Part 2 of 2
writing as Ross Morton
“Oh, Ma, you’re hurt!” wailed Alice, rushing forward while Frank positioned the strong wooden bar across the door. Ethan fired, probably at the Apache who’d thrown the knife.
Kate felt faint but knew she had to keep going or everything would be lost. She sank onto a straight-backed chair at the wooden table and put down her rifle. She noticed her hand trembled as she lifted it to touch her temple. She had a humdinger of a headache and her fingers came away sticky and bloody. “It’s nothing, dear,” she said. “Get a damp cloth and clean it up – the blood’s getting in my eye.”
“I got the swine who hit you, Ma,” said Ethan.
“I got the other one,” Frank said, his tone without triumph, simply stating a fact. “He won’t be throwing any more knives.”
Kate marveled at both of her sons. Frank and Ethan were sturdy fifteen-year-olds and plumb good shots.
“They’re going,” said Ethan.
“For now,” added Frank.
“Keep an eye out,” Kate said. “We’ve killed perhaps two of them so they’ll want revenge at the very least. They’ll be back.”
With shaking fingers, Alice used a cloth to mop her mother’s head-wound. “What was all that about, Ma? You seemed to be getting on alright with their leader. Then it all turned nasty.”
“Probably all about male pride, I shouldn’t wonder.” Kate forced a smile. God knows, she thought, we women have enough to contend with out West, with men treating us like drudges, baby factories and unpaid labour, but heaven help us if we stood up to them in public! At least Bill had gradually seen the light – after a few heated discussions. Kate suspected that the marital bed had something to do with his appreciation of his wife’s role in the family unit.
That brought back long buried bitter memories of her time in the wagon train, when she and Bill were newly-wed on their way out West. Then, they fought off many Indian attacks with single action rifles that overheated and misfired. Those days, they did a lot of killing, just to survive.
The Apache fired their rifles, their bullets pounding into the door and window shutters. But they didn’t shoot too often and Kate guessed that they were low on ammo – an expensive luxury on the reservation.
This hard land had made Kate a strong woman, but after a while she found it difficult to heft the nine pounds of weapon to her shoulder and fire. The recoil was fearsome and she was sure that if they survived this raid, she’d have an almighty bruise to show for her efforts. Yet neither twin betrayed any sign of discomfort. Their father would be proud of them. Her heart lurched. If only Bill would come back soon!
The Indian Wars were as good as over when Bill had insisted that they build their homestead up against the mountain. “We ain’t going to be surrounded, Kate Bartlett, no way!” he informed her. “If a few hostiles take it into their heads to raise some scalps, they’re going to have to ride full into our Winchester sights!” They had windows on three sides – Frank covered the east, Kate the south and Ethan the west. At their backs were the bedrooms and beyond them a deep cavern which used to be sweet home to a bear but was now their winter store for foodstuffs.
“Fire!” Kate called out again, her voice already hoarse from the shouting and the infernal smoke from the Winchester rifles. The smell of burnt powder was cloying and caught at the back of her throat. The fusillade from three weapons thundered in the close confines of the log cabin. Alice hadn’t been given a rifle as she’d agreed that she was a lousy shot. “Sure, I can hit a barn, but those ‘Pache ain’t big enough for me.”
“Yeah, but I reckon you could talk them to death,” suggested had Ethan.
“I cain’t!” she snapped back.
“Hey,” Kate said, “let’s think about the enemy – and I mean outside the family!”
All three of her children laughed and that made her feel good, despite their predicament. Now, Alice handed her a freshly loaded rifle. “Here, Ma, swap.”
Kate was proud of Alice too. She was thirteen and already filling out her dress so that the Henderson’s boys had trouble averting their eyes. She took after her mother in that department, and had also inherited her auburn hair and hazel eyes. Now her eyes shone, long lashes blinking against the smoke.
“You okay, love?” Kate asked.
Alice nodded, the back of her hand brushing a smudge of burnt powder across a rosy cheek.
Kate carefully handed over her Winchester and Alice took it by the stock as the barrel was hot. Alice moved to the center of the room and dipped a cloth in a water-bucket then wrung it out. She used the cloth to cool down the barrel; it hissed like a snake and steam fronds twirled.
