Johnny McRay looked down at the twelve-by-fifteen-foot raft that floated near the bank of the Red River. Behind him stood Robert Driggers, Randy Randall and Bobby Bernard, now best buddies with Johnny. Behind the boys was Grey Stump, a big old easygoing gray mule that would pull just about anything for a carrot or a turnip. They had swiped the mule from Old Man Ebarb’s farm, just east of Pleasant Hill. Their plan was to hitch the animal up to the raft with a long rope, getting a pull upriver to Hawkins’s farm. It was a Saturday morning and the boys would be missed, but with no great urgency. They would often disappear on the weekends without telling anyone.
After running off the night before Johnny had gone straight to Robert Driggers’s house, telling him of his plan to pay Hawkins a visit. Soon Randy and Bobby were in the mix, and the little venture began taking on the characteristics of an actual expedition. Bobby knew where there was a raft big enough for the four of them. And they all knew Old Man Ebarb wouldn’t mind if they borrowed Grey Stump, as long as the animal was returned alive and in one piece.
“Ya sure dat raft’s still dair, Bobby?” Johnny had asked when they started planning.
“Yep,” he answered in an unusually agreeable tone. “Me an’ Uncle Coco went’n fished off it jus’ las’ week.”
“An’ iss good? It floats?”
“Why, heck yeah. Good’r den gravy, Johnny. Why, we could take dat dair raft all da way ta da Guff’a Mezco.”
“It’ll be easy den,” said Randy. “My pa’s gotta bunch’a rope...”
“An’ we can go’n get Grey Stump at Ebarb’s field ta do some pull’n,” Robert interrupted, his young eyes full of excitement.
After rustling Grey Stump by the moonlight, the four boys piled on the mule and starting riding east all night to the river fifteen miles away. Bobby complained the entire trip because he had to ride the mule’s rear end. His legs were bowed out around the animal’s wide butt, his arms wrapped tight around Randy who held on to Robert, with Johnny at the helm.
The night was clear and a bright three-quarter moon played on the water, casting a blueish-gray light on the boys’ faces as they looked at the raft bobbing back and forth against the riverbank, eyes gleaming, whispering their secret plan.
“Ya think it’ll hold us all?” asked Robert.
“Heck, yeah,” said Bobby. “Uncle Coco weighs as much as’n ol’hog. Watch’iss.” He sprang out from the bank, landing in the center of the raft, causing it to launch out into the water a short ways before catching on a rope that held it to a cypress stump. “See,” he said, spinning around with his hands out, his feet doing a quick little jig. “Good’r den gravy, jus’ like I said.”
While Randy and Bobby tied the rope between Grey Stump’s harness and the raft, Johnny and Robert gathered a few long sturdy tree branches to use as push-poles. After feeding the mule a burlap sack full of vegetables, they let him get his fill of water. Robert then began leading the animal along a trail at the top of the bank that wound upriver. The other three used the poles to keep the raft off the bank as it was pulled against the current. Once he got Grey Stump into a good steady pace Robert sprinted down the bank, timing his leap so that he landed on the raft just as the boys let it drift in close to land. By first light they had fallen into a slow easy rhythm, taking turns at the poles pushing away from the bank every moment or so to keep it from running aground. The raft would swing out twenty or thirty feet until they could not touch bottom. Then it would drift back with the old mule’s strong constant pull against the river’s current, to be pushed out again.
Every once in a while Grey Stump would get caught up on a tree or some brush. One of the boys would have to jump off the raft and run up the bank to untangle the animal. Eventually they came to a long stretch where the mule walked unimpeded for over an hour. During this time Randy kept the raft off the bank while the others broke out the food they had brought: a loaf of bread, a slab of cheese and a big chunk of ham. A few leftover corn fritters cooked the day before by Robert’s mom. An apple apiece and a jug of sweet tea with lemon. They talked with their mouths full about the different girls they had finally started noticing with an interest other than for pulling harmless pranks.
“Cindy Duncan’s got da purdiest face, but she kind’a fat.”
“Donna Smith’s purdy’r dan Laura Stucky, but Laura Stucky’s nicer.”
“I kissed Laura Stucky over behind Old Lady Sutton’s lemon tree.”
“Na, ya didn’t. When?”
“Rat ‘fore New Year’s. She let me.”
“Kim Johnson’s always smile’n at me.”
“She’s always smile’n at everyone.”
“I’s at da store las’ week, an’ Stacy Watson said hey.”
