I reckon I’d been in line a full hour when I got close enough to see the recruiting officer, and damn if it wasn’t the same lieutenant as in Elizabethtown three days ago. It surprised me that one recruiter would cover so large a territory. Of course, I didn’t really know how recruitment was done, and since Washington had only recently issued quotas to the states, probably no one else did either. I blocked the sun with my hand and took a good look at him. It sure looked like the same one. It was possible that I was wrong, and it was possible that he wouldn’t recognize me. It was also possible that I could end up under arrest.
In the ordinary run of things, I’d have chalked this little coincidence up to bad luck and been on my way. But things weren’t ordinary. Now I think on it, I guess they never are, but it so happened that things were worse at the moment. Due to circumstances.
I’d left Missouri a week earlier after taking care of some grim business. I can’t say I wanted to come back to Kentucky, but it seemed natural. It also seemed safer, though there were troops moving in from several directions and the state’s efforts to remain neutral in the conflict had come to nothing. Now that I was here, I wanted to be elsewhere, but I couldn’t put a name or even a direction to that desire. Right now, I was in Somerset, a dusty town of a few hundred souls.
I’d gotten to Elizabethtown three days ago, broke and hungry and saddle-sore. When I saw the recruiting poster, it didn’t take much for me to convince myself that I was entitled to a little of Mr. Lincoln’s money. The recruitment bonus was fifty dollars cash money for signing. No one took it amiss that I was a bit ragged and dirty. They gave me my money and told me to muster at six o’clock in the town square. Feeling the metal in my hand had rendered me speechless, but I nodded hard to show the man that I understood and that I would be there.
Half an hour later I was on the plank road heading south. When I came to Somerset, another dusty town, another few hundred souls, I had a bath and a shave and a large meal, and then I fitted myself out in all new clothes. Right down to the boots. I looked at them now. They were good Congress boots and very comfortable. At the moment, they were covered with dust and had a dribbling of tobacco juice on one toe. The tobacco juice had been an accident, not an affront. The man just turned his head and spat, and his aim was a little off-center. He didn’t notice, of course. Crackers like him don’t notice much of anything, and as far as I’m concerned, the army is the best place for them. The line hadn’t been formed up more than fifteen minutes before one of them unbuttoned and pissed right where he stood without so much as a by-your-leave and with no regard for the ladies passing by.
Having bought new duds, I wandered through Somerset looking for a tavern where I could get out of the sun and relax. I found an establishment just down the road from the dry goods store. It was an ugly sort of place with tables that had been subject to considerable amateur whittling and windows that sported large cracks, close cousins to the ones in the plaster walls. It fell short of the places I used to frequent in Lexington, but I’d been in worse more than once in the past few weeks, and as the level of whiskey diminished in the bottle I’d purchased, I found myself perfectly content with my humble surroundings.
A lady came and sat at my table and complimented my new outfit. I thanked her kindly and heartily recommended Jonas’s dry goods store up the way as being an honest establishment where a man could get suited for a reasonable price. At that point, she told me her name was Joanne and suggested that I might like a little horizontal refreshment along with my whiskey.
When I got back to my table, I was depleted and limp as a noodle in a Chinaman’s stew. A couple of farmhand types came in, big galoots with wide grins on their faces and manure on their boots. I offered them seats at my table and a share of my whiskey, and before we knew it, we had become best friends. The bottle sat empty, but we ourselves were full to the brim with brotherly love.
Along about then, a gent in a boiled shirt enticed my two new friends into a game of poker. I wished them luck, though I knew luck would have nothing to do with the outcome. The three of them moved to another table.
I had no business to attend to. I sat and stared out the battle-scarred windows wondering where I should go when I left Somerset. I felt sure that sooner or later the country’s supply of patriots would give out. When it did, quotas would give way to conscription. I would be in danger pretty much anywhere I went unless I wanted to venture into the vast expanse of the “Wild West.” Between the devil I knew and the deep blue sea that I didn’t have a chart for, the choice to remain close to familiar territory struck me as best. Still, I didn’t want to return to Lexington. I was toying with the idea of catching the cars to Cincinnati when I heard a screeching sound such as a chair makes when pushed across the floor. I looked over to see the chair in question tumbling backward behind one of the farmhands who had stood up abruptly. The gambler regarded the young man calmly until the latter produced a pistol. It was not a big pistol, but it was big enough to knock off a piece of the gambler’s skull. I could actually see his brains as he lay on the ground. In the work of an instant, the two farmhands fled, and I heard the sound of horse’s hooves.
