Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
shot explodes into her chest, killing the mustang instantly and
barely allowing me the moment necessary to jump clear before she
collapses on the trail. Startled, but not injured, I quickly crawl
behind the horse, using all of her eight hundred pounds for
protection from whoever is trying to kill me. I’m lucky she fell
scabbard side up, so I’m able to grab my Winchester 1866. A quick
check shows it’s fully loaded, as is my 1858 Army revolver, which I
set next to me. As quietly as possible, I lever one of the fifteen
shells into the chamber of the 1866. I loosen the cinch on the saddle
and create enough space to slip the rifle through and still be able
to look down the trail, hopefully, without being seen.
The single shot is still the only one that’s been fired. I haven’t fired yet because I haven’t seen anyone to fire at and because I figure it’s a small advantage for me if whoever is out there doesn’t know if I’m hurt, or maybe even dead. And right now, I need every possible advantage.
I’m looking west, in the direction of the rapidly setting sun, but there are so many trees blocking the direct sunlight that I can see perfectly, without having to fight the glare. Being blessed with excellent eyesight, I keep scanning everything in front of me, trusting that I’ll catch any movement and maybe start to better understand what I’m dealing with. It’s been a couple of minutes since the shot, so my breathing is slowing down, but I’m not what one would consider calm. My mouth is dry, and since my canteen was tied off next to the rifle scabbard, I open it up and take a quick drink, my eyes never leaving the trail. There’s only a few minutes of daylight left, and as soon as it’s dark, I’m going to have to back away from the horse and find another place to wait this out. I can’t wait here, where he, or they, know where I am, especially since I don’t know where they are and I can’t see anything. As I’m having this thought, afraid to look away even long enough to pick out a new hiding spot, movement about seventy-five yards down the trail, on the right-hand side, draws my attention.
There are two men talking, though I can’t hear them. As if they know they've been spotted, one, mounted, melts back into the trees, and the other turns, running low and fast, and crosses the trail. I think about snapping off a quick shot as the one crosses, but I’m not confident enough about hitting him to give up my advantage of surprise. I trust my peripheral vision for the one who slipped back into the trees and focus on the one who is now working his way toward me, just off the trail. I can clearly see he’s an Indian, though having no experience with Indians, I can’t tell which tribe he’s from. I concentrate on slowing my breathing, while I bring my finger to the trigger.
I’m three days out of Denver, about ten miles from the small town of Estes Park, on my way to Salt Lake City. I’d been warned that some renegade Jicarilla Apaches had been seen this far north and have already killed a handful of ranchers and travelers. I don’t know if that’s who’s out there now, but no one else comes to mind, and I guess it really doesn’t matter who they are. Being new to the West, this is my first encounter with Indians in the wild, and I flash back to a conversation with a fur trader I met in Denver who told me the only thing worse than being killed by Apaches was being captured by them. He said there were plenty of stories of men in my position who made sure they had time to get off one final, fatal shot rather than risk being captured and tortured, often for days on end. I certainly hope I don’t wind up in that situation, especially because I’m not sure what I would, or could, do if I was faced with that decision.
I shake my head, clearing my mind so I can focus on the one thing I think I can control, at least partially—the Indian working his way toward me. About forty yards out, there is a huge ponderosa pine, and he’s going to have to circle around it. Since he doesn’t know if I’m dead, injured or able to fight, he won’t want to expose himself on the open trail side, so I shift my 1866 and aim chest high, just to the left of the tree, where I believe he’ll come out.
I’m right, and as he does, I slowly squeeze off a shot. It is the easiest—and most significant—shot I’ve ever taken. I hit him square in the chest, and he falls faster than my horse did. Before he hits the ground, I swing the rifle back to the right, hoping to catch his friend. I don’t see anything, but after a few moments, I hear an owl call from where I last saw the living Indian, and when there is no return call, I’m guessing his fears are confirmed. I don’t know how many Indians there are, but at least they’re down one and now they know I can fight.
