The Ghost of All Goodbyes
by Brian Townsley
The man woke to the thick smell of earth as the mud in which he found himself immersed had collected and inserted itself into his nostrils and eyelids. He recognized immediately that the noose was still tight about his neck, the tendrils of twine like wire poking into his flesh. He sat up then, quiet as a shadow, and swept the matted hair from his face and wiped the filth from his green eyes with hands no cleaner than what they removed. His beard was caked with mud and he could feel its weight. He blinked, seeing the world anew, and slid his fingers over the twine about his neck. His hands followed the design of the rope to a jagged and frayed end some few inches from the noose. He looked up and there saw the remainder of the rope that was to have been his demise, him swinging pendant as he bucked and twitched and shit himself. How it had severed, whether by his weight or old twine or by a blade he did not know. He knew only that he was currently sitting in mud and his neck was a kind of sore that may never leave. As much alive and a child of the earth as yesterday.
He stood then and found that his legs would hold him. His hat lay crown down at the base of that same tree that was to have been his grave and so he retrieved that. It was an old black beaver fur variety, with a pinch front and a beaded tribal band about it that had been given him after returning a runaway Kiowa boy to his tribe. He looked at it, surprised it had not been taken when the men had removed his rifle and Colt pistol, along with the two large knives sheathed on his thighs, and he hatted himself. This day was full of surprises.
The rifle had been an 1866 Winchester and the pistol an 1860 Colt Army Revolver, neither of which would be easily replaced; On the other hand, he had no intention of replacing them. He had known the outfit who had strung him up, and knew where they could be found. He pulled the front brim of his hat low, and began walking northwest, through the forest populated mostly with oak and birch trees that had surrounded him throughout most of his life.
* * *
He rapped on the cabin door twice and stood back on the front porch. He saw a curtain at the window twitch and finally the door opened. A bespectacled man with a handlebar mustache and striped vest opened the door and wore an expression bordering on concern. The man's name was Ben, and he was both a doctor and family to the man on the porch, though not terribly distinguished at either.
"Damn, Rye," was what he said, and he walked out the door onto the porch and sat in one of the two rockers that held sway there and set to lighting a pipe.
Rye walked over to the other chair and sat, not rocking. Neither man said anything, and eventually the pipe was lit. "Quite a choker you got there," Ben said, by way of conversation starter.
Rye removed his hat and hung it from the arm of the chair and nodded, and immediately regretted it, so sore was his neck.
"They took my mare, both guns, both knives," he croaked, finally. It seemed to both men that there was more to say but neither said it. Ben puffed at his pipe, and looked thoughtfully at the noose about the neck of his kin.
"Well," said Ben. His teeth clicked as he removed the pipe and he spit then, a rainbow shaped lob that both men watched until it met the earth. "This all from the job collectin' that cowboy?" Ben asked.
It seemed a stupid question to both men, and so it hung in the air like a rancid fart that simply needs to be endured.
Ben puffed on his pipe, and Rye looked from the porch to the forest. Finally, he said, "I saw 'em all—Johannsen too. There were five of them. I'll be taking a few things for the trip."
Ben puffed and nodded. "Well. Let's get started by gettin' that noose off, I reckon."
* * *
Ben and Rye had never been close, although they shared some of the same blood and had lived within ten miles of one another throughout the entirety of their lives. Rye came from the supposed mongrel side of the line, him being half Pawnee, the other half shared Irish, and while he didn't fully look like an Indian, he didn't really pass for white, either. He had dark olive skin and shoulder length black hair, with a strong nose and flared nostrils, and below all of that a bushy black beard. His shoulders were nearly an axe-handle wide and his hands had yet to find a pair of gloves that fit. He was, in all, an odd assemblage of parts that made a formidable whole nonetheless. Ben, on the other hand, looked like he was fresh off the boat from the Old Country, all freckles and milky skin, a fact that he had been known on occasion to remind Rye of, particularly when in his cups.
At present, however, the rest of the family who had once surrounded the two of them had either passed on or pulled up stakes and headed farther west, thus Ben Smith and Rye Lonehand were the last of their kind, paired together without their choosing, and so they continued to lean on each other as if they had no creativity or free will, in the grip of some grim determination.
Rye washed himself from a water bucket and rested after. The next morning, he grabbed a rifle, this one a Sharps model—known mostly for shooting Buffalo, which, partially because of that and otherwise because of its inaccuracy, Rye was not especially inclined towards. It was, however, available. He added a pouch of buffalo jerky and a water skin to the collection on the table. A knife was next, and so he sat on the porch for nearly an hour sharpening the instrument that resembled a bludgeon as much as a blade when he began, so dull was it. He chewed on a knot of tobacco as he worked, missing the spittoon entirely more often than not. Ben, for his part, had conjured up a thick, clear ointment and lathered that on Rye's neck, and it stung anew every time he moved it.
* * *
Rye Lonehand had been hired to bring in a wanted man from one of the local ranches in the territory, owned by a Johanssen. He had a first name, but Rye didn't know it. The cow puncher's name was Reaves.
Rye, of course, did not have a license or badge of any sort, nor did he want one. The law was seldom seen around these parts, however, and since he was half Pawnee, various lawmen, all of them white, would lean on him to go places they could or would not. He got jobs in essence as a bounty hunter, was given a writ warrant, often with a picture, then sought toward finding and delivering those sorry individuals through Kiowa or Pawnee land, or west through the Navajo or Apache territories, to a waiting US Marshal on the other side. It was a strange business, but one he found he did not mind doing. He did something he was good at, was left alone, and got paid for doing it. A man can do worse.
In this particular case, however, he had learned something which had been unknown previously, and he had learned it as that outfit was literally fitting the noose around his neck. Reaves was Johanssen's nephew.
* * *
He rode the forest north on a black mare Ben had spared. It was springtime, and the air was newborn and flush with pollen and hummingbirds darted thusly as he rode. He was in no hurry, as a death a week from now suited him the same as a death tomorrow. And being that he himself was a dead man, at least as far as these cowboys were concerned, it did him no good whatever to be seen or in fact announce his presence any sooner than was necessary.
He slept the first night at the base of a tree with the horse tethered nearby. He had seen nary man or beast and was set well within himself and his thoughts. He set no fire as the night was balmy and the quilt he had brought held more heat than was necessary for the job. In the morning he watered his horse and took some for himself at a nearby stream. The sun rose angry in the east, and the humidity felt thick enough to cut with a knife. His knife, even, if it were sharp enough. His neck felt on fire.
He rode north in no particular hurry, for heat and humidity such as this would wipe out his horse if he was not careful, and, truth be told, he was still fashioning a plan. It was silliness to simply ride to the ranch and there serve a warrant for which he had already been hanged and where he was outnumbered five-to-one. There was Johannsen to be dealt with, for Rye was not a man to be strung up, failed or otherwise, without some form of retribution; he would see to that. But the cowpoke Reaves, that was a second part of this to be dealt with. And so he rode north with his thoughts and looked for tracks and signs of wear, finding little of note.
It was past noon on the third day as the sun bore down malevolently and he and his mare were soaked with sweat that he rode into a clearing in the forest where the weeds and grass feathered the haunches of his horse and there saw the two Kiowa, some thirty yards across the meadow. They were man and boy, both upon horses. The man's horse had a deer that lay across horizontal in front of him. Even from here, Rye could see the two gashes on its side where it had been shot with arrows, though they had been removed. Both man and boy were shirtless and wore leather leggings and moccasins, as was custom for a Kiowa. He saw no gun, but each armed with a bow. He had seen the man before but was not an acquaintance. There passed a moment where all three participants halted their mounts and looked upon one another, each silent as a thought, and with it some ancient and terrible instinct within man to make a graveyard of the entire world. Then it passed, and all Rye felt was hot. He dipped his hat once in greeting and slowly rode his horse at a walk across the meadow. When he reached the end of the clearing, he looked back and saw nothing at all.
It was near dark on that same day when he found the remnant of a campsite, and evidence of a fire from the previous night. He was still some miles from the ranch at this point, and read here three horses in the dirt, and thusly assumed three riders in turn. The hoof tracks bore east, and he knew then that whomever rode those horses were headed to the small town of Consequence, for there was little of note in that direction otherwise in the territory. He kicked his booted heels softly into the midsection of his mare who picked up the pace into that same direction, a destination finally glimpsed where none had been before.
* * *
The town of Consequence was little more than a collection of seven buildings, with a smattering of houses just outside the main street. The saloon acted as coffee shop and supper house as well, since the only town restaurant had long ago gone belly up, and the upstairs of the saloon was versatile enough to be considered hotel and whorehouse and public bath all the while. A very large Mr. Sheldon Mims owned that versatile establishment, and he was known to be as quick with a joke as with the sawed-off shotgun always within reach under the bar. The mercantile was next door and had a room off to the side for a barber, and the man who ran them both doubled as sheriff. His name was Jim Marshall, but folks in the territory found some pleasure referring to him as Marshal Marshall, despite that not being the correct title, finding their wit more to their liking than accuracy. There was a church, of course, but that had taken on a bit of a rural legend in recent years, as the last regular preacher ran off with a 14-year old boy from the town. His replacement was killed on the trip west, rather unluckily, by a random war party, and his replacement again showed up sick and never did get well. He was dead within weeks. So the town had been well shod of preachers for some years now, although a few of the town women kept the church up as best they could.
