The Ballad of Zachery Carson Ch. 03bywoodmanone©
Please read the preceding chapters before continuing.
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"Kathleen... Kathleen wake up," Zach said softly as he shook her shoulder.
She sat up quickly and was about to scream. Zach quickly put his hand over her mouth. "Shush," he ordered in a low voice. "The Comancheros are camped about three miles from us." She nodded her understanding and Zach took his hand away.
He went to Buck and gave him another hat full of water. Kathleen rolled up the ground cloth and blanket. "Leave it," Zach ordered. He was speaking in a low voice but not a whisper; a whisper would carry across the desert. "We need to cut down the weight. I know it isn't much but we need to lighten the load as much as we can." He looked at Kathleen. "Can you ride bareback?"
"I'd like to leave the saddle too. It's a roping saddle and weighs about 40 pounds. Save a lot of weight if you can ride bareback."
"As a child, father would scold me for riding our horses bareback. He said it wasn't ladylike." Kathleen smiled. "And in case you've forgotten, I've been riding bareback behind you when we've been riding double."
Zach fixed a sling for his rifle and put it over his shoulder. He put two of the canteens around Kathleen's neck, slid the saddle blanket on Buck and mounted; they would leave everything else including the saddlebags. Holding out his foot for Kathleen to use as a step up, Zach helped her get up behind him. Looking back to make sure she was ready, he put his heels into the horse's flanks and they quietly and quickly began the next leg of their journey.
Half an hour later, he pulled Buck down from the slow lope they'd been traveling at and dismounted. As before he took hold of the lead rope and ran beside the animal as it continued at a fast walk. Another 20 minutes he remounted kicking Buck back into the lope with Kathleen holding tight to Zach's waist. The 'Hunter's Moon' gave them plenty of light so they could hold their pace.
The sun was coming up, turning the desert into shades of purple and gold, when they reached the next water hole. Zach guided Buck into a small grove of Cottonwood trees growing at the base of a rock outcropping where a spring came to the surface from underground. After dismounting, Zach led Buck to the small pool of water and let the animal drink for a couple of minutes; then he pulled him away. He tied Buck off so he could graze and joined Kathleen.
Zach took a few pieces of jerky out of his vest pocket and shared them with Kathleen. She nibbled and then sipped from a canteen. Kathleen looked about done in and truth be told, Zach was feeling the hard trip himself.
"These are a different type of tree," Kathleen said.
"Cottonwoods," Zach replied, nodding his head. "You don't see em much out here on the mesa; they only grow where there's a lot of water." He pointed at the spring and the shallow, narrow stream that disappeared between the rocks. "This spring runs deep and all year long, so they grow here."
"Mr. Carson, I..." Kathleen began, but Zach waved her quiet.
Pointing with his chin, he said, "Horses coming. Sounds like five or six riders." His voice was soft and low. "Get over behind the big Cottonwood next to Buck and untie him." Turning to look her in the eye he ordered, "If things go bad, jump on the horse and whip it for that big mountain to the east. Tucson sits at the base of that mountain."
"No argument Lady Kathleen. I'll be damned if I'll let anything happen to you after all the trouble you've been." Zach smiled as he talked, trying to get her over her natural fear.
Standing up straight, Kathleen replied, "And I'll be damned sir, if I'll leave you to face whoever is coming by yourself. Give me the rifle and I will help."
Zach had to admire her reaction to the possible danger. "Can you shoot? You know how to handle a gun?"
"I shot clays and hunted when I was younger; I also practiced with Father's army pistol. Later Father made me quit; he said it wasn't ladylike." Kathleen paused in thought for a moment. "It seems like everything I like to do, such as riding astride, hunting and fishing, is considered unladylike." She smiled at Zach. "Maybe it's time I started doing the things I enjoy instead of worrying about being a lady."
Zach returned her smile. "Maybe so; seems like the thing to do." He led her to one of the biggest trees and handed her his Colt. "This is better for close in work," Zach said. "This Colt is a single shot; means you have to cock the hammer back each time you want to shoot. It's accurate out to about 150 feet; don't waste your shots on anything farther out. If any of them come for you or the horse, protect yourself."
"Is it the Comancheros?" Kathleen asked.
