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J. Mark Flint #31954 LIFE

Fools' Gold

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Some men have trouble sitting silently and waiting. Me, I was not one of those men. At Spottsylvania, I had sat with a bullet wound in my leg for 18 hours in one place, never moving before I took my first shot. By the end of the following day I had fired tree shots and connected on each. I didn't like the indiscriminate killing that goes along with war, but shooting senior officers, that part I didn't mind at all.

 

I'd seen the man on our trail from a distance that didn't lend itself to identification. then I watched him move around in the only way that would allow him to get behind us. I wasn't worried as the area wasn't only known to me, but over the years I had lived nearby and even the jackrabbits didn't know the area any better. The back trail was visible from the cut, but Blackwater was set up a good 300 yards past the cut and I was a good 200 yards in the other direction. That put either of us more than a mile from the nearest cover. Whoever was shadowing us could get no closer during the day. Come nightfall we'd have to move one way or the other. The glare off the remaining snow covering the slopes hinted at their icy nature. That gave me an idea.

 

I pulled out my glass and turned towards Blackwater, catching the sun and hoping he would see my signal. After a bit, he flashed back and I began to send a morse coded signal. We were both rusty, but after a few exchanges we had a plan in place.

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So that was the plan. I knew by now that whoever was shaddowing us had probably figured out the trap and bypassed it altogether. Besides myself and Flint I could think of only a few who would be that savy. Two of them were accounted for.

 

I looked at my pocket watch. 8:00 am. The sun had been up for more than three hours more or less and the low fire I'd built down in the cut was now only ashes with a few smoking embers. I started up along the edge of the cut going north to the entrance we'd used to enter. When I'd passed the entrance by a distance of a couple hundred yards off to the east, I rejoined the trail. Now I knew we were being followed. One man and a lone horse, unshod. An Indian pony and moccasin foot prints that were only barely discernable. Now I had a suspicion of who was out there.

 

I headed down the cut to a spot just inside the southern end and waited. The colonel had a longer route to cover and, out in the open more or less, a tougher job of remaining undiscovered. We had given ourselves two hours to get into position and I'd only used three quarters of and hour so far. I pulled out a strip of jerky and sat down to wait.

 

Meanwhile, J. Mark had made it to where he was even with our shaddow and continued to move south. The winter grass had stood the winds and weather and the scrub juniper gave some cover as well. An hour into the plan the colonel had reached a point a mile below the point that we would converge on and he turned back north a hundred yards off of the trail to the west. With any shaddow behind him, he'd be harder to spot.

 

I'd not seen my quarry as yet, but now I knew where he was. I walked back to where the horses were ground hitched and threw the saddle back onto the sorrel. "C'mon boy," I said softly and threw my leg over the saddle.

 

I headed down the cut to the spot I'd stopped at before and waited. I looked at my watch again. If Flint wasn't in position by now this likely wouldn't work. I said a quick prayer and heeled the sorrel out of the cut. I'd ridden about two hundred yards when ol' 'Pache Hawk appeared as if by magic from beside the trail with a pair of Colt pistols aimed at my head. Before he could say a word however, Flint touched the barrel of his Sharps to the nape of Hawk's neck! Hawk slowly raised the pistols and aimed them skyward.

 

"When I spied the tracks at the other end of this draw I figured them moccasin tracks might be yours," I said with a widening grin on my face. "Colonel! If you haven't met before, this here is Apache Hawk."

 

"I know him. It's the only reason he's still got his head!" Flint chuckled as he pointed the Sharps down and lowered the hammer.

 

"You two have got better!" Hawk grumbled as he decocked and holstered the Colts.

 

I slid off of the horse and wrapped an arm aroud the halfbreed's neck. "I learned some."

 

"Hawk!" J. Mark extended a hand, "What in Hell are you doin' out here?"

 

"Follerin' your sorry carcasses!" he replied taking the colonels hand. "You got coffee back in that camp? Or maybe a bottle?"

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"Cheyenne, Cody, Bill - gather up real quick here, I got a few things to say and I only want to say them once. Cheyenne, I ain't treated you right. That stops now. Unless somethin' happens to change my mind, and I don't expect that, I expect I can trust ya with any job, turn my back on ya when you're mad as hell at me and, in general treat you just like everyone else. I expect the same out of the rest of ya as well."

 

"We're short handed on this run with barely enough of us to stand watch at night, let alone defend ourselves if needed. Now, for better or worse, the Col. has placed me in charge of this four-cowboy lashup and I intend to deliver as promised. I want the three of ya to be there at the end with me, but if ya can't abide the ground rules for any reason, pack your horses and ride, no hard feelings. Keep any weapons, ammo, provisions and such and Godspeed. We'll see ya down the trail some other time."

 

"Now, who's gone be here for breakfast?"

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The Colonel smiled and said, "This way." and I followed him while Blackwater brought up the rear. The small fire and died out to just embers and Blackwater leaned his rifle up on the near by rock and stirred those embers till they where a small flame. I got to gathering up fire wood while the Colonel poured some water into the coffee pot from one of the canteens. Setting the coffee pot on the rock the rings the fire, so that the coffee can cook, I spied what looked like a bottle in Blackwater's pack.

 

"Now Blackwater....ole Pard.....that aint what I think it is.......is it ?" I ask hoping I would get the right answer that he knew I was looking for. He reached into he pack and pulled out a whiskey bottle and said, "Nope...it aint. But you can have some to knock off the chill of the morning air Hawk !" while the Colonel just chuckled to himself.

 

As the smell of the bowling coffee filled the air, J. Mark asked me, "Hawk, mind me asking why you where trailing us for so long ? Kinda got my curiosity up ." I sat up and said to him,"Not at all Colonel. Tell you what you want you know. I was Ranging in San Antonio when I got word that some Noyucka Comanche had attacked some white settles along the the Red River. I thought ok, just another part of rangering....I'll go catch 'em and bring them in for trial. Then word came that they had butchered the white women they had with them. That crossed the line. Now there's a re-ward on their heads and I aim to do to them what they did to those women. "

 

I heard out my cup while Blackwater pour some of the hot brew into it and I splashed some whiskey into it as well. Just enough to cut through the morning chill. Blackwater looked at me while asking, "Hawk...you been following a trail ?" I nodded I had. "Yup.....been heading north but these are Noyuka Comanche......meaning they go around about. If they go north east, they will turn and go south west. And that's where I plan to cut 'em off. Sides.....seems y'all are heading that way any how. I know that country better than any man alive.....even got family that lives there. Maybe can get some help.....if ya be needing' it......not saying that y'all will. Just 3 sets of eyes are better than 2 sets."

 

I walked out to unsaddle my horse and let him free graze. He knew me and he knew that I would take care of him like my own child so he would not run off, therefore there was no need to tie him. I over heard the Colonel and Blackwater talking and asking if I knew anything about what was going on. They didn't think so and indeed I didn't, but I wasn't going to let them know that......at least not now. No matter what may happen, I own Blackwater my life and that was a debt I could never repay. The Colonel was his friend and if he was Blackwater's friend, then I had to trust him to, but I didn't own him. " His Apache name is Haskay-nay-ntayl" Blackwater said to J. Mark. The Colonel frowned and Blackwater said......"it means Apache for "Brave One comes to a mysterious end."

