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User:Phil Geusz/Cold Judgement

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Cold Judgement

Author: Phil Geusz

March 15, 1935

I'm an old man now, just a wrinkled bag of memories. Not good for much except the retelling of old stories, tales that have been passed on too many times already, reckoning from the looks my great-grandkids give me when I start in again about old Bill and the Raiders. There was a time when an old man like me could look forward to respect in his age, when people listened to his old adventures instead of an electric noisy box.

I've gotten too old...

But there's one more story to tell, one last episode of my spell with the Raiders so crazy and unbelievable that I've never put it to word or paper. And there can't be very much time left for me now, or for any of the Grey Ghosts. This bloody Missouri ground claimed too many of us then, and time is reaching out for the rest of us, sure as the seasons turn.

It's hard to explain what things were like here, back in 1861. I was just a fourteen year-old kid, the only boy among 5 sisters. It made things hard, made me push all that much harder to be a man, to help your great-grandaddy as we farmed the same Chariton River bottom that our family still plows today. News traveled slower then, tensions took longer to grow. We knew that the war clouds were gathering, but all we wanted was to be left alone. This didn't seem too unreasonable to us. Far as we figured, there wasn't any reason we should get involved. We didn't own slaves- no place for them really in a corn field. And like most Missourians, our family came from the South- people have forgotten that now as time has passed, but I had first cousins in Tennessee and Alabama. We weren't that close, but they were family all the same. And I never really got worked up about the whole slavery issue- It didn't seem like a good thing to me, but I wasn't perturbed enough to go shooting at my cousins over it, neither. I'd never even seen a black person. And I kinda sympathized my Southern kin on the state's rights end of things.

So like most Missourians, we were caught in the middle. In the last big election before everything blew up, we elected Claiborne Jackson our new Governor. Turned out that secretly he was a Secessionist, but we voted him in on the strength of his pro-slavery, pro-Union speeches. Unluckily for us he was about the only one in the nation elected on a compromise platform like that- the whole rest of the country was all fired up to commence shooting over this stuff. While in Missouri, we just wanted to farm.

Things got unsettled real quick. North and South fought hard right from the getgo for Missouri's strategic rail lines and rivers, and both sides formed what claimed to be the legitimate government. We poor farmers didn't know what to do. The Governor raised an army and tried to take control in service to the Southern cause, resulting in the deadliest battle of the Civil War at Wilson's Creek. No one but Missourians seem to remember it, but the casualty percentage was never exceeded. The average soldier on both sides had a bigger chance of being killed for their country there than anywhere else.

That's typical of how you children have whitewashed what happened in Missouri back then. It was the biggest, bloodiest mess this country has ever known. And we've tried to get over it by forgetting it.

After the terrible battle at Wilson's Creek, Governor Jackson and his top general, Sterling Price, made a fateful decision. The South had won, but it had been a pyrrhic victory that resulted in granting the Union time to sew up most of the state. Therefore, Price empowered the farmers of Missouri to form a guerilla army, appointing their own officers and such, to continue to pressure the Union occupying authorities. Quietly, sometimes with the help of experienced officers infiltrated through the Ozarks, little bands of Southern sympathizers started to flourish and burn railroad bridges and such. The Union occupiers immediately clamped down, imposing large fines and other penalties on little villages that harbored suspected "Raiders", and driving the previously unmotivated people more and more into the Southern camp. Meanwhile, along the Western border Senator Jim Lane of Kansas and others led columns of so called "militia", really armed pillagers, to sack and loot much of Western Missouri. This boosted Confederate recruiting still further. The Raiders grew more powerful, the Union Army oppressed harder still, the Raiders grew stronger as a result and a vicious cycle of hate and vengeance and blood and rape began to take hold that would leave thousands of civilians dead, Missouri in ruins and people like me with memories we'd rather not have...

Over a war most of us had no interest in fighting.

I shot a lot of men, riding with Quantrill. At the time I thought they deserved it but now, on my Maker's doorstep, I wonder what insanity took me. The bluebellies killed my father, of course, shooting him in random vengeance from a passing train like they did so many others while they were peacefully tending their fields. Two of my sisters died of fever the Winter of '62 after the farm was burned in retribution for the destruction of a railway trestle and we were reduced to living in a damp, frigid tent. When Spring planting time came, I decided that there was no way I was putting out seed to feed bluebellies. Like just about all the other Raiders, my Civil War wasn't about politics- it was about getting even. An altogether nastier thing...

