This is a story about a FANTASY written for consenting adults. If you're not both of those, don't read it. Characters in a FANTASY don't get sick or die unless I want them to. You don't live in a FANTASY so be safe. The fictional characters in my stories are trained and experienced in acts of FANTASY - don't try to do what they do - someone could get hurt.
If you think you know somebody who resembles any of the characters here, congratulations, but you're wrong - any similarity between the characters in this story and any real person is purely coincidental, since all of these characters are figments of my dirty little imagination.
This is my story, not yours. Don't sell it or put it on a pay site. You can keep it and/or give it away with all of this information intact, but if you make money off of it without my permission, you're breaking the law and pissing me off.
The rider on the buckskin took his time, studying the trail, and, by turns, the terrain ahead. He could tell by the way sand occasionally fell into a hoof print that he was not far behind his quarry. The horse he was following had been ridden hard, and from the way the hooves scraped sand between steps, must have been on its last legs.
The heat made the air shimmer as he studied the rocks and brush ahead for any sign of the man he had chased halfway across the territory. Yesterday, they had even passed through a hole in the Big Fence into what had once been known as Mexico.
The rider pushed his black Stetson back and pulled his 30-30 Winchester from the saddle boot, as if sensing something that he couldn't see.
He felt the slam of the bullet before the report of the rifle reached his ears, and he pitched from the saddle to lie twisting and twitching in the hot sand. After a few moments, he lay still.
As he lay there, his mind drifted...
Alex could not remember a hotter day at Hidden Valley. He took off his black Stetson and wiped the sweat band. A ragged, crusty line of white salt circled the crown about midway up. While some complained about the heat, he relished the sweat that it brought to the surface, especially when it was due to hard work. He wasn't the only one working hard, but even the Phoenicians, trained in desert survival and tough as nails, found it difficult to keep pace with him. He was like a man driven by demons.
He surveyed the new cabin with pride. He had wanted to build it himself, but the Phoenicians' argument that it would take too long soon convinced him to accept their help. Alex had accepted the job they offered, and he couldn't very well take a year off to rebuild before starting his new career.
As it turned out, Hidden Valley, being centrally located within the territory he was to cover, was an ideal location for his headquarters as the frontier's 'justiceman'. 'Lawman' didn't really fit, since there was no law, and since there were no courts or lawyers, either, Alex would have to be a law unto himself.
The new cabin was his design, but with the help of the Phoenicians and their tools and machinery, it had gone up faster than he would have imagined.
Alex's emotions were in turmoil as he gazed on the new construction. There was nothing about the house to remind him of 'Cilla and Josh, or even Pops, for that matter, but the mountains that had formed the backdrop for his life there had not changed, nor had the sunsets. His memory still painted 'Cilla beside him each time he turned his gaze toward the setting sun, her blonde hair blowing gently across his chest as her tiny arms held him around the waist. He could not count the number of sunsets they had watched that way.
At first, he had thought her silly. The sun setting was an everyday occurrence, so why make a fuss over it? Over time, though, those had become his favorite times of the day. He had never felt so complete and so utterly a part of his surroundings as he did watching sunsets with 'Cilla. She had never lost her sense of wonder in the beauty of the orange and purple sky, the flight of an eagle, or the grace of a deer, and soon, he had caught whatever malady afflicted her. When he first noticed that he, too, was looking for the nuances in every unique passage of the sun behind the mountains, or waiting with bated breath for that moment when the sky blazed with brilliant color just as the sun disappeared for another night, he wondered what had come over him.
It wasn't until Miz Jane Gomez, known to her peers as Sgt. Gomez, had explained that he had been in love that he understood. That was soon after he had killed 'Cilla and Josh's murderers, and her loss had not really sunk in at the time.
Those had been times of contentment that he was likely never to see again, and it pained him each time he saw the flowers she had planted, or the wooden horse he had made for Josh's second birthday with his own two hands. 'Cilla had prized birthdays more than anything, perhaps because she had never known when hers was. His birthday and Josh's were causes for major feasting at Hidden Valley, but now they would be commemorated only with sorrow and an aching heart.
