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The Dodge City Trail
By Ralph Compton
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1995 Ralph Compton
All rights reserved.
Eagle Pass, Texas. December 17, 1869.
An hour before first light, thirteen-year-old Denny DeVoe awakened to the sound of rain pattering on the cabin's shake roof. He crawled out of the old straw tick, seeking to avoid waking his mother and sister, only to stub his bare foot against the leg of a chair. "Damn," he grunted. His sister Lenore giggled.
"Densmore DeVoe," said his mother sternly, "you watch your tongue. Your daddy would have taken a strap to you for that kind of talk."
"Ma," the boy said tiredly, "he ain't comin' back. You know he ain't. He's been gone since 'sixty-one, and come spring, the war will have been over for five years. Leave him rest, and let me be the man of the house. Ain't I been bringin' in meat since I was seven?"
"You have," Adeline DeVoe sighed, "and I'm proud of you, but you're still just a boy. I don't like you riding north alone. Why can't you do your hunting along the river?"
"Because the Mex border patrol keeps all the game scared off," Denny said hotly. "They're staked out, just waitin' for some reb to try and sneak across the border. Then they'll shoot the poor bastard."
"Sorry, Ma," the boy said, not sounding sorry at all. "I aim to get us a deer. I found tracks around a spring a few miles north."
Sixteen-year-old Lenore laughed at his self-confidence, while his mother only sighed, but all of it was lost on young Denny. He had found his clothes and worn boots, and dressing in the dark, his mind raced ahead to the sign at the spring and the anticipated deer. Wearing an old flop hat that had belonged to his father, Denny headed for the log barn.
The mules, Banjo and Fiddle, heard him coming. There was no saddle, for that and their only horse had gone to war with Barnabas DeVoe. Denny bridled Banjo, and the animal balked, not wishing to leave the barn for the cold rain and chill wind. Denny appreciated the mule's reluctance. He wished he had brought his coat, but chose to go on without it. A return to the house would invite further fussing from his mother. A canvas sheath kept his rifle dry, and that's all that mattered. It was a Maynard carbine for which Barnabas DeVoe had paid twenty-five dollars in 1859. The weapon was .35 caliber, with a folding back sight. It was only thirty-seven inches long, with a twenty-inch barrel, and had an effective range of thirteen hundred yards. It weighed just six pounds, and was one of the first to fire metal case cartridges. Barnabas DeVoe had bought a thousand rounds and presented cartridges and carbine to young Denny on his seventh birthday. Now, as he rode the unwilling mule into the rainy predawn darkness, Denny DeVoe couldn't help thinking of his father, and a lump rose in his throat. He swallowed hard. Despite the bitter words to his mother, he wanted to believe that Barnabas DeVoe was alive and would return.
Denny rode on, as yet unable to see, a little on edge as a result of his mother's fears. In the predawn darkness, with the continuing rain, he had to depend on the surefootedness of the mule, and had it not been for the animal, he wouldn't have found what was left of Daniel Ember. Banjo'shied, reared, and Denny slid over his rump.
"Damn you, Banjo," he said. He. threw his weight on the bridle, but Banjo refused to move. Shucking his rifle, Denny moved cautiously ahead, and immediately fell over something. He went to his knees, and to avoid sprawling belly down in the mud, flung out his left hand. But his hand didn't touch the muddy ground. Instead it rested on the back of a human head, in sodden hair. Heart in his throat, Denny lunged to his feet and backed hastily away. He had stumbled over a dead man! But after the initial shock, reason took over and he realized what must be done. Whoever the poor soul had been, he deserved a decent burial, and that meant riding back to the cabin for a spade. That, he thought gloomily, would result in yet another lecture from his mother over the danger of his riding alone.
Despite the overcast sky and continuing rain, first light was fast approaching. When at last he could see, Denny again approached the body, and was sickened by what he saw. He turned away and threw up his supper, and it was a while before he could look upon what he believed was a dead man. The body lay facedown and had been literally beaten to a bloody pulp. The clothing had been cut away, and the whip had ravaged him from his shoulders to the tops of his worn-out boots. Denny believed the man had been shot, but with all the blood from the beating, he couldn't be sure. Futile as the gesture seemed, the boy knelt and took the stranger's left wrist, seeking a pulse. To his dismay, it was there! Denny snatched the bridle of the grazing mule, mounted, and kicked the beast into a fast gallop. The wounded man had been through hell, and Denny knew he needed more help than he alone could provide. He received no lecture from his mother. Adeline DeVoe was a frontier woman, and immediately began preparing to rescue the wounded man.
"Denny," she said, "bring Fiddle to the house. Lenore and me will be ready when you return."
Denny bridled the second mule, and when he reached the cabin, helped his mother and sister to mount. He then mounted Banjo and led out.
"How far?" his mother asked.
"Maybe five miles. He's been whipped, Ma. His clothes are gone, and he ain't decent, but there wasn't nobody but you I could ask for help."