What they don’t know is that the man I just killed is my first. If I’m fortunate enough to get out of this, I am almost certain it means I’ll have to kill at least one more. It’s one of those moments that requires thought, at least for me, but I don’t have that luxury now, and all I can hope for is the opportunity to once again light up a cigar, grab a cup of coffee from the fire I’m using to fight off the first chills of fall and study what it means to me to have taken a life, or two.
But I can’t think about that now any more than I can think about the fur trader’s warning. What I can think about, with all surprise gone and my position being the only one known, is grabbing my jacket, canteen and weapons and backing away from my horse. I know I’m nowhere near the woodsman the Indian is, but I manage to crawl back to the trees without drawing fire, which I consider a small victory.
I take cover behind two large pine trees, attention focused forward, hoping no one is sneaking up behind me. A quick assessment shows that I am well-armed with plenty of ammunition, have an almost full canteen and am uninjured. On the other hand, I am inexperienced in fighting Indians, unsure of how many are out there, horseless, and wearing boots definitely not made for quiet or walking. I am also getting cold, but since my jacket is on the wrong side of my horse and a fire seems like a bad idea, I’m just going to have to deal with it.
I don’t move for what seems like hours, but in reality, it has probably been about ten minutes. The last of the sunlight is filtering through the trees, and now the shadows make it almost impossible to differentiate a boulder or a tree from an enemy. Other than bad luck, the only two ways I can be found are by sight or sound. If I don’t move, I probably won’t be found, but I also might freeze to death, and I’ll be getting no closer to Estes Park, which I now realize is where I need to be heading.
I make a decision to plan and act as if there are two more Indians out there. I’m not sure why, but it just doesn’t feel like there’s only one left, and it strikes me that if they had started with more than three, their tactics would have already been different. I may be wrong, and I’ll adjust if I need to, but for now, one down and two to go.
The obvious answer is for me to find the dead Indian’s horse. However, if it’s that obvious to me, it has to be equally obvious to them, and so it’s very likely the horse is close by and being used as bait. As much as I want a horse, I decide not to risk the search. My direction was clear when I was attacked, which means so was my destination. If I thought I could survive by traveling in any other direction than the one they’ll suspect, I would certainly do so. However, with my lack of supplies and no horse, I have no choice but to try and fight my way to Estes Park. The sun is gone and the moon isn’t up yet, so it’s virtually black out here.
While I do want to head toward Estes Park, which is almost straight north, I decide to head west first, for maybe a mile or so, hoping to throw them off track. It turns out that first step is also the most difficult one I’ve ever taken. Somehow, it feels relatively safe to stay right where I am, not moving or making a sound. But logic tells me I have to take advantage of the total darkness, along with at least some doubt on their part regarding where I am and what my plan is. With one last look around, I slowly start heading west, making every effort to be quiet but feeling like every step is a dinner bell, calling in my attackers.
Denver feels forever ago, and now Salt Lake City seems impossibly far away. My entire world has been reduced to making it to Estes Park alive. When I left London a few months ago on my twenty-first birthday, having discovered that day that I had a father somewhere in the West, a man I didn’t know and had been led to believe by my protective mother had died long ago, I’m not sure what I anticipated, but this definitely wasn’t it. It seemed like a grand adventure, and I was certainly drawn by the thought of meeting my father, a man I learned from my uncle was a trapper and guide in the West and by now had been, if he was still alive, for almost thirty years.
The long sail across the Atlantic was an adventure, but not particularly dangerous. I spent some time in New York, which reminded me of stories I’d heard about a younger, rougher London but was still manageable for a man of my talents and experiences, my uncle having taught me well how to defend myself with fists, guns or knives. When I arrived in St. Louis, I started to see a rougher side of this part of the country, and by the time I got to Denver, I’d learned that trust is a valuable commodity, not to be given lightly and hard to earn. I also learned that a man has to stand alone and stand tall and strong, or he won’t last long. I saw more than one man killed over card game disputes and found myself in a couple of tough fights simply because my accent stood out and drew attention from the wrong people at the wrong time. But I learned from all of this, and with each passing week, I became better and better suited to survive and even thrive in a Western town.
