So, I’m packing up and preparing for my trip to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. It’s an odd feeling, a bit of nerves and a bit of excitement, like going away for summer camp. Which, in many ways, I suppose this is: it’s camp for writers, where instead of crafts we have workshops and instead of smores we have alcohol and instead of telling stories around campfires we tell stories in classrooms. (I do plan to do some hiking, so there’s that camp experience, too.)
I’ve been pre-reading my workshop-mates’ material this past week, and I’ve been thinking a lot about my own novel I’ll be workshopping with them — in truth, I’ve been more than thinking, I’ve been working on it — and, as promised, I thought I’d share some of that novel with you before I head into my writers-conference hiatus from the blog. But I decided not to share with you what I’m workshopping, mostly because I don’t know what that material is going to look like on the other side of this writers’ conference. And besides, you’ve already seen an early draft of some of it from last year’s NaNoWriMo.
So, as a treat (because I’m going to be gone from the blog for so long), I’m offering you a first look at new material, rough-draft stuff that I’m not workshopping these next two weeks, words no one has ever seen yet. You’re the first. Because, readers, I like you.
He thought they might deploy to the east where the real war occurred, and in the first weeks the troops he trained with wrote home with zeal about marching across their new nation or perhaps even boarding a troop train, but Craven wrote letters only to himself and mailed to his own home in a pretense so to avoid any questions, and in his letters he wrote the truth: that his outfit seemed determined to stay put. They drilled and played cards and a gunsmith sawed off a length of Craven’s barrels to better suit his shotgun to horseback. They’d heard for months of trouble to the north, in bloody Missouri, and after near a year in camp they marched north to join another command, but as they entered the Ouachita Mountains fighting broke out amid a wooded valley tightly surrounded by foothills and steep ridges. The only sounds were of gunfire and distant cannonshot and Craven whispered to the man beside him, “I thought there’d be more excitement among the men,” but he received no reply. As the powdersmoke collected in the valleys like acrid fog, Craven realized he has lost his regiment.
He drew his shotgun and leveled it into the smoke and he fired at shadows, both barrels so he bruised his shoulder as when he was a boy. He managed to pack another load in each barrel but the action was frenzied and he lost a fistful of waddings and dropped his horn so he had to dismount to retrieve it. Afoot, he ran into the haze firing again. He’d no idea if he hit anything or anyone. He knelt as men ran past and he reloaded but this time lost several nipples and someone loomed from the haze before he’d time to fix the second nipple. So he put his fists around the twin barrels and swung the shotgun like a club, but by then the man had departed or died by someone else’s shot. Craven saw his horse several paces off, dancing uncertainly and wheeling its wild-eyed head, and Craven ran back to it, leaned against it with one arm around its neck and the other sheathing the rifle. He reached across the saddle and drew from the saddle-scabbard his big Colt, checked the chambers. He remounted and cocked the hammer but he held his fire until a great gray shape loomed out of the smoke and in a panic he shot off one round into the flank of a horse that screamed and galloped sideways away from him then fell. Craven walked his own horse up on the fallen animal where it flailed on the ground trying to regain its legs, but if it ever held a rider the rider was gone now. Craven could see that the horse was beyond hope and he tucked his pistol into his belt and drew his shotgun again and dismounted again and pressed the barrels against the forehead of the horse and fired, and he didn’t bother to reload.
Men ran about in the shroud and a round passed his head so close his ear rang and he cocked and fired his pistol, the recoil of it surprising him and sending his arm high. In his panic he cocked it again and fired into the ground just from nerves. His horse had jogged sideways several paces and was turning circles unsure where to go, what to do, and as he made his way back to it, it stepped away from him at pace. He chased the horse for two full minutes through the battle, firing shots in all directions as he went, until he cornered the horse at a copse of trees and managed to calm it enough to lift himself into the saddle and there he stayed, stroking his horse’s neck.
He could still hear the voices of men but knew not which side any man fought for, and when he heard someone shout Every man for himself! he left the skirmishing to seek higher ground. When he found it, the battle had moved on without him, around a hillside and off in some direction he could barely discern.
