Monday, December 13, 2010

Excerpt from a sequel to A Thirst for War. The book is called In the Hands of the Wolf

Chapter 1

The Beginning of the Terror

That fateful afternoon of 17 February 1865, Professor John Ulysses Martin led his horse, Murder, into the barn. A shaft of light streaming down from the loft illuminated the stall and a half dozen cackling chickens as they scratched and pecked at the dirt floor. The malodorous smells of their droppings mixed with the stench of horse manure and dried hay.
            The professor unbuckled his saddle, slung it over a railing and hung the blanket, bridle and harness on wall pegs. Grabbing an old gray towel he rubbed the buckskin down, and then used a pitchfork to throw a load of fresh hay into the stall. The stallion, John’s reward for valor at the Battle of Sharpsburg, snorted and stamped a hoof.
           Gunfire sounded on the dirt road outside. A rider on a black horse galloped past. John recognized the young man as a ne’er-do-well who gambled and cavorted with the young ladies in Clarksville, Tennessee’s taverns. Pursued by a column of Yankee cavalry, the rider hunched low in the saddle. A shot winged him in the shoulder, another one caught him low in the back, and a third knocked him from the saddle. He tumbled from his horse and landed by the side of a bridge spanning a narrow creek.
            Laughing in high pitched cackles like young schoolboys, the Yankees fired more rounds into his lifeless body, threw his corpse onto the back of a horse, and rode off toward town.
Professor Martin shook his head. Damn fool shouldn’t have tried to outrun the cavalry, he mumbled to himself. And they ought not to have shot an unarmed man!
            He leaned his six-foot frame against the stall gate and ran a large, callused hand through his wavy brown hair. His serious looking face was clean-shaven and finely chiseled with a smattering of freckles dotting his cheeks as if they’d been splashed there at birth by a novice angel. The taut muscles in his arms came from unloading heavy cases of liquor on delivery wagons parked behind his uncle’s bar after the Yankee occupation closed Stewart College in Clarksville. That was in February 1862, and he remembered with nostalgia the pleasant days he’d spent teaching his young students about the ancients, helping them understand those peoples’ feats, accomplishments and all too often cheerless tragedies.
            In the period following February 1862, however, things had not gone well. Both foolish and idealistic, he’d enlisted in General Lee’s fine army, losing his right leg at the Battle of Sharpsburg. After his long convalescence, General John B. Hood ordered him to destroy the Cumberland River Railroad Bridge in Clarksville. With Lydia Robertson’s help, he completed the mission and they married shortly thereafter. She was now twenty-one and he twenty-five. They were poor, but happy, and they had the farm that had been acquired by paying the tax lien on it. Other than that, they had nothing except some old sticks of furniture, their love for each other, and their sixteen-month-old son, Jonathan, who brightened their lives.
            John adjusted his prosthesis and then walked to the barn’s open door where a mass of elephant-shaped clouds drifted south. Framed by the door, their cottony shadows trekked across the reddish-brown earth of the cornfield. Next month he would turn the soil there and plant a garden because food was scarce now that the Yankee occupation of Clarksville was entering its third year. The military’s excesses, consisting of pillaging and the illegal appropriation of farm crops, forced him to plant an overabundance of tomatoes, corn, green beans, and sweet potatoes, all to be canned or put away in the root cellar to keep his family from starving next winter. A deer or two would add the luxury of meat, as would the supplies brought by Lydia’s father, Mayor Willard Robertson. 
Loud barking at the front of the two-story farmhouse caught John’s attention, and he jerked his head around as Jefferson, his brown Chesapeake Bay retriever, raced in circles around a horse and buggy belonging to Lydia’s father. Delighted to see his father-in-law arrive early for dinner, John waved and Willard returned the greeting.
“Jefferson, you damn Yankee!” John’s voice resonated with authority. “Stop teasing that horse!”
        Continuing to bark, the dog darted right and left causing the mare, which was skittish by nature, to rear up. The buggy tilted, spilling a whip and crimson cushion onto the ground.
“You’ve got a very rambunctious dog there!” Willard called out as he retrieved the lost items. Looking much older than his fifty-six years, he was a tall, rotund man whose voice was punctuated with wheezes when he spoke. He’d acquired the coarse whistling sound after taking a large chunk of shrapnel to the chest in the 1848 War with Texas and Mexico. Despite his nearly fatal wound, he’d returned to active duty and risen to the rank of colonel.
