Fans of Historical Fiction Will Find a Lot to Like In This Fast-paced Civil War Saga of A Father and Son Who Fight the North, the South and the Deadliest Foe of All

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Bob Larranaga

© 2012 by Bob Larranaga All rights reserved EAN-13: 978-1478177296 ISBN-10: 1478177292



The staccato sound of small arms fire shattered the stillness of the night. I gasped, threw myself out of bed, hit the floor rolling and groped around for the handgun that I kept under my bunk. Then nothing. Nothing but a sore rib and the scolding bark of my watch dog.

I raised my head warily; rubbed my eyes and squinted, searching for the source of the sound. Another gust of wind, another Crack-Crack—and the real source of the sound revealed itself—the wooden shutters of a drafty window. I cussed, sat up cross-legged on the floor and stared at the ragged shadows cast across my cabin walls by a guttering candle. The dim flame flickered futilely, unable to ward off the shape-shifting haunts.

I took a shallow breath, coughed, rubbed my eyes and squinted at the clock beside my bed: 3 a.m. I reached for the half-empty rum bottle lying beside me; uncorked it; raised it to my lips and swallowed. Hard. Then I put down the bottle and saw the letter from Charleston balled up on the cabin floor where I had thrown it.

The handwriting on the envelope had been a dead give-away. I knew who'd sent it. But I'd opened it any way. I'd picked at the scab of an invisible wound of a long ago war.

After warring, most soldiers lay down their weapons, hang up their uniforms and go on about their lives as civilians. Not me. After I came home from the Mexican-American War, I burned my uniform. But nothing rid me of the nightmares that stuck with me like a burr on the hind end of a mangy dog. Night after night I fought an endless series of bloody skirmishes with demons that had no need of sleep. Always on edge and ready for a fight, I drifted from one dead-end job to the next like a man on the dodge. I didn't fit in.

But, I'm a Canfield—one of the Beaufort County Canfields—and there is no quit in us. I pushed on, struggling to find my way out of the fog of war.

Years passed, things slowly began to improve and I thought the worst was behind me. Then the saber rattling started up again. This time the big wigs talked about seceding from the Union. They spoke about slavery being divinely inspired. They said it was a boon to mankind. That letter balled up on the floor put it much plainer. In it, my ex-wife said the South was fixing to fight a Second American Revolution.

The firebrands thought a decorated war veteran like me—a "hero of the row with Mexico"—would take up arms in defense of the South. But that's not how I saw things.

To my way of thinking, slavery was wrong. War was wrong. And, as for being a hero, the real heroes of the Mexican-American fracas were the men who didn't live to see our flag waving over Chapultepec Castle. The restless ghosts of those brave soldiers still mustered in my dreams. In the dead of the night, I could hear the drummers beating the long roll, calling us to line of battle. I could hear the artillery exploding and the cries of the wounded and dying. I kept dreaming this would be the night that I would die. I thought I deserved to die. I'd thrash about in my bed, unable to sleep, shivering one minute, sweating the next, until suddenly, I'd sit bolt upright in bed, wide-eyed, gasping for air, a man at war with himself.

Getting that letter from Charleston pricked at my conscience. It reminded me of the men I had killed and the ones I had seen killed. It called to mind my first nightmare, when in a panic-attack I had scared the bejezzus out of my pregnant wife as she lay beside me in bed. She went into labor the next morning—only eight months after I had returned from Mexico. Eight months! I didn't believe the boy was my own flesh and blood. The day he came into this world I went off on another drunken bender. When I sobered up and came to my senses, it was too late. Like a fool, I had signed up for another tour of duty and was being posted to Fort Zachary Taylor, Key West, Florida.

There wasn't enough time to make things right between the wife and me, not that she didn't try. As best I recall, she wrote me five letters, but back then I couldn't read or write to save my life. So I didn't reply. The last letter came from a lawyer in Charleston. He said my wife had divorced me.

Next thing you know I got myself court-martialed and sent to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas. My cellmate, Rudy Povich, was the fair-haired, clean-shaven, pinch-faced son of a preacher and the fort's paymaster—until they discovered he had sticky fingers. When I asked him why preachers' boys always seemed to get in the most trouble, Rudy just laughed and said:

"There's good and evil in all of us, and both sides are constantly at war."

