a short story
first published by The Esthetic Apostle
for Isaac Babel
A new man has entered our party, a prisoner named Pleasanton. He was apprehended a short while ago by soldiers of the 11th Kansas Cavalry, my escorts through hostile border country. We are now crossing the prairie from Fort Kearney to Fort Leavenworth, where Pleasanton is to be hanged, and from where I shall proceed to headquarters and file my report with the District of the Border, in Kansas City. Soon afterward, I hope to find my way back to civilization.
For the time being, shackled in the wagon like he is, Young Pleasanton is my travelling partner, of a sort. As I ride beside him, he tells me about his life: first as a farm boy, before Statehood; then as the blonde rebel who became disillusioned by the Southern Cause; then as a rummager of dead bodies; and most recently as a cavalier syphilitic. I suspect he is also mad, or perhaps simply a cool-headed liar: he wears a bloodstained buckskin jacket he claims to have taken off a dead Osage chief; but my cavalrymen say the Indian fighting is now a thousand miles from here. They would know.
According to Young Pleasanton’s account he was born in Ohio, but came west with his besotted father and long suffering mother ten years ago, in 1855, to homestead in a small hamlet south of Lawrence, Kansas. Six years ago, at the age of seventeen, he ran away from that farm to join some distant Missouri cousins in a business venture. That clandestine venture was capturing fugitive slaves along the border—a profitable enterprise, even into the early years of the War, but one which included a fair amount of intimidation and violence toward not only the slaves, which might be expected, but also to his fellow white settlers, some of whom had offered safe harbor to those same escapees.
After two years of marauding, Young Pleasanton had grown tired of violence. In the summer of ‘63, he deserted his band of slave catchers and border bandits and headed for home, to again be a simple farmer. But those Missouri Ruffians, they’d labeled him a turncoat, a coward, and one just as likely to join the Federals. They came across the border after him, riding all the way to his family farm and arriving before he did.
The raiders took his father and mother to the barn for interrogation. When the parents didn’t confess their only son’s whereabouts, information which they did not possess, they were killed.
Those same murderers then rode north to join the infamous William Quantrill in his raid on Lawrence, and commenced not only to burn that city to the ground, but to slaughter some one hundred and fifty men and boys.
The neighboring farms to the Pleasantons were occupied by Free Soilers more than Free Staters, Easterners tolerant of violence in service to their own prosperity. They knew Young Pleasanton had gone off and joined those same pirates who’d raided Kansas farms and razed Kansas towns. And so, as reprisal for the Lawrence Massacre—even though the Pleasantons themselves had been murdered by those same Ruffians; and even though Young Pleasanton, the only guilty party, with his dried-up Southern sympathies, had yet to show himself—the Pleasanton place was swarmed and ransacked. Residents of the tiny hamlet stole livestock and implements. They carried off household possessions and tools. They even put the land itself up for auction. In a matter of a week’s time, all that remained of the farm were empty buildings, fields of uncut alfalfa and wheat, and cottonwood trees full of songbirds.
And then Young Pleasanton came home.
It was morning, before daybreak. The farmers had been awake and moving for hours. Pleasanton found his father’s wagon and favorite horse on the Owens’ farm, their nearest neighbors. He drove the rig out, and then went farm by farm, house by house, retrieving his mother’s violin, her churn, her black shawl. He draped the shawl around his shoulders, the tassles touching the handle of the Arkansas Toothpick he carried in a scabbard. The wagon rattled underneath him. A cow-calf pair moaned, tied to the wagon and trailing.
Pleasanton went from one neighbor’s house to the next, bits of straw clinging to his bloody boot heels. In farmhouses where he found his mother’s hairbrush or his father’s pipe, he left old people hacked apart, dogs gutted and hanged in doorways, Bibles smeared with feces. The town of Lawrence could spare no lawman, the Army and Militia could spare no troops, and so no one came to stop him. The bodycount rose. Farms fell silent. Songbirds sang louder.
With his collection complete, Pleasanton returned to his ransacked childhood home. He arranged the chairs and table, the plates and bowls, the hairbrushes and the pipe, all just the way he remembered. Then he barred himself in the house for two days, drinking whiskey, singing church hymns, trying to play the violin, crying, carving the furniture to splinters with his long dagger, and firing his pistols at meadowlarks through the open windows.
On the third day, at dusk, red and white flames rose under black smoke. Charred and bleeding, Pleasanton came staggering from the barn, pulling the cow behind him. The earth smoked beneath his boots. He put his revolver against the cow’s forehead and fired. Blue flames flew from the chimney, made a wreath, and melted among a darkening field of stars. The abandoned calf began to wail. The fires grew bright as day. Pleasanton untied his father’s horse. With his knife he cut a lock of his own hair and cast it into the flames. Then he leapt into the saddle and vanished into the Territories.