Ballad of the Desert Sun by Desert Sun

Word Count 3,953

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(Note to the reader:

This story was written for the Lancer_Writer’s August challenge, “Heat and Dust”.  In Polly’s feedback to my story “In the Heat of the Moment”, that I wrote for that same challenge, she said, “Although I suppose this challenge was irresistible for DesertSun.”  My muse immediately insisted that I had to write a true Desert Sun story.  *grin*

The setting for this story is fictional, although there was a real place named Hell’s Gate on the eastern side of Death Valley in California.  I merely borrowed the name, not the location.

Special thanks goes to Cat for beta reading.  Her suggestions and questions helped to make it a better story.  Also, I wish to thank all who read and commented on the individual parts as I posted them.  Their comments and questions alerted me to a few things I needed to clarify along the way and in my closing part.  This was a great help in making sure I hadn’t left any loose ends dangling somewhere.

Enjoy.)

PART I

~ ~ ~

Their steps sank deep into the sand
That stretched across that barren land.
The desert sun laughs out loud;
There is no shelter—not one cloud

~ ~ ~

“Fifteen miles.  Twenty at the most,” the man had said.  Well it was the longest twenty miles Johnny Lancer ever remembered traveling.  What had possessed him to buck this infernal desert sun?  He should have known better.

“We should be getting close to the other side, shouldn’t we?”

Johnny looked back over his left shoulder at his brother, whose horse was lagging behind.  “Should be.  We left Hell’s Gate six hours ago.”

Scott clucked to his horse for the second time in a matter of minutes.  Its stride lengthened–dust rising as each hoof dug into the deep sand.

“You don’t suppose the innkeeper there had a reason to lie, do you?”  Scott’s brows were drawn together, barely visible beneath the brim of his hat.

The same thought had crossed Johnny’s mind, but it wouldn’t do any good to admit it.  He squinted up at the sun.  “Nope.  Gotta be this heat and the loose sand.  Slows our horses down.  Makes it seem we should’ve gone farther than we have.”

“I suppose, but I hope we’ve made more progress than it appears that we have.  My horse could use a drink, and my canteen’s nearly dry.”  Scott’s voice stuttered with the stumbling of his horse.

Johnny understood his brother’s concern.  His own canteen was almost empty, too, and the mountains on the far side didn’t look like they were any closer than an hour ago.  Had they been set up or was the innkeeper a bad judge of distance?  The man had seemed a little shifty-eyed.  Not that it mattered now.  Either way, they were going to be in a peck of trouble if their horses gave out.  They sure could have used a couple of extra canteens if the innkeeper had had any?

Scott’s voice pulled Johnny from his thoughts.  “We are on the right track, aren’t we?”

“He said to aim for the deepest cut and that’s what we’ve been doin’.”  Johnny pointed at the skyline as he spoke.

Scott answered with a nod and they rode on in silence.

They hadn’t gone far when Scott lagged behind, again.

Johnny looked back and saw his brother’s short-legged bay stagger to its knees.  No.  This was no place for it to quit. 

The horse scrambled, dust flying, and stood on trembling legs.  Scott patted its neck, stepped down out of the saddle, and gazed up at Johnny.  “I’ll have to walk.  Otherwise, he won’t make it much farther.”

That wasn’t what Johnny wanted to hear.  He ran a hand down the frothy neck of his flea-bitten roan.  Its breath was whistling in its throat.  How much longer would it hold out?

Johnny followed his brother’s example.  Scott was right.  Their horses would last longer if they weren’t packing any extra weight.

Wordlessly, the brothers plodded on.  Their spurs sank out of sight with each step, and their horses floundered along behind them.  Yet, the mountains held their distance.

Sweat ran down Johnny’s face and body.  He looked over at his brother’s glistening face and clinging shirt–most of it a much darker tan than when they had started out.  How long could they keep this up?   They hadn’t even reached the hottest part of the day.  It was bound to get a lot worse before the sun sank out of sight.  Why hadn’t he listened to that small voice in his head telling him to turn back when Scott had brought up that option an hour ago?  Now it was too late.

