Friday, March 21, 2014

The Congo Kid Comes Home (or The Sailor Goes Horseback) by Tom Sheehan

Black navy man Raven Narbaught crosses the continent  to reunite with his family in post civil war America; by Tom Sheehan.

Raven Narbaught received the letter at Boston's Charlestown Navy Yard when his ship landed on the 8th day of December in 1879. He'd been a sailor attached to or on the USS Alliance, a screw gunboat, since it was launched four years earlier at Norfolk Navy Yard, and had not heard a word for close to two years from his parents or any of his siblings. Never desperate because there was no communication for so long, he was nevertheless overjoyed at seeing his parents' names and address on the envelope handed to him by a Navy clerk. He knew it was a special day, the sea calm as ever in the seclusion of the harbor, a slight wind cutting into the background of the city slowly climbing upward, sailors from half a dozen ships at least had touched home or somewhere nearer home in every situation, he believed. They were a jaunty lot and he had enjoyed much of his time on ship, but was looking for a change, he thought as he opened the envelope.

The note inside said, "Dear Raven, Butta-Ken, Jan-Red and Desmont, We have moved from New York to Arizona Territory, at a small settlement called Bettaville and send this letter to the last known of all your addresses. Three youngest have moved with us and the rest of you have made your ways elsewhere in the land. Find each other if you can, and then us. We wait to hear word from all of you, that black is ever beautiful, that home is a good memory, that each of you is well, and that you all promise to come see us in our new home. We are now living a ranch life and connect with cattle and the need for good grass. Deep love from Momma and Poppa En. Summer 1879, newly arrived here."

The new family voyage across America to a western territory was measured by Narbaught in comparison to other family voyages. In the bardic story-telling fostered in the family by both parents, he saw on an imaginary globe the trips made by ancestors within Africa, from its coast and across the Atlantic Ocean in chains, their purchase into slavery on southern plantations, their quick road north in many cases after the Civil War, and the final move of some of them across America to a new and perhaps final place of peace and contentment. News of the move settled in him a sense of relief and resolve that he'd do his part to fulfill his mother's wishes and his father's demands, each inherent in the letter.



Handsome Raven Narbaught, one of three blacks on the USS Alliance, had been injured in a Mediterranean harbor accident when a rope broke and he had fallen overboard, crashing down on a loading dock as supplies were being brought aboard. He was treated in a hospital and then on board ship on the long trip stateside, where he was discharged from naval service at Charlestown Navy Yard on the same day that his parents' letter finally caught up to him.

His injuries pretty well healed after some rest, he set out for Arizona Territory, his travel conducted in any available manner - wagon, train, and horseback - as he performed a series of duties in temporary employment heading the same way. Naval training had drawn him to the exposure and use of all kinds of small arms, and his acumen brought him comfort and a degree of satisfaction in their employ. He was an expert shot, had a steady hand, and a degree of confidence that earned him decent and dangerous assignments on the way west... patrol and guard duty, scouting to a limited degree (reminding him of spar watches when looking for icebergs in the northern reaches of the Atlantic), shotgun riding on stagecoach runs, and most generally as a regular cowpoke on cattle drives to railheads for delivery to markets east of the Mississippi River.

It was, plumb on, what his father had said in life's beginning lessons, "Learn while you earn."

Not sure of his natural talents at horse or gun, he improved both actions with dogged study, practice and determination. Without doubt, he became a stick-out rider and manager of all the horses he rode and the weapons he brought to hand. His horsemanship improved every time he saddled up and set out for a day's work... and gunnery skills came with practice. Early he knew that he and his horse were one, fully bent on dependence. Soon came a kind of innocent wizardry with a revolver, that too due to practice.

Any degree of efficiency with handling firearms made life a bit easier and more promising than a bold and too innocent approach to western lands, no matter if the lands had been incorporated into the Union as a state or remained as a territory. Laws were enacted in both places, and made life run fast for some folks beyond the great river, as it often found itself being directed by men who had little respect for it, who took what they could from where they could and from whom they could. Fast horses and quick and accurate weapons made life better, and longer in many cases.

For a black man, horse and gun had to be mastered.

Best be armed was more than a slogan; and it was, at the same time, a caution for former Navy sailors with black skin. Men like Narbaught were looked upon in different guises... with fear, guilt, and a real sense of shame by a small per cent of westerners. If a man could ride, rope, shoot, tend the cows and remuda, watch the backside of a herd as well as the front, they fit the atmosphere about them.

