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The following story is not politically correct.
As a historical fiction writer, I strive to always convey the beliefs, worldviews, and opinions of my characters as they were. Sometimes, that means that those of popular culture (and even in some cases, my own) must be laid aside in order to be historically accurate. Today’s post follows in such a vein. As such, the language and perspectives in this story may be offensive to some readers. If you are easily offended by political incorrectness, please use discretion regarding this piece.
Eight-year-old Abraham blew into his family’s cabin, hurriedly closing the door behind him to block out the prairie wind and snow. The instant warmth that greeted him and the smell of his mother’s rabbit stew thawed him inside and out.
“Calves fed?” Dad asked from the table. As he tore off his coat and gloves, Abraham nodded. Everyone else was almost done eating. The only reason why he wasn’t was because he had forgotten to feed the calves and Dad had declared that Abraham wouldn’t eat a bite until the calves had. Dad nodded approvingly then “Well, then, come ‘n eat.”
Sliding onto the bench that he shared with his older sister, Sarah, he ripped off a chunk of brown bread and stuffed it in his mouth. He didn’t even care that it had a few day’s worth of dryness. It just tasted so good!
“Abraham!” Mother admonished quietly, “Even the Indians have better manners than that. Despite what you may think, you’re not starving, so eat like a civilized person.”
Abraham swallowed his mouthful. “Yes ma’am.”
As he put a spoon of soup in his mouth, Sarah looked up from her tin cup. “Speaking of Indians, Dad, you promised to tell us the story of Grandpa Abraham and Uncle Mordecai tonight.”
Abraham’s gaze jerked up from his bowl. He knew exactly which story Sarah was referring to. It was one of Dad’s favorites to tell. He watched as Dad stretched slowly, a teasing smile spreading over his face, before drawling, “Promised, huh? I don’t rightly recall promising…”
“Thomas,” Mother said with a gentle, amiable smile. “Don’t tease the children.”
“Oh, all right. But while Abraham eats up his food, you help Mother clean up.”
33 years ago …
Fourteen-year-old Mordecai glanced up from the plow he was sharpening at the sounds of a horse pounding down the dirt road. Despite the fact that they lived within an easy walk of the Jefferson County fort, they didn’t have many visitors, especially during spring planting. As soon as the horse rounded the bend, Mordecai recognized Mr. Pirtle, one of the soldiers who lived in the fort. As soon as he reached the drive, he reigned in his horse so hard it nearly bucked. “Mordecai, where’s your Father?”
“In the field behind the house, sir.”
“And your Mother?”
“In town with Mary and Nancy visiting Mrs. Haycraft. Her baby’s got the croup, and Mother’s–“
“Never mind that. At least they’s safe.” Mr. Pirtle swung down from his saddle. “Let’s go talk to your father.”
Mordecai blinked, but obediently dropped the blade and whet stone. Something had to be terribly wrong for Mr. Pirtle to ride out like this. Still, it wasn’t his place to ask the grown man’s business. Behind the house, Father walked behind the mule-driven plow followed by Mordecai’s younger brothers, Thomas and Josiah. Thomas dropped corn seeds into the farrow and Josiah covered it with the right amount of soil. Despite the man walking beside him and his news, Mordecai couldn’t help a burst of pleasure at the sight of the plowed field. The soil radiated heat through his toes, and a rich, earthy scent wafted to his nose. He loved farming; and when his father passed on, he would certainly inherit the farm. He was the firstborn, after all. But until then, they would work side by side as father and sons.
Mr. Pirtle took the lead, shaking Mordecai from his reverie. Cupping his mouth, he yelled, “Abraham!”
Father glanced up at them, surprise flickering over his features. “Whoa! Whoa there.” Dropping the reigns, Father strode to Mr. Pirtle, grasping his hand in a firm shake. “Frank, I wasn’t expecting you.”
“I know. Still, I had ta warn you. One of the scouts came back early this morning with a report that them Redskins is actin’ up. The captain’s afraid that they’s massin’ for an attack.”
