I Dreamt I Was in Heaven_The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang, page 1
I Dreamt I Was in Heaven
The Rampage of The Rufus Buck Gang
Published by Legba Books
Copyright © 2011 by Leonce Gaiter
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval without permission in writing from the author.
Printed in U.S.A
“Even strongly-marked differences occasionally appear in the young of the same litter, and in seedlings from the same seed-capsule. At long intervals of time, out of millions of individuals reared in the same country and fed on nearly the same food, deviations of structure so strongly pronounced as to deserve to be called monstrosities arise;”
- Charles Darwin
“The Origin of Species”
I can’t go back to Paradise no more.
I killed a man back there.
- Bob Dylan
The crowd murmured. Hushed. Expectation sucked the air right out of it. Torches flickered uselessly; their meager light only showcased the dread. Shadows writhed on the crowd’s long, drawn faces. Men, women, Indian, Negro, but mostly white men’s faces. Fear and rage skittered across each as if in competition. Rage wanted it all. Each man sought to bathe in revenge for the wrongs done, real and imagined, by those who by dint of color hadn’t any right—any right at all. But fear checked it. A fear that each fought to deny to himself, and more importantly, to hide from the man standing next to him,
“I can see ‘em!”
Murmurs rose to whispers. The whole crowd shuffled cautiously forward and stopped, as if frightened to move any further. Then silence. Even the murmurs stopped. Above their own breathing they heard the creaking of a laden wagon, the horse hooves clomping on the dry dirt road. Each in the crowd craned his neck, but none moved closer. They waited. The horse’s heads appeared on the edge of the town. Two Marshals rode on either side of the drawn wagon. Each carried a shotgun. A torch sat next to the wagon’s driver. And then the wagon itself appeared. The crowd saw the seated figures in the back. It was them: The Rufus Buck Gang. The murderers. The rapists of white women. The nigger injuns who had terrorized them; the ones who’d sworn to drive white men from this land.
Low, determined taunts swept through the crowd like mumbled prayers.
“Kill ‘em all.”
“Hang ‘em.” Spoken softly, loud enough for some to hear, but none too bold in case that human terror got free and came hunting vengeance—again—because that’s what they did—hunt vengeance—for crimes not even criminal. Crimes that any white man just called living. That gang would hunt you and kill you just for living.
As the wagon neared, the crowd saw the shackles. With the sight of that constraining metal their courage exploded. Shouts echoed off the buildings. Faces instantly deformed with rage and hatred. Spittle flew and dripped on chins with each more violent oath. With the prisoners bound, the tables were turned and the Buck Gang were their victims now.
Then they saw the young faces. A fleeting lull descended. These were not the hardened men, the dime novel villains they all expected. These were boys, none of them out of his teens. They had been terrorized—made to question their rights as men—by children. The crowd exploded.
“Drag ‘em off that cart.”
“Hang ‘em up!”
“Damn you to hell, Rufus Buck!”
A single gunshot cracked the air and then shots banged like firecrackers. The spitting, cursing crowd rushed the wagon.
“We’ll wipe you injuns outta here!”
The husband of Rosetta Hasson appeared. He walked and hopped alongside the wagon. He searched the four young faces, eyes lingering on one and then the other, all the while almost comically scurrying to keep abreast. Rufus Buck. He remembered him. The nigger; he remembered him too. He couldn’t remember which one of them had done what to him—which bit of humiliation and degradation each had inflicted on him and his wife.
“Give him justice!” a woman screamed with tears in her eyes as she lay her hands on John Hasson’s shoulders, a gesture he did not acknowledge, so enthralled was he with the men—the boys—who had so debased and brutalized him—who had made him watch.
Others took up the cry. “Give him justice!”
Grasping hands reached for the Bucks. The wagon tipped with the crowd’s pressure and the horses bobbed their heads and swished their tails in irritation. The Marshals danced their horses to stand between the cart and the crowd. They sat remarkably unperturbed in their saddles, rifle barrels pointed in the air.
“What kind of men are you?” the crowd sneered at them.
