|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
STRANGERS, THEY COME TO TOWN. Six men-black, furtive, travel ing by night. They cross the Cape Fear River by rowboat from the west bank and gather in the shadows of stacked cotton bales on the wharf.
The August heat steams off the river in a clinging fog.
The six are frightened. There has been an uprising up north in Virginia-black men murdering whites in their beds. The roads are busy with armed riders-runaway patrols-galloping here and there after rumors of fugitives.
But there is work here for free blacks, they've been told. This is a free port. Full of West Indians, freedmen, mulattoes from white mothers. A place that needs strong backs and clever hands. Worth the risk. There's a man they have to see-owns a mill. Come daylight, they'll find him and show him their papers. Meantime, best lie low.
All but one are wearing homespun. Their faces are dusky and lined, their hands horny and rough from work. The other, the one they call Daniel Grant, is slender and lithe. His hands are smooth as a woman's, and yellow-like his face. His complexion is so fair that even in daylight he can pass for white. He wears a flannel suit and a linen shirt with a white man's name, the mill owner's, inked onto the inside of the left cuff. He is the only one of the six wearing shoes.
His voice is soft and resonant, a voice that comes up from his stomach and whispers things that sound so true five men have followed him a hundred miles from home to this river town.
They hunker on the wharf listening to the rush of the outgoing tide. The moon is invisible above the fog, silvering it with an otherworldly light.
One of the country men says, "The spirits is up and walking around, brothers." He carries a forked cypress switch to ward off evil spirits. Now, he rubs it between thumb and fingers until it is warm from friction.
"Hush, now," Grant says. "Don't go talking haints and voodoo. It's only the river fog."
"Feel that chill? The spirits is floating down the river to the ocean. Going back to Africa, brother." The country man rubs the forked stick some more. The love of Jesus is one thing, but a body needs every edge he can get in this wild river country.
"Just the night air cooling down," Grant says. The fishy stink of low tide fills the close air." 'The Lord on high is mightier than the noise of many waters,' " he continues quietly, " 'yea, than the mighty waves of the sea.' "
"Amen," one of the men murmurs.
Another laughs. "For spirits, they's pretty ripe.''
"Don't be taking it lightly, brother. Time of night to be indoors, bolt the shutters."
"Ain't that the word. Give me a soft place to lay my head."
They have been sleeping out-of-doors for weeks. For two whole days, they wandered lost in the swamps, eyes peeled for cotton mouths and gators. At last, they found the river. Providence had left a derelict rowboat stranded on the mud flats at the mouth of a feeder creek. "We'll just borrow this boat awhile,'' Grant had declared, and they oared across at turn of tide. The current was stalled, and the dark water piled up in foaming ridges-unnatural.
Now, the Cape Fear is once again rising.
Stiff and travel-weary, they settle in among the bales to sleep one last night in the open. But all at once, the river sounds change. There's murmuring out in the fog, the rasp of boots on rough boards-a boat?
Grant and the others peer into the fog. But it is a trick of the ear-the men come not from the water but from behind, down Market Street.
"Dust yourself off, brothers," Grant says when he sees them, "and mind your manners." In the sudden glow of a dozen lanterns, they all get to their feet, hands clasped at their stomachs, backs slightly stooped, heads nodded forward: don't look the man in the eye.
Except Grant. He stands erect, hands clasped behind his back. He balances on the balls of his feet, ready to move.
The crowd of whites, armed with tool handles and rifles, fills in around them, backing them against the river. They listen to the steady slap of ax handles against palms.
"What have we here?" A tall white man approaches. Unlike the others, he is unarmed. He wears a frock coat and a four-in-hand, even in this heat. The lanterns make it hotter. His hair and beard gleam with oil. As he speaks, his long, smooth fingers play with a silk handkerchief.
"Cap'n," Grant says, "pardon us for loitering at your wharf. We meant no harm. We have come seeking work."
"Hear that, Colonel?" one of the white men says. "Damned fugitives."
''You want to work?"
"Yes, cap'n. We only just arrived."
