Western Short Story
Fort Kearny was more of a trading post than a military fort. Since it was on the Oregon Trail, all sorts of people passed through, especially during the summer. Fur traders had largely disappeared. Hide hunters had replaced them. They hunted for buffalo skins and let the meat to rot where it lay. Immigrant trains were a common sight from spring into the early fall. Drifters, soldiers, gamblers, and preachers were all easy to find.
One such preacher was Baptist Jim, who made a living giving an occasional Sunday sermon. He wore a long black coat with black trousers and a white shirt. He had a full beard and piercing, brown eyes. His booming voice was well-suited for the pulpit. Just a smidgeon under five feet tall, at first glance, he appeared to be a timid little man. A closer look, however, presented a completely different image.
In his hand, he always carried a Bible, his only defense in this wild, untamed land. He rode a mule and would often disappear for days as he explored the prairie around the fort. There was Indian trouble to the west along the Bozeman Trail, but things were calm from here to the Missouri River. Hostiles were not a concern, and he was too poor to be bothered by anyone else.
Jim was two days north of Fort Kearny when he came across two old, beat-up wagons and a group of men. They were standing by an old cottonwood tree and were all worked up about something.
As he rode up to them, Jim noticed a stench that indicated they were buffalo hunters. There were seven of them by the tree. He saw an eighth man laying in the shade of one of the wagons. He had an arrow sticking out of his chest and did not appear to be breathing.
A ninth man stood under the cottonwood with a noose around his neck. The rope had been tossed over a large limb and just hung there with no tension on it. He appeared to be a Cheyenne Indian and had blood running down his face from a head wound.
Stepping down off his mule next to the group of men, Jim said, “You boys having yourselves some sort of a lynch party?” He held his Bible, where everyone could see it.
One of the men, who appeared to be in charge, responded, “Ain’t any of your business preacher. After we git done, you can say words over poor Chad there.”
Then, pointing at the dead man he continued, “This redskin here what done that and we are gonna hang him for it. Then we’ll scalp him and let his body hang there for the vultures to take care of.”
“That’s not a very Christian attitude, friend.”
“Yeah, well this here is a heathen and he done killed Chad, He’s gonna pay for it.”
“I thought the Cheyenne tended to mind their own business hereabouts. Why’d he kill one of you?”
“He claims Chad raped and killed his wife. Of course, everyone knows Injuns always lie. He gave her to Chad for a little whiskey. She didn’t like it none and pulled a knife. When Chad tried to take it away, she got killed in the fight. Her little boy happened to get in the way.”
“So he killed this man’s wife and son after raping her,” Jim said.
A big brute of a man was standing next to the leader. He had a long, filthy beard that hid most of his rotting, yellow teeth and smelled like a long-dead buffalo that had been laying in the sun. He stepped closer to Jim and attempted to intimidate him by staring down at him. He said, “Everyone knows Injun women is for the takin’. Nobody calls it rape. They need t’be happy when a white man takes an interest in ‘em.”
One of the others shouted, “Git on with it. I wanna see him hang. If the preacher don’t like it, he can go away.”
Another yelled, “I got first call on the scalp. I can use it t’decorate the tobacco pouch I made from his squaw’s tit.”
“Shut yer yaps, yuh damn fools,” the leader said. Then he looked at Jim and said, “You better git the hell outta here right now. “
Baptist Jim opened his Bible and said, “Brothers, I believe you have all done this man wrong, and in the eyes of God, you have all sinned greatly.”
The big man had stepped back a bit from Jim when the leader spoke. Now he showed some anger and said, “Preacher, you was told to git. Now, maybe you be stayin’ here. Permanently.”
As he finished speaking, he told a step toward Jim and stuck a long, beefy arm out to grab him. Before he took hold of Jim, he was looking down the barrel of a .31 caliber Colt Pocket Revolver.
“That little thing ain’t changin’ nuthin’,” he said as he lunged at Jim.
