Sometimes it seemed like the hot desert wind never stopped, but there was an advantage to all that hot wind. The clothes at the beginning of the line were dry before she finished hanging the ones on the other end. A dust devil whipped at her long skirt and plucked the bonnet from her copper curls, racing off to new mischief when the bow at her neck refused to relinquish the faded blue material.
Clara lifted a hand to shade her eyes from the burning sun and squinted into the dusty horizon. Zack had been gone almost a month now, and they were getting low on supplies. At the moment she was thankful that their marriage had produced no children yet. They were young, and there was still time - time to make a home out of this arid Arizona range. So far their only claim to success was the pouch of gold dust they'd managed to glean from the creek bed. Still, the land was theirs - such as it was. To some, the desert was a sterile inferno, but not to Clara and Zack. To Clara it was home, and to Zack it was the perfect place to raise the stock he had always loved.
Emerging from the distant cloud of dust, a cavalry troop approached the homestead - looking for water, no doubt. The well she and Zack had dug was the only water supply for miles. Even the Indians stopped now and then to water their hearty mustangs. At first she and Zack had been frightened, but it didn't take long to realize their generosity was appreciated. There was always free water for any wayfarer, regardless of race or religion - and on many occasions, free food as well.
The cavalry troops cantered into the yard, stirring a cloud of dust that sought out and attacked the clothes hanging on the line.
"Morning Mrs. Ashari," the sergeant began, snatching his hat of as he spoke. He was completely oblivious to the havoc his young troops had created with her morning work. "Could we water our horses?" His blond hair was tangled, and bright blue eyes regarded her innocently from a sun burned face.
How could she be angry? He was always so polite - never assuming anything. She nodded at the half-full water tank.
"Help yourself, Mr. Bowdin."
There was no need to remind him about priming the pump and leaving the trough as he had found it. She turned toward the house.
"I'll go get your men some coffee and bear tracks."
"Not this time," came the reluctant reply from behind her.
She turned to face him, raising her brows. "Are you in a hurry? What's up?"
He twisted the hat in his hands. "Injun trouble. We have instructions to come out here and escort you back to the fort."
Clara frowned. "Who's instructions?"
The hat made another full turn. "The captain," Bowdin answered hesitantly, and then blurted out the rest. "Old Charlie Dunes rode in yesterday. He said a war party had burned down the B bar B ranch yesterday."
Clara's heart gave a painful lurch as she struggled to keep her expression unconcerned. It was bound to happen sooner or later, and they were prepared. The B bar B ranch house was constructed of lumber hauled in from the mountains, but the home she and Zack had built wouldn't burn. Its sod walls were more than a foot thick, and the ironwood door and shutters were thick and treated with a substance that would resist flames. As for the roof - well, the grass might burn off the sod, but that was about it. In any case, the gun ports were strategically placed so that no one could approach the house without exposing themselves to rifle fire. It was a virtual fortress, built for the purpose of defending a few against many. Zack had traveled in many countries and his ever seeking curiosity had compiled an arsenal of information. To him, the American west was a challenge that couldn't be resisted.
Clara met the sergeant's anxious gaze with a level look. "The Apaches have never given us trouble before."
He frowned. "These ain't Apaches. They're a bunch of renegades up from the border - some Comanche and Kiowa, I hear. They even have Cochise worried."
Anything that concerned the Apaches was cause for alarm. She eyed the troops skeptically - mostly young boys - and not more than a dozen of them at that. Would it be any safer to travel to the fort with them? What about the house? Abandoning it to the marauding Indians would be providing them with food, water and ammunition - as well as the opportunity to destroy the building. Most disturbing, though, was the idea of Zack riding blindly into trouble. He would expect to find his wife at the house.
Clara glanced up at the sergeant. "I'll stay here. I have plenty of water and ammunition, and my husband will be back any day now."
All eyes shifted to her. It was obvious that the troops thought she was either crazy or very brave. Actually, she was neither. The idea of facing renegade Indians was terrifying, but once she was locked inside the house, she would be safe enough. More than likely they would help themselves to the water and move on. With any luck, they wouldn't find their way to her home at all.
