Betsy convinced Maddie to have the suitors compete for her hand in marriage using the bow and axes. She made her way to the mantle where she kept a single key hidden on the underside of a massive mule deer mount. It had been one of his favorite hunts. She had watched him sit by the hearth and tell the story countless times to visiting hunters. With enthusiastic animation, he would act out every detail of the 6-hour stalk in the Badlands. She fancied watching his shadow cast upon the wall by light from the flickering fire as he crept through the sagebrush undetected. He was everything to her. She adored him.
Maddie retrieved the key and went with her sisters out back, to the shop where her husband’s treasures were kept. There were piles of flint, hickory, yew, and osage staves, horns, hides and the prize, his mighty osage bow and quiver full of deadly river cane arrows. His friend, Jethro, from Twin Oaks, had given him the bow.
Many years ago Sturgis and Jethro met at Cloverdale and quickly became good friends. Sturgis’s father had sent him to Cloverdale on a mission to recover 100 guineas that had been stolen by a traveling Bible salesman. Jethro had gone there to recover two mules that had been lost. The mules were ultimately the death of Jethro. He went to Barbee’s house asking about the mules and Wert was there – mighty Wert, who had performed prodigies of valor during the war and in contests with wild beasts since wholly becoming a mountain man and archer. Right there in Barbee’s house, in cold blood, Wert killed him and kept the mules for himself.
It was on this mission to reclaim the guineas and mules that Sturgis and Jethro became close friends. From the first campfire they shared, the men recognized that they were kindred spirits. They shared adventures of hunting wild beasts and trapping small critters for their pelts in the rocky high country to the west. Most of all they enjoyed describing picturesque views of nature that had been written in their memories for many years. Both men enjoyed the companionship, yet both preferred a life of solitude when it came to the hunt.
It was at that time that Jethro gave Sturgis the bow. It was no ordinary bow. Pappy, who actually made the bow, gave it to Jethro. The bow was hewn from osage harvested in the Midwest and backed with the sinew of a Tennessee Whitetail. The sinew was decorated with the skins of two copperheads, which Pappy had killed and skinned himself. The tips were overlaid with the horn of an elk taken by a man named York in Wyoming. The horns were a gift to Pappy. Despite the rough edges, the mountain men were generous to one another, and extremely loyal. Practical gifts were commonly exchanged when they visited one another.
The age and strength of the osage was evident by the deep golden tone of the wood. It was somewhat of an effective myth that Pappy always carried two sourwood arrows dipped in poison in his quiver – a story that kept trespassers at bay for decades. The arrows bore points that his friend Jesse knapped and dipped in the venom of the copperheads whose skins now decorate the bow. Pappy carried the bow for countless years, but gave it to Jethro at the Classic Rendezvous gathering in May many moons passed.
In return for Pappy’s bow and the quiver of arrows, Sturgis gave Jethro the legendary epic, Masters of the Barebow, which was the beginning of a close friendship, but they never got to hunt Michigan deer together because Wert killed Jethro before they could do so. Sturgis had carried the bow and used it to provide for his family for many seasons, but did not take it with him when he sailed for Africa to hunt the great water beast, choosing instead to leave it behind as a treasured gift from a close friend.
Maddie stood at the door of the shop, which had been sturdily built by Sturgis’s own hands. She turned the lock and entered the dusty room. Mounts hung from the walls; along with a Black Widow longbow that legend says Sturgis used to kill a ram at 57 paces while on a hunt in the high mountain peaks of the Hinterlands. She went to the cabinet where her husband kept his most precious treasures. She slowly opened the doors and retrieved the Safari Tuff case in which Sturgis kept the bow. She sat and wept with the bow across her knees. When she had regained composure she slung the quiver of arrows over her shoulder and left the shop.
As Maddie entered the barn, where the suitors waited, a quiet hush fell within. There, standing in front of them, was the prize they all sought. She laid the bow on the ground, along with the quiver of arrows and addressed the suitors.
“Listen to me, all of you, who persist in abusing the hospitality of this farm; you men who insist on taking my husbands place, assuming him dead in Africa. This is his bow and quiver of arrows. I will leave this farm with the man who can string the bow and shoot an arrow through the handles of 12 axes, which also lie before you. I will follow the man that can complete this task, though my dreams will remain with my Michigan farm.”