Johnny looked toward the mountains.  The answer to that last question was on the other side.  He and Scott were to have met their father there yesterday.   One thing after another had put the stage line way behind schedule.  To have stayed with it would have meant being close to a week late.  Even with a good pair of saddle horses, it would have taken them another three days if they had taken the long way around.  The crow-baits they had bought from the innkeeper would have added another day or more to the hundred mile trip.

The first sign of pain started above Johnny’s eyebrows.  He stopped and took a tiny swig of water and encouraged Scott to do the same.

“How much water do you have left?” Scott asked.

Johnny shrugged.  “Couple inches, maybe.  How about you?”

“About the same.”

“Wish we could find something to hole up under ‘til the sun goes down.”  Johnny frowned.  That wasn’t going to happen.  The sparse sage brush would barely shade a rabbit.   They should have taken the long way and let Murdoch stew instead of believing the word of a stranger?  Hell’s Gate.  That name should have been a warning of what they’d be up against.

Scott wiped his brow with the back of his shirt-sleeve.  “Maybe, we’ll reach firmer ground soon.”

Johnny hoped so.  They’d be worn out before long with the way the sand sucked at their feet.  It was no wonder their horses had about given out.  How far back had they left the last stretch of solid ground?   Three miles, or maybe four?  It’d been close to two hours ago.

PART II

~ ~ ~

When would it stop; when would it end?
Could not they have a hint of wind
To drive away the burning heat
And bring relief from sure defeat?

~ ~ ~

The temperature rose as the sun shifted westward.  Johnny’s breath came in heaves.  He touched his tongue against the split in his lower lip and winced.

“Johnny, we have to rest,” Scott said, hoarsely.

Johnny’s voice also cracked.   “All right, but we can’t stop for long.”

Scott sank to the ground and sat with knees bent, arms folded, and head bowed.  His shoulders rose and fell with each breath.

Johnny looked from his brother to their horses that were standing with their heads drooping and noses touching the ground.  What were they going to do?

“You gunna rest?” Scott said, his speech slurred.

“Yeah.”  Johnny squatted and eased the rest of the way down–sitting with one leg stretched out and the other bent.  He closed his eyes, propped an elbow on his knee, and pressed his thumb against his brow in hopes of relieving the throbbing in his head.  They had to find a way to escape this ruthless desert sun.

Johnny relaxed and lost track of the time and everything else except for the heat.   Sometime later, his head slipped from his hand and jerked upward, startling him back to reality.  He struggled to his feet, slapped the sand from the backside of his brown calzoneras that had his legs feeling like they were trapped in an oven, and gave his brother’s shoulder a gentle shake.  “Scott, we gotta go.”

Scott moaned.  “Jus’ a little longer, ‘kay?”

“We can’t.  We fall asleep, we won’t ever get up.  Only hope is to keep moving.”

With a groan and a little help from Johnny, Scott got to his feet and swiped the sand from his tan pants. They each took a small sip of water and trudged onward, tugging from time to time on the reins of their reluctant horses.

Johnny’s head throbbed.  He dug into his pocket, pulled out his watch, and checked the time.  Half-past one.  How much hotter would it get?     

Talking took too much effort.  Johnny plodded on in silence, glad that Scott was doing the same.  They needed every bit of strength they could find.  Even then, their prospects were looking worse and worse.  Maybe these horses had made this trek before, but they sure weren’t up to it now.  Was that why the innkeeper was anxious to sell them?  Had he been lying when he said they were the only saddle horses he had?

Johnny glanced at his brother from time to time.  Was Scott getting weaker?  His feet seemed to be dragging more.

A short while later, Scott stumbled, staggered against his horse, and grabbed the leather strings that hung near the cantle.  He continued on, appearing to lean his shoulder against the skirt of his saddle.

“You okay?” Johnny said in a raspy whisper.

Scott merely nodded.

“We could stop a few minutes.”

