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By Nick Wright
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2010 Nick Wright
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Chapter OneThe young bloods of the South ... are brave, fine riders, bold to rashness, and dangerous subjects in every sense ... as long as they have good horses, plenty of forage, and an open country they are happy ... they are the most dangerous set of men that this war has turned loose upon the world. They are splendid riders, first-rate shots, and utterly reckless. -William Tecumseh Sherman
Okalakna Marsh, West Tennessee, Thursday, July 31, 1862:
Flash ... flash ... flash ... The flicker of reflected light was easily visible for a great distance under the brassy blue sky. There was a pause and then again-flash ... flash ... flash.
Platoon Sergeant Alfred Helms held tightly to the big oak tree's upper trunk with one arm and balanced his highly polished Arkansas Toothpick in his other hand. Maintaining the correct angle, he reflected sunlight in the proper direction a third time-flash ... flash ... flash.
The air was still and warm in the tree where Helms had climbed an hour earlier to hack away enough limbs to give a clear line-of-sight. Beads of sweat rolled down his ribs and occasionally dripped from the tip of his nose or chin. Paying no attention to the perspiration, Helms kept his eyes and his attention on the distant rise where he knew his squadron leader awaited the signal. Helms couldn't see Tim Barnes, but he knew his commanding officer could see the reflection. They had practiced this maneuver the previous morning to make sure it worked. The timing of the whole assault depended on Helms' signal.
Below the sergeant, at the base of the old oak, two newly qualified sharpshooters remained alert as guards and lookouts for the man in the tree. The remainder of Helms' three squads lay concealed in a small wooded depression fifty yards away. When the fighting began, he and his platoon would follow the railroad tracks to prevent the Federals from escaping in that direction.
Concealed in a lush hummock a quarter of a mile away from the railroad tracks waited a tall, narrow-hipped man wearing the same non-uniform as his men, including their characteristic tan riding- duster. The brim of a flat-crowned, sweat-stained hat shaded his impassive face, darkened by years in the sun. The hat also partially hid the patch bandage above his left ear. From beneath a mature hackberry tree, he observed the situation unfolding before him from half-closed eyes, squinting against the glare in the direction of the approaching locomotive. He was, according to the belles of Charleston, South Carolina where he grew up, and to those he had met since leaving there, a handsome man. Broad shoulders and straightforward features accentuated the well-trimmed moustache and small beard surrounding his mouth and covering his chin. Flecks of premature gray accentuated the hair on his head and on his face. However, his most notable features were the cryptic green eyes that lightened or darkened according to his mood. To the ladies, and to friends, he had the thoughtful, honest look of a philosopher; his enemies saw the hard penetrating glare of a killer. The truth was, Tim Barnes had been both in his short life. Although he wore no brass or braid, nor any other mark of rank, Timothy John Barnes was, at the age of twenty-one, a major in the Confederate Army.
Using his field glasses, Barnes saw Helms' signal moments before he heard the dull, monotonous chuff, chuff, of the resupply train guarded by Union soldiers from the depot at Jackson. Right on time. According to his advance scouts, the number of cars varied, depending on the size of the escort, but at least one company of Union soldiers always accompanied the train. Usually more.
A glance at his two couriers relayed a silent message sending them in opposite directions to inform the cannoneers positioned a hundred yards away to the left and to the right. Only Barnes had the correct angle to see the signal. Alone now, he checked the load in his foster father's old Colt in the holster on his hip and then did the same with the over-sized La Mat in the holster hanging from his right shoulder. He was not the type of officer to simply observe; he led the Rangers into battle, not merely sent them off to fight.
Midsummer 1862 was a difficult time for the United States Army in the Western Theater. It was deep in enemy territory, threatened by determined, well-organized, and resourceful bands of regular and irregular cavalry at all times. These disciplined partisan groups operated within the military chain of command and appeared behind enemy lines, surprising isolated outposts and capturing Union supplies and troops. The summer was hot and dry; low water in the Tennessee River curtailed larger boat traffic, putting greater dependence upon the railroad from Columbus, Kentucky as a main source of supply into northern Mississippi and Alabama. Many bridges and culverts marked the one hundred forty miles of track and it took strong forces to protect it from guerrilla damage. The Arkansas Rangers were one such guerilla band-Tim Barnes commanded the Rangers.
Barnes counted on the train's engineer having to slow from his usual fifteen miles per hour on his approach to the long turn around Clay Mountain. On this run, the train consisted of only a fuel tender, two passenger coaches, three platform cars, a box car, and a modified box car at the end usually reserved for the conductor. The severity of the turn required a lower speed for the approaching train. A lower speed was critical to Barnes' plan.