So the black sailor turned cowboy worked his way into the new career, on a horse with a side arm in his holster and a rifle banked into a saddle sheath. He was not loath to use a weapon when it was needed, as against robbers, rustlers, brigands of any ilk, renegade Indians, war-time holdovers from different loyalties... Union, Confederate, Mexican, you name a cause and he met up with its strange and beleaguered elements long before he got to the Arizona territories. Narbaught treasured these experiences, humorously thinking how they might stand out on his employment resume, provided he was still standing when it counted: sailor, wagon soldier and scout, shooter.

One other cause was that of gunplay, for self defense or job requirements, each element hardened by the deep shade and color of his skin. That he was a handsome son of a gun also added to enmity, racism, and plain jealousy whenever anyone looked his way in mixed company.

All of it, from his perspective, came to light in a small settlement in Iowa where his blackness was treated with quick disdain before his horse was stabled for fixing. He made up his mind to steer clear of problems in the saloons where he was sure to be berated, challenged, drawn to gunplay, but thirst created other moves, like drinking at the back end of a livery when his horse was eventually being shoed, checked, and leather-repaired. It was another black man who accused him of ducking the issue of who he was by not getting his whiskey in the saloon just down the street.

"You ain't strong enough to face yoreself, heh? Where you been since the Great War got loose on us? Lost? Hidin' out?" The speaker was a light skinned black big as the side of a barn, dressed in black, wearing guns with barrels almost as long as his arms. "My name's Lucifer Hoovery, not black as sin, not black as Hades with the lights and the fires dead, but black and ready to go get a good stiff drink right down the street and anythin' that comes in tow with it. You comin' with me, or hidin' out here?"

The man stood out solid as a promontory in its rocky place, stone-hard, pinnacle tall, smoky black from a hot fire, and the light in his eyes saying what one found in his words, in the chisel-sharp tone of his voice, in the derring-do mustered by his singular presence. He was ready for lions, pumas, mountain cats looking for fresh meat, the meanest of taunters, those big mouths and loud mouths and supposed quick-shots who always shot off their mouths first.

"Aye, aye, Captain," Narbaught said, accompanying his words with the snappiest of salutes. He tapped the sides of his holsters and said, "By the way, I am not empty handed."

"Damned glad of that, brother," Hoovery said. "We might be lookin' up a mountain in there."

Of course, there was a stir, then a silence of questioning, then a shuffling of feet, dispositions, and attitudes as the pair of black men walked into the Red Tail Saloon. The room was almost full, with several men standing at the bar, a few hands of poker on display at a few tables, a long mirror behind the bar almost as wide as two oxen in a yoke, atop which was a painting of a woman in thin bed clothes. Two bullet holes stared back from her breasts at any viewer. Two brass spittoons were prominent at the base of the bar and one of them also wore a bullet hole. The reasons for the bullet holes might prove obvious to a stranger; the room seemed to curry noise, boasting, challenges to gun or color or loyalties in any mix.

It didn't take long for the loudest loud mouth to get going.

He was a tough looking, wide-shouldered man, his Stetson tipped back on his head saying he was comfortable in the crowd, and a light mustache and a thin beard that said he hadn't shaved in a week or more. On probably all occasions he was the voice and the spirit, to some degree, of the lot of them. Wilhelm "Kick" Ruefacht had been a wrestler, a notorious one, back east somewhere, as he would tell it, offering many times to demonstrate his deadly kick to anybody who didn't believe his words. It would be a rare man who stood up and said so. And at that moment Ruefacht didn't know he had another non-believer in front of him, talking like there was nothing around that'd disturb him much.

Ruefacht's body shook a little, a shifting of feet presented his full front to the two newcomers, and a half smile and half sneer curved his mouth before belligerent words came out of it.

"Wal, now, lookee what we got here." He was holding his arms outspread as if he was praying or waiting for some treasure to fall into them from on high. "Not from any ranch, these gents, but right off'n a cotton patch someplace down the line. And them thinkin' they's gonna drink with us." The last words were guttural, deep as a hole dug for burial. His eyes fell directly on Freddie Sketchum the bartender, saying the tap was closed for the moment, or else would happen.

Hoovery, in a steady voice that rolled the whole south into it as he spoke to the bartender, "Ah don't have a smitten if this place belongs to you, mister, but if my pal and me don't get us our couple a drinks thin's'll get awful messy 'round here. Now you contend with me and my friend, git us our two drinks an' we'll leave this fellow alone and yore place in the same peace where it is right now. Otherwise, the mess comes quicker'n you can think an' I believe my new pal is quicker'n me." He touched Narbaught on the shoulder. "I just met this fellow the very mornin' of the day an' somethin' 'bout him says he knows more'n all of us. He's been 'round the world in Navy ships." He shook his head in wonderment when he said that, smiled, and patted Narbaught on the shoulder again. "Ya'll know what they say 'bout sailors. What all'em ladies say, too."

