Ann sat in bed on this quiet night, bemoaning her ill luck by candlelight because there is always time to regret the past, until there is not. For how could she knew her entire family, including herself, would be dead in three days, each the victim of murder, suicide, or something much worse?
Ann Singer felt better after the morning’s productivity. She wrapped her aching body in a thick blanket, content knowing Nell and Roatan were soundly asleep. Before the sun was out Ann had milked the cows—less milk than yesterday and lesser still from the day before, fed the chickens—what skinny things! Gathered eggs—small blue ones mostly, and kicked around the garden for overlooked leeks or squash. Hunger waited in the shadows. Ann was on a mission to keep it hidden.
“Oh, child you found one!” Juda said as Ann entered the kitchen with a yellow squash.
“It was taking shelter under a tangle of brier, sunk in a pool of black muck. Strangest thing really. I rolled it with my boot to the river—no, the water isn’t quite frozen yet,” Ann said.
“Good to know dear, this weather is fierce!” She took a fistful of her shoal and pulled it tight over her shoulders. She was thinner now. “I’ll see if I can get Edger to fill some more casks before winter hits us proper.”
“No Juda, too much trouble. I want him to rest and look after the children.”
“You’re as soft as your father child! Hand me that tuber and I’ll get to making soup.”
Ann sipped a mug of hot water as the sun broke from the horizon. Crisp blue sky stretched to the distant hills where dark clouds brooded. She would skip riding lessons today; the chance of rain made the long walk to Mr. Calvin’s ranch out of the question. Nell would be happy staying on the property. Roatan was another story. He took to horses like a plant to sunlight. And he rode like a demon.
“Storm not too far off you know,” said a raspy voice.
Ann turned and found Edger carrying two buckets of water, hands like gnarled tree branches shaking in the wind.
“Edger no, it’s too much. Have the children do it.”
He gave a hearty laugh and shook his head. “Ms. Ann, you know you can’t trust a child to carry her own bath water! Nell’s been slipping the Big Clean for two weeks. Says she don’t get to stinking on account of the cold.”
Ann smiled. “Nell is too clever for her own good sometimes. Would you mind pouring one for Roatan while you are at it?”
His back stiffened. “Oh he don’t need one. Boy is too much trouble as it is.”
“To the devil with that talk. You know well as me that he loves the water. Says it makes his bones warm. Afterward, you go rest and get warm with a glass or two of Father’s spirits.” She winked at him.
“Sweet Lord Anny! Thank you kindly, but I like waiting until the sun’s up before I get to drinking.” He shook his head then looked respectfully to a portrait of the late Mr. Singer hanging above the table. “And your sweet daddy used to give me those same words about slowing down, Fifteen years ago! I know I look like I got a foot in the grave, but I’ll be working for this house until I got both in there.” He smiled and poured the buckets into a cauldron hanging over a growing fire. He tipped his hat and shuffled outside toward the stream.
The pale disk of midday sun cast weak light on the frozen ground. Ann set down a finished blanket and unwound a ball of yarn to begin weaving another; she could not fix the hunger problem, but cold was an enemy she had the means to fight. The soup bubbled over the kitchen fire, filling the house with a smoky-sweet aroma. Nell walked in from the backyard, her nose sniffing the air.
“That smells great Mom,” Nell chirped like a finch, brushing pale blond hair from red-rimmed eyes. She wore three layers of clothes, though a horse blanket couldn’t disguise her tiny frame. Their mother had died giving birth to a doomed third child. Since then, Nell called Ann mom.
“The temperature is so low Nell. How about you stay bundled up in here with me today?”
“I found a kitty! Up in a tree! Can I have some milk to get him down?”
“We can’t spare milk for a pet, you know that,” Ann said, stirring the soup to avoid her sister’s eyes.
“But he’s hungry Mom. He needs to eat just like the rest of us.”
Ann bit her lip then gave a theatrical sigh. “Okay, you can have a cup to set by the tree, but promise you will leave him be. That’ s his home, you know. And tell Roatan supper is ready.”
Nell raced outside, shouting promises behind her. Ann looked at the window and smiled; the boy was a breed altogether different. Not even five feet yet but he but swung Edger’s pick-ax with the strength of a man. Tiny beads of sweat pooled at his temples and across the dark skin of his back. Great plums of frozen breath hung about him as he worked. The cotton crops had shriveled into twigs for winter, and though no field animal could plow the frozen ground, the mysterious ex-slave child took it upon himself to break the earth.
Juda smacked Edger’s hand with a wooden spoon as he snatched a chunk of squash from the boiling cauldron.
“For shame Edger, you sure have some quick hands for an old man!”
“I thought all sweet southern girls knew that by now and some up north too.” The glint in his eye was wicked, though his beaming smile proved him harmless. Juda howled with a peel of laughter.
They were like father and daughter. And had known each just as long, tied to the property since the days of Mr. Singer’s boyhood. They were the last of the African slaves purchased by the former head of household. Part of the cotton picking and housekeeping legacy that kept the Singer name rich and respected for six generations.
