Bone by Bone

Bone by Bone

by Peter Matthiessen

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"Watson's voice is an artistic triumph. . .[Bone by Bone] may well come to be regarded as a classic." —San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

In Bone by Bone, Peter Matthiessen speaks in the extraordinary voice of the enigmatic and dangerous E. J. Watson, whom we first saw, obliquely, through the eyes of his early


"Watson's voice is an artistic triumph. . .[Bone by Bone] may well come to be regarded as a classic." —San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

In Bone by Bone, Peter Matthiessen speaks in the extraordinary voice of the enigmatic and dangerous E. J. Watson, whom we first saw, obliquely, through the eyes of his early twentieth-century Everglades community in Killing Mister Watson.

This astonishing new novel, calling to account the violence, virulent racism, and destruction of the land that fueled the so-called American Dream, points an accusing finger straight into the burning eyes of Uncle Sam. Here is the bloodied child of the Civil War and Reconstruction who dreams of recovering the family plantation. He becomes the gifted cane planter nearing success on a wilderness river when he gives in fatally to his accumulating demons. Powerfully imagined, prodigiously detailed, Bone by Bone is a literary tour de force as bold and ambitious as Watson himself.

"Like a true tragic figure, [Watson] knows and understands; he does not wriggle to save his own skin," said The New York Times. "This is a work of genuine dignity."

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Bone by Bone is a superb novel, one that succeeds dramatically on every level. I read it in great gulps, up each night later than I wanted to be in my hungry impatience to find out more, and more." —Joseph Heller

"A masterpiece." —Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Bone by Bone has all the lineaments of greatness." —The Washington Post

Sven Birkerts
Here is Watson himself, wielding a powerful and laconically lyrical prose, narrating his life....Like a true tragic figure, he knows and understands; he does not wriggle to save his own skin. This is a work of genuine dignity. Matthiessen has worked with...patient strokes to accomplish the hard thing. He has shown us what happens when the heart's fine fiber gets twisted at the root, what a world of pain springs forth from that damage.
New York Times Book Review
The Wall Street Journal
Bone by Bone has all the lineaments of greatness...there is much to admire and savor here.
Chicago Tribune
The raw power of this novel comes from the life force of Edgar Watson...out of the sinews of Edgar Watson is constructed a real American anti-hero. Finish it.
Denver Post
Bone by Bone is Peter Matthiessen's stunning conclusion to the Mister Watson triology. Writing with attention to the details of personalities as well as to an untamed natural backdrop, Matthiessen concludes the body of work with an unexpected show of force...It is a haunting, enveloping work of fiction that breathes with realism. Matthiessen uses a fine brush to create a picture of human struggles against an unforgiving nature in the years leading up to and following the end of the 19th century. A reading of the preceding books in this trilogy can only add to the appreciation of the awesome power of this finale.
St. Peterburg Times
Truly an epic: always interesting, sometimes fascinating, occasionally breathtaking...viewed as part of a trilogy or a single volume...and Bone by Bone stands up very well on its own.. this is remarkable work.
Outside Magazine
Bone By Bone is a grand achievement: Matthiessen has created an all-too-human character who struggles mightily with evil, redemption, and haunted regret.
Library Journal
It's not quite accurate to say that this novel brings Matthiessen's trilogy on E.J. Watson to a satisfying conclusion, not because the novel is not itself splendid but because its events precede those in Killing Mister Waston and Lost Man's River. In the first two books, Watson looms even after death as a tough, violent, larger-than-life figure whose origins and motivations remain enigmatic. Here, Matthiessen goes back to Watson's beginnings as a young boy growing up in a down-on-its-luck Southern family during and after the war, with a vicious father who failed as a soldier but beats his boy senseless and a mother who scorns her ill-bred spouse but won't protect her son. The roots of Watson's violence aren't just familial but societal, however, which is evident in the first pages of the book as the boy observes a murdered runaway slave with a mix of sorrow and cool indifference. Readers can see how the system of slavery cheapened life for everyone it touched, and in the story that follows, the boy's constant betrayal by those around him is neatly balanced by his own implacable savagery. Matthiessen makes you feel, viscerally, how hate begets hate. A rich, provocative novel, sometimes overwritten, but who cares? -- Barbara Hoffert
Ron Charles
...[H]is new novel is a work of art....[It] conveys the kind of Shakespearan insight into human nature that outsrips what nonfiction can do....He's captured the nature of a murderer who fully comprehends the horror and waste of his crimes.
The Christian Science Monitor
Entertainment Weekly
This dense, mesmerizing novel will leaver readers stunned...
A dense, fascinating trilogy...quirky, brilliant, obsessive, panoramic.
Kirkus Reviews
The concluding volume of Matthiessen's Florida trilogy (Killing Mister Watson,1990; Lost Man's River, 1997) brings stunningly alive sugarcane farmer, patriarch, and multiple murderer E.J. Watson, whose life and crimes have been detailed by his contemporaries and descendants, including his estranged son Lucius. This time, Watson himself tells the story, beginning in South Carolina in the aftermath of the Civil War. Edgar grows up among a tense family dominated by his brutal and drunken father Elijah ("Lige"), an unregenerate racist, and fragmented by its mixed opinion about his abolitionist Uncle Selden ("The Traitor"), whose idealism exacts a heavy toll. Violently rejecting his father's tyranny, Edgar leaves home, works on a Watson family plantation in Georgia, moves west (where he earns a reputation as "fugitive and frontier desperado" and as the probable murderer of Belle Starr), before returning to the South to build an empire near Key West as a prosperous cane merchant. This is Matthiessen's Absalom, Absalom!: a richly imagined, compulsively readable chronicle of the progress and hard times of its powerfully imagined central figure. In strikingly cadenced prose (at times reminiscent of Robert Penn Warren's long stately sentences), Watson—an intense autodidact who "loved to talk elaborately in the elegant English found in books, and loved to tell stories"—emerges as a fascinating bundle of contradictions: a much-married husband and father hellbent on shaping a world fit for his kin to inhabit; a ruthless predator indifferent to the fragile ecology of Florida's pristine Everglades; a child of his culture's racial divisions forever shadowed by the "darker brother" whocontains both his hidden and better selves; and a perpetrator of violence whose "outlaw" legend far outstrips the actual evil he commits. A brilliant character study, and a provocative commentary on the "capitalist energies" that built modern America.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Watson Trilogy Series, #3
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.16(w) x 7.97(h) x 0.95(d)

