When the two riders appeared out of nowhere, I knew they had come to kill my pa. I had seen smoldering, burned-out farmhouses. I had heard women cry and pray in church because riders had appeared during the night and called their husbands out to answer the question, “Are you for or against slavery?” The wrong answer or even a slow answer meant that the men were taken away and never seen again.
Pa was against slavery. When anybody asked, he made no bones about it. He didn’t preach about it. He didn’t ride with the Jayhawkers. According to my pa, violence was just as wrong when we did it as when they did it. That didn’t matter to the nightriders. These and others like them had turned the territory into “Bleeding Kansas.”
I didn’t recognize the two riders that were approaching our farm. One was tall, thin and clean-shaven. The other was stout and bearded. They rode as quietly as ghosts, careful to blend in with the lay of the land. Eventually, they stopped right outside our farmhouse and looked down at me like hawks eyeing a prairie dog. I surely didn’t look like much; I was twelve years old but small enough to pass for ten. They looked tough enough to take on a hundred of me. Each man carried a rifle and wore a Bowie knife at his waist.
“We’d like to speak with your father,” said the tall one.
I swallowed and answered, “He’s not here right now.” I think the man would have known if I was lying. I was glad to be speaking the truth. Earlier this morning a man on a lathered bay mare had rushed to the house to tell my pa something. They had spoken briefly. Then Pa saddled his long-legged roan and insisted that the man switch his tack to our gray stallion that could run all day. They put the bay in the barn. After Pa said a few words with my stepmother, Sarah, they left.
“When will he be back?” the shorter man asked.
“He didn’t say.”
As if there wasn’t already enough trouble, my stepsister, Amy, came running up just then. Her dress was wet and dirty below the knees. Her hair was full of burs. I could tell that she’d been playing by Wildcat Creek. She was not supposed to, but I knew this wasn’t the time to quarrel. She wouldn’t listen, anyway. Even though she was a year younger than me, she was my height. She could run faster, fight harder and shoot straighter than I could. Earlier that morning we each took four shots with a Sharps rifle at a target twenty-five paces away. Amy fired faster than I did and she hit with all her shots. I missed twice.
“Are you two here alone?” asked the tall man.
“Pa left,” said Amy. “Then a neighbor came by to fetch Ma. He said his wife was feeling poorly.”
The stout man chuckled, but he didn’t sound friendly. “Two children left alone in these troubled times?”
The tall man answered, “Why not? It would be a poor excuse for a man who would bother a woman or a child.”
“My name is Joshua,” I said, belatedly remembering my manners. No matter who these men were, I had been taught to be polite. “This is my stepsister, Amy. I’m sorry my pa and my stepmother are away. If you’d care to tell us who you are, we’ll be certain to tell Pa that you stopped by.”
“You can call me Mr. Anders,” said the tall man. “You can call him Mr. Bleak. Maybe we’ll keep you company until your pa comes back.”
“Would you like us to water and feed your horses and turn them into the corral?” asked Amy.
“Thank you, Amy,” said Anders, “but we’re used to caring for our own animals. I think we’ll put them in the barn to get them out of the sun.”
Amy gave me a sharp look. She might not have been the girl I would have chosen for a sister, but nobody ever said she was stupid. If the horses were left in the corral, my pa could tell long before he came to the house that strangers were here. With the horses in the barn, he would have no way of knowing. Anders and Bleak led their horses toward the barn, and we followed. Amy turned her back to the men and put her right hand over her heart with her fingers together pointing down. She moved her hand up and down from her wrist.
Silently I thanked my pa for teaching us Indian sign language. I saw the men were not looking at me. I clasped my hands together over the chest like two men shaking hands. Then, using my right hand, I pressed my index finger against my thumb and flicked the finger forward. Amy had signed trouble. I signed agree and talk.
Amy darted ahead of the men into the barn. She pulled a bucket from a peg on the wall.
“We’ll get water,” she said.
We walked toward the well, with Amy carrying the bucket. I looked back. The men stopped outside the barn. The tall man waved at me and I waved back.
“They’re here after Pa,” said Amy.
“I think so, too.”
