On the road to Jefferson City, Missouri, and I'm feeling really tired. The War is only three months gone. It's hard to explain what's going on here . . . what I see, how things look . . . but I'll try.
* * *
The road is muddy and crowded, and somehow things are gay and grim at the same time. Everything in Missouri is that way . . . opposites, contradictions, love mixed with hate, mercy mixed with revenge, tenderness mixed with murder.
But looking back, how could it be otherwise?
Missouri was a slave state that didn't want to leave the Union, but didn't want to fight for it either. So the government just declared itself neutral. All in all, that seemed like a reasonable thing to do.
Old Abe didn't like it, though, so he branded the governor and legislature as traitors, and sent in a Union Army to invade.
And when that Army arrived, everyone and I mean everyone was forced to choose sides, and half went one way and half the other, and it was not just cousin against cousin like back East, but brother against brother. Some wore blue and some wore gray. Some had uniforms and some just farm clothes. Some went East to the armies of the juggernauts, and some stayed home to fight in clans . . . burning and killing, living in woods and hideouts, for four long years.
And then, all at once, just like that, it was over. Or it was suppose to be. Lee surrendered in Virginia, a Yankee government was installed in Jefferson City, martial law was lifted, and in a just couple of months, the Union Army withdrew.
And now, here I am, on this muddy road, three miles east of town.
It's late afternoon, and the road is full of men, returning from a hundred battlefields, all just trying to get home. Some ride, some walk . . . many limp. There's no order to it, just little clusters or rather clots of men traveling together in threes or fours, with small polite distances between the groups so they needn't brush against or talk to each another. They speak in that low, earnest, male tone that is never lavished on women or children but reserved instead for respectful talk among men who've shared in some great contest that somehow defines them.
Taken together, the mass offends the eye. An undulating thing of clashing colors and filthy tones that ripples like a muscle as it walks slowly along . . . deep blue with stained yellow stripes, butternut brown with black or red piping, sweat-rotted cloth that may have started out white but for which no name can now describe, dingy rolls of bandages tied as if by children around limbs or over stumps.
And the hats . . . of every conceivable shade and style. A few look new and crisp, as if issued yesterday, but most are odd rumpled things, having been used to carry water or staunch wounds for years on end.
The men in blue seem happy, at least those with all of their limbs. But none brag or strut, for they know that they lost more battles than they ever won, and it was just pure luck they weren't ripped clean through by a rebel rifle slug.
Those in butternut, or gray or brown, or the other hundred colors that came to be called Confederate, are sullen and ashamed. Not that they'd fought for a cause that might be unworthy . . . but that they had fought and lost. Most look down as they walk.
And yet here and now on this road, for this hour at least, all of the men are bound together by one simple truth: they're done with it, they've had enough, and they just want to go home.
As we near the city, the living thing perks a little. Humorous remarks about the upcoming food or card games or whores are tossed out and then carried up and down the line like warm drinks in Winter, and the men, all of them, laugh or guffaw or cat-call as the drinks are passed among them. And those in groups that recognize those in others, whether blue or gray, begin to call out names or nicknames to their old friends, and loudly tease "By God, I thought you was dead!"
The groups move closer now and mingle as they walk, and small fistfuls of plug tobacco, coffee, candy and sometimes even coins are dropped into open hands or into torn pockets with no need for trade, and phrases like "thanks Reb" and "thank-ya Yank" and "God bless ya friend" sprout forth along the roadside like small green buds on a long woody vine.
As we come closer to the city, I spur Nate to push ahead of the snaking crowd. It's late afternoon, warm and pleasant. The road bends and then spills abruptly into an open grassy field. Upon approach, I see a group of boys laughing and chucking rocks at some distant target, hidden from me by the bend of the path.
I smile, remembering such contests when I was a boy, wondering what row of glass bottles or stack of tin cans they assault, and anticipating an imminent crash or clatter as the rocks strike home. I may even pause to watch for a bit.
"Thunk." "Thwat." "Thud." That's what I hear.
Nate snorts loudly and balks, catching me off guard and jerking me forward in the saddle. I regain my seat and rein him in hard, forcing him to stand still. I'm into the field now and can see the whole clearing. The boys laugh louder and throw harder, happy with their prior hits. A faint creaking sound turns my gaze.
Forty paces in front of the boys is a large beam, a big log really, sitting atop two high posts. Three corpses dangle from it, hanging by the necks. Out of attempted civility, I suppose, somebody put old canvas bags over their heads, hiding the bugged lifeless eyes and bloated lolling tongues. The men sway slightly in their suspension, thick hemp ropes creaking in rhythm. Brown paper signs are pinned to their chests, each bearing neat black letters announcing "Horse Thief." Occasionally, the paper flutters in the wind with the sound of a small kite.
