The young man lay staked out, his arms and legs spreadeagled. He’d been dead for some time, chewed on by wolves.
Jeb'd been tracking near three days on the Mescalero high desert. Endless flat grasses, peyote cactus, sagebrush, and an uncaring wind under a blistering sun. At the end of the third day, with the sun dropping in a pink, cloudless sky, he loped over a low rise and found the young man.
He studied the ground. Then he pushed up his brown sweat stained Stetson, exposing a stark white forehead beneath a receding hairline. He spit, and used his faded blue bandana to wipe his thin-lipped mouth; his face in leather tan with a square jaw.
After dismounting, he squatted down next to the body and with a shaking hand closed the man’s eyes. He sat there for a long time. Then, with eyes glistening, he reached into his own vest pocket and took out a square of white tobacco paper. He cut a piece of the young man’s red hair, folded it carefully in the paper, and tucked it back in his vest.
The rope stretching the arms and legs of the dead man twisted in a Yuma style braid, the weave just right. Those Apache know rope, he thought. He checked the tracks. Three riders, one rode sidesaddle, the hoof marks deep on one side. Maybe wounded, he guessed. You winged one of them, didn’t you?
But now he had a murder on his hands. “Inconvenient to a large measure of shit”, he said out loud. “What do you think of that?”
The mare blew some air and dragged a hoof into the hard white crust.
“I know I gotta go. You don’t need to press me.”
Over fifty years, Jeb had known a lot of horseflesh, but Dammit was the best he’d known; not because the horse could go all day at a full trot, not hardly needing water; and not because the horse was steady in a skirmish; and not even because she was more steady in a full-on battle. No. None of those things, although he conceded they were all worthy skills on a long chase like now. It was the advice, he smiled inside. The damn horse talked back. Not out loud, mind you, but he still heard it. And he hated to admit it, but the advice was good, although mainly a pain in the ass.
“Dammit, I know I gotta go.” He pulled his hat off and poured a little water into the crown. Dammit stuck her muzzle in and slurped it up. Jeb leaned in and gave the horse a kiss on her forehead, his best friend.
“So what a ya think? We bury him above that dry wash?” Jeb squinted into the distance, and checked for weather, not a cloud in the sky. “Me too, higher ground," but he knew where dirt is concerned, the Mescalero didn’t give an inch, so after he dragged the young man over to where there might be a break in the wind, he covered him with rocks. After some words, Jeb made camp.
Later, the stars were all out, clear as an honest decision, he remembered, from what his last wife Hope used to say. Maybe she’s up there, he thought. He’d had two wives, both gone. Susan from consumption, she was the youngest. Only lived three years after they were married. But it was Hope he missed, bad missed. She and her eastern education, still with family in Boston. A man shouldn’t live beyond his own family’s horizon. So he liked to think of her looking down. Giving him grief about not re-marrying, mostly. But the badge is a marriage of sorts, isn’t it, Hope?
After bedding down and in the thick of night and with the stars blazing, he had a dream. He had little recollection later, but Hope had grown more beautiful with her long, gray hair than when they first met twenty-five years earlier. She stood with sparks from a grand fire rising into the night air, and standing next to her, he could just make out a face, an Apache.
Jeb woke before light and he and Dammit lit out on a fast trot. The sun rose quick. It was going to be another scorcher.
The Agujero was dry, bone dry, and this was a surprise for the three riders. The Apache Jararaca dug with his hands into the streambed, but he knew it was useless. Rodriquez, bleeding from his stomach, fell off his horse and lay moaning on the rocky bank. The third rider was a boy, no older than twelve. He was a young Apache brave, and the Apache Jararaca was his father and he loved him. But his father had within him a hate that drove into the boy with a great fear.
The Apache Jararaca hated everything. He hated the smallpox that had taken his family; his wife White Feather and son, Little Sparrow, dying in his arms, sweating, covered with pustules, their faces deformed. He hated San Carlos where his way of life was gone; no more hunting the tatanka, much less game; no more food other than bare survival, maggot rotten meat on the rez. And he hated losing what he missed most, what he grew up with as a boy, what he loved more than life. He could no longer ride free, his arms spread in the wind, the spirits of ancestors in his chest. But mostly, he had one big hate. He hated the white man, and this hate burned deep.
And now we’re in trouble about the water, he thought. Though he and the boy had more for themselves now that Rodriquez had got himself shot by the young white man, the one who wouldn't beg. The bandolero was stupid, trying to steal the courage from the white man. But Rodriquez’s dying would give him and the boy more water. And Rodriquez, thank you. I’ve been eyeing your Winchester .45 cal.
Rodriquez lay on the ground. “Aqua. Aqua! Por favor!”
