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The Fight at Hueco Tanks

by

Chris Scott Wilson





CHAPTER 1

They saw the smoke first.

It rose as a smudge into the brassy sky, a column high over the horizon. Josh Sutton cursed into his whiskers, knowing what they were going to find, and snapped the reins over the backs of the four horses. The two leaders pricked up their ears and threw themselves into the traces, lather gathering on their shoulders and manes flying as they galloped. On the driver’s seat Josh’s curses were lost under the rattling of the harness and the banging and squeaking of the old Concord stagecoach’s chassis, but beside him Black Bob McConnell’s ten gauge shotgun waved with the motion of the coach while his left hand nervously plucked at his throat where his bandana threatened to choke him. He was young and it was only his third trip.

“What d’you reckon ’tis?” he stammered in his Irish brogue. The whites of his dark eyes were bright in his dust-caked face.

“What’d you say, boy?” Josh called back, deftly kicking the brake lever as they lurched over a rise.

“D’you reckon?” Black Bob shouted.

Josh made a pained face at the boy’s stupidity, his leathery cheeks creasing as he squinted into the distance. It was the station all right. Still burning too. Must have just happened, but they hadn’t heard any gunfire. Likely anyone there was already dead.

“Is it the relay station?” Black Bob asked.

Josh flicked his eyes to the boy’s hat which was pushed to the back of his head. “Fool boy. If’n you put your damn hat on straight you’d be able to see for yourself.”

Black Bob pulled down his hat brim so his eyes were shaded. Now he could see. His face paled under its mask of dust.

“What’d it be? Indians?”

Josh spat and whipped the horses again. “One thing for sure, it ain’t a cook-out party.” Neither of them said more as the coach raced toward the small knot of buildings that weren’t yet burned out. As they neared, the horses slowed and Josh miserably considered the rest of the journey to El Paso, another thirty odd miles with a winded team. It wasn’t going to be much of a joke.

He hauled back and kicked on the brake lever. Gratefully the horses came to a standstill, warily eyeing the smoldering relay station. Tired as they were, they fidgeted in their traces. Josh unlimbered his stiff joints and clambered to the ground, but not before he  pulled  his Winchester from beneath the wagon seat. Up top Black Bob’s head twisted as though it was on an axle as he scanned the country, his Adam’s apple working nervously in his throat. His hands gripped the shotgun tightly.

The stagecoach door opened and a handsome woman of thirty, with coils of dark hair pinned under her hat, pushed out into the hard sunlight.

“What was the meaning of that last piece of driving, Mr. Sutton?” she demanded. “That coach shakes a person’s bones quite enough without…” Her voice trailed away as she caught sight of Josh bending over a sprawled figure that appeared to be skewered to the ground by a stake. Her mouth fell open and her eyes strayed to the burning station. “What’s happened here?” She began to step forward but wavered when Josh looked up and shook his head.

“Don’t come any closer, Mrs. Lantz. Ain’t fit for a woman’s eyes. And don’t let your daughter come out.”

As he spoke a ten-year-old girl poked her head out. “Mama? What’s the stop for…”

“Stay there, Ruth,” Kate Lantz commanded without turning.

“Why?” the girl whined.

“Do as I say.” On hearing the firmness in her mother’s voice the girl ducked back inside the Concord stagecoach. A muttering could be heard, then the door swung open again. A dark-skinned man in a business suit stepped down, glanced at the smoking building, then his eyes fell on Josh stooping over the man. He came to stand next to Kate Lantz and laid a hand on her arm.

Señora Lantz, I think perhaps it would be better if you returned to the coach.”

Kate turned to look at him blankly but his face showed no emotion. “Mr. Servada?”

His shoulder moved. “Señora, there may be others.”

“It’s not like this where I come from,” she said weakly as he gently turned her away from the staked body. He smiled apologetically.

“Unfortunately, Señora, this is still the frontier and alas it is yet wild. One must expect these things.”

“Perhaps you are right,” she conceded, absurdly thinking how gentlemanly this Mexican was. He was obviously wealthy and therefore must be an important man. It shocked her that she should be thinking this way when a drama had just occurred. She accepted his offered arm and stepped back up into the coach.

Inside, her daughter’s face was inquisitive. “What’s happened, Mama?”

Still thinking of Mr. Servada, Kate answered. “Someone has attacked the station. There’s a dead man out there.”

