Atá Halné cut the shredded flesh and tendons holding Hund’s mangled leg. Before he could dispose of the bloody remains, the woman was beside him sprinkling a red powder on Hund’s stump. She had strips of cloth, evidently from flour or meal sacks, that she wrapped around the dog, protecting his wound.
The Navajo studied the woman—not as old as he first thought. Trail dust and stress had made her appear more mature. Up close, and with tear tracks on her cheeks, he could see she was about Easterly’s age. “What did you put on him? It smelled like pepper.”
“It was. Cayenne pepper. To stop the bleeding.”
“Won’t it be painful?”
She tied the last strip in place. “Cayenne doesn’t burn in a wound, and it helps to heal. Are you an Indian?”
“You don’t act like one.”
Atá Halné stood. So did the young woman. He noticed her hand near her pistol. “How am I supposed to act?”
“I don’t know. Killing and scalping white folks?”
“We don’t do that to people we know. Whites call me Arthur, what’s your name?”
“Now that I know you, Esther May, you’re safe with me. Around others, though, keep a care.”
Lightning bugs were beginning to sparkle, and he still had no camp. Atá Halné was unsettled like he was supposed to take charge and set things right, but jaw-boning wasn’t getting anything done. “If you’re going to stay here,” he told Esther May, “stoke the fire back up while I water these horses.”
She bent her head toward Hund. “Take a bowl and bring back water for the dog.”
Atá Halné frowned and drew himself up. “There are no servants here.”
Her shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry. I just want to save a life after—,” she swept her arm to encircle the scene, her last word was cried, “—this.”
He didn’t want her sinking into aftereffects of the shooting. Better she concentrates on Hund. “There’ll be a canteen on the wagon. Water for the dog and the fire are your problems. My friend’s horses are now my problem.”
She used her elbow as a pointer while her back was to the bodies. “What about them?”
“Ignore ‘em. They can wait until the animals are tended.”
The Long Day Isn’t Over Yet.
Returning from the river, Atá Halné was surprised when Skewy shoved him. It was a loving nose-nudge he never expected from the independent little mare. “Nothing like getting your fill of water after a long day, eh Skewy?”
He fetched the lead ropes from the pack, tethered the animals and moved his horse near them. He cast a glance around the camp and approved of the fire Esther May built. He thought she might build a bright conflagration to keep her demons at bay. Instead, it was small and serviceable as an Indian would build.
Esther May had covered each corpse’s head with a tattered cloth and was spoon-feeding Hund something from a jar. She told Atá Halné before he asked. “These are the spiked peaches they used to drug people.” She pointed the spoon at Easterly, curled up under a tree. “Like him.” Esther May returned to her patient. “It’ll ease his pain and let him sleep. Don’t you go eating any of it.”
The time had come and he didn’t like it. It was against his culture to be around the dead, much less handle their bodies. “Did you go through their pockets Esther May?”
He couldn’t blame her. “All right.”
He checked them over and claimed a pocketknife from the wood-gatherer. The cook had a cheap pocket watch and a small nugget of pyrite. Fool’s gold that he probably used to cheat unknowing people. He took neither.
He tied each dead man’s ankles with the ends of a single rope. Fetching a mule from the string, he collared it and brought the middle of the connecting tie to the hames. He mounted the mule and headed out of camp, dragging the bodies feet-first away from the disaster of their making. A quarter-mile from the firelight, Atá Halné smelled the pungent odor familiar to horsemen and heard the plop, plop of road apples being deposited by the mule. A twinge of guilt speared him as he realized he was going to drag the would-be robbers through the mule’s leavings. Then again, the world must restore harmony.
A little farther up the arroyo was enough. Atá Halné dropped the rope and left. Nothing to do now but collect his belongings from where he first intended to camp and return to the girl, the dog, and Easterly.
Who are the real victims, and where does the little band go from here? Leave a comment.
To read the series, click on September 2017, in the Archive list and start with Tales Old Roy Told.
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