By Roy E. Spears
I was a Union sniper during the Civil War, attached to the 2nd Regiment Sharpshooters/U.S. Volunteers. Though this may be disturbing for many people to contemplate or agree with, it must be stated that the assassination of one’s fellow human beings can be thought of as an art form, and like any art form requires much skill, training, preparation and mental discipline. My education for the craft began during my youth in the woodlands and meadows of my native Pennsylvania, and my tireless pursuit of squirrels and other game gave me the needed training to eventually be able to successfully hunt down and eradicate my fellow human beings.
Marksmanship came naturally to me; my daddy had given me a rifle when I was seven years old, and from that point on I spent the great majority of every day in the forests around our home hunting for the game that helped to feed my family. From what many people have told me, I am an excellent shot, having won numerous first place ribbons in various competitions in my home state of Pennsylvania.
Talking about my duties in the Civil War is not something that comes easily for me. In the performance of my service the United States, I had to carry out orders for the assassination of the enemy a total of 35 times. Thirty-five men died by my hand, and though this is something that I am not particularly proud of, I was honored to be able to serve in this capacity for the sake of the Union.
I saw too much of killing and of bloodshed, too many horrible things associated with warfare that left me with constant nightmares. When Lee surrendered and the War came to an end, I felt only weariness and wished to leave Pennsylvania to join my parents and younger brother and sisters out West. In so many countless ways, I began to despise the role that I had during this great conflict, and my mental resilience was beginning to crumble as I began contemplating and musing over the deaths that I had a hand in. Stalking men is certainly not something that comes easily to a man; it certainly never became palpable to me.
My mother and father are both devout Quakers, and though I do not share their Pacifist views or their ardent religious faith, I still love and respect them. When the Civil War began, they relocated to South Dakota to begin a small religious work among the other Quakers that had previously emigrated there to begin their own search for religious freedom in the great West. As was customary with my mother and father, they soon found their way into the hearts of the Native people living there and soon began a school to teach the heathen the ways of the Lord.
With all my worldly possessions carefully packed in one large wooden case, I became part of a wagon train heading to South Dakota. My plans were simple: once I found my parent’s, I would settle down with them and help to farm their land. I craved peace and tranquility, for after years of my senses being assaulted by the horrific sights and sounds of battle, I was ready for some quiet solitude.
The long, wooden case that held my possessions was necessary for one item that I could not part with, that had been with me for almost the entire time that I had been fighting the Confederates: a Parker-Hale Whitworth Sniper Rifle, .451 Caliber. Weighing just over nine pounds, it was equipped with a scope and accurate to 1,000 yards. These particular rifles were not issued to Union troops, but to Confederate soldiers. Made in Britain, they were one of the most deadly and effective pieces of war equipment.
Mine was retrieved from the body of a Southern soldier, a sniper that was positioned in a barn loft in the battle of Manassas. The second assignment of my enlistment was to take him out, for his lethal accuracy was causing havoc with the troops seeking a position just down the hill from the barn. It took me seven hours to crawl, an inch at a time, through forty-five yards of underbrush, until I came within striking distance. He made a fatal, and what I considered a foolish error, that gave up his well-concealed position: he lit a cigarette, and before he had the chance to blow the match out, he was dead, shot directly between the eyes from a distance of six hundred yards. It was with his rifle that I made the next thirty-three kills, and what I now carried in my box.
Many of my fellow soldiers offered to buy my rifle; it was of such fine craftsmanship and exquisite beauty that it caused a sensation wherever I went. The scope mounted on top only added to its appeal; few rifles were equipped with such things, and I smiled at the looks of wonderment and respect that the other soldiers viewed the instrument. Naturally, the respect they had for the rifle extended to the owner, and I was viewed as somewhat of a hero for my unusually great skill in using it.
Yet killing other men was never something I was comfortable with, and though I knew that my job saved the lives of countless soldiers, I certainly did not think it was something to brag or be proud about. I was painfully aware that every man that I shot was probably a father and a husband who would never see his family again; my skill at my craft would leave many children crying at night for their fathers who would never be able to hold, comfort, or play with them again. This thought weighed constantly on me, and was the driving force that propelled me to find my parents in the barrenness of South Dakota.
I should have sold the rifle; I hoped never to use it again for the purpose for which it was manufactured. Certain possessions have a strange grip on a man, and this rifle was no exception. I felt a close attachment to it, for it had been my constant companion the last four years of my life and I felt as if it had become part of me. In a strange way I owed my life to it. Though it was stained with the blood of at least thirty-three men, I could not yet come to the point of parting with it.
Living in South Dakota, perhaps, would give me the needed solitude I craved to sort out the jumbled thoughts and emotions I frequently battled with. All I knew was that I was tired of the killing, of losing so many childhood friends in the relentless slaughters and of my part in contributing to the carnage. No, it was time for a fresh start, and I took great comfort in knowing that my parent’s would welcome their son back from the war. Though they did not feel that the taking of another’s man’s life was ever justified, even in self-defense, nevertheless I knew that they were proud of me. They respected and honored dedication to ones values and beliefs. They had taught me well.
