by Ben Dixon McNeill for The News and Observer, Raleigh, North Carolina, circa July, 1935.
[This article was transcribed by S.C. Edgerton from the original clipping in September 2004.]
Disconsolate Victoria sat moodily upon a throne and wished that she might leave a world from which the Prince Consort was gone, but the years of her reigning were little more than half done, and in Washington a man whom circumstance had made into a military genius cursed circumstances that made him President of the United States and immersed himself in a brand of liquor which President Lincoln had made famous with a jest but which was no longer very effective.
And in Robeson county terror walked. There were outlaws. Outlaws of a sort that are not anywhere else to be found in the too varied catalogue of lawlessness in these States. By night they pillaged and by day they lay in wait for killing, and a wide region, stripped of all of its man-power, save the old, and the young who had grown up since the war, a wide region in which there were many women helpless and alone because their men were dead upon some far battleground, trembled when the name of an outlaw was so much as whispered.
Sixty five years ago...
Already prostrate by war, the county writhed helplessly in the grip of a terror that lurked in the swamps. Not quite hopelessly. Five years were done since the ending of the war, and now there were growing up stalwart youths who were too young for the slaughter that ended at Bentonville in the spring of 1865, here and there a lad who was too young to be called out to death in that army of children who were thrown into the path of Sherman when he came up from the sea.
There was Frank McKay. There were others. With no definite leadership these lads took up arms against the terror that came up out of the lowlands along Lumber River. Manfully, they hunted the outlaws, with such weapons as they could lay their hands upon. And there was no week in which some new name was not added to the roster of the dead, or the grievously wounded. There was no morning which did not bring tales of new outrages rode further and further afield.
And then there was a morning when it looked as if the issue had been drawn conclusively. A handful of these youths had the outlaws surrounded in a cabin. Within it was certain that the leader, Henry Berry Lowrey and six or seven of his chief lieutenants were engaged in a sort of inventory of the night's spoils. The besieging youths had trailed them thither and the house was surrounded, though the investing line was pitifully thin. There were not more in it than there were outlaws in the cabin. The opportunity seemed too fortuitous to be spoiled. Reinforcements were necessary.
Frank McKay volunteered to go several miles back from the cabin and summons all the help that the countryside could afford. The others would remain on guard, undertaking to keep the outlaws where they were by such sign of force as they could manage. Frank McKay, then just 21 years old [Frank McKay was born in 1849.], went away at a trot and within three hours he was headed back toward the battle, accompanied by a half dozen youngsters like himself, and alike armed with such weapons as they could lay hand to. There were not many weapons in the country. The war had taken them.
The April morning quiet was thunderously shattered, and the boy walking behind Frank McKay pitched headlong in the dust. His head struck Frank McKay's heels as he fell. And before he could turn about, Frank McKay felt the impact, and thought curiously that there was no pain of a load of buckshot in his back and was conscious that blood was rushing up into his mouth. Turning, he saw a moving shadow in the brush not far away. He fired before insensibility dropped him in the dust. In a moment he was conscious again for an instant and he fired the other barrel of his gun. That was all he remembered for a little.
Through a trapdoor in the floor of the cabin the outlaws had escaped into a ditch. They had ranged themselves along the road and there waited for the coming of the help the besiegers had sent for. That was the end of that campaign against them, and the terror gripped the county anew. Instant reprisals were launched by the outlaws. It was necessary for young Frank McKay to leave the county. He was warned by a freindly Indian who knew what was planned against him. He was definitely marked for death. Henry Berry Lowrey himself said that Frank McKay was too dangerous to them to be allowed to live. [Two generations of family tradition has it that HBL sent a note that said just that to Frank's father's home where Frank lived. Frank McKay also spent many days and nights in the nearby swamp hiding from the outlaws. HBL knew the McKays. At one point he actually - as was his custom - road up to Frank's father's home and entered it, only to find Frank's mother still abed after the birth of her last child, Emma, born in 1865.]
There was no doctor. With buckshot wounds in his lungs the youth was brought to Fayetteville, and from there he planned to go down the river, toward Wilmington, and thence to relatives in Duplin County. He got no further than Gray's Creek Landing, where Sheriff Neill McQueen was loading a shipment of turpentine on that day's steamer. He saw the youth, inquired who he was, recalled that he had known his people well, and had him removed to his house. Sheriff McQueen in that day owned a wide estate. This mill and its adjoining fields were a part of it.