The Apache Jararaca strolled over and prodded the Mexican bandolero with the toe of his laced moccasin. He then slammed the butt of his new rifle into the stomach wound. Rodriquez screamed in agony. Blood spurted out of the bullet hole, spilling onto the white dirt and soaking the ground with a slow scarlet spread. Jararaca laughed, and his once proud face, forty years old, looking like sixty, showed his white teeth. His high cheekbones were still handsome. But it was too late. His lips had a permanent sneer. “Too bad you couldn’t steal the courage from the one who wouldn't beg,” he told his compadre. “You want aqua. I give you some”, and then he relieved himself in the bandolero’s thirsty eyes. There will be no wasting of water. “Estaras muerto antes de la manana.” Maybe now you’ll understand.
By morning, the Apache Jararaca and the boy rode on.
Jeb had to see past the blinding sun, but up ahead of him on the trail an Apache boy appeared on a gray next to a dead mesquite tree. The boy sat with the late afternoon sun behind him, and he crossed his hands in front of him, just waiting. He had long black hair tied with a red cloth headband, a beige breech coat, loose, and leggings half up to his knees. What caught Jeb’s attention more than anything was the boy’s face; it was the one with Hope in the dream.
But off to the left a hundred yards, a flicker of light told him a rifle might be aiming. Sure enough, a flash from the muzzle, and then lead whistled by less than two feet above his head. He drew his Colt and snapped off three shots. “I know he’s too far, Dammit,” he said, and holstered the weapon. As he reached for his Henry in the scabbard, a slug slapped into Dammit just above the noseband and near her eye. The horse reared up, an awful wail, flailing her front hooves into the air, then went down and rolled on Jeb, trapping his right leg under the animal. This is not a splendid position, he thought to himself. Worse, you’re slippin’ with some age on you. He’d dropped the pistol and couldn’t reach it, or the Henry. For a while he struggled with the saddle, knowing if he could reach the pistol, he might at least keep one bullet. The ground tore up around him as the bullets played with him. And just to make a point, three shots punched into Dammit. Things got quiet, and Jeb stroked her neck as her breathing rasped. She choked on some pink froth, stirred, and tried to rise. She then laid back still. You’re out of your misery now, girl.
It wasn't long.
“No lo intentes, hombre blanco.” The Apache called from close behind him.
Jeb knew the man had him dead to rights.
“Now we see what's inside you.”
In no time, the Apache and the boy staked him out in the burning sun, naked above the waist. His legs and arms spread out tight, just like what they did to Matthew. The Apache boy cut twigs and dead branches from the mesquites. He then crouched down on his heels, Apache style, and fed a small fire. Black buzzards fluttered around the branches of the trees, and Jeb thought to himself a little joke and smiled. Instead of him shooting the buzzards, he was the carrion, and it was him they’d be eating.
The Apache chugged from the canteen he’d stripped off Dammit and then pulled a whiskey bottle out of his saddlebag. He said something rough and threw the boy the water. The boy took some swigs himself, then started placing small rocks in the fire. Soon the flame sprouted up, and Jeb could feel the heat searing on his naked skin.
For a while, the liquor kept the Apache busy. He’d take his time looking Jeb over with his whiskey bloodshot eyes. He thrust out his hand, offering the boy the bottle, but the boy shook his head and swiped his hand away. The rocks were getting white hot, and the Apache placed a few sticks he’d whittled down with his knife to the edge of the flame to get them embered up. Jeb had an idea what the rocks and sticks were for. What worried him more was the knife.
“You think about it, compadre,” the Apache said, then moved off, choking and coughing up some kind of bile mixed with whiskey in a ditch. He passed out in the sunbaked dirt. Later, he rolled over and started snoring. The boy did not move, just fed the fire as night closed in.
The stars came out and Jeb could see Hope deep in the black. It won’t be long now and I’m ready, he thought. I’m sorry for all those years of you staring into the prairie, worried to death, not knowing where I was, or if I was coming back. If you don’t want me, I’ll understand. But if you’ll have me, I’ll be holding you soon, so there’s that, ain’t there? Some of this is good.
The boy came at him in the dark with the knife he’d been using to sharpen the sticks. Right off, Jeb thought the boy being in the dream meant he was the one who’d kill him, but then the boy was pulling the rope on one arm and Jeb pulled a hand free. Soon the knife cut his other arm loose, and then his legs were free. The boy handed him his Colts and sat back in his crouch. Jeb strapped on his pistols. Shirtless, he made a sprint for the gray. He spoke soft to the horse. “Hey boy, just me now,” and then slung his body over bareback.