For my part, I would not have chosen South Dakota as a place to plant roots. Many were the stories we soldiers heard of increasing Indian uprisings among the settlers, and quite frankly, I was concerned for my family’s safety. In characteristic fashion, though, my father, ever the optimist in “trusting the Lord,” always chuckled at what he thought was needless worry.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Thou art with me…. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me” was his constant source of strength. As I said, I admired his faith and felt much reverence for him, but I did not share his convictions. I had enough of the pious hypocrites in the slave States preaching that the slaves duty under God was to serve his white Master with all reverence and respect, as “under God.” It took over 600,000 Americans on both sides of the conflict to prove just how wrong the Southern pastor’s positions actually were.
The many gruesome stories I heard of the redman’s savagery against the settlers did not endear me to their position or their cause. It was true that the white man committed atrocities against the Indians, and this oftentimes despicable behavior was never to be excused or condoned, at least in the way I viewed matters. I was from the school that taught that “two wrongs do not a right make,” but the means of torture that the Indians frequently employed against innocent and unarmed Quakers was enough to fan the fires of hatred in my soul.
I felt that hatred for anybody, whether directed toward a Southern slave owner or a redskin, should not find a permanent foothold in my heart. I grew weary from hating, and viewed firsthand what hatred and prejudice was capable of accomplishing. When the cowardly murderer Booth gunned down President Lincoln, I knew that I must give up my own strong feeling of bitterness and rage or I could be reduced to an act such as that. When I began fantasizing about putting a bullet through the skull of Jefferson Davis, I knew that I was being sucked down into the quicksand of hell.
Perhaps my parents were correct all along. If the entire world followed the philosophy and teachings of Jesus and “turned the other cheek,” there would be no need for such tools as the one I carried in my wooden case. It was all so confusing and convoluted.
One thing I wished to do more than anything else was to try and forgive. I am not a forgiving person by nature, and this undesirable trait of holding grudges against those who committed wrongs against me was something that, even in my youth, was a concern of my mother’s. She often admonished me to release my bitter feelings when someone offended me.
This worried her, but never caused me the slightest concern. As always, I dismissed her apprehensions as being nothing more than the guilt inducing feelings produced by the dogmas of her Quakerism.
One event occurred, though, that shook me to my core, and convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that my parent’s concerns were far more accurate than I could have ever imagined.
Billy Jackson was a southern sniper who had achieved great notoriety for his skill in the art of assassination. Credited with twenty-six verified kills, he was coarse and crude in his bragging, referring to his victims with disrespect and levity. His nickname was “One Shot,” for obvious reasons. I despised him, not because of his impressive record of kills, but because he was a braggart and such ilk were always despised in the company I ran with.
Colonel William Smith, in the battle at Antietam, approached me with a dispatch that stated that One Shot and two other sharpshooters were situated at a bend in the river, holed up in some of the mature sycamores that lined its shore. With deadly accuracy and precision, they were able to keep an entire company at bay, systematically picking off the men one by one until they had reduced the company’s numbers by 25%.
My assignment was to crawl, inch by inch, a distance of a least 150 yards until I was in position to take out all three of the men in the nesting places.
One Shot would certainly be easy to identify: he had a black eye patch over what used to be his left eye. On the plantation owned by his father in South Carolina, there had been an uprising among the slaves six months prior to the first shots fired on Fort Sumnter. Armed with knives, axes, clubs and other farm implements, the slaves had attacked those in the main house, killing two members of One Shot’s family. Hand to hand combat occurred in the house, and one of the slaves had pierced the eye of One Shot with a fireplace poker grabbed during the fighting. Seriously injured, One Shot, exemplifying the bravery and courage of so many Southerners, fought bravely on and helped to subdue the uprising. Seven blacks were killed outright, and fifteen more were hung the next morning from the trees lining the entranceway to the house.
They say that incident did something to the mind of One Shot, and he went crazy. After his recovery, he went on a rampage of murder, dismemberment and rape among the slaves on not only his father’s plantation, but on three of the other plantations in his county. Thrown into jail, he was released the very day the War began and took great delight in using his shooting skills to reduce the ranks of the Union. His hatred for the slaves that put out his eye and murdered his family members extended to anything or anyone that would support their cause, and since he viewed the Civil War as the Northerners pandering to the cause of the slaves, we were included in his acts of vengeance.
Though I was sympathetic to the loss of his eye and family members, I was disgusted and angered at how he handled the situation. My sympathies may have even extended to his acts of revenge against the perpetrators of the crimes themselves, but to murder innocent Negroes for the crimes of other Negroes was too much for me. What made him that much more odious was his gaiety over the crimes he committed, feeling no more sorrow for his murders and tortures than he would express over swatting a fly.
