The horses moved in a single file along the track, heading deeper into the Texas wilderness. Each man was watching the track, the brush to the side, and the jagged rocks slowly rearing over the horizon. There were seven horses, the first belonging to a man who was dressed significantly different to the rest. Mike Collins, a known outlaw, was attached by rope to the man directly behind him, Captain Dan Reid of the Texas Rangers.
Dan Reid was holding a Sharps carbine and watching the brown-coated back of Collins carefully. The outlaw was riding slumped over, the tanned back of his neck visible before his broad-brimmed hat covered the rest of his head. He was unwashed, like many bandits, and burn marks from hand-rolled cigarettes covered his hat and jacket.
By comparison, Captain Reid and his troop of Rangers were crisp and clean. Each of them rode along, watching carefully for signs of approach by another group of men. Captain Reid’s eyes, however, were only for his captive. They were a unique set of light blue eyes, and they were filled with hatred.
Mike Collins had worked for the notorious outlaw Butch Cavendish, and now, in return for a promise not to be swung from the nearest yardarm or sturdy tree limb, he’d agreed to show the Rangers where Cavendish made his lair. The seven men, thus, were carefully approaching rough, broken ground, where twenty-foot jagged rocks seemed to be common.
Five troopers followed Dan Reid and Mike Collins along the faintly visible path. Taking up the rear was a Ranger by the name of John Reid. He was Dan Reid’s younger brother, and shared the same light blue eyes as the older man. Twelve years younger, John hadn’t fought in the Civil War like Dan had, and most of the other men in the squad. He was a more innocent sort of fellow, who had always sympathized with the various plights in the wild western outreaches of Texas.
The horses trod forward still, and Dan Reid and John Reid rode deeper and deeper into a slowly developing maze of outcropped rocks and small wadi-like depressions. It was still early in the day – and early in the year – and most of the men were hung over from the New Year’s Eve celebrations the night previous. But not Captain Reid, who seemed sharp as a tack as he held his reigns and the noose about Mike Collins’s neck in his left hand, and steadily held the Sharps carbine, pointing at Collins’s back.
It was another half-hour, at the least, before Collins finally moved to stop. He shifted, gazing over his shoulder at the six Rangers behind him, all of whom drew up into a wedge-like formation. Their white caps caught the bright, crisp January sun and reflected it sharply, though enough of a glint remained to shimmer off the badges all six men wore.
John Reid caught a sly look on Collins’s face as the outlaw’s bloodshot eyes gazed back to his, for a brief second. The man was unshaven and his upper lip showed signs of having been recently busted open. His lower jaw hung loosely revealing a handful of yellow, broken teeth. He smirked a bit.
“Here y’all go, lawmen,” he said. “Butch Cavendish’s own hidey-hole.”
John Reid was nervous. He had a sense that something wasn’t right – that feeling that he was being watched. But he wasn’t yellow. If Dan sensed it, he’d say. But would he? Dan had an illogical hatred of Butch Cavendish. Enough that he might throw away his own safety.
A passing cloud obscured the sun, and John realized that the small clearing into which Collins had led the Rangers was surrounded on all sides by steep rocks. There was scarcely a place one could even climb, except for near-to where the Rangers had entered the little cul-de-sac. The younger, less experienced Ranger could smell an ambush.
“Cavendish!” Dan Reid called. “Get out here!” There was no tent, no cave, nowhere where the outlaw could be hiding. John’s left hand crossed to his right hip, reaching for the pistol sat. He never finished drawing it.
Dan was the first to be shot, and in the confusion, John was sure Butch took the shot himself. “Here I am, lawman!” he bellowed, and the heavy belch of a long-barrelled rifle. Cavendish was an accurate snap-shot, and Dan’s hat was blackened as the back of his head blew out. The little canyon filled with the sound of pistol and rifle shot.
John Reid hit the ground hard as his stricken horse bucked him. Blood splattered over his chest suddenly, and after a second he felt the searing pain of someone’s bullet stabbing through his body. Two or three more pistol shots rang out, followed by another loud burst from a rifle. One of John’s companions had lived long enough to shoot back.
