“Your Pa’s not comin’ home,” Wes growled. “He’s probably dead by now...
A Village With No Name
Bree sniffed and wiped her eyes with sand, stained hands. “Be careful,” she told her brother as he crept on all fours to the cave entrance. “He might still be out there.”
Tim didn’t stop, nor did he look back, but carefully parted the brush he had placed over the entrance and leaned out over the narrow stone ledge, his eyes momentarily blinded by the bright glow of the noon sun. The path below him was empty, but the flowing clatter from the creek as it passed over the loose rocks blocked the rustling sound of the undergrowth above his head.
“Got ya, ya little bugger!” Wes’ voice came like the boom of thunder, and he grabbed at Tim’s hair, jerking his head upward. Sliding down from his vantage point, Wes pulled the young boy forcefully out through the opening.
Tim’s little body tightened instantly. His head hurt at the hair roots, and his pale, blue-green eyes watered from the pain. “Let me go,” he shrieked. “My Pa will —”
“Your Pa’s not comin’ home,” Wes growled. “He’s probably dead by now, shot by Mister Kane.” Wes shifted his hold from Tim's hair to the back of the boy’s shirt and then dabbed at the blood that still trickled down the side of his lean stubbled cheek.
“He’s not dead!” Tim burst out. “You’ll see, he’ll be here soon.”
“Mebe, mebe not.” Wes tightened his hold on Tim. “Stop jumpin’ around like a jackrabbit, ya little good-for-nothin’,” he ordered. “You’re comin’ back with me to the house. I’ll come back later for your sister. She owes me for hittin’ me in the face with that tree swin’.”
Tim twisted and wiggled like a wild thing, driven by a new torrent of energy and jumbled thoughts “Leave her alone,” he shouted. “My Pa will shoot you if you touch my sister.” He punched at the air as he tried to turn to face Wes, but Wes' grip at the back of his collar held firm. Suddenly Tim’s voice rose to a high pitch — almost a chilling scream. “Crawl in deeper, Bree! He won't reach you there!”
“I’ll get her even if I have to dig away half the bank by hand,” said Wes, as he forced the young boy before him down the embankment to the creek-path.
When they reached the high ground above the creek, Tim twisted his bottom lip between his thumb and forefinger and forcibly sucked in a large amount of air: the shrieked-whistle carrying clear across the open ground. His young mind raced with the speed of a child’s merry-go-round, twisting his every thought as they darted through his head. He didn’t know if Dicky or the four horses were still alive, trapped in the corral. Forcefully he clenched his eyes shut and sucked in another large amount of air.
He was the first to hear the rolls of Dicky’s hooves as he charged up from the creek where it flowed through the land below the barn. Tim turned to the approaching sound, and his little heart lightened. “Now you’ll get it —!” he shouted up at Wes, his face screwed up against the glare of the cloud-speckled sky.
A tall beast, almost fifteen hands, lean, but broad at the shoulders moved like the shadow of a wind-driven cloud across the earth, dirt-brown and menacing. Dicky didn’t alter his stride but charged into Wes with such force, that Wes tumbled through the air landing heavily in a heap on his back.
Tim lost his footing also, but scrambled quickly back to his feet, yelling; “Keep him down, Dicky. Keep him down till Pa comes.”
Tim was halfway up to the house when he heard a pistol discharge. He turned in mid-stride, almost falling as he stumbled to a halt. Blood ran from Dicky’s right shoulder, and he watched in horror as his friend dropped to his front knees whinnying indignantly. But in a flash, Dicky regained his footing and rose above Wes, forcibly paddling his front legs through the air. Wes raised his gun again, his finger nervously searching for the trigger arch. “Sam! Sam! Help me, Sam!” he bellowed. But in his panic he dropped the pistol and rose onto his elbows, digging his heels deep into the earth pushing himself away from the mule, but Dicky towered over him and brought his hoof crashing down onto the side of Wes' head, slicing deep into the skin and bone, killing him instantly.
Above the sound of Dicky’s neighing and nickering, Tim heard his Pa’s voice. “Over here, boy!” he called. “Are you all right?”
Tim didn’t stop running until he reached his Pa’s side. He wrapped his little arms around his Pa’s legs and squeezed them tightly. Looking up, he puffed through a choked breath; “Wes shot Dicky, Pa. He’s hurt bad. You must look at him. Please, Pa.”