"Not sure, but I don't think so. They're coming from the south instead of the west. Guess they could have looped around, but if they did they would have gotten ahead of us and cut us off from Tucson, instead of coming up from the south."
The dust cloud rising into the air was getting closer; within a few minutes he could make out that there were five riders. Zach knelt down behind a fallen tree with a section of the rock outcropping at his back and waited. Those are Apaches, he thought when they got close enough to really see them. Looks like a hunting party, what with that deer tied across the rump of the lead rider's horse.
The Apache rode single file, one behind the other, until they were about a hundred yards from the spring. Then they spread out with one rider leading and the others forming a sort of V behind him as they cautiously approached the water hole. At fifty yards they saw Kathleen and the horse back in the trees and stopped. They talked among themselves and after no more than a couple of minutes, continued toward the grove of Cottonwoods.
Zach stood from his hiding place with the butt of his Winchester resting on his hip. "What do you want?" He asked. The Apaches stopped and looked at each other. Zach repeated his question in Spanish. This time he got a response.
"We wish water for us and our horses," the lead rider called back. He spoke English with a Spanish accent.
"Ysun, the creator, provides for all his people," Zach said lowering his rifle. "Come and welcome." His experience with the Comanche in Texas and other Apaches in New Mexico told him that this band was as friendly as the Apache get and the mention of their God would reassure them. They weren't looking for trouble.
Zach walked back to the spring as the Apaches rode in. One at a time, they knelt down at the pool and drank. Then, again one at a time, they watered their horses. As one drank and watered his horse, the others stayed alert. The leader kept glancing at Kathleen, who had not left her hiding place.
"You're woman is afraid," one Apache said.
"No, not afraid," Zach answered. "She is careful and protecting me." He didn't want to or try to explain that Kathleen was not his woman. It was better that the Apache thought she belonged to him.
"I am 'Speaks Three Times," the Apache introduced himself. Zach told his name. "It is good that your woman is brave and protects her man."
"Yours is an interesting name." Zach knew that all Apache, and most other Indian names, had some meaning other than just a name like Bob or Bill.
"The name was given to me because I speak three tongues. I am mostly called 'Speaks' except at tribal consul." He pointed at Zach. "I speak the white eyes tongue, and that which you call Mexican, and Apache."
"I am named after a great one in our religion," Zach offered.
"There are Waka Sica Wanasa Pis following you," Speaks said, pointing to the west. Zach wasn't familiar with the word. Seeing that Zach didn't understand he said, "Devil hunters, Diablos, , are on your trail. We saw their sign and circled around to the water hole. They are about three of your hours behind you."
Nodding, Zach replied, "Yes I know. I didn't realized they were that close. We call them Comancheros and you're right, they are devils." Motioning to Kathleen to bring his horse, he told Speaks, "I was going to wait until night to ride on but with them that close we'd better go now."
The Apache finished watering their horses and rode out, heading north by north west. Zach gathered the few things they had, including the refilled canteens and he and Kathleen continued on their trek to Tucson.
"I thought we were going to wait until dark to ride," Kathleen said leaning in close to Zach's back.
"The Comancheros are about three hours behind us and coming hard, according to Speaks. We just have to take our chances in the desert." Zach pushed Buck into a faster pace than he'd been using before. "Need to put some miles between us and the water hole. I think they'll stop for water which will give us some time."
After 30 minutes, he slowed Buck and jumped off. "Keep him at the pace we set yesterday," Zach told Kathleen. "Head him for the high peak to the east." He grabbed onto the edge of the saddle blanket and ran beside Buck for another 30 minutes. Then he signaled Kathleen to slow to a fast walk.
Kathleen surprised Zach by getting off the horse and walking with him. "That will give our steed that much more rest," she told Zach. He stopped and looked at her. "C'mon then," Kathleen ordered in a singsong voice. "We need to make tracks, as you Americans say."
Shaking his head, Zach caught up with Kathleen and they walked along with the horse. She started to speak as they walked, but Zach shook his head. "Save your breath, you're going to need it."
The mesa they were riding across was an almost a flat plain that had been formed millions of years ago when the land around it was pushed up to make the mountain chain. There was a rock ridgeline, in some places a hundred feet tall, surrounding the mesa. The only break through that ridge was a trail over a saddleback and that was where Zach was heading. It was the only spot for twenty miles in either direction that men on horseback could cross the barrier.
