“When I was a lil’
bitty baby, my mama use’ta rock me in da cradle in dem ol’ cotton fields back home."-Old
Negro Folk Song
“Today, men, you will see blood till you are satisfied!” - Confederate officer before the Battle of Mansfield
Like some cold baptism of ancient rites, the Confederate finally got his feet wet in the chilling water of the Mississippi, uttering a mild curse as the icy waves jolted his senses. All the way across the great river he had been trying very hard to keep them dry, but now that he was almost home it just didn’t seem to matter. Mud oozed through the cracks in the soles of his boots and still he did not care. Reaching down he gathered up some of the red mud in his hand, smearing it on his face like a child. Coppery pungent smells filled his nostrils bringing him even closer to the home he’d left some two and a half years ago. Temporal afterthoughts concealed in the terrain. Shaded haunts of yesterday conjured at the waters’ end.
Snow had blanketed northern Virginia when they first started on their journey south, just days after the beginning of the New Year, a little over a month ago. They were the only able-bodied survivors of a once proud, strong cavalry battalion that had left Louisiana in the fall of 1861. A newly-formed outfit full of daring young men ready to charge even the bête noire in hopes of capturing glory and all the trappings of victory. Chivalrous waves of pageantry coursing specter-like from the trees, hills and back roads, granted authority by the dreaded angels of war to spill the blood of their brothers, staining the common soil of their cause. Crescendos of a rebel yell now all but wasted and dashed with the last hopes of the South against their ever-growing, ever-learning adversary, the Union cavalry.
At Manassas they had been able to catch a ride on a train, having to sleep in the same car as their horses, their furlough papers not being enough for a proper coach set. Not even for an officer. A crowded, smelly jaunt in a boxcar listening to the dreary clacking drone of the rail. They had been told they would be taken all the way to Atlanta, but men from the War Department boarded in Charleston, demanding to see their papers. Loud unreasonable men of authority, pompous blowhards thinning the chaff. They would have to get off unless they wanted to wave the furlough and join the fight for South Carolina. No, they had done enough fighting and were going home. Fortunately their documents bore the signatures of both Generals Stuart and Longstreet, otherwise they could have been mandated and forced to fight. States’ rights still had its precedence, but not against the weight of two corps commanders, especially ones of such status.
They had kept to the wider traces just south of the Carolina-Tennessee line cautiously zigzagging through Georgia and Alabama, now well acclimated to the cold. In Mississippi they passed through a twenty-mile-wide swath of destruction. Charred remains of still- smoldering homesteads were all along that blackened stretch of land where the winter crops had grown. Rotting animal carcasses littered the barnyards. What few people they met told them Sherman’s army had recently marched across the state from Vicksburg to Meridian, burning and destroying all that could not be taken, including livestock.
They were eventually given the name of a man who could get them across the river, but there were no guarantees. Since the fall of Vicksburg last summer, the Mississippi was under the control of the Union Navy. Lincoln’s wishes dissecting the homeland. They met the man at a secluded spot fifty miles upriver from Natchez, a privateer whose only loyalty was coin and cash. Their predawn voyage across the water had been uneventful save the floundering vessel itself. A large pontoon boat with a steam engine listing precariously through the mighty river’s powerful currents, water lapping over its sides, men and horses swaying nervously to its unsteady pitch and yaw. Finally running aground with a dull scraping thud scaring off a flock of white egrets roosting in the wet brush.
“Yer horse, Major,” a voice said from behind the Confederate, breaking him from his reverie.
Major David Hawkins turned to see his first sergeant, Steven Jenkins, handing him the reins to a large, beautiful red stallion with a thick, unruly black mane.
“Easy, Jackson,” said Hawkins to the magnificent creature. Not the beloved charger he’d left Louisiana with, but certainly one he’d become quite attached to. “It’s not Virginia, but you’ll never know the difference.”
As he led Jackson up the riverbank, Jenkins and two other men guided their horses off the pontoon boat. The vessel’s pilot and mate then shoved off, vanishing into the cold February mist like a ghost. The other two men were heading south to their homes near Winnfield, brave souls who’d done their duty with little ceremony. Jenkins handed them a wad of money, Union currency, spoils from the better days of their tour.
