Thieving, I guess you could say, was in my blood. I started stealing about the same time the war heated up, in about '61, when I was, oh, fourteen. It was little things at first: a penny candy from the jar at Tucker's General Store, a few onions from old man Herbert's garden or some eggs from his coop, a shirt from a stranger's clothesline. But it didn't take me long to realize I enjoyed it. I liked the little charge stealing gave me. A penny stolen, as the saying goes, is sweeter than a penny earned.
My older brother Henry was put together different. Henry loved being honest like I loved stealing. I once saw Henry, when he was clerking at Tucker's General, walk two miles out of town, all the way to Mr. Granby's farm to deliver four cents of forgotten change. Me? I'd just as likely sprout wings and fly to Granby's farm as walk there to give away free money, but that was Henry. Other than occasionally giving money away, Henry was a pretty smart guy.
He got drafted and marched off to war in '62, about a month after he turned eighteen. He rose up through the ranks pretty quick. They made him a sergeant and moved him from infantry to cavalry: and not just any cavalry, but the proudest division in the South, the 1st Virginia, under General Jeb Stuart. Henry was with the general when the great man fell at Yellow Tavern, and was embarrassed by how inconsequential his own bullet wound, taken in that same battle, was in comparison. He came home with a limp but never had to buy himself a drink in the South again.
As the Federals strangled Virginia in the Summer of '64, Ma and me slunk into Richmond—the last safe place in the Confederacy, or so we'd heard—along with the rest of the unwashed masses from the countryside. I had never known my father. If rumors could be believed—and they usually could, in my experience—he was a common highwayman, holding up travelers in the Virginia backcountry, until one day he disappeared when I was a babe at the breast, blown west by the promise of gold or left along a roadside with a bullet in his head, depending on which rumor you wanted to believe. Either way he was long gone, and we had nothing. Just common white trash in a country full of it.
Richmond, in a lot of ways, reminded me of Tucker's General Store; everything in it was mine for the taking. The city was crowded, and folks were anxious or nervous or pretending what was happening outside the city wasn't really happening. The Confederacy was collapsing, and the distracted upper crust was my own private bank. I made a lot of withdrawals in that last year of the war. Purses, wallets, anything left unattended went straight into my pocket, then to one of the many fences that popped up around the city like mushrooms after a rainstorm, or to buy food, although that became ever harder to get at any price. Henry was bravely defending our homefolk while I mercilessly picked their pockets. Ma died right around the time Lee surrendered at Appomattox, in the Spring of '65, took by a fever. When the war ended, I found myself adrift. I was a leaf floating on a great river, going where the current took me. I had no one to answer to or care for. The world was wide open in front of me. I missed Ma, sure, and Henry. And I felt a vague responsibility to track down my older brother and we could decide, together, the next path in our lives, but for now it felt right to just be. The great current carried me west, as it did for so many others then. Away from war and mass graves and politics and cities and orphanages and veterans' hospitals and military districts, to the lawless new country.
This is all just my long, winding way of saying that it was exceedingly strange to find myself, less than a year later, shivering outside the Broken Top Savings Bank in Dakota territory, while Henry was inside robbing it.
The Dakota sky was dark as a gun barrel and the clouds hung heavy, threatening the season's first snow. The pleasant smell of woodsmoke hung over the seemingly empty town and frost edged the hoofprints of Broken Top's muddy main street, crackling gently with each of my mare's plodding steps. I tucked my leather gloved hands into my armpits and kept my head low, into the upturned collar of my coat. Three riderless horses trailed behind me on long reins.
I walked my four-horse team west, away from the bank and past the stout brick buildings and well-lighted hotels that marked the prosperous end of town. The well-constructed buildings gave way to smaller, shoddier looking wooden structures: saloons, brothels, blacksmith shops, the tannery with its thick chemical smell. Beyond these was Chinatown with its crudely fashioned shacks and tents, where the Freedmen and Chinese laborers lived their hand-to-mouth existences. I tried to look casual as I turned around and headed back toward the bank.
The large clock jutting from the bank's brick face read ten past two. Some mechanical problem with the gears inside made the minute hand stick, quivering, for three minutes at a time, then leap forward in bursts. It took a leap now, to 2:13. Almost time. I kept my easy pace, but my heart hammered in my chest. Everything looked normal, except the guard who normally stood outside was nowhere to be seen, and was in fact, I knew, lying inside with his hands bound tightly behind his back. A single shot rang out from inside the bank, echoing along the storefronts of the empty street, and screams followed.
