THE EXCITEMENT

Chapter 6

THE POWERS THAT BE  (Part 2)

Proverbs 13:20

He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.

“Three Kings Ace high.”

Thomas Opson exhaled deeply after he showed it.  It was an exhaustive breath that revealed just how much he had riding on this bet.  His moist, nervous hands were still shaking, but he hid them well. This was all of his money.  This was everything he had.  He was so far into debt now, from losing at this poker game, that on this particular hand, on this particular night, he had gone the fool’s distance to try and win it all back at once.  He bet the Deed to the family farm on one strong hand.  Thomas knew that by bringing this Deed, the key to the memory of all his mother and father once held dear, it could end up in the middle of Howard Claiborne’s table.  He didn’t care.  He still had to bring it.  He couldn’t help himself.  He could raise no more scratch, after all.  He could sell nothing else because there was nothing left to sell.  But he was alright, he told himself, as he downed another shot of rye and gritted his teeth.  He was just stringing these derelict old men along.  He only needed his money and his title to hold out a little longer until the cards could come back around to him.  He knew they were coming, he could feel it, and now, with this hand, they had finally found their way back.  This hand of cards was the one that he had been waiting for.  He had to bet the farm to see it, but it would all be worth it in the end.  These three kings would save his Deed and his life and he could go back home with his dignity and a pocketful of power.

The weekly game looked impressive now.  It always took on a more sanctified meaning when a man’s life was hanging in the balance. The other men sitting at the table had been waiting on Opson to play this particular hand for a long time, too, and they very much enjoyed the moment.

Opson’s long lost Deed to his long forgotten home was now a very valuable piece of paper sitting propped up on a mountain of cash, coin, and slave gold all within the reach of Howard Claiborne.  He wasn’t about to let it get away.  Claiborne had worked too long and too hard, he had invested too much time and too much money, to lose this prize now.  It capped, nicely, the remainder of everything young Thomas Opson owned.  More importantly to Claiborne, it was all of his daddy’s holdings, as well.

The farm had become bare and impoverished under Opson’s care and it was a shell of it’s former, “Major and Anna Opson,” grandeur but Thomas cared nothing of that past pomp.  He never did.  He didn’t have to work for it or pay for it so why should he care for it.  It was just barter to him.

He only knew that another shot of rye and a winning hand was all that stood between him and a return to his well-deserved way of life.

This new life of Thomas Opson, the poor, working man’s life, was unlike any that he had ever known and he didn’t like it.  Living a life with nothing provided, living a life where nothing was made available to simply stuff into his pockets, was completely foreign to him.  It was beneath him not to have his desires planned and laid out for the day. His whole life had been a life of privilege.  No one ever told him no and if they did he would simply ask another.  He was given every advantage to succeed.  Business opportunities waited around every corner.  Even with this leg up, so to speak, he failed many times over. His mistakes would have sunk most men, but his father’s financial success sustained him through all of his poor decisions.  Failure upon failure was cloaked with the protection of living a charmed life.

But now, with the passing of time and foolish repetitiveness, things were different.  Opson could not bring in the revenue that he needed to sustain him.  He spent more than he made.  He outlived his inheritance.  He had to ask how much things cost.  It was just a matter of time before economics caught up with him.

Howard Claiborne knew this.  His eye had been on the Opson estate for a long time.

Thomas Opson no longer straddled the fiery black stallion that he was accustomed to riding.  His personal saddle and tack had been sold long ago to buy whiskey or to satisfy gambling debts.  Now, he rode a fair filly to the weekly Claiborne game.   She was a respectable nag, but she had nowhere near the status of a man’s horse.  King Gatlin sold him the filly for a less than decent amount.  Gatlin later said in private circles that he made up the difference in price with a full measure of satisfaction.

Only Amos Green was left of the slaves and he lived alone in the slave’s quarters.  This was his home.  He had nowhere else to go. There was no garden for him to tend, no potatoes to dig or store. There was no livestock to keep.  Amos stayed busy chopping wood, drawing water, and taking care of Thomas Opson.  He sold some of the wood he stacked up to keep himself in food.  Opson didn’t care.  All he needed was somebody to keep him from freezing to death in the winter.  Sometimes he drank too much but he wasn’t stupid. He was going to take care of himself and Amos Green was his protector.

Thomas Opson lived alone now in the main house, empty of furniture. It rang with hollow echoes whenever people inside of it spoke.  Except for him and Amos Green, no one else came to the Opson house.  That was fairly predictable.  Thomas Opson had no friends. None other, that is, than those he paid well for their time and even that money was running thin.  The stables remained empty since Olive Retterree-Smith was killed in them three years before.  The once, well-trimmed trails had grown up with a new brush and the ground had become thick with fallen tree branches and scattered rocks and occasional riders preferred to dodge them rather than clear them out of the way.

