Though this story and all its characters are fictitious, it does have some basis in historical events. I was in my office one day when a friend of mine and local politician, Mack Calhoun, dropped a dusty old manuscript on my desk.
written in the 1950s by Richard Briley, told the story of the West and Kimbrell clans that terrorized the strip of land in north Louisiana between the Mississippi and Red Rivers in the years of Reconstruction just after the Civil War.
Further research into the story substantiated the events, and that this area served as a haven for many infamous outlaws of the time, including the James Gang, among others. It was also home to some of the most monstrous elements of white supremacy in the nation's history, the Knights of the White Camellia, Louisiana's early version of the Ku Klux Klan.
The treacherous deeds of the secret societies and guerrillas that ruled the north Louisiana nights still resonate and haunt the collective psyche of the people who populate the piney hills and cypress swamps along the Red River to this day.
Louisiana's contemporary image as a jovial amalgamation of religions, races, and cultures intertwined in a land of festivals and spicy cuisine where all classes congregate blissfully is a twentieth-century transformation born out of a brutal past. Much of this lore is derived from Louisiana's liberal social attitude, or that during the twentieth century's Civil Rights movement, when the violence in most of the South blazed across our black-and-white screens, little or nothing filtered out of the bayous.
Much of Louisiana's social strife had been settled decades earlier, before the advent of a far-reaching Federal government or the prying eyes of reporters from faraway places such as Chicago and New York. This Southern paradise was a very dangerous and bloody place well into the first half of the twentieth century, and especially in the years after the Civil War. It was the last state to have Federal occupation rescinded after Reconstruction, and was the focus of more military action by the Union Army during Reconstruction than any of the states that seceded.
Despite numerous, well-supported attempts by the Union Army, the Red River Valley in northwest Louisiana was never occupied or subjugated during the Civil War. Even the intrepid railroad did not conquer this area until more than a decade after the war. Oddly, it had a hundred-mile gap in North Louisiana, terminating from the east at Monroe, and recommencing its journey west at Shreveport, on the west bank of the Red River.
Hollywood's inflated version of the Old West pales in comparison to actual events that occurred here. Speaking of northwest Louisiana during Reconstruction, noted Civil War historian Ted Tunnell said: “It was probably the most violent place in America.” This strip of land was also the setting for Harriet Beecher Stowe's
Uncle Tom's Cabin
and both the Coushatta and Colfax massacres, two of the most gruesome events in Civil War Reconstruction, the latter the nation's single bloodiest day in the postwar era.
Winn Parish, Louisiana
Captain Douglas Owens stared up at the eerie white ring surrounding the moon. He looked down at the Red River, then across the fertile, flat plain to the gentle hills juxtaposed against the horizon a few miles distant. The miles of unpicked cotton in all directions almost turned night to day and looked like a fresh snow on the Ohio fields of Douglas's childhood. Overhead, the ageless thick pines cast slight shadows. From the forest came the incessant sounds of insects buzzing, bullfrogs belching, and an owl hooting.
Douglas turned to the river below, where it sliced through a tight gap in the two-hundred-foot-high hills. The moonlight flickered off the two smut-covered smokestacks and top deck of the small steamboat
now partially underwater. Its bow rested firmly on the river's bottom, but its two upper decks were still dry. He flashed his gaze to the two men beside him. One was Sergeant Red Simmons, his longtime subordinate. The second had just enlisted, a young private from Illinois named O'Neal.
“What time you think it is?” Sergeant Simmons whispered.
“Probably after midnight.” Douglas wanted to remove his pocket watch and check the time, but doubted he could read it in the dark. The soldiers had been here maybe two hours. Just before dusk, Douglas had gotten word that the steamboat had sunk. The three soldiers had been in Natchitoches, a trading post twenty miles upriver, when the
's crew had arrived, having caught a ride back to Natchitoches on a passing northbound steamer.
Douglas immediately became suspicious. He knew that the
's valuable cargo would be a prize for the gangs and clans, the vigilantes who ruled this ungoverned area after dark. He had been trying to quell them for months. He and his two subordinates had galloped here without hesitation, half expecting to fight their way to the luckless vessel. Seeing the fifty or so cotton bales on the steamer's stern, Douglas wondered what loot lay unseen. There was certainly a strongbox somewhere holding the gold used to buy the bales along the river.
But Douglas and the army troopers weren't here to protect the ship's cargo. They were trying to set a trap, knowing word of the disabled vessel would travel fast. Maybe the steamer had even been sabotaged? Whatever the story, he could not pass up an opportunity to catch up with the cutthroats who roamed the north Louisiana nights. Their names and faces were unknown to all, even the rare, lucky souls who survived an encounter with these bandits. They all wore cloth masks while engaged in their dirty, deadly trade.
“Look,” Sergeant Simmons whispered.
Douglas squinted at the steamer, forty feet below and a hundred paces away. Two distant images moved through the water to the steamer, maybe twenty yards from the riverbank. Shortly, the hazy figures, only a blur of movement in the shadows, emerged on the steamer's stern.
“Let's go get them,” Sergeant Simmons said, pulling on Douglas's sleeve.
