Judgment Hill

This is an early short story of mine, originally published in Frontier Tales . I had been reading a lot of Louis L’Amour and wanted to try my hand at a Western. And while this is actually set in North Carolina, it is still a story about the Western Frontier. It is just under 5000 words. Enjoy it here in its entirety.

Judgment Hill
by
Erik C. Martin

© 2010

 

My name is Cyrus Sturgis and I was in a bad spot.

On the top of a barren hill, my wrists and ankles were tightly shackled to an elevated X-frame. The folks who had put me there intended for me to die; only, being good Christians, they were going to let God do their dirty work for them. By their rules, if I was still alive after three days, that meant God wanted me to live and they would set me free. Now I didn’t know what God’s plans were, but I was fixing on staying alive.

Three days is a long time to stay alive, exposed with no food or water. Water was the greatest concern. Spring in the piedmont was hot, even this close to the mountains. Evening thunderstorms were almost nightly events. Instead of being a comfort, this concerned me a great deal. Out of the back of the frame the good people of New Sinai had put a long, iron rod—a lightning rod.

I guess the faithful felt as though God needed a little help.

It seemed like overkill to me. I’d lived in the mountains long enough to know that lightning liked high places. And stuck up there, I was certainly the highest thing around.

As I said, I was in a bad spot.
Worse, I felt almighty confident that the man responsible for my being on that frame had no intention of leaving my fate in God’s hands—a sorry lack of faith for a man of the cloth.

You see, I knew that the Reverend John Turner was really Captain Henry Myers, and that his ship, the Myrmidon, had been a pirate vessel off of the American coast. Fifteen years ago, I had been an officer on the HMS Susannah, a ship-of-the-line. We had overtaken the Myrmidon about two miles off of Cape Henry and sank her and captured Captain Myers. I had put him in our brig myself. Our captain had set course for Wilmington. Off of Cape Hatteras we ran into a fierce storm. We would have been alright if not for the damage that our ship had taken during the battle with the Myrmidon. At some point, as we were fighting to keep the Susannah afloat, Captain Myers escaped the brig and the ship. He was presumed drowned, but his body was never found.

Until now.

Apparently the good captain had reinvented himself as John Turner, man of God and leader of New Sinai on the edge of the Blue Ridges. But any question of whether or not he had really found religion had been answered in his treatment of me.

And as for me, I had left the navy a year later and had gone home. My brother had gotten into some trouble during the Regulator Movement so I had gone to help. As soon as the matter was sorted out though, I had taken my Deckard fifty caliber and headed for the mountains.

When the Revolution had come, I mostly stayed out of it. To those of us who lived in the mountains, beyond civilization and the politics of back east, it made little difference which side won. Not until British Major Ferguson had brought his troops into the mountains, threatening all who lived there, did I find the personal stakes to choose a side.

I had been one of many. Mountain men from all over the Appalachians rose up to deal with the threat of Ferguson. A thousand strong, we joined up with Shelby, Sevier, and the other Continental officers who had been hiding in the mountains since the defeat at Camden. They had lost their army to Cornwallis, but had escaped capture. We became their army.

It was Ferguson’s turn to run. When he had realized that he couldn’t outrun us, he had chosen to make his stand on King’s Mountain. Ferguson had been openly contemptuous of our motley force. Throughout the war, militia troops had been ineffective when fighting British regulars.
Major Ferguson did not realize that we were a breed apart.

We were men who lived in the wild country. We were all experienced Indian fighters. The mountains were full of Cherokee who were not friendly to white men. We had learned to live and fight as the Indians did.

The Battle of King’s Mountain started at about two in the afternoon and was over by three. At the end, Major Ferguson was dead and so were a third of his troops. Those that weren’t dead had been captured. Seemed like we couldn’t have lost more than forty men total. Colonel Benjamin Cleveland had presented me with a sword that had been taken from a fallen British lieutenant.

Then, just as quickly as we had risen up, the army of mountain men vanished back into the mountains.

I made some friends among the other mountain men and in the little settlements that managed to hang on in the Appalachians. There were a few Tuscarora who were friendly and taught me a thing or two about medicinal plants and staying alive. There were Cherokee. Them I avoided when I could or fought when I could not. When I had heard of a new settlement, New Sinai, on the edge of the piedmont, I had gone down for a visit.

The folks there had seemed friendly. A young widow named Hannah Givens had fed me. She had been interested about my life in the mountains. When she learned that I knew a little about plants, she had quizzed me about them, their appearance and properties, for nigh two hours. Eventually, one of the other women had chastised her, seemed these folks thought the only healing should come from God.