 “Yes, sir.” John set his hands on his hips. “I do apologize, Willard. Go on in and make yourself at home while I clean up.”
“Will do.”
“Jefferson!” John called. “Come!” 
The dog bounded over, jumped up, and put his paws on John’s chest. John gave him a hug and the dog licked his face.
“Home!” John ordered after washing his hands in a trough and splashing water on his and Jefferson’s faces. The dog bounded up the dirt path leading to the farmhouse’s back porch.
As John walked, the sun came out from behind the clouds, warming the back of his neck. The breeze died down and the air grew still, punctuated by an eerie silence that enveloped the nearby fields and woods. The moment reminded him of the pre-battle quiet at Sharpsburg when the cicada’s loud buzzing reached a climax and then suddenly broke off. Back then it was so peaceful and calm you could almost hear the wind caressing the tassels on the ears of corn. An instant later artillery shells burst everywhere, followed by the harsh rattle of musket fire and the cries of death.
Plant soon, he reminded himself as he reached the porch steps. A child’s wails and the savory aroma of food cooking greeted him as he turned the doorknob and pushed open the unpainted door.
Lydia Martin, gripping a spoon in one hand and a bowl of porridge in the other, stood with her jaw clenched and her back rigid, looking as if she were about to burst into a tirade of expletives. Little Jonathan, usually a charming miniature of his mother, sat in a high chair, his moon-mouth clamped shut and a frown searing his chubby face. Tears of rage filled his hazel eyes and ran down his cheeks.
“Hi,” John said as he went to his wife. Her forehead was covered with a fine sheen of perspiration although the only heat in the room came from the coal stove.
“Hi,” she said.
“What’s wrong?” he asked looking into her fiery green eyes.
“What were those gunshots about?” She used the back of her hand and brushed a lock of brown hair away from her eyes.
John told her about the young boy the Yankees had shot.
“That’s terrible,” she said, holding a hand to her mouth. “Is he all right?”
John shook his head as Jonathan screeched. He glanced at his son and smiled. “Been having a rough time with him?”
“He just won’t eat!” Lydia slammed the bowl down on the sink and wiped her hands on her soiled apron. Jefferson ran to the sink and stood sniffing at the dish.
“Maybe he doesn’t like what you’re giving him,” John said. He patted the boy’s head. The hair was brown and wavy like his own. “Hey, Jonathan. Daddy’s home!”
The toddler banged a toy soldier on the high chair. “Da-da.”
At a series of loud, jerking snores from the front bedroom, John chuckled. “Willard’s taking his afternoon nap?”
“Daddy looked exhausted from his trip so I made him lie down,” she explained. “I worry about him now that he’s getting older.”
           “Know what you mean.” He slipped an arm around her waist and pulled her up close. She wore no perfume, smelled only of strong soap and the crisp clean scent of line-dried linen. He ran his hand down the slope of her neck, parted her long brown hair, and nibbled her flesh. She jerked and twisted her head about while he continued kissing her, licking the soft skin while his hand wandered down her back and squeezed her buttocks.
“How was your day?” he whispered.
“Lonely without you.” Her lips parted as he kissed them. Their tongues lingered until interrupted by Jonathan’s screechy “Brown!”
“That’s it, he wants his brown sugar!” John laughed and took a seat on a ladderback chair at the table. Lydia sat down next to him.
“Ever since he saw me put some on my cereal,” she said, “he has to have it. Demands it!” She opened a cut-glass jar and sprinkled a spoonful of dark cane sugar on the cereal. Lydia thrust the spoon into his mouth which was propped open like a baby bird. He swallowed the entire amount.
“It was easier when I breast-fed him,” she said, half smiling.
John remembered the first time he’d seen her do that. Seated at the kitchen table, she undid the top four buttons of her gingham dress, slid the material off one shoulder and exposed the milky white flesh of her swollen breast and nipple. A maternal glow of pride on her face, she held the infant to her nipple, and he suckled, making little slurpy noises while his tiny fingers worked back and forth in pleasure.
Now, the loud snoring from the front bedroom brought John back from his reverie.
