Howard Barlow’s family lived on a twenty acre farm near the tiny town of Posey Hollow, Arkansas, twenty acres in a valley of the Quachita mountains cleared by hand by Howard’s father and mother, Enos and Mary, and a pair of horses. On that twenty acres, Enos built a cabin and a small barn for the horses and Jewel, their milk cow, using the trees he’d cut down. He also built a small chicken coop for Mary’s small flock of chickens.
Enos was a devout believer in the Bible and lived his life according to its teachings. One of those teachings was that no man had a right to own another, and therefore, even if Enos had been able to afford slaves, he would never have had them. When confronted with a difficult task or a problem with his crop, Enos would usually say, “Well, the Lord helps them that help themselves. He don’t want any man makin’ another do the work when he can do it himself”.
Enos knew he was in an area where slavery was a very contested subject. To the North was Southern Missouri and to the South was Southern Arkansas, both areas with landowners who owned slaves and used them to become wealthy. As a result, Enos avoided speaking to anyone other than Mary and Howard about slavery.
That was easy enough to do since the chores of the farm kept the family at home except for Sundays. On Sunday, Enos would hitch the horses to his farm wagon and drive the family the five miles to the little church in Posey Hollow. There usually wouldn’t be any conversation about slaves or slavery because the church members were all like Enos – poor farmers who believed the same way he did. They couldn’t afford to pay a preacher, so each man took turns preaching the sermon on Sunday. That made for a very tight-knit community with the church at its center.
Such was the way Howard grew up and how he was taught to respect all men. He was happy helping Enos clear more land until they had forty acres. Enos said that extra twenty acres was for Howard and his wife to settle on. When Howard turned seventeen, he was beginning to look at the young girls who attended the church in Posey Hollow. There weren’t many, just four, but there were only four boys his age too, so he figured he had a good chance of convincing one of them to marry him.
Those plans came to a halt in 1859 following John Brown’s raid in Virginia. The response by the Governor of Arkansas was to reactivate the Arkansas Militia which had been mostly inactive since the war with Mexico. His purpose was not to join the Confederacy but to prevent Union troops from attacking Arkansas and imposing Federal law in opposition to what he considered to be powers given to the states.
Howard turned eighteen in January of 1861 and was required to serve in the militia. He was just out of training when in May, 1861 Arkansas seceded from the union. The Arkansas Militia became The Provisional Army of Arkansas, and Howard was assigned to the First Division of The Army of Arkansas. His understanding at the time of the change was that The Army of Arkansas would be used to keep the Union troops from interfering with the affairs of the State of Arkansas, but in July of 1861, that changed as well. All units of the Army of Arkansas were to be transferred to the Confederate Army.
All the units of The Army of Arkansas were changed to Confederate Army units except the First Division because of timing. At the time they should have changed, the First Divison was fighting the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in Missouri. After the battle, the men of the First Division took a vote and declined to join the Confederate Army. The First Division was then disbanded and the men went home.
It was clear to Howard as he made his way back to Posey Hollow that there could be no neutrals in the forthcoming war. Emotions on both sides were running too high, and loosely organized bands of men who considered themselves to be part of the Confederacy were beginning to harass any people who were neutral or Union Sympathizers.
The only hope was to fight for what he believed and hope the Union won. To that end, he spent the winter with Enos and Mary, and when spring came, he started walking to Springfield, Missouri where the Union was forming a cavalry unit. He thought that tucked away in Posey Hollow, his parents would be safe.
It took Howard a month to reach Springfield, but once he was there, he was mustered into the First Arkansas Cavalry. Their mission was to put down the guerilla fighters who were robbing and killing the people of Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri. Often it didn’t mean those people were Union sympathizers. The guerilla fighters were more common thieves and murderers than soldiers and sometimes attacked the farms of people who supported the Confederacy or just wanted to be left alone.
They were also very difficult to catch. Most had grown up in the wilds of Arkansas or at least on farms, and like Howard, knew how to hunt, how to move through the country without being seen, and where there were caves or remote valleys in which they could hide. Howard used the same skills to find them, and by the end of the war was wearing the insignia of a sergeant on his uniform and was leading patrols searching for the guerillas.
It troubled him that in his three years in the cavalry he’d not received many letters from home. He knew that because of the way the First Arkansas cavalry roamed over Arkansas, Kansas, and Southern Missouri it was difficult for the Union to keep up with where they were. If they were assigned to a specific area for a month, the letters would usually catch up to him, though they were often months old.
The letters would tell him everything was going fine on the farm and that Betty Jean Morris often asked about him at church. Howard took comfort in the letters he received and they reassured him he’d made the right decision. At the end of the war though, such extended assignments became fewer and fewer to the point that he hadn’t received a letter since Christmas. He only hoped his mother and father received the letters he returned so they wouldn’t worry about him.
In August of 1865 the First Arkansas Cavalry was mustered out at Fayetteville. When he received his back pay, Howard knew he would be walking home. All Cavalry horses were the property of the Union and were taken from all units. He also knew there were still guerillas roaming through Arkansas and Missouri who hadn’t acknowledged the end of the war. A man wearing a Union uniform would be shot on sight. Because of this, he used some of his pay to purchase a Spencer rifle and a hundred cartridges, and a Remington .44 caliber revolver, powder, balls, and caps. Both were being sold by the Union and were weapons he’d carried during the later stages of the war.
It took Howard three weeks to walk from Fayetteville to Posey Hollow, and he was careful not to walk on any roads. Instead he struck out across country, following the same map he’d used as a sergeant to guide the troops under his command on patrols in search of guerillas. Twice he came upon a camp of men dressed in the typical flamboyant dress common to the guerillas. Both times he spotted the camp before he was seen, and quietly skirted it. He’d had enough of fighting.
It was a Sunday morning when he found the road to Posey Hollow, and knowing his parents would be in church, he went to the church instead of to the farm. His plan was to wait outside the church until the service was over, and then walk up to his mother and father. Maybe he’d say hello to Betty Jean too.
When he rounded the bend in the dirt road and saw the site of the church, the only thing there was the burned out skeleton of the building lying on the ground. Evidently there had been a fire, probably caused by the old stove used to warm the church a little on winter Sundays. The chimney had been in bad shape when Howard left and with no young men to help fix it, had probably set the roof on fire. Once the fire started, there wouldn’t have been any way to put it out because there was no source of water within a mile of the church.
He was sure as soon as the men returned from the war the church would be rebuilt. He was planning on how he would help when he looked at the cemetery beside where the church had stood. He saw the mounds of ten new graves. Maybe the church had caught fire during the service and some of the older folks hadn’t made it out.
Howard walked into the cemetery and began reading the names painted on the wood grave markers.
Howard stopped then because the next wood marker read “William Morris”. William Morris was Betty Jean’s father and young enough he would have been helping people escape the fire. He continued walking down the row of graves then and a fear of what he saw next caused a chill to run down his back.
Betty Jean Morris
Timothy Alexander Morris
The McCain's and the Ruby’s were older folks and might have passed just from old age. If the entire Morris family had died, it wasn’t from any fire. There had to be another reason, a reason he didn’t understand yet, but he would find out. About thirty people went to that church and someone had to know what happened. He thought surely his father would know.
When he read the grave markers on the last two graves, that thought evaporated. The markers were for Enos Ishmael Barlow and Mary Elizabeth Barlow, Howard’s mother and father.
For a while, Howard stood there in disbelief with tears running down his cheeks. They couldn’t be dead. They’d written letters to him and said they were fine. Then, Howard remembered it had been six months since he’d gotten a letter from them. He’d told himself that was because he’d moved around so much their letters hadn’t caught up with him. Now, he understood he hadn’t gotten any letters because his mother and father hadn’t been alive to write them.
His first thought then was to go to the farm, but then decided the farm could wait. He had to know what had happened.
In the other direction down the road was the farm of Mason Williams. Mason didn’t attend church regularly. His wife Agatha usually only managed to get him there at Christmas and Easter, but she was there every Sunday. One of them would know what had happened to his mother and father.
When Howard walked down the lane to the Williams farm, he saw Mason repairing a fence he used to keep in his milk cow, though Howard didn’t see any cow in the pasture. He walked over and said, “Mr. Williams, I don’t know if you remember me or not, but I’m Howard Barlow, Enos Barlow’s son.”
Mason looked up from the rail he was fitting into the post, let the rail fall to the ground and walked over to Howard. He nodded.
“I remember you Howard. You been home yet?”
Howard shook his head.
“No. I stopped off at the church first.”
“Then you already know ‘bout your folks. Wasn’t anything they done wrong, Howard. It was a bunch of hooligans who done it. Said they was Confederates but we seen Confederate soldiers in Posey Hollow before and they didn’t look like this bunch. They was wearin' fancy shirts and wearin’ pistols and was all ridin’ horses, not carryin' rifles and walkin’.
“When they come here, they’d already been to your folks place and to the Morris farm. They said they asked Enos if he was for slaves or not. Well, you know your pa. He said it weren’t right for a man to keep slaves and told ‘em you were off fightin' for the Union so Arkansas wouldn’t be a slave state no more. That’s when they shot him in the chest. Your ma ran out of the house with your pa’s shotgun, but they shot her afore she could use it. Said if she hadn’t been trying to shoot ‘em, they’d have entertained her first. That’s what they said – entertained her.
