The Union flotilla moved into the Red River Valley like a steely bluish-black serpent leaving its lair to expand its hunting grounds. It had taken nearly two weeks for the two groups to finally meet up and converge as one, blending into a massive corps of expedition. As seen from a distance it sparkled and clanked of metal and iron, moaning, stretching its rattling scales along the traces of men and nature. Its body kept to the water and the land, breathing in the air, amphibious and lurking, deliberate and lethal, trampling out a bittersweet vintage with esters of melancholy. Up close it seemed much greater than the sum of its parts, scenes and looks of all sorts, panoramic in their scope. Views to a campaign. Disembarked outfits shortcutting swaths of destruction through the land where the river went as if warden to its flow. Quaint homesteads falling victim to the incendiary instincts of the damn Yankee man. Vistas parading en masse, sullen and morose. A scythe of belligerence slithering behemoth-like toward a not unknown prey.
Sidney Brooks finally got the spot he liked. He had been allowed to ride on one of the lead gunboats, macabre vessels that until recently did not exist. Elemental floating hulks decked with protruding cannon barrels, fore, starboard, port and aft. Looming stacks spewed thick clouds of rolling gloom. Men lumbered on the deck, wraith-like, wet and grim. A hanging murk of dark angles hissing its toxic warning, obtuse and sinister, progressive, dirty and monstrous, rendering all other navies obsolete. All guarantees in question save mayhem. The crew itself was a morbid lot and he could spend little time below, the stink of smoke and men being much too awful. Tight dank catacombs of foul industry and metallic clamor. Nauseous vertigo. Above deck was tolerable and it felt romantic knowing all his suffering would pay off with a story that might bring men to tears. A splendid narrative possibly read throughout the whole civilized world. He looked off into the distance, his head puffed full of his own self-satisfaction. The low late-winter sun glinted off the water, causing him to squint as he posed vain and meaningless on the prow. To his left, right and behind him men struggled with their painful, never-ending tasks. The vulgar work of the ignoble and the simple.
Before Bank’s army had left Opelousas Brooks paid a visit to a local brothel, taking advantage of the V.I.P. treatment bestowed upon him by the general. The young lady who spent the afternoon in his service told him that she had heard of two spies being sent north to learn what they could of the defenses at Shreveport. One was a white man posing as a former planter who’d had his farm burned by the Yankees. He was said to be dangerous, cunning and very good with a knife. The other was a black man posing as a slave who had some knowledge of the Shreveport area. Brooks did what he could to find out more about the two spies but got nowhere. Dangerous work, he had thought to himself as the Army arrived at Simmesport to rendezvous with Porter’s fleet.
Besides the twelve ironclads, there were several monitors and over a hundred large boats carrying horses, supplies, weapons and men. Packed cargo vessels and transports churned their way upstream, soldiers milling about the decks in an eddying mass of humanity. Alongside the river marched thousands of men far from home, most from the Northeast, some from the Mid-west. They appeared lost, dazed in a world of strange accents, climates and landscapes. Horses pulled wagons loaded with even more supplies. Entering enemy territory, the Union campaign became a hoard of acquisition confiscating goods as they went; weapons, livestock, produce, cotton and anything of value taken as contraband. Liberated slaves running amuck. Cannons were pulled like unwilling servants glaring back at their soon-to-be-forgotten homes. Everywhere up and down the line, men shouted orders, breathing in the kicked-up dust. Mumbled curses. Whispers of home and loved ones. Lonely, homesick men burdened with duty and thankless toil. All to be written off to the ages, scribbled down as afterthoughts to an executive decision run rampant.
David Hawkins had his plow rig turned upside down, propped up against the barn door. Jacob and Isaac held it steady while he ran a large file across its blade. He had been trying to focus his energy on the farm, but so many things clouded his mind. He would still look up half-expecting to see Emily standing there with her hands on her hips, giving him a wink and a smile, always letting him know he was the light of her life.
Every morning and evening he would visit her grave, standing silently for a long while before saying a few words. He would also acknowledge his mother, father and brother, feeling deep in his heart they were truly at rest together some place special. His thoughts would drift to Amy Bolton and the afternoon he had spent with her. Every time he looked out to see Jackson trotting around the corral he was tempted to saddle up the horse and head back down to Pleasant Hill. He would then think of Johnny and the time he had spent talking with the boy. He wondered how the kid was doing and hoped that taking him his father’s cap would somehow bring closure to his pain and loss, a loss to which he was deeply connected.
He wanted so much to become part of Amy and Johnny’s life, but knew the war could soon come to the area. And that was his final distraction.
“Riders com’n, Massa David,” said Isaac.
