Western Short Story
When the Quantrill Raiders left Bob’s Village ablaze near Sherman, Texas in 1864, the only person left alive was a 14-year old boy who was working in a neighbor’s well. He stayed in place, just above the water line, for almost four hours as the raiders killed all the inhabitants, young and old. He heard the voice of the leader (later declared as William Quantrill) giving orders to destroy everybody and everything. The smell of smoke and burning flesh descended to his hideaway during the four-hours.
The boy’s name was Kinaid Hickey, first generation Irish-American, born in the spawn of a cluttered coastal city on the edge of the Atlantic, and rushed to points west by his father whose dream for full freedom was not yet completed.
When all was quiet above him, though the horrid smells still assailed him with a vengeance of their own, young Kinaid Hickey climbed from his place of safety. Guilt and condemnation carried through him when he saw the ruins of the small village. The cabin of his parents, their roof of sod like all the other cabins, was gone to ashes and smoke. Something told him he would never see his parents again; not alive, he admitted. Outside of the small breeze working from the west, silence reigned, along with the odor of burning flesh as it worked its way into his senses, every odor sharp as the sins of mankind.
That thought made him think of his father’s Irish knife, a Scian Dubh, hot and honed on a grinding wheel. His father said his father had found the knife at the forge of North Gate Bridge, near the diggings around Christ Church Cathedral, in the very center of Cork.
“A knife from antiquity,” he had called it, “our lone legacy from the past, along with our blood and our name. Preserve it as long as you can, Kinaid, with all the power you can muster.”
Young but determined Kinaid Hickey stood rigid looking at the sights about him, sadness, loss, fear, anger, all working him into a dither.
He had to find his father’s knife, now his knife.
But awareness came over him, a most compelling one that said, as if it had a tongue and a voice, an internal command with presence: “Quick, now, remember everything, every sound, every word, and every voice you heard this day. Remember names, even the names of horses that you heard riders call out. Remember everything, or write them down. From this moment, by all that pervades you, you are the sole avenger.” Came then the realization: it was the voice of his father, as plain as the day that lifted itself off the prairie. “Avenge us,” it said. “Avenge us.”
In the distance, out on the span of good grass, young Hickey saw a pair of horses feeding. One looked like his roan, Star, the way the sun rolled on his back, off his mane, dotted by his swishing tail. “For the chase, I’ll have something to ride.”
Later in the day, the smoke receding, the smells declining a bit, Star caught and tethered, Kinaid Hickey went looking for his parents. He found his parents’ bodies, huddled in the ashes, what was left of them. Hickey, saying his taught prayers as far as they went, buried his parents beside the ruins, and then continued to search for the knife, his father’s knife, the Scian Dubh, his legacy, his avenger. He found it stuck in a partly burned timber that was beside the ruins, one his father must have been working on.
The knife was whole in his hand.
He had his horse, a sidearm, a hat found on the grass, the Scian Dubh tucked in his belt, and set off in pursuit of the band of killers. At a trailside campfire, some travelers told him the Quantrill Raiders had been the ones scorching the area, looking for Union troops and Union sympathizers, weapons and ammunition for their own use, and killing anyone in their way.
He would practice fast-draws every day, for hours when he could, so he’d be as good as possible at it. Better yet, he’d be a magician with the fast-draw. He’d beat them all, including his parents’ killer; he had named one man as the killer; he’d heard his name, Quantrill, heard his voice, and knew his horse’s name was Greystock.
“Why do they kill innocent people who have not taken any side?” he had asked an old traveler met at a trailside campfire.
The old traveler, sore-wounded from the war, said, “If you ain’t for them, you’re against them, so you count nothing to them. Dead is as good as you can get for them.”
“Are there Union troops around here?”
“Up the river,” the old warrior said, as he pointed north. “Some up there, but I don’t know how strong, or how long they’ll be around. They ain’t been doing so good, from what I hear. You going after them? They’ll drag you into the ranks, same as Quantrill will do, but he’d as soon as kill you if you was to say no.”
“I’ll find the Union troops. I got settling to do.” The look on Hickey’s face told the old timer to cease his questions, which he did on the spot.
