My short story, “Trials,” is this week’s cover story at Piker Press (www.pikerpress.com). Check it out!
This is a fabulous Civil War novel written from a unique perspective. The story of Gettysburg is told through the voices of the principals that were part of those three days in July 1863. The novel is historically accurate and the prose is remarkable, almost Faulkneresque in places. Read it.
Sarah Jane Howard stepped outside and took a hard slap in the face from Mother Nature.
A sullen gray sky looked down on Wild Pony Ranch. The absolute stillness was broken only by a keen wind driving the chill factor toward zero. A storm was coming; a big one.
Sarah Jane hurried to her car and breathed a sigh of relief when the engine roared to life. Two days before Christmas and she still had a few last minute items to buy.
“Serves me right,” Sarah Jane muttered to herself. “I won’t let this happen next year.”
Car headlights danced across the road even though it was only two o’clock in the afternoon. Darkening clouds heavy with moisture and portent raced across the horizon. The Weather Channel was predicting snow flurries with little accumulation for Shenandoah County. The local forecast said to prepare for two to four inches. The surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains were expected to form a protective shield and absorb the bulk of the storm.
Sarah Jane glanced up as she drove, and shivered. She had to hurry; the forecasts were wrong.
The storm slammed into the Blue Ridge Mountains around supper time and descended on Shenandoah County with rapacious glee. The salt and sand trucks rolled out an hour later.
“Idiots,” Sarah Jane proclaimed as she watched the latest revised weather forecast.
John Howard chuckled. “It seems that two to four inches has grown to a foot. Makes you wonder how they do the calculations for their updates.”
“They probably send an intern outside to stick a ruler in the snow,” Sarah Jane laughed.
“Do you think we’ll have a white Christmas, daddy?” five year old Emma Howard asked.
“Yes, I do, sweetie,” John Howard replied. “Are you excited? Did you tell Santa what you want for Christmas?”
Emma nodded and said, “I told him last week. I didn’t want to rush him.”
“That’s very thoughtful,” her father replied.
“Miss Austin told us that this is the season for good will. We’re supposed to be extra nice and help people if we can,” Emma said.
“Your kindergarten teacher is very wise, honey,” Sarah Jane said.
“Bedtime, sweetie,” John Howard said. “I’ll be up in a minute to tuck you in and tell you a story.”
“Can we build a snowman tomorrow, daddy?” Emma asked. “I want Santa to see him when he comes on Christmas Eve.”
“That’s a wonderful idea, Emma,” her father replied.
The snow was still falling when John and Sarah Jane went upstairs to bed.
“I think we’re in for another revised weather forecast,” Sarah Jane said.
The power went out at three o’clock the next morning. John Howard struggled into his clothes, checked on his daughter, and got the generator started.
Sarah Jane came into the kitchen.
“You up?” she yawned.
Her husband nodded. “I need to clear a path to the barn and feed the horses. Tell Emma we’ll build that snowman when I’m done.”
Sarah Jane yawned again and nodded.
“God, I’m tired already.” John said.
“Four hours sleep will do that to you,” his wife replied.
John Howard buttoned his coat and headed out the door. The snow continued to fall.
Tanner Evans found another blanket for his wife and son who were huddled together on the sofa.
“Hang on, I’ll have the fire going in a minute,” he said.
“Daddy, why can’t we go to a motel where it’s warm?” Tanner Evans, Jr. asked.
His father sighed and said, “I’ve told you before, Tanner, it’s too expensive. I think we’re snowed in, anyway. There’s probably over a foot of snow on the ground and it’s still coming down.”
Erin Evans shuffled down the hall to check the thermostat.
“Fifty seven degrees,” she announced.
“Just have to be patient,” her husband replied. “I’m sure crews are out working to restore power.”
“Santa will still come, right daddy?” young Tanner asked.
Tanner Evans struggled for an answer. He had been laid off from the paper mill last spring and his unemployment benefits had run out two weeks ago. Erin was a teller for a major bank. It didn’t pay a lot, but they had a good health insurance plan. Tanner had been working a few temp jobs and day labor assignments when they were available.
It was enough to allow them to pay their bills and hold on to the house. Barely. Tanner didn’t expect the mill to begin rehiring until the spring at the earliest, and the loss of his unemployment check placed his family in dire circumstances. Tanner Evans was a proud man, but he had an appointment next week with Shenandoah County Social Services to apply for family assistance.
“We’re going through a tough time right now, Tanner, but next Christmas should be better,” his father said.
They all moved closer to the fireplace as the flames caught and came to life. Erin’s cell phone rang and she answered it. She exchanged a few words with the caller and then held the phone out to her son.
“It’s for you, Tanner,” his mother said. “It’s your friend from school, Emma Howard.”
“Daddy! Daddy!” Emma called desperately.
John Howard was cleaning the stalls in the barn when he heard his daughter calling. He opened the barn door and saw Emma coming down the path he had cleared earlier.
“It’s too cold for you to be out here,sweetie,” John said as he scooped his daughter into his arms and carried her back to the house.
“You warm up,” her father said. “I’m almost finished in the barn. Then we can start on that snowman.”
“I don’t care about the snowman, daddy,” Emma cried.
Gradually Emma calmed down and was able to tell her father what was wrong.
“I called my friend, Tanner, to tell him that we were going to build a snowman,” she said. “He can’t go outside to play because he can’t get warm. They don’t have any heat. They’re all bundled up in blankets.”
“Can’t they go to a motel or even the mall?” Emma’s father asked.
“They tried,” Emma said. “Mr. Evans can’t get their car out and Tanner said they don’t have money for a motel.”
Emma looked outside at the falling snow and then turned to her father. “Tanner’s my friend,” she said. “I don’t want him to freeze.”
Her father remained silent.
Emma looked hopefully at her father and said, “Miss Austin said we should help people, daddy.”
John Howard glanced at his wife.
Sarah Jane nodded.
“I’ll warm up the truck,” John said as he buttoned his coat. “Call the Evans and let them know I’m on the way.”
John Howard had the heater blasting as he pulled up to the house and helped the Evans family into his truck.
“I can’t tell you how grateful we are for what you’re doing,” Tanner Evans said.
“Glad to help,” John replied.
When they returned to the ranch, Sarah Jane was waiting with coffee, hot cider, and snacks. Young Tanner wolfed down food and cider while Emma sat beside him happily talking nonstop.
“Where are your manners, Tanner?” Erin Evans admonished.
Sarah Jane laughed and said, “he’s fine. I’m used to little boys. I married one.”
John Howard wandered over to the window where Mr. Evans was standing.
“It’s stopped snowing,” Tanner Evans said.
John Howard nodded in agreement.
They watched as Emma and Tanner, Jr. ran outside and started to build a snowman.
“You work at the paper mill, don’t you?” John asked.
Tanner Evans continued watching the children. “I did until I got laid off,” he answered softly.
“Any idea when they’ll start calling people back to work?” John asked.
“I think it’s more a matter of if they call people back,” Tanner replied. “I guess the good news is that I’ll be near the top of the list based on my seniority. I’ve been there twelve years. I grew up on a farm and went to work at the mill straight out of high school.”
John cast an appraising look at Tanner and said, “how would you like to come to work at Wild Pony Ranch?”
Tanner Evans looked startled.
“I just lost a barn worker and I need a replacement immediately,” John Howard continued. “ It only pays eleven dollars an hour to start, but I can give you a raise after sixty days if things are working out. Interested?”
“God, yes,” Tanner replied. He hesitated, and then added, “I’m not looking for charity.”
“Are you kidding?” John said. “You grew up on a farm, you’re a family man with roots in the community, you’ve worked at the same place for twelve years, and your son and my daughter are friends. I can’t imagine a better person for the job.”
“Thank you,” Tanner Evans replied in a voice full of emotion.
“You can start Monday morning,” John said. “My foreman, Jupiter Campbell, will meet you at the barn at eight o’clock and get you started.”
Erin Evans suddenly appeared wearing a stricken expression. “I forgot Tanner’s asthma medicine. I left it on the kitchen counter,” she told her husband.
“I’ll be glad to go pick it up,” John said. “Why don’t y’all stay here and keep warm. I’ll be back shortly.”
The main roads were much improved thanks to the county road crews. John arrived at the house and found the asthma medication on the counter. He started to leave, and then hesitated. Feeling guilty and a little ashamed of himself, John peeked in the Evans refrigerator and pantry. He walked over to the fireplace mantel. No Christmas stockings were hanging. He looked at the Christmas tree in the corner with no presents under it, and thought he might cry. Instead, John pulled out his cell phone and dialed.
A man answered the phone and John Howard said, “I need your help.”
John Howard walked in the door and was met with a grateful hug from Erin Evans.
“Thank you for getting Tanner’s medicine and for giving my husband a job,” she said. “Thank you for everything.”
John excused himself and went into his study. He emerged to enjoy a delicious lunch with his family and guests and then returned to his study. An hour later Sarah Jane knocked on the door.
“What’s going on, John?” she asked. “We have guests.”
“Sorry,”John replied. “I have to go out for awhile. I’ll be back by dinnertime.”
“And I thought I waited until the last minute,” Sarah Jane complained. “It’ll be a miracle if you find whatever it is you’re looking for this late.”
John returned just as the table was being set for dinner. “I saw a utility repair crew while I was out. They expect the power to be back up by tomorrow morning. I hope y’all don’t mind spending Christmas Eve with us.”
After a wonderful holiday meal with all the fixings everyone settled down in the living room. The two families shared stories of past Christmas’s and agreed that this Christmas would certainly be one to remember. Emma couldn’t wait for Santa to come and her excitement was contagious.
“Bedtime, Emma,” Sarah Jane said. “Santa won’t come until you’re asleep.”
“I’ll be up in a minute to tell you a story, sweetie,” John Howard said.
Later that night when they were in bed Sarah Jane said, “I feel bad for them,John. I’m glad you hired Mr. Evans.”
“He’s a good man,” John murmured as he drifted off to sleep.
The power came on at six o’clock the next morning. Everyone was up early. The sound of Christmas carols and the smell of cinnamon rolls and coffee filled the house. Emma squealed with excitement as she opened her gifts. Tanner sat next to her and was nearly as excited just watching.
After everyone ate John brought the truck around to take the Evans home. Tanner, Jr. was talking a mile a minute about what Santa might have brought while they were gone. John saw the look of despair on the parents’ faces as they listened to their son.
When they reached the Evans house the boy leaped out of the truck and sprinted for the door.
“Merry Christmas,” John said.
