On the Eve of Conflict

The Excerpt

The fire leapt merrily on the hearth.  The supper dishes had been washed and put away, and the evening chores were done.  Mr. Kinkade was sitting in his favorite chair and staring into the fire.  His wife rocked slowly in her high-backed, wooden rocker, quietly darning socks for her husband.  Duane lay on the rug in front of the hearth, drawing pictures on wrapping paper with pieces of charcoal. Pounder lay napping, close to his side.

The man did not take his eyes off the fire as he addressed his wife. “Laura.”  He paused.  “Ya know the South is secedin ta become the Confederacy. Well I heard taday thet fightin broke out in South Carolina ‘n Lincoln declared war.”  He stopped and turned toward her.  “I signed up taday ta help defend Arkansas if she should come ta be attacked.”

The boy dropped his piece of charcoal and looked up at his father. Even though he had expected his pa to sign up, the reality that he had actually done so came as a shock to him. His mother stood up and, laying her darning aside, walked over to where her husband sat.  Tears welled up in her eyes and dampened her cheeks.  He reached up and clasped her hands in his, then pulled her into his lap.  The dog merely opened his eyes to watch, though sensed the boy was upset and tensed to move if the boy should.

“Oh, Andy!” she cried and buried her face in his arms.  He stroked her hair gently as he held her close and tried hard not to cry.

Duane felt a sudden emptiness in the pit of his stomach.  He left his drawings and slipped out to the porch. His cheeks glistened wet as he looked out toward the shadow that was the barn and up toward the broken moon.  His mouth quivered and he began to shake all over.  The dog slipped silently to his side where he sat and watched the troubled face of the boy he loved. Grasping a post at the edge of the porch, Duane held tightly as he stood sobbing silently, the tears streaking his face.  Suddenly the boy ran from the porch toward the haystack beside the barn.  He threw himself down, buried his face in his arms, and cried out his heartache to the hay.  He lay there a long time asking God why there had to be a war and why his father had to go. Pounder followed to lay by his side and lick the tears from his face.  Duane caressed the soft head, then wrapped his arm around the thickly coated neck in an affectionate embrace and buried his face in its softness.  The tears flowed as Pounder whined his concern for his grieving master.  Finally the boy calmed down enough to notice that someone was approaching.

“Dee?” his father spoke gently.

Duane rolled over onto his back and gazed at his pa.  Mr. Kinkade sat down beside him and the boy crawled closer to his father and lay his head in the security of his pa’s lap.  For a few minutes neither spoke.

“Pa,” the boy began, “why do ya have ta go? Can’t they fight without ya?”

“Son, if ev’ry father thought they could fight without him, the South wouldn’t stand a chance.”  He held his son affectionately, caressing his shoulders as he hugged him close.

They sat there quietly as the sky slowly rotated over their heads.  Strong arms wrapped the boy gently and held him close, hoping to God that he would be coming back after the war.  Duane looked at his father and saw the hurt and the worry that he was feeling as he gazed intently at his home.  The man’s eyes turned to his son.

“Ain’t it time ya git ta bed? Yer ma’ll wonder where ya got ta.”

“Ain’t tired, Pa.  I couldn’t sleep now nohow.”

His father stood up bringing Duane to his feet by his shoulders.  The dog rose to his feet and watched.  Grasping the boy’s right shoulder firmly, the man turned his son in the direction of the lane.  Pounder eased himself to a seated position and watched them go.  They strolled slowly down the dirt and gravel pathway and across the meadows to their favorite fishing hole.  Dark silhouettes of trees against the starlit sky seemed to float overhead as they passed along the ground between them.

Ma watched them from the doorway as they drifted through the moonlight, growing smaller in the distance.  She understood, and turned to the hearth to keep the fire going and to await their return.  Pounder, too, understood.  He returned to the house where he lay down at the top of the steps to await their return.

The glistening silvery meadow smelled sweet in the night air as father and son walked quietly side by side.

“Pa, what’s war like?”

“I dunno, Son.  I’ve neve been in one b’fore.  I s’pose it’s bloody ‘n tirin ‘n prob’ly som’thin cruel.  I fig’r when men go ta war, they fergit the enemy is people jest like them.”

They continued on quietly for a time.  Passing through the stand of silent pines, they came upon the meadow. They went on until they reached the darkened shape that was the oak, and there they stopped.  The water rippled and gurgled along, interrupted every once in a while by a flash and a splash as a catfish broke across the surface.

Duane watched in silence as he relaxed against the sturdy figure who stood behind him.  His pa absentmindedly rubbed his son’s arms against the chill night air.

“When the war’s over, Dee, we’ll come down here afta the big one out there.  Next time he won’t steal my pole.”

They both smiled at the memory.

The two stood there a long time, like statues in the night.  It was a special feeling, a need each had to be close to the other, knowing full well there was much to do before the parting, and there was a distinct possibility they would never see each other once his father left.  An owl hooted in the distance.  Crickets sang in the grass. The need passed.  The two turned and started back toward the house.

The dog stood as his master and the man crossed the yard toward the house, then preceded them inside.  Mrs. Kinkade was darning socks when they arrived, and laid her work aside as the two entered the cabin.

“Night, Pa,” Dee whispered after they had closed the door for the night. He went to his ma and kissed her lightly on the cheek.  “Night, Ma.”

Pounder followed the boy into his room.  The boy’s room was small and sparsely furnished — his bed, a wardrobe, and a chair.  As he kicked off his boots and changed into his nightshirt, he could hear his parents banking the fire for the night.  The lamp light dimmed and went out.  Tossing his clothes in a heap on the chair, Duane climbed into bed and sat with his knees tucked up under his chin.

The dog raised himself halfway onto the bed and pushed his muzzle under Duane’s wrist.  The boy stroked the muzzle and face, then tossled his ears gently with both hands.

“I love ya, Pounder,” he said softly.  The dog whined his own love for the boy.  “Go ta bed, now, boy.”

The large shadowy form slipped from the bed and curled itself into a comfortable position across the doorway.

Faint moonlight drifted in the window, casting a glow on the room. Duane sat there, his mind reeling, but blurred.  He was tired.  Pulling up the quilt, the boy settled down into the bed, closed his eyes, and drifted into sleep.