“Come on now, they wouldn’t do something that foolish. We purchased the land from them fairly! Most of the settlers from out east don’t pay those Indians half so well as we did.”
“No, but that don’t mean that they ain’t dissatisfied. Captain asked me to ride around to all the farmers and strongly suggest that all y’all come to town ’til we know that all’s settled.”
“Nah, I’m serious. Cap’s serious, too. He ain’t letting any civilian leave ’til it’s safe. So, your wife and daughters can’t come home anyway. Why not join them fer a spell?”
“Now, I can’t do that. See this field? If we don’t get it planted, we won’t get the harvest in before the fall rains. That would spell a hard winter for all of us. You fort dwellers need a good harvest just as much as we do.”
“I get that, but the harvest won’t mean diddly-squat to us iffen they kill y’all. A few days won’t harm nothing.”
“Look, don’t take this as ingratitude for the protection you boys supply, but it was the new moon a couple nights ago.”
“Don’t they have some kind of celebration around then? Maybe they’re acting strangely because of that.”
“Ain’t possible. The scout was too sure.”
“And I’m equally sure that we have nothing to fear. If the other farmers want to go to town, that’s fine, but the boys and I are staying right here.”
Mr. Pirtle sighed. “All right. Do what you think’s right. But I hope your stubbornness isn’t the death of you.” With that, he turned and left the clearing.
Father waited until he heard Mr. Pirtle’s horse on the road before shaking his head. “Some people get so jittery out here. The Indians have never harmed us, and we’ve been here nearly two years. Can’t see why they’d start now.” He looked up at Mordecai. “Did you get the blade finished, son?”
Mordecai shook his head. “No, sir. Mr. Pirtle interrupted me.”
“Well, then, go ahead and finish it. By the time you’re done with that one, this one will probably be dull, so I’ll send Josiah for the replacement.”
When Mordecai was again seated on the stump, he let his mind wander over Mr. Pirtle’s message. All his life, even back when they lived in Virginia, Indians had been a matter of contention for White folks. He had grown up with horror stories from the French and Indian War, but he’d only laid eyes on them a couple of times in his life. They all seemed friendly, even if they did dress and act strangely. Of course, it only made sense that Father was right. He typically was, after all.
Josiah walked around the side of the house with the other plow blade. “Mordecai! Father said that you should take that blade and head back to the field to help him. Said that you’d been sitting long enough.”
Mordecai glanced at the sun. He’d been working on the blade for a little over an hour, and it was only fair that Josiah got a turn practicing with the whet stone. “All right.” He handed it to his little brother and watched as he wiped the blade clean and began sharpening it. “No, not like that!” Mordecai interjected. “Move the stone in a circular motion. No, tighter. And don’t forget to–“
“Mordecai! I can do this myself!” Josiah yelled. “Go. Help. Father.”
“Fine,” Mordecai shrugged as he turned away. “But don’t blame me when you get in trouble for–” His words died on his tongue. Father was at the other end of the field, in full view of where Mordecai stood; and creeping out of the woods was an Indian with a knife in hand.
In that moment, everything else disappeared. Only the Indian and Father existed. And Father had no idea that he was being followed.
“Mordecai?” Josiah’s whimper brought Mordecai back to himself.
“Run.” Mordecai said without taking his eyes off the scene. “Go to the fort and tell them. Bring back help.”
Without another word, Josiah ran. Mordecai, however, couldn’t move. He felt like his feet were nailed to the ground. He opened his mouth to shout a warning, but his heart was beating so hard in his throat that no words could form.
The Indian gave a war cry and drove the knife into Father’s back before he had time to react.
“FATHER!” Mordecai screamed, falling to his knees. Tears cascaded down his cheeks as the Indian ran back into the forest. Rocking back and forth, he could still hear Josiah’s receding footsteps.