For a long year Kinaid Hickey sat on Quantrill’s trail, through raids, firefights, disillusion in his ranks, plain outright mutiny, and now and then pure and unadulterated avoidance of stronger enemy forces. That trail took him out of Texas, into Kansas, Missouri, and finally into Kentucky. All the while, living off the land, on hand-outs and other small generosities of people like him, on the move, he studied the moves of Quantrill, before a raid when he could, or after the fact. He learned patience and planning and the difference between hatred and disgust. From a distance he always knew what murder was.
And he practiced his fast-draw every day, becoming so fast that he worried that he’d turn into a killer, the gun felt so good in his hand, so hot, so ready. He had become the magician he wanted to be.
During the long year of the chase, more than once he was forced to recede into the background as Union forces pushed continually at Quantrill positions or held their place in the war’s schemes. He did not want to be caught up in the hysteria, or being suspected or convicted of being a Quantrill supporter. Nor did he want the conscription pledge tossed at him from Quantrill. Separation was important to him, and to his cause. He would not let anything intrude on his cause if he could help it.
That year also brought a sense of age on him, from the generosity of young women in high spirits, a few grandmothers who doted on the young and apparent homeless youth, and the sisters of rage who could never forget what pains had been inflicted on their families by or from different causes or reasons. The whole country had suffered, and much of it would continue to suffer at the hands of scoundrels, renegades, murderers, brigands, traitors, carpetbaggers and the raw cruelty observed from dawn to dusk that the war had loosed.
With such impacts, the revenge harbored in Kinaid Hickey never wavered in his journey, nor was it reduced by those he met on the way to its completion.
So it was, one evening in May of 1865, that Hickey was at the Three Borders Tavern in western Kentucky, after working for a month with his eyes on Quantrill’s band secreted in one of three different hideouts he had discovered. He entered into a conversation at the bar with a Quantrill man he had identified weeks earlier and who had been sent to wait at the tavern for three recruits promised to enlist in the cause.
The Quantrill man said to Hickey, each having a mug of beer, “You ain’t here looking for Bill, are you?”
“Don’t believe I know any Bills around here,” Hickey said, tipping his mug in salute to Bill, with his expression saying, “Whoever he is.”
“Oh, if you knew Bill, you wouldn’t forget him. A man for the cause.” He is mug was tipped in salute to the unidentified cause.
“A noble cause?” Hickey said in a soft voice.
“As noble as they come.”
Hickey leaned closer and said, as he tipped his mug again, “To Jeff and the boys,” and swallowed his drink in one gulp.
“Amen,” the Quantrill man said, and did the same. Then he added, “You wouldn’t be interested in lining up with Bill, would you?”
“I will, sometime down the road,” Hickey said, “soon as I get my parents buried properly. They were killed some miles apart last week and I’m waiting to get them together for all the proper ending. Least one can do for his parents.”
“I like the way you talk, son, so have another beer on me and Bill. I’ll be here next week before we move on, so I can talk to you again. I’m one of Bill’s lieutenants,” he said, seemingly as proud as a man could make it.
Hickey smiled, nodded, accepted the new drink and said, “Here’s to a new page in our history.”
“Amen,” the Quantrill man said, as if he believed in grace, goodwill and God. “I’ll catch up to you next time here.” He left the Three Borders Tavern without having met any new recruits.
Riding back to his own hiding place, Hickey knew he had a week to set in place a few ideas he had been entertaining. The timing seemed perfect, the area feasible, and his intentions in place. At his backside, tucked into his belt, the Scian Dubh was as stiff as his backbone. In his open hand he could feel the mythic handle hard in place. A muscle or two twitched in his arm and ran up to his shoulder.
Sleep that night, after the long ride, was restless all the way through, but visions of vengeance kept surfacing as if wakeful dreams were enacting his coming days. They brought mild satisfaction in spite of the moments of glory he envisioned.
But, as many things happen to destroy or distort dreams, vengeance, and justice, the sweep of the war made another entry into the short life of Kinaid Hickey. A Union force had decided to camp in the area. From a hidden lean-to he had discovered in a deep thicket, Hickey heard the troops in constant movement of early morning, before the sun was out of bed. And still in the gray darkness of morning he also heard the rider galloping down the road below him yelling all the way into the campsite.
“Hey, Captain,” the rider was yelling! “Hey, Captain! We found Quantrill! We found him! Sgt. Willoughby’s still there, keeping him under observation. He ain’t but a dozen miles from here and bivouacked like he ain’t going to move for a long spell.” He leapt off his horse and, with sudden realization, brought himself to attention and saluted his commanding officer rushing from his tent, snapping tunic buttons into place, slapping down his unruly hair.
