“… he who makes his ways crooked will be found out.” Proverbs 10:9
The barking shriek punctured early dawn. Towhees were not yet awake to sing summer’s song. A pause in between, and then another. Demonic screaming registered in Hill Carpenter’s waking brain. But the third boastful bark jolted him full awake. A fox.
The chickens! Safe in the coop?
The rabbits! Secure in their hutches?
Foxes yelped triumphantly over fresh kills. They slinked onto still farms, acted swiftly, antagonized shrilly, and then disappeared into dark dens before dawn. They quieted roosters’ crows; unsettled animals from their slumber.
Hill dressed with haste and then slowed his actions. Whatever was dead was dead. Hurrying wouldn’t help. He set the kettle onto the grate, picked a log from the basket, opened the stove door, and placed the wood inside. Coffee, eggs, and a sliver of salt pork before investigating the intruder’s havoc.
Perhaps the fox hadn’t killed anything. Perhaps its mate or a pup got caught in Hill’s trap.
Hill cooked contemplatively, ate, and enjoyed last traces of coffee.
Hill was used to catching things. He had trapped his fair share of animals since his daddy had assigned him the task at age eight. “Give ya a penny for hides of ‘em coons and groundhogs,” he had told young Hill. The boy had done it more to please his daddy than for the pennies. Adult Hill snared things because he had to.
He stood at the window, surveying the light taking its time illumining his cove. His thoughts drifted to Thad, though he tried daily to block them. No matter the rampart, reflection founds its way in. It was Thad’s own fault Hill trapped him. Naive fool. Because Hill was not able to fight against Yankees, nor wanted to, for that matter, did not mean he cared less for the Confederacy. Sure, it wasn’t their fight. North Carolina mountain families managed their own fields and cared nothing for the institution of slavery. Geography, though, chose a side. And with his club foot, Hill was assigned to the Home Guard to preserve and protect, and spy on his own if necessary.
When Thad returned home on leave last fall to lie with his beloved Martha, whom he married the afternoon of his enlistment, allowing no time for consummation – blame fool, muttered Hill – he had paid visits to back slap and show off his grays and shiny boots.
Of course, he had checked in on Hill, friend and second cousin. Thad went on too much about loyalty and service to Davis and how the South “meant business.” And he asked too many questions – wonderings about Richmond and the Home Guard.
That’s when Hill knew. The trap was not metal or even a cord snare; Hill used words.
“It’s a good show,” Hill said, elbowing Thad.
“Model soldier and all.” Hill had winked at Thad and leaned in to clink together their tin cups of moonshine.
“Oh, yea …”
“Have to keep it up so no one suspects?”
“Uh, … right.”
“How are you gettin’ information up there?”
Thad had hesitated. Hill remembered that much. Thought maybe he might not take the bait. Hoped he underestimated Thad’s imprudence.
“There’s a scout. Name’s Cyrus. Doin’ his job so well, they don’t suspect him. Sly fox. Drops off stuff at a hidey hole. Don’t know where. I just give ‘em some numbers and stuff, snatches of talk … you know …” A slight snigger trailed Thad’s boast.
Hill finished up the drink with Thad. Took time to ponder his next move. Slept on it even. Sent a telegraph to Virginia. Did not give them Thad’s name, but asked if there was a scout named Cyrus with the 40th and asked if he had permission to take fitting measures if a spy was believed to be in their midst.
Confirmation on the name – a Cyrus Andrews – came quickly, as did permission.
Hill had rounded up two others in the Home Guard and waited for Thad to get well into his walk back to join his regiment over in King’s Mountain. Hill knew that he would never be able to expunge the expression that clouded Thad’s face when they met him on the road that October day. He had tried to push aside Thad’s look, to remember Thad when they were 12 playing stickball with some local Cherokee boys; or when they were 16 and after the same golden haired, buxom Whitehurst girl.
Thad was caught. He knew it right away. Hill read his thoughts. Shit. I said too much.
“Why?” Hill had asked him.
“Thought I could trust kin.”
“You can, in normal circumstances. Not in war. Who you think they goin’ to come after if they find out I knew somethin’ when you’re caught? And you’re bound to get caught, if not by me, you dumb ass. Spies don’t talk, ever. Didn’t they teach you that when they’s recruitin’ you?”
Thad hadn’t cried or begged. Hill would give him that. He might not be a smart spy, but he was a brave one.
“Write down your confession and we’ll shoot instead of hang.”
“Can I also write a letter to my love?”
Hill had pulled paper and pencil out of his leather saddle pouch, allowed Thad to write his last words, told him how sorry he was, and then gave him a burlap bag to adjust over his head. He left his own gun on his saddle and instructed the other two men to aim.
“Wait,” spoke Thad, from beneath the head covering. “Before you send me on, please tell them I’m sorry. Sorry for my deception. Sorry I went against what they’s tryin’ to do, even though I don’t agree. I wouldn’t do it again – spy, I mean.”
The three men had buried Thad in a clearing not far from the path. One of them fashioned a cross from some pine twigs, secured with a bit of leather lace.
Hill had taken the letter to Thad’s wife, Martha, who wept as expected. He did not tell her he was responsible for ordering the execution of Thad as spy. Only that he was with him on his last day.
He wrote to Richmond and included the confession. But he forgot to carry out Thad’s last request. After wrestling all-night demons, taunting him for betraying Thad’s confidence, he sent another letter the following day:
Richmond, Va. October 7th, 1863
Maj. Gen. Torbert Gregg,
In the statement I mailed you yesterday of the confession of Thaddeus Balle, I forgot to mention an item which may be of some importance. He said repeatedly that he was sorry he had violated the laws of the Confederacy and for the deception he used; and added that if he had his life to do over again, that he would not be a spy.
Hillsborough Carpenter, N.C. Home Guard
The light was full into the cove by the time Hill roused himself away from the window. Every day was the same. The real war of flesh and blood dragged on miles away, but the soldiers in his battlefield mind were guilt and doubt.
He pulled on his leather boots and exited his cabin. Fresh tracks and some scat confirmed the fox’s visit. He walked toward the chicken coop. Up ahead was something pink, hairless. He approached cautiously, blinking his eyes to adjust. A baby? Couldn’t be. Dead?
Hill examined the naked boy with umbilical cord chewed through. Bite marks and redness surrounded one arm, but no bleeding. Hill touched the baby, whose eyes sprung open. He starred at Hill for a moment and then broke into a wail. Hill scooped him up and flew inside.
As he warmed a rag and wiped dirt off the newborn, he heard a shrill “hello the house” from below his cabin. He grabbed a flannel shirt draped over a chair, wet a bit of the rag for baby to suckle, and wrapped him up tight.
“In here,” yelled Hill, through the door he hadn’t bothered to close behind him.
“Goin’ around to all …” started the elderly neighbor as he stepped onto Hill’s porch. “Martha didn’t get back from the quiltin’ before dark last night … water broke on the way. What the …?!”
“Just found him out near the coop. Think a fox drug him here.”
The two men starred at the baby in Hill’s arms.
“No fox ever stealed no baby!”
Hill showed him the bite marks.
“Good god almighty! Martha’s goin’ to …” He shook his head. “We thought she’d die from the cryin’ last night. Said she passed out from the pain after she cut the cord with her teeth. Woke up on the path and the baby done been stolen right away. Thad’s only baby. Thought we might lose her last night from another heartache.”
Hill placed the baby in the man’s arms.
“Lord be praised!”
Hill watched the neighbor walk away from his cabin.
Off in the distance a fox screamed.
Hill shuddered, looked around, and then up, and went back inside.