Clay Mountain was not a mountain. By most standards it was not even a decent hill. Only about one hundred feet high, its sides sloped gently down to a base about a quarter of a mile wide and three quarters of a mile long; the short side of the hill jutted toward the Hatchee River. However, Clay Mountain was composed mostly of yellow-red clay, the result of a geological quirk two to three million years ago when liquefied clay thrust upward from far below through a fault in the Earth's crust. Time, weather, and erosion had worn down and rounded off the up-thrust, leaving what now existed.
More recently, only decades before, an unidentified settler with a sense of humor, or at least a sense of irony, gave the almost vegetation-less clay hill its incongruous name. He was wandering west from the Smokies in Eastern Tennessee and had missed the mountains of his birth and boyhood. Eventually, wanderlust moved in and the settler moved on, searching for adventure, or perhaps bigger mountains somewhere beyond the setting sun. This time, other pioneers had settled the region and the illogical name stuck.
For centuries, beginning sometime after the creation of Clay Mountain, the Hatchie River had meandered north out of Mississippi, and later west, to eventually empty into the Mississippi River between Memphis and Fort Pillow. Along its way it cut through rich soil of Tennessee timberland, former home of the Chickasaw Indians. As the river lazily flowed along, sometimes spreading into almost unmoving bayous and bottomlands, it wore away the soft layer of fertile soil from the base of the clay hill. In the last decade, the New Orleans, Jackson, and Great Northern Railroad Company cut a rail bed and laid track between the marsh and the misnamed rounded dome of treeless scrub running parallel to the river's north side.
The Hatchie River spread out and barely continued to flow northward at a place called Okalakna Marsh. The marsh was one of numerous cypress swamps that identified that section of the Hatchie. The Chickasaws named that particular wetland long before the United States government forced them from their ancestral home and relocated them in territory west of Arkansas and Missouri. The name remained even though the Chickasaws did not.
Between the shallow adjunct to the river and gradually extending out and away from the railroad tracks and the base of the clay hill lay a fifty-yard-wide gravel shelf interspersed with pepper vine and struggling black gum and water ash trees. During the rainy season the shelf was often submerged but today it was high and dry, and sweltering. Inside the front edge of the marsh, one hundred yards from the railway, was a parcel of high ground, this one covered with pine and hardwood trees and actually referred to locally as a hill, although it did not warrant a name. Any good military tactician would recognize the wooded rise as an almost perfect location to oversee the ambush of a train. That hill was Barnes' temporary command post.
Tim knew from his scouts' reports, prepared over several days of observation, that two and a half minutes after Helms' signal the big steam engine would nose into the first turn. Forty-five seconds later the entire train would be in view for half a minute before the engine continued into the next turn and out of sight from the exposed rock bar-plenty of time if Whitlow cut his fuses correctly. Leaning against the rough, furrowed bark of a water tupelo for support, Barnes raised his field glasses to again scan an area of dark green above and to the left of his position. Although not visible, he knew that Sergeant Gaffney Whitlow's Battery A was in position. That was good. They manned the six-pounder cannon seized from the Federals the day Barnes was wounded and later captured.
Unlike the rock bar, the air was cool under the trees on the hummock. There was also the oddly satisfying odor of dampness and decay. The smell, lifting from stagnant pools and from rotting vegetation, mingled with the fresh aroma of pines and hemlock. It called to mind fishing trips to the lowland swamps near Charleston. Behind and to his right, the young major searched for, but could not see Battery B. That too, was good. The small mountain howitzer captured in a raid on a Federal wagon train was in position and ready to contribute to the attack on the approaching locomotive. Sergeant Cade Littlepage and his five-man squad were eager to prove their value and the need for continued use of artillery with the hard riding, distance-covering cavalrymen of the Arkansas Rangers.
Between Barnes' position on the wooded knoll and the railroad tracks at the base of Clay Mountain, Captain Grady Fogarty and half the squadron hid across the rock-strewn bank exposed by low water. Under the cloudless sky and summer heat the men had dragged all the deadfall and blow-down they could find to construct a fortification of sorts woven between the few existing large rocks and scrubby trees. Sweat trickled unnoticed from under the hats of one hundred sun-browned faces as they watched the railroad tracks with red-rimmed eyes. Their carbines were ready for the signal to open fire; their distinctive tan dusters blended with the sun-heated rocks on which they lay. As always, each man wore a long Bowie knife sheathed on their belt and at least two revolvers in holsters or stuck behind their belts. They also had their shotguns ready in case the officers ordered them even closer after the fighting began. The shotguns, many of them with barrels shortened for convenience, were much more effective, and intimidating, than noisy, cumbersome swords. Not even Ranger officers wore swords, except for Fogarty who carried a captured broken Yankee sword in place of a Bowie Knife.
"How many of 'em do ya reckon there is, Rom?" whispered Remus Mabry to his twin brother. A thrush, startled by the voice, flitted from one dead branch near Mabry's head to another, and then escaped down a narrow lane of lily pad-choked water. As Remus spoke, he slowly, almost casually swatted into the cloud of mosquitoes that seemed to engulf their heads.
