Authors: Always To Remember
To my parents,
Lily Elizabeth and Curtis Rayburn Heath
Your love gave me the courage
to believe in my dreams.
EYOND THE STONE WALLS, THE DAYS MELTED INTO TWILIGHT.
But within the dark void that the walls created, Clayton Holland knew only the inky blackness of a starless night. Days contained neither dawn nor dusk but were filled instead with the monotonous slow passage of time as he waited, his conscience his sole companion.
Kneeling beside his cot, he pressed his forehead against his clasped hands and rested his elbows on the thin mattress. The foul odor of the men who’d come before him wafted around him. In a raw voice, he prayed for his trembling to cease, for courage and, most of all, for the strength to stand firmly by his convictions in these final hours.
After so many repetitions, the prayers should have come easily, but each prayer was different from the one that came before it. With each passing moment, the lingering doubts surfaced, taking on different shapes: the love in his mother’s eyes turning to ravaged grief; his father’s guiding hands drifting away and leaving him to journey along his own path.
His latest prayer went unfinished, his body involuntarily jerking as someone jammed a key into the lock of his cell door. As the door squeaked open, a sliver of light spilled into the blackened abyss.
Raising a hand to shield his eyes from the pale glow, Clayton struggled to his feet. The door closed, a key grated, but the light remained. Slowly, as his eyes adjusted, he lowered his hand, and a stout man carrying a lantern came into focus. “Dr. Martin?” he rasped.
The man cleared his throat, the harsh sound filling the dismal silence. “Yes, it’s me, Clay.”
“Is it time?”
“No, not yet. I just thought you could use a little company for a spell.”
Clutching the waistband of his threadbare woolen trousers with one hand, Clay extended the other toward the man who had brought him and most of the boys of Cedar Grove, Texas, into the world. He almost wept as the doctor’s hand warmed his. “Thank you for coming, sir. Do you want to sit? It’s not fancy.” He released what he hoped was a laugh and not a sob. “I’m not even sure it’s clean.”
“It’ll do fine,” Dr. Martin said as he sat on the wobbly cot and set the lantern on the floor.
Clay eased onto the cot, leaned against the wall, and studied his visitor. Even in the obscurity of the shadows Clay could see the wrinkles that the doctor’s kindly smiles had carved into his face over the years.
As a boy, whenever Clay had been ill, he’d always felt better once he heard Dr. Martin was on his way. He found comfort in the man’s presence now even though he knew the doctor could do nothing for him. “Do you think it’ll be a clear morning?”
“Appears it will be.”
“Do you know if I’ll be facing east? I sure would like to see the sunrise before I—” “I don’t know.”
“Why do you think they execute people at dawn anyway?”
Dr. Martin’s shrug was lost in the shadows. “I truly don’t know.”
A strangled laugh escaped Clay’s lips and wandered around the cold cell. “Hell of a way to begin the day.” He scratched his bearded chin. “Sir, do you know what became of Will Herkimer?”
“He …” Dr. Martin released a harsh breath. “He died. Pneumonia set in shortly after they brought you here. I’m sorry.”
Clay nodded, unable to speak for the emotions clogging his throat. He bowed his head in a silent moment of remembrance. “He had a wife,” he said quietly. “And two boys. I always wanted a son.” A sad smile crept over his face. “And a daughter.” He searched the gloom for anything to take his mind off the dreams that would never come to pass. “Dr. Martin, how come you never married?”
“Never could find a woman willing to put up with the life I had to offer, gallivanting around the countryside in the middle of the night to tend sick folks. That’s hard on a woman.”
“Have you … have you ever been with a woman … through the night?”
Self-consciously, Dr. Martin cleared his throat. He never disclosed personal information about his patients’ lives that he unwittingly discovered in the course of their treatment. Until now he’d always applied the practice to himself as well. “Yes, yes, I’ve been with a woman.”
“What’d she smell like?”
Dr. Martin heard the deep longing mirrored in a voice that should have reflected the vibrancy of youth. “Lavender,” he replied.
“Lavender. I don’t recall ever smelling lavender.” A keen sense of loss whispered across the small expanse separating the old man from the young one. Dr. Martin felt the loss as though he’d experienced it himself. He wanted to ask Clay what the hell he had smelled so he could lie and tell him the woman smelled of it. “Honeysuckle,” he said after a time. “Once I slept with a woman who smelled like honeysuckle.”
“Honeysuckle,” Clay repeated in reverence, relief coursing through his voice. “I can imagine a woman smelling like honeysuckle. Was she soft?”
“As warm as a Texas summer.”
Silence eased in around them, and Dr. Martin was saddened to think that in this young man’s final moments, he was thinking of a woman he’d never met and never would meet. He reached into the deep pocket of his coat, withdrew an apple, and gave it to Clay.
Wrapping both hands around it, Clay relished the fruit’s smooth skin against his unnaturally frigid fingers. Bringing the apple close to his face, he cupped his hands over his nose and mouth, blocking out the odors mingling in the cell, as he inhaled deeply. The apple smelled so sweet, so deliciously sweet. As sweet as life.
