It's a Dog's Life
The three men entered the office unsure of their reception. A command to appear before Captain Parmalee could result in an assignment or a reprimand. When it concerned Reese Bennett, Chad Cooper and Joe Riley, the latter was more likely to be the case than the former.
"You wanted to see us, Cap'ain?" Reese inquired obviously relishing the discomfort his gravelly voice was causing his hung-over friends.
Rising from the chair behind his desk, Parmalee indicated two men sitting in front of him, both sported bandages in several places. "On their way back from the mines, MacDonald and Kelley were attacked by a band of renegade Comanches. They were able to take shelter in the abandoned stage station at Crow Flats. To facilitate their escape, a comrade stayed behind. I'm sending you three out to rescue Ben."
"Why it'll be our pleasure to rescue such a brave man," Reese cheerfully agreed slapping Chad on the back to emphasize his claim.
One hand holding his aching head, Chad's glance rested angrily on his friend as he asked, "Do we know how many Indians we might encounter?"
"There musta been twenty or thirty of them red devils," Kelley supplied.
Experience had taught Chad to halve the reported number of attacking hostiles, which meant their opposition was approximately ten to fifteen braves. To a frightened man, one Indian looked like two. "Anything else we should know Captain?"
"Only one thing," said Parmalee a smile playing across his lips. "Ben is a dog."
Joe Riley's laughter echoed around the office, "I must be in worse shape than I thought," the ranger ruefully admitted. "I thought you said we was goin' out to rescue a dog."
"You are," Parmalee simply stated. Dropping back into his chair, he picked up a pen to resume the paperwork that had been interrupted by the engineers sudden arrival.
Incredulity suffused Chad's face, "You're sending your best men out against fierce hostiles to save a dog!"
"My best men?" Parmalee repeated as he slowly returned to his feet. "You three are the best at getting out of work. You're the best at drinking a town dry. You're the best con-artists this side of the Rio Grande. Shall I go on?"
Pride making him stand taller, Reese nodded, "I wouldn't mind hearin' more Cap'ain."
"He doesn't mean that, sir," Chad hastily contradicted pulling his friend toward the door with Riley's help. "We better hurry if we hope to reach Crow Flats before dark."
"But I wanna hear more compliments," Bennett protested.
"Those weren't compliments Reese," cried Chad steering his friend out the door.
Disappointment audible in the deep voice, Reese shook his head, "They sure sounded like compliments to me."
* * * *
The sun beat down on Chad's head measurably increasing the headache a result of too much alcohol the night before. Pulling back on the reins, he eased his horse down to a walk. They had spent the previous evening celebrating his thirtieth birthday - and right now he was feeling every one of those years. In addition to the physical discomfort, he was also feeling depressed. The plans he'd mapped out for his life had been very different than the direction it had taken. His future had seemed much brighter ten years ago.
With a dusty sleeve, Chad wiped the sweat from his brow. Even as he gently massaged his aching head, he noticed that Bennett and Riley had stopped a short distance ahead. The matching expressions on their faces was far from sympathetic.
"Come on, Chad," Reese urged, "this is a rescue mission. We gotta hurry."
Keeping his horse at the more comfortable walk, Chad pointed out, "We're out to rescue a dog, Reese, not the Maharajah."
"The Cap'ain never said what kinda dog it was," Reese noted trying to bluff around his confusion. "How do you know it ain't a Maharajee."
Exasperated, Chad explained, "A Maharajah isn't a breed of dog, it's an Indian prince."
"That hangover must have you all addled Chad," berated Reese his hands flying wildly around emphasizing his claim. "Cap'ain Parmalee didn't send us out here to rescue no Indians. We're out to save a dog."
Usually, Chad enjoyed Reese's misnomers. In fact, he often deliberately set the older man up before sitting back and enjoying the results. This, however, was not one of those times. "A Maharajah isn't an American Indian prince, Reese, he's a prince in India."