But, a Western trail is different than a Western town, and now, I find myself almost completely out of my element, trusting my wits and hoping the stories I heard in Denver about Apaches being afraid to fight at night were true. The truth is that battling Indians to the death feels far different now than I imagined it would from the comfort of my stateroom on a trans-Atlantic sailing ship.
It normally takes me about fifteen minutes to walk a mile, even in the woods. However, having to stop every few minutes and listen for Indians and make every effort to be as quiet as I possibly can, I figure in the hour I’ve been walking since I left the trail, I’ve covered just about a mile, which still leaves me about ten miles south of Estes Park. I’ve heard no evidence that I’ve been followed, but every small sound, so innocent when sitting around a campground with a fire and a cup of bourbon, raises my hackles and my anxiety.
I stop and rest for a few minutes, trying to think what might happen next. I’m going to assume they’ve gone through my gear and know I don’t have a coat, and they would have also found my moccasins, so they know I’m walking in riding boots, both of which put me at a disadvantage. The only logical destination, especially since I’m on foot and there’s nothing else within a day’s walk, is Estes Park, so it makes sense that they’ll try and catch me before I get there or take advantage of being mounted and get in between me and there and wait for me. If I’m correct that there are two of them, they could be doing both.
Having sat long enough, hearing nothing and only getting colder, I turn north and start. Most of my attention is forward, since my best guess is they’ll lie in wait for me, as I believe now they were doing when I was first attacked. I will pay some attention to both sides and behind me, but focus on what’s in front of me. I need to kill the men who are trying to kill me, or avoid them for the next ten miles and roughly ten hours before I can reach the safety of Estes Park.
I’ve traveled a mile or so west of the trail, so my way north is through the forest, and I’m guided by the stars when I can see them and instinct when I can’t. It’s getting colder, but as long as I keep moving, I should be OK. I estimate I’ve traveled another hour and another mile when the moon starts to make itself known. This will no doubt make my walk easier, but assuming they haven’t given up, it will make their job easier as well.
Until this afternoon, I’ve lived my entire life under the rule of law, be it British or American. In my imperfect youth, there were indiscretions, minor, to be sure, but enough to require the involvement of the local constable. However, they were soon forgotten by my uncle, and with the passage of a little more time, even my mother forgave me for embarrassing the family, and so the only lasting impacts were lessons learned and a couple of funny stories, which I occasionally shared, but only when my mother was not in attendance.
When I landed in New York and moved on to St. Louis and Denver, my interactions with the law were more serious. Twice I was witness to a killing and called to testify. The first time, in St. Louis, was in a court of law and the man was acquitted. The second time, in Denver, I told my story to the sheriff while standing over the dead man and next to the shooter. He was hung two days later, in large part due to my testimony.
But out here, as I’ve had to quickly learn, there is no rule of law, only the rule of survival. I killed a man and the only repercussions, should I live through the night, will be mine. And I haven’t had time to figure out what those might be. As for the men hunting me, one has already paid the ultimate price. The other two, recognizing no authority but their own, are, in all likelihood, still trying to kill me. Should they succeed, I expect to be left here in this forest, scalped for a trophy and the rest of me left to feed the coyotes, with no one ever knowing what became of me and only a very few who will even wonder.
I’m guessing it’s been another three or four hours and maybe as many miles, and still no sign of the Indians. I’m beginning to allow myself to think they’ve lost my trail, or given up, though not so much so that I can begin to relax. The temperature continues to drop, but there is nothing I can do except to keep on walking. My mind wants to drift toward bourbon, coffee and a fire, but I do not have the luxury of thinking of anything other than how to cover the last few miles and hopefully see what has now become the most eagerly anticipated sunrise of my life. It is my fondest hope that they have either lost my trail or lost interest, but if that’s not the case, I am now fully resolved to kill without question or hesitation.