“We have to do something,” said Amy.
“When we get to the well, I’ll run,” said Amy. “I’m fast.”
“Not as fast as a man on horseback.”
“Then we’ll both run. They’ll chase you, and I can make it to the hideout.”
I answered, “If you do, you’ll be stuck there. If you leave, they’ll see you. You can’t warn Pa from there.”
When we reached the well, Amy did not run, much to my relief. We lowered the bucket. I felt like my stomach was sinking with it. My legs felt wobbly.
Amy said, “From here, I can get into the house and load a rifle before they catch me.”
“Then you’ll have one rifle against two. If you shoot one man, the other will shoot you. That won’t help Pa.”
We hauled up the bucket.
“We can pretend we think the men are Pa’s friends,” I said. “We can invite them into the house.”
“Because if they want to come in, we can’t stop them,” I answered.
We filled the bucket as full as we could get it.
“Let’s pretend they’re Pa’s friends,” I said. “They might relax a little. We’ll get a chance to do something later. If we try and fail now, they could tie us up and gag us. Then we couldn’t help Pa. We’ll get only one chance.”
Amy took one side of the bucket’s handle, and I took the other. We lifted it and slowly headed back.
“What’s your plan?” asked Amy.
“I don’t have one,” I answered. “We have to wait for a good chance. We have to recognize it and act.”
“If Pa comes home before we can act, I’ll jump them and scratch their eyes out,” Amy said.
“If that time comes,” I said, “you jump the one closest to you and I’ll use my pocketknife on the other one.”
I knew that, if that time came, Amy and I would be in trouble and Pa wouldn’t have a prayer. Amy and I together couldn’t take either man alone on his worst day. One on one, we had no chance at all. But we had to try. We carried the bucket into the barn and poured the water into a trough.
When Anders entered, he spotted the bay. He studied it.
“That’s one fine mare,” said Anders.
“She’s not ours,” Amy said. “I don’t know who she belongs to.” Anders and Bleak looked at each other like maybe they knew.
Bleak removed his tack from his horse and tossed it over the gate to the stall. Then he shifted from foot to foot as he waited for Anders. Anders carefully checked his horse over. He looked at its knees, looked in its mouth and raised each hoof in turn. He rubbed the animal down. Before leaving the stall, he made sure it had food and water.
We invited the men into our house. Bleak went straight to the fireplace and snatched a biscuit out of the Dutch oven on the hearth. He ate it right there, dropping crumbs on his beard and on the floor as he leaned his rifle against the wall. Anders took off his hat and looked over the room.
I said, “Please, if you’re hungry, we have plenty of food.”
“I could fix you a plate,” offered Amy.
“Much obliged,” answered Anders. “I could eat a biscuit if you have enough to go around.”
“Of course we do,” answered Amy. “Please take a seat.” She got out a plate, a knife and a jar of apple butter. Bleak stuffed his mouth full like a ravenous wolf. Amy took the last biscuit out of the Dutch oven. Anders set his rifle within easy reach and sat down at the table.
“What’s this?” asked Bleak, wiping his mouth with his sleeve and scattering crumbs. He reached above the fireplace and pulled a rifle off its pegs. “Is this one of them new Sharps?”
“Yes, sir,” answered Amy.
“That’s a breech-loading percussion rifle,” said Anders. “I’ve never seen one before but I’ve heard about them.”
Months ago, when Pa brought two Sharps rifles home, he explained that they were only to be used in self-defense. My stepmother had asked, “Are these what they call ‘Beecher Bibles’?”
Pa had smiled. “Yes, Reverend Henry Ward Beecher argues that we must be ready to defend ourselves. Some of the rifles were smuggled in using boxes labeled ‘Church Supplies.’ I suppose it doesn’t hurt that Mr. Sharps’s first name is Christian.”
We had all laughed.
“Now,” my pa had said, “listen to the commandments: Always act as if these rifles are loaded. Never point one at a person unless you mean to shoot him. Never cock the hammer and pull the trigger unless there’s a cap on the cone where the hammer lands. Otherwise, the cone can crack. Always clean the rifle thoroughly after ten shots at most. Powder is forced backward into the works with each shot. It can jam the works. Powder left in the muzzle makes shooting inaccurate.”
