HOME LIGHT BURNING
A Novel Based on Actual Facts and Events
MOVIE & TV TREATMENT
Log Line: Two Confederate soldier brothers suffer mental and physical humiliations during Reconstruction in Texas until one is imprisoned for killing his wife’s attacker and the other becomes a fugitive who must provide for and protect both families.
From the cover of tall weeds, Lev and Hy Rivers pick off Yankees from the decks of Brown Water Navy vessels in the final days of the Civil War. The pickings are easy and the kill rate makes them feel like butchers. As dark approaches, they ride through sugarcane fields to the banks of Yellow Bayou, a marshy arm off the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana to join the rest of the 19th Texas Cavalry. Hy spreads his bedroll and is soon lulled to sleep by lapping water.
Lev beds down, but can’t sleep. He looks down the bayou at cypress stumps that have been shaped into grotesque human forms with twisted appendages by the movement of water over time. A breeze across the water and moonlight creeping through moss hanging from tall cypress trees brings the warped sentinels to life and turns the water red with blood. Lev leads his horse Handler away from the water and into the sugarcane fields. He loops a grass rope around his bedroll to ward off moccasins and copperheads, lies down and worries about the trenches and undulations of what will be tomorrow’s battlefield.
A day later, the sugarcane fields are blackened by fire, the ground laid bare by horses and men. The fighting field, pockmarked with cannon holes and littered with hastily built breastworks, horse carcasses, broken wagons and firearms, bleeds with curling spirals of smoke from dying fires and scattered pieces of smoldering lead. The sounds of pain, cries for help, the squeals of dying horses, and the noisy retreat of cavalry give way to the sounds of lapping water. Squirrels bark; birds sing again.
The smell of warm blood and burning hair brings Lev to a state of semi-consciousness. He is in one of the trenches he worried about, wedged between two horses. “Handler.” Lev’s guttural whisper is followed by a horse’s squeal. The horse rolls back and forth across Lev’s legs as it attempts to rise. Handler is against a steep mound of earth, almost upside down, and cannot rise. When he tries again, Lev pulls his legs out and moans relief.
He pulls himself up enough to reach the gelding’s neck with one unsteady hand and draws back bloody fingers. The smell makes him gag. Another squeal and deep groan from Handler. Lev sees his carbine in the scabbard under the horse, his Navy Colt missing from its holster. He can’t end the horse’s pain.
He examines the growing stain on his shirt as blood oozes through a hole in his chest. He tries to feel his back to see if the bullet has gone through, but cannot reach it. He lies back to ease the pain and tries to survey the battlefield, but can only see a few feet in any direction.
Lev turns his head and stares into a pair of startled eyes, frozen in time, that belong to a horse with a dull gray coat and ribs showing. He screams for Hy. Only Handler’s groan answers. He looks up at the night sky in desperation and drifts out of consciousness.
Lev is awakened by his own screams and a dream that Lucifer is branding him in hell. The noon sun outlines a menacing figure above him, his boot planted on Lev’s chest, pressing a hot flat iron under Lev’s right nipple. Lev tries to push the iron away, but finds his wrists bound to wooden stakes.
“Don’t move, little brother. Just a second more.” Hy returns the flat iron to the fire and daubs the seared flesh with pig grease and chewing tobacco, then bandages it with a pair of clean longhandles. He cuts the rawhide from Lev’s wrists with his Bowie knife. The matching lines that ran from the top of Hy’s cheekbones to his jawbones deepen as his gaunt face grows solemn. “Bullet’s still in there.”
Lev studies his brother’s face under a month’s worth of rusty beard. Lev had his mother’s black hair, and Hy’s was the color of red oak leaves in the fall. He glances over at Handler—dead. “You have to shoot him?”
“Nope. Died before I could.”
Hy tends to Lev’s wounds and feeds him until Lev says he is fit to ride in a travois. Unaware of their cavalry unit’s location and sure that the war is over, they head toward Texas and home.
