccasins on gravel. I peaked between two rocks and watched them drink from the seep. They were talking in guttural tones and one held a lance with a new scalp on it. I felt sick to my stomach.
I slowly reached down and drew that heavy gun from its holster. Poking the barrel between the rocks, I took a bead on the Apache with the grisly lance. I could have killed him, he was so close. I hesitated. If I fired the others would be on me, and I wasn't sure I had enough bullets to take care of all of them.
I lay there for nearly an hour, sweating in the hot sun and hoping I hadn't left any trail they could follow. I'd been careful all night, and especially careful at the seep. Finally they drank their fill and left. If they hadn't found my trail, nobody was going to. So I decided to stay there in the rocks for the rest of the day. I glanced back up at that shady spot under the ledge and my heart skipped a beat. I would have been lying in plain sight of the seep. I couldn't stay in the hot sun, though. I had to find some shade - and if I was going to leave tracks moving around, I might as well be traveling.
I went down to the seep and filled my canteen again and then started out - not the same way those Indians had gone, though. After a while my stomach started reminding me I hadn't eaten for nearly twenty four hours. A lot of good that flour and salt pork was going to do me. I didn't dare build a fire to cook it. All the same, I hung onto it. It was food.
By mid-afternoon I knew I had to hole up until dark. My water supply was getting low and I was weak with hunger. I had to chance a fire or I wasn't going to make it out of the desert. I found a dry wash and a little shade under a Palo Verde tree. There I squatted and built a small fire with old dry sticks. It wasn't much, and the salt pork was still half raw when I threw a little flour into the grease. I stirred it around until it was brown and then kicked sand over the fire. I scarfed down the food and cleaned the pan with sand. Then I crawled back up against the side of the wash under the tree and slept until dark.
I woke feeling a lot better and climbed out of the wash. The sand would make walking harder, and it would leave tracks. Orienting myself with the stars and the angle of the wash, I took off again. By midnight my water was all gone. I kept going, and the desert seemed more and more desolate. The abundance of Cholla cactus indicated there wasn't much hope of finding water here. In the distance, mountains jutted up sharply against the moonlit sky. Maybe there would be water at their base.
By morning I was exhausted and hungry again. I set myself a goal. I'd stop when I reached the foothills. It couldn't be far - maybe two more miles at the most. I could see some trees … maybe a creek? More like a dry creek bed. I lumbered on.
I must have slept as I walked, because the adobe building was suddenly before me - and so was the man. He took one look at my clothes and I knew what he was thinking.
"You look hungry, child. Come get something to eat."
I didn't much like being called a child, but when he turned me over to the authorities, I was bound to be called a lot worse. Right now I didn't care. What could they do to me that the desert and Apache hadn't already done?
I followed the old man into his house and he motioned for me to sit at the table. As I sat, he scooped out a mess of beans and slid the plate in front of me. He tore off a hunk of bread and handed it to me, along with a cup of coffee. I gulped the coffee down and he poured another. Finally he sat down on the bench opposite me.
"You came in from the east. How far you been traveling?"
"Not sure," I answered with a full mouth. I wasn't about to stop eating for conversation - not today, anyway.
"I reckon you could use some clothes. I got some in the back room. Some people came through with a kid about your size last year."
I stared at him. "You'd give me some different clothes?"
He was getting up to go after the clothes and he stopped, rubbing his jaw as he gazed down at me.
"Are you fond of them duds?"
I shook my head. "No sir, but...well, that's mighty considerate of you. Seeing how I'm dressed, and carrying this gun and all. I figured you wouldn't want anyone to know you befriended me."
The old man grinned, showing half a mouthful of yellow teeth. "Well now, they don't need to know, do they? Anybody who'd judge somebody by the clothes they wear ain't much account anyway."
He rustled around in the back room and finally brought out some clothes. I wiped my mouth and thanked him. Unbuckling the gun belt, I put it on the table.
"I don't guess I'll be needing that." That was when I started to cry.
That old man just stood there and I could tell it made him uncomfortable. He waited until I got myself under control and then I told him how I came by that heavy gun. How I'd borrowed some of Dad's clothes and snuck off with that gun to try it out. How I'd been so far away when the Indians attacked - and how I got back as they were scalping Mom and Dad. I told him how I cowered in the bushes with that gun and didn't even try to shoot those Indians - about how I didn't cry until now.
He sat and listened to it all and finally shook his head.
"Well, I can understand why you used your father's old clothes. You wouldn't have made it far in city duds. As it turned out, it's a good thing you were wearing them. As far as killing them Indians, you couldn't have killed them all anyway. I'm sure your parents would be glad you were gone, and that you hid in them bushes. You're alive now. As for the gun, well, I guess it's just natural for a kid to want to use a gun. I reckon your father was one of them easterners that don't realize the value of teaching a kid to use a gun." He gave me a stern look. "But if you want to learn how to use a gun, you need to ask someone with experience to show you. Don't ever sneak off with a gun. It's dangerous. You could wind up killing yourself - or even somebody else."
He examined the gun while he talked. "Now, if I was you, I wouldn't mention all this to anyone else. I think you learned your lesson. You're right about one thing, though. If them women in town see you in them duds, there's going to be a lot of tongue wagging. We found that burned out wagon, and folks are wondering what happened to the daughter. You'd better get into that dress I gave you and I'll take you into town. I won't say anything about those clothes."
I smiled up at him. I was beginning to feel like a girl again and it was a good feeling.
This story can be found in the short western story collection "Horse Opera."