The Thin Red Line
‘There’s one thing they don’t tell you about the Old West, Mr Faust … It stank. It really stank. Just you try imagine a saloon in one of those old cattle towns. Full of half-drunken cowhands fresh off the trail. In the clothes they’ve ridden and slept in for weeks. Sweat, dust, cow dung and whatever else splattered their pants, all mingled up with tobaccer, puke and cheap whiskey. It was warm in them saloons with the press of bodies and the smell was thick enough to carve with a Bowie knife. Anyone not used to it, it was enough to make them gag. The gals used to douse themselves in cheap scent to try and mask it. Lord knows what it must have been like for a poor critter who got tumbled afore she got the chance to git an overexcited cowboy into a tub of hot water.
‘Course that never bothered me none back then. Hell, I smelled as bad as the rest. That was the way everyone smelled and if the girls was too fussy, a box round the ears soon sweetened ‘em. And heck, my dollar was as a good as any sweet smellin’ tenderfoot’s.’
The old cowhand paused and took a long swig from the foaming jug of beer I had paid for. His eyes scanned the shelves behind the bar like a searchlight, seeking out a favourite bottle. The good stuff, since somebody else was paying. He licked his lips expectantly and I slid a few more coins across to the bartender. Western stories still paid well in those days, and this man’s had the promise of something special about it.
‘Obliged to you Mr Faust.’ He threw his head back and drained the shot glass before banging it down on the bar and washing the fiery spirit down with a large chaser of beer.’
‘Thirsty this … reemeniscing about the old days. But I think I digressed. I was tellin’ you ‘bout the time I met Major Robert Strong of the Second Draygoons. And I can tell you, sir, that it was an honour to make that gen’leman’s acquaintance. Back in ’67 or ’68 I think it was, in Indian country beyond the Red River.
‘I was a young strip of a thing then, too young to have fought for the Confed’racy, though I would ‘a loved to have ridden with Jeb Stuart leading them damn Yankees a merry dance all the way through Virginny. No sir, too young to fight but old enough to ride when the big cattle drives began. Lots’a hungry mouths to feed in the east. I’d signed up to ride for Old McCall, pushing three rhousand head o’ longhorns up from Texas, across the Red River and on to Abilene where the railroad had just arrived. My, that was a wild old town, and it stank too …
‘Anyways, it had already been a long drive and we’d only just forded the Red River when we lost one of the chuck wagons and all its stores. Stampede caused it. We had a couple of greenhorns on picket one night. They was as jumpy as the cattle and one took a pot shot at a coyote. That did it. Whole herd was off and running and by the time we’d turned ‘em, we’d lost a dozen head as well as a wagon and all its stores trampled into the dust. So it was half rations, bad coffee and rainwater all the rest of the way to Abilene. And it don’t rain that much out there at the top of the Staked Plain.
‘It was after that, while we was pickin’ our way through Indian country, that we met Major Strong. I was scouting ahead, keeping an eye peeled for signs of Indians, when I sees two riders up ahead on the trail. Mounted on fine big horses they was and leadin’ a string o’ mules loaded with stores and equipment. A couple of men alone way out there in Indian country usually smelled trouble so I checked my pistol and spurred on to catch them. First thing struck me was the funny way they rode. Not long in the saddle like cowhands, but with bent knees, toes in the stirrups, just the way the dandies ride back east. But they wasn’t dressed like dandies and the weapons they carried made me wary. Big pistols in their belts and long heavy rifles strapped to the saddles. But it was the big cavalry sabres that made the hairs on my neck prickle. There were more rifles and boxes of cartridge on the mules. Soldiers mebbee, trading arms with the Comanches. The war was over but there were plenty of drifter soldiers trying to scratch a buck and with old scores to settle.
