Union Major Rip McKenna, blind, wounded and delirious, staggers off the Wilderness Battlefield in 1864 Virginia. Found wandering the woods, he is sheltered by Confederate Katherine Stuart and her hodge-podge family. Tortured by memories of war, survivor's guilt, and flashbacks, the recovering McKenna nonetheless returns to his command. At war’s end, feeling himself too scarred for the likes of Katherine Stuart, he heads west.
A profane, violent drunkard, McKenna settles in the Dakota Territory, where, years later, he meets Katherine once again. It is there, in the 'Hell on Wheels' of Cheyenne, that he must finally face his demons in order to rescue Katherine from the murderous madman who has stalked her across half a continent.
Home of Novelist L G Vernon
A sweeping story of war, loss and redemption, The Wilderness Road debuts on May 22, 2008. Published by Light Sword Publishing, it will be available at Barnes and Noble, Borders, Amazon and wherever fine books are sold.
It will be available to booksellers through Ingrams.
Othello nickered and stamped, stretching his neck to lip his master’s hand. Rip lay as he’d fallen some hours before, a weltering mass against the green of new grass. Mindless with fever, he’d toppled from the saddle as he’d done repeatedly during the course of his wanderings. Scorched and bloodstained, his new uniform was now a shredded ruin.
The bandage that once covered his thigh was gone and the stitched gash blazed, oozing. Rip’s skin, scratched and abraded, was exposed in places where the wool fabric of his uniform had been ground away–during interminable hours spent dragging himself along the ground. The dressing on his shoulder hung loose, still helping in a minor sense to protect that wound, but the wrappings no longer supported his arm, which dangled limp at his side.
His shoulder bled steadily, saturating the filthy bandage to again soak what was left of his tunic. Flies clustered across the wet expanse.
The forest closed in upon itself as darkness fell. With another night came the din of a million crickets, and mosquitoes rose from the dense foliage in clouds, ardent hunger driving them to torture their warm-blooded victims.
A heavy blue mist slipped low among the trees, sequestering the forest’s secrets.
Othello dipped his head. Skittish, he pawed the earth, snorting into Rip’s dark hair, ruffling it over one ear. Rip smiled at the familiar presence. Vaguely, he recognized the beat of his own heart, and knew a thickness was building in his chest which would eventually stop his breath. Trembling now, he’d long ago lost dominion over his body. His thigh and his shoulder throbbed, the pain and his thirst the only reminders that he still lived.
Helpless, he gave himself up to oblivion.
Robbie planted his fists on his hips and glared through the fall of cinnamon-colored hair over his eyes. “You promised I could go fishin’!”
“Robert Thomas Stuart Kerrigan, do not take that tone with me, young man!” Katherine lugged the sloshing bucket toward the back steps and sighed as she allowed it to thump down on the boards of the porch. These days it seemed that all she did was haul water in and slop buckets out. Turning to sit, she spread her legs beneath the many yards of her brown-checked work dress and drew Robbie between her thighs, trapping the seven-year-old with her knees.
“You know that you can’t go fishing—or anything else down at the river—when there are soldiers about.”
Robbie struggled as he pushed out his lower lip. “Bu—bu—but you promised me. You said I could go fishin’.”
“I know I did, son. But you know my job is to keep you safe. Remember? I gave your mama my word.” Robbie nodded grudgingly and Katherine continued. “Now then, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I let you run off down to the river and get tangled up with no telling what kind of riffraff, would I?”
She wrapped Robbie in her arms and pulled him against her, marveling at the milky skin and bronze freckles that so reminded her of Cora. Robbie butted his head against Katherine’s breast, and then resentfully settled into her embrace. She stroked through the waves of his hair. It needed cutting. “The Union troops crossed the river six days ago. I know it seems like a long time, but you stay close to July and August today. If we don’t see or hear anything, I’ll let you go fishing tomorrow.”
Katherine gauged the early morning sunlight. “July’ll be going up to milk Brownie shortly. You can go along with him for now.” The battle had to have been miles from here, she thought. We haven’t heard a sound.
Robbie whirled away and flopped his backside onto the porch. “I don’t wanna go milk no cows! I wanna go fishin’!”
“It’s any cows–and I already know you want to go fishing. I’m sorry. You cannot.” Katherine rose and dusted off her skirts.
Across the yard, the huge, hip-roofed barn hulked, its doors flung open to the morning air. From deep inside echoed the honey-sweet baritone of August, singing about the climb up Jacob’s ladder. Cascading over the richness of his voice was the laughter of Robbie’s three-year-old sister, Colleen. Katherine saw her inside the barn, devotedly trailing after the black man as he sang.