“If you want, your father can come and stay with us,” he said. “It’s not like we’re cramped for space.”
 “You know he would never give up his house in Clarksville,” she said. She looked up at John. “He still wants us to live with him.”
“Um,” John said, remembering how the old man had come up to them after their marriage ceremony in the Presbyterian Church. With tears blurring his bloodshot brown eyes, he explained how lonely he was now that Lydia’s mother was gone, and his younger daughter, Marianne, was married off to a Yankee officer. 
Willard’s offer had been tempting. His house in Clarksville was a mansion, and they would have lacked for nothing, but they wanted their privacy, even if it meant living in this dilapidated farmhouse. More importantly, they wanted to remain as far away as possible from the Yankees’ prying eyes. Even the weekly cavalry patrols on the dusty road out front were far too frequent.
Now, John went to the cupboard and pulled out a bottle of bourbon, a gift from his uncle, Elias Montgomery, who was also expected for dinner today. John poured some whiskey in a glass, added spring water from a cut-glass pitcher, and returned to his seat at the table.
“What’s for dinner?” he asked as he sipped the bourbon.
“Chicken and dumplings.” She removed the lid from an iron pot and stirred the contents, its savory aroma wafting over to John. Lydia touched the spoon to her lips, reached for salt and pepper standing in clay shakers on a shelf above the stove, and sprinkled a little on the food. She repeated the process until her face radiated satisfaction. “Fresh bread, too.”
“Smells delicious,” John said. Today’s hen was payment for tutoring a farm boy yesterday. Some families paid in cash, which was rare, or fresh meat:  a whole chicken or a cut of beef; once, a string of trout. Only last week he’d turned down a possum and two squirrels.
“The chicken’s been simmering all morning.”
“I’m starved.” John licked his lips. His stomach growled and he was reminded he’d eaten little for breakfast and nothing for lunch.
“Dinner will be ready soon,” she said. “How did your day go?”
“I tutored the McPherson boy again this morning and two sisters by the name of Brantley this afternoon.” He sipped more bourbon, its smooth taste exactly the way he liked it. Elias, who ran a hotel and bar in Clarksville, never gave inexpensive gifts. “I ran into Elias and had a drink with him before giving a history lesson to Lieutenant Holmes’ son.”
“I thought you didn’t want anything to do with those foreign invaders.” She turned from the stove and stood facing him, her hands on her hips and her teeth clenched. Sometimes, he thought, she hated the Yankees more than he did.
“We need the money,” he said, waving her into silence. The tutoring was a comedown from his former position as Professor of History at Stewart College, not only prestige wise, but socially and economically. Before the war, people had greeted him on the street and called out, “Hello, Professor Martin,” which always warmed his heart. He was invited to parties where he was the guest of honor and, much to the delight of the ladies, would inject a history lesson to help them understand the complex political situation brewing between the South and North. Now that he was a poor dirt farmer who eked out a living growing vegetables and doing tutoring, he felt the townspeople viewed him as beneath their social class. It dawned on him, suddenly, that he was not unlike Jefferson:  reduced to the lowly position of begging for table scraps.
“I didn’t say we needed the money,” Lydia said, an edge to her voice. She picked up a lace tablecloth, shook it out, and set the table for four, using some silver and fine china her father had insisted they take from the house. “You worry too much about starvation, John.”
“I saw enough of it in the Army,” he said, drifting back to September of 1862. He was wont to do that at times because his war memories plagued him. “At Sharpsburg some of Hood’s men had only green apples and corn to eat. That kind of memory makes a lasting impression, one that sticks with you for the rest of your life.”
“Daddy brought us supplies.” She smiled and pointed to sacks of rice, cornmeal, and flour stacked in the corner.
“I’m both thankful and relieved,” John said. “I’ll put them away later. I wonder why Elias is late. I told him to come around four o’clock.”
“I don’t know,” Lydia said. “What time is it?”
He leaned sideways in his chair and glanced down the hall at the tall case clock standing by the front door. “Close to five.”
“We’ll wait another half hour and then eat,” she said, returning to her food preparations. “Maybe he’s delayed because of business.”
           “Or his drinking.” John frowned. In his opinion, Elias drank far too much for his own good, using the flimsy excuse he needed to mingle with his customers to keep them happy. Then, John wondered about his own bouts with the bottle, whether they would eventually consume him like they did other war veterans. There were battlefield memories of mutilated men chewing on the lead of a bullet to ease their pain…too many of them it seemed to be dismissed or forgotten like some love affair gone sour.
