The sounds of thunder rolling down the canyon hid the sound of the shot. Lighting pierced the dark black ominous clouds, outlining a lone solitary figure of a saddled horse standing as if holding a vigil for some obscure reason, while the rain continued coming down in sheets.
The storm had raged for two hours and a deluge of water filled the stream bed that roared into life. The lighting continued to light the night sky illuminating the steep rocky slope lined with blackjack oak and a black object appearing to be a man's body, unmoving and without life.
The body was that of a man whose face had been battered and bloodied, his hand moved across his forehead, a signal that he was alive.
The trail was a rough fifty feet from where the man was laying. The man called "Preacher" rolled onto his side and began to pull himself ever so slowly up the steep embankment to the trail he had been riding. A hidden rifleman had blown him off his horse and left him for dead.
* * *
As I lay among the mud and rocks my head felt as though it was going to explode. My brain was addled, but I had to get my horse, if I was going to survive.
The bullet parted my hair on the left side of my skull, just about where I normally part it. Had it been a quarter of an inch lower I would not be worrying about getting to my horse. I was sure 'Water-Maker' would be waiting for me.
The slow tough pull back up to the trail was an arduous one. I forced my hands to dig into the mud and rock and leverage to the next hand full of mud. My body was so weak I rested often.
Willing myself, I continued the long climb to the trail. Tumbling down the slope had bruised and bloodied my face but no bones appeared to be broken. My head continued pounding and my body ached from bouncing off young blackjack trees and rocks as I rolled down the hill.
Finally with the last of my strength I reached the trail. Water-Maker came close nuzzling my shoulder as if to say, "where you been and why did it take you so long?"
I just laid in the trail for several long minutes, gathering strength. Finally grabbing the stirrup I pulled myself to stand beside the tall black stallion.
Summoning my strength I tried to put my foot in the stirrup. After several attempts my boot found the stirrup and I pulled my body into the saddle. Water-Maker was glad to see me but no more than I to see him. I reassured him, rubbing him on the neck, "I'm okay! That was a close call. We have to find some shelter." Exhausted and almost done, I urged the big horse on down the trail, looking for some kind of shelter.
The storm continued to rage; blinding rain continued its downpour. Slumped over my saddle horn, I wasn't seeing very clear, what with the rain and it getting dark, but there appeared to be a grove of blackjack trees off to the left.
Barely conscious for the past half hour, I gave Water-Maker his head. He took charge and continued into the grove of trees nestled against the side of a bluff.
The slap of a pine branch against the side of my head brought me back to consciousness. The chills began as my tired and beat-up body tried to hold on to its last little bit of heat.
The entrance of a cave loomed up in front of us. Once again Water-Maker had saved my bacon. Grabbing the saddle horn with my hands and arms I let my body just slide off, almost sinking to the ground, I stumbled and came up against the cave wall.
The cave had been used by another traveler far a long period of time. There was fire sign on the roof and dry wood was stacked inside the cave, which was something most of us that travel the trail appreciate and would return the favor for the next traveler.
After I finally got the saddle and gear off, I got a healthy fire going. Coffee was my next order of business. A small stream, just a few feet from the cave entrance filled my coffee pot. My clothes were so wet I just peeled them off and laid them out to dry.
Darkness had set in by the time that was done, and so was I. I bathed my wounds, as best I could, downed a cup of coffee and felt better, but my body moaned for rest. Water-Maker was not far away, standing guard over me, like a sentinel.
Wrapping my blanket around my aching body I stretched out on my ground sheet and drifted off.
Sleep came easy but was not peaceful. My mind fell off the cliff of reality into a night of horror. Two men raped and murdered my wife, Sarah Jane, and burned our cabin around her.
* * *
My horrible nightmare was one of terrible pain and sorrow. The memory of Sarah's death brought back the sound of my own screams for her. She was my life and everything revolved around her and the baby that was alive in her.
The pain lanced through my head as my mind flashed back to the horrors of that day. I had been hunting and was almost home when I sensed something was wrong. The sound of the shot came as the slug tore into me, high in my upper back, knocking me from my horse just in sight of the cabin.
