Hadley Barlow looked into the fading embers of the fire. The red-orange glow slowly flickered and faded. A wispy-white smoke snaked into the air. He kept his eyes on the dying fire as the sun peeked over the horizon, unleashing a an explosion of orange and red light. The clouds and trees turned pink at the morning sun.
* * *
Barlow turned his attention toward the tin cup of coffee in his hands. The black liquid filled his nostrils with a sweet and calming aroma. He touched his lips to the edge of the cup and sipped. The bitter drink warmed his throat and chest as he looked into the colorful sight in front of him.
It had been two weeks since Barlow and his small outfit had passed Santa Fe with their hundred heads of cattle. Their destination was Fort Apache, Arizona. Barlow had accepted a contract from a small beef company in eastern Texas to drive the small herd west to resupply the fort. He was told to gather his own outfit. It seemed an easy task, for Hadley Barlow had been a cowboy for 20 years. You couldn't say that for the rest of the drovers.
To save some money, Barlow had hired four cheap cowboys who were still new to the range. But with such a small herd, Barlow figured he could manage, and with such a small outfit, he figured he needn't a cook. The small outfit would move fast and reach Arizona before winter of 1880.
After stocking up on provisions, boxes of rifle and pistol cartridges, tobacco, and plenty of clothing, the small band of cowboys departed Cherokee County, Texas.
Barlow was not a hot-weather person. He was used to midwest driving since he was from northern Indiana. So going through the vast New Mexico and Arizona deserts would be harsh, especially on someone who wasn't used to them. It was already apparent that the long and dry drive had taken its toll on Barlow. His face was a reddish tan and resembled a shriveled up mud pile. Clothes were bleached and stained with salt and sweat. Already dry bread biscuits and sourdough were now impossible to consume without water.
Barlow was eager to get the drive over with and fast. And knowing that the fort was only a one or two day ride made him all the more giddy.
That morning, the outfit started early without Hadley Barlow. Though it was unusual, Barlow was not worried and took his time with the coffee.
Hadley had withered his coffee down to only a swallow then dumped the rest onto the dusty ground. He stretched his arms and legs then bent to dust sand and dirt off his worn leather chaps. So much use had been squeezed from the chaps that they were cracked and lacked a leather smell. Standing straight again, he adjusted his hat to the rising sun. A golden crown of glory illuminated over the crest of the Galiuro Mountains. It wouldn't be long until they had to pass through the dry Arizona desert. This worried Hadley because of the ominous presence of the Chiricahua Apache. He had not been in Indian territory before and heard they were touble.
* * *
Just to the left of Barlow was an ash tree with his bedding and his horse hitched around a branch in the cool shade. It was a beautiful black Tobiano paint. Its magnificent head was hooded in dark black and its body spotted with large dark spots. Barlow strode up to it and gently stroked its face. The horse was content with its rider and nudged him with its pink nose.
Barlow stepped back from horse and crouched next to his bedding. From a saddle bag he pulled a plug of tobacco and cut a generous portion with a knife he had on his belt, bumping his holstered colt. Tucking the tobacco into his cheek, he folded up a red saddle blanket and laid it across the beast's back. As his mouth filled with a rich brown juice, he heaved up his saddle that he used the previous night as a pillow. The paint did not flinch as Hadley set the saddle over the blanket and fastened it in place.
After he spat a wad of tobacco juice into the dirt, he picked up his Winchester rifle that was laid against the tree and observed it. He loved his Winchester, taking care not to abuse it and making sure the action was always well greased. The stock and grip were of finely polished walnut and the blued octagonal barrel shined, well oiled. The magazine tube extended to the end of the barrel and could hold fifteen metallic cartridges.
A few moments had passed of Barlow observing his rifle when he gently inserted it into its scabbard, which he had placed on the left side of the saddle. He then rolled up his bedroll and tied to the back of the saddle. Lastly, his saddle bags slid in place on the horses rump, Finally mounting, Barlow rode just beyond the hill, just to the left of his campsite. The camp area was a rare oasis. A few cottonwoods sprung up and provided a nice shade. A small puddle of water, more like a small pond, offered plenty of water for the horses and the men.
It seemed hard to leave the place, knowing it would be a long while before he would see anything like again. Only a long expanse of sand and an inferno-like heat lay before him. Barlow resentfully brought his horse to the crest of the hill.