As so often happens, hatred breeds hatred. I detested One Shot, and wanted nothing more than to see him centered through the scope of my rifle. It was raining as I began my crawl to a position that would afford me an unobstructed view of the trees the three were holed up in. I was actually pleased as the thunder and lightning pounded and flashed all around me; it would only help to make my maneuvers that less noticeable.
I crawled at a snails pace all night, my rifle protected in an oilskin covering. The flashing of the lightning allowed me to keep my bearings, for I saw my position clearly illuminated in the frequent bursts of light. Exhausted but utterly determined by early sunrise, I gained my objective. Each subsequent movement undertaken in slow motion, to pulling my rifle out of its protective covering to positioning it on its tripod. I pulled pieces of brush over my equipment and myself to further conceal my position from being detected. I knew only too well of the superior view my opponents had high up in the trees a mere hundred and fifty yards away.
I scanned the trees with my binoculars but could not see where their locations were. I felt no anxiety at this–I was patient, confident that one of them would move unnecessarily, or make some other tactical error that would reveal their position. Three men increase the odds of mistake that only a single man would create. I did not have long to wait.
A sudden burst of quail from the trees to my left attracted my attention; there was the slightest movement near the middle of one of the largest trees, an unnatural shaking of the limbs. Peering intently through my binoculars, I trained my eyes on the spot. Suddenly, the sun rose from behind me, causing something to flash before me: a button on the jacket of one of the men caught the first morning rays to reflect off of it, and suddenly I clearly saw his outline.
Astounded, I saw that there was another man in the limbs just below him, sound asleep, his head resting on what appeared to be a rolled up article of clothing placed on top of his rifle. Perhaps this one’s movements in sleep caused the quail to rise and nosily flutter away, giving away their hidden position. And the third one? I could not see him anywhere in the near vicinity, and my locating his exact position was crucial to the success of my mission.
Where would I be, I thought, if I was part of this triad? Certainly the two together was a mystery, a tactical error. They were much too close to each other, and the combined smoke from their discharging rifles would draw attention to both of their positions, causing them to be easier targets. This mystified me, unable to understand any explanation for it.
I deduced that One Shot was the missing third sniper. The first soldier in the trees had no eye patch; the sleeping second one had his face hidden from me, but I could not imagine a skilled soldier like One Shot making this mistake of falling asleep in a tree. He had to be somewhere else.
An hour passed, then two. I never stopped scanning the trees, but was unable to locate him. The third hour passed, and the sun began to beat down on me. Sweat began rolling from my body, and my uniform was soon drenched. Still, I did not cease my observation, even when a line of small, black ants began crawling over my legs. They found a tear in my left pant leg and began crawling through it, stinging me. By this time the sleeping soldier was awake, and I clearly saw him rearranging the leaves and branches of the trees to conceal his position. Clearly, they did not see me, and I smiled at this.
Then I saw him. He began urinating, and that is what gave him away. High up in the tree to the left of the other men, about fifty yards away, I could see the splashing of his urine knocking the leaves aside as it trickled down the giant limbs of the sycamore. As he began to button up his pants, he turned his face towards me, and there was the patch over his left eye. His position was fully revealed, and he slowly began to reposition himself from his standing position.
I decided to take the once sleeping soldier out last, for certainly he was the least experienced. My first volley would take out One Shot, and then I would quickly reload, take out the first man I noticed, reload a second time, and then finish with the last sharpshooter. I knew my movements must be rapid, for after the first shot my position would be searched for as the other two scanned the horizon for the hidden location from the smoking gun, and I would then become the target of skilled marksmen.
The ants increased their biting, but they did not concern me; my concentration became focused and intent, and I blocked out the pain. As I lined up the black eye patch of One Shot in my scope, I changed my mind and centered on his right knee sticking out from a branch of the tree. It was then that an ugly emotion of revenge came over me, and I no longer desired to kill him quickly, but make him suffer in excruciating torment and agony with a well placed shot that would blow apart his knee cap.
Checking the positions one last time of each of the snipers, and placing my reloading equipment right near me, I put away the binoculars. One Shot was in the same position, and his knee came back into my scope. I held my breath, and became a living stone except for the slight movement of my trigger finger.
The shot burst forth and shattered the still morning air, instantly joined by a blood-curdling scream. I reloaded in seconds, brought the scope back to my eye, and found the head of my second target. A second roar, but this time it was not followed by the scream of a wounded man. Again I reloaded, rolled to a new position, and brought the scope up a third time. As I thought, my last target was taken completely by surprise, a look of disbelief on his ashen face. So sudden had the attack come that the man who would be my final target simply cowered behind the tree, a look of fear etched on his face. As he peered out from behind the tree, his face was hidden from me. I lined up the middle of his chest in my scope and fired my rifle for the last time that day.
Slowly I rose, going into a long and protracted stretch as my limbs screamed for relief from their forced positions. I brushed the ants from my body and dropped my pants; the ants had left huge welts up and down my legs and in my crotch area. For the first time I felt the pain from their stings, and poured water from my canteen over the burning. I redressed, gathered my equipment, and slowly walked to the trees.
