Standefer’s Last Commission

by Steve Lowe

The string of scalps bounced against a buck-skinned thigh. Near the middle of the thin braid of rope, the scalps were small and shriveled, their edges curled in toward the center. Twigs of remaining hair bounced stiffly with the mottled mustang’s hoof steps. Fresher trophies hung on the outer ends of the string, sodden and weighty. Coagulated crimson tendrils waved in the breeze in stringy wisps behind the lone Apache warrior.

Standefer recognized the shock of fiery orange hair sprouting from a glistening patch of skin less than an hour removed from the head of Morris Dupree. “We’ll follow for now,” Standefer told his crew. “He’ll lead us to the rest.”

They slipped back down the rise and remounted their nervous horses. Of the seven animals in the group, one trailed along without a rider, the property of Mr. Dupree. The best cook among this special commission of Apache hunters got up early that morning to collect wood to fire up breakfast, but did not return. The other men in the company were spooked by Dupree’s disappearance, and rightfully so. Many of the stories they had heard along the way were turning out to contain more truth than legend.

Just nigh of eight in the morning, they had come upon Dupree’s body, dangling from a Black Cottonwood limb by his feet, his innards loosed from his belly to hang down and pile up on the ground, his head a slick, dripping dome.
As they shuffled along, Oliver Standefer felt the bulk of the official commission papers stuffed in his inner jacket pocket, rhythmically bumping against his chest as his horse plodded along. The papers were always handy, even if he never planned on uttering aloud the words printed therein. The Apache wouldn’t stop to listen anyway. To conclude Standefer’s previous expedition, he had staked the commission papers to an Apache forehead with a railroad spike to drive home the point that the railroad was indeed “continuing westward despite their dissuasive efforts.”

Standefer led the small procession, seven men besides him, toward the mountain pass. They waited and watched as the lone Apache shuffled through the pass and disappeared as if swallowed by the ancient rock. Standefer knew not to follow. An Apache did not travel alone. Where there was one, there were more, waiting and watching.

The men had ridden since before sun up, stopping only to water their mounts. Now, as the last winks of daylight began to disappear behind this southern expanse of the Rockies, man and beast alike were in need of rest. With the mountains stretched out before them across the darkening horizon toward the savage Mexican wilds, there was little sense in continuing to follow their quarry, lest they tromp straight into an ambush. Tomorrow would bring enough violence. Of this, Standefer was certain.

They halted their horses and set about making camp for the night. The men split off into pairs to collect wood for the night’s fire. They did so without prompting from Standefer, clearly not wanting to meet a fate similar to Mr. Dupree’s.

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