‘They stopped to let me ride up. The leader was a tall, well-built man ridin’ a big powerful horse. His face looked like it had badly healed after a few rounds with a fairground knuckle bruiser. His nose was bent and twisted, his eyebrows looked as if they had been split and sewed up by a drunken barber and there was a scar running up from his right cheekbone that disappeared under his hat. Half his left hand was missin’. The other man was leading the string of mules. Smaller and wiry. Good lookin’, until he turned his head to show a mass of badly healed scarring and the tattered remains of an ear. I kept my hand close to my gun belt as I reined in alongside them.
‘”Good day to you, sir,” said the big man. “Outrider for that big herd of cattle coming up from the south?”
‘I pushed my hat to the back of my head. The accent was as a big a surprise as learnin’ they’d been watchin' us.
‘The big man laughed. “Sorry if we surprised you. No much escapes us out here, sir. The dust from the herd is visible for miles. My name’s Major Robert Strong, formerly of Her Majesty’s Second Dragoons. This is Captain Andrews, Royal Engineers. Surveyor and talented observer. I doubt you’ll find a man with a better telescope this side of Kansas City.”
‘I introduced myself and confirmed what they already knew, that we were punching a mob of longhorns up to Abilene. Out there, in the Old West, where the law was what you made of it with your fists or your pistol, a man gits a sixth sense about who it’s safe to turn his back on and who it’s safer to kill before he kills you. Two men ridin’ around Indian country armed to the teeth? They was either plain loco or dangerous. But my sixth sense told me they was not murders. I touched my horse closer to the major and held out my hand.
‘Turned out they was working for the Kansas Pacific railroad as scouts and surveyors. Major Strong did the scouting and shot buffalo to feed the railroad men. Captain Andrews did the surveying. He was also pretty darn good with gunpowder. Though the loss of his ear and the scars on his face were the result of cuttin’ a fuse too fine. They told me they’d been surveying westwards into Colorado Territory. Lookin’ for new routes into New Mexico. They’d ridden as far as the Cimarron Pass and then turned east along the Red Fork intending to shoot some buffalo, before heading back to the railroad.
‘I asked if they’d seen any Comanche war bands headed our way. None closer than several days ride to the east, Major Strong said. But they had seen a gang of Comancheros, thirty strong, heading east out of New Mexico along the Canadian River. I asked him to come with me and repeat what they’d seen to Old McCall.
‘The news didn’t seem to faze McCall none. Cookie had rustled up a pot of coffee, though the Lord knows what was in it. Most of the beans had been lost in the stampede but Cookie had managed to pick up half a sack full along with the dust they’d been trampled in. It sure tasted a lot like dust to me but Captain Andrews said they’d run out of beans weeks afore so any coffee tasted good to them. Anyways Major Strong told McCall about the Comancheros. Reckoned they was within a day’s ride of us, and suggested we keep our eyes peeled as they was well armed and looked more like they was aimin’ to rustle than trade.
“’Never had no trouble with Comancheros before,” said Old McCall. “I’ve got fifteen hands, good steady men most of ‘em. Comancheros like easier pickings. Isolated sod busters or settlers heading east on the Santa Fe Trail with pretty young wives. I think me and the boys can take care of ourselves. But you two gentlemen are mighty welcome to ride along with us until we cross the Arkansas.”
‘”That’s a kind offer, Mr McCall,” said Major Strong. “But we’re happy to ride north on our own. Avoiding a superior force is second nature to an old cavalryman. And any man we can’t outride we can probably outshoot. But if it’s all the same to you, we’ve got enough beans and flour left in our packs to add some to your stores, if we could join your repast this evening.”
‘Well, despite the fancy word for chow, for men who’d been living on beef for several weeks that was a welcome offer and Cookie did us proud that night. Major Strong took to talkin’, an’ told us ‘bout a cavalry charge against Roossian Cossacks where he’d lost half his hand and nearly had his head cut off. And some of the boys was interested in the pistols he and the Captain was wearing. Major Strong passed one over for them to examine. It was a British Army pistol, he told them. Double and single action and with the cylinders bored to accept metal cartridges. Some of the boys whistled their approval. It was normally only gunfighters that could afford Starr or Smith & Whesson pistols with double action and metal cartridges. Cowhands, in those days. right after the war, normally made do with the single action Army Colt. With its muzzle loadin’ ball and paper cartridges it was slow to reload, but it was cheap and reliable out on the range where we most often used them to scare off mountain lions. For protection against Indians we preferred the repeatin’ Winchester Yellow Boy rifle. The revolver was the last resort.
