Best Laid Plans
“Patrick Dillon. Sitting slumped in the snow. He never moved. They just rode up to him and shot him. ‘Shot him and it was done. Done. The whole thing. So, we made our way back to the Nations,” Stanton said, trying to keep the emotion from his face.
He drew deeply on the cigar, and let the hot, almost blue, smoke crawl along his face and into the smoky air of the parlor. Lawrence, Kansas was awash in good cigars and better whiskey. Stanton was bathed and perfumed and there was an interesting poker game to attend this night. His old friend, his old nameless friend who Stanton knew to be his second cousin once or twice removed, sat in the davenport opposite him. He managed much of the government’s more nefarious involvements out west since the fifties. He, too, pulled at a cigar. His cousin’s other hand held a snifter kept wet by the crystal decanter on the table between them. They were alone in the parlor that was discreetly down the hall from the other activities of Army headquarters. It was an ornate masculine room made for quiet comfort and whispers, and it was made stuffy by windows left closed.
“There was nothing to be done,” the cousin, whose name was never heard, said aloud. Was he asking or affirming something Stanton had already made clear? Stanton wasn’t sure.
“Not a thing. We were just too far away,” Stanton lied just a little. They were closer than those rebels suspected. But even if Dillon was alive, which Stanton doubted, saving him was doubtful. At least not without getting shot up himself. He hadn’t even spotted Dillon until he’d seen the rebels creeping out of the trees. There was just too much open ground to cover with riflemen waiting.
“Before that. The big fight. Irregulars, you say?”
“Yes. That’s all I saw. Two groups. ‘Couldn’t have been more than three hundred or so.”
“You know, it was meant to pull Confederate troops off the line. To keep them out on the frontier instead of up in Arkansas or along the Red.”
“I know,” Stanton said. There followed a lengthy silence.
“Four or five hundred, you say?”
“Damn,” said the cousin.
Stanton decided to give the man a sop. “It did cause the South, or at least Texas, confusion and consternation. ‘Further depopulation of the frontier counties.’ ‘Pockets of panic.’ The Kickapoo tribe garnered much support from many citizens down south. Accusations, political rifts, many letters in the newspapers. There was, in fact, some erosion of faith with the Trans-Mississippi Department and the irregulars . . .”
“Did you think it was worth it? A lot of important folks don’t.”
“Sir, I starved and bled and froze through every step of that mess and saw the South invaded and her soldiers die,” Stanton said. “And I don’t know if it was worth it. Only excepting the fact that we won. For most times, I’ve found we have to be just content that we won.”
Best Laid Plans
David Taylor, of Taylor and Sons, Charleston, New Orleans, & Havana, enjoyed the Common Room above his Company’s Glasgow headquarters. His grandfather designed it to resemble those clubrooms he loved in London. Heavy dark woods paneled the walls. These held recessed bookshelves filled with maritime and science tomes as well as frivolous novels. Great English portraits of somebody’s lost, dead relatives hung between the shelves. A barometer, richly plated in gold, hung next to the dewy bay window that looked out over Blackburn Street. It confirmed the drizzle wetting everything outside. A couple of deep couches and three great wrap-around reading chairs sat on Greek carpets before the great, glowing fireplace. Squat, blocky end tables holding ashtrays and porcelain match holders separated each of these. Lamp stands stood behind to illuminate books and newspapers if people chose to read.
David Taylor sat in the chair farthest from the drafty window smoking a Havana cigar and ignoring the Glasgow Shipping News in his lap. Roma, his gray tabby, reclined on the footstool he shared with Taylor’s feet, watching intently for a pet. Taylor ignored him. He did not ignore the tumbler of good whiskey held in his fist as he stared out of the window.
The workday ended an hour ago. Proof of that lay in his tumbler. Dealing with the solicitors angered him. Dealing with Clyde Shipbuilding’s representatives angered him. The suppliers angered him. His bankers angered him. The engineers angered him. Taylor was no Yankee industrialist all puff and blow, but he came from the hemisphere that wanted action – movement – change. Change when it profited. All these Brits and Scots wanted none of that. They wanted more of the last four years. More of the blockade, more of the blockade-runners, their ships and their money. They knew, as he knew, the end neared. Not like them, he said it aloud. He thought it. He planned for it.
A man could stand from the chair and walk to the window. He could look off to the west, to the Central Basin, and see the manifestation of that planning. That man could see the Albion Belle nearly complete. It looked like the seven blockade-runners Taylor and Sons owned. Well, it looked like the four not sunk or grounded during the nearly four years of war. However, it was not like them. Nor was it like the generations of ships Taylor’s ancestors owned. All built by Clyde Shipbuilding. The new twin-screw drive and horizontal cylinder engine powered her. She was stronger, longer and sleeker than any other blockade running Taylor ship. David Taylor did not build the Albion Belle for blockade running. He built it for the future. He took another sip of his whiskey.
Below he heard the noise of the last of the staff shutting everything down. Bateman’s baritone laugh. Tilly must have made some obscene joke. O’Dell slamming his ledgers shut, the real mark of the Company’s day being done. Someone slamming the stove shut probably from stirring the last of the ashes. Gruff conversation hummed – the men deciding who could gather at Three Sister’s Pub and whose wife wasn’t having it.
The dissonant bells hanging from the Company’s front door clanged harshly, but not from the men leaving. David Taylor’s day was not done. He groaned softly as Angus Moffat’s heavy tread pounded up the stairs.
“Sir, Mister Caird and a guest arrived,” Angus said in the resonant burr he tried hard to hide.