Robbie scowled in the direction of the music, and swung his grimy feet against the latticework of the porch skirt, clearly biting back the desire to sing along. “I hate that song,” he grumbled as his aunt picked up the bucket.
“You hate everything today,” Kate answered, a smile in her voice as she shouldered through the screen door into the back hall. “You just mind what I said and stay with the boys.”
The screen door slammed, signaling Robbie that he was alone. “I’m a man and I can go fishin’ if I want to.” He slid off the porch and landed on the balls of his feet, right next to some peonies that were just now turning back into bushes. He ripped around the side of the house, avoiding the climbing rose that always seemed to snag his shirtsleeve or his arm as he rocketed past. Reaching under the rhubarb plants at the front corner of the veranda, he grabbed his creel, along with the can of worms that he’d hidden there in the shade.
He stealthily lifted out the old fishing pole which once belonged to his Grandpa Stuart who’d told him it was the best fishing pole in all the world. Why, he could catch just about anything with that pole. Maybe he could even catch a whale!
Robbie took a last look around and then ran straight for the woodlands east of the house. He’d head north to the river once he was in the trees.
He stalled when he hit the timber, his guilty conscience crawling inside his shirt to inch up his spine. Fear whispered at the back of his neck as he rolled his eyes left and right—scanning the gloom—checking for the bummers his aunt had warned him about, skulking there, just waiting to grab a little boy like him.
It was dark in the woods and he nearly turned back, but then he spied the moss-covered log he often mistook for a bear, and right next to it, just like always, the splintery stump Grandpa Stuart had said looked exactly like a king’s throne.
Reassured, Robbie took a cleansing breath and worked on settling down.
What a scare-baby!
He straightened his rail-thin frame. He was gonna go fishin’ by golly, and no prissy old maiden aunt was gonna stop him.
He cut through the woods, all bony knees and elbows, until he caught the shimmering movement of the river through the pines. He stood just inside the tree line and watched, ensuring again that no one was around.
Aunt Kate took the fun out of everything! Here they lived miles and miles from anywhere and she acted like there was a Bluecoat behind every bush. Making Auggie hang those stupid yellow flags up all over the place, too. She’d said it would keep the soldiers away—that they would think they’d get sick if they came around. Robbie didn’t set much store by that.
He used his bare toes to scuff at the thick brown layer of pine needles on the forest floor and whistled absently through his teeth, smiling when he recognized the tune. Jacob’s Ladder! He decided then and there that if he caught any fish—no, when he caught the fish—he’d share them with July and August, and prissy old Aunt Kate could just go without.
Robbie strolled east, crossing swampy gullies and skirting smelly sinkhole ponds, until he arrived at the spot he and Grandpa Stuart had called their private fishing hole. Grandpa Stuart said it had been his very-own-most-secret-place until Robbie came along—and then he had shared it with him.
The Rapidan meandered north here. Huge boulders from some long-ago slide had tumbled down the hillside to rest in the river where they made eddies and backwaters, all blue and green and black. Dogwood trees leaned out over the water. Now and then, creamy leather petals from their blossoms fell, drifting slowly away toward Fredricksburg.
Fish rose, dimpling the glassy surface of the river as they snatched insects that floated there. Fat dragonflies, their wings flashing iridescence, buzzed in the sunlight and swooped low over the water.
Robbie climbed out onto the flat expanse of his fishing rock to revel in the warmth after his trip through the woods. The Rapidan had cleared following the rain of a few days past and he could see down into its depths. He baited his pole with a long red earthworm. It wiggled and squirmed, finally winding itself around the shank of the hook and up the line. Carefully, just as his grandpa had taught him, Rob lowered the hook into the water and let the sinker settle the line where it would.
He cradled the rod between his palms and noticed the places where his grandpa’s hands had worn the finish smooth. He wondered if God had fishing in heaven. If He did, then Grandpa Stuart was having the best time ever!
Robbie leaned back against the warm rock and decided it would be quite a while–probably lunchtime–before Aunt Kate figured out he was gone. She was gonna row him up Salt River for sure when he got back! He chewed his bottom lip.
Soon enough he felt a jerk on the line and pulled up a fat trout that twisted and flashed as he tugged it out of the water. Aunt Kate and his impending punishment receded to the back of his mind.
It seemed like no time until he had a dozen or so good-sized fish laid out on the wet grass in his creel, and a stomach that ground against his backbone. He noticed then that the sun was high in the morning sky.
