A Beckoning Hellfire
Winner of Editor’s Choice Award
Winner of Publisher’s Choice Award
During the bloody American Civil War, the stark reality of death leads one young man on a course of revenge that takes him from his quiet farm in northern Alabama to the horrific battlefields of Virginia and Pennsylvania.
On Christmas Eve 1862, David Summers hears the dreaded news: his father has perished at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Reeling with grief and thoughts of vengeance, David enlists and sets off for Richmond to join the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
But once in the cavalry, David’s life changes drastically, and his dream of glamorous chivalry becomes nothing but a cold, cruel existence of pain and suffering. He is hurled into one battle after another, and his desire for revenge wanes when he experiences first-hand the catastrophes of war.
A haunting look at the human side of one of America’s most tragic conflicts, A Beckoning Hellfire speaks to the delusion of war’s idealism.
Author: J. D. R. Hawkins
Fiction / Historical
Publication Date: August 2007
ISBN: 9780-595-43531-9 (sc), 9780-595-90856-1 (hc), 9780-595-87858-1 (e)
On Demand Printing
Available from Ingram Book Group, Baker & Taylor, and iUniverse, Inc.
But what a cruel thing is war. To separate and destroy families and friends and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world. To fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world¼My heart bleeds at the death of every one of our gallant men.
—Robert E. Lee, letter to his wife, December 25, 1862
“Here it is! Come quick!”
David sauntered across the dead grass toward his little sister. Amused by the way she was jumping up and down like a nervous flea, he couldn’t help but grin. Obviously, she was too excited to care that her petticoats were showing from under the brown coat and green calico dress she wore, or that her long auburn hair had broken free from its bondage as her bonnet slid from her head and dangled down her back.
“Which one, Josie?” he asked, stifling a snicker.
She planted her feet and pointed to a small yellow pine near a cluster of sweet gum and ash trees. “Right here!” she exclaimed.
Glancing down at the sapling, he gave her a crooked smile. “Well, that’s a mighty fine tree, but ain’t it kinda scrawny?” He estimated the pine to be three feet tall at most.
Josie frowned at her older brother, who had one eyebrow cocked from under his slouch hat. His hands were tucked into his brown trousers, and his linen shirt hung loosely on his tall, lanky frame. “No,” she said, “ it’s jist right. We’ll string some corn on it, hang some nuts and berries on it, and it’ll look right smart in the corner of the front room.”
With a shrug, he said, “All right. If you reckon this is the one.”
She nodded, her bright blue eyes reflecting her elation.
David relished the moment, for he knew Christmas was her favorite holiday. He had only heightened her anticipation on the way out to the woodlot by reminding her what would happen that evening, how Santa would be stopping by later when she was sound asleep. Of course, he had no explanation as to how eight tiny reindeer could pull a sleigh all the way to Alabama. Josie promptly informed him that she wasn’t a child any longer. She was all of thirteen, and didn’t believe in those farfetched stories anymore, but he knew better. She would be lying in her bed tonight, listening and waiting.
“Well, go on now, cut it down!” Josie insisted.
He put his thumb and forefinger to his lips and gave a high, shrill whistle. Noticing how the gray sky was growing darker, he looked over at the edge of the clearing where they stood and saw the underbrush rustle. Suddenly, two hound dogs bounded out of the trees, followed by a gangly young stallion.
“Come on, Renegade. Over here,” he called out to the colt, who responded by cantering to him.
Josie giggled at the sight. “Your dumb horse thinks he’s a dog!”
“He ain’t dumb. I’ll wager he’s a lick smarter than you are, li’l sister,” David teased.
The horse blew and stomped his front hoof.
“Why, that’s the most ridiculous thing I ever heard of. And not only is he dumb, he looks right silly, too. He can’t decide if he should be spotted or palomino!”
David observed his horse for a moment. Renegade’s face was piebald. His dark chestnut coat was highlighted with white spots and patches concentrating on his underbelly, and his mane and tail were light flaxen. He had white socks up to his knees. His unusual eyes were brownish green. David remembered how he had heard that a horse with strange-colored eyes like Renegade’s was considered sacred and chosen by the Cherokee Indians. Several people had noticed the strange coincidence, and his other sister, Rena, also frequently commented that he and his horse had the same colored eyes.
“I reckon he knows what he is,” David remarked. “Besides, he’s unusual, and that makes him unique.”
“Oh, he’s unique all right,” Josie said, giggling again. She pulled her hair back from her face and replaced her bonnet.
David untied a saw from a leather strap attached to Renegade’s saddle. He knelt down, quickly sawed through the little tree’s trunk, picked it up, and tied it across the saddle’s seat. His two black and tan dogs sniffed around the tree’s sawed off stump. Suddenly, they both lifted their noses into the air with their ears pricked. They bolted across the open clearing, baying at an unseen curiosity as they disappeared into the woods.
“Caleb! Si!” David hollered after the two hounds. “Well, there they go,” he observed wryly. “All right, Renegade, take it on home.” He patted his horse on the shoulder.
Renegade nickered softly, shook his head, and trotted off in the same direction as the two hounds.
