|Short Stories & Tall Tales
Legend Of Blazing Rock
By Herschel Cozine
It was late summer, 1879. The fierce desert sun left Will weak and near delirium. He had survived for three days by carefully rationing his water. But with only a few swallows left, he knew it was just a matter of time before the desert claimed him. The few cactus plants that grew in this part of the desert offered little in the way of water; surely not enough to keep a man alive.
He squinted into the glare of the high cloudless sky. The outcropping ahead caught the rays of the sun. A large mass of sandstone, it towered above the desert floor. Through the heat waves, the walls shimmered eerily, appearing to be on fire. Will staggered toward the rock. There was an overhang that would give him shade and relief from the sun.
He had stumbled into the most barren part of the Arizona desert where only a few insects, the burrowing kind, were able to survive. There were no birds, and with the forbidding heat and lack of food or water, no animals to break the monotony of the landscape in this God forsaken part of the world. Too weak to go any further, he would go to sleep in the shade of the rock and die as peaceful a death as possible. He fell to his knees and crawled the last few yards to the base of the rock. The hot sand burned his hands. Finding a small ledge that offered the most shade, he dragged his tortured body up to it and fell against it. He removed his hat and dropped it.
He took the canteen from his belt, unscrewed the cap and drank the last few drops of water. It did little to relieve him. Letting the canteen drop to his side next to his hat, he put his head against the hard stone and closed his eyes. His head throbbed, his eyes burned, and his feverish brain filled with wild, unearthly images. He tried to sleep, but the pain and thirst kept him from it. A wave of nausea swept over him and he coughed.
It had been foolhardy to go into the desert alone. And, when his horse stumbled and broke a leg, Will had to put him down. He had wept as he pulled the trigger. His horse had been his constant companion for almost as long as he could remember. Now, alone and lost, he had wandered aimlessly in search of help. He had gone in circles, he knew, since he had twice passed by the rock he was now leaning against. Will leaned forward, tugged his boots off and placed them carefully next to his hat. He searched the sky. No clouds. An unrelenting sun burned high in the sky, scorching the sand around him. Heat waves shimmered in the distance, forming mirages that became more real in Will’s frenzied imagination. He shook his head to clear it, telling himself that there was nothing out there. He was totally alone. Weariness overcame the pain and he drifted into a fitful, nightmarish sleep.
He was awakened by a stirring, more a presence than a disturbance. He opened his eyes and squinted into the bright sky. He could tell from the lengthening shadows that he had been asleep for some time. As his eyes adjusted to the brightness he saw the outline of a man and a mule standing in front of him. He blinked, rubbed his eyes, and looked again. A hallucination. There was no one out in this barren, forbidding part of the desert.
Then the apparition moved. Will sat up, ignoring the pain, and stared. The man knelt in front of Will, and spoke
“You’re alive,” he said.
Will nodded. “Who are you?”
The stranger didn’t respond. Taking a canteen from the mule, he held it out to Will. “Drink.”
Will took the canteen and drank. The water was cool and sweet; the sweetest water he had ever tasted. The water cooled his mouth and soothed his parched throat. He poured a little of it into his hand and rubbed it on his forehead. He drank some more. “How much of this do you have?” he asked.
The water eased the cramps and his breath came easier. Although still weak and tired, he suddenly felt hungry.
As if reading his mind, the stranger took a sack from his belt and held it out to Will.
“Jerky,” he said simply.
Will took it gratefully and bit off a piece. It was salty and tough, but he ate it greedily. He followed it with more water. The stranger watched him silently
He handed the canteen back to the stranger. “You saved my life,” he said. “I would have died by the end of the day if you hadn’t showed up.” He put a hand out for the stranger to shake, but the other man turned and busied himself with the trappings of the mule.
“Who are you? Where did you come from?” Will asked.
The stranger said nothing for a minute or two. He was tall and thin, with a beard that was turning gray. His hands were rough and his leathery face was etched by years of exposure to the outdoors.
“Jest passin’ through,” he said finally. “Saw you lyin’ here and stopped to see if I could be of help.” He put a thumb to his hat and pushed it up on his forehead. “Don’t see many folk out here.” He squinted into the bright sky. “Where you headin’?”
Will sat up straighter. “I started out to do a little prospecting,” he said. “But my horse got hurt. I had to shoot him. Ran out of water. I was looking for the nearest town where I could get supplies and another horse.”
The stranger thought a minute. “That would be Miller’s Flat.” He pointed. “About a two day walk from here. Southeast.”
Will stood up slowly, his muscles protesting. He was still weak, but the headache and terrible thirst were almost gone. He looked at the stranger’s mule. “How about selling your animal?” he said. Pulling a sack from his pocket, he held it out to the stranger. “Gold. Lots of it.”
The stranger shook his head. “Mule’s lame. Can’t walk very far at a time. I
couldn’t part with her.”
