Reed McEuen reined his horse in abruptly and stared at the wagon tracks.
"Nesters," he growled. "Worse than the ranchers about leeching the land from the Indians. At least the ranchers don't plow up the grass and fence everything off so the buffalo can't graze."
He leaned forward and examined the tracks. "Leading a cow, too."
It couldn't have been more than a day ago -and that trail was heading right into the heart of Comanche country.
"Come on boy," he said to his horse. "We'd better turn them back before they stir up a heap of trouble for everyone."
He spurred the bay gelding into a mile-eating trot. He had left Fort Concho yesterday with a message in his saddlebag for a man at Fort Stockton, but it would have to wait. This wouldn't take long, and he was looking forward to setting one of those stupid sodbusters straight about a few things. They were swarming out here looking for free land. The fact that the Indians were here first didn't trouble them in the least. They regarded the natives as wildlife - something to slaughter at will. They didn't have the nerve to do it themselves, though. Instead they stirred up trouble and then ran to the soldiers, pointing their accusing fingers at the Indians. If they wanted land, why didn't they buy it from the Indians for a fair price, as he had? The answer was simple. Greed. All those arguments about the Indian being the savage and not being able to adapt to civilization were rubbish. The Cherokee had adjusted. They had lived like the white man, but what did it get them? When the white man wanted land, the Indian always had to be moved away. It wasn't the Indian who couldn't adjust.
All this had been stewing inside him since he'd heard about the so-called Battle of Wounded Knee, but he dared not say anything. Not with the Comanche acting the way they had been lately. They were at war, and they were making it clear enough for everyone within a three hundred-mile area to see - everyone but a stupid nester.
About mid-morning he reined his horse in at the top of a small butte. Below him, the land stretched out into the red Texas flats. Sagebrush and yucca broke the surface of the parched soil, their gray-green tones contrasting sharply against the red soil. A set of wagon tracks stretched out across the hot flats, like an arrow pointing to the single covered wagon. The canvas top buckled and lurched as the wagon crept across the rugged terrain. The cow plodded along on a tether behind the wagon. There was probably a mess of kids in that wagon.
He nudged the bay over the edge of the butte and it plunged down the slope. The soft red dirt raced ahead of them, sending a plume of red dust into the air. He cursed. Nothing like sending a signal for any Indian that might be out there right now.
It didn't take him long to catch up with the slow moving wagon. He was hot, tired and in no mood for arguments. This little detour had cost him at least a day and that idiot on the wagon had never checked his back trail once. He'd have to ride up to the front of the wagon to get the nester's attention.
The stupid nester would probably refuse to turn his wagon around and they’d waste time arguing. He set his jaw. He wasn't going to take no for an answer. He nudged the bay faster and yelled as he neared the front of the wagon.
"You mule headed clod buster. Pull up those nags. I've never seen anything so ..."
The words froze in his throat as he gazed slack-jawed at the woman in the wagon seat. Without a doubt, she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen - and he'd seen a passel of good-looking women. He didn't know much about fashion, but she looked like she could have stepped out of one of those fancy railroad cars he saw in Santa Fe one time. One thing for sure, she didn't belong out here - or on that wagon seat. The idea of leading some green nester back across that country was bad enough, but a fragile lady? He was tempted to turn around and ride off.
The lady expertly pulled the team to a halt. Eyes of blue ice glared up at him. "Who are you calling mule headed?" She asked in a tone that would have singed the ego of any normal man.
McEuen was no normal man, and her beauty had only staunched his tirade momentarily. He touched the brim of his hat in a halfhearted gesture of respect.
"Ma'am. I didn't know it was a woman driving this rig."
"Well, now you know," she said coldly. "Why are you stopping me?" She eyed him suspiciously without the slightest indication of fear. "We don't have any money, if that's what you're after."
He swallowed his pride and ignored her implication. "We?" He asked, glancing at the drawn tarp of the wagon. "Don't tell me your husband can't take the heat."
He had a mental picture of some sickly little guy with milky white skin.
The lady gave him a sour look. "I can't imagine why that would be any concern of yours, but the fact is, I'm not married." She glanced over her shoulder, and lowered her voice. "It's my father. A rattlesnake bit him last night. He's real bad off."
McEuen's stomach did a flip-flop. He didn't want to be the one to tell her that there wasn't any hope. It was nothing short of a miracle that the man was still alive. Anyway, if she was so concerned, why was she headed for Indian country - unless…. He frowned at her.
"So you figured to get help from the Indians? Lady, you'd better save yourself some time - and a fine head of red hair. In spite of what you've heard about their miracle cures, the Indians don't have anything for a rattlesnake bite either - and they wouldn't share it with a white man if they did."
