BEYOND HIS MERCY
A Civil War Novel
Trials and Tribulations
We glory in our tribulations knowing tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope; and hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
—Romans 5:3-5 NASB
Off in the distance the yip of a coyote broke the silence of the night, and instantly a dog across the camp answered the lonely cry. A slight breeze crossed the man’s face, and as he squinted upward, he faintly saw clouds brush across a full moon. Smoke from numerous campfires burned his nostrils stealing his breath. Intense pain and numbness gripped his taut body bound with hands to a hitching post and feet staked to the ground. With one eye completely battered shut and the other slightly open, the captive could taste his own blood, thick and clouting in his mouth. The pain was excruciating, but the knowledge of his impending death would actually be a relief from the guilt that consumed him. He didn’t deserve to live because he felt beyond God’s mercy.
Little Rock, Mississippi; February, 1866
Lot glanced at his old and wrinkled hands, but knew that even with age, he was still strong. He stood a little under six feet tall, had sturdy broad shoulders holding up about two hundred pounds, a head full of snowy course hair, and a short cropped beard on his chin.
Suddenly aware of the conversations around him, he glanced over the room, thankful for the large log cabin he and his brother Jake had built back in the thirties. Taking a moment to admire his family, he then cleared his throat and said, “Folks I think we need to talk about the circumstance we’re facing and what we plan to do about it.”
Lott Wilson, an early settler of Mississippi, had struggled when his eldest sons, James Earl and Thomas, decided to enlist in the war and was devastated when two years later his youngest son John joined his brothers. In late 1862 Lott lost his eldest son James Earl to death in a Virginia military hospital and his youngest son John was reported killed in battle. Because Thomas could not locate John after the conflict in Gettysburg and knew he had broken his promise to take care of his younger brother, he deserted the army and fled to the Arizona Territory out of the hands of regulators. Lott remembered the day his emptiness became joy when two of his sons returned home. In answer to a mother’s fervent prayers, John who had only been wounded, captured and transferred to a prison camp at Camp Douglas, Illinois, managed to survive the harsh conditions and returned home to spend Christmas with his family. Thomas arrived at the Little Rock Church on Christmas day surprised that the service was actually John’s wedding to Rebecca. Although the war had ended and his sons were home, Lott knew that struggles for his family were just beginning.
The fire in the old open fireplace popped and sizzled and spread its flames upward warming the room where Lott and his family gathered. Even with the loss of his eldest son, Lott knew he had more blessings than he deserved. His family had a productive farm where they grew vegetables and raised hogs, chickens and cattle. During the war years, they had never gone hungry or without a warm shelter. Although General Sherman’s troops, after a raid on Meridian, camped near his place and took his rail fencing for firewood, killed his cattle, hogs and chickens for food and even cleaned out his smokehouse and kitchen, his family had managed to survive. When Lott realized Sherman might try to take his prized and valuable saddle horses and mules, Toby, his friend and farmhand, corralled and led the beasts to a secluded area in the nearby swamp and hid them until it was safe to return. The Yankees had not burned his house or barn, and Lott and Toby had slowly been able to replenish the farm with animals.
His wife, Sarah, a petite woman with graying hair rolled in a bun, stopped her knitting and glanced at the dark curly hair of John, their youngest son. John, who was about the same height as his father, quickly clasped the hand of his beautiful wife, Rebecca, and they both faced Lott.
“You too, Sister. You can straighten the kitchen later,” called Lott.
Sister, actually named Lucretia, pushed the door open and brushed the flour from her apron as she swept into the room. Sister, much like her mother, was several inches over five feet and had long blond hair and clear blue eyes. She was becoming the challenge for all the young men in the Little Rock community.
All became quiet as the cold winter’s wind twisted the bare limbs of the ancient oak trees outside. Thomas stood by the window and watched the brown leaves skirting across the bare yard. Cold air crept inside brushing his face as his thoughts kept him at distance with the world. Thomas was over six feet tall, muscular and with long straight brown hair hanging down his back.