“Why, that there’s Yankee money,” said one of the men.
“There’s nearly a hun’erd dollars here, Sergeant,” said the other. “We can’t take all this.”
“You take it,” said Jenkins. “You’ll need it.”
The man nodded, then looked up to see the major off in the distance with his arms around his horse’s neck. He looked to be whispering something to the animal.
“He gonna be aw’right?” asked the man with genuine concern, a mix of envy and sympathy pooling in his eyes.
Jenkins turned and smiled. “Yeah, he’s aw’right. The major’s just real fond’a that horse.”
The man smiled weakly, nodded again and waved before heading off with his friend. As they disappeared through the trees, their horses’ steps added sounds to the life and scenery all around, a chorus of crickets, scampering squirrels and chirping birds fluttering by. A cold wet breeze. The dull steady whoosh of the river.
Jenkins walked up behind his commander who was still hugging and whispering to Jackson, a bizarre moment he was reluctant to interrupt. “Ya wanna get go’n, Major, or ya wanna rest a spell?”
Keeping his arms around the horse’s neck, Hawkins turned to Jenkins, his face still coated with the drying mud. “Nah, let’s get go’n.”
Both men were in their mid-thirties and had known each other since they were very young, but had not become close friends until after the war began. Hawkins was a career military man with red curly hair that fell to his shoulders. A big man, he stood about six-three and was a bit light at 210 pounds. He had been wounded seven times and walked with a slight limp, favoring his left leg. Over the years he had developed a habit of changing the way he talked, suiting his diction and accent to the people and places he encountered. In a relaxed setting with his men or with casual friends, an obvious drawl could be detected. When angered or excited this accent became even more pronounced. In the company of high-ranking officers or the elite well-to-do, his voice took on the disarming twang of fine Southern nobility. Serving out West before the war, he had spoken with fewer words, vehemently cutting off his phrases in sharp commands and quick exclamatory remarks. Prior to Lee’s first invasion of the North, Hawkins had been chosen with a handful of other men to ride a few days ahead in civilian clothes, gathering intelligence on Union troop deployments. Dangerous work, once even dining in a fancy Baltimore restaurant. The men had been specifically selected for their ability to hide the southern drawl and duplicate the more neutral northern accent.
Jenkins had dark hair, was about six inches shorter than Hawkins, and had a stocky build that allowed him to sit in the saddle like a bag of grain. He too had been wounded numerous times, but showed none of the outward signs of disability save the scars. Jenkins had also volunteered for the quick bit of espionage, but no matter how hard Hawkins coached him, his thick backwater accent was a dead giveaway. Still, to Hawkins, Jenkins was the perfect subordinate.
“Did ya really eat snails in ’at fancy restaurant, Major?” Jenkins had asked back in Maryland shortly before Sharpsburg.
“Yep,” answered Hawkins. “Mighty tasty, too. They cook’m in white wine, butter’n garlic. Kind’a like some frog legs I had once in New Orleans.”
“Frog legs, huh?” Jenkins’s eyebrows had risen sharply in a short moment of approval, then fell back suddenly, furrowing together with aversion. “But snails?”
As they rode away from the river, the Mississippi sun began to creep over the Louisiana sky. It broke across the treetops in tenuous gossamer rays, shifting the dark purple firmament to a soft, welcome blue. Rarefied honey-colored light streamed through the mist casting long shadows on the fallen leaves and pine straw. All seemed eerie and surreal juxtaposed with the familiar thoughts of home. Moss hung thick from the trees, swaying, waving senseless at the land, an enigmatic curtain of shrouded mysteries awakening their numbed senses. Small rolling hills etched by wetlands dotted with white cranes and blue heron. Cattails innumerable, all in review. More inland was drier, cueing a frosty southern morning. Birds still flew south in their crooked V-shaped flocks. Something large trolled across a bayou into the marsh by the bog. Cypress trees like ancient elders. Oaks like houses. Yellow pines like summer. Magnolias, willows and soft maple. White-tailed deer. Some running off. Some just looking.