Quantrill was east to find for a Missouri farm boy with a horse, a brand new Raider shirt, a six-shooting Colt and red rage glowing in his heart. Most of the others were about my age and just as twisted with rage and hate, but there were enough older and wiser heads to make sure our violent tendencies were focused to a fine edge of tactical brilliance and strategic vision. Between us and a few other bands, we controlled the countryside, the "brush" as it was called back then, while the bluebellies cowered in the towns and forts. We made their lives hellish and short, both picking them off by ones and twos with relentless bushwhacking and killing them en masse in organized raids by hundreds of our number. We had better guns and better horses than our opponents, and better, more motivated leaders. The Union countered by taking hostages, making prisoners of our wives and sisters in an old building in Kansas City. This enraged us- at our worst we had never made war on women.

But the rage was nothing to what we felt after the building collapsed on August 14, 1863. Killing many of our womenfolk.

In our camp, the news was met with disbelief at first, but as the truth struck home the scene became horrible. We figured it was no accident, of course, though nowadays folks seem pretty convinced it was. Grown men and boys, already vicious, motivated killers armed to the teeth, walked around the campfires screaming the agony of their souls into the night like animals. The anger and hysteria intensified as the multiple bereaved, already among the most dangerous men on Earth, built upon each other's angst. A wave of malignancy grew among them, a wave which sought a focus, an outlet of blood. And presently, the mood changed from wild wailing to utterly cold resolve. One word was whispered amongst us, one word became the focus of our hate and anger. As we mounted up, that word was all that needed to be said.

Lawrence.

Lawrence, Kansas was the home of all our troubles, the focus of our hatred and bloodlust. From its perch dozens of miles into enemy territory, secure in its invulnerability, Lawrence's squawking press and holier-than-thou citizenry had called us murderers and slavers as we fought for our homes and farms and families. Lawrence had crowed at every hanging of a captured Raider. Most of all, Lawrence was the home of the two-faced Senator Jim Lane, whose "troops" had created lots of the problems that had made many of us into Raiders and killers to begin with.

Lawrence. Lawrence would pay.

Usually we were a merry lot, being mostly farm boys. There were jokes and hijinks, whispered stories continually being told up and down the mounted columns. But this ride was made of cold, intense silent rage. I think there has been no other like it in all American history, and let there be none to come! The horses trotted on in deathly quiet as we outmaneuvered the pickets like we had so many times before and came upon the town unawares...

I don't want to talk about what happened there, and what I did. Let the people of Lawrence tell you, those who survived. I have to face God with my guilt, but no one else. At the time I felt no remorse at all, only icy fury. That's all I'll say.

When we were about finished and the town well in flames, Bloody Bill Anderson rode up with Frank and Jesse James to give me special orders. Having proven a good rider and tracker I was to ride out with Roland Williams, another Scout type, well ahead of the main column and lay a false trail Hopefully, any bluebellies out and about would perhaps lay an ambush for Raiders that were never coming. Meanwhile, Cole Younger and little Archie Clement would handle the real scouting duties. We would meet back at a rendezvous in Missouri. I "yessirred", found Roland, and was off.

I usually liked the chance to scout, but not with squinty-eyed Roland. And especially not the afternoon of the Sack of Lawrence. Already I was feeling guilt and remorse for my spree, and would have preferred to suffer in silence. Revenge was proving less sweet than I had expected. But not Roland- no guilt there! He was still swigging whiskey and joyously war-whooping as we headed back East to our more usual haunts. In between shouts and gulps he regaled me with various tales of his days work, emphasizing the way blood had gushed from a slit throat or how a boy even younger than I had screamed in terror as a pistol had lined up on him. Quantrill had made sure that everyone knew that as usual the women were not to be touched- Roland was still upset about that and went on quite a bit about the opportunities he'd missed...

I was sick at what I had done, and would forever after have to live with. And listening to my companion gloat about it was making things worse. So wrapped up in the memories of the day was I that I almost missed the little shack looming up out of the twilight...