“Same to you,” Tanner Evans replied. “Thank you again for everything. I’ll see you Monday morning.”
John Howard watched as the Evans walked slowly up their front walk. He continued to watch as they opened the door and stopped dead in their tracks. By the time they turned around John was halfway down the street, wiping his eyes as he drove.
On Monday morning John and Sarah Jane came out to welcome Tanner Evans when he arrived.
“Ready to get your hand dirty?” John asked.
“I sure am,” Tanner replied. He cleared his throat and added, “I don’t know how you did what you did, but I want you to know you made my son’s Christmas. Mine and Erin’s, too. I’ll never forget it.”
“Well, I don’t know what you mean, but I’m glad you had a good Christmas,” John replied.
Jupiter Campbell walked up and John introduced Tanner to his foreman. Jupiter and Tanner headed for the barn. As he was opening the barn door Jupiter glanced back at John and grinned.
“Erin Evans called me a little while ago,” Sarah Jane said. “She said she walked in her house Christmas morning and thought she had the wrong address.”
“Why is that?” John casually asked.
“Well, their stockings were stuffed, the pantry and refrigerator were stocked, and they had more gifts than they had ever gotten in their life. She called to thank me. She was crying.”
“What did you say?” John asked.
“I told her I was glad they had a nice Christmas, but I didn’t know anything about the gifts.”
“I can only think of one person who might have the kindness of heart, the perseverance, and the connections to make something that special happen,” Sarah Jane continued.
“Santa,” John said.
Sarah Jane remained silent.
“I’ll be over in the east meadow clearing some brush if you need me,” he said.
Sarah Jane leaned over and gave her husband a long kiss. “See you later, Santa,” she whispered.
Shades of Gray
John Howard watched as the mist rose from Wild Pony Creek and glided over the bottom land of Wild Pony Ranch. As silent and cunning as the most experienced predator, the mist met no resistance as it infiltrated the ranch’s paddocks and vast upland meadows. It almost seemed to absorb the ground it covered, like a living thing with a rapacious appetite.
“Who is this, daddy?” Emma asked.
John turned away from the attic window and walked over to the foot locker where his daughter had found some old photographs.
“That’s your great great great grandfather William,” her father replied. “See, he’s wearing his Confederate uniform.”
John flipped the photograph over. “This picture was taken in 1861, probably just after he married your great great great grandmother Julia and was heading off to war.”
“Is this the same man?” Emma asked, handing him another picture.
John examined the photograph. A worn man with haunted eyes stared back at him. He turned the picture over. 1865. The story his great great grandmother told was that her husband came back from the war four years later and twenty years older. He refused to talk about his experiences as an enlisted man in the Twenty Seventh Virginia Infantry, Second Corps, Army of Northern Virginia. When pressed he would say only that he had seen things that no man should have to see and done things that no man should have to do.
“Daddy?” Emma asked.
“Yes, sweetie,” her father said, lifting his eyes from the picture. “It’s the same man.”
“What’s that?” Emma asked,pointing to a small cross shaped medal.
Emma’s father looked more closely at the picture and inhaled sharply as he noted the Confederate battle flag surrounded with a laurel wreath. The inscription was too small to read, but he knew what it said.
“That’s the Southern Cross of Honor,Emma,” John said. “Your ancestor received that medal for valor in the armed forces of the Confederate States of America.”
As he put away the pictures and left the attic with his daughter, John thought about the upcoming reenactment of the Battle of Lynchburg. The organizers had accepted his offer to host the event at Wild Pony Ranch and he was scheduled to meet with their representatives. He glanced at his watch just as the doorbell rang. They were here.
Sarah Jane Howard looked up from her computer and glanced out the window. Her husband and three other people were walking toward the barn. A slight smile crossed Sarah Jane’s face. She knew how much this event meant to her husband. John Howard was a serious reenactor who was fiercely proud of his southern heritage. The opportunity to host the reenactment of an important local battle was a dream come true for him. It also marked his first reenactment serving under his personal hero, General Jubal Early. She scribbled a note to get his uniform cleaned and pressed, before returning her attention to the computer.
John burst through the kitchen door, eyes gleaming with excitement.
“How did your visitors like Wild Pony Ranch?” Sarah Jane asked.
“They loved it,” John replied. “They said the layout is perfect for the battle.”
“That reminds me, I’m getting your uniform cleaned,” Sarah Jane said.
“No need to,” John said. “They told me they’re getting me a brand new uniform. Sort of a thank you gift for hosting the battle, I guess. It’s being delivered sometime this afternoon.”
Sarah Jane looked up with a sly grin. “Did they tell you who got the role of General Early?” she asked.
John shook his head. “I asked. Actually, I guess you could say I pleaded, but they still wouldn’t tell me. I’m sure there was a lot of politicking and competition going on behind the scenes. Anyway, they said they’d let me know.”
The doorbell rang just as they were sitting down to supper.
“I’ll get it,” Emma said, jumping up from the table. A minute later she returned to the kitchen and said, “a man’s here to see you daddy. He’s wearing a uniform.”
John walked to the front door and greeted a man dressed in Confederate gray.
“John Howard?” the man asked.
“Yes,” John said, extending his hand.
To his surprise the man sprang to attention and delivered a razor sharp salute. With a bemused look on his face, John noted the three horizontal bars on the man’s uniform collar, and said, “no need to salute me, Captain. I’m not an officer.”
The captain remained silent, holding the salute and staring through the wall at the end of the hall.
With a shrug and a smile, John returned the salute. The man handed over his package and was gone.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen an officer salute an enlisted man,” Sarah Jane said from the doorway. “I guess that’s your new uniform.”
“I imagine he was just being courteous and respectful to the host,” John replied. “I’ll try the uniform on after supper.”
“Put it on now, daddy, put it on now,” Emma cried excitedly.
John glanced over at his wife.
“I’ll put the food in the oven to keep it warm,” she said with a playful grin.
John returned fifteen minutes later wearing the new uniform and an unreadable expression.
“Wow,” Sarah Jane said. “You look like an officer.”
Emma ran over to her father for a closer look at the uniform.
“Looks like a good fit,” Sarah Jane said. She checked the waist and inseam, and smiled up at her husband. Her eyes grew large and the smile dropped from her face as she noticed the collar; a wreath, with three stars enclosed, embroidered in gold.
“Oh, John,” Sarah Jane whispered in a voice thick with emotion. Stepping away from her husband, Sarah Jane slowly absorbed the presence of Lieutenant General Jubal Anderson Early.
John watched the sunrise from the attic window. The fields and meadows of Wild Pony Ranch were filled with soldiers, tents, volunteers, and vendors. Spectators would begin arriving in a couple of hours. John opened the foot locker and retrieved the photograph of his ancestor. “I will make you proud,” he promised.
Word had spread that John Howard had the role of General Early, and an overflow crowd of spectators covered the grounds of Wild Pony Ranch. The air was electric with anticipation. The fun and games party like atmosphere of most reenactments was missing. John was known as a strong partisan of the Confederacy and General Early. An intense experience was expected.
An hour before the battle John was finalizing the battle plan with his commanders. General Breckinridge reported that Hunter was dug in with strong defensive fortifications, but that his left flank was in the air. General Nicholls reported that Hunter had a division in reserve positioned behind the right end of his line. John considered this information and then announced the battle plan.
“General Breckinridge, you will position your force on Hunter’s left flank. A brigade of cavalry will screen your move. General Nicholls, your men must break through on the right in order to hold the enemy’s reserve force in place. The remainder of the Second Corps will hit the center of their line. We’ll hit them at the same time, roll up their left flank, get behind them and cut off their retreat.”
John Howard looked at his generals. “Questions?” he asked.
“You’ll have to hit them hard, General Early,” Breckinridge said. “Hunter has a strong force.”
“Yes, General Hunter is a formidable opponent when he is fighting the women, children, and old men of the Shenandoah Valley. He marches right into their homes and takes food from their table.”
John paused and took a deep breath. He was trembling with anger. “Today he will be fighting the Second Corps, General Breckinridge, and there is no doubt about the outcome.” John looked at the officers and said, “that’s all. We go on my command.”
John mounted his horse and rode down the line reviewing his troops. He stopped and faced his men. Battle flags fluttered gently in the breeze and a breathless silence hung in the air. “Today, on this ground, we are twenty two miles and one hundred and forty five years from Appomattox,” he shouted. “Today we fight the Battle of Lynchburg. Today the Second Corps is reborn.” The words were greeted with a roar of approval.
John turned his horse and contemplated the enemy in the west meadow nearly a mile in the distance. He closed his eyes and felt the earth tilt as time flew backwards. He ached for what the south had lost. The loss of life, the destruction of families, the rape of the land, the humiliation of Appomattox, the humiliation of his ancestor, William Howard. All of it. Tears leaked from his eyes. John Howard raised his head to the sky and howled. An ululating wail not entirely human comprised of grief, despair, and rage. A sound capable of shattering fragile glass and strong minds. The Rebel Yell. A beat of silence was followed by a deafening response from the Second Corps. John Howard raised his hand and launched the attack.
A mile away the Federal General Hunter waited in nervous anticipation. “Save your ammunition until the enemy stops and prepares to fire,” he ordered. “It should be a range of about four hundred yards, all open field. It’ll be like shooting fish in a barrel.”
Hunter continued to watch as the Confederates closed the distance, General Early in the lead.
“A thousand yards,” Hunter’s adjutant called out.
Hunter’s men raised and sighted their weapons.
“Five hundred yards,” the adjutant called.
“Hold your fire,” Hunter ordered.
“Three hundred yards,” the adjutant announced, glancing nervously at his superior.
“Mother of god,” Hunter whispered as Early and the Second Corps charged forward at full speed.
“Eighty yards,” the adjutant screamed.
Hunter was frozen in place. “Fire,” he finally yelled.
A row of Confederates went down before the rest of the Corps hit Hunter’s line like a rogue wave slamming into a sand castle. Federals threw down their arms as cries of surrender filled the air. As a Federal rifleman raised and sighted his weapon, Early wheeled his horse in a tight turn and knocked the weapon from the man’s hand.
“Surrender,” Early demanded.
When the man was slow to raise his hands, Early dismounted and jammed his gun in the man’s side, his finger tight on the trigger. “Right now,Yank, or I’ll drop you where you stand.”
The rifleman looked into Early’s blazing eyes with fear and disbelief. Slowly he raised his hands. The battle was over.
Supper was over and the last car had left. John, Emma, and Sarah Jane sat on the front porch watching the purple remnants of a memorable sunset. John was still charged from the day’s battle.