The idea of cleaning and clearing those trails or, for that matter, any part of that farm, was far from the mind of Thomas Opson right now.  Another shot of Howard Claiborne’s easy rye chased those images right out of his head.

On this long anticipated night of gambling, he had Howard Claiborne and his money right where he wanted them, square, in his sights.  The old man’s money was in that pot now and it was a life changer.  This big pay-off would be the end of all the bad times for Thomas Opson.  He promised himself that.  After this night, he would go back home with his Deed and his fortune.  All told, it was a $50,000 treasure laying on that table in front of him and he felt confident it would soon be his.

He almost couldn’t contain his smile.

Only he and Claiborne were left in the game.  The other three participants in the hand folded.  Their roles were complete.  Opson believed they thought he was bluffing and he snickered inside to think he had outsmarted them and forced them to throw in once they realized he wasn’t.  If Howard Claiborne could beat this hand he deserved to win it, he told himself, but that wasn’t going to happen. Not tonight.  He had worked too hard to get these witless players back into his sights.  He had them all in them, once, in those first few months of play.  Now, he finally found himself looking back down on them and Thomas liked the view from the top.  He picked up a solid hand, just in the nick of time, and it was sorely needed.  He drew a bead on all of them at the table but only Howard Claiborne remained.  Thomas closed in for the kill.  It was just like shooting birds, he thought.  Soon, he would collect his trappings and go home.

The weekly poker game at the Claiborne compound started out well for Thomas.  When he first began to attend the very private game he was a winner.  He won nearly $5,000 during play that first winter and he frolicked in the bouquet of new money.  He bought five new slaves and promptly sold them for a hefty profit.  He bought a pretty little filly and made a fine gift of it to a lady friend he desired in Cumberland City.  He began looking forward to taking Howard Claiborne and his rich friend’s money on a regular basis.  He fancied himself to be a sort of riverboat gambler.  He acted like it, anyway, with the fanciful airs he put on.  He bought the gambler hat and the gambler coat and vest and he sported them well.  He smoked a fine cigar in the role.

opsonbuyingslavesThen, as things usually go at another man’s table, Opson won a little and lost a little at the weekly game.  This went on for some time.  All along, he began to learn the ways of Howard Claiborne and his circle of men. These were the men who held the title of Dover.  Claiborne owned and operated the Dover Furnace and Judge Virgil Kaney was his right-hand man in Town. Dover Furnace Keeper Mathias Boswell was a stern taskmaster and severe administer of punishment against work-weary slaves but not much pumpkin at the poker table.  Thomas Opson thought they were all easy men to read.  He had, after all, taken $5,000 of their money before.  He had ridden those River Boats to Nashville.  He had seen how real riverboat gamblers worked a table.  He knew what he was doing, he said, and he continued to dangerously risk even more of his wealth looking for the big return.  Howard Claiborne appreciated this kind of unbridled recklessness and enjoyed having Opson at his table.

So now, for Thomas, after nearly two years at the game, things had taken a drastic turn for the worst.  Six months before he lost $5,000 in just one week.  Now, he was down a total of $20,000 and his daddy’s farm was on the line.  He really didn’t mean for it to get away from him like this.  He even lost his capital for trading flesh of any kind on the blocks in Town and there was no credit for Thomas in the poor house.

Opson drank more as his losing streak was extended and the rye helped him to forget just how deeply he had fallen into debt.  He didn’t know he hit the bottom until he found himself looking up out of the hole.  His daddy never prepared him for this view.  The view looking up with no one there to give you a hand was scary for Thomas.  He cursed his parents for that.

Howard Claiborne knew everyone at his table very well.  Thomas Opson was his mark and all sitting there knew it.  The game was on.  It might take two years to complete but the end was never in question.  It had been signed, sealed, and delivered long ago.

Claiborne led his mark along for a few months and let him taste a little gambling sweetness.  Part of the fun, Claiborne mused.  But it was a rigged game, after all.  Only the mark was unaware of the crookedness and it was only a matter of time before he was ruined or, to his credit, made his escape.  He could run or play, Howard Claiborne didn’t care which way the mark chose to go.  That specific seat at his table never suffered for the lack of a willing participant.

“Three Aces King high,”  Howard Claiborne apologized.  “What a hand,” he exclaimed, wiping his brow and face with a clean white handkerchief he pulled from his vest. “You had me worried Opson.  I thought you had a Full House.”

“You’ve got to be joking, Claiborne!”  Virgil Kaney proposed with a very surprised look on his face.  Virgil Kaney was but one stooge at the Howard Claiborne table of thieves.

“No, not joking.  I drew the third Ace.”  Claiborne provided as he looked across the table at his broken man.

