Southwest corner of New Mexico Territory
For several miles Forrest Macklin had welcomed the sight of a thin line of scrub trees, mostly desert willow and mesquite, shimmering in the heat of the mid-afternoon sun. For a line of trees, however sparse, meant a stream or even a river. And he was mighty thirsty; he’d drunk the last of the warm water in his canteen several hours earlier.
He gave his plodding horse a pat on its big neck. “Water up ahead, Pablo,” he said. “I hope.” The river could easily have dried up completely by this time in the late desert summer.
So he was delighted to find that the stream, when he brought Pablo to a halt at the edge of the riverbank, still had water in it. Not much water to be sure. Most of the wide riverbed was sandbars and shelves of gravel. But there were still shallow channels of muddy brown water struggling across hard-packed sand. The width of the riverbed and the steep riverbanks several feet high showed that during spring high water or after a summer flash flood the water could be quite deep and swift. But at the moment the stream was just trying to survive as long as it could in the unforgiving sun.
Macklin felt baked by the pounding heat and wrung out. The dry, hot wind kept evaporating most of his sweat, but the water-soaked back of his shirt still stuck to his skin. He ran his tongue over his rough, cracked lips. That water in the stream—muddy, dirty, stale—looked wonderful.
Pablo, smelling the water, fidgeted impatiently. Macklin smiled. “Yeah, me too,” he said. He clucked to his horse, pressed his boots against its flanks, and grabbed onto the saddle horn with his left hand. “Go, Pablo.”
The horse hesitated for just a moment to judge distance and height, and then he took the riverbank with a single lunge.
Macklin grunted at the hard landing and quickly halted Pablo at the first rivulet. It was only a few inches deep. But that was deep enough.
He climbed out of the saddle and sighed in relief. It had been a long day. He lifted Pablo’s reins over the animal’s head and dropped the ends in the sand. He scratched the horse on the neck as the horse lowered its head to the water. “Have a drink, Pablito,” Macklin said. “You’ve done well today.” He gave Pablo’s neck a couple more quick scratches as the horse moved a few steps into the water. “As always.”
Macklin dropped to his knees and stuck both hands in the water. The water was warm. He could feel the grit in the fluid. He could barely see through the turbidity. But it was not any less welcome than a cold, clear mountain stream.
He cupped a hand and brought some water to his mouth and slurped it in. “Ah.” Then he used both hands several times to take in long drinks. “Delicious,” he said. He used his tongue to swipe some of the sand off his teeth, and he spit some of it aside. And he ran a finger over his teeth for good measure.
Then he took off his hat and scooped up a hatful of water and poured it over his head. He didn’t mind the sand in the water at all because he was already covered in dust from the day’s ride. And he chuckled contently. Warm as the water was, it still felt relatively cool on his scalp.
He fiddled with the bandana around his neck with one hand and took it off. He used it to wipe water, sweat and grit from his face. Then he stood up and stuck the bandana into a back pocket.
Macklin plopped the hat on his head again, but he didn’t bother settling it properly. He lifted the canteen off Pablo’s saddle and yanked the cork out. He knelt down and, pointlessly, swept the surface of the muddy water to make a futile attempt at clearing a grit-free space on the surface. He stuck the canteen under the water. Air bubbled to the surface as water splashed into the container.
As Macklin waited for the canteen to fill he looked around. He swore he could hear the landscape sizzling in the heat. A small lizard eyed him curiously from a perch on a rock off to the side. A few sage sparrows were fussing at each other in a desiccated creosote bush across the stream.
Suddenly Pablo lifted his long neck with a jerk and looked to his left. His ears twitched forward.
Macklin glanced up at his mount but then quickly looked to the left. In this country it was not wise to ignore a horse’s signal like that. “See something, Pablo?” He squinted into the shimmering distance.
He saw nothing untoward. He looked back up at Pablo’s head. The horse was casually licking at the water dripping from his mouth. He showed no particular sign of alarm though he kept looking to the left.
Macklin relaxed. It could have been a bird, a lizard, a coyote, any small creature or just the wind playing in shriveled leaves on a scrub tree. Just a dumb horse attracted to something new but trivial.
