Book excerpt

Confederate Gold

Cameron Judd

St. Martin's Press

CONFEDERATE GOLD (chapter 1)

SHE LOOKED AT ME THROUGH THE SMOKE OF HER CORNCOB pipe and declared she wanted me to take her home, and I never knew until the day of her death years later whether it was because of a real longing for the place of her raising or because she wanted to give me a way to get myself out of trouble.

"Home?" I said. "Fort Scott is home. It's where we make our living. It's where we buried Pap."

"My home is Tennessee," my mother replied. "The living we make here ain't much, and I'm pining for the hills. I want to go back to Rogersville and live with your aunt Kate. I want you to take me."

"It's because of the fight, ain't it!" I said. "You're trying to get me away from here to keep me out of jail."

She leaned forward, that blue glint of her eyes as keen as the flash of a new gun barrel. "Enoch Brand, you ain't never talked back to your mother in twenty-five years of life, and I don't expect you to start now. There's a Tennessee-bound wagon train going to be pulling out soon. We'll be a part of it. I want you to take me home, and there's no more to be said about it."

And that's all that was said about it, and how it all began in that autumn forty-six years ago. Cleveland was in the White House, Geronimo was on a reservation in Florida, the Haymarket anarchists of Chicago were in jail, and the Brand family of Fort Scott, Kansas, was bound for Rogersville, Tennessee, the little town from which we had sprung. That was how Prudence Brand had said it would be, and there was no arguing with her.

The truth was, I was grateful. I needed to get away from Fort Scott as quickly as possible, or find myself in jail for beating Hermes Van Horn half to death. That was the deal I had been offered by the court, but until Ma declared her desire to leave, I hadn't been able to accept it, and my time to choose was running out fast.

I hadn't meant to hurt Hermes so bad. But it was his fault as much as mine, for he had flirted with Minnie, my dear wife, one time too many. A man can only abide so much of that, even when, to be honest, the wife is doing as much of the flirting as the other party.

Minnie had a way of drawing men; I should know, for she had drawn me all the way to the church altar. The trouble was, her attractiveness didn't fade after my ring went around her finger. Men flocked to her like roosters to a hen, and she made little effort to spur them off. It was a vexing thing to endure. I guess that's why I was so rough on Hermes Van Horn when finally I had put up with enough of his lechery: I was unloading on him the full weight of vexation that had been building for a long time.

Minnie hadn't always been an unfaithful-hearted wife. At the beginning of our marriage she was as true as a woman could be. And then had come the great tragedy of her life, one that had jolted her to the heart and left her changed. Nobody ever really knew what happened to bring it about, but the short of it was that her mother was killed. Murdered by shotgun--and the one who did it was Minnie's father, who turned the second barrel on himself when his wife was dead. He had always drunk too much, so much it had gone to his liver and maybe his brain as well. That was how I account for what he did, but like I say, nobody ever really knew.

The murder sent Minnie into a month-long silence. It was like her form was present but her soul was way off somewhere else. And after she came out of it, she was different than the Minnie I had known. The flirting started, the too-long glances at other men, the moodiness, the seeming inability for her to decide whether she really loved me or not. I didn't hold her to fault for it; how could I, knowing what she had gone through? How could I ever think of raising my voice, much less my hand, against a woman who had seen her own mother murdered by her father? Minnie's suffering had changed me as much as it had changed her. It had made me love her more deeply than ever, and given me a world of patience with her trying ways. Maybe too much patience; after you hear my story, you can decide that for yourself.

Of course, a man can grow frustrated in being patient, and frustration can boil over into fury, as it had with Hermes Van Horn. All the anger I had been willing to take out on Minnie I took out on him.

And so now I had to leave, and Ma's declaration gave me the perfect opportunity to do it. In a way, the move would be relatively easy. We were a poor family, always had been, so there were few goods that would have to be carried along to Tennessee. Mostly just some of Ma's old furniture and quilts and other such things that are the treasures of aging widows. Beyond that there were the household goods Minnie and I possessed, and few these were, for we had shared the little rented house at Fort Scott with Ma, and there had been scant room for accumulation.

