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Authors: James McBride

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BOOK: The Good Lord Bird
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I grabbed it, and as I done, we heard horses coming fast on the other side of the creek. Fred snapped over his shoulder, “Hide quick!”

I had just enough time to jump into the thickets holding that bird as several horses splashed across the creek, came straight up the bank, and busted through the thickets and to where Fred was standing. They came straight on him.

There wasn't nowhere to run, for we had tied our horses a quarter mile off, and they'd come from that very direction, which meant they likely found our mounts anyway. I had just enough time to dive deep into the thickets before they sloshed up the bank and marched up to Fred. He stood there smiling, wearing all his hardware, but his seven-shooters wasn't drawn. The only gun he had in his hand was that squirrel gun, and it was spent.

They sloshed up the bank right to him quick as you can tell it. There were maybe eight of 'em, redshirts, and riding in the lead of 'em was Rev. Martin, the feller Fred drawed on back at the Old Man's camp.

Now Fred was thick, but he weren't an altogether fool. He knowed how to survive in the woods and do lots of outdoor things. But he weren't a quick thinker, for if he was, he'd'a drawed his heater. But two or three thoughts at once was more than he could handle. Plus he didn't recognize the Reverend right off. That cost him.

The Reverend was riding with two men on either side of him bearing six-shooters and the rest behind him heavily armed. The Rev hisself wore his two shiny pearl-handled numbers on his belt, which he likely stole off some dead Free Stater, for he hadn't had them things before.

He rode right up to Fred while his men surrounded Fred, cutting off his escape.

But still Fred didn't get it. Fred said, “Morning.” He was smiling. That was his nature.

“Morning,” the Reverend said.

Then Fred's mind checked itself. You could see his head cock to the side, something whirring in there. He stared at the Reverend. He was trying to figure out whether he knowed him.

He said, “I know you . . . ,” and quick as you can tell it, without a word, the Reverend, setting atop his horse, drawed his shooter and took him. Blasted Fred right in the chest, buttered him with lead and powder, and the blessed God, the ground caught him. Fred twitched a few times and breathed his last.

“That'll teach you to draw on me, you apple-headed, horse-thieving, nigger-loving bastard,” the Reverend said. He come down off his horse and took every single gun Fred was wearing. He turned to the others. “I got me one of Brown's boys,” he said proudly. “Got the biggest one.”

Then he throwed his eyes to the woods 'round him, where I was hiding. I held tight to where I was. Didn't move an inch. He knowed I was close.

“Look for the second rider,” he barked. “There was two horses.”

Just then another feller spoke up, a feller sitting on a horse behind the Rev. “You ain't had to shoot him cold-blooded like that,” he said.

Rev. Martin turned to the man. It was the feller that had caught me in the woods just a while before. He was still holding my squirrel gun, and he weren't pleased.

“He would'a returned the favor,” the Reverend said.

“We could'a exchanged him for one of ours,” the feller said.

“You wanna change out prisoners or fight a war?” the Rev said.

“He could'a aired me out an hour ago back down the creek there and he didn't,” the man said.

“He was Free State!”

“I don't give an owl's ass if he was George Washington. The man didn't draw on you and he's deader'n a turnip. You said you was looking for a cattle rustler and nigger thieves. He ain't no cattle rustler. And the nigger he had weren't nobody's nigger I know. What kind'a war rules is we fighting under here?”

This started a hank between 'em, with several taking this feller's side and others holding with the Reverend. Several minutes gone by as they wrangled, and by the time they finished, dusk had come. Finally Rev. Martin said, “Brown won't tarry when he finds his boy dead out here. You wanna wait till he comes?” That done it. That silenced 'em all, for they knowed there was consequences to the whole bit. They took off on their horses without another word.