Read an Excerpt

Oh Mercy, cries the Reader. What? Old Edgefield again?
It must be Pandemonium itself, a very District of Devils!
-Parson Mason L. Weems

Edgefield Court House

Edgefield Court House, which gave its name to the settlement which grew from a small crossroads east of the Savannah River, is a white-windowed brick edifice upon a hill approached by highroads from the four directions, as if drawing the landscape all around to a point of harmony and concord. The building is faced with magisterial broad steps on which those in pursuit of justice may ascend from Court House Square to the brick terrace. White columns serve as portals to the second-story courtroom, and an arched sunrise window over the door fills that room with austere light, permitting the magistrate to freshen his perspective by gazing away over the village roofs to the open countryside and the far hills, blue upon blue.

Early in the War, a boy of six, I was borne lightly up those steps on the strong arm of my father. On the courthouse terrace, I gazed with joy at this  tall man in Confederate uniform who stood with his hand shielding his eyes, enjoying the fine prospect of the Piedmont, bearing away toward the northwest and the Great Smoky Mountains. In those nearer distances lay the Ridge, where a clear spring appeared out of the earth to commence its peaceful slow descent through woodland and plantation to the Edisto River. This tributary was Clouds Creek, where I was born.

On that sunny day when we climbed to the terrace, my father, Elijah Daniel Watson, rode away to war and childhood ended. As a "Daughter of Edgefield," his wife Ellen, with me and my little sister, waved prettily from the courthouse steps as the First Edgefield Volunteers assembled on the square. Her handsome Lige, wheeling his big roan and flourishing a crimson pennant on his saber, pranced in formation in the company of cavalry formed and captained by his uncle Tillman Watson. Governor Andrew Pickens saluted the new company from the terrace, and so did Mama's cousin Selden Tilghman, the first volunteer from our Old Edgefield District and its first casualty. Called to the top step to inspire his townsmen, the young cavalry officer used one crutch to wave the blue flag of the Confederacy.

Hurrah, hurrah, for Southern rights, hurrah! Hurrah for the bonnie blue flag that flies the single star!

Governor Pickens roared, "May the brave boys of Edgefield defend to the death the honor and glory of our beloved South Carolina, the first great sovereign state of the Confederacy to secede from the Yankee Union!" And Cousin Selden, on some mad contrary impulse, dared answer the Governor's exhortation by crying out oddly in high tenor voice, "May the brave boys of Edgefield defend to their deaths our sovereign right to enslave the darker members of our human species."

The cheering faltered, then died swiftly to a low hard groan like an ill wind. Voices catcalled rudely in the autumn silence. Most citizens gave the wounded lieutenant the benefit of the doubt, concluding that he must have been dead drunk. He had fought bravely and endured a grievous wound, and he soon rode off to war again, half-mended.

