Summer of 1876
The plan was to find a writing prompt on Reddit to do today, but all the prompts are about armageddon, or pandemics, or superpowers. So today I’m writing what I want to write. I dug up one of my old notebooks and flipped through it until I found a start from all the way back in 2008 imaginatively titled, "Western Horror". I’ll try to keep it short. I think I intended this for a short novel. WARNING: this is a violent story. Enjoy.
Choking dust clogged his nostrils. His back ached. His body was sore from weeks in the saddle with only the hard ground bed down on, but it had all come to an end. Broken Creek lay stretched out on the horizon. Stretched as wide as a town this far into the west could be. It certainly was not Saint Louis, but compared to the plains surrounding the trail behind them, Broken Creek was a metropolis.
As they drew closer, Nathaniel could pick out smaller details. Several men worked on a roof, a woman hung laundry in the dry wind, a boy was leading a horse to a corral. Nathaniel pulled up beside the wagon and couldn’t help but grin when he saw his sister. The elation on Sarah’s face was contagious. She bounced between Mother and Father on the bench. Father drove the team, holding the reins loosely on his lap. The holstered gun flapping against his leg. Nathaniel still wasn’t accustomed to seeing that gun on his hip. He wondered when Father would let him have one. Mother had her arm around Sarah. She patted Sarah’s arm and looked over to Nathaniel with a that seemed to say, “We made it.”
Father had made the journey twice. The first time it had only been Uncle Charlie with him. Mother worried Indians would get them. When she received a letter from Father, Nathaniel remembered tears in her eyes. Tears of relief. Now that they had made the journey themselves, Mother looked as though the tears of relief would make another appearance.
“Are we there?” Margerie asked sleepily as she sat up behind the bench. Her face was flush on one side where she had been laying. Nathaniel couldn’t remember a single step she took alongside the wagon. He didn’t think Aunt Margerie walked a single mile. She only laid down in the back because she felt ill. She wouldn’t feel so ill if she didn’t take as much Laudanum.
“Just about,” Father said.
Margerie smoothed her skirts and began the busy work of fixing her hair.
Pulling into town, Nathaniel noticed several looks he could not describe as friendly. An old woman made the sign of the cross and slammed her shutters. Several men stood in dark doorways with a shotgun or rifle propped nearby. Not quite threatening; more like fearful.
“Hello, Jacobson,” a man called from the boardwalk.
“Hello, Mister Sims,” Father responded with a wave. He drew in the reins bringing the team to a stop. Mister Sims walked to the side of the wagon and shook Father’s hand, placing his other hand on top. The first warm welcome Nathaniel had seen.
“I see you’ve made the journey with your scalps,” Mister Sims chuckled with Father, but the look on Mother’s face said losing a scalp was nothing to joke about. “Did you find my boy?”
“I did,” Father said, pulling a folded letter from inside his jacket. “He said, his education goes well and that he misses home. He also gave me this.”
Father passed the letter down to Mister Sims and Nathaniel could see it was sealed with bright red wax. A little fancy for a college student. Father talked with Mister Sims for several more minutes while Nathaniel took the rest of Mainstreet in. The wind was blowing toward the cattle yards, carrying that stench away from town, but Nathaniel knew that would not always be the case. A cooper, a cobbler, the jail, and a post office lined one side of the street. From what Nathaniel could see around the covered wagon, a general store, a fabric shop and what looked to be a saloon occupied the other side. A church stood tall at the end of the street as if this whole town was built as an afterthought around it.
A flash of yellow drew Nathaniel’s attention to the fabric shop. A girl about Nathaniel’s age held a brilliant stretch of cloth up to the light and inspected it with a warm smile. Her own gray dress contrasted the bright fabric, making the yellow pop. She noticed Nathaniel watching her and he quickly sent his eyes somewhere else. When he risked a glance back at her, she smiled at him. A beautiful smile.
An older woman appeared beside her in the window and yanked the yellow fabric from the girl’s hands. The older woman was dressed in similarly dingy colors. The same any other person in town. Nathaniel realized he had not seen anyone wearing bright colors in Broken Creek. The woman glowered onto the girl. When the old woman noticed Nathaniel, that glare turned to him. She pulled the girl out of the window, further into the shop.