When war came, Ann’s father protested the hard line drawn by the Confederacy and continued selling agriculture to both sides. He stopped short of providing the Union forces with cotton, saying he would not clothe men who marched to kill American boys—including his son. But his sense of patriotism cost him his life.
When he freed his slaves in accord with President Lincoln’s Proclamation, the Richmond Enquirer jumped on the story, sending a wave of fury through the countryside. It ended with the lynching of seven “freed” men, a manhunt for several more, and the death of Master Singer by a backyard firing squad.
Depression gripped Ann. Thirteen short years and now an orphan in charge of a household. Her youth felt stolen. She went through the motions, a caretaker on puppet strings, but her responsibilities saved her.
With her brother Jacob away fighting for state’s rights, the Singer Estate fell on Ann’s willowy shoulders. A forty-acre plantation left intact out of respect for what townsfolk called the “Old Singer name.” Juda stayed because she knew nothing else and Edger because he had nowhere else to go. Otherwise, it was just Ann and Nell, until stoic little Roatan showed up at their back door, half-dead from sun stroke and dressed in a tattered suit with purple bowtie.
Six months passed at the Singer house and he had said little, and nothing of his former life. With a work ethic far beyond his years, he picked and plowed and watered and threw himself at the many needs of the plantation. Ann tried hard to rekindle the boy’s youth but found him remote and sulky when not sharing the labor load. She eased her conscience by reading him the Bible at night. Just recently she taught him to write his name on the kitchen table with cooked spaghetti noodles.
A tremendous clang made Ann flinch.
Juda began screaming from inside a cloud of steam. Edger backpedaled to avoid the rolling cauldron as it spewed boiling soup.
Juda lost her footing and tumbled into the spill. She howled, crawling toward the door on burning hands and knees. She reached dry floor and collapsed on her back. Edger tip-toed across the floor, apologizing profusely while Ann rushed to drench a towel in the water barrel and wring it over Juda’s blistered feet.
“I’m sorry Juda, so sorry. Just wanted another bite is all. I didn’t know you lifted it off the hook and all,” Edger said.
Juda groped for Edger’s hand and slapped it. “I knew those quick hands were trouble.”
He looked at Ann, his eyes wide and pleading. “What can I do Ms. Ann? “
“Best to wipe the butter tub with some rags and wrap up Juda’s feet,” Ann told him. She planned to clean the spill with leather smith’s gloves and towels soaked in a mix of vinegar and distilled alcohol. For now, she lifted the cauldron back onto the hook and stoked the fire. Supper would not prepare itself.
The food shed was dry and cold. A large single room, larger still because of its emptiness. There was precious little on the shelves. Some frozen apples, a rat-chewed sack of corn meal, ten-pounds of spongy potatoes, two mason jars of pickled cucumbers, and a box of hard tack from her brother Jacob. He sent it three months ago to show how poorly wartime soldiers ate. Ann was saving it for Nell’s birthday.
In the corner, several bags of coal and two drums of kerosene meant no one would freeze to death this winter. Ann inspected the bag of corn meal. Light mold, nothing boiling water couldn’t fix. She filled her dress pockets with apples. The glossy red skin looked like Juda’s blistered feet.
Ann returned to the house to find the kitchen floor clean with Nell and Edger playing dice at the table.
“Some fine stew, Ms. Ann. I’m ashamed you missed it,” Edger said.
“You ate it off the floor?” Ann said.
“All I could,” he exclaimed, slapping his stomach.
“Did you have any Nell?” she asked, suddenly anxious.
“Nope. None,” Nell said, pouting. “Edger says it isn’t right for a lady to eat off the floor. I told him I shared a bowl of milk with that old tom cat in the tree, but he wouldn’t budge.
The sun was bleeding onto the horizon by the time Ann finished cooking. Everyone ate mostly in silence. Roatan and Nell scrubbed the dishes afterward while Juda and Edger played vingt-et-un. Ann read by candlelight in her bedroom. Nine letters in all, one sent every two weeks. Each signed, With love everlasting, Lance Maddox. A young journalist and adventurer at heart, Lance had begged Ann to travel with him to California. She declined until one day he finally believed her. He boarded a train and crossed the nation with two suitcases and her heart. He wrote her for three months before forgetting her altogether.
Morning brought heavy black clouds and a temperature just above freezing. Ann was in one her moods, “poison thought spells” her father called them. She sulked in bed until well past sunrise. At last, groaning with self-pity, she threw the comforter off her body.
Halfway down the stairs, Ann met a wonderful scent—breakfast cooked by someone else. The table was set with two plates each, with a frothy glass of milk and a plate of buttered bread. Edger labored under a massive skillet of scrambled eggs and ham. He smiled, mostly everyone else looked shocked. Nell just ate.
“Pork and bread?” Ann said.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Edger said. “Just wanted some meat, needed it really, so I walked to Calvin’s place to make a deal. He said he couldn’t spare nothing, but I ate him.”
Roatan spilled his milk.
“Sweet Jesus,” Juda said. “You what?”
