‘The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson’

crowkiller

Excerpt from the book follows:

[After returning from serving with the Union Army in the Civil War].

He and Del worked their trap lines incessantly and peaceably throughout the winter, with excellent luck. Their only unfriendly visitor was the twentieth and last of the Crows long since marked to kill Johnson. Even that adventure was not in Johnson’s usual heroic mold, for he was almost caught off guard, washing dishes.

Now the Crow Killer was noted throughout the Mountains for his skill in baking biscuits; and one morning in early March, when the partners were already considering taking in their sets for the winter, he decided to make enough biscuits to last till they should leave camp. Since there was only one large pan in camp, he spent most of the day at his amiable chore. The last batch was baked only along about mid-afternoon. In the last warmth of the daytime, Johnson ambled to the riverbank to scour the pan before packing it away. Fortune and, of course, instinct were with him. Bent over as he was, he could not be seen from the campsite. But as he worked away at the pan with cloth and sand, he sensed — smelled, as he put it — a familiar foe.

Humping along in squatting position to a clump of dried grass, the trapper could peer toward his camp. There he saw a gigantic Crow warrior stuffing biscuit after biscuit into his mouth yet scanning his horizon constantly, a naked knife in hand. Quickly setting his frying pan on the ground, Johnson crept stealthily along the riverbank, his plan of action already in mind.

Now despite the Crow’s vigilance, Johnson could easily have shot from behind the shelf of the riverbank or from behind his clump of dried grass. But he was concerned as much with making good his desire that every Crow must know the manner of his death, as with effecting the death itself. The Crow Killer must, then, stalk his quarry. He waded with utmost caution past the shelf and to a slope out of sight from the biscuits.

Before Johnson could reach him, the warrior had time pretty well to spoil the week’s planned catering. Then suddenly, as he stooped for yet another biscuit, he was propelled violently upward [from Johnson’s powerful kick]. Even as he was in the air he must have sensed what enemy had so surprised him, for though he came down balancing on the balls of his feet and whirled, knife in hand, he had already begun his death song. He could not have begun later. The Crow Killer’s Bowie [knife] was at once buried in his chest.

Johnson spared Del Gue another witnessing of his rites with the liver, but of course the biscuits he was warming “for Del’s supper” when his partner returned, were precisely those stained by the dead Crow’s blood; the Crow’s mutilated body still lay by the fire.

“Nothin’ fer me, Liver-Eatin’,” Del begged. “I kilt me a couple o’ sage hens down river.”

“Sage hens, my foot,” said Johnson; and for a time he insisted on detailing his own supper of warm biscuits and warm liver. But at last, letting up on his partner, he fell silent; and Del could reflect.

“Good God!” said Del. “This’n air number twenty.”

Johnson nodded.

“On yer trail fer ten y’ars!”

“Near fourteen,” Johnson told him.

Struck by the similarity of their thought, the partners fell to discussing the Crows. Even more admirable than Crow hardihood, they agreed, was Crow tenacity. For a warrior to spend so many years away from his family, on such a death trail, was marvelous indeed. The partners spoke of how many times he must surely have hidden near his village, to spy upon his family and watch his children grow. They considered, too, how as one by one the others of the chosen twenty died, loneliness must have come upon him more and more; for three years now there had been no fellow tribesman to whom he could speak. He had grown accustomed, no doubt, to warding off for himself all physical hunger and cold; but the hunger and cold in his soul must have passed all bounds.

It was Del who said, “I’m shore glad that’s over.” He stared bleakly at the brawny corpse before them and traced the slit in the abdomen with a dried weed.

Even Johnson had no more fun to make of his partner’s queasiness. Quietly he cut the twentieth notch in the rosewood handle of his Bowie.

Del apparently felt he must say some good word for his partner’s special habit. “They’s a doctor at ther Fort says liver gives people stren’th,” he said.

“Never hurt nobody,” the Liver-Eater agreed, but he turned the conversation more or less away from the day’s blood: “I’ll be bakin’ biscuits ag’in, t’morrer.”

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