Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Bad Company

 

Yellow-visaged she stood in my dreams, and would forever stand in my memory, at the door dressed in homespun with a warning to join Quantrill in the Sni Hills. Even after all these years, Ephron puts in an appearance in the penumbra of my slumber, but now she is mute, and her face has begun to disappear like a daguerreotype treated roughly. The sky is a sickening green. I was looking out over the wheat crop, a hand to block the sun, waving to a boy in the field like an ocean in the roiling breeze. Next, she stands on the porch in a snowstorm of pollen waving near, and then the scene is played out again on a ridge; a hemp field overlooking the Missouri river from a limestone bluff; the deafening rumble of a tornado.   She gazed up at me from a watery grave wearing a linen gown, shimmering maroon and serpentine, gripping a brace of pistols across her dun breasts—the Lady of the Lake in the time of the Border Wars.

My elder brother, Gideon, was out fighting in Kansas and western Missouri with the boys he rode with, mostly terrorizing old men, spinster women, and children who sympathized with the Federals—and even an unlucky few who didn't. Looking back on it now, I wish I could have avoided the misery sweeping across the land during those years just like that dream boy out in the field behind the mules, but now I understand neither one of us could. 

It seemed an eternity ago.   Flying in spirit overhead, I found  myself as a youth, watching the boy doing chores around the farmstead our father called a “plantation,” but not a plantation as much as a farm with ambitions toward establishing an estate,  manor, a family legacy worthy of the Marchbank’s name.   On the Sabbath I smoked a cigar with the Devil’s hand and could not but help dog the boy’s steps like a wraith as remembrances of the Civil War, with no state more divided than Missouri, grew   stronger every day while the present began to fade and yellow.  

I sat there at my kitchen table in La Fayette County, as it was commonly called back then, with that son-of-a-bitch journalist John N. Edwards, a Major who had fought with General Jo Shelby’s cavalry (the western front’s J.E.B. Stuart), apparently still trying to resurrect the Southern cause.  He had already made Frank and Jesse James living legends from his books—not  to mention all those editorials in the Kansas City Times newspaper. He sat there without so much as a pencil to write down what I had to say with his eyes hungry for a truth, his truth, I didn't feel inclined to give him. I suppose he hoped to do the same with Colonel Quantrill’s reputation or Captain Bill’s—and that’s what my statement is meant to redress for posterity. Edwards was irksome at best, but what I resented about his literary style was his penchant for melodrama. He was destined to smear what should have been the real person for a symbol, inventing a counterfeit persona in order to further his own dubious literary reputation. He had asked me to come deliver my statement to him in his Kansas City office as if he were judge and jury, but I told him in a letter he should come see me and bring a gift besides. If he wanted my story, he’d have to pay for it. I didn’t much give a damn about his designs on fighting the war over again. I did my time. I surely earned my rest.  I’d stood my ground and turned to fight them all in a circle at one time or another if you get my meaning.

Edwards thought he looked rough, but to me he look ridiculous, despite serving under Shelby during the Mexican war. He look more crazed than fierce with his hat cocked at an angle that suggested someone might have just woke him from a thunderous snooze after a prejudicial bout of drinking. There was a tremor in his hands, which he tried to hide by placing his hands flat on the round oak table or holding onto his overcoat as though it might sprout wings and fly out of the room with him in it. His beard was a Van Dyke that had grown a mind of its own and threw out roots like a cypress draped in Spanish moss.

Understand that most of us were not fighting for a cause of any kind whether one believed in the peculiar institution or was an ardent abolitionist. No, the way things were then in western Missouri (what would later be referred to as the Burnt District), a boy of fourteen to the threshold of old age had to make a choice for the Federal government or the Confederacy. Why? Because you were likely to get scalped, shot, or burnt out if you didn’t.  And no matter if you took the oath of loyalty—if you didn’t refuse to swallow the dog—loyalty tests were rigged worse than a witch trial by the Missouri Militia. There wasn’t a right answer as far as they were concerned. Many of us fools in Little Dixie tried to remain neutral during the war for awhile, and fine folks paid a hefty price for it. Many a proud man lost his life if he was too eager to declare himself one way or the other.

It was 1888 when I handed over the ambrotype to Edwards. I had it made after I joined up with Bill Anderson’s outfit as a gift for my mother.   Edwards had arrived by carriage from Jefferson City in a desperate attempt to revive his own fame, attached though it was to the memory of Jesse James and the late war as his chronicler. By then it was plain to see that Edwards had the red-faced complexion of an alcoholic whose liver had long ago raised the white flag, but he still had some ambition that had helped the Democratic party destroy the Radical party and Lincoln’s Republican party.

