Set in the border state of Missouri in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, Bart’s Revenge is a true-to-life western whose background is the chaos and social disintegration that followed the Civil War in the South and some border states. No border state suffered more from the severely divided loyalties of its citizens than Missouri, and Dorman Chasteen’s riveting novel was inspired by family stories passed down through the generations concerning these conflicts. After Union soldiers and sympathizers lynch his older brother Clyde for his Confederate sympathies, nineteen year old Bart Helm plots revenge. His ten year old brother Aaron has witnessed the murder, and during a reconnaissance to town is able to point out a number of the perpetrators in a local tavern. Bart’s bloody revenge in the tavern, his flight across the state, and his ultimate arrival and further adventures in Indian Territory are suffused with a level of detail that make this story a gripping read. The author’s descriptions of the social conflicts and diverse motivations of the major characters imbue the novel with a deeper level of sociological and historical authenticity than one usually finds in the genre, making it more than just another western adventure story.
Excerpts from BART’S REVENGE
All excerpts copyright©2001 by Dorman Chasteen
Bart Helm stepped out of the darkness as he went through the front door of the store. He shut it behind him and shook the water from his poncho. Instead of removing his hat he pulled it low on his forehead, leaned his head down, and let the water run in front of his face for a few seconds. Then he gave his head a shake and looked around. There were eleven people in the room. Five men leaned against the bar, three barrels with a couple of boards and a blanket thrown over the top. The fat bartender sat on a stool behind it. Four men played cards at a table. An aging bar girl sat in a chair leaning against the wall on the far side of the room.
The men gave him a quick glance and nod before going about their business. The woman gave him what he took as a seductive smile. Two of the men at the bar were soldiers dressed in blue Yankee uniforms. They wore their sleeves rolled up and their blouses unbuttoned. The appearance of the men would not make anyone want to kill them.
Three smoky oil lamps lit the room. The yellow light, mixed with cigarette, pipe, and cigar smoke, and flying insects, gave the place an eerie pallor. One of the lamps hung on a post directly over the center of bar. The second hung from the ceiling over the card table where the four men sat. The third one hung from an iron post at the other side of the front door. The lamps did not put out much light. The corners of the room away from the front door were particularly dimly lit. Behind the bar was the hardware part of the store. It was pitch black in that part of the structure. Besides the occupied card table, there were two other square oak tables in the room, one in each of the far corners of the room. The one on the right was by the rear-side door. Only the front windows had any glass. Someone had closed the shutters of south window by the rear door to keep the rain out. Someone else opened the north window to let air into the smoky room. Occasionally someone would slap at one of the insects in the air. The occupants of the room talked, drank, played cards, and laughed.
Bart checked his watch. It was almost 10:00 p.m. The storm was dying and the thunder was moving away. Mercifully the rain had cooled the hot July night.
Yesterday the two Helm Boys, Bart and Aaron, had hidden their horses outside the town of Lexington, Missouri. They lurked in the alleys, doorways, and shadows of the town to survey the situation and the people in town. Aaron, Bart’s ten-year-old brother, pointed out seven men he recognized. After noon, when the boys moved to Mammy Rachel’s shack for a survey point, she confirmed some of the men as being among the killers. These men included the bartender, deputy, and sheriff. There had been others at the lynching, but Aaron could not positively recognize any others as being among the killers. Aaron also pointed out the tall mustached man who had helped him load Clyde’s body on the horse. Bart etched these figures in his mind.
At noon, Bart had sent Aaron home. He figured Aaron would need a half-day’s head start out of town to be clear of any repercussions of what was about to transpire. Bart told Aaron he was going to be away from home for a while. He would see him again when he could. He also told Aaron that if he wanted to avenge Clyde’s death and protect his family, he should keep his mouth shut and ride straight home. After some protesting, Aaron moved out like a good little soldier. While Bart did not say anything specific, Aaron knew what was about to happen.