“Son did you hear me?” muttered Lott troubled by his son’s detachment.
Lott reached for Thomas’s shoulder and immediately Thomas jerked around, pushed his father’s hand away and tried to re-focus his eyes at those in the room. His family watched his bizarre behavior with concern. In seconds, Thomas took a deep breath, shut his eyes and opening them again said, “Did you say something to me, Papa?”
“Son, are you all right?” Lott was troubled but knew the discussion ahead was necessary so he pushed back his worries for now. “We need to talk about how we’re gonna handle the situation we’re in.”
Thomas eased down on the edge of the hearth next to the fireplace, resting his back on the warm stones.
“Son, is that comfortable?”
Thomas shook his head. “Papa, I’m fine. You have no idea how many times I’ve wished that I could be sitting just where I am now. What’s on your mind?”
John got up and took a seat on the floor next to Thomas and whispered, “I know what you mean. You all right?”
Lott reached toward the open fire, knocked the spent tobacco from his pipe, laid it on the mantel and continued, “The way I see it, is that we still have land, a mule and thank goodness the Yankees didn’t take all our seed, so there’s no reason we can’t work the fields this spring.”
“What you plan on planting, Papa?” asked John with a frown.
Scratching his beard in thought, Lott replied, “Well, cotton will bring a good price and corn always is needed.”
Tired from sitting on the floor, John stood up and stretched. “Papa, I don’t know about cotton. From what I hear, the Yankees are confiscating farmers’ cotton claiming it is to help cover the expense of the war. Word is that some of them Yankees are stealing it in the name of the government and pocketing it for themselves.”
“They ain’t nothing but a bunch of thieves, and if we do grow a crop, those devils will surely try to take it,” scowled Thomas.
“Thomas, you’ve always enjoyed farming. What’s your idea?” asked Lott.
Thomas stood and backed up to the fire for warmth. “Well, the way I see it, cotton is out for the present time. We’ve got our hogs feeding in the swamp and some chickens, so we’ll start the garden come spring and plant as much corn as possible which will put food on the table and give grain for the livestock, but then we got to figure where we can make good money. After four years of war, the horse population in the South took a big hit. I think our future should be focused on what we know best and that is raising and training horses. Now the railroad is making a difference in the way folks travel, but most traveling is still on horseback. Toby saved three of our mares and two stallions, and with the two mustangs I brought back from Texas, we can make a strong start. We got a reputation for raising the best. Many a time around town I’ve heard, ‘Ain’t that a Wilson horse?’ Our name alone will sell horses.”
“You don’t want to breed our thoroughbreds with those mustangs you got, do you?” Becca asked.
“Yep I do, but we’ll still breed our thoroughbreds too.”
Brushing some loose hair from across her face, Becca asked, “Why?”
“Let me tell you about the mustang. The Spanish brought the horses in years ago and these horses roamed the plains for over two centuries. Those that survived are tough, hardy and can last a lot longer on the ride than thoroughbreds. For the first quarter mile I’m not sure that our long legged horses could catch one. So my idea is we market them separately. As far as training them, there ain’t a man in this state that can handle horses like John and me. First thing we’re gonna have to do is get them fences up and clear our pastures.”
The family readily agreed with Thomas’s plan, and Lott took the Bible from a table nearby and said, “This book says there will be trials and tribulation, but if we keep the faith and place our trust in the Lord, we will persevere and that’s what we are going to do.” Then the family joined hands and thanked the Lord for his blessings and asked for his guidance for the future.
The women headed to the kitchen to prepare for the evening meal while the men met Toby and walked Big Woods to confirm their plans. Big Woods was 640 acres that had never seen the touch of an ax and contained a large swamp bordering the Little Rock Creek. The massive oaks, hickory, and occasional pines stood as sentinels guarding a fortress, keeping all serene and safe in the forest. Here they located their herd of pigs and to their delight discovered two new litters of piglets. The men sat down on a mossy mound overlooking the creek to enjoy the late afternoon and turned their talk toward politics. John was the first to give his account on the condition of the state. “Well, the federal troops, are in total control and only Northerners, Negroes and those sympathetic to the Union are placed in positions. The upper courts are run by a federal officer, usually with a captain or colonel. It looks like we better get ready for higher state and county taxes because we Southerners are going to be covering the expenses of this war. High taxes mean a lot of Mississippians are going to be in debt and lose their land to rich Northerners.”
