Blood and Sand
"Dear God, please let my horse last for another hundred yards!" Otto Bendrich prayed as he raced for the arroyo. The Comanches were gaining as his horse slowed down. It was fighting valiantly to stay on its feet and keep running, as if it knew how much Otto's life depended on making it to the arroyo. The bullet in its chest was taking its toll, and his faithful horse was literally on its last legs.
It stumbled, but managed to regain its balance without falling. The fall would have been enough to kill Otto, either from the impact with the ground, or the torture the Comanches would put him through. If he had to choose a death, it was obvious which one he would take. The Comanches had long since stopped shooting at him for they wanted him alive if they could manage it. Otto was sure that they had some great plans for him after he was caught. He had no idea why these Comanches were out to kill him, unless it was just a case of him not being a Comanche from their particular band; therefore, being fair game for a little sport and a chance to count coup.
It was late summer of 1877, and all of the Indians west of the Mississippi had heard of the defeat of Custer. This had given them hope of defeating the encroaching Whites and driving them back across the Mississippi. Of course, all of the Whites and a lot of the Indians knew that this would never happen, but many Indians were going to try. This chase appeared to be just one more minor sideshow on that great play of forces shaping the West.
Otto was now only 50 yards from the arroyo, but his horse was slowing down too much to stay ahead of the Comanches, even if it did manage to stay alive for a few more minutes. Otto saw that he was going to have to make a stand before reaching the arroyo, so he halted his horse and made it lie down in such a way as to make a minor breast works for him to shelter behind, such as it was. He jerked the horse around to the location he needed and put a bullet through its head. This was not an act of cruelty, the horse was about to die in the next few minutes, anyway, but Otto needed for it to lie still as soon as it was down, and this bullet was the only way he could insure it would happen the way he required.
Otto jerked out his Winchester .44-40 and took aim at the first Comanche in line. By now, he was only 60 yards away, so Otto had little time to act. He dropped his aim slightly and fired. As he hoped, the bullet plowed into the head of the horse and it went down immediately, throwing its rider to his death in a tumble over the head of his horse. Otto gained the free prize he had hoped for, because the horse immediately behind the falling lead horse swerved to one side to miss that horse, and, in so doing, caused several other horses to swerve to avoid hitting it. This caused two more Comanches to fall off their horses and be seriously injured. Otto couldn't see whether or not the men were dead, but he didn't care, all he wanted was to have them out of the current fight, and they were.
There must have been more than 30 Comanche warriors in the band that was chasing Otto, so he knew that his chances of surviving this encounter were damned small. But he also knew that he had a chance as long as he kept his senses about him and did not panic. Otto was better armed than the Indians, since he had a nearly new Winchester '73 in excellent condition and two Smith & Wesson .44-40 pistols, also in excellent condition.
Most of the Comanches had virtually worn-out Spencer carbines left over from the civil war. A few had Henrys from the same period, but none of the rifles were particularly accurate at this late date, since they had not had adequate maintenance. Most had badly worn and pitted barrels, and, in some, the barrels were so badly worn that the gases badly leaked around the bullet as it was fired. The result was a significantly reduced range and penetrating power. It was only by pure bad luck on Otto's part that his horse had been fatally wounded, but that showed that, with enough bullets fired, one had a chance of doing significant damage.
Otto poured bullets at the charging Indians as fast as he could operate the lever of his rifle and take aim. Actually, he was still not shooting at the men, but shooting at their horses. The horse was the most valuable thing that an Indian could own, and Otto hoped to discourage a mounted charge by showing the Comanches that he had no compunction about killing a horse. Once they realized that, the Indians were going to be very reluctant to let their horses get too close to that damned White man who shot at a horse. They could accept an accidentally killed horse, but it was almost sacrilegious to shoot at a horse deliberately.
Fortunately, he had plenty of ammunition, so he was not reluctant to shoot in the mere hope of hitting something. Later on, if he lived that long, he was going to have to be a bit more judicious in his choice of shooting style as he ran low on ammunition, but now he needed to discourage the Comanches if he could by showing them that they were facing a foe who was not afraid to use his resources to the fullest.