In a lather, he packed up his gear and was back in the woods in a flash, breathless as he headed for the house. Deep within the trees, where sunlight was only a suggestion, his feet crunched along in a bottomless layer of dead leaves. Restively, he glanced over his shoulder. Halfway home, this blackest part of the forest always compelled him to run; still, he knew that old Aunt Kate was going to be down on him like all wrath, so he fought the urge and slowed to a saunter.
After all, Auntie Kate–angry–was scarier than anything he could imagine.
He sure had a heap of fine fish. Maybe that, he thought, will take the bite out of her tongue! Robbie grinned and paused to loiter over a hillock of saw grass, where he pulled up a wide green stem. Holding it across his lips, he whistled a tune. Boy, if there was one thing he could do, it was whistle.
He stopped the discord long enough to take a deep breath, and then he froze. For there in the solitary gloom—alone but for the trees that hunkered all around him—he heard the slightest insinuation of a voice.
The scruffy boy whirled in place, looking for the source of his name, but there was no one in sight. Not anywhere. Shakily, he drew a hand across his chest and felt the thundering drum that was his heart.
“Rob—Robbie—?” the ragged, gravel voice sighed.
Paralyzed again, eyes rolling, Robbie craned his neck. Something monstrous had risen up out of the thicket to his right. Claws outstretched, it came for him. But, what was it: A man, a monster, a bear?
Alone in the gloom, Robbie couldn’t be sure.
Whatever it was, nightmare or dream, the apparition towered over him—a broken, wavering scarecrow. Mute in his horror, Robbie backed soundlessly away.
“R-R-Robbie . . . z-z-zat you? It’s dark, Robbie . . . " the thing croaked, a hand groping pitifully in the still air, “ . . . let’s go home.”
Katherine hurried out of the kitchen. Lorna was crying. Climbing the staircase to the nursery on the second floor, she swept the tiny girl into her arms. “There now, sweetness, there’s no need to fuss. Auntie Kate is here.”
Katherine nuzzled her until the baby grinned and kicked her legs, then she lay the blond infant back in the crib and changed her diaper.
This baby had been the last great effort that her sister, Cora, had made. Five years Katherine’s senior, Cora had died three months ago—two hours after giving birth to this child.
Katherine had named her Lorna.
She lifted the infant to her shoulder and carried her downstairs where a bottle waited in warm water on the back of the stove. She sat in the kitchen rocker and fed her niece, playing with the baby’s feet and telling her silly stories as she suckled.
Finally, when Lorna’s eyes began to roll and the bottle fell forgotten from her rosebud mouth, Katherine tucked her into the wicker cradle in the corner and continued her work.
Several hours later, Katherine came to the end of a chore-filled morning and realized that Robbie hadn’t come around, not once, since she’d sent him off to help with the milking. Preoccupied with her duties, she hadn’t given it a second thought when July carried in the milk and Robbie hadn’t been on his heels. Carefully, she thought back.
She’d hauled water from the pump outside and filled the reservoir in the stove. She’d hauled more water to fill the copper wash boiler, then strained and separated the milk and poured the cream into the churn. She’d washed and hung diapers and set a pan of bread to rise. There had been no Robbie in all that time.
He was going to get the licking of his life!
Katherine, furious in her terror, hurried through the house, off the veranda, and down the long expanse to the river. That child would be the death of her yet! She hadn’t thought once about the boy after she’d left him on the back steps, and as soon as her back was turned, the little scamp had run off!
Neither July nor August had seen him.
Earlie May was behind the barn stirring down a simmering cauldron of soap. “I hasn’t seen him Miz Kate, but he’d rather set through one of Preacher Tomlinson’s sermons than he’p make soap, and that’s a fact.” She wielded the long wooden paddle, careful to keep her skirts out of the fire.
Katherine’s heart pounded as her forehead knotted with concern. “Watch the girls,” she said. “I’ll be back.”
Her long strides ate up the ground along the river as she headed for her father’s fishing hole. “No place for women!” he’d always said as he disappeared downstream. Katherine smiled in spite of herself, remembering the times she’d spied on him as he fished among the boulders half a mile east. She knew exactly where Robbie Kerrigan had gone. If she had her way, he wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week.
Katherine knew, too, as soon as the fishing hole came into sight, that Robbie wasn’t there–and she ran toward the rocks. Breathless, her heart thudding, she searched, clambering around and over the huge stones, clumsy in her long skirts. “Robbie!” she called. “Ro-o-obbie!”
Her stomach churned as she scanned the sluggish blue-gray of the Rapidan. Did he fall in the river? Did some bummer grab him? Katherine jumped off a boulder onto the soft earth and examined the shoreline.
She squatted, her knees snapping, and looked at the well-defined impressions. Her eyes narrowed, following the tracks. Bare feet! Little bare feet!
