In the American West, as the nation heals from the Civil War that nearly destroyed it, new battle lines are being drawn. Caleb Justin, orphaned and grieving, and his comrade Joshua Hart, a tough, worldly runaway, leave their home along the Ohio River bound for Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, intent to join Sheridan’s troops in their pursuit of Indian lands. But a badly healed foot injury ends Caleb’s dream of joining up. While Joshua is assigned to George Armstrong Custer’s troops, Caleb finds himself alone and undefended on the war-ravaged prairie, picking up whatever work he can—until his capture by Indians changes everything.
Joan Monnet, daughter of a wealthy railroad magnate, is traveling West when her caravan is attacked by Indians. A timely rescue saves her life but leaves her lost on the vast American prairie with Caleb. Together, they must fight their way back to the world they once knew.
But in the winter of 1868, as the snow drifts, Custer is set to turn his cavalry on a Cheyenne camp along the Washita River. Joshua, Joan, and Caleb find themselves trapped in the crossfire of one of the bloodiest battles of frontier history. Will their desperate courage be enough for them to survive?
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Despite Caleb Justin's best efforts in building the coffin, dirt dropped through a pine knot hole and onto his father's blue suit. In its eddy were the corruption and detail of death, the realities and ugliness of man's lot as he is lain at last into the silence of the earth. But it was the dampness from the grave, cool and stringent in the spring morning balm, that weakened Caleb's knees and caused him to lean against the giant maple tree to catch his breath.
From the dock below, the Belle of Louisville backed into the river, its paddle wheel slapping against the green water, its throaty whistle rising into the morning quiet, its engine toiling against the drift of the river. Like giant insects, the steamers clawed up and down the river, their appetites insatiable, their craving for fuel endless, their stacks black and belching.
Each day, Caleb and his father cut the wood and stacked it on the dock, selected and sized and readied. Each day, they received their due, counted in currency by the captain himself, and each day, they returned to the forest once more. Now it would never be the same, the last of his father's wood loaded and stacked just hours before the accident, before his death beneath the tree. Nothing would ever again be the same.
The stink of moss and fish churned from the shallows as the Belle struggled into the mighty Ohio, caught in its power and current. Caleb turned again to his shovel.
Baud Moss reached for his makings and dabbed at the perspiration on his forehead with his shirtsleeve. No matter how hot or miserable, he wore his sleeves and neck buttoned, his straw hat squared. He, too, was a woodcutter, from upriver, and one of the few people Caleb and his father knew in the forests that banked the Ohio. The fact that he was colored mattered little to Caleb, or to his father, or to Baud for that matter, and they shared a raft tied in the backwash a few miles upstream.
"You all right, son?" Baud asked, touching off his cigarette, the smell of sulfur filling the air.
"I'm all right," Caleb said, setting his shovel into the dirt with his foot.
"It's a hard day a man buries his father," Baud said, "and one he ain't likely to forget."
"Sorry to take you away from your cutting, Baud. I'll make it up when I get things in order."
"Some things ought not do alone," he said, "and I figure burying your pa is one of them."
But taking up a man's time in these parts was a problem, this Caleb knew, because time was money, and a man with as many kids as Baud needed every penny just to survive.
"There's a partial cord of oak down on the south branch, Baud. You pick it up on the way home."
Baud, drawing on his cigarette, looked down on the river and watched the Belle splash away like a man floundering in the depths.
"Thanks the same," he said, squashing the cigarette under his foot, "but I come bareback, didn't I. Besides, that's your wood, Caleb. I got plenty boys to help me, and you ain't."
Filling his shovel, Caleb tossed the dirt onto the casket, its thud irrevocable against the pine, and a pain twisted like wet rope within his core.
"I still got his axe," Caleb said, "the one hand-forged out of that plowshare, you remember?"
