The Colonel’s blue eyes shifted ever so slightly. His crow’s feet appeared rugged and deep in the low light of the lantern hanging from the entryway trellis.
“Now, son, let’s be reasonable gentlemen and take a walk.” His voice was measured. “Talk about whatever it is aggrieves you.”
John Cunningham, Jr., son of the recently deceased Corporal John Cunningham, Sr., left the tip of his father’s .31 caliber “Baby Dragoon” revolver pointed at the Colonel’s heart.
“You have no right to talk reasonable with that thing hanging over your home,” John said, nodding toward the flag fluttering proudly in the moist São Paulo breeze. He fought back a retching feeling rising from his belly. A light rain swept across the pristine rectangle of woven wool hanging above the entryway of the ramshackle cabin: Thirteen white stars swam in crisscrossed rivers of blue, surrounded by triangles of blood-red sand.
“Look, I don’t know you from Adam, son, and–
“I am not your son, so you had best stop calling me that.” John cocked the hammer. “Now are you going to welcome a weary traveler into your house or not?”
The Colonel turned his head slightly, but his eyes never left John’s. John could see a crack of light emanating from one side of the door.
“I don’t know why you’re raising old ghosts, but I am most certain we can hash this out without resorting to–”
“Whoever’s in there, you had better not be itchin’ to be clever,” John shouted over the Colonel’s shoulder. The cylinder was fully loaded, five rounds, and he had a couple of spares in his coat pocket as well.
“Sarah,” The Colonel said with a raised voice which, somehow, still sounded genteel. “Tell your mama to put on a pot. We have a guest.”
“Don’t nobody do nothin’,” John said right after.
He spoke in a quieter tone to the Colonel. “Walk.”
Though he was glad to escape the sticky, Brazilian drizzle and the strange animal sounds emanating from the surrounding ferns, John felt a low reticence. Old ghosts was right. He was stepping into shadows of something from which he knew there was no return.
So long as there were only four folks in total, everything would be fine, especially given that one was a pretty woman maybe a few years older than John, and another who appeared to be her little girl, not much older than six or seven. That must have been Sarah. She had the woman’s curly brown hair and her grandfather’s narrow eyes.
The other remaining stranger was a wildcard: an elderly negro, standing a head taller than all of them, and wily looking too. He kept his head up and his yellowed eyes occasionally shifted between the Colonel and John.
The cabin wasn’t large, but seemed spacious enough: a few straw beds lining the back wall bookended by a pair of ornate armoires, a wood stove in one corner, and a small, round table surrounded by several sturdy-looking chairs near the center of the room.
“Where’s her daddy?” John asked the Colonel, indicating toward Sarah.
“No longer with us. Yellow fever got him two years ago.”
John didn’t trust the Colonel as far as he could throw him. Thanks to his father’s vivid and colorful recollections of the man he blamed for everything that had happened, John knew Colonel Nathaniel Dandridge as much as anyone. As sure as the sun is hot, the former commander of the Confederate 33rd Virginia Cavalry was a sneaky one. But, John figured as long as he could keep everyone inside the house, it would prevent any chance of fetching help. He’d just have to keep his ears open and one eye on the door in case someone dropped by.
“Everyone on that side of the room.” John waved his gun towards the beds. The little girl whimpered a little and grabbed hold of the big negro’s hand.
“C’mon girl,” the man said in a low voice. “It’ll be alright.”
John avoided looking at her face. He really wished the Colonel had been here alone, but circumstances were what they were.
They all sat down on the bed except for the Colonel. Sarah sat on the negro’s lap.
“I don’t have no beef with any of you but for one man,” John said. “Colonel Nathaniel Dandridge.”
The Colonel raised his eyebrows.
“Do you claim to be him?” John finished. He needed an admission.
There was no hesitation. “I am Nathaniel Dandridge, but I am no longer a Colonel. Granted, you’re a youngin, but old enough to know that the country for whom I served no longer exists.”
“And yet you fly the flag.”
There was a heavy pause. Rainwater tapped against the clay tile roof.
