The following is Chapter 1 to a story I wrote for my 8th-grade students in 2017-2018. Below it is the prologue. 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 time setting is today.
Justice and the Vandovers
Carson Thomas Is Upset
“Why you acting so down?” inquired Justice. “What’s the matter?”
Carson gave no response.
“Come on, Carson,” said Gavin. “You’ve been like this all day. Trouble at home? Girl turn you down? What?”
Still no reply. Carson merely kept his head down, and he did not even look at his friends. He shuffled his feet as he walked.
Ian, the last member of the group, continued to probe.
“I’ve never seen you like this,” he said. “You’re always the happiest person at school. You always smile, you laugh, you’re funny, and you get the rest of us going as well. Obviously, there’s something wrong. Tell us what it is.”
These four—Justice Grier, Carson Thomas, Gavin Gullion, and Ian Sleepe—were always together at school, and most of the time after school as well. They ate lunch together, all of them played the same sports, and they frequently went to the mall and to parties together. Their teachers called them inseparable and insufferable. They laughed at the first term, but had no idea what the second one meant, so they just mechanically laughed at that as well. They called themselves the Gang of Four, though only Carson, the one who gave them the name, knew why. He had tried to explain the history of the term to his friends, but they were not interested. Carson was the only one with interest in history. Actually, he enjoyed history very much. The only time they showed any interest at all was the night before a history test at school, when they would call him, video call him, text him, or come to his house in an attempt to cram. He made ‘A’s’ every time. A ‘C’ or an occasional ‘D’ nearly always satisfied the other three.
The boys were spending this Saturday early afternoon at the mall. Each had particular things he intended to purchase. Ian wanted a Lebron James jersey. He was the third smallest of the group, a few inches taller than Carson. Playing basketball had been his dream for as long as he could remember, but his opportunities had always been limited because of his height. Gavin, the tallest of the group, had been looking for a plain white T-shirt with the single word “Handsome” written on it. His reddish hair seemed to highlight his always-smiling face and his inquisitive nature. Justice was generally the focus of everyone in class, as he was the most active, funniest, and always had a comment on anything that was said. He was on the search for new tennis shoes because he was trying out for the school’s basketball team, as were his friends. Apparently, they already had shoes, just not the $250 kind that Justice wanted. They had already eaten at the Chinese restaurant in the food court, and Carson had eaten very little of his.
“Maybe it’s lunch,” said Ian. “Mine wasn’t very good today.”
“Nah. Gotta be a girl,” said Justice. “Maeve or Abby?”
“How about Ceana?” added Ian. “I’ve seen you looking at her in class.”
“Oh, wait a minute. I know!” interjected Gavin. “Who’s the one you’ve been sweet on since the day you arrived? Tre—“
This finally struck a nerve. “Shut up!” yelled Carson. “It’s not a girl.” He glared at his friends. “And definitely not one of those girls. At least not now.”
The other three boys looked at each other. Gavin made his mouth to appear to be whistling without making a sound. Ian mouthed “Maeve” to the others. They nodded knowingly.
“No,” said Carson. “It’s something you don’t know about, and I don’t want to talk about.”
“Not talk to us?” said Justice. “We’re your friends! Heck, your only friends. We’re together—always. You know what we’re called—“
“The Gang of Four!” shouted Justice, Gavin, and Ian simultaneously, but Carson did not join in, something he always did. Finding these good friends since coming to the middle school had made Carson happy. They were the best of friends, shared each other’s secrets, and never divulged those secrets to anyone else. They were close, and it made Carson feel welcome and happy.
“Gang of Four, Big Schmore,” said Carson dejectedly. “Four biggest losers in the entire school, that’s all we are.”
“Now it’s time for you to shut up,” Ian immediately replied. “No losers in this group. About every other boy in middle school would love to be in with us. Of course, we wouldn’t be the Gang of Four, we’d be a Gang of something else.”
They walked in silence for a short while. The other three boys did not like seeing Carson like this. All four of them were fun-loving and energetic. Scarcely a moment passed without one of them quipping something humorous or plain idiotic. This moment was the exception. Even Justice, the most demonstrative of the group, was at a loss for words. Carson had thrown a wet blanket on their normally fireball moods.