Murderous heat rose in Mordecai’s chest. He gasped for breath and swallowed his tears. Now wasn’t the time. He could mourn later. Now, he had to fight. He had to defend his father’s farm. He lurched to his feet and ran into the house. Despite his shaking hands, he grasped Father’s gun and pulled it down from its place over the door. “They’ll pay,” Mordecai swore between clenched teeth. “The next savage to walk out from those woods will pay with his life.” He jammed the barrel of the gun between cracks in the log wall. He cocked the gun and waited.
“Father?” Thomas whimpered loud enough that Mordecai could hear.
Thomas! His small voice felt like a slap. How could he have forgotten about Thomas? Quickly, he pulled his finger off the trigger and peered through the slit in the wall. Thomas was crawling toward Father’s lifeless body. At the sight of him, Mordecai allowed himself a sigh of relief. At least the kid had enough sense to stay low. If any of those savages had a rifle, there was less of a chance that they could hit him. Still, Thomas’ wails shook Mordecai to the core. They were fatherless now.
Another savage sneaked out from the tree line again, a smug smile on his face. Leaning over Father’s body, the savage softly said something to Thomas. Every feature on the boy’s face froze. But the savage only grinned and looked down at the body below him. Mordecai could only guess what had been said. Was it a promise that he was next? Or that the savage would carry the little boy captive?
Bile stung Mordecai’s throat, but he quickly swallowed it. How dare he flaunt like that? Slowly, Mordecai brought the gun back into position and aimed at the silver crescent hanging around the savage’s neck. Taking a deep breath, he slowly squeezed the trigger.
Mordecai’s ears rang as the savage fell. A satisfied burn filled Mordecai’s chest as he pulled the gun into cabin and added more powder. Sliding it back outside, he waited for another to appear.
At that moment, soldiers galloped over the hill. While most of them charged the tree line at which Mordecai aimed, one man halted by Father’s body. Mordecai yanked the rifle in and ran to them.
By the time he reached them, the soldier had wrapped Thomas in a comforting hug, allowing the little boy to cry on his shoulder. “He’s dead, then?” Mordecai asked tonelessly.
“I’m afraid so, son. Come on, I’ll take you back to the fort. We’ll see to your father.”
As he stared at his father, a tear trickled down Mordecai’s cheek, the murderous heat rising again. “I hate them.” he stated. “I hate them. And someday, I will have my satisfaction for what they’ve taken from us.”
When Dad finished the tale, Abraham slouched onto the table, chin in hands. Mother and Sarah were done cleaning and now both had their knitting in hand, socks hanging off their needles. “Did he, Dad? Did Uncle Mordecai ever get his satisfaction?”
Dad leaned back in his rocking chair and exhaled. “Well, that depends on who you ask. Your Uncle Mordecai did kill a couple of Indians a while back in cold blood. But that don’t mean that he’s satisfied. That’s the funny thing about vengeance. It ain’t never fulfilled. Probably why the good Lord said to not avenge ourselves, ’cause that’s His job. Vengeance is like a hungry wolf in winter: it’s always hungry and always looking for something else of yours to devour. ‘Taint worth it. Guess that’s why I decided to give it to Jesus years ago. I may not have had a father growing up, and because of it I missed out on many things that other boys had. But I always had a heavenly father in God.”
Mother nodded. “Your father’s a wise man. Heed that advice, Abraham Lincoln, and you will always be content.”
Abraham grinned. “Yes ma’am. I will.”
“Good lad. Now, it’s high time that both of you should be in bed. Off you get now.”
Sarah laid aside her needles and pulled out her trundle bed from its place under Dad and Mother’s bed and Abraham climbed the ladder to the loft. Tomorrow was going to be full of work, and he wanted to be fully rested for it.
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For Further Exploration
Herndon’s Life of Lincoln by William Henry Herndon
Although the story is true, and more importantly, true to the facts as reported in Herndon’s Life of Lincoln, Mr. Pirtle and the role he plays is fictitious. However, the Lincolns and the Pirtles were well acquainted. In 1865, a man named Henry Pirtle, an intimate friend of Mordecai and Josiah, wrote to Herndon with stories of the family.
Copyright © Angela Cornell 2016