The circuit rider sits atop his horse as it walks slowly along a rocky path that runs along Honey Creek. The sun is just slipping below the peaks of the Arbuckle Mountains and the rider is making his way toward a thin column of smoke rising up from a campsite.
He is a thin man with gaunt features. His cheeks and jaw are sharp, and his eyes suggest a nervous energy. They are pale grey and alert, always scanning his surroundings. His skin is ruddy and weathered from many days riding. It is clear that the circuit rider is young. He is perhaps in his early 20s. A well-trimmed beard adorns his face, as does a small scar that runs just below his left eye. He wears a broad-brimmed hat and a long, black coat. In one hand he holds the reins of his horse, while the other clutches a Bible.
As he draws closer to the camp, he can see two men sitting beside the fire. They do not appear to have heard him approaching. One is holding a bottle while the other greedily eats from a tin plate. They are bandits, or so the circuit rider assumes. It is rare to find an honest man in the Indian Territories. It is a country in need of salvation. Knowing this, he decides that the safest course of action would be to announce his presence. They will, he thinks, likely greet him with guns drawn, but if he surprises them the greeting would likely come in the form of bullets.
"Hello!" he calls out. "Do you have room by your fire for a weary circuit rider?"
The men look up, both drawing pistols that they aim in his direction. As the circuit rider draws closer to the camp he can see that the men have been drinking for some time. Their faces have the glassy look of the drunkard, and though they've drawn their weapons, they seem slightly unsteady in their aim.
One of the men rises up unsteadily and looks the circuit rider up and down. His eyes linger on the Bible and then he begins to laugh.
"Well, I'll be damned," the man says. "Look here, Jesse. Looks like a preacher come to save our souls."
The man named Jesse sneers and spits. He lowers his pistol and then turns back to his plate of food.
"We ain't got much call for a man of God in these parts," he says. "Tell him to move along, Silas"
"You hear my partner, preacher?" Silas says. "I'm afraid he's a bit of a heathen. Probably worried that if you join us that he'll be struck by lightning."
"It ain't the wrath of God I'm worried about," Jesse says. "We ain't got food or space to share. What are you doing out this way anyhow, preacher?"
The circuit rider climbs from his horse and walks slowly toward the camp. Though he still holds his Bible, he makes a point of keeping his hands where both men can see them.
"It's my mission," he says. "I travel the country and teach the Gospel."
"I don't reckon you'll find much of an audience in these parts," Silas says. "Don't you know it's mostly outlaws and thieves above the Red River?"
"Sounds like the kind of country that could use the Good News," the circuit rider says. "However, I have no intention of forcing you to listen to a sermon. Nor will I eat any of your food. I merely ask a place to sit by your fire where I can rest a bit before I move on. I've been riding for some time and could use a moment's rest."
Silas looks at Jesse who offers a shrug and then returns to eating.
"I don't give a damn," Jesse says.
"Well, take a seat, preacher," Silas says.
The circuit rider walks to the edge of the fire and sits down on a small log. Jesse deliberately ignores him, staring intently at his food, but Silas sits next to the preacher and slaps him on the shoulder.
"Gotta say, we don't often get company out this way," Silas says.
"It's by design," Jesse mutters.
"Tell me," the circuit rider says. "I heard you refer to each other as Silas and Jesse. Are you by any chance Silas Turner and Jesse Waters?"
Jesse looks up quickly, a glint of suspicion in his eye. His hand moves slowly back to his gun, but Silas is all smiles.
"How about that?" Silas says. "He's heard of us. You hear that, Jesse."
"I heard it," Jesse says. "Why do you ask, preacher? What exactly do you want with us?"
"Oh, I apologize if I startled you," the circuit rider says. "I only know your name because of the dime novels. I'm quite a fan of the books. There's been more than a few written about your adventures. You look exactly as you were described. It's remarkable."
"Doesn't seem likely Godly reading," Jesse says.
"I'm afraid everyone has their vice," the circuit rider says. "Dime novels are mine. I'm particularly fond of Ned Buntline, but I read them all. Tell me, are the stories faithful to your exploits?"
"We done even bigger things than that," Silas says.
"Ah, you know those books are all full of lies," Jesse says. "We ain't met anyone that ever wrote a book about us and I doubt there's a true word in them."
"You're just sour on account of you can't read," Silas laughs.
"Neither can you," Jesse says. "You don't know what any of them books say. I'm telling you they're full of lies."
"But they're spreading our reputation," Silas says. "Just look here. We got a preacher who knows our name because of those books. Maybe he'll tell us about them. How about it, preacher?"
"Oh, I'd be happy to share what I can recall," the circuit rider says. "Let's see, the first I ever read was about the robbery of a train on the Tyler Tap Railroad near the Big Sandy Switch. If I recall, that book suggested that the robbery is what first caught the attention of the Pinkerton Agency."
At the mention of Pinkerton, Jesse sprang to his feet with his gun drawn. In a few quick strides he was towering over the circuit rider with his gun pressed against his forehead. The startled preacher throws his hands in the air.
"Forgive me if I offended you somehow," the circuit rider says.
"What in the blue hell is wrong with you?" Silas says. "Put that piece away and let's listen to the man talk."
"I don't like this," Jesse said. "How do we know that he ain't a member of Pinkerton or some other lawman? Hell, how do we know he ain't a bounty hunter of some sort?"
"If he were Pinkerton or law he wouldn't have come alone," Silas says. "If he's a bounty hunter he's the damndest fool bounty hunter I ever seen. The only one that announces he's coming and brings nothing stronger than a Bible. Now put away that gun and let's listen to the man talk."