Years ago I had rushed off with countless other young men (lying about my age of course) who had joined General Sterling Price down south at Wilson’s Creek when a Union ball scored a direct hit on one of our cannons. It had flown through the air like brimstone straight from hell killing the boy standing between Gideon and me without leaving a single mark on either of us save some blood and brains from the boy who, if I recall correctly, was from Joplin. That’s when the notion of serving under an officer left a foul taste in Gideon’s mouth, which was transferred to me as my own opinion. I vowed to return home and fight no more. I was so naive. All of about fifteen years old and a veteran after one battle. 

It was then my father decided I should take up the cross of our Savior and become an officer in the Army of the Lord. I do not wish to sound disrespectful toward Father because he was a man I loved above all other men. As much as I loved him, I did not want to be him. His grave face comes unbidden, even now, a specter. Even without closing my eyes, I see his anomalous image hovering above the empty pulpit at night, but his visage has always been an indomitable one. 

“You were,” the sound of Edward’s dragging on his cigar, “a handsome young man, Mr. Marchbanks. Now, however . . .” but then sensing it might be inappropriate to discuss my physical frailty and jaundiced skin, he allowed his statement to hang in the air. He passed back the photograph of a daring ghost, bristling with Navy Colts with as much fear as courage showing plainly in the set of his features around the frame.

“I was drunk,” I coughed, hog blood into his kerchief. I had just turned forty-three— and dying of the consumption, although I did not need to explain this to Edwards. I could have gone off to a sanitarium I had heard about out west in the Rocky Mountains, but who wants to face their mortality head-on? And besides that, I loathed most of the sawbones I had known except for a few here, there, and yonder. Edwards took back the framed picture and set it nearby on the table face down. “That photograph was made right here in Lafayette County.”

“Well,” Edwards exhaled a mist of blue smoke intermingling heavily with memories of the dead. Even the journalist could not help entertaining the notion that the spirits might be invoked in the smoke when their names were called. “What we agreed on then,” Edwards slipped a few coins across the table, but I quietly slid the money back. You see, I did not want to be bought. The journalist nodded, pouring two fingers of whiskey into each of our glasses. I threw back my drink in a single motion to steady myself, but I was nervous because I wanted to get it right if nothing else. Occasionally the sound of Edward’s nub scratching paper made its way into my consciousness like the ostentatious proceedings of a spiritualist before he conjures the departed for his gullible old women. I owed it to all those dead boys and their families.

“Anytime you want to tell it. You just go right ahead. I’m here. We want the truth about the war out this time. Frank and Jesse—now didn’t you tell me you fought with them?” He pursed his lips with skepticism and a palpable disgust that he had to consort with a personage no less than the Queen. His hands were blackened with his cheap newspaper ink. He gave the impression of a man who inhabited his own world as I suppose some of the literary bent cannot help themselves. There was such a self-righteous zeal about him—he reminded me of one of Falstaff’s men, and I couldn’t help but dislike him intensely despite his politics. He didn’t remember, but I had seen him once before look delicate when I rode into Boonville with Bill Anderson, and Bill had made a gift of dueling pistols to Price. I remember Price and Edwards about fainted when they saw all our scalps and ear garlands. What pussies was what Bloody Bill said about them as we sat our horses near an ancient Indian burial mound overlooking the Missouri River.

It amused me to taunt Edwards, so I pushed my whiskey glass toward him with my fingertips. “I fought with them crazy sons-of-bitches. They are not the heroes you make them out to be, or the devils others think either.”

“Funny,” Edwards said in a thinly veiled tone of contempt. “Jesse never mentioned you.”

“Well, he mentioned you. He told how you turned your back on him when he needed your help!”

I spat on the floor like I might get up and dispatch the journalist with my bare hands. Edwards flinched backward for a moment as I leaned forward, saliva flecks lightly spraying his face. I suppose the journalist reminded himself of reports of how I had gruesomely cut off ears, fingers, scalps, and even a Federal head with a bowie knife. Not an idle brag, nor something I am proud to admit, but just a regrettable fact of the times. I believe he observed the former bushwhacker who appeared to just scarcely have himself under control. Hands closing into fists, opening. The cords on my neck standing out, no doubt. It was the old feeling I used to get before the killing had to start as we flanked the Militia on their nags. Edwards dabbed at his blanched face with his kerchief.

Another memory overtook me during the journalist's interview: Ephron calling me into supper. Ephron brought her own brand of despair with her to the Marchbanks family when father, the Reverend William Drury Marchbanks, bought her in Liberty speaking some foreign Houdou language, but she revealed to me once that she had served in a brothel little more than a child in New Orleans’ French Quarter. He had been so taken with her he brought her back to our place in Howard County not too far from the Missouri river and the town of Glasgow. Her first name was recorded by the enumerator in 1850 with a dash and then “mulatto.” In the Bible she couldn’t read, her only possession Mother allowed her, flowers were pressed and dried like hope. Deep down that hope was the only religion she had allowed herself, even though it was fated. It was like a bullet wound that had been cauterized, but still constantly ached. She had been with our family for three years, and it was that time and the memory of her that I would never recover from, although I did not know it at the time. She had cooked all our meals. I remember as a boy watching her in the summer months as she cooked in the kitchen out back. Her skin always smelled of bread and cinnamon. And now they were all gone. How tenuous our human relations are. When we are children we believe things will always be as they are.