'Cilla's made-up birthday, the anniversary of the day they had met, had been two days ago. Alex had quietly slipped away from the bustle of putting the finishing touches on the cabin and laid flowers on her grave. As he wiped the tears from his eyes and turned away, he had found Jane Gomez watching him from a discreet distance, and wondered at the pain in her eyes. She said nothing, but slipped her arm through his and walked back with him to where the others were just knocking off for lunch.
Now, Alex shook the cobwebs from his mind and turned his thoughts to business. Hidden Valley was no longer to be hidden. It was to become the central office for his new endeavor. Pops had not raised Alex with any illusions. He knew that his chances of surviving what he had pledged to do were almighty slim, but it was worth doing, and if a man counted up the cost before he took on the job, he'd likely never get anything done.
"I reckon I'll start makin' the rounds of the settlements tomorrow," he told Sgt. Gomez as she came up beside him. "Any of 'em that wants to be part of this deal will get one of them portable radio things so they can call me if they think they need me."
"All right," Jane nodded, "but remember, you keep the guns we supply you. We don't want those falling into the wrong hands."
"I reckon the guns I got are about all I need," Alex said. Surprisingly, even when the work crews demolished the old stone fireplace down to the hearth so they could build a new one, no one had discovered the hidden cache of weapons and ammo under the hearth, and that was fine with him. If they kept pushing, he'd accept some of their weapons just to avoid questions, but given what he and Pops had squirreled away, the Phoenicia-supplied weapons would just sit around and gather dust. It wasn't so much a matter of distrust that kept him from revealing the cache to his new partners. It was just that Pops had drilled the concept of 'need to know' into him so deeply that he couldn't let go of it. Even the most trusted of friends could let something slip, but nobody could talk about what they didn't know.
"At least take an M16 or M4," Jane told him. "I know you're comfortable with the weapons you carry, but you never know when you might need a little more firepower."
Alex shrugged and accepted the M16 she held out. No point in telling her that there were six of them in his weapons cache already, along with hand grenades, rocket launchers, several shotguns, a 7.62mm machine gun, and a .50 caliber sniper rifle. Those were all fine weapons if you were fighting a war, but for the kind of fighting he expected to do, his revolvers and Winchester would suit him just fine.
Three weeks later, having distributed radio sets to all the settlements that said they wanted his help, he had ridden into San Carlos in response to a call on one of those sets. The trader there had been shot and his store robbed, according to witnesses. Alex did some poking around and asked a few question, but had little to go on, except that the rider had gone south before turning slightly east. There were, of course, no tracks on the pavement of the old streets, but sand had blown across the road in places and it was there that he first picked up the trail. As soon as he got past the buildings and fences, the rider had struck out south by southeast, leaving the paved road behind.
Alex had been on his trail ever since. He almost caught up with the man twice, but something had warned his quarry that Alex was coming, and both times, he had managed to slip away. The second time had been with Alex's bullet whizzing past his ear.
Alex had two horses, his prey only one, and Alex was relentless, never giving the man time to eat or sleep. The killer would run his horse and get a few minutes ahead, but always, Alex showed up, trading horses periodically to keep them fresh, and watering them from the crown of his Stetson when they got thirsty.
This was the day he expected to catch up to the man. This was the day of danger. Like any cornered animal, he expected the man to turn on him when he had nowhere else to run, and he had not been disappointed. Like a fool, he had ridden right into it...
Alex lay motionless among the scattered creosote bushes, feeling blood oozing from the wound low down on the left side of his abdomen. He cursed himself for his recklessness. He had practically forced the man he was after to shoot him. With the fugitive's horse giving out, and Agua Prieta behind them to the northwest, the man had had little choice but to try to stop his pursuer, any way he could. Now Alex's only hope was to play dead and hope the killer bought his act.
