When we left off, Everett Root had just narrowly escaped a deadly rattler attack, still on the run from his mystery assailant, finally drifting into a deep sleep.
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Everett woke at sunrise and his mouth felt dry like cotton. He stretched and yawned and played with his mustache as he drank cold tea made from the leathery darkgreen oak leaves. He packed his things and rode through the morning, attentive to any sudden changes in the landscape and he felt ready if the course of action presented itself. The left side of his abdomen had become sore and he felt a tightness when he inhaled, another complication from his previous conflict, and held no doubts that at least one of his ribs had been broken.
He pressed on further north and another hour went by before he found a broad path that steered back through the mountains which he calculated would eventually spit him out onto the great flood plains north of Mesilla. He smiled and petted the horse’s great brown mane and they began the trek, eventually coming across two sets of naked footprints in the dirt and mud but he didn’t stop. He made himself aware of his surroundings as he rode, practicing his draw and repeatedly turning to speculate on where they’d been. He soon came across a thick strand of creosote bush sandwiched between a narrow pass of land embanked on both sides by inclines. As his horse pressed on he squinted and saw black smoke willow up beyond the last of the soldiered shrubs. Everett ran his hand across the knurl of his gun and he stalled near a thicker expanse that shaded him from view.
He waited and listened and heard a scream belt up and then a carnivorous and mocking baritone laughter follow quickly behind. He moved his horse forward behind the next column of creosote and from his new vantage he saw a small cabin aflame. Out from the rear circled a thin girl in an overgrown coat being chased by two Apaches dressed like Texans, their faces painted with dark soot and the braids of the hair winding down along their shoulders and bouncing as they moved. They danced and chased her and let her believe for a moment she could escape and then the closest of the pair tackled the girl to the ground. The second danced around like a drunk as the first mounted atop her and hit her hard in the jaw. She screamed and kicked and he held her hands down. Everett watched the scene dramatize before him, his eyes like dark stones set deep.
After a moment he clicked at his horse and double-backed through the grove and when he emerged he was at the far end of the cabin and clear of the activities. The smoke was thick and smelled like a smithy and it stung as he sucked in air and swallowed down a succession of coughs that tried to rise up. He steered his horse around the side of the cabin and looped around back and when he came upon the Apaches his horse snorted loudly and alerted them to his presence.
The Apache that had been dancing was the first to react. He reached to his belt and attempted to pluck a revolver from it but Everett pulled out the miner’s Navy with lightening reflexes and let ripple a shot into the Apache’s head that struck him through the cheek. He fell lifeless to the ground and amid screams from the girl the second Apache rose up and howled and Everett fired the last shot of the miner’s pistol that struck the Indian in the throat. He collapsed to his knees and hugged at the wound with his hands as if he was praying and blood came down in torrents. Everett threw the gun down and clicked at his horse again and circled the fallen warrior. Then he took his long and heavy Dancer from his holster methodically, taunting the dying Apache, then fired another shot that struck the him in the head.
The girl stood and her eyes were sunken and bagged with dark rings and she whimpered in disbelief. She looked up to Everett and dusted herself and her coat that looked as if it had once belonged to a barrel-chested man and she took one of her oversized sleeves and wiped the blood from her mouth.
“T-thank yuh, mister. Thank yuh kindly. My name’s Erin Sunderland.”
Everett turned his head and spit a thick string of expectorate and eyed her warily, sweat forming at his palms and if his leg ached at that moment he chose not to show it on his face.
“Yuh have no idea, they was ahollerin about and they was going to have me, then kill me. Yuh really saved me, mister. What’s yer name?”
And then Everett extended his arm from his lofted angle and clicked the hammer back and shot a single round that entered between Erin’s yes, knocking her back onto the ground and sending a mushroom of dust and sand up around her. He holstered his gun and waited as her body spasmed in retaliation of the death that took her and then she laid still and he dismounted. He rested his jacket along the seat and tied the reins to an old hitch and hobbled to her and her oversized sackcoat. He tried to kneel but the pain from his bulletwound had grown powerful again and instead he sat on the ground at her side. He was a distance from the cabin and the smoke was thick and it fingered into the cloudless sky like a dark beacon. He swallowed and licked his lips and then studied the gray felted material that matted together to form her worn jacket and he touched it like a haberdasher might.
