The sun was almost directly overhead as the coach rounded the bend approaching the station located south of Flagstaff, its bright rays shone down making the buckskins sweaty flanks appear shiny. The team of horses kicked up a pair of floppy-eared jack rabbits from the side of the dirt and cinder road, as they passed along, drawing closer to the lone wooden platform and bench that passed for a stagecoach station. A group of prairie dogs stood guard opposite of the ditch that ran north to south beside the road.
* * *
It must have been 110 degrees in the open air and there wasn't much to account for in shade. A single ponderosa pine tree occompanied by a scraggly bunch of juniper stood across the road from the station's platform. The road consisted of two deep ruts gouged into the earth from the passage of many wagons and coaches over the years. Underneath the lone pine, a man dressed in the outfit of a rugged drifter began to rise and brush himself off. The man was packing a bone handled .44 caliber Shcofield revolver, butt forward and slung down low, on either hip. He wore a pair of dusty rattle snake skin boots that sported the large Spanish styled spurs of the Mexican banditos on each heel. The tip of his weather faded black hat covered his cold grey eyes.
A short and stocky man with a silver streaked beard of red and a horseshoe shaped receding hairline occupied the driver's seat as the rig glided up to the platform. He swung down from the box atop the coach and beamed at the elderly Latino man and young woman who had been sitting on the bench. The man exchanged words in broken Spanish with the pair, while the guards watered the horses and stretched their legs.
One of the guards shouted something at "Red", whom the man under the pine trees expected to be the driver, he listened for a response from Red but heard none. He also did not see the look of poor taste that ran all over the man called Red's face, at only hearing the voice of the guard named Tommy. The driver continued loading the traveler's luggage, and then helped them up and into the coach. The man crossed the road and handed the driver his ticket and climbed into the rig after the young woman and her elder escort.
The man exchanged greetings with the man and woman, in the fashion of brief eye contact, followed by a brief and courteous nod. As he settled into the seat across from the Spanish appearing companions, he heard Red conversing with a younger sounding voice that he assumed to be the one named Tommy, through the window slits at his side. "Damnit man! Can't you ever help being nosey? I don't know nothing!" that would have been Red, sounding aggravated, the drifter thought to himself. "Other than the fact that the man paid for his ticket in Flagstaff, with cash money, and he aims to take this rig south just like the other paying customers do!"
Tommy began to talk and he sounded offended, "Calm down there boss man, I was just curious, see?" The sound of a something lightly splattering unto the ground could be heard before he continued. Tommy probably chews tobacco, the man pondered to himself. "I just never saw him before is all, you know how I am with memorizing folks faces and what all." said the upset stagecoach guard.
"Yeah and I know how ya are with questions too. One day it's gonna get ya in a world of trouble if ya aren't careful Tommy," chided Red, hauling himself back up into the drivers position, obviously done with the conversation. Smiling broadly, Tommy swung up onto the bench beside the older man, and laying the company scatter gun in his lap, linked his fingers behind his head and began whistling a lazy tune as the stagecoach slowly pulled away from the platfrom headed south to Yuma.
The road from Flagstaff to Sedona was dull and eventless for the man with the Spanish style spurs. Very little talking had been taking place amongst the other two passengers, so there was not much to divert the man's attention from the squelching heat of the Arizona high desert. The woman, upon closer inspection, appeared to be closer to the age of a girl in her teens. The man looked old enough to be her grandfather, perhaps he even was. They were both dressed well, the girl in a solid and earthen colored dress. The man wore a dark suit, some what simple yet very elegant with a Spanish flair, no doubt expensive. The old man could have been a rancher in his prime, thought the man with the Schofields.
A few miles along the road, outside of Sedona, with the snowcapped peaks of the Flagstaff area behind them, a fresh landslide barred the way forward, forcing them to move off of the road and out of the sight of any random passerbys. The coach came to a sudden halt, throwing the passengers forward, the man in the low brimmed hat woke, realizing he must have dozed off in the heat and the bumpiness of the trail. Now he heard the voices of Red and Tommy arguing but, also new and unfamiliar voices coming from ahead of them on the road as well. The new voices were accompanied by the sounds of horses stamping their feet.