“From there they went to the Morris farm and asked him the same question. What William told ‘em was he didn’t care one way or t’other, but he’d never own slaves himself. I guess that was enough because they shot him and Timothy too. From what me and Agatha found, I think they did like they said with Mary and Betty before they shot them too.
“When they come here, they told me all that. Then, they asked me if I was for slaves or not, and, Lord forgive me, I said men who could afford them should be able to have them. After they told me what they’d done I thought it was the only way I could protect Agatha. You know I ain’t a religious man like your pa, but me and Agatha, we been prayin’ every morning and every night for the Lord to forgive us for bein’ selfish and savin’ ourselves.
“Well, after I said that, the leader of the bunch – called himself Red – he says if I believed that, then I’d not mind donating my milk cow to the cause. They slaughtered Florence right there in the pasture, cut her up and hauled her away. I ‘spect they went and burnt the church after that. They said the church was full of Unionists and they was gonna burn it down afore they left.
“The next day, I found out they’d been to other farms too. James Anderson come by with the McCain's and the Ruby’s in his wagon and headin’ for the cemetery. When I told him about what those hooligans said about the Morris family and your folks, he said he’d go to the church and start diggin’ if I’d go see about them. Me and Agatha took the wagon to the Morris farm and found the family dead on the porch. We put ‘em in the wagon and then went to your folk’s farm and found ‘em and put ‘em in my wagon too. Then we went back to the church and helped James bury all of them.
“Howard, we done the best we could with ‘em. Amos Crowder made their coffins and markers from wood from his sawmill, and Samuel Parks said the Twenty Third Psalm over ‘em and all that. When this thing finally settles down, the men of Posey Hollow are gonna build a new church and we’ll get proper grave stones for ‘em. Until then, we’re all afraid them men might come back. Since the Union stopped chasin’ them hooligans, they pretty much can go where they want to go and do what they want to do.”
As Howard walked toward his family farm, he wasn’t shedding tears. He’d done that at the cemetery. Now, he was raging inside, raging at men who used the war to satisfy some blood lust or to take what didn’t belong to them.
What Mason said about the Union not trying to root out the rot left over from the Confederacy was true. In theory, the guerilla bands were still wanted, but the Union was tired of war and was concentrating on putting the Union and the South back together again. There was no stomach for hunting down the few men who still roamed Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas and Texas and robbed and killed people who had done nothing except hold some personal beliefs.
There were also sentiments among some in the Union that Kansas and Missouri had made the guerillas so it was now up to them to stop them. Howard knew that wasn’t going to happen. In many ways, the states that had seceded were being punished and had little resources available to track down the guerillas..
Howard was still mulling this over in his mind when he walked up the lane to the cabin where he grew up. Another reason the Union had stopped trying to find the guerillas was the main bands, including their leaders, had already been caught or killed. Those that had escaped had formed smaller bands, sometimes only three or four men. It was a lot easier to find a group of twenty or more. They left wide, easy to follow trails, and the places they could hide were fewer. It was difficult to track so few and there were more places for them to hide.
When he came to the cabin and barn, Howard was surprised to see them still standing. He was even more surprised to see Jewel quietly grazing in the pasture. Evidently the guerillas hadn’t seen her.
He looked for Mike and Joe, his father’s two horses, and found them down by the creek half a mile from the barn. That’s where they liked to spend their days when they weren’t pulling a plow or the wagon, so the guerillas had missed them as well. Both horses and Jewel looked thin, probably because they’d gone through the winter without much to eat besides the dry grass in the pastures, but they were alive. He’d have to let one pasture grow into hay and put it up for the winter and he’d have to buy some corn to get the weight back on them, but by spring, the horses would be ready to work and Jewel would be ready to breed again.
When he walked into the cabin, all Howard’s ideas for the future were shattered. The cabin was still standing, but that was about all. The inside had been ravaged. All the furniture was broken up and his mother’s few pots and pans had been crushed or sported bullet holes. The blankets were gone from the beds and all the clothing that had been in chests was also gone. The guerillas had taken everything of use and destroyed everything else.
When Howard had seen the horses and Jewel, his rage had partially turned to hope. Now, that hope was gone. The guerillas had destroyed most of what he’d lived to come back to. As he sat on the floor in front of the pile of broken dishes and cups, his rage became a quiet resolve.
The guerillas had to pay, had to pay for what they’d done to Posey Hollow and to countless other families in Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas and Texas. If the states couldn’t police themselves, he would do that for them. He knew how the guerillas operated, where they were likely to go when not robbing, raping, and killing. He knew some of them by name and others by their faces. Just as it was easier for a group of cavalry to chase down and apprehend a large group of guerillas, it would be easier for one man to hunt down and bring a small group to justice. One man wouldn’t make as much noise, and one man wouldn’t need a supply train following him with food and ammunition.
The next morning, Howard caught the two horses and harnessed them, caught Jewel and put a rope around her horns, and by riding Mike and leading Joe and Jewel, he went to the Williams farm. Mason was still working on his fence, and stopped when Howard rode up.
“Mornin’ Howard. I see them hooligans didn’t get your stock.”
Howard got down off Mike, and led Jewel over to the fence.
“Mr. Williams, I don’t have anything left at the farm to pay you for taking care of my folks. Jewel here is in pretty bad shape, but once she gets the meat back on her bones she’ll still make you a milk cow to replace the one the guerillas took. I need a riding horse and a saddle. Is there anybody who still has a decent riding horse they’d part with? I’d trade Mike and Joe here for one good horse and one good saddle and bridle.”
Mason took off his hat, scratched his head, then put his hat back on.
“You might go see Benjamin Phelps. He come here from Texas where he worked on a cattle ranch and he likes his horses. His farm is way up the valley and as far as I know, them hooligans didn’t bother him yet. I know he had a couple of geldings he rode to Posey Hollow sometimes. Whatcha gonna do with a ridin’ horse?”
Mason saw the firm line of Howard’s mouth when he answered.
“I’m going to do what I did in the cavalry. I’m going to make those guerillas pay for what they did in Posey Hollow and other places.”
Mason shook his head.
“Young feller, I ain’t read much of the Bible, but I do know the Good Lord said vengeance was for him. I don’t expect anything for taking care of your folks for you. It was just something people do for one another. Take your horses and cow and go back to farming. Leave them hooligans to someone else.”
“It isn’t vengeance to bring guilty people to justice. They’re the ones who sinned. I’ll just be making sure they pay the price. I think God would agree with me on that.”
When Howard got to the Phelps farm, he saw six horses in the pasture beside the barn. Two were heavy work horses like Mike and Joe. The other four were a little shorter and not as heavy. The one that caught his eye was a bay gelding with a black mane and tail. He’d ridden a bay with a black mane and tail in the Cavalry.
He found Mr. Phelps weeding his small cornfield and rode to the edge of the field. Mr. Phelps saw him, picked up his hoe, and walked over.
“Morning Howard. It’s good to see you made it back from the war in one piece. Heard about your ma and pa. I’m real sorry that happened. If I’da known I’da gone and helped bury ‘em, but I don’t hear much way up here and since the church burned down, we ain’t had no Sunday services so I can catch up on what’s happening. Only way I found out was when Oscar Riley come up and asked if I’d trade him a couple hens for half a bushel of corn. Oscar and his wife were out in the woods pickin’ berries when that bunch rode through. Tore up their place pretty bad and killed their whole flock.”
Howard said he hadn’t heard that but they were lucky they hadn’t been at home.
Mr. Phelps nodded.
“Yes, God was a lookin’ out for ‘em that day. What can I do for you?”
Howard pointed to Mike and Joe.
“They didn’t get pa’s horses either and I’d like to trade them and the harness to you for that bay gelding and a saddle. Mike and Joe are just eight-year-olds and they got a lot of work left in ‘em once they get fattened back up. Your two look quite a bit older.”
Mr. Phelps frowned.
“Boy, how you gonna farm without them horses? That gelding rides pretty good, but he can’t pull a plow.”
Howard’s face became a grim mask of determination.
“I’m not going to farm. I’m going to find the guerillas who killed my ma and pa and take ‘em to hang for what they did.”
Mr. Phelps shook his head.
“They say the war’s over, but I reckon it really ain’t gonna be ‘til the folks that started it all die off. Can’t say as I blame you, Howard. If I was younger and my ma and pa got killed, I’d probably think the same way. I’ll take your horses but I ain’t tradin’ you for em. I’m borrowin’ ‘em from you, and you’re borrowin’ Daley from me. When you get done what you have to do, you come on back and we’ll trade back.
“Daley was born right here to a mare that’s a cow horse and I trained him myself. He’s smart just like she is and he’s fast. He oughta do you good. I’ll let you have my best saddle and bridle for him. Just kept it around because I liked how it sits. Got that saddle when I was a young feller workin’ stock in Texas. It don’t sit so good now that I’m getting’ older.”
