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Adam Dawson rode West.
The red scarf around his neck was streaked with sweat and faded from rack of sun and rain, stained with dried-out battle blood long ago turned brown against the once bright crimson cloth that had been each trooper's flowing guidon in General George Armstrong Custer's charging Wolverine Brigade at Gettysburg, Falls Church, Yellow Tavern, and finally at Appomattox.
But the war was over. The killing finished. The country united. At least that had been the purpose--to unite the states again.
At Appomattox, Grant had refused Lee's sword, shook the great general's hand and proclaimed, "We are all countrymen again."
The soldiers who survived could go home. Those who did not survive slept forever near battles lost and won.
Adam Dawson had survived--but he had no home.
No home. No family. No ties to anything. Homeless as a poker chip. Aimless as a feather in a breeze. A drifter on horseback--riding West.
But Adam Dawson had made the choice to cut loose. One of the few times he had said "no" to his former commander and still his best friend, Autie ... George Armstrong Custer.
Adam Dawson could have been a part of the "Custer Clan" and still tied to the United States Army--with a commissionand a command. But the cost was too high. The cost was killing. Killing enemies who were not enemies. Adam Dawson had had his bellyful of that. At battles that helped win the war and at battles that were meaningless--except to those who died and to those who were maimed.
There were times when Adam Dawson had come skin-close to regretting his choice. When, as he moved West with all his chattels--a bay gelding named Ned, the clothes on his formidable frame, cavalry boots and hat, a buckskin jacket, a Colt .44, a Winchester, a passel of cartridges, a handful of coins and a silver watch with an inscription engraved on the back,
Come on, you Wolverine!
--during some of these times, Adam Dawson nearly changed his mind. Nearly nudged Ned north instead of west.
The last time was three days ago when he crossed the Red River into Texas. That night he stared at the campfire as he smoked a cigarette and thought of riding again with Autie toward the sound of the guns. Toward glory. Custer saw glory in every campaign. There were always rainbows in Autie's eyes and glory on his mind.
But glory in what? In the coming campaigns Custer would be killing Indians instead of Rebels. Adam Dawson was sick of killing.
He had made a silent vow, so silent that he told no one, no one but himself, not even Custer. Adam Dawson vowed that he would never again take another man's life--unless his own life depended on it.
So he drifted West--along one of the Creator's most rugged and complex creations--the Texas terrain. Dull, flat, monotonous in places where the Lord had stomped the dust off his boots--spectacular, craggy and colorful in other parts where Adam Dawson rode now.
A warm, nomad breeze swept through jagged cliffs andred stone monuments. Dawson brought the bay gelding to a stop at a precipitous edge without argument from the animal. Man and horse scanned the country below--country that had never heard of hospitality.
Dawson was thirsty. So was Ned. There was water in the canteen. He thought about taking a swallow, dampening the scarf and moistening the horse's mouth and nostrils. The canteen was about half full or half empty, depending on your outlook. As he looked out over the landscape there was not a river nor a stream. No sign of water on the ground below nor from the gunmetal sky above. He decided to save the water in the half full/half empty canteen. If he took a drink the canteen would be more than half empty or less than half full. No dispute about that. And at this time, in this place water was among Dawson's most precious possessions. There could be some doubt about which item was the most precious--his horse, his guns, his boots, even his hat--but they were all vital and he had to care for each of those items--so they could care for him.
Dawson ran his dry tongue over his dryer lips and gently heeled Ned's flanks.
"Come on, Ned."
Horse and rider picked their way through the loose shale of the sloping canyon wall. He was a good horseman, a natural horseman. Not as good or as natural as Custer, but then nobody was. Not even Ulysses Simpson Grant who held the title of "Best Cavalryman and Worst Cadet" at West Point until a few years later when Custer came along. Custer exceeded Grant on both counts. Dawson never rode with Grant, saw him only twice. The South wished it had never seen him--wished that Grant had never been born ... but all of that was behind Dawson.
He tried not to think of the past as he and Ned made their way down the slope, but it was hard not to think about the past--particularly when there wasn't much of a future to think about.
So far the future was only a direction--west. And while there were rainbows in Autie's eyes, there didn't appear tobe any rainbow in Dawson's sky--and no pot of gold.
Two men on horseback reined up at the lip of the canyon and squinted down at Dawson's back. Two scruffy, hungry-eyed Comancheros. Dirty men in a dirty trade.
Comancheros they were called because mostly they did business with the Comanches--providing the Indians with guns, ammunition, whiskey, other provisions, and prisoners, mostly women--stolen and kidnapped.
Usually the Comancheros favored better odds than two to one. Ten to one was more like it. The two riders, Diaz and Charly, looked at each other, then at the descending horseman in the distance and pondered the situation. The rest of the band was at their camp too far away. When they had pondered enough, Diaz grinned.
"That's a good-looking horse." He said.
"Let's get it." Charly nodded.
"We will. But not yet."
"When we can catch him. Not from up here."
"I think maybe ..."
"I think maybe you shut up and do what I tell you."