There had been so much fighting it was often hard for Hawkins to remember one engagement from the next. Bits and pieces of retrospect, disjointed, out of place and time. Horrible battles in lonely places stuck in his mind, wandering next to memories he only wished he could choose from. Fenced-in meadows near fields and crests where men wait to die. Wait, pondering their existence in the martial design or just wait at the fitting, much-talked-about places where they killed each other and ask why, but never answer. Queries, unknowable and obscure. Home is the best place to die, he thinks, on a quiet afternoon perhaps, or a morning such as this one.
Sometimes he would find himself trying to recall the name of a friend who had been killed early in the war. A promise made as they died in his arms. Maybe a glimpse of their final moment ruined and broken, taken suddenly and quick. Or simply a word of their demise by the bye. The faces he still had locked away in the boxes of his mind, but the names were gone, like a part of his childhood he could not quite see anymore, a plaything he no longer had interest in. Other times a certain sound, a song or smell was all it took and he was back reliving moments most extreme, calling men to bear, seeing their brave yet terrified faces. Some of them so young as to never know the touch of a girl, not even a kiss. Dead virgins, still virgins.
At Fredericksburg he had watched from a distance as the enemy charged Marye’s Heights, headlong into musket fire like children playing tag with new rules and new devices. The deadly limits of insanity thought clear. A plan for success sprung from the mouth of folly. It was like watching a man attempt to destroy a meat grinder by shoving his arm into the working end of it. Then, after the arm is chewed up to the shoulder, the man screaming all the while, he grits his teeth as if perseverance is all that is needed, straightens his cap and shoves in the other arm. Senseless undertakings come to fruition by the thoughtful disregard of fire, lead and powder fingers. The numbers meant nothing but ink for the press. Asinine calculations chalked up to a new math done with the pen and paper of scapegoats. The baneful milk of politics.
Within an hour they came to a small crossroad; at its northwestern corner was a ghastly sight. A layer of crows and buzzards swarmed around a man hung nailed to the width of a massive oak. His arms were stretched out crucified to the tree’s thick off-shooting upper limbs, his legs spiked tightly to the mid-section of its vast trunk. The gory, medieval work of marauders. He looked to have been dead for several days, his features long since eaten away by the birds and other creatures of the woods. Completely oblivious of the two live men, the thoughtless scavengers continued to peck and gouge, displaying their work with little bother. A lipless mouth agape in mute protest revealing two rows of rotting teeth. The familiar odor hung like a wet sheet slapping them across the face, reminders of a lost war yet to be finished. Above the man a sign read:
Suddenly Hawkins saw the dead man’s face change, eerily shifting to the visage of Christ Jesus. A crown of long sharp thorns was embedded into his scalp, spilling rivulets of blood down a countenance of anguished responsibility. Hawkins slowly made the sign of the cross, drawing a sideways glance from Jenkins.
“Ya aw’right, Major?” asked the sergeant.
For a moment Hawkins said nothing, his eyes fixed on this vision of the Christ. The stricken Messiah seemed to be trying to say something, mouthing words of counsel. Or a warning perhaps. Hawkins wiped his face with a cupped hand. When he looked again the vision was gone. Only a luckless jayhawker nailed to a tree, food for carrion crows and turkey buzzards.
“Major,” repeated Jenkins. “Ya aw’right?”
“Did you see that?” Hawkins asked, still keeping his eyes on the rotting corpse.
“See what?” Jenkins frowned and looked back at the dead man. “This nasty business here?”
What was this? Hawkins wondered. Another visitation of the Man in White, that noble presence that had called on him half-a-dozen times or more, often in the midst of furious battle?
The two Confederates were silent for a moment, taking in the hideous display of malevolent lust. After witnessing so much carnage on the battlefield, their senses had become somewhat dulled, but still they wondered what kind of men could do this to another. And what might this man have done to deserve so gruesome a fate? They glanced at each other, then back at the horrible spectacle before them. Finally without a word they turned west, moving on, the sun now high at their backs. Hands on their side arms. Mindful of the trees. Looking. Looking.
