Western Short Story
The hot summer sun was high in the Sonoran sky, and two men were bathed in its radiation. One was naked and lay spread-eagled upon the ground, his hands and feet tied to stakes driven into the hard surface. The other man was standing at his side with crossed arms.
It was time for the lone survivor of a Mexican Army patrol to die. This was his third day tied to the stakes, and an occasional gurgling sound was the only indication that he was still alive.
Six Toes uncrossed his arms and stared at the dying Mexican. Having grown tired of this man and his torture, he deftly cut his throat and took his scalp. He tied the scalp onto a line that held seven others. “Now you are all together once again,” he said to himself.
Eight men had come hunting the renegade called Six Toes. They were confident in their own skills and thought he would be easy to capture or kill.
One day after entering his territory, they became the hunted ones. In just two days, he killed all but the leader, who he saved for special treatment.
He looked into the eyes of each victim before death arrived. He enjoyed watching the spark of life fade as they clouded over. He was owed an immense debt, and he was collecting on it, one life at a time.
His own eyes showed no spark of life, only a dull emptiness that reflected the darkness enveloping his soul that was created by deep sorrow. It was a sorrow that was not eased by the lives he had taken, although it had become more bearable.
Six Toes was a Yaqui warrior with an intense hatred for the Mexican Army. He had been baptized at a Sonoran mission and was a peaceful man who had taken up residence nearby. The padre at the mission was a kind man who took care of almost a hundred Yaquis. They farmed the lands around the mission and lived uneventful lives.
Six Toes, born with an extra toe on each foot, had been ridiculed as a child and spent most of his time alone in the Sonoran mountains around his home. He got to know them better than his own village. A short, stocky man with a broad face who could not run fast, he could run at a steady pace for hours. His stamina was exceptional.
He found love after thirty winters alone. She was visiting his village to see a dying relative and had gotten lost. Six Toes had stumbled across her as she sat along an old game trail. She lived near the mission and was unfamiliar with the Sonoran mountains.
She spent three months in the village, caring for her sick relative. During that time, Six Toes was able to show her the beauty of the mountains, and they became close friends. When the time came to return to the mission, he accompanied her and decided to stay.
He was baptized by the padre and married the woman he had come to know and love. Little Bird and Six Toes worked at farming a small patch of maize. He toiled hard at it but missed the mountains. He often disappeared for a day or two, returning with fresh meat to supplement their meager rations.
He was content with his life, and Little Bird made him a happy man. He was cheerful to be around, and the other Yaquis appreciated the meat he would share with them. When he discovered that Little Bird was pregnant, his cheerfulness knew no bounds.
It all came to an end when an army patrol came by the mission. They had been fighting some Yaquis in the mountains near the mission. A few of the soldiers were wounded, and three dead men were draped across their horses. The men were angry and had lost their commander.
When they left the mission, Six Toes lay in front of the chapel with a bullet in his chest. Little Bird was still conscious but bleeding from a severe beating. Other Yaquis lay scattered across the mission’s courtyard, a mix of dead and injured men and women.
Six Toes regained consciousness inside the chapel. The padre stood next to him and explained how he could not remove the bullet. It was too close to his heart. Then he went on to tell him that Little Bird had lost their baby and bled to death.
In his grief and anger, Six Toes forced himself to stand. He collapsed back onto his cot. He lay there for three days, not saying a word and refusing to eat. On the morning of the fourth day, he was gone. He had staggered away during the night, leaving the mission for the mountains. He was resolved to have his revenge.
Six Toes disappeared into the Sonoran mountains, and the padre thought he must have died.
A year later, the padre discovered that Six Toes was still alive. He found him standing beside the grave of Little Bird behind the chapel.
Six Toes was a changed man. He carried a rifle on a sling over his shoulder. A wide belt held a holster with an old Colt Army Revolver and a sheath with the handle of a long knife protruding from its top.