Everett smiled and set his hat next to the girl’s body and looked up into the morning sun and the warmth felt good on his face. He rested for a while then began rifling through her pockets, pulling out a few copperheads and a silver locket on a silver chain whose clasp had twisted and snapped. He opened it and there was a tiny manicured daguerreotype of a plump infant cut and wedged into the oval-shaped cavity. He thumbed over the silver outside again, the embossed floral patterns pleasing and then put it in his pocket. Then he glanced down at her left hand and noticed a dulled brass wedding-band. He tugged at it and it wouldn’t budge past the base knuckle. He lifted her tiny hand and took her ring finger into his mouth to wet it and took his left hand and braced it onto hers and then yanked with a great fulcrummed arm movement, jamming the ring off and into his palm. He picked it up with his index and middle fingers and held it suspended in front of his face like it had some spectacular authority over him. He analyzed it and then tucked it back into his palm and spit at it, rubbing it ferociously with two fingers until it gleamed and distorted his reflection like some mirrored caricature.
The cabin took to burning and the roof collapsed in on itself within a half an hour and he watched in wonder as his horse paraded and rummaged through a stray clump of tussock. Everett scouted the area and followed a path that continued past the cabin through a narrow precipice that spilled out onto the flood plains. He leaned against a copper-colored hill of rock and vegetation at the trailhead and took the map out again, tracing his finger from where he presumed he was currently stationed. He would head south from the flood plains and then cross the Rio Grande at its most narrow and then he’d be in Mesilla. He folded the map along the edges and returned to the cabin and drank water from a shallow well that tasted of iron and dirt. One of the Apaches had a rawhide canteen and he filled it up with water and replaced his pocketknife with a large Bowie variety that the other Indian had hidden in his boot. Everett tucked it against the back of his belt and then checked both their guns. The sights were set crooked and he tossed them into the hillside where they landed with an echoed thwack. He saw an old Saratoga trunk that peeked out of the doorway and he dragged it out before it could be ravaged by flames and found nothing inside but old garments and the mildewed smell of age.
Everett coughed as he stood studying the trunk and the girl’s outline through her coat, satisfied he had looted anything of value from the scene. He tucked the map in a large pocket of his frockcoat and again took the silver ore out of the tied haversack and washed it with well water until it was lustrous and youthful. He took a segment of the girl’s homespun dress and ripped it into a rectangle and wrapped the ore, tucking it into his shirt where it sat like a cancerous protuberance at his side. Then he straddled each of the Apaches and fired another round into their skulls which splintered and thudded like bark as they seizured posthumously.
He let his horse continue to graze and he hopped back to the first row of creosote bush and lowered himself as he grimaced at the pain like a stage-actor might. He shifted in place until he had worn a comfortable seat in the dirt and strawed grassshoots and he had the perfect view of the house turn to kindling. He unwound the bandage from his leg and it stuck to the wound, the fluids thick like honey. A rock wren flapped noisily above and it called kereekereekeree at the fire that roared, supplanting its dissatisfaction at the intrusion. Everett diverted interest from his hurt leg and held a hand visored along his brow. He squinted as the sun rayed down bright and with one eye shut he followed the graybrown bird and its great arced pattern until it disappeared beyond the ridges that humped up behind the cabin. He bit at his thumbnail until a chipped piece flicked off in his mouth and he spit it at his side.
He mumbled to himself and looked back down to his leg and propped open the tear in his trousers. The skin around the wound had become darker and the sepsis trailed further up his thigh. He could barely touch the infected area without recoiling from considerable hurt and he held up his fingers and counted them down one by one until none remained, each a token of days past. His mind raced and he damned himself for being too cautious in Las Palomas.
He took an acorn from his pocket and bit into the flesh with his incisors and then began to peel the russetcolored skin away from the point of insertion. He chewed a sizeable piece and it was bitter and he swallowed it largely whole. He took the rawhide canteen he had flung over his shoulders and drank to dilute the taste of the nut. The water gave off hints of whiskey that had been stored there previously and it burned slightly as it pitched down his throat. He slung the leather strap of the canteen around his neck and wiped his mouth clean with his shirtsleeve then dried his hands along the breast of his shirt.
The cabin timbers crackled and turned red in the centers while the rest charcoaled and a popping sound rose up from the rubble. Everett grew bored with the combustioned demonstration before him and took to scraping off the blood that streaked in filamented designs along his shirt with his shorn thumbnail and he felt a respite wash over him.
And then a booming shot whirred past him and hit the ground to his right, boring into the loose soil as he backed up against the narrow trunk of the creosote bush with great alarm. Everett breathed hard and put excess pressure on his leg as he shifted positions and it started to bleed blackred again. Another shot rang out and struck the ground in nearly the same spot, slingshotting debris up and out and he panicked and looked around for its origin. Then he stood with as much ferocity as he could afford, bolting toward the wreckage of the cabin while his horse began to bray and run in circles nearby, disoriented from the sudden incursion of violence.