I’m following a game trail, using whatever moonlight filters down to the forest floor to help guide me and thankful for the bed of pine needles, which muffles the sound. My feet are beginning to ache, but again, I am left with no alternative other than to keep pushing forward toward Estes Park, toward safety.
I’ve been using occasional glimpses of what was once a faraway rising as a point of reference. The game trail drops down for maybe a half mile, leading into a tiny open meadow, and as I look past the valley and up toward the top of the rise, I catch my breath. Outlined against the moon, sits a solitary rider on a horse. He is about a hundred yards away and not moving. I quickly drop to my knees and pull the 1866 to the ready position, using the last trees before the meadow for cover. The one hundred yards is on the outside of the effective range for my 1866, but even if it wasn’t, the trees between me and the Indian don’t allow me a clean shot.
One question has been answered. I am still being followed. I am still being hunted. Another question presents itself. Why would he be sitting on top of that hill, outlined against the moon, easily seen, when he’s gone close to five or six hours and five or six miles without my even knowing for sure he was still hunting me?
It hits me why he’s sitting up there. He expects me to be exactly where I am. He hopes that I will take a shot, a risk he’s willing to take, because I am almost certain to miss, and when I do, I’ll have revealed my exact location. He’ll hold my attention, have me think I have the advantage, and when I reveal where I am, I’ll be attacked—not by him but by the second Indian, who I still believe is a part of this and, if I’m right, is hidden close by, waiting for the kill.
It might be because I’m tired. It might be because I’m cold. And it almost certainly has to do with my being scared. But I’m starting to get angry. It’s clear that they can track me, even when I’m doing my best to avoid them, so I have to think of something other than avoidance, another way of surviving. The answer is clear. I have to start hunting. And to do that, I have to start thinking like them.
Where would the second Indian be hidden? I don’t think he’s directly behind me. If he’d been following that closely, he could have attacked me at any time in the last couple of hours. There would be no reason to have set this trap. I don’t think he’s directly across the meadow from me. That would only have been effective if I had walked out into the open. And, having clearly set one Indian on top of the hill, knowing I'd see him, they expected me to stop and be right where I am now—which means he’s off to my left or my right, waiting.
With no way of knowing which way he might be, but feeling for the first time all night like I am hunting, rather than being hunted, I prepare. I set my rifle down, after emptying the ammunition, make sure my Bowie knife is loose and ready in its calf sheath, double check that my 1858 is fully loaded, liking the way it feels, turn toward the right, just because, and start. I trust that I’ll either be able to find my rifle again or, if this doesn’t go well, I won’t need it. But either way, I want both hands free for what I figure will be close-in fighting.
I’ve gone maybe twenty-five or thirty yards to the right, still able, with occasional quick glances, to see the one Indian sitting on his horse, seemingly not moving. But I know he can see me and that he also knows where the other Indian is waiting.
Somehow, I sense the attack an instant before it happens, before I even consciously realize it’s happening, and I’m able to pivot to my right enough to avoid being killed, but not enough to avoid being stabbed. Perhaps there was a sound that I reacted to, before knowing I’d heard it, or it might have been a hint of the unique smell that is Indian that triggered my reaction. But, whatever it was, it saved my life. At least temporarily.
The knife sliced through my left side, leaving a deep cut, but not the knife. The Indian is now on my left, and as I turn to face him, there is a brief moment where I might be able to get a shot off. But I don’t. As I turn, I purposely drop the 1858 in the pine needles, reach down and slowly pull out my Bowie knife. After a night of running, I’m ready for a fight, and while dropping the gun might not have been the most prudent move, it’s the right one for me. The Indian looks at me and gives an almost imperceptible nod and maybe even the slightest hint of a smile.
