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It was a chilly day on the road from Independence, Kansas. Ellie Loncher was cold and upset. She worried that a blizzard would blow up and kill them. “Can’t we stop, Papa?”
“There’s no where to stop around here,” he responded.
Ellie peered off to her right. “I see a house! Could we stop? Please?” She wanted to get out of the stuffy buggy.
Ellie’s father, George, obliged his little girl. Ever since her mother had died he couldn’t help giving in to her. George would give anything for him and his daughter to be happy once more. They were on their way now to Iowa to live with her grandparents.
A young woman met them coming off the road. She had dark curly hair and eyes that shone like fire. Here mere presence commanded attention. “Hello, sir, what can I do for you?”
“My little girl and I need to rest for a bit. Could we buy a meal or something?”
The woman’s smile dazzled him. “You came to just the right place! This is the Bender Inn you’ve stopped at! I am Kate Bender and we’ll get a hot meal right away!” She lifted Ellie out of the wagon and set her on the ground. “My brother will help your daddy unhitch the horse and meanwhile I can introduce you to my mother! She loves having little girls around!” The woman grabbed Ellie’s hand and walked toward the cabin. For some reason, Ellie felt uncomfortable with this woman who held her hand so hard. There was something not quite right in her eyes.
Ellie stared at the tiny cabin as she came in. The dining table was right up against a curtain divider and it all seemed very cramped. She saw a wood-burning stove and store shelves filled with groceries. “Why do you have that curtain?” Ellie asked.
“Just for a bit of privacy between our home and the store,” Kate answered breezily. Her mother was cooking something on the stove. She was an older, heavy woman who only grunted when she saw Ellie. “My ma doesn’t know much English,” Kate told Ellie, “so don’t be worried when she doesn’t talk to you a lot.” Kate set Ellie down in the chair on the left side of the table against the wall. She got her a plate of cornmeal mush and gave it to Ellie. Ellie didn’t know why but she was very hesitant to eat anything the Benders gave her, especially Kate.
Papa came in with two men. “Ellie,” Papa said, “This here is Mr. Bender,” he pointed to the older man, “and his son, John Junior.” Old Mr. Bender glared at Ellie and went behind the curtain. John sat down across from her. “Haf a seat, George.” John spoke very slowly with a slight German accent. Papa sat at the head of the table right against the curtain.
“How old are you, Ellie?” Kate asked as she ladled some mush for Papa.
“I’ll be eight next month,” she answered politely.
“Did you know that I can contact the dead, dear girl?”
Ellie tensed up. She immediately thought of her dead mother. If Kate could contact her, then surely Kate had powers of the dark and evil. Ellie shoved her food around on the plate a bit. She didn’t want to eat it and only wished to get out of the house. She looked up at Papa; he was eating his food like a starving man. Didn’t he sense an eerie feeling in this place? In the candlelight, Ellie saw a silhouette behind the curtain. It must have been giant Mr. Bender. What was he holding? He…
Ellie screamed as a sledgehammer came down on Papa’s head. His face contorted as Kate Bender grabbed his hair and slit his throat from ear to ear. The curtain flew aside and Papa was thrown into a trapdoor below. John Bender leapt into the cellar and Ellie heard her father’s moans go silent.
Ellie shrieked and tried to run from the room but Mr. Bender caught her. He grabbed her arm so hard she felt the bone snap. The horror and pain around her was too great; she couldn’t stop screaming.
Kate clamped her hand on Ellie’s mouth. The pain in her arm made her feel light-headed, but she could feel Kate stroking her hair. “Such pretty blonde hair,” Kate murmured. “John? Is Ellie’s father ready?” John peeked up from the cellar and tossed Papa’s clothes and wallet onto the table. Papa only had $38; why would they rob him? John went back down and came up again carrying Papa’s naked body. He nodded to his sister.
Kate dragged Ellie behind their house to the orchard. Mr. Bender quickly dug a hole for Papa and John threw him in. Ellie tried to think of a way to escape. Her broken arm made her want to scream in agony.
“You’re next, little one,” Kate hissed. Mr. Bender grabbed Ellie and lifted her high above his six-foot frame. Her leg was bent back so that it curled under her and she felt pain slice through her knee. Dizzy from the torture, she slipped into unconsciousness and was only vaguely aware of being thrown into the grave with Papa. She felt dirt fly onto her as she faded into the darkness.
