The smaller of the pair spoke up. “I don’t like this, Jake. That fire can be spotted for miles.”
His partner, unshaven and just as dusty as his smaller companion, replied, “Will you settle down? That posse’s 20 miles from here and headed the other direction.”
Nervously standing, looking in all directions, and then sitting, “Posse isn’t the only thing. Comanche could be out & about. I’d rather deal with the law than a pack of those howling heathens.”
Jake poured half his canteen into a battered coffee pot and then adding a handful of ground coffee from a canvas bag. He placed the pot next to the fire. “Damned coward, there ain’t an Indian whelped what scares me.”
“Just the same, I think we should keep a cold camp. ain’t no point in invitin trouble.”
Sneering at his partner, “Too late for that, so just shut up and get those beans started. I’m tired of living off hard tack and jerky.”
“What we going to do about that?” Jerking a thumb to a blanket and rope bundle. A pair of small bare feet poking out of the bottom.
“She’ll eat when I’m done. That is if anything’s left.” Jake laughed as if this was the best joke he had ever heard.
“That’s not what I meant. Hauling that girl around with us is bound to attract attention. Let’s just cut her loose and head off. Somebody’s bound to pick her up.”
“Not likely. That piece of fluff is worth 20 silver at a mex whorehouse I know. They’ll pay solid coin too. Not that paper crap.”
“Hello the camp?”
Jake and Pete scrambled and pulled their pistols. “Who’s that?”
“Whoa there, gents, no need for shooting. I’m just looking for some hot coffee. I seen your fire a while back and then smelt your coffee. Thought you might spare a cup and maybe some grub.”
“ain’t got enough to spare. Just move along,” Jake snarled.
The voice chuckled and said, “See, I told you John, ain’t nobody got beans nor brew to spare out here.”
A bush started rattling to Jakes right. He spun and fired. This was closely followed by a loud explosion from the original voice’s direction. Jake was blown back, dead before he hit the ground.
Pete started to bring his colt back towards the voice.
“Hold it right there, pard. There’s another barrel on this here coach gun. And it’s aimed right at your gut. If the double ought doesn’t kill you outright, it’ll take you 2 or 3 days to croak. Now that’s alright by me. Dead or alive pays the same. But to get you to Tucson, it’ll be hell on earth for you.”
The barrel of Pete’s pistol dropped. “Good boy. Now I want you to slowly reach around with your left hand and grab the barrel of that hogleg. Very good, now toss it behind you. No, don’t look where it lands, won’t do you no good. You won’t be needing it no more.”
“Now undo them britches and drop them to your ankles. Don’t bother with your boots.”
“Just put your hands on your head. You’ll be sucking wind through your guts if you so much as twitch.”
A tall figure stepped out of the darkness. A double barrel shotgun was loosely held and aimed at Pete’s midsection.
“Very good pard. Looks like you got more sense than your friend.”
The newcomer walked behind Pete. “Now, just keep calm while I make myself more comfortable.” taking a rope, the outlaw was quickly hogtied. The rope securing his hands behind his back was drawn tight and looped around Pete’s throat.
“Now you behave yourself, partner. I’m going to be taking care of some business.”
The stranger disappeared into the brush where he came from. After about 10 minutes, he returned, leading a horse. Then, tying it off to a sage, he disappeared again. This time returning with the outlaw’s stock.
Walking over to the tied bundle, He started uncovering and releasing the captive. “OK, Miss, it’s going to be alright. Your daddy wants you back, and that’s why I’m here. You’re probably thirsty and hungry. Be patient, and I’ll get you something.”
Stepping over to one of the outlaw’s horses, he pulled a canteen and shook it. Then, satisfied with the contents, he started to turn back to the captive. That’s when he noticed the string of scalps hanging from the saddle horn. He froze for a moment. Then turned to the hogtied outlaw. “You a scalp Hunter? Are these yours? “ He angrily demanded.