“Indians, must be Indians,” the coach’s last occupant blurted. Kate Lantz looked at him. He was a drummer, a traveling salesman in ladies’ underwear. His name was William Loving (no relation, he confessed, to the other famous Loving, the Texas cattleman) and during a short stop-over at Fort Smith in Arkansas he had tried to interest her in a whalebone corset. She had declined, quite offended he thought her figure required support. Now he was agitated, brushing at the trail-dust that had seeped through the window onto his grey checked suit, then consulting his watch that hung from his vest chain or smoothing the rim of his derby hat, lifting it away from his thinning fair which was carefully smoothed across his sweating scalp.

“Indians, I knew it,” he repeated. “I shouldn’t have taken this job. Should never have listened. Frontier women don’t need our garments. Now this. Indians. I knew it, I knew it. They’re savages. We’ll all be killed.” Towards the end hysteria had begun to creep into the edge of his voice.

“Shut up,” Kate Lantz said quietly, with an underlying tone that said she meant it. When she caught his eye she glanced meaningfully at her daughter Ruth and he caught her drift.

“Quite,” he said, looking again at his watch.

He was right, Kate Lantz thought. As their days had passed in mutual discomfort inside the bucking coach she too had been wondering whether she had done the right thing. But the letter from her sister, Emily, had implored her to go to Tucson. Emily had reasoned the new country would make Kate forget the death of her husband, James, all the quicker. At the time she had thought perhaps it might, but looking at the land that stretched away on either side of the stage trail she had begun to realize how small her world had been. Her little house in a suburb of St Louis with its handkerchief-sized yard full of flowers she had planted while James ran the sawmill. Her life had been happy and fulfilled, secure until the accident had happened. Then her days had become a haze of meaningless hours, held together only by the need to care for Ruth. But this country out here, it was so wild. Desert and mountains, the only greenery the big cacti like huge forks standing in the barren ground. And Indians too. Now it wasn’t just something she read about in the newspaper; she was part of it. The disorderliness of it all disagreed with her neat mind. She liked everything in its rightful place.

How long before they started moving?

She leaned out of the window.

“Mr. Sutton?… Oh, Mr. Servada, when will we be moving? Where’s Mr. Sutton?”

Señor Juan Servada had been on his way back to the coach when she put her head out and he knew she wasn’t going to like what he had to say.

“Just a moment, Señora.” He looked up at the wagon box where Black Bob was still nervously scanning the horizon. “Mr. McConnell? Can you see anything?”

Black Bob gulped and tore his eyes away from their vigil.

“No Sir, can’t see nuttink.”

Servada gave a half smile. “In that case Mr. Sutton requires your assistance behind the house. He said to bring the shovel from beneath the seat.”

Understanding sparked in Black Bob’s eyes and he froze. He had never buried a man before. “Sir?”

Servada reached for the shotgun. “I’ll look after that. You take the shovel.”

Black Bob held the scattergun out of the Mexican’s reach as he groped blindly for the shovel. “No, Sir, I’ll be keeping the gun, Sir, if you don’t mind.” He scrambled awkwardly to the ground and skirted the smoking building warily.

Juan Servada looked back at Kate Lantz. “Señora, part of the barn is undamaged. We’ll be staying here the night.” He half smiled, apologetically.

Kate Lantz’s face blanched. “Here? Why can’t we go on to El Paso? Mr. Sutton said it wasn’t far. We could reach it today.”

Servada shrugged. “There are no horses left. The Indians ran them off and our own are exhausted.”

“They galloped all right just now,” she argued, swinging open the door. On the hard packed earth she passed an eye over the team’s lathered flanks, realizing he was right. And the sky was drawing in. It would soon be night.

“They’ll be rested in the morning, Señora. We will reach El Paso then.”

Kate Lantz’s eyes flicked to him. “What do they call this place? If I’m to spend the night here I’d like to know.”

Servada glanced behind him at the foothills of the San Andres Mountains to the north and to the wide hillside of tumbled boulders where nature had gashed numerous small water holes into the solid rock.

“Hueco Tanks,” he answered, remembering Sutton’s description of the rock tanks and caves, wondering if they would need to hide up there.

“Waco Tanks,” she repeated, reaching a decision to make the best of it. All in all she was a practical woman. “Very well. If we must stay here then we shall. Do you think we’ll be safe?”

Servada tried to pile reassurance into his smile. “Yes, Señora. The Indians have been and taken everything. They will not come back.”

He could only hope he was right.


