“Set primarily on the high plains during the 1860s, this novel has the epic sweep of the frontier built into it.”—Publishers Weekly
Jonah Hook fought for the Confederacy at Pea Ridge and Corinth, where he was wounded, captured, and sent to the prison hellhole they called Rock Island. The only way out for the young Reb was to don a blue uniform and serve on the western frontier as a “galvanized Yankee.”
Along the North Platte, Tongue, and Powder rivers, Jonah Hook fights side by side with a buckskinned scout named Shadrach Sweete. When he returns to his Missouri farm, he finds an empty house and overgrown land. Now it will take all the knowledge and hard cunning he acquired on the frontier to rescue his family from the brutal men who kidnapped them. Finding them will be the journey of a lifetime.
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HE HAD GROWN to hate the sound of that door sliding open against its three rusty hinges. But he suffered it this one last time.
Jonah Hook stepped from the tiny cell into the narrow hall running the length of the entire building, one of the hundreds of cells here at the Rock Island Federal Prison for Confederate prisoners of war. He was fourth in line coming out of the cell, two more behind him. The rest staying behind in the bull pen hooted and spat on those few who had decided they’d had enough of rotting away in this stinking place.
Eighteen hundred had signed an oath of allegiance to the Union they had of a time fought so hard to tear themselves away from in those long, bloody years of insurrection and rebellion and ragged defense of what mattered most to a man who had himself a small plot of land down in southern Missouri.
All those years of wondering on Gritta and their young ones.
“All right, boys! Let’s march out into that sunlight, you Johnnies!”
The bellowing voice erupted volcanically from somewhere behind him, echoing off the rafters of the dirty prison building, built on the order of a warehouse, now smelling of piss and decay and souls rotting away month after month until the time spilled together into years of captivity.
Jonah Hook had vowed allegiance to the Union. He would put on a Yankee’s blue uniform as long as he did not have to fight his former brethren dressed in butternut gray. He would go west with the others to hold back the Indians. He would keep the freight roads open and the telegraph wires strung across that expanse of open wilderness yawning out there in his imagination.
Hell, Jonah would do anything just about to get out of that stinking cell where one more man had died before the winter sun came up to make the whole damned building steamy again.
He wasn’t going to wait until it was him they dragged out by the ankles while everybody turned away. Jonah Hook was going west dressed in Yankee blue.
In the North for the past few months, President Lincoln had been engaged in a fierce campaign against his former chief of the army, George B. McClellan. Lincoln won a second term. But as the terrible human cost of the war mounted, the President’s Union found it harder to recruit soldiers for the effort. Draft laws and conscription edicts did nothing but incite the Northerners into riots.
Then there was Gettysburg, and the thousands of bodies piled up all in those three long days. Along with so many other less glorious battles with little-known and easily forgotten names, where thousands more lay waiting for a shallow grave, perhaps no grave at all, lying there for the animals and the seasons to reclaim their nameless mortal remains.
There were damned few substitutes left among those Yankee states by 1864—substitutes who would be paid a handsome bounty to serve in the stead of a man drafted to go fight the rebellious Confederates. So the Union continually drew manpower from its frontier army until it hurt, like an old-fashioned leech bleeding to cure a hopeless patient.
With little else to do, the army figured these Confederates they would galvanize into Yankee soldiers could hold back the red tide on the frontier until Grant and Sherman and Sheridan finished their nasty little business in crushing what was left of resistance in the South.
Make ’em all good Yankees by opening the doors for those who would go west—what with the promise of more and better food, dry clothes and some fresh, clean air.
So the eighteen hundred marched into the sunshine of this winter day. Still this place stunk of death, no matter the cold. If not of rotting flesh, then heavy with the stench of decaying souls.
“Gimme a double column, Johnnies!” hollered the throaty voice. “Double column … and march!”
The blue-bellies marched them between the low warehouses, past one row of high fence, then a second, and at last beyond a line of trees Jonah could make out the huffing of smoke and the familiar cry of iron on iron as the huge engines scraped to a stop near a much-battered rail-station platform. He had not seen this place in years. Since a train much like this one had brought him here.
