In the summer of 1866 I went down South to find and kill a man. It’s not what I would have chosen, and when I first arrived in the territory, I didn’t want to admit that’s what I was about.
Nevertheless, I was well suited to the task—by my past and by the shadows it cast in my soul. In those wild days after the war, the North Carolina Central Railroad tracks came to an abrupt halt at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains. From the last station on the line, I had to take a series of coaches and then a farmer’s wagon to arrive at Alexander’s Station, a drovers’ outpost on the Buncombe Turnpike. When I climbed down from the wagon beside the turnpike that July day in 1866, I was amazed—stunned almost—by the dust and smell, as strong as anything I’d experienced since the last great gathering at Appomattox Court House the year before. There were acres of penned animals on the east bank of the French Broad River. Lots full of hogs, yes, and cattle, which I would have expected, but also horses, mules, geese, and turkeys. By God, turkeys on the hoof—or whatever the hell turkeys ramble down the road on. The smell was not that of a day-after battlefield—not blood and entrails smoking in the sun—but something healthy, something alive. Manure, yes, but also the dust-dry smell of hay and corn tossed into the pens by the bale and bushel. And the clouds of dust came not from barely shod human feet marching in ranks but from hoof and claw scratching in the dirt. It was a dusty, dirty piece of the world but full of life for all that.
I paid a bystander in torn overalls and busted boots to drag my trunk down the dirt street to an open square in front of Alexander’s tavern. I could hear a woman singing inside, and there were drovers sprawled asleep on the long porch despite the heat of midday. A coach sat in the yard, hitched to a team of six fly-bitten, uniformly bay horses, waiting in the heavy air. As near as I could tell they were each branded with a large block “P” on rump and withers.
When I called up my name to the driver, a thin man with a tobacco-stained, gray beard, he motioned with his whip for me to climb inside the coach.
“The tavern boys’ll load your trunk,” he said and then paused to spit a brown stream between his horses’ backs. “Mr. Patton’s expecting you down at Warm Springs.”
James Patton was the owner of the Warm Springs Hotel and one of a handful of North Carolina contacts I had been given in Washington City. The brand on the horses’ hides was very probably his sign, as he was reputed to own the stage lines as well as the hotel and a good deal of property in and around the Springs. Like the man who had sent me, Patton was a former Confederate, a traitor who’d made his way through the war. Indeed, who’d made his fortune, if what I’d heard was true.
While waiting for Patton’s stage to pull out north toward the Springs, I went into the tavern for something strong, something to bite into the knot of the day. The place was mostly empty, though a few of the drovers were bent over tables in the main room, spooning a raw, onion-smelling stew out of wooden bowls into slobbering mouths. At the bar, a broad, Indian-looking woman was scrubbing away at the splintered wood. She glanced up and grinned. “Somethin’ to eat?” she asked in a voice so husky that I looked again to be sure she was a woman. “Or drink?”
“Have you got anything like brandy?”
She threw her head back, her laugh as raspy as her voice. “Not like it. Hell no. The thing itself.” She reached under the bar and sat a glass jar in front of me. She unscrewed the lid and held it up for me to smell, and I will tell you straight away, it smelled like something made in the hills south of heaven. Woodsmoke and honey and something else, something…?
“I’ll be damned,” I said.
She nodded. “Applejack from near Barnard. Old man Freeman made it. Mostly Limbertwigs with a Buncombe or two thrown in the mill.”
I reached my good right hand out to the jar, keeping my left out of sight, and I am glad to report that my right hand didn’t tremor.
That far, at least, I had come from the last days of the war. I started to raise the jar to my lips, but her broad, brown hand on mine stopped me.
“You want me to pour you out a tot?” she asked. “Or you want to purchase the jar?”
“Two dollars script or one dollar silver for the whole. I know it sounds like thievery, but it’s worth every penny. Ask that gent-man down the way.”
I glanced to my right, where a tall, portly, distinguished man stood with his own jar of the apple brandy, meticulously pouring out a measure into a cloudy glass. He nodded graciously.
“The matron is correct,” he said. He had a clipped, New England accent, the last sort of voice you’d have expected in Alexander’s or anywhere south of Richmond. “At two dollars, this delightful potion represents an investment of your capital that you will not soon regret.”