Henry came out first, wide-eyed, his pistol holstered, a red bandana masking the lower half of his face. He trotted to his horse with his little limp and mounted the Appaloosa with a fluid grace. Joe and Gus came out together, guns drawn. Joe held the familiar hemp sack: the money bag. It was clearly heavy and the sides bulged with bills. Joe cast a wary eye up and down the still empty main street, then the former cavalry captain holstered his gun and effortlessly mounted his own nag. With a practiced hand, he looped the money bag around his saddlehorn and secured it tightly. Gus, fat and sweating and wild-eyed, came last, his bandana pulled below his huge chin, his thick black beard spilling over. He waved his pistol menacingly back inside the bank, then swung onto his own mare and the four of us laid spurs, riding like hell east, kicking up cold clumps of mud, aiming for the spot where Main Street curved sharp like a dog's leg and led out of town and to the wild hill country beyond.
As we neared the bend, I glanced over my shoulder. There, fifty yards back, was a middle-aged balding man in shirtsleeves, calmly walking to the middle of the muddy street. He sank to a knee with a practiced ease and leveled a long rifle at our backs. Nothing to ruin your trousers over, fella, I thought. We'll just be on our way. He rested his left elbow on his knee, closed an eye and took careful aim. Now there's a man that's done this before. The bend was just ahead. I ducked low in my saddle and shouted, "Go! Go! Go!" as I spurred my mare ahead, expecting the fiery pain of a bullet any moment. I angled toward the bend and safety. Twenty yards. Ten. The shot boomed behind, the loudest sound I'd ever heard. Gus, riding beside me, grunted and spun in his saddle. His gun flew from his left hand and landed in the mud with a wet plop just as we made the safety of the corner. Bloody splatters painted his white mare's mane. Gus's blue workshirt had a fist-sized hole in the front, next to his armpit. An alarming amount of blood already stained it black. His left arm hung uselessly at his side, and in his right he clutched something small and shiny. I hurried his mare along with my own as we cleared the last few buildings and the weathered old sign welcoming visitors to Broken Top. Soon, we veered off the main path and onto the old overgrown trail that was supposed to lead us to freedom.
Best Laid Plans
Distance had been our escape plan. The three cavalry veterans could ride superhuman distances, and I, never lacking confidence, was sure I could keep up. We'd spent weeks scouting and provisioning a spot deep in the hills, probably forty miles north of town. We'd found a natural cave that would provide shelter and concealment. We'd ride through the night and hole up for a few weeks, then move on, out of the territory. No one in Broken Top would ever see or hear of us again. Instead, with Gus dying a slow and agonizing death, we stopped at an abandoned mining shack about a mile up the trail. It wasn't far off the path and was almost certain to be discovered by anyone following us, but the veterans insisted we get Gus off his horse and tend to his wound.
The shack was perched on high ground between two boulders, reachable by a footpath that stopped dead at the boarded over mine entrance beyond the shack. And old, rotting set of wooden stairs led to the shack's thick door. The single window was open to the elements. A persistent wind swirled through and had pushed a pile of dead leaves into a back corner and the roof had a hole where the chimney of a long gone woodstove had once poked through.
Gus slumped, moaning in his saddle. A bright streak of Gus's blood ran down his mare's foreleg.
"James, go tie up the horses," said Henry. "Far enough off the trail they won't be noticed, but close enough we can grab 'em quick if we need to. Understand?"
I nodded. Joe and Henry stood to the right of Gus's horse and began easing the fat man down.
"You want me to help with that?" I asked as they awkwardly hefted him, nearly dropping him the last couple feet. Henry had always tended toward skinny, but his war service had left him positively scarecrow-like. Joe, his former captain, was a little stouter, but like many returning Confederates, his gaunt face still showed the effects of the years of starvation rations and brutally long marches and rides. Gus, with his prodigious belly, showed none of those effects. I had also suffered from a shortage of food during the war, but at nineteen, my already broad shoulders and barrel-shaped chest often fit poorly into traditional shirts, a fact made more difficult because I had stolen every shirt I ever remember owning.
"No, I reckon we ought to," replied my brother. "You just get them horses along."
Once they had Gus off his horse and were struggling with him up the steps, I mounted, gathered the reins and led the four horses around the boulders and through the thick underbrush behind the shack. Run, a voice in my head shouted once I was out of sight. Run now, save yourself. I ignored it as I picked my way through the brush. I tied the horses out in a spot easy to find if you knew to look for it.
