Justice and the Vandovers

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The following is the prologue to a story I wrote for my 8th-grade students in 2017-2018. My students are the main characters. Obviously this is written for a middle school audience. It is a long piece, and publishing 1 chapter per week, it will take nearly half a year to post to completion. The prologue takes place 150 years ago. The rest of the story takes place today.
The posts for this story can be found on the Long Fiction page at https://gregburton.blog/long-pages/

 

Justice and the Vandovers

by

Greg Burton

Prologue

End of July, 1863, Simpson Fields, Alabama

The Confederate States of America was riding high, victory after victory secured on many fronts, with the most important ones being won by General Robert E. Lee in and around the Virginia area. Still, things were getting tight on the home front. Most men had been missing from the farms for over two years, leaving plowing, planting, growing, and harvesting crops left mainly to the women and older children who were still there. The women generally had to do this, plus attend their regular duties, such as taking care of children, managing the household, preparing food, and any of the other hundreds of daily chores they would take care of if their husbands had been there. It was a straining life, and though they endured happily for The Cause of States Rights, the grind was wearing them out physically and emotionally.

A great portion that had been saved by southern families had been taken by the Confederate government. Agents would come around monthly in search of supplies for the fighting men—food, clothing, material, chickens, hogs, cattle, items that held intrinsic value, such as gold (the main desired item), jewels, and cash. The southerners had taken their ready cash and invested in Confederate bonds. Many were afraid they would lose every penny they had if their men failed in the war, if the Yankees. The families, though, were willing to donate everything—even their last drop of blood—for Confederate victory.

As the months dragged into years, the agents had difficulty getting much else from the southern families. A family in 1863 that possessed more than one chicken felt blessed at its abundance. Cattle and hogs were almost never seen any more on the homesteads. True, some people hid these things when they knew the requisition group was heading into the area. At first, people looked upon these hoarders and hiders are disloyal citizens. Now, however, their prudence was privately being praised, and many people were unhappy with themselves that they had not done the same thing previously.

In late July of 1863 the hamlet of Simpson Fields, a place not usually marked on maps of the state, had its attention drawn to itself because of a “battle”—actually nothing more than a minor skirmish—that transpired in the limits of the town itself. There were a few casualties in the encounter.

The story was retold for years by the people who lived and fought there. As usual in incidents like these, the tale grew in scope and importance. Ten years later it may have been recalled by gentlemen sitting on the bench in front of the barbershop something like the following:

“There we were—trapped by the bluecoats. Couldn’t go forward, couldn’t retreat,” would say veteran number one.

Veteran number two would chime in with, “Thought we were all going to die. Either that or get captured and get sent to a prisoner camp in the north, where we’d be starved out, or beaten, or caught some awful disease and just died.”

“But Colonel Dunwoody came and rescued us—all except Bobby Anderson, Lucas Cadwalader, and Baxter McDrood—they all got killed during the battle,” veteran number three would add. “Terrible shame. They was good men, them boys. Colonel Dunwoody came charging in with about twenty or so men broke through the Yankee line, and we escaped.”

“Yeah, but the Yanks took the town anyway,” the first veteran would say. “We felt bad about that. Hung our heads for years. We were just overwhelmed, that’s all. Yanks had four times as many men as we did. Still, we shoulda been able to whip them.”

In reality, the skirmish lasted just over an hour. Two Union soldiers were injured, and three defenders were killed. The Yankees did occupy the town, though, just for a couple of hours, and then they left.

 

End of March, 1865

In a little over a week, the Civil War would be over, but there was much going on in Simpson Fields, even though it was removed far from the action transpiring in Virginia. The townspeople, now desperate for nearly everything, starving, no shoes, worn, ratty clothing, and completely void of hope, had little to sustain them, either physically or emotionally. Nerves were on edge, tempers short, and desperation ruled the day. What little food could be found was already readily shared with neighbors, but some people—people of strong character and firmly-established morals—had resorted to theft or deceptive means to obtain what they could eat. Poultry or pigs, when they could be found, needed to be guarded day and night, or else they would turn up missing at a moment’s notice.

