One more in a non-sequential series of fictional shorts
Speed is Fine, Accuracy is Final
The mulatto lay dying next to his dead mule, a bullet hole through his calf that wouldn’t have been fatal had it not developed a wicked infection. Crispin poked the leg with a stick and green puss oozed from the wound. “Swelled up tighter than an Injun’s headband in summer.” Crispin Stillwell spat on the ground. “The question is whether we shoot him and burry him, or leave him, in which case the buzzards will pick his bones and the coyotes will scatter them and the Mule’s together, which ain’t fittin’ for a Christian.”
“How do you know he’s a Christian?” The boy asked his father, looking hard at the black man, passed out from the screaming that attracted their attention to him in the first place.
“Reckon most niggers are. It’s not the faith they came from Africa with, but most of their song speak of Jesus or the Prophets.” Crispin remembered his days in the South before the War of Northern Aggression.
“How long you think he’s been here, Daddy?”
Crispin took off his hat, brushed the flies away and mopped his brow with a dirty bandana. He married a young woman when his life’s clock pushed past thirty-five hard range years. He looked at Adam, his oldest son. At fifteen, it became time to teach the boy the realities of life. “In this heat the wound will suppurate faster and the bloat flies have got into the wound.”
That sort of question called for an accurate response and as a rangeman, Crispin wanted to teach his son the tradecraft of the plains. “Maybe three days.” He looked hard at his son. “Go out there and cast for sign and see if you can tell me who did this.” Crispin felt certain that he knew the answer, but he was taking advantage of a teaching opportunity.
The bullet that passed through the dying man’s leg continued into the mule. He gave voice to his thoughts, “It’s a waste because that the mule had been in the prime of life.”
The mulatto had been the target, of that Crispin felt certain. The hole in the black man’s leg had been made by a half-inch projectile, soft lead. Maybe an old buffalo hunter’s muzzle loader? A Hawkin perhaps? Fired at close range, a fifty-caliber ball would pass easily through the man’s leg and then through the mule’s shoulder and into its heart. You didn’t see those weapons much anymore because there were better options. The man who shot the man and the mule had been poor, an Indian or a poor Indian. A poor Indian would have butchered the mule. This mule was left to die with the mulatto’s leg trapped under the fallen side, wedged between the carcass and rocks. The mule must have struggled, which broke the man’s other leg in a few places and he couldn’t scramble out of the trap after that. So not an Indian kill. The empty jug of corn liquor near the dead mule had been another sign. He didn’t think that it belonged to the dying negro.
“Unshod ponies.” Adam shouted from where he crouched.
“Only one unshod, the mule here.”
“Our two horses and one other, all shod, followed the unshod mule in. One shod horse left to the north.” You need to be better than that son, if you plan to thrive out here. The horse that left to the north carries a heavy man and he throws his right way out in a trot.”
“Are we going to follow him?”
“Get back here. There’s finishing to do.”
As the boy dismounted next to him, Crispin drew his long barreled Sharps 1874 45/110 from his scabbard and put a round into the mulatto’s brain as an act of kindness. Then he bowed his head and Adam followed suit. “Surely you who number the sparrows and feed the ravens is not unmindful of this mulatto in his awful hour of pain. Allow his soul, oh God, to take flight to your bosom if it be thy will. If it be not, the devil take him. Amen.”
“We gonna bury that fella?”
“What about the Christianity we was discussing?”
“Lord giveth, Lord taketh, blessed be his name. Nothing in that book about burying a mulatto. When buffalo or trouble is afoot.” While they’d been speaking, Crispin noticed a dust cloud on the far eastern horizon. “Look off there.”
Adam said, “Not Comanche.”
“No, they wouldn’t raise dust like that. It’s either buffalo, or maybe pilgrims. Could be the army on the move. I heard they had a mounted column of dragoons out here looking for old Red Blanket and his people. Either way, I don’t want to be in the area here burying somebody. Accusations are simple and justice is fickle in such circumstances.”
