"You don't have to leave Zach," Caleb said.
Zachery Carson looked at his four years older brother for several seconds before answering. People would never guess, except for the lines on his face that Caleb was the oldest. Zach was taller at 6 feet, and stockier built. Caleb had lost weight during his time at war and never had gained it all back yet. The thing that marked them as brothers was their gray eyes. Eyes that could be soft or as hard and piercing as a knife.
"Yeah, I do Caleb."
"But why?" Caleb asked in a puzzled voice.
"C'mon Caleb. I've been, and Ma and Pa have been, just waiting for you to get back from that damned war. Everything was put on hold until you came home."
"I know you had to shoulder a lot of the work while I was gone. Is that the reason you're leaving? You've had to do your work and mine too for four years? Are you mad because I decided to fight for the Union and you thought I should fight for the Confederacy?"
Living in Franklin Missouri, at what was considered the beginning of the Santa Fe Trail, Caleb could have fought for either side with equal conviction if he wanted. Franklin was about half way between St. Louis and Kansas City and proponents of both side of the conflict traveled through the town regularly. There were families and neighbors divided by the ideals and so called reasons for the war.
Some in the area sided with the South, using the call of state's rights as a rallying point. Others thought the south didn't have the right to secede and form their own nation or continue slavery, so they said. In some families, brother fought against brother and sons fought against fathers. Neighbors who had been friends for years and years suddenly found themselves on different sides of the conflict and came to blows over it.
Zach sighed. "I don't think you should have fought for either side." Before Caleb could argue his beliefs of what the Union stood for, Zach continued. "Wouldn't have had to be a war if those bastards in Washington, and I'm talkin about both sides now, they hadn't got into a pissin contest to see who was the big he bull of the country."
He shook his head. "I was only 14 when you left Caleb. I didn't care about the extra work; I was just worried about my big brother." Zach stopped and smiled. "Do know I tried to enlist in the Union Army so I could be with you. They turned me down, thank God. Anyway, Ma and Pa, mostly Ma, decided she'd already given one son and wasn't going to give another; not as long as she had something to say about it."
Zach continued saddling his horse. Speaking over his shoulder to Caleb he said, "One of the things I learned about was the so called reasons for the war. Truth of the matter is that neither side has the sense God gave a goose. Like I said, each side wanted things their own way. That's what caused the war; pride, greed, and stupidity."
"So it is because I went to war that you're leaving," Caleb said.
"No, it's not big brother. "You and Becky Reyolds got married and you now live on the farm." Caleb smiled at the mention of his new bride. "Well, this farm can just about support Ma and Pa and me. Now you're back and that makes another mouth to feed. Then add to it Becky and any children you two might have and things are gettin stretched real thin, too thin."
Zach tied his saddle bags and bed roll behind his saddle and turned to face Caleb. "Suppose I want to get married and have a family; how's the farm goin to support all of us? No, I'm leavin so y'all can have a good life."
He held up his hand to stop Caleb's reply. "Sides, you and Pa are the farmers; I just worked the land cause I had too; Pa needed my help. Now you're back and can help Pa and I can head west. Listenin to the stories the men at the courthouse told, made me want to go see some of the cities and country they talked about. That's what I've wanted to do since I was old enough to go to town by myself."
Caleb started to say something but stopped as Becky came out to join the brothers.
"Let us know where you're at and how you're doing Zach," Becky said. "I'm sorry you're goin but we wish you luck." She put her arm through Caleb's and leaned against him.
"There will always be a place for you here Zach," Caleb said in a choked voice. He could barely hide his tears. All during the fighting for four years, Caleb had one thought; getting home to his family and to Becky. Now part of the family was leaving.
Zach swung up onto his horse, turning it sideways to Caleb and Becky. "I've already said good bye to the folks; Pa ain't as strong as he thinks Caleb, you take care of him." Touching his hand to his big Stetson in a salute, he put spurs to his horse and rode westward.
When he topped the rise west of the farm, Zach turned back for a last look. Caleb and Becky waved at him; he returned it and rode on.
"That smoke is comin from just about where we're headin," Zachery Carson said to his horse Buck. He was slowly and carefully guiding the animal along a trail running down one side of a rock butte. Zach was a stranger to this country but had good information that a spring flowed from the base of the butte. He'd been told by an old mountain man several days previously that the spring flow formed a good pool of water and only ran for 30 feet or so before disappearing underground again.