Edger gave her an uncertain smile. “I made him Juda. Made him see it my way, house full of hungry children and all. He changed his mind in the end, blessing us with all this food.”
Ann handed Roatan a towel and looked to Edger. “But Calvin’s ranch is seven miles away.”
“Don’t I know it,” he said, chuckling. “I woke up feeling great. Look at my back, straight as a nail.” He stood his full height. Ann couldn’t remember when his spine was shaped like anything but a hay hook.
“It’s the Lord’s work,” Juda said. “His presence is strong today.”
Ann sat against the window, eating a strip of bacon and watching the overcast sky turn Nell’s eyes into shining turquoise disks. Nell looked past her, distracted by something. Ann looked out the window and saw a mounted figure galloping down the road toward them in a veil of dust. The clouds broke as he raced past the lines of Cyprus trees.
“White horse?” Juda whispered.
Edger squinted with his palms on the window pane. “No pale buckskin. Big one too.”
“Those old eyes can see all that?” Juda said.
“Like I had a pair of fancy bifocals,” he replied.
Ann stood up with a flutter in her chest. She could make out a gray uniform through the pouring rain.
Juda rushed to answer the door a moment later, wincing as she tiptoed on bound feet. Ann protested but fell silent at the sight of Jacob standing in the doorway.
A mirage maybe, if not for the patter of water from his cavalry hat on the wooden floor. He wore gray slacks and a heavy gray coat cinched with a belt. His right boot was held together with knots of twine.
His eyes met Ann’s. He rushed forward and pulled her to his chest, his coarse riding glove matting her hair as she breathed in his unfamiliar scent. He held her at arm’s length and considered her face. In his, she saw fresh stress lines and probing gray eyes. They looked different now, tired of seeing.
“You’ve gotten older, sister.” His pale lips spread into a half-smile as he hugged her a second time. His was thinner but still looked every inch an army officer. Nell latched onto his waist and sighed. He forced a smile and knelt down to kiss her head.
He glanced around the room. His eyes stopped on Juda and Edger.
“Those two been sitting around since I left?” His eyes stopped on Roatan. “Juda’s too old to make him, so who is he? Are we an orphanage now?”
“Jacob needs rest,” Ann said a little too loudly. She hugged his shoulder and led him upstairs. “They are free now,” she whispered in his ear. “They help us because they want to.”
“Free?” he said in a cold voice. “The old man has finally lost it.” Ann realized he might not know their father was dead.
“Get some sleep. Your bed is unmade but clean, Roatan—the little boy—uses it, but he can stay in Edger’s room tonight.”
Ann spent the afternoon burning her tongue on rushed sips of hot water. Jacob was safe at home. She would let him rest soundly. He could find out how broken things were later.
Juda slipped out and tramped around the garden for overlooked produce. Nearly an hour passed, Ann cut potatoes and fought her guilt. Jacob was home; she should be happy.
The side door opened, and Juda rushed in with sticky black feet and a wide smile.
“Look, Ms. Ann, I was out hunting for tubers when I stepped in that black muck, same that was covering the beautiful squash you found. My feet feel wonderful! That mud sure healed me up quick. And look, I found us a beauty!” She hoisted up a glossy orange pumpkin.
Ann dropped the knife and stepped forward. It was a beautiful squash, as good as any the land had made. But the season was all off.
“How could we have missed that Juda?”
“Just another blessing,” she replied, cradling the pumpkin like a child.
Ann remembered Juda’s shrieks. An image of her feet, read and engorged like stillborn lambs. “Seems like we’d have noticed something so big and orange growing in a frozen garden.” She went back to chopping potatoes. The rhythm freed her mind. Edger’s spine good as new, Juda’s healed feet, a dead garden producing ribbon-worthy produce. A blessing Juda had sad. And was it really so hard to believe? Maybe God wanted Ann back into his flock, and these miraculous healings was his grand gesture.
Ann felt numbness in her hand. She looked down to find the cutting knife buried in her thumb and forefinger. No pain, just a weary acceptance that the potatoes were spoiled from her blood.
Juda sniffed the air and rushed over. Ann saw hunger in her eyes.
“Juda,” Ann said in a small voice, “I’m going to be sick. Can we save the pumpkin for tomorrow’s supper?”
Juda nodded with disappointed eyes. Ann did not care; she needed to smash the pumpkin apart and burry what remained. It clicked together at last, not everything, but enough to realize the garden needed a kerosene soaking and cleanse by fire.
“We got us a black night tonight,” Juda said with a look out the window. Nell stared intently, trying to find the moon through inky blue-black rain clouds.
Dinner was bland. Ann blamed herself, but relief outweighed her guilt.
Jacob was still asleep and the children were exhausted. Up the stairs they went with the jerky flame of Juda’s candle lighting the creaky old stairs. She led Nell to bed, her half of Ann’s sprawling four-post hickory sleeper.
“Your sister will be here shortly child. Now close your eyes and think about her real hard,” Juda said, as she tucked the sheets under Nell’s compact little shoulders.