The town of Lexington had been heavily pro-Confederacy at the beginning of the war. By 1862 it had come under Union control and by 1864 it was firmly in the Union’s basket. The inhabitants themselves had initially co-existed despite political differences. Most people supported the governor on secession but a few people in the town were pro-Union. Outsiders recruited for both the North and the South. Eventually there were quasi-military units for each side. Still, the locals did not fight.
In late 1861, each side’s higher military commanders pressed for action. The local leaders on each side decided to keep the peace. They hit upon a clever ruse to silence their commanders. First, they obtained a list of men who had died in the local area in the last year. Second, they divided these men into Yanks and Rebs. Third, the local people held a picnic and called it a battle. For ammunition, each side brought water-soaked corncobs for a "fight."
The battle ended in laughter. Each side claimed success and proudly recorded its casualties to higher headquarters. Dependents of the Union dead qualified for pensions. Soon anyone who had a death in the family recorded the death as a Union battle death. The only actual shooting on this particular day was at the marksmanship contest and the only casualties came from too much whisky and one small fistfight. The report of the action satisfied each side’s headquarters for almost six months.
Unfortunately, there were outside influences. Raiders from both sides traveled through the area. This caused suspicion. When Union forces drove Sterling Price out of the area in 1862, the Union element decisively held the upper hand. Eventually, some people collaborated with their new conquerors against their neighbors. This brought repercussions and a cycle of violence. These Union people and their new Northern friends took over and maintained political power with the aid of Yankee troops. There were no more picnics.
Immediately after the war, the administrators often intimidated and robbed even those who tried to leave the area. The military had reduced the common Southern sympathizers to a status of virtual slavery in their own homes. The Yankees declared a continuous war on the Southern sympathizers. In the month after Lincoln’s death, things got worse. More than ever, those in power used their positions to rob and punish in the name of the government.
Only the law wore guns in town. The sheriff’s office posted signs on the main entrances to town but rarely enforced the law. When anyone tried to stir up resentment against the established power the troops stepped in to silence the opposition. Commerce only existed in the area controlled by the sheriff, and was run by those who supported the sheriff. Land was not worth much. Anyone with money could buy it cheaply at tax auction. A person who worked in this new order and made the right friends could make real money rustling cattle and horses, and extorting the locals. The sheriff was a wealthy man.
While not many people of color lived in the immediate area, many of them were the sheriff’s eyes and ears. The sheriff was quick to reward these informers, and those who voted right. As a result of the actions of these Negroes, former Confederate supporters who made up well over half of the area’s population hated all the Negroes in the area. This led to the growth of an underground faction among these people, some of whom became nightriders intent on terrifying and intimidating the Negroes. Some simply succumbed to bloodlust.
With care, the raw horse on which Aaron took Clyde’s body home healed in a few days. Bart shoed the animal. After two more sleepless nights, he told his father, Lionel, he could not live without avenging Clyde. His father and later his grandfather tried to talk him out of any action. They talked about Jesus and forgiveness. Bart persisted. If they would not help him, he would go without their help or blessing.
After several days, he found the old percussion shotgun and two 1851, .44 caliber Colt percussion pistols that were not in use. He collected two extra cylinders for the pistols, molded bullets and measured powder. He used cigarette paper to put together twenty buckshot and ball rounds for the shotgun and carefully stacked them, along with primers, in the waterproof pouch.
When his father and grandfather realized they could not stop him, they did their best to make it so he could leave without anger and be as well prepared for the future as they could make him.
Bart told them he was going to kill at least one of the ringleaders. He told them he would need Aaron’s help to make sure he got the right men. He would make sure he was clear before he did anything. If they would not let Aaron help him, he would have to rely on Rachel. Locating her might only endanger both of them before he had his vengeance. Of course, Bart could have killed the sheriff or a deputy from ambush, but he wanted the person he killed to know why he was dying.