“Are you all right?” Edwards nudged my forearm.

“Did I say I was drunk when that photograph was made? Because it wasn’t the first time, I can guarantee you that.” 

“Just do your best, Mr. Marchbanks.” Edwards re-lit his cigar with a Lucifer match. His rhetoric turned evangelical. “For the annals of Missouri history, for our common Southern cause.”  It didn’t sound convincing even coming from him. Now perhaps at one time he had been rabidly for the cause, but at this point it sounded hollow and shattered.

When I was sixteen my brother Gideon came riding up to the house with his devilish friend John Thrailkill. John’s mount was decorated with the foul smelling scalps of some unfortunates. Some said Indian scouts taught them scalping and cutting off ears for war trophies or that they started the practice in retaliation for what the Red Legs were already doing along the western border before the war.  Jayhawkers and Bushwhackers (as they called us) alike were known to go so far as to cut off the genitalia of their victims. There were a few partisans on both sides who started these indecent practices years before the war had officially started. It came to us in Missouri much earlier than it did to the rest of the country. Others said it was those wily veterans of Doniphan’s expedition into the Indian territories were the ones handy with the knife and taught the younger ones. But most of the boys I knew were just that, boys—at least in the beginning. The men over thirty were busy with crops, wives, and children. You take a nineteen-year-old and train him to fight, and you will never find a more cruel soldier under the right circumstances.

“Hey, Dingus,” Gideon grinned at me standing up on his stirrups.

I gave him a half-wave. “Hey, Gid.”

Normally I would have been insulted at the nickname he had bestowed on me when we were boys, but the day was fraught with excitement. Besides he was always japing me about having my head in the clouds, reading the Bible our father had given me for my sixteenth birthday, or for simply being left-handed. There were good folks in the congregation who said left-handedness was the hand of the Devil, but Mother would not have it. When Gid or my father got too wound up about it, she was the one who stepped in and told them it would be fine in the end. The good Lord Himself had seen fit to make me the way I was.

My knees weakened when I saw the scalp, and I stole a glance at my brother, but he pretended not to notice. For our mother’s sake no war trophies decorated Gideon’s roan, but there was a rawhide necklace, almost like a rosary, around his neck with three knots tied in it. Our mother, not one given to expressing strong emotion, came running out onto the porch to embrace her son. She was proud to have a son fighting against the Yankees. 

As I mentioned earlier Gideon and I had already fought at Wilson’s Creek, and because of that we had to sign our names as officially disloyal and had to pay $10 commutation tax to avoid service when the Enrolled Missouri Militia was established by Major General John M. Schofield. They gave us our paroles and a passport showing we were under the protection of the Federal government, but they weren’t worth the paper they were printed on. A Yankee Sergeant handed us our walking papers and said he hoped he saw us again so he could personally cut our balls off.

This new militia was loyal to the Union, radically abolitionist, and the Marchbanks family was having nothing to do with it. Especially not our matriarch, Isadora Augusta Marchbanks, who, to hear her tell it, had ridden out and participated in her own midnight raids. Of course, I am spinning a yarn here, but she could be a fierce one when her ire was raised. Only my father kept me from going into the bush sooner with his eloquent talks about serving the Lord and establishing our Savior’s Kingdom.  And then they threatened the life of my beautiful cousin Lizzie if I didn’t enlist in the State militia.  Lizzie’s folks had tried homesteading out in the Kansas territory and were wiped out by the Delaware although Father always believed it was none other than Osawatomie Brown that had done the deed. Father flatly rejected the proposal because he told them I was too young, but they said I was old enough. He conveniently left out that I had already been in the regular Confederate army down in southwest Missouri fighting under Price.  No matter what they said, I refused to become a Paw Paw. You might not remember what a Paw Paw was, so I will remind you:   They were those boys, some of them had taken the oath, who had been conscripted to serve in the state militia ostensibly for the Union, but actually they were southern boys miserably going through the motions.  

Fifteen or so rebels taking refuge around the farm and in the wooded acreage behind the house were like golden idols come to life as I watched them caring for their impeccable mounts: piebalds, bays, roans, and paint horses nervously carving the air with their hooves or hides flickered against the deerflies. A horse tied to a cedar tree bucked wretchedly against the deerflies landing on his back. A set of horses stood head to withers swatting away the flies. Carbines and revolvers clanking at the sides of the men, and I noted that many were not much older than myself. Horse blankets were thrown over shrubs, some used as tents to rest their eyes from the especially strong   glare of the sun that day.

