SHOWDOWN IN SHADOW CREEK
EXCERPT: COMING MAY 7, 2012 from Eternal Press
Cold starlight beamed into the dimness of the room. Eve and John sat at a small table on one side with only a single candle to light their features. They spoke in whispered voices, kept low to avoid waking two sleeping babies.
“John, what can we do? These people live and die by the feud. I do not want our children to become part of that kind of life simply because we became targets for standing our ground and defending Tex after he was shot. It just isn’t fair.”
“Fair has nothing to do with it, Eve. There will always be someone who wants something and is willing to take it at the end of a gun. Do you remember? Once I told you that I have to face my enemies, we have to face our enemies. If we don’t, we might as well pack up and run. That hasn’t changed. We could run, but they would keep after us until we had to run again. Eventually, it would become habit and we’d keep running because it was easier than facing the hard choices. I couldn’t then and I won’t now; especiallynot now!”
Eve smiled sadly. “Very well then, we stand and fight.”
John pulled her close and sat quietly focused on the reflection staring back at him from the imperfect glass of the window. Moments like this had defined each metamorphosis his life had taken. His thoughts were not on the family that had bound together to kill him, or his current family. They were instead shadows of a past filled to overflowing with death and loss.
At seventeen, his father had died in his arms, shot by mistake as two drunken Kansas Bushwhackers let a fight over a spilled shot of whiskey come down to a wild shootout in the streets of Lawrence, Kansas. William Patrick Bell, a gentle farmer trying to raise his family the only way he knew how, lay dead on the plank sidewalk because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. John Bell, eldest of the children, found himself thrust prematurely into the role of his father. He took the path he was born to.
A year later, at the height of the devastating Civil War, sweat poured from his sun-reddened skin as he guided an aged mule down a dusty turn row. He tried valiantly to fill the boots of his father and supply the sustenance needed by his mother, sister, and younger brothers. From the direction of the farm house gunshots rang out. Four hundred Missouri raiders rode past the farm from the gentle slope of Mount Oread in a murderous dash into the streets of Lawrence. Unarmed, his family had no chance. Though he ran as hard as he could, the raiders were gone as quickly as they had appeared.
The house was filled with dark black smoke and shooting flames. He found dead and nearly dead family members under the willow tree beside the pond. His mother, as was her wont, reclined in her rocking chair, her torso now draped over the arm, her blood soaking into the weathered, dry wood. In her lap lay the worn, much used bible given her on the day of her wedding.
Sixteen year old Caleb lay near her in a fetal position, the back of his head a mass of clotting blood. William Jr. was lucky to be still among the living. He sat cradling a shattered left arm. Tears streamed down his twelveyear-old face. Celeste, pretty Celeste, youngest of the Bell family, wandered aimlessly across the yard toward the water. She made no sound at all as she stepped into the cool liquid, one step, then another, and another. John pulled her from the water and she fought to return. Even at this young age, she longed to join her dead mother and brother. Her screams of anguish tore holes in John’s soul. Once clear of the waters’ edge she stopped fighting and began a quiet sobbing for the loss she suffered.
* * * *
Celeste sat silently beside her wounded brother as both watched John dig two fresh graves adjoining the one their father occupied behind the burned out farmhouse. Her gaze focused entirely on the gaping holes that would soon hold the bodies of her mother and older brother…John watched her closely, fearing another onset of the insanity that swept over the child initially.
William Jr. sat in a semi-drunken stupor. Having nothing else to kill the excruciating pain as he dressed and bound the shattered arm, John had made him drink glass after glass of whiskey. It dulled the pain, but, it also dulled the senses. Lost in his thoughts about the children and where he could take them where they could safely sit out the war, John didn’t notice Celeste had risen and walked to the edge of the grave until she spoke.
“Johnny, can I help?”
“Honey, you can do anything you want. What do you want to do to help?”
“I want to go up on the hill and pick some flowers for Mama and Papa and Caleb…can I?”
“I think that’s a fine thing to do. Don’t take too long though, I’ll have this digging done soon and we need to finish before dark. Can’t have a proper funeral after the sun goes down you know.”
“I won’t be long, and I will stay in sight. Mama loved flowers.”
“Go ahead then, but stay where I can see you. If the bad men come back, you come running as fast as you can, ya hear?”
* * * *
Lack of sleep was wearing young John Bell thin. After the burial of his mother and brother, he had loaded the slab sided farm wagon with all the worldly possessions of the Bell family and hitched the mules. The two day, forty mile ride to the home of his father’s brother in Kansas City was like a trip through Hell. Every farm and homestead on that rough road had seen some type of attack from northern forces operating out of Missouri.
When the wagon topped a slight rise above the small homestead relief flooded through Johnny Bell’s heart and mind. His uncle Thaddeus and aunt Elisabeth welcomed the trio of travelers and agreed to foster Caleb and Celeste.
* * * *
J. R. Bell was born that day. He had no desire to join with either group of fighters that had a part in the shattering of his family, and indeed, the entire eastern half of Kansas. He strapped on his father’s Colt pistol and rode west. He assumed the life of a gambler, and followed the Army camps earning a living from the bad luck of hapless soldiers on rare nights they could receive furlough.
He didn’t actively seek out Quantrill or his murderous band, but he did come across many of them and generally left them bleeding or dead on the sawdust of whatever saloon they happened to cross his path. A burning anger resided just under the calm outward surface of his persona, and he rode for two years seeking vengeance; a silent, personal feud for deaths he had been powerless to stop.
The few times after the Civil War ended that he was forced into lifting his gun, circumstance dictated the action. Always he faced his foe head on. There was no criminal intent to do murder. Each was justified, and each was an act of self-defense. Every gunfight improved his skill and his reputation grew, leading him to this time and this place. Now he would lift his gun to protect the ones he loved. He would never again walk the unbidden path of his youth and suffer the loss of everything and everybody dear to him. He made a silent vow that he would not let the hatred of others rob him of the life he had now gained.
As if to reinforce his thoughts, small, burbling, cooing sounds came from his daughter’s crib. He stood and went to her. Lifting the swaddled baby from the bedding, he cradled her close against his chest to look into her clear blue eyes. She was so lovely, so trusting, and so very fragile. No—he would not lose another family. He smiled, it seemed, for the first time in days.
“John?” Eve asked softly.
“It’s nothing. I was just thinking about Kansas.” He wiped the moisture from his eyes with rough, calloused fingers and brought his little Angelica to her mother.