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Authors: James Carlos Blake

Red Grass River

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RED GRASS RIVER

A LEGEND

James Carlos Blake

For
Len Richardson
a good old boy and damn fine man

and
the coterie of my Bowling Green days:
Fare ye well, gents and ladies, each and all
.

As for man, his days are as grass: as a
flower of the field, so he flourisheth
.

For the wind passeth over it, and it is
gone; and the place thereof shall know it
no more
.


Psalms, 103:15

The terrible thing is, everyone has his reasons
.


Jean Renoir

CONTENTS

PROLOGUE

IF THE DEVIL EVER RAISED A GARDEN THE EVERGLADES WAS…

ONE

THE BOY POLED THE SKIFF ALONG THE WINDING SAWGRASS CHANNEL…

TWO

SHE WAS A BOBHAIRED SEVENTEEN-YEAR-OLD BLONDE WITH FULL breasts and…

THREE

FOLLOWING HIS RELEASE FROM THE PALM BEACH COUNTY JAIL he…

FOUR

OLD JOE ASHLEY’S DADDY COME TO FLORIDA AS A YOUNG MAN…

FIVE

THE GALVESTON SUMMERS WERE HOT AND WET AND LITTLE DIFFERent…

SIX

ON A CLEAR HOT SUMMER SUNDAY JUST DAYS AFTER JOHN…

SEVEN

MIAMI WASNT BUT ABOUT FIFTEEN, SIXTEEN YEARS OLD WHEN THE…

EIGHT

FOLLOWING HIS ESCAPE FROM BOBBY BAKER HE SENT MOST OF HIS…

NINE

THEY GOT OUT OF THE CAR AT THE BEND IN…

TEN

THE DOCTOR WAS A HEAVYSET BEARDED MAN NAMED BOYER. WITH…

ELEVEN

THERE WASNT ANYBODY TO GET EVEN WITH, THAT WAS OLD…

TWELVE

THEY RAN THROUGH THE PINE SCRUBS TO WHERE ED AND…

THIRTEEN

ON NEW YEAR’S DAY BILL ASHLEY AND HIS PRETTY BUT…

FOURTEEN

ONE WARM FORENOON IN LATE APRIL JOHN ASHLEY AND HANFORD…

FIFTEEN

LORDY, THE STORIES WE HEARD ABOUT JOHN AND LAURA! THE…

SIXTEEN

THE ELSER PIER WAS AN ORNATE THREE-STORY BUILDING THAT stood…

SEVENTEEN

OVER THE NEXT FOUR MONTHS THEY HIJACKED NEARLY OF DOZEN…

EIGHTEEN

A FEW MONTHS AFTER JOHN WENT BACK TO PRISON ED…

NINETEEN

HE WAS LOCKED INTO A SEVEN-BY-NINE CELL IN A SPECIAL…

TWENTY

THEY HIT THE STUART BANK FIVE MINUTES AFTER IT OPENED…

TWENTY-ONE

THE RUMOR WAS EVERYWHERE THAT OLD JOE ASHLEY’D HAD A…

TWENTY-TWO

THEY TRIED HARD TO BELAY THEIR DESIRE UNTIL NIGHTFALL BUT…

TWENTY-THREE

CHILL WINTER DAWN. THE EASTERN SKY SHOWING GRAY AT THE…

TWENTY-FOUR

BOBBY BAKER’S RAID ON THE ASHLEY CAMP MADE HEADLINES THAT…

TWENTY-FIVE

HE FISHED AND HUNTED AND HE TOOK HIDES OF ALL…

TWENTY-SIX

THEY DISEMBARKED IN KEY WEST AND MADE INQUIRIES AND found…

TWENTY-SEVEN

BY THE TIME ELMER PADGETT, SLEEPLESS AND HAGGARD, HAD tracked…

TWENTY-EIGHT

THE FIRST ANYBODY HEARD ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED WAS WHEN A…

TWENTY-NINE

A GUSTY GRAY EVENING OF UNSEASONABLE RAIN A FEW DAYS BEFORE…

The Ashley Gang is a historical reality. Most of the characters in this novel did exist, and most of its major events did take place. Still, this is a work of fiction, and those familiar with the facts about the Ashleys and the Florida of their time will discern the liberties I’ve taken with the record.