‘In the mornin’ Strong and Andrews said farewell and rode off to the north. When we was ready to move on Old McCall told me to scout on ahead taking one of the other men, Johnson, and a couple o’ rifles, in case of trouble. We kept our eyes skinned but the country was open and pretty flat, just tallgrass and the occasional cottonwood. By mid-morning we was approachin’ the Salt Fork River. The trees grew more thickly and the ground began to break up into steep-sided red gullies. I don’t know how come we didn’t see ‘em, but we was riding around a bend in one of them gullies and there they was, waitin’ for us. Six of them, smiling and calm as you please. But a man can afford to smile with he’s gotta pistol levelled at your belly. I tried to bluff it out. Told ‘em the rest of the hands was right behind us, that any shooting would bring them in.
“’Shooting, Amigo,” their leader replied. “Why should there be any shooting? The herd is way back. Even if they could hear shots they would be too late to save you. But maybe we will not kill you. Or maybe you will die very slowly while we wait.” He waved with his gun, “Get down off your horses.”
‘It was either die then or die later and I hoped that maybe we would live long enough for McCall to miss us and come lookin’. So we climbed down off our horses and before you could say knife they had us trussed and hogtied while they hunkered down for a smoke and a sip from their canteens. They spoke in Spanish but I knew enough to make out that the rest of the gang was not far behind and they was aimin’ to bushwack us as we crossed the river, and drive off the herd. I cussed myself for not spottin’ ‘em afore they go the drop on us and for leadin’ McCall straight into a trap.’
The old cowboy paused his narration and took a large swig of beer, gazing expectantly into the almost empty glass. I nodded to the bartender and dropped some more coins on the counter.
‘I can tell you frankly Mr Faust that I was scared and angry. Scared at what them Comancheros might do to me and angry that it was my own stupid fault. Riding into that gulley and then giving up without a fight. A bullet through the heart would have been a mercy compared to a red-hot knife twisting up my guts.
‘And then I heard the snort of a hose and the jingle of a bridle and around the bend in the gully rode Major Strong leadin’ the string of mules on his own. But it was a different man to the one who’d ridden out of camp that morning. He seemed older, slumped in the saddle, clothes all covered in red dust and a battered old hat on his head. There was no sign of a rifle or sabre, but a pickaxe and shovel were lashed to the back o’ one of the mules. He looked like an old prospector who’d spent days dry pannin’ the washes of the Salt Fork. Anyways that’s what the Comancheros thought.
‘”You find any gold, eh? Amigo,” their leader called and several of the men laughed.
‘Major Strong looked up as if he’d just noticed them for the first time.
‘”Gold is it you want boys?” he replied. “Sure there’s mountains of the stuff out there, you just have to wander round and pick it up for yourself.”
‘”Your hear that cabrones,” said the leader. “The gringo invites us to search for our own gold. But we are busy men.” He laughed and I saw a mouthful of dirty broken teeth. “I think you should reward us by sharing your gold, amigo.”
‘“Reward you is it. And what would that be for?”
‘“Perhaps for sparing your miserable life, or perhaps for killing you quickly.”
‘The major’s shoulders sagged and he hung his head. “I don’t need no trouble boys,” he said. “There’s a few ounces in those packs,” he pointed to one of the mules. “Won’t be the first pay dirt I’ve lost, nor the last.”
‘The leader waved in the direction of the mules and two of his men slipped from their saddles and strode over to them, the spurs janglin’ at their boot heels. Mebbee it was the smell of those murderous, half-breeds or mebbee one of ‘em did somethin’ as they passed the major. Whatever it was, it seemed to spook his horse. It sank back on its hind legs and then reared up, its front legs pawing at the air. The major seemed to be clinging on for dear life as the horse skittered about snorting.