Warfare comes in different schemes. Shades of chivalry tossed to the wind. Cutthroats shining at your back. A blind rendering of what one wants to be right. And a stark, unflinching glare at what one hopes to be wrong.
Hawkins often wondered about his moments with the Man in White, and the other strange, surreal happenings he’d witnessed in the fighting back east. Blood raining from the sky. A sky that would sometimes light up the color of bright luminescent blue, momentarily halting epic battles as if God Himself had called a brief intermezzo. There had also been great visions in the sky; arks, columns of fiery chariots, legions of angels, and the Christ himself clothed in the sun. Other things bizarre and unknown had been displayed up above for all to see, yet spoken of by so few.
After the Battle of Malvern Hill, Hawkins had some time with a chaplain, a delightful old gentleman from Ireland whose voice reminded him of his father. The wise chaplain told Hawkins of a phenomenon called the Man in White. He explained that the strange occurrence is as old as warfare itself, a myth fabled in stories and poems, predating even the Greeks and Romans. In moments of utterly turbulent combat, just when all seems lost, an unknown person appears out of nowhere rendering aid to a desperate warrior in his weakest hour. Then, after the tide has turned for the better, this unknown presence departs, leaving the warrior to wonder if the mysterious person had been there at all.
At a small creek hidden in a grove of trees, Hawkins and Jenkins watered their horses. As they looked into the distance, riders could be heard coming from the west, many of them, twenty, thirty or more. Suddenly, across a large clearing just beyond the trees, no fewer than forty men on horseback moved quickly back toward the river. Hoof beats bounding through the air, shaking the earth. They wore plain clothes and rode with the determination of desperate men.
“Ours, ya think?” whispered Jenkins.
Hawkins just shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. After a moment they moved west again, keeping to the trees.
By early afternoon they spotted a small group of seven men clad in gray and followed them for nearly an hour before deciding it was safe to make contact. They were Confederates patrolling near the river zone for Jayhawkers, Red-legs and other Unionists, doing what they could to keep it safe for the few who’d chosen to remain there. Ever since the fall of Vicksburg, the area near the river had turned into a constant war zone with a few small towns burned and many of the people moving west. Violence and mayhem had spread like a plague, and anywhere near the river one could encounter savage marauders with allegiance to the North or the South or to no one.
As their small group continued west they met up with more and more Confederates, all eager to hear firsthand news of how the war was going back east. But Hawkins and Jenkins had little in the way of encouraging reports. Not only was talk of the war itself daunting, but for every single man they were asked about, old friends and family, all they had to offer were grim condolences. Hawkins listened as one young private, shades of peach fuzz still on his face, rattled off name after name to Jenkins as they rode along. At first all the sergeant could do was slowly shake his head to each inquiry. Then he heard the name of a man he thought might still be alive and turned to his commander.
“Billy Albright, Major, you ’member him?” asked Jenkins. “I think he was with eff troop. Tall fella with blond hair an’ freckles. Played harmonica an’ sang a bit.”
“He’s my cousin,” said the young private. “I’m Charlie Albright.”
Hawkins looked up and slowly nodded, now seeing a resemblance in the boy. He recalled Albright playing music and singing songs for the men in his troop, a lively character with an affable personality, quite brave, daring, and a bit reckless. Shortly before Gettysburg his left arm and leg were badly mauled in a clash with Union cavalry at Brandy Station. Both had to be amputated and he was transported to a hospital in Richmond. Weeks later as the defeated Southern Army limped back into Virginia, Hawkins received word that Albright had contracted pneumonia and died.
“I’m sorry, son,” he said, grimacing. “He was very brave.”
The young private nodded and slowly rode off to the side to be alone, a lost and dazed look on his face. Later he would be seen weeping silently. A healthy reaction, thought Hawkins. It was the ones who could not cry that would suffer the most, keeping it bottled up inside to fester like an unclean wound.