Nathaniel lowered his head. Perhaps now is not the time to ask her name, he thought. Someone chuckled from the other side of the street. Nathaniel turned to find a large barrel-chested man leaning in the jailhouse doorway. His bushy salt and pepper mustache his mouth, but his eyes were grinning. A brass star on his jacket glinted in the sunlight. The sheriff. He waved at Nathaniel. The sheriff’s two middle fingers on his right hand were missing and Nathaniel wondered how that happened as he returned the wave.
“Well we’d better be on our way,” Father said. “Charlie will be missing his wife, and I’ve been missing a bed.”
Mister Sim’s eyes flashed to Margerie and Nathaniel caught a glimpse of disapproval, though Sims tried to mask it, which is more than most people.
“Don’t be a stranger like your brother, now,” Mister Sims said. “Our home is always open to you. God bless.”
Father whipped the reins and clicked his tongue at the horses and the wagon was moving again. Once out of Mainstreet and past the edges of town, Mother turned to Father.
“Not a very friendly bunch, are they,” Mother said.
“They’ll come around,” Father said. “We are outsiders moving into the tiny frontier town. I expect they’ll open up once they realize their life goes on much the same with us here.”
Another hour in the saddle and a small house on a hill appeared on the horizon.
“There it is,” Father said. “Home.”
Charlie had been chopping wood when he noticed the wagon. He stood on the stump and waved his arms happily. His cheerful shouts rolled down the hill and barely managed to reach Nathaniel’s ears before they were swept away in the wind.
Father stopped the wagon in front of the stout, log house and Charlie helped Margerie down with hands on her hips. They kissed and Nathaniel wondered if Charlie could taste the Laudnum on her lips. Nathaniel dismounted and wrapped the reins on a bit of fence. Tan grass waved in the wind on the rolling hills around the house; perfect for cattle, which is what Father and Uncle Charlie wanted to raise. Nathaniel looked to the north and found a wash that sunk deeper and deeper into the plains. A thick stand of trees rested at the bottom, shielded from the whipping winds above.
Then Nathaniel noticed a pile of blackened lumber. Not enough for a full building, but perhaps the framing. Something had burned down before construction was complete.
“What happened to the barn?” Father asked.
“I don’t know,” Charlie said. “I was asleep when it happened. A lightning strike, maybe. I asked the sheriff if Indians would do something like that. He doesn’t think they would.”
“Were you sober,” Father asked.
“What?” Charlie tried to smile.
Father gave him a look that seemed to say, “I won’t ask again.”
Charlie hung his head, “No.”
“Charlie,” Mother said as she lowered Sarah to the ground.
“We’ll build another one,” Charlie said.
“We’ll have to,” Father said coldly.
Several uneasy moments passed until Margerie turned on her bubbly excitement again.
“Show us the house,” Margerie said. “We’ve been dying to see it.”
Charlie led Aunt Margerie, Mother and Sarah toward the door.
“This is just temporary,” he said. “We’ll soon build a house for Margerie and me and you and your family can have this one all to yourselves, Sarah.”
Father watched them go inside. He waited to show his frustration until Sarah was gone. He swore under his breath and turned to Nathaniel.
“Help me get the horses fed and in the corral.”
Nathaniel Jacobson’s journal.
June 12th, 1876
Father and Charlie began construction of a house for Margerie and Charlie with the promise of doubled efforts toward the new barn when the house is complete. We could have had the barn done already but Margerie demands her own home. I made a trip into town to get nails and other supplies. No sign of the fabric shop girl.
July 7th, 1876
Father and Charlie went to market and bought forty calves. I made an excuse to go into town with Sarah. I bought her some licorice in the general store. Still no sign of the girl from the fabric shop. An old man called us ‘city dwellers’ and spat into the dust at our feet.
July 15th, 1876
Uncle Charlie and Aunt Margerie’s house is complete. Work continues on the barn. Father is teaching me to build. I asked him about getting a gun. I told him I’m responsible and could help defend the family if need be. He said He knows I can handle one, but guns are expensive. Maybe next year when they sell some cattle.
July 23rd, 1876
I heard Uncle Charlie and Father speaking late at night. Charlie was angry about something. He wanted to go to the sheriff. Father agreed that they should go to the sheriff in the morning.