Clouds Creek

When the War was nearly at an end, and many slaves were escaping to the North, a runaway was slain by Overseer Claxton on my great-uncle's plantation at Clouds Creek.

Word had passed the day before that Dock and Joseph were missing. At the racketing echo of shots from the creek bottoms, I yelped in dismay and dropped my hoe and lit out across the furrows toward the wood edge, trailing the moaning of the hounds down into swamp shadows and along wet black mud margins, dragged at by thorns and scratched by tentacles of old and evil trees.
I saw Dock first-dull stubborn Dock, lashed to a tree-then the overseer whipping back his hounds, then two of my great-uncles, tall and rawboned on rawboned black horses. The overseer's pony shifted in the shadows. Behind the boots and milling legs, the heavy hoof stamp and horse shivers, bit jangle and creak of leather, lay a lumped thing in earth-colored homespun. I was panting so hard that my wet eyes could scarcely make out the broken shoes, the legs hard-twisted in the bloody pants, the queer gray thing stuck out askew from beneath the chest-how could that thing be the limber hand that had offered nuts or berries, caught my mistossed balls, set young "Mast' Edguh" on his feet after a fall? All in a bunch, the fingers had contracted like the toes of a stunned bird, closing on nothing.

At daybreak Mr. Claxton, on the lookout, had seen a small smoke rising from a far corner of the swamp. His horse was saddled and he did not wait for help, just loosed his hounds and rode on down there. The runaways had fled his dogs, obliging him to shoot and wound them both-that was his story. He was marching them home when this damned Joseph sagged down like a croker sack, pissing his pants. "I told that other'n over yonder, Shut up your damn moanin. Told him, Stand that son-bitch on his feet, I ain't got all day. Done my duty, Major, but it weren't no use."

Major Tillman Watson and Elijah Junior sat their horses, never once dismounted. My great-uncles chewed on Claxton's story. The dead boy's wet homespun was patched dark and stuck with dirt, and a faint piss stink mixed with dog smell and the sweet musk of horses. "Wet his damn pants," the overseer repeated to no one in particular, awaiting the judgment of those mounted men. He was a closed-face man, as hard as wire.

"You have no business here," Great-Uncle Elijah Junior told me, not because night was coming on or because I was too young to witness this grim sight but because I was certainly neglecting whichever chore I had abandoned without leave. To the overseer he never spoke, confining his exasperation to muttered asides in the direction of his older brother concerning "the waste of a perfectly good nigger."

Major Tillman Watson, home from war, seemed more disturbed by Claxton's viciousness. "Dammit, Z.P., you trying to tell us these boys was aiming to outrun them hounds of yours? How come you had to go and pull the trigger?" He was backing his big horse, reining its wild-eyed head away toward home. "Close his eyes, goddamnit." He was utterly fed up. "Go fetch a cart."
"I reckon he'll keep till mornin," Claxton muttered, sullen.

Major Tillman frowned down on me, in somber temper. "What do you want here, boy?" (Badly enough to run out here barefoot, that's what he meant.) "It's almost dark," he called, half-turned in the saddle. "You're not afraid out here? All by yourself?"
"Yessir. I mean, nosir."

"Nosir." The Major grunted. "You're a Watson anyways, I'll say that much. All the same, you best go on home while there's still light, and don't go worrying your poor mama." The old soldier rode away through the dark trees.
"Tell them niggers bring the wagon if they want him!" the overseer bawled, not wishing to be heard. Receiving no answer, he swore foully. "Niggers'll come fetch him or they won't-that sure ain't my job." He did not bother to shut the black boy's eyes. "Too bad it weren't this monkey here," he rasped, stripping the bonds from the wounded Dock, who yelped with each rough jerk of the hemp line.

Though Claxton had grumped in my direction, he had paid me no attention until this moment. "What in the name of hell you want? Ain't never seen a dead nigger before?" He climbed gracelessly onto his horse, cracked his hide whip like a mule skinner. "Nosir, I ain't goin to no damn court, cause I ain't broke no law. Just done my job." The slave stumbled forward, with the man on horseback and lean hounds behind. In single file against the silver water of the swamp, they moved away into the dusk. "You aim to leave him here alone?" I called. Out in the swamp all night? All by himself? With the owls and snakes and varmints?-that's what I meant. It sounded absurd, and Claxton snorted, cursing his fate because he dared not curse a Watson, even a Watson as young and poor as me.

In the dusk, the forest gathered and drew close. Behind me, the body lay in wait. Alone with a woodland corpse at nightfall, I was scared. I peered at the earthen lump between my fingers, retreating from its great loneliness. In the dusk he seemed to withdraw, as if already rotting down amongst the roots and ferns, skin melding with the black humus of the swamp, as if over the night this bloodied earth must take him back-as if all of his race were doomed to be buried here in darkness, while white folks were laid in sunny meadows in the light of Heaven.

