Wild Pony Publishing
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Chapter One

 Eighteen and Sixty-two.  Early spring.  Swift Creek Plantation.

 

           Sometimes men tend to dwell on things—things perhaps insignificant to others, or momentous things of which others wish they had thought of first. To over-think is to chance the birth of desires, be they good or bad, well intended or hurtful. Conversely, to tire of the dream and give up is to never know. It is when one acts upon his wish that the desire becomes a reality. After much labor, life comes to the long-wanted thing. And with it one must be prepared to accept the consequences.

 


The dream again.  Always the same dream.  The same incessant noises.  The roar of cannon.  Shells exploding overhead.  The stink of gunpowder.  The sting of the eyes from drifting smoke.  The cries, the moans, the death gurgles and worst of all, watching his son falling from his horse.


           Feeling the horror of the dream, Samuel Biggs refused to open his eyes. He feared in doing so he would only see more of things he wished not to see. So the dreams continued to tear at him. He lay exhausted—too worn to exist. His eyes, behind closed eyelids, rolled and jumped in a frenzied dance as they watched scenes only they could see.

Suddenly, they flashed open, his pupils dilating in the near dark of the early morning. His heart pounded wildly. Beads of sweat trickled down his temples. How many times had he seen his son dead—his body mangled and twisted among broken caissons, crushed muskets, and the debris of war? How many more of those dreams would haunt him, he wondered. How much more could he bear? So he fought off sleep to fight off dreams.

His wife of twenty-four years studied her husband’s strained and restless face. Rose knew he was feigning sleep, hoping to allow her a much needed respite from the poor decision he’d made years ago.

 Often, upon awaking, he’d tell her of his dreams, while they were still color-fresh, not yet fading to gray. To him, they served as portents of things to come. Of the many dreams he had, the only dream he spoke of to her was the one about his son—his way of asking her forgiveness for what he feared was coming.

 

Each day the two shared a bond. The breath of one nourished the heart of the other and in so doing they had merged. He explored her face, looking for tell-tale signs which would guide him through his days. She read his eyes, peering deep within his soul and deeper still—into his heart.

 

He understood the deep lines etched across his wife’s beautiful face were his doing—not that of the passing years.  To him, she was still as beautiful as the day the two met. He yearned for her touch, for the assurance she was still next to him, but careful not to touch her, he moved away. The room was warming from the rising sun, and he feared the warmth of his body against hers would magnify the heat and awaken her. It always did.

As the room brightened the dream began to fade, but not before horrid faces stared at him, taunted him, and called him a fool. The demons of a thousand dreams pointed their bony fingers at him, and demanded, “What did you do to your son?”

***

Although he was in the fading part of middle age, Rose still thought her husband handsome. His aged but dignified face, chiseled from years of determination and hard work, still made her heart race. His skin, turned dark and leathery from long days spent in the burning sun, defined the man’s life. His hair, once pine-bark brown, had gone salt and pepper. The ever-present gray mustache was tousled from the previous night’s tossing and turning.

As she lay watching him, Rose’s face flushed as her body reminded her she was still attracted to him. She knew he would be pleased to be awakened in that special way he liked, but she lay quietly and continued to watch the dancing, fluttering eyes behind closed eyelids. She felt his exhaustion. They both had been beaten down by a reckless decision.

                          

Long ago, before the arrival of the new dreams, she had witnessed the same dancing eyes and they had reminded her of how poorly her husband had slept after her birth-father, a Satan of a man, died in the woods a half mile distant of where they now lay. If only I could help, she cried. Her inability to calm her husband tormented her.

 Those had been hard years, those long years in which they’d struggled, side by side, to establish Swift Creek—the same years they’d fought the evil one from the plantation north of theirs—Hesper Griffen’s Plantation. Sam had told her of things, things he’d seen—but only enough for her to know he’d been present at the death of her father, and that he and the others with him had watched the evil man,  Hesper Griffen, die. She knew her husband had lied to her, but not in a mean or a deceitful way, when he’d told her how the man responsible for the tainted blood coursing through her veins had died. She knew because Sam’s face could never hide the gruesomeness he must have witnessed.

A white-washed  story . . . a fairy-tale death  . . .  the death of an evil troll . . . , those things she could accept. And did. She never forgave her husband—she didn’t need to. Her father had deserved to die for all the evil he had become. She’d thought it would have been proper to visit a grave and see the stones piled high.  But in a reality based upon the hardness of those days, she accepted that the lifeless form which had once been her father,  had been left in the deep woods north of Swift Creek to rot where it lay, or devoured by wild hogs. She never ventured into those haunted woods. The sight of a bone, human or otherwise, would have been the death of her.

