Western Short Story
In my novel Gunman’s Legacy, one of the characters, Peter Dexter, says the following about the town of Red Sands, “It isn’t there anymore. There used to be five, six hundred folk living there, but towards the end of the war, the war eventually caught up with us. As you can imagine, by that period in the war things had got pretty dirty. There were bands of renegades riding up and down the country meting out mob justice as they saw fit. The generals had lost control of them.
“I guess it was true for both sides, but the rabble that rode into our town were Yankees, led by a young captain called Moss. He must have suffered some personal slight from the Rebels, because he was a rancorous bastard. He had all the men in town, most of us were nothing but boys, rounded up and put in stockades like we were prisoners of war. Moss was bad, but some of his men were worse, beating and whipping us to get any information they could about where the Rebels were hiding out. Saying we were spies and the like. Of course, we knew nothing, but that didn’t stop them from whipping us.
“There was one officer in particular, no more than a kid himself, who was a murderous son of a bitch. Farrell was his name. His eyes were pale as the sun-bleached sky and cold as ice. When he looked at you his pupils would shrink to pin pricks and his stare seemed to bore into you. He seemed to take an especial pleasure in his job.”
This is the story of what happened.
Peter Dexter breathed out slowly. The chest of the white-tailed deer obscured the view of the rugged landscape beyond the end of his barrel. When he was happy with his aim, he began to squeeze the trigger. The animal suddenly looked up and shifted quickly from his sight. Peter panned the barrel in the direction it had moved, only to find it bounding away up the scrubby slope.
“What the …?”
He felt Alan Nobel’s warm, dry palm rest on his shoulder.
“Soldiers,” Alan whispered, although there was no need to be cautious for they were quite alone on the slope above the town and the soldiers were some distance away, riding along the dry, stony valley floor, below them.
Peter lowered his rifle and glanced down the slope towards the dusty trail that led to Red Sands. A plume of rust-coloured dust trailed behind the troop as they galloped towards the town. A flag fluttered vigorously from a pole held by one of the cavalryman.
“Yankees,” murmured Peter. “Come,” he said rising, “let’s get back.”
Peter scampered down the slope. Alan limped as quickly as he could after him. Peter waited a number of times for Alan to catch up, but did not show any impatience, even when Alan apologised for delaying him. As Alan made his slower progress down the hill, Peter waited again and watched the troops enter the town, slow to a canter and then finally stop in front of Sheriff Stokes’ office.
An officer of medium height climbed stiffly from his horse and stepped towards the office. Sheriff Gregory Stokes opened the door and came out. They shook hands and a conversation ensued between them, which soon became animated. Sheriff Stokes quickly became agitated, pumping his arms up and down in exasperation. He thrust a finger into the chest of the officer and Peter could hear the thunderous anger in the sheriff’s voice as it drifted up to him.
“What’s he saying,” Alan asked, as he drew up beside Peter.
“Don’t know. I can’t hear heard him properly.”
At that moment the officer drew his gun and, pointing it at the sheriff, shouted an order. Two of his men dismounted and drew their carbines from their scabbards. Peter and Alan watched the ominous activity developing below them. The two soldiers stood in front of the sheriff with their rifles pointing at him. The officer faced his troops and shouted an order, some of which drifted up to Peter and Alan, “… and take what provisions you require.”
The horsemen broke rank and slowly trotted to different parts of the town. A good many rode directly to Joe’s Mercantile, where they dismounted, tied their horses to the hitching rail and marched nonchalantly into the store.
“I’m going to run ahead, Alan,” Peter explained. “Go home and warn your folks to hide their valuables and some of their provisions. Make sure they leave something for the Yankees to find.”
“Of course,” Alan responded.
“You should tell your sisters to hide.”
“That goes without saying,” Alan agreed.
“Good. See you later.”
Peter sprinted along the slope towards the higher, more affluent part of the town. Alan followed as quickly as he could. Peter darted between the large houses and towards the back of his own house. He leapt onto the back veranda and yanked the kitchen door open.
“Holy Mary!” shouted his mother, as she whirled around. A look of fright etched on her weary-looking features. “Peter!” she snapped, “What on earth are you charging around like that for? You scared me witless.”
“Sorry, mom.” He paused in his rush. “We need to hide everything of value,” he said quickly. “There are Yanks in town and they’re on the prowl.”
Samantha Dexter laughed sourly. “We have nothing of value left,” she said caustically.
“We still have father’s guns.”
He dashed from the kitchen and into his father’s study. He pulled open the gun cabinet and shouldered the three gun-belts, complete with pistols, and lifted the half dozen rifles and carbines from the rack. Holding them to his chest, he ran back though the house to the stable and disappeared inside it.
His mother watched him disappear. She shook her head and pursed her lips. “You should have let me sell them,” she muttered. “Now we’ll have to give them away for nothing.”
A dejected Joseph Harper watched the cavalrymen rummage indifferently thorough his merchandise. His initial resistance to their theft (they had called it commandeering) of his goods and his suggestion that he would call the sheriff had been met with gruff laughter and him being informed that the sheriff was already under arrest for being uncooperative. He had been advised not to interfere with Union Army business or he would find himself in the same situation. As a compromise, Joseph had asked for a credit note for all the goods they took. Their spokesman, who had introduced himself in a brusque, but civil manner, as Sargent Matthew Goodlet, had looked at him for a moment with an intrigued grin stretched across his face, but then he had nodded and agreed, saying, “You’ll have to keep a record of what we take.” He had swept his arm over his men. “None of this lot can write, and I’m not doing it.”
