2023 Winner of the John Esten Cooke Fiction Award
#1 Amazon Bestseller
The Civil War has ended. Confederate cavalryman, David Summers, returns home to Alabama, taking his new wife, Anna, with him. Upon arrival, he understands how much the war has changed him and has scarred his homeland. Faced with challenges of transition, he learns how to navigate his new world, along with the pain and trauma of his past. He is also forced to confront his foes, including Stephen Montgomery. Their hatred for one another inevitably boils over into a fierce confrontation, whereby David is arrested. Will the jury believe his side of the story, even though he is an ex-Confederate? Or will he be hung for his crime?
Author: J. D. R. Hawkins
Fiction / Historical / War/Military / Drama / Suspense
- Paperback: 370 pages
- Publisher: Westwood Books Publishing LLC (April 7, 2022)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1685363172
- ISBN-13: 978-1685363178
Available from Westwood Books Publishing
*Book Teasers for Double-Edged Sword*
Non Immortatitatem Fata Negaverunt
Fates Which Refused Them Victory
Did Not Deny Them Immortality
“The government of the United States has in north Alabama any and all rights which they choose to enforce in war, to take their lives, their houses, their lands, their everything, because they cannot deny that war exists there, and war is simply power unrestrained by constitution or compact. If they want eternal warfare, well and good. We will accept the issue and dispossess them and put our friends in possession. To those who submit to the rightful law and authority all gentleness and forbearance, but to the petulant and persistent secessionists, why, death is mercy and the quicker he or she is disposed of the better. Satan and the rebellious saint of heaven were allowed a continuance of existence in hell merely to swell their just punishment. To such as would rebel against a Government so mild and just as ours was in peace, a punishment equal would not be unjustified …”
– General William T. Sherman (1865)
The constant ric-atata, ric-atata of the wheels rolling against the rails lulled him. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and he found it difficult to breathe in the warm, humid, almost unbearable air. The soft whispering breeze of his wife’s handheld fan gently whispered against his cheek, and his mind eased. Voices seeped into his conscience, growing louder as they neared him.
“Over here!” a man yelled. “Bring that torch!”
A flame came into view. It quickly exploded into a fury of fire against the night sky. What appeared to be phantoms floated around burning buildings. The confusion escalated. Trees began to spark, glowing behind a dark swinging object hanging from one of the branches. A child frantically cried. Muffled banging noises, as if guns were being shot, could be heard in the distance. Someone ran out of the burning house. It was a woman. She screamed and kept on screaming; her screams grew louder and more blood-curdling.
David’s heart leaped. He gasped as he jolted awake. Looking around, he remembered he was riding in a passenger car. The woman’s screams turned into the locomotive’s whistle, and the pistol shots became the train’s churning wheels.
“We’re in Richmond,” Anna said to him.
He looked over at her, stunned at first.
“Are you all right?”
He drew a sigh of relief. “Yeah.” He smiled, forcing himself to disregard the frightful nightmare. “I’m fine.”
She smiled back at him, his new bride, the love of his life. Why she remained beside him on his journey home amazed him.
“Did we cross the river I told you about? The one they named after you?”
Anna chuckled. “You mean the North Anna? Not that I’m aware of, but I have to admit, I dosed off myself.” She paused, contemplating. “I think the first thing we should do is to go find the man we met in York who said he’d sell us a horse and carriage.”
The train heaved and screeched to a stop. Passengers flowed out of the car onto the platform. David stood and held his hand out to her. She picked up the basket her aunt had given them before their trip, took his hand, and followed him outside.
“He’s two cars down,” he said, and led her through the throng.
Steam from the locomotive hissed out around their feet, rolling down the platform. The train’s bell clanked rhythmically. A paunchy man with a stovepipe hat emerged from a passenger car.
“There he is! Mr. Tarver!” He let go of her hand and hurried ahead while Anna struggled to keep up. “Mr. Tarver!” David approached the man and extended his hand. “I’m the feller who spoke with you back in York.” The man glared at him, so he continued, “About buyin’ a horse and carriage?”
The man’s blank expression turned to one of recognition. “Oh, yes! Mr. Summers, is it?”
“Yessir.” He turned to Anna. “And this here’s my wife.”
“Mrs. Summers, pleased to make your acquaintance.” Mr. Tarver tipped his hat.
Anna softly giggled. “The feeling’s mutual,” she said, returning the greeting.
“I have a driver waiting,” the man said. “Why don’t we walk over to my barouche and discuss the particulars.”
“I need to fetch Renegade first,” David explained. “I’ll be right back!” He threw a glance at Anna before trotting off down the length of the resting train.
“We so appreciate your doing this for us, kind sir,” she said with a smile. “We’re newly married, and in need of transportation.” She knew her glowing porcelain skin, and her aqua eyes sparkling from under her bonnet, caught him off guard for a moment.
“Why, I’m more than happy to assist, my dear,” he stammered as he removed his hat.
Steam from the locomotive made the stifling August heat all the more noticeable.
Anna looked down the length of the train to see her husband approaching. He was leading a saddled piebald chestnut horse with a flaxen mane and tail and white patches on his underbelly: the magnificent little stallion she’d come to love. David grinned as he neared.
“That’s a fine-looking animal,” Mr. Tarver commented.
“Thank you, sir,” he responded.
The man started for the parked coaches nearby, and the young couple followed. “Here we are,” he said as he arrived at his barouche. “Now then, what was the price I quoted you?”
“One hundred dollars,” David replied.
Mr. Tarver nodded. “Yes, well, I’m afraid the purchasing price has changed.”
“What do you mean?” asked Anna.
“It means, my dear, that we are in the South now, and I must accept any opportunity as it arises.”
David glanced at his wife. “How much?” he growled.
Anna could see his anger rising. His hazel eyes were darkening to umber, and his jaw clenched.
“Five hundred,” Mr. Tarver’s replied.
“What!” David exploded. “Are you out of your cotton pickin’ mind?”
Mr. Tarver laughed. His driver, a teenage boy, turned to sneer.
“We made a bargain!” David continued. “We shook on it!”
“Times are hard, Mr. Summers,” the paunchy man explained.