“Show them up, Angus,” Taylor said rising. He straightened his shirt and jacket and glanced at his image in the cloudy mirror by the door. He saw a dark-haired, clean-shaven, clear-eyed South Carolinian with a narrow face and sharp nose. The reflection belied his forty-four years of age. No paunch and a frame thin like his face, it was the image of a Taylor, his father’s image, his grandfather’s image.
Angus opened the door, ushering in the two men. Robert Caird, of an age with Taylor, showed a paunch and jowls. He was short and energetic. He was a man connected to everything powerful in Glasgow, and with most things powerful in Britain. The Caird family owned its own ship building industry that competed with Clyde’s. But Caird was in finance and not involved directly with his family’s maritime efforts. Taylor had letters of credit at his firm, as did most of the blockaders in Glasgow. The man with him was American. Southern American by the cut of his fashionable dark green suit that showed lace from his cuffs and form-fitted him tightly, and by the thick, long, well-groomed blonde hair.
Taylor approached the two men, hand out stretched. “Mister Caird, welcome.”
“David. I wish you joy. How goes the day? Profitable I hope,” Caird said taking his hand with a boneless grip.
“You tell me, Robert. You know my day’s profits down to shillings and pence,” Taylor said.
Caird laughed. “You did well. Let me introduce Thomas Charles, agent of Atlanta Growers Association.”
Charles bowed very formally and presented his card.
“My pleasure, Suh,” the man said.
“Gentlemen, please sit. Drinks.” Taylor did not ask. He poured.
The two men took places on opposite ends of the couch. Taylor handed each a nearly full tumbler, then sat in his usual chair.
“So, Robert, how may I help you?”
Charles cut him off. “Mistuh Taylor, my company represents many of your compatriots here in Glasgow.”
“Cotton growers, yes?”
“Among others, Suh. I have a client in need of help and I have come to you because I believe you may be best placed to give him that help.”
“What does your, shall we call him client, want me to take to the Confederacy?” Taylor said suspicious and wondering just what Caird had told this man about him. “Consider, before you answer, that I am a man of honor, sir. Honor, despite the fact that circumstances have branded me a smuggler.”
“No, no, David. We want an act of mercy, an act of patriotism, and nothing that impinges on anyone’s honor,” Caird spoke up, raising a hand. “And, it is not a question of what you can take home. It is a question of what you can retrieve from there.”
“Mistuh Taylor, it is a matter of who — not what — you can retrieve from there,” Thomas Charles quickly added.
“David, the government of Brazil recognizes that the war is almost over. You and I agree. We’ve talked about it before. Brazil made offers to many cotton growers in Georgia and Alabama. Even in Texas. They’ve invited the growers to come to Brazil and create a cotton industry there,” Caird said.
“Yes,” Taylor started, “since we all know the war’s nearly finished are we all to negotiate a future for plantation owners?”
“Most certainly, Suh, we must plan for the future,” Charles said.
“My plans are laid for my future, sir,” Taylor said. He did not add that those plans involved Texas and west to California.
“Actually, we have strayed from the true reason we came to you,” Caird interrupted. Charles opened his mouth to speak, but Caird put up a hand. “David, there are several families back home who want to take that offer from Emperor Dom Pedro. They want your, let’s say, your special help getting there.”
“What is special about my help, Robert?”
“Well, for one, there are your contacts in Matamoros.”
“They’re not what they used to be,” Taylor shrugged. Things were truly a mess down in Mexico.
“You’re still best placed for getting this job done,” Caird said.
Taylor let out a hissing breath. “Tell them to grow patience until they can grow cotton again. This damn war that made me so rich will be over soon and they can sail to Brazil on something more comfortable than a runner.”
“I’m afraid that is not possible, Mister Taylor,” Charles said.
“David, these people are wanted men. They are in hiding. Their families are in danger from Sherman’s thugs.”
“What in God’s name are you cooking up, Robert?”
“I am trying to put gold in your pocket, good British gold.”
“I know, patriotism notwithstanding, that I am considered little more than a smuggler. However, I think I draw the line at smuggling criminals out of my Confederacy,” Taylor said. He rolled his tumbler of whiskey between finger and thumb.
“They are not criminals, suh. They are patriots. Their crimes are the crimes of Southerners resisting oppression. The North considers what you do as simple piracy. Are you that kind of criminal?”
Taylor shrugged at that. The victors write the history. If he were Jeff Davis’ hero, he would not be Abe Lincoln’s when the Union was whole once more. He wondered if he was destined to spend his life here in Scotland or maybe in Brazil.
“What were their crimes?”
Thomas Charles told him. A man from Ball’s Ferry killed a Yankee Captain in a duel over insults to the man’s wife. A Mississippi farmer sniped at Yankee gunboats shelling his cotton fields. A Georgia plantation owner hung two men trying to get his slaves to rebel; one of those men was a Yankee agent assisting the so-called Underground Railway. Each Southerner wanted, each with money in British banks, Charles assured him.
“Do you consider them criminals you could not help leave the South?” he asked Taylor.
“How do you men know all of this – any of this? Who, under God’s starry heaven, put this together?”
“Not everything can be told, I’m afraid. And there is one more complication,” Caird said. “The major, uh, shall we call him the major source of funds, has a son he wants to include.”
“This son is not coming with the rest? Not deserting his unit?”
“He is believed to be in Louisiana and heading to Mexico. There are apparently many Southerners heading that way to escape Union occupation. He’s an escaped prisoner, not a deserter,” Caird said.
“All right, what earned me my place in this circus, other than my connection with French Mexico?”