PROLOGUE

The Liars Club

I
F THE DEVIL EVER RAISED A GARDEN THE
E
VERGLADES WAS IT
. T
HE
biggest and meanest swamp you’re ever like to see—bigger than some entire states of the Union—it’s pineywoods and palmetto scrubs and cypress heads and tangled vines but mostly it’s a river, a river like no other on this earth. It’s sixty miles wide and half-a-foot deep and runs from Lake Okeechobee to the south end of the state over a layer of muck thats got no bottom. The whole thing covered with sawgrass sharp as a skinning razor. Not a thing else in that sawgrass country but here and there some hammocks—highground islands of hardwoods and palms—and most of them never been set foot on. Out there the world looks a whole lot bigger and there’s no end at all to the sky. They say it’s hardly another place in the world where you can look farther and see less. And all of it green of one shade or another except at sunrise and in the dying light of day when that great grass river goes so red it looks like it’s on fire or stained with blood.

Only the godawful desperate or the plain goddamned could ever live out there. It’s ever kind of thing in the Everglades to cut you or burn you or itch you or sting you or poison you or eat you up whole. It’s quicksand and gators and panthers and snakes and mosquitoes and ever sort of bug in hell to drive you insane. In summer the air’s so hot and wet it’s like trying to breathe boiled cotton. Lord only knows what-all’s been swallowed up in that rotten ooze under the sawgrass and won’t never again see the light of day. It’s bones in that muck a
million years old and bones aint been there a week. Animal bones. Bones of men. It’s ten thousand stories buried out there aint nobody heard but the devil.

Yessir, the Devil’s Garden was as right a name as was ever give to any place there is. Even on today’s maps you’ll see the name on a portion of wildland just east of Immokalee. It was the early crackers who come up with the name—and big as the Glades is now, in them days it was even bigger and took in most of the region to either side of Lake Okeechobee. A cracker is somebody who grows up in the swamp country and provided his daily bread mostly by hunting and trapping, though some did a little hardscrabble farming, some a little cattle ranching, some a little of it all. The first of them to show up in Florida come from all over the South but most of them from Georgia. They got their name on account of the sound their whips made as they drove their stock ahead of them. Some of them latigo whips was so big they had to hold them with both hands. They cracked loud as rifleshots and you could hear them from miles away.

No white people ever knew the ways of the Devil’s Garden better than the crackers. And no crackers knew them better than the Ashleys.

It’s only a few of us oldtime crackers left anymore who go back that far and knew the Ashleys in the living flesh. I mean we’re old, the bunch of us, old and aching ever kind of way and all of us needing a cane at the least and a couple of us a damn walker. Hardly a man among us dont wear specs as thick as bottle glass, or says “What?” ever time somebody says something to him, or can sleep through the night without having to get up a time or two to piss. But near all of us knew the Ashleys when we was kids, leastways knew them well enough to say “How-do” to and get a “Hey” in return, which was about as well as anybody who wasnt kin ever got to know an Ashley. They was a clannish family and hard to get to know personal, but we all of us saw one or another of them ever now and then, and we heard talk about them all the time.

We grew up hearing a hundred stories about the Ashleys and about John Ashley’s gang and the crimes they did. We heard all about the bad blood between John Ashley and Bobby Baker and about the war the Ashleys had with Yankee bootleggers who tried to cut in on their territory. We heard a dozen versions of what happened at the Sebastian River Bridge when the gang was finally put to an end. We
still
tell them stories ever time we get together in the park to sun our old bones and pass the time and talk about something other than whether there’s a Democrat alive who can win the next election.

The thing is, so many stories about the Ashley Gang have been told for so long by so many who have bent the facts so many ways that there’s hardly no way of knowing anymore what’s the true facts and what aint. It probly dont really matter all that much. Everybody knows that the plain and simple facts about something dont necessarily tell the truth of it. Some people can lie all day long with nothing but the facts, and what goes on in most courtrooms is proof enough of that. On the other hand, sometimes a story that stretches a fact here and there can tell more of the real truth of a thing as you’re ever like to get. Leastways thats what the bunch of us think.

Our growed-up children tend to smile and wink at each other and shake their heads at the tales we tell, but there’s been a bunch of old farts like us in barbershops and cafes and courthouse squares in ever town there ever was. That’s for damn sure the way of it down South. Back when we was pups a bunch of graybeards used to sit around in the town square and tell stories about the War Between the States and the bad old days of Reconstruction and the doings of the Klan and such. Everybody used to call to call those oldtimers the Liars Club. And it’s what everybody calls us too….