“And yet I fly the flag,” the Colonel said with his chin held high and a sickening pride in his voice.
Before John could get a word out, the Colonel spoke up. “If you wanted to come here and just shoot me for hanging a piece of cloth, you would have done so already. So what is it that you want, Yankee? To scare women and children too?”
It was a transparent attempt to bring John to shame. He wasn’t about to fall for it.
“Two things. I will make you pay for your crime, but first I want an apology.”
The Colonel looked at him incredulously. “For what, exactly?”
“In good time. First, I’m guessing that a man who has such pride in a dead country still has his uniform.”
“Well then,” John said, “I’ll take that as an affirmative. I think it’s fitting that you reacquaint yourself with it. You say you’re no longer a Colonel, but it’s the Colonel for whom I’m bringing justice. Where is it?”
Again, no response. John pointed his gun at the wall just over the old rebel’s shoulder, and after a moment of his own hesitation, he pulled the trigger. The percussion clapped his ears and set them to ringing lightly. Bits of wood splintered just above the negro, far from where he intended to fire. John caught himself looking at a bewildered Sarah, her mouth caught open in a scream, but he turned away quickly and forced himself to lock eyes with the Colonel. His hand was shaking and he thought the Colonel noticed, so he grabbed the gun with both hands under the guise of cocking the hammer.
“Lucius,” the Colonel said with a raised voice, though his demeanor remained irritatingly calm, “fetch me the uniform.”
As if on instinct, the old black man was almost on his feet upon hearing his name. He lifted the crying little girl from his lap and handed her to her mama. John moved the gun towards him and Lucius froze.
“I don’t know why you followed this man down here,” John said. “Probably threatened you otherwise, but you don’t have to do a damn thing. Just tell me where it is.” John’s motives weren’t entirely charitable. He figured that if Lucius showed this level of loyalty to the Colonel, he might go far enough to pull out a rifle or pistol.
The negro looked at his master who nodded almost imperceptibly.
“He keeps it over there,” Lucius said, pointing at one of the wardrobes that must have accompanied the family on their long journey from America. “There’s a box sitting on the bottom, at the back.”
John wondered briefly how he’d be able to keep an eye on the family, yet get the uniform. The answer was obvious, though.
“Sarah,” he said, ducking his face and glancing to the side. “Be a good girl and bring out your grandfather’s box, please. And set it on the table.”
John didn’t want to, even felt like he’d damn near faint, but he pointed the gun in her direction. Beads of sweat gathered on his brow. He had told himself that he wouldn’t rush this, that this was a scene that should be savored and stamped in his memory for all time. But now, he wanted nothing more than for it to be all over. With each passing second, John felt less enthusiastic and more obligated to his father.
“Sarah,” her mother said, speaking for the first time, “honey, it’ll be fine. Please, do as he says.” Her voice was much harsher than the Colonel’s.
Sarah’s eyes were like that of a reprimanded beagle. She bounced off her mother, ran toward the wardrobe and opened the door quickly. John was nervous about the speed at which she moved, but he accepted the risk. With her small hands, she tossed aside several blankets and pulled out a brown leather box a foot deep and two feet wide. She began to lift the lid.
“I said put it on the table,” John snapped. He cringed as she started to cry. He didn’t want to scare the girl, but his nerves were overwhelming him.
“Sarah,” her mother said snapping as much as John, “do as the man says and get back here!” John’s eyes briefly met the Colonel’s and he knew that with every stressful moment, the Colonel was sizing up an opportunity to make a move.
“It’s too heavy,” she sobbed.
Flustered, John said, “N-nevermind. Go back to your mama.” Her feet clapped against the floorboards as she flew into her mother’s arms. The look on the mother’s face told John that if he dropped his guard for one blink of an eye, she would make him regret it even more than the Colonel.
John walked up to the box. “Don’t nobody move an inch,” he said to them all, keeping both eyes peered in their direction. He’d hoped he could pull the .31 quickly enough should they make a move, but he knew that if they chose now to do so, he would be at a disadvantage. He cupped his pistol with his palm and quickly slid his fingers beneath the box. It was indeed heavier than he expected, but he lugged it to the table where it fell from his hands without any solemnity.
