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The Desert
Written by Klara's Boy


*** 1

The young peccary stood between the brown rocks, heavily breathing. It was obviously exhausted. Its left foreleg got hurt between the sharp stones, when it tried to follow the rest of its herd after the cougar's attack. Now the little animal was alone. Desperately it tried to catch up with the other peccaries, but they were far ahead somewhere between the bushes at the arroyo seeking shelter from the smoldering heat. Excruciating pain ran in long waves through its haggard body.

The hungry cat could return anytime. So the young peccary hurried to cross the dry riverbed which lied ahead. The hot sand offered almost no cover. The wheezing animal attempted to run as fast as ever but the crippled leg allowed only short steps. However the javelina was lucky. The predator had already vanished between the huge crags and posed no more threat for the time being.

The peccary felt tormenting fear. In order to survive it had to reach the herd at all cost. A few more seconds and the parched scrubland on the other side would offer protection and … the peccary never heard the shot nor felt the bullet. It was already dead when its hooves were weakly kicking the air.

***

“Gosh, Pa, I never knew javelina would be so tasty.”

“Well, now you know! Eat hearty. It's a three-days-ride back to the ranch. We gotta move now.”

Lucas McCain and his son were enjoying their delicious meal under a giant outcrop right in the middle of the desert. Somewhere out there was the Mexican border, an invisible line among brushes, red sand and towering rocks. Now the searing sun was rising over the dunes, promising infernal heat. The sky was cloudless and only some croaking crows were soaring into the blue.

After their lavish meal father and son mounted up and headed north, passing the majestic mesas.

Despite the temperature Mark enjoyed his first hunting trip out in the desert. It was surely an adventure, something to tell the other boys back at school after the vacation.

In the late afternoon they arrived at the dark entrance to a narrow canyon which looked like a terrible gash in the flank of the mountain. Somewhere up in the bluff cliff an eagle cried.

“That canyon is the best way home, son. It's about four miles long and leads to a ridge which runs straight up to North Fork. From now on we should have nice ride, son. Don't you worry.”

But Mark was not convinced, but he couldn't admit that he was afraid of riding into the dark ravine.

“Is there any other way home, Pa?”

“Yes, but it would take us even two more days to get home. I don't intend to leave our ranch unattended that long. Besides I would like to see Micah again. I hope there was no trouble in town during our absence. I hate to leave a friend on his own for such a long time. So let's get moving, son!”

Between the scarps of the gorge it was surprisingly cool. Small lizards rushed into cover when they sensed the hoofs in the sand. Lucas took point carefully directing his horse around the massive rocks that were covering the ground. Mark nervously eyeballed the steep cliffs of the canyon.

“Can we have a break, Pa? I think my horse would be grateful for a rest, too.” 2

***

Before Lucas could answer he spotted a movement about half a mile ahead. He stopped his horse. After several seconds he was sure: riders came trotting through the canyon towards them.

“Mark!”

“Yes, Pa …”

“We got company. There are a couple of men ahead of us. Dismount and take my horse too. Stay behind the rock over there in the shadow. I'll do the talking. Don't come out until I call you.”

Father and son got off their horses and Mark led the animals back into the cover of a boulder, which was looming next to the crag of the canyon. Lucas took position on a ledge in front of it, rifle in hand. He hoped he wouldn't have to use it. A fight on that broken ground would be devastating.

After a few minutes the four horsemen appeared in front of him. When they caught sight of Lucas they stopped and seemed to have a short talk. Then they kept on approaching without hesitation.

When they were about 20 feet away the turned their horses to the side, spread out and blocked the way. Without a word they lined up in front of Lucas. Their movements seemed well coordinated.

Although his nerves were on edge Lucas tried to smile and to start a casual conversation.

“Hello, Gentlemen.”

No answer. The four strangers were staring at him without any emotion, without any word.

“Buenos tardes.”

Still no answer.

Lucas eyeballed the curious fellows. On the left side a young man, hardly older than sixteen years had taken his position. He was armed with a rusty Spencer carbine and a Colt 45 sticking loosely in his belt in front of his belly. The cockeyed boy permanently grinned showing his snaggle teeth.

