The Guns Never Stop
This book is dedicated to all of the soldiers who have answered the call to war. Whether they were on the winning or losing side, or on the “right” or “wrong” side, they have one thing in common: someone told them to go, and they did.
War is not pretty. It does not end when the last shot is fired. For some, far too many, it never ends. The sights and sounds do not stop. The memories do not heal. Living as a normal person is no longer possible. Too much is buried inside.
This is one man’s story.
So this is how it all ends. Just a few of us left, two hundred or so of our brothers dead or dying all around us, everyone else gone, retreated into the west woods. I can hear the Yankees just across Antietam Creek at the end of the cornfield, no more than a hundred yards away, loading up their rifles and cleaning off their bayonets. Derisive shouts letting us know just a few more minutes to live. I look at Sergeant Dillon next to me, his eyes focused on the enemy, waiting for his last good shot. He doesn’t hear me when I tell him it has been good serving with him. We hear the Yankees rattling about, the clank of canteens and guns and swords piercing through the chaos. These noises are meant for us.
How things change in a day. Yesterday at this time, we were sitting around our camp fires, solemn in knowing that today would be a fight, but soldierly joking all around to ease the tension we all felt but few showed. A few have even gone into Sharpsburg to see if they can find any bacon or liquor, both of which have been in short supply lately.
I wrote a letter to my beloved wife, letting her know little of the dangers ahead. I had written but few letters since I left two years ago, and had received only one. I pulled out the only picture of her that I have, a formal one, in bonnet and corset and high heeled lace up boots. She is smiling, as she does most of the time, but the picture does not do justice to how she looks when she is inches away and her mind is entertaining some feisty thought or another. I told her that I loved her always, and that I would be returning soon, the same things every soldier tells those he loves. Everyone else might die, but I will return to your arms. I will return. I promise. I place the letter in a sack that the unit provides before each battle, wondering how long it takes a letter to get to her, and where I will be when she finally reads it.
Being the only person from Missouri in the 1st Texas, I am somewhat of a novelty. I do not speak with their drawl or their slowness. When I am listening to them speak, it seems as if they cannot think an entire sentence, but have to stop and formulate each word separately. I gave up correcting their pronunciation and grammar months ago. None have slowed in the least of heckling me about everything from burning in the sun instead of tanning, to my freckles and red hair.
They are the brothers I never had, and never would have had if it wasn’t for Tote Dawson.
Tote Dawson was a barber. At least everyone who didn’t know much about him thought so. By day he cut hair and shaved faces, and by night he killed anyone that someone would pay him for. Man or woman, old or young, good or bad didn’t matter to him. If you had the money, you could arrange for a life to be ended.
One of those whose life he ended was my wife’s brother Emmett. I don’t know all the circumstances or details, as no one ever does when dislike turns to hate, and hate to death. I do know that he disappeared one evening when checking cows on the family ranch just west of Larned, Kansas. Emmett was the best of all of us at the things one had to do to raise cattle, but the worst at keeping his mouth shut when he could add a few logs to the fire. He humiliated a friend of Dawson’s, who promptly announced loudly enough for many to hear that Emmett would be sorry for this. Two days later, he disappeared, and a month later his remains were found in a creek bottom, with only his boots providing any semblance of identification. He had a .45 caliber hole in the middle of his forehead.
“I can’t believe no one will do anything about this,” my wife said one evening. “He murdered my brother, and now no one will do anything.”
I arranged for Jeremy Schilling to hire Tote Dawson to kill me. One thing about Dawson is that he did not require reasons. He only required money. Half down and half at completion. You don’t pay, you die for free. Jeremy told him it should be as easy as Emmett Eldredge was.
Knowing the day and the time gave me a distinct advantage. I built a fire where it was supposed to be built, and tied my horse where he was supposed to be tied. It was up close to the rocks, so afforded only one good way in and out. Tote Dawson showed up just when I thought he would, and I knocked him off his horse with a single shot from my Winchester. By the time he recovered his senses, I had taken both his Colt and rifle from him, and was standing in front of him with my Colt drawn and pointed at his head.
“I know you killed Emmett, and I’m going to kill you,” I said far more calmly than I was feeling.
“You ain’t going to kill no one, you lily livered tulip.”
“I think I am,” I told him.
“I will come back to haunt you,” he said.
“I don’t think so,” I replied, one second before I pulled the trigger and sent him to hell where he belongs.