Rudy liked nothing better than to run his mouth. Every now and again, a big word would come out sideways and I'd stop him and ask what it meant. Before long, Rudy was teaching me to read the Good Book and put pen to paper. After that, I read everything I could get my hands on: newspapers, dime novels, anything to improve my mind.

Nothing much came of all my learning until I got that letter from Charleston stirring up bitter memories. That's when I realized I would never put the past behind me until I accepted what I'd done in answering duty's call. At first, I only spoke about it here and there in brief snatches. Then my new wife said the best way to rid myself of the war memories was to write them all down and burn the pages. I wasn't so sure that would help, but nothing else had put an end to the nightmares. So I decided to give it a try, writing a few pages at a time whenever I could summon the courage. Putting my thoughts in writing was painful. I would just as soon have forgotten the past. But, I kept at it.

When I finished my scrawling, my wife asked to read what I had written. I gave it to her hesitantly and studied her face for some reaction as she read. After a few minutes, she looked up with tear rimmed eyes and said:

"Ed, you can't burn this."

I stared at her in disbelief. "But burning it was your idea."

"Yes," she said, "I know. But now I realize you have to share your story."

"Share it?" I said. "I don't want to draw attention to what I did."

She fixed me with one of her school teacher's unblinking stares and said:

"You once told me that I had a duty to teach my students what war is really like. Well, as a veteran, you have a duty to tell your story. You owe that much to the fallen heroes who fought side by side with you. You have to be their voice. This is their story, too."

The intensity of her gaze disarmed me. "But I'm no author."

"No, you're not," she smiled gently. "But I can help."

And so, kind reader that is how one old veteran came to tell more or less every soldier's story of what it's like to fight an endless war. In sharing these recollections, I hope to show there is hope for those who struggle—as I did—with what doctors called "soldier's heart."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

After my stint in the army, I couldn't see the point in going home to Charleston so I took a job as a land surveyor in Florida. In those days, a surveyor had to be quick with a gun because squatters drew their property lines in blood. I was no stranger to danger, and I needed a job, so I put my misgivings aside and told myself it was just temporary, until something better came along. I strapped on my revolver quick-draw style, and went to work.

Then the Eberhard Faber pencil company hired me to survey a huge tract of cedar forest near Cedar Keys on Florida's west coast. A cluster of small islands, the Cedar Keys lie just below the mouth of the Suwannee River. The ready supply of lumber and access to shipping made the keys an ideal spot for a pencil manufacturer.

The fresh scent of those towering trees said to me that Cedar Keys was also good a place to get a fresh start in life. I moved there, saved enough to buy a parcel of slash pine timber on a land contract and built a turpentine still deep in the woods.

I was scratching out a living, minding my own business, when, from out of the blue, I got that letter from my ex-wife, triggering new wartime memories. I can't recall her exact words, as I'm relying on memory, but the gist of it went something along these lines:

'Your son is now a teenager and itching to fight in a Second American Revolution. He's a chip off the old block, and ought to live with his father.'

The last sentence really caught my attention:

'He goes by the name Jesse Beecham, but he's a Canfield through and through. You'll see.'

"Jesse." That was the first time in 16 years I had uttered the boy's name.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I can't say I welcomed Jesse with open arms. When he arrived by steamer at Cedar Keys, I met the ship more out of curiosity than anything else. I took one look at the way he dressed and shook my head in disbelief. The boy wore flannel pants, a frilled shirt with a turned out collar, buckled shoes and a wide-brimmed, low-crowned felt hat. That may have been the way they dressed in Charleston, but this was Florida's gulf coast. I wore a soiled cotton shirt, pants stained with fish blood and pine tar, a sweat-rimmed hat and tar-caked boots.

He looked me up and down, too, rolled his eyes, muttered something under his breath, took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow. As soon as he did that, I knew what a fool I'd been. Jesse was a Canfield all right. The same broad shoulders, fair skin, raven-colored hair tied in a pigtail and coal black eyes. He stood a good six feet tall in his fancy shoes and weighed 160 pounds or better. He was the spitting image of me at 16. I felt like I'd been hit by a brick on the end of a rope.

