Our camp woke to young Lukie Staple hollering from the other side of the locust grove after he found his pa sitting out by the horse line. It had been Ol' Luke Staple's night to watch the herd, a task each man had done since the night I caught that Cheyenne boy trying to steal my Pa's Kentucky blood stallion.
No one was sure what time Ol' Luke died, but he wasn't watching the horses when he did. Whoever killed him had taken out his eyes first, my Pa said. That made three of our menfolk killed watching the herd over the past two weeks. All of them were the ones what strung up and cut up that Cheyenne boy. All of them found with their heads stove in. All of them missing parts like they took off that boy.
We was twenty days out of Fort Riley, following the Republican River on our way to West Kansas, a place my Pa called Jefferson Territory. Four men and two older boys, my Ma, my sister Clara and few other wives and little children. We come west from Louisville and Elizabethtown in Kentucky. My Pa, Captain Joshua Owens, late of the United States Army, had convinced these folks, what with the army needing horses to "subdue and subjugate the red heathens standing in the way of the white man's fortunes, nay, his destiny," that starting new horse farms closer to the market was the route to independence and to "his destiny."
My Pa was a man educated in soldiering, in leading men and in the law, even the law out there where even God couldn't find you. He was Zeus and his voice was the thunder and, brother, I can attest his right hand was the lightning.
At the fort, I'd seen this dirty Indian boy nosing around our horses and pointed him out to my Pa. He and a Lieutenant Hood grabbed that boy and whupped him good, worse then I seen Mr. Staple whup the last of his slaves he sold off in Fort Sanders to buy his boy Lukie a new saddle and himself a .52 caliber Sharp's rifle. Hell, I'd have traded my little sister for that piece.
"We have to make a statement with these inferiors, Abel, especially the impressionable young ones like this heathen boy, that we will not be taken advantage of, not cowed nor threatened by their avaricious aims nor bloodthirsty and pagan ways. Throughout this trip, we shall use our superior minds and Christian ethos to soar above such lowly beasts"
"Yessir. Superior. Christian. Heathens. Soaring." Pa liked to say the Bible, his time at West Point, in the Mexican War and in Texas after that shaped him as a man and he shaped us Owens children in his own image.
Three nights after we left Fort Riley, it was my turn to watch the herd. I never felt so alone as I did that night in the middle of the plains, even with all those armed people snoring and coughing inside and under the wagons only thirty yards away. The moon was just beginning to wane, so I had a good view of the plains, the horses and a solid shadow that moved behind some brush the horses were browsing on.
I barely breathed as I inched around downwind of him and the stock. Just as he was about to cut the hobbles on a three-year-old chestnut stallion Pa had great hopes for, I let out a holler and came at him with Pa's English shotgun. I was afraid to touch it off lest I hit some of the horses, so I swung it like a club at him. The boy must have still been bunged up from that whupping, because he didn't move so fast. I caught him a good one by the side of his head just as he brought up his knife, which nicked me right sorely on my arm.
We was wrestling for the knife, bleeding all over one another, him howling like some devil from hell and me hollering for Pa, when we was both lifted off our feet and separated by big Luke Staple, Ferguson Tarpley and my Pa.
"We got him, Cap'n. We got this red bastard good this time," Staple said.
"Stand him up, Staple, Tarpley. Let's get a look at this filthy thief," Pa said as he tossed me to the side.
The boy wasn't no older than me, fourteen or fifteen, but he was all painted up and hissing and kicking when my Pa got hold of his chin and punched him in the face. That quieted him considerable. Folks back at Fort Riley thought he was an Osage or Kaw, a "tame injun," but Lieutenant Hood was pretty sure he was really a Cheyenne boy on some thieving quest to prove his manhood.
That boy never said much when the men cinched him up good and brought him over the the campfire. He just whispered some gibberish really calm-like and arrogant. Pretty uppity, I thought, for a near naked, horse-stealing Indian I was sure was about to get his due comeuppance.
My Pa and a couple of the men tied the Cheyenne boy all spread out on a wagon wheel, where Zeb Beacham kept yelling into his face and then Tarpley went and made water on him. Still he didn't say much but the same whispered words over and over again. I watched it all as my Ma looked after my arm.
