|Reconstruction Era; Buy Now on Amazon|
Colonel Tyler, broken in health and worn from hard life in the trenches, returned from the War at its close in the spring of 1865.
He had been a wealthy planter, owning two large plantations and many slaves. His home was near Pearl River, sixteen miles above Jackson in the state of Mississippi. Before the War, his place was one of the beautiful spots in Dixie. The country was one of tall trees, crooked rivers, clear creeks, and fertile lands. In the springtime, when magnolia, dogwood, woodbine, and wild plum trees were in bloom, the forest was one continuous bouquet of beauty. Blackberries, grapes, and wild cherries were abundant in the summer. The fall with its hickory nuts, beechnuts, and ripe persimmons was no less attractive than the other seasons.
The Colonel’s eldest son, who was destined to lead a picturesque life and become the hero of this story, had not yet reached his teens. Because of his habit of rambling in the woods in search of game and other wild adventures, he had been nicknamed “Buck”. Strenuous out-of-door life had given him strength and endurance equal to that of a wild Indian.
His almost constant companion was a Negro boy named King. King was about Buck’s size, but was two years older and of stocky build. Although he had been a slave all his life, the two boys had been born playfellows ever since they could remember. Through Buck’s influence with his father, King had often been spared punishment and had obtained favors which the other Negroes never enjoyed.
While Colonel Tyler was in the War, the two boys explored every thicket on the hills and every jungle in the swamps for miles around. They spent nearly all of the days and much of the nights in the woods. They kept a pack of dogs, which they had trained to hunt the many kinds of wild animals that were to be found in the wild sections of that country.
Like thousands of other once wealthy slave owners, their sudden misfortune was too much for their pride. Furthermore, there appeared to be nothing ahead of them in the war-swept country but starvation. They decided to sell out what little they had left and leave the desolate scene. The question was,Where should they go? The Colonel wanted someplace far removed from all that would remind him of the past, to start all over again in some frontier country where land was cheap and where he could reasonably hope for better opportunities for his children.
Australia, South America, and the frontier of Texas were considered. After a lengthy consideration, they decided on Texas. There were many broken-up families in the community that held similar views. They, too, were anxious to hide their poverty and broken pride from the eyes of gloating enemies. From these, the Colonel selected a dozen families who he induced to venture forth on the hazardous trail toward the West. They turned what little property they had into cash, at less than half its worth, and purchased wagons, teams, guns, ammunition, tools, and camping outfits.
As the day of departure came near, Buck grew distressed over the thought of being separated from his life-long playfellow, King. It had been decided that none of the Negroes would be taken along, but after long and earnest pleading by Buck, the Colonel relented and agreed to let King go.
King was an orphan, and while the other Negroes had no control over him, they strongly opposed his being taken away to a country unknown to them. They used all of their power to keep King from agreeing to go. They told him that hostile wild Indians would kill and scalp him if he went with the Boss to Texas; but King was determined to go wherever Buck went, regardless of the results.
He declared that he was not afraid to go anywhere, as long as Buck and the Boss were with him. He pointed to the fact that the Yankees had been trying to kill the Boss for four years but had failed, and he felt sure that Indians were no better fighters than the Yankees.
Preparations for the long journey were completed, so they hitched the teams to their canvas-covered wagons and began saying farewell to the large assembly of kindred and friends. This was a sad hour to all. Women wept in each other’s arms, while strong men trembled with speechless emotion when they gripped hands, as they believed, for the last time in this world. They were leaving forever the land of their forefathers, the graves of departed loved ones, the dear scenes of happy childhood, the peerless Pearl River, shaded by wide-spreading beech and magnolia trees. Tear-stained handkerchiefs waved until the moving caravan was lost to view on the winding road.
On reaching the ferry on Pearl River, they were joined by several more families, and the refugees were on the first leg of the long journey to an, as yet, unknown country. Progress was painfully slow. Much of the road was all but impassable. Washed-out bridges and high water in the large creeks and rivers caused long delays. After nearly three months on the road, they found themselves on what appeared to be boundless prairies, west of the Brazos River in Texas. As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but the monotony of a treeless country. They made a temporary camp and examined the surroundings for several days. They assembled in a camp one morning and held a council. Thomas Ratliff, the oldest man in the party, expressed himself as follows:
“I have examined this land carefully and find it to be as rich as any in the world, and it is so near level that it will never wash away. The price of it is almost nothing. The boundless range of fine grass is sufficient for all of our stock, the year around. If we settle here, we will, in the course of a few years, grow rich with development of this matchless country. I believe it will take us but a short time to regain our lost fortunes here.”
