Authors: Elle Marlow
For the third time that day, Dutch had to sit down, take off his boot and shove pages from a periodical between his foot and a gaping hole. All the hiking across the rocky trails had worn the leather down after only a few months. He’d buy a horse to carry him if the terrain wasn’t so treacherous. Beyond that, the Apaches would likely steal a sure footed horse before he got it good and broke. They’d have taken Fatty by now, but the mule’s habit of crying out a warning saved both their necks time after time.
Dutch traversed through a narrow canyon that would open up to the mining camp of Hell’s Creek. The camp wasn’t much to look at, but it at least he could get a drink, barter for a better pair of boots and restock supplies to keep and him and his mule satisfied for a spell.
He’d barely tied Fatty to the first hitching post when he spotted a crowd developing around the only stage depot around for miles. People had gathered up and were shouting about a wagon train that had apparently come under attack by a band of wild Indians. Women were inconsolable while their men raised their fist or their rifles in the air hollering out about injustice. Misguided fools. There was no such thing as justice when it came to marauding Apaches and trespassing settlers. This was their land and they wanted to keep it. He’d let him have it too if it were not for the fact he needed that gold. But the angry shouts from the men in this town grew louder in his ears, sounding to him like they were hell-bent on stirring up a damn hornet’s nest.
Dutch reached into his scabbard where he hid a few nuggets of gold, and then turned to head toward the saloon. He’d have a few licks of whiskey before gathering his supplies and then he’d get the hell out before that mob decided to draft him.
The Agave Saloon wasn’t known for much, the place smelled bad, looked worse and the women were rougher than an alligator’s ass. But, they didn’t ask no questions either. Nobody pried into anyone else’s business, which is what he liked. When he sat down at the bar, he’d barely been served his drink when Ilene approached him fanning herself.
“It’s barely seventy degrees out, Ilene. What do you want?”
She ran a finger over his jaw, reminding him that he hadn’t shaved in days.
“A man like you sure are a sight for sore eyes, handsome Dutch. When I look at you, I have a hard time stomaching the rest of the men in this run-down camp. When are you going to take me up on my offer for some company?”
Dutch chuckled into his glass, shaking his head. “Not going to happen. Besides, I can’t afford you, Ilene.”
“That’s not what folks around Hell’s Creek are saying.”
Dutch turned in his seat to get a good look at the redhead with the painted eyes and scrawny body that dripped with vanilla perfume. “Why don’t you save us both some time, and tell me what it is they are saying?”
She smiled, waved that fan a few times in his face, then shrugged. “That will cost you at least a glass,” she said at a purr. Dutch tapped on the bar with his finger. “The good stuff,” she added. Clem the bartender poured Ilene her drink. Dutch waited as she shot the liquid down, and then he leaned in her direction.
“Okay, you got your fancy mash, now tell me what you know.”
“Only that while the rest of the miners work for scraps in that dried out creek, you’ve struck it rich up on that mountain. You keep going back up the same trail. It sure don’t take a genius to figure out why, now does it?”
“Yeah? Well, people ought to keep their noses in their own business. I don’t have anything. If I did, I sure as heck could find a nicer saloon than this.”
“Sure, Dutch,” she smiled. Then she scooted her glass toward him indicating she wanted another.
The doors swung open filling the saloon with light, and Dutch turned to see a negro couple walk in. The woman, being held upright, didn’t look strong enough to hold up her own head. Her husband put her in a chair, and then looked around the saloon with desperation in his dark eyes.
“Could someone please get my wife some water?”
Clem stepped around the bar, waving a towel at the couple. “We don’t serve your kind in here. Get out.”
Dutch jumped from his stool, wincing from the pain of his raw foot. “What the hell, Clem. If you’re going to judge folks by the color of their skin, I’m gonna start judging your saloon for its cheap whiskey and even cheaper women.”
Clem turned pale when he turned to face him. “One water and that’s all.”