By sunset there were twenty-five of them. In the twilight the party made camp along the bank of a small lake. One of the men had a cast net. He kicked off his boots and rolled up his pant legs, then began twirling the net into the water, all the while quoting scripture from the Gospels. Blending with the first stars of the night, ripples of pink and purple played across the lake, giving its colors back to the sky. Charlie Albright pulled out a harmonica and began playing a slow weighty melody, a sad tune for his cousin. As brim and catfish roasted over a fire, Hawkins ran his hands across Jackson’s reddish-brown coat, the horse chomping at a foot-high pile of oats and molasses. At first light, the camp was struck and the small band of Confederates began skirting around the lake to the west.
A few miles before they reached Shreveport, Hawkins noticed a simple yet prominent skyline had emerged over his childhood home. A high water tower was surrounded by a series of five looming smoke stacks belching their waste over a structure that stretched just north of the city. He had been too tired to ask and was in no mood for conversation. Besides, he knew what it was - foundries for the Confederate Naval Shipyard on the southern bank of Cross Bayou’s mouth to the river, completed in his absence on land that had once belonged to his father.
Shreveport was the Confederate capital of Louisiana; Baton Rouge and New Orleans had been surrendered to the North early in the war. It was also the headquarters of the Trans-Mississippi Confederacy, which encompassed Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas and any legitimate part of the Confederate States of America west of the Mississippi, now all but cut off from any significant support from its dying main body.
The sun was low in the western sky when the group of Confederates, now numbering more than thirty, crossed the rickety pontoon bridge over the Red River into Shreveport’s wharf area. The hustle and bustle of city life, a large presence of soldiers, teamsters and slaves groping with the never-ending tasks of the day. After showing their papers at a checkpoint and a quick salute, Hawkins and Jenkins bid their traveling companions farewell and headed on into the town.
“In case ya forgot, David, headquarters is back ’at way,” said Jenkins, jerking his thumb over his shoulder as they rode down Commerce Street. “Papers say we’re ’posta check in soon as we get here.”
“Well, I reckon ’at can wait, Steve,” said Hawkins, looking at the man. “Them boys back at the river didn’t do nothin’ but give our papers a once-over. Go an’ see your family. Tell Jenny I said hey.”
“You sure are a compassionate type, David,” said Jenkins, grinning ear to ear as he rode off down Crockett Avenue, looking back over his shoulder to shout, “Good to be alive, huh!?”
“Hey, Steve!” Hawkins yelled, causing Jenkins to stop and turn his horse. “All this time you’ve been call’n me major, even when I ordered ya not to. So why are ya just now call’n me David again?”
“Cuz we’re back home, by golly!” shouted Jenkins, swatting the horse’s butt with his hat to turn again and sprint down the street.
Good to be alive indeed, thought Hawkins.
As he turned off Spring Street and crossed the old wooden bridge over the bayou, his eyes scanned the shipyard. Three-story buildings jammed into a corner of land he had ruled as a child, its construction begun only days before the war. Occasionally his lovely Emily would tell him of its progress in her letters as viewed from their small cotton farm on the opposite corner of the two waterway’s nexus.
“Oh, David, it’s such a dreary, awful sight. And the noise, a most infernal racket. Why on earth couldn’t they build it on the other side of the river?”
A faraway din of metallic clanks, pings and banging echoed through the air, reverberating under the bridge, bouncing off the murky water below. A thick cloud of stygian smoke issued from the looming stacks, scarring the pristine sky.
On the other side of the bayou, he looked out across Grimmet Field at the old levee that ran the length of his property, and more memories came flooding back. The many priceless correspondences with Emily, a treasury of endearment. Since Vicksburg the letters had stopped and he ached for her touch. How he longed to fill their bed with fresh picked flowers, kisses and sweet words. To lie gazing into her loving eyes, listening to the soft tones of her healing voice.
They had met almost ten years ago on an Easter Sunday during the egg hunt at the First Methodist Church. A little girl dressed in pink had dropped her egg, cracking the prized gift. The child began to cry quietly, trying ever so hard not to be disappointed. But the egg was so pretty, pink like her dress. Hawkins, who was just back from West Texas in his U.S. Cavalry uniform, happened by and noticed the little girl crying.
“What’s the matter, my darling?” he asked, bending over to console the small child.
