This story is by Linda Kasten and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Rumblings of war amplified across the countryside, but Louis never trusted the rumors his fellow landowners muttered. To lend credence to their exaggerations and dramatic discussions annoyed him. He’d rather discuss the weather and how it affected their crops or the preacher’s God-fearing sermon they’d just heard.
“It’s coming. Mark my words,” his neighbor Benjamin said as he chopped back vines along their shared fence, sweat soaking his shirt. “Northerners have exploited us for far too long with their smothering tariffs.”
Louis nodded, aware of the oppressive competition. Blinded politicians preyed on crop owners with their baseless economic policies. He understood the suffering. The injustice. His own miserly profits had dwindled, making it burdensome to feed his family and replenish the seeds he needed for replanting.
“We will find a peaceful solution,” Louis replied. “No need for fighting.”
“I hope you’re right.” Benjamin patted the fence post with his calloused palm in an eerie silence, almost as if beating the war drums. “You best prepare for the worst, my friend.”
Louis staggered along the trail to his modest farmhouse. His feet and muscles rebelled after a gruesome day in the unforgiving fields, plowing up the old and rotating for the new golden weed he hoped would produce a better tobacco yield next season.
Removing his muddy boots at the rear porch steps, he sat on the whitewashed planks stretching the length of the house he’d built and observed the sun’s gradual descent behind his bare land, opened a pouch from his pocket, and stuffed his clay pipe with a pinch of crumbled leaves. Smoking during a moment of reverie ushered a time for reflection as Benjamin’s words gripped Louis with unshakeable doom. Exhaled smoke curled around the heaven’s glowing disk like a lasso, ready to rein in earth’s life source and anchor it to the sky.
A vibration rattled the porch boards. He peered upward.
“Supper is ready,” Ella announced. “The children are setting the table.”
He watched her flour-covered hands disappear into her white apron with rapid strokes down its length. He wondered if she’d listened to stories of unsettling times threatening their way of life and everything they’d struggled to build.
“Give me a minute.”
In his stocking feet he ambled toward the patch of earth he’d painstakingly fenced to mark his four dead children’s eternal resting places, fevers and frailty stealing their lives. At that moment, he realized he was at a crossroad.
He trotted back to the house and the kitchen table where a spice-filled air replaced the tobacco odor he carried in with him. After pulling a chair out for Ella, he bowed and pressed his cracked lips against her gray-streaked hair amassed in a bun, a true testament to a life hard-lived.
“Have you three young ladies studied the Bible and arithmetic today?” he asked, turning to his hungry daughters whose eyes alighted while waiting for a signal to say grace before spoons dived into the plentiful bowls of food.
“Yes, Father,” they chimed.
In the highchair, his delightful son wailed with a sudden fierceness.
“Ah, little Lee, why so fussy?” he cooed. He prayed his only boy had not contracted an illness. Not now. Not their only male child left to carry the family surname. The Lord had blessed them many times over but had as brutally taken precious gifts away, damaging his spirit with an agony he’d carry the rest of his earthly servitude. Often in the field he toiled with a rage to beat the ache from his heart, but it always lurked beneath his brave demeanor.
Once the meal had ended, he dismissed the girls from the table and frowned, a seriousness his curious wife noticed with a mirrored look of her own. “What is it, Louis? You’ve been so quiet.”
“Have your women friends discussed the possibility of civil war?”
A shaded film dulled her eyes and their usual blue opacity. “They say it’s inevitable.”
“Benjamin declared as much.” Louis picked at bread remaining on his plate, his appetite waning. “His cynicism offers no room to suggest otherwise. He believes it and warned me to prepare.”
“What is there to prepare? What does that mean?”
“I think he meant to accept it, but I cannot. It’s madness to watch the country tear itself apart.”
Killing fellow citizens stirred such a distaste, Louis choked on bile rising in his throat.