There was a magnetism about those boys despite the fact that I was attending William Jewell College, where I labored over the Word of God.  The Great Commission was strong on my mind, but then so was the War. Everyone had said since I was a child that I’d had the Call. I was even more compelled to follow my father’s wishes since Gideon had managed to kick against the pricks of my father and our Christian family and become a bona fide rebel. There were times when I was not entirely sure of my calling. I had up to that point visited the mourner’s bench a half dozen times at least to confess my sins and claim salvation. Which would stick with me awhile, but after enough time went by I’d begin to lose the feeling—and lose my taste for the entire enterprise. The wild side of me wanted to raise up and fight against all the Northern Aggressors.

I could not help but get caught up in the excitement of the moment with the thundering hooves of the horses and the manly smells of the impromptu camp. I could hear the sound of the blood coursing through my veins in that motley company.  The pistols were the most intriguing. Even the poorest member had three or four and another couple holstered in their saddles. Thrailkill carried a special Buffalo gun. He was the marksman of the bunch. Not many of them carried rifles even then. The Sharps were only good for one shot and took too long to re-load for the kind of Indian tactics they employed.

A young man with a ragged beard was acting as a barber for another, who took his turn sitting on a stump. Mother told Sarah and Ephron to prepare a meal for the regulators. Ephron was just two years older than me, or so she said, but I loved her no matter her age. It was complicated. I didn’t know how she felt for sure. She had already lost a husband from the Benton farm who was sold by his owner out of state. In her grief, I used the opportunity to comfort her up in the loft. Her beautiful honey brown skin shone   in the moonshine, but I knew I should put it out of mind. My better judgment told me to leave Ephron alone, but she had been with us as long as I could remember. There was about her a certain something more intoxicating than all the young virgins of my father’s church.

I prayed for forgiveness but still wanted her, which made confessing my sin yet one piled atop another. My greatest fear was of grieving the Holy Ghost since there was no pardon for such an act. Those hazel, Creole eyes of hers with a nimbus of gold cut through my innermost being and held me for a moment until one of the men started hollering and raising such a fuss one of the dogs ran beneath the porch with a yelp prompting an eruption of laughter.

Ephron went inside, and I couldn’t help noticing the whistles and rough remarks about her beauty. I was hot with anger. I saw her for a moment looking out the window at the boys under the pin oaks behind the house. Only Gideon, and perhaps Sarah, knew my genuine feelings for Ephron. Gideon did not approve. We had a childish fistfight over her one day in the yard in the shade of the apple grove. I loved her and would only learn years later that one cannot altogether help who one loves and who one does not, nor the relative appropriateness of those feelings. Gideon gave the boys some hard looks, and they put their heads down like wayward children with mischievous smiles still on their lips.

I felt conflicted about everything: the war, slaves, Jehovah, and what part I was to play in it. But I exulted in my spirit because there I was right in the middle of them with their .36 caliber revolvers. I reloaded Colts and LeMats and all kinds of revolvers for the boys since no one wanted me to be in the middle of the fighting out of respect for my father’s wishes that I became a man of God, but hell we were all taking our life in our own hands simply trying to live there. It was a dangerous job, but one I took great delight in focusing my concentration on the task at hand. Filling cylinders with powder and lead balls, ramming it home sealed with grease. The loading took long enough that each rebel carried as many as a half-dozen Colts at once. There was a real art to it. Just the right amount of powder made the shot more accurate and still just as deadly.  

Five rebels sat down to play cards on a blanket over a wheel barrel. A boy everyone called Cy kidded me about being afraid to lay a bet, but I had to get out to the fields with a hoe even though my heart wasn’t with the tobacco and mangling cut worms. Amaziah, the slave who had been with our family the longest, accompanied me out to the field with an amused expression playing across his face. Until suddenly he began to wave his arms as he ran towards the house not too far distant. I turned to see riders sitting their horses along the treeline. Their leader gave the signal, and their horses tore down the tobacco plants as they came at us. Before I knew it two hairy men caught me by each arm and proceeded to drag me through the dirt. It turned out to be none other than the infamous Jayhawker Doc Jennison and his Seventh Kansas Cavalry.    

Amaziah stepped forward, and a man in frayed clothing rode his mount into the slave knocking him a few yards distant into the plowed earth. The Jayhawkers unceremoniously shot the mules. An important looking man, Jennison himself, on a pale horse groaned as he leaned over his paunch and pricked my cheek with his saber with a mocking sneer on his lips that would indelibly brand my soul with hate toward him and all Yankees. A blond boy with a drooping mustache kicked me viciously in the ribs.

“How you like that? Fucken Secesh!”