The family was still lined against the wall, motionless, overflowing with expectation. John readied his pistol again and with his free hand, lifted the lid and tossed it onto the floor.
His vision was greeted with the damned Confederate gray and yellow trim, delicately laid out. There was the woolen kepi–a cap with a dark bill and buckled band across the front. Below that lay a golden sash and white riding gloves. John removed all of them from the box and placed them on the table.
He rifled through the rest of the contents. The Colonel’s shell jacket had been folded neatly with its three golden stars still pinned onto each side of the collar, and two columns of gold buttons lining the front. Beneath were gray trousers and the officer’s sabre secured in its scabbard. The bulk of the box’s weight was a stack of old newspapers and other hokum.
“Where your boots?” John asked.
“Sold ‘em to help pay for transport,” the Colonel said.
So much for pride, John thought.
He pulled out each piece of clothing and tossed them at the Colonel.
John was not disappointed as his hackles rose at seeing the Colonel in full uniform. He had to admit the old man wore it well. He was almost everything John had imagined, one of the “devils in gray” his father had rambled on about through whiskey-induced tirades.
“They don’t need to see this, young man,” the Colonel said, nodding at his family and slave. “I don’t know who you are or what I’ve done to you, but they don’t need to see this.”
If John let them go now, he’d probably be wrapped up by the time they were able to get very far, but they may have a rifle or two stashed away nearby. It wasn’t uncommon.
“They stay, so that they know about your crimes and understand that I’m not here to murder you–I’m here to enact justice on a fugitive.”
The Colonel’s face took on a shade of ruby red. “I am no fugitive.”
John laughed, surprising himself. “That so? Then why did you turn tail and run down to Brazil?”
The Colonel took a step forward and straightened up. John moved his pistol up, but the old man maintained his defiance.
“You say I turned tail, but what do you know? You couldn’t have been ten when I lost my country. My means of subsistence. Half of my family slaughtered by men in blue. What do you know, son? What do you know?”
John thought he knew enough.
“Ten years ago, my father, Corporal John Cunningham, Sr., came back from the war a broken man. Unable to see because he had been shot once in the head and lost his vision. Unable to walk because another minie ball had made him lame. And because of that, my mama left us shortly after his return, making him an even more broken man. But for the charity of the few friends my father had, we would have starved each year. We barely held on as it was.” He looked at Sarah, “I lost my little sister because we couldn’t afford no medicine.”
The Colonel seemed to deflate a little bit, or so it seemed to John.
“I’m sorry to hear the circumstances, but that is the hell of war, son. Your daddy was a soldier just like the rest of us. He–”
“No!” John shouted with an unexpected fury. Sarah sank into her mother’s arms and the negro recoiled. “No! Not just like the rest of you.” John fought back tears. He felt an odd mix of fire increasing in his belly, but also a slightly dwindling resolve. He’d spent months tracking the Colonel’s whereabouts, coming all this way with barely a moment’s rest and it was all catching up with him. He’d heard that he was among many of the Southern soldiers had left for Brazil, a land still friendly to those invested in the machinations of slavery. Apprising the Colonel in his uniform, standing here in a small cabin in the middle of a foreign land, made the entire scene seem uncomfortably ridiculous.
Still, John continued. Deep down, he knew he was doing something right, yet still felt a need to confess and justify it all. “I buried my father six months ago, and that night I had a dream. I was walking through the scrub oak of Albany and there was a flash of light, just like the preacher used to go on about Paul on the road to Damascus. The voice cried out for vengeance. I knew that it was my father. Day in and day out, he drank from his jug and related to me the truth of you, Colonel Dandridge, and your damned 33rd Cavalry.”
The Colonel’s gave John a penetrating stare. Something changed in the way he appeared. John couldn’t place a finger on it, and before he could ruminate on it anymore, the Colonel asked with the gentleness of a rabbit, “With what regiment did you say your father served?”
“I didn’t,” John replied. “It don’t matter anyhow.”
“Oh, but it does, son. It does.”
