Western Short Story
He felt like he had been sitting in his saddle forever. James Washington was bone-tired from a nonstop journey across much of the southeastern United States. Most of the time he was traveling through mud while being pelted by persistent rain storms. Even now, here in Independence, Missouri he still needed his waterproof poncho to shed the rainfall and protect his gear from damage.
Normally, a Negro who was riding a magnificent black stallion would draw unwanted attention, even among the thousands of former civil war soldiers who regularly passed through the city on their way west. Washington had considered circling around the city, but the weather conditions provided good cover. He wore his broad-brimmed, slouch-hat pulled down low on his head to help hide his facial features. The poncho masked his body and the outline of his mud-spattered stallion while also protecting his substantial arsenal of weapons.
He had vowed to never again be at the mercy of anyone. He wore a .44 caliber, Army Colt revolver with the butt facing forward in a government-issued holster on the left side of his belt. Its leather flap provided protection from the rain. He owned this weapon since his days serving as a volunteer in the 13th United States Colored Troops The holster showed signs of wear, but the pistol was well-oiled and ready for use. More than once it had gotten him out of trouble in his travels through the deep South.
The right side of the same belt held a Bowie Knife in a leather scabbard. It too showed signs of heavy use but was sharp enough for shaving. Between his shoulder blades, in a specially designed leather harness, he carried a second Bowie Knife with its hilt just below the collar of his Yankee blue shirt. The Bowie on his belt was for show and served many practical uses. The one at his back was for emergencies and had saved his life more than once.
A Colt .31 caliber pocket pistol was secure in a small holster carried on his right hip, close to the small of his back where it was unobserved. Its small size made it easy to carry in a concealed position.
A Henry repeating rifle was secured in a scabbard attached to the side of his saddle and he kept it covered with a well-oiled, leather flap. He had gotten the rifle in a Louisiana swamp. It was obtained at the same time as the tall black horse he had been riding for almost three months. These two things made him a marked man, but they would also prove invaluable once he reached Nebraska Territory.
A steel tomahawk hanging from his saddle horn completed his lethal arsenal and often attracted the most attention. Today it was hidden by his poncho.
Washington looked as tired as he felt. He slouched in the saddle, letting his head hang slightly to give the appearance of a man considerably shorter than his 6 feet and 4 inches of height. He had even grown a full beard over the last few months to further hide his facial features. He doubted that word of his actions in Louisiana had reached this far, but he was not going to take that chance. He was headed for the Nebraska Territory and hoped to spend some time resting in Independence before continuing his journey.
As he slowly walked his horse along the main street of the city, he kept scanning his surroundings, on the alert for any threats or questionable happenings. It seemed as if every other building was either a saloon or a brothel and they were all very busy. He was not going to be caught unawares. He had been a slave in Alabama for the first eighteen years of his life and had learned to be very careful around white folk. He had escaped slavery in 1861, a few months after he was separated from his mother and sister by their owner.
He only knew his mother and sister because they lived on the same plantation. They were house slaves and he seldom had a chance to speak with them. Even so, he felt very lucky since most slaves knew nothing about any sort of a family. When they were sold to another slave owner, he became morose and angry. A major problem for the overseers, he was whipped on an almost regular basis. When he heard they were going to permanently disfigure him as an example to the other slaves, he escaped and fled north, stumbling into a Union encampment where he found refuge. Eventually he joined the Union Army with the idea of helping to end slavery and perhaps get revenge on his former owner.
When he mustered out in 1865, he had the rank of First Sergeant. Then he spent almost a year searching for his mother and sister, a nearly impossible task. On foot and armed with an army Colt revolver and a Bowie Knife, he traveled throughout Alabama and Louisiana searching for them. He kept his weapons hidden and only used them when he had no other choice. A Negro who assaulted a white man in the South, even in self-defense, was as good as dead. It did not matter that the war had been won by the North, giving the slaves their freedom.
It was the following February when he located the plantation where they had last been enslaved. It was in the southeast corner of Louisiana. Upon questioning a few Negro share-croppers who lived on the property, he discovered that his mother had been hung by the overseer for stealing eggs from the henhouse. He had spent almost a year searching for his mother only to discover that she had been hung for something as trite as stealing eggs. She had shielded him as best as she good when he was a child growing up a slave. Now he would forever be unable to repay her for the love she was able to give him.