Another voice in my head hoped for Gus to die quickly, so we could get back to the plan. This one I didn't ignore. I wished we could just leave him and go, but the others often spoke of bonds formed and promises made, of brotherhoods. I could never know what they'd gone through together, but I understood enough to keep my distance and let them handle things their own way. For good or ill, I'd come along with this plot willingly, and now my fate was tied to theirs. Whatever we were about to face, I'd face it with my brother. I slung my saddlebag over my shoulder and walked back to the shack in the gathering darkness.
Gus lay, pale and shivering on the dead leaves, drifting in and out of consciousness. Joe had cut away his blood-soaked shirt. His bone white belly seemed to almost glow in the dim light of the shack. The gaping wound, which Joe had cleaned as best he could with no real supplies, was black and obscene on his nearly hairless chest. A line of blood ran from beneath the leaves and across the slanting floor, tracing a dark trail along the gaps in the rough floorboards.
"That was no amateur," Henry said quietly. "That was a serious weapon, and well aimed."
"Lucky shot," said Joe, squinting out the window.
"My ass. James, you saw him take aim, yeah?"
"And he just happened to take out Gus here? The man who went crazy?" he asked, voice rising.
Henry moved over to Gus's prone body, careful to step over the seeping blood, and stared into the wound. Gus's eyes fluttered sightlessly, somewhere between deep sleep and death, and his slow, ragged breathing was accompanied by an alarming sucking noise from his chest.
"Keep your voice down," Joe said from the window.
Henry's head snapped toward his former commander. He let out a grunt that sounded halfway between a laugh and a sob.
"My voice? You're worried about my voice?" he asked, with no attempt to keep it down. "Do you honestly think we'll survive this night? We're dead. We might as well be waiting outside the bank for the marshals to come scoop us up. How long do you reckon it'll take for them to form a posse and cover the, what, mile between there and here? With Gus bleeding like a damn stuck hog? A blind man could follow our trail. Here we are, lined up like carnival targets while they collect guns and men."
"What would you have us do?" asked Joe. "Leave him?"
Henry paused. "Course not," he said in a near whisper. "I just wish he wouldn't'a killed that girl is all. There was no cause for that."
"Well, what's done is done," Joe replied. "If she woulda done like he said, she'd still be alive."
Henry grunted and moved near the window.
I edged closer to Gus's prostrate form. I was hit with the metallic smell of blood, and with the sharper smell that I associated with animal butchery or skinning a deer: the smell of an animal's insides. In his right hand, he loosely clutched a beautiful golden brooch, worked expertly into the shape of a shamrock, with a green emerald in its center. A jagged bit of blue fabric snaked from the brooch's back.
We kept watch, one after another, all night.
At dawn, Gus died. As he breathed his last, Joe and Henry were drawn to the window by a noise that I hadn't heard. Each man peered out of a corner, gun at the ready. I heard the soft jingle of horse tack outside, then the quiet scrape of a horseshoe against stone. A snapped branch. Henry and Joe remained silent and motionless for what seemed an eternity, staring out the window. I stayed well away. Finally, Joe holstered his pistol and cursed quietly. He moved away from the window. Henry remained, surveying the scene outside. He ticked off the men he counted on his fingers, held up for us to see: two, three, four.
I studied Joe's face in the slowly blooming light. A range of emotions passed over it, almost at once. It was too late to run now. He stood over Gus's body and looked like he wanted to spit on it, then kiss it. Finally, he bent down and snatched the golden brooch from Gus's dead fingers. He stared at it with a sneer as if it, not Gus's hot-headedness, had gotten us into this mess. He closed his fist around the brooch until his knuckles were white with strain. He let out a growl. Henry's head snapped around from the window. Joe's growl turned to a scream. He stepped to the window and flung the brooch far out into the morning air.
The crack of the rifle sounded far away, but the aim was true. The shack was filled with specks of warm blood as Joe's body stiffened awkwardly and fell in a silent heap. Henry scuttled away from the window, until he was sitting next to me along the back wall. Bright red blood pooled from Joe's body and mixed with the tacky, darker blood already kaleidoscoping the wooden floor. I stared at Joe's lifeless body and the gaping hole where the back of his head used to be for a long time before turning to my brother.
Henry also stared at his fallen comrade, horror on his face. Finally, he blinked and shook his head and swallowed hard, as if trying to swallow an emotion.
"Well, hell," he said finally. "That's some damn good shootin. That's two shots, two kills. One a man on horseback, which ain't easy, and this one from a good distance."
I nodded, not sure what to say.
"They gonna come to us, you reckon?" I finally asked.
