Monday, August 22, 2011
New Mexico Territory, Fall 1873-
The setting sun turned the sky the color of blood oranges as the twelve man garrison from Fort Ord inched slowly forward, their mounts whispering a steady cadence through the tall, dry wheatgrass. Officially, they reported to Captain Dudley, but it was Orin McNeel who led them.
The only man on foot, Orin was a civilian, content to fight his own battles and not those of other men. He answered only to himself--and that had always been enough. The son of a preacher, he’d left home at fifteen, a boy who thought he was a man with something to prove, and now eight years later, had yet to return.
During his years of drifting, he’d learned the natural curves, sounds, and smells of the earth, and how a man’s passing could affect them. Scouting and tracking had become second nature, next to breathing. He’d traveled with Kit Carson for a time and had the reputation as being one of only a handful of men who could surprise an Apache; it was for that particular skill the Army had hired him.
A small, roving band of Mescalero had taken to raiding travelers and small settlements along the Rio Grande. The braves terrorized the settlers with their banshee screams, riding through camp like tornados, kicking up dust and driving off cattle and horses. Only once had someone been fatally injured, and that after he fell in front of stampeding cows. No other deaths had been attributed to the Apache raids.
Two weeks ago, the warriors attacked an encampment of soldiers and left no survivors. According to the Army, the attack had been brutal and unprovoked--Orin had his doubts. But now the Army wanted blood--Apache blood.
The land sloped gently upward and, at the base of a small hill, Orin signaled for the men to halt and dismount. He’d picked up the faint smell of burning juniper an hour ago and it led him here. Just beyond the next rise, a hint of white smoke rose lazily against the darkening sky. These were not the warriors they sought and Orin wanted to be sure Captain Dudley understood that. These people were mostly old men, women and children. The warriors Dudley was after had passed this way about a day before, but their trail turned north through the hills.
At the sound of approaching footsteps, Orin turned and waited as Captain Dudley approached, his great handlebar mustache impeccably waxed and just beginning to show gray. With his back ramrod straight and his arms snapping in time with each step, the Captain walked with the stiffness of a man who considered himself important.
“What is it?” Dudley asked. “Why have we stopped?”
Orin nodded toward the rising smoke. “Small village over this
rise.” He turned his gaze north toward the rolling hills and pointed. “Your warriors went off that way.”
Dudley regarded Orin briefly and then looked up at the smoke. Finally he said, “We’ll wait ‘til full dark, and then we’ll show them savages the strength of the United States Army.” With the crispness of new currency, Dudley turned and started toward his men.
Grabbing his arm, Orin turned him back. “Maybe you didn’t hear me. The ones you’re after went thataway. This here’s a peaceful bunch, old people—villagers.”
Dudley furrowed his brow and cocked his head. “The hell you say?” He glanced at the smoke. “They Apaches or ain’t they?”
“Looky here,” Dudley crushed a beetle with the toe of his boot. “You found ‘em sure enough, but now you jes’ leave the fightin’ to us.” His voice held the stink of hatred and revenge and for the second time, he turned his back on Orin.
Orin’s hand flashed out and landed hard on the Captain’s shoulder, spinning him around.
“Listen, Dudley.” Orin’s voice rumbled with disgust. “You ride in there, you’ll be killing women and children. There ain’t no warriors down there.” Orin moved in close, almost touching noses with the Captain. “You want to be a hero that bad?” He locked eyes with Dudley, and even in the waning light, Orin could see madness.
“Lower your voice, McNeel! You’ll alert the enemy to our presence.”
“Alert ‘em? Hell, they already know you’re here. They had a scout on us for the better part of a day now.”
The change in the Captain was instantaneous. He ducked his head slightly and pulled in his massive chest. Nervously, his eyes darted to the hills around them.
“Damn you, McNeel!” Dudley spat. “You rode us straight into a trap! If I live to see the dawn, I’ll have you hanged.”
“Ain’t no trap, Captain. These...”
“The Hell it ain’t!” Dudley looked up at the hill and felt the first cold tendrils of fear crawl up his spine. Outlined by the rising moon against the night sky, were at least two dozen Apache villagers. “You walked us in here mighty easy. Now we got a whole village t’other side’a that hill, and savages closin’ in around us. If that ain’t a trap, then mister you tell me what is.”
He stormed back to his troops. “Mount up,” he ordered as he swung into his saddle. “Bugler, prepare to sound the charge.” Dudley pulled his saber and held it high. If the men noticed it shaking, they gave no indication.
“Dudley!” Orin stood before the Captain’s horse, his stance wide and determined. In his hand was an army-issue Colt .45 which Dudley himself had given him. “I ain’t gonna let you murder these folks. You still want to ride after them that killed your friends, then I’ll lead ya. If not, the job ends here.”
A murmur started among the men as the seeds of doubt began to take root. Orin turned to them. “You men are backin’ this gent, an’ he’s gonna lead you straight to hell. You willing to murder for him?” A ripple passed through them as their hushed discussions grew urgent. A few backed their horses away from the rest and waited. None of them seemed anxious to move on. Arguments broke out as fear and doubt took hold.
“SILENCE!” Dudley screamed and the troop snapped immediately to attention. “You men will follow my orders or answer to a hangman’s noose.” Slowly he lowered the tip of his sword until it pointed at Orin. “Get out of my way.”
“I’ll have you court martialed!”
“I’m a civilian.” Orin could see Dudley beginning to shake as his rage boiled within.
With a roar, Dudley spurred his horse and charged, his sword near invisible in the dark. As he came, he raised the saber in a high arc and brought it down level with Orin’s neck.
Twin explosions lit the night as Orin fired.