He was as relaxed, as cordial as any man could be, whether he was lying or not. Most of the men in the saloon, including Freddie the bartender, were aware of him stretching things, but Ruefacht was oblivious of it, though many could see his hands slyly setting up for a quick draw of his side arm, and it appeared as if he had stopped his breathing for the fast action to follow.

Standing there, apparently useless, being protected by a stranger from another stranger, Narbaught recalled all his days learning the art of the holstered pistol quick draw. He too didn't appear to breathe when he stood there, his pistol suddenly in his hand, a steady hand, a hand that had not been seen to move, a smile on his face, as he said, "Mister, all we came in here was for a few drinks, not a lot of noise from a blowhard that wouldn't last the night aboard my ship if he kept talking like he do and if he couldn't swim in the first place. There is one chance for you to sum up your chances and take them elsewhere, because I advise you there will not be a second chance to apply them here."

He returned his pistol to its holster and stood there facing Ruefacht.

The silence consumed the air in the room until one voice in a far corner said, "Wal I'll be. Thet there is the fastest gun pull I ever did see. I don't think none of us seen a gun move like that before, which makes me tell myself not to go on waggin' 'bout an'thin' else here lessen it's 'bout feedin' the hungry or pourin' for the thirsty, as the Good Lord says."

The speaker was gray with beard, bent with experience, and obviously marked by respect in the room.

He turned to the bartender and said, "Freddie, if'n you don't pour them two boys their drinks, I'll buy 'em and give 'em myself."

There issued a few "harrumphs" from the crowd in the saloon, but mostly arose a respectful silence as many of them wondered if they actually had seen Narbaught draw his gun. and nothing derisive was tossed off by an unknown voice... nor any support for the dumbfounded Ruefacht, still immobile in front of the bar, not having drawn his side arm and apparently not about to do so, showing awful good sense in refraining.

Between the livery and the Red Tail Saloon the bond between Narbaught and Hoovery had been cemented in place, ready for anything. A kinship had developed that might get both of them to Bettaville in the Arizona Territory to see Narbaught's family.

There were a few more incidents like this one on the way, close calls at taunting, racial slurs, but guns not drawn. And so came the new friends into Bettaville in the Arizona Territory on a June day in 1880.

Their first stop was for a drink in an unnamed saloon without doors. Bettaville seemed warm, honest and quiet, until they walked into the saloon where one man stood quickly, announcing that no coloreds were to be served in the place where he drank, "And I'm with some of my boys, he carefully added, nodding around the room.

To which Narbaught replied, "And I'm not alone either. I brought my guns, my pal Hoovery here, best shot I've met this side of the U.S. Navy, and we're not lost if you think that. We are not waywards or saddle bums, but we are going to visit my parents' ranch near here and I will repeat that such a visit will in no way be deterred by anybody here or elsewhere, as it has been a long time since I have seen them." He slapped his holster with a sudden move, and the slap sounded like half a gunshot.

The sound alone forced a silence in the room and all bodies remained stationary, as if frozen in place, including the lonely loudmouth standing like a tree in the desert, all by his self.

A man standing at the end of the bar said, "Is Fen-red Narbaught your father? Owns the old Grisby spread northwest of town. I was out that way last week. Him and your ma look well, and are as cordial as all get out. They was hopin' for some visits from you and some other kin."

He advanced down the bar, extended his hand, and said, "I'm Earl Sanford, a neighbor of theirs. If you're like your father, you're okay with me, son. And your pal, too. I only got one piece of advice for you both... you better get ready for work. It all ain't no plain social call out there."

The saloon crowd was softened by the words. The bigmouth walked out by himself, and "his boys" slipped into anonymity within the saloon.

"What will they call it in the old language?" Sanford asked.

"A kuwakaribisha nyumbani chama kwa ajili ya mwana, " Narbaught replied in Swahili. "It means a welcome home party for a son. If there's more than me, it'll be something else."

"Well, when I was there last week, an invited guest, your mother sang some chants in her language and I have never heard anything like it in my life. Pure enchantment it was, and I swear something was in her eyes like she knew you were coming home. Do they know you're coming? You send a letter?"

"Surprise is best for her. It's the way I'd like it, too," Narbaught said. "Her with a smile is extra special. My father rarely smiles."

"I noticed that," Sanford responded. "And I'd keep my eye on that gent that just left. He don't let things set too easy for others unless he gets his way on them."

"I'll remember that, Mr. Sanford. I surely will, especially the next time I see him."

