A short story by JW Edwards AKA Campfire Shadows
I only had nine cartridges left that fit my Sharps rifle but the dozen or so renegade Apache Indians bent on killing our small group hunkering down in the silver prospectors cabin at Silver Bluff in the New Mexico Territory didn’t know that.
For the last two hours, lead was flying back and forth with both sides receiving little or no injuries.
The Prospector who owned the cabin only went by the name Pick, short for Pick Axe assume. He was still pretty much in the dark as to how this activity had come about. Still, he saved his questions for a more opportune time. He paid little mind to the holes perforating shutters and only door.
I apologized for the damage being done to his place but he just looked at me like I was loony. “It’s only wood, I’ll make new ones soon’s this scuffle’s over.”
I guess I need to expand on my opening statement about the cartridges.
We weren’t short on fire power. As a Federal Marshal along with my three deputies and an ex Texas Ranger who attached himself to us along the way, we all carried more than enough ammunition to last a good Indian siege. I only mentioned the Sharps rifle because the angry group outside wasn’t aware that I had one yet.
Colt hand guns, Winchester rifles and other various makes and models of fire power completed our arsenal. We were fully packed but still trapped inside a one room log cabin.
Before I go any further with this tale I better also explain the who, what, where and why of all this.
Yesterday, as we made our way from the Arizona territory into the mountains of New Mexico we became aware that our back trail had been compromised. By late afternoon we were able to use the new fangled scope on the Sharps to visualize who was trailing us. We were surprised to see it wasn’t part of the rustlers we followed but was in fact a small but determined looking group of Apaches.
As for the retired Texas Ranger, it was his cattle that had been rustled and he wanted ‘em back. It seems after he retired from the Ranger service, he bought a ranch in Arizona and had all intentions of living a peaceful if not boring life raising cattle.
When he discovered his cattle had quickly dwindled in number over night he called upon his ex Texas Ranger boss to see if he could pull some strings in Arizona for some help. That’s when I got the order to gather a few Deputies and see what we could do for him.
My God! If there ever was a typical looking Texas Ranger it was him. Long lanky limbs, thin as a rail and with no ass to speak of that made wearing a pair of leather suspender braces mandatory to hold his pants up. His bow legged brown corduroy pants tucked into his tall heeled boots were outfitted with the biggest silver Mexican rowels I’d ever seen completed his waist down attire. Up top he wore a clean white long sleeved shirt protected by a spotted leather milk cow vest. What some folks have now been calling a wide brimmed western hat kept the sun from his face.
The hat wasn’t really necessary since his giant salt and pepper bow shaped mustache hid most of his face from the nose down any way. With a Texas drawl so pronounced it was common for him to have to repeat himself for our understanding. We ended up nick naming him Mumbles. He didn’t seem to mind this at all, in fact he seemed to revel in his new handle. I guess sporting the name Bartholomew Reginald Bottoms wouldn’t have been his choice for a birth name.
My three Deputies were a mix of two out of work cowboys and a young man fresh off the farm in Nebraska. Nothing made any of them stand out in a crowd, which is why I chose them even though they had little experience in law enforcement.
Young, adventurous and much more physically fit than myself, I used them when I deemed I was too old for this kind of work. Oh, there was a time not too long back that I’d jump from the saddle to tackle a running felon but these days my bones protest too much for such nonsense.
As we made our way through Arizona hot on the trail of at least five rustlers and forty head of ill gotten beeves we were confident this mission would be rather cut and dry. Boy, were we mistaken.
First off, we nearly lost our Nebraska farm boy to the Salt River. Most times it’s shallow enough to even wade across but not this time. The seasonal monsoon rains rose that nearly dry creek to a roaring death trap. How the rustlers ever took forty head across confounded me. It wasn’t till after this near drowning that we found just a mile upstream a ferry operated. The wooden barge carried folks and cattle safely across at a calm spot of the river. We sure felt foolish.
