Zeke wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his wrist. The grit scratched like a rasp. He would have used his bandana but it was caked with the mud of his sweat and the dust. The donkey plodded around the arrastra, crushing the gold bearing quartz so he could get at the gold ore.
It seemed like it had taken forever to build the thing. He had to level the ground then water it heavily until he could smooth the caliches into a cement-like floor. Hauling water from the creek took more than a week with nothing but empty gunpowder casks to use as barrels, and that was using both donkey and horse to move the water.
Finding the wood to use for the arms and center of the arrastra was another problem. He’d had to cut, trim and haul the right sized trees to his site. The central pivot and the rock crusher pole had to be installed and assembled. He decided to attach the donkey to the rock crusher pole as best he could. Fitting it all together was a nightmare, especially as he should have put the center pole in the ground before he made it hard as cement and he’d only had some old-timer’s word on how it went together. Zeke had wanted to bash his own skull in with the pickaxe before he managed to get the set-up to work.
The crusher was the final problem. It didn’t seem possible to move, let alone carve rocks big enough to be useful. He walked around and around the empty arrastra trying to come up with a plan. The old miner told him he needed two flat-bottomed drag stones, one at the end of each arm. He had the chain. But finding rocks in the creek, then dragging them to the camp, then drilling holes in them drove him to distraction. After a long search he found two rocks, about the right size, beggars couldn’t be choosers, and with his mismatched pair of haulers, dragged the rocks to camp, drilled them out and hooked them to the newly assembled arms. It was easier to dig the damn quartz than to build the arrastra. When it was done he sank to his knees, and wept.
Three nights later a noise penetrated Zeke’s exhausted sleep. He heard his horse, Butter, whinny—it seemed wrong. Too far away.
He tossed off his wool blanket and rolled to his feet. If that horse has broken free again I’m going to shoot it. This is the fourth time in a month. He pulled on his boots without bothering with socks and grabbed his rifle.
Zeke stepped into the night. A half-moon in a star-studded sky provided a little light. At the picket line the donkey stood, looking to the west. “Damn horse.” Zeke patted the donkey to reassure it before moving in the direction the donkey was pointing.
He whistled softly then called, “Butter, Butter,” in a low voice. He didn’t want to spook her. Zeke stubbed the toe of his boot on a rock. I’m gonna trip and break an arm out here in the dark. If I had any sense I’d go back to my bedroll till daybreak.
Just as he decided to go back to his tent he heard Butter nicker. He followed the sound, grazing a prickly pear cactus in the dark. The thorns stabbed him in the shin and despite wanting to catch the horse, had to stop and pull the spines from his leg. Butter whinnied. She sounded close.
“Butter?” Zeke heard the horse stamping. “Come on girl. She’s close. He followed the noise and in a moment was at the horse’s side. “Hush, hush,” he whispered to her as he stroked her neck. Butter shivered. “Let me untangle your lead.” Zeke struggled in the dark to remove the reins from an acacia. “You couldn’t have got tangled in a shrub oak?” he asked the horse as the acacia thorns caught in the skin of his hands.
Something whizzed past his head. He dropped the lead and hit the ground. Butter danced around him. Zeke hoped he wouldn’t die by trampling from his own horse. More whizzing. Something hit the ground a foot away from him. He reached out and grabbed it. An arrow! The Apache were on him. The old timer’s stories raced through his mind.
“They take your horse in the night, boy. You think your stock has wandered off and you go out, barefoot and unarmed. That’s how they get you, sonny!” The old coot cackled at his bad joke.
Zeke tried to swallow around his dry mouth. Not so funny, old timer. But he had his rifle and a handful of rounds in his pocket. Please Lord. Let it be enough. Leaving Butter to her own chances, he rolled behind the acacia not knowing if the Apache were all in front of him or he was surrounded. He fired a shot into the dark where he thought the arrows came from.
He was rewarded with the sounds of scrambling. “There’s more where that came from.”
More arrows fell around him. The thickness of the acacia main branch saved him from one. Zeke fired again. More scrambling and a hoot. Did he hit someone? He fired toward the sounds and hoped, his heart beating out of his chest. Was he going to die?
Butter pranced left, then right, rearing and snorting. It was the distraction Zeke needed. He rolled to his left and crab walked on hands and feet what seemed a long distance ignoring the cactus spines that stuck in his hands. Butter ran off into the dark.
Sounds of running, then more horses, then horses running off. Was it over?
Zeke hid behind a boulder, rising with the sun to a deserted landscape. He swiped a dirty sleeve across his forehead and limped back to camp. He hoped Butter would be there but he called it a wash. He was alive and that’s all that counted.