The smell of wood smoke was heavy in my nostrils, I could hardly breathe. I opened my eyes to see our cabin's roof collapse on top of Sarah. The horror paralyzed my mind. I could hear moaning that turned to screams of despair once again reality dropped off into oblivion.
Darkness had covered everything by the time I regained consciousness, moving brought terrible pain. The slug had entered high on my left shoulder, passing through from back to front. Struggling to set up, my clothes was caked with dried blood.
The bleeding had eventually stopped but I had lost a lot of blood and my arm was totally useless. Willing my body into action, I rose onto my right elbow. Although I could see the remains of our cabin, I could not bring myself to accept the fact that Sarah was inside.
The sound of a lonesome cry echoed down our valley. The anguish and sorrow of emotions swept through my mind, I knew that she was lost to me forever.
The smell of smoke brought me back to my present reality, a corner of my blanket had edged into the coals and was beginning to smolder. Pain brought me fully awake when I moved abruptly and my sore muscles cried out from the bruising, jarring, scratches and cuts on my body from the hard fall last night.
Someone has said that nightmares seem to come back when a person is tired and exhausted. My nightmare comes every time I lay down to sleep. I wondered if it would ever end.
Outside of having a cut on my scalp, a headache, sole muscles, and my old back wound from two years ago, I felt okay.
The rain had stopped sometime during the night and the morning-rays of the sun were snaking down the little canyon warming up the chill that always accompanies the darkness in the northeastern hill country of Indian Territory.
Water Maker was feeding on grass just outside the cave entrance and the bright morning sun was getting warm. A cup of coffee and a biscuit would make me feel a whole lot better.
Coffee boiled over fire is so strong its aroma can almost pick a man up and carry him and some might say even resurrect a dead body, well almost.
After my second cup of coffee and hardtack biscuit, I thought about my next move. The rain had washed out all tracks, so that was not a consideration.
This was the second time I was shot from my saddle and lived, I had better be more careful. Almost three weeks ago I started on this trail, trying to catch up to two worthless vermin that murdered an old man and woman for a few dollars.
Luther and Ruth had been our friends when Sarah was alive, and I was pasturing their little church. Their friendship and comfort meant a lot to me when Sarah was killed. I was a Preacher, but had not always followed the 'turn the other cheek' commandment.
Blood was sure to flow and nothing was going to get in the way of justice for my friends. The killers knew I was coming and now thought me dead so maybe they would get careless, let their guard down and spend too long in the wrong place. I'll be there to wake them.
The only settlement of any size would be Tahlequah, about twenty-five miles to the south. I was no stranger to Tahlequah. I tracked the Waters brothers to Tahlequah and with the help of Jim Tenkiller and Zach Watts, Sarah's killers met the end they deserved.
Tahlequah was said to be the new Echota of the Cherokees. It was a thriving community since the whole nation had arrived four years ago. It seemed to be a good place to catch up to the Hatcher brothers. A visit with Jim and Zach, after the Hatchers were taken care of, would be good.
Working up a sweat felt good. My muscles screamed for a bit but loosened up. After stacking up another wood supply and washing the last bite of biscuit down with some coffee, I felt better than I had a right to. The sun was a good two hours risen when I saddled up and turned my back on the cave.
Glancing over my shoulder, I thanked the good Lord for His watch care and the last traveler for his help. Water-Maker was anxious to get on with the trip and set a mile eating trot that was as smooth as a rocking chair, well almost!
The sun was overhead and its rays were warm and felt good on my back. The trail wound down through the scrub oaks, maples and sycamore trees. Small streams cut across the trail like snakes winding themselves down the hollow over and abundance of rock.
Slowing Water-Maker to a walk I enjoyed the tranquility of the forest and the birds making their music and squirrels chattering and fussing because of the intrusion upon their domain.
My thoughts were interrupted by the sounds of hammering and cursing between two men. I stopped Water-Maker in under a huge maple and remained quite just to make sure I wasn't interfering in bad business.
Their wagon was low on the right rear, appeared the wheel had come off and they were attempting to put in back on, but they had a load of small barrows and it looked heavy.
I nudged my horse into the road and gave out with a loud "hello!" Good people have been shot because they didn't introduce themselves before entering a camp. Dirt had been dug from beneath the wheel and they had a timber as leverage but not enough weight to lift the axle high enough. The weariness showed on their faces and a little bit of fear showed around the edges.
