Chapter Five: Month the Babies Cry

Chapter Five

Tyler Texas

There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.”—Ernest Hemingway

The thunderclap woke Chicolithe. He stretched his legs on the rope bed and listened to a surge of wind as it roared through the pine tops and to the rain as it pounded the wooden shingles and slid from the roof to slap puddles of water on the hard clay ground. He sat up and looked out the cabin’s one window by his bed. The thunder echoed through the piney hills like enfilading cannon, and he heard a bolt of lightning crackle high above the earth, burning sky and air until it augured its tentacle downward into a pine. He heard the tree split and crash into the ground. As the storm moved eastward, the thunder eased into rumbles and the lightning into white-charcoal screens. His bluetick hound stirred, and the dog’s tail thumped the bedpost. Chicolithe reached down and scratched the animal’s head.

“One of them will run tonight, Nimrod. Best get some rest, boy.”

The dog blew out a breath, licked Chicolithe’s hand, and rested his muzzle on his outstretched paws.

Chicolithe rose an hour later, let the dog outside, and then moved to the stool at the fireplace. He threw pine kindling onto the embers and blew them into flame. The blackened clay of the stick-framed clay chimney was cracked and thick with charred pine resin. The smoke swirled and looped inside its black crypt, then spiraled up the flu. After the logs caught, he let Nimrod back inside and made coffee and a small boiler of cornmeal mush. As he ate, he stared into the flames, his thoughts taking him to earlier pursuits of these erratic and desperate men in blue coats.

He heard the splash of brogans wading through the mud and puddles outside his cabin. A small hand, not a man’s fist, pounded on the door. It would be one of the guards from Camp Ford. Slipping his suspenders over his shoulders as he rose, he opened the dilapidated pine-board door. “Come on in, boy. Get dried off.”

The fifteen-year-old stepped inside, removed his slouch hat, and squeezed the water out of it. “I’d like to visit a while, Mr. Chicolithe, but I got to get back to the fort. Colonel Allen wants you to come right away with your dogs. Some Yankees run away last night.”

“How many this time?”

“Colonel said a half-a-dozen of ’em.”

Chicolithe ciphered the silver dollars he would earn if he could catch them all.

The boy held his hands over the fireplace. “It’s rained like thunder all night long. A cold rain, too. I reckon they thought the rain would cover their trail.”

“They thought wrong.” Chicolithe studied the boy who had already worked the camp for a year. The boy was one of about two dozen militiamen on guard duty at Camp Ford—all of them boys, old men, or stove-up soldiers—who guarded the 2,000 Federal troops inside the stockade. More prisoners seemed to arrive every week. He wondered how many the pine log fort could hold.

Chicolithe had taken a liking to this youngster. If the war lasted another year, this boy would be sure to sign on with regular Texas infantry or cavalry. A couple of the other boys guarding the fort seemed a bit addled and thickheaded to Chicolithe. He doubted they would ever be accepted for regular service, but this boy—he would be absorbed quickly.

A half-dozen. That meant that it wasn’t the impulsive blind run of a few soldiers who seized an opportunity, but it reflected a planned escape. Likely, they had weapons and food stored up and a route planned. Maybe some help from someone outside the stockade. If the escapees stayed together, they would be easy enough to catch, but if they split up, Chicolithe knew he would have a devil of time catching them all.

“Well, boy, help me load up the dogs, and we’ll be on our way. It sounds like the rain is letting up.”

While the boy hitched his two mules to the wagon, Chicolithe saddled his horse and tied him to the back. He threw a sack of corn into the wagon bed and checked his guns. He stepped over to open the dog pen, and the six hounds inside bayed and pawed the gate.   When he swung it open, the bloodhounds swarmed out, noses to the ground, their tails slapping the air in excitement.

“Shut your mouths and get in the wagon,” he said.

The dogs sniffed their way to the tailgate and hopped into the wagon bed. “You too, Nimrod,” he said. Nimrod, looked at him like an indulgent sergeant major would look at an officer giving orders before a battle, then hopped up with the others, sitting on his haunches in a corner of the wagon bed.

“Why do you call that dog Nimrod?” the boy asked.