The fourth building belonged to a blacksmith with a livery yard in back, so horses could be stabled. There was a schoolhouse, of course, and Consequence being practical in matters of town hospitality, the teacher there doubled as the whorehouse madam, one Ms. Josie Laughlin, when school was not in session. The second-to-last place of business was the old restaurant, and it took up a large corner space and sat empty as a lighthouse. It was connected around the corner to the sheriff's office, though truth be told that office was empty more often than naught, what with the sheriff spending most of his time running the mercantile.
When Rye Lonehand rode into Consequence that evening, it was one of those purple summer nights where though the sun had set, the light had never really gone from the sky. He passed through town once simply for a gander. The saloon and its many businesses seemed on the up and up, what with more horses tethered outside than seemed town occupants, and there were two couples walking hand in arm along the streets. He passed the mercantile and while the shop itself seemed closed, he saw its proprietor, Sherriff Marshall, or Marshal Marshall, as the joke went, inside tending to business by himself behind the desk. Rye sat his mare and tethered her and knocked on the window. The Sherriff looked up from his papers and, bespectacled, raised his glasses to look through the glass. Recognizing the man he found there, we walked to the front door and unlocked it.
"Lonehand," he said in greeting. There was no warmth in it, but no malevolence either. He walked back to his papers.
"Sheriff," Rye answered. He realized that this was the first time he had spoken since seeing Ben, and the three days with no speech had done his voice no favors. It was raspy and painful, and sounded like something from a nightmare.
"What can I do for you," the man said, more declaration than question in tone. "Better yet, is this business or pleasure? I'm assuming business, or you would have just gone next door. And what the heck is with your voice?"
Rye reached into his coat pocket and there removed a warrant sheet. He walked forward and put it on the counter in front of the sheriff. "I'm looking for a man name of Reaves. Ranch hand," he rasped.
The sheriff looked at the warrant, the illustration there, and the words writ thereabouts for some time. Far longer than was necessary, both men knew.
Then he looked towards the ceiling, and exhaled loudly. "Lonehand, we have a deal here. You know that. You head into the territories and track down your bounties, but that business stays out of town."
Rye looked at the man and nodded, swallowing a mouthful of spittle in the hopes of giving his voice some life. "Of course, Sheriff. But—well, this time it's personal. I got the warrant. So I'm in the right, but even if I wasn't—"
"What are you yammering on about, and what's that got to do—"
Rye reached to the candle lamp on the counter and picked it up, and with his other hand lifted his head and raised his beard so the sheriff could get a good look. His neck still wore the outline of the noose, the skin bruised purple and dark blue in a combination of raw skin and clotted blood, a semblance of the scar tissue to come. The ointment Ben had put on glistened in the lamplight.
The sheriff looked from the neck to Rye and then back to the neck. "Well, shit. I'll be damned," he said, and rubbed the back of his own neck. Then he nodded, and continued: "They did that?"
Rye nodded. "All of 'em. Johannsen too."
The sheriff continued nodding, then stopped. "Well okay then," he said. He turned around and reached for his hat which hung on the wall and hatted himself. It was a silverbelly job with a ranch crease. He removed his glasses, and pulled the badge from his vest pocket and pinned that on.
"Reaves is next door," he said. "Two other hands, too. Wilson, I think, and one other. I saw 'em all earlier when they went in. Probably pretty well soused by now, I reckon."
Rye waited in the mercantile shop while Sheriff Marshall walked into the saloon. The sheriff returned shortly and confirmed that the men were next door. Reaves, it turned out, was upstairs immersed in some business. The two cowboys were playing cards but near stone drunk at one of the tables. Rye and Sheriff Marshall discussed their options.
* * *
Rye Lonehand pushed one of the swinging doors open and tipped his hat to Mims, the large barman, who nodded in return and reached for the sawed-off shotgun below the bar. Rye looked about the saloon and the inhabitants there. Sheriff Marshall stood behind him in the doorway and took it in. Many of the tables were more than half full, where people were either eating or playing cards. It was one table toward the rear wall, however, that took Rye's attention and it was there that he saw the two ranch hands. He knew them immediately, and remembered that it had been Wilson, the black cowboy in the group, that had fitted the noose about his neck. He felt it again now. The other hand he did not know the name of, and it was at that instant that the cowboy recognized Rye and went white as the moon. He stared at Rye and tapped Wilson, and then they were both staring. A quiet settled over the room, and people at the near tables began to think about escape routes, and whether they were right with the Lord, if guns were pulled.
It was clear to anyone with two eyes that the two cowboys were deep in their cups, and so what followed was both fortuitous and expected. Rye pointed at them for affect and the white cowboy stood, his thighs bumping the table, and exclaimed, "We hung you!" and it came out both exclamatory and questioning, and Wilson then tried to stand and pull his gun from its holster but the whiskey had blunted whatever skills existed there and so his hand fumbled with pistol and leather holster alike and the shot that followed instead went into his own foot. He screamed once and went down immediately. Rye turned to the Sheriff and asked, "You heard that, yeah?"
Sheriff Marshall nodded and walked towards the two men, one writhing in pain on the floor and the other still staring, unbelieving, at Rye Lonehand. The man who would not die. Rye, for his part, started up the stairs. He soon found Reaves in one of the rooms towards the back of the building, hard at work in copulation with one of the girls of domestic repute. When Rye opened the door, he saw that Reaves had left his gunbelt on a chair near the window, and as soon as the cowboy saw Rye he tossed the girl aside on the bed and stood, naked as the day he was born, with an erection to boot.
* * *
Reaves was collected and delivered through the territory on the warrant, although he now had another charge to be dealt with when that one was completed. An attempted murder by hanging. The irony of being delivered on one charge by the man whom he attempted to hang on the other was not lost on either man, and Marshal Dagget laughed himself hoarse when Rye delivered the man to him.
In the true spirit of recompense, Rye relieved Reaves of his gunbelt, revolver, and knife, as well as the rifle which had been on his horse, and whatever tobacco was found in the saddlebags, and so headed towards home more fully equipped than he had started out. It was with these weapons that he took a detour on the way back, and stayed for much of the night on a bluff overlooking the Johannsen property. He made no fire, and spent the time collecting whatever evidence he could. He caught sight of his horse, at one point, and mapped out the buildings-stables, outhouse, main house, bunkhouse, which was now mostly empty. He knew Johanssen's bedroom by the candle that was last extinguished in the main house. And so it was shortly before dawn when Rye Lonehand made his way down the bluff, rifle in hand, for a visit with Mr. Johanssen and the retrieval of his horse. The sun had yet to begin its ascent in the east, but had inked the horizon red for its arrival above the blueblack sky and the stars that hung pendant there, bearing witness each to each.
Brian Townsley has a Master of Professional Writing (MPW) degree from USC, and has published work in many
journals, including Black Mask, Connecticut Review, Quarterly West, and Mystery Tribune, to name a few. He
was the recipient of the AWP Intro Award, and had a short story make the 'distinguished stories' list in
the Best American Mystery Stories, 2019.
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by James A. Tweedie
"No, Pa! Don't do it!" begged thirteen-year-old Robbie Bancroft. "Don't go shootin' the old man or you'll get hung or go to hell or prob'ly both and Ma and me can't get by without you. Pa! Don't do it!"
"Third time in a month Carter's busted up my fence and let his cows into my pasture," Pa answered with a snarl. "It's got to stop or the next war's goin' to start right here an' I reckon it won't be stoppin' 'til the Platte runs red!"
Al Bancroft, wearing chaps and riding boots didn't loosen his grip on "Old Buck," the Spencer Carbine given to him when his father came back from the Civil War. Now, twenty years later, newer rifles with better ammunition like the Winchester were all the rage. But the Spencer had never let him down and its .52 caliber slug could reduce a fence post to splinters from 100 yards. It could also, as his father used to say, put a hole in a man that even Jesus couldn't heal.
Al was proud of his son, as proud as any father could be, and was already beginning to think of him as a man instead of a boy.
Listen to the boy, he told himself. He's right. I can't shoot the old man . . .
"Hell, Son," he said as his face began to soften from the rage that had driven him to the point of storming out of the house with his rifle, "I'd just as soon shoot the cows but it ain't none of their fault."
The thought of shooting cows turned his fading frown into the first-born hint of a smile.
With a sigh and a slow shake of his head, he set the rifle in the corner next to the front door and sat down on the three-legged stool the boy sat on when he milked their own two cows.
"So," he asked, "what do you think I oughta do? We've been raisin' cattle on this land since afore you were born, near fifteen year. Now folks like old man Carter and Mrs. Sarah are showin' up and layin' claim to 160 acres for homesteadin'. By the time you're old enough to take over the herds, there won't be nothin' left for them longhorns to live on."
