Cover image for Bone by bone : a novel
Bone by bone : a novel
Matthiessen, Peter.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Random House, [1999]

Physical Description:
410 pages : map ; 24 cm
General Note:
Map on lining papers.

Sequel to: Killing Mister Watson and Lost Man's River.
Format :


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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
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Peter Matthiessen is one of America's most respected writers and one of the very few National Book Award winners nominated for both fiction and nonfiction.Bone by Boneis arguably his finest novel. Although it stands alone, it is also the capstone of the Watson trilogy, which has been described by the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review as "one of the grand projects of contemporary literature."          In the critically acclaimedKilling Mister Watson, Peter Matthiessen brilliantly re-created the life of the legendary E. J. Watson, who was gunned down by a posse of fearful neighbors before World War I. In his masterful sequel, Lost Man's River, Matthiessen returned us to the lawless frontier of the Florida Everglades, where Watson's son Lucius sought to untangle the knot of truth and lies surrounding his notorious father and his strange death. And now, in Bone by Bone, the story unfolds in its final form, in the voice of the enigmatic Mister Watson himself.      From his early days as an impoverished child of the Reconstruction era, through the unjust loss of his inherited plantation, to his bloody death in front of his loving wife and children, E. J. Watson was capable of vision and ingenuity, mercy and courage, and sudden, astonishing violence. He was an entrepreneurial sugarcane farmer in the uncharted waterways of the Everglades, an exile in the Indian territories, a devoted father, and, allegedly, the killer of numerous men. He was forced to flee home and family time after time.      InBone by Bone, Peter Matthiessen has accomplished the writer's ultimate challenge: He has laid bare the    humanity at the heart of a dangerous and controversial figure and, in doing so, has added to our understanding of the abiding mystery of human nature.

Author Notes

Peter Matthiessen was born in Manhattan, New York on May 22, 1927. He served in the Navy at Pearl Harbor. He graduated with a degree in English from Yale University in 1950. It was around this time that he was recruited by the CIA and traveled to Paris, where he became acquainted with several young expatriate American writers. In the postwar years the CIA covertly financed magazines and cultural programs to counter the spread of Communism. While in Paris, he helped found The Paris Review in 1953.

After returning to the United States, he worked as a commercial fisherman and the captain of a charter fishing boat. His first novel, Race Rock, was published in 1954. His other fiction works include Partisans, Raditzer, Far Tortuga, and In Paradise. His novel, Shadow Country, won a National Book Award. His novel, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, was made into a movie.

He started writing nonfiction after divorcing his first wife. An assignment for Sports Illustrated to report on American endangered species led to the book Wildlife in America, which was published in 1959. His travels took him to Asia, Australia, South America, Africa, New Guinea, the Florida swamps, and beneath the ocean. These travels led to articles in The New Yorker as well as numerous nonfiction books including The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness, Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons of Stone Age New Guinea, Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark, The Tree Where Man Was Born, and Men's Lives. The Snow Leopard won the 1979 National Book Award for nonfiction. He died from leukemia on April 5, 2014 at the age of 86.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Matthiessen's conclusion to the Watson trilogy--Killing Misterr Watson (1991) and Lost Man's River (1997)--is a magnificent tour de force in which Watson himself takes a turn at recounting his story and, in the process, resolves some of the questions raised in the earlier novels about his mysterious past (the events leading to the murder of Belle Starr, for instance). Matthiessen has "reimagined" Watson, a bigger-than-life, turn-of-the-century character who is a legend in the Everglades of southwest Florida, using some historical fact and plenty of "intuition" to tell a tale that could very well be true. A sometimes successful cane-grower and budding capitalist, Watson could never shake off a reputation as a killer and a desperado, even after being acquitted of several murders. Trouble had a way of finding Watson, although it could be said that it was Watson who had a knack for finding trouble. Murder seemed to follow him around from one banishment to the next. A foul temper, occasional drunken sprees, and the odd corpse didn't help matters, ultimately inciting a mob to confront him in a veritable climax to a hard and tragic life. And while Watson admits that the so-called codes of loyalty in the Wild West are really nothing more than "dog-eat-dog and Devil-take-the-hindmost," he personifies an idiosyncratic, almost admirable morality. Misunderstood, sometimes violent, and not without the prejudices of the day, the fatally flawed Watson, and frontiersmen with vision like him, did indeed contribute to building a mighty nation out of the chaos of wilderness. A worthy companion to the work of Wallace Stegner and Cormac McCarthy. --Benjamin Segedin

Publisher's Weekly Review

This is the conclusion and capstone to Matthiessen's remarkable trilogy about the mysterious E.J. Watson, which began with Killing Mr. Watson (1991) and continued with Lost Man's River (1997). In those novels, the sons of the legendary southwest Florida entrepreneur and outlaw were engaged, at a time closer to our own, in digging out the man's story, trying to separate certifiable fact from the miasma of gossip and legend. This time, Matthiessen has given us Watson's own story in Watson's own words, and it is a book of heroic, even tragic, proportions. That story goes right back to Civil War days in South Carolina, and the terrible childhood E.J. endured at the hands of his drunken, brutal and rascally father and his remote and vindictive mother. Thus were laid the seeds of the later outbursts of violence and rage that so frequently punctuated what should have been a promising life. For Watson, as he portrays himself, is ambitious, hardworking and ever ingenious at figuring ways to make the remote Florida Everglades shores yield richesÄa true pioneer spirit. He also makes clear, however, the fearful price paid for the development of wild America, not only the despoilation of the hauntingly evoked natural beauty but also the brutal disregard of any kind of human rights among the poor blacks and chain gang prisoners who bore the brunt of the exploiters' drive for wealth and power. Seldom has the profound and unthinking racism of the time (the narrative spans roughly 1860-1910) been so unsparingly presented. The narrative, though long and crowded with often bewilderingly interrelated characters, is also packed with dramatic action: many murders (including that of the legendary Belle Starr, when E.J. is temporarily resident in Indian Territory), ambushes, lynchings, drownings, jailings, a trial and a spectacular hurricane. Always Watson is striving for the respectability of wealth, always he is brought down by the conniving of his kinfolk, his tempers, his love of strong drink and his tormented inability to tolerate the lying and hypocrisy he finds everywhere around him. He is a monumental creation, and in bringing him and his amazing period to life with such vigor Matthiessen has created an unforgettable slice of deeply true and resonant American history. Author tour. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The conclusion to Matthiessen's trilogy on Mr. Watson, Everglades entrepreneur and, perhaps, murderer. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Oh Mercy, cries the Reader. What? Old Edgefield again? It must be Pandemonium itself, a very District of Devils! -Parson Mason L. Weems Edgefield Court House Edgefield Court House, which gave its name to the settlement which grew from a small crossroads east of the Savannah River, is a white-windowed brick edifice upon a hill approached by highroads from the four directions, as if drawing the landscape all around to a point of harmony and concord. The building is faced with magisterial broad steps on which those in pursuit of justice may ascend from Court House Square to the brick terrace. White columns serve as portals to the second-story courtroom, and an arched sunrise window over the door fills that room with austere light, permitting the magistrate to freshen his perspective by gazing away over the village roofs to the open countryside and the far hills, blue upon blue. Early in the War, a boy of six, I was borne lightly up those steps on the strong arm of my father. On the courthouse terrace, I gazed with joy at this  tall man in Confederate uniform who stood with his hand shielding his eyes, enjoying the fine prospect of the Piedmont, bearing away toward the northwest and the Great Smoky Mountains. In those nearer distances lay the Ridge, where a clear spring appeared out of the earth to commence its peaceful slow descent through woodland and plantation to the Edisto River. This tributary was Clouds Creek, where I was born. On that sunny day when we climbed to the terrace, my father, Elijah Daniel Watson, rode away to war and childhood ended. As a "Daughter of Edgefield," his wife Ellen, with me and my little sister, waved prettily from the courthouse steps as the First Edgefield Volunteers assembled on the square. Her handsome Lige, wheeling his big roan and flourishing a crimson pennant on his saber, pranced in formation in the company of cavalry formed and captained by his uncle Tillman Watson. Governor Andrew Pickens saluted the new company from the terrace, and so did Mama's cousin Selden Tilghman, the first volunteer from our Old Edgefield District and its first casualty. Called to the top step to inspire his townsmen, the young cavalry officer used one crutch to wave the blue flag of the Confederacy. Hurrah, hurrah, for Southern rights, hurrah! Hurrah for the bonnie blue flag that flies the single star! Governor Pickens roared, "May the brave boys of Edgefield defend to the death the honor and glory of our beloved South Carolina, the first great sovereign state of the Confederacy to secede from the Yankee Union!" And Cousin Selden, on some mad contrary impulse, dared answer the Governor's exhortation by crying out oddly in high tenor voice, "May the brave boys of Edgefield defend to their deaths our sovereign right to enslave the darker members of our human species." The cheering faltered, then died swiftly to a low hard groan like an ill wind. Voices catcalled rudely in the autumn silence. Most citizens gave the wounded lieutenant the benefit of the doubt, concluding that he must have been dead drunk. He had fought bravely and endured a grievous wound, and he soon rode off to war again, half-mended. Clouds Creek When the War was nearly at an end, and many slaves were escaping to the North, a runaway was slain by Overseer Claxton on my great-uncle's plantation at Clouds Creek. Word had passed the day before that Dock and Joseph were missing. At the racketing echo of shots from the creek bottoms, I yelped in dismay and dropped my hoe and lit out across the furrows toward the wood edge, trailing the moaning of the hounds down into swamp shadows and along wet black mud margins, dragged at by thorns and scratched by tentacles of old and evil trees. I saw Dock first-dull stubborn Dock, lashed to a tree-then the overseer whipping back his hounds, then two of my great-uncles, tall and rawboned on rawboned black horses. The overseer's pony shifted in the shadows. Behind the boots and milling legs, the heavy hoof stamp and horse shivers, bit jangle and creak of leather, lay a lumped thing in earth-colored homespun. I was panting so hard that my wet eyes could scarcely make out the broken shoes, the legs hard-twisted in the bloody pants, the queer gray thing stuck out askew from beneath the chest-how could that thing be the limber hand that had offered nuts or berries, caught my mistossed balls, set young "Mast' Edguh" on his feet after a fall? All in a bunch, the fingers had contracted like the toes of a stunned bird, closing on nothing. At daybreak Mr. Claxton, on the lookout, had seen a small smoke rising from a far corner of the swamp. His horse was saddled and he did not wait for help, just loosed his hounds and rode on down there. The runaways had fled his dogs, obliging him to shoot and wound them both-that was his story. He was marching them home when this damned Joseph sagged down like a croker sack, pissing his pants. "I told that other'n over yonder, Shut up your damn moanin. Told him, Stand that son-bitch on his feet, I ain't got all day. Done my duty, Major, but it weren't no use." Major Tillman Watson and Elijah Junior sat their horses, never once dismounted. My great-uncles chewed on Claxton's story. The dead boy's wet homespun was patched dark and stuck with dirt, and a faint piss stink mixed with dog smell and the sweet musk of horses. "Wet his damn pants," the overseer repeated to no one in particular, awaiting the judgment of those mounted men. He was a closed-face man, as hard as wire. "You have no business here," Great-Uncle Elijah Junior told me, not because night was coming on or because I was too young to witness this grim sight but because I was certainly neglecting whichever chore I had abandoned without leave. To the overseer he never spoke, confining his exasperation to muttered asides in the direction of his older brother concerning "the waste of a perfectly good nigger." Major Tillman Watson, home from war, seemed more disturbed by Claxton's viciousness. "Dammit, Z.P., you trying to tell us these boys was aiming to outrun them hounds of yours? How come you had to go