“I knew this old Jewish man in Tyler. He used to tell me stories from the book of Genesis. One of them was about Nimrod, whom he called ‘a mighty hunter of men before the Lord.’ Now this old man says that Nimrod could hunt and track men and animals better than any man on earth. People feared him, and I’d say they had good reason to. I guess Nimrod had to have been a good manhunter if he caught the good Lord’s attention. This hound of mine is the best manhunter I got, so I gave him that name, Nimrod.

“He’s the smartest and meanest hound I ever had. He’ll let a boy in gray pat him on the head, but the sight of a blue uniform seems to make him crazy mad. Must be some kind of natural instinct that some of the human race don’t have.”

They happened upon a wagon of refugees—a mother, her young boys, a teenage daughter, and two servants. The wagon was piled high with their belongings. One of the servants wore a Confederate kepi. The servant raised his hand in greeting, then asked Chicolithe, “How far are we from the town of Tyler?”

“About a mile straight ahead,” Chicolithe said. “Where are you folks from?”

“From Louisiana,” one of the girls said. “We had a plantation near the Mississippi River. We are the Stone family. My name is Kate.”

“Things bad there?” he asked.

“Yankees and ruffians have taken over. They’re stealing and burning everything. We decided it would be prudent to move to a safer area.”

“When you get into town, go to the Methodist church. The minister will help you. He’s taken it on himself to help folks like you. He’s commander of some sort of refugee relief committee.”

“Thank you, sir,” she said. “Tyler, Texas.” She sighed. “It seems so far from our Brokenburn.”

The pilgrim family moved on. The boy said, “That Kate is a pretty thing. Don’t you think so? I just might have to go to town next chance I get. Make sure they get settled and all. Do you have a sweetheart, Mr. Chicolithe?”

Chicolithe spat into the road. “You mind your own business.” He popped the reins and the mules plodded forward.

As Chicolithe neared the stockade he reined the mules to a stop. He looked down into the five-acre prisoner of war camp and contemplated the crude makeshift log and earth cabins. Some dwellings were merely lean-tos constructed of scraps of lumber, pine branches, and canvas; some were tarp-covered soddies or shebangs, which were merely holes covered with tarps. Blue coats, dirty muslin shirts, and a hodgepodge of colors and costumes swarmed like restless ants in the daylight. Red-capped Zouaves with their bulbous britches bobbed about like fishing corks on a pond. His hounds pushed their way to the front of the wagon, peering over his shoulder as if they too wanted to again examine this oddity of architecture and humanity. A bugle sounded for the 7:00 a.m. roll call, and the swarm metamorphosed into lines. One dog growled. “You settle down, Stuboy. You’ll get after some of’em soon enough.” He turned his head and spat a stream of tobacco into the muddy clay road. He popped the reins and said, “Go on, mule.”

“Place is swelled up real tight now,” the boy said. “All those prisoners they brung back from Mansfield, Louisiana have durn near filled the place up.”

“Taking so many prisoners never entered our leaders’ minds, best I can tell.” Chicolithe said. “You know, boy, a prisoner of war camp is an awful thing. You take a man out of a soldier’s life and stick him in a place like this, you’re likely to do something horrible to his insides. I hear it’s worse on our boys they took up north. A Southern boy ain’t like these Yankees. He don’t mind fighting, he can suffer through being hungry and tired and wet and cold, but he just ain’t made to be corralled in a situation like this.”

Two young guards on picket duty sat along the road. They stood as the wagon approached, and when they recognized Chicolithe, they sat back down.   One resumed cleaning his single barrel shotgun, and the other whittling a cedar branch, the shavings piling up near his feet. Neither boy could have been sixteen.

“You been inside that pen yet, Mr. Chicolithe?” the whittler asked. “It’s like a durn circus or insane asylum. Colonel’s expecting you. You can leave the towhead here with us.”

The boy stepped off the wagon. “I ain’t had breakfast yet.”

“You done missed breakfast. Weren’t much today noway. Just some fried mush and sorghum.”

“It’s a long time till supper,” the boy said. “Reckon you could get me something to eat, Mr. Chicolithe?”