“What if it was your wife?!”
The Marshals stared straight ahead as if surrounded by nothing more than grasping children. It was their job to see these prisoners safely to Ft. Smith, Arkansas to stand trial. Seeing it done right was a point of pride.
~ ~ ~
The procession passed him by. His daughter was not with them. The noise and blood lust continued down the street without him. He stood in the increasing quiet, screaming inside. He wondered if the news had been wrong. That idea buoyed him for a moment. Maybe she hadn’t. Maybe it hadn’t come down to this and he had not fallen so much farther and deeper than even he—who had fallen so far and so deep—could imagine. Clutching that ounce of hope, he walked to the Sheriff’s office and asked if there were more.
The deputy said there was a girl; there would be no reprieve.
He waited in the office, dread like ants all over him, ignoring the stares and occasional titters of the two men inside.
Twenty minutes later, few noticed the single horse that followed the cart into town. Another Marshal rode it. A young girl about 13 years shared the Marshal’s saddle. She was dirty, her blonde hair uncombed, dress torn, face smudged but even so, even filthy and tattered, one’s first thought seized on her beauty. She gazed down the now-empty streets toward the invisible noise and commotion on the other side of town. She wondered if they were dead already.
The moment he heard the clop of horse’s hooves, her father’s heart beat wildly. He ran outside. He strained his eyes to see her and when he did, she looked neither scared nor sad. She just sat there, like nothing had happened, vacantly bedraggled and magnificent. Her nonchalance was purposeful, he thought, to provoke him. He swore not to give her the satisfaction.
The horse stopped. As she threw her leg over the saddle, all restraint abandoned him and he lunged at her as if she were prey. He grabbed her arm and yanked her to the ground. He slapped her viciously. He swung his outstretched arm like a two-by-four and slammed his open hand into her head and then swung it back to hit her with the back of it. He beat her with every ounce of strength as if he didn’t care if it killed or cleansed them both. The girl lowered her head and raised her arm like a shield. She didn’t make a sound.
The smacks echoed in the dark, empty Okmulgee street. Her father’s loud, effortful grunts accompanied each. The satisfaction of hand meeting flesh was like food. He beat her until he could barely lift his arm. Then, exhausted, he fell to his knees. Even so he took another look at the girl and found the strength to raise his arm and land a final stinging blow to her now-bloodied head as if determined to destroy the last vestiges of beauty and grace that bespoke her resplendent beginnings. Panting through his teeth, on his knees, he did what he had not done in years—decades. Through his cl
And then something extraordinary happened. He’d later say that since God had stopped listening a long time ago, the Devil got his prayer. In a haze he saw his wife’s semblance beneath the girl’s dirt and blood and half-matted hair. Momentarily startled, he stopped, and he glimpsed the past. He saw it bleed slowly into the present. He saw it all. He saw what had become of what should have been—several lifetimes worth of certainties, inevitabilities, pre-ordainments, all shriveled like carcasses and soiling his road from there to here. In Mississippi a lifetime ago, his 17 year-old self and teenage bride had lovingly envisaged the glories awaiting them and their children—the sons of plantation owners the girls would marry; the girls from good family the boys would court. There was no doubt about the world their children would inherit: columnar grandeur, ease and delegation, serviced by darkies happy to do it because it was their lot. And then the war—and his world became a process of ruthlessly picking the psychic scab of his status as a civilized man. At first it had been unbearable—watching his birthright retreat. But then his wife, the one through whose eyes he saw it fade, she died. Soon after, he stopped chasing it. He stopped striving for what was lost, and embraced what was at hand. Like a child, he learned to enjoy the methodical pain of revealing the raw skin - the true self - beneath the flimsy scab of civility. Standing in the street, whipping his daughter with all his might was the final rip. It was all gone. His beard unkempt, clothes filthy, a foul-smelling body with nothing to its name, the wound of raw living showed bright and pink for all the world to see and the girl he hit was its child. Standing in the street beating his girl for running off with that nigger renegade sealed his deliverance. They had won. The niggers had cost him his home, and now they befouled his daughter. It was the last barrier, the violation of the last shred of dignity he had, the last vestige of the past that he could possibly have held onto. And with that realization, his arm ridiculously aloft, he stopped. He staggered back.