Josie gasped. “Look, David! It’s startin’ to snow!” She tilted her head back and stuck out her tongue, trying to catch snowflakes on it.
“Come on, you do it, too,” she coaxed him.
He obliged his little sister by imitating her.
Josie laughed, spinning around with her arms extended while snow fell silently down around them.
“Oh!” David clasped his hand to his face. “One fell in my eye!”
He couldn’t help but smile, although he was careful not to let her see, and snorted to cover up his delight. “Well, I’m right glad you think it’s so funny.” He looked at her, trying to keep a straight face. “Come on, Josie girl. We’d best be gittin’ on back.”
He allowed her to go ahead of him as they started on the bridle path that cut through the woods.
“Let’s sing Christmas carols!” she said. “That new one we heard last year. Jingle Bells!”
“You start,” he prompted.
“Dashin’ through the snow…”
He joined in. Their voices grew stronger in unison.
“In a one-horse open sleigh…”
They came to an empty field, and trudged through, stepping over mud puddles while they continued singing.
“Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way…”
Their house stood quaintly at the far end of the field. Smoke circled from its two chimneys, dissolving into the gray sky. The sweet smell of burning hickory reached out, inviting them closer. From a distance, the structure appeared to be two separate cabins sitting side by side, but upon closer observation, one could see that they were connected by a covered breezeway. Each section contained two rooms and a fireplace. A wide flat porch on the front of the split log building served as an entryway. The tin roof, which seemed to expel heat in the summertime, also managed to repel snow during winter months.
The cold, damp air encroached upon brother and sister. As they sang, their breath escaped, floated out across the fields, and vanished in phantom gusts.
“Oh what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh!”
On the last note, Josie’s voice jumped an octave. They laughed at their grand finale and walked around to the front of the house, where Renegade was waiting patiently for the tree to be removed from his saddle. A buckskin horse stood beside him.
“Whose horse is that?” Josie asked.
“It looks like Bud Samuels’ horse.”
David and Josie looked at each other, wide-eyed. “Pa!” they both exclaimed.
Josie sprang onto the porch, burst through the front door, and went inside while David untied the small yellow pine. He set it aside, pulled the saddle from Renegade’s back, and removed his bridle.
“Go on into the barn, Renie,” he said. “Or you’ll be one big ole snowball in a minute.”
The colt blew and trotted around the side of the house.
David carried his tack into the breezeway. He placed it on a horizontal board, which was supported by a plank on each end. Collecting the tree, he heard the sound of Bud’s voice coming from inside.
“I had some trouble gettin’ here,” Bud was saying as he entered. “But I convinced the Home Guard to follow me home so’s I could show them my furlough paper.”
David produced the tiny tree. “I know it’s small,” he said with a grin, “but Josie insisted, and…” The sight that befell him inexplicably filled him with dread. His smile faded. He looked around at the faces before him and let the tree fall onto the wooden floor. Warmth from the fireplace did nothing to relieve the chill that grasped him. “What is it?” he asked.
“Come in, darlin’, and close the door,” his mother said from her high-backed chair, which sat near the empty corner they had readied for the Christmas tree. Her brown skirt encircled her like a puddle. Her dark brown hair, streaked recently with gray, was parted in the middle and contained in a white cotton hair net. She clenched her hands in her lap, and her lips were pursed. The flickering firelight accentuated the grooves on her face, which, for some reason, David had never noticed before. After closing the door behind him, he looked at Rena, who was sitting beside the hearth. She vacantly stared back, her violet eyes welling up with tears.
“Rena?” he asked her.
She looked away and hugged Josie, who had taken the chair beside her.
David walked across the room to their neighbor, Bud.
“It’s a pleasure to see you again, Mr. Samuels,” he said, shaking the man’s hand. “How’s Pa? Is he comin’ home for Christmas, like he wrote?”
“Have a seat, David.” Bud’s eyes filled with concern. He scratched his straggly, graying beard.
Obeying the command, David slowly sank into a chair, keeping his eyes fixed on Bud’s face.
“I’m afraid I have bad news.” Bud cleared his throat, then slowly, deliberately said, “Your father’s been killed at Fredericksburg.” He looked down at the floor. “A little over a week ago. I know he was lookin’ forward to seein’ y’all. I’m…immensely sorry.”
He pulled a folded piece of yellowed paper from his coat pocket. The gray coat was torn and tattered in places, not at all like the beautiful piece of clothing that had been provided to him nearly two years earlier. His trousers and the kepi he held in his hand were weathered, too.
“Miss Carolyn, Hiram wanted me to give you this here letter…in the event of his death.” He solemnly handed her the note.
Squeezing her eyes shut, Carolyn held it to her mouth. Tears streamed down her weathered face. “Thank you, Bud,” she finally said. “You’ve been a good friend to my Hiram. I know he appreciated you dearly.”
Bud nodded. “Please let the missus or me know if there’s anything we can do,” he offered, and walked toward the door.
“I surely will.” Carolyn wearily stood, followed him to the door, and walked him out.
Bud placed his kepi on his head, untied his horse, mounted, and galloped off down the lane. The rhythm of hoof beats faded.