“Even with a mulatto?”
“The war is over and we’re from Missouri, which means that we could be accused by either federals or pilgrims of mischief in which we had no part. Pilgrims can’t track and neither can soldiers so judgment on the matter will lack perspective. Besides, it was me who put a bullet into his head.”
“What if it’s Buffalo?”
“Then we’ll have a fine dinner. Let’s ride toward that dust and see what develops.”
As they rode over the rolling plains, dotted with copses of birch and cottonwood, Crispin stopped his son and made a sign for silence, but his horse nickered, then whinnied, giving them up to three Pawnee in the shade of a large elder. They came at a bad time because the Pawnee had just finished shooting arrows into a white man wearing a faded red shirt. One of their number seemed to be having some difficulty pulling the man’s scalp off. Crispin drew his rifle, sat on the dirt and handed the reigns to his son. He took careful aim and crack, the rifle fired. Pop, the bullet hit one of the Indians and spun him.
“Gut shot,” Crispin began his commentary. He ejected the spent metal cartridge and loaded a second, taking his time, shouldering the rifle again.
The two Pawnee tried to lift their wounded comrade onto his pony and Crispin fired again.
“I hit the one with the white pained face in the leg.”
The white-faced Pawnee fell from his horse as he rode off, the white man’s mount in tow.
The last uninjured brave began firing at Crispin and his son.
“He’s shooting at us.”
“From horseback, seventy yards away.” Crispin fired a third time. “This rifle is accurate out nine-hundred yards. I have to adjust my point of aim since I’m shooting down hill.” Crispin stood.
“He ain’t dead Daddy.”
“Yep, he is.” The Pawnee fired once more and then fell from his horse as Crispin took his horse’s reigns from his son. He looked over his shoulder. “He just didn’t know it yet.”
Adam dismounted and they walked carefully down the gently rolling hill to where the three Pawnee and the dead white man lay. At about twenty yards off, Crispin motioned his son to stop and his put a round into each of the Indians in turn. The one who’d been shot in the leg jumped and wailed after being gut shot by Crispin. “See son, he wanted to get us up close and do for us as we did for him. Some people would think this a waste of ammunition, but I have another perspective on the matter.”
“What are we going to do now?
“Round up the Indian ponies and that saddled horse and I’ll see what I can find out about the white man. We’ll wait for whoever is coming to decide what to do next. They’re about three leagues off.”
Crispin saw the man’s fifty caliber muzzle loading plains rifle laying on the ground next to his body. There was another jug, empty. Must have set the Pawnee off that he drank it all before they got to him. One of the Pawnee had a dirty Colt Walker horse pistol that must have belonged to the dead man too. He’d been trying to fire it when Crispin hit him with his second shot. He picked up the pistol. The primers had corroded and it would take some patient work to put the pistol into serviceable condition again. The way he worked it out, the man was out after a run-away negro with a mule and had not only dispatched the mule, but ran afoul of the Pawnee, all of whom were young braves. Drinking pop-skull dulled his senses and eroded whatever judgment he’d had in the first place.
Five men on horseback rode up on Adam and his father, Crispin and took in the scene of dead Indians, the white man, partially scalped and shot full of arrows. “We’re the Hansen Party, headed for Oregon Territory.”
“I’m Crispin Stilwell and this is my son, Adam. We own a section of bottom land adjoining the Indian Nation just west of Farrow’s Rift and we were out hunting Buffalo when we came onto this. There’s also a dead man with a mule a league south by west. If you come across him, it would be a kindness to bury him.”
“You killed all of them Injun’s by yourself?” One of the pioneers asked, incredulous.
“What if they’d all charged you.”
“I had distance and elevation on my side, the sun is to my back and I would have taken them all just the same.”
“With a single shot rifle?”
“Well, Pilgrim, you can’t panic. It’s all about confidence. This is a 45/110 Sharps. A round a piece will do the trick. Speed is fine, accuracy is final.”