Sarah Jane touched her husband’s arm and said, “you did well, John.”
“I hope so,” her husband replied.
“Come on, Emma,” Sarah Jane said. “Time to get ready for bed.”
Emma stared trance like into the distance murmuring softly to herself.
“Emma?” her father asked.
Emma pointed down the driveway to a line of trees. “He’s here,” she said. “Grandpa William. You can see his mist.”
John looked in the direction she was pointing but saw only swirling ground fog, normal for this time of year.
“Let’s go, sweetie,”he said. “It’s been a long day.”
“ He wants you to know he’s proud of you,” Emma said. “He wants to give you something.”
John picked his daughter up to carry her inside. They were going up the stairs when Emma said to her father, “someone else is proud of you, too.”
John Howard smiled and kissed his daughter.
“Daddy, who is Old Jube?” Emma asked.
The smile slipped from John Howard’s face.
John sat on the front porch sipping a cup of coffee as he watched the sun rise over the east meadow. He had a full day ahead with paperwork to finish and fence to mend. He also wanted to clean up any remaining trash and debris from the reenactment. He put his coffee cup down and headed for the barn. Suddenly he stopped and looked down the driveway at the line of trees. Feeling slightly foolish, he changed direction and headed for the trees. He stopped at the tree line and looked around. Nothing. He waited. Still nothing. As he turned back toward the barn his eye caught something on the ground reflected by the sun. He bent down to examine the object. “Deo Vindice” 1861 1865.
His skin turned to goose flesh and his body trembled as he turned the object over and read the inscription. Finally, he started back to the house. He glanced over his shoulder once as he carried his great great grandfather William’s Southern Cross of Honor to the foot locker in the attic.
Jackson Howard awoke in a full blown panic. His head whipped back and forth as he surveyed the unfamiliar surroundings. Slowly, the nausea and butterflies in his stomach receded and his pulse rate dropped to a point where he could no longer hear the blood roaring in his ears. He took a deep breath and waited for his mind to clear. Okay, he had driven straight through from his home in the Florida Panhandle and had arrived late last night. Jackson didn’t know how far it was from Apalachicola, Florida to Wild Pony Ranch in Shenandoah County, Virginia, but when he left he was sixty six years old and right now he felt about one hundred and ten.
John Howard knocked softly on the door and opened it. “Dad? You awake?” he asked.
“I’ll be down in a minute,” Jackson said.
Papa!” five year old Emma Howard exclaimed as Jackson Howard entered the kitchen.
“There’s my favorite granddaughter,” Jackson said as he pulled Emma into his arms.
“How long can you stay, dad?” John Howard asked as he handed his father a plate of grits, fried apples, and homemade biscuits.
“Did I tell you my plans last night?” Jackson asked. “I was so tired I really don’t remember.”
“It was late,” Sarah Jane Howard said, handing him a glass of orange juice, “and Emma was asleep. Why don’t you start from the beginning.”
“Do you want the long version or the short version?” Jackson asked.
“The long version,” John, Sarah Jane, and Emma replied in unison.
Jackson Howard finished his biscuit, eased his chair back from the kitchen table, and began.
It was May 27, 1960, and the Highland Meadows, North Carolina high school baseball team was about to realize an impossible dream. Two weeks earlier the team from the tiny school in the remote mountains of southwestern North Carolina had won the state championship. A series of highly improbable victories in the regionals had brought them to the national championship game against a legendary powerhouse from southern California. When the dust settled on that historic day the state of North Carolina had its first national high school baseball championship. Fifty years later that team remained the only national baseball champion from North Carolina. Jackson Howard had been the second baseman on that team.
“There was an unreality to it,” Jackson said; “a feeling of destiny. That championship game we played was like the movie with Kevin Costner. I felt like we were playing on a Field of Dreams.”
The next day Coach Thompson had gathered the team together for the last time. He spoke of the magnificent achievement that had brought such pride and respect to their school and the state of North Carolina. But, more importantly, he spoke about the lives that were in front of his players. He knew that most of them would leave Highland Meadows and lose track of each other in the years ahead. He told them to treasure this milestone in their lives.
“The last thing he asked of us was that we agree to meet back here at the school baseball field on May 27, 2010, to celebrate our lives and the fiftieth anniversary of our achievement,” Jackson said. “We all agreed. I don’t know how many of my teammates remember that day and that promise, but I do. And I’m going; even if I’m the only one there, I’m going.”
“Dad, the twenty seventh is tomorrow,” John Howard said.
Jackson Howard nodded. “I’m leaving this afternoon.”
There was a brief silence. Sarah Jane Howard looked at her husband and daughter, and then asked “may we come?”
They checked into a motel on the outskirts of town and had dinner at Sonny’s Pig Pen.
“Didn’t I tell you?” Jackson Howard asked. “Right here, the best pork barbecue in the United States.”
The others just nodded, too busy wolfing down the delicious food to stop and talk.
“Papa, did you used to bring Nana here?” Emma asked.
“No, honey,” Jackson Howard replied. “I met your Nana later on after I moved away from Highland Meadows.”
Emma finished eating a french fry and sighed. “I wish she was here now,” she said.
“So do I, Emma,” her grandfather said.
Ellen Howard had been struck down by a massive heart attack the previous year and Jackson was utterly lost without her. They had been married for forty years and it had become a struggle for Jackson to find a reason to get out of bed each morning. He was taking anti-depressants but they just made him groggy. He wasn’t a drinker, but he spent most days in a mental fog.
“I used to bring Beth Ann Rogers here when we dated in high school,” Jackson said. “Boy, did I have it bad for her. Talk about good looking.”
“First love?” Sarah Jane asked.
“For sure,” Jackson replied.
“What ever happened to her?” Sarah Jane asked.
“Oh, I wasn’t in her league and I think she figured that out after awhile,” Jackson said. “She traded up to Harold James, the quarterback on the football team. Ended up marrying him. I think they still live here in town.”
They returned to the motel and turned in early. The reunion was scheduled for ten o’clock the next morning. Jackson was showered and dressed before dawn and killed time pacing back and forth in the parking lot. He was a nervous wreck. For maybe the hundredth time he considered the possibility, even the likelihood, that he would be the only one there. He would have dragged his family here for nothing and they would see him as a ridiculous old fool.
It was time. Jackson directed them to the school. They parked in front of the gym and Jackson practically raced across the parking lot to the hill overlooking the baseball field. John, Emma, and Sarah Jane caught up with Jackson and looked down on the ball field. It was deserted.
Everyone came; the entire team. Harvey Walls, their star pitcher, arrived five minutes after Jackson, and within fifteen minutes everyone was there. Hugs and handshakes were exchanged as the players mingled with a sizable group of spouses, children, and grandchildren. Most of Jackson’s teammates had enjoyed comfortable and productive lives. Law, education, business, and banking were the primary professions represented at the gathering. Harvey Walls was the exception. Bright and personable in high school, Harvey had been diagnosed with schizophrenia his sophomore year in college. His life had spiraled downward and he had spent his life working sporadically at a series of low paying jobs. Harvey’s social security check enabled him to pay for groceries, his medications, and clothing from the Goodwill store. There was no money left for housing or transportation. He was homeless and destitute, without a wife or family. He had hitchhiked to the reunion from Atlanta, wearing only the clothes on his back.
Jackson looked up as a man he didn’t recognize stepped up to a podium in front of the bleachers.
“Welcome to the fiftieth anniversary of the Highland Meadows High School national championship baseball team,” the man said. “My name is Jason Thompson, and I’m the baseball coach here at Highland Meadows High School. I took over from my father when he retired. I’m sorry to say that dad passed away two years ago. One of his final wishes was that I represent him on this special day.”
Coach Thompson cleared his throat and continued. “When I call your name please take your positions.”
The players trotted on to the field as their names were called. Their bodies were bent and slowed with age, but the same fierce pride and determination that had served them well through the years remained.
“Jackson Howard, second base,” Coach Thompson called out.
Chills raced up John Howard’s spine as he watched his father jog out to his position. When the last name had been called Coach Thompson paused and looked out at the men on the field. Turning back to the crowd, Coach Thompson swept his arm toward the field and said, “your 1960 Highland Meadows High School national championship baseball team.”
The cheers rang out.
A catered picnic lunch awaited the players and their families at River Ridge County Park on the outskirts of town. At least half the town had turned out for the celebration. Delicious food was consumed while the stories and conversations flowed. Harvey Walls sat off by himself devouring hot dogs and potato salad like a man who hadn’t eaten in a good while.
“You’re an inspiration, dad,” John Howard said as he balanced a plate of food in his lap. “You all are.”
“Even Harvey Walls?” Jackson asked with a nod toward his friend and former teammate.
“Are you kidding?” John Howard asked. “Especially Harvey Walls. There’s a man who has fought mental illness his entire adult life and is still surviving. Can you imagine how much courage it took for him to come to this reunion?”
Jackson Howard shrugged.
“I’ll tell you how much, dad,” John Howard said. “Picture the homeliest looking girl in your high school going to her senior prom alone with no date. She knows that she won’t be asked to dance and will be the butt of jokes.”
Horrible,” Jackson said.
“Sure,” his son replied. “Only “Carrie” had a worse prom. Anyway, take that and multiply it by about a hundred. That’s Harvey Walls courage. The man is a warrior.”
Jackson Howard looked up into the smiling face of Beth Ann Rogers. He leaped to his feet, knocking his plate of food to the ground and dumping a drink in his lap. Beth Ann laughed her wonderful laugh as Jackson made the introductions.
“My god, Beth Ann, you look amazing,” Jackson said. “how do you do it?”
Beth Ann blushed. “I can’t tell you that,Jackson,” she said. She glanced nervously at Sarah Jane, and added, “that’s why they’re called beauty secrets.”
Sarah Jane smiled warmly at the older woman. She could tell that she’d had some work done, and the blond streaks in her tousled hair had definitely come from a bottle. A man wouldn’t notice and wouldn’t care. It wouldn’t bother Jackson if Beth Ann got that look by shampooing with margarine. He was staring at her like he was fourteen years old.
“How’s Ellen?” Beth Ann asked.
“I lost her last year,” Jackson replied. “Heart attack.”
Beth Ann touched his arm. “I’m so sorry, Jackson,” she said. “I didn’t know.”
“What about Harold?” Jackson asked. “Is he here?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Beth Ann replied. “I’ve been replaced by his twenty five year old secretary.”
Jackson stared at Beth Ann and said, “Harold’s a fool.”