July 24th, 1876
Father and Charlie come back from town and Charlie is still angry. I found out earlier that an old lady threatened Margerie when she was in town last week and then Margerie’s cat had been killed and left on their doorstep yesterday. Mother had me burry it. Someone had twisted its head all the way around.
August 4th, 1876
I woke to Charlie yelling in the yard. He was drunk again. Father went out to calm him down. I heard him talking about how this can’t go on like this. Apparently, Margerie is getting more threats. Sarah woke next and I tried to get her to go back to sleep.
August 12th, 1876
Uncle Charlie went into town to drink at the saloon after supper time.
August 13th, 1876
Uncle Charlie hasn’t come back yet. Father thinks he might have been locked up until he’s sober. Mother and Margerie begged Father to go into town and get him. Father was gone for several hours then he returned with Uncle Charlie on the back of his horse. Charlie’s face was swollen, bruised, and bloodied. They brought him into his bed and I heard Father tell Mother that Charlie was locked up. The sheriff said he started a brawl.
August 16th, 1876
Several hooded men burned the barn in the middle of the night. They scattered the horses and cattle. I heard one of them say that there is no place in Broken Creek for sinners. Father shot his rifle at them but missed. Maybe he wasn't trying to get them, just scare them off. The hooded men galloped off. We were unable to put the fire out. The barn burned to the ground once again.
August 17th, 1876
Father wanted me to round up the cows while he goes into town to speak with the sheriff. I found most of them.
August 18th, 1876
Father isn’t back from town yet. Charlie is too beat to go check on him and Mother won’t let me go. She agrees that if he’s not back tomorrow. She’ll send me.
A gunshot shook Nathaniel from sleep. Margerie’s cries pierced the night and Sarah woke with terror in her eyes. Nathaniel held a single finger to his lips. Bewildered, Sarah kept quiet.
“Get dressed,” Nathaniel said.
Sarah jumped to action as Nathaniel pulled his boots on. He pulled the curtains aside to peer outside. Several horses were saddled and hitched outside Charlie and Margerie’s house down the hill.
Mother looked out her window and gasped. Four hooded men stepped out the front door. One of them dragged Aunt Margerie by her hair. She kicked and screamed.
“You shot him!” She screamed and Nathaniel felt his stomach drop. No. There’s no way. This isn’t happening.
“Stay here,” Mother said as she stormed out the door in her nightgown.
“Cover yourself, woman,” one of the men called up to her.
“Release her,” Mother demanded.
The men laughed through their hoods. The biggest of the four stepped forward. A leather bandoleer wrapped around his barreled chest full of rifle cartridges, and he held a repeater loosely at his side. Another hooded man forced Margerie to her knees and pressed a pistol to the back of her head.
“We have given these people every opportunity to leave and take their evil with them,” the big man said. “The time for cleansing is now.”
Mother screamed as the hooded man with the pistol squeezed the trigger. A gunshot echoed into the night and Margerie fell on her face in the dirt. Mother turned to run back to the house but the big man lifted his repeater to his shoulder.
“Mother!” Nathaniel yelled, just as another gunshot pierced the dark.
She fell on the ground and crawled to the door.
“Go!,” Mother screamed. “Run!”
Nathaniel grabbed Sarah by the hand and jerked her across the room to the back window. He stabbed out the glass with a broom handle and cleared the rest away as best he could. He put Sarah through and followed shortly after. Together they ran north into the wash. Mother’s sobs reached Sarah’s ears, causing her to cry. Another gunshot and the sobs stopped. Sarah burst into tears.
“Mother,” she cried.
Nathaniel covered her mouth and looked directly into her eyes.
“We need to be quiet now,” he said. He repeated this until Sarah’s eyes showed her understanding.
Nathaniel removed his hand and they moved further down the wash and into the thick stand of cottonwood trees. The moved deeper and deeper into the undergrowth until they found a fallen tree. Nathaniel helped Sarah over before following her. They lay flat next to the tree. Nathaniel pushed Sarah under as far as she could go and he flattened himself next to her.