ONE

December 1911

T
HE BOY POLED THE SKIFF ALONG THE WINDING SAWGRASS CHANNEL
and heard now a faint chanting through the bird cries from the hardwood hammock just ahead. He knew it was the Indian come to meet him and that he was drunk and not alone. He let the pushpole trail alongside the skiff and considered his circumstance as the boat glided slowly through the sawgrass that stood higher than his head. His father always said a drunk Indian could be the easiest delivery in a day’s work or the most troublesome, depending on the Indian. The boy knew this Indian for the troublesome sort. But if he shied from making the delivery just because you never knew what a drunk Indian might do his father would mock him for a nancy forever. He spat into the sawgrass and leaned into the pole and pushed the skiff ahead, feeling the comforting press of the revolver at his back where it was tucked in his waistband under his loose shirt.

His name was John Ashley and he was eighteen years old.

In the west the high enpurpling sky showed streaks of orange and reefs of red clouds flanking the lowering sun. To southeastward rose a high black column of boiler smoke where a dredge was digging a canal. This earlywinter’s day had begun dry and almost cool but had since assumed a hint of unseasonable rain. The air was sweet with the smell of swampwater and vegetation, with the redolence of the approaching hammock’s ripe earth under the canopy of magnolia and gumbo limbo trees. Even if there had been some elevated vantage point
as near as fifty yards of him from which an observer might scan the vast encircling vista of sawgrass and scattered hardwood hammocks and pine islands (and the only such vantage points were the tops of the hammock trees where at this hour the birds were coming to clamorous roost), the observer would not have spied either the channel or his movement through it, so high was the grass and so narrow the waterway and so smoothly did he navigate it. Only a circling fish hawk high overhead bore witness to his progress.

The Indians’ chanting ceased as he poled into the shadowed green light under the heavy hardwood overhang and the sawgrass fell away and the canoe carried into the natural moat of copper-colored water that girt the hammock. The roosting birds were quieting now. Their droppings shook leaves on the lower branches, flashed whitely to the ground, poked ripples in the pool. The hammock rang with the croaking of frog colonies. He made toward a rough-sloped mudbank where the root vegetation had been hacked away to shape a landing for canoes.

He smelled the Indians before he caught sight of them in their baggy white shirts and black bowler hats on the higher ground in the darkness of the trees. Two of them. Sitting crosslegged and watching him and passing a jug between them. At the edge of the landing a single long dugout was tethered to a jutting root and now the scent of the otter skins piled within carried to him under the smell of the Indians. The water surface shattered lightly as a school of fingerlings broke away from a rushing bass.

He pulled hard on the pole and the prow bumped up onto the muddy landing and the skiff’s abrupt halt shook the wooden cases nestled toward the bow and there was a clinking of jug on jug. The smaller of the Indians grinned whitely. Mosquitoes raged at the boy’s ears. A gray haze of them quivered about the Indians’ heads without settling on their skins. He spotted a shotgun propped against a tree behind the Indians but saw only knives on their belts.

“We been hearin you from a mile off,” the bigger Indian said. His voice was wetly raw. “Been hearin you comin like a fucken steamboat.”

John Ashley doubted that. This big one—whose name was DeSoto Tiger and who resold to other Indians in the deeper Glades most of the moonshine he bought from the boy’s father—was said by some to be a good man who took after his daddy and his uncle, both of whom were chiefs in local Seminole tribes. But John Ashley knew him for a mean drunk and had for years heard terrible stories about him. He
was said to have beaten a wife to death for infidelity and to have cut the dick off the man who put the horns on him. He was said to have drowned a Negro in a creek for trying to steal his traps. The boy’s father had told him that most of those stories were lies DeSoto Tiger had himself concocted to keep other Indians in fear of him. But other white men believed the big Indian was every bit the bad actor his reputation held.

John Ashley had known him only to nod to until almost a year ago when he and his daddy had come on him one day at Blue’s store on Lake Towhee and the Indian asked the boy if he wanted to go for alligator hides in the Okaloosa sloughs with him on shares. He said he wanted a white partner so he could get a better price for the hides on the New River trading dock and he’d heard the boy was a good enough skinner to go shares with. John Ashley had turned to his father who affected to study the clouds in the distance. He did not really want to work shares with the Indian but he wanted to show his father he was not afraid of DeSoto Tiger. He told the Indian he’d do it if he would agree to take no whiskey on the hunt. His daddy had smiled without looking their way and DeSoto Tiger laughed and said that was fine, he anyway never drank when he was working.