Macklin looked back down at the muddy water gurgling into his canteen. But Pablo snorted softly and stiffened.
Macklin again looked up at his horse. Pablo wasn’t licking at the water anymore. He was still staring to his left. Now Macklin took his horse more seriously.
Macklin stood up slowly, keeping his gaze to his left. “You hear something strange, Pablo?” His horse had better hearing than he did.
He stuck the cork back into the neck of his canteen and gave it a thump with his fist. Still holding the canteen in his left hand he rested his right hand on the butt of his pistol in its holster. He squinted against the glare of the sun, searching the scene down the riverbed for anything significant.
To the left a ways up the stream the riverbank receded a considerable distance from the waterway to where the channel used to be. This produced a much bigger open area of sand, maybe 30 yards wide, alongside the water before reaching the riverbank several feet high. And now Macklin did see something unusual.
“By damn, you’ve got good eyes, Pablo. It looks like a horse lying on the sand.” He studied the animal for a few moments. “He’s lying pretty still. Must be dead.”
He gave Pablo a pat on the neck. And he smiled. “Now, don’t tell me you actually heard a dead horse.” He gave his horse another affectionate pat. “Or maybe he’s not quite dead. Maybe you saw him move a little bit. Let’s go take a look.”
Macklin draped the strap of his canteen over the saddle horn and grabbed the reins with his right hand. He started walking forward, splashing through the water. He led his horse all the way across the riverbed to the other side and headed up toward the horse lying on the sand.
He stopped about ten feet away from the horse on the ground, still holding Pablo’s reins casually in his right hand. The horse on the ground was still saddled, but it was lying perfectly still on its left side, its neck outstretched, its tongue fallen out of its mouth. It didn’t move, there was no heaving of its sides, and there was not even any hoarse snuffling or wheezing.
“Yeah, dead,” Macklin said.
He glanced upwards to check the sky. “No buzzards yet.” He looked down again and scanned the nearby area. He could just make out a few slight bootprints in the hard-packed sand but no animal tracks. “No coyotes have been here yet. And only a few flies so far. This horse hasn’t bloated and busted open and smelled bad yet. He didn’t die too long ago, Pablo.”
Macklin stepped a little closer. He could still see where sweat had matted the hair of the horse’s mane onto his neck. “I’d say this poor fellow was ridden hard until he dropped dead. Rode right into the ground. That’s no way to treat a horse. Any horse. And this is a fine looking bay.”
He looked around. “But where’s the rider?” he muttered. “Where did he go? A cowhand wouldn’t leave his saddle.” He looked at Pablo. “But maybe the rider wasn’t a cowhand. What do you think?” And Macklin smiled. He was pretty sure most cowhands talked to their horses as much as he did.
A canteen lay next to the horse, its strap still over the saddle horn. Macklin gave it a tap with his foot. It clunked and moved easily. “Empty.” But there was a river about 20 feet away. Why not fill the canteen and take it along? Water was life in the desert. Without water the desert would hammer you into dust in a short time.
Macklin casually pointed to the saddle scabbard. “Scabbard’s empty, Pablo. Why would the rider take the saddle gun but not water?” Had there never been a long gun? But then why the scabbard?
Macklin noticed that it looked like someone had spent a good amount of effort digging out the hard-packed sand underneath the horse’s rump. “Looks like the rider took his saddlebags. That must have been hard work. At least there aren’t any saddlebags on the horse. Something was dragged out from underneath that horse.”
Macklin shook his head once. “Mighty odd, Pablo. The man took the saddlebags and his rifle but no water. I could see leaving behind the saddle. It would be a helluva chore getting it out from underneath this big horse. But not take water? It doesn’t make sense.”
Macklin stepped to the side a few paces. He tried to make sense of the few bootprints visible in the hardpan. Just slight depressions. The baked sand didn’t yield easily to any pressure at all. And it looked like the footprints went away from the horse toward the receded riverbank, not unexpectedly. “Ah, looks like the fellow headed that way, Pablo.”
Macklin followed the tracks carefully with his eyes and at the riverbank he suddenly saw, sticking out through some yellow weeds, a man without a hat drawing a bead on him with a rifle.