Howard rode Daley back to the farm, rolled up his bedroll, and tied it and his haversack behind Daley’s saddle. After putting the Remington on his belt and hanging the Spencer from the saddle horn, Howard had a last look at the farm, then turned and rode back toward Posey Hollow.
The trail was over six months old, so there was no sense in trying to track the guerillas. Howard didn’t think he needed to anyway. The key to his search was the man Mason said had called himself “Red”. That had to be William O’Malley, a name Howard knew well.
William “Red” O’Malley was a native of Missouri, but his family had come from Ireland and had farmed in Southern Missouri with slaves. He got the name “Red” from his long, red hair and beard. When the Union had occupied the area around the O’Malley farm, they burned everything and freed the slaves. William wasn’t home at the time, so he survived. His mother, father, and younger sister did not.
As soon as he returned and saw what had happened, William sought out and joined Quantrill’s band of guerilla fighters. When Quantrill was killed William joined the band led by George Todd. Todd was also killed later that same year, so William and a few of the original Quantrill’s Raiders – the last count was six - struck out on their own. They roamed from Arkansas to Kansas until fall, and then rode to Texas where they continued to raid farms and small towns. William O’Malley’s group was a prime target for the First Arkansas at the end of the war, and Howard had been on three expeditions to bring him to justice.
During those three expeditions, the First Arkansas had found where O’Malley’s bunch had raided a small town for supplies and they’d found where the group had camped for a few days, but O’Malley seemed to always be a couple days ahead of them.
The reason became known after a private of the First Arkansas named Blake was seen talking to a woman one night when he was on picket duty at the main encampment of the First Arkansas. They were seen by the sergeant in charge of the picket who sent two men to stop the woman and bring her back to the encampment.
Upon being questioned, the woman, Sally Blake, proudly confessed to being the wife of one of O’Malley’s guerillas, and also said Private Blake was her brother. Private Blake was questioned at length and admitted he’d been telling the woman of the plans of the First Arkansas. She in turn had been warning O’Malley through meetings with her husband. She was also the conduit through which the men of O’Malley’s group received letters from family and returned those letters.
The woman was arrested, convicted of being a guerilla and sent to the women’s prison in Kansas City. Private Blake was not so lucky. He was questioned over the next several days and revealed that the woman had told him of several places where O’Malley took his guerilla band between raids. He was then convicted of being a Confederate spy and executed.
As part of Howard’s official duties, he’d noted all those locations on his map, the same map he was now following.
Hunting guerillas was a little like hunting turkeys. It was useless to go roaming around in hopes of finding a turkey. Turkeys had good eyesight and hearing, and would just scatter before the hunter could get close enough for a shot. The only way to hunt turkeys was to find a place turkeys were known to feed, then hide and wait for the turkey flock to come to the hunter. This was the method Howard intended to use to hunt the guerillas.
As he rode through small towns, he always asked the people if they’d heard of a guerilla raid. By that time, the guerilla bands weren’t bypassing much of anybody who had anything they wanted, Union sympathizer or not. Most people were tired of war, were having to start over, and just wanted to return to a normal life, so they told him what they knew. Little by little, Howard was getting a picture of the route O’Malley was taking.
Howard knew there were still Union troops in Kansas, so O’Malley wouldn’t venture far into that state. Instead, he’d turn around and start back through Missouri.
A month later, in the small town of Drexel, Missouri, Howard learned there had been a guerilla raid on several small farms north of town and that when last seen, the band was riding west. That would put O’Malley probably in Kansas, but he’d soon turn back into Missouri. On his map, Howard had a spot marked near Archie, Missouri. The spot was in a thick grove of trees that bordered a small river, and there were no roads that went past the place.
Howard had been there a year before with the First Arkansas, and had scouted the place with two of his men. They found a small pole corral around some trees for horses and the remains of a campfire. Howard had cautioned them not to touch anything, and they’d backed out of the campsite. The guerillas wouldn’t know they’d been there, and would probably return.
It was to a hill overlooking the campsite that Howard rode. He took the saddle and bridle off Daley and hobbled him, then worked his way down the other side of the hill until he found a downed tree that gave him a hiding place and a clear view of the clearing inside the trees. Then he waited.
After two days, he watched a lone horseman slowly riding beside the river. His head was swiveling from right to left, and Howard knew this man was the scout. Just as any military unit would do, the guerilla leader would send one man ahead to watch for anyone lying in wait. If there were Union troops or a guerilla group that supported the Union waiting, it was likely the scout would be killed. If they heard shots and the scout didn’t return, the group would ride on to another place. If the scout rode back to the main group and told them it was safe to continue, they’d camp there for a few days until their food ran out.
Howard waited patiently until the man entered the clearing, then came back out and rode off in the direction from which he’d come. Half an hour later, he watched as six horses walked beside the river and then into the clearing. He smiled when he saw the red beard on the man in front. This was the same group that had done the damage in Posey Hollow.
Howard’s intention was to let the men eat and then go to sleep. In the darkness, he’d make his way to the camp, wake them up at gunpoint and arrest them, tie them up, and in the morning, tie them to their horses and take them to Kansas City for trial. Unfortunately for him, when he made his way to the camp that night, he saw all but one of the six were lying in their bedrolls. The last man was sitting by the fire with a rifle and watching the opening into the clearing.
Howard eased the hammer back on the Spencer as quietly as he could, and though the metallic click seemed to him to be very loud, the man by the fire didn’t seem to hear it. He just shifted position, scratched his arm, and continued watching. He didn’t move again until Howard stood up beside a massive maple tree and quietly said, “Put that rifle on the ground and stand up or I’ll shoot you.”
The man quickly wheeled and pointed his rifle in the direction of Howard’s voice. Howard ducked back behind the tree just before the bullet grazed the tree and showered him with bark. Then, he stepped to the side enough to aim the Spencer and pulled the trigger. The man by the fire fell to the ground.
The sound of the first shot had brought the other five out of their bedrolls and when they saw the flash of orange fire from Howard’s Spencer, they began shooting in that direction. As the bullets thudded into the tree or broke the branches of the undergrowth, Howard levered another cartridge into the Spencer, cocked the hammer and stepped to the other side of the tree. Before the men could adjust their aim, Howard put three more on the ground, then ducked back behind the tree.
There were two men left. Those two men had been firing blindly at the side of the tree where he’d shot the three, so Howard crouched down and moved back to the other side and pulled the Remington from the holster, then aimed at the flash from one of the rifles. That man went down and rolled on the ground clutching his shoulder. The other ran for the makeshift corral.
Howard ran into the clearing with the Remington cocked, but he was too late. He did fire as the man jumped the horse over the poles that formed the corral, but the man didn’t stop. In seconds, the blackness of the night had swallowed him up. Howard went back to the fire to see if any of the men were still alive. He found them all dead except for the last man he’d shot.
In the light of the fire, Howard couldn’t see very well, so he assumed his bullet had just hit the man in the shoulder. At least he’d have one he could take to Kansas City, and maybe he could get some information from him. He approached the man with his Remington still pointed at him.
“What’s your name?”
The man groaned, “Jacob Meyers. Who the hell are you and why did you kill me?”
“I’m Howard Barlow from Posey Hollow in Arkansas and you aren’t dead yet. You remember Posey Hollow don’t you? That’s where you and your bunch killed ten people and burned the church. My ma and pa were two of those people, so what you deserve is to be shot dead, but I’m not gonna do that. I intend to keep you alive to stand trial in Kansas City.”
Howard saw the man’s scowl in the light of the fire.
“Yeah, we took care of them goddamned Unionists. Shoulda got more of ‘em but Red said we had enough food and wanted to move on to Missouri.”
Howard stepped closer to the man.
“Well, you’re all done with robbin’ and killin’ people who didn’t do anything to you, all except one. What’s his name and where do you suppose he’s headed?”
“You can go to hell”, spat the man. “I ain’t telling you nothin’ more.”
Howard’s voice was quiet but firm.
“Then you can sit there until you bleed to death. Won’t matter to me. If you’re dead, I won’t have to take you to Kansas City. Now, who’s the man that got away and where is he going?”
The man looked up at him.
“You won’t do that. You’re wearin’ a Union uniform and the Union troops were all told to take guerillas prisoner, not kill them or let them die.”
“Well, that’s true. I’m wearing the uniform of the First Arkansas Cavalry, but the thing is, don’t you know, the First Arkansas was mustered out over two months ago. I don’t think I’m bound by any orders I got before that. You gonna sit there and bleed to death or are you gonna tell me what I want to know?”
The man didn’t say anything for a while. He was trying to figure out if Howard was lying or not. His shoulder didn’t hurt all that bad, not like when he’d been shot before, but Howard seemed pretty serious. He decided he’d better talk until he could get Howard close enough.
“All right, but you gotta promise to tell the Union I told you.”
“I’ll tell them. Won’t do you much good, but they might put you in prison instead of hanging you. You tell me and then I’ll fix you so you don’t bleed to death.”
The man groaned when he tried to straighten up, and then coughed and slouched back down.
“His name is Connor Burns and he’s probably headed to Texas. Got a sister there in some little town, Seely I think it was. Now, this shoulder is hurtin’ real bad. There’s some whiskey in that sack over there by Nate. Can I have a drink?”
