Western Short Story
“It says here there’s a fellow by the name of Jack Ripper on the loose over in England. Evidently, he’s already butchered half a dozen folks with a knife. It goes on to say….”
“Why Cleve, where did you pick up such a habit like reading—some girl’s school back East?” Uncle Eli continued stroking his skinning knife on the whetstone he held in his lap. The nearby campfire didn’t offer much light or heat, but Uncle Eli could sharpen a blade to a razor’s edge on a moonless night inside a cave. He had skinned buffalo for thirty years and a sharp knife had been an essential tool of his trade. Eli wetted the stone with a brown wad of spit and continued drawing the blade slowly across the stone.
“Uncle Eli, just hush up. Maybe I have to put up with your greasy, burned biscuits and a smell that would drive a buzzard from a gut wagon, but I don’t appreciate your insults. This wasn’t my idea to follow you around the Montana Badlands on some hunting trip. Make a man out of me, mother said. Just a little camping trip before heading off to Oxford, mother said. I’ve slept on hard ground for nearly a month, wandering from canyon to canyon. I’m ready to head back to Chicago. Powder River was the only town I’ve seen in all this time, and we didn’t stay there but for an hour. I was lucky to find this newspaper. What’s wrong with a nice hotel room and a restaurant meal?” Cleve wanted no part of this cowboy life despite the dime novels of Ned Buntline.
Uncle Eli continued sharpening his knife. “I don’t know how my own sister managed to raise such an educated, ignorant brat. You could get lost fetching water from a stream if it was just a hundred yards away. So what if you can read—you don’t have sense enough to pour water out of your boot if the instructions were written on the bottom.”
Cleve scanned down the columns of newsprint, then blurted out, “And you couldn’t read a third grade primer if a jug of whiskey was at stake. I was very content sitting in my library on Lake Shore Drive.”
“Well, it was your ma who decided it was time to grow up and get a taste of the real world. None too soon from the sorry looks of ya either,” Uncle Eli countered.
Cleve was trapped in the middle of a big, lonely prairie with only an old buffalo hunter for companionship. It was entirely too hot in the day, too cold at night and too far from home to suit him.
A coyote howled in the distance. Cleve carefully folded his precious newspaper to read in the morning, then added another armload of wood to the fire. Uncle Eli said nothing more and continued stroking his knife on the whetstone. Although the long blade could shave the hair off his arm, it wasn’t sharp enough to slice through the thick silence that descended on the camp.
After a few more minutes of silence, Uncle Eli feigned interest and asked, “What was you saying about that Ripper fella?”
“Well, there’s a murderer over in London who carves up women like they were hogs. He works late at night and nobody can catch him. Whole city is in an uproar. Last murder was just a month ago. London, England. That’s where I am going in a few months.”
“You don’t say, nephew. Hell, I remember a fella down near Cheyenne took a dislike to preachers. Used a pick-ax to brain four of them. Town was pretty short on bible thumpers for a while. General store clerk finally figured it out when he noticed the fella bought a new pick-ax after every funeral.”
Cleve eyed the old buffalo hunter. This was as much as Uncle Eli volunteered without an insult thrown in. Cleve wrapped his blanket tight around himself and laid back on his bedroll using his saddle for a hard pillow. Overhead, stars filled the sky like diamonds on black velvet.
“Uncle Eli, what causes a man to do those things? What makes a Pick-Ax Pete or a Jack Ripper murder folks like that?”
Uncle Eli was surprised by the question and rested his knife in mid-stroke. “Crazy, I guess. Killin’ and skinnin’ buffaloes got a purpose—meat and hides. But no tellin’ about folks. Crazy, or just plain mean inside I….”
Uncle Eli suddenly reached for his Sharps rifle and rose to his feet staring into the darkness. He cocked the heavy hammer and leveled the gun at some unseen target.
“I say there, my good man. May I be so bold as to intrude upon your camp for the evening?” A soft voice floated in out of the darkness.
“Step into the firelight wheres I can see ya. Easy now. Nice and slow. Come on in, mister.”
A tall, lanky man stepped into the firelight. Cleve saw he was oddly dressed, not like any cowboy wrangler he had ever seen. The stranger was wearing a brown tweed suit with leggings. A European-style hunting cap adorned his head. On his back the man carried a small knapsack and bedroll as though he was on some sort of day hike—not some fifty miles from nowhere. But it was the large knife hanging on his belt that was strangely out of place.