There were four other water-buckets. Their primary purpose was to douse any fires that flaming arrows might cause. At least Bill had used slate cut from the mountain at their back to cover the roof.
The Apaches had tried firing flaming arrows at the roof, but they didn’t last. They even attempted using arrows with burning sagebrush attached and they did leak some smoke down through the rafters, but they were soon extinguished since there was nothing else to burn up there.
Kate glanced at the mantel clock as it chimed. The whooping and hollering of the Apaches had been going on now for over two hours. Kate realized that now whenever they spoke, they all sounded hoarse, choking in the muggy confines of the cabin that was clogged with smoke and cordite. Two hours was an awful long time when you’re fighting for your life, she thought. You get to be real acquainted with fear, taking it for granted after a while. And the close proximity of death becomes all too familiar. She reckoned they’d accounted for two more Apaches in that time. Frank had received a ricochet wound on his cheek and that was all they’d suffered so far.
“Ma, look at this!” Frank called. “What d’you make of it?”
Beyond the barn, Gray Wolf was in a heated discussion with one of the young Apaches. Arms were flung about in emphasis then abruptly Gray Wolf turned away and leapt onto his pony. He barked something at the young warrior then urged his mount back the way they’d come two hours or so ago.
“Oh, shit,” Frank said, “he’s going for reinforcements!”
“Frank, I won’t have that kind of language in our home, you hear?”
Docilely, he nodded. “Yeah, Ma.”
“That’ll be a yes, I think.”
“Oh, no – they’ve lit the barn!” Ethan called out. He let off a couple of shots.
Her heart sinking, Kate moved over to Ethan’s gun-slit. She put a hand on Ethan’s shoulder. “Don’t shoot unless you have a target, son.” Sure enough, flames were already licking the sides of their barn, gray-brown smoke curling slantwise in a slight breeze.
“Our cows – and Wilhemina!” Alice said, sobbing.
“We can’t do anything about them, honey,” Kate said and gritted her teeth.
“Here they come again!” shouted Ethan.
Kate rushed over to her window slit. “Don’t shoot too soon,” she commanded.
Two Apaches rode from the east, hiding behind their mounts’ bodies. A thin trail of smoke followed behind them, as if the horses’ tails were peeling away.
“They’re going to burn us out!” shouted Frank.
“Make your bullets count!” Kate said.
Frank fired – once, twice, three times. They were anxious moments, as Kate couldn’t see what was happening. But she heard the pounding hoofs. Then a single horse came into view, with its rider’s leg slung round its neck. She drew a bead on the animal and fired. The poor horse made a horrible sound and stumbled, but it didn’t stop the Apache, he leapt over the falling animal and rolled to Kate’s right, out of sight.
Abruptly, there was a double thudding sound at the base of the door.
“What was that?” Alice asked, her voice high-pitched.
The sound of loud splintering came through the door as the Apache used his axe on the timbers.
Hurrying to the center of the room, Kate braced herself and fired from her hip, four times, blasting at the wooden door. She heard a single howl and a grunt then the Apache fell to the boards.
“I reckon you got him, Ma!” Ethan shouted.
“I got the other one,” said Frank. “He ain’t moving, neither.”
Math wasn’t her strong point but even she could work out that only five were left – until Gray Wolf returned with other disgruntled Apache runaways.
“There’s smoke under the door!” Alice said, pointing.
“Use your bucket, quickly!”
“Yes, Ma.” Carrying the bucket, Alice threw water at the base of the door.
A single shot rang out, but it wasn’t from a Winchester.
Alice stumbled back, dropping the empty bucket to the floorboards. “Oh my God,” she wailed, “I’ve been shot!”
Gritting her teeth, Kate fired three more rounds at the door, lower down and then heard the satisfying sound of the man rolling off the boards and slumping to the ground.
“No more coming,” Ethan said.
Kate laid the rifle on the table and rushed over to Alice. “Let me see, love,” she said, hugging her daughter against her.
Alice’s body was racked with sobs. Kate’s heart pounded in fear for her children. “Please God,” she whispered, “spare me any more heartache.”