Howard walked to the sack and felt inside it for the bottle, then pulled it out and walked back to the man. He seemed to be a little straighter than before, so Howard kept his Remington on the man as he handed him the bottle.
The man frowned and said, “Mister, I can’t pull the cork with only one hand. You pull it for me.”
Howard lifted the bottle, put the cork between his teeth and pulled. When the cork came free, he leaned down and handed the man the bottle. He almost missed the flash of the large knife as the man swung it at his hand holding the Remington. Howard jerked his hand back, then pulled the trigger.
The bullet hit the man in the chest. He dropped the knife, coughed up some blood, and then fell over on his back. Howard saw the man’s arm move a little before it fell to his side. The man took one final breath that slowly gurgled back out when his chest relaxed. Howard didn’t have to check to know the man was dead. He’ heard that sound too many times before.
Howard fed the campfire until daylight and watched the other four men for any signs of life, but he hadn’t expected them to show any. The .50 caliber minié ball from the Spencer left a huge wound in a man, and he’d hit them all somewhere in the chest.
When there was enough daylight to see the men, Howard looked at them all. He found William “Red” O’Malley staring up at the trees with dead eyes. The other four were the same as was the man who said he was Jacob Meyers.
Howard searched the camp for a shovel because he didn’t have one, but he found nothing he could use to bury the men. Then, he searched each man and each man’s horse and anything else he was carrying. What he was looking for was some way of verifying what Jacob had told him about the man who’d escaped.
He found nothing in the saddlebags of the horses except some powder, balls, and caps for the revolvers the men all carried. He kept the power and caps and any balls that would fit his revolver, then unsaddled the horses and chased them out of the corral. Leading horses would just make noise and slow him down, and the local people could probably use a horse. Between the Union and the Confederacy, the armies had taken most of the horses of usable age and condition.
The men had been traveling light which explained a lot of their raids. They were searching for food as well as finding Union sympathizers. Howard didn’t find anything except some jerky, some hardtack, a couple more bottles of whiskey and a few extra sets of clothing until he came to the last canvas sack. It was lying beside the bedroll with no body next to it, so it probably belonged to Connor O’Brien if that was his real name.
In that sack, Howard found three letters from an Abigail June Rector. When he read each letter, Howard could feel the emotions of the woman. She wrote pleading for her brother, the man she called Isaac, to stop riding with the guerillas and come home. Abigail was terrified that Isaac would be killed and she’d never see him again. Each letter was signed, “Your sister, Abigail, Shelby, Texas”, with a date.
So, Jacob had lied to him, but that wasn’t a huge surprise, not when Jacob had tried to kill him. Howard believed the letters though. He’d ride to Shelby, Texas, find Abigail, and convince her to tell him where Isaac was hiding.
Howard piled all the saddles and other equipment except for the jerky and hardtack on the fire and waited until the fire burned everything down to ashes. He didn’t want to leave anything another band of guerillas might find and use. Then, he covered each body with their bedrolls and walked back up the hill to find Daley.
An hour later, he was headed west, except now, he wasn’t wearing a Union uniform. Texas had been staunchly Confederate and he was pretty sure they wouldn’t appreciate any man in a Union uniform riding through a town. Instead, he was dressed in the trousers and shirt he found in one of the guerilla’s sacks. The shirt wasn’t decorated like the shirt Red had died in. It was just a plain, man’s shirt. Howard would be able to pass as just another man riding along looking for work like thousands of other former soldiers.
It took another week of riding to reach Shelby, Texas, a week of riding through farms that were growing up in weeds because there’d been no men to plow and plant them. The few houses and barns he saw on the way were either deserted or had women working in gardens. He didn’t stop at any of them. He was looking for Isaac and that was all that mattered to him.
When he rode into Shelby, he stopped by the general store for information. If there was an Abigail June Rector living in Shelby, the owner or clerk of the general store would know it. When he walked inside, the man behind the counter smiled.
“Mornin’ mister. What can I do for you today?”
Howard smiled back.
“I’m on my way to Nacogdoches to see if I can find work and I ate the last of my jerky two days ago. I thought you might have some, maybe some hardtack too.”
The man frowned and shook his head.
“Sorry mister. Supplies are hard to come by anymore. I’m having to buy what I can find from the local women who kept the farms running while their men were away. I did get two sides of bacon in this morning. I can let you have half of one…if you’ve got gold coins that is.”
Howard dug into his pocket and pulled out one of the five dollar coins from what he had left of his Union pay. He laid it on the counter and said, “I’ll take as much as this will buy.”
The storekeeper sliced off about a quarter of a side of bacon, wrapped it in brown paper and handed it to Howard.
“Anything else I can do for you? I got plenty of barley coffee.”
Howard shook his head, turned to walk away, and then turned back.
“You know, there is something you can do. I served with the Confederates with a man from Shelby and he said he had a sister. He was killed at the Battle of Nashville, so if she’s still here, I’d like to see her and tell her he died a hero because he saved my life. Her name was…let’s see…I think he called her Alice…no…that wasn’t it. It started with an A though. Maybe it was Arneth…no not Arneth…Ah I remember. It was Abby or something like that.”
The storekeeper smiled.
“That would be Abigail Rector. She doesn’t live in town. She lives on a farm about five miles west of here. She and her brother Isaac took over the farm when their folks died of cholera ‘bout six years ago. She’s kept it up for the most part since Isaac went off to join the Confederate Army. Comes to town ‘bout once a month to trade sorghum sugar for flour. She should have been in a couple of days ago, but I haven’t seen her.”
Howard thanked the storekeeper and then started riding west down a dirt wagon road. He saw the farm after riding about an hour, and turned into the lane.
The first thing he saw as he rode up to the house was a woman in the garden between the house and the barn. She looked young, maybe about his age he thought, and her golden blonde hair gleamed in the sunlight. When she saw Howard riding toward her, she ran to the side of the house and came back with a shotgun. She leveled it at Howard’s chest.
“Just turn around and keep ridin’ stranger or I’ll shoot you out of your saddle and feed you to my hogs.”
Howard was a little surprised, but he still raised his hands and smiled.
“Ma’am, I don’t mean no trouble. I’m just passin’ through on my way to Nacogdoches and thought I’d see if a man I served with in the Confederate Army made it home. I lost track of him after the Battle of Nashville, but he told me he had a sister named Abby in Shelby, Texas. The storekeeper in town said that would be you. Is Isaac here?”
The woman raised the shotgun until it was pointed at Howard’s head.
“You’re lying. Isaac never went across the Mississippi. What do you really want?”
“I’m sure Isaac was your brother. He even showed me the letters you wrote him. He wouldn’t let me read them, but he showed me where you signed them. Each one was signed Abigail Rector, Shelby, Texas and the date. He seemed pretty proud of you the way he talked. I don’t think there can be two Abigail Rectors in a place as small as Shelby, so you have to be Isaac’s sister.”
Abigail didn’t say anything for a while. If he’d seen the letters she’d sent to Isaac, this man had to be another guerilla fighter or a Union soldier who somehow found the letters and wanted to kill Isaac. She studied the man, and decided if he was a Union soldier, he’d be wearing a uniform, but he was wearing a plain shirt and trousers.
The pistol on his belt and the Spencer carbine did bother her though. Isaac had written to her about how the Spencer’s were accurate and could fire almost as fast a he could fire his revolver. He’d also told her he wished he had a Colt or a Remington like the Union Army because they were better pistols than his Kerr.
If this man carried both, he had never been in the Confederate Army. The terms of surrender had been published even in Shelby, and all Confederate soldiers had been forced to give up their weapons. To get a Spencer and a Remington, the man had to have taken them from dead Union soldiers.
Only a man who’d been a guerilla fighter could have done that and kept them after the war. What Abigail couldn’t figure out was why this man wanted to know where Isaac was. If he was a guerilla fighter, maybe he’d know what happened to Isaac. She smiled.
“I don’t know your name, stranger, but I know you weren’t in the Confederate Army. If you knew Isaac, it was because you were a guerilla fighter like he was. Who’d you fight with, Quantrill or one of the others?”
Howard was impressed with Abigail. She didn’t seem to be afraid of him at all, and the way she held that shotgun told him she’d used it before. He was also impressed by how quickly she’d seen through his story and by how confident she seemed to be when she challenged him. He decided to tell her what he thought she’d believe.
“Ma’am, I’m Howard Barlow, and I did know Isaac. We rode with Captain Quantrill until he got killed, then with Todd until he got killed too. When that happened, we joined up with Red O’Malley.
“I did lie about the letters. Isaac let me read them. I know you were tryin’ to get him to come home. I think he wanted to, but he thought he was doing what he could for the Confederate cause.
“When the war was over, I was tired of sleepin’ on the ground and goin’ hungry and told Isaac I was goin’ to leave and go to Texas. I heard the folks in Texas don’t care what you did in the war and I just wanted to find work and forget about the war.
“Isaac said if I got to Shelby, I should look you up and tell you he’s all right. I’m not sure about that though. When I was ridin’ through Archi, Missouri, I heard that Red O’Malley got himself killed along with all his men. Don’t know if that’s true or not, but I figured if Isaac got away, he’d head back here. I hope he did. He was a good man.”