They sat on a bench in the middle court of the mall. Gavin went to the cookie stand and bought cookies for everyone. Gavin, Justice, and Ian wolfed theirs down. Carson did not as much so look at his. His three friends shook their heads.
“Oh, man! I was going to tell you! I can’t believe I forgot,” said Justice so loudly that other people sitting nearby by turned to look. “This doesn’t have anything to do with the mood you’re in, and I’m not trying to get you out of it, but this is something you’re gonna like.
“You all know how much Carson likes history. You can’t deny that, Carson. You’re the only one of us that likes history. The rest of us can’t stand history class, and we’re dummies in it.”
Carson looked at his friend. “Yes, I like history. Like it a lot. But you’re not fooling anybody, Justice. You’re the smartest one of all of us. Heck, you’re the smartest kid in history class. You should have the top grade in there all the time. You think you’re fooling everybody into believing you’re really not smart. You don’t fool anyone, though. Every teacher you have knows you’re one of the smartest kids in our class. You don’t make the best grades because you don’t think it’s cool to be smart. You’re smart, you’re funny—and it takes smarts to be funny—all the kids know it, all the teachers know it. Yes, I do like history. It’s my favorite subject. But I have to work a lot harder in it than you do. So what’s your point?”
“Haven’t you heard what the town’s going to do during the summer?” returned Justice. “Something that’s right up your alley. Something you should get involved in. Remember the stories we’ve heard—those dumb stories—about that Civil War battle that was fought in Simpson Fields? The town’s going to have a big festival for a week, and there’s going to be a re-enactment of the battle. Bringing in people from out of town. Real uniforms, real guns, real cannons. Naturally they won’t be shooting real bullets or cannonballs, but real equipment.”
“I haven’t heard about that,” said Ian.
“Me either,” said Gavin.
“I know about the battle, of course,” replied Carson, “but I don’t know anything about a festival or a re-enactment or anything. When’s this going to happen?”
“I don’t know the date,” said Justice. “I just know it’s going to be sometime this summer.”
“Hey,” said Gavin. “I know you really like Civil War stuff. You’ve got all kinds of books and notebooks about Civil War battles in your room. I’ve seen them there, but haven’t really looked at them much. Do you look up stuff about them?”
Carson appeared a little embarrassed. He looked down at his feet. “It’s nothing, really. Something I like to do.”
“That’s what Justice’s talking about,” said Ian. “Just what you like to do! Say, do you think there’s anything you could do to help the festival?”
“Me? I don’t think so,” said Carson.
“I think there is,” said Justice. “Somebody’s gotta do the research for the re-enactment and the events that happened with the battle. They’re gonna have to make a book or a big display somewhere, like the town square, where people can come in and learn about it. They’re probably gonna get some old person to do it, like an English teacher or history teacher or some really old person from the library who’s almost dead, someone who does it just to do it, not someone like you who’d do it because you like it.”
“Come on!” said Gavin. “You’d love to do it!”
“How many of those folders do you have at home? The ones you’ve made while researching Civil War stuff? Ten?” said Ian.
“Twenty-three,” replied Carson, and for the first time his three friends saw a spark of life in him.
“See what I mean? Just what you need,” said Justice. “You ever done any research on the battle around here?”
“No, not much,” replied Carson. “I know a little about it just because I live here, things I’ve heard people talk about. And I’ve been out to the small battlefield park with the plaque mounted on the pole. We’ve all been there, remember? Went there last summer and played soccer or something.”
“We were looking for girls,” said Gavin. “We heard there were some girls over there from out of town, and we wanted to check them out.”
“You mean you were looking for girls,” said Ian. “You’d just broken up with—“
“That’s enough,” said Gavin. “I don’t even mention her name anymore.”
“But you’re in class with her three times a day,” said Ian.
“Doesn’t mean I talk to her or even think about her,” replied Gavin.