The sergeant tried to change her mind, but once he realized it was futile to argue with her, he instructed his men to haul enough water into her house to last for a week. That done, they finally departed. Their dusty uniforms gradually blended with the shimmering heat waves, and she was alone again.
She returned to her laundry and began pulling it down from the line. It would have to be washed again. She glanced around at the flat desert. Should she wash the clothes inside the house? No, she could see more out here.
She turned to the house, and that was when she saw it. Nothing more than a flicker of light, but it didn't belong out there. Someone was watching the house with field glasses.
She willed her legs to carry her casually to the house; forced her shaking hands to lift the heavy beam that locked the door, and then bolted all the heavy shutters. Then she took a pistol and a box of shells from the gun cabinet and began loading it. Her heart beat at the confines of her ribs, demanding release from her constricting chest. Her fingers fumbled as she pushed shells into the cylinder of the pistol, but she finally managed get it loaded. Placing a chair under one of the gun ports, she took a deep breath and climbed up on the chair. Sliding back the heavy gun port door, she peeked out into the shimmering desert. Nothing. One by one she made her way around to each side of the house, opening the gun ports only far enough to peek out. Still nothing. Had she imagined trouble? Could the flash of light have been sunlight on quartz?
Minutes dragged away into an hour, and still no Indians. Not that she was complaining, but the waiting was eating at her nerves. Waiting and not knowing if she was acting a fool. Should she open the door and get on with life? If someone had been out there, maybe they had already left. Maybe it was only some old prospector. She sighed. Maybe it was nothing but fear and imagination.
She stepped up on the chair again. One last time, and then ... she saw it again. Only this time it was close ... and it wasn't the flash of sun against glasses. It was the flash of the sun against a fancy Spanish bridle. She held her breath as the figures materialized from the desert. Fifteen of them! She watched, her face well away from the gun port. They approached the house and then circled to the front. Securing the gun port, she moved to the port on the front of the house. Cautiously sliding it back ever so slightly, she watched the Indians pause at the water trough. There some drank beside their horses, while others eyed the house. Their attention went to the door first, and then to the gun port. Her throat constricted with fear. They couldn't possibly see her, but they were looking directly at her. No doubt, they knew they were being watched. How long until they stormed the house?
One big Indian lifted his rifle and waived it in the air, emitting a long drawn out wavering scream - the Comanche war cry. Behind him, his fellow madmen echoed the blood curdling yell. And still they waited. Why? And then it was frighteningly clear. They were waiting for the troops to get far enough away that the shooting wouldn't be heard.
Finally the lead Indian lifted his rifle, aiming it at the gun port. Clara ducked, opening the gun port further. The rifle cracked and a bullet thunked harmlessly into the sod wall on the opposite side of the room. Immediately several more rifles spat bullets into the port. Their purpose was obvious, and she responded as she had been trained.
She leaped up and thrust her pistol threw the gun port, snapping off three shots. Again she ducked. It was doubtful that her shots had hit anything, but they served as a warning. Two more shots came through the port - and then silence.
She reached up and slammed the gun port shut. Immediately three shots slammed against the thick wood. It wouldn't take much more of that kind of abuse, but there was more wood in the house, and the ports were too high for a man to shoot into the room without standing on something. Even at that, it would be difficult for them to see inside the dimly lit house. She moved to the next port and slid it open a fraction of an inch - just enough to allow a sliver of vision. The Indians were all grouped together behind and around the water trough - watching the other gun port. At this angle she could surprise them, killing one or two before they could get away. Yet she waited. Maybe they would decide it wasn't worth the effort and ride off. She had no wish to kill them.
They would try for the roof, thinking it would be the weakest spot. But they didn't know about the thick slabs of cypress that lay below the sod. They would be safe from her gun, but it would get them no closer to their goal. The wide eaves would prevent them from reaching the gun ports from the roof, as well. No, they couldn't reach her as long as she didn't panic.
