The Gift of Cochise
Tense, and white to the lips, Angie Lowe stood in the door of her cabin with a double-barreled shotgun in her hands. Beside the door was a Winchester ’73, and on the table inside the house were two Walker Colts.
Facing the cabin were twelve Apaches on ragged calico ponies, and one of the Indians had lifted his hand, palm outward. The Apache sitting the white-splashed bay pony was Cochise.
Beside Angie were her seven-year-old son Jimmy and her five-year-old daughter Jane.
Cochise sat his pony in silence; his black, unreadable eyes studied the woman, the children, the cabin, and the small garden. He looked at the two ponies in the corral and the three cows. His eyes strayed to the small stack of hay cut from the meadow, and to the few steers farther up the canyon.
Three times the warriors of Cochise had attacked this solitary cabin and three times they had been turned back. In all, they had lost seven men, and three had been wounded. Four ponies had been killed. His braves reported that there was no man in the house, only a woman and two children, so Cochise had come to see for himself this woman who was so certain a shot with a rifle and who killed his fighting men.
These were some of the same fighting men who had outfought, outguessed and outrun the finest American army on record, an army outnumbering the Apaches by a hundred to one. Yet a lone woman with two small children had fought them off, and the woman was scarcely more than a girl. And she was prepared to fight now. There was a glint of admiration in the old eyes that appraised her. The Apache was a fighting man, and he respected fighting blood.
“Where is your man?”
“He has gone to El Paso.” Angie’s voice was steady, but she was frightened as she had never been before. She recognized Cochise from descriptions, and she knew that if he decided to kill or capture her it would be done. Until now, the sporadic attacks she had fought off had been those of casual bands of warriors who raided her in passing.
“He has been gone a long time. How long?”
Angie hesitated, but it was not in her to lie. “He has been gone four months.”
Cochise considered that. No one but a fool would leave such a woman, or such fine children. Only one thing could have prevented his return. “Your man is dead,” he said.
Angie waited, her heart pounding with heavy, measured beats. She had guessed long ago that Ed had been killed but the way Cochise spoke did not imply that Apaches had killed him, only that he must be dead or he would have returned.
“You fight well,” Cochise said. “You have killed my young men.”
“Your young men attacked me.” She hesitated, then added, “They stole my horses.”
“Your man is gone. Why do you not leave?”
Angie looked at him with surprise. “Leave? Why, this is my home. This land is mine. This spring is mine. I shall not leave.”
“This was an Apache spring,” Cochise reminded her reasonably.
“The Apache lives in the mountains,” Angie replied. “He does not need this spring. I have two children, and I do need it.”
“But when the Apache comes this way, where shall he drink? His throat is dry and you keep him from water.”
The very fact that Cochise was willing to talk raised her hopes. There had been a time when the Apache made no war on the white man. “Cochise speaks with a forked tongue,” she said. “There is water yonder.” She gestured toward the hills, where Ed had told her there were springs. “But if the people of Cochise come in peace they may drink at this spring.”
The Apache leader smiled faintly. Such a woman would rear a nation of warriors. He nodded at Jimmy. “The small one—does he also shoot?”
“He does,” Angie said proudly, “and well, too!” She pointed to an upthrust leaf of prickly pear. “Show them, Jimmy.”
The prickly pear was an easy two hundred yards away, and the Winchester was long and heavy, but he lifted it eagerly and steadied it against the doorjamb as his father had taught him, held his sight an instant, then fired. The bud on top of the prickly pear disintegrated.
There were grunts of appreciation from the dark-faced warriors. Cochise chuckled. “The little warrior shoots well. It is well you have no man. You might raise an army of little warriors to fight my people.”
“I have no wish to fight your people,” Angie said quietly. “Your people have your ways, and I have mine. I live in peace when I am left in peace. I did not think,” she added with dignity, “that the great Cochise made war on women!”
The Apache looked at her, then turned his pony away. “My people will trouble you no longer,” he said. “You are the mother of a strong son.”
“What about my two ponies?” she called after him. “Your young men took them from me.”
Cochise did not turn or look back, and the little cavalcade of riders followed him away. Angie stepped back into the cabin and closed the door. Then she sat down abruptly, her face white, the muscles in her legs trembling.
When morning came, she went cautiously to the spring for water. Her ponies were back in the corral. They had been returned during the night.