Craven rode south for half an hour, his horse galloping of its own accord until they were clear of the smoke and then it slowed itself to a trot and Craven let it move at its own pace. When the horse stopped, it was at a kind of road, more a cart track, perpendicular to their path and, seeing no other trail to follow, Craven sat the horse and studied the track. He picked at an ingrown hair on one cheek and listened to the gunshots echoing indistinctly among the jagged hills, then he looked to the sky as though to determine the time though the overcast light showed him no news. He untucked his pistol from his belt and replaced it in its scabbard, checked his pack and the pouches at his belt just to reassure himself of his gear, then he rubbed his horse’s neck a few minutes and finally chose east and rode on.
After an hour he came on a house and stopped in the cart track to study it. He rode up and hitched his horse to the fencerail and dismounted inside the yard, but as he approached the house a small woman with streaks of gray in her bunned hair flew from the house, her skirts nearly tripping her as she waving her arms at him. She came close enough to call to him in a hoarse whisper that a gang of Yankee soldiers were in her home, taking leave of her stores. Craven looked back to his horse, the sheathed shotgun there, the pistol, imagined charging in after the men to rescue this woman, but he remembered the shotgun was yet unloaded, and how many rounds he’d left in the pistol he couldn’t recall. Instead, he turned and jumped the fence, from the bottom rail directly into his saddle, and he wheeled and spurred his horse so fast he pulled down the fencerail he’d hitched to. Behind him the shouts of men pursuing. He gigged his horse bloody, trying to put some distance behind him before the Yankees had time to mount and clear the fence after him, and soon he was far past the cart track and through a small creek and charging up a shallow hill.
Craven reined in near the crest and checked his pursuers to find them fast closing, nearly to the creek already. He spurred his horse and at the top of the rise spied a nearby bit of woods, which he aimed for and entered just as he heard the Yankees splash into the creek. The woods were small but dense and rose in uneven slopes from the base of a foothill. The fastest route of escape would have been to ride the other side of the ridge hard downhill, using the momentum to aid his speed, and Craven reasoned the Yankees would reckon the same, so he rode a few hundred yards then cut a sharp line to the north, uphill into denser woods. It was slow riding but he soon found that in the fallen leaves his slower pace was muffled and he brought his horse up near a thick copse and ducked under the overhanging branches with his cheek to the mane and from the saddle he listened, half to the heavy breath and heartbeat of his horse and half to the sound of the Yankees. Sure enough, the gang of pursuers, whose numbers he never knew, went pounding over harder earth downhill, and soon he could hear them no more.
He caught his breath and calmed his horse, checking the gouges from his spurs and hugging the horse’s neck in apology. He wished he had an apple to offer and he scanned the trees in hopes of some fruit but found none. He looked down the hill again, knowing his escape was lucky and possibly temporary, for once the soldiers were out of the woods they’d see him missing from the open prairie and, if they were mad enough, they might turn around and retrace their path to find him. So he continued uphill until he found a cabin built into an overhang, three clapboard walls wedged under a stone shelf.
It looked so ramshackle he thought it might be abandoned, but in the waning light he made out a thin smoke from a stovepipe built crooked out the wall and around the lip of the rock, and soon thereafter a man emerged and, spotting Craven, called into the shack for his partners. Two other men exited, one of them holding a rifle on Craven. Craven drew his pistol, but neither man challenged the other as Craven dismounted and stood beside his horse to let the men approach. Soon they were close enough that Craven could recognize the rifle as a small yagger, a Mississippi rifle, and Craven lowered his pistol and greeted the men.
“I’m looking for McCorkle’s men,” Craven said, “a company of Arkansans and Texans, passing along the main road headed north to join General Van Dorn.”
The shack was on the east side of the hill so the last of the day’s light was failing rapidly, but Craven could see well enough to note the change in their demeanor. Still he saw no reason yet to take them for anything but deserters or men trying to avoid the war, and he pressed his case.
“Each man must follow his own conscience, and I don’t intend to bring y’all into it if you’ve no mind to join. I just need the road, if you could point me in the direction.”
But the man holding the yagger pressed its barrel into Craven’s chest and cocked the hammer, and each of the three men stood shaking their heads.
“You have wandered into the wrong camp, Reb,” the rifleman said, and another man took Craven’s pistol off him while the third grabbed the reins of Craven’s horse.
Want to know what happens next? Sit tight, gang — I’ll write the rest of this novel as fast as I can! And except for a (slimly) possible photo post or two, I’ll see you all again in two weeks!