He suddenly stopped as if he had hit a wall when Jim fired and put a round ball directly between his eyes. As he fell backward, the others remained frozen in place. He hit the ground and stirred up a small cloud of dust while Jim waved his revolver around and said, “Anyone else believe this little thing in my hand doesn’t matter?”
When no one moved, Jim pointed his gun at one of the men who spoke earlier, He said to him, “Show me that tobacco pouch you talked about earlier.”
The man hesitated before lifting it from a pocket and holding it out where Jim could see it.
“You make that yourself?” Jim asked.
The man was shaking and looking furtively around at the others when he said, “Chad gave it to me.”
“You are a liar,” Jim said.
The man dropped the pouch and reached for a Sharps rifle that was leaning against a wagon. He grabbed it and turned with it at waist level. Jim had deliberately held his fire while the man went for the rifle. When he twisted around with it, Jim shot him in the chest. The Sharps fired at the same time. The slug hit one of the other men in the leg, shattering it, and knocking him to the ground.
“You ain’t getting’ away with this preacher. We’ll hunt you down before you get ten miles from here,” the leader said.
“I’ll have to take my chances. Now cut that man down and step away from us and the wagons,” Jim said.
Taking a knife from his belt, the man closest to the Cheyenne stepped over to cut the rope. Instead of cutting it, he stepped behind him and put the knife against his throat. As a trickle of blood showed along its edge, he said, “Drop that pistol, or I’ll cut his throat.
“If you do not cut him loose and drop the knife, I will kill you where you stand,” Jim replied as he kept his pistol pointed at the others. He had three shots left. Besides the man with the knife, there were three others still standing in a group. The other man was moaning and clutching his shattered leg. Luckily, they did not carry pistols, and their rifles were out of easy reach.
“Last chance, preacher,” the knife wielder said as he tensed his arm.
Jim pivoted and fired a single shot that nicked the Cheyenne’s ear and went on to hit the would-be killer in the eye, turning his brain into mush. The knife hit the ground at the same time as the dead man.
Swinging the pistol back toward the other men before they could react, Jim said, “You three get walking and take that one with you.” He pointed at the man with the broken leg.
“How are we supposed t’ do that. Sam’s in bad shape,” the leader said.
“You and those other two smelly lumps of flesh can carry him to where you are all out of rifle range. Then stop and tend him.”
The wounded man had made his tourniquet out of a strip of rawhide and had stopped the bleeding. He screamed when they tried to pick him up. They stopped, and the leader said, “We need a stretcher for him.”
Pointing his pistol at the horizon, Jim said, “Leave him here. He’s in no shape to make trouble. Now get going.”
The three men looked like they wanted to rush Jim, but they knew that only one would reach him. So, they put their heads down and moved away.
The Cheyenne had stood impassively during the whole thing, not even flinching when Jim knicked his ear with a bullet. Now he became more animated as Jim took a folding knife out of his pocket and walked behind him. He cut the rope securing his hands behind his back and stepped back.
The Cheyenne turned and said, “Why you help Running Beaver?”
“You speak English,” Jim said, mildly surprised since he had shown no emotion earlier.
“I learn from white trapper who spend winter with us many moons ago.”
“I am called Baptist Jim. I am what you would call a Holy man. These men were evil and doing wrong, so, I stopped them.”
“I travel across prairie with my family. They kill my pony from great distance with big gun. Then they come to us and make me prisoner and tell me I must watch what they do. They all take my woman then kill her. My son only four winters old they kill too. Then they laugh while they scalp them.”
“How’d you manage to kill one of them?”
“Bow under dead pony but have arrows. When white men surround us, I pretend hurt bad. They not careful when tie my hands. When they scalp my woman, I get hands free. I take arrow and attack them. I kill that one then all darkness. I wake up here by tree. They say I no go afterlife. They want hang me.”