Everett’s strides were narrow and as he stilted forward his face twisted in agony and then he heard the explosion of another rifle-round exit the gun and he felt a daggered stab hit him in the right shoulder. The pain was severe and it spread and he tripped over himself and shoveled hard to the ground. He spit out a hash of saliva and dirt and with his thumb and forefinger he pinched his eyes clean. Lying on his belly between the trunk and the cabin, the smoke was thick and near to the ground and sheltered him for the moment from the assault. He could hear his heart thump wildly and he tried to press himself up as his body wracked in a collective contraction of hurt and he fell back. A cough tried to come up as he breathed in the black smoke and he swallowed it down best he could, letting only a burp exit. He laid still and tried to take note of the approaching steps of his attacker then reached his right hand down until he felt the stock of his gun. He gently tugged and it came loose from the holster with what seemed like a cacophony of noise. He warily checked his flanks and broke open the cylinder and he took note of the three rounds remaining.
He rearranged himself on his side and peeked beyond the trunk to the grove of creosote bush then another shot hit the thin wooden siding of the trunk and bored right through, only just missing his arched neck.
“Wait, just wait a damn minute!”
He let his words resonate from the sloping hillsides and he waited with the hammer of his gun cocked.
“How about we have a chat about all this, alright?”
He rolled onto his back and the bullet in his shoulder felt awkward and buried and it pained him. He squirmed some more and the handle-head of the knife he had tucked away in his belt pressed hard into his back.
“You got me between shit and sweat here. Payback, I suppose.”
He trailed off and again awaited a response and got none. His mind began to hum and formulate escape routes. He thought of ducking into the grove and returning fire but didn’t know where the shots were coming from and he wasn’t certain how fast he could move. Then he counted how many steps it would be to the cabin’s front door. Most of it had been eaten away, leaving a garish and charred breach that sat open like some devilish and crackling mouth. He glanced quickly to the concaved roof and then to the two anterior window-frames that had collapsed fully from the weight of the headers and tie-beams. The cabin was all but cindered ruins now and yet still he concocted in his mind.
“Fine, cuffee. Just fine.”
Everett’s palm sweated along the grip of his gun and he breathed hard and counted to three. Then with a great burst of power and speed he rose and ran as best he could toward the cabin. A shot flew past him and smacked a piece of the shingling, chipping off flakes of wood just above his shoulder. He vaulted himself through the charred doorway and over a small mass of dark timbers then fell awkwardly onto the floor. He landed on the wrapped silver ore tucked in his shirt and it dug into his already sore ribs and he howled out a mix between laughter and hurt. Another shot pierced overhead and he opened his eyes slowly, biting his lip. He was caked in dark soot. He wiped his eyes clean with his palms, revealing pale flesh that ringed his eyes. He coughed wetly and pulled himself up and began stumbling forward in the smoky room toward the rear, waving his arms about to dissuade himself from breathing more of it in and to help him see.
Lying around him were the scalded remnants of the girl Erin’s life. He spotted a pair of leather brogans collected and melting by an old cast-iron cook-stove and a partially finished and ornamental rug aflame along the edges close to the bed which also sat dark and matted from fire. His boots echoed on the floor and his eyes stung from the drape of thickblack smoke. He coughed again and he though he was moving in circles until his waving hands thudded against the far wall. He heard the recoil of the rifle again, sounding closer as he strafed his hands along the wall until he reached a window that had not yet buckled. He lifted his shirt up onto his nose like a bandit’s mask and he thumped the butt of his heavy gun against the glass until it shattered with a loud crash. Smoke and spits of flame rocketed out the new exit and he jumped back to avoid a scalding. Then he shaved the remaining pieces of wedged glass from the frame with the barrel of his gun and heaped one leg out and over the sill. He ran his hand along his shirt and felt the silver and then clasped the trim with his free hand and pulled himself free of the house, falling onto his hands and knees onto the dirt.
He remained in that position while he finished a sequence of wild and arresting coughs, his eyes clamped shut and his tongue wagged helplessly and felt as if it might rip off from the root. He thumped his chest with his fist and then wiped a streak of the black soot from his mouth as he tilted his head up. Near him sat the trail that would spill out onto the flood plain. He hadn’t heard another shot and figured his attacker was either out of ammunition or biding his time and playing mindgames. He sat up on his knees and he quickly wiped his gun free of soot and debris and his hurt leg and his back pained together in a distressing synchronization. He took in large gulps with the hopes it might fend off his broken ribs but it hurt far worse and he coughed with every lungful he took in. Then Everett saw his horse kicking wildly to his right, dancing and trotting and braying near the Apaches’ bodies and he thought of running over and riding off but then figured his attacker might be expecting that. He stood on his leg and heard his hip pop and he limped forward, the soot blowing from his person as he moved.
He stirred into the narrow trail flanked by the hills on both sides behind the cabin and grabbed the rock faces for support. He clutched his gun firmly and heard the kereekereekeree of the rock wren again. He glanced up into the blue sky as he lurched ahead but couldn’t locate the bird, the headache he had swallowed down for days fierce and pounding now.
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