"It ain't our land, Pa, and you know it's so. Mr. Phelps in town set me straight on it. He says it's government land and they can do whatever they want and we've got no claim to it."
"Just because it's the law don't make it fair," Pa answered, grimly, "and the government stole it from the Indians anyways so who's to say the government's got a right to it a'tall?"
The heavy thud of hooves mixed with the creak of wagon springs filtered through the thin walls of the Bancroft's home.
Robbie shot a glance through the window.
"It's the Marshal, Pa, and Mrs. Sarah."
Pa stood and picked up the rifle from the floor.
"Not what I'd expect from Carter," he said. "A-sendin' a woman and the Marshal to do the talkin' for himsel'. 'Spect she'll be wearin' the pants and him the petticoats soon enough."
Before he reached for the door he put on his hat-not that he needed it but so he could tip it as a greeting to Mrs. Carter.
"Boy," he added as he stepped onto the porch. "run down to the creek and tell Ma she's got company."
It was the end of May and Al felt the heat of the mid-morning sun as he stepped off the porch.
"G'day, to you, Sarah," he shouted as he touched a finger to the front brim of his hat. "And same to you, Marshal," he added, as U.S. Marshal William Kemper dropped from his horse and landed on the ground with a puff of dust.
As Kemper tied his horse to the water trough, Al helped Sarah down from the wagon, loosed her draft horse from the wagon and tied him up next to the Marshal's.
"Come on in and set a spell," he said as he waved them up the steps and led them into the house. "Molly's down at the creek launderin' but I sent Robbie down to fetch her so she'll be here soon enough."
Al thought it odd that Sarah and the Marshal took seats as far away from each other as possible.
"And while we're waitin', I'll get some water. Makes no sense to provide for the horses without doin' the same for them that rides'em . . . .or drives 'em," he added with a nod to Sarah, "as the case may be."
"That would be right nice of you, Mr. Bancroft, and I do hope I didn't come by at a bad time . . . "
"Here," said the Marshal, as he stood up and shadowed Bancroft out of the room, "let me help."
"What's with you and the Carter woman?" Al asked when he and the Marshal were alone in the kitchen. "Comin' here together, I mean?"
"We didn't come together," the Marshal whispered. "We just happened to show up at the same time from opposite directions."
While Al filled three glasses from a bucket of rainwater, the Marshal continued.
"I don't have all day, Bancroft," he said in a tone of voice that Al took as threatening. "I just want you to know that Carter . . . Mr. Carter . . . filed a complaint with my office sayin' that you've been denyin' him access to public land by puttin' up a fence to keep him and his cows from gettin' in. What do you have to say about it?"
Instead of answering the question, Al handed the Marshal a glass of water and turned to leave the room.
"Now hold on," the Marshal said in a quiet yet commanding voice. "There's more."
Al stopped and turned back to listen.
"In the complaint he says you threatened to shoot him the next time he broke through your fence."
Al shrugged his shoulders and said nothing.
"Did you threaten him or didn't you?"
"I did, and when I said it, I meant it. Now . . . I've got better things to do with Old Buck than waste a bullet on Sam Carter."
"Glad to hear it," said the Marshal, with no attempt to hide the sarcasm in his voice. "And you best be takin' down that fence or else puttin' in a gate to let his cows into that pasture you've been keepin' to yourself."
"And there's nothin' I can do to stop it?"
"Not a thing, less'n you file a homestead claim of your own—one that includes the pasture."
"Well, then," Al replied after chewing on the Marshal's answer for a bit, "then I guess I can't do nothin' about my steers stampedin' his cows or if'n I let loose my bull into the herd. That bull's mighty fond of the ladies, if you catch my drift. After all, it's public land and my herds got as much right to be there as his does."
"Sounds like feudin' to me," the Marshal glared back. "Sam's got a double barrel for huntin' rabbits and you've got Old Buck for God knows what. But you both better let it be and not make things worse than they already are, for yourselves . . . and for me, if you catch my drift."
"Thanks for stoppin' by, Marshal. I'd enjoy talkin' some more but I have to get this water to Sarah a'fore it goes cold."
"You're more full of beans than an old pot," laughed the Marshal as he nodded a passing good-bye to Mrs. Carter before leaving a small trail of dust behind as he rode away.
"Sarah, so good to see you," Molly said as she entered the room with Robbie following behind.
"Here's some water for the thirsty ladies," Al said as he offered the two glasses he still held in his hands. "Enjoy yourselves while Robbie and I finish up some chores."
* * *
"I'm glad you came," Molly said, as she sat down in a chair facing her neighbor. "I can fix some tea if you'd like. I'm afraid I'm all out of biscuits."
"I'm fine with the water, and I didn't come all this way to eat biscuits, either. I'm here because I'm worried about the bad blood that's boiling between Sam and Al. I know Al's Pa was Blue and Sam's was Gray, but that's no excuse for starting up the war all over again."
"That may be true," Molly answered, "and I'm worried, too—about the men arguing and all. But I'm not so sure it has to do with what side they were on. Al feels as if his life's work—building up the herd and marketing it in Omaha—is going to be taken from him by homesteaders like you and Sam. That's not saying you've done anything wrong—the law is on your side and you're working hard to make a living out of that sorry sod house you've got."
"So, then," Sarah asked, "what are we going to do about it?"
* * *
"What did the Marshal want?"
"Same as you—warnin' me not to go shootin' anybody."
"Ma's got a book about Abe Lincoln."
"What's that got to do with anything?"
"It tells how Lincoln is asked why he treats his enemies so kindly instead of destroyin' them."
"And?" Pa asked.
"So Lincoln says, 'Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?'"
"Come on, boy. Out with it. You're tryin' to say somthin' but you're not sayin' it."
"Pa, a while back you asked what we should do about Mr. Carter, and I got to thinkin' about it when I was runnin' to fetch Ma and it hit me hard that what if you and Mr. Carter decided to be friends. And instead of arguin' and fightin' over the land you became partners and worked out some way to share it—the land, I mean—and maybe that would be good for both of you."
"It's too late for that," Pa replied. "Before he came along and made his claim, I was already usin' his land for the water—now he's got more water than I do. Hell, I was fixin' to build a mill alongside that stream until he stole it from me. Now all we've got is the creek."
"There you go, Pa. Think about it You give him somethin' and he lets you build a mill on his stream and then you slap each other on the back instead of stabbin' each other all the time."
Pa stood frozen in place as if he were suddenly lost in a dream.
"And Mrs. Carter," Robbie added, "she's nice and Ma needs a friend and they're the closest neighbors we've got, so why not?"
"Why not?" Pa asked in a whisper so soft that it took Robbie a few seconds to figure out what his Pa had said.
* * *
"Where are you going, boys?" Molly asked as her husband and son walked through the front room and headed out the door.
"We're gonna build a gate, Ma," Robbie said excitedly. "We're gonna put it in the fence right across from the Carter's place, the same as where Mr. Carter's been breakin' it down to get into our pasture."
"Robbie?" asked Sarah, "While you're there would you or your Pa be so kind as to tell Sam that he's eating here at your place tonight at seven. That would save me driving all the way there and back again."
"Yes'm," Robbie answered with a grin. "And what's for dinner?"
The two women looked at each other and began laughing.
"For some reason, Sarah and I both have a hankering for biscuits."
"And gravy," Sarah added with grin of her own.
* * *
That evening at seven o'clock, two Carters and three Bancrofts sat down to eat dinner together.
Before they ate, Al Bancroft offered a prayer, thanking God for the food and asking God to bless it.
Then, before he said, "Amen," he repeated the same prayer. But this time, as he gave thanks, it was not for the food, but for his neighbors and new friends, the Carters.
James A. Tweedie is a retired pastor who has lived in California, Utah, South Australia, Hawaii,
and Long Beach, Washington, where he and his wife continue to enjoy life on the beach. As founder
of Dunecrest Press, he has published six novels, three collections of poetry and one collection
of short stories.
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by Jennifer McMahon
The Lakota medicine man's face was old and more rutted than a buffalo trail, but his eyes sparkled with a youth that would never fade. "My name is Running Bear," he told Levi Woods. "I have come to see the buffalo die, and to sing a death song for them."
Levi Woods, standing his roan saddle-horse a little way off, rested his right hand on his Colt pistol. He regarded Running Bear with cold eyes, taking in the man's headdress of eagle feathers, the dark smudges of paint that striped his cheeks, the buckskin garments he wore.
"Go home, old man," he said. "It's not safe for you here on the range. If Captain Carson sees you . . . he's the Chief, out here."
"You do not tell me where I may go," Running Bear said. "I feel sorry for you."
"For me? Why?"
"I am old, and will soon go where the buffalo go, but you are young and will live to see their end. That is sad, and I feel sorrow for you." He turned his face away, and looked out over the range. Gunshots cracked in the distance, as hunters felled the great beasts that roamed the range like black pirate ships upon a golden sea. He lifted his head up, and began chanting in ominous tones.
