July 22, 1874, Rural Southwest Missouri
The day started out normal enough. So normal, in fact, I had no idea my life was about to change. Today was town day, a day for my family to go to town and get supplies. I sat hopeful in the back of the wagon. Maybe Pa won’t do it this time, maybe he will forget. Maybe he will just drive right past the rock this time and head straight for town. But as the wagon pulled out of the gate to our southwest Missouri farm, Pa pulled back the reigns.
“Whoa, Sophie! Whoa, girl!”
The horse and wagon stopped. Pa set the brake and jumped to the ground. I groaned, and Ma snapped her head around.
“Boy Smyth, you watch that mouth,” she said.
My name’s William Smyth, Jr., but people called me Boy to avoid any confusion with my pa’s name, William. But “William” seemed to be about the only thing we have in common. Everyone called Pa “William” or “Bill,” and me, I get called “Boy.”
Pa walked his limp-walk over to a huge stone sitting outside the gate and touched it, made the sign of the cross, then climbed back in the wagon. I let out a sigh and read, for what seemed like the 1000th time in my life, the words Pa chiseled into the stone:
“All, from least to greatest shall know me, says the Lord, for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.”—Jeremiah 31:34
I never really understood why Pa chose to chisel this passage in the stone, but then again, there was very little about Pa I understood. Pa prayed every morning at the stone, in rain, snow, sleet, or wind. He performed this same ritual every time he left or came home. I asked Pa several times over the years about the passage in the rock but never got an answer back that was an actual answer. Pa would only say Father Barnes gave him the passage years ago.
* * * *
When we arrived in town, I read the newspaper to Ma and Pa first thing. Afterward, Ma went to the grocer, Pa headed to the blacksmith, and I was free to listen to the veterans talk in the town square. Today, the big news was a train robbery in Council Bluffs, Iowa by the James-Younger Gang. The notorious outlaws were the idols of all us boys and heroes to most of the local Missouri war refugees. Me, I liked two outlaws in particular, Cole Younger and the phantom Bill “Butcher” Bryant. I guess those two could be called my heroes. The Civil War and ensuing Border Wars between Doc Jenison’s Kansas Red Legs and the Missouri Bushwhackers of William Quantrill had taken a toll on everyone’s lives, even ten years after the Civil War ended. To most in Missouri, the James-Younger Gang acted in noble revenge against the Jayhawkers from Kansas and the Union Army. Revenge set for years of misery before, during, and after the War.
The James-Younger Gang members all belonged to Quantrill's infamous band of Bushwhackers, one of the reasons everybody cheered the gang’s exploits. This fact really gnawed on Pa whenever folks talked about the gang as heroes, and this was a major source of tension between me and him. He said sympathy to the cause of Missouri should have nothing to do with thievery and violence. This also caused many of the folks around town to laugh at Pa and to think him a coward for his beliefs. And to be honest, it was very embarrassing for me.
We boys in town all knew Richard Maddox was full of hot air, but today, we sat mesmerized with his version of the Battle of Sni-A-Bar.
“We were trapped. My brother George, Quantrill’s most trusted scout, reported news that the crossing at Sni-A-Bar Creek was taken by them stinkin’ Kansas Red Leg Jayhawkers. We soon realized we’d been chased into a trap from the rear by a second group of them. We couldn’t go forward, we couldn’t go back, and the hills were too steep to go out sideways. It was very dire indeed!
“Them Yankees would go to any length to bring in Quantrill,” said Maddox, the unofficial town historian on the War and everything to do with Quantrill’s Bushwhackers. Then again, Maddox pretty much thought he was the expert on everything. He walked over to a barrel in front of the general store and sat down on it.
“I don’t mind telling you all, but we were starting to get downright nervous when the news came in. Quantrill called a meeting to discuss options. Captain Cole Younger stood up and calmly presented his daring plan for escape. Our best bet, he said, was to ambush the attackers by setting our lines along a narrow wooden pass in the road and when the enemy approached, pick them off. The key would be for Butcher Bryant to position himself on the ridge above and take out the brigade leaders as they entered the narrow pass. We would then attack and cause enough panic to force a retreat or allow us to run them into the ground.”
Maddox paused and looked up as though he searched the ridge of Sni-A-Bar Creek. “We all looked up at the ridge and then to each other. The whole plan depended on Butcher Bryant making pinpoint shots from hundreds of yards above the target? That sounded completely farfetched, even for Butcher!”