I come out the clearing in the dusk, and took a long look at my old friend in the growing darkness. His face was clear. He still had a little smile on his face. I can't say whether his superstition about that Good Lord Bird done him in or not, but I felt low, standing there holding that dumb bird. I wondered if I should wander someplace and fetch a shovel with the aim of burying Fred and the bird together, since he called it an angel and all, but I quit that idea and decided to run off instead. Weren't nothing to this life of being free and fighting slavery, was how I thunk of it. I was so bothered by the whole bit I can't tell it. I didn't know what to do. The idea of running back home to Dutch and trying to work it out, that worked in there, too, truth be to tell it, and I aimed on seeing to that, for Dutch was all I knowed outside the Old Man. But to be honest, I was broke up by the way the whole deal added up, me running 'round as a girl and not knowing what to do. I couldn't think of nothing to do at the moment, and as usual, the whole business just wore me out. So I set on the ground next to Fred and curled into a ball and fell asleep next to him, holding that Good Lord Bird. And that's how the Old Man found me the next day.

9

A Sign from God

I
woke up to the sound of cannon fire and the Old Man standing before me. “What happened, Little Onion?”

I gently set the Good Lord Bird on Fred's chest and explained to him who done the deed. He listened, his face grim. Behind him the sound of gunfire and artillery cannon boomed and sent grapeshot slinging through the woods right over his head. Me and Fred had wandered right near Osawatomie, and the fight that Weiner and them had joined in had spilled over into there just as Weiner said it would, with blasting full out. The men ducked low on their horses and held on while the grape whipped past, but none of 'em moved off their mount as the Old Man stood over me. I noted Jason and John among them, but nobody weren't explaining how they got there and why the Old Man weren't in federal prison. They was all hot, staring at Fred, especially his brothers. He was still wearing his little cap, with the Good Lord Bird now perched on his chest where I had rested it.

“Is you gonna find the Reverend?” I asked.

“We ain't got to,” the Old Man said. “He has found us. Stay with Fred till we get back.” He mounted his horse and nodded toward the sound of the fighting. “Let's go!”

They dashed toward Osawatomie. The town weren't but a short distance off, and I cut through the woods a few steps to a high knoll, where I could see the Old Man and his men take the trail that circled 'round and led to the river and the town on the other side of it. I didn't want to set 'round with Fred and that dead bird asleep in death, and there weren't nothing to say to him nohow.

From where I was, I could see the town. The bridge crossing the Marais des Cygnes River leading to Osawatomie was swarming with rebels who had hauled two cannons over it. A few hundred yards off was the first cannon, which was perched downstream, along a grassy ridge, where you could wade across the water. There were several Free Staters firing on our side, trying to make it across there, but rebels on the other side was holding them off, and every time a group of Free Staters got close in, that cannon cleaned them out.

The Old Man and his boys busted right through them and charged down the hill and into the shallow water like wild men. They come up on the other side firing, and just like that sent the rebels on the other bank scrambling.

This fight was hotter than Black Jack. The town was in a state of panic and there were women and children about, scattering every which way. Several homesteaders was desperately trying to douse the fires on their homes, for the Reverend's riders had torched several houses, and the Rev's men shot them as they tried to put out the flames, which gived the busy homesteaders one less task to do, being that they was deadened. Altogether the Free Staters in town was badly organized. The Missourians' second cannon was on the other side of town, blasting away, and between that one barking on one end of town, and the other barking at the riverbank on the other end, they was cleaning up the Free Staters.

The Old Man and his men charged out the water with guns blazing and cut to the right toward the first cannon that was downstream. The Free Staters who couldn't cross on account of that cannon took courage when the Old Man's army come and runned past them to take the bank, but the rebels at the cannon held. The Old Man's men hacked and shot their way halfway to the cannon working alongside the creek, which ridged up as it reached the cannon. They pushed the enemy back, but more enemy arrived on horses, dismounted, regrouped, and swung that cannon to bear on them. That thing blowed off to deadly effect and halted the Old Man's charge cold. Sent grapeshot whistling into the trees and cut down several Free Staters, who fell down the riverbank into the creek and didn't get up. The Old Man mounted a charge again, but the cannon sent another volley that sent the Old Man and his men backward again, this time several falling halfway down the riverbank. And this time the rebels leaped out from behind the cannon and charged.