“She says hey to everyone.”
After eating and talking about girls, the conversation changed to a more serious matter.
“Did’ee tell ya how yer pa saved ’is life?” Robert asked, taking his turn at the pole.
“Said ’is leg was broke real bad,” said Johnny as he trailed a twig in the raft’s wake. “An’ most everyone else was dead. Pa found’m dat way, an’ picked’m up an’ carried’m a’ways till dey got jumped by some Yankees. Major Hawkins said he was hurt so bad’ee couldn’t do nut’n but lay dair, bone stick’n out ’is leg. But pa kilt all dem Yankees anyhow. Den’ee carried Major Hawkins som’ors till dey come across some good’ol Rebels who took’m to a hospital. ’At’s where Pa give’m da cap’n ax’m ta bring it to me.” He took the cap off and looked at it, then looked up river. “Said pa’s buried up dair at Shiloh somewheres. Said it’s real purdy. Real, real purdy.”
For a long time no one spoke. Robert and Randy pushed at the poles while Bobby sat cross-legged at the front of the raft watching Grey Stump. Johnny tossed the twig into the water and held the cap in both hands, staring at the dark, rust-colored patches of dried blood that covered over half of the bluish-grey denim. Finally Bobby stood and walked over to Johnny who was now looking off across the river.
“Hey, Johnny. ‘Member dem things I said ’bout yer pa dat day Major Hawkins came’n brung ya da cap?”
“Yeah,” said Johnny, keeping his eyes off in the distance.
“Well, I jus’ wanna say I’m real sorry I said dat. An’ ya was right ’bout my pa. All’ee does’s go’n get men who wanna go home wit’out’a furlough. Dat’s why no one likes’m. He’s a no-good. Anyway, I jus’ wanted ta say dat I shouldn’ta ought’a said dat ’bout yer pa. An’ I’m sorry.”
Johnny looked at Bobby, who had his hand out.
“Dat’s okay, Bobby,” said Johnny, shaking his hand. “I’m sorry I punched ya, an’ dat yer pa’s a no-good.”
“Yeah, me too.” Bobby looked down at the cap in Johnny’s other hand. “Say, can I wear da cap for a bit, Johnny?”
“Aw’right, but don’t ya dare drop it in da water.” Johnny handed the cap to Bobby.
“Aw, thanks Johnny.” Bobby smiled, putting on the cap.
By noon the pontoon bridge crossing the river into Shreveport was in sight. They decided to pull the raft up on the bank and ride Grey Stump the rest of the way. They took a well-worn trail that ran through the tall grass by the river into the town. At the edge of the train yard a group of soldiers stopped them. It looked a little strange, four boys they’d never seen before riding into town on a mule.
“Where’d ya get da mule, boy?” said one soldier.
“We barr’eed it from Old Man Ebarb down ‘round Pleasant Hill,” said Johnny.
“Barrowed it, huh?”
“Where ya go’n wit’ it?”
“Major David Hawkins’s farm on Cross Bayou.”
“I know Major Hawkins,” said another soldier with sergeant stripes. “He just got back and I heard his wife died.”
“Dat’s right,” said Johnny. “An’ee needs dis here mule ta get da crops in da ground ’fore da rains come.”
The sergeant looked at the four boys straddled on the mule, laughed and waved his hand. “Y’all, go on.”
When they got to the wharf area, the boys dismounted Grey Stump and walked the mule past the crowded docks. They soon found another trail running between the shipyard and the town, not knowing it was a trail Hawkins had blazed when he was half their age. The trail darkened as it dipped down into a cave-like passageway completely shaded by a canopy of oaks, cypress trees and towering patches of fallow sugar cane. Through the gnarled undergrowth a large bayou was visible running into the river from the west. The dense spring vegetation twined together three feet above the trail, causing the boys to push it aside as they went. At one point the trail ran directly along the water’s edge creating a landing for any small boats to venture out onto the bayou. They stopped for a moment, admiring the eerie scenic view across the water to the edge of Hawkins’s land. Just before passing under a wooden trestle bridge that was partially obscured by the overhanging tree limbs and dried-out cane poles, the path forked up and to the left like a tunnel out of the thick canopy below. Reemerging into the sunlight, the trail then connected to the road that crossed the bridge over the bayou. On the other side, about a hundred feet past the bridge, the road forked off to the right, leading to Hawkins’s farm. Just before the fork was a sign that read: Texarkana 70 miles, with an arrow pointing up the North Market Road. To the side of the bridge Johnny noticed another trail that crossed over the levee, running down the length of the bayou. They took the trail, following it back down to the bayou’s mouth, where it turned north upriver. Soon a small farm could be seen through the trees on the other side of the levee.
