Read an Excerpt
A Novel of John Wesley Hardin
By James Carlos Blake
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1995 James Carlos Blake
All rights reserved.
Oh, that baby born in a rush of blood, him. I midwife a thousand bornings, me, and I never seen none bring out so much blood from their mama like him. That poor woman so white. The sweat rolling on her skin like hot wax and soak her dress with a smell like low river. Her eyes big and red and blind with the pain. I put a stick in her teeth and she bite it right in two.
Two years before, I help with her first, him they call Joseph, and she hardly make a sound. But this one! Oh, how this one bring out the blood and make her scream. She scream the worst I ever hear from anybody not on fire. The lamplight jumping in the glass with her screaming, the walls shaking with the shadows. Hardly no air in that room to breathe, only the smell of smoke and pain sweat, and the blood pumping black out her sex and making the sheet dark under her.
I hold her knees and I try to help her push, push. I reach in and feel of him and he turn around all wrong, him. But his heart beating strong. He want to come out—he want to come out before she maybe die and kill him with her. He know, that little baby—he know he in big trouble before he see the light of his first day. But I feel his heart and I talk to him, tell him be strong little man, be strong—and I got his mama's blood up to my elbows and her screams like big bells in my ears.
His daddy the Reverend, he walking around and around the room, him, praying and praying. When her screaming get louder he start to singing hymns, loud as her screams. Then her screaming get so loud I feel it like fingers on my face, and I don't hear him no more. When he see my hands come out her all covered with the thick dark blood, he quick leave the room and I thank God for that. The way he singing so crazy, so tall and big, him, with a black beard and dressed in black like always, he look like Mr. Bones and he put the spook in me—especially on this night, the twenty-sixth night of May, a night when no gris-gris can keep away the dark spirits.
Finally I get that baby turn around and out he come, kicking and swinging his little red fists. His crying not like a baby's crying, more like yelling—like the yelling a man make when he wild and happy with whiskey or with a woman, or when he wild and mad to kill something. This one born with his eyes open and looking all round to see where the trouble going to come from. Like he already know how this world is, him.CHAPTER 2
Preacher Hardin brought his family to Polk County in '55, I guess it was, maybe '56, around eight, nine years after we settled here ourselves. They came down from up around Red River. The Reverend's people were originally from Georgia and came to Texas just a few years after Steve Austin settled his first bunch down on the Brazos. It was all kinds of people coming out here for all kinds of reasons, including the need of some to quick put distance between themselves and the law. Even in them days well before the War, "G.T.T."—"Gone to Texas"—was a common good-bye note all around the South.
When the Preacher and his family first got to Polk it was just him and his wife Elizabeth and their two little boys, Joe and John Wesley. Then came their daughters little Elizabeth and Mattie. Their third boy, Jefferson Davis, was born around the end of the War and was a good bit younger than his older brothers.
The Reverend Hardin preached the Methodist word in all the counties hereabouts. He taught school some too, and was a lawyer besides. Mrs. Hardin was a right handsome woman—I say that with all proper respect—and a learned one. Her daddy was a doctor from Kentucky and they say her momma was as refined a lady as the South ever knew. It was no wonder the Hardin children were as smart as they were, what with the Preacher for a daddy and a momma as educated and well-bred as Elizabeth. It's all the more reason some folks never could understand why John Wesley turned out the way he did. Look at Joe, they say—that's the kind of son you expect from a man like the Preacher. Well, people who say that, they didn't really know any of the three of them—Joe, John Wesley, or the Preacher.
I'll tell you a story about the Preacher not many ever heard. I was helping him put up a chicken coop one time and this mean, crazy-in-the-head old bull came stomping over from the neighboring farm. It started chasing the Reverend's cow all over the pasture and trying to put a horn in her. The Reverend dropped his hammer and quick went into the house and come back out with his Mississippi rifle and from over a hundred yards off he put a ball right through that bull's eye. And I mean on the run. It ain't many men can shoot like that and even fewer who knew the Preacher could. Anyhow, that evening the bull's owner comes over to the Hardin place—I was sitting to supper with them—and he's hollering mad about his animal. The Preacher never even raised his voice back at him. He told the fella all he'd done was protect what was his. And then he told him if he didn't get that dead bull off his property by sunup, he'd butcher it himself and sell it for beef. Next morning, that bull was gone.
What I'm saying is, there was a side to the Preacher some folks never saw, but it's a side that came out strong in John Wesley.
They're a proud family, the Hardins, with lots to be proud of. They are a far bigger part of Texas history than most families can ever hope to be. Benjamin Hardin, the Preacher's daddy, sat on the Texas Congress back before we joined the Union for the first time. And you take a good look at the Texas Declaration of Independence and you'll see Augustine Hardin's signature on it. He was an uncle of the Preacher's. Hardin County, just south of us, was named for another of the Preacher's uncles, Judge Will Hardin.