“He’ll be fine,” said Evans. Showing concern for his son he pulled him closer but held back a little before he asked; “Have you seen your, Ma and Bree, boy?”
The events of the day had become too much for Tim, and his eyes began to tear up again. The short puffs of air he drew choked his chest and rocked his small, bony shoulders. “Bree ... she's in my cave, Pa.”
Evans sighed a long slow breath and then urged his son further. “Have you seen, Ma? I can’t find her anywhere.”
“Ma was fighting, Sam.” Tim flared his nostrils and sniffed again. “She told me to run, Pa … and take Bree with me.”
“You did good, boy,” said his Pa. “Is Bree hurt?”
Tim swayed his small head. “No, Pa,” he sniveled and rubbed his snotty nose.”
Evans went quiet, breathing heavily, but still smiling down at his son. “Let's fetch her,” he said finally. “Then we’ll go together to find your Ma.”
“No, Mayor,” Gideon interjected. “Go back to the house. Your wife must be in there somewhere. I’ll go with your son to find your daughter.”
Tim tensed his little body fleetingly, and a small gasp came up through his throat as he slipped to the safety behind his Pa’s legs.
The fear that showed on the young boy’s face made Jackson step forward. “He doesn't know you, Mister Gideon,” he said and placed a large callous hand on Tim’s shoulder. “Come. I’ll go with you to fetch your sister.”
Evans watched his son stop at Dicky’s side and embrace the muzzle of the large animal to his chest, affectionally stroking his long burly neck while Jackson inspected the wound in his shoulder. Then they were off again with Dicky following, limping gawkily behind them.
As Evans turned and started for the house, a villager called out to him; “Señor, Evans! Come quickly!”
When Evans and Gideon reached the smoldering shed, the villager pointed to a body lying half-hidden among the ashes. Evans let out a wild scream; “Beth …!” and was ankle-deep in the burning ashes before Gideon caught up with him and pulled him from the immense heat.
“Are you sure it’s your wife?” Gideon asked, leading Evans away from the gruesome sight. “It could be anyone.”
Evans felt the heavy pain of desolation grip his chest as he turned, looking back over his shoulder through tear-drenched eyes. The four villagers were now poking at the ashes with fallen, scorched poles trying to clear a path to the charred body. “It’s Beth —” he sobbed bitterly. “I … I know my wife.” His legs suddenly collapsed from under him, but Gideon caught his fall and laid him gently to the ground. He was shaking violently.
“Where are your staff?” Gideon asked, and Evans blinked and wiped the tears from his eyes.
“Our two ranch hands are riding the fence lines.” His words rose from his chest like a funneled breeze. “And, Bessy … our housemaid has Sundays off.” He stopped to wipe at his tears again and then buried his head deep beneath his arms, his body rocking back and forth in his grief. “The son-of-a-bitch killed my wife, Gideon. Kane told Sam to burn down the barn and sheds and to rough up my boy a bit. But this —?”
“I’ll make him pay for what he’s done,” said Gideon. “I’ll make him pay for your loss, and for the suffering, he’s caused the villagers. Now, there’s nothing you can do here, Mayor. Let me walk you up to the house. You must go to your children. They will need you now.”
When Gideon returned to the barn, the four villagers had already retrieved the body, and it now lay on the ground in the shade a few yards from the barn. Gideon had seen death before and even that of a child, but he had never seen a charred body and the stench of it made him sick to his stomach. Her charred clothing had fused to her tacky, congealing flesh, and her once long hair now singed to short crusted lumps. The face was unrecognizable. The eyes had melted; the sockets now blemished and without sight and sunk away into her head like a dark void of a smoldering pit. The skin of her nose had peeled back revealing twisted blobs of sinew and scorched bone, and her mouth gaped with puffed charred lips and little droplets of her fat still bubbled at the corners of her mouth.
“It’s Mrs. Evans!” a villager stated firmly. “Que Dios esté con ella.” He made the sign of the cross over his chest and then raised his clenched fingers to the sky. “You must make Sam pay for his evil crimes.”
Before Gideon could respond, another villager shouted; “Señor, over there!” He pointed to a dozen men gathering on the east ridge. “Señor Kane is up there!”