“Hullo, Scott, what are you doing out this time of night? Everything all right?” Charles met his neighbor outside as the man rode up the path. The look on Scott’s face shown forebodingly in the twilight.
“You’ll never believe what happened! You know the road south from Independence? And the Bender tavern? Horrible things go on there!” The hefty man panted from exertion.
“What things?” Charles inquired.
“No time! The vigilantes have been called! Get your gun and horse! Now!”
Charles nodded and ran inside his one-room log cabin. His wife, Caroline, was inside with their three small daughters. Caroline looked up, startled, as her husband reached for his rifle hung above the door. “What is it?” she asked.
“The vigilantes are called out!” Charles wasted no time: he sprinted to the barn, saddled his horse, and rode away with Scott.
The two men rode at full gallop. Scott told him that they were riding to Cartwright’s farm. There everything would be explained.
It did not take long to gallop the few miles to Cartwright’s homestead. Charles saw several men and horses already there. He jumped off the heaving horse and went directly to Cartwright. “What is all this about the Benders?” he demanded. The men all quieted down. Charles was the most well-respected man there and he was to be listened to.
“They’re murderers,” Edwards said darkly. He was a wild man from Tennessee with a contagious smile. Now, though, his face was clouded with thunder.
Charles’ eyes widened. He had stopped at the Benders’ inn twice before, once with his family on the way to their new land. Never had he been able to afford the tavern, though, and had quickly moved on. If they were murderers…
“This man over here, York, came looking for his missing brother and also a man and daughter who had borrowed his buggy. They were a few of the many who have disappeared on that road,” Cartwright added. The men nodded their silent agreement. Charles knew that many had traveled that road and never been heard from again; everyone thought Indians had gotten them.
“I organized a posse,” York said. His voice had the nasally accent of an Easterner. “We followed that road and came to the Bender farm. There was no one there, only signs of a hurried departure. We searched the whole place. There we found…” The man stopped his story to shudder. Other men shook themselves as if to rid themselves of such a horrid image.
“The front room was divided by a calico curtain that stood against the dining table,” the man continued. “There were stains on the curtain…about where a man’s head would be when he would sit at the table. Behind the curtain, there was a trap door and a heavy hammer beside it.
“In the cellar, there was a corpse; the man’s skull had been crushed by the hammer and his throat slit. When men would sit at the table, there were struck with the hammer and dumped into the cellar.”
Charles felt sick to his stomach. He had heard tales of such goriness, but never so close to him. York went on.
“A shovel stood in the garden; a grave had been partly dug. My posse and I dug into the garden and found human bones and bodies. We found my brother and the man and daughter who had borrowed my buggy. While his head was crushed and his throat slit, the daughter only had a broken arm and knee out of the socket; we think she was buried alive.”
Charles was sure he would vomit. All he could think of was the time he and his family had stopped at that tavern. What if they could have afforded it? Would the bodies of little Mary, Laura, and Carrie be in that garden next to their parents? Charles felt anger rise through his entire body. “We have to find them,” he declared.
“We know,” Cartwright said, “That’s why we’re all here. We are taking the law into our own hands and finding those Benders. Ingalls, you, Scott, and Edwards take four men and ride west from the Benders’ place. I and some men will ride east, York will go north, and Callahan will go south. The Bender family is two women and two men, both named John. Find them. We meet back here after noon tomorrow. Let justice be done.” The eerie final words hung over the men as they left in their respective directions. Charles and his group rode west into the pitch-black prairie with only their lanterns and the full moon to guide them.
Charles glanced at the Bender farm as the posse rode past. He saw the dug-up orchard and could have sworn a bone gleamed in the moonlight. He swallowed thickly and urged his horse faster. The sooner they got past that little section of hell, the better.
“Be on the lookout, men,” Charles ordered. He kept a wary eye for the four Benders. Surely they couldn’t have gotten far in one day. The horses galloped as the moon rose high into the sky, and then began to sink in rhythm with the hooves. Charles began to think that the Benders had gone a different direction.
“Slow, men!” he called. The horses panted heavily and their flanks were soaked with sweat. Charles saw a river up ahead and guided his group slowly to it. While the horses drank, Charles and the men discussed their options. “Should we keep riding?”
“Do we even know they went this way?” Scott pointed out. “It ain’t looking good.”