Roatan followed Juda up a second row of stairs to reach Edger’s room. The boy spent countless hours here by day, but the nighttime gave shadows dangerous powers.
Juda stopped in the doorway. Tortured nocturnal sounds filled the small room; to call it snoring would be granting a human quality to something monstrous. Angry breaths like a violent animal brooding in a steel trap filled the dark room.
Edger was old. Juda knew Edger had outlived every man on the plantation, so breathing problems were no surprise. And the matter was simple: Roatan had nowhere else to sleep as he refused to sleep alone. Master Jacob had a good heart, he would warm up to the boy, but not tonight.
The boy’s eyes glowed white in the candlelight as Juda tucked him into a small cot. Juda heard his eyes darting around the room as she stroked his hair. She kissed his forehead and told him his dreams would be extra sweet. She left the door open a few inches.
Ann woke full of panic. She gasped for breath, then inhaled slowly, willing her heartbeat slow. Nell was sleeping uneasily beside her. The night was full of crickets, a distant barking dog, nothing unusual. Then it happened: a single chilling scream, high and broken as if from a throat not used to working much. Roatan.
She rushed up the stairs, sleepy-eyed Nell at her heels. Jacob was already pounding on Edger’s door. Juda yelled into the keyhole.
Roatan kicked and scratched the door from inside.
“Get back boy. I’m coming in!” Jacob said.
He lunged forward and kicked just below the doorknob, ripping the door from its hinges, revealing a wall of darkness. Roatan dashed out. Ann crouched and hugged him as he tried to run past. He squirmed, his pajamas soaked with warm sweat and urine.
“What happened Roatan? Why did you scream like that?”
His eyes were two full moons. “Mr. Edger tried to eat me!”
Jacob cursed under his breath and squared off in a fighting stance, facing the dark room. “Ann, bring me a candle and a rifle.”
“Got bullets in it?” he asked when Ann returned.
“Have we ever kept an unloaded in this house?” Ann said.
Jacob held the candle and steadied the gum barrel on his forearm as he stepped into the doorway. He took two steps inside, wielding the candle like a crucifix. The flame whooshed, then straightened, throwing light on Edger’s body as it dangled from the ceiling.
His face was terror frozen, twisted with the agony of a death by hanging. But the noose distracted from something much worse. His skin was pale, nearly white, and the whole of his eyes had become the shiny black of insects. Black veins snaked across his cheeks, forehead, neck and hands like tar ran through his veins.
“Is he alright?” Ann said when Jacob walked out. Roatan and Nell were glued to her legs.
Jacob shook his head and descended the stairs, sidestepping Juda as she crouched and sobbed.
Ann helped dig, trading turns with Jacob who wielded a pickax. The ground was solid everywhere but the garden. The ground nearest the garden was softest; they had fertilized it yearly since childhood. Ann refused to dig there. Jacob did not protest when Ann picked a spot some twenty feet away. They continued to carve into the hard ground without a word. Ann supposed he wanted to sweat out the image of Edger, or the monster Edger had slain.
They patted the earth down and sprinkled it with lye to keep animals away.
Jacob spoke first. “I’ll get a headstone made tomorrow. Edger was family, though I don’t know if he ever knew it.”
“He knew,” Ann replied.
Jacob walked through the garden on the way back. He suddenly tripped and swore.
“Jacob, are you okay!” Ann said, rushing over.
“Damn boot stuck something,” he sat up and parted a mound of dead grass, revealing a stone cross. “Jesus.”
Ann waited for the outburst. She wanted to scream back. To force him to know about the hunger, the cold nights, the fear, so much fear. She needed to be angry to summon the courage, but Jacob only walked inside and returned with a bottle of bourbon, saying nothing as he sat down in the garden. She left him alone to get drunk over their father’s tombstone.
Next morning, no one wanted to speak, no one wanted to be alone. Juda moved around the kitchen on vigorous feet, heating leftovers from yesterday’s breakfast. Ann had wanted to sink the food in the river, but Juda said feeding the children was more important than fearing whatever got Edger. She was right, of course.
“Is Jacob still in bed?” Juda said to everyone and no one.
Nell stared at her glass of milk. Roatan gazed out the window and tired to stay awake. Ann scrubbed a pan. She mumbled to Juda as she passed. “He knows about Father.”
Ann skipped breakfast and went outside to check on Jacob. He looked dead, sprawled face-down at the garden’s edge. Ann knew he’d be alight because he was a soldier, and soldiers were very good drinkers. But that wasn’t the worst of it. She ran now, fighting sick terror as black oily evil seeped from the dirt all around him.
Ann slammed her boot in his ribs. He made a wet groaning sound and said “Not yet.” She wrenched his body up as the ground beneath their feet turned the shade of death. His eyes widened. He picked her up as the ground became thick and soft.
“God almighty, it’s gone. Was it real?” Jacob said from the doorway.
The garden was its usual tangle of leafless sticks and permafrost dirt. The black oil was gone, either from the top soil or her strained mind. They stripped off their boots. Jacob was covered in the black stuff to his knees. “Like quicksand,” he muttered, taking off his pants and throwing them into the yard.