I would leave behind my smithy fixings, my anvil, hammers, bellows, tongs, and so on, and have them sold. I was a blacksmith in those days, like my father before me had been, and I was good at it, even though I seemed perpetually unable to make a decent living at the forge.

The day after Ma declared our destiny, I set about getting ready to leave. Minnie didn't like the idea at all. She was a Kansan and had never been out of her home state, except to cross the line a few miles into Missouri. She cried and fussed half the night after I told her we were leaving, but this did her no good. She cried and fussed all the time anyway, so I had grown deaf to her complaints.

What would happen soon after would make me realize that perhaps I should have listened to Minnie more than I did. I would find that not even Prudence Brand could lay out a destiny unalterable by circumstance and a wayward woman. Before this adventure was done, I would find myself not rolling back into Tennessee as anticipated, but deep in the hills of Arkansas, searching for my woman, fighting my way through troubles far worse than those I was fleeing, and following the dangerous path of a strange and obsessed man whose life was wrapped up in a lost strongbox of Confederate gold. But I'm getting ahead of my story.

There were two other families bound for Tennessee from Fort Scott at that time. As bad luck would have it, one of them was the Malan clan, fathered by Bert Malan, uncle-by-marriage of Hermes Van Horn. Bert and I had always gotten along tolerably up until my row with Hermes. After that, however, I could all but smell the bad blood running through his veins every time I got near him.

Only his respect for my mother had led Bert Malan to let us become part of the wagon train at all. I decided to stay as clear of him as possible for the sake of group harmony, and devote my attention solely to driving the wagon, helping Ma with the cooking along the way (Minnie being a sorry cook who complained about the job so much that she usually escaped it), and generally looking out for trouble. There didn't seem much possibility of the latter. After all, this was 1886, modern times, and we would be traveling in settled territory all the way.

Our route would be from Fort Scott to Carthage, Missouri, on to Springfield, across the plateau of the Ozarks to Cape Girardeau, across the river and on into Mound City, Kentucky, then to Paducah, Hopkinsville, Guthery, and into Tennessee about Gallatin. From there we would travel across the midst of the state, over the Cumberland Plateau, into East Tennessee and Knoxville, the stopping point for the rest of the travelers. My family would head on northeast from there, to the old homeplace at Rogersville.

There was no sadness on my part when it came time to roll out of Fort Scott on our big covered wagons. Ma might have felt sad to leave behind the place where she had laid to rest her husband; if so, she hid it, as she always hid her feelings. As for Minnie, she was weepy and maudlin, wiping her tears and nose on the cuff of her jacket, an old castoff of mine that fit her like a tent.

The horses, belonging to a blacksmithing family, were already well-shod. Our two wagons weren't as well off and required quite a bit of repair. By the day of our departure, however, they were in as good a shape as old vehicles could be. The axles were greased, loose sideboards tightened, brakes checked and repaired. Loading followed a sensible pattern, with goods such as skillets and pots, along with foodstuffs, packed on top of those things that would not be required for use during the journey. The canvas that was stretched across the bows was new and unpunctured.

Hermes Van Horn came to see off his kin, and maybe to make sure I was really leaving. I walked up to him, stuck out my hand, and tried not to stare too much at the bruises I had left blotching his face. His round head, marked with the dark impressions of my fist, reminded me of one of those world globes you often see in schoolhouses.

"Hermes, I'm sorry we are parting on bad terms," I said. "I might have liked you if you could have just left Minnie alone."

He looked at my extended hand like it held something scooped from the floor of a chicken coop. Without a word he turned away from me, snorting derisively, and stomped off.

Bert Malan came up to me, a gruff look on his face. "You trying to pick a fight again, Brand? You stay clear of him, and of me too, if you know what's good for you. It ain't out of love for you that I've agreed to let you come along, you know."

"Just trying to make up for past hurts, Bert," I replied, and turned back to my wagon. All I had tried to do was be a peacemaker, and even though my effort had been spurned, I felt then and forever thereafter that I had done the right thing to try.

