McRay was a brawler. Besides working in lumber mills and chopping down trees in
the woods south of Shreveport, he earned his money by fighting. Bars, back
alleyways, wharfs and loading docks. Any place where a man could walk in
penniless and say, “I can wup any man here,” and other men would pay to see it
happen. Just shy of six feet, he possessed a robust frame of intimidating
proportions, muscular and compact, with the fluid swagger of a jungle cat. Very
little was known about him, but he was rumored to have been orphaned at a young
age and raised by the wife of a river pirate down in New Orleans. In and out of
trouble with the law, his life was going nowhere until he fell in love with a
pretty young girl named Carla. She tamed him somewhat, and Adam McRay settled
down somewhat, to the remnants of the domestic life of a husband and a father.
His drinking and brawling ways changed little, but he always provided for his
family and, with the exception of a night or two spent in jail, he always came
home to his wife and child. Carla became pregnant again, but tragically she and
the infant died in childbirth. Though still a good father to his son, Johnny,
Adam McRay’s drunken debauchery increased after his loss. And just before the
war began he got into a little trouble in Shreveport.
“She was the best!!” he screamed, after riding his horse into a saloon on Texas Street. “The best, I tell ya!!”
When the proprietor refused to serve him, taking exception to his unorthodox method of entry, McRay commenced to thrashing the barroom to pieces. A mallet was harmlessly broken across his granite cranium before the barkeep was pitched through the window, bouncing into the street like an empty bucket. He mowed through the crowd of local tough-guys as if taking an afternoon stroll, their punches having no effect while he obliterated everything in his path. Heaps of splintered tables and chairs littered the establishment. The piano, a wooden Indian and half-dozen spittoons were all overturned, sprawled about like clutter. Pictures and mounted animal heads were knocked from the walls. Shrieking table girls fled for cover as shattered glass flew everywhere, bottles, mugs, more windows and a fifteen-foot custom-made mirror shipped all the way from Boston.
Seven men were sent to the doctor’s office that night and it finally took the sheriff and all his deputies to restrain the raging lumberjack. He was going to get four years hard labor for the stunt, but an old friend who always made money betting on his fights was able to pull a few strings. He got McRay conscripted into the Confederate Cavalry instead. He would end up in the 13th Louisiana’s Company “E”, commanded by a Captain Gregory Rivers. Second in command, First Lieutenant David Hawkins.
When Hawkins first resigned from his commission as a U. S. Cavalry officer, he had hopes of joining the Confederacy as a captain or possibly even a major. But he was given his same rank of first lieutenant. He had never been that type of officer, an inner circle man, a company man. He had come up through the enlisted ranks. When he was finally made an officer, he led by pure example and demonstration. He could outride, outrun, outfight and outshoot any soldier in his charge. And during the first few years of his commission, was required to do so quite often, dealing with insubordinate and unruly types with his own hand. Isaac, who was more like an uncle to Hawkins, had been a champion pugilist in his youth. He had taught young David many tricks of the fight game. Over the years Hawkins had also become quite proficient in the art of swordplay. He once won a duel against a much-feared opponent from France, skewering the man through the shoulder, a stunt that cost him a night in the stockade.
Though his formal education was more than adequate, Hawkins was by no means scholastic. He was, however, extremely well-read and would often shine in situations where a war of wits was required. He had very few close friends, and for the most part kept his own counsel, avoiding the covertly hostile pseudo-intellects that seemed to proliferate the junior grade ranks. He was considered by many both soft and outspoken, the latter causing him trouble on more than one occasion.
Just days after Lincoln was elected President, Hawkins was at a small officers’ party in Fort Worth. Talk of secession was thick in the air. He strongly disapproved of the direction in which the North was taking the South, seeing no need to snarl her ties to the international community with trade tariffs and petty meddling. But when the topic of slavery was discussed, he saw things differently than his fellow Southern officers. Freeing the slaves and giving them small plots of land and small percentages of the profits would yield more growth in the long run than the whip and the chain. This, Hawkins thought, would also produce a kind of morale within the black community that had never really existed because of the lack of choice.
“And this,” he expounded, after a few too many cognacs, “would create a huge conscription base that could be used to defeat the North, winning Southern independence.”
“You’ve gone mad!” blurted a tall, strapping lieutenant from South Carolina. “Black soldiers! How utterly vulgar!”
“I’ve known some to ride and shoot quite well,” said Hawkins. “Follow orders, too.”
“Ride and shoot!” the man bellowed.
“Oh, I’ve seen how you mount a horse,” retorted Hawkins. “Don’t worry, my friend; we’ll only let them become officers over their own.”
