BUCK DUNBAR, formerly of Maine but now mail station-keeper of the little change station of San Pedro on the banks of the Arizona River whose name it bore, leaned over the gate of the pole corral and squinted at the late afternoon sun.
"Well, Sands," he said, "your man should be getting here soon now unless something happened to him. Are you going to eat before you saddle up?"
Sands, the lanky, saddle-toughened mail rider, who had just hung a morral of grain over his horse's nose, also glanced at the sun and the lengthening shadows before he replied to the last question first.
"Guess I might as well eat. There's plenty of time. Hell, Buck, what could happen to a man on this job? I've been jingling back and forth here now close on to six months and aside from seeing a few Apaches
once in a while nothing ever does happen."
Dunbar tilted his hat forward and scratched his head as he looked at his friend.
"You're sure hard to please. What do you want? A war?"
"Naw! But it gets plumb tiresome just riding back and forth with a bag of letters," replied Sands. "Seems as though nothing turns up anymore in this country since they put the Apaches on the reservation. Why it don't even rain."
The two men were just finishing their meal when a rider loped into the yard by the San Pedro corral and slipped off his sweating horse. As he tugged at the látigo to loosen his cinch Sands and Dunbar walked out to join him. It was Ike Purdy who in the previous twelve hours had carried the mail from Tucson.
"'Lo, Ike," called Sands. The rider turned, grinned and waved his hand. "Did you have a good trip?" Sands continued, halting by the man and horse.
"Little hot coming across the flats this afternoon but not bad," said Ike. "Say, Merrill's down at Tucson and said to tell you to keep your eyes open up Bowie way. The Apaches have been raising the devil again and a bunch jumped the reservation."
"Anybody killed?" asked Dunbar.
"Not yet. But they ran off a mess of cattle near Bowie, or at least that's what the boss said just before I left. Said to tell you to pass the word to Tate or Ward, whichever meets you at Ewell Spring."
Sands nodded. While Purdy had been talking he had swung his saddle on his horse and tugged the cinch tight. As he slapped the stirrup back into place he took the mail-pouch from Purdy and hung it over the horn. Dunbar, his face showing his concern, added his warning to Purdy's as Sands buckled on his pistol-belt.
"Don't worry, Buck," said Sands. "Well, so long! Say Howdy to the boss for me, Ike, when you get back to Tucson."
With a wave of his hand Sands put his pony to a trot and jogged away, headed for Point of Mountain.
He was well on his way as night settled down. He sat easily in the saddle, his posture indicating his cavalry background as well as his training on the cattle trails. The steady fox-trot of his mount, varied by an occasional canter over easy ground, took him swiftly and steadily on his way. Seemingly careless, in reality Sands carefully checked every slope he passed and every ridge he approached.
The moon came up, turning the mesquite-covered desert into a wonderland of light and shade. Sands rode on, walking his horse up the steeper climbs, kneeing him into the shuffling trot again as soon as the crest was attained. No sounds except those of the desert's wild life disturbed the night.
A mournful, wailing bark of the coyote caused Sands to grin. "Those puppies wouldn't be yapping around so close if there were Apaches prowling around," he said to himself. Then as his horse stumbled he added, "Watch yourself you jughead. You can get to sleep at daybreak. In the meantime get to work."
He bit a corner off a plug of tobacco and worked it into his cheek as the pony resumed its steady gait. Gradually the night passed.
As the false dawn told of the nearing day a steady rise in the ground gave Sands his location. Point of Mountain and his change of horses was just ahead. He had put thirty-five miles behind him during the night. The outline of the mail station and its little stone corral were already visible.
Point of Mountain station was silent. No smoke showed from the stone chimney and Sands pulled up cautiously. Usually the horse-tender had breakfast ready. While the rider was still wondering a low voice called: "That you Sands?"
"Yes," he answered. "Where are you?"
A rattle of bars and a chain preceded the answer. The door swung open and the horse-tender called, "Come on in here but don't make too much fuss about it. Those Apaches can't be far away yet."
Sands entered the station to find the horse-tender with the windows barred and a pistol and shotgun lying on the table where he could reach them easily. The man was frightened and showed it.
"What's the matter?" asked Sands. "Have you been raided?"
"They got every darned horse in the corral last night. Left nothing but that ornery pack-mule that's too poison mean even for an Indian. Why they didn't roust me out of here I don't know. Lord, I thought you'd never get here."
Sands shrugged. "I didn't even see a sign of them."
With the aid of the horse-tender he rustled some breakfast and turned to his former mount.
"Well, if you're all out of horses I'll use the one I've got. Be careful. They may come back and get your mule," he said as he headed for Ewell Spring twenty miles distant.
Sands chuckled at the horse-tender's plight. The Indians sure had spooked that boy, he thought. Then he laughed aloud as he thought of the mule they had left behind. That horse-tender was going to stay there until they took him a horse unless he walked, Sands decided, for it was a safe bet that no one would ride that mule. The nearness of the Indians brought caution, however, and it was a wary rider who urged his tiring horse into a trot on the Ewell Spring trail.
