HOME LIGHT BURNING
A Novel Based on Actual Facts and Events
After the initial surge of strength and sense of well-being that came from riding a horse instead of being pulled like an invalid, Lev started to focus on the bullet. He imagined it ripping his internal organs and filling his body with blood. After running out of supplies, they ate what they could kill or steal and drank mostly from stagnant puddles or creeks when they could not find a cistern or well. When they camped, Lev searched for the bullet with his hands, figuring it would eventually work its way to his skin. When he slept, he searched for it with his mind, trying to locate the source of the pain. He was able to slow down his heartbeat almost at will now, thinking that it might keep bleeding at bay. The worry wore him down.
He felt better when they crossed the Sabine into Texas. They bathed in the river and filled their bellies and canteens. They had been traveling for a week, camping in the woods at night and taking to main roads as they felt distance grow between themselves and Yankees. No sign of any Confederates. They had used the sun for a guide, heading northwest as steadily as they could. They got lost once in heavy timber when clouds covered the sun.
Three days past the river, it started to rain just after they broke camp and rode away without breakfast. Drizzle had prevented a fire. Hy stopped the dun and turned in his saddle to look back at Lev. Water dripped off the brim of his hat. “How long you figure on going without eating?”
Lev rode beside him. “You ain’t got any rations left?”
“If you mean that stringy squirrel meat, no. I mean a real breakfast. A hot one. I never liked riding in the rain and there ain’t no officers telling us we got to keep going. And you, you look like death warmed over. We need to get somewhere in the dry.”
“Just like to keep moving since we got inside Texas. Feels like home and a warm bed are just around the next bend.”
“Well, they ain’t. Shoulda stopped in Nacogdoches last night. Sign back there said we’re in Cherokee County. Any idea how far it is to Rusk?”
“Figured we would have seen it by now.”
“Might be a doctor there. Damn sure would have been one in Nacogdoches.”
Out of habit, Lev stuck two fingers in his vest pocket looking for the makings to roll a cigarette. He found none. “You feel that bad?”
“Me? Hell, I been riding in front for a hundred miles to keep from stepping on you when you fall off your horse.”
They rode for another hour before they saw movement near a small building nestled in a little copse of pines. Black clouds made the day dark as night as they stopped in front of the box-and-strip building. A sign dangled on the porch. Good Samaritan Inn. They stepped down at the hitching rail, loosened their cinches and let their horses drink their fill from the water trough. They wound wet reins over the rail twice. Lev hung a spur rowel and stumbled as he stepped on the porch. Several boards were missing. “Watch your step. This porch has probably killed better men than me.”
Lev peeked through the road grime covering the poured glass part of the front door. He used his sleeve to wipe away cobwebs coated with red dust and the door squeaked open from the pressure. Sparse light from a single candle filtered onto the porch from inside.
Hy had one boot on the first porch step when he flinched. He drew his pistol and aimed at a dark form on the corner of the porch. A big black man leaned against a corner post, just out of the wetness. He wore a black rabbit fur hat with a flimsy brim, chaps turned black from blood and grease, a black muslin shirt, and black cavalry boots. Hammered-tin conchas ran down each leg and outlined the pockets of his Mexican chaps. The barrel of a belly gun hid just behind the buckle of his wide gunbelt. The man also carried a long-barreled revolver on one hip and a large knife on the other. The shotgun cradled in the crook of his arm pointed in Lev’s general direction.
He seemed unperturbed at having Hy’s pistol trained on him. “What are you peckerwoods lookin’ at?”
Hy was flustered that he had not seen the man until he moved. “We lookin’ at a nigger like to got himself shot. Still could if he don’t get a civil tongue in his head.”
The man moved away from the post and stood straight. Lev eased his hand toward his pistol as he looked over his shoulder. “You carrying enough hardware to load a man down. Expecting trouble?”
“Always expect trouble when a couple of no-count spitwads show up where they ain’t wanted.”
Lev turned to face the man. “I got nothing against the colored, but I didn’t insult you and I expect civil behavior in return.”
Hy pulled back the hammer of his pistol to remind the man it was pointed at him. “Lev here is carrying a bullet that has him a little indisposed. Else he would have already whacked your insolent mouth or put a bullet between those black eyes for pointing that scattergun in his direction.”
The man did not move.
Hy took a step forward. “You aiming to shoot that damn scattergun or you just gonna stand there smelling like the ass-end of a dead skunk?”
The man spat on the boardwalk before moving the shotgun away.
Hy eased the hammer forward, but kept his eyes on the man as he followed Lev through the door. He paused before closing it. “My apologies for an ill disposition. I have not had my breakfast.” The man still stared with hate-filled eyes, making Hy regret the apology. “You boys ought to wear lighter colors. Might keep you from getting shot.”
Their eyes were slow to adjust to the sparse light provided by the flickering candle. The air was close and humid and tasted as bad as it smelled. A mixture of human sweat, stale whiskey, cigarette butts, chewed tobacco, and spoiled food came to rest on the back of Lev’s tongue. It burned a little as it went down his throat. A bar was on the right, four tables on the left. A small apothecary occupied a corner next to the bar in front of a stairway. A wood cook stove sat in the center of the back wall. A cast iron skillet and pot sat beside each other on the stove, both crusted with something rust-colored. A dipper handle curled over the top of the pot.
A stringy-haired woman moved sawdust on the wood floor with a broom. A tall, lean man with heavy eyebrows and green eyes stood in front of two shelves of liquor bottles and glasses, palms pushing down on the bar, his face expressionless. A cigarette hung loosely from the corner of his mouth. Used to older bartenders who leaned toward softness, Lev thought this man seemed out of place. He pointed an index finger toward the ceiling and turned it in a circle. “Any doctors around here?”
“Only one we had died a while back. Somebody sick?” The cigarette dangled with each word, its smoke causing the bartender to squint. The voice was mellow and deep. The reply conveyed little to determine the man’s mood, but he seemed confident, almost overbearing. Lev felt a strange twinge of envy as he compared his emaciated and filthy appearance to the man’s well-fed look and confident manner of speaking. The bartender had a way about him that probably drew other people in, but Lev did not like him. He wondered why the man was not fighting in the war.
Lev sensed a slight movement from the floor at the corner of the bar. An animal different than any Lev had ever seen stared at him. A low rumbling growl came from behind its bared teeth and seemed to crawl across the floor toward Lev’s leg. The thing looked like a cross between a big lizard and a hairless coyote. Lev detected a sulfurous odor. Neither Lev nor Hy approved of dogs inside, especially a place where people ate.
The bartender seemed to be enjoying their discomfort. “Don’t worry none about the dog. He don’t bother nobody less I tell him to.”
“Don’t usually worry too much about dogs, but that thing looks more like a inbred coyote with a bad case of mange.” Lev glanced at Hy as if he did not see him, looked up at the ceiling, turned and left as abruptly as he had entered, abandoning his bewildered brother in the middle of the room. On the porch, he checked for the black man and his shotgun. Finding him gone, he wondered if he had ever been there at all. He dodged the missing boards and unwound Yank’s reins. He was already mounted when Hy walked out on the porch.