The white man lifts a lantern and thrusts it close to Grant's face. Grant doesn't look away. The man leans in, squinting. "Why, you're the creamiest nigger I ever did see!"
"A volunteer nigger," someone in the crowd says. "Could pass, if he was smart enough to try." Laughter.
"Bad night to be a volunteer nigger," someone else says. More laughter.
Grant says, "My daddy was a white-"
The Colonel slaps him-not hard, but so quickly that Grant is taken by surprise. The slap is almost ladylike-it hardly stings. "Don't ever let me hear you talking like that around here," the Colonel says quietly.
''Yes sir, cap'n."
"Don't look me in the eye, boy."
"Yes sir, cap'n."
"Why are you niggers skulking about at this hour? Plotting murder, are you?"
"We weren't skulking, cap'n. We're freedmen."
"Come into the light, all of you, where I can see you."
One by one, they shuffie closer to the lanterns. The Colonel scrutinizes their dark faces. "You one of Nat Turner's niggers?" he softly asks each in turn-speaking close to their faces. Grant can smell sweat, naphtha, perfume.
"No sir, cap'n."
"I think perhaps you are," he says to Grant. "Part of that murdering gang of wild apes up in Virginia. Going to slit our throats while we slept, were you?"
"We're freedmen, cap'n-I told you."
The Colonel yanks Grant's collar, tearing his shirt. "Where is your badge, boy?"
"Cap'n?" Something's wrong now, Grant thinks, getting more wrong every second.
"Every free nigger is required to wear a badge of cloth sewn onto his left shoulder-here." He cuffs Grant, hard. "The badge says 'Free.' Cost you a dollar at the town hall."
Someone murmurs, "Colonel, nobody goes by that old law."
"Cap'n, we don't mind buying a badge, once we working."
"Too late. Can't buy it now. You-all are unregistered niggers violating our curfew."
The country man fingers his stick and mutters, "Now they making up all kind of laws."
One of the white men snatches his stick and snaps it in half. "Don't be running that African voodoo on us."
"Colonel!" one of the men calls from the sea wall. "It's Parmele's skiff-got all his gear in it."
The Colonel folds his arms. "What have you done with the fisherman who owns this boat? What have you done with his body?"
"Wasn't no fisherman," the country man mutters.
"Please, cap'n, we're just poor field niggers looking for a job of work."
"Carter! Henry!" the Colonel says. "See if you can find Dal Parmele." The two men disappear into the darkness, and soon hooves are clopping fast on cobblestones. ''What about you?" He grips Grant again by his linen shirt. ''You a field nigger? You don't look like any field nigger I ever saw." He turns to his followers. "Gentlemen, what is your opinion of this fellow?"
"Damned rabble-rouser," one of them says. Others murmur assent.
"No sir, cap'n-"
''Yes, that's what I think. A rabble-rouser."
Grant remembers the name inked on his cuff. "Mr. Maclver can vouch for us, cap'n."
"Maclver? The Scots are all upriver. Make up another name." The men behind him laugh. "Are you the leader of these fugitives?"
"Cap'n, these are freedmen. They go where they please. We have papers-"
He tears the papers out of Grant's hand. "I don't see any papers."
''You didn't even look-"
"Don't back-sass me, boy," he warns softly. He riflles through the papers impatiently. ''Well, what do we have here?" he announces, unfolding a yellowed newsprint pamphlet-David Walker's Ap peal to the Enslaved Negroes of the American South. Walker, the son of a North Carolina slave, went to Boston to preach against the evils of slavery. Grant was given the tract by a liveried slave on a rice plantation across the river. He meant to throw it away in the swamp.
"Read us a lesson from your tract." He offers it to Grant.
"Cap'n, I swear, somebody just gave that-"
"Read us a lesson, boy."
Grant opens the pamphlet and, haltingly, reads aloud in the lantern light: " 'I tell you Americans-unless you speedily alter your course, you and your country are gone-' "
''You the ones is going to get gone!" somebody yells.
" 'God will not suffer us always to be oppressed--our sufferings will come to an end.' "
"That is quite enough. You six may be sure your sufferings will come to a speedy end."