Thomas Opson sat stunned and staring at the table.  The shaking in his hand that he was able to control before had now gotten away from him and he had to hold it down under his leg to keep it still.  He held his hand and heard only the sound of his heartbeat.  He didn’t know what to do. He had never been beaten this low before.  He didn’t know if he could get up from his chair and didn’t know where he would go if he did.  He felt sick.

Howard Claiborne was well aware of his latest victim’s feelings.  He had broken many men and Thomas Opson was just the most current.  He broke them all in typical fashion, mostly the same way, and even though he liked him, Thomas was no different, he reminded himself, he didn’t care who his daddy was.  He played him against his own greed.  He let him win a little, he strung him along.  It was Claiborne’s favorite way of destroying men. This way, he got to enjoy doing it.  It didn’t bother him so much that it was cheating when he could blame the loser’s ruination and destruction on his own greed.  In this way, it became fair sport to him.  Besides, these little men like Thomas Opson with their paltry, one farm holdings couldn’t break him.  Howard Claiborne was a Furnace Owner.  He knew of the power and money ten times more than what Thomas Opson understood.

“I’ll tell you what I will offer, Thomas, because I do like you,” Claiborne proposed as he picked up the Opson family deed in his hands and looked it over.  “I hope there are no ill feelings towards all of this.  To show you how bad I feel I will give you seven days from today to come up with the money to buy your farm back, no questions asked.  This farm is worth $15,000 dollars in its current shape.  Bring me the money within a week and you can have it back, Opson, no questions asked.  Otherwise, I’ll need to be getting in there to do a little cleanup and I would appreciate it if you could have all of your belongings out by then.  I understand you have one slave remaining on your property?”  Claiborne had already been surveying his pending acquisition.

“If you can’t come up with the money in seven days make sure the slave stays on the farm.” Howard Claiborne dismissed Opson with that and he was escorted outside to his filly. Opson had nothing left to offer Claiborne.  Why else would he remain in his house?

As he rode his filly out the gates of Howard Claiborne’s ranch Opson realized that he didn’t have any more rye in his coat pockets.  The Claiborne estate had just gotten more powerful and he was out of business in Stewart County in one week.  Thomas Opson was mad that he was out of rye and he was mad that he had lost all of his money but most of all he was mad because his daddy didn’t leave him more.

When he got home, he found one last half bottle of spirits in the house and he swigged it down with a desperate silence.  He sat not as a man contemplating his own demise or the fight back from it but more as of a rat cornered, looking for the bite that would set him free.  The last thing Thomas Opson remembered before he passed out, penniless and homeless, was the fact that he was finished as a man in Stewart County.  He was worth less than dirt.  At least the dirt had a value.  He would have to work now for a living and he would have to be keenly aware of the price of things lest he could not afford to buy them.  It terrified him to know that he was equal, or less than equal now, to everyone else.

Howard Claiborne made the trip to Town on Saturday morning with a zesty little hitch in his unholy step.  He had a new Deed to file away in his collection and that always put him in a satisfied frame of mind.  He and the Judge had a fine, made to order breakfast in their private booth at the Dover Cafe.

“Let’s go outside, Virgil, and smoke on these fine cee-gars.”  Howard Claiborne had concluded all of his business for the day.  That included paying old Virg’ $3,000 dollars for his part in the elaborate “game” that was used to fleece the ignorant Thomas Opson.

“He could have left when he was $5,000 dollars ahead, Howard.”  The Judge reminded Claiborne.  “They never do.  He sure was shaking.”

“Frankly, I would have thought more of him if he had left,”  Claiborne added.  “Of course, I would have gotten my money back somewhere.  You know that to be true, Judge.” Howard Claiborne laughed.  “I like that boy, though.  He is a ruthless sob.”

wagon2“Sir, how are you doing this morning? Good morning, Sir.  Is there a place nearby with fresh water where we can rest our livestock and where my family might take leave of our travels?  We’ve split from the wagon party to camp for a few days.”  The voice was directed at Claiborne and Kaney as they sat on the front porch of The Dover Cafe.  They looked to be the perfect people to ask observing, as they were, the Town and enjoying their tobacco.  The questions came from an inappropriately dressed pioneer sitting on a mule drawn wagon and next to a slender woman of strong heritage.  A younger daughter peeked through from between them at the old men on the porch.

The wagon was loaded to the top, front and back, with ware and tack and the iron hanging on it clanged, clattered and jangled with every turn of it’s wheels.  A yoke of oxen in the back and four mules in the front meant that this was a real family of settlers.  A fine Brown Derby Stallion with white socks was towing alongside.

“You got yourself a fine rig there, settler,” Claiborne admired the whole outfit.  He sized it up with a covetous heart before he even considered answering the question.  He was always looking for the next mark and a seat had just come open at his table.  “Where you folks, headed?”  Claiborne smiled on the inside thinking about how funny the foreign man sounded when he spoke.