"You did exactly right, Denny," Adeline said. "No man is considered indecent when he's hurt and can't help himself. Your sister's a woman now — sixteen — and I was tending wounded men when I was younger than that."
The wounded man lay just as Denny had left him. A pair of buzzards sat on a cottonwood limb, waiting patiently. Adeline found a stand of buffalo grass and spread the two blankets she'd brought, one atop the other.
"We must get him on one of the mules," Adeline said, "but first we're going to wrap him in blankets. He'll catch his death, if he hasn't already."
"It's gonna be hell — hard on him," Denny said, "wrappin' him in blankets with his back tore up like that."
"Nothing can hurt him more than he's already been hurt," Adeline replied, "except the exposure. Denny, you take his arms, I'll take his feet, and when we lift him, Lenore, take the shears and cut away what's left of the clothes."
The girl's face went white and she looked as though she was about to be sick, but she obeyed. With trembling hands she cut away what remained of Daniel Ember's sodden, muddy garments. Adeline and Denny then carried the naked man to the blankets and wrapped them about him.
"He'll have to ride belly down," Denny said, "and it ain't gonna be easy gettin' him on the mule."
Neither of the mules wanted the macabre burden.
"Lenore," Denny shouted, "catch one of them damn mules and hold it still."
Sharing Denny's exasperation, Adeline said nothing. Lenore glared at her brother, seized Fiddle's bridle and forced the animal to stand until the wounded Daniel Ember had been draped across its back.
"You and Lenore mount up," Denny said. "I'll walk alongside and hold him in place."
The rain had let up by the time they reached the cabin, and a pale sun crept from behind diminishing clouds. By the time Denny and Adeline had the wounded man in the cabin and on a bunk, they were exhausted. Without being told, Lenore stirred up the embers in the fireplace and put on a kettle of water to boil.
"We should of took his pulse before we brought him in," Denny said. "He may not even be alive."
"You're right," Adeline said. She tried his right wrist but found nothing. But when she tried the left, there was a feeble pulse. "He's alive, but not by much. Lenore, get the rest of the muslin. We're going to have to wash off the blood, apply a thick mud poultice where he's been whipped, and turn him over. He's suffered more than just a beating. I think we'll find that he's been shot."
Ember groaned once as Adeline began cleansing his mutilated back, and she caught her breath as she made a startling discovery. Two slugs had struck the man high, entering just below the right and left collarbones and exiting above the lungs. The exit wounds had been concealed amid the blood and torn flesh resulting from the savage beating.
"He's been shot at least twice," Adeline said, "but the slugs didn't hit anything vital. That's the only reason he's still alive."
"He's still a mess of blood," Denny said. "There may be more wounds."
"Lenore and I will look for them. I want you to take the big wooden bucket down to the spring and fill it with the black mud along the runoff. Lenore, take some of the muslin, dip it in the kettle and help me remove the rest of this caked blood."
Denny took the bucket and a spade and headed for the spring. Soaking a strip of the muslin in the hot water, Lenore began bathing the blood from Ember's thighs and lower back. She blushed when she became aware that her mother was watching her, and Adeline laughed.
"You'd as well get used to it, daughter. Men are forever getting shot up, cut to ribbons, and their bones broken, and it's the women who have to patch up what's left. When I was just thirteen, I had to help Mama patch up my own daddy."
"Was he ...?"
Adeline laughed. "He was. Jaybird naked. A grizzly pawed him across the backside, ripped his trousers to shreds, and there was nobody but Mama and me to tend him."
Mother and daughter continued their joint effort, more at ease with one another, and they were ready for the mud when Denny returned with the first of it.
"Dump it on the hearth, Denny," Adeline said, "and go back for some more. We're going to have to coat him with it from his neck to his feet."
When Denny had emptied the bucket and gone for more mud, Lenore looked at the pile and shuddered.
"That stuff looks like cow droppings," she said.
"I suppose it does," Adeline said, "but there's something in it — oil perhaps — that heals. Fold some of that muslin to cover his gunshot wounds. Two pads the size of your hand. I'll get the whiskey."
Barnabas DeVoe had been a drinking man, and he'd left behind a full gallon of whiskey. Adeline poured some into each of the exit wounds, then soaked the muslin pads and placed one over each wound.
"I can see how we're going to cover him with the mud," Lenore said, "but when we roll him over, what's going to keep the mud in place?"
"We cover him with a blanket," Adeline replied, "and tuck it tight on both sides. It'll take both of us, but when we roll him over, the blanket will keep the poultice in place. We'll have to change the mud often, so it can draw the fever out of him."
With bandages protecting the gunshot wounds, Adeline and Lenore began applying the black mud to Daniel Ember's torn flesh. They spread it thick, and Denny made four trips to the spring before the application was complete.
"Take a rest, Denny," Adeline said. "We can turn him on his back." She suspected Lenore was going to blush again, and she sought to spare the girl the embarrassment that might result if Denny were present.
"I'll go rub down Banjo and Fiddle," Denny said.
