The only tree on the desolate Missouri prairie stood upon the only hill. It shook its top branches at me like a dog after a dip in a pond. As I drew closer, a smell overtook me, and I noticed something large hanging underneath it. I covered my nose and mouth with a handkerchief and steered my horse toward it. I recognized two long sacks hanging low to the ground and the graceful curls of deer antlers sticking out of the top. The antlers mimicked the archings of the oak branches above them. The sacks turned out to be bodies. No, that ain’t right. The sack turned out to be one body—a deer’s—hacked in two. Pools of blood had collected on the grass underneath.
Although halved, the animal was still intact, which was odd considering the thin frames of the settlers I had encountered on my journey. Being that no hunter would leave his food unguarded and no beggar would pass a free meal, I reckoned the carcass was a warning and a queer one at that. I left the deer where it hung, gathered my horse, and continued on my way.
Giddingstown was a small affair. Most of its residents claimed to be Iowans in the border troubles between Missouri and Iowa, but Lilburn Boggs, the fine governor of Missouri, had shown me the land surveyor’s notes himself, had read to me the President Van Buren’s decree defining the border between the two states. The town belonged to Missouri no question. Boggs had handed me a badge and a canteen for water that day. With a curt pat on the shoulder, the governor told me to ride north to Giddingstown to collect taxes. He said it as if his pockets were already heavy. That happened three weeks ago, and here I was now walking between the five buildings that made up the town.
I tied my horse to a post and stepped into the only shack that seemed lived in, which turned out to be a saloon. A stout, fiery-haired man stood behind the bar. He nodded his head when I asked for the owner, but did not meet my gaze.
“You might do well to take that badge back across the border where folks have more respect for it.” The barkeep’s voice was a pistol drawn.
“It’s just a hunk of metal, my friend.” I clinked a coin onto the counter and an ale appeared before me followed by a grunt.
The room was plain. A fireplace squatted against the wall opposite the bar. The nine patrons sat at ramshackle tables. Some scowled, some gulped from their mugs, but they all kept their eyes on the star decorating my chest. I was sizing them up when the light in the room changed. Three men entered the room pointing their rifles at me. The men at the tables remained still. The barkeep, washing mugs in a tin pan, wiped his nose on his sleeve and said, “Take him on over. Tell Stevens to write that letter we discussed.”
Two of the men, a young pup with barely a whisker and a short man missing a tooth, took my arms. Before they ushered me out of the bar, I called over my shoulder, “What’s my crime?” My own voice rang back in my ears.
The third man followed behind us shoving a rifle in my back. We walked to the next building, the jail, and they shoved me into the only cell. The door slammed behind me and I started carrying on, reminding them that I was one of the governor’s men, that an army would be after me. The men only scoffed. They eventually left me alone. The youngest of them came back with some gruel for me when the room grew dark.
“No one’s coming for you because we was his militia. Some of us was anyway. We been here so long no one remembers who’s Missouri and who’s Iowa. All we remember is they owe us money. We were sent here months ago, but no one ever bothered to tell us the war’d been called off.” He spat again. “Did you see the deer on your way in?”
I nodded. “Didn’t know what it meant.”
The pup laughed. “One side is Boggs. The other is Governor Lucas of Iowa. We shot them both and let them hang for the vultures. Tonight, we’re going to bury them. I expect we’ll have our money soon enough.”
Photo by Siska Vrijburg