David took a step toward him, but Anna blocked his path.
“Darling,” she cooed, “why don’t you go check on our trunk.”
“I ain’t leavin’ you here with this … this thief!” He glared at the man.
The insistent tone of her voice was a warning. He realized he should cool down, so he stomped off.
“Now, Mr. Tarver,” she said as she turned to face him. “Surely you’re a man of reason. Can’t we come to some kind of an agreement?”
Mr. Tarver snorted. “What do you have in mind, my dear?”
Anna glanced at the driver, then leaned in and whispered into the older man’s ear. She stepped back. “And since both you and I are from Pennsylvania, I thought perhaps you might oblige.”
“Well, I would certainly like to,” he replied.
She could see he needed further persuasion. The thought had occurred to her on the train that this might happen, so she had mentally prepared herself. She retrieved a small purple velvet pouch from her reticule. “One hundred dollars … and this.” She dropped it into his outstretched palm.
He pried the pouch open and lifted out a pendant. Nodding as he beheld the sapphire, he said, “All right, Mrs. Summers, we have an agreement.” He placed the necklace back inside, pulled the drawstring closed, and stuffed the pouch into his vest pocket. “Follow me.”
Anna glanced up at the young driver, who raised a curious eyebrow at her as she walked away. They came to a baggage car where David was waiting.
“Your wife has persuaded me to honor our agreement,” Mr. Tarver said.
He waved a finger through the air, motioning for the newlyweds to follow. David glared at Anna questioningly, but she only responded with a smile, and so he resigned to tagging along behind. They walked down the length of the train to a boxcar. The doors were opened. The strong, rancid smell of manure escaped the warm car and permeated the air. Anna began to gag. Quickly, she pulled a handkerchief from her purse and covered her nose. A ramp was placed in the boxcar’s opening. Several black men emerged, each one leading an equine. David saw that some of the animals had been painted to disguise their age.
“Here is a good sturdy beast,” Mr. Tarver said, taking the halter of a dark chestnut mule. “And it’s all you can afford.”
“A mule? It was my understandin’ that we agreed on a workhorse,” David protested.
“This little jennie is only four, and will give you plenty of years of devoted labor.”
David scoffed. He looked the mule over. “Recently shod?” he asked.
“Just last week,” the man replied.
“I don’t know … she looks older than four …”
“Thank you, Mr. Tarver,” Anna interjected. “She’ll do just fine. Now about a carriage?”
“Ah, yes.” He made his way past a few more cars to where men were unloading various vehicles and lining them alongside the road. Mr. Tarver walked up to a buckboard wagon. “You will be very comfortable in this, and it’s …”
“All we can afford,” David finished for him. He removed his slouch hat and ran his hand through his dark brown collar-length hair in an effort to contain his composure.
“I’ll even throw in the hitch and harness.” Mr. Tarver grinned, exposing yellow tobacco-stained teeth.
“We’re very grateful, sir,” Anna said, taking her husband’s arm.
David scowled. This wasn’t at all what he had imagined. He had envisioned driving up to his family’s farmstead in a bright, shiny carriage with his lovely new wife seated beside him. But it wasn’t meant to be, and he knew he was better off to bite his tongue than to argue. Mr. Tarver obviously had the upper hand, and could back out if provoked. David also knew that, because the South was in disarray, his chances of finding anything cheaper were slim at best.
“Are you staying here in Richmond?” Mr. Tarver inquired.
David grunted. “No, sir. We’re on our way to Alabama.”
“Oh,” said Mr. Tarver with a nod. “Then you’ll be wanting to catch the train south to Petersburg, and it departs in two hours.” He turned and pointed down the thoroughfare. “You’ll have time to find yourselves something to eat, if you so desire. I’ll have someone assist you with your bags.” He motioned to one of the hands, who hitched the mule to the wagon and led it to the row of baggage cars. David found the trunk containing their personal effects waiting on the platform, so he pointed it out to the rail hand, who heaved it into the back of the wagon before walking off.
“That will be one hundred dollars,” Mr. Tarver said.
David took out the greenback Anna’s uncle had given him upon their departure and handed it to him.
Mr. Tarver withdrew a piece of paper from his vest. “And here, sir, is your bill of sale. Pleasure doing business with you.” He smiled and turned to leave, but then remembered. “Go west a mile or two until you see the town. Can’t miss it. Then be back here to catch the Petersburg train. Oh, and congratulations, you two!” He strolled to his waiting barouche, and climbed in with considerable effort. His driver tapped the reins before driving off.
“Why did he say that?” David asked aloud.
He sighed, wondering how a Yankee would know his way around Richmond so well, while he unburdened Renegade and threw the saddle into the wagon. After tying his horse to the back of the vehicle, he helped Anna climb in, stepped up, and sat beside her. He swatted the reins against the jennie’s back, who turned her long head to get a good look at him.
“Damned mule!” he exclaimed, exasperated with his situation.
“Here, let me try.” Anna took the reins from him. “Come on girl!” she coaxed, gently slapping the leather straps against the animal’s withers.
The mule twitched her long ears and started forward. Anna handed the reins back to her frowning husband.
“All it takes is a little patience,” she said with a smile.
They drove down the street in the direction indicated. David noticed all the Yankee uniforms about and gingerly pulled out his pistol, being careful not to draw the soldiers’ attention.
“I’ll take it,” Anna said quietly. She set the handgun down in her lap, retrieved her handkerchief, tore it into long strips, and tied the weapon to her thigh before concealing it under her brown skirt.
The town was nearly deserted, vaguely resembling the bustling city that David and his best friend, Jake, had ridden through on their way to join J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry. Although it had been only two years since then, it seemed like a lifetime ago. The Southerners were impoverished now; it was evident by their shabby clothing and frayed hats. Although the hazy midday sun cast long shadows, there seemed to be a foreboding, dark shroud hanging over the city, and it wasn’t long before David saw why. As they traveled along the riverfront, bombed out buildings rose up to meet them like ghostly skeletons, the remains of what was once the Confederacy’s great capital. The Stars and Stripes waved atop flagpoles, only four months ago replacing the grand Blood-Stained Banner, a flagrant reminder of the recent victory won. Union soldiers paroled the streets.