It made Sanford smile.



As Narbaught and Hoovery rode over the last rise in the road to the Narbaught spread, they saw the smoke rising and heard random gunshots. They spurred their horses and saw three horsemen firing at the small ranch house with a fire burning in one of two barns on the property. Return gunfire was coming from the ranch house.

"It's that blowhard from the saloon," Hoovery said, as he pointed out one of the riders, and Narbaught and he both started firing at him as they rode hard onto the scene. The attackers, surprised at shots from a different direction, broke for the road heading north, trying to escape the newcomers. Their shots cropped around the three men in flight, and from the house came a victorious yell in the old language, Narbaught's father, running out the door and waving his hands, yelled out, "Sisi alijua wewe d kuja, kunguru. Kuwafukuza mbwa na makali ya Jahannamu na kushinikiza wasitoke Na kisha kuleta rafiki yako kwa ajili ya chakula cha jioni." He slapped his hands down on his thighs in more celebration and waved again and again, a revolver in one hand, his voice rising all the time.

The younger Narbaught thought his father was going to start dancing.

"Let me in on that," Hoovery laughed, as he let go another shot, saw dust lift up right behind one fleeing rider. "We sure got 'em on the run."

Raven Narbaught answered, "He said, 'We knew you'd come, Raven. Chase them dogs to the edge of Hell and push them in. And then bring your friend for dinner.'"

"I'm all for that," Hoovery said, and the new pair of pals rode hard after the attackers who disappeared in a series of rugged rocky formations and small canyons a mile down the road.

A high celebration duly took place at the Narbaught's new home, with an additional surprise, for they had received a letter from Butta-Ken who promised he'd be there in a month's time.

This was balanced a few days later by a visit from Earl Sanford. "The sheriff's comin' out this way today or tomorrow. They found one of Kick Ruefacht's pals shot in the back and dead in one of them canyons over yonder. Name of Liam Ford. Ruefacht said they was playin' around out near here and you fellows chased them off with gunfire, and now one of 'em's dead, Ford like I said. Sheriff'll be askin' some questions. I'd be ready for anythin' if I was you folks. He might be favorin' Kick in this, 'cause he's got a gun wound too, along his arm." He drew his hand across the back of his shoulder and down one arm. "It sure don't look good."

In the midst of cleaning up the section of a barn that had caught fire, with the Narbaughts and Hoovery pushing hard at the task, the sheriff came with a deputy.

"I've got to talk to you folks. Kick Ruefacht says you were shooting at him when they was horsing around. One of his boys, Liam Ford, must have got hit 'cause he fell off his saddle out there somewhere. They brought him in. I got his story now I need yours."

The elder Narbaught said, "That gent and two of his pals were shooting up our house, almost killed my wife, started a fire in one of my barns, left a mess of bullets in the walls of the house, which I'll show you shortly, and they were driven off by my son and his pal who showed up in a surprise visit. Chased them until they disappeared in those canyons down yonder, knowing the territory better than any of us did."

"That ain't nothin' like he said," replied the sheriff.

"So where does that leave you, Sheriff?" Hoovery said. "I think he was so mad and is so mean and ornery that he let his own man die with that wound, like a real coward would."

"That don't seem likely," the sheriff answered.

"Well, Sheriff, we stood him down in the saloon, me and Raven here, and he backed off like a coward and you think we had to shoot him in the back. Shoot a coward in the back? That's one part that don't seem likely to me, bein' an old lawman myself back there in Kane County, Illinois. It looks like you got to talk to his other pal who was here. You talk to him yet?"

"No, I haven't. Ain't seen him around yet since Kick made the claim against you folks." Then, with a puzzled look on his face saying he wasn't so puzzled about something on his mind, the sheriff asked Hoovery, "When was you there, in Kane County?"

"Oh, when Sheriff Sammy Beard got some trouble on his hands, died in the middle of it and the coroner Georgie Taffe took over the job, then kilt hisself, probably over nothin'. But it was a good place to steer clear of and I had the chance so I git out here and was lucky to meet Raven and his folks, but it's a strange way to meet someone by havin' to protect them from raiders or killers."

"Ain't nobody charged with anythin' yet, even me comin' out here to hear you folks and what you had to say on the matter."

"Oh, you got all we got, Sheriff," Hoovery said. "An arrest can't be far off," and he winked as he looked at Raven Narbaught.

Raven stepped in before too much was said, or asked, his mind clicking clear as a new gun mount. "What's the name of Ruefacht's other pal, Sheriff?" He was flashing a smile full of teeth white as sails out on the water of a lake.