Lev and Hy find an abandoned filly with a US brand. An obese man lies dead next to the horse. They take the horse, the Yankee saddle and saddlebags, a little Confederate money, and a bottle of whiskey.
Lev feels a surge of strength aboard the horse, but then imagines the bullet ripping his internal organs and filling his body with blood. The brothers are weary and hungry when they cross the Sabine River into Texas. Three days past the river, rain drips from their hats and soaked clothes as they stop in front of an inn outside Rusk, Texas.
As they step on the porch of the inn, Anderson Bonner, a heavily armed large black man with hate-filled eyes, points a shotgun in their direction. A pretty young woman watches the confrontation from the corner of the building. Hy pulls his pistol and Bonner lowers his gun.
Sparse light inside the inn reveals Filson, a tall, lean, handsome man with heavy eyebrows and green eyes at an empty bar. His stringy-haired wife, Lydia, moves sawdust around the floor with a broom. Filson tells them that the town’s only doctor has recently died. When a hairless dog that smells of sulfur walks across the room, superstitious Lev declares the dog a son of the devil and walks out.
Olivia Brand, the young woman who watched the confrontation with Anderson Bonner, a black man who collects white scalps, gently grabs one of Lev’s reins. Her coarse rust hair is tied into pigtails with braided horsehair. She tells them that she is a barber, runs the apothecary, and is the daughter of the doctor who recently died inside the inn. Her house burned, she lives in the back of the inn. She persuades Lev to let her clean and tend his wound.
Olivia draws baths for the brothers, cleans and medicates Lev’s wound, and advises against removing the bullet. There is an attraction between them. Lev learns that her father was indebted to Filson and that she is working to pay off the debt. At supper in the bar, two Home Guard soldiers tell the brothers about Filson and his dog Slick. They question them about the filly and her Yankee brand and tack. Filson, backed by Bonner, pulls a shotgun and accuses the brothers of horse theft and murder. It seems that everyone in the area knows the filly Lev is riding and her owner.
Olivia, dressed for travel, appears behind Bonner with a pistol and disarms him. Lev holds the bar patrons at bay while Hy puts the barrel of his gun under Filson’s chin. Hy shoots Filson as they escape. Olivia has her horse saddled and ready to flee with them.
She leads them out of Rusk and toward their home in Ellis County. On the trail, she admits that she knew Filson’s plan to capture them and used them to make her own escape from Filson and his devil-dog. She also tells them the story of Butternut, the filly Lev is riding, the filly’s mother, and why Butternut will attack anyone in a blue uniform. Lev changes the filly’s name to Butter.
As they near the Rivers home, Olivia learns that Sebastian and Rachael Rivers, the brothers’ parents, do not live together and why Rachael stands on the porch with a lantern most nights. From the cover of trees near a bend of Chambers Creek, they watch the Rivers house and outbuildings until Rachael steps out on the porch. The brothers are surprised that their mother has dark circles around her eyes and that her black hair has turned almost white. Her first question is about their teen brother Alfred, who has joined the Confederate Army. Lev and Hy have not seen him. Hy’s auburn-haired, pregnant wife Hester, and young son, Otho, greet them.
Just before Lev and Olivia leave the next morning for Dresden to visit Dr. Robinson, Hester takes Lev aside and asks about his relationship with Olivia. She reminds him that her sister, Mary Ann, is waiting for his return.
Dr. Robinson offers Olivia a job and a place to live behind his apothecary in downtown Dresden. Lev and Olivia stand on the deserted street and kiss good-bye. Feeling that Lev will never be able to accept her past life with Filson, she urges him to see Mary Ann. He leaves her with his lucky rabbit’s foot. At dark, Lev and Minnie stop at Mary Ann’s. She is not home.