I had spoken with a man named Hill. He had told me that they had come from New Bern. Their leader, the Reverend Turner had been given a vision of a life to the west and so their whole congregation had moved.

When I tried to speak of trade, Hill had told me that only Reverend Turner could bargain for the village. He also told me that the reverend had gone west with some men who were newly arrived, but was due back tomorrow.

My mistake had been relaxing. Their friendliness, a hot bath, and the company of women had led me to let down my guard.

Captain Myers returned on the morning of the second day. He managed to spy me before I saw him. My appearance had changed over fifteen years, but he had recognized me. Six men, apparently those who had been with Myers, took me before I even knew that anything was amiss. My weapons had been stripped away before I could use them and I had been trussed hand and foot.

Hannah Givens had been the only one to speak for me. She had promised to talk to the Reverend, but I did not place much stock in her convincing him to let me go. At no time was I given a chance to speak and I never even learned what Myers had told them about me.

I almost never even saw him. But as they were getting ready to haul me up the hill, I caught a glimpse of him standing near the church. He was little changed and I recognized him right away. I had started to speak, but someone had clubbed me over the head and I blacked out. When I came to I was being driven up the hill in a cage.

The men who had captured me were the ones who were taking me up the hill. They looked like a rough bunch, not at all like the other inhabitants of New Sinai.

“Do you know that you are working for a pirate?” I had asked. “Reverend John Turner is actually Henry Myers, a pirate captain wanted for capital crimes.”

Most of them ignored me, but one man who had a crooked scar on his cheek said, “That was the Brits who wanted Captain Myers. It’s forgot now.”
“Is that why he’s pretending to be a preacher?” I said. “Pirates still hang.” On a hunch, I said, “How about you? Do you still use the same name as when you sailed on the Myrmidon?”

“Course not,” he said. “It’s just good sense.”

“Shut up, Cham,” another man said. Scar-cheek stayed quiet for the rest of the ride.

While two men covered me with rifles, the other four secured me to the frame. They explained then about the three days.

“Folks in New Sinai believe in letting God decide if a man is guilty,” Cham told me.

From the expressions of the other men, I knew I wasn’t going to have to wait three days. I figured they would be back to finish the job that night. I would have been dead right then, but the X-frame was visible from the settlement during the day. Most likely, Myers wanted me killed in a manner that would not be obvious.

A flash of lightning brought me back to the present. A storm was coming.

I was considered a powerful man, but the shackles had resisted all of my efforts. I had no way to manipulate the locks. It looked like it would be a race to see who would kill me first—the lightning or Myers’ men.

It was full night by then. It wouldn’t be long for finding out.

About an hour later, the sound of a horse brought me alert. I heard a voice behind me—a woman’s voice.

“Mister Sturgis, it’s Hannah Givens. I’m going to get you off of there. I have a horse and some tools.”

“Ma’am, you shouldn’t be here. There’s dangerous men coming,” I said.

“I know; I overheard the reverend and one of them speaking. They were speaking low and didn’t know I was there. The man called the reverend, “captain.” They’re coming to kill you,” she said. “There’s just one thing. I want you to take me with you.”

“Ma’am? It’s a dangerous life in the mountains. Are you sure of what you’re asking?”

“I am. I have had no life here. I have interests that make me…unpopular in New Sinai. I want to go to the mountains with you.”

I wasn’t one to argue with a lady, especially one who was trying to save my life. Besides, she was mighty pretty.

“Alright,” I said. “But you’ll have to hurry here.”

The widow turned out to pretty handy with those tools. Inside of five minutes, I was free.

I climbed down, rubbing the circulation back into my wrists. She had two horses, saddled and ready.

“They’re mine, left to me by my husband,” she said. “He left me this too.”

It was an old Brown Bess musket. She had powder and balls for about a dozen shots. It wasn’t my Deckard, but it was better than nothing.

The way I saw it, I had two choices—run or fight. The first was no choice at all. Myers would answer for his crimes, not only piracy but those against me personally. He had tried to have me killed and I wasn’t feeling forgiving.

A few drops of rain began to fall. The lightning would not be far behind. Time to get off of the hill. Even in the dark, the main trail was easy to mark, but it wasn’t an option.

“We need to get down the hill and find you a place to hide. I need to head back to New Sinai,” I said.

Hannah didn’t argue. She just said, “I know of a place.”