Granny Parker sat in front of the fire, working on needle point and sternly warning her brood that if anything should happen, they were not to scream. Screaming, she warned, would only excite the Indians, and spur on more barbaric behavior. The old woman’s warning echoed inside Willow’s head as a shotgun blasted a hole through the wagon’s canvas, and shattering the wood over her head like a Chinese firework.
Squeezing her eyes shut, Willow reached across herself to grasp her shoulder. A bullet tore into her flesh, burning a path so hot, she gasped. It was only a graze, but it took everything within her not to break Granny’s rule. Hot, sticky blood pooled around her fingers and the harder Willow squeezed, the more intense the pain ricochet throughout her body.
Granny’s eyes opened wide while her hand covered little Tommy’s mouth. The wagon tilted, and then tipped sideways, sliding them along the floor. Willow slammed against the side of the wagon, with Granny slamming against her. Their gazes locked for a split second, and the fear in the old lady’s eyes rushed Willow with unspeakable fear. But again, the old lady put a finger over her mouth reminding Willow not to utter a sound.
Grasping at what she could, Willow eventually managed to wrap her fingers around a wooden plank that had broken free from the frame. Willow squeezed her eyes closed, whispering prayers. When a shadow fell across the canvas, Willow opened her eyes to see that an Indian had stuck his head through the hole in the canvas, his face painted in bright colors, his eyes dark as night.
Willow bit down hard on her lip to keep from crying out. His appearance was quickly followed by more shadows of men, who started rocking the wagon hard, trying to push it over. Another round of shooting started her ears to ringing and her stomach clenching against the urge to finally scream. The shouts from wagon master outside went deathly silent before everything in her world turned upside down, toppling her free from the wagon.
Willow landed in the dirt and instinctively rolled her body to get away. She’d cleared the wagon just before it went ablaze, and then watched her breath fan the dirt before she was able to get her bearings enough to stand. She’d barely had time to balance herself and make sense of her surroundings, when little Tommy Parker stumbled toward her, terror written across his face as his mouth opened for a silent scream. He fell right into her arms with an arrow sticking out of his back, and blood spurting from his mouth something fierce. The weight of his body as she tried to hold onto him, finally induced her to scream. Tommy Parker’s ghostly face went blank giving her no choice but to drop him to the ground while his image burned itself into her brain and flooding her with an overwhelming panic that begged her to try and escape and save herself.
Jumping over his body, she didn’t know what else to do but run. Willow ran into the surrounding desert so fast her lungs caught fire inside her chest. She was afraid to look behind her, not knowing if she was being chased. It didn’t matter how far she’d gone, the sounds of death followed her. Tears streamed the sides of her face as she continued to race into the wilds until finally, she could no longer hear the Indian yells and the mournful death cries of the Parker family.
The setting sun casted the rough terrain in long shadows making it harder for her to see. She tripped over a few small scrubs, but quickly righted herself to keep going. When the sky finally melted into darkness allowing the stars to come out, she was running blind and running out air.
She just couldn’t keep going. Feeling weak, Willow bent forward to rest both hands on her knees. Her body painfully heaved in an effort to get enough air. The gasping made her head ache and her vision float. The ground beneath her reflected the skyline that glowed from the massive fire that still engulfed the wagons. She knew she hadn’t ran far enough, but she couldn’t keep going. Her mind fought to deny the reality of another fire. They only difference between this blaze and the one that destroyed her plantation, was the smell of scorched wood was now accompanied by the odor of burnt flesh, and the smell wretched her gut in heaving spasms. Then the muscles in her legs twisted so hot, Willow cried out as her body gave out and she hit the ground.
With every heartbeat the fire in her legs deepened as she clutched her calf gasping over and over again, trying to stay on top of the pain. When the world began to tip, she crawled her way to a tree, and the only position that didn’t hurt was for her to curl herself up into a ball and lay underneath it’s thorny branch.
She was still bleeding from her shoulder, and for the first time Willow could taste the bitterness of death. The thought of dying had forever haunted her ever since she heard the story of her mama’s heart giving out birthing her. Now she decided she’d welcome death. Accepting her fate hammered her heart inside her chest so fierce, she simply gave into the darkness that wanted to swallow her whole.