and pull the trigger?" He was backing his big horse, reining its wild-eyed head away toward home. "Close his eyes, goddamnit." He was utterly fed up. "Go fetch a cart." "I reckon he'll keep till mornin," Claxton muttered, sullen. Major Tillman frowned down on me, in somber temper. "What do you want here, boy?" (Badly enough to run out here barefoot, that's what he meant.) "It's almost dark," he called, half-turned in the saddle. "You're not afraid out here? All by yourself?" "Yessir. I mean, nosir." "Nosir." The Major grunted. "You're a Watson anyways, I'll say that much. All the same, you best go on home while there's still light, and don't go worrying your poor mama." The old soldier rode away through the dark trees. "Tell them niggers bring the wagon if they want him!" the overseer bawled, not wishing to be heard. Receiving no answer, he swore foully. "Niggers'll come fetch him or they won't-that sure ain't my job." He did not bother to shut the black boy's eyes. "Too bad it weren't this monkey here," he rasped, stripping the bonds from the wounded Dock, who yelped with each rough jerk of the hemp line. Though Claxton had grumped in my direction, he had paid me no attention until this moment. "What in the name of hell you want? Ain't never seen a dead nigger before?" He climbed gracelessly onto his horse, cracked his hide whip like a mule skinner. "Nosir, I ain't goin to no damn court, cause I ain't broke no law. Just done my job." The slave stumbled forward, with the man on horseback and lean hounds behind. In single file against the silver water of the swamp, they moved away into the dusk. "You aim to leave him here alone?" I called. Out in the swamp all night? All by himself? With the owls and snakes and varmints?-that's what I meant. It sounded absurd, and Claxton snorted, cursing his fate because he dared not curse a Watson, even a Watson as young and poor as me. In the dusk, the forest gathered and drew close. Behind me, the body lay in wait. Alone with a woodland corpse at nightfall, I was scared. I peered at the earthen lump between my fingers, retreating from its great loneliness. In the dusk he seemed to withdraw, as if already rotting down amongst the roots and ferns, skin melding with the black humus of the swamp, as if over the night this bloodied earth must take him back-as if all of his race were doomed to be buried here in darkness, while white folks were laid in sunny meadows in the light of Heaven. On long-gone sunny Sabbath mornings of those years before the War, before the restless and ungrateful Africans were banished from our churches, I would run with the black children into the bare-earth yards back in the quarters, scattering dusty pigs and scraggy roosters to make room for hide-and-seek and tag and jump-rope games, or go crowding into Aunt Cindy's cramped dark cabin to be lifted and hugged and fed molasses biscuits, fatback or clabber, hominy, sometimes wild greens. And in those slave cabins on a Sunday morning I was always looked after by this sweet-voiced Joseph, who went out of his way to make the white child welcome. Now that shining face had thickened like a mask with its stopped blood, and bloodied humus crusted its smooth cheek. I stood transfixed by the glare in those brown eyes. The dead I had seen before, even as a child, but not the killed. Until Mama protested, our cousin Selden, home from war, had related philosophically that the corpse of a human being slain in violence and left broken where it fell looked nothing at all like the sedate family cadaver, eyes closed and pale hands folded in its bed or coffin, scrubbed and perfumed, combed and suited up in Sunday best for the great occasion. Only those, said he, who touched their lips to the cool forehead one last time knew that faint odor of cold meat left too long. In violent death, Cousin Selden said, even one's beloved-and here he looked sardonically at Mama, whose husband he "cordially" disliked-looked like a strange thing hurled down out of Heaven. Cousin Selden was well-read and liked to talk in that peculiar manner. Not that black Joseph had been my "beloved," I don't mean that. Joseph was guilty and the laws were strict, and had he lived, he would have been flogged half to death, as  Dock would be. But Joseph had been kind to me, he had been kind. I was still young and could not help my unmanly feelings. Damn you, Joseph-that yell impelled me forward, for in a moment I was kneeling by his side, trying to pull him straight, trying to fold his arms across his chest. The dead are heavy, as I learned that day, and balky, too. He would not lay still the way I wanted him. The brown eyes, wide in the alarm of dying, were no longer moist with life but dry and dull. I was terrified of his company, I had to go. The forehead, was drained of blood and life, like the cool and heavy skin of a smooth toadstool. Drawing the eyelids down, my finger flinched, so startled was it by how delicate they were, and how naturally and easily they closed. Where the shock lay was not in the strange temperature but in the protruding firmness of the orb beneath, under thin petals-I had never imagined that human eyes were so hard. A moment later, one lid rose-only a little, very very slowly-in a kind of squint. I don't recall how I reached my feet, that's how quick I jumped and ran. Joseph! I'm sorry! To the horseman, I hollered, Wait! "Just goes to show you," the overseer was muttering as I caught up. "There is such a thing as too much nigger spirit." I did not ask what that might mean, and anyway, I doubted if he knew. As for my fear, it was nothing more than common dread of swamps and labyrinths, of dusk, of death-the shadow places. Yet poor black Joseph sprawled unburied in the roots, losing all shape and semblance to the coming night, was an image etched in my mind's eye all my life. My grandfather Artemas Watson had died in 1841 at the age of forty. His second wife, Lucretia Daniel, had predeceased him three years earlier, at age thirty, and my father-Elijah Daniel Watson-born in 1834, was therefore an orphan at an early age. However, the family held considerable wealth. Grandfather Artemas had owned sixty-nine slaves, with like numbers distributed among his brothers. Upon his death, his estate was mostly left to his eldest son, my uncle James, who became my father's keeper. In 1850, at age fifteen, Papa still held real estate and property in the amount of $15,000, by no means a negligible sum, but he seems to have squandered most of his inheritance by the time he married Mama five years later, mostly on gambling and horses. The marriage of a Clouds Creek Watson was duly recorded in the Edgefield Marriage Records: Elijah D. Watson and Ellen C. Addison, daughter of the late John A. Addison, January 25, 1855. My maternal grandfather, Colonel Addison, had commissioned the construction of the courthouse from which the village took its name (and in which his unlucky daughter's husband, in the years to come, would make regular appearances as a defendant). His pretty Ellen was an orphan, her mother having died at age twenty-five, but she had been a ward in a rich household-she