"Naw, no reason to. We got the high ground and cover. And this rickety shack ain't much, but the walls are sturdy, so they can't just fill it full of lead and be done with it, and they can't burn it without burnin the money. They know they got us outnumbered and outgunned. Coming to us would mean danger. They can just stay put and wait for us to do something stupid or get scared and hungry enough to surrender."
"So what do we do now?"
"I guess we wait. Thinkin' would be good, too. You were always better at that than me. Any ideas?"
I shook my head sadly.
We gazed out the open window at the stark grey sky beyond. The last sky I'll ever see, I thought glumly. I'd never missed the warmth of an early fall in Virginia as much as I did then, although at least the sky here was moody and interesting. No point dying under a boring sky.
Henry put his arm around my shoulders. It was a simple gesture, but one I didn't remember him ever doing before. I had always been big for my age and he small, so we were constantly mistaken for twins growing up. Now, fully grown, I was four inches taller and seventy pounds heavier, so the avuncular gesture probably would have looked ridiculous had anyone seen it, but I leaned against him, this little man who had seen and done so much, who now seemed to belong to a different generation than me, on what was more than likely the last morning of our lives. The war had drawn an invisible but solid line between those who had served and those who had not. He, like so many others, had experienced a lifetime's worth of pain and adventure at a time when he was barely old enough to shave. He seemed to accept the violent deaths of his two best friends matter-of-factly. I suspected he would grieve for them in some private way, but later, when he was out of danger. And it pained me to think how dear that skill must have been to learn.
The sun peeked through the cloud-covered morning. A rectangle of sunlight framed Joe's dead body and slowly crept toward us, but the shack remained bitterly cold.
I finally worked up my courage.
"Henry, there's something I got to tell you."
"You figured a way out of here?"
I chuckled dryly. "No, a confession."
Henry looked at me askance.
"I got drafted."
"No, you were too young," Henry said.
"They moved the conscription age to seventeen in '64," I continued. "I got my notice early that year. In the winter."
Henry dropped his arm from my shoulder and slid away, taking me in with his full gaze, shaking his head rapidly.
"What did you do, James?" he asked.
I couldn't answer.
He repeated the question.
I studied the rotting floorboards and picked absently at a splintered piece. A cold breeze coming up through a gap tickled my palm and fingers.
Finally, I answered in a small voice.
"I didn't do anything. I just ignored the letter. Folks were comin back by then, terms over I guess, or deserters. Sad men with no shoes, no uniforms. Missing arms and legs. Or blind. That was no army I wanted to fight in. Besides, the newspapers said it was all over. They said—"
"Goddammit James! We needed men then. More than ever, maybe. We still had fight in us. If we coulda replaced our losses, why, that mighta been enough."
Henry scooted further away and turned his head to the far wall and crossed his arms.
"Brother's a goddammed coward," he muttered.
I let out a shaky breath and tried to speak. I faltered, began again, then was quiet. Well, that was well timed, James. You're both about to leave this world and that's the note you choose to end on. Still, it felt good to get it off my chest. I'd not only never told anyone, but most days I didn't even allow myself to think on it, sort of like it never happened at all. But it did, of course. Not that I regretted my decision. One more thief—a seventeen-year-old thief at that—added to that ragged army wasn't going to turn the tide of the war. My only regret was that I wouldn't get to share that great adventure that so many had, that thing done in youth that would eventually be the defining moment of a lifetime. And I knew I'd never have friends as close as the three men—one living, two now dead—in the shack. In fact, I would probably never be as close to my own brother as he was to his brothers in arms, but I guess that's just the way of things.
Henry sulked for a long time, avoiding eye contact and mumbling to himself. The rectangle of sunlight on the floor narrowed as it moved right to left before the afternoon clouds snuffed it out. Henry trained his gun loosely on the door while I moved my hand back and forth over the breeze coming out of the floor, feeling it gently push my fingers and brush the fine hairs on the back of my hand. Suddenly, I froze.
"Hey big brother."
"Yeah?" Still sulking.
"You feel this wind coming out of the floor?"
"The wind. From under the floor. Do you feel it?" I asked, moving my hand back and forth to show him. He felt along the boards.
"No. Wait, yeah, there it is. What about it?"
"It's gotta be coming from somewhere, right? Somewhere outside."
The realization struck him. Our hands flew over the boards, mapping out the places where the subfloor had rotted away, where there might be a path to freedom. The area was about three feet square, against the back corner of the shack. We tried working our fingers into the gaps but they were too narrow. The boards were still sturdy, and there was nothing in the shack to pry them loose.