Later that afternoon Beth Ann invited them all back to her place for a light supper.
“Guess where we ate dinner last night, Beth Ann,” Jackson asked.
“Not at Sonny’s?” Beth Ann replied.
Jackson nodded and tossed her a wink. “We even sat at our table.”
Beth Ann laughed and her face colored like a young girl.
After dinner they were beginning to say their goodbyes when Sarah Jane pulled Jackson aside.
“You’ll never have another chance,” she told him in a quiet voice.
Emma, Sarah Jane, and John waited out by the car for Jackson.
Jackson cleared his throat to speak. Beth Ann looked like she might cry.
“You know, Beth Ann, I’ve learned in the past year that I’m not very good at being alone. I love Florida and I’ve got a great little place on the Apalachicola River, but I take anti-depressants and walk around in a daze half the time.”
Beth Ann didn’t trust herself to speak.
Jackson’s heart was galloping. He forced himself to look at Beth Ann. “Have you ever been to Florida?” he asked in a voice that was barely audible.
Jackson carried Beth Ann’s suitcase out to the car, grinning like a school boy. Beth Ann was flushed and radiant as a newlywed on her honeymoon. It was time to go.
John was pulling onto the highway when he spotted Harvey Walls standing on the shoulder with his thumb out.
“Hop in, Mr. Walls,” John said.
Jackson and Beth Ann slid over to make room.
“Where you headed, Harvey?” Jackson asked.
Harvey shrugged and said, “no place in particular, maybe Charlotte or Richmond.”
“Since when did you start liking the big city, Harvey?” Beth Ann asked.
“Since never,” Harvey replied. “ But,that’s where you find the soup kitchens and large social services agencies and veterans hospitals.”
Emma turned in her seat and asked, “what’s a veteran, Mr. Walls?”
Harvey Walls smiled and said, “that’s anyone who served in the armed forces, honey. I was in the army.”
“Were you in a war?” Emma asked.
Harvey’s smile faded. “Yes, I was,” he said softly. “ I did two tours in Vietnam.”
John Howard looked in the rear view mirror and caught his dad’s eye.
“I can’t imagine what that was like,”John Howard said. “I always try to take away something positive from any situation but I guess there wasn’t much positive to bring back from Vietnam.”
“Just this,” Harvey said, pulling something from his pocket and handing it to John.
John glanced at the item and nearly drove off the road.
“Holy God, man!” he gasped. “This is the Medal of Honor.”
Everyone in the car turned and stared in open mouthed amazement.
John handed the medal back and said, “thank you for your service, sir.”
Harvey returned the medal to his pocket and fell silent.
The miles ticked by as they drove deeper into the night. Jackson caught his son watching him in the mirror. John nodded slightly. Jackson shifted in his seat and found Beth Ann looking at him. She smiled and nodded.
Jackson Howard looked over at his friend and said, “say, Harvey, how would you feel about a sleepy little town in the Florida Panhandle?”
Harvey Walls stared at Jackson and Beth Ann for a long moment. He looked away long enough to rub something from his eye.
“I think it would feel like home,” he said.
The highway stretched out ahead, seemingly endless. Emma awoke from a light sleep and snuggled up against her father.
“I like reunions, daddy,” she said.
John Howard could feel the joy as he carried his passengers through the night; taking them home.
A man will have no job in his life that is more important than his job as a father. A man will achieve nothing in his life that matches what he can achieve as a father.
Little Powell veered away from the jump at the last second and unceremoniously dumped Sarah Jane Howard on the ground. Sarah Jane sprang to her feet in a white hot rage. This was the last straw. The past hour had been filled with mistakes, beginning with a clumsy dressage workout. The equitation session had been no better, as Sarah Jane struggled to match her form and rhythm to her stallion’s uncharacteristically awkward and unpredictable gait. And now this. She had a major horse show coming up at the end of the month, one where she was the defending champion, no less, and at this rate she would be forced to withdraw. Sarah Jane stomped across the riding ring to her horse and skewered him with an implacable glare. Little Powell gazed back at her. Finally, Sarah Jane took a deep breath and placed a gentle hand on her horse. The stallion jerked with alarm and staggered sideways. A gnawing fear raced through Sarah Jane and settled in the pit of her stomach. She stood in front of Little Powell waving her hands back and forth across his field of vision and watched with growing panic as her horse failed to track the movements. Sarah Jane’s hands shook and her breath came in shallow gasps as she pulled out her phone and hit the speed dial.
Equine veterinarian, Dr. Adam Waller, took one last look at Little Powell and turned to Sarah Jane.
“Well, the good news is that he’s very physically fit and strong.”
“And the bad news, Adam?” Sarah Jane asked.
“ I’m sorry, Sarah Jane,” Adam Waller replied. “Your horse’s eye movements and reactions are very minimal, even when he looks directly into my penlight.”
“He’s blind,” Sarah Jane said in a shaking voice.
“Probably,” he agreed. He placed a comforting hand on Sarah Jane’s shoulder and said, “I want you to do me a favor. Are you and Cowboy going to the state fair this weekend?”
Sarah Jane nodded. “He’s doing a rodeo clinic there. I had planned to bring Little Powell and enter him in the mile and a quarter fairgrounds race just to test his speed and stamina. Emma’s coming, too. She’ll probably stick like glue to her daddy. She loves rodeo.”
“I have a colleague, Dr. Jarrett Tanner, who is one of the top equine ophthalmologists in the country,” Dr. Waller said. “She will be at the fair this weekend and I’d like for her to take a look at Little Powell.”
“Do you think she can help?” Sarah Jane asked.
“All I can tell you is that I know there have been some recent advances in equine eye care,” Dr. Waller replied. “If there’s anything that can be done for Little Powell, Jarrett Tanner can do it.”
Sarah Jane managed a weak smile and said, “set it up.”
John “Cowboy” Howard knew something was wrong as soon as he walked in the door. He had spent the day in the saddle riding the vast expanse of Wild Pony Ranch, mending fences and rounding up stray livestock. He found his wife at the kitchen table staring into space. Sarah Jane brought her husband up to speed on Little Powell’s condition and the plan to have Dr. Tanner examine the stallion.
Six year old Emma Howard wandered into the kitchen and listened as her parents discussed what should be done about the horse.
“If he’s blind he can’t produce income, John,” Sarah Jane said in a choked voice. “I’ll have to put him down.”
Emma stared at her mother in open-mouthed horror.
“What? No!” John Howard said in alarm. “Maybe Dr. Tanner can help. Even if he’s blind I can use him to do some ranch work. Or we can put him out to stud. Or you can use him with your beginner students that you lead around the ring.”
Sarah Jane shook her head sadly. “Little Powell doesn’t have the training or the stamina to do ranch work, even if he could see. And I’m not going to put one of my students, even a beginner, on a blind horse.”
“He’s a champion, Sarah Jane,” Cowboy said. “We could probably get at least seven hundred dollars for a stud fee.”
Sarah Jane laughed in spite of herself. “I expect we could get closer to nothing for a blind stud. I doubt if he could even do the deed.”
John Howard flashed a lascivious grin.
Sarah Jane reached over and punched him on the arm. “You’re not a horse,” she laughed.
“Mama, how does Little Powell produce income?” Emma asked.
“Lots of ways, honey,” Sarah Jane replied. “People that come to Wild Pony Ranch for riding lessons, trail rides, and overnight camp outs pay to ride Little Powell. And when I enter him in horse shows sometimes we win prize money.”
“Like daddy does in the rodeo?” Emma asked.
“I wish,” Sarah Jane laughed. “Your daddy’s one of the top rodeo cowboys in the country. He makes a lot more money than I do.”
“But why does Little Powell have to die?” Emma whimpered. “Will I have to die if I can’t produce income?”
“No, sweetie,” John Howard said, pulling his daughter close. “We don’t do that to people. Besides, you’re going to be a big success when you grow up.”
“But why does Little Powell have to die, daddy?” Emma repeated in a small voice.
“That’s something you might understand better when you’re older, sweetie,” her father replied. “Why don’t you run upstairs and I’ll be up in a minute to tell you a story.”
“You should have given her a straight answer, John,” Sarah Jane said after Emma had left the room.
John Howard looked over at his wife and said, “Emma asked a good question, Sarah Jane. I wish I had an answer to give her.”
The fair was packed. They finally found a space for the truck and horse trailer next to the race course.
John Howard reached in his pocket and handed his daughter a ten dollar bill. “You can pick out something you like with this sweetie.”
“Thank you, daddy,” Emma replied. “Can I pick it out by myself and get it even if mama says it’s not appropriate?”
John Howard laughed and said, “yes, Emma.”
Sarah Jane looked at her husband and rolled her eyes.
“I’m going to get set up for my clinic this afternoon,” John said. “I’ll meet y’all back here in about an hour to watch the race.”
Sarah Jane noticed that Emma seemed anxious and distracted as they visited the various exhibits. She asked her daughter if she would like some cotton candy and was perplexed when she declined.
They returned to the race course as the crowd was beginning to fill the stands.
“Your daddy should be here any minute and then we can find some good seats for the race,” Sarah Jane said.
“ Mama,I’m going to visit with Little Powell, okay?” Emma asked.
“Alright, honey, but don’t wander off. We’ll come get you.”
John Howard showed up five minutes later and said, “we need to find some seats. The riders will be coming out in a few minutes. Where’s Emma?”
“Visiting with Little Powell,” Sarah Jane said. “I’ll get her.”
John surveyed the track and turned around in time to see his wife sprinting toward him in a blind panic.
“She’s gone, John!” Sarah Jane gasped. “Little Powell, too. My fault. Why did I let her out of my sight? John, what if she’s been kidnapped?”
“I see her,” John said. “She’s on the course. I think she’s planning to enter the race.”
“Go get her!” Sarah Jane shrieked.
John Howard hurried over to the fence railing and beckoned to his daughter.
“What are you doing, Emma?”her father asked.
“We have to try, daddy. I told Little Powell that mama said he has to produce income or he might die. He’s really scared, daddy, but he wants to try. The man said there’s a prize if you finish first, second, or third.”
“Emma, he’s blind. How are you going to get him around the track?” her father asked.
“Little Powell said I could steer him like a car and tell him where to go,” Emma said.