The bartender had been roused by the shot. He came around the bar and stared down at the gambler. He looked unhappy. He held a Henry rifle, but there wasn’t much he could do with it.
The town constable strolled in a few minutes later. He glanced at the dead gambler and passed over to the bar to speak to the bartender. I found myself morbidly fascinated with the small, glistening bit of brain visible in the gambler’s bullet-blasted skull. I remembered that I had just rejected the idea of venturing west, figuring that those vast spaces held too much disorder and violence. The irony was not hard to discern.
The constable sat down at my table. “Tell me what you saw,” he ordered.
I turned to him. “A couple of boys. Farmhands, I guess. The taller one did the shooting.” I gave him as much detail as I could recall. Lately I’ve begun to consider lawmen as enemies, but I don’t hold with murder.
“What type of firearm would you say it was?” the constable asked.
“I have no knowledge of pistols,” I answered.
He nodded his head. When he talked, I could see that he had lost teeth on both sides of his upper jaw leaving the two front teeth standing alone like sentinels guarding the road to his tonsils. “I’ll need you to testify,” he said.
I remained silent. The conversation from this point could go in various directions. He smiled in a mollifying manner. His smile was right pleasant as long as he kept his mouth shut.
“Where are you staying?” he asked me.
I took note of the fact that he never asked me if I lived hereabouts. “I wasn’t planning on stopping here,” I told him. “I’m on important business. I’ll be glad to return here should I be needed.” I felt like that was well put, especially so as I made sure my tone was concerned and helpful. I did not want to appear high-handed.
He stared at me. He had large, uncertain eyes, and they blinked mightily while he considered. “What business?” he asked.
I was, of course, ready for that. “I’m with the Department of War. My current mission is to scout out possible saltpeter sources.”
His large eyes got still larger. “Saltpeter?”
“Seeing as how your state has an abundance of caves.”
At this point, someone entered through the front door and innocently walked toward the bar. Seeing the dead man, he stopped and looked around, then made a hasty exit. The constable held his peace until the man had gone, and I took advantage of the diversion to turn away. Once again, I found my eyes drawn to the deceased’s open wound where a fly explored the gory mess.
“The Yankees are already mining in Cave City,” the constable said.
“That they are,” I agreed, turning to face him. “And their success has encouraged Secretary Stanton to authorize further exploration.” I tried to sound confident and official, but the fact is, I was scared. The Yankees, he had said. That phrasing marked him pretty clearly as a Confederate sympathizer, which made my cover story a distinct liability.
He got up. “You’ll have to come with me,” he said.
I remained seated. “Certainly,” I answered. “Is it a sworn deposition that you want?”
He shook his head. “A deposition’s no good in a murder trial,” he answered. “I’m holding you as a material witness.”
“Holding me?” I didn’t like the sound of that. “Where?”
“The jail’s all we got that’s secure. I’d be happy for you to stay in the hotel,” he went on, “but they don’t budget me any money for that.” He had a hat in his hand that I didn’t realize he’d been holding. He placed it on his head. “And it’s not secure,” he added, adjusting the hat slightly.
“You’re going to arrest me for being a witness to a murder?”
“It’s not an arrest,” the constable said. “You’re just being held pursuant to trial.”
For a smalltime official, he was taciturn. Most of them will try to bowl you over with a torrent of as empowered by and by authority vested in and strings of chapters and paragraph numbers. This one was satisfied with a single pursuant to, and he obviously didn’t care if I believed it or not.
The constable waited patiently. The bartender approached us. “Randy,” he said to the constable, “I’m losing money here.”