"Thwack!" Another rock strikes home. The boys cheer. "Thwat." Paper tears. Laughter.
I urge Nate to continue, and we ride onward, passing the boys to the rear. He remembers the smell of dead men and doesn't like it. One boy, about twelve, turns to see us, smiles, and gathers more stones.
The town is just ahead.
Jefferson City. The first thing I notice is color, lots of it. And pennants and ribbons. And music. It's confused, clashing, seemingly everywhere. People stand in batches, sit in batches, ride in batches. There's mud on everybody, their boots, trousers, hats even. No one seems to care.
The place is like a strange medieval fair. Strange because there are rickety tables and booths everywhere, with hawkers and con men selling everything imaginable—liquor, mules, candy, hats, cloth, women, paintings, underwear, perfume, guns, and toys. Stranger still because nobody is buying anything.
Hollow eyed and exhausted, the dirty clutches of men gather round the colorful stands and stare. That's all. Just stare.
Some seem asleep, others confused or dazed. Every now and then somebody smiles and leans forward, as if perhaps to buy. Momentarily confused by the ghost of who he use to be, he slides his hand into his grimy pocket for a coin, only to remember, as if in a flash, that now he has nothing and is nothing.
I'm tired and want no part of the crowd. It feels . . . unpredictable. I let Nate pick his way through the mess and keep going until we are on the other side of it. I need supplies and Nate needs grain.
I stop in front of a small dry goods store and tie Nate to a post. The saddlebags get slung over my shoulder. They carry the gold and my journal. I check the street again for danger and unconsciously finger the grip of my Colt Navy, loosening it from the creaking leather . . . making sure it will come out fast if I need it.
I turn to the store and there on the walkway is a lawman. I only can tell it from his star, because all in all, he doesn't look much better off than the folks in the crowd.
He gives me a hard level stare, and slowly shakes his head back and forth. His thumbs are hooked in his gun belt just above the buckle, but his right hand is close enough to his holster to draw.
This is bad, and my blood goes cold. Wanted posters and men hanging from ropes seem common in these parts, and surely he had mistaken me for an outlaw.
Suddenly, he senses my anxiety and now he too is afraid. I see it in his eyes. He purposely relaxes his body and lets his head and shoulders droop at little, as will a dog when it wants no fight.
"Relax Mister," he says. "I just wanted to say . . . don't leave it."
I do relax a little . . . but not too much. I'm confused.
"Leave what?" I ask.
He points to Nate and says, "Your rifle . . . the Sharps."
"Why," I ask.
"Cause just west of here, out in Kansas, there're buffalo. The railroad runs all the way to Kansas City now, so a man with a Sharps can make a living shooting buff instead of starvin'. There's folks here who will steal it off your pack, or even kill you for it."
"Thanks," I say, sorry now for my hostility. "I'll watch it."
He nods and moves on down the board walk, thumbs still in his belt.
I pull the big Sharps from its scabbard and heft it over my shoulder with the bags. All together they must weigh forty pounds.
The dry goods store has just about everything and the owner looks healthy and prosperous. The Yankee occupation here has been good for business. Hundreds of troops with regular Union pay. Now that they're pulling out, things may go bad for the merchants. He knows it.
I buy what I need. Bacon, beans, hard tack, jerky, coffee, flour, soap, sugar, candy, matches, a few candles, dried figs, powder, percussion caps, lead ball, and shot. He even has pre-made cartridges for the Sharps. I pay with a single gold coin from my vest pocket, making sure there is no one else in the store when I fish it out. He seems unsurprised. Again, the Yankees had gold.
"A word of advice, Mister," he says. "Change out some of your gold for silver coins. Silver don't attract near as much attention. Less likely to get you killed. You can do it right here. If you go down to the bank, folks will notice."
He's right. I change out twenty dollars into the smallest coins he has, and thank him.
I walk Nate down to the livery and tip extra. "I want him curried, combed, rubbed and fed. Get the farrier over here and scrape and trim his hooves. Reset the shoes, and be damned sure to use new nails. Give him some extra grain, but not too much. Then put him in a separate stall and let him sleep. I want him ready to go by tomorrow."
"Will do mister," the livery man says. "I've taken care of horses for lots of officers, both sides." He smiles and takes Nate.
I think about going into a bar for a drink, but the two in town look crowded and dangerous. I trust my war instincts. If something looks dangerous . . . it is.
