Western Short Story
Two months of the hot summer sun without a drop of rain spelled nothing but trouble for Jedediah’s Missouri farm. The corn was struggling to survive and was barely waist-high.
Jedediah was hard at work cultivating the soil between his rows of stunted corn and sweating large volumes of water. If he kept the topsoil loose, it could better retain the scant moisture left beneath the surface. At least, that is what he told himself as he raised a cloud of dust from the powder-dry ground.
His old plow horse plodded its way along each row as it pulled a three-pronged cultivator through the soil. There were no weeds to worry about, but Jedediah was persistent. Six feet tall and well-muscled, Jedediah handled the cultivator like a small toy in his large hands.
A wide-brimmed, straw hat shaded his bronzed face and neck. A ragged linen shirt barely covered his dark brown, mud-caked skin. It appeared as if his broad chest and thick arms would burst free at any moment. His cotton jeans showed little of their original Union blue color but had held up for many days of fieldwork. They were straining at their seams despite his steady diet of beans and whatever meat he managed to shoot on his farm. Farming was the central focus of his life since coming home from the war.
Jedediah lived alone in a small farmhouse on 80 acres of rich, prairie soil. There was no woman to share his life with. He once had a wife, Becky, and two children to share his life, and times were good before the war. Four years was a long time to be away, and every day he had dreamed of returning to the life he loved. Shortly before his discharge, he had received a letter from Becky’s sister telling him that his wife and children had died. Cholera had taken them just before he would have returned home.
Two years had passed since he came home to the farm. He was a lonely man with a deep sadness forever etched into his face and eyes. Nevertheless, the farm was his sole focus in life, and he worked it with a strong passion. His wife and children were buried a short distance from the house, and he spent time with them every day, sitting and staring at their markers. Sometimes he wished he could join them, especially this summer when he was in danger of losing the farm to a prolonged drought.
The sun was low in the west as another long, hot day was coming to an end. It was touching the horizon when Jedediah noticed the silhouette of a lone horseman against it. He was slowly approaching where Jedediah stood. There was something vaguely familiar about the man as his features came into view.
Jedediah unhitched the plow horse as the rider came near. When he realized who the stranger was, Jedediah was pleasantly surprised. He met him at the edge of the cornfield.
Holding up a pair of prairie hens, the stranger said, “Howdy, lieutenant. I thought I’d visit a while and I brought some vittles. I figure it’s the least an uninvited guest can do.”
“I ain’t been a lieutenant for nigh on two years. So I am just plain old Jedediah these days,” Jedediah said, reaching out to shake hands with his visitor.
As the rider dismounted, Jedediah continued, “Perkins, you are a sight for sore eyes. How’ve you been? I ain’t seen you since we mustered out in ’65.”
“I’ve been out to Montana Territory lookin’ for gold and explorin’ everything between here and there. I ain’t found no gold, but I saw a lot of beautiful country. A man can make a good living and forget his past in that country.”
“Sounds like you been havin’ a real adventure. I’m glad your scalp ain’t on a pole outside of some Sioux wickiup. My life is quieter than yours. I have just been workin’ this farm and trying to make a living at it.”
“From the look of your corn, you ain’t been havin’ a lot of success. But, farmin’ is hard work, and one bad season can put you right outta business.”
“Becky and the children been gone for more’n two years, and the weather has been against me. If I lose this corn crop, I won’t make it through the winter.
“Maybe it’s time for a change.”
“My neighbor wants to buy this place and run cattle on it. The pond out back never goes dry, even during this drought. I don’t want to sell it. I have too many memories here.”
“A man can’t survive by living in the past.”
“I know, but I ain’t ready to move on just yet.”
The two men continued walking and talking right into the farmhouse. Then, after a dinner of fried prairie hen, they sat up reliving the war over a jug of whiskey that Jedediah kept for emergencies.
The following morning, they sat down for breakfast when the neighbor, Jackson Walker, rode up to the house.
Jedediah opened the door as Jackson was dismounting and invited him inside for some coffee. As they sat at the table, Jackson said, “Jedediah, I want to up my offer to five dollars an acre. My cattle are suffering, and I need another water supply. I’ll even promise to maintain your family plot where you have Becky and the children. She was a distant cousin, but that still makes her family.”
