Story by Michael Carter
Illustration by L.A. Spooner
Liver-Eatin’ Johnson had a bad rap, Sheriff Kinney discovered. Sure, Jeremiah Johnson was also known as the Crow Killer, and history would accurately remember him by that name. But livers, well, that was another thing.
After the Crow tortured and scalped his wife, a Flathead squaw, Kinney found the first bodies outside of Red Lodge. Johnson didn’t take credit, but the timing of the killings—shortly after he had discovered his mutilated wife—was suspect. To be sure, Kinney stuck his finger into the purple holes of the Crow’s chest and pulled out slugs. They were the caliber and kind Johnson packed into his Hawken.
Payback’s a bitch, Kinney always said. He knew he had to let Johnson even the score. Heck, he didn’t want Crow terrorizing his people, either. But, he also knew they might all die if they had to take on the Crow full-scale. This was Crow territory. There had to be a balance in the retribution.
When Kinney found another set of bodies, however, he realized Johnson wasn’t done. They, too, carried Hawken slugs, and the heads were scalped. The wrath didn’t stop there, however. Blood trailed from under the buckskin tunics of the slain Crow. Kinney lifted the tunic flaps, revealing hollowed areas in the sides of the abdomens. Their livers were missing.
Rumor traveled quickly that Johnson was not only taking but eating the livers. It appeared Johnson was after more than revenge; he wanted fear. It was time to curtail the warpath.
— ♦♦♦ —
Working off tips from trappers and other mountain men, Kinney hunted Johnson down. He found him gutting a trout under cottonwoods on the river’s edge of the Musselshell.
“Jeremiah, you got every right to a beef with the Crow, but you can’t carry on with this killing. You’re gonna start a war we can’t win, lessen the Feds send the Calvary,” Kinney said as he approached.
“An eye for an eye, you know the rules, Good Sheriff.”
“Now listen, you got your eye, you got handfuls of ‘em. I know what you lost, but if you keep killin’, they’re gonna come fer us all. Plus, revenge killin’ is one thing, but what in God’s name are you doing takin’ livers? You’re losing your mind out here.”
“I never took no livers,” Johnson retorted as he slid his knife down the belly of the fish. He gripped under the lower jaw, looked to Kinney, and yanked back, ripping the entrails from the fish.
“That’s not what they say, and they say you’re eatin’ ‘em as well. I know what you’re doing, but you can’t scare Crow off their own land.”
“Don’t even like liver, to begin with,” Johnson said as he ran his fingernail down the spine inside the cavity of the fish, cleaning out the bloodline into the river.
“Let this pass, Jeremiah,” Kinney said while saddling up. As he left, a red plume trickled downstream, swirling with the sparkling water of the Musselshell.
— ♦♦♦ —
The liver-less bodies kept stacking up throughout the plains. Johnson was known to be an honest man, but he never denied killing the Crow and who else would take the livers? Going after him, however, could be as bad as taking on the Crow. Kinney needed more evidence.
Earlier that summer, a man from back East had come through Red Lodge. He was a city guy, but he had enough frontier smarts to arm himself while on the trail. He had registered his firearms with Kinney when he first came to town. He said he was an artist, experimenting with a new photography method that would make him rich.
When Kinney returned to Red Lodge Jail after his visit with Johnson, he found the man in his office. His face was rigid and pale, its ghastly white hue permeating through even his sunburned cheeks. He said he captured something in a photograph he thought the Sheriff should see. Something “disturbing.”
“I took this outside of Absarokee while photographing the bison. When I developed it, I saw this,” the man pointed to a speck on the corner of the photograph.
Kinney squinted. He saw a shape nestled in the prairie grass.
“Been all over the world, photographed all kind and manner of strange things, but I’ve never seen anything like it,” the man said.
Kinney used his pocket magnifier to look closer. A body was on the ground. He closed the magnifier loupe and then extended the next higher-powered loupe.
It was Crow. He could tell by the hair length. He moved to the next loupe.
A dark area shaded part of the abdomen, where you’d find the liver. Johnson, Kinney thought. He moved to the next loupe.
Sure enough, the abdomen was sliced open in a semicircular fashion. But the cut was jagged, not clean.
Kinney noticed something lingering behind the body. He directed the loupe toward it.
A figure crouched behind the Crow. It had arms, legs, and . . . a tail. Kinney extended the final, highest-power loupe and held it over the figure’s head.
Kinney’s heart skipped. A creature stared back at him with black beady eyes. It had a thin nose and an oval-shaped mouth.
He peered closer. Rows of triangular teeth filled the mouth, and dark lines dripped down the lower jaw. It was smiling.
— ♦♦♦ —
It wasn’t Johnson taking the livers, after all, Kinney thought as he lay in bed that night, the photograph safely distanced from him on a table across his cabin. I’ll catch some z’s and mull over what to do in the morning.
As he drifted, he heard the Crow call from the buttes outside of town. He knew they wouldn’t attack at night; it wasn’t their style. But their call meant they would come at some point, with vengeance.
And they did.
Kinney was greeted in the morning to news that a family was slaughtered near Bearcreek, and another in Joliet. Only one woman survived, the mother of the family in Joliet. Kinney’s deputies found her babbling nonsense, and she refused to leave her home despite the lingering threat of the Crow. They left her there with supplies, a pistol, and a rifle.