“If they feed me, I’ll ask the Colonel to send some up to you too.”

“Much obliged, Mr. Chicolithe.”

At the house, two women sat on the porch in rockers. One was an attractive young woman with a book in her hand. The older woman was knitting. When she saw Chicolithe, she set her work in her lap and smiled.

“My husband is expecting you,” she said. A Negro was stacking firewood near the house. “Benjamin, would you please step inside and notify Colonel Allen that Mr. Chilicothe has arrived.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

“This is Mollie Moore, Mr. Chicolithe, a wonderful poet and singer from Houston. She has come to entertain the troops stationed here and the prisoners as well, though the escape last night may have sabotaged their chances for much entertainment. My husband is most irate over their ingratitude.”

“I’m pleased to meet you, ma’am,” Chicolithe said.

“Mr. Chicolithe is here to recover the escaped prisoners, Molly. He is an expert tracker and marksman. He can follow the faintest of trails, and it is said that he can out-track any Indian in the woods or prairies. His skill and instinct is legendary.”

“Is that so?” Miss Mollie said. She looked at his dogs. “They do look like they are vicious creatures.”

“I wouldn’t call them vicious, but they can put on a ferocious face when they want. Some prisoners say I starve my dogs to make them meaner. That ain’t true. They say that I don’t allow them to hunt nothin’ but a man. That is true. They can follow a scent eight days old, even after a rain. The Yankees call them sleuth-dogs. Like me, my dogs don’t care for Yankees none.”

“Do you have to use dogs to catch them?

He reached down and petted Nimrod’s head. “No, ma’am, I don’t have to use dogs to follow and ketch a man, but the dogs do hasten the process. My dogs are hunters like me—they’ll follow a man day and night till they get him. You know, when Cortez landed in Mexico, he got the attention and respect of the Aztecs by three things: guns, horses, and his war-dogs. I’ve got all three, and I’ve surely got the attention of the Yankees here.”

“Do you like poetry, Mr. Stubbs?” Mollie asked. Her eyes were sparkly, playful. He thought her a little arrogant, like she was testing him.

“Lot of folks write poems, ma’am,” Chicolithe said. “I like some of what I hear, though most of what people call poetry leans toward the overly sentimental. I do enjoy reading good poetry when I can get it.”

“Well, I hope you favor mine. I will look for you at my reading this evening.”

Colonel Allen, a captain, two lieutenants, and a civilian came out of the cabin.

“Mr. Chicolithe,” the Colonel said, “It seems I am in need of your services once again.”

“That’s what I hear.”

Colonel Allen scratched his neck under his beard and said, “Every batch, there’s always a few that starts planning an escape. And I don’t know why. I allow them to sell their souvenirs to Tyler folks. I try to feed them decently. They’ve heard of Camp Groce, they know this ain’t no Andersonville, and they know that if they go back to fightin’ they’re likely to get killed or captured again.”

“It’s hard to explain human nature, Colonel. The ones that try to escape never think it out entirely. I see you enlarged the stockade.”

“I had to.   It’s a perplexing thing, having all these prisoners. It filled up faster than we had thought, so I had to pull all the logs up, cut them in half and split them and rebuild the fence.   And they still keep coming. We already got prisoners from a hundred Federal regiments and seventeen states, a herd of sailors from the Federal Navy, seven colonels, four majors, forty-eight captains, ninety lieutenants, one doctor and one naval captain. Even got a couple of Texas boys from Jack County who had joined the Federal army.”

“I thought you had arranged a prisoner exchange, so you could get them out of here.”

“We thought so. We marched them to Shreveport, but the talks broke down, so General Kirby ordered us to march them back. You should have heard them Yankees cursing their idiot leaders. One Kansas boy broke down and cried. They couldn’t understand why the Grand Army of the Republic didn’t want to exchange prisoners.

“I must apologize, Mr. Chicolithe. The responsibilities of my position sometimes distract me.   Regarding your pay. I’ll pay you in Mexican silver coin, one dollar per man you return.”

“The boy said that a half-dozen lit out?”

“That is correct. I’m afraid we had a bad storm last night, and they made use of that diversion to slip away. They dug under some logs loose on the eastern side of the stockade.”

