The Brothers of Logan County
When Martin Cheney is killed on his Oklahoma land claim, retribution comes from an unexpected source
Martin Cheney stood on a hillock at the edge of his claim, looking out over the eastern trail to see a small cloud of dust raised by a lone rider. It was a warm, muggy August afternoon in Logan County in the Oklahoma territory, some hazy sunshine, and no rain for weeks. Cheney stood looking, waiting. He knew who the rider was.
After a while, he quit looking and went back to the old wagon he had been using as shelter before he built himself the temporary log cabin.
Ignoring the rifle leaning against the one remaining wheel, he picked up the double-barrel and grabbed some shells. He was no good with a rifle. Brought it with him to hunt game but so far had only managed to kill mud and trees. He was, after all, a physician and not a sharpshooter. Almost shot a wild turkey one morning in the woods but hadn’t seen another since.
There’d be no frightening away this bird, he thought. The shotgun was more to boost his own courage than to offer any real threat to the unwanted visitor. He slid a shell into each barrel. It was his best bet. He thought about trying to enlist the help of the local law. 'Local' being at least six miles northwest in Guthrie and he was not sure the deputy would take too kindly to being called away to a claim dispute.
The rider reached the top of the rise as Cheney came back to the edge of his claim, still unfenced. He stood sentinel on the line he had scraped in the dirt, shotgun clutched across his chest. He hadn’t felt so alone since his dear wife Martha had died, near two years before. As he continued to wait, he thought of all she had said about his dreaming, about how he would never make a farmer, even if he did ever find some land to farm. Well, at least he had some land, even if he hadn’t yet broken sod. It was too late to sow this year, in any case. All he could do was try to prepare a field or two for after the thaw. That is, if he could survive the winter. His shooting would need to improve to have much hope of that, unless he could stretch out the dry goods he had bought with the last of his money. He shuddered at the thought of growing hungry as well as lonely over winter. He put the thoughts of growing and hunting aside as he watched the horse reined in a hundred paces away. A safe enough distance with his shooting.
“Stay where you are, Brooker,” he called, trying not to let the waver in his voice be heard. “You have no business here.”
“Don’t be a fool, Cheney, I offered you a fair price to drop your claim.”
“I don’t want your money, Brooker. I came out here to stake my claim and make a future for my family.”
“Family? What family, Cheney? Your wife is cold in her grave and your young’uns are clear back in Texas.
At mention of his wife, Cheney levelled the shotgun, pointing directly at Brooker, who was startled at this unexpected show of violence from the clerk, or apothecary, or whatever he was.
“Don’t you speak about my wife.”
“Hey, take it easy. That thing’s liable to go off,” said Brooker, clearly rattled.
“It will if you don’t turn around and go back where you came from.” At this, Cheney sighted the weapon on the other man’s chest.
Brooker thought about drawing his Army issue Colt, but then thought better of it. Cheney would probably miss at that distance, but the pellet spread might still catch him. He wasn’t going to chance provoking the man into firing, but he didn’t want to back down either. Instead, he tried reasoning.
“Put the gun down, Old man, and let’s talk, like civilised people oughta.”
“Nothing to talk about, Brooker. On your way.”
He could see he was getting nowhere and was about to turn around and go back, when Cheney, gripping the stock of the shotgun too tightly, managed to loose-off a barrel. The shot exploded into the air, scaring the horse and causing it to rear up.
Cheney was knocked back by the recoil, unprepared as he was. But as both men gathered themselves and Brooker brought his horse under control, the stand-off took a turn for the worse. Brooker, controlling the horse with his left hand, drew the revolver from across his body with his right and, cocking it, aimed it at Cheney. Although the gesture was intended to defend against a second shot, Cheney, fearing retaliation, fired a second time, this time too close for comfort. Brooker, feeling the shot whistle past his right cheek fired back, hitting Cheney in the abdomen. He cocked the weapon again, forgetting that Cheney had already fired both barrels and was now defenceless.
Cheney doubled up, dropping the shotgun to clutch at his middle, blood oozing from the wound. Brooker, shocked by the outcome, looked about him, as if seeking assistance, or assurance that he had acted in self-defence. None was forthcoming. He considered how it would look in court. It wouldn’t look good, shooting a man defending his land, even though the claim was disputed. He hesitated. Then he started to dismount to see if he could help but stopped. He had to get away. He panicked, turning the horse while trying to shove the Colt back in his belt, remembering at the last moment to de-cock the hammer before he shot himself in the belly. The horse continued to turn right around, and Brooker saw Cheney had fallen to his knees, groaning. He dug in his heels as the horse leaped away into a gallop, still alarmed from the crack of the shots.