"Oh, sure," Baud said. "Wasn't no one used a axe like your pa. Fall a tree with a dozen licks, couldn't he, chips the size of saddle blankets, and not even a sweat. He was a horse, your pa, and a man to reckon with." Tossing in another shovelful of dirt, Baud locked his fingers over the handle and studied his feet. "Reckon you're just like him, Caleb. Course, you're young, maybe even a little scared. When a man dies, the son steps up to the grave, don't he, and there ain't no one between him and death no more. It's a unsettling feeling for boys what think life goes unchanged." Turning back to his work in earnest, he added from under his hat, "That's what eternity is, I'm thinking."
By the time they finished, the sun rose above the trees, setting the Ohio ablaze. Sweat soaked Caleb's shirt and glistened in the pocket of his throat. With his hands, he sculpted the last of the dirt over the grave, warmed now, like flesh.
"Guess that's it, Baud," he said, dusting his hands. "Guess it's done."
"A man ought to have some words said over him, Caleb. It's fitting, you know."
"I ain't got no words, Baud, just a emptiness, like I've been turned upside down and shook out on the ground. Maybe you could say something."
Turning his back, Baud looked down on the river for a while before taking out his makings again. When his cigarette was rolled, licked, and tucked in the corner of his mouth, he said to the river, "God, take this woodcutter in, if you've a notion. He was a good man, as you know, even though not much for talking, or praying either, I figure. He's left a good boy who'll require some looking after, I 'spect. Amen."
"Amen," Caleb said, "and thanks, Baud."
Baud gathered up his mule, kicked a leg over, and pulled himself upright.
"You got no kin at all, boy?"
"No, sir, just pa and me was all that was left."
"You're welcome at my place, but guess we know it wouldn't work out."
"Thanks, Baud," he said, picking up his shovel. "If you ever need a hand —"
Baud brought his heels up into the mule's ribs and disappeared into the trees.
From behind the door in the cabin, Caleb retrieved his father's axe, its six-inch blade honed sharp by stone and oil. Even the handle his father had made, carved from hickory and shaped to his hand. Many a night, Caleb had watched as his father sat by the fire, working at the blade, checking its sharp with a brush of his thumb.
He searched out a cypress in the backwash. He squared off, the feel of the axe warm and strong, like the touch of his father's hand. Chips surrendered under the force of his swing, great slabs that gave way under the power and accuracy of his cuts. When the cypress creaked, groaning in defeat, he stepped back to judge its direction and to await its plummet into the brush. The beat of his heart throbbed in his foot, and he waited for it to pass.
Afterward, he sheared away the limbs with short but powerful swings of his axe, and then from the heart took his wood, splitting it into slabs for his cross. By choking the handle, he shaped and cleaned the pieces, shaving them smooth and perfect with the razor edge of his blade. Satisfied at last, he lashed them together with rawhide, holding his cross to the blue of the sky. Later, when the wood was cured, grayed, and enduring, he would carve his father's name.
How long he sat at the grave amid the whisper of leaves, the angry clamber of crows, the sweetness of the honeysuckle that grew in yellow curtains along the riverbank, he didn't know. And when the sun rode high, the smell of decaying fish wafted from the valley, the distant but certain scent of death.
The accident had been sudden, the shift of a great oak, heavy and green and filled with spring rain. In that moment, Caleb knew it was too late: his father caught, the immense weight, the unforgiving stump, the eyes full of surprise and sadness and despair.
With his fingers he'd dug at the earth to free his father of the crushing weight, to spare him what no man deserved, to cradle him against the injustice and cruelty and agony of this world. But even as he dug, the smell of death, the bloodied sand, the bowels spilled and hopeless in the heat, told him it was too late.
Only then did the pain of his own broken foot wash through him, pooling hot and wet in his mouth. Pulling off his boot, he'd examined his foot, crushed from the limb that had saved his life. The big toe jutted to the side, its angle unnatural, its color dark and bruised. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he'd straightened his toe, waiting for the nausea to pass before tying it to his middle toe with a lace from his boot.