“I have come into possession of certain documents that concern an employee of yours and some of his associates. He and one or two people he knows have both useful experiences and useful talents that can’t but contribute to our situation.”
“You’re talking about Brince Miles,” Taylor put down his glass. What was Brince into?
“Among others of his acquaintance,” Caird said.
“One of my captains leads me to believe that he is no longer my employee,” Taylor said.
“You will have money enough to hire him again,” Charles put in.
“I do not know if that is possible,”
“There will be money enough to meet his price, I assure you.” Charles told him.
The following day, David Taylor attended to the final outfitting of the Albion Belle and to the changes needed for its newest charter. There was, in fact, money enough indeed.
Sally Conner, glad that the rains had stopped, stepped awkwardly along the muddy road leading out of Marietta. She was aware of the puddles and of the rough-cut man following her. One hand clutched at her muslin farmwife skirt to keep the hem up out of the mud. The other hand held a much worn boxwood basket mostly full of groceries she did not really need. A broad, flaring bonnet hid her handsome freckled face and curly reddish hair. A linsey-woolsey man’s shirt attempted to disguise her slender frame and was not different from what many women wore in Yankee occupied Georgia. Damn Sherman and his heathen army. None of that confused the man who followed her. He knew exactly who Sally Conner was. He did not know, however, where she was headed. Sally continued gingerly down the road refusing to look back at him as clapboard houses thinned out, giving way to sodden oak and sweet gum trees.
The angry crack of a bullwhip sounded loudly, as did a man’s curse. Another crack, and another, echoed amongst the trees. The man howled. Sally turned. The man lay writhing in a muddy puddle. Her husband, Liam Patrick Conner, trim and erect with a shock of dark brown hair falling over his brow, stood over the man looping the ugly bullwhip into his fist. Beside him, “Paddy” O’Doul, husky and muscular, black-haired and blue-eyed, stood by him with an equally ugly and massive shotgun dangling from his own huge fist.
“Can you walk?” Liam asked, looking down.
“No, damn you,” the man said, hands clutching both bleeding thighs.
“Are you sure? My man can fix that with his gun if you can.”
“Damn you,” the man moaned.
“Well, damn you for following a lady with intent to do harm.”
Sally walked up to her husband and looked down at the man. No alarm, no pity showed in her eyes. Inside, she appreciated that her mother was long dead and not able to see what her good, Southern daughter became because of this damned war.
Paddy looked around at the quiet neighborhood.
“Good enough, Liam. No one seeks to notice us,” he said.
“No one wants our kind of trouble I guess.” Liam said. He turned back to the man in the mud. “Stay in that mud. If I see you again I’ll put a hole in you as big as Thursday, you hear?”
The man did not respond except to whimper and writhe. Liam Conner led his wife and ex-overseer on down the road. The last they saw of his wife’s follower he was sitting up staring down the road at them. They rounded a curve and Liam led them into the dripping forest. Three saddled horses waited, tied to some brush.
“He did not mean me any harm, husband,” Sally said as Liam helped her up.
“He intended harm to all of us if he could find where we hide.”
Her husband let the horses find their own way along the deer trail that meandered through the forest, and more or less around Marietta to the northwest of town. A familiar trail that Liam never used twice or even three times in a row for the few visits he allowed to be in touch with his agents and bankers. He hated using her to do this kind of thing. Sally knew that. No other way made any sense. This was the last time anyway. That man recognized her. She saw the look on his face as she left McGill’s Dry Goods.
“Did that man see you leave the bank?” Liam asked.
“No. I came out of the dry goods store. I wish I knew how he knew me.” Sally said.
“They have a sketch of Liam. I guess they got one on you now,” Paddy said.
“I’ve seen that one of my husband. It’s not all that good.”
“It’s good enough,” Liam said. “So, what’s the word?”
“Hamm said the papers and the money reached Scotland. That man Taylor agreed. He also says that our friends up north are contacting someone in Texas. That man will do all the arranging. He, Hamm said, will be in touch,” Sally said.
“What in Baptist hell does that mean?” Liam asked.
Sally only shrugged. “That is all Hamm told me.”
Morning grayed the sky before they reached Reverend McMurray’s place. The three of them sat their mounts among the mosquitos until McMurray’s children stirred. Fergus came out from the house with his milking bucket to head to the barn. McMurray’s wife, The Reverend Sister, and daughter, Henrietta, emerged, headed for the coop with egg baskets. Finally, McMurray himself stomped out with his bucket of feed. His goose started honking from her pen and roosters dropped from the mimosa tree. McMurray went to the goose first to scatter feed. The goose before the roosters meant safety – apparent safety. Liam led his wife and his overseer through the forest to McMurray’s back forty, watched some more, then led them to the barn. Fergus, peeking from the barn, opened the back door for them.
“Morning, Fergus,” Liam said.
“Morning, Mr. Conner.”
“Is everything quiet?”
“Yessir. Everything except Big Dolly,” the boy said, meaning everything except his prize milk cow.
“Then you best be at your milking, Fergus,” Sally said.
Fergus was a bright child of maybe fourteen years with a face full of freckles and a wide toothy grin. Just like his mother, the Reverend Sister. It was wrong to involve him in this; wrong to involve his family in this. Damnation, Sally thought, swearing silently as she never swore before this war. The Reverend did not believe in this war or in slavery. The Reverend, thank God, had only his duty to protect his flock. Fergus left them to attend the looing Big Dolly. Paddy took the horses to tend. Liam stood there staring at her.
“What, husband?” she asked.
“Yes, what? I see you and that look on your face,” Liam said.
“You know the one. What troubles you?”
