Apache gunhawk, p.6
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       Apache Gunhawk, p.6

           Monogram Press
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Marshal Brace Coburn guided his buckskin horse through the myriad of rocks and boulders strewn around the base of the bluff. The trail had petered out some miles back, but he had managed to pick it up again where his quarry had left the canyon stream that flowed lazily by to his left. The midmorning sun gleamed on the sparkling blue water. He had followed their tracks once again into this rocky area and the trail was once again becoming obscure in the loose shale of the canyon floor, but occasionally his squinty eyes would spot where a horseshoe scraped on a rock and left fresh white marks, reassuring him that he was still on the trail.

  The trail eventually led him into higher country and away from the canyon below, until he found what remained of a deer trail that wound upward along the side of the bluff. Once again he found the tracks of the three horses he had been following for several days. He half smiled with satisfaction, to himself, and urged the buckskin upward along the steep winding trail.

  The horse slipped and slid at times, his breathing becoming labored as his shod hoofs dug into the hard packed earth, his back arching; struggling to make the climb. Coburn’s bulk shifted loosely in the saddle as the horse struggled. Then realizing, the strain was too much, the lawman drew rein and stepped down from the saddle. He lifted a stirrup and loosened a cinch, letting the big horse blow and rest a bit. “I know, old fella,” Coburn said, patting the horse’s neck. “I guess we’re both getting a little too old for this.”

  After a brief rest, man and horse resumed their journey. This time, the aging marshal led off on foot, reins in hand and letting the buckskin trail behind. They climbed the rest of the way to the top of the bluff. Here they found fresh grass amid a stand of trees, and the lawman stopped to let the horse graze a little. As he gazed about, he spotted a thin wisp of smoke rising into the crisp blue of the summer sky on the far side of the bluff. He ground hitched the horse, drew his Winchester from the rifle boot and set off on foot in the direction of the smoke.

  He carefully made his way through the trees and avoiding brush as much as possible. Sound carried easily in the crisp air here and he didn’t want to make any more noise than necessary.

  As he emerged out of the woods and neared the edge of the bluff, he could hear a clinking of tin dishes and the babble of voices at the base of the cliff down below. He bent down on all fours and crept through the grass until he could peer out between the strands of tall grass.

  There they were. All three of them; Buzz Shannan and the Stoker brothers, Efram and Zeke. Shannan was kicking dirt over what remained of the fire. His horse stood nearby, saddled and ready to go. Bulging saddlebags were already tied in place behind the rig. The Stokers were tightening their cinches, getting ready to mount up.

  Coburn would have to act fast, before the three outlaws had a chance to ride out. He had needed to get closer, which meant somehow, climbing down the side of the bluff. He rolled to the side behind a rotted log, then crawled off into a crevice that ran lengthwise and winding toward the foot of the bluff. He slid into the crevice. His foot slipped and he went sliding on his broad back along the opening until its narrow end brought him up short.

  He hadn’t made a lot of noise, but it was enough for Shannan and the Stokers to be warned. They had suddenly looked up from their chores, their eyes searching the side of the bluff for movement or another sound. Coburn lay still, not sure if he could be seen from this vantage point.

  The outlaws, below seemed to satisfy themselves there was nothing up there, for they started to mount up. Coburn had no time to waste. He had followed these men across New Mexico and half of Arizona, and now, coming this close, he couldn’t let them get away. Twisting sharply, the lawman pulled himself from the crevice, rolled to his haunches, lifted his rifle, ready to shout a command of warning, when a rifle cracked from the top of the bluff above his head.

  Buzz Shannan twisted sharply to his right as a .44-.40 rifle slug tore into his left thigh. He yelped with pain and his dark stubbled face wrinkled with pain. He fell sideways against his horse and slid to the ground as the animal shied away. He was clawing at his pistol, when another shot rang out. Shannan’s arm went limp, blood streaming from the fleshy part of his upper arm. His pistol fell in the dirt and slid out of reach.