“We’re going to St. Lou,” the pioneer woman chirped up.  “My husband here is a fine silversmith.  We are traveling from Savannah, Georgia to old St. Lou to set up a silversmith and leather shop.  From there, we’re going to send those gold seekers westward.  Yes, sir!  We’ll send those California dreamers across the frontier, yes we will, and they’ll have the finest silver and leather available to hold them on their trip.  My man is a fine silversmith.”

“Yes, I understand that,” the Judge ruled.

“I have some gold Dutch ingots that I would like to trade in at your bank, Sir.  If you offer that service,” the naive traveler revealed.

“Well, that won’t be till Monday now,”  Claiborne advised as he looked at his pocket watch. “Being in the wilderness as we are here, you understand that our exchange rate for Dutch slave gold will be a little higher than back in Clarksville.”

“We came through Dickson, friend.  And this is honest family money earned through honest silversmithing and trading,” the pioneer insisted.

“All right,”  Claiborne released a large puff of his cigar smoke off the railing of the porch. “Head down the river, that’s going North, out of Town and pretty soon you’ll come up on a string of farms.  Pick one out and see if they’ll let you tender your stock there for a while. You come on back Monday and we’ll see about trading in some of that Dutch gold.  I wouldn’t tell too many people about that, Missy.  This is rough country, you know.”

“We are God-fearing folks, Mister.  We trust in the Lord to see us through to good ‘ol St. Lou!  But, thank you, just the same.  Get on up, mules!  We’ll be back, Monday, Lord willing.”  The hopeful adventurer whipped the reins of the mules and they moved forward, North, down the river and out of town.

Opson woke up to the low, bellow grunting sounds of Oxen off his front porch and it irritated him.  He squinted through one eye and asked the ill-advised settlers if they knew what time it was?

“One-thirty, by my pocket watch,” the male settler answered.  “Sir, we are sorry to disturb you,” he added.  “We are seeking a place to tender our animals.  Would you be obliged to allow us to camp at your creek’s side?  We’ll need to stay and have access to water for our animals for three or four nights.  We’ll require nothing else other than a safe haven to use as our rest and fresh water for our barrels.  We can pay you in gold or silver or we can convert it to cash for our stay.  Can you help us, Sir?”  We are bound for old St. Lou!

Opson heard the pioneer mention gold, silver, and cash.  He spied the belongings of the family and thought it to be a fine way for someone to start out new.  They must have everything they needed, he gained, to start off fresh anywhere in the Country.

“You have a lot invested here, sir.  It’s a splendid way to travel.” Opson knew when to put on airs and he looked, at once, interested.  “You have a lot of iron on your wagon, Mister.  Your yoke is strong and your oxen are healthy.  You have good mules with fine tack.  Your load is simple, but it is very sturdy.  I am interested if you don’t mind my asking, in what you hope to find in St. Louis?  Do you have a trade?  I have recently had the interest to visit there,”  Opson lied with that last statement and, if he were telling the truth, it would be his last resort to escape to St. Louis.  Opson knew he stood out like a sore thumb in the city.  His money soon parted ways with him whenever he visited there.

The reality for Thomas Opson now was that he had no money and in six days he would have no farm.

“I am a silversmith.  I am a simple watch maker, a tinkerer.”  We hope to provide tack and silversmithing to all the wagoners heading west across the great frontier.  I will build my watches and create my silver in St. Lou as I sell leather to the pioneers.  Everything we have is here with us.  All of our hopes and the hopes of our children ride with us,” the simple man told.  “We have staked our future in the growth of this country.”

“You folks are more than welcome to stay here, on my farm.”  Opson offered.

He couldn’t see any reason for going any further west in this country.  According to Opson, it was all just wilderness out there.  He thought these people were fools.  He looked their holdings over closely.

“Just ease your animals and wagon up around that barn yonder about a half mile up the road until you come to the creek.  Anywhere up on the other side of that hill and alongside the creek is fine.  Set your camp up along in there.  I’ll come up after supper and we’ll discuss a small payment, for my troubles, if you don’t mind.  I may be interested in moving west, myself.  Maybe you could give me some advice. Maybe we could talk about it over a shot of rye if you are so inclined.”

“Well, maybe one,” the trusting outsider smiled.

Thomas Opson was at the end of his rope and all out of ideas.  He had nothing left to lose.  He knew a dark man who owed him a lot of money and at least one evil favor.  This man lived down a row of oak trees going west out of Town and Thomas would be calling on him now.  There was always one sure way to get ahead in the wilderness. It generally meant bloodshed but Thomas Opson was not above it. The survival of the fittest was all he knew.  He would need help.  Certain people knew that the man from down the oak tree row wasn’t afraid of blood.  He was known to spill blood for money.  Thomas would call in a long overdue favor and have to pay nothing for it.

Such are the deeds of unscrupulous men.  For them, in their evil ways, the only art is in not getting caught.  These two men had never come close to getting caught.