One had a felt hat in hand about to throw it on the wet ground until I showed up.
"Looks like you could use another body to weight that timber or maybe unload some of those barrows."
"We were just about ready to give up. Axle needs to be raised another foot, and those barrows stay on the wagon!" Felt hat commented.
I had about decided these two were trying to hide something in those barrows. It wasn't hard to figure out what that was, hard moonshine whiskey. I tied Water-Maker to a sapling beside the trail. "I'll help you put more weight on your pole; maybe we can lift it high enough."
Felt hat said, "I'm Jack Double-Tooth and this is Thomas Cox. We appreciate your help!"
"Everybody calls me Preacher." We began putting our weight on the pole and the wagon lifted just high enough to slide the wheel on the axle.
Spirits picked up a bit after the wagon was repaired and ready to go again. "Preacher you are welcome to ride along with us. We're going to make a fire about a mile down the trail. We don't have much, but Thomas cooks a good batch of flat bread and we'll fry up some potatoes and beans."
I didn't like the business these boys were in, but decided they weren't bad, just misguided. I knew the Cherokee's didn't hold to whiskey being in their country, but that was their business. "That sounds like an invitation I can't refuse."
We were sitting around waiting on Thomas's flat bread, sipping on a cup of coffee and I could sense the question coming, "What happened to your face? Where'd you get all those scratches and bruises?"
"Well, a bushwhacker parted my scalp with a slug late yesterday and I tumbled down a steep bluff, banging my head on every rock and tree trunk on the slope. I must have been on that slope for couple of hours, while the storm was going on. Lucky for me, my horse waited on me."
"Do you know who it was that shot you? Jack asked.
"Yep, it was one of the two murderers I've been trailing for about three weeks now. The Hatcher brothers or least that was the names they were using up in Kansas. I think they're heading for Tahlequah. I'll catch up to them and make them pay for what they did."
Jack appeared to be mulling something over for a few minutes before he said, "You know they may stop before they get to Tahlequah. There's a tavern about five miles from here on the Illinois River. A man can get food and drink even get a bed, if you don't mind sleeping on straw mattress and burlap sheets. If those two think you are dead, they may hold up for a day."
"You may be right! I think I'll pay that tavern a visit about sundown."
The sun was about three o'clock when we packed up and headed towards the tavern. Jack and Thomas decided they weren't about to miss the fun so they tagged along with me. The trail was pretty well traveled and so we made good time.
The sun was getting pretty low when we pulled up in a grove of trees. The tavern was in sight and looked like there were three horses tied to the rail and a couple others in a small corral to the side of the building.
Jack was looking to his waist gun like he was preparing for action, I said, "Thanks for your company, but I kill my own snakes."
Thomas said, "We'll just make sure the odds don't get worst, as you're dealing with those two."
"I'm obliged to you. I'm going around back and see if there's a door. Those polecats will run if they see me coming."
Jack said, "We'll drive on in and hitch our horses to the rail and fool around until you're ready, then we'll go in through the front door. They'll be looking at us when you make your move."
"I just don't want you two getting shot up because of me."
My foot was on the first step of the back porch when I heard Jack and Thomas raising a fuss out front. It sounded like an argument.
I opened the door and stepped inside into a small storage room and another door that was open. I could see a large room with four tables, spaced around the room. Three men were at the table nearest to the front door and two others were at the plank bar on the long side of the room.
I stepped into the room, their attention was out front but the younger of the two standing at the bar turned his head and went for his gun. It didn't make much sense for him to do it, since I didn't know him as being part of the Hatcher bunch, but he did.
The Kentucky pistol was slow lining up on me and since I had thumbed my Paterson Colt back when I came in, my shot caught him in the middle. He fell back against the bar bringing bottles crashing on the floor.
I was already swinging to cover the others. A move behind the bar got my attention. The bartender was trying to find a safe place to hide. Turning back to the room I got a glimpse of someone running past the front window.
Jack pointed and said, "Three busted out as soon as you started shooting. Were those the ones you're after?"
"Yeah, they were the polecats." Looking at the last man sitting at the table, "Do you want a part of this, or are you just playing cards?"