John Howard’s thoughts drifted back to that spring day when Emma’s little Pomeranian, Ranger, received a seemingly lethal rattlesnake bite and drifted into a deep coma. Emma had her hands on the little dog’s heart throughout the night and insisted that he was coming out of the coma. Adam Waller had deemed the coma irreversible and was preparing to euthanize the dog just as Ranger opened his eyes. The incident had rocked the veterinarian. Emma was the only true animal empath that Adam Waller had ever met and he never again doubted her remarkable connection to an animal’s mind and heart.
John Howard looked up at his daughter and said, “pace yourself. Start off slow and don’t get boxed in. Don’t take any chances. If it’s not working, just pull up. Understand?”
“Yes, daddy,” Emma said in a subdued voice as she started to move away.
“Emma,” her father called.
Emma turned in her saddle.
“If you get to the last turn and you’re close, turn him loose and let him fly.”
Emma grinned and headed for the starting line.
“Where’s Emma?” Sarah Jane asked anxiously.
“She’s riding,” John said. “I told her to be careful.”
“Are you crazy?” Sarah Jane hissed. “A six year old girl riding a blind horse? They could both be killed.”
“She rides as well as anyone in the field, Sarah Jane. And she talked with Little Powell about it. It’ll be fine.”
“Jesus, John, no wonder she’s such a daddy’s girl. You never say no.”
“This is important, Sarah Jane,” her husband replied. “Let it go.”
They got to their seats just in time for the start. Emma trailed the field of fifteen horses into the first turn. John Howard’s heart sank. As they headed down a straightaway
Emma began moving up. She was tenth heading into the second turn and seventh at the halfway mark. Her father watched with growing excitement. The two lead horses were well ahead of the rest of the field. The battle was for third place and its hundred dollar prize. Emma tucked in behind two horses that were running side by side. Fifth place.
“She’s got a shot,” John whispered, and he was out of his seat and sprinting for the railing at the final turn.
Emma headed into the final turn and saw her father out of the corner of her eye pinwheeling his arms like a third base coach waving a runner home.
Emma was on the heels of the horse in the middle lane. As they came out of the turn Emma moved to the outside lane, the Lane of Hope and Desperation, where dreams go to live or die.
Little Powell’s nostrils flared as he sucked in oxygen. As they entered the home stretch the stallion peered down a dark tunnel to an invisible finish line and ran for his life.
The horses thundered down the final straightaway running three wide like a NASCAR race. One hundred yards to go. Little Powell surged and the inside horse dropped off the pace. Again, Little Powell surged, but the horse in the middle lane hung on and then inched slightly ahead. Fifty yards. Forty. Emma could feel her horse’s stride breaking down as muscles yielded to exhaustion. Twenty yards. Emma knew that Little Powell was running on empty but she asked one last time. The tiny surge brought them even with the other horse as they flew across the finish line in a dead heat.
There was a short delay as the judges studied the photo finish before declaring a tie for third place. Emma and the other rider split the one hundred dollar prize.
John Howard raced up to his daughter and scooped her into his arms.
“Congratulations, sweetie!” he exclaimed. “What are you going to do with that new fifty dollar bill?”
Emma grinned and shrugged.
Sarah Jane forced a smile and said, “congratulations, honey. I’m glad you’re okay. You had us worried.”
“See, mama,” Emma said. “We won fifty dollars. Little Powell can still produce income.”
Sarah Jane started to reply but was interrupted by a tall, striking woman who held out her hand.
“I’m Jarrett Tanner,” the woman said.
“Thank you for coming,” John Howard said after introductions were made.
Dr. Tanner smiled at Emma and said, “congratulations, Emma. That was quite a race.”
“Thank you,” Emma replied. She patted her horse and said, “this is Little Powell. He’s still pretty tired from the race.”
The smile slid from Jarrett Tanner’s face and was replaced with a look of disbelief.
“This is Little Powell?” she asked.
Emma nodded. “He says he can see light and shadows sometimes
but I think it’s his imagination. Mostly it’s like he’s looking down a long dark tunnel.”
Dr. Tanner studied Emma a moment longer before recognition dawned.
“You have a little Pomeranian named Ranger, don’t you?” she asked.
Jarrett turned to John and Sarah Jane and said, “Adam told me about Ranger. Your daughter is the only animal empath I’ve ever met.”
Dr. Tanner took her time examining Little Powell. When she was finished she turned to Sarah Jane and said, “yes, he’s blind, but it’s operable. There’s a new breakthrough procedure for treating this type of blindness.”
“Is it experimental?” Sarah Jane asked.
“No,” Dr. Tanner replied. “It’s new, but it’s gone through trials and is fully approved. I’ve done two of these operations with one hundred percent vision restoration in both cases.”
“I hate to sound crass,” Sarah Jane began, “but we have to weigh the cost of the operation against Little Powell’s future income producing potential.”
Emma stared at her mother with a look of outright fear. John was left speechless. With a herculean effort Dr. Tanner maintained a neutral expression.
Emma reached into her Hello Kitty purse and retrieved her fifty dollar prize and the ten dollars that her father had given her.
“I’ll pay for the operation, mama,” Emma said frantically.
She held the money out to Dr. Tanner.
Dr. Tanner looked away and began rummaging in her medical bag.
Sarah Jane knelt down in front of her daughter and said, “honey, this is something you’ll understand when you’re older. An operation like this is very expensive. It would cost……..”
“Fifty dollars,” Jarrett Tanner said in a choked voice. “That’s how much it costs.”
She took the money from Emma’s outstretched hand and handed her back the ten dollars from her father along with a receipt.
“You can bring him in this week,” Dr. Tanner said as she walked away wiping furiously at her eyes.
The operation was a complete success. Sarah Jane was thrilled that she and Little Powell could continue competing in equestrian events.
Sarah Jane was looking out the window when Emma entered the kitchen and grabbed an apple. “Where are you going, honey?” Sarah Jane asked.
“I’m taking an apple to Little Powell,” Emma said quietly.
Sarah Jane studied her daughter. Ever since the operation she had been acting very withdrawn, almost depressed. Sarah Jane had experienced difficulty engaging Emma in conversation and she rarely made eye contact.
“I know you’re glad that Dr. Tanner saved Little Powell’s eyesight,” Sarah Jane said with forced cheerfulness.
For once, Emma looked directly at her mother and said, “I’m glad Dr. Tanner saved Little Powell’s life.”
Sarah Jane watched as Emma walked down to the barn. She saw her husband interrupt his work to pick his daughter up and sling her over his shoulder. Emma squealed with laughter. Sarah Jane felt an overwhelming sadness invade her mind and body. She knew she had lost something precious and she was pretty sure she would never get it back. She watched until her daughter and the laughter disappeared behind the barn door.
Five year old Kayleigh Nelson stared up at the imposing face of Shenandoah County Elementary School and tried to swallow the terror that was rising in her throat.
“It’ll be fine, sweetie,” her father said. “We talked about this, remember? There’s no reason to be nervous or afraid.”
The enormous lie caused Dan Nelson’s stomach to rumble in protest. Or, maybe it was his undigested breakfast of Diet Mountain Dew and cold pizza. At least he had made sure that Kayleigh had a nutritious meal to start her day. God, it was hard. His wife had died just three months earlier from a vicious strain of bacterial meningitis that hit her hard and fast. Dan realized how fortunate he was that his parents and sister lived in town. As a suddenly single parent he didn’t know how he would have managed without their help. He was learning how to cook meals and make lunches for Kayleigh, but had trouble matching her clothes and styling her hair. His sister was helping him with that, but still, some mornings Kayleigh left the house dressed like a very small homeless person. But not today, not on her first day of kindergarten. She was wearing her new school clothes with a pretty pink bow in her hair.
“Do you want me to go in with you?” Dan Nelson asked.
“No, daddy,” Kayleigh replied. “I’ll be okay.”
Dan Nelson kissed his daughter and watched as she made her way slowly up the ramp. He hoped there would be someone waiting to welcome Kayleigh and take her to her classroom. He had met the previous week with Kayleigh’s teacher and the school principal so they would know what to expect. As if on cue, Kate Austin appeared at the door and waved to him. Dan returned the wave and watched as Miss Austin greeted her new student and gave her a quick hug. Kayleigh waved goodbye to her father and disappeared inside the school. Dan Nelson drew a shaky breath, wiped his eyes, and drove away.
Miss Austin asked each child to say their name and tell the class something about themselves. Kayleigh listened with a mixture of interest and anxiety. Finally, it was her turn to speak.
“My name is Kayleigh Nelson, and I live with my daddy. My mama got sick and died. She was practicing to run the marathon, but she can’t run it now, so I’m going to run it for her.”
Every arm in the room shot into the air.
“How can you run if you’re in a wheelchair?” Emma Howard asked.
“I run with my arms,” Kayleigh answered. “That’s how I move.”
“Do you ever leave your wheelchair?” Riley Anne Parker asked.
Kayleigh giggled and nodded. “I lift myself out to go to bed, or sit on the sofa, or take a bath, stuff like that.”
“How far is a marathon?” Rain Jervey asked.
“Twenty six miles,” Kayleigh said.
The class was silent. The children weren’t exactly sure just how far that was, but they knew it was too far for any of them to run.
The rest of the day flew by. Recess, lunch, story time, and then the final bell rang. Kayleigh made her way out the door and down the ramp to wait for her grandmother to pick her up. Emma, Riley Anne, Rain, and Hannah Beth Simmons kept her company.
“Do you want to come home with me after school?” Emma asked.
Kayleigh nodded and smiled. “But, I have to ask my daddy first,” she said. “Where do you live?”
“Wild Pony Ranch,” Emma answered.
Kayleigh’s eyes grew large. “A real ranch with horses?” she asked.
Kayleigh’s smile slipped. “I don’t know if I can ride a horse,” she said. “I’ve never tried. Her eyes dropped to her lap. “I might just be in the way.”
The school bus pulled up.
“You won’t be in the way,” Emma called as she and her friends started for the bus. Emma stopped suddenly and said, “we’ve been talking, Kayleigh. We’re going to help you run the marathon.”
Kayleigh loved spending afternoons at Wild Pony Ranch with her new friends. She loved the horses, especially Dixiebelle. Emma’s mother, Sarah Jane, was a certified therapeutic riding instructor, and she soon had Kayleigh riding Dixiebelle slowly around the horse ring. Emma’s father, John “Cowboy” Howard, was a national rodeo champion, and Kayleigh was thrilled to watch him ride his magnificent stallion, Jubal. But, mostly she practiced for the Shenandoah County Marathon, now only three weeks away. Wild Pony Ranch had miles of trails and hard dirt roads, and Kayleigh trained on them every afternoon. Emma, Riley Anne, Rain, and Hannah Beth accompanied her on horseback, offering encouragement and support.