He also found out that his sister had been given her freedom at the end of the war. She had gone north as the wife of one of the freed workers. She wanted to find a better life. He did not know her very well. All he knew about her was her name, Marcie. His mother had been moved to the main house before she was born. A field hand, he was not allowed near the house. Still, he felt relief that she had gotten away from this place and had a chance at a better life.
After the war, the overseer had stayed on at the plantation and worked for the owner, James Mallory, a man who had avoided fighting in the recent war through his political connections. Both treated the share-croppers like dirt and beat them at every opportunity. They did not feel like freed men.
Washington had ended his search. His mother had been murdered and his sister was moving on with her life. It was time for him to move on as well, but first he had one small task to complete. He had loved his mother, even though they had been together for just a few years during his childhood. Until his mother’s death was avenged, he could never rest. The law would not do anything about a slave being killed by an owner, so he would have to take care of it himself.
While sharing a small dinner with one of the Negro families who remembered his mother and sister, he learned more about her kindness. The eggs were being stolen to feed a very sick child on the plantation. Thanking them for their kindness, he left as a full moon was climbing high into the nighttime sky. By morning he was well on his way.
That same morning the overseer was found hung by the neck near the henhouse with a smashed egg smeared all over his face. Mallory and three other men followed Washington’s trail to a swamp several miles from the plantation. He was afoot, and Mallory was well-mounted on an especially fine, black stallion and carried a Henry repeating rifle. The men with him were armed with old muskets, Bowie knives and tomahawks but were not mounted. They used bloodhounds to follow Washington into the swamp and figured they would catch him before nightfall. That was when they would free the dogs to maul him, hanging what was left.
Washington was about a mile inside the swamp when he first heard the baying of the bloodhounds. It sounded like the pair that had been kept in a special pen on the plantation where they were pampered and trained to hunt escaped slaves. According to the locals, these two hounds had torn several men and women to shreds when they had tried to escape from the plantation during the war.
He was ready for them. At dinner the previous night he had been given a large pouch full of dried chili pepper powder. He found a large log and walked along the top of it for about half of its length. Taking the pouch off his belt, he liberally spread the chili powder back along his scent trail and farther along the log. His intent was to cause them plenty of trouble, especially when his trail ended, and they became more intent on sniffing the log’s surface.
Grabbing an overhanging branch, Washington pulled himself up into a large cypress tree and worked his way to the trunk. He was able to stay off the ground and out of the water as he went from tree to tree and came back down to the ground a hundred yards from the fallen log.
Dusk was settling in and a light fog was rising from the surface of the water. The hounds sounded a lot closer to where he spread the powder. Chuckling to himself, he circled back toward where he had entered the swamp. He figured the dogs were some distance ahead of the men, who would soon be distracted.
The baying of the hounds turned into yelps and crying just as he heard the crashing of his pursuers in an area of thick brush. The three men were spread out and Mallory had taken a more open route, separating him from them. The distress of the hounds disconcerted the men and one of them began cursing. The one closest to Washington had nothing to say. His throat had been slit with a Bowie knife. The other two never even noticed he was gone. They were distracted by the dogs. As they focused on the dogs, Washington took a second one down with a thrown tomahawk.
The dogs had quieted somewhat when the third man realized something was wrong. He did not hear his companions crashing through the brush. As he looked along his back trail, he saw a shadow approaching in the deepening darkness of the swamp. He threw down his musket and turned to run. He took nearly a full step before a bloodied tomahawk split his skull.
Mallory had heard the hounds’ distress and kicked his horse’s flanks. He was moving through shallow water and reached the hounds just as his third companion died. He dismounted by the hounds as they rubbed their noses in some grass.
He tensed when he heard a low voice speak from some shadows. “You done forgot your rifle. That be too bad for you.”
“I don’t need no rifle to kill a damn nigger.” Mallory replied as he drew a pistol and fired at the shadow. The six inches of flame that came out of the barrel temporarily blinded him. But that did not matter since the more accurate return fire occurred at the same time. His bullet hit a tree. Washington’s bullet hit him in the chest and knocked him back into the water.
The hounds had partially recovered from the chili pepper powder and attacked Washington. He managed to shoot one at point blank range. Its momentum caused it to crash into him, knocking him to the ground. The second hound had jumped at the same time and missed, flying past and into the swamp water. As he struggled to come back, Washington pushed the dead hound off and realized he had dropped his pistol.