“Dear God,” David half whispered as he took in the horrendous sight. “What have they done?”
Southern women dressed in mourning black drifted like ashes.
“Lost souls for a lost cause,” he muttered out loud to himself.
The women glanced up at the passing couple. David saw the empty expressions in their eyes, the overwhelming consummation of total loss. His heart grew heavier with each passing block. The South, he now realized, was left to cope with Sherman’s destruction, Grant’s devastation, and the Union’s occupation.
Shelled out buildings lay in ruin, their open doorways and windows gaping to expose piles of rubble inside. They rose up like enormous jagged shards, splintered and broken. Chimneys within the buildings stood erect, which looked to David like long bony fingers extending up to the firmament. A few freed men stood idly on the street corners.
“It looks as though they’re lost as well,” Anna remarked.
David nodded. His imagination took over as he absorbed the sight. He visualized what it must have been like only a few months ago, when Sherman’s army invaded and seized the city. The poor people of Richmond, he thought to himself. All he could do was slowly shake his head in disgust and despair.
As Mr. Tarver had directed, the city appeared, but nothing seemed to be open. David was more than eager to leave the destroyed city, so they returned to the depot, but no train was waiting for them. He parked the wagon, went inside, and learned the train would be arriving within the hour, so he and Anna decided to sit down and finish what little food remained in their basket while they killed time.
A Union officer with a neatly trimmed beard approached them. “You planning on boarding the train?” he asked.
“Yessir,” responded David as he stood. He already knew he didn’t like the direction this conversation was going.
“No civilians allowed to board,” the sergeant said. He turned and spit a long spray of tobacco juice, which made Anna wince with repulsion. “The trains are being used for military personnel only.”
David glanced at his wife, who stood and said, “Sir, we would greatly appreciate it if you could make an allowance on our behalf.”
The sergeant chuckled. “Now, missus, if I made an exception for you, I’d have to do it for everyone else who wants to ride the rails back home to Dixie.” The tone in his voice changed to sarcasm. He glared at David, who returned the expression.
“Honey, would you excuse us for a moment?” She smiled at her husband.
The shocked look on his face nearly made her falter, but she steadied herself. He sauntered across the room and stood with his arms folded.
“Sir,” Anna said, trying to bat her eyelashes, but not so much as to make it comical. “I’m in a predicament, and I desperately need your help. You see, I’m from Pennsylvania, and I …” She glanced over at David, who stood scowling across the room.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but I can’t allow it,” the sergeant said.
Anna spoke to him in a hushed voice. Suddenly, the sergeant looked over at David and grinned.
“All right, young lady, I’ll see what I can do.”
He walked out of the depot, and David returned to his bride.
A few minutes later, the sergeant reappeared, announcing that he was going to allow them to board after all. “And congratulations to the two of you,” he said before walking off.
“What’s goin’ on?” David asked, confused by the sergeant’s change in demeanor.
Anna merely smiled at him, just as the train arrived. He loaded their belongings into box and baggage cars after producing proof of his purchases and his discharge papers from prison.
The iron horse pulled away and chugged across a bridge spanning the James River. As it picked up speed, David glanced back at old Richmond, or what was left of it. The brick burned-out vestiges of the structures stood along the riverbanks like crippled, withered soldiers, and wound around a curve until they were obscured from sight. The locomotive whistled and chugged south toward Petersburg. Debris along the tracks abandoned by both armies was still evident, and as they approached Petersburg, trenches and fortifications became visible, remnants left over from a nearly year-long siege.
He stared out the window, unable to speak. It was all too terrible for him, how Dixie had been taken. Anna sensed his sorrow and took hold of his hand, but he couldn’t look at her. It was all he could do to contain his emotions, to keep from getting choked up, and so he continued to stare out in disbelief as the train rolled past the ruins. He noticed a small sign that said “Crater” with an arrow pointing off to the east. Was it an indication that tourists and souvenir hunters were already descending on the relics? The thought made David uneasy. He hoped the same thing wasn’t happening where Jake was buried. Farther down the line, he noticed several men walking out in a field with shouldered spades, and he wondered if they were gravediggers.
Soon, the locomotive reached the depot. His assumption proved accurate. Not far from the station was an embalming studio. The building was deserted. It had fulfilled its purpose, and stood lifeless, like the bodies that had come and gone from its hold.
The newlyweds changed trains once again, this time destined for Knoxville. Within a few hours, they were on their way, continuing their journey toward the Appalachian Mountains.
People on the train were very quiet, and it disturbed David even more. He knew what they were probably thinking, which was the same thing he was dwelling upon. How could such horror befall the South? All those lives wasted for naught, including his father and his best friend. He remembered his ride through these mountains with Jake, and suddenly, his heart hurt so badly he thought it might burst. He would be home soon to confront his family with the awful loss. The pain it caused was inconceivable. He pushed the thought from his mind, glanced at Anna, who had now dozed off, and sadly smiled, relieved she was with him, and that she loved him. He remembered those long months spent in Elmira prison, where he wondered if she would receive him once he was set free. He thought of Stephen Montgomery, her proclaimed friend, and all the trouble he’d caused when he learned of Anna and David’s secret marriage. Stephen’s words to him before they left—a threat essentially—warned him that some fatal incident might happen to him, thus enabling Stephen to take Anna for his bride and combine their two farms into one enormous property. The recollection made David bristle, but then he chuckled to himself. Stephen would never follow them to Alabama. Anna would be safe.
The train barreled up into the mountains as the sun set. Not all the seats were filled in the darkened passenger car, which was dimly illuminated by kerosene lamps and decorated in plush red velvet. David and Anna managed to find enough room to spread out and sleep on the seats across from each other. In the morning, they were awakened by a conductor who asked if they would be partaking in breakfast. Since their victuals were gone, they made their way to the dining car, only to find the exorbitant prices were beyond their reach, so they settled for two cups of coffee, and split a biscuit between them.