“Where are you headed?” Will asked.
The stranger didn’t answer.
“I sure could use some company,” Will said. “I’d be obliged if you tagged
“Can’t.” The stranger fumbled in the saddlebag, took out a bag of jerky and
handed it to Will. “This’ll keep you until you get to Miller’s Flat.” Taking another canteen from the saddle, he gave it to Will. “There’s enough water to last the day. There’s a spring about a day’s walk from here. You can fill the canteen there and have enough to get you to Miller’s Flat.”
Will nodded his thanks. “How do I find the spring?”
The stranger pointed to a notch in the mountains in the distance. “Just head for that notch. The spring is about fifteen miles from here. Straight ahead.” He squinted into the distance. “That’s about halfway to town.” He searched the sky. “Rest up here until it cools down. There’ll be a full moon tonight. If you start about midnight you should make the spring by mornin’.”
Will studied the man carefully. Something about him was eerily unreal, but Will could not define it. He moved slowly, almost dreamlike. He talked softly to his mule, patted it gently, and took the reins.
“Are you from around here?” Will asked.
The stranger paused. Looking straight ahead, he shook his head. “Nope.”
Will waited for the man to go on. Then realizing that he had said all that he was going to say, he extended his hand. “I’m sure obliged to you, stranger,” he said. “I thank ya for your help.”
The stranger touched the brim of his hat, and a trace of a smile crossed his lips. “Get some rest,” he said.
Will nodded. “Reckon that’s a good idea.” He sat down in the shade of the rock, scooped out a shallow hole in the sand, and lay down. He was asleep in minutes.
It was dark when he awoke. A full moon bathed the desert in a yellow light. Will rubbed the sleep from his eyes and looked around for his friend. He was gone.
Will stood up, his aching legs supporting his weight with reluctance. But he felt refreshed. Looking around, he saw the canteen and a sack of jerky. He opened the sack and bit into a strip, following it with water. He threw the canteen over his shoulder, stuffed the bag of jerky under his shirt and started to walk.
With the moon providing the light, he headed for the notch in the mountain. The night air was warm, but much cooler than the searing heat of day. Slowly his legs stopped aching and walking became easier. He should make the spring by sunup. He would stay there for the day and rest. With food and water he should be able to reach Miller’s Flat by the following morning.
He had been walking about six hours when the sun crested over the mountains. Ahead he saw a small valley with a few stunted cactus plants. He headed for the spot, found a rock and sat down next to it. He took the canteen from his shoulder and drank. It was almost empty. He would have to find the water that the stranger mentioned and fill it. Leaning back against the rock he closed his eyes.
A gentle breeze was blowing across the desert. Over the sound of the breeze Will heard the soft ripple of running water. He stood up and followed the direction of the sound. He found the small spring on the far side of the rock. Water trickled out of a crack, splashed over a small rock and disappeared into the sand. Will filled his canteen and splashed his head and arms with the cool water. For the first time since he left on his fateful journey he had enough water to indulge in a sponge bath. Whoever the stranger was, he knew the desert better than any man he had ever met.
Will slept more deeply than the night before. He awoke feeling rested. His legs no longer ached and his head was clear. From the position of the moon in the sky Will figured it was a little past midnight. After a quick breakfast of jerky, Will took a long drink from the spring, washed his hands and face and started walking.
Dawn was breaking when Will saw the dog. A malnourished cur, it bared its teeth and growled before running away with its tail between its legs. Will knew from the dog that he was near a town.
Miller’s Flat slowly materialized on the horizon. Will walked a little faster, forgetting his tiredness.
Miller’s Flat was a small town, owing its existence to a silver mine a few miles away. A collection of wooden buildings tied together with a plank sidewalk alongside a rutted dirt road, it looked much like any other desert town. Will found the building marked “General Merchandise” and headed for it.
The screen door squeaked as Will pushed through it and took off his hat. An old man was seated in a rickety chair, rocking slowly back and forth and chewing a plug of tobacco. He looked up when Will came in, nodded and stood up.
“Howdy, stranger,” he said.
Will walked over to the counter. “I want to buy a horse.”
The old man blinked. “I don’t sell no horses here. I can get you most anythin’ else, though. Soap. Coffee. Picks and shovels.” He winked. “Even a woman, if you know what I mean.”
“I’ll be needing some grubstake, too. And a place to stay for the night.”
The old man spat. “There’s a hotel here in town.” He frowned his disapproval. “Charge a dollar a night. Too much if you ask me. Where ya from?”
Will nodded in the direction of the desert behind him. “Been out there in the desert for the last four days. No food or water. I was about to die when this man comes from out of nowhere and gave me water and grub to get me through.”
“Where was this?” the man asked.
“Don’t know for sure. Just a big rock. Bright red.”