I wanted to go around, but we were still in Kansas. Kansans were fair game. Roland wanted to pillage, and that was that. I just hoped he would try for no more...

Wordlessly I took the back while Roland knocked on the front door. When the inhabitants opened up he kicked his way in, and distinctly I heard his Colt crack upon someone's head as he pistol-whipped one of the residents into submission. Then, after a moment's pause while he made sure everything was under control, Roland unlatched the back door and let me in.

Colored ladies! Three of them. The first blacks I had ever seen...

The dim firelight was not as revealing as I would have liked- all I could make out at first was a cluster of three female-shaped areas of darkness on the shack's floor. But after a moment, my eyes adjusted and I could make out the funny hair I had heard about, and the dark skin. Two were young and beautiful, perhaps my own age or a bit older. The third was an old crone, wearing a colorful robe and some sort of weird-looking necklace. It was the crone Roland had struck- she was lying unconscious or dead.

My companion was grinning. "Looky here, Cletus!" he said to me, loosening his gunbelt. "We done hit the jackpot! One apiece?"

I didn't understand at first- I was just barely sixteen after all, and confused from a long day of powerful emotions and violence run rampant. Of learning in the hardest school possible that revenge can be empty and pointless. That all the dead Yankees in the world couldn't bring my father and sisters back. But his excited stripping helped me catch on right quick, like.

My bloodlust was sated, and more. These women were not my enemies. Just poor freed slaves, probably delivered by the Underground Railroad just before the war broke out. "No." I said, simply.

Roland stared a minute, then laughed. "OK, little boy. Two for me then."

I drew down on him. "No." I said clearly.

He froze, amazement passing across his face. "They're just...." Then seeing the rigidity of my features he got serious. "Ok, Cletus, Ok. If you feel like that about it." Moving slowly, he pulled his pants back up...

...and struck out at me with a stick of firewood. The blow landed hard, and pain and grogginess swirled through me as I collapsed onto my knees, then blacked out entirely.

Consciousness returned slowly, announcing itself with the pounding of my head in time to my heart. Slowly, I got past the pain, and became aware of other things.

My cheek against the neatly kept dirt floor.

My hat half-sitting on my head.

My hands bound tightly behind me.

Bound?

I fought the rope, but Roland was an expert. He had done me up right. The sound of his laugh startled me into motionlessness, and I opened my eyes to see him standing naked in front of me, the two colored women bruised and beaten at his feet. One was out cold, the other not far from it. The Raider was smiling in a wide relaxed grin, and looked happier than I'd ever known him. "Cletus, you're a good man in a fight but you're still a boy in your mind, aren't you? See all the fun you've missed?"

My mouth felt like it was full of dirt. Probably was. For sure, I was too dry to answer.

"Son, I'm not real fond of looking down a pistol barrel. But you're young, and just this once I can forgive you, seein' as how you've had a rough day and all. I'm not taking any chances though- you're waiting right there until I'm finished. All the way finished." And with that, he kicked at the still-conscious woman. "Get up, girl. C'mon, get up. Daddy's got more for ya!"

Horrified, I watched as the Negress rose slowly, hopelessly, and Roland leaned back gently to ease the knife out his shirt, which was draped on the chair behind him. I tried to shout, but it came out dry and dusty. I gagged with the effort, and convulsed about the floor in frustration. For a second Roland glanced back at me, but seeing the bonds were holding he returned full attention to his evil business. "Come on honey, just a kiss this time. That's all I want, and we'll be leavin'..."

In my kicking, I hit something soft. Something that groaned...

"Just a little closer, sweet thing. A little closer..."

Frantically, I kicked the old lady again. I was helpless, sure enough. Maybe she could do something. This time she moved, and groaned a bit. But she was drowned out by a scream from above as the girl in Roland's arms finally caught view of the knife. She struggled, but it was clear that it would be no match- Roland gave her a better view of the blade to terrorize her further.

The old lady finally opened her eyes, looking me directly in the face. A sharp intelligence came into the wizened features almost immediately, and I realized I was gazing in horror into the most powerful, compelling eyes I'd ever known. Eyes that were mirrored in the design of the amulet she wore around her neck...