“Not mine Mister, those belong to Jake. We was headed to old Mexico. The mex government pays 50 dollars gold for Indian scalps. There’s a year’s pay on that string. We was on our way when we found that little girl there. She was sitting there by that river like an apple, ready to pick. And Jake, well, he grabs her up, and next thing you know, they’s a posse on our ass, and we was running our hosses half to death to get away. Then the first chance we got to catch our breath, you cut Jake in half with that sawed-off. Not that I blames you. Jake was better dead than breathing. So now you just go ahead and keep that child and them scalps and let me go. Ill head out and be 50 miles away afore I stop. Won’t tell a soul bout you or Jake.”
While all of this had been going on, the stranger had been scrounging the surrounding area and gathering every bit of firewood he could find. Then he started piling it onto the fire. Finally, when he had a huge bonfire going, he returned to the outlaw.
Pete started to panic. “What are ya doing, ya fool? That’ll bring every redstick in the country.”
“Partner, I’ve got one chance and one chance only. Now you and your partner were worth 500 dollars each. That’s what the girl’s papa was willing to pay for you, dead or alive. The girl, He is offering 5000 gold. Now I was willing to bring you two in for the grand. And with her as the main prize. But then you two have got those scalps. You were right about worrying about the redskins. They ARE on your trail. And I figure about 2 hours behind you. They would have caught up to you come sunup. That’s why I moved in when I did. But if them savages are after you because of them scalps, I don’t want to have anything at all to do with you.”
Looping the string of scalps around Pete’s neck, he continued. “When they show up, try not to scream too loud. That just gets them excited and more playful. Meanwhile, remember that I’ll be making 5000 when I get her back to her daddy.”
The stranger then lifted the girl onto Pete’s horse and, taking the reins of the other mounts, started riding away into the dark. The curses and screams followed them.
The war party leader was standing off to the side with his second. While the groups medicine warrior made the funeral chants.
“Brother, the spirits of the violated will be happy with the tributes we took from their violators. We should return home and tell of this outrage.”
“We will, brother. But the signs at the camp of these dogs showed another. We must bring that one to justice as well. The spirits demand a full accounting.”
“I agree, but the pony soldiers that we have trailed are still out there. At last word, they have found the devil’s camp. If they start on our trail, we MUST lead them away from our home. We should wait and watch. If the long knives follow our trail, we must attack them and drive them away from our families. Only then should we consider pursuing the 3rd devil.
As the medicine man finished his rituals, the party broke up and, following separate paths, headed for that night’s camp.
Sergeant Jones, who had been riding alongside Lieutenant Lancaster, called his attention to the buzzards circling to the south. “Sir, whatever it is, it’s got a lot of those birds interested. Should we check it out or send a scout over?”
“It isn’t that far off our trail. We can divert and take a look. Might be a good opportunity to rest the horses.”
“Works for me, sir.” Raising his voice, “Jackson, angle us over to them buzzards to the south. We’re going exploring, Corporal.”
As they got closer to the area that interested the carrion hunters, Lieutenant Lancaster called out, “Sergeant Jones, Bugler With me.” and spurred his mount forward. As Sergeant Jones passed Corporal Jackson, he warned, “Keep your eyes peeled, Corporal. Damned redskins might have a trap going on.”
As the Lieutenant came to the edge of the arroyo, he pulled up his horse sharply. “Bugler, call up the troop.” The young Lieutenant was having a hard time not throwing up. Both the stench and the mutilated bodies contributed to his rising gourd.
Stopping off to the side, out of sight of the bodies, He called the troop Sergeant. “Sergeant Jones, I would have your opinion on this If you please.”
Sergeant Jones A lean dusty figure rode up and dismounted. Holding his kerchief close to his nose, he walked up to the corpses. Both spread eagle in the dust. One staked to the ground. The other, without the restraints. Both were stripped naked. Both had also been mutilated. Various body parts had been removed and were not in evidence.
Additionally, small patches of skin and flesh had been cut away. Not large, maybe an inch or two in diameter. But the amount of them was astonishing.
Sergeant Jones continued his investigations, Moving from the bodies to the surrounding area. All in all, he took 30 minutes looking over the scene.
Lieutenant Lancaster had moved the troop about 30 yards upwind to avoid the odor. And called for a noon bivouac. Then, seeing that the squad corporals had the troops occupied, He rejoined Sergeant Jones, who was squatted about 10 feet from the corpses.
“Well, Sergeant, Your opinion?”