When he saw the padre, a wave of recognition crossed his face. It was quickly erased and replaced with a blank expression and hardness around his eyes.
Six Toes looked away from the padre and walked over to his horse. Instead of mounting, he took three scalps from a bag tied to a saddle. Walking back to the graveside, he knelt and buried the three scalps in the center of the slight mound marking where his wife lay.
Upon standing, he looked the padre in the eyes and said, “Scalps must stay here. I will not rest until all who kill her have their scalps with these.”
The padre reached out to Six Toes and said, “Revenge is wrong, my son. You must leave such a thing to God in Heaven. You desecrate her grave with these scalps.”
“You touch scalps. I will burn your house and feed your body to the coyotes.”
The padre stepped back and crossed himself while Six Toes mounted his horse and rode away from the mission.
As Six Toes rode away, an army patrol approached the mission from the opposite direction. There were eight men on horseback who were hunting a Yaqui renegade named Six Toes. He had been killing soldiers and Federales throughout Sonora. Since he was acting alone, eight men plus any scouts they can enlist from the mission should be more than enough to complete their task.
The patrol stayed at the mission for half a day before leaving without any scouts. Five days later, Six Toes returned to bury their leader’s scalp on his wife’s grave. It was the sixth and most crucial scalp of them all. This scalp came from the man who had shot him in the chest and beaten his wife to death. Now she could rest in peace.
Six Toes sat cross-legged by Little Bird’s grave and thought about what he would do now that his wife was avenged.
While he sat there, he heard the padre approaching. As the monk stood beside him, they were approached by several of the Yaquis who lived near the mission. They all stood silently, just watching.
A short time passed before Six Toes reached a decision. He stood and said, “My wife and child are now at peace. I will leave this place and will never return. I go north to live with our people in the land called Arizona.”
One of the Yaquis stepped forward and clasped his arm. He said, “No one will disturb Little Bird and the gifts you have given her and your child. We will always have space for you in our lodges should you decide to return.”
The padre remained silent and was left standing by himself as the Yaquis turned away. When everyone had left, he decided to remove the scalps from the grave. They were a blasphemy.
When he started to dig into the freshly turned soil that marked the place of the most recent scalp, an arrow hit him in the middle of his back, and he fell across the grave. Three Yaquis silently walked to where he lay and picked him up. They buried him near the edge of the little graveyard.
Six Toes was unaware of the padre’s death. He was in no hurry and slowly rode along a backtrail through the Sonoran mountains. He was moving steadily toward the north and the border. He planned to take his time and reach the United States in a week or two. He loved these mountains and hated to leave, but it was time. There were too many painful memories, and the ghosts of the men he had killed wandered through them.
Besides the six scalps he had given to Little Bird, he carried twenty-two more in a sack tied to his saddle. He had no lodge where he could display these scalps. Six Toes did not care if others knew how many Mexicans he had killed. They were all scalps from soldiers and Federales. Most had bravely died while others cried like babies. Not one of these scalps was from a woman or child. Before he crossed the border, he would destroy the scalps in a fire.
Eventually, Six Toes crossed into Arizona and headed in the direction of a place called Tucson. He planned to avoid the town and search for his people in the country to its south.
He was passing through the lands of the Papago, desert farmers, when he was struck in the back by an arrow. When it hit, he fell from his horse and scrambled into some brush alongside the trail.
The arrow had hit the stock of his rifle. He pulled it out and prepared to hunt the man who fired it. The arrow was an Apache one, which meant the shooter would be well hidden and stealthy. He was surprised when he saw the Apache dash out from behind some rocks and approach his position. He must have thought the arrow had done some damage and was coming to finish him off.
He aimed his rifle at the onrushing man’s chest and squeezed the trigger. Sudden pain in his chest caused him to flinch and threw off his aim. The bullet hit the Apache in his shoulder, making him spin around and fall to the ground. Six Toes pushed another cartridge into the rifle’s chamber and stood as the spasms in his chest subsided. “That bullet close to my heart will kill me one day,” he thought to himself.