He did succeed in making the Comanches pull off and not charge right over him. This was their first mistake, for if they had been willing to continue their charge, they would have captured or killed Otto in the first few minutes of the battle. Twenty years earlier, the Comanches would have been using bows and lances, and they would have known the power that lay in the charging horse, but they had been psychologically weakened by the mystic of the White man's guns. So now they pulled off instead of winning easily by making that all-out charge. A fact for which Otto was eternally grateful.
Otto's biggest problem, now that the impetus of the Comanches had been stifled, was conserving his water. Fortunately, he had two large canteens which he had refilled just before he had encountered the Comanches. The horse was lying on one, but the other was lying, unprotected, on the upside of the dead horse. Otto was going to have to expose a lot of his upper body to recover that canteen, but there was no question as to whether or not he was going to try to get hold of it. Oh, well, the time to act was now, before the Indians had time to get organized.
The sun was already high enough in the sky to be beating down relentlessly, so Otto didn't dare take his hat off, but he did beat down the crown to keep from making himself such a tempting target. He knew that he was going to draw fire as soon as he showed any part of himself, but he had no choice. Otto was right handed, so he used his left hand to reach over his horse's body and pull the canteen toward him. He was right about drawing fire—the sound of all those guns firing was like the rattle of a battery of Gatling guns all going off at once.
When the shooting started, Otto knew that he had to hurry, so he just jerked on the shoulder strap of the canteen. The bottle was snatched to safety as the bullets began flying all around and over Otto and his horse. None of them hit Otto, and only one grazed the canteen as it was jerked behind the breast work of horseflesh, but it didn't penetrate. On the other hand, several bullets did land where the canteen had been, so it was well that he had moved it when he did, and quickly, at that.
Otto knew that he was stuck in his current location for at least the term of daylight and, maybe, into the night. Therefore, he looked to improving the defensive capabilities of his one-man fort. He decided that he could use a deep hole to hide in, but that was not practical, so he started scraping out and away some of the sand that he was lying on. He got down about a foot and struck hard pan; well, that was the end of that, there was no way he was going to go any deeper in his current location. Nevertheless, the sand was cooler at the bottom of his shallow hole, so he shoved his canteen into the deepest part of his hole and covered it with some loose sand—cool water always tasted better.
He had a little time at the moment, so he dug his other canteen out from under his horse by running a short tunnel to it. It was more work than he had expected, but he had to have that water, and he might not be in condition to get it at a later time. Otto now had nearly 5 gallons of water, and he had to make a choice. He could drink as much as he could hold as often as he could manage it, thus staying well hydrated and in reasonably good condition, or he could sip a little water only when he could put it off no longer and nurse his water along to last him a week or more.
He decided to split the difference. There was a reliable water hole only 5 miles away, and the arroyo ran in the right direction for him to reach it. With the Indians after him, it might take 3 or 4 days to cover that 5 miles, so he would try to meter his water out on the assumption that it could be replaced within 5 days. This would leave him operating on the ragged edge of dehydration, but it seemed the safest way to go, right then.
If he could reach the water hole, the Indians would probably give up in disgust and go away. Even if they didn't leave, he knew that a patrol of Dragoons would be by within 2 weeks, and he was sure that he could hold out that long, provided that he had an adequate water supply. With all of this in mind, Otto was in remarkably good spirits as he sighted along the barrel of his Winchester, waiting for an Indian to show himself.
Otto had to wait about 15 minutes before he saw a butt poking out far enough for him to get a shot at it. He bided his time until he had a clear shot and squeezed off the round. There was no doubt that he hit his target, because the man jumped straight up and screamed in pain. Unfortunately for Otto, he was laughing so hard that he was not able to get off another shot before the man's friends pulled him down to safety. That was fun, but it was the only butt-shot he got that day.