“This battle,” continued Justice. “What could be better? It’s history—something you love—and it would give you a chance to get some glory or something in town. You know you’d do a great job at it. People would notice. Even old people. It would be great!”
The boys resumed their walk through the mall, stopping at various stores, spying on girls they thought were cute, and buying little. Carson was still subdued, yet he was in a somewhat better frame of mind. Eventually they ended back at the center court and took their places on a bench, mainly watching girls pass by.
“Thought any more about it?” asked Ian to Carson.
“Yeah, I’ve thought about it,” replied Carson. “Getting pretty excited, actually. Well, I would say that I would be pretty excited if it weren’t for what’s bothering me. As it is, that kind of makes me not excited about it much.”
“Here we go again,” said Justice. “You gonna tell us about what’s eating you or not?”
Carson rubbed his head and shook it. “No…no, I don’t think I will. You wouldn’t believe me, and I don’t want to get any more depressed than I already am.”
“Trouble at home?” inquired Gavin.
“No, that’s not it. Not really. Not with my parents or anything.”
Ian said, “They find out about you kissing—“
“No! And I didn’t kiss her! We were walking in the hall, and Gavin shouted from the other end of the hall. I turned around and there she was!”
“But you did kiss her,” said Ian.
“No way, no shape, no nothing. No kiss in it!” returned Carson. “We never touched. Just so happened she’s the same height I am, and when I turned, our faces got really close together.”
“And about 20 people saw it happen,” said Justice. “And all of them tell the same story. You kissed her. You held it for a couple of seconds.”
“Mrs. Murphy came running out of her room when she heard everybody talking. She said she heard something from inside her room that sounded like a suction cup when you two pulled away.”
“Stop!” yelled Carson, but this time he was laughing. “You guys know how to make stories out of nothing.”
“Well, I heard she texted you later that night,” said Gavin.
“And wanted to make a date for the weekend,” added Ian.
“Yes, she did text me,” replied Carson. “I’ll admit that. She said she needed help with a question in history, but really all she wanted was to let me know she didn’t blame me for the situation in the hall. She said there’s nothing between us, that she thinks I’m a nice guy, but she doesn’t like me now or ever has liked me for a boyfriend.”
“Yeah, sure,” said Justice. “That’s code for saying she really does like you.”
“No, and I’ll tell you why,” said Carson. “She told me who she really likes, and it’s you!”
Justice chased Carson around the center of the mall until a security guard made them stop. The boys then returned to the benches. Their shopping time was finished.
“How about everybody come over to my house?” said Gavin. “My mom will make us some pizza or something. We can watch a movie or some videos.”
They agreed, and then they went to Gavin’s home. By the time they arrived, Carson was once again in a silent, somber mood. The other three boys attempted to get him to open up, but he refused. They watched some videos and played some computer games for a couple of hours, and Carson remained the same. Finally, it was time to leave.
“Maybe we can talk tomorrow?” Ian asked Carson.
Carson thought a little, and then said, “No, I’ve been thinking. I’ll go ahead and tell you now. Look, the idea of the re-enactment, and the writing of the history of it sounds really good to me. Really good. You’re right. That would thrill me a lot. I’m sure I’d spend hours on it. And who knows? Maybe the town would use what I wrote for their festival!”
“I know just who to talk to about that,” said Justice. “Mrs. Peterson on the town council. She’d go for it, I’m sure. She likes kids doing things. Even though she’s old, she doesn’t act old, if you know what I mean. I’ll talk to her on Monday right after school.”
“No. No use in doing that,” said Carson. “I’m not going to do it.”
“What?” said Ian. “You just said you’d love to do it! Why not?”
“Normally, I would love to do it,” replied Carson. “But I discovered something late last night. Changed my whole life. Couldn’t sleep at all. Think I stayed up all night, and doubt if I sleep again tonight.”
“What’s the matter?” said Gavin.
Carson exhaled a deep sigh.
“I can’t do the research, I can’t write the story because…well, because I’m nearly fourteen years old. The festival and re-enactment will come in the summer, after my birthday, and I believe I will be dead before I turn fourteen years old…”
- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
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.
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.