A Certain Death cover reveal

battle of Corinth, At the Double Quick, Shiloh seriesBook 2 is about to be released, March 1st to be exact, so mark your calendars! A follow on to the story set during the battle of Shiloh, a battle that set the course for the rest of the war in the west. What follows is an excerpt from the Prologue and the teaser description.

The cover image is the bas relief prominent at the Corinth Interpretive Center, Corinth Mississippi and part of the Shiloh National Battlefield NPS park and cemetery.

The battle at Pittsburg Landing altered the course of the war in the west and changed the lives of thousands who fought there and survived.

Will Hunter’s pursuit of higher command has been interrupted by his capture, the fault of his jealous commanding officer. Stuck far behind enemy lines with little hope for exchange, escape seems improbable. Neither high prison walls nor hundreds of miles of Ohio backwoods trails will keep him from trying.

Philip Pearson survived Shiloh but wonders if his luck will hold much longer. Pursuing reinstatement in the Methodist Episcopal Church brings him full circle: his battlefield experience calling him back to the collar he left behind. Only convincing the bishop of Dayton and surviving the coming assaults on Corinth stand in his way of a chaplaincy.

Ohio, far from the theaters of war, will test both men’s ambitions and trust in their fellow man.

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A Certain Death (The Shiloh Series)

Book Excerpt

Prologue
Huntsville, Alabama, 1847

Will Hunter stole ever so close to his prey. He was dressed in pants and a shirt of old muslin, fading in color and too long in use. The boy’s sandy blond hair and wry smile finished the look of an Alabama backwater, son of a white-trash drunk with nothing better to do but get into shines. The day was bright and hot, his shirt hanging loosely upon his slim shoulders, his cuffs open and begrimed. He would strike a blow for his father or just for himself—what did it matter when the target was a black?

Excitement animated his hands as he looked one way, then the other, then back. The house stood by the side of the road, an old wooden shack not much different from many other rural homesteads. The target of Will’s attentions was not deserving of mischief, nor were its occupants beholden to him in any way. Perhaps that was what irked the boy the most: their total lack of the customary deference expected between people of certain classes and races. The law being in his favor was not enough to satisfy his caprice for the man known as Baxter. He needed to do this to satisfy his superiority in deed as well as station.

Youthful pride and ignorance were no exception for Will. It was mischief he wanted on this day, and what better way to do it than in secret? He was not so protected by the law as to be brazen with his destructive errand, but anonymity would give him his revenge and protection at the same time. He had picked a spot to run and hide where he could watch the shenanigans, and now he needed only strike the match and watch the fun, storing up the details to share with his chums. He wouldn’t burn down the house—just the fence surrounding it. He reasoned that Alabama did not need free blacks and therefore did not need to extend the rights of property to them either.

Baxter’s slave wife, June, was a house slave of one of the larger plantations around Huntsville belonging to the Kearns family. Baxter could visit her and the children now and again. He lived alone and worked his own land, having been freed years before and allowed to build his little home on land his former owner willed to him and a few other former slaves. No longer the possession of another, Baxter was not entirely free to do as he pleased, but he tried to make due with what life and the law would allow.

The house looked still and empty, and the field in the back where the man raised cotton and foodstuffs was lonely. Baxter himself was not to be seen. This was the perfect time.

Engrossed in his preparations, Will did not hear the land owner close up behind him.

“Whut you do there, boy?”

Will gave a cry of surprise and dropped his match. Caught, he had nothing to say.

****

By evening, once Will had returned to his own ramshackle house—their own fence unpainted and missing several posts, their own porch steps in sore need of new boards, and all of it offering poor greeting—he was in a seething rage. He slunk inside and brooded. His younger siblings had already heard of the spanking he’d endured at the hand of Baxter. There were muted snickers from Thomas and Abigail. Not long after, their father came home from his blacksmithing shop on the Kearns plantation and waited for Abby to prepare supper while he pickled himself on cheap whiskey.

When their father was tight the children knew not to disturb him, but still brooding over his humiliation, Will could not contain himself. Seated in his favorite chair at the dinner table with a mostly empty bottle, his father lolled and clumsily rubbed his whiskers. Muttering to himself, he ignored Will as he stood at the other end.

“Damn nigger blacksmiths! Damn that Kearns fer using them! Who wants to pay a white blacksmith when they can barter fer a nigger one? One that don’t need to be paid?”

Will hesitated and watched his father sit and drink. Sooner or later Cephas Hunter would hear about what had happened: Will’d rather it was from him and not one of his siblings, who would only use it for their own ends. Life was about getting your own way, and you couldn’t very well do that if someone else was always getting the better of you.

“Whut you starin’ at, boy?” his father slurred.