The Apache appeared to be acting alone. He sat in the middle of the trail clutching his shoulder. No one had rushed to his aid.
Six Toes was curious about this lone Apache warrior. Since they always traveled in packs, being attacked by one alone was very unusual.
Cautiously approaching the wounded man, Six Toes kept scanning the rocks and shrubs in all directions. There was no activity anywhere.
When he reached the wounded man, he stopped just outside of an arm’s length. Before he could say a word, the Apache suddenly jumped to his feet. He swung a previously hidden knife at Six Toes’ midsection.
Ready for anything, Six Toes avoided the sudden attack and hit the man’s injured shoulder with his rifle butt. The impact made the injured man pivot awkwardly and allowed Six Toes to whack him on the side of the head, all in one concise movement. The warrior fell to the ground, unconscious.
Six Toes grabbed the man’s hair and pulled upward, placing the edge of his scalping knife against his hairline. Then, sighing, he released the handful of hair and put his knife away.
It was late in the afternoon when the injured Apache suddenly opened his eyes and sat up. His shoulder was wrapped with a dirty bandage. The bullet had gone all the way through without hitting any bone. Six Toes had packed both holes with dirt and a little moss from his bag before wrapping the wound.
When the Apache started to stand, Six Toes said, “Stay sitting. I let you keep your scalp so we can talk.”
Startled, the Apache stopped trying to rise. He turned around and looked up at Six Toes, who was standing a short distance behind him.
“You speak my language,” He said.
“I spend time with Apache family in Sonora many years ago. I learn some of it then, along with other things about the Apache.”
Then Six Toes continued, “Why you alone so far from Apache land?”
The Apache looked him in the eyes and said, “I was made to leave my village. We have fight with soldiers, and I was sent to warn village. Chief who sent me was killed, and I was called coward who ran away.”
“Why you try to kill me?”
“My horse die, and you not my people. I want to take your horse.”
Six Toes started to say something, but the Apache continued, “I am called Restless One and of the Tonto Apache. My people live near Sierra Ancha on the Rio Salado.
“I have no fight with Apache. I still have my horse, so I not take your scalp this day. When sun come up, you go.”
“I stay here. My people no want me, and I am alone.”
Six Toes knew what it was like to be alone. He had been on his own for much of his own life. The past year was the loneliest year of all. He felt some sympathy for Restless One.
He tossed a piece of pemmican to the Apache and said, “We speak again in the morning. Tonight, we rest.”
The two men were settling in for the night as the sun set in the west. Before darkness took over, they heard a wagon coming along the little-used trail where Six Toes had been attacked. They were safe since they were well-hidden by large boulders and had not started a fire.
The travelers with the wagon had no idea that anyone was within a hundred miles of their location. There were five men, all Comancheros and one Apache woman.
The men were loud and careless. They had captured the woman several days earlier after killing and scalping the old couple traveling with her. They had been traveling fast since they took her, and the old wagon was about ready to fall apart. Apache territory was behind them, and they felt safe. In the morning, they would take time to do some repairs on the wagon and be back on the trail by noon. The following day should see them in Mexico.
The woman, an Apache named White Star, was kept tied up in the wagon and freed for short spells to prepare food or make her toilet. Tonight, they would have some time to get to know her better. They planned on being careful and not damaging her. She would bring a nice pouch of gold from a particular person in Sonora.
While two of the men started a cooking fire, another tied White Star to one of the wagon’s wheels. When the fire was going, the men gathered around it and started arguing over her. Meanwhile, the leader watched over the proceedings.
Six Toes watched the Comancheros and thought to himself, “Five fools who would be easy to kill. Since they have nothing I want, I will let them live.”
He started to back away but stopped when he saw the leader approach the woman. She was not one of his people, but he wondered what was about to happen. He was curious.