On long-gone sunny Sabbath mornings of those years before the War, before the restless and ungrateful Africans were banished from our churches, I would run with the black children into the bare-earth yards back in the quarters, scattering dusty pigs and scraggy roosters to make room for hide-and-seek and tag and jump-rope games, or go crowding into Aunt Cindy's

cramped dark cabin to be lifted and hugged and fed molasses biscuits, fatback or clabber, hominy, sometimes wild greens. And in those slave cabins on a Sunday morning I was always looked after by this sweet-voiced Joseph, who went out of his way to make the white child welcome.

Now that shining face had thickened like a mask with its stopped blood, and bloodied humus crusted its smooth cheek. I stood transfixed by the glare in those brown eyes. The dead I had seen before, even as a child, but not the killed. Until Mama protested, our cousin Selden, home from war, had related philosophically that the corpse of a human being slain in violence and left broken where it fell looked nothing at all like the sedate family cadaver, eyes closed and pale hands folded in its bed or coffin, scrubbed and perfumed, combed and suited up in Sunday best for the great occasion. Only those, said he, who touched their lips to the cool forehead one last time knew that faint odor of cold meat left too long.

In violent death, Cousin Selden said, even one's beloved-and here he looked sardonically at Mama, whose husband he "cordially" disliked-looked like a strange thing hurled down out of Heaven. Cousin Selden was well-read and liked to talk in that peculiar manner. Not that black Joseph had been my "beloved," I don't mean that. Joseph was guilty and the laws were strict, and had he lived, he would have been flogged half to death, as  Dock would be. But Joseph had been kind to me, he had been kind. I was still young and could not help my unmanly feelings.

Damn you, Joseph-that yell impelled me forward, for in a moment I was kneeling by his side, trying to pull him straight, trying to fold his arms across his chest. The dead are heavy, as I learned that day, and balky, too. He would not lay still the way I wanted him. The brown eyes, wide in the alarm of dying, were no longer moist with life but dry and dull. I was terrified of his company, I had to go.

The forehead, was drained of blood and life, like the cool and heavy skin of a smooth toadstool. Drawing the eyelids down, my finger flinched, so startled was it by how delicate they were, and how naturally and easily they closed. Where the shock lay was not in the strange temperature but in the protruding firmness of the orb beneath, under thin petals-I had never imagined that human eyes were so hard. A moment later, one lid rose-only a little, very very slowly-in a kind of squint.

I don't recall how I reached my feet, that's how quick I jumped and ran. Joseph! I'm sorry! To the horseman, I hollered, Wait!
"Just goes to show you," the overseer was muttering as I caught up. "There is such a thing as too much nigger spirit." I did not ask what that might mean, and anyway, I doubted if he knew.

As for my fear, it was nothing more than common dread of swamps and labyrinths, of dusk, of death-the shadow places. Yet poor black Joseph sprawled unburied in the roots, losing all shape and semblance to the coming night, was an image etched in my mind's eye all my life.

My grandfather Artemas Watson had died in 1841 at the age of forty. His second wife, Lucretia Daniel, had predeceased him three years earlier, at age thirty, and my father-Elijah Daniel Watson-born in 1834, was therefore an orphan at an early age. However, the family held considerable wealth. Grandfather Artemas had owned sixty-nine slaves, with like numbers distributed among his brothers. Upon his death, his estate was mostly left to his eldest son, my uncle James, who became my father's keeper. In 1850, at age fifteen, Papa still held real estate and property in the amount of $15,000, by no means a negligible sum, but he seems to have squandered most of his inheritance by the time he married Mama five years later, mostly on gambling and horses.

The marriage of a Clouds Creek Watson was duly recorded in the Edgefield Marriage Records: Elijah D. Watson and Ellen C. Addison, daughter of the late John A. Addison, January 25, 1855. My maternal grandfather, Colonel Addison, had commissioned the construction of the courthouse from which the village took its name (and in which his unlucky daughter's husband, in the years to come, would make regular appearances as a defendant). His pretty Ellen was an orphan, her mother having died at age twenty-five, but she had been a ward in a rich household-she was given her own slave girl, and piano lessons-until the day she was married off to young Elijah. They had little in common other than the fact that their fathers had died in 1841, and both were orphans.

"Where is that honor now? In taking a dishonorable revenge in cowardly acts of terror in the night, do we not dishonor those who died? Neighbors, hear me, I beseech you. Our 'Great Lost Cause' was never 'great,' as we pretended. It had no greatness and no honor in it, no nobility. It was merely wrong!"