Like a cougar, piteous and worn, he'd dragged the body home, pulling it at last onto the rough planks of the cabin porch. Bewildered and weary, he'd tried to focus, to think, to decide what must be done. There was his father's bed, against the wall, beneath the window, where the morning sun broke, and a blanket to cover his face. But what of the blood, the smell, the horror beneath the shirt? Perhaps he could leave him just there on the porch, subject to the evil and darkness of death. There was Baud Moss, of course, who would come if he asked, but so far away and now with night upon him.
In the end, he'd stayed with him there, curling alone against the wall of the cabin as the moon slid through the blackness of the night.CHAPTER 2
Each morning, Caleb rose at dawn as was the way, ate corn mush and syrup, drank black coffee from his father's favored cup, dressed, and made his way to the stable, but living alone was harder than he'd expected, the silence, the absence of laughter, the longing for a human voice in the vastness of his world.
Alone, even the most routine jobs mounted into exasperating and complicated tasks. One morning, he'd spent twenty minutes just catching up the belly band on Ben's harness. By reaching under, he could loop the strap through the buckle, but by the time he'd gotten to the other side to feed it through, it had fallen out again. In a rage, he kicked the feed bucket across the stable, his damaged toe erupting in pain and dropping him to his knees.
Craning his neck, Ben peeked white-eyed from behind his blinkers at the madman loosed upon him.
With one cutter, there was no longer a load of wood each day to place on the dock, but a load every third day instead. To make up the difference, Caleb increased his hours, leaving and returning in the dark, but even then, he was unable to keep up. It was he alone who trimmed out the limbs, loaded the wood, fed the mules, and managed for supplies from the steamboats.
Sometimes, even in his weariness, he would wait at the dock after they'd loaded the wood, just to hear the voices, the men as they cursed and kidded and teased. On occasion, a lady would appear at the helm, her face shaded by a parasol, or sometimes one would walk down the gangplank, the trim of her ankle, the smell of her perfume in the dankness of the air.
To make matters worse, his big toe stiffened, the joint frozen and useless, his gait now awkward in the absence of its spring. At night his back ached from the work and heat, from the ungraceful bent of his pelvis, and from the stress of the incessant blows of his axe. Blisters ballooned on his hands, burst, and ballooned again, until at last they hardened into unfeeling calluses.
But it was nights that he dreaded most, the hours alone in the cabin with naught but the fire and the memories to haunt him. Even his mother's books, worn and frayed now, gave him no pleasure, and he would sit in the darkness, rocking in his father's chair until weariness drove him at last to bed. At times the smell of perfume lingered long into the quiet hours, and he slept not at all, a fever burning hot and unexplained within him.
There were so many things that he could not do; his food tasted of copper; his clothes were wrinkled and sour; his bed was a jumble of blankets, sandburs buried in their fringes. Try as he may, he could not break an egg, the grit of shell fragments gagging him over his plate. Having failed to strain the cow's milk, his white gravy smelled of manure, and his biscuits shattered like dirt clods when he crumbled them onto his plate. Sometimes in the night, he would sit upright, his gut a seething and rumbling cauldron, poisoned by vermin or some unknown disease that had survived the ferment of the kitchen.
But each day, he rose again in the darkness to harness Ben and Sophie to the wagon and make his way into the forest. Summer turned to fall as he worked at his wood, the first color of gold high in the reaches of the oak grove. As the days shortened, cooling under the sun's drift, Caleb's melancholy grew.
He returned to his father's grave on such a day, the cypress cross now gray and settled from the summer's heat. After carving his father's name, he cursed God and all that He was for taking his father. There was a sweetness in his blasphemy, and he dared God to take his own life that minute.
Afterward, he wept for the first time since his father's death, a wound unhealed, and when there were no more tears, he lay on the ground next to the grave and looked up into the sky. There was within him a longing, a yearning to know what lay beyond the green expanse of his forest, the only world he'd ever known. When a cool wind swept from the north, he stood, pushing back his hair, still wet from tears, and made his way to the wagon.