“I broke my egg,” said the little girl in a voice so soft Hawkins could barely hear it.
“Well here, little one,” he said, spying a blue egg inside the bushes to the right. Gently, he picked it up and placed it in the girl’s tiny cupped hands. “Surely this one will do. Careful now, don’t drop it.”
The child stopped crying but still looked sad, glancing back and forth between the baby blue egg in her hands and the cracked pink one on the ground.
“But it’s not as pretty as that one,” she said looking up at Hawkins.
“Well, this egg comes with a special attachment.” Hawkins unclipped a small, frilly, white tassel from one of the ribbons on his uniform, a well-deserved commendation for one of his many grueling duties out West. He clipped it to the side of the little girl’s basket and watched as her eyes opened wide, a sweet smile spreading over her tiny face.
“What is it?” she asked with delight.
“Peter Cottontail himself gave me this when I was a little boy,” lied the tall soldier. “He told me I could give it to whomever I liked. And now I’m giving it to you.”
The little girl’s mouth opened wide, her lips curling inward as she gave a tiny gasp of surprise.
“Well, you certainly have a way with the ladies.”
Hawkins turned and stood almost at attention.
“Aunt Emily, look,” said the little girl, holding up her basket in one hand and the blue egg in the other. “I got an egg with Peter Cottontail’s tail, see?”
She was wearing a yellow dress, holding a matching parasol over her head. Her long dark hair was pulled back away from a strikingly animated face, her lips pressed slightly together as if trying to stifle a laugh. Deep brown, happy eyes, inquisitive yet knowing. Her head was bowed down a bit to her niece, eyes looking up occasionally at the tall soldier standing before her.
“And where did you get this bunny tail?” she asked shifting her full attention to an obviously smitten Hawkins.
“That nice man in the blue suit gave it to me,” the little girl said.
“Lieutenant David Hawkins, Madam,” he snapped to, bowing slightly, never taking his eyes from hers. “At your service. Ladies in distress always have a way with me.”
“Indeed, they do,” she said, offering her hand. “Emily Rains. So nice to make your acquaintance, Lieutenant Hawkins.”
“You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t release you,” he said, after kissing the delicately gloved hand. “My feet are no longer touching the ground, you see, and I’m afraid I might simply float away into the far reaches of space, never to see you again.”
“Oh, how distressing,” she giggled. “Do hold on tight.”
And hold on tight he did, courting her for less than a month before getting married in that same church. That spring they would run along the old levee for the first of many countless times, holding hands as their young legs worked the ground. Laughing as they went, talking about the little goings-on of the town, like whether or not Old Man McBride’s barn would be painted in time for next weekend’s social dance. He said it would, she laughed and said it would not, too much lollygagging. At a tall pine where a trail led off into another grove of trees they would follow honeysuckles, white and yellow, sweet with aroma and buzzing with bees. Ducking through the harmless swarm where blackberries grew thick and twined with their small stickers on the stems, waiting for summer to be picked and eaten or made into pies or jam or wine. Round they went till they came to their special place under a large oak tree, its canopied boughs guarded by brush and other trees. It was here that they really knew each other, laid out on a blanket over the soft clover, naked and alone, smiling innocent, running their hands along their bodies, finding it so good to be so young and so free.
When they were done, exhausted, they would just lie vulnerable looking into each other’s eyes, not talking, still gently touching, and caressing one another. Then, as their heartbeats settled back down, they would tell one another how good it had been, neither really finding the right words. But that did not matter; they trusted and believed in each other entirely. Sometimes they would spend the rest of those moments just talking of very simple things, their faces and bodies so close. Other times, like maybe when the moon was full or when the day had been short, they would have each other again and maybe again, finding new frontiers for their joy and passion. And this would sustain them through their times apart, and even through their times very far apart.