I rummaged through my saddlebag, past the hardtack, ammunition, blanket, and horse brush, and finally found a box of wooden matches. We pried a few slivers from the floor and walls and Henry grabbed a fistful of greenbacks from the overstuffed money bag and wadded them. He laid the crumpled bills in the center of a floorboard, where the breeze wouldn't knock the flame out straightaway, and I stacked my small collection of kindling on top, like I was building a miniature campfire.
I struck the match and held it to a twenty. The bill darkened as a line of flame spread across, but the flame wouldn't take.
"Cotton," I said. "The bills are made of cotton so they don't tear as easy. I guess that means they don't burn so well either."
I brushed the crumpled notes away and carefully reconstructed the teepee of small splinters. The next match I held directly to the wood. It finally took, a hesitant, sickly little flame. We gently fanned it, silently willing it to catch the boards beneath. The wood was dry and there was little smoke, but I knew the men in the woods would smell it right away even if they couldn't see it, and they would know something was going on. They would be fine, I was sure, with us burning ourselves to death, but they wouldn't let us take the money with us.
The old pine boards proved a willing fuel to the expanding fire. We waved our hats over the hungry flames to dissipate the smoke and help the fire spread. The dry boards crackled and buckled as the flames grew. After a couple of minutes I stood, crouching, and stomped at the center of the fire, sending sparks and embers dancing, but the floor held. I braced myself on the wall and stomped again. This time the boards gave a little. I stood taller and stomped with everything I had. My foot broke through with a sharp crack. Bits of wood and flame rained down, briefly illuminating a small hollow beneath the floor. Now wind rushed up through the hole, flaring the remaining flames. Henry went to work prying up the ends of the burnt boards with his thick leather cavalry gloves. They came easier now, snapping in the burnt places. Soon the hole looked big enough to shimmy through.
"Okay," Henry panted. "Go on down there and check it out. I'll keep an eye on our friends out there."
I chuckled. "Brother," I said, "unless you've got a vat of butter stashed away in here somewhere, there's not a chance on God's green earth that I'm fitting through that hole. Now wriggle your skinny ass down there and see if there's a way out. I'll keep an eye out."
Henry hesitated, then took off his hat and gun belt and patted down an area of smoldering wood. He sat, perched on the edge of the small hole, his feet disappearing into the darkness below.
"I love you, big brother," I said.
He looked at me queerly. The last—and only, as far as I remembered—time I'd ever told him that was the day he'd gone off to war in his stiff butternut uniform, five long years before.
"I love you too, James. And hey . . . "
I looked at him.
"I'm glad you didn't come fight in that stupid war. Too many good men died for a bad cause. You were right to not come."
Then he was gone. I lowered his gunbelt and hat down into the darkness.
"I see light!" he said moments later, his voice drifting up from what seemed like very far away. "There's a gap in the rocks. It's pretty small, but I think . . . yeah, I can fit."
I moved near Gus's body. I grabbed a double handful of leaves and came back and dropped them onto the fire. The thin blue smoke gave way to a boiling white cloud as the fire hungrily flared. The shack filled immediately. I dropped to the floor and sucked in fresh air from the hole.
"Henry?" I shouted into the hole, stifling a cough.
"Yeah?" his voice came back, like that of a ghost.
"Are you out?"
"Yeah, but it's tight. I think I'll have to pull you through somehow."
"Henry, listen. Head dead north about a quarter mile. You'll come to a small meadow. The horses are tied along the eastern edge. Go. Get your horse, ride as fast and as far as you can, and never look back."
"Now wait a minute—"
I closed my eyes against the burn and waited at the hole, but it was silent. Good. I pulled my gun, crawled to the window, stood and opened my eyes. As I blinked the burn away, I saw two men outside, yards from the stairs, moving toward the shack, pistols in hand. I crouched back down and heaved the heavy money bag over my head and out the window. Then I raised my gun and fired two quick shots, far enough away to not hit them, but near enough, I hoped, to pin them down. I sat with my back to the wall, listening, until a coughing fit overtook me. When that passed, I heard nothing over the hiss and pop of the fire. I put the gun out and fired twice more, blindly.
The coughing was worse now, wracking my whole body. I laid on my side and pressed my nose and mouth into the rough floorboards, trying to stay below the smoke. I watched specks of dirt move in and out in rhythm with my hoarse breathing, until a painful cough blew them away, creating a small, clean spot in front of my face. I closed my eyes. I felt pleasantly warm. The rickety stairs groaned under the weight of the men as I lost consciousness.