In this desert like landscape, knowledge of where water holes existed could mean the difference between life and death. The high mountains to the far west grabbed almost every bit of moisture from the incoming air, leaving very little for this dry and almost arid country. Only a few Mesquite and Palo Verde trees, some sage brush, Creosote bushes and tumbleweeds dotted the land.
Zach had been on the trail for a couple of weeks out of Tucson, Arizona and from his home in Missouri for seven years. He was headed west toward the promised land of California but he wasn't in a hurry and Zach wasn't for sure that was his destination. Rambling around was more his choice right now.
He'd worked on cattle ranches, off and on during the years; doing roundups and long drives to railheads for shipment. Zach had rode shotgun guard for a stage line out of DeWitt Texas, hired on as an out rider guard for a freight company running between Santa Fe New Mexico and Albuquerque. He was even a Deputy Sheriff for a year before he thought he'd go to California. There were several things on his mind that he had to come to grips with before he made a final decision as to where he was heading.
Pulling his new Winchester '73 from its scabbard under his right leg, Zach made sure the rifle was cocked and ready for use. "Can't be too careful out here in the badlands," he explained to his mount. Buck didn't answer but continued to pick his way down the narrow trail.
At one point the trail came closer to the edge of the rock wall and he could see down to its base of the butte and the spring. Sitting close to the water were two Prairie Schooner type wagons. One of them was canted over because one of the large rear wheels was broken and pulled off the axle. The other wagon was smoldering, sending the plume of smoke that had attracted Zach into the air.
There were two bodies visible on the ground near the smoking wagon and a horse was down. The animal couldn't get up and it was obvious from even 100 yards away that its leg was broken. Zach couldn't see any other signs of life.
Reaching the bottom of the trail, Zach rode toward the wagons. His eyes darted about as he was very alert watching for an ambush. Zach rode to a spot between the wagons and dismounted. He tied Buck off to a small tree growing out a crevasse between the rocks and walked to the injured animal. Zach could see the bone sticking out of the horse's left front leg.
He knelt down and put his left hand on the horse's head; talking to him in a gentle soothing voice to quiet the animal. With his right hand he pulled his pistol, a Colt .45 Peacemaker, and thumbed back the hammer.
"Sorry old son," Zach whispered, placed the pistol next to the horse's head, and pulled the trigger. "Reckon you're not hurtin anymore."
He stood and walked over to the burning wagon and the two men on the ground. No need to look closer, he thought. Those men have been dead for better than a day. Turning, he advanced toward the other wagon.
The contents of the wagons had been pawed through and the things not worth the raider's time were scattered over a large area. "Nothin of value left," Zach muttered as he looked inside the remaining wagon. Kneeling, he looked at some tracks around the wagon. "Might have been Indians, but I don't think so. Most probably Comancheros." Zach had developed a habit of talking to his horse on his long journey.
The term Comancheros was used for bands of Indian and Mexican traders in the plains part of the country and in Texas. Zach knew from firsthand knowledge that now the Comancheros were bands of renegade whites, Mexican bandits, and even some Indians. He'd had a run in with a band in New Mexico on his trip west from Missouri. Zach had managed to escape after killing three of them in a running gun battle. Apparently the Comancheros weren't willing to pay the price to bring Zach down.
The tracks showed that the other horses from the wagons had been led off. While he was still examining the tracks, he saw the shadow of someone approaching from behind him. The person causing the shadow raised his arms to strike at Zach.
He quickly rolled to his left, came up to one knee, and pulled his pistol. Only his fast reflexes keep him from firing at the striking young woman standing there with a shovel raised above her head.
"Ma'am, take it easy," Zach said in a soft voice. "No one is going to hurt you." He holstered his gun and slowly stood up. She's more of a girl than a woman, Zach thought.
The young woman's hair was mussed and her bonnet was pushed off to one side of her head. The bonnet was a dark blue which contrasted nicely with her auburn almost red hair. The blue eyes were wide and had a wild look in them.
Her face and hands were just beginning to tan and weather as if she hadn't spent much time outside. She was about 5' 7 which was tall for a woman of that time.
The woman turned to face Zach, with the shovel still raised above her head. It was several seconds of staring at him before she lowered her weapon.
