Western Short Story
A Prairie Song (1879)
Charles D. Phillips

Western Short Story

The morning started out just fine. With only a two-day ride left to Buffalo Gap, Jake had found a spot last night where a wet creek pooled and created a stand of mesquite perfect for a pleasant overnight camp. He spent the next morning giving his buckskin gelding, Paco, a good rub and brushing, knocking a week of trail grit out of his coat.

He cooked the last of his bacon, made a pan of biscuits, and boiled himself a pot of coffee. A good breakfast in the soft mesquite shade and lingering over a cup of good coffee, while his pony grazed on sweet bottom grass was a luxury he knew only rarely. He had filled all his canteens the night before, and the remainder of the biscuits and bacon would last until he reached the traders’ camp at The Gap.

Some men didn’t like carrying a skillet or coffee pot on the trail. They thought that was only for fellows so stove up that they had to become a cook. Jake had spent too much of his life riding hard trails. He saw little sense in depriving himself of those few things that might, in the odd moment here or there, give him a bit more comfort. Besides, he could make a better cup of coffee and a lot better pan of biscuits than most any of those busted up old boys who did cook. Not that he was necessarily going to tell anyone how good he was at these things. He killed buffalo. Other men who had come to rest somewhere farther down the ladder cooked for men like him.

By now the rest of the crew would be at The Gap, trying to drink all the whiskey and take all the cardsharps’ money. They wouldn’t be doin’ much good at either, but that didn’t really matter. The buffalo hides they had piled high on their wagons farther up north would have brought a fine dollar from the traders who came to The Gap. His share would be there when he made it in. There might even be enough whiskey left to wash the weeks of caliche dust out of his mouth.

He had been forced to stay behind the crew because Paco had come up lame. The cannon bone in Paco’s left foreleg had heated up right above the fetlock, just where Waco Jackson’s silly-tailed mule had kicked Paco out of sheer meanness. Well, Jackson claimed that Paco biting his mule’s hindquarters might be seen by some as considerable provocation. But, Jake knew that only a stupid mule would have tried to get between Paco and that bag of grain.

Some men favored mules on the trail, but Jake always thought it was the choice of stubborn men like Waco who took some kind of contrary pride in riding an ugly plug of an animal. Jake himself took considerable pleasure in Paco’s good conformation and coloring. In fact, he knew the way Paco’s coal-black legs, tail, and mane stood out so sharply against the remainder of his light tan coat made a fine introduction to not a few ladies. He also knew that Paco’s combination of speed and power made him the envy of many a cowboy. Those cowboys figured no buff hunter needed a horse that good. But, no matter how drunk or broke Jake got, he refused to sell Paco or make a bet that included his saddle horse.

After a few days rest, Jake and Paco had started their long, lonely trek down off the Staked Plains. Their pace has been slow and leisurely, exercising but never taxing Paco’s healing foreleg. After their luxurious morning spent under the light shade of the mesquites, they were braving the heat of the day to make a decent dent in the remainder of the distance to The Gap.

The day took its bad turn when Jake noticed a lone brave, probably Southern Comanche or maybe Kiowa, on a low ridge to his left. One Indian wasn’t a real problem. This did raise a few concerns though. First, in this territory there was no such thing as only one Indian; second, Indians didn’t let you see them unless they wanted you to see them, and third, all plains Indians this far off the reservation hated all white men, especially buffalo hunters. Jake decided that it had to be a raiding party. The peaceful Comanche and the Kiowa were on their reservations to the west and north. There, they were quietly dying, in considerable numbers, of cholera, typhoid, or starvation, while the U.S Cavalry and a covey of Christian missionaries watched.

Jake figured he had only a few choices. He could keep going down the shallow valley he had entered on his way to higher ground. But, hard-earned experience in The War had taught him, just like it taught all those dying boys who faced him and his unit in the Wilderness, at Plum Run and Cemetery Ridge, that holding low ground meant holding the killing ground, maybe for all eternity.

A healthy Paco would’ve outrun the Indian ponies, but Paco wasn’t healthy. So, Jake could head off toward the low ridge to the right, showing his new companion that he wanted no trouble. Unfortunately, that lone brave might be trying to spook him into doin’ exactly that. He might be trying to herd him into the rest of his raiding party waiting on the backside of the ridge. Or, Jake could move left, up the ridge where the young brave was keeping pace with his progress.

No matter what he did, he’d do it while he vehemently cussed himself for acting like such a honyoker, a greenhorn. He might lose his hair because he had chosen to take the easy, more westward track off the Staked Plains. Had he cut east sooner, he’d have faced harder trails and more dry camps, but he would also have had a much lower likelihood of running into renegades fresh off the rez and looking for trouble.

On top of that, he had now been caught taking a short-cut thru a shallow valley set off by two low ridges. He thought for a minute and made his decision. On the dark side, he was in near perfect ambush territory. On the bright side, he wasn’t, as far as he knew, riding into a box canyon. He didn’t really find this conclusion all that comforting.