He yelled this into my father's face as the Regulators seized him. He was dragged down the steps and beaten bloody and left in a poor heap in the public dust. There Major Coulter, hair raked back in black wings beneath his cap, stalked round and round him, stiff-legged and gawky as a crow. I had an impulse to rush out, perhaps others did, too, but nobody dared to breach the emptiness and isolation which had formed around him.

When Selden Tilghman regained consciousness, he lay a minute, then rolled over very slowly. Visage ghostly from the dust, he got up painfully, reeled, and fell. Next, he pushed himself onto all fours and crawled on hands and knees all the way across the square to the picket fence in front of the veranda of the United States Hotel, as Coulter and his men, jeering, watched him come. He used the fence to haul himself upright. Swaying, he blinked and then he shouted, "You are cowards! Betrayers of the South! You are cowards! Betrayers of the South!" With each cowards! he brought both fists down hard on the sharp points of the white pickets, and with each blow he howled in agony and despair, until the wet meat sounds of his broken hands caused the onlookers to turn away in horror. Even Z. P. Claxton had stopped grinning. It was my father, Captain Elijah D. Watson of the Regulators, who strode forth on a sign from Coulter and cracked our kinsman's jaw with one legendary blow, leaving him crumpled in the dust.

Cousin Selden's body was slung into a cotton wagon and trundled away on the Augusta Road. In the next fortnight rumors would come that the traitor had been dumped off at the gates of the Radical headquarters at Hamburg, but nobody could say what had become of him. The District heard no more of Selden Tilghman. When Mama finally confronted him about it, Papa blustered, "If the traitor is dead, the Regulators never killed him, that is all I know."

My pride in my father's prominence that day was edged with deep confusion and misgiving. Hoping and dreading Cousin Selden might reappear, I was drawn back to Deepwood over and over. Others in our district felt uneasy about "Tilghman's Ghost," which was said to come and go in that black ruin, and so had Deepwood to myself, a private domain for hunting and trapping. Wild rose thorn and poverty grass returned to the fields and the woods edged forward, even as vines entwined the blackened house. God keep you, Cousin Edgar! When wind stirred the leaves, I imagined that I heard my kinsman's voice and its sad whispered warning.

In a voice pitched toward her husband, outside on the stoop, Mama said that before the War, his own family had belittled Cousin Selden. In adopting the New Light Baptist faith, he had disgraced his Anglican upbringing. The New Lights had not only advocated Abolition but had sought-and here she smiled-"a more liberal attitude toward the rights of women. These days, Negro men are allowed to vote, but not white women."

"Nor white men either," bawled her husband from the porch. "Not those who fought."

"Addisons being Episcopalians like most of our good families, I had no real acquaintance with the New Light Church, nor with your father's Baptist congregation, for that matter." Rising above the growls and spitting out of doors, she invited us to pity those poor women whose husbands were not God-fearing citizens-steadfast men who would abstain from the grog shops and gambling and sinful license to which the weak seemed so addicted, to the great suffering and deprivation of their families. Her tone was now edged with such contempt that Papa appeared in the door, though he held his tongue. "And throwing away their wages on mulatta women. Of course harlots have never been tolerated in Edgefield District. It is the bordellos across the Georgia line which beckon our local sinners to Damnation."

Mama bent to her knitting with the martyred smile of the good churchwoman whose mission on earth was to purify the immortal soul of her crude lump of a man and keep him from the Devil's handiwork. "In our church, of course, a man may be excommunicated for wife beating, or even," she added, brightly, "for adultery. With white or black. Or perhaps," she inquired directly of her husband, "you Baptists feel that mulatta women don't count?"

And still he held his tongue, mouth open, breathing like a man with a stuffed-up nose. As always, the son would reap the whipping, not the mother, and my heart sank slowly as a stone into wet mud. "Please, Mama," I whispered. "Oh please, Mama." And this time, with her quiver empty and her arrows all well-placed, our mama nodded. "Yes, Mr. Watson, we are still your slaves," she sighed, offering her children a sweet rueful smile. " 'Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands as unto the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, even as Christ is head of the Church.' " Braving his glare, she added cheerfully, "Ephesians, dear."

Ellen Addison blamed nothing on cruel providence. She kept up her merciless good cheer in the worst of circumstances, as if aware that otherwise our wretched family must go under.