Toby, a short and heavy set Negro with a continuous smile, laughed, “I’m shore glad they didn’t send me to Jackson to do no governing. Don’t know a thing ‘bout it.” Then with a serious frown he continued, “I’m glad you folks give me them forty acres for my own but I ain’t even got a dollar to pay taxes. I guess them Yankees gonna just have to take my land.”
Placing his hand on Toby’s shoulder, Lott said, “There is no way that I will ever allow anyone to take your place from you.”
Glancing to his father, John cantered, “Watch what you promise, Papa. This government is going to do its best to bring the South to its knees and that means us.”
That night Lott and Sarah retired to their bedroom while John and Becca took the room across the open hallway which contained a fireplace. Sister occupied a small room located between her parents and the kitchen. Since she was teaching at the Little Rock school, she used these late hours to prepare for the next day’s lessons. Even though there was an empty room next to John’s, Thomas, because he needed privacy, chose the room in the barn that had been Toby’s. At one time the room was a ten by ten foot corn crib with walls tightly sealed to keep the grain safe from rats. Lott had added a fireplace for warmth and cooking and an outside window that would give Toby light. It was perfect for Thomas except for the smells of cow and horse manure drifting in the door which opened to the inner barn. This room was cool in the summer and warm in winter, but most importantly, it gave Thomas a safe, private place to fight his war demons and pray that his visions of death would disappear. It was also a refuge from his family’s watchful eyes as he sank deeper into an empty and infinite abyss.
Lott and Sarah cuddled in the feather bed deep with quilts and watched the fire slowly turn to embers. Tonight they lay silent in thought. Sarah recalled the happy, cheerful, and rambunctious young man her son had been; his life brimmed with friends and frivolous talk. Oh how he loved church, and Thomas seemed to absorb every word the pastor shared. She had prayed diligently that God would send her son home and she praised the Lord for that, but the son that came home was a different man.
While Sarah pondered these thoughts, Lott silently worried about the wild expression on Thomas’s face when he had touched him that evening. Where was the son who loved to work shoulder to shoulder with him and his brothers? Well, maybe his love for training and riding horses would bring Thomas back to his joy. Lot remembered the amazed faces of those present when Thomas, on a bet, paced thirty steps from a tree with his musket in hand, turned, aimed and fired a bullet that drove a nail solidly into the tree. Thomas loved to hunt and never seemed to miss his target. Lott was hopeful that home would help Thomas find himself again.
Sarah finally murmured, “Lott, you asleep?”
“No, and I see you ain’t either. You thinking about Thomas too?”
Cuddling closer she whispered, “When he first came home, he seemed much like his old self, but now I’m noticing things that seem unnatural for the boy. Seems like every day he is withdrawing into a shell. I’m worried, Lott.”
A light tap was heard on the door. “Mother, are you and Papa awake?”
“We are. What do you need?”
“It’s me and Becca. May we come in?”
John and Becca wrapped in heavy quilts eased into the room and settled at the foot of the bed. John looked at Becca and said, “We couldn’t sleep.”
“Looks like we all have the same concerns,” Sarah replied.
John took a deep breath and sighed, “I love him with all my heart, but he just isn’t himself. What can I do? No, what can we do to help him?”
Lott trying to control the tears beginning to puddle in his eyes replied, “First we got to do a lot of praying, and John, if you can, sit down and talk with him. He might open up to you.”
“How about speaking with Doc McMahan? He’s been around for a long time; maybe he can give us some answers,” whispered Becca.
“Might can,” replied Lott. “Now you young’uns get on to bed and let the Lord do His work.”