All I'm saying is the Hardins I knew came from damn fine stock and were mighty good people, all of them, and I mean John Wesley too. Doesn't matter a hill of beans how many men he killed, not to me, not to a lot of us around here. We know damn well that in every case he was either protecting himself or standing up for what was right. We know that because we knew his family. We knew their character, and character's the only fact that really counts.CHAPTER 3
The first hanged man either of us ever saw wasn't one we saw get hanged. We come across him when we were hunting coon in the Thicket one day. We were about nine or ten years old. We'd seen dead men before, of course—men dead from a gunshot wound or fever or a timber falling on them or drowning or a snakebite, things like that. But this was the first one we saw dead from hanging, and that's a whole different thing.
We'd gone into that mean dark swamp a whole lot deeper that morning than we ever had before, following coon tracks along the creek bank. It was hot as blazes and the air was thick as stew. Johnny suddenly pulled up and said, "Listen!" It was a low humming, sort of like a congregation sounds when everybody's praying softly. We crawled up the creek bank and pushed through the cattails into a wide clearing and there he was, hanging by the neck from a hickory tree, his hands tied behind him and his bare white feet as high off the ground as our heads.
What we'd heard was the swarm of flies feasting on his face. His tongue was black and all swole up in his mouth and a good bit of it had been ate away by the crows. His lips too. And he didn't have any eyeballs left. He hadn't been up there long enough for the maggots to start in on him, but he was starting to turn ripe. He was some stranger with reddish curly hair. A little wood sign hung around his neck on a rawhide string. On it, somebody had writ in pencil, "CUT HIM DOWN AN WELL KILL YOU." We just stood there and stared at him for a while. "Who you reckon did it to him?" I finally said. "Don't know," Johnny said, "but I'd rather be shot a thousand times than end up like that."
We went back and told Uncle Barnett, and him and three of his hands went back into the Thicket with us and cut the body down. Uncle Barnett snatched the sign off him and threw it in the bushes. They took the dead man to the sheriff's office in Moscow and put him in a coffin and stood the open box on end in front of the office with a sign resting on his chest saying, "DO YOU KNOW THIS MAN?" But after a whole day and night nobody had claimed to know him and he was stinking pretty bad by then, so they went ahead and buried him with just a plain cross on his grave.
We grew up together, Johnny and me. His brother Joe too, though Joe was a sight different from Johnny. Johnny liked to run around with the rest of us and was popular with everybody, but Joe tended to keep to himself. Always had his nose in a book, Joe. Actually, Johnny liked books too—Lord knows why—but he dang sure didn't spend all his time with them. He much preferred doing things—riding, rassling, foot racing, chicken chasing, hunting, things like that. We didn't either of us ever like the indoors much until we'd growed up enough to learn the pleasures of saloons and fancy houses.
Johnny was always long and lean, more on the skinny side than not, but he was strong as rawhide and twice as tough. And run? That boy could run like a scalded dog. He wasn't but thirteen when he outran Moscow's fast man, Oliver Weeks, and the very next year he outran Jean LeRoque, Sumpter's fast man. Hell, he was quick in all the ways a man can move, not just on his feet. It's what made him such a good rassler and boxing man. He could outrassle boys near twice his weight just because he was so fast and hard to get a good hold of. He could slip around you and pull you off-balance and have you down and pinned before you could say General Joe. If there was anything Johnny was better at than rassling or shooting it was boxing. Back in Moscow he had taught himself to box from a book writ by some Eastern professor of pugilism. Joe told me that. Johnny had practiced everything it taught—the way to stand and hold up your dukes, the ways to move your feet, the different kinds of punches, all that. "And who you suppose he practiced on?" Joe said. "I can still feel some of the knots he raised on my head."
Hell, we was all of us pretty rough boys back then, and me and Johnny was right among the roughest, if I say so myself. But rough as we were, we weren't old enough to lie about our age and get into the War. We felt cursed as Job's goat for being born too late to join the ranks and go off to kill us some goddamn Yankees. All we could do back then was watch the men and the bigger boys go off to the fighting. We'd follow each departing bunch out to the main trace and wave after them till they were out of sight. Sometimes we'd see huge herds of horses and cattle being drove by on the way east to provide mounts for the cavalry and beef for the whole of the Confederacy.
