Thank you, Dr. McKinney, for that introduction, and I want to thank Craig Albin and Leigh Adams for inviting me here to read. It is a profound honor to address the Fifth Ozarks Studies Symposium. In looking back through the previous programs for this symposium and envying you the current, upcoming schedule, I see two things that inspire me tonight. First, those scholars in attendance tonight will likely agree that many symposia in the academy have frequently evolved so narrowly in focus as to become useful and interesting possibly only to the individual scholar delivering a paper at a given moment in the proceedings! Yet that narrowing is not found at all when surveying the history of this gathering. Combing those past programs and the one upcoming and looking as well at the current and back issues of Elder Mountain, the journal of Missouri State-West Plains, I see an inclusiveness, a sweeping curiosity that brings forth scholarship in folklore, folklife, folk song, folk music, foodways, material culture, history, botany, geology, archaeology, anthropology, biography, creative non-fiction, fiction, and poetry. Something wonderful for the Ozarks is happening here, something inclusive and expansive; it makes me wish very much that I was again working at a publisher whose mission was the curation and dissemination of scholarly and creative output on our Ozarks. This symposium is a university press acquisitions editor’s dream.
I feel both humbled and honored as well to see in those programs many, many names of scholars and historians whose books I had the privilege of promoting and learning from as publicist years ago at University of Arkansas Press. I am certain that without learning from and knowing Lynn Morrow and the wonderful work of S.C. Turnbo that he and James Keefe edited, and without learning thoroughly the journal of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft that Milton D. Rafferty edited and published at Arkansas, my novel, Morkan’s Quarry, wouldn’t exist. Somewhere between these two books I found the voice of my narrator. I wanted the narrator of Morkan’s Quarry to be as smart as Schoolcraft without his snobbishness, but I also wanted the narrator to reflect that raw brainwave, cadence of Ozarks speech preserved in Turnbo, and have Silas Turnbo’s love and curiosity for and about all the activities of his people. To be permitted to address this body and read some of my fiction to you, it is a homecoming and an honor for sure.
Any fiction writer native to the Ozarks scribbles in a holler between two defining mountains, two empowering bodies of work that represent if you will the Tom Sauk and Mount Magazine in the landscape of our literary legacy. Both of these mountains have, as a mountain should, challenged me, marked me, inspired me. And I mean that magical Mount Magazine of creation, the novels of Donald Harington; and the rugged, rawly beautiful and ongoing work of your own Daniel Woodrell. Donald Harington I had the blessing of not only reading but knowing, and his encouragement to me at some of me lowest moments in my struggle to publish and keep writing place me forever in his debt. Daniel Woodrell, our Tom Sauk, I know only through what he has written and interviews he has given, and his recent near-death experience with the television cooking impresario Anthony Bourdain—I tell you my wife and I were off the couch and howling at the television set when that truly dangerous man subjected our literary hero to a near mortal tumble and then blithely went on his New York way through Ozarks cuisine. He must be stopped, this Anthony Bourdain!
In all seriousness, reading Woe to Live On changed my art profoundly, and in every subsequent book Woodrell has shown me my people, many at their noir worst, and some, those who by fierce trial earn it, at their dead-level best.
Let us tonight, then, pay homage to these two mountains of Ozarks literature. These two short excerpts I’ll read would never exist without them. Some housekeeping: Let’s turn cellphones to null and void. And since I note some very youthful members of the audience, parents and guardians, be forewarned. In what follows there are up to five four-letter words involving bodily functions, a five-letter word in which a female dog is the vehicle for a metaphor, and one very despicable human takes the Lord’s name in vain. Remove your charges now if you deem them too tender.
First, in this part of Morkan’s Quarry, which was published by Moon City Press, Leighton Morkan, the son in the novel, has met a Yankee officer who ferries prisoners between the Ozarks and Gratiot Prison in St. Louis and Alton Prison in Illinois. And the officer takes pity on Leighton, who is getting by as a Federal Home Guard in Springfield. The Union officer agrees to help him appeal for parole for his father, Michael Morkan, mortally ill in Gratiot. The year is 1864 and while in garrisoned towns such as Springfield there was an iron if not always welcome and rarely if ever merciful Federal order, outside, in our Ozarks was a savagery unparalleled in American history, according to William Garrett Piston and everything you can read in Turnbo’s White River Chronicles. Let’s scale Tom Sauk and see where we get.