Bleak burped explosively, which brought my attention back to the present.
“How does it work?” Bleak asked his friend.
Anders took the rifle. “There should be a catch. Here it is.” He pushed the trigger guard all the way forward. The breechblock inside the Sharps dropped down, leaving the path to the chamber free.
Bleak grabbed the rifle. “Let me see.” He worked the lever back and forth rapidly. “It’s like a bucket dropping into a well.”
Anders walked over to the mantel and looked at a box of cartridges and the open bag of caps.
“The cartridge must go into the breech,” said Anders, “not down the muzzle.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “You push the cartridge into the chamber with the ball forward. Then you move the lever back.”
Amy rolled her eyes but kept quiet. Didn’t she see that Anders would have figured that out on his own? We had to pretend to cooperate.
“What do you do then?” asked Anders, picking up a cap.
Amy said, “You half cock the hammer and fit a cap over the cone where the hammer strikes. You don’t want to fully cock the hammer until you’re ready to fire.”
“You just aim and fire once the hammer is fully cocked?” asked Anders. “And for the second shot you just repeat the steps?”
“You have to remove the old cap and put a new one on the cone each time,” said Amy.
Smart girl. Anders would have known that after he fired the weapon one time.
I remembered that, after my pa was sure we could take care of the rifle, he had insisted that Amy, her mother and I learn how to shoot. Sarah didn’t like to fire the rifle but she quickly became a steady shooter. Amy, of course, took to it like a duck takes to water. I had the most problems. We could not figure out why I shot so poorly. Then Amy noticed that, just before I fired, I closed my eyes.
“You can’t hit what you don’t see,” my pa had said. “Lots of people close their eyes because of the flash and the noise. You have to practice staying calm, and then shoot slowly.”
I got better with practice, but I never caught up with Amy or her mother.
Anders whistled and said, “In the time it takes to load and fire a muzzle-loader once, even a woman or a child could fire this rifle two or three times.”
Bleak quickly went through the loading process without a cap or a cartridge and pulled the trigger. The hammer snapped home. He did it twice more.
Amy said, “That was pretty fast, but I can do it faster.”
Bleak shoved the lever forward, yanked it back, cocked the hammer and jerked the trigger. Snap. He did it over and over, faster and faster. Snap followed snap followed snap.
“That’s enough,” said Anders. He walked over to the second Sharps, which was leaning against the wall. Amy and I had used that one to practice with earlier that morning. We had argued about whose turn it was to clean the rifle but neither of us had cleaned it yet. Of course we would before my father got home. Anders picked up the rifle and checked the works. “I want to shoot with this.”
I picked up two boxes of cartridges and a bag of caps. I took them to him.
“Can I come along?” I asked.
I showed him the stump Amy and I used for target practice.
Anders shaved the bark away, making a circle about the size of his fist. He paced off thirty paces and put five shots close enough together that a silver dollar could cover all five. Then he stepped back another ten paces and shot again five times. All shots were inside the circle.
“I wish I could shoot like that,” I said.
“Take the rifle and sight in on the stump,” said Anders. “Leave the hammer down and just point at the stump.” Anders stepped behind me and bent over. “You have it sighted well. You’re holding it steady. Now load the rifle.”
I did. I had a loaded weapon and Anders didn’t. But he was too close. I couldn’t swing the barrel around fast enough. Besides, Amy was still in the farmhouse with Bleak.
“You need to relax,” said Anders. “Breathe deep, point the rifle and squeeze the trigger gently. Don’t worry about aiming. Just point and squeeze.”
The gun went off.
“Sometimes I close my eyes,” I admitted.
“Lots of men do,” said Anders. “You’d be surprised how many. Don’t guess when the rifle will fire. Don’t tug at the trigger. Don’t try too hard to aim. Just load, point and squeeze.”
I took seven more shots and handed the rifle back to Anders.
“Good job,” said Anders. “You seem a lot more relaxed than when you first took the rifle. Let’s check your shots.”