Thomas Opson’s history was dark.  The man from down the oak tree row was about to help make it darker.

The settler, the awkward pioneer, was a slightly bashful man.  He was well educated and it showed in his speech.  He wore a fancy shirt and it made him look out of place in the back woods of Tennessee and Kentucky.  He would probably not be well appreciated until he reached St. Louis.  Once there, he could congregate with men of his own skill, with men of his own knowledge and craft.  The scholarly voyager had studied hard his whole life and had invested well his Dutch inheritance.  He spent his entire youth and most of his adult life refining his talents and over time he became a master silversmith, a jeweler, and a precise watchmaker.  He was brilliant at working all of those crafts, but he was a fish out of water on a back washed creek in the Town with mean eyes.

dutchsterling jewelwatch jewelwatch1 jewelwatch2

His wife was the accountant.  She was the investor, the speculator, and the decision maker of the family.  On her insistence, they had taken the safer route to St. Louis and were now, with just a few days rest ahead of them, entering the final leg of their journey.  She was a proud and strong woman.  She was smart, too.  She had her family’s life ahead of her and she knew it.  Soon, she prayed, they would meet their destiny.

“Evelyn, you help mother gathering fire wood and I’ll set up a corral for the animals.  We’ll start a good fire here by this creek and settle in for a few days before we make our final push to St. Lou.  I like this area, Evelyn.  It’s very nice here by the rivers and hunting and fishing is plentiful, I am sure.  We must be sure to visit this way again if we are to send for your cousins after us.”  The unpolished pioneer roped his corral together and tended the livestock toward the water.

The young girl fired a howling straight and sharp arrow towards a dry heap of brush and sticks 30 steps away.  It found it’s target and sucked into the wooden branch’s side with a zip and a vibrating thud. Her bow was seasoned hickory made by the Cherokee tribe of Northeast Georgia and she could hit her mark at 30 paces with ease. She was never without her bow.

The ladies had become very efficient in building fires all along the trail to St. Lou.  They knew how to light off the chaff and straw from the sparks of the flint stone.  They learned how to listen for the crackle and pop and knew exactly where to place the tiny dry sticks and stems.  They knew how to properly stack the bark or kindling on top of that and let it all catch up into a rousing flame.  They accumulated a fine stand of dried wood and it would easily last the night.  The added glow of safety from the fire’s flame was a low priority and one they hardly considered.  This was a safe place.  The mother and the 16-year-old daughter surrounded the fire with stones.

“Let’s fry up some of that ham over this fire tonight, ladies,” the proud pioneer granted.  We can make this load a little lighter on the mules for the last part of the trip.”

“Finally!  We can almost see our destination and the last moves toward it are here.”  The odds making wife had been more than a little nervous to leave the wagon train in Dickson, but an argument about leadership had stalled their progress.  This family leader decided to press their wagon onward through the presumed safety of a well populated, iron furnace country.  Traveling this route, she hoped, they could dot and spot their way up through the wilderness all the way to Paducah.  A well-deserved rest, however, was in order before the final push.  Each step was like a very calculated chess move to her.  She wasn’t ready to celebrate just yet, but she did allow herself a smile to be another step closer to old St. Lou.  She knew that once they arrived there they would find the successful life that they had prepared for, the life they were looking for.

Amos Green smelled that country ham cooking a mile away.  He followed his nose right to it.  Dogged if it weren’t coming from up on his creek!  He thought, at first, it was Mister Thomas cooking something back there by that creek, but that was just craziness.  He was less surprised to see a family of settlers easing around the big fire.

“That ham sure does smell good, folks.  Does Mister Thomas know you folks is up on his creek?”  Amos Green didn’t care about the answer to the question.  He hadn’t had country ham in a long time.  Two Christmases ago, best he could remember, over at the Gatlin farm.

“My name is Amos Green.  I work for Mister Thomas.  I cut wood, too. If ya’ll like I can keep you in all the wood you need for that fire.  I can bring you a whole load of wood.  I’d do it just for a piece of that ham, too.”  Amos bartered.

“Sounds like a fair deal to me,” the ham frying pathfinders agreed. “Eat now, work tomorrow.”

“Just to be sure,” the settlers joked, “Are you sure you’re not just a drifter drawn up here by the smell of this fine home cooking to parlay a piece of our ham for your belly and then be gone as quick as a summer morning’s dew?”

“Oh, no sir.”  Amos pleaded.  “I do work this land for Thomas Opson.  It is looking a little poorly right now, but she has seen better times.”

“Come on in by the fire, Amos Green.  You are welcome here.”

Amos beamed and he sidled up next to the fire with the smell of fried country ham hanging in the air.  He would work extra hard to keep this family in wood tomorrow. The way to Amos Green’s heart was through his stomach.  He broke bread with this family and now he owed them to fulfill his promise.