What I saw in those frigid orbs was Death. Death incarnate.

"Karim!" she said, with authority and barely controlled anger."Karim auch tal!"

Now, I had been hit on the head, sure enough, and had drunk some whiskey and seen and done horrible things that day. That Freud fellow would probably tell you that I was a little touched in the head just then, not playing with a full deck. But I saw what I saw, and this was it.

The crone's head flattened, melting almost instantaneously into that of a huge snake, like a mask flowing into place around the horrid deadly eyes that did not change at all. Then her body pulsed and thumped, spasming and growing until I thought I thought she would fill the room and smother us all with her huge, intricately patterned body. Roland stood stunned, knife and victim forgotten. Then the beast reared up in front of him and hissed like a locomotive venting at a station...

HISSS....

The sound froze me in sheer terror. I've face cannon and volley and the immediate prospect of being captured and hung, but never fear like that moment. Never.

Roland stood transfixed, like a mouse or something instead of the killer he was. His squinty eyes were no match at all for the gaze of the snake. Gradually, the big reptile began to dance, to writhe and twist and interweave itself in front of him.

He dropped the knife. "No." Then the Raider spoke more urgently. "No!"

I turned away. Even from where I lay, I felt the compulsion Roland knew, to surrender myself to the sweet embrace of the snake... It would all be over soon...

From behind me, I heard the slithering of the dry scales intensify, the tempo of the snake's dance quicken. "NO!" Roland shouted, even as I heard him take his first tentative step toward his doom.

Then another. "NO! I'm not coming!"

Finally, he got close enough and I heard the snake spring and wrap my fellow Raider in it's coils. Then it began to squeeze...

The snake took it's time, I would guess. Its powerful body looked like it could have crushed Roland in minutes, maybe even seconds. Instead, dawn was well past and much crackling and screaming had gone by when Roland finally was sucked down the huge throat, still weakly whimpering...

Then it turned to me. And began to dance.

I didn't even try to fight the hypnotic shapes- there wasn't any point. Obligingly, I began shuffling my bound body across the dirt floor towards the big reptile, hoping that maybe it would make things quick for me in exchange for my cooperation.

Then Roland's victims, so far silent witnesses, spoke out urgently. I didn't understand, not really, as they were gabbling in some kind of outlandish foreign tongue, but gradually the snake stopped dancing and crept over to me, examining me minutely with the cold eyes that spoke of an imminent doom. Then she began tasting me with her tongue, flipping it across and over every square inch of my body, from time to time rolling me with her powerful head to sample the flavor of all my flesh. When she was done, she lay partly draped across me for a long time, her heavy body pinning me in place as I held myself as immobile as the functions of life would allow.

Why was she toying with me?

Hours passed. I grew stiff and incredibly sore, but was in no hurry to disturb the great serpent as it considered....

Finally, with exquisite slowness the great reptile lifted itself from me and arranged its huge body in a disorderly pile to sleep off it's meal. As it lost consciousness, it quietly and without much ado at all became simply an old woman again, albeit one with a hugely bulging belly.

The younger girls wordlessly cut me free, and I lost no time riding out of Kansas, making it alive and undetected. The war continued its bloody evil path, and I did my best to redeem myself by behaving with what honor a guerilla can. There were further slaughters, more massacres on both sides, but I took no part in them. Leaving Quantrill during the winter rest in Texas, I found a somewhat less bloodthirsty band to fight my war with, and lived to surrender in dignity and pick up the ruins of my farm and my life.

I've thought a lot about that snake-woman since then- even learned to read and took some schooling down in Rolla just to find out what I can about what happened that night. I think maybe the crone was what Africans call a witch-woman, someone who uses supernatural powers to sniff out and destroy evil. If so, she was right about Roland- there were some nasty boys rode with Quantrill, and he was one of them sure enough. But she had an awfully hard time making her mind up about me...

I can make lots of excuses, sure enough. I was young, the times were bloody, I was caught in the middle, I fell under bad influences. All true enough. But could I have made other choices, maybe stopped myself in Lawrence from...

Sorry. Still can't talk about that.

Yes, I passed one judgement, barely. The seasons have turned many times since then though, and given me plenty of time to think as my friends have passed on one by one.

Will I pass a second?