Standing over him, the circuit rider can smell the sour stench of alcohol on Jesse. It confirms his belief that the men have probably been drinking for hours. The smell seems to radiate from his pores, suggesting that it's been days since he was last sober. For a moment, Jesse keeps the gun pressed to his head, but his resolve seems to falter. He slowly draws the gun away and holsters it and then walks unsteadily back to his seat.
"I'm telling you I don't care for it," Jesse says.
"Perhaps it'd be better if I just moved along," the circuit rider says.
"Ah, don't run off now," Silas responds. "I want to hear more about these books. What else did they say?"
The circuit rider looks with concern at Jesse, but the outlaw's attention has drifted. The alcohol has taken a firm hold on him. He is humming to himself and seems to have almost forgotten about the circuit rider's presence. A moment later, he snatches up the bottle of whisky beside him and takes another long drink.
"Well, it said that the raid on the train was one of the most daring ever attempted," the circuit rider says. "Especially since it was carried out by just two men."
"Easier to work with a smaller gang," Silas says. "Less liabilities. Get too many involved and you're like to have someone you can't rely on. Now, what else have you read?"
"There was another book about the time you robbed the Walker Gang in Decatur," the circuit rider says. "The book said that they had just robbed a bank in town and that you ambushed them outside of town and made off with all of their loot. There was quite an exciting shoot-out in the countryside too."
"Well, that ain't exactly how it happened," Silas says. "Still, I like that better than the real version. If that's what folks believe, I'm happy to have it."
"What did happen?" the circuit rider asks.
"I don't reckon you need to know," Jesse slurs. "Even if you are a preacher, you ask too many damn questions."
"Never mind, preacher," Silas says. "Let's not ruin the story. We did take money from the Walker gang outside of Decatur. We'll just leave it at that. Tell me some more."
"There's one in particular that stands out," the circuit rider says. "The book was called 'Death on the Blackland Prairie.' It was a different sort of story than the others."
"How's that?" Silas said.
"It took place about ten years ago," the circuit rider said. "It was, according to the author, somewhat before you'd made a name for yourselves. The book tells the story of a single robbery that took place near Cottonwood Creek."
Jesse is drifting again, but a look of confusion crosses Silas face. He reaches up a hand to his chin and scratches at the scruff of beard growing there.
"I'm not certain I recall anything happening there," he says. "What did it say we did?"
"The story says that one day you and Jesse were riding through the Blackland when you came upon a pair of boys watering their horses by the Cottonwood Creek," the circuit rider says. "One was a teen, no more than fourteen. The other was his brother, a young man who had come back from fighting the Yankees a few years before. It says you rode up and asked them for some water and a bite to eat. You said that you'd been riding for a long time and could use some sustenance. The older boy, his name was Josiah, went to his pack to fetch you some jerky and hardtack and while he was collecting the food, your friend Jesse there emptied his gun into the back of his head. The younger boy ran to save his brother as he collapsed to the ground, and you fired a shot that struck him in the face, just below the left eye. Then, you took their pack of goods and rode away."
As the circuit rider speaks, the color drains from Silas's face and Jesse's stupor begins to lift. The words seem to strike them both like a freight train. Jesse begins fumbling again for his gun, but his drunken hands will not cooperate. Silas looks at the circuit rider and finds the man is holding a pair of pistols. One is aimed at him and the other at Jesse.
"We ain't never told nobody about that," he says. "Who in the hell are you?"
"Oh, the story isn't finished yet," the circuit rider says. "You see, the boy you shot in the face didn't die, even though you left him for dead. You might say it was something of a miracle, like the grace of God. He woke some hours later and dragged his brother's body back to his family home. He collapsed on the porch where his mother found him. He spent a long time in the hospital, but the doctors were able to save him. These days all he has left is a little scar. It's the only thing to remind him of that day. After he recovered, his mother begged him to give up any dreams of revenge. She even persuaded him to become a preacher. You see, her husband had been killed in the war, and now her oldest boy had been killed by bandits. She thought if she gave her youngest to God, it would keep him safe. In a way, she was right. He took up preaching and began travelling from town to town, baptizing and helping build churches, but he always kept his ear to the ground. He kept hoping he'd find the men who shot his brother. Then, one day he stumbled across some dime novels. They were about a pair of bandits. He read the books and recognized the descriptions of the men. He could see their faces clear as day and knew that they were the ones. Now the book I'm talking about, it isn't finished yet. There's still one chapter left to be written. Let me show you how it's going to end."
The gun in the circuit rider's left hand bucks, sending a bullet across the camp that lands square between the eyes of Jesse. The man falls backward without a sound, blood trickling from the wound and down the side of his face.
"Preacher, you gotta have mercy," Silas says. "What about forgiveness?"
"The Bible is a funny thing," the circuit rider says. "I spent a lot of time reading it since that day by the Cottonwood. One verse always stuck with me. It's Numbers 35:19. Do you know it?"
Silas's hands are trembling and his stomach is tied in knots. He glances at the body of his friend. He thinks for a moment that if he can keep the preacher talking he can get his hand to his gun.
"What's it say?" he asks.
"It says, 'The revenger of blood himself shall slay the murderer: when he meeteth him, he shall slay him,'" the circuit rider says. "I reckon that's the God I've come to believe in."
Silas makes a move to draw his pistol, but before he can raise his hand the circuit rider has fired the gun in his right hand. The bullet rips through Silas's neck. He drops his pistol and clutches at his throat, gasping for breath. The circuit rider stands and makes his way to the bandit. He stands over him and presses his pistol against the back of his head. A moment later he squeezes the trigger three times in a row.
The bodies of the two men lay in the dirt. The circuit rider puts his guns away and gives them a final look before turning and walking away from the camp. He pats the neck of his horse as he climbs on and grabs hold of the reins.
"Let's move along now," the circuit rider says. "We got a long ride ahead of us."