“Well, Sir, I think we’ve got three or even four different things going on here. The obvious one is the Indians. I have seen this kind of torture before. It’s usually reserved for Mex Scalp Hunters.”
“I didn’t see any scalps, Sergeant? Indian or otherwise.”
“Yes, Sir,” continued the Sergeant. “The Indians would take them with them. Then bury them with honors in their burial grounds. Also, the trophies they collected from these two white boys will be placed with those scalps. As a way to appease the violated Indians.”
“Well, that explains a lot. Anything else?”
“That’s the weird part, Sir. One of those white boys was killed with a shotgun. Now Indians will carry shotguns. But in this case, a lot of their religious stuff gets involved. When they sacrifice a scalp hunter, they’ll use traditional tools. In other words, no white man metals. The one was fileted with traditional stone tools. But the other was killed by a shotgun first. Then sliced up with stone and obsidian knives.”
“Also, as I checked the area, it looks like there was another party here. You got those dead boys there. Then there’s the Indians that sliced and diced them. But there is also a third set of tracks. At first, coming into camp Alone. And then leaving with a loaded pack horse and a couple of other light mounts.”
“OK, Sergeant, I seem to be getting what happened. First, these two unfortunates were ambushed by an unknown party. One of them being killed in the ambush. Then their attacker made off with their supplies and horses.”
“That seems to be correct up to that point, Sir. I think it was shortly after that the Indian war party found these two. If they found scalps with them, well, I don’t think they would be able to talk themselves out of it. Them redsticks would be righteously angry.”
“I agree, Sergeant. So, the survivor was tortured, and both corpses mutilated.”
“Then the war party rode off to honorably bury the scalps they found on these two.”
“I agree, Sir. It seems to be the most logical explanation.”
“Well, Sergeant, I don’t see the need to waste any tears on these two. Let’s get them buried and note the location on our patrol log. As far as the Indians go, if they are heading towards their burial grounds, they are back where they belong and no longer a concern of ours.”
“I agree, sir.”
“OK, Sergeant, get up a burial detail. I want to get another 15 miles behind us before sundown.”
For the next 6 hours, We rode hard. We needed to put as much ground as possible between those two scalpers and us. I just KNEW those Comanchees I had seen tracking them would see my tracks and be on our back trail as quickly as possible. My plan was to get to a sodbuster camp that I knew about. At least there would be strength in numbers. And I might get lost in the crowd.
But if I got fortunate, those two bodies I’d left behind would be enough to satisfy whatever heathen demon those redsticks bowed to. And they wouldn’t be following us. Considering my luck, it wasn’t likely.
After six hard hours of riding, it was getting toward dawn, and we both needed a breather. We crossed over when we came up on the river, and I felt somewhat safer. I figured we were probably good for another day or two, depending on how long that scalper lasted and how angry the Comanches were.
We rounded over behind a modest hill, dismounted, and I handed my reins to the girl. Then I slowly crept up to the top. I found a small bush and used it to conceal my head as I checked our backtrail. I could hear the girl moving around behind me, but I was more interested in any pursuit. Finally, after about twenty minutes, I saw a dust trail to the west. Whoever It was, They were headed away from us. Satisfied, I crept back to the girl.
I was surprised to find that she had made a small and smokeless fire. There was a pot of coffee brewing. The stock had been hobbled and tied to a picket line.
I got the gear off the stock and rubbed them down. The girl fell to and lent a hand. It was apparent that she had experience with horses. Once we got them rubbed down and watered, I filled their feed bags and gave them something to eat.
As I squatted next to the fire, I tried communicating with her. I could only speak cantina spanish, but she seemed to have some english. Finally, we were able to establish a kind of connection. I learned that her name was Maria and her father had a rancho on the Gila river north of Tucson. I was able to let her know that I wanted to take her home to her people. This seemed to please her.
I was able to tell her my name, Paul Briscoe. I couldn’t tell her my life story and probably wouldn’t have even if I could. Over the next hour or so, we had our coffee and she warmed up some beans that she found in her kidnapper’s bundle.
Then as she tried to sleep in the shade of a pinon tree, I crawled back to my lookout position. I had a good view of all the approaches. I didn’t mean to do it But sleep crept up on me, and I nodded off.