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I appreciated Bama's speech, a man who'll fess up like that in front of others is the type I can easily ride with. Be there in the morning for breakfast? I imagine so and with any luck in the morning we would have more fresh meat to start the day out.

 

"Count me in" I answered Bama, "don't have anyone on my list anyway." Besides I was curious about the wagon with the wobbly wheel just ahead of us.

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The bottle held a local whiskey. No bonded stuff was available when I picked it up, and I don't waste spirits. Hawk had hoped that I was carrying some good Tennessee whiskey, but out here it was hard to get. He poured a slug into his coffee nonetheless.

 

"Comanches," I repeated. "Ain't most of them been corraled up in the Nations?"

 

"Yeah! There's a few holdouts though," Hawk replied. "Ain't many, but they's the worst of the lot!"

 

"We'd better leave sign for the boys on the wagons," Flint observed. "They're a pretty salty lot, but a big bunch of Comanch and suprise to go with it might get the better of 'em."

 

"Yeah! I'd hate fer a bunch like that ta' slip in behind us and get the drop on the wagons!" Thinking of a way to warn them without one of us backtracking, I studied what I knew of trail sign. "They're still east of here and won't follow the trail we're on."

 

"We'll have to leave sign over on the main Santa Fe road," the colonel pointed out. "One of us, at least, will have to ride over there and meet 'em or leave a sign that they can read."

 

"We took this trail 'cause I thought we were being followed. We can always swing back over that way now that we know who was on out back trail." I reminded them. "We're at least a half a day ahead of 'em, and I don't see waistin' time backtrackin'."

 

"If we work our way over gradual like, we can stay ahead and warn 'em too!" Hawk piped up. "Them Comanches were at least three days ride ahead of me when I hit town yesterday mornin'."

 

"Then let's get a few hours shutteye. The horses already have a few hours rest and we can take time about out front," J. Mark said as he commenced pulling off his boots. "Hawk! You want to string along with us for a spell?"

 

"I'll throw in with ya's fer a while," Hawk smiled, "long as you don't mind sharin' the trail with a halfbreed apache!" He poured himself another cup of coffee and then another dollop of skull buster in on top of it, tossed the bottle back to me and laughed. "I'd hate ta' hafta kill all them Comanches by myself!"

 

I sat and pulled my boots. The morning had almost passed and I could have slept 'til the next day. Hell! I could always sleep for days.

 

"I'll scout the area and then get some rest myself," Hawk announced, downing the last of the coffee and standing to walk the back trail a ways.

 

I knew he wouldn't sleep. I also knew we'd each find ways to sleep in the saddle before this journey was through.

 

 

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Long before daybreak I crept out of camp to check on some snares by the water hole that I had put out the day before. I could hear animals leaving the area as I neared the water hole, I listened intently for a short time and was rewarded by the sound of an animal thrashing and grunting. A wild pig had become ensnared in my trap, fresh meat for breakfast.

 

I slit the small pig's throat throat and carried it back towards camp. I almost laughed out loud as I heard cussing and my taking my good name in vain. "Dammit" hollered Tyrel, "he sure had me fooled, never figured he tuck tail and run."

 

I started whistling Dixe before I entered camp, as I came into sight I could make out Bams's scattergun pointed in my direction. "He's already dead boys, you taint gotta shoot him" I said loud enough for them to hear very well. " We gonna eat?" I asked them as I picked the pig up and carried him to the fire. I got cussed some more, but in more of a good mannered way. I cussed them to for having so little faith, even went so far as to call them "doubting Thomases!"

 

I headed off again as soon as I had eaten drawn by the curiosity of the wagon ahead of us. It wasn't more than an hour later that I caught sight of it and sure enough the right rear wheel had slipped off the axle. I studied the wagon from a knoll off to the north of it for a while, that fact that there was another water hole there with three women bathing in it didn't hurry me any at all. I glassed back to the wagon to see two women and a big burly man trying to put the wheel back on the wagon. From as far away as I was I could hear the man cussing and screaming at the two women.

 

I could feel the veins in my neck pulse as I watched, until he hit one of the women, knocking her several feet away onto the ground. The other woman started screaming at the man until he reacted by pulling a knife. I slid the Sharps into position, cocked it and set the trigger, then took one more good look at the scene. The man was reaching for the woman, who was still cussing him from under the wagon.

 

I let out some of the deep breath I had taken and squeezed the trigger. When the smoke had cleared the man was rolling around on the ground holding his knee. The shot had run true to it's mark. As I neared the wagon the man started cussing me, but the three women who had come running from the water hole holding their clothes and the two women by the wagon sure weren't. The woman who had been under the wagon grabbed the man's knife off of the ground and slipped behind him and slit his neck like I had slit the pig's neck that morning.

 

The woman looked up at me and smiling said, "he'll never cuss or hit us again."

 

I tell you what, those women sure knew how to thank a man! The woman with the knife talked to me first though, that long brown hair and brown eyes as big as a calf's intoduced her self. "My name is Calico, you can call me Cali." Then she thoroughly thanked me before the others had a chance to.

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“Why did I ever run away from home?” I thought to myself for the umpteenth time in the last three years. I'd been barely 16, and had enough of putting up with my pa's abuse. I also couldn't see myself settling down and marrying one of the farm boys in the area. The west seemed so much more exciting than Benton County Iowa, so off I ran, to what I had no idea at the time.

 

My parents, Orlo and Mary Barton, were only married for a little over year and I was just a baby when the war broke out. Pa had gone off to fight for the Union with his brother Enos. Uncle Enos had been killed in battle down in Mississippi, and pa never got over it. He took his anger out on ma and us kids, so as soon as I thought I was old enough to make it on my own I took off. Boy, was I ever wrong. It hadn't taken long to figure out the only way I was gonna survive was to sell the only thing I had....myself. This wasn't the life I had wanted to live, but it was slightly better than starving or freezing to death.

 

I'd spent some time in Nebraska Territory, then Kansas, before meeting a man who was looking for soiled doves to go with him to Santa Fe. He said his sister was opening a higher class bordello there, and needed ladies. I was bored with Kansas by then, and Santa Fe sure sounded pretty, so I packed what little I had and joined with the other 4 girls he'd talked into going, and we headed towards the southwest. It hadn't taken long to figure out this man, Marvin, was even more abusive than my pa had ever been, and it wasn't long before all of us girls were covered in bruises. I hated him, but I had no idea where we were, much less where to go to get help. Marvin avoided towns, and whenever he had to leave camp for supplies or such he'd tie us all up first. For a while I'd thought there would be no escape until we got to Santa Fe or wherever he was really taking us.

 

When the wagon wheel fell off of course Marvin blamed all of us, even though we had nothing to do with it. He ordered me and Mattie to help him with it, while the others went to bathe. Sure enough, it wasn't long before he was beating on us again, and I dove under the wagon to get away. Then I heard the shot, and Marvin hit the ground screaming. As the man that had fired the shot approached, I finally saw my chance at freedom. Marvin had dropped his knife, and I quickly scooped it up and made sure that snake was never gonna hit me again.

 

I had no idea who this stranger with the rifle was, but I after all I'd been through the last few weeks I wasn't about to trust him. Still, I knew how to get men to do what I wanted them to, and we were going to need help getting that wheel back on the wagon if we were ever gonna go anywhere. Plus we needed to know where we were and how to get back to civilization, if there was any of that 'round here. I smiled my biggest smile, flashed as much skin as I could until I got his attention, then introduced myself....