Cheney continued to groan, louder as the initial shock of the bullet cutting through his abdomen gave way to a searing pain. He started to feel faint from loss of blood and heeled over onto his side, still doubled up, now in agony. But the agony started to recede as he slipped into unconsciousness, first feeling a dreadful, bitter cold and then warmer, as if laid out in front of a fire.
Yes, that was it, he was back home, safe and sound in Texas, sitting before the fireplace. And there was Martha at his side, smiling at him. His daughter must be asleep in the back room that doubled as a surgery and dispensary during the daytime, when Cheney was working. Though warm, he felt a little dreamlike and his thoughts were hazy.
Was he awake or asleep? He remembered a dream he had so, surely, he must be awake. He spoke to his wife of it.
“Last night I had a dream, Martha. It was a strange dream. I saw many things I wouldn’t expect to see.”
“Martin Cheney, you are always dreaming,” said his wife. “What was it this time?”
“It was you and I, my darling, both of us sitting in thrones. Sitting in thrones we were, side by side, holding hands, both of us, in thrones. Great silver thrones and surrounded by great tables of food. All manner of food. There was fruit and grain and vegetables and all the produce of the land, just harvested and set out on display.”
“Sounds like one of your farming dreams, again, my husband. And you a physician who has never tilled the land nor driven cattle or even held a spade for all I know,” she laughed.
“But that’s not the strange thing, Martha, not the least bit of it.”
“Well, what was so strange in this dream of farming that you have near every night?”
“You were the strange thing, my dearest wife, you were.”
At this, Martha looked a little stern at her husband, at being described as strange.
Seeing the expression on her face, Cheney was quick to explain.
“No, it wasn’t you that was strange, it was what you were wearing. You were wearing the links. The Odd Fellow links. You were wearing this badge that was given to me when I joined the Odd Fellows’ society, back in Ludwick.”
Cheney was fingering the silver and brass pin he was wearing in his lapel, the three linked rings of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. The three links symbolising friendship, love and truth.
“And why on Earth would I be wearing such a thing, Martin?” Asked his wife, not unreasonably, since she had no interest in the strange organisation, with its meetings and rituals, that Martin insisted on attending whenever there was work to be done.
“Yes, that’s the strange thing. That you were wearing the links and not I. Perhaps we are to be a farming family after all, and perhaps you will join the Rebekahs and the lodge will help us to find some land to call our own.
“Yes, and perhaps we will all be rich one day but right now we have to do what we can to make ends meet and to feed and clothe our child.” At this she smiled and put her hand to her waist saying, as if addressing the growing form within, “our children.”
Cheney knew it was the time to stop talk of his ambition to acquire some land and make their fortune. Not just food, but valuable money crops such as tobacco or cotton. They could continue the discussion another time. Right now, was the time to go to his wife and show her all the love and affection she needed to prosper with their child to be. Though he dearly loved his daughter, he hoped the new baby would be a boy.
He continued to touch the links in his lapel badge as he lay in the dirt and the blood, recalling that his wife had died of fever, two years before, and that he was not in the warm house in Texas, but lying on the cold, cold ground. He could feel his life ebbing away, with his ambitions. He feared for his children, left with a friend’s family in Waco, who would never know what happened to their father. Would they inherit his claim, make it their own? How could they? They could hardly create a working farm out of this wilderness, even if they came to learn of its existence.
He thought of his plans, the long train ride to the border of the unassigned lands, the wild run on horseback. He was no more a horseman than he was a farmer, but he knew he could find the claim he was looking for, 160 acres of virgin land. Making a farm out of the raw scrub, stunted trees and untilled rock-covered dirt would be hard work but he knew he could do it. Two years, three years at most, and he would send for the children to join him. He missed his wife, but he had to make a go of it for his children.
But it was no good now. All had come to nought. His dreams at an end. He had failed his wife and had failed his children. No land, no farm, not even a fence to mark the claim, just four posts and a whole lot of space between. The land would be taken, uncontested, by Brooker, his murderer. As his life seeped into the ground, Cheney was conscious only of the lapel pin he still touched, as if an amulet, as if, magically, the three rings could restore to him everything that he had lost to the leaden intruder that had sealed his fate.
Such were the despairing thoughts of a dying man. As he breathed his last, Cheney was unaware of the second visitors of the day. A family of five, tired after a long drive, their only possessions with them in the covered wagon, rolling along the trail, the wagon swaying over the uneven ground. They were making a long trek to the town of Guthrie, where the father hoped to ply his trade as a carpenter and joiner. They came most of the way in company with other wagons, a wagon train, for protection and company. But now they were inside Logan county, they felt safe enough to set out on their own to Guthrie, then hardly more than a few miles away. The rest of the wagon train was headed out further west.