It turns out he was right and I was wrong. No day goes by, no hour, not even a single minute passes where I don’t remember the whole thing from the beginning to the end. In the beginning, I was an innocent youth, away from home for the first time, off on my grand adventure called life. Newly married, broke, trying to make a go of it. A moment later, I was a murderer of an evil man whom I still believe deserved it, but nonetheless a murderer.
I went home and told my wife that I had avenged Emmett’s death.
“What?” she screamed.
“I killed Tote Dawson. Shot him in the head just like he did to Emmett.”
While I was still naively thinking she would be relieved and a little happy that I had done what I did, she began to pound on my chest and slap my face until I had to restrain her arms.
“You idiot! You have ruined our lives! You have to get out of here. Tonight. You have to leave. I’ll tell people that you had to go back to Missouri yesterday for some emergency with your parents. Go north. Go south. Go anywhere. Just get out of here until it is safe for you again.”
I stuffed my saddle bags with jerky and boiled eggs, took two boxes of bullets, and left before midnight. I kissed her one last time, told her I would write and let her know where I was for a few months. I mounted my horse, said I was going to Canada, and rode south into the darkness.
A few hours ago, we were eating our first hot breakfast in weeks when we were interrupted by the urgent order to assemble. Hooker’s 1st Corps was already pushing Jackson’s men out of the cornfield and down the Hagerstown turnpike toward the Dunker Church. No one had expected Hooker to have so little trouble with Jackson, whose genius was rivaled only by Bobby Lee himself.
We double timed to the field, pausing for only minutes before charging north across the field. It was Anderson’s men who had pushed our boys back, and we meant to have them pay. Brutal fighting, men on both sides going down by the dozens. Hill’s division and Early’s brigade both provide some reinforcements from the west. Stuart’s horse artillery units pounded the field, as did the Yankees. We were told the whole of the battle and the whole of the war depended upon us holding our line, no matter what the cost. When we were down to our last few men, the order was given to retreat into the west woods. We had fought bravely, honorably, but had simply run out of men.
As we had lain down in scant cover looking at the field we were to attack, my closest friend, Lips Muldoon, short for Lippincott, he always adds, looks at me seriously, with red rings around his eyes and tells me he’s going to die. Muldoon is an Irish Catholic, and I am an English Protestant. We agree on very little. The others kid us that I’m the one who looks Irish, and Muldoon is the one that looks furthest from it. Brown hair, brown eyes, dark skin.
“I saw this all in a dream last night,” he says. “Captain says charge, I get up, start running, trying to make the next cover, get shot in the chest. I fall, watch the blood spurt out of the hole, feel life slipping away. Nobody comes. They have to take the field. I don’t blame them for not stopping. I die, right where I landed.”
“Just a dream,” I say. “We all have them. Sometimes we are the hero, and sometimes we are the casualty. It’s a dream, Muldoon. And besides, you are too small to hit.” He hates it when I make fun of his stature. He is a full six inches shorter and thirty pounds lighter than me. And about ten times tougher.
“Not this time, Yates. I’m already dead. My spirit’s already gone on. I just hope my body can find it wherever it is.”
He then showed me a picture of his wife Magdalena and tried to give me a last letter to her, his dying thoughts. He begged me to take it, and to mail it to her after the battle, along with a note from me saying he died doing his duty.
“You ain’t dying, Muldoon, and I’m not taking a letter to your wife. What if I get killed and you don’t, and someone finds the letter and mails it to her? Then what? She thinks you’ve been killed, finds some other man to tend to her needs, and when you get back to her she’s already married again.”
“You’re not getting killed today,” he says, looking me straight in the eyes.
“Wounded bad, but not killed. I saw that too.” He shoves the letter and picture of her into my shirt. I wish I had the picture of Hannah with me.
The sights, sounds, pains and memories of the battlefield do not end when the sun goes down. On the contrary, for the people who were out there, they never quite go away. The Guns Never Stop is a historically accurate version of one man’s story.
Leaving his wife behind in Kansas, Reese Yates finds himself a Confederate soldier, a Private in the 1st Texas Brigade. They went into the Battle of Sharpsburg with two hundred twenty six healthy men, and came out at the end of the day with less than forty. Reese Yates was not one of them. Severely wounded, his recovery is slow. It is made more slow by the fact that he is misidentified at the hospital, and that his memory is shattered into small bits and pieces which make no sense to him or to anyone else.
After his release from the hospital, he makes the most difficult journey of his life, trying to find out who he is, and where he is from. Three hospitals, a Yankee prison camp, a Confederate jail, and a series of shocking discoveries await him. He sees the best of people and the worst of people, has great happiness and tragic sorrow as he puts together the pieces of what once was his life.