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We had started out with Cody driving one of the wagons and me and Bill splitting time on the other. Cody was so used to handling a team that he could sit on a wagon seat all day and be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at sundown.

 

After five hours or so, Bill and I both were ready for a bath, a drink and a woman. We had to settle for two of the three, sometimes only one of the three. On the bad days, when we didn't get any of the three, nobody wanted to be around our little wagon train.

 

Since Culpepper had started his scout so early, we all got an early start. It was still before noon when I heard the faint report of a large bore rifle from up ahead.

"Boys, I'll betcha that shot I just heard was Cheyenne, putting something in the pot for supper this evening! Fresh meat, boys!" After a few seconds thought, I hollered, "Bill, tie that nag o' yours in back and get yer butt up here in this seat! I'm gonna stretch ole Stonewall's legs some this afternoon!"

 

I wanted to just take a look-see at our back trail and maybe get in a little hunting for supper. With a tap of my spurs to Stonewall's flanks and a wave of my hand, I was off.

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When my eyes opened the sun was to the west. Hawk sat at the fire with his head bowed, eyes closed. I eased over to a sitting position, shook out my boots and pulled them on. The colonel was stirring as well. He had one boot on and was scratching his head with one hand while shaking out the other boot, holding it by the heel. "You awake, Hawk?" he asked in a low voice.

 

'Pache started slightly and grumbled, "Ain't slept yet. You two snore loud enough so's if there was any buffalo left around here they'd be miles away!" He stretched his arms skyward and let out a low groan. "Coffee's 'bout ready."

 

"I make it to be four or so," I said. I looked at my watch to confirm my observation then wound it and put it back in the pocket of my vest.

 

"We should be movin' soon. Been here too long for my liking," the wiry half white scout grunted.

 

"I'll be having some of that coffee!" Flint said as he clambered to his feet. "We should eat before we break camp. Outside of some jerky, I ain't fed in a day's time!"

 

I took my skillet and a chunk of salt pork from my pack saddle and walked back to the fire. I sat and placed the pan over the embers and began slicing off strips of the meat. It sizzled and popped as it hit the hot metal and the aroma filled the camp. "Grab some of them hardtack biscuits outta my gear!" I called to the colonel, who'd gone to saddle his horses. "We can sop up the grease and be done and gone in no time."

 

Hawk went to saddle his horse and when J. Mark returned with the biscuits and a tin plate, I flipped several pieces of the hot pork into his plate. Hawk returned with a wooden bowl and some small chunks of corn bread. I filled his bowl and reached into the bag for a biscuit. I ate my meal straight out of the skillet, wiping up the last of the grease with the hard round piece of bread. I chased the last of it with a swig of water from my canteen.

 

Flint poured the last bit of coffee into the fire raising a small puff of steam as the grounds hissed. He kicked some dirt over the last of the coals and walked to the bushes to relieve himself. I took the bag of food and my skillet to where my pack saddle awaited. Hawke threw my saddle on the dunn for me and I put the gear on the sorrel, cinched up the straps and swapped canteens. I grabbed the cinch on the dunn's saddle and gave it one more tug then pulled up the ground pins and led the horses into the trail where both of my companions waited. I walked around both horses, gave another tug at the cinches on the pack saddle and mounted up. With an exchange of nods we turned south.

 

Thirty miles to the south, a dozen scraggly Comanches rode single file. They'd been on the run for a month or more and had caused a lot of problems. They had burned the homes of settlers who were too far from anyone to get help, killed more than twenty including several women that they had first kidnapped, and stolen livestock and weapons. Now they were tired. They had lost or eaten the cattle and mules, ridden most of their stolen horses to death and were running low on ammunition and food. They had taken to arguing and in one case fighting amongst themselves, and the leader, Crow That Walks, new that they must have another success soon or he would lose the others' confidence completely.

 

Still farther south, Tom was wearing thin. He had walked for the last day and a half, leading his tired but still game horse to let him rest. They'd found water and the winter grass was plentiful if not that nourishing. The horse had recovered some, but he needed grain. Tom hadn't seen the old indian again. He had managed to snare another squirrel on his own as well as a couple of pheasant. He too was weary of this open lonely country, but he knew little of it and had no reckoning of when or where he might find a settlement or even a farm. He'd headed south figuring that if nothing else it would be warmer. He also knew that the man he so desperately wanted to find had been traveling in that direction. "Hoss! If trouble starts, you're gonna have to carry me one more time or you'll be somebody's dinner, likely. You'd better enjoy it while you can." They were only a few miles from the Santa Fe road, but Tom had no way of knowing that. He checked his rifle and pistol, took a mental inventory of his ammunition, shook his troubled head, and stumbled on south.

 

The men with the wagons had made good time. Now there was another wagon about to join them, courtesy of a lowlife whoremonger and his failure to calculate on the marksmanship of Cheyenne Culpepper or the fact that angry women don't have any mercy. Bama Red would be hard pressed to make progress like he had the last two days, but the others had no inkling of how good a trail boss he could be. As any of us that knew him had been told on more than one occasion, "Boys! This ain't my first goat ropin'!"

 

The colonel, Hawk and myself headed sidelong toward the Santa Fe road. we had to warn the wagons of the Comanche threat. Hawk had devised a plan to leave a message that he and I knew Chickasaw Bill would easily catch and cypher. We cut the trail just before dark and Hawk found a witness tree. He took his knife and carved some symbols into the large branch that long ago had been bent to show the direction of another traveler for others to follow. It would be still fresh when the wagons passed later on and only a savy scout who knew the signs would even see it. There would be a full moon again tonight and we would ride on until early in the morning.

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We rode on southwest toward the Santa Fe road, to where the old witness tree was, if it was still standing. I don't know if Chicasaw Bill remembered me or not, but him being an old time teacher, he would know the "danger" sign if he was to see it. I knew once we got to that tree limb, if it was still there and if Bill saw it, there was a old abandoned stage relay station about 4 or 5 miles further on down the trail. If Bill and the wagons could make it there, then they would be safe.

 

But we had bigger problems at hand and that was those Comanches coming at us. Crow that walks had sent some braves off in our direction to find food and shelter. "Blackwater.....I make out bout 4 of 'em ...headin' our way. They must have noses like dawgs cause they ae sniffing' the wind ! Looks like their carrying Remingtons and bows........horses look played out and hard to control as they smell our water. I can take 2 of 'em here but I need help with the other 2. Y'all mind ?"

 

Blackwater and J.Mark looked at each other in disbelief. "Same ole "Pache !" Blackwater said as he stepped down. The Colonel just groaned and didn't say a thing. With his spy glass out the Colonel asked, "Anyway around them ? I wanted to avoid a fight till......"that's when he heard the shot.

 

"Guess not !" Blackwater said and skinned his rifle out of it's scarab board and slide behind some rocks all at the same time. J.Mark had done the same with his aim trained on the 4 Comanches that came running toward him screaming their war cry. Then one of them fell head long into the snowy dirt, with my arrow buried deepen his back, the other was spun around from Blackwater's round caught him him his chest. And yet there was the fine mist of gray and red of the head exploding when the Colonel's round found it's mark into the Comanche's head. The other saw it was useless fight and began to run, but I wasn't going to have any of it, so I threw my fighting knife and buried it between his shoulders, up to the hilt.

