The wind cut harsh through the trees, dragging with it squalls of snow that stung a man’s flesh and chilled his marrow. Mitchel McCann had known there was a blow coming right enough, he told Shepard we should skin out, but Captain Shepard delayed, as he was want to do whenever there was a decision in need of making. So the storm found us in open country, long miles short of Kirkman’s Gap and the Missouri Line.
I rode up alongside Mitchel; he had his slicker buttoned up tight and his hat angled down over his eyes so as all you could make out of his face was that big mustache he wore. I noticed he had wrapped oil cloth around the brace of Walker sixes on his saddle hitch, although he carried another on his hip that would still be handy enough.
“Hey Mitch, how comes you knew it was for snowing?” I had to raise my voice to make myself heard above the gusting wind.
He lifted his head and I could see the ice on his mustache where his breath had froze to it like sugar frosting. “The air changed, tasted different,” he said.
I nodded, pretending like I understood what he meant. Mitchel always knew what was fixing to happen before he had a right to. Some of the fellas said the good Lord spoke to him, and maybe he did. Mitchel, for his part sure spoke to the Lord often enough; I guess that sort of went with the job.
“You think we’ll make Kirkman’s Gap afore dark?” I asked him.
He considered the question for a time before answering. “Depends,” he said and fell silent. Mitchel wasn’t much for talking, outside of a Sunday sermon and he liked it best when folks just let him be, but this weather had me feeling a might lonesome and I hankered after some conversation. I was just thinking that was all the answer I was going to get when he spoke up again. “Like as not we’ll make Missouri, but by now the Yankees will have cut the trail ahead of us, so I doubt it’ll make no never mind if we do.”
It wasn’t the cold that made me shiver. “You can’t know that for sure, we ain’t seen hide or hair of no Blue Bellies for a week or more.”
Mitchel cocked his head to one side as if he could already hear the drumming hooves of Union Cavalry on the frozen earth. I listened too, but all I heard was Clem Panowich cussing his horse.
“Death’s abroad right enough and there’ll be a reckoning.” he said and looked at me square, his blue eyes hard and cold. “You best stick close, you understand, Plunk?
“If’n you says so, Mitch,” I said, meeting his gaze so as he knew I took his heed.
He gave the smallest of nods and we rode on in silence. Me, thinking about Kate and the old place, Mitch thinking about whatever it was he thought at such times.
Mitchel McCann had seen the elephant more times than I could count. He had started fighting this war when most people I knew was still calling it a feud. Camp talk had it that he rode side by side with Quantrill himself back in ’62 and it was said more than fifty union men had died at his hand. It might seem strange to some that a man of God should have such a keen aim with a pistol, but I never had no call to question it. God’s work was much the same as the Devil’s these days. The only difference to my mind was that God wore a gray coat while the Devil dressed mostly in blue.
It started snowing heavy as we drew near to Kirkman’s Gap. Half-glimpsed skeletons of oak and elm stood sentry on our flank, their naked branches clawing at the gun-metal sky. We had lost sight of Captain Shepard and the troop. I made to kick on and catch them up when Mitchel put his hand on my shoulder.
“Don’t be in such a hurry to meet your maker; he’ll call you when he’s good and ready. That is assuming he wants a skinny runt like you to begin with.” Mitchel smiled and tugged the oil cloth free of his pistols. “You keep them guns of yours covered, like I told you, Plunk?”
“Uh huh,” I said taking my brother’s Griswold from inside my jacket.
“Good enough, a frozen revolver ain’t use nor ornament.” He said hefting one of his big sixes.
Just as did there was a muffled shout from up ahead and rifle shots cracked like green wood tossed on a hot fire. “Now you go full chisel, Plunk Regan. You don’t stop for nuthin’, else ways you’ll end up to hell and gone and break your Katie’s heart.”
Mitch didn’t wait for me to reply; he put spur to his horse and charged into the blizzard. I thumbed back the hammer on my pistol and followed hard on his heels, riding low to the neck of my mare; the rebel yell fogging out in front of my face.
