Sweat stung his eyes and trickled down the middle of his back. His legs cramped, but he dared not move. A fly buzzed around his nose, boldly landing on his unshaven chin. Luke Catlin squinted at the sun shimmering above a barren horizon. Two hours. Even as he cursed the cowardice that kept him crouched behind the rock, he knew there was nothing he could do. No cover lay between his hiding place and his captured horse, over a hundred feet away. The closest help lay at least twenty miles to the southeast, but the soldiers at Camp Bowie wouldn't be patrolling this far from the Butterfield stage route. Camp Grant was to the northwest, but those troops were kept busy protecting the settlers in San Pedro Valley from the Coyotero Apaches.
A tortured scream riveted his attention on the scene below. He swallowed a dry heave and frantically studied the Indian sentry for some sign of waning attention. Catlin's Winchester looked menacing in the hands of the sentry. If he hadn't been in such a hurry to prove his worth by finding gold first, the gun would be in his hands now.
Another scream echoed off the rocky slope. His fingers brushed the rough handle of the pick nervously. Any attempt to rescue Ramsey would be suicidal. He counted six Indians. Might as well be sixty. He silently cursed his ignorance of the west and lousy sense of priorities that had put learning mining skills before survival. Ramsey was the one who knew all about this uncivilized country; Ramsey, his cousin and lifelong friend. But Ramsey had made a poor choice of partners.
Catlin scraped a dry tongue across cracked lips. Squeezing his eyes shut, he tried to exorcise the broad painted face of the savage with the knife. But closing his eyes didn't shut out the image of Ramsey's face contorted with agony. The taste of salt in his mouth was not from sweat alone. Could death be any worse than the certainty of a lifelong anguished conscience?
At that moment Ramsey screamed again. The inhuman sound robbed Catlin of all reason. His fear was replaced with an uncontrolled frenzy of rage. His fingers clenched around the pick handle of their own volition. He stood.
"NO!" he screamed in a voice that was unrecognizable as his own. "You filthy, murdering, cold-blooded..."
A barrage of obscenities and accusations erupted from his lungs. He staggered down the slope on legs numb from lack of circulation.
For a moment the Indians stared at him, too surprised to react. A rifle cracked. One of the Indians yelped and crumpled to the ground. The remaining Indians abandoned their victim and dove for cover.
Catlin's first priority was retrieving his weapon. As he darted forward, the Indian turned and fired. The impact of the bullet knocked Catlin back, but some unknown strength kept his legs moving. A steady flow of poison had been feeding his brain for the last two hours. He must have vengeance. He swung the pick viciously, an inane laugh escaping his throat at the terrified expression on the face of the savage. The pick crunched through the chest of the Apache, silencing his unearthly scream in a gurgle of blood.
Catlin stood over the corpse for a moment before numbly retrieving his rifle. A bullet struck the ground at his feet. Survival instincts drowned out the shock and he dived behind a boulder. Feeling returned with a vengeance as pain engulfed his body. He struggled to get into firing position, casting a glance toward Ramsey. He squinted through blurring eyes. Was Ramsey still alive? The rifle cracked again, sending another savage to his reward. Catlin strained to identify the mounted figures approaching through the heat waves. His fingers could no longer hold the rifle. It clattered down the rock to the dusty ground. Black spots impaired his vision as his body followed the rifle. Unable to stop his fall, the hard ground leaped up to catch him. The hot sand vibrated with the weight of galloping horses. He groped around stubbornly for the rifle as blackness surrounded him.
Through the pounding in his skull, he gradually became aware of the bouncing wagon bed beneath his aching body. The wagon made a final heave and came to a stop. Flies hummed around a blanket covering what he feared must be the body of Ramsey.
The dusty blue uniform of a mounted soldier blocked the sun from his eyes.
"He's comin' 'round," the soldier called to someone. He spit a brown stream at the ground beside his horse and shifted the chew in his mouth.
"We're goin' to leave ya here with the doc." He nodded at the blanket. "We'll bury yer partner fer ya. Sorry we didn't show up sooner. Fact is, we wasn't supposed to be in the area at all. Jist happened to be lookin' fer water an' you was camped close to the only water in a twenty mile area. Don't you know better than that, boy?"
Catlin sat up with a groan. "Obviously not," he answered in a terse tone. His eyes were involuntarily drawn toward the blanket. "I'll bury him. He's my cousin. Just help me out of this box."
He grabbed the edge of the wagon, fighting a wave of nausea. The desert shimmered and he sank back. Dark spots gradually blotted his vision until there was only blackness.