"Indians?" She glanced around nervously. "I hadn't thought ..." She shook her head. "We haven't seen any evidence of civilization for at least a week. I decided it was useless to travel any further west, so I turned the wagon around and started back southeast, thinking I'd find a town somewhere."
He stared at her. "You're headed southeast, all right, but the only thing you're going to find in this direction for the next hundred miles is a Comanche war lance." He nodded west. "Follow me. The closest help is Fort Stockton. There's an army doctor there."
He turned his horse. So much for unloading on that nester. He didn't even have the guts to tell her that there was no hope for her father. As he passed the cow, he whipped out his knife and cut the rope from her neck. When the girl turned the wagon around and saw what he had done, and like a stupid nester, she got all riled up.
"What do you think you're doing?"
He tucked his knife back into its sheath and gave her the best stern look he could muster. "She'll slow you down. Let her go."
"She'll die out here. She has to be milked every morning and night, and...."
"You'll die out here, if you don't get moving." He shook his head. "Lady, I'm not getting through to you. A Comanche war party could spot us any time, and they aren't going to be friendly. The smartest thing for you to do would be to hop on one of those horses and skedaddle out of here." He let his gaze rest significantly on her fancy dress. "Of course, you probably don't know how to ride, and I don't figure your pa could sit on a horse." He rubbed his unshaven jaw and met her determined gaze. "Lady, you’d better get those horses moving and stop wasting time arguing."
She gave him a level look. "My name is Nellie, not Ma'am or Lady. Nellie Shelton." She lifted her chin. "And if I were in your shoes, I wouldn't be making any large bets on what a lady can do. You obviously have no experience."
He suppressed a smile. "Fine Miss Nellie. Now get moving."
For the next hour they moved at a slow pace, though faster than with the cow, and probably faster than was comfortable for the old man - if he was still alive. Still, they needed to travel faster. As it was, they were sending up as much dust as a detachment of cavalry – certainly enough to catch the attention and interest of a war party.
The sun was setting when McEuen spotted the lone Indian watching them from a butte. Where there was one, there were more. The question was, did the other Indians know about the wagon? The Indian on the butte was probably a scout. Unless he was stopped, it was certain that he would inform the others.
McEuen jerked his rifle from its boot as he brought the bay to a full stop. He lifted the rifle and aimed it at the Indian's chest. The Indian never moved. He wasn't much more than a kid and probably figured he was out of range. He was wrong. McEuen took careful aim and then took a deep breath. He slowly let out the breath and began squeezing on the trigger. Now ... but he couldn't shoot. All he could think of was that he would be killing a young man because he had seen too much. Yet if he didn't kill the Indian....
McEuen lowered the rifle. The shot would be heard, anyway. If there were more of them, and there surely were, they would be further enraged by the killing of one of their young men - justifiably so. Wasn't he on their hunting grounds? He swung his horse around and brought it along side the wagon. He glanced down at the girl.
"Have you checked on your pa recently?"¶
She shook her head. "I haven't had time."
"Do it now."
Her father had to be dead. He’d have a time trying to get her to leave her father without burying him, but that was their only chance of escape.
Nellie sawed on the reins until the horses stopped, and then disappeared into the wagon. McEuen glanced up at the hill. The Indian was still there - still watching them. That boy knew they wouldn't get away in the wagon. He was probably biding his time - waiting on the rest of his party.
McEuen lifted the canvas wagon cover. "How is he?"
"He's still unconscious," Nellie answered in a monotone.
McEuen squinted into the shadowy interior of the wagon. Finally he made out the dim form of a man on a cot.
"Are you sure he's still alive? I've never known a man to live this long after being bit by a rattler."
"He's alive," she answered tersely. "You don't have to stay with us. I saw that Indian, and I don't blame you for being scared, but I’m not leaving my father."
Warmth surged up his neck, and he dropped the canvas. She made it sound so merciless, but it made no sense for two healthy people to sacrifice their lives for a dying man. He would have liked to deny he was scared, but the fact was, right now his skin was crawling with fear. The best either of them could hope for right now was that the Indians would kill them quickly. If the body he found last week was any indication, a quick death wasn't likely.
Right then he made an appeal to his maker. If he couldn't get out of this thing alive, at least he wanted the courage not to die screaming and begging for his life. As for Nellie, her beauty might insure life - as a slave. Some might think that was worse than death, but the way he saw it, life itself offered hope.
Nellie climbed out of the wagon and glanced at him in surprise as she settled into the wagon seat. She picked up the lines and gave him a sour look.
"Are you still here? I figured you'd be out of sight by now."