“Good evening, my dear chaps. I didn’t mean to startle you, but my horse took a bit of a spill and I happened to spy your campfire. I was rather hoping you would permit me to share its warmth on such a cold Montana evening. We are in Montana, aren’t we?”
Uncle Eli nervously eyed the visitor. He wasn’t use to men suddenly appearing out of the night in the middle of a lonesome prairie.
“My word, but that is a marvelous rifle you’re holding there. A Sharps rifle, isn’t it? Caliber 50-90 perhaps? Wonderful weapon. Deadly accurate for a half mile in the hands of a true marksman. Would you mind terribly pointing it in another direction? I assure you that I am no brigand and intend you no harm.”
Cleve had never seen Uncle Eli speechless as he lowered the rifle. Eli stared at the man and finally muttered, “Set yourself down.”
Cleve sat up on his bedroll. “M…My name is Cleve and this here is my Uncle Eli. We’re on a hunting trip.”
“Hello, lad. Pleased to make your acquaintance.” The stranger dropped his pack and bedroll, then sat close to the fire to warm himself. “My name is John Kipper. You might have already guessed that I am not from around here. I only recently immigrated to your country on my long journey to Butte. Am I very close to Butte yet? I seem to have lost my way in this vast ocean of grass and rolling hills. Perhaps in the morning you could point me in the general direction and I shall trouble you no further. Is that a biscuit there? I am absolutely famished. Mind if I….”
“Help yourself there, Kipper. Me and the boy already ate. And no, you ain’t even close to Butte. It’s about 300 miles that away. What’s so important in Butte?”
“Actually, Mr. Eli, I was hoping to find a game of chance there. Faro perhaps. You see, I am a professional card player, a gambler in your parlance. It is both my profession and one of my addictions.”
Cleve studied the man’s hand as Kipper chewed on a tough biscuit. The fingers were long and sinewy and delicate, more like the hands of a surgeon or an artist. But it was the knife hanging from the man’s belt that drew Cleve’s gaze. Beneath the waistcoat, the black ebony handle flashed in the firelight. The long blade was encased in an equally black sheath made of fine leather. Cleve was embarrassed when Kipper caught him staring at it.
“Yes, my boy, it is beautiful, isn’t it? Would you like to hold it?” Kipper slipped the knife easily from its scabbard in a smooth, fluid motion. He handed the knife delicately to Cleve and butt first, as though it was as fragile as a bird’s egg. The blade was as polished as a mirror, alive with an evil shine that seemed to dance in the firelight.
“It is made of a special alloy called stainless steel. The blade was hand-forged and heat tempered to hold a razor’s edge. The ebony was imported from Africa. You won’t find a surgeon’s scalpel crafted to the standards of that knife. Beautiful, isn’t it? Both beautiful and deadly, like a fine, mysterious woman.” Kipper’s voice trailed off as he stared into the night.
“Pretty knife there, Kipper. Ever use it for something besides cutting bread? Har. Har.” Only Uncle Eli laughed at his little joke. Kipper tenderly took the knife from Cleve, wiped unseen dust from the gleaming blade and slipped it back into its sheath.
“Might I spend the night here, Mr. Eli?”
“Sure. Just pick yourself any piece of dirt. It’s all the same around here.”
“Mr. Kipper, you must be from England. I was reading a newspaper before you arrived. There was a story about a certain Jack Ripper fellow. Do you know much about that report?”
Kipper stared into the fire a moment before answering. “Yes, lad. I know quite a bit actually. They call him Jack THE Ripper. I was in London when the last…event occurred. I must say, that man—whoever he is—has the entire city quite atwitter. Scotland Yard and the Bobbies are quite befuddled by the chap. No one walks the streets after dark unless they are in small groups. Quite amusing, actually, to watch all those little coveys of people scurrying about the streets. This Ripper fellow seems to target women for some reason. Perhaps the bloke was jilted by a lover…or his mother was abusive….” Again, Kipper’s voice trailed off.
“Better get some sleep, Kipper. Daylight comes just about dawn west of the Mississippi. Har. Har.” Uncle Eli liked his little joke.
“Good night, Mr. Kipper. Would you please tell me more about England in the morning?” Cleve asked as he laid back on his bedroll.
“Of course, lad. I would be delighted.”
In short order both men were snoring while Cleve lay awake watching shooting stars flash across the sky. Something troubled him about this polite English gentleman. Cleve thought how the man sensuously stroked the knife as he cleaned it. There seemed to be something sinister lurking just below a thin veneer of civility.
