Read an Excerpt
The Kent Family Chronicles (Book Six)
By John Jakes
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1977 John Jakes
All rights reserved.
Slowly, so he wouldn't make a sound, the kneeling Confederate corporal stretched his right hand between the slats of the corn crib on the small Georgia farm.
The interior was black. He couldn't see what he was after, but he was determined to find food. His belly hurt, though he didn't know whether it hurt from hunger or from the onset of another attack of dysentery.
Better get hold of something to tide you over, he thought. All he'd had to drink for the past two days had been creek water, his only nourishment a few berries. If he starved he'd never reach Jefferson County. And he had to reach it. That was why he'd risked sneaking the quarter of a mile from a clump of pine woods to the back of this crib on a small farm in Washington County. While he'd crossed the open ground, he'd kept the crib between himself and the rundown house, which appeared to be deserted. From the safety of the trees, he'd watched house and crib for a quarter hour before venturing out.
He couldn't find any corn in the crib. He pressed his right shoulder harder against the slats, stretching and wiggling his fingers, groping. He was a lean young man of eighteen. His face, which always tended to a gauntness inherited from his father, looked even more bony than usual. He had his mother's fair hair, but accumulated dirt had given it a dingy brown cast. Large dark eyes and a straight, well-formed nose were spoiled just a bit by a mouth that took on an almost cruel thinness when he was determined.
The Georgia twilight had a curious, cold quality despite the huge red ball of the sun dropping over a patch of woodland where leaves were changing to yellow and vermillion. Or perhaps he only thought the oncoming dusk seemed cold because he was alone. It was Sunday, the twentieth of November 1864, the eve of winter.
Grunting softly, his hand searched to the right, to the left.
He jammed his eye up next to an opening between two higher slats but saw only darkness. Lord, was the crib empty?
He looked disreputable, kneeling there. His cadet-gray tunic, designed to cover his trousers to a point halfway between hip and knee, was torn in five places. From the two rows of seven buttons, just four remained. His point-down chevrons had come half unsewn, and the light blue trim that edged the tunic and identified him as an infantryman had almost raveled away. Dust and weather had soiled the light blue collar and cuffs as well as the matching sides and crown of his kepi-style forage cap that hid the white streak in his hair. A duck havelock hanging down from the back of the cap to protect his neck from the weather had turned from white to gray. A canvas shoulder sling held his imported .577-caliber Enfield rifled musket upright against his back.
Like any good soldier, he had strong personal feelings about his weapon. It was his companion, his means of survival. And he was good with it. That was a surprising thing he'd discovered during his first weeks of service. Perhaps it was his upbringing—his grandfather had taught him how to shoot. But whatever the reason, he'd quickly become a proficient marksman. He was fast at reloading, with an instinctive feel for the intricacies of handling firearms—such things as wind velocity and tricks of sun and shadow that could affect accuracy. He'd been complimented more than once on being a fine shot. The compliments helped develop a conviction that, without a weapon, he was not complete. His gun had become an extension of himself.
Straining to find something inside the crib, he failed to hear the footsteps. The farmer must have slipped out of the house in a stealthy way, somehow spotting him on his passage across the field. His first warning was a shadow that fell over the side of the crib.
"Y'all get up from there, you damn thief."
He jerked his head around, saw the man: paunchy, gray-bearded; old, weather-worn clothing; filthy toes showing at the tip of one worn-out boot.
Thick-fingered hands clasped the handle of a pitchfork. The tines caught the sundown light and glittered like thin swords.
"I said get up!" the man yelled, lunging from the corner of the crib.
The soldier reared back. The tines of the pitchfork stabbed into the slat where his cheek had been pressed a moment before.
The man yanked the pitchfork loose. The corporal steadied himself, feet spread wide, hands held up in front of him. "Look, I only wanted a little food—"
The pitchfork flashed red. The corporal eyed the points. Would they stab at him again, without any warning?
The man's slurry voice showed his fury. "What corn I got belongs to me and the missus and my two little girls. You ain't gonna touch it."
"All right." The corporal backed up a step. "Just be careful with that fork. I still have a ways to travel."
The man squinted at him. "Where you bound?"
"Home," the corporal said, resorting to an evasion he'd used before. He was thankful he'd ripped the Virginia regimental emblem from his cap, in case the man could identify the insignia of state units.
"What's it to you?" the corporal shot back, resenting the man's hostility to someone in Confederate gray.