His back was toward the ambusher, but in his thrashing around, he had managed to pull one of the Rugers from his holster. As he lay there, he heard the crunch of boots on the sand. He waited, hearing them come closer and finally stop just behind him. He made his body stay limp as he felt himself prodded with a rifle barrel. A drop of sweat trickled down the side of his face, and Alex hoped the killer wouldn't realize that dead men don't sweat.
When he didn't react to the prodding, the wielder of the rifle grunted and said, "Not so damned tough after all, are you? Apache Kid, my ass! One bullet. That's all it took to put an end to that legend!"
Alex waited until his assailant turned and reached for the buckskin's reins. Buck was having none of it, however, and snorted as he jerked his head aside and trotted off about ten yards.
"Come on, ya durned nag!" the man groused. "I ain't gonna hurt you! My horse's all stove in an' I need another mount."
"He'll never let you," Alex said, getting painfully to his feet, his left hand holding his wounded side, his right, a big Ruger Super Blackhawk, .44 Magnum revolver. "That horse don't stand for nobody ridin' him but me. Now if I was you, I'd drop that rifle and put them hands up high, where I can see 'em. No, don't turn around. You're just fine where you stand."
Taking a pair of Phoenician handcuffs from the pocket of his jeans, Alex walked up behind the shooter and slapped one cuff around the man's right wrist, then cinched the other on his left. He then patted him down for weapons, the way the Phoenician's had shown him, relieving the man of a 9mm semi-automatic he had tucked in his belt.
"What's your name, mister?" Alex asked.
"Martin Newsum," the man answered. "How come you're chasin' me, anyhow?"
"Folks up in San Carlos said you killed the trader and robbed his store," Alex answered. "Since there ain't no law out here, I done took on the job of seein' justice done in these parts."
"Well, then, you can just turn me loose, cause I already done justice. That no-good sidewinder tried to cheat me, an' started to pull a shotgun on me when I called him to task about it. I shot first, and that's the right of it. Didn't rob nobody, neither. I just taken what was rightfully mine."
"Well, sir," Alex said, "I reckon we'll sort that out when we get you back. Now, I don't hold it against you that you shot me. I reckon I'd a done the same, was I in your place, but if you try to run away, I might get a bit peeved."
"What you figure on doin'?" Newsum asked. "Ridin' double all the way back to San Carlos?"
"I got me another horse ground-hitched back yonder a piece," Alex told him, "an' if you behave yourself, I'll let you ride. You git antsy on me, though, an' I'll just sling a loop around you an' drag you back. You got any more questions?"
Suddenly a grin split the big man's face and Alex found himself warming up to his captive. "I reckon ridin's better'n bein' drug. Was it anybody else, an' I might call your bluff, but somethin' tells me the Apache Kid don't bluff."
"I don't know what 'bluff' means," Alex answered with his own grin, "but if you want to see if I'll do it, jest give me a try. An' I'm damned if I'll put up with that Apache Kid crap all the way back. You can call me Alex, mister, sir, or any other damn thing that suits you, but if you call me Apache Kid one more time, I'll shoot you on the spot for bein' a public nuisance!"
Newsum roared with laughter at that and answered, "Alex it is, then. You want me to take a look at that hole in your side, Alex? Naw, I ain't gonna try nothin'. You done caught me fair an' square, and anybody else woulda just shot me in the back after I ambushed 'em that way."
Alex motioned with the Ruger and Newsum cautiously approached and ripped the hole in his shirt a bit wider.
"Hmm, I ain't no doc," he said, "but I don't reckon it hit anything you can't do without. You done lost some blood, but if we can stop the bleedin' and it don't get infected, I reckon you'll live to hunt down some other hapless fella."
"All right, just wait here. I got some stuff in my saddlebags that ought to help with both of those little problems."
Alex gave a sharp whistle and the buckskin's head came up. He trotted to Alex, making a wide circle around the other man.