Gideon turned in the direction the man pointed. A group of riders had cleared the tree line and were now making their way up to the crest of the ridge. “Dang!” Gideon cursed. “How did Kane get out of jail?”
The same villager thrust his shoulder forward, forcing his outstretched arm a little further. “Indians!” he shouted again.
“Sam has many Indian friends, and they are bad like him,” said another returning from the barn with two empty meal sacks. His voice, unconcerned by the Indian’s presence. Carefully he placed the meal sacks over the body of Beth Evans. When he straightened again, he looked up at Gideon and added boldly; “He rides with them when they’re rustling cattle and burning out the settlers to the south of here. He is a bad man, Señor. The devil rides with that one.”
Just then Evans appeared on the high ground above the house riding hard towards the gathering men, his rifle thrust at arm's length above his head, and Gideon guessed that he had taken the spare rifle from his study as he was without a weapon when he had ridden into the village with Kane.
“You fool!” bellowed Gideon. His eyes had taken on a wild, startled glare, his words ragged and overloud. Then he was silent with his fingers clamped tightly together at the back of his neck. His face a picture of dejection.
“You must go after him, Señor,” a villager called, his hand punching into empty air.
“They will kill him if you don’t.” another called.
“Yes,” offered another, “Stop him, Señor. He’s riding to his,” he paused to catch his breath and then spat out the word at Gideon, “death.”
“No, hermanos. No!” Cut in the villager who had laid the meal sacks over Beth Evans. “He must wait for Jackson. Señor Gideon can not ride out there alone.”
In the short silence afterward, Gideon turned on his heels and whistled for Hoss. She responded immediately, and when she settled at his side, he stuffed his boot into the stirrup and flung his leg over the saddle. With a tight rein, he steadied the mare.
“Tell Jackson to follow me,” he ordered and spurred Hoss to her fullest stride.
Evans had a two-hundred yards start and was fast approaching the east ridge. Gideon knew his horse was faster than most and guessed he would have enough time to catch Evans before his horse carried him into the tree line.
Gideon charged across the open lawn toward the white-washed fence that formed the outer perimeter of the living area. Hoss didn’t hesitate but took the obstacle in her stride with Gideon raised from her back to the arch of her pose.
His charge after the mayor was without thought, spurred on by the concerned cries from the villagers, but now his mind was racing: What am I doing …? Turn and ride away. Their troubles are not mine. Why should I care what Kane does? Let the sheriff stand up to Kane and revenge the death of the mayor’s wife. In his imagination, Gideon heard the deep bell of Kane’s laughter and the terrorizing whoop and hollers from Sam’s Indian friends. For his wife and his land, Gideon would have given his life — but for someone else. A cold, deathly spike shot up his back and burst across his shoulders, and he raised his face to the sky shouting; “If I should die this day, I’ll be with you, my love. I have no regrets. I’ll make you proud of me.” And he bit down hard on his teeth and charged on toward the tree line.
Evans’ horse was quicker than Gideon had thought. Before he reached the tree line, Evans had passed through the band of trees and was halfway up the ridge making a steady pace through the stunted grass and sagebrush, scattered here and there with large wind-blown boulders.
When Gideon reached the crest, a volley of gunfire ripped at his senses. He pulled hard on the reins, dismounted, slapped Hoss on the rump sending her for the cover of the trees, and started down the slope at a steady sidestep. Where two large boulders stood abreast of each other, Gideon halted. The terrain that lay before him was like that of the west slope, except for the large river that ran to the southwest below the band of trees. Beyond the river, alone horseman sat in his saddle, and Gideon guessed it to be Kane. The land, green and fertile, and flat.
From his cover, Gideon tried to pinpoint from where the gunfire had come, but the trees blocked his sight and had carried the sound to his right and left like an echo. Gideon waited patiently, his rifle pulled to his chest, his ears strained for the slightest sound. Then to his left something moved, just a branch at first, then he could make out the shape of a man. The figure crept slowly forward crouched to his haunches. Suddenly the man rose to his fullest height, raised his rifle to his shoulder, and fired off two rapid shots. Then he was down again among the branches of the trees as silent and still as a deer on full alert.
“You’re going to have to do better than that!” a voice bellowed from the trees. “Sam killed my wife, Kane. Now I’m coming for you.”
