Trouble has a nasty way of determining for a man what he does during the day. Along with such a thought I struggled with my saddle, having lugged it the better part of three miles. Noting a nearby fallen log, I made my way over to it and dropped my saddle, bridle and blanket roll to relieve my arms. I had just caught a whiff of wood smoke as I was about to cross the line into Arkansas from Missouri by way of the St. Francis River. I was in boot-heel country or just leaving it if you prefer, three days out of grub, out of coffee and my horse had gone lame a few hours back. I wasn’t much to look at, just a boney kid of five feet eight inches tall, but I could hold my own and prided myself on doing just that when things turned rotten, which of late was more often than I cared to admit.
Wood smoke was a welcome sign in this part of the country, but such a signal could just as well be a bunch of soldier boys and I didn’t want any truck with them at the moment. Every time I found myself at a soldier fire of late they were trying to get me to join one side of the war or the other. Fact is, I was trying to get as far away from the Civil War as I possibly could. Not that I was a coward, I just didn’t think I had lived yet. At fifteen I was trying my dead level best to keep the hair on my head.
My canteen was empty, my saddle was way too heavy and I was buckling under the load so when I smelled the woodsmoke I dropped all of my gear and sniffed the air for a few minutes. It took a moment to discern what direction the smoke was coming from, but eventually my snout told me it was from the south. I have a pretty good sniffer and to date my nose had not let me down. Only problem is trouble doesn’t offer up any detecting odor in advance of its arrival.
I didn’t know of any Yankee outfits this far south so I shucked the rest of my gear, all but my pistol, rifle, and canteen then headed in the direction of the camp. I had been walking along what is now called Crowley’s ridge. Skylining myself on a low part of the ridge overlooking the St. Francis River, I looked over the vast sweep of county to the east. It was a swamp infested forest for as far as the eye could see.
The smoke was there, lifting straight up into the prevailing breeze then drifting along the ridge in my direction. I could see their camp from where I stood and the site was a makeshift affair, disorganized and ramshackle. It didn’t give me much hope, but if I could get a meal and fill my canteen in the river, I would not want anything else.
There was a steep ledge I had to get down, but I was game and in no time I was walking along Crowley’s Ridge, although down in the bottoms. They had some horses tied, and if the unknown party had an extra I was going to see if I couldn’t borrow one and go back for my gear.
There were two men and a boy about my age around the fire. They had coffee, but I also smelled catfish frying in the pan, just retrieved from the St. Francis River. The fish wasn’t a little one they had caught either, it was filleted into several strips hanging over a tree branch while only one piece at a time would fit into the fry pan.
“Howdy,” I said startling them.
It was plain as daylight they hadn’t been expecting anybody. I wasn’t really anybody to fret about, but you would have thought the law had just dropped into Ol’ Dooley’s Lodge to make an arrest.
“Where did you come from,” the oldest among them wanted to know.
It seemed to me I was staring at three rattlers ready to strike at a moment’s notice, but I did the kid thing and shrugged my shoulders. “I came down off the ridge. Y’all must not be from these parts.” I myself wasn’t thirty miles from my original homestead, the one Pa had worked until he turned up missing a few years ago. I knew everybody in this part of the country, but I didn’t know these fellows.
“Well, you’re here, you might as well join us,” the elder man said.
He was a rough looking man with gray hair and a square set jawbone. His face was dirty, his nose had met with someone’s fist one time or another and never got straightened. He wore a pale color hat lined with sweat and dirt.
He was leaned back against his saddle waiting for the fish to fry and he didn’t pay any more attention to me. He went right back to whittling on a stick, his mustache twitching this way and that as he carved up more imperfect lines on his piece of wood.
I glanced at their horses and they were good, too good for this bunch, but then I had seen some real low down folks sporting good horses. I stepped closer thinking to get a look at the brand they wore.
“My saddle is back up on the ridge, I left it lying on a log about a mile back. I’d be obliged if I could borrow one of your horses and go get it.”
“Help yourself, just make sure you bring the horse back,” the old man insisted.
“Yes sir, I’ll be sure and come straight back. I’d like to share some of that catfish if you don’t mind another mouth.”
“There’s plenty,” he observed paying more attention to his woodcarving than to me.
