The Apaches had found his trail. Despite his Kiowa training, he had slipped up. His mistake could cost him his life.
His canteen was full from the spring where he had left his horse. He had hoped the Apaches would accept the gift and let him be. But a white man on foot in the desert was too easy prey.
There would be three of them, possibly four. They would have Henry .44 rimfire rifles. His 44-40 Winchester centerfire gave him a range advantage. From high ground he could stand them off. In this arid land lined with gullies, there was no high ground, and he only had 21 cartridges, nine in his rifle magazine, six in his Colt and six in his pistol belt.
He had left town in a hurry when the bounty hunters showed up. He knew they wouldn’t follow him into the badlands. Bounty hunters liked all the odds in their favor. The charge of attempted murder was trumped up by the freight company. All he had done was to shoot the whip out of the mule team driver’s hand after the driver had ignored his order to stop tormenting the Kiowa squaw,
He had a soft spot for Kiowas and a hard spot for bullies. Kiowas had nursed him back to health after Apaches had made him run the gauntlet and left him staked over an anthill.
He considered his situation. If it came to the worse, he wouldn’t be missed. He had never found a place, and no one depended on him. Still, he had no intention of being an Apache captive a second time.
Apaches knew how far a white man could travel afoot on a canteen of water. They would know he would turn north to the mountains where there was water and game. They would encircle him and cut him off. He would have to watch three, maybe four directions, an impossibility with the gullies. One would follow his trail. The others would go around on his east side, the smallest arc and, thus, the least expenditure of energy, to get in front and beside him. The Apache behind would wait a bit so as not to come upon him before the others were positioned.
He knew what to do. He would circle to the west back to his horse, which the Apaches would have left tethered at the spring, and head back to town. Bounty hunters were not the fighters that Apaches are.
He would have to worry about his trail, but he had some time in which to get around the Apache behind him before the Indian moved up. He had donned his moccasins when he left his horse. He would have to take the time and care to leave no sign of his turn, or the game would be up.
It was slow going. Crouching to stay off the horizon and a look back at every step to be
certain no impression was left. He had to be on his guard as well in case there was a fourth Apache encircling on his west.
He made it to his horse and headed back to town. The Apaches would see that he had Indian savvy. If he encountered them again, it would not be so easy.
When he returned to town, he learned that the bounty hunters, angry that he had escaped their clutches, had been taking out their anger on the town. They had intimidated the sheriff and were demanding free drinks in the saloon, which the saloon keeper accommodated as drinks were cheaper than his mirrors. There’s something untoward about hunting a man for money, and the town was galled that it was having to endure bullying from such men.
Things had worked to his advantage. He knew what to do. The bounty hunters’ quickness would be lost to rye whiskey. But three pistols were still too many for one.
He stopped by the sheriff’s office to borrow a sawed-off shot-gun.
“I’ll come along, too,” said the sheriff, “and it’ll help matters if you pin on this deputy’s badge. Sober men won’t draw on a scatter-gun, but these bounty hunters won’t be sober.”
He entered the saloon with both hammers cocked. A bounty hunter was abusing the saloon keeper, threatening to pistol-whip him for serving sorry whiskey. The other two saw the badge and the shotgun and stepped apart, presenting three targets for two barrels.
“Don’t try it,” he said. “Raise your hands and turn around. The sheriff will relieve you of your pistols. You can have them back in the morning when you leave town.”
It was sound advice, but the bounty hunters were enjoying their rule and were not giving it up. One bounty hunter wheeled to draw and stumbled over a thrust out leg from a poker player. Another crouched and drew, catching the buckshot in his shoulder. The one at the bar turned with his pistol out and was cracked over the head by the saloon keeper. The bounty hunter on the floor looked up into a loaded shotgun barrel and surrendered.
“The town and I would be obliged if you would stay on as deputy. You would be appreciated. There’s a place for you here.”
He knew what to do.