“I know the place,” the man said. “It’s called Blazing Rock. You probably noticed how it looks to be on fire when the sun hits it just right.”
Will nodded. “That’s the place. Well, this stranger gave me some jerky and a canteen of water. Then he pointed me in this direction. Told me where I could find water along the way. Saved my life, this fella. Disappeared before I had a chance to thank him.”
The old man eyed Will with warily. “Water, you say?” He shook his head. “And you met this stranger at Blazin’ Rock?”
Will nodded. “If that’s what you call it.”
“Well, sir. There’s a story behind that place. Folks call it ‘The Legend of Blazin’ Rock’. Ain’t true, of course. Most legends ain’t. But it makes a good story. If people want to believe it, what’s the harm?”
Will was curious. “Legend?” he asked.
“Well” the man went on, “they say that a prospector came through town one day. About thirty years ago, when the California gold rush was goin’ on. He claimed that Blazin’ Rock was made of gold and he was gonna go mine it.” The man shook his head sadly. “Wasn’t true, you know. It’s sandstone. Just enough mica and iron in it to give it color and fire. Ever’body who lived around these parts knew better than to think it was gold.”
“Didn’t they tell him?”
The man smiled. “They tried to. But he didn’t believe ‘em. Well, this stranger
starts out for Blazin’ Rock with nothin’ but a couple of day’s worth of supplies and an old gimpy mule.”
Will grunted. “Did you say a gimpy mule?”
“That’s right. From what I hear the mule had a bum leg. Mind you I wasn’t there. Only heard about it from those who claimed they were.”
Will shook his head. “Did the stranger find gold?” he asked.
The man laughed shrilly and shook his head. “There warn’t none to be found,” he said. “Fact is, the stranger never returned. Some say he got lost and never made it to
Blazin’ Rock. Others say he kept on goin’ clear to California. Most people think he died out there somewhere from hunger and thirst.” He spat into the brass spittoon next to the table. “Truth is, nobody knows what happened to him.”
The man pulled a plug of tobacco from his shirt and bit off a chew. He offered it to Will. Will declined. The man shrugged and put the plug back in his shirt.
“You ain’t the first who has claimed to see him neither,” he said. “That’s where the legend comes in. Seems that around dusk some folks have claimed to see a man with a mule around the rock. He disappears when they try to get too close. No one has ever spoke to him, or even got close enough to be able to say what he looks like.” He eyed Will with a thoughtful frown. “Folks around here don’t believe it. They say it’s some kind of rock formation that looks like a man when the shadows form. That’s what I think. Don’t make much sense any other way.”
“I saw him,” Will said. “I spoke to him. And he had a lame mule.”
The man spat. “Most likely you met a prospector. Only folks I know dumb enough to be out there alone. They don’t have the sense to pour sand out of their boots if
the instructions was printed on the heel.” He cackled and looked at Will. “No offense.”
He spat again. “Then again, maybe you didn’t see nobody. You were near out of yer head with thirst and heat. The mind can play tricks when you’re sick.”
“Then how do you explain the water?” Will said. “And the spring?”
“That’s another thing,” the man said. “I’ve lived in these parts for over forty years. I know ever’ inch of that desert. Why there ain’t a bit of water for more than fifty
miles.” His wary eyes studied Will. “Where did you say this spring was?”
“About fifteen miles from here.”
The man snorted. “Ain’t nothing’ out there. Not even a coyote. Why that’s the most godforsaken land there is in the world.”
“But there’s water out there,” Will said. “Right where the stranger said it would be.” He held the canteen up and poured water out of it onto the sawdust floor.
The old man watched with a doubting stare. “Don’t know about that,” he said. “All I know is there’s a lot of dead men out in that desert because they couldn’t find no water.”
“Are you callin’ me a liar?” Will said.
“Nope,” the old man said. “Can’t see no reason for you to lie about a thing like that. I only know what I know.” He pointed out the window. “And I know that desert as good as any man alive.” He shrugged. “They’s some things in life that jest can’t be explained. Yer a mighty lucky hombre.”
Will had to agree. He looked down at the floor where the water formed a puddle at his feet. He threw the canteen over his shoulder and started for the door.
“I’ll be back in the mornin’ for my supplies.”
The old man nodded. “Hotel’s three doors down. They serve a pretty fair meal, too. That’s if’n you like beef. And you can git yerself a horse at Gabriel’s Livery across the street.”
Will stepped outside and started down the wooden sidewalk towards the hotel. He paused and looked out over the desert. Heat waves shimmered lazily, making the rocks and cactus dance. Will stood and watched, his thoughts returning to the stranger who had saved his life. Who was he? What happened out there?
He put his hand to his forehead in a salute. “Whoever or whatever you are,” he said, “thanks.”
In the distance a mule brayed. A lone cloud drifted across the sun.
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