One Shot was whimpering in agony, for my shot not only blasted out his kneecap, but his subsequent fall from high in the tree had broken his other leg, leaving it twisted at a crazy angle. He fell twenty-five feet before landing trapped, upside down, in the v of two large limbs only five feet from above the ground. I walked to the other trees from where the other soldiers were. The first man was still high up in the tree, lying across a branch that he had wedged himself in. Blood dripped from his mortal head wound, his rifle fallen on the thick carpet of leaves below.
The third sniper was on the ground, having been blasted completely out of the tree. He too, was dead, shot directly through the heart. His eyes were still open. I kicked him over on his stomach with my boot, not wanting to look at the unseeing, staring eyes.
I lit a cigarette, and walked back to One Shot. “Help me, for the love of God!” he begged, clutching his knee with both hands. I leaned against the massive trunk of the tree, inhaling deeply on the cigarette. I noticed the slight shaking of my hand, and thrust the other deep into my pocket. I played with some change I had there, absentmindedly tumbling them over and over in my hand, watching One Shot writhe in agony on the limb.
“You killed my best friend two days ago” I said, my voice impassive and devoid of emotion. “It’s said that you never helped anybody you tortured before you murdered them.”
His one eye filled with fear as he watched me slowly pull my bayonet out of its scabbard. Slowly, methodically, I attached it on the end of my rifle.
“I also understand that you laughed whenever anyone begged for mercy,” I added. “Pity you find yourself in the position of needing some now.”
Blood was gushing from the blasted knee, and his hands were dripping as they remained clutched around it. I finished my cigarette, walked over to him, and thrust my bayonet through his other eye. His screams echoed up and down the river, and when I wrenched the bayonet out of his socket I took my hunting knife, grabbed him by the hair, lifted his head up and slit his throat. I left him hanging there, leaned back against the tree, and lit another cigarette in the sudden silence of the glade. After finishing my second cigarette in less than five minutes, I walked to the riverbank, cleaned One Shot’s blood from off my bayonet and my hunting knife, returned to pack up my equipment, and began the walk back to my company.
This incident still haunts me, for my conduct toward One Shot clearly revealed to me of an evil side to my nature that I had not realized. I shudder to think of the reality of this aspect of my inner man, and now realize what my parent’s saw of their son during the many years of my childhood. Though I have never told anyone of this incident, I am certain that I would have been court-martialed and imprisoned over my behavior if the facts were ever known.
My need for solitude only increased, and great was my yearning to be with my parent’s in South Dakota. After a journey of over two months, I arrived in the town of Twin Forks, a small settlement fifteen miles from my parent’s farm. Dirty, tired, needing a bath and shave, I checked into the small hotel to freshen up for a night before I continued, alone on horseback, to reunite with my parents.
When I wrote my name down on the guest list, the young man behind the counter gave me a puzzled expression. “Are you in any way related to Mr. and Mrs. John Sheldon, the Quaker missionaries?” he asked.
“Yes,” I smiled, “they’re my parents. I just arrived with the wagon train from back East, and I need a room for the night before I set out early tomorrow morning to meet them. I haven’t seen them for almost four years. They know I’m coming, but not the exact day of my arrival. I hope to surprise them when I see them tomorrow.”
He looked like he was about to get sick. His face turned white, and he took a step back; I thought he was sure to faint.
“Then you haven’t heard….you don’t know what happened….” His voice trailed off, and I was struck with a nameless fear.
“Tell me what you mean, sir…immediately!” I sounded threatening, my voice rising, and began to lean over the counter, knowing that a new, dark chapter was about to begin in my life.
“Please, come with me. I’ll walk you to the Sheriff’s office…he will tell you the details. I’m so sorry that you were not contacted.” He came around the counter, took my elbow, and called to one of the other girls working nearby to manage the front desk. In a daze he led me across the street to the Sheriff’s office. We burst in together, and so rapid and unexpected was our entrance that the man sitting behind the desk jumped up, startled, and reached for the pistol hung from his waist.
“Sheriff,” said the hotel clerk, “this is Tom Sheldon, the Quaker’s son. He just arrived in town, and has not heard about what happened to his parents!”
The Sheriff, a gruff looking character in his fifties, sat back down in his chair and pointing to another across from him, offered it to me.
“Sit down, son. I have terrible news,” he said, gravely.
Like one in a dream, I obeyed, slumping against the hard-backed oak chair. His gruff expression softened, and his voice became quiet.
“Three weeks ago the farms around Twin Forks were raided by the Lakota Sioux. They massacred over fourteen families. Your parents and your brother and sisters were all killed. The farm was torched….everything is gone. We buried them together in the town cemetery. I’m sorry.”
His voice sounded far away, as if he was whispering from the end of a vast, empty room. I felt as if I was spinning around and around the perimeter of it, rotating faster and faster and faster. I broke out in a cold sweat, and began mumbling words that I myself could not comprehend. All at once I felt my feet carrying me out the door, back in the direction of the hotel room, where I stumbled through the door, followed by the hotel clerk who had just led me to the Sheriff’s not more than five minutes before.