“Nearly there now, kids,” said the father, “just a few miles more.” The three children, who had started the long, hard, journey excited about their new home in the west, were now bored and dispirited. All three sat with their legs dangling over the back of the wagon, tired and listless. The eldest became restless and lowered himself down from the moving wagon and began to jog alongside, dodging the rocks and the scrub beside the meagre trail.
He was a boy who took an interest in all around him and so it was no surprise when, looking out toward the horizon, he saw in the distance a broken down wagon with some tools alongside and what looked like a bundle of clothing or an animal lying there.
“Hey, Ma, Pa,” he called. “Look out there.”
At first sight the mother and father saw nothing of note. They had seen other land claims as they ventured through the county and were not inclined to take much interest.
The boy wasn’t going to be ignored and was prepared to exaggerate his find to attract attention. Of all the possible explanations for the bundle, he thought a dead body would be the most exciting.
“Pa! I think it’s a body lying there. I can see a dead body.”
The parents peered out over the distance to the claim but could see little that they could identify as human. They knew their son had clear eyesight as witness his accuracy with a rifle. By then, the other two children had leapt down and ran up to a small hillock to see for themselves.
It being no trouble to steer off the track over an area of fairly even ground, the father headed in the direction of the claim and, as they approached, he stood up on the box, reins in hand and he could see that it was indeed a body. He handed the reins over to his wife and leapt off the toe board, having said he would go along and see what there was. He motioned the older boy to come with him.
Father and son walked over to the claim to find the recently dead Cheney still lying doubled up and with his hand still over the pin. Without prompting, both of them took off their hats out of respect.
“He’s been shot, Pa,” said the boy, seeing the wound and the patch of blood on the clothes and in the dirt. The father was already looking around for any danger, but it looked as if a rider or riders had come and gone, leaving hoofprints a hundred or more paces away. They hadn’t come any nearer. Seeing no danger, he started to look for something to cover over the body and found a rolled up tarpaulin. After a brief conference with his wife, they decided it would not be Christian to leave the body where it lay, so that they must take it into town and report to the authorities. It looked like the man had been murdered by an unknown rider.
For this reason, the covered wagon’s first stop when they arrived in Guthrie was the County Sheriff’s office, where the deputy wrote down the particulars and viewed the body, agreeing that the man had clearly been shot through the abdomen and appeared to have died from his wounds. Having written down all the details, as well as his poor writing and unsteady hand would allow, the deputy thought what he would do with the body and decided to put it, still wrapped in the tarpaulin, in the cell. There were no residents at the time. The deputy thanked the good people for bringing the body in and assured them that enquiries would be made and that, whatever the outcome, the man would receive a Christian burial in the town cemetery.
When the Sherriff arrived later, the deputy told him about the apparent murder and the Sherriff spent some time going over the details. When they both went to the cell and the Sherriff briefly uncovered the body, he noticed the links pin. “What’s this?” He asked, pointing to it.”
“Looks like some kinda badge, to me,” said the deputy, who had failed to notice it before.
“I can see it’s a badge, Billy. Didn’t you notice it?”
Before the deputy could reply, the Sherriff explained that the three linked rings badge was worn by members of the Odd Fellows society, which was an ancient society of respectable citizens that looked out for each other.
“Ride over to Coyle and ask Jed Franklin if he could come by some time to see if he can identify the body. Looks to me like that Cheney fella, what came up on the train for the Land Run. His claim was disputed by one of them Sooners, but I don’t recall the name of the man who disputed it.”
“Whatdya mean he was an odd fella, chief? What was odd about him?”
“Jus’ git over to Coyle and bring back Franklin, if he don’t mind, none. Tell him one of his brothers has been murdered. That’ll bring him over.”
Sure enough, later that day, Franklin rode back with the deputy, keen to find out who had been killed.
“I don’t recognise him, Abe.” You know we have no members in Guthrie. If he came in on the train and has been working out on his claim, I doubt if he has had time to look up any of the brothers in these parts.”
Given where the body was found, the Sherriff was certain it was Cheney and informed the Logan County Coroner of the death and the circumstances, and gave the identification as one Martin Cheney who filed the claim six miles South East of Guthrie. Nobody knew where he came from and nobody knew who his kin were, but Franklin was determined to find out.