The small hillock overlooked a large dry plain littered with mesquite, small cactus and the occasional Joshua tree. There was also some yucca and saguaro cactus. Baked sand and dust were heated again as the desert sun rose in its splendor. Tumbleweeds drifted in some areas as an arid breeze carried them along. This was the usual New Mexico terrain. However, one thing was out of place.
* * *
Hadley looked left and right, but to no avail. His cattle were gone. Then he noticed a small dust cloud in the far distance. He looked through the field glass he had in his saddle bag, and through the shimmering heat he could barely make out three specks that were his comrades and a mass that was of cattle. And just underneath the large grouping quickly galloped the fourth drover. The trail of dust the rider left seemed larger than the herd's.
What in hellfire is going on? He thought to himself.
It did not calm Hadley Barlow to see his cattle that far ahead or to see Quinlan Spencer high-tailing it back to the camp. Since Hadley was all packed and ready, he spurred his horse forward to meet Spencer. He held his hat down with his left hand as he held the reins in his right. The two met each other next to bush of desert sage.
Quinlan was the first to speak, shout rather. "They're takin' the cattle!" He yelled. "The three of them are takin' the cattle."
Barlow asked, "What'ya mean they're taking cattle?" His heart started thumping hard.
"I mean they stealing the cattle. Tom Daede persuaded Ash and Levi into takin' and sellin' the heads top notch, then splittin' it between themselves."
"Why would they do that?" Barlow's sun-baked face squinted at the distant thieves. A rage burned through his veins.
"They said you'd under pay them, He convinced them of it," Quinlan looked at Hadley worryingly. "They said you're a cheapskate."
Barlow looked shocked. "Where the hell you suppose he got that horse crap from?" He didn't wait for an answer, and was yet stupefied, "You think that too, Quin?"
Quinlan quickly answered, "No, sir. I figure you for a fair and honest man." He rubbed his sweaty forehead with the back of his rough gloves, then tilted his salt-stained hat forward. His mouth was dry. He quickly took a large swig of water from his canteen.
"Then I suppose you'd help me get my beef back and sell it to the army fair and square." Hadley was not asking.
Quinlan looked from his canteen and pulled it from his mouth gasping for air."Yes, sir." Quinlan was breathing hard as he brought his horse around. Quinlan Spencer was a young fellow of twenty-one years. He had little experience with cow handling, but he was good with a revolver. No, he wasn't fast at drawing, but he could shoot straight and hit a bottle twenty yards off without looking down the sights. At his hip, on top of his dusty chaps, rested his holstered stag-handled colt. His cartridge belt was full with .45 colt cartridges. Under the right side of his saddle was his .45-70 Springfield trapdoor carbine. He wasn't as good with the rifle as he was with his revolver.
Quinlan was also a smart one, knowing when to act and when to just stand by. He wasn't the toughest, but he could hold his own. In this situation, he knew he couldn't take on three armed cowboys. And he knew it wasn't right of them either.
"You all loaded up then?" Barlow nodded to the colt.
"Then let's see if we can persuade them back." Hadley spurred his horse to a medium gallop and Quinlan followed. The herd was about a mile-and-a-half out as they rode to catch up. Grit and dirt exploded into the air as the horses hoofs pounded the hot ground. They avoided the cactus and mesquite, careful not get a thorn in their horse.
Hadley and Quinlan had made up a large amount of the gap between them and the herd when they slowed to the sound of a rifle report. Both came to a complete stop as a bullet kicked up sand just twenty feet in front of them. Quinlan's horses neighed and jerked its head back. The shimmering heat had subsided as they got within two hundred yards of the herd.
* * *
Quinlan said, "We're just out of rifle range." His face began to show the signs of the long drive, chapped lips and a creased face. The forehead wrinkled even more as he squinted to see the tree rustlers. "Maybe not out of range of Tom's sharps. But I get the feeling that was a warning shot." The thought of a .50 caliber buffalo bullet tearing through his chest scared him.
"I'd have to agree, Quin," Barlow responded with a faint smile. During the time of figuring out what was happening and riding, Hadley had calmed down, knowing that the three cowboys and the herd were not going to escape two riders. That and the fact he was still chewing on a plug of tobacco. His anger was still rampant.