Turning from the doorway, Carolyn somberly gazed at her children. Her two daughters came across the room to hug her. The three of them burst into tears. Carolyn gazed at her son, who was sitting motionless across the room, his handsome young face drained of color, his hazel eyes growing a darker brown.
“David,” she said, her voice filled with the sorrow that had now overtaken the room.
He looked over at her, his face blank with grief-stricken shock. Finding no comfort in her anguished expression, he glanced up at the ornately-carved mantle clock, the one his father had given to her as a wedding gift. It read ten minutes past five. Beside it sat a framed tintype of his father, adorned in Confederate glory, ready to march off to victory, but now he was never to return. David’s eyes wandered, and he noticed things he’d taken for granted before: the raised oval portrait of his paternal grandmother on the wall, the paintings of flowers his mother liked so well that hung on the opposite wall, the fieldstone fireplace that his father had built, and the pine furniture that had been there ever since he could remember. Somehow, all of it seemed irrelevant.
Moving numbly, he rose and walked across the room to pick up the little tree he had dropped earlier. A tiny pool of water remained where it had fallen. He carried the tree outside, leaving a trail of moisture that splattered onto the floorboards. The cold winter air, uncluttered with snow, barely whispered, its breath deathly quiet and still. Dusk was rapidly approaching.
David hurled the tree as hard as he could. It landed with a rustled thud out in the yard. Without pausing, he walked into the breezeway past his mother and sisters and grabbed a kerosene lantern. He carried it outside, lit it, and threw it at the pine. The glass shattered upon impact. Kerosene trickled out onto the tiny branches and within seconds, flames engulfed the little tree. He stoically watched tongues of fire consume the sapling. Slowly, he turned to face his mother and sisters, who were standing on the porch, watching him while they wept.
“I reckon we won’t be celebratin’ Christmas after all,” he said, his voice raspy with distress.
Impending darkness engulfed his heart. Feeling the need for solitude, he walked around the house toward the barn, vaguely hearing his mother call out to him. The sky opened, releasing icy rain. He stomped past the pigpen and the chicken coop. Upon reaching the old wooden barn, he went inside and blinked several times before his eyes adjusted to his dim surroundings. He caught glimpses of shadows dancing off the walls and up around the rafters. A pungent combination of dry, clean hay and musty wood enveloped him. The rain rattled down upon the barn’s tin roof and sounded like a thousand tiny drums. Three cows studied him with soft brown eyes. One mooed a welcome as he walked past them.
Sidestepping bales of hay stacked near the stall door, David paused to shake off cold drops of moisture that clung to his shirt and ran his hand over the top of his head, wiping the rain from his dark brown hair. A large Percheron, standing in the stall next to Renegade, gazed at David with his ears pricked.
“Hey, Joe Boy,” David said softly to the tall white gelding.
The draft horse sniffled at David’s pockets but seemed to lose interest and shuffled to the other end of his stall when David didn’t offer a treat like he usually did. Renegade looked up from his fodder and nickered softly. David walked over and gently stroked his muzzle. “I’m sorry I put you through all that trouble of bringin’ home a tree.” Anguish and anger welled up inside him. Searing-hot tears streamed down his cheeks. His hatred seethed. His grief was overwhelming, and he could hold it back no longer. Sobs escaped him. He grasped onto his horse’s mane, burying his face in Renegade’s neck. The colt stood quietly, seemingly to console him.
Several days later, a sepulchral ritual commenced. Dreary rain persisted, becoming a bone-chilling drizzle. A small group gathered around a symbolic gravesite, the dirt left undisturbed since there was no body within. The grave was designated by a pine marker that David had carved. Mourners in black stood with heads bowed under ebony umbrellas while the pastor spoke.
“Forasmuch as it has pleased Almighty God in His wise Providence to take out of this world the soul of our deceased brother, Hiram Summers, we therefore commit his body to the ground: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, lookin’ for the general resurrection in the last day and the life of the world to come, through our Lord Jesus Christ, at whose second comin’ in glorious majesty to judge the world, the earth and the sea shall give up their dead, and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in Him shall be changed and made like unto His own glorious body, accordin’ to the mighty workin’ whereby He is able to subdue all things unto himself. I heard a voice from Heaven sayin’ unto me write, from henceforth, blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, even so sayeth the Spirit, for they rest from their labors.”
The pastor requested that all recite the Lord’s Prayer in unison, then the crowd chanted, “Amen.”
Carolyn reached out to her daughters, who carried her from the gravesite. The floated off with their faces veiled, their bodies swathed in black bombazine. The mourners dispersed until only one remained, who stared blankly at the pine headboard.
Beloved Father and Husband
Born May 11, 1821
Died December 13, 1862
Drizzle fell upon his uncovered head, and his shoulder-length hair hung in icy locks. He stood there, paralyzed, not sure what to do next, not wanting to do anything but stand there in the rain, wishing it would stop, but not wanting it to, because the rain seemed to drown his heartache and numb him into disbelief. Feeling as if someone was there with him, he could see his father’s face, almost imagine the sound of his voice, and he shuddered.
“Come on, David. You can’t stand out here in the rain all day. You’ll catch your death of cold.”