was given her own slave girl, and piano lessons-until the day she was married off to young Elijah. They had little in common other than the fact that their fathers had died in 1841, and both were orphans. Four years after his bugled glory on the courthouse square, Private Lige Watson, having lost his horse, walked home from war. Papa told us of the sack and burning of Columbia by General Sherman, evoking the capital's lone chimneys, the black skeletons of its noble oaks. Astonished that Clouds Creek and Edgefield Court House had been left untouched, he said, "You folks at home know nothing of real war." We had known something of real war, of course, having scoured bare sustenance from our poor remnant of the Artemas Plantation. The rest had been bought or otherwise acquired by Great-Uncle Elijah Junior, who early in the War had assumed our mortgage, extending modest help to the absent soldier's wife and children. As a precaution against his nephew's famous temper, he let our family remain in the dilapidated house and raise such food and cotton as we might. However, my mother, burdened with little Minnie, could not manage alone, not even with my eight-year-old hard labor, so my great-uncle sent over the sullen Dock, knowing Dock would run off at the first chance, which he did, this time for good. Next, he sent us old Tap Watson, who had grown up on the Artemas Plantation, since Tap was going to be lost to him in any case, the way the War was going. As the father of the slain boy Joseph, Tap no longer worked well under Overseer Claxton, who had been too quick on the trigger, all agreed. That feller could never see eye to eye with niggers, just can't tolerate 'em, sighed Great-Uncle Tillman, but he scares some work out of 'em, I'll give him that. Tap Watson was a small blue-black man of taciturn and truculent disposition, but he had not forgotten the kindness received from his late Master Artemas, that vague and gentle farmer who had owned Tap's parents and from his deathbed had set this old man free. Unlike his boy, Tap preferred slavery to Freedom-If Freedom never comes, we has our jobs, y'know, somethin to eat-and when it came, he had cashed it in by selling himself to Elijah Junior for cold coin. Slave or freedman, Tap had never missed a day of work-such was his boast and pride-not even the day after Joseph died down in the swamp. Earlier, Tap had warned his boy that runaways deserved dire punishment, but hearing the news, Tap had stopped dead in his tracks and fixed his son's slayer with a baleful yellow eye, only turning away when the overseer hitched his whip by way of warning. Ordered to leave that old man be, Claxton folded his arms and remained right where he was, to make sure Tap finished slopping the hogs before taking time off to hitch a mule to the wagon and go fetch the body. Never again would Tap acknowledge the overseer's presence. Even when the shouting Claxton pointed at his eyes, those yellowed eyes out of Africa looked past him. For these reasons, Great-Uncle Elijah Junior was happy to be rid of that old man. Besides Joseph, Tap had a second child, this one with Cinderella, Mama's slave girl, now the grown woman whom we called Aunt Cindy. Since all of the Watson plantations at Clouds Creek adjoined one another, these darkies  had no need to change dwellings when Tap came back to us. Even so, Mama ordered them to marry. When I told Papa how Mr. Claxton had killed Joseph, Papa said roughly, "Damn nigger runaway. Deserved no better." He was turning bitter, he was very restless. Returned from the War impoverished, now close to thirty, Papa had been obliged to start all over as a poor relation of stern prosperous kin who prided themselves on self-sufficiency and independence. A tenant farmer on the Artemas Plantation, he was paying a third of all crops raised to his uncle Elijah Junior. But in the lean aftermath of war, struggling to grow cotton with his wife and children, he slid into heavy debt to his own clan. As a war veteran, disarmed and disenfranchised, he would rail against the injustice of his fate, yet he would not tolerate Mama's criticisms of Elijah Junior. Indeed he acclaimed his uncle's "Watson thrift" even when this dour trait caused his own household to go hungry. (It was all very well about Watson thrift, his wife would say, but how did that differ from hard-hearted stinginess?) With a genuine and gallant optimism, my father pledged that one day, with God on his right hand and his strong son on his left, he would reclaim his family land, restoring the line of Artemas Watson to Clouds Creek. Carried away, he roughed my hair with vigor. Though my eyes watered, I wanted my soldier daddy to be proud of his son, and I did not whine. For a time Lige Watson enjoyed oratorical support from his aunt Sophia, eldest daughter of the late patriarch, Elijah Senior, "the Old Squire," whom she liked to refer to in her brothers' presence as "the ramrod of this family." Sophia Boatright was a big top-heavy woman with a baying voice, and her favorite topic-indeed, her only topic, Mama whispered-was the Watson clan, all the way back to the English Watsons (or Welsh or Scots or perhaps Ulstermen, sniffed Mama), those staunch landowners and men of means who had sailed in the sixteenth century to New York City, then traveled on to Olde Virginia to claim their tract of unfettered, free, and fertile land. The first New World patriarch was Lucius Watson Esquire of Amelia County in Virginia, whose sons would move on to South Carolina as early as 1735, when their first land grants were registered at Charleston-well before the arrival of these Edgefield Court House clans who gave themselves such airs today, Aunt Sophia assured us. A son of those forefathers was Michael Watson, a famous Indian-fighter who chastised the Cherokees and later led a citizens' militia against highwaymen and outlaws who had foully murdered his father and a brother. Meanwhile, he acquired a tract of six thousand acres on Clouds Creek, which was consolidated as clan property when he married Martha Watson, his first cousin. (Here Mama dared roll her eyes for her children's benefit, screwing her forefinger into her temple to convey the lunacy caused by inbreeding, and sending our little Min into terrified giggles.) During the Revolutionary War, Michael Watson had served as a field captain of Pickens's Brigade, a mounted company armed with rifles and muskets for the mortal fight against the "King-Lovers" or Tories. At one point, he was captured and imprisoned at Columbia, where according to one reputable account-which Aunt Sophia enjoyed reading out loud to the clan-Martha Watson Watson, who was "small and beautiful, with wonderfully thick long hair . . . wound a rope around her body and carried files in her hair for the use of Captain Watson, [who] made his escape." (Here my mother might pretend to yank and struggle desperately with her own hair, risking what she called "the Great Wrath of the Watsons" with her sly whisperings: Captain Michael, darlin? Mah handsome he-ro? I have brought you this nice li'l ol' file so you can saw those bars in twain and make good your escape! So hold your horses, Captain dear, whilst I unsnarl this pesky thing from mah gloe-rious hay-uh!) In an early history of South Carolina, our famous ancestor had been described as "a determined and resentful man who consulted too much the counsels which these feelings suggested." From Tory gaol, the choleric Captain had rushed straight back into battle, and was fatally wounded in the forest swamps on a branch of the south Edisto. Having turned over his command to Lieutenant Billy Butler, our ancestor composed himself and "died for Liberty." "Those Edgefield families prate about their Ôaristocracy'!" Sophia Boatright scoffed one day. "How about our Clouds Creek aristocracy? The first Watsons held royal grants for two decades before Andrew Pickens came down out of the hills, and they owned more land. It's just that our land is farther from the Court House."  ("Nevertheless," Mama might murmur to my flustered father, who could not hush her forcefully in a family gathering, "it was called Pickens's Brigade, not Watson's Brigade, isn't that true, dear? And that handsome young lieutenant became General Butler, father of General Matthew Calbraith Butler, who married the exquisite Maria Pickens, whose father was a general, too. Has there ever been a General Watson, dear?" Such remarks would be made just loud enough to stiffen the black whiskers of Aunt Sophia.) Captain Michael's only son, Elijah Julian, would become the landed patriarch of the Watson clan. Through industry and force of character, the Old Squire acquired eleven plantations, one for each of his eleven children. However, "his favorite was always his first daughter, Sophia," declared Aunt Sophia. Among his seven sons, besides Tillman and Artemas and Elijah Junior, was another Michael, whose meddling widow, Great-Aunt Tabitha, was held responsible by both my parents for their unhappy marriage. "I do declay-uh, I've been bred up on ouah family traditions," Aunt Sophia liked to say, with the shuffle and shift of bombazine and feathers that signaled the onset of another anecdote which celebrated her own insights and accomplishments. One day when the Yankees ordered their black militia to drill on her broad lawn, the Ramrod's gallant eldest daughter had strode forth shouting, "Now you monkeys just stop all that darn foolishness and go on home!" which of course they did. We are no Eire-ish nor Sco-atch, nor are we Enga-lish-thus would the Old Squire tease his proud Sophia whenever she put on English airs, according to the recollections of her siblings. With Border folk, he would point out, who could determine who was what, since none had agreed for seven hundred years where the Borders lay? No, the Old Squire had mused, rapping his pipe. We belong to none of those benighted races. We are sons of Watt, we are Border Watsons, nothing more and nothing else. But when pressed, the Old Squire would concede that the clan was Welsh. Mama's cousin Selden Tilghman, a young bachelor and scholar who lived alone on his family plantation, known as Deepwood, held the opinion that those early New World Watsons had probably turned up first in the port of Philadelphia, in the shiploads of Highland refugees from seven centuries of war and famine in the Border counties. These clannish and unruly Celts (as Cousin Selden delighted in portraying them) had horrified the Quakers with their outlandish speech and uncouth disrespect for all authority. Their women were infamous for short-cropped skirts, bare legs, and loose bodices, while the men mixed unabashed poverty and filth with a raw arrogance and a furious pride which hastened to avenge the smallest offense, denigration, or injustice. Worse, they did this in the name of "honor," a virtue which more mannerly colonials would never concede to such rough persons. They were urged westward toward the back country of the Pennsylvania Colony, in the hope that wild peoples as barbaric as themselves might do away with them. The Borderers were a suspicious breed of feuders and avengers, cold-eyed and mistrustful of all strangers, or any who interfered with them in the smallest way. They fought their way through Indian territory with fatalistic indifference to hard faring and danger, spreading south like a contagion along the Appalachians into western Virginia and the Carolina uplands. Many were drovers of cattle and hogs, throwing up low cabins of wood or stones packed tight with earth, hunting and gathering the abounding game and fish, trading meat where possible for grain and iron, boozing and bragging and breeding, ever breeding. Scattering homesteads and ragged settlements south and west to the Great Smokies, massacring Cherokees wherever fortune smiled, they strengthened and perpetuated their headstrong clans without relinquishing one dour trait or archaic custom. When times were hard, not a few would resort to traditional Border occupations-reivers and cattle rustlers, highwaymen and common bushwhackers. Or so, at least, Celtic life was represented by Cousin Selden, whose mother had come from the Cavalier gentry of Maryland, and whose amused, ironic views, spiced up by Mama, she passed on to her children in their father's presence. The Border Watsons were essentially of this same breed, Selden implied-quarrelsome fighters disrespectful of all authority, obstreperous rebels against Church and Crown, and as careless of good manners as of hardship and rude weather, not to speak of all the finer sentiments of the human heart. Papa detested Cousin Selden's casual disparagement of the Clouds Creek Watsons. Though no match for his tart Ellen, he defended his family with a heartfelt rage. If the Watsons were mere Border rabble, he might bellow, then how would "precious Selden" explain their early prosperity in the New World? For whether by grant from the South Carolina Colony or Crown patent from King George, enlarged by land purchase, the first Carolina Watsons had acquired sixteen square miles-sixteen square miles!-of the best land in the Clouds Creek country on the north fork of the Edisto River even before that mud crossroads-not known until a century later as Edgefield Court House-would arise. What was more, my grandmother Mary Lucretia Daniel had been a descendant of Martha Jefferson, President Jefferson's great-aunt. "You have a long proud heritage to uphold," Papa exclaimed with passion, tossing his head dismissively in his wife's direction. For his violent abuse and abysmal failure as a father and provider-for her own exhaustion and privation-the former Miss Ellen Catherine Addison repaid her husband with sly laughter at those "darned old Watsons," as she called them. The Addison family, she would imply, was better educated, more refined, and in every way more suitable than the Watsons to consort with the aristocracy at Edgefield Court House, not to speak of Charleston, far less England. Lige Watson, in turn, would refer to his wife's "traitorous" Tory antecedents and their "lily-livered longing," as he called it, to be accepted by the Pickenses and Butlers, the Brookses and the Hammondses. "Spare your poor children these vulgarities, I beseech