16-year old Jacob Banning walked out on the porch pulling on his suspenders that bright summer Arkansas morning in 1862.
He looked down the dusty road toward the barn at old Fred who was one of the two plough mules the family owned.
He watched as Fred scratched the underside of his Jaw over the rail fence. Old Fred shook his head and went back to looking for corn that wasn’t there.
“I swear that mule checks his feed trough as if he keeps checking it will grow corn.” The only food old Fred liked more than corn was apples.
The early morning sun was warm on his shoulders as he stood there sleepily thinking about the new ground he had started putting the turning plough too yesterday.
He thought of the time the land had lain dormant. Seven years was almost half his life and he looked forward to a good crop of corn off that land.
Jacob looked at his hands which had become strong from hard work and he looked forward to breaking and planting that field.
Jacob had grown tall. He has soft brown eyes and a kindly look about him and he favored his mother. His shock of blonde hair made his brown face stand out.
He thought about going through the kitchen and trying to snag a biscuit but the thought of his mother’s long-handled cooking spoon cracking atop his head cured him of such delusions.
It took a feat and he didn’t feel up to the run and patience got the better of his stomach and so he set himself to wait.
The middle bedroom of the house connected with the kitchen and so you had to go through a bedroom from the living room to get to the kitchen which was all the way across the back of the house.
The kitchen had a back door so if he was fast enough he could run all the way through the kitchen and out the back door snagging a biscuit on the way while dodging his mothers long cooking spoon.
His mother frowned on anybody getting a biscuit before she called. He smiled as he remembered the runs he had made at that kitchen and come away victorious with a hot biscuit.
It was a game he and his mother had played since he was six years old. He caught his mother smiling on one of his runs, but she would never fail him with a withering look as she called him to breakfast.
His eyes came open a mite wider as he noticed horses with riders coming around the bend in the road.
The Banning farm sat on three hundred acres of rich mountain land and they owned the whole mountain top. He was the second generation of Bannings to farm that land for a living.
Not much came from Morgantown; the small-town which was 15 miles away. There were miles of forest between and that road was the only way back in there so when you looked down it and saw something you knew it had to be “compny Comin”.
That’s what he laid his eyes on that early summer morning. He counted five horses with riders making their way up the road.
He stood there as the men on the horses pulled up to the front of the house.
He could tell they were confederate soldiers although they wore only scraps of southern uniforms. The rest of their clothing was homespun.
The men stopped their horses about five feet from the porch and eyed Jacob as Jacob eyed them.
“Howdy.” Jacob spoke and two of them nodded their heads.
“They Shore are a rough lookin bunch.” Jacob thought. The men just sat saddle and looked around at the house and yard.
The chickens paid no mind as they scratched and clucked in their never-ending search for whatever they were looking for. You couldn’t ever rightly tell what a chicken was looking for.
One of the men was a big man and Jacob thought he might be the leader and they all had rifles.
He wore a full beard and wore a southern uniform coat and rebel cap and homespun breaches and had a long wicked looking knife in a leather sheath hanging from his belt.
He had ice-blue eyes as he laid his cold stare on Jacob and his manner made Jacobs skin crawl.
“You got anything to eat boy?” He shifted in his saddle.
Then his Mother walked out from the living room. The kitchen was in back of the house and Jacob knew she didn’t hear them ride up.
She wiped her worn hands tiredly on her apron and spoke in her soft voice “You men are welcome to breakfast with us; we got biscuits and bacon if’en you want to get down and come in.”
Jacob’s mother was a kind and soft-spoken woman, she had taught him out of the good book since he was knee-high to a banty rooster. She had a soft voice that often sounded to him like the angels calling to him.
Her hair was graying and her beauty long since sacrificed to hard work on the farm. She had crows feet around her once pretty face and she reached up to brush a wisp of hair back.
The big man with the skinning knife said “No’em, we ain’t got time we’s headed fer Pea Ridge if’en you could just give us some of them biscuits and bacon we’ll be on our way.”
