This story is by Chris Murphy and won an Honorable Mention in our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
Chris has been writing since receiving an Etch-A-Sketch on Christmas Day in 1974. For over four decades, his writing efforts have won the adulation and praise of his tiny circle of family and friends and a few strangers. He now regularly writes for a marketing firm in Houston, Texas, but has his sights set on more creative outlets.
Any man who says they can survive the Black Hills in January for more’n three weeks is either a liar or a Lakota Sioux. I was neither. One look at my war-torn face told my story. I was a survivor. After two wars and a stint in the U.S. Cavalry, I figured I could survive a South Dakota winter. Three icy weeks in the Hills changed my mind.
Fortunately, the roan I’d bought in Rapid City knew her way home, even in the dark. The sounds from the saloon led me the rest of the way. No surprise to find the tavern bustin’ at the seams. When the snows start fallin’, most folks just hunker down and drink ‘til spring. ‘Course the biggest problem with a full saloon in a gold-rush town was the high odds of findin’ trouble, ‘specially the kinda trouble I wasn’t lookin’ for.
The trouble I was huntin’ came in the form of my former commanding officer, Colonel Hamilton Gresham, Commander of Company E, 7th U.S. Cavalry, retired. Latest word had him headed west with his new company of killers to make his mark on the world. After Company E’s actions at Wounded Knee, I knew his mark would be made in Lakota blood. I aimed to stop him, along with my nightmares.
I moved across the crowded saloon to a spot near the end of the bar. The barkeep knew his trade, had my drink in my hand before I could roll a smoke. The whiskey was rough but it chased the cold from my bones. A quick glance around the room showed I hadn’t drawn much attention. This far from Washington, I figured none of the town’s tin pans had ever heard of the “heroes” of Wounded Knee. With any luck, they’d see me as a fellow gold-digger and leave me alone.
I was on my third round when my luck went south. “Hey! Where’d you get them scars?”
I took a drink and waited to see if the fella starin’ at my face was sober enough to take a hint.
He wasn’t. “Hey! I asked you a question! Where’d you get them scars from?”
“Bear.” I finished my whiskey and slid the empty glass towards the barkeep.
The drunk staggered towards me, his eyes locked on my war wounds. “Yeah? What kinda bear?”
I tossed a coin onto the bar and growled, “Kind that don’t like people.”
He shook his head. “No, I mean what kinda bear? Grizzly bear? Black bear?” My interrogator backed up a step and pointed at my face. “What kinda bear did that?”
A voice from my nightmares responded from the crowd. “If memory serves, it was a Yankee bear.”
Silence fell across the room like a blanket when I spun around to face my former commander, the sight of my .45 clearin’ the space between us.
“Captain Austin.” He was reclinin’ in full uniform in the farthest corner of the saloon, his crossed legs restin’ on a tabletop. “It’s been a while.”
If my eyes could kill, he’da been dead in his seat.
He smiled. “I hear you’ve been scouring the Black Hills for me.”
My response was the sound of my gun’s hammer cockin’ into place.
The smile faded a bit. “You’ll be wanting to put that gun away, Captain.” He gestured towards the crowd with a wave of his left hand. “A rope is hardly the proper vehicle for your exit from this world.”
“Ain’t my exit you should be worryin’ about.”
He slowly lowered his feet to the floor and stood up. “Don’t tell me you’re still upset about that Lakota business.” He put his arms behind his back and shook his head. “Three years is a long time to hold a grudge, Matthew. Especially by someone who earned a fairly prestigious medal for his role in that business.”
I spat. “Medals don’t change nothin’.”
“Yet you still accepted it.” He sighed. “I always knew you had a soft spot for those savages, Captain, which is why I never considered you for recruitment in my new company of heroes.” He took a few steps toward me. “It’s a shame, really. You always were one of my best officers.” The smile disappeared and he gave a little nod.
The pistol barrel in my back explained the gesture. I turned to see my “drunk” interrogator reachin’ for my weapon, grinnin’ like he’d struck gold. I cursed under my breath as ten armed men moved out of the crowd to join Gresham.
The Colonel motioned toward the saloon exit. “After you, Captain.”
The wind was howlin’ when we stepped into the middle of the snow-covered street. The only source of light came from the full moon since the saloon windows had filled up with townsfolk eager to watch me die.
Gresham stood in the center of his recruits, their weapons trained on me. “I have a question before we end this, Matthew.” He raised his voice so I could hear him over the wind. “Knowing me as you do, why would you think you would find me living in the Black Hills among savages?”
I smiled. Doubt he saw it considerin’ he was watchin’ the first of his men fall with a Lakota arrow stickin’ outta his right eye. The howlin’ exploded into battle cries as Sioux warriors attacked from every direction. Gresham and his new “heroes” didn’t last long.
The Colonel was layin’ in the street surrounded by corpses and a squad of angry Sioux with a half-dozen of their arrows stickin’ outta him, his breath comin’ in ragged gasps. I pulled my .45 outta the drunk’s lifeless hand and removed six custom-made cartridges from my gun belt.
I stood over him as I thumbed the cartridges into the cylinder. “Never said I was lookin’ for you in the Hills, Colonel.” His eyes were saucers when I pointed my gun at his head. “And as for that medal …”
I cocked the hammer.
“… you can have it back.”