But now this homely rail of a man all strap and sinew was headed west. Starved down to hide and bones by the years of hanging on, he was ready to be going anywhere. Jonah was scared nonetheless.
The promise of rations enough to fill his belly sounded the best. No matter that he had to fight Injuns out there. He had volunteered last September, then waited all these months into the maw of winter until the Yankee officers got their galvanized conscripts organized into two new regiments of Injun fighters to help General Pope out on the frontier.
Jonah damned well had lived on the frontier, leaving his birthplace of Virginia for the promise of rich land in southern Missouri, homesteading beside his uncle’s place. He arrived to find it a land embroiled in fiery turmoil between free-staters and slavers. The Hooks had never owned a slave, but—by God—a white man had a right to his property, and no so-called government was going to take it away except at the point of a gun.
As soon as Fort Sumter fell, the Union rushed their forces into Missouri to hold the line against the slavers. The state had a bad reputation for being a lawless land of bloody insurrection. A few zealots had been tramping back and forth across the southern forests and fields of Missouri, gaining converts and what money they could when they passed the hat. And when Sterling Price showed up down in Cassville, Jonah Hook told Gritta he had to go.
At first they were nothing more than freebooters themselves, living off the land and the gracious help of other free-state sympathizers. Price kept his growing legions moving: destroying bridges, removing rail ties, setting fires beneath the iron rails until they could be bent shapeless, firing into passing trains until most rail traffic slowed and eventually halted.
But then Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis, a West Point man from Iowa, marched with his army into Missouri to destroy the State Guard. The Union soldiers met Price’s ragtag volunteers near Springfield, down near Jonah’s new home where Gritta and the children stayed on to work the fields. And Curtis drove Price farther south, beating his rear flank like a man would flog a tired, bony mule.
A beating so bad that there were only twelve thousand of them left who stayed on with Price by the time they got to Pea Ridge in northern Arkansas in March of 1862.
It was there that Price rejoined McCulloch and turned to fight. But General Earl Van Dorn and Curtis made quick work of the Southern farm boys on that bloody ridge strewn with bodies and torn by grapeshot and canister.
Price escaped with a portion of his command: those who would still fight, those who had not headed home shoeless and demoralized.
Jonah followed Price east into Mississippi for the great Corinth campaign. Saddened already: the best the Confederates could muster had not been good enough to push back the Yankees from the western borders.
After his capture in Mississippi, Jonah had been marched and wagoned and railed mile after mile northward to a squalid prison that was swelled with new prisoners every week. Rock Island.
For the longest time, Jonah had feared it would be the last place he would sleep in his life. Come one morning and never waking up again.
Word was from one of the officers on the platform as the eighteen hundred were herded onto railcars that they were heading south and west.
“I know that place,” Hook had whispered when someone mentioned their destination.
“You been to Fort Leavenworth, friend?” asked the fellow behind him on the platform.
“No, but, it’s close to home … closer to home than I been in years now.”
“Don’t go fooling yourself, friend,” whispered the disembodied voice behind him. “You ain’t gonna be nowhere near home—what they got planned for us.”
“What’s that?” asked someone farther back.
“Ain’t you heard?” responded still another voice off in another column. “We’re being sent out yonder to fight all them Injuns the Yankees cain’t whip.”
Never before could he remember such a glorious chance to clear the white man’s Holy Road of emigrants in their wagons. So few soldiers left out here now that the white man was making war on himself back east.
Crazy Horse pulled the buffalo robe tighter beneath his chin. The sun shone brightly on the patches of old snow, it and the breeze cold enough to make his eyes smart.
For the past three winters while the warrior bands roaming to the south had hacked at the Holy Road, and the Santee Sioux to the east had waged war against the whites in Minnesota, this young Oglalla warrior had stayed north among the villages of his people, living off the buffalo grown fat on the tall grass. He had discovered that the solution to the white man moving onto the plains was to stay away from the white man altogether. Everything north of Fort Laramie was tranquil. The white man did not venture north into the land of the Lakota.
Yet in the time of drying grass last summer, even Crazy Horse had grown restive and yearned for the excitement talked about on everyone’s lips—ponies and plunder and coup to be found far to the south in the white man’s settlements just south of Fort Laramie.
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