We didn't hug or shake hands or anything like that, and I don't remember what I said. But I do remember one of the first things out of his mouth. He turned completely around, pointed to his steamer trunk and said, as if dumb-founded:

"Don't you even own a horse and wagon?"

My throat swelled with the effort of holding my tongue. I spat to ease the pressure and said, "I reckoned it would do you good to stretch your legs after a long sea voyage."

"It's not my legs I'm worried about," he said. "It's this steamer trunk."

The trunk was huge—bigger than I had expected. He had come to stay.

"I'd keep a tight grip on that trunk," I said. "The mosquitoes down here are big enough to carry it off."

He didn't appreciate my sense of humor any more than his mother had, though he did follow in my wake as I headed out of town.

"Just how far is your cabin?" he asked.

"A fair piece," I answered. "Shake a leg."

But he kept dogging it, hauling that steamer trunk behind him, stirring up the dust and pine needles like a dragline dredging up murky memories of my past. With each step, I traveled further back in time to a place I didn't want to visit, to a day when my anger got the best of me and blinded me to the truth. There was no way to deny it now. I had messed up. Jesse was bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.

Finally, I stopped and gave him a hand with the trunk. "What in hell do you have in here?" I asked. "Rocks?"

"Just my clothes and books," he said.

"Books? What kind of books?"

"History, biography—"

"How much learning do you have?"

"Eight years, more or less."

"Eight? Well, down here," I said, "you're going to learn things those books don't teach. You're going to learn what it means to be a gladesman."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

By the time we reached my place deep in the pinewoods, sweat beaded Jesse's brow and stained the armpits of his frilly shirt. He dropped his side of the steamer trunk and sighed in exasperation on seeing my weather-beaten, one-room cabin. It sat two feet off the ground on dwarf cypress poles in the middle of the turpentine patch. The cabin had a pitched roof made of palmetto fronds and walls of rough-hewn yellow pine logs that I had notched, fitted up at the ends and chinked with mud, straw and moss. A chunk burner in the middle of the room kept the place comfortable on cold winter nights. The over-hanging branches of a laurel oak and a sycamore shaded the swayback roof on hot summer days.

In back of the cabin, I had built two open-air huts, the kind the Seminoles called chickees, one for cooking on a four-hole stove, and the other one a tool shed. Behind them, I had a small smokehouse and a garden plot where I grew maize, turnip greens, collard greens, potatoes and onions—until armyworms got at them. Beside the garden stood a stable and corral for my chestnut quarter horse.

"What's her name?" Jesse asked with the nearest thing to a smile I'd seen from him.

"Mosey," I said. "I use her when riding the timber and hauling our product to market."

Mosey lowered her muzzle to sniff Jesse and he asked, "You ever race her?"

I knew what the boy had in mind so I ignored the question.

"That there is the outhouse," I said. "And those shacks yonder are for the foreman and my eight-man crew. Come on. I'll show you the rest of the place."

My turpentine still sat among the slash pines in a ravine on the edge of a creek that provided the water for distilling. I had built the still with my own hands out of rough pine with a copper retort set into a brick furnace fired by pine logs. Beside it sat the cooper's shed where we made the barrels, which we used to stow our product.

The clearing was heavily scented with the aroma from the gum patch where the bark of the longleaf pines remained deeply notched and coated with congealed rosin. To my way of thinking, it was the smell of money.

"This is it?" Jesse sighed. "This is what you call home?"

His attitude galled me and I had to hold my temper in check. I let it pass this time, but I was counting.

"Built it myself," I said. "Proud of it, too."

That first afternoon, we scarcely knew what to say to each other. I found myself studying him when he wasn't looking, caught him doing the same to me. I told him to make himself at home. But it felt like we were opposing sides in a war, two wary foes separated by a no-man's land that was a minefield of unspoken words.

Toward the end of the workday, I introduced him to my good friend and foreman, Adam Broady, and his three-legged dog, "Beau." Adam was a big bear of a man with a full beard, a quirky sense of humor and the ability to kid me out of the dark moods that sometimes came over me. I asked him to introduce Jesse to the rest of my crew—the cooper, chippers, pullers and dippers—the freed blacks that did piecework for me.

As they walked off, I heard Jesse ask, "Where did your dog lose his leg?"

