Wildwood Boys

(This column was first published in the February 1, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)

    That wind a few weeks ago cutting off both our electricity and phone brought home to me how fragile is our defense against the elements. All we were left with were battery-powered flashlights and calculators and (thank goodness) a flush toilet.

    With impeccable timing I found myself sitting huddled up in blankets to withstand the slowly declining temperature reading this passage:

    In years to come Will would on various occasions tell his first-born son the story of his birth on the coldest day in local memory, the second of February, 18 and 40, a Sunday. 'A regular winter day just all of damn sudden went about four times colder, ' Will Anderson would say. 'Birds fell out of the sky froze solid as rock. Wasn't much snow but there blew a norther to tear the hide off a goat. Lord, the wind! The roof sounded like it was in pain. There was frost all on the inside walls. We had the fireplace booming and still we were freezing. You were blue as a virgin's vein and not yet a day old but you never made a sound, just squinched up your face and seen the thing through. I knew then you were a hardcase and I told your ma so. When the wind finally let up, it sounded like war the way the trees were popping. I stepped outside and the first breath of that cold air was like getting hit across the nose with a scantling. The wind had pulled a door off the barn and the cow for some dumb-ass cow reason wandered out to the trace and just stood there and froze to death on its feet. I couldn't so much as put a nick in her hide with my bowie. Tried to quarter her with an ax but it was like hacking at an oak stump. Had to build a fire under her to thaw her sufficient to chop her up bit by bit. Talk about cold! Was that way for six days before it got usual winter again.'

    After reading that I stopped feeling sorry for myself.

    The paragraph comes from Wildwood Boys by James Carlos Blake (Avon, 2000), an historical novel about the Civil War guerrilla, Bill Anderson. It is a story of those terrible lawless times in Kansas and Missouri when settler families, caught in the middle between Federal troops and guerrilla bands loosely tied to the Confederacy, had their farms destroyed and their men killed simply because they could not prove allegiance to one side or the other. Often the Southerners would wear uniforms taken from Federal soldiers they had massacred, further complicating professions of loyalty by innocent civilians.

    This is a story told in the spirit of Cormac McCarthy with beautiful language describing often despicable events. Here, for example, is a passage about one of the rare interludes between raids:

    The moon grew plump and pale as a peeled apple, waned into the passing nights, then showed itself again as a thin silver crescent in the twilit western sky. The shed of leaves became a cascade of red and gold and after a time the trees stood skeletal against a sky of weathered tin. The land lay bled of its colors. The nights lengthened, went darker, brightened in their clustered stars. The chilled air smelled of woodsmoke, of distances and passing time. Frost glimmered on the morning fields. Crows called across the pewter afternoons. The first hard freeze cast the countryside in ice and trees split open with sounds like whipcracks. Came a snow flurry one night and then a heavy falling the next day, and that evening the land lay white and still under a high ivory moon.

    "They hiked deep into the barelimbed woods to targetshoot, lumbering in their heavy coats, their breath pluming white, the men wearing their newest boots to break them in. They worked their horses and curried them. They practiced rope tricks. They played penny poker and finally capitulated to the girls' entreaties and let them sit in and were chagrined when Hazel Vaughn proved the sharp of the party. Snow fell steadily for several days and they went out and romped in it and shaped comic snowmen and constructed bulwarks and waged a snowball war. Evenings they would gather in the parlor with harmonicas and fiddles and Jew's harps and sing and dance in the light of a crackling fire.

    For a time Anderson joined forces with Quantrill's raiders and together they destroyed Lawrence, Kansas in 1863 but without him Anderson's bushwhackers not only destroyed Centralia, Missouri in 1864 but they also trapped and defeated the three company Federal relief force of Major Andrew Johnston, killing all but a few who galloped off and one whom they took prisoner. (The experiences with the raiders of this prisoner, Sergeant Tom Goodman, and his final escape are among the most exciting episodes of the entire book.)

    Blake treats Anderson with sensitivity and we come to see him as a tragic figure, a product of those terrible times.

    Quantrill gestured for Bill to come away from the JP's door then stood with his hands behind his back. 'Tell me, William T.,' he said, 'what are you doing?'

    'Getting married, Bill,' Bill Anderson said, making no effort to hide his irritation, 'as if you didn't know. Now you tell me: what's so important we have to talk about it this minute?'