As a child he would run that levee, crossing the bridge, following its traces along the south bank of the bayou to its mouth at the river, past the fish market and the wharf. From there he would run along the trails into the town, taking the long way as children do because they don’t yet know how short time is. Sometimes he and his baby brother, Paul, would run the trail with their friends to the mouth of the bayou, where just a short hike upriver they had a swing tied to a large cypress tree. Most of the year it was warm enough to go into the water. They would swing out on the rope, letting go at just the right time, crashing into the eddy that had formed there away from the strong currents. They would swim back to quickly scurry up the muddy grassy bank or just stay out to frolic and play in the water. They were all strong swimmers and played rough with each other in those days, many times inflicting pain, but never serious injury. They would fish almost daily and hunt the woods to the north taking coons, squirrels and gray back doves. In winter deer were plentiful and could be seen from across the water running in small herds. That levee and the bayou feeding into the river and the woods and clearings that surrounded it, he claimed as his own. Deep, way back in his strong fervent memories of home were the places of his dreams.
At the farm Hawkins was surprised to see things looked as good as they did. He had expected disarray and clutter. The two-story house his father, brother and he had built over fifteen years ago had a fresh coat of whitewash, three dormers spaced evenly between its long steep gables. An ample sweeping porch ran the whole length of the house, wrapping around the right side all the way to the back. Two massive oaks stood guard to the left, their strong sturdy limbs reaching out toward each other creating a voluptuous domestic sanctuary. Out front a well-worn footpath circled inside the thin drooping bare branches of a willow tree. And to the right facing the porch waited a grand magnolia, its own little refuge nestled in the twilight.
Hawkins stopped in front of the house, surveying the scene of his home. Beyond the house was a large barn and stable. Next to it was the slave quarter, a thirty-by-fifty-foot log cabin with its own shaded porch. Behind that were two smaller cabins used as storage sheds.
Most everything looked in order, hens strutting around just outside their coop, hogs lolling quietly way off back in their pen. A familiar old horse named Nitney grazed in the corral. The field was ready for spring plowing. Two old dogs looked up from their nap under the magnolia: Caesar, a blue heeler that was the epitome of ever-alert-cool, and Jacko, a light-brown collie-retriever mix with white patches and a perpetual canine grin flanked by a long floppy wet tongue. The former let out one solitary bark, then raced low and deliberate toward his long-gone master. The latter, always a half-step behind but made up for it with boundless howling enthusiasm.
Hawkins was just about to call out for Emily when a small black boy about seven came from around the side carrying two buckets of water, followed closely by a little black girl about four, sucking her thumb.
“Stop fall’n me Rachel!” he shouted at the little girl, “an’ shut up Jacko!” When he saw Hawkins, he dropped the buckets wasting the water on the ground, staring in disbelief at the master he barely knew.
“Hey there, Noah. Didn’t mean ta scare ya. How ya been?” said Hawkins as he dismounted Jackson, who was totally oblivious of the two dogs that swarmed the Confederate. Caesar glanced up at the horse between pats and rubs. Jacko demanded more than his share of attention, and Noah stood speechless.
“Who dat is?” cried Rachel, taking her thumb from her mouth as she stared up wide-eyed at Hawkins.
“Is that little Rachel there behind ya? My, ya’ll sure have grown.” Hawkins removed his hat, swatting a cloud of dust from his uniform. “Well, where’s Emily at? I need a big hug and a long kiss from that girl.”
Suddenly Noah broke off into a run toward the slave quarter with Rachel hot on his heels, Jacko sprinting after them momentarily, then turning back to Hawkins.
“Momma! Pappa!” he cried. “Massa David’s back! Massa David’s back!”
“Momma! Pappa!” mimicked Rachel. “Matta Dava back! Matta Dava back!”
At the slave quarter their mother, Sarah, stuck her head out the door. She was in her early forties and wore an expression of utter disbelief as she wiped her hands on her apron.
“Oh, my Lawd,” she whispered to herself, then moved out to meet her son. “Go’n get ya pa and granpap, dair in da barn. Hurry, now!”
In a blur, the boy was off running toward the barn as Sarah gathered up Rachel, looking at the man she had helped raise.
“Hey, Sarah, how are ya?” said Hawkins coming closer, still looking over the place. “Things look pretty good ’round here. Bout’ta start plow’n I see.”
