Old Bill

By J. FRANK DOBIE

THEY tell me that Jeb Rider’s log cabin is still standing, about a quarter of a mile up the slope from the spring on Elm Creek. Nobody has struck oil in this part of East Texas yet, and so things out of the past live on there. People still talk about the Civil War, though years and years ago they put what was left of Uncle Jeb Rider in the ground, in the little graveyard where wild trumpet vines cover the lane fence with red flowers all through the summer months and into the fall. Old Bill disappeared long before that, but Uncle Jeb’s story of Old Hill seems to have a chance to keep on blooming with the trumpet vines. This is the way he told it.

1

When me and my wife married, it was her idear having the house so fur up the slope from where we got water outa the spring on Ellum Creek. She was skccred of floods. I was nacherly agin having to tote water so fur, but ‘fore long I sometimes wished it were further. I could walk down that trail and set on the cypress log there at the spring and kinder get peaceful. She was always badgering me to clear more land and plant more sweet pertaters and hoe the corn cleaner and do things like that, and I jest nacherly kinder like to squirrel roun’ with the dogs like I’d always done.

The best dog I ever had was Old Bill. He was out of a bitch Pa brung from Tinnissee; that is, figgering in several ginerations between. 1 never can remember whether it was July 13 or July 14 he died, the year before the war started. Anyhow, one cloudy day about a month after he died I was going down the trail to the spring uncommon low in the mouth and was about half way when kinder unconscious-like T beared sum pin behind me. Maybe it was a rustle in the leaves. I didn’t pay no ’tention till I heared a low rattle. Then I looked, and I’ll be dogged if it wasn’t, the biggest diamonback rattlesnake I ever see, right in the trail, not more’n six steps back.

When I stopped and looked, he stopped too and raised his head up in a curious way and looked at me without shaking his tail a-tall. It’s that tailshaking that makes a rattlesnake so fearsome, puts the jints in a human’s backbone to shaking too. Well, I didn’t have a thing with me to hit with, not even a water bucket , and when I glanced round fer a stick there weren’t none in reach. 1 started on down the trail agin to a dead dogwood I could break off. Then I looked back and that diamonback was coming on too, keeping a respecful distance and looking like he didn’t mean no harm.

When I got to the dead dogwood and broke off a stick and drew it back to lamm the snake, he looked more harmless than ever. 1 can’t explain it. There he was keeping a respecful distance, and ail at once he sorter seemed to me like a dog that wants to fuller you and be friends but’s afraid to come too dost. Well, I stood there a-holding the stick, and he had his head up a little watching me, and his eyes jest seemed to say he understood.

Then I done clear contrary to nature. I throwed I he stick away and started agin on down to the spring. Ever once in a while I’d turn mv head and look back. The rattlesnake was still follering, humble and respecful. When I set down on the cy press log, he coiled up in a sliver of weak sunshine and kept looking right; straight at m(\ Dreckly l begun to kinder talk to him. I was still a young man, remember, and a blamed fool about feeling sorry fer myself. And that old snake would nod his head aroun’ and look like he felt sorry too.

When I started up to the cabin, he did the same, jest follering like a dog. About halfway up he dropped out, and I didn’t see nothing more of him till the next day. 1 was going down to the spring agin to bring up some water fer Abbie to wash with. Eight about the halfway place, he fell in behind me like he d done the first, time, and now his follering seemed jest as nacherl as a dog scratching fleas.

“See here,” I says to him after we got settled at the spring, “I’m going to call you Bill. Bill, he was the best coon and possum dog I ever had, and he always understood me. When 1 wanted to squirrel aroun’. he never had no idears about clearing off land or putting poles in the fence to keep the hawgs outer the field or anything like that. Yes, sir, you’re Bill to me from now on.”

And Bill jest nodded his head and looked grateful out of his eyes and shore would’ve talked if he could of. It. was real soothing to be with him, and when Abbie went to squalling fer me to hurry up and bring on the water he acturly winked.

2

Well, after that we was together lots at the spring. Whenever I went to the store I’d hear talk about the Aberlitionists up north working to take the darkies away from us Southern folks and make ‘em our equals, and more talk about the Black Republicans. W hen I got back I’d tell Bill about ‘em — sometimes afore I told Abbie — and, by hoekv, he’d coil up and look fierce enough to bite a crowbar. Then the war did come. I volunteered fer Captain Abercrombie’s company and traded off some corn and a mule fer a good, gentle horse and bought Abbie a new axe and got all ready to go. The evening afore 1 was to set out, I went down to the spring to kinder ca’m myself and tell Bill good-bye.