"Good boy, Buck," Alex said softly to the horse. He ran his hands caressingly along the animal's sleek neck as he ducked under its head and came up on the opposite side. With his left hand, he unbuckled the flap over the left-hand saddlebag and reached inside, coming out with a metal box.
He tossed the box to Newsum and said, "Now I'm gonna check the scissors and scalpel in that box when you're done, and if I don't find 'em, my assistant here," he waggled the revolver, "is gonna ask for 'em back, so unless you want to be using that kit on your knee in a few minutes, you make sure you don't get possessive about its contents, y'hear?"
"Aw, Alex," Newsum groused, grinning, "you take the fun out of everything. Come on, then, and let's get you patched up."
The prisoner did a creditable job of cleaning and bandaging the wound, and Alex took an antibiotic to stave off possible infection. After he had checked the contents of the first aid kit he told Newsum, "All right, you go get your gear. If you ain't back in fifteen minutes, we'll start this whole shindig all over again."
"You ain't afraid I'll run?"
Alex shrugged. "It's forty miles to the nearest water or human habitation. If you feel the urge, you go right ahead, but I still got two horses to chase you with, an' I got your rifle and pistol. This time, though, you won't see me on your back trail, and when I see you, I'll just shoot you for causin' me all that trouble. You feel lucky? Go on ahead."
A few minutes after Newsum left Alex was startled by the report of pistol shot, and ducked behind some rocks for cover. Although the shot didn't appear to have been aimed in his direction, and had come from some distance away, it meant that either his prisoner had another gun, or someone else was out there with a gun.
Five minutes later, Newsum called out, "Don't get jumpy, Alex! My horse was down an' I couldn't just leave him to be torn apart by the coyotes. I'm tossin' my gun out..."
"Unload it first," Alex answered. "Don't want no accidents."
As soon as he finished speaking, Alex changed his position, just in case Newsum had been waiting for his voice to reveal his hiding place.
A revolver sailed over the creosote bushes and landed in the sand where Alex could see it.
Newsum soon followed, carrying a saddle and a canteen that sounded like it had only a few ounces of water left in it, and a pair of saddlebags. He dropped the saddle and bags and raised his hands as he stepped into the open, and grinned when Alex stepped out from his new location.
"You ain't a very trustin' man, are you?"
"Trust is somethin' ya gotta earn," Alex answered. "I don't give it away for free."
Alex took the saddlebags, then searched his prisoner again, taking the hunting knife he had strapped to his ankle.
"Can't blame a fella for hopin'," Newsum shrugged.
"Don't reckon I can," Alex agreed, searching the saddlebags for more weapons. When he found none, he tossed the bags back to their owner and gave a long, rising whistle.
In a few moments, the grey mare he had brought along as his spare mount trotted up holding her head to one side so as not to step on the trailing reins.
"Saddle up," Alex told his prisoner, "and if you run my horse into the ground, I'll take a week to kill ya."
Newsum studied his impassive face then held up his cuffed hands. "Be easier without these..."
"You'll make out," Alex told him, the Ruger never wavering.
Alex stooped and picked up the Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum that Newsum had tossed into the clearing, never taking his eyes off his prisoner, and put it in his own saddlebag along with the automatic he had taken earlier. As Newsum finished saddling the grey, he tied the 30-06 bolt action rifle that Newsum had shot him with to the back of his own saddle and, grimacing with pain, mounted the buckskin.
"Head North," Alex told his prisoner.
It was a long ride but they stopped in Agua Prieta for water and food and continued North by Northwest, once again crossing the border between the old United States and Mexico. The barrier had long since been breached in a number of places, primarily because the steel bars used in its construction were useful for many things, including weapons. Instead of searching for one of the holes, as they had done going south, they simply threaded their way through Agua Prieta to Av. Panamericana, which they followed North through the crumbling border crossing station into Douglas.