So I start walking down the street, away from the downtown section, just looking and stretching. I need a bath and a really good meal, and sooner or later I'm going to have to find something.
In a little ways, the town buildings give way to white clapboard houses. This must be where the merchants, bankers and lawyers live, because the houses are well built and well kept.
Down the block I see a small boy on a tall stump in a front yard, just behind a white picket fence. A big tree must have stood there at one time, but has been neatly sawn away. I hear music, and wander on down to see. Hell, I was going in that direction anyway.
He's a thin boy, about 10 years old, with dark hair, dark eyes and pale white skin. He's singing, dancing up and down, and playing a harmonica, all badly and all at the same time.
"Camptown races sing this song, Doo-Dah, Doo-Dah. Camptown race track's five miles long, Oh the Doo-Da Dah Day." He heaves a large harmonica to his mouth and blows and sucks furiously. The tune is raspy and scratchy, but he is hitting most of the notes. His face is scrunched and he is concentrating real hard on that thing, really bearing down. And all the while, his black leather shoes are tapping and clogging on the stump. Clipping and scuffing and hopping, seemingly at random.
I pause in front of the yard to watch. Plainly now, the show is for me.
He finishes the song, stops and grins, holding the harmonica over his head like he has won a prize. "Where ya headed Mister," he calls out, in his little huckster voice.
I hear a loud "Ahem," and look across the street. And old man is sitting on the porch of his house in a rocker. He slowly shakes his head back and forth. I ignore him. He resumes his rocking.
"Goin West son," I say to the boy. "Where else?"
"You need a room and a bath and a meal Mister. I can tell. Come right here. My ma runs the best boarding house in town. She can cook real fine and the rooms are real clean. Come right here."
"Well, to tell you the truth, I was going to look for a place a little closer to the livery."
"Don't do that Mister. Those places are full of bandits! They murder people all the time. I can run down and fetch your horse for you when you're ready to leave. No need to stay down there. You'll be much safer here." His eyes are alive with the setting sun.
The front door of the house swings open. Out steps a beautiful woman. Her blond hair is tied back with a dark blue ribbon but still somehow falls loosely to her shoulders. Her skin too is cream. She wears a starched cotton blouse, bright white and stretched tightly at an ample bosom. A black skirt clutches tightly about her narrow waist.
"Jimmy," she calls. "Leave that poor man alone. He has business to attend to. I'm sorry Mister."
Jimmy steps down off the stump. "Sorry Ma," he calls over his shoulder. Then to me he leans and murmurs. "Ma needs the money really bad."
I pause. It's been a long time since I've seen a woman like this, and to tell the truth, it's a little awkward. She stands on the stoop, letting the silence take hold, waiting for me to speak I suppose.
"It's no problem Maam. I'm just looking for a place for the night. Your son tells me you run a boarding house here."
"Well yes," she says hesitatingly. "Though . . . there are no boarders here right now."
I don't know quite what to make of this.
"Well, I don't want to impose. I can find another. No bother."
"Course," she replies, "we are open for business. And, it would be no bother to board you. I run a respectable place here. The whole town knows that."
I'm tired and don't know what to say. She continues.
"So you are welcome here if that would suit you."
Suddenly, the walk back towards the livery seems too far.
"Well, if you're sure," I say.
"Of course," she replies. "But first, your name sir."
"Well Mr. Woodwright, I'm Mrs. Bannister. Lora Bannister. We would be pleased to board you for the night. Jimmy, please show Mr. Woodwright in through the side door and prepare a bath."
With that she turns on her heels, and goes back inside, being careful not to slam the door.
An hour later, things are much improved. The side door opened into what was once a formal sitting room but which now holds a wood stove, a large copper bathtub, and lots of clean towels. I sit in the tub, leaning back, with hot steamy water up to my neck. I wash my hair by leaning back into the water, sometimes submerging my entire head so that the silence and warmth can surround me. I wash it three times. I have not felt this good in years.
While I'm bathing, Jimmy takes my clothes into another room, where I guess his mother washes and irons them near another stove. By the time I finish my bath, they will be returned, totally washed and dried and ironed. Sometime during the process, Jimmy runs two blocks down to the livery stable and takes my other clothes from my bedroll. These to be washed, dried and ironed as well.
Jimmy pours a last bucket of near scalding water into the tub, fresh from the stovetop, and then brings me a sharp razor, a bright mirror and a frothy soap so I can shave. I take my time, savoring it.
After two hours in the tub, I reluctantly step out onto a pristine throw rug. The long soak in the hot water has made me a little woozy. A tall pile of sweet smelling towels are at hand. I use three of them.