''You heard him, gentlemen." The Colonel holds up the pam phlet. "Preaching insurrection."
"Spell it out," says one of the men. "Read us the law."
The Colonel clasps his hands behind his back. "The Insurrection Law of 1741 requires that three or more slaves found guilty of conspiring to rebel must be put to death. These niggers claim to be free, but they have no proof. Therefore, under the law, they are held to be slaves. They are strangers-dangerous lurkers-about. They have on their persons evidence of conspiracy."
He turns to a man next to him, who is waving a horse pistol. "Take them to the marketplace. The time has come for Anglo Saxon justice."
Sunrise, at the foot of Market Street. They have had their trial, in the slave marketplace. The white men line up in two ranks of twenty-odd each between the six black men and the river.
The river is running fast and high, the tide sweeping up from the sea in brown wavelets. There is no breeze. The sun is up behind the town, but the wharf still lies in shadow. Grant looks west across the river and, though he knows better, begins to calculate how far the other bank is, how long it will take to swim there-a quarter of a mile, more, the swift current choked with logs and debris. His hands are tied behind his back. Without his hands, any man in that fast water will surely drown.
''You came from the river," the Colonel says quietly. "Now go back where you came from."
On his signal, the first black man is shoved into the gauntlet. Hands behind him, he cannot quite maintain his balance. He lurches from side to side as the first blows strike him-ax handles, gun butts, fists, boots. Halfway down the line, he is snorting bloody mist.
Pistols are cocked.
He is four, then just three long steps from the sea wall, running-trying to run-on his knees.
They all fire at once. The bullets kick him headlong into the dirt. His body convulses, sprawling, legs spastic. Then he is still. They fire again into the corpse. Then there is a ringing silence into which the Colonel says softly, "Reload." It is almost military.
The crowd cheers them, even the women and children.
Grant watches. As each new man is fed to the gauntlet, he feels his tongue swell larger in his mouth. He has no words-his tongue is a dry lump. His eyes burn. He must quiet himself, he thinks. Regain control.
Names, he thinks. These country men have names. The Colonel never even asked their names. He concentrates, watches the third man reel into the gauntlet, racing toward the two sprawled bodies on the riverbank.
Tucker, he makes himself remember, that's his name. The first bullets knock the man down.
Big Gee. Willis. Terel. Coates.
Then they seize Grant by his elbows.
''You have no right!" He has found his voice. "We have papers!" His five companions lie in a single heap so close to the water they could reach out and wash their dead hands in it.
"Untie his hands," the Colonel orders, his tone full of regret.
Grant rubs circulation back into his wrists. But before he can grab or punch, strong hands are clamping his arms.
"As you seem to have a higher opinion of yourself than those blue-gum nigger cohorts of yours," the Colonel says, "we must take you down a peg."
Grant stares at the Colonel, stares at those soft gray eyes. But it is another man who has the knife. A fist closes on Grant's right index finger, yanking it taut at the knuckle. The knife flashes so fast, the finger is already gone before the pain blinds him in one quick burn. He wills himself to remain conscious.
The Colonel recites, as if he has said it before, " 'He shall bring upon them their own iniquity, and shall cut them off in their own wickedness. Yea, the Lord our God shall cut them off.' "
They take all the fingers, and the thumb. As each digit is severed, the Colonel's man tosses it to the crowd. Grant stares in horror at the mutilated stump of his hand, nausea washing over him. Then, running through his mind, over and over, is the old rhyme his daddy taught him in the fields, counting it out on his fingers: ought is an ought and a figure is a figure, all for the white man and nothin' for the nigger.
The back of his throat constricts. The crowd goes silent. His arm feels heavy and dead. He tucks it tightly into his left armpit, and, before they can shove him toward the gauntlet, he charges through it on his own, roaring. The Psalm of David is coming out of his mouth in tongues: " 'I will early destroy all the wicked of the land! I will cut off all wicked doers from the City of the Lord!' "
They are not quite ready for him. He is halfway down the lines before they lay a hand on him. He hears the snick of revolvers being cocked, like a chain of beads being counted, hears the bellowing of men on either side as a dull, surfy roar.
