Sometimes men tend to dwell on things—things perhaps
insignificant to others, or momentous things of which others wish they
had thought of first. To over-think is to chance the birth of desires,
be they good or bad, well intended or hurtful. Conversely, to tire of
the dream and give up is to never know. It is when one acts upon his
wish that the desire becomes a reality. After much labor, life comes to
the long-wanted thing. And with it one must be prepared to accept the
again. Always the same dream. The same incessant
noises. The roar of cannon. Shells exploding
overhead. The stink of gunpowder. The sting of the eyes
from drifting smoke. The cries, the moans, the death gurgles and
worst of all, watching his son falling from his horse.
horror of the dream, Samuel Biggs refused to open his eyes. He feared
in doing so he would only see more of things he wished not to see. So
the dreams continued to tear at him. He lay exhausted—too worn to
exist. His eyes, behind closed eyelids, rolled and jumped in a frenzied
dance as they watched scenes only they could see.
flashed open, his pupils dilating in the near dark of the early
morning. His heart pounded wildly. Beads of sweat trickled down his
temples. How many times had he seen his son dead—his body mangled and
twisted among broken caissons, crushed muskets, and the debris of war? How many more of those dreams would haunt him, he
wondered. How much more could he bear? So he fought off sleep to fight
His wife of
twenty-four years studied her husband’s strained and restless face.
Rose knew he was feigning sleep, hoping to allow her a much needed
respite from the poor decision he’d made years ago.
upon awaking, he’d tell her of his dreams, while they were still
color-fresh, not yet fading to gray. To him, they served as portents of
things to come. Of the many dreams he had, the only dream he spoke of
to her was the one about his son—his way of asking her forgiveness for
what he feared was coming.
two shared a bond. The breath of one nourished the heart of the other
and in so doing they had merged. He explored her face, looking for
tell-tale signs which would guide him through his days. She read his
eyes, peering deep within his soul and deeper still—into his heart.
the deep lines etched across his wife’s beautiful face were his
doing—not that of the passing years. To
him, she was still as beautiful as the day the two met. He yearned for
her touch, for the assurance she was still next to him, but careful not
to touch her, he moved away. The room was warming from the rising sun,
and he feared the warmth of his body against hers would magnify the
heat and awaken her. It always did.
As the room
brightened the dream began to fade, but not before horrid faces stared
at him, taunted him, and called him a fool. The demons of a thousand
dreams pointed their bony fingers at him, and demanded, “What did you
do to your son?”
in the fading part of middle age, Rose still thought her husband
handsome. His aged but dignified face, chiseled from years of
determination and hard work, still made her heart race. His skin,
turned dark and leathery from long days spent in the burning sun,
defined the man’s life. His hair, once pine-bark brown, had gone salt
and pepper. The ever-present gray mustache was tousled from the
previous night’s tossing and turning.
As she lay
watching him, Rose’s face flushed as her body reminded her she was
still attracted to him. She knew he would be pleased to be awakened in
that special way he liked, but she lay quietly and continued to watch
the dancing, fluttering eyes behind closed eyelids. She felt his
exhaustion. They both had been beaten down by a reckless decision.
before the arrival of the new dreams, she had witnessed the same
dancing eyes and they had reminded her of how poorly her husband had
slept after her birth-father, a Satan of a man, died
in the woods a half mile distant of where they now lay. If only I could
help, she cried. Her inability to calm her husband tormented her.
had been hard years, those long years in which they’d struggled, side
by side, to establish Swift Creek—the same years they’d fought the evil
one from the plantation north of theirs—Hesper Griffen’s Plantation.
Sam had told her of things, things he’d seen—but only enough for her to
know he’d been present at the death of her father, and that he and the
others with him had watched the evil man, Hesper
Griffen, die. She knew her husband had lied to her, but not in a mean
or a deceitful way, when he’d told her how the man responsible for the
tainted blood coursing through her veins had died. She knew because
Sam’s face could never hide the gruesomeness he must have witnessed.
. . . a fairy-tale death . . . the death of an evil troll . . . , those
things she could
accept. And did. She never forgave her husband—she didn’t need to. Her
father had deserved to die for all the evil he had become. She’d
thought it would have been proper to visit a grave and see the stones
piled high. But in a reality based upon
the hardness of those days, she accepted that the lifeless form which
had once been her father, had been left in
the deep woods north of Swift Creek to rot where it lay, or devoured by
wild hogs. She never ventured into those haunted woods. The sight of a
bone, human or otherwise, would have been the death of her.
passed and the silence remained, she grew to believe her husband and
the others had signed a blood covenant to never speak of what they’d
done. And none had broken the covenant.
other things he did not tell her, and never would. She knew that, also.