CHAPTER 2

Copperhead eased himself away from the hot rock face and softfooted  down to the campfire where his brother Apaches were sprawled, gnawing at hunks of roasted horsemeat. The last of the sunlight flashed briefly on the copper highlights in his shoulder-length hair that had given him his name. It was unbraided, held back by a headband of blue cloth torn from the skirt of a now dead rancher’s wife in New Mexico Territory. They had crossed the border into Texas two suns ago and had camped in the foothills above Hueco Tanks to rest their ponies after raiding. Then they had attacked the relay station at noon that day. They had killed the boy who tended the horses and taken their time over torturing the manager. It had been three hours before he died. Nobody else had been there and of course they had stolen the horses, firing the buildings as they pulled out. Not that the horses were fit for anything other than eating.

Copperhead pulled his knife from the soft folds of his kabuns, knee-high moccasins, and squatted by the fire to saw a hunk of meat. Greedily he bit and chewed. It was good. Not as good as mule but much better than wohaw, the Agency beef they’d been rationed at the San Carlos reservation.

Across the fire Chato’s eyes gleamed beneath his circular good medicine hat, woven from the white breast feathers of an eagle. Around his neck he wore another powerful charm, a necklace of cougar claws. He grinned, the juice from the meat running down his chin. He wiped it away with a greasy palm.

“Good? Eyanh, eat. There is tu-dishishn, coffee, as well. Another present from the blancos.” He jerked his thumb in the direction of the relay station. “Now nan-tan, best scout, tell me what is happening down there. Itna-iltc-'he, tell me no lies.” He tossed the last of his meat into the fire where it sizzled then wiped his hands on his breechclout and leaned back against the rock to light his pipe. Round the fire the other braves switched their eyes from their flat-nosed leader to Copperhead, waiting for his words.

The scout swallowed and tossed his hair away from his face.

“You were right, Chato. Shis-inday, hail to the chief.” He performed a mock bow. “The dust cloud was from the stagecoach. It has stopped at the rancho  we burnt below the tinajars, the rock cisterns…”

“Bah!” Chato spat, interrupting. “Hueco Tanks. How many years have our people watered their ponies there? How many times have we camped and made council there? Then the white-eyes traveled the road, then he built his little kinhs, houses, on the trail. The final degradation was when he took all the land for himself. He talked with forked tongue and our chiefs, old women that they are, fell into his trap and we have become like caged animals, confined to San Carlos. I say all the land as far as my eyes can see belongs to the Apache.” He looked away in disgust, then back at Copperhead. “Tell me the rest of it.”

Copperhead watched Chato warily, well aware of the leader’s evil temper. He had heard the speech many times round the campfires and it was one he agreed with. That was why they were here, to begin the trail to the old life. He gathered his thoughts.

“It looks as though they are making camp. There are four hombres, men, and an estune, a full grown woman with a day-den, girlchild. One man is old and carries a repeating rifle, and the other who rode on top of the stagecoach with him carries a two barreled besh-e-gar, rifle, one that shoots many little bullets. I could not see if the other two had rifles.”

Chato nodded. “We need rifles. The more we have the sooner we rid the land of these siblings ‘O’-ndi mba sitz ’n’ Nalti-i-gi-na, little coyotes that pop up out of the ground like gophers. And a woman too. Good. But the girlchild, bah, she is worthless. I think we will attack at dawn.” He looked round the other faces near the campfire. “I have spoken. What do you say?”

El Corneicero, The Butcher, nodded, idly honing the blade of his scalping knife on a stone at his feet. He never said much. His preference was fighting. The more there was, the better he liked it.

Ragged-Hand smiled, showing his rotten teeth.

Copperhead grunted his assent round another mouthful of horsemeat. Next to him sat the Apache Kid, so named by the agent John Clum at the reservation because he was always being brought before him for brawling and stealing. His real name was Has-kay-bay-nez-ntayl, Brave-And-Wild-And-Will-Come-To-A-Mysterious-End. He puffed at his pipe and blew out smoke, then said simply: “I came to kill.”

Chato grinned, pleased. He turned to the last member of the war party, Tzoe, also known as Treacherous Coyote or Yellow Wolf, and also as Peaches by the U.S. Cavalry because of the color of his cheeks. He was picking his teeth with his knife, unconcerned. “And you?” Chato asked, ‘schichobe, old friend, what do you say?”

Tzoe didn’t look up but he took the knife from his mouth.

Chin-da-see-le, I have the homesickness.”