She didn’t move. She huddled, awaiting the next blow. She listened: a soundless 30 seconds save her father’s heavy breathing before she dared sneak a look in his direction. When she did, she saw him standing, arms akimbo, body tilted backwards as if he reveled in a windstorm. And then he laughed. He laughed and slapped his hands to his sides. He stomped the ground in lead-footed triumph and kicked a little dust in the air. After he settled down a moment, he looked hard at his daughter, and reeling like a drunk, he turned to walk away. Theodosia looked around. Two men smilingly stared from the doorway of the Sheriff’s office like they had watched a medicine show, as if her blood and pain were funny. She realized that she still held her arms up to shield her face from nonexistent blows, so she quickly threw them to her sides and stood up straight. She stared at the two men. One of them put his hand on his privates and thrust his middle at her. The other doubled up laughing. She haughtily flicked her blonde hair back and stuck her tongue out at them before she turned to follow her father’s fading figure into the darkness.
“Oh no you don’t little girl,” one of the men yelled as he tore off after her. Seeing him run, she bolted. She ran as fast as she could when a yank on her hair wrenched her head back and swept her bare feet from under her.
The man smiled down at her, panting. “You get to spend the night with us,” he said as he pulled her up by her hair and dragged her back toward the jail.
~ ~ ~
As he did so often these days, Judge Parker sat awake in the middle of the night. The soft, pre-dawn knock at his door had not disturbed him. It would be, he knew, his young clerk, Virgil Purefoy. Anyone else would have raised holy hell to get him out of bed at this hour. There would have been pounding, soft shouts… Only Virgil would know, though Parker had never actually told him, that illness gave him sleepless nights; therefore mild taps would do. As he opened the door, Virgil spoke in a considerate whisper so as not to awaken the Judge’s sleeping wife.
“I’m sorry to bother you, sir, but an urgent telegram.”
Parker noted that Virgil was fully dressed, right down to his cravat. His full dress probably took no more time than a less idolatrous being’s throwing on a dressing gown. Parker gestured him inside and tore the envelope. He scanned the note, then handed it to the almost-slavering boy, who read it hungrily.
“Excellent, sir,” Virgil beamed. “Bringing them to justice will be a crowning glory for you.”
Old and sick, Isaac Parker had reigned as judge, the mind of the jury, and the will of executioner throughout 74,000 miles of Indian Territory for nearly 20 years. By all appearances, he had triumphed. From the window of his upstairs office at the Ft. Smith, Arkansas courthouse, he now saw a bona fide city where there had been only badlands: Thriving stores, bustling liveries, electric streetcars and hotels—a city, yes… but still imbued with the taint of the wild. When he’d arrived here, 36 years old, the youngest Federal judge in the west, it had barely been a camp. Back then, you wouldn’t move without a gun. There was no railroad; streets were mere muddied piles of horse dung reeking of the carelessly tossed pisspot. Lawlessness infected every transaction. Fist fight and gunfight erupted like wind gusts and just as unpredictably. Wild dogs bore themselves with more dignity than men in Indian Territory. Then God and the United States laid the burden of changing all of that on his young shoulders. He had accepted, and as a result, lawlessness had been restrained enough to allow commerce to flourish and opportunity to beckon hordes of white men and women to settle—illegally—the Territory. As his reward, in less than one year a new Courts Act would finish the job of stripping him of jurisdiction over the last remaining parts of his once vast domain. His court would end, his power would die with it.
Now, when he stared out of his courthouse window, all he surveyed, of which he could claim ownership as much as any man, filled him with ambivalence. He had yearned to turn the Indian Territory into something… more… something indefinably, unspecifiably superior… Yes, it was partly a young man’s hubris—superior to everything that had come before. But he had never known exactly what he’d hoped to turn it into. Should it be the frontier’s edge, like the Ohio of his birth, trembling with anticipation of civilization’s embrace? Or should it be the frontier’s essence, perpetually outside civility’s sometimes-cold grasp? A city like St. Louis, or something entirely new? Young, he was a creature of duty and certainty, not imagination. So he did not think much on it. He never planned; he set no goals. He knew that God’s hand had brought him here, and believed God’s grace would guide him.
