The Black Harvest
Daren Dean
Publication May 2021!
 
Binding

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366 pages

ISBN 978-1-60489-270-3, trade paper, $20.95

ISBN 978-1-60489-271-0, hardcover, $30.95

Also available in Kindle and e-book!

 
 


Excerpt from Book:

A Fire in Zion

 

Yellow-visaged she stood in my dreams, and would forever stand in my memory, at the door dressed in homespun with a warning to join Quantrill in the Sni Hills. Even after all these years, she puts in an appearance in the penumbra of my slumber, but now she is mute, and her face has begun to disappear like a daguerreotype treated roughly. The sky is a sickening green. Looking out over the tobacco crop, a hand to block the sun, waving to a boy in the field like some hateful ocean in the roiling breeze. Next, she stands on the porch in a snowstorm of pollen, waving near, and then the scene is played out again on a ridge; a hemp field overlooking the Missouri from a limestone bluff covered in honeysuckle and vines; the rail of a sidewinder; she gazed up from a watery grave wearing a linen gown, shimmering maroon and serpentine, gripping a brace of pistols across her dun breasts; the Lady of the Lake in the time of the Border Wars.

My elder brother, Gideon, was out fighting in Kansas and western Missouri with the boys he rode with, mostly terrorizing old men, spinster women, and children who sympathized with the Federals—and even an unlucky few who didn’t. Looking back on it now, I wish I could have avoided the misery sweeping across the land during those years just like that dream boy out in the field behind the mules, but now I understand neither one of us could.

In dreams I see myself as a youth, flying in spirit overhead, simultaneously watching the boy doing chores around the farmstead our father called a plantation but it wasn’t really a plantation as much as a farm with ambitions at the height of Father’s Christian pride. On the Sabbath, I smoke a cigar, and in my reverie I dog the boy’s steps like a wraith as memories of the Civil War appear like magic lantern slides in my memories.

I sat there at my kitchen table in La Fayette County as it was commonly pronounced then with that son-of-a-bitch journalist John N. Edwards. Edwards was a Major who had fought as an Adjutant to General Jo Shelby’s cavalry, the western front’s J. E. B. Stuart, apparently still trying to resurrect the Southern cause. He had already made Frank and Jesse James living legends with his chicken scratches, not to mention all those editorials in the Kansas City Times newspaper. He sat there without so much as a pencil to write down what I had to say, his eyes hungry for a truth, his truth, that I didn’t feel inclined to give him. I suppose he hoped to do the same with Colonel Quantrill’s reputation or Captain Bill’s, and that’s what my statement is meant to redress for posterity.

Edwards was irksome at best, but what I resented about his literary style was his penchant for hyperbole. He was destined to smear what should have been the real person for a symbol, inventing a counterfeit persona in order to further his own dubious literary reputation. He had asked me to come deliver my statement to him in his Kansas City office as if he were judge and jury, but I told him in a letter that I would come to him but he would be required to provide a significant gift of some kind. If he wanted my story, he’d have to pay for it. I didn’t much give a damn about his designs on fighting the war over again. I put in my time. I’d surely earned my rest. I’d stood my ground and turned to fight them all in a circle at one time or another, if you get my meaning.

Edwards thought he looked rough, but to me he was ridiculous, despite serving under Shelby. One of the undefeated, indeed! He look more crazed than fierce, with his hat cocked at an angle that suggested someone might have just woke him from a thunderous snooze after a prejudicial bout of drinking. He tried to hide the tremor in his hands by placing them flat on the round oak table or holding on to his overcoat as though it might sprout wings and fly out of the room with him in it. He wore a Van Dyke that had grown a mind of its own and threw out roots like a cypress draped in salt-and-pepper Spanish moss. The facial hair, a ruse, failed to hide his bulbous nose and gin-blossom complexion.