 

I quickly took cover and waited to see if any of the others came up because sound carries much better in cold weather than in hot, but I guess they decided it was not in their best interest or they didn't hear the fight. I checked each of the dead, but I didn't know them, just my luck too. I was thinking there maybe a reward out for them. Pulled my fighting knife out of the back of the dead Comanche with some effort, wiping the blood off and noticed he had a dog with him, and that the dog now and taken up with me. "Uhhh. One master dies and now you'r gonna chance you'r master ?" I though.

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Every now and then I was still finding the same tracks, made by a horse with small feet an a heavy rider.

 

I wasn't finding enough tracks to make a trail to follow, but I'd been following the man for a month. I could almost follow him with no tracks now, just knowing which terrain he'd preferred to use while I'd been following him.

 

Which is why, on the afternoon of the second day walking and leading my tired horse, I was surprised to see his tracks climbing the side of a small hilltop.

 

I had aimed at the hill thinkin I might get a look at a little more country and feel for where I was, so the three hoof prints I found in the soft ground under a tree were pure luck.

 

Those tracks gave me pause though. Never once in a month had he taken to high ground when there was another way to go.

 

I bit a sliver off the plug of smoked and dried tobacco I carried, and chewed on it a little while I thought about it. Finally I decided he must have wanted to see if there was still a rider on his trail...

 

When I reached the top, I knew I'd guessed right, as I could see near ten miles down my back trail. Ahead of me to the south, and the the east and west, I could only see a few miles. Still, off in the distance there, that was either a road or a rock shelf... But a hillbilly like me was easily fooled in this wide open country.

 

So I filed it away in the corner of my mind and settled down for a good listen. I let my watch tick off 20 minutes, and hearing nothing but wind, got up and stretched my legs.

 

They were lettin me know they didn't like walking, but luckily I'd retained part of my namesake, in that I wore low heeled boots more suited to a farmers tasks than buckin out a bronc on a cold mornin. So my feet weren't so bad off as they coulda been.

 

More automatically than by conscious thought I chose the ground I figured the man would take, and headed down the small hill toward it. A few taller trees promised water a few miles ahead, and I started makin plans for a camp as I walked...

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as the wagons , rolled up on the wagon with the wheel off

 

there was Pepper and Bama acting like a couple of banny roosters in a hen house

 

Cody and I got the wheel back on without , them be any help at all

 

Boys listen up real close there is a old stage stop up the road some , lets head for there

 

back in the last staqnd of trees , there was a fresh blaze with the Apachie mark of danger in it , looked to be less than a day old

 

I would reckin , we had best be on the look out for TROUBLE ,

 

Bama , ya best get a couple of them Spencers into that extra wagon

 

feeling something evil in the air , let's get to moving , been in one place way too long

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Normally I'd be tickled to be in the company of five beauties after bring on the trail for several days; today is not one of those times. Bill and I managed to get the wheel back on, but I wasn't confident that it would stay on all the way to Santa Fe. "Best we swing hy that water hole and top off barrels", I said. "Mister," said the one called Cali, "I can drive the wagon and shoot better than most so I'll keep Marvins guns." Well at least one of them seemed to have there head on straight. "Bill, you and Red lead the way since y'all know where that old stage station is; Ill follow the girls."

 

The buzzards had already started circling above. "I hope there ain't no injuns close by......."

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Our rescuer had told us his name was Culpepper, and he had some friends that should be coming along soon that could help fix the wagon. Sure enough, it wasn't long before three more men driving two freight wagons showed up, and two of them got right to work on it as soon as they heard our story. Culpepper and the other one were too busy flirting with the other ladies, but Mattie, Pearl, Ruby, and Suzanna didn't seem to mind. I didn't mind either, it kept them all occupied for a few minutes, long enough for me to sneak over to Marvin's body. I still had his knife and knew where his rifle was, but I also wanted his pistol and something else. I knew he was carrying a large amount of cash, both paper and gold coin, and I wasn't about to leave that behind. Marvin had no more use for it, nor anything else of value for that matter, but I did.

 

As I stood up to rejoin the others, I noticed that one of the other men, I think his name was Cody, was staring straight at me, and that Culpepper fellas was trying to sneak a glance in my direction as well. I was sure they probably had some idea of what I had been doing, but neither said anything, and I wasn't about to tell them what I had found. The money I intended to split with the other ladies later, we all deserved it after what Marvin had put us through. The guns I planned to keep for myself, I knew my female companions wouldn't want them, and would probably fail to consider that they were worth some money. I'd already decided that when we got to Santa Fe I had no desire to find another saloon or bordello to work in, I'd had my fill of that life already. But I still needed a way to survive, and selling those guns would give me a little extra cash to put with what I had been saving for months, and hopefully tide me over until I could figure out what to do next.

 

By then the wheel was back on the wagon, and I could tell the men were anxious to get moving again. I tried to convince them that the five of us would be just fine, that all we needed was directions to Santa Fe or some other decent sized town nearby, but the four men wouldn't hear of it. “Ain't no way we can leave you ladies out here by yourselves, ma'am,” said the one called Red. “There's Comanches and outlaws and all sorts of bad sorts around, it ain't safe. No, we're heading for Santa Fe ourselves, wouldn't be right not to take you all with us, make sure you get there safe and sound. But I am gonna hafta insist on two things. Number one is I'm in charge, I tell any of you ladies to do something, I ain't kidding....do it and do it fast. Might make the difference between you stayin' alive or endin' up like that snake over there 'bout to become buzzard feed. The other is thing is we're kinda in a hurry, git loaded up so we can git movin'.”

 

I wasn't too sure about stickin' with these gents, maybe they could be trusted and maybe they couldn't. Still, I had to admit we didn't have much choice, and they did say they were heading the right direction. I just hoped they weren't lying, and I couldn't help but wonder why that Culpepper fella kept staring at me...had he seen me take that money after all?

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I gathered the dead men's horses and managed to find enough blankets to bind their bodies and tie them across their ponies. I rolled up my left sleeve and pulled out my knife, making 4 short shallow slashes across the forearm.

 

Hawk gave me a cold look and Blackwater finally spoke up. "What in the world are you doing?"

 

I turned and with a frown I responded " I spent a year with the Pagatsʉ Comanche. They have no mourners, so I will mourn them and I will see to their burial. A cave would be best and I don't think it will take me too long to get to one. There's an old Stage station just a short ride back behind us-you two can meet me there at nightfall."

 

Blackwater shook his head in protest "You know we ain't got time for this foolishness."

 

I nodded "I know, but it needs to be done."

 

Blackwater was angry but held back "Buzzards got to eat same as a worm."

 

I glared at him "Worms don't circle in the sky for all to see. Besides, this one is the son of a chief" I rolled over the man that Hawk had first shot. "and I know his father."

 

A hush fell over the camp and Blackwater removed his hat and brushed back his long hair "Well then. . . ."

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"Boys, if the ladies wagon is ready, let's roll! There's an old stage station up ahead a ways that we ought to be able to make by dark if we push and don't have any more breakdowns."

 

"Miss Calico, if I tell you and your girls to do something, you can assume it is life and death. There will be no questions or explanations. I need y'all to obey immediately. By the time we get to the stage station, I'll need to know how many of your girls can shoot and what kind of guns they're familiar with. There's a good chance we're gonna have a fight on our hands, if I read that witness tree right. Comanches, unless I miss my guess."