"I just don't understand you Chad," Bennett complained shaking his head. "Why're you chatterin' about India and princes when we got a dog to save?"
"I don't know, Reese, the sun must've fried my brain," Chad facetiously returned.
One leg hooked comfortably over his saddle horn, Joe wisely pointed out, "The quicker we get to Crow Flats the quicker we can relax." Easing his leg back into the stirrup, he added, "We better get a move on, we don't want to ride into that station at night."
Chad gently nudged his horse into a slow jog as he recognized the warning in the statement. Too many dangers could be hidden in the darkness. Hazards that could end their lives. While Comanches rarely attacked at night, Chad had learned there were always exceptions to every rule. If you didn't prepare for them, there might not be a tomorrow.
Holding the reins in a soft hand, he followed his companions. Fully trusting the black stallion, he let his thoughts return to the problem that had consumed him earlier. Where was he going? Not today, this minute, but tomorrow and the day after that. He owned nothing except the clothes on his back. His horse, saddle, even his gun, were the property of the Texas Rangers. If he left the service tomorrow, what would he have to show for it? He had a bank account - with no money in it and no prospect of there being any. Most of this month's paycheck had already disappeared into a beer glass last night.
"Are you all right, Chad?"
There were no easy answers to Riley's question, so Chad chose to ignore it. Glancing around at the desolate landscape, he saw that the abandoned stage station was just ahead - without an Indian in sight. "Now what?" he asked his gaze resting first on Reese before finally settling on Joe.
"Me and Reese are gonna check the area while it's still light," explained Joe. "Why don't you head for the station. We'll spend the night there."
Though he was eagerly anticipating the end of the long ride, Chad offered, "I could help. Three can cover more territory than two."
"Reese Bennett is as good as two men," Reese proudly boasted.
Joe rolled his eyes, but there was a smile on his lips when he suggested, "Consider it a birthday present. You just make sure you have hot coffee waitin' for us."
"You got it," Chad agreed as he spurred his horse forward.
This time as he rode, Chad remained alert. Moving his right hand so it lay across his stomach where it was closer to his gun, he carefully watched for any sign of an attack. There was no sound or movement. With a dread that he disgustedly felt was out of proportion for the victim, he realized that the dog must be dead. There was no cry of alarm to split the silence as he pulled up outside the station.
Untying his saddlebags, he threw them over the hitching post before turning to unsaddle his horse. Unlacing the cinch, he hooked it over the saddle horn. Sliding the heavy leather off the sweating animal, he balanced it on the porch railing. Using the blanket, he wiped off the foam that was already drying on the horse's neck and withers. Certain that he had done everything he could to protect his mount, he led the tired animal to the small corral at the side of the building. The desert was too inhospitable a climate to be less than thorough in the care of your horse. Next, he partially filled a bucket with water from the well. Investigating a storage shed, he found some hay. After a careful inspection, he picked up a pitchfork and threw the feed into the corral.
Returning to the hitching rail, he shouldered his saddlebags and canteen. Pulling his gun, he cautiously opened the cabin door. His eyes watered as they tried to block out the last rays of the setting sun. He waited till they had cleared before continuing into the dim interior. Kicking the door against the wall, he slowly walked into the middle of the room. A low growl greeted him. Realizing that the dog wasn't dead as he'd believed, Chad soothed, "Easy Ben, I'm a friend."
The low growling quickly changed to a soft whimper at the sound of it's name. Crossing to the table, Chad divested himself of his gear before lighting the lamp resting in the center of the table. Holding it high, he turned to cast its glow into the corner and involuntarily stepped back when the light revealed an animal that resembled a wolf more than it did a dog. His fear disappeared as soon as he gazed into the soft brown eyes of the distressed beast.
Cautiously putting his hand down so the dog could smell it, Chad moved closer. Resting his weight on one knee, he laid his hand on the large head and gently scratched the ears. The heavy tail feebly banged against the floor. Immediately understanding why the dog was in distress, Chad climbed back to his feet. Finding an empty bowl, he poured in a measured amount of water. Laying it in front of the thirsty animal, he cautioned, "Take it easy, Ben. There's more where that came from. We don't want you to get sick."