Uncle Eli was right about one thing—daylight did come just about dawn west of the Mississippi. The sky turned from black to purple to yellow-gold, but it was not the dawn that awoke everyone. Instead, there was the crunch of a boot on frozen dirt and a gruff voice.
“Git up you lousy Limey, or I’ll kill you where you lay.”
Cleve opened his eyes to see the dark figure of a cowboy kicking at Kipper. Uncle Eli grabbed for his rifle but it was not there. The dark figure had already moved it out of reach.
“Git up, I said. Git up and face me,” the cowboy demanded while pointing a Colt revolver at Kipper. “Leave that fancy toadstabber right there, ‘less you think a knife is faster than a bullet.” The man looked menacingly at Cleve and motioned him to join Uncle Eli.
Kipper looked longingly at the ebony-handled knife lying in its sheath near his bedroll, then rose obediently to his feet, hands at his side.
“M’ name’s George, Big Nose George. Ya kilt my pardner Will in Powder River. Now I’m gonna kill you.”
For a moment Kipper seemed confused, then brightened with the memory. “I say, was that ruffian a friend of yours? Your certainly set low standards for your associates….”
“Listen you Limey bastard. Ya kilt Will with that fancy knife of yours. Slit his throat from ear to ear while he was lookin’ straight at you. I heared all about it and I’ve been tracking you ever since.”
“My dear Mr. Big Nose. I am afraid your friend Will was acting somewhat like a boor. He made some rather crude comments about her majesty Queen Victoria. I politely asked him that he retract his statements and apologize for his offensive remarks. It was his choice when he went for his pistol. I was simply defending myself.”
“Ya kilt Will, mister. Now it’s your turn.”
“A moment Mr. Big Nose. There is one formality that I insist we must observe before you embark on this insane vendetta. Is it not the right of a condemned man to express a final, last request?”
Big Nose was dumbfounded . “You’re staring down the barrel of a Colt that’s about to blow a hole in youi, and you’re talking about rights? You ain’t got no rights, mister.”
John Kipper stood there and shook his right arm ever so slightly. A switchblade knife dropped from his coat sleeve and into his hand. At the touch of the button the 5-inch blade sprung open and locked into place. The action was so slight and quick that only Cleve took notice.
“It is quite obvious, Mr. Big Nose, that you are determined to follow through on this course of action—an action that will result in a tragic and needless death.” The soothing lyrical tone of Kipper’s voice disappeared. In its place was a cold, hard rage just barely under control. “My last request is that you fall to your knees and beg that I don’t kill you like the dog that you are.”
Big Nose lifted his gun and squeezed the trigger, but he never had a chance.
Quicker than a bolt of lightning, Kipper flung the switchblade with deadly accuracy, directly into the left eye of the dark gunman. Five inches of cold steel buried itself into the eye socket and the brain beyond. Big Nose jerked the trigger of his Colt, but the shot went wild; he was already dead before he dropped to the ground.
Kipper stood there while a queer smile spread across his face. Then remembering his audience, he covered the smirk with a somber expression. Uncle Eli and Cleve were shocked into silence.
“I must say, that was a rather rude way to be awakened from a pleasant night’s sleep, wasn’t it? I do so apologize for this unfortunate incident.”
Kipper walked over to the body and rolled it over with the toe of his boot. He stared into the bearded face while the queer smile returned. He grasped the switchblade and pulled the knife from the eye socket. He meticulously wiped the blade clean on George’s shirt, folded it and slipped the deadly device up his coat sleeve. When he turned towards Eli and Cleve, the strange smile had disappeared, replaced with the dignified confidence of an English gentleman.
“I don’t suppose you have a spot of tea about, do you? I rather relish a cup of tea before I set about burying this poor chap.”
Cleve swallowed, then found his voice. “Mr. Kipper, we don’t have no…any tea, but I can certainly brew you a pot of American coffee.”
“That would be just fine, lad. Mr. Eli, could you please render me some assistance while young Cleve tends to the coffee.”
In short order the body of Big Nose George had been crudely buried, breakfast eaten, and camp broken. Uncle Eli and Cleve headed north and Kipper walked west toward Butte.
That was the last time I saw John Kipper. Atop a ridge he turned and raised his hand in farewell towards us. Months later when I arrived in London, the furor over Jack the Ripper had died away. But it was indeed strange that several gruesome murders occurred in Butte, beginning about the time John Kipper might have arrived.
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