"Precisely because our soldiers cannot vote, South Carolina remains prostrate, at the mercy of damn Scalawags and their pet niggers!" Papa shouted. "That's Radical Reconstruction for you! Just what your mother's precious cousin wanted! And do you know who forced Reconstruction through the U.S. Senate? Charles Sumner of Massachusetts! And do you know why?"
"Oh we do, indeed we do," sighed Mama. "And since we know the story well, then surely our Merciful Savior will spare us another recounting-"
"Yes, boy! Because Congressman Preston Brooks of Edgefield caned Sumner on the Senate floor for having insulted Brooks's kinsman Andrew Pickens Butler! And Senator Butler-do you hear me, boy?-was the son of that same Billy Butler to whom your great-great-grandfather turned over the command of his brigade when fatally wounded by the Tories near Clouds Creek!"
Mama lured him off the subject of our Watson hero. "Now which Mr. Brooks shot that black legislator the other day, dear? While he knelt in prayer?"
"No Brooks shot that damned Coker, but Nat Butler."

"Well, Congressman Brooks was my father's commanding officer," she reflected. "In the Mexican War, children. Unlike Clouds Creek, Edgefield Court House was strongly represented in that Mexican War." Before Papa could protest, she exclaimed, "Think of it, children! The Brooks house has four acres of flowers! In the front!"

But Papa was not to be deterred. The caning of Sumner had occurred on May 22 of 1856, in the year after my own birth, and once again he brandished the event to imbue his son with the fierce and forthright spirit of Southern honor. He also invoked President Jackson's vice-president, John C. Calhoun, grandson of Squire Calhoun of Long Cane Creek, whose family lost twenty-three members to Indian massacres in a single year. "One day I saw the great Calhoun right here in Edgefield. Had the same lean leather face and deep hawk eyes as Old Hickory, Andy Jackson, and he was that same breed of fearless leader, unrelenting towards his enemies."

"Cruelty and vengeance. Are these the virtues you would inspire in your son?"
Papa, in full cry, paid her no attention. Before the War, said he, patriotic Carolinians had served in the Patrol, and in these dark days of Yankee Reconstruction, the Patrol's place had been taken by that honorable company of men known as the Regulators, among whom he himself was proud to ride.
"Honorable company!" Mama rolled her eyes over her knitting, the needles speeding with an incensed clicking noise, like feeding insects. Behind his broad back, she shook her head. Her lips said, No. She slapped her knitting down. "Is it considered honorable in this company of men to terrify and harm defenseless darkies?" Braving his glare, she quoted Cousin Selden's opinion that the vigilantes who terrorized the freedmen were mostly those weak vessels cracked by war. And she dared to cite Papa's "superior officer," Major Coulter, who kept the cropped ears of lynched black men in his saddlebags. "No act perpetrated by that man, however barbarous and vile, seems to shake your father's high opinion of him," Mama sighed.

I caught the nice distinction Mama made here-the implication that her husband, not being warped or cracked like Major Coulter, had been weak to start with. She would even hint that he had joined the vigilantes less because of his own convictions than because he knew no better way to be accepted or at least tolerated by the night riders.

Lige Watson, in turn, would refer to his wife's "traitorous" Tory antecedents and their "lily-livered longing," as he called it, to be accepted by the Pickenses and Butlers, the Brookses and the Hammondses. "Spare your poor children these vulgarities, I beseech you," his wife might protest, to hone her point that he was not a gentleman. Ellen Catherine Addison, she would remind us, had been born into aristocratic circumstances, however straitened and reduced. It was scarcely her fault that her feckless husband had sold off all of her inheritance excepting her mother's set of the Waverley novels, which was missing her own favorite, Ivanhoe. "To think," she would sigh, cocking her pretty head, "that I once thought of Elijah Watson as my Ivanhoe!" Gladly would she play the piano for her husband-"to soothe your savage breast, dear," she might add with a girlish peal-if such an instrument were to be found in a Watson house, or fit into a Watson house, for that matter, since for all their prosperity those Clouds Creek farmers, foregoing the large white-columned mansions of the Edgefield gentry, were mainly content with large two-story versions of the rough-sawed timber cabins of their yeomen forebears.

Thus would my mother prattle for our benefit. We scarcely heard her, so intent were our wide eyes on the enraged and dangerous father in the chimney corner.

Increasingly, Papa would jeer at the emancipated Negroes, who could find no work around the towns and villages. In this past year of 1867, under the Reconstruction Act, all blacks had become wards of the Union government, to be protected henceforth as citizens and voters, and a Yankee detachment had been sent to Edgefield to enforce their rights. In a district where blacks outnumbered whites, and where white soldiers had been disenfranchised, the terrible hatred of Reconstruction would find its scapegoat in black freedmen, especially those "woods niggers" or "road walkers" who wandered the mud roads between settlements, awaiting fulfillment of the Union's promise of "forty Confederate acres and a mule." These ragged hordes were perceived by the ex-soldiers as a menace to white womanhood and were commonly terrorized and beaten, sometimes worse.