They lay like that for several eternities until footsteps crunched nearby. Nathaniel put his hand over Sarah’s mouth and he could feel her shaky breath from her nose on his hand. The big man with the bandoleer appeared in the wash. He was holding a lantern to the ground, looking for tracks. Something was wrong with the hand holding the lantern. Nathaniel looked closer and realized he was missing fingers. The two middle fingers on his left hand were missing. The sheriff.
“They won’t make it far,” a masked man from up the hill called down.
“I would rather be certain,” the big man called back.
“Let’s go,” the man on the hill insisted. “We can pick up their trail tomorrow in daylight when we come back for the livestock.”
The big man said nothing but apparently agreed. He straightened and walked back up the hill. Several long hours passed and Nathaniel didn’t allow himself to sleep a wink. Sarah was able to. The night had been exhausting emotionally for her. Nathaniel knew the sun would be up soon and those men would come back. He gently woke Sarah and ensured she would stay quiet.
They crept out of the trees and up the hill to Charlie and Margerie’s house. He told Sarah to wait outside before he crept inside. Charlie lay in his bed, dry eyes staring at the ceiling, with a bullet hole in his heart. The pillow was a bloody mess. Bare skull shone wetly in the dim. They had taken his scalp. Nathaniel choked down the urge to vomit. The rifle was not hanging above the hearth. The hooded men must have taken it. He searched for Charlie’s revolver around the house, but Nathaniel knew where Charlie kept it. He kept it under the mattress.
Nathaniel steeled himself, took a breath and knelt down beside Uncle Charlie. Nathaniel kept expecting him to move, but Charlie was still. Too still. Not even the rising and falling of his chest. Nathaniel blew out his cheeks and moved Charlie’s leg. His flesh was cold and stiff. Nathaniel slipped his hand under the mattress and his fingers brushed something solid. He wrapped his fingers around the gun barrel and pulled it out.
Standing, he checked the gun. The brass backs of six unspent shells gleamed in the rising sunlight. He left the house and found Sarah crouched behind the corner. She yanked him down to the ground and pointed to Mother and Father’s house up the hill.
“There’s someone sitting on the porch,” she hissed.
Nathaniel squinted and could just barely make out the shape of a man reclining in a chair on the porch. A rifle lay on his lap.
“He hasn’t seen us or he would have shot,” Nathaniel said. “Stay here.”
“You’re not going up there,” Sarah pleaded.
“I have to,” Nathaniel said. “The horses are up there.”
“We can walk to town.”
“We can’t go to town,” Nathaniel said.
“Father’s dead,” Nathaniel snapped, harsher than he had intended, but Sarah did not cry like he thought she would. She hung her head and nodded.
“Be careful,” she said.
Nathaniel crept around the hill so he could approach from the back of the house. He carefully placed each foot on the ground, careful not to make a sound. The sun was rising fast. At the corner of the house, he thought about what he would do. Am I going to shoot a man?
He gently cocked the hammer on Charlie’s revolver and took a deep breath. He threw himself around the corner, leveling the gun at the porch. The man had his hat over his eyes and a faint snoring sound was muffled underneath. I can’t shoot a sleeping man.
Then Nathaniel’s eyes drifted to two figures on the ground. Mother and Aunt Margerie lay in the dust. Both scalps removed. Flies danced around their exposed skulls. Nathaniel’s mouth turned downward into a hard frown. He couldn’t stop it. He breathed shivering breathes in and out through his nose.
He returned his attention to the sleeping man. He only had the rifle. Nathaniel kept his gun on him as he crept forward. He gently wrapped his hand around the rifle’s barrel and when he was sure he had a good grasp, he yanked it away. The rifle stripped from the sleeping man’s hands, waking him. Nathaniel threw the rifle aside. It clattered to the dirt but Nathaniel kept his eyes on the man.
Without his hood, Nathaniel recognized him. He had seen him around town, though he never earned his name.
“Easy now,” the man said.
Nathaniel said nothing and jerked his head to the bodies.
“I didn’t do that,” the man stammered. “The boss says we should make it look like injuns so they makes it look like injuns. I didn’t do that.”
Fingertip squeezed the trigger, taking all the slack out. Squeezed harder. Boom. Smoke. The man pressed a hand to his belly, blood seeping out from under it.
“I- I says I didn’t.”