I expected a fight to erupt between our boys and Jennison, but all the bushwhackers had apparently disappeared like ghostly rumors from around the house as if they had never been there at all save for smoking breakfast fires, saddle bags, and bed rolls left in haste. It was reprehensible that a man or a soldier would harm children, women, and especially a preacher, but Jennison's conscience was in league with Satan. They tied a rope around my waist and drug me back to the farmstead tearing up the delicate tobacco plants as we went, but I can’t say I cared about the crops just then. 

When I came to I was on the ground in front of the house. Mother stood indomitably on the porch, all six feet of her, with her arms crossed in front. Ephron and her children, Auggie and June, huddled in terror into the shade of the listing porch just behind their mother’s skirts. Sarah looked on from the window behind a sash of curtain. I wanted to throw myself down as a sacrifice between the Jayhawkers and my family, but I was beginning to wonder if the Jayhawkers weren’t about to execute our father just like all the stories Gideon and John had told me about the families up and down the border of western Missouri. The Bradford family, who lived just west of Lexington, were burnt out and the men executed by Jim Lane and his crew. I saw the place, and the bodies, with my own eyes when we came back from a trip to Kansas City with my father. The men were shot, burnt, and dragged before their ears and noses were taken for trophies. The burnt-out barn listed and groaned in the breeze. The only thing left intact would be the scorched weathercock.

It gave me reason for hope seeing the look of my mother that said how terribly disappointed she was, but then from around the house the Kansans came pulling my beloved father with a noose around his neck and handed the end of the rope over to the bellwether officer as if he were a dog commanded to heel.

“We know you been providing hospitality to them. Even if half their belongings were not already strewn over all creation, we’d know what was going on here. Now, where have they gone to hide?” The obvious answer was they’d probably gone back to their hideout in amongst the gorges and thickets of the Sni-A-Bar, but the Jayhawkers didn’t have the stomach to follow them there.

“Mister,” Isadora Marchbanks, my mother said. “I don’t know a damn thing about what you all are talking about.” She spat off the porch like a man.

My father visibly cringed where he stood. Jennison’s pale face went splotchy that a lady would speak to him thusly. A guttural commanding voice issued forth from his chest to the mounted men who held Dr. Marchbanks between them. I could tell they had beaten my father, and he remained silent no matter what he was asked. His eyes stared off impassively. A cut above his left eye oozed blood.

“Hike that man up over yon sycamore branch,” Jennison bawled to his men as he tore off his tall fur cap to reveal a head of fiery red hair. His hair stood up like an angry porcupine’s. “Give him a swing and see if his memory returns.”

“He’s a man of the cloth,” Mother shook her cane at Jennison. “How can you do this?”

“What kind of preacher imprisons his fellow man?” Jennison said.  “Hoist him up!”

The pair told their horses “git up,” and they pulled father off his feet as if he were disappearing into the eastern sky to be with his savior. The rope made a hissing sound against the tree limb he was yanked up so quickly. I had always thought that tree to be good for climbing when I was a boy. My father was always warning that one day I would fall out of it and break my neck. The Reverend's pale violet eyes bulged as heat lightning flashed in the west. It had never occurred to me that one day I would witness the death of my father from the branches of that tree. Or, that there were men capable of subduing the man I feared, the Man of God, and respected above all others. My father’s neck cocked to one side, the rope tight on his neck, his legs thrashing the air. The atmosphere was charged with the power of the heavens and the earth that I kept imagining would roll back on itself and destroy these malefactors with the judgment of Jehovah’s righteous indignation.

“That’s right! Do the dead man’s dance!”

A shot roared out from the side of the porch. The horseman grinned like a demon as the fruits of his wicked labor flew backward off his horse like a pull rope had been attached to his waist. Sarah stood there with a Sharp’s rifle in her hands. Her eyes were wet with tears, and an angry militiaman raised a quaking pistol at her.  As a man unloosed the rope, Dr. Marchbanks’ body fell to the earth like an owl I had once seen fall, stone dead from its perch.  Father gasped, legs flopping, as he turned a deadly circle from the noose, kicking up the dust in the red clay dirt, his hands tied behind his back.   His legs quit twisting and his choking red face went deadly pale.

“Damn it, man!” Jennison said. “Disarm her, Ford! All of you, out of the house, and off the porch.”

Mother called to me, “Riley!”

The man called Ford yanked the rifle out of Sarah’s hands as he shoved her off the steps where she landed on her back with scarcely a sound. I lunged at the soldier but caught a rifle butt in the face for my efforts, causing my nose to erupt in my hands.  It was now my turn to writhe on the ground at the feet of the Jayhawkers.  Ford was a stocky man with one milk dead eye.

“Tie them both,” Jennison said.