“I do not like these people we deal with. I do not trust them. The banker is one thing. These others, these mystery people, we do not know. They help themselves to our money, wanting that more than wanting to help us. They are not proper people,” Sally answered.
“Just like us, all the proper people we know are just as ruined, just as hunted as we are. You – we – have to use the tools that are available to us. Anyway, most of them I trust. I trust Taylor.”
“Husband, I want to go back to the way things were. I want my life back.”
“Wife, there is no going back,” Liam shrugged. “I hung the wrong man. I will not be forgiven. Not by God or men. Certainly, not by the Yankees.”
“No. This – this horror will be over.”
“Sally, Sally. I am so sorry. There is no going back.”
Sally saw the truth in her husband’s eyes. Oh God. Niall lost somewhere across the River.
Sergeant Niall Conner sat on the scorching rock, staring at a small patch of sand in a hollow of that same rock. Well, Sergeant was a stretch. Since escaping his captors after the disaster at Nashville, Niall was not even sure he was a Confederate soldier, much less a Sergeant. Today he sat on this stupid rock scratching fleas from his wispy beard, dressed in rags, and sharing what some called jerky with a bunch of other men equally ragged. Nigh on eighty men gathered here today. A few, Niall guessed, were surely deserters. There was a bunch from Louisiana, once belonging to various units. A handful of grim, silent men from Missouri, which Niall tried not to think about at all, that rode in several days ago. And, a handful of men from the famous Terry’s Texas Rangers claiming they had permission to come home, but did not think Texas worth staying in. All of these men claimed they were not going to be “reconstructed”.
“Yep, Maximilian’s the better bet,” that man from Terry’s Rangers kept saying. He kept saying it so often they all called him Texas Max. He was talking again as Niall stared at the sand.
“Oh, I don’t know, Max,” Niall said. He cocked an ear. Over the hill holding Niall’s rock if he wanted to look, the Rio Grande flowed, glittering in the sun. Beyond the river and out of sight, someone fought a battle. The popping and crackling went on sporadically since daybreak. Someone even fired a small cannon, maybe two. What the hell was going on over there? “I don’t know if the better bet lives across that river or not. Can you hear that?”
“I hear that, boy. What do you think we’ll be doing over there, farming, whoring, what?”
“I reckon we’ll be doing what we always been doing. Fighting some man’s feud,” one of the Missouri boys spoke up, his mouth full of jerky.
“I reckon so,” said another.
“Tell you what, though. I could wish we’d be fighting for the winning side for once,” one of the Terry’s Rangers said.
“The winning side’ll be the one paying me the most gold, by God,” Texas Max said. Niall thought the man tried to convince himself of crossing that river more than everyone else.
“Well, I wish I knew which side was doing the winning over there today,” Niall said.
“Why don’t you go over there and see,” the Missourian said.
“I will if you come with me,” Niall said.
The Captain stepped up just then, swigging water from his canteen. They called him the Captain because he wore Captain’s chevrons on his coat. Everyone took him at his word. He came in with the Missourians and they treated him as a Captain. He was a cold, hard man but did not strut around insisting on becoming the leader of this bunch. In fact, he stood ready to keep everything democratic. However, Niall doubted anyone would give him and his Missourians any guff if it could be helped.
“Well, Sergeant, that sort of begs the question of just how can we cross that river no matter what waits on the other side,” the Captain started.
“Captain, I think what waits over there matters a damn lot,” one of the men said. Niall thought the Louisianan was a deserter.
The Captain ignored him. “Thoughts, Sergeant?”
“I do have a thought, Captain.”
“I think we go downstream and take that ferry across.”
“Can you pay the fare for that ferry?”
Niall reached down to lay his hand on his Enfield. “Yessir, I can.”
“You don’t have to yes sir me, Sergeant. And, you do have a good thought, I reckon,” the Captain said, grinning. He turned to the others. “All right, you renegades, gather up. The Sergeant and I have a plan. Let’s get this bastard thing started.”
It might have been Niall’s idea, but it was the Captain’s plan right enough. He laid it out to the motley collection circled around them. A good plan it was.
“Now, see to your weapons. The Sergeant and I will inspect them. Anything you do not need, leave. Come dark we’re moving,” he said.
Niall reached for the cleaning kit in his haversack.
“What’s your name, Sergeant?” the Captain said.
“Nye – ell” The Captain drew out the name into almost three syllables. “Irish, huh? Unfortunate. ‘Course, mine’s Mortimer. Not much better. Do feel free to call me Mort. I’m told that Mort means death in some lost language or other, so my men like it well enough.”
“Mort,” Niall acknowledged with a nod.
“How did you get down to this piece of hell?”
“Irish luck, I guess. We were up in Tennessee getting a right pasting. Got captured.”
‘A big jug of bottled lightning got captured as well. Bastards got drunk. I slipped loose in a deep forest near dark. The army went east leaving a lot of Yankees between me and them. Vicksburg gave me my fill of capture so I came this way,” Niall shrugged.
“Where you from?”
“I used to be from Georgia. From what I hear Georgia is busy being erased.”
“That’s about what I hear, too.”
“Captain – Mort, we got a hitch in our plan.”
“The whole thing kind of depends on that ferry sleeping on our side of the river, don’t you think?”
They were lucky. The ferry sat moored on the Texas bank. The whole thing was easy. Just before dawn, Mort lined them up, marched them in column to the pier, and leveled rifles on the bored men guarding it. The guards were pleased enough to let go of the thing. The last Niall saw of them they were walking downstream, eyes on the ferry being hauled across the Rio Grande. An hour of heavy pulling got Niall standing on Mexican gravel and looking out at desert and desolation not dissimilar from what they just left.