Constable Randy nodded. “We’ll be out of here momentarily,” he said. “Get a message to Pat Murphy to pick up the remains.” He glanced at the dead gambler. “I reckon he’s got enough cash money in his pockets to cover a decent funeral.” He turned back to me. “Let’s go.”
I stood up, thinking desperately. “I can post a bond,” I blurted out.
Constable Randy considered. “I didn’t say nothing about a bond,” he said.
I heard enough caution in his voice to embolden me. “I’m sure you know that the statute requires that a reasonable bond be allowed.”
Again, he considered. He was holding his cards close to his chest, so I didn’t know if he was worried that I might know something he didn’t or if he was calculating how much he could take me for.
“That’s true,” he said finally. “Twenty-five dollars should cover it. That’s U.S. money only,” he added. “Or salable goods.”
He stared at me unflinchingly, and the bartender stood by, spectating avidly. I had about thirty dollars left from my enlistment bonus. As far as property went, I only had my horse Daisy, presently lodged at the blacksmith shop. She was a gray mare, dappled with darker spots. Or flecked you might say. She looked like somebody had tied her up under a hackberry tree and forgotten her for a spell. She didn’t look like much, and she was past her prime, but you’d have to be awfully stupid to say she wasn’t worth twenty-five dollars. I’d gotten a mite fond of her in the month we’d been together. She was responsive and uncomplaining. Her only real fault was that she moved slow when you walked her. She would change direction without complaint, but she refused to speed up. She moved more like a tractable mule than a horse. But when you put your foot in the stirrup, she roused herself. I didn’t want to part with her and go shank’s mare on whatever journeys lay ahead of me. On the other hand, if I paid cash, I would be perilously close to impoverished.
“That jail’s a really ugly place,” the bartender said, as if reading my thoughts. “If I was you, I’d do anything to stay out of it.”
“We do the best we can with what the town fathers give us,” the constable said. Then he looked at me. “It is pretty sorry lodgings, I admit. I apologize for that.”
I didn’t say anything. I just counted out the money.
“Gunther,” the constable said. “This man will need a receipt. Can you provide us with some writing materials?”
The bartender could find no paper better than an old invoice for assorted glassware. The constable wrote out the receipt on the back of it in large letters. He wrote it out twice and tore the invoice in half to make two copies. He signed one and gave it to me. The other he folded away into a coat pocket. His self-satisfied smile told me he knew I wouldn’t be coming back. He made no mention of dates or deadlines.
I picked up my whiskey bottle, tilted it and held it up to the window to get the light. There was nothing in it, but some movement outside caught my eye. Through the window, I could see several people running. The bartender caught me staring and followed my gaze. Then he ran to the door and disappeared for a moment, returning with a wildly happy look on his face. “Troops!” he shouted. “I think it’s Morgan.” Then he was gone, with the constable running after him.
I walked behind the bar and helped myself to a drink and the bartender’s Henry rifle. Before I could pour a second drink, I heard horses. Two riders halted outside. I leaned over the bar, and I could just make them out through the window. It was the infamous Colonel Morgan and a staff officer. I left the whiskey and strolled outside. The two men conferred momentarily, then the officer rode away at a gallop. Colonel Morgan started to follow at a more modest pace, but he reined in his horse when he saw me. A small smile crept onto his lips.
“Bless my soul, if it isn’t Rayford Bickers,” he said. He patted his horse’s neck. He showed no inclination to get away, though there wasn’t much doubt he could see the rifle.
“Your miserable soul could use some blessing,” I told him.
“That it could, Ray, that it could. I hope you and your friend Henry there are not about to undertake that blessing.”
There wasn’t a whole lot of concern in his voice. I was glad the rifle was empty, as the desire put a bullet between his cheerful eyes was overpowering.
His horse pawed the ground, then turned a semicircle. He guided her back around. “Are you fighting for the union now, Ray?” he asked.
“I don’t fight for anybody except myself,” I said.
He nodded. “I guess some aren’t suited to it,” he said. “But you might surprise yourself if you tried it out. You could join up with us if you’d like. You’d see. There’s nothing like it, Ray. I won’t talk to you about honor or the southern cause. I know better. But the sheer, breathtaking excitement of it...” His blissful look sufficed to finish the sentence.