“Here,” he said, “let me show you to your room,” and he picked up my wooden case and I followed him up a flight of narrow stairs. Still in a daze, I found myself standing alone in a sparsely furnished but comfortable room, the case carefully placed against one wall of the small living area.
The soft click of the shutting door brought me back to my senses, and I stared blankly the decorated wood panels. “Murdered,” I said, shuttering at the sound of my own voice. “All of them….gone.” Wearily, I slowly sat down on the edge of the bed.
My eyes rested on the wooden box lying on the floor. I stood back up, shuffled over to it, and place it gently on the bed. Unlatching it, I saw the scoped rifle gleaming up at me in the fading light of this nightmarish day.
“One more time,” I heard myself say, and collapsed on the bed, falling into a tortured sleep filled with ghoulish dreams.
* * * * * * * *
My first stop the next morning was to the small cemetery at the south edge of Twin Forks to pay my last respects. I stood before the five small crosses that marked the final resting-place of my parent’s, my two sisters, and my younger brother. For a long time I stood there, silently weeping, and the prairie wind whistling through the tall only trees added to the mournfulness of the site.
Returning to the town, I went back to speak with the Sheriff, finding him in the same position as when I first met him yesterday. I sat in the same chair opposite him, and after exchanging hellos, spoke my mind.
“Sheriff, I need you be straightforward and up front with me. Tell me again who killed my family, how they did it, and why.”
He stared at me for several minutes without moving, pulled his boots from off of the table, and his chair closer, and began:
“Five years ago Twin Forks, being on the Oregon Trail, started becoming a popular stopping off place for settlers on their way West. Most just rested here for a night or two, stocked up on provisions, and then took their leave, continuing on their journeys. Some like what they saw here, that the townspeople were friendly, and decided to stay and plant roots.
“Most began farming, others started businesses, and some just hired on where ever they was needed. My deputy is one of them that I hired on just nine months ago, fresh off the wagon trail. I needed help and he needed a job. It just kinda worked out that way.
“The more people came, the more land was needed to support them. Naturally, folks wanted good land, and soon all the best that was around the town was taken, so they started going farther and farther out.
“The problem was, the Indians didn’t take too kindly to the idea of the white man permanently settling on land they considered sacred. Indians don’t agree with our notion of ownership, not believing anybody can rightly claim that the land can be someone’s to own, buy, or sell. Fencing off property is a crazy notion to them, and they consider it an insult if someone tries to keep them off of something they always felt was nobody’s right to claim in the first place.
“Things started getting downright ugly two years ago when the land just west and north of the town began to get crowded with people ranching and farming. It got to the point where the Lakota Sioux, wanting to relocate to better hunting grounds for the winter began moving east, right smack into the newly fenced areas that seemed to spring up almost overnight.
“Clancy Jones runs a large herd of cattle and farms quite a bit of land, too. Him and his brothers, along with fifteen other families from out of the Alabama area, traveled together here and homesteaded many square miles of the land that the Sioux used as a pass through on the way to their winter hunting grounds.
“Coming across Clancy’s fences did not cause the Indians to want to become good neighbors, and they tore down several miles of it, allowing hundreds of head of cattle to escape from one part of the range into the other. They then trampled Clancy’s crops in the other fields, ruining acres of crop that was ripe for harvest.
“Clancy was furious, and he and a group of the ranch hands rode out to survey the damage. They found two of the braves cutting up a steer that they had just killed, one of Clancy’s prize head, putting the pieces of meat on the back’s of their horses to take back to the village. Enraged, Clancy shot and killed them both. This was the start of a war between the Lakota Sioux seeking revenge and the settlers trying to protect their families and livelihoods.
“Your mom and dad, running their own small farm, was in the unfortunate position of being right in the middle of all these problems. The Indians had to pass directly through their land to reach their winter hunting grounds, and after the killing done by Clancy, they went looking for revenge.
“A band of about seventy-five armed warriors, led by their chief Running Deer, made a surprise attack on the settlements. It was over in three days, with all the people butchered: men, women and children. They never had a chance.”
At this point the Sheriff paused, looked at the floor, and when he began again his voice was husky:
“They scalped everyone. Raped the woman. Tortured the men. They set every building on fire, leaving nothing standing. It was the most horrible and brutal sight I have ever seen in my fifty-one years.”
Again he stopped, eyes staring blankly at the floor, folding and unfolding his hands. I felt myself again falling into a fog, my mind numbed by the vision of my family being scalped by blood-thirsty savages bent on revenge.