A collection of mud hovels stood quietly in the morning sun some two hundred paces downstream. If people lived there, they had the good sense to head for the scrub and hide. The road coming up from the south and passing those hovels turned inland from the ferry. No one traveled it. Even the birds remained hidden and silent. No one showed on the Texas side of the river either.
Texas Max walked up. “Well, what now, do you think?”
“We’ll be trying to find the Frenchies, I reckon,” one of the men from Louisiana said. Niall thought his name was Prudhomme. Prudhomme was Frenchie himself, being from Louisiana, but he meant Maximillian’s troops trying to hold onto Mexico and Napoleon III’s new French “client state”. “We hear there’s a sign on bounty and they’ll give us land down south of here.”
“That’s what I’ll be doing,” one of the Terry’s Rangers said, getting nods from Max. “All we got to do is find them.”
“Maybe, we can ask that feller,” one of the rougher cut Missourians said, pointing to the top of the nearest small hill. That got everyone’s attention. Men jerked heads toward the hill as they grabbed rifles.
Niall looked as he brought up his Enfield. A lone figure stood stock still on the highest point. Whoever stood there wanted spotting, and Niall cursed himself for missing him. When enough rifles pointed toward him, it seemed, the man spread apart his hands showing he was unarmed.
“How long has that bastard been there?” the Captain said, fishing out his glass. No one answered. He peered through the arm-length tube. “Well, he ain’t a Frenchie or a Yankee. Damn, I don’t think he’s a Mexican either. That’s a damn Indian.”
He snapped the glass shut and jammed it back into his haversack.
“If things go sour, I’ll be depending on you to bring up my rifle, you hear?” The Captain said at Niall as he began stepping through the nervous men toward the hill. Not too far toward the hill, Niall noticed. He stared up at the hilltop for a moment then gave a nod and a sweeping gesture to invite the man down to meet them. To Niall’s amazement, and everyone else’s, the man began to make his way down the hill. There walked a brave man.
He was Indian, right enough. Niall saw them in some of the towns he had been in from Arkansas to Shreveport to Waco. So not like Georgia, so foreign and interesting at first. Later, he pitied the ones that wandered and struggled on the edges of society and civilization, even in the roughest of towns. Anyone who bothered to talk at all to the stray rebels wandering south warned them of another, a more dangerous, kind of Indian, the Comanche. They feared them, as they should, but Niall guessed numbers counted, for no one bothered them. None even showed themselves until now.
The Captain and the Indian came within several steps of each other. They talked, glancing back at Niall and the others several times. Niall could not hear what they said. In a moment, the two of them strolled back.
The Captain gestured at the man. “This man is called Pecanna. He’s a Kickapoo. A worthy man of a great people, he says,” He did not look so great to Niall, scruffy and dusty, kind of short and stocky. He had cold eyes that stared at each man whose eyes he reached. “Pecanna tells me that the Frenchmen are just a half day’s walk down that road to the south. He tells me they will enlist those willing to swear allegiance to Maximilian. But, and it’s a big but, any of you from Texas are not welcome here. He says this is Kickapoo land, and the Kickapoo are at war with Texas. Texans, he said, must go east. He will take you east. He will guarantee your safety, as I assured him that you did not come to war with the Kickapoo.”
Niall could feel Texas Max stiffen next to him. Others of Terry’s Rangers shot him a glance. Max signaled, palm down, for them to remain still.
“I also assured Pecanna that I would not take any Texans south with me,” the Captain continued. “That, I will do. However, and I told him this, I suggest you keep your rifles handy and someone awake. The trip west will take some days. Get ready to move.”
“Captain? Captain, do you believe this man when he says the Texans will be safe?” Max asked.
The Kickapoo stepped forward.
“You are safe because you were not at Dove Creek,” Pecanna said.
“What the hell is Dove Creek?” Max said.
“Dove Creek is a great victory for my people. Many Texans die. Many Texans run like scared deer from my people,” the Kickapoo Pecanna said. His words were a challenge and he eyed Max closely. He was testing Max, Niall determined.
“Well then, Mister Pecanna, those weren’t Terry’s Texas Rangers now were they?”
“No, they were not, Mister Ranger. That is why I will take you west and you will not know the anger of my people.”
That was worth some further thought, Niall decided. He very slowly eased over to the Captain.
“What’s all of this, Captain?” he asked, keeping his voice low.
“I don’t rightly know. And, it’s Mort, not Captain. I know that that ruffian is a whole lot smarter than he looks. I know that he’s pretty pissed about something. I guess that makes his people just as pissed. I also guess that no matter what happened down on that creek, he’s not all that eager to fight anyone today.”
“So you think he tells the truth? About the Texans being safe, I mean?”
“Those boys aren’t your regular deserters. I don’t see a yellow bone among the bunch of them. I wouldn’t want to start a fight with them. Maybe the Kickapoo don’t either. They just want a future. There ain’t no future for them in Texas, at least not one they can see.”
“So, they’re safe?”
The Captain shrugged noncommittally. “Why?”
“I want to go with them. I did not desert and I have not surrendered. I want to get back to Georgia.”
“You think you can win the war for them, Niall?”
“No. My family is there if they’re alive. My fate is their fate.”
“I didn’t take you for a fool, soldier.”
“I didn’t take you for one either, Mort.”
“Why am I a fool?”
“You go from fighting for the Confederacy to fighting for an Emperor – and for his money.”
“And for a new home, Niall. They’re going to hang me if I go back to my old home and this war ends.”