The sun is up over the town. The brown river glistens suddenly silver. Grant runs for it. He can make it-for one instant, he believes this. He is invisible, a wraith, a bloodless haint.
His feet are not touching the ground-he is flying, weightless, pure spirit. He can feel the wind rushing past his ears.
The world ends in a thunderclap, the river explodes behind his eyes.
They untangle the heap of bodies and lay them in a row, heads toward the river. Somebody fetches a sharp, double-bladed ax. One man places a rock-maple block under each neck in turn. Another swings the ax-thwack. In this manner, they collect six Negro heads to be raised on poles along the roads leading into town-a warning to other strangers who might bring trouble.
Tucker's head is placed alongside the northbound road at Smith's Creek Bridge, facing north.
Big Gee's is raised beside the tollhouse on the Shell Road, leading to the ocean.
The heads of Willis and Terel are rowed across the river to the swampy peninsula where the channel forks into the Cape Fear and the Northeast Branch. The poles are twenty feet tall, so the heads can be seen from passing boats.
Coates's head is paraded up Market Street a mile and a half from the river, where the city peters out into longleaf pine forest, and is mounted beside the wrought-iron hitching post of a tavern.
They raise Grant's head right beside the ferry landing at the foot of Market Street, the place of execution. Boys wing stones at it with slingshots. Overhead, gulls wheel and rant, quarreling over the flesh. Men point it out to visitors. Women hurry by without looking up.
Black servants weep behind closed doors. Word carries to the cotton fields, to the mills, to the rice and turpentine plantations up and down the river. It is a bad time. Mothers keep their children close. Something is loose upon the land. Nat Turner is killing whitefolks in the Virginia tidewater, and no good will ever come of it. All the way up north in Boston, David Walker has been poisoned right outside his own tailor shop. Jesus is not coming again in this century.
Having slept off an evil drunk, Dal Parmele has retrieved his skiff and gone fishing.
Late in the afternoon, when the tide has turned, husky men working in pairs sling the decapitated bodies off the sea wall into the river. Headless, they all look alike. Each one floats briefly, tumbling in the current. A southwesterly breeze has risen, pushing whitecaps against the brown tide.
At last, the river has them all, surging toward the Atlantic, spiriting them away toward Africa.
Arms akimbo, the Colonel stands on the wharf watching them go. After a time, he sees only a greasy smear of blood on the receding tide. To the pairs of husky men, he remarks, "This has always been a peaceful town. A good town."
To himself, he says, " 'In those days there was no king in Israel, and every man did that which was right in his own eyes.'"
The men nod, grunt, then stoop to rinse their hands in the cool river.
The city of Wilmington has a population of about 25,000. It is situated on the Cape Fear river, twenty-five miles from its mouth, and at the junction of the northwest and northeast branches. The harbor is commodious, and is a resort for vessels from all ports of the world.
There is a direct steamer line to New York, and a good business is done by sailing vessels to all domestic ports. Considerable trade is also done with the West Indies by sailing vessels and steamships. There are five railroad lines reach ing the city, besides a short line to the coast, which handles quantities of coast products. Fish and game are abundant. There are two fine pleasure and health resorts on the beach,
reached by rail and steamer. The beach is said to be one of the finest on either side of the continent. Malignant diseases are unknown. The death rate is abnormally low. No city of the South offers better natural and acquired advantages for men of energy and enterprise.
Wilmington, N.C., City Directory, 1897
CHAPTER 1 - Sunday, August 14
FROM THE OPEN WINDOW of the train, Sam Jenks watched the river-wide and brown, here and there silvered by pools of glare. The brown color came from tannin, his cousin Hugh MacRae had explained in his letter. All that rotting pine and cypress leaching into the current. The Cape Fear basin was practically tropical. Hugh ought to know-he was native and had a cotton mill on the river.
This was the regular train from Raleigh and Goldsboro that brought businessmen back to town after a weekend in the country. The car was full of men in summer-weight suits reading newspapers.
