Western Short Story
An Afternoon Outside Fort Yuma
Don Emigh


Western Short Story

Wilcox lifted the carbine with one arm and rested it on the sandy embankment. Blood from his left arm had soaked his shirt. He rolled  slightly to the right to look at his arm, and it was bad. Muttering curses, he thought, "This is it. After all the close calls, here's the one I'm not going to ride away from."

How many Apaches there were he had no way of knowing, but if they hadn't already surrounded the depression in which he lay, he knew they would be doing exactly that. It wouldn't be long.

Fort Yuma was just a bit to the west, just over that last ridge. 
Instinctively his eyes drifted toward the ridge, shimmering in the 
afternoon sun. He would have topped that ridge and made Fort Yuma if 
they hadn't shot his horse out from under him. When the bullet hit, 
the big roan shuddered and he knew it was going down. He threw his leg 
over and fell clear, holding his carbine, and so now here he was, 
bleeding, stretched out in the sand and knowing it was all over.

At a movement in the mesquite he fired, aiming just a bit above the 
dirt and into the bush. An Indian, arms outstretched, leaped 
grotesquely into the air and crumpled to the ground. He made not the 
slightest sound as he died -- no grunt, no scream. That's the way 
the Apaches were. They fought like fiends and they died like it was 
all in a day's work. Wilcox had always admired the Apache, although 
they had been trying to kill him for the last five years. "We could 
have been friends," he thought to himself, the thought flitting across 
the back of his mind. Could have, but he was an army scout, and 
Apaches and the U.S. Army didn't get along.

Wilcox, looking over his shoulder, saw a long, downward-sloping 
stretch of sand and rock, barren of mesquite and any cover for an 
Indian trying to come up from the rear. So they would have to hit him 
from the front -- but how many were there? Four, at least -- now 
three. They had burst suddenly from around the hill and then bore down 
on him like death itself, yelling and waving their rifles. Geronimo's 
men. Probably been tracking him for hours. They were most likely 
scouts for a bigger party.

And they could wait. Patience and silence was the Indian game. Other 
than his own breathing, Wilcox heard nothing. His hurt arm began to 
throb as the minutes went by. High overhead a buzzard circled, drawn 
by the commotion and by the dead body of the Indian.

He won't come down though, Wilcox thought. Buzzard's aren't that 
dumb. They wait until the living have cleared out so they can have the 
dead to themselves. But now there were three buzzards circling. Only 
minutes since he had shot the Indian and already the dead man was 
drawing a crowd.

Whang! Sand flew into his face and Wilcox squirmed farther into the 
depression. "That's what I get for watching those damned birds." He 
maneuvered the carbine into position and fired a shot into the mesquite 
in front of him. He knew very well that he wouldn't hit anything, but 
it was a matter of life or death to let the Apaches know he was still 
in business.

But what difference did it make? The bleeding of his wounded arm and 
shock was going to kill him, if the Apaches didn't finish him off 
first. He fired a random, unaimed shot into the mesquite. What the 
hell difference did it make.

Taking advantage of the fact that he could not be attacked from 
behind, Wilcox inched back into the depression and down the slope and 
then a few feet over to the right, behind a scattering of rock. He 
took out his Remington and laid it beside him, mindful of the fact that 
sometime soon it was going to get down to cases. Only after these 
actions did he peer cautiously out from behind the rocks.

An Apache was inching toward where the dead man lay. Wilcox could 
see the feather in the Indian's headband, like a sail on the horizon as 
he crawled with his head down and his body flat against the ground. 
Wilcox could have fired a shot, but he didn't. It was apparent the 
Apaches did not want to leave their brother for the buzzards. Wilcox 
could easily have killed the Indian, but he didn't. Now there were two 
thoughts flitting across the back of his mind: "We could have been 
friends." "What difference does it make?" He didn't take the easy 
shot.

The crawling Apache reached the dead man. The feather in his headband 
jiggled and danced as he tried to pull the body away while remaining 
flat on the ground. Of course he had not the leverage to do this. He 
raised himself just a bit and tried again. Who knows how much the body 
moved? It must not have been much, for the Indian raised himself even 
further and was now tugging at the body, trying to pull it back into 
the mesquite. And finally the Indian was fully exposed, standing, 
backing, pulling the dead man by his arms. It would have been a 
ridiculously easy shot. A greenhorn couldn't have missed.

But Wilcox was watching a big buzzard circling in, closing in, 
unnoticed by the laboring Indian. Of course the buzzard was not going 
to attack or approach much closer, but that wasn't the point. The 
point was that the buzzard just didn't belong in a picture like this, a 
picture of bravery in the face of an easy, certain shot. Wilcox took 
careful aim, estimating the flight path and distance. His arm throbbed 
with the effort. There was the pop of the carbine and the buzzard 
dropped like a stone, trailing a few feathers.

"We could have been friends." A red film moved across his eyes. 
There was lightness at the top of his head and buzzing in his ears. It 
wouldn't be long now. Loss of blood, probably. "Well, come on, you 
Apaches. I've got six shots in this revolver, and we . . ."

The red film before his eyes turned black. The buzzing in his ears 
stopped.

* * * *

Sergeant Redfern and his men topped the ridge as the Apaches, firing 
into the air and yelling, simply took to their heels without a fight. 
What a strange affair this has been, Redfern thought. The Apaches had 
baited the soldiers at the fort, daring them to come over the ridge -- 
and now here they were, running away without firing a shot.

"Over here, Sarge! It's Wilcox! He's still alive!"

Sergeant Redfern spurred his horse down the slope to the mesquite bush 
where Wilcox lay. He pushed a straggling branch away and bent over 
the pale shape nestled almost comfortably in the soft sand under the 
bush.

"My God! How did Wilcox manage to put a rawhide tourniquet on with 
only one hand? Now there's a real man for you . . . and with Indians 
all around! But we're wasting time here. Let's go!" He 
straightened, motioning to a couple of privates. "Get hold of him, men. 
He still has a chance, if we can get him back to the fort.


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