She led, taking the horses down the eastern slope then staying in the woods until we arrived by a creek. A little ways down, we came to an overhang. It was big enough for her and the horse and should be dry enough provided the creek didn’t flood.

“Stay here until I come back,” I told her.

When I was about half a mile from New Sinai, I tied my horse to a tree and went on foot. I had the satchel of tools that Hannah had brought. It was raining steadily by then and the thunder sounded every few minutes. I charged the musket, trying to keep my powder dry and crept to the edge of the tree line.

Myers had laid out a pretty defensible site. Most of the buildings were behind a solid, wooden palisade and all of the trees within about two hundred yards of the wall had been cut down to eliminate cover. It was a good thought, but he had failed to remove a number of stumps, large boulders, and there were still shallow dips and low rises that offered plenty of cover to a patient man.

It was obvious that Myers had never fought an Indian. And while I wasn’t an Indian, I could move like one.

I assumed that someone was keeping watch. The rain cut down on visibility and that worked in my favor. As soon as there was a lightning flash, I moved forward about twenty feet, crouched behind a large boulder, and froze. It would take the sentry’s eyes a second or two to adjust after each bolt. And even when they had adjusted he wouldn’t be able to pick me out, provided I stayed still.

It took me about forty-five minutes to get within fifty yards of the wall. There was another lightning flash and I was just about to run for the next cover when two riders came galloping out of the woods. I prayed that the next lightning would hold off for a minute—from their angle they might spot me if one came before the riders got past me. Luck was not with me. There was a flash and I was momentarily illuminated.

They didn’t see me though. They wore hoods and were hunkered down against the rain. I sighed and watched as they got to the gate. They rapped on the gate and it took only a minute for someone to open it and pass them through.

Now Myers would know that I had escaped.

I fought back the urge to rush and waited for the next lightning. It took me fifteen minutes to cross the last fifty yards. In the meantime, the rain increased to a downpour. I couldn’t see or hear anything that might be going on inside of New Sinai.

The top of the palisade was about fifteen feet above me. The rain had made the logs slick and they were fitted together tight. From my satchel, I drew out a hammer and a handful of nails.

I counted on the sound of the rain to cover my work. I hammered in the first nail and another a few feet to the left and about two feet higher. They made precarious foot holds, but I made do. Only five more and the top of the wall was within reach. Grabbing the top, I hoisted myself up and peered over.

From the time that I had spent in New Sinai, I knew that there was a narrow walkway that went around the top of the wall for sentries and defenders to use. No one appeared to be on the wall at the moment. I shook my head. When the Cherokee came, these folks wouldn’t stand a chance. I slipped over the wall onto the walkway. There was a light on in the church and I assumed that someone was by the gate, but I could not see anyone from where I was.

I lowered myself to the ground and went building to building, until I came to the rear of the church. I could hear voices, but I couldn’t understand what was being said until I was right under the back window.

“Hugh and Cox went scouting for him, but in this weather it’s going to be hard to find any sign.”

“It doesn’t matter, he has to be found,” said a voice I knew was Myers’. “Now that we’ve finally found the mine, he could ruin everything.”

“Captain—“

“Don’t call me that!”

“Sorry—Reverend. It was hard to see, but it looked like there were some fresh horse tracks going up the hill. Do you think Sturgis has got some friends?”

“Could be,” said Myers. “Leave Chambers at the gate. I want you two to get up on the walls with Tom in case he tries to come back.”

“Tom was down at the gate when we came in, staying out of the rain.”

“Damn him, Tom’s a sailor and he’s hiding from the rain? Tell them to get their eyes open. Sturgis will be back, if not now then later with help. I’ll be in my room. I want to know when Cox and Hugh get back. And if the rain stops, I want all of you out looking for sign.”

I risked a peek over the window frame. Myers went off through a door to the right. The other two exited the church, presumably heading for the wall.

I made my way to the front of the church and slipped inside. I stopped outside of the door that Myers had gone through and listened. It was quiet. There was no light coming from under the door.

A lamp was lit. I thought about dousing it, but decided that it might draw attention. Because of the rain I changed the load of my musket.
Then I knocked on the door, being careful to stay to the side.

“Reverend? Hugh and Cox just came in,” I said.

There was a pause.

“Come in; the door is unlocked,” said Myers from inside.

I knew that if I stood in the doorway, I’d be backlit. I depressed the latch and threw the door open. I burst in as fast as I could, hooking to the side as soon as I cleared the entry. There was loud boom and a muzzle flashed in the center of the room. Part of the door frame exploded and splinters struck me in the back of the head.

