Western Montana, 1863
Elliott’s eyes crossed a bit as the barrel of Clara’s Volcanic pistol settled between his eyes. They were both panting, having just run from the nearby town of Cathe. Elliott trembled in fear, knowing what was to come. He was done running, and Clara was done chasing. This was it. It was over.
A breeze whispered through the trees of the dense, Montana forest that surrounded them. The sounds of the local law quickly approaching echoed in and out, like a pendulum of misconstrued justice swinging closer and closer, bound to knock them down. Clara wasn’t concerned in the slightest. She pulled the trigger. Click. Elliott chuckled. BANG. Elliott was silenced as the side of his head opened up and he fell to the bed of pine needles.
Clara, confused, noticed Teach nearby, still pointing her repeating rifle forward. She worked the the lever action, ejecting the empty shell with the dramatic flare that Clara couldn’t help but admire.
“Why did you do that?” Clara demanded, inspecting her pistol to see what went wrong.
“I told you,” Teach calmly explained, “revenge is a fool’s game.”
Clara discovered a tiny lead plug in her pistol, blocking the hammer from hitting the chambered bullet. Annoyed, she pulled it out and threw it at Elliott’s body.
“After what he did to you, and your family,” Clara justified.
“We’re free, now,” Teach interrupted. “But murder...is still murder. Even if you’re killing your owner, even if you’re killing him in the north…”
“Ain’t no such thing as freedom for people like us, people who look like us,” Clara counter-interrupted. “Murder will always be murder, sure, but…”
“This was my errand, and now it’s my burden.”
“Teach, we gotta go.”
“No, you do.”
“No sense in both of us getting lynched. Go, now.”
Clara didn’t know what to do. The sounds of the local law were louder. They were closing in. Clara had to make a decision.
“Teach, come on.”
“Clara, show me that you’ve learned from me. Show me that everything I’ve taught you over the years meant something, please. You helped me find him, but don’t be a fool. Be better than that. Be better than them.”
Clara began to tear up. She couldn’t imagine leaving her mentor behind, but she wanted to make her proud. She took a step back, holstering her pistol. Teach gave her a reaffirming nod. Everything would be okay. Clara, reluctantly, turned and ran, narrowly avoiding their pursuers.
With a heavy heart, she watched from a distance as the officers chained her up and took her away. It was autumn of 1863, nearly a year after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and still, Clara had to watch her mentor and best friend be shackled and dragged away, likely to her death. Anger welled up inside her like a storm brewing on the horizon as they threw her into a prisoner wagon and rode away.
The next day, Clara walked through the nearby town of Cathe, searching for a purpose in a country that seemed to be doing the same. Try as she might, she just couldn’t shake the thought of Teach being dragged away. It nagged at her like a persistent insect.
As she made her way through the town, she lit herself a cigar. She stared at it, admiring the fine craftsmanship of it that slowly burned away in her hands. She took a long drag, savoring the smoke, getting lost in it. It calmed her, if only for a moment. The hard work of those tobacco farmers burned away with each drag she took. As she wandered through the streets, dodging the horses and wagons that passed her, she noticed a dandy-looking gentleman adorning the front of the town hall with a handmade poster. She approached it curiously.
Notorious outlaw Jennifer “Teach” Beacher is to be hanged at the town square of Arlen on the morning of the 16th of October.
Clara stared at the poster, close to tears. Her emotions stirred in her heart and head. She took another drag and blew smoke on to the poster, covering it, before turning and whistling for her horse. Arlen was on the other side of the state. It would take her almost two days to ride there, and she only had two days until Teach’s hanging. She would have to ride hard to catch up with them.
She stormed out of Cathe and into the untamed Montana wilderness. The first day was spent just riding along the trails. She rode through forests and fields and past farms and homesteads. She saw people living their lives the best they could. Clara dreamed of what a life like that could be like. She dreamed of a quiet, simple life, away from things like revenge and redemption. As much as she longed for that easy life, it was far from what she knew. She knew how to fight and she knew how to run. She fought and ran from her plantation in the South, she fought and ran her way into Cathe to catch Elliott, and she was now fighting and running her way to Arlen. Despite all of that, however, she still wasn’t quite sure who she was fighting or what she was running from. Or perhaps she was running to something.