With each passing day, the locomotive made frequent stops in route to refuel, giving the newlyweds an opportunity to check on their belongings and ensure their safety. They managed to obtain fruit and bread from vendors at various locations, and sustained until the train arrived in Knoxville. After David had exercised the animals, he and Anna waited patiently inside the depot. A regulator clock on the wall ticked loudly, and a calendar hanging beside it told them it was Thursday, August 10.
By mid-morning, another train arrived. The passengers were quickly boarded, and the locomotive departed toward Chattanooga. Another all-night ride ensued before the train finally arrived early the following morning.
“How long till the next train leaves for Huntsville?” David asked the conductor as they exited the car.
“Check inside,” came the gruff reply.
David glanced at Anna, who looked haggard from the long trip. He smiled reassuringly, and led her into the depot, where he asked a man behind a dark-stained cherrywood counter.
“You have a few hours,” the gray-bearded man answered without glancing up from his boarding schedule.
David directed Anna back outside. She stood waiting, brushing her long blond hair from her face while he requested the assistance of a few rail hands to unload their wagon and mule. He led Renegade out himself. The stallion was his prized possession, and he would rather die than let harm come to the animal, or worse yet, have someone be harmed by the feisty steed. Anna could see why: the little horse definitely had a mind of his own. He was fast and sound, and as they had discussed on their long train ride, he might bring money by racing. She knew how much David cherished his horse, because his father had given it to him, and he had few reminders left of his father. Anna was endeared to the little horse too, and she had always been fascinated by the fact that David and his stallion had the same-colored eyes. He was the reason for David’s entering her life in the first place, and Renegade had saved her from Stephen’s savage attack. The thought made her shiver, even though she knew Stephen had not been himself when he’d learned that she was married to a Confederate, or in his eyes, a traitor.
“Let’s go into town,” David suggested as he led Renegade toward her.
She took the reins while he retrieved the mule and hitched her to the wagon, then walked the stallion around and tied him to the back. Union soldiers observed curiously as David heaved their heavy trunk onto the back of the wagon. One of them advanced.
“Sir, we need to check your luggage,” he said with a sardonic grin, his ebony skin shining with sweat.
“What for?” asked David.
“We need to look for anything that might be considered a threat to the government. ‘Specially firearms.”
David scoffed, but after realizing the soldier wasn’t going to back down, he glowered and opened the trunk, being careful to conceal the box of cartridges and his holster under his jacket as he did so. A few other black soldiers, attired in Union blue, drew closer out of curiosity. The first soldier stuck his hand into the trunk’s contents and began rummaging through.
“Sir!” Anna exclaimed from the wagon seat. “Those are my personal effects! I insist you stop this instant!” She had wisely hidden the food they’d brought for her in-laws among her undergarments, and was startled with the revelation that they might be discovered.
The soldier looked up at her, realized her anger, gingerly withdrew his hand, and closed the trunk’s lid. “Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am. We meant no disrespect.” He grinned to show striking white teeth from under his forage cap.
Anna held her penetrating gaze, and the soldiers backed away.
“H’ya!” David slapped the reins, prompting the jennie to trot, since he was eager to get away from the Federal soldiers. Once they had driven a few blocks, he said, “I want you to meet someone,” as he directed the mule down the street.
“Is it the elderly woman you told me about?” Anna asked. She looked over at him, his handsome, tanned face shaded by the brim of his hat.
“Yeah, I hope she’s still there. I reckon it was this way.”
He turned and drove several blocks, trying to recall the direction of the house where he had stayed on his first night away from home. Everything appeared so different, and bluecoats were everywhere, swarming like flies. Down the street, a row of sutlers’ shops had been erected for the benefit of the Union troops. The newlyweds turned a corner and continued on, past structures that were once beautiful homes, but now sat empty, the glass in their windows shattered, their walls crumbling. Tent cities and clapboard structures cluttered vacant lots. Some of the boards were still adorned with wallpaper, an obvious declaration that the walls had been torn from citizens’ private dwellings. David recognized a two-story house, even though the paint was peeling around the window frames and the yard was filled with knee-high weeds.
“This is it?” Anna asked. “It isn’t quite how you described it.”
“It ain’t how I remember it, either,” he said.
He jumped down and tied the mule, then assisted his wife. They climbed the steps together. David tapped on the door. The brass knocker that had been there before was gone; holes from the bolts that had held it in place were all that remained. There came no response, so after a few moments, he tapped again.
“Last time I was here, she had a butler. Tall black feller, name of … Henry.” David nodded as he recalled. “He didn’t take to us much.” He flashed Anna a grin.
“He’s long gone by now, no doubt,” she said.
David tapped once more, but still no response came, so he tried the knob. The door stuck in the jam at first, but then creaked loudly on its hinges.
“Do you think we should go in there?” asked Anna.
He stepped inside. The long hallway was as dark as he remembered, but the lavish paintings that had adorned the walls were missing. Anna followed him down the hall to a large room that was empty except for a solitary wooden stool that squatted in the center. The ornate draperies David remembered had been ripped down, and a transparent gauze sheet had been draped across the broken windows in an attempt to keep insects out. The fireplace stood dark and empty, and the tapestries David remembered seeing were all gone, along with the furniture and knick knacks.
“I don’t think anyone’s here,” Anna whispered.
David walked to the window and looked outside. The back of the house was just as neglected as the front, and the stable doors yawned open with a passing breeze. There was nothing inside. He heard a thump and reeled around to see a small man standing behind Anna. She turned and gasped at the same time before rushing to her husband.
“Can I be of service to y’all?” the man asked feebly.
“Josiah?” David said, taking a step closer. “Is that you?”
The little man held his hand out to him. “That would be me. How may I help y’all?”
“Don’t you remember me?” asked David, trying to keep his voice quiet. “I’m David Summers. I came here with my friend, Jake Kimball. We met on the train from Huntsville, remember?”
The man didn’t seem to recall, so David went on.
“Your wife, Miss Martha, she had us stay the night. And her sister was here. Miss Mattie?”
“When did you say this was?” The old man shuffled to the wooden stool and sat down.
“It was in April of sixty-three. We were on our way to jine up with Jeb Stuart.”