When he opened his eyes again, he was laying on a cot in a small room, his chest bound with clean strips of cloth. The sheets felt cool against his fevered body. Above his head a window was open to the night air. A full moon stared down at him. For a few moments he returned its blank regard, trying to recall where he had bedded down last night. Slowly the painful details flooded his foggy memory. This must be the doctor's house.
He turned his head and allowed his eyes to adjust to the dark room. The only light came from the window, but he gradually made out the whitewashed adobe walls and earthen floor. Other than the bed, the only other furniture in the room was a tiny washstand and a wooden chair with some clothing piled on it; his clothing, by the look of them.
He sat up slowly and lowered his bare feet to the floor. The smell of the water in the pitcher lured him from the bed in spite of his pain. Even his feet ached as he limped across the floor. He groaned as he put the pitcher to his dry lips and eagerly gulped the tepid water. Then he poured some of it in the bowl and splashed it on his face and arms.
The door to the room creaked open and he turned to see the silhouette of a robed figure holding a lamp. He glanced down self-consciously at his long johns and moved quickly to grab the blanket from the bed...too quickly. He cursed as his knees buckled. This time it was hard-packed earth that caught him. Waves of weakness and nausea washed over him, tugging him to the floor and holding him there. He struggled to pull himself to the edge of the bed.
Strong gentle hands helped him into the bed and a calm voice urged him to lay still. He craned his neck to see her.
"Are you the doc?" he managed between gasps of agony.
Her soft chuckle was as soothing as her cool hands.
"No, I'm the doctor's granddaughter. Now try to relax. It's almost morning. Would you like something to eat?"
Catlin nodded as he tugged at the sheets. He glanced longingly at his clothing on the chair. She followed his gaze and smiled.
"You won't need those for a few days. You need a lot of rest. The bullet barely missed your heart. You were lucky that it went clear through without hitting a bone."
Catlin sank back to the pillow obediently. "I didn't mean to wake you."
Her bare feet made no sound as the young woman moved gracefully across the room. She paused at the door, looking back at him. "You didn't wake me. I'm always up by now."
She disappeared through the door and soon the rattling of pans was followed by the welcome smell of bacon and coffee. Before long she brought him a tray of food. She gave him a sympathetic smile and left him to devour his meal in silence.
The food gave him strength. He propped himself against the cool metal headboard, watching the desert emerge from the darkness. Somewhere in the distance a coyote bade the night good-bye. A rabbit nibbled at some grass in the corral - probably as much for the morning moisture as nutrition. A horse snorted and stomped a fly off its fetlock. His horse? It was all so peaceful…until memory of the previous morning returned.
It had been a dawn identical to this one when he slipped from their camp and raced the morning sun over the ridge to a secret cleft in the rocks. He had found the vein of gold shortly before dusk the previous night and quickly chipped off enough to fill a rawhide bag. In high spirits, he had stashed the gold with the idea of retrieving it in the morning. As a practical joke, he planned to line the frying pan with gold while Ramsey slept. The next morning he found the vein again and couldn't resist chipping a little more gold before digging up the sack. He had chipped only a few pieces of gold-laced quartz when he heard the first rifle shot. That was when the fun and games had stopped…and the nightmare began.
Ramsey had been so sure that the only things they need fear in this godforsaken land were rattlesnakes and heat. Catlin had assumed Ramsey knew what he was talking about, but why would he? Ramsey had been in the Arizona Territory less than a year before he invited Catlin to join him. At nineteen, they were two typical greenhorn kids trying to convince themselves that they could conquer the world.
Two months ago, when Catlin had received the letter from Ramsey inviting him to help work a claim, Catlin had taken the first train west. The farm in Pennsylvania was green and lush, but it lacked the excitement and adventure of the west. Besides, since childhood, Ramsey and Catlin had been a team, hunting and fishing together. Both were excellent trackers and the game they brought home testified to their accuracy with a Winchester. With their invincible sources pooled, how could they fail in this new endeavor?
Somewhere in his musing, he fell asleep and began dreaming. This time Ramsey crouched behind the rock with his pockets full of gold ore and watched the scene below. Now Catlin was tied down, staring up into the icy black eyes of his captor. The Apache backed away, the tip of his shiny knife stained with blood. Pain wrenched at Catlin's side. Apparently the black-eyed devil had stabbed him. The savage grabbed Catlin's shirt, ripping the skin from his chest.
Catlin woke with a gasp, sweat oozing from every pore on his body. A gray-headed man was leaning over him, tugging at his bandages. The old man grunted.