Hawkins looked up to see two men on horseback coming up the road. Even from a distance he could tell one man was white and the other was black, not an uncommon sight. He did not recognize them, and as they drew closer he could tell they were strangers. As he walked from the barn, Isaac and Jacob trailed behind, looking nervously at one another. The white man looked to be about Hawkins’ age, maybe a bit older. He wore a floppy wide-brimmed hat with a long red rooster feather, a gaudy-red shirt with a blue-patchwork design and a dark green sash around his waist. ‘A Cajun,’ thought Hawkins. The black man wore spectacles, looked to be in his early 20’s and was dressed plainly in dingy browns and dark faded blues with a shabby-looking grey hat.
“Howdy,” the white man said. “My name’s Gabriel Heartshorn. But folks call me Gaby. Dis here’s my slave.”
“What can I do for ya, Gaby?”
“Well, I heard tell in town dair, ya might be’a need’n a bit a help ’round here.”
“Someone told you that?” asked Hawkins.
“Well, yessay’did. Said ya might need a bit’a help plow’n an’ plant’n an’ fix’n up’a bit. Me an’ Jimmy here, we work real hard. Had me my own little farm down ’round Houma. But da Yankee man burned it.”
“Sorry to hear that,” said Hawkins. “But who was it that told ya I needed help?”
“Oh, I don’t recall da man’s name,” said Gaby, sticking his hand under his hat to scratch his head. “Jus’ somebody dat pointed dis’a way when we asked where dair might be some work, ya see. An’ a’course ya ain’t gotta pay dis’n here,” he pointed at the black man, “on a count’a he’s my slave, ya see.”
“Well,” said Hawkins. “I could sure use the help, but I can’t pay ya anything till the crops come in, and that could be awhile.”
“What ya be grow’n out here?” said Gaby, looking around the place.
“Cotton, mainly,” said Hawkins. “But I grow a lil’a just about everything.”
“I tell ya what, Mister …uh…”
“Hawkins. David Hawkins.”
“Mister Hawkins, if’n ya can promise me an’ Jimmy here three meals a day an’ a place ta lay our heads, we’ll give ya a steady grind sunup ta sundown. An’ when da crops come in, jus’ gimme a fair shake an’ I’ll be happy. How’s ’at sound?”
Hawkins looked at the man for a second, then at his slave. He noticed the young black man was looking past him with a bit of concern in his eyes. Hawkins turned to Jacob and Isaac, taking note of the odd look on their faces.
“Don’t worry, son,” Hawkins said turning back to the young black man. “They don’t bite hard, just often.” He turned back to Gaby Heartshorn. “Food won’t be a problem, but you’ll have to bed down in the barn’s upper loft. Got some extra blankets if ya need’m.”
“Why, thank ya, Mister Hawkins,” said Gaby, dismounting and extending his hand to Hawkins, who then noticed the large Bowie knife tucked into the left side of his sash. He was almost as tall as Hawkins with a leaner build and a strong iron grip. His face bore the scars of many knife fights and his teeth were rotten, causing Hawkins to look away when he smiled. “We’ll jus’ put our things up in da barn an’…”
“While you’re up there,” said Hawkins walking back to his plow, “have a look at that pulley, will ya. Pair’a pliers there by the barn door.”
In the stable Jacob and Isaac stood looking at the young black man they knew to be Joshua Dubear. As he took care of the horses, he could not make eye contact with the two older black men. When he was done, he looked up to see Jacob standing close, glaring at him.
“Ya got some nerve come’n back here, boy.”
“What hap’n to ya family?” asked Isaac, a little less hostile.
“My pa died some years back,” said Dubear. “My ma, brotha’s an’ sista’s got taken as contraband and were shipped up North. Dat’s what I was told.”
“Who dat man is?” asked Jacob, stepping closer to Dubear. “An’ don’t lie ta me, boy. I can smell me a lie a mile away.”
“Met’m north’a Lafayette. It was dangerous, me traveling alone, so I took up with’m.”
“An’ brung’m up here”, hissed Jacob.
“He jus’a man look’n fo’ work, is all.”
Jacob looked at Isaac, then back at Dubear, stepping close, his face only inches from the young man. “If’n dair be any trouble, boy, I kill ya myself.”
Amy Bolton had just finished grading some of the homework she had recently given to her older students. She had asked them to write a page or two on what they wanted to be when they grew up. Without exception every student, both girls and boys, made reference to Major David Hawkins, either wanting to grow up and be like him or marry him. Only Johnny McRay’s paper differed from the rest. It read like a personal letter to Amy. He wanted to grow up with David Hawkins and Amy Bolton as their adopted son. With innocent, thirteen-year-old candor he told how he saw them kissing, even apologizing for the accidental sneak-peek. Sorry ’bout see’n y’all kiss. Didn’t mean to. He hoped that they would get married and the three of them live together on Hawkins’s farm. He wanted to join the Confederate cavalry and fight side by side with his step-pa, wup’n the Yankees. Also, he hoped some kind of plaque or statue of his father might be put up in the town so folks would know he really wasn’t such a bad guy.