Slowly, the days drew on. Angie broke a small piece of the meadow and planted it. Alone, she cut hay in the meadow and built another stack. She saw Indians several times, but they did not bother her. One morning, when she opened her door, a quarter of antelope lay on the step, but no Indian was in sight. Several times, during the weeks that followed, she saw moccasin tracks near the spring.
Once, going out at daybreak, she saw an Indian girl dipping water from the spring. Angie called to her, and the girl turned quickly, facing her. Angie walked toward her, offering a bright red silk ribbon. Pleased, the Apache girl left.
And the following morning there was another quarter of antelope on her step—but she saw no Indian.
Ed Lowe had built the cabin in West Dog Canyon in the spring of 1871, but it was Angie who chose the spot, not Ed. In Santa Fe they would have told you that Ed Lowe was good-looking, shiftless, and agreeable. He was, also, unfortunately handy with a pistol.
Angie’s father had come from County Mayo to New York and from New York to the Mississippi, where he became a tough, brawling river boatman. In New Orleans, he met a beautiful Cajun girl and married her. Together, they started west for Santa Fe, and Angie was born en route. Both parents died of cholera when Angie was fourteen. She lived with an Irish family for the following three years, then married Ed Lowe when she was seventeen.
Santa Fe was not good for Ed, and Angie kept after him until they started south. It was Apache country, but they kept on until they reached the old Spanish ruin in West Dog. Here there were grass, water, and shelter from the wind.
There was fuel, and there were piñons and game. And Angie, with an Irish eye for the land, saw that it would grow crops.
The house itself was built on the ruins of the old Spanish building, using the thick walls and the floor.
The location had been admirably chosen for defense. The house was built in a corner of the cliff, under the sheltering overhang, so that approach was possible from only two directions, both covered by an easy field of fire from the door and windows.
For seven months, Ed worked hard and steadily. He put in the first crop, he built the house, and proved himself a handy man with tools. He repaired the old plow they had bought, cleaned out the spring, and paved and walled it with slabs of stone. If he was lonely for the carefree companions of Santa Fe, he gave no indication of it. Provisions were low, and when he finally started off to the south, Angie watched him go with an ache in her heart.
She did not know whether she loved Ed. The first flush of enthusiasm had passed, and Ed Lowe had proved something less than she had believed. But he had tried, she admitted. And it had not been easy for him. He was an amiable soul, given to whittling and idle talk, all of which he missed in the loneliness of the Apache country. And when he rode away, she had no idea whether she would ever see him again. She never did.
Santa Fe was far and away to the north, but the growing village of El Paso was less than a hundred miles to the west, and it was there Ed Lowe rode for supplies and seed.
He had several drinks—his first in months—in one of the saloons. As the liquor warmed his stomach, Ed Lowe looked around agreeably. For a moment, his eyes clouded with worry as he thought of his wife and children back in Apache country, but it was not in Ed Lowe to worry for long. He had another drink and leaned on the bar, talking to the bartender. All Ed had ever asked of life was enough to eat, a horse to ride, an occasional drink, and companions to talk with. Not that he had anything important to say. He just liked to talk.
Suddenly a chair grated on the floor, and Ed turned. A lean, powerful man with a shock of uncut black hair and a torn, weather-faded shirt stood at bay. Facing him across the table were three hard-faced young men, obviously brothers.
Ches Lane did not notice Ed Lowe watching from the bar. He had eyes only for the men facing him. “You done that deliberate!” The statement was a challenge.
The broad-chested man on the left grinned through broken teeth. “That’s right, Ches. I done it deliberate. You killed Dan Tolliver on the Brazos.”
“He made the quarrel.” Comprehension came to Ches. He was boxed, and by three of the fighting, blood-hungry Tollivers.
“Don’t make no difference,” the broad-chested Tolliver said. “ ‘Who sheds a Tolliver’s blood, by a Tolliver’s hand must die!’ ”
Ed Lowe moved suddenly from the bar. “Three to one is long odds,” he said, his voice low and friendly. “If the gent in the corner is willin’, I’ll side him.”
Two Tollivers turned toward him. Ed Lowe was smiling easily, his hand hovering near his gun. “You stay out of this!” one of the brothers said harshly.
“I’m in,” Ed replied. “Why don’t you boys light a shuck?”
“No, by—!” The man’s hand dropped for his gun, and the room thundered with sound.