Juda appeared. “You all better come quick. Master Jacob’s horse is here.”
“No,” Jacob said.
“No doubt about it. Ain’t no horse pretty as yours,” Juda said.
A magnificent white charger wandered down the driveway. A lavish gift for his acceptance into law school at Columbia University. Jacob had fallen over himself to accept his father’s gift but quit his legal education after a single term to join the rebellion at the outbreak of war.
Jacob ran outside and called to her. She bucked her head, appearing to grin, and cantered toward him. He grabbed her reigns as she licked his hands and face.
“Ah, beautiful Robin,” Juda said as she, Ann, and the kids walked up to admire the powerful creature.
“Her name is Deliverance,” Jacob said. “Father named her Robin after Lincoln’s favorite horse. Ironic, seeing that the man sent an army against us.”
“He is defending freedom in this country,” Ann said.
“By killing men who disagree with him?” Jacob said. “Now take her and tie her up behind the house. Keep her close and hidden, not in the stables. I need to unlock the guns.”
Ann wanted to protest, but his face convinced her to follow his order. She left with Roatan and Nell at her feet.
Juda stepped close to Jacob and whispered, “Master Jacob, since you got your prize horse we won’t be needing the buckskin right? She’d make an awful lot of stew. Don’t think ill of me sir, I’m just so hungry.”
Jacob didn’t hide his disgust. “No Juda, we are not eating the horse. We are going to need it soon—” He looked past her and frowned. “Shit. Everybody inside. Now!”
The Stars and Bars flag of the Confederate army appeared on the horizon. It stood out against the grey earth and sky like a red dragon. The image sent Nell running and yelling through the house like a watch dog. Jacob ordered Nell and Roatan upstairs, sounding remarkably like their father when he desired a quiet house. He passed a rifle to Ann, hesitated before passing one to Juda, then had both women fill their dress pockets with percussion caps and paper ammo cartridges.
Six soldiers in soiled gray uniforms walked beside a scrawny chestnut horse pulling a small wagon. They looked like pirates. Ann silently prayed that their only demand was food and watwe.
“Jacob, you are an officer. You can tell them to leave?” Ann said.
“Not any more I’m not. I Deserted. Damn that horse of mine, led them right to me.”
“What! You abandoned your duty? It’s all you wanted—”
“It is all garbage Ann, the whole thing. Slavery is alright in my book but I’m not dying to protect it, either. Two days ago we pitched our tents fifteen miles from here. I lost it Ann. I missed home.”
The wagon stopped in the driveway. One of the men unfastened the horse, sending it to graze with a slap on its flank. A bearded man stepped forward, tall and scrawny, eyes hidden below a round, sky blue hat.
“I see you in that window Lieutenant Singer. Why don’t you come on out? We would like a word,” said the bearded man.
Jacob felt the women’s eyes on him. “Those men stopped being soldiers a while ago. Just a bunch of wolves preying on the weak. That wagon carries three things. Powder for shooting, tar for burning, and any valuables they raided from good country folk.” He finished loading his rifle and pushed his cavalry hat on his head. “They get a week’s pay and a fat bag of tobacco for every deserter they bring in. Dead pays same as living so they drag bodied behind the wagon to save space.”
A short man with a face like a beaver stepped out from behind the wagon. He had little black eyes and carried a heavy coil of rope. A third man in grey slacks and a tank top struck a match on the wagon wheel, lighting a cigar and then a heavy torch. Jacob crawled across the kitchen floor and crouched against the wall, cocking his rifle and sliding the barrel outside.
The crack shook picture frames and filled the room with acrid white smoke.
“Get down!” Jacob cried as a volley of bullets shattered the window.
Ann dropped beside him. Juda remained standing. Jacob threw a couch pillow at her face. It got her attention. She knelt down, staring at Jacob in an unhinged way that he and Ann pretended not to notice.
“Ann. The children need guns,” Jacob said.
Her cold glare stopped him. A bullet smacked into the headrest where Ann had eaten breakfast the day before.
Jacob raised his eyebrows. “Nell can shoot, you taught her for Christ’s sake. Stick her in a window and tell her to stay low and shoot to kill. One shot and she’s done, under the bed until I come get her.” One of the Confederate pirates yelled something. Jacob ignored it. “And give the boy a cavalry shotgun. Show him how to load it and have him shoot down from a window every few minutes or so. Make sure he knows to keep moving.”
Ann dropped her rifle and crawled toward the staircase.
“Ann, bring me down the powder keg and two lengths of cannon fuse when you come back down,” Jacob said.
“You have a plan?” She could not keep the desperation from her voice.
“Yes, but I’m hoping I come up with a better one first.”
Tense periods of silence broken only by Roatan’s shotgun blasts. The boy was sharp, shooting just enough to keep the soldiers from feeling bold. This pleased Jacob . Ann rolled ammunition packets in Bible paper, the only book reachable from her place by the window. She imagined God’s power in each bullet and felt stronger.
Juda rapped her fingernails on the floor.