 A warm, pleasant aroma filled the room as Lydia opened the oven door and pulled out a large, oval-shaped loaf of bread.
“Mm,” John said, drawing in the succulent smell of the bread.
After the bread cooled, Lydia used a long kitchen knife and cut the bread into even slices, set them on her mother’s china serving dish, and arranged them so they overlapped like wood shingles.

When heavy footsteps crunched the floorboards in the front bedroom, Lydia wiped her hands on her apron and said, “Daddy’s awake. A quick kiss?”
John leaned across the table. The kiss was brief, with only time for a nibbling of tongues before Willard Robertson strode down the hallway and stumbled into the kitchen.
“Hello, John,” Willard wheezed. He rubbed his eyes and started to yawn, but suddenly remembered his manners and covered his mouth. “Must have dozed off for a spell.”
“It’s good to see you again, sir,” John said, standing up and shaking hands with his father-in-law. “Thanks for all those supplies.”
            “My pleasure,” Willard said. After running a big hand through his graying hair, he took a seat at the kitchen table and watched his daughter stir the chicken and dumplings. He coughed a deep wheezing cough, and then brought up some sputum into a large handkerchief. That act told John his father-in-law had never fully recovered from his war wound.
“Heard a bunch of gunfire on the way over,” Willard said.
John told him about the young boy the soldiers had shot.
“That’s awful,” Willard said. “It’s one thing to kill a man, and another to pump him full of lead because it’s fun!”
“Agreed,” John said, remembering the scene at the foot of the bridge. Damn Yankees!
After Lydia finished feeding Jonathan, she pulled him from his high chair and set him on a gray woolen blanket in a corner. She handed him a toy bear and watched, a smile on her lips, as Jefferson walked over, yawned, and lay down next to the toddler. The child amused himself tugging at the dog’s ears.
“Would you care for a drink?” John asked his father-in-law.
“Please.” Willard yawned, opening his mouth wide. A wheeze poured from his lungs.
John poured bourbon into a glass and handed it to the old man.
“Thank you, John.” Willard lifted his glass in a toast. “To our cause, sir, even though it’s lost.”
John clinked his glass against the mayor’s. “I only hope our defeat will be honorable.”
At the sound of a horse’s whinnying out front, the hairs on Jefferson’s back bristled and he growled and stood up.
“Easy, boy!” John excused himself and left the table, but Jefferson brushed past him and was barking incessantly when John reached the front door. He parted the curtain and peered through the glass. Elias Montgomery had already tied his mount to one of the house pillars and was swinging his heavy frame onto the porch.
John opened the door. “Hello, Uncle!”
“Greetings,” Elias said. A burly man with a pug nose and brown hair, he was a year younger than Willard’s fifty-six, and obviously in better health. His bloodshot brown eyes and the rosy glow on his ruddy face explained his lateness. After hawking a plug of tobacco into Lydia’s flowerbed, he pressed a bottle of Bourbon into John’s hand. “A gift for my favorite nephew.”
“Thanks.” John shook his hand, tucked the bottle under his arm, and escorted Elias to the kitchen. He opened the new bottle, poured some in a glass, handed it to Elias, and topped off his and Willard’s glasses. John waited until the usual rounds of “Hello’s” and “How are you’s?” were over.
“Have a seat.” John motioned Elias to join them at the table.
“Thanks. And how’s my great little nephew?” Elias swallowed half his drink and then picked Jonathan up, set the toddler on his knee, and tickled his ribs. The child squealed with laughter.
“Daddy,” Lydia said after she ladled the chicken and dumplings onto four plates and passed them around the table. “Would you give the blessing?”
“I certainly would.” Willard reached for his napkin, unfolded it, and waited for his daughter to take her seat next to him. Then, he mumbled a few short sentences thanking the Lord for good health, a warm hearth, and a bountiful harvest of home-cooked food. When he finished, they set upon the food.
“Saw a strange man at the courthouse,” Elias said as he ate.
“Who was it?” John asked, and wondered why he hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary when he was in town. Bluecoats standing idly on street corners didn’t count.