Jake shook his head, pulled Paco up, took up one of his canteens, had a good swallow, washed out his mouth, and spit to one side. He took off the battered campaign hat that he had worn for going on nine years. He wiped his forehead. The Sun made the sweat glisten on the palm of his hand, and he sighed deeply. In this land you never knew when you were making a decision that could cost your life, maybe with hours or days of torture thrown in to sweeten the pot. So, you always needed to act like every decision was life or death.

Jake knew he hadn’t done that, and now it looked like it was time to put a price tag on that failure in judgment. He put his canteen away, re-settled his hat, and turned Paco to the left. He would crowd his shadow and see what happened. It was the quickest way to figure out just how bad this situation might really be.

Like many other successful hunters, Jake carried two Sharps breech-loading buffalo guns. He liked the double trigger on these Sharps better than the single-triggered version he’d brought west from The War. The two triggers reduced the inaccuracy caused by the longer pull on a single-triggered rifle, an important thing for a professional killer. Each of his twin rifles rested in a scabbard on either side of his saddle.

When Jake was hunting, he’d fire one Sharps, then he’d hand the smoking rifle to one of the skinners he paid to act as his loader. The skinner would hand him back a loaded rifle. He would sight-in, cock it, set the first trigger, and just touch the second, hair-trigger, to fire. As Jake did that, his loader would pull down the latch lever on his second rifle, eject the used casing downward, and load a new .52 caliber cartridge. He would hand Jake a freshly reloaded rifle before the buff he had just shot hit the ground. Using two rifles kept each gun from overheating when you found a good stand of buff, and it let you pretty much double your hides, plenty more than enough to pay for the skinner’s help.

Jake leaned back in his saddle, pulled one Sharps from its scabbard, set its butt on his thigh and cocked it. He didn’t set the first trigger. He could do it quickly enough if it was required, but all he needed was for Paco to stumble going up the ridge and for his cannon to go off by accident.

He didn’t have much hope that this would end without a fight, but he was sure that he had heard of stranger things happening with Indians. He couldn’t remember any one of them at this particular moment, but he was sure he had heard about them sometime or somewhere. He turned Paco toward the ridge where his shadow rode and began a slow ascent on a path that would intercept the brave’s progress, if they both maintained speed.

At this move, the brave kicked his pony and rode directly at Jake, screaming, and waving his spear. Hopefully, this meant the brave was either on some solo, religious quest that made him crazy with hunger and lack of sleep. More likely, it meant his job was to drive Jake back down into the valley toward the ridge hiding the rest of the raiders. Jake could’ve let him pass and largely ignored him, but this was obviously going to be a battle, and a dead brave was one that couldn’t take his scalp.

He slid off Paco on the side away from his attacker, ordered Paco still, and placed the Sharps across the saddle seat. He pulled the first trigger, just touched the second trigger, and watched the oncoming brave fly backwards off his pony like someone had just roped him from behind. The Indian pony dashed madly past him, and Jake heard the war cries from the opposite ridge. The braves he now knew were Southern Comanche flew into view riding at breakneck speed down into the shallow valley and toward him. There were more than twenty of them.

Jake slid the empty rifle into its scabbard, moved to the other side of Paco and drew his unfired rifle. Another brave died flying as he absorbed the shock of a bullet that would stop a charging buffalo in its tracks. That second shot surprised the war party. They’d expected to fly up on him after his first shot as he fumbled to reload his one single shot rifle like some farmer with ten thumbs and a bad case of the tremors.

But Jake reloaded the Sharps with quick, efficient movements learned at deadly places like South Mountain, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. His third shot struck home as well, and his attackers faltered. They turned and galloped back toward the opposite ridge, racing erratically from side to side, some hugging their ponies’ necks trying to escape his aim. Most of the braves seemed to be returning fire with lever action repeating rifles, but it’s hard to hit a barn when you’re shooting over your shoulder from the back of a racing pony. Jake managed one more shot that took down yet another attacker as the brave’s horse topped the opposite ridge.

Jake thought, well this isn’t so bad, that only leaves me maybe 18 or 20 young bucks who want my hair, and who aren’t going to come screaming straight at me next time they decide they want to fight. Jake looked for cover, but the ridge was barren. He pulled Paco the last few yards to just over the top of the ridge line. He couldn’t help but wonder how he could’ve survived all that Confederate artillery and those minie balls flying through the air when thousands of men clashed, just to be trapped on a bare ridge by a small band of red Indians on a piece of forlorn prairie at the southern tip of The Great American Desert.

It sure didn’t seem fair. Unfortunately, fair didn’t come into it. On these plains, a man fought, killed, or died where he stood or crouched because of his own or someone else’s good or bad luck, or because of something as simple as breakfast. Had Jake pushed on to a dry camp last night, instead of stopping and indulging his desire for good water, fresh coffee and warm biscuits, he might have missed these bucks altogether. Then again, he might not have missed them, and he would be here in the same mess having missed the pleasure of those biscuits, that bacon, and his coffee.