Moving Alice over to a chair by the table, she got Alice to sit. “Let’s have a look.”
Alice nodded, biting her lip. She was in pain, obviously, but she was fighting it.
Carefully, Kate tore away the top of Alice’s dress at the shoulder, where it was bloodstained.
The Apache must have fired a pistol through the door. The wood had slowed the bullet’s progress and it had lodged in Alice’s shoulder, just against the bone.
“It’ll hurt like Hell,” Kate said, “but you’re going to be alright.”
“Hey, you said Hell–”
“Ethan, enough!” Kate said sharply. She turned back to Alice. “I can dig it out later. For now, I’ll stop the bleeding and bandage it up. Alright?”
“Yes, Ma – whatever you say, but it does hurt – a lot.”
“Be brave,” Kate said, tearing a strip from Alice’s white under-slip. “I know how it feels, honey. I was hit with an arrow – and I was breastfeeding Frank at the time – or was it Ethan?”
“Ma, d’you mind?” moaned Ethan.
Kate chuckled. “That’s what mothers do, you know, embarrass their boys when they become young men.”
Despite the pain, Alice let out a little laugh.
But the good humor was cut short as they heard a solid thumping sound on the roof. “That wasn’t an arrow,” said Alice ominously.
“No,” said Kate. “One of them must have climbed up on the mountainside and jumped down onto the roof.”
“It only needs one or two of them to get in here and we’re to Hell and gone, Ma.”
“Ethan, I’ve already had cause to remonstrate with Frank. We’ll have less of that kind of talk, if you don’t mind.”
“But you’re right enough,” Kate added as she glanced up at the rafters. The sound of slate tiles being bashed with some implement was disheartening; dust fell through the cracks.
Frank aimed his rifle at the roof.
“No, don’t shoot!” Kate warned. “There could be a ricochet from the stone.”
“But, Ma, we can’t–”
“We wait.” Turning to Alice, she said, “Keep an eye on those rafters. At the first sign of daylight, call me.”
Alice swallowed and nodded.
The Apache on the roof continued to bash at the roof tiles.
“Back to your windows,” she ordered Frank and Ethan.
Ethan poked his rifle barrel through the slit when suddenly it was grabbed and jerked upwards, wrenching his trigger finger. “Ouch!” he cried. Hastily, he grabbed the stock and tugged but the Apache holding the barrel wasn’t letting go. “Ma, he’s got my gun!”
Kate rushed to stand beside Ethan and aimed her rifle at the slit where the barrel was still being held from outside. She fired through the wooden shutter twice.
Even above the sound of the Apache demolishing a portion of their roof, Kate heard the grunt as Ethan’s rifle fell back inside. There was some scuffling on the other side of the window, but whoever it was didn’t move away.
Nobody wanted to poke a rifle barrel through the window slits in case they were grabbed again. They could all hear the shuffling footfalls of the Apache along the veranda boards. They seemed to be biding their time. For darkness, perhaps.
The sun was sinking and the sky showed a full moon through Frank’s gun-slit when the Apaches made their final attempt.
Alice stood at the table, watching the rafters. But now with the onset of dusk there was less chance of her seeing daylight. On the table was a collection of loaded rifles and fresh ammunition. An oil lamp hung from one of the ceiling rafters and cast its buttery light on Kate, Ethan and Frank who stood in the middle of the room and covered the windows and the doorway.
The Apache on the roof redoubled his efforts and bits of slate tile tumbled to the floor and shattered. Two Apache used hatchets on the door while the east and west window shutters were also succumbing to ax blades.
“Don’t shoot till they’re inside – make it count!” Kate ordered. Her body trembled but not with fear. She was so angry. She’d spent the best years of her life bringing a family into this harsh world and they were going to be slaughtered because of a hothead’s whim.
The twins had been toddlers by the time their cabin was being built, but Alice was born here. The look of joy on their faces as they learned to walk, the absolute innocent pleasure they showed at the smallest of achievements. Tears ran down Kate’s cheeks and she let them be.
Kate Bartlett braced herself for the onslaught.
A large section of the ceiling fell in with a couple of rafters. It was utter chaos. The Apache tumbled in at the same time, shrieking triumph. It seemed to be the call to the others and their efforts with axes quickened in pace. The lantern swayed, light and shadow cavorting on the walls.
