This story is by AW Stewart and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Dwayne jumped down from the wagon, dust covering his boots. He took off his hat as he wiped his sweaty brow.
Shadows crossed over the parched ground in front of him, causing Dwayne to squint towards the cloudless sky. “Damn those buzzards,” Dwayne said as he grabbed a rock by his foot. Throwing it towards the circling birds, “You ain’t getting me. I’m no dead varmint,” he yelled.
Surveying the barren land around him, “Damn those birds and damn this godforsaken land. Not a drop of water to be found,” Dwayne said as he walked to a drying mudhole by the wagon’s front wheel. Wiping his brow again, he knelt on the ground looking for something to ease his parched lips. “I thought taking this northern route was a better choice. They said it was the faster route,” Dwayne muttered to himself.
One of the horses pulling the wagon snorted and scratched the ground underneath it, sending more dust over Dwayne. Inhaling the powdered earth, further worsening his dry mouth, Dwayne stood up and smacked the horse on its hindquarter, already covered with previous injuries. “Goddamn flea-bitten mule,” he yelled as he grabbed his whip.
“I’ll teach you,” Dwayne said angrily as he grabbed the horse’s bridle and shook the whip in front of its eyes. “Next time, you’ll get what’s coming to ya.”
He walked to the rear of the wagon and opened the barrel. Looking inside, he saw his reflection about halfway down as the sweat from his face dripped into the water, rippling the surface with rings. Scooping some water, Dwayne slurped the warming liquid.
Just as he was about to take one more sip, something spooked the horses, sending them tearing down the high plains route. The sudden jolt to the wagon caught Dwayne unprepared for the sudden movement; his head smacking the barrel before being knocked backwards to the ground. Racing down the trail, the uncovered barrel’s contents sloshed and spilled along the way.
Laying on his back, he slowly sat up and cleared the mental cobwebs. Jumping up, he spun around trying to find the source of the horses’ fright. “Ah, there you are,” Dwayne said, raising his revolver and firing two shots. Missing the rattlesnake by inches, “You’re damn lucky my brain’s a little foggy. Otherwise, I’d be eating rattler tonight,” he said, as it slithered away.
Putting the pistol back in its holster as he looked around, he said, “Shit.” Realizing his unfortunate situation, Dwayne dusted himself off and chased after the rising trail of dust from the disappearing wagon.
After a quarter mile run in the hot sun, Dwayne caught up to the horses, who stopped to devour the last few pieces of grass alongside the trail. “Damn you horses,” Dwayne said as he bent over at the waist from his recent sprint, sucking in wind to help his breathing. Still sore from hitting his head and then running, he did not have the energy to get revenge on them.
Reaching for the water barrel, shadows circled the ground. Dwayne looked up at the buzzards overhead and fired two shots. “I told ya to git,” he said as he re-holstered his weapon.
The horses looked back and neighed at their two-legged companion. “Keep it up. I dare ya. I just might sell you for glue when we get to town,” Dwayne said as he stuck his hand inside the barrel for the ladle. Not finding it, he looked on the ground and in the wagon for it. “Where did that damn thing go?” Dwayne said as he scratched his head.
“Ow.” He winced as he lightly probed his scalp. Dwayne tapped the new bump on his forehead and winced again. He looked at his hand and saw blood. “Aw, hell,” he said as he rubbed the back of his head. “Ow,” Dwayne yelled even louder this time. He looked at his hand again, which had even more blood on it.
“If this ain’t the unluckiest trip I been on before,” he said as he grabbed his kerchief and plunged it inside the barrel. Leaning against the wagon, Dwayne cleaned his wounds. With the blood flow stopped, he stuck his hand in the barrel. His reach made it to the bottom before it hit water. Dwayne looked back along the trail and realized the water had splashed out when the horses had taken off. Knowing he had to stay hydrated, he scooped the remaining water, barely satisfying his thirst. Carefully wiping the sweat off his face with his sleeve, he climbed back up and pulled on the reins. Looking at the increased number of birds overhead, he said, “Let’s go.”
“We got to find some water soon,” Dwayne said aloud as his body swayed back-and-forth on the wooden seat. Traveling for a few hours with no relief from the sun, the wagon eventually entered a valley. “Keep your fingers crossed, boys. Hopefully, there’s water here.”
Creeping along, a building appeared. “Hot damn! We found something.” Dwayne gave a flick of the reins to quicken their pace. The wagon pulled up to a small barn and empty corral next to a small creek. “Salvation. Thank you, Lord,” he said as he looked up to the sky.
Dwayne jumped down and unshackled the horses, walking them to the creek. Letting them cool off in the water, all three drank. He walked around the barn searching for any signs of life. “Hello? Anyone here?” Dwayne said as he continued exploring. Walking further from the creek, he came to a small rise. Ascending to the top, he looked around. “What the…?”
His mouth dropped, as he realized why there were no responses. Four bodies were in grotesque positions with multiple arrows piercing each of them. Not wasting any time to re-assemble the wagon, he ran down to the creek and quickly jumped on one of the horses as he put a loop from his rope around the other’s neck. “Let’s go, ya damn mules!”
The satiated horses took off like thoroughbreds across the creek and up the other side of the valley, bouncing Dwayne. Eventually, the jarring was too much and Dwayne dropped the reins between the horses. He reached down and attempted to pull them up. Not slowing down, the horses came around a bend, which sent Dwayne to the horse’s side.
Still trying to pull himself up, the speed and gravity took over, causing Dwayne to lose his grip and fall. Laying on the hard dry earth with the wind knocked out of him, he tried to catch his breath as the horses continued over another small hill. After several attempts to breath, his lungs filled back up.
Sitting upright, he was much slower to chase his transportation. Dwayne stood and removed his vest and cartridge belt from his waist. “I ain’t gonna catch those damn horses with all this extra stuff.” Feeling a little lighter, Dwayne sluggishly jogged down the trail.
He went a distance and then saw the shadows again. He stopped, looking up at his pursuers. Dwayne carefully aimed and fired twice. One of the buzzards squawked and flew away. “That’ll teach ya. Scram!” Dwayne said as he waved his 6-shot revolver at them.
He started down the trail when something caught his eye. Dropping to one knee to lower his profile, he quickly located the object. It was a wild mustang standing 100 feet away when five more horses appeared next to the first one. “Gotta be more water around here if them horses are in these parts,” Dwayne said.
He slowly walked towards them, only to see the herd turn and run away. He chased after them, never having a chance. This continued until he came to a bluff and saw his two horses below. “Damn you horses,” Dwayne said as he approached them.
Just as he was about to grab the rope on his horse, both bolted a short distance. “Damnit, you two. Stay put,” Dwayne said as he sprinted towards them. Just like the herd, his two horses would let him get within a short distance only to run away.
Each dash was a little slower than the previous one. In his quest to capture his horses, Dwayne had not realized that he was overheating to the point of severe danger.
After the fourth attempt, Dwayne’s feet kept tripping over themselves as his breathing and heartrate rapidly increased. No longer able to run, he slowed to a clumsy version of feet dragging. Soon, he was forced to crawl.
No longer threatened by their owner, the horses stopped as Dwayne lay down on the ground.
The two horses looked at Dwayne’s lifeless body then at each other for a moment and whinnied. Newly freed, the animals trotted towards the wild horses nearby. The herd surrounded the new interlopers to inspect them. Accepted by the group, all of the horses ran off wild and free as the circling birds descended to their next meal.