“You’re really strong, Kayleigh,” Emma said one afternoon, two weeks before the marathon.
“I feel strong,” Kayleigh replied. “I hope I’m strong enough. Twenty six miles is a long way to run.”
Emma nodded. “I’ve thought of a way to make you even stronger. From now on you need to practice with Ranger riding in your lap.”
Kayleigh broke into a huge grin. “Okay,” she said, reaching for the little Pomeranian.
Ranger and Kayleigh quickly formed a bond. The little dog would sit quietly in Kayleigh’s lap during her afternoon training sessions. At least once Ranger actually fell asleep, lulled by the warm afternoon sun and the gentle motion of the wheelchair.
Race day was rapidly approaching. On Friday afternoon Dan Nelson invited everyone over to his house for a pizza dinner. The race was the next day.
“Are you ready for the marathon, sweetie?” Kayleigh’s father asked.
“I think so, daddy,” Kayleigh replied.
“She’s ready,Mr. Nelson,” Emma said. She looked around at her parents, Riley Anne, Rain, and Hannah Beth. “And so are we,” she added.
The morning of the race was partly sunny and cool, perfect running conditions. Roads were blocked off and police directed traffic as excited runners and spectators milled around the starting line. Kayleigh waited with her friends while her father went to pick up her race packet. John Howard was surveying the crowd when he noticed Dan Nelson and the race director, Jack Sims, engaged in a heated discussion.
“Problem?” John Howard asked, wandering over to Dan.
A red faced Dan Nelson said, “this jerk doesn’t want to let Kayleigh run.”
“This race is for runners, not wheelchairs,” Jack Sims said. “Tell him, Cowboy,” he said to Emma’s father.
John Howard looked at the man and said, “I have four questions for you, Jack. Just nod your head yes or no.”
Jack Sims waited.
“Did Mr. Nelson pay the entry fee?”
Jack Sims nodded.
“Did Mr. Nelson sign the standard liability waiver?”
Jack Sims nodded.
“Does the race application prohibit a wheelchair bound runner?”
Reluctantly, Jack Sims shook his head.
“Do you want me to pull all of Wild Pony Ranch’s business from your store and take it to Lowes or Home Depot?”
This time the man shook his head fast and hard.
Dan Nelson grabbed the packet and walked away in disgust.
“Thanks for your help, Cowboy,” he said. “You’d make a great lawyer.”
“What a horrible thing to say,” John Howard replied with a smile.
“Runners to the starting line,” the announcer called.
Everyone gathered around Kayleigh to wish her luck. Dan Nelson walked beside his daughter to the starting line.
“I just want you to know how proud I am of you,” Dan said. “Your mama would be proud of you, too. You’ll always remember this day, Kayleigh.”
Kayleigh looked worried. “I hope I can do it,” she said. “I know I have to finish in under nine hours to get my certificate of completion.”
“You’re a champion in my book no matter what happens,” her father said. “Just take your time and do the best you can.”
Kayleigh lined up behind the other runners and waited. The crowd roared as the gun sounded to start the race. Her father had told her to stop at every aid station to drink water or energy drinks to prevent dehydration. After the first mile Kayleigh was well behind the other runners. That was okay; she didn’t mind finishing last, as long as she got her certificate. People along the road seemed to know her name, and cheered as she rolled past them.
The day was warming up quickly. Kayleigh pulled over to the first aid station at the four mile mark and quickly downed cups of water and Coke. No other runners were in sight. Her arms were starting to ache by the time she reached the six mile mark.
“Go, Kayleigh,” someone cheered. Kayleigh looked over and saw Emma on the side of the road waving her over. Emma handed her a banana, which Kayleigh inhaled, and a bottle of water. Kayleigh stopped again for water at the next aid station. Her muscles started to burn as she passed ten miles. She reached the halfway point in four hours. The next thirteen miles looked endless. Her arms were now screaming. Kayleigh rolled slowly to the side of the road and began to cry.
“Lunch time,” Sarah Jane said, as she walked over to Dan Nelson carrying two takeout bags of fast food. Dan was watching the runners who had been coming across the finish line for the past hour.
“Oh, thanks, Sarah Jane,” Dan said reaching for his wallet.
Sarah Jane patted his hand and said, “my treat.”
Dan’s cell phone rang and he listened as Cowboy told him that Kayleigh had hit a rough patch but was on the move again. Rain and Riley Anne had been waiting with Coke and chocolate bars for energy, and Hannah Beth was two miles down the road with water and another banana. Dan closed his phone and glanced at the race clock.
“Long day,” Sarah Jane said.
“Your daughter has such a beautiful name, Dan. I’ve been meaning to tell you that,” Sarah Jane said.
Dan smiled. “Kayleigh is actually Gaelic in origin,” he said. “It means party or celebration.”
“She’s a very special little girl,” Sarah Jane said.
“Yes, she is,” Dan replied.
For the first time in hours Kayleigh saw other runners. Coronary Ridge looked like a battle field. She passed one runner who was moving up the hill at the speed of a dial-up Internet connection. A woman stumbled off the road as if she had been zapped by a taser. Kayleigh passed another runner who was busy vomiting into some weeds. She finally reached the top of the ridge, her arms shaking violently with fatigue. She noticed a runner sitting on the side of the road with his head down. He looked up, and Kayleigh could see that he was old, but the exhaustion and despair in his eyes was older. Perhaps drawing inspiration from a five year old girl in a wheelchair, the man struggled to his feet and broke into a shambling gait, staggering down the road like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.
Five more miles. Kayleigh looked at the race clock and began to worry. She reached twenty three miles and her arms began to spasm, causing her to shriek in pain. Emma rushed forward and held out another chocolate bar as Kayleigh devoured it like a starving animal. She had been eating and drinking all day, but she couldn’t keep up. She felt herself losing the battle, her strength draining away like dirty bath water. She glanced again at the race clock. It was hopeless.
Dan Nelson was a nervous wreck. He nearly screamed when his cell phone rang.
“Kayleigh just passed twenty five miles,” Cowboy said. “Get ready, Dan. She’s coming.”
Almost everyone else had gone home. Dan Nelson got out his camera and moved over to the finish line for a clear view. He stared up the road and waited.
Kayleigh could see the finish line and the giant race clock in the distance. She saw her father waiting and thought she heard him call her name. She was close enough to see the time on the clock quickly slipping away. With a last desperate surge, Kayleigh leaned forward in her chair and thrust a wildly shaking arm across the plane of the finish line. Then, she was in her father’s arms crying and trembling with pain and exhaustion. They both looked up at the clock and saw that it registered nine hours and fourteen seconds. Dan Nelson walked anxiously over to the race official who recorded the final times. Kayleigh accepted congratulations from everyone and waited for the results. She held her breath as her father walked slowly toward her, his head down. He knelt down beside Kayleigh and smiled as he handed her the precious certificate of completion made out to Kayleigh Nelson. Eight hours, fifty nine minutes, and fifty eight seconds. Kayleigh blushed as people cheered.
“Congratulations, Dan. I know you’re proud,” Sarah Jane said.
“Thanks, Sarah Jane,” Dan replied.
“You certainly have reason for a celebration today,” Sarah Jane added.
Dan Nelson looked at his daughter and nodded. “Today, and every day,” he said.
Five year old Tanner Evans, Jr. looked up from the dreadful spinach that occupied his supper plate and asked, “do you know what a hero is, dad? That’s what we’re studying in school.”
Tanner Evans smiled at his son and said, “sure, Tanner. A hero is someone you look up to and admire because of the kind of person they are and the things they do.”
“Miss Austin says you don’t have to be famous or even grown-up to be a hero,” young Tanner said.
“She’s right,” Erin Evans replied. “You don’t have to be an adult or famous to have character and perform good deeds.”
Tanner was silent as he finished his supper, ignoring the spinach with some difficulty.
“May I be excused,mom?” he asked.
“Yes, if you’re finished,” Erin Evans answered, eying the abandoned vegetable on her son’s plate.
“I wonder if I’ll ever be a hero,”Tanner said, rising from the table.
“You’ll be my hero if you sit back down and eat that spinach,” his father replied.
Young Tanner looked at his father and then down at his plate as he considered the awful task before him. At last he sat down, picked up his fork, drew a deep breath, and gulped down the foul dish that his mother had prepared.
“That’s my boy,” Tanner Evans said.
The late afternoon sun burnished the Blue Ridge Mountains in flaming indigo as Tanner Evans closed the barn door and walked up the hill to his car. He had been working at Wild Pony Ranch for almost a year and he loved it. Having grown up on a small farm, Tanner knew his way around a horse barn. He was thankful beyond words that John “Cowboy” Howard had offered him a job after the paper mill shut down.
Tanner had worked at the mill for twelve years when it closed. He had hated the work but the money was good. Tanner’s unemployment benefits had run out and they were behind on the mortgage when John Howard threw him a lifeline. The pay was less than what he had earned at the paper mill but Tanner knew he would never consider going back in the unlikely event that the mill reopened.
As he did every afternoon Tanner took a moment to watch the sun bathe the mountains in a final luminous glow before sliding out of sight. Tanner Evans had never visited Florida but he knew that he would take a Blue Ridge Mountain sunset over the more famous Key West version any day.
“Dad!” Tanner Evans,Jr. hollered as his father walked in the front door, “guess what?”
“Calm down,Tanner,” Erin Evans called from the kitchen.
Tanner looked from his mother to his father, unsure what to do next.
“Come sit down and tell your mom and me what’s got you so excited,” Tanner’s father said.
“Remember, I told you we were learning about heroes in school?” Tanner asked his father.
Tanner Evans smiled at his son and nodded.
“Miss Austin said our class is going to have a dinner at school for our heroes. Here’s the note I brought home.”
Tanner and his wife studied the note. The Shenandoah County Elementary School kindergarten class was hosting a “heroes banquet” next month in the school cafeteria. Each child was permitted to invite their hero and one guest. Formal invitations would be mailed out by the school. This was clearly a big deal.
“Wow, Tanner!” Erin enthused, “this is really exciting.”
Tanner nodded and then looked shyly up at his father.
“Dad, can I ask you something?”
“Yes,” his father softly replied.
“Will you be my guest at the dinner?”
Erin Evans watched the light in her husband’s eyes die and the deep hurt flash across his face. She stared at her son, unable to comprehend what she had just heard.
Tanner Evans smiled painfully and said, “that sounds great,Tanner; thanks for asking me.”