He drops into position, obviously an accomplished knife fighter. I do the same. My uncle spent countless hours teaching me the fundamentals, and maybe a little bit more, of knife fighting, so I may be better at this than he expects. We’re roughly the same height, which surprises me, but I have maybe thirty pounds on him. He’s clearly fresher, having been on horseback most of the night, is wearing warm clothing and, I’m assuming, has had access to food. I have no idea what the last Indian is going to do, but if he joins in before this fight is over, I’m probably done anyway, so I’m going to focus on the man in front of me and worry about the other if I survive this. My wound isn’t fatal, but it’s bleeding quite a bit, so my strength won’t last as long as it normally would. Since I’ve still got my boots on, he’ll no doubt be quicker on his feet. This leads me to a more defensive approach, trying to get him to make the first move, which it quickly becomes clear he is eager to do.
As many confident fighters do, he tries to end this early, feinting to his right, shifting, and coming across his body to my right. I shift easily, showing him some skills but not all, avoiding his attack and leaving him with a deep gash on his right forearm. His grunt lets me know he’s hurt, surprised or both, and when he turns to face me again, all hints of a smile are gone. He knew when he attacked that only one of us was leaving here alive. He now realizes for the first time that it isn’t necessarily going to be him.
His right arm is hurt, but not so much that he shifts the knife to his left. I do. I’m not quite as good with my left, but I’m good enough and I want to give him something to think about. I start to move forward, slowly, ready for his next move but wanting him to know I’m not scared and, at the same time, force him to give a little ground, which he does. He takes two steps back and uses a pine tree to protect his left side, which it does, but it also means he can’t move to his left. Almost imperceptibly, I move slightly to my left, increasing the angle between me, him and the tree. I take a quick half step and instantly move back, but I see that he, ever so slightly, started to move to his right, not forward or away, perhaps showing me a tendency.
Suddenly, he does shift to his right and takes a step forward, which I am ready for and move to meet, his right hand surprising me by sweeping in from the side and not thrusting from the middle. I’m able to pivot to my left and block his knife with mine, and for a moment, we’re frozen, our faces only inches apart. His eyes are as dark as the night and reveal nothing. His mouth is closed tight with the exertion of keeping me from disengaging. It’s clear he’s never been in a bar fight, so when my knee comes up, hard, to his groin, the look on his face is one of surprise and agony. In that moment, I slip my right hand away from his and drive my ten-inch Bowie knife as far and deep into his gut as I can. Hours of tension, fear and anger go into the thrust, and I know, as I jerk the knife upward, that I’ve killed him. He knows it too. With more effort than I would have imagined necessary, I withdraw the knife and let him fall, still breathing, but with no fight, or very much time, left.
And then, in the most surprising thing of all, I throw my head back and let out a primal scream, as long and loud as I can, releasing the last bit of tension in my body and letting the remaining Indian know who won and that it’s now down to the two of us. No need for any unanswered owl calls this time. I look around and, seeing no movement, walk slowly over to pick up my 1858, lean back against a tree, and slide down until I’m sitting, catching my breath and watching the Indian die, which he does, silently, in only a couple of minutes.
The bleeding has started again, so I know I need to do something. Looking at the now dead Indian, I see the answer to a number of my problems. I get up, though not easily, walk over, and strip him of his vest and shirt. I shred the shirt with my knife and use it to make bandages. Not exactly sterile, but the best option available, and it does stop the bleeding, though not the pain. I slip on the vest, and while it’s a little tight, it fits well enough and I am rewarded immediately with warmth. The last thing I do is remove his moccasins, and I’m pleased to find they fit.
It’s after midnight and I’ve got close to five miles to go before reaching Estes Park. My feet are sore, but the moccasins will help. The wound hurts, but it’s bandaged and not fatal. I’m hungry and tired, but there’s nothing I can do about that. But I’m warm for the first time tonight, and having killed two of the three Indians, I feel the best I’ve felt since the first shot was fired.
I decide not to go back for my rifle. In these woods, if the last Indian and I do meet, I will need my 1858, or we’ll be hand-to-hand fighting, and I want to be fully ready for either. I love that rifle, but can’t afford to carry it and would be very happy to live long enough to have to buy another.
I make three more decisions. First, no more effort will be wasted trying to be quiet. Even with the moccasins, I’m not very good at it, and it’s a waste of focus and energy. Second, as tired and hungry as I am, and with the loss of blood, I could get weak fast, so I’m pointing straight north and straight to Estes Park. No more attempts to lose him. Last, I may still be hunted, but now I’m hunting as well.