Chad smiled as the tail banged the floor. The impact sounded very much like Indian war drums. It was only when the tail lay limp and the beating continued to echo around the room that Chad realized that his analogy had been closer than he thought.
Leaping for the table, he blew out the lamp before snatching up his rifle and crossing to a window. His eyes quickly adjusted to the darkness, but there was nothing to see through the small opening. A low growl drew his attention. Noting that the brown eyes of his companion were fixed on the window across the room, Chad quickly made his way to the opening. Cautiously, he glanced outside. Shadows moved stealthily forward advancing on the small shack.
Chad rested his head against the rough adobe wall. Taking several deep breaths, he forced himself to relax. Being over anxious rarely improved one's aim. Checking his rifle and pistol to make sure every chamber was filled, he took a last deep breath before leaning forward to break the thick glass of the window with the stock of his rifle.
Even before he could level his weapon, bullets started to sing into the adobe structure. Forced to keep behind the protective walls, Chad returned fire as fast as the ammunition could slip through his Winchester. He kept his hands and the rifle moving, hoping that at least some of his shots were finding a victim.
His nostrils were filled with the smell of gunpowder when Ben started barking at the other window. Taking his cue, Chad changed location. This time, he didn't bother to break the glass first, he let a bullet do the job for him. Holes peppered the fragment of pane before he crossed back to his original position.
Wondering what had happened to Reese and Joe, Chad checked his ammunition. He was almost out of bullets for the rifle, which would make his handgun their only protection. Taking a deep breath, he positioned himself next to the window in such a way that he could see out into the area in front of the shack. It was a dangerous act, but necessary. With a deliberation he hadn't shown previously, he emptied his Winchester into the shadows that glided closer to his sanctuary.
The trigger clicked on an empty chamber just as he felt a fire burning his right shoulder. Glancing down, he was surprised to see blood seeping from a small hole. With the acknowledgment of the wound, came an almost unbearable pain. No longer able to support him, his legs buckled and he slid to the floor. His good hand shook as it worked to loosen the knot securing a bandanna around his neck. When he finally had it free, he stuffed it beneath his shirt over the bloody cavity. Gritting his teeth, he gently pressed against it praying the compress would slow the steady flow of blood.
A wet nose touched Chad's neck startling him. As he looked into the soft brown eyes, he wondered how the engineers could have left the animal behind. When the large mouth closed around his arm, Chad felt no fear. A gentle tug urged him towards the back of the shack. For the first time, the Ranger noticed that the roof was on fire. Smoke burning his eyes and throat, he unhesitatingly followed his four-legged companion. When Ben stopped, so did he. He watched in puzzlement as the powerful front legs dug frantically at the dirt floor. Sweat almost blinding him, Chad leaned over to look at the area. To his astonishment, he saw that there was a small door cut into the ground. Knowing he had only minutes left before the entire structure collapsed, he stuck his fingers into the notch that served as a handle and swung the door open. Pushing Ben down first, he quickly followed the dog into the relatively cool tunnel that had been dug underneath the cabin.
* * * *
A glow lit the sky. Against his will, Joe's eyes were drawn to the sight. A deep sadness washed over him making him look away again. It was now obvious that the Indians that had the two rangers pinned down weren't the entire band. A few had apparently slipped away and attacked Chad at the stage station.
"Do you think they got ol' Chad?" Reese asked as he fired a shot at a moving shadow.
The shadow fell. Momentarily easing his vigilance, Joe let his eyes stray back to the light that filled the night sky. "You know Chad. Anybody who can out gun Jonathan Daniels isn't gonna let a couple Indians bother 'im."