Recognizing the familiar voice, he responded, “I don’t care, Jake,” and was glad the rain hid his tears.
The young man moved closer, holding an umbrella over David’s head. “Let’s git on back to the house,” Jake said softly.
“It’s all my fault.”
“Pa’s death. If it wasn’t for me, he never would’ve gone. He would’ve stayed here to tend to the farm.”
“You don’t know that,” said Jake. “You can’t blame yourself.”
“I’m the one who wanted to jine up. He went in my place and made me promise to stay here. If it wasn’t for me pushin’ the issue, he might’ve jist let it go.” Squeezing his eyes shut, David muttered, “This is God’s way of punishin’ me, for wishin’ Owen Ridgeway was dead.”
“That ain’t why,” Jake said, his voice low and soothing. “And don’t go blamin’ yourself for Owen’s death. He brought it on himself.”
The two of them knew it to be true. Their schoolmate had been a turncoat, enlisting with the Yankees instead of the grand Confederacy. Owen had not died nobly. He had succumbed to God’s wrath, and the boys knew his death by disease was justifiable. Still, David felt responsible somehow. He finally looked up from the makeshift grave. He didn’t care if Jake could see he’d been crying. He waited for Jake to tease him about his sensitivity, but was grateful when it didn’t come. They walked together in silence, away from the wrought-iron fences. Reaching the waiting wagon, they climbed up onto the seat.
Jake took the reins and snapped them. “Git up, ole Stella gal,” he coaxed.
The wagon lurched forward as the coal black Morgan slowly plodded down the puddle-riddled, muddy road.
“Stella don’t take much to gittin’ up her speed,” David observed, but his voice was filled with sadness.
“She jist don’t like the rain,” Jake replied. “Her old joints stiffen up in this here weather.”
As they came within sight of the Summers’ saddlebag house, Jake signaled for his horse to trot. “It looks like all of Morgan County is here,” he said.
“Reckon Pa had a lot of friends.” David drew a heavy sigh.
Stella came to a stop near the front door. The two boys climbed down and went into the house. Black bunting traditionally covered the windows. Regardless of the dismal décor, the aroma of food enticed them.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m starvin’!” Jake quickly walked through the crowd toward the food.
David hesitated, but soon wished he hadn’t.
“I’m so sorry about your pa, David.”
The condolences continually came from friends and neighbors as he slowly made his way through the gathering.
“May we all meet beyond this vale of tears,” said Mrs. Samuels, a middle-aged woman with a soothing voice and a warm smile.
Unwittingly, David felt a twinge of jealousy. It wasn’t fair that Mrs. Samuels got her husband back when he would never have his father back. “Yes’m,” was all he could muster.
The pastor approached him. “I’m sorry for your loss, son, and I wish your father peace to his sleepin’ dust.”
David nodded, grimacing slightly at the words. “Thank you, Pastor,” he meekly responded. Making his way through the gathering, he overheard two elderly gentlemen.
“There’s been many a funeral this past week or so,” one remarked.
“I’ve heard tell as many as half a dozen from this county alone died fightin’ with Hiram,” the other said.
David came upon his mother, who embraced him. She looked up at him with her hazel eyes, but the large eyes that had always arrested him were now swollen and red. He felt his heart tighten like a fist.
“Your pa is with the angels now.” She forced a smile. “And with our dear little Elijah.”
David stifled a sob. He kissed his mother on the cheek, wishing for some way to relieve her suffering. Rena and Josie came across the room, and the entire family embraced.
“New Year’s Eve is the day after tomorrow,” Rena said in a melodic voice that sometimes made David’s heart flutter. “Next year can only git better for us, because this horrendous war will be over.”
“Hiram wouldn’t want us to mourn him. We should be celebratin’,” their mother said, wiping a tear from her eye.
David opened his mouth to say he didn’t feel like celebrating, but swallowed his words when he saw the sad, forlorn expression on his mother’s face. “You’re right, Ma,” he replied, and looked at his two sisters. “Pardon me while I go find Jake.” Edging his way through the crowd, he glanced at the open doorway to his parents’ room. Mourners gathered around the big bed, mumbling. He felt invaded by their presence, and wished they would at least allow his mother enough privacy to leave her room alone. Managing to make his way to a long table set against the back wall, he found his best friend piling food onto a plate.
“Look at all this!” Jake exclaimed, his brown eyes gleaming. “There’s enough food here to last y’all a week! Fetch yourself a plate!” Jake eagerly devoured a biscuit.
“I ain’t very hungry.” David looked at the table covered with apple and cherry pies, fruitcake, ham, fried chicken, chitlins, red-eye gravy, biscuits, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes, hominy, cornbread, collard greens, oysters, and dried fruits. He was overwhelmed by his neighbors’ generosity, since he knew that money and provisions had grown increasingly rare. Despite his sorrow, he found his mouth watering at the sight, so he reluctantly picked up a plate and began filling it.
“Come this spring, I’m fixin’ to jine the army,” he blurted, surprising himself by verbalizing his plans. “I’ve been givin’ it some thought since Pa died. Seems like a good way to pay those Yankees back for what they done.” He gave his friend a sidelong glance. “And I want you to come with me, Jake.”