“A rope or a bullet?”
“A bullet’s better,” Mort said. Niall shrugged. He had to agree with that. “Well, I kind of wanted a sergeant, but get on with you. See you around some place.”
Mort turned to go, then turned back. “Where’re you going, Sergeant?”
“To the land of Scheherazade, Captain,” Niall said, and was rewarded with Mort’s raised eyebrows. “Some hell hole called Bagdad. It’s near Matamoros.”
All the races that danced in the blood of man, danced in the veins of Benedito Gabriel McCabe Luna. Friends called him, Gabe. There was French Creole, Spanish, Scottish, Caddo Indian, and Portuguese. All of them showed in his blunt, swarthy face, and powerful, round torso. Exasperation permanently creased the down-turning of his overfull lips. The potential for violence radiated from his body whether walking, standing, or, like now, lying against the trunk of the huge oak tree he seemed to be propping up.
He was exasperated. He was disturbed. The dove cooing, that came from no dove, sounded out amid the cricket rasps, squirrel barking, mockingbird screeches, and mosquito buzzing. The sound drew closer, more insistent. The agreed upon sound meaning no trouble and meaning a visitor coming.
“Yeah, yeah, I hear you, boy,” he growled. He took up his rifle. No trouble or not, it was always better to have rifle in hand.
A fine rifle it was. However, that rifle was Gabe’s bane. Hans Schwartz, the distiller, made it by hand for him many years ago. Despite distilling spirits making more money for him, Hans missed his calling, for the rifle was a fine thing, a jewel. A heavy caliber monster patterned after the old Tennessee long rifle, but fitted to shoot cap and ball rounds large enough to drop an ox six hundred yards away. A jewel only someone as big as Gabe could handle. Poor old Hans up and joined the army and got himself shot up outside of Vicksburg fighting Grant. Of course, had Gabe not had the rifle in hand the day that Yankee gunboat shelled his cotton fields, Gabe would not be hiding in these woods with a price on his head.
He remembered the day vividly. Images he could not forget – ever. A bright, sunny day just late enough in the morning to dry all the dew from the cotton balls. His slaves finished collecting their sacks, and eating big bowls of burgoo sufficient for a good day’s work. A healthy southern breeze sent the smell of the gunboat out ahead of the ugly thing before he could see it. No problem. They patrolled the Mississippi several times a day since Vicksburg fell a couple of months before. That day, however, some hotshot Yankee thought it would be a great joke to scare piss out of the slaves by bouncing round shot across Gabe’s fields. Gabe, in all his pride, stomped his way to the brush lining the river, took a bead at the open, shadowed bridge of that ugly metal monster, and put a hole in the helmsman. The gunboat slewed wild and drove itself hard aground on the Louisiana bank.
Ten days later, Yankee provosts rode up to his great house – his beautiful house — abusing Gabe’s quadroon mistress, Franny, and searching for him. They freed Franny and all his slaves, and posted a land seizure poster on his front door. Gabe was lucky that day. The provosts were a noisy bunch. He ran. Franny refused to run, but she, like all his slaves and paid hands, had disappeared by nightfall when Gabe returned. Before the sun rose, no one lived at Great Oak plantation.
The boy cooed again. This time the half-tamed goose honked back from wherever it waddled after insects and such. Gabe heard his scratching footfalls now drag-heeling across the fallen leaves. Gabe half-cocked his rifle, and fitted a cap on the nipple just in case, then eased up in a crouch on the side of the tree farthest from the boy’s cooing.
“Come on in, boy,” Gabe said just loud enough.
“Hey, Gabe. I got some perch for you,” the boy answered.
In a moment, Gabe saw the boy’s dirty, once white, pants flash in and out of the forest shadows. Finally, he was close enough for the rest of him to show through the scrub. Everyone called him Cane, short for Cane Pole, more because he resembled one than for his devotion to fishing. If anyone ever knew his real name, that person had died or moved. Cane was a freckled, gap-toothed youngster of maybe sixteen, with wiry red hair and a dimpled grin. His mother was a mute that washed laundry for wealthy folk over in Raymond. His daddy never admitted to it and was long gone. Still, Cane was a happy young man, discrete and eager to please. Gabe appreciated all those qualities.
“Morning, Cane. Was you followed?” Gabe said, easing a bit from his tree to be seen.
“If I was, I let ‘em get a couple of hours of sittin’ whilst I caught your perch,” Cane said cheerfully, as he stomped up and plopped the string of little fish on the rocks around Gabe’s fire pit. He squatted down to begin to stir the coals and fed in some kindling.
Gabe fetched his frying pan and tin plates from the canvas bag that kept things dry, put it on the rocks next to the fish, and went to his woodpile. By the time he returned, Cane was gutting and scaling the perch. Gabe frowned. He did not like his campsite all covered in fish scales, but he said nothing. Cane was a good boy. No sense criticizing.
That stupid goose made his appearance, eagerly waddling up to Cane. They called him “Goose” now, a good enough name. He was Gabe’s guard dog and he was good at it. Night or day, nothing got close to Gabe’s camp without Goose sounding off. Cane threw Goose some strands of fish gut that the bird seemed to relish. The boy laughed, watching him raise his head and shake the stuff down his throat.
“What did I tell you about Goose? Best friend a man can have. Am I right?” Cane said. “Lets you know when folks are coming. Talks to you like you was relatives. What could be better, yeah?”
“Yeah.” Gabe shook his head. “Jabbers away and craps all over the place.”