Maddox stared at us boys. “But no one was about to confront Butcher on this matter for fear of ending up with a dagger in his chest. Let me tell you boys, nobody ever messed with Butcher Bryant. He was just as mean, just as dangerous, and just as much of a cold blooded killer as any legend or story could tell.” Maddox looked around as if expecting the specter of Butcher to appear and strike him down where he stood.
“Well, Cole kept repeating ‘ambush the attackers, boys’ until we all believed it could be done. We took our places and waited for the Jayhawkers to step into our trap.” Maddox paused for dramatic effect, and all us boys leaned forward in anticipation. “You could hear them Red Legs come hard around the bend headed right for the narrow pass. They was whooping and hollering, expecting easy victory. Three enemy leaders in front of the pack entered the pass.
“Bang! Bang! Bang! Three crisp shots rang out. The middle rider’s horse immediately dropped and blocked the pass. The other two riders sat upright in the saddle motionless, shot clean through their foreheads. They fell dead, and their horses scampered forward. The middle rider worked out from under his dead horse. Before he could rally his shocked troops a fourth shot echoed down the valley and felled the Red Leg captain dead in his tracks. Butcher had done it! Within a matter of seconds, the entire battle had shifted to us with the Red Legs in complete panic.”
“Mr. Maddox,” I interrupted. “Whatever became of Butcher Bryant?”
“Now, that is somewhat of a complete mystery, boys,” said Maddox. “After the raid on Lawrence in ‘62, he just disappeared. Gone like the wind. Some say he was shot and killed. Some say he was captured by the Yankees and sits to this very day chained to a dungeon wall of a secret federal prison. But others say he simply faded like a phantom into the woods, waiting the day he can return and strike vengeance upon enemies of his beloved Missouri.”
Maddox again looked around cautiously. “Me, I tend to lean toward the latter theory. I truly believe someday Butcher Bryant will walk right before me in victory over the evil Kansans.”
“I think that is enough storytelling for one day,” a familiar voice broke in. “These boys don’t need any more of your imagination, Maddox.” I hung my head in complete embarrassment. I knew it was Pa and slowly turned to see him limping down the walk.
“Is that right, Mr. William Smyth?” said Maddox with a sarcastic tone. He moved to face Pa. “And how would you know anything about the War, anyhow?”
“Enough to know you don’t need to be filling these boys’ heads with your stories,” Pa said.
Maddox and several other war veterans in town laughed at Pa for his war beliefs. Pa never bragged about the war like the others did. I was not really sure what Pa did, or what happened to Pa in the war, but Ma told me Pa took a bullet to the knee and never went back. Pa only would say he was nursed back to physical health by Ma and spiritual health by Father Barnes. Upon healing, he and Ma were married. After the Union Army enforced Order Number 11, which cleared out all Missourians from Jackson County, they followed Father Barnes to help build St. Jude Thaddeus Church in southwest Missouri. That was where I, William Smyth, Jr., better known as Boy, was born. Shortly thereafter, Pa and Ma moved to the farm and into the house Pa built himself.
“Delivery boy for the Missouri militia is what I hear you were, and you couldn’t even do that right. Cause you went and got yourself shot.” Maddox was going too far, trying to push Pa into a fight. “The way I figure, you ran yellow when things got tough and never went back. So, don’t you go telling me what did or did not happen at Sni-A-Bar,” yelled Maddox.
He stood inches away and looked up into Pa’s face. “You may have been born in the same state as the Youngers and James, but that don’t mean you have half the gumption they have, or the right to tell me anything about the war.”
Pa’s gaze hardened a bit as he looked down on Maddox. I noticed his muscles tightened, and his fists began to clinch. Finally, hopefully, Pa would defend himself from years of ridicule. I saw a fire spark in his eyes.
But, just as things heated up, they were interrupted by the voice of Sheriff Parker Jackson. “Everything all right here, gentlemen?” Pa’s eyes returned to their normal slate gray color; his muscles relaxed as he bowed his head to the sheriff.