Colonel Selden Tilghman, waving a copy of a Freedmen's Bureau report that murdered blacks were being found along the road or in the woods or swamps, had spoken publicly in favor of federal relocation of all freedmen from our Edgefield District, though he knew well that our local planters were counting on near-slave labor to survive. The crowd heard him out only because he had been a war hero with battlefield promotions, but finally the more bellicose began to shout that Tilghman was a traitor, war hero or no. Wasn't it true that he had freed his slaves before the War in defiance of Carolina laws against manumission, and openly endorsed Damn Yankee Abolition? Wasn't he the officer who had interfered with the execution of black Union soldiers imprisoned at Fort Pillow before General Nathan Bedford Forrest rode up and commanded the killing to resume? ("Blood and Honor, sir! In Virginia they take no nigger prisoners, and nor shall we!")

Tilghman's proposal never reached a vote, and Tilghman, never to be forgiven, was "hated out" of the community, in that hoary Celtic custom of assailing the outcast with hisses, blows, abuse, or stony silence. Next came the theft and slaughter of his stock, the burning barn, the threat of death, until at last the poor man fled the region or destroyed himself, "all because he had spoken out for Christian decency," said Mama, very upset that, for her children's safety, she dared not speak herself.

Cousin Selden had the courage of his isolation. Refusing to abandon the old family manse, he remained at Deepwood as a recluse even after the Regulators passed word that no one, white or black, should be seen going there or entering its lane. Within a few years, its roads and fields were sadly overgrown and the house had withdrawn and shrunk down like a dying creature behind the climbing shrouds of vine and creeper.


Lige Watson rode with a rifle in a saddle scabbard, a revolver in his belt, a hidden Bowie knife. Mostly, said he, the Regulators made their patrols on Saturday nights of the full moon-Major Will Coulter, Z. P. Claxton, Lige Watson, and two younger men, Toney and Lott, were the regulars. Other men would join when needed, and an indifferent nigger on a mule to tend the horses.

On what I thought must surely be the happiest day in all my life, Papa swung me up behind him on his big horse. "Come along and you will see something," he promised, grinning. From time to time, he would teach me those arts which Mama disapproved of-how to manage and race horses, how to shoot and use a knife. Sometimes he let me taste his whiskey, and when he was drinking, he might show me "just for fun" how to cheat a bit at cards or conceal weapons. But as I would learn, he was barely competent in most of these attainments, which he confused with some ideal of manhood. I did, too, of course, for I was twelve.

We rode toward Edgefield. At the Tilghman place, called Deepwood, a slight fair man came out onto the highroad in his linen shirtsleeves, stretching his arms wide to bar our progress as the big horse danced and whinnied, backing around in its own dust.

"Not one word, boy," Papa growled over his shoulder.
Cousin Selden murmured to the roan, slipping his hand onto the bridle so that Papa could not wheel into him, knock him away. The easy movement was so sure of horse and rider that the muscles stiffened in my father's back. "Let go," he grunted, shifting his quirt to his right hand as if set to strike our kinsman in the face.

With his fair hair and shy expression, Cousin Selden looked and sounded less like a bold cavalry officer and Edgefield hero than like my sister's young piano teacher (paid for by our uncle John Addison). Because of his high tenor voice-and because he had never married-Papa called him a sissy out of Mama's hearing. However, that voice was very calm and cold. "There's three young nigras back up yonder in the branch. Wrists bound, shot like dogs. Dumped there like offal." His pale fury and contempt seemed just as scary as Papa's red eruptive violence. "Since today is the Sabbath, Private Watson, I thought you might assist me with a Christian burial."

To call a man "Private" who was known as a captain of the Regulators was proof enough of Selden Tilghman's craziness. "It was done last night," Tilghman persisted. "These murder gangs ride at night, isn't that true?" He had a fever in his eyes. "Since you claim to be his kinsman, Private Watson, you cannot have forgotten the immortal words of Jefferson of Virginia: I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just!

Papa had raised his arm but that shout stopped him. He could not bring himself to horsewhip the man down. "I'll have nothing to do with traitors!" he yelled. "Now stand aside!" Lashing the reins, digging his spurs, my father fought violently to ride free with his son clinging to his sweaty back. The struggle amused Cousin Selden, who smiled just a little, catching my eye. (I smiled, too, before I caught myself.) All the while, Tilghman braced his back against the horse's neck. Talking to it, fist clenched on the reins under the bit, he brought the wheeling beast under control.

Heavy in the saddle, his big shoulders slumped, Papa appeared deflated and subdued. "Road walkers," he growled.

" 'Road walkers.' " Tilghman mimicked him with wry distaste. "How do you know that, Private? How do you damned vigilantes know about these murdered boys back in my branch?"