The lamplight from the church was sufficient for me to make out Myers holding my rifle. He was reaching for a flintlock at his waist.

“Don’t move! Even with this old Bessie, I can’t miss you at this range,” I said. “Where are my things?”

“Your things? All of your things are here,” Myers said.

I took the pistols from his belt and took back my rifle. I kept the musket on him though as the Deckard wasn’t loaded.

“My sword?”

“It’s on my dresser,” he said, nodding to his left. “That shot will have alerted my men. They’ll be here in seconds.”

“Maybe, but with the rain and the thunder tonight, maybe not,” I said.

But as soon as I had said it, I heard the church door open.

“Reverend, are you alright? We thought we heard a shot.”

“Sturgis is here,” Myers said.

“Shut up,” I told him. To his men I said, “I’ve got your captain here. Anyone comes through that door and the first shot is going through his heart. Understand?”

“Don’t listen to him! Get in here and kill him dead,” Myers yelled.

“Shut up! Sit in that chair,” I ordered.

He hesitated like he might refuse, but then he sat down on the wooden chair I had pointed to.

“Looks like we have a bit of a stand-off,” he said to me. “I have a solution.”

“What’s that?” I said.

“A fair fight, my sword against yours.”

“A fair fight? Against a pirate?”

“Here I’m a man of God. You don’t want to be here in the morning when the people of New Sinai wake up and find you holding their precious reverend hostage.”

“They would feel differently if they knew who you were,” I said.

“And you think they’ll believe you over me? Do you want to take that chance, Sturgis? I’ll order my men out of the church and you can take care of me fair, if you can.”

I didn’t like it and I didn’t trust him. But the night was getting on and I wanted to be done with this.

“Order them out,” I said.

“You men out there, this is Turner. Back on out of the church.”

“Captain?” It was Cham.

“You heard me. I’m going to take care of this myself. Get out and wait for me,” Myers said.

I heard footsteps and then the door opened and shut.

At his direction, I located Myers’ cutlass in a foot locker and handed it to him. It was heavier than my sabre and slightly curved, a pirate’s sword.

I peeked into the church; it looked empty. The front of the church where the preacher would normally stand was mostly open space. It would do. The Bess I set behind me. The flintlocks I tucked into my belt. As I said, I didn’t trust Myers, or his men.

Myers unsheathed his blade and whipped it up in a smart salute. I matched him.

I’ll say this for Henry Myers—he may have gotten older, he had to have been about fifty-five at the time, but there was steel in him. He was in good shape and moved with confidence. And, pirate or not, he could fence.

But I didn’t keep my sword as a showpiece either. I had been schooled as a young man and practiced in the navy, and I’d had plenty of opportunities to use it since.

He made a lunging thrust and I parried and riposted. Myers tried to beat my blade down. I retreated a step and countered with a thrust. We were body to body for a moment. He was smiling. We disengaged then. He feinted but I didn’t bite. After several quick engagements, I was starting to wonder if I was matched. He had a strong hand and equaled my reach. I lunged and he managed a stop cut, opening a small slice on the top of my wrist. Nothing serious, but the blood would make my hilt slippery. A few minutes later, he scored a cut on my weak arm shoulder.

Out a window, I could see one of his men peering in at us. I couldn’t think about them right now.

I gave Myers an invitation, letting my forearm drift out of line with my weapon. He took it and I parried again and riposted, almost catching him. He was determined then, pressing my blade out of line and redoubling his attack. I had to try to end things right there. I retreated and then came up fast with a flying parry. My blade slipped between his ribs and he fell back.

“Damn you,” he gasped. “That’ll do me. Why did you have to come along? Another year, six months even, and I would have been rich again and John Turner could have disappeared.” His sword fell from his hand and clanged onto the wooden floor. Myers sat on a pew, holding his hand over his wound, though there did not appear to be much blood.

“Someone was bound to find you sooner or later, Captain,” I said, scooping up the Bessie and ducking down behind the end of pew, watching the window.

“They had forgotten. The war made everyone forget. No one looks twice at a preacher on the edge of wild country. This was a good set up.”
“Sorry Captain, but you played yourself this hand.”

Then Henry Myers died.

Staying crouched, I loaded my Deckard. At least one of Myers’ men was by the window I was facing. I assumed that there would be at least one by the door. I remembered that there had been a window in Myer’s room. On my hands and knees I retreated back into Myers’ quarters, not easy with both the long guns.