After that, the Indians stopped fooling around and resumed a determined attack on Otto's position. He was very happy that he had dug himself that extra few inches of protection, because the Indians were somewhat profligate in their use of ammunition. Bullets whizzed in his direction at a pretty steady rate, and all those bullets might have done some good if the rifles had been in better condition. As it was, none of the bullets hit Otto, though a reasonable number did hit the body of the dead horse.
Otto kept up a steady defensive fire, but he always waited until he actually had a recognizable target before firing his rifle. He knew that he had scored some hits by the time it got too dark to take good aim, but he didn't now just how much good those hits had done him. At least, the Indians had enough respect for his shooting ability that they never tried to charge at him.
Once the firing died off, Otto made preparations to try a break for the arroyo. He had quite a bit of stuff to transport, actually too much for one man to carry while still being prepared to fight. His solution to that problem was to use his saddle blanket as a wrap for a pack which he would drag behind him. He had no hope of concealing his path from the Indians—the loose sand would give him away too easily. Otto decided that, under the circumstances, he should swap convenience for speed and stealth. He wrapped his food, his spare ammunition, his rifle, his water, and some other stuff, in the blanket and tied it with a section of rope. The other end of the rope, he tied to his waist with a bow knot that he could release with a simple pull. The distance between him and the pack was about 10 feet, close enough to be easy to control, far away enough not to interfere with what he might need to do in an emergency. He took the time to bury his other stuff in his foxhole on the off chance that he could return at some time to claim it, though he did not have very high hopes of that happening.
The arroyo was his immediate goal, just as it had been from the beginning. He expected that the bottom of the arroyo would be firm, with most, if not all, of the sand scoured away by the occasional flash flood. This firm ground would be much easier for a man to walk on, just as it would have been easier for a horse to negotiate. Also, the wall of the arroyo gave him a high breastwork to use in a fight with someone still on the ground of the plain. The twists and turns of the arroyo would give him some shelter if he had to fight someone down in the arroyo with him. Furthermore, he could get some shelter from the sun by the shadow cast by the arroyo's walls during a part of the day. And, finally, there was the slight chance that he would encounter small pools of water that had seeped in from the surrounding higher ground.
Fortunately for Otto, he was wearing the military-style boots with the shorter heel than found on the conventional "cowboy" boots, so he would find walking much easier than if he were stuck with the higher boot heel. This could make a real difference if he were forced to run very far.
Otto bid a sad farewell to his horse and crawled on his hands and knees for about 20 yards toward the arroyo before he chanced standing up. Once he stood up, he knew that he would probably be seen by a Comanche sentry, but he was sure that he could reach the arroyo before they could mount an effective pursuit. Sure enough, as soon as Otto stood up, a shout was heard in the Comanche camp and 3 shots were fired in his direction. The shots had to be out of frustration, since the chance of hitting him at that distance was too small to be considered. Otto made no effort to avoid being shot at; he just made for the arroyo at his best speed.
As he expected, Otto reached the arroyo before the Indians could do much to stop him. He dropped over the edge of the bank and slid to the bottom, pulling his pack after him. He stood back up and found that he could just see over the edge, back toward where the Indians were camping. They were just now mounting their horses to give chase.
A quick look up and down the arroyo gave no sign of a safe place for the horses to enter the arroyo, so Otto was pretty relaxed over the impending clash. In fact, it looked like he would have had to abandon his horse if it had made it all the way to the arroyo. He pulled his rifle from his pack and got ready to shoot at the Comanches if they came close enough. He would now be shooting up at the men and their horses, so they would be silhouetted against the night sky; whereas, Otto would be hidden by the shadows in his trench. Of course, his muzzle flash would give away his location, but he could move a few feet to one side or the other and be completely hidden, again.
The Comanches were now on the move, but, by being on horseback, they would not take long to arrive. Otto levered the first round into the chamber and then added another to the magazine. He was now as ready as he would ever be to face at least 20 Indian warriors who were truly pissed at him.