“No,” Douglas answered. He took a minute to inspect his subordinates. All three men were dressed in their dark blue army frock coats adorned with insignia and gold buttons, but they had long quit the powder blue trousers on night escapes. “They haven't done anything yet. We'll wait a few minutes, then go down and catch them with the loot. Let's just move down to the riverbank, stay concealed. I want them alive. Bring that lantern.”
Douglas looked back up the hill to where they had hobbled their horses. He stood and grabbed his shotgun, then motioned with a hand. As Sergeant Simmons slowly stepped into the darkness, Douglas followed, feeling his way through the trees as Private O'Neal followed. In less than a minute, the three men knelt behind some bushes at the river's edge.
The rippling water sloshed around the steamer, now only twenty paces away. He reached down and checked the location of his pistol, a Colt .44, holstered on his hip. Slowly, he cocked the two hammers on his 16-gauge shotgun and checked to make sure the two shells' firing pins were aligned with the hammers. He made a quick inspection of the two other soldiers, armed similarly. Douglas had a fifteen-shot, lever-action .44 Henry slung to his horse, but it would probably be of little use now. Nothing dished out more devastation than a shotgun, especially in tight quarters or at night.
He turned again to Sergeant Simmons and Private O'Neal. They both understood not to do anything until he did. He looked back over his shoulder and scanned the thick hills. Were there other men out there somewhere? He cupped his ear with a hand and listened, but still only heard the natural sounds of the verdant land. The seconds passed slowly with Douglas's anxiety growing, his body perspiring. “Wonder where their horses are.”
“Probably over that hill,” Sergeant Simmons said. “Haven't heard or seen anything. Maybe they're alone.”
Footsteps clomped on the steamer as the two men surfaced on the deck. One of the men carried a watermelon-sized box.
Heart racing, Douglas fought an urge to stand and draw his weapons. He put his hand on Sergeant Simmons's knee to restrain him.
The two men disembarked the steamer and waded to the bank.
Douglas slowly stood and put the butt of his shotgun to his shoulder. “Fourth Cavalry, you're now in our custody.”
The two men froze. Douglas shuffled forward a few paces, gripping his shotgun firmly.
“What do you want? We're unarmed!” one of the men yelled, very loudly.
Douglas looked down the double barrels. He still saw none of the men's characteristics. He stepped forward a few more paces, ten steps from the suspects. He saw the eye slits in the burlap masks and pointed his shotgun at one of the men. “Off with that mask.”
The outlaw stood completely still, the evil slits in his disguise staring directly at Douglas.
Keeping his barrels leveled at the man, Douglas stepped forward, reached out, and jerked off his mask. A shot pierced the night.
Douglas flinched, swung his shotgun away from the man, and pointed it to the hills behind him. Three more shots rang out. He turned back to the unmasked man to get another look and recognized him, a provincial constable named Garrett he had met a few times in the bush towns. Douglas turned back to the hills, where he saw more orange blasts and the faint image of four horses coming down the hill in their direction at a full gallop.
Sergeant Simmons fired, sending a ball of buckshot toward the horses. The loud burst from Simmons's shotgun woke the night.
More shots blazed out. The two men on the riverbank scurried for cover as Douglas emptied both his barrels at the charging horses.
“Let's go!” Douglas shouted, plunging into the thick bushes.
As he disappeared into the pines, more shots erupted. Sergeant Simmons plummeted to the ground. The horses closed in. Douglas rushed up the hill with Private O'Neal. He dove over a little ridge, tasting the dirt as he landed on his stomach. Private O'Neal fell in beside him. Douglas pulled his pistol from his hip and crawled a few feet to peek over the ridge. A half-dozen more shots filled the dark night as Douglas hugged the ground.
Lungs heaving, vision foggy, Douglas lay silently for a few minutes. He had few optionsâtwo men against six. A few more shots erupted. A couple of screams sounded through the woods. The horses stampeded away. The night fell silent. Had the bushwhackers retreated? Exhaling, he turned to the private, the young man's eyes roving with terror. The two passed a few anxious minutes without hearing an unnatural sound.
Douglas let out a long breath and slowly stood. “Cover meâI'm going down there. See what I find. If I'm not back in five minutes, get out of here, best you can.”
Douglas crept down to the riverbank. In the moonlight, the steamer rested peacefully on the river bottom. The water dribbled by. The sky sat plain over the now calm, ordinary night. Beneath his feet, Douglas saw the tracks of the fracas, horses and men. He also saw the distinctive trail where Sergeant Simmons's body had been dragged away.
He knelt and grabbed some of the sandy riverbank to let it filter through his hands and stared out into the peculiar land, listening. Did further danger lurk in the shadows? He heard only nature where a few minutes earlier he had seen the barrage of six-inch muzzle blasts, their echoing booms ringing in his ears. Now only darkness filled his vision. He dug into his brain trying to burn the image of the masked man into his mind. He would find him, somewhere. He exhaled a long breath, mixed emotions besieging him: frustration, bewilderment, and relief that he would probably survive this night.
He turned his voice back up the hill. “Private, go fetch our horses, and . . . be quick about it.”