The girl entered the room again, carrying another tray of food. She was dressed in men's clothing but they failed any attempt to hide a mature figure. She was tall and slim, probably close to his age. Her skin was smooth and darkened by the sun. Her features were not beautiful, but suggested a calm strength. A few curls escaped the bun at the nape of her neck and hung shiny as a raven's wing. Her large hazel eyes returned his study openly. She was very attractive.
The doctor straightened, regarding his granddaughter with mild amusement.
"This is my granddaughter, Eleanor. We all call her Ellie." He paused, looking at Catlin inquiringly. "I'm sorry. I didn't get your name."
"Catlin. Luke Catlin."
The doctor nodded. "I'm Dr. Duncan." He offered his hand, and Catlin silently accepted it. Dr. Duncan pointed out the window with a gnarled finger.
"The soldiers buried your partner out there. As soon as you're well enough, I'll show you his grave."
Catlin stared out the window and replied in a choked voice. "He was my cousin. We were best friends." He chopped the words off, again overwhelmed by anger.
Dr. Duncan nodded, his faded blue eyes filled with compassion.
"It's a hard country, boy. I lost my wife in a dust storm nearly five years ago." He shook his head. "If you stay out here long enough, you're bound to loose someone close. It’s best to put it all behind you and get on with your life."
He tucked some scissors into a black bag and turned wise old eyes on Catlin.
"Strange thing, the Apache taking the time to torture like that. Did you boys do something to get them stirred up?"
Catlin stared at him. "Of course not. We didn't even know they were anywhere near."
Dr. Duncan rubbed his chin absently. "Well," he finally said, "I've got to deliver a baby at a homestead, so I'll be gone a few days. I'd appreciate it if you'd look after my granddaughter while I'm gone."
No doubt the doctor was trying to give him something to take his mind off Ramsey. After all, what help could he possibly be in his condition? Of course, he was in no condition to do the doctor's granddaughter any harm, either. He favored the old man with a weak smile.
"I'll do my best."
Dr. Duncan nodded. "I figured you would." He clutched his bag and nodded at his granddaughter before he left the room.
Ellie lowered the tray of food to his lap and sat on the edge of the bed. Catlin smiled at her.
"I'm grateful for your help," he said, "but I'm afraid I have no way to pay you."
Ellie shrugged. "Grandfather helps people whether they can pay or not - even Indians. He says once you get below the skin, people are all the same."
She leaned forward, peering into the other room. Lowering her voice, she continued.
"Anyway, it isn't as though you don't have anything of value."
The fork paused halfway to his mouth and he stared at her suspiciously. He shot a quick glance at his clothes. Had she gone through his pockets?
She dug the gold ore from her pocket and held it up. "Here it is. It fell out of your pocket when I put the clothes on the chair." She offered the nugget to him.
He shook his head. "You can have it, and welcome to it."
He attacked the food on his plate. If she had intended to steal the gold, it would have been simple enough to pretend she had never seen it. Still, her obvious interest in the gold troubled him.
Ellie held the gold-laced quartz up to the light.
"You must know where a lot more of this is."
"Fool's gold," Catlin answered curtly between bites as he continued with his meal.
"No, it's real gold," she corrected confidently.
Catlin put his fork down and gave her a stern frown.
"My friend is dead because of that gold. We had big plans, but dead people don't need money. I'd give all the gold in the world if I could bring him back." He shook his head and picked up the fork again. "I was a fool to leave my rifle in camp while I went looking for gold. When Ramsey needed me, I wasn't there."
"That's not what I heard," Ellie said softly, watching him with unveiled admiration. "Captain Brown said you charged down that hill, outnumbered six to one. Even after you were wounded you didn't stop."
Catlin pushed the tray away and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
"Did he also tell you I cowered behind a rock and watched for two hours before I worked up the nerve to defend Ramsey?"
Ellie shook her head, regarding him with wide eyes. "No, but I'd say that was when you were using your head. What could you do...besides get yourself killed?"
Catlin eased his stiff body back down on the bed. "I'm not going back after that gold. Now go on and let me get some rest."
Ellie tossed the rock into the air and they both watched the sun sparkle off the gold ore as it arched and fell back to her waiting hand.
"Well, you'll change your mind. You just need a little time." She retrieved the tray from the bed and left the room.
NOTE: Beginning in 2020, only the first chapter of Rigsbee's novels and novelettes will be available for free reads. There will be a link to the site where the book can be purchased, and a request can be sent for a free file copy. DEAR TALES will revert to its original short stories, articles and poems.