When his son made no reply Tanner asked, “so, who is your hero?” The question sounded loud and forced to Tanner, the words pounding in his head as if they had been screamed into a deep canyon and were echoing off the walls.
Erin watched helplessly, unable to think of a thing to say or do.
“I want to invite Travis Cooper, dad,” young Tanner replied, “but I don’t know how. Can you help me?”
Tanner Evans felt like an inflatable doll that had lost all its air. He was suddenly weary beyond description. “I’ll see what I can do,” he heard himself say.
Tanner continued to sit motionless on the sofa, staring intently at nothing. He was dimly aware that his son had returned to his room and his wife was in the kitchen preparing supper. The blood roared in his ears. He felt sluggish and stupid, unable to think.
Congratulations, Tanner. Your son is five years old and the male figure that he most admires is someone he’s never met. Well, what did you expect? You’ve never rescued a child from a burning building or hit a home run in the World Series. You clean horse stalls for a living. He’s probably ashamed of you. Travis Cooper – Jesus, how am I going to contact him? I’m sure he doesn’t live around here anymore. It must be four years now since he got drafted by the Braves and now he’s their starting left fielder. It’s the off season; maybe he’ll be in town for a visit. Yeah, right.
Tanner Evans looked up and found his wife watching him with a worried look on her face.
Tanner rose clumsily to his feet and said, “y’all go ahead. I’ll heat something up later.”
“Are you okay?” Erin asked.
“Fine,” Tanner replied with a weak smile. “I’m going on the Internet to see if I can find a phone number or e-mail address for Mr. Cooper.”
Several hours later Tanner logged off the computer and walked down the hall to his bedroom.
Erin looked up from the book she was reading when her husband entered the room. “Any luck?” she asked.
Tanner shook his head.
“Did you eat?” she asked.
Her husband shook his head again. Erin knew better than to ask Tanner if he wanted to talk about it. She knew that most men hated talking about sensitive and emotional subjects. When it was forced on them it rarely resolved anything and usually made them feel worse. At least that’s the way it was with Tanner.
Erin leaned over and kissed her husband goodnight before turning out the light.
Tanner Evans lay motionless on his back, staring at the ceiling, waiting for the pain to go away.
“Hi, Mr. Evans,” a voice called out.
Tanner Evans stood and stretched his back. He had just finished grooming Little Powell and was busy cleaning out the stallion’s stall.
“Hey, Emma,” Tanner replied. “How was school today?”
“Okay,” Emma said. “Did Tanner tell you about the heroes dinner?”
Tanner looked up as John Howard entered the barn.
“Hey, Tanner,” John said, “I’m going to take Jubal out for a workout.”
“Daddy, I was telling Mr. Evans about the heroes dinner,” Emma said.
“Isn’t that something?” John said to Tanner.
“Daddy’s my hero and mama’s my guest,” Emma excitedly explained.
Tanner offered a weak smile but could think of nothing to say.
“Did Tanner tell you about it?” John asked.
Tanner Evans nodded. “Yes, he did. I’ll be there. He invited me as a guest. I guess I’m not hero material,” he said, trying for a light-hearted chuckle that stuck in his throat.
Tanner winced at the look of surprise and concern that appeared on his employer’s face.
John turned to his daughter and said, “why don’t you run up to the house, sweetie. I think your mama picked up some oatmeal cookies at the store today.”
“Who’s the hero?” John asked quietly as soon as his daughter had gone.
Before he knew it Tanner had poured out the whole story.
“He’s only five years old, Tanner. It’ll take time but he’ll figure out that it’s who a person is, not what he does for a living, that matters.”
“It looks like Emma has already figured that
out,” Tanner observed.
“I’m not so sure about that,” John replied. “Her whole world is horses. She knows that I run this ranch and she’s seen the trophies I’ve won on the rodeo circuit. It won’t be long before she discovers I’m not nearly as famous as she thinks I am.”
Tanner remained quiet.
“I can help you get in touch with Travis Cooper, Tanner,” John continued. “I know a couple of rodeo promoters who know people who know people.”
Tanner swallowed hard and said, “thanks, Cowboy.”
John caught up with Tanner just as he was leaving for the day.
“Here you go,” he said, handing Tanner a slip of paper. “That’s the name and direct number of Cooper’s agent. Everything goes through him.”
Before Tanner could reply, John put a hand on his shoulder and said, “hang in there, Tanner. Things will work out.”
Tanner’s son was waiting for him when he got home.
“Did you talk to Travis Cooper, dad?” young Tanner asked anxiously.
Tanner Evans produced a sad smile for his son. “I’ve got a number to call right here,” he said, producing the note that John had given him.
Young Tanner continued to watch his father.
Tanner Evans sighed and said, “I’ll go make the call.”
An hour later Tanner entered the kitchen. Erin had cleared the table and was loading the dishwasher.
“You missed supper,” she said. “I fixed a plate for you;it’s in the microwave.”
Erin sat with her husband while he ate. “So, what did he say?” she asked.
“He’ll do it,” Tanner mumbled between bites.
“Well, that’s good, I guess,” Erin replied.
“You haven’t heard the rest,” Tanner said. The agent had happily confirmed that Travis was available to attend the heroes dinner. He would be in town visiting his parents that week so the timing was perfect. Tanner and the agent worked out the details over the phone.
Erin waited expectantly.
“It’s a thousand dollars,” her husband said.
Erin looked at Tanner in disbelief. “He’s charging you money to be your son’s hero?”
Tanner said nothing.
“What about a home town discount?” she asked.
“That is the home town discount,” Tanner replied.
“Well then, the answer is no. We don’t have an extra thousand dollars to rent a hero for the evening. We might as well tell Tanner,” Erin said.
“The answer is yes, Erin,” Tanner replied calmly. “I have a plan.”
“We’ve got that much in our emergency fund,” Tanner said, holding up his hand when Erin started to protest. “I talked to Jack. One of his workers is going out on maternity leave. He can use me in the evenings for the next couple of months. That will be more than enough to cover Mr. Cooper’s fee.”
Erin’s heart sank. Jack Evans, Tanner’s brother, owned a commercial cleaning company. For the next two months her husband planned to go straight from cleaning horse stalls to cleaning office buildings five nights a week.
“I think our son needs a hard dose of reality,” Erin protested.
“He’s five years old, Erin. Reality will knock him upside the head soon enough. In the meantime I’m going to make this happen for him. And don’t you tell him what I’m doing,” her husband warned.
Tanner explained to his son that he would be working nights for the next couple of months and wouldn’t be around much during the week.
“I’ll have to miss your heroes dinner,Tanner, but I’m sure your mom would love to go as your guest. And Travis Cooper will be there. I’m sorry I can’t come.”
“That’s okay, dad; we’ll still have fun,” his son replied.
Tanner’s life quickly fell into a routine of eating, sleeping, and working. He stumbled through his days in a haze of exhaustion. Erin packed him a cooler each morning to take to work. Tanner ate his lunch in the barn and then gulped down his supper while he drove from Wild Pony Ranch to the office building he was cleaning. He tried to spend time with his family on the weekends but often found himself falling asleep on the sofa.
Erin was downstairs doing laundry one evening when the phone rang. She called out to her son to answer it.
When she came upstairs Erin found her son waiting for her.
“Who was on the phone, Tanner?” she asked.
“It was a man,” her son answered. “He said to remind dad that he needed to send the check for the heroes dinner by Friday.”
Erin looked at her son, unsure what to do.
“Mom, I don’t understand,” Tanner said, on the verge of tears. “Is something wrong?”
Erin Evans put down the laundry and took a deep breath. “I hope I’m doing the right thing, Tanner.”She sat down beside her son and told him everything.
“Stop fidgeting,” Erin Evans admonished her husband. “I’m trying to straighten your tie.”
“I’m surprised Jack gave me the night off,” Tanner said. “I didn’t even ask. Erin, are you sure it’s okay for me to come. I mean, the paper Tanner brought home said only one guest could attend, not two.”
“It’s okay,” his wife replied. “I talked to the school. Come on, we don’t want to be late.”
The parking lot was filling up by the time they arrived. Tanner quickly found a spot and escorted his family into the school.
Young Tanner joined his teacher and classmates and proceeded to the cafeteria.
“Any idea what the program is for tonight?” Tanner asked as they found a table and were seated.
“No idea,” his wife replied. “Tanner, why do you keep looking around? Are you expecting someone?”
“Travis Cooper,” her husband replied. “He’ll be sorry if he doesn’t show up for this dinner and ruins my son’s evening.”
Erin wisely remained silent.
The dinner was excellent. The meal was followed by brief remarks from Tanner’s teacher, Miss Austin, about what her class had learned about heroes. The school principal spoke next and continued the theme of the importance of heroes.
After the principal finished speaking Miss Austin returned to the podium and said, “I hope you’ve all enjoyed this evening. The last thing we have planned is a roll call of the heroes that are here tonight. Each child will announce the name of his hero. Please come to the front when your name is called.”
“Where is he?” Tanner Evans hissed.
“He’s not coming, Tanner,” Erin said. “I didn’t send the money.”
Tanner Evans gaped at his wife.
“I’ll explain later,” she whispered.
Tanner watched miserably as each child called out the name of their hero. He felt a stab of envy when John Howard walked to the front of the room. Young Tanner was next. Tanner wondered if his son would ever live down the humiliation of having nobody walk to the front when he called his hero’s name.
Young Tanner stepped forward and said, “my hero is my dad, Tanner Evans.”
Tanner Evans was frozen to his chair. He was certain that he had not heard correctly.
Tanner turned when his wife poked him in the ribs. She seemed to be smiling and crying at the same time. He walked to the front of the room in a daze.
Tanner stood with the rest of the heroes and looked out at the room, at the people who were all standing and applauding, at his son who was wearing a proud smile.
John Howard leaned over and whispered, “how does it feel to be your son’s hero,Tanner?”
“I don’t….” Tanner replied, and could say no more.
“I’m just….” he tried again as the emotion threatened to strangle him.
“Me, too,” John Howard replied. “Me, too.”
The group of visitors grew quiet, waiting expectantly. The man in the Park Service uniform smiled and said, “welcome to Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. My name is Appomattox Mays, and I’m the park historian.” Appomattox paused, and added, “before anyone asks, Appomattox is my real name. My parents wanted a name that would reflect my southern heritage.”
Several people chuckled in appreciation.
Appomattox continued, “now, let me just say to the future mamas and daddies in the audience that I love my name, but a child named Appomattox better be able to take a lot of teasing.”