Gabe threw a chunk of bacon fat on the pan and, in a minute, the perch sizzled nicely. He pulled up a piece of fire log for Cane to sit on, and fetched an old crock full of spring water. Preserve jars served well enough for drinking cups. Another crock protected some of the onions he’d picked early this morning. He took out two and gave one to Cane.
“Oh, I brought you stuff,” Cane said. He pulled his haversack over his head and gave it to Gabe. “There’s more bacon, some beans, and a tin full of flour. Last Wednesday’s newspaper too.”
“Damn, thanks. How’d you…?” Gabe started.
“Mister Herbert gave me a whole two dollars for the string of bass I got yesterday,” Cane said. “I told him it was an excuse to come see him, so nobody’d know and all. But, he said I worked hard for that string and I deserved the two dollars anyway.”
“Good for him, boy. And good for you. Oh, and he likes to have his name pronounced Ay-bear.”
“Ay-bear. But, it’s spelled Herbert right on his sign. Herbert’s General Merchandise.”
“Well, that’s the French for you. What did he have to say?”
“Lots of stuff, and I didn’t understand a lick of it,” Cane said, rolling his eyes.
“Well, what did he say?” Gabe said. Tin plates lay face down on the fire pit rocks. Gabe took out his knife. Cane undid his bandana, using it to hold the fry pan steady as Gabe flipped over the plates and nursed the perch onto them.
“I’ll take this over to the stream; give it a rinse.”
“No, boy, sit it on the rocks and tell me what Herbert said.”
“Ay-bear, what Ay-bear said,” Cane grinned at his joke.
Gabe shot Cane a look.
“Yes sir. Mister Herbert said to tell you to go down to your dirty roots, and to see the man buying horses. Like I said, none of it made a lick of sense.”
It made perfect sense to Gabe. Gabe’s family owned a townhouse in Natchez. He still owned that house, if the Yankees had not burned it down. Going down to the roots of Natchez meant one went to that hell town affectionately known as Natchez-Under-The-Hill, a place of river pirates, thieves, gamblers, and whores. Gabe wondered if it was still there. To see a man buying horses would be to look for a man that identifies himself as someone interested in doing just that. The message was clear as a bell.
“It makes perfect sense, Cane. I’ll pay you back those dollars.”
“You’ll be leaving I suspect.”
“Yeah, I will.”
“Pay me back by taking me with you.”
That set Gabe aback. He eyed the boy.
“Now, what would your poor ol’ maw do if I went stealing her boy from her?”
“She’ll do fine enough, Gabe. She’s took up with Mister Potter over to the mill. Don’t hardly see her anymore…”
“That mean old cuss. Why him?”
“They seem to get along. Maw thinks he likes it that she don’t talk,” Cane said. The woman could not tell you that your house was on fire, but she and Cane seemed to understand each other fine. “He treats her good and he likes her cooking.”
“Where I’m going and what I’ll be doing will be dangerous stuff, boy.”
“I swim that river every other day with those rips and those snapping turtles. I walk barefoot through dewberry bushes full of water moccasins. Steal pies out the window from Widow Billie while her sons are cleaning their shotguns. What’s dangerous, Gabe? Better than that, what have I got going for myself here?”
Gabe shrugged. “I’ll think on it, Cane.”
“You think on it, Gabe. Me – I’m already packed and I bought extra bacon and beans.”
Joshua Stanton leaned against the wall in the Kansas City telegraph office, trying to be a shadow unnoticed in the crowd. Only a fragile banister stood between the press of people and the harried staff and their all-powerful telegraph machine. The telegraph office became quite popular since Appomattox Court House and Jeff Davis getting himself arrested. With the Union Army tying off loose ends down in Texas, the war finally seemed done.
Joshua first thought that left him at loose ends. War’s end gave him time to spend some of the money he siphoned off, he thought. Then the first wire reached him. Today he waited in the crowd for another – the fifth if he counted – each more cryptic than the last. He waited and he listened. The crowd murmured, the electric receiver spit, and the wiremen called out names. Finally, they called his name, or the name he listened for.
“Pettigrew! Pettigrew! Wire for Pettigrew!”
Stanton wormed his way through the press of men. The operator knew Stanton as the man Pettigrew. He stretched out a hand and the operator passed over the scribbled on paper. The note gave a name and an arrival time. His man would arrive tomorrow. Stanton wondered if he should celebrate or worry. He decided to celebrate as he worried, for a young man in need of money to travel west waited for him at his hotel.
The young man earned his money.
Stanton slept late, bought himself a bath down behind the barbershop, and found himself at the station waiting on the noon train. Do not be late, train, he thought, listening to his stomach complain and regretting the missed breakfast. A knot of passengers gathered about the stationmaster’s office. A woman with a brood of children sat on a bench in the shade, amid piles of luggage. Three men, looking like salesmen, chattered not too far from her. One of the railroad employees stood near the track, two sacks of mail leaning against his legs. Out beyond the station, cowboys leaned on the fence of the corral holding nervous horses, and sporting their wide-brimmed sombreros. Stanton guessed they waited to load the mounts on the train.
Off to the right in the distance, Indian women stood or squatted beneath the water tower, catching the water that seeped from the tank in large wooden pails. Between here and there, huge piles of crates lay stacked on the dirt waiting for transport west. Beyond that, and across the track, the shelf of land dropped off toward the river. He could smell the mud of the dredgers over the smell of dust, sour spilt beer, fresh paint, and slaughterhouse. All of it made him tired.