Later that day, a supply barge floated the Missouri. River Crow, a subset of the Crow Nation, would typically line the bluffs, showing their presence but allowing the barges to pass. Against the backdrop of the mountains, however, their silhouettes displayed drawn bows and tomahawks. Their faces wore tension and battle paint. They usually remained on the bluffs, but this time they descended to the river.
The first mate announced themselves as the barge drifted. He told them—in Crow—that they meant no harm, that they sought only safe passage. The River Crow heard, but it didn’t matter. They began their attack, slinging arrows and screaming war cries.
An arrow pierced through a deckhand’s eye and buried deep into his skull. He spilled overboard as he thrashed in pain. The River Crow pulled him from the water and, while on his knees, they struck down the side of his face with a hatchet, shaving off his ear and then slicing deep into his shoulder. The deckhand was armless a few moments later. The first mate looked away when they went for the scalp, while the captain yelled for a stoking of the steamer. The surge in power allowed for their escape while arrows glanced off the barge deck and pilot’s cabin.
The assaults did not stop. Over the next few weeks, several mountain men were ambushed. Not all of them lived. Johnson himself encountered two Crow attempting to take one of his traps. One tried to flee on horseback, but Johnson tore him from the horse while the other fled by foot. He drew his knife but hesitated. He could see in the Crow’s eyes what he wanted: fear.
“Tell your people we ain’t givin’ up, and we ain’t leavin’,” Johnson said while he slowly released his grip. The Crow ran, but then stopped and turned back to Johnson. He held out his hand in a sign of peace, and then he disappeared into a cedar grove.
As Kinney and his deputies continued to find the bodies from each incident, they bore the familiar hole in the side of the abdomens. A couple of the deputies encountered Johnson on the trail. He had scalps, but he continued to deny taking livers, truthfully, as Kinney expected he would.
“I don’t know what to say,” Johnson said while looking the deputies square in their eyes. “I ain’t takin’ heat, from either side, for something I didn’t do, no matter how much ill I will think they deserve. It’s probably that woman in Joliet. Some say she was going loco even before she watched her whole family die.”
— ♦♦♦ —
As chaos continued on the plains, the escalation neared a full-scale war. But Kinney was reluctant to make a plea for the Calvary as he feared they would arrive too late, or not at all. The nearest troops available for an uprising were outside of Fort Caspar, and they were consumed with chasing down a local man who had gone haywire and went on a killing spree of his mercantile competitors and their cattle.
Kinney decided to send a scout into the heart of Crow territory to meet with elders. He couldn’t risk his own scalp, so he sent his best translator, a half-breed the Crow would not touch. They would welcome him, but, being only part Crow, they would never force him to stay.
Knowing the truth, the only thing he couldn’t promise was a stop to the liver taking, or the liver eating for that matter. He told his scout everything else was on the table.
During negotiations, the Crow begged for a reprieve from taking the livers, saying they believed the removal of an organ also took a part of the deceased’s spirit, potentially blocking passage to the afterlife. Following orders, the scout said that was not negotiable. They nonetheless reached an agreement and called a truce. The Crow elders traded scalps with the scout and sent him back to Kinney with peace offerings, a demand, and a single message.
“What do they want?” Kinney asked when the scout sat down with him in Red Lodge.
“They ask that the Musselshell and parts of the Upper Missouri be left alone, and in return, they will let the mother from Joliet—they now call her ‘Crazy Woman’—live.”
“What about Johnson?”
“I don’t think you have to worry, Sheriff Kinney. They’re afraid of him. They said they would seek no further retribution against him.”
“Their message to you is clear: they said, ‘the one who takes the livers, he is big medicine.’”
— ♦♦♦ —
Having ended the killings on both sides, Kinney felt he could finally rest. He retired for the evening to his cabin. But before putting out his kerosene lamp, he treated himself to a full glass of nightcap. He pulled the cork from the decanter and poured the dark-red fluid into his volcano-shaped nightcap glass. The first sip burned the back of his throat, and it made its way down to light a fire in his belly. He’d sleep well tonight.
As he sat by his bed sipping his drink, the only noises of the quiet night were from raindrops drizzling on his sod roof. But that light, soothing, pattering was soon disrupted by a sound he heard when he was only at the highest elevations of the upcountry. They were yawing cries, like a dying cat, that made folks superstitious about the tall hills. Listening closer, he realized it was coming from inside the cabin.
He rose from his chair and traced the faint cries to the table where he’d left the photograph. He chuckled. The nightcap’s kicking in, he surmised, enough of it can make you think all sorts of weird things. His mind was playing tricks on him. But he figured those sounds, or ones like them, must be made when the livers are taken, perhaps even after the Crow were already dead. He stared at the gawdawful creature in the corner of the photograph, its grin barely visible to his naked eye. Having settled the score with the Crow, for now, he was thankful that such a thing existed.
To keep the peace, however, he needed all the savagery the Crow thought his people possessed. He held the photograph up to the light of his lamp. He moved it over the lamp and watched as the flames began to lick the corner. He held it until his fingers seared, dropped it into the metal pan under the lamp, and watched it burn.
They didn’t need just the Crow Killer; they needed Liver-Eatin’ Johnson. Some truths had to die.
— ♦♦♦ —
“Jack, you know Ace Heart.” It wasn’t a question. “You two are going to be working together on this one. We’ve got two dead bodies…”
Thompson had the stones to cut the captain off mid-sentence, “…then this is Homicide’s show. I don’t need a damn playing card form Looking Glass meddling with my investigation.”…Just another day in the life of a card trying to do his job