Levi shook his head. If the old man wouldn't listen to reason, what could he do about it? Captain Carson had sent him into Abilene to pick up the mail from the train. If he didn't get back soon, he'd be in trouble himself. The Captain could not abide tardiness. The Captain could not abide a lot of things.
"Go home, old man, before you get shot," he said, then he turned his horse away and headed for the camp. When he had travelled a ways, he turned back to see if the old man had abided by his words. He had not. "Old fool," he breathed, then he dug in his heels and kicked his horse into a gallop.
The Captain had named the camp Kearney, in honour of his birthplace in Missouri. He liked to tell folks that he came from the same locale as the James boys, and that he had known them in their youth. "I bounced Jesse on my own knee," he would often say. "A fine boy he was, and I count myself fortunate to have known him." Levi had heard him tell the tale, and many others, too many times. It had not escaped Levi's notice that all of the Captain's tales painted him as the hero, in order to glorify himself, or add to his mystique. All old men are fools to a young man.
The sound of gunfire grew closer as he crossed the plain. Buffalo hides were worth three dollars, though it was less for calves. The meat was left to rot where it lay. The buzzards picked the carcasses to pieces during the day, the rodents and coyote by night. "This is Manifest Destiny," the Captain had explained. "We take the red man's meat, to keep him in line. If you see an Indian out here, boys, you're to treat him as you would a buffalo. Shoot him and skin him." Levi thought of Running Bear, and hoped he'd finish with his song and go back home.
Kearney was as near to the gates of Hell as Levi ever wanted to get. The stench of blood was so heavy in the air that he could taste its metallic tang in his mouth, even before he reached it. Buffalo carcass after carcass lay on the blood-soaked grass, being skinned with razor-sharp blades by men in aprons stained with streaks of animal blood. They were a mixed lot, free men and Chinese, Germans and Irish. Of them all, the Irish were the roughest, and much given to violence and intemperance.
Not for the first time, Levi thought I don't belong here. But there was nowhere else to go. He was an orphan, with no known kin, raised at the Holy Redeemer Mission in Adams, Tennessee. He wasn't cut out for the railroad, nor the law. Most of the time, he felt like he wasn't cut out for anywhere. Here though, where death was a very real thing, seemed the worst place anyone could ever be.
He rode between the white tents until he came to the largest one at the centre of the camp. The Captain was sitting in a chair in front of it, smoking his pipe. Beside him, Caleb Caine, his right hand man, stood with his feet shoulder-width apart, and his hand resting on his Smith and Wesson. Levi fancied that he himself had a fast draw, and practiced every day, but Caleb was maybe the fastest he had ever seen.
The Captain rose as Levi neared him. He was a large man, paunchy around his midriff, with wild grey whiskers and a patch over one eye. Some said he'd lost the eye to a bullet in the war, others said it had been to an infection. Either way, it had done nothing to improve his rough appearance.
"What took you so damned long, boy?" he growled.
"Sorry, Captain, the train was late." He took a bundle of letters from inside his coat, and handed them over.
The Captain sorted through the bundle, then a smile spread across his face as he pulled out a folded newssheet from among them. "Go and do some work," he said, without lifting his eyes to look at Levi.
* * *
It was hard for Levi to figure out which he hated the most, skinning the buffalo or shooting them, so he tried to find an in-between place where he could still pass as doing some work, but not do anything that was too sickening. That meant cleaning and loading guns, and being a general dogsbody to all and sundry. All day long it was, "Boy, fetch me this," or, "Boy, go get me such and such."
It was better than the alternative, and with aching slowness, the sun turned in the sky and darkness fell on the camp. Lanterns were lit. Voices rang out, some in laughter, some in anger. Alcohol was consumed, and fights inevitably broke out. The Captain encouraged such fights, and often arranged a ring and side-bets for matches that promised to be good sport.
That night, a fight had been organized between Reagan and O'Shea, two Irish men. O'Shea had accused his opponent of stealing his best hunting knife, one which had been left to him by his father. Reagan refuted the claim. For lack of anything better to do, Levi went along to watch them slug it out.
Four stout wooden posts had been sunk into the ground to mark a square, and a heavy rope had been tied from post to post to form a ring. The men crowded against it as the two fighters took their positions. Stripped to the waist, O'Shea flexed his muscles and stretched himself. Reagan, by far the favourite because of his large size, stood still with eyes half-closed, as if he were silently praying.
The Captain entered the ring and held his hands up for silence. "Gentlemen. Do I not present you with the finest entertainments?"
The crowd cheered.
"We are here tonight—"
His words were cut off by a shout. "Boss, look what we found." A rider, Caleb Caine, pressed his bay through the crowd, until he reached the ropes. "Boss, we found us an Indian medicine man, out on the plain."
"Did you bring him?"
"Quinn is bringing him into camp, right behind me."
The Captain chortled, and rubbed his hands together, then he held them above his head. "Gentlemen. Could this night get any better? We have a new sport for you tonight." He turned to Caleb. "Bring forth the sacrifice," he said. As Caleb spun his horse around and made his way through the crush again, the Captain turned back to face them.
"Today I received a news sheet from Kansas City, in which it was reported the death of General George Armstrong Custer, and the slaughter of the glorious 7th Cavalry Regiment by the red man, at the Little Bighorn river in Montana territory."
A hush fell over the crowd, then an anxious murmur spread from man to man as one whispered to another. Their expressions were open, expectant. They looked to the Captain as they might once have looked to their fathers, for guidance and direction.
"Have I ever lied to you?" the Captain went on. "What I tell you tonight, as always, is plain truth. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, with a host of ferocious braves, set upon those soldiers like hungry dogs, cutting and stabbing and shooting and taking the scalps of those poor and unfortunate boys. When they were done, the women tortured the wounded, cutting off their arms and legs and blinding them." As the men's voices cried out in anger, the Captain lowered his voice.
"Tonight . . . " A quiet fell over the gathering as they strained to hear him. "Tonight, we shall avenge the fallen heroes." He pointed a finger towards where Caleb was pushing his way through the men. He was leading an old man by the rope by which his wrists were bound.
"Behold, the enemy," the Captain called, reaching the crescendo of his speech. "It is our Manifest Destiny that we wipe them from the world."
Caleb dismounted and brought Running Bear into the light of the lanterns. The old man's expression was impassive, and he gazed at the crowd with what seemed a mixture of curiosity and pity. His eyes found Levi, and lingered on him for a moment. Levi blushed, and looked down at the dirt.
Damn it, old man, he thought. Why didn't you listen to me. Now they're going to do to you what they do to the buffalo, except they'll kill you slow.
They pushed Running Bear towards the ropes, and he did not resist as they lowered his head and sent him under them and into the ring to face the master of ceremonies. The Captain regarded him with obvious disdain, then spat in his face. Running Bear did not blink, did not react in any way.
Again, the Captain raised his arms over his head. "Tonight, Reagan and O'Shea will set their differences aside, if only temporarily. It is they who will dish out the first dose of punishment to our guest."
It was just plain wrong what they were doing, and Levi had to do something. He dug deep and found some measure of courage, then pushed his way forward and stepped under the ropes and into the ring. "Captain," he called. "He's just an old man. He couldn't have—"
Caleb turned to face Levi, his hand on his gun.
The Captain leaned his face close to Levi's. "Are you a lover of the Indian, son? Perhaps you'd like to step in there with him, and defend him?"
"N-no sir," Levi stammered. "I just meant—"
The Captain's hand lashed out and struck him across the face. Levi's cheek stung, and he tasted blood in his mouth. What stung more was his pride, being slapped in front of the whole crew like that.
"What did you mean, son?"
He lowered his eyes. "Nothing sir," he said.
The Captain nodded slowly. "Then enjoy the show."
He waited for Levi to leave the ring, then he gave a signal to Caleb, who unbound the old man's hands. Then the Captain stepped from the ring.
Reagan approached the Indian, who smiled at him. As the Irish man's arm swung around and his first punch connected with that lined old face, Levi turned away and pushed past the straining, cheering onlookers until he was clear of them.
The smell of so many bodies gathered together had temporarily covered up the ambient stench of blood, but now it hit Levi again. He threw up everything he had in his stomach, and kept on retching until there was nothing to bring up but bile. He returned to his tent at the edge of the camp and buried his head in his hands, but he still couldn't block out the hollering and laughter of the men.
* * *
It was late in the night before the sounds of merriment died away. They had beaten the old man for a long time. Sitting on his bunk, Levi imagined they had beaten him to death, that his body now lay alongside the buffalo carcasses, where it would rot. But he had to be certain.
He stood and loosened his Colt in its holster, then drew it, as fast as he could. He returned it, then drew it again and again. It was a routine that soothed his nerves. Then he stepped out into the night air, and headed towards the ring.
The posts remained in the ground, but the ropes had been taken down. One of them was lashed around the nearest post, holding in place the figure of an old man. Another rope was tied around his neck, so he could barely move an inch. His face was bloody and swollen and beaten all to hell.
Elias drew his hunting knife and fell on his knees beside Running Bear, then started cutting the rope away. "You should have listened to me," he whispered.
"I am an old man," Running Bear said. "I do not listen to foolish young men."