“John, a big fella dressed in black stepped off the west-bound train after you left,” Elias said. “He had a funny looking oval badge pinned to his coat. The writing on it said, ‘Death to Traitors.’”
“Oh, good Christ!” John exclaimed as the blood rushed from his head. He dropped his fork.
“What’s wrong?” Lydia asked. “Your face is ashen.”
            “That’s one of Colonel Baker’s men,” John explained. He remembered how he’d recorded Yankee troop movements in his pocket Bible at Armory Square Hospital in Washington City. Baker’s men stormed the ward late one night and hauled him off to the Old Capitol Prison. He’d grabbed his pocket Bible at the last moment.
“Who in tarnation is this Colonel Baker’s man?” Willard asked.
“He’s the head of the Secret Service,” John explained, “and runs the Old Capitol Prison in Washington City where I was held.”
“And where you escaped from,” Elias added, gulping some bourbon. “Do you think they’ve come to arrest you, John?”
“Over something that happened three years ago?” John frowned. “I hardly think so.”
“They would have arrested him right after we destroyed the Cumberland River Railroad Bridge,” Lydia said. “But they didn’t.”
“Let’s not worry about it,” John said. He forced a smile, picked up his fork, and ate in silence. The news about the arrival of one of Colonel Baker’s men, however, worried him, and he drank more than usual.
After they finished the meal, Elias leaned back in his chair and swilled the last of his bourbon. “I’m so full I feel like a stuffed toad. Makes a man mighty thirsty, too.”
“Excuse my rudeness, uncle,” John jumped up and refilled Elias’ and Willard’s glasses.
After some peach cobbler for dessert, they sat around the kitchen table while Lydia put the food in the pantry and washed the dishes.
“Lydia, dear, that was a mighty fine dinner,” Elias said. He swooped down and picked up Jonathan, reeled in his chair, and almost dropped the toddler on the floor. “Oh Lord!”
“You could have hurt him!” Lydia shrieked. She snatched the boy from Elias and hugged him to her breast. She cooed to the crying toddler.
“I…I’m terribly sorry,” Elias stammered.
“Why do you all drink so much?” Lydia asked. Taking a seat at the table, she set Jonathan on her lap and kissed his head.
“I suppose it’s to kill the war memories,” Elias said.
“What war memories?” she demanded.
“From Texas and Mexico in 1848,” her father explained.
“To blunt them each time they raise their ugly heads,” Elias said to no one in particular. He stared out the window, as if formulating his thoughts about a long forgotten battle.
“Don’t get him started,” Willard said. He pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose. “I’ve heard this blasted story a thousand times.”
“Ah, let him talk,” John said. “It’ll do him good to get it off his chest.”
“I don’t think I want to hear any of this,” Lydia said. With both hands clasped around Jonathan’s waist, she bounced the child on her knee. “But maybe it will explain some of John’s moods.”
“Well,” Elias said, “when Willard took that round of shrapnel to his chest in 1848, it nearly devastated me. My God! My best friend was covered in blood and he was screaming—screaming for his mother, for me, for anyone to help him. I tore a strip off an Army blanket and plugged his chest wound, but there was nothing more I could do…I mean, Santa Anna’s army charged and I was scared to death what would happen if them damn Mexicans breached our line.”
“Your language,” Lydia chided. She hugged Jonathan and kissed him on his cheek.
“I apologize,” Elias said. He took a sip of bourbon and looked slowly at each of the people at the table. “So I went back to...sorry, lost my place…anyway, there was a lot of lead flying along with the hand-to-hand fighting when the enemy breached our lines…Finally, the battle ended and a doctor came along and tended Willard.” Elias stared out the window at a crow winging its way above the shredded stalks in the cornfield. “So you ask why I drink, Lydia. It’s because of back those terrible battlefield dreams that wake me in the middle of the night, and the crazy jumpiness that grabs ahold of me each time someone slams a door or a drunk breaks a beer bottle.”
“An interesting story,” John said as he sipped his bourbon and searched for Elias’ crow. The bird was gone, leaving only an unobstructed view of the shredded cornstalks and the same elephant-shaped clouds he’d seen before. A long silence hung over the room.