He grew strong over the months and under the demands of his axe, his muscles knotting beneath the thin cotton shirt. When, on a clear night, the first chill of winter froze his water bucket and sent him in search of his coat, he discovered how much he'd changed, his old jacket stretching tight about his shoulders, his arms dangling from the too-short sleeves. He found his father's coat in the wooden chest, smelling still of smoke and mule, and he slipped it on. There was a sadness in him at its fit.
That night, as he sat before the fire, he honed his father's axe, checking its sharp, its shine against the firelight, and knew that something had changed, something profound and immutable in the course of his life.
By dawn's light, Caleb drove Ben and Sophie under the lean-to that served as stable, tack room, and part-time henhouse for the chickens his father had purchased off a river peddler.
As usual, Ben ducked into the wrong stall, dropping his head into the corner to avoid the harness. Caleb whacked him across his ears with a stick he kept by the door for just such purposes.
"Get out of there, you ole son of a bitch," he said.
Outside, Sophie waited, being the lady she was, and knowing all too well Ben's intractable ways.
Once they were in their correct stalls, Caleb filled their troughs with corn using an old scoop shovel, its handle long ago broken from prying rocks. Soon enough, the mules settled in to breakfast, the grind of their jaws powerful in the tiny stable, the smell of corn, the heat of their bodies in the cool morning. The chickens clucked as they worked at the bits of corn that spilled from the troughs. Caleb loved to listen to the mules eat and sometimes wasted precious cutting time doing just that.
When Ben finished eating, he blew cornmeal from the corners of his trough with powerful snorts of his nostrils and stomped his front feet at the chickens, who in turn accommodated him with alarmed squawks and a cloud of feathers that floated about the stalls.
Caleb tossed the belly band under Ben so that he could fasten the rope and pull it through. He eased himself back around just as Ben turned his rump, dragging the belly band beneath him.
"Here! Whoa, you son of a bitch," he said.
It was a refrain his father had used often in regard to Ben, and it came natural to Caleb now in such moments. Snorting cornmeal, Ben craned his neck at the words.
Caleb squatted down and could see the belly band lying just beyond reach.
"Whoa, boy," he said again, patting Ben's rump to reassure him, to let him know he was going to stretch his arm under him. As he strained to gather up the belly band with the tips of his fingers, he spoke to Ben in that calming voice. "Whoa, now. Whoa, boy. There we go, ole Ben."
Above him, Ben's appendage, a tool of amazing variation, lay sheathed and sightless. When Baud's mare came in heat down in the oak grove one day, the astonishing proportions had been revealed, the magnitude of which could render a man mute for a lifetime, so for now Caleb worked with concentration at the belly band.
"Whoa, boy. There's the good ole boy," he said again, stretching for the belly band.
At what point he appreciated its weight, he couldn't be certain, so absorbed was he on the task at hand, but there it was, the size of a man's forearm and as warm as fresh milk on the back of his neck.
"Yeow!" he screamed, jerking his head up into Ben's belly. Ben vaulted back and onto Caleb's bum toe.
"You son of a bitch!" he yelled in disbelief, the pain in his toe now exquisite beneath Ben's hoof.
Ben watched on with wide eyes, his ardor retreating under Caleb's rude behavior.
Freed at last, Caleb lay against the stable wall, foot in hand, rocking with agony and with a decided notion to club Ben senseless with the broken scoop.
But logic, and Ben's contriteness at the prospect of a beating, won out, and so it was that Caleb worked out the week, his poor toe crushed and throbbing at the end of his boot. Still, by week's end, he'd met his quota, his wagon filled with walnut, his foot now numbed into submission.
That Saturday morning, he rose, his breath visible in the cold morning air, and rubbed the stiffness from his hands. He dressed in his cleanest clothes, dancing from one foot to the other. He combed his hair in the small mirror that hung on the back of the cabin door. It was, as usual, an impossible task, his hair straight and black and unruly to the finish.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Forgotten Evil"
Copyright © 2019 Sheldon Russell.
Excerpted by permission of Cynren Press.
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