Without hesitation, Adam said, "Lose it? Hell, we breed them that way down here. It gives the varmints a running head start."

When Jesse didn't laugh, Adam added, "Where did you lose your grin?"

Adam was bound and determined to make Jesse smile. If anyone could get a rise out of my sourpuss son, it was Adam. While they met with the other men, I fed my horse and rustled up some grub. Adam and Jesse returned a half hour later and this time both of them wore sour expressions.

"I think we're in for some gloomy weather," Adam said out of the side of his mouth. "I'll see you in the morning."

He left us with Beau trailing behind, snout hung low to the ground as if he sensed trouble coming. Jesse and I ate in silence and soon called it a day.

The boy seemed to sleep like a log on the bunk bed I had built for him, but I wasn't so lucky. I tossed and turned, thinking about all I had lost out on in the past 16 years. The missed birthdays, the holidays that had come and gone. The hunting and fishing trips I could have taken with my son.

Had anyone taught Jesse how to read the stars and sail by dead reckoning? Could he tie a square knot or clove hitch? Track and field dress a deer? Did he know how to set a trap or start a fire with one match?

Those were things a father ought to teach his son— leastways, a good father.

I had no idea who my son was or what he was like. I knew less about Jesse than about the men who had served with me in the army.

My troubled thoughts circled back to my army days. They always did at times like this. Whenever I felt uneasy about something, the nightmares returned . . .

It was hot and muggy in the cabin, the way it had been on that Godforsaken day outside Mexico City. My pillow felt as hard as the boulders I had crouched behind while the greasers' artillery rained down on us. I was about to jump up and charge into a hail storm of lead when a voice from behind said, "Don't throw caution to the wind." I spun around to see Private Abner Winslow hunkered down behind me, his face ghostly white, his eyes blank as a washed blackboard. He held out his cartridge box and I took it. When I looked up again, he was gone. I opened the box and saw to my horror that it contained a beating heart . . .I woke with a start, threw off the mosquito netting, reached under my bunk bed for a rum bottle and went out side for a swig and a smoke.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Early the next morning I rode into town and bought Jesse some work clothes, boots, a Bowie knife and a .58 caliber Springfield rifle-musket. When I returned to the shack, he was half-dressed and rummaging through his steamer trunk for something.

"See you finally woke up." I was on edge and didn't mean for it to sound as harsh as it did. He grunted something I couldn't hear and that I didn't care to have repeated.

"Brought you some things you're going to need," I said with a tight grin.

He raised his head, took one look at the Springfield, then at me. "What is this?" he said. "Am I supposed to think this makes everything right between us?"

My mouth cinched tighter than a wet knot.

"Look," I said through clenched teeth, "in case you forgot, this isn't my idea, you being here."

"It wasn't my idea, either," he said. "It was ma's."

"Well, like it or not, you are in my house now and, as long as you are living under my roof, you will show me some respect."

I threw the rifle and knife onto his bunk.

"House?" he said with a scornful laugh, a laugh that sounded just like his ma's. "You call this place a house? This is a pigsty. How can you live like this? It smells like an ash-tray in a two-bit saloon. There are three empty rum bottles under your bunk."

"I see you're thrifty with your compliments," I shot back. "Just like your ma."

Tears welled up in his eyes and he said, "What did ma ever see in you, anyway?"

I would have laid him out right then and there, except for what he said next.

"And why in God's name did you walk out on us?"

Just like that, he spat it out. He wasn't wasting any time getting into it, but his tears got to me and doused the fire burning within me.

"The army sent me to Key West."

"And you never came back. You abandoned us."

"In case you haven't heard, it was your ma who filed for divorce."

"After you deserted us. What's the penalty for a soldier who deserts his post?"

"Shut your trap or I'll shut it for you." I threw the work clothes at him and said, "Put these on. You're going to earn your keep around here."

I stomped out of the cabin, slammed the door behind me, picked up my axe and strode over to the stump that I used for splitting wood and releasing demons. I put a cedar log on the stump and started wailing away at one log after another until I was drenched in sweat and covered with wood chips.

Jesse dragged his sorry ass out into the yard a half hour later. I put him to work making staves for the barrels that I used to haul turpentine, pine tar and rosin to the harbor. We worked together in silence, except for when he complained about it being "boring, stupid nigger work."