"Jeb Wilson, calls himself." The sheriff shifted uncomfortably, as if bothered by a new image. When he wiped his brow with a great red kerchief that had been knotted on his belt, and then his deputy did the same maneuver, all the Narbaughts knew the sheriff was worried about something.

"I have a suggestion, Sheriff," Raven Narbaught interjected quickly. "My friend and I will go find this Jeb Wilson and bring him right down to your office and you can question him, not us. That fair? No funny stuff. Just plain citizens out for the good of the old folks." He pointed to his parents. "I know they'd appreciate your assistance in this matter, same as other folks like Mr. Sanford would, another stand-up citizen like yourself. That good with you, all on the up and up?"

The sheriff understood he could not say much against that plan, so he didn't. Perhaps Kick Ruefacht would stand alone one time in this life. He nodded his assent and he and his deputy rode off.

It did not take Raven Narbaught and Lucifer Hoovery very long to find Jeb Wilson. Too many people in and around Bettaville had seen the elements that surrounded Kick Ruefacht and were pleased to tell the pair what they knew about them, and point the way to places they knew where they often spent secret time away from the town... for one reason or another.

One of the places was an old line camp not more than a dozen miles away, at the end of an up-hill slope of green grass and built against a cliff wall where the first of the mountains emerged. A pile of logs sat at one end of the camp, the log ends showing white newness in the stack. An ax leaned against the pile like a last breath had left it there. No smoke emitted from the thin chimney. Two horses were tied off at the side of the cabin under a lean-to when Narbaught and Hoovery first sighted the building. Neither horse was Ruefacht's big gray with one white stocking on a foreleg. The only movement, other than a swish of a horse's tail, was a gray-white jackrabbit bobbing on a grassy spread.

Hoovery said, "That paint belongs to one of the shooters at your Pa's place. I bet it's Jeb Wilson's horse. He got some kind of a surprise comin' his way now." He had a look on his face that Narbaught had seen before, even as Hoovery finished saying, "We do it careful or noisy? They don't expect company way out here this early in the day."

He talked like the old law hand he used to be in Kane County, and Narbaught let him make the plans of taking a prisoner.

In fifteen minutes time they were at the side of the small shelter where the two horses were tied off. Hoovery, as planned, untied one of them and slapped him on the rump, which made the horse gallop off noisily.

Commotion started in the cabin. "One of the horses is loose," yelled one inhabitant, and a second voice said, "That's your horse, Jeb. Get my horse and go get him. I'll check around for what made him break away."

The last talker came to the lean-to, and walked right into the guns of Narbaught and Hoovery. He raised his hands slowly and said, "I ain't done nothin'. Better talk to Jeb. He's got a lot to say. Been talkin' all night. I ain't even slept over it. He's scared to death of Kick Ruefacht. Thinks he's gonna kill him if he finds him. He was goin' to light out of here today, go north somewhere. Real scared."

Narbaught said, "Be careful and call him back here. Don't scare him. We don't want to hurt anybody." He shook his gun under the man's face. "You with me on this? Real careful like?"

"Yup," the man said, and yelled out, "Better come see this, Jeb, how he got loose. You won't believe it."

Jeb Wilson also walked into the drawn guns of the two black men holding his pal at tight quarters. An amazed look crossed his face, one that also showed some sign of relief had come upon him.

"Well, Jeb," Narbaught said, "You feel better that we came for you rather than your pal, Ruefacht?"

"He ain't my pal. He shot Liam right in the back of the head to blame you folks, just like it was nothin' at all and told me to keep my damned mouth shut or I'd get the same."

Hoovery said, "Will you tell the sheriff that and swear to it in front of a judge?"

"I sure will if you got Kick all locked up in the jail."

"Oh, don't worry none about that," Hoovery said. "We got that all covered too. The sheriff just doesn't know 'bout it yet."

For the time being at least, the sailor was home from the sea and his pal was far away from Kane County in Illinois, which for some reason mattered a lot to him and some folks in Kane County.

3 comments:

  1. fantastic Detail, either you´re a Student of this or you´ve done a lot of Research. either way great Story as usual, Tom, with very interesting and convincing characters.

    Michael McCarthy

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  2. A seaman becomes a gunslinging cowboy in the wild west, and he's black. One of my favorite tactics for coming up with a story is "What if..." This is about as "what if" as it can get!! Nicely done, had me rootin' for Ravin from the start.

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  3. Details in this piece are effective. The main character is painted well and your tone sounds like the piece is an epic (1st half). When the complications begin there is a sharing of energy because the other characters are trying to "share the stage". Overall, it evoked a sense of the western- vistas and saloons and all that. I liked it.
    James

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