Not far from the Mabry brothers, Reece LeBeau, the seasoned and practical squadron sergeant heard Remus' voice. He frowned for a moment and considered motioning for silence, but then relented. Aw, let 'em be, He told himself in a rare moment of forgiveness. Billy Yank isn't goin' ta be able ta hear anything over the noise of that steam engine. Still, it'll be best to set 'em both straight later. Bad habits're hard ta break. He let his look linger on the Mabrys a moment longer and then turned back to wait for the full length of the train to come into view.
Romulus had seen LeBeau start to speak and was relieved to see the sergeant's head turn back to the tracks. No one wanted to be on LeBeau's bad side. The black-bearded Kentuckian released a small sigh and answered his brother, making sure to maintain a low whisper. "Somebody said there'd prob'ly be at least four companies of 'em. That'd make it 'bout two 'a them ta ever one 'a us." He gave a chuckle that sounded more like a snort and quickly looked to see if LeBeau had heard. If he did, he didn't indicate so.
"That'll make it a more even fight-for them," continued a relieved Romulus, smiling to himself at his comparison and adjusting his prone position on the rocky ground.
"Ya reckon them boys on tha cannons'll be able to hit tha train?" persisted Remus. Both Mabry boys were fearless under fire but waiting was nearly as hard on Remus as it was on Grady Fogarty. Remus' nervous impulse was to talk; Fogarty rarely got nervous, he simply enjoyed talking. Not talking was much more difficult than fighting was for Fogarty, Tim Barnes' long-time friend.
"They ain't never fired them things in a fight." Remus swatted at another mosquito and wiped a blood-smear on his sleeve before looking over his shoulder, trying to guess the cannons' positions. "Do ya reckon they'll get it right, Rom?"
"Little Gaff knows what he's doin'." His younger brother looked up to Romulus, the older twin by five minutes. He scratched at his heavy black beard, "Don't forget he shot them things at Shiloh 'fore he got his leg blowed off. He may be young 'an one-legged, but I got a lotta trust in 'im. More important, tha Majer trusts 'im, an' you know well as me that tha Majer ain't often wrong." Either Romulus' words or his soothing tone, perhaps both, seemed good enough for Remus and the younger Mabry, to his brother's relief, checked his load and relaxed and waited-quiet now ... satisfied.
A warning blast from the engineer's whistle sounded as the dark green engine pulled its bright yellow cars into the long curve around Clay Mountain. At the sound, a slate-gray heron emitted its distinctive harsh croak, flexed its knees, and gracefully lifted away from the water's edge and circled effortlessly to a less intrusive part of the marsh to continue searching undisturbed for its next meal. Satisfied, Barnes left his vantage point to make his way through the low water toward the tracks. The time for observation was over; now it was time for participation.
On the rock bar, adrenalin coursed through the waiting Rangers. They put pocket Bibles away, cleared their thoughts of wives and girl friends-and dying. They took deep breaths, slowly releasing air as fingers tightened on triggers. Mouths were dry and many of the men wished they had taken a last sip of water from their canteen-but it was too late for that now.
Entering the long, semicircular turn, the engineer leveled a second piercing whistle-blast and across the rock bar muscles tensed as the Rangers' concentration was on the approaching train. All they needed now was Captain Fogarty's command to commence firing. But first they would announce their presence.
Nestled on a dense, dry mound, Gaffney Whitlow stood evenly balanced on his sound leg and the wooden replacement he and Captain Augustus Mundy had constructed out of white oak. It took three attempts, making improvements each time, but they at last arrived at an articulated wood and leather-strap device that worked so well that most people did not even notice a limp. They even fashioned a wooden foot to fit the boot at the bottom of Whitlow's pants leg.
The young cannoneer did not think about his missing limb as he eagerly watched the engine nose into view. Mentally, he reviewed his checklist one final time; he knew he had followed the manual but he continued to debate with himself.
Am I up ta this? Sure I am. Ain't I? Majer Barnes an' them thinks so.
But I wasn't a gunner over at Shiloh. I only carried the loads from the limber to the cannon.... Yeah, but I've drilled as a gunner.
He recalled the constant drills Lieutenant Trent Zimmerman put his gun crews through, with each man, regardless of his regular assignment, having to learn the duties of each of the other positions. At the time Whitlow and his crewmates considered it a waste of time, but now he was grateful for Zimmerman's insistence. In his short tenure as cannoneer for the Rangers, Whitlow had adopted the same philosophy.
Everthin'll be all right; ol' Zim trained us good. I cain't mess this up, tha Rangers are dependin' on me. Tha Rangers? ... Heck, I'm a Ranger now myself.
Excerpted from Barnes by Nick Wright Copyright © 2010 by Nick Wright. Excerpted by permission.
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