Hoping that his answer had satisfied his friend, Joe mentally reviewed the events that were keeping them from racing to their friend's rescue. Just as the sun was slipping over the horizon, the renegade band had appeared before the scouting rangers. Only a short distance in front of the screaming hostiles, they'd quickly taken cover behind a large group of rocks. While Reese guarded the front, Joe firmly gripped the reins of their horses and kept an eye on the flat desert behind them. They couldn't afford to lose their mounts or the protection of the bolders, the only high ground within ten miles.
"I bet ol' Chad's outsmarted them red devils," encouraged Reese forcing a smile. "That's what he's done all right."
"If anybody could do it, my money would be on Chad," Joe agreed.
Reese's voice was even deeper than normal as he asserted, "He's probably makin' the coffee he promised and wonderin' what happened to us."
"I wouldn't be surprised," returned Joe glad that Bennett couldn't see the fear in his eyes.
Even though Chad had never said a word, Joe knew that his friend was unhappy. He'd desperately wanted to help, but he had no idea what was bothering the younger man. He thought he'd been doing Chad a favor letting him set up camp at the stage station. Had he sent him to his death instead?
* * * *
The sun relentlessly beat down on his unprotected head. Chad stumbled, his body and mind too weak to keep him on his feet, he fell to his knees. The jarring impact sent an agonizing wave of pain up his arm to his shoulder. With the pain threatening his very existence, he buried his face in the thick fur of his companion finding comfort in Ben's unwavering support.
Using the same method of escape the engineers had, Chad and Ben had crawled through the tunnel to its terminus near the base of the well. In the relative safety of darkness, they'd slipped away into the cool desert. Fully trusting the large animal under his hand, Chad followed Ben till the heat of the new day, the lack of water and the loss of blood finally drained him of his strength.
Through lips that were cracked and bleeding, Chad apologized, "I'm sorry Ben, I can't go any further. You go on."
A dry tongue scrapped across his cheek bringing tears to Chad's eyes. For an animal who couldn't talk, Ben effectively communicated his feelings. His loyalty and assistance had been unrelenting. He'd shown his gratitude for the bowl of water tenfold.
"You're a good friend, Ben," Chad acknowledged using the last of his strength to lay his hand on the big dog's head. "You're truly a pearl beyond price."
As his eyes closed, mercifully blocking out the blinding rays of the noon day sun, Chad thought once more of his missing friends. He was sure that Joe and Reese had been ambushed. In the vast expanse of the desert there were few places that offered sanctuary to the unlucky souls who passed through it. It never yielded, nor forgave even one mistake - as Chad could well attest to.
* * * *
Chad squinted his eyes against the bright sunlight, a reaction that was readily understandable when one was lying in a desert. However, it was the only recognizable response that could be associated with his present environment. The heat was not so suffocating as it had been, while the surface below his hand was not rough and sandy, but soft and smooth. Puzzled, Chad forced his eyes to open wider steeling himself to ignor the pain he was sure the action would engender.
As his vision cleared, he saw that the light that made his eyes water was from the bright glare of the sun streaming through a plate glass window. Curtains had been pushed to the side to brighten the small room. Their distinctive pattern was easily recognizable to any who'd spent as much time as he had under the Doctor's care.
"It's about time you woke up," a familiar voice observed.
"Joe?" Bringing his good hand up to shield his eyes, Chad turned his head toward the voice.
Noting his friend's distress, Joe crossed to the window and closed the curtains. His muscular frame was just an outline in the glow that penetrated the thin material as he acknowledged, "Yeah, it's me."
His eyes watering for a reason that had nothing to do with the sun, Chad whispered, "I thought you were dead."
"We thought the same thing about you," admitted Riley moving closer to the bed.
Glancing around the room, Chad felt a familiar panic building in his chest, "Where's Reese?"
"He's fine," soothed the big man putting a comforting hand on his friend's shoulder. "He's gettin' some sleep. We've been taken turns stayin' with ya."
"How long have I been here?" Chad curiously inquired cautiously stretching the tired and sore muscles throbbing in his arm and legs.
