Authors: Jack Martin
To Anthony Brannan – pals!
Arkansas Smith carefully guided the sorrel down the steep incline that led into the valley. His heart was hammering in his chest and he wanted to spur the horse forward, but it was too dangerous and he had to lean back in the saddle. Carefully, with each step, he took his time for both his own and the horse’s safety.
Below, perfectly positioned besides the stream that snaked around the valley, the small cabin looked deserted, its door hanging on rawhide hinges and blowing in the evening breeze, the windows smashed. Outside, fences had been torn down and whatever cattle the enclosures had contained had been run off or stolen.
It didn’t look good and it seemed to take an age for the sorrel to negotiate the tricky terrain and reach the foot of the valley. Then Arkansas immediately sent the horse into a gallop. He reached the cabin and tethered the sorrel to the remains of a fence post before removing his Spencer from its boot, drawing his Colt and going inside.
Immediately the stench hit him like a tangible thing – the sweet cloying aroma of charred wood, the offensive perfume of urine and a putrid mixture of something far more unpleasant. It took a moment for Arkansas’s eyes to adjust to the gloom and for several seconds he stood there motionless, peering at the mess around him.
The place had been ransacked. The furniture, such as it was, had been overturned, papers were strewn all over the place, and there had been an attempt to set the place on fire, only it had burnt itself out but not before damaging a large section of the back wall and part of the roof.
‘Hello? Anyone here?’ Arkansas said, not expecting an answer and not getting one.
There was a chair in the corner of the room and it was threadbare, feathers escaping from a large rip in the cushion. Another chair had been kicked over and one of its legs had been charred in the fire. There was a wooden table, made from packing crates and it had been toppled over and one of the legs snapped in two. Newspapers, glass and the odd dime novel were strewn over the floor.
‘Will,’ Arkansas called out, but again there was nothing in reply.
It was a two-room building and Arkansas carefully stepped over the wreckage and made his way to the door at the rear of the room. His hand paused on the handle and, keeping the Colt pointed directly in front of him, he pushed and allowed the door to swing inwards. Like the outer door it too had rawhide
hinges, which screeched in protest as the door opened.
He saw the motionless figure on the floor, face down, and he knew immediately that it was Will. He propped his rifle against the wall and then went and bent to the man, rolling him over. The man had been gut shot and the wound was surrounded by congealed blood. Arkansas felt for a heartbeat, found one but very faint, almost imperceptible.
Will was alive but only just.
‘Will,’ Arkansas said. It’s me, Ark. Can you hear me?’
There was no response from the man and Arkansas quickly ran out of the cabin and took a cooking pot from his saddle-bags. He ran to the stream and filled the pot and then took it back into the house.
‘Come on,’ Arkansas said as he dipped a clean bandanna in the water and carefully moistened his friend’s lips. For a moment there was no reaction but then the man moaned and his tongue licked at the cool water. Maybe he wasn’t as badly hurt as it had first appeared.
‘You’re gonna be fine, Will.’ Arkansas murmured, knowing that his words would sound hollow to his friend. He had known William McCord for a great many years; they had served in the Texas Rangers together and seen much action. Side by side, they had fought Indians, outlaws and Mexican raiders.
Platitudes were useless: Will would know what his chances were.
Carefully Arkansas lifted his friend and placed him
on the small mattress in the corner of the room. He used the water first to wash the man’s face and then he went to work on the wound. He tore the man’s shirt open and looked at the ugly purple bruising where the bullet had entered. There was no exit wound and when Arkansas gently prodded he felt the bullet, lodged in the thick flesh of the stomach. He didn’t think the wound itself was enough to be fatal, but his friend was in a bad way and infection would probably finish the job that the bullet had started.
He cleaned the area surrounding the entry point, taking care as he rubbed in the immediate vicinity of the injury and then went outside to get some fresh water. He returned a moment later and when he examined his friend he found he was fast asleep and his breathing was better, more even. It was a hopeful sign and Arkansas mopped the man’s forehead down and then soaked his lips once more.
‘You always were an ornery critter,’ Arkansas told him. ‘Come on, it’ll take more than a bullet to finish off William McCord.’
The man didn’t stir and Arkansas decided to let him sleep while he got a fire going and boiled some water to once again clean the gut wound before dressing it.
He left the room, closed the door gently behind him and quickly set a fire in the cast-iron stove. He used some of the wood from a broken chair and looked around and located some goose grease in a pan in the far corner. He smeared it thickly over the wood and took a match to it – the fire caught
immediately and Arkansas fed it with some paper and old cloth from the floor and within minutes it was burning away well.