As the years passed and the silence remained, she grew to believe her husband and the others had signed a blood covenant to never speak of what they’d done. And none had broken the covenant.

There were other things he did not tell her, and never would. She knew that, also. Nor did she want to hear those things. So much violence and so many unbelievable things had happened during those long-gone dark years. A growing number of killings without rhyme or reason had driven her husband and those with him to become vigilantes, and to seek justice in the dark of night.

Often she wondered if the world, their world, had gone mad. She knew her dear Uncle Em, the man she’d grown to call Father, was also there, that day in the woods, and she loved him the more for being there. She was comforted by knowing her beloved, adopted father, now gone to his Heavenly reward, hovered everywhere, watching over her children, his grandchildren. She missed the man, his love of her, and the way he had protected her when there was no one who dared—and she had survived a life of horror because of his devotion to her.

A life filled with contrasts, she thought. My husband, tortured by things he’s seen . . . and I, relieved by things I have not seen.

 

But some horrors have lives of their own. Sam’s heart had never ceased aching for his wife. He wondered how a thirteen year old girl could have watched as a crazed man killed her mother and how, soon after, while still grieving her loss, being told the man who had killed her mother was the reason for her very being. The knowledge that Hesper Griffen would have killed her, his grandchildren and every person she knew and loved never faded.

 “Oh God. Please protect my husband and our son,” she prayed, and softly kissed her husband’s forehead.

Wishing to be alone, he mumbled, “Wake me in an hour, will you?”

“Yes, Dear,” she answered, knowing she had no intention of waking him. “Go back to sleep.”

And as she closed the door to their bedroom, he began to toss and turn.

***

Entering the dining room, she greeted her daughters, giving each a motherly hug.

“That father of yours is the most stubborn man in the whole world. You’d think this place would fall apart if he’s not out there every minute of every day . . . and at his age, hummph!” she said, shaking her head. “He knows Mr. Struthers can run this place. Hadley’s the overseer, that’s why he hired him. He knows what needs attention on this place and what can wait. Stubborn. Mule-headed. That’s what he is.”

The girls had witnessed her tirades before and knew it was her way of venting and scolding their father even when he was not present. Samantha, the eldest, and Isabella Lynn, nicknamed Izzy by her  Grandfather Em, sat quietly, each knowing their mother would continue a few more moments and then all would be quiet.

And feeling her point made, she said no more.

During breakfast, Samantha and Isabella Lynn, although excited about their planned trip into Fort Harwood, said little. This was not the time for a long drawn-out conversation with their mother. There were necessities to be seen to; hair to be brushed and coifed, dresses to be chosen and laid out, corsets and boots to be pulled tight and laced.

To them, the South’s so-called rebellion against the Northern aggressors was being fought in some far-away place and they chose to ignore things they understood little of, and could do nothing about. Soon, they began talking of the dresses they were wearing into town and the shops they just had to visit.

 “Not today,” their mother said. “It is not safe. There’s rumors our boys might be getting pushed back.”

“Oh, Mother, that’s not fair. Besides, Holt’s going with us. Please.”

“No, now hush.”

      The girls pouted. “Mama, they said the fighting would be finished in three or four months and that was over a whole year ago.” In unison, they stood and stormed from the room, mad at the broken promises, mad at their father, mad at Jefferson Davis, and mad at every living thing north of the Mason-Dixon Line .

      For now, the fighting raged above them, mostly in Virginia, near Washington.  But rumors were spreading as far south as Weldon. With the rumors—most exaggerated, others not expounded upon enough—came fear and an unspoken urge of many neighboring families to flee further south. Many had packed the barest of essentials in case they did have to leave in the rush of a moment.

***

She and Sam had built a life together here on Swift Creek. It had been over two-and-a-half decades since he arrived from Petersburg, Virginia, to lay claim to his property, the long abandoned five-thousand acres he’d won from a dying old fool in a poker game. Burned into her mind, she often thought of her first sight of her future husband and how handsome he was. Handsome in a worn, rugged way. And of the man inside the O’Reilly’s cabin who lay badly wounded, struggling to breathe as his swollen chest turned purple from a broken collarbone. She could hardly choose who needed nursing the most; the handsome man on the porch who seemed to be beyond grief, the man suffering in the O’Reilly’s bed, the black boy sitting and trembling beneath a tree, or the pale, dazed red-haired young man with a blood-soaked towel wrapped around the stubby remains of a  bleeding hand.

Odd, she thought, of how these and a litany of other thoughts came and went through her mind still so many years later.