He was nearing the spring. High above him the two-peaked crest of Dos Cabezos reared its head. The valley floor below was a tangle of mesquite and greasewood with wide stretches of grass between. The trail twisted in and out between the mesquite thickets, a perfect screen for an ambush.
Suddenly the horse faltered in his stride, his ears pricked forward, and a whistling snort told of some foreign taint carried to his nostrils. To the rider it was as plain as speech. Indians! The horses hated them and could smell them down wind like a deer scenting a mountain cat. Sands loosened his pistol in its holster and rode forward cautiously, peering through the twisted mesquite branches for the first sight of movement of any kind.
Ten yards, twenty, then at a turn in the trail he stumbled upon the cause of the horse's fright. Stripped and scalped the body of a white man lay by the side of the trail, blood still oozing from several wounds. Sands slid from his saddle, leaned over and felt of the shoulder. It was still warm!
He turned the body slightly and with a shock recognized the dead face. It was Tate, a young Texan who also rode the mail route but going westward bound. The story of the death was written in the sand. Apaches had ambushed him only a short time before.
Once more in the saddle Sands lost no time in moving on toward the spring. No longer did he chuckle over the Apaches, raid at the Point of Mountain corral. Nerves tense and alert he rode on, watching every nook and cranny that he passed. Soon he found Tate's horse, also dead, lying near the trail. The Indians had fired on the rider and hit the horse. As it fell Tate had scrambled clear and run for his life. A second group farther down the trail had shot him. All too well Sands read the story. Again he urged the tired horse, breathing a sigh of relief as the change station at the spring came into view.
A horse-tender greeted the rider and led out a fresh mount. Sands told him of finding Tate and where he had been forced to leave the body. The hostler, a hard-bitten cowboy, blanched under his tan as he realized how close he had been to death. Then as Sands, promising to send back aid, started on he slipped into the station and began fortifying doors and windows. Sands, a fresh horse under him, headed for the depths of Apache Pass and for Fort Bowie on the opposite side.
As he turned his horse into the rugged trail through the pass Sands redoubled his watchfulness. High granite boulders strewn along the sides of the trail warned of hidden danger. The clicking ring of his horse's hoofs on the rocks caused him to curse fluently to himself as he scanned the slopes on both sides. Not for a moment did he take his eyes off his mount's ears. But not once did his onward pace falter. For fifteen miles, each one seemingly twice its length, he rode on to Fort Bowie, making the last two miles at a long lope.
There again bad news awaited him.
"Sands, you didn't see Ward, did you?" asked the station-keeper before the rider could even dismount.
Sands shook his head. Ward was the rider who should have relieved Tate. "No, why!" he asked.
Quickly the tale was told. Ward, coming in from the east, had arrived sick, burning with fever. Red splotches on his face and body, back and legs aching, he had ridden in, reeling in his saddle. Smallpox, the dread "black death" of the mountain camps, had claimed him. He had been placed delirious on a cot in the storeroom while the stationkeeper sought aid. The door had been closed and locked, but a window had been overlooked and the fever-stricken man had climbed out and wandered off into the desert. They had been searching for him for hours but he had not been found.
"What are you going to do for yourself?" asked Sands. "You've been exposed."
"Hell," said the station-keeper, leaning against a wall to steady himself, "I'm so full of whiskey that I gurgle when I walk. And now I think I need another drink. Come on, you'll need one, too."
"Yeh," said Sands, "if this keeps up I sure will. Get me a horse. I want to get out of here pronto."
A few hours later he was changing mail-bags with a rider from New Mexico ten miles out in the San Simon. A short rest, water and feed for his horse, and he was on his way back to Fort Bowie.
The San Simon was desolation. Broad and flat its alkali stretches offered no haven for man or horse. Within five miles of Fort Bowie Sands glanced behind him to see six horsemen swing into the trail and follow his tracks. He paused but a moment. Then as they sighted him ahead their kicking heels told the rider all he needed to know -- Indians! and Apaches. He whirled his horse and with raking spurs lit out for Apache Pass and the fort.
As he rode with his eyes intent on the rugged trail so that no misstep would cause a fall he heard the shrill yips of the Indians behind him. He hoped their horses were not fresh. If they got too close a stray rifle bullet might drop him from the saddle. Besides, his pistol would be a poor weapon with which to stand off six men. Urging his mount on, he rode the five miles at a furious pace until, dashing into the open near the fort, he pulled up.
The Indians, balked by the nearness of the garrison, had given up the chase in the pass.
Twenty-four hours after he had left, Sands rode into the yard at San Pedro. As he unsaddled at the corral Dunbar walked out to meet him carrying a lantern.
"Howdy, Sands, have a good trip?" he asked.
"Not bad," said Sands. "Indians got Tate yesterday and Ward got smallpox and went loco. We've got to send some horses up to that boy at Point of Mountain. Apaches cleaned his corral for him -- all except that ornery mule."
"Did you have any trouble?" asked Dunbar as he took the mail-sack from the rider and closed the gate behind the steaming horse.
"Trouble!" repeated Sands. "Why should I have trouble? Nothing ever happens on this darned route. Hell, it don't even rain!"