Lev and Minnie are close to home when Lev recognizes his old friend Wade Monroe in the middle of the road. Wade was Lev’s best friend until he threatened to kill Hy in a dispute over Hester. Sebastian had run Wade off his property with a shotgun on Hy and Hester’s wedding night. The handsome man with chiseled features is now a deputy sheriff and has come to arrest Lev and Hy for desertion.
Lev recognizes Sebastian Rivers’ posture as he rides a young mare down the dusty, moonlit trail behind Wade. Lev’s father stops at the buckboard and lifts his hat to reveal gray-streaked black hair that looks as if it has been cut with a dull ax. “It was getting hot, so I told McCulloch to trim it close.” A gray man and his gray horse appear out of the tree-moon shadows at the sound of his name. Sebastian points the fingers of his right hand at the man. “McCulloch, my cook and barber.”
The old man eases down from the saddle, bows, and makes a sweeping gesture with his hat, revealing white hair cut in the same fashion as Sebastian’s. His movements on the ground are jerky and Lev notices a tremor when he shakes his hand. But his remount seems like one unbroken movement without struggle, spasm or tic. The tremor disappears when he picks up the reins. Lev asks if he is kin to General Ben McCulloch and the old man says he rode with John Henry Brown when he took the general’s body from Pea Ridge to Austin.
Sebastian turns his attention to Wade, a man he always judged to be pretty, but worthless. Wade challenges the old man, but when he learns that the men he has stationed in the woods to help him have been tied to a tree by Sebastian and McCulloch, he points a finger at Lev before leaving. “We ain’t done.” Sebastian watches him ride away and tells Lev that Wade intends to marry Mary Ann.
Rachael is waiting on the front porch with her lantern as they approach. Sebastian tries to engage his wife in conversation, but receives only curt replies while Lev un-harnesses the wagon horse. Sebastian ruins what could have been a nice evening by using the Lord’s name in vain.
Lev’s dog, Boy, left behind when he left for war, awakens him the next morning. On the Waxahachie Square, Hy and Lev learn the likely location of their cavalry regiment and ride away to find it and to look for Alfred.
Lev and Hy present themselves to Colonel Watson in Arkansas to explain their absence and inquire about Alfred’s regiment. The soldiers grow restless as they monitor Yankee movements but do not engage. Lev and Hy are downcast when the regiment heads toward the Louisiana swamps. They are diverted to Texas and camp near Nacogdoches. Lev and Hy chance a nighttime visit to the inn at Rusk and find it closed and no sign of Filson.
Supplies, rations and horses run short and morale sinks as news of Federal victories reach them. John Henry Brown, commander of the Third Frontier District of the Texas Militia tells them of a planned Yankee invasion at the southern tip of Texas. He is recruiting the best horsemen to join him in repelling the Yankees’ only incursion onto Texas soil.
When Brown promises to help them find Arthur, Lev and Hy join the militia and arrive at Palmito Ranch on May 13, 1865. They push back the invasion—a symbolic and empty Confederate victory. Native Americans, Negroes, Mexicans and Whites all fight in this, the last battle of the Civil War.
Brown formally dismisses them from service with a warning that Confederate soldiers will suffer after the war. He advises them to join him in Mexico with their families. On the way home, Lev and Hy pass many Confederate soldiers, afoot, ragged and crippled. Two days away from home, Lev has not slept for two days and the morning brings a blanket of fog and mist. He thinks he feels the bullet tearing at his insides again.
Butter’s wet blanket and the smell of his own body repulse Lev as a water moccasin slithers away in a stagnant pool a few yards from their bedrolls. It turns in the water is if watching him—daring him. A bad sign. He swats a horsefly on Butter’s shoulder and pulls back a palm full of blood. Gnats swarm to the corners of the horse’s eyes and around his nose. He sees four men, two black and two white, dressed in blue uniforms obviously not their own. Butter rolls her eyes and pins her ears at the sight of blue.
