This is a work
of fiction, based on characters created
This story is for readers over the age of 18 only, and contains explicit sexual situations and adult language. The writer is not responsible for any "discomfort" caused to the reader by this language and these situations.
©2002 by WILDBEARIES
The sun burned down onto the dry prairie grass, turning what was left of anything alive into nothing more than straw. The horse couldn't eat it. She lipped it, blew a breath of disgust into the dusty soil and lifted her head, gazing at her master as if to say, "You brought me here - now suppose you feed me."
The man in the dusty jeans and shirt, his hat slanted across his face to keep the sun out of his eyes as much as possible, had little to offer his game little mare. He shook his canteen - nearly dry. Nevertheless, the horse deserved it because she'd carried him this far, so he poured some of the water into his cupped palm and held it out for her. "Here y'go girl - sorry it isn't more."
She lipped it, her warm tongue swiping across his palm to get all of it, before giving him a slight nudge with her head. He patted her dusty shoulder. "More as soon as I can, girl - for now, we've got to keep going." He slung the canteen over the saddle horn and remounted.
He'd set out from Abilene three days before on the trail of two bank robbers. He had expected to catch them much sooner than this, hadn't counted on their having a change of horses stashed ten miles outside of town so they could leave their chase-exhausted mounts and gain ground on fresh horses, presumably with extra water as well. At that point, Marshal David Cortland - known to one and all simply as "Cort", sent the six men who had ridden out with him back to town and rode on alone. "I'll either catch up to them or I won't - you men have wives and familes to take care of - get on back and keep an eye on things until I can bring them in."
They had gone, although his deputy, Frank Stevens, had protested vehemently. "I don't see why you wanna do this alone," he said, "but I know when you've got your dander up, there's no use arguin', so I'll go on back to town and wait for you."
"Good," Cort said in his soft voice, a smile curving his lips. The smile warmed his otherwise somewhat austere countenance - and revealed his dimples - something that could embarrass the life out of him in social situations. With his men, he was quiet-spoken, slow to anger, and steadfast in a sticky situation. For this reason, Frank knew it was no use arguing with the man. "I'll be back in a week," Cort told his deputy. "If I'm not, start looking for vultures - I'll probably be lying right below where they're circling."
Frank had snorted a laugh, "That will be the day," he commented dryly. The others had ridden back to town and Cort had continued to track the two bank robbers - on their fresh horses - and that had brought him to this. He was about out of water. The ponds and lakes that normally would have been full from early summer rains were uncharacteristically dry. There was virtually nothing for his horse to eat, and no small game for him to snare or shoot for his own food. In short, once he fed his mare the little bit of oats left in his saddle bag, she would have to exist on any grass she might find. As for himself - he had some hard tack - and no water to make it go down a bit easier.
A tiny flash of light off to one side of the trail Cort followed caught his eye. He pulled up and sat still in the saddle, waiting to see it again, make sure of where it came from. It could just be a trick of his eyes, or it could be someone hiding up ahead, waiting for him to ride - all unknowing - into an ambush. Easier to eliminate him by treachery than turn and make a fight of it. They wanted the $50,000 they had stolen from the Abilene Bank, and they wanted the Marshal off their trail. Cort planned to make sure they got neither wish.
There it was again. Definitely not a trick of his vision. All right, then. He unsnapped the strap keeping his Scofields in his holsters - both of them - and made sure the guns slid easily out into his hands and didn't stick. He sent the horse forward at a walk, and, his hat tipped at a nonchalant angle, he rode toward where he knew the two bank robbers were hiding.
It was difficult not to betray nerves by too much studied casualness, but he managed to do it. He looked bored and disinterested, and, from their hiding places in the scrub pines ahead of him, the two thieves grinned at one another and prepared to eliminate the man who had tracked them the past five days. The leader signaled to his second in command to keep still, put the sight of his Winchester to his eye, and took careful aim at the oncoming Marshal. This was gonna be too easy.
In between one blink of his eye and another, the Marshal disappeared from the ambusher's sight. The outlaw blinked and looked on his own, lowering the rifle. "Where the fuck did he get to?"