Nor did she want to hear those things. So much violence and so many
unbelievable things had happened during those long-gone dark years. A
growing number of killings without rhyme or reason had driven her
husband and those with him to become vigilantes, and to seek justice in
the dark of night.
wondered if the world, their world, had gone mad. She knew her dear Uncle Em, the man she’d grown to call
Father, was also there, that day in the woods, and she loved him the
more for being there. She was comforted by knowing her beloved, adopted
father, now gone to his Heavenly reward, hovered everywhere, watching
over her children, his grandchildren. She missed the
man, his love of her, and the way he had protected her when there was
no one who dared—and she had survived a life of horror because of his
devotion to her.
with contrasts, she thought. My husband, tortured by
things he’s seen . . . and I, relieved by things I have not seen.
horrors have lives of their own. Sam’s heart had never ceased aching
for his wife. He wondered how a thirteen year old girl could have
watched as a crazed man killed her mother and how, soon after, while
still grieving her loss, being told the man who had killed her mother
was the reason for her very being. The knowledge that Hesper Griffen
would have killed her, his grandchildren and every person she knew and
loved never faded.
God. Please protect my husband and our son,” she prayed, and softly
kissed her husband’s forehead.
to be alone, he mumbled, “Wake me in an hour, will
Dear,” she answered, knowing she had no intention of
waking him. “Go back to sleep.”
she closed the door to their bedroom, he began to toss
dining room, she greeted her daughters, giving each a motherly hug.
yours is the most stubborn man in the whole world. You’d think this
place would fall apart if he’s not out there every minute of every day
. . . and at his age, hummph!” she said, shaking her head. “He knows
Mr. Struthers can run this place. Hadley’s the overseer, that’s why he
hired him. He knows what needs attention on this place and what can
wait. Stubborn. Mule-headed. That’s what he is.”
witnessed her tirades before and knew it was her way of venting and
scolding their father even when he was not present. Samantha, the
eldest, and Isabella Lynn, nicknamed Izzy by her Grandfather
Em, sat quietly, each knowing their mother would continue a few more
moments and then all would be quiet.
point made, she said no more.
breakfast, Samantha and
Isabella Lynn, although excited about their planned trip into Fort
Harwood, said little. This was not
the time for a long drawn-out conversation with their mother. There
were necessities to be seen to; hair to be brushed and coifed, dresses
to be chosen and laid out, corsets and boots to be pulled tight and
South’s so-called rebellion against the Northern aggressors was being
fought in some far-away place and they chose to ignore things they
understood little of, and could do nothing about. Soon, they began
talking of the dresses they were wearing into town and the shops they just had to visit.
“Not today,” their mother said.
“It is not safe. There’s rumors our boys might be getting pushed back.”
Mother, that’s not fair. Besides, Holt’s going with us.
girls pouted. “Mama, they said the fighting
would be finished in three or four months and that was over a whole
year ago.” In unison, they stood and stormed from the room, mad at the
broken promises, mad at their father, mad at Jefferson Davis, and
mad at every living thing north of the Mason-Dixon Line .
now, the fighting raged above them, mostly in Virginia, near Washington. But
were spreading as far south as Weldon. With the rumors—most
exaggerated, others not expounded upon enough—came fear and an unspoken
urge of many neighboring families to flee further south. Many had
packed the barest of essentials in case they did have to leave in the
rush of a moment.
She and Sam
had built a life
together here on Swift Creek. It had been over two-and-a-half decades
since he arrived from Petersburg,
Virginia, to lay claim to his
property, the long abandoned five-thousand acres he’d won from a dying
old fool in a poker game. Burned into her mind, she often thought of
her first sight of her future husband and how handsome he was. Handsome
in a worn, rugged way. And of the man inside the O’Reilly’s cabin who
lay badly wounded, struggling to breathe as his swollen chest turned
purple from a broken collarbone. She could hardly choose who needed
nursing the most; the handsome man on the porch who seemed to be beyond
grief, the man suffering in the O’Reilly’s bed, the black boy sitting
and trembling beneath a tree, or the pale, dazed red-haired young man
with a blood-soaked towel wrapped around the stubby remains of a bleeding hand.
thought, of how these and a litany of other thoughts came and went
through her mind still so many years later.