When I woke, It was close on to sundown. I got up and found that the fire from this morning was out. I tried to blow some coals up, But it was dead and cold. Getting together a rats nest that I found, I used my flint to strike up a new one. I kept it small just big enough to warm up some coffee and cook some beans from the booty we took from the scalpers. While everything was cooking, I checked on the horses. They were fine and well rested.
When I returned to the fire, my little senorita was dishing out our dinner. As we ate, I tried again to communicate with her. To get some more information. But I had little luck. It almost seemed that she was reluctant to give me any information about her home.
Once we were finished, I doused the fire and started rigging up the horses. She joined in and saddled her mount. When we finished, I double-checked the fire and covered it over. I then spent the next fifteen minutes rubbing out our tracks. The girl stood by and watched what I was doing with interest.
When I figured I had done all that I could to hide our camp, I led the girl and the horses about twenty yards to the north. Then backtracked and made a sloppy attempt at rubbing out our trail. When I got back to the horses I led them due east, this time making sure that I did the best I could at hiding our tracks.
Once I finished, I mounted and looked around. I had a good idea of where we were and how to get to our next destination. But I felt a strong need to look for any signs that we were being followed or chased.
I was relieved to see that everything seemed OK. But knowing my luck, The whole Comanchees nation was probably just over the next rise.
Our next stop was that Sodbusters camp. It had the depressing name of Hard Times. I hoped I could trade those scalper’s horses for our needed supplies. And maybe get some information on the girl.
Hard Times wasn’t really a town. It was a group of sodbusters that had banded together more for safety from the local tribes and bandits. A dozen ramshackle shacks and dugouts clustered together with no rhyme or reason.
As soon as we rode into town, all the women and children scattered and disappeared. When we got to the center of town we were greeted by a dozen armed men and boys. They were armed with an oddball collection of muskets, a rifle or two, and pistols. I even saw a blunderbuss shotgun in the mix.
There was a big guy at the center of the group. It looked like he was the head man, especially when he spoke up. “What you want, mister?”
I had some serious doubts about this situation. “Not much, partner. Maybe trade for some supplies. News if you’ve got any.” I sat easy on my horse. But I kept my hand close to my sidearm. I was a tad nervous. These folks weren’t behaving right.
The big guy’s attitude did not improve. “Got nothin’ ta spare. Who’re you? Where ya from? Who’s the girl?”
I thought to myself. This is NOT good. We need to scoot before it gets out of hand.
Before I could do anything, The leader aimed at me with his pistol, and a rifle barrel jabbed me in the side. “You need to get down off that hoss, boy.” He snarled, “We’ve heard that there’s a bounty on that girl and whoever’s got her. Now nice and slow Drop that hogleg and climb down.” The others in the group raised their weapons to make sure I got the point.
After they disarmed me, the girl and I were taken to the largest building in town. It appeared to be a combination saloon, goods store, and meeting hall. They put us in a cellar, accessible from a hatch in the center of the main room. This might have been a root cellar at some time, but it was empty now.
Between the two of us, we were exhausted, and both soon fell asleep despite the surroundings.
At some point in time, it was impossible to tell how long. We were woken when all hell broke loose upstairs. There was gunshots and the sounds of battle. There were screams, women, children, and finally men.
As the sounds died down it becames obvious that the building above was on fire. We were fortunate that while it got hot, it was survivable. Somehow we had a supply of fresh air from outside.
We stayed down there for what seemed like hours. Eventually, thirst decided our next action. Carefully I forced the trapdoor open. I could see that the building had been burnt down around us. I checked all around But couldn’t see any dangers.
Climbing out of the cellar, I looked around. We were at the center of the blackened fire that destroyed the building. The rest of the town had suffered the same fate. Scattered about were the bodies of the resident’s men, women, and children. All had been scalped and mutilated.
I could see that there were no horses or mules. Any that had survived had been taken. I started looking through the ruins. Looking for whatever we could use. Our thirst made water our first priority. I found a rain barrel that was half full and didn’t smell too rancid. Despite the smell and taste we were able to satisfy our thirst. I did find what was left of several rifles and pistols in the debris. They were of no use. The pistols had been destroyed when the cartridges cooked off and ruptured the cylinders. The rifles also were next to useless. I could have recovered one or two if I had been inclined to spend six months cutting new stocks for them. Besides, it didn’t matter. All of the ammo was a distant memory.
