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by Frank Shortt
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In late summer of 1864 a man made his way up a narrow canyon, hoping to be with his family
soon. His horse was almost lame from traveling night and day but the man kept doggedly onward with only one purpose in mind.
Bill Murphy had been down to Georgia with the 6th Montana Calvary to fight for the freedom of men of another race. His fighting was
also meant to preserve the Union and all costs. He was sent home after being wounded in the leg by a rebel bullet. He would walk with
a slight limp the rest of his days as the femur had been penetrated. The surgeon had done the best he could, even though medical supplies
were scarce. As the Union armies trudged deeper and deeper into the South, supplies of any kind were more difficult to obtain. Raids
upon plantations were a common thing just to have some fresh meat or grain. War is a terrible thing.
Bill’s thoughts were on the wife and children he had left to go south. Turning a bend in the canyon suddenly, he espied the cabin,
standing forlorn in the middle of what used to be a verdant meadow! The windows, glazed by his own hands, were now eerily dark, letting
in the elements. Bill’s elation turned to pain and anger as he pieced together what had befell his family.
Arrows protruded grotesquely from all angles of the walls, telling the tale of an attack, futile fighting, and eventual capture by
the attackers. The strange thing, Bill surmised, “the fire did not burn through, my poor, poor family, where could they have been
Bill began searching around for clues as to which tribe had performed this
dastardly deed. Tracks left by the horses showed that they were shod. “Indians do not know this art, unless of course, the horses
were all stolen from some unprotected ranch or farm,” Bill calculated. Something else caught his eye as he combed the area carefully
for clues. It was a glove, the kind used by horsemen, something else that an Indian would not normally own. By all appearances, this
raid had only taken place about a week ago.
Sleep that night was only in snatches. Any
movement awakened Bill, thinking that Rebel soldiers had followed him home and planned to wreak vengeance upon him for taking part
in the war as a Union soldier. Nightmares had haunted him ever since he left Georgia several weeks ago. The only consolation had been
that he would be with his family soon, now this too was taken away. All that was left, for Bill, were cold sweats and memories.
Bill awoke thinking of ways to try and save his family. He planned to trail the renegades as far as was necessary, following any clue
that would lead him to his goal. Before leaving, he silently prayed for a successful venture, and for the safety of his wife, Maria,
and his two children. “Little Billy should be about seven now, Molly would be about five,” thought Bill as he saddled his weary steed.
As He rode off he did not realize that he would be helping to reshape history. The raiders had left a trail of mayhem as they raided
southeastward. The trail led straight to Kansas. Bill was now sure it was Quantrille’s band that he traced. His anger arose as he
thought of what these evil men might do to his wife. After all, she was very good to look at.
The heartbroken man did some planning as he rode day and night with only a few short stops to sleep and eat what he could kill. He
planned to try and join the raiders in order to infiltrate their encampment. He even practiced a Southern accent he had heard in Georgia.
Bills scars would fool Quantrille’s men into thinking that he was an escaped Rebel looking for ways to get back to his home to the
south. He feigned a change of his love for the stars and stripes and become loyal to the stars and bars.
Bill felt that he had reached the end of his search as he approached an enclave of rough-built houses. He had trailed a large contingent
of riders up to this spot. He noticed that the walls of these houses seemed unusually thick, somewhat resembling a fortress. Later
he found that all the houses were joined by passageways for easy access from one to the other. Getting closer, he saw the gun ports
in each. Carefully, he placed a white flag upon a pole that he had found by the wayside. Waving it gently, he gingerly made his way
“Halt! Who goes there, resounded from the nearest doorway? Get down gently, place
your gun on the ground, and don’t make any sudden moves”!
Bill obeyed the voice to the
letter, being careful to magnify his limp. He walked to the porch, sat on the edge, and began rolling a smoke. This was new to him
as he did not use tobacco. He had learned to roll cigarettes by helping a fellow patient at the field hospital in Georgia. The man’s
eyes had been put out by a Rebel explosion. His expectations were not long in manifesting. Soon, three men, dressed in the garb of
border ruffians, came forward to hustle him inside.
Bill was taken before a bearded, rough-talking
individual with sergeant stripes. He, knowing military etiquette, knew right away that this was some make-believe army of civilian
origins. The only discipline was brute force, or who could act the meanest.
a’doin heahabouts!” questioned the sergeant.
“I escaped from a Union prison camp north
of here and happened upon this camp by accident. This would explain the U.S. brand on his worn-out cayuse. I’ve been trying for days
to get back to my unit down south.”
“Take him to Lieutenant Brown, the sergeant commanded.
I bet this ragamuffin can give us some information on how to reach the Union encampment we’ve been a’hearin bout up by Wichita.”
Bill was led before a nattily dressed, partially uniformed Rebel officer. He didn’t seem as rough as the sergeant so Bill decided
to use his southern charm on this man.
“I heah you can use some good men, Bill started.
I’m a decent carpenter, can shoot straight, and know how to keep mah mouth shet!”
do you know we need men? The lieutenant questioned. How do you even know who we are?”
every one’s heard of the famous Lieutenant Brown of the Quantrille band,” Bill replied haughtily, trying to sound as rough as one
of the ruffians.
“Say you’re a carpenter? Lt. Brown further questioned. That just happens
to be what we are a’needin’.” Report to Corporal Adams for some decent clothes and your work assignment. I b’lieve he’s a’needin’
some repairs on the stables.” Bill was very relieved to be able to infiltrate the band so easily.