"What do you suppose we do?" Quinlan asked, getting slightly worked up.
"Don't worry, Quin. We follow and stay just out of rifle range. They have to stop to rest at some point. That, and the fact that they are green to herding and driving."
Quinlan nodded in response, and the two of them trotted along. They were careful not to get to close or stride to far, lest they lose the herd or get shot at again.
The man who fired the shot went by Levi Johnson. Barlow didn't know him all that well, just knew he had a lever-gun and was an ass at cow herding. Levi was from Louisiana and had a thick southern accent. That was pretty much it. But as for Tom, he was a red-faced Irish man. It was rare for Tom not to complain about the sun or the long drive. However, he was smart and knew how to work someone over, probably how he convinced Ash and Levi to help him and abandon the boss.
Ash was easily intimidated, so it didn't surprise Barlow that he was a part of the thieving group.
Quinlan and Hadley Barlow went after the group and followed them into the desert of Arizona
The sun rose to the highest point and scorched anything that dare exist beneath it. No breeze or wind subsided the intense inferno. Baked sand and dust made mouths dry and slowed the horses to a slow walk. There was nothing for Barlow and Quinlan to do except keep their hats tilted against the sun to keep their necks from frying. Any relieve from the heat came of the occasional sip from the canteen. Now it seemed they were running low on water.
* * *
Hadley Barlow had figured they had passed the border and were now subject to the Arizona desert. But, that also meant they should be passing a small river at the base of the mountains before coming in to Fort Apache. Barlow had to make up a plan to get the cattle back soon. They were no more than a day-and-a-half ride from the fort.
Apache. The thought of the word stung like a bee. They would have to be careful. It's said you never see the Apache before you slump over dead from a trade gun. But what was true and what was false. Hadley would have to find out for himself.
The long desert silence was broken by Quinlan. "I'm out of water."He looked into his canteen and slung it back on the saddle horn. He gave a glance back to Barlow. His mouth was open as he started panting. The intensity of the sun evaporated any form of liquid from the cowboys.
"We should be passing a river soon, just before those mountains," Hadley said, nodding to the distant Galiuro Mountains. He looked past hi thirst and gave another thought. The herd would have to cross the river before they could cross. Maybe that would be a good time to retake the cattle. He peered to see the wavering forms of the cowboys in the distance.
"Quin, I got an idea," Barlow started, "Say we make a move when they go to cross the river. They'd be vulnerable."
Quinlan didn't look back, but nodded. "Sounds like a decent plan," Quinlan said. "There might just be some cover near the water." Now he turned in his saddle. "Figure we come at 'em from their left flank. We southwest a bit 'till we hit the river." He paused, "Then we follow the river back to their crossing. That way we'll have plenty of cover." He thought of the cool water the river would bring.
Hadley's cracked lips formed into a smile. "Exactly what I was just about to say." He took another long look at the far herd. "We'd better get a move on then."
Plan in place, they swung their horses to the left and sped up toward the southwest . Quinlan was eager to make it to the river fast. Hadley took a last swig from his canteen and slung it back over the saddle. At the pace they were going they would be at the river within the hour, and they would be able to water their horses and refresh themselves. Then they would pounce on the thieves and retake the cattle.
The splashing of the cattle across the river was loud, but it was the perfect cover for Quinlan and Barlow. They had hitched their horses on a tree about a half-mile south down the river and now slowly approached the crossing herd. The two would have to move fast, for the small herd would not take long to cross.
* * *
Barlow had his Winchester as he crouched behind small tree. About fifty yards ahead were the three thieves. They were standing around; taking a break rather. The cowboys were dismounted, except for Ash. Hadley was just close enough to hear them talk as he peered from the wooden cover.
"Where did those two go?" Tom Daede asked. He seemed to be in a rotten mood as he stalked over to Ash. "You were suppose keep an eye for 'em." He grabbed Ash by his bandana and yanked him off the horse.
"They rode off to the south," Ash started as he regained his footing, "I figured they gave up." Ash's voice was quivering as he tried to keep eye contact with Tom. Tom shoved him back toward Ash's horse.
"You worthless sunnuvabitch," Tom barked, "Get across that river and steer the herd."