Hell, I thought, a banker. Or worse, a goddamned attorney.
“Looks like you’re not regretting it any,” I said out loud.
“No, sir, I am not. And if, like me, you’re getting ready to embark on that machine in the yard, you will want fortification.”
When I stepped out onto the porch a moment later, my brandy jar in hand, I came face-to-face with three bearded men wearing the remains of uniforms, a confusing mix of faded blue and butternut gray. One of the three was carrying a rifle loosely at his side and started to raise the barrel in my direction until a second man reached out to stop him. The second man muttered, “that ain’t him” in a hoarse voice, and they stepped aside to let me pass. They were looking for someone, and the first man continued to glare at me with naked hostility as I walked past.
* * *
THE GENTLEMAN FROM the bar was named Joseph B. Lyman.
He too was on his way to Warm Springs, as a bonded and certified representative of the Western North Carolina Cooperative Manufacturing and Agricultural Association. Which sounds, of course, like so much horseshit, until he explained that it is a fancy name for a group of New York investors, who had sent him down south to study the possibility of buying up a large parcel of land in the French Broad River valley and redistributing it to hardworking families from the ghettos of New York. Families that yearned to escape the “industrial cesspool of the city and relocate into the bosom of nature where they could commune with nature’s God."
Lyman claimed to be the agricultural editor of the New York Tribune and the author of a book titled—so help me God—The Philosophy of Housekeeping. He showed me a copy while we sat across from each other on the stage, and it turned out that by Housekeeping he meant everything from keeping bees to breeding cattle. As we nursed our jars of brandy while riding up the Buncombe Turnpike, it became apparent that I was to be impressed that a man like himself had come all the way from New York for mere land speculation. He implied he was being paid a handsome fee for his opinion but was too tactful to mention the sum.
When he finally got around to asking me why I was there, I gave him the official version, which was that I was there to investigate the dozens of disability claims submitted during the past year by veterans of the Union army from the isolated mountain counties of North Carolina.
“But I don’t understand,” Lyman said. “Are we not in the bowels of the Old Confederacy? And you’re telling me these men served in the Army of the Republic?”
“North Carolina was a traitor state,” I agreed. “Still is of course. Only Tennessee has rejoined the Union. Even so, Western North Carolina was divided. They didn’t split off from the rest of the state like West Virginia, but there were apparently pockets of real patriots, and hundreds of men from the far western counties crossed into Tennessee to join up.”
“And so these brave men have applied for pensions?”
“Oh, they already receive a pension. Most of them eight dollars a month in federal script. But since the laws changed this year, a number have applied for disability as well. Everything from missing arms and legs to paralysis and war madness.”
“And your job is to…?”
“My job is to ascertain whether they are indeed who they say they are and to do at least a preliminary evaluation of their medical condition.”
Lyman leaned back in his seat, apparently impressed. “So you, sir, are a physician, a master of the healing arts?”
“No, Mr. Lyman. I’m not.” I brought my left hand out of my coat pocket and touched his knee with the single, scarred finger. To his credit, he blanched but didn’t turn his face away. “But after most of my hand was shot away by a blast of grapeshot at Fredericksburg, I became a surgeon’s assistant, and I’ve held down hundreds of boys while a master of the healing arts sawed off their arms or legs. And held their hands and wiped their faces while afterwards they puked out their guts and died.”
“I honor you for it,” he said in a whisper, shrinking back into his side of the coach. “And I admire your continued dedication to our fighting men. The true patriots who—”
“I’ve come to do a job,” I said. “As best I can. And there are those who think that my time in the medical corps qualifies me. That and the fact that I was born here.”
I don’t know what made me say that last part. Certainly, it wasn’t something I was proud of, nor did I feel compelled to justify myself to Lyman. He was buttoned up as though by lock and key, and it looked as if his heart had shriveled up in his chest.
“Again you astonish me, Mr. Ballard. You are a native of…” And he waved his hand vaguely to indicate the howling wilderness outside.
“My mother took us north to Pennsylvania when I was eight years old,” I said. “To Lancaster, where I grew up. I don’t recall much of my childhood before that. As I said, I’m here to do a job and to get back to Washington City by the end of the summer.” I pointed out the window with what was left of my hand. “The hell with this godforsaken place.”