When she got to the end of Johnny’s paper, she let out a quiet laugh of relief. He had ended off with a note saying that when he read the paper in front of the class, which was always required, he would leave out the part about her and Hawkins kissing, and them hopefully getting married and adopting him, so’s I don’t embarrass ya or nothin’. Instead he would focus on telling the class how his pa had saved Hawkins’s life, and what a brave man he was.
Amy Bolton had been born in Natchez, Mississippi, and had briefly lived in Shreveport as a young girl. She and Carla McRay had been very close growing up, spending their adolescent years living in Pleasant Hill. Amy had actually been with Carla in Shreveport the day she first met the broad-shouldered Adam McRay. The two girls had gone into town with Carla’s mother. At the corner of Milam and Marshall their buckboard hit a big hole in the road, badly cracking one of its wheels. At that moment, a sober McRay happened by. When he saw the pouty, disappointed look on Carla’s face, it was love at first sight. After purchasing a new wheel with his own money, he effortlessly hoisted the wagon’s axle onto his shoulder while in a squatting position, then set it in place without breaking a sweat. Two months later he proposed to the nineteen-year-old girl after paying countless calls to her home in Pleasant Hill. Amy, who was seventeen at the time, stood as maid of honor missing the bouquet by mere inches. She too was spared seeing Adam’s bad side, but heard of it often enough to know that it indeed existed.
As a teenager Amy had been thin and gangly, not blossoming physically into a woman until she was almost twenty. By then she was studying literature at the college in Natchitoches, where she had earned a scholarship by winning first place in a state-wide essay contest. It was there that she met her first and only other love interest, a young man from Kentucky who courted her for over a year. Their sexual encounters were exciting and quite fulfilling, but did not compare with the experience she had just days ago with David Hawkins. Eventually her suitor graduated and returned to Kentucky to run the family business. At first Amy took this in stride, but when he failed to return her letters, the crush of rejection hit home. Carla died a year later. Amy then returned to Pleasant Hill, immediately taking on the job of helping raise eight-year-old Johnny.
After Carla’s death Adam McRay began spending even more time away. When he was home he was aloof to everyone except Johnny, and always smelled of whiskey. However, he did provide for the boy, always bringing home cash and material essentials. For over two years he spent his time chopping down trees and fighting for money, sometimes staying gone for a week or more. Then he would show up out of the blue, gather up his son for a long hunting and fishing excursion, only to disappear again when the money ran out. But he always left a little extra with Amy, and during that time she and Johnny grew very close. Considering the circumstances, Johnny grew into a fairly well rounded boy with a good natured disposition. But when Adam was arrested for busting up the bar in Shreveport Johnny became distant to everyone, even Amy.
For over a month Adam McRay had languished in jail. But just days after the war began, his situation changed significantly. An old drinking buddy who’d been his fight manager paid him a visit. Bucky Morris was a one-eyed professional gambler from Memphis who had gotten McRay his more lucrative fights, and taught him the true art of the bluff.
“Never let folks know how good ya really are, son,” Morris had told McRay when they first met at the fights under the old trestle bridge off Cotton Street. “Ya wupped that last fella too easy. Hell, I just lit this cigar, only took two puffs an’ ya done put’m to bed. Can’t make any money that way. Nobody’ll bet against ya. Gotta at least make it look like a struggle.” Morris had then leaned in close to McRay, handing him a flask of whiskey. “Ya gotta learn ta play with ya toys. Put on a show. Makes folks more apt to spend their money.”
After making a few nice easy purses, Morris tried talking McRay into going down to New Orleans, where the big fight money was. But McRay refused, saying he would never go back to that God-forsaken city. Besides, there was Carla and Johnny to think about.
Morris was the kind of man that seemed to know everyone everywhere. He showed up at the jail in his usual three-piece suit, top hat and eye patch, sipping from a flask. “Adam, Adam, Adam,” he said, looking through the bars at the sulking McRay. “Well, I got good news. You’re probably not gonna like it, but it’s better than the alternative.”
The next morning he was allowed out to see Johnny. That day they went fishing at their favorite spot, catching a huge batch of catfish and brim. They cooked up the fish for a small get-together in Pleasant Hill. Adam McRay was in rare form his last night in the small town, up-beat, warm and even a bit gregarious. Two days later he reported to Fort Turnbull to enlist in the cavalry. For weeks after Adam left, Amy would see Johnny standing by the road, looking off where he had last seen his father calling back to him as he slowly rode away.