Dudley somersaulted backward, and landed in the grass twisted at an odd angle. For one full heartbeat, nobody moved, and then from the ground, Dudley raised a shaky arm and let it fall.
Orin knelt near the Captain. The bullets had passed through his shoulder less than an inch apart. The soldiers crowded around them as Dudley tried to speak. Orin leaned close and the Captain smiled.
“I’ll see you hanged,” he whispered.
Standing up, Orin replaced the gun in its holster. As he turned, someone struck him from behind, a crashing blow to his skull. He went down and tried to roll, and another man kicked him in the ribs. Fists began to rain down on him, one after another until they blended together. Someone slammed the stock end of a rifle into the back of his head, and as a cloud engulfed the moon, Orin passed out.
The trial lasted only two days. Captain Dudley testified to his version of the events and his men agreed to it. Orin was convicted of shooting an officer of the United States Army.
Nobody took the stand in his defense.
His ten year sentence at the Sweetwater, Texas jail began October 18, 1873.
They were close, but there was still a chance.
Orin pumped his legs, forcing them to carry him up toward a grove of cottonwoods overgrown with mesquite and sagebrush. High above him, the Guadalupe mountains loomed, their shadows reaching farther and farther across the land with the late afternoon sun.
Crawling out onto a ledge of rock that ended in a drop of several hundred feet, Orin peered down upon his pursuers below. He counted nine men and a guide.
From this distance, Orin couldn’t tell much about the rest of them, but he didn’t need a closer look to know who led them. It was Joe Dog.
An Apache tracker with loyalty to none but himself and his tribe, Joe Dog would track only the white man. Once on a hunt, he would sleep or eat only when his body required it. A bloodhound to be sure, the name fit him well, and it was Orin’s scent that he followed.
Working his way backward off the cliff, Orin crouched near a large pine, studying the men below. Suddenly Joe Dog’s eyes fell upon him and he froze where he stood. Their stares met. Orin caught his breath and held it. Here was the moment he’d known would come. Here was death staring him in the face, and then remarkably, moving past. He allowed himself to relax his lungs but nothing more. The tracker hadn’t seen him.
The men below dismounted and began to make camp. It was a sound decision and one that Orin hoped they would choose. The ground at the base of the mountain was gravel and prone to sudden slides. The horses would have to pick their way slowly as the men led them up. They knew, as he had known they would, that chasing a desperate man into rocky terrain at night was a death sentence.
When Joe Dog turned his back, Orin moved. It was a smooth, silent action. Not a speck of dust was disturbed. He squeezed in between a pair of sandstone boulders and then worked his way straight up. The rocks would block him from view for several yards. Covering that distance in a few running steps, Orin veered toward the sound of a small trickling stream to his right.
This was it then. His last chance. The New Mexico territory lay on the other side of these hills and he had but one night to reach it. Tomorrow would find him crossing into the territories. Or dead trying.
Kneeling near the stream, he cupped his hands into the cold mountain water and brought them to his lips. After drinking his fill, he submersed his head completely and then smoothed his hair back quickly. Refreshed a bit, he stretched and allowed his spine to break the silence.
With a fresh wind blowing through his lungs, he pressed on quickly. By morning he would be on the other side and hopefully beyond the posse’s will to follow. For the first time in years, he allowed a smile to spread across the hard lines of his face. Maybe he should have gone south to Mexico, but there were matters to be settled first. He broke from cover for only a split second, but if he had chanced to look back at that moment, he would have stared into the dark, emotionless eyes of the Indian tracker far below as they followed his progress.
* * * *
Private Everson walked with a slow, hesitant stride through the courtyard of the fort. He felt ill and twice paused to suppress the urge to sick up his nervous stomach. Stopping outside the officer’s quarters, he contemplated the first step, which seemed taller than the walls surrounding the fort. Slowly, tentatively, he raised a booted foot and gingerly tested the wood. He looked up at the door. His breathing came in quick gasps and his hands were shaking. The colonel didn’t like to be interrupted during his naps. Everson climbed the steps and approached the door with trepidition. He’d been assigned a post here at Fort Stanton only two months ago, and as low man on the roster, he always got the shit detail. Like waking the colonel with bad news.
Everson looked again at the sealed message, leaden in his palm. He shook his head slightly, at least as a private he couldn’t be demoted any further.
He knocked sharply on the heavy wooden door to the colonel’s private quarters and solemnly wondered if a firing squad would be less painful.
“What in the hell...?” The colonel’s voice came crashing through the door an instant before the man himself.
“WHAT!? What is it Private?” The colonel filled the doorframe and Everson noticed that his legendary handlebar mustache lay like a rats nest on his upper lip, gray and slightly misshapen.
Everson held out the note and saluted. “Sir.”
The colonel’s eyes narrowed. “What’s your name, boy?”
“P-P-Private Everson, sir”
“Private,” Colonel Dudley said, “this had better be the most important message of my lifetime or so help me you’ll be on stable duty for the rest of yours.” He snatched the paper from Everson’s hand and read it quickly.
A smile twisted with hatred crossed the colonel’s face and Everson took a full step back. Dudley turned his face to the sky and closed his eyes.
“I’ve got that son-of-a-bitch now, by God!” He looked up at the nervous private. “I knew that bastard would foul up sometime. You are dismissed, Private.” Everson snapped a quick salute, but the Colonel was already fading back into his quarters.
Turning on his heels, Everson double-timed it for the farthest point he could think of, a cannon post atop the wall of the fort.
“Private Everson!” Dudley called from behind him. Reluctantly, Everson halted and turned to find the colonel walking directly toward him. He steeled himself against the infamous wrath of the colonel. The private drew a deep, nervous breath and braced himself for the inevitable.
“Remind me to have you promoted to sergeant.”