“Paw, that nigger Baxter laid his hand on me today.”

His father threw his head back and just grunted in reply.

“He spanked me, Paw! Honest to God, he laid his hands on me an’ humiliated me.”

Again his father grunted as he took a long pull on the bottle and let it fall heavily to the table. “That so.”

“I weren’t doin’ nuthin’, Paw. He jus’ come out of his shack an’ grabbed me. I fought him, I tried to fight him, but he’s too big fer me; an’ then he laid me across his knee an’ wailed on me with a board!” Will sniffled and sobbed, putting on the best show he could.

“That so,” his father repeated. “That ain’t how Abby puts it, boy.”

Will winced. He hadn’t acted soon enough.

“She say you was caught burnin’ Baxter’s fence. She say you deserved it. You don’t think you deserved it?” His father took another long swig and coughed, looking his son in the eye.

Will’s cheeks flushed. This was not how it was supposed to go. There was supposed to be some sense of outrage at the racial affront. His father wasn’t taking the hook. Will cried, “He laid his hands on me, Paw, it don’t matter what I did! The nigger laid his hands on your son!”

Will’s father laughed, a terrible and grating sound on the boy’s ears. “What you want, boy? Me to get the hounds out an’ a posse, to go an’ do what? String up ole Baxter because he done something I shoulda done years ago? You underestimate the pull I have in this town, boy. You’da set fire to my fence, I’da done more than lay you across my knee!”

He took another pull on the bottle. “The boy wants me to go an’ string up some nig who’d only done what everbody else wants to.”

Will stood paralyzed. What to do next—what to do about Abby and Baxter and even his father—set his mind to racing.

His father fixed another bleary gaze on Will. “Now get outta my sight, boy, afore I take a board to your ass too! Wants me to string some nigger up fer whoppin’ his ass, I’d like to string Baxter an’ all them uppidy niggers up, but not fer whipping my boy what deserved it.”

Will turned on his heel and stomped out of the house. He would get no satisfaction from his father, and his younger siblings had already turned on him—revenge for the bullying he’d meted out over the years.

Abby, watching and listening from her bedroom across from the room her brothers shared, stole out of the house and quietly followed Will. He was seated under his favorite tree, an old birch with limbs branching in near vertical reach from the main trunk, just steep enough to be a challenge to climb and hold onto, its upper branches spreading out to form a comfortable canopy that gave shade no matter what time of day it was. It’s branches had been climbed over, leaped from, been lonely under, and now in the summer provided some little respite from the heat.

His father’s reaction was not surprising, just unwanted.

Abby came a little closer and stopped.

Will, sensing he had an audience, glared at her. “What?”

“Sorry, William, I had to tell Father,” Abby lied.

“No, you didn’t, you tole him jus’ to get back at me—you tole him jus’ to keep me from tellin’ him so I couldn’t lie about what I was doing!”

Abby wrinkled her nose. She was nine years old to Will’s eleven, old enough to know when to act in her own interests and when to acquiesce. A little freckling under her eyes and nose gave her expression a mischievous cuteness that worked better on adults. “Yes, that was part of it; but I also didn’t want you to try to get old man Baxter in trouble. You deserved it, William.”

Will hated it when anyone called him William, especially Abby, who said it as if he was being scolded. It was not her place to put on airs. Will mumbled, “He had it comin’.”

“Why, because he’s a nigger?” Abby asked.

“An uppidy nigger,” Will snapped.

“That’s no reason, William.”

“Stop callin’ me William,” Will said. “He’s a nigger with no rights an’ no rights to lay his hand on any white man! If he done that to you he’d be swinging from a rope right now!”

“Don’t say that, William!” Abby cried. “You’re just angry is all. Baxter didn’t deserve to have his property burned. He wouldn’t have been laying his hands on me ’cause I wouldn’t have been messing with his property!”

“Go away, Abby! Just leave me be!”

Abby turned on her heel and obeyed. Her curls were just beginning to flow gracefully over her shoulders, curls their mother used to lavish much attention on, making her little Abigail the belle of the neighborhood. Abby was beautiful, like her mother, but with a sense of adventure like her oldest brother. Most days she was Will’s play companion, except when he was in a mood like this one. Will had his father’s temper and mean streak, leaving Abby and Joseph the victims of his mischief. This evening, she was in her work dress and apron, but the sense of finery was still there about her graceful chin and dimpled smile.

With Abby gone, Will continued his dark thoughts. If his father wasn’t going to lift a finger for the family honor, his own honor, then there was little that Will could do at the age of eleven. Southern chivalry and family honor did not extend to the lower classes. Their version of dueling with pistols at dawn would be a drunken brawl and a knifing from ambush. That’s what his father would do—club his adversary from behind and pitch the body in the woods. Violence was for revenge and personal satisfaction, with no rules or witnessing judges.

