They Shall Seek Peace, fiction by Dennis Humphrey

Destruc­tion cometh; and they shall seek peace, and there shall be none.

Ezekiel 7:25

Izard Coun­ty, Arkansas

Novem­ber, 1861

If Lemuel Clump had been just a lit­tle bit quick­er, he’d have known when to act just a lit­tle bit slow­er. It might have put off Ab Swin­son in the first place when he’d come around with his fevered ideas about the war, about the bush­whack­ers and jay­hawk­ers that were rid­ing all up and down the coun­try, about pro­tect­ing their homes from the likes of either of them. It might have led the young Con­fed­er­ate offi­cer to con­sid­er him piti­ful enough to be harm­less if Lemuel had sim­ply stared back slack jawed in a mute plea of igno­rance when the offi­cer had ques­tioned him about the yel­low strip of cloth tied to the front porch post of his shack.

The plain truth was, Lemuel hadn’t any more idea what Ab or the Con­fed­er­ate offi­cer were in such a sweat about than his raw­boned mule knew why it dragged his rick­ety plow through the red dirt and rocks year after year after year on the plot of ground that was Lemuel’s most­ly because no one else want­ed it. Ab had always been a decent enough neigh­bor, a mite pushy maybe, but Lemuel would nev­er have sus­pect­ed him of try­ing to play any­thing on him. He had seemed square enough about it that day in the fall when he’d inter­rupt­ed Lemuel’s prepa­ra­tions for hog killing with his pitch for his “Peace Soci­ety,” as he called it. Still, Lemuel was habit­u­al­ly leery of soci­ety of any kind, con­tent to stay out of the world’s way on his ridge. He both­ered no one and expect­ed noth­ing more from the world than to have the favor returned. As Ab stood beside him, shift­ing from foot to foot, Lemuel sat astride his chop­ping block, hon­ing the blade of his axe with a hunk of native whet­stone. His slen­der face was placid as he attend­ed to his task with the whet­stone, though his lean fea­tures were worn by a life of hard toil for mere sur­vival, for all that he was still under thir­ty.

See, Lem, it ain’t noth­ing but a way for all us up here in the hills to sort of band togeth­er for pro­tec­tion. I mean, if bush­whack­ers or jay­hawk­ers was to come through and burn you out, would it real­ly mat­ter what flag they claimed they did it under?” Ab’s round, beard­ed face was even more flushed than usu­al with the ener­gy of his con­vic­tion, and it was plain it took con­sid­er­able effort for him to wait for Lemuel’s response.

Lemuel rolled the quid of tobac­co in his cheek. He’d heard about the bush­whack­ers’ and jay­hawk­ers’ raids all over the Ozarks. Law­less bands of rid­ers, mur­der­ing and tak­ing as they pleased in the name of one flag or anoth­er.  The rocky ridge he scraped for what life it could give him wasn’t much com­pared to bot­tom land farms like Ab’s down in the val­ley below the ridge, but he’d buried his pa and his ma in it after they’d worked to clear it. It had soaked up his sweat and his flesh and his blood. He couldn’t bear to think of it dri­ven beneath the heels of mur­der­ers and thieves, north­ern or south­ern. He lift­ed his heavy eye­lids enough to glance up at Ab, who seemed beside him­self wait­ing for Lemuel to answer. It had been a long time since Lemuel had had a decent chaw of good tobac­co, and he was just think­ing that Ab was about as good a fel­low as one might wish for in a neigh­bor, pushi­ness and all. He felt the edge of the axe blade with his cal­loused thumb, and resumed apply­ing the stone in slow ellip­ti­cal rhythm. “I reck­on not, Ab.”

’Deed not!” Ab’s pitch shot forth again as though popped from behind a cork. “And see, that’s why we need this here Peace Soci­ety, to keep the peace. We ain’t look­ing for no trou­ble.  We’re just con­vinc­ing trou­ble to let us alone is all.”

Lemuel spat a stream of tobac­co juice and paused his sharp­en­ing to wipe his stub­bled chin. He wiped the juice from his hand on the patched knee of his over­alls, and then test­ed the edge of the axe blade again. Lemuel nod­ded his nar­row head with grim slow­ness, and he set the axe aside. Then he pulled his Arkansas Tooth­pick from its sheath on his belt, and went to work on it with the whet­stone.  “What do I got to do?”

Noth­in much. Just be ready to come help if any of our farms is attacked, and swear as you won’t tell our society’s secrets to no one.”

Reck­on I can’t tell no secrets I don’t know, Ab.”

That’s good enough for me, Lem.” Ab wad­dled over to Lemuel’s porch, skirt­ing a sow and her squeal­ing brood of shoats which had no idea what was about to befall them, and he tied a strip of yel­low cloth to the rough cedar post that sup­port­ed the porch roof.

What’s that for?”

It shows you’re a mem­ber of the Peace Soci­ety, Lem, and only oth­er mem­bers will know it.”

Well, now, I got me a secret to keep after all.”

Ab strode back over from tying the yel­low cloth a changed man. All the fever had left him, and his face shone now with a warm sat­is­fac­tion.  He looked at Lemuel, still hon­ing the knife, and then he looked at the shoats, two of which were fight­ing over a bare corn cob. “Reck­on it’s cold enough for hog killing, Lem?”