“I was very lucky the doctor came along when he did,” Willard said. He twisted his cloth napkin, his hands working it first one way and then another as if trying to rip it to shreds. “Often I wake up in a horrific sweat after dreaming about that shrapnel ripping into me. I mean I jump in bed, as if that hunk of iron is actually coming straight at me. It hit so hard it literally knocked me flat.”
“There were so many dead bodies lying around it was pitiful,” Elias said as tears formed in his eyes. “Good boys all jumbled up in heaps right where they fell. Severed arms and legs, splattered brains—“
“Stop!” Lydia cried.
John refilled his drink and swallowed the liquid in one long gulp because Elias’s story had triggered the rise of Sharpsburg’s ghosts. The unshakeable memory of his student, Curley, with his legs blown off at the hips, wailing to the heavens, flashed before his eyes; along with Wilson the budding artist with the back of his head gone…He wished he could forget those memories, but he knew that wasn’t possible.
“Is that why you drink?” Lydia asked, turning to John. She tilted her head to one side and waited, wondering if he would unearth some secret part of his past.
His hands shaking as he refilled his glass, John nodded. But he was unable to say anything more because there were other battlefield atrocities so horrible the mere telling of them would evoke paroxysms of shrieks from her. In the ferocious hand-to-hand fighting, men had their faces caved in from rifle butts and shovels, or their intestines spewn on the ground from vicious bayonet thrusts. Dozens of others, like Curley, had died screaming in agony from limbs ripped off by artillery shells.
John sipped his bourbon until he emptied the glass. Staring at the brownish-red residue, he swirled it around and around, his thoughts blurring for an instant before he returned to the present.
Glancing out the window, he saw soldiers on horseback standing at a corner of the cornfield where it met the road. A big man dressed in black, his face obscured by a slouch hat, sat astride a black stallion. Something glittered on the stranger’s chest. At his command, half the soldiers galloped down the road while the rest jumped the fence and cut across the field. They were surrounding the house!
“I believe we have visitors,” John said, starting for the front door.
“Who?” Lydia asked in a fear-tinged voice.
“Yankees!” With Jefferson at his heels, John hurried down the hallway. At a sharp rapping on the front door, the dog began barking.
“Afternoon, Lieutenant Holmes,” John said after he opened the door. He grabbed the dog and held him by the collar. “What brings you out this way?”
            “Sorry to disturb you, John.” The Yankee officer ran a hand through his blond hair. “But this man says he’s got a warrant for your arrest.” The lieutenant jerked a thumb over his shoulder and pointed at the stranger dressed in black. An oval shaped badge pinned to his chest read, “Death to Traitors.” His name tag said “Vince McCormick.”
“Oh Lord!” John said. “What’s the warrant for?”
“For murdering a guard when you escaped from the Old Capitol Prison.” McCormick stepped around the lieutenant. Up close, he was a brute of a man with a pug nose and mean slits for eyes. He was also taller and stockier than John, and outweighed him by at least fifty pounds.
“The hell I did!” John cried.
“Says here,” Lieutenant Holmes read from the warrant, “that his name was Private Grant Gilbertson.”
“I knew him and he helped me escape,” John snapped. “But I sure didn’t kill him!”
“Enough of this crap!” McCormick shoved the officer aside, ripped the screen door open, and grabbed John by the shirt collar. “Step right out here, son.”  He dragged John onto the porch.
“Let me see the warrant!” John demanded.
“Shut up!” McCormick snapped. He spun John around and threw him up against the wall so his cheek was pressed into the cold, dirty clapboard. The Secret Service agent frisked him up and down, and then slapped a set of handcuffs on him.
Voicing loud complaints, Lydia, Elias, and Willard crowded onto the porch, but the soldiers held them back. Jefferson whined and pawed the screen door. In the distant kitchen, little Jonathan wailed.
“The warrant, you fool!” John shouted as he spun around. “Let me see the goddamned warrant!”
“How many times do I have to tell you to shut up?” McCormick backhanded John so hard he was knocked down. Blood spurted from a gash on his cheek.
“John!” Lydia broke through the soldiers and rushed to John’s side. She knelt and used a corner of her apron to wipe blood from his face.
"Get out of the way!" McCormick shoved her aside with his boot, grabbed John by the hair, and dragged him off toward the horses. "You're going to Washington to stand trial, boy!" 

copyright © 2011 Raymond Gustavson