"Tommy you son of a—" Red never finished, for a .45 caliber bullet from Tommie's pistol caught him in the throat.
Inside the Coach the passengers heard the single gunshot, followed by the sound of something heavy hitting the ground, and soon after a thunderous explosion from the double barreled shotgun followed by another thud, then whooping from the newly arrived men.
The doors of the coach flew open and too many rifle barrels to count were shoved in the passengers faces. Evil grins flashed upon the faces of the men who stood there the instant they beheld the old man and the girl. When the man wearing the dual Schofields moved his eyes towards the girl, he felt sick, at the fear that he saw there. He saw terror. True terror.
Some of the gunmen's rifles came down and the Spaniards were ordered out of the coach. At this point the girl became almost hysterical, her eyes were wild and filled with tears. The old man, looking ghastly pale and sickly himself, urged her out of the coach and then followed behind her looking noble and proud with his head held high. As he began his climb down out of the coach his feet were knocked out from underneath him and he fell sprawled out face first unto the hard baked earth.
The gunmen laugh like a pack of hyenas as they formed a semi circle around the old man. The girl then began to scream hysterically as she was being dragged away by two foul smelling men. She tried kicking and screaming, desparately, to get to her fallen Elder. Through stinging eyes blurring with hot and salty tears the last thing she sees before being whisked away by the thugs is the elderly Spanaird being jerked roughly to his knees and a gun pressed against his right temple.
The man with the Schofields stepped down from the coach and his entire world went black. Thunder rumbling in the distance filled his entire head and he felt what his slipping mind perceived as multiple bees tugging at his clothes and stinging him simultainously.
The man with the Schofields awoke as the shadow of a bird passed over him. High up in the sky, riding the thermals, a second bird soared in a lazy arc across the sky towards him.
* * *
"Damn buzzards" the man croakedis, his throat beyond parched. He felt asif he could drink an entire body of water.
He tried to rise up but swirling nausea quickly forced him back down. Muttering to himself something that sounds like "Bastards shot me," he pulled a bone handled bowie knife from his boot. Cutting his shirt open he took a piece of fabric and waded it up as tight as he could he began to probe for bullet holes to plug. After finding and plugging the third hole he lost consciousness due to lack of blood, shock, or both.
The man came to with a start. He had no idea of how much time had passed. The is sound of crows cawing cam be hear from their nearby perch on a juniper. He opened his eyes and instantly squeezed them shut again wishing he hadn't opened them. That doggone mid-day Sun could blind a man. Gradually, after much blinking, hewas able to hold them open for a moment at a time until the adjusted.
* * *
The stagecoach was gone, and he saw no dust on the horizon that might indicate their direction of travel. His hands felt around for the trio of wounds he'd plugged with his shirt and come up with only three neatly stitched bullet holes.
"What in all of hell's creation," the man thought to himself, "Who the blazes shot me? And who in the blazes stitched me up?"
He took a moment to put things together. Where he'd been headed and what had happened. He lay there saving his strength, and thinking. He was on the Stage coach from Flagstaff to Yuma, two other passengers had been on board other than himself. A man and a woman. Shortly after passing through Sedona, the rig had been held up. During the hold up, the driver had been shot at close range by the guard named Tommy. The rear guard, who like Tommy, was also a younger man had been dropped with a shot gun blast. An armed group of men had abducted the other two passengers, only to gun him down under trained rifles as he himself was forced off the coach with hands held high.
So what had become of the grandfatherly figure and the young woman he had been traveling with, thought the cold grey eyed drifter. Why had they been taken away and not simply gunned down like he had been, and what was it about the look upon the girls face that bothered him?
Something was tickling the back of his mind though that he'd not quite been able to put his finger on yet. Oh yes! The looks on the gunmen's faces when they had opened the coach and saw the passengers, as well as the look upon the young woman's face as well. There had been something significant there, something personal in the eyes of the two passengers, like the sort of recognition seen dawn in a man's eyes when he's caught sight of someone who has done him dreadfully wrong in the past, someone he now hates with a passion . . . but also of someone he has developed a deep seeded fear for as well.