His Mother turned and headed back through the house toward the kitchen as the men sat silently on their horses.
After a few minutes she came back through the door and handed them the pan of biscuits and bacon. The men sat their horses and wolfed on the thick biscuits and bacon.
One of the men said “Boy, they is a fight brewin up at Pea Ridge and we could use some hep if’en you kin shoot a squirrel gun.”
Jacob knew Pea Ridge was some 50 to 60miles or so to the north-east of their farm so he knew the men planned to drop off the backside of the mountain and ford the Red River there.
They didn’t get much news of the war although a few months back six Kansas raiders had appeared over at the little settlement of Morganton.
They tried their hand at shooting and pillaging and had gotten hung for their trouble.
The local men got their names before they hung them and then buried them in the local cemetery that lay at the foot of Morganton hill.
People didn’t take too kindly to being shot at around there, but they carved their names on some flat rocks and gave them a Christian burial anyhow.
Jacob stood there thinking about the killing. He remembered how two years ago his family had hooked the team to the wagon and went over to Low Gap church revival. It was there he had accepted the Lord and got baptized that night in a neighbor’s cow pond. He was 14 at the time, but it had changed him somehow.
The Low Gap church sat right in the saddle of a low place on Low Gap Mountain by the side of the road up against a stand of big pine and oak timber.
It was a plain one room building. Jacob never could see the reason for it being built there but it was and the people decided to hold revival there that summer.
He had been going to church whenever he could since then. The nearest church was ten miles away over at a place called ‘the colony’. He never did know why they called it that as there weren’t no colony there. It was just a church and a graveyard.
He knew his mother had always prayed for him because he could hear her.
That was the only time his mother ever got loud was when she prayed and he had taken to kneeling beside her the last year.
Besides when his mother prayed it would make the hair start crawling on the back of his neck and send shivers up and down his spine and the longer she prayed the louder she got.
The Holy Spirit was so pervasive you either had to pray yourself or get clean away one’er tother!
He’d heard her praying clean down to the barn a time or two after Pap cut out for Tennessee to join the confederate’s.
Jacob remembered how his mother had clung to Pap as his Pap looked at him and said “Boy, you got to take care of yore Ma.” And just got on his horse and rode off and nobody had heard from him since. There had been word that some had gotten captured and taken north by rail and some had died of their wounds.
As the men finished their biscuits the big man said “Boy yer comin along with us, so you git that mule.” His mother looked horrified as every last one of them fellers turned hard and mean looking right before their eyes.
One of the men turned his horse toward the barn and cantered down toward it and the others got stiff and started fidgeting with their long rifles.
Out of the corner of his eye Jacob saw a rifle barrel slowly come down to point toward him and he knew he was in trouble.
Jacob prayed silently that his smaller brother Ben and his little sister Rose wouldn’t wake up and come to see what the racket was all about.
His brother Ben was only eight and his little sister Rose was only five years old.
He saw his mother sideling toward the door and the big man saw it too and he said in a gravely voice “Mum, you just stay away from that squirrel gun. We ain’t taken to kill’en women yit but we jest might.” His eyes were hard as flint.
“Ma, don’t do it, they mean it!” Jacob said to his mother and his mother stopped.
Then the man who had headed toward the barn rode up with old Fred in tow. The man had found Jacobs old saddle in the dog run.
Old Fred didn’t look none too happy and “I caint rightly say as I blame him.” Jacob thought.
He knew with a sinking feeling that they aimed to take him willing or not.
“Git on thet mule boy!” The big man scowled swinging his rifle barrel toward Jacob.
That 50 caliber looked big as a horseshoe to Jacob as he stared down it.
He turned to his mother and said he would go with them. He was afraid for them all. He saw the tears rising in his mother’s eyes as he put his foot in the stirrup and climbed on his mule.