He told his Father and Grandfather that in the future he would contact them through a trusted neighbor and use the alias of David King. If things cooled down, he would return home in a year or so. If anyone asked, they could just say he was in Indian Territory trading.
Lionel wrote Bart directions on how he could contact his Uncle Andrew and vanish into Indian Territory if things really got bad. They decided to keep the news from Bart’s mother and sisters. At the end of his preparations, Lionel confessed to his son that he wished he was going with him but he had a responsibility to live for the rest of the family.
The next day Bart collected food and cared for the horse he would take and the mule Aaron would ride. He told his mother that Aaron and he were going to a Federal Marshal in Kansas City, to report the lynching and search for justice. Aaron was going to give evidence. As they left, Lionel gave Bart his last three dollars.
To add a little spice to his ammunition, instead of simply loading a single lead shot in each chamber in the replacement cylinders, Bart loaded every other round with buckshot. These loads would be deadly on unprotected flesh at close range but they would scarcely penetrate a boot at more than thirty feet.
In preparation for shooting the shotgun, he would give himself ready access to the primers for the nipples. He would have the waterproof pouch open beside him and he would secretly sprinkle fresh primers in easy reach on the floor. That would make them readily available if he chose to reload that weapon.
Bart hoped that the other men in the bar would stay out of the fight. If they ran with the other five and got in the way of his justice, they deserved to die. He was glad the man Aaron pointed out as having helped him with Clyde’s body was not in the room.
The carpetbaggers who ran Lexington shamelessly robbed Confederates in the name of the law. Because of the war, the survivors did not have any recourse but to live through their situation. To pay unfair fines, they worked on Union projects. These projects included planting and later harvesting crops for the carpetbaggers. The carpetbaggers killed the few who protested. Federal troops assisted the sheriff in his tasks. Citizens on different sides during the war settled old scores. The sheriff stole cattle and horses at will.
While there were not very many Negroes in the area, some of them acted as the sheriff’s eyes and ears. He was quick to reward them for important information, such as news of a conspiracy, or the locations where the pro-southern population had hidden cattle and horses. The Negroes quickly learned that a conspiracy did not have to be real for them to get a reward. When the war ended, former Confederate soldiers and their families, who made up most of the population in the area, hated them and their allies.
Bart committed himself to the task at hand, and to suffering its consequences, and thought he was at peace with God and himself. He did not want to die in the process. He simply felt he had to have peace of mind and vengeance was the way to get it.
He felt a hollow in his stomach and desperately needed to go to the outhouse despite just relieving himself. He controlled himself. He moved through the front door into the saloon portion. As he sat in the chair, he positioned the poncho so he could move the shotgun and get to the pistols in his belt. He worked the shotgun to his lap and slipped new primers on the nipples. He worked the waterproof pouch off his belt and opened it. Then he placed it on the floor next to him. Once in position, he removed the hat from his head and the poncho from his back. He placed them on the table in front of him in a pile. He drooped the poncho over the front of the table. This gave him some extra cover to prepare. No one paid him much attention. Because of the wet weather, he would need to take the precaution of changing the primers on the cylinders of the pistols. First, he would have to wait for his wet fingers to dry. The suspense was killing him.
The color drained from Bart’s face as he sipped at the beer and thought of the others watching him. He intended to kill everyone he could who was involved in the lynching, or die in the process. He studied the faces in the room. After glancing around several times he convinced himself that no one was paying any particular attention to him. He tried secretly to change the pistol and cylinder primers. He kept his hands in his lap beneath the table. His hand trembled so much that he dropped several. Each time he dropped a primer, his heart stopped. Luckily for him, no one noticed. He checked the grease in the front of the pistols and extra cylinders. It looked good. He placed the extra cylinders and four or five shotgun paper-loads in his shirt pocket where he could easily reach them. He glanced down at the waterproof pouch on the floor. As he had planned, he placed a few primers besides the pouch, a few in his shirt, and a few loose in the pouch.