Nodding in agreement, Jake said, “Mister Lincoln don’t realize what he’s doin’ by tryin’ to put an end to our peculiar institution and settin’ all the niggers free.” He popped a sweet potato into his mouth, chewed it twice, and gulped it down. “I can’t wait to kill me some Yankees!” His grin dissolved. “But I ain’t legal to go. Not like that would stop me, but I don’t know if I should leave right now, what with spring plantin’ comin’ up.”
David thought for a moment. “Well, if you’re fixin’ to go, best do it now before the war’s over.” He shoved a slice of ham into his mouth.
“That could be any day now,” said Jake.
“So we should jine up right away.”
Jake shrugged. “I’ll think on it a spell.”
Frowning, David devoured a biscuit. “I hate leavin’ my poor ma and sisters to fend for themselves, though.”
“My folks can help them take care of your farm,” Jake said. “Or they can send Percy and Isabelle over to do it. That is, if they don’t run off come the first of the year with all the other darkies.”
“I promised Pa I’d stay and take care of this place, but I can’t do it now. After all, the Good Book says ‘an eye for an eye.’”
“That’s the spirit!” Jake chuckled. He jovially punched his friend in the arm. “When are you, er, we, fixin’ to leave?”
“Reckon we ought to wait till after my birthday. That way, Ma can’t rightly object.” He picked up a chicken leg. Pointing it at his friend, he said, “I’ll tell her in a few weeks, after things have quieted down some,” and took a bite.
“Well, that’s when I’ll tell my folks, too, “said Jake, “and Callie.”
David glanced around the room, his eyes darting across the crowd of familiar faces. “I thought she would be here,” he said with a rueful expression.
Jake gave him a fleeting glance before focusing his attention back to his plate. “She was there at the funeral. I reckon you didn’t see her. She had to git on home, but said for me to tell you that she was…er, how’d she put it…sensitive to your pain.” He shoved a forkful of greens into his mouth.
David shook his head. “She won’t take lightly to your leavin’.”
With a shrug, Jake replied, “It ain’t like I’ll be gone forever.” He grinned, and grabbed another biscuit.
David finished his snack. Setting his plate on the table, he looked up and noticed his mother talking to a familiar face. The sight made him bristle.
“Look what the cat dragged in,” he said to Jake, who followed his gaze.
“Kit Lawrence?” Jake took a bite of fried okra. “I ain’t seen him around in a while.”
“I was hopin’ we got rid of him,” said David. “But it looks like he found out about Pa’s death.” He made his way through the crowded room to his mother.
“Not now, Kit,” she was saying. Noticing her son’s approach, she added, “We’ll discuss it another time,” and shuffled off.
“Mr. Lawrence,” David forced himself to say respectfully.
“Sorry about your pa, son,” Kit Lawrence said in a raspy voice. His breath reeked of tobacco and whiskey. “I can’t tell you how much this cuts me to the quick.”
David recoiled. “If you’re fixin’ to say I told you so, then save…”
“That ain’t why I’m here,” he said, giving what David perceived to be a genuine, sorrowful expression. “My intentions haven’t changed. I promised your pa when he left that I’d look after y’all, and that’s what I aim to do.”
Wanting to lash out by telling him his intentions weren’t desired, David decided to interrogate him instead. “Where have you been for the past few months?”
“Up in Kentucky. I have a business partner up there. We’ve been, er, sellin’ wares to the army.”
“Oh?” David raised a skeptical eyebrow. “What kind of wares?”
“That ain’t none of your concern, boy.” Kit’s familiar scowl returned. “In fact, I have to be gettin’ back. You tell your ma I’ll come callin’ on her later on.” He turned and sashayed out the door.
David was tempted to keep the message from his mother, but decided to relay it to her once everyone had gone. She merely nodded before shutting herself in her room.
The thought of Kit Lawrence butting into their affairs made his blood boil, but he knew the final decision was his mother’s. After all, Kit was supposedly his father’s best friend from childhood. A certain honor came with that, David supposed, but he didn’t see how any of them owed Kit anything. He had turned his back on Hiram by failing to enlist with him; by telling him his convictions were wrong. He didn’t even show up to send Hiram off. No, David decided, none of them owed Kit Lawrence a damn thing.
January slowly gave way to February. The war subsided, taking an unnerving pause since the Battle of Murfreesboro in Tennessee around New Year’s. Union soldiers occupied nearby Huntsville, which only enraged many of Morgan County’s residents further. David learned of the invasion one day during a visit to the blacksmith. Resentment and hostility simmered throughout the county. In David, it was ready to boil over.
“Mrs. Fletcher’s son has gone off to fight, too. Left in the middle of the night,” John Moss said as he lifted Renegade’s right front hoof. He was a short man with a bushy blond beard and piercing blue eyes. David often wondered how he could manage the taller horses, let alone get up on one.
“Is that a fact?” he responded. “Ain’t he only fifteen or so?”
“Yessiree,” said John, while prying off Renegade’s old shoe. “They’re all fixin’ to leave, sayin’ the war’s nearly done.” He let go of the colt’s hoof, walked over to a stack of horseshoes near the furnace, and selected one. Clamping the shoe with a pair of tongs, he set it over the flame. “I reckon you’ll be followin’ right behind him, won’tcha, David?” He picked up the glowing shoe, set it on an anvil, and pounded on it with a hammer, causing sparks to fly.