‘”Ha, ha, Amigo you should learn to control your horse,” said the leader. But the pistol that magically appeared in the major’s hand wiped the grin off his face. He grabbed for his own pistol. He was quick, as quick as any man I ever saw, but he stood no chance against a soldier with his pistol already drawn. The major shot him through the heart and he was dead before his body slipped to the ground.
‘The other three went for their guns. They even got ‘em out and shot at him, but the major had his horse dancing like it was in a circus. Hell, I reckon he could’a made that horse dance a foxtrot. They missed, but the major didn’t. He shot three times and three men went down as clean as felled saplings. That was the first time I ever saw a double action pistol at work. No thumb cockin’ or fancy palm fannin’ of the hammer. The major just aimed and pulled the trigger, four times, four dead men.
‘Which left two. They’d been unstrappin’ the saddle bags when the first shot was fired and it took ‘em a second to realise that it was the old prospector doin’the shootin’. But when they seen the old man sitting comfortably on his dancin’ horse calmly aimin’ and shootin’, they grabbed for their guns and took aim at his back.
‘A shot blew one backwards into the dust.
‘Where had that shot come from? I twisted my head and caught side of Cap'n Andrews on the top of the cliff. The last Comanchero hesitated. In the space of a dozen heartbeats five of his friends had been shot before his eyes. And the man who had shot them was sittin’ calmly on his horse watchin’ him.
‘His gun hand wavered. Then a look of blind hatred blazed in his eyes. “Valió madre!” he shouted, jerking the pistol up towards the major’s chest. But there was only one shot and the man fell to the ground, dropped his pistol and grabbed his thigh. Blood oozed out between his fingers. I don’t know if Major Strong missed him on purpose. Perhaps he thought the half-breed was gonna drop his gun.
‘The major jumped down off the horse and walked over to the wounded man, pointing the pistol straight between his eyes. His fingers squeezed around the trigger. I was sure I’d only heard him fire five shots, he must’a had one more in the chamber. The hammer clicked down … nothin’.
‘“Now that’s the trouble with these Beaumont-Adams pistols, only five shots compared to your Colt’s six. You’ll excuse me sir, while I reload?”
‘The wounded Comanchero’s face flared with the hope of survival and his fingers scrabbled towards his dropped gun. I don’t know what hope he thought he had Mr Faust, with Cap'n Andrews covering him from the cliff top. But there was something remorseless in the major. Like I told you, the chambers on his pistol were bored to accept metal cartridges. He might has well have been at shooting practise. He calmly pulled a single cartridge out of his belt, slipped it into the empty chamber and, before the man was able to cock his own pistol, shot him right between the eyes.
‘Well the major soon had me and Johnson cut loose and I massaged my wrists and ankles to ease the pain as the blood flowed back. I thought it was all over, that we would ride back to the herd and get the rest of the men. But the major had other ideas.
‘“Even six down they still outnumber you almost two to one,” he said. “There’s no way they’re going to let you ride on after we’ve killed some of their own. And you don’t want to be caught out in the open when they do come. They’ll have heard the shots and they’ll come to investigate. Best we try and hold them here where we have some cover, even up the odds a bit more, while one of you ride’s back to fetch you men.”
‘Well Mr Faust, you know the sensible thing would have been to volunteer to ride back to McCall. Thirty men against three was just a death sentence for sure. And are a few thousand head of someone else’s cattle worth your life, even at a couple o’ bucks a day? But like I said, I was young and stupid and I told Johnson to head back. The major told him to leave his Winchester and all his ammunition. He let him keep his Colt. “If they catch you save the last bullet for yourself,” he said, slapping Johnson’s horse on the rump. “Now, ride!”
