It was just before dawn when all eight horses and men splashed across the cold, slow flowing river and Col. Garrett called for a halt. The men were tired and barely upright in their saddles as well they should be after riding for three days with a Union Calvary unit on hot their tail. Col. Garrett waited for them to form a semi-circle around him before he spoke.
" Get a quick rest cause we ain't got no time to linger. Water your horses while we are here. They're hot on our tails, Boys, and we got a long hard ride ahead."
The War was officially over and had been for weeks; Garrett had no real rank over us, but we obeyed him explicitly and without question out of respect and because of our trust in his abilities. He was a calm man under fire and never driven by rash impulses like some others I could name. He never displayed anything but the best instincts for doing what was right for the men who served under him.
We were all wanted men. The US government had decided that our actions during the war were simply unforgivable. And they would have been right had we been riding with William Quantrill or Bloody Bill Anderson, but in reality, we were all once honest, hardworking hill country famers who never held any real truck with the landed slave holders of the flat lands. We didn't take our frustrations out on innocent civilians or slaves either. Most of us believed that it was the South's clinging to that evil institution that had brought about all this misery in the first place.
We fought for one reason and one reason only. Every last one of us were men who had suffered greatly from the depredations of Red Legs and Jayhawkers. Still, our unit never killed indiscriminately or acted outside of the limits of traditional warfare.
Well, except maybe in one regard. If we found a Jayhawker or any Unionist who used their cause as an excuse to rape, pillage, burn, or murder our kinfolk and our neighbors, we killed him as dead as earthly things would allow. I would have shook hands with Old Abe Lincoln himself or even that bloody General Grant if it would have helped me to kill one more of that type of Yankee scum.
When Lee signed away our license to kill, we thought to a man that our thirst for vengeance had never been fully slaked. We had never caught the men who had burnt our family farms, strung up or horsewhipped our fathers, uncles, and grandfathers, and raped our sisters, cousin, aunts, and mothers. In particularly, we weren't ready to surrender until we had brought about our come-to-Jesus meeting with a bunch of border demons we knew as Capt. Jake Bellenger and the Missouri River Ruffians.
Bellinger, who was better known as the Monster of Oralia, liked to brag about all of his sexual conquests, claiming thirty rapes in all, including a fourteen year old invalid and elderly spinster. His men were no better than him. Every last one them were guilty of several crimes against humanity. One Pro-Union farmer who had let us water our horses and fed us some cornbread and beans told us, "If me and my boys ever get close to that devil, we'll kill him for you, and then you all could go home to your folks."
I gave that farmer a dollar that I'd saved throughout the war for him feeding us. He didn't want to take it either, but I made him. I figured I owed him that much for giving me my first laugh since the damn war had started. We had ridden up to his little farm hidden in the hills and the thick trees, ten heavily armed men dressed in dirty Confederate Gray, and Col. Garrett had taken off his hat and asked him if we could water our horses.
The farmer, an old bald man named Ole Gustaffson, wearing a long gray beard and dressed in overhauls answered, " You guys fought for the side that killed my son at Pea Ridge at the very beginning of this mess, but you look so damned tired, worn down and bedraggled, I think the Good Lord himself would deny me entrance through the Pearly Gates if didn't at least offer you up some food." With that, Garrett reached down and shook his hand.
Upon dismounting, I went to shake his hand myself and spoke, "Normally, Sir, I would take umbrage at that description, but damned me if it don't seem to hit the nail on the head." He laughed and the sound of his good holy nature made me laugh too, and like I said, I hadn't so much as cracked a smile since the evening I came home from cutting trees and discovered my Maddy dead and my beautiful curly haired boy with his head cracked open.
When I told the Farmer we weren't going home until we caught up to Bellenger, he frowned and said, "I don't much blame you, Son. But you need to remember you got a whole lot of living ahead you, and you are one of the lucky ones; you still got a chance to do enough good in this world to work out all of the bad things that you've done."
When we finally pulled out of there, I asked him one last question, "Do you think your son would unhappy with you for feeding us?"
The farmer reached up to shake my hand and smiled, "No, Son, I don't suspect he would. In the place that he's at, I don't think it would bother him one damn bit."