"Behind you," came the low-voiced answer and the click of the hammer of a very fine pistol being cocked. "Drop the rifle and your pistol, and tell your friend over there in the bushes to do the same."
"And who might you be?" the robber asked, unable to credit that his neat ambush had backfired in his face. He didn't follow orders about telling the other man to do as the Marshal asked.
"Marshal Cortland from Abilene - you remember Abilene? You stole $50,000 from the fine banking institution there the other day? They'd like it back, and while I'm at it, they'd like you put away for awhile in the federal penitentiary."
"I ain't goin' to the pen," the first man said. "I been there - didn't much care for it." He saw the second man - on foot - making his silent way around behind the Marshal, a deadly knife he called a "pig sticker" in his hand. He had a hard time not chuckling - the Marshal was gonna be so damned surprised. To cover any noise Clint - the knife wielder - might make, Jake Bonner, bank robber, horse thief, murderer, raper of several women, turned his horse and made a big show of unbuckling his gunbelt, sliding it down onto the ground and generally keeping the Marshal's attention on him. "Okay, my guns are down - now what?"
Cort felt uneasy - the hairs on the back of his arms stood up, usually a sign that all was not well. He had expected some resistance from the two, but so far, he only actually saw the one. Had they split up unbeknownst to him? No, couldn't have - their tracks would have split off, and their hoofprints showed the two horses walked right into this tangle of scrub pines and thorn bushes one right after the other. "Damn!" by the time Cort realized what was happening, Clint had launched himself literally out of nowhere and was doing a pretty good job of pulling Cort out of his saddle.
The bay mare reared and danced, not liking the sudden extra weight as the other man tried to unseat her rider. She circled in place, dust flying up in a choking cloud from her sharp hooves. She managed to step on Clint, narrowly missed helping him get Cort off her back by rearing up as high as she'd ever gone in her life, but he held on like he was glued to the saddle. When she came down, however, Clint sank his knife into Cort's right thigh, pulled it back out and slashed his right arm as he attempted to bat the knife away.
Because the horse was curvetting and dancing, and because he had the reins tangled, Cort couldn't get his left gun up to shoot at the outlaws. Both of them were on him now, and he was quickly pulled off his horse and knocked to the hard-packed ground. He rolled, attempting to get to his feet, but his right leg buckled under him and he went down with a grunt of pain. As Clint and Jake proceeded to kick him unconscious, Cort had the ironic thought that he had been right, after all, about those circling vultures.
A hard blow to the side of his head from a rifle butt sent all thoughts skittering out of his head and everything went dark.
If it would only rain.
Day after day, and no clouds came. The grass dried up. The milk cow did too. The pig was looking sad, although Chris had built her a makeshift shelter where the big sow could lie out of the direct sun and not get too overheated. The chickens were either dead or listless. "Pretty much how I feel," Chris said to nobody in particular.
She was twenty eight years old, unmarried, and that made her an old maid spinster in anybody's book. That she was an accomplished horsewoman, able to coax the most rambunctious or frightened horse into marvels of obedience, was lost on her neighbors. They all referred to her as "the old maid" and pitied her because she ran her small ranch all by herself and seemed to prefer it that way.
If there wasn't any rain soon, she would have to gather up her horses and the cow, the pig and what was left of the chickens, and head on down to Abilene in search of temporary quarters someplace where there was water and feed for her livestock. Her ranch would sit empty and silent, but when it rained - and it eventually would - she could come back and start over.
She was good at starting over. She had raised two younger siblings after their parents died - the boy was back East studying scientific farming at the University of Kentucky and the girl, Beth, was in the house, studying the bloodlines of some very fine horses in the stud books Chris had brought with her from Lexington when she had moved them, lock, stock and barrel out to Texas five years before. She sighed. Beth probably loved horses more than she did - she would hate to give up their dream of raising some blooded stock and crossing them with the finest quarter horses they could find - but Beth wasn't stupid, she would see that things happened - like droughts - that you just couldn't argue with.