“It looks mighty crowded. My guess is you’re about to have a passel of escape attempts. Course, when I get back with these, the others won’t be in such a hurry to get out.”

“What do you mean, sir?” a Lieutenant asked.

“I mean that they’ll find it’s safer there, than when I’m after them. And this camp here . . .Well, it will seem like a traveler’s hotel compared to life on the run.

“They cain’t have gone far. If they went due east, like I think they did, they’ll slow down when they hit the swamp. Most of them have no sense of direction and will get lost trying to cut through it or circle it. You want them back alive? If I have to shoot one, and if you wanted his body toted back, you’ll have to send along me some help.”

“Live will do fine, but don’t put yourself out to make them walk back. I’ll send a wagon along the road, and you can have the three guards you met coming in, and a couple of the Twelfth Texas Cavalry that have just been stationed here. These Federals who escaped were all officers. I can’t tell you how important it is that we find them quickly.”

“Don’t you worry none. I’ll fetch them home. As far as men, just give me the towhead. If I need more, I’ll send him back to get them. I will need some rope or lariats though.”

“As you wish.”

Chicolithe walked around the stockade and found where the prisoners had slipped through. Two servants were resetting the logs. His eyes followed the faint trail made by their bare feet and thin brogans. He filled his pipe, popped a Lucifer on a stockade log, and smoked, speculating. He walked around the stockade, looking for other breaches and trails.

At the gate, Chicolithe watched a guard escort a Yankee out of the stockade to the hospital building. A gaunt, walking skeleton, his body wasted away by dysentery, he must have lost his mind somewhere in Camp Ford. He held an ear of corn in the air and was gibberishly talking to it as if it were a close friend. As far as Chicolithe could tell, the corn’s new friend didn’t have a grain of sense. He moved on to his wagon. The towhead was already there.

“Well, let’s get started,” Chicolithe said. He untied his horse from the wagon and mounted. He shouted, “Let loose the dogs of war!”

He glanced up at Miss Mollie and saw her nod approvingly. “I see Mr. Chicolithe knows some Shakespeare. I do so hope that you will be back in time to hear my poetry.”

The towhead dropped the wagon’s tailgate. Chicolithe’s eyes shifted to the visiting poet. “I look forward to hearing your poetry, Miss Mollie. ”

Chicolithe shouted, “Let’s go boys. Sing for them! Sing, Cerberus! Sing, Nimrod! Sing, Stu-boy!” The hounds filed off the wagon and let loose a chorus of barks, bays, and growls and followed him to the escapees’ trail. The low murmur of voices and other sounds in the stockade stilled. It became so quiet that Chicolithe heard the shrill cry of a hawk above them. He knew it was good for the prisoners who had lacked the gumption to attempt an escape to see and hear the dogs. There was something about the dogs that frightened them. And my dogs should frighten them, he thought.

He and the boy followed the dogs, and as he anticipated, the escaped prisoners moved east, right toward the big swamp between Tyler and Shreveport. If they didn’t split up, he’d be finished by supper. From his horse he studied the trail. They weren’t traveling with great speed. They were either worn out or arrogant.

“Are we close to them, Mr. Chicolithe?” the towhead asked.

“We are.   Now, listen to me, towhead. As the sleuth-dogs get closer, those Yanks will stop traveling together and make it ever man for himself, and they’ll scatter. Are you listening to me? They’re likely hungry, tired, and eaten up by briars and mosquitoes. The mind of an escaped Federal is a most peculiar thing. Once the dogs start baying, the runners always think the dogs are closer and running faster than they are. Makes them careless. Makes them crazy stupid. They’ll get scared and run themselves out. That’s just what we want. Keep your eyes open too. When we start catching them, we’ll truss them up like a string of haltered horses and you’ll lead them along. You follow me slow. Don’t untie them, and don’t stop; I don’t care what they say or how much they whine. They might try some kind of desperate ambush on you. If you think one’s going to fight you, or if he threatens you, shoot him with that shotgun of yours.”