    'I was told you were getting married,' Quantrill said. 'But I refused to believe it unless I heard it from you.'

    'Well, now you have,' Bill Anderson said, vexed the more by Quantrill's tone of condescension. 'What do you want, Bill? I've got a bride waiting.'

    'All right, then, to the point,' Quantrill said. 'A married man wants to be with his wife. He wants to have children, he wants to settle. It's why he gets married. There aren't many bushwhackers with wives, as you well know, and those few are the most miserable among us. There's not a minute they don't miss home, not a day they don't fret about their women. If they have children, their torment is all the greater. You know the ones I speak of, you've seen them. Mopers to a man. Every bushwhacker I've known to quit the war was a married man. So, what I'm wondering is, are you thinking to quit the war, William T.?'

    He was surprised by the question -- and by his realization that it had come to him yesterday but he had not recognized it. It had come as a vague and shadowy distraction at the edge of his mind the moment he'd asked Bush to marry him and she'd said yes. It had held itself just beyond the shaping reach of thought, but now he realized it had felt like a question, and the feeling had lingered with him since. And here Quantrill had set it in front of him as obvious as a wall.

    'If you're thinking to quit,' Quantrill said, 'I hope you'll think about it real well. The whole Yank army this side of the Mississippi knows you and it's not about to forget you just because you leave off fighting and get married and take up raising kids and hogs. They'll hunt you down and kill you whether you're holding a Colt or a plow handle, and they won't give a damn if you got ten children and a wife expecting another. A graveyard parole's the only kind you and me are ever going to get from the Federals, William T. The only way around it is to fight them till we win or lose. That's why no man of us should marry till this war's done with. 'He who hath a wife and children hath given hostages to fortune.' Sir Bacon said it well.'

    The story is not without humor, however. Here is a passage about the hoop snake, a reptile my father-in-law claimed to have seen. The characters are indeed the James brothers who were for a time members of Anderson's force.

    As they ride, the young James boy is lecturing on the hoop snake.

    'There's just no getting away from a hoop snake if it takes a mind to go after you,' Jesse says. 'It'll take its tail in its mouth and make itself into a wheel, and it'll roll faster than any horse can run.'

    'Lord Jesus,' Frank James mutters. He spits and drops farther back along the column, beyond earshot of his brother.

    'I'd ride my horse up a steep hill, what I'd do,' Hi Guess says, beaming with his cleverness. 'See it get me then."

    'It'll roll right up that hill after you,' Jesse says. 'Hoop snake can roll uphill, can roll over water, can roll right up a danged tree. It can bite you dead right through your boot.'

    'Is it any way to keep from dying of its bite?' Buster Parr says. 'You know, like how you treat a rattler bite?' He'd been the one to bring up the subject -- and was sorry he had -- after seeing a snake slither across the road ahead of them. The sight had reminded him of his baby sister's claim, years ago, to have seen a hoop snake rolling along the hog path behind their barn. He hadn't believed her, but Jesse said he should have, and had commenced his monologue on the mythical creature.

    'There's but one way to cure the bite of a hoop snake,' Jesse says. 'First, you have to kill it before it gets away, and to do that, you have to shoot it in the heart. Now its heart is exactly ten inches below the head. If you don't hit the heart you'll never kill it. You can shoot it a dozen dang times, you can shoot its dang head off, but if you don't hit the heart it'll just slither away like a raggedy old rope and grow a new head before sunup. But you hit it in the heart and that's all she wrote. Then what you do is, you cut off a piece of the carcass and wrap it around the bite and leave it in place for twenty-four hours exactly, not a minute longer and not a minute less. You do that and you'll be as right as rain again.'

    To check out the history of Bill Anderson I turned to another book, Bloody Bill Anderson: The Short, Savage Life Of A Civil War Guerrilla by Albert Castel and Thomas Goodrich (Stackpole, 1998). As the title suggests, this book treats Bill with far less sensitivity but I found it an equally good read. (I favor, after all, the Union cause.) Here, for example, the authors quote from a Missouri newspaper editorial:

    There is no act of villainy or cold blooded murder, where a dollar could be made, which they will not do.

    Terrible times on our nation's frontier so well told that I found myself mesmerized by the reading experience.-- Gerry Rising