The next day our mounts got spooked by a roar of a mountain lion. Try as we did, we hard reigned up but the dang horses bolted and ran smack into a large cholla cactus patch. After spending the rest of the day pulling out the painful barbed needles with a pair of fence pliers we called it a day and set up camp for the night.
The night proved uneventful and with a stomach full of beans, biscuits and bacon we slept like babies.
Trying to make up our lost time we headed out early the next day. It was before dawn when we found ourselves crossing into the New Mexico territory. Our farm boy Deputy called out saying he had to answer his habitual morning call of nature. I reminded him that it’s always a good practice to relieve yourself way off the trail, even in the dark. Anyone finding his pile could determine how long ago you passed by. At times I even tossed horse apples off the trail for the same reason.
“Don’t you worry Boss I’ll make sure I’m well off the trail but I gotta warn you I got a constitution that takes a while till I can go. It might be full daylight a fore I finish.”
Anyway, I told him, “Ralph, our trail’s easy enough to follow, just catch up to us when you’re done.”
It was nearly forty minutes later that he finally pulled up his drawers and mounted himself back in the saddle. True to his word, the sun was just popping up over the horizon. He sure didn’t exaggerate about him having a slow constitution.
As he was in the process of turning his mount back onto the trail he spotted in the early light of dawn a dust cloud just a few miles behind him.
Knowing how I constantly harped at making sure your back trail is vacant he spurred his mount galloped ahead until he finally caught up to us.
“We got company Boss” He shouted as he neared us.
By the way, maybe this is a good time to say this.
I’m called Boss. Not because I’m in charge but because that’s my name. When I was born I think my parents were either drunk or had been under the influence of loco weed because they named me Boston Cleveland. Rather than calling out two city names every time someone wanted my attention they just shortened it to Boss.
Now, I ain’t been to neither place nor had my folks. Why they stuck me with Boston Cleveland I never had a chance to find out as both of ‘em died early in life from too many arrow punctures thanks to a bunch of pissed off Creeks. It seems they just didn’t like white folk no more’n we liked them.
I was told at the time of the attack my Dad had gently placed my sleeping four year old form in a hidey hole he had dug out under the floor boards of our cabin when he built it. The next day I was found by our neighbors screaming my head off as I tried in vain to push the heavy trap door open. Seems my Mama had fallen dead over the trap door.
Since you all now got the idea of my family an’ how I got my name, I’m taking you back to the cabin story.
I took my Sharps out of its protective leather scabbard and told the rest to keep heading up the trail as I needed to see for myself exactly who was trailing us. I warned them to be on the lookout for an ambush by the rustlers up ahead.
I figured the rustlers may have gotten wise to our trailing them and set up a kind of reverse ambush.They could have split up, leaving half the group to stay put. This way we’d pass them leaving us caught between the two groups. If the group ahead of us turned backwards on the trail they would catch us in a pincer move between them and the rustlers now following us. I admitted to myself I must have underestimated their numbers. Now we had two groups to round up and bring to justice. It sure got complicated quick.
When I rode far enough on our back trail to see their dust cloud. I dismounted and raised the Sharps to get a better look at them through its scope.
To my surprise they weren’t rustlers at all and they now rode at a full gallop.
I hauled myself into the saddle in less time than it took my heart to beat twice.
Spurring my horse is something I rarely have to do. It seems she has a sixth sense of such things. But, sixth sense or not this time she got spurred.
As I caught up to the group my horse skidded to a stop in a cloud of dust and flying gravel.
“Haul your asses outta here boys” I shouted, “them ain’t rustlers, they’s Indians an’ they’s wearin’ war paint to boot!”
As we all tore down the trail I kept an eye out for a good place to go off trail and either hide or make a stand at. As the terrain began to turn from desert flat to that of having rocky crags I began to have hope of finding a good place to pull over.
There were now some taller trees as we climbed higher. Still, there wasn’t enough of them to hide in.