"Mister, I never laid eyes on those three until about three hours ago. I was just looking for a friendly game and that's the only thing I want any part of."
The bartender was busy sweeping up the broken glass and trying to ignore the body on the floor. So I ask him, "Did the Hatcher brothers say where they were heading?"
"No, but I would say that Tahlequah is a good bet. They like their drink and comfort."
"Do you have anything to eat? I'm hungry enough to eat a boot." Turning to the card player, I said, "I've got a five dollar gold piece if you'll take this body out and bury it. You might check and see if he has anything that says who he is and if any relatives are close by."
"I'll take care of that right now. Say, he's got, or he had a horse and saddle, what do you want me to do with them?"
Jack was quick to jump in "I'll lend a hand, for the horse and saddle, if you don't mind."
With that settled I set down to a roast venison sandwich and a cool glass of water. As I ate I thought about the foolish young man that had brought into something which cost him his life. That was a risk he should not have taken.
Jack and Thomas came in about the time I was rinsing down the last of my sandwich. I could tell they had their fill of fun for one day, Jack said, "Well Tom and me we're heading out. Maybe we see you down the road somewhere."
"Jack, Tom it's been my pleasure. Thanks for your help. You boys be careful as you go down that road with your wagon. I imagine the law will be on the lookout for what you carry."
Tom interjected, "I told Jack this was too risky, but here we are anyway. We'll likely both get killed one of these days doing this kinda thing. Just ain't worth it!"
After a piece of apple pie, I heard Water-maker stomping on the front porch, telling me he was tired of waiting. The bartender and I were jawing and he suggested that the Hatchers might not be heading south but east to a little community over in Arkansas called 'Bentonville'. He heard one of the brothers mentioned that they had friends there.
I thanked him for the food and information and he suggested, that if I wanted to stay the night there was a barn with hay and I was welcome to it. The barn wasn't much but it was a roof and a place for us to sleep.
Water-maker seemed happy with it, I sure was, so I threw my blanket over a pile of hay and slept like I hadn't slept in a long time.
* * *
The morning sun found us about a mile down the road, moving slow since those two were ahead of me somewhere. I forded the Illinois and headed east hoping to cross the road to Bentonville.
The rolling hills began to grow larger into what I thought were the foothills of the Ozarks. A mountain range that was wild and beautiful, but rugged. Evidence of a well travelled trail stretched out before us winding its way up through dense brush and trees.
Maple and oak were in abundance, it was a place that would be ideal for an ambush. Goose bumps rose up on my shoulders causing me to sharply rein Water-maker off the trail. I heard of stories when men who didn't listen to their instincts ended up dead and I sure didn't want to give them another shot at me.
Ground hitching Water-maker I took my long gun and started moving parallel to the trail. I had gone a couple hundred yards when I smelled smoke. Smoke to the trained senses can give a position away better than a skunk that's been scared.
The terrain was now rocky bluffs with cedar trees dotting the sides. Skirting the trail I soft stepped for another hundred feet and came back towards where I thought the smoke was.
Sure enough, the snake was about fifteen feet up the bluff behind a rock overlooking the trail. I made sure my Kentucky rifle was primed and moved in. The back shooter was focused on the trail and when I stepped from behind a large pine he still did not make a move.
I was so sure I had him dead to rights; I failed to make sure he was alone. The bullet took me in my right side. I fell forward which saved my life, for another bullet whizzed by where I had been.
I heard the echo of their shots as I was falling forward into brush that hid me from them. I had to get away. My blood was flowing freely and I knew I was in bad shape. I crawled as fast as I could, trying to be quiet and move the bushes as little as possible.
I heard the shooters say, "We hit him, don't let him get away. He's going to die today."
"Hatcher, I don't hear or see him and I'm not going in by myself to find out if he's dead."
"Okay, we'll be right down there. But you better keep your eyes open"
It had only been a couple of minutes but I had managed to get maybe fifty yards away. I had to keep moving and find a place to hide until dark. I took a quick look at my wound, the bleeding had slowed some.
The bullet had passed through the flesh so it looked like a clean wound. I stuffed some wadding in the holes and kept searching for a hideout.