Shortly after crossing the old border they again turned their horses slightly West, and camped in the desert near the old Bisbee-Douglas airport. Alex tried to keep his eyes open, but awakened sometime in the night with Newsum bending over him. The Rugers were still in his hands and they flashed up to cover the prisoner.
Newsum just grinned and continued mopping his face with a wet bandana.
"Take it easy there, friend," he said. "You was tossin' an' moanin' somethin' awful. Fella couldn't sleep through all that racket, so I come to check you out. You were burnin' up with fever. If you got any more of them antibiotics, I reckon you're overdue to take 'em."
Alex cursed himself for having forgotten that he was supposed to take three of the pills a day. His saddlebags were nearby and he fumbled the first aid kit out, noting as he did that Newsum no longer wore the handcuffs.
"They was gettin' in the way," the prisoner grinned, seeing the direction of Alex's gaze, "an' the key just sorta fell outta your shirt pocket there, so I kinda helped myself."
Alex said nothing, but sipped from the tube of the hydration pack he had left nearby as he took the pills.
"You coulda run," he said, finally.
"Aw hell," Newsum replied, "where's the fun in that with you all stove up? I reckon I'll wait 'til you're some better an' give ya a sportin' chance."
"In that case, you got the watch," Alex told him. "I need me some sleep."
With that, he turned on his side and perched his hat to cover his face. In a few moments he was sound asleep.
Alex awoke to the smell of frying bacon and boiling chicory, and a rumbling stomach. He looked up to see a grinning Newsum turning eggs and bacon onto one of his metal camping plates.
"Here you go, son," He said, handing the plate and a steaming cup to Alex. "Don't forget to take some more of those pills."
Alex noted idly that the man had once again taken possession of his weapons. He said nothing, as he took the plate and dove in, washing it down with the scalding coffee substitute. When he was finished, he scrubbed his plate with sand, rinsed it with a little water, then propped it beside the fire to let the heat disinfect it.
When he was done, he checked his pistols and found them still fully loaded.
"I can't figure you, Newsum," he told his erstwhile prisoner. "You coulda taken off any time. Why didn't you?"
For a change, Newsum's face took on a serious expression. "I don't know how long you're gonna live in that job, son, an' there ain't enough of nothin' you could give me to make me take it on, but I'm damned if I don't believe this country needs somebody like you. 'Sides, I ain't up to another chase like that last one. Naw, I reckon if there's justice to be had in this country, we're gonna have to look to folks like you to bring it, leastways 'til them Phoenicians take over. Back yonder, when I found out the Apache Kid was on my trail, I figgered you was just gonna shoot me an' be done with it, so I decided to shoot first. Now that I come to know you a little better, I reckon you'll do your best to get me a fair shake, an' that's about all a man can hope for."
"By the way," Newsum told him, as he started breaking camp, "My friends call me Marty."
"Well, Marty," Alex replied, "I reckon we'll have to see whether I turn out to be your friend or not. I like you, but if it looks like you need hangin', I'll do my duty."
"Wouldn't expect nothin' less."
They stopped in Safford and took a room at a boarding house that Mrs. O'Reilly had started up a few years back. She wouldn't take anything in payment from Alex but took him aside and asked, "Isn't that the man that shot the trader in San Carlos?"
"How come he's still got his guns? Don't you think that's dangerous?"
"Not half as dangerous as takin' 'em away from him, ma'am," Alex told her. "If the time comes when I got to, then I will, but ain't no sense in pokin' a stick in a rattler's nest."
"Well," Mrs. O'Reilly replied, hardly mollified, "If you think it's best..."
"I do, indeed, ma'am."
The beds were comfortable and the meals better than his own cooking, and Alex felt a little stuffed when he and Marty headed for the Safford livery stable the next morning. The livery stable used to be a school gymnasium. The enterprising soul who realized the need for a stable had simply knocked together some stalls and covered the floor with dirt to make it easier on the horses' hooves. As with everything these days, he either got paid in Phoenician Credits or trade goods.