As they talked, Running Beaver bent over and picked up the dropped knife. Then he walked over and used it to take the scalp of the man he had killed earlier. After that, he stood and pointed toward the injured man who was sweating and had a look of fear on his face. He said, “That one killed my son.”
Jim said, “I am going to see what is in these wagons. I don’t want those others coming after us with Sharps rifles.” With that, he walked away from the scene to the farther wagon. Just as he got there, a piercing scream came from behind him. It was cut short.
There was one rifle with a bag of cartridges in the wagon. Jim took them out and unhitched the team of mules. He chased them off in a direction opposite to that taken by the three men.
He found two more rifles and a bag of cartridges in the other wagon. He laid everything on the ground and released the mules from the second wagon as well. There were two unsaddled horses tied to the back of that wagon.
He untied one of the horses and handed the reins to Running Beaver. “This horse is yours. Go through these wagons and take whatever you want. I am going to burn them before I leave. Also, take a rifle and a sack of cartridges. I will keep one myself and destroy the other two.”
Taking a Sharps and a bag of cartridges, Running Beaver said, “I have all I need. Now those others will die. Running Beaver no forget the white man who help him.” Chambering a cartridge, he jumped onto the back of his horse and rode in the direction the others had taken.
The three men had walked out of sight and had kept going at a rapid pace. They had a dugout about ten miles north of here with emergency supplies. They intended to get there as quickly as possible. They had covered about a mile when two of the released mules found them. They had circled and were returning to their winter home at the dugout.
One of the men, Jason Marks, had tended them during the winter. They walked up to him and docilely stood still while two of the men mounted them. The third man was told to travel east to a place they knew. They would meet him there after getting things from the dugout. If he hid his tracks good, anyone following would take after the mules.
He didn’t want to do it. He agreed because he had no choice in the matter. The mules rarely carried anyone on their backs. Two men on one mule would cause problems. He hoped he’d get lucky and find another mule. So, he went east while the others went north.
A short time later, Running Beaver arrived at the location where the men had separated. He quickly ascertained that two men had found mules and were riding north. There was a dugout in that direction used by buffalo hunters the past few winters. He would find them nearby. The third man left tracks going east. He had tried to hide them, but he was not very good at it. That was who he followed.
When the walking man heard a horse coming from behind, he knew he was a dead man. He turned to see the Cheyenne approaching at a gallop. He held his hands in the air and started to plead for his life. The last thing he saw was the flame coming out of the muzzle of the Sharps as the lead slug tore a hole through his chest.
Before he burned the wagons, Jim reloaded his Colt and placed it back inside his Bible. He had cut a chunk out of its pages to hide the pistol. There was a complete Bible for preaching inside his coat pocket.
He dragged the four dead men away from the wagons. He had found a shovel in one of them, and he used it to dig four shallow graves. He had just covered them and was reading some scripture when Running Beaver rode up with a fresh scalp.
Before Jim could comment, he dismounted and said, “You say Holy words over men even though they do bad things.”
“All of God’s children deserve a chance at forgiveness and everlasting life. Even scum like these,” Jim said as he put his Bible back inside his coat pocket.
“Did you find those three?” Jim asked as he looked at the fresh scalp in Running Beaver’s belt.
“Me find one. Other two ride north on mules. Later I will kill them. Now I go take care of my family.”
“If you wait a few moments, you can help me search through and then destroy these wagons. Then I will help you with your family,” Jim said.
Running Beaver hesitated for a minute and said, “You say holy words for them?”
“Of course, I would do that for them and you.”
They found some bars of lead and a small keg of gunpowder for reloading cartridges for the Sharps. There was some whiskey that Jim planned to use as a fire starter. Some old, ratty buffalo hides would help them burn.
Jim loaded what they could use onto his mule and started pouring whiskey onto the wagons when Running Beaver gave out a loud whoop and started dancing around. Jim went to ask him what had happened when he saw the two scalps he was holding. Now his wife and child could be made complete to go into the afterlife.