It was clear to Gideon that Evans didn’t know that Kane had moved down to the river. Killing men comes easy to some, but Gideon thought of it as an unnecessary evil. Though he was quick with a handgun and rapid-sharp with a rifle, he always thought it best to talk first. But like most men that got themselves into a gunfight, it happened in a flash of time and without a moment to think.
Two men stepped out into the opening, breaking Gideon’s thoughts, moving swiftly in the direction the voice had come. Gideon raised his rifle, set the crosshairs to the temple of the leading man, and eased his finger on the trigger. The rifle butted instantly, and the man fell to the ground. Realizing what had happened, the second man spun on his boot heels making for the cover of the trees. But Gideon reacted swiftly, the impact of the .44 sent the man tumbling into the shrubs and dirt before he had completed his turn, and Gideon smelled the bitter, dry taste of burned powder that drifted up from the chamber as he pumped in another bullet.
A stone silence blanketed the ridge. Then came the sound of men talking, their voices low and muffled among the branches. Gideon held his position, waiting for a movement. When it came, it was like the roar of a charging platoon; men chanting the chilling cries of battle, their guns blazing blinding into the dark shadows of the undergrowth. Their charge was swift and short, and then there was silence again, and Gideon heard a man’s voice. “Leave the dead for the villagers,” he ordered. “Kane’s waiting down by the river.”
Gideon waited for the varmint to leave before he started his search for the mayor. When Gideon found him, he was sitting with his back to a large white oak tree, as if he were resting. But Gideon saw the two apache arrows protruding from his trunk and the many bullet holes in his chest and arms, his Winchester lying across his lap and empty, his hat at his side but out of reach. Three white men and two Indians lay slain about him.
Gideon kneeled beside him, and Evans opened his eyes and strove to speak. His words came slowly. “I have failed,” he said. “Tell my children I am sorry.” His glance strayed to his fallen enemies: they had made their charge and met his fury. He paused and his eyes closed wearily. Then after a moment, he spoke again.
“Go to the house, Gideon, and save my children,” he wheezed. “Take them away from the village. I have failed them. Tell them I am sorry.” And he heaved softly as he released his last breath.
Gideon looked up to a sound on the slope above his head, just a gentle rustling of the brush as if someone was hunting. Jackson appeared in the opening crouched low, his Henry rifle held at his hip.
“Is he —?” Jackson started, and Gideon nodded.
“Now we’ve got Indians to worry about,” Gideon grunted with a sad heart and waved his hand over Evans’ unmoving chest. “What else have they got waiting for us?” Pushing his hat to the back of his head he looked up at Jackson again. “Where are the children?” he asked.
“At the house,” replied Jackson, squatting at Gideon’s side. “A villager was waiting for me at the house when I returned with the children. He told me what they had found and said you had chased after the mayor. What do we do now, Mister Gideon,” he added in a soft note of compassion, “… now that both their parent are dead?”
Gideon clenched his jaw. “Let me think,” he said. “In the meantime pick up the weapons. We can’t leave them lying out here.”
Gideon knew that taking the children back to the village with their dead parents lying in the back of the wagon would be a hellish thing to do. They needed to know of their deaths by someone with experience in such matters. Not by someone like himself with no experience with children — but the monks he had seen walking around the old mission. He turned his attention back to Jackson; who’s arms were now filled with bows and arrows and rifles, and the handguns he had removed from the dead men’s holsters. He walked over to Gideon and laid the weapons at Evans’ feet.
Gideon looked down at Evans again before he spoke, “Sam’s left for the river,” he said, and he rose to his feet wiping his hands on his trouser-legs, and his expression was lugubrious. “I don’t think they’ll be back, but who knows what they could be planning. I’m going to ride on ahead, Jackson. I want to be in the house with the children when you arrive with the mayor. Put him and his wife in the barn out of the children’s sight.”
Jackson nodded in agreement. “I’ll wait for you to leave for the village before I follow with the bodies?”
Gideon frowned. “No,” he said. “We must leave together. Kane might have an ambush waiting for us on the village road. We can’t afford to split up. We have the children to think of now. Just make sure the barn doors are closed, we don’t want scavengers getting to the bodies while we’re gone. The ones up here on the ridge, I don’t care about them. The sheriff can collect them in the morning if there’s anything left of them.”