Hope came to Bill accidently not long afterward. As he worked repairing some stall boards that fly-aggravated horses had loosened
up, he decided to take a little rest. Soon, two unkempt, sneaky individuals came in from the far end of the stable and began to talk
secretively. Bill had seen them, previously, whispering to each other about this or that and knew them as Bob Carr and Joe Stilwell.
Bill was all ears, hearing snatches of the conversation, he was able to piece together that the men planned the assassination of Quantrille
himself. He could hardly wait to get to the cocky lieutenant and gain an audience with the leader to spill what he had heard. This
meant life or death to Bill.
Quantrille was dressed in all the finery of a Rebel general.
He had the look of a man who could easily charm the feathers off a chicken, or kill an enemy without much forethought. Bill approached
the man nervously, hoping that he would not slip up on his Rebel accent.
“What can I do
for you, young man, I hear you have some important news that might be of interest to me?”
“I have been working in the stables, repairing some loose sideboards. Today I saw two of your men come in at the far end of the stable.
I thought maybe they were off for a ride somewhere on a mission, but when they began to talk in low terms, I made it my business to
eavesdrop.” As far as I could make out they were planning to do you in along with anyone who was in the room with you at the time.”
So far my Rebel accent was impeccable.
“Do you know the names of these men? Asked Quantrille.
“One was Bob Carr, the other, Joe Stilwell. I have often seen them talking in low terms
when they thought no one was listening.” Bill felt like a traitor himself, but he needed something that would allow him free access
to all areas of the compound.
Quantrille said thoughtfully, “I have been hearing of these
two from others. This is the final straw. They must pay for their disloyalty!” This was spoken as if he was Napoleon.
Quantrille’s vengeance was swift and final. The two men were lined up against a wall and shot without further ado. They had no time
to even pray. Bill had heard about Quantrille’s quick decisions, but this time he saw it in action. This reminded him to walk softly
and calculate his every move.
Bill did not know right away, but he had found favor with
the rebel leader. He was promoted in ways that let him know that someone in authority was watching what he did. He now had access
to the leader’s quarters, and this is what he had been seeking all along. Bill was very glad that he was never asked to attend any
of the raids of townships and villages. He might have been asked to prove his loyalty to the cause. He had gained from some of the
raiders that no one was safe during these raids, not even women and children.
One day Bill
was asked to repair some cabinet doors in the kitchen. When he entered and saw the cook, his heart almost stopped. It was his loving
wife, Maria! When she recognized Bill, she almost let out a scream that would have betrayed them. Bill gently placed his hand over
her mouth to prevent the scream. The two children sat behind the large cook stove, playing with wooden toys that some of the lesser
violent men had made for them.
“Oh Bill, I have prayed night and day that you would come
to me! We have been slaves here ever since the raid on our cabin.”
“How did you prevent
them from attacking you and the children?” Bill inquired.
“I simply feigned insanity, creating
a little foam at the mouth, so these superstitious men would stay their distance” she said, as she smiled on him
Bill passed silently to the cellar to see what was underneath the kitchen. He was
surprised to find a passage which led to the street above, and just down the street a ways. Bill’s every waking moment he planned
to, somehow, use this passage to make his escape with his family. He also had made a friend who had become disenchanted with Quantrille
and his marauding band.
Bill had found Maria’s concealment while snooping around one day.
The night he planned to escape, he sneaked into Maria’s quarters, crawling softly up to her side and placing his hand over her mouth.
The children lay in her bosom, snoring softly. He told her to dress swiftly, as well as the children. “We’re getting out of here tonight,”
Their embrace was filled with fervor making up for all the days that they
had been apart. This was cut short by a sharp report, the signal that someone was missing from their bunk. The curfew did not allow
this. “Let’s get out of here, Bill cried. I have a friend, who works in the stables, waiting at the end of the passage with horses
for us all.”
They ran madly to the cellar as footsteps of pursuers resounded from above.
Many thoughts raced through Bill’s mind as they raced blindly along the dark passage.
if they start spraying bullets along this passage? This is a terrible place to die in a damp, dark passage in Kansas! Did I make a
mistake, asking my family to attempt this escape with me? At least they would be alive and I could come back later to rescue them!”
As they ran, Bill’s hand kept creeping closer to the Navy Colt he kept handy for such emergencies.
To his, and Maria’s surprise, no bullets came searching for them in the dark. She had silently prayed for their deliverance, asking
for mercy for her little family. Just as suddenly as they had begun, the footsteps ceased chasing them. Not one pursuer came suddenly
around a corner.
“This is not like Quantrille, Bill thought. He does not ever give up a
chase this easily.”
The deadly silence that filled the passageway seemed somehow an omen
of things to come. When nothing happened, Bill, Maria and the children emerged from the passage unscathed. Bill’s companion, Walt
Boyd, who held the horses, came silently from an alleyway, helping the others to mount up and run like the wind from the compound.
Quantrille had somehow looked back to a happy home he once had, remembering that Bill had
done him a good turn once before. Otherwise, he would have been dispatched long before this. He smiled silently, as he heard horses
making a staccato retreat, thinking that he was sure going to miss Maria’s good cooking.
William Quantrill died in Louisville, Kentucky, June 6, 1865, by a fusillade of Union bullets. He must have thought time and again
of the one good deed he had done for Bill Murphy and all that Bill held dear.