Chato bridled. “Homesickness? This is your home. All the land your eyes can see.” He stamped his foot on the hard mother earth. “This is your home, every piece of ground where your moccasins leave tracks. Usen, the Great Spirit, gave it to us. It has always been ours since the beginning of time and always will be. These white-eyes, they murdered my father, Mochas, and my brother, and you sit there calmly and say you want to go home. You are an old woman, like those chiefs we left in Mexico, arguing endlessly round the fire but doing nothing.” He looked at him with disgust.

“I tell you this, Tzoe, you will fight with me here, or I will kill you myself and then go back and tell all your relatives what you were. Lo-kohi-sca-ni-ilgae o ndi yu dastin a-ata lick-ind-ye `n’-nalti-i-gi-a net-j-ta-iltcohete te indi-ndi, a crazy, scabrous half-breed bastard with a snake eye and a forked tongue who lies and spies in all things.”

Tzoe stared, perched for a brief moment on the ledge between committing murder and turning to run. He did neither. He snorted.

“Why should I ride with you any longer? You kill one white man, you kill two. You steal a horse here and a sack of flour there. You have not ridden against the Pony Soldiers. They are the ones we should be fighting. You fancy yourself as the next chief when old Nana dies, eh? Me, I think it will be Golthlay, Geronimo. What makes you so great?”

Chato’s shoulder muscles bunched and he sprang across the fire. He kicked the knife from Tzoe’s hand and sent him sprawling on his back. In a flash he was astride him, then metal flashed in the firelight and Chato’s blade rested on Tzoe’s jugular vein.

“You ask me why I am great? I will tell you, Treacherous Coyote. I have the eye of the eagle, the ear of the cougar, the cunning of the fox, the tirelessness of the wolf, and I can stay hungry twice as long or thirsty six times as long as any man.” He pulled Tzoe off the ground by the front of his calico shirt then dropped him with disgust and stood up, casually tucking his knife back into the folds of his high moccasins. He stared down defiantly, tossing his raven hair.

“Now, do you fight or do I kill you myself?”

Tzoe’s mouth twisted at the corner into a tentative half-smile.

“I fight,” he said, for the moment beaten.

***

From the back of his big bay mare Jim Tanner consulted the darkening sky.

“How much further, Jim?”

Jim Tanner studied the sky in the north where they had seen the smoke two hours earlier. It had to be the station at Hueco Tanks. So the bronco Apaches had made it this far. He turned to glance at his companion’s weathered face.

“Well, Zeke, we won’t get there before sundown. ’Bout an hour after. Anyone there’ll be good and dead by now. I figured if they was Apaches come from over the border they’d be running back south, but we ain’t cut no sign. They wouldn’t camp at the station, not under a column of smoke like that. Too damn obvious.”

“What about the stage?” Zeke asked. “If it was the station there’s one due through there today.”

Tanner grimaced. “Well I hope the stage’d been and gone before whatever happened down there.”

Zeke was putting together a cigarette. “If the stage is still at the station and there’s anybody left alive I sure hope they ain’t trigger happy. They’re likely to blow our heads off, us coming in after dark and all.”

Tanner laughed, unscrewing the cap from his canteen to take a gulp. When he had finished Zeke had just put the cigarette to his lips. Tanner leaned over and took it for himself.

“Roll up another one, Zeke.”

Zeke Harris scowled good-naturedly, mumbling as he dug out his tobacco sack again. “You’d think the best damn scout in the U.S. cavalry could make his own smokes,” he said.

Tanner laughed again and raised his eyebrows. “If I did, whatever would I need you for, you ornery old son of a half-blind she-wolf?”

Harris snorted. “Well it ain’t for the conversation. You never make any.”

“Other things on my mind, Zeke.”

“Haven’t we all?”

Tanner waited for his companion to finish building his smoke then struck a match on his stained buckskins and touched it to his cigarette. As he sucked down the smoke he watched the shallow valley before him. It was harsh desert dressed only by ocotillo, Spanish dagger and some scrub mesquite.

“If they’ve run this way they’ll have crossed the bottoms. We’ll take us a little ride down there and cut for sign. Maybe we’ll pick up something.” He nudged his horse into a walk.

Zeke sighed and clucked his tongue. “Man’s not likely to gather any moss riding with you.”

Tanner grinned. “Leastways you’ll keep your hair.”

Zeke chuckled and lifted his hat to show his bald pate. “Don’t have to worry none on that score.” He looked at Jim’s brown hair curling over the collar of his fringed jacket. “You’ve got more than enough for both of us. Look more like a squaw than a white-eyes.”

Tanner made no reply as he guided the bay down into the valley and behind him Zeke grumbled to his own mount.

