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Northwest Through the Swamp of Life
By Charles Stucker
The cypress moaned in the warm summer breeze, an eerie sound that filled the swamps with ghosts of Caddo and Comanche raiders. Josiah poled the small punt through the still green water, ignoring the midges and mosquitoes which swarmed him. Periodically, he checked his compass to insure he kept the bearing for the Gibson place. His seven years tutelage under legendary Mike Carson honed him to the bland-faced, hardened lawman who now sought three brothers for the murder of a black family outside Round Prairie. With his horse safely resting at a stable back in Texarkana, he slid forward, toward his targets. A bag of gear resting under the boat’s single bench and a double-barrel Greener shotgun completed his equipment.
Something disturbed a flock of birds in the middle distance. He heard them, even individual wings flapping, but did not spot them. Worried that he might move forward into an ambush, he pulled the pole from the water and rested it athwart the gunwales. The punt rocked gently and slowed its forward progress while Josiah reached down and then brought the Greener to his shoulder. He recalled Mike’s laugh the first time he tried to fire the ten-gauge gun and fell backward onto his tailbone. He wished Mike were here but knew he was busy chasing a band of comancheros who ran guns and liquor to the Apache out near Pecos.
A hundred yards distant, more birds rose in noisy display. Suddenly, fearing a flanking move, Josiah risked snakebite and jumped into the water. Grabbing the towline in his left hand, he waded through the hip-deep water toward a small rise. A shot rang out, followed by a voice, “Shouldn’t aught to of follered us, law-dog.”
“I ain’t here to fight, just let you know it ain’t all that bad,” Josiah called as he released the line, grabbed his small bag out from under the seat and shoved between reeds into a blind spot. They might shoot all day and never hit him. His bag contained enough vittles to last three days, and enough extra ammunition to hold off a dozen men. Hoping to resolve things without shooting—Judge Williams frowned on killing suspects, and Josiah aimed to keep him happy—he made another call. “Them folks from Round Prairie just need to know if you took their bible.”
“Why’d a body want a Goddamned bible?” a new voice, nearer, called.
“Inheritance. It lists all the relatives. Nobody actual cares about killin’ darkies.” Josiah tensed and ducked. He could sense them moving in from all directions. If he kept talking, they would trap and kill him. A shot rang out and the round whistled past, skimming low over the water, missing him by inches. He played his best card. “Mike Carson is headed this way. You shoot me, you’ll run forever.”
“Ever ranger claims they’s Carson.”
“Shut it Evrit. He said Carson’s a comin.”
“Damn it, boy. I done tole you don’t mention no names around the law.” A new voice, a powerful baritone against the whining tenors of the brothers.
“Mister Gibson, your boys ain’t in all that much trouble,” Josiah called again. “They come in peaceable and most they’ll get is six months. If a white jury can be found as will convict ’em.”
“You ain’t Carson? I hear he loves them niggers. His own sister’s shacked up with a damn Mex.”
“You got that right. My paw died at Pittsburg Landing. Can’t stand them darkies—they as much as kilt him.”
“I fought beside Bill Anderson,” Gibson replied. “Missed the raid on Lawrence, but we kilt a whole heap o’ Yankees.”
“I’d shore thank you if we could take care o’ this afore Mike gets here.” Josiah listened to quiet movement as the three brothers moved toward their father. He steeled himself for what must come. He slogged out of the water, the bag strap slung over his shoulder and the Greener in both hands, but pointing down at the ground. “Iffen we get a trial finished, Carson cain’t touch ’em. Law says so.”
“Come on out. We’ll finish this right here,” Gibson called. Josiah had no doubt they waited for him to drop his guard and kill him. He fumbled his bag open and put six shotgun shells into his shirt pockets, then put a fresh box of forty-fives into the pouch on his belt before dropping the bag. He took a moment to check his Schofield, insuring the revolver had no mud in the action. Then he continued, threading his way through the tough, tangled Spanish moss, hanging like nooses from the trees, until he reached the edge of a clearing. He recognized the trap. Gibson, a paunchy little man with a corncob pipe between his teeth, sat on a log across the clearing from where he stood. A woman, her face down, with a dingy apron and a red scarf over her head, stood directly behind him. In the dim light of the swamp, he could not be certain if she was white, Mexican, or Negro, but her stance indicated a captive. To the left, two brothers argued over a pot of stew. He did not spot the third.
Josiah stepped forward, watching in his peripheral vision for movement. As soon as he emerged from the brush, Gibson stood and waved him forward. “You got a good head, boy.”
At that moment, the brothers by the fire pulled their pistols and the third stood from concealment behind the woman, a Sharps’ trapdoor rifle in his hand. Josiah jumped to the side just before a shot rang from the Sharps. The two brothers fanned their rounds toward him, but he ignored the bullets passing over his head to bring his barrel to bear on the elder Gibson who tried to pull a shotgun from where it lay along the log, nigh invisible in the light and distance. Two thunderous shots rang as one, but Gibson’s blast went into the ground as he doubled over with a load of buckshot in his belly. Josiah turned and shot the two by the fire, the pellets spreading enough to strike both.
He leapt to his feet and dashed toward the last brother, just as the mulatto woman he hid behind turned and brought a knee up into his thigh, causing him to fumble reloading the Sharps. Josiah caught him aside his head with the butt of his Greener, then dropped it to draw his Schofield. He need not have bothered. Only one of the Gibson brothers remained active, and he cradled his brother, whose blood bubbled from a pierced lung.
Shaking his head in consternation, Josiah gathered their weapons, then put manacles on the conscious one. The mulatto approached him. “Suh, what am I gone to do?”
“How old are you?” Josiah guessed under twenty.
“Nigh onto fifteen, suh.” She motioned to the dead body of Gibson. “He kilt my baby.”
“I’m sorry.” Josiah fought the desire to take in four dead bodies. “I can take you to the church at Whitelake. They might make a place for you.”
“Why you do that. You hate us.”
“I just said it so to bring them in to pay for their crimes.” He studied her for a moment. “If Gibson got a deed to this here land, then as his wife, you inherit. I can see to that much.”
“We was never married.”
“You had a baby by him. That’s close enough for me.” He knew how Mike would feel about it. No matter how treacherous the swamp, you only needed a good compass to get through.
Please visit Charles on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Charles-Stucker-103988060951288/