I watched as everyone I held dear in the world was lined up. Jennison paced up and down in front of Mother, Sarah, Ephron, and Ephron’s children.  In my heart I prayed that Gideon and the others would come riding out of the treeline with their pistols blazing at these damned fanatics. Instead I heard the sawing of the cicadas, a cloud of witnesses, in the long grass and in the live oaks as the afternoon stretched out into eternity.  With a wicked gleam in his eye, Jennison unsheathed a heavy broadsword from his saddle. He went to the immobile body of my father, the Reverend Marchbanks, and raised his sword above his head as if he might decapitate him. His face burned with a righteous anger. He brought down his arms in one swift motion and dug the blade into the earth instead of father’s neck. It was as if killing him once had not been enough. His odd bearskin hat fell off his head as he beat the earth with the sword in a fit of rage. It was terrifying to watch, and yet that was when I knew my first complete hatred of a man. Jennison was a ridiculous looking man in that hat and his fringed jacket, and yet his name was terrible to all of his who heard it in central Missouri. I fell to my knees in disbelief at the time. It seemed a terrible nightmare that one would awaken from and the world would be as it was before.

Jennison was the sort of man whose soul feasted on violence and mayhem. I could not bear to look and reflexively tore my gaze away not wanting to believe it.  In his savage mien, the fanatic next ordered a man to start with Ephron and then the slave children in the summer kitchen. Ephron’s children were crying as she hustled them out back. The men were laughing and pulling at Ephron’s shift, but she turned to face one of her tormentors. In one swift movement the man leading her away raised his pistol and cut her across the neck with a backhanded swipe. Her hand went to her wound and she fell to the ground. June still held her mother’s hand as her body fell to the earth along with my impossible world. She lay unceremoniously on her face—June still clutching her mother’s hand.

The Jayhawk leader’s lips moved unconsciously as he fixed his eyes on Mother, but she would not give an inch. She defiantly stamped the floorboards of the porch with her hickory cane, tall for a woman, and as flinty-eyed as any man. You couldn’t have told by looking at her what had just happened to her husband. I believe I know how she must have felt, but she was the toughest woman I have ever known. She had more grit than most men, for that matter.   She was a Tennessean by birth and raising. Her face remained impassive. Jennison ordered his men to fire the house, but then he had a better idea. He had one of his men put the torch in Mother’s hand to force   her to set her own house aflame. Next, Jennison cut Sarah’s pretty alabaster face across one cheek with a twine-handled knife from his boot. She fell to the ground holding her bleeding face with her hand, crying out in a muted sob, her bonnet off her head of disheveled auburn hair. Some of Jennison’s men took her to the barn kicking and screaming to have their way with her.

Jennison came to me last, his lips moved and spittle landed on his face. The Jayhawker’s words were not clear. His lips mouthed the words: No paroles; No second chances. Kill this baby Secesh!  Jennison’s man, Ford, shot me in the chest with his Colt. The billowing clouds, like smoke in their aspect, plunged down at me like Elijah’s chariot come down to take me to Glory and up to the right hand of Jehovah. Mother knelt over me weeping for a time until the sun faded to a pinpoint of light. The last thing I heard was the sound of her voice singing a hymn we had oft sung on the Sabbath. Rough hands picked me up like a sack and threw me in the back of a wagon with other dead men. This life wasn’t for me. I was meant for the Resurrection.

I awoke in a copse of woods down the side of a ravine with the bodies of two men I did not recognize, storms moving in, and hoping not to be struck by lightning. It was night. The minie ball in my chest pained me terribly, a reminder that I was alive by its piercing ache with every movement. I had hoped it had gone clean through, but knew I was likely not going to die. I had never felt anything like it, but I didn’t know how much longer I could remain conscious. Dried blood clung to my shirt and was encrusted on my face.   I was weighted down by two Navy revolvers in my belt that I must have wrested from the two doomed men lying on top of me. Hunkering down beneath my stolen Federal coverlet, wrapped around me like a cowl, I studied the naval background engraved on the cylinder of the Colt like I had studied Gid’s a hundred times already. Beggar’s lice clung to my pants. There were cracks in the earth from the late drought.

A feral dog came chattering up through the sticker bushes at an odd, slantwise gait. Get, I hollered, but the dog kept coming with its ears flattened down on its skull. The dog’s eyes were empty, its bared teeth were yellow, and a froth was on its face. I shot him less than twenty-five feet away, near a hawthorn, without ever taking off the blanket. The dog yelped and lay still. Death to dogs, I growled between clenched teeth

An old man yelling blood and murder at his mules, pulling the wagon up the deep rutted road—the man asked if I was “sound on the goose,” to which I replied: “I might be.”  He grinned scornfully, and I crawled up into the bed of his wagon and winced with each plunge and sway as the driver headed toward the evening sun. The blue coat I wore didn’t appear to fool him one whit. He just looked me up and down and gave a derisive snort despite the hand holding the Colt against my thigh. 

“Looks like you died yesterday,” the driver spat venomously on the road.

“Could be,” I agreed.