"I was right though, wasn't I?"
Running Bear chuckled. "All young men are fools. Perhaps all old men, too."
The last piece of rope came loose. Levi handed Running Bear the knife to hold, then helped him to his feet. "I've got to get you to a horse," he said. "You can still get away."
"I thought you might try something like this," said a familiar voice behind him.
He turned, still supporting Running Bear. "Caleb," he said.
Caleb held his right hand poised over his pistol. "The Captain isn't finished with the red man. Do you really want to die for him?"
"It doesn't have to happen like this," Levi said. His own hand inched towards his Colt. I'm not as fast as him, he thought. He'll kill me.
"Yes, it does."
They stood motionless for a moment, eye meeting eye, then Caleb's hand went for his pistol. He drew it in the same moment as Running Bear's arm lashed out. The hunting knife struck Caleb square in the chest, but he still managed to get a shot off, though his aim had been altered by the blow he had received. Running Bear lurched to the side, gripping his gut. Blood pumped through his fingers and dripped onto the dirt. Caleb fell over backwards, dead.
Levi looked from one to the other. The camp might be sleeping off a night's drinking, but a lone shot would draw them out of their tents to see what had happened. He held Running Bear close to him, and moved as quickly as he could. When they reached the horses, he helped Running Bear mount a bay, then climbed on his own roan. He took Running Bear's reins, and kicked in his heels. Soon, the camp was far behind and they were out on the range. In the dim light, the buffalo moved like huddled clouds across a dark sky.
They rode until dawn, by which time Running Bear was hunched low over his mount. He sighed with pain as Levi helped him down onto the earth.
"You saved my life," Levi said.
"An old man dies, a young man lives," he breathed. "It has always been this way. I will die soon, but you must leave. The men will come for you."
"I have nowhere to go."
"Then go nowhere. The Everywhere Spirit will guide you."
"What about you?"
Running Bear coughed up blood. "Now I will go where the buffalo go." The life left his eyes in the same moment, and he lay dead on the dark earth.
Levi did not know the words of the Lakota people, he did not know their songs or their stories but, with tears in his eyes, he raised his head and tried to mimic the chant he had heard Running Bear make when he'd first met him. A death song for an old man. A death song for the buffalo.
When he was finished, he crossed Running Bear's hands over his chest, then mounted his horse. He had nowhere to go, so he rode out for nowhere. And the Everywhere Spirit went with him.
Jennifer McMahon lives in Ireland and has been writing stories for as long as she can remember. This is her
first venture to the West to tell a tale. She is the author of the "Making Hitler" and "Breaking Hitler"
book series, and has just published Volume 1 of her biography of Hermann Goering, all available on Amazon Kindle.
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Back to Home
by Steve Carr
The earth was baked by the intense rays of the summer sun. The thudding of the horses hooves on the hard ground as the soldiers rode through the outpost made the floor of the cabin vibrate. Wearing the thinly tanned deer-hide moccasins worn by a young Sioux Indian girl, raped and murdered by six fur traders less than fifty miles from the outpost, Amanda felt the shudder of the vibrations through the soles of her feet. The moccasins were similar to the ones she wore for the ten years she lived with the Sioux tribe. She was only sixteen when captured and taken to the Sioux camp after the murder of her parents and two brothers by a Sioux war party as they were crossing the plain in a covered wagon. For the next year she was passed from one Sioux brave to the next until she was taken in by Rushing Wind as his third wife. By then she was so traumatized that she lost all memory of anything that preceded her capture. Who she had been and where she came from, she had no idea.
She was brought to the outpost the year before as Fallen Dove and given the white man's name Amanda.
The door to the cabin opened just as the last of the soldiers rode by leaving a cloud of dust in their wake. Amanda turned from the small window from where she had been watching them and saw her husband, Jackson Riley, walk in. She realized that while being lost in thought, time had gotten away from her and that she had forgotten to add salt to the pot of stew she had placed on the stove. He hung his hat on the hook in the wall by the door, glanced at her, his face sunburned, and went to the bucket of creek water she had brought in earlier in the day. "It's hot as hell today," he said and then scooped out a dipper full of water and poured it over his head. He shook the dripping water from his beard. "That foal born last night didn't make it."
"That's too bad." she said as she crossed the room to the stove and grabbed the tin of salt from the shelf above it. "How's the mare doing?"
"A bit tuckered out, but fine," he said.
"That's a blessing at least."
Amanda had a child, a boy, soon after joining Rushing Wind's longhouse, but suffered several miscarriages after that and then never conceived again. It was the child, Running Elk, she was thinking about. He was still an infant when the soldiers had forced her onto one of their horses while she was out gathering berries and brought her to the outpost. For the first year after being brought to the outpost they had kept her ankle chained to a post in the floor in a room at the soldier's barracks to keep her from running away. Slowly re-introduced to the white man's ways of talking and thinking by the women of the outpost, she gave up thoughts of returning to the Sioux tribe, knowing they would kill her on-sight. She was married to Jackson, the outpost's livery stable owner, initially not out of love, but because the other women demanded it.
"We can't have a Sioux whore, even if she is white, going about this outpost unmarried," they said.
She unscrewed the lid from the tin of salt and poured a palm full into the pot and stirred the boiling stew. "The soldiers have been back and forth a few times today," she said. "Are the Sioux on the warpath again?"
"There's rumors of secession," he said. He sat at the table and watched as she ladled stew into a bowl and placed it in front of him."
"Secession? What's that?"
He put a spoonful of stew in his mouth. "The southern states are threatening to break away from the north. There's talk of war," he said. "It has thrown the local garrison into turmoil since there are men in it from both the North and South. Colonel Matthews is doing everything he can to keep this outpost from being torn apart."
She sat at the table. "What does it mean for the Dakotas?"
"Not much," he said, "The Sioux will continue killing settlers and we'll continue to kill the Sioux."
She put a spoonful of stew in her mouth and coughed. Too much salt. She hadn't forgotten to put in the salt earlier after all.
"A small wagon train that has stopped on the border of the outpost brought with them a young Sioux male that tried to steal a horse from them" he said. "They had him trussed up like a pig ready for slaughter. They handed him over to the soldiers."
She rose from the table and took their cups to the water bucket. "If he's young, I hope they go easy on him."
"They hang horse thieves, no matter what the age, and especially Sioux horse thieves. You can't teach a Sioux savage right from wrong." He glanced at her seeing that her back had stiffened. "You were never actually a Sioux," he added contritely.
She scooped the cups into the water, filling them, and brought them back to the table. She placed his in front of him. "Strange that he was all by himself," she said.
He took a large swig of the water and then wiped dribbled water from his beard. "Stranger still is that the word going around is that the boy has blonde hair and blue eyes but has Sioux facial features and skin coloring. A half-breed, no doubt."
Shocked, she accidentally knocked over her cup of water onto the floor. As she bent down to pick it up her blonde hair fell across her face.
* * *
Just past sunrise, before Jackson was due to get out of bed, Amanda carried the water bucket out of the cabin, walked past the well, and headed for the creek. Getting water from a creek was one of the last holdovers from her time with the Sioux, something she did out of habit. Rapid Creek wound its way between the narrow grassy banks on the edge of the outpost. In normal weather its deep water rushed along and was cold, but the summer's extremely hot weather had turned it warm and and it ran slowly, as if it suffered the same lethargy brought on by the heat that affected the citizens of the outpost. She was the only person at the creek when she dipped the bucket into the water. When going to the creek in the morning she never wore shoes, and as the bucket filled, she placed her feet, one at a time, in the water and splashed them about. The times she had taken baths in the creek, even with all her clothes on, had so outraged the other women in the outpost, that she stopped doing it, but she longed to immerse her body in the creek. With her feet washed and the bucket full she walked back to the cabin in time to see a dozen soldiers on horseback on the road in front of her cabin heading eastward, toward the plains beyond the outpost. She placed the bucket at the door and swiftly walked toward the barracks.
At the eastern side of the barracks she heard soldiers inside talking and laughing, their words garbled, but it left no doubt in her mind that they were taunting someone. She made her way to the side of the barracks to a window in the room where she had been held, and peered through the bars. The blonde haired Sioux teen was chained to the post in the middle of the room. Four soldiers were in the room with him. They repeatedly kicked and slapped the boy seeming to try to elicit a response from the youth. But he remained sitting on the floor, neither looking at the soldiers, or looking at anything in particular. He had his head held high and stared straight ahead, his eyes fixed on something only he saw. The boy's deerskin jacket had been removed from him and lay crumpled in a corner. On his jacket lay his headband with a single hawk's feather sticking out of it and a pile of blonde hair that the soldiers had cut from his head. She knew without a doubt that the boy was Running Elk.
Ten minutes later she picked up the water bucket and went into her cabin. Jackson was seated at the table, still in his long johns. Although still hot, the morning temperature inside the cabin was better than that outdoors.
"Where have you been?" he growled.
She lifted the bucket. "I went to get water, as I always do."
"You were gone longer than usual."
"I stopped to watch soldiers leaving the outpost," she said. "It looked like they were planning on a skirmish with the Sioux."