I turned in the saddle to look behind me and real they were now only a mile or so behind and coming on fast. I started to fear for our lives.
Our group had rounded a large stone outcropping when we spotted the cabin with its smoking chimney. No words were need be said, we all headed straight for it.
A few hundred yards away to the cabins west side rose a straight up and down cliff face higher than any of the other surrounding mounts. The good was, the cliff gave ample protection from the scorching evening sun by its shade and most winds from western born storms. The bad was it’s north face was very climbable. A single man with a rifle could pen down anybody within range of a good rifle.
Whoever was in the cabin was about to have some uninvited company.
Upon our hurried arrival at the cabin’s front yard, the five of us had made so much noise that in no way did it not alert the cabins owner.
Suddenly and without say a word to us, the man opened the front door and stepped out onto the small covered porch. He pointed a bony finger to a corral that backed up to a rock shelf that was part of the hillside. Three sides were fence rails the other the rock shelf.
We dropped off the horses after a quick removal of the saddles and personals. I stopped for a moment and was going to rub my mount down after that fast entrance but then I heard the distant thundering of the Apaches horses and decided it could wait. Attached to one of the rails was a tin feed box filled with what looked like fresh hay. On the way out of the corral I spotted the water tank at the other end, it was nearly full. If anything, the horses were set up pretty well for a few days at least.
Once inside the cabin, the man slammed the door shut behind us and dropped the thick beam across the door to prevent it from being busted inward. He then ran around closing the four thick wooden shutters.
Each shutter had a gun slot in the center and a cross beam similar to the door. It seemed he had previous reasons for building his cabin like a fort.
The wooden roof was covered in a thick layer of dirt and gravel. Not so much sod as just dry desert scrapings. Sod’s a product the desert doesn’t provide much of so dirt was the preferred material.
Before we could thank him, the prospector asked a single worded question, “Indians?”
“You bet” I said, “maybe a dozen or more, look like Apache too.” I replied.
“Yup, figured as much. They’s a break off group a young-uns hell bent on makin’ a name fer themselves. Seen ‘em around here before.”
He wasn’t a man of many words but what he did say answered a lot of questions..
We heard the Indian’s horses pull up a hundred or so yards from the place. Any closer and we could have safely picked them off since there wasn’t much cover for them.
Besides my Deputy farm boy Ralph that I have already mentioned, there was Matt and Larry who had previously punched cows for the J Bar J located near Show Low. None of my Deputies could be called great shots but then most folks with a gun couldn’t hit a barn door at a hundred feet anyway. The Eastern papers wrote as if we could hit the eye of a lizard at a hundred paces. In fact few cowboys had a gun worth more than a dollar that is if they even owned one. As Federal Marshals and Deputies we had guns that out classed most folk.
The problem was that many Indians got their guns from gun runners who stole them from either an armory or right out of the factory. This provided many Indians with high end and recently made arms.
I had Larry take the rear facing window while Ralph and Matt took the windows on each side. One window had a clear shot of the corral. Mumbles and myself covered the front where any attack would most likely come from.
I was taken back by the prospectors calm demeanor. I mean who serves coffee when your life is in peril?
I shrugged and said, “Sure, why not?”
He went around giving out and filling the men’s tin cups with hot coffee as if he were a waiter in a cafe. I figured he must be a bit unbalance so he would deserve a close watch. I mean who could tell if he wouldn’t go ahead and invite the Indians in for tea?
“I was up in the tree waitin’ fer a deer to shoot when I noticed you all in the distance runnin’ fer your lives. Right off I could see those racin’ after you like a pack a dogs on your trail. Well, I figured I better get a pot a coffee goin’ an’ put some hay out in the corral ’cause it’s lookin’ like I’m about to have company.”
Maybe he wasn’t as loony as I figured after all.
It was then we heard the sharp rapping of bullets slamming into the cabin’s door and front shutters.