He took a deep breath, got his weapons ready. He kept his eyes down, swallowed, and said in a loud voice, "Bartender! Hey bartender!"
In a moment the big man turned from behind the bar and said: "Yeah, what can I do for you?"
"I was here a couple of weeks back when you hung some Reb, you gonna’ provide some more entertainment tonight," said Bart.
Several people looked at Bart. In a gruff, defensive tone the bartender said, "You was here then? Unless it means somethin’ to you I ain’t got nothin’ planned for tonight."
"No, don’t mean nothin’ to me." said Bart in as congenial a voice as he could muster up as he gritted his teeth.
These words relaxed the bartender and most of the other men looked away. When they looked away, Bart stood up and aimed the shotgun at the bartender. "It does bother my shotgun though," he said.
The movement and words attracted everyone’s attention. The bartender’s face turned to horror when he recognized his peril. Everyone else froze, looks of shock on their faces. The bartender started to say something and was raising his hands when Bart felt the shotgun go off in his hands. The blast brought him to his senses. Everyone else in the room flinched and looked at the bartender. At a distance of ten feet, the blast of the slug and six buckshot pellets tore a huge hole in his chest and out the man’s back. Blood pumped out the hole. The huge man gurgled once, then his eyes glazed and he fell over face first, blowing a few bubbles in his own blood. The shotgun blast splattered blood, bone, and flesh against the wall. The spot behind where the bartender had stood, was particularly gory. A bloody mist hung in the smoky air filling everyone’s nostrils with the smell of death. Bart looked at the others. They froze with fright in the positions where they sat or stood. Bart paused a second, looked at one of the men who had been identified by Aaron and Rachel, and said: "You was there too!"
It seemed as though he slept just a moment before he awoke. Mosquitoes buzzed around him. The sky was just turning light above him but he could still see stars. The trees along the creek kept the ground dark. He felt miserable. He was still freezing and his entire leg ached. He was dying of thirst. He managed to get to his horse. He fished a biscuit and his canteen from the saddlebag. He took a long drink of water. In the distance, he could hear a cockcrow and the moaning of cattle. Squirrels were just starting to rustle around in the trees above him. He sat back down against the tree and tried to reason out what he should do. In another hour sunshine flowed from the east to west through the trees. Every time he moved his body his leg hurt from the hip to the toes. He moved into a sunlit spot and inspected the wound. Flies and gnats were buzzing around the foot and he shooed them away. He removed the bandage. His foot was horribly bruised. A splintered bone jutted from where the top joint should have been on the second toe. On that toe, the flesh from the nail up was gone. It would never heal with the bone sticking out. The bullet had torn the nail off the big toe and shredded the inside flesh. Despite being broken in two places, the bone in his big toe had not been shattered by the bullet. If that had been the case, he would have had to amputate it. If he could close the wound and splint the toe, it might heal by itself. Juices oozed from the wounds. He worked a few threads of the sock out of the wounds. His ankle and hip hurt but not nearly as badly as his knee, which must have been injured from the violent jerk he had experienced when the bullet hit him. He took his pocketknife out of his pants and tried to trim the sharp bone of the second toe but just could not do it. He did manage to get to his sewing kit in his saddlebags. He pulled a hair from the horse’s tail, waxed it with candle wax, and put a couple of stitches in the front of his big toe to close the wound a little.
After doing what he could for his wounds, he got his cleaning kit, powder, balls, primers, and grease. He cleaned the shotgun and pistols. Then he reloaded the pistols and cylinders. He checked the shotgun. Between the bullets he had fired and lost in the saloon, he now only had four paper shotgun shells left. It required getting up, but he managed to put the loading and cleaning gear back in the saddlebags and the shotgun in the scabbard. He shoved the loaded pistols in his belt and put the extra cylinders in his shirt pocket.