Abigail relaxed a little then. This man was probably who he said he was. Isaac had never written her about a man named Howard Barlow though, but maybe he was lying again. Though the war was over, the guerillas still were wanted, and maybe this man didn’t want to use his real name because he didn’t trust her. She lowered the shotgun.
“I believe what you just told me except for your name. Isaac never wrote me about any Howard Barlow.”
Howard hadn’t thought Isaac would have written to Abigail in that much detail. He gave her the only name he knew other than Red O’Malley.
“You saw through me, Ma’am. My real name’s Jacob Meyers.”
Abigail smiled then.
“I believe you now. You had anything to eat today? It doesn’t look like you’ve had a good meal in a while. I shot a prairie hen yesterday and I got some of it and some sweet potatoes left from last night. I got some cornbread too.”
Howard tried to stay calm as he entered the house. Everything he’d told Abigail was a lie. He’d have to keep his wits about him to keep that lie going, and that made him nervous.
The food was good and since Howard had been eating jerky and hardtack for a week, he welcomed the change. He did turn down Abigail’s offer of another sweet potato though. He figured she only offered it to be polite. Her garden plot looked to be about big enough to feed one person.
Abigail watched the man eat, but she was still a little cautious. What he told her made sense and was about what she’d read in Isaac’s letters, but he’d lied to her at first and one of her mother’s favorite phrases was , “Once a liar, always a liar.”
When the man pushed his plate back and said she was a good cook, Abigail smiled.
“Thank you. Now, tell me why you lied to me at first.”
“Well, Ma’am, you know how it is since the war’s over. The Union is out to round up all the guerilla fighters and I didn’t know if I could trust you or not. Those letters you wrote to Isaac made me believe you weren’t happy with him joining up with the guerilla fighters. I thought you might turn me in.”
“No, I wasn’t happy that Isaac joined up with Quantrill. If he’d joined the Confederate Army, I could understand, but he was only fifteen when he left and they wouldn’t take him. Quantrill did. I’ve seen what Quantrill and the others did to the people of Texas during the winters. They caught men who deserted from the Confederate Army because their families needed help if they were going to survive. When they caught them, they either shot them as traitors or sent them back to be shot. They took food from the women trying to keep their families fed. Quantrill and the others were no better than thieves and murderers. What they did to some women…well, it was worse than just robbing them of food.
“Isaac wrote that he didn’t do those things. He wrote about shooting at Union soldiers, but he said he didn’t think he’d killed any. He also wrote that he didn’t agree with what Quantrill’s bunch was doing to the common people, so he went along with them on their raids and he took food and horses, but he never killed anybody. He’d just shoot his pistol like everybody else, but he was aiming over people's heads.
“I don’t know if he did or not, but men like that are like rotten apples in a barrel. The rotten ones may be on the bottom, but the rot will work its way to the top of the barrel. I just hope Isaac didn’t turn into one of them.”
“I was like that too. I think I did kill a couple of Union soldiers, but I’m not sure. Everybody was shooting at them, so it was hard to tell. I didn’t actually see Isaac kill anybody, so maybe he didn’t turn into one of them. I left because I was just tired of it all. Maybe he did the same thing after I did.”
Abigail stood up and picked up Howard’s plate.
“The war is over now, and all I want is to be left alone to live like I want to live. Turning you in wouldn’t make me feel better. I’d feel worse because I’d be sending some woman’s son or husband away from her for a long time. I know what that’s like. I have things that need to be done but I’m not strong enough or I don’t know how to do them. I wouldn’t wish that on any woman.”
It was becoming obvious to Howard that Isaac wasn’t there. If he had been, Abigail would have told him since she thought he knew Isaac. He was sure that Isaac would soon come home though. With none of Red’s band left, there was no reason for him to stay, and it would be hard for him to link up with another band. Another band would be suspicious of anyone wanting to join them because there were still Union sympathetic bands operating out of Kansas. Those groups had infiltrated the Confederate guerillas before.
His best bet was to stay in the area for another week or so. He’d pushed himself and Daley to make it to Shelby in a week because he thought Isaac had a head start, but Isaac was probably doing what he’d learned to do – be cautious and stay hidden most of the time. He’d also have to stop and find food since he’d ridden away from the camp without anything.
“Maybe I could help you do some of those things while I’m waiting for Isaac to come home. I grew up on a farm so I know how to do most things. What is it that you need doing?”
Abigail had a large pile of logs that Howard figured Isaac had cut and stacked for firewood. Her problem was about every other day, she had to saw off sections of log short enough to fit in her cookstove and then split it into pieces. Howard decided he’d cut a supply that would last a week or so.
When he tried the crosscut saw Abigail showed him, it was so dull he wondered how she ever managed to saw off even one section. He found a file in the barn, sharpened the saw, and then re-set the saw teeth. Once he’d done that, he sawed off a dozen lengths.
Her axe was also dull, so he used the same file to sharpen it and then split the sections of log into eight pieces each and piled them under the eaves of the house next to the kitchen door.
That job took Howard about four hours, so there were still almost two hours of daylight left. He walked out to where Abigail was digging some potatoes.
“Abigail, I think you’re out of meat. If I can borrow your shotgun, I’ll see if I can get us a rabbit or two for supper.”
Abigail said she needed the shotgun in case somebody came to the house while he was gone. Howard handed her his Remington revolver.
“Can you shoot a revolver? It’s loaded and the caps are on the nipples. All you have to do is cock the hammer, aim, and pull the trigger.”
Abigail brought Howard the shotgun, and handed it to him.
“Out there in the field behind the barn there are a lot of rabbits. They run so fast I can’t hit them, but maybe you can. Don’t shoot too much though. I don’t have a lot of powder and shot left.”
An hour later, Howard walked back to the house carrying two rabbits. He’d gotten lucky and got them with one shot each. When Abigail saw them, she smiled.
“You’re a good shot, just like Isaac was. I’ll fry them both with the potatoes I dug up, and we’ll have one for supper and one for dinner tomorrow.”
After supper that night, Howard took Daley to the barn, took off his saddle and bridle, and turned him out into the pasture. Then, he found a spot in the barn that looked reasonably comfortable and spread out his bedroll. He’d told Abigail he’d sleep in the barn so she wouldn’t have to worry during the night. He’d also loaded the shotgun for her. She didn’t object to either. She just said when he woke up, she’d fix breakfast. It wouldn’t be much, just some ground corn boiled into grits and barley coffee, but it would fill him up.
Over the next week, Howard worked everyday fixing something that was broken. Abigail had a boar and a sow hog and they kept trying to root their way out of their pen. Howard cut logs and put them on the ground around the pen to stop that. He split some shakes off another log and fixed a place on the house roof that Abigail said leaked when it rained.
The list of things that needed to be done seemed to never end, but Howard knew that was just the way life was. It had been that way since he could remember – roofs always needed some repairs after a winter, livestock seemed to always try to escape, and rabbits and deer always tried to eat the garden crops.
Howard took care of all those things the same way he had at home before the war. It was work, but he found that he enjoyed it. He could stand up at the end of the day, look at what he’d accomplished, and smile to himself. This was a life he could enjoy again as soon as he took Isaac back to Kansas City.
The only thing that bothered him was taking Isaac away from Abigail. She’d managed without him for a little over four years, but she’d only just managed. When Howard took him away again, she’d be faced with going back to that life. She’d survive, but as Howard got to know her, he thought she deserved more than just survival. She was a good, hard-working woman.
By then, it was almost November and the days and nights were getting colder. On Monday of the second week, Howard saw frost on the ground. That meant it would be getting colder fast. After Abigail fixed breakfast and they ate, he told her he was going hunting.
The buck deer that stepped out of the trees and into the small clearing by the creek was looking to get a drink. When the .50 caliber minié ball struck him in the chest, he ran about a hundred feet and then collapsed. Howard gutted the deer and then dragged it back to the house. He’d hung it from the rafters in the barn when Abigail came to see what he was doing.
Her mouth fell open when she saw the buck.
“You shot a deer? We’ll have meat for at least two weeks now.”
“If you can cook a deer we will. It’s cold enough now he can hang here from the barn rafters and not spoil, so we’ll be eating pretty good I bet.”
They did eat well. Abigail had raised enough vegetables to tide them both over the winter, so for that supper, she roasted a haunch over the fireplace and fried some potatoes to go with it.
When they finished eating, Abigail picked up their plates, then stopped and turned to Howard.
“It must be cold sleeping in the barn. Why don’t you come sleep in Isaac’s bed tonight?
“That wouldn’t be proper, would it, us not bein’ married and all?”
“It wouldn’t be proper for us to sleep in the same bed, but if I’m in my bed and you’re in Isaac’s, it wouldn’t be any different than if he was here. Besides, who’s gonna know way out here?”
That night as Howard lay in Isaac’s bed, he was wishing Isaac would either come back or that Abigail would learn that he’d been killed. Without really knowing it, he’d become very comfortable living with her and helping her with all the things that needed doing on a farm. He’d felt proud when he’d shot the deer and prouder when he’d seen Abigail smile as she sat the plate of venison and potatoes on the table in front of him. He’d gotten too close to her, close enough it was going to be hard to leave her and take her brother back to Kansas City.