you," his wife might protest, to hone her point that he was not a gentleman. Ellen Catherine Addison, she would remind us, had been born into aristocratic circumstances, however straitened and reduced. It was scarcely her fault that her feckless husband had sold off all of her inheritance excepting her mother's set of the Waverley novels, which was missing her own favorite, Ivanhoe. "To think," she would sigh, cocking her pretty head, "that I once thought of Elijah Watson as my Ivanhoe!" Gladly would she play the piano for her husband-"to soothe your savage breast, dear," she might add with a girlish peal-if such an instrument were to be found in a Watson house, or fit into a Watson house, for that matter, since for all their prosperity those Clouds Creek farmers, foregoing the large white-columned mansions of the Edgefield gentry, were mainly content with large two-story versions of the rough-sawed timber cabins of their yeomen forebears. "Yeomen?" Thus would my mother prattle for our benefit. We scarcely heard her, so intent were our wide eyes on the enraged and dangerous father in the chimney corner. Increasingly, Papa would jeer at the emancipated Negroes, who could find no work around the towns and villages. In this past year of 1867, under the Reconstruction Act, all blacks had become wards of the Union government, to be protected henceforth as citizens and voters, and a Yankee detachment had been sent to Edgefield to enforce their rights. In a district where blacks outnumbered whites, and where white soldiers had been disenfranchised, the terrible hatred of Reconstruction would find its scapegoat in black freedmen, especially those "woods niggers" or "road walkers" who wandered the mud roads between settlements, awaiting fulfillment of the Union's promise of "forty Confederate acres and a mule." These ragged hordes were perceived by the ex-soldiers as a menace to white womanhood and were commonly terrorized and beaten, sometimes worse. Colonel Selden Tilghman, waving a copy of a Freedmen's Bureau report that murdered blacks were being found along the road or in the woods or swamps, had spoken publicly in favor of federal relocation of all freedmen from our Edgefield District, though he knew well that our local planters were counting on near-slave labor to survive. The crowd heard him out only because he had been a war hero with battlefield promotions, but finally the more bellicose began to shout that Tilghman was a traitor, war hero or no. Wasn't it true that he had freed his slaves before the War in defiance of Carolina laws against manumission, and openly endorsed Damn Yankee Abolition? Wasn't he the officer who had interfered with the execution of black Union soldiers imprisoned at Fort Pillow before General Nathan Bedford Forrest rode up and commanded the killing to resume? ("Blood and Honor, sir! In Virginia they take no nigger prisoners, and nor shall we!") Tilghman's proposal never reached a vote, and Tilghman, never to be forgiven, was "hated out" of the community, in that hoary Celtic custom of assailing the outcast with hisses, blows, abuse, or stony silence. Next came the theft and slaughter of his stock, the burning barn, the threat of death, until at last the poor man fled the region or destroyed himself, "all because he had spoken out for Christian decency," said Mama, very upset that, for her children's safety, she dared not speak herself. Cousin Selden had the courage of his isolation. Refusing to abandon the old family manse, he remained at Deepwood as a recluse even after the Regulators passed word that no one, white or black, should be seen going there or entering its lane. Within a few years, its roads and fields were sadly overgrown and the house had withdrawn and shrunk down like a dying creature behind the climbing shrouds of vine and creeper. Deepwood Lige Watson rode with a rifle in a saddle scabbard, a revolver in his belt, a hidden Bowie knife. Mostly, said he, the Regulators made their patrols on Saturday nights of the full moon-Major Will Coulter, Z. P. Claxton, Lige Watson, and two younger men, Toney and Lott, were the regulars. Other men would join when needed, and an indifferent nigger on a mule to tend the horses. On what I thought must surely be the happiest day in all my life, Papa swung me up behind him on his big horse. "Come along and you will see something," he promised, grinning. From time to time, he would teach me those arts which Mama disapproved of-how to manage and race horses, how to shoot and use a knife. Sometimes he let me taste his whiskey, and when he was drinking, he might show me "just for fun" how to cheat a bit at cards or conceal weapons. But as I would learn, he was barely competent in most of these attainments, which he confused with some ideal of manhood. I did, too, of course, for I was twelve. We rode toward Edgefield. At the Tilghman place, called Deepwood, a slight fair man came out onto the highroad in his linen shirtsleeves, stretching his arms wide to bar our progress as the big horse danced and whinnied, backing around in its own dust. "Not one word, boy," Papa growled over his shoulder. Cousin Selden murmured to the roan, slipping his hand onto the bridle so that Papa could not wheel into him, knock him away. The easy movement was so sure of horse and rider that the muscles stiffened in my father's back. "Let go," he grunted, shifting his quirt to his right hand as if set to strike our kinsman in the face. With his fair hair and shy expression, Cousin Selden looked and sounded less like a bold cavalry officer and Edgefield hero than like my sister's young piano teacher (paid for by our uncle John Addison). Because of his high tenor voice-and because he had never married-Papa called him a sissy out of Mama's hearing. However, that voice was very calm and cold. "There's three young nigras back up yonder in the branch. Wrists bound, shot like dogs. Dumped there like offal." His pale fury and contempt seemed just as scary as Papa's red eruptive violence. "Since today is the Sabbath, Private Watson, I thought you might assist me with a Christian burial." To call a man "Private" who was known as a captain of the Regulators was proof enough of Selden Tilghman's craziness. "It was done last night," Tilghman persisted. "These murder gangs ride at night, isn't that true?" He had a fever in his eyes. "Since you claim to be his kinsman, Private Watson, you cannot have forgotten the immortal words of Jefferson of Virginia: I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just! Papa had raised his arm but that shout stopped him. He could not bring himself to horsewhip the man down. "I'll have nothing to do with traitors!" he yelled. "Now stand aside!" Lashing the reins, digging his spurs, my father fought violently to ride free with his son clinging to his sweaty back. The struggle amused Cousin Selden, who smiled just a little, catching my eye. (I smiled, too, before I caught myself.) All the while, Tilghman braced his back against the horse's neck. Talking to it, fist clenched on the reins under the bit, he brought the wheeling beast under control. Heavy in the saddle, his