The captain was not shaved or washed his face, but surprise gleamed on his countenance like a welcome entry. “How far, Corporal? How far did you say?”
“A dozen miles, sir. An easy ride, and he’s got fast water on his backside.”
“Like they was sleepwalking, sir. Like they never was trained to do anything the right way.” He came again to attention, as if he realized again the situation and his appearance before the commanding officer. “It couldn’t be no better, sir, according to Sgt. Willoughby, and he’s regular army, sir.”
Hickey had several immediate thoughts: he’d never get to avenge the death of his parents. Instead, the Union army would get to do the deed. And the second thought was his immediate need to get in with the Union force, to make his presence known, and then to carry out his original mission.
But he had to act quickly, and with conviction.
He washed his face and snapped his clothes as clean as he could so as not to look like a saddle tramp, saddled Star, and rode boldly into the campsite, announcing his way: “Friend coming in. Kinaid Hickey, last of Texas, with information on Quantrill’s raiders. I know their campsite. I know their campsite.”
“Halt in place!” a sentry yelled, and added, “Corporal of the Guard. Corporal of the Guard, a rider coming in with knowledge of Quantrill.”
The Corporal of the Guard led Hickey to the unit commander. “Says he knows Quantrill’s campsite, sir.”
“Bring him in, Corporal,” the captain said, “but keep your rifle on him.”
With speed and quick-thinking, Hickey told the captain of his short life, the loss of his parents, and the sworn vengeance still working in him.
“I’ve scouted the place for almost a week, sir. I know they don’t plan to move for at least a week. One of Quantrill’s lieutenants was looking for recruits at the Three Borders Tavern, and let much of that information loose of his tongue. There’s not a lot of camp discipline. They are a pretty loose bunch right now, enjoying some of the fruits of their thefts. Lots of liquor in camp from a recent raid, from what I can see.”
“What do you want of this, Hickey?” the captain said.
“Just to be in on it, sir. I could be a scout for you. They’ve got water at their backside and I don’t know why they camped there, except it’s deep in a heavy glade of trees. It’s as if they believe nobody can see them. If we get rid of a few sentries, we could walk in on them.”
“You know the look-outs’ locations?”
“Yes, sir. I can pinpoint them. They haven’t changed in a few days.”
“All right, son. You can go with us, but on your own. I take no responsibility for your safety, but I do want to get that man. Two of my men had relatives in Lawrence. You can sit in on our planning session. Add what you can. Go in with us, but in the rear after we take care of a few sentries.”
Kinaid Hickey snapped off a quick salute that made the veteran captain smile.
They were not far from Taylorsville when they attacked the campsite of William Quantrill and his men. Shots were fired after two sentries were knifed in silence.
Kinaid Hickey did not get off a shot at the desired target, though he recognized Quantrill’s horse and did kill that animal.
When Quantrill was taken off, severely wounded, to a hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, Hickey followed the entourage. A day later he introduced himself as an experienced orderly to the chief doctor who hired him.
That first night, after a full day’s work, Hickey slipped into the room where Quantrill was sleeping, his wounds bothering him and keeping him wide awake.
Kinaid Hickey, now not yet 16 years old, shook Quantrill, held the Scian Dubh under Quantrill’s throat, and said, “This one’s for you if you get any better, which I doubt very much, but it’s for my parents you killed in Bob’s Village, Texas before you came this way. I have followed you every mile of the passage and I will not be denied my revenge until I have killed you fair and square.”
It was early in the morning of June 6, 1865 when Hickey left the room, the infamous renegade still in agonizing pain.
Later that morning William Quantrill, killer extraordinary, Southern Hero and Northern Scourge, descending into his final sleep, died from wounds he had received near Taylorsville, Kentucky, a mask of fear across his face. Bob’s Village, Texas, for the record, held no place in his mind. Nor was there any satisfaction or avenge in Kinaid Hickey, who headed west again on his horse Star, toward freedom and dreams, the Scian Dubh hidden under his shirt, stuck in his belt at his backside, the Irish legacy moving on.
As had been his habit for more than a year, he kept practicing the fast-draw, his hands slick as ever, perhaps faster than ever. Kinaid Hickey had become, for all the matter, a magician with the fast-draw and he believed it should not go to waste; he might become a sheriff or a marshal, he thought; there was always that need, heading west and getting there.