“What kind of country is this, Amos?” the simple pilgrim asked.  “It looks very nice.”

“This is rough country, Mister,”  Amos said it with a shrug of his shoulders and a dip of his chin.  He had a shudder in his voice that was evoked by hidden chills coming from inside his coat.  “It’s okay if you live here, if you know somebody, or if you are related.  You’ll get by alright, then.  But if you ain’t from around here this is a hard place to get a foot hold in.  People are hard here and some of them, they mean, too.  They were some good ones around here one time, but most of them done died off by now.”  Amos looked into the fire as he spoke. “Its cold in the winter here and powerful hot in the summer.  Best to have your crops in early ’cause you can’t never tell when the rains gonna fall so hard the creek gets washed away.  I’ve seen this creek right here plumb over that bank and backed up to the barn down by the house.”

“That Opson man seems a little distant, pilgrim.  He seems a little put on.”  The pioneer woman called her man a pilgrim and it was funny, but her senses were warning her.  “Let’s keep our distance from him and leave a day earlier than we had planned.  We can catch up with the wagon party in Paducah and we can all parade into old St. Lou in style.”

“That’s a good reckoning, Miss.  You and your family move on to your wagon party as soon as you can.  You’ll be safer with them.”  Amos Green had instincts, too.  He knew this family was rich.  They had means.  They had silver on everything.  They all had nice cotton clothes and good shoes to go around.  They had iron and food and the best canvas topped wagon ever seen to pass through these parts. Amos knew they acted proper.  They weren’t so hungry at suppertime. They took their time at hunting things up.  They talked about it first. Amos wasn’t used to this kind of friendship.  He felt like it had a calming effect on him.  He liked these good people.

Amos was about to tell the wagoners the best and shortest trail to take to get through to Kentucky when the crack of a whip was heard snapping beside the steps of a burdened filly laboring up the creek.

It was Thomas Opson come calling.

“Remember what I said, pilgrim.”  The settler told her man.  She looked at her daughter, too.  “Keep your lips tight.”

Opson splashed up the creek to camp and dismounted.  He distanced himself from the humble filly.  “Well, you folks have made a very nice camp here.  You have everything you need, it seems, and by the smell of that fine aroma you have a good supper, too.”

“I see you have met Amos.”  Amos started for the barn.

“Thank you for the ham, Ma’am.  I’ll have your wood here first thing in the morning.”  Amos knew his place when Mr. Thomas was around.  He was soon out of sight.

“I hope your animals are well watered, Sir.  And Miss, I thank you for feeding my man servant.”  Thomas encouraged the settlers with a smile.  He wanted them to be at ease.

“Your man said he is bringing wood for us tomorrow.  We will stay two days and then continue our journey.  We thank you, Sir, for allowing us to rest upon your land.  What is your charge for us, Sir, for two days lodging?”  The lady was speaking.

“We’ll say two dollars a night for two nights.  Does that sound fair?”  Opson figured.

The lady thought it was a little high, but she knew the wood would save them a lot of work. “Agreed,” she said.

“Would you like some ham, sir?”  I cured it myself.

“No, thank you, Miss.  But I will have that shot of rye if you have it.”

“I’m sorry, sir.  We have no rye.”

“No bother,” Opson waved it away.  I would like to discuss other business, he imposed.  “If you need anything or if you need to barter gold I can get you a better rate than anyone else in Town.  Did you need to exchange some gold?”

“Not much,” the settlers gave up.

“Think about it.”  Tomorrow I’d like to look at some of your silversmithing if you don’t mind.”  Opson tipped his hat and towed his filly off in the direction of Amos Green.

“Don’t show him the gold tomorrow, husband.  Maybe a watch or a silver trinket chest but keep the ingots well hidden as I do not trust him.  After what the negro shared with us of the untidiness of the grounds, he seems a little too pushy.  He seems desperate.  And he looks at Evelyn in a common way,” his wife added.  “I don’t like him.”

Thomas Opson had a visitor stay that night with him.  The man from down the oak tree row was a hunter, by nature, and a killer.  He tracked everything from mountain lions to humans.  Thomas Opson had him tracking a family of settlers tonight.  The man from down the oak tree row watched their every move.  He looked for the gold box. He looked for the money.  Had they hidden it yet?  On the trail most would hide their valuables away from the wagon until they were loaded up for travel.  All through the night, nothing stirred in the wagon.  It was as if the wagon was staring back at the night.  Neither blinked.  Early in the morning, two hours before daybreak, the spy caught his prey.  The tinkerer went up a certain trail away from the wagon and brought back with him a velvet bag.

The hunter slipped backed to Thomas Opson and told him the news. The gold was up that trail.  He knew which one, how far, and probably just about exactly where it was.