“I say we keep riding,” Edwards said.
“We gotta kill those scoundrels,” another man growled.
“Wait!” Charles whispered. “Listen!” The men hushed and perked their ears. They heard voices, but not in English. “Scott! Don’t those Benders speak German?” Charles hissed. Scott nodded. Charles listened again. The voices were definitely in German. He could make out two women’s voices and two men’s. They were coming from not too far away on their side of the riverbank. “Scott, come with me.” Charles and Scott crept through the brush and peeked through a bush. In the fading moonlight, Charles could see four people. He heard Scott gasp. “That’s Kate Bender.” He pointed to a raven-haired beauty of a young woman. She threw back her head in laughter. Charles saw her bright eyes flash in the firelight. “It’s Jezebel,” he said solemnly.
Charles and Scott scurried back to the waiting men. “It’s them,” Charles confirmed.
“What do we do now?” Edwards asked.
“Justice,” Charles growled.
The seven men crouched behind bushes circling the encampment, rifles at the ready. Charles nodded to them. They were ready to take down the Bloody Benders.
“Put your hands up!” Charles’ voice commanded. The four murderers stood up and looked around frantically. Charles ran out from the bush, rifle pointed at Pa Bender. “Surrender now,” Charles demanded to the old German.
“Ingalls!” Scott cried, running from the darkness. The Bender son had his pistol cocked at Charles. Scott tackled the man and the pistol flew into the brush. Ma Bender and Kate prepared to run in all the commotion. The other five men came out and pointed their rifles at the family. Scott had the younger Bender in a headlock.
“Who are you?” Kate Bender demanded.
“We are vigilantes,” Charles answered. “You are now paying for what you did to all those men and that little girl.”
Kate’s face momentarily scowled but quickly her demeanor changed. “Well aren’t you Mr. Hero,” she purred. “Let me tell you something: heroes don’t shoot women.” Charles could have sworn the young woman’s eyes turned blood-red in the firelight.
Pa Bender saw that the attention was momentarily diverted and tried to run from the men. Charles turned quickly and shot the old man down. Kate’s full lips formed an o of surprise. Charles glared at her straight in the eye. “Heroes shoot men. We have other plans for witches.”
Scott got up from holding young Bender; Edwards responded and shot the man in the head. He twitched a moment, and then was still. The old German woman had not moved from where she stood frozen. One of the other men shot her straight through the heart; she was dead before she hit the ground.
Kate stared with her piercing eyes at the seven men around her. “What now? You’ve killed a poor immigrant family and now you’ll kill me! You call yourselves vigilantes, defenders of the law. Well all I see are cowards shooting an elderly couple and their son! You should all be ashamed!” Even though she faced her death, Kate Bender maintained her manipulative ways.
Charles nodded to his men. “You know what to do.” They grabbed the young she-devil and tied her into the family wagon. Kate screamed and scratched like a panther. All the belongings the Benders had were piled in the wagon with her.
One man grabbed a burning log from the fire. “This is just a taste of the hellfire you’ll face,” he told the young woman. The burning log was placed at the wagon wheel; three others were placed at the wheels and one in the wagon bed with her. Kate was a witch and witches were burned.
The vigilantes watched grimly as the wagon caught up in flames. Kate shrieked and cursed the men. They could hear when her dress caught fire; she called for damnation to rain upon these men. Finally, as the red streaks of dawn rose, Kate Bender fell silent.
Ma, Pa, and young Bender’s bodies were thrown into the wagon. The men waited until there was nothing left but the ashes and faint smell of burned flesh. The remains were buried and the Bloody Benders were no more.
Charles finally made it back to his homestead late that day. He knew he could not tell his family what had happened. After his posse had arrived at Cartwright’s in the afternoon, they had sworn everyone to secrecy about the fates of the Benders. The vigilantes would never tell a soul.
“Pa! Pa!” Laura and Mary ran out of the cabin and hugged their father after he dismounted his horse. “We were so worried! Where were you?” Laura demanded.
Charles shook his head and walked inside their house, his daughters close at his heels. Caroline hugged him with one arm, the other holding their baby Carrie. “Are you alright?” Her voice lowered. “Mrs. Scott came over and told me about the Bender family and how they disappeared.”
Charles looked his wife straight in the eye. “They will never be found.”