Lying there, trying not to breathe, John Reid felt warmth spreading over his chest and over his stomach. He shifted, pressing a hand over his guts, feeling moist blood there. He didn’t hurt, but clearly he’d been shot in the belly too. The worst way to die, he thought. His ears somehow detected the crunch of boots on sand, accompanied by the occasional clink of a spur hitting rock.
“One survivor, Butch,” said a high-pitched male voice. John tried to turn his head, but everything swam when he did. He coughed, and red smeared his lips, splattering over his cheek.
John didn’t need to move. The clean-shaven, surprisingly handsome face of Butch Cavendish loomed over his black-rimmed vision. “Why, if it ain’t John Reid. Yer brother’s got a big mouth…he ain’t got no mouth now, but he had a big mouth. Belly wound, hmm?” A sudden pain flared as something pressed deeper into his stomach than he ever thought it could. The blood-coated barrel of a Union Army-issue Colt 1860 appeared in Cavendish’s hands. “Bad way to die. Maybe I ought to end it right here for you, lawman,” he said.
Someone pushed the white hat down over Reid’s eyes, and he felt pressure against the hat, a short, sharp pressure. He closed his eyes, not that it made a difference. Reid’d never been one for prayers, but he prepared to murmur one as he heard a hammer being cocked.
It fell, and he heard a light click. After the firefight, Cavendish’s gun was empty. He laughed and John could hear the man’s boots moving away. “Lucky man, ain’t ya, John Reid? But you’re good as dead, anyway. Ain’t worth the time for me to fill my shootin’ iron. See you in hell, lawman.” The boots continued to crunch away, all the pairs of them. After a few minutes, there was only silence.
Slowly bleeding, John Reid wept, feeling far too weak to move. He strained to hear anything, and made soft noises, the best he could do with his strength sapped from the multiple wounds he’d taken. He realized, at the edge of consciousness, that there was a pain in his thigh, meaning he’d likely broken his leg when he’d been tossed from the horse. He wondered what good the knowledge would bring him.
He didn’t know how long he lay there, waiting to die, but eventually he could hear something. Not footprints, but the sound of someone rustling through clothing. After a moment, an ever-so-quiet, so hushed murmur in a language he didn’t understand.
Reid summoned all his effort, and parted cracked lips. Dried blood made it so difficult. “Help,” he groaned. “Help.”
He let out a long breath, tinged with pain. He only heard the last two, so light footprints, and then he was blinded as the hat was lifted away. He squinted, surprised he had that much energy left in his depleted body. He heard two voices, arguing in a hushed voice. Eventually he realized two men were standing over him, both with dark skin and long, braided hair. Indians, he thought, despondently. The Rangers had fought their share with the Indians, and the Rangers tended to come off on the better side with the savages in the bloody confrontations.
One native was holding a long knife in his right hand. It had a wicked hook to it, and he made several motions with it, long slashes. Reid looked to the other native, who had a higher, prouder face. He crouched down and slowly, the man’s face filled Reid’s vision.
“White man, you look familiar to me,” he said. “What is your name?”
John’s lips moved a few times, before he finally whispered. “Reid.”
“Reid.” He straightened up and looked to the other brave, before giving an order. The tone was the same that Dan used – had used – when giving his orders. The second brave paused for a moment, but then he moved away. Before long, the two men were tearing open the uniform tunic and binding the wounds as best they could. The pain flared once, twice, and on the third time, when the Indian who was clearly in charge set his leg, John passed out.
When he came to, he’d been placed on the front of a horse, and arms were holding him carefully. Bareback, the beast walked slowly from the concealed place it had been hidden. The brave who had chosen to spare him sat behind him, holding him upright.
“We be careful, white man,” the voice said in stilted English.
“My…are they? My brother…”
“They all dead. You lone ranger now,” the Indian said. “I am Tonto, white man. Now rest, because you in my hands, and I will do what I can to bring life back to you.” The horse rode through the canyon, and John Reid slowly slumped, passing into a form of unconsciousness perilously perched somewhere on the line between sleep and death.