When the hound regained the land, he made a more measured attack. He was experienced in killing humans and would kill Washington by tearing out his throat. As he approached, Washington did not have time to hunt for his pistol. Taking out his Bowie knife, he shoved it into the gaping jaws of the hound as it leaped.
Finding his pistol, Washington retraced his steps and checked on each of the dead men. He took anything he could use and dumped the bodies into the swamp waters for the alligators to clean up.
The following morning Washington left the swamp. Things had gone better than he expected. He figured he’d be lucky to get out of the swamp alive. Instead, he now rode a splendid black stallion with a Henry repeating rifle in a scabbard attached to the saddle. He even had another Bowie Knife and a vicious looking steel tomahawk.
Washington decided to head west into Nebraska Territory. He would be a wanted man throughout the South as soon as the local authorities found what he had left in the swamp. It was important to avoid any towns and larger farms where white folks might be living. The black stallion meant he would stand out, but it was a fine horse and could outrun anything that might try to catch him.
His goal was to reach a place called Independence in Missouri. He had heard about it from people he had met who were going west. It was the starting point for people leaving the ravaged South who wanted to start a new life. With his new horse and weapons, he was well-equipped for the journey. He just had to be careful about the route he followed. Taking his time, he travelled back roads and often stayed at an abandoned farm or camped in a patch of woods. He found friends among the poorer Negro sharecroppers and their families who often shared their meager supplies with him. The trip took two months since he first went east and then north before turning toward the west.
Now that he had arrived at Independence, he was not certain about his next step. Nebraska Territory was his goal, but he was not sure about what he would do when he got there. He had spent some time with a group of Cherokee Indian volunteers during the war and had learned a few things about life on the frontier. Whether or not that information would help him with the Cheyenne and Sioux of Nebraska was another question.
The rain was slackening, and the sky was starting to clear when he noticed some activity in a narrow side street. There was a large freight wagon blocking the street with three rough-looking men kicking and stomping someone laying in the mud in front of it. Turning into the street and riding up to the men, Washington stopped and just stared at them. The three toughs stopped their kicking and stared back.
The biggest of the three men stepped over the prone man in the street and approached Washington. He said, “Yuh want somethin’ nigger?”
When he did not reply, the man said, “If’n yuh ain’t got no bizness here, yuh better move on afore yuh git yourself hurt.”
Swinging his left leg over his horse’s head, Washington slid out of the saddle and stood in front of the man who had spoken. Before he could say another word, the man found himself flat on his back with his lower jaw at a funny angle. The other two stood still trying to decide whether to attack or run away. Before they made up their minds, Washington pulled out his Bowie Knife and said, “I think you two had better pick up this piece of garbage and git it out of my sight.”
As they dragged their unconscious friend into an alleyway, Washington bent down to check on the man in the street. The man was curled into a fetal position and covered with a worn piece of buffalo skin. As Washington moved the skin, the man sputtered into life with a curse. “Them damned thieves was after my money. But I showed ‘em. I got it hid good.” Then he coughed and spat out some blood as he got to his knees.
“Give me a hand up mister.” he said, reaching in Washington’s direction.
Grabbing his hand, Washington pulled him up to his feet, where he stood, rocking slightly from side to side. Then, straightening and arching his back, he said, “I thought them bastards wuz goin’ t’kill me. I wuz lucky you come along.”
When Washington did not respond, he spat out some more blood and said, “Why did you help me? You after somethin’?”
“Nope. I ain’t sure why I helped you. I just felt the urge to do it.” Washington replied, as he put his Bowie back into its scabbard and removed his poncho.
“I ain’t never heard of no Negro helpin’ a white man in a fight. Then to, you be wearin’ Yankee gear and there be mostly southerners here abouts.”
Ignoring his comments, Washington secured his poncho to the back of his saddle. He’d dry it out when he camped for the night. Then, as he turned to remount, the injured man held his right hand out and said, “Thank you for savin’ my hide from them three vultures. They be part of a gang that been robbin’ immigrants headin’ outta Independence.”
Shaking his offered hand, Washington said, “Maybe it would be healthier for you on the main streets until you are out of the city, Mr….”
“John Carter be my name. What be yours?”
There was just a slight pause before he replied, “James Washington. Now we best be moving along before those three come back with their friends.”