She spat on the man’s boot. He reached down and slapped her so hard that Six Toes heard the impact. Seeing the Comanchero hit the woman brought back a buried memory. Maybe these men needed to die after all.
As these thoughts went through Six Toes’ mind, Restless One suddenly appeared by his side. The man moved like a ghost. He whispered, “That woman is from my village. Comancheros take her to Mexico to sell.”
“They go nowhere,” Six Toes replied.
The two men silently backed away and returned to their camp. Six Toes hung his rifle back over his shoulder and took a bow and quiver of arrows from his blanket roll. Then he looked at Restless One and said, “You stay here. You no can use a bow, so you cannot help.”
“My right arm works, and I can still swing a hatchet or war club.”
Tossing a hatchet to the Apache, Six Toes said, “We go now and kill them when it is dark.”
The two men returned to their hidden spot and watched the camp. It had become dark, but the fire still burned brightly. One man stood watch at the edge of the light cast by the fire while the others sat near the fire, passing a jug of whiskey around. White Star was still tied to the wagon wheel.
The lone guard walked into the darkness as if on patrol and came within twenty feet of the two watching warriors. When an argument broke out among the men at the fire, the noise covered the bow’s twang as Six Toes fired an arrow into his throat.
The man fell to the ground with just a slight gurgling sound as the Comancheros’ leader broke up the argument by the fire and staggered over to White Star. He pulled out a knife and cut her loose while keeping her ankles tied together.
Before she could react, he pushed her face down into the dirt and started to tie her hands behind her back. The arrow that hit him between his shoulder blades was a complete surprise. He dropped his knife and grabbed at the arrow shaft. As he struggled, White Star grabbed the knife and plunged it into his stomach.
By the time the others realized they were under attack, Six Toes and Restless One were among them. Gunshots were fired, but they were poorly aimed and fired in fright. The three remaining Comancheros never had a chance.
Restless One had rushed the men as Six Toes shot an arrow into the back of their leader. By the time Six Toes had joined him, Restless One had split one skull with his hatchet and was chasing another past the fire. The third man had run directly into Six Toes and fell with a Knife wound to his chest.
Six Toes stood cleaning his knife on a piece of the dead man’s shirt as Restless One walked into the firelight carrying a scalp. He acknowledged the Apache with a nod of his head. Before he could say anything, White Star walked over to him and held out a fresh scalp.
She said, “This belong to you. Thank you for saving my life.”
Six Toes said, “I wounded him. You took his life, so it is yours. Besides, I have two others.”
Restless One cleared his throat, and White Star turned to him, saying, “You are the one called a coward. You are Restless One.”
He started to turn away but stopped when she said, “You are no coward. You attacked these men with one good arm and only a hatchet. You also save my life.”
As she spoke to Restless One, Six Toes went over to search the wagon for anything of value. He discovered a sack containing several scalps. White Star saw him lift it and rushed over to his side. She said, “Two of those are from my parents, and the rest are from others of my people.”
Six Toes handed the sack to White Star, who walked over to sit near Restless One by the dying fire. He said to her, “My wound has started to bleed once again. I will rest tonight, and tomorrow I will return you to your people.”
“I will bind your wound, and we will go to our people together. I will tell them your story.”
Six Toes had finished going through the wagon and stood behind them. “I will go with you. When you return with White Star and four horses, they will no longer call you coward.”
“You would not take these horses?”
“White Star needs a horse to ride, and I already have a good horse and need no other. You take these weapons and bullets with you. They make Comancheros be less of a problem for your people.”
As the sun rose the following day, the small party moved away from the fight scene and its gathering of circling vultures. Two of the extra horses packed weapons and supplies from the dead Comancheros and their burning wagon.
Six Toes led the two packhorses as he followed Restless one and White Star. He did not know where his path would lead, but perhaps having some Apache friends would make it a mite easier.