Indian Territory – Oklahoma – 1880
The fact that he was a former slave was obvious because he was a black man of a certain age, but his clothes and his manner also marked him for a beggar and a thief on the run from the law, or at least that’s what it seemed.
Most folks thought they were safe from the law in Indian Territory. The region that would one day be known as Oklahoma was ruled by five tribes, the Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw, all forced from their ancestral homelands because of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The tribes governed through their own courts but only had authority over themselves. That meant anyone not of the tribes, from a scalawag to a murderer, could only be pursued by Federal officers and not local law enforcement once they crossed into Indian Territory.
The beggarman had walked twenty some miles that day and he had another ten to go. He ate some of the hardtack and jerky he carried in a ratty looking burlap sack while he watched the small fire burn in front of him. He’d brought a blanket to guard against the cold as he slept on the grasslands of the high plains, but that was all the belongings a man could see. None of that bothered him including being approached silently from behind.
“I know you’re there. That you, Hachi?” The beggar spoke a tongue you wouldn’t expect from him.
“It’s me. Can I share your fire?” The Seminole responded in the same language which he had learned as a child, the language of his people.
“Sure. Figured someone would want to find out who was crossing Indian Land.”
“You know we’ve been tracking you all day.”
“Wouldn’t expect nothing else. Want some hardtack?”
“No. Keep your food. You’ll probably need it. What are you doing here?” Those white folks hold up in that cabin ten miles west?”
“It be them. Wanted men.”
“None of our business, then.”
“Agreed. How’s your kin?”
“Well. We still talk about you around the fire.”
“I talk of you to my wife and younguns, too.”
“Thanks for sharing your fire, Bass. Good luck.”
“Thanks, Hachi. Expect I’ll need a bit.”
The black man sat stoically finishing his meager rations as the Seminole stood and vanished into the night.
The next day along about noon, Buck Lucas was chopping more wood for the fire when he looked up and saw a figure in the distance. “Ma! Ma! Stranger coming.”
“I ain’t blind, Buck.” Mary Ellen Lucas was sweeping the dirt out the door of their cabin and was looking in the same direction.
“What you expect he wants?”
“Why don’t you ask him when he gets here, ya lunkhead? He’s walking straight for us.”
Mary Ellen blamed her runoff husband Martin for having sired two such dumb brutes like Buck and Turner but they were all she had. No account robbers and horse thieves, they’d lost what they done took when they had to run from the law into Injun Territory. The Injuns didn’t bother her and she didn’t bother them and that was what’s right, even now that she had to hide out her boys.
“What’s all the yelling for?” Turner came up from out back holding a shotgun in one hand and two hares in the other. “Got supper, Ma.”
“We got company, Turner. You clean them critters outside, ya hear? I ain’t gonna be having no rabbit blood and guts inside and all.”
Turner put aside the game and kept his shotgun handy just in case, though one nigger wouldn’t be nothing against both him and Buck.
“Afternoon, Ma’am, Sirs. I be Bass Reeves, a beggarman. I just passing through and thought I might ask for a bit of food and water.”
“You be honest with us, Reeves.” Ma Lucas didn’t truck with no liars though she and her boys had been known to tell more than a few. “You be running from the law?”
“Yes, Ma’am. They say I done stole some food from a white man’s store. I didn’t. I only took the gleanings from a farmer’s field, but they said they was gonna wup me and lock me up anyway. I done run off from the law and that’s the truth.”
“Well, we don’t cotton to the law either, Reeves. You want, you can bunk in our place. I’m Mrs. Lucas. These are my boys, Buck and Turner.”
“Thank you. Thank you kindly, Ma’am. I be most grateful.”
Bass Reeves was all too well acquainted with Buck and Turner Lucas if only by reputation and their wanted posters.
The Lucas clan were generous to strangers and freely shared their meal and their cabin. Reeves pulled his share of the weight, chopping wood, skinning the gutting the fresh game, and such. The wood stove kept their small one-room cabin warm against the cold of the prairie. Ma had kept some whiskey in the cupboard for such nights and they all had a share, though no one noticed Reeves only held the cup to his lips and didn’t drink more than a drop or two.
Come dawn, Ma Bass woke up to the sound of her boys both caterwauling.
“What the hell you carrying on for, boys?”
It took her a minute to clear her eyes and make sure the bizarre scene in front of her wasn’t a dream. There they were, both her sons in handcuffs and the beggar Bass Reeves holding Turner’s shotgun on them.
You, Reeves! What you be doing? We was hospitable and all.”
“Apologizes Ma’am, but your boys are wanted by the law and I came here to fetch ’em.”
“The law? You the law?”
“Yes, Ma’am. Deputy U.S. Marshall. I aim to take your boys in. You best not try to stop me or it’ll go bad or one or both of them.
“Ma! Ma! You can’t let him take us.” Buck had always been a whiner.
“You, shut up. We got a long walk ahead and I want to start early.”
“Walk?” Turner tried to turn his head and got a kick in the back of his leg for his troubles.
“We’re walking out of here, boys. Door’s already open. Get going. Only thirty miles until we leave Indian Territory. You two are young. You can walk thirty miles in a day, can’t you? Now march!”
Some hours later, Deputy U.S. Marshall Bass Reeves was walking behind his two handcuffed prisoners as Hachi and six other men watched from a low bluff to the South. This time, his friend wouldn’t be paying the law man a visit. Bass Reeves was a person who asked for help only when he needed it, and they all knew from his time living with them when he was an escaped slave, those occasions were few.
This morning on Facebook, I happened across an article called Was the Real Lone Ranger a Black Man? written by Thad Morgan at History.com. It tells the tale of the real Bass Reeves, born as a slave in Arkansas in 1838 who during the Civil War escaped to Indian Territory.
While living there, he learned the landscape and customs of the tribes and even the languages of the Seminole and Creek. After the 13th Amendment was passed and he became a free man, he returned to Arkansas, married, and had eleven children. Because of his familiarity with Indian Territory and his proficiency with firearms, he was recruited by U.S. Marshall James Fagan and became the first African-American U.S. Marshall west of the Mississippi.
I based my tale very loosely on one of Mr. Reeves’ exploits, though the names (except Reeves’) and dialogue is totally fictional.
You can read all about his fascinating life and career by clicking on the link I provided above.
Oh, this is my first “Western” story. What do you think?