All of the other men, except Colonel Tyler, were of Ratliff’s opinion and decided to settle there.
“Perhaps all of you are right in your opinions of the country,” replied the Colonel, “but I differ with you. There is no timber here for building fences. No logs or lumber with which to build houses. There is but little firewood and no running water.
“There is not a post-office, grist mill, or doctor within fifty miles of this place. No railroad market nearer than a hundred miles. I cannot subject my family to the hardships that will follow if I should settle here.
“I am going to head back eastward and travel until I find more timber and some marks of civilization. When I locate, I will write and give a full description of what I find, so that, in case you decide later to move from this part, you can follow me, if I have found a better one.”
Pathetic farewells were exchanged the next morning, and Colonel Tyler and his family drove back toward the rising sun.
Three days’ travel on the old San Antonio and Nacogdoches road brought them to the Brazos River, near the site where once flourished the town of Washington, first capital of Texas. This region during an early period had been the scene of numerous battles between the whites and Indians and also between Texans and Mexicans during the war between the two republics.
They found the river nearly level with its banks and rising. The old ferry cable, during the previous night, had broken from pressure of large drifts of floating brush and timber. In consequence of this, the ferryboat had been swept downstream by the flood waters. Not knowing when the ferry would be made passable, the Tylers went into camp. After dinner, the boys gathered in the wood for the night and fed the oxen. They had brought two of their hunting dogs all the way from Mississippi. Seeing that the brushy country up the river looked wild and good for game, Buck and King whistled up their dogs and struck out in the woods for a hunt.
Soon, old Jeff and Sound were barking on a warm trail, followed closely by the boys. When dogs tree a varmint, their barking changes from a long sound to one that is short and fierce. When the boys heard the wild barking of the dogs, they joyously excited and hurried on. When they came in sight, they saw the dogs baying around the open end of a large, hollow cottonwood log. The boys quickly built a fire in the open end of the log and then chopped a smaller hole in the log farther up. When the smoke began to fog out of the small hole, a large wildcat sprang out. Before he hit the ground, the dogs tied onto him. The fight that followed was terrific. Seeing that the cat was getting the best of the battle, King dashed in and dealt it a death-blow with the axe.
The boys skinned the cat while the dogs were taking a needed rest. This done, the boys sat down to view the strange scenes in the new country. Suddenly, an odd-looking character appeared from behind a nearby thicket. His clothes were ragged. He had long hair and a thick beard. Everything about him appeared dilapidated except his two big pistols. They were in perfect condition.
“What are you doing here?” he asked in a gruff tone. “Where did you come from?”
“From Mississippi,” Buck replied.
“We ain’t livin’,” King interjected. “We is jist camped down by de ferry. We wuz gwyne east tel’ we foun’ dat de high watah had broke de rope at de ferry an’ let de boat git away. De Boss an’ ole Mistice wid de Chillum is down dar in camp.”
“Was your Boss a soldier?”
“Yasah,” answered King, “he fit de Yankees foah years.”
The face of the stranger, sullen up to this point, relaxed now and mellowed into a smile. After a moment’s study, he said to Buck, “Go back to camp and tell your Daddy to slip away and come up here; that a Confederate soldier wants to warn him against a danger. What I want to tell him is very important, and he must lose no time in coming here.”
The boys hurried back to camp and delivered the message. After studying the matter carefully, the Colonel shouldered his gun and walked stealthily through the woods towards the place where the boys had left the stranger.
When he saw him, he slowed his gait and approached cautiously. After greeting the Colonel cordially, the stranger said, “There is a band of outlaws camped a short distance below the ferry. They claim to be lawfully commissioned scouts of the military, when in fact they are nothing but scalawags that were kicked out of the Yankee army about the close of the War last spring. They are still wearing the Yankee uniforms for the sake of appearance. When it suits their purpose, they disguise as ex-rebels and rob men and caravans that travel the public road. If you have money, hide it well, soon after dark, because during the night, a bunch of them disguised as outlaws, will rob you. Then in the morning, clothed in their uniforms, they will pretend to search the country for the robbers.
"I am an ex-Confederate soldier. They robbed me of what little I had and ordered me to leave the country, or they would scalp me the next time we met. They were in disguise at the time, but I recognized several of them. A good friend of mine fought them to save his money. They killed him and took what he had. I am going to ambush around here until I kill three of them that I have recognized and then leave the country. Don’t fight them, there are too many of them for that.”