So now Joseph darted between the half dozen men, craning his neck and dancing from foot to foot, peering over their shoulders in order to see what they were taking, and scribbling the details in his little black note book.
The men took delight in examining items and then making as if to put them in their saddle bags, only to seemingly change their minds and replace them on the shelves. And then retrieve them and stuff them into their bags when the store-owner’s back was turned.
Joseph became increasingly flustered as he realised that he would not be able to record everything that the Yanks took. For a moment he felt tempted to call his wife, Helen, to help, but decided against it. She had disappeared into hiding the moment they had seen the soldiers arrive. He could not risk calling her out into the presence of these ruffians. He had heard too many stories about how women were being despicably treated at the hands of militia renegades who had started to roam the countryside. He would have to do the best he could for now, and ask if he could do a proper inventory of the contents of the men’s bags when they had finished.
At least these cavalrymen were behaving with some civility – for Yankees. They were not treating his merchandise with the care he would like, that much was true, but Joseph did get the sense that they were proper soldiers, just doing their job, not like the bunch of thugs that had visited Red Sands a few days previously. They had claimed to be Confederate soldiers, but it seemed to Joseph that they had been no more than a gang of outlaws. That the town had not been plundered and burnt to the ground and the women violated and the men killed, had been a pleasant, if inexplicable, surprise to Joseph. No doubt Ellis Turner, the town’s only surviving war veteran, had had some influence over their leader, a man called Willian Quantrill, but Joseph, and others, had come to the conclusion the town had survived because Quantrill saw the value of it as a future source of supplies. A little flurry of dread tickled the back of Joseph’s neck at the thought of Quantrill’s raiders returning to Red Sands. He quickly pushed the thought from his mind; he needed to focus on getting his inventory together.
An exclamation erupted from one of the Yankees. Joseph looked up from his little pad.
“Look what I found,” Private Dewitt Smith said, holding up a grey Confederate military cap. “A Johnny Rebel kepi.” He looked at Joseph. “Hey, Mister, is this yours?”
Joseph shook his head blankly.
“Where’d you find it?” Matthew Goodlet asked.
Dewitt pointed. “Just here, Sarge, behind these sacks of maize. You weren’t trying to hide it, were you, Mister. Trying to keep your allegiances secret?” He narrowed his eyes at Joseph. “You’re not a Rebel sympathiser, are you?”
Joseph shook his head vigorously. “No, no, of course not.”
“Of course he is,” retorted Matthew, “They all are, in this neck of the woods. Isn’t that so?” he asked as he advanced on Joseph. “It is yours, isn’t it?”
Joseph shook his head nervously. He sensed the atmosphere in his store had turned from indifference to something far more sinister.
“No it’s not. I have no idea who it belongs to.”
“So how did it get here, Mister?”
“I have no idea. Maybe someone dropped it there. Left it there by mistake.”
“Who might that have been, then? It certainly wasn’t us.”
Matthew tilted his head at the store-owner. “There were some Rebs here, weren’t there? How many? How long ago?”
Joseph’s hands started to tremble. He placed them by his side. His mouth felt dry. He went to speak, but seemed to be struck dumb with dread.
Matthew stepped into his personal space, their faces only inches apart. “I said, how many and when.”
“I don’t know. I mean I’m not sure. I did not have anything to do with them.”
“The sheriff? Did he deal with them?”
“No, he was away. He only got back yesterday.”
Joseph’s head seemed to vibrate in a rapid shaking motion. He closed his eyes tightly and took a quick, shallow breath.
“Peter Dexter,” Joseph stammered and regretted it immediately. “But, he’s just a boy. He wasn’t really in charge. Quantrill just seemed to take a shine to him,” he added quickly.
The silence in the room seemed to thud against Joseph’s eardrums.
“Did you say Quantrill?” Matthew’s voice cut through the air like ice. He looked directly into Joseph’s quavering eyes.
Joseph dipped his head quickly to avoid the gaze.
Joseph nodded quickly, wishing he was somewhere else.
“Holy shit!” Matthew said slowly. He turned to Dewitt. “Find Captain Moss,” he snapped. “Tell him we have some important intelligence for him.”
“Yes, Sargent.” Dewitt saluted and marched from the store.
Blast, Dewitt thought, running a calloused hand over his bristly chin in frustration. The store was always the best place to be in these situations. He always made sure he got that number when they came across a new town. It was the most lucrative place to be. He had only just started filling his saddle bag and if he did not get back quickly he would have virtually nothing to sell to the other troopers once they were back on the road. Some other git would get his hands on the best stuff, probably that lowdown Simon Watkins; he was always trying to corner the market on supplies to the men. Watkins would have to have a serious accident one of these days, Dewitt concluded. And how the hell am I supposed to find Captain bloody Moss, he thought bitterly. He would be off looking for some high-society wench to socialise with. Hell, the man was a snob. This was a fair-sized town. It could take ages to find the house in which the captain had ensconced himself. Sod that, Dewitt concluded, I need to get back to the store, before Watkins empties it. I’ll go to the sheriff’s office. Lieutenant Farrell will probably be there. I’ll tell him what Sargent Goodlet said and get back into the store sharpish, before the lieutenant tries to get me looking for the captain.