Living also in the great McQueen establishment was a young Dr. McKinnon. His daughter is Mary McKinnon Vaughan, who writes so admirably of things seen, said and surmised in The People's Advocate. Dr. McKinnon, with the windows covered with shawls and quilts—the terror extended even here, 40 miles away—to guard against his being seen by the outlaws, tried to pick the buckshot out of the boy's back. He got some of them, but not the ones in the lungs. The sheriff's wife —grandmother to Representative Malcolm McQueen of Cumberland—held a light and handed him instruments. There were not many instruments....
Sixty-five years.... Being a lusty lad, Frank McKay recovered after a while. At home he had been a competent shop craftsman. He remembers that he made some plows for my grandfather.... Here he fashioned for the sheriff a boat that rode on this pond. He fished here, and he was as happy about here as he could remember being anywhere. The Spring and Summer were not without their compensations. In Robeson the terror stalked.
Not again was there such an opportunity for wiping it out as there had been the morning when Frank McKay set off after reinforcements. Afterward the outlaws were picked off one by one two or three years later when a reward of $5,000 was put upon the heads of each of them. Donahoe McQueen got Henry Berry Lowrie as he lay on his back before the fire playing a Jewsharp. [There are those who would argue this statement. Donahoe McQueen killed Boss Strong, HBL's first cousin, on the night of 7 March 1872. He was later given a $6,000.00 bounty by the State of N.C. ] His head was spattered by the exploding barrels of the gun poked snakily across the floor from the cathole in the door.... After a while the terror dwindled and Frank McKay went home to Red Springs and took up again the thread of life that had twice been broken—once by a war and again by the outlaws.
Some afternoons ago Frank McKay came back to the township. He sat on the bench that overlooks the pond here. He had not seen it in 65 years, not since the Spring of 1870, when he was lifted off the boat at a forgotten landing on our river. That makes him 86 years old.
It is a long time. In 1870 it still lacked five years of the yar when Frank Page would be born. Frank Page has, as much as any man, remade North Carolina and is dead, ripe in years and very full in achievement. Railroads have been built across the continent since that year. Franklin Roosevelt would not be born for a dozen years yet, and Josephus Daniels was a lad of eight or so in Wilson. No official who now serves in the state in a major capacity had yet been born. Or not more than one.... In France a ludicrous figure sat stupidly upon a throne that would presently totter.... It is a long time, sixty-five years.
But not, I think, very long to Frank McKay. Partly because he is not the sort of man who measures things by the passing of time. He has lived independently of time, and the years have made no notable mark on him. For one thing, he could pass anywhere for a man of about fifty. He is agile and strong, body and spirit. He has twenty-nine of the teeth that he got when he was about twelve and none of them show, or need, the attention of a dental surgeon [McKay's son, Samuel Rankin McKay, was a dentist].
Every year since 1870 he has thought definitely that he must come back over here and see the place where strangers took him and plucked outlaw bullets out of him and set him again on the road to living out a natural life time. He's been just too busy. It has been one of the pleasures that he kept in reserve. Some day he would do it, but in the meantime he was pretty busy. There was, first his shop, and afterward his farm. There was his family that needed a lot of raising. There were numberous public obligations, too. His county for long seasons made him head of the board of commissioners.
And there was his Sunday School class. He began teaching that almost as soon as he went home to Red Springs and he still has it every Sunday. He is, I suppose the oldest teacher of a class in North Carolina. Lately he has been thinking that he had been at it long enough, and he ought to have a younger fellow to help him. His class keeps him, and they have another teacher as a sort of teacher-coadjutor. But Mr. McKay is the teacher. He has been a member of that church since just before the Civil War. He doesn't read the Sunday News and Observer, and he has read his Bible through twice since he was 80.
All these 65 years he has been thinking that he must get back over to Gray's Creek township and find the places where he spent that spring when he was 21 and where Dr. McKinnon picked some of the buckshot out of him. Not all. There is still one under his right shoulder blade and another somewhere in his right lung, and some others that are just scattered around. They never bother him, probably because he has not bothered about them since they called it a night in Sheriff McQueens's commissary. He sat on a counter in the commissary while the shot were being plucked.
There isn't any trace of the commissary. We drove around, sort of orienting him while his son and his grandson wrangled with some black bass in the pond. Mr. McKay wasn't interest in bass. He just wanted to sit there on the whittled bench and look meditatively out over the water. A slow, indulgent smile would light his face when Billie [Billie McKay, son of Dr. Pete McKay of Fayetteville], who is seven or so, hooked a fish. Billie squealed delightedly. It was his first real fish and his father and his father coached him sensibly and effectively in the matter of landing him.