Chicolithe studied the fringe of the swamp ahead. At the next rise, he saw a blue jacket weaving erratically through the brush, and white arms flailing at the briars and vines. When Chicolithe blew his horn bugle, the dogs raised their voices in a chorus of barks and howls. “Get him, boys!” he said.

A couple of the sight dogs caught a glimpse of their prey and belted out in front of the pack, snarling like berserk Vikings working themselves up into a battle frenzy. A few yards away from its quarry, one sprang into the air, hit the Federal high in the back and knocked him down. The other dogs swarmed onto the fallen Yankee, latching onto arms and legs and pinning him to the ground.

In his peripheral vision, Chicolithe caught a flash of blue to his right. Two more Federals were making their way into the cypress brake. “Towhead, you go pull the dogs off this one, and get a gun on the prisoner.” He spurred his horse toward the fleeing prisoners. The men paused at the edge of water then waded out into it. Listen to me, boys. That little bit of water ain’t goin’ to slow the dogs down. They like a swim now and then.”

One of the Yankees hollered, “I’m not going back to that camp!”

“You’re wrong about that boy,” Chicolithe said. He lifted his rifle and dropped the man. The surviving Yankee said, “Don’t shoot me! And don’t sic those dogs on me! Please, don’t sic those dogs on me!”

“Alright,” Chicolithe said. “You come out here to me, and I’ll keep the dogs off you.”

The Yankee trudged out of the water and came and stood by Chicolithe’s horse.

The towhead led his prisoner and the dogs back to Chicolithe. Chicolithe pitched him a coil of rope. “Hog-tie these two and let’s get the other three.”

From his horse Chicolithe could see other tracks leading to a canebrake. He nudged his horse toward it, figuring that the other three had stayed together. Chicolithe hollered, “You Federal boys in there, you best come out. My dogs done chewed up one of your friends, and the other’s lying facedown in the swamp water. Y’all are going back—one way or another. Now, I could set the dogs on you, or hell, I could just set fire to the cane and shoot you when you run out. I’ll give you a minute or so to decide.”

A voice called out, “We’re gonna come out, Mr. Chicolithe. Don’t shoot us.”

Chicolithe said, “You got any guns?”

“Theodore here has a small pistol, but I think the powder’s wet.”

Chicolithe heard them arguing among themselves. “What are you doing, holding a durn election? There ain’t but one decision to make and that’s if you’re going to walk out of the cane. I’m in a hurry to get back to camp and have a good supper and hear Miss Molly read her poetry.”

Two Federal officers filed out. Chicolithe studied their faces. A man’s face and eyes shows what he is, he thought. Try as he might, a man can’t hide some things. As a manhunter, he had seen the whole spectrum of the emotions and mindsets of captives—rage, defiance, fear, confusion, frustration, madness, and despair. Officer or enlisted man, when a man is on the run, his face wears the naked truth of what he is in his essence.

Chicolithe counted the now silent men huddle in front of him. Four, one dead on the water, that made five. One missing.

“Where’s the other one?” he asked the one who had the most fear on his face.

“I—I—I don’t know,” he replied.

Chicolithe lifted the rifle’s muzzle and pressed it against the man’s chin. “This is no time to take up the bad habit of lying.” Nimrod had frozen like a dog pointing quail, his eyes fixed on the cane. Chicolithe heard his low and steady growl. “Nimrod thinks there’s still someone in the cane.”

The Lieutenant’s eyes widened.

“Get him, Nimrod,” Chicolithe said. Nimrod spurted into the cane, the other dogs following his lead. A man’s angry voice cursed, and Chicolithe could hear him thrashing about in the cane trying to get away from the dogs. The man-voice was swallowed up by the barks and growls of the dogs, and the angry voice changed to cries for help.

“It isn’t right for you to sic your dogs on him,” one of the Federal officers said. “Call them off.”

“They do sound like their getting worked up, don’t they? You can go get your friend if you want,” Chicolithe said. “He should have come out like the rest of you had the sense to do.”

Chicolithe waited a minute longer, then whistled sharply. The dogs stopped their attack. He knew they still circled the man, waiting for another chance to attack. Chicolithe heard the man hyperventilating and wheezing. He called out, “You ready to come out of that cane now?”

“Yes.”

