A Horseman sat atop his mount, overlooking a rolling plain. As far as he could see there was nothing but grass punctuated by groups of rolling hills. In the distance he could make out the curve of a river, which flowed lazily. It was still early, so riding was pleasant, but when the sun rose, he knew that the plain would become unbearably hot. The Horseman sat with his face turned up for a moment, letting the first rays of light warm him before pressing his spurs into the sides of his horse to move him towards the river and fresh water for them both.
By the time the Horseman reached the river bank the sun had risen a ways up into the sky and soon the gray wool coat he was wearing seemed to be drenched with sweat. As he shrugged it off the gold trim around the shelves caught the light and seemed to glow for a moment. He knew that the garment was unsuitable for summer on the high plains. But he knew just as much that he would never jettison the coat, which was a memento of his days lived far to the east. As he pulled his arm back to shrug off the other sleeve, he winced as pain shot through his shoulder—his other reminder of a battle long forgotten by the rest of the country. As he placed his hand over his aching shoulder, he couldn't escape the memory of being thrown off his horse, unable to move as his soldiers continued to fight around him. The killing and dying of that day was done with the ferocity of men who knew there was nowhere left to run, and nothing left to fight for except the brothers standing with them.
But now there was nothing left of that brotherhood except an old gray coat with gold trim and the Griswold revolver in a holster at his side. The lever gun beside him on his saddle was not his. He took it from the enemy in the hopes that the better rifle would be able to save, if not his cause, then at least his men. It hadn't done either.
The Horseman swung down from the saddle to fill his canteen as his horse bent its head to drink. After resting a short time, the Horseman stepped back up in the saddle. Pausing for a moment he wondered which way he should go. After a moment of deliberate he decided that any was as good as another and turned north, seeing a cluster of hills he rode towards them, a good place to find game, he thought as he remembered how little food was left in his saddle bag. But as he crested the first of the hills, all thoughts of food vanished when he saw the camp in the valley below.
* * *
The Horseman quickly drew his rifle from the scabbard on the saddle and chambered a round while turning his horse to present the smallest possible target. He waited for the first muzzle flash to tell him where a shooter might be. But when no shot came, the Horseman shook his head and placed his rifle back into its sheath. He was not at war anymore, he reminded himself; there was no more enemy and nothing of value left to protect. That thought, however, filled him with a sense of melancholy. What good was a soldier with no enemy to fight?
As he rode down towards the camp, a smell that he knew all too well filled his nose and he kicked his horse into a fast cantor until he reached the ring of wagons and tents. As the Horseman dismounted, he saw that a few of the wagons had been set ablaze and where now nothing more than smoldering wrecks. Peering round one of the few intact wagons he saw that the camp was littered with scattered personal effects, discarded pots and pan and discarded clothing. Clearly there had been a brutal raid here, and the Horseman knew that raiders such as this tended not to spare lives. He wasn't shocked then as he encountered the first of the bodies. The man's clothes were badly burned, but it was clear that it wasn't fire that had killed him. Sticking out of the man's back were shafts of arrows, their feathered ends blowing lazily in the morning wind. The Horseman's pulse quickened. Indians, he thought as he pulled the revolver from the holster at his hip. His eyes darted over the surrounding hills. "Damn it," the Horseman muttered as he quickly retreated behind the cover of one of the wagons. If it were Indians, they could be using the wagons to draw in more victims, and here he was, walking straight into their trap.
As he turned to look back at his horse gauging the time it would take to ran back and get into the saddle. As he did this, the Horseman glanced at the bodies of the wagon owners, noting they were full of bullet holes in addition to protruding arrows. This was not unusual; many Indians now fought with the guns they had obtained through trading or raids. The guns made them even more dangerous, even though they were expert warriors without them. If there were more than five of them, the Horseman knew he wouldn't stand a chance. As he pressed himself up against the wagon, he calculated his odds of riding over the hill and onto the plain without getting shot in the back or staying in the valley till it got dark. He came to the conclusion that on the plain, he would be in a much better position to fight back if they attacked him. They couldn't sneak up on him in the wide-open space, and he would have more room to maneuver his horse.