But he did not have any honor his father felt worthy of defending. That hurt.

****

The Duck River cut through Alabama and was just close enough to Huntsville to make a long day’s journey by foot to its banks. It was a favorite place to get a refreshing dip in the shallows close to shore. There was little in the way of commerce or docks, and no real activity to speak of. It was a great place to horse around without being observed by adults. There were little piers here and there attached to someone’s property where a boat might be tied off. Today there was no one about as Will and Abigail made their way to their spot.

The water was almost cold, but the moist, damp air still left them both feeling refreshed from the heat of their hour-long journey. Still feeling slighted, Will decided he’d have some fun.

Swimming over to Abigail, he pulled her head under.

“One, two, three, four, five.”

Bobbing up like a cork and sputtering, Abigail came up gasping and swinging her arms wildly.

“Say you’re sorry, say you’re sorry for tattling!”

“No!” she said and tried to swim away.

Will lunged and grasped her shoulders and pushed her back under. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven!”

Again Abigail came bobbing back up and sputtering. “Leave me alone, William!”

“Say it! Say you’re sorry!”

“I’m going to tell Paw!”

Will easily caught up to her as she tried to swim away and pushed her down once more. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve … ”

Caught up in shouting his countdown, he failed to notice Abigail cease her struggling.

In the fun, Will and Abigail had drifted out from the shallows and were now out where his feet no longer touched ground. He couldn’t feel her anymore. Abigail didn’t bob up for air either. She wasn’t anywhere.

Panicking, he dove under, but the motion of the water and the general murkiness made seeing anything impossible. The river was never clear, and anything lost in it was gone for good. He was only under for what he figured was ten seconds, more than enough time for her to rise to the surface. Still no Abby in sight. He’d gotten out far enough that the bottom was twenty feet or more and falling steeply. No matter how far he dove down, he couldn’t reach the bottom, and his ears began to hurt. He had no idea if he was even looking in the right spot. He couldn’t dive down much further without the pressure becoming unbearable, and each time he could only see murk. If the current had caught her up, she would be drifting far to the center of the river.

He rose to the surface one last time after a frantic thrashing, going the deepest he could stand before the need to draw breath took over.

“Abby!” Will splashed about, turning this way and that, but she wasn’t on the surface.

“Abby, Abby, where are you?”

As he searched the surface of the river, something caught his eye, barely perceptible as it rode along the surface and bobbed in the waves. It was fifty yards out and away from him, out in a dangerous part of the river where he’d only dare to go in a boat. Against hope, he swam toward it. He was getting tired, and the downstream pull of the current was getting stronger. It seemed like the object he was making for was drifting faster than he could swim.

“Abby! You all right?” Pushing himself, he got within two arms’ length and grabbed her arm. “Abby, oh Abby, you hear me?”

Abby was floating facedown, and when he rolled her over, her face and lips were blue. Will grabbed her by the waist and swam for shore.

He didn’t know how long it took. All he could do was keep swimming, keep dragging Abby along with him and fighting the current that pulled the two of them further and further downstream. It felt like hours that he swam and struggled until finally they reached the shallows of the shoreline. Dragging her to the shore, Will watched for some sign of life. He sat shivering and thinking about what to do, who to blame, how to get out of this predicament.

Will sat and cried. The tears were more of fear than of remorse, though as he sat and dwelt on it, he knew that not only was he in supreme trouble, but he was going to miss her. He was struggling to make it right, but all he could think was how to make it right without him being the culprit.

He went over the story he’d tell, went over the events to figure out if he’d really done it or if she had done something stupid to drown herself. But no matter how he tried to justify it, he was the one who had dragged her under.

She was cold, her once pink and thin lips were blue and and open slightly, exposing two white teeth, bright against the draining color of her face. It was her eyes, though, that gave Will a shiver. Looking half-asleep but still open, her eyelids partially hiding the greenness of her eyes, she was staring away from him as if too ashamed to look into his face even in death. Will felt sick and panicked.

Getting up out of the water and stepping onto the shoreline, he made up his mind he would say that she had gone out away from the shallows and was caught in a current, and he couldn’t get to her in time.

It was Abby’s fault, she went out too far, she wouldn’t listen to me, she got caught in the current. She would take the blame for his carelessness and save his hide. One last time.

Taking a few steps to get his bearings, Will recognized whose land he’d just lit upon. He was standing in the rear of Baxter’s farm as it fronted the riverside. An idea began to form, an ugly one. Will ran, leaving behind the lifeless body of Abigail. Baxter was weeding his cotton field and didn’t notice Will sneaking across his property to the road. They had drifted downstream, aided by the current, a good thirty minutes of leisurely walking.

