ROBERT CLAY ALLISON
Requiescat in Pace
ROBERT CLAY ALLISON wearily drove his loaded wagon north on the second day out of Pecos, Texas. He was headed toward his ranch that abutted the New Mexico state line. It was mid-afternoon on the third of July eighteen hundred and eighty-seven, and he had perhaps ten miles to go. The pair of horses towing him labored on in their same boring clop along the dusty road, plodding faithfully as ever in their only mission in life, to make someone else's burden easier. He had looped the reins around a small post to let the beasts have their way as he often did. They knew the route as well as he, and needed no urging or guidance. The broiling west Texas sun fried away savagely, and he leaned back and smelled the stink of booze and sweat and grime the glaring orb cooked out of his body.
He was drowsy from drink, drowsy from the sun, drowsy from the monotonous sway of the vehicle. He was forty-five years old and would turn forty-six in two months. If I lived that long, he snorted cynically. The passing years meant nothing to him any longer, he mulled: it was only what it all added up to that counted. He snorted again, wondering why he was getting so philosophical of a sudden these past few months. Must be going loco. On these supply hauls back and forth every month or so of almost fifty miles one-way he found himself brooding more than usual. Pondering and replaying old memories like intently read newspapers yellowed by time, wrinkled from overuse. Sometimes he would become angry with himself at the dredging and digging, wondering what in hell for, and wishing more for loss of memory than lucid recollection.
There just wasn't any enjoyment in his life any more, not even that small pleasure of satisfaction he got after finishing some mundane chore which earlier would have given him a smile of accomplishment, the patting himself on the back for a task well done. And his marriage was shot, too. Forget the handbasket. Not that he was ever a joyous personality, but everything in his life had come down to nothing more than constant labor and endless pain. He had no regrets, he was too ornery for that, he had only a bunch of anger. Seems like everything was going to hell.
His leg was throbbing again, and had been more so the last few weeks. Reaching for the whiskey quart squeezed next to him on the seat, he up-ended it greedily, letting the warm rye pour freely down his gullet like a waterfall, hoping it would lessen the pounding in his right tibia and foot. The hurt leg was from an old break when he was twenty-seven which never healed properly, and the mangled foot the result of a self-shooting accident a few years later. Down the years he eventually became so crippled he couldn't even sit a horse any longer, let alone ride one, for the mere hanging of his leg from the saddle ripped his entire body in excruciating agony. It filled him with self-loathing to see healthy men galloping and loping easily day after day, something he took for granted until the privilege was suddenly taken from him. Now he was left in embarrassment at his limping limitations, feeling like an old woman towing a damn buggy behind a pair of nags. And to twist the knife he had to follow a road or worn pathway. No more cutting across the plains with the freedom of a Comanche. No more galloping with the wind just for the joy of it. He wanted to curse God, but was afraid. It seemed it was the only fear left in him.
Where did it all turn sour? Why was he so grumpy of late? Offhand there were three times he could look back and see where he was truly happy as a pig in slop, where he felt relatively content and carefree, when the world was a wondrous place before him, and nothing was impossible. The first came to mind each time he crossed the wide shallows of the Pecos River just south of his ranch, when the remembrance always returned to him of playing along the banks of the Tennessee River as a child. His home town of Clifton, Tennessee sat on its eastern shore, and as he rode across the Pecos he swore he could hear, see and smell the swift, deep waters of the Tennessee where with his brothers he fished, swam and skipped stones. It seemed an eternity ago, but he was suddenly right there. Sometimes he had to shake his head, wondering if he was losing his reason. But they became such grand memories he always looked forward to crossing the Pecos on his trips back and forth to town.
Christ, was he ever so young, or relatively naive? There was his younger brother Monroe, jumping up and down over a caught fish, and little Johnny excitedly pointing and yelling about another big steamer plowing by. Sometimes his baby sister Saluda was with them, playing in the mud, or just sitting in a little pool of water smiling and giggling, happy as a lark. Of the seven offspring, they were the closest. Their older brother Jesse was hardly with them, more the stern disciplinarian. He seemed cut from their father's cloth, a twin, echoing their father's rule-the-roost personality. As a result Clay, Monroe, and John warily kept a distance from him. All along the river there were thick woods, as well as scattered forests throughout the county. Good hunting, fair farm land, and a paradise for kids to hike and roam about in; to play Indian or outlaw. But soon young Clay's dog days were at an end, when at ten, eleven and twelve he became just another hand on the family farm from sunup to sundown. He learned to hate each morning he woke, for it meant a long day of grubbing in the dirt, as he called it. Many a time he caught his father's wrath and was switched or belt-whipped for either dragging his butt when he should have been toiling, or laughing and playing instead of bent over a chore. And if his task-master father Jeremiah, demanding as any biblical prophet, weren't there to keep a hawk's eye on him, older brother Jesse's no-nonsense sternness stood over him like a long, threatening shadow. Clay began to feel warped justice taking hold, that his punishment lay in overkill. Soon arguments and fisticuffs broke out between the two, but the younger, shorter, lighter Clay was no match for towering, taunting Jesse. A meanness began taking hold of pre-teen Clay, and it burned within him like a hot iron. The "get even" syndrome. Brother Monroe was a sympathetic ally, for Monroe's first name, Jeremiah, "Jerry," named after his tyrant father, was hateful to him. He favored his middle name which in his adult years he claimed thankfully, completely eradicating Jeremiah from his signature forever.