Sam leaned closer to the window, searching the brown water for something else-alligators. Hugh had sworn there were alligators down here, though Sam had not yet spied one. A wild country, Hugh had written: out in the swamp and lowland forest lurked water moccasins, copperheads, rattlers, whitetail deer, wild pigs, raccoons, and foxes.
Sam turned to his wife, Gray Ellen, and took her right hand in both of his. His hands were pink-he was blond, with a fair complexion. During the weeks at the sanatorium, he'd lost the sunburn he'd gotten in Cuba. Gray Ellen was black Irish, with brown eyes and tawny skin, even in winter. "This time, it's going to work out fine," he said. "I can feel it."
Gray Ellen didn't speak, didn't look his way.
"Chicago was a mistake," he said. "They don't give a man a chance." Sam was feeling stronger, confident again, now that he was no longer drinking.
"You've got a chance now." She was weary, had an edge. She hated traveling, hated moving. It took so much energy to start all over each time. The older she got, the harder it became. She was nearly thirty now, and it was very hard. This was the last move. The bargain was, they would settle here. If they moved again, it would be her choice. To a place she picked out. For her own reasons, not Sam's.
"All that's behind us now. I swear." He believed it, he could feel it. This was a new feeling he had, as if a great heaviness were evaporating from his body. The heaviness had been there so long that he had forgotten what it felt like to be without it.
It had been with him at Las Guasimas, in Cuba, as he wandered around the jungle in a feverish haze, unable to find out what was going on. It had been with him when he saw two men shot dead in front of him and a fellow correspondent named Edward Marshall take a Mauser ball in the back and later, leaning paralyzed against a tree, dictate his dispatch to Stephen Crane.
The copious rations of contraband whiskey hadn't kept away the fever. And the whiskey hadn't made him any braver. While the army moved on San Juan, Sam retreated. He made it by packet boat to Miami on July 1, the day the Rough Riders were charging up San Juan Hill and into the history books.
The biggest story of the war, and he missed it because he was too scared. And still he got home to Chicago too late.
Gray Ellen shifted in her seat. She could not get comfortable in this humid heat. "That's what you said when we left Philadelphia two years ago."
He dropped her hand. "Look, this isn't going to work if you keep carping. Forget Chicago. Forget Philly. We're here now. I'll be writing for a real newspaper."
He had written Cousin Hugh, asking for a job. They were only vaguely related, but Hugh put a lot of stock in family. "Come down here and help us promote the place," he'd written. "Forget Chicago--Wilmington is the city of the future."
Gray Ellen showed no reaction. Since losing the baby only six weeks earlier, she'd been like that a lot-distant. The day she miscarried, Sam was on a drunk in Miami. When he got home and found out, he went on another binge.
Next time, Sam was determined, it would go better. No reason why not. It was just bad luck before, and what could you do about luck? But luck could change. This was a new place. He'd been dry for a month. They said if you could beat it for a month, you could beat it for good. His head was clear of fever. He had his old ambition back.
Maybe he just wasn't cut out to be a war correspondent. But nobody would be shooting at him down here. Nothing was going to spoil this start.
Suddenly, the train lurched violently, and Sam was thrown against the window, Gray Ellen in his arms. A dapper gentleman across the aisle turned their way and smiled. He wore a silver goatee and held a brass-headed walking cane between his knees. "They are still working on the roadbed."
"Ah. Of course."
"During the War, you know, a train I was riding jumped the tracks altogether. The carriages were stacked up like stove wood." He smiled, as if he took great pride in having survived a railway disaster. "I helped pull the injured out of the wreck. Several we could not save."
During the war, Sam thought-at that very moment, the Rough Riders were disembarking at Montauk Point to a ticker-tape parade down Broadway. At the front of the car, two returning soldiers shared a seat. "I hope they've fixed the track," he said.
The man with the goatee chuckled. "I should hope so-that was more than thirty years ago. As I said, during the War. Headed down to Charleston to witness the secession. I was a newspaper man then."
''You don't say." Sam reached across Gray Ellen and offered his hand, then introduced himself.
The other man took Sam's hand in a surprisingly strong grip, studied him with gray eyes, and kept holding onto his hand, as if making up his mind about something. Finally, he said, "Alfred Moore Waddell, at your service. And this must be your wife?"