Giddy with relief, her outrage restored, she sprang upright. It could only be Robbie. The tracks headed up the bank and into the woods. Blast his hide!
Spinning on her heels, Katherine sprinted back up river. She wanted to be home, sitting on the veranda, when the little devil returned to the house.
Scant minutes later, she was perched in the glider in the shade, breathing hard, sweat trickling down the back of her neck. Earlie May took one look at her and went inside to prepare the noon meal. “Doan kill him, Miz Kate,” she said as she passed through the door. “He only a chile.”
Katherine was about to get up and go after Robbie again when she heard his voice in the woods. “Damn fool kid, anyway,” she muttered, weak with relief. “Goes off after I expressly told him not to, and now he’s got the audacity to take his sweet time getting back home.” It was all she could do to stay in the glider.
Languidly she lifted a hand to shade her eyes. “Is that you, Robbie? Quit talking to yourself now, and come on up to the house. Dinner’s ready.” She smiled, her lips tight. It almost choked her to be so sweet, but he’d get it soon enough.
She could see him coming, growing more distinct as he emerged from the thick copse of trees. He was swinging his creel, looking back over his shoulder at something in the woods. She heard him clearly now. “C’mon,” he said. “Just a little bit farther. You can make it—”
Mesmerized, Katherine stood and wrapped one arm around a column, her other hand coming up to clutch at her throat as she watched her nephew—his eyes big as saucers and his face white as milk—march stiff-legged out of the woods onto the east lawn.
What shambled behind him had surely stepped straight out of hell.
Katherine swallowed a scream. “No,” she whispered. “No—”
When he saw his Auntie Kate, Robbie raced toward her, relief all over him. His creel and fishing pole went flying, the much-coveted fish peppering the grass. “Aunt Kate,” he exclaimed waving his arms, “Aunt Kate . . . I found a giant . . . he’s hurt terrible bad, Aunt Kate . . . he knows my name, Aunt Kate . . . Can you fix him? Can I keep him?”
Katherine gathered Robbie into her arms as she watched the thing that followed him shuffle brokenly toward the house. Horrific—it was, or had been—a man. Behind him ambled a great black horse, head down, reins trailing, its gore-covered saddle and flanks crawling with glistening bluebottle flies.
Robbie, trembling but safe in the arms of his aunt, grinned like a fool and babbled like a brook. “He knows my name, Aunt Kate . . . He’s mine . . . I know he’s mine . . . He was in the woods close by Grandpa’s fishin’ spot . . . ” His brow furrowed worriedly. “He’s hurt terrible bad . . . I don’t think he can see . . . keeps sayin’ it’s dark.” Distraught, he pleaded for his new friend. “Can you fix him, Auntie Kate? Please . . . can you fix him?”
Katherine clutched Robbie and watched as the big man staggered out of the trees and across the lawn—a tattered, bleeding remnant. Everywhere she looked, Kate saw filth, and blood. Some was old—the crusty, rusty brown of worn out iron, and some new—viscous and shiny as it snaked its way toward the ground. The man’s hair and clothing were spangled with the refuse of the forest: leaves, mud, pine needles, and bits of bark.
Stumbling, he doggedly advanced toward them, his right arm stretched out, probing the air. Near the veranda, he stopped and wheeled uncertainly in the afternoon sun, like a windmill when the last breeze dies away. His chest heaved, his breathing audible, rasping. It was clear that a dreadful fever raged in him. “Rob . . . where ya at . . . Ma’s gonna tan us fer sure . . . ” He continued to move in a wavering circle, his voice the thin, pleading wheedle of a small boy. Anxious, he flapped his right arm. “C’mon Rob . . . it’s blacker’n a well-digger’s ass out here . . . Le’ss go home.”
Katherine recognized the vestiges of the Union uniform as she took in the devastation that was this man. Although instinct told her he was long past any ability he might have had to harm her, she kept her distance and held Robbie in the shelter of her body. Her voice quavered when she found it. “You are far from home, sir. How can we help you?”
Her heart in her throat, Katherine moved with measured step across the veranda. “Who are you, sir?”
The man jerked at the sound and squinted in Katherine’s direction. He swallowed audibly, his right-hand coming up to wipe at his eyes. “ . . . Name’s Rip . . . ma’am . . . Rip.” He squinted—his head turning this way then that—one hand continuing to paw the air.
Then his knees buckled.
He began a slow, twisting descent, to finally lay helpless on the red flagstone path at the foot of the steps. “Help me . . . please, ma’am . . . help me.”
Copyright 2008. L. G. Vernon. All rights reserved.