Ed was smiling easily, unworried as always. His gun flashed up. He felt it leap in his hand, saw the nearest Tolliver smashed back, and he shot him again as he dropped. He had only time to see Ches Lane with two guns out and another Tolliver down when something struck him through the stomach and he stepped back against the bar, suddenly sick.
The sound stopped, and the room was quiet, and there was the acrid smell of powder smoke. Three Tollivers were down and dead, and Ed Lowe was dying. Ches Lane crossed to him.
“We got ’em,” Ed said, “we sure did. But they got me.”
Suddenly his face changed. “Oh, Lord in heaven, what’ll Angie do?” And then he crumpled over on the floor and lay still, the blood staining his shirt and mingling with the sawdust.
Stiff-faced, Ches looked up. “Who was Angie?” he asked.
“His wife,” the bartender told him. “She’s up northeast somewhere, in Apache country. He was tellin’ me about her. Two kids, too.”
Ches Lane stared down at the crumpled, used-up body of Ed Lowe. The man had saved his life.
One he could have beaten, two he might have beaten; three would have killed him. Ed Lowe, stepping in when he did, had saved the life of Ches Lane.
“He didn’t say where?”
Ches Lane shoved his hat back on his head. “What’s northeast of here?”
The bartender rested his hands on the bar. “Cochise,” he said. . . .
For more than three months, whenever he could rustle the grub, Ches Lane quartered the country over and back. The trouble was, he had no lead to the location of Ed Lowe’s homestead. An examination of Ed’s horse revealed nothing. Lowe had bought seed and ammunition, and the seed indicated a good water supply, and the ammunition implied trouble. But in that country there was always trouble.
A man had died to save his life, and Ches Lane had a deep sense of obligation. Somewhere that wife waited, if she was still alive, and it was up to him to find her and look out for her. He rode northeast, cutting for sign, but found none. Sandstorms had wiped out any hope of back-trailing Lowe. Actually, West Dog Canyon was more east than north, but this he had no way of knowing.
North he went, skirting the rugged San Andreas Mountains. Heat baked him hot, dry winds parched his skin. His hair grew dry and stiff and alkali-whitened. He rode north, and soon the Apaches knew of him. He fought them at a lonely water hole, and he fought them on the run. They killed his horse, and he switched his saddle to the spare and rode on. They cornered him in the rocks, and he killed two of them and escaped by night.
They trailed him through the White Sands, and he left two more for dead. He fought fiercely and bitterly, and would not be turned from his quest. He turned east through the lava beds and still more east to the Pecos. He saw only two white men, and neither knew of a white woman.
The bearded man laughed harshly. “A woman alone? She wouldn’t last a month! By now the Apaches got her, or she’s dead. Don’t be a fool! Leave this country before you die here.”
Lean, wind-whipped, and savage, Ches Lane pushed on. The Mescaleros cornered him in Rawhide Draw and he fought them to a standstill. Grimly, the Apaches clung to his trail.
The sheer determination of the man fascinated them. Bred and born in a rugged and lonely land, the Apaches knew the difficulties of survival; they knew how a man could live, how he must live. Even as they tried to kill this man, they loved him, for he was one of their own.
Lane’s jeans grew ragged. Two bullet holes were added to the old black hat. The slicker was torn; the saddle, so carefully kept until now, was scratched by gravel and brush. At night he cleaned his guns and by day he scouted the trails. Three times he found lonely ranch houses burned to the ground, the buzzard- and coyote-stripped bones of their owners lying nearby.
Once he found a covered wagon, its canvas flopping in the wind, a man lying sprawled on the seat with a pistol near his hand. He was dead and his wife was dead, and their canteens rattled like empty skulls.
Leaner every day, Ches Lane pushed on. He camped one night in a canyon near some white oaks. He heard a hoof click on stone and he backed away from his tiny fire, gun in hand.
The riders were white men, and there were two of them. Joe Tompkins and Wiley Lynn were headed west, and Ches Lane could have guessed why. They were men he had known before, and he told them what he was doing.
Lynn chuckled. He was a thin-faced man with lank yellow hair and dirty fingers. “Seems a mighty strange way to get a woman. There’s some as comes easier.”
“This ain’t for fun,” Ches replied shortly. “I got to find her.”
Excerpted from The Collected Short Stories of Louis L'Amour, Volume 1 by Louis L'Amour. Copyright © 2003 by Louis L'Amour. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.