I hadn’t gotten around to looking at the brands, but something about the horse I stepped up on seemed almighty familiar. If I had looked first, I would have never jumped on the back of that horse. I took off bareback and headed up the trail. It wasn’t easy coming down and I knew it wouldn’t be easy to lead a horse back up, but if I jumped down and led him I could do it.
When I got close to the log where I’d left my saddle I brought up short. Captain Franklyn Starr was sitting there with his boys staring at my loose saddle and gear.
“Now I wonder who…” he started to say.
“Pa look, its Duke John Robinson and he’s got Ol’ Sho-me!”
“Well, I knew about the Starr family and I knew about Ol’ Sho-me, but I hadn’t seen the horse in nearly three years. When I heard the accusation I immediately recognized the horse I was leading. Like an old man receiving a death bed conversion ten seconds before he entered the gates of hell, I dropped those reinslike they were on fire and dove back down the hillside, a steep hillside which no man in his right mind would dive down, but a boy in his youth wanting to live?
“Careful or you’ll kill the horse,” I heard Captain Starr admonish.
Gunshots rang out behind me. I didn’t look around to see who in the family was pulling the trigger. I heard bullets whiz by my head and bounce off trees. Suddenly I was falling headlong through the bramble and the brush on the side of Crowley’s Ridge and then I hit hard. My head bounced off a log along with my right shoulder and when I staggered to my feet, I fell backward over the same log and landed in a heap. I heard them coming but, I was in no shape to run, not now. The only thought running through my mind seemed to be I was about to be hung for stealing a horse I had no part in stealing. Chances were those fellows back at the camp were saddled up and riding away by now. They would have heard the gunfire and commotion up on the ridge.
I blacked out. I landed so hard I gave myself a concussion, but in the springtime foliage I had left no visible trail. The family hunting me didn’t know where to look, and when I came to I was surrounded by darkness. I lay still for a long time to make sure I was alone. The last thing I wanted to do was stand up to a gun stuck in my ribs.
Bubba Starr had always had it in for me, even when we attended school together at Gainesville, so it was no surprise he would want to hang me for stealing a horse, even though I hadn’t stolen it.
Gainesville was the only settlement in Greene County at the time the Civil War began. The Sheriff was Maurice Wright, pronounced Morris, and he was quite a character. He was the type who wouldn’t take much guff off anyone. If he arrested someone for being a horse thief they hung lickety-split. Suddenly, my worry was that he would catch wind of my escapade and dispense justice before he gathered all the facts.
My problem now seemed two-fold. I couldn’t go home. I had burned the house after Pa was presumed dead because I didn’t want any settlers moving into the empty cabin. Pa had buried a lot of money on the old place, but unless you knew it a body would never go digging there. If someone moved into the place while I was away, I would have a big problem getting the money out of the ground once I returned home. It seemed to me the only way to ensure I didn’t have such a problem was to burn down the house.
My other problem had been my brother and sisters. They had been a good deal younger than me, all of them ten or under. I had left them with a good family in Greene County, but only with the understanding that they would find good homes for them. If they had done so or not, I had no way of knowing. I had been wondering the country the last few years trying to grow up without getting myself killed. That wasn’t easy with the entire country at war. If all had gone well, my siblings would be a bit older now, maybe even able to think for themselves, but there was no way for me to know the truth of the matter.
I started to sit up and hit my head on the log once more. In the dark I couldn’t see the fact that somehow I had landed under the log. This had no doubt saved me from capture. I had known the Starr family for a long time and they were a family that wouldn’t do anything if they couldn’t do it from the back of a horse.
Chances were they had taken my gear. They had not been the best of neighbors even when Pa was alive. I had been gone two, almost three years now and I wouldn’t be welcome to return home. My trip to St. Louis had found the conditions in the city less than desirable. The war was still raging up and down the Mississippi and I just wanted to be left alone so I could grow up. That wasn’t happening though.
I had been kidnapped by Ol’ Slantface and the preacher while strolling along the streets of St. Louis. Without the help of Captain Grimes I would have been sold into slavery and me a white boy.1 Once the boys and I escaped, a change of plans was in order. I decided to head home, dig up Pa’s money and ride west. I had heard of the orphans being hired by the ranchers out west and I was an orphan, so I figured they could hire one more. The fact orphans from the war were being called cowboys didn’t bother me none at all. I wanted a job. The name cowboy was derogatory, but a boy like me doesn’t much care what he’s called as long as he eats regular.