The Old Man's men was outgunned and his boys fell back farther to the ridge, the creek right at their backs now, no place else to back up. There was a line of timber at the riverbank there, and he shouted quickly to his fellers to mount a line, which they did, just as the rebels charged the riverbank again.

I don't know how they held it. The Old Man was stubborn. The Free Staters was badly outnumbered, but they held on until a second party of rebels flanked them from the rear, on the same side of the stream. A few of the Old Man's team turned 'round to fight them off while the Old Man held his boys on the line, urging his men on. “Hold men. Steady. Aim low. Don't waste ammunition.” He walked up and down the line shouting directions as bullets and cannon shot tore the leaves and limbs off the trees 'round him.

Finally, behind him, the Free Staters trying to hold off the rebels in that direction quit and run for it across the river, eating lead the whole way, and several of them breathed their last in the river. It was just too many enemy. The Old Man was cut off from a clean retreat now, taking fire from two sides, with the cannon blasting grape at him and rebels closing from the other way, with the creek behind him. He weren't going to make it. He was defeated, but he wouldn't give in. He held his men there.

The Missourians, cussing and hollering, quit for a minute to move their cannon closer, and took some lead from the Old Man's men. But they got it mounted up again within fifty yards or so of the Old Man's line and blowed a big hole in the line, sending several of his men into the water. Only then did he give up. He was done. He hollered, “Back across the river!” The men gladly did it, scrambling fast, but not him. He stood, big as you want, firing and reloading until the last man got out the tree line, hit the bank, and waded across. Owen was the last to go, and when he was at the riverbank and seen his Pa weren't there, he turned back, hollering, “Come, Father!”

The Old Man knowed he was defeated, but couldn't stand it. He squeezed off one more blast from his seven-shooter, turned to run, and as he did, a cannon volley whipped through the tree line and got him. He was hit square in the back and went down like a rag doll, knocked clean off the ridge and back into the bank. He rolled off the ridge down to the river's edge and didn't move. He was done.

Dead.

He weren't dead, though, only stunned, for that ball had spent itself before it got to him. It plunked a hole in his coat and pierced the skin of his back and lost juice right as it got to him. The Old Man's skin was thicker than a mule's ass, and while that ball drawed blood, it didn't go deep. He jumped up quick as you can tell it, but the sight of him falling off that ridge toward the water drawed a cheer from the Missourians at the top of the bank who smelled red meat but couldn't see him at the water's edge, and several jumped down to the bank after him, only to find the Old Man waiting with that seven-shooter which was still dry and loaded. He busted a cap into the face of the first man, cracked the skull of the second man with the butt of that thing—that gun is heavy as the dickens—and sent a third to his Maker with his broadsword just as easy as you please. A fourth feller ran down toward him, and when the poor bastard got over the ridge and seen the Old Man still living, he tried to stop hisself and scramble back to safety. But Owen had scrambled back to the bank to help his Pa and busted a shot at him and blowed out his spark.

It was just them two going at it close, and the sight of them two fighting off rebels attacking 'em from all sides now caused a round of cursing and swearing from the Free Staters who made it to the other side of the river, and they blowed several rounds into the rest of the charging Missourians, who was at the top of the ridge near the tree line. The rebels scattered and fell back. This gived the Old Man and Owen time to get across the river.

I had never seen the Old Man retreat before. He seemed a queer figure there in the river, in a broad straw hat and linen duster, his coattails flung out behind him, arms outspread on the water, as he waded over, a revolver held high in each hand. He climbed onto the opposite bank, out of range of the rebels now, mounted atop his horse, and scrambled his horse up the bank to where I was, followed by the other men, all of 'em joining me on the knoll.