Nitney had been a good horse. Not too fast and not too pretty, but he had been a good strong worker, never shying away from pulling a load. He had been born on the Hawkins farm while David was on his first tour out West with the Army. Nitney had done most of the plowing in those years before the war. He had taken Ira and Dorothy Hawkins to church every Sunday. It was Nitney that took Clem and Noel up to the Etheridge farm in Arkansas, and Joshua Dubear down past Ringgold last fall. But now the poor old horse was dead. Gaby Heartshorn and Joshua Dubear had been plowing the back end of the field when Nitney suddenly let out a neigh and a snort. The horse then fell on his left side, kicked his legs in pain before going totally limp.
“I do believe his heart give out, Mista Hawkins,” Gaby said as they stood there looking down at the dead horse.
Hawkins knew he was going to have to get a new plow horse soon, but wasn’t expecting it to be this soon. He always hated rushing into buying livestock and knew if he used Gaby’s horse, the man would want more money when payday came.
“Want me to get Juno, David?” asked Jacob.
“No, that’s your horse,” replied Hawkins. “I guess we’ll hafta rotate Ursa and Hugger for a while.”
“Dey won’t las’ long,” Jacob said, raising his eyebrows. “Dem horses was over ten years old when Nitney was born.” He pointed toward the corral. “Don’t mind none usin’ Juno, David, but what ’bout dat red horse ya got dair?”
“That’s a warhorse, not a plow horse, Jacob,” said Hawkins, but couldn’t honestly say he hadn’t thought of the idea himself.
“Seen me some soldiers look’n mighty hungry back dair at da river when I came inta town, Mista Hawkins,” said Gaby, scratching his chin as he looked down at Nitney. “I could butcher’m up fer ya. Go’n sell da meat. I’d say half would be a fair shake.”
Hawkins took off his hat and looked up at the sky. “I’m not selling a dead horse for food.”
“Look like we might be in luck, David,” said Isaac, pointing off toward the levee.
They turned to see four young boys and big gray mule walking from the levee toward the back of the farm. Hawkins smiled and looked at Jacob.
“Go’n tell Sarah we got company for dinner.”
“Who dat is, Massa David?” asked Jacob.
“A friend, Jacob,” said Hawkins, clapping the man on the back. “A friend.”
After a few introductions, Hawkins put Grey Stump to work. Not plowing, but transporting Ol’ Nitney to a spot for burial. First they had to take one of the barn doors off its hinges. Then they hitched it up to Grey Stump and dragged it out to the field next to Nitney. Then they rolled the big horse over onto the door. Grey Stump then pulled old Nitney to a nice little place near the levee behind the field. After everyone pitched in with shovels digging Nitney’s grave, they grabbed his legs and rolled him into the big hole with a dusty thud. Hawkins then said a few words, a reverent prayer on the creature’s behalf.
“Dear Lord, Nitney here was a good horse. He worked hard’n strong for me and my family for a long time. Never caused any trouble and he was always ready to go. I ask that you give’m a peaceful rest up there in horse heaven. Amen.”
Hawkins gave everyone the rest of the day off and he spent the afternoon visiting with Johnny and his friends. After showing the boys around the farm, he took them in the house and brought out some of the strange items he had collected over the years. Dozens of hides and furs, some from animals they’d never even heard of. An assortment of bugs, flowers and rocks from all over the country. A vast array of Indian artifacts. His gun, knife and sword collection. He pointed out a photograph of Emily he’d recently had framed and hung on the wall near his favorite chair. She’d had it taken in town and sent to him in Colorado, a close shot of her looking slightly to the side, her lips formed into a gentle smile.
“She’s real purdy, Major Hawkins,” said Johnny.
“Yeah,” he said, smiling back at the picture. “She sure is.”
Soon the boys began telling Hawkins of their little journey to his farm. They all laughed together as Johnny told him how they borrowed Grey Stump from Old Man Ebarb, riding the mule quadruple all the way to the river and hitching him up to the raft to pull them along like a ferry ride. He explained with even more laughter how Grey Stump would get hung up and how they took turns jumping back on land to free the animal. And how they left the raft just south of town on the riverbank to ride the rest of the way on the mule.