He swallowed his sob and ground the heel of his hand into the corner of his eye. He refused to walk out of this room with tears trailing down his face.
Leaning forward, Dr. Martin planted his elbows on his thighs. “Clay, all you have to do is hold the damn rifle. You don’t even have to shoot it. They’re gonna fight those damn Yankees any day now. Wouldn’t it be more honorable to die on a battlefield? I could talk to Captain Roberts, have your sentence revoked—”
Slowly, Clay shook his head. For months Captain Roberts had insisted that he must follow orders and carry a rifle. For months Clay had steadfastly refused. “I will not take up arms against my fellow man.” “What am I to tell your father?”
“That I died with honor, fighting for what I believed in.”
Dr. Martin sighed heavily. He couldn’t deny that the boy had fought. His body carried the wounds from his battles. “Are you in much pain? I could give you some laudanum.”
“My misery will end soon enough. You’d best save your medicine for those boys whose misery will just be beginning.” He extended the apple toward the doctor. “Don’t think I’d be able to keep this down. Imagine you’ll be able to find someone who could appreciate it a little longer than I could.”
The key grinding in the lock caused Dr. Martin’s heart to slam against his ribs as though he were the one about to be placed before a firing squad. He took back the apple because he didn’t know what else to do with his hands. His noted bedside manner had deserted him.
The door swung open, and a sergeant, with two privates in his wake, stepped into the room. The sergeant’s deep voice bounced off the stone walls. “It’s time.”
Standing, Clay extended his hand toward the doctor. “Thank you, sir, for coming.”
Clasping the young man’s hand, taking note of the slight tremor, Dr. Martin wished he could offer more than a handshake. Clay stepped toward the open door.
A rope dangling from his hand, a private moved to block his path. “You need to put your hands behind your back.”
Despair flooded Clay’s face. “I’ve lost weight,” he stammered. “My trousers—”
The private turned to the sergeant who was already shaking his head. “He’s gotta be bound.”
“I’m not gonna run,” Clay assured him.
The sergeant appeared on the verge of relenting when he suddenly barked, “Orders is orders! Bind him.”
“Wait a minute,” Dr. Martin said as he shrugged off his coat. The young man had clung tenaciously to his dignity throughout his ordeal, and now they had the power to strip him of it. They’d fed him nothing but bread and water for so long that Clay was little more than a shadow of the robust man who’d once farmed the land in Texas. “He can use my suspenders.”
For the first time in his life, Dr. Martin fought a strong urge to strike someone—anyone—when gratitude filled Clay’s eyes as he attached the suspenders.
Clay placed his hands behind his back, fighting off the helplessness consuming him as the private wound the rope around his wrists. He wished they’d given him an opportunity to bathe, to make himself presentable. He reeked to high heaven and no longer remembered the feel of freshly laundered clothes against his skin.
He followed the sergeant out of the room and along the dim corridor. Squinting as they stepped into the bright sunlight, he took a deep breath of outside air. He smelled horses, leather, and gunpowder. The world had turned brown, orange, and gold. Autumn had come without his knowing.
The men had gathered at one end of the compound. He could feel their eyes boring into him. They knew he was a man who refused to become a soldier, who refused to carry a rifle. They thought he was a coward. They’d branded him a deserter.
The small procession approached the wall. Clay smiled. It faced east. He didn’t look into the faces of the six men standing before the wall, but moved into position silently.
Captain Roberts, a West Point graduate who could trace his family’s military history back a hundred years to the Revolutionary War, stepped forward. “Do you have a final request?”
“A prayer,” he croaked. “I’d like to say a prayer.”
Roberts nodded his approval of the request.
As Clay bowed his head, his voice became clear, strong, and certain. “Heavenly Father, please forgive those who stand before you today for they know not what they do. Amen.”
He lifted his brown gaze to the blue heavens.
“I’m sorry, son,” the sergeant said quietly before he stepped away to stand beside Captain Roberts and issue his first order. “Ready your rifles!”
Clay’s mouth went dry.
He felt the wind caress his face, heard the leaves rustle—"Fire!”
OLLAND JERKED AWAKE
REMBLING AND BATHED IN
sweat, he ran a shaking hand through his hair.
The thunder again resounded, and he took a deep, shuddering breath. The nightmares always came during thunderstorms when the rumbling in the sky wove itself through his dreams.
He threw back the covers, clambered out of bed, and made his way to the window. Unlatching the shutters and pushing them open, he breathed deeply, inhaling the scent of rain. Reaching out, he relished the stinging raindrops as they pelted his palm. Lightning flashed and thunder called out against the darkness.
Thunder always reminded him of the volley of rifle fire—the volley that never came. Even now, years later, he still waited for the crack of rifle thunder to disturb that quiet dawn so long ago.
The sergeant had bellowed his final command. Clay drew his last breath and held the precious air deep within his lungs, waiting for the bullets to slam him against the wall, to force the life from his body.