The horse fouled itself in some brush, but Bart managed to untether her. He worked his way along on one foot and led the animal to the creek to let it drink. He filled the feedbag and put it over the horse’s head. He let the animal eat a few minutes. He did not want her to bloat. While she drank, he sat down and worked his way to the creek. There he soaked his foot and leg. If his foot had not been hit he could have simply made it to some big town and faded into the scenery. "Well, at least I’m alive," he thought. "I’ve already come further than I thought I would."
His plight depressed him. He had figured on either a glorious death or walking away unharmed. He was scared and tired. He hoped everyone he killed was involved with Clyde’s killing and that he had not injured any innocent party. In his depressed state, he judged himself. He remembered that woman’s scream. Although he was ultimately responsible, he hoped none of his bullets had hit her. He was absolutely certain that the man beside the building had shot her, but he might have hit her first. By some twisted logic, he tried to acquit himself of the responsibility for her death. His consolation was that he did get at least some of Clyde’s killers and he was alive.
He began to evaluate his current situation. While he had thought of escape before, now he had to make final plans. "If I keep headed south maybe I can work my way into Indian Territory," he thought. "If I hide out with Uncle Andrew for a year or so everything will probably blow over. If not, I can work my way to California and if necessary even out of the country for a year or two." He looked at the sun a few minutes as thoughts continued to run through his mind.
"If I keep headed upstream on this creek I’ll be headed generally south.
"They’ll be lookin’ for me.
"What’s important now is that I don’t endanger anyone else in the family.
"A wounded man with one boot will be easy to find. I got to keep movin’ but got to take care of the foot.
"I got to take care of the horse. Somethin’ happens to her and I’ll die.
"When I’m travelin’, I got to avoid people. If I can, I got to move as fast as I can, as directly as I can. When I can I’ll travel at night but right now, I need to be movin’.
"I can’t outrun a telegraph.
"I’m gonna’ have to buy supplies, boots, and bandages."
He rested until late in the afternoon. Then he heard horses in the distance. As painful as it was, he worked his way through the woods along the creek to where he could see a little way out on the prairie. He saw two men a couple of hundred yards away. They seemed to be just passing along the creek. To his horror, Bart saw that despite the ground he had covered in the dark, he was less than a mile off the road into town. The traveling he had done at night had been in a zigzag. He hopped back to the horse and held her muzzle to keep her quiet while he waited for the riders to pass.
He was stiffer and sorer that he had been last night. It was difficult for him to mount the horse. When he managed to get up again, he rode sidesaddle to protect the foot and knee.
He left the creek in the opposite direction from the riders, heading out across the rolling prairie but keeping the creek in sight. From time to time he would turn down to the widening creek to soak his foot.
On the prairie, he had spotted an occasional farmhouse, planted field, or cattle. When he could, he rode through cattle tracks because there was a good chance the cows would follow their own trail sometime later and cover his tracks. On one occasion, he had detoured to avoid a house. Now in the dark he could smell smoke and could hear a dog barking. He had to remount and move back down the creek for safety.
Just before dusk he entered the creek again and traveled until it was pitch black. He would have gone farther, but he banged his foot against something in the darkness. He hurt too bad to travel any more.
In the darkness, he forced the tired horse up a bank. Neither the horse nor the rider could see well in the ink black of the creek bottom. It was a mistake. From the way the horse walked through the water, Bart knew the bottom was rocky. The horse struggled and slid down the bank several times before she managed to get her footing. Bart intended to stop at the first convenient site and hide through most of the day. He managed to find a small clearing in the trees and tethered, unsaddled, and fed the horse but noticed she was walking funny. She had injured a hoof when she climbed the bank. In the dark, Bart couldn’t tell how badly injured the horse was. He hoped it was just a pebble beneath the shoe. He felt for one. No such luck. If the animal had a split hoof, bruised hoof, or thrown shoe, Bart would need to get another horse to continue his flight.