News of the death travelled fast. To be murdered over a claim caused a lot of interest at the time and the Coroner expressed his desire that the death would be thoroughly investigated. This was reported in the Logan County Examiner and the story was sent over the wire so that it could be covered in neighbouring counties and other states, which it was. So that, when Franklin announced a purse to give Cheney a decent funeral, not only did many Odd Fellows (or ‘Brothers’ as they were known) from other states contribute, but they turned up for the funeral. A Brother, name of Schiegel, took possession of the pin and sent over to Arkansas City for a casket as befitting one of their own. When the day of the interment came, Brother Cheney, as they referred to him, received a proper fraternal burial.
But the help of the brotherhood did not stop there. Lodges of the Order located in the surrounding states and territories were contacted to ask them to seek out the family, which did not prove easy as they had little information to go on. Meanwhile, the brothers arranged for another family to rent and farm the land, to prevent any further incursions. Franklin arranged to pursue the claim in court on behalf of the absent family and was eventually successful, holding the certificate in trust upon the safe return of the land’s rightful owners, once they had been found. And found they were.
After several years they found the two children in Waco, Texas. By which time they were full grown, and the daughter, who was older, was about to marry an honest, hard-working Waco man. The brothers who had attended Cheney’s funeral welcomed Cheney’s children Levia and Herbert, like they were long lost family. Herbert and Levia’s husband, Thomas Loan, both joined what had become, after the funeral, the first Odd Fellows lodge of Guthrie.
They all stayed together on the farm their father had marked out in the dirt, 160 acres, for a while at least, before Herbert moved, first into a hotel in Guthrie, and then into his own home in the town, once he had found himself a wife.
The first thanksgiving after Herbert had married found both couples in the log cabin that Martin Cheney had started to build when he first arrived on his claim, completed at last by Thomas, and Herbert, in between extending fields and moving rocks.
“Well what do you think, men?” asked Levia, as her husband and brother appeared, freshly washed after a morning in the fields. She and her sister-in-law, Sarah, had spent the morning decorating the room and the table, which was festooned with all manner of flowers and fruits, with gaily twisted ribbons and brightly colour paper. But it was not the table that Levia referred to. Rather, the chairs they had set out, not four chairs but six, and the chairs at either end had been decorated more elaborately than the table itself.
“Who are them other two chairs for?” asked Thomas, in all innocence.
Herbert placed a sympathetic arm around Thomas’s shoulders and explained.
“They are for mother and father, aren’t they, Lev?”
“That’s right, brother, she said.” They are for mother and father, who are still with us and whom we still love, and we want to share this meal with them, to honor them as we give thanks to God for our blessings.”
They would certainly honor their parents, thought Herbert, admiring the silver thread and the beads wound around the top of each chair. And the wheat sheaves tied around the edges, and cleverly arranged vegetables and fruit.
“Thrones they are, sister” said Herbert, with an expression of awe. “Great silvery thrones.”
Herbert and Sarah moved out of Guthrie, eventually settling in Missouri. But they always returned to the family farm for thanksgiving, and those who gathered always felt the presence of Herbert and Levia’s parents, as if they were truly sitting there and enjoying the family thanksgiving.
Of their father’s murderer, they never spoke. They always took it as an act of faith that if the law did not catch up with him, Providence would. The law never did catch up with Brooker but, in a way, Providence had. There was no way the Cheneys and the Loans would have known that, a few years after they had claimed their murdered father’s land, their father’s murderer met his own end.
After drifting for several years, afraid to show his face again anywhere near Logan County, Brooker had gotten into a drunken argument over a game of cards. As the fight spilled out into the street, guns were drawn, and shots were fired. Nobody was hit, both men being too drunk to shoot straight but Brooker was badly injured when, as he pulled the trigger, an over-charged cartridge exploded in his hand.
Hearing the commotion in the mud street, the barkeep came out of the Saloon and ran off to rouse out the barber, who dressed the wound, binding it is some filthy rags he had previously used to clean up the barber shop. So it should be no surprise that, rather than heal, the bloody and badly burnt wound got worse. After a few days, gangrene set in and there was nothing to be done with it. Brooker lay in his bed, shaking with fever, his hand barely recognisable as such, oozing foul fluids and stinking of the rottenness of death. In his last days, barely conscious, Brooker thought of Cheney, the man he had killed with his gun hand, the hand that was being eaten away and would soon consume his own life. He thought how, having killed another man, the murderous hand would now claim its second and final victim. As he lay there, barely able to move, Brooker raised the bandaged, putrid limb and spoke to the hand beneath the rags:
“Vengeance is mine, sayeth the hand.”
© Raymond G. Taylor, 2022, all rights reserved. The author has asserted his right to be identified as the author of this work.
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