"There's always a skirmish with the Sioux. Could you get busy making my breakfast? I've already lit the fire in the stove."
She poured water from the bucket into a coffee pot, added coffee, and placed it on the stove. She then slipped on the moccasins and began making biscuits.
* * *
Mrs. Cavendish at the dry goods store scooped flour from a large barrel and emptied it into the feedsack that Amanda held open. The store was busy, with other women from the outpost, other merchants, cowboys, folks from the wagon train, and a few soldiers going in and out.
"Sugar also?" Mrs. Cavendish said after loudly clearing her throat. She was short, stout and her cheeks were the color of a ripened tomato.
Amanda realized that the store owner had been talking to her, and from the impatient expression on the woman's face she had been asked the question at least a couple of times.
"Not today," Amanda said. "Do you have any peppermints?"
Mrs. Cavendish eyed her curiously. "Peppermints? Has Jackson acquired a sweet tooth?"
"They're for me. I was having a hankering for them."
"I have a small tin of them in the back that I haven't gotten around to sitting out yet. Give me a minute and I'll go get them." She handed the sack to Amanda and disappeared through a doorway draped with a burlap curtain that led to the storeroom.
Amanda carried the sack over to the cash register and set it up on the counter. From behind the counter, Mr. Cavendish— as thin and pale as his wife was portly and full of color— was engaged in a conversation with one of the cowboys from the wagon train who was rolling a cigarette. The cowboy's hat was pushed back on his head, revealing thick red hair.
"We chased that boy about a mile before catching up with him," the cowboy said. "He put up a heck of a fight before we were able to tie him up."
"Awfully strange that a Sioux youngster that age would be all alone out there," Mr. Cavendish said.
"He only speaks that Indian gibberish so we couldn't understand a word he said so no one knows what he was doing, other than trying to steal a horse."
"Lakota," Amanda said.
The two men looked at her.
"What?" the cowboy said.
"The Sioux speak Lakota."
Mr. Cavendish rolled his eyes. "Give a woman a little bit of knowledge and she thinks she knows everything."
The cowboy laughed.
Mrs. Cavendish came out of the storeroom and placed the tin of peppermints on the counter. "How many of these do you want?" she said to Amanda.
"Just a handful," she said, "and give me a bottle of whiskey."
Minutes later, Amanda left the store carrying the sack of flour, a bottle of whiskey. She had put the peppermints in the pocket of her skirt.
* * *
Amanda filled a cup with whiskey, handed it to Jackson and encouraged him to drink it all. Sitting on the bed he stared at the whiskey.
"You know I haven't the tolerance for such a large amount," he said. "I ain't a drinking man. Why'd you buy it?"
"In this heat that you been working in I thought it would help you sleep," she said. She bent down and pulled his boots off. "There, now you can drink the whiskey and lay back and close your eyes and sleep until morning.
He tilted his head back and poured the entire cup in his mouth, gulping it down. He wiped dripping whiskey from his mouth and beard with the back of his hand. Feeling the immediate effect of having chugged down the alcohol, he shook his head, handed the empty cup to Amanda, and then laid back. Within minutes he was sound asleep and snoring loudly.
Amanda reached into her pocket to make sure that the peppermints hadn't fallen out, and then quietly left the cabin. The darkness of night did nothing to quell the heat. From the far end of the outpost the raucous laughter and hollering of the cowboys and soldiers could be heard coming from the saloon. The street was empty of any of the citizens of the outpost. She hurriedly walked to the barracks, and not seeing a sentry standing at its front doors, she made her way to the window of the room where Running Elk was being held. The boy sat on the floor, his legs crossed, the chain still attached to his ankle. He was illuminated by the faint glow of an oil lamp.
"Running Elk," she whispered in Lakota Sioux language.
He looked up, blinking several times before his eyes adjusted to seeing her in the darkness. "Who is it who calls me?" he said.
Amanda recalled so little of the Sioux language, having not spoken it in years, that she didn't understand what he said, but by the inflection in his words, she knew it was a question. She took a peppermint from her pocket, reached through the bars, and tossed it to him. It landed at his feet where he stared at it for a moment before picking it up. He sniffed it first, and then placed it in his mouth. A smile quickly spread across his face. She then tossed him the remaining six pieces, one at a time, and watched as he put each one in his mouth. With his mouth filled with the candy he kept his eyes glued on her.
"I'll be back tomorrow," she said, aware that he didn't understand the white man's language, but she hoped the gentleness in her voice would comfort him. She turned away from the window and made it back to the street.
"What are you doing?" It was a man's voice, harsh and commanding.
She whirled about to see a soldier standing outside the door of the barracks. There were sergeant stripes on his unbuttoned shirt. He wasn't armed, but he wore a belt with a knife tucked into it.
"Just taking a walk," she said. "It's such a hot night."
He walked towards her. "All night's are hot, lately." Nearing her and able to glimpse her better in the ambient light of night, he said, "You're kinda pretty. Don't you have a husband to keep you indoors at night?"
"My husband is at the wagon train, helping them prepare to continue on with their journey."
The sergeant stepped up to her and scanned her face. "I know you. You're Jackson Riley's wife. Yeah, I know all about you. You were once an Indian squaw." He placed his hand on her shoulder and squeezed it. "What's wrong missy, doesn't Jackson satisfy you the way those Sioux savages did?"
She pulled away. "Please don't," she said. She half turned to walk away but was grabbed by the sergeant and pulled to him. Instinctively, a natural reflex borne from experiences she had shut out of her mind, she pulled the knife from his belt and plunged it into his neck. As blood spurted from the wound he stood absolutely still for a moment, his eyes bulging, and then collapsed onto the hard earth. His body convulsed for a second and then he died. She ran from the site, reaching the front door of her cabin just as bolts of lightning spread like tentacles across the sky above the distant plains. She went inside, washed the blood from her hands and then undressed and got into bed next to Jackson.
* * *
The next morning she was awoken by the sounds of hammering. Jackson was still asleep. She got out of bed, put on her dress, and went outside the cabin. In the early morning light she could see that soldiers were building gallows in the street in front of the barracks. The noose hadn't been hung from the crossbeam yet, but she had seen a few hangings of horse thieves and Sioux warriors since being brought to the outpost. The purpose of the scaffolding was unmistakable.
On the way to their store, Mr. and Mrs. Cavendish stopped, each standing on either side of her.
"Isn't it awful that the boy murdered that kind Sergeant Filmore?" Mrs. Cavendish said.
"The Sioux boy that they have in chains murdered the sergeant?" Amanda said, unable to disguise her astonishment.
"He got away long enough to kill the sergeant, but they recaptured him," Mrs. Cavendish replied as if it was an indisputable fact. "Reverend Lott stopped by first thing this morning to tell us all about it."
"The boy will be hanged first thing tomorrow morning," Mr. Cavendish said. "There won't be any peace until they're all driven from the plains or hanged just like the savage we're holding."
"He's just a boy. He has a mother and father who are probably concerned about him."
"They raised a horse thief and a murderer," Mrs. Cavendish said haughtily and then walked on, followed by her husband.
Thirty minutes later, Amanda stood at the stove, holding the coffee pot. She was eyeing her husband, waiting for him to respond.
Jackson sat quietly for several moments staring at the cup of coffee on the table in front of him. "I understand why you never told me about having a child," he said at last as if expelling air he had held in his lungs for too long.
"I never thought I'd have to tell you, or anyone, about it— him— but I told you now for a reason."
"What reason is that?"
"I need help getting him out of the barracks and out of this outpost."
* * *
It was a little past midnight when Jackson approached the two corporals standing as sentries outside the front doors of the barracks. He knew them both, Jessie was from Alabama and Henry was from New York. They were young hotheads who frequently got into scraps with each other, escalated by their opposite views on slavery. Jackson had in hand an opened full bottle of whiskey. Waving the bottle he staggered toward them. "You boys look mighty thirsty," he slurred.
"It's mighty hot out here and I sure could use a drink to wet my whistle, but we're on duty, Mr. Riley," Henry said.
"Not as hot as back home on the plantation and watching the Negros picking cotton," Jessie said.
The corporals scowled at one another, set their rifles against the door frame, and accepted the bottle, passing it back and forth while bickering about slavery. With Jackson's encouragement they drank the entire bottle. When they were near falling-down drunk, Jackson said, "If war breaks out which side will win?"
"The South," Jesse said.
"The North," said Henry.
This led to blows, and then them wrestling in the dirt, each one haphazardly landing punches.
It was then that Amanda appeared from out of the darkness, went into the barracks, stealthily walked past the rooms of sleeping soldiers and made her way to the room where Running Elk was being held. Seeing there was no sentry at the door she took the ring of keys from the hook in the wall, unlocked the door, and went in.
Leaning against the post, asleep, Running Elk raised his head, opened his eyes, and smiled at her.