Chris mounted her claybank dun quarter horse gelding, Marbles, and started back for the ranch house. Something caught her attention and she glanced up. Buzzards. Goddamnit, she hoped whatever was dead wasn't anything she had hand-reared and turned loose in this sun-scorched countryside. She headed Marbles in that direction, glad to put off telling Beth to pack some things and get ready to relocate to Abilene for a while.
It was almost two miles to the scrub pine dotted clearing where a bay mare stood sentry over a crumpled figure on the ground. The horse snorted, exchanging little nickers with Marbles, but remained where she was. She didn't go haring off in fright when Chris climbed down, but stood loyally in place, her intelligent eyes watching as the figure in whipcord riding pants and a denim vest over a plaid cotton shirt that had seen better days came up and quietly patted her shoulder. "There's a good girl - let me see who you've got here - that's it, girly, move over a bit."
Chris stooped down, sure the still figure on the hard-as-a-rock ground was dead. She could see it was a man and he was in dusty jeans and shirt, a sleeveless leather vest and what seemed to be good quality boots. He wore a double-holstered gunbelt - and the gleam of a polished, finely kept pistol nearby told her he had fought, just not all that nimbly. There, under a thorn bush on the right, was the second pistol. Well, she would see if there was a name maybe engraved on the barrels - find out who this unfortunate person was - and, damn it to hell - she would have to bury him. In this heat, she wouldn't leave a dead body above ground very long - and she didn't want coyotes or wolves to drag body parts into her front yard either so burial was a necessary drudgery. "God damn it," she muttered.
"Uhhnnnnnnn," the dead man said.
Chris almost fell flat in shock. He was alive!
"Good God, man - you've got the luck of the Irish or something." She decided to see what was what and turned him over. "Well, aren't you handsome," she said to herself. "Under all that dirt and blood, anyways." Hands busily checking out the man who wasn't all that dead, she quickly found a Marshal's star pinned to his vest, and some papers in his hip pocket that identified him as one David Cortland, Marshal of Abilene. "Well, well - a Marshal."
"Just so's you don't croak on me - Marshal," Chris said. She walked back to Marbles and got her canteen. Taking her red bandana, she splashed water on it until it was soaked and gently washed the dirt and blood off the unconscious man's face. Sea green eyes fringed with long eye lashes opened and stared up at her in confusion. "Well, hello - I see you're alive after all."
The Marshal didn't acknowledge her humor, but he did seem to understand her. That was good - it meant his brains weren't addled too much. "Let me give you some water," she said, and gave him several sips from the cap of her canteen. "Okay?" she asked. He made a small sound of assent, and she told him, "I'm gonna give some to your horse, mister - just you wait here, now."
As if he was goin' anyplace, she laughed to herself. She washed the dust out of the mare's nostrils and let the nice animal drink from her palm. Just a few licks actually, but it would get her back to Chris's ranch house and a fairly full trough if Beth had remembered to pump the water for the animals. The horse seen to, Chris went back to the injured man. "You chasing some bad guys, Marshal?"
"Bank - two guys - robbed..." was all he got out before he had to pause to catch his breath.
"Okay," she soothed him like she soothed a nervy horse - by tone of voice and touch. "I understand, but you're not going after them like this. I need to get you to my house - do you think you could ride if we can get you on your horse?"
He nodded that he could.
So Chris secured his horse to the strongest of the scrubby pines and set about getting him onto his feet, propelled to the side of his horse, and - with a lot of heaving, cussing and exclamations of discomfort - got the man mounted. She didn't think he was going to get far, so with his agreement, she cut some sections of rope from her coiled lariat and tied him onto the horse by ankles, knees and wrists, so he wouldn't just fall off. "Okay, now we go," she told him, and began leading her odd little band back to her ranch.
Beth was waiting anxiously by the barn, having just pumped the trough full of fresh water - luckly, the well was the only blasted thing on the ranch that seemed to be never-ending. She took in the fact that her sister had brought home another stray, and went to see what she could do to help.
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