Pa turned back and forcing his voice through his clenched jaw, softly spoke to Maddox. “You don’t know a thing about Sni-A-Bar. I’d bet you weren’t even within ten miles of Coleman Younger on that day.” Pa stepped aside, called to me, and started walking toward our wagon. I stood humiliated in front of all my friends…again. Sheriff Jackson walked alongside Pa whose breath became shallow and hands trembled noticeably. Oh, great! To add insult to injury, now Pa was going to die of fright right here in the middle of the town square.
The sheriff put his arm around Pa’s shoulder and whispered, “You okay, Bill? How about we cool off with a cold glass of tea at the hotel?”
Pa took a couple deep breaths and squeezed his eyes as though pushing back a deep violent pain in his head; then he smiled at the sheriff. “Thanks, Parker, but I’ll have to take you up on that tea some other time. We need to get the wagon loaded and back home with Mary Lynn.” We started toward the wagon, but Pa stopped and looked back to Sheriff Jackson. “I’m glad you showed up when you did, Parker. Thanks again.”
As we walked to the wagon, Maddox spoke to the group of kids. “Good thing we had Butcher Bryant and not him with us that day at Sni-A-Bar.” They all broke out in laughter and poured salt in my already wounded pride.
Pa hardly muttered a word all the way home. He just drove the wagon and occasionally talked to the horse or answered Ma’s questions with one-word grunts. Ma could sense something had happened in town, and she weaved her way around the subject masterfully. She talked about the church comings and goings. Besides the farm, Pa worked for Father Barnes as the church caretaker, where he fixed things and took care of the cemetery grounds.
* * * *
We arrived home and put things away in complete silence. After dinner, we sat on the porch to watch the sun set and relax. Ma sewed on a shirt, Pa whittled on one of his Nativity figures, and I sat on the porch rail. Everything was pretty much normal, dull and boring. Everything was normal, that is, except for the wall of silence between Pa and me. There was a feeling deep in my gut something was about to happen between us, something very big.
Through the drone of the crickets and locust, I heard an owl hoot off in the distance and thought this very odd for dusk. Ma became edgy, and she glanced at Pa. They exchanged a concerned look. Pa paused for a moment and nodded to Ma. She stood up and went inside the house. Pa stood and answered the owl's call. He squinted into the dim twilight as he scanned the woods across the meadow. He'd taken me owling before, but that was out in the woods, not standing on the edge of the front porch. Pa walked to a lantern hanging from the porch, lit it, and sat back down to his whittling. Barely a minute had flown by when the sound of horses drifted in from the pasture across the way. Off in the distance, on the edge of a rise, two dark figures rode rapidly toward the house. I just about jumped out of my skin, but Pa only looked up for a second and returned his focus to the piece of wood in his hand. I was sure these fellas had to be detectives from the Pinkerton Detective Agency. They were probably out hunting down the Youngers after the train robbery.
As the riders came closer, I became more and more concerned. “Pa, want me to get your Sharps rifle?”
Pa did not look the least bit worried. “No, son, that won't be necessary.”
What! Not necessary! The enemy was riding in, and he says “not necessary”! Sometimes I wondered about Pa. I wondered if Pa even had an ounce of Missouri rebel left in him, or if he had gone plain yellow, like Maddox says. Pa stayed in his chair as the riders approached full bore out of the pasture and leapt over the split rail fence not fifty yards off the porch. They stopped right outside the arc of light given off by the lantern. Their horses looked tired. The two shadows appeared exhausted but still had a dark and sinister look.
One rider was tall and sat high in the saddle. He wore a long duster with a hat pulled low over his face. As the horse jittered back and forth, a Sharps rifle, holstered below the saddle and Colt pistols around the tall rider’s waist reflected the light of the lantern and caught my eye. The second rider sat motionless, hunched over in his saddle. He looked either dead or asleep, but I’d never seen nobody ride that fast or that hard asleep. There was one thing for sure: these weren't ordinary, everyday travelers. These two had to be Pinkerton detectives. I looked nervously to Pa, who sat calm and whittled on the stick!
The tall one spoke, “Evening, sir.” He had a worn, rough tone to his voice. “Word is that you may have lodgings and a meal for a couple of weary Texans traveling back from dealings in Kansas City?”
Texans? That was a flat outright lie. Did this guy think we were stupid? Surely, Pa will get the gun now and chase these rascals off. But Pa answered, “I reckon we have some space for y'all in the barn, if that will suit you. My wife could probably scrape up some food, too.”