Nathaniel cocked the revolver again, squeezed the trigger again. Boom. Smoke. The man made a wheezing noise and tried to stand up. He stumbled into the dirt. Nathaniel cocked the revolver again. The man lay on his back with bloody hands up to Nathaniel, begging. Boom. Smoke. The man lay still.
Nathaniel watched the dead man for several moments. Then he remembered the hooded men. They could be back at any time.
He saddled a horse and galloped down to Sarah. He pulled her up and they sped off onto the planes. When they were far enough away from the house, Nathaniel slowed the horse to a walk.
“You killed him,” Sarah said.
August 29, 1876
The soldiers don’t believe me. They found my family scalped and assume it was Indians that did it. They didn’t find the man I killed or any evidence of the sheriff’s involvement.
September 23rd, 1876
The army is sending my sister and me to live with our grandparents in Saint Louis.
December 24th, 1876
Christmas is bleak without Mother and Father. Sarah seems to be doing alright, though I think she is hiding her pain.
February 2, 1877
With the sale of the Broken Creek land, I’ll be able to attend university. I can finally put myself in the position to sustain Sarah and myself.
A knock at the door pulled Nathaniel from his journal. He listened. Sarah spoke with someone with a deep voice.
“Nathaniel,” she called up the staircase. “You have a visitor.”
He placed his pencil in the journal and closed it. He walked down the steps to find a young man brushing off snow from his shoulders before he stepped into the house. Sarah took his jacket and hung it on the rack beside the door.
“Hello,” the young man said.
“Hello. I’m Nathaniel. Have we met?” he gestured for the young man to take a seat on the couch.
“No, but I believe you knew my father and brother,” the young man sat.
“From Saint Louis?”
“From Broken Creek,” the young man said as he pulled a revolver from his jacket and placed it on the coffee table. “My name is Jerimiah Sims.”
Terror jolted through Nathaniel’s body like a muscle spasm.
“Sims,” he said, thinking of a weapon to use.
“Sit,” Jerimiah said. Nathaniel hesitated and Jerimiah insisted firmly. “Sit.”
Nathaniel sat across from Jerimiah. The gun is upstairs, Nathaniel thought. Even if I had it, I wouldn’t have a chance to use it.
“My brother,” Sims said. “All he wanted, was to cleanse the evil your family brought with them.”
“My family was not evil,” Nathaniel said.
“Do good people drink their lives away? Do good people allow addicts to leach from this world? Do good people shoot a man in his sleep?” Jerimiah asked the last question through clenched teeth.
“Your brother and the others killed my family,” Nathaniel said. “They tried to kill me and my sister.”
“My brother was doing the pastor’s will. God’s will. You gunned him down. Can a man be a good man if he kills another who is on a mission from God?”
Nathaniel’s eyes flicked to the gun on the table between them.
“Do you think you’re faster than me?” Jerimiah asked.
Nathaniel said nothing.
“Do you think you’re stronger than me? Can you wrench that gun from my hands when I beat you to it?”
Nathaniel locked onto the gun. I won’t just sit here and wait to die. I must do something.
“Try it,” Jerimiah sneered. “I love some good sport.”
Nathanial lunged for the gun but Jerimiah was there first. Nathaniel put both hands on the gon and pushed it away, so Jerimiah couldn’t shoot him. The two struggled for several moments before Jerimiah stopped struggling in an instant. Nathaniel wrenched the gun out of his hand and stood over him, pointing the gun at his face. Blood spewed from Jerimiah’s lips and he made a gurgling sound. A kitchen knife was stuck in his neck. Nathaniel looked at Sarah. She had blood on her hands and she desperately tried to wipe them on her dress.
Jerimiah stood and stumbled over the coffee table, sprawling on the floor. A dark puddle of blood spread on the floorboards under him.
“Call for a constable,” Sarah wept.
Nathanial nodded and burst out the front door into the snowy street. Several passers-by gave the panting boy a strange look.
“Help,” Nathaniel managed to get out. “Police.”
Thanks for reading. I post writing tips, self-publishing tips, or writing prompts every Friday. If you liked what you read, please consider picking up my book, Well of Bones. It’s available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle formats. Thanks again.
Until next week,