~ ~ ~
With a lime-flecked stone wagon to haul his dying father back from prison, if the Yankees would yield him up, two outriders and a teamster left from Springfield—Leighton Morkan, the quarry owner’s son, Elijah Correy once a drill foreman, and Cyrus Browning, a Federal Officer who served the Union by ferrying captives. Telegraph Road was awash with mud, and the dark skies poured on the wagon and its two escorts. At night, they bedded under the wagon and even when the rain stilled, only Correy and Leighton whispered together. Cyrus Browning, the Federal Officer who had taken pity on Leighton, lay on his saddle blanket snoring with his back to them.
“Is he really doing what he says, Correy? Restitution?” Leighton asked, staring at the spot where Cyrus’s snore ground away, rising and falling.
“We both are. Him and me.”
Leighton surveyed the pitch black of the woods around him, the maddening downpour of rain against the wagon bed above them. He risked lighting a cigar. “I want you to do this only because you think it’s right.”
Correy pulled the horseblanket close. “Just let me do it. Who cares for the why?”
When Leighton said nothing more, Correy settled the blanket around himself as if to sleep. After a long time he asked, “What would you do if the war was over, Leighton?”
“Get restitution for every dime Browning’s army took from my father and me.” He smoked. “Keep the rest of his kind the Hell away from me, I guess.”
“If you get your pa back, will you run the quarry?”
“I’d give anything to have just half a day of him bossing me on that stone.”
When the clouds broke, the sun made the forest and road steam. In the heat, they rode with their coats stowed and their tunics undone.
Cyrus brought his horse with Leighton and the wagon. His eyes scoured the woods ahead. “If guerillas find us, you let me do the talking. I bluffed my way out of many a tight one.” Cyrus rode with his back straight, a gloved hand planted on his fat thigh.
“If you get us killed,” Leighton asked, “How’m I to get this restitution from you?”
Scowling, Cyrus nudged his mount ahead of the wagon.
That afternoon they were fording a creek when a dozen horsemen came stepping down the creekbed. They wore Federal coats, but their hair was long and ragged, their beards unkempt. They bristled with pistols and knives.
Leighton halted the wagon and Correy and Cyrus moved their horses next to him.
One of the horsemen edged his mount forward and peered into the wagon bed. Leighton noticed two bullet holes in the chest of the horesman’s Federal coat, shots that would have killed him. He wore captain’s bars.
“What you been hauling?” The captain’s eyes were gray and so level and lifeless they might have been ingots of solder.
“Lime, Captain,” Leighton said.
The captain glanced at Cyrus, then at Correy. “What for?”
Cyrus was about to speak, but Leighton spoke first. “For the dead, sir.”
The captain ran his thumb along his bottom lip. Behind him, his men shifted in their saddles. “Which dead?”
“We buried both, sir.”
Sitting back, the captain looked to his cohorts. “What about them?”
He nodded at Leighton and Correy and Cyrus.
The shortest of the riders spat brown tobacco juice in a drop so quick, Leighton almost missed it. “Skelp them.”
“Aw, shit,” said another.
The captain held up a hand. “You’re a Federal Home Guard, ain’t you?”
Cyrus Browning moved in the saddle, its leather creaking. Correy, too, shifted. Along the horsemen’s tack were draped hemp necklaces bearing tufts of hair and grayed flesh, a Negro’s thumb, a small ear, still pale, on which there hung a delicate golden hoop and the blue flash of its diamond singlet.
“I am a Federal Home Guard because I had to be. My father is Michael Morkan, the man who gave General Price black powder from his quarry.” Leighton pictured in his mind a gar moving through the darkest hole of water.
The captain stroked his chin. “And where you going now with an empty wagon?”
Cyrus sat up straight in the saddle, placed his gloved hand on his thigh. “We two captured this wagon and him as a teamster and are going to find Captain William Clarke and his unit.”
The woods were so quiet that when the wind stirred it blew a heavy drop down from the oaks, popping the leaves as if a bullet were skipping through them. A few of the horsemen jumped at this, then steadied. They turned their eyes on Cyrus.
“We wear these uniforms only as a safeguard against Yankees,” Cyrus said.
The captain scanned the faces of his men, faces that gave no hint of their intentions. Grimy skin, unblinking eyes. “Captain Clarke requested a wagon?”
“Anything for the Cause,” Cyrus said.
Leighton saw Correy shiver.
Parting his coat at the waist, the captain casually drew a knife, and stepped his horse over to Cyrus Browning. The knife shimmered blue, but the captain kept his eyes on Leighton. “Master Morkan, why is this here fellow lying to me?” He put the knife beneath Cyrus’s chin. When his horse stamped, the blade’s tip lifted the fat beneath Cyrus’s beard.