It looked like lie understood all about the Yankees. I told him to look after things around the spring as best he could and I’d be back some day. The next morning after Abbie got my things all packed and T’d told her good-bye, I turned by the spring to water my horse.

Well, jest as 1 was coming out under that leaning ellum over the trail between the house and the spring, I felt sumpin drop aerost my shoulders. It would a-scared me if it. hadn’t been so nacherl. “So you want to go to war too, do you. Bill?” I says.

“1 don’t know how the fellers in camps would take to you,” I says. “They’re all Texians, you know,” I says, “and got about as much use fer a rattlesnake as a wildcat has for a lost puppy.” You see, 1 hadn’t told a soul about Old Bill not even Abbie. 1 jest didn’t think anybody would understand. But if Bill was so sot on going with me, I decided right then I’d try to convert the heathen.

“ If you’ll promise,”I says to him, “not to bother nobody and stay put where 1 puts you, I’ll take you. I’ll explain to the fellers and maybe they’ll get the idear/' He nods and we rode on.

Some of the fellers seemed to think at first that 1 was jest an idiot, but they left Bill alone and he left them alone. 1 shore didn’t have no trouble with anybody trying to steal my blankets, and the way Jim Bowie— that’s what I named my horseand Old Bill got to be frenly with each other was a caution. Sometimes Jim Bowie would kinder noze Bill along the back, and many a time when Jim Bowie was a-grazing l’ve seen Bill crawling out in front of him and scaring off devilhorses so Jim Bowie wouldn’t accerdently chew ‘em up and swaller ‘em. You know how a devilhorse once it’s inside the stumick of an animal can kill it. 1 fixed up a bag for Old Bill to ride comfortable in, and when we moved, hung it on the horn of my saddle.

Fer months we jest practiced marching and squads-righting and squads-lefting and so on. I’d leave Old Billon the edge of the parade grounds, and I got to noticing how interested he seemed in our movements. When we’d have a parade, he’d get exciteder than the colonel’s horse. The band music was what set him up. “ Dixie” was his favorite t une, and he got so he could sorter rattle it. It shore was comical to see him lusting his tail to get the high notes.

Finally our training was over. We crossed the Mississippi River and joined Gin’ral Albert Sidney Johnston’s forces. Then when Shiloh opened up on that Sunday morning in April, we was in it. We fought and we fit all da^ long, sometimes going forwards and sometimes backwards, sometimes in the brush and sometimes acrost ciearnings. We didn’t know till next day that our gin’ral had been killed. If he had a-lived and if we’d a-had a few more like Old Bill, things would have turned out mighty different.

My rigiment was camped on Owl Creek, jest north of Shiloh Chapel, and jest before we went into battle that morning I took Old Bill over to a commissary waggin and told him to stay there and told the driver to kinder keep him. Late evening found us coming back into a long neck of woods that our colonel told us we’d have to clear of Yankees. They’d worked in between us and Owl Creek. We found ‘em all right, but they was the deadest \ nnkees 1 ever see. At first we was bellying along on the ground, keeping behind trees and expecting lire. 1 hen when we kept finding more and more dead uns, we figgered some other outfit had beat us to ‘em. We got to breathing easy, and then somebody noticed that none of the dead Yanks bore bullet marks. It was all-fired strange, and the trees wasn’t none of ‘em creased neither.

I decided to make a litt le closer examination, and I pulled up t he britches leg of one Yank. Jest above his shoe-top on the outside, where the ankle vein runs, 1 noticed a pair of lit tle holes about the size of pin points. 1 found the same marks on the leg of the next Yank, on another, on another, and then, all of a. suddent, I knowed Old Bill’d been there. I told the boys. They went to looking at the dead Yankee legs and couldn’t hep being convinced.

We kept going through the neck of woods and counting dead Yankees tilt we got to Owl Creek, a little below camps. My ricollection is that the count run to 417, but it may have been a few less. Course, too, some few might ‘ve been counted twicest.

  1. A resident of Austin, Texas, and professor of English literature at the University of Texas, J. FHANK DOBIE is widely known for his books on the history and range life of the Southwest.