They’d gone south with a string of four empty dugouts and over the next fortnight killed gators through the nights and skinned the carcasses through the mornings and slept through the afternoons and did not talk much the whole time. They piled three of the dugouts high with hides and another with the tailmeat, which they could readily sell in the Negro parts of town. En route to the trading docks they came upon a whiskey peddler and the Indian bought a quart bottle. John Ashley gave him a look and the Indian said, “Hell, boy, the work’s done.”

When they arrived at the New River trading post DeSoto Tiger was drunk. Their boat no sooner bumped up to the dock than the Indian spied a tribesman named Henry Little Bear who he believed had been trying to steal his sweetheart’s affections. A loud row ensued and knives came into play and it required several dockhands to subdue the big Indian and hold him until the police arrived and took him away to jail. Henry Little Bear was sopping with blood as he was borne to the nearest doctor with his belly gashed and most of his nose missing and half his face flensed to the skull. Like the other witnesses John Ashley had been impressed by DeSoto Tiger’s spectacular proficiency with a knife. For the next few days the talk on the docks was
of little else but the Indian fight. The boy sold the hides and put aside the Indian’s half of the proceeds.

Because Henry Little Bear didnt die but had only been mutilated—and because DeSoto Tiger’s father and uncle were chiefs in the regional Seminole confederation and often proved of assistance to the white authorities in their Indian dealings—and because the law didnt much care what Indians did to each other anyway as long as they didnt disturb decent white folk by it, DeSoto Tiger was obliged to serve but ten days in the county lockup. When the Indian got out of jail John Ashley retrieved his share of the gatorhide money and met him at Blue’s store and turned it over to him. DeSoto Tiger stared at the money and then at the boy, his eyes hard with accusation. John Ashley took insult and told him he could check the price he’d got with Mister Williams, the hide buyer. The Indian said he knew better than to ask any white man for the truth. He spat on the ground between them and stuffed the money in his pocket and stalked away.

They did not see each other again until three months ago when the boy’s father sent him to make delivery to this hammock in the sawgrass country southeast of Lake Okeechobee, one of several waycamps DeSoto Tiger was reputed to have in the region. Although John Ashley had told none but his brother Bob of the Indian’s accusation that he’d cheated him, his father seemed aware that his brief partnership with DeSoto Tiger had not concluded well, and yet sent him to deliver to the Indian anyway, maybe for that reason. His father wasn’t one to explain his actions but he’d always told John Ashley and his brothers that the only way to deal with bulls of any sort was to take them by the horns. The boy had been apprehensive on that first delivery but the big Indian had affected remoteness and made no mention of the last time they’d seen each other and their transaction was brief and without incident. Thus had they carried on in every meeting since and the boy was content to have it that way.

This was the first time the Indian had shown up drunk. John Ashley saw that the jug the Indians were hefting was not one of his father’s. He stepped out of the skiff and nodded at the jug in DeSoto Tiger’s crooked finger and said, “Hope you boys aint switchin to another supplier. We’d hate to lose you all’s business.”

DeSoto Tiger stared at the jug as if he’d only just noticed it. The other Indian laughed and said hell no, they weren’t switching, they’d found the jug just laying there in the scrub. The Indians looked at each other and laughed. Shit, John Ashley thought, one drunk Indian’s bad enough and here I got two.

“Hell, boy, we dont drink nothin but your daddy’s wyome,” the smaller Indian said, using the Indian word for whiskey. “Everbody knows Old Joe’s stuff is the goodest.” This one’s name was Jimmy Gopher and he was a halfbreed as much scorned by Indians as by whites. John Ashley knew him for a mediocre trapper and truckling friend to DeSoto Tiger. “We don’t buy no shine cept your daddy’s,” Jimmy Gopher said. He stood up and came to the skiff and peered at the two cases inside and grinned.

John Ashley hefted each case in turn and set it on the ground and looked at DeSoto Tiger who still sat crosslegged. The Indian looked back at him for a long moment and then withdrew a clump of bills from inside his shirt and handed it up to Jimmy Gopher who passed it to the boy. The money was damp and pungent with the smell of Indian. John Ashley counted it carefully and then folded it neatly and put it in his pocket. “Well,” he said, turning to the skiff, “see you next month.”