“Tonight, we act,”  Opson ordered.  “I’ll spend the day occupying them with kindness. You sharpen your knives.  Well after dark, when all is quiet, we will separate the husband and tie him up.  Make sure to gag his mouth so he can’t scream.  Then, we will tie up and gag the girls.  If we can’t find the gold we will use them against one another to find it and then you will use your knives to quickly kill the mother and father.  Once the first blood is spilled we can not stop.  We must finish the job quickly.  I will kill the girl later and dispose of the remains.  You will go back to your house on the oak tree row and your debt to me is forgiven.”  Opson spoke with a cold-blooded calculation in his veins.  “Be back here at dusk with your knives and wait for me.”

Amos Green brought wood early in the morning.  It was a big wagon load, dried, and busted up with kindling, too.  He ate another piece of ham with a biscuit after the wood was unloaded and he thought he was in hog heaven.

Thomas Opson showed up early on that Sunday morning, too.  He kept the pilgrims busy moving the stock and inspecting the fine workmanship of their prairie schooner.  He finally got around to asking to see about the ware.

The silversmith pulled a magnificent silver piece of work from his blue velvet bag.  “Here is something I tinker with,” he said.  “The drawers open and you can put the trinkets inside. This is my own hallmark stamped on the bottom.  This, here, is a watch I made for my father but he passed last year so I guess it is mine now.”

“This is very fine workmanship, silversmith.  Did you really do this? Are you capable of this?  I am surprised.”  Thomas Opson couldn’t grasp the quality of greatness even as he was standing immersed in it.

“Yes, sir.  I assure you.  I created these pieces,” the proud smithy chuckled to himself.  Oh, to be in old St. Lou, he dreamed, where art could be appreciated and men were not so callously desperate and foul smelling.

“Have you thought about your gold transfer, pilgrim?  I leave for Clarksville in the morning and can be back with your exchange Tuesday, in time to see you off.” Opson was not dropping the subject.

“We think we’ll wait on the transfer of gold, sir.  We have enough food and water now to see us through to the outskirts of Paducah.  But we do thank you for your care.  There is a matter of four dollars and here you are, sir.  Thank you.”  The woman always did the talking and she did the paying, too.

“Well, I’m off then,” Opson responded as he accepted the tender. “Thank you and if I don’t return before you leave it was a pleasure having you here.  Enjoy your last night on our farm and I bid you safe travels.”

Opson tipped his hat and mounted his filly to ride away.  The settlers breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed, understanding that he was gone from their lives for good.

Thomas Opson sent Amos Green, along with a dollar, to get some feed at the Feed Store on the south side of Dover.  He instructed him to return in the morning.

Just after dark a large commotion was made coming up from the barn. Opson was back on his filly and riding hard towards the settler’s camp.

“Put on your shoes, pilgrim.”  Opson yelled.  “There’s a fire in Town and the whole square is going to burn if we don’t get it put out.  We need every man available to man the bucket brigade.”

“We’ll all go,” the lady volunteered.

“No, just men,” Opson schooled.  “You two stay here.”

The willing pioneer threw on his boots and rode his horse bareback with Opson toward the Town.  After they were past the barn and out of camp’s sight the man from the house on oak tree row jerked up a rope between two trees on the trail and the silversmith was caught by it and thrown violently to the ground.  It knocked him out and almost broke his neck.  Thomas Opson and his associate tied the camper up and gagged his mouth.

The hunter slipped up behind the girls as Opson led his kidnapped victim back into camp. When the adept woman saw here husband tied up and walking in front of Opson she knew they were in trouble. Before she could scream or think to run the dark man leaped from the cover of trees and put a sharp knife to her back and a strong arm around her neck.  He began to tie her hands and feet.

“Sit still, young’un or your mother won’t look so good.”  The man from down the oak tree row threatened the young girl.

“Quiet, Missy and no one gets hurt.  Where is the gold?  Opson demanded of the young girl, but she was wasn’t talking.

“We’ll tell you where it is and no one gets hurt, right?” the mother begged.  “We’ll just be on our way.  We’ll give it to you.”

“No one gets hurt.  On my mother’s grave, I swear to that,” Opson replied.

The lady motioned to the girl and she ran up the trail and came back with a large box.  It was filled with Dutch ingots of gold, and gold coins from all the old countries and was almost more than she could carry. Opson calculated that there was at least enough gold, silver, and jewelry in that box to pay for a farm.

“We have what we came for.”  Opson nodded to the man with the sharp knives.  The dark man grabbed for the mother and, at once, drove his dagger deep into her back and into her heart.  Then, he pulled it out and slit her throat before she could fall to the ground. Opson guarded the box and the girl and the man from the oak tree row quickly walked over to the bound pioneer.  He slit his throat as a seasoned farmer with a sharp blade would slit the throat of a hog.  It was clean, thorough, and the skillful tinkerer was lost forever to the Stewart County night.