Jacob filled two mason jars with black powder and nails pried from living room furniture. He punched a hole it the lids, twisted in a length of fuse and sealed it with candle wax, all the while jutting his head up to look outside and ducking as bullets struck the walls or whizzed above them.
“I’ll be back,” Jacob said. “Keep the men back and watch Juda.”
He crawled backward through the living room and into the kitchen. The back door opened and closed, prompting Juda back to reality.
“Is Master Jacob getting food?”
Ann turned to answer Juda, but her reply caught in her throat. She watched the tiny red veins of Juda’s eyes change into black threads. “Juda, what’s happening to you?”
“We got to eat. Missed breakfast cause of those damned men. I’m so hungry Ms. Ann, so very hungry.” She stood with animal quickness.
Two gunshots cracked somewhere on the property.
Juda sniffed the air and walked toward the kitchen. She did not flinch as a bullet crashed into the doorframe inches from her temple. Ann cried out to her, screaming and pleading. Juda continued, oblivious, out the backdoor.
Three things happened almost at once. A young man in a baggy Confederate jacket appeared from the trees. A dime-sized bloodstain on his trousers grew to the size of a melon by the time he stumbled behind the wagon. Jacob burst through the door an instant later, ran into the living room, and leapt sprawling beneath the window. They heard shuffling footsteps on the driveway. Juda was outside the food shed, not more than twenty feet from the gunmen and their mobile fort. Ann screamed. Juda stopped and looked around. She tried twice to grip the latch but no longer had the fine motor skills. She swung her entire upper body to slap open the bolt and then disappeared inside.
“What the devil—” Jacob said.
Ann was too numb to reply.
He rolled the jar of black powder in his hand. “We are in trouble Ann. I went to the stables for the buckskin. These explosives were to distract them so we could ride away, maybe lose them and make our way up north. Buckskin’s gone. A man, young woman and two kids don’t fit on a single horse though, even if her name is Deliverance.”
“What happened to the buckskin?”
One of the wolves was behind a tree taking a squat. He got the jump on me, pants down and all. I had to shoot from the hip, sure as hell caught him in his hip. His got the buckskin in the neck. Now she’s out back dying, rolling around in the black filth.
Ann heard the men debating what they saw.
She dared a better look, finding the man in the tank top sprawled dead, his cigar still smoking. The wagon, though riddled with shotgun pellets, offered total cover for the men. Not an exposed bit of flesh to target.
“You got to the count of three lady,” someone shouted. “One…two…three—”
A firestorm of bullets tore through the old shed. Carbines, shotguns, and repeating pistols bit into the wood, covering the ground with splinters of whitewashed wood.
“Juda!” Ann cried. Jacob pinned her against his chest until she stopped struggling.
A boom shook the ground. Half the shed collapsed.
“Dark hell,” Jacob said quietly.
The roof caved in. Smoke rose from a far corner a moment later, then flame.
“The coal,” Ann said.
“Tell me Father finally moved the kerosene out from that old shed,” Jacob said
Ann bit her lip. The shed exploded before she had to answer. She began weeping on Jacob’s shoulder, mumbling “no, no, no.”
Jacob gasped as a fireball rose from the rubble.
Ann looked up. “It—It’s human Jacob. It’s Juda!”
Burning bits of floral-print dress trailed behind Juda’s flaming body as she ran toward the wagon. The pop of gunshots mixed with fearful shouts as she closed the distance, indifferent to the bullets slamming into her.
The stout man stepped out from the wagon and took a staggered stance. His face tensed, beaver-like, as he fired both barrels of his shotgun.
The fireball twisted in the air and rolled. Ann fired her rifle without aiming, catching the man in the shoulder. He looked at the house with a betrayed expression.
Roatan was quick on both triggers of his shotgun, sending a swarm of buckshot into the man’s side. He stumbled sideways. Ann saw fear replace pain in the man’s eyes as the flaming creature struggled up. It was slower now, but faster than the injured Confederate.
The monstrous form of Juda leapt on him, biting, scratching and tearing as he pleaded than shrieked.
A black man wearing a patched and mismatched uniform rushed up and bayonetted the flames. Again and again, he struck. When the point snapped off, he reversed his weapon and beat the thrashing mound with the stock.
“Shoot him,” Ann hissed.
“Check the pile Ann,” Jacob said.
Ann looked down. They were out of ammunition. She looked back out the window. The remains of Juda and the beaver-faced soldier merged into a single blazing flame. Heaps of mustard yellow smoke wafted off their corpses. The black man stood there catching his breath, holding his rifle by the barrel, its stock black charcoal.
Nell broke the silence. “Shot him Mom! Me and Roatan are all out of bullets.”
The soldier snapped to attention. He brushed the soot off his rifle and slapped his pockets for ammunition.
Another Confederate walked out from behind the wagon, muscular and bald with bushy sideburns growing to his lips and eyes that suggested dark things. He carried a rifle that looked big enough to kill elephants and had two pistols in his belt. He began reloading.
The man in the oversized jacket hobbled out beside him. He pressed a dirty rag to his hip. A revolver shook in his other hand.