The words seemed to register. Josiah looked up and smiled. “Yes. Yes! I believe I do remember you!” He stood up and vigorously shook David’s hand.
“This here’s Anna, my wife,” he introduced.
She stepped toward him. “Sir,” she said, taking his bony little hand in both of hers.
“Where’s Miss Martha? I’d surely like to see her.” David chuckled. “She made me promise to stop by the next time I was in town.”
The smile vanished from Josiah’s furrowed face. Suddenly, he looked very old. “She’s gone,” he said flatly.
“Where did she go?” Anna inquired.
Josiah sank back down onto the stool. “She left me … when the Yankees came. She got so upset with the occupation that one day, she …” His voice trailed off.
David exchanged glances with his wife. “She what, Josiah?”
He looked up at them, his eyes filled with grief. “She took the pistol out from under the mattress … and put it to her head.”
“Dear God!” exclaimed David.
Anna’s mouth dropped open.
“It was more than the poor darlin’ could bear, havin’ Hooker’s army come in here and take everything we owned. They took the nigger, they took the horses, they even took the rugs out from under our feet. Stripped clean, jist like a plague of locusts.” He paused, the silence overwhelming, then said, “Wilst they were fightin’, there was a lunar eclipse. Do you reckon it was some kind of omen?”
David gulped. “What happened to Miss Mattie?” he asked, afraid to hear the reply. “Where’s Miss Martha’s sister?”
“She’s gone too. Ran off before they got here, and I haven’t seen nor heard from her since.”
“Do you know where she went?” Anna asked, taking her husband’s arm to steady herself.
“No idea. I’m all alone here. Have been for quite some time now.”
David was at a loss, not knowing what to say. “We could take you somewhere. So you ain’t alone,” he suggested.
“And where would that be?” Josiah stood, slowly straightening. “The whole of the South is like this now. And besides, this here’s my home, and I’ll be damned to leave it.”
“Can we do anything for you?” Anna inquired.
“Jist leave me be, young’uns. I can fend for myself. Nice of y’all to stop by, though.” He sashayed into the parlor, or what David remembered to be the parlor, and closed a dark oak door behind him.
“We should go,” suggested Anna.
David glanced at her, unable to speak. He felt helpless, like he should do something, but was at a loss as to what. She took his hand and led him outside, where they boarded the wagon in silence and rode back to the depot. Chattanooga, David understood, had aged tremendously, just like Josiah. The town of two thousand was now overrun with bluecoats who seemed unconcerned with the annihilation they’d caused. What was once an elegant town was now demoralized by Yankees, and the whole city appeared beaten down and ancient.
The couple returned to the train station. As they sat on a bench inside, waiting for the train to Huntsville, Anna looked around, observing her surroundings. The long brick edifice had large domed picture windows lined down the perimeters, and at either end, two gigantic domed doorways allowed trains to enter and exit. The station was busy but not crowded, and like the rest of the town, was teeming with Union soldiers.
David’s stomach growled. “I’m starvin’,” he stated, but was unsure how to find any viands.
Anna leaned over and gave him a kiss. “How long will it take us, once we’ve left for Huntsville?”
“Well,” he thought for a moment. “On the way here, it took about half a day on the train.”
“And how far to your house?”
“Another half a day.”
Anna sighed. “Oh.” She was starting to wonder if they’d ever get there.
Laying her head against her husband’s shoulder, he lovingly wrapped his arm around her.
Over an hour passed before the train to Huntsville arrived. Once the passengers were boarded, the train lurched out of the dark depot and into the bright sunlight. The humidity was nearly suffocating. Anna retrieved her fan from her reticule in a futile attempt to stay cool. She felt queasy, and started to wonder through her discomfort if coming down to Alabama was really such a good idea after all. She already missed her family, and it was the first time she’d ever been this far from home. What if David had been wrong about his mother and sisters? He had said that they would love her as much as he did, but what if he was wrong? What if they resented her about the war, and for being a Northerner? All of a sudden, she felt very apprehensive, and wished for a way to turn back. But it was too late, and she knew she couldn’t abandon her husband. She looked over to see him staring at her.
“Are you all right?” he asked, taking her hand.
She forced a smile. “I will be. When we get to Huntsville, though, I think I should eat something.”
He kissed her forehead. “That sounds like a mighty fine notion. “I’m starvin’!”
Anna softly chuckled, and let out a sigh.
Like all the other train rides, this one, too, was nearly empty except for soldiers. Apparently, the Union army was in the process of building up the Southern railroads, or at least, so implied the soldiers with their talk of engineering, surveying, purchasing, and implementation. Some of the men even went into excited discussion about how friends of theirs, northern businessmen, saw Chattanooga as an opportunity for investment. David sighed, knowing the Yankees would probably be descending like vultures to take advantage of the weakened, vulnerable South. He hoped with all his heart that his home wasn’t lost to them as well.
Glaring blankly out the window, he watched the empty fields roll by. It occurred to him that many farms were derelict, and the fields were dried up wastelands. Even the weeds had difficulty thriving. Lonesome chimneys jutted from the landscape; ravaged reminders of the horror his people had seen. Reaching to the sky like ominous tombstones in a graveyard, they were all that remained of farmhouses and villages.
By mid-afternoon, their train arrived at the Huntsville depot. After inquiring inside, David returned to Anna, who was waiting outside.
“The depot in Arab ain’t open yet, since the Yankees tore up some of the tracks, so I reckon we’ll have to drive from here.”
“How far is it?” she asked.
“About two days away.”
The newlyweds attained their equines and wagon. David loaded the trunk. As he did so, two Federal officers neared.
“We need to look in that trunk,” one said curtly. He was heavyset with spectacles on his hairless face.
David hesitated. “Sir, we’ve already been searched at every train station we’ve been through.”
“Then you should be accustomed to it by now,” the other soldier said snidely. He was a tall black man with large brown eyes and a stolid expression.
David sighed and glanced at Anna. “Be my guest.” He gestured sardonically, sweeping his arm out as an invitation for the intrusion.
“Do you have proof that you own these things?” the first soldier asked, so David obediently presented his bill of sale and discharge paper.