big shoulders slumped, Papa appeared deflated and subdued. "Road walkers," he growled. " ÔRoad walkers.' " Tilghman mimicked him with wry distaste. "How do you know that, Private? How do you damned vigilantes know about these murdered boys back in my branch?" "Because if they were home niggers, sir, a Radical Scalawag and traitor like yourself would know their names. Now stand aside!" Whistling like a pigeon's wing, the quirt struck Selden Tilghman on the side of the head, knocking him off balance, and still he kept a tight grip on the reins. The horse screeched and snorted, dancing sideways, and Papa struck Tilghman heavily again. This time he fell. Papa shouted "You can thank your honorable record in the War, sir, that you have your life!" Tilghman rose unhurriedly, brushed himself off. " ÔMy honorable record,' " he repeated. Lifting his pale bleeding face, he contemplated mine. "What would Lige Watson know about such matters?" he inquired, looking straight at me. "I served four years, sir, Edgefield to Appomattox. Are you challenging my honor, sir, before my son?" But when I hollered, "You damned nigger-loving traitor!" Papa shot an elbow back, bloodied my nose. "You'll show some respect for a Confederate officer, even this one!" I was astonished by his need to prove to Cousin Selden that Elijah D. Watson was a gentleman and a fierce guardian of Southern honor. Amused that he and I were wiping bloody noses, Tilghman ignored him. Once again I had to scowl not to grin back. "Send her cousin's fond respects to your dear mother," he said courteously, as Papa wheeled and booted his horse into a canter. Hand on the hard-haired dusty rump, I turned for a last look at the figure in the road, and Cousin Selden raised his hand in a kind of half salute, calling out cheerfully, "God keep you, Cousin Edgar!" "Face around, damn you!" Papa shouted, cocking his elbow. I hugged up close, out of harm's way, in his rank smell. "Damned sissy," he muttered. He galloped back the way that we had come. "Papa? What was it you were going to show me?" "Face around, I say!" The Traitor The day after our ride to Deepwood, the Traitor (as my father now referred to him) appeared at our door in full dress uniform, hands and face charred like a minstrel in blackface, gray tunic rent by black and ragged holes. Having long since sold his horse, he had come on foot. On the sill he set down a heavy sack containing his volumes of Greek literature-all he had saved from his burning house. "For your boy," he told Mama, who disobeyed her husband's edict and implored him to come in. He accepted a cup of water but would not enter the house nor even talk with us, lest that bring trouble. Filled with dread, heart pounding, I followed the Traitor down the road toward the square. Already word had circulated that Colonel Tilghman meant to defy a warning from the Regulators to leave these parts on pain of death and never show his face again at Edgefield Court House. At his appearance, a great moan, then a wildfire whispering, foretold an evil end. My kinsman addressed the market crowd from the courthouse steps. Though all could see the black smoke rising from Deepwood, to the eastward, he made no mention of night riders, but only denounced the senseless murder of three Negro youths. The refusal of a lawless few to accept the freedmen as new citizens, he cried, would not only imperil their mortal souls but cripple the recovery of South Carolina. "Before the War, our colored people were gentle, harmless folk who lived among us and worshiped with us in our congregations. Most remained loyal and many fought beside us!" He paused, looking around him. "Now there are those who would revile these faithful friends, and castigate them. Treat them as dangerous animals, and kill them. Every day black men are terrorized, not by outlaws and criminals but by so-called Christian men, including many who stand here today before this Court of Justice." He glared about him, in a dangerous silence. "Have not these poor souls suffered enough? What fault of theirs that they were enslaved and then turned free? Was it they who imposed these Reconstruction laws? Friends, it was not!" He raised both arms toward Heaven. "In taking revenge on innocent people for the calamity we brought down upon ourselves, we only worsen a dishonorable lie. We lost the War not because we were beaten by a greater force of arms. The North had more men and guns, more industry, more railways-that is true. But that was also our excuse, as we soldiers knew." He paused, lowering his arms in the awful hush. "More than half our eastern armies-and the bravest, too-put their arms down and went home of their own accord. We did that because in our hearts we knew that human bondage had never had-and could never have-the blessing of the Lord God who made us all." When the first rock flew and yells of "Traitor!" started up and the crowd barged forward, the boyish colonel raised his hands, not to protect himself but seeking time to finish. "Our officers will tell you-those who are honest-that we only fought on so that the lives of the best and bravest of our young men should not have been sacrificed in vain. We fought for some notion of our Southern honor, and thousands died for it, to no good purpose, and now our dear land lies ruined on all sides. "Where is that honor now? In taking a dishonorable revenge in cowardly acts of terror in the night, do we not dishonor those who died? Neighbors, hear me, I beseech you. Our ÔGreat Lost Cause' was never Ôgreat,' as we pretended. It had no greatness and no honor in it, no nobility. It was merely wrong!" He yelled this into my father's face as the Regulators seized him. He was dragged down the steps and beaten bloody and left in a poor heap in the public dust. There Major Coulter, hair raked back in black wings beneath his cap, stalked round and round him, stiff-legged and gawky as a crow. I had an impulse to rush out, perhaps others did, too, but nobody dared to breach the emptiness and isolation which had formed around him. When Selden Tilghman regained consciousness, he lay a minute, then rolled over very slowly. Visage ghostly from the dust, he got up painfully, reeled, and fell. Next, he pushed himself onto all fours and crawled on hands and knees all the way across the square to the picket fence in front of the veranda of the United States Hotel, as Coulter and his men, jeering, watched him come. He used the fence to haul himself upright. Swaying, he blinked and then he shouted, "You are cowards! Betrayers of the South! You are cowards! Betrayers of the South!" With each cowards! he brought both fists down hard on the sharp points of the white pickets, and with each blow he howled in agony and despair, until the wet meat sounds of his broken hands caused the onlookers to turn away in horror. Even Z. P. Claxton had stopped grinning. It was my father, Captain Elijah D. Watson of the Regulators, who strode forth on a sign from Coulter and cracked our kinsman's jaw with one legendary blow, leaving him crumpled in the dust. Cousin Selden's body was slung into a cotton wagon and trundled away on