“Don’t ya worry none, Johnny. This ain’t go’n take long. Adam McRay go’n straight’n everything out. Be back ’fore supper time.”
In the past whenever he’d left to go work and fight, Adam never told Johnny when he’d be back, it was simply understood that he would be back. The boy always took everything his father said to heart, and when he wasn’t back by supper Johnny began to worry.
Adam McRay wasn’t much for writing, and the few letters he did send were vague and hurried. But each letter contained a special little gift. A small, bluish-gray arrowhead. The tip of a timber rattler’s tail, and a mangled Union mini-ball pulled from a pine tree. The latter was wrapped in a note that read: Bounced right off my head.
Amy had often wondered to herself, might Adam have been better off serving the four years in prison? Maybe he could’ve survived that type of hell. Word of his death did not reach Pleasant Hill until five months after Shiloh. No specific location was given as to where he had been killed, just that he had been counted among the dead somewhere in Tennessee. At first Johnny took the news as well as any eleven-year old could. A mild look of shock in his eyes, followed by tears, breaking down and weeping painfully, shamelessly in Amy’s arms. Soon afterwards, Johnny seemed to retreat into a shell and seldom come out, except when provoked to anger. The arrival of Hawkins with his father’s cap had definitely cracked open that shell, and Amy Bolton was determined to pry at its loose parts, doing what she could to reach the troubled boy.
“Johnny,” she said to him at dinner later that evening. “I read your paper.”
He looked up at her, his lips greasy from a pork chop smeared with honey. She could tell by the look in his eyes that what he had written to her had slipped his mind until now, but not what he had written about.
“You really like Major Hawkins, don’t you Johnny?”
“You like’m, too, don’t ya, Aunt Amy?”
“I like him a lot, Johnny, but that doesn’t mean we’re going get married.”
“I know, but ya’s told us to write what we wanna be when we grow up, an’ I wanna be you an’ Major Hawkins’s son.”
She smiled, hesitating awkwardly, then reached over to brush some of the hair from his eyes. “That’s really sweet, Johnny. But it’s not that simple.”
“I could go’n talk to’m. Tell’m that ya like’m a lot.”
“Don’t you dare do that, Johnny.” She pulled her hand back and sat up straight in her chair. “Besides, I think Major Hawkins knows I like him, but he’s going through a lot right now. His wife died recently, and he just got back from some terrible fighting.”
“I know,” said Johnny. “An’ you could help’m forget all that, could’n ya?”
“He doesn’t want to forget his wife, Johnny. They were together a long time and she must have been a wonderful lady.”
“I didn’t mean like that, Aunt Amy. I mean the bad fight’n from the war, an’ all.”
“I wish I could help him forget about that,” she said, looking thoughtfully across the room. “But it’s not that simple either. They say things like that can trouble a man all the days of his life.”
“Bad things happened to’m huh?”
“I think so, Johnny,” she said, turning to look at the boy. “War is a terrible thing.”
Johnny looked down at his food, then back up at Amy. “I wanna go’n fight in da war.”
“What?” she blurted. “And get killed like Adam?” As soon as she said the words, she wished that she could somehow reach out and take them back. “I’m sorry, Johnny. I didn’t mean to say that. But you’re way too young to even be think’n of going off and fighting in a war. It’s just men killing each other.”
“Like they killed Pa,” he said, standing up from the table.
“Johnny, you don’t know what really happened. That battle was huge. Even Major Hawkins probably doesn’t know everything, and he was there.”
“Yes, he does!” Johnny shouted. “He told me! Dem Yankees ganged up on Pa! But he wupt’m, anyhows! Pa died later ’cause he bled out while he’s tote’n Major Hawkins wit’a broken leg across’t da battlefield! Pa’s a hero!” He snatched his father’s cap off the table and headed for the door. “Dem Yankees prob’lee shot’m in da back. I’m go’n kill me a Yankee someday, you’ll see.”
“Johnny, please, I didn’t mean to upset ya. Come on back, baby,” she called after him, moving to the door. But it was too late. He had already slipped off into the darkness. She hadn’t realized how much in detail Hawkins had told Johnny of Adam’s death. But she knew he would go to either Robert Driggers’s or Randy Randall’s house, where he spent most of his time anyway.
Amy sat back down at the table, bowed her head and began to pray. She’d already asked the Lord to forgive her for her intimate moment with David Hawkins, not totally clear why because it had felt so right. She wished her faith was stronger. She loved the man and wanted dearly to spend the rest of her life with him. But now she was praying for Johnny. To somehow sooth the rage in the poor boy’s soul. To bring him somewhere near the face of God.