A surge of adrenaline raced through Macklin’s body. He didn’t even take the time to gasp, just instantly lurched to his left, letting go of Pablo’s reins. The man on the riverbank fired. A bullet grazed the lowest rib on Macklin’s right side and ripped off a deep strip of skin and flesh.
Macklin yelped and sprinted toward the shelter of the nearby riverbank a few yards away. The assailant fired again but the bullet whizzed behind him. Macklin threw himself to the ground behind the riverbank.
Pablo spooked and trotted a few yards in the opposite direction. Then he stopped and looked back at Macklin and then at the other man atop the more distant riverbank.
Macklin snugged up against the riverbank and quickly drew his pistol and cocked it. He grimaced and looked down at his side. The wound was bleeding badly. And it hurt like hell.
“God dammit,” he muttered. “Shit!” On the other hand if he had dodged just a split second later, the bullet would have been in his gut and he would have died a slow, agonizing death, baked in the desert sun. So he figured he was actually sort of lucky. Sort of.
He looked over at Pablo and nodded a quick salute. “I missed your warning, amigo,” he said. “You hadn’t been looking at the dead horse on the ground; you’d been following the rider sneaking over the riverbank.”
Macklin held his breath and tried to listen carefully. Could he hear the other man moving? He didn’t think so.
He looked down at his wound again. What a mess. Despite the blood and pain he didn’t think the wound was too bad, assuming he could stop the bleeding. He pulled the bandana out of his back pocket and stuffed it inside the shirt against the wound. The touch of the cloth stung, and he winced. “Ooo!”
He took some deep breaths and tried to relax a little, gather his thoughts, concentrate on the more immediate problem—the bushwhacker.
He still couldn’t hear any movement. He crept a couple of yards farther down the riverbank, took off his hat, and slowly raised his head to peer over the edge. He could see the man, but to his surprise the man seemed to be resting his head on the stock of his rifle, which looked like a short-barreled carbine. He wasn’t looking at either Macklin or Pablo.
Macklin slowly lowered his head. This was odd. What was going on?
He glanced at his pistol. The other man had a carbine, much more accurate than a pistol, especially at this range. And his own carbine was still in its saddle scabbard on Pablo.
Macklin looked over at Pablo. The horse hadn’t moved. Macklin straightened up where he was sitting and beckoned to Pablo. Quietly he called, “Pablo, come here.” He whistled softly.
But Pablo didn’t move. He looked over at Macklin and played with the bit in his mouth, but he didn’t move. And he turned his head away again.
Macklin gestured more vigorously. “Hey, horse, come here. Aqui, aqui.” He clucked at Pablo a couple of times. “Come here, Pablo, damn you!” he hissed.
He waited. Then he slumped lower. “Stupid horse,” he muttered. Maybe if he had had a carrot to entice Pablo to wander over—but he didn’t have a carrot.
He kept looking at Pablo. At least the horse seemed to be staring at the man who had tried to kill him. Macklin could probably count on Pablo’s behavior to warn him if the man began to move.
Macklin snugged up against the riverbank again. “Hey, hombre,” he called.
There was no answer. Macklin tried again. “Do I know you?” He waited longer. “Is this something personal?” Still no answer.
Maybe the man was a Mexican and didn’t speak English. “¿Como se llama?” he called.
The man didn’t give his name. But he did answer. “I need your horse, amigo,” he said.
Macklin snorted. Amigo, my ass, he thought. The man had tried to kill him. And, of course, the man wanted Pablo. He’d ridden his own horse to death. That’s why the ambush.
But Macklin didn’t think the man sounded Mexican. And he thought the man’s voice sounded strained, as if it was taking effort to talk.
“You can’t have him,” Macklin called. “I need him.”
The other man said nothing.
Macklin said, “You wouldn’t need another horse if you’d treated your own horse decently.”
“Gotta hurry,” the man said. “Gotta put distance . . . south. . . Mexico . . .” His voice trailed off.
Macklin couldn’t understand the mumbling of the man after that; his voice was too soft, too slurred. “What’s the rush?” Macklin asked.