“I suspect they won’t bother us again until we be out of the city. Then they will be more than just the three of them. Maybe we should travel together for a spell. Besides, I owe you and I got plenty of supplies .”
Washington put his foot into a stirrup and swung back up into his saddle. After looking around the area and staring at Carter for a moment, he said, “I suppose it won’t do any harm, ‘specially if you be a good shot with that Sharps I saw sticking out from beneath the wagon seat.”
Carter threw his buffalo robe into the back of the wagon and gingerly climbed up into the seat. Then he cracked his whip near the ear of the lead mule and the four of them started off in unison.
Washington figured he would follow Carter out of town since he seemed to know where he was going. When they reached a wider street, Washington rode beside the wagon and said, “By the looks of that Sharps rifle and the smell of your wagon, you must be a buffalo hunter.”
“That be where my money come from. Them vultures knew I brought hides in two days ago and saw the empty wagon today. They figured I got cash on me from them hides and they wanted it. But ‘til I bought supplies and paid off some debts there weren’t but a little left.”
Washington just nodded his head and followed along after the wagon. Without his poncho, he attracted some attention. His blue jacket, black skin, and an arsenal of weapons caused more than one person to stare. A few individuals noted the progress of the wagon and that he was now traveling with it.
They followed the main road out of the city and quickly passed several locations where pioneer wagon trains were forming for travel to the Oregon Territory. Since daylight was getting scarce, they pulled off the road near a patch of woods and prepared to settle in for the night. They were about a mile beyond the last of the immigrant train areas.
Washington picketed his horse and the four mules a short distance from the wagon where there was some early spring grass and a small trickle of water. Meanwhile, Carter prepared camp just inside the woods with a good view of the road about a hundred yards away. Then he started a small fire to cook supper.
“You much of a cook, Carter?” Washington asked as he came into the campsite.
“I ain’t had no complaints. Of course, I only been cookin’ fer myself since the war ended.”
“I guess you can’t really spoil bacon and beans. Besides, it will be nice to have hot food for a change. I been movin’ fast and campin’ cold for a while now.”
“I would ask why, but a Negro on a fine stallion is a target in most parts of the country.”
“You start huntin’ buffalo right after the war?”
“Not exactly. When we done lost the war, I decided to come back west to make my livin’. Half breeds ain’t welcome many places and the west has lots of space where I can live a good life. My mother was Arikara and my father a French trapper. He was kilt by the Sioux one winter and I grew up in a village near Fort Clark on the Upper Missouri River. I learned English and white man ways from men at the fort. When the war started, I went east with three of them to join the Confederate Army.”
He stopped talking for a moment while he focused on the food heating by the fire. Then he said, “Here have some vittles before they burn.”
Scooping the bacon and beans onto two plates, he leaned back. Washington sat beside him and said, “That be why no one else was helping you back there? Because you be mixed blood?”
“That is part of it. Mostly it was because people be afraid of that gang. They’ve kilt women and children as much as men on this immigrant trail.”
“Well, Carter, I know what it’s like for people with dark skin among the whites. I just came from the South and plan to find a new life in the west.”
“You want to work with a half-breed, ex-Confederate, Yank?”
“Depends on what you have in mind. I suspect it be hunting buffalo. Tell me how you managed to get such a sturdy wagon. I noticed the fire-blackened areas on the sides.”
“Summer of ’65 I came across it about twenty miles north of the Oregon Trail in Nebraska Territory. A war party of Cheyenne had kilt the family and set the wagon on fire. The canvas must have burned so fast that the wooden sides had only gotten charred. I found two of the oxen that had been pulling the wagon. They were full of arrows, but I managed to save ‘em. Since then I replaced the oxen with four mules and I been sellin’ buff’lo meat and hides at Fort Kearny and Independence.”
“I been huntin’ buff’lo in the eastern part of Nebraska Territory. There be fewer Indians in them parts but also fewer buff’lo. If’n you wanted to join me, we could work the area north of Fort Kearny. Buff’lo more common up there.”
“I’ll think about it. I suspect the Cheyenne be more common as well. From what I heard, they don’t take to kindly to buffalo hunters.”
Leaving Carter to take the first watch, Washington stretched out in his bedroll and was soon asleep. Later in the night he took his turn and the rising sun saw him checking on the animals by the spring. Carter was up stirring the fire back to life to make some coffee when he noticed a group of men riding along the road toward Independence. They sat in their saddles like they had been riding most of the night.