The man in the snake skin boots carefully rolled to one side and gingerly propped himself up on one arm to survey his surroundings before slowly climbing to his feet. Empty bags and clothing was scattered everywhere, suitcases had been opened and thrown from the disappeared rig. A short while later he pushed himself up from the hard and dusty blood soaked earth, gritting his teeth at the pain, and took a moment to read sign.
The tracks left by what he assumed were hired gunmen had been replaced, or obsorbed rather, by what appeared to be a dozen or so unshod pony tracks upon. The bodies of the Spaniards were nowhere to be seen and this both worried and relieved the man at the same time. The other passengers had perhaps not been killed, but to be intercepted by an Indian war party could be an even worse fate. It was an end he would rather not think of.
"Apaches," he spoke only to himself. "Is Cochise country after all I suppose." The pony tracks led off to the north east. The stagecoach tracks led the same direction, off of the road and over the land, surrounded with Indian pony tracks. As he continued to read the signs he thought he caught the scent of wood smoke and In the distance he thought he heard a warriors fierce cry from the hills beyond, and then from much closer another sound. The whinny of a horse.
A single painted Indian pony stood grazing on some dried up grass only yards away. The man felt almost bewildered, thinking back. While he had lain unconscious frying in the sunlight and bleeding from bullet wounds, knife in hand, apparently an Apache, for whatever reason, had taken the time to stop, extract the bullets, clean his wounds, pack them with some sort of compound that he guessed may have been cactus guts and sand, and then stitch him up. Perhaps the same Indian had conveniently left the unattended pony for him to find? He certainly did not believe in coincidences, a hard life had taught him otherwise. There was a reason for everything that happened to a person in their lifetime.
Sometimes Indians had a funny way. Maybe they were curious to who this man was, had they had somehow seen or guessed that he'd been gunned down without a chance to fight? The warrior mentality is very important to the Apache. Perhaps they were curious what this man wearing bone handled Schofields would do to the cowards that had mercilessly gunned him down? Or could they have only stopped to loot his body and then realized he was not yet dead and then for whatever reason helped to rejuvenate him, possibly as payment or trade for the loot they would carry off. It would be significantly wrong in the warriors eyes to kill him off at such a disadvantage. There was no honor there. Either way, the man was not upset that his bone handled Bowie was missing, he felt lucky and blessed for the trade.
Upon further investigation the man turned up the trail left by the banditos who had attacked the coach, it was a bit of a challenge but years of reading the ghosts of trails left by others had honed his skills well.
Returning to the wrecked belongings of the coach passengers, the man with the Schofields fished out a blanket to throw over the ponies bare back. He also pulls on a pair of boots, judging by the fancy style he wondered if they belonged to the old man who was abducted from the coach. He man managed a grim smile. The boots fit. Climbing onto the horses back, he gripped the beast with the muscles in his legs, and heels the painted pony forward. They turned south on the road.
The sun was a giant fireball sinking over the western horizon of Williams, Arizona when the man on the painted pony rode up to boardwalk in front of the saloon. He slid off the horse, slapping its rear and send the beast running off down the street. Glancing at a fine sorrel tied to the post amongst a group of hard ridden looking horses, he tipped his hat. Fine horseflesh, but it had led the man straight here. He would have never suspected the gang to have stopped for drinks so soon, they had come only a mere 15 miles from their crime.
* * *
Pain wracked the man's entire body in great waves as he mounted the handful of stairs that lead up the boardwalk and into the saloon. He came to the top and pushed through the swinging double doors. The bartender looked up from his place behind the counter and coolly nodded as he took in the new customer, at the same instant two of the rifle wielders from the previous day recognized him and jumped up from the table they had been sitting at playing poker with three other men. The card table flew over, spilling cards, drinks, and money into the air as the trio of men frantically grabbed for leather.
He felt the warm bone handles of the Schofields bucking in his cold hands before his still somewhat slow acting brain could even register that it had already started to think about drawing the weapons let alone aim and fire them. He saw the men being carried backwards off their feet as the heavy .44 slugs passed through their lungs and chests. A man at the top of the stairs to the gentlemen's room ackwardly wheeled around, bearing down on him with a double barrel shot gun. The Schofields kicked again and the man was falling away. Once more the dual pistols sprouted flame and a man who had been standing and taking aim with his rifle braced against the frame of the back door, which now stood open, dropped his weapon and crumpled over, half in half out of the doorway.