"Come over here, Abel," Pa ordered. "I wish you to be part of this one's penance, seeing as you were the agent of his deliverance to our righteous justice."
When my Pa brought out the knife the boy cut me with, the Cheyenne looked him in the eye and started singing some sad tune full of "hey-yahs" and "nah-hahs" but never turned away once. Not even when Pa cut off his ear. Just sung louder.
"I recall when I served in Texas, when the Comanche would capture a man stealing their horses, they would make an example of him for the other savages to know who was lord of those God-foresaken prairies," Pa said. "I propose we do the same with this animal."
Then Pa cut off a piece of his other ear and the boy sung louder still.
The sun was just coming up and it lit this scene like some nightmare, the shadows of all the men reaching out and touching that boy and me, as I stood there next to the wagon wheel. They were deciding what they was going to do next.
Zeb was yelling about stringing the boy up, like they'd do in Kentucky, or even in Kansas, where lawâ€”right and wrongâ€”got kind of confused once you crossed the Missouri River. Young Lukie Staple brought out a rope and pretty soon they had that boy hauled up and swinging from a cottonwood. Some of the men took what they called souvenirs off his body, feathers, a small sack full of stones and bones, his hair, and old man Staple took out his eyes, saying he'd never find his "hellish hereafter" if he had no eyes.
I stood there as they joshed and slapped my Pa on the back for his example as a military man and leader. He took the boy's knife and stuck a note that said something about smiting the Philistines to the tree with it. I still had the boy's blood on my face and arms when Pa came walking past me saying, "The Lord had been good to us in letting us keep our horses, most salutary."
I ran up to him and said, "Sir, why'd you an' the other men do all those nasty things to that boy? Another truly sound whuppin' would'a been more than enough," I said. But he just kept walking and never gave me a listen.
After that night, only the full-grown men guarded the horses, even though most figured what they left hanging from that tree would scare off any further horse thieves what might be following us.
Three nights later we found Zeb Beacham lying among the horses with his head stove in. At first we thought he'd fallen and been kicked by one of the horses. But when they rolled Beacham over we saw the blood on his mouth and found his tongue tied to a string around his neck where he kept the Cheyenne boy's bag of possibles he took.
"Damned red bastards," Pa said after they gave Beacham a good Christian burial under some cottonwoods by the river. "Mother, do not let the children run free from the wagons from now on. If they must relieve themselves, let there be an adult with them."
That night the whole camp sat a little closer to the fires. Young Lukie Staple skittered up next to me and said, "Do you think it was Injuns what killed ol' Zeb, Abel?"
"I can't rightly say. I think maybe if it was, most of the horses would be gone, along with our hair. Or so The Captain would tell ya," I said. We slept really light that night, like the horses. After a couple more nights, though, camp was back to normal, exhausted and sleepy. Then that scream woke everyone.
"Zeb. Zeb. Oh, my Zeb," Maggie Beacham was screaming like she'd lost her mind, which I guess she did after ol' Zeb was killed. But she was screaming her late husband's name over Ferg Tarpley's body. Apparently she had wandered over to the stream just before dawn to do whatever and found Tarpley lying there by the horses he was supposed to be guarding.
By the time we all got there, Maggie was covered in blood from Ferg's head and face. What with her crazy eyes and all that blood and the lamplight and the orange dawn shining on her face, Maggie looked like some wild animal what had taken old Ferg like he was a rabbit or a squirrel.
Ferg's head was clubbed in and his hair lifted and his mouth was all bloody just like Zeb Beacham's. Only difference this time it wasn't what was missing inside his mouth causing all the blood, but what was in there instead.
When he got home from Texas, my Pa told me stories about the Comanche. One story was about how they'd cut the privates off a scout they'd captured and stuffed them in his mouth as what my Pa called "depraved degradation by Hell's red spawn." He told me they sliced that scout open like a hog, too, removing this and that from his carcass and laying them all around. But the vision of that first part tends to stay with a fella more, even with just the telling.