Captain Randolph Moss halted in front of the house. The edifice stood in what appeared to be the more respectable part of town, and that was, of course, his reason for being here. Before him stood a substantial dwelling, certainly one of the larger ones in the area. It seemed to have been well maintained in the past, although the exterior paintwork now looked rather tired. Randolph studied the neighbouring houses. They all had the same unkempt appearance. During his walk through the town, Randolph had the distinct impression that there was a lack of male inhabitants in the town. Whenever he and his troop entered a town, it usually transpired that the women, especially those of higher breeding, would secrete themselves away. But the townsmen would normally come out to make themselves known, even if for no other reason than to let his troops know that they there to protect the honour of the ladies. But other than the sheriff, he had not seen any other men. They, he assumed, were all off fighting the war. That would also explain the shabby appearance of the houses. There was no one around to maintain them. He looked back at the house in front of him. Of all the houses in the street, this one appealed to him the most. Despite its veneer of shabbiness, there was something about it; an elegance that indicated a certain dignity of those who inhabited it. He glanced over his shoulder at the two privates that had been following him.
“Wait here,” he ordered.
He walked towards the house and stepped up to the veranda. Taking hold of the tarnished brass knocker, he knocked firmly on the door and waited a moment. As he raised his fist to knock again, he heard the fall of booted feet on wooden floor boards. He stepped back and turned slightly, in order that the first sight of him would be in three-quarter profile. He stood tall and erect and stared into the middle distance. He assumed the door would be opened by a negro man-servant but, nevertheless, first impressions counted. The door opened wide and with confidence. Randolph turned his eyes towards the door.
“Oh!” he said to the white youth standing in the doorway.
“Can I help you?” Peter asked.
“Good day to you sir. I was wondering if I might speak to the man of the house?”
A pregnant pause swelled between the two men.
Randolph stepped forward, abruptly, and, smartly, extended a hand in greeting.
“May I introduce myself? My name is Captain Randolph Edgar Moss, United States Army.”
Peter looked at him. “And?”
“Ah!” Moss pursed his lips. His hand hovered uncertainly, and then fell to his side. “Whenever I enter a town I like to acquaint myself with the local dignitaries. I assume,” he continued smoothly and swept his arm around the veranda, “this house belongs to such a person.” He looked meaningfully at Peter. “Is your father in?”
“Oh!” said Randolph, somewhat taken aback by the blunt nature of this young man. “And who might you be?” he tried.
“The owner of this house.”
“Now look here, sir, I am trying my utmost to be civil with you. And you, in return, are being nothing less than impertinent. Should I wish, I could commandeer this dwelling and turf you out by your ear. Either invite me in, or suffer the consequences.”
Peter narrowed his eyes at the irritated officer. Then he stepped back to allow the man in.
At the sound of footsteps coming down the hall, Samantha Dexter called out, “Who is it, dear?”
“Your wife?” Randolph asked over his shoulder.
Randolph removed his wide brimmed hat as he entered the kitchen.
“Oh!” Samantha exclaimed.
Randolph hesitated for a moment as he took in the tall, slim woman standing on the other side of the table. Her simple, red dress set off the wave of her auburn hair to perfection. Her dark eyes seemed to sparkle at him from beneath manicured brows. High cheek bones framed a straight, elegant nose, that directed his gaze to a mirthful, red-lipped mouth. The lines on either side of her mouth and radiating from the corners of her eyes suggested someone a little older than himself. The lines also suggested someone for whom life had been difficult, sorrowful even.
“Good day to you, ma’am.” Randolph bowed elegantly. “I am Captain Randolph Moss, commander of the unit that has just ridden into your delightful town.”
He stepped smartly around the table, lifted her long-fingered hand. It felt cool and dry and soft. He brushed his lips across her small, feminine knuckles.
Samantha tilted her head in greeting. “Mrs Samantha Dexter. Would you like something to drink, sir?”
“He’s not staying,” Peter declared.
“A cup of tea would be most welcome, ma’am. One could die of thirst after a long day’s riding.”
“I’ll set the pot on the stove.”
“Oh, ma’am, please do not put yourself out for me. Surely you have someone …”
“No,” Samantha said lightly, to hide her embarrassment, “We have no-one but ourselves. The war has been very hard on us.”
“In that case, I could not impose myself on you. I do apologise for any embarrassment I may have caused you.”
“There is none,” said Peter curtly. “May I show you out?”
“You have a very willful son, if you do not mind me saying so, ma’am.”
Samantha smiled wanly at the handsome officer.
“Good day to you ma’am, until next time.”
“Good day, sir,” she responded.
Peter glared at his mother and stood back to allow the officer to pass down the hallway.
Randolph pushed the front door open and, without a backwards look, pulled his hat back on and walked to his men. They snapped to attention. In a tight, low voice, he said, “Find out everything you can about the woman who lives in that house and every detail you can about her son.”
“Yes, sir,” they responded as he walked passed them. They fell in behind them.
Peter watched the three men march down the dusty street. He pulled the door shut and stalked down the hall into the kitchen. His mother had put the pot onto the stove.
“What were you up to?” he demanded.
“Whatever do you mean?”