Jedediah started to turn him down, but then he glanced at Perkins. He sat quietly for a minute and then stuck out his hand and said, “Jackson, you have a deal. My crop is a total loss, and I have a visitor who wants me to throw in with him.”
A week later, Jedediah and Perkins were leading a loaded packhorse away from the farm toward the west. Jackson had paid extra and bought the contents of the farmhouse along with the plow horse. Jedediah had bought horses at the livery stable in town and supplies at the mercantile.
The supplies included .50 cal ammunition for his Sharps and .44 cal ammunition for a new Henry repeating rifle that would also fit his Colt Army pistol. An assortment of traps and extra skinning knives along with an ample supply of vittles should take care of any needs.
The two men were not in a big hurry. They planned to reach the Rockies by fall. That would give them time to set up a winter camp for a season of trapping. Their route would take them through Kansas Territory. They might even find some opportunities for doing some buffalo hunting along the way.
Shortly after crossing into Kansas, they came across a gruesome sight. Two bodies were hanging from a tree. One was that of an older man, and the other appeared to be a teenaged boy. Both were wearing brightly colored, foreign-looking clothing. Each had been hung with a long sash that had been tied to a rope.
Stopping next to the hanging tree, Jedediah said, “These men were hung earlier today. Whoever did it didn’t stick around.”
“I saw the tracks of about six riders and a heavy wagon heading toward the east,” Perkins said.
“Let’s do the Christian thing and bury these two fellas. I don’t know what they did, but they shouldn’t be left hangin’ for the crows to scavenge.”
Perkin started digging the graves while Jedediah cut down the bodies. As he laid them next to where Perkins was working, he said, “These two fellas look like gypsies. I once saw some before the war. They passed through town and were camped nearby for a few days. People didn’t like them much.”
“What do gypsies do?”
“They travel all over the country and live in wagons. They never settle for awfully long in any one place. They make a living by working at odd jobs, and their women tell fortunes. Sometimes they ain’t all that honest and will steal anything they can lay their hands on just before leaving town.”
“Maybe these two stole from the wrong person.”
“If’n they did, they didn’t deserve to be hung without a trial.”
In a short time, the graves were ready. They were placing the first body when they heard a rider approaching. It was a woman with long, black hair streaming out behind her as she rapidly approached the men.
She stopped by the graves and jumped down from her horse. She wore a loose, ruffled blouse and a full, blue and white skirt. She had a sash around her waist and a bandana tied around the top of her head. Her blouse was torn, and her face was dirty, with a smear of dried blood next to her mouth.
Before either of the men could say a word, she hit Jedediah on the chest and said something in a foreign language. He grabbed her wrists to stop the pummeling. When she started to cry, he released her, and she knelt by the body of the older man. She lightly touched his face while a tear cut a crooked course through the dirt on her cheek.
Jedediah started to speak to her when two men rode into sight. As they approached the site, Jedediah could tell they were not too happy. Their horses showed signs of being ridden hard. Before they could dismount, Jedediah said, “Can I help you two fellas?”
The bigger of the two acted as if he had just noticed Jedediah and said, “You can stay the hell out of our way. We come for that gypsy woman.”
The other man said, “She stole one of our horses and killed Jake.”
Ignoring the reference to someone named Jake, Jedediah said, “You the ones what hung these two?” Then, he pointed at the two dead men.
“They stole cattle, and we hung them for it. We were takin’ the woman back to the ranch instead of hangin’ her too.”
The woman had been listening to the exchange of words while caressing the older man’s hair. Finally, she stopped attending him and said, “They lie. They think all gypsies have gold hidden in their wagons, and they killed my father and brother for gold we do not have. They planned to kill me after they were done with me.
“Gypsies are liars. This one ain’t no different,” the smaller man said, reaching for a pistol he carried in a holster at his side.
The bigger man had shifted to the side and had his pistol out of its holster when two quick rifle shots rang out. Both men were knocked out of their saddles, and their guns flew out of their hands. One was dead before he hit the ground. The other died before Jedediah could reach him. The gypsy woman had pushed a dagger into his chest.