“How can you tell he is?” Leighton asked.
A few of the horsemen narrowed their eyes at Leighton. One grinned, his teeth as brown and filthy as an old hound’s. From the tip of the captain’s knife, a streak of blood scurried down the blade. Cyrus’s eyes danced.
The captain paid this no attention, his gray eyes glimmering for a moment on Leighton. “You tell me how lucky it would be for a fat fool like this to swipe a pair of pants that fits him just right.”
“Am I lying to you?” Leighton asked.
The slightest grin broke the captain’s face, and he removed the knife from Cyrus’s neck. In a flash, his horsemen in the front rank all had revolvers drawn and cocked. Their attentions seemed focused on Cyrus.
The captain moved his horse until he was within inches of Leighton. He looked down on him. “Where are you going with a empty, lime-flecked wagon? And two trembling Yankee cowards for company?”
“I’m going to bargain to get my father out of Gratiot before he dies of consumption.”
The captain regarded Leighton for a bit, then raised his eyebrows at his men. Their faces showed no hint of any leaning.
“For the true word of an honorable man bravely given in the face of sure death and disaster”—He paused and methodically wiped his blade against his britches—“I normally wouldn’t give a squirt of piss in a hand sieve.” He replaced his knife in its scabbard.
His men began to grin. The short one bounced in the saddle as if something delightful were about to begin.
“But this afternoon, I am filled with a spirit akin with the afflicted, with the put upon,” the captain said. He swung his horse to move in rank with his men. “Gentlemen.” He bowed in the saddle. “I give you your lives.”
“Aw, shit,” one of his men said.
They turned their horses and proceeded down the stream.
Cyrus turned stiffly in the saddle, the water dancing yellow bands of light across his sweat-soaked back. He watched the riders disappear, his chest jerking and falling. At his collar, sweat and blood made a chain of red.
“Mr. Browning, you all right?” Leighton asked.
Blinking, Cyrus nodded.
“Can I trust that you will be a better performer when we reach Gratiot?”
Cyrus’s face fell and reddened.
“I don’t mean to shame you,” Leighton said. “I just want to know.”
“I’ll be fine. I swear it.”
And now for the Mount Magazine part.
This next portion is excerpted from what was just published in the wonderful journal edited right here in West Plains, Elder Mountain. This is part of what I’m working on now, the sequel to Morkan’s Quarry. In it the war is over, but the hard times are not. Leighton’s struggling quarry has opened itself to employing freed slaves, freedmen, and paying them in scrip owed to a company store, a very common practice if a quarry didn’t have the use of a large body of prison labor. Let me be frank: I may write about quarries and quarrymen, but I’m under no illusions. A nineteenth-century quarry was no place to whistle while you work.
In this part Leighton has his mind but not his heart set on an acquisition, a tremendous limestone shelf under land owned by a German-American neighbor, a Dutchman. Only the land comes with a daughter in the deed; he’ll have to marry this unhappy codicil. She is Patricia Grünhaagen Weitzer. She knows she is no catch. And she is not so sure this loud lout of an Irishmen named Leighton Morkan is any catch either. Nevertheless they have courted, first and second banns have posted. And tonight, chaperoned by old Claus Weitzer, her father, Leighton is driving her home in a rented surrey. And, at her request, Leighton has just told her a story that turns out to be crass and shocking and involving mostly money. Leighton can be a rather focused fellow. And she has just about had it with him. Sounds like just the right moment to join them, hmm?
~ ~ ~
Patricia stared at Leighton, then looked away to the road where her father halted, letting his horse drink from the creek. Her lips were curved in a sour expression. And Leighton felt for an instant that there was no one in the surrey with him, and out there were only the unfathomable lights of his town and the wind and the yawn of the surrey’s springs.
She leveled her eyes on him as if some judgment locked into place in the cogs of her mind. “I do not understand you, Leighton Morkan,” she said, very slowly. “You are not of my people. You speak the tongue of crass commerce and hard living.” She readjusted her posture, folded her long hands in her lap. “How shall I benefit you? Why do you want this match?”
When he didn’t answer immediately, she looked away from him. In the set of her gray eyes, she appeared focused on some point hundreds of miles down the road, or hundreds of miles inside her.
“Well, I tell you,” he said. “I broke a deathbed promise to my old man, my Da. And I’m figuring in the life I got to lead, with freedmen in a quarry owing their lives to a company store, it’s going to take a ramrod bitch of an earnest woman, an unassailable Yankee Dutch priss to save my soul in this town.”