Over time he had lost his way. He believed in heaven; and when he arrived, he’d seen it in these lands—what God intended, the true Eden with which He’d entrusted mankind. Endless lands, limitless bounty, wild. The white men sprinkled amongst the Indians had adopted ways just as wild, but with dollops of malice and viciousness that reversion from civilization inevitably brought. But Parker knew that the return to civilization could put them to rights—his task. The Indians, less burdened with white men’s civilities, having no aspiration toward them, no grounding in them and no guilt on bypassing them, seemed more at peace with the land they lived on and the lives they led. An elementalism. There was no striving in them. No desire to take this world from here to some indeterminate other place—to some heretofore undiscovered “there.” Parker sometimes envied them their self-possession, but did not admit a gnawing sense that it might be more. They showed placidity amidst the hardships of death and illness, birth and survival, while he and his brethren warred ceaselessly with each. Eventually, with age, he learned to see strength in them (there was something downright Christian in their relentless acceptance, he decided—the quiet acceptance of God’s will) and believed they would adapt to white men’s strivings. Perhaps a civilized people on wild lands was his vision—the almost impossible contradiction settled in heavenly harmony and turning this place into some sort of blessed American Kingdom. Maybe that was what he’d want
Awaiting atonement for his many sins against this place, he’d half-expected Rufus Buck. At first, he thought that Cherokee Bill had been the Judgment he dreaded, but Bill was a thief and a murderer—a sinfully charming and effective one, but nothing more. Parker believed in retribution; he did not believe in unpunished lies or unrequited obfuscations. He believed that deception and injustice literally bred—that they spawned and reproduced themselves to even worse effect. And in egregious cases, God in his wisdom made their bitter fruits manifest in flesh, and sinners suffered at the hands of their own misdeeds. When he heard of Buck’s first warning, and when he suffered the torturous details of the rape of Rosetta Hasson, he knew that Buck was such a plague, more conjured than born.
“Congratulations, sir,” Virgil called out as he opened the door to leave. “Their capture will be quite the feather in your cap.”
“Quite a crowning glory,” Parker replied obligatorily as he turned toward the stairs. “The final act,” he said as he slowly ascended.
~ ~ ~
Rufus glared at his still-shackled hands and feet. Three others sat identically bound in the small, bare room. An occasional gunshot smacked outside. Above the muffled din of the growing, restless crowd, the odd curse or hollered threat flew through the second story window. Rufus looked at each of his men. Maoma angrily jerked at the chains as if sheer rage would break them. Sam worriedly watched Maoma, seeking clues on how to act to inoculate himself against accusations of cowardice—he had yet to explain his disappearance at the height of the battle. Short, black Luckey Davis sat dismally. His best friend, Lewis Davis, his brother in all but birth, had gone missing—probably dead, probably shot. Rufus smacked his fist against his thigh again and again until the sting turned to burning. They all should have died back there, he thought. Not to have done so was the coward’s way. He berated himself for the same sins for which he had so recently reviled Cherokee Bill—another once-great man whom he loathed for crumbling in the end. The infamous Ned Christie had died with a gun in his hand, but the Rufus Buck Gang would be ripped apart by white dirt farmers and their women. At least their arrival in Okmulgee was something this town would never forget. The Marshals had to chase away the crowds at gunpoint. Those white farmers would have marched 100 miles—all the way to Muskogee—just to get their hands on him. From their screaming and spitting, from the outrage on their faces, Rufus knew he had hurt them, taken something precious—their inviolability—from them. He had given them a fleeting twinge of deadening wounds that people like his Creek Indian father and his Negro mother carried. They knew trembling fear because of him. They had, probably for the first time in their white lives, considered their own defeat because of him. While considering this small triumph, he drifted into sleep.