the Augusta Road. In the next fortnight rumors would come that the traitor had been dumped off at the gates of the Radical headquarters at Hamburg, but nobody could say what had become of him. The District heard no more of Selden Tilghman. When Mama finally confronted him about it, Papa blustered, "If the traitor is dead, the Regulators never killed him, that is all I know." My pride in my father's prominence that day was edged with deep confusion and misgiving. Hoping and dreading Cousin Selden might reappear, I was drawn back to Deepwood over and over. Others in our district felt uneasy about "Tilghman's Ghost," which was said to come and go in that black ruin, and so had Deepwood to myself, a private domain for hunting and trapping. Wild rose thorn and poverty grass returned to the fields and the woods edged forward, even as vines entwined the blackened house. God keep you, Cousin Edgar! When wind stirred the leaves, I imagined that I heard my kinsman's voice and its sad whispered warning. In a voice pitched toward her husband, outside on the stoop, Mama said that before the War, his own family had belittled Cousin Selden. In adopting the New Light Baptist faith, he had disgraced his Anglican upbringing. The New Lights had not only advocated Abolition but had sought-and here she smiled-"a more liberal attitude toward the rights of women. These days, Negro men are allowed to vote, but not white women." "Nor white men either," bawled her husband from the porch. "Not those who fought." "Addisons being Episcopalians like most of our good families, I had no real acquaintance with the New Light Church, nor with your father's Baptist congregation, for that matter." Rising above the growls and spitting out of doors, she invited us to pity those poor women whose husbands were not God-fearing citizens-steadfast men who would abstain from the grog shops and gambling and sinful license to which the weak seemed so addicted, to the great suffering and deprivation of their families. Her tone was now edged with such contempt that Papa appeared in the door, though he held his tongue. "And throwing away their wages on mulatta women. Of course harlots have never been tolerated in Edgefield District. It is the bordellos across the Georgia line which beckon our local sinners to Damnation." Mama bent to her knitting with the martyred smile of the good churchwoman whose mission on earth was to purify the immortal soul of her crude lump of a man and keep him from the Devil's handiwork. "In our church, of course, a man may be excommunicated for wife beating, or even," she added, brightly, "for adultery. With white or black. Or perhaps," she inquired directly of her husband, "you Baptists feel that mulatta women don't count?" And still he held his tongue, mouth open, breathing like a man with a stuffed-up nose. As always, the son would reap the whipping, not the mother, and my heart sank slowly as a stone into wet mud. "Please, Mama," I whispered. "Oh please, Mama." And this time, with her quiver empty and her arrows all well-placed, our mama nodded. "Yes, Mr. Watson, we are still your slaves," she sighed, offering her children a sweet rueful smile. " ÔWives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands as unto the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, even as Christ is head of the Church.' " Braving his glare, she added cheerfully, "Ephesians, dear." Ellen Addison blamed nothing on cruel providence. She kept up her merciless good cheer in the worst of circumstances, as if aware that otherwise our wretched family must go under. "Precisely because our soldiers cannot vote, South Carolina remains prostrate, at the mercy of damn Scalawags and their pet niggers!" Papa shouted. "That's Radical Reconstruction for you! Just what your mother's precious cousin wanted! And do you know who forced Reconstruction through the U.S. Senate? Charles Sumner of Massachusetts! And do you know why?" "Oh we do, indeed we do," sighed Mama. "And since we know the story well, then surely our Merciful Savior will spare us another recounting-" "Yes, boy! Because Congressman Preston Brooks of Edgefield caned Sumner on the Senate floor for having insulted Brooks's kinsman Andrew Pickens Butler! And Senator Butler-do you hear me, boy?-was the son of that same Billy Butler to whom your great-great-grandfather turned over the command of his brigade when fatally wounded by the Tories near Clouds Creek!" Mama lured him off the subject of our Watson hero. "Now which Mr. Brooks shot that black legislator the other day, dear? While he knelt in prayer?" "No Brooks shot that damned Coker, but Nat Butler." "Well, Congressman Brooks was my father's commanding officer," she reflected. "In the Mexican War, children. Unlike Clouds Creek, Edgefield Court House was strongly represented in that Mexican War." Before Papa could protest, she exclaimed, "Think of it, children! The Brooks house has four acres of flowers! In the front!" But Papa was not to be deterred. The caning of Sumner had occurred on May 22 of 1856, in the year after my own birth, and once again he brandished the event to imbue his son with the fierce and forthright spirit of Southern honor. He also invoked President Jackson's vice-president, John C. Calhoun, grandson of Squire Calhoun of Long Cane Creek, whose family lost twenty-three members to Indian massacres in a single year. "One day I saw the great Calhoun right here in Edgefield. Had the same lean leather face and deep hawk eyes as Old Hickory, Andy Jackson, and he was that same breed of fearless leader, unrelenting towards his enemies." "Cruelty and vengeance. Are these the virtues you would inspire in your son?" Papa, in full cry, paid her no attention. Before the War, said he, patriotic Carolinians had served in the Patrol, and in these dark days of Yankee Reconstruction, the Patrol's place had been taken by that honorable company of men known as the Regulators, among whom he himself was proud to ride. "Honorable company!" Mama rolled her eyes over her knitting, the needles speeding with an incensed clicking noise, like feeding insects. Behind his broad back, she shook her head. Her lips said, No. She slapped her knitting down. "Is it considered honorable in this company of men to terrify and harm defenseless darkies?" Braving his glare, she quoted Cousin Selden's opinion that the vigilantes who terrorized the freedmen were mostly those weak vessels cracked by war. And she dared to cite Papa's "superior officer," Major Coulter, who kept the cropped ears of lynched black men in his saddlebags. "No act perpetrated by that man, however barbarous and vile, seems to shake your father's high opinion of him," Mama sighed. I caught the nice distinction Mama made here-the implication that her husband, not being warped or cracked like Major Coulter, had been weak to start with. She would even hint that he had joined the vigilantes less because of his own convictions than because he knew no better way to be accepted or at least tolerated by the night riders. Excerpted from Bone by Bone by Peter Matthiessen All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.