 

She stood by the window overlooking the manicured lawn. In the center of the circular drive stood the gazebo in which she and Sam were married twenty-four years earlier. The gleaming white structure served as a reminder of everything she and her husband had accomplished.  It spoke of good things and blessings. It spoke of bad things, as well.

Their children often played in the gazebo. The girls, pretending they were full-grown—tiny debutantes, gossiping and giggling as they sat around a child-sized table, tiny pinkies stuck in the air, hands holding small china cups filled with imaginary tea, with frilly white napkins spread across their laps. But a fort, that was what Tad used it for. The slave children, those too young to be of value in the fields, became the enemy, dying many times over so his war could continue.

Many pleasant days were spent while she and Sam sat on the slatted bench within the gazebo. Tea would relax her, while hot coffee from the kitchen helped Sam clear his head.

***

The full-length porch of the “big house” was well shaded by large oaks. Seeking its cooling and calming effect, Rose sat in a rattan wing-back chair. Spreading out from the porch, the lawn, bordered with old growth trees, fell gently away toward the creek. As the dark green leaves of the oaks fluttered in a warm breeze, Rose absentmindedly browsed through the Fort Harwood Graphic. The three-week old paper, worn and dog-eared from usage, failed to hold her attention.

The thumping hooves of a speeding horse echoed from the direction of Weldon. Nearing the entrance to Swift Creek Plantation, the sweat-lathered beast slowed. Rose’s heart began to race—fear immobilized her. Many of her neighbors had received heartbreaking news from such riders racing down country lanes.

The horse turned into the long drive, tunneled by  old growth oaks, and raced towards the plantation’s mansion. Rose fled into the house, wishing to forestall the possibility of such news and watched from behind the screened door. Her heart pounded. She willed the rider to leave, but he refused to abide by her wishes. He would not and could not abandon his mission and continued his hard ride.

Bradley Smith pulled hard at the horse’s reins, sawing at the bit in its mouth as he slid from the saddle. He threw the reins to the stable boy, and slapping at his trousers and shirt,  dusted them with an opened hand. He straightened his jacket, reached into his coat pocket and withdrew a government-issue brown envelope, and  reluctantly walked toward the front door.

***

Rose stood inside the foyer—her mind a jumble of fear, as she watched the young man ascend the steps. And with heart-wrenching thoughts no mother should ever have to think filling her mind, she did not immediately recognize the young man, although he had been there many times before courting Isabella Lynn. She quickly closed and locked the French doors. If he would not ride on, she would deny him entry. She knew he worked at the Post Office in Weldon. And she’d seen the brown government-issued envelopes before.

Nearly swooning with fear, she dashed up the spiral staircase, shouting, “Sam! . . . Sam!”

Holt, the house servant, seeing a young man he recognized staring through the stained glass windows, opened the mahogany doors. “Massa Smif,” he said, with a toothy grin, “Come in, come in. I’ll go fetch the Missus.”

Holt and Bradley Smith turned as they heard the commotion at the top of the stairs.

Sam pulled at his boots, snapped his suspenders into place, and stepped onto the upper landing. He combed his ruffled mass of graying hair with spread fingers.   Behind him stood Rose, clutching his sleeve in her tiny hands. Samantha and Isabella Lynn, alarmed by their mother’s cries, held hands as they stared down at Bradley.  And together, the Biggs’ family descended the stairs.

***

Bradley was no stranger to the kind of grief contained inside those envelopes—he’d delivered four similar envelopes in the last year and each had carried the worst possible news. It seemed bad news was the contents of most of those letters, he thought. 

He looked at Izzy, dreading the news he suspected she and her family were about to receive. She wasn’t crying, not yet, and for the first time since he’d been calling on the young lady, he wanted to be gone and far away from the beautiful girl—she might see his tears. He’d admired her brother, Tad, and weeping was not a manly thing.

“Mr. Biggs,” he said, extending the letter, “Postmaster Jacobs told me to get this to you. Told me to wait for an answer, Sir.” His arm fell to his side, and not knowing the formalities required of bad news, he begged his leave. “I pray everything is alright. I’ll wait outside, Sir.” He looked downcast, and giving the family privacy, stepped onto the front porch. He had not yet told anyone he too, had signed up to fight the “Aggressors,” and had already begun to doubt his wisdom in doing so. 

   

Sam tore at the letter, his hands trembling. He turned away from his wife and daughters and opened the letter. His head sagged forward and his shoulder’s slumped as if life had abandoned him. His eyes raced across the page. “No,” he moaned, and whispered, “Not this. It can’t be.”

  
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