Anna walked over to the man rummaging through her trunk, and spoke softly to him, so quietly that David couldn’t hear. He wondered what their dialogue consisted of, but was distracted by the first soldier.
“No proof for the horse, then,” he said, and walked toward the back of the wagon.
“That’s my horse, sir. I’ve owned him all his life.”
The soldier simpered. “The army could use a fine animal like this.”
He reached out to stroke the stallion’s neck. Renegade snapped at him. The soldier yanked his hand back.
“Damn nag!” he exclaimed.
Anna and the black soldier stopped talking and gawked at him.
“All right, I believe you. On your way.” He stomped off, obviously humiliated. The other soldier nodded, tipped his kepi to Anna, and retreated behind his comrade.
David helped his wife up, climbed in, and started into town, anxious to get away from the brick three-story depot, and all the Federal jackals surrounding it.
“What were you and that Negro soldier conversin’ about?” he inquired.
Anna chortled. “I merely appealed to his better interests, and told him that a lady has a right to her privacy, that’s all.”
David glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. Something told him she wasn’t being completely truthful, but he had no reason to push the issue further. As they rode, they saw that the homes in Huntsville were intact, and in much better condition that those in Chattanooga. They drove past beautiful Italianate and Greek revival mansions, some with cast-iron fleur-de-lis fences. He remembered the hotel he and Jake had gone to for their final meal before they were mustered into the Confederate army, so he directed the jennie to that location. The public house was where he remembered it, on the corner of Madison Street, but the city looked different somehow: the bustling carefree happiness that had flourished before was now replaced with quiet remorse.
David helped Anna down after tying the mule, and followed her inside. A lanky man who stood behind a counter looked up from the hotel register as they entered. David nodded to the man, led Anna into the dining hall, and sat down beside her at a small round table. Like before, the room was nearly unoccupied. Three Union officers sat in the far corner, drinking whiskey and smoking cigars. Two men stood near the back of the room. One was playing a fiddle while the other attempted to sing a slow ballad in a low, baritone voice. The room was bright with sunlight, and lace curtains hung over the long windows. A thin, balding gentleman with an apron wrapped tightly around his waist appeared, pencil and paper poised in his hands.
“How do,” he said softly. “What would y’all like to order?”
Anna smiled up at him, but he only stared back.
“Well,” she began, “what is your specialty?”
“And more importantly, how much is it?” added David.
The waiter laughed. “More than you can afford, I’ll wager!”
David chuckled. “We have two dollars. Bring us whatever that provides.”
He glanced at his wife, who glared at him.
“It ain’t Confederate currency, is it?” the man asked.
“Silver,” responded David.
The waiter grinned and walked off into the kitchen.
Anna was still glaring. “The money you earned in prison?”
“You should hold on to that, sweetheart. We might need it for something important.”
He smiled. “You’re important,” he answered. “You said you needed to eat, and I’m starvin’. What could be more important than that?”
The musicians began to play another melody, and the couple listened to the lyrics.
“We shall meet but we shall miss him, there will be one vacant chair.
We shall linger to caress him, while we breathe our ev’nin’ prayer.
When a year ago we gathered, joy was in his mild blue eye.
But a golden cord is severed. And our hopes in ruin lie.”
David couldn’t help but think of the loss of his best friend. The lyrics saddened him deeply, searing his soul, rekindling the painful remembrance of discovering Jake’s lifeless body on the battlefield. He drew a heavy sigh, and took his beloved’s hand.
“It’ll be all right,” she comforted.
He nodded in confirmation, relieved when the song finally ended and the musicians broke into a lively tune.
After a few minutes, the waiter appeared with two plates, and set them in front of his customers. “Hope this will suffice,” he said. “I’ll come back in a minute to fill your glasses.”
David watched him walk off, then glanced down at his plate. It contained a thin slab of meat and half of a dry potato. “Ain’t much to sustain on,” he remarked before quickly devouring it.
Anna took a bite of hers. It was dry and chewy, repulsive except for the fact that she was famished as well. She forced herself to eat while the waiter returned to fill their glasses with water.
“Y’all from these parts?” he asked as he poured the glass pitcher.
“Yessir,” David replied. “I’m from Morgan County. Jist got back from the war.”
The waiter set the pitcher down on the table and rested his hand on his hip. “Well, bless you, sir!”
He jutted his hand in David’s direction, who graciously took it, and the two men shook.
“We’ve had quite a time here for a while now. When did you jine up?”
“Spring of sixty-three,” he answered.
The waiter nodded. “Not long after, that’s when they came and occupied the town for good, and they’re still here, as you’ve surely noticed.” He threw a glance at the soldiers.
David grinned. “That we have.”
“They’ve overstayed their welcome if you ask me,” the waiter continued in a hushed voice. “Held parties and balls with their Yankee wives, jist to flaunt their authority. Done too many unChristian-like things to the townsfolk too.”
“Such as what?” she asked shyly.
The waiter looked at her as if he knew she too was a Yankee wife. “Well Missus, anyone who resisted or revolted against them was shot. There were deserters hidin’ up in the mountains, and every time they killed a bluecoat, the Feds burned down entire city blocks as reward, and hung the perpetrators in plain view to impress us into submission. They even used our churches as stables.”
Anna gasped, placing her hand over her mouth.
“No!” David said, half grinning. He was skeptical as to whether these outrages actually took place.
“Oh, yessir,” the waiter said, his face deadpan.
The grin faded from David’s lips. He felt his revulsion roil up. “Right sorry to hear that,” he stated.
“We’re all under that Yankee General Pope’s jurisdiction now, so it’s a little better.” The waiter nodded, and took the silver coins David laid out on the table. “I read recently that the state treasury has over seven hundred and ninety thousand dollars in it, but only about three hundred is in silver, and five hundred is gold. The rest is in Confederate currency, so it’s worthless.”
“That doesn’t sound good at all,” commented Anna.
“And rumor has it,” the man went on, “that Atlanta has only a little over a dollar and a half left in the state’s treasury, but it’s all Confederate.”
“Such a shame,” Anna responded.
