Disputed Ground

Earl Stubbs

A drop of sweat dripped from my nose, as I allowed the big gelding to pick his way over the rough terrain. My name is Babb, and I am a Texas Ranger. This is rattlesnake country and Skip, my sorrel companion of five years, can see them before I can. It is also Comanche territory, and that’s the reason I am here in this God-forsaken patch north of Bitter Creek.

A bunch of young, Comanche braves got their britches in a twist and burned out a couple of homesteaders. They killed and scalped the grown settlers and took the young back to their women. I spect the dead ones are the lucky ones. Captain Purdy sent me up here to see what I could find out.

Skip has good ears. Without warning, he wheeled and faced in the opposite direction. I picked out the shapes of three riders nestled in the gorge. Even their ponies remained motionless. It didn’t take a genius to figure out they were Comanche.

They weren’t here to barter, and besides, they didn’t have anything I wanted. I looked around for cover and saw nothing. The ground was flat and the nearest mesquite trees were a mile away. I patted Skip on the neck and, slowly, eased out of the saddle, pulling my Winchester as I dropped to the ground. I could see they had concluded their discussions since one moved to the East, and another moved to the West. They intended to come at me from three sides. These things happen in a hurry.

In addition to my Colt .44 pistol, I had a sawed-off scattergun in a buckskin sheath fastened to my saddle. I drew it out, stuck it under my belt, and tapped Skip on the front leg with the barrel of my rifle. I tugged down on the reins. He dropped to his knees, and then he fell on his side showing no sign of alarm. This was not our first gunfight.

Since no bullets came in my direction, I guessed that either these boys didn’t have guns, or they had used up all of their ammunition. Either way, they had plenty of arrows and the means to deliver them.

Each rider poised about a hundred yards away. They moved sideways in my direction. All of a sudden, they disappeared. Each brave hung onto his mount on the side away from me and used his pony as a shield. That told me that I would need to do something I sorely hated to do, and that was to shoot horses.

When a rider galloped to about fifty yards away, I cut down his mount. The pony screamed. I would worry about the rider later. I swung on another attacker just as his arrow slammed into my chest. Not a good thing, I thought. All I could do was to keep fighting as long as I held out. If the arrow touched my heart, I was dead. It wouldn’t take long for me to find out. If it were a lung shot, it would take a little longer.

Another arrow plunged into the hard surface of the saddle. I fired both barrels of the scattergun and saw another horse go down. The rider stayed down. That left one.

Having practiced the art of war since the age of about twelve, these braves were quick and very good. I felt an arrow flash by my face. That was from the first rider. He was getting near. The other rider was all over me. He rode straight for Skip, and his pony hurtled over striking me with his shoulder. Pure reflex allowed me to block his war club with my empty scattergun. It flew from my hands, and I hit the sandy ground. As I rolled to get up, I pushed the arrow still deeper into my chest. A gurgled scream escaped my lips.

By the time the brave wheeled his horse and started back for the kill, I leaped to my knees, drew my .44 and gut-shot him. He flew from the saddle. I had just enough time to snap off another round at the fast-charging final member of the party. It caught him in the chest and knocked him down. That left two wounded, but determined, Comanche warriors bent on taking my scalp.

By this time, Skip had enough. He rose and galloped away from the noise. One dazed Comanche held his stomach and searched for a weapon to use against his mortal enemy. I couldn’t allow him to succeed, so I shot him in the face. I had just enough time to wheel and take out the final attacker with a snap shot. He fell, looked up in bewilderment, and then collapsed.

I glanced around for any other rambunctious attackers but saw nothing. Looking down at the arrow protruding from my chest, I surmised that it had gone all the way through; leaving only about three inches of dirty buzzard feathers on the front side. Even if I gained enough strength to cut it off, I couldn’t very well pull it out of my back without help. Besides, my energy level was slipping fast.

I whistled for Skip, but even though he trotted toward me, he decided not to come any closer. He never liked the smell of blood.

Oh hell!  I am not in any shape to run after a skittish horse, but I don’t really have much of a choice.

I struggled to my feet and began staggering toward Skip. Gaining some control of his own anxieties, he moved in my direction. If I can get that ball of twine out of my saddlebag, I can make a loop for the arrowhead then tie it to the saddle horn. I can walk away and pull out the arrow. Then, if I am lucky, I can bleed to death.

The best laid plans of rabbits and rangers sometimes go awry. I was about halfway to Skip when I heard the first war whoop. I turned toward the sound and saw a large band of Comanche coming my way. I didn’t figure to fight my way out of this one, considering my arrow, my physical state, and my nearly empty weapons. Nope! This might be a good day to die if there is such a thing.

The party of Indians stopped moving in my direction. Why? I wondered. Then, I heard what must be a cruel joke played by God. It sounded like a bugle. By George, it is a bugle. The cavalry is coming.

***

I sat on the ground and watched the element from the United States Army gallop the last mile. What appeared to constitute two thirds of the unit broke off and rode in pursuit of the departing war party.

As the remaining soldiers approached me, the commanding officer held up his hand and yelled, “Company halt.” The twin lines of mounted soldiers ceased their forward movement as one.

The officer looked around and accessed the scene. Three braves and two horses lay on the parched earth. He brought his gaze back to me and holstered his revolver. “I see your badge Ranger. Peers to me like you bit off more than you could chew.”

I spit out a wad of mucous filled blood. “It was not my choice, Lieutenant, but the Comanch didn’t ask for my opinion. It’s just as well, though. This gang worked some settlers over pretty good before they killed them.”

“Corporal Duggins. Take a look at that arrow and see what you can do with it. “

“Yessir Lieutenant,” the soldier said as he dismounted and secured his wound kit. He kneeled by Ranger Babb and tugged slightly at both ends of the arrow. Babb gritted his teeth but made no sound.

“Lieutenant. This is a lung shot. I can saw off the front end of the arrow and pull it out. We don’t want those feathers touching the wound since they belonged to a buzzard and are nasty. We need a fire to heat the cauterizing iron and a little whisky to pour in each end of the wound.”

The officer studied for a moment. “Will Ranger Babb make it, Corporal?”

“Yesser, well he has already lost a lot of blood on the outside and inside both. I can stop the outside bleeding, but the inside will have to clot on its own. It won’t matter if it cankers, but it will be a tough trip back to Fort Richardson.” Your guess is as good as mine.”

“Let’s take a shot, men. Williams, you take four soldiers over to that stand of trees and bring back some firewood. Shouldn’t be mor’n two mile. Duggins, you best get started. If that war party is a big one and decide to take us on, the Ranger here might become low priority.”

Duggins secured a small handsaw from his gear and laid it down on a clean bandage. He handed me a bottle of whisky and told me to take a drink or two. I complied, and the cheap rotgut burned a rut in my gullet. Then he placed a round piece of wood between my teeth and instructed me to bite down hard. He put on a glove on his left hand and grasped the feathers between his fingers. When he began sawing on the bois’ dArc shaft, I thought I was going to soil my trousers.

Finally, Duggins lifted the short end away. Then he poured a small amount of whisky on the wound and arrow stump. I bit down hard on the wood, but could not suppress a loud moan. No one appeared to notice.

“We will have to wait for the iron to heat up before I pull it out. I need to stop the blood as quick as I can. It won’t be long since the boys are already headed this way. How you doin’.”

“I feel fit as a fiddle, except for wanting to die and get it over with. Regardless, I do appreciate you making an effort,” I muttered.

“Don’t thank me yet, Ranger. You ain’t out of the woods by a long shot.”

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