On this windy, chilly day in March, 1865, a group from the commissary, or collectors of goods requisitioned by the Confederate government, was making one final sweep of the area, desperate for anything that could help the soldiers. Everyone knew it was too late, so the people decided to hide anything of value they still possessed. A man rode in at a gallop, waving his hat, yelling at the top of his voice.

“Saved! Saved, I tell ya! We’re all saved!”

A crowd quickly gathered in front of the court house where the man pulled up his horse. He waited until the noisy talk subsided, then he dismounted his horse and hobbled over to a tree stump where he could stand, and where everyone could hear him speak. He was missing his right leg below the knee, his left arm below the elbow, and was missing his left eye. All these losses occurred on the battlefield in the last four years.

“John Vandover’s got several wagons heading this way,” the man yelled. “They’re full of food, I tell you. Full of food. He’s got mountains of hams, crates full of chickens, he’s driving some cattle, all kinds of vegetables. Probably enough to keep us all fed until our crops come in.”

“What?” someone asked in disbelief. “Homer, where’d he get that stuff?”

Homer, the rider with the missing body parts, replied, “Says he’s kept all this stuff hidden in the woods behind his place all the time. Said the agents were not going to get any of his stuff. But he’s driving it this way. Bringing it to us!”

“Why would John Vandover bring anything to us?” someone asked. “He’s the stingiest man around. Never’s had nothing to do with people in town. Doesn’t talk to anybody. Doesn’t help out anyone. Ain’t nobody likes him, and as far as I can tell, he ain’t never liked none of us. I don’t believe it.”

“Believe it or not, it’s happening,” said Homer. “Saw the wagons myself.”

“Did ya talk to him? Did he say he’s heading this way?” another questioned.

“Yep. Talked to him myself. Said he was headin’ to town. I took off hollerin’ soon’s he said that.”

The crowd appeared convinced. Cheers went up continuously for a half hour or more, but as time passed, cheering dissipated, and looks of joy and hope turned first to anxiety, and then after another interval, to anger. The people realized they were getting no relief. John Vandover and his wagons of supplies never showed.

 

August, 1865

Nearly the entire town of Simpson Fields gathered in the courthouse. People stood around the perimeter after every available seat had been taken inside the courtroom. An emergency town meeting had been called. Angry voices rang for close to two hours as people shouted each other down in an attempt to speak his mind. The sheriff had deputized four men to help keep the order because he knew the meeting would be heated, and people might make rash decisions to take matters into their own hands.

The topic was John Vandover, and what the town should do concerning the supply wagons that never showed. One woman, Mrs. Elmore Paddock, claimed that her small child had died from malnutrition, and that food from the Vandover wagons would have saved the child’s life. Jonas Edmonds, an elderly man, proclaimed that he lost sight in his eye solely because of starvation, and that the eye quit working a week after Vandover’s wagons had failed to show. A young woman by the name of Stella Owens claimed that she became sterile due to lack of nourishment, and the doctor had told her that she would never be able to have children again.

Some people wanted to go to the Vandover place out the outskirts of town and settle accounts with John Vandover. First, they proposed to fire his house and buildings. Then they were going to run him out of town after tarring-and-feathering him. A few proposed sterner measures—hanging Vandover from the nearest tree on his place after destroying his property. Yet others were convinced that the only remedy to the Vandover scourge was to kill not only John Vandover, but his wife, children, and grandchildren, leaving none to pollute their town ever again.

After discussions had ceased and decisions made, town council president Alden Withers informed the crowd of the final decision.

“Seeing that John Vandover abandoned the good people of this town in their time of direst need, it is the agreed decision, by a vote of the people here, that the name of Vandover—whether it is John Vandover, his wife, children, or any descendant in ages to comes—be cursed. Never let the name Vandover pass over the lips of any resident of Simpson Fields from here to eternity. Cursed be the name Vandover. For the evil that he has done to this town, let the descendants of John Vandover forever be outcasts. Cursed be anyone from now until the end of time who would aid any Vandover. And now, with this final mention of the name Vandover, let it never be spoken again in Simpson Fields.”

The people shouted in agreement.

 

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