She regarded him a moment. Then she reared back her fist and pounded him so hard in the arm he dropped the reins. As he sat rubbing his arm, she sneered and seemed poised to deliver another blow.
“I had brothers, you know,” she said, waving to Claus. “I’ll whup you daily. You may ruin my life, you stupid Mick. But never have I felt so good about having proper posture and iron will, if that is what you are meaning.” She touched his arm, and then she smiled. “I hope that raises a knot, you bet.”
“I be damned,” he said. “You tell me a story, then. You saw the war, or some of it in St. Louis. Tell me about that.”
“I was no warrior,” she said.
“We were all in it, gal.”
When the wind rattled the canvas, she looked up beyond the horses to the east as if her St. Louis were shining right past the twilit sycamores. “That much is true,” she said. She took a deep breath and let the air out slowly through her nose, closed her eyes and became suddenly very serene.
“There was an advertisement entered in Anzeiger des Westens just after the Camp Jackson riots about a daughter missing of a German family, the Evertzs, owners of a butcher paper company and makers of the stoves you are familiar with. You own one. In Anzeiger, it was supposed that she had been kidnapped in revenge by Southern sympathizers, who singled her out as one who had aided the Federals in stopping a steamboat from being stolen. Her parents longed for her back, their cherished one.”
She untied her bonnet, let it slip to her shoulders. Her hair was plain and brown, but so well combed and ordered, as if she had washed it just for this evening. In the November twilight it held a luster of red and copper.
“Edith Catherine Evertz was a beautiful girl, a true rarity among German girls, not plump like a muffin, but strung hard like an Osage girl, yet with unblemished skin, white, Baltic white like new meerschaum. And she could swim. I myself saw her swim across the Mississippi from the old quarry to Illinois. A gang of girls from the Lutheran school stood on our side of the water, and she plunged in swimming. Very soon she was gone. There was no seeing her, and we began to weep. We stood there for a long time crying among the stones.
“And then from across the water in Illinois, we saw Edith Catherine Evertz stand and walk from the river. She did not crawl. She did not struggle. She strode, and turned to us, naked and so lovely, with both arms raised. We were little girls then, but we could not swim in the nude without reprimand. After that day I remember being glad that I was made to cover my body whenever I swam. Considering her in her glory, we all were humbled and happy to be modest after that, I think.”
Her accent thickened and grew more German as she became comfortable. The wind stretched the canvas again and stirred Patricia’s hair, and for a moment, with her chin jutting east, her hair tussled, her gray-green eyes bright, she seemed very Bohemian to him, and, for the first time, beautiful. Claus had dismounted and stood staring across the creek as if dismayed by something in the eastern sky.
“Previous to the war,” Patricia went on, “Edith Catherine fell in love with a Scots-Irish boy up from the Ozarks, a gambler and shootist. If this were not perilous enough, the boy was in league with Southern sympathizers in town, and was the first wounded when the Southerners stormed McDowell’s School, which sadly became Gratiot, as you know.
“As a nurse, which I was then—I was so tall, Leighton, even then no one knew my real age—I treated the gambler from the Ozarks, McConnell was his name. McConnell was handsome in the extreme and told me stories of his people, who were kings in Ireland, chieftains who provided mercenaries called Gallowglasses, invincible terrors. And he told me of his love for Edith, and I was won over with the terrible romance of it all. I shuttled messages between them. I was the one that kept their love afire, no easy task. You may not know, but after the riots, after Camp Jackson, St. Louis became a dangerous place for a German girl and Federal nurse. I was spit on in the streets, and once I was hit over the head by a peg lamp, and had to be carried home by one of Franz Sigel’s men.”
With her long fingers, she parted her brown hair, and there at the roots was a fat pink scar against her bluish scalp. Leighton clicked at the horses and without a sound they resumed.
“McConnell’s wound was grave, along the third and fourth rib, and it had gone putrid. In his fever he entrusted to me that on a boat at the landing there was a power-doctor from his home place. You know, a spirit doctor, a root conjurer, one whose specialty was the laying on of hands for wounds gone foul like his. If Edith could convince the power-doctor to steal into the hospital and visit him, McConnell would be saved. Delirious hillbilly palaver, I thought, but he persisted with an intelligence and a faith. Eventually so convinced was I, and so convincing to Edith, that she determined to board the boat and entreat the power-doctor by whatever means, for she knew from McConnell that a power-doctor will take no money, but will demand instead a great gift for his intervention.”