The Horseman turned to sprint to his horse, but as he did so he tripped over a body that was laying against the wagon. He scrambled up and tried to shove the body away, but it barely moved. This caused the Horseman to pause. Surely, he had pushed the body with enough force to make him fall over, so why was the dead man still sitting upright? The Horseman looked up at the hills; no war party had come charging down at him, so he risked a quick moment to investigate the body. The man had numerous gunshot wounds in addition to two arrows which stuck out of his chest and shoulder. The Horseman pushed the corpse again, this time from the back, and the body sagged forward. The arrows stuck in the man's chest were buried deep in the wooden side of the wagon, keeping him from falling over. He must have been shot with the bow while he was slumped against the wagon the horsemen thought as he leaned the body back. Most likely he had been sleeping when the camp was attacked the Horseman concluded. But if that were so, there should be bullet holes in the wagon side to match those in his body. But there were none.
The Horseman stood up, suddenly suspicious. It appeared that this man had been shot somewhere else then shot again with a bow after he was already dead. The Horseman swiftly moved around the ravaged camp, stopping at each body. All the other bodies in the camp also appeared to have been attacked after death, with the arrows buried deep into the ground beneath where the victims lay. As he looked closer, he saw that none of the casualties had any wounds from any other traditional Indian weapons, no hole from a lance strike or crushed bones from a war club. As the Horseman stood from examining the last corpse—there were close to a dozen—he saw tracks leading away from the wagons toward the hills. The killers were not Indians, he decided as he walked to his horse, as no raiding party would have wasted time shooting dead men. Likely just a gang of outlaws who had wanted to hide their murders by making the attack seem like another of the many Indian raids that happened on the plains. Climbing up into his saddle The Horseman looked at the set of tracks that lead away from the camp. The Horseman saw that the raiders had made no attempt to hide their path and based on the tracks he could guess that the band numbered no more than a handful. Following their tracks would be easy—if he wanted to. He sat still in his saddle for only a moment before turning his horse to follow the trail. As he urged his horse over the crest of the hill, he realized that if he continued on and found the men, he would try his hardest to kill them, in the same way the outlaws would try hard just as hard to kill him. There was a time when this threat of violence would have scared him. But now he was smiling. He finally had a battle to fight, an enemy to destroy. And for once the ghosts that never seemed to give him a moments peace were silent as if they too were waiting for the battle to come.
* * *
The sun was setting when the Horseman spotted the smoke from the outlaws' fire, The raiders had made camp at the river's edge, near where the Horseman had stopped earlier in the day. Leaving his horse on the other side of a hill, the Horseman crawled to the crest of the hill, about thirty yards from the camp. He watched as the men ate and drank their ill-gotten gains from the wagons. There were seven of them. Most had old muzzle loaders besides them, but two had lever rifles like his. These two would die first, the Horseman thought as a plan began to form in his mind.
He watched as, one by one, the men lay down to sleep until there was only one man awake and standing. Unaware that he was being watched, the outlaw stood away from the fire, staring blankly over the plain with a look that only heartbroken and drunk men could muster.
The Horseman rose from his position on the ground and moved in a crouch down the hill. When he was about 50 feet from the camp he stopped and dropped down behind a large group of rocks. Resting the barrel of his rifle on one of the lower rocks, he set his sights on the lone awake outlaw.
The Horseman basked in the familiar feeling of excitement tinged with dread that he had learned to love so well years before. Before the war, many things had made him feel complete—family, women, drink. But now there was only this, the only thing that was still familiar to him. He smiled as he pulled the trigger, feeling immense satisfaction when he saw the standing outlaw spin and fall to the ground, a ragged hole punched in his temple.
The shot woke the rest of the men, who scrambled to their feet. The Horseman wasted no time, quickly chambering another round and raising the rifle to fire again. This time he sighted in on one of the two men who had lever guns. If the outlaws had thought that better guns would keep them safe on the frontier, they were badly mistaken, thought the Horseman. Again, he pulled the trigger of his rifle and saw a hole open in the gunman's chest. The man dropped to the ground and clutched at his torso for a moment as if trying to hold his chest together. But soon he lay still, staring unseeing into the star-filled sky.
The remaining outlaws had grabbed their guns and were now frantically trying to spot their attacker. The Horseman readied his rifle again, searching for the other man who carried a lever gun. After that outlaw was dead, he knew the others would be easy to pick off. Just as he caught a glimpse of him, one of the other outlaws fired his rifle into the darkness. The shot came nowhere near the Horseman, but it caused all the other outlaws to fire. Soon the camp was shrouded in smoke from the gunfire, The Horseman experienced a brief moment of panic; he could barely see any of men, let alone make out a specific target. This will give them time to counterattack, he thought. His stomach churned at the prospect of the remaining five outlaws racing across the plain to end his life and for a brief moment he was once again lying wounded in the hot Virginia sun with a smiler feeling of panic as a line of federal calvary charged toward him watching his men getting killed one by one in vain attempts to rescue him. And then watching the men responsible for his men's deaths ride off. Gone, never brought to justice, never to suffer for the killing and pain they had inflicted on him. A white-hot bolt of anger shot through the Horseman at the thought of those guilty men riding away, burning away any shadow of fear. Now his focus was absolute.
