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The Quantro Story
Chris Scott Wilson
THE DEVIL’S PLATEAU
The buzzard hung in the sky like an omen.
An omen of death.
With one eye half open Quantro watched the buzzard draw lazy circles above him, wingtips wide like splayed fingers stroking the rising air currents of the endless blue sky. He wondered how the hungry bird knew he lay in this hole in the ground, but then he understood buzzards had an instinct for that kind of thing. The second of his enemies up there was the sun, mercilessly charring the earth all around him into a vast wilderness of bleached sand strewn with a handful of scattered rocks. He had half crawled under a lip of rock that would provide a little shade at noon, but until then he would have to endure the glare. He began to wonder whether he would make it through until then, but his luck had held out this far so why should it desert him now?
He swallowed, a painful movement, for there was no saliva in his mouth to ease his parched throat. He feebly shook the canteen that lay by his side but it was empty. The strip of buckskin shirt that plugged the hole in the soft metal had not done its work very well. The water had still evaporated, but it was better the bullet hole was in the canteen rather than him. One bullet in him was more than enough.
He turned his attention to the Colt in an attempt to take his mind from the pain. The chambers were all full. He had made sure of that. He thumbed the cylinder. It wasn’t as smooth as it could have been. Sand had sneaked in. It would do. The only thing left was to get himself out of this hellhole.
Until the boy showed up he wasn’t going anyplace.
The sky had already been darkening when Quantro had made camp two nights before, just under the ledge of a shale outcrop that stood naked from the barren wasteland of the arid desert. The little fire he had built from the sparse brush had been enough to heat the coffee but not enough to keep away the chill of the night, and he had huddled into his blanket attempting to keep warm as he slept that half aware sleep of a man on the trail, ready to wake at the slightest sound alien to the desert night. Not that he could have slept deeply even if he had wanted to, the bitter cold saw to that. Several times he had woken, only to hear the sound of the buckskin stallion cropping disconsolately at the patches of bleached grass.
Sun-up revealed the horse’s breath cloudy in the first light while wisps of mist clung to the desert sands. Quantro squatted on his heels as he rekindled the tiny fire, his teeth clamped tight to stop them chattering. Chattering uncontrollably. He used the last of the water from the first canteen for the coffee, and tipped a little of the second into his hat for the horse. He hoped to find sweet water before the end of the day, but where he had no idea. He did not even have a firm idea of where he was headed, just a vague notion to ride and keep on riding. Now that he had completed the task that had taken up all his thinking for the last two years he had no idea what to turn his hand to next. He’d heard it said that when you’ve got no place to go why not try Mexico? Well why not? He supposed he would have to find a job somewhere before long because the money he had left would not last forever, but that was as far as his thinking had gone.
He kept the climbing sun on his left shoulder throughout the morning, allowing the buckskin to set his own pace as he threaded his way in and out of the arroyos and rock spurs as he pleased. He passed the hours studying the terrain, his ice-blue eyes restlessly moving back and forth under the brim of his sweat-stained Stetson, the only sound the clicking of the horse’s hooves on the rocky ground. The sun had chased away the chills of the night and now his buckskin shirt was stuck fast between his shoulder blades, a dark patch of sweat spreading slowly across his shoulders.
By noon he reckoned he had covered another fifteen miles which would place him about eighty miles from Sasabe to the east and about fifty miles from the Mexican border in the south. He had heard talk of Sasabe, maybe he would try there first and buy some supplies. Coffee and bacon and some grain for the stallion to supplement its meager diet. Two or three times during the morning the horse had stumbled and he had became increasingly aware its ribs were beginning to make long shadows under the once lustrous coat. With luck, the tough buckskin would take him all the way to wherever he was going. He had developed an attachment for the loyal horse, and he knew he would hate to have to trade it in or turn it loose.
He whispered a few words of encouragement, and at the sound of his voice the stallion’s ears picked up, but he stumbled on some loose shale and Quantro decided to rest for a while. He selected a spot under an escarpment which would provide some shade, then reined in and dismounted. He loosened the saddle cinch a couple of notches, then unhooked the canteen from the saddle horn and drew the Winchester from its scabbard before he turned the horse loose to find what forage it could.