A tall, thin man with yellow, pointed teeth orders them to halt and approaches with another man who looks to be his older brother. Two black soldiers rest their rifles across their saddles and stay put. Butter squeals and kicks when the man touches her US brand. The men try to confiscate Lev and Hy’s horses and weapons as Federal property. Lev feels his first real desire to kill. Lev and Hy take their guns and horses instead and leave the younger brother spitting out a tooth on the road, a victim of Lev’s hickory stick.
Rachael stands on the porch with her lantern while Lev and Hy lead four horses into her yard. Hy dismounts and runs to the house to greet Hester, Otho, and Kat, the daughter he has not seen. Sebastian appears from the woods as if he had been waiting for their arrival. The brothers learn that Alfred has just been buried in the family plot.
Sebastian and McCulloch examine the confiscated horses and weapons and say that they must be hidden. Confederate soldiers are not allowed to have weapons.
Six of the ten Rivers siblings and their families gather to celebrate the return of the soldier brothers and to honor Alfred. Hester’s parents arrive at dusk with her sister Mary Ann. Lev is surprised. She is still slight of form, but her face is fuller, her eyes soft. Sebastian plays his special waltz as Lev and Mary Ann dance. Lev feels the first real surge of warmth since the day he left Olivia in Dresden.
The next morning, Boy warns Lev when Wade Monroe leads three of the road bandits into Rachael’s yard. Wade demands the return of the horses and weapons. He stares at the house, smiling when he gets a glimpse of Hester peeking through a window. Sebastian recognizes the younger brother as someone called Rattle and demands that they leave his property. Wade turns to see Lev standing behind them with a rifle. They leave without the horses and guns.
McCulloch takes Lev to the secluded spot where he and Sebastian camp and where the horses are hidden. They head west with the horses and a pack mule. Lev is surprised by the hills and canyons gouged out of the rocky plains by centuries of flowing water. At the Leon River they encounter a band of Kiowa watering their horses. They decide to take the horses through the cedar breaks and make a run for Blair’s Fort.
The next day at sunset, a jug-eared, short horse buyer named Hap Hopkins arrives at the fort with two cowboys. They buy the horses and tack and offer Lev a job driving a herd of cattle and horses to New Orleans. He reluctantly declines, feeling that he is letting his father down.
McCulloch takes a different trail on the way home through deep canyons and ravines and down a deep, winding creek to a secluded area surrounded by hills solid with cedars. An unfinished cabin, a dugout against one rocky hill, and a barn with a corral have been built in the little canyon. Lev recognizes signs of his father’s handiwork and realizes that this is the place Sebastian wants to bring his family to escape Yankee tyranny.
Hy and Hester have moved to a Confederate widow’s farm when Lev returns. Sebastian brings Lev up to date on the atrocities of Reconstruction and elicits his help in convincing Rachael to move west. “We all gonna have to either move or fight. If we fight, we’ll lose … and they’ll hang us.”
A bath and his first good night’s sleep in days clear Lev’s head and he heads to Dresden before first light. He finds Olivia running a dentist, barber and apothecary shop. She is cutting his hair when he hears Boy yelp with pain just before Filson and Slick walk in. Lev is trapped under a chair-cloth without his gun.
From Captain Rutherford’s blacksmith shop, Hy sees Filson ride in and walks in the barbershop just in time to toss Lev his gun. Lev kills Slick when the dog attacks. The brothers dump Filson, unconscious from ether, in the weeds behind the shop. Olivia doctors Boy.
Olivia is angered when Lev questions her about Filson’s presense in Dresden. On the way out of town Lev and Hy encounter Lydia, Filson’s wife. She tells them that Filson poisoned Olivia’s father, killed her own father, and deserted from both sides during the war. She has followed him to Dresden to see the brothers kill him. His real name is Cullen Montgomery and he has convinced local federals to give him a position in law enforcement. “He’s after the woman, and he will have her. You kill him, I will testify at your trial. I got a job in the Dallas courthouse.”