One gun held out in front of him, the man swung the other firearm around, gazing down its sites, scanning the room for more of the hijackers. Fairly certain he was in the clear, he looks to the rattled bartender to explain, pulling open the inside of his shirt, he reveals a silver circle with a star in the middle dangling from a chain. "Arizona Rangers." The man with the Schofields says as he collapses back against the wall. "These men are wanted . . . for stagecoach robbery . . . and the attempted cold blooded murder of an officer of the law." And then his knees gave out from underneath him and the world around him was once again black and void.
Town Marshall of Williams, Ruben Nelson, had been standing across the street, caddy corner from the saloon, in front of the general store smoking a cigar and talking to a local rancher by the name of Ray Chrismond who sometimes took on the oaths and duties of town deputy, when he had ridden up the street that night. Nelson and Chrismond apparently had been quick to react to the gunshots, arriving on the scene and taking control of the situation nearly as soon as he'd blacked out.
One more man had been shot that night and two more were apprehended by Nelson and Chrismond. The girl had been found upstairs in one of the private rooms above the saloon that had been rented to the men. She was gagged with a handkerchief and had restraints around her ankles and wrists. Her name was Katrina, and it had been her great-grandfather whom had been pulled from the stage and gunned down outside of Sedona.
Ortega was the old man's family name. Recently his clan had lost a feud with a cattle baron of the Telluride township area who was intent on buying most of southwestern Colorado. The family ranch stood in a picturesque valley among snow peaked mountains a couple of days ride from the town. The spread was called "The Stone Ranch". Katrina and her grandfather had been forced to retreat from the ranch and were headed to Mexico when the stagecoach had been held up. They were trying to cross the boarder in order to reach other family members and recruit more men to fight the cattle baron and save the families land.
The cattle baron had apparently sent a dozen or so of his most loyal hands to take out the old man and one of his young heirs, Katrina, enroute to Mexico on the coach, just not within the borders of Colorado, where he had aspirations of becoming a Governor one day. No mention of Apaches was ever made, so the Ranger assumed it had been a random band of warriors that came across the coach and looted it for the team of horses. They must have burnt the coach shortly after heading away from the road and taking the buckskins.
Too bad for the cattle baron that he, Mac Sheldon, a man of the law and a product of the hard frontier that was made up of the great wide open western states, had been on that fateful stage coach. If he had not? The Ortegas might have been pushed away from their family estate and heritage forever. He felt remorse that he'd not been able to save the old man, Juan, and such was part of the burden that belongs to men like him, but at least Katrina, her brothers, and her cousins would have a chance with their ranch now. A chance at the life their ancestors had bleed to build. The life that had been intended for them.
Two weeks later, the last of the perpetrators from the hijacking and killing near Sedona were captured and hung. The posse that carried out the job, consisted mostly of Katrina's brothers, cousins, and uncles. William, or Mac as the other Rangers called him, was there with Ruben Nelson and Ray Chrismond. The lawmen's presence made the hangings legally recognized by the state of Arizona and the closest town to the actual crime, Williams.
The men felt no regret about the sort of justice they served on that day. It was their belief that a man was what a man made himself. If a man chose to live as an outlaw, he knew what brand of men would be riding out after him. They did not feel responsible for the life these men had led, they felt responsible for the lives that were tainted or destroyed by men like these. Those who had love for nothing but whiskey and gold.
What was most important to Mac was that the Ortegas were able to reunite and were now on their way back to their prized ranch, on their way to reclaiming and rebuilding their home and their pride. As Katrina and her relatives headed north, she looked back, shielding her eyes from the sun. She looked for the Ranger. Seeing him she waved and then turning forward in her saddle, she rode away into the distance. Ruben and Chrismond said their goodbyes and parted with the hardened Arizona law man, heading back towards Williams.
As for the man with the Schofields? He too was headed for Colorado. The law was coming to Telluride.