“I commend you for your grit, John. But like you say, some aren’t suited. And I don’t want to get shot.”
He shrugged. “If there’s no danger, what’s the point? It’d be about as exciting as shooting squirrels.”
“I seem to recall you shooting a good many squirrels.”
“I did. I guess it was good training, and I don’t guess I did any harm. A squirrel is a scoundrel, after all. And it’s difficult to make them understand the terms of a parole. I’m surprised you’re not in a Yankee uniform, though. You were always outspoken in your opinions.”
“My opinions on slavery haven’t changed,” I told him. “But I have other opinions too.” I came very close to telling him about my business in Missouri. About the farm that had once boasted fields of crops but now held only the graves of my father and mother and two sisters. It was useless to speculate who did it. Likely, it was General Price’s work, but it could have been Union troops or bushwhackers or jayhawkers. What difference did it make? Laying the blame wouldn’t raise the dead. It wouldn’t pay the debts my father had left that now fell heavily on my shoulders. Colonel Morgan’s business was death. The loss of innocent lives would be nothing new to him. My blanket condemnation of this bloody business wouldn’t save one of those lives, and it wouldn’t get under his thick, soldier’s skin.
“Speaking of scoundrels, John. I wouldn’t be tossing the first stone at any squirrels, I was you.”
“I can’t imagine what you’re talking about,” he said, taking on the bashful, boyish look that wins over so many ladies.
“I think you can,” I told him.
“I’m guessing you mean that hundred dollars. Of course, you do realize that a gambling debt is unenforceable?”
I kept silent. It wasn’t a gambling debt. John had been in a late-night poker game back in Lexington. Luck was against him that night, and he’d asked me for a loan so he could keep playing. I’d given it to him, of course. It was hard to say no to John. Someone told me he had turned the hundred into over a thousand. I don’t know. I had to leave town right after that. I didn’t return until late fall, and by then John was a Confederate officer in Tennessee.
“But it’s a debt of honor,” he said, “ so of course I’ll pay. I’d pay it right now, but I don’t have it. They don’t pay a soldier much, and what they do pay is in Confederate money. You probably wouldn’t take it even if I had any of it left. I spend all my pay and then some keeping this outfit running. I’d have to scrounge hard to find even a couple of shinplasters.” He sat there with a smirk on his face, not scrounging. “The boys have probably seized a passel of supplies. You’re welcome to a cut. Yankee food is usually pretty good.”
I think it was a genuine offer, but one I couldn’t accept. I wasn’t about to risk being caught with stolen army supplies. I leaned the rifle against a post. There wasn’t much point in pretending I would use it. “I was sorry to hear about Becky,” I told him. “I liked her.”
“Thank you, Ray. She was fond of you.” He looked off into the distance and rubbed his horse’s ears absently. “It’s hard, living with an invalid,” he said.
John’s wife had been a gay sort, even with her affliction. But she’d been in pain for years. It must’ve worn on him. I looked over at him, regretting that I’d brought it up. Bereavement had come over us like a canopy, and I was now doubly glad that I hadn’t mentioned my own tragedy.
John twiddled with his mustache, creating a small dust cloud by his cheek. He looked my way, but he didn’t say anything. Then we were both startled by shots in the distance.
“Land’s sake,” John said. “I can’t believe the Home Guard is putting up a fight.” He listened carefully, removing his hat and placing it behind his ear to catch the sound. He’d gone bald at the front, but it didn’t make him look older. In fact, he still appeared younger than his years. He would be thirty-seven, if I remembered correctly. He looked my way. “Ray, duty calls. I sure am tickled that I got to see you again.” With that, he rode away, his hat still in his hand.
The shooting didn’t last too long, but as I walked to the blacksmith’s shop, I kept out of sight as much as possible. I figured I would wait until the morning to be on my way. By then, Morgan and his men would be far away.
The blacksmith–Ned, he had told me his name was–was banging on a red-hot horseshoe when I came in. I leaned against the wall and waited. When the horseshoe was done, he turned to me. “The soldiers took your horse,” he said bluntly. “I’m not liable for acts of war.”
