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A sojourn to Jarrettsville

Professor of English

The following is an excerpt from… my forthcoming novel, Jarrettsville, which will be published next fall by Counterpoint Press. The speaker is a former Union cavalryman and his sweetheart, Martha Jane, is from a Rebel family. It’s 1865, just a few months after the end of the Civil War.

Nick 1865

“And you, have you killed anyone?” Martha had asked me on that sweet night when she let me capture her inside her brother’s barn. We were lying in the hayloft, and it was so black we could not see each other’s faces from an inch away. But every cell in our bodies reached to touch the other through our clothes.

“Not that I know of,” I said and tried to draw her back into a kiss.

She felt small and light in my arms, but she went stiff to hold me off. She could be persistent as a terrier when she wanted to know something.

“But you would know, wouldn’t you?” she said low but urgently. “You haven’t been in any battles, have you, or served on any firing squads? So you should know.”

I sighed. “I have arrested men and never learned what happened to them. They were sent to prison-camps, and you’ve seen what happens in some of them.”

It was one of the things that made me wake up in a sweat at 4 a.m., along with that farmer’s murdered family. I tried to imagine the real scale of the war, how many innocents had been slaughtered casually. And me, could I hate any stranger that much? I could.

“There are some I wish I could have killed, like John Wilkes Booth, when he was still at home in Bel Air. If I had only known what he would do some day!”

She seemed not to blame me for that and soon nuzzled her face into my neck. I tried to clear my head by exploring her hair with my nose. It did not smell like perfume or flowers, more like fresh-baked bread. That scent was especially intense on either side of her nose, and it made me wonder if there was a sort of musk gland there, something I had heard deer possess, along with all felines, from house-cats to tigers. When my nose insisted it should be allowed to root there for awhile, she surprised me with a long passionate kiss.

This pleasant development was interrupted by the arrival of her brother, the obnoxious pup, settling his holdings for the night, and in no time she had ushered me outside and disappeared down toward the house, leaving me alone and cold, bereft, with nothing to look forward to except a pint at Smithson’s before riding home.

The moon was dark that night, with clouds over the stars, and I had to find my way out to the road mainly by feel. Before I got there, a horse came galloping behind me, and a pot-shot cracked in my direction. I had to slide down the nearest muddy bank and lie still by a creek while he galloped back and forth across the fields, blindly firing in the dark. Flashes of gunpowder marked his movements, erratic as a giant firefly. Young fool probably thought I wanted his whiskey-still. I was lucky his horse didn’t trample me.

When he finally gave up and rode back to his barn, I scrambled through the woods to get my horse and pint. I was glad to get inside the warm interior of Smithson’s pub, filled with tobacco smoke and candlelight. Gabriel Smithson was a jolly man, portly and fair, and we were old friends, having gone to school to the same minister and engaged in various violent boyhood activities on the way home. He was long since married with a pack of children and was taking on the look of middle age, which had settled soon after matrimony onto every man I knew, though I did not see it in myself as yet. Tonight he whistled at the sight of me.

“Hope she was worth it, man,” he said, twinkling, and stood me the pint to celebrate the mud all over me, though he was only guessing where I had gotten it.