“Behaving like a coy debutant towards that man.”
“I did not,” she responded hotly. “I was simply being civil. At the moment, that man is the most powerful individual in town. It would do us well for you also to treat him civilly. Until he leaves, what he says goes and he has an army behind him to enforce whatever he desires. And who do we have?” She looked at him firmly. “A cripple, an invalid, an ineffectual sheriff, a few old men and you. You are the only one who might be able to stand up to them and what can you do against so many? They …”
“Alan may be a cripple, but he’s intelligent and a good shot. We could …”
“Do not even think of it!” Samantha stormed. “This God-forsaken war has already taken my husband and five of my sons. You are all I have left. I will not have you doing something stupid. I refuse to lose you as well. Do you hear me?”
Peter looked down at the floor.
“Do you hear me?” Samantha repeated, her anxiety making her sound angry.
She flung her arms around his neck. “Please Peter. Please don’t do anything stupid,” she pressed him quietly.
He wrapped his arms around her, but did not respond.
“Promise me. Promise me you won’t.”
He tightened his arms around her. “I promise,” he said quietly.
Lieutenant Sebastian Farrell looked at the anxious storekeeper and nodded slowly. “That is interesting,” he said, “Very interesting.” He threw a look at Dewitt Smith. “Find the captain,” he ordered.
“Yes, sir!” Dewitt saluted. He turned and walked from the store. What was it with his luck today? Everyone seemed to be picking on him. He had seen the supercilious grin that Watkins had cast in his direction as he left the store. Was Watkins somehow influencing who got to do the messaging today, making sure it wasn’t him. He wouldn’t put it past the sly bastard. With him being on the hunt for the elusive captain, his chances of making any inroads into the merchandise in the store were fast diminishing, while that conniving little shit, Watkins, would be filling his pockets. He scowled furiously, his mind so full of thoughts about how to reverse his predicament that, as he rounded a corner, he nearly bumped into Captain Moss.
“Whoa, soldier. You need to watch where you’re going.”
Dewitt snapped to attention. “Sorry, Sir,” he saluted.
Moss returned a derisory salute.
“Sir, Lieutenant Farrell has requested you join him in Joe’s Mercantile. We’ve had some information about William Quantrill.”
Randolph raised his eyebrows. “Really? Has he been here?” he asked as the two of them walked back to the store.
“It seems he has, sir.”
Randolph looked around the town and frowned. “There’s no evidence that he’s been here. No signs of the place being burnt down, people murdered.”
They stepped up to the boardwalk in front of the store.
“No, that’s correct, sir. Lieutenant Farrell had the same thought.”
“Hmm,” Randolph pondered as he entered the store.
“Attention!” Sargent Goodlet called.
Randolph returned the salutes. “Lieutenant, I hear that William Quantrill has been in town.”
“So we believe, sir. The storekeeper, Mr Harper, has told us they were here a couple of days ago.”
Joseph nodded anxiously. “But that’s all I know about them,” he said, quickly. “I had very little to do with them. Some of them came into my store for supplies, but it was Peter Dexter and Alan Noble that did most of the dealings with them.”
“Peter Dexter? Samantha Dexter’s son?”
Sebastian could not resist a wry grin. So the Captain had already made an acquaintance with some of the ladies in the town and, as usual, it seemed he had found the most prominent citizens to be acquainted with.
Joseph gave the captain a quizzical look. “You know them?”
“I’ve only just met them. Her son seems to be a disagreeable character.”
“He’s a very fine young man. He’s got a good head on his young shoulders. He takes after his father.”
“Why would someone so young be left to deal with Quantrill’s raiders? Is there no one of a more mature bearing that could have taken on that role?”
“Not really. The sheriff was away. Virtually all the men of the town have been lost in the war. There are only us old fellows left. Peter’s father was the town lawyer, a very intelligent and upstanding man. Alan’s father was the town judge. Both have died. As the sons of two of the most prominent men in the town, the role of town representative seems to naturally fall on their shoulders, at least when the sheriff’s away.”
“Fetch these two men,” Randolph ordered, “Take them to the sheriff’s office.”
“Sargent,” said Sebastian.
“Sir,” Matthew saluted. “Dewitt, Watkins, come with me.”
As he headed for the door, Randolph held up a hand. “Wait a minute, Sargent.”
Randolph thought for a moment. “Gather every man in town, including the sheriff, and intern them in the livery stable, even better in the corral, which I assume will be behind the stable. I can’t have anyone sneaking off to warn Quantrill and his bandits that we are here.”
“Captain, I can assure you that no-one …,” Joseph started.
“I can’t take the risk,” Randolph interrupted. “Carry on, Sargent.”
“And take him with you.” Randolph nodded at Joseph.
“What? There’s no need for that, Captain. I won’t do anything rash.”
Matthew took Joseph by the arm and pulled him from the officer.
“Let me go! There is no need for this!”
Matthew pursed his lips in irritation and, grasping the storekeeper’s arm in a vice-like grip, forced him from the building.
Ignoring the continued imploring from the storekeeper, Randolph turned to his lieutenant. “It is strange that Quantrill did not burn this place to the ground.”
Sebastian nodded. “Not his style at all, to leave a town he visited unscathed.”
“Even towns that have co-operated with him usually suffer some damage. So, in my mind, that can only mean one thing.”
