- The Man Who Would be Soldier
The Ridge above Kiahs CreekWayne County, VirginiaAugust 9, 1862
The shot that killed his daddy …
The sound of it rode the heat off the high ridges and rolled down through the heavy timber. It burst out into the thick sunlight and tore through the pole fence and across the open ground and hit the side of the old ridge-top cabin like it had been sent there directly, making a sound against the logs like the raging of the devil out there, waiting.
The boy was sitting inside on the rough plank floor, his arms around his knees, rocking slowly back and forth. He could smell the cold ashes in the woodstove, and he knew there was a pan there with hard cornbread in it, but he was not hungry. He thought maybe he would never be hungry again. He was staring at the thick, hand-whittled peg on the wall where his daddy's new blue uniform had been hanging since before sun up, the peg now empty and useless. The boy's momma had made the uniform, the same momma who had stood in the doorway, silhouetted against a hard mountain sky, watching his daddy ride away. The same momma who would not look at him, lest he see the thin, glistening lines down her drawn face. The same momma who kept telling him to go outside, that it was too hot in the cabin. Stop looking at that empty peg. He'll hang his coat there, anon. Go down off the mountain and catch up with Aaron and the young'ens. Be safer down there.
But the boy, only 12 years old, wanted to keep looking at the peg, a peg he had whittled, not quite straight, thinking maybe by some magic that was loose in the mountains that his daddy's uniform would come back there. Right now. And with it, his daddy.
But they never did.
His daddy had put on the new uniform and then put a saddle on the old sway-backed plow horse. The saddle did not have a pommel, but the man's mountain-hardened legs kept him securely on the horse. There was [End Page 19] no scabbard for the long flintlock rifle, so his daddy rode away from the cabin with the rifle across the saddle, holding it easily with one blunt hand, fingers dark from work. He did not look back.
His daddy was going off to the big war.
His daddy would be a soldier.
His daddy never got there.
When the boy heard the shot, he knew he had been listening for it, maybe for all of his twelve years, but he thought it would come in his dreams, not now, not in the bright morning sunshine, not in the growing hot light that would turn into the oven of thick summer in the mountains and send every living thing into the safety of heavy leafy overhangs.
It seemed as though his legs began to work before he told them to and the boy was up and jolting out of the cabin, crashing down the trail that started just outside the pole fence. The boy was running hard, arms flailing, mouth open, gasping for air … as only a terrified boy can run. His baggy pants flapped with each ungainly stride, and he thought the Confederates would hear all that noise and maybe shoot him, too. But then he remembered he was only 12 and too young for them to bother killing.
He knew exactly where to go, not more than a couple of hundred yards down the old trail, knew the slight narrow part in the already-narrow path, knew the limbs that would be hanging over it, forcing his daddy to lean forward on the horse. Not seeing. He knew where he would be, where he would be lying, his daddy, James Maynard. Some called him Tar Keg. The boy never knew why they called him that.
The boy kept hearing that shot over and over in his head and he knew nothing good could come out of anything that sounded like that. That...