He dropped Sam's hand and took Gray Ellen's, stroking it lightly. "Gray Ellen," she said softly.
"Ah," Waddell said. "Scotch or Irish?"
"Scotch-Irish! No finer stock on earth."
"Yes. Both of my grandfathers were rebels in a losing cause. Pleased to meet you." She took back her hand, settled into her seat, and closed her eyes. Sam wondered why she couldn't at least be civil.
He kept his eye on Waddell. He'd had a lot of practice at observing people. That's what being a newspaperman was all about looking into people's eyes and finding trust or betrayal. Listening to an earnest voice and deciding if it was lying or telling the truth. Waddell had amazing eyes, he thought-the way they caught and held you. There was a word for it-charisma. Was that too strong? He wondered what line of work Waddell had been in before retirement. Not newspapers-not for long. Preacher, maybe.
The train left the riverside and entered a thick lowland forest of longleaf and loblolly, red maple and sweet gum, lush as the Cuban rainforest. The right of way was overgrown with bright green wax myrtle and honeysuckle. Confederate jasmine entwined the tele graph poles, deep green leaves dotted by hundreds of withered, snowy blossoms. In the woods, between the bare, scaly trunks of the longleaf pines, dogwoods burgeoned. At one place, the roadbed was blanketed with fallen flower petals, white and pink. Oh, he thought, to have seen this country in bloom.
At a remote station, three rowdies wearing red shirts boarded at the back of the car. They jostled each other roughly and hooted at some vulgar joke. They took their seats and quieted down, and the train racketed through half an hour more of woods and swamp before stopping again.
This time, a single passenger boarded at the front. He was slender and fair and wore a pencil-thin moustache. He was dressed in a pearl-gray suit with a white shirt buttoned to the throat, without a tie. His gray fedora was banded in black silk. In one hand, he clutched a cloth bag, in the other, a small Bible.
As he passed their seats, the train started up, and he staggered a moment before recovering his balance. Gray Ellen looked up into his face and smiled. He nodded slightly and smiled back. Then he found an empty seat two rows behind them.
"Preacher," Sam said, "by the look of him."
"Handsome devil," Gray Ellen observed quietly, so the man across the aisle would not overhear. "Makes a person want to spend more time in church."
Waddell turned once to look at the preacher. Something about the man struck a queer note.
When the conductor came through, he stopped beside the preacher and collected his ticket. He loitered a moment longer than necessary.
At the rear of the car, the red-shirted rowdies were arguing. "Well, by God," one of them said loudly, rising, "I'll find out what color that boy is." Sam could tell by his tone that the man had been drinking-he surely knew the signs by now. The man lurched up the aisle, swaying with the movement of the train, and stopped when he got to the preacher's seat. Out the window, Sam could see the river again. But he turned to watch what was playing out two rows behind.
"You, preacher," the Red Shirt said. "I know you."
The preacher didn't even look up from his Bible. "I doubt it."
"Don't be back-sassing me, boy. I seen you in Tennessee, last year it was. Trouble in Johnson County, and you smack-dab in the middle of it."
"Sir, you are mistaken." Now, he looked up straight into the man's eyes, challenging him.
The other two Red Shirts moved up the aisle and stood behind the first man. ''You trying to pass? Trying to make fools out of us, nigger?"
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," the preacher said. Sam was transfixed by the man's calm demeanor-he himself would already have shoved a fist into the Red Shirt's eye. A sober man could always knock down a drunk.
Gray Ellen squeezed Sam's arm and whispered, "Do something."
"None of our business-local stuff."
"Help him, before it gets out of hand."
"Let it go by."
But instead, Gray Ellen turned and rose half out of her seat.
The Red Shirts grabbed the preacher by the coat and hauled him into the aisle. ''You ought to be riding in the colored car, boy didn't your mama ever learn you your place?" The preacher's hat fluttered to the floor and was lost under boots.
"Sam!" Gray Ellen whispered urgently.