“Some soldiers stopped us by da train yard an’ axt us ’bout Grey Stump,” said Johnny, still laughing. “Soon as dey heard yer name an’ dat we’s bringing’m here, dey let us go.”
“Ya think y’all can make it back all right without the mule?” asked Hawkings, pulling out some money.
“Well, yeah, but ….” Johnny looked at the other boys.
“Here’s forty-five U.S. dollars,” said Hawkins. “Give forty to Mr. Ebarb and ask’m if he wants to sell Grey Stump. If he does, that’ll be a down payment and I’ll give’m the rest in a few days. If he doesn’t wanna sell’m, tell’m to keep the forty dollars an’ I’ll bring’m back by the end of next week. Ya think he’ll mind that?”
“Well, no, sir,” said Johnny, looking at the money. “But what’sa udder five dollars fer?”
“That’s y’alls. Split it four ways. Buck’n a quarter apiece.”
“Sure, Major,” Johnny said, smiling. “We can do dat. An’ we don’t need Grey Stump ta get downriver. We go’n haf’ta walk a ways, but dat ain’t no big deal.”
When the issue of Grey Stump was settled, Hawkins took them for a walk over the levee by the bayou. He showed them a hidden shortcut they could’ve taken, and the places where he used to run and play as a boy. He pointed out the boundaries of his property, explaining that the land his father had bought when he was a small child was almost three times what he owned now. He showed them the spot where he killed his first deer. And where his brother Paul and he had treed a crafty old coon that had been stealing eggs from the chicken coop one winter. The boys listened and laughed as Hawkins told them about his many failed attempts to beat his brother in fishing contests that he himself had initiated over the years. And about the first raft they had built, which stayed afloat less than a minute before capsizing fifty feet from the bank on a cold winter day.
Just off a rust-colored dirt trail that ran along the river, about a quarter mile north of the bayou, the Confederate laid his hand on the trunk of a large cypress tree that grew out over the water at a slight tilt. When he looked up the boys followed his gaze, noticing an old frayed rope swaying from one of its upper limbs, the hemp obviously rotten and now well out of reach.
“Shimmied up this here tree an’ tied ’at rope myself,” he said with a thoughtful smile, his eyes still upward, “’bout twenty-five years ago.”
They stayed at the spot for a while. Hawkins told the boys it was where he had spent many’a hot summer day after his chores and schoolwork. Then he took them down another trail that led away from the river.
“What’s ’at?” asked Johnny after they had traveled a good distance, pointing at what looked like a mound the size of a small cabin overgrown in a thicket of grass, trees and vines.
“Oh,…uh,” replied Hawkins, hesitantly. “An ol’ Indian man use’ta live there. Died when I’sa lil’ boy, younger than y’all are now.”
“Wow, a real Injun,” said Bobby. “Let’s go’n look.”
“No,” said Hawkins, putting his hand on the boy’s shoulder as he started to move, yet keeping his eyes on the loamy relic. “My pa told us to leave it just like it is and never disturb it.”
For a long while, the five stood silently admiring the crude artifact, hints of its man-made qualities showing through the under growth in a vague arrangement. The Confederate’s eyes scanned the area as if watchful of a ghost or bogeyman.
“Why’d yer pa let’a Injun live on yer land?” asked Johnny, breaking the silence.
“Cause he’s a purdy good fella,” answered Hawkins, looking at the boy. “’At’s why.”
“Which one?” Johnny asked further, a slight frown showing on his face. “Yer pa or dat Injun?”
Hawkins hesitated, regarding the boy with some consideration. “Well, they’s both purdy good, Johnny. But I’s refer’n to the Indian. He’s here first, ya know.”
For a short while the boys made casual observations about the site. Then Hawkins said, “Come on. Let’s head on back.”
They took a trail that skirted well away from the little ruin before cutting back south through the trees. Soon the smell of Sarah’s cooking was in the air. As they headed back, the boys began to ask questions about the war, a subject Hawkins was reluctant to discuss.
“How many Yankees ya kilt?” asked Bobby, causing Hawkins to jerk his head around at the boy.
“That’s not something I like talk’n about, son. Kill’n a man ain’t like go’n out squirrel hunt’n. Besides, folks up north are a lot like us down here, but where they live’s a bit colder, so their moods’r different.” After Hawkins said this, everyone was quiet until they came to a field that led up to the farmhouse.