The caravan set off with a creak and a groan. Minnie was overcome with emotion and crawled back under the bows and canvas to bury herself among the bundles and strapped-down furniture. There she cried, peering out through the back opening. I don't know what she saw in Kansas that was so all-fired hard to give up. Her own parents were dead and her brothers and sisters well-scattered across the country. I had to wonder if it was Hermes Van Horn she was grieving for. Thinking about that made me mad.

Our family brought up the rear of the caravan, with me driving the final wagon. The one ahead, carrying Ma, was driven by a twenty-year-old member of the Malan family, Joseph Benjamin Malan, whose double name had been shortened down and slurred together for so long that he now went by "Joben." He even spelled it that way, perhaps because he thought doing so was cute and clever, or more likely because he was too stupid to know Joben wasn't a real name.

And stupid he was--one of the worst cases I've ever seen then or since. Joben Malan hadn't made it through the first year of school and couldn't count past twenty without getting crossed up. Even his family considered him an idiot. And lest it appear that I am overharsh in my description of Joben because of what happened between him and Minnie soon thereafter, let me balance things by noting that he was as handsome a man as one would ever meet. He was tall, dark-haired, friendly, and muscular, possessing many qualities women find appealing in a man. My own Minnie, it turned out, was one of those women.

Traveling in the wagon with Minnie and me was Minnie's parrot, a gift to her from one of her brothers the previous Christmas. Minnie, not a very imaginative woman, had given it the name Bird. It was quite a creature, capable of repeating almost anything it heard. Ma had even managed to teach it the first two lines of an Isaac Watts hymn. Minnie was only mildly fond of the bird; Ma liked it a little better but found its chatter hard on the nerves.

My big hound, Squatter, ambled along beside the wagon. He had been my companion since I got him as a pup, and he was a beloved beast. He was strong, easygoing, and a good watchdog, and best of all, loyal. And a man with a wife like Minnie needed loyalty, if only from his hound.

The first day's travel, southward and east, went well. The weather was clear and fine, the road smooth. The more miles that piled up between me and Fort Scott, the better I felt. Maybe back in Tennessee, the home of my youth, I could make a better go of it than I had in Kansas.

We camped that night at Carthage, Missouri, right on schedule. It had been a long day's haul, right at fifty miles, and both beasts and humans were weary. The site of our camp was good, rich with wood and water, and Ma built a roaring fire. After a supper consisting of numerous bowls of soup, I finished the final chores of the day's end and settled back with a pipe. Ma had her pipe out too, and was puffing quite contently. Squatter was sleeping beside her, making her warm and comfortable.

Fifteen or so minutes later I noticed that Minnie wasn't about. I asked Ma, who said she had seen Minnie walking across the camp, up toward where Bert Malan and his kin were encamped. I waited around a little longer for Minnie to return, and she didn't. At last I began to worry for her, and decided to go find her, even if it did mean going where I wasn't welcome.

Bert Malan saw me coming and stood. "What do you want, Brand?"

"I'm looking for Minnie. You seen her?"

"What's that supposed to mean? You implying something?"

"It means I haven't see Minnie in a while, and Ma says she had come over this way. That's what it means, and that's all it means." I swear, this man was aggravating enough to make the Pope cuss.

Joben Malan stood. He had a cup of hot coffee in a tin mug, and instead of holding it by the handle, he was cupping it with his fingers, shifting it to the other hand when it burned him, then shifting it back again when the second hand got too hot. So you can see it's not simple meanness on my part when I say he was stupid.

"I seen her," Joben said. "She was heading for the woods yonder."

"When was that?"

"A good hour ago, I'd say." He looked off in the direction Minnie had gone, and on his good-looking face was a deeply wistful, longing expression. That expression should have forewarned me of troubles to come. "I reckon she'd have hollered if something was wrong. And I'd have been proud to help her if she had, Enoch. I ain't got nothing against you, not me."

And right then, as if Joben's words had triggered it, Minnie's screech came ringing out from the woods. It brought everyone in the camp to their feet, and sent me scampering. Joben followed, along with Bert and two or three others.

Minnie came racing out of the woods and right into my arms. "He's terrible, he's just terrible!" she yelled. Her face was streaked with tears and she was even more distraught than I was used to seeing her.

"Who's terrible?"