He carried the canteen and the rifle over to the lee of the rock, occasionally flexing his stiff right leg as he walked. After a cursory glance around the base of the outcrop to see if any snakes had made it their home, he sat down with his back against the rock wall and gave his attention to his back trail.
There were no telltale plumes of dust moving so he reconciled himself he was alone. Satisfied, he lay the Winchester across his knees and began chewing on the strip of jerked beef. When that was finished he rolled a cigarette.
An hour later he whistled for the buckskin and the horse immediately gave up its search for nourishment and returned to its master. Quantro slid the rifle back into its saddle boot, then uncapped the canteen and poured a little of the water into his hat. When the stallion had finished drinking he put the damp Stetson back on his head and tilted the canteen to take a gulp or two himself that would have to last him the afternoon.
In the act of raising the canteen to his lips something made him turn. Nothing specific, just a notion.
That was when he saw him.
A boy of about eighteen was standing on a rise off to his right, and at the very second he saw him he heard the flat bark of a Winchester.
The canteen was torn from Quantro’s fingers, but still hung from his wrist by the rawhide thong. He was already moving, the Colt fluidly drawn from the holster and coming up to bear on the boy. The first shot roared out from his pistol almost across the rump of the stallion. The buckskin spooked into a rear, then galloped away.
The rifle was still on the saddle.
He ran, thumbing off shots to cover himself, but the boy was stationary. He merely levered another shell into the Winchester’s breech and squeezed the trigger again.
The .44 shell tore into Quantro, throwing him sideways on to the dusty shale. The explosion of pain in his shoulder almost made him howl, but instead he began to curse fluently and with great imagination through fiercely clenched teeth. Down, he crawled, leaving a sticky trail of blood-smeared shale behind him. He had to place some cover between himself and his attacker. Absurdly, it occurred to him he would now have a bum shoulder to match his bum leg.
The Winchester bullets regularly ploughed up the rocks around him, fragments stinging his cheeks and driving into his eyes until he was almost dust blind. Grimly he kept on moving. By the time he reached the shallow hole under the ledge he had almost exhausted his vocabulary of expletives, but the words had served their purpose. They had got him to the hole still in one piece. That was if you didn’t count a busted shoulder. Gratefully, he sank behind the rim that would protect him from the boy with the rifle.
Once he was out of sight the hail of bullets ceased.
So much for that.
He reloaded the Colt then lay it on the ground so he could examine his shoulder. The ragged wound was pouring blood onto his shirt so fast he couldn’t determine how bad it was, and besides, any movement at all sent lances of pain stabbing through his nervous system. The left side of his face was now plagued by a nervous tic.
Then he noticed the water from the punctured canteen was seeping into the shale at his feet, the thirsty earth soaking up every drop. He revised his swearing to include Mr. Winchester and the power of his invention as he tore a strip from the front tail of his buckskin shirt to plug the hole as best he could.
The boy hadn’t fired for five minutes now.
The silence had become acutely unnerving rather than as a relief, and he could feel the hackles rise on the back of his neck. The boy was probably circling to try and get a clear shot.
Quantro inched his way to the rim of the hole and peered cautiously over. There was no sign anybody was in the Goddam desert but him. He scanned the rise on either side of the place the boy had first fired from but all that met his gaze was rock shale and a few clumps of coarse grass too small to hide a man.
As he watched the land shimmering under the heat haze it occurred to him he had no idea of the boy’s identity. Who the hell was he? People shooting at him he could take, as long as they had a good reason, but as far as he knew, the boy hadn’t looked familiar at all, so… There was one way to find out. He cleared his throat and shouted.
“What are you shooting at me for, boy?”
The answer was quick and to the point.
“My name’s Willy Kilhern! That mean anything?”