Next to him, a gangly Mexican with a holey sombrero and a flea infested poncho was smoking calmly a cigarillo. The man was carrying a 12 Gauge double-barreled shotgun in his left hand and a huge machete in a scabbard on his back. Hideous smallpox scars disfigured his dark face.

The guy next to him was about sixty years old and looked pretty measly. His grey beard covered the upper part of his squalid shirt. Despite the terrible heat a grungy blanket covered the man's shoulder. His Colt 1851 Navy Revolver was holstered on his right side along with a Bowie knife.

The last man was so fat, that he had to breathe through his mouth the whole time. His scruffy shirt was far too small to cover his entire belly. His bald head, double chin and small eyes reminded Lucas of a price winning boar, his father once possessed. The bloated guy had two impressive Schofield revolvers holstered, one at each side of his vast hips. A Tequila bottle jutted out of his saddle bag.

The four men kept staring at Lucas for one endless minute after forming their line. The horse of the grinning boy on the left side nickered once in a while. All of their animals were in miserable shape, 3

badly nourished and covered with sweat and dust. Lucas could easily count their rips. For a moment he felt sorry for those tormented creatures. Then he tried again to get any kind of reaction.

“It´s just me and my son, gentleman. If there is nothing I can do for you I suppose you let us pass …”

“There is a lot you can do for us, Mister. A lot indeed, I assure you!”

Behind the silent strangers, a fifth man appeared. He was riding a huge sorrel with a fresh, still bleeding wound on its ride flank. The effete mare looked hardly strong enough to stay on its legs. But the fellow on its back didn't seem to notice the sorry state his horse was in.

He stopped his poor mount right behind his scruffy companions, who still remained motionless.

Lucas looked at him suspiciously. The man was armed with a brand-new Winchester 73, hanging in a scabbard at the side of his mare and a Remington Model 1875 revolver stuck in a decorated holster at his left side. The stranger's eyes, cheekbones and hairstyle revealed that he had at least one Indian ancestor. Maybe he was a half-breed though he was dressed like a wealthy white farmer from the East. He wore a brown jacket, a checkered shirt, a black stovepipe hat and evidently expensive leather boots. His youthful face with a tiny mustache was smiling gleefully, showing healthy teeth.

While talking he always kept his men between himself and McCain.

“My name is Lomax, Erin Lomax, and these gentlemen right in front of you are my trusty friends. You don't have to be afraid of us, Mister. We don't mean no harm. We are … let's say … on the hunt at the moment, trying to make a living. And we're on a streak let me tell you. Ain't that right, boys?”

The first time, the bedraggled men between him and Lucas showed any reaction. The fat man waived his arms and the constantly grinning boy nodded as his right hand went down to his belt, where his gun stuck. The Mexican spit out his cigarillo and turned his head back to Lomax. As he sneered the fondled a well-filled sack hanging from his saddle horn. Only the sickly old timer with the grey beard seemed too weak to say or do anything. He obviously had a hard time not to drop out of the saddle.

Lucas tried to calm his voice. He was glad that the sun wasn't shining into his eyes that very moment.

“So, what is it you want, Mr. Lomax?”

“As I mentioned you have nothing to fear, if you do, as you're told. It's simple as this: hand over your money, you water, your horses and your food, and most of all, that fancy rifle of yours. That way your boy won't get hurt. I am pretty fond of kids, you know. By the way, I got three boys myself …”

Lucas didn´t answer. His rifle did. The narrow canyon was filled with earsplitting gunfire.

***

The brown lizard was hot, so it dashed across the stones heading for a cool hideout between the shadows of the dust covered rocks, leaving little tracks in baked sand. But there was an obstacle. A body was lying in its way. The tiny animal ran around it and vanished between the pebbles under the bushes. Little did it realize that the stones were covered with red specks. Only some flies were gathering to have quite a feast. Pretty soon much bigger beasts would join the unexpected meal.

*** 4

“Pa ….?”