“They caught Tom Clancy, tied him alive, behind his horse, and dragged him naked through miles of scrub brush. They dumped his body, or what was left of it, just outside his burnt down farm. He had no skin left on his body anywhere, his face worn off to a bloody pulp. God, it was awful…
“We immediately formed a posse to go after them, but lost their trail forty miles north of here. They disappeared into the mountains, not leaving a trace. We have an idea where they might be, but no one knows those hills well enough to be able to pin them down. Those Indians have traveled in those mountains for hundreds of years and know every rock, cranny and cave to hide behind or in. We just couldn’t find them and had to come back. That’s where we stand for now…I’m sorry that we haven’t been able to bring to justice those responsible for butchering your family. But I want you to know we tried our best.”
“What about federal troops helping out in the search?” I asked. “Have you contacted anyone in the government about this?”
“Yes, I have. But you know as well as I do that the country is just plain tired of fighting. Sure they’re concerned, but the timing is all wrong. Maybe in a couple of months I can ask again for some help…”
A couple of months and all of this would be forgotten by everyone except the mourning family members left to try and make sense out of something senseless and evil.
I got up to leave; there was obviously nothing left to say, and I had heard enough anyway. I had my own plans forming of what I knew I must do, and time was wasting away.
“Thanks for the information, Sheriff, and your kindness in burying my family. I’ll be taking my leave now…good day.” I turned to leave, tipping my hat as I went, but his voice stopped me.
“One last thing before you go,” and he pulled open a drawer on the side of this desk. “Your mom and dad had some money in the town bank, and I know they would want you to have it.”
He held an envelope in his outstretched hand. I remained standing rooted to the spot, unable to reach out and receive what he wanted me to take. To this day I can’t understand my hesitation, and it was the understanding voice of the Sheriff that broke the strange spell that had somehow caused me to turn into a living statue.
“Go ahead, son, take it. Your parent’s talked highly of you all the time, and were damn proud of you. This is something that I know they would want you to have.”
In slow motion I extended my hand to gingerly take hold of the envelope. When I touched it the spell was broken and I quickly put it in my vest pocket.
“Thank-you,” I said, again tipped my hat, and walked out into the dusty, dry main street of a town that I suddenly no longer felt a desire to be in. I walked back to my hotel room and opened the envelope. Inside was a bank statement that read that my parent’s had $425.18 in an account that was now legally mine. For a long time I stared at it, realizing that what I held in my hands was a downpayment that would carry me through what I hoped would be enough time to avenge the lives of my family.
I left the money untouched; I had enough from my three years enlistment to carry me through for the next six months.
At the general store I purchased all necessary items needed to allow me to remain self-sufficient for a period of three months on the plains of South Dakota. Since the Sheriff informed me that no one was able to track down the Sioux that had murdered so many people, I determined that I would be the one. I would spend how ever long necessary to track and document the movements and wanderings of the Lakota Sioux, and when I was confident I could accurately predict where they would go next, I would implement the final portion of my plan for revenge. The years in the military had toughened me for the task ahead, and I felt particularly qualified to undertake such an expedition. I felt at home in the wilderness anyway, so I did not believe that it would be a burden in the slightest.
So it was for the next two and one half years. I lived as a scout in the territories and mountains surrounding Twin Forks, mapping out the trails I found as I tracked each of the movements of the Sioux tribe. I was a ghost, seeing many but seen by no one, speaking no words except what I needed to speak when I went back to Twin Forks to get needed provisions. At the end of my two and a half year’s, I was ready for my final assault against the murderer’s of my family.
My money had run out almost two years ago, and I had been slowly dipping into the money that my parent’s had left. I was extremely frugal and careful with it, not willing to spend one cent of it unless it was absolutely necessary for the success of my mission. My largest expense was the purchase of five, thirty pound barrels of gunpowder that I had to order three months in advance at the Twin Forks General Store, along with a barrel of gun grease. These items, along with the others that I purchased, I placed on a wagon and began my final trek to the mountains due east of the farm that my parent’s once worked.
I traveled three and a half weeks to a spot that I had come to know as intimately as any place I have ever known: a clearing in the mountains that was used by the Lakota Sioux as their spring hunting grounds. Here, all the members of the hunting party would spend the next two months hunting for the game that would help feed the tribe for the next season. I had watched them for the last two Spring seasons as they came to this exact spot, studied their every movement, watched them through my binoculars for countless hours until my eyes ached with the strain.
The spot for their camp was ideal for the Indians needs. A stream ran to the north of it, providing them fresh fish, which they caught and smoked by the thousands. The camp itself was in an isolated clearing that was bordered on all sides by tall mountains and hills, and in the center of the clearing, exactly two hundred and thirty-three square yards, the Indians made their camp.
I knew every square foot of the area. I had measured exactly the necessary dimensions of the center of the camp to the wooded line of trees that were situated northwest of the camp. It was in these woods that I had meticulously made my nesting site, thirty feet up a giant pine tree that looked over the plain below. From my vantagepoint high up in this tree, I was a distance of seven hundred and sixty five yards from the center of the camp, able to see each and every corner of the camp that the Indians would soon return to.