I was so scared that I thought my knees would buckle as we walked toward the stump. With my heart racing, I pointed to the cluster of shots Amy had made that morning. Luckily, a few shots of mine were not far away.
“Good shooting,” said Anders. “Let’s head back.”
When we got back to the farmhouse, we found Bleak gulping down the last of my stepmother’s apple pie.
“It’s getting late,” said Bleak. “They should be returning soon. We could tie the children to the corral and use them for bait.”
Amy glared at him. I balled my hands into fists.
“I don’t make war on children,” answered Anders. “We’ll lock them in the storm cellar.”
“Pa will expect us to come running out as soon as we see him,” said Amy. “He’ll be suspicious if we aren’t around.”
“He’ll be worried,” said Anders. “I can’t let you give him a warning.”
Amy feinted to her left and swung to her right. Anders took a half step toward her, cutting off her escape.
I ran at Bleak, my arms flailing. He backhanded me in the face, rattling my teeth, and then tossed me onto his shoulder like I was a sack of corn. I kicked and punched. It was like assaulting a buffalo barehanded. Bleak smelled of sweat, whiskey and smoke.
Amy twisted and dodged. Anders moved only when he could force her closer to a corner of the room where she could not escape. In short order he snared her wrist and then put his hands on both arms.
We shouted and squirmed, but Anders and Bleak forced us into the cellar under the house and dropped the door shut over us. Something heavy scraped across the floor and settled over the cellar door.
“Yell!” I demanded, hammering on the underside of the door.
“Why?” asked Amy. “Oh.” She shouted and banged on the door. After a few moments, she put her finger to her lips. We listened intently. All I could hear was Amy breathing heavily. No sound came through the floor.
“Did Bleak come down here and look around?” I asked Amy.
“No,” she said. “He played with the rifle and ate the whole time. Some of our hogs have better table manners. Let’s get out of here.”
We moved the empty barrels that Pa had put in front of the hidden door and looked out through the peephole. We snuck into the house and looked around. Anders and Bleak left their muzzle-loading rifles in the house. They took our rifles, boxes of cartridges and the bag of caps.
“They’re probably hidden in spots they can shoot from,” said Amy. “We don’t know where. We can’t let them see us.”
“Maybe, if we make a big circle and move quietly.…”
Then we stopped. We could hear Pa calling us. He was close.
“Josh, Amy, come meet Mr. Brown.”
We shouted warnings as we ran out of the house. Time seemed to slow down. Wild flowers in the distance gleamed brightly. I could smell the horses Pa and Mr. Brown were riding. Their horses’ hoof beats shook the earth. Bleak rose slowly from the ground and lifted the rifle into position to shoot. Anders rose without haste from a spot to the left of Bleak. They had Pa and Mr. Brown in their sights. We kept shouting and running but we could not move fast enough to help.
Bleak and Anders ignored us. Bleak pulled the trigger. The Sharps flashed backwards into his face. Bleak screamed. Time resumed its normal speed.
Anders fired. Pa kicked the roan into a run toward us. Mr. Brown kept our gray stallion at a walk. He acted like this sort of thing happened all the time. Anders looked down at the Sharps. Mr. Brown pulled a pistol from his holster and pointed it at Anders.
Pa pulled the roan to a stop. “Are you hurt?” he asked us.
I looked at Amy and she looked at me. “We’re fine,” I said.
“I’ll get a wet cloth for Mr. Bleak,” said Amy.
When she returned, Mr. Brown had Anders and Bleak against the wall of the
house. Pa was asking me questions faster than I could answer. Amy carried the wet cloth to Bleak. As she reached up toward his burned face, Bleak grabbed her. He put one arm around her neck. With his other hand, he pulled his Bowie knife.
“Let me go or I’ll cut her,” said Bleak. Before I was aware of what I was doing, I ran at him and dived. I bounced off his leg. Bleak kicked at me and missed. Amy ducked her head. She bit his arm as hard as she could. Bleak screamed again. Anders smashed his fist into Bleak’s face. Bleak dropped the knife and let go of Amy. He fell to the ground and whimpered.
