As we’ve got visitors staying with us for ten days, I thought it appropriate to feature a short story with that title for the Saturday fiction blog slot.
This story was previously published in A Fistful of Legends anthology (2009).
Part 1 of 2
writing as Ross Morton
“Ma, we’ve got company,” Frank said, pointing beyond the picket fence, to the knoll a mile away on the southern skyline. The dust cloud on the horizon announced their approach.
Kate Bartlett stood still on the porch, the glass jug of lemonade poised for pouring. Seemed like this little reward for Alice and the boys for their efforts with the livestock was going to have to wait. When Bill was away, they were happy to do his chores and milk their two cows and Wilhemina the goat. She brushed a stray wisp of gray-streaked auburn hair behind her ear.
A strange stillness settled on the land. A few seconds earlier, she’d heard birds chirping, but now there was an eerie silence.
That amount of dust meant a fair number of horses. Kate didn’t think it was a herd of mustang lost their way. Maybe it was cavalry, but she wasn’t going to take a chance. It could be a posse of lawmen or a group of desperadoes. Sure, she prided herself on making strangers welcome, but she still had to be real careful. Some terrible stories came out of the trading post gossip and she was certain that some of them were not fanciful.
She lowered the jug to the table. “Move the animals into the barn, boys,” she said, careful to keep her tone easy but firm.
“Right, Ma,” said Frank and with his twin brother Ethan he ran down the porch steps, across the unkempt rose garden and leapt over the picket fence. The pair hurried over to the patch of scrub where Willy and the two cows were feeding.
“Alice, fill the buckets and shut the well.”
“Yes, Ma.” The well was to the right, just inside the picket fence, so she didn’t have far to carry the buckets.
They all knew the routine. Prudence was the family’s watchword.
Determined to show outward calm, Kate picked up her skirts and walked steadily through the open door into the house. Even so, her stomach churned. Funny, how the old fears resurfaced. The older you got, it seems the more you had to lose. Or maybe you just got more cautious and less adventurous. Once inside, she found that she was breathing easier.
Kate opened the gun-cupboard. On the day they moved into their new cabin, Bill had bought six 1873 Winchesters and twenty boxes of .44 rounds, enough for a small army. That was three years ago and every Saturday since he trained the boys how to shoot. Without fail, they brought home meat for the pot, which suited Kate just fine.
When the children returned, she shut the door but didn’t fit the bar across. The boys closed the window shutters while Alice placed the water buckets in front of the fire-grate. Then they stood, watching her and waiting.
Methodically, Kate got Alice to help her load each rifle.
“You sure you can handle the reloading, honey?”
Alice screwed-up her nose and wrinkled her brow. “Ma, I’ve bin doing this for pa this last twelve months. Of course I can do it!” Spunky lass, Kate thought, swelling with pride. A bit like me at her age, I guess. My, I must have been a real trial to my ma, God rest her soul.
Then Kate handed Ethan and Frank a gun apiece and they moved to the horizontal window slits.
“They’re coming, Ma!” Frank called from the window on the left.
Kate opened the door a tad.
Magnificent and threatening in their buckskins and colorful war-paint, four redskins rode up towards the white picket-fence gate. She recognized them – Chiricahua Apache from the San Carlos reservation.
Her throat suddenly felt very dry.
Astride paint ponies on the other side of the picket fence, there were four in a row facing her. They were stern looking men, with high foreheads, flat hard faces, wide cheekbones and square jaws. Long shining black hair draped to broad muscular shoulders. They wore cloth headbands. Open jackets revealed wide chests. Their leggings and boots were buckskin.
Beyond, on the slight rise leading away towards the trail, she spotted eight more of them on horseback, poised, some with lances. Waiting. The Apache were known for their patience.
Kate wiped her sweating palms on her apron then grabbed the Winchester Alice handed her.
“There’s a bullet in the breach, Ma,” Alice whispered.
“Stay here, all of you,” Kate said and stepped out onto the porch. It was times like this when she was glad she didn’t wear breeches; she could feel her legs trembling under her skirt but at least the Apache could not see the effect they were having on her. Apparently, these cruel and vicious fighters put great store in bravery.
She descended the steps and walked steadily towards them, along the cinder path edged with white-painted stones and struggling rose bushes. She stopped at the gate in the fence.
“What do you want?” she demanded, hefting the rifle against her right hip.
One of the men from the centre eased his horse forward; it snickered. “We ask for water for our tired horses,” he said. He probably learned English at the Trading Post school, she reckoned. He was handsome and imposing. Yellow paint was smeared over his high cheekbones and his big broad nose. His dark penetrating eyes glanced left and right, scanning the barn and the vegetable patch. Then he leaned forward on his pony. “Where is your man?”