"Now," Adeline said when Denny had gone, "we'll roll him over and have a look at the other side of him. Ready?"
"I ... I think so."
"You hold the blanket tight against his knee and thigh," Adeline said, "and I'll take care of the rest."
They worked together, timing their movements, and turned Daniel Ember on his back without displacing any of the carefully applied mud. To their dismay, the women found themselves looking into cold blue eyes. Almost immediately the eyes closed, and Lenore was the first to speak.
"Why he's ... his hair's white, and I thought ... "
"He's not as old as I am," Adeline said. "He's had a hard life, and it ages a man."
"There's another bullet wound," Lenore said, "and it looks worse than either of the others."
The slug had torn into his left side just above the belt line, and from the bleeding, the wound might have been mortal. But the lead had struck a rib and had ripped its way free.
"Thank God all his luck hasn't been bad," Adeline said. "That one hit a rib, and it could just as easily have gone the other way, right through his vitals. Hand me the whiskey jug."
When the third wound had been treated and bandaged, Adeline brought more blankets and covered the wounded man. She then turned to Lenore.
"You did well, Lenore."
"He's a handsome man, Mama. Who could have done this to him, and why?"
"He has some old wounds," Adeline said, "and from the looks of him, he's been to war. God only knows what's happened to him, considering some of the terrible people who have followed the Union soldiers who occupy Texas. Such as the gunmen who were here last fall with Burton Ledoux, the new tax collector."
"I remember him," Lenore said, "and I was afraid of him. Denny and me were outside when they left, and I ... I didn't like the way he looked at me. He said something I couldn't hear, and the others laughed."
"He'll be back," Adeline said. "With Texas under Federal occupation, I fear there are troubled times ahead for us all. God knows what we're going to do when they come demanding taxes from us."
Lenore turned away, her eyes on the silent, blanket-wrapped man on the bunk. When she again faced her mother, there were tears on her cheeks and fire in her eyes.
"Damn them," the girl cried. "Damn them all."
For three days and nights Daniel Ember's life hung in the balance, and none of the DeVoes slept. Only a curtain separated the wounded man's bunk from the room where Adeline and Lenore tried to sleep. Daily, the two women changed the mud poultice, while Denny uncomplainingly hauled more mud from the spring. It had become an Armageddon, a struggle between the living and the dead for the feeble spark that was Daniel Ember's life. They washed and dried his filthy blankets, poured whiskey down him and listened to his ragged breathing, dreading the moment when they might hear it no more. But before noon of the third day, the fever broke.
"He's sweating, Mama," Lenore cried.
"Thank God," Adeline sighed. "We did for him the best we could."
As though in response to their words, the sweating man groaned and again the eyes opened. The lips moved but there was only a rasping rattle. Quickly Adeline brought a tin cup of water, lifted his head and allowed him to drink.
"Thanks," he said. The single word was no more than a whisper, and all he could manage. His eyes closed and he sank back on the sodden pillow.
Five days after Daniel Ember had thanked Adeline for the water, he spoke again, this time to young Denny. Adeline and Lenore were down at the spring, washing blankets. Denny sat on a stool, nodding.
"Pard, could I ... have some water?"
Denny almost fell off the stool. He brought the tin cup, helping Ember to drink. Ember did so, sighing with satisfaction. His weeks' growth of beard was mostly silver, like his hair, but his haggard face was softened by a half smile.
"How did I get here, and who ...?"
"I found you," Denny said, "and me, my ma, and my sister brought you to our place. Ma and Lenore are down at the spring, washing blankets."
"I'm Daniel Ember. My friends call me Dan."
"I ... I'm Denny. Denny DeVoe." He suddenly became shy and could think of nothing to say, but Ember seemed to understand. He had more questions.
"How long have I been here, Denny?"
"This is the eighth day," said Denny. "I was lookin' for a deer when I found you."
"Lucky day for me and the deer, I reckon. I'm obliged to you."
The conversation ended when Adeline and Lenore returned. It was Daniel Ember who seemed shy when confronted by the two women, and it was Denny who came to his rescue.
"Ma, this is Daniel Ember. Dan, this is my ma and my sister."
"My pleasure, ladies," Ember said, regaining his composure. Again there was the fleeting smile. Adeline spoke.
"I'm Adeline DeVoe, and this is Lenore. I suppose this is a foolish question, but how do you feel?"
"like I've been dead and resurrected. Denny, would you bring me some more water?"
"What I meant is," Adeline said, "how is your back? You had been terribly beaten, and we had no medicine, nothing but the mud from the spring runoff."
"Nothing better," he said, "and I don't hurt, if that's what you mean. But I've been a burden, ma'am, and frankly, I don't know what to say. When you're owin' your life, there's no fittin' words."
"And none needed," Adeline said. "Are you hungry? I could heat up some beef stew in just a few minutes."
Excerpted from The Dodge City Trail by Ralph Compton. Copyright © 1995 Ralph Compton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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