Lev settles into the small cabin beside his mother’s house and is working colts in a corral when Filson, Anderson Bonner, Wade Monroe, and Rattle, all wearing state police badges, ride up leading Hy’s horse. Hy’s hands are tied and Bonner has a pistol against his head. They have arrest warrants for Lev and Hy for the murder of Luther Hathaway, Butter’s owner. In the courthouse in Corsicana, former judge Willis Crawford, an old friend of Sebastian’s, talks a Yankee lieutenant into releasing them for lack of evidence. “Coroner over there in Cherokee County said the man’s heart likely gave out from the exertion of a bowel movement. He was not shot.” Outside the courthouse, Filson takes out his anger on Bonner and turns an ally into an enemy.
Back home, Sebastian again urges them to move west. But Lev and Hy feel the trouble with Filson has ended, that they can abide other degradations by staying away from towns.
A crow brings Lev a sign and he proposes to Mary Ann. They are married and move into the small cabin. They buy land from Rachael and build a small house before their son Alfred arrives. Sebastian, still frustrated with military rule, is disappointed that they are putting down roots. He urges them again to move west. A sparrow flies into Lev and Mary Ann’s bedroom and out again – a sign of death. The next day, McCulloch drives up in a wagon. Sebastian is in the wagon’s bed.
Rachael tries to make up for their years of separation by taking him into her house and into her bed. He has been beaten badly by someone who denied him the right to vote, but McCulloch says he was deathly ill before the beating. Lev rides for Doc Robinson, but comes back with Olivia. She diagnoses yellow fever and leaves them little hope. Sebastian dies and Rachael dies soon after. Lev sees an apparition of his father in the smoke of a campfire, imploring him to head west.
Hy and Lev take a small remuda to Dallas to sell and leave McCulloch to take care of the women. John Henry Brown, passing through on a mission for his church, recognizes them on the streets of Dallas.
McCulloch has a stroke and Hester takes him into Dresden, leaving Mary Ann with the children. McCulloch dies. When Hester leaves Dresden with McCulloch’s coffin, Filson follows and rapes her. He kills Boy when the dog tries to protect Hester.
Doc Robinson and Olivia help to bury McCulloch and Boy just before Lev and Hy return.
Hester tries to keep the rape a secret, but Hy finds out. He and Lev search for Filson, but cannot find him. They decide to move west. Olivia learns of their plans and offers to set a trap for Filson by taking him to bed. Anderson Bonner helps. Hy kills Filson, and he and Lev take their families west to Sebastian’s hideaway in the hills.
They live in relative seclusion for almost three years, with Hy and Lev taking horses back and forth to Fort Worth and Dallas to sell. Olivia appears with her new husband bringing news that Lev and Hy have been indicted for murder and that they are both listed on Texas Rangers’ fugitive lists.
Lev and Hy renew their war pledge to choose death over capture. Lev is in the cedar-covered hills above the house when he sees a Texas Ranger arrest Hy. He puts the sight of his Winchester in the middle of Hy’s back as the Ranger leads him away, but can’t pull the trigger.
The Ranger takes Hy to Dallas for trial. Hy gives up his horse and saddle to a lawyer. He does not allow his attorney to mention rape. Hester is in the courtroom when he is convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to eight years in Huntsville Prison. He asks Hester not to write, to forget him.
Lev learns that the house is being watched regularly by a Ranger and cannot take the chance of going home. He watches over his family from the cedar breaks, living in caves and under cedar shelters, always on the move. A poor hunter and fisherman, he manages to leave food where his family can find it and finds himself becoming more animal than human. The bullet haunts him. Mary Ann signals him with a lantern each night.
Emmett Day, Hy’s cellmate and a trusted and capable prisoner who knows his way around the prison, keeps Hy from despair by constantly planning escape. He and Hy are sent out of the prison to work as part of convict crews building railways. Their plans for escape foiled, they are returned to Hunstville, where they meet Kiowa Chief Satanta.