 

"Roll 'em out, ladies and gents! Eyahhhhhh!! Roll 'em! Hyah, Hyah!"

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Crow That Walks was furious! He'd sent a scouting party ahead at daylight to scrounge for food and find some easy target to attack. The rest of the braves had begun to doubt his medicine and he knew that a quick conquest would reinforce his leadership. It was well past midday and the scouts had not returned. This meant that they'd brought no food or water and no news of likely victims. He had begun to doubt himself as well. If the scouts had attacked a farmhouse or some travelers and were victorious, they would look good in the eyes of the rest of the braves. If they'd taken on some fighting men and been killed or driven off that too would make him look bad.

 

Now he was leading the remainder of his braves southwest, following the trail laid down by the scouting party. He was hoping to meet the scouts returning, but every step his pony took caused him to sink further into doubt. He searched the horizon ahead for signs of smoke and saw none. Not even the vultures that floated on the wind could be seen. Had the earth just swallowed them? There had to be some sign.

 

To the east and south there was an old stage station. The white man's wagons often stopped there to water their stock and sleep in the old run down house. Perhaps he could get lucky and catch some unsuspecting pilgrims there. The scouts could fend for themselves, he thought to himself. He'd ambush the next wagons that came down the road and those who followed him would, again learn to forever respect his medicine. He turned his horse to the east and left the trail of the scouting party.

 

Miles to the south Tom had found the spring that the tall trees he'd seen in the distance earlier had promised. The water was cool and fresh and the winter grass here was still a little green. "Get your fill ,Hoss!" he chuckled as his somewhat less weary mount cropped greedily at the coarse fodder. "We'll rest a spell here, and when we go maybe you can give my sore feet a break." He filled his canteen and then washed his face in the pool that formed from the water that ran lazily from the spring. He decided to risk a small fire to cook the last of the pheasant he'd snared, and boil the once used grounds of coffee he had saved after the last of his Arbuckles had been drunk the day before. "I could sure use some supplies," he muttered to no one in particular. "Don't know what I'd use for money." He shook his head.

 

Almost directly east from where Tom sat, Culpepper had ridden up to the abandoned stage depot. The barn had long since fallen in and much of the wood it had been built from had been used for fires built by those who had sought shelter in the sturdy, if badly run down depot building. The corral was still mostly sound. It had a three rail fence on three sides and backed against a dirt bank on the fourth side, the bank being steep and over twice as high as a man standing on his hind legs. The depot house stood on another rise almost as high with a rock stairway down to where the stages used to stop when they pulled off of the Santa Fe road. The path led around the building between the corral and the house and wound back to the road, passing between the barn and the depot to return to the road. The depot itself was an adobe building with a timber roof. A two room affair with a kitchen and a large room that doubled as a dining room and a place to sleep when a stage had been forced to lay over.

 

Hawk and Blackwater had not wanted to split up with Col. Flint. "We ought to stay together," Blackwater had protested, but J. Mark would not hear of it. Now they rode north to the agreed to meeting place. It was several miles back up the road to the depot and neither of them liked backtracking. Meanwhile Flint had found a small cave and he carried the bodies of his dead enemies into it. One after another he placed them on the floor. When he had seen to it that each of them was properly set in repose, he spoke in the Comanche tongue, saying the ceremonial words to show an enemy and a fellow warrior mutual respect and to start them on their journey into the next life.

 

At the depot, Culpepper gathered some dry wood and started a fire in the cook stove and another in the large fireplace in the dining hall. He walked out to the corral and took down the gate rails. Loosening the cinch on his saddle, he pulled it off and set it straddle of the fence, wiped down his mount with the blanket and removed the bridle. The horse walked into the corral and Cheyenne put the gate rails back up. He picked up the saddle and with his Sharps in the other hand walked back to the house. Adding wood to the fire and looking around, he spied a wooden bucket which he carried to the well and filled with water. As he returned he slowly looked over the landscape again, taking note of as many details as he could.

 

Bama Red pushed the three wagon teams hard. Repairing the women's wagon had cost time. He had dallied with a couple of the ladies a little while Bill and Cody had shoved the wheel back onto the axle and secured it. The one named Mary seemed to have taken the leadership role among them. She had claimed the guns belonging to the dead pimp and had searched his body while the others had been bussy occupying most of the men's attention. Bama wondered what Mary had found. It had looked like she had secreted something in her garments just before she had stood and walked away from the body. In half an hour or less the wagons had been lined up and set in motion and now they approached the stage depot. They saw smoke rising from the chimneys at what appeared to be a mile or so distance.

 

Chickasaw Bill looked around from horseback and dropped back to come even with Bama in the last wagon. "I reckon ol' Pepper has us a fire goin'!" he laughed. "Maybe he'll have supper ready time we get there and get unhitched."

 

Red just rolled his eyes and laughed.

 

To the west, Tom finished the pheasant and washed it down with the weak watery coffee. He had soaked his feet in the pool as he had waited for the food and drink to warm. Now he pulled on his tattered socks and slid his feet back into the well worn but still sturdy boots. He was just retrieving his bedroll and rifle when the smoke from the stage depot, several miles away, caught his eye. "Hoss! That's a white man's fire over yonder!" Tom studied the terrain. "If you can make it that far before dark with me in the saddle, I'll bet you there's some real coffee and maybe some grain for you too!" He lashed the bedroll back down, kicked out the fire, and pulled up hard on the cinch to the saddle. He walked the horse out of the trees, took one more look around and the swung up into the saddle. It seemed the horse sensed the urgency in his master's heart and set to the task in earnest.

 

A couple of miles to the north, Crow That Walks saw the smoke too.

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I built a fire in the old fireplace, set some snares around the outside of the old cabin and then took my second mount towards a hill not far away. Once there I was able to glass in all directions, and I was not pleased. The wagons were nearing, but so were eight riders from one direction and a lone rider from another direction. All converging on the cabin. I had time to warn the wagons, and as I thought of it of how to possibly set a trap for the eight riders if they were the Comanches the the signs on tree had warned us of.

 

The lone rider would have to fend for himself. We had time to set a trap, but I had to warn the others in the wagons quickly to have time to set the trap properly.

 

I urged my mount quickly back down the hill towards a spot to intercept the wagons. I was thinking I shouldn't have started a fire with it's smoke, but then we would have the high ground instead of running into a trap ourselves, yup, tha's why I built the fire!

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'Miss Calico'? Who did this fella think he was fooling? As if it wasn't obvious that I was no lady....

 

But I took his warning seriously, and after we got moving I had Mattie ask the others if they had any experience with guns. I should have known better, those three didn't know how to do much of anything that didn't involve laying on their backs. Just the fact that these men wanted to know had them all terrified, as well they should be. For some reason I wasn't as scared as I knew I should be, but I had a feeling that these men knew far more about surviving out here than Marvin had.

 

I got Bill's attention as he was riding by our wagon, and asked him to let Red know what I had found out. He rolled his eyes a little at finding out that us ladies weren't going to be much help, at least not if it came to fighting. Just what did these men expect from a bunch of soiled doves? Usually the only time we had to defend ourselves was at close quarters, and all of us carried some type of knife for that, but a lot of saloon owners and madams frowned upon their girls using firearms.