There were five huge poplar trees around the perimeter of the campsite that the Indians would set up their teepees around. They would be shrouded in new growth of leaves by the time they arrived, and it was in them that I placed my five casks of gunpowder. In anticipation of the soon coming spring rains, I carefully covered each of them in the gun grease – I could not risk them being ruined by the water.
With the greatest of care I secured them at various heights in the trees, carefully pruning and cutting away any branches that would interfere with their proper exploding capacities. This pruning was undertaken with the greatest of care and expertise, for the barrels would have to remain concealed and camouflaged from the sharp eyes of the lookouts that would roam the site.
I spent several days dipping leaves from the poplar trees in paraffin wax, then attaching them in various places on the greased barrels. The leaves, encased in the wax, would keep their color for several days, perhaps even weeks, and this ruse would be crucial in help concealing the barrels form the eyes of the Indians.
I spent several weeks in my careful preparation. After placing and securing the powder barrels in their positions in the trees and affixing the leaves, I walked around the site, coming back time and time again to add a leaf here, a leaf there, adjusting branches, until I was completely satisfied that the barrels were completely hidden from the views of anyone on the ground.
It was with the same care that I set up my nesting site, taking me six full days of rearranging branches and cutting down smaller trees that interfered with my line of sight. I trained my binoculars on each of the camouflaged barrels in the trees, for so well hidden were they I had to study their location from my place in the pine until I could find them.
With my hunting knife I chipped and carved out three holes in the tree for the three legs of my tripod to securely rest in, then placed my rifle on top of the tripod. Removing the protective lens cap from off both ends of the scope, I peered through it and lined up the crosshairs on each of the hidden barrels, making sure that I could quickly and easily find each of them within several seconds of sweeping from one to the next.
“You are like a brother to me,” I said to the rifle, caressing its smooth walnut stock and feeling where each of the nicks and dents were from the wear and tear of the many battles we had fought in together. I worked its liquid smooth bolt action, and peered for perhaps the hundredth time down the spotlessly clean and oiled barrel. I dry-fired it, making certain that the trigger action was as smooth and perfect as it had always been. The muffled click of the firing pin setting pleased me, a familiar and contented sound. “And now you will be my avenger.”
Finally, all was ready, and I waited patiently for the return of the Sioux hunting party that I knew would soon come. I did not have long to wait; five days after completing all preparations, they arrived.
We are all creatures of habit, and the redman is no exception. They set up their camp virtually the same this season as they had the prior two, the chief’s being in the center with the braves surrounding his. I was pleased to see that his teepee was placed about three feet nearer the large poplar tree as it had been placed in the seasons before, which would only bring him closer to the exploding inferno.
It took two days for the party to completely set up their camp, and it was with some anxiety that I watched from my position in the tree. Though I was confident that they would never notice the barrels perched in the trees above their heads, one could never know for sure. If they did find them before the camp was in the exact position that I wished them to be, I would have to prematurely carry out my plan.
There was a moment when I thought that my carefully made and concealed plans might have been discovered. The Indian, as a race of people accustomed to living in the outdoors, has developed their senses in a way that supercedes that of the white man. One of the ways that this is manifested is in their heightened sense of smell, and I had observed them strangely sniffing the air on many occasions, particularly before a hunt, similar to the way a squirrel will test the air by inhaling and twitching its tiny nostrils for the presence of enemies.
Soon after Running Deer and his braves arrived in the camp, and as they were setting up their teepees, Running Deer, who had been sitting cross-legged in front of a warming fire made against the chill of the mountain air and directing the activities of the camp, suddenly stood up and walked away from the smoke of the fire and out to the clearing around the trees. He began sniffing, turning one way and then the other, and at one time got on his hands and knees and began smelling the ground, picking up a handful of dirt and allowing the soil to run through his aged fingers near his nose. His eyebrows knit together, a confused look coming into his face.
My heart raced as he approached one of the trees with the barrels suspended in it, continually sniffing as he slowly walked closer and closer to its massive trunk. He again got down on his knees and peered closely at the soil, making a slow circuit around the base, picking up handfuls of soil and again sniffing it. He began to examine and smell the trunk, running his fingers slowly around its circumference.
It was then that I realized I should have been far more careful when I climbed the trees, for I remembered my boot slipping on one of the trunks as I made my climb, knocking off a small portion of the bark and leaving a telltale yellow mark where the bark had been attached. I could not remember exactly what tree it had been, or if it was the one Running Deer was now examining. At the time when I knocked the bark off, I had noticed the yellow mark but had paid little attention to it at the time, never imagining that such a small blemish would have the possibility of being so carefully scrutinized.
It was obvious that Running Deer’s eyesight was failing him in his advancing years, which was no doubt the reason he put his face so close to the trunk of the tree as he was examining it. When he started to look up the trunk of the tree into the branches above, it was then that I began silently loading my rifle and lining up the crosshairs of the scope on the barrel camouflaged in the branches above the graying head of Running Deer.