Sebastian looked at him expectantly.
“That he plans to come back.”
Sebastian nodded slowly. “That sounds very plausible.”
“Therefore, get rid of all signs that we’re in town. I want the horses hidden inside stables and the men to be billeted in strategically located buildings around the town square and along any routes into of town. I want men on the hill above Red Sands to keep a look out for Quantrill, in case he does decide to return. I want to know if he’s coming back, before he even knows himself. Any questions?”
“Good. As soon as that’s organised, meet me in the sheriff’s office.”
“Yes, sir,” Sebastian saluted. He left the store.
Randolph followed a moment later, deep in thought.
Randolph looked up as the door to the sheriff’s office opened. A trooper walked in, followed by Alan Noble and Peter Dexter and two further escorts. Randolph pointed at a bunch of keys on the desk in front of him and then at Alan.
“Put him in one of the cells. You,” he jabbed a finger in Peter’s direction, “sit.” He pointed to a chair positioned a few feet from the front of the sheriff’s desk.
Alan threw a perturbed look over his shoulder at Peter as the troopers bundled him to the back of the building. Peter frowned at him. He sat in the chair. He looked briefly at an officer sat in a corner of the room. He had tilted his chair back so that he leant against the wall as he nonchalantly scraped dirt from under a finger nail with a knife. He seemed disinterested in Alan and Peter. Peter turned to stare at the captain on the other side of the desk.
“What’s this all about?” he asked, an edge of irritation in his voice.
“I think you know.”
Peter shrugged. “I’m not a mind reader,” he retorted.
“But you are an impertinent young bastard.”
Peter frowned. This arrogant officer did not seem much older than himself. He remained silent.
Randolph gave a resigned sigh. “Okay, it’s about William Quantrill.”
“What about him?”
“I hear he’s been in town.”
Peter nodded. It seemed pointless to deny it.
“You didn’t think to inform me about this?”
“You didn’t ask, until now.”
“A gang of confederate outlaws has visited your town, only days ago, and you didn’t think it advisable to inform me?”
“Why should I? Texas is not part of the Union.”
“The war is almost over. Texas is part of the Union, in all senses worth considering.”
“But not yet.”
“So I was correct in my assumption that you, and everyone else in Red Sands, are confederate sympathisers.”
Peter scowled and shook his head. “No. We simply want to be left alone.”
Randolph laughed. “The rest of the world is being torn apart and you want to be left alone.”
“We’ve had our fair share of this war, I can assure you. We lost almost all of our men at Sharpsburg.”
“I see that does not include you?” Sebastian said sarcastically from the corner.
Peter turned and glared at him. “No, but it did include my father and five of my brothers.”
“So, Willian Quantrill,” said Randolph. “Why did he not burn down your town?”
“How would I know?”
“You were the main point of contact with him. You must have discussed it with him. Pleaded your case, that he preserve the town.”
“Yes, of course. We both did.”
Damn, thought Peter. “Me and Alan, although I did most of the talking. But if Quantrill had wanted to burn the place down, he would have done so, regardless of what I said.”
Randolph stared at him, with unexpectedly doe-like, brown eyes. The sort, Peter thought, that might melt a woman’s heart.
“So you have no idea where he is?”
“Bull-shit!” Randolph slammed his palm on the table, the sudden action made Peter jump. Randolph stood up and strode around the table. He slapped Peter violently across the cheek. Peter clasped his hand to the stinging side of his face and looked at the officer in complete surprise. Randolph glared down at him, his eyes now glowing with fury. He stabbed Peter in the chest with a hard finger.
“William Quantrill is a murderous thug. He would not have left this town without burning it to the ground unless you conjured up some deal with him.”
The crack of a vicious slap reverberated around the room.
“Jesus!” Peter yelled, in shocked pain.
The hand whipped across his face again and again and again. Peter raised his arms and cowered beneath them. The onslaught stopped.
“I knew he was a coward,” observed Sebastian, scathingly.
Peter leapt up, his fist flying through the air. Randolph threw up a protective arm. Peter’s fist flew harmlessly to one side. A hard knuckled fist smashed into his face. He staggered and dropped to his knees, his face in his hands. Blood trickled from between his fingers. The three troopers lining the walls had not moved a muscle. There was no need. They had seen this all before. They knew the routine.
Sebastian dropped the front legs of his chair onto the floor and stood up. He strolled over to Peter and squatted beside him. He took a handful of thick, dark hair and pulled Peter’s head back.
“Not only are you a coward, but you’re also a fool, a cowardly fool. Now you listen to me. You will tell Captain Moss what he wants to know. You can either tell him now, or later, but I would recommend now. You see Captain Moss has a foul temper, but me,” he drew Peter’s head back further, “I’m just vindictive. And if you don’t speak now, you will speak later, of that I can assure you.”
Peter glared at Sebastian. The Yankee’s eyes were ice blue and the pupils reduced to pin pricks. “I have nothing to tell you, so you’ll have to do your worst, Yankee bastard.”
Sebastian shoved Peter away. He stood up and gesticulated to the guards. “Take him to the others in the corral and fetch the cripple,” he ordered.