I felt a crushing sensation come into my stomach. I had been kicked by fate’s heavy boot once again. Morgan had not only weaseled out of his debt, he’d taken my horse. I didn’t argue with Ned about liability. My guess was that he was right, and even if he was wrong, he was a big man with a hammer. Any argument would not go my way. My legs were unsteady, and I sat down on a barrel. Ned had a brief moment of humanity and told me I could sleep in the stable.
I slept pretty soundly for someone with as big a burden of troubles as I had. The blacksmith’s hammering woke me the following morning, and I let myself out and started walking. I hadn’t gone far before I saw the recruiting poster. This was a small town, but they were recruiting everywhere. War took a lot of manpower. I didn’t see any danger, so I took note of the location, and now I found myself in line for a fifty-dollar enlistment bonus but facing the very real prospect of exposure as a fraud and a traitor and a coward. I considered inventing a convenient twin brother who had enlisted in Elizabethtown. It seemed reasonable. I gave him the name Ned. It would be easy to remember because of the blacksmith and because it rhymed with Ted, my own nom de guerre for this enlistment. For practice, I said it out loud. “My brother Ted.” The man ahead of me turned around, so I decided to make him part of my practice.
“My twin brother Ted signed up yesterday,” I said.
The man stood with his thumbs stretching his braces and looked me over. “You don’t look like a twin,” he said with the certainty of the ignorant.
When he turned back around, I quietly moseyed away from the line. The man’s senseless comment had taken my confidence, and the whole affair seemed futile. I walked down the street trying to look like a man going about his business. I felt sure that anyone could tell that I didn’t have any business and didn’t know how to go about it anyway. I turned the nearest corner and almost ran into my horse.
I stopped, she stopped, and the boy leading her stopped. “That’s my horse,” I said. She pushed her head against my chest, affectionately backing up my claim.
The boy held out the bridle. “I was wondering who she belonged to,” he said. “I know all the horses round here, and I ain’t never seen her before.”
I took the bridle. “I thought Morgan’s men took her.”
“They did. I came across a soldier leading her and three other horses. He couldn’t get her to move fast enough. He was really mad. I thought he was going to shoot her, so I asked could I have her.”
I rubbed Daisy’s ears. “She’s only slow when she’s walking,” I told the boy. “She goes at a fair clip with a rider on her back.”
“I know,” the boy said proudly. “I tried her out.”
“I’m much obliged to you for saving her. Whereabouts do you live?”
“North of town. About a mile up the river road.”
“You and your parents?”
“My ma. My father died at Bull Run.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. This war is a terrible thing. Give your mother my condolences.”
“That’s what Ma says. That this war is terrible.” He looked down at the ground, then raised his head, smiling. “It’s hard not to get excited about Morgan though. Even if he is a rebel.”
“Morgan is exciting, I’ll grant you,” I said. “But he’s a gambler. And a gambler won’t come to a good end.”
The boy said nothing. It’s hard at that age to think of endings or that they mean much. It’s hard to keep your hand to the plow and your shoulder to the wheel, doing the boring jobs you need to do to keep yourself and your mother alive.
I reached into my pocket and took out the coins there, the dregs of Mr. Lincoln’s money. I held out a dollar coin. “This is for you,” I said to him.
He didn’t take the coin. “No, sir. It didn’t cost me nothing to find your horse, so I don’t want any money.”
The coin lay on my outstretched palm. I took note of Lady Liberty’s loose grip on her flag and shield and the anxiety on her face as she looked over her shoulder at whatever was after her. “You didn’t see the notice then?” I asked.
“I posted a one dollar reward for the return of Daisy here. Once that notice is posted, I’m obligated to pay it.”
I nodded gravely. “Pursuant to statute,” I told him.
I held the coin a little closer to him, and he took it reluctantly. “Thank you,” he said.
I gave him a clap on the shoulder. “You give my regards to your mother,” I said as I led Daisy away. She kept her usual pace, but I didn’t see any need to hurry.