No answer was required, because the man in reference came striding out of the woods right then. It was Dewey Manchester, a hired hand of Bert Malan and driver of one of his three wagons. I hardly knew Manchester, but I did know his reputation. He was a troublemaker and had thrice gotten himself in hot water by acting in unseemly ways toward Fort Scott women. A man had knifed Manchester across the face for pawing his wife once upon a time, and the scar was broad and ugly and only partially hidden by his beard.

"What were you doing back there with my wife?" I demanded.

It was dark, but there was enough moonlight to let me see his maddening grin. "I took me a stroll at the same time she did, that's all. I didn't even know she was there until I stumbled upon her."

"He was watching me!" Minnie said. "I turned around and there he was, and he grabbed at me too!" She held up her arm. "See that scratch? It was his fingernail that done it!"

"Manchester, I'll peel your hide like a pelt if what she's saying is true!" It was a poor choice of words, for Minnie pulled away and looked at me angrily.

"If it's true? Of course it's true--you think I'd lie?"

"I'm sorry, Minnie, that's not what I meant."

"I never touched her," Manchester said. He had a cool, smug manner that made me want to light into him right there.

Bert Malan stepped between me and Manchester. "Whatever happened, there's nobody hurt and no reason for this to go on any longer," he said. "Enoch Brand, I suggest you get back to your wagon, and keep a closer watch on your wife."

That made me mad and got the best of my hard-pressed restraint. "Bert Malan, you're treading a narrow log. You'd best watch your step, or you might take a tumble right off it."

He lifted a finger and pointed it in my face, squinting down its length like it was a pistol barrel. "It's you who'd best watch your step, Brand. I'm the boss of this train, and I'll throw you off it quicker than you can scratch your backside"--he glanced at the several women present--"your nose. Quicker than you can scratch your nose."

Joben Malan edged up to Minnie. "Are you all right, ma'am?"

She looked at him like she had just noticed his looks for the first time. Like a storybook princess would look at the knight who just saved her. Like Squatter would look at a fresh beefsteak.

"Why, thank you, Joben Malan," she said. Her voice was suddenly a soft, cooing thing, almost musical. It was painful to me to hear it. She hadn't used that voice with me for the longest time.

At that moment Squatter came rushing up. He had stayed back at the fireside with Ma, but had been drawn by the excitement. He must have sensed my hostility toward Manchester, for he snarled and would have leaped on him had I not reached down and grabbed him by his rope collar at the last second.

"That's it--this little gathering is finished," Bert Malan said. "Get on back to your place, Brand, and keep that mastiff away from good folk before it hurts somebody."

I might have spoken my mind to Bert Malan right then if not for my sense that this whole thing was about to get beyond control. With a great effort of will I swallowed my angry words and backed off. "Come on, Squatter," I said. "Come on, Minnie."

"I'm glad you're all right, Mrs. Brand," Joben said. He hadn't looked at me once, just stared at her with a dreamy gaze.

"Thank you, Joben," Minnie said. "You're quite a gentleman."

As we walked together back toward our camp, I asked her what had possessed her to take a stroll into the woods at such an odd time.

"Maybe you ain't noticed, but there's no privies in this camp," she replied.

"Oh."

We went a little farther. "You sure were acting awfully sweet toward Joben back there."

"He's a gentleman. A woman acts kind to gentlemen."

"Are you saying I'm not one?"

"What are you fussing on me so hard for?" She began to act upset, her voice rising. "You're always fussing on me, Enoch. I try to be a good wife, and you just fuss!"

"Don't talk so loud--folks are looking."

"I don't care! Let them look! Let them see a husband dragging his wife off from her home against her will, and see what they think of that!"

I said no more, out of fear of public humiliation. We reached our campsite, and I found myself thinking it was going to be one dreadfully long and trying trip before we made it all the way to Rogersville.

Confederate Gold copyright 1993 by Cameron Judd. Cameron Judd is the author of more than thirty published historical and Western novels, an is an award-winning newspaperman. Two of his novels, Crockett of Tennessee and The Canebrake Men, were national finalists in the annual Spur Awards competition of Western Writers of America. He lives near Greeneville, Tennessee, with his wife and three children.