stood by the window overlooking the manicured lawn. In
the center of the circular drive stood the gazebo in which she and Sam
were married twenty-four years earlier. The gleaming white structure
served as a reminder of everything she and her husband had
accomplished. It spoke of good things and
blessings. It spoke of bad things, as well.
often played in the gazebo. The girls, pretending they were
full-grown—tiny debutantes, gossiping and giggling as they sat around a
child-sized table, tiny pinkies stuck in the air, hands holding small
china cups filled with imaginary tea, with frilly white napkins spread
across their laps. But a fort, that was what Tad used it for. The slave
children, those too young to be of value in the fields, became the
enemy, dying many times over so his war could continue.
days were spent while she and Sam sat on the slatted bench within the
gazebo. Tea would relax her, while hot coffee from the kitchen helped
Sam clear his head.
porch of the “big house” was well shaded by large oaks. Seeking its
cooling and calming effect, Rose sat in a rattan wing-back chair.
Spreading out from the porch, the lawn, bordered with old growth trees,
fell gently away toward the creek. As the dark green leaves of the oaks
fluttered in a warm breeze, Rose absentmindedly browsed through the
Fort Harwood Graphic. The three-week old paper, worn and dog-eared from
usage, failed to hold her attention.
hooves of a speeding horse echoed from the direction of Weldon. Nearing
the entrance to Swift Creek Plantation, the sweat-lathered beast
slowed. Rose’s heart began to race—fear immobilized her. Many of her
neighbors had received heartbreaking news from such riders racing down
turned into the long drive, tunneled by old
growth oaks, and raced towards the plantation’s mansion. Rose fled into
the house, wishing to forestall the possibility of such news and
watched from behind the screened door. Her heart pounded. She willed
the rider to leave, but he refused to abide by her wishes. He would not
and could not abandon his mission and continued his hard ride.
Bradley Smith pulled
hard at the horse’s reins, sawing at the bit in its mouth as he slid
from the saddle. He threw the reins to the stable boy, and slapping at
his trousers and shirt, dusted them with
an opened hand. He straightened his jacket, reached into his coat
pocket and withdrew a government-issue brown envelope, and reluctantly walked toward the front door.
inside the foyer—her mind a jumble of fear, as she watched the young
man ascend the steps. And with heart-wrenching thoughts no mother
should ever have to think filling her mind, she did not immediately
recognize the young man, although he had been there many times before
courting Isabella Lynn. She quickly closed and locked the French doors.
If he would not ride on, she would deny him entry. She knew he worked
at the Post Office in Weldon. And she’d seen the brown
government-issued envelopes before.
with fear, she dashed up the spiral staircase, shouting, “Sam! . . .
servant, seeing a young man he recognized staring through the stained
glass windows, opened the mahogany doors. “Massa Smif,” he said, with a
toothy grin, “Come in, come in. I’ll go fetch the Missus.”
Bradley Smith turned as they heard the commotion at the top of the
his boots, snapped his suspenders into place, and stepped onto the
upper landing. He combed his ruffled mass of graying hair with spread
fingers. Behind him stood Rose,
clutching his sleeve in her tiny hands. Samantha and Isabella Lynn,
alarmed by their mother’s cries, held hands as they stared down at
Bradley. And together, the Biggs’ family
descended the stairs.
stranger to the kind of grief contained inside those envelopes—he’d
delivered four similar envelopes in the last year and each had carried
the worst possible news. It seemed bad news was the contents of most of
those letters, he thought.
Izzy, dreading the news he suspected she and her family were about to
receive. She wasn’t crying, not yet, and for the first time since he’d
been calling on the young lady, he wanted to be gone and far away from
the beautiful girl—she might see his tears. He’d admired her brother,
Tad, and weeping was not a manly thing.
said, extending the letter, “Postmaster Jacobs told me to get this to
you. Told me to wait for an answer, Sir.” His arm fell to his side, and
not knowing the formalities required of bad news, he begged his leave.
“I pray everything is alright. I’ll wait outside, Sir.” He looked
downcast, and giving the family privacy, stepped onto the front porch.
He had not yet told anyone he too, had signed up to fight the “Aggressors,” and had
already begun to doubt his wisdom in doing so.
Sam tore at
letter, his hands trembling. He turned away from his wife
and daughters and opened the letter. His head sagged forward and his
shoulder’s slumped as if life had abandoned him. His eyes raced across
the page. “No,” he moaned, and whispered, “Not this. It can’t be.”