Stopping Buck after 20 minutes or so, Zach used his hat and emptied one of the canteens to water the horse. Then he mounted and helped Kathleen up behind him. He pushed Buck into another fast lope; guiding him toward the break in the hills. They were making good time, but Buck was beginning to tire. Carrying two people at that pace was a hard task. Kathleen looked back toward the west and saw a dust cloud.
"I think they're coming," she said.
Zach turned the horse a little north and without stopping looked behind. "Reckon they are," he agreed. "That dust cloud is getting closer and we can't out run em. Hope we can get to the pass before they're on us." He dug his heels into Buck's flanks, urging the animal to run harder.
The dust cloud got closer until Zach could make out the individual riders; there were ten of them as he'd thought. He pushed Buck again, knowing it was killing the animal but he didn't have a choice. If the Comancheros caught them out in the open they wouldn't have a chance to survive. Well that's not exactly true, Zach thought. They'll kill me but they'll take Kathleen captive and sell her down in Mexico or use her for their own entertainment; either way it's won't be a good life for her. Zach felt Kathleen's arms around him, trusting in his abilities. If they do catch us, I'll put a bullet in her head before I let them have her.
Buck was laboring but continued running hard; his coat dotted with foam like lather. And then he stepped in a hole. Zach and Kathleen were thrown over the animal's head as Buck cart wheeled in almost a complete flip. After making sure Kathleen wasn't seriously hurt, Zach walked back to where the horse was laying on the ground. He knelt by Buck's head and stroked his nose. The front left leg was broken, bent at an extreme angle and the animal was done. Buck was so tired he didn't even struggle; he just laid there suffering.
"You tried hard, didn't you Buck?" Zach stroked Buck's forehead, pulled his pistol and did what he'd done earlier for another horse; he put Buck out of its misery.
With only one hundred yards to go to the head of the pass, Zach gathered his rifle, the remaining two canteens, and motioned to Kathleen to continue toward the break in the ridgeline. "They're still back there a ways and we might make it to the pass over the saddleback before they can catch up to us," he said.
Kathleen took one of the canteens and started out at a brisk, almost running walk. Zach shook his head in admiration and followed her. As they reached the base of the incline up to the pass, the Comancheros were less than a hundred and fifty yards behind them. Bullets began to land in the ground and rocks around them as the raiders tried to bring them down before Zach and Kathleen could get to the higher ground of the pass.
When they got to the base of the trail over the saddleback, Zach took off his gun belt and handed it to Kathleen. He pointed at three huge boulders that had fallen from the top of the ridgeline in a time long before men started traveling over the pass.. "Take this and get behind those rocks."
He watched Kathleen for several seconds as she scrambled up the hill and then turned back toward the Comancheros. Dropping to one knee he brought his Winchester up and shot twice. One of the riders was knocked out of the saddle and the rest pulled up. They tried to find some cover but on that flat mesa there weren't many places to hide.
Zach shot again at a head that looked up over a Creosote bush. He heard a yell and the man fell back. Two down, eight to go, he thought. Zach made his way up the slope closer to Kathleen and again stopped behind a small rock pile.
The remaining Comancheros decided to rush Zach. The eight men jumped on their horses and charged his position. Zach could see a two wheeled cart following the men; must be their supplies and things they stole, he thought as he aimed his rifle. Two more of the men were knocked out of their saddles before the riders pulled up and again sought cover. That's four, Zach said to himself; six more. The man driving the cart jumped down and hid behind it. As one of the dead men's horses came by him, he grabbed the animal, mounted and rode directly away from the fighting.
Now the outlaw band got craftier. One or two men would crawl toward Zach and the others would start firing. Then the forward men would shoot to keep Zach's head down and the others would leap frog ahead of the shooters. Zach was sort of pinned down but was still able to return fire occasionally.
"Can't stay here," he said out loud. "I need to get up with Kathleen."