Understand that most of us were not fighting for a cause of any kind, whether one believed in the peculiar institution or was an ardent abolitionist. No, the way things were then in western Missouri (what would later be referred to as the Burnt District) everyone from a boy of fourteen to men on the threshold of old age had to make a choice for the Federal government or the Confederacy. Why? Because you were likely to get scalped, shot, or burnt out no matter if you took the oath of loyalty and refused to swallow the dog. Loyalty tests were rigged worse than a witch trial by the Missouri Militia. There wasn’t a right answer as far as they were concerned. Many of us fools in the Little Dixie tried to remain neutral during the war for a while and fine folks paid a hefty price for it. Many a proud man lost his life and that of his family if he was too eager to declare himself.

It was 1888 when I handed over the ambrotype I had made to the former journalist (originally not more than a couple of months after I joined up with Bill Anderson’s outfit) as a gift for my mother. Edwards had arrived by carriage from Jefferson City in a desperate attempt to revive his own fame attached though it was to the memory of Jesse James and the late war as his chronicler. By then it was plain to see that Edwards had the red-faced complexion of an alcoholic whose liver had long ago raised the white flag, but he still had some ambition that had helped the Democratic Party destroy the Radical Party and Lincoln’s Republican Party.

I had rushed off with countless other young men (lying about my age, of course) who had joined General Sterling Price down south at Wilson’s Creek, when a Union ball scored a direct hit to one of our canons. It had flown through the air like brimstone straight from hell, killing the boy standing between Gideon and me without leaving a single mark on either of us save blood and brains from the boy, who, if I recall correctly, was from Joplin. That’s when the notion of serving under an officer left a foul taste in Gideon’s mouth, which was transferred to me as my own opinion. I vowed to return home and fight no more. I was so naive. All of about fifteen years old and a veteran after one battle.

It was then that my father decided I should take up the cross of our Savior and become an officer in the Army of the Lord. I do not wish to sound disrespectful toward Father, because he was a man I loved above all other men. As much as I loved him, however, I did not want to be him. Even now, after all these years, his grave face comes unbidden like a specter which has become dislocated from his body. I see this anomalous image even without closing my eyes. This visage has always been indomitable, as if he were haunting me.

“You were—” the sound of Edward’s dragging on his cigar, “—a handsome young man, Mr. Marchbank. Now, however . . .” but sensing that it might be inappropriate to discuss my physical frailty and jaundiced skin, he allowed his statement to hang in the air. He passed back the daring ghost (my younger self) bristling with Navy Colts in the daguerreotype with as much fear as courage showing plainly in the set of his features around the frame.

“I was drunk when the image was made,” I coughed, hocking blood into his kerchief. I had just turned forty-four and I was dying of the consumption if a man could believe what his country doctor told him. Although I did not need to explain this to Edwards. I could have gone off to a sanitarium I had heard about in Denver, but who wants to face their mortality head-on? And besides that, I loathed most of the sawbones I had known except for a few.

Edwards took back the framed picture and sat it nearby on the table face down.

“That photograph was made right here in Lafayette County.”

Edwards exhaled a mist of blue smoke intermingling heavily with the memories of the dead. Even the journalist could not help entertaining the notion that the spirits might be invoked in the smoke when their names were called. “What we agreed upon then,” Edwards slipped a few coins across the table, I quietly slid the money back. You see, I did not want to be bought. “How old are you, then?” Edwards stared down at the paper in front of him.

“In years forty-four,” I said, “but a hundred and fifty in experience.”

The journalist glanced quickly up at me and smiled thinly, nodded as if to himself. He poured two fingers of whiskey into each of our glasses. I threw back my drink in a single motion to steady myself. I was nervous because I wanted to get it right, if nothing else. Occasionally the sound of Edward’s nub scratching paper made its way into my consciousness like the ostentatious proceedings of a spiritualist before he conjures the departed for his gullible old women. I needed to get it right. I owed it to all those dead boys and their families—the ones I had grown up with in what was later referred to as the Burnt District.