"Three days," Joe revealed, the fear and worry of those days clearly etched on his face and audible in his voice. "We, ah, we were digging through what was left of the stage station when Ben found us."
"Ben?" Though his outburst indicated otherwise, Chad wasn't really surprised to discover that the dog had saved his life.
"He took us to where you'd collapsed," explained Joe. "Doc says if you'd been out in that sun much longer you wouldn't have made it."
His throat tight making speech difficult, Chad asked, "Where's Ben now?"
"The engineers left a couple days ago they took him with them," Riley sadly revealed. "If it's any consolation, they had to drag Ben from your bedside."
"So much for my pearl of great price," muttered Chad covering his eyes with his arm to hide his reaction.
Pulling a chair closer to the bed, Joe anxiously inquired, "What're you talkin' about?"
"There's this story in the bible about a fisherman, when he saw a pearl of incredible beauty, he sold everything he had to own it." The depression Chad had been fighting returned. In a voice so low it could barely be heard, he noted, "At least he owned something he could sell."
The deep voice seemed to be coming from a long distance. It echoed through his mind as though he were in a long, dark tunnel.
"Chad, talk to me," the anxiety in Joe's voice was clearly audible.
"I'm sorry," Chad apologized rubbing his hand across his forehead to ease the dull pain buried within. "I don't remember any more about the story right now."
"That's not what I want you to talk to me about." Concern had given way to anger as Joe returned to his feet. "I want you to tell me what's botherin' ya."
"Nothing," Chad replied forcing a smile as he regarded the pacing man.
Stopping at the window, Joe gazed out onto a street overlaid with lace and roses from the frilly curtains, "I thought we were friends?"
"We are," Chad acknowledged his heart in his affirmation. "The best I've ever had."
"Then why won't you let me help you?" demanded Joe irritation replacing the hurt.
Chad closed his eyes. Swallowing his pride, he admitted, "Because I don't know what I'll do if you can't."
"It's foolish to worry about things that might never be," Joe pointed out turning to face his friend. "Talk to me."
Chad wanted to make a joke. Something he often did to hide his feelings. This time, however, he knew Joe would only accept the truth, "Look at me, Joe, what have I got?"
Though somewhat puzzled by the question, Riley listed, "A good job, loyal friends . . ."
"A job with no future," interrupted Chad. "I'm thirty years old and I don't own any property. I have no money in the bank. Hell, I don't even own my own horse or gun."
"If it's land and money that'll make you happy, maybe you should quit the Texas Rangers?" suggested Joe avoiding his friend's eyes.
Stunned by the recommendation, Chad shook his head, "That wouldn't make me happy."
"Then I guess you gotta decide what you want, happiness or wealth," Joe pointed out. "You can be happy as a Ranger, but you'll never be rich."
"Most people would choose happiness," Chad reluctantly conceded. "I just don't feel that if I do, I'm living up to my potential."
Joe shook his head as he move back to the bed, "Chad, boy, you could be President of the United States if you wanted to be. But, would that make you happy?"
"No," Chad thoughtfully noted his tension easing as he made the admission.
"A person doesn't always have to sell everything he's got to get the one thing that will make him happy like that fisherman did," Joe softly pressed. "Sometimes, all he has ta do is open his eyes - and his heart."
Chad smiled, the first genuine smile he'd managed in weeks, "You're right, if what you've got makes you happy, why change it?"
"Unless you're Reese Bennett, you won't," Joe wryly commented.
Laughter echoed around the room as both men remembered Reese's many and varied attempts to 'better' himself. Though each episode had ended in disappointment, Reese remained undeterred, pursuing his dreams with the enthusiasm and innocence of a child, yet, never changing who he was. Ruefully, Chad realized there was a lot he could learn from his friend. As his glance rested on the strong features of his companion, Chad amended, from both his friends.
*This story is based on an actual mission assigned to the Texas Rangers.