Jimmy is gone now. I dress in my neat clothes, clean my teeth in a basin with a cheroot and rinse, and then pause to listen. It is dark outside now. The woman hums softly in the next room, and the house smells of chicken and dumplings. I knock gently on the large wooden door.
"Come in Mr. Woodwright," she calls. "Come in."
I push the door open and step into a nice formal dining room. An oval table made of walnut, with matching chairs and cloth upholstery, is set for dinner. Four candles burn with flickering yellow light in a pewter candlestick holder. Mrs. Bannister is putting out coffee cups and Jimmy is carrying napkins.
"Please come in, Mr. Woodwright," she says. "Supper will be ready in a few minutes."
"Thanks," I say, embarrassed by the finery.
"Jimmy," she continues, "why don't you show Mr. Woodwright his room and help him put his things away."
Glad to be relieved of napkin duty, he says "Sure, it's just down this hall. I'll show ya."
Jimmy leads me down a short hall off the side of the dining room. At the end of the hall, we pass through a doorway into the guest room. The door is heavy oak, with wrought iron hinges and hardware, so I'm guessing it's really an old pantry or storeroom. It's small but clean, with a bunk, a side-table, a lantern, and a washstand.
Jimmy chatters away, happy to be helping me out. There isn't much for me to put in the room except my saddlebags and Sharps, but I let Jimmy carry the rifle and he puffs out his chest.
Supper is served five minutes later. Before we eat, Mrs. Bannister says Grace, and I am forced to join in. It's been a long time since I've done that.
Chicken and dumplings are served up out of a steaming cast-iron pot. There's hot cornbread and greens as well. It feels good to be eating food that's been cooked by someone else. When you cook for yourself on the trail, each meal gets successively worse.
Mrs. Bannister keeps up a pleasant banter of conversation, about everything and nothing. At first, it's hard for me to join in. (Four years of killing, you know.) But after a while, I remember that I use to be an educated man, and start to get the hang of it again. By the time dinner is over, she's managed to drag my life story out of me, minus the War of course. She intentionally stays away from that. All I learn about her is that her husband is a surveyor for the railroad. He went West three years ago and hasn't been heard from since.
After dinner, she suggests we move into the parlor and have some after dinner coffee. It's full dark by now, and she only lets Jimmy sit in the parlor for a few minutes before sending him off to bed. He groans and begs, but finally troops off, apparently use to the routine.
We are alone now, sitting in the parlor, talking, sipping coffee. Sometime during the process, Mrs. Bannister has unbuttoned the top button of her blouse, complaining of the long day. I didn't really notice it was open until, well, it was open.
The conversation starts to wind down, and I hear a grandfather clock ticking away somewhere down the hall. Mrs. Bannister rises to take away the coffee cups and then remarks, "Oh Mr. Woodwright, I've quite forgotten my manners. Would you like a small glass of wine?" Before I can really answer, she sets the cups aside and opens a small wooden side chest. "I keep this for special guests . . . ones I feel I can trust."
She places a crystal wine glass on the table in front of me, and pours from a crystal decanter. The wine is dark red and smells rich and bitter. I taste it, and smile.
"Aren't you going to have some as well Maam?" I ask.
"Goodness no, Mr. Woodwright, I'm a strict Baptist you see."
I settle back to sip the wine, knowing there would only be the one glass, and wanting to make it last.
"And now, Mr. Woodwright," she says, "I must apologize that I feel it necessary to address our business at hand. Room and board here for the night are $1.00, in coin, not paper. And, of course, I must kindly ask for it in advance. Folks have been known to leave before dawn without paying. I'm not saying that you would Mr. Woodwright, but I think a firm policy is best."
This sudden formality catches me by surprise, but I find it amusing.
"Well, I certainly understand Mrs. Bannister, and that's no problem." I take a silver dollar from my vest pocket and place it in her palm. The coin disappears into her tight skirt pocket. She smooths out the skirt on that side with her hand, taking her time doing it, and smiles. There is a long pause.
"And, Mr. Woodwright," she says in a lower tone. "I like you. I can see you are a man of . . . quality. So if there's anything extra you might like . . . I am sure that I can provide that as well."
I choke a little on my last sip of wine, not really certain where this is headed.
"I'm not sure what your meaning is Maam," I say. "I think I have everything I need."
She smiles, and then leans back a little in her chair. Her hands reach up and untie the blue ribbon from her hair, and she shakes her head slightly so all of her hair tumbles down.
"Well," she says, looking me straight in the eyes, "I would imagine that a man like you may get lonely in his travels, and need some extra company now and then."
Now I KNOW where this is headed!
