Jacob Bessemer, tobacconist, retailer, gunsmith on the side by necessity, received a letter from his brother in Baltimore saying he had purchased a wooden Indian, almost 6-feet tall, to stand at the entrance of his tobacco store on a main street of the city. "It attracts people, it brings customers, and it paid itself off in 6 months, the cost of having it carved by a local artist. Think about it, out there where there are real Indians. The curiosity fact would be a real customer grabber for you."
As a command of sorts, it sent Jacob Bessemer scurrying to find a suitable carver to do the same for his shop, a wooden Indian to stand in front of his shop. It was novel. It was good business. He said to his wife Rachel, "My brother Herschel is the best businessman in the family. He said to me in the letter, if we got enough of them, stores with wooden Indians out front, we could start a chain that would run across the country." His wife believed every word he ever said.
Flat Rock, Nevada, at the foothills of The Rockies, was nestled into place between a river, a cliff announcing the higher Rockies, and a stretch of good grass that finally ran out of breath at the edge of town. It had a population of 800 or so people that included townsmen, ranchers, hunters in the hills, and the local business covey. Bessemer was the town spokesman on many matters. The town was also on its third sheriff in the 12 years of its formal existence as a town, which was above and beyond its status as "a settlement of sorts. Two of the sheriffs died wearing the badge of office; the third was retired but two days and his successor was due in town, attracted by the opportunity.
The year was 1873; Flat Rocks was nearing a quarter century of being, from the first cabins built against the foothills and along the river, to the spread it now enjoyed. The ranches, too, had widened their grip on the land. Also, the hills were alive with hunters and trappers: "I tell you, Jacob," one trapper said on his second visit in six months to Bessemer's store, "It's getting damned crowded up there. I seen three of the boys in one week a month or so ago. Could open a store up in there for trading, you could. Hides and skins for tobacco and sundry smoking matter. Yes. Sir, sure could," said the trapper, Harry Blackstone, once of Boston, New Haven, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and a few stages stops prior to settling near Flat Rocks. He was remembered as saying to a few townies about his settling in the area, "The topography out here grabbed me wholehearted." He admitted, "I just loved the view that stretched three ways at least."
The pause in his words stretched out his vision: "Nothing like a good smoke by yourself beside the fire of a night . . . and no busybodies poking around to mess things up proper." His adaption to the area was about complete.
When he heard about the proposed wooden Indian out front of the store, and the search being underway for a carver, Blackstone said, "You ought to look up a feller I met once. His name's Josh Gregory. Lives down in Newfield." That was the last of the conversation, as though his word was the final one on the matter.
Lloyd Winslow, Flat Rock's doctor for ten years, and Bessemer's good friend and best cigar customer, "those specials from your friend's field in ole Viginny," said the same thing that same evening. "I think it'd be a decent attraction for you, Jacob. We haven't had an Indian in here in a few years now. It'd make people stand up and pay attention." His following silence was a statement that Jacob Bessemer fully understood.
The Doc's eyes were often dark and showed brooding over some internal discomfort or idea. A serious man, Bessemer liked him immensely because he did not just pass the day with folks; it was understood, by those even slightly alert, that Doc Winslow was a man of deep and solid ideas, as well as a doctor who had saved many lives in the town.
He paused a bit further as though a whole passel of commas had been introduced into the conversation. And the pause said something else was coming, something weighty or significant: "Course, this thing's got to be a piece of art in itself." That was a solid qualification from the doctor, a man of many parts. He nodded several times as if he was a judge passing sentence, and added, "And I think I know a man for the job. He's Scots-born, now from Newfield on the river, below us a ways. Saw some of his carvings while visiting Doc Houndshell down there a few years back. Boy has a talent in wood shaping. Sure does. He's never carved an Indian that I know of and an Indian would be a most welcome task for him; he has feelings for the first Americans." He raised one eyebrow that made his own personal statement on the Indian situation. The doc was one man who'd admit that white men were the intruders in the land.
True to his own feelings, and his aspirations for the store, and his family at length, the storekeeper told his wife one morning that he was riding down to Newfield to see the Scotsman who carved wooden things. "You and young Jacob and Paula take care of the store. I'll be back in the morning." He was off with the sunrise.
A pleasant man, the Scotsman said, "I fully understand what you want, Mr. Bessemer, and how big you want it. How tall it has to stand, to have a commanding look about it. I will make him a great chief, as best as I can. Feathers, tomahawk, bow and arrows, quiver; they'll all have their places." He thought a bit and added, "It will be as though he has been sent off by his family with all his worldly goods at hand. At least, his tools of survival."
They struck a deal and shook hands, with Josh Gregory's promised that he'd ship the finished product by a local freighter when it was carved and painted.
Bessemer was home by noon the next day.
Gregory spent two weeks on the task, seeking advice, suggestions and ideas from friends and acquaintances that had a variety of experience with Indians. Great interest consumed him as he worked, finding pieces of Indian ways, which he had only heard about and never fully understood, making their way into his work.
