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Stu Finley and Quantrill's Burning of Lawrence, Kansas: Western Short Story
It was probably the worst morning I ever got up to but hopefully there won’t be another like it. I’m Stu Finley, former law officer. I moved to Lawrence, Kansas with my wife Rachael because of the abolition movement. Anyhow, this one particular morning I woke up to a sound like thunder and got up to shut the window. I heard several Rebel yells to add to the noise and knew there was trouble out there. Crossing the room my feet tingled with the vibrations of something shaking the house and rattling the window. As the fog of sleep left my brain I realized that our little house was shaking from the beat of horses’ hooves, hundreds of them. Not only did the thundering hooves assault my ears but the sound of gunfire cut through the fog of sleep. My eyes were beginning to smart from the acrid smoke drifting in from downtown Lawrence. I went to the window of our little two story frame house. What I saw was the outline of horses and men lit by the torches they carried. As far as I could see were riders going down the main street. Some stopped and went into the buildings. Obviously they were pillaging whatever they could loot. They torched the buildings when they left. It had to be the raiders led by William Clark Quantrill from nearby Missouri.
Truthfully, I believe we were in our own little Civil War along the border as a mirror reflection of the bigger war that was engulfing the nation. Rachael, that’s my wife, and I came to live in Lawrence because she somehow wanted to be part of the anti-slavery movement. Lawrence had been established by an anti-slavery organization. This is one reason it is a target. Oddly though my pretty wife, with her long brown hair, cheerful disposition and her preference for light blue dresses and bright sunbonnets would not strike you as a militant supporting a cause. She was also against guns. In fact, it’s the reason I gave up my job as a deputy marshal. She got me to agree to make my living in some way that didn’t involve guns and I got her to agree that we could use guns, if necessary, to defend ourselves. I even got her to learn to shoot a rifle. Some of that self-defense looked about to be needed as I saw men being dragged out of their houses and shot by the raiders.
From what I have heard about Quantrill, he had a chivalrous streak from his southern heritage. He would kill every man in town if he could but not women and children. From what I could see from the window men were being killed while their families were being forced to watch. It might be true that the raiders would leave the women alone but I didn’t entirely trust what I heard. Even if the leader did not approve, in the heat of the attack and the blood lust some of the men might kill the women anyhow and maybe molest and rape them. I went to wake Rachel but she was already getting dressed. There was a small wooded area behind our house and I told Rachael to take the rifle and hide in the woods. In the meantime I went to see if I could help any of the neighbors. I was armed with my revolver and had an extra supply of ammunition. Keeping out of sight as much as I could, I fired at some of the riders and worked my way over to the neighbor’s house down the street a ways. The frame house much like our own was in flames. The owner and his oldest son were being held and forced down by three gunmen. The wife and other children were held at gunpoint by two others.
I got the drop on the ones holding the men but another must have snuck up behind me and knocked me out. Awhile latter I woke up with an aching head and my hands tied. My neighbor was shot while I was forced to look on. “Your turn is coming, Finley!” one of the gunmen said. He raised his gun and pointed it at my neighbor’s son. Then a shot rang out and the gunman dropped to the ground. “Drop your guns or I aim to keep shooting.” I think Rachael was serious and meant what she said. There was my beautiful wife Rachael holding the rifle.
“We wouldn’t hurt you or the other women, ma’am,” a gunman said.
“You aren’t hurting us women?” she said. “What do you think it’s like to stand by and watch as our menfolk are helplessly gunned down, those we love and worked and sacrificed with shot down?”
Those particular raiders left without weapons. The war eventually ended but not the careers of the guerrilla fighters like Quantrill and his men. Some were heard of for years after, such as Jesse James and Cole Younger. The aftermath of the war lasted for many years as these men used what they learned in the war to rob trains and banks.
I think Rachael learned that idealism sometimes has to give in to realities.
Copyright 2012 Don Hoglund
© 2012 Don A. Hoglund