Hester sends Otho back to Ellis County after he tries to kill the Texas Ranger that captured his father. Three years as a fugitive has made Lev less and less human. Nightmares and visions make him think he is losing his sanity. When he feels himself dying, he mounts Butter and she takes him to the house. Hester and Mary Ann find that Lev’s body is rejecting the bullet and remove it. They show him a newspaper article about John Henry Brown and urge him to go to Dallas to ask for his help in freeing Hy.
On the streets of Dallas, Lydia Filson finds Lev camped in an alley like a wild animal and takes him to John Henry Brown’s law office. Brown recognizes his old friend and agrees to write letters and work on a possible pardon for Hy. Lev is skeptical, but returns home with a lighter heart and clearer head.
From his usual lookout spot in the cedars, he sees Wade Monroe and Rattle ride into the yard as the Ranger watches from his usual spot on the south canyon wall. Wade strikes Mary Ann and Lev rides down the mountain. He breaks Wade’s knee with his hickory stick. Butter stomps blue-uniformed Rattle. Lev heeds Mary Ann’s pleas not to kill them, ties them both across their horses and chases the horses back toward Ellis County. On the way back to the cabin, Lev openly challenges the Ranger to show himself. The Ranger stays hidden.
Hy watches friend Emmett cough up blood and waste away. Emmett has received a letter saying that his wife is near death and that his little boy has died. He begs Satanta, who has bragged about being free soon, to help him escape. Satanta refuses. Emmett dies. Satanta fakes a heart attack, is taken to the prison infirmary and jumps to his death in the prison yard. Hy, feeling abandoned, opens the letters Hester has written and writes one to Hester.
Following instructions from John Henry Brown, Lev rides into Palo Pinto to check at the post office for messages. There is one from Brown and one from Olivia. Brown’s letter instructs Lev to get a signed affidavit from Olivia saying Filson killed her father and raped her and another affidavit from Hester saying that he raped her. There is also a petition to be signed by Ellis County citizens on Hy’s behalf.
Olivia’s letter is addressed to Hester. She has been shot by her husband and is back in Dresden being nursed by Doc Robinson. The bullet cannot be removed. She offers to confess to killing Filson if it will help Hy.
Lev takes the women and children to Ellis County. In Dresden, he finds Olivia near death, but gets the affidavit provided by Brown signed. She drops his rabbit’s foot in his hand. Wade Monroe, crippled and blind in one eye, tries to stop Lev as he leaves. “Damn horse drug me and kicked me till he got tired. Cedar limb tore out my left eyeball. Aim to kill all you Rivers before I’m through.” A blow from the barrel of Lev’s pistol puts out Wade’s other eye.
Lev meets Hester and Mary Ann and Judge Willis Crawford in Corsicana. They have the remaining documents requested by John Henry Brown. Lev delivers the documents to Brown in Dallas. Brown leaves for Austin to meet with the governor and Lev returns to the hideout on Palo Pinto Creek. When he sees a white owl fly in a circular pattern above him, he knows Olivia is dead.
Feeling defiant, Lev stalls his horses and sleeps in the barn. The Ranger follows a polecat’s scent left on one of the horses, surprises Lev and takes him prisoner as he cooks a pullet in the front yard.
When they head out of the valley toward jail the next day, two wagons emerge out of the mist along the creek. Hy drives one wagon, Hester by his side, children in back. Otho rides alongside. Judge Willis Crawford drives the other. Mary Ann cradles her newborn son on the seat beside him, Lev’s other children in back. Crawford presents Hy’s pardon to the Ranger and offers his assurance that charges against Lev will be dropped. The women invite the Ranger inside for a Christmas meal. He tosses a knife to Lev to untie his hands. Lev looks up into the cedar breaks where he lived for years and drops the rabbit’s foot into little Alfred’s hand.