Lemuel stopped hon­ing the blade and plucked a hair from his head. He dragged the hair across the blade, and the hair fell in two. “Reck­on it’s a mite cool­er up here on the ridge come morn­ing than it is down the val­ley.”

 

Lemuel thought lit­tle of it when the Con­fed­er­ate offi­cer rode up the nar­row road with a col­umn of dis­mount­ed troops in trail. Lemuel had no quar­rel with them, and might have joined them despite his lack of per­son­al stake in the eco­nom­ic or polit­i­cal issues of the war, but Ola was near ready to birth again, and his old­est boy, Seth, was still too small to han­dle a plow. Lemuel stood with an arm­load of fire wood halfway across the bare, packed earth between the unpaint­ed clap­board house and the smoke­house near the wood line, pre­pared to watch the col­umn pass by along the road.  It did not even occur to him to won­der where the unit could pos­si­bly be going on a road that led only a few more miles out into the wilder­ness after pass­ing Lemuel’s place. Then the offi­cer rode right into Lemuel’s yard, up to the front of Lemuel’s shack, and tore the yel­low strip of cloth from its post with­out so much as a “howdy,” as the dis­mount­ed col­umn halt­ed and made a fac­ing move­ment toward Lemuels’s yard. Lemuel did think that was a lit­tle odd. Look­ing clos­er, he saw a dis­mal look­ing string of men on a chain, strag­gling at the rear of the col­umn, bear­ing the dis­tinct look of men who hearti­ly wish to be else­where. Lemuel looked back toward the offi­cer.  “Some­thing I can help you boys with?”

The offi­cer held the yel­low strip of cloth in his gloved hand and thrust it toward Lemuel. “What is this?”

Well it ain’t no secret sign if that’s what you’re think­ing.”

Cor­po­ral.”

One of the dis­mount­ed troops in the small detach­ment accom­pa­ny­ing the offi­cer stepped for­ward. “Sir?”

Put this man with the oth­ers and have a squad search the premis­es.”

The cor­po­ral salut­ed.  “Yessir.” He motioned two oth­er con­fed­er­ate enlist­ed men toward Lemuel and direct­ed sev­er­al more toward the house.

Say, what’s this about?” Lemuel dropped his load of fire­wood and tried to pull free as one of the sol­diers grasped his shoul­der.

Qui­et you!” The sol­dier hold­ing his shoul­der gave him a shake as he secured a bet­ter hold on Lemuel. He pulled the knife from the sheath on Lemuel’s belt and held it up. “Well looky here boys. Now who was you aim­ing to skin with that, you trai­tor?”

Lemuel ceased strug­gling turned his slow gaze to the man in dis­be­lief. “Trai­tor? Trai­tor to what?”

Blue bel­ly scum.” The man thrust the knife into his own belt and began push­ing Lemuel toward the chain gang at the rear of the col­umn.

Lemuel was about to explain he had to tend the smoke­house, or his meat would not cure, when a woman’s voice cried out as sev­er­al of the sol­diers burst through the front door of the house.  “Lem!”

Ola!” Lemuel pulled free from the two sol­diers hold­ing him and made for the shack, but he was tack­led from behind. He kept scram­bling for the house long enough to see Seth jump out the side win­dow. He stood and looked toward Lemuel, his eyes wide.

Pa?”

Run boy! Run! You take them woods and run far as you can!” The boy hes­i­tat­ed, and Lemuel shout­ed “Go!”

Seth jumped and began sprint­ing toward the woods. When Lemuel rolled on his back to try to throw the men off, he saw the raised rifle aimed at his boy sil­hou­et­ted against the iron gray sky, hes­i­tat­ing there.  Lemuel kicked the knee of the sol­dier, send­ing the aim high and wide as the piece fired. The sol­dier looked down at him, rais­ing the rifle butt above Lemuel’s head, where it seemed to hang in the dis­si­pat­ing smoke of the missed shot.

Lemuel’s mind retreat­ed to a warm, green day when his father first showed him how to snag pan­fish from the creek below the ridge where they were carv­ing out a farm in the raw wilder­ness. Now that Seth was old enough, he’d planned to show his boy that same fish­ing hole the com­ing spring. He could see it, his boy, drag­ging his flop­ping catch onto the bank, slick scales swap­ping col­ors as they turn this way or that to the sun­light, pur­ple and green, the boy poised over it like a fish hawk before pounc­ing to pin it down and get a hold so it won’t get away, just as Lemuel had done all those years before, hold­ing his catch up for his father’s approval.  He saw it so clear­ly that he was only vague­ly aware of the rifle butt com­ing down, down.  Then all was black.

 

Den­nis Humphrey is Chair of the Eng­lish and Fine Arts Divi­sion at Arkansas State University—Beebe, where he teach­es writ­ing and lit­er­a­ture. He holds a PhD in Eng­lish with Cre­ative Writ­ing empha­sis from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisiana at Lafayette, and he lives in Beebe, Arkansas with his wife and five chil­dren. His fic­tion has appeared in sto­rySouth, South­ern Hum, Clap­board House, Prick of the Spin­dle, Blood­Lo­tus, Spilt Milk, and SN Review.

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One Response to They Shall Seek Peace, fiction by Dennis Humphrey

  1. Well, I'll be damned. I thought I was the only one crazy enough to use "Lemuel" as a char­ac­ter name.

    Great sto­ry, man! And I'm a suck­er for Civ­il War tales from the back­woods. It was all guts, but it wasn't all glo­ry. Good stuff.

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