The wagon was on its side, one wheel snapped from its axis. Open cases, bags and clothing were strewn over the hard flat sand for several yards. Two bodies lay prone on the bare ground, small pools of dark-red blood soaked into the soil.
Remy August pulled his horse to a stop, grasping at the reins tighter than necessary. The roan stallion reared its head, brayed, and scraped its front hooves and snorted.
Remy patted its neck, “Easy, boy.” His words as much for him as the horse. The morning air was still and silent.
He unholstered the rifle and cocked it with a twist of the wrist; the sharp metallic ratchet sound echoed through the silence.
Remy slid off the saddle, spurs clinking, legs stiff. His eyes darted around the scene ahead, goosebumps over his entire body. He straightened his wide-brimmed hat against the sun and rubbed one hand over a greying stubbly beard.
A light gust rustled through a crop of long dry grasses beyond the wagon. A red-tailed hawk squealed from a line of low dense bushes behind the upturned wagon.
The horse brayed again, teeth bared. “Steady, boy, steady,” Remy whispered, stroking its nose. It calmed. He let the reins drop and moved towards the closest body.
Long dirty-white petticoats flowed out from under a calf-length black dress. The woman’s blond hair was matted with dust, mud and blood. The back of her skull was smashed open. He put a hand against her forehead and over the single bullet hole. Warm. He guessed she had been shot within the past couple of hours.
He knew too much about death; he’d been with the dead at the battle of Pacacho Pass. He touched the raised six-inch thigh scar through his rough black denims, twisted his head, hawked and spat.
He stood and his knees cracked; he rubbed a hand against the small of his back. He stepped around the wagon’s empty horse harness, the ground crunching under his dusty black boots. There was no sign of the animal that had once pulled the wagon; the harness straps had been undone. Someone had taken it.
The second body lay on the other side of the wagon. A blond man with a sunburnt face and five red-rimmed bullet entry wounds grouped around his chest. Empty blue eyes stared at an empty blue sky. Probably settlers from northern Europe.
Several bullet cases were spread over the ground around the body; there had been a short fierce firefight. A straightforward case of ambush and robbery. There were plenty of criminal gangs in Arizona and natives fighting back against the settlers’ encroachment. The promise of free land meant it was worth the risk for some. These two had lost that gamble.
Remy crouched on his haunches and touched the ground around the dead settler. His eyes weren’t what they were and up close he noticed a series of small footprints around the body.
He shuffled back to his horse and took his binoculars from the saddlebag. He put them to his eyes with one hand, his other on the rifle. He peered into the distance. Nothing but the thick bushes, patches of dead grass and flat desert plains. The landscape shimmered through the lenses. The natives were welcome to this land: hot, dry and never-ending. In a couple of days, he’d be out of this godforsaken place forever.
A metallic click sounded behind him. His skin prickled cold.
“Hands up, mister.” A small voice. One of the dead couple’s children?
He raised his hands keeping the rifle in one hand. Footsteps crunched around him. A small teenage girl and a younger boy. Two pairs of grey-blue eyes looked up at him from light-skinned chapped faces. Their unkempt blond hair was almost white. Brother and sister. Each held a revolver in both hands that shook and waved. They pointed at his face.
“You’re safe now, kids,” he said, lowering his aching arms.
The girl raised the barrel of her revolver. “I said hands up, mister.”
“It’s OK, kids. I’m real sorry about your folks.” He nodded his head towards the two dead adults.
The children stared at him, guns pointed.
He pulled what he hoped was a kind face and forced a smile. “Lower your guns, kids, I’m not one of them bad guys and you need to be careful with loaded weapons.” He wiped the back of a hand over his sweaty forehead. “I’ll take you to town, we’ll look up the Sheriff.”
“Drop the rifle and keep your hands up, mister,” the girl said.
“It wasn’t me what did this, li’l girl, but I can help you. The Sheriff’ll get a posse together. Hunt down them bad guys what did this to your parents. I know it won’t bring ’em back, but…you know.”
The girl glanced for a short moment at her brother, nodded towards Remy’s horse and looked over to the two bodies.
“Those two weren’t our parents, mister. And neither are you.”