“I reckon I will,” David said, not sure if John heard him or not. He hadn’t cared a copper about secession before, but now the war was too close to home. The Northern invaders had taken his father, and all he could think about was his own vendetta.
John set the shoe into a barrel of water, causing it to hiss as steam spewed into the air.
“Your ma know about this?” a baritone voice boomed behind him.
David turned to see Bud Samuels standing in the doorway, holding the reins to his buckskin horse.
“Bud,” John greeted him. He picked up Renegade’s hoof again and nailed the new shoe in place.
“She will soon enough,” David replied. “I’m leavin’ the day after my birthday.”
Bud entered the shop. He tied his horse and removed his hat. “Well, I know how she’ll react. But I’ll tell you this much. Your pa would be right proud.” He sat down at a small wooden table that was set off to the side for waiting customers.
David took a seat across from him. “Thank you, Mr. Samuels.” He paused for a moment. Deciding to give in to his curiosity, he asked, “What was it like at Fredericksburg?”
“Cold,” said Bud. “Mighty cold.” He reached over to a small tin pot on the table, held a cup under the spout, poured dark liquid into it, and took a sip. Suddenly, his eyebrows creased together in a scowl. “What in tarnation is this?” he coughed.
“Ersatz coffee,” said the blacksmith.
“What’s in it?” croaked Bud.
John looked over at them from the furnace. “That there’s got chicory, corn, goober peas, and acorns in it. Oh, and my own secret ingredient.”
“What would that be, John?” Bud asked. “Chicken crap?”
The blacksmith grinned, exposing numerous gaps where teeth had once been. “Now, if I told y’all, it wouldn’t be a secret.” He commenced to pounding on another horseshoe.
Bud scratched his beard. Setting his cup down on the little table, he sighed.
“What else happened in Fredericksburg?” asked David. “Did Pa say anything before…” Sadness interrupted his question.
“He said he loved y’all. And that he was proud.”
“Proud? Of what?”
“Fightin’ for the grand ole Southland. And of you. He talked about you all the time, David. How much of a man you’d become, and how you didn’t put up a fuss about runnin’ the farm when he left.”
“Reckon it was my responsibility,” David replied. His mind wandered back to the day Bud and his father joined up with the 4th Alabama Infantry Regiment, “The North Alabamians,” and had gone off to fight in Virginia nearly two years ago. He glanced over at John, who smiled at him, and picked up Renegade’s rear hoof. “Anything else?”
“Well, somethin’ strange happened after the battle.” Bud glared up at the ceiling. David followed his gaze, but didn’t see anything unusual. He looked back at Bud, who still had his face upturned. “That last night, the sky lit up, and all different colored lights flashed across through the haze. We reckoned it was God tellin’ us He approved, bein’s we won the battle and all. It was wonderful.” He flashed a toothy grin.
David wasn’t sure if he agreed with Bud about receiving God’s approbation. If that were so, then why was it God’s will to take his pa?
“Are you fixin’ to go back to the fight, Bud?” John asked, while working on Renegade’s last remaining hoof.
“Yessir. Soon as the weather breaks.” He stood up, and David did the same. “I ain’t supposed to be back to Virginia for a couple months.” He looked at his cup and winced before setting it down on the table. “What I wouldn’t give for some real coffee,” he sighed.
“And sugar,” said John.
Suddenly, a loud bang caught them off guard. They turned to see a young man enter.
“Summers! Damn!” he roared, glaring angrily. He stomped toward David. “I’ve been lookin’ for you.” He gave David a harsh shove.
“Whoa, young’un!” Bud said, placing himself between the two. “What’s goin’ on here?”
“Tom!” David reacted. “What the devil’s gotten into you?”
Tom glared at him, his dark blue eyes penetrating. “It’s because of your pa,” he said, his anger turning into a sob.
“What is?” David exchanged glances with Bud.
John walked over to assist, a forging hammer in his hand.
“He promised my daddy that he’d be there to protect him, but he didn’t!” Tom tried to take a swing at David, who dodged his fist.
Wasting no time, Bud intersected by grabbing Tom’s arm and whirled him around. “I reckon it’s time you leave till you cool down some,” he said sternly.
David’s hazel eyes grew dark. He gaped at his attacker. “What are you talkin’ about?”
“You know damn well! You heard him, same as I did!” Tom was panting now, sweat beading on his forehead and running down his reddish-brown sideburns. He stood wringing his hands, struggling to control his rage.
John came closer with the hammer. “You heard Mr. Samuels. It’s time you high-tailed it, boy.” He motioned with the hammer toward the wooden door, slightly ajar, and swaying in the cold breeze.
Tom drew a heavy, quivering sigh. He glanced around at the gathering, and rushed out, leaving the door open behind him.
Turning toward David, John asked gruffly, “You know what that was all about?”