‘Johnson disappeared down the gully in a cloud o’ red dust and for a moment I wondered what I’d done, volunteerin’ to stay there, alone, with two old soldiers. But the major ‘n Cap’n Andrews, they seemed as cool as chilled beeve carcasses. We rounded up the horses of the dead Comancheros and roped them together. The bodies we dragged outta sight further down the gully under the cover of some bushes. Then we lead the mules and the horses back the way we’d come. The ground on the western side of the gully sloped steeply up towards the edge of the cliff, which was higher on that side than on the other. And there was a jumble of rocks at the top that would provide some cover. From there we could look north across the Salt Fork and spot the Comancheros as they rode towards the gully. Cap’n Andrews unstrapped some packs from the mules and laid them on the ground. Major Strong pointed an arm in the direction of a stand of cottonwoods ‘bout half a mile to the south. “Tether the horses and the mules among those trees and get back here as fast as you can,” he ordered.
‘By the time I got back Major Strong and the cap’n had carried the packs up to the rocks at the clifftop and laid out rifles and clips of ammunition. Cap’n Andrews was busy with a box full of metal balls each about the size of fist. Cuttin’ short lengths of cord that he stuffed into a small hole in each ball and jammed in with a wooden plug. He saw me watchin’. “Black powder grenades. Little surprise for them when they come,” he said. The scarred side of his face twisted in a devilish grin and despite bein’ heated from the run up the slope a cold shiver went down my spine.
‘We didn’t have long to wait. A cloud o’ dust to the north was the first sight we had of them as they galloped towards the gully. But they was too smart to come charging straight in and stopped short, lookin’ up at the cliffs. We kept low and, seeing nothin’ they drew pistols and rifles and nudged their horses into a walk. The northern end of the gully was narrow and they had to string out two or three abreast to enter it. The leading men slowed as they reached the bend in the centre, twistin’ their necks to check out the cliff face and the rocks and bushes on the gully floor. Ahead of ‘em were the bushes where we’d dragged the bodies, the scuff marks of their boot heels showin’ in the red dust. The first rider held up a hand and the column stopped. He dismounted and walked over towards the bushes, steppin’ warily, twistin’ his neck in both directions.
‘Close to the bushes he stopped. Somethin’ on the ground caught his eye. Damp splotches in the red dust. He bent down and touched one with his fingers, rubbing them together, shocked to see the blood stain his fingertips. He lunged and slashed at the bushes with the rifle barrel, uncovering the bodies. There were angry shouts and the men crowded forward to look.
‘Bang, bang, bang.’ I jumped as the old cowboy slammed his hand down on the counter emphasising each shot.
‘Bang, bang. Major Strong could hardly miss that milling tightly bunched target and men started to fall. He was firing fast, using Johnson’s Yellow Boy Winchester. Aim, shoot, pump the next cartridge into the chamber and aim again. “Shoot boy,” I heard him growl at me and I raised my own Winchester and fired into the mob below.
‘But they was recoverin’ from the surprise of the ambush and their chief was callin’ ‘em back. They tried to wheel their horses in the narrow gully and spur ‘em back the way they’d come. But further along the cliff top I saw Cap’n Andrews raise an arm and toss a grenade into the entrance to the gully.
Again, the hard, old fist slammed savagely down on the counter rattling the nearest glasses.
‘An explosion of red dust and stones stopped the retreatin’ horses. I watched as the Cap’n used a cigar to light the fuse of a second grenade and tossed it into the gully. Trapped between the explosions and the major’s steady rifle shootin’ it seemed as if the men below would trample themselves in panic. But then self-preservation took over. Turnin’ away from the explosion the horseman took the only other way out, spurring savagely at their horses flanks and gallopin’ south out of the gully, riskin’ more shots in the back as they went. We hit several more as they fled and by the time Major Strong held up his hand to stop the shootin’, a half dozen or more of them lay dead or dyin’.
‘But the rest did not go far. They turned at extreme range where the dust of the dry wash gave way to the tallgrass and cottonwoods, and halted. I can tell you Mr Faust that I was shakin’. Fear, horror, excitement? I can’t rightly say. Maybe it was part of all three. I’d never seen men killed like that, shot down like so many jack rabbits. Perhaps I’d killed some of them myself, but my hands were shakin’ so much I had to doubt it. And Major Strong? He was calmly reloadin’ his Winchester and when he’d finished he simply held out his hand, took mine and reloaded that too.