Chicolithe whistled again and the dogs returned to the manhunter party. Nimrod rubbed his bloody muzzle on the grass, then nudged each of the other dogs as if congratulating them for their work.

Chicolithe heard the prisoner trudge cautiously toward them through the cane. He stepped out in the open. His blue jacket was shredded and stained with blood. His eyes were glazed and crossed.

“Lord, have mercy,” one of the Union officers said. “He needs medical attention. Can’t you put him on a horse?”

“Patch him up best you can. He walked away from Camp Ford. I reckon he can walk back like the rest of you.” He lifted his rifle and pointed the barrel west, toward the road. “You boys get to walking that direction. That will put us on the Tyler road and it will be easier walking. We’ll follow along right behind you.”

“What about that Yank you shot?” the towhead said.

“What about him?”

“Captain won’t pay you unless he sees the body, Chicolithe.”

“I reckon you’re right about that.”

Chicolithe backtracked the group to where he had shot the escaping prisoner. The Federals stood at the edge of the swamp in silence, staring at the bobbing blue body, facedown on the water. “Y’all wade out and get your friend,” Chicolithe said. “You can bury him back at the camp.”

When they had dragged the corpse out of the water, Chicolithe told the towhead to walk, so they could tie the dead Federal across his horse.

He allowed the Federals to walk in a clump until they neared Camp Ford, then he tethered them neck to neck and ordered them walk in a single file. Chicolithe called out, “Sing for them, boys!” Nimrod and the dogs began their hunters’ chorus—howling, snarling, and barking, as they herded the prisoners forward, nipping at their heels like stock dogs.

The Colonel met Chicolithe at the edge of the camp. He angrily eyed the prisoners, and then turned the manhunter. “Excellent work, Mr. Chicolithe. Excellent! Come by my cabin and I will pay you for your services. Guards! Open the gate for the prisoners. Write down their names, for I shall call them later for questioning and punishment.”

After the Federals had filed into the stockade, the dogs sat on their haunches outside the heavy pine-log gate.

Chicolithe rode on to the Colonel’s cabin, dismounted, and tied his horse to one of the cedar porch posts. There was a pail of water on the porch. He drank two gourds of water, wiped his mouth with his shirtsleeve, and walked back to the stockade. He climbed a ladder and studied the mass of prisoners. A few of the prisoners saw him and pointed his way, whispering to their comrades. He saw a prisoner, standing as if paralyzed, a pewter spoon in his hand. That’s odd, he thought. The prisoner’s eyes shifted to the man next to him, who held a bulbous rag, cupped in his hand. The one with a spoon vanished into a dugout, and Chicolithe watched the other untie his bundle. A thin stream of dust poured out as he walked along the path the Yankees had named Main Street. The soldier folded his rag and stuffed it into his pocket, then he too ducked inside the same dugout the man with the spoon had gone into. They’re digging a tunnel, he thought. Spoonful by spoonful. Guess it gives them something to do.

He returned to the cabin where the Colonel, Mrs. Allen, and Miss Molly waited for him. Miss Molly said, “I see Caesar has returned with many captives. I shall later compose a poem as a tribute to your exploits.”

Colonel Allen handed Chicolithe a small sack of coins. “I believe this capture will demonstrate to the prisoners how futile the notion of escape is. Hopefully, we will not need your services in the future. Some of the officers want to hunt for deer or perhaps even a buffalo tomorrow. Would you care to join us?”

“Naw, I reckon I’ll stick to hunting Federal prisoners.” Chicolithe contemplated informing the Colonel about the tunnel. They had probably been working on it for sometime. He felt sorry for the Federals in a way—all that work and time expended for nothing. A tunnel meant several soldiers would attempt an escape. He thumbed the sack of silver coins in his palm. Scanning the sky, he speculated about future weather. Too much rain would flood or collapse the shallow tunnel. This group wouldn’t wait for bad weather. They would escape as soon as they dug past the stockade wall.

Nimrod trotted to Chicolithe and rubbed his muzzle against his leg. Chicolithe scratched Nimrod’s ears. “Don’t worry, boy. We won’t have to wait long. Some of them will be running soon.”