John had confessed enough, but he supposed he didn’t see any harm in explaining more to a dead man. “The New York 195th.”
Silence. Behind his eyes, the Colonel seemed to be seeking something.
“And where was it that your father honorably took these Southern bullets that I so directed?”
The words were fresh in John’s mind as if it were John Sr. himself speaking through him. “Bakerstown, just inside the northern tip of Shenandoah.”
“I see,” the Colonel said. The coolness of his voice grated on John. He felt anxious to get it over with.
“Do you deny you were there?” John said. This new line of conversation was irritating him and he was happy that it was building back up his resolve.
“No, son. I don’t deny it at all. I was there alright.” He slowly removed the hat from his head and held it in his hands. “Thing is, I don’t think events took place exactly as your father told you.”
As if his legs carried him on their own volition, John walked directly to the Colonel and dug the tip of the pistol into the soldier’s chest. “Are you calling my father a liar?” Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw the daughter shift closer to the negro.
The Colonel never looked away from John.
“I got some papers in that box,” he said. “There’s one you ought to read. Seems you wouldn’t believe me if I told you myself.”
“You’re delaying,” John said. “I don’t need to read no papers.”
Those cold blue eyes challenged him. “Son, I don’t want you to do something you’d regret. You might have never known that you were about to make a mistake, but now a part of you can’t help but wonder if I’m telling you something you may have already been thinking for a long time.”
The Colonel placed the hat back on his head and straightened it out. “Please, not for my sake, but for yours, read that paper.”
A sound of creaking wood pulled John’s attention. Lucius was on his feet again and walking toward the box. John couldn’t fully understand why he let him do so, but he did. The black man stooped over and rummaged through the small stack of newspapers until he seemed to find what he was looking for.
He marched over to John and handed him a piece of yellowed paper.
John only stared back at him, unsure of what to do. His pistol was still pressed against the Colonel’s chest.
“Lucius, if you would, please,” the Colonel said.
The old slave pulled the paper back, unfolded it and cleared his throat. “Though Johnny Reb puts up a worthy scrap in the various corners of this dear country, some of our boys in blue have become their own worst enemy. While awaiting orders in the Shenandoah Valley, the New York 195th Infantry regiment found themselves with an excess of time and liquor. Reports have come in of six killed and eighteen wounded from an explosion at the munitions depot, all due to a drunken exchange. With dispatches indicating the Confederate’s 33rd Cavalry making a move to the North, the 195th is being disbanded with the remaining soldiers being reassigned to other regiments.”
Lucius stopped there.
“Lies,” John said quietly, trying to convince himself that the cracks which had appeared in his father’s stories had never been there. He used to think it was just the liquor which had confused him sometimes. Whenever he’d asked to see John Sr.’s bullet wounds, his father flat out refused. After being reprimanded and chased away with his father’s swinging cane, John had stopped asking for details.
“That there’s a Union paper, son,” the Colonel said.
John’s notions were being hit from all sides. He eyed the Colonel with suspicion.
“You taught your slave how to read?”
Before he could answer, Lucius interrupted. “Freed man, Mr. Cunningham. I’m a freed man. I come down with Mr. Dandridge because ain’t nothin’ waitin’ for me up there. The Colonel had always been good to me, and at least down here, I got work and get to learn from Ms. Dandridge, alongside Sarah.”
John realized at this point that his gun was no longer raised at the Colonel’s chest, but directed towards the ground.
“I’ve made my mistakes,” the Colonel said. “I came down here with my ways set, but I’ve learned much over the past ten years. I freed all my slaves. Any that chose to stay with me, I’ve given an education and a fair wage to work my crops.”
John felt a light grip on his arm.
“Look, if there’s one thing a Southern man can abide by, son, it’s honor. You came here because you felt it was the honorable thing to do. I don’t blame your daddy. Any man in his condition would have spoke the same.”
The Colonel looked to his daughter, “Why don’t you put on that pot I mentioned earlier,” and then he turned back to John. “Please, join us for supper. We can have us a conversation about all our wrongs and our inadequate attempts to make up for them.”