Hurrying to where he and Abby had left their shoes and clothes, Will donned his own and left Abby’s where they lay. Will ran hard for home. He and Abby were to have been home an hour ago to prepare supper for their father. He would already be home and waiting.

Bursting into his house, he blurted, “Abby’s missing!”

“Whut? Whut you say, boy?”

“Abby, I can’t … I can’t find her!”

“Where’s Abby?” Thomas asked.

“She was going to go fer a swim in the Duck; I tole her not to go alone, but I ain’t seen her all day.” Will cried. The tears were real.

Soon the neighboring farms and homesteads were abuzz with activity and the riverfront combed. Will made a show of looking around the Baxter home but wasn’t going to be the one to find the body. Even Baxter was out and looking, something that filled Will’s gut with a pang of remorse.

The day drew on, but no one had ventured behind Baxter’s farm to the river. Baxter himself spied Will loitering along the roadside.

“I’s sorry ’bout yo’ little sister, Massah Will. I don’t holds no hard feelin’ about ma fence; hope Massah Will don’t hold none toward ole Baxter. We find li’l massah’s kin all right, we find her.”

Will nodded in agreement, unable to look the man in the eye.

Several other blacks from neighboring plantations were busy trolling the shallows along the river way or combing the woods along the shore. By the end of the day there were hundreds out looking. Will could not leave the vicinity of Baxter’s farm, hoping that someone soon would discover the body so he could finish his story.

Near dark, Baxter came running from behind his house. “Li’l massah, Massah Will, Massah Will; come quick, lil’ massah! Missus Abby, I find li’l Missus Abby! I’s sorry, Massah Will, I’s real sorry. Come quick!”

Will was the closest, but others hearing the call also came running. Still, it was he and Baxter who made it to the spot first. There she was, just as Will had left her—lying on her back and clothed only in her nightshirt and knickers.

“I’s sorry, li’l Massah Will; I fink she dead; I fink she drown,” Baxter said, looking down on the little girl with a sad, forlorn expression upon his brow.

Will raced to the body. She was cold and clammy, and his skin crawled as he made a show of cradling the corpse. Baxter stood off a ways, thumbing his hat round and round in his hands. It was time to finish the lie, Will thought. Looking at the sad man, Baxter’s eyes deferring to his own, treating him better than he deserved, Will’s resolve melted.

But it was too late.

“What’d you do, you nigger bastard!” shouted Cephas Hunter as he came to an abrupt stop. Will jumped at the sound and flinched, letting Abby’s head plop sickeningly in the soft sand of the shore.

“Me?” Baxter cried, panic in his voice.

“Paw, it looks like … ”

“This nigger kilt my little Abby! What you do to her, you filthy nigger!” his father shouted and lunged at Baxter.

“No, Paw; Baxter found her!” Will shouted.

Will’s father grabbed Baxter and flung him to the ground but was too drunk to land anything like a punch. Others who’d come up at the same time didn’t wait for explanations, but surrounded Baxter immediately and did the dirty work for him.

Will watched in dismay.

Staggering forward, his father collapsed to his knees next to the body, a sincere look of dejection and sorrow marring his otherwise cold countenance. Will had never seen this in his father before. He imagined it might not have been since his mother died that he’d had that look. “My Abby, my sweet little Abby; that bastard! Oh, my Abby, my sweet, sweet Abby!” he wailed.

Will was stuck. He had his out now—but being back with the body, his emotions, real ones, came out in more tears. It was probably the only time he’d ever seen his father cry or show anything but contempt and drunken bitterness.

“Abby drowned,” Will said. “It looks like Abby drowned.”

“It was that nigger, Baxter! He molested and killed your girl, Mr. Hunter,” a young man by the name of Jackson Kearns said. “That’s why her body’s on Baxter’s property. You can count on it, Mr. Hunter.”

Will stayed his tongue. Despite anything he’d try to say, the result was going to be the same. Baxter had done something horrible to Abby. They all knew it now.

“Paw, I don’t think Baxter … ”

“Shut up, boy! Help me get her up and take her home. I’ve got some business to take care of.” Will’s father stood. His usual mean expression had returned, and Will obeyed.

By the time Will and several others had carried Abby home in a hand-pulled dogcart, his father and others had arrived on horseback, looking haggard and mute. Will knew the look—he had seen it once or twice before, after someone had done something he shouldn’t and had paid for it at the end of a rope. Each man took a turn in paying respects to Abby’s body as it lay in the cart and patting Will on the head, giving his father a tap on the shoulder or a hug. The community had come together to find a body and right a wrong.

Will only nodded and stared at the ground. What was done was done.

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