I checked the window and didn’t see anyone. I heard the church door open.

“Captain, are you alright?”

Without waiting to see what they did next, I broke out the window with the butt of the musket and slipped out.

The rain had mostly stopped.

Keeping to the shadows, I made my way to the stables. Movement out of the corner of my eye made me drop. A gun boomed and musket ball hit the wall right where I’d just been. Staying low, I got inside and found my horse and mule.

“What’s going on?” said a voice from outside.

“Stay in the house!” I heard someone else say.

“Was there a shot?” said another voice. “Are we under attack?”

It sounded like the people of New Sinai were waking up.

I hazarded a look outside. It was still dark, but the clouds had broken up and the moon was big and hanging close to the horizon. There were about a dozen men near the church, most carrying rifles—the four who were Myers’ men and about eight men of the village. As I watched, one or two more doors opened and more men came out.

I saddled my horse and rode her out slow, leading my mule. My rifle I held easy, but had it covering the closest of Myers’ men.

“There he is! That’s the one who killed the reverend,” one of them said.

Everyone turned to look at me. I needed to get control of the situation.

The sky in the east was getting light.

“Listen to me,” I said loud enough for all to hear. “I am Cyrus Sturgis. I fought for the Carolinas at King’s Mountain and fifteen years ago, I was an officer on the HMS Susannah. We captured a pirate vessel that was captained by Henry Myers. He escaped and I never saw Captain Myers again, until yesterday. Your Reverend John Turner is Henry Myers. These four men know this, because they sailed with him on the Myrmidon fifteen years ago. They are wrong when they say I killed Reverend Turner, because there was no such man. However, I dueled Henry Myers the pirate and killed him tonight in a fair fight.

“Now, I am going to ride out of here and go home. What you do with these four and Cox and Hugh is up to you.”

Toward the gate there was a knock and a soft shout.

“Cham, open the gate. We didn’t get him, but we got them as helped him escape.”

“That would be Hugh and Cox now,” I said. I recognized Mr. Hill. “Sir, if you would indulge me and go to the gate. Open it when I tell you. As for you four, I suggest you give up your guns to these folks.”

Myers men hesitated. The villagers still weren’t sure of what was happening, but my tone was one of authority.

“Cham, George, you others, go on and put down your guns till we figure out what’s going on,” said one of the men. The fact that there were at least ten guns against them now wasn’t lost on Myers’ men; they complied.

“Mr. Hill, if you please,” I said.

He opened the gate. Standing on the other side were Cox, Hugh, and Hannah. She appeared unharmed.

“It’s the widow!” someone said.

“What’s going on George? Where’s the reverend?” asked one.

“Seems you boys were wrong about the reverend. He wasn’t who he said that he was. Drop your guns and let Mrs. Givens come to me,” I said.

They were unsure, but there were about twenty people out of their homes now. Hugh and Cox saw the others with their guns cast aside and did the same.

Hannah rode over to me. She told the crowd what she had overheard, and admitted that she had released me and was leaving with me. I waited for an angry response, but none came. The whole situation was so strange that they seemed prepared to accept anything. It was the perfect time to go.

“Mr. Hill,” I said. “Who is in charge of this settlement now that the truth has come out?”

“I don’t know. There will have to be an election, I suppose,” he said.

“When you have it, if you are so inclined, I’ll come down from the mountains and we can talk about trading. Myself and Mrs. Givens, we’re going to be leaving now. I’d be obliged if you’d keep these men here a bit longer, till we can get on a spell.”

Mr. Hill nodded. “Seems fair. I expect that they have some questions to answer before they go anywhere.”

And I rode out with Hannah Givens beside me. I didn’t know her well, but she had already shown me that she was a brave and intelligent woman. A month later, we were wed by a Moravian minister in Morganton.

I went back to New Sinai after about six months. The frame on Judgment Hill was gone. Hill was the new leader of the community. He told me that they had released Myers’ men, but not before they had told the truth about their pasts. They had also told the villagers that Myers had brought them there to look for an emerald mine that had supposedly been found by a Spanish prospector who had later been killed by a Catawba war party. Hill said that they had located the mine, filed a claim and were working it themselves.

A year later, they were attacked by the Cherokee, but I heard that they came through alright.

That was the last I heard of New Sinai. I don’t know if it is still there or not. Right after I heard about the Indian attack on the village, Hannah and I decided that things were getting a little too crowded for us in the Blue Ridges. We had heard of the Mississippi and wanted to see it and maybe what lay beyond.

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