  Coburn half turned and glanced up toward the top of the bluff. He saw smoke puff three times as three more shots echoed across the hills. Bullets, bore into the ground in front of Shannan, kicking dirt into his already grimy face. Shannan cringed, trying to cover himself with his arms, crossing his face and upper body. “Alright! Alright!” he was shouting hysterically. “I give up! Don’t shoot! Don’t Shoot!”

  By now the Stoker Brothers had swung into their saddles and spurred their mounts into flight.

  Coburn cursed. He had had his chance to get all three before the interloper on the bluff butted in. Now two of them were gone and he would have to let them go while he tended to the wounded Shannan. That would mean taking Shannan into custody, turning him into local authorities, and then starting all over again in his search for the Stoker Brothers.

  The hot sand was burning through the soles of their boots as they sloshed unsteadily on their feet across the desert. It had been four days, since they had been ambushed and had left Buzz Shannan behind. Four days and the man was still on their trail. No matter what they had tried, the tracker kept on coming. They would get a glimpse of him from time to time, but never close enough to make out who it was. Whoever it was, they were sure it was not Marshal Brace Coburn for this man seemed to have a different style about him. Coburn would come headlong after them. This man was playing a game of cat and mouse and was wearing them down.

  He had chased them through canyons and brush and woods. Over rocks and streams. He just kept on coming. Two days now, they had been in the desert. They had hoped this would be the route to escape, but it had been their biggest mistake. Instead of discouraging the tracker, he kept on coming as if the desert were no more than a sandy beach.

  “He must be part Apache,” Zeke said as he tossed his now empty canteen away. “No white man could keep coming like that.” He picked up the reins of his spent horse and led him forward.

  “He’s gotta run out of water, too,” Ephram said, tugging his own mount forward.

  “Not if he’s Apache,” Zeke groaned.

  “His horse has gotta drink too,” Ephram countered.

  “Naw. Them ‘Paches ride the devil’s hosses. They don’t need no water, nuther.”

  “Now, Zeke that don’t make no sense.”

  “Shut up and keep walking.”

  The sun continued to bear down and the scraggly duo trudged on. Noon with its hottest sun rays came and went, but the burning orb seemed to follow them across the sands. The horses staggered behind them and their feet kept slipping.

  By mid afternoon, without thinking of the bags full of money strapped behind the saddles, they had left their horses behind and trudged on; one foot ahead at a time. Sliding backwards every other step. Their lips were dry and cracked, swelling to an inch thick. Their breathing became hacks and they could hardly speak, not even in a raspy whisper. The endless desert stretched out to the horizon before them. Pale sky seeming to touch the ground somewhere out there where there was no end.

  As they stumbled forward, each step sinking deeper and deeper into the loose sand, the horizon seemed to come closer as if they were approaching the edge of the world and about to fall off into endless sky. Deeper and deeper, their feet sank into the ground. They were almost up to their knees now, some powerful force seeming to suck them into the sand, threatening to swallow them up into a natural grave. It was Zeke who gave it up first. As his last step sank further almost up to his thigh, he fell forward, face first into the burning sand. He rolled over onto his side, trying to spit the mouthful of sand out, but his tongue was too dry. He coughed and gagged on the steaming hot particles.

  Ephram was falling himself, as he bent over to help his brother. He pulled Zeke’s upper body up out of the shifting sand and he himself f
ell into a sitting position next to him, his chest heaving with a giant ache, sucking in the sweltering stagnant air. He brushed at his brother’s face, removing the sand. “It’s no use,” Zeke rasped. “I can’t go on.”

  “Neither can I,” Ephram sighed with resignation and flopped onto his back with the sand flowing over him.

  The two brothers lie still. The sun burning their faces from above and the sand burning their backsides from beneath. Their breathing slowed and their eyes closed waiting for the final sleep to come.

  Ephram heard it first. At first it was just a cloudy memory of sound in his semi-conscious brain and then as it repeated itself and grew louder, he managed to let his grit filled eyes flutter open. At first it was a blur, then sharpened. Mirage. It’s a mirage, he told himself. Then with elation he realized what he saw was real. The horses! The horses they had left behind, were now trudging steadily through the deep sand. Their ears were pricked forward and they moved with anticipation in every step and they were stepping right on past the two brothers.