I look up at the rise and there he is, sitting on that horse as if he had nothing better to do and not a care in the world. I’m guessing I’ve got about four miles to go and about four hours until dawn. My original plan had been to camp just about where this all started, get up early and ride into Estes Park for a nice big breakfast. Now my plan is to walk into Estes Park, just about the same time I would have ridden in, and still have that nice big breakfast—and maybe a visit with the town doc. I allow myself a moment—no more—to imagine some scrambled eggs, fried ham, biscuits and jam, and about a gallon of hot coffee.
I figure the fastest way to make that happen is through that meadow and through that Indian. Gun drawn, hoping he doesn’t have any better chance of hitting me from that distance than I did him, I leave the relative safety of the forest and start walking out into the open. The moccasins feel great on my feet, and as I look up, I see that Indian ride off the back side of the rise. He didn’t appear to be in any particular hurry, but he wasn’t going to wait for me either. I cross the meadow quickly, climb to where he sat and look around. I don’t see or hear anything, but I haven’t heard or seen him all night, except when he wanted me to. Still worked up from the fight and tired of hiding, I aim my 1858 at the moon and take a shot. I want to let that Indian know I’m here, right where he sat, no longer afraid—which isn’t completely true—but ready to fight if that’s what he wants.
I wait a few minutes, and when he doesn’t come back, I replace the spent shell and start walking—wounded, hungry, tired and scared and feeling more alive than I can ever remember.
My statement made, as much for me as for him, and having calmed down a bit, I decide that’s the last time tonight I’ll expose myself to a rifle shot, and I start keeping to the thick section of trees. However, not worrying about every little sound I might make allows me to move much faster, and I quickly establish a steady pace that I hope to hold for the next few hours.
But I can’t. After almost two hours of uneventful walking, during which I saw no sign of the Indian, I can feel myself slowing down. The bleeding, while slow, has started again, and it’s taking a toll on my strength. I decide to take a small break, using a rock outcropping for cover. I remove the bandages and use the rest of the dead Indian’s shirt to make one last set. I tighten them as much as I can and have to hope they work for another couple of hours.
After about fifteen minutes, I pull myself up and head out. In less than an hour, still not yet having seen the Indian, I stumble across a trail, heading north. My best guess is that this is the same trail I was riding when all of this started, and it means I’ve been going in the right direction.
I don’t actually step onto the trail, not wanting to expose myself. I look down trail first and can see a fair distance because of the moonlight, which is overhead and unobstructed here by trees. I don’t see anything out of the ordinary. But when I turn and look up trail, in the direction I need to go, there he is. Sitting on that horse in the middle of the trail, maybe two hundred yards away, just as still as he was back on the rise. I don’t know if he’s been following me all this time and just now circled around and rode ahead, or if he knew my path was going to cross the trail here and he’s been waiting patiently.
I do know that I’m almost spent. The bandages are soaked and I’ve nothing left to replace them. The pain has become constant. I’m having trouble focusing, and I know I have very little strength left. The vest has helped, but the cold is intense, I’m shivering, which is never a good sign, and I have to keep working my hands to keep them gun ready. I figure I’ve got less than two hours to go to get to Estes Park, but my confidence is fading with my strength.
Without noticing that I had sat down, I find myself sitting, leaning against a pine and looking up trail. He still hasn’t moved. He’s looking down trail and I know that, somehow, he knows exactly where I am, but he makes no move toward me. He has to have some idea as to the condition I’m in, so I don’t understand why he hasn’t attacked.
Afraid that I’ll fall asleep if I sit any longer, I reach up to a tree branch above my head and very slowly pull myself up. I can feel the bandages pull and the bleeding, which had stopped for a while, start up again. I stumble the first couple of steps and realize I’m not going to be able to negotiate the uneven ground of the forest for the final push, so I step out onto the trail—ready to face whatever is going to happen. My 1858 is still in my hand. I look up to see him still sitting there, and I start walking. I cover half the distance between us before he moves, not toward me, but back into the forest, into the darkness. I stop again and try to clear my head, to understand what’s happening and what my options are.