When I awoke next I was informed by a Doctor Ridge wearing nankeen trousers that in point of fact several days had passed. I was in bed and completely naked save for an itchy nightshirt. My wound was cleaned and dressed. Someone had covered my wound generously with a salve. Dr. Ridge had given me very damn little laudanum for the pain. The sound of a fist hammering on the door below caused me to sit up in bed tearing open my wound—I passed out again. The days passed alarmingly in their speed. I was afraid the war might be over before I had taken my hand at vengeance over what they had done to my family.

A man’s voice echoed in the hallway, a softer woman’s voice attended, and I heard “lucky boy” and “passed through his ribs . . . and missed his vitals.”  No doubt the voices smelled of cloves. On the bedside table was a bottle of Dr. Sappington’s anti-fever pills and a bitter tasting liquid I knew from bitter experience was quinine water. I hauled myself carefully off the high bed, put a foot down on a stepstool, to the window for a look. The river was visible from the second story window. A fancy home was being built up on the bluff.  Boonville.

Scuffling shoes in the hall sent me scurrying around the room to find my possibles. I didn’t want to have to fight in a nightshirt. My clothes were freshly laundered and folded on a bench at the foot of the four-postered bed. The revolvers were nowhere to be found. Disquieting laughter filled the room as if punctuating my distress. A scullery maid I knew was called Kate knocked briefly, mincing into the room with an amused smile, although she kept her eyes respectfully on the floorboards.  She left me a bowl of broth. I pretended to be asleep. At least I knew I was in a home of folks who supported the Secesh.

After recovering there for a mere four weeks, I awoke to find the young maid turning a wooden pineapple onto the end of the bed, raising her eyebrows with a telling glance. It was time to take leave. My weapons, four Navy Colts and a bowie knife, lay on a horse blanket on the floor. I wanted to get a shotgun and another knife just to feel like I could protect myself properly. I still hadn’t had the nerve to use any of them on the enemy since Wilson’s Creek. Even then I doubt any man fell by my hand.  I knew enough to realize the owner of this home, Moran, was a business man with a reputation to keep. Creeping down the back stairs I noticed the creamy plaster walls with occasional rosettes and even one mosaic of cherubs with a span of pink ribbon stretched between them.

One of my Colts needed reloading. I had been shooting jays and squirrels for target practice, so I practiced behind the carriage house.  I had been looking for any sign of Quantrill and his boys ever since what should have been my fatal wound stopped me cold.   Once I met up with a wildeyed group of a half-dozen partisan rangers, my story made those boys start talking about Fate and the supernatural.  It was the Irishman got them all started on calling me the Preacher as if it were divine providence instead of dumb luck. I wanted to get back home to Mother and Sarah still on the farm. Gideon, had he been there, would have told me to steal a horse from a German, but I couldn’t bring myself to hurt someone who had done me no harm. Damn the Dutch! So I walked on, every nerve bristling, intending to jump off the road to hide behind the girth of an oak or under a weeping willow whenever I saw too many men on horseback riding together. I was scared to death, but ultimately conscience didn’t stop me from stealing a horse tethered behind a stately summer kitchen in Fayette—I looked both ways and called out to boot. A trick I would perfect after I met the Anderson brothers, who had been little more than horse thieves in Kansas. I was traveling in an ever widening circle attempting to stay within the bounds of the known universe attempting to find Gideon.

Slunk over my stolen bay, tears streaking my dirty face. I remembered my dream, Ephron telling me to find Quantrill and join up. I had not met him and couldn’t imagine how to approach him from horseback alone without getting shot. How did one explain about a dream or a vision? There were stories that the militia would not only kill their prisoners, but cut off ears and hang the rebel bodies for the crows. No mercy. It was illegal to cut the bodies down even if they were friends or loved ones. Ephron’s voice in my dreams kept me going until I found the Sni-A-Bar hideout. A young Missourian from Johnson County named Archie Clements gave me an appraising look and then said, “Looks like you seen the bad side of hell.” No answer was required.

Clements introduced me to a tough looking bunch of dangerous young men: Henry Starr, the Anderson brothers, Larkin Skaggs, a stuttering boy who gave his name as “Pony,” and another boy with a shock of red hair who announced with a rough brogue, “They call me the Wild Irishman,” and he jumped to his feet and did a dance in the dirt with his Colts waggling toward the heavens as if to prove his point while the others laughed at his antics. I was in awe of the great William Clarke Quantrill. I longed to meet him. I had heard he had a charisma about him. Ephron had told me to do it and now here I was.