Had they killed so many? Ann counted and recounted the bodies. The lanky bearded leader appeared, pulling a rectangular block of metal with an iron tube welded on top. Ann found its ugly simplicity menacing. She couldn’t guess its use, even as the man grunted and pushed the tube toward at the window.
“Canon,” Jacob muttered.
“You ready to talk with me Singer?” said the bearded man. He worked as he talked, stuffing a box of nails in the barrel. “I can tilt this beauty up too you know. Take out whosever’s watching from them top windows.”
Jacob started up without a word, but Ann latched onto his arm. Her eyes were desperate.
Something hit the backside of the house, followed by hooves that struck the cold ground like thunder.
“Dear God,” Jacob said, as the buckskin horse thrashed across the driveway.
Its short coat glistened with sweat and black grime. Its alien black eyes bulged as it shrieked and bucked as if throwing a demon off its back. A bullet dug into its chest with the sound of a leather mitt catching a fastball.
The large bald man tossed aside his massive rifle and drew the pistols from his belt, firing both at once.
The buckskin’s hide flayed open but it did not slow. It reared and brought its front hooves down on the man’s thigh, snapping the large bone. He roared, sounding more angry than in pain. The horse gave a wicked squeal and bent down to its front knees. It finished gnawing off the man’s ear when a tremendous boom sent it flipping backwards.
The bearded man in the blue hat stood behind the cannon as it belched white smoke. He smoked a glowing cigar stub and looked unhappy. “God has surely damned this place,” he said conversationally to the man writhing in the dirt, pawing the gooey hole where his ear should be. “And wrap your head before your brains bleed out—” his frown slackened as a bullet punched through his forehead.
Nell’s voice popped in an excited squeak. “We found another bullet on the floor Mom, but now we are really out!”
The two soldiers still standing rushed behind the wagon. The man without an ear scuttled like a crab behind cover. Ann’s heart sank as the man with a bullet in his hip lumbered out to reload the canon.
Jacob rolled to his side and lit a poorly wrapped cigarette, smirking when he saw Ann’s expression.
“No smoking in the house,” she said.
“Last time, I promise.”
“Don’t do it, Jacob.”
His shrug said it all. “Got to or they will blow this place apart. Dumb luck that we lasted this long.”
“We can finish them,” Ann said like a prayer. “They are bleeding and scared.”
“This ends with me paying a debt.” He looked into her eyes, looked away, looked back and then continued. “I never stepped foot on Colombia, enlisted as an officer straight off. The old man wouldn’t have it. He sent higher ups to demote me, treat me extra harsh so I’d quit. When that didn’t work, he had me arrested for stealing his horse of all things. He paid my bail the same day, just wanted to talk to me face to face, he said. Talk some sense into me you know.”
“Not possible,” Ann said.
“Yeah, I told him as much.
“We had it out, I never seen him so furious. I was mad too, just wanted to get back at him for dragging my name through pig shit. I went to the bar, but the whiskey couldn’t calm me that night. I just kept drinking and getting madder. And it felt good, you know? But you got to understand Ann. I never thought it’d get so ugly.”
“What are you talking about?” Ann said, wishing he’d just close his mouth.
He took a long drag on his cigarette and scrunched up his forehead. “I let it slip that our dad freed all his slaves. I wanted to rant some, you know, harp on him to feel better. I been at war Ann. It’s a crazy thing, us on the front lines are a world away from the popular opinions that judge what we do. We didn’t mind the blacks in uniform so much, an enemy of the North is a friend and all. I never guessed how people here would react to the news.”
“Tell me what happened Jacob.”
“The local boys, bar heroes mostly, got all rallied up. Said they wanted to talk to him, but it was a manhunt, plain as day. Didn’t help matters that our old man was buying a suit for a black boy when they found him. Purple necktie remember hearing, paying for a purple necktie when they dragged him into the street.
“The sheriff’s deputy broke it up, said he’d put Dad in a cell for the night to keep him safe.” Jacob let out a bitter laugh. “I went back to the officer’s quarters, figured it was squared up between Dad and me. Let him spend the night with his back aching on a jail cot.”
“No,” Ann muttered.
“Roatan was the boy getting the suit. Dad had bought him freedom just the morning before. He was with him when the local boys showed up with the jail key and a noose.
“I went to bail out Dad early the next morning and found the boy sitting outside the jail all pathetic. I wrecked his life too I realized, so I sold Dad’s carriage and gave him the money. I drew him a map to the house and told him to give you the money when times got rough. Told him to keep quiet about the whole thing. The boy’s a damn good listener.”
“He never talked about money,” Ann said.
“You said he never stops working, never gets tired? Reckon he figures times aren’t rough just yet.”
The bleeding bald man’s husky voice came through the window. “A man of God likes to forgive, so you got five seconds to come out and get what you got coming.”
Jacob kissed the top of Ann’s head. He rolled the glass explosives in his hands. “Time to go,” he said, taking a hard puff of his cigarette and pressing it to the pinched fuse tips.