Scott answered with a single shake of his head.

Johnny let out a sigh.  As much as he knew his brother could use the rest, they needed to keep going.  He wasn’t sure either of them would get up if they stopped.

Scott’s steps faltered time and again.

Worry rode heavily on Johnny’s shoulders, weighing him down as he felt his own strength failing.  He squinted at the mountains, his vision blurring.  Did they look taller or were his eyes playing tricks on him?

PART III

~ ~ ~

The  sun o’er head raged on and on
‘Till ev’ry shred of hope was gone.
They’d never reach the other side;
It mattered not how hard they tried.

~ ~ ~

Johnny’s head felt like he was beating it against a wall with each step he took, and each breath drew in another blast of hot air.  Fighting a grass fire couldn’t have been worse than crossing this stretch of desert that Hell’s Gate had led them into.  How could he have been so stupid?  He knew the dangers.  He knew what the sun could do to a man.  Why hadn’t he listened to Scott and turned back when the going had gotten rough?  Was it pure stubbornness or because he hated to have Murdoch worrying about them?

They staggered up a mound of sand.  The far side dipped into a gully, and they slipped and slid to the bottom.

Johnny gazed up at the steep slope in front of them, tipped back his head, and let out a long sigh.  Could Scott climb that?  He twisted and looked back at his brother.  “Think you can make it?”

Scott stopped beside Johnny and squinted–chin slowly rising.  His shoulders sagged more.  “I’ll try,” he said, his voice sounding as tired as he looked.

“I can lead both horses.  All you gotta do is hold on.”  As he spoke, Johnny took the reins from his brother’s hand.  He gave a tug and took a step forward while watching to see that Scott followed.

Up they went–sand shifting beneath each step.  The horses lunged.  Dust swirled.

Johnny glanced back and forth between his brother and the top of the slope.  His foot slipped and his knee gouged the sand.  He shoved hard with his other foot, got his weight over both feet, and scrambled on up the steep side of the gully.

They drew closer to the top.  Only a few more steps and they would make it.

A grunt.  A gasp.  More dust swirled.

The reins tore from Johnny’s left hand.  He heard a frantic whinny and a cry as he fell forward and lit on his face in the sand.

Johnny rose on his elbows–sputtering sand from his mouth.  He wiped the grit away from his eyes and looked behind him.  Scott was face down near the base of the slope.  The bay horse lay floundering on its side in the bottom of the gully.

“Ooh,” Johnny moaned.  He muttered a curse in Spanish, tugged on his horse’s rein, and worked his way down to his brother.  “You okay?” he said, placing a hand on Scott’s shoulder.

Scott’s head bobbed slightly.

“Think you can keep my horse here while I see to yours?”

“Try.”   Scott’s arm rolled over and his hand opened, but he didn’t try to rise.

Johnny pressed the end of his rein against Scott’s palm, waited for his brother’s hand to close, and then slid the rest of the way down the hill.

By the time Johnny reached the horse, it had stopped struggling.

The horse’s right knee had an odd bend to it.

Johnny puffed out his cheeks and let the air pass slowly between his lips as he knelt beside the horse.  They didn’t need this. 

“Easy boy,” he whispered and ran a hand along the gelding’s neck, across its shoulder, and down the injured leg.  Yep, it was broken.

Johnny rested his forehead on the base of one thumb and slipped his pistol free of his holster.   He wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his sleeve, aimed, and fired.

The gun barked.  The horse’s head flopped sideways.  Its body shuddered and lay still.

Johnny fired again, turned, and climbed back to where his brother lay.  “Broken leg,” he said.  “Can you walk?”

Scott grunted and groaned but managed to get to his feet and stand with his chin touching the knot of the bandana tied around his neck.  He teetered, and Johnny steadied him with one hand.

“Here, grab hold o’ my saddle,” Johnny said and guided his horse closer to Scott.

Scott grasped the long leather strings that dangled from the front of the saddle.   He took one step and his leg buckled.