“Well, sir,” David said, “thank you for the hospitality. We’d best be on our way now.” He stood and took Anna’s hand as she arose.
“Y’all have a pleasant day,” the waiter said cordially before retreating into the kitchen.
David said little as he and Anna traveled down the thoroughfare. Everywhere he looked, there were more Union soldiers, and the odd thing was that most of them were black. They stared at him as though they knew he had fought for the Confederacy and had been incarcerated for it.
The couple rode past wooden structures. One had a signage attached to the front that read, “Freedmen’s Bureau.” Several black men loitered around the entrance, and ogled as they passed. The newlyweds found a telegraph office, went inside, and requested that the man at the counter send a telegram to Anna’s family.
“Aunt Sarah, Uncle Bill, and sisters,” the young man read back to them. “We have arrived safely in Huntsville, and are on our way to the Summers’ residence. We miss y’all and hope to see you again soon. Love, Anna and David.”
“That’s mighty fine,” David said. He handed the operator a silver coin before the couple walked out of the office and back to their parked wagon. “All right, my darlin’,” David said as he helped Anna climb up. “We’re almost there.”
She could tell by the tone in his voice that he was excited about seeing his family. “Well, what are we waiting for?” she asked with a giggle.
He snickered and directed the mule out of town with Renegade trotting regally behind.
“And now we must decide on a name for our new little mule.” She giggled again. “How do you like the name …?”
“Ornery?” David suggested.
She shook her head.
“How ‘bout muley cow.”
Anna grunted. “I think we should name her Ginger.”
David gave her a skeptical look, which caused her to chuckle. “Why Ginger?”
“Well, because I think it’s a pretty name, don’t you?”
He grinned. “I reckon she is full of spice. All right, darlin’, whatever your heart desires.”
She took hold of his arm and hugged it.
The couple rode across a bridge spanning the Tennessee River, along a winding road that meandered through the hills and past small villages. Each one appeared desolate, and the fields were wasted, which caused David some unease, but he shrugged it off, concerning himself only with his own homecoming. Then it struck him: this wasn’t the homecoming he had envisioned at all. He had played the event out in his mind hundreds of times before Jake was killed, how they would ride home in glory as noble knights, victorious in the defense of their homeland. There should be celebrations, joy, champagne, laughter, dancing, and merriment. There should be speeches and ribbons and veneration. But he knew it would never be. There would be no Grand Review, like what the Yankees had received in Washington City. There would be no jubilation … only desolation.
The hills darkened, and crickets began chirping in the ditches. Flashes of light shot across the sky as a meteor shower commenced. Anna’s uneasiness heightened, so she scooted as close to her husband as she could. Although the road was dark, David knew the way, which comforted her.
“What if road agents jump out and assault us?” she whispered, shivering in the warm humidity.
“Don’t fret, darlin’,” he assured with a chuckle. “I’m your defender.” He looked over and included, “As long as the witches don’t git us.”
“Witches?” she asked. “Oh, David, don’t be silly. There’s no such thing as …”
“Oh, yes there is,” he interrupted. “I seen one once.”
Anna tsk-tsked. “Are you certain about that?”
He nodded, then retrieved the pocket watch she had given him. Clicking it open, he saw it was half past ten. Deciding they should stop to rest, he pulled the wagon over to the side of the road. They crawled into the back, wrapped themselves around each other, and finally fell asleep.
In the morning, they continued their journey, and rode all day. As dusk approached, David glanced again at his watch.
“The house is over this ridge,” he said as he replaced it in his trouser pocket. “We’re jist about there.” He felt his heart leap with anticipation, and prodded Ginger to pick up her speed.
As night fell, the wagon came over a crest. In the valley sat a quaint wooden dogtrot house.
Observing that the windows were dark, David said, “Reckon they’re all asleep.” He pulled the mule to a halt in front of the saddlebag house. Nothing stirred. Helping Anna down, he took her hand and led her onto the front porch. He pushed on the door, but it wouldn’t budge.
“It’s bolted from inside,” he informed, and enthusiastically pounded several times.
An owl hooted off in the distance. There came a rustling from within, and the bolt slid. The door slowly opened a crack. A girl peered out. She hesitated for a moment, then recognized her brother’s grinning face, and threw the door wide. Anna saw she was dressed in a nightgown, her long dark brown hair hanging loose.
“David!” she squealed, throwing herself on him. “You’re home! I can’t believe it!”
The siblings embraced, laughing.
“Rena,” he said after they’d held each other for a moment. “It’s mighty good to see you.” They hugged again, but then he remembered his manners. “Oh, this here’s Anna!”
She immediately embraced her. “Anna, I’m right happy to know you!”
“I’m happy to meet you too,” she replied, smiling.
Rena took hold of her hands and pulled her inside. I’ve so looked forward to this day!” David’s younger sister said. She hugged him once more and gave him a kiss on the cheek, then took hold of his hands and led him into the front room. “Ma!” she cried over her shoulder. “Josie!”
David chuckled, ecstatic with the reunion. “You look beautiful,” he remarked.
Rena snickered, suddenly conscious of her attire.
A door in the back room creaked. “What’s goin’ on out here? I thought I heard …” The woman stopped and stared wide-eyed at the three figures standing in the dark. “David!” she wailed, and ran to him.
He enveloped her in his arms.
“Oh, praise be!” she began sobbing. “My boy has come home at last!”
David held her tightly, struggling to contain his emotions while Anna looked on, overcome with sentiment. Rena crossed the room and lit a few candles. Now the sight was even more profound, because the expression on their mother’s face was heart-wrenching. Her eyes were pinched tight as tears streamed down her cheeks. He gave her a slight squeeze, released her, and saw that she seemed to have aged considerably since he last saw her.
“Rena! Go fetch your sister!” Caroline requested excitedly. “Oh, let me git a good look at you!” She stepped back, keeping her hands grasped tightly onto her son’s arms, then pulled him close and kissed his cheeks. A younger girl with long auburn hair emerged through a side door with Rena following behind.
“David!” she shrieked. She threw herself into his waiting arms.
The two hugged like frolicking bruins.