“So what’s kill’n a man like?” Johnny asked, breaking an awkward silence.
Hawkins glared harshly at the boy as they walked. “Any man that brags about kill’n another man is an animal that’ll soon get what’s come’n to’m. How would ya feel if ya knew some fella up north was brag’n ’bout kill’n your pa, Johnny?”
“Well, I ain’t gotta worry ’bout dat none,” said Johnny, looking back defiantly at Hawkins. They stopped walking and continued to glare at one another. “Cause you said my pa kilt all dem men dat kilt him. An’ ya couldn’t help none, cause ya’s hurt, lay’n on’a ground. Ain’t dat what ya said?”
“Yeah, that’s what I said.” Hawkins spoke it words quietly, almost in a whisper to himself. It was all he could say. For a second he wanted to reach out and strike the boy. But as quickly as it came, the anger suddenly left him. With a pained expression on his face, he stared at the boy who just moments ago seemed to almost worship him. He never told Johnny of the bad dealings he’d had with his father. But now, he suspected the boy knew all along about the fight and Adam McRay’s attempts to kill him with cynical valor. He now saw something familiar in Johnny’s eyes. Something that suddenly spoke volumes about the man that died saving his life. Something about loss, fear and redemption. Finally he forced a smile, turned and walked away. “Come on, let’s eat.”
Robert, Randy and Bobby looked at one another, then at Johnny, who was still glaring after Hawkins.
“Come on, Johnny. Let’s go eat,” said Robert as they started walking, Johnny trailing slowly behind.
It was a nice day. Sarah and her whole family had worked diligently to get the meal ready. She often kept large pots of vegetables stewing on the stove, but they rarely had guests for supper. Two large picnic tables had been brought out of the barn, set up end-to-end in the grass under the magnolia next to the house. A large sumptuous spread had been prepared and laid out on the tables. After they buried Nitney, Isaac went to his secret spot on the bayou and caught a bunch of catfish. Sarah fried them up along with four chickens. There was skin-on buttermilk mashed potatoes, poke salad with ham hocks and green beans, candied yams, cornbread and red-eye gravy, apple cobbler and sweet tea.
Since the last time he was here, Ruth had grown a bit sweet on Dubear. Sarah and Jacob had spoken at length with her and Noah about not mentioning his first visit to the farm last fall. They explained that because of the war, and Miss Emily’s passing, it was only something that would trouble Massa David further. All of them, Sarah especially, disliked keeping secrets from Hawkins. But at this point none of them saw the need to reveal what Emily had done in helping runaway slaves reach freedom. This secrecy, plus the somewhat overbearing Gaby Heartshorn, had caused a gnawing tension among them, now made even more pronounced by the sudden rift between Hawkins and Johnny. By the time they all gathered around the tables, a rancor seemed to linger over the small party.
“I ain’t eat’n wit no niggers.” The words came out of Johnny’s mouth like bile. “Dem Yankees dat kilt my pa’s fight’n ta free dem niggers, an’ I ain’t gonna eat wit’m none.”
“Watch ya mouth, boy!” growled Hawkins, pointing at Johnny. “This here’s my family and ya got no call to talk to’m like that!”
“Yer family!!?” yelled Johnny. “If my pa’da known ya’s a no-good nigger lover, he’d a left ya lay’n out dair on dat field. Den maybe he’d still be alive! Dem Yankees might not’a even kilt you none! Heck! Why don’t ya go’n take up wit’m, dress up like a damn Yankee an’ …!”
Before he knew it, Hawkins lunged and backhanded Johnny hard across the face. The boy didn’t go down but staggered back, spinning around, his father’s cap falling to the ground. Johnny slowly turned, glaring hatefully at Hawkins, a trickle of blood from his nose. He snatched up the cap and slapped it back on his head. Taking two steps backward, the boy kept his eyes on the man, the strength of his hate growing. He then turned and sprinted for the levee. The other three boys just stood there, blank looks on their faces. Then, one by one, they turned to follow Johnny.
Ruth had her hands at her mouth and was beginning to cry. Rachel stood sucking her thumb, her other little hand holding tight to Sarah’s dress. Noah stood by his father, Jacob’s hand on his head. The others looked awkwardly at the ground as Hawkins watched the boys disappear over the levee. He wanted to go after them but he could not move, his legs frozen in place, arms down at his side.
A small flock of crows had gathered. And as the little party stood speechless, the birds began to land and peck at the still-hot, untouched food.