Johnny frowned.  What was he going to do?  They couldn’t stay here, and his horse couldn’t carry Scott up the hill.  There was no way of knowing how far up or down the gully they’d have to go to find a better way out, either. 

Again Johnny silently cursed his stupidity.   It seemed no matter what they did, they were destined to failure.  Win or lose, they had to do something.  He helped Scott into the saddle and led the horse westward between the walls of sand.

PART IV

~ ~ ~

The cruel land through which they trod
Ordained their fate would rest with God.
Who would win when day was done:
Them or the heartless desert sun?

~ ~ ~

Dust and heat.  Would it never end?

Johnny staggered.  He longed for a drink, but the water was gone.  He’d given the last to his horse.  Scott had to ride.  His leg was swollen–sprained when he fell.  No way he was walking anywhere.

One foot in front of the other.  Shift weight.  Drag next foot through the sand.  Place it in front of the other.  Over and over again, Johnny willed his legs to move.  He couldn’t stop.  Scott was depending on him.

The ground rippled like the water on a pond–waving, mocking, and always changing.  It never stayed the same.  Never held still as far as Johnny’s eyes could tell.

Johnny wiped a hand across his eyelids.  Oh, to be back at the ranch and take a long dip in the lake.  To feel its cool water.  To wash the grit from his eyes.  To breathe the fresh, clean air.

How much farther?   Was that the voice in his head, or had his brother asked the question?  Johnny looked over his shoulder to see.

Scott was leaning over the saddle horn.  His head was down and bobbing with the uneven strides of the horse.

Again, Johnny stumbled.  His knees gave way and he fell, his hands reaching out to stop his face from being buried in the sand.  He struggled to his feet and kept walking.

The heat took his breath away and he couldn’t see straight.  Johnny plodded on with his own head bent low.  From time to time he tugged on the reins to keep the horse from lagging too far behind.  It might stop and refuse to keep going.

Johnny lifted his head to see farther up the gully that appeared to be wider and shallower.  What was that light streak that rippled like sun on a lake?  Was it water?

He stretched his stride.  His legs wobbled.  His aching head felt funny, like he was drunk.  How could that be?  He’d only had one beer at Hell’s Gate.

A new form took shape at one edge of the shimmering water.  A tree?

Johnny pushed the thoughts away.  His eyes were playing tricks on him–devilish voices calling to him.  He knew better than to listen.  He knew what the desert sun could do to a man.

The earth turned.

Johnny landed on his side with a grunt.  He clawed through the sand, pulling himself to his hands and knees.  Had to get up.  Scott would never make it.  Had to get up.  Had to keep going.

He made it to his feet and staggered on.  Water.  They needed water.  And shade.  But that wasn’t water.  And that wasn’t a tree.  He would be foolish to run.  It was a mirage.

Something groaned close behind Johnny.  He turned and saw the horse’s legs fold.

As the horse flopped on its side, Johnny lunged for his brother, grabbed him by the wrist, and gave a tug that pulled Scott out of the saddle.

Johnny landed with the side of his face against the ground, pinned there by the pressing of his brother’s shoulder against his jaw.  He heard the thrashing of the horse and felt the dust and grit clogging his nose and seeping between his lips.

Scott moaned and shifted his weight off to the side away from the fallen horse.  “You okay?”

Johnny coughed and blew through his nose.  “Yeah.  Are you?”

“Uh, huh.”

Johnny slipped his gun from his holster and crawled to the horse’s head.  Even if he and his brother got out of the desert, they wouldn’t get back to the horse in time.  There was no need to let it suffer.  He did what he had to do, stood, and staggered to Scott’s side.

“You can’t,” Scott said when Johnny reached down to help him up.

Johnny grasped his brother’s elbow.  “Have to.”

Scott shook his head and tried to pull his hand away.  “Leave me.”

“Can’t.  You stay; we both stay.”

Scott let out a sigh and let Johnny help him up. 

Once both were standing, Johnny got his shoulder under Scott’s arm and they struggled on.