 

Not long after that I could see a dust cloud up ahead, looked like it could be a rider heading our direction. For a second I hoped it was that Culpepper fellow, but then I wasn't so sure. The way he'd been looking at me I could swear he knew about the money I'd taken, and that had me more than a little worried. I hadn't had time to count it, so I wasn't sure how much was there, I'd just hidden it in a pocket inside my petticoat. But just how safe was it if these men really had figured out I had it?

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I enjoyed the sun on my back as Hoss carried me east. It felt good to be riding again, and I could feel Hoss wanting to step out a bit, though I kept his reign tight.

 

I had spent enough years as a hired gun to know that not every fire putting off smoke is friendly. Some folks I'd known of in The Nation had made it a practice to build a big fire along a trail or a road, then sit back from it and rob any one that rode up looking for company for the night.

 

So I kept Hoss at an easy walk, in case I had to turn him and make a run for it.

 

Ahead of me and a little north of me, a sudden flicker and flash caught my eye... Light reflected from a glass most likely. I kept Hoss moving along as if I'd seen nothing, and kept my eyes glued on the small rise the flash had come from. For probably the hundredth time in the last month, I wished I had a glass of my own. With the sun at my back, and in the face of whoever sat up there, I coulda had a good look at 'em without tippin them that they'd flashed me. Within a few minutes however, a horse came spilling down the south side and cut hard to the east...

 

Something had that rider in a hurry, and it couldn't be the one look he'd taken at a single rider approaching at an easy walk.

 

I bit a sliver out of my plug and gave it a squeeze with my teeth as I rode. A little chewing tobacco always helped me think better. Deciding the rider had come down the south side on purpose, and not bothering to hide from me could mean someone even less friendly was north of him, and me, I worked my way toward the southern slope of the rise. I wanted a look around before I got any closer to that smoke. I was gettin the feelin I wasn't the only one comin to the party...

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As J. Mark laid out the dead, I got Blackwater's attention and pointed to a dust cloud not more that 3 miles north of where we where. "Is that who I think they are ?" Blackwater asked. I nodded and said "Yup....Welcoming Committee ! We gotta git .......NOW !" I swung up onto my Appaloosa and chambered a round in my rifle and tried to clam my horse down. He was getting on edge, he knew all too well a fight was coming, as did I and we where out in the open. The Colonel looked up, saw the look of urgency on our faces and with out a word, was in the saddle along side Blackwater.

 

We rode like the wind and got to the depot just before the Comanches did and went about setting up an ambush. Culpepper had already been there as there was fires going in both the cast iron cook stove and the huge fire place. I unsaddled the horses along with Blackwater and J.Mark, always keeping an eye on that dust cloud. We quickly made our way inside the depot house once our horses where inside the corral and I set about putting all the fire place tools into the fire place. Blackwater went about setting rifles and scatter guns at the doors and windows while the Colonel looked out the slightly opened door through his spy glass at another dust cloud and the noise coming from it. It was the wagons !

 

Then a bullet stuck the door jam and the Colonel fall back.......the Comanches ! Blackwater grabbed his rifle and fired in the direction the shot came from and I took my rifle and waited for the second round to come. The wagons where rolling in fast and we couldn't wait so the Colonel, Blackwater and myself lay down covering fire until the 3 wagons and all the occupants could get inside the depot house.

 

"Damn Hawk......did ya have to bring the whole Nation with ya ?" Cody asked me. I fired another round and levered yet another one into the chamber and replied....."Didn't wait ya to get lonely Cody ! You welcome too ! " I fired where I saw rifle smoke and levered another round........"Howdy Bama ! See you've been busy......." and I looked to the white women shaking with fear, only one with any guns. Now her .....I liked. She could fight. "Where's Culpepper ?" I asked.

 

As if on cue, I heard the report of a Sharps outside and then heard the scream of one of the Comanches. "See him" the Colonel spoke up.....Blackwater sang out......"Bill's pinned down by the wagon, and there's another white man with him too !"

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I was surprised with how fast the Comanche had covered the ground reaching the cabin at the same time as the wagons. The women all made it in safely along with Bama and Tyrel, but Bill was taking cover at the wagons with must have been that lone rider I had seen. I knew I wanted no part of being holed up in the cabin during a fight and peeled off into the trees before I was seen by the Comanche. I slid the Sharps out of it's scabbard and quickly found my first target. My shoot was true as blood exploded from the brave's chest. I quickly swung into the saddle and headed for higher ground before the Comanche could figure out where I was. I heard Bill open up with his new shotgun and more screams could be heard.

 

I found another spot that yielded a good view and slid off the saddle and fell into position for my next shot. I saw one brave with a blackened face and lined up the shot, I was low that time, the shot hit the brave in the thigh and then must have broken his mount's back as the horse went down like a rock, pinning the brave's leg underneath it. The smoke was thick all around the cabin now and from my vantage point I couldn't hardly see a thing. I slid the Sharp's home into it's scabbard and pulled that new fangled shotgun from it's home. I made sure that it was completely loaded, put a box of shells into my right coat pocket and circled back around the cabin knowing that while I couldn't see much, the Comanche couldn't either.

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The rider did turn out to be that Culpepper fellow, he came back to warn us that there were Comanche coming. The other ladies panicked, and started crying, but I was too busy for that, as Red yelled at me to follow Tyrel's wagon as fast as I could, we needed to make that depot station and take cover. I had never driven that fast before, and it didn't help that the stupid wheel was starting to wobbly a bit again.

 

It didn't take long to get there thankfully, but the Comanche had beat us there. Three other men were there as well, who seemed to know the men that had rescued us ladies, and they covered us so we could get inside the depot. It wasn't easy for me to get the other ladies to make a run for it, they were all scared, and I almost had to drag Suzanna out of the wagon. That wasn't easy, as I was carrying Marvin's rifle and pistol, I figured I just might need both before this was over.

 

Once we were inside, one of the new men pointed towards a window and told me, “You take that one, and make sure ya shoot ta kill, not wound!” He looked like a half-breed, and the other ladies seemed terrified of him, but he was obviously on our side so I did as he told me. Taking a peek out the window I saw a Comanche brave just riding into my view, so I took aim as fast as I could and pulled the trigger. The brave fell backwards off his horse, but I couldn't tell if I had killed him or not. I had never shot another human being before, so if the brave wasn't dead these men I was with better not complain too much, at least I was trying to help....

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When I'd reached the top of that rise I hadn't checked or even slowed Hoss. One look told me all I needed to know, there were three wagons with one or two outriders in a dead race with some renegade Indians toward an old building. The building was on poor enough shape I wondered for an instant if the smoke I'd seen wasn't this building burning down... But I gave Hoss my heels and an unspoken apology, and aimed at the yard of that old building.

 

Hoss had bottom, ill used or not, he gave me everything he had, more than I knew he had, and we hit that yard just behind the wagons and just ahead of the renegades. One of the outriders was untangling himself from his horse just as an impressive burst of firing poured out of that old building.

 

I had my rifle and my spare pistol in my hands and I hit the dirt. I knew no white man inside would mean to shoot me while under attack by renegades, but I wasn't gonna risk an improper identification through gun smoke.