“Anytime you want to tell it. You just go right ahead. I’m here. We want the truth about the war out this time. Frank and Jesse—now didn’t you tell me you fought with them?” He pursed his lips with skepticism and a palpable disgust. His hands were blackened with his cheap newspaper ink. He gave the impression of a man who inhabited his own world, as I suppose some of the literary bent cannot help themselves from doing. There was such a self-righteous zeal about him—he reminded me of one of Falstaff’s men—that I couldn’t help but dislike him intensely despite his politics. He didn’t know I had seen Edwards once before look delicate when I rode into Boonville with Captain Bill Anderson. Captain Bill had made a gift of dueling pistols to Price before it all unraveled. No doubt if Edwards had been on his own, he would have given our party the cut sublime and turned his admiring gaze upon the clear blue sky until we had passed. Price and his men about fainted when they saw all our scalps and ear garlands. “What a pussy,” Captain Bill said later on. He was the very picture of a gentleman, or at least, what passed for a gentleman to us brush boys.

It amused me to taunt Edwards so I pushed my whiskey glass toward him with my fingertips. “I fought with them crazy sons-of-bitches. They are not the heroes you make them out to be, or the devils others think, either.”

“Funny,” Edwards said in a tone of thinly veiled contempt. “Jesse never mentioned you.”

“Well, he mentioned you. He told how you turned your back on him when he needed your help!”

I spat on the floor like I might get up and dispatch the journalist with my bare hands. Edwards flinched backward for a moment as I leaned forward, my saliva flecks lightly spraying his face. I suppose the journalist reminded himself of the reports of how I had cut off ears, fingers, scalps, and even a Federal head with an Arkansas toothpick with stony-faced detachment. This is not an idle brag or something I am proud to admit but just a regrettable fact of the times. I believe he observed the former bushwhacker who appeared to just scarcely have himself under control: hands closing into fists, opening; the cords on my neck standing out, no doubt. It was the old feeling, the burning blood, I used to get before the killing had to start as we flanked the militia on their nags.

Edwards dabbed at his blanched face with his kerchief. He was what we called a real Admiral of the Red!

“Now, now . . .” Edwards half stood up out of his chair with his hands held out in front of him. “You actually sound like him when you talk.”

“Who’s that?” I asked, ready to reach out and tag him on the nose.

Frank,” he said, very soberly. “You share the same sense of humor.”

Another memory overtook me during the journalist’s interview: Ephron calling me in to supper. Ephron brought her own brand of despair with her to the Marchbank family when Father, the Reverend William Drury Marchbank, bought her in Liberty speaking some foreign Houdou language, but she revealed to me once that she had served in a brothel, when little more than a child, in the New Orleans French Quarter. He had been so taken with her that he brought her back to our place in Howard County, not too far from the Missouri River and the town of Glasgow. Her first name was recorded by the enumerator in 1850, with a dash following and then “mulatto.” In the Bible she couldn’t read, her only possession Mother allowed her, flowers were pressed and dried like hope. Deep down, that hope was the only religion she had allowed herself, even though it was fated. It was like a bullet wound that had been cauterized but still constantly ached. She had been with our family for three years and it was that time and the memory of her that I would never recover from, although I did not know this at the time. She had cooked all our meals. I remember watching her in the summer months as she cooked in the kitchen out back away from the house. Her skin always smelled of bread and cinnamon. And now they were all gone. How tenuous our human relations are. When we are children, we believe things will always remain as they are.

“Are you all right?” Edwards nudged my forearm.

“Did I say I was drunk when that photograph was made? Because it wasn’t the first time, I can guarantee you that.”

“Just do your best, Mr. Marchbank.” Edwards relit his cigar with a Lucifer match. His rhetoric turned evangelical: “For the annals of Missouri history, for our common Southern cause.”

It didn’t sound convincing, even coming from him. Though perhaps at one time he had been rabidly for the Cause, but at this point it sounded hollow and shattered.