Authors: Fire on the Prairie
FIRE ON THE PRAIRIE
“Damn them all to hell and back!” James McCabe, Sr. banged his fist against the wood-planked table, ensuring his three sons’ full attention. “We came to Missouri to make a new life for ourselves
; not to get involved in some political squabble between Kansas free-staters and Southern slaveholders. I would never have left Tennessee if I’d known we’d be tangling with the devil and his crew.”
Big Jim’s second son Franklin snatched the latest edition of the
Jefferson City Times
off the table, reading aloud. “‘Kansas jayhawkers have declared war on Missouri, crossing the border by the dozens to wreak mayhem upon the innocent citizens of our good state.’” He peered over the newspaper, gauging the reaction of his father and two brothers. “Sounds like more than just a ‘political squabble.’ If you ask me, the Yankees are spoiling for a fight.”
“And those two jayhawkers John Brown and Luther Maddox are vying with each other over who’s gonna fire the first shot,” James, Jr. opined, getting up from his chair to stoke the fire. “That white-haired fella Maddox has got the Yankees so fired up, they’ve taken to calling him the ‘Dark Angel,’ or some such nonsense. Folks actually believe
that he’s been ordained by God to kill Southerners.”
Franklin stepped over to the fire, rubbing his hands together to ward off the evening chill. “What about you, Spence? What’s your take on all this?”
Spencer McCabe got up from the table and sauntered over to the sideboard. From inside one of the paneled doors, he retrieved an earthenware jug which he uncorked with an appreciative smile. Like his father and two older brothers, he stood well over six feet in height. Although he parted company with the other McCabe men in having amber-colored eyes and a head of tobacco brown hair.
“Don’t see what the commotion is
all about,” Spence said with a disinterested shrug, reaching across the table to fill their empty coffee mugs with something a bit more potent. “True, Yankee jayhawkers are a different breed. But I don’t know why we can’t all learn to live and let live.”
His oldest brother slapped him on the back, a knowing grin on his face. “Admit it, Spence
– you’re not interested in anything unless it wears a long skirt and wiggles when it walks.”
“Guilty as charged,” Spence replied
readily, warming to the change in subject.
“And speaking of long skirts, little brother, what’s this I hear about you and Etta Mae Whitcomb? Folks have been talking up a storm ever since the two of you slipped away during the church picnic last Sunday.”
“What can I say, Jimbo? I had me an itch and Etta Mae was more than willing to scratch it.”
All three brothers laughed at that, sly winks being passed between them. Their father, who remained seated at the head of the table, was
clearly not amused. “Have you been trifling with Eli Whitcomb’s daughter?”
“It’s not like I was the first one, Pa. Believe you me, Etta Mae took to my root like a dog to a bone.”
The senior McCabe wagged a finger in Spence’s direction. “A word to the wise, son: it’s best not to tomcat in your own backyard. The last thing any of us wants is Eli Whitcomb banging on the door demanding that you do right by his daughter. Although seeing as how you’re one score and two, it’s probably time for you to think about taking a bride.”
“Well, it won’t be Etta Mae, that’s for sure. I don’t cotton to sharing my wife with every other man in the county. Besides, I’m not ready to settle down just yet.”
“Only one thing will cure a man of his randy ways, and that’s the love of a good woman.” James, Sr. raised his mug and gestured to his eldest son. “Just ask your brother Jim here.”
Spence’s brother nodded. “It’s true. Married life does have its advantages.”
“And by my count, you started to avail yourself of them the moment the preacher tied the knot.” Spence nudged Frank in the ribs. “I count nine months to the day. Is that what you get?”
Frank cocked his head to one side, his lips pursed in mock contemplation. “Sounds about right.”
“In that case, allow me to propose a toast to my older brother Jim.” Spence hooked a finger around the jug handle, refilling their mugs. “Here’s to your firstborn child. May you and Lydia have many more.”
His words incited a round of hearty hand shakes and congratulatory back slaps.
“Thanks, Spence. But the baby isn’t here yet.” Jim glanced at the mantle clock, clearly a worried man. “What do you suppose is taking so long, anyway?”
“No need to fret, son.” James, Sr. reached across the table for the jug, hefting it to his mouth in the crook of his arm. He took a long swallow, wiping the residue from his lips with his shirt sleeve. “The first one always takes the longest
. But your ma has midwifed many a youngin’ into the world. Lydia is in good hands.”
“Not to mention that Ma has a vested interest in this one,” Spence added. “It being her first grandbaby, and all.”
“I know. It’s just that . . . well, with all this talk about jayhawkers and such, I’m beginning to think that maybe I should have stayed at the cabin with Lydia and Ma.”
“And do what? Sit around for hours on end listening to your wife scream bloody murder? Trust me, son. At times like this, it’s b
est to leave the womenfolk be.”
Spence reached into his vest pocket, producing a well-worn deck of cards which he tossed onto the table. “Hey, I know. How about a game of
—” He stopped in midstream, inclining his head toward the front door. In the distance, a dog had commenced to barking. “What’s gotten into old Jake? He doesn’t usually carry on like that.”
Jim, Jr. reached for his hat. “I’ll go see what’s the matter. Sounds like he’s down by the springhouse. Could be he’s tangling
with a porcupine or the like.”
“No, you don’t.” Spence plucked the hat off
of his brother’s head. “Since this is your big night, you stay and deal the first hand. I’ll go and see what’s the matter with Jake.”