"That's right Ma'am. No one is going to hurt you," Zach repeated. He held his hands out in a peaceful gesture. "I'm Zachery Carson ma'am."
There was no response from the girl. She continued to stare at Zach.
"What's your name Miss?" Zach smiled at the woman and chuckled. "You're too young to be called Ma'am."
After several more seconds the woman replied. "My name is Lady Kathleen Astor."
"Lady?" Zach asked. He really didn't care, people could call themselves whatever they wanted in his mind, but it was the first response from the girl.
"Yes Lady. My father is Sir Gerald Astor, a Knight of the Realm; therefore my title is Lady."
"A Knight of the Realm? What's that? What realm?" Zach knew but he wanted to keep her talking. She looked a little shaky and sometimes talking helped to steady people.
"Father was knighted by Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, for his military service to the crown in India." Kathleen stood tall and regal as she recited her father's accomplishments.
She's very full of herself, Zach thought and smiled. This country will take that out of her soon enough. "All right Milady," he said stressing the title. "Care to tell me what happened?"
"Isn't it obvious?" Lady Astor answered. "We were set on by ruffians." Pointing to the two dead men she continued. "Serves them right for what they did."
"It serves them right to get killed protecting you?" Zach shook his head in disbelief.
"Not for that. Those two kidnapped me and made away with me in the night. They said they were going to demand a ransom from my father." Kathleen's voice quivered as she spoke.
Zach couldn't tell if it was anger that the men had treated her in such a manner or if it was relief that the men no longer had control over her or the thought of her fate if the men wouldn't honor their word once the ransom had been paid. "Where?" He asked.
"Where were you when they took you?" Zach explained.
"I was in Phoenix, Arizona to meet my father. He was coming from a place called Prescott. We were going back to our ranch outside of this Prescott place."
"Phoenix is over eighty miles from here. How long ago did this happen?"
"It must have been five or six days ago that they took me."
Zach thought about where they were and how long out of Phoenix they were. "Any idea where those men were taking you?"
"I heard that one say they were going to hole up somewhere near a place named Ajo." She pointed to the larger of the two dead men.
"That's another three day's ride. Have any idea who attacked you Kathleen?"
"You will address me as Lady Astor or Lady Kathleen or Milady, young man," She said with a haughty air. Lady Kathleen was in control of herself again.
"Titles don't mean much out here Kathleen," Zach said. "Best you learn that." He watched as she struggled with herself not to chastise him again. "Now, who attacked you?"
"The other one," Kathleen pointed at the small dead man, "yelled that they were Comancheros just before he was shot."
Nodding his head, Zach muttered in a soft voice, "That's what I thought." Then aloud he asked, "How did the bandits miss finding you?"
"There is a false bottom in the wagon; that was used it to get me out of Phoenix." Kathleen shook her head. "When we were attacked, I climbed back into it and pulled the cover over me and didn't come out until I heard you moving around this morning." She shook her head. "I might have killed you."
"Not likely Kathleen," Zach replied with a grin. "How many men were in the band that attacked you?"
"I counted about ten before I hid in the wagon. There may have been more; it certainly sounded like a lot. All that yelling and shouting and gun fire."
"That's about the number I got from the tracks," Zach said and turned toward the wagon.
"Take me back to Phoenix," she ordered. "I'll pay you a fair price to return me to my father." When Zach didn't respond, she added, "I'm sure my father will reward you also."
Zach ignored her and started rummaging through the things from the wagons. He picked up two canteens from the driver's box and threw their straps across one shoulder. Some dried beans had escaped the search of the Comancheros and Zach pushed them back into their burlap sack.
Waling over to his horse, he emptied the beans into his saddlebags and tied them off behind his saddle and turned to Kathleen. "We need to make tracks Miss. You got anything else to wear? That dress just won't do."
"What's wrong with my dress? It was made by the finest seamstress that I could find."
The dress was from an expensive dress maker in New York. Kathleen had visited the shop and bought several outfits before she started west to meet her father. As an attractive dress it was a success; it had a bustle and showed off her figure very well without being too forward. As clothing for hard traveling it was a joke.
"It's got too much cloth," Zach answered. He looked up at the position of the sun. "It's not much past 7 AM and it's already close to 80, I'd bet. And it's going to get hotter. That dress will be very hot and make you sweat, which means you'll need more water."