The Colonel read honesty in the strange face. He thanked him for the warning, shook his hand in a brotherly way and returned to his camp. He told no one about his talk with the stranger until about ten o’clock that night, at which time he called Buck to one side and told him of the probable attack that he was expecting a little later.
“Take this, and hide it,” he said to his son as he handed him his roll of bills. “Use your own judgment as to the place of concealment. I do not want to know the place you hide it, because they may torture me to make me tell. They will never suspect a boy knowing anything about money matters. Remember that if they come to rob us, they will search the wagons and every piece of our baggage. I will not distress your mother with knowledge of this matter now, because it is possible that they will not make the attack. If they do come and I should be killed in self-defense, get the money from where you hid it at the proper time and give it to your mother as soon as you are sure that it is safe to do so.”
The Colonel left Buck there to study up a safe hiding place for the money. Buck thought of the middle of the sack of flour, the bottom of the unused coffeepot and the ox-bell, and passed them all up as unsafe.
“Ah! I have it,” he whispered to himself. The coupling pole of the large wagon was made of a three-inch gas pipe with the rear end open. He went to the wagon, took the money, sixty fifty-dollar bills in greenbacks, twisted them into a close roll and shoved that eighteen inches back into the pipe. Behind the money, he pushed in a quart of stiff mud. This done, he walked nonchalantly back to the campfire and joined the others in a discussion of the new country.
It was now bedtime. Everyone retired and, except for the Boss and Buck, soon fell asleep. Anticipation of coming events kept these two wide awake. Shortly after eleven o’clock, four masked men, one with a small torch in his hand, noiselessly entered the tent and commanded silence. The Queen woke, and her half uttered scream of fright blended into a low-spoken prayer. The leader of the robbers ordered all of the adults to stand up and raise their hands. When this was obeyed, he ordered the Colonel to surrender all of his money.
The latter declared that he was broke except for a few dollars in his pants’ pocket and asked that they not take all of it as he had no other resources on which to continue his travel.
The leader answered, “You have more money somewhere. Get it, and be fast about it.”
“No,” returned the Colonel, “I have no more money.”
At this juncture, the Colonel gave the leader a Masonic sign, to which the robber replied, “I understand that, but it don’t go with me now. I do not belong, just now, and never expect to anymore.”
While one of them kept the little group covered with a pistol, the other three broke open all of the trunks and searched each one thoroughly. They ripped open the mattress and feather beds. They examined the linings of wearing apparel, tore open the sack of flour and emptied the provisions-box. When they started to examine the nightwear that Mrs. Tyler had on, Buck, who had been watching their every movement from a roll of bedding, sprang out with his father’s gun in hand. Before he could use it, he was knocked down, disarmed, and kicked out of the tent.
“You are a game little rooster,” remarked the man that kicked him, “but you had better remain where you are, or I will clip your comb the next time.”
After they had exhausted their search for the money and found none, the leader said to the Colonel, “Old man! You have money buried or hidden around here, and you had better get it now. We are going to keep a sharp watch on you, and when you bring it out, we will kill each one of you and take the money. If you get it now, we’ll let you keep one-fourth of it and let you go. It will be better for you to keep one-fourth of it and live than to die with none of it.”
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The Colonel maintained that he had no more money, and the robbers, after a round of cursing, disappeared in the night. Galloping up to the tent early the next morning, six men in blue uniforms greeted the Colonel. Their spokesman said that he had seen a light moving about in the tent late in the night and figured that someone was seriously sick or in trouble. Colonel Tyler explained to him that four disguised men had come into his tent and robbed him of what little money he had and had threatened to kill him and his family if he did not produce more money.
The soldiers appeared to become excited and angry. The leader declared that there was a band of ex-rebel robbers operating in that section and he was sure that it was they who robbed the Colonel. He further declared that he and his men would find and kill them. He said that the leader of the robber band was a dirty, long-haired thief, who wore a heavy black beard. He advised the Colonel to shoot him if he ever met him.
On seeing King, the leader asked the Colonel what he was doing with that Negro boy in his camp. The Boss explained that the boy belonged to him when he was freed and wanted to remain with him—that he was an orphan with no one to take care of him. “If you have papers showing that a lawful court has given you the right to hold him, show them to me,” the leader commanded. “Otherwise, I will take him in charge.”
The Colonel admitted that he possessed no such papers. King, with his eyes full of distress, came forward to explain.