“Man ain’t got a civil tongue, hoss. Me, I figure he was raised by a rattlesnake. Only noise he makes is a hiss.”

At the bottom they split in opposite directions and began to work the trail, bent low over their horses’ necks as they searched for tracks. There were none. Tanner was already waiting, crouched on the ground in front of his horse, watching the skyline, when Zeke rode back. Tanner jerked his head in question and Zeke shook his in reply. Tanner grunted.

“Maybe it weren’t Apaches after all?” Zeke offered.

“And maybe it was. It stinks like their doing. Got me a notion.”

Zeke said nothing. He knew Tanner’s notions. They had a bad habit of being correct and although Apaches didn’t frighten Zeke he had no desire to be fighting them today. All he wanted right then was a stomach full of beef, a bottle of whiskey and a quiet place to lay his head. These days he was beginning to wonder if he was getting a bit long in the tooth, what teeth he had left, for this life. His bones were beginning to creak and he had ridden on enough campaigns to satisfy any man. One of these days some young buck Apache was going to jump him and stomp him good and the one thing he had come to look forward to was dying in bed.

Zeke came out of his thoughts as Tanner climbed back into the saddle, the big bay rattling the bridle bit in its mouth.

“I got a feeling, Zeke. Those red sons of bitches are out there somewhere along the trail. The notion’s as strong as a norther busting out of the Rockies and pushing me like a tumbleweed before it. Ain’t nothing I can do about it. I just know it.”

Zeke said nothing. He had a nasty suspicion Tanner was right.

And he was.


CHAPTER 3

“How did he take it?” Servada asked.

Josh Sutton looked up from where he was frying some pork in a skillet and made a face. “Sick to his stomach. Never seen a dead man before, ’specially one been tortured like that. Mind you, never seen one that bad myself for a long time.”

Servada nodded gravely. “I saw a man once the Apaches had taken in Sonora. I’ve never forgotten it.”

Josh grunted. “I don’t think the boy will. He’s been hanging on to that shotgun like it was his mammy’s tit. I don’t think he’s ever fired a gun in his life. Not even at a turkey shoot.”

“He’ll learn,” the Mexican said.

“Yeah, like the rest of us. I told him, it’s only the first time that’s hard. And it’s a whole lot easier when it’s an Indian who’s got his eye fixed on your hair.”

“Have you killed many men, Mr. Sutton?”

Josh turned the pork. “A few. In my younger days. The bad ones leave me alone now. I usta be a freighter, a muleskinner hauling supplies. They’re hard men…” His eyes glazed as he slipped into his memories, then cleared again. “But don’t you worry none about me. If those Apaches come back I’ll take care of my share.”

“Apaches, you say?” Servada frowned.

Josh grimaced. “Sure thing. Plenty of arrows stuck in the timbers. Apache all right. Not sure what kind of Apaches but that don’t matter. Any kind’s bad.”

“I wouldn’t have thought they’d use arrows.”

Josh made another face. “Must be short of rifles or bullets or both. If they saw us arrive they’ll be back. They’ll want our guns.”

“That’s what I thought,” Servada added. “Best not say anything in front of Señora Lantz or her daughter.”

Josh nodded. “What d’you reckon on the drummer?”

“He’s frightened, but he’s not alone there.”

“He carry a gun?”

Servada shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“What about you?”

“Yes, I have a Colt and a belt of bullets too.”

“Ain’t as much of a gent as you look then?”

Servada’s shoulders moved. “A man must protect himself.”

“Can you use it?”

“Yes.”

There was a note of certainty in the Mexican’s voice and Josh measured him as a man who would take nothing from anybody. Oh yes, he could use it all right.

Servada pursed his lips. “Very well, you have a Winchester, Mr. McConnell has the shotgun, and I have a Colt. Not many guns if those Apaches come back. Have you any idea how many there were?”

Josh shook his head. “Ain’t got much of an eye for tracks. But they never ride in ones or twos, always half a dozen or more.” He examined Servada’s face. “Doesn’t sound too good, does it?”

Juan Servada was about to answer when Kate Lantz’s voice called out. “Señor Servada?”

The Mexican looked down at the stagecoach driver. “We’ll talk later,” he said, then disappeared into the shadows to find Kate Lantz.

“Not that talking’ll do much good,” Josh said to himself as he stuck a piece of pork with his knife and tasted it. One thing was for sure, he was going to enjoy this pork. It might be the last pork he ever ate. Come to that, the last anything he ever ate.

“Come and get it!” he shouted.