“Shit,” Quantro muttered. It meant something all right. So that was it. Willy Kilhern, then he must be Jack Kilhern’s son. What the hell? The irony of the situation amused him and be laughed, the noise a hoarse rattle in his throat. Willy Kilhern. Damn it. Full Circle. Jack Kilhern had killed Quantro’s own father and he had hunted him down to take revenge. Eye for an eye. He had caught up with him three weeks ago and shot him down like the sniveling dog of a saddle-tramp he was.
And what was more, he had enjoyed it.
And now Kilhern’s son was trying to kill him.
But there was no time to dwell on that now. He sighed, and his mouth, that would have been described as generous in better times formed a thin resigned line. He didn’t want to kill the boy for it would be a waste, but if the boy was half as bent on killing as he appeared to be, then there was no alternative. He looked at his shattered shoulder. Well maybe the boy would be able to take him after all. He wasn’t doing too badly so far, having sneaked up and got a good clear shot.
Quantro moved a little to ease his stiff leg and the pain from his shoulder brought his breath rasping between his teeth. The movement made him realize loss of blood was already significantly draining his energy. He would have to finish it fast.
As he waited for his breathing to slow down he remembered the Kilhern boy had fired all his shots from the same place on the rise, so perhaps he had dropped behind the crest at that spot. If he had, then that was something his father should have taught him not to do.
Quantro would find out. Maybe a little baiting would help.
“You hear me, boy?”
“I hear you.” The voice came back at him from the ridge, hard and bitter.
“You think you can kill me, boy?” He stressed the word, turning it into an insult.
“You’re damn right I can!” came the indignant reply, echoing back among the rocks.
Quantro grinned painfully. “I don’t think so, boy.” He edged up to peer over the rim, Colt in hand. There was no sign of life out there in the shimmering desert, but the voice from behind the rise was even more indignant.
“I don’t care what you think, Quantro. I’ll kill you for sure.”
“Why do you want to kill me, boy?”
“You know why. You killed my father, damn you ! Or didn’t you even bother to find out his name?” the voice snapped.
“I don’t even know what you look like, boy, so how do I know you’re Kilhern’s boy?”
“Because I’m telling you, Mister!” It was an angry shout, but the boy still hadn’t shown his face.
Quantro hadn’t expected him to fall for a trick like that, but it did seem he was gaining the edge. He grinned. Any edge in this position was welcome. He decided to try a bit more.
“Go home, boy! You aren’t man enough to take me!”
“Shut up, damn it !”
“Go home and hide behind your mother’s skirts. Come back when you start shaving !”
He heard the scrabble of boots on shale.
“Damn you ! I’m gonna kill you right now!” The boy’s voice was a hysterical scream as his torso lifted above the rise. His mouth was twisted into a snarl and the Winchester was held out purposefully in front of him.
Quantro’s smile was brief. Such a stupid trick and he fell for it. He sighted along the barrel of the Colt and thumbed the hammer. At the crash of the pistol the boy dropped back behind the rise, out of sight.
The gun smoke rose in front of his face and the fumes invaded his mouth as Quantro swore. He couldn’t tell whether he had scored a hit or not. Lessons learned had taught him never to trust what he thought he saw. Patience would bear out the truth.
The afternoon passed slowly under the blazing sun and he began to wonder who had the edge now. Was the boy sitting him out, waiting for him to show his head over the rim so he could blow it off with the Winchester? Or was he already out of the game? Annoyed, Quantro realized there was no way to get out of the hole for there was no cover to be had anywhere. In back and above him rose the steep shelf of rock, and out in front was the slow dip that led to the foot of the rise that sheltered the boy. Where was the buckskin? The damn horse was never there when he needed him. He decided to try a whistle.
On hands and knees he painfully crawled back up to the rim and gave himself a minute to ease his ragged breathing before he pursed his lips to whistle. The note emerged sounding more like a trembling bleat from the mouth of a new born lamb. He reached for the canteen and wet his already chapped lips frugally with water, then tried again. His only reply was a rattle of shale coming from the boy’s position, so he quickly ducked his head, but nothing more happened.
So, the boy was still there, and there was no sign of the buckskin.