Minutes drug by and finally it was clear that the Indians were planning something. Keeping low to the ground, they began to fan out, circling the house.
Over the next half hour or so, she watched them through different gun ports as they cased the house. They had located every gun port and every window - and every place to hide. Fortunately there were few of the latter. While they watched and measured her fortress, she watched and measured them.
The sun slowly sank to the horizon, and the coyotes howled - two and four legged. Night brought inky silence. Would they wait until dawn? She secured all the gun ports and sank into her rocker. They were waiting her out, but she had to beat them at their game. They would be waiting for her to get tired and drop her guard. It was too early for that. And so she dozed in the chair, catching what rest she could.
Later she emerged from her chair and crept to the port beside the door. She listened for a few moments. Every few minutes she could hear a soft scraping sound. Carefully, and with complete silence, she unlocked the port and opened it slightly. Just as she had guessed. An Indian was inching toward the door on his belly. Behind him, he was pulling some brush. On a hunch, she swung the port wide open. Instantly a hand wielding a knife stabbed through the opening. She slammed her gun barrel over the knuckles and was rewarded with a startled scream. The knife clattered to the floor and the hand disappeared. She fired two quick shots and slammed the door again. Rifles cracked and bullets smacked into the hard wood. She reloaded the pistol and resumed the waiting game.
An hour or so later she heard a scraping sound at one of the ports. An Indian was trying to work it free. After a few minutes a snapping sound was followed by a guttural complaint - one knife broken. They were beginning to get the idea now.
For the rest of the night, she heard no more sounds of activity. Had the Indians departed, or were they merely trying to make her think they had?
Dawn crept through the tiny cracks under the door and windows. Still she waited. They would be watching the ports now, and even the slightest movement would be detected. She was blind to their activity, yet the tiny cracks in the shutters provided some information. A shadow - one of the Indians waited under a gun port. There was probably an Indian under ever port.
The inside of the house was stuffy, but it would be cooler than the direct sunlight where the Indians waited. She drank deeply of the tepid water and waited.
Would Zack be home today? Would he return with his precious stock only to be overwhelmed by the Indians? She should have gone with the troops. The Indians would have done their plundering and be gone by now. Or they might have found Zack on the trail. She caught her breath. Had they already found him?
No. She couldn't...wouldn't think of that. She had to be ready when he came home - had to warn him, somehow.
She lifted the pistol and took aim at the sod wall opposite her. She pulled the trigger and winced at the reverberating sound. Yes, that was how she would warn him. She smiled in spite of the situation. What would the Indians think of that shot? It was mildly satisfying to think that she wasn't the only one who was blind to what was going on.
The morning drifted into afternoon. She drank water, dozed, and then cut some bread and cheese for supper. Occasional peeks through the cracks revealed that the Indians were still waiting.
As the sun shaped the long shadows of evening, the Indians began to stir. Their cries brought her to the cracks in the shutters again. They were obviously upset about something. And then she saw it - Tall graceful shadows moved across the desert toward the house. She caught her breath sharply, her heart pounding again. She raised the pistol and shot into the wall three times - their signal for danger. And yet, the shadows continued without hesitation. Couldn't Zack see the Indians yet?
But when she looked, the Indians were moving away from the house. They chattered to each other anxiously and pointed at the approaching shadows. After a few minutes of what seemed to be heated debate, they mounted their horses and beat a hasty retreat. She couldn't believe her eyes. They were actually running away from Zack!
Clara cautiously opened the door, but all the Indians were gone. She ran outside and waited as Zack rode into the yard. He gazed down at her, clearly puzzled.
"Are you all right?"
She nodded. "I'm fine. You were right. They couldn't get into the house."
He nodded, staring reflectively after the Indians. "Do you suppose they never saw a camel before?"
She turned to watch their dust as the Indians ghosted into the desert. "Well," she finally said with a sigh. "I guess our new stock is going to have more uses than we anticipated."
This story can be found in the collection of short western stories, "HORSE OPERA."