I had made certain that even the sharp eyes of a young brave would not be able to discern the outline of the barrels in the trees, and was now counting on the failing eyesight of the great Chief to not be able to pick them out. In any case, I was making preparations to prematurely carry out my plan, if necessary.
I silently cursed, for if indeed I would have to enact my plan, the possibilities of total success would be greatly diminished. The braves were scattered and not grouped together as I planned on having them be when I hoped to execute my plan, and there were many braves yet on their horses riding around. Surely my hoped for plan of escape would be severely compromised, and I the odds of my being captured were greatly increased.
One of the youngest of the braves approached Running Deer with what appeared to be a small rabbit skewered on a stick in his one hand and a drinking gourd in his other. He spoke something to the Chief, and the old man turned to him with a smile, taking the food and the gourd out of his hands. They walked back together to the fire, where Running Deer again sat down in the place he had previously occupied and began to eat his meal.
I slowly let out a deep sigh of relief. It appeared that, for now, the secrets hidden in the trees were to remain that way, but I lived in constant anxiety with the knowledge that Running Deer was suspecting something to be out of place. Perhaps in the excitement of the days ahead, his concerns would be forgotten in the multitude of events.
Finally, four days after their arrival, the time had come for me to carry out the final plan for avenging the memories of my family. The Sioux had been out hunting for a second day, and I knew that they would be crowding around their teepees to cook and clean the day’s kills as the sun began to set. There would be a small window of time when all of them would gather around the fires, to talk and laugh of the day’s success, and to sit down and eat. Then, the night sentries would be posted, and I would lose my opportunity of killing each and every one of them if I did not time my attack perfectly.
Sundown was coming, and in this mountain range complete darkness came rapidly. I would have to carry out my plan with enough daylight remaining so that I could climb down out of the tree and be on the trail before darkness enveloped me, hindering my timely retreat.
I heard laughing and singing, and peering through my binoculars I saw that the time was upon me. Running Deer, the ringleader of my family’s massacre, was surrounded by his braves and a look of utter contentment and pride was on his aged, vile face. My hatred for him and his kind grew the more I studied and followed them over these past three years.
I brought my cheek next to the stock of my sniper rifle and looked through the scope to the first barrel seven hundred and fifty five yards away, centering the crosshairs on its middle. I held my breath as I slowly pulled the trigger toward me in a practiced squeeze. An instant later a huge ball of flame shot through the trees, and a second later I heard and felt the concussion of the exploding barrel. Screams of terror, fear and pain filled the valley. I reloaded, then lined up the crosshairs on the second barrel. Again the rifle kicked against my shoulder; a second ball of flame lit up the darkening sky. A third and then a fourth explosion followed this, as the second barrel detonated the ones to its right and left. Finally, I brought my rifle around to the final barrel, and was disappointed – there was too much smoke to see the final tree, and I had to be content with what I had all ready been able to accomplish.
The light was fading quickly, and I knew that I had only minutes to get out of my position and down to my horse that was saddled and waiting for me two hundred yards down the mountain path. With rapid motions I yanked the rifle out of the tripod and pulled the legs of the tripod out of the notches in the tree, collapsing the legs together and gathering it with my rifle, but my trembling fingers slowed my movements. Just before grabbing the rope that I would use as my ladder down the tree, the final barrel exploded. I peered for the last time through my binoculars at the carnage I knew waited below me. The terrified sounds from the horses corralled just outside the camp startled me, and with a tremendous crash they broke their tethers and galloped away. One of the sentries was running toward the center of the camp, but the intense heat from the flames of the fiery camp pushed him back. Another joined him from the other side, and they stood as human statues, unmoving and dumbfounded. Pieces of bodies were everywhere—heads, arms, legs, torsos—and the moans and pitiful screams of the wounded and dying reached clearly to where I was sitting.
Nothing was left of the camp, leveled by the explosions. Only two of the five trees were left standing, and they were both engulfed in flames, as if they were torches to enable me to see what my vengeance looked like in the deepening gloom. Out of the 175 braves that came to the camp five days ago, I could only see two that were left standing. Their lives I spared only so that they could return to the waiting tribe and tell them of their horrible fate.
I slid down the rope, not worrying about noise. None would be noticed, and I carefully made my way to my frightened horse. I slowly mounted him and he gingerly made his way down the trail that in less than five minutes would be illuminated only by the full moon, and as I turned one last time back to the tree line I had just left, I could see the red glow from the burning camp. A weariness such as I had never felt before came over me, and I laid my head across the back of the neck of my horse and fell asleep.
Twelve days later I returned to the cemetery where I laid flowers on each of my family’s gravesites. I stood again, weeping, but without the feeling of helplessness and rage as before. Though no act of righteous revenge could return my family members to me, I had the satisfaction of knowing I had avenged their blood.
Before I left, knowing I would leave South Dakota forever and return to my native Pennsylvania, I buried my rifle in the soil that covered the wooden casket of my father. Perhaps now, I thought, the peace that I had yearned and searched for could now be mine.