Western Short Story
The wind shifted slightly to the northwest, and Bill “Lone Dog” Bevans smelled horse traces in the air. He supposed that the horse smell came first on the air (there were other signs) because he hadn’t ridden a horse in a year, since about mid 1840 he thought at a guess. But he caught awed aromas riding on those same air waves … and a variety of sounds placing him on alert.
Bevans had been the lone dog out of his family, all gone now since his move west from Massachusetts hills where the old family ties fell behind him. He’d had a fire earlier in the night, in front of the cave where he’d spent several nights, thinking about his journey, the folks met on the way, those left behind forever.
No strangers had hidden themselves from him, as rare as some encounters were. Strangers out here were to be enjoyed, catch up with news or imagination, tell a story or two, find a place of rest, get ready for the next day, each at one’s choice.
He was about to do that now, as he almost scattered the lingering and lit ashes with his booted foot, which he halted when he recalled his meeting with John Chapman who had given him dozens of apple seeds for scattering wherever. In the air he caught that known aroma of apples on the limb, and knew that Chapman had been here before, probably had slept in the same cave he was about to find overhead cover again. He made a point of remembering to check the cave more closely in the morning, when from the darkness he heard a click come from a weapon.
With care Lone Dog moved backward into the cave, his own rifle at the ready, making good use as he moved of the chunks of rock in the way. The remnants of the fire had a ruddier glow as he moved back into the cave, when that glow lit behind a figure aiming into the cave. Muzzle blast lit up the shooter as Lone Dog fired back, heard the thud of a hit, a gasp, a body hit the ground, a soft curse the last sign of life, the echo of a ball hitting the cave wall behind him, ringing in his ears.
Another curse, louder than the dead man’s curse, and a second gunshot, came from the shadow of a second man as Lone Dog fired one of his pistols, the thud of a hit, the successive curse, the sounds of death ensuing, repeating.
The third robber or brigand or whatever, of the three men, fell accompanied by the same signals of death.
Lone Dog did not venture from the cave until morning, the fire ashes cold, the three bodies inert, one of them across another’s legs, the third man, older, heavier, but just as dead, in the very mouth of the cave as if he had intended to rush in and avenge the deaths of his cohorts.
The three bodies were dragged away from the cave, burials attended to, three crosses put in place, and Lone Dog finding the apple tree planted by John Chapman not too far away from the cave mouth, but in the midst of other trees. He spent a few moments remembering his company with the apple seed spreader; there was an encounter to spend a lifetime at its disclosure, its interest,
In the back of the cave, inspecting it at length as he had promised himself, he found a note on a leather hide beneath a pile of stones on a shelf-like projection near the roof of the cave. The note said, “Stranger who finds this hospitality, I planted a tree near here in the year 1810, my 35th year, and my hope is you may feast on it for your journey. John Chapman.”
Lone Dog not only found the tree but two horses chomping off small apples from lower limbs of the tree. He didn’t know exactly where he was, but it was in the Territory of Iowa for sure, and he made note of particular landmarks, as was the custom of travelers in those long-ago days. He made up his mind to ride one of the horses and carry what other articles, including the fired rifles (two of them had initials carved into the stocks, KF and ZK), back to some post of civilization so that the authorities and any known relatives would be aware of the deaths of three men, if they could be found. There was not one other element of identification on the brigands. But their deaths, burial sites and location of Chapman’s apple tree in the wild was marked by him for those in the territory who made use of such information, and the leather note was also carried back to be provided to officials in the nearest outpost of the Iowa Territory, which he knew to be Dubuque.
In 1788, Julien Dubuque was given rights by host Mesquakie Indians to mine the land for lead, and settled at the mouth of Catfish Creek. Dubuque, whom the city is named for, was the first white man to settle in the Iowa territory, it not becoming a state until 1846.
Lone Dog, so burdened, was surprised to come across a third horse, loose in a field a mile or so away from the cave, readily assuming it belonged to one of the dead men. It was a big black stallion built for the trail and hard work Its saddle, still in place, had initials plainly marked LD, making him stir with interest, seeing his nickname initials scored in place on what he surmised was the mount for one of the renegades.
When he found the sheriff of that community, he was astounded when asked by the sheriff, “Where did you get that horse, Mister? That mount belongs to my deputy, Larry Dobbs.”
“Wait up, Sheriff,” Lone Dog interrupted. “I found this horse back yonder after three dudes tried to bushwhack me in a cave, and I killed all three of them, buried them, and have two of their horses, their rifles, and a leather note from a John Chapman who left it in the cave where the three gents tried to kill me. He planted an apple tree there years ago, right near the cave. You can smell it from the mouth of the cave. I did. Man was a romantic wanderer, if you ask me.” His head shook as if agreeing with his own surmising.
The sheriff, Earl Sanders, asked Lone Dog, “Can you lead us back there, sir? We’ll have to look for Larry, bring him back one way or another, for his wife especially. She’s a sweetheart. Been in to see me the last 5 days since he set out after those dudes, the ones you most likely killed. We want them for murder, mayhem, messing up a few women of the town, and they were here for only a few days.” Disbelief was etched on his face.
He put his nose to each weapon, smiled at Lone Dog and added, “Yep, been fired recently, and at you, you say, and I suppose at Larry during some time before your engagement.” He accented that word with an acknowledging shrug, and put his hand out to shake Lone Dog’s hand.
“My pleasure, sir. How do I introduce you? She’s bound to come in here soon, his wife. She’ll hear one level of news from you. Then we’ll have to get going with a posse, you up front of course.”
In a thorough search on that first day out, no trace was found of Deputy Larry Dobbs, though on the next day a single gunshot alerted them to where he was found, wounded in the leg, his last bullet fired from his pistol as he lay in the trunk of a rotted tree where he had crawled with difficulty, and had fired all his bullets over the two days he knew the sheriff and a search party must have been looking for him.
MaryBelle Dobbs, the evening when her husband was brought home to Dubuque, gave William “Lone Dog” Bevans the first kiss he’d ever received.
John Chapman, who became known as Johnny Appleseed, was born September 26, 1774 and died on March 18, 1845, enjoying 70 years of his life, much of it on the road or in the woods west of Massachusetts.
Bill “Lone Dog” Bevans walked all the way to Oregon where he went for a walk one day in 1881 along the beach, was spotted about 25 miles from home later the same day, and was never seen again.
Julien Dubuque, dealer in land and familiar with Native Americans, is in all the history books about Iowa.
Mr. and Mrs. Larry Dobbs: though Deputy Sheriff Larry Dobbs was never again able to wear a badge, he and his wife MaryBelle ran the general store in Dubuque until his death at 70 and her death at 88 when she was also specializing by then in ladies’ fashions.
Sheriff Earl Sanders was killed in a jailbreak in 1856 by a prisoner who was shot by an unnamed local in a subsequent posse chase.
The identities of the three brigands, buried near the cave shared over time by John Chapman and Bill “Lone Dog” Bevans, were never determined, though their weapons and saddles and horses were sold at auction.
It is assumed, in this corner, that Johnny Appleseed’s note on leather was never found in the cave where Lone Dog placed it at its long-time location, or some family in Iowa, or a fellow traveler, unknown to anyone yet, has in possession an historical artifact.