Cap’n Andrews had scuttled up beside us graspin’ a rifle of his own. One of their big British ones, a Snider-Enfield I’d heard him call it. Only a single shot breech loader, but he said he could fire ten shots a minute with it and shoot a bigger slug than the Winchester. Well we were gonna need that and more. Because those Comancheros had worked out where we was and that there was mighty few of us. From the safety of the trees they could see the jumble of rocks that sheltered us. But trapped us too. With the cliff at our backs, too steep to scramble down they had us pinned. And even with the loss of a dozen men I could count over twenty of them. Some of them might have been wounded, but we were still only three and there was no sign of McCall.
‘“Don’t worry son.” Major Strong had read my thoughts. “We’ll pick them off as they come up the slope.” He turned and winked at Cap'n Andrews. “But it’s a pretty thin red line. Eh Captain Andrews?”
‘“Just like at Inkerman,” replied the Cap’n, and his face once again cracked into that hideous grin.
‘I had no idea what they was talkin’ about, but the position still seemed pretty hopeless to me. Major Strong read my face. “The Crimean War, son. Less than three thousand redcoats of the British Second Division held off over 30,000 Russians at Inkerman. Odds are a little better here I’d say and that rabble face the same problem as the Russians, how to get up a narrowing slope to get at us.”
‘Well Mr Faust, those Comancheros had never heard of Inkerman and they was pretty riled up to avenge their dead companeros. And it looked like that would be sooner rather than later. They could have tried to wait us out. It was hot up there amongst the rocks in the sun, and I hadn’t thought to bring any water canteens after I’d tethered the horses. And the buzzards had already caught the scent of those dead Comancheros and they was circling above us, looking down, waiting until it was safe to land and feast on dead men. I shivered at the thought of their sharp beaks tearing into my own flesh. But them Comancheros didn’t seem intent on waiting. Maybe they didn’t know ‘bout Johnson but they knew the herd and the rest of the men was moving up. I’m not a praying man but I said a few words then hoping that Johnson had made it back.
‘They was gonna come for us, but by now they’d learned some respect for our shootin’. So they spread themselves out and started to creep up the slope, covering each other, shootin’ to keep our heads down while they scrambled closer from rock to rock.
‘“Nice skirmish action,” said Major Strong as he and Cap’n Andrews returned fire, this time using their Snider-Enfield’s. “Its accuracy you want this at point son,” he shouted to me as I loosed off several shots at a Comanchero sprintin’ between two rocks and cussed myself for missin’. “Try and make each shot count.”
‘Good advice that was, Mr Faust. Major Strong and the Cap’n had already brought down several more of them but my nerves weren’t as steady as theirs. I was doin’ a pretty good job of shootin’ chips off rocks, but as far as I could tell I hadn’t hit any of the men behind ‘em.
‘Like the major said, the slope narrowed towards the top and the Comancheros had to bunch together as they edged towards us. In the end they were going to have to rush us and take their chances. There was less of them by now but plenty enough to put up a pretty hot crossfire and I thought it was a miracle that none of us had been hit. But that was about to change. The shootin’ slackened while they reloaded and I heard them hollerin’ out to each other in Spanish, some sort of war cry that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
‘“Aim low when they come, and keep shooting,” hissed the major. I finished stuffing more cartridges into the stock of the Yellow Boy and took a quick glance over the rock. I knew this was it Mr Faust, any moment they was gonna jump out from those rocks and rush us. My knuckles were white, I was grippin’ the rifle that hard to try and stop shakin’.
‘Then they rose, shootin’ and runnin’ straight at us, whoopin’ and a hollerin’ just like the half Indians they was. On my right, out of the corner of my eye, I seen Cap’n Andrews stand up, lightin’ the fuse of a grenade from a cigar clamped between his teeth. He pulled back his arm and hurled it towards the bunched, running men.