The dying sun’s last golden rays bathed the tips of the rugged hill behind Red Sands as his escort secured Peter to a fence-post in the corral behind the livery stable. The men tied to the other posts watched in silence as the soldiers secured Peter’s hands tightly behind his back. After making sure that Peter would not be able to escape, the soldiers walked back to join their colleagues loitering beside the tall wooden sides of the stable.
“Do you know what this is all about?” asked Ellis Turner from the post some four feet to Peter’s right.
“Yep, I thought it might be,” said Ellis, resignedly. “Quantrill might be a Rebel and on our side, but he’s a complete bloody arsehole. I knew he would cause us trouble as soon as he appeared in town, but I didn’t think it would happen after he left. I was amazed that he and his gang of desperados caused so little damage to the town, none in fact. But I suppose trouble follows his sort as day follows night.” He shifted a little to ease the discomfort in his scarred leg.
“You okay?” Peter asked.
“I’ll be fine. Wounds playing up a little. They were a bit heavy handed with us when they brought us here; that set it off.”
“Yeah, they were heavy handed with me as well.”
“You seen Alan?”
“Uh-huh, he’s in the sheriff’s office. They got bored talking to me. So they were going to try him next.”
“What are they after?”
“Information about where Quantrill’s gone.”
“That’s crazy, why would we know?”
“Tell me about it.”
“Hopefully they’ll get to believe us before they hurt too many people.”
“Let’s hope so.”
Ellis did not respond.
Peter turned from him and looked up at the hills where, just that afternoon, he and Alan had been hunting. It had been another blissful day, with time to forget all the woes that the war has caused the townsfolk. He pushed the nostalgic thoughts from his mind. They would serve no purpose in his current situation. It could have been worse. At least the Yanks had not rampaged through the town. The town was still standing, for now, at least. “I thought we’d got away with it,” he murmured.
“What was that?” asked Ellis.
“I was just thinking that we almost got away with it, you know not being entirely consumed by the war.” He looked across to Ellis. He seemed to be little more than a dark shadow in the increasing gloom. “I’m sorry, Ellis, that came out wrong. I mean the town. At least we still have our homes.”
“I know what you mean, son,” Ellis said softly. “We may have lost most of our men during the war, but, terrible as that is, I’ve seen a lot worse. Whole towns burnt to the ground, hordes of destitute women, children and old men trudging through the countryside with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.” He shook his head, sorrowfully. “I’ve got some horrific memories of the aftermaths of battle fields and the destruction during them. But I reckon the sight of those women, the anguish in their faces, that’s what will live with me forever. So, you’re right, we did almost get away with it, in that respect. And we may still, although with all these gangs of brigands riding round it’s going to get difficult for a while. I suppose we just have to hope the Rebel generals now realise they cannot win the war and come to some acceptable agreement of surrender, sooner rather than later.”
Movement behind them cut their conversation short. Peter twisted around and saw a trooper walking towards the corral, holding a burning torch. Others were following, but they were not lit by the fire brand, and Peter could not work out how many there were. They strode though the open gate to the centre of the pen. Peter now realised there were two men following the torch bearer and they held a slumped body between them. The booted toes of their burden scoured furrows into the soft, red earth.
“Alan?” Peter said, more to himself.
They dumped the man on the ground, turned and left.
“Alan!” Peter shouted. “Alan!” Peter writhed against the cords binding his wrists. “Alan, are you alright?” he shouted again. The rough rope cut into his wrists as he fought against the binding. “Alan, can you hear me?” he yelled. He fell back against the post. A sob burst from his throat. “Oh Jesus! Please help him.”
It rained that night, in torrents. Alan stirred and moaned and one of the guards walked over to him and threw a slicker over his body, but by then Alan was already soaked to the skin. Peter did not see him move again that night.
Randolph stared into his glass of whiskey. The rain beat like a drummer on the wooden shingles on the roof of the sheriff’s office, the noise only serving to add to his melancholic mood. Neither of the boys had told them anything useful about the whereabouts of Quantrill. Admittedly, they had not pressed Peter Dexter that hard, but even the other one had not provided them with anything of any use. He was increasingly of the mind that they did not actually know anything and now this rain would wash away any trail Quantrill might have left behind. Randolph tutted in frustration, this could be his opportunity, but if he was not careful it could slip through his fingers.
Damn! How he hated being pushed to the margins of army life like this. He came from a very important and influential family, for God’s sake; his father had been a congressman and a close friend and confidant of the President. He grunted to himself. It just went to show how politics was rife in the army, as it was in all other aspects of life.
He had passed through West Point with flying colours and had subsequently done extremely well, reaching the rank of captain in no time at all. Then the unfortunate incident had occurred. Randolph shook his head briefly to shake the memory from his mind, but he could not dislodge it. It could have happened to anyone, damn it. It had just been one of those unfortunate situations that happened, every now and then, during war. He really was not to blame. He pursed his lips. There always seemed to be someone who wanted to drag you down, always someone jealous of those better than themselves. He remembered the pointed mutterings, the sideways looks. He had had a long and detailed conversation with his father about the incident. His father had reassured him with comforting words and the promise that he would talk to the President and make sure that he knew the full story. ‘Don’t worry, son,’ he had said, ‘your illustrious career as an officer and gentleman will continue unabated. I’ll make sure of that’.
