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Episode 62

The Grinning Visage

Now that he’d made the decision to take this drastic step, he was frantic to see it done. He bent to shuck off a boot in order to use a big toe to depress the trigger and send him to oblivion. The boot was stubbornly clinging to his foot as it was swollen after days of hiking across the Chisos. He hooked the toe of his other boot into the leather behind his ankle to prize the boot free. With a lot of grunting and straining, he managed to slide his heel loose inside the boot. He swung his leg up and down in a jerking motion in an attempt to wiggle free. The effort caused him to slide on his ass on the loose scree beneath him. He kicked out his still-booted foot to brace him in place.

The kick loosened a rock that bounced down the slope toward where the mules grazed. That rock struck others and set them to sliding. The docile packies, unconcerned that they were surrounded by murderous savages, were thrown into a tizzy by the sound of a few pebbles bouncing in their direction.

As one, the mules kicked up their hooves and set off at a run down the slope. They raised a cloud of yellow dust behind them that filled the gap in the rock walls of the wash like water in a trough.

Taken by a sudden desire to live, Thad leapt to his feet to take off after the mules in a stumbling run, one boot waggling half off his foot. He was into the dust before he heard a bullet whine past overhead. The boom of the weapon followed him down through the choking haze. A second round made a cracking sound where it struck a rock an arm’s distance. He turned to look behind him causing him to twist an ankle inside the half-removed boot. That made him lose his footing. He dropped tumbling to the slope to roll down to the bottom and into the base of the coulee. His rifle had been torn from his grasp and lost somewhere above him.

Thad recovered and, after taking precious seconds to tear off the stubborn boot, he moved at a hopping run to put distance between him and the Mescaleros. He knew it was in vain, a fool’s errand. A blind terror possessed him now, the primal, animal urge to escape.

The cloud of dust left behind by the mules, who were likely miles away by now, was thinning. He emerged from it only to run headlong into thin air. Head over heels, he fell free until landing hard on his back at the base of a deep cut in the earth.

The pain of a broken bone, the shaft of a calf bone sticking through a bloody rent in his whipcord trousers, lanced up his leg making him light-headed. He leaned to one side and wretched though there were no contents in his belly to vomit up. By the force of his elbows digging in the rocky soil, he dragged himself backwards deeper into the shadows cast by the wall of the cut. He looked up to see he’d fallen twenty feet or more into a fault of some kind. It was fifty feet across maybe with steep walls striped with strata of various hues.

For a blessed moment he thought perhaps the Apaches would think he’d vanished into the earth. Maybe they’d be more concerned with catching up to the runaway mules than with searching for him. If a broken leg was the price to pay for this change in his fortune, then he welcomed it. It would take him weeks to make it back to Eagle Flat with a busted shin. But he’d be alive, praise Jesus, with a story to tell.

He heard a grunt above him and craned his head back to see a figure crouched, silhouetted against the fading sunlight. The figure disappeared and he heard horse’s hooves on the ground above.

Hot tears sprang to Thad’s eyes. This was the end or damned near it. They would come down after him now and the agony of his broken leg will feel like the touch of an angel compared to what they’d have in store for him. He reached behind him for the hunting knife on his belt. Cutting his own throat was a preferable option to dying under the hands of the Mescalero.

The scabbard was empty.

He’d lost the knife somewhere in his descent down the slope.

Dust fell from somewhere further along the fault. The Apaches found their way down where the wall of the defile had collapsed. The clop of unshod hooves sounded on the stony floor of the wash as they approached on their ponies.

Three bucks reined up before where he lay. Two young ones with bare chests and buckskin breeches, their hair worn wild. The third was an older brave in a cotton print shirt sashed at the waist, his silver-streaked hair bound back with a yellow bandana tied across the brow. They sat regarding him with unblinking ebon eyes. Thad did his best to return their stares.

One of the young bucks started in surprise and pointed a finger with a grunt. The other two shifted their gaze to a point above and behind where Thad lay against the wall of the fault. With a jerk on the reins, the three pulled their ponies back and turned them to ride off back the way they’d come. More dust churned down the fault as they fought their way up the side and back onto the open ground to ride away.

Thad sat choking on the billowing dust and rubbed at his damp eyes with the backs of his hands. Tears flowed now but they were tears of relief. He was alive. The merciless savages had spared him. For whatever reason, death had passed him by for another day.

With a thin mewl of pain, he shifted where he sat until he could turn his head to see for himself what caused the Mescalero bucks to leave him be.

Emerging from the living rock above his head was the grinning visage of a dragon.

THE SIDEWINDERS runs daily from Monday through Friday on Arktoons.

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The Sidewinders

The Legend Chuck Dixon explores the Wild West, with epic tales of gunfighters, frontier justice, savage Indian tribes, and even more savage outlaws.
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