Amy ran to Pa. Anders picked up Bleak’s Bowie knife and threw it toward a fencepost. It struck with a thump, burying three inches of the blade into the wood. Anders then pulled out his own knife and threw it. It stuck in the same fencepost just above Bleak’s. Anders looked down at Bleak.
“I told you, I don’t make war on children,” said Anders.
Mr. Brown tied Anders and Bleak to a long rope. He looped one end of the rope over his saddle horn, and then he mounted the bay.
“I’m taking these men to Fort Riley,” said Brown.
“I’ll bring the horses along tomorrow,” said our pa. “I’ll testify at their trial. Maybe the jury will take notice that Mr. Anders protected Amy.”
Brown gave Pa an odd look. He touched his finger to his hat in a salute and started off with Bleak and Anders walking in front.
“All right, you two,” said Pa. “Tell me how that happened.”
“They seemed to come out of the ground,” I said. “I didn’t see them coming. I’m sorry.”
“Lawmen in Kansas have been looking for those two men for months,” said Pa. “They could sneak up on their own shadows. That’s not what I want to know.”
“I had no idea Mr. Bleak could see,” said Amy. “I’m sorry he fooled me like that.”
“I didn’t know he could see, either, honey,” said Pa. “You have a kind heart. You meant to help a man who had been your enemy. You have nothing to be sorry about. That’s not what I meant, either. I want to know how two children outsmarted those outlaws.”
We told him how. As usual, Amy went first.
“I got Mr. Bleak to dry-fire the Sharps so many times that the cone cracked. So when he fired the loaded rifle, powder blew back into his face.”
“And I got Mr. Anders to fire the other Sharps so many times without cleaning it that the muzzle filled with powder and the rifle lost accuracy. I’m surprised it fired at all,” I told Pa.
Amy added, “Joshua charged Mr. Bleak so I could bite him and Mr. Anders could punch him.”
I said, looking at Amy, “You could have run to Manhattan when the men first arrived.
They didn’t know you were here, but you didn’t want to leave me alone with strangers.”
“I didn’t want them to hurt my brother,” said Amy.
“I didn’t want Mr. Bleak to hurt my sister,” I answered.
Pa blinked away tears. “I got dust in my eyes,” he said. He swallowed.
“I still don’t understand,” said Amy. “How could Mr. Bleak see after the powder blew back into his eyes?”
“I don’t know,” said our pa.
“I do,” I said. They looked at me. “Mr. Anders practiced with a rifle so he knew what to expect. Mr. Bleak had never fired that kind of rifle before he tried to shoot you with it.”
Pa said, “It’s more likely that they wanted to kill John Brown. After the city of Lawrence was sacked and an Abolitionist died, Mr. Brown and his sons killed five pro-slavery men. Now, the Border Ruffians want revenge on him.” He shook his head. “Violence begets more violence.”
“I’m glad they didn’t want to shoot you,” I said. “Anyway, Mr. Bleak wasn’t sure how much his weapon would kick. He didn’t know exactly when it would fire.”
I smiled. “So when he pulled the trigger, he closed his eyes.”
Story previously published in the short story collection MURDER MANHATTAN STLE, Ninth Month Publishing Co. 2010
Warren Bull is the author of more than thirty short stories as well as memoirs, essays a novel, ABRAHAM LINCOLN FOR THE DEFENSE, PublishAmerica, 2003, Smashwords, 2010 and a short story collection, MURDER MANHATTAN STYLE, Ninth Month Publishing, Co, 2010. He has published in STRANGE MYSTERIES 2, Whortleberry Press, 2010, STRANGE MYSTERIES, Whortleberry Press, 2009, MEDIUM OF MURDER, Red Coyote Press, 2008, MANHATTAN MYSTERIES, KS Publishing, Inc., 2005, Great Mystery and Suspense magazine, Mouth Full of Bullets, The Back Alley, Sniplits.com, and Mysterical-E among others. He was a psychologist for thirty years. He comes from a functional family and is a fierce competitor at trivia games.
Ninth Month Publishing Co. http://www.ninthmonthpublishing.com/books.html