The other thing that bothered him was as soon as Isaac showed up, the lie he’d been living would be exposed. That would make him feel bad, not for himself, but for Abigail. She’d believed him and trusted him, and knowing the truth would probably break her.
Maybe he should just saddle Daley and ride away before Isaac came home. He’d already sent all the band to Hell except for Isaac. Would one more make him feel any better? Would his ma and pa look down from Heaven and approve?
The answer that kept coming back to him was that he wouldn’t feel any different and that his ma and pa wouldn’t approve. His pa had never hurt another human being in his life. He didn’t believe in violence of any kind. What Howard had done was against everything he’d been taught. At the time, it seemed the right thing to do, but now…
Maybe Abigail was right. He should just stop hunting men and get on with his life as best he could. He was still mulling that over when he fell asleep.
As Abigail lay in her bed, she prayed that Isaac would come home soon. She missed him, but it was more than that. When Isaac came home, they’d be a family again and the man who said he was Jacob Meyers would leave.
She still wasn’t sure that was his real name, but it probably was since Isaac had written that Jacob Meyers was one of the band of guerillas. What she was sure of was that even though the man had been part of the band, he didn’t seem like a bad man. He was just the opposite of what she’d imagined a guerilla fighter to be.
He was helping her just like Isaac had after their parents died, and he seemed to be happy doing it. That was good, but it was also a problem because she’d started to rely on him.
No, she thought, it was more than relying on him. She’d grown comfortable with him being around, comfortable fixing meals for them both, and comfortable seeing him sitting at her table in the same chair her father had used. It was all becoming a life she’d thought she’d never live again, and as soon as Isaac came home, the man would leave and that life would end again.
She found herself hoping he would stay. Maybe if he and Isaac were friends, Isaac would ask him to stay. She hoped that would happen because women weren’t supposed to ask a man to do something like that. If she did ask him, he’d think she was a loose woman, or at least that’s what her mother had told her.
A tear slipped down her cheek when she imagined the day he would leave. He’d just say goodbye and ride down the lane and leave her and Isaac by themselves. She’d never forget him, she knew that, but there was nothing she could do to stop him if he decided to go.
She also considered the possibility that Isaac might not come back. She hadn’t heard from Isaac in…must be at least a month now. Maybe he was dead. How long would the man wait before he decided it was time for him to move on? He’d stayed for a little over a week so far and he hadn’t said anything about leaving. Maybe he’d stay the winter. She hoped so because winter meant there was very little to do and since she was used to having the man around to talk with, if he left she’d be all alone again. When sleep finally came, she was worrying about being left by herself without Isaac or anyone else to help her.
Three days after he’d shot the deer, Howard went hunting again. It was freezing at night now, so any meat they had would keep until spring. He intended to leave Abigail with at least three deer hanging from the barn rafters to tide her over until then.
He’d shot a doe this time, but she was almost as big as a buck and the meat would probably taste better. He gutted the doe and dragged her back to the barn.
Howard had hung the deer and was going to the house to tell Abigail when he saw a lone rider coming up the lane to the house. He unconsciously checked the Spencer to make sure there was a fresh cartridge in the chamber and then walked toward the lane. He was still walking when Abigail came running out of the house and screaming, “Isaac, Issac, you came back.”
Howard stopped walking and watched the man get off his horse. Seconds later, Abigail was hugging him and crying and the man was hugging her back. There was no doubt this was Isaac, the man who’d gotten away from him, and the man he intended to take back to Kansas City to stand trial.
Howard was far enough away that he couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he saw the look on Isaac’s face change from a wide grin to a harsh frown. Evidently Abigail had said something that upset Isaac a lot.
Howard was thinking about how he was going to handle this situation when Isaac drew his pistol and pushed Abigail aside. He kept the pistol leveled at Howard as he slowly walked up to face him. After looking Howard over from head to toe, Isaac turned to Abigail.
“Abby, I don’t know this man and he sure isn’t Jacob Meyers. I saw Jacob Meyers get shot and he’s probably dead.”
Isaac looked at Howard then.
“Put that rifle on the ground. Don’t try anything fancy or I’ll shoot you where you stand.”
When Howard had done that, Isaac said, “Who are you and why are you here with my sister?”
Howard looked at Isaac and saw how young he was. Abigail said he was fifteen when he joined up with Quantrill. That would make Isaac only nineteen now, just a year older than when Howard had enlisted. Isaac looked scared even though he was trying to act like a man looking after his sister. Scared men were the most dangerous. They wouldn’t think before they acted. He’d have to do what Isaac said until he could convince him he wasn’t out to hurt anyone.
Howard looked at Abigail and saw a look of dismay on her face. She knew something wasn’t right. He was going to have to tell the truth even though it was going to hurt her.
“Isaac, you have me fair and square, but you don’t need that gun. If what Abigail told me is true, you won’t use it anyway and I don’t intend to do either of you any harm. Let’s go inside where it’s warmer and I’ll explain everything. Would you bring my Spencer inside too? It needs to be cleaned or it’ll rust up.”
Once inside, Howard took a deep breath and then looked at Abigail.
“Abigail, I lied to you because I thought that was the only way I could find Isaac, but you have to understand why I was looking for him and what I found instead.
“I was telling you the truth when I said my name was Howard Barlow and that I was from Posey Hollow, Arkansas. I left my parents there when I went to join the First Arkansas Cavalry. I spent three years finding and arresting the guerilla fighters roaming through Missouri and Kansas. We got all the major leaders and most of their men, but when I got out there were still a few smaller bands left.
“When I got home, I found out one of those small bands, a band led by Red O’Malley, had come to Posey Hollow. They killed ten people there including my ma and pa, and they burnt the church where we used to go every Sunday. Since the Union had stopped trying to find the guerillas, I decided the only way to bring them to answer for their crimes was to track them down myself.
“I knew the places Red O’Malley would probably hide out from all the patrols I’d led trying to find the guerillas. All I had to do was follow his trail of robbing and killing and he’d end up in one of the places I knew about. I found that place a month later and waited for him to get there.”
Howard looked at Isaac then.
“Isaac, I didn’t intend to kill all your friends. What I was meaning to do was arrest all of you and take you to Kansas City to stand trial. If the first man hadn’t shot at me and woke up the rest of you, that’s what I’d have done. I’d killed enough men for a lifetime and I didn’t need to kill any more.
“As it was, I had to kill them or they’d have killed me. I saw you get away, and I did take a shot at you, but I missed. I’m glad I missed now. Abigail told me you never killed anybody in any of their raids. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but you didn’t stick around and try to kill me. That makes me believe what she said.
“I found the letters she wrote to you and figured you’d come back to Shelby as soon as you could, so I told Abigail I’d ridden with Red O’Malley and wanted to see you again. The reason was I was still planning on taking you back to Kansas City for trial as soon as you came home.”
Howard looked at Abigail again.
“Abigail, when I started staying here and helping you, that’s still what I was planning. I hadn’t planned on liking it and I hadn’t planned on liking you as much as I do. I know you won’t believe me after I’ve lied to you so many times, but this is the God’s truth. You’re a woman who didn’t deserve what happened to you, just like my mother and the people back in Posey Hollow. Taking Isaac away from you again would hurt you and it wouldn’t bring my ma and pa back, so I won’t. If you’ll let me, I’ll just ride off and you’ll never see me again. I won’t tell anybody about what Isaac did.”
He looked at Isaac then.
“Isaac, if you’re a good man like Abigail says you are, you’ll give up what you were doing and stay here and take care of her. She’s a fine woman and you’re lucky to have her as your sister. Don’t go away again and leave her here by herself. She’s kept this farm running, but she needs a man to help her.”
Abigail had listened to Howard without saying anything. At first she was shocked because he’d lied in order to take Isaac away from her again and she’d believed his lies. When he said he’d changed his mind because he liked her, she was thankful. When he told Isaac that she was a fine woman, her heart softened and she felt hopeful. If he was telling the truth, did he really feel something for her?
If someone had killed her mother and father, Abigail would have done anything to do the same to them. Maybe killing all the others had satisfied his need for revenge. If it had and he was telling the truth…no, she couldn’t ask him to stay for all the same reasons she’d already thought of except now it was worse. Howard had admitted to trying to shoot Isaac, and Isaac would never agree to let him stay.
Isaac was also thinking. The mind of the guerilla fighter in him said he should just walk Howard outside and shoot him in the head. That was the only way he could be sure Howard wouldn’t come after him someday. If that happened, it was likely Howard would kill him. The term he’d heard used for other guerilla fighters who’d been killed was “shot while attempting to escape”. That had happened a lot.
The mind of the country farm boy that had been hardened by war and sickened by what he’d seen done in the name of that war told him he couldn’t kill a man just because of what he might do someday. Doing so would make him no different than Red O’Malley.