I had gone another seventy-five yards moving low to the ground, almost passing by a huge pine right up against the bluff. It cast a shadow that covered a crack in the rock. I looked into the crack hoping that rattlers were not using it for a hideout to.
Putting my long gun out front of me hoping to scare off any critter that was ahead of me, I moved further into the crack. It widened out after several feet and I could turn around to face my enemies.
I pulled my waist gun and set down to wait. I felt very tired and it was all I could do to stay alert. I felt they would not give up this time and would continue the search until they found me.
Voices that were very near woke me up. "He's got to be close. I know he's hurt bad. We're not quitten until we know he's dead. He's hounded us long enough."
Looked like it was mid afternoon for the shadows had shifted making my hideout more difficult to see, but I was not intending to wait for them to find me. I was coming out of my hole.
I waited for another fifteen minutes and moved to the face of the crack and took a quick look around. No sounds of anything unusual, but I knew they were close. Getting down on all fours I crawled out into the shadows behind the pine and lay down.
My wound felt better but the soreness was coming on. Using my long gun as a crutch I finally got on my feet and moved to my right back towards where I had left Water-maker.
I had made about fifty feet and had no good cover when Leo Hatcher spoke from behind me, "Stand real still and lay that long gun down."
He called to the others, "I got him cold as a dead turkey."
"You been dogging us for a long time and I don't know who you are. What's yore name?"
I knew I was in trouble because I could hear the others coming through the brush. I bent over like I was laying my rifle down and just kept falling onto my left side, while pulling my colt.
I didn't know exactly where Leo was but I had to chance it. "My name is Preacher and this is for Luther and Ruth." I thumbed off a shot in Leo's direction hoping to buy some time.
My Paterson has six shots which are handy, especially in times like now. My second shot found its mark because Leo grunted and said, "Carl he shot me," and crumbled and fell over.
The other two were coming but I had no idea where they were now since Leo had gone down. I crawled into the brush hoping the noise didn't give my position away. No such luck! I heard the shot after feeling the impact.
My shoulder felt like a mule had kicked it. The shock numbed it but I knew pain would come soon. I tried to crawl but I was all out of strength. My colt was six or seven feet away with no way of getting to it. I could hear Carl coming and knew I had to do something.
The only thing I had was my knife but it was useless with an injured shoulder. Carl stood over me with a blood thirsty grin and the other killer was nearing. Carl said, "Yore gonna pay for killing Leo. I'm putting a ball right between yore eyes."
Carl thought he had me and it looked like the end. But the Lord has His own plan and my dying was not in this day. Carl was lined up on me, ready to pull the trigger, his eyes got big, spread his arms and fell backward like a giant pine tree.
The echo of a shot sounded and I realized Carl would not be killing anymore. Jack and Tom came from the trees, the third killer hit the brush and disappeared. "We got to thinking about yore situation and felt like we would be missing out on some fun if you found these killers on your own, so here we are. Guess we saved your bacon, right?"
"Jack, you came just at the right time. I've had all the fun I can stand for awhile. I owe you my life! How did you two find me anyway?"
"Well we didn't go far until Tom talked me into coming back because we didn't see any tracks of these killers going south, so he thought we should tell you. We found where you changed direction heading east so we just naturally tagged along behind you."
Water-maker came a running when I whistled and acted like he had been worried a little about me. With a little help from Tom, I was in the saddle and headed to Tahlequah.
"I'm going to buy you two the biggest steaks that Sarah can cook up for us, then I'm going to visit Jim Ten-killer, get some rest and maybe hunt and fish some. I'm a whole lot tired and worn out."
Two days later I rode into the yard of Jim and Wynona Ten-Killer, some of the best people I have ever met. They came to meet me as I stepped down. I got a hug from Wynona and a hand shake from Jim, "It's good to see you. You look like you been rode hard and hung out wet, you been in some trouble?"
"I'll tell you'll about it after awhile. My shoulder is paining me some. Give me a couple days and I'll be good as new. What about you all?"
"We've been okay, well until yesterday. Eli rode in and said that Stove-hat had been ambushed. He's okay, but looks like someone is trying to cause some trouble for us."
"Well I thought we might do some hunting, guess this will be 'varmint' hunting. The two legged kind!"