Without breaking her gaze, she unbuttons the second button of her blouse and fluffs it open a bit. I can just see the top of her black undergarment.
"And what, may I ask, might this extra service cost Maam?" I ask.
She smiles and sighs. "Only two dollars Mr. Woodwright. Surely, that's fair enough."
Now, I wish that this turn of events wasn't happening. I'm in a quandary here. You see, in my whole life, I've never paid for a woman. Never. Not even during those years in the War. I always found the concept to be . . . well, offensive. On the other hand, I don't want to tell her that, because it might make her feel like a whore. On the other hand, she is a whore, more or less, and I don't want to get her upset. God knows what she might do. Scream? On the other hand, I haven't been with a woman in months, and she is beautiful . . . and suddenly two dollars doesn't sound like very much at all.
Somewhere deep inside, my flimsy sense of propriety abruptly shifts, and I'm taking her up on it.
"Well, Mrs. Bannister," I say, really taking my time to pick my words. "That certainly is a fair offer . . . and I guess . . . I'd be pleased to take you up on it."
"Good Mr. Woodwright," she says cheerfully. "I'm glad that you will." She takes my glass and refills it. "Of course," she mentions apologetically, "that will require payment in advance as well."
"Of course." (Two more coins leave my vest.)
We sit a while longer, letting the evening sink in. I finish my wine, waiting for her to tell me what to do. (Or was I suppose to tell her what to do?)
"Jimmy is sound asleep by now," she says. "Why don't you go to your room and wait for me. I have to go upstairs to freshen-up. I'll only be a few minutes."
She leaves and I hear her footsteps tread upward on the staircase. She sings softly to herself.
I return to my room, change out of my clothes, light the lantern at the bedside, turn it down low, and get under the covers. It has been a long time since I've had any wine, so I find myself a little unsteady. I can hear her singing softly to herself upstairs. I lay back with my head on the pillow and wait.
A half an hour goes by. Or maybe more? I'm tired and mellow. I finally hear her footsteps coming gently down the staircase . . . and then through the dining room . . . and then down the hallway towards my room. I hear her hand on the doorknob, and a creak of the door, and then a small metallic clatter. I'm fuzzy now, but my brain knows that sound for sure!
It's the sound of a door bolt being rammed home and locked from the outside!
"What the hell," I think, and rise up out of bed. But the world spins and reels and I'm falling backwards, down into steep and total darkness, doped like a horse . . . and then all is black.
I am in that darkness for a long long time.
"Wake up Mr. Woodwright," someone shouts in my face. "Wake up!"
The voice is high pitched and screechy. I open my eyes to blinding light. Jimmy is shaking me and yelling in my face.
"Wake up Mr. Woodwright, your horse is ready and leaving! He'll get away."
What? My horse? Nate? Is leaving me? Nate?
With Jimmy's help, I pull myself upright in bed. My head is splitting. Jimmy yanks open the window shade. The light is an iron spike, crashing through my right eye.
"Coffee," says Jimmy. He's holding a big iron cup. "Here's coffee."
"Thank God," I think, and glug it down. My stomach churns. I'm not sure I'll be able to hold it for long.
"Get dressed Mr. Woodwright. It's past noon. Your horse is leaving. Hurry!"
Leaning on Jimmy, I wrestle to get into my pants. He ties my shirt around my back, and then props me up as I step into my boots.
"My saddle bags . . . my Sharps. Where are they? They're gone?"
"I just put them on your horse Mr. Woodwright. Hurry. He's leaving!"
With Jimmy shoving me along, I stumble out of the bedroom, down the short hall, through the dining room, through the bathtub area and out the side door, almost falling headfirst into the yard.
"Look," Jimmy screeches. "Yer horse. There he is!"
I focus my eyes in the blinding light and see Nate. He's all saddled up, with his halter rope loosely wrapped around the front fence. My bedroll, guns and gear are all tied down. He dances sideways, happy to see me, and pulls away from the fence, the rope loosely trailing.
I find I can walk stiff-legged now, and lurch across the front yard and through the open gate. I grab the saddle horn and drag myself up into the seat. Jimmy hands me the reins, and as soon as I have them, he slaps Nate hard on the rump, sending him trotting down the street, heading due west and out of town. "Ya!" he yells.
I glance back over my shoulder and see Mrs. Bannister standing on the front porch stoop. She's smiling and waving a white handkerchief.
"Good-bye Mr. Woodwright," she calls. "Do come again. Do come again."
I right myself in the saddle, holding on for dear life as Nate moves into a cantor.
The old man I saw yesterday is once again in the rocking chair on his front porch. He shakes his head back and forth.