I apologized to the old man for the damage being done to his abode but he just looked at me like I was the one who was loony. “It’s only wood, I’ll make new ones soon’s this scuffle’s over.”
“Does this happen often? I mean your cabin is built to withstand a siege, why is that?”
“ I mine silver. Lots of folks out there would like to get at it. Once I’m inside here, they can try as they will but they ain’t gonna’ get at it, not while it’s inside this cabin they ain’t.”
“Yet you let us inside without question, why?”
“Well, I ain’t seen very many bush whackers wearin’ them bright shiny stars on the chest. Saw ‘em way off, they glint in the sun. Good way to get shot at if you ask me.”
Even a seasoned law dog can learn a new trick. “I’ll have to remember that”, I said.
I told my men to hold off firing unless they got a clear shot. “No use wasting ammo,” I said.
Just then Mumbles went ahead with two rapidly fired shots from his rifle. “Got one good, winged the other pretty good.”
An angry yelling from somewhere outside could be heard.
The prospector moved to the gun port to look at what was going on outside. After a minute of listening he turned to me and said, “Seems like your man just kilt the wounded ones brother. He’s vowing to kill you but not before he cuts off your manhood and forces you to eat it before he slits your throat!”
Turning to the Texan he added, “You sure got him riled up plenty. He’s now vowing to include your father, mother and any brothers you got.”
At that moment the rib caged winged Indian stood up shaking his gun in the air and screamed in a language only the prospector could interpret. A good sized chunk of flesh along with a rib or two was missing from the Indians side. Blood was freely running, soaking his breech cloth. It may not have been instant kill shot but his significant blood loss would definitely increase his chances of not making it through the night.
Once again Mumbles Winchester blasted away.
We all stared at the bleeding Indian until he toppled backwards, now missing a large potion of his head. Each one of us turned away repulsed at the sight of the flying red gore.
Whether or not the Indians sacrifice was planned or not we never knew but it did give two other Apache’s the ability to slip away unnoticed by us into the taller brush. It wasn’t until we heard a rifle bark from the top of the cliff that we realized they had out smarted us.
“I been in this same situation before and was able to wait them out but they never climbed to the top before. From where they was originally hunkered down the horses was safe from their guns, no more now. I’m afraid they kill ‘em off leavin’ us pretty much at their mercy.”
The afternoon came and went with sporadic shooting from both sides. No horses were shot. We assumed they were too valuable to the Apache to just kill them off. As night fell we once again took the time to have a filling meal.
Afterward, we all sat around smoking and enjoying our coffee’s when the old prospector began speaking.“Years ago silver was plentiful and easy fer the takin’. Bands of no goods plied the trails lookin’ fer prospectors too stupid to be well armed. In time they cleaned out the entire area of miners, leavin’ only me. Oh, they tried but I was too smart fer ‘em. I had planted powder kegs in the rocks where they was most likely to hide at. I trailed the one hundred feet per second fuses back inside here. In no more’n three seconds I’d blow the hell out of ‘em. If’n you look close they’s bones are strewn all over the place, ‘specially right where them damn Apache are now a hidin’. I regret that I ain’t had to place no kegs out there for quite a spell now, years even, too bad, sure would come in handy now eh?”
I mentioned how well the cabin was stocked.
“Yup, got a smoke house out back. Still got two butchered deer hanging in it. Got a cold cellar built into the hillside behind us too. Every now ‘an then I make a passage to town to buy coffee, flour other such necessities of life. I once bought a Navajo woman in town before it got civilized law to do my cookin’ and what not but one day she jest wandered off. Seems she got lonely fer her people.”
The night passed without incident.
Just after dawn I used my Sharps scope to glass the top of the cliff. I was surprised to see a well built Apache standing in full view seemingly giving orders to those below still hunkered down in the rocks below. It dawned on me that he felt no fear because he thought he was basically out of gun range.
Even a Winchester would hit him only by pure luck so I lowered my sight to scope out those in hiding but could not see anyone. It was then that it dawned on me that the big guy up top giving orders must be their leader.