Her brow furrowed and she paused for a moment. “Here my story must rely on what came from the power-doctor himself in a last confession, which I received of him in the hospital where he died from his burns. Edith swam toward the boat, which that night would be taken under steam south by its pilot, who was a traitor and Confederate sympathizer, stolen to be fitted with armor in Memphis. On board she found the power-doctor drinking whiskey in his berth, and she told him of McConnell and his wound.
“The power-doctor was a grimy, bearded old hundswort, a fireman for the boilers. He told her he needn’t go ashore, that by a phrase alone, a power phrase, an incantation known only in your hills, he could send her to McConnell with the spirit force to save him. But that phrase would cost her dearly.”
Slowing the horses, Leighton rested the reins in his hands and watched her. Her face was aglow as if she ran a fever.
“He took Edith Catherine Evertz’s virginity right there in the stink of his cabin.”
With care, Patricia fastened her bonnet back on her head. Far ahead of them, Claus’s horse pawed the ground.
“Just then, when he had finished his business and sat in a stupor, the boat lurched and began huffing at full steam down the river. Edith struggled up. ‘Quickly,’ she said. ‘You must tell me the power phrase.’
“The power-doctor motioned her close, closer. Then he took her cheek in his sooty hands, pressed his wiry beard to her ear.
“‘You,’ he said, ‘are a goddamn Dutch fool.’”
Beneath the surrey wheels, the gravel sizzled.
“Edith was distraught, but she could not cry out—she was a stowaway. She wandered the deck and at last stood by the great paddlewheel, which purled and slammed the water. Watching the glow of her city recede, she knew the boat was steaming South, where no Federal boat had gone since Sumter. The boat, she realized, was being stolen.
“The power-doctor had followed her and held in his mind a word that when spoken in her ear would make her sink like a stone in the river. And at the back of the boat, he waited for his chance, watching the beautiful Edith, the swimmer, stare at the wheel and her city vanishing and her lover, McConnell, dying. Beneath him, the power-doctor could hear the boiler greatly overtaxed and thumping, and his confidence soared.
“When the power-doctor took his last step forward, Edith heard him move. She straightened her shoulders and said, ‘I know your name. I know your name and the truth about you. And I will take your name to St. Peter’s gate, and I will speak your name and your deeds even into the ear of the Almighty.’
“At this, the power-doctor froze with feet that were bolted to the deck. Edith Catherine turned to him, and her lips formed his name but the only sound from them was the gnashing of the paddles and of the pistons and the flames crackling round the boiler.
“Then she leapt from the rail and into the wheel, lodging herself to jam the mechanism to a halt. The boiler blew and the boat was kept from Rebel hands and the burned survivors were brought to the hospital, where I worked, and where I learned the truth about the lonely advertisement which the bereaved Evertz’s ran in Anzeiger des Westens every day for the remainder of the war.”
She sat back and then, trembling, touched her lips as if telling the story had scalded them. Over a hillock made icy blue by the risen moon, the wind pushed black snakes of motion through hissing winter wheat, rapid S shapes rushing uphill then dissipating.
“You never told Evertz?”
She glanced sidelong at him, her lips pursed. “How could I? Their precious daughter, the beauty of German St. Louis, in love with a Rebel hillbilly gambler, defiled and humiliated by a rube from the hinterlands?” She snorted. “Better to let them believe in a miracle for the cost of an advert in Anzeiger.”
Leighton removed the cigar from his mouth. He didn’t believe the half of it—a slip of a girl jamming a sternwheeler; swimming the Mississippi!—but she told it damn well. “You are quite a woman, Patricia Weitzer.”
He raised the reins and was about to start the horses, but he stopped himself and scrutinized her very closely.
As never before she felt her heart pummeled, like a body in the blades of a paddlewheel that was whirling, unstoppable. “My God, Leighton,” she said. She touched his shoulder, rested her head there. “There are times you break my heart with your kindness. And there are many more times I want to knock you over the head.”
His coat was slick against her hair, his shoulder warm and firm. It was a new coat, she realized, smooth along its shoulders, without the gray revenant of quarry dust. And yet still that stink of lime, hardening and chilling the air around him. But rather than being repelled, leaning against him now, she felt stilled, as if some loose part of her had been staked into solid soil that clutched it, drew it home. After a moment, he clucked to the horses, which nodded and pulled them on.
Thank you all very much for listening. If you have questions, I’d be delighted.