“Officers!” screamed the man before throwing his drink in Hawkins’s face. “I’ll be waiting in the courtyard.”
Hawkins made short work of the South Carolinian, who flailed madly at him with both arms. A noble effort against amateurs and street brawlers. But Hawkins was no amateur. He threw only three punches. A long hard jab, bloodying the man’s nose. A quick, searing right follow-up to the jaw. And the finishing touch, a short wicked hook to the side cracking two of the man’s ribs, dropping him like a sack of laundry. Though he easily won the duel with his fists, it was his words that alienated him from his peers. After he joined the Confederacy, even after the war began, this incident would come back to haunt him, slowing his climb up the chain of command.
Twice Hawkins briefly had the opportunity to join the Confederacy as a captain. The first came shortly before Sumter as a staff advisory liaison officer to Governor Moore. The posting would allow him to stay in Louisiana, assisting in the state’s military development, reporting only to the Governor and his top generals. But rumors were spread of his true position on slavery and he was denied the appointment. The second came just days after the war began. He was being considered as a candidate to command a company in the 3rd Louisiana Cavalry. As he met with the unit’s colonel, discussing his qualifications, he noticed an unwelcome, familiar face among the staff, the sneering South Carolinian. Hawkins would eventually be assigned to the 13th as executive officer to “E” Company.
The 13th Louisiana Cavalry was a rough, tough gang of over 1500 mounted men that was formed shortly after the state seceded from the Union. It was made up of seven companies, each with over 200 country boys who were all eager to go and pick a fight with the first bunch of Yankees they could find. Hawkins, who had seen quite a bit of combat out West fighting Indians and outlaws, knew deep down inside that his past experiences would pale in comparison to what was about to happen. His men were more than willing and ready to fight, but they lacked the practical knowledge that came only from combat itself.
At first Hawkins saw potential in Adam McRay. He could ride and shoot better than most, but it was his strength and toughness that really caught Hawkins’s eye. He would soon learn, however, that McRay was big trouble. He stayed drunk and always seemed to be getting into fights. He was insubordinate and gave a damn about no one but himself. Once he was caught passed out under some bushes when he was supposed to be helping dig latrines. As punishment Hawkins ordered McRay to dig the latrines by himself. A few hours later McRay was found sleeping in the bushes again. Hawkins was just about to have him put in shackles, when it was brought to his attention that the latrines had been dug to his exact specifications. McRay had done the work of three men in less than half the time. Another time Hawkins caught McRay intentionally picketing a troop of horses in a spot known for flooding. A storm was coming, so he had the man move the whole line of over forty horses to higher ground. By the time the rains came, Hawkins was stunned to learn that McRay had moved the whole company’s herd of horses, some 215 animals, to higher ground, all staked down and tied in. As McRay sat laughing atop his own horse, whiskey bottle in hand, Hawkins could not decide whether to have the man arrested or promoted. He chose the latter. McRay was made a corporal with four men under him.
By 1862 the battles of the war began taking on a more epic scope. In its first few months many a political speaker would scoff at the notion of a long, bloody war. Even Frederick Engels, on a European speaking tour, said that the war in North America would amount to very little. Fort Sumter was almost bloodless, a mule being the only casualty. The first real battles were quite small, pitting a few hundred men against a few hundred men. First Manassas changed all that. Now armies of thousands were slamming into each other with frightful results, using antiquated, small-battlefield tactics against powerful weapons that killed from great distances, enlarging the field as well as the violence.
A large Union force was moving through western Tennessee attempting to drive out the Confederate Army. The 13th Louisiana Cavalry was sent to northern Mississippi to help stop the Union advance. At Corinth, Hawkins and McRay would have another confrontation. This time he found the man fighting for money. McRay had easily taken all four of his men’s hard-earned weekly pay, almost forcing them to fight. When Hawkins demanded he give the money back, McRay refused. A dark look came over Hawkins as he calmly took off his coat, preparing to square off with the grinning McRay. Though four inches shorter than his commander, McRay matched Hawkins in overall size and weight, and was deceptively quick and agile. He also had no qualms about harming an officer and Hawkins knew this. From the start the fight was a violent crowd pleaser, most of the men rooting for Hawkins, a few rooting for McRay. “E” Company’s executive officer fought with surgical precision, landing beautifully timed blows to the corporal’s rock-hard jaw. McRay landed fewer punches, but their jarring effects were evident and soon both men’s faces were bloody and swollen. Suddenly, Captain Rivers happened upon the crazed mayhem.
“What in God’s name is this!?” he screamed. “Lieutenant Hawkins, please explain yourself!”
The two men stood weary before their superior, swaying and unbalanced.
“A demonstration, sir,” lied Hawkins. “Corporal McRay and I were simply showing the men some of the finer techniques of close quarter fighting, sir.”
“Nonsense!” growled Rivers. “If either of you is unable to perform your duties, I’ll hold you responsible, Lieutenant!”
Later the ever-insolent McRay approached Hawkins feigning fatigue and injury.
“I’m not feel’n so good, Lieutenant,” he said. “Might need to go see the doctor, huh?”
It was all Hawkins could do to restrain himself from pulling his sidearm and shooting the man on the spot.
Less than a week later, Confederate Commander-in-Chief Albert Sidney Johnston moved his three consolidated corps back into Tennessee with plans of crushing Ulysses S. Grant’s Army at Pittsburg Landing. Two months earlier Grant had invaded Tennessee, capturing Forts Henry and Donelson, rocking the whole framework of Confederate defense in the western theater of the war. Southern forces abandoned Kentucky, and Nashville was lost. Now the Rebels would do what they could to drive out the Yankees. Over 100,000 men would clash in the beautiful, scenic hillsides surrounding Shiloh Church, bringing something very new to the American way of war: monumental wholesale slaughter.
Many had said the 13th was doomed from the onset, having been given the very number of ill fortune. At dawn they raced across the west end of the peach orchard. Pink blossom petals began to fall, knocked loose by the concussive explosions of gunfire, drifting down in moving sheets of pastel to blanket the field and blind the view. The ill-fated battalion would be all but wiped out by a series of terrible mishaps. First, they ran headlong into a Union artillery barrage. Then, still reeling, they were charged by over a thousand fresh Ohio infantrymen. Then they were picked apart like cornstalks by Indiana and Iowa sharpshooters, only to be charged again and again.
Hawkins’s left leg was badly broken during the cannon attack and he was pinned under his dead horse. Just as he was about to be bayoneted, helplessly run through by a screaming Yankee, Adam McRay sprang from the encircling chaos. Now a murdering do-gooder, he played the martyr card, rectifying his sins in a last-minute reprieve. With casual truculence he shot the Yankee through the head, then stood his ground fighting to protect his commander. McRay was well within his element, a juggernaut of inexorable might repelling every entreaty. A screaming, howling wreck of havoc, run amuck on the enemy like a secret weapon.
During a slight lull in the fighting, McRay pulled Hawkins out from under his horse and began carrying him through the madness toward the tree line. Repeatedly he had to lay the man down, better to fight, dispensing his wrath in turns. Then they moved on, crawling and stepping over men in heaps. Dodging the fray where they could, tangled piles of human wreckage, they glanced in horror at the vast pandemonium strewn to the cardinal points. A seething labyrinth of corporeal fury, apocalyptic and rabid, stretched to the horizon. A deafening roar permeated the atmosphere, a thousand-thousand shouts at the devil, multiplied by all the lamentations of Jeremiah in sackcloth and ashes.
Suddenly there was a loud clap of thunder and the entire sky lit up. From horizon to horizon it blazed the color of bright blue flame. At that moment something very strange happened; the fighting ceased. The Battle of Shiloh came to an abrupt intermission. Every man stopped his killing work and looked up, scanning the heavens in awe. The silence was deafening. Men began to point. There was something in the sky. It was the image of a Man with His arms stretched out wide. He was enveloped, but not consumed, by the brilliant blue flame that had become the sky. Then it began to rain. Only it wasn’t water. It was blood, thick drops of crimson pelting the combatants below. Then the sky began to fade back to its original cloudscape, dimming, obscuring the image of the Man until He vanished. The blood-rain then turned to water, washing the airborne blood into the soil, mixing with the blood of the fallen. The rain then stopped, rays of sunlight cueing the inevitable. An unbearable tension seemed to rise out of the earth, the vast plethora of soldiers all looking at one another. Then, as if the vision had never happened, the killing resumed with a vociferous mingled roar.
McRay continued to carry Hawkins, traversing the ravaged field till they reached the tree line. They rested a moment in the shade, the battle churning before them just yards away. McRay was shot and both had been lacerated, bleeding badly, in need of medical attention. Hawkins looked to his left and right noticing hundreds of emerald green caterpillars inching their way across the crimson-stained grass, crawling here and there over the corpses of men, who just moments ago had crawled off to die alone in peace. The tiny larva meandered in and out of rifle barrels, up and down the edges of sword and bayonet blades, leaving tiny red trails streaked across the faces of the dead.
“I don’t know what dat was,” said McRay, not taking his eyes off the fighting, “but I know I ain’t the only one dat seen it.”
He looked at Hawkins, who was slumped against the base of an oak tree, still watching the green caterpillars as they crawled through the bloody flora. He too wondered what he’d seen out there, but was in such pain it was hard to get his thoughts together. Watching the caterpillars felt tranquil, and he suddenly thought of staying there till he died.
“Come on, Lieutenant,” McRay said. “Let’s get go’n.”
“Leave me,” he told McRay. “I can’t go any further.”
“Ya want me ta go’n get yer nanny, Lieutenant?” taunted the corporal.
“Save yourself,” said Hawkins, closing his eyes.
“Get ya ass up,” said McRay as he lifted his screaming commander by the armpits.
They traveled only a short distance before coming to a small creek, one of the many tributaries in the area that flowed into the Tennessee River. Its banks were sparsely lined with the dead and dying, blood swirling in its ripples. From behind them the sounds of battle reverberated through the trees, at times rising to a dire cacophonous peal, echoing in great coughs like some gigantic beast stirring off in the distance. Just as McRay was helping Hawkins get a drink from the water, four Union soldiers appeared at the creek, emerging out of the brush not twenty feet away. For a moment the two groups stared at each other, fear and surprise showing on their faces, even McRay’s. Then, as one of the Yankees raised his rifle, McRay drew his pistol. Shots rang out as he quickly rolled to his right and charged the four men. Hawkins lay helpless, watching from the creek’s edge as the corporal engaged the enemy with all that was left of his ebbing strength. At one point he seemed done for, teetering at the brink of defeat and death. But then, with almost inhuman reserve, he sprang back, scrapping bellicose from deep within. Crushing blows. Violent knife strikes. And finally, grappling a fallen pistol from the last man, shooting him in the face. Utterly exhausted he crawled back to Hawkins, strained to lift him, then moving on following the flow of the creek.
McRay was totally spent, and it wasn’t long before he could go no further. He fell to the ground, causing Hawkins to cry out in pain. The two of them lay there, helpless, breathing heavily, not speaking. Through the brush voices could be heard. Suddenly another team of Union soldiers was on them, half-a-dozen or more. They raised their rifles touching McRay and Hawkins with the tips of their bayonets, poised to run them through. But suddenly a Man appeared out of nowhere, stepping to gently push aside the sharp bayonets. He wore a white tunic and ash-colored pants. His hair was long and His face was like that of an angel. The Union soldiers stepped back in fear, turned and disappeared into the brush.
They next thing Hawkins knew, he was being carried along the creek again by McRay, the unknown Man nowhere to be seen. They soon heard a shout and looked up. A small band of walking-wounded Confederates was moving through the trees to their right headed for the creek. A row of men with their heads, arms and legs wrapped in bloody bandages, limping and crutching their way from the dreadful battlefield. After drinking their fill of water the men helped Hawkins and McRay as best they could, and eventually they found a makeshift Confederate hospital.
Hawkins and McRay lay bleeding on the ground, staring at one another. All around them horribly wounded men screamed and pleaded for help. Blood pooled in the grass mixing with the sudden April rain scattered throughout the hills. To the side, arms and legs were hacked off at the surgeon’s callous disregard to the men’s hideous shrieks of pain. Held down, sometimes by teams of three or more, as they flailed and begged. Limbs tossed into piles like so much cordwood.
Somehow through all the chaos, McRay had been able to keep his cap. Reaching out, he handed the blood-soaked garment to Hawkins.
“Please, sir,” he said, very weak. “If ya live, take my cap to my boy in Pleasant Hill. His name’s Johnny. Johnny McRay. He’s only eleven. Please, sir….please.”
No sooner had Hawkins taken the cap than he was lifted up, screaming, and laid on a stretcher.
“I will,” he gasped, looking down into McRay’s pleading eyes. “I promise.” The last thing he noticed, before he was carried off, was McRay sighing with something like relief and closing his eyes.
On a table Hawkins’s trousers were cut off, revealing a small nub of bone jutting from his left calf. A piece of wood was shoved in his mouth as one man held him under his armpits, while another pulled on the broken leg. Just before he passed out Hawkins screamed silently, his voice now gone, biting hard on the stick as the nub of bone receded back into his leg with a sickening crack. Because he was an officer, Hawkins received faster care and his leg was set clean and saved. The man who saved his life repeatedly that day bled to death waiting.
Later, after he came to, Hawkins looked out and saw a long row of dead being prepared for burial. He then noticed a Man carrying Adam McRay’s lifeless body. The Man turned and looked directly at Hawkins from across the distance. It was the Man who had saved them from the Union soldiers. The Man then turned and gently laid McRay in the row of dead, momentarily placing His hand on the dead Confederate’s forehead. At that time a column of soldiers marched by obscuring Hawkins’s view. When they had past the Man was gone, McRay lying at the end of the row of corpses.
That night a terrible storm raged as if God Himself was rebuking the conflict. From the back of a packed ambulance wagon, Hawkins watched in horror as brilliant lightning strikes illuminated the battlefield. Silhouetted images of hogs were seen feeding off the ungathered dead, fighting over the corpses.
After Shiloh the 13th Louisiana Cavalry was so decimated it was disbanded, its remnants absorbed into another Louisiana regiment, which was soon sent to Virginia, just in time for the Seven Days.
Sitting at the table, staring at the cap in his hands, Hawkins realized he had not thought of that day since it happened. So many terrible things had occurred since then. Had that been the first time he encountered the Man in White? He wasn’t sure. Perhaps he was simply going mad. He did feel something, however, something he thought just moments ago was gone from his life forever. Purpose. Direction. A reason to carry on. Honor and a sense of duty. He had a promise to keep.
“Sarah!” he shouted. “Jacob!”
When they entered he was on his feet stuffing everything back into the bags.
“Sarah, where’s my uniform? I need it now.” He looked up at them as if everything were normal, showing renewed vigor and life in his movements.
“Why, it be hang’n in ya room, David,” she said. “It was sump’n filthy, but’iss good’n clean now.”
“Jacob, go’n get Jackson ready for me, please.”
“Ya mean Jacko?” Jacob frowned. “Dat crazy ol’ dawg?”
“No,” said Hawkins. “Jackson. My horse, man, my horse.”
“Oh, yessir,” said Jacob, looking a little confused. “You go’n somewheres, David?”
“Yes, I have business at attend to.” He turned to Sarah. “I’ll take you up on that breakfast now. Remember how I like my eggs?”
“Ah’ course, David,” said Sarah, moving to crack some eggs. “Over runny. But ya can’t go nowheres now. Ya needs ta rest.”
“Please, Darling, just do as I ask,” he said, looking at them both. He then turned and walked from the kitchen leaving the two confused slaves to wonder what on earth the matter was.
They had no idea why or where he was going, but since he had made up his mind to go, they would do their best to help him look his best. Water was heated so he could take a hot bath after he ate. He shaved off his beard leaving the mustache and goatee. Noah polished his old, weathered boots and Sarah trimmed his hair. After he was dressed he stood in front of a full-length mirror admiring himself on attention.
Outside Jacob had Jackson by the reins, holding the beautiful animal at a distance. The sun shined off his dark reddish-orange, well-muscled body, its long unruly mane so black as to almost appear blue. The horse seemed giddy with anticipation, snorting, neighing and tossing its head side to side when Hawkins stepped outside. Just as he was about to mount the beautiful charger, Ruth ran up with a long brownish-red feather in her hand.
“I founds it down by da bayou, Massa David,” she said, smiling sweetly at him. “Fer ya hat.”
“Red-tailed hawk,” he said in a pensive tone, as if the item had suddenly conjured up some distant memory. He removed his hat, setting the feather in its band before placing back on his head.
“Thank ya, Ruth. How’s it look?”
“Mighty fine, Massa David,” said Ruth, half-spinning back and forth, grinning up at Hawkins. “Ya looks real impo’tant.”
“Ya be gone long, David?” asked Jacob.
“No, I should be back later this evening.”
“Where ya’s go’n, David?” asked Sarah.
“Now, shugga,” said Jacob, looking at his wife. “Where Massa David’s a go’n ain’t none’a our lookout.”
“I’m go’n down to Pleasant Hill,” said Hawkins. “Won’t be gone long.”
He tipped his hat to his small family of slaves and headed off, Jackson moving in an effortless, graceful trot.
“Wonder why David’s go’n to Pleasant Hill?” asked Jacob out loud to himself. “Ain’t nut’n down nair.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Sarah. “Ain’t none’a my lookout.”
“Watch it, girl,” Jacob said swatting his wife on the butt as their children giggled, “’fo I takes ya back behinds da shed an’ gives ya what fo.”
“Oh, I’m always watch’n you,” she said walking away, looking over her shoulder. “Take me behind dat shed. I ain’t scare’t none.”