If I stop now, I’ll either die from the cold and the wound, or be killed, but I won’t make it to Estes Park. I don’t have the strength left to walk the rest of the way through the forest, which doesn't really matter because he always seems to know where I am anyway, so I’m left with walking straight up this trail and doing the best I can when he finally does attack. I know now he’ll never allow himself in pistol range, so I trade my 1858 for the Bowie knife and start walking again—right down the middle of the trail.
I’ve been walking for about an hour since I last stopped. The pain is now coming in waves, and tired has turned to exhaustion. A small tree root is all it takes to trip me up, and I hit the ground hard, losing my grip on my Bowie knife, which bounces away, and at the same time, reopening the wound. Knowing if I stay down I’m done, no help necessary from the Indian, I force myself to my knees and then manage to stand up. When I raise my head and look up trail, there he is. Again, he’s out of pistol range, so I don’t bother pulling, and again, he’s not moving.
The sunrise is still a bit off, but predawn has started, and for the first time I can start to see the outline of his face. He looks strong and impassive, and he has to know that unless I get off a lucky shot, I’m his for the taking. But still, he doesn’t move.
Seeing no alternative, I start to slowly and painfully move forward, toward my enemy, toward Estes Park and toward my future. Afraid I’ll fall again if I try to pick up my Bowie knife, I leave it where it fell. This time, he doesn’t pull off of the trail, but instead starts to slowly walk his horse, not toward me, as I would have thought—and feared—but away from me and toward Estes Park. Not understanding, but with no options, I holster my 1858, or maybe I drop it, and I keep walking.
For the next hour, I drift in and out of consciousness, but I keep walking, head down, following the trail. I must have stumbled a couple of times, because the knees on my pants are torn and bloody, but I don’t remember. I don't see the Indian again, but somehow, I know he is there. I am as weak as a kitten, so the only reason I’m alive is because he has decided to not kill me, at least not yet.
I crest a hill just as dawn turns to sunrise, and when I look down the hill, about a half mile away, there’s Estes Park. As it registers that I might make it, I fall for one last time, unable to get up, unable to even move. The last thing I hear is what I had feared for hours—gunshots.
I wake up to what I assume is a dream, or maybe heaven. It is still sunrise, but I’m lying in a bed. I look under the sheets and see fresh bandages. I look around and notice there is a pitcher of water and a glass. I reach for it, and the pain lets me know this isn’t heaven. But it sure isn’t the trail either. As I pour myself a glass of water, a man walks in.
“Good to see you’re awake. Wasn’t sure that was going to happen. My name’s Woodrow McCrae, but everyone calls me Doc.”
I take a sip of water, introduce myself and ask how I got here.
“You’re in Estes Park. Two mornings ago, right at sunrise, we heard gunshots down trail. A few of us saddled up and headed out. We've been having troubles with Apaches lately and feared they were attacking one of the farmers. As we rode out, sitting up on top of that little hill outside of town was a big ol’ Indian. Just sitting there like he owned the trail.
“As we rode toward him, he seemed to wait until we were just getting into rifle range when he turned and rode away. Didn’t seem to be in a big hurry, but we never did find him. What we did find was you, lying near dead in the middle of the trail. Cut up and wounded, half dressed like an Indian and closer to death than most men ever get without actually dying.
“Your holster and sheath were empty, and we had to burn all your clothes. Didn’t find anything in your pockets. So Mr. Clemons, you’re lying here pretty much the same way you came into the world, buck naked and not a thing to your name. But, you’re alive.”
He started to turn and walk away and quickly turned back. He bent down and reached for something beneath the bed. As he was standing back up, he said, “Well, I guess you don't have nothin’. When we found you, you did have your hand on this.”
And with that, he hands me my Winchester 1866.
** The End **