Others came to wait for the train, and for whatever treasure or kin the noon stop brought. Boys gathered near the tracks. One placed a penny on the tracks. The rest swiveled heads from penny to tracks leading to the approaching train. If it would approach, Stanton thought grimacing. As if in answer, echoes of the steam whistle sounded through the trees atop the hill hiding the train from him. The train wrapped around the tree-shrouded hill, and sent its throbbing noise toward him. Stanton ignored the sudden hum and movement of those around him as he took a couple of steps forward. A northeast to southwest wind made sure dirty gray smoke arrived ahead of the train, quickly followed by hot metal-smelling steam, and the squeal of breaking wheels. The engineer hit the release lever, venting the last pressurized vapor, hiding Stanton in a last smelly cloud. The cloud dissipated and the great beast of a machine quieted.
Stanton turned to walk toward the passenger cars. He watched a boy run away from the tracks holding his squashed penny, and being chased by a pack of squealing children. Men and women began to emerge and clump across the boardwalk toward the dangling “PICK UP” sign for their stored baggage. Others came down to watch for people meeting them. Stanton recognized his man immediately, though he never met the man before. The man stepped down, putting a bowler on his head with just the right angle, and holding a newspaper under the other arm. His jet black woolen suit and blinding stiff white shirt tailored as only a Washington tailor could do it. Brogans almost glittered in the sun, obviously spit-shined by the porter within the last hour. Mostly, however, the man’s stance gave him away, all disdain and haughtiness, staring ahead, refusing to even look around for who awaited him.
“You simply must be Mr. Goodbody,” Stanton said, coming up to the man. “I am Pettigrew.”
“I must be the most complex Mr. Goodbody,” the man said smiling with a bit of a nod.
The sign said, “Western Star – Dry Goods – Supply – Lunch”. The Western Star provided all four things, and people gossiped that two or three of the female employees supplied other delights if asked the right way and shown the right number of coins. The ten tables crowded the left side of the space near the large front window, and the door out to the cook shed. A cash register sat on a glass counter on the opposite wall, displaying a selection of candy and notions. In the rear, townspeople wandered through nail kegs, tables stacked with clothing, and shelves of supplies.
The steak came fresh and bloody. The beans swam in oniony gravy bitter with salt. The proprietor brewed his own ale, the only ale Stanton stomached. Mrs. Proprietor, whatever her name was, burnt her coffee in the best Kansas manner. Just like Stanton, the man going by Goodbody ate and drank it all with wordless relish.
“Can we talk here?” Goodbody asked, dabbing his lips and fingers with the provided damp towel.
“Look around,” Stanton said.
The sweltering room hummed, gulped, and gnawed with the city’s hungry citizens, busy with meals or shopping. Few of them gave more than a glance at the two well-dressed men.
“All right. If you do not already know, our company was very impressed with your – let us say — your efforts out west during the recent unpleasantness,” Goodbody started.
“You mean the Empire Mercantile Consortium?” Stanton asked. The Consortium practiced business as if it was the East India Company. Far from being pleased, Stanton only saw the trap.
“Of course, I do mean that, and I’d be grateful if we do not say that name out loud again.” Goodbody said and pouted, literally pouted. Stanton nodded a promise.
Goodbody pulled out documents from his coat pocket. “We are engaging you, at a good rate, to perform a number of services. By what I’ve read, you have the skills and the contacts. The experience also, I see.”
The lack of an option did not go unnoticed. Nor was it unexpected. Stanton had performed services for these people before.
“What rate?” he asked.
Goodbody handed him a paper. A goodly sum of money and stocks showed in tight accountant’s calligraphy – a very good rate indeed. Stanton speculated that when the time came it would not be enough. The sums, and a single sentence contractual agreement, sat above a line prepared for his signature.
“What services am I to perform?”
“A young soldier lost in Mexico must be found and brought to a ship to join his family.”
“Seems simple enough.”
“The family must — and others — must be accompanied to an undisclosed location and set up properly,” Goodbody said, simplicity itself.
“Who and how?” Stanton asked.
Goodbody sorted papers then proffered several of them. “These do not leave your possession as long as you breathe. If it’s your last act, burn them. Nowhere are my principles or the company, as you term them, listed. Burn them anyway. Burn them before you leave.”
Stanton took the papers and slipped them into his coat.
“My access to funds?” he asked.
Goodbody gave him a couple of more papers – lines of credit, bank drafts. He slipped the last of his papers into his coat pocket.
Stanton called for pen and ink, half surprised that the broad-faced, smiling servant found both. In silence, he committed himself with signing the name “Pettigrew”. It bound him, nonetheless. He folded the paper and returned it. Goodbody returned it to his coat and stood.
“I will not bid you good day, for I have not met you. I will not see you again. I do not know you,” he said, looking hard in Stanton’s eyes.
Goodbody walked to the front, returned his bowler to his head, and disappeared into the blinding sunshine.
Stanton treated himself to another ale, sipping it slowly before returning to his room. To his surprise, Goodbody sat on a couch in the parlor by the desk reading a paper. A test, or did the man stay there? He ignored the man, as the man expected, and went to his room.
Coat removed, Stanton stretched comfortably across his bed and read the instructions.
“Sweet Jesus,” he moaned. “In what dungeon of Bedlam did they find whoever dreamed this up?”
The Consortium, the bloody Emperor of Brazil, the Queen for God’s sake, cotton, lost children, war criminals, and that bastard David Taylor, all rolled up into one huge bloody mess. However, even as he sweated in the stuffy room, a plan began to emerge – a bit of a plan anyway. He might even know people to get it done. He might even be able to close out some old business with some people that needed some closing out.
Stanton scratched a match across the underside of a table and watched as the papers burned. It was time to go to the bank. The man, Goodbody, no longer sat reading in the parlor.