Jake realized there was no running to be done. Given Paco’s foreleg, he was pretty much afoot. If the Comanche continued their attack after the hidin’ he had given them, then they wouldn’t be turning tail any time soon and riding off into the sunset back towards the rez with its moldy hoecakes. They would be aimin’ to stay until they settled his hash.

The answer came soon enough. As he looked toward the far ridge, braves began slipping over and moving from one bit of cover to another. They had dismounted. A horse was too big a target for a marksman like himself. The braves not moving would fire at his position to protect the other braves while they moved. A few braves with single-shot buffalo guns, probably obtained from men like Jake, remained on the ridge, firing both relatively steadily, quickly, and inaccurately.

Jake understood this for the bad news it was. He had seen these tactics far too often when he was wearing the green uniform on one of Berdan’s sharpshooters in The War. It meant that this band of renegades was lead by a veterano, an older brave who had learned far too many things from the mounted infantry fighting on the frontier. And, he had trained these younger braves well. Their fire was relatively ineffective at this range, but it would improve as the skirmishers closed, and the braves on the ridge finally figured out the range.

He was more of a rifleman than any of the braves, but they could generate a volume of fire he couldn’t match. Soon, their fire would force him to take cover, allowing different portions of the band to alternatively move up under strong covering fire. No doubt, he could make them pay, but in the end, he’d lose this battle.

Within the few hours remaining before dusk, they’d have his guns, his horse, and his hair. They would either shoot Paco early in the battle to keep Jake from running, or, after they finished with Jake, they’d run Paco until his bad foreleg gave out. Then, the absolutely best saddle horse Jake ever had would become dinner for the men who’d killed him.

He could take down a few more braves, but not enough. He had sat behind cover and killed man after man in battle after battle in The War. In January of ’65, he contracted cow pox. When he got his medical discharge, he took his sharpshooter’s rifle, his U.S. Army issued cowhide-covered knapsack with its messkit, a campaign hat and a stolen sutler’s horse. He headed west, and he never looked back.

As he crouched just at the backside of that ridge, he truly surprised himself. He had killed men at a distance with his sharpshooter skills. He had killed men at point-blank range when they charged up Cemetery Ridge trying to quiet the Union artillery there that was making a bloody mess of them. He had even killed a man with a Bowie knife in an argument over a card game. The man lost his grub-stake and then tried to pull a pistol.

What surprised Jake was his absolute certainty that he had no stomach for another fight like those battles back East. He had no desire to sit behind cover while his rifle cut through a band of men like a scythe goes through a cornfield. If doing that would save him, then he’d do it without batting an eye. But, he could only fire eight, maybe ten, good shots a minute. A minute might as well have been an eternity when 20 or so braves were moving in across a couple of hundred yards. Jake had killed men to stay alive, and he had killed buff to put food on the table and put some money in his pockets. He had long ago decided, however, that he wouldn’t kill other men just because he could. That decision gave him little choice.

Rising, he grabbed Paco’s reins and pulled him to the top of the ridge, doing his own version of the Rebel Yell that he’d heard far too many times during the War and that sometimes still echoed in his dreams. He pulled his Bowie knife from the scabbard hanging from a rawhide strap around his neck and swiped its finely-honed blade across Paco’s throat as he used the reins and then the weight of his body to pull Paco down onto his side. He laid both loaded rifles across Paco’s twitching withers, rubbed Paco’s nose for a moment, murmured softly to him, then dipped his fingers in the warm blood flowing from Paco’s neck. He drew those wet fingers down his cheeks.

Next, he used his knife to hack off both his long braids. He threw them down the low ridge toward the Comanche. Jake then stood and pulled off his buckskin shirt with its fine Lakota beadwork and ripped it to pieces with his knife. He did the same with the saddlebag that had once been his knapsack. As he did all this, the firing from the braves fell away to nothing, despite the target he made of himself standing behind Paco’s now still body. He’d decided that they could take his life, but there would be little bounty in it for them. He would leave no fine long-haired scalp to hang from a spear, no beaded buckskin shirt, and no cowhide-covered saddlebags to make the squaws think a brave was rich. His only concession was the campaign hat he pushed back into place. He could’ve cut it up too, but that was a part of his past that had made him what he was today. He wanted that part of his past with him in this last battle.

He then bent down and dipped his fingers in a pool of Paco’s quickly drying blood. This time, as he rose, he ran his fingers across his bare chest, leaving four horizontal crimson streaks that stood out starkly against the pale, white skin of his chest. A breeze rustled the buffalo grass and brought the metallic smell of Paco’s blood to his nostrils. Jake picked up one of the Sharps and stood with one booted foot up on Paco’s prone body. He then began to sing in a rich baritone trained in his Daddy’s church choir in upstate New York a lifetime ago. He sang the way he’d sung before he became a heathen, a godless killer of two-legged then four-legged prey. He sang through the first verse of “Amazing Grace” and then started into the second verse.

The braves remained behind cover, reloading, preparing for their final rush toward this warrior with his many guns and strong medicine. Each brave knew the tale of this battle would be told many times around campfire after campfire by all those who managed to stay alive. As they made ready, the braves listened patiently, waiting for the white warrior to finish his strange and haunting death song.