As the sun began to set behind the mountains and shadows crept across the countryside, Clara found a place to set up camp. It was a small clearing, just on the edge of a forest. She made a fire, set up her tent, fed her horse, and sat down to rest. She proceeded with her nightly routine of cleaning her pistol. The smell of the gun oil always soothed her. She wiped down the barrel and hammer, being careful to get every nook and cranny. Once satisfied, she admired the weapon, aiming it ahead of her.
She spied a small sapling, with a trunk not much bigger than a piece of rope, sprouting up out of the ground a ways away. With an eerily steady hand, she carefully aimed at the sapling and pulled the hammer back. Without flinching, she fired a shot. BANG. She hit the sapling about halfway up, severing it completely. She looked satisfied with herself.
Her horse whinnied behind her, spooked by the gunshot.
“Shhhh girl, it’s okay.” Clara got up to comfort her horse. She patted her on the side of her head and fed her an apple. She calmed down. “Sorry girl. I won’t do that again.”
Clara spent the next day riding once again, making her way across the state to Arlen. She would stop every once in a while to let her horse rest and to rest herself. She didn’t like to rest for too long, though. Being left alone with only her thoughts usually led to more delusions of grandeur, dreaming of farming and leisure. They were foreign thoughts that forced themselves into her mind and teased her. She kept riding.
That night she found a spot to camp alongside a tranquil lake. She sat by the fire, cooking some rabbit meat she bought from a butcher. It wasn’t delicious, but she savored it and respected the work that went into preparing it. The butcher had to hunt it, skin it, cut up the meat, and package it, just for Clara to put it in a fire and eat it. It was an ironically anti-climactic end to something that undoubtedly required a lot of hard work.
As Clara cleaned her pistol that night, she spied another little sapling nearby. Once she finished wiping down her weapon, she aimed it at the sapling, pulling back the hammer. Her breathing slowed and her outstretched arm was as steady as a redwood. As her finger danced with the trigger, preparing for the dip, her horse snorted behind her.
Clara smiled, releasing the hammer back up and lowering her pistol. She turned and patted her horse.
The next morning, Clara rode up over a hill that revealed the town of Arlen on the other side. It was a small livestock town, not much different from Cathe. There were some farms on the outskirts and a cluster of buildings and houses in the middle. Clara sped up and rode in, getting lost in the traffic of wagons carrying supplies in and out.
It didn’t take her very long to find the town square. Right at the center of town there was a large clearing with a stage in the middle. A crowd of people had formed around it, eagerly awaiting their morning entertainment. Clara had made it just in time. She hitched her horse nearby and noticed a ladder on the side of one of the buildings. She wandered over to the ladder, looking as casual as could be, and scurried up without anyone noticing.
On the roof of the building, she had a clear view of the town square. She had a clear view of the crowd, which was getting bigger by the second. She had a clear view of the street, which allowed wagons full of lumber, livestock, and Black prisoners to be moved to and fro. Clara watched as the wagon carrying Teach pulled up alongside the crowd. Everyone became excited. The show was about to begin.
They pulled her out and dragged her up onto the stage. She looked peaceful. She didn’t fight them. She just went along. A pompous man dressed in a suit addressed the crowd.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he bellowed. “Today we show you the swift arm of justice. A working man from Cathe was murdered just a couple of days ago, at the hands of this woman. We allowed her into our state. We gave her freedom, and this is what she chose to do with it. And she must pay the price, just as any free man or woman does.”
Teach was moved to the center of the stage. One of the other men slipped the noose around her neck and tightened it. Clara pulled out her pistol and aimed it at the rope. She steadied her arm and lowered her breathing, concentrating, letting the iron sights settle right on the rope in the distance.
“Jennifer Beacher, have you any last words?” the man inquired.
“I’ve spent most of my life seeking justice for the things that had been done to me, and to those I loved,” Teach began. “But what I’ve learned is that rectifying the past isn’t justice; it’s revenge. Moving forward despite the past, that’s justice. At least, it is to me.”
The pompous man nodded and motioned to the other man, who was standing by a large lever on the stage. Clara, still pointing her pistol at the rope, watched as the man yanked the lever, releasing the trap door that Teach was standing on. Clara pulled the trigger. Click. The tiny iron plug that she had put in her pistol the night before while cleaning it stopped the hammer from hitting the chambered bullet.
The trap door opened and Teach fell through. The rope went taut.
Clara holstered her pistol and climbed back down, finding her way back to her horse. She patted her.
“Alright, Jenny,” she said to her. “Let’s go home.”
Clara rode out of town, back into the wilderness to continue dreaming of a simple, easy future with just a bit more clarity than before.