The bandits had reloaded their weapons and five muzzle flashes lit the darkness. The shots ranged wide, and the Horseman held his fire, waiting for the right moment. It came five seconds later when a rifle fired from within the cloud of smoke around the camp. This shot was much too soon after the last round of fire to have come from one of the men carrying muzzle loaders.
Raising his rifle, the Horseman fired at the spot where the shot had emerged and was rewarded with a cry of pain and surprise. As the Horseman chambered another round, a shot came whizzing out of the smoke and slammed into the rock only a few feet from his head. Clearly the man with the lever gun was only wounded and had figured out the location of his attacker. With the element of surprise gone, the Horseman gritted his teeth and fired four more times at the spot where the outlaw had been standing, hoping the gunman had been foolish enough not to move. He did not see the bullets hit their target, nor did he see the man fall. What he saw instead was the four remaining outlaws running in all directions away from the camp. One man fired a wild shot over his shoulder as he tried to escape into the night, but the others simply ran.
The Horseman jumped up from cover and sprinted into the outlaws' camp. Falling to one knee, the Horseman fired twice, killing two of the fleeing outlaws before his rifle clicked as the hammer struck an empty chamber. Swinging around he saw the bandits' horses tied to a small grove of trees. Seeing that the outlaws had unwisely left their mounts saddled, the Horseman threw down his now-empty rifle and quickly stepped into the stirrups of one of the outlaw's saddles and drove the horse forward at a full gallop.
As he rode into the night, he saw the two remaining bandits had stopped and were furiously reloading their muskets. They had stopped running when, over their shoulders, they had seen him mounting the horse and had elected to try and make a stand on the plain. As he closed in on the outlaws, the Horseman saw them raise their rifles to their shoulders. He slouched low in the saddle, trying to make himself a difficult target.
As the first shot whizzed by his ear, the Horseman reached into his holster. Just as he freed his revolver, he felt a sharp pain as a ball grazed him, drawing a line of blood on his neck. Despite the pain, he managed to hold onto his gun and with his free hand pulled the hammer back. The outlaws, having missed their only chance to save themselves, again turned to run. The Horseman was on them before they could go ten paces. He fired into the back of the bigger man, who crashed to the ground with only a groan to mark his passage into the next life. The Horseman then fired twice more into the last of the bandits. The shots slammed into his chest and the man fell to his knees, grasping at his chest. He looked up at his killer with a mixture of surprise and fear before he fell backwards and lay still on the grass.
The Horseman sat atop his mount, looking at the dead men and feeling a sense of satisfaction that, for the first time in years, he had done something more than merely survive. He'd just fought a battle and won. As he headed back towards the bandits' camp, he found himself humming an old marching tune that he had not thought of since the end of the war.
* * *
Once The Horseman reached the outlaw camp, he began to search for anything useful. He picked up the weapons dropped by the outlaws, securing them on the captured stallion along with all the cartridges and powder he could find. A soldier needed weapons, he thought happily as he made fast the bundle. He also loaded the saddle bags with as much food as they could carry; it might be a while before he could get more provisions he mused as he had no idea when he would find another group of outlaws. All ideas of hunting or foraging had fled his mind replaced with the drive the complete his new mission.
Ready to leave, the Horseman noticed a sack in the corner of the camp. Curious, he walked over and pulled the bag open. He froze when he saw what was inside—a vast store of treasures, from rings and pendants to silver cups and plates. The Horseman knew at once he had found the loot the bandits had liberated from their victims over the years. It was worth a huge amount, more money than he would ever likely see again. All of it stolen.
He paused, thinking over his options. It was only a moment before he had reached his decision. With a shovel he found in the camp, he dug a hole in the plain's soft dirt. Carefully he laid the sack inside and covered the hole with dirt. Having freed the rest of the outlaws' horses, the Horseman led the captured stallion over the hill to where he had first spotted the bandits' camp. Pausing only long enough to climb on his own mount, the Horseman turned north and urged his horse forward into the night. As he rode away from the river, he began to again hum that old marching song, the notes only heard by those dead men who had the misfortune of crossing paths with a true soldier.