Ash jumped up and dusted his hide vest and leather chaps before mounting and crossing the river. Tom walked away shaking his head and snatched his Sharps rifle from the scabbard on his saddle. Levi grabbed his Winchester from his horse also and chambered a round. Tom knew that Barlow and Quinlan didn't give up, he just knew it. He took his hat off and let hang on his neck as he brought his horse to a tree and tied it up; Levi did the same.
"Where do you suppose they are, Tom?" Levi asked, wrapping the reins around a thin branch.
"Dunno, maybe stalking back after Ash lost sight," Tom paused and watched Ash splash across the river. "You stay by the heard or else," He yelled at Ash.
Quinlan took aim with his Springfield and cocked the hammer back from the cover of a bush. He looked back to wait for Barlow to fire the first shot. Barlow had already leveled his sights on tom. His finger slowly squeezed the trigger. He hesitated as his breathes became shallow.
Tom started to look around the trees as he opened the action of the sharps. His tense arm felt a cartridge on his belt as he looked in Barlow's direction.
Maybe I should give him a warning and fire a shot at his feet. Hadley thought. NO . The hammer fell and the Winchester boomed. Tom fell back as a bullet tore through his shoulder. Hadley would not allow him to resist. Quinlan fired his rifle and missed, shattering a dead log a foot from Levi. Tom quickly scrambled behind a large rock several yards from the running water; blood trickled from his wound. He slid a large .50 caliber cartridge into the breach of his sharps. Levi jumped behind the dead log and returned fire at random with his lever-gun.
Bullets splashed mud and dust, splintered wood and shattered stone as the gunfight persisted. Quinlan had reloaded his single-shot rifle three times before switching to his colt revolver. As he grasped the stag handle, the sharps buffalo rifle cracked and ripped the bush from the ground by the roots. Quinlan fan fired the revolver while running and peppered Tom's rock. He quickly found a new cover behind some low growing cactus and reloaded. Ejecting the shells, he quickly replaced them and primed the hammer.
Barlow had kept Levi suppressed with the Winchester when he bent to slide some more cartridges into the magazine tube. He pushed the metallic cases through the loading gate as fast as he could. Tree splinters exploded over his shoulder as Levi unleashed a volley of lead. But as Levi was levering a new round, Hadley sprung up and blasted a gory hole in his chest. The man fell down and the lever-gun fell from his hands. Barlow chambered a new round and turned his attention toward tom, who had given up trying to reload the buffalo gun with one arm. Instead he drew a Schofield revolver.
Quinlan had reloaded and readied his revolver before advancing toward Tom's rock fully exposed. The rock was white with pock marks and ricochet spots. Only adding to them, Barlow fired three quick shots before crouching to inject some more cartridges into his Winchester.
"You done yet, Tom?" Hadley hollered from his tree as he slid another bullet in.
"Go to hell, Barlow," Tom barked as the barrel of his revolver cracked. The bullet landed several yards from Hadley, who responded with a well placed shot that nicked Tom's other shoulder. Tom cursed as pain seared from the barely lethal wound. Yanking the hammer back on his Schofield, he tried to aim from cover, but received a face full of grit and sand from the rifle.
Quinlan had managed to sneak up on Tom during his and Barlow's quick exchange. Coming around the rock, he pressed the barrel against Tom's head and pulled the trigger. The bullet smashed through his skull and spat bone and brain all over the rock. Tom's limp body dropped the Schofield and his eyes stared lifelessly into the blue sky.
"I got 'im," Quinlan declared. He pushed his colt back into its holster and tilted back his hat, gazing intently into the hole he had just made. A sickening feeling came over Quinlan when he turned away. Barlow stepped close to Tom's body and kneeled next to it.
"Damn fool," Hadley growled. He stood back up. "Quin, go get the horses. I'll tend to the bodies." Quinlan ran off as Hadley caressed Tom's sharps in his hands. He leaned it against the rock and dragged Tom to the river. There was a river bank with a small cave-like structure underneath it. It was just large enough to fit the two bodies in.
Once Barlow had the bodies in the bank, he roughly sealed the entrance with stones and mud. He turned his head toward the other side of the river. The cattle was still there.