‘And took a bullet.
‘I heard the dull wet thwack as it hit his chest and he dropped with a groan. The grenade exploded and the Comancheros dropped to the ground, some wounded, some dead mebbee. But it only checked them for a moment. The living came charging on. On my left the major stood up to give himself a clear field of fire and was shooting as fast he could bringing men down with each shot. But not quickly enough, they would be on us before … and then I thought of the sack of bombs that Cap’n Andrews had prepared. Perhaps there was a chance. I hurled myself across the gap to the rock where the Cap’n had fallen and grabbed for the sack that lay beside his body. The cigar had fallen from his lips but it was still smoking, I reached out for it … and that was it, Mr Faust. Something struck me a heavy blow in the back, I felt myself falling forward and then it all went black.’
He picked up the beer glass and drained it in one gulp and I noticed that the hand that held it was shaking and the knuckles were white with the force of his grip. His lips had compressed into a tight, white line and beads of sweat were sliding down from under the brim of his hat. He started when I placed a reassuring hand on his arm but gratefully accepted the offer of another drink.
‘I’m sorry Mr Faust, for a moment there I felt like I was back among them rocks overlooking the washes of the Salt Fork. I couldda died there Mr Faust, madder ‘o fact I was dead for all that I knew, and I can tell you there ain’t nothin’ there, but then agin there ain’t nothin’ to be afeared of neither. And then I woke up to find Old McCall kneeling beside me with a canteen of water and a dirty wet rag washin’ my face.
‘”Easy son,” he said. “You got a bullet in the shoulder but it’s a clean wound. The Doc will be able to take it out in Abilene.” I tried to sit up and look around but McCall pushed me gently back down. “Afraid Captain Andrews didn’t make it,” he said. “Shot clean through the heart. Lucky that shot missed that sack of black powder bombs, or all three of you would’ve been blown sky high.”
‘”He’s fine son, though I do rightly wonder why. He stood there alone, shooting at them Comancheros until he ran out of ammunition. They was almost on him so he threw down his pistol, pulled that big sword out of his belt and waved it in their faces, daring them to attack him.”
‘But why didn’t they kill him, I asked McCall.
“Danged if I know son. Mind you, by then we was riding up behind them and I think they’d had enough of that crazy British soldier. One of them took a final shot at him but missed and then those that were left turned and ran. We let them go. There’d been more than enough killing already. We’re going to have to bury twenty bodies. Darndest thing I ever saw though, three men take on a small army of Comancheros. You did a good job son. Saved the herd. I’ll show my gratitude when we gets to Abilene.”
‘We buried Captain Andrews, well distant from them Comancheros, in the shade of a cottonwood on the bank of the Salt Fork. Deep, in a proper grave, filled with stones to stop the coyotes digging him back up. Major Strong laid his sword on his chest before the boys shovelled the earth back in. And he read the service. Ain’t been one for much church going Mr Faust, but I can tell you I felt pretty close to God out there beside the Salt Fork. And when the grave was covered over and the major had stuck a cross at the head of it, he had the boys stand over and fired a volley with their rifles.
‘And afterwards, as we made ready to ride on, he handed me the cap’n’s pistol.
‘“Better than your old Colt, son. And the captain doesn’t need it now.”
‘I thanked him, I didn’t have any other words I could think of to say.’
‘”It’s a dirty business, killing,” he continued. “You did well up there, might have made a good soldier.”
‘Well I don’t know about that Mr Faust. I saw enough killing that day to last me a lifetime. But I wore the cap'n's pistol, hell I still wear it, it’s like an old friend.’
He pulled the gun out of his holster and laid it gently down on the bar.
‘But I never fired at another man unless I had no choice. Don’t think I ever deliberately killed anybody with it. Take a look, Mr Faust. These days I don’t even bother to load it.’
I picked it up and spun the chamber. It clicked round smoothly. It was empty.
‘There’s many things I miss about the Old West, Mr Faust. But one of em’s not the smell. Did I tell you everything stank?’