Sean McLachlan and Charlene has been kind enough to ask me to give you an excerpt from my Civil War historical fantasy novel A Fine Likeness.
I lived for many years in Missouri and became fascinated with the state’s Civil War history. It’s not very well known. The action in places like Virginia get most of the attention, yet Missouri’s Civil War had its own unique character. Missourians were divided, with most people in the cities supporting the North while farmers were generally secessionist. The many German immigrants (called “Dutchmen” by other Missourians) enthusiastically supported the Union. The Union army quickly occupied Missouri but had to fight against Confederate guerrillas called bushwhackers for the rest of the war. The bushwhackers used to brag that Union soldiers controlled the town square and they controlled everything else!
I’ve written numerous articles and books about the conflict and that inspired me to write A Fine Likeness, which takes place in central Missouri during the Confederate invasion of 1864. It follows the adventures of a group of teenaged bushwhackers tricked by a strange old man, Lazarus Grimes, into murdering a Unionist civilian. Neither the victim nor Grimes are what they seem, and their crime sets off a chain of events that will change every one of them, and perhaps the outcome of the war. This scene comes from an early chapter of A Fine Likeness. To learn more about me and my books, visit my blog Civil War Horror.
“You need to kill Lars Schmidt,” Grimes announced.
“Who?” Jimmy asked. “What did he do?”
“Who cares who he is?” Morgan said. “He’s a damned Dutchman.”
The others nodded. German immigrants all took the North’s side. They’d shed the first blood in the St. Louis Massacre back in ‘61 and ever since had been the main tool of Northern aggression in Missouri.
“He’s an informant,” Grimes said, not taking his eyes off Jimmy. “His word is law in these parts, and he’s sent more than a few patriots to Gratiot prison. A couple of days ago he got Stephen Chambers sent to the gallows.”
“Mr. Chambers?” the Kid gasped. “He gave us supper just last week!”
“That Dutch viper has been sneaking around nights, spying on supporters of the Cause. He’s more dangerous than the militia or General Brown himself,” Grimes said.
“What is he, a militia commander or something?” Jimmy asked.
Grimes shook his head.
“No, he’s lame in one leg. He’s a photographer who keeps a business outside of Columbia.”
“A civilian?’ Jimmy asked.
“Well, if you want to call him that, but he’s got Southern blood on his hands.”
Jimmy hesitated. He saved his bullets for Union soldiers or Kansas Jayhawkers, who robbed and killed Southerners without even a uniform as an excuse. Sure, he took what he needed from Unionist civilians, but he had never killed one.
“Now Jimmy, I know what you’re thinking, but you got to be practical,” Grimes went on. “What’s the difference between a militiaman and this Dutch snake-in-the-grass? Hell’s bells, boy, your typical milish has pulled off barely two shots at a Confederate and missed both times! This so-called American has killed half a dozen patriots and sent scores to prison besides. You want someone like that in the district? What would the folks back home think if they heard you let someone like that breath Southern air? When they write the history of Missouri’s liberation, do you want them to say, ‘Schmidt was the worst enemy to the Cause in Boone County. Jimmy Rawlins could have killed him in ‘64 but he shied away and the Dutchman sent twenty more patriots to the gallows before a real—’”
“All right! All right!” Jimmy shouted, throwing his hands in the air.
A smile crept across Grimes’ face. “Don’t fret, boy. You’re doing the right thing.”
Jimmy shook his head, taking the jug the old man handed him.
“Now, I got something else for you,” Grimes said, reaching for a volume on the bookshelf and opening it. He pulled out half a dozen slips of paper and handed one to each of them.
“Passes,” Grimes said. “Schmidt lives only two miles outside Columbia, so chances are you’ll be stopped.”
Hugh read his paper and gaped.
“This is signed by Provost Marshal Harris! How did you get these?”
“Never you mind how I got them, but they’re the real deal. Memorize those names, boys, and you’ll be safe from any militia or soldier.”
Jimmy examined his own pass and whistled. Damn, but the old man is good. He must know what he’s doing. If he says that Dutchman needs to die, well shoot I guess the cuss deserves it. Still doesn’t sit with me, but this is war, and in war a man’s got to do his duty. Right?
* * *
The jug went around several more times, and although Jimmy wasn’t as much of a drinker as Morgan or the Milligan brothers, he downed his fair share. If he had to spend the night under Grimes’ roof, he wanted some liquid courage. Later that evening the others started bedding down and with a buzzing head he rolled himself up in his blanket on the floor and shut his eyes.
But sleep eluded him. Long after the rest had fallen asleep, Lazarus and Elijah sat together at the table, poring over piles of old books by the light of a lone candle. Eventually he drifted off, strange fragments of dark dreams making him toss and turn.
Sometime in the small hours he snapped awake. The cabin was swathed in darkness, the table unoccupied, the candle snuffed out. Jimmy sat up and looked around. Morgan lay stretched out in the middle of the floor, snoring with gusto. The Milligan brothers lay nearby on their sides, facing one another. The Kid was to his right all curled up, his fist pushed up against his mouth. Of Grimes and Elijah he saw no sign.
Some faint sound at the edge of his hearing made Jimmy throw on his coat and pull on his boots. Trying to tread softly on the warped, creaking floorboards, he crept to the door and slipped outside.
The night had turned chill, the stars shining hard and distant in a clear sky. A crescent moon hung low in the west, swollen and red. The distant singsong of chanting voices made Jimmy peer into the night, searching.
It took a moment to spot them—two silhouettes against the firmament, each standing on one of the mounds that dotted the ridge. They chanted in some language Jimmy didn’t recognize, not that he’d heard many, but it didn’t sound simply foreign like what the German settlers jabbered, or ancient like the Latin he’d heard Catholics reciting in their prayers; it sounded different somehow, like it was not a real human language at all. The pair raised their arms to the stars, calling, supplicating, and as a light breeze blew, Jimmy swore it carried to his ears a faint return call, a response in the same strange tongue.
Suddenly Jimmy realized he’d forgotten his guns. Feeling naked, he hurried inside, threw his blanket over him, and clutched a pair of pistols. He did not sleep the rest of the night, and did not hear the two return until the first faint rays of dawn fingered through the chinks in the shutters.
* * *
Buy the novel on Amazon!
* * *
Buy the novel on Amazon!