From that knoll you could see Osawatomie clear, the town blazing brightly in the afternoon sun, every house burning to the ground, and every Free Stater stupid enough to hang 'round and try to put out the fire eating his house getting shot to shit by Reverend Martin and his men, who were drunk, laughing and whooping it up. They defeated the Old Man and hollered it all across Osawatomie, several shouting that he was dead and claiming to be the one who done it, whooping that they'd burned his house to the ground, which they'd done.

Most of the other Free Staters who survived had taken the tall timber once they got across the creek to our side. Only the Old Man and his sons remained on our side, watching the rebels celebrate: Jason, John, Salmon, the two younger ones Watson and Oliver, who had joined us, Owen course, all of 'em atop their mounts, staring angrily at the town, for their houses was burning up, too.

But the Old Man didn't look at it once. When he reached the knoll, he slowly paced his horse back to Frederick and got off it. The rest followed him over.

Fred was where we left him, his little cap atop his head, the Good Lord Bird atop his chest. The Old Man stood over him.

“I should'a come out of hiding to help him,” I said, “but I don't know how to shoot.”

“And shoot you should not,” the Old Man said. “For you is a girl soon to be a woman. You was a friend to Fred. He was fond of you. And for that I am grateful to you, Little Onion.”

But he might as well have been talking to a hole in the ground, for even as he spoke, his mind was somewhere else. He knelt over Fred. He looked at him several minutes, and for a moment, the old gray eyes softened and it seemed like a thousand years had washed over the Old Man's face. He sighed, gently pulled Fred's cap off his head, pulled a feather off the Good Lord Bird, and rose. He turned and stared at the town grimly, burning in the afternoon sun. He could see it plain, the smoke spiraling up, the Free Staters fleeing, the rebels firing at them, whooping and hollering.

“God sees it,” he said.

Jason came up to him. “Father, let's bury Frederick and let the federals have the fight. They'll be here soon enough. I don't want to fight no more. My brothers and me, we had enough. We're decided on it.”

The Old Man was silent. He fingered Fred's cap and eyed his sons.

“Is that how you want it, Owen?”

Owen, setting atop his horse, looked away.

“And Salmon. And John?”

Six of his sons was there: Salmon, John, Jason, Owen, and the young ones, Watson and Oliver, plus their kin, the Thompson brothers, two of them. They all looked down. They was spent. Not a one of 'em spoke up. Didn't say a word.

“Take Little Onion with you,” he said. He tossed Fred's cap into his saddlebag and made ready to get on his horse.

“We've done enough for the cause, Father,” Jason said. “Stay with us and help us rebuild. The federals will find Rev. Martin. They'd catch him and put him in jail, try him for Fred's killing.”

The Old Man ignored him and mounted his horse, then stared out at the land before him. He seemed to be someplace else in his head. “This is beautiful country,” he said. He hold out the feather from the Good Lord Bird. “And this is this beautiful omen that Frederick left behind. It's a sign from God.” He stuck it in his weathered, beaten straw cap. It stuck straight up in the air. He looked ludicrous.

“Father, you are not hearing me,” Jason said. “We are done! Stay with us. Help us rebuild.”

The Old Man stretched his lips in a crazy fashion. It weren't a real smile, but as close as he could come. Never saw him out and out smile up to that point. It didn't fit his face. Stretching them wrinkles horizontal gived the impression of him being plumb stark mad. Seemed like his peanut had poked out the shell all the way. He was soaked. His jacket and pants, which was always dotted full of holes, was a mass of torn and ripped clothing. On his back was a bit of blood where he'd taken a grape ball. He paid it no attention. “I have only a short time to live,” he said, “and I will die fighting for this cause. There will be no more peace in this land until slavery is done. I will give these slaveholders something to think about. I will carry this war into Africa. Stay here if you want. If you're lucky, you'll find a cause worth dying for. Even the rebels have that.”

He turned his horse 'round. “I have to go and pray and commingle with the Great Father of Justice upon whose blood we live. Bury Fred right. And take care of Little Onion.”

With that, he turned on his horse and rode off east. I wouldn't see him again for two years.

BOOK: The Good Lord Bird
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