He groaned and lay back against the rocks, his strength fast deserting him. He had lost his hat during the first moments of the gunfight and now his bare head was taking the full impact of the burning sun. The shoulder wound didn’t help any either. His left arm was now numb all the way down to his wrist and any attempt at movement was unbearable. To add to his troubles he realized he was fast dehydrating. Slowly, one-handed, he loosened his bandana to improvise a hat, grateful for any protection he could gain against the sun.
A hoarse cackle escaped his lips. Maybe this was the end of the line after all. A picture passed through his mind of the many sun-bleached skeletons he had seen of both men and animals sprawled among rocks bordering trails. Maybe the next one on this trail would be him.
He remembered the old Apache legend of the Scalphunters’ Ledge a cowhand had told him once when they’d wintered in a line cabin in the mountains.
The cowboy’d said that down below the border in Mexico there was an amber-red plateau, and in the centre of it stood a solitary monolith of hard red stone, reaching up like a finger to the sky. The legend said a band of Apache had attacked a mule train carrying gold bullion on its way from Tayopa. At that time, round 1842, the Mexican Governor General had issued an announcement offering bounties on Indian scalps as an incentive to decrease the Indian population in Mexico. Bands of men had sprung up who became known as Scalphunters, and it was one of these bands, led by Mustang Grey, who ambushed the Apache braves after they had taken possession of the bullion. When the battle was over, they scalped all the Apache, and then they realized during the fight all the horses and mules had escaped, and all the water bags were punctured, leaving them with neither transport nor water in a land where a man could only survive with both. The scalphunters were trapped. It was said they hid the gold in a secret cave up on the ledge and then waited until death showed up to take them prisoner. The Apache said from that day on, on each dark moon the voices of the Scalphunters could be heard crying out in the night for water, and their bad spirits had never escaped from that place.
Quantro wondered if his ghost would call for water on dark nights. He determined if it did, then he would try his best to give a few travelers the horrors.
The heat and pain were almost insufferable as he slipped into a fitful doze that stretched through the remaining hours of the afternoon and into the twilight.
As the day began to ease into the black velvet shroud of the desert night he shook himself awake, angry he had forsaken his vigil. The thought he was still alive brought some relief, and he found himself shivering and staring up at the vast panorama of stars sprinkled across the sky. The sleep had done nothing to replenish his flagging energy. He could barely move, the slightest flexing of a limb sent spasms of pain shooting through his body.
He almost wished it was over. The boy could have caught him easily while he slept, but had left him alone. Why? He could only think of two answers. Either the shot from the Colt had found its target, or the boy had pulled out. But, if the boy was so determined to avenge his father why should he quit now? Perhaps he was only waiting until darkness would cover his approach. Well, Quantro was going nowhere. At least not until light. It was too dark to chance tracking the buckskin. It would be difficult enough in daylight over this type of ground, never mind in almost pitch darkness. If the boy hadn’t made his move by sun-up, then Quantro was going to run slap into him. The odds were getting too short to wait it out any longer than that. If he did, he would be certain crow bait. The buzzards would find him much too easily.
The buzzard found him not long after dawn.
First light had laid its grey fingers across the sky, presenting the barren wasteland of the desert that stretched away bleakly to the far horizon. Quantro’s eyes were red-rimmed and sore, and the last of the water scarcely relieved the pain in his throat. The shoulder wound had congealed, but there was no strength in his aching bones so he merely lay and stared at the growing day. The Colt was in easy reach, ready for the boy, but he never came.
It suddenly became important to watch the buzzard. If Willy Kilhern was lying dead on the other side of the rise, then the bird should have dropped in to eat his breakfast. Maybe the boy had caught the shot from the Colt but was still alive, maybe just maybe in as bad a state as himself?
The buzzard, remote as it was, quartering the sky above, put a chilling fear into the pit of his stomach. It was the calling card of death.
The cadaverous bird had all day to wait for his kill, but Quantro knew only too well his own time was fast running out. If he didn’t make his move soon, then he would make no moves at all.