In a second the young girl realized what was happening.  She screamed and bolted, retrieving her quiver and bow on the dead run from its perch, but the hunter closely pursued.  After about 30 paces she felt his breath on her and she turned, in a spectacular spin, to whip him harshly on the side of his cheek with her cane-like bow.  It was a slashing blow landing both hickory branch and twine to its target and it burned into the skin of the oak tree row man.  It knocked him off his stride, if only for a moment.  The true tempest had time for one last pull of her string.  The final arrow was let loose and flew towards Opson just as the hunter pounced, with his knife, on top of her.  His lunge knocked her aim off, ever so slightly.  Thomas watched the flight of the air piercing arrow all the way from where it left her bow.  As if in slow motion he watched the entire arc and aim of the sharp tipped hickory stick until it burned into his left shoulder.  He could not change its path and he could not move his body.  It flew too fast and he moved too slow.  The arrow stuck in him and he dropped the box of gold.  He writhed in pain and clutched the bloody stick and it could not have been truer or more painful had it been launched from the bow of a proud Indian Brave.

Evelyn had fought the good fight for her mother and for her father. She fought the good fight for herself, too.  Now, she lie on the ground bleeding, with a dagger run through her side, another victim of the County.

“I wish I had the time to devote to you, Missy,”  Opson spoke to the dying girl as she looked at the end of everything she knew lying in front of her.  Her last arrow was embedded deeply in her killer’s shoulder.  That would leave her mark, she understood.  The dark stranger with the striped and bloody cheek held her neck open and bare.  With one deliberate, painstakingly slow motion, Opson sliced her from ear to ear.

It was all over very quickly.  Three lives had been taken and they weren’t coming back.  No one else was the wiser.  Opson had just acquired a lot of gold and silver and, to him, that was all that mattered.  Three more lost lives meant nothing to him. He was used to killing now.

He piled the bodies on that fancy wagon and drove them deep into the woods to where no one could see them. He burned it all up in a ritual fire and laughed at the simpleton’s skeletons as he poked at their remains on the following day.

Amos Green questioned why the settlers left early.  The blood was dusted up pretty good, but Amos Green was no fool.  He spotted it. Later, he found the ruins of the wagon and the skeletons, too.  What could he do?  He prayed for their souls.  He never ate a piece of country ham again.

On Tuesday, Thomas Opson made his way directly to Howard Claiborne.

“I have $10,000, Mr. Claiborne,”  Opson proclaimed.  I was able to raise it out of Kentucky. It’s all I have.  Will you accept it and allow me to stay on my farm?”

“It’s my farm, Opson.  I have the Deed to it and it is transferred.”  Claiborne reminded. “You have cash, Opson?”

“No, it is in gold and silver.  Look for yourself.”

Howard Claiborne inspected the contents of Thomas Opson’s large box of precious metals.

“Where did you come across these Dutch ingots, Opson?  This is slave trade gold.  And that is a fine white socked, brown stallion you now straddle.  Did he come from Kentucky, too?”

“I sold slaves for that gold, Howard.  They are from a deal I had forgotten about in Kentucky.  The silver added in there with it makes for a tidy sum of $10,000!  Will you accept it as a down payment on the property?  You said no questions asked.”

“Come, sit with me, Thomas Opson.”  Howard Claiborne directed.

Claiborne spoke so only Opson could hear.

“I know where those gold Dutch ingots came from, Opson and by the looks of your shoulder, someone put up a pretty good fight against you.  I don’t know how you came into possession of the gold or what happened to that family of settlers that owned them, but I do know that I have them now.  I will take this gold and allow this as one-half payment towards my farm.  You may stay on the property for now, but you still owe me $10,000 to have your Deed returned.”

“How will I pay you, Howard?”

“You will work for me, Opson.  I need a new Constable.  The old one has not worked out.  I own you now, Opson.  Never forget that.  I know I can find that family if I look hard enough and I can put you under that jail.  You owe me $10,000.  You work for me now. You are my new Constable.  You can work out of the Court House in Town and the Jailhouse and people can believe you are somebody special, but you check with me every day to see what I need.  You understand that, Opson?  Every day!  Is that clear, boy?” Claiborne showed him the badge.

Thomas Opson put it on and went to look over his new office.  He went by the livery stable and traded the Brown Derby for a fine black stallion, no questions asked, and all on the courtesy of Howard Claiborne.  Opson drank for free in the tavern.  He was a Howard Claiborne hired gun now.  He took his marching orders from him every day.  He assembled a group of criminals, a committee of riders, to accompany and protect him.  His right-hand man was the dark stranger who lived at the end of the oak tree row.

Thomas Opson was back in control now.  His power was unchallenged, unquestioned, and his laws weren’t written down in any books.

End of Chapter 6.

RLB4

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