"There's a full water barrel on the wagon," Kathleen protested.
Zach held up the two canteens and pointed to the one tied to his saddle. "This is all the water we can carry and we have to share it with Buck." Turning he walked toward the spring. "Now find something else to wear while I feed and water Buck then we need to get on our way out of here."
"I'll wear what I like young man," Kathleen argued.
Zach turned and walked back to her. For the first time she saw a different man. His eyes blazed and his face was hard looking. "Listen Missy, I don't know what made the Comancheros leave all this plunder," he pointed the wagon and the goods strewn around. "But they could come back for it"
He looked at her and added, "And anything else that was overlooked. I don't like our chances fighting off ten or so men. Hell someone else could see the smoke and come to finish the job."
When Zach returned from the spring, leading Buck, the sun was low in the sky. He could see Kathleen searching through a large trunk. The raiders, for whatever reason, hadn't done more than opened it and the contents had not been bothered much. She turned, holding something in her hands, and looked at Zach.
"Where, in this God forsaken land do you expect me to change clothes?"
Zach smiled and replied. "Your Majesty will just have to make do with the wagon." He noticed the things she was holding. "What did you find to wear?"
Kathleen held up another dress. It was less ornate than the one she was wearing but it still had a full skirt and a bustle. She also had a pair of shoes, which were good for walking along the boulevard in New York or St. Louis, but weren't much use in the desert.
"You'll need to find something else," Zach ordered. "And be quick because we're leaving in a few minutes." Kathleen sighed and continued to look through the trunk.
Zach climbed into the wagon, under the canopy over the bed and looked around for anything else they could use. He found a relatively clean pair of whipcord pants and a shirt that must have belonged to the smaller man. Taking them outside, he threw them to Kathleen.
"Get in the wagon and put these on," Zach told her. Seeing the rebellious look she gave him, he added, "Do it or get left behind. And do it now, I'm leaving in five minutes; with or without you."
It seemed like the fight went out of the young woman. She took the clothes and got into the wagon. While Kathleen was changing, Zach looked through her trunk. He found a nice pair of riding boots with a low heel. Taking them to the wagon, he tossed them through an opening in the cover.
"Put these on, they'll hold up better than those things you're wearing now." Zach went back to his horse and finished getting the animal ready.
Kathleen looked so funny in the too long pants and they kept trying to slip down over her hips. Zach cut a piece of rope, wove it through the belt loops, and cinched it tight. The entire time, Kathleen looked at him like he was crazy. How dare he touch me in that manner, she thought.
Zach knelt, took out his hunting knife, and cut her pant legs off so they didn't drag the ground. There wasn't much he could do about the shirt. He placed a wide brim hat that he'd taken from one of the dead men on her head. The hat settled down over her ears, making her look even funnier.
"I can't wear this," Kathleen said in protest as she took the hat off. "It's filthy and belongs to a dead man."
"That's just what you'll be, dead, if you don't wear it." Zach softened his voice and added, "The sun out here isn't like it is back in England. It'll fry your brain if you don't protect yourself. Wear the hat Lady Kathleen," he requested.
She looked at the hat, then at Zach, and back at the hat then put the hat back on. "Aren't you going to give those men a burial?"
"Hadn't planned on it," Zach answered as he continued to ready Buck for travel.
"But it's the Christian thing to do."
"Kidnapping you wasn't a Christian thing to do to you. What they had planned for you wasn't Christian either." Zach turned and gave her a hard look. "I'd bet they were going to have a little fun before you got back to your father, if you ever did, and you were going to be their entertainment.
So in my mind they don't deserve burying." As Zach turned back to his horse, he added in a low voice, "Sides, varmints got a right to eat too."
He led the horse over to Kathleen and said, "Let's hit the trail."
"I can't ride astride; it's not lady like."
"We don't have a side saddle for Milady," Zach replied with a grin. "Either you climb up and throw a leg over or you walk." He mounted, cleared his foot from one stirrup and reached his hand down to help Kathleen get up.
She scowled at him and then put her foot in the stirrup, grabbed his hand and allowed herself to be pulled up behind Zach.
"Hang on tight," Zach suggested. "We're going to put some miles between us and these wagons and we don't have time to take it easy doing it." Kathleen tentatively put her arms around Zach's waist. She almost lost her seat when Zach spurred his horse and she hung on tighter.