We soon found the fight; a smear of blood on the lying snow pointed the way. Them Blue Bellies were in the tree line, raining misery on us with their Yankee rifles. They could load those damn repeaters on Sunday and shoot for all week. I emptied a whole cylinder back at them while their bullets plucked at my coattails and kicked up the snow around me. Clem Panowich caught their lead and fell backwards from his horse. Clem’s acreage butted right up against our place, but my neighbor was past helping. He hit the ground deader than a doornail. I reined my old girl in least she trample him and turned her aside.
By then we’d caught up to Captain Shepard and young Donnie Sayles, they came out of the brush, riding across our front. Donnie had a pistol in each of his hands, spitting flame at those sons of Kansas and giving them a taste of their own medicine that wasn’t much to their liking. Shepard got to waving his sword high above his head and hollering something about death and glory. I know for certain that he found the first one. Whether he was bound for glory remained between him and God.
Mitchel was still alongside me, riding tall in the saddle, twisting first this way and then that. His Walkers barking like the hounds of hell. I saw four men fall to his shots before a Yankee ball took my mare in the shoulder. It must have ricocheted of her bones as it burst out through her flank and buried in my calf. We went down together. My only thought being a selfish concern of how I was to tend the bottom fields come spring without the old girl to pull the plow. I hit the frozen ground hard and the fall sent me swimmy-headed for a time.
When I came to my senses the firing had stopped, the wind had eased too and the snow fell soft, laying a shroud of white over them that had been mustered out at the point of a gun. I looked across and saw Donnie Sayles. He had died up against a stump, facing the enemy with his pistols clasped in his hands. Steam was still rising from the tangle of guts in his lap.
All but two of those Yankees had lit out after what was left of our troop. The men that stayed were probably ordered to tend to their wounded. I was sure they’d have a passel of ‘em too; our boys were of a kind that died right hard. Although it seemed these good Samaritans were far more concerned with robbing the dead than giving succor to those that still lived. I lay quiet hoping they might pass me up for richer pickings, but they were nothing if not thorough. One of them started to rifle my pockets and got his self a good fright when it turned out I was still drawing breath. He yelped and jumped back in surprise. I tried to scramble away, but my leg pained me something awful.
“You stay put there, Johnny Reb,” he said recovering some and pulling his pistol.
Chris Leek is a greenhorn from back east. He shoots straight and tells tall tales. You can read some of them at: All Due Respect, Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter, Near to the Knuckle, Thrillers, Killers ‘N’ Chillers, Grift and Spinetingler. www.nevadaroadkill.blogspot.co.uk.
His pal heard him shout and came over to see what was what. “Kill him dead, Charlie,” he said and spat tobacco juice in the snow at my feet. “A bullet is the only fair go fer a Missouri Bushwhacker.”
“Reckon you’re right,” Charlie said cocking his piece. “Where you want it Reb, head or gut?”
I closed my eyes and prayed he’d make it quick, so as I could see my brother Tom again afore the day was out. I wondered if he’d be waiting to greet me at the gates like Mitchel said he would and if the lord might have seen fit to give him back the leg that Yankee cannonball took at Wilson’s Creek.
Two shots rang out, so close together they sounded like one. I waited, but no lead came to ease my passing. When I opened an eye, I saw Mitchel standing above me, his Walkers smoking in the fading light.
“You deaf, Plunk? I thought I told you plain to stick close.”
I don’t claim to know the why. At the time, it seemed to me like there was plenty of reasons worth the killing; the dying too for that matter. Looking back on it now, it’s hard to reckon exactly what they were. Still, they say the mind dims with age and that cold fight is better than forty years distant. The ball in my leg still pains me though, especially on days when the wind blows from the north, down through Kirkman’s Gap.
Ain’t but one of us left who crossed the Missouri Line that day in the winter of ’64. Old Mitch McCann is long in his grave—God rest his soul—but I don’t need him to tell me there’s a change in the air. Soon we’ll all be to hell and gone.