David gave a solemn nod. Tom had reminded him of the day their fathers attended a sending-off ceremony in Huntsville, four days before they left for the war. “I remember now,” he said. “Pa told Mr. Caldwell that he would look after him, jist like all the fellers did. They all gave the same vow. Don’t you recall, Mr. Samuels?”
Bud scratched his beard. “Yeah, of course I do. We all took that oath…that we’d look after each other and all.”
John shook his head, distraught. “Well, it’s a darn shame, that’s all.” He returned to his task.
“Did Tom’s father die, Mr. Samuels?” asked David.
Bud scowled, which was indication enough.
When John had finished shoeing Renegade, he led the colt over to David and handed him the reins.
“Thank you kindly, Mr. Moss,” David said. “Ma will see to it that you git paid once the crops are in.”
“God speed, young’un,” said John. “And take care of that horse.”
“Yessir.” David turned to face his father’s best friend. “Well, Mr. Samuels, good luck to you,” he said, setting his slouch hat on his head.
Bud reached out to shake his hand. “And to you, son. I hope we meet again in this here life.”
David hadn’t thought about that possibility. He soberly nodded.
“And watch out for those varmint Yankees when you git to Huntsville,” Bud warned. “I don’t know if they’re still up there, occupyin’ the city.”
“I will,” David replied.
Clicking his tongue against the inside of his cheek twice as a signal to his horse, David led Renegade out of the shop. On the walk back home, an eerie feeling came over him, one that refused to let go. It was the same sensation that had haunted him since Bud spoke his ominous words about meeting again in this life. Tom’s appearance and the thought of all that death made David shudder.
With the advent of warm weather, David spent his days reading the Farmer’s Almanac and planning out which crops to plant, but he was fully aware that he wouldn’t be the one to plant them. The weeks seemed to drag on endlessly. His only reprieve was to visit Jake and persuade him to enlist.
By mid-March, school resumed, so David escorted his sisters to their one-story schoolhouse, the same building that was transformed into a storage facility for harvested cotton in the autumn and vacated during summer and winter months when the weather was too hot or cold. He had graduated two years before, just before his father left for the war, and had spent his time fulfilling his promise to tend to the farm while his father was away. When Hiram left, no one thought the war would last this long, and everyone hoped it wouldn’t last much longer. But David hoped it would last long enough to see his intentions through.
As he walked the two miles back home, he whistled softly to himself, wishing he had brought along his trusty steed to shorten his travel time. A soft breeze weaved through the budding trees around him. He glanced up from the road just in time to see an incoming rock. It whizzed past him and slammed into a nearby tree with a thud.
“What the hell?” He walked over, picked it up, and pulled off a tied-on piece of paper. “This is for what your pa did to mine.” He crumpled the paper in his left hand and threw it on the ground. Looking around, he hollered, “Come on out you coward! I know you’re out there!”
“I got more rocks and I’ll use ‘em!” a voice shouted back.
David recognized it. “Caldwell! I ain’t got nothin’ to do with whatever my pa promised yours!” He was itching to fight, but his adversary remained invisible, making him feel awkwardly vulnerable. Trying to call him out, he said, “Can’t we jist put this behind us?”
Tom laughed. “Not on your life! The way I see it, you’re the next of your pa’s kin to pay for his mistake.” Another rock whooshed by, this time plummeting into the underbrush.
David’s temper flared. “Fine! If that’s the way you want it, you’ve got a fight on your hands!” He stomped off down the road, expecting a rock to slam into his back, but it didn’t come. Rounding a bend, he bolted toward home.
A week before David planned to leave, he decided to break the news to his family. He had waited as long as he could, since he was apprehensive about the event and knew they would try to talk him out of it.
His mother set steaming bowls of Hopping John in front of each of her children, who had gathered around the table. Josie grabbed a spoon and went to take a bite.
“Josephine Summers, you wait till we say grace,” her mother firmly scolded her.
“Sorry, Ma.” Josie set the spoon down.
Carolyn seated herself. She folded her hands, rested her elbows firmly on the table, and glanced around, waiting until her brood had all closed their eyes. “Lord, thank you for this food which we are about to receive. Bless this family, and give us a prosperous year. We pray in your name, Amen.”
“Amen,” her children echoed.
Carolyn passed a plate of fried cornbread to Rena.
“I don’t see how we can prosper this year, Ma, what with the Yankees breathin’ down our necks, and now a tax-in-kind bein’ imposed on us,” David remarked, swirling his spoon around in the bowl of bacon, rice, and sarsaparilla stew. He scooped up a purple-hulled pea, an onion, and some red peppers, but let them fall back into the thickness.
“The army is entitled to whatever we can provide them,” said Carolyn. “If they want us to tithe a tenth of everything we grow, then that’s what we’ll give them.”
“But what if we have a bad crop this year?” asked Rena. She looked across the table at her brother.
“The Good Lord will provide for us, dear,” Carolyn said confidently.
Rena watched her brother swirl his spoon around without taking a bite. “David, ain’t you hungry?” she asked.
Josie snickered. “That would be a first.” She grinned at her brother before shoveling another spoonful into her mouth.
David hesitated. “There’s somethin’ I want to say to y’all.” He let go of the spoon and looked directly at his mother. “I’m fixin’ to jine the army.”