One of the men stepped off his horse and walked through the door and came out with Jacobs squirrel gun and remounted his horse. He turned his horse east toward Sugar Loaf Mountain and the others fell in.
Another man picked up old Fred’s reins and started leading Jacobs’s mule with Jacob on it.
The man was short and squat. He had an old floppy hat on and tobacco stained teeth and a scar over his left temple which made his black bushy eyebrow droop.
He leered at Jacob and jerked on old Fred’s reins. Fred was not use to that kind of treatment and he jumped.
A few minutes later they rounded the last bend and a stand of trees hid the house as they followed the old wagon track toward the Little Red.
Jacobs’s heart took a dip as he watched his home disappear behind the trees.
That’s when Jacob started praying like he had never prayed before and he wished he had prayed harder when his mother prayed.
He wondered if may be the Lord was mad at him for cussing the day before at the mules when the turning plough hit a rock and the plough handle almost broke his rib.
He thought about it a little while and decided that weren’t serious enough to bring that kind of trouble down on them.
He had regretted cussing after and had ask forgiveness for his slip even though his rib still hurt like the dickens.
The old wagon track led down through what was known to Jacob as Baily Hollow.
The Little Red River snaked through the hills of that part of Arkansas like a blue serpent through the emerald-green forests.
Jacob came out of his reverie and realized the seriousness of his plight and he began thinking about freeing himself.
He figured the man would give him old Fred’s reins after awhile. He knew nobody would want to drag around a mule all day and sure enough the man tossed him the reins about fifteen minutes later and told him to behave himself.
He thought awhile about making a run for it but he knew old Fred could never outrun the horses so he finally gave up on that idea.
A few hours later they were nearing the wagon ford on the Little Red River. They forded the river and headed toward the foot of Sugar Loaf Mountain. He knew they would circle the mountain and keep heading north-east from there.
He prayed some more after they forded the river. He felt like his only hope was to sneak out of camp that night, but as soon as they camped that night they tied his hands behind him with rein leather and tied him to a tree.
He was miserable with worry all that night. They threw old Fred’s saddle blanket over him and he drew comfort from the mule’s familiar smell.
He finally slept during the late-night hours and awoke at dawn to the sound of the men stirring around camp.
He earnestly prayed again for his deliverance and the safety of his mother, brother and sister and asked the Lord to comfort them. He prayed for his dad but with misgiving as to where his father was still living or not.
He knew Pap would have written by now so it didn’t look good. He found himself praying with earnestness that he didn’t know he had and he felt the Father had heard his prayer.
They untied him and fed him some fowl tasting meat and a hard tack biscuit but he felt so hungry he felt like he could eat the south end of old Fred going north and that was one tough mule.
Tears welled up his eyes as he sat there and ate. He thought about the farm and that new ground and his family, but he knew better than to show emotion around these hard men so he rubbed his eyes as if he was sleepy and rubbed the tears away.
Jacob got up and stretched like he had not a care in the world, but all the time he was thinking furiously trying to figure a way out.
They had camped about ten miles north of the Little Red and they didn’t seem in too much of a hurry, but Jacob knew they were just saving their horses. He knew by the talk that they wanted to get to Pea Ridge taking as little time as possible.
Jacob had overheard them say the yanks were heading towards Pea Ridge and he knew there was going to be a fight.
As he rode he thought desperately of getting away from these men and he wanted no part of killing.
After he had accepted the Lord he had started having tinges of guilt when he shot a squirrel or a rabbit even knowing the family had to eat.
Later that day a possum crossed in front of them and the big man pinned it with his big skinning knife and they each had a dab for nooning while the horses rested.
Jacob was glad to get the possum leg and another hard tack biscuit.
He prayed silently and ask the lord to bless the possum and hard tack and he put in one for his mother, brother Ben and little Sister Rose and it made him miss them.
His smaller brother always wanted to follow him around whether it was work or fishing or hunting. It made no difference to Ben.