“Nice work, Perkins,” Jedediah shouted. “They were focused on this woman and me, and thought they had me dead to rights.”
The woman cleaned her dagger on the dead man’s shirt and concealed it somewhere on her person before Jedediah could ask her for it. He just shook his head and thought to himself, “I guess I’m lucky she didn’t use it on me when she jumped off her horse and used her fists instead.”
Jedediah grabbed the shovel and said, “Let’s dig two more holes and get all four of these fellas buried before some more riders show up. Then I want to talk to our lady friend here.”
It was late in the afternoon when the work was done, and words had been spoken over the graves. The woman sat by the graves of her family and hadn’t spoken since the brief fight.
Jedediah had been doing some thinking and said to Perkins, “I think we should follow the wagon tracks until dark and then do a cold camp some distance off the road.”
“You want to get her wagon back for her?”
“That and see if we can get her some justice. This country ain’t safe with men like those two killers we just buried.”
The gypsy woman had been listening to Jedediah and Perkins. She stood and said, “My name is Vadoma, and I must go with you. I know how to fire a pistol. I can also use this dagger.”
She pulled the dagger out of her sash and continued, “They did not search me very well. So I cut my bonds with this before taking one of their horses.”
“We’ll handle any shootin’ that has to be done,” Jedediah said. “But it is best if you come with us and do as we say.”
Vadoma gave a curt nod of her head and started toward her horse. As she mounted, she said, “There were seven of them. Now there will be four.”
“Four?” Jedediah said.
“There was one guarding the horse I needed,” Vadoma said, rubbing the palm of her hand on the hilt of her dagger.
They followed the wagon tracks for just over two hours before stopping for the night. The following sunrise saw them back on the trail of the wagon.
They caught up to the wagon by mid-morning. It was abandoned and had been torn apart by the men in their search for hidden gold. It had not been burned, but it would take a lot of work to make it livable once again. Moreover, a fresh grave was close by.
Vadoma salvaged what she could and put it into the wagon. She drew a symbol by the sagging door and got back onto her horse. She carried a piece of cowhide with her.
“What does that symbol mean?” Perkins asked her.
It tells other gypsies I own this wagon and that I will return for it.”
Perkins just shook his head as they followed the tracks leading away from the wagon. As they rode, Verdoma said, “They go to town to sell my two horses and anything of value from my wagon.
“When we get there, you can point them out to us,” Jedediah said. “We’ll turn them over to the sheriff for trial.”
“I bring this piece of cowhide to prove that we did not steal cattle. It has the brand of the rancher who sold it to us. We bought the hide to make shoes and belts. We did not buy any of the meat.”
“I noticed the brand as you were mounting. It’s from a ranch in Missouri, not Kansas. Sayin’ you were cattle thieves was a lie to cover what they were doing.”
They reached the small town of White Rock just after two in the afternoon. There were a few people out and about, but mostly the main street was empty. As they rode past the stable, they saw the team of gypsy horses standing near the entrance. A large man in a leather apron was inspecting them.
Jedediah stopped beside the man and said, “Nice team of horses. I notice they don’t look like regular freight horses.”
The man stopped examining the horses and stood next to Jedediah. “The men who brought them in sold them to me cheap. I can make you a good deal on them.”
His grin faded when he saw Vadoma. “Maybe you had just better ride on,” he said.
Jedediah shook his head and said, “They look like a team of gypsy horses that we been trackin’. A pair was stolen, and the owners were killed. I’d hate to see you get into trouble over murder and horse stealin’. You want to show me your bill of sale?”
“I don’t need one. I know the fellas who sold them to me. Besides, everyone knows that gypsies are thieves and most likely stole these horses from someone else.”
“I suppose the sheriff can straighten everything out,” Jedediah said.
“There ain’t no sheriff. The jail’s been closed for almost a whole year now.”
“Did he quit?”
“Got shot. He’s buried just outside of town.”
“In that case, we’ll be back for those horses. They belong to Vadoma here. She has a bill of sale.”
The stable owner looked at Vadoma and turned pale when she showed him the handle of her dagger.
“Where did those fellas go who sold you these horses?”