“I´m alright, Mark. Let's get out of here, son. This time it was really a close shave. But I got just four of them. Lomax sure showed good sense to stay behind his men. Now we have to hurry. Come on!”

“These men …”

“… are dead, Mark! Most of them, at least. And I don't feel like burying them. I settled for their water and some of their guns. They were pretty short on ammunition though. Get on your horse!”

Mark and Lucas mounted their animals. Carefully they passed the four bodies lying between the rocks. Mark was clearly disturbed by the gruesome sight. Lucas noted his boy's glance, as he rode by.

“They left me no choice. But they sure had it coming. Surprisingly the old fellow was the best shot. He almost got me with his Navy Colt. But Lomax got away. Didn't want to share their fate, I guess.”

Mark was still wan, when they spurred their horses. Lucas was deeply troubled. Lomax would soon find a place to waylay them to take revenge and to gain their possessions after all. During the brutal gunfight he had turned and took flight, vanishing into the canyon. So the half-breed was still somewhere out there in the dessert, probably waiting for them in an ambush. And there was something else. During the shoot-out the Mexican's sack dropped from the saddle. After looking into it, Lucas became fully aware of what Lomax meant when he mentioned a hunt for making a living …

“Son!”

“Yes, Pa?”

“We have to be very beady until we get home! Really careful! Keep your eyes open! If you see something strange, anything at all, you have to tell me immediately! Do you understand?”

“Sure, Pa …”

After two miles Mark did encounter something strange lying in the hot sand between the boulders. He pointed at the black stovepipe hat the warm desert wind was gently playing with.

***

After a hard ride they reached the end of the canyon without any incident. The vast desert landscape was stretching to the horizon. Two more days to go. Mark had hardly spoken a word since the gunfight. Lucas stopped and looked at his son. The very thought that something could happen …

They turned their horses left and headed slowly for the barren ridge that ran straight north for many miles until it reached the hills south of Northfork. Lucas raised his rifle and overlooked the rocky terrain. He waited for any sign of danger but only the wind stirred up some dust. From the corner of his eye he suddenly noticed a swift movement between the thorny bushes. Within a second he turned his Winchester towards it, prepared to take on any enemy. But it was only a lonesome coyote seeking shelter behind a mighty cactus in the scrubland. Lucas lowered his rifle, trying to calm himself. Out in the open, Lomax wouldn't try his luck. But in the rocky hills his opportunities …

“Something wrong, Pa?”

“No … no, everything's fine, son! You're alright?” 5

“Sure, Pa …”

“The horses need water and rest! Seems to me that there is a spring over there. Let's take a look.”

He was right. A tiny creek ran out of the rocks into a small bond under a giant cliff. After drinking and watering the horses Lucas ´watchful eyes spotted the coyote again only a few meters away. But this time the animal was not alone: two others accompanied him trough the tense scrubland. The animals seemed to have a certain purpose. On the spur of the moment Lucas decided to climb up a rock nearby in order to get a better overview. Then he saw, what the coyotes were heading for …

“Mark! You wait here! I'll be right back. If you see something, call me! I have to check, what …”

“But Pa …?”

“I´ll be right back. Don't worry!”

After cocking his rifle Lucas made his way through the thorny bushes.

***

Coyotes, being opportunist as all desert creatures had learned to use any chance to fill their bellies. Their cunning was as infamous as their hunger. Despite being despised as cowardly vermin, they tend to show aggressive behavior when cornered or attacked. So the coyotes bared their teeth, angry about the disturbance but finally they took off, when the big man drove them away from their prey.

Lucas approached watchfully the cadaver. He sighed, when he was looking down at the beautiful animal that was lying in front of him. Three little streams of dried blood were running from bullet holes on the sorrel's neck. Under the mare's bloated belly Lucas spotted something else. He kneeled down into the soft sand and lifted a single boot made of really fine leather.

***

He turned back to Mark. They had to leave as soon as possible. Sand was crunching under his feet while he was running as fast as he could. For a moment the relentless heat made him dizzy. Maybe it was already too late but they have to try. Otherwise the poor mare would not stay the only victim …

“Son! We have to get out of here! Get the horses ready! Mark! Do you hear me? Let's move!”