She tried to speak, but could say nothing. Finally, from out of the barn came Noah, his father Jacob and his grandfather Isaac. Seeing them she mustered up some strength.
“Didn’t s’pect ya back so soon, Massa David.”
“Got a little sidetracked up in Tennessee, I guess.” Hawkins laughed, then turned to greet Jacob and Isaac. “And there they are, the real men of the family.”
The relationship between Hawkins and his small family of slaves had always been good. Never had they been abused or neglected, the adults playing a significant role in young David’s nature and nurture. Sarah had been like an older sister to him, and her children more like nieces and nephews. They all worked hard and lived quite well on the seventy-five-acre farm. At its peak, the Hawkins farm had been over two-hundred acres. When Hawkins’s father, Ira, fell on hard times before the war, he sold bits and pieces of the land to pay off debts. Not once did he sell or beat a slave. During Hawkins’s absences out West, and while he’d been off fighting the war, neighbors had tried to persuade Emily Hawkins to hire an overseer. But she’d refused, saying they got by just fine. In truth, they were more like family.
After a few awkward moments, Sarah’s oldest child, a beautiful fifteen-year-old girl named Ruth, came from around the slave quarter. She had always adored Hawkins and often considered Miss Emily the luckiest woman in the world. Seeing him, her hands came up to her mouth as tears welled up in her eyes. Hawkins looked up and saw Ruth crying, standing off to the side with a painful, troubling look on her face. Hawkins was just about to call out to her when he noticed the solemn looks on all their faces. Noah stood at his father’s side, a strong hand on his head, and Rachel in her mother’s arms still sucking her thumb, her little head nuzzled against Sarah’s neck. Caesar and Jacko sniffed the ground at Hawkins’ feet.
“Where’s Emily?” he asked. “She go into town? Did I miss her come’n in?”
“Oh, uh…” Jacob choked, trying to speak.
“David,” Sarah said, painfully.
“What is it? Where is she?”
No one spoke. Isaac looked at the ground. Jacob fumbled with his hands trying to find words. A tear fell from Sarah’s eye, running down the length of her cheek.
“She was so good,” Isaac finally said in a soft voice.
“What’a ya mean?” Hawkins asked sternly. “Where is she?”
He moved close to Jacob, looking intently at the man’s face, a man he’d known all his life. Jacob could not meet his eyes. Hawkins had never handled one of his slaves roughly. It surprised even him when he grabbed Jacob by his shirt, violently jerking him around in a half-circle.
“WHERE IS SHE?!” he screamed.
Finally, Jacob met Hawkins’ gaze, slowly pointing with his left hand backward over his right shoulder as tears streamed down his face.
“I’m so sorry, Massa David.”
The Confederate shifted his eyes from Jacob’s, looking over the black man’s shoulder off into the distance. He gently pushed Jacob aside and slowly started to walk toward the edge of the field. Isaac held back Jacko as Caesar trotted sentry-like behind and to the left of his master. There, at the far end of the field surrounded by a clump of trees, were seven gravestones. When he had left two-and-a-half years ago there had been six. His parents and younger brother were buried out there. He’d been gone when each of them died, out West in the U.S. Army, or off on some errand. Also buried there were Sarah’s parents, and Isaac’s wife, Jacob’s mother. Another sign of the Hawkins’s intimacy with their slaves; they were buried with them.
By the time Hawkins got to the small plot, his legs were shaking and could barely hold him. For a moment he lied to himself, imagining that it would not be her. Then he saw her name. His hat fell to the ground as he dropped to his knees, weeping. Caesar let out a short audible whine, glancing back and forth between Hawkins and an epitaph that read:
With the Angels
He thought of the last time he had seen her, that autumn day of another world. She had worn her favorite blue dress, the one he liked so much. Her arms stretched out toward him, holding tight to his hands, not wanting to let go. A cool breeze blew through her raven-colored hair hanging down past her shoulders. Her beautiful, bold features never betrayed the sadness in her eyes.
“I need for you to be careful,” she had said, as he parted in his gray uniform.
“I was careful, Emily,” he said caressing her gravestone. “I was so careful.”