“No coffee, Señora,” Juan Servada apologized to Kate Lantz as she wiped her plate clean, her back against what was left of the barn wall, her feet stuck out in front on the dusty ground.

“I’m amazed we had any food at all,” she replied, looking to the cooking fire which provided the only light.

Señor Sutton found a pig that the raiders had left.”

“You mean this was a live pig?” Kate’s daughter, Ruth, said, staring with horror at the remaining morsels of meat on her plate.

“Of course, Señorita. Pork is from pigs as beef is from steers,” the Mexican explained, the ghost of a smile in his dark eyes.

“I know that,” the girl blurted, “but it was alive only an hour ago.”

“Eat it and be grateful,” her mother said. “You could have gone to bed hungry.”

William Loving looked up from his plate which he had emptied as if there had been someone standing over him ready to snatch it away. “We should have been at a hotel in El Paso tonight, with proper food and a bed,” he complained.

“Then you ain’t seen the hotels in El Paso,” Josh said dryly. “They ain’t hardly no better than this.”

“I still wish we were there. At least we wouldn’t have the threat of Indians attacking us.”

Kate Lantz recognized the fear crawling into the drummer’s voice again. She glanced at the Mexican in an attempt to alter the direction of the conversation. “I hope you don’t think me impertinent, Señor, but have you traveled far?”

Servada smiled at her, knowing what she was trying to do. “Do you mean this trip, Señora, or…”

“No, just this trip. I wouldn’t want you to think I was prying into your affairs.”

“This trip I’ve come from Memphis, Tennessee. At Fort Smith, as you know, I transferred to this stage. I have an appointment in El Paso.”

Kate Lantz studied him. To judge by his clothes he was obviously wealthy, a rancher or a stock buyer. He hadn’t seemed offended at her question as many men might have been, so she decided to dig a little deeper. It would be nice to know what he did; after all he was very handsome and she found him fascinating.

“And what do you do, Señor? You’re not a salesman are you? I recognize breeding in your good manners. So many of the men one meets out here in the west are desperadoes of some sort or another.”

The Mexican smiled. “Thank you, Señora. No, I am not a salesman…”

Gunfire crackled away to the south. Juan Servada fell silent as they all listened to the night. Josh struggled to his feet and snatched up his Winchester, then snapped: “Black Bob! Get up on that wall there!”

Black Bob McConnell had been in the act of feeding a sliver of pork into his mouth. As he sat rigid the pork hung limply from his fingers and his jaw remained open like a trapdoor. Only the urgency in the Mexican’s voice goaded him into action.

“Do as he says, boy. Quickly!”

Black Bob dropped the pork which landed on the scattergun cradled in his lap. The firelight flickered across his face as his fingers fumbled with the gun, the pork grease making his hands slip. Clumsily he rubbed his palms on his jeans and came to his feet like an unsteady colt.

Josh was already at the window, staring hard into the night.

“Can you see anything?” Kate Lantz asked.

“Nope,” the old driver answered, then Juan Servada completed the statement.

“But now we know.”

“Know what?” the frightened Loving demanded, lifting his hat and dabbing at his forehead with a grimy handkerchief.

Servada looked at the drummer with a cool eye. “They’re out there.”

“That’s for sure,” added Josh, levering a shell into the Winchester’s breech. “But are they coming here?”

***

In the dark Zeke Harris’s horse stumbled in a prairie dog hole. It was the moment any horseman dreads; that if he is thrown his boot will catch in the stirrup and the horse will panic and drag him along until he is dead. There is no sure method of freeing yourself. You can only trust in God and providence and turn over onto your face and hope that your foot will slip out. A bruised, even a broken, jaw is better than being dead.

They had been working along the trail. The sun had gone down and the moon had not come up so there was no hope of casting for sign. It was hard enough to make out the big forks of cactus that pointed accusing fingers at the night sky. If a man wasn’t careful they snagged at his clothes like grasping hands in the night and Zeke had already painstakingly removed a handful of ugly spikes, cursing as he rode.

Without a chance of picking up the bronco Apaches in the dark the two scouts kept on a straight line, heading for Hueco Tanks.

But when the horse caught its leg, getting dragged through the cactus wasn’t Zeke’s primary concern. At the moment of being hurled upwards out of his saddle he knew it wasn’t a prairie dog hole at all. As the horse’s head went down he glimpsed a shadow dance in the mesquite.

A man’s shadow.

The hunters had become the hunted. The Apaches they were looking for had found them first.

“Jim!” he shouted, twisting in mid-air, at the back of his friend, who was riding in front. “Apaches!”


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