Jim kept one Sharps and its bag of cartridges. The other two he threw into a wagon just before he torched it. The keg of gunpowder was between them. The two wagons made a satisfying sight to the two men. In a way, it was a cleansing of the evil that had occurred here.
Jim rode to where Running Beaver anxiously waited. When he pulled up beside him on the second horse, leading his mule, Running Beaver said, “White men kill family so I should hate all white men. You white, but good man and friend to Running Beaver. You help send family to happy afterlife. You help me say goodbye to Sweet Sparrow and Small Warrior.”
Baptist Jim rode the second horse and led his mule to keep up with Running Beaver. After two hours of riding toward the east, they came upon the tattered remains of a small shelter. A flock of buzzards circled above it.
Hurrying down a slope to the site, they scattered birds that were feeding and fighting with each other. The birds were feeding upon the remains, of Running Beaver’s family.
Jim knew better than to touch either body. Instead, he found some tattered robes and furs to spread on the ground while Running Beaver stood silently by the remains of his wife. When they were ready, Running Beaver placed his wife’s body on one, and his son’s on the other. Then he positioned a scalp at each of their feet to help their spirits be at rest. He tightly wrapped the robe and fur around each body, securing them with a rope.
“It is our custom to wait four days before placing a person’s body high in a tree so they can see where they must go to travel toward the rising sun. I must do this thing now so I can find the two who still live and avenge their deaths,” Running Beaver said as he attached a travois to his horse.
After a cold night without a fire, Jim and Running Beaver gently placed the two bodies onto the travois. An hour of slow travel brought them to a stand of cottonwood trees. One unusually large tree was next to a small, seasonal stream. It was on the east side of the grove.
“Here is where my family will rest before making their journey toward the sun,” Running Beaver said after taking a close look at the tree.
Working together, Jim and Running Beaver placed Sweet Sparrow at the highest point in the tree and Small Sparrow a short distance beneath her. As Jim read for them from his Bible, Running Beaver stood off by himself and slowly cut three long gashes across each arm. Then he took another knife that he had sitting in a small fire and cauterized each of the wounds. He showed no emotion and made no sound the whole time.
As the smell of burning flesh slowly faded from the air, Running Beaver said to Jim, “Now I kill the other two. I know where they go. They have place half day toward setting sun.”
“I’ll ride with you. We will take them to Fort Kearny for punishment,” Jim said.
Running Beaver shook his head and said, “White man’s justice is not for Cheyenne. No white man ever punished for killing one of my people. I must have my justice for my family. They will die.”
Jim had some misgivings, but he had gotten himself involved and believed he should see it through to the end.
“I will go with you,” he said.
Staring hard at Jim with piercing eyes, Running Beaver said, “It is for me to avenge my family.”
As he swung onto his horse, a bullet grazed his arm as the sound of a distant rifle shot rolled in from the west. When he heard the rifle fire, Jim dropped to the ground as another bullet whizzed through where he had been standing. Before a third shot could be fired, Running Beaver kicked his horse’s ribs and rode toward the north where there was a patch of broken ground.
He rode into a dry stream bed and dismounted, taking his Sharps rifle and a handful of ammunition with him. Moving into some rocks on a slight hill next to the gully, he scanned the horizon toward the west. Running Beaver knew the approximate location of the shooters and settled in to wait for a puff of smoke to show him exactly where they were.
Jim was hugging the ground, making himself as small a target as possible. Even though the shooters did not appear to be marksmen, he could still get hit by dumb luck.
His horse was nearby. Since the shooters were probably the men from yesterday, they were probably not going to shoot their own horses. That might give him a chance.
He jumped to his feet and took several steps away from the horse, all the while watching for smoke from a rifle shot. As soon as he saw two puffs, he reversed his direction and ran to his horse.
He mounted and kicked it into a gallop away from the two men. He figured on circling behind them. They were about six hundred yards away, and he could get behind them in less than a half hour. It was late in the day, and that would put the sun at his back. Hopefully, they would not try to make a run for it.