“Have a drink fore you go,” DeSoto Tiger said, and got to his feet as lightly as rising smoke. He stood a head taller than the boy who was himself nearly six feet. He wore his bowler tilted forward so the narrow brim shadowed his eyes.

“Sorry,” John Ashley said, “but I got to get.”

“Heard you sold a bunch a egret feathers to Burris’ Store in Palm Beach,” the big Indian said. “For good money.”

John Ashley looked at him, then at Jimmy Gopher and then back at DeSoto Tiger. “I sell plumes sometimes,” he said. “Everybody knows that.”

“Heard you took them birds over by Pahokee Slough,” DeSoto Tiger said. His face held no hint of fellowship. “Everybody know Pahokee Slough’s my bird ground.
That’s
what everbody knows.”

Only now did John Ashley perceive that the Indian was drunker than he’d thought. He wished his brother Bob was with him. Bob always offered to come along on the deliveries to the Indians and John Ashley always said no, he could make the drops himself. And his daddy always looked at him from the head of the supper table and smiled.

“Aint nobody got a deed to no rookery,” he said, showing a grin and instantly chiding himself for it. You aint scared of this sonofabitch, he told himself, dont even wonder if you are.

The big Indian took a step toward him. “I wonder did you go shares with anybody in them feathers,” he said, “and I wonder how much did you cheat him on them.”

Jimmy Gopher leaned on a tree, grinning, watching with bright eyes. He’d opened one of the shine jugs and was sipping from it off his elbow.

DeSoto Tiger drew his knife from its belt sheath and affected to strop it on his shirtsleeve as he smiled thinly at John Ashley. The boy had a fleeting vision of Henry Little Bear weighted with his own bloody clothes as he was carried off the New River dock. He put his hand behind him and under his shirt and around the pistol grips.

The Indian grinned and stepped nearer to the boy. “What you got there, whitedove? A bible? A
weapon
?” He took another step toward him and John Ashley pulled out the pistol, a single-action Colt .44, and cocked it and pointed it outstretched at DeSoto Tiger’s chest. “Quit right there,” he said.

He’d never before pointed a loaded firearm at anyone but he had several times seen it done. He’d seen his first mankilling at age seven when Porter Longtree shot Morris Jones through the eye on the front steps of Kennison’s Store. There had long been bad blood between the two men and the general opinion of the killing was fairly summed up by John Ashley’s daddy when he said it couldnt have ended any other way and whichever of them got killed for sure had it coming. John Ashley had since witnessed other acts of bloodletting and seen other men killed and could not have named an acquaintance who had not. And now, pointing the .44 at DeSoto Tiger, he was pleased to feel no tremor in his gunhand even as he felt his pulse thumping in his dry throat.

DeSoto Tiger raised his hands and said, “
Whoa
now, boy.” He laughed and said, “Dont you know when you being
wolfed
?” He lowered his hands and shook his head, still grinning. He looked at Jimmy Gopher whose smile had gone weak. “Boy thought we was
serious
.”

Jimmy Gopher’s laugh was hollow. His eyes had gone skittish.

John Ashley lowered the gun, still unsure of the moment.

“We had you goin, huh?” the big Indian said. “Should see your face. Hell, I bet you’d jump five feet if I did
this
.” The Indian feinted with the knife and the boy jumped back and lost his footing on the slick landing and staggered into the water up to his knees and regained his balance and again pointed the gun at DeSoto Tiger.


Easy
now,” DeSoto Tiger said, laughing and raising a placatory palm. “See how we got you goin? Hell, boy, we just funnin. You dont want to shoot somebody’s just
funnin
.” He stepped forward and put his hand out to John Ashley and said. “Come on out the water.”

He gave his free hand to the Indian and DeSoto Tiger’s fingers
locked around his wrist. Jimmy Gopher called “Hey Johnny” and as he turned to look at him the big one yanked him off-balance and he knew the knife was coming and he lunged sideways and felt the blade nick his neck. The big Indian’s hold was iron and the blade was on its backswing and all in the same instant the boy turned his head aside and shoved the pistol against the Indian and the knife cut through his cheek as he pulled the trigger. DeSoto Tiger grunted and fell away.

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