As the Indian landed in front of her, Kate swirled round and squeezed the trigger. The shot was at point-blank range and the Apache bundled into her as the bullet bore into his chest. The weight of him pushed her back and she lost her footing and fell under him. His limp hand grasped a huge knife and it stabbed into the floorboards an inch from her ear.
The window shutters splintered.
“Ma, they’re breaking in!” Alice screamed.
The door crashed off its hinges, its panels in pieces.
Hardly able to breathe with the dead man on top of her, Kate croaked, “Fire!”
“Hold your fire!” shouted Gray Wolf from the porch.
There was a blood-covered young Apache men standing at the east and west windows and two in the doorway. Gray Wolf’s voice stopped them in their tracks. All of them were breathing heavily, blood, war paint and sweat glistening in the swaying lantern’s light.
The two men in the breached doorway stood aside and Gray Wolf stepped in. He gave the place a hasty glance, noting the levelled rifles on him and the men at the windows. Purposefully, he strode over to Kate and heaved the dead Apache off her. He took her hand, helped her up and said, “I have brought the reservation police to take these men away. They have been foolhardy and will be punished.”
Kate nodded and her voice croaked with a combination of smoke, anxiety and lack of water. “Foolhardy, but brave too.”
He gestured at Ethan, Frank and Alice. “You have brave children, also.”
“I will protect them unto death,” Kate said, surprised at the steel in her voice.
“I do not doubt it,” he said, eyeing her hand.
Then she noticed she was still holding her rifle.
“But it is not necessary,” he said and turned on his heel and walked outside, barking orders.
Gingerly crossing her once-lovely wooden floor that was now littered with spent cartridge cases and discoloured by water- and bloodstains, she followed him. She stepped over the broken door and stood on the veranda.
Docilely, the remaining four absentees from the reservation shuffled towards the waiting Indian police who were dressed in ill-fitting uniforms.
Gray Wolf was directing another Indian to bring over a wagon. For the dead and wounded.
Seeing an Apache lying face down barely ten feet off, Kate turned away. So pointless, all of it. Her eyes filled with tears – relief or released tension, she didn’t know which, or cared for that matter. She breathed in the muggy night air, glad to be alive.
Whooping and yelling, the corpse near her came to sudden and startling life. The Apache was wounded in the thigh but certainly not dead and he was charging her with a hatchet.
She felt the color drain from her cheeks. Arms ached as she lifted the Winchester. The surcease of punishing recoil made her reluctant to place the stock against her shoulder even one more time. Reluctantly, she nestled the wood against her bruised body.
Even in the dusk she could see his teeth and the gleam in his eyes as the Apache kept on running towards her.
The sound of the Henry rifle seemed to echo back from the mountain. She recognized its distinctive report and watched as the impetuous young Apache shrieked and fell to the dust.
Kate lowered her rifle as Gray Wolf strode back, helped the wounded Apache to his feet and led him to a wagon.
My God, Kate thought, Bill only wounded him in the arm!
“Did you see that, Ma?”
“I sure did, Ethan.”
“Now, that’s shootin’!” enthused Frank.
“I can still hit a barn with any gun,” opined Alice.
Their weapons lowered, her children gathered around Kate.
The wagons moved out with the wounded and dead.
Gray Wolf smoothly mounted his pony and then waved a kind of salute to the crest of the hill, where Bill Bartlett sat astride his big black stallion, silhouetted by the rising moon.
Later, as Bill rode over the wrecked picket fence, he said, “You been partyin’ while I was gone?”
“Heck, no,” Kate said, brushing a stray lank of hair off her brow. “A social call, is all. Just visitors.”
Copyright 2009, 2016 Nik Morton
If you liked this story, you might like the following westerns:
A Fistful of Legends anthology
Bullets for a Ballot
Coffin for Cash
Livin’ on Jacks and Queens anthology
Western Tales Vol 5 anthology
The Magnificent Mendozas – a variation on the famous Magnificent Seven
Battling Mahoney and Other Stories anthology
Write a Western in 30 Days – with plenty of bullet points