His second recollection was his time in the Confederate cavalry during the Rebellion. He and Jesse and Monroe first joined together in an infantry outfit. The war had been going on for six months but the old man needed the boys in the field. "Never mind the war," fumed the old man. "This is where you are enlisted." But soon practically all the able-bodied men in the county answered the call to arms, to whip them damn Yankees for trying to tell them how to run their country and their lives, to crush states' rights. Never was such a swarm of bees so wrothy at having their hive kicked. But the old man began feeling uncomfortable at keeping his sons on the farm when most males in the vicinity were off doing battle. "Well," he announced one morning to Jesse. "It's September and most of the work is done for now, so why don't you take Clay and Jerry in the army with you? It'll be over by spring anyways, and after the Bluebellys are beat to hell you all can come back and pick up where you left off."
Twenty-year-old Clay and seventeen-year-old Monroe were delighted to be delivered an excuse from the wretched farm labor they detested, and they yahooed and thanked the old man for the chance to knock off a few Yankees. "Kill them bastards good, boys!" Jeremiah shouted to his three sons as they strode off to enlist. "Kill them! KILL THEM ALL, GODDAMN IT!"
While twenty-two-year-old Jesse stayed throughout the hostilities as a wagoneer, army life didn't much agree with Clay and Monroe. A year later Monroe took sick and was hospitalized. Soon as he felt strong enough for a long walk he abandoned his bed and AWOLed all the way home, remaining hid on the farm whenever soldiers passed by, Confederate or Union. Clay too saw the army as a bunch of crap, feeling that a man afoot was no man at all. Fed up, he feigned mental illness with a few epileptic fits thrown in, and his desperation for removal made him a good enough actor to earn a medical discharge after three months service. But the old man was in no mood to appreciate Clay's rejection of army life and took the news unkindly. Finally after eight months and a session of hot words with his daddy, Clay rode off in anger to rejoin the Confederate military just days before an exhausted Monroe turned up to further add to their papa's hellish mood of mind.
But this time Clay chose the cavalry, because he was damned if he was going to walk and fight. Here he discovered his deep penchant for battle and bloodshed. His unit fought with General Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry, who was also the top cavalry leader in the Confederacy, if not the entire North and the South. Aggressive with a killer's instinct, "Get there first with the most men" was his motto. A lithe and powerful six-feet-two hellion on a horse, he ran circles around the Union, whipping them throughout the war left and right, much of the time outnumbered. He had a terrible temper to go with his natural talent for strategy, and once killed one of his own officers in an altercation, later admitting he had to do something about his short temper.
Of course Forrest was Allison's hero and role model, as was proper, for who wants a wimp in the front lines? In Forrest's words, "War means fightin' and fightin' means killin'." It was whip, stomp and kill the enemy, and to the last man, if possible. Yankee and Rebel both followed those jungle rules. The law was survival at any cost, and Clay found a natural talent for it. He often recalled those renegaded years as the finest years of his life, shooting, knifing and slaying his Union opponents by the droves, and as a memento of those times he sported a Vandyke, ala Forrest. He lived for the numerous cavalry raids and fights, relished it when he could thrust and twist his Bowie deep into the gut of an enemy, horseback or afoot, especially when staring into his eyes inches away, spitting into his face, cursing him as he slid to his death. Now and then, aground, he and a few of his comrades would come across a few straggling Yankees, surprising them, and beat them to death with rifle butts. Few line soldiers on either side knew what a prisoner was. "What's them Bluebelly's got their hands in the air for?" one asked after a fight as four Union made their way toward them in surrender. "Beats me," laughed Allison. "Maybe they're asking God for a quick death." "Wale, shit, suits me fine," chortled a crony as he opened fire. In moments all four lay dead.
Rocking in his wagon beneath the blinding sun, Allison took another long pull from his quart, feeling thankful for the numbness that covered his ruined leg. Oh, God, he sighed. His two and a half years with Forrest were the best. Pure heaven. Nothing to do but ride, raid, fight and kill. Absolutely nothing like it. Such unbridled freedom he would never know again. Yanking the reins he pulled the team to a halt so as to take a leak. Dismounting on the left side of the wagon in order to favor his good leg, he nearly tumbled off the vehicle. Once on the ground he steadied himself by gripping the sideboard with his tight hand and unbuttoning his fly with his left. Swaying like a reed in the wind he realized he was in bad shape. He had gone on a two-day binge in Pecos while his wagon was being loaded from a list he made up, then half-snockered rode off before sunrise while it was still cool. He wished now he had slept it off in a hotel before leaving. He of course couldn't return home drunk as he was, Dora becoming disgusted with his drinking, treating him more and more with silent contempt. But he needed the booze for killing his leg pains, and he never showed his ugly self when at home or around her. Yet he knew he probably didn't set a good example for their daughter, and the smell of liquor on him came to infuriate Dora no end, although they never had a word of anger between them. Yet the silence was just as bad, and in the last few years it festered as a deadly virus which ate away what good feelings they had left for each other.
Clinging unsteadily to the side of the wagon he emptied his bladder in the road, puffs of dust rising as the thick yellow stream struck the powdered earth. As he swayed and lost his balance a moment, urine splashed on his boots and trousers. "Goddamn it!" he snarled. "Can't even piss straight."