Riding Farther into Kansas, John Sprockett Beds Down for the Night: Spring, 1861
Maybe a month, the season turning
to spring, since I had it out with that posse.
I’ve not seen a soul, not even the tribes.
Maybe word’s gone round I’m not
to be trifled with: a man who might kill
the whole world even after I’ve avenged
Ma, Neddie, my darling Sarah, and Miz Wilton,
who just got in the way of the mayhem
that seems to scent me out like wolves.
Bad as I am, that posse was worse,
killing Neddie and Miz Wilton, for the fun
of dropping two lambs after their liquor
ran out: mean as just woke grizzlies.
Last I heard, the country’s barreling
toward war, maybe it’s started already,
and I’ll have to fight men I once called friends.
At least I’ve no family left to murder.
After Sarah and me ran off, she died
in that rotting barn in the rain, trying
to bring our baby into this world harder
than iron-drought prairie summer ground.
I wish we’d never met, never fell in love.
She’d be alive and I’d be Pa’s drudge—
but worth it if Sarah was still in the world—
‘stead of me being Pa’s murderer, for killing Ma.
Time to camp for the night. Past time
to fret over making a fire: too hungry to care.
Shoot, I’d welcome savages: If they don’t
kill you, they feel obliged to offer hospitality.
Camping by a Creek, John Sprockett Has an Unexpected Visitor: Kansas, Spring, 1861
I’d ate up the jerky I’d took off the posse
I turned into bloody rags for trying to kill me
and for murdering Neddie and Miz Wilton.
Still, those varmints’ deaths weigh on me;
I’m headed for the Rockies to live lonesome,
or maybe when war comes, if it ain’t already,
I’ll fight for one side or the other, and get killed,
the weight of my bloody soul finally lifted.
But now I snare a jack rabbit and roast it
over the fire I tickled with tinder and deadfall
from the cottonwoods leaning over the creek
like the witches in Mr. Shakespeare’s Macbeth,
then bed down for the night, sleep a mixed blessing
of dark nothing and dreams of the men I’ve killed
and my gone-to-heaven dear ones.
But I’m woke by my mount’s panic-shrieks;
its rearing rips off its hobbles and gallops to safety.
I hear the snuffling of something big. If I’m lucky,
it’ll move on, or maybe I’ll get the death I deserve.
But the stench of bear is like a row of latrines.
I edge my hunting blade out, and my .44—
the repeater useless without the bullets
I used up against the posse—and pray to the demon
that watches over me to make this monster
find me too scrawny for even a meager meal.
Strange, how just before, I’d welcomed death
but when I’m faced by the real, snorting thing,
how hungry I am to stay alive and in one piece.
Gone-Nose and John Sprockett Battle a Bear: Kansas, Spring of 1861
I been tracking that bear for days
when it snuffled around a white man’s camp,
him pretending to be dead, hoping the beast
might amble off: the white most likely
shitting himself; then rage and blood:
The bear raking his face, him screaming,
stabbing, the beast roaring, him firing.
Somehow, I leaped onto the grizzled god,
my knife plunging into its hump and sides,
him stabbing from below, emptying his sidearm
into the monster, then twisting free and slashing,
the beast flailing with claws big as cooking pots,
roaring past fangs longer than hunting knives.
Suddenly, it was in a heap, half the man’s face
ripped almost to the bone, bleeding
like a bison’s pierced heart. I found herbs
and spider webs for a poultice he screamed
to feel against his face; I mixed a sleep potion
and when he was finally breathing quiet,
I set about the butchering, drying strips
by the fire, feasting on the good, rich liver.
The women of his tribe won’t ever look at him
with longing again; like the women of mine
spat and cringed at my nose-stump, lance-pierced:
punishment for lying with a kinsman’s wife.
Lucky they didn’t take my root before prodding me
from our camp, those jabs their way of saying,
“Never show your filthy face around here again.”
Robert Cooperman’s latest book is Raised by the Devil (Lithic Press). Forthcoming is Lost in the Blood Dark Sea, from FutureCycle Press.