The farmer came forward again, the fork held horizontally, the tines a foot from the younger man's belly.
"Goddamn it, boy, you answer."
"That's a hell of a way to talk to a soldier from your own army!" He tried a bluff, lowered his left hand to touch the brown-spotted bandage knotted around his thigh. "I got mustered out. I was hit."
A grumble of doubt. "That a fact. Listen, I know they're sending boys back to service shot up a lot worse 'n you. You ain't tellin' me the truth."
The corporal was angry. This ignorant clod couldn't begin to understand his concept of devotion to duty, could never understand why he was traveling alone across central Georgia, hiding out during the daylight hours, stealing and getting shot up for trying to pilfer a chicken to eat.
"You say you're goin' home—"
"What's your name?"
"Kent. Corporal Jeremiah Kent."
"Well, now, Corporal Jeremiah Kent, you just tell me where your home's at."
"Mister, I don't mean you any harm. You wouldn't miss an ear or two."
The pitchfork stabbed out, the tines indenting the fabric of his tunic just above the belt. "Boy, answer the question. Where's home?"
Alarmed, he risked a little of the truth. "I'm headed for Jefferson County."
The farmer's face twisted in an ugly sneer. Very softly, he said, "Then you're tellin' me lies. You ain't no Georgia boy. I know by the way you talk. You come from someplace up north. Carolina, mebbe. Virginny. But not Georgia. You run away?"
The tines poked deeper. Jeremiah felt one pierce his tunic, prick his skin.
"You're a goddamn deserter."
Furious, Jeremiah didn't know how to answer the accusation. In a way it was true, yet he'd traveled for miles with no sense of dishonor. Traveled with pride and purpose, in fact.
"I sent two sons to Mississippi and lost both. Both! I ain't feedin' or shelterin' no damn runaway coward!"
The last word exploded in a rush of breath. At the same instant, the farmer's hands jerked back at his right side. Then with full force he rammed the pitchfork forward. Jeremiah jumped sideways. A tine slashed another hole in his tunic. The points hit a crib slat so hard they hummed.
Jeremiah's mouth looked thin and white as he laced his fingers together. Color rushed into his cheeks. While the farmer struggled to wrench the tines loose, Jeremiah slammed the back of the farmer's neck, using his interlocked hands like a hammerhead.
The farmer staggered. Jeremiah struck again, ruthlessly hard. Time to quit fooling with this old man.
The man dropped to his knees, his palms pressed against the slats of the crib as he gasped for air. A little of the harshness went out of Jeremiah's eyes as he whirled and dashed toward the pines, hoping the farmer had no firearm within quick reach.
Short of breath and dizzy—the sickness seemed to be coming on again—he slowed at a point halfway across the field and turned his head around.
Lord God! The damned lunatic was chasing him! The raised pitchfork shimmered in the red light. Despite his age, the man ran with powerful strides.
Jeremiah bolted for the trees. How could you explain anything to a father who'd seen two sons killed in a war that was ending in failure? How could you make such a man comprehend that you were out here alone because you believed, above all else, in honoring promises and obeying orders? Especially orders from someone who'd saved your life?
Eyes slitted, head back, mouth gulping air, he drove himself. Reached the sanctuary of the sweet-smelling pines and kept going, brambles slashing at his legs, needles on low branches raking his cheeks.
Finally, deep in the woods, he leaned over to catch his breath, near fainting from the aches in his chest and midsection. Somewhere behind he heard the farmer thrashing in the brush.
"Yellabelly! They gonna catch you! They gonna hang you! You an' every other goddamn deserter!"
The thrashing sounds diminished. Presently the woods fell silent except for the shrieking of a jay. He'd eluded the man. But he couldn't elude the accusation. It enraged him.
He started on, mentally minimizing the failure of his raid on the crib. He probably couldn't have kept corn kernels in his stomach anyway. He was undoubtedly getting sick all over again. He'd just keep moving.
His fury toward the farmer abated slowly. A man like that wouldn't understand what he was doing; no one could understand except a dead Confederate officer, and two women Jeremiah had never seen.
As he limped from the woods and angled toward a dirt highway in the deepening darkness, his heartbeat slowed. He climbed the shoulder of the road and turned in the right direction after a backward glance to assure himself the farmer hadn't taken to horseback after him.