She knelt down beside him and whispered his name. She touched her hair and then touched his, and repeated this several times. She couldn't recall the Sioux word for mother, but she could see in his eyes that while he may not have remembered who she was, he understood there was a bond between them and she was there to help him. He watched quietly as she unlocked the chain around his ankle. He put on his jacket and headband and then followed her out the door. Outside, the corporals were stretched out on the baked earth, both passed out. Amanda, Running Elk and Jackson ran to the livery stable where Jackson had spent the day stocking a horse-drawn wagon with enough supplies to get them across the plains going west. With Running Elk hidden under burlap sacks, they rode from the stable and out of the outpost without being stopped. The sentries were only concerned with who was trying to get into the outpost, not with who was leaving it.
Hours later, having driven the wagon as fast as the horses could run for extended periods of time, they stopped at sunrise on the road that cut a swath through the broad expanse of sun-baked prairie grass just as rain began to fall from the sky as if poured from a bucket.
There, Running Elk reached out and stroked Amanda's hair and then climbed down from the wagon. He exchanged a last smile with his mother before turning and running southward toward where his tribe was said to be located. He didn't look back.
They watched him until he was hidden by a veil of rain, and then began their trek to Oregon.
Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Va., began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over
250 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies
since June, 2016. He has two collections of short stories, Sand and Rain, that have been
published by Clarendon House Publications. His third collection of short stories, Heat, was published
by Czykmate Productions. His YA collection of stories, The Tales of Talker Knock was published by
Clarendon House Publications. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. His website is
https://www.stevecarr960.com/. He is on Twitter
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When Hell Freezes Over
by Lamont A. Turner
I stood over the dead man slumped against the tree, wondering if there was anything of value in his pockets, and how to get to it before anyone else thought of it. Before I could make my move, Leech was on it, picking at the man's pockets like a buzzard nipping at carrion.
"Look at him," said Jimmy. "He looks like he's frozen straight through."
"I'd guess the freezing happened after the poor bastard was already gone," replied McCabe, kicking at the dead man's boot. "He's wrapped up well enough. I wouldn't mind having a coat like that myself."
"Good luck getting it off him," said Leech, still rifling the corpse's pockets. "He's gone and got hisself frozen to the tree. God only knows how long he's been here."
Snow had piled up in the hollows of the corpse's eyes, and icicles had formed in the beard that clung to the purple cheeks like a gray moss.
"No knife neither," added Leech, coming up empty.
"Need a new belt buckle, Leech?" asked McCabe, pointing the barrel of his rifle at the bronze oval emblazoned with the letters "U.S."
Leech sneered and spit on the ground next to the corpse before wiping his hands on his coat as though he had just realized he had touched something dirty.
"Just like a Yankee to make it through the war and then get hisself kilt by the mountains. I never met a Yankee who knew his way around the wilderness. Ain't a one of 'em got a lick of sense."
I didn't mention that, like many of my neighbors in Eastern Tennessee, I had supported the Union, and that some of my kin had been hanged on orders of Jeff Davis for blowing up a railroad bridge.
"I wonder what he was doing out here with no gun," McCabe said.
"Maybe whatever killed him took it," said Jimmy, glancing about nervously.
"Maybe he just got sick and dropped," I said. "I don't see no marks on him. If an Indian or an animal got him he'd show it. He looks like he just laid there and went to sleep."
"Well let's wake him up," Said Leech, laughing as he kicked at the dead man.
As he did this I noticed something glistening from just beneath the corpse's beard. I bent down, eager to get to whatever it was before Leech saw it, and grabbed a silver medallion, which, I discovered, was suspended by a cord around the dead man's neck.
"Seems you missed something, Leech," I said triumphantly, tugging on the medallion.
As the cord snapped, the jaw of the corpse fell open, and it let out a long groan. I jumped up, and threw the medallion down onto the corpse's chest, suddenly wanting no part of it. For once, nobody had anything to say. Even McCabe couldn't manage to utter a word, but stood there, as white as the snowy ground he stood on, pointing his rifle at the dead man. Jimmy had already retreated up the hill to hide behind our pack mule. Only Leech, who had survived the fighting at Murfreesboro, and two winters in the hell of Camp Douglas, kept his nerve or at least was determined to put a brave face on it. He just sauntered up, casual as a school girl picking daisies, and snatched the medal off the dead man's chest.
"That things pizen, and so are you if you keep it," said McCabe. "Put it back!"
"Ain't nothing poison about gold," Leech scoffed. "And look here, it's got some kinda gem stuck in the middle of it. Might be a ruby."
"Pizen! That coin is as cursed as the devil's own blood," warned McCabe, backing away from Leech. "You keep that damn thing, and me and Jimmy will be heading off without ya. You'll come too, Beaumont, if ya got any sense."
"Think I'll stick with Leech," I said, watching the light glint off the ruby as Leech held it up to the sun.
I wondered if I had made the right decision as McCabe and Jimmy tossed our gear onto the ground, and headed off down the trail with the mule. Watching them disappear over the ridge, I was fighting the sudden urge to run after them when Leech waved me over.
"Come here and look at this," he said, holding the medallion up close to his face to examine it. "You ever seen writing like this before?"
After studying it for a minute, I had to admit I hadn't. "It might be some kind of heathen talisman, but anybody's guess would be as good as mine."
"I guess it don't matter," he said, stuffing the medallion into his pocket. "I'll be swapping it for some warm spirits soon enough."
With it getting late in the day, Leech insisted we set up camp right there, within view of the dead man he had just robbed, dismissing me as a fool when I had suggested we find a better spot.
"I like it fine right here where I can keep an eye on our friend. We wouldn't want him sneaking up on us," he had said, punctuating his statement with a laugh I thought sounded just a tad forced.
With the darkness came the winds that tossed the snow into our faces and played hell with our fire. I had positioned myself between Leech and the dead man so my back was to the latter, and I could keep an eye on the former. Leech was a dangerous man, but he was a heavy sleeper, especially when he was in his cups. If I could just wait him out, I reasoned, I might be able to get that medallion.
"I'm glad to see you got more spine than McCabe," said Leech, offering me a sip from his flask, which I declined. "Imagine being scared of a frozen hunk of meat! That's all that fella over there is. I'd just as soon run from a slab of beef."
I mentioned that it was pretty peculiar the way it had made that noise right when I took that medallion off of it and suggested McCabe might be right about the amulet being cursed, not because I believed it, but rather, in the hope of making Leech less enamored of his prize. Leech would have none of it.
"I've seen dead men do a lot worse. Hell, I've seen bodies pop like a bad jar of preserves after they sat in the heat too long, spilling their guts all over the place. He probably had some gas or something inside of him that got let out when you yanked off his necklace. Ain't nothing unnatural about it at all. It'll be a cold day in hell when I let a dead hunk of meat get the best of me."
I wasn't sure if I bought Leech's explanation, and didn't much care one way or the other. I planned to be halfway to Chattanooga with that ruby before any ghosts, or Leech, knew I had run off with it. I knew it would be rough going, the weather being what it was, but as long as the wind kept the clouds from blocking the moon, I figured I could make it alright.
After a bit, Leech tossed away his empty flask and fell back onto his furs. I waited until I heard him snoring and then crept up to slip my hand inside his coat. Holding my breath, I eased the medallion out. It had been easier than I had expected. I stuffed it in my pocket and had almost reached my knapsack and gun when I realized the snoring had stopped. I turned to see Leech, already on his feet, had his rifle pointed at my chest. I could tell by the look in his eyes he intended to kill me right then and there. Then I saw his expression change. The anger was replaced by something I had never expected to see on the countenance of Tobias Leech. It was fear. You would have thought we were still at war, and he was facing the whole Union army by the look on his face.
"Keep it," he muttered as he backed away, staring at me as though I was the devil himself.
I watched, astonished, as he backed off into the darkness and vanished, leaving everything but his rifle behind. I turned to grab my rifle in case he came back, and suddenly realized he hadn't been staring at me at all. I also understood what had caused him to flee in terror, for I felt that same terror rising up in myself. The dead man was gone! There was a barren patch at the base of the tree that the snow had just started to fill in, and leading away from it was a solitary set of tracks.
I strained against the darkness, and the whirling white flakes that danced in it, to see where those footprints led off to. They came a few paces toward where I had been sleeping, went off to the left, disappeared past my field of vision, and then seemed to resume again to the right of the tree. The dead man, or whatever it was, had made a circle around our camp. But where did it go after that, I wondered, listening hard for any sound that might signal the arrival of my unwanted guest. All I heard was the crackle of the fire and the howling of the wind.
It would be alright, I told myself. All I had to do was wait it out. Everybody knew ghosts and such didn't have any power in the daylight. Judging from the moon, I reckoned dawn was just a few hours off. Maybe the thing would busy itself hunting down Leech, who had foolishly deprived himself of the protection of the fire. Then I remembered the trinket in my pocket. What if that was what it was after? Leech had obviously thought so when he told me to keep it. He was smart to put as much distance between himself and that medallion as he possibly could.
"Here! Take it," I shouted, throwing the damned thing towards the tree where we had found its rightful owner.
I heard a baleful moan, and watched as a dark shape shambled out of the woods. It stumbled forward on stiff legs, swaying slightly to and fro as it made its way to where the talisman had landed.