He would follow the plough in his bare feet as Jacob turned the rich dark soil. He drank water when Jacob drank water and was careful to see that he drank an equal amount.
He would look up at Jacob to make sure Jacob approved. His little sister Rose would run to the barn to meet him when he came in from the fields with her yellow hair flying in the wind. Jacob worried for them and his heart ached at the turn of events.
As they rode on toward Pea Ridge he remembered the scripture he had read of the Lords love and care. The remembered scripture brought comfort to his worried soul and the words kept coming to him “Fear not for I am with thee.”
A few days later the men became more watchful than ever as they neared Pea Ridge.
“You better start keeping a watch out boy.” The big man said. “Them yanks’ll shoot your tail off.”
One of the other men laughed softly but you could tell he didn’t find the idea tantalizing to get hit by a miniball.
They rode slower and grew even more watchful stopping to listen every once in a while.
They stopped at a creek to fill their canteens and one of the men tossed one to Jacob.
Jacob drank deeply of the clear water as he sweated in the heat that clamped the Arkansas forest with an iron grip.
They shuffled along about two more hours and suddenly the big man yanked on his horse’s reins and held up his hand.
They sat there real quiet and listened and after a minute the big man motioned them to get down and walk away from the horses. Finally Jacob caught the faint sound of a tinkle coming direct in front of them.
The big man whispered to one of the men and the man slipped away up the trail toward the sound.
A little bit later he and another man appeared from the trees and the new man introduced himself as Zack Jenkins. Jenkins looked to be around thirty years old with a scruffy beard and a flop hat with southern uniform pants worn out shoes on his feet.
He led the men about two hundred yards on into the trees to another group of men of about twenty leaving the horses back a ways in the trees.
There was a captain and a sergeant they were just about the only men in full uniform. It looked like a rag tag group.
The captain said they were setting up an ambush along the edge of Little Sugar creek.
The captain quietly ordered them to hide themselves the best they could and remain quiet and wait for him to give the order to fire.
The creek was just ahead of them and Jacob quietly prayed but his nerves were on edge as he lay behind a log.
His squirrel gun was primed and loaded and they lay there in the heat for quiet some time before they heard the rattle of a troop of soldiers coming toward them.
Suddenly Jacob heard the order to “Fire!” And pandemonium broke loose as a volley of shots rang out on each side of him. Jacob couldn’t see much through the trees, just bits of color.
Smoke from the black powder soon filled the air as Jacob peered hard to see what was coming at him.
He did his best to stay low as bullets came whizzing through the trees. Jacob lay behind a log with his face to the ground and the gunfire was deafening.
Suddenly through the haze of smoke he saw a blue uniform stand up and he just pulled the trigger and the uniform fell.
A cannon ball split a tall sapling in half next to him and the top half of the tree fell on him.
The men started yelling and running forward toward the creek.
A man yanked the brush off Jacob yelling “Charge boy!” And ran forward toward the creek and Jacob had never known such terror, but he managed to follow the other man.
They splattered across little sugar creek and all Jacob could make out was men running everywhere and firing their rifles at the fading blue uniforms as the northern soldiers retreated.
Jacob tripped on a tree root and fell headlong next to a big tree. He lay there panting and trying to get his breathe in the stifling heat. The fetid smoky air stung his lungs.
He heard a pitiful sounding moan just on the other side of a thick bush. He parted the bush and crawled through it toward the sound and saw a blue uniform.
He crawled closer and saw the contorted face of a young man about his age. The boy had corn husk hair and blue eyes set in a cherubic face.
His deep blue eyes looked around wildly as he clutched tightly at his chest. Blood ran through his fingers and Jacob realized that it had to be the uniform that he hit with his rifle ball.
Jacob had spent many days bee lining in the woods at home and his eyes were trained to pick out every tree and Jacob recognized the tree the blue uniform had stood up by.
The boy looked at Jacob with terrified eyes as Jacob gently unbuttoned the boys tunic. When he got the boys tunic unbuttoned he gently moