Pleasant Hill was a small
town of about 300 that sat at the base of a gentle rise sixty miles due south
of Shreveport. It was an affluent community within the sphere and influence of
a few prosperous cotton plantations, a center of refinement and education with
a bank, a post office and a nice hotel. It was a well-kept hamlet with two
small colleges, one for girls and one for boys. There was a little museum and
art gallery, a theater and several thriving businesses. To the north, alongside
the road that ran into the little village, was a small schoolhouse that was
situated a bit off, somewhat isolated from the rest of the town. About a
hundred feet to the side of the schoolhouse was a large pecan tree that was a
favorite gathering spot for a few of the lesser-privileged children who lived
in the area. In Pleasant Hill even the lesser-privileged lived quite well. After
school or on weekends or whenever their parents would let them, they would meet
at the large tree, playing games, gathering up fallen pecans and just talk
about the things children talk about.
Today 13-year-old Bobby Bernard had an audience. And when he had an audience, there were two things he loved to do, run his mouth and fight. The former he had been doing for the better part of a half-hour, telling another embellished tale of how his father had been single-handedly reducing the Yankee population of Louisiana. The latter was just moments away.
“Dare was ‘bout four’a dem damn Yankees left, see,” Bernard drawled with grave exaggeration to the small crowd, whose ages ranged from four to fourteen. “An’ dey had my pa cornered, see. An’ees da last man stand’n, with only four bullets left.” Bernard hesitated for effect, then continued. “He lifts his hands like ‘ees gonna surrender. Den, fast as light’nin, he whipped out his pistol an’ shot’m all right twixt da eyes. Dead’r dan dawg roots.”
A collective “Ooooh” rose from the crowd of youngsters. Only one seemed unimpressed with Bobby Bernard’s tall tale, 13-year-old Johnny McRay.
“You’re such a liar, Bernard. I swear.”
“Whad’ju say?” said Bobby, jerking his head around at Johnny.
“Your pa was part’a dat patrol dat went after dee’serters,” said Johnny. “He ain’t done no fight’n.”
“Watch yer mouth, McRay,” said Bobby, moving close to Johnny, “or I’ll wup ya, just like last time.”
Bobby was a few months older than Johnny and they were about the same height, but Bobby was a bit stouter. They disliked each other so much, they only called one another by their last names. Several times they’d gotten in fights over the past couple of years, with Bobby always edging out a win. Not because Johnny couldn’t fight; Bobby was just a little too strong for him. Still, Johnny refused to observe the pecking order, and Bobby always did what he could to provoke an incident.
“Yer pa never fought no Yankees,” said Johnny, looking Bobby right in the eye. “All ’ee did was arrest men who came home without’a fur’low. I did hear’ee shot a man once, but it weren’t no Yankee. Just some fella ‘round Doyline way, want’n to see’s wife’n kids. An’ your pa shot’m, Bernard.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Bobby. “Well at least my pa’s good ’nuff to stay alive.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed, growing dark with anger and rage. “Take it back Bernard, or I’ll …”
“Or what, McRay?” Bobby moved closer, his face only inches from Johnny’s. “Or what?”
Johnny’s father had taught him how to fight, how to twist his back foot, turning his arm, all the while throwing the punch in a tight straight line. And that’s just what he did, crashing a textbook right cross to Bobby Bernard’s jaw, knocking his head around 180 degrees like a loose shutter. But the bigger boy absorbed the blow, wrestling Johnny’s arms into a clinch. As the two youngsters tussled to the ground in a cloud of dust, the rest of the kids went berserk. Eventually, Bobby got Johnny in a headlock and began pummeling his face with punches.
Just then, Jake Watson, the owner of the local general store came looking for his son, Mark, needed back at the family business to help stock some leather goods from Texas. Watson was a huge, fat tank of a man with no neck, and arms like a picnic roast. When he saw Johnny and Bobby fighting on the ground, surrounded by the small pack of screaming children, he rolled his eyes and waddled as quickly as possible over to the kid-world commotion.
“You two, again!” he shouted, after jerking the two juvenile brawlers off the ground and holding them at arm’s length from each other. “I don’t believe it!”
“He started it!” cried Bobby, pointing at Johnny, who was still red with rage, a trickle of blood from his nose, silent and glaring at the other boy.
“Yeah,” Watson said cynically. “And I’ll bet ya did nothing to provoke’m, huh?”
“Me!?” Bobby blurted, playing the innocent victim. “He trew da first punch! Axt anyone!”
Suddenly, Bobby was distracted by something. He looked off behind Watson, away from the small crowd of children. “Hey! Look at dat!”
The group turned to see a Confederate soldier riding up the road that led into Pleasant Hill. He was superbly mounted on a magnificent horse the color of sunburnt ocher with a long flowing sable mane. When he spotted the small group gathered under the spreading boughs of the pecan tree he detoured their way. After stopping in front of them, the regal horse turned sideways as if to display its master. A long feather, almost the color of the horse, jutted from the soldier’s hat, presenting quite a sight for small-town folks, especially children.
“Howdy, sir,” said Watson, not sure what else to say. “Is there any trouble? Something I can help ya with?”
At first the Confederate said nothing, just looked at the little crowd of awed on-lookers. Then he straightened his hat and sat up in the saddle.
“I’m look’n for a young fella named Johnny McRay.”
In unison, Watson and the other children all turned to look at Johnny, who stood staring wide-eyed at the majestic sight before him.
After a moment, while the Confederate’s eyes scanned the small group, Watson’s hand gently released Johnny and the boy slowly stepped forward.
“I’m Johnny,” he softly said.
The soldier slowly dismounted and reached into his saddlebags pulling out a Rebel cap, most of its butternut-gray discolored a dark shade of rust. With his elbows propped up against the horse, he held the cap in both hands just above the edge of the leather bag, staring at it as if it possessed some kind of special gift or dark secret. He then turned and walked over to Johnny, holding out the cap for the boy to see.
“I’m Major David Hawkins, and this here cap belonged to your pa. He gave it to me almost two years ago at Shiloh. He asked me, if I lived, to please bring it to you.” He handed the cap to the boy, but did not let go. “Your pa died saving my life.”
Johnny took the cap, looking at it for a long while before looking back up at Hawkins.
“Thank ya, Mister.”
The small group was silent for a moment. Then Watson began tending to the children.
“Aw’ right, now,” he said. “y’all run along. Mark, go on up to the store and help ya ma. Get them goods all sorted out.”
As the children dispersed, Bobby Bernard, who was almost green with envy, looked over his shoulder at Johnny. But Johnny was looking at his father’s cap, studying the splotches of long-since-dried blood stained into its threads. Watson introduced himself to Hawkins and the two made small talk, while Johnny glanced back and forth from the cap to the tall soldier who had brought it to him. Finally, Watson headed back into the town, leaving the boy and the Confederate alone to talk.
They walked side by side in a large clearing near the pecan tree. Hawkins cracked two of the nutty fruits in the palm of his hand while Johnny still examined the cap, turning it over and over as if expecting to find some other remnant effect of his father’s. Behind them, Jackson trailed freely, nibbling at patches of grass here and there as his reins traced the ground.
“Is dis my pa’s blood or yours?” asked Johnny, looking up at Hawkins.
“Might be a bit of both, son,” answered Hawkins, “but I’m sure most of it’s your pa’s.”
For a long while the two were silent. Then, without being prompted, the boy began to talk about his life when he had both a mother and a father. Hawkins learned that in his early years, before his mother passed away, Johnny’s life had been quite good. Carla McRay had kept a simple yet loving home with fresh-baked biscuits every morning with butter and honey. In the afternoon a peach or apple or blackberry cobbler would be cooling by the window. She baked sugar cookies and muffins he liked to eat with molasses or jam. Sometimes she would make gumbo or jambalaya, chicken stew or meat pies. They would play games together like checkers or hide-and-go-seek, or take long walks through the woods holding hands, playing word games or ‘I Spy.’ At night she would sing him to sleep with sweet lullabies, stroking his hair until he dreamed off to be awakened by her cheerful encouraging voice.
Although Johnny knew of his father’s carousing ways, he never saw it firsthand at home. Hawkins heard the boy talk of a man very different from the one he knew in the 13th. A man who never once raised a hand to Johnny or his mother. A man who brought home gifts and jovial stories of the day. An upbeat jocular man of boundless energy, always willing to help others, wanting little or nothing in return. Occasionally, Adam would take the three of them into town, or on a daylong outing at one of the many lakes in the area.
Only once did Johnny and Carla come close to witnessing Adam’s potential rage. He had taken them to Shreveport one weekend, with a nice room at the Remington Hotel, dinner at Straughn’s and a carriage ride along the river. It was early evening and they were walking back to the hotel on Spring Street when three drunken cowhands staggered by using foul language, a forgivable offence if a simple apology was offered. But the cowboys only leered momentarily at Carla before moving on.
“Fellas hav’n a good time, are ya?” Adam coolly remarked after they had passed. The three men stopped and turned, looking more carefully at the McRay family. Carla had on a nice autumn dress. Seven-year-old Johnny and his father were each wearing a new coat and tie.
“Why, sure,” said the biggest, four teeth showing through his crooked grin, eyes back on Carla. “An’ how y’all do’n?”
“Well, we were do’n just fine, up till now,” said Adam, taking a step toward the man. “Sir, I realize yer not dressed at the height of fashion. But if ya don’t take yer eyes off my wife an’ apologize for yer mouth, I’m gonna hit ya so hard, when ya come to, your clothes are gonna be outta style.” By the time Adam said the last words his face was only inches from the taller man.
“Now, Adam, don’t you hurt those men,” said Carla, placing her hand on her husband’s rock-like shoulder. “You yourself said this dress was gonna make everyone look at me.”
After a tense moment the three men tipped their hats, humbly apologized and went on their way.
“Dat ol’ feller never knew how close he come to be’n chewed up an’ spit out like a bad piece’a pie crust,” Johnny said to Hawkins, who raised his eyebrows and nodded, pensively rubbing his chin.
“Sometimes pa’d come home with ’is face all busted up, like he’d been fight’n.” Johnny looked at the cap. “He’d smell like whiskey. But he’d never act mean or nut’n’. Ma’d act kind’a funny, quiet an’ all. But really, she didn’t seem to care. Cept’a couple’a times, pa didn’t come home ’cause he’s in jail. Then ma chewed’m out good, but pa didn’t say nothin’ bad to’r. Just kissed’r an’ said it won’t happen no mores. He loved me and ma.”
Two years before the war started, when Johnny was only eight, Carla died and Adam started back drinking almost every night. She had been far along in her second pregnancy when terrible, shooting pains caused her to collapse in the yard. Adam was sent for at the mill twenty miles away in Mansfield. But when he arrived the baby had already been stillborn. Carla had hemorrhaged badly, the doctor unable to control the bleeding. Later that night she died while Adam held her, weeping like a child. Financially Adam still took good care of Johnny. But he soon began staying away longer and longer, leaving the boy with Carla’s cousin, the local schoolteacher just returned from college.
“Pa use’ta take me fish’n over dat way,” Johnny told Hawkins, pointing at a small trail that led off into the woods, obviously wanting to change the subject of his mother’s death. “An’ on da utha side’s some good hunt’n. We’d always shoot us a coon or two. Whole heap’a squirrels and rabbits. Seen me some deer run’n jus’ dis morn’n.”
Hawkins forced a smile. His thoughts were on Emily and he suddenly missed her very much. They both often wondered why they had not been able to have children. He imagined her there walking with them now. And even though Johnny was a bit too old, he suddenly imagined him as the child they never had.
“What’s ya horse’s name?” asked Johnny, turning to pet the calm animal.
“I call’m Jackson.”
“Jackson?” Johnny said, screwing up his face at the soldier. “Funny name fer a horse. Why’d ya call’m dat?”
“I got’m at Chancellorsville,” said Hawkins, running his hand over the magnificent horse’s black mane. “Same day Stonewall Jackson fell. So I named’m Jackson.”
“You knew Stonewall Jackson?” asked Johnny, looking up at Hawkins in wonder.
“Well, sort’a. I once delivered him a very important message.”
“Wow, really!? Did he say thanks?”
“Not sure.” Hawkins laughed. “Things was pretty loud at the time.”
At that moment a large red-tailed hawk plunged from the sky like an apparition. With chilling accuracy it snatched up an unsuspecting old hare scampering across the clearing. Without missing a beat of its wings, the raptor swooped the helpless creature up into the tall pecan tree. The Confederate and the boy watched silently as the majestic bird began tearing the rabbit to pieces. Talons deep in the poor coney’s flesh. Entrails hanging from the hawk’s blood-splattered beak.
“How’d my pa save yer life?” Johnny suddenly asked as they both continued to watch the gory spectacle in the tree.
Hawkins took a deep breath, then began telling Johnny what happened that wet spring day in Tennessee. He told how his company was wiped out almost to the man. How his leg had been badly broken when his horse was shot out from under him during the initial cavalry charge. How Adam had saved him from almost certain death. And how he stood and fought with uncommon bravery and skill, single handedly defeating one enemy soldier after another. He told Johnny how his father carried him to the safety of the trees, even after being shot himself. Then on to the creek, where he tenaciously fought again, outnumbered four to one yet emerging victorious, only to have to carry his commander even further before finding help. And finally, he told Johnny of their intimate moment in the terrible hospital when his father handed Hawkins his bloody cap. How he pleaded with him to take it to his son. It was then, looking back on that day, Hawkins realized he had met the Adam McRay that Johnny knew. A man who had loved and lost his wife with the same passion and pain as he felt for Emily. A man, who if dealt by fate a slightly different hand, could have fittingly been Hawkins’s superior.
When Hawkins had finished with the painful account, he looked at Johnny standing to his left. The boy had finally put on his father’s cap, but kept his eyes on the savage display in the tree. Locks of golden-blond hair fell out from under the cover, touching the light brown freckles that dotted his nose and cheekbones. He seemed to age, taking on the likeness of his father. The deep-set, penetrating hazel eyes. The wide, generous mouth, buttressed by a strong, square jaw. Hawkins guessed that his mother had been somewhat tall, for Johnny stood only a few inches shorter than his father. He would surely grow much more over the years, filling out to become a large, powerful man. But it was the look in his eyes that touched Hawkins most. Unlike his other features, which still held fast to the wondrous years of youth, his eyes seemed to be seeking something. Wanting the type of knowledge that taxed the soul, leaving vacuums the older man would try to fill with ill-formed vanities of the mind.
They continued their walk following the perimeter of the clearing, coming back around to the opposite side of the schoolhouse. As they approached, a woman in her late twenties stepped out on the porch. She wore a dark blue dress and had long brown hair that fell around an honest face with just a hint of mischief and curiosity.
“Aunt Amy,” Johnny called out. “This here’s Major David Hawkins. He brought me Pa’s cap from the war.”
“Oh, hello, Major,” she said with a charming smile, unabashedly admiring the man in his uniform. “Good to meet you. Amy Bolton. Actually, I’m Johnny’s second cousin, but he insists on calling me aunt. His mother and I were first cousins.”
The three chatted for a while making casual pleasantries. Randy Randall then appeared and asked Johnny if some of the boys could see the cap. Johnny excused himself and ran off with Randy to show his gift to the boys who were waiting under the pecan tree.
“It’s very nice of you to bring him his father’s cap, Major,” said Amy as they watched the boys from the porch.
“Please,” he said turning to her. “Call me David.”
“All right,” she smiled. “David. You knew Adam well?”
“He was in my company,” said Hawkins. “As far as knowing him well, I doubt that anyone in the whole battalion knew him very well. He was a bit difficult at times. But I can say that he was a very brave, strong man. I’d be dead if it wasn’t for him.”
“Where did this happen?” she asked, tilting her head slightly to the side. Hawkins looked at her lovely face, for a moment unable to speak. Her dark brown eyes matched the color of her hair. They gleamed with a thoughtful, radiating warmth that stirred the Confederate. A compassionate glow emanated from her countenance causing him to realize the subtle seduction. He could not look away.
“Shiloh,” he finally said.
“Oh, my goodness,” she replied, bringing one hand to her mouth, the other gently touching the sleeve of his coat. Most of the civilized world knew about Shiloh. At its time it had been the largest battle in the Western Hemisphere, one of the greatest in history. Since then it had been reduced to part of a list, a declaration for the many battles that were worse.
“A tough day for the regiment,” was all he could say.
Their eyes could not pull apart, a fascination of something new and uncomplicated yet still fleeting. Tangible, within reach yet chased by doubt and fear. His alone.
“Yes,” she said, yielding to his sad, constant gaze. “Would you like some tea?” She motioned to the door of the schoolhouse, showing something that might have passed for awkwardness.
“Sure. A cup of tea would be nice.”
They sat at a small table by a window watching Johnny and his friends as they passed the cap around, each trying it on for size. For a while the soldier and the teacher conversed of simple things, people and places familiar to both. Then Amy asked Hawkins if he had any family. He hesitated, looking out the window at the boys still standing and jostling with each other around the pecan tree.
“My wife passed away about a month ago,” he said, looking back at her.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said, again touching his arm sending a warm sensation through his body. “But didn’t you say that you only got back four days ago?”
“Yes,” he said quietly. “That’s when I found out.”
“Oh, how sad.” Their hands touched, gently wrapping around one another. For just a second they both hesitated and she pulled back slightly, embarrassed at the advance. “I’m so sorry. I …”
“No, please.” He took her hand back, gently pulling it to the center of the table as tears showed in his eyes, his voice wavering yet calm. “I don’t know what to say. To go through all that hell and come home and …,” he hesitated, the grief still showing in his eyes. “I miss her so much.”
She reached out and touched his face, suddenly feeling lost herself, a witness to his pain as she quietly spoke. “You don’t have to say anything, David.”
Her words compelled him to lift his hand and touch her cheek with his fingertips. She smiled softly, and for a long while they gazed into each other’s eyes, caressing and feeling the sweetness of the affection. He held her face in his hand, his thumb touching the soft part of her ear. His fingers ran gently back and forth across her cheek, tracing the line of her jaw. She closed her eyes just slightly, her smile growing brighter, but not forced. The room seemed to light up as she tilted her head back, his fingers moving in slow little circles down her neck. He leaned in close, unable to look away from her mouth, her lovely, beautiful mouth. She smelled of lilac, cinnamon and lavender. How long they kissed he did not know, their lips seeking the other’s softness. Eyes closed, they became lost in the warmth of one another, arousing sensations neither had felt in years.
“Aunt Amy, can I go’n show da cap to some’a da udder kids?” Johnny had called out just before entering, but they pulled apart too late and he caught a glimpse of their intimacy.
“Oh, uh … yes, Johnny, go ahead,” said Amy, standing trying to recover from the awkward moment. “But tell me again, in proper English, what you are going to do.”
For a second Johnny stood there not knowing if he was supposed to see what he had just seen. Then, he straightened himself and squared his shoulders.
“I’m going to show the cap to some of the other kids.” Johnny said this as if he were practicing lines to a play.
“Very good, Johnny. And …,” said Amy, glancing at Hawkins.
“Oh, yeah!” Johnny stepped forward extending his hand to Hawkins. “Thank you very much Major Hawkins for bringing me my pa’s cap. It was good to meet ya and I hope your leg gets better. Would it be all right if I came and visited ya sometime?”
“Sure, Johnny,” said Hawkins. “Drop by any time. I’d like that.”
After Johnny left with his friends, Hawkins and Amy stood for a while not saying anything. Then he looked away and moved toward the door.
“Miss Bolton, I’m sorry. I should be going. Thank you very much for the tea.”
“Please,” she said. “You don’t have to go.”
He did not meet her eyes as he left the schoolhouse, crossed the porch, descended the steps and mounted Jackson. Without Hawkins’s lead, the animal took two steps to where Amy stood at the edge of the porch and began nuzzling her hands. Since he had first acquired Jackson in Virginia nine months earlier, he constantly spoke to the horse of Emily, whispering stories of his love in the sorrel’s ear.
“What a beautiful horse,” said Amy, stroking the animal’s face.
“Another who saved my life,” said Hawkins, staring at the ground.
“Please, come again,” she said as he touched his hat, still not looking at her, gently spurring Jackson into a trot.
At a slight bend in the road just outside the town limit he stopped, keeping his eyes straight ahead. He actually feared what he might see if he turned back. Surely she would have stepped back inside, undaunted by his curt departure. Finally, he looked over his shoulder and she was still there, standing on the porch a hundred yards away through the trees. Still gazing after him, just as he had left her. Even from a distance he could make out her thoughtful smile, the ends of her mouth turned upward, responding to his decision to stop and look back. Her hands were held together, hanging loosely against her blue dress. A graceful posture of hope. Again without command or gesture, Jackson, who had also looked back, turned and began to walk toward the schoolhouse. Hawkins let out a sigh as his horse veered off the road through the trees, straight toward the innocently esoteric Amy Bolton, as if drawn to a new friend or some merciful source.
“Did you forget something?” she said, again tilting her head for effect, acknowledging the return of his presence and his eyes, reaching out to greet the ever-coquettish Jackson.
“I think my horse likes you,” he said, still looking and feeling so awkward. Although he dismounted slowly, letting Jackson’s reins slip to the ground; before he knew it he was back up on the porch, again unable to take his eyes away from her and her soft supple smile.
For over two years he had been faithful to Emily, never once bowing to the temptations of the women who followed the soldiers. Was this just something he needed? The physical touch of a woman. Or was it something more than that? It really didn’t matter now. Still he felt so awkward. He suddenly thought of the Man in White and looked around, his eyes scanning the trees.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, thoughtfully.
“Miss Bolton, I uh…” He looked back at her.
“Please,” she said, stepping close to him, her hands inside his elbows, his hands touching her hips. “Call me Amy.”
“Amy,” he said softly, caressing her face like silence after a long dreadful noise, a soothing quiet so welcome and hoped for.
Their lips came together again. She let out a soft purring moan as he ran his fingers through her chestnut hair. She led him to a small back room where she kept a bed for times when a child might become ill. That bed was seldom used except for her to take an occasional nap. But today she used it to bring a near-dead soldier back to life. They spent most of the afternoon in that room, touching and exploring each other, not caring what anyone outside might think. It was a special time for both of them, talking little, holding and looking into each other’s eyes. Looking for something, something lost long ago. Something in their dreams. Something beautiful, innocent and still free.
When the time came, she did not want him to go and he did not want to leave. They parted without episode or empty promises. Still looking and smiling, almost like children. From the porch of the schoolhouse, her hair roughed up, falling on her blouse. From over his shoulder, till he could see her no more for the trees.
All the way back into town his conscience whispered to him. Did this mean he’d sinned in God’s eyes? Who was he to question that? He knew that he would repent. Just as he’d repented for all the killing he’d done. One thing was for sure; a dear lover had come to sooth a pain that ran so deep and lighten a load much too heavy to bear alone.