Fletch Taylor, George Todd, Dick Yeager, and Bill Anderson were all there in camp playing at cards. As soon as I saw Captain Bill, I admired him right away. He didn’t seem so much older than me, and he had a way of looking at you that said we would get away with whatever we wanted—and it would be easy. Jim Anderson, Bill’s brother, was standing at his elbow as he made his way joking and giving instructions to one group or another. The Anderson boys cut handsome figures and even after spending time patrolling the country looked more like Southern gentleman than the horse thieves and cutthroats they were rumored to be.Not too far away I saw some of the men I knew who rode with Bill standing around trading stories and drinking chicory: blond-haired Little Archie Clement, Buster Parr, Hi Guess, and Butch Berry. Ed Koger and his brother John were singing a song I’d already heard a couple of times called “Alley’s Ball.”  Koger played his banjo with gusto, and John backed him up on the harmony:

Ole Rile Alley gave a ball,

The Feds came down and took us all

Over the ice and over the snow—

Sing-Song Kitty, won’t you kiss-me-o!

Ole Rile Alley gave a ball,

Planned to catch Quantrill and bushwhack all,

But Quant was smart and didn’t go—

Sing-Song Kitty, won’t you kiss-me-o!

Sitting a little off from everyone else was John McCorkle scribbling a letter with a nub of a pencil. I gave a wave as he looked up, and he surprised me by breaking out in a big grin of recognition. He even gave me an abbreviated salute—the ultimate compliment to my way of thinking. Gid had brought him to the house once where they ate a hasty breakfast. I remember Gid telling me he was from Jackson County.

Clement told me he didn’t care so much for Quantrill and rode with Bill Anderson’s bunch. “Don’t let anyone fool you, some of those Yankees have sand, but they have shitty horses and sorry weapons.”

“Where do you think he is now?” I said.

“Quantrill? Probably hell.”  Clement pushed up his hat with a jokey grin. “Or, maybe Kentucky. He might be relieving himself in yon bush.”

“I would sure like to meet him.”

“You are an eager one,” Clement looked at me with suspicious eyes. “Be careful how you talk around here. I know you don’t mean nothing about it. Besides, they made Quantrill a Colonel, and he was talking about fighting in the regular army. George tried to talk him out of it, but his head’s got too big. Say, what line of work were you in before the war?”

“Farmer . . . I was about to follow my father’s footsteps and become a man of God—until some Jayhawkers killed him, my father.”

“You’re pure shitting me!” Little Archie put down a week-old copy of the Missouri Statesman he’d been fitfully trying to read since dusk fell. “You was fixing on saving everyone’s souls, and now you want to send them all to hell! I have to respect the hell out of that. Otherwise, what’s the point of hell? Some people need to be sent there before they’ll see the error of their ways, and then they still might not believe it.”

Laughter abounded at this comment.

“My daddy was a preacher too,” a serious young man named Frank James said with a nod.  

“Seems fitting to me.” There was something I liked about him that seemed trustworthy compared to the others.

I held my tongue, and Clement repeated what he’d said to the other boys. They all laughed, but they looked at me askance now. Much later that same evening, the camp fire they had gathered around was silent as the temperature dropped. It was the Irishman’s turn to stand watch. He chunked a piece of wood into the fire, fell to his knees, and shook me awake. I was already awake. I’d been watching him with one eye.

“Bless these pistols, Father,” he said in his thick brogue. “Despite our desperate calling here, I believe in the hope of a better world.”

“I am not really qualified—” I felt apprehensive that anyone would look to me for guidance or blessing of any kind, especially a boy who was at least a couple of years older than me.  “I'm not Catholic or a real preacher.”

“Please, Father,” the boy’s eyes were wet with tears. It was clear it didn’t matter, and a refusal might have been unhealthy to one worked up into such an emotional state. He collapsed on me and made my chest hurt as he clutched at my arm and whispered breathlessly, “Don't tell anyone, but I’m afraid to die. What if my immortal soul ends up in purgatory?”

I put my hands on the pistols and nodded to him, hoping to calm his nerves, but then he disappeared into the underscrub with a mist across the pasture laid out almost like a table top, a common feature I’d observed about the land there. It was as if the darkness had enveloped the Irish like the Howard County fog. I thought, we are scarcely more than boys. Even the leaders were more like brutal older brothers than leaders. The moon came out and split the clouds wide for the stars, and the valley ducked below as it was bathed in a hoary light. The river fog was rising, and I remembered a story that Ephron had told me about the souls of the drowned inhabiting the mist. I forced myself to chuckle out loud to relieve the tension, but it was the quality of night that made it hard not to believe those superstitions.  Little Archie was staring at me from beneath his blanket as if he were measuring me before he gave me a steely nod and said, You are in damned bad company now, and then turned his back to the fire.

 

 

 

 

 

Daren Dean’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Chicken Scratch, Missouri Life, The Oklahoma Review, Midwestern Gothic, Fiction Southeast, Aries, Ecotone, Image, The Chattahoochee Review, Yemassee, and others.   He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UNC Wilmington. Currently, he teaches in the English department at LSU. He resides in the Greater Baton Rouge area with his wife and their children.