Zach fired several shots at the men making them hunker down and then he ran up the slope; not stopping until he joined Kathleen but behind a different rock across the narrow trail. Crouching down, Zach reloaded his Winchester. While he was running, the gang was able to put two men at the base of the incline. Slowly they made their way up toward Zach and Kathleen; hiding and waiting for their friends to fire before moving again. They had to replace one of the forward men as Zach's rifle found another victim. That's five, Zach thought.
Whether from anger, bravado, or stupidity, the remaining Comancheros decided to rush their prey's position. Zach and Kathleen were surprised to see the men advanced toward them as fast as they could; firing and yelling. Zach was deadly with his rifle and four more of the bandits died trying to make it up that hill. He carefully stood, looking for the fifth man.
Turning he saw him up the hill, 20 feet behind Kathleen. Somehow in the confusion of the charge he'd managed to circle around. "Kathleen," he yelled in warning and tried to bring his rifle to bear.
The last of the Comancheros fired at Zach hitting him in the left shoulder. Zach spun around with the impact and fell. Still trying to bring his rifle up, he watched as the man turned toward Kathleen. The raider never got a chance to fire; the sound of the big Colt was deeper and not as sharp as the Winchester but it was just as effective.
Knocked off his feet by the .45 bullet that hit him in the stomach, the last outlaw hit the ground. He tried to push himself up and Kathleen fired again. This time he didn't move.
Zach had scrambled to his feet but abruptly sat down as the shock of getting hit pierced through the intense battle mode he'd been in during the gunfight. Motioning to Kathleen, he pulled himself along on the seat of his pants so he could lean up against the same rock that had been his cover. Kathleen came to Zach and knelt down; trying to hand his pistol back to him. Her cheeks were flushed, she'd lost her hat, and her hair was falling out of the bun but she seemed steady to Zach and she was uninjured.
"Keep the pistol Milady," Zach said. "You might have use of it again."
"So we're back to Milady, are we?" Kathleen smiled and tried to look at Zach's wound. "Thought you said titles don't mean much out here."
"You've earned it Kathleen." Zach pointed to several plants growing in the cracks and crevasses of the mountain side. "See those plants with the thick spines? Those are Aloe Vera." He pulled the knife at his waist out of its sheath and cut his shirt away until he could see the wound. The pain was intensifying and quickly wearing away his consciousness. "Wash the hole with a little water first, then pick several of those spines."
Kathleen helped him pull his shirt out of the way and got a canteen from her hiding place. The bullet had gone completely through the lower shoulder muscle. After running water into the wound, she went to gather the Aloe Vera. Following his instructions, she squeezed sap out of the spines and applied it to the both sides of Zach's shoulder. She tore a piece from the over size shirt she wore and made a bandage but the blood continued to seep through. Kathleen secured the bandage with one of the carry straps from a canteen.
"That Aloe sap will fight infection," Zach told her. "At least until you can get to Tucson and come back with help."
"I can't leave you; you're wounded," Kathleen protested.
"You've got to or neither of us will make it." Zach slid down a little more against the rock. "I'm gonna pass out here pretty soon and I need to tell y..." He was right; Zach lost consciousness before he could finish his sentence. His last thought as he went under was, Damn I hope she makes it.
"What?" Zach mumbled. Someone was calling his name and all Zach wanted to do was sleep.
"Zach, wake up," the voice called again. "You need to wake up."
Slowly opening his eyes and then shutting them at the glare of the sunlight coming through a window, Zack finally woke up. He tried to sit but the pain in his shoulder made him wince and moan. Zach sensed, rather than saw, someone close the curtains to block the light.
"Who's there?" He asked and opened his eyes again.
"It's me Zach, Kathleen."
Zach smiled. Hell if this is a dream, it's a fine one, he thought. Beats laying out here in the rocks, waiting for the buzzards to find me. The he realized he was on a bed, in a room, and Kathleen was sitting next to him.
"You made it," Zach said and smiled at her.
"We made it Zach. Thanks to your courage and fighting skill."
"How'd we get here and where is here?"
"Here is Tucson. How we got here is a story for when you're stronger." Kathleen held a spoon to his lips and ordered, "Eat."
"It's only broth, but you need the nourishment," a male voice said. "I'm Dr. Simpson, we haven't officially met." The doctor stepped to the bed and gently shook Zach's hand. "If we feed you normal, you'd just bring it back up again."