Eventually, I was able to find some canned peaches and a knife. I opened cans for the girl and myself. At that point, table manners didn’t matter, and we wolfed down the sweet fruit.
Being slightly satisfied, I started thinking about our next course of action When the girl started tugging my sleeve and pointing off into the prairie. I looked in that direction and was relieved to see that while I couldn’t make out individuals, I could see that they were riding in formation. Indians and bandits didn’t ride in formation. The Cavalry had arrived. A day late and a dollar short.
The girl and I stood in the center of the carnage. Smoke rising from several smoldering ruins. As the troop rode up, the leader motioned troopers off to both sides of the settlement. as he approached us, He kept his eyes alert and scanned the surroundings. When he reached us, he stopped. His interest was still on the surroundings.
Speaking to the Sergeant that rode up at his side, “Sergeant, let’s get a patrol to sweep the surrounding area. Have them pay close attention to any hidden valleys or arroyos. Let make sure we don’t have any unpleasant surprises.”
“Yes, sir.” The Sergeant turned and started detailing the corporals to begin sweeping the area.
Only then did the Lieutenant look to the girl and me. He gave a halfhearted salute, “Lieutenant Lancaster folks. What happened here?”
I was still pissed at the sodbuster’s treatment of us. But I also realized that I probably should keep as many secrets as possible. “At the risk of being rude, Lieutenant, it’s rather obvious this is what’s left of an Indian massacre. It seems the girl and I are the lone survivors.”
The Lieutenant was not impressed. “And why would that be, mister? While we’re at it who are you and the girl?”
Before I could answer The Sergeant returned. “The area’s clear, Lieutenant Lots of Indian sign. Unshod horses, broken arrows, and lances. Just about all the bodies scalped and mutilated.”
The Lieutenant was diverted from me and was considering the report. “Any idea of their strength and direction of travel?”
“Pretty big war party, sir. Maybe 30 or 35 riders. They came in from the north and headed out to the southwest.”
“Towards Camp Selden?”
“Sort of, Sir. I guess they could get there, but it would be a roundabout way. Be a good three four days the way they was headed.”
“Anything else they could be headed for?”
“No tellin’ Sir. Not counting the white man farms and ranch houses who knows about their other little hidey holes. If they was headed towards Selden, it would be for no good.”
“I agree, Sergeant. I have discretion on this patrol. I feel we need a resupply, and Camp Selden is our best option. Let’s get a detail together to take care of these folks. We’ll leave first thing in the morning.”
As if remembering that we were there, he turned back to the girl and Me. “I seem to have forgotten your name sir?”
“Paul, Paul Briscoe. This is my friend Maria. Unfortunately, she doesn’t speak much English.”
The Lieutenant tipped his hat to the girl, “Senorita.” Then, turning back to me, he continued. “If you want, sir, we can transport you to Camp Selden. But, unfortunately, we don’t have any spare mounts, so you’ll have to ride in the supply wagon.”
“That would be fine, Lieutenant. I don’t think we could walk out of here.”
The Lieutenant had dismissed us in his mind. Without another word, He rode off to check on his troops.
The trip to Seldon was slow and boring. So I started trying to communicate with the girl to take up the time. I quickly learned that she could speak some English but not very well. What little she could say, I finally found out her last name was Del A Toya, Maria Del A Toya.
When we got to Camp Seldon We were taken to the commander, a major who didn’t seem very interested in Maria’s story. His main interest was in anything we could tell him of the Indians in the area. I tried to tell him that other than the sign I had seen before I rescued Maria, I had no further information.
This didn’t seem to satisfy him. “How is it, Sir “ he questioned. “That you two came to be stranded in the middle of a massacre? By your claim, you were the sole survivors of that raid. And yet you have no information?”
“That’s right Major. We was locked up in a cellar the whole time. The only reason we wasn’t found and killed like the rest was that those savages burnt the place down right over our heads. You can believe us or not. It doesn’t change anything. We’re alive, and that’s all the proof I need.”