“I wonder what them fellas be runnin’ from.” Carter said, as he stood and looked toward the animals to see Washington’s reaction. He was surprised to see him just standing and staring toward the road. Then he noticed two Indians standing just behind him with rifles pointed at the center of his back.
Before he could react, the riders on the road kicked their horses into action and headed toward the camp. As they approached, they brandished their pistols. He raised his hands and wondered if they were some sort of a posse with Indian trackers. Maybe Washington was wanted for something.
When the riders reached him, he knew they were in trouble. One of them had his lower jaw wrapped with some sort of a bandage and looked familiar. He was one of the men who had assaulted him yesterday. Before he could say a word, one of the men dismounted and hit him in the stomach with his fist.
As he was getting his wind back, the two Indians pushed Washington toward them. His hands were by his sides, not in the air. As he approached the men, one of them pointed and said, “Hey, Hank, ain’t that the nigger what busted your jaw?”
The man with the bandaged jaw grunted and stepped down from his horse. He aimed his pistol at Washington’s belly and cocked the hammer. Before he could shoot there was a rifle shot and he was blown backward with a hole in the center of his chest. One of the Indians had shot him.
That short distraction was all Washington needed. His pocket pistol had not been noticed when the Indians disarmed him. He drew it and shot two men out of their saddles while Carter managed to startle one of the horses enough for it to rear up and throw its rider. While the fourth man was trying to flee, Carter snapped the neck of the one who had been thrown. Then he grabbed his Sharps out of the wagon and shot the other man through his body as he turned onto the road at a full gallop.
The two Indians had stood still during the fracas. The one who had fired calmly reloaded his rifle. Then they waited while Washington and Carter made certain the five men were dead. They tied the dead men’s’ horses to the wagon and hung their guns over the saddles. The bodies they dragged just inside the woods.
All this activity occupied almost a half hour and the Indians had not moved. Figuring they had done enough not to attract attention from any immigrant wagons passing by on the road, they approached the two warriors.
Since Washington was new to the territory and Carter had dealt with Indians in the past, he took the lead. He knew the Indians were not Cheyenne nor Sioux and they did not fit the description of the more southern tribes. If they had been Arikara, his mother’s tribe, he would have known that. So, his first question was, “From where my red brothers come?”
He figured at least one of them must know English since they were traveling with that gang from Independence. He was right. “We come from mountains toward the setting sun. We be Apsaalooke, but white man call us Crow.”
“What you do with these men?”
“We come to ask white man help us against Cheyenne and Hunkpapa Sioux. They be taking our hunting grounds and keep us from buffalo. These men promise help if we first help them take yellow metal from bad white men that want take our lands.”
“So why did you help us?”
“Them the bad men. We think that but not know for sure. Then we find you and him.” He said, pointing at Washington before continuing. “Him big medicine. Skin black and have hair of buffalo on head. If he be killed now, buffalo stay away from our people.”
Washington spoke up and said, “We be pleased you helped us. You go back to your people with these horses and weapons.” Then he gestured toward the five horses tied to the wagon.
“We go now. OotchiaBishee always be welcome among our people. We take horses and rifles as gifts.”
With that, the Crow warriors went to the five horses and removed the saddles and pistols, laying them on the ground. Then the one said, “Have no use for these things.”
With that, the two warriors led the horses into the wooded area and soon rode out the other side, each on a pony and leading the other horses by their reins.
As they walked away, Washington asked Carter if he knew what the name OotchiaBishee meant.
“I am not sure, but I think it means Night Buffalo.”
“So now I have a new name and a new partner.”
“We will do all right sellin’ buff’lo meat and hides. It be hard work but pay good as long as the smell don’t get ya.”
As they threw the saddles and pistols into the wagon, Washington said, “We’ll throw them bodies into a shallow grave farther back into those woods. Then we better get hitched up and move away from these parts before we get any more visitors.”
Less than an hour later, Washington rode beside the wagon as they followed the Little Blue River to the north. “Maybe we’ll see them two Crow somewhere up ahead.”
“I don’t think so.” Carter replied. We be headin’ north of the Platte River into Cheyenne country. Them and the Crow don’t get along.”
“I think we’re going to have an interesting summer.” Washington said as he kicked his horse into a trot and went ahead to find a camping spot for the night.