He threw some more wood on and closed the stove door.
‘I don’t think the bullet’s gone in deep enough to do any real damage,’ Arkansas said. ‘You always did have the dandiest luck. I need to get you to a doc though. It’ll have to come out.’
‘Hurt enough going in,’ Will said.
Dawn had risen over the valley and was illuminating the interior of the cabin. Dust danced in the rays of light that came through the broken windows and gave the place an oppressive atmosphere. In the brilliance of day the place looked as if a herd of buffalo had stampeded through.
Will had spent a comfortable night and this was the first time he had regained consciousness for anything more than a few minutes. Some of the colour had returned to his cheeks and, although gravely ill, he certainly looked a heck of a lot better.
‘I’m on fire,’ Will said.
‘That’s to be expected,’ Arkansas replied. ‘That slug in you wouldn’t have gone in clean and it’s sitting in your guts now causing all sorts of infection.’ He mopped the man’s forehead with a damp cloth and then smiled. ‘You’ve come this far. We’re going to get out of this.’
Will nodded and motioned weakly for another drink of water.
‘I thought I was dead and seeing a ghost when I saw you hovering over me. I heard you’d been hanged down in Reno,’ he said. ‘It’s been a long time.’
‘A lot of folk seem to have heard that one,’ Arkansas muttered, and handed his friend a tin cup but only allowed him a mouthful before taking it away. Too much, too quickly could do more harm than good.
‘Who did this?’ asked Arkansas, placing the cup on the floor between his feet.
‘Rustlers,’ Will told him. ‘I heard them riding up and went out and then all hell broke loose.’
‘Yesterday.’ A puzzled expression crossed Will’s face. ‘I’m not sure. I don’t think I know.’
‘Judging by the wound,’ Arkansas said. ‘I’d say two days ago. The blood’s congealed and stopped you from bleeding to death.’
‘I’ll live,’ Will replied. ‘Just long enough to see them turkeys who gunned me down swinging at the end of a rope.’
Arkansas looked at the man and nodded. He had known him a great many years and was forever in his debt. They had served in the Rangers together and, although some twenty years separated them by age, the two men had hit it off at once. Will, the elder of the two, had taken the young Arkansas under his wing and taught him the ways of the Texas Rangers. The older man had saved his life more times than Arkansas cared to recall.
‘They took your stock,’ Arkansas told him. ‘The
corral’s been busted open. Whatever you had in there’s clean gone. And they’ve taken this place apart, obviously looking for any money you might have tucked away.’
Will nodded and then coughed up a thin trickle of blood. ‘I was down to my last fifty dollars and as for stock – weren’t more than a few horses. I guess I was never going to make it ranching.’
Arkansas smiled. All his life Will had been a wandering man, too restless to stop in one place for too long. It was what had made him so good as a Texas Ranger, but ever since the he had turned fifty, he had been talking about getting himself some land, building a life in one place and sticking there. Too many years of constant wandering, fighting one campaign after another, would eventually affect most men in the same way, making them revaluate their lives. It made them yearn for a domesticity they had never known and only heard of in tales told around a camp-fire. Trouble was if they ever found it they would discover it too tame for their liking.
‘Fifteen years a Ranger can give a man a case of wanderlust,’ Arkansas said and offered Will the cup. He had only served six years himself, but all the same their ways were in his blood. He, too, would get that restless urge if he felt the grass growing beneath his feet. It had been a long time, however, since either man had ridden as a Ranger but each would keep their ways. Once a Ranger, always a Ranger.
Will took another sip and then winced as the slug inside him sent a fresh wave of pain through his
nervous system. ‘Wouldn’t mind betting that bastard Lance is behind this.’
‘Lance?’ Arkansas asked.
Will nodded weakly but before he could speak further his eyes closed and once again he fell into a deep feverish sleep.
Later Arkansas thought he’d take a ride around, see if he could recover any of his friend’s stock. You never know, a few might have broken free of the rustlers and wandered off into the wilderness. Although the town of Red Rock was only a few miles yonder, this was still a wild country with plenty of open spaces that stretched for miles and miles without any signs of civilization.
First though, the most pressing matter was getting the slug out of Will – it wasn’t in too deeply and Arkansas believed it had missed the major organs and was lodged in the fatty flesh of the outer stomach. Will had been incredibly lucky, but Arkansas didn’t think that luck would hold if he went probing about with his knife to remove the slug.
No, it had to come out but it needed the skilled hands of a doctor.