He grimaced. "You've got a fine opinion of me. First you think I'm going to rob you, and then you think I'm going to abandon you to the Indians."
Her eyes warmed slightly and she shrugged. "Well, I'm only a stupid clod buster. What do you expect?"
"You're no clod hopper," he said.
She jerked her head around and opened her mouth to speak, but when she saw the grin on his face, she merely smiled. She snapped the lines over the horses' backs, and the wagon lurched into motion again.
McEuen glanced up at the butte. The Indian was still there. How long until the others arrived? The horses plodded on. Nellie wasn't driving them in a wild panic. She was conserving their energy for a long trip. Ahead of them, the sun was sinking into the horizon, painting the landscape blood red. In another hour the sun would be down. Not that it was going to do them any good. Those stories about Indians not attacking at night were partly true of some tribes. Some Indians believed if they were killed at night, their souls would forever wander in darkness. Of course, if they figured there wasn't much chance on being killed, then why wait until morning? After all, a sick old man, a helpless woman and one able man with a rifle didn't pose much of a threat.
Again he glanced back at the butte, but this time the Indian was gone. He’d probably gone back to get the others. Maybe they'd all wait until dawn. It wasn't like the wagon would be hard to trail - or get far before morning. Not at the pace they were traveling, anyway. On the other hand, the old man might die. In that case, they could strap him to a horse and escape under the cover of darkness.
Time drug by and gradually darkness encircled them in its secure embrace. As the earth lost its heat, the horses moved faster. The red dust gave way to hard packed earth and the wagon became easier to pull. Occasionally they stopped so Nellie could check on her father. Once they stopped, and Nellie swabbed out nose of each horse with a damp cloth. Then she gave them some water in a bucket. Finishing up with some oats, she climbed back into the wagon seat and urged them on. The pace wasn't slow, but it wasn't fast, either. Still, the horses didn't seem to be tiring.
Fancy dress or not, Nellie was no greenhorn - nor did she appear to be fragile. He moved closer to the wagon.
"How's your pa?"
"Still hanging on, but I'm afraid he's going to loose that leg."
If that was all he lost, he’d be incredibly lucky. McEuen shook his head.
"I don't understand how he's hanging on. I've heard stories about people surviving a rattlesnake bite, but to tell you the truth, I figured they were tall tales."
Nellie was quiet for a few minutes. "I put a poultice on the bite. It's one of Grandma's concoctions. She claimed it sucked the poison out of a wound. I figured it couldn't hurt."
Another long period of silence elapsed. Finally she spoke again.
"I'm afraid he's going to die before I get him to the doctor."
It was a fair statement, spoken in a matter of fact tone, and yet he had the feeling she was reaching the end of her endurance. It couldn't have been easy for her, alone and lost - suddenly responsible for the life of someone she loved.
"How long has it been since you slept?" he asked.
"I had a few hours sleep yesterday - dozing on the wagon seat. I'm fine. It's Dad I'm worried about."¶They rode in silence. "How far is it to that doctor?” She asked.
He shrugged. "At this pace? Two or three days."
For a long time the only sound was the creaking wood on the wagon, the clink of the harnesses and the steady clop-clop of the horses feet. Finally she pulled the team to a halt.
"We've got to leave the wagon behind."
McEuen peered at her features in the darkness. Was she going to leave her father after all? He'd have bet his last dollar that she wouldn't leave the old man under any circumstances - which only proved the generally accepted opinion that men didn't know anything about women. At the moment he didn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed, but he was leaning heavily toward disappointment. She might have come to her senses, but obviously he'd lost his, because he had no intention of leaving that man behind. Anybody who'd live this long sporting a rattlesnake bite stood a good chance of surviving a long trek on horseback.
Nellie disappeared back into the wagon and McEuen began to unharness the team. She probably wanted to say her good-byes in private. She might as well talk to him while he was comfortable. With any luck, he'd stay unconscious until they got him into town.
He smiled bitterly to himself. Who was he kidding? They didn't stand one chance in a million. They had too much riding against them. He listened to the night sounds. If the Indians were out there, the night gave no indication.
"Well, are you going to help me get him out of here, or do you expect me to carry him?"
McEuen jerked his head around at the sound of her irritated voice. He dropped the lines and moved toward the wagon, thankful of the darkness to hide his red-hot face. How could he have imagined she was going to leave her father behind?
Mr. Shelton was a big man, and by the time they had him strapped to a horse, McEuen was running short of patience as well as breath. They were losing precious traveling time.
"Here," he said, tugging one of her slender arms. "I'll help you up on my horse. I'll ride the other horse bareback."
"They are our horses," she responded as she twisted free of his grip, "and don't think I've never rode a horse bareback before. I can handle old Joe."
