By Gil C. Schmidt
Seven miles to go… The horse died back near Turner’s Point, its body so flecked with foam he went from roan to palomino. It coughed a bloody froth, lurched with stiff legs and collapsed into the sand with a hideous scream. Hank barely jumped off in time, rolling badly over his left shoulder, now swollen and scraped raw from the gravel.
The saddlebags were blazing heavy, stuffed with the envelopes and small parcels coming through Cheyenne, on the edge of the prairie. Here in the Bad Lands, the godforsaken range of the Dakotas, the summer heat cooked everything: Even canvas could get scorching hot. Hank had grown up in Oklahoma, where even the worst summer heat was broken up by a soft breeze. But not in the Bad Lands. The only breeze here died with his horse.
Hank looked up. The sun was nearly overhead, which meant he had three, maybe four hours to make it to Lewisburg Station, the three-shack train stop that would take the mail past Fargo and into civilization. If Hank was late, the mail wouldn’t go through. That had never happened and the Pony Express was fiercely proud of that. Worse than that, though, was that late mail meant Hank didn’t get paid. Hell or high water, he was going to make that train.
The distant shimmy kept looking like water, even when Hank knew it wasn’t. His throat was parched and the skin on his hands was beginning to feel tender to the touch from the intense sun. The saddlebags dragged at him as he slogged through the barren Lands, his eyes flickering around to check for Indians. The Dakotas were not as bad as the Sioux or the Navajo, but they would make short work of a man alone, on foot and unarmed. Hank cursed the idiocy of not packing a Colt through these parts, but the Express was strict about that rule: No guns. They wanted their riders to avoid trouble, not make it.
Maybe six miles to go… Hank shifted the saddlebags again and wondered if he could toss out some items to make them lighter. He cursed inwardly, ashamed at his weakness, but debating the chance anyone would know if he did it. It was high noon, as his shadow had virtually disappeared beneath his dusty boots. Hank tried to lick his lips and found them cracked, his tongue thick and dry. He grabbed a pebble and popped it into his mouth. Anything to get some moisture in there.
The arrow thunked near his left foot, a feathered stick that seemed to suddenly pop out of the ground. The next arrow snicked his hat and a third skimmed his shirt. Hank dropped and rolled behind some sagebrush, looking frantically around for the attackers. Three of them, Dakotas, in their high leggings, deerskin vest and trousers. Their naked chests gleamed with sweat, coppery skin burnished deeply by sun and wind. Their long black hair was held back by rawhide strips, none of which were adorned. Bad news: They were young braves without kills, eager to blood themselves for honor and recognition. Hank was their path to becoming Dakota warriors. And they had horses.
Hank stood up, bracing for an arrow. He tossed the saddlebags down and held his hands out. The braves watched him gravely, their arrows nocked. A minute passed, then one of the braves broke into a smile and said something to the others. All three laughed, their bright teeth gleaming in the harsh sun. They dropped their bows and walked towards Hank.
The speaker pointed at the saddlebags. “Late?” Hank was startled. The brave asked again. “Late?” Hank nodded slowly, then said “Not yet.”
The braves laughed. “That is why we are here. To make sure it gets to the train. Come. We must ride.”
Hank’s mouth dropped open. “You…you will take me?”
Once again, the braves laughed. “Yes.” The speaker raised an eyebrow. “Unless you would rather walk?” Hank snorted and picked up the saddlebags. Now he knew they were Pony Express helpers, paid out of St. Louis. “Wise guy. Just get me there in time.”
Later, Hank pondered how glad he was to get the mail in on time, but couldn’t help but think that five dollars split four ways didn’t leave a man much to get really drunk on, now did it?
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Gil keeps writing, having completed his fourth anthology, a novel and several dozens of pages of notes for novels, non-fiction pieces and video scripts. He also got married recently, so he's happy.
Labels: Gil C. Schmidt