Quinlan and Hadley took small breather at the river side and they filled their canteens with fresh water. The sun had passed the center of the sky and beat down on the landscape. But the two cowboys were hid beneath the shade of the river trees and vegetation. Quinlan was lounged against a log and nibbled on A biscuit. He was still shaken at the sight of the messy hole he placed in Tom's skull. As good with a revolver as he was, he was still not used to killing folks.
* * *
Hadley was cleaning his Winchester with A handkerchief, gently rubbing away any dust and grit. He stuffed the cloth into his vest pocket and started to work the action of the rifle. It felt smoother than glass. When he was done, he walked to his horse and pushed the Winchester into its scabbard. The sharps was still leaning against the rock.
"Here," Hadley picked the buffalo rifle up and handed it to Quinlan, "You earned it." Quinlan finished the biscuit off and held the rifle in his hands.
"I ain't no good with a rifle," Quinlan said, mouth full of biscuit.
"Practice then." Hadley walked back over to his paint, his chaps opened at the bottom and caught some sand as he mounted.
"Now?" Quinlan asked as he stood up.
"Well, not now. We'd better get back on the trail. Ash is probably waiting for someone to claim the herd." Barlow splashed across the water and tilted his hat forward. Crow's feet formed on the corners of his eyes as they thinned at the intensifying sun. Quinlan joined him and replaced the sharps into the saddle scabbard. They moved across the shallow water with caution. Whether Ash was going to shoot or not was a complete mystery.
When they climbed the bank, they could see that the entire herd was accounted for. Ash was nowhere to be found. They did not inquire upon his whereabouts and moved the herd at a steady pace.
The herd covered a lot of ground, for the flat desert offered no barrier obstacles. But they began to slow due to the heat. It did not occur to Quinlan or Barlow that they took the shady river for granted. Trees were extremely sparse in the open desert. The occasional Joshua tree popped up here and there, but offered little shade. Mesquite and cactus did nothing. Clouds were never present to shield the sun.
* * *
Hours slowly passed by and finally the sun eased its searing tendrils. Evening came and gave the drovers and cattle a cool relieve. It was then that Barlow, who was ahead of the heard, noticed an unnatural shape in the oncoming trail. He broke his horse into a gallop and stopped before a corpse. Flies were still buzzing around the baked and rotting flesh. Barlow leaned over his saddle and spat tobacco juice at the recognition of the body. It was Ash. His clothes were stripped and stolen, his gun belt gone and his horse rustled. There was a defined gap in his throat where a knife had made its way across.
Apaches, Barlow thought. He looked around into the darkening land. Gone now. And as the herd caught up, he kept going. He didn't know Ash all that well, at least no more than the others. But Barlow knew Ash was unsure of his surroundings. Always wondering what to do and when to do it. He had always had others make his decisions for him. Ash's decision to flee from the herd had cost him his life.
The sun was sitting on the edge of the mountains when the adobe huts and cook fires were spotted. Quinlan let out a yelp of triumph as he started pushing the heard from the back. Barlow sped his horse up and the two moved the herd toward the fort. Fort was an understatement. There were no walls. It seemed like just a very small town. Some buildings were adobe mud and brick, while others were of logs and wooden planks.
An officer and a trooper rode out to meet the cowboys.
"This here for us?" The cavalryman asked in a gruff voice.
"Yes, sir," Quinlan was quick to answer and he came from the back of the herd. "All the way from east Texas."
"Well good," The officer said. "I like some good Texas steak. Private, help these two drive them in."
It didn't take long to organize the cattle and fence them in. When the job was done, the cavalry officer came up to Barlow and Quinlan, who were overlooking the herd. He was carrying a worn saddle bag.
"Here's payment for the heads," The officer said as he hand the bag to Barlow. "You two are welcome to rest here a couple days." As Hadley Barlow opened the bag flap to check the money, Quinlan spoke
"We'd love to," His head turned toward Hadley, "That okay Barlow?" Barlow took a thick stack of cash and handed it to Quinlan.
"You go ahead and stay, Quin," He closed the flap and slung the bag over the saddle horn. "I don't belong here." He looked up to the setting sun then turned his horse around. He thought of the flat Iowa plains. "I don't belong here," he repeated as he overlooked the vast desert that stretched before him. How he longed for the cool breeze of the midwest. Quinlan nodded to Barlow as he spurred his horse into an easy gallop east, back across the dry white Arizona Desert.