For today’s post, I thought I’d use an excerpt from my anthology, Stories of the Confederate South. You can learn more of the book by clicking on the link on the sidebar. I chose the story, “Manhunter, “a story I constructed after reading the diaries of several Federal soldiers who were confined in Camp Ford, a post near Tyler, Texas, along what is now Highway 271. Up to 5,000 captured Yankees were imprisoned there late in the war. I think there’s a song lurking beneath the surface of the camp’s story, and I hope my research will lead me to it. Chicolithe, the main character of the story, is based on a real person. Molly Moore, the poet mentioned later in the story, is also based on a real person.
There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men
long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.”—Ernest Hemingway
The thunderclap woke Chicolithe. He stretched his legs on the rope bed and listened to a surge of wind as it roared through the pine tops and to the rain as it pounded the wooden shingles and slid from the roof to slap puddles of water on the hard clay ground. He sat up and looked out the cabin’s one window by his bed. The thunder echoed through the piney hills like enfilading cannon, and he heard a bolt of lightning crackle high above the earth, burning sky and air until it augured its tentacle downward into a pine. He heard the tree split and crash into the ground. As the storm moved eastward, the thunder eased into rumbles and the lightning into white-charcoal screens. His bluetick hound stirred, and the dog’s tail thumped the bedpost. Chicolithe reached down and scratched the animal’s head.
“One of them will run tonight, Nimrod. Best get some rest, boy.”
The dog blew out a breath, licked Chicolithe’s hand, and rested his muzzle on his outstretched paws.
Chicolithe rose an hour later, let the dog outside, and then moved to the stool at the fireplace. He threw pine kindling onto the embers and blew them into flame. The blackened clay of the stick-framed clay chimney was cracked and thick with charred pine resin. The smoke swirled and looped inside its black crypt, then spiraled up the flu into the gray sky. After the logs caught, he let Nimrod back inside and made coffee and a small boiler of cornmeal mush. As he ate, he stared into the flames, his thoughts taking him to earlier pursuits of these erratic and desperate men in blue coats.
He heard the splash of brogans wading through the mud and puddles outside his cabin. A small hand, not a man’s fist, pounded on the door. It would be one of the guards from Camp Ford. Slipping his suspenders over his shoulders as he rose, he opened the dilapidated pine-board door. “Come on in, boy. Get dried off.”
The fifteen-year-old stepped inside, removed his slouch hat, and squeezed the water out of it. “I’d like to visit a while, Mr. Chicolithe, but I got to get back to the fort. Colonel Allen wants you to come right away with your dogs. Some Yankees run away last night.”
“How many this time?”
“Colonel said a half-a-dozen of ’em.”
Chicolithe ciphered the silver dollars he would earn if he could catch them all.
The boy held his hands over the fireplace. “It’s rained like thunder all night long. A cold rain, too. I reckon they thought the rain would cover their trail.”
“They thought wrong.” Chicolithe studied the boy who had already worked the camp for a year. The boy was one of about two dozen militiamen on guard duty at Camp Ford—all of them boys, old men, or stove-up soldiers—who guarded the 2,000 Federal troops inside the stockade. If the war lasted another year, this boy would be sure to sign on with regular Texas infantry or cavalry. A couple of the other boys guarding the fort seemed a bit addled and thickheaded to Chicolithe. He doubted they would ever be accepted for regular service, but this boy—he would be absorbed quickly.
A half-dozen. That meant that it wasn’t the impulsive blind run of a few soldiers who seized an opportunity, but it reflected a planned escape. Likely, they had weapons and food stored up and a route planned. Maybe some help from someone outside the stockade. If the escapees stayed together, they would be easy enough to catch, but if they split up, Chicolithe knew he would have a devil of time catching them all.
“Well, boy, help me load up the dogs, and we’ll be on our way. It sounds like the rain is letting up.”
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