As he rode, he heard the report of Running Beaver’s rifle. He must have seen the rifle smoke and started shooting at it. “If they have to keep ducking their heads, they’ll have trouble watching me,” Jim thought to himself.
During the quarter hour spent getting behind the two shooters, he heard constant rifle fire between the two bushwhackers and Running Beaver. When he cut across their trail, he dismounted to proceed on foot. His horse wouldn’t wander away. The short but hard ride had lathered his skin and about wore him out.
As he moved along the trail left by the mules, the firing got louder and louder. Eventually, it sounded close enough that he decided to leave the trail and climb up a slight rise. When he reached the topo, he spotted the two buffalo hunters from yesterday. Their attention was on Running Beaver, and they were over four hundred yards away. They appeared to have a large sack of ammunition and were probably hoping to have Running Beaver run out. Then he would be easy pickings.
Luckily, Jim’s Sharps rifle was in a scabbard on his saddle, and he had brought it along with plenty of cartridges from the saddlebags. Now he would check its accuracy. He rested the barrel on a rock and took careful aim.
When he fired, it kicked like a mule. His shoulder would be black and blue before nightfall.
He had tried for a body shot but must have jerked the trigger. Either that or the sights were off. The 425-grain lead slug hit his target in the back of his head with enough force and energy to remove the front half of his skull.
The leader of the group was the only one left alive. He ran for the mules, thinking he might be able to get away. Jim quickly reloaded and then just watched his actions. Running Beaver had come into the open, riding his horse at a breakneck speed. By the time the outlaw had mounted the mule and kicked it into movement, Running Beaver had covered half the distance to him.
Both men were in the open, and the outlaw dropped his rifle, pulling a revolver and taking aim at the rapidly approaching Cheyenne. When Running Beaver saw the pistol, he ducked low and hung off the side of his horse while aiming his rifle across the front of his neck. Running Beaver made an impossible shot and hit the outlaw in the upper arm, knocking him off his mule. He appeared to land hard and lay on his belly for a moment. He sat up, holding his broken arm, just as Running Beaver reached him. As he slid off his horse, Jim stopped watching and walked back to retrieve his animal. As he went back down the rise, he heard a scream that was suddenly cut off.
A few minutes later, he rode back to the site to find Running Beaver sitting by the dead man and staring at the sky. “What are you thinking about?” he asked.
“I speak to Sweet Sparrow and Small Warrior. I avenged them, and now one day I can join them. I also say that time not be now.”
Jim checked a saddlebag on one of the mules and found some folded papers stuffed inside. One of them was a wanted poster for a Jasper Black. He was wanted for bank robbery and murder. Whoever brings him in would get a reward of $500, and he was wanted dead or alive.
The description and sketch fitted the leader of the bunch laying at his feet. He had been scalped but still appeared recognizable.
One of the reasons Jim had been wandering across the prairie was the loss of his church in Tennessee. Raiders had burned it to the ground. Most of the congregation had left to go west. He had wanted to rebuild the church, but money was scarce, and few worshippers were left. He had become a traveling preacher and believed God would eventually lead him to a new flock and church.
Jim threw Jasper’s body over one of the mules. He planned to take it into Fort Kearny for the reward. Preparing to leave, Jim noticed Running Beaver was mounted and waiting for him. When he gave him a questioning look, Running Beaver said, “You save my life and help me with my family. My honor says I must be with you until I can pay the debt you have given me.”
“I only did what was right. You don’t owe me anything,” Jim said.
“Where we go now?” Running Beaver said.
Seeing he was not going to win this argument, Jim said, “We will go to Fort Kearny where I will be paid for this man. He is wanted for many crimes against his people.”
Two days later they rode together into Fort Kearny. He was given a bank note for $500 and picked up several wanted posters. He was going to earn more bounty money with the idea of using it to build his new church.