“If it does, you know what that means. I cannot bear to see you dragged onto the battlefield. They’ll expect every able-bodied male to do so. You know they will.” Ella propped her elbows on the table and squinted, that fiery nature of hers exhibiting a strength and adamant opposition he expected.
“If we don’t assert our rights, we stand to surrender all.” Louis mulled over the ramifications of succumbing to the North’s demands. “I doubt we’ll have a choice. It’s my duty.”
Ella slammed her fist down, rattling the dishes. “There’s always a choice. I will not bury another loved one. I can’t.”
“Let us pray it will never come to pass. Bloodshed is cruel and ugly.”
But watching and fretting did not assuage Louis’s nerves. He cultivated his land with greater intensity, letting his angst work for him instead of against him. He waged battles of his own in his head, placing himself in an army uniform, marching with neighbors, bearing arms. Ending other men’s lives in the name of freedom was not the same as firing his rifle at game for meals. His hands shook under vivid images flitting in his mind’s eye. How could he deprive someone else’s family of a loved one or force another gentleman’s wife into widowhood? A moral burden he couldn’t justify.
Even though he detested the growing rhetoric splitting the nation, what he suspected to be idle talk defeated his optimism when a declaration of vengeance shattered the region. That night, men gathered in the church where Louis mingled amongst the boisterous crowd. While riled farmers raised fists and voiced solidarity, he wove between them like a phantom specter eavesdropping on a private affair, listening to righteous proclamations and irate southerners strengthen their cause.
Behind him, Benjamin appeared and whispered in his ear. “Guess they’ve pushed people too far, eh?”
“Mob rule never listens to reason,” Louis uttered in defiance.
“Do you not hear them? Eagerness for war abounds. They are mobilizing troops and predict the battle to be quick and victorious. People will either defend the South or defend their homes.”
“And what will you do?” Louise glared at him, questioning whether he should say more.
“Well, fight, of course. We should be in the same infantry.”
“Yes, indeed.” Louis turned to ease himself out of the mayhem, discretely waving farewell to Benjamin and leaving his friend standing between swarming bodies, his face displaying a baffled expression.
Was anyone else intrigued with false arrogance? Where the North had resources, they had inadequate infrastructure on which to rely or support such a bold campaign. He laughed, disgusted and disenchanted, as his buggy jostled him all the way home. Bringing his horse to a stop, he saw Ella’s silhouette pacing the veranda, the kerosene lanterns casting her shape in odd deformities, like the anger distorting men’s logic. She bolted for the wagon.
“Well? Did you enlist?”
With a slight huff, he tended to his mare, his conscience traveling unmapped roads. Ella flung herself in front of him, demanding his honest reply. He recognized her panic, the sign of dampness the moon’s meager illumination highlighted on her cheeks.
After adjusting the horse’s bridle, he took her by the shoulders. “We must consider our options. I’m torn between what I should do and what I must do. I cannot decide alone.”
She fell into his embrace. “God will guide us.”
In his heart he had made his peace. Ella would resist, but she needed to be strong, to sacrifice what was necessary for their survival. He predicted the future with the greatest precision he could devise, planning the safest path. Chart their journey like an explorer. Fulfill a destiny of their choosing. Make the painful choice, no matter the risk. True freedom allowed endless possibilities, and one of those answers dwelled in his soul.
He led her to the graveyard and clasped her hand.
“I am fleeing with Lee to safety. We’ll hide in the Louisiana woods until the strife ends. But you must agree. I won’t allow war to destroy us. We’ve lost enough already.”
Her fingers tightened around his. “But what about me? Our daughters? It frightens me you could die, but not knowing yours and Lee’s welfare terrifies me more.”
“This is our only hope. Your parents will take you in.”
“But what if you get caught?”
“We’ll be fine. Trust me. We can replace a home. We can’t replace a life.”
Louis snagged wildflowers strangling the picket fence and placed them on the graves. In the shadows he clung to Ella, counting on God’s favor and tomorrow’s promise.