"Because if they were home niggers, sir, a Radical Scalawag and traitor like yourself would know their names. Now stand aside!" Whistling like a pigeon's wing, the quirt struck Selden Tilghman on the side of the head, knocking him off balance, and still he kept a tight grip on the reins. The horse screeched and snorted, dancing sideways, and Papa struck Tilghman heavily again. This time he fell. Papa shouted "You can thank your honorable record in the War, sir, that you have your life!"

Tilghman rose unhurriedly, brushed himself off. " 'My honorable record,' " he repeated. Lifting his pale bleeding face, he contemplated mine. "What would Lige Watson know about such matters?" he inquired, looking straight at me.

"I served four years, sir, Edgefield to Appomattox. Are you challenging my honor, sir, before my son?" But when I hollered, "You damned nigger-loving traitor!" Papa shot an elbow back, bloodied my nose. "You'll show some respect for a Confederate officer, even this one!" I was astonished by his need to prove to Cousin Selden that Elijah D. Watson was a gentleman and a fierce guardian of Southern honor.

Amused that he and I were wiping bloody noses, Tilghman ignored him. Once again I had to scowl not to grin back. "Send her cousin's fond respects to your dear mother," he said courteously, as Papa wheeled and booted his horse into a canter. Hand on the hard-haired dusty rump, I turned for a last look at the figure in the road, and Cousin Selden raised his hand in a kind of half salute, calling out cheerfully, "God keep you, Cousin Edgar!"

"Face around, damn you!" Papa shouted, cocking his elbow. I hugged up close, out of harm's way, in his rank smell. "Damned sissy," he muttered. He galloped back the way that we had come.
"Papa? What was it you were going to show me?"
"Face around, I say!"

The Traitor

The day after our ride to Deepwood, the Traitor (as my father now referred to him) appeared at our door in full dress uniform, hands and face charred like a minstrel in blackface, gray tunic rent by black and ragged holes. Having long since sold his horse, he had come on foot. On the sill he set down a heavy sack containing his volumes of Greek literature-all he had saved from his burning house. "For your boy," he told Mama, who disobeyed her husband's edict and implored him to come in. He accepted a cup of water but would not enter the house nor even talk with us, lest that bring trouble.

Filled with dread, heart pounding, I followed the Traitor down the road toward the square. Already word had circulated that Colonel Tilghman meant to defy a warning from the Regulators to leave these parts on pain of death and never show his face again at Edgefield Court House. At his appearance, a great moan, then a wildfire whispering, foretold an evil end.

My kinsman addressed the market crowd from the courthouse steps. Though all could see the black smoke rising from Deepwood, to the eastward, he made no mention of night riders, but only denounced the senseless murder of three Negro youths. The refusal of a lawless few to accept the freedmen as new citizens, he cried, would not only imperil their mortal souls but cripple the recovery of South Carolina. "Before the War, our colored people were gentle, harmless folk who lived among us and worshiped with us in our congregations. Most remained loyal and many fought beside us!" He paused, looking around him. "Now there are those who would revile these faithful friends, and castigate them. Treat them as dangerous animals, and kill them. Every day black men are terrorized, not by outlaws and criminals but by so-called Christian men, including many who stand here today before this Court of Justice."

He glared about him, in a dangerous silence.
"Have not these poor souls suffered enough? What fault of theirs that they were enslaved and then turned free? Was it they who imposed these Reconstruction laws? Friends, it was not!" He raised both arms toward Heaven. "In taking revenge on innocent people for the calamity we brought down upon ourselves, we only worsen a dishonorable lie. We lost the War not because we were beaten by a greater force of arms. The North had more men and guns, more industry, more railways-that is true. But that was also our excuse, as we soldiers knew." He paused, lowering his arms in the awful hush. "More than half our eastern armies-and the bravest, too-put their arms down and went home of their own accord. We did that because in our hearts we knew that human bondage had never had-and could never have-the blessing of the Lord God who made us all."

When the first rock flew and yells of "Traitor!" started up and the crowd barged forward, the boyish colonel raised his hands, not to protect himself but seeking time to finish. "Our officers will tell you-those who are honest-that we only fought on so that the lives of the best and bravest of our young men should not have been sacrificed in vain. We fought for some notion of our Southern honor, and thousands died for it, to no good purpose, and now our dear land lies ruined on all sides.

What People are saying about this

Joseph Heller
Bone by Bone is a superb novel, one that succeeds dramatically on every level. I read it in great gulps, up each night later than I wanted to be in my hungry impatience to find out more, and more.

Meet the Author

Peter Matthiessen lives in Sagaponack, New York.

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