He’d been part of the raid at Posey Hollow, but as he’d often done in the past, Isaac had found a way not to be there when the killing was done. At those farms, he’d been going through the house or barn looking for food. He’d been a thief, but he wasn’t a killer. That had been all Red O’Malley’s doing. It had seemed justified when Red and the others killed Union soldiers, but when they killed people just trying to get through the war, it had sickened him.
The problem was he’d been stuck in the group once he joined them. Any man who left would have been considered a traitor to the cause and would have been shot before he took even two steps. That was the way the guerilla bands worked. You were either with them or against them. You couldn’t be neutral. If you were against them, they’d just kill you and ride on.
After watching Red shoot down the young boy in Posey Hollow, Isaac had decided he had to leave the band even if it meant he’d get killed. He couldn’t justify what they were doing once the war had ended. They’d become just a band of outlaws. He’d been watching for an opportunity to just slip away, and when the shooting started that night in the camp in Missouri, he’d decided it was then or never.
He’d left everything except his Kerr revolver and what was in his saddlebags behind, and had ridden all night and most of the next day. After that, he had slowly worked his way back to Shelby by stealing vegetables from gardens at night and hunting rabbits when he was sure no one else was around.
It had taken a long time because he rode around every town and hid from anybody else he saw, but he had finally reached home only to find a man there helping his sister with the farm. Abigail obviously trusted him, and there was something else there besides trust. It was the way her face had lit up when she told him about all the things the man had done. Only when the man had admitted he’d lied to her did Abigail’s face change, and even then it wasn’t the rage he’d expected to see. It was just disappointment.
If he hadn’t left Abigail alone and joined up with Quantrill, none of this would have happened. He and Abigail would have lived as they always had. He’d messed up both their lives and what did he have to show for it? He couldn’t bring back those years, but maybe he could make them up at least a little. He turned to face Howard.
“They weren’t my friends. Any one of them would have shot me in the back over a bottle of whiskey.
“I remember Posey Hollow. I don’t know which of the people Red killed were your ma and pa, but I didn’t fire a shot. Neither did any of the other men. We did rob the people and we did burn down the church, but I didn’t shoot anybody. I know you probably don’t believe me, that that’s how it was.
“As I see it, I have three choices. I can shoot you dead, but that will make me a murderer and I’m not that kind of man. I can let you go and risk you coming back for me even though you say you wouldn’t do that. I’m not sure how I feel about the third choice.”
Isaac looked at Abigail.
“Abigail, you seemed to trust him before. Do you trust him now?”
Abigail felt her heart racing and put her hand on the swell of her breasts. Did she trust this man after he’d lied to her? Her head told her she shouldn’t, but when she though about him riding down the lane and away from her, her heart was screaming that she wanted him to stay. She chose her words carefully.
“Isaac, he’s done so much for me since he got here, things I couldn’t do myself. I think he’s telling the truth now. I believe him when he says he isn’t going to do you any harm. If he wanted to do that, he could have shot you when you rode up the lane.”
“You didn’t tell me if you trust him now. Do you?”
Abigail put her face in her hands and sobbed.
“Isaac, I don’t know, but I know I don’t want him to leave.”
Isaac turned to Howard.
“Do you want to leave my sister, or do you want to stay?”
That question caused Howard to rethink his opinion of Isaac. Isaac was only nineteen, but he thought like a man much older. Then Howard realized he was only about four years older than Isaac, and he’d been changed a lot by the war. Before the war, he’d been pretty naïve about the world because his world was the farm and the church in Posey Hollow. By the end of the war, he was a sergeant in the Union cavalry and merciless in his search for guerilla fighters. He preferred to arrest the guerillas he found, but didn’t think twice about killing them if they fought back. He hadn’t thought twice about killing the men in Red O’Malley’s bunch and then leaving them for the coyotes and buzzards. Before the war, he’d have said any man who would do something like that was a murderer.
He guessed that fighting a war, no matter which side you were on, changed you a lot in ways you didn’t realize until it was over. War made you grow up fast and gave you knowledge beyond your years. He’d been able to know which men would fight and which men would cower. He’d been able to know which men killed for the fun of killing and which men killed only because they had to. That knowledge told him Isaac wasn’t the one who killed his parents or the other people in Posey Hollow.
Isaac seemed to understand things beyond his years too. Most young men would have probably just shot him if Howard had confessed to shooting at them. Isaac seemed to take that knowledge in stride. Most young men would have been furious that a strange man had lived with their sister for over a month. Isaac didn’t seem to mind all that much. He was more worried about what his sister thought about Howard leaving than what Howard might have been doing with her over the weeks.
Howard didn’t want to leave, but how could that possibly work out? He didn’t have a sister, but if he had, he’d have defended her honor with his life. That’s all Isaac was trying to do.
“Isaac, I don’t want to leave, but I don’t see how that changes anything. You’d be constantly watching me to see if I was going to do something to you or Abigail.”
For the first time since they’d met, Howard saw Isaac smile. He put his revolver back in the holster.
“You’re right. I would. I won’t let you stay unless you’ll make an honest woman out of my sister.”
Howard looked at Abigail. She was sitting there with her mouth hanging open. Then he looked back at Isaac.
“You mean get married to her? You fought for the Confederates and I fought for the Union. You’d want me to marry your sister?”
Isaac frowned then.
“I figured out after about a month that I wasn’t fighting for the Confederates and what they wanted to do. I was fighting for Captain Quantrill and what he wanted to do. I’d have quit if I’d thought they wouldn’t shoot me in the back as I was leaving. I’m not going back to that no matter what happens. I guess you can think I was a Confederate if you want to, but I think I was just a boy who didn’t know what was important and what wasn’t. After everything I did and saw, I do now.
“What’s important to me now is that Abigail has a man to take care of her, a man she wants to be with. I think she’s decided that man is you. I don’t think Abigail would say no if you asked her, and if that’s what she wants, that’s what I want. I also don’t think you’d take your own brother in law to prison either. Why don’t you try and see what she says.”
They were married a week later at the little Baptist Church in Shelby. The preacher’s wife stood up with Abigail and Isaac walked her down the aisle. When the preacher asked, "Who gives this bride away?”, Isaac said “Her mother and father and I do”. Howard stood by himself because he didn’t know anybody else in town.
When they rode back to the farm, Abigail rode behind Howard with her arms around his waist instead of behind Isaac. After supper, Isaac stretched and said he’d sleep in the barn the next couple of nights. He walked out the door then.
When he left, Abigail held Howard’s hand.
“Husband, I’ll be the best wife I can be. I’ll raise my garden and I’ll cook and I’ll wash your clothes and I’ll have your babies.”
Howard squeezed her hand gently and smiled.
“I know you’ll do all those things. I saw that way before Isaac came home. I just didn’t think I could tell you then. I can tell you now, though. I can tell you I’ll be the best husband I can be. I’ll work hard with Isaac to take care of you and to make this farm like it used to be.”
Abigail smiled nervously then.
“I need to go in the bedroom now. Mama left me her wedding nightgown and I need to put it on before we…well, before we do what husbands and wives do. I’ll tell you when I’m ready.”
When Abigail called softly that she was ready, Howard walked into the bedroom and then stopped. Abigail was standing there in the light of a single tallow candle, and she looked entirely different. Her golden blonde hair was splayed out over her shoulders instead of pulled back like usual. Her soft, rounded shoulders were bare except for the straps that held up the white gown that covered her from her breasts to the floor.
That gown covered her, but it didn’t hide the ripe figure under it. Abigail’s breasts swelled a little over the top into firm mounds the gown hugged. From there, the gown hugged her slender waist and then flared over her hips.
Abigail saw him standing there and laughed nervously.
“Howard, you don’t have to just look. You can touch me now that I’m your wife.”
Howard didn’t say anything because he couldn’t think of anything to say. He walked to where Abigail stood, reached out, and took her in his arms. He felt her soft breasts pressing into his chest, and her soft belly against the stiffening in his trousers. He finally found his voice and said, “I didn’t know you’d look like this. You’re beautiful.”
Abigail pulled herself up on her tiptoes and kissed Howard, then eased back down.
“Mama said you’d undress me. Are you going to do that?”
Howard’s hands were shaking a little when he knelt and lifted the bottom of Abigail’s gown. Slowly, he lifted it as he stood up, and as he revealed Abigail’s body, he felt his manhood straining against his trousers. When he saw the pale thatch of blonde hair on Abigail’s mound, and then her soft, naked breasts, he pulled the gown over her head and carefully laid it on the bed.
As he took off his own clothes, Howard continued to stare at Abigail. Unlike some of the men he’d served with, Howard had never been to a brothel, so he’d never seen a woman without clothes on, and what Abigail was doing to him was more than he’d ever imagined.
When he took off his shirt, he realized the bedroom was pretty cold, so he quickly took off his boots and then his trousers, and then held Abigail again. She was shivering a little and her nipples were so stiff he felt them pressing into his chest. He stroked her back and then said, “You must be freezing. Let’s get into bed.”
Once they were lying side by side under the blankets, Howard tried to remember what his father had told him he should do. Tentatively, he reached for Abigail and touched her breasts. She stiffened a little, but then relaxed.
“Be gentle at first, Howard. I’m really sensitive there.”