We rode away in the night, I can still recall looking at the light in the window of the peaceful looking little cabin with a great big holy man inside. I also remembered thinking to myself that if the whole world were made of men like him, I'd still be home bouncing Joey on my knee in front of cozy fire with Maddy laughing.
Col. Garret had talked to every man at the ford and had saved me for last. I watched him limp across the wide sandy wash. In the bright moonlight, I could see his eyes were saddened way beyond what one life should do to a man.
He himself had not only lost a wife and son as I had, but he had also come home to discover his twin daughters raped and beaten. They both survived the assault, but his darling Lizzy, the apple of his eye, had cut her own wrists with a fragment from a broken canning jar. Sarah, the Always Serious Sarah, as he dubbed the other daughter remained in a catatonic state for weeks after.
"Well, Melvin, I know it ain't nearly enough rest, but we got to go. Them sumbitches be here shortly."
"Well, Colonel, I got somethin that I need to tell you."
He raised his chin up and looked me dead in the eyes, "What's that, Son?"
"I ain't going with you. I'm making my stand right here."
He looked at me questioningly without speaking, so I continued," My back is gone. Every hoofbeat feels like Satan himself is poking a red hot poker up my rear and up into my backbone. When I dismounted this last time, I decided that I ain't getting back into that saddle ever again."
He still didn't speak for a while, but after a while asked, "What was it, Melvin?"
"You remember when that fat German sargeant fell on me in the skirmish at the bridge?" He nodded. "He hurt me real bad. It's so bad; I really don't know how I made this far. I've been in agony for days and would rather put a bullet in my own head than ride another foot. I figure I can do you all some good by causing them Yankees to think about things a bit when they get here."
"Damn it, Melvin. I told your mama I'd bring ya home."
"This here ain't your fault. It's the best thing to do, and you know it. If I get up in them rocks up there, I'd command the whole ford and could manage to hold them up for an hour or two. Give you boys time to get away. If you give me George's and Lewis's rifles, a couple more handguns and a passel of bullets I figure I could cause them some real grief. There ain't no place to cross the river until you reach Jamestown, and that's better than fifteen miles away. And if you stick a couple pieces of dynamite under that pile rocks over there and put the fuse somewhere I could see it, I might give you an extra hour."
I could see the tears well up behind his eyes. I believe, he was remembering Rankensburg where I had saved his life by killing a bluecoat who had came out of the shadows behind him before that bluecoat could stick a bayonet in his back. Either that or he was remembering the time he saved my life the same night by killing three of the enemy who had charged us as I was loading my weapon.
"I'll see you get the guns, and I'll hook that dynamite up for you. You reckon you'll need help getting up in them rocks?"
I looked to where he was pointing and nodded, "Maybe a bit."
He started to walk away, but I called out to him, "Colonel. I need you to make me a promise." He turned around and shaded his eyes from the brightness of the moon. "I need to know that Jake Bellenger don't survive this thing because that would make everything we done kinda pointless."
He looked at me real hard and serious and smiled, "You can bet your soul on it, Melvin. There's seven of us left and God has never created a more ferocious, or more committed band of vengeance seeking hounds in the entire history of this world."
Once I was installed onto my rocky roost and the rest of the men mounted up, Jonas Hillsong, my neighbor before the war, broke away from the group and rode up to the base of the small hill where I was hidden, "I love ya Melvin. I owe you my life, friend."
"No more than I owe you mine, Jonas!" I called down to him. "I love you too, Jonas, and that goes to the rest of you too!"
It was just before the morning broke which was usually the loveliest time of the day in these hills. Everything was wrapped in silence except for the sounds of the horses breathing and walking and trees rustling in the breeze. One by one, the men rode below my hideout and nodded up at me. Colonel Garrett was the last. He stopped and and put his hand to his heart.
"You promised," I reminded him.
He shook his head and then saluted and rode into the breaking dawn.
It was five minutes later when the Sun lit up the valley floor. All the birds were chattering like crazy; then they grew suddenly silent as the sound of galloping horses could be heard coming through the still darkened trees. I watched them ride up one by one to the edge of the river and then counted.
" 27..28..29..Good, there are only thirty of them."