It finally sank into the major’s mind that I was telling the truth. Either that or he ran out of patience and disregarded my story. Whatever it was, he threw up his hands and angrily dismissed us. As we were leaving, I asked the Corporal where I could get a couple of horses and other gear.
He laughed for a moment, then replied. “Well, we’re shorthanded of everything and can’t spare a cartridge. So, I suggest you talk to the folks outside the camp. There’s a makeshift saloon where you might find what you need. Be careful, though. It’s a rough crowd in there.
“Thanks, Corporal. I’ll see what I can scare up.”
Walking out of the army camp, We came into the camp followers area. Like Camp Seldon, It was mostly tents and mud. Finding the saloon the Corporal had mentioned was easy. We just followed the noise. Stepping into the tent, we were immediately struck by the stench. It was a combination of stale beer, vomit, and urine. It was also loud, very loud. I was surprised to see an upright piano behind the makeshift bar, which consisted of several planks nailed to two barrels.
The piano was being badly played by a ratty-looking guy. His hair was greasy long, in bad need a bath and of a barber. He needed a shave as well. His clothes also looked like they were beyond the point that soap and water could help.
As we came up to the ‘bar’ he came to the end of his tune. Then, turning to the bartender, he whined, “Well? Is that worth a shot?”
The Bartender, who appeared to have more important things on his mind slopped a short glass with a liquid from a quart jar and put it on the top of the piano. The player grabbed it like it was mothers milk and gulped it down. He then turned back to the keyboard and started pounding out another tune.
This seemed to inspire a drunk range rider to want a dance, and his selection was Maria. He grabbed her by the waist and said, “Come er bitch I wants a dance.”
Before I could do anything, Maria pulled a knife from under her skirt and stuck it in the oaf’s throat just above his Adam’s apple. His eyes bulged, his voice gurgled, and he was deader than Custer when he hit the ground. Maria had pulled the knife out of him as he went down and stood facing the crowd knife poised for further combat.
Everything was quiet. Even the piano player was stunned. Then from the back of the crowd, somebody started laughing. The rest of the crowd soon joined him. Unnoticed by everyone, the piano player had called the bartender over, and they were arguing how much it would cost to drag the corpse outside.
Before anybody could do anything, I squatted down and started going through his pockets. I found some gold in his vest pocket which I didn’t take the time to count. I also pulled off his gun belt and pistol. I also found a decent bowie knife, and luckily as I was about to leave him, a little two-shot .32 caliber derringer in his boot. As I stood up, I saw Maria standing guard over me.
“Alright, girl, I think we can get out of here now.” So, with her leading and me walking backward with my new pistol drawn, we left the saloon. I didn’t relax until we were well outside and nobody followed us. As we walked away, I kept checking behind us, but no one followed.
When I was sure we were unobserved, I pulled Maria off the main ‘street’ and behind the line of tents. “Girl Where in the hell did you get that pigsticker?”
“I’ve always had it.” She innocently replied.
“Lord girl why is it just now that you decided to use it? Why didn’t you use it with those owlhoots that kidnapped you?”
“I never had the chance. They were so fast they had me tied up before I could get to it.”
“What about when we was in Hard Times? I could have used your help with those sodbusters. And why didn’t they find it when they searched you? They even pulled my boot knife offin me.”
She stood there all innocent “They didn’t search me.” She explained
I stood there with my jaw down to my belly. “They didn’t search you?”
“No, Jefe, they didn’t expect that I was dangerous. They also didn’t find this. She reached down and pulled out a poke. Without even touching it, I could see that it was heavy.”
Panicked, I looked around for any bystanders watching. “Good Lord, girl, put that away.” She pouted as she returned it to its hiding place.
“I thought we could use this to buy some horses. We need horses to get to my daddy’s rancho.”
I paused for a moment and considered what she was saying. While doing that, I strapped on the gun belt I had just acquired. Pulling the pistol, it was a .32 Caliber Smith and Wesson #2. Not something I’d usually carry, but it would do for now. I checked the loads. The dam fool had been walking around with the hammer on a live round. I immediately pulled that round and added it to the others on the belt. Besides needing a good cleaning, the gun was in good shape. Long used and well-worn but still in good condition.