The Red Shirts were manhandling the preacher up the aisle. Gray Ellen suddenly moved to block them. "What's going on here?" she demanded. "This gentleman, he was just minding his own business."
"That's right, ma'am-and you just mind yours."
Another of the Red Shirts said, "He'll just have to hoof it the rest of the way."
''You can't just throw a man off-"
One of the Red Shirts clutched her arm. ''You best not-"
"Take your hands off my wife." Sam was standing now, and he edged out into the aisle, crowding Gray Ellen. The river flashed by through gaps in the trees, hung with gray Spanish moss. The Red Shirt released her arm, uncertain what to do. Sam was tall and lanky, but he had a reach. The Red Shirt looked him in the eye, then looked away.
Other people in the coach were craning their necks to see what was going on-they murmured and pointed. Sam couldn't tell whose side they were on.
"Gentlemen. Ma'am." It was one of the soldiers who had been sitting up front. Now, he loomed over their shoulders. Spreading his arms, he gathered Sam and Gray Ellen together like children. Gray Ellen smelled whiskey and horse sweat, mixed with cigar smoke, bay rum, and another odor she couldn't quite place.
"Just please take your seats, folks." He pressed a big hand onto Sam's shoulder and practically forced him into his seat. With Gray Ellen, he was gentler. "Please, ma'am," he said. He reminded her of pictures she'd seen of Colonel Roosevelt with the Rough Riders. She relaxed and sat-something about his touch made her defer to him.
"Now, boys," he addressed the Red Shirts, "this ain't the time or the place. The preacher here may not be aware of our customs."
The way he looked at the gray-suited preacher, hung between two Red Shirts like laundry, made it plain to Gray Ellen that the soldier didn't believe for a second what he was saying-he was just trying to keep the peace.
"Where's your manners?" he said. They bowed jerkily and mur mured an apology to Gray Ellen. "That's fine. Now, boys, go on back to your seats." He slapped a hand onto the preacher's shoul der. The Red Shirts melted toward the back of the car, grumbling. The conductor squeezed by the soldier and disappeared into the forward vestibule.
The big soldier guided the preacher into his seat, handed him back his crushed hat, and winked at him without smiling. To Gray Ellen, he said, "Ma'am, I'm sorry as I can be. Some folks just get carried away." He grinned wryly, looking even more like Colonel Roosevelt, moustache and all. He was older than she'd first thought-his hair was silver, brush-cut. His broad nose was a florid map of whiskey nights. But he looked fit-deep-chested and blocky in the shoulders. He held out a big red hand. "Captain Bill Kenan, ma'am. A pleasure."
"Likewise," she said, then introduced herself and Sam.
He glanced at the many bags in the overhead rack. "Coming to settle in our town, are you?"
Sam said, "We've heard there's lots of opportunity."
Kenan nodded. "So they tell me."
Gray Ellen said, "Would they really have thrown him off a moving train?"
"Don't let this give you the wrong impression. It's a good town."
"Are you just back from the Cuban war?" Sam asked to get off the subject. He might as well find out if the man knew about him.
Kenan laughed. "My war was over years ago. Now, I train the state militia."
Sam relaxed. ''What's your specialty?"
Kenan beamed. "Guns," he said happily. "Ordnance."
That was the other smell, Gray Ellen realized: gun oil. Her father kept silver-plated shotguns in a glass case and cleaned them every Saturday.
Kenan went back to his seat, leaving the aisle clear. Gray Ellen was relieved. She squeezed Sam's arm-he had stood by her.
Across the aisle, old Waddell smiled enigmatically, narrowing his gray eyes but never losing his smile. A couple of miles down the track, he observed, "That Captain Kenan, he has quite a reputa tion in these parts. He was the sharpshooting champion of the entire Confederate army."
"Looks like a steady man," Sam said.
"The Duplin Rifles advanced closer to Washington than any other company in the Forty-third, and him out front." This was a story Waddell liked to tell, about a time of glory, of honor.