  “Zeke! Zeke!” He tried to shout in a raspy whisper and shaking his brother by the shoulder. “Snap out of it.! The horses are back!”

  Zeke only groaned and stirred slightly.

  “Don’t you understand?” Ephram kept shaking him. “I think they’ve smelled water!”

  “Water?” Zeke only mumbled. Then his eyes suddenly opened with realization. “Water?”

  “Yes!” Ephram tried to laugh. “Look at them go. They must be heading for water!”

  Zeke rolled to his side and saw the horses disappearing over the near horizon. Only now did they realize that it was not a horizon, but the top of a sand dune. They had been trudging in a dune all this time. New hope welled up inside them. The water must be on the other side of the dune. They had to follow the horses.

  Helping each other, the two outlaws managed to get themselves back on their feet. With renewed hope and determination, they seemed to muster the strength to stagger forward, climbing to the top of the pile of sand.

  They halted at the precipice of the dune. They stood swaying unsteadily on weak legs, staring at the beautiful sight before them, hardly able to believe their eyes. Although, they could not see the water hole, they knew it was there. The two horses had hidden it from view. They had found the water and had their necks bent, muzzles in the pool and drinking. For a moment, the Stokers thought they had never seen such a welcome sight as the two horses’ backsides and swishing tails.

  They were almost giddy as they raced down the hill of sand toward the horses. But then as they grew near, they halted in their tracks. The light of hope suddenly dissipating from their eyes.

  The horses had lifted their heads and stepped forward, separating from each other and a tall figure seemed to rise up out of the ground between them as the horses moved on past him. The tall man dropped the reins of the two horses as he had pulled them forward past him and away from the water.

  “I told you, he was an Apache,” Zeke groaned. Ephram only sighed.

  The tall man standing on the edge of the waterhole had the dark complexion, dark eyes and high cheekbones of an Apache, but was dressed more like a white man. He wore a cavalry blue jacket that hung over the top of his faded blue buckskin trousers that disappeared into the tops of scuffed cavalry boots. A dark cavalry hat, with the front brim folded up against the crown sat atop his head of shaggy black hair that hung down the back of his neck, not quite shoulder length. A Cutaway black holster was belted around his waist over the blue jacket on his right side with a black handled cavalry pistol protruding from the pouch A long bladed knife rested in a scabbard on the left side of his belt angled sharply across his middle in a cross draw position.

  “Well boys,” the stranger drawled. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

  Zeke and Ephram looked at each other and then back toward the stranger. Anger rising in their breasts.

  “I’ll bet you boys are pretty well thirsty about now,” He said. “Water’s good. Had some myself. There’s plenty here for all of us.”

  The Stokers started to move forward. “Oh there’s one thing you ought to know about this here water,” the stranger said calmly. The two outlaws halted in their tracks, expectant. “You see, this water may be free for the taking, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to take it.” He unfastened the thong that held his pistol in place in the holster without taking his dark steely eyes off the two outlaws.

  Again the Stokers started to move forward, however, warily. “You ain’t gonna keep us away from that water, you sumbitch.” Zeke growled.

  “Your choice,” The tall man’s face was grim and impassive. Apache eyes glaring like burning coals. The boys halted again. Looked from one to the other. “Like I said,” the Indian dark man repeated. “You’re going to have to take it.” There was deadly anticipation in his voice. He spread his feet apart. His right hand lingered near the holster.

  “You’re not keeping us from that water!” Ephram shouted. “Come on Zeke!” he shouted staggering forward as fast as he could, clawing for his pistol as he went.

  The man at the pool calmly drew his revolver and fired. Ephram fell back and lifted off his feet under the impact of the slug. Blood spread across his chest as he landed on his back in the hot sand.

  Zeke who had not wanted to chance a fight and had been reluctant to draw was now so enraged and frightened, he instinctively, reached for his own weapon as he saw his brother go down. He didn’t even have time to raise his pistol, much less look up to see the gunman pull the hammer of his shooter back and fire again. The bullet drilled the remaining outlaw between the eyes. He probably didn’t ever hear the pistol’s report. His knees merely sagged and he folded into a heap. Sand from the top of the dune began to blow over the two bodies.


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