The crowd laughed. Appomattox loved this part of the presentation almost as much as the tour itself. Everyone relaxed and the rest of the hour produced an enjoyable and informative experience filled with provocative questions and spirited discussion.
The last group of the day had departed. Appomattox locked his office and headed for the parking lot. As was his habit, he stopped briefly to gaze at the Blue Ridge Mountains off to the west. The sun was dipping below the summit, transforming the ridge into a flaming indigo, welcoming the evening. Continuing to his car, Appomattox came to an abrupt halt. There was one other car in the lot. A man was standing next to it and staring right at him. Appomattox recognized him from the last group. He had been struck by the fact that the man had not laughed or smiled, hadn’t asked any questions, had not seemed engaged or at all interested in the tour. All he had done was stare at Appomattox the entire time. Like now. The man was in his twenties, with long blond hair and the build of an NCAA Division One linebacker. Appomattox was several inches shy of six feet and weighed one hundred and fifty pounds after a big Sunday dinner.
Appomattox slowed his pace, unnerved by the situation. The man wore an unmistakable aura of menace. Appomattox patted his pockets and swore, feigning forgetfulness. Better safe than sorry. He could call the police from his office if the man didn’t leave. Walking briskly, Appomattox glanced over his shoulder as he reached the door to his office.
The man was gone.
Appomattox buttered a dinner roll and watched his six year old daughter, Harmony, lethargically push vegetables around her plate.
“Good day at school, sweetie?” Appomattox asked.
Harmony shrugged her shoulders and stared down at the table.
Appomattox glanced at his wife.
“Tell daddy about the man, Harmony,” Helen Mays said.
Harmony looked up, worry and confusion written on her face. “I was walking to my bus after school, daddy, and this man came up to me.”
Appomattox struggled to control his alarm.
“What did he do, sweetie?” he asked.
“He started walking beside me and talking to me,” Harmony replied. “I didn’t speak to him, daddy. I know I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”
“Good girl,” Appomattox said. “Do you remember what he said to you?”
Harmony nodded. “He said you were a stupid man with a stupid name who was still fighting the Civil War. He said you were probably a clam member.”
Appomattox fought to control his emotions. Drawing a deep breath, he said, “well, Harmony, I don’t know who this man is or why he told you those things, but they’re lies. I have an important job with the Park Service, and they don’t hire stupid people. I have an unusual name, but there’s nothing stupid about it. It’s a special name. I give tours and answer questions about the history of the park. I’m proud of my heritage, but I know who won the war and I’m not still fighting it. Okay, sweetie?”
Harmony nodded and said, “daddy, what’s a clam member?”
Appomattox chuckled. “He meant Klan member, sweetie. No, I’m not a member. They’re a hate group, and I want nothing to do with people like that.”
“Have you called anybody?” Appomattox asked his wife.
Helen Mays shook her head. “I was waiting for you.”
Appomattox opened his phone. “I’m calling the school principal and the police,” he said. “Harmony, can you tell me what the man looked like?”
“He looked real big and strong, daddy,” she said.
“Was he young or old?” Appomattox asked.
“Not old like Papa,” Harmony said. “Old like you.”
Appomattox smiled and nodded.
“How about his hair?” Appomattox asked.
Harmony giggled. “He had real long blond hair, daddy. Like a girl.”
Appomattox struggled with his composure as the blood roared in his ears and his heart dropped into his stomach.
“Appomattox?” Helen Mays asked.
Appomattox cleared his throat and said, “I’ll make these calls in the study.”
It was the middle of April and the final lecture in the Southern View Historical Series was a week away. The lectures were held each spring on the campus of nearby Lynchburg College, and Appomattox had participated in the program the last three years. Topics ranged from an overview of the Gullah people of the Georgia and South Carolina low country, to religion in the Bible Belt, to southern politics. Appomattox always delivered the final lecture in the series: “General Robert E. Lee and the Southern High Command.” Appomattox was well aware that the victors write the history books and it fueled his passion to deliver the southern viewpoint of the Civil War. He had developed a reputation as an inspired speaker, and the audience for last year’s lecture had been standing room only.
Appomattox shook his head in amazement. The Chairman of the History Department at the college had just called to let him know that his lecture this year was being moved to the field house due to an enormous demand for tickets. A quiet and unassuming man by nature, Appomattox prayed that he would be equal to the expectations of the ticket holders.
“There he is, the man of the hour.”
“Hey,Jim,” Appomattox said, greeting the Chairman of the History Department. It was a week later and he had just arrived on the Lynchburg College campus.
“We’re all set up in the field house, Appomattox,” Jim Huston said. “All the audio-visual equipment, microphone, dais, everything is ready.”
“Thanks, Jim,” Appomattox replied.
“God, I wish I could talk you into joining the faculty here,” Jim Huston continued. “You’re a brilliant lecturer, Appomattox.”
Appomattox laughed and said, “thanks for the kind words but academia is definitely not for me.”
“Why not?” Jim Huston asked with genuine curiosity.
“The three ‘B’s’,” Appomattox replied. “Bickering, bureaucracy, and……..”
“I think I know the last one,” Jim Huston laughed, “and I can’t argue with you. Come on, I’ll walk you over to the field house. Your audience is waiting.”
The building was packed.
“Holy God, Jim!” Appomattox exclaimed. “Are you sure you didn’t get the dates mixed up? I think these people are here for a Skynyrd concert.”
Jim Huston grinned. “Good luck,” he said.
Appomattox approached the podium accompanied by the sound of thunderous applause. He took a moment to survey the huge crowd. Hats and shirts with Confederate insignia, along with more than a few Confederate flags, created an electric atmosphere. The place reeked of male testosterone. Appomattox smiled slightly and began.
He spoke softly, drawing in the audience. Starting with a broad background of the war and General Lee, Appomattox slowly worked his way toward a discussion of specific commanders and strategies.
Outside the door a security guard looked at his watch and smiled. “Time to go inside,” he said to his partner. “We don’t want to miss this.”
“Crowd control?” his partner inquired.
“That, too,” the guard replied.
Appomattox roamed the arena floor, microphone in hand, sweat pouring down his face. He was no longer speaking softly. He was, in fact, screaming and shaking his fist at the audience like an evangelical minister preaching to the faithful. The crowd was on its feet, roaring their approval. The faculty seated in the reserved section watched with undisguised awe. Images flashed on the screen – Ewell, Jackson, Mahone, Gordon, Hill. Finally, the screen went dark.
“Today, we remember the service of those who fought for our cause. Today, we honor their courage and sacrifice,” he shouted.
Appomattox looked up at the people. “There is one man that I want to single out,” he said. “He was, in my opinion, Lee’s top battlefield commander, next to Jackson. This man was the hero of the Battle of Lynchburg. He lived and worked in Lynchburg after the war, and is buried here. I call on you now to recognize the service of this man.”
The screen came to life, illuminating the fierce visage of Lieutenant General Jubal Anderson Early. The sound was that of a jet landing inside the field house. Appomattox strode out of the building, followed by a seamless deafening wall of noise.
The man was waiting.
“What a pretty speech,” he sneered. “Be sure to let me know when the South is going to rise again.”
“I don’t know what your problem is,” Appomattox said, “but you should know that the school and the police have your description. I promise that if you bother me or my family again it will be the worst mistake you ever made.”
The man started to reply, when the doors crashed open and the crowd poured out, ready to take up the cause and try again.
When Appomattox turned around, the man was gone.
Things slowly returned to normal. Appomattox’s colleagues kidded him about becoming famous after seeing him interviewed by the local newspaper and television station. The local community college extended a teaching offer and Lynchburg College continued to pursue him. Appomattox had not seen the man since his lecture at the college, and his daughter had not seen him since that incident at her school. He began to relax.
Friday afternoon, the best day of the week, especially when the last group of the day had left. Appomattox was looking forward to the weekend with his family. He locked his office door, turned, and there he was. Appomattox gaped in disbelief. Just like before, the man was standing in the parking lot. Staring. Waiting. This time there was no hesitation on Appomattox’s part; no feigning forgetfulness. He headed for his car, walking right in front of the man without a word or a glance.
Appomattox felt his shirt tear as the man grabbed the back of his collar and tossed him to the ground.
“How do you like that, you worthless redneck,” the man yelled. “Bet you thought you’d seen the last of me.”
The man hovered over Appomattox, grinning and snorting like an insane bull.
Appomattox got slowly to his feet and slammed a knee into the man’s crotch. A high keening sound escaped the man’s mouth as he dropped to the ground. Appomattox hurried over and swung a foot into the man’s face. The man’s nose burst open like a ripe watermelon falling off a truck. There was fear in his eyes now as he realized the scope of his miscalculation.
Appomattox noticed a lighter on the ground. “You need to be careful carrying around a lighter,” he said to the man. “They can be dangerous. Lucky for you, I was a member of the Boy Scouts. I know how to practice fire safety.”
Appomattox walked over to the man. He flicked the lighter, grabbed the man’s hair, and set it on fire. The man howled with pain and fear. Appomattox pulled on the man’s arm and hauled him into a nearby pond. The man came up gasping and sputtering. As he made his way to shore, Appomattox held out his left hand. The man grabbed hold as Appomattox whipped an open right hand across his face. The man fell backwards into the water.
Appomattox was waiting when the man finally crawled out of the pond and collapsed on the bank. “Got to get you out of those clothes,” Appomattox said. “You’ll catch your death.” He set to work ripping off the man’s shirt, pants, underwear, shoes, and socks. When he was done he flung them into the water.
“Let’s go,” Appomattox said, dragging the man to his feet. They reached the man’s car and Appomattox shoved him in.
Appomattox leaned his head in the window and said, “just a couple of things before I hand over your car keys. First, be sure to drive safely. This would be a bad time to get pulled over since you’ll be driving naked.”
The man sat in the driver’s seat, shivering, with his head down.
Appomattox yanked the man’s ear, eliciting a girlish shriek.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you,” Appomattox admonished.
The man gave Appomattox his undivided attention.
“You seem like a man with poor critical thinking skills and a below average I.Q.,” Appomattox continued, “so I’ll make this simple for you. Threatening a man and his family is never a good idea. I have a baseball bat at home.”
The last statement confused the man.
“If I see you again or if my family sees you again, I will use the bat to break your legs. Your walking days will be over,” Appomattox said.
Appomattox handed the man his keys, and added, “one more thing; you asked me to let you know when the South was going to rise again.”
The man waited.
“It just did,” Appomattox said.
Appomattox watched the man drive off and then hurried to his car. It was getting late and his family was waiting.