But nothing could prepare Lucas for the surprise that awaited him when he reached the cliff. Mark and the horses were still there. But they were not alone anymore. A man was with Mark, holding a Winchester 73. But before Lucas could fire his own rifle to save his boy, he heard Mark's scream.

“Don´t! Pa! Please! Don't shoot! Let us talk with him! Please!”

The man next to Mark remained calm. He made one step forward, displaying utter self-confidence.

“Your son is wise! You should listen to him! Come here! Let's talk!”

Lucas knew that any resistance would be suicidal. So he slowly lowered his rifle and walked closer. While catching his breath he could hear the pack behind him resuming its gory meal.

*** 6

“You´re alright, son?”

“I am alright, Pa. He is an Apache, isn´t he?”

“He sure is, Mark! And it seems he speaks our tongue fairly well. What have you done to the white man, whose horse is lying over there? Speak up!”

The Apache grinned. He was only a head taller than Mark, but it was impossible to tell his age. His raven hair framed his brown face, which was covered by fine wrinkles. His strong chin and dark eyes indicated a strong-willed personality, a cruel warrior, born to live and fight in the desert. The Apache wore just knee-high moccasins, a loincloth, an off-white shirt and a blue headband. A colorful blanket was wrapped around his narrow hips. A precious necklace made out of eagle claws, pearls, feathers and blue stones was hanging from his neck. In his right hand the warrior carried the Winchester 73 which once had belonged to a half-breed called Erin Lomax, the man with the stovepipe hat.

“What happened to him? Why do you care? You should be thanking your Christian god on your knees, that you don't share his fate. My warriors took him to our camp. That's all you need to know.”

“But you can't …”

“He and his friends butchered seven women and eleven children of my people three suns ago to take their scalps. My niece was among the dead. She was only four years old. My whole family loved her. She was murdered for the white man's money. The chiefs of the Mexicans pay 100 Pesos for one scalp. We have to protect our families and our homes. So we kill all white men without mercy …”

Lucas swallowed. His throat became dry but not only because of the heat.

“I know. I am sorry! I saw the sack with their scalps back in the canyon. I had to kill those murderers because they wanted to take our lives too. They were bad men. But not all white men are like that!”

The Apache shook his head in disbelief. His glowing eyes were full of hate.

“We followed the scalp hunters to make them pay. But the Great Lifegiver decided different.”

Lucas looked around. He just saw desiccated grass, brown sand and red boulders.

“You already found their bodies in the canyon? How could you come here so quickly?”

“This is our land! Each of our boys knows more paths, more springs, more hideouts than any white man will ever know. You will never know our ways. Yes, my warriors have found the carcasses of those white dogs in the canyon. So it became clear that the Great Lifegiver sent a lonely warrior to carry out our vengeance for us. He made you his instrument. Therefore you shall go in peace.”

Mark was clearly stunned. He had seen an untamed Apache never before. The warrior lifted a hand.

“We knew that misery would come to our villages. Four suns ago, I heard the call of an owl. Our ancestors taught us that owls are the harbinger of death. They were right. Our children are gone.”

The Apache lowered his head. Suddenly Lucas noticed tears in his eyes. For a moment Lucas was flabbergasted. Nobody back home would believe such a thing: a bloodthirsty savage, who was openly weeping for his dead relatives. Then the Apache pointed at the rifle in Lucas' hands. 7

“This rifle was given to you by the Great Lifegiver to protect your kin. Always remember that!”

That was the moment when Mark grabbed the arm of the Apache before Lucas could do anything to prevent it. The boy was also fighting his tears. That encounter was simply too much for him.

“But is there no other way? Why can't there be peace between you and us, Mister?”

The Apache turned and looked straight into Mark's eyes. The warrior even managed to smile.

“Only in death is true peace. Return home now, boy. Go fast! I feel a storm coming up.”

The he started to walk away straight into the endless desert, while the wind notably intensified.