"There! I gave it back," I shouted, watching it bend down to rake the ground with frozen, unbending fingers. "Take it back to hell with you!"
The medallion in its grasp, it looked up at me with dead white eyes. Its jaw hung slack as it threw its head back and forced out a low moan before staggering forward in my direction. I knew I should run, but my legs were as frozen as the ground I stood on. I just stood there shivering while it came ever closer. As it reached the fire, I managed to get ahold of myself enough to aim my gun, and felt for the trigger with trembling fingers.
To my astonishment, the dead man dropped the medallion into the fire and then turned away from me to head off toward the darkness of the forest. Staring at the fire that had consumed the medallion, I tried to make sense of what I had just witnessed. The dead man hadn't wanted the medallion back. It had wanted to destroy it. We hadn't angered a spirit by stealing from it, we had set it free. That talisman had been keeping it down, and now, thanks to us, it was walking the earth once more. Occupied with my thoughts, I failed to hear the footfalls behind me and was blindsided by a fist smashing into the side of my head. Landing on my side by the fire, I rolled over quickly to keep from getting burned. Leech was standing over me, his rifle pointed at my head.
"You almost had me fooled," he snarled. "Hiding that dead Yankee while I was sleeping was a pretty slick move. It took me a bit, but I figured out your game. Now are you gonna hand over that trinket, or am I gonna take it off your corpse?"
I knew I was dead no matter what if I didn't think of something quick. There was no way Leech was going to leave me alive to tell how he had run off like a scared rabbit when he saw the dead man was gone. I knew my best bet was to keep him talking. I started laughing.
"What's so funny," Leech demanded, stabbing the barrel of his rifle into my shoulder.
"I was just thinking how you were the one who had everybody fooled. You've been trapping in these hills for years. You even have traps on the same slope where we found the Yankee."
"Make your point," he growled, poking me again with his gun.
"That body had been there for a good while, maybe as long as the start of the freeze. Why is it you never came across it before?"
"Go on. You're already dead. Might as well finish putting the nails in your coffin."
"I'm just saying it was pretty clever of you to pretend to ransack the body when you knew you wouldn't find anything," I continued. "How'd you miss that amulet the first time?"
"I didn't miss it," he shouted. "The damn thing wasn't there. Somebody hung it on 'em after I kilt him. Yeah, you heard me right. I caught that damn Yankee out hunting, and I stabbed 'em in the back. I was the one who left him by that tree to rot."
"Only he didn't rot," I said inching my hand toward a log sticking out of the fire.
"I guess I didn't count on 'em freezing," he said glumly. "Kinda strange how the critters left him alone too, but I guess even buzzards don't care for the taste of Yankee."
"Or maybe whoever hung that medal on him knew it would keep him intact until you got back. Maybe some old witch woman or medicine man saw you kill him, and decided to give him a chance to get you back."
As he pondered the meaning of what I had just said, probably trying to recall if there had been any signs of an interloper the day of the murder, I grabbed the flaming log and swung it at him, catching his sleeve on fire. Leech let out a scream, and, dropping his rifle, beat frantically at the flames with his other hand. While he was flailing about, I scampered to my feet and bashed him in the face with the butt of his own gun.
When Leech awoke he was tied to the tree previously occupied by the man he had killed. He strained against the ropes, cursing as they scraped against the burns on his arm.
"You just gonna leave me here to freeze to death," he asked, kicking his legs to knock off the snow that had already settled on them.
"I don't think you'll freeze," I responded, bending down to hang the talisman I had fished out of the fire around his neck. "I think an old friend of yours will be paying you a call soon, probably before the sun comes up."
"What the hell does that mean," he asked, but I didn't answer. I had heard the sound of plodding footsteps approaching over the snow-covered earth, and was already on my way down the hill.
Lamont Turner is a New Orleans area writer and father of four. His work has appeared in numerous magazines
and anthologies such as Death And Butterflies, Horror For Hire: First Shift, and Jitter.
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Braddock's Lost Payroll
by George Kotlik
"The General's been hit."
Those four words ringed hollow amid the din of battle.
"Come again, private?"
"Sir, the General's been hit."
Dammit, the British officer muttered under his breath. Edward Braddock was hit. The year was 1755. On July 9, the Battle of the Monongahela raged on the North American frontier. 2,000 British regular and militia troops under the command of General Edward Braddock went up against almost 900 French and Indians in the Western Pennsylvania wilderness. General Braddock was tasked with dislodging the French threat at Fort Duquesne. Before his army reached the fort proper, they engaged a much smaller French and Indian force. Thus began the Battle of the Monongahela. For the British, the battle was a disaster. Over 500 men were killed and 450 injured. The French and their Indian allies lost only 30 dead and roughly 50 wounded. On balance, the British were slaughtered.
"Thank you, private," the officer replied. With haste, he galloped away.
* * *
Private Mulberry is not an interesting guy. He never was. Born the son of English farmers, Mulberry enlisted in the British army at a young age. Shortly thereafter, he was shipped off to North America to fight the French. He rode hard and fast behind the unnamed British officer, finally stopping before a wagon laden with wooden crates. The officer conversed with the sergeant stationed there. Speaking in low voices, their exchange was brief. Mulberry managed to make out only some of what they said.
"Is it all there? All of it?" the officer asked.
"Yes, yes, I counted it myself." The sergeant replied. When they finished conversing, the officer wheeled his horse around, facing Mulberry and five others.
"You will escort this wagon and its contents to Fort Cumberland. Guard it with your lives. Do not stop for anything until you reach the fort. Do you understand?"
"Yes sir," the soldiers replied in unison.
"Good. Make haste and God save King George."
In no time at all, the wagon and its accompanying contingent set off down the road and away from the battle. The sounds of cannon blasts and musket fire gradually faded away. Despite their distance from the battle, danger was certainly near. Since the beginning of Braddock's expedition, Indians stalked the army, watching their every move. They dared not attack the army proper, but six riders and a wagon were easy prey. With determined regularity, native warriors beset the British party. Indian arrows and musket fire followed the caravan wherever it went. Not fifteen minutes into their journey, an arrow lodged itself into a rider's back. He screamed in pain and fell off his horse. The wagon sped on. The British soldiers rode hard for about an hour before a sudden volley of arrows rained down upon them. Three arrows struck the wagon, two struck the crates, and another buried itself in one of the rider's horses. Down the horse went, his rider along with him. A loud crunch emitted from either the horse's neck or that of the rider. Mulberry could not tell. Arrows whizzed around his head. His red coat must have been a very inviting color amid the green foliage that surrounded him.
A little while later, another ambuscade assaulted the British party. This time, one more rider went down. He howled in pain as a musket ball shattered his shoulder. Like wolves surrounding their prey, five Natives encircled the fallen rider. As Mulberry rounded a bend in the road, a bloodcurdling scream penetrated the air behind him. He rode on. Shortly thereafter, a few well-placed arrows shot the wagon driver in the chest, instantly killing him. Without a driver, the wagon stopped in the middle of the road. Abandoning their horses, the remaining soldiers hopped on the wagon, directing it down the dirt road.
Two men remained. Unable to contain his curiosity, Mulberry's comrade proposed they inspect the wagon's contents. Mulberry flatly refused to go along with the idea. The conversation went like that for a few more minutes until Mulberry finally caved in. When the coast was clear, the two men brought the wagon to a halt. They quickly broke into one of the crates. It was filled to the brim with gold coins. This was the British army payroll for Braddock's troops. They could not tell how much was there, and now was not the time to count it and find out. Rest assured; it was a fortune. Mulberry was amazed. He had never seen so much money before in his life. The soldiers agreed to bury the money. Given their present condition, they could not safely arrive at Fort Cumberland with the payroll in tow. They could reach the fort faster without the gold weighing them down. It took them a couple of hours to bury the gold. When they were finished, Mulberry's comrade proposed an idea. They should desert the army and take the gold for themselves. Mulberry protested. He believed they should report the payroll's location to officials at Fort Cumberland. Disagreements over what to do with the money grew heated until a fight sought to settle the affair. As the two men threw fists, an Indian scout happened upon them. He fired an arrow into Mulberry's adversary, immediately killing him. Taken aback, Mulberry ran away into the woods. Throwing caution to the wind, he tripped and hit his head on a rock. Before he knew it, the world around him went dark.
When he regained his senses, Mulberry aimlessly stumbled through the woods for several hours. Luckily, a troop of provincial soldiers from Fort Cumberland found him. Mulberry spoke of his mission and Braddock's payroll. When pressed for the treasure's exact location, he forgot where he buried it. The only information he could remember was that it was possibly buried somewhere around where Braddock's Run emptied out into Will's Creek. A party of soldiers ventured out into the woods to look for the gold, but they came back empty-handed. After Braddock's Defeat, the loss of Braddock's payroll was noted and eventually forgotten. Mulberry's fate after his wilderness ride is lost to history. As for Braddock's lost payroll, it is still out there somewhere in the Pennsylvania woods.
George Kotlik lives in Jacksonville, Florida.
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