“My man is inside with our family,” Kate said loudly. “In fact, he has a bead on you right now.” Out of the corner of her eye, Kate noticed Ethan shove the rifle barrel out the window. Good boy, she thought.
“I want to talk to your man.”
Kate shook her head. “Well, he doesn’t want to talk to you.” And she raised the rifle slightly, not threateningly, just sending a message. “Sorry, but you are too many. We don’t have enough water for all your horses. Besides, I’m not allowed to offer sustenance to runaways from the reservation.”
The Apache spat onto the ground. “We do not run away from San Carlos. Children are dying. Strong men are going to their graves before their time. All this happens because of the bad food the white man gives us. We choose to leave and live a different path.”
Nodding, Kate levelled her eyes on him, knowing both Ethan and Frank would be covering the other three Indians. “I understand. Not that it makes no never mind, but we don’t think it’s right, the way the government’s treating your people.”
“Then let our horses drink.”
“Sorry.” She raised the rifle. “I already said why. Besides, I don’t hold with no war-parties on our land!”
She didn’t move her gaze from his eyes, even though she heard the discontented murmurs of his three fellows.
“We are not a war-party – yet,” he said, his tone ominous.
“Why the paint?” she said, her legs feeling wobbly, like jelly.
One of the others broke away and trotted his horse forward, closer. He was brandishing a wooden club. He spoke in his own tongue: “Nantan Lupan, why do you talk with this woman? We don’t ask – we take!”
Nantan Lupan: Kate only caught the name and recognized it – Gray Wolf in the Apache language.
Gray Wolf scowled at the youngster. “Eskaminzim, you know it is not this woman’s fault the Major is a crook.”
She managed to snatch the gist of his words. Kate said to Gray Wolf in English, “The young warrior is anxious to make war, I fear.”
Sighing, Gray Wolf nodded. “He is well named.”
Big Mouth. Kate smiled, liking the Apache and his dry humor.
“He and the others want the glory of those days under Cochise. I cannot blame them. Everything in San Carlos is rotten – food, clothing – and people.”
Kate nodded, sympathizing. She’d visited the reservation a number of times, usually to help the Indian women give birth. She’d had a mite of practice herself at that. She’d given birth to five children, two of them stillborn, and knew what pain was about. While at the reservation, she’d heard rumors that the Major – a local title for the Indian Bureau’s agent – was mostly absent, busy on his private mining venture, using food and materials from the agency warehouse.
“They’re all the same, the whites!” snarled the young man, Big Mouth. “Hai-ya!” he shrieked and leaned down, wielding his club.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the blow descending and flinched away. The club hit the side of Kate’s head. Big Mouth’s horse reared and whinnied as Kate stumbled sideways, grimly gripping her rifle. Her dress billowed around her as she fell to one knee. Left eye blinking away blood from her head-wound, she watched Big Mouth raising his arm, the blood-tinged club held aloft, about to throw.
A rifle fired and Big Mouth cried out, tumbling from his horse onto the picket fence, which collapsed under him.
Ethan. It had to be him. Kate regained her footing and stumbled back, the rifle aimed shakily at the three mounted Apache.
Gray Wolf dismounted and knelt beside Big Mouth. Pointed ends of the fence had pierced the young man’s side and thigh and blood stained the broken white fence. Gray Wolf glanced up and she thought she detected sadness in his gaze. He barked some orders and signed to the two others and in the same instant they rode towards her, their horses trampling down the gate and adjoining fence.
She backed away down the cinder path then braced herself, the stock of the rifle against her shoulder. She fired.
Her shoulder felt the familiar bruising recoil and the first bullet slammed into the chest of a charging Apache. He jerked back and fell off the horse, creating a small puff of dust as he landed amidst roses. Kate jacked another cartridge into the chamber.
The second Apache slung himself low behind the belly of his horse.
“Ma!” Alice called. “Hurry inside!”
Rifles blasted from the cabin and at least three bullets hit the oncoming horse.
Kate turned and ran, one hand hitching up her dress, the other holding onto the rifle. She shut her left eye, her vision blurred by blood.
The Apache leapt from the dying animal’s back, landed on his shoulder and rolled over, creating a large cloud of dust. As he regained his feet, he pulled out a long knife and ran after her.
Tumbling onto the porch, Kate tripped on the hem of her dress and bowled against the small table and knocked over the jug of lemonade. It smashed to smithereens, splashing her shoes.
The Apache’s long hunting knife flew past her cheek and stuck deep in the wood panel of the door.
Someone opened the door for her and she fell through.
To be concluded tomorrow…