After resting my head a mite, I slid out from under that old log and stood up. In the dark I couldn’t see a thing. I have to admit, I was scared right down to the soles of my feet. I didn’t know what to do. It would be too risky for me to go home now, yet I needed Pa’s money. If I was seen by anyone, I could be strung up for horse stealing and you know what, I didn’t even have the dad-blamed horse anymore.
Once I headed west I didn’t plan on ever coming back to these parts. Once I had the loot all dug up it was in me to ride as far west as a boy could go, somewhere such as California or Oregon. I wanted as far away from this silly war as I could get before something else happened.
I sat down on the log and rubbed the side of my head where it hurt. My skull was swollen and out of shape. My neck was throbbing and I didn’t know whether I could climb the hillside again, but I needed to see if my saddle was still there.
I hadn’t any truck with the Starr family, not once I got into a fight with Bubba Starr a few years back. My fist had broken his nose and he never got over it. He and a couple of his friends had jumped me after school one day and it didn’t quite work out the way they had figured. There were three of them and I whooped them all that day, picked up my school books and headed home.
Pa whipped me for getting into the fight, but I took my licking and proudly bore the brunt of it. Now Pa was never a mean man, but he had been a hard man and there’s a difference. He hadn’t allowed much time for child’s play, and looking back, I’m glad he handled me like he’d done. I would never have been able to survive the last few years had he not been stern with me way back then.
There had been more than one lonely night since he’d disappeared where his oldest boy wished he could see his Pa one more time to tell him thank you for everything, but that was just a childish dream. I’d likely never get the chance. My father was gone for good; the only thing missing was a body to bury. I don’t guess Pa was the first man to ever die and never be dug a grave.
He had left the house that day three years ago while we kids went off to school. I have five brothers and sisters. That evening our father never returned home. The next day I looked all over the countryside for him, but there was no sign. The neighbors had not seen him, no one had spoken with him and he was nowhere to be found. The one thing that had always stuck in my head was that Franklyn Starr was missing those days too. Captain Starr had returned eventually, but Pa never did.
With no parents at home we hung on for three weeks thinking Pa would return when he was able, but he never turned up. That had been a year before the Civil War and then it was clear something had happened to our father. Since our mother had been gone for some time, I took my brother and four sisters into Gainesville to find a place for them to stay and I headed for St. Louis, but before I left I burned our house in the De’LaplaineSwamp. My younger brothers and sisters had no need to live in the house, for they would be cared for by other folks who had a home, so burning the place had been my only logical choice. If I ever returned home to find the house occupied, there would have been a devil of a fight retrieving Pa’s money what was buried in mason jars all about the place.
I had always helped Pa, for my younger brother and sisters were not old enough to understand the hardship we were facing, but Pa had always insisted I should know. In that way, if something ever happened to him I would have an idea what to do.
Well, now here we were in that exact situation. What had caused Pa’s demise? There was no way to hold the family together once Pa was out of the picture, because he was the only authority those brat’s I call siblings would listen to. I had a dickens of a time just getting them to town.
Where they had finally settled I had no idea. I had left to be on my own, to see some country and learn the tools I would need to survive. This was no easy task, for I no longer had an instructor like my father, no one willing to guide me. I was on my own and I knew it.
I had grand ideas in those days of how a boy should be able to grow up, how he could make his own way and hold his head up. Now after nearly three years of struggling to survive along with thousands of other orphans created by the war I was no longer so sure of myself.
I thought back to the days of my innocence and I knew I would never see them again. No child should have to grow up as I was doing, but I knew deep down I was not the only one. Orphans were being created daily by the Civil War. I bumped into them all of the time. There simply was no getting away from it. They had a right to survive, if they could. I had the same right, and let me tell you, it wasn’t much when characters like Ol’ Slantface and Jeremiah Culpepper could kidnap and sell you into slavery at the drop of a hat. I had gotten free from him and the preacher, but what had I gotten myself free to do? I was now considered a horse thief by the Starr family.
Excerpted from "Showdown at Scatter Creek" by John T Wayne. Copyright © 2016 by John T Wayne. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.