“You know, we've had rain here lately, and the creek’s running. I imagine if a man were to water his horse about half mile downstream and walk her back upstream to the barn so as not to leave a trail, we'd have some supper ready when he gets here,” Pa said to the stranger.
What in the world was Pa talking about? There's a spot just fifty yards down the path where they could water their horses and just keep riding. The tall one cracked a shy smile, thanked Pa for the advice, and the two riders trotted away. Pa went inside to talk to Ma for several minutes while I sat on the porch rail fuming mad. He returned to the porch carrying a stack of blankets and another lantern.
“Come on, son; we got work to do. Pump me a couple buckets of water and meet me in the barn.”
I got up and followed him toward the water pump. I answered him. “Why's that, Pa? You aren't really gonna let them fellas stay here?”
“Yes, son, and hurry a bit. They’ll be coming back soon, and one of them is hurt badly.”
That was more than I could take. My temper had seen enough for one day. I fidgeted as I filled the water buckets. I couldn't believe Pa had gotten so soft he'd be hospitable to any Pinkerton detective or Red Legger. Finally, as Pa approached the barn door, I exploded. “Not them Pinkertons, Pa! I ain't doing anything to help them stinking Yankees!”
Pa stopped dead in his tracks. I thought I was dead. Never had I talked back to Pa like that before. But as Pa turned around, a grin began from the corners of his mouth. “What in Jesus' name are you talking about, Boy?”
“Those Pinkertons that was just here, Pa. You ain’t gonna let them stay here, are you? You know they are just hunting down the Youngers and the James.”
At that moment, Pa broke into the first real, all out belly laugh I had ever heard come out of him. He laughed so hard he nearly dropped the stack of blankets from his arms.
“That's precious, Boy!” he said, still chuckling, “Those boys ain't Pinkertons, son... Those two are the Youngers, Cole and Jim Younger, from Jackson County, Missouri. And seeing as Cole is a childhood friend of mine, I reckon we will put them up for a spell, no matter what you have to say about it. Besides, Cole is always welcome at my home. I owe him that much.”
The buckets of water both hit the ground about the same time as my jaw. I stared at Pa, wide eyed. Water splashed and soaked my pants. “Whaa...?” I tried to spit out some word, but nothing came out.
Pa, still laughing, said, “As soon as you get them two buckets filled, meet me in the barn.” He turned, shook his head, and walked to the barn.
I stood dead in my tracks, completely dumbfounded. Pa walked on ahead to the barn. I managed to shake myself from the initial shock that the Cole Younger had rode smack up to my front porch and was now in the process of heading to our barn. Dazed, I picked up the buckets and returned to the well pump to refill them.
“The Younger brothers in my barn,” I said to myself. “Wait till the boys hear about this one.” Buckets filled for the second time, I picked them up and took two steps toward the barn. The front door opened. Ma appeared with a basket of biscuits and some dinner leftovers in one hand, her doctoring bag in the other.
“Ma! You will never guess who those two strangers are.”
She replied matter of fact. “Thomas Coleman and James Younger.”
“They’re the Younger Brothers…” I stopped short. “Hey! How did you know?”
Ma giggled. “Son, the Youngers were practically family back in Jackson County, maybe even more family than some of my actually family. Their father, Colonel Henry Younger was like a godfather to me. In fact, I went to many a church dance with Coleman and his sisters.” She gave me a wink and a smile then headed off to the barn. Another shocker! But this time the water in the buckets stayed safe, and I merely shook my head, smiled, and followed her to the barn.
In the last of three horse stalls in the barn, there was a hidden trap door in the floor. It opened to a wide ladder which led to a natural cave under the barn. The cave connected by means of a tunnel to a small opening in the side of the creek bank about one hundred yards upstream. Pa always called it the storm cellar, but I’d rarely been inside it. For all intent and purpose, I forgot it even existed. I never even considered why or found it odd to have a storm cellar under the barn floor. I carried the buckets of water into the barn and noticed Sophie, our horse, had been moved to the middle stall. Pa had cleared away the hay and debris to open the trap door. I peered over the opening into the dark cave below and wondered what other secrets my parents held.