“Water.”  Scott lifted his other arm and pointed ahead of them.

Johnny nodded.  “Yeah.”  It was a lie, but he hoped it would keep Scott from giving up.

Scott sagged.  Johnny hefted him up, staggered a few more steps, and went down. 

“Can’t go on,” Scott said.

Johnny struggled to get up.  He couldn’t and closed his eyes.  No strength left.  He’d let his brother down.  He’d failed.  Their father would never know what had happened.  Never find them.

At first the hot sand burned Johnny’s face, but gradually he didn’t care.  All hope was gone.  He slowly relaxed.

A harsh sound, like the bray of a donkey, pricked Johnny’s ears.  He vaguely felt a weight on his shoulder.  Who was laughing?  Whose hands had brushed his cheek?  Had the devil come for him?  Hell’s Gate.  Miles of sand.  Dust.   Heat.  Why?

Johnny cried a silent prayer.  His mind slowly slipped into a dark hole, and he had one last thought.  The cruel desert sun had won.

Part V

~ ~ ~

Free at last from the dust and heat,
For their destiny they did meet
In a place with nowhere to run
Or escape from the desert sun.

.

~ ~ ~

Two weeks after his sons were to have met him, Murdoch Lancer stood beside the corral across the road from the inn at Hell’s Gate, a way station along the route of the stage line.  Sweat ran down his cheeks as he looked across the wide stretch of sand toward the mountains to the northwest.  He shook his head–lips pressed tightly together.  Why?  What had possessed his sons to do such a foolish thing in this heat even if they had started out at dawn when the air was cool?  Johnny, of all people, should have known better.  And why had he listened to the innkeeper?  Despite the man’s insistence that he had meant no harm, Johnny should have seen that something wasn’t quite right with him.

A sigh escaped Murdoch’s lips.  There was nothing he could put his finger on that bothered him about the innkeeper.  He didn’t particularly doubt the man’s intentions, even though his eyes seemed to wander when he spoke.  The man simply didn’t seem quite all there.  It was like he might have been in the sun too long himself, which was a good possibility if one were to believe the tales of his desert adventures.  Perhaps his mind was addled.  To listen to him, those horses he sold to Johnny and Scott were the best desert horses to have ever lived.

Murdoch drew in a sharp breath and shook his head again.  If he would have needed to wait a month for his sons to meet up with him, it would have been better than losing them forever.  Hadn’t Scott learned anything from his brush with death last year?  Hadn’t that been a close enough call?  Why would he chance losing his life again?

His shoulders sagged and his brow furrowed.  He lifted a fist and waved it.  “Thought you won, did you?  Well, not this time.  Not ever.  I’m taking my boys home tomorrow, and you’ll never see them again.  You had your chance.  The only one you’ll ever get–you and that blistering desert sun.”

Dry hinges squawked behind him.  Murdoch turned and saw his sons step through the now open doorway of the inn.  He looked up toward heaven and thanked God from the depths of his heart for a grizzled prospector and his donkeys being in just the right place at the right time.  Because of them, life was still worth living.

A shudder ran through Murdoch as he remembered the days of waiting after learning the stage his sons had been on had broken down and that they had headed across the desert.  It had been the longest ten days of his life–far worse than all of those years of separation before they had come home two years ago.  It could have been a much longer wait.  Instead of receiving word they were back in Hell’s Gate recovering from severe exposure to the sun, he might never have known their fate.  He could have searched that desert wasteland for years and never found them.

“Hey.  You gunna come in out o’ that sun,” Johnny called.  Behind him stood his brother–the two a sight that warmed Murdoch’s heart and put a lump in his throat.

Murdoch let out one more sigh and walked toward the inn to meet his sons.  The desert sun had lost.  God was the one who called the tune on whether a man lived or died.  For that he would forever be grateful.

~  ~ ~

Oh, desert sun, go on your way.
Only God has the right to say
Just when our final day is here;
I trust that He has made that clear.

~ ~ ~

The end.
August, 2013

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