Almighty. Let’s hope it’s not another skunk. Last time that happened, Jake stank to high heaven for nigh on a week.” Frank slapped his thigh, his head shaking with mirthful amusement. “Do you remember that, Spence?”
“How could I forget? Ma nearly skinned him alive.” Both brothers laughed aloud at the recollection, their merriment quickly silenced when they caught sight of two tousled h
eads peering around the corner.
“We heard Jake barking.”
“Is Jake all right?”
Stepping away from the table, Spence went over to where his younger siblings, Virginia and Dewey, stood hand-in-hand. Attired in long cotton nightshirts, they looked lik
e a pair of pint-sized ghosts.
“What are y’all doing out of bed? Hmm? You know Ma doesn’t abide by such be
Little Ginny put a hand to her hip, her chin stubbornly tipped outward. “And she doesn’t approve of dri
nking or card playing either.”
Glancing at the table, Spence knew
that he’d been caught red-handed. And given their hangdog expressions, his father and brothers knew it, as well. A staunch Baptist, his mother didn’t look kindly on such sinful indulgences.
Spence cast another furtive glance at the table before squaring his shoulders. “You know, Ginny, I do believe you’re getting too big for your
Dewey, the youngest of the McCabe clan, tugged at Spence’s shirt. “What’s wrong with Jake? He won’t stop barking.”
“Don’t you worry. I’m going to check on him right now.” Spence turned each child in the direction of the hall, sending them on their way with a gentle swat to the behind. “Now, scram. Back to bed with the both of you.”
Satisfied that Dewey and Ginny had returned to their beds, Spence made his way to the front door. “Go ahead and deal me in, Jim. I shouldn’t be long.”
“There’ll be hell to pay if your mother finds out about any this,” the elder McCabe warned, guiltily pushing the jug away from him.
“Don’t I know it,” Spence replied with a grin, too much of a rogue to suggest
while away their time drinking and gambling.
Removing the wooden bar from the front
entry, Spence swung the door open and stepped outside, flipping up his coat collar. Although the days had warmed considerably, the nights still had a bite to them. He glanced up at the sky, taking note of the thick cloud cover that hid the moon and wishing, too late, that he’d brought a lantern with him. The farm was blanketed in darkness, and if it wasn’t for Jake’s incessant barking, he’d have left well enough alone.
As he neared the springhouse,
Spence came to a sudden halt, his attention sidetracked by a rustling noise in the near distance.
“Must be the wind in the trees,” he mumbled to himself, picking up his pace. Jake was now barking fast and furious, the animal clearly agitated by something. “Christ
Almighty. What’s gotten into—”
Jake’s barking suddenly ceased, not
as much as a whimper to be heard.
Worried, Spence ran the rest of the way to the springhouse, curbing the urge to call the dog’s name aloud. For the first time since leaving the house, he had the uneasy feeling that something was awry. As the clouds rolled free of the moon, enough light was cast for him to see a dark shape lying on the ground several yards away. He ran toward it
. Going down on bent knee, he put out a hand.
“Jake, what’s wrong, boy? Are you
instantly recoiled from the dog, his hand covered in blood. Lunging to his feet, he glanced back at the house, his heart hammering in his chest.
Just then, three shots rang out.
Jayhawkers! Who else could it be?
Spence took off running, charging toward the
farmhouse as fast as he could. Ahead of him, he saw a pack of shadowy figures scurrying across the farmyard. A moment later, the clouds reclaimed the moon, plunging everything into darkness.
Damn them all to hell and back!
By the time Spence reached the house, the jayhawkers were gone. Barreling through the opened doorway, he stopped in his tracks. His father and two brothers were seated around the table, their bodies slumped against the card-strewn table top.
He grabbed his father by the shoulder, reeling in horror as he stared into a pair of lifeless blue eyes – his father’s life, and that of his two older brothers, had been mercilessly extinguished by a bullet to the brain.
Spence swallowed back an evening’s worth of liquor, his chest heaving in shocked disbelief.
“Goddamn jayhawkers! I’m gonna kill ‘em!”
Rushing to the fireplace, he grabbed his father’s Hawken rifle from
where it hung over the mantle.
“What’s wrong with Pa?”
Spence spun around, the rifle gripped in his hands. His two younger siblings stood in the doorway, their eyes round with fear.
“Get back to bed!” he yelled, unwilling to answer his sister’s question. “And stay there!”
In the next instant, he raced outside, his mind set on only thing – to kill as many damned jayhawkers as he could.
Hearing footsteps sound
in the direction of his mother’s strawberry patch, Spence raised the rifle to his shoulder. Unable to see in the darkness, he turned and fired, a loud groan indicating that he’d hit his mark.
Before he could reload, a gang of riders, a dozen in all, g
alloped across the front yard. As Spence ran toward them, the clouds lifted, a beam of pale lunar light falling to the earth. He stopped short, recognizing the lead rider from the newspaper accounts, his shock of long white hair unmistakable – it was Luther Maddox, the one they called the ‘Dark Angel.’
A heartbeat later, the riders were gone,
having escaped into the night.
Spence fell to his knees, the rif
le still clutched in his hands.
“I’m gonna kill ‘em. Every last one of ‘em!” he swore aloud, his face streaked with tears. “If it’s a war they want, then by God I’ll give ‘em a war!”