While he waited for his friend to wake, he set about tidying the place up a little. He righted the toppled furniture, fixed the table leg and placed boards over
the broken windows. They kept some of the light out but they also stopped some of the heat escaping. Keeping the place warm was mighty important and would help sweat Will’s fever out of him.
He found a pearl-handled dagger beneath a broken chair and, guessing it must have be thrown there when the place was ransacked, he placed it on the upturned Folgers crate that acted as a dresser in the bedroom. It was a handsome-looking knife, with a seven-inch blade and silver trim sunk into the pearl handle. It had felt perfectly balanced in Arkansas’s hand. Will was especially skilled with knives and the piece was typical of the ornamental but at the same time practical weapons he usually favoured.
Arkansas was putting some more wood onto the stove when he heard his friend cry out. He turned on his feet and ran back into the bedroom.
Will was awake and he looked ghastly. His sweaty face had a yellow pallor and his eyes were bloodshot. The fever had him in its vice-like grip and Arkansas knew that the bullet had to come out quickly if his friend had any hope of survival. He needed to get him to a doctor but moving him could kill him. There was no wagon here and there was no way Will would be able to ride. Even in the back of a cart or wagon there would be too much jostling about.
‘How far’s town?’ Arkansas asked.
‘About five, maybe six miles south,’ Will said, weakly. ‘My mouth feels dry.’
Arkansas filled the cup with fresh water from the jug he’d placed on the makeshift dresser and placed it
gently on his friend’s lips. He lifted it slightly so the man could take gentle sips.
‘I reckon I could be there and back in not more than a couple of hours,’ Arkansas said. ‘Bring the doctor out to you.’
‘Cooter,’ Will said, and then fell silent for a moment while he gritted his teeth against a fresh wave of pain. ‘Doctor Cooter. He’s over fond of the whiskey, but he’s a good man.’
Arkansas took the makings from his shirt and rolled a quirly. He stuck it in his friend’s mouth, lit it and allowed him to take a small drag before smoking it himself.
‘Our best chance,’ Arkansas said, presently, ‘is for me to go fetch this Cooter fellow and bring him here. Will you be OK while I’m gone?’
‘I can look after myself,’ Will said, annoyed. And for a brief moment he seemed to be his old self, his eyes blazing with inner strength. But in truth he was weak, too weak to be moved and getting weaker by the second.
Arkansas knew better than to argue with his friend. ‘I don’t like the idea of leaving you here alone,’ he said ‘but moving you could send that slug in further.’
‘I’ll be fine,’ Will reiterated. ‘Just leave some water in my reach and a little baccy.’
‘If those rustlers come back,’ Arkansas said, more thinking aloud than speaking.
‘Why should they come back? They left me for dead and took everything I own.’
‘Who the hell’s this Lance you mentioned earlier?’ Arkansas asked.
‘He owns most of the land around here. He’s made several offers to buy me out. Don’t know why. This spread’s next to worthless.’
‘And you think these rustlers could be his way of running you off?’
Will shrugged his shoulders. ‘Don’t know,’ he said. ‘Maybe.’
Arkansas didn’t like the sound of that one little bit. His friend’s uncertainty only added to his own doubts over leaving him here while he rode into town and located the doctor. Only it had to be done and the longer they waited the less Will’s chances became of surviving the current situation. If Arkansas left now he was sure he could be back well before nightfall. And he could buy some supplies; all Will had in the cabin was a little Folgers coffee, a few slices of jerky and a sorry amount of flour. He’d also be able to get some glass and repair the windows.
‘I’ll leave you the Spencer,’ Arkansas said. ‘It’ll be easier to use from your position than a Colt. If anyone comes close you’re not sure of, blow them to high heaven.’ The Spencer required separately working the lever and pulling the hammer back, but an experienced man could let off all seven shots in a matter of seconds. Even in Will’s weakened state he should have no problem with the gun.
‘I’ll be fine,’ Will said again. ‘Just leave me the water and the makings. I’ll be snug and dandy. Bring some whiskey back from town with you. It’ll dull the pain.’
‘Doc’ll have laudanum.’
‘Whiskey will taste a damn sight better.’
‘Sure,’ Arkansas said and went outside to fill up the bucket with fresh water.
As he scooped water from the stream he suddenly had the feeling that he was being watched and he sprung erect, hands hovering above the twin Colts. But all was silent and he decided he was getting jumpy.
He made his way back to the cabin, intent on ministering to Will’s wound once more, applying a fresh dressing with strips torn from a shirt he’d taken from his own saddle-bags, before leaving for the doctor.