Jeb knew guns, and he knew the sound of a lever action ’73 Winchester. And so he knew what he heard in the black of night when the lever action behind him slip-clicked a round into the chamber. He flicked the rein on the gray to face the Apache, then looked dead-on into the barrel of that Winchester. The Apache held the rifle hip high, so close if he spit hard he could hit him. Maybe the Apache’s hate delayed him, wanting to relish the fear that was tearing through this white man, but then Jeb saw the Apache’s hate spark. He pulled the trigger. Jeb kicked hard off the horse, and as he did a sharp pain grazed his temple. As he fell through the air, he pulled both his Colt action .45s, firing three shots each before he hit the ground. The sound of the gunshot blast broke the sky like lightning, a roar, no pause between each crack of the shot, flames firing out of the barrels. It was dead quiet after, like every living thing on earth took notice. The Apache Jararaca lay not ten feet away, his head near clean shot off.
At first sun, and for only one reason Jeb could figure, the boy collected more dry wood. Then the boy dragged the dead Apache over the fire and built it up to a roaring blaze. The two of them stepped back a way, the flames blue hot, cremating the dead Apache. The boy pulled a small box from a satchel he carried. It looked like carved bone, white. As Jeb looked on, the boy put personal items he’d collected from the Apache Jararaca into the box; beads, a feather, and Jeb thought a small seashell. The boy hadn’t spoken a word, and Jeb didn’t know if he knew English. He must have known some living on the rez, but knowing English or not, he heard the boy in his head when he asked him what he was doing. He might have been talking, or maybe it was just his imagination.
“My father was full of hate,” he said. “My grandmother taught me; what I do now is the cleansing, so the hate won’t live in the world.” The boy then placed the box in the pyre and jumped back from the heat. The flames soon engulfed the box.
“How long does it take?”
“Hate takes a long time to burn out. My grandmother said 200 white-person years, or more.”
Jeb kept his eyes on the flames. His breath caught in his throat. He whispered. “Does it work with grief and loneliness, an aching sorrow?”
“That’s a triple,” the boy said. “You need powerful items.”
Jeb took out the white tobacco paper he kept with a cut of Mathew’s hair. “This was my son’s hair. My wife Hope and I only had the one.”
“Sure. It will work, I think. Why not?”
Jeb dared not look at the boy who spoke in his head. He placed the folded-up paper in the fire. As the flames took it, there was a flare, large enough to cause the two of them to step back.
They waited together for the fire to burn down to ash.
It took five days to reach the San Carlos Reservation. And when they rode in, the first thing they did was look up the officer in charge who sat with a deputy. Jeb didn’t wear his Colts.
“The boy is the Apache Jararaca’s son. The boy would like to return,” Jeb said, staring down the empty eyes of the officer in blue uniform behind the pine desk.
“I know who he is,” the officer said. He spit tobacco into a spittoon but missed. A brown wet streak hit the floorboards. “He’s a renegade, punishable. Where’s Jararaca?”
“He’s dead. I killed him.”
“I doubt that. The Apache was one tough hombre. You don’t look tough enough, no offence.” The officer examined his nails.
“I’ll sponsor the boy. He’ll stay here with his people. Once he’s ready, if he wants, I’ll send him to school. Maybe Boston later.”
“Why’s that? He’s just one more Apache." The officer winked at the deputy.
“He saved my life," Jeb said, and walked out.
Jeb made arrangements with Apache leaders who lived on the reservation. Two days later, he mounted the gray and headed out; the officer was on the street with the deputy.
“I see you’re off and I heard you’ll be checking on the boy. I’ve seen this before. You won't come back.”
“I'll be checking on the boy,” Jeb said from the top of the horse.
The officer had already turned to go, but hearing Jeb, the way he said it, he turned back. He noticed Jeb was wearing a two-gun Colt rig he wasn't before. “I believe you might.”
Jeb jerked his reins, and the officer started away, but the deputy followed Jeb with his eyes. He put his arm up to protect himself from the sun, then turned to the officer. “Major,” he called.
“Yes.” The officer turned back.
“You better take care of that boy.”
“Do you know who that is? Did you see those Colts?”
“What about ‘em?”
“It's the marks on those pearl handles. The man they talk about. He about cleared out the territory, he and his law bunch about twenty years back."
The officer looked into the sun, but the heat was shimmering up and he couldn’t see the rider.
PostScript: This story and characters are fictional. One intent of the story is to honor the indigenous Yuma Apache. The San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation exists and is in southeastern Arizona. The Yuma Apache are the only Apache group that used cremation. Not only did they cremate the body, but they also cremated all the person’s possessions. The Colt six-shooter became renowned as the ‘gun that won the West’. The reasons for hating the white man are also true. In time, the hope is the hate will burn off.