 

As much by luck as anything else I landed on my feet and kept both guns in hand, that old colt in my right and the '66 in the left. A brave charged into my path and instantly a rifle barked from a window in the building, spilling him right out of his saddle. Never one to take chances I put two more into him with the colt then dove under the closest wagon.

 

A man I thought I might have known from the Nation was already under the wagon, shooting some contraption I'd never seen before. I didn't ponder the vague recognition or the strange gun, though the man looked as casual as a barber sweeping his shop and that gun was barking as fast as I'd ever seen.

 

I dropped the rifle and pulled my other pistol, some men don't mind shootin a lever gun layin down, but I'd cut my teeth with a trapdoor and never could get used to huggin dirt and workin a lever. So I started lookin for a pistol worthy target.

 

There were a few bodies in the yard, and one horse. The brave under that horse was hollering something awful until the man next to me took notice. One boom and he got quiet.

 

I don't think the renegades expected such an enthusiastic reception, and already a few were pullin back. A brave I took to be their chief was sittin his horse about 50 yards from the wagon we were under shouting at them, but they barely paused. The others were working toward cover and weren't pressing the attack.

 

The man under the wagon and I had an instant to act, and the fire from the building had slacked off a touch.

 

I glanced over at him and asked casually, "you feel like doin a little running? I'd be less jumpy if I had a little more than dust and wheel spokes between me and bullets..."

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One of the bucks fired at us from above the corral. I had no idea how many there were but this one was bound for the happy hunting ground. I squeezed the trigger on the Henry and he lurched forward tumbling down the steep dirt bank into the corral. One of the horses reared and his hooves finished my work. I levered another round into the rifle and stepped out the front door, "Bill! Get ready to move!" I fired toward the place where I'd last heard gunfire and continued until I'd emptied the magazine. I swung the rifle away from the door with my right hand, drew the Remington from it's holster and thumbed back the hammer.

 

Bill and the stranger clambered up the stairs, altrenately running and turning to fire their pistols. When the stranger made it through the door Bill turned again and fired one last blast with the shotgun then backed through the door."Might not kill 'em from here, but the noise and fire'll shore make 'em duck!" He began stuffing shells into the shotgun from his pocket, " 'Preciate the cover, Blackwater! It was gettin' intense out there!"

 

"Save it!" I said as I holstered the Remington. I reached into my pocket and grabbed a fistful of .44 Russian cartridges and slid the follower down the barrel of the Henry and began sliding fresh rounds into the magazine. "We ain't outa this yet! Looks like y'all picked up some companions." I nodded toward the man who'd been pinned down with Chickasaw and then to the women, all but one cowering in a corner near the fireplace. "You all right?" I asked the stranger.

 

"Ain't got no holes that don't belong there!" he answered, "Least none that I can tell." His drawl was more than familiar.

 

I leaned the rifle against the window sill and drew the pistol again. Opening the gate, I punched out the empty shells and began to reload from my belt. When the sixth cartridge slid into the chamber, I slapped the gate closed with my thumb and spun the cylinder, let the hammer down between chambers and dropped it back into the holster. "Who are you mister?"

 

"Name's Tom!" he answered. "Thanks for the cover fire while ago!"

 

The battle outside had subsided. I heard the report of a Sharps from behind the hill that made the forth side of the corral. "That's Culpepper!" called Cody as he paused to reload his rifle.

 

"They're high tailin' it outa here!" the colonel shouted, "Let's get out there and give 'em a reason to stay gone!"

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I don't know that I recollect much of that fight at the depot. It had been fast and furious and I had expended at least twenty ten gauge shells, reloaded my Colts twice and my '73 once.

 

Calico had done a good job with the women getting them to reload for us and I saw Ayer take down at least one brave who came too close to her window. That gal had sand, and that accounted for a lot in this world. I reckon we'd found a keeper in her, and if the others were at all like her, they'd do for certain.

 

"Howdy, Col., Blackwater! It'd seem that we have accumulated some more folks on this 'short and easy trip to Santa Fe'! Leastways, I think that's how you described it, Col.!"

 

"Now, Col., let me reduce the number of strangers in the room for ya. This here is Miss Calico Mary and she and the rest of the ladies were broke down on the trail. We were able to get their wagon rolling again and figured we'd best bring 'em along for their own safety. I think I also recognize another one of this bunch - unless my rememberer is way off, that ugly pile o' rags over there is Apache Hawk! Think I'll go renew my acquaintance with him, I think he still owes me money!"

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While the others began to gather themselves up and make or renew acquaintances, I stepped outside. I inspected the freight wagons and found no damage. Likewise the horses seemed to have escaped unscathed.

 

With a whistle, I called to my mount "Shameless, let's get to work you old plug." With that I began to look for survivors. We had been terribly effective and the Comanche's who were down were all dead, save one. I dismounted my horse and knelt beside him. I spoke comfortingly in Comanche "I am blood brother to the Comanche, I am Death who Walks, your wound will not heal and your death will be slow. Will you let me help you?"

 

He nodded slowly and I clamped my hand across his mouth and eased my bowie up under his sternum and cut through his heart-ending his pain. I wiped the knife clean with a handful of grass and dirt before putting it away.

 

With that done I gathered the indian ponies and began tying the dead men across their backs.

 

Blackwater interrupted me after a bit-"You gonna bury them all? We have better things to do."

 

I nodded "So did they."

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I saw three Comanche high tail it back from the way they had come, one of the being the one leading the foray. Midnight, my mount, was fresh and I was not of a mind to possibly face these three again so I gave chase. I cut a path that would put me directly at the rear of their path. That way when I dismounted for a shoot with the Sharps I only had to worry about distance and not windage. I got as close as I dared and slid midnight to a stop, slipped out of the saddle and feel into a prone position and found a target, it wasn't the leader but I didn't want to use the time to find him. A deep breath, exhale a little bit, squeeze, and the brave was launched forward off of his mount.

 

I looked up as I grabbed another shell and in no time I was ready for the second shot. Squeeze, that brave managed to stay on him mount, but was leaning onto the horse's neck.

 

Only the leader was left, I swung back up into the saddle and Midnight was in full stride immediately. The Sharps stayed in my lap as gained ground on the last brave. I had something different in mind for this one, one who left his brothers to die at the cabin. I slipped of Midnight again and instead of aiming for the brave, which I thought was a misnomer, I aimed for his horse. It went down in a cloud of dust leaving the not so brave, brave to fend for himself in the middle of nowhere.

 

I took my time saddling up and watched the shots from the brave fall short of me as I turned to head for the cabin. On the way back I gathered the two braves and their horses to bury them with their brothers.

 

I was exhausted by the time I reached the cabin, but man did those doves lift my spirits, especially the one that I was just so sure that I knew.

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After I dropped the two dead Comanche braves and their horses at the cabin I knew that I had to go back and finish the business that I had left undone. I glanced at those doves once more and turned Midnight back from where I had just come. It didn't take long for me to see the lone brave sitting there alone apparently praying to the Great Spirit. I knew that if I didn't finish this here and now that he would most likely be a thorn in our flesh until we sent him to the Great Hunting Ground.