As she spoke two farmhands from the Northland, took the bow and quiver forward to the center of the barn, laid them on the floor and wept. Woody Smith scolded them for their tears, “You hillbillies quit your whimpering. It’s bad enough that she has to deal with the fact that her husband is dead and all of these suitors are losers, but now you are balling like a bunch of babies. Dry it up and get out of the barn, but leave the bow behind for us men to contend with for we shall find it no light matter to string the bow of mighty Sturgis. ”
These were the hollow words from his mouth as he insulted the house of Sturgis by pursing his wife, rudely behaving himself on the farm, and egging the other suitors on. Honestly, he spoke highly of Sturgis, but fully expected to quickly string the bow and complete the task thus claiming his prize. In fact he would be the first to taste death from Sturgis’s arrow.
Then Meritus spoke, “Good grief, what has come over me? Here is my mother saying she will leave the farm and marry a stranger and I am listening to jokes and laughing. But suitors, as my mother has stated, let the contest begin. The prize is a woman who has no peer, not in Cloverdale, Denton Hill, or the Western States. You know this as well as I do, but let us proceed with me going first. I, her son, will try the task first because if I can string the bow and shoot through the axes my mother can remain here on the farm.”
Meritus then sprang from his seat and placed the axes in a row so that all the heads were flush together and the handles lined up when propped against a rope tied across the barn. He then took the bow in his hands and placed the nock of the lower limb in the arch of his left foot. He grasped the string, which was looped over the top limb with his right hand and clasped the grip of the bow with his left. He took a deep breath and then with a vigorous effort he pulled hard with his left hand on the grip and pushed forward with his right hand while sliding the string forward on the limb towards the nock of the top limb. He moved the string to within five inches of the nock before having to rest. He tried again, this time coming to within two inches of stringing the bow. After another deep breath and a shake of his head he began to give it a go one final time. He would have strung the bow this time had it not been for Sturgis giving him a sign to stop.
“I am too weak or too young. I can’t string it. Okay, you men, who are older and stronger, give it a try and let’s get this over with.” He then sat the bow down and said, “Begin on this side of the barn and each of you try in turn.”
McCormick stood first and moved to the bow. He was the trader among them – a skilled merchant but lacking in strength and calloused hands. His round face and jowls shook as he strained with the bow. He made his try and quickly saw that he could not string it. Peering at the men he said, “Next man step forward and let’s be done with this task so that the prize may be won. Before the day is done this bow will be the death of many of us.”
With that McCormick sat the bow down on the ground and returned to his seat by a stall. Ben Johnson stood and rebuked him saying, “What kind of nonsense is that McCormick? You think this bow will be the death of many among us just because you can’t string it? That’s down right ridiculous. The one true thing is that you were not meant to be an archer, but there are men among us who will shoot an arrow from it in just a few minutes.”
Bear Fredrick then rose and said, “Let’s get on with this.” He ordered one of his minions to go to the farmhouse and get some lard.
“I’ll heat the bow and grease it. Then I will string it with ease.” The lard was delivered and he rubbed it into the osage. Then he boiled a kettle of water and steamed the wood. When the wood was hot to the touch he strained with all his might to string the bow, but to no avail.
Likewise, all the men tried to string the bow, but none among them had the strength to brace Sturgis’s bow. Only two men remained, Hatchet Jack and Livereatin’ Goff, the unofficial leaders and brutes of the horde.
It was at that time that the horse wrangler and trapper departed the barn and walked toward the corrals. Sturgis followed them and once they were out of ears reach he said to them, “I have a question for you men.”
“Yes,” said Darwin the wrangler.
“If God himself were to bring Sturgis back from the grave and present him here today would you fight for him or for the suitors?”
The trapper spoke first saying, “For Sturgis without a question. He is our friend and we long for his return.” Gus the trapper nodded his head in agreement.
“Well, now that I am sure that you’re still my friends, I will reveal myself to you. It’s me, Sturgis. After twenty long years in Africa I have returned to my farm and God willing I will end this suitor mob today. I am honored that after so many years you two remain loyal to me. If you help me today I’ll see to it that you get a house on my farm, a good string of horses and a fine selfbow, with which to provide for your family. Now, let me prove my identity to you. Here is the scar I received from the boar that cut me when I hunted the U.P. with LeClair.”