Lucas put one hand on his son's shoulder, not really knowing what else to do. Mark stepped forward.

“Wait! What's your name, sir?”

The Apache stopped for a moment, stood motionless before slowly turning around, facing Mark.

“They call me the one, who yawns.”

***

“How´s business, Sweeney?”

“Never better, Lucas. Looks like that three regiments have walked in and out today. Those bluecoats seemed to have taken an oath to spend their whole pay at my place. A beer for you, Lucas?”

“Sure, why not? If there is any left, that is.”

The whole saloon was crowded with laughing soldiers. Young recruits, barely old enough to shave were drinking with grizzled veterans. It was always that way before a big campaign. Lucas cast back his mind. He remembered his service as a lieutenant during the war, when he received the order to move his men forward on the second day at Gettysburg. Once more he beheld the choking smoke covering Cemetery Hill before his inner eyes. He thought of the wounded men at his feet, begging for water or their mother. He even remembered a dying reb private screaming out for General Lee.

While drinking his beer he noticed Mark who had returned from school. The boy was strolling around in the street, admiring the countless men in arms with all their equipment. After a while Mark caught a glimpse of a master sergeant loading barrels into a supply wagon right in front of the saloon. The soldier was a giant of a man. He was as big as Lucas but had a far more massive frame. His muscular arms, tense beard and bushy brows made him resemble a grizzly. But his most distinctive feature was the batch he was wearing over his left eye. When he noticed Mark he seemed a bit on the edge.

“You want something, boy?”

“No …no, sir! Just looking, sir.”

Lucas paid for his beer, took his rifle and stepped quickly out of the saloon. Among those rugged men it was advisable to keep an eye on the boy. The master sergeant wiped the sweat off his forehead.

“That´s your boy, mister?” 8

“He sure is. The name is Lucas McCain and that's my son Mark, Sergeant.”

“Beg your pardon, sir… but you look like … well … a pirate.”

“Mark! “

For a moment the giant soldier frowned before a broad grin split his scared face.

“It´s alright, sir. The boy just speaks his mind. I appreciate that! Mighty fine kid! Yes, I lost my eye back in ´64 in the Wilderness. The first time, Lee and Grant locked horns. Awful bloody mess I can tell ya! A hell of a knock-down-drag-out fight. Served under General Jubal Early then, yessir! One of the cursed Yankees aimed for my head with his bayonet. Hurt like hell. Doc back at the hospital couldn't do anything about my eye. But I kept on marching, of course. Had to keep on fighting those Yanks. At Cedar Creek I caught a shrapnel in the shoulder. It's still in my flesh. Doesn't keep me from doing whatever is necessary though. Sure was lucky that time! When our cause was lost I reenlisted. That's why I am working for those Yanks now. God sure works in mysterious ways, let me tell ya, sir.”

“Where is your outfit heading, Sergeant?”

“Apache country, as far as I know. You can never tell what the goddamned officers are coming up with. But there is one thing as sure as god is my judge. This time we lick those damned injuns for good. This time we make them pay, yessir. Gonna be a hell of a fight, but they gonna pay …”

The man resumed loading the wagon with supplies. It was obvious that he wasn't interested in answering any more questions. Mark tried to say something but his father butted in quickly.

“Let´s go home. After the storm, we still have some damaged fences to string, son.”

“Sure, Pa …”

On the way to their horses, Mark suddenly stopped and ran back to the soldier who was now carrying a wooden crate filled with rifle ammunition on his broad shoulders.

“Sir … with all due respect … have you ever heard about an Apache, who is called the yawning one?”

The one-eyed master sergeant froze for a moment before he placed the bulky box in the wagon. He remained silent while fixing it in its position with leather straps. There was nothing worse than supplies falling off to the ground during the march. The silence grew awkward. Then he sighed.

“I sure have, son.”

“You have?”

“My older brother got killed by that goddamned injun last year down there in Mexico.”

“Sorry about that …”

“The one who yawns … he is far better known under his Spanish name … Geronimo.”

THE END

These stories are based on the TV series The Rifleman
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