The commissary was gone. Sixty-five years have done things to the great McQueen establishment. Then there were seven or eight thousand acres of it. Now it is cut up into a dozen sizable farms. The McQueen house has been replaced with that is more spacious. That was surprising. We had come to think of the present house as having always been there. The house they lived in 65 years ago was moved back toward the woods, and is a tenant house. Mrs. Baker, the Sheriff's daughter, not born for a decade after 1870, welcomed him and was somehow bewildered by his asking where this landmark, or that, had gone.
It must have been a little confusing to him. Anyhow, he seemed content when we were back on the bench. His pipe was going again and he, with a little urging, told about the morning the Lowreys shot him. My nephew was fairly pop-eyed. He is well schooled in the technique of current bad men, what with headlines in the paper and the tales that come over the radio. It seemed altogether unbelievable that such things used to happen right around here, that this man, who didn't seem old at all, had actually been almost killed by men worse than Dillinger... He had even felt the thud of a dying boy's head against his heels when the outlaws cut down on them.
He told the tale with indulgent detachment, almost as if it were something that happened to some one else, and with no faintest notion of dramatizing himself, or making his role a heroic role. He told it with a faint amusement that somehow heightened its essential drama. And not garrulously. He would pause to stoke his pipe and light it and his keen, kindly gray eyes would glow with remembered tensity. It was a detail in a life crowded with detail, but all of them kept in proportion and mellowed with perspective. He has spent mighty little time thinking about himself and none at all in being a little sorry for himself. He has enjoyed these 86 years. Tomorrow has never worried him and yesterday has brought no canker to him. Today has always been good.
This day was being good, like all his days. The things that had been in that morning's paper were very vivid and alive to him. The President interested him mightily, but there was no reaching back in his mind for comparisons. He can definitely remember 15 presidents but today is today and his attitude toward Roosevelt and the matters which confront him was as fresh as the President's own. I don't think he has even bothered to wonder what Cleveland would have done about it.
There was about him a refreshing, incisive timelessness. He could remember, for instance, the week in which Angus Wilton McLean was born. He was a contemporary of the Governor's father. He heard when he got back home from here in the spring of 1870 that the McLeans had a new baby and they were calling him Wilton. A week or so before he came back, the baby was buried, and in the meantime he had grown great and had brought honor to his county. He had been a magnificent Governor. Mr. McKay's perspective upon him reached back beyond his birth and forward past the wilting of the flowers that covered him in his last sleeping... Sixty-five years is a long time.
There isn't a word that quite fits. Mellow would almost do, but not quite. Timeless—not quite. But here was a man with a youngness of spirit that made him very companionable with the seven-year-old grandson squealing out there in the boat, with my adolescent nephew who listened slack-jawed, with his able son, the Doctor, with me and with Mr. Frank Yarborough who lives in the house where the Sheriff's brother lived when he was here 65 years ago. Mr. Yarborough is toward 75. And with my mother. He knew her father, who died in 1879 at the age of 74.
Billie McKay shouted from somewhere up the pond and the water ripped under the Doctor's rowing. They had seven fish. We would cook them there..."No salt on mine, please," Mr. McKay said. "They took my salt away from me some years back, but things taste pretty near as good without it...Tired, Pete?"
To his son, who is of my age and coming to be a sort of landmark hereabouts in the practice of his profession. Dr. Pete admitted that he was a little done in, he was not used to it. And how did his father make it? Was he worn out, and hadn't they better be starting home. "Midnight will do for me, son. Not much doing tomorrow and I left somebody to see after the place till I get back. The girls will not worry about me."
He had put out of his mind the slightly confusing business of trying to re-orient himself in these surroundings that have so changed in 65 years. The dusk was warm and comfortable. The present was good. The fish were, he said, just what he wanted. And so we talked of entirely current matters until bed time, a little put to it to keep pace with his comprehension and grasp of them, and now and then not a little bewildered by flashes of comment grounded in the experience of long living, and seasoned now and then with brief, succinct reminiscence not labored with uncertain telling. Sixty-five years...eighty-six years—war and outlaw bullets and worse depressions than these last uncomfortable years have been, and a smiling, gentle, comprehending man to whom every day, this day, had been a satisfaction, a pleasant prelude to a tomorrow that would, in its kind, be equally as good.