Lukie Staple lost his previous night's dinner on the spot, splattering it on my boots, and a couple of our fine Louisville ladies fainted dead away in the tramped-down grass just looking at the scene from across the stream. Funny thing about that. These fine Christian ladies barely batted an eye when they watched that Cheyenne boy hanging and kicking with his eyes all bugged out under that cottonwood. The sight of one of our own lying on the bloody ground proved too much to bear, I guess.
I must admit, though, my Pa took this quite personal, what with him the leader of this expedition, his mission.
"This is more than the work of the devil," he said. "This has all the earmarks of the Comanche or Kiowa."
Ol' Luke Staple said to my Pa, "Captain, we're out here in this prairie like castaways in the open seas, surrounded by sharks we cannot see. They're picking us off for breakfast as they wish. I say we head back to Fort Riley and wait for a bigger group to join until we get to the Colorado country."
My Pa just stiffened his back, took on his Greek god from the Plain Above the Hudson look and said, "Gentlemen, we shall keep our present course and tighten our lines each night." And that was that.
As we rode west that day, Lukie Staple rode up to me on his fine black, that new saddle shining like a lady's church shoes. His Pa's old rifle he held tight in both hands.
"I don't like this, Abel, not one bit. Sure we're well-mounted and well-armed, but what's follerin' us ain't got nothing to fear from a Sharps, a Hawken or even your pa's shiny sword. You notice what Beacham and Ferg had cut off when we found them?"
"Of course I did, Lukie. I was one of the first one to get to them."
"I don't think it's any Comanch or Kioway follerin' us," Lukie said. He shifted in his fine new saddle, squeaking the leather like he was sweating it good, and looked behind us at the dust cloud the horses were stirring up like he thought it a black storm cloud or some such.
"I think it's that Cheyenne boy."
"That boy is most surely dead, Lukie. And with the parts our menfolk cut off him, I doubt he'd be climbing down off his tree or rising from the dead after three days like the Lord Jesus Christ himself to wreak his vengeance on us."
"Don't be blaspheming, Abel," Lukie said like he expected a lightning bolt from that dust cloud to smite us both to perdition. When we heard that thunderclap gunshot, though, that's when we both thought Lukie might be right.
"Indians," Lukie's father yelled. He was the one touched off the booming Sharps we heard. And sure enough, I saw a handful of braves on painted ponies sitting on a ridge to our southeast. They was looking down at the body of one of their number on the ground next to his skittering mount. They scooped him up and lit off like they was being chased by Sin itself.
My Pa rode up to us and said, "I'll wager they're the fiends that've been stalking us these last nights. Not some ghost, young Luke." I guess Lukie had shared his fear with more than just me.
"You sure, Cap'n?" Lukie said, his eyes all wide and wild like a young colt tied to a snub post for the first time.
"I am," Pa said. That didn't seem to put Lukie at ease, though. He still was looking over his shoulder the rest of that day and all the next. In fact, he seemed to get the look of someone who's seen a restless haint every time my Pa came around. I guess once the "skeer" gets into some folks, it ain't so easy as trail dust to wash off. Especially with blood.
With those men dead, my Pa said older boys like me and Lukie had to grow up and assume responsibility for guarding the herd again.
"You young men need the experience of facing darkness and savages of all colors, red, brown and even white, once we get to the Colorado country," he said. And so I guess we grew up right there and then. But my Pa didn't have a lot of choices.
Then we found Ol' Luke Staple dead and he didn't have any.
Couple evenings later, Pa stood watch on the herd early and it was Lukie's turn to spell him overnight. Around midnight, I woke up to hear some faint moaning, or maybe singing, blowing on the breeze from over near the herd. That's when I noticed Pa's blankets still rolled up over by his saddle. The chills come over me and I grabbed the English shotgun and lit off, quiet as I could, to see if he was all right.
Even though the winds had calmed, I got them same chills again once I pushed aside some scrub bushes by the river bank and saw my Pa hauling on one end of a rope tossed over the crotch of a smallish tree. He looked for all the world like he did when he'd pull up a supply of food to keep it from bears like when we would go hunting back home. Except, instead of food, the other end of the rope was in a noose around his own neck.