Cool air brushed across her face and Willow fluttered her eyes open to discover brilliant shades of pink sweeping across the morning sky. Her legs still throbbed with a dull pain as her body moved across a sandy floor. That’s when she was surprised to discover that her arm, skewed high above her head was numb from a man’s tight grip, dragging her behind him.
She braved to glance behind her. Wild, half-naked men walked together, talking in deep monotones and using words she didn’t understand. Too weak to keep her head up, it fell back and to the side where she saw Granny Parker looking dead and being pulled by her feet behind another one of the strange men.
The next time she opened her eyes, she was laid out next to Granny by a fire. Stripped of all clothing except for a bandage someone had wrapped on her arm, she shivered against the coarse sand beneath her. Startled at her nudity, Willow used her arms to cover herself.
“Shush. Let them think we’re dead,” Granny hissed. Willow looked beyond the fire to witness two men with hideously red painted faces and a woman, eating strips of meat, and laughing at something until one of the men heard her. Immediately, he got up from his crossed-leg position and approached her. He surprised her by saying a few words to his companions in English.
“Yellow Rock’s medicine is strong to have survived so long. This,” he said, reaching down and yanking on her hair, “This will interest him. He will not be able to deny her.”
The ground moved beneath Willow. Her heart slammed against her chest as she winced from the pain of having her hair pulled. Granny’s look warned her not to react. The Indian then returned to the others, and the group’s meal and shared laughter continued.
Willow looked around and noticed they were surrounded by boulders. Flames from the fire reflected off their surface that were etched with strange symbols and stick drawings of death. They were brought to this place to die, and she realized she shouldn’t have run from the wagon. She should have just let them kill her right then.
One of the other men stood and stretched his arms. He was looking towards the sky before his dark eyes lowered to meet with hers. The look in his eyes sent a bolt of shivers over her as his gaze swept over her with a curl to his lips.
“Yellow Rock can have her after me,” he said in rough, broken English.
“Not too much, Yellow Rock would not want one with a spirit already broken.”
“He is a useless white. How would he know or care?” This man snapped to the first, walking toward her with long, angry steps. Willow squeezed her eyes shut as she moved her arm from covering her breast to protect her head from more hair pulling. But the Apache pulled hard on her wrist to loosen her grip, and then he grasped a chunk of hair and then pulled hard enough that some of her hair stayed within his hand. She let out a yelp at the ripping sensation, watching through a watery vision as he held the mass of yellow hair up like a trophy, laughing at his prize.
The woman sitting with the men, angrily shouted something, pointing to a nearby mountain. She fiercely stabbed at the air with her finger, and the other men nodded, acknowledging her somewhat shamefully. Whatever was being said between them, Willow got the distinct impression her hair had something to do with those mountains, a man named Yellow Rock, and was probably the only reason that up until now, they’d spared her life.
The old woman settled down and then began to drink from an army issued tin cup. The sound of water inside the cup made Willow erupt in tears. She reached out toward the cup, moaning out her thirst.
“No Willow!” Granny warned. But she couldn’t stop. She was too afraid to die, and too terrified to live. Her vision faded and then returned. Granny’s voice tunneled out to a far off place, and she blinked against the strangeness of it.
And there, in the distance, stood Memaw. Willow tried to run to her, but her arms closed against her.
In the course of a day, the small group traveled in the direction of a strange looking mountain. It looked to be composed of nothing but towering masses of boulders set afire by the constant sun. In the hours that passed, the Indians seemed to have taken pity on her and had offered her food, but if Granny Parker wanted anything, Willow had to share with her. Mercifully, by the time the afternoon sun was burning down on their flesh, the Indians stopped dragging them, and finally allowed them to walk. With their hands tied together in front of them, they were then leashed to the ropes tied around the waist of the men who began to walk briskly a few feet in front. Willow was grateful to walk, but the men had large strides and she wasn’t used to the quick pace.