He shoved the hissing jars in his jacket pockets and stood, raising his hands. “Ok boys, I’m coming out!” He looked down at Ann, speaking quietly, “Get the kids and ride like hell. These fuses burn slow but not that slow.” He climbed through the window and started toward the wagon.
Ann gave herself a moment, a single moment to grieve everything lost to her, then she crawled up the stairs and whispered furiously to the children. She went to her bedroom next and rummaged for supplies. She dumped Jacob’s hardtack into a canvas sack, followed by a knife and a bottle of whiskey. She placed a notoriously sharp letter opener in the waistband of her dress. Finally, she scribbled a note saying a girl and her freed caretaker were Union sympathizers, the only survivors of a brutal Confederate massacre.
Ann found Roatan and Nell waiting beside Jacob’s Deliverance.
Roatan carried a leather bag swollen with bills over his muscular little soldier; it smelled like fresh earth. Ann crouched and pulled Nell to her chest.
Her tiny body stiffened as an explosion boomed over the land.
Everything was silent as she loaded the children onto the horse, giving Nell the reigns and a bag of hardtack before passing Roatan a loaded revolver and pressing Jacob’s cavalry hat on his head.
“I’ll watch over her Ms. Ann like she was my own sister,” Roatan said before tucking the revolver into his belt.
“I know you will Roatan,” Ann said, fighting tears. “Ride north. Don’t stop until you see the 35-star flag flying. I put some food in there in case you get hungry. The whiskey is for cleaning wounds so don’t you get any ideas.”
Roatan touched the brim of his hat.
“Are we going to see you again?” Nell said in a tiny voice.
Ann gave Nell her full attention. “Yes, in another place.”
“I do because I know it in my heart.” She winked and then slapped Deliverance, dodging a kick as it reared up and galloped down the hill.
Ann slid a knife over the thin blue veins in her fingers. The black goo was warmer than she had imaged. It streamed below her father’s headstone, as if fearful of her presence, though when it reached her cut fingers, it crowded the wound and began to burrow.
The ecstasy grew as the fluid raced through her blood.
Her vision sharpened beyond anything human. She blinked, and the long rows of cotton crops turned grey. The world was black and white. The lack of color made heat trails glow like fire.
The hot yellow of a tomcat swinging its tail from a low mulberry branch; two hawks circling a doomed field rat, a scene of neon orange and green; the glowing pink of a powerful war horse and the silver vapor of its two small riders. Everything with a heartbeat was transformed into heat.
Hunger twisted her insides. The tart odor of blood filled her nose. She followed the smell around the house, finding a mound of burning wood that had served as a mobile fortress not long before. The body of the powerfully built soldier lay in a mangled heap beside it. Bright rainbows shone where the man’s organs cooled in the dirt.
To her right, a red figure writhed in a neon pool of gore. The black soldier who had finished Juda with his rifle. He hugged a significant gash across his abdomen. She realized he was holding himself together.
“Please miss. I got a family—”
Ann reached deep inside his wound. His tissue popped as she clenched a handful and pulled.
Down in the fields, a streak of pink ran after a hunk of violet. The wounded soldier grasped at the reigns of the grazing horse. Orange light pulsed at his hip where the musket ball had lodged.
Ann became the wind.
He looked back at Ann running toward him, much to fast, and doubled his efforts. The powerful horse pulled wagons with ease but had never been ridden. It brayed and lurched as the solder swore and tried his best to ignore the stab of bone splinters where Jacob’s bullet had cracked his hip.
Ann was less than twenty paces away when the horse smelled her and reared up. The soldier snatched desperately. His fingers found the reigns as the horse fled.
The soldier dragged alongside the horse, his wrist tangled in the reigns.
He tried to pull himself up but did not have the strength. The skeletons of cotton crops ripped him while stones and mounds of dirt struck his hip like more bullets.
He was fading, hardly conscious when the unholy image of Ann snapped him awake.
He moved in a blur. Silent focused like a wolf. Solid black eyes met his, the eyes of a monster. Blood drenched her right arm to the elbow while the left was wet with mud and black slime. Her cloths had torn on the brambles. Dark bruises stained her legs. Black veins polluted her pale naked body.
Ann closed in, feeling the mud splatter against her face as she neared the animal’s flanks. She inhaled a glorious odor, the scent of fear.
The soldier screamed.
Her mouth grew into a savage grin as she leapt on him. Again and again, she struck, her teeth finding his neck, ear, shoulder, skull. She tore away flesh as the horse dragged them along. The reigns snapped, sending them rolling over the ground in a tangle of limbs.
Ann slammed him to the ground and straddled him. She paused, transfixed by the neon streams of ruptured organs flooding his torso. He whimpered. The white orb in his chest slowed. He was close to death. Ann enjoyed the fading rhythm. She traced her thumb over his lips, then gently kissed him.
“Is this—is this heaven now?” he muttered, half-conscious.
She sighed into his ear. He smiled.
“Wake,” she said in a voice nothing like her own.
His eyes fluttered open and found her. He frowned. His pupils shrank into pinpricks of terror.
Ann licked her lips and bit into his throat.