"They could see the unfinished Capitol dome shining above the battlefield." His eyes were dancing, and he used his hands in broad, fluttering gestures. "They could see workmen on the scaffolds." Waddell wished he'd been there himself, shoulder to shoul der with Bill Kenan, watching the president's black stovepipe hat sticking up above the parapet, shivering in a breeze of musket fire. "When the battle began, Lincoln was inspecting the troops at Fort Stevens. Captain Kenan-Lieutenant Kenan then-led the sharp shooters to within hollering distance of the fort. Took a shot at Abe Lincoln himself."
Gray Ellen said, "He missed, I take it."
''Yes, ma'am," Waddell said, missing the joke. "Killed the boy next to the president-a head shot."
"Kenan was wounded at Charleston, but he stayed with the regiment till Appomattox. Wasn't a single deserter in that outfit all during the War." He said it as if he himself were personally responsible.
The train rumbled over the trestle at Smith's Creek. Sam said, ''You were with the Forty-third?"
"Do I look like a foot soldier?"
No. He looked like a Collier's ink sketch of an antebellum cavalier, an aristocrat-hawk nose, receding hair, silver goatee.
"The Forty-first Regiment of the Third North Carolina-cavalry, sir."
Sam nodded. "Those fellows in the red shirts-that some kind of uniform?"
Waddell smiled and fingered the brass head of his cane. "An Irish fraternal group, I gather. Poor-bockers. Men who can't find work."
"What do they call themselves?" Sam asked.
"What else? The Red Shirts." He smiled, as if amused by the obvious lack of imagination. "Those boys are from out of town-lots of strangers coming in these days."
Like us, Sam thought. "I'm a newspaperman," he said. "A reporter."
"Bright young man might go far, he keeps his head." There was a twinkle in Waddell's eye. "Somebody who could tell the story of this place. Write it for the whole world."
"I'll remember that."
The train was out in the open now, running fast on good track. Across the river, another channel flowed into the Cape Fear under a high spit of land.
In the back of the carriage, the Red Shirts were stirring. They trundled up the aisle carrying cloth bags and string-tied bundles in brown paper. Two of them had Winchester rifles slung across their backs. They passed the preacher, but the last one stopped beside Gray Ellen. He leaned down and pointed across her body and out the window toward the river. "See that point of land yonder? They call that Nigger Head Point, sweetheart."
He grinned. "Care to know how it got that name?"
"That's enough," Sam said. "Move along."
The Red Shirt joined his companions in the forward vestibule. Outside the window, the river vanished and houses appeared-
shotgun shacks and clapboard two-stories, some of them clean and tidy, others run-down, their paint peeling, pigs rooting among trash in the yards. Men loitered in the dirt streets-black men in a knot outside a drugstore, white men smoking on the stoop of a tavern. Sam had seen the ragged unemployed in other cities.
Waddell said, "Brooklyn. The darkies live here. And white labor ers. Most of the Irish are in Dry Pond, over in that direction." He pointed out his own window. "Don't be alarmed-the train comes into the better part of town."
"Why do they call it Brooklyn?" Gray Ellen asked.
Waddell smiled. "Who knows? They do have a Manhattan Club there-sort of a bal musette. They go there to dance and carouse. The darkies do love their music."
The conductor walked through the car announcing, "Wilmington, change for the Seaboard Airline, the Short Line, Charleston, and points west."
The train pulled under the long awnings of the Atlantic Coast line platform, thronged with women in sun hats and men in seersucker suits meeting the arrival. Redcaps scurried about retrieving bags.
"Come see me, hear?" Waddell said, handing Sam his card: A. M. Waddell, Lt. Col., C.S.A., Attorney-at-Law. ''You lose it, I'm in the city directory," he said. "Mrs. Jenks." He bowed in the old, grand manner and left the train. On his seat, he left behind a copy of the latest Raleigh News & Observer, opened to an editorial cartoon of a giant black boot-labeled The Negro-crushing a tiny white man's back. The caption read, A Serious Question-How Long Will This Last?
The preacher quietly walked out the back of the car. Through the window, Gray Ellen watched him pause, hatless, on the plat form, before he pushed through the crowd and past the swinging iron gate into the city.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book took me just 2 days to read. It's a book that once you start you don't want to put it down.I'm from Wilmington and it is great history.