Carolyn immediately stopped eating. He felt like he had put a knife into her heart by the way she glared at him.
“David, I need you here,” she said softly.
“I have to go, Ma.” His voice grew defiantly stronger. “You know I do.”
“No, you don’t, David,” Josie said in a high pitch. She reached across the table, grabbing hold of his wrist. “You don’t have to go.”
“Well, I want to, then. I’m fixin’ to go and that’s final.” He took a deep breath. What had been building up inside of him for weeks had finally been released. The whole episode made him irritated. His mother was about to protest, he knew she would, but he had to make her understand.
“When?” She stared at him with her big hazel eyes.
Feeling his anger subside, his lower lip quivered slightly. “April third,” he said, his voice softening under his mother’s gaze. “The day after my birthday.”
“That’s next week!” Josie exclaimed.
“What about your plans to go to Auburn?” asked Rena.
David snorted. “I can’t go to college now. Not with all that’s happened.” He looked down at his bowl and shrugged. “We don’t have the money, anyways.”
An awkward silence engulfed them.
“I ain’t hungry anymore,” Rena sobbed. She hurried out of the room.
David watched her leave. Guilt swept over him, but he couldn’t waver. He had a duty to fulfill. “Jake’s comin’ with me,” he mumbled.
“Oh, he is, is he?” his mother asked.
“Do his folks know about that?”
“I reckon so.” He glanced over at Josie, who was still eating, but staring at him blankly.
“What about the crops? Have you considered that?” His mother set her spoon down on the table. “It’s more than we can manage, David. You know we have over a hundred acres out yonder.”
“I know, Ma,” he said, his voice softening even more. “Jake’s folks will help out, or their slaves will.”
“Did you speak to them about it?” Carolyn frowned.
He stared at his bowl. “No, but I’m fixin’ to…tomorrow.”
His mother sighed, picked up her spoon, and took a bite. He reluctantly did the same. The mantle clock ticked repetitiously, accentuating the quiet.
“I’m done, Ma,” Josie announced. “May I be excused?”
Carolyn nodded, so Josie rose from her place at the table and departed to the adjoining cabin.
“I’m done, too, Ma.” David said. “May I be excused?”
“You can help me with clearin’ the table. I ain’t done with you yet.”
David clenched his teeth. Under normal circumstances, he usually evaded clearing the table, since he considered it to be women’s work. This was his mother’s way of showing her disapproval, he knew.
Avoiding eye contact, he stood, gathered the dishes, and followed her out the back door. His two coonhounds, who had been waiting patiently, sprang to their feet, their tails wagging furiously.
“Caleb, you ole mutt. Si, you scoundrel,” he greeted them affectionately. He scooped the leftovers into their dish and patted his hounds in an effort to postpone the confrontation with his mother, but finally forced himself to face the inevitable. Leaving the dogs to eagerly devour their food, he entered the small wooden kitchen building. Heat from the cook stove engulfed him; the smell of fried bacon still lingered. He set the empty bowls down next to the wash basin near a burning kerosene lamp. As he turned to leave, Carolyn grabbed hold of his forearm, compelling him to look at her.
“I know I can’t talk you out of this, because you think it’s your duty and you want to do it for your pa.” She stared deeply into his eyes.
He slowly nodded, and bowed his head. It became apparent to him that his sagacious mother had known his intentions all along, for she could always read his thoughts and feelings.
“David, look at me when I’m speakin’ to you,” she instructed.
He timidly obeyed.
“That horse of yours will die of a broken heart if you don’t take him along. And besides that, he knows how to git out of his stall, and he’ll jist go chasin’ after you.” She gave him a sad smile. He faintly smiled in response. “Jist promise me one thing.” She held tightly onto his arm. The flame flickered, punctuating the uncomfortable, sudden stillness.
“What’s that, Ma?” he asked quietly.
“That you and Jake will git in with the cavalry. I’d feel a whole lot better if you did.”
“But, Ma, how will we kill any Yankees if we’re in the cavalry?”
She frowned. “I reckon you’ll find a way.”
David chuckled, but seeing his mother’s hardened gaze, quickly let the smile fade from his lips. “I don’t know if ole Stella can make the journey,” he said.
“Ole Stella will do jist fine. Now, you promise me.” She grasped tighter onto his forearm to the point where it was starting to hurt.
“All right, Ma. I promise.”
She released her grasp. “And you make sure Jake promises his folks. I know ya’ll think it’s one big romp, but I can’t lose you.” She turned away, stirred the cinders in the wood-burning stove, and started heating up water for the dishes.
“Ma, I’ll be all right.”
He gave her a quick peck on the cheek. His mother didn’t react. He turned, exited out of the kitchen, and glanced back. She was still facing away from him. Sauntering across the yard, he passed the well and the two outhouses and went into the house. Respectfully, he tidied up the table for her before retreating to his room. He could hear his sisters’ muffled voices seep through the wall as he plopped onto his bed and positioned a down pillow under his head. The entire episode had left him exhausted and emotionally drained. Tomorrow will be another day, he reasoned to himself and closed his eyes. Lying across the bed with his feet hanging over the edge, he drifted off.