Sturgis then drew his rags aside and revealed the nasty scar. The wrangler and the trapper wept upon realizing that Sturgis had indeed returned. The men embraced.
“Now, we must move quickly. Return to the barn separately. The suitors will not want me to touch the bow so Gus you have to hand it to me as you pass it around the barn. Darwin, you tell the women to close the doors of the barn when we are inside and don’t open them no matter what they hear inside. Ensure that the doors can’t be opened.”
At that Sturgis returned to the barn and a few minutes later Darwin and Gus returned as well. Hatchet Jack was warming the bow by the fire to try and weaken the wood. When the bow was heated to the point that it was painful to hold Hatchet Jack strained to string it, but failed miserably. He said, “It cannot be done. It makes me furious that I can’t do it, not because it is such a difficult task, but because we are so weak compared to Sturgis. Our children and their children will remember this day and that enrages me.”
Livereatin’ Goff then spoke, “Nonsense Jack. Meritus, have your farmhands bring us your best goat so we can eat, drink and rest. Then send someone to get Will Harrison to come sing for us. Let’s rest and enjoy the evening for now and we’ll settle this in the morning.”
Sturgis then spoke, “Men, what Livereatin’ Goff has said makes a lot of sense. Rest yourselves for now, but in the mean time let me, an old and withered man, try and string the bow. Let me see if the strength of my youth still lies somewhere within my body.”
This infuriated Hatchet Jack, who feared that the old man might somehow string the bow and mess the whole thing up. “Sit down old man. You are lucky to even be here to witness what we are doing. You are a poor old beggar and you’d be wise to keep quiet and out of the way,” he scolded.
Maddie then spoke, “It is not right for you to treat this old man, a stranger on our farm, so rudely. Look at him. Do you really think he could take me home to be his wife even if he did string Sturgis’s bow?”
“Ms. Maddie,” Livereatin’ said. “It’s not that we are scared that he would try and take you off and make you his wife. It’s just that we don’t want a bunch of gossip going around that we, respectable men, came courting a brave man’s widow and could not string his bow, yet an old beggar man was able to do it.”
Chavez, the big Texan, then spoke up saying, “Who cares what people say? This old man says he is a legend of old so if God grants him the strength to string the bow, so be it. Let him have a try. If he stings it I’ll give him a quiver of my own arrows, a deerskin jacket and a plug of good bak’ker to chew.”
Meritus then took the floor. “Mother, leave this business to me. It is my right as the man of the house. You go back to the farmhouse and let me conduct this test.” Maddie thus turned and departed.
Gus picked the bow up and took it to Sturgis. “What are you doing you idiot,” one of the suitors said.
“Come on. Give an old man a try,” Sturgis said.
Darwin stepped aside and told the ladies to close the doors and not to open them no matter what they heard inside. This was men’s business and they should remain out until this matter was resolved. Darwin then ensured that the back doors were secured with rope and returned to his seat.
Sturgis inspected the bow thoroughly. He acted purposefully awkward, but secretly the master was happy to have his bow back in his hands. He then placed the bow under the arch of his foot and quickly slid the string up over the horn nock as easily as a duck treads water. Sturgis then plucked the string a couple of times and with a slight smile listened intently to the taut sound, like a musician using a tuning fork. Finally, he picked the arrow up, nocked it, drew the bow to his face, took aim and loosed the arrow. It traveled through all twelve handles and stuck in the tack room door. “It’s good to be home old girl. My strength has returned,” he proclaimed.
Sturgis then stood tall and strong, took another arrow from the quiver, and drew down on Woody Smith, who was about to take a drink of ale. Not one of them had felt threatened. No one feared that one man would dare take on a mob such as this, but before anyone could react the arrow struck Woody Smith through the neck. He fell over clutching his neck and the others jumped to their feet.
“You will pay for this, old man,” Livereatin’ Goff said, as he drew a 10-inch Bowie knife from its sheath.
“Fools,” Sturgis yelled. “Did you not think I’d come home from Africa? You have taken advantage of my farmhands, hunting my lands clean, fished my ponds dry, and planned to take my wife while I was still alive. Every one of you will die at my hand today!”
To be continued…..
Author’s note: For those unfamiliar this is a parallel story to Homer’s Odyssey Book 21. If you like the story be sure to look for the next chapter. Also, you might want to watch the movie, “O Brother Where Art Thou,” which is also a parallel to the Odyssey.