Well, I smiled. I doubted these renegades had ever faced a Sharps before.
Taking my good old time, I placed one of the Sharps big cartridges within the breech. When it closed with a loud click everyone turned from their breakfast to look my way.
I adjusted the sight since I was going to be shooting at a steep upward angle. I had to guess at the amount of rise since I’d never shot at that angle before.
I exhaled and pulled the trigger.
Inside the cabin the enormous blast deafened everyone, including me.
Propelled by the tremendous force of the explosion behind it, the huge bullet tore through the air seemingly oblivious to the earths gravity trying to slow the bullet on its upward lethal travel.
Clearly visible in my scope, the chest of the Apache exploded. At the exact moment I pulled the trigger the second Indian in a terrible case of bad luck had approached his leader from behind.
The leader was forcefully blown backwards into the arms of the second Indian. Not that that the second Indian much cared. A fresh coffee mug sized hole where his heart should have been appeared to dampen any sympathy for his leaders demise.
With the two supporting each other it took to the count of three before they fell away from each other.
The leader pitched forward, nose diving off the cliff, the second Indian lay backward staring at the sky but unable to see it.
Those hiding below watched in horror as their leader cartwheeled the three hundred feet downward to where they lay in hiding. Rocks do a funny thing to a body at that distance. Few of the horrified Indians escaped being splattered in their leaders blood and brain matter.
It seemed to dishearten them. For they stood now in plain view lowering their weapons.
What I took for disheartenment was actually fear.
As I looked to the direction they all had turned to face I realized that they were all now facing the trail up ahead. I soon saw what they saw. A large Apache party headed right our way.
It was my turn to be disheartened. No way could we fend off over fifty hardened to the core warriors.
Their leader rode three horse lengths out front and adorned to the hilt in black and red war paint.
When the troupe of Apache neared the part of the trail that lay directly across from the cabin, they halted.
The proud leader slowly observed the dead laying about the rocks, including the now unrecognizable renegade leader and loudly grunted his disapproval. He then went into a verbal tirade against those left alive making their way out to the open.
To no one in particular inside the cabin I said, “Looks like Chief ain’t very happy with the outcome of those that attacked us. He’s probably pissed they couldn’t take care of a few lawmen locked up in a cabin.”
The Prospector, who’d been listening to the Chief’s rant turned to me saying. “He ain’t mad about the deaths, rather he’s mad that his renegade nephew attacked us without his consent. It seems there had been a deal set up with the Territorial Governor where the tribe would cease any unprovoked attacks in return for this winters supply of Government beef. Now he’s worried the deal won’t go through.”
What the prospector said must’ve been true because to a warrior, each came sheepishly forward and laid down their weapons in front of the chief. The two Indians riding directly behind the Chief dismounted and began gathering up the abandoned weapons. When through, the disarmed group were marched up the trail in the direction the Chief and his warriors had come from.
Meanwhile the group of us held up in the cabin realized our bacon had just been pulled from the fire.
Leaving the dead lay where they fell, the Apache warriors turned away in force, leaving the Chief to sit alone on the trail facing us.
His countenance was no longer that of an angry enemy but one of disappointment.
Before he turned away to follow the others he lifted his right palm to the sky as if to say “sorry fellas, shit happens.”
We never did catch up with our rustlers but we did find the cattle hidden in a grassy box canyon twenty miles up ahead. We’ll never know what happened to the rustlers but my bet is they ran into the Chief and his group. Fearing the worst they most likely abandoned the cattle with plans of retrieving them later on and fled. Won’t they be surprised when they find their box canyon empty.
Along with the herd, we made our way back the way we had come. When we reached the cabin we stopped on the trail and yelled a “Halloo”. True to his word he’d already replaced the shot up shutters.
There was no sign of the prospector but we all knew he was watching us from somewhere unseen. We waved a goodbye to wherever he was and headed home.