But his father had never had that conversation. He had died from a heart attack the following morning. And his enemies had reacted quickly – it seemed as if they had been waiting for his father’s death, preparing for it. From being in the very centre of the action, he was suddenly posted to leading a gang of ruffians around the margins of the war; riding from one God-forsaken little town to another, with nothing more important to do than scare a few women and old men.
But Quantrill offered him the chance to break the cycle. If he captured that murderous bastard he would be the hero of the moment. He would be allowed back into mainstream society and would no longer have to socialise with the wives of small-town lawyers and judges. But to achieve that, he needed the information about where that bloody Johnny Rebel had gone. He took a sip of whiskey and savoured the warm glow as it ran down his throat.
For some reason Lieutenant Farrell seemed to be of the view that the two boys did know something about where Quantrill might be found. Randolph frowned. Now that the rain will have washed away any sign of which direction Quantrill had ridden, the two boys were his only chance. He took his watch from a pocket in his tunic and studied its face. Farrell would probably be asleep. Sod him. This is important. He looked up at the guard standing at the door.
“Fetch Lieutenant Farrell,” he ordered.
“Yes, sir,” he saluted. He pulled the door open. Cold, wet air rushed into the office as he stepped out.
Samantha knelt beside her son, under the close scrutiny of a Yankee guard. There would be no opportunity for her to covertly pass to Peter the gun or the knife that she had secreted under her skirts. The Yankees had obviously done this before. They were only letting two or three of the town’s women into the corral at a time, and a guard escorted each woman vigilantly around the corral. Samantha could hear Vivian Noble simpering over her son.
The first thing Samantha had done, after throwing a glance across to her own son to check that he was alive, was to help Vivian with Alan. He lay, still as a corpse, in the warming sun, surrounded by the vapours of a funereal steam that rose from the damp ground, drawn up into the air by the increasingly hot sun. The women had not been allowed to attend to their men until the sun was well up so that the suspicious guards could watch their every move. Vivian had rushed towards her badly beaten son and had cried out in relief when she had discovered he was alive. But when she had reached out to take her son to her chest the guard had warned her not to touch him. She had ignored him and now hugged her battered son to her chest. The guard had hunkered down in front of her and watched her hands.
Samantha gently touched the angry bruise on the side of Peter’s face as he chewed on the food she had given him.
“Does it hurt?”
He shook his head. He looked beyond her at the rocking shapes of Vivian and her son.
“What do they want?” she asked, she voice soft, but edged with anxiety.
“Information about Quantrill and his gang of outlaws.”
“Hopefully Alan told them.”
“Told them what?” he snapped at her, unintentionally.
She flinched at the anger in his voice.
His look softened. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sound angry, but we do not know anything. Why on earth would Quantrill confide his plans to us? It makes no sense.”
His mother forlornly shrugged her shoulders. His eyes flitted from her face towards the entrance of the corral to where Lieutenant Farrell strode into the enclosure. He held what looked like a broom handle at his side. His arms looked rigid and tense and his grasp of the handle aggressive and uncompromising.
“Get the women into the stable,” Sebastian ordered. “Find a wagon or cart and bring it into the corral.”
The guards took the women by their arms and pulled them away from their menfolk. Vivian let out a wail as the soldiers hauled her roughly from her injured son. Other soldiers dragged a large-wheeled cart into the corral. Sebastian, pointing with the wooden pole, directed them to place it in the centre of the corral, beside Alan.
“Tie him to it.”
He walked over to Peter and crouched in front of him, supporting his weight with the pole. His clear blue eyes settled on the young man. Peter glared back at him.
“Either you know something, or you don’t.”
“We don’t. That’s the honest truth.”
Sebastian’s eyes narrowed like those of a lynx watching its prey. His pupils contracted to pin points of black. “Either way we will find out.” He stood up and walked to the centre of the corral. He stared at Alan’s back. The youth was secured to the large wheel by his wrists and ankles. He rested his forehead against the metal-edged rim. Sebastian ran the end of the broom handle across the toned muscles. He saw Alan’s back tighten in anticipation. He turned back to Peter. “It’s up to you, Peter Dexter. Your friend denied everything. Now it’s your chance to tell us.” He whipped the pole across Alan’s back.
Alan shrieked in pain and surprise. From the stable, a keening wail split the air.
“I’m okay, ma” Alan shouted. “I’m okay!”
The wail continued.
Peter bowed his head and closed his eyes as tightly as he could to cut the sound from his senses. He heard another thwack, followed by a stifled growl of pain. Another thwack and another stifled growl. With the next strike something cracked. Peter looked up.
Sebastian was standing and examining, with a disgusted look on his face, the snapped broom stick. He tossed it aside. “Get me something stronger,” he demanded.
Sebastian slowly paced around the corral perimeter, pausing to look at each of the men tied to the fence-posts. They all bowed their heads under his scrutiny.
As he passed Ellis Turner, the man called out, “Hey Lieutenant.”
Sebastian stopped. Ellis held his gaze.
“We really don’t know anything.”
“I do,” said Peter.
The two men looked at him. Ellis gave a minute shake of his head.
“They’ve gone to Oregon City.”
Sebastian paced over to Peter and stood over him. As he went to speak an approaching trooper distracted him.
“Sir.” The soldier offered him an axe handle.
Sebastian took it and bounced it in his hand. “They’ve gone to Oregon City?”
Peter saw a shift in the blue stare.
“Well, that wasn’t so difficult was it?”