The other man didn’t say. Instead he said, slowly, “There’s a village downriver, amigo. Close.”
Macklin wondered if that was true. He had not gone down to that hacienda in Chihuahua by this route; he was taking a side trip north toward Lordsburg on the way back. So he was not familiar with the area. But he sure wasn’t going to take the ambusher’s word for it. “Yeah, so you say.”
“Jus’ follow the stream,” the other man said. “You can get another horse there. Two or three miles. Easy walk.”
“You could do the same,” Macklin said. He waited but there was no answer right away.
Eventually the man said softly, “Can’t.” And in a voice that Macklin could barely hear he added, “No time.”
“What’s the rush?” Macklin asked again, not because he really cared but just to keep the man talking. As long as he could hear the man talk he could tell where he was. “Hey, we could ride double on Pablo. I could take you to the village.”
Macklin wasn’t really going to do that, not with a man who was trying to kill him. “You could be the one to get another horse. You, not me.”
But there was no answer. Macklin glanced down at his wound. The bunched up bandana was soaked and now doing a poor job of stopping the bleeding. Macklin needed to pack the wound better.
He looked over at Pablo. The horse was still staring casually in the direction of the far riverbank. So the man wasn’t moving from his position; he was keeping Pablo’s attention.
Macklin set his pistol down and pulled the bandana out through the hole in his shirt. He unfolded the cloth and flapped it a couple of times to get some of the major wrinkles out of it. Some flecks of blood spattered his face, and he wiped them off with the back of his hand. “Aw, jeez.”
Then he folded the bandana in half and then in half again and then a third time. The bandana now formed a pad. Gingerly Macklin stuck the bandana back inside his shirt on top of the wound. He winced. “Ooo!” He looked closely at the wound as he carefully positioned the bandana. He pressed it slowly against the wound, whimpering a little at the sting of the cloth on the wound.
Macklin looked up and stiffened with alarm. The other man had sneaked all the way to Pablo without Macklin noticing. He had put a hat on, and he had saddlebags flung over his left shoulder. He was reaching for Pablo’s reins with his left hand. He had a grip on his carbine with his right hand, holding it like a pistol.
“Hey!” Macklin shouted. He reached for his pistol on the ground.
The man turned. He kept his left hand still poised near Pablo’s reins, but he swung the carbine toward Macklin with his right.
Macklin cocked his pistol as he brought it up, and he threw himself against the riverbank as the man fired. Using just one hand on his carbine the assailant’s aim was poor, and Macklin heard the bullet whip past his head. Pablo jumped, startled, and he trotted off a few paces.
The shot missed Macklin, but it spoiled his own aim as he fired too quickly. He saw his bullet tug at the man’s trousers just above his left knee. There was a puff of dust and Macklin thought blood, too. The man grunted and dropped to his knees.
Macklin quickly cocked his pistol and this time took careful aim squarely at the man’s chest.
But Macklin hesitated. The man seemed frozen. He made no attempt to lever another cartridge into the chamber of his carbine. Instead he just seemed to stare at the sand, his left hand still raised as if reaching for Pablo’s reins, his right hand holding the carbine pointed out straight toward Macklin but with an empty shell in the chamber.
Macklin scrambled to his feet. He gave a silent gasp as the movement sent pain through his wound, but he kept the pistol trained on the bushwhacker.
And then the outlaw slowly toppled forward. He made no attempt to break his fall, just fell face forward onto the hard-packed sand. The barrel of his carbine dug into the sand and twisted in his hand, though the man did not let go. His left hand flopped onto the sand. His hat rolled a foot in front of his head. He landed on top of one pouch of his saddlebags; the other pouch stayed on his back. He lay still.
Macklin waited. Was this a trick? His bullet had barely grazed the man in the leg. It should simply have made him mad as hell, not make him collapse like that.
Mcklin kept his cocked pistol pointed at the prone figure and stepped cautiously forward.
When he reached the man he that the man was perfectly still. Macklin didn't think he was even breathing. In fact he thought the man was probably dead. Not from the flesh wound at the knee Macklin had given him. But probably from the bullet hole in the man's back.