Wild-Horse squatted on the ridge, sniffing the morning breeze.
He watched the buzzard in the north rise and dip in its timeless soar, slowly circling, finely balanced as it rode the hot air columns that rose from the Devil’s Plateau. He spent some minutes admiring the bird’s casual skill then came up off his heels and walked back down into the hollow on silent moccasins. The white man was sitting by the fire drinking strong black coffee from a tin cup, warming his bones after the cold night. Even before the silent Wild-Horse was ten feet away from his back, Pete Wiltshire turned his head a fraction and spoke over his shoulder.
“See somethin’, Wild-Horse?”
The Apache grinned, tossing his hair, black as a raven’s wing, in silent laughter. One day he would catch out the white man, but it would have to be early in the morning. He reached the fire and squatted down on his heels, the game of surprising his friend forgotten as he turned his attention to the bacon sizzling in the skillet that stood on the hot rocks by the edge of the fire. Pete turned a jaundiced eye on him and the Indian pointed to the north.
“It figures.” Pete sniffed, turning a chunk of the bacon in the skillet. Wild-Horse looked at him expectantly.
“Eat now?” he asked.
“Yep. Eat now,” Pete replied, his lips barely moving in the grizzled jaw that hadn’t seen a razor since they’d ridden out to buy supplies for the camp, four days ago. He rubbed a hand across the grey-flecked stubble and thought how lucky the full-blood Indians were. They didn’t have to shave at all. Mind you, that was little consolation when you were treated like a dog by every white man who took the notion to help himself to your land. He glanced sideways at Wild-Horse’s hungry eyes.
“Yep. Eat now,” he repeated, doling out the hot bacon, “then we’ll ride us a piece and see what that bird’s so darned interested in.”
Not that he needed to know what was out there. He already knew. He lifted his eyes from the tin plate and gazed thoughtfully across at the picketed horses. The buckskin stallion they’d found wandering yesterday stood out like a priest in a whorehouse among the tough Indian ponies and the pack mules. It was a well bred stallion, hands higher than the rest, a cross between an Arab and a Quarter horse by the looks. It had acquired the best of both breeds too. Speed and endurance. Of course, it looked a little the worse for wear, but then the desert did that to good horseflesh. He’d never seen the brand before. A Q with a bar over both top and bottom. BAR-Q-BAR. It could only mean it was from up in the north somewhere. Colorado?
The saddle too. It was finely tooled, burnished leather that had seen good use, but it had obviously been made by a Master Craftsman and cost someone a good bankroll. The empty canteen was still hanging from the saddle horn and the rifle was still in the saddle boot. That was a beauty too. A prized 1873 model Winchester, caliber 44.40. They were the ones known as One of a Thousand. Rare and expensive. Whoever rode that horse knew what he was doing. Apparently he owned nothing but the best.
Pete looked at the lightening sky. Whoever the rider of that horse was, he wouldn’t live long out there without water and his rifle. He was probably dead already. He’d been afoot since noon yesterday, but maybe not. The buzzard wouldn’t still be in the sky if he was dead. He finished his share of the bacon and scrubbed the greasy plate with a handful of sand. He sniffed. Luck was a funny thing. If that feller out there had his share of it, then maybe he was alive. If the horse had thrown him and he’d managed to crawl to some shade, then maybe, just maybe.
Wild-Horse had already saddled his own pony and was checking the harness on the heavily laden pack mules when Pete came out from behind the scrub brush fastening his belt buckle. He walked to the paint pony and caught up the reins of the buckskin stallion as he mounted. He sniffed and settled into his creaking saddle, then nodded to the Apache.
“Okay compadre, let’s ride.”
Wild-Horse gave him one of those half smiles, then swung up on to the pony’s back, seemingly effortlessly. He bent over the first mule and reached down for the long lead rein, then wheeled his pony, gently prodding him in the ribs with the heels of his moccasins.
Together, they rode up to the rim of the hollow that had provided the night’s shelter and faced the open desert.
END OF SAMPLE
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