Peter let his head drop to his chest.
“Shame it’s a lie.”
Peter snapped his head up.
Sebastian had already turned on his heel and was stomping back to Alan. He walked with long angry strides. The axe handle hung loosely in his hand. As he stepped up to the cart, he lifted the handle in a sweeping arc and brought it down on Alan’s shoulder. Alan howled in pain. The shoulder slumped and did not return to its normal position. An ear-splitting shriek of anguish burst from the stable. It ran on and on, renting the air and cutting into Peter’s eardrums.
Sebastian swung around towards Peter. “Do you know how I know it’s a lie,” he yelled above the keening of Alan’s mother. “Because we’ve just come from Oregon City and guess what? Quantrill wasn’t there! So try again, Peter Dexter. Try and tell the truth.” He swung around and crunched the axe handle into Alan’s side. Alan howled in agony. “Try again!” Sebastian shouted.
Peter dropped his head. His eyes moistened. “We don’t know,” he muttered.
“What did you say! I didn’t hear you!”
“We don’t know!” he screamed.
Sebastian turned to Alan and grabbing a fistful of fair hair pulled his head back.
“Did you hear that? He says you don’t know.”
Alan twisted his head to stare at Sebastian from swollen eyes.
“Like I said, Yankee bastard, we don’t.”
Then Alan spat. A glob of phlegm, blood and mucus dragged up from the depth of his guts flew through the air and plastered itself over Sebastian’s face.
Sebastian jolted back. He dragged his hand across his face and flicked the glutinous phlegm from his fingers. He spat the disgusting stuff from his mouth. In a fury he swung the axe handle at Alan. It arced viciously through the air and struck the crown of Alan’s skull with a sickening crunch. Alan’s head lurched forward and then recoiled back from its thudding impact with the wheel. He did not utter a sound. His body simply slumped down and hung, lifeless, against the wheel of the cart.
A deathly silence hung over the corral, broken only by the distant-sounding sobs of anguish that escaped from the barn.
Sebastian stared at Alan’s limp form for a moment. “Shit!” he said. He tossed the axe handle aside and marched from the corral towards the sheriff’s office.
“Well?” asked Captain Moss, as Sebastian strode into the office.
“They don’t know anything,” Sebastian declared.
Randolph stood up. “Then we must get on, before we lose any more time. I want to be out of this place in an hour.”
“I think we should burn the place down,” said Sebastian.
Randolph looked at him, askance.
“Quantrill is likely to come back here. And we shouldn’t leave him any supplies, anything that can be of use to him. We should take what we need and burn the rest.”
Randolph looked at him. It would make no difference to society if this town disappeared, but it might scupper his chances of catching Quantrill if it stayed. He shrugged. “Do what you need to,” he said.
Peter Dexter stood at the foot of the grave with his head bowed in silent contemplation. After a few moments he looked up and studied the words on the cross.
“Bye Alan,” he murmured.
With a sigh, he turned and walked out of the cemetery. He untied his horse, a gift from Alan’s mother, and led it down into town. He walked down Main Street, now lined with the black, skeletal remains of the once vibrant shops of Red Sands. On his left, the enormous-feeling gap, where the livery stable had once stood, was now a tangle of blackened wood and ash. Ahead of him a unit of the Confederate Army waited impatiently, ready to ride. Between them and himself, he could see his mother watching him, her shoulders slumped and her hand holding a handkerchief to her face. Joseph harper stood beside her, supporting her with a caring arm around her shoulders. Off to the side, Peter noted Joseph’s wagon, loaded with his remaining possessions and also those of his mother. She stepped forward as he approached. He stopped before her. She looked at him through tearful eyes.
“Do you have to go?” she asked plaintively.
He tightened his lips and nodded slowly.
She flung her arms around his neck. “Oh, Peter, you are my last son. Please be careful.”
“I will, mom. I will survive the war. It’s almost over. I’ll probably not even see a battle.”
“I hope so,” she said softly into his ear. “I hope so.”
He drew back, keeping contact with her elbows and kissed her forehead.
“Love you, ma. I will see you again. I know it. I can feel it.”
She smiled wanly at him, her soft hands resting on his forearms. “I feel it as well.” She stepped back to let him pass.
Joseph stepped forward offering something to Peter.
Peter took it. It was a grey Confederate kepi.
“It’s what started all the trouble that ended in this.” Joseph swept his arm over the ruins of Red Sands. “They found it in my store. It set them off on their path of destroying the town. I want you to have it, so that it reminds you of what those Yankee bastards did to us – what they did to Alan. And if you ever come across that son-of-a-bitch lieutenant again, make sure you avenge Alan and us.”
Peter nodded quietly. He dragged the kepi onto his head. “Thank you.” He extended his hand.
Joseph took it in a warm clasp, like that of a proud uncle.
“Thank you for helping my mother out. I’m pleased that it is you that is chaperoning her to her sister. I know you will take care of her for me.” He tightened his grip for a moment and then released it. He stepped to the side of his horse and vaulted onto it. He tipped the peak of his kepi at them and then spurred his horse. It gave a little leap forward in anticipation of joining the waiting horses.
“Forward,” the officer ordered with a sweep of his hand.
As Peter joined the rear of the horsemen, he turned and gave his mother one final wave. Then he turned and trotted out of Red Sands, forever.