Destruction cometh; and they shall seek peace, and there shall be none.
Izard County, Arkansas
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.”
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.
“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.