Adam Dawson and the bay moved along the flat, unprotected terrain. With the red scarf he wiped the sweat from his eyes, then from his lean, hard face. He breathed the hot, heavy air and thought about the water in the canteen. But Ned was thinking about something else. The animal nickered, both ears sprang forward, his flesh quivered.
"Easy, Ned," Dawson patted the horse and looked around. Nothing moved. No sound. He urged the animal forward and instinctively touched the handle of the .44, reassuring himself of its ready avail.
When Dawson had first started to ride, the horses were all taller than he was. He had to have a boost to get on. But once aboard he took to it like a Cossack. Adam Dawson rode, owned and traded horses before he began to shave. Allkinds of horses with all kinds of temperaments from Tennessee Walkers to Arabians, from knotheads to coursers. In peace and war, Adam Dawson spent more time on horseback than he did on his feet. But he never took to any horse and no horse ever took to him like this bay.
It was in St. Louis after Captain Adam Dawson got mustered out. There were a hundred horses to choose from, all ex-army flesh. But Dawson's eyes went straight to the gelding. The owner of all hundred, Jonas Trapp, had said, "Take your pick. Fifty dollars--except for one."
Dawson pointed to the bay.
"That's the one." Trapp said.
"How much for him?"
"Too much." That was almost half of Dawson's life savings including his mustering out pay and he'd still have to buy a saddle.
"That horse belonged to a general." Trapp remarked.
"Generals usually own their horses."
"Not dead generals. This one died on Ned's back at Petersburg."
"That's what he's called ... course you can call him whatever you want."
"Not for seventy-five dollars."
"Then go to your next choice."
Adam Dawson started to move away. But the bay gelding nickered and both ears sprang forward, his flesh quivered. And so did Dawson.
Since then it was man and horse in harmony. They had ridden through sleet and snow, rock and sand, rain and heat. At times both were hungry and thirsty, but still in harmony. Companions. Comrades.
From the distance Diaz and Charly, pistols drawn, charged and fired at Adam Dawson. The bay was already galloping,Dawson's red scarf fluttering past his buffalo shoulders, this time away from the enemy instead of charging toward the sound of the guns. Bullets streaked past, but the pursuers gained no ground. The Comancheros cursed and spurred their mounts.
Dawson reined the bay to the left to avoid an outcrop of rocks that jutted from the earth. The animal's muscles bunched as a bullet broke into its flank. The horse and Dawson buckled, somersaulted and landed hard on the ground a dozen feet apart.
The animal was dead.
Adam Dawson scrambled toward the bay, pulled the Winchester from its boot, used the dead horse for cover, and fired again and again at the oncoming Comancheros. Dawson's first four shots missed but each slug came closer to its target.
The fifth shot ripped through Diaz's hat flinging it off his filthy head. The sixth creased the muscle of Charly's left shoulder. Both men reined in their horses hard, bouncing in their saddles.
"To hell with it!" Diaz hollered. "The horse is dead and he's too good a shot!" Diaz wheeled his mount and rode in the opposite direction. Charly didn't hesitate to follow.
"The sonofabitch!" Charly screamed. "He hit me!"
Twin wakes of desert dust spiraled from the hooves of the Comancheros' horses. Dawson stopped shooting. There was no sense in wasting cartridges.
On one knee Dawson patted the dead horse. It could have been Adam Dawson who took the bullet. He sighed a deep breath, set the Winchester on the ground, started to unstrap the saddle and saddlebag and looked up toward the gray, heavy blanket of sky. Soon a circling pattern of buzzards would appear.
It would have been a cavalier gesture. To bury Ned. But impractical, if not impossible. It would take a shovel--and effort. Dawson had no shovel and he had to save his strength.A Comanche would have cut out some of the horse's meat and eaten it. Dawson had no stomach for that.
He hoisted the saddle and saddlebag onto his left shoulder, took up the Winchester with his right hand, and turned west.
By the time he covered four miles, more or less, the saddle seemed to have doubled in weight. His face, neck and upper body boiled in his own sweat. His feet swelled in his boots and his throat throbbed from thirst.
He let the saddle drop, untwisted the lid of the canteen and allowed himself two swallows of tepid liquid. He could see that the stillborn, ragged, beige desert had begun to give way to a less hostile, if not yet friendly horizon. Scrub grass in spots, mesquite, and clusters of rocks, even boulders, mineral-streaked.
He sealed the canteen, lifted the saddle and saddlebag and headed straight for the boulders.
In less than half an hour he had stashed the saddle among the boulders, taken off his jacket, thought about taking another swallow from the canteen, but didn't. He looked back in the direction from which he came.
Would the two riders come after him--maybe with more riders and guns? To shoot him down, take his gun and rifle, his cartridges, and the silver watch they didn't know he had. He knew he had wounded one of them. Maybe that would discourage them--or maybe not. Maybe that would make them want to kill him.
Dawson had vowed not to kill again--unless his life depended on it.
If they came, his life would depend on it--and kill he would.
Adam Dawson continued West.
Copyright © 2001 by Andrew J. Fenady