McEuen shook his head. "Lady, you never cease to amaze me."
"Nellie," she said shortly. She grabbed the horse’s mane, pulling herself aboard its broad back. "Now let's get going." She grabbed the reins of the other horse and started off into the night.
McEuen followed, still shaking his head. He rode up beside her. "You'd best let me lead the way."
She fell in behind him without saying a word, and they quickly left the wagon behind. When the Indians found the wagon, they would waste no more time, so the three of them had better cover some territory tonight.
Ahead of them loomed the foothills of a mountain. They would have to ride around them, even though it would be shorter to go through them. They couldn't take the chance of being trapped in one of those box canyons. By daylight, he might risk it, but he'd only been through that area once - enough to know the risk they would be taking, but not enough to remember the way.
They moved through the night like three ghosts. The only sound was that of the horse’s hooves against the powder dry earth. As they reached the edge of the foothills and turned to skirt them, the moon reached its zenith. McEuen breathed a sigh of relief. There was light enough to travel, but they wouldn't be outlined against a flat horizon now. He turned and glanced back to make sure the girl was following. That was when the Indian came out of the darkness.
The bay sidestepped violently and snorted, nearly unseating McEuen. He yanked his rifle from its boot as the horse pranced nervously. He jerked the horse's head to the side and brought the rifle up, cocking it as he aimed.
The Indian raised a hand, palm toward McEuen. "Friend!" The Indian said anxiously.
McEuen kept the rifle aimed at the Indian, but his finger relaxed slightly on the trigger.
"What do you want?"
"I help," the Indian spoke in a thick Spanish accent.
McEuen peered at the boy. Was he the one they had seen on the hill?
"Why?" He growled.
The young Indian glanced toward the girl. "I watch long time. Brave woman." He grinned at McEuen and his teeth gleamed in the moonlight. "Crazy man."
McEuen gave him a hard look. "Not crazy enough to let a Comanche warrior lead me into an ambush."
The boy snorted. "You think they need me lead you to them? They catch you easy. He shrugged. "No one know about you. I not say you here."
"Why?" McEuen asked sharply as he searched the boy's face for sincerity.
The boy shrugged again. "Who know? Maybe I like you. Maybe you not like men who hunt buffalo and yellow stones." He glanced at Nellie again. "Maybe brave lady make you good squaw."
That brought a quick response from Nellie. "I'm not going to sit here all night questioning his intent. I think it's worth the risk. If he can get me across those mountains, it's time saved - time that might mean the difference between life and death for my father. I'm going with him. You can stay here if you want."
With that she nudged her horse along side the Indian boy. It was McEuen's turn to shrug. Maybe the Indian boy spoke the truth, maybe not. They couldn't get in a whole lot worse situation and he had a gut feeling that the boy was sincere.
McEuen nodded. "It's been pretty much the way she wanted it from the minute I met her," he conceded with a sigh. "Lead the way, boy."
He kept one eye on the boy and the other on the night as they rode into the mountains. They rode through shadows so deep that a few times McEuen wondered how the boy could find his way. Once the bay knocked a rock from the trail and McEuen's skin crawled when he heard it bounce off a ledge and into the darkness. A few minutes later he heard it clatter on rocks far below.
They followed the boy until the moon slipped behind the mountains. The sun painted the horizon behind them a bright yellow orange. Finally the Indian stopped and turned to them.
"Follow this trail. It come out near fort. I go no closer."
"Thank you." Nellie whispered. "I'll never forget this."
"Forget," the boy answered shortly and turned to McEuen. "I hear stories at campfires sometime. I see you once. You not bad - help Comanche sometime." He swung his horse around McEuen and paused. "You not come Comanche land again."
With that said he kicked his horse into a lope and left them.
Nellie checked her father. "I think he's coming around." She examined the leg. "It doesn't look as swollen."
McEuen glanced up the trail after the Indian boy. At the top of the trail the boy paused, turning his horse so he could watch them. Nellie waved, but the boy didn't respond. After a few moments he merely turned his horse and disappeared into the mountains.
McEuen shook his head. "You never can predict what an Indian will do."
Nellie gave him a strange look as he helped her back on her horse. "I think he acted as most young boys would when they're not around a bunch of other boys. He didn't feel the need to show off. He was curious, and we were his secret. He could help a fellow human being and feel good about it, because at night we were all the same color."
McEuen smiled to himself. Yet another person who realized that the issue wasn't culture, but color. He hadn't done much praying in his life, but for the second time that night he found himself asking the master for help. If nesters had to keep pouring into this country, couldn't he send a few more like Nellie?
This story can be found in the collection of short western stories "HORSE OPERA."