 

I was seriously torn, take out my Sharps and finish it from afar, or give the brave a chance. I didn't have to think long, I slid the Sharps home and urged Midnight towards the brave. About 100 yards from the brave I dismounted and took my Winchester as I started towards the brave. He looked towards me and nodded. After several steps towards each other he raised his rifle and racked a round into it's chamber, I did the same. I heard his click, he threw the rifle down and started running for me. Damn, I thought, and threw mine done as well and pulled my Colt. I raised it and hollered "Stop" one time, but to no avail. My first shot found his chest, slowing him for a step or two and then again he came. I had already cocked the Colt again and as it fired my hand found my other Colt and it came out throwing fire and brimstone at the brave. He finally fell at my feet and just before he closed his eyes he raised his knife grip first to me. As I took it, he took one last deep breath and almost as a sigh he left to find his happy hunting ground.

 

I took his things from his horse and with him I placed them on Midnight and led them back to the cabin. I was completely drained and this time even the sight of the doves and the smell of cooked food was no medicine for my weary soul. I gave Bama the reins to my horse and found a quiet place to sit. All I could say was, "Hear my cries, oh Lord".....

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"Pepper-you're bleeding." I said to him as Redtook the pony from him. "I am?" he responded before he looked down and saw the spreading crimson stain working it's way down his calf and onto his boot. Somewhere along the way a bullet had sliced through the flesh of his leg and the excitement had kept him from noticing.

 

"Looks like a scratch. get one of the ladies to boil some clean cloth for a bandage and let's clean the wound out." With that I pulled a bottle out and gave him a swig before rinsing the wound.

"Go inside and get your trousers off and have one of them girls take care of you-your bullet wound that is. . . ." Culpepper winced as he started to feel the burn. "You could warn a feller." I laughed-"Would have just made it worse."

 

With that I turned to Blackwater and told him of my plans to take the Comanche to the cave for burial. He didn't like it, but he knew I was not to be denied this request. I wanted to go alone, but he insisted on me taking two men.

 

With a passel of ponies and dead Comanche in tow I headed back to the small cave where I had administered funeral rites to the first 4 braves. I didn't want company, but Apache Hawk had trailed at a respectable distance with Cody riding along with him. I unloaded and stacked the bodies like so much cord wood. The coyotes would find them soon. I pulled a half stick of dynamite out of my pack and wedged it into a crevice in the ceiling of the cave, lit it and backed away. It went off with a muffled "whumpp" and the cave mouth collapsed.

 

I stripped the ponies hackamore's off and turned all but two of them loose. They were mostly played out anyway. The remaining two I took and headed back to the stage depot-it looked like that Tom fellow needed a spare mount and while these were pretty green broke, they were at least sound. I joined Hawk and Cody and we rode in a ragged line back toward the depot.

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I don't know how long that fight lasted, but by the time it was over I didn't want to put that rifle down. Holding on to it was the only thing keeping my hands from shaking, and I didn't want any of these men noticing that, I couldn't ever let them see any fear in me. My knees were shaking too, but I solved that problem by finding a spot along one wall where I could sit down and lean back for a few minutes, waiting for the nausea to pass.

 

For the most part the men ignored me for a while, except for the half-breed. He came over and stood above me for a minute, not saying anything, then he held out a bottle of whiskey to me. I took it, and gratefully downed some, then handed it back. I'm sure he somehow knew how shaken I was, but he didn't say a word, and I silently thanked him for it.

 

A while later the one called Culpepper came back in, and he had blood running down one leg. He asked if any of us women had any experience with treating gunshots, that sure got the others all upset in a heartbeat. I was the only one willing to try and bandage his wound, I don't know if I did all that good at it but at least I got the bleeding stopped, and some clean clothes wrapped around it. While I was doing that he was quiet for a while, then he asked me, “Don't I know you from somewhere?”

 

“No, you don't know me,” I answered flatly. Maybe I had seen him before in one saloon or another, I really couldn't remember, but that didn't matter to me. None of these men knew me, and as far as I was concerned it could stay that way. All I cared about was getting to a town somewhere, with that bag of gold still intact....somewhere I could make a life for myself, and forget I'd ever been a whore...

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I hadn't liked J. Mark going off by himself the first time when he burried the four Comanche we'd done for west of the trail. Consequently me and Hawk had followed at a distance and then lit out for the station before he'd finished. Now he'd wanted to go again by himself. "Not this time!" I'd answered in a tone that would brook no argument. "Hawk! You 'n' Cody ride along at a distance and give him a hand if he needs it."

 

"C'mon Hawk!" Cody grunted as he stood and gathered his rifle and the new shotgun Bill had furnished him.

 

As the three of them rode out, I turned to the stranger that called himself Tom, "You ridin' alone, or did the Comanch get whoever was with ya'?" I asked.

 

"Nah! I been trailin' a murderin' bastard with a notched ear and some fingers that's been shot off!" he replied.

 

Now he had my undivided attention!! I stared at him for more than a moment then leaned my head toward the door. "Do tell!" I tried to sound only politely interested, but made it clear that we needed to talk, and I meant right now!!

 

He got up and strolled to the door."Think I'll check on my horse. Blackwater is it?" he looked again at me, "You reckon I could get some grain for that starvin' cayuse?"

 

I stood and ambled to the door.

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I went into the cabin, found a chair, took my pants off revealing the blood running down my leg and the wound that it was coming from. Four of the women squealed in horror when they saw the blood and ripped flesh, but the one that I was so dag goned sure I knew volunteered to try to dress the wound. All I knew was that I just wanted to sit and try to restore my soul. Killing men at a distance was one thing, but that close and when someone was intent on dying.

 

I stared at Calico dressing my wound and just knew that there was something familiar about her, but she was adamant that she didn't know me and made it pretty clear that she didn't want to know me either. That was fine, for what I was needing I was sure that one of the others would to just fine. They weren't nearly as skittish once Calico had my wound covered and were already getting friendly as she stepped away. There was just something about her though.

 

One thing for sure, those girls sure knew how to take a mind off of what was bothering him! This trip to Santa Fe was starting to look like it might be a mite different that what I had thought it would be.

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No sooner than I had gotten done dressing Culpepper's leg when Pearl and Suzanna decided that they had to come make sure he was ok. A little late as far as I was concerned, but he didn't seem to mind, so I shrugged it off. Ruby was talking to Red, gushing about how wonderful he had been to save all our lives. I almost started laughing, did these three really think these gents were gonna be willing to pay for it out here?

 

I was glad to see at least Mattie was making herself useful, she was over by the fireplace, putting a stew together for dinner. Good, I was hungry and Mattie was a pretty decent cook. She was a country girl, same as me but a couple of years younger, almost too young for this life. But she'd ended up in the same situation that I had, all alone with no money and no where to turn, and the saloon was the only choice left. I'd taken her under my wing, and did everything I could to help her adjust, but she was no better suited to this life than I was. At least she had a sweet enough personality that sooner or later she'd come across a decent man who was willing to make an honest woman of her.

 

I decided I needed some air, so I headed for the door. Before I went out, Red grabbed my arm for a second and told me, “You done good today, thanks.” I just nodded, and his attention turned back to Ruby. As I stepped outside, I noticed Blackwater and Tom over by the corral, talking. Blackwater turned towards me for a second, a rather worried look on his face, but from that distance I couldn't hear what was being said, and I really didn't care. I headed the other direction for about 15 or 20 yards, then just stood and watched the sunset. It was sure pretty, and after all the ugliness I had faced that day I definitely needed to be reminded of the beauty that was all around us, if we only took the time to look for it.

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