And there at his feet lay Young Lukie Staple, and he was most surely dead.
"Pa," I said as I ran from the bushes. "What in Jesus' name are you doin'?"
My Pa let go of the rope and whirled around on me with his big Colt's revolving pistol, his eyes as lit-up as Mrs. Beacham's that morning we found Zeb. Only there wasn't no fire or dawn glow to make them look that way. Just the moon and whatever hell he kept burning inside him. What burned him on the outside was where the rope wrapped around his neck. He sported a bleeding welt on his forehead, too, from what looked like the eight-sided barrel of a Sharp's rifle.
"Sweet Jesus, Abel, what are you doing here?" Pa said, still pointing that .44 caliber cannon right at my head. I was glad he at least recognized me. But he never took that big Dragoon off me.
"Now they're all mine," Pa said, swinging the Colt over the horse herd like some king waving a scepter over his kingdom. "Don't you see boy? It's the Owens destiny to become the prime horse supplier for gold-hungry, foolhardy civilians and the Army that will be needed to protect them from the heathens and themselves. These horses, and those that will foal come spring, will be the Owens' gold. Equine gold, Abel."
"Pa, did you kill all those men and Lukie?" I said, my face burning in fear and embarrassment. "â€˜Cause if you did, somebody's bound to find out. The law's gonna be coming for you and there won't be no Owens ee-koo-wine gold. Just another rope. I'll say it now, Pa, I'm mighty scared at the way you're talking and what's gonna happen to all of us because of this."
"Law? What law, Abel? There is no law out here. I hold the only law here in my hand. Did anyone but the women even remotely quail at the hanging of that Indian boy? No. In fact, I'm sure the Army would barely blink at the thought of some dirty Cheyenne dying at the end of a rope out in the middle of nowhere. One less chigger for them to worry about, what with the abolitionists stirring up all that bloody trouble back there."
"But what about Zeb and Luke and Tarpley and Lukie andâ€¦?"
"Even the tallest fine houses require digging in the dirt first, Abel. I chose to make sure this digging was done right for my house. Now, come help me move young Staple."
My mind swam with thoughts of Indians and dead men and home and those mountains to the west and seeing my Pa stringing himself up with a hangman's rope just for some horses. I'd always listened to my Pa. I always regarded him a great and brave man, and I wasn't alone. In his uniform, he shone about as royal a Christian man I'd ever seen. But now, babbling like that in his trail-dirty buckskins, he could pass for any other heathen out here, red or white.
And listening to him was like listening to that Cheyenne boy's jibber-jabber. It made no sense to me anymore.
As I staggered over, I spied Lukie's father's new Sharp's, the one my Pa must've clubbed himself with pure crazy to get that cut on his head. I put down Pa's English shotgun, picked up the heavy Sharp's, felt its heft in my hands, the cold steel barrel, its once-shiny walnut stock now nicked up and covered in dust.
"Abel, come here, boy," Pa said, the Dragoon still in his hand, as he leaned over Lukie. How was I to know what he would do to me now? To Ma and Clara? To any of us. I thought heard a hammer click and I knew what to do right then.
I walked up close to where Pa was gathering his rope and I swung that Sharp's stock hard at his head and dropped him like a hog for Christmas dinner. Then I swung it again and heard a crack and saw the lights go out in his crazy eyes. I dropped it next to him.
I turned and fetched the shotgun, and on my way back to Pa, I touched off one barrel into Lukie. The story would be an easy one to have the women and kids believe. I'd come upon Lukie just as he was stretching Pa's neck and took him down with the shotgun. Poor boy just have gone crazy after the men hanged the Indian and it was him snuck up and killed them all like a blood-thirsty heathen. Even his own pa.
Before the camp came running through the brush, though, I had one more thing to do.
I pulled out that Indian boy's knife I'd been hiding in my boot, the one Pa had stuck in the hanging tree, and I cut off the Captain's ear. I tossed it over by Lukie's body. Pa wouldn't need it where he was going.
He never listened to anyone with it anyway.