As a result of all the input, and Gregory's own passion on the job and his artistic talents, the Indian resolved itself out of a huge block of wood that took several men to raise into position as the first order of work. The chisels flew, the saws worked, the hammers pounded away. And the skill and artistry of Gregory, loose at a great challenge, dug in and carved out a monument to a single Indian.
At the end of two weeks or so, the carved Indian stood supreme on Gregory's porch, his arm raised, and a lethal weapon in his hand. Dozens of people asked about the piece, made comments, went away shaking their heads in admiration. "The damned thing is almost alive," one local said. "Like he could swing that tomahawk and take the hair right off 'n your head. I bet it scares some of the kids, and probably some of the ladies, though it's been quiet here for some time."
The accolades leaped upon the Scotsman, and he prepared the finished product for shipment to Jacob Bessemer in Flat Rock, a decent ride up the river and closer to the Rockies.
Gregory called the local freighter, a sturdy man by the name of Chauncy Gibbons, who had hundreds of trips on the trail out of Newfield.
"Chauncy," Gregory advised, "this is my best piece of work. It cannot lie flat and has to stand upright in a wagon, and has to be held down proper so it won't fall over." His final word said, "And it has to be shrouded from the time you leave here until Jacob Bessemer in Flat Rock sees it first. He's paid for it already, and he's paid your freight charges. So, do it as I say and all will be okay." The nods passed between them, the Indian roped into place, the shroud dropped over him and his one raised arm, the tomahawk on high.
"Be careful of any trees that hang low over the trail, Chauncy. Don't be rushing through the tree line too fast. It could ruin everything."
Gibbons, a big, broad-shouldered man of likely confidence in tight situations, said, "No worries, Josh. I'll ride a man out in front checking the trail for me. Always make sure that happens. Part of the deal." They shook hands after the Indian was carefully mounted, roped, and shrouded to Gregory's satisfaction.
Gibbons drove off in his wagon, with a striker in the bucket seat with him, both of them armed, and a rider on a big, black stallion riding out in front of them.
Gregory, to celebrate the completion of his task, went to the saloon and had a couple of beers before he chomped the chisel into another block of wood. He was content.
Out on the trail, equidistant between Newfield and Flat Rock, Gibbons' advance rider nowhere to be seen, the wagon was suddenly surrounded by Indians. Gibbons recognizes them as Lakota Sioux. One leader or a chief of sorts pointed to the wagon and the horses. "We take. You go," he said in decent English. The message was clearly understood by Gibbons from the first word, even as rifles and loaded bows were pointed at them to be used if they did not obey the demand.
Gibbons turned in his seat, raised one hand in the gesture for peace, and whispered to his striker, "Pull off that damned shroud and show them what we got. Do it slow and easy."
The striker pulled off the shroud, which folded softly into the bottom of the wagon. The painted colors of the Indian leaped up, bright as a dozen rainbows. And the weapons were exposed. The raised arm and the tomahawk carried its challenge, threat or salute, and alert Gibbons, the wise old freighter, gestured at the carved wooden Indian and yelled out, "Iktomi! Iktomi! Dream Catcher! Dream Catcher!"
He yelled it again as the dumbfounded Indians did not know what they were looking at, what had suddenly appeared in front of them.
The Indian, fully dressed, was a warrior of the first order or a god from the blue sky above. His arm, held high, carried the dreaded tomahawk. In his other hand he held a longbow, made of ash and strung with rawhide. A quiver full of arrows rode over one shoulder as he appeared ready for battle, ready for war. Tall on the wagon bed, he stood supreme over every Indian sitting on a horse.
There was no mistake about his place in any Indian hierarchy. In the nation of the Seven Council Fires, he belonged. He had earned his place. His bonnet was a full chief's regalia, with eagle and hawk feathers and other plumes as colorful as one of their blankets. The lime green rode like a soft intrusion, the deep red stuck out like blood about to be spilled, the deep purple stood for misery to be shared in the coming battle, the fiery orange signified a new victory, the blue signified the endless sky that judges all men from on high, and the deep black in some feathers said night was coming as well as the end of some life.
The Indians, amazed, surprised, frightened, fled down the trail and out of sight.
For a few miles Gibbons drove the wagon with the wooden Indian standing as tall as life in the bed of the wagon. Well short of Flat Rock he instructs his striker to place the shroud back in place. They ride up to Jacob Bessemer's store with the shrouded Indian.
The whole town looks on as Bessemer takes off the shroud.
Bessemer feels blessed.
Doc Winslow is beside himself with the artistic result, and claps loudly and long as Bessemer gets three men to unload the carved Indian and place him on his porch. He gives special instructions to one man, secretly, to anchor it to the deck during the night.
Then he says to Gibbons, "I take it there was no trouble on your trip."
"Mr. Bessemer," Gibbons says, "why don't you and me and my striker here go down to the saloon and we'll tell you all about Iktomi, the Dream Catcher of the Lakota Sioux. It's one heck of a story."
As they walk off, he says, "And I'm real thirsty too."
And before the evening is over, they start the legend of the First Cigar Store Indian in Flat Rock.