The one good thing about being too young to go off to war was that now it was up to us to protect our homes and put meat on the table. We went about armed at all times. Me and Johnny and a few of the other boys shot at more than game, however. We used to make scarecrow-size figures of straw and old clothes and hang them from trees as targets. Our favorite was one we put a beard and a stovepipe hat on to make it look like Lincoln. Johnny drew a pair of eyes on it and always put his shots square between them. He was such a deadeye we always had to put a new head on the Lincoln dummy after Johnny got through taking his turn with it. He could shoot like that from the time he was ten years old.
My pa used to say there's some so good at what they do best it's like they been touched by magic. Farmers who can bring things out of the ground by hardly doing more than digging their boot toe in the earth and spitting in the hole. Men who can make music from any tight piece of string or empty tin can or open bottle, who can make a fiddle or a mouth organ or a banjo sing or laugh or howl just like it's got a heart of its own. Gamblers who can make a playing card scoot like a fish or float like a feather. Bronc busters who can gentle the meanest mustang in six jumps with just a touch of their heels on its flanks and a whisper in its ear. I knew what he meant. Johnny, he had that kind of magic with a pistol.
He used to say his daddy'd taught him to shoot, but Uncle James said that wasn't so. He said all he'd done was let Johnny practice with his old Colt Dragoon from the time he was big enough to hold it with both hands. "Nobody taught that boy to shoot," I once heard Uncle James tell my pa. "He just knew. It's a knowledge he was born with." He said it the way somebody might tell you their child was born with a harelip. I guess he had a feeling about what a talent like that would do to a boy like Johnny.
Anything you ever heard about his shooting, no matter how stretched it might of sounded, was likely true. From the time he was a stripling he could shoot better than anybody I've yet seen, and I've seen more than a few shooters in my time. He could shoot a jumping squirrel in the head from eighty feet off. I saw him put all six balls in a knothole sixty feet away and no bigger around than the top of a saddle horn. I saw him set an empty whiskey bottle in the crotch of a tree with the open end facing his way, then take forty paces and spin around and shoot through the open end and blow out the bottom of the bottle. See how good you can even make out the open end of a bottle at forty paces. He taught himself all the usual twirling tricks too. He made himself a sorry-looking holster out of a piece of cowhide and practiced quick-drawing every day. I never heard of him losing a shooting contest in his life. For damn sure he never lost any of the kind that really count—the kind where you and the other fella ain't shooting at bottles on a fence, you're shooting at each other.
Let me tell you something. Most people who talk about gunfighting like experts ain't usually been within ten miles of a gunfight in their whole life. But I have. I want it remembered that I was standing right there, not three feet from Johnny, the day in Trinity City when that tinhorn blasted him with a shotgun. I know how quick it happens, and how loud, and how it shocks you and don't seem real either then or later. How afterward you're not exactly sure just what it was you saw. There must of been two dozen witnesses to the Trinity shooting and afterward I heard two dozen different versions of it, including my own.
But that business in Trinity City was years later when he was on the run from the State Police. Right now I want to tell about the terrible days that followed the sad news of Bobby Lee's surrender. On the day we heard of Appomattox, Uncle James told Pa that as bad as things had been during the War, they were sure to get worse now. Pa didn't disagree. How could he? The damn Yankees were coming.
But ahead of the Yankees came our own soldiers, a small bunch of them every week or so. The few horses they had with them showed ribs through their hides like barrel staves. Hardly a man among them was whole. Every one of them had at least one bloody wound bound up on him someplace. The wagons carried men missing one or both legs, blind men, and men who just stared like they were blind. One-armed men stumbled along in the dust, men without hands, men missing an eye or some other part of their face. Twenty-year-olds looked like gray old men. But the most awful thing about it was how quiet they went by. They didn't hardly say a word. All you heard was dragging feet and coughing and groaning, the tired clopping of horse hooves, the creaking of wagons. It was a sorely pathetic sight to behold. It made you curse and want to kick the ground. For years after, it was cripples everywhere you looked.
But it wasn't till the Yankee army started showing up in our part of the country that we really got to know the hard consequences of losing the War. To make things worse, to rub salt in our open wounds, the Union generals had put a shitload of niggers in the companies they sent to enforce the Yankee law in Texas. Like most everybody else in East Texas, Johnny and me had knowed a good many colored folk and we had always got along with them just fine. Hellfire, there wasn't a kin among us that owned so much as a single slave. But God damn, all them bluebelly troops to back up the land-grabbing, conniving, son of a bitch carpetbaggers and scalawags and federal bureau agents and God know who-all was bad enough—without having to put up with niggers carrying guns and giving orders to white people. That was more than we could endure. All them Union woolies was from someplace else—Alabama and Georgia, mostly—and they were a mean and insolent lot, I'm telling you.
Excerpted from The Pistoleer by James Carlos Blake. Copyright © 1995 James Carlos Blake. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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