Howard was so gentle he barely felt Abigail’s soft skin under his fingertips. That lasted until Abigail rolled on her side and pulled his face to hers. She moaned at that kiss and Howard felt a tingle run down his spine and make his manhood jump.
Abigail felt that little jump and slipped her hand down over Howard’s belly until she felt his shaft. When she closed her small, soft hand around his length, Howard unconsciously lurched slightly. Abigail whispered softly.
“Do the same thing to me, Howard.”
Howard couldn’t believe how the blonde hair on Abigail’s mound felt under his fingertips, and the lips he felt under that hair were soft and a little puffy. He was lightly stroking those lips when Abigail sighed and put her thigh over his body. When she did that, her lips opened a little and Howard’s middle finger slipped between them.
Abigail moaned and began stroking his shaft. Howard gently stroked over Abigail’s rippled inner lips and then down until his finger slipped inside her. It didn’t go in very far, but when he pulled it back out, it was wet and slippery. When he pushed it back inside Abigail, she jerked, and then whispered, “Mama said it would hurt the first time but I want you to do it. I think I’m ready. Do it now.”
Howard raised up, crawled over Abigail’s legs, and then knelt between them. She bent her legs at the knee, pulled them up, and then spread them wide. When Howard began probing for her entrance with his rigid manhood, Abigail reached between them and guided him to the right place. As he pushed in a little, Abigail lifted her hips and pushed up. Howard felt his manhood slide inside Abigail a little. She made a little mewing cry and eased back down as Howard pulled back. When he pushed in again, Abigail gasped, then held her breath and pushed up hard. Howard felt resistance and then the feeling of his manhood slipping inside Abigail’s tight passage all the way.
After that, he couldn’t stop himself from making four more quick strokes. He felt a tightening in his loins and then the blinding surge that raced up his shaft and inside Abigail. Three more times he stroked in and three more times he groaned as the tightening in his loins exploded inside Abigail. After the fourth, he sagged into his arms and withdrew. Abigail yelped a little when he pulled his manhood out of her, but she put her arms around his back and pulled him down on top of her. As she stroked his back, she whispered, “Mama didn’t tell me it would feel good, but after the first little pain, it did.”
The next morning, Isaac came in the house for breakfast, and he smiled knowingly.
“Howard, the way you look makes me think you like being married to Abigail. Maybe I oughta find me a wife too.”
On the second of April of 1866, Benjamin Phelps was forking some hay to the horses in the pen next to the barn when he heard the clop-clop of hooves on the dirt of his lane. He looked up to see a horse he recognized as Daley with two riders on his back. He put down the fork and walked over to the fence.
When Howard stopped at the fence, Benjamin nodded.
“Mornin’ Howard. You get done what you needed to do?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Looks like that ain’t all you done. Who’s this pretty little girl ridin’ behind you?”
“Well, I sorta found me a wife too. This is Abigail, from Shelby, Texas.”
Benjamin touched the brim of his fedora.
“Mornin’ Ma’am. You rode all the way from Texas behind Howard? That’s a fur piece to be sittin’ on a bedroll the whole way.”
“It wasn’t too bad. It only took us six days.”
Benjamin smiled at Howard then.
“You back to stay, or are you goin’ back to Texas?”
“Well, since Abigail’s brother went and got himself married, there’s not enough farm in Texas for two families. We decided to let him have the farm in Texas and we’d move back to Arkansas. It’s a ways to go visit, but I hear there’s gonna be a railroad one of these days that’ll make it there in a day or so.”
Benjamin took off his hat and scratched his head.
“I suppose you want to trade that ridin’ horse and saddle for a pair of working horses and harness, don’t you? Well, I can’t do that.”
Howard wrinkled up his brow.
“But you said –“
Benjamin smiled and held up his hand.
“Now don’t go getting’ all in an uproar. I got somethin’ else to throw in. I went back to your pa’s farm after you left ‘cause you forgot the halters for them two horses. I found the halters and I found somethin’ else. Them men left your pa’s wagon and plow sittin’ under the lean-to on the barn. I had one wagon already, but I figured it was better me using your pa's wagon than lettin’ it sit there and rot, so I hitched her up an’ brought her here. She’s got a new coat of paint, and I’ll throw her into the bargain too. Plow’s still there by the barn. It’s a little rusty, but it’ll scour after the first couple furrows.”
“Oh, you need to stop by Mason William’s place too. The Morris’s didn’t have no kin that anybody knowed about, so the people of the church decided what was left of their belongins should go to the people of the church. Mason was helpin’ round up the chickens when their milk cow come walking out of the woods lookin’ for somethin’ to eat. Had a month old heifer calf beside her. Ain’t none of us needed another milk cow, but Mason took her home and got her bred again. He said if you come back, he thought you might need a milk cow. He’s got a rooster and half a dozen hens he don’t need too.”
Howard said he didn’t know what to say, and Benjamin just smiled.
“Well, son, we figured what you done, you done for us in Posey Hollow too. From what we hear, there ain’t been no more guerillas around here since last fall so we figured you got ‘em and we owed you something for that. It ain’t much, but it’ll get you started again. Your pa would have done the same for any of us what needed some help.”
When Howard drove the wagon up the lane to the farm, he didn’t look any different on the outside. He put Matilda and her calf in the pen by the barn, then unhitched Mike and Joe and turned them out into the pasture. Then, he and Abigail walked to the house. Howard apologized before he opened the door.
“The last time I was here, things were in pretty bad shape, but I’ll get some lumber and build us a bed and a table and chairs.”
Abigail squeezed his hand.
“I’ve lived with less and I can do it again.”
When Howard opened the door, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Everything in the house was clean and everything wasn’t broken like before. He was still staring when Abigail walked over to the table and picked up a piece of paper. She read what was written there and then came back to Howard.
“Howard, it’s a letter from somebody named Amos Crowder. It says the church got all the furniture and kitchen things from a family named McCain and another family named Ruby, and they thought if you came back, you could use it. Do you know any of those people?”
Howard couldn’t answer for a while because of the lump in his throat. He just held Abigail until the tears stopped running down his cheeks. After wiping his eyes, he explained.
“The McCain family and the Ruby family were four of the people Red Williams killed. Amos owns the sawmill in Posey Hollow. The people of Posey Hollow are thanking me again. I don’t deserve it, but that’s what they’re doing.”
Abigail stroked his arm.
“If they think that much of you, you must deserve it. A good man would deserve everything the people have given you, and they must think you’re a good man. I think you deserve even more, but for another reason. You let my brother come back to me when you could have taken him to prison. You deserve more for that, but I couldn’t give you anything except me.”
Howard put his arms around Abigail.
“Abigail, what you gave me is worth more than all the rest.”
Abigail stroked his cheek.
“Howard, you gave me something else too, something I always wanted. I didn’t tell you before we started for here because you’d have worried about me the whole way, but I’m going to have a baby in the fall, probably the last part of October.”
Howard kissed her and then smiled.
“I guess I’ll have to build us a baby bed then, won’t I?”
Howard didn’t get the baby bed built until the last part of September. He was too busy plowing and planting, and working with the other men of Posey Hollow to build a new church. The first Sunday after they built the wood pews, the people of Posey Hollow filed in through the church door and took their seats. They sang, “Shall We Gather At the River” and then listened to the sermon given by James Anderson.
The topic of the sermon was “Turning the other cheek”, and when James had finished, he closed his worn Bible and looked out at the people sitting there.
“Let us pray.”
The prayer was short and mostly about the people who had died and how the people of Posey Hollow should not be angry or sad but should be thankful those people had gone to their reward with clean souls. When James finished, he said “Amen”, and the small congregation followed with a quiet “Amen”. Then they began filing out of the church.
Outside, there was a little talk among the men about how their crops were doing and if the weather was going to hold long enough to get the harvest in before winter set in. The women all gathered around Abigail. After a while, one by one, the families got into their wagons and drove home.
As Mike and Joe pulled the wagon at a walk, Abigail turned to Horace.
“What he said about turning the other cheek…that’s what you did with Isaac, isn’t it?”
“I guess so, but that wasn’t what I was thinking at the time. I was thinking about how much I’d hurt you if I took him away. I decided it wasn’t worth that just to put a boy in prison. Turned out I was right. Isaac made a mistake but he learned from it and he’s a better man today.
“I made a mistake too. The Bible says you shouldn’t judge anybody because then you’ll be judged. I was judging Isaac by what I thought he’d done, and I shouldn’t have done that. I almost caused myself to lose you.”
Abigail put her arm around Howard’s waist.
“I’m glad you didn’t. I don’t know what I’ve have done if I’d lost you. Oh, Mason’s wife told me when it’s my time, you should ride over and get her. When you do, she’ll send Mason to get Mrs. Crowder. They’ll help me have the baby. She said the men had already done all they could to pay you back for keeping the guerillas away and now it was time for the women to do the same thing when your wife had a baby.”
“Well, that’s good. I’ve helped a cow have a calf, but I’m not sure it’s the same with women and babies.”
Abigail hugged Howard’s waist.
“Mama told me it would hurt a lot, but I’d forget that as soon as the baby is born. Everything’s been all right since you came to my farm in Shelby. Having a baby will be all right too, you’ll see.”