No, he hadn't. The road stretched silent, winding into the black and scarlet autumn sunset.
He swallowed, concerned about being sick again. Sickness would only delay him further. Was there anyone left in the whole damn world who'd understand what he was doing? What if those women called obeying an order desertion? If they did, his flight and all its perils would count for nothing.
Just like the war itself.
A mile or so down the road Jeremiah began pondering a question he'd asked himself many times, without finding an answer. What really had become of the war he'd gone to fight? That brave, honorable war for the St. Andrew's cross of the Confederacy and all it represented?
He thought he knew part of the answer. The bravery had been rendered worthless by military routs, and a widespread sense of impending defeat. The honor had been turned into a mockery by behavior he'd witnessed among the men on his own side.
Gradually, the shock of his encounter with the farmer passed. He honestly couldn't blame or hate the man now that he'd escaped him. The beautiful night soothed the anger and brought understanding.
A high-riding white moon blazed, then darkened as thin clouds sailed past. The color of the countryside changed from moment to moment: silver to sable to silver again. A breeze rustled the branches of a plum orchard to his left, out there past a little brook that ran beside the road. He heard the sound of rabbits hopping in the orchard. Somewhere, late-blooming wild roses fumed their sweetness into the air.
His belly began to growl again. His intestines seemed to be clutched by a strong hand, then released.
The sickness had left him helplessly weak for half a dozen days at Lovejoy's Station where he'd rested in early September, recovering from a light wound. At Jonesboro a Yank ball had sliced the flesh of his left upper arm. The ball would have killed him if it hadn't been for Lieutenant Colonel Rose.
Rose had been trying to rally the troops under his command during the Jonesboro action. He'd seen the Union sharpshooter take aim at Jeremiah, who was kneeling and loading with frantic speed. Rose had lunged and knocked Jeremiah over—again demonstrating that he was the kind of man Jeremiah wanted to be himself—
An honorable soldier.
Scarcely eight hours later, Rose lay beneath the lantern of a field hospital, mortally wounded.
That night he revealed a side to his personality Jeremiah had never seen before—deeply hidden bitterness and pessimism. Pain destroyed his pretense when he gave Jeremiah a letter to his loved ones. Rose had written the letter a few days earlier, using the only material available—brown butcher's paper.
Jeremiah could still vividly recall how Lieutenant Colonel Rose had looked in those moments before his death. The field hospital lantern lit the sweat in his beard like little jewels. He grimaced, summoned strength as best he could, whispered to his orderly, "Take the letter home for me, Jeremiah. My wife and daughter—they'll need you more than this pitiful army needs you. My God, you know we're done for. Have you counted—"
A violent, prolonged fit of coughing interrupted him. Jeremiah stayed rigid, not wanting to turn and see why a man on another of the plank tables was shrieking. The rasp of a saw told him why.
"—counted the numbers we're losing every day? Some will go back where they came from, but some will turn into scavengers."
Jeremiah had seen it already. Enlisted men disobeyed their officers, slipped out of camp after an engagement and prowled among the Union dead, stripping them of personal effects, prying loose gold teeth, even stealing uniform buttons.
"They'll be roaming all over Georgia soon. I don't care what others tell you, war—war ruins some men. It ruins land but worse, it—ruins people. You've seen what's happening. Desertions. Profiteering. Brutality to prisoners. Andersonville—"
Another spasm of coughing. Rose went on, more faintly. "Andersonville! Right here in Georgia—an affront to God and everything that's decent. It's no different on the other side. And now there's Sherman to fret about. I fear for my wife's safety. Go to her. Don't let anything stop you—or turn you into what some men in this army have become. You're better than that. Any man"—he grimaced—"would be proud to call you his son. I would. I've never had a son."
Jeremiah's eyes filled with tears, but he felt no shame.
"I did you a service," Rose whispered. "So you must do one for me. As soon as you can—promise?"
The sight of the officer's pain nearly broke his heart. But he had to answer truthfully. "Sir, I—I couldn't. That'd mean deserting."
Rose's eyes opened wider, resentful. He clenched his teeth, raised himself on one elbow. "Then I—I order you to go. You understand, Corporal Kent? I'm your commanding officer and I'm ordering you."
Ordering him? That tangled the whole request so fearfully, he didn't know how to deal with it. He stood mute while Rose glared.
Excerpted from The Warriors by John Jakes. Copyright © 1977 John Jakes. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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