Pointing farther down the main street, the stableman said, “They went to the Lazy Dog Saloon. That’s their horses out front. There’s four of them, and their friends are probably gonna show up at any time now.”
“Their friends ain’t comin’, and we will be back for those horses.”
Before riding away, Perkins dismounted and pulled a double-barreled shotgun out from between some bales of hay. It was a ten gauge and loaded. He shook his head at the man and remounted, taking the shotgun along.
They tied their horses to a hitching rail a short distance down the street from the saloon. Then, after checking their weapons, Jedediah said to Vadoma, “After we enter the saloon, you point those four men out to us and head right back outside. We’ll take care of them.”
She gave him a hard stare and said, “If they go to jail, they will not be punished for killing gypsies.”
Jedediah did not respond. He just started walking toward the saloon.
Jedediah and Perkins entered the Lazy Dog Saloon with Vadoma directly behind them. She pointed at four men seated at a table playing cards and sharing a bottle of whiskey. They had two extra chairs and with empty glasses at the table.
Vadoma stayed behind Perkins while Jedediah walked over to stand beside their table, standing to the side, so Perkins had a good view of the men. “You fellas saving these chairs for some friends?” he said.
“Yeah, as if it's any of your business,” one of them replied.
“One a big fella with rotten teeth and the other a small man missing a piece of one ear?”
“What do you know about them?” the apparent leader asked as he pushed his chair back from the table.
“I know they’re dead. They chased a woman back to where you fellas hung two gypsies. We had to kill them before their stench made our horses sick.”
The men dropped their cards and got to their feet. As they did, “Vadoma stepped out from behind Perkins and threw her dagger. It caught the leader in the throat as he was drawing his pistol. The other three were distracted for an instant. That was time enough for Jedediah to pull his Colt and open fire.
Jedediah’s pistol's sound was hidden by Perkins’ shotgun's roar as he fired off both barrels, ending the gunfight. All four of the men were shredded by the buckshot, and the table and chairs were splintered.
“I think I’m gonna keep this shotgun,” Perkins said. “It makes a real statement when it speaks.”
“I guess we don’t have to worry about locking these fellas in jail, “Jedediah said.
In a matter of minutes, the saloon became crowded with men from all over town. Jedediah and Perkins stood together with Vadoma behind them as they started to wonder if they would have to fight their way out of the building. It was surprising how many people suddenly appeared from a town that seemed to be so empty.
Everyone was standing and staring at the scene. Nobody appeared ready to take any action against them. Then a well-dressed man appeared out of the crowd. He said, “These men and their friends have been running things around here for the past several months. It is good riddance to them. Two of them showed up right after the sheriff was killed. The others wandered in later. I think they told them that the town was wide open for their kind.”
“Why didn’t you get together and kick them outta town?” Perkins asked.
“Anyone who spoke against them just disappeared. After John Avery and his family disappeared, everyone knew that it was either shut up and try to survive or secretly move out of town.”
Everybody was agreeing with the spokesman, who turned out to be the mayor. When he saw how relieved everyone was, the mayor asked Jedediah, “Would you and your partner stay on as our sheriff and deputy? We ain’t had no real law here for almost a year. You can decide which one of you would be sheriff.”
“The pay would be $45.00 and $35.00 per month including bunks in the jailhouse and meals at the Kansas House.”
Jedediah appeared to be giving the mayor’s proposal some thought. He said, “Perkins and I will think about your offer. First, we have some business down at the stable to take care of. We’ll leave these bodies for you men to clean up.”
The following day, the town had its new sheriff and deputy. Vadoma helped them get the jail in order while the livery stable owner was on his way to fetch her wagon. He agreed that he would get it into running order and bring it into town with her team of horses. Then he would repair the damage done by the outlaws. Jedediah would return his money and not put him into jail for dealing with stolen horses.
Jedediah and Perkins figured on spending the fall and winter in town. Then, they would leave in the spring for the Rockies. The townspeople would surely have a real sheriff by then.
Meanwhile, Vadoma would be able to live in her wagon once it was repaired. She had already been offered several jobs in town and had taken one as a cook at the Kansas House. The locals loved the unique foods she prepared.
Everyone was looking forward to a peaceful fall and winter. But fate does not always cooperate.