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It was flat country. Flat, dry, and dead as pitted bone. The ground was hard-packed, blown by rivers of sand. Loose stones jutting everywhere as if, at one time, some great and rushing stream had wound through there. And beneath that merciless, hazy Arizona sky, Nathan Partridge came riding on a dappled mare, his narrow face a study in shadow beneath the brim of a flat-crowned hat. He was long and lean, raw-boned, wiry as a bundle of compacted springs.
There was death in his eye and ice in his heart.
He kept going, pushing on, because he knew no other way.
The mare was thirsty and nickered for water.
But there would be none; not until Partridge got where he was going. And if the horse collapsed from exhaustion and dehydration before that, then he'd leave it to die. To broil under that furnace sun which rode the western sky like a bloated, shimmering pearl. Maybe the nag wasn't used to laboring in the afternoon heat. Maybe it had never known the sort of desperation and inhumanity that had driven Partridge himself for these past five years behind the walls.
After all, it was just an animal.
And Partridge was a man…or nearly. And a man could take things that would make an animal lay down and die. A man could subsist through sheer force of will and steel himself on nothing but hatred and anger. That was beyond an animal. Or beyond most. In prison, Partridge had taken punishment and deprivation that would've killed ten other men. His mind was a relentless machine, turning, moving, plotting.
He had been riding through the burning Arizona desert all day and had yet to take a drink of water. In prison, he had gonedays. Suffering was his specialty.
But he knew that without rest, the horse would not make it much more than another mile at best. It needed rest. Feed. Water. Even if Partridge himself could sup full on suffering, the horse could not.
Partridge ran a leathery tongue over his flaking lips. His eyes were unblinking colored glass, forever fixed on the horizon. In prison, he had gone as much as fifteen minutes without blinking his eyes. An exercise in mind over body, nothing more. After five minutes, your eyes felt like they'd been rubbed full of sand; after ten, rubbed with salt, tears coursing down your cheeks; and after fifteen, agony like razors were being scraped over your eyeballs. It was then you shut them until the red-hot aching ceased. But you did it to prove that your mind was the master of the flesh that housed it. You did it to prove to yourself that there was nothing you couldn't take. That your will was iron and immovable once its path was set.
Partridge's will was like that.
And, if in a day or month, he fell to earth and died as all men must, then it would be because his body was weak. But never his will, his spirit. He figured that even when his body was nothing but an envelope of buzzard-picked skin, his will would still exist–immortal, indestructible, a force of nature like blowing wind or lightning cutting a dark sky.
All day long, the landscape had been a monotonous, flat waste. A tedious and repetitious expanse of emptiness that was maddening in its redundancy. Partridge had heard tell that this unvarying desert uniformity had driven men insane. And he did not doubt it.
Just ahead, the land began to dip and climb, the foothills of the Gila Bend Mountains beginning to make themselves knownthough, in reality, they were a dozen miles away yet.
Partridge saw outcroppings of rocks ahead, saw pools of shadow and withered stands of vegetation, knew that while water was not near, there would be a place to rest for a time. The mare desperately needed it. And it would give Partridge himself time to think before he reached Chimney Flats.
Because that's where it would begin…and maybe end.
* * * *
He was making his way down a shallow, dry wash when he heard gunfire.
The mare became skittish and Partridge pulled on the cinch, at the same time stroking her mane and whispering softly to her. He led her down into the wash, into a shadowed bank of stone. He tethered her to a slab of granite and made his way up a bluff of crumbling rocks and wind-sculpted sand. At the top, he crawled on his belly through a parched stand of greasewood.
In a small valley just below, he saw.
Saw the wagon and team. A man and woman huddled together. A trio of bandits ringing them in. There was no doubt in Partridge's mind that they were drunk, hopping and weaving about carelessly. The three of them wore Confederate hats, stained cotton shirts wet with spreading patches of sweat. Just a couple more Johnny Rebs having trouble facing the fact that they'd gotten their asses sorely whipped. Ridge runners. From his position atop the rise, Partridge was less than two hundred feet away. Much less. Close enough to smell the stink of them. Soundlessly, he moved back down the bluff. He slid his 1873 Winchester from the saddle boot and crab-crawled back. He could hear the Rebs insulting the man and his wife.
Give 'em ten more minutes, Partridge figured, and the whiskey in their bellies'll give 'em the courage to kill him and rape her.
Copyright © 2004 by Tim Curran