“You’re here! You’re truly here!” She held onto him for a solid minute before his mother protested.
“Now, Josie, give him a chance to breathe!”
She released him, and he snickered.
“Why, take a gander at you, Josie! You ain’t a li’l girl any longer. All of fifteen, now.”
Josie nodded, a big grin on her face. “And you’re an old feller, all of twenty!”
David laughed. “Reckon you have to beat the boys off with a stick!”
“No,” said Josie solemnly. “There ain’t too many boys my age left in these parts.”
Rena stood beside Anna, absorbing the spectacle. She took her hand and smiled at her.
Anna couldn’t help but smile back, even though she felt precarious and homesick.
“I’ve so much to tell you!” Josie exclaimed “We’ve so much to talk about!”
“First I want to introduce my bride,” David said. “Ma, Josie, this here’s Anna.” He turned to her and held out his hand, prompting her to take it.
“Mrs. Summers,” she said shyly, “Josie. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.”
David’s mother looked at her for a moment, then smiled and embraced her. “Oh, my dear Anna.” She released her. “It’s right good to have you home.”
Josie hugged her as well. Standing back, she exclaimed, “I have a new sister!”
David glanced around the room, which seemed to be missing a few pieces of furniture. He looked at the mantle, and saw the clock his father had given his mother as a wedding present, along with his father’s portrait, but the photograph he’d had taken in Huntsville before he left for the army wasn’t beside it. He was about to ask where it was when his mother grasped his hand.
“Come with me, David. We have somethin’ to show you.”
She led him out back, and the young ladies followed. Two dogs ran up to greet them, sniffing at Anna’s skirts as she made her way through the unfamiliar dark. She knew they were the dogs David had told her about, Caleb and Si. The family trudged past neglected outbuildings. Chickens clucked inside the henhouse, alarmed by the invasion.
“Where are the pigs?” asked David.
“I’ll explain all that later.” Caroline led him up an incline to a little white cottage that was tucked before a thicket.
“Granny’s old house?” he asked.
“We fixed it up for you!” Josie declared. “‘Cause we knew you’d be comin’!”
The family entered the one-room dwelling, and Caroline lit a candle. In the glow, David saw a little table, two chairs, a five-drawer dresser with an attached mirror, and a double bed with a small nightstand beside it. Red-and-white checkered homespun curtains hung over each of the two windows.
Anna entered behind Rena and gasped. “You did all this for us?” she asked, her eyes welling up. She was far more exhausted than she had realized, and her emotions were soaring.
“We’ve been workin’ on it for the past month,” explained Josie.
Anna walked over and sat on the bed. It creaked in protest, but was firm, nevertheless. “I can’t wait to try this out!” she exclaimed.
The girls giggled.
“Oh! I didn’t mean …” Anna blushed.
David gave her a crooked grin. “Ma,” he said, turning toward her, “I know Joe Boy was stolen ‘cause we got your letters.”
“Yes, the soldiers took our horse, along with most of the livestock. It’s a miracle our letters got through,” Caroline stated. “A simple act of God, that’s what I believe.” She smiled. “And the postmaster, Mr. Ford, assisted, of course. Every time he saw a letter come from you, he stowed it so the Yankees wouldn’t have a chance to confiscate it. And he made sure our letters got up to you, but since then, they’ve been watchin’ us right close. How many did you receive?”
“Well, I got the one you sent to me in prison, and the one you mailed last summer, after I told you about my marriage to Anna. And I received one from Rena, and one from Josie while I was in prison.”
Caroline nodded wisely, piecing it together. “Those first three letters were sent in February.”
“They were? I didn’t git them till spring.”
“And I sent you cookies. Did you receive them?”
“No, ma’am. They were gone.”
“That figures,” Caroline grumbled. She threw a glance at Anna.
“What about Renegade?” Josie asked. “Did you bring him?”
“Sure did!” replied David with a grin. “Would you go fetch the wagon and take it around to the barn?”
His little sister nodded and ran out the door.
Rena stepped toward him and took his hand. “We’re very proud of you,” she spoke melodically.
His heart fluttered with the sound of her lilting voice.
The newlyweds proceeded to talk about their trip, and soon, Josie returned.
“They got us a mule!” she announced.
“We brought other items for you as well,” informed Anna.
Caroline nodded, and discreetly covered a yawn, which sparked yawns from everyone else in the room. “She smiled. “It seems we’re all a bit tuckered out. Let us git some rest, and we’ll talk further in the mornin’. There’s food in the kitchen if y’all are hungry.”
“Thanks, Ma,” David replied.
After Caroline and her daughters hugged him, they walked back to the house. He turned to face Anna after closing the door.
“Well, this is nice, ain’t it?” He flashed a smile and sat down beside her. “And I can’t wait to try out this bed, either.” He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her tenderly.
They gazed into each other’s eyes.
“So, this was your grandmother’s cottage?” she asked.
“Yeah. She lived back here as long as I can remember. Jist her. Granddaddy died before I was born. She died here.”
Anna cringed. “In this bed?”
“Uh huh. Oh,” he said as he remembered. “I’d best go settle Renie and Ginger, and bring in the trunk. I’ll fetch us some vittles too.” He stood and strode toward the door. “I’ll be right back,” he promised as he went out, and closed the wooden slab door behind him.
Anna stood, brushed the wrinkles from her skirt, walked to the window, and peered out, watching her husband vanish into the darkness. She turned and absorbed the ambiance. It is lovely, she thought to herself, the perfect honeymoon cottage. She smiled, and investigated the tiny fireplace, running her hand across the roughhewn mantle, already making plans on how to decorate it.
She sank down onto the bed. Suddenly, she felt out of her element, and broke into a sweat. Could it be that David’s family members were behaving the way they were for his benefit only? What if they weren’t sincere, and considered her an intruder? Anna hoped with all her heart they would treasure her, but everything seemed so alien here. Perhaps, when they learned about another new family member they were about to acquire, they’d accept her. She lay back and placed her hand upon her stomach. David would need to know soon as well. This situation was only temporary; this was merely a visit. She would return home by year’s end, even if she had to take him away from his family permanently. Somehow, she would make it happen.