AUTHOR: Dean Rathbone
I always wondered why everyone lowered their voices when they spoke of Will Rathbone, and whispered about what he did during that “bad ole war.” I’d try to get closer so that I could hear, but Granny would gently push me away and say, “Just leave it be.” It wasn’t until I was much older that my Dad told me about Will, Crazy Will, as they called him. Even then, I could see something in my Dad’s eyes that made me pause. Maybe it was the memory of fear, or maybe it was disgust that shadowed his eyes as he told me his story. He had my attention, and it is a story that I will never forget.
My Dad was just a young boy, maybe 5 or 6 years old, when he came face to face with Crazy Will. He, and his brothers, had ventured high on the mountain above their log cabin in search of apples preserved under the fallen leaves. The place that they had ventured to was called Mull Gardens. The ruins of an old cabin stood in an overgrown clearing, surrounded by ancient apple trees. The boys quickly went to work, scratching away the fallen leaves, looking for apples. They had just about filled their sack with apples when my Dad’s older brothers ran off and left him alone. One of them yelled as he ran, “Run! Crazy Will is coming!” It was too late. Dad sensed someone behind him, so he turned around. There stood Crazy Will! Dad was scared and speechless. All that he could think about were the stories that he had heard about Crazy Will. They flashed before his eyes as he stood trembling, looking up at the blazing blue eyes of Crazy Will.
The battle was raging at the second Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia. Will was deafened by the roar of the cannons and rifles. He could hear the screams of the wounded and dying men all around him. Something snapped inside of Will that day. He had smelled all the death that he could stand, and he had heard one scream too many. He stood up, and started walking, oblivious to the shouts behind him. As he walked through the remnants of the first battle, he started laughing and singing. He marched along laughing and singing, pausing long enough to fire at sightless skulls, dressed in tatters of blue. He was heading southwest, towards home.
Will came to his senses somewhat, as he walked towards home. He stopped singing, and there were no more skulls to fire at. He stole what he needed to survive, a horse here, and some food there. His gun was always ready, because he was trained to kill. After several weeks of traveling without incident, Will rode into the yard of his cabin that was perched high on Piney Ridge. His wife and children ran to meet him, but Will was silent. He never spoke a word for weeks. One morning, Will got up early and silently left his cabin. He rode towards the high mountains along the the Tennessee border, to a place where Cabe and his men had a camp. Will joined that murderous group of outliers, turning his back on his family, and on society. They plundered, and they raped, spreading terror throughout the mountains of N.C. and Tenn. It was in Tennessee that Will reached his lowest point.
Cabe’s men rode into a clearing where a tidy cabin stood. The men fanned out and started gathering up the livestock. Cabe and Will started walking towards the house, with guns ready. A young women stood in the doorway blocking their path. She begged them for mercy. Instead, Will brought up his rifle and shot her between the eyes. He felt no emotion as her body tumbled into the yard. Cabe and Will just stepped over her and went on into the house to plunder. Will noticed the cradle but he couldn’t see or hear any children. He searched the house and out buildings thoroughly but he couldn’t find the children. It bothered him, but Cabe was afraid that their shots had been heard. He didn’t want to fight the home guard so they rode away from the cabin.
A few days later, as they were making their way back to their camp, they passed close to the cabin. Will insisted that they return. The first thing that they heard when they rode into the clearing was the sound of a child crying. The woman was still sprawled in the yard, but a toddler was now clutching her breast and crying pitifully. The men were silent. Their silence was shattered by the sound of a single rifle being fired. They all stared in horror at the lifeless toddler, and Will lowered his gun. It was too cruel for even Cabe and his men. Will was exiled, then and there. Will made his way back home to the little cabin on Piney Ridge. This time no children ran to greet him, and no wife hailed him from the doorway. They were gone.
Will lived alone, for the rest of his life, in the little cabin on Piney Ridge. People shunned him, and his name became associated with evil. On his death bed, Will reasoned to the preacher, “Why, that little old youngin’ was just gonna die anyways. I saved it from a heap of suffering.” It was the voice of pure evil, no remorse.
Crazy Will’s voice brought my Dad to his senses. Before Dad could run, Will tenderly picked him up and silently carried him down the mountain. When Dad’s cabin was in sight, Will gently set him down and said, “Now, you run on home, honey. You don’t need to be out all by yourself.” Dad ran, wailing all the way to the house. He never forgot Crazy Will, and I could tell that the memory bothered him. It bothers me. Granny was right, sometimes we should, “Just Leave It Be!”
I know that this is a horrible story, and that is the reason that I shared it. We need to hear the bad, as well as the good. The Civil War was not just romance, uniforms, and patriotism. People died, and there was suffering. It should not be forgotten.