"It's Negro," I said, "Not nigger."

"Negro, nigger, it's all the same to me."

"Well, just so you know," I said. "This gum patch isn't part of the slavocracy. We do our own work around here."

Well, if this isn't part of the slavocracy, how much are you aimin' to pay me?"

"Pay you?" I laughed. "So you can go gadding about?"

When he spoke, his voice had found a lower register. "I mean to send the money to ma."

"To your mother?"

"Yeah. Your ex-wife, Ellen. Remember her? She's on hard times; renting a small room in the back of another family's house; getting by as a seamstress. A good one, too."

I was stunned. "Your ma never remarried?"

He shook his head in disbelief at my ignorance.

"What about Beecham?"

"Ma did what she had to do. When you didn't come back, we moved in with the widower Beecham; lived in his manse for a couple of years; but he never actually married ma. Never legally gave me his name, either. I just took it. When he died, we had to fend for ourselves again."

Up until I laid eyes on Jesse, I had assumed my ex had married the man who got her pregnant. Then, I figured she had latched onto someone named Beecham. It never occurred to me that a good looker like her wasn't hitched.

I thought she lived high on the hog and a damn site better than I did. In all those years, I had never sent her a dime. Now, the full meaning of my mistake was staring me right in the face. I felt lower than a snake in a wagon wheel rut.

"How much were you bringing home in Charleston?" I asked.

"I made $8 a month," he said, "cleaning out stalls and such until the farmer's son made the mistake of taking a switch to me—like I was some field nigger. Then ma said I best high tail it down here."

"You didn't—"

Kill him? No such luck. But don't change the subject. We were talking about me not being a slave."

"Right," I coughed. "Well, it is a helluva lot harder working down here in this heat and humidity. Tell you what, I'll pay you $11 a month. And, trust me, you will earn every penny."

That was damn good money in those days. But it was a debt way past due. Jesse didn't say a word; he just kept on working; probably figured he had won the first skirmish in what would become a long-running battle.

After I put in my chops, I went back to the cabin. That's when I saw why Jesse had been rummaging through his steamer trunk. A framed daguerreotype of his mother sat on the shelf next to his bed. Ellen was still a looker. I'll give her that.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The tension between Jesse and me never let up. In fact, it got a whole lot worse as the presidential election of 1860 approached. Abe Lincoln ran for president with solid support from the Northern abolitionists, which set Southern rabble-rousers to ranting and raving. They called Abe an ape and a black Republican and nine Southern states refused to put his name on the ballot. Yet, Lincoln out-polled all the other candidates and (near as I recall) won the election with something like 39 percent of the popular vote.

Talk of secession kept the "sparkie" at the telegraph office working over time. I thought secession was the stupidest thing I had ever heard. I mean Florida had only entered the Union 16 years earlier. Now the fire-eating radicals demanded that we fight our way out. In the entire South we had only a handful of iron works capable of producing cannons. There was no way we could beat the North.

Of course, Jesse saw things differently. My hotheaded son said:

"Secession would be the best thing to happen to the South since the invention of the cotton gin."

"Really," I said. "How many bullets can a cotton gin fire?"

"Whose side are you on anyway?"

"I'm on the side of peace."

"Well, you're on the wrong side of history," he shot back.

It just so happens heaps of people sided with Jesse. They believed it when the politicians claimed we had a constitutional right to withdraw from the Union. They trusted the blowhards who said we could throw off the shackles of import taxes. They "Amen-ed" when the preachers claimed that slavery was part of the Almighty's plan.

My drinking buddies at the Salty Dog Saloon and Gambling Hall thought that secession would lead to a new golden age for the South. Of course, they said, there might be a little dust up with the North; but, they wagered, it would be over in time for spring planting.

None of those high-minded fellows had anything to say about the possibility of losing. Most of them had never fired a shot in anger. They'd never felt what it's like to see your friends bleed out in front of you. They'd never heard men crying out, begging to be put out of their misery. They'd never smelt the stench of a battlefield littered with the bloated bodies of men and horses. They'd never heard the deafening roar of cannons or the ping of a bullet that has narrowly missed your head.

I knew a hundred ways a man could die and I saw them all play out, night after night, in my dreams. I knew war was insane, especially a civil war.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~