Pa lit a lantern and descended down the ladder into the room below. I anxiously watched, as if the specters of Cole and Jim Younger were suddenly to step from the shadows into the ring of light. Carefully, I climbed down the ladder with one of the water buckets. The room was like most caves: rock walls, sandy floor, slightly damp, except this cave had two cots and some candles. On the northeast wall, there hung an old quilt. I pulled the quilt away from the wall to reveal a hole in the cave wall about three feet off the ground. It was wide and high enough for two grown men side by side, I reckoned, with nothing but pitch black dark as far as the eye could see…the escape route.
“Where does this tunnel go again, Pa?” I asked, more to break the silence than anything else.
“You remember, don’t you, son?” Pa replied. “It leads down to the entrance over the high cliff wall at Beaver Creek.”
An old memory returned of the family storm drills, in which the family would practice getting to the shelter as fast as possible with all their necessities. Pa would even make the crawl down the tunnel to make sure it was still passable. But, for some reason, I could not recall any time in recent memory where we had a storm drill, especially when they used to seem so important.
There were several knocks on the barn door. Pa climbed the ladder. I followed with great anticipation. The Youngers, right here, right now! Pa opened the door. Outside stood the tall stranger holding up the injured man, dragging him along. Pa grabbed the injured man’s other arm, and they carried him into the barn.
“Son, go track down their horses and bring them back here as quick as you can.” The dark figure flashed a look that chilled me to the bone. I tore out of the barn and did not stop until I reached the two horses down at the creek. I gathered them, led them up to the corral next to the barn and secured them inside the pen. I stood outside the barn door, ear against the door, trying to hear anything going on inside.
“Boy, quit lollygagging around that barn door and help me with these things,” yelled Ma from the front porch. She had returned to the house to get more blankets and her collection of medicinal ointments.
As I walked to the barn carrying Ma’s provisions, a thousand questions bounced in my head. “What’s he like, Ma?”
“Who’s he, son?”
Ma smiled. “Well, I guess he is just like most other folks, except maybe for the outlaw part.”
“Oh. And Jim, is he going to die?”
She became grave. “That I do not know, son. We will have to do what we can to keep that from happening.”
Never had anything so spectacular ever happened here, not at this house, not in the entirety of the county. I wondered if I needed a sack of grain over my shoulder just to keep myself from floating away as I walked to the barn. Pa was already down the hideout with the Younger brothers. Could all this be real? The trap door opened, and a figure rose from the hole. I jumped with expectation. But, it was only Pa, looking rather worn and tired. Oh, no! I immediately thought the worse.
“Pa, is he…dead?”
Pa looked at me, or looked through me would be a better description, with a slightly puzzled look on his face, followed by a sudden understanding. “Heavens, no! Not even close to death, yet. But, Mary Lynn, we need to get that slug out of his shoulder sooner rather than later.”
Ma handed some things down to Pa on the ladder. She nodded to Pa, turned to me, and then led me back toward the house. Outside I asked, “Are you sure Jim is going to live, Ma?”
“That man is too darn ornery to die from only one bullet to the shoulder. We got to get it out and pack the wound up tonight, though, or he will be in big trouble come morning.” We walked up the stairs to the porch. Ma continued, “He will need some serious rest, a couple weeks would be best, but Coleman says a couple days is all they have. Now, Boy, you get some sleep while we get that bullet out. Surgery is not a proper place for an eleven-year-old. But, mind you, tomorrow leave them alone and let them to some peace and quiet.”
I almost jumped out of my skin. “The outlaws Cole and Jim Younger are going to stay here? At our house? For a couple days? Wait until I tell my friends!” I headed for the front door.
Ma slid in front of my path and grabbed me by the arm. “Stop right there, young man.” She led me back to Pa’s porch chair. “Sit down; there is something very important I need to discuss with you.” I sat down, a bit in shock, for I had never seen Ma this upset. “Something you must swear on the word of God to keep true to.”
I nodded my head in agreement. I thought I was about to be entrusted with some monumentally important task for our guests.
“Son, you must swear that for as long as your father or our guests still live, you will never mutter a single word about their arrival and stay here.” Ma pinned me to the chair with a hard stare. “Not a peep to anyone, not a whimper. The future and well being of this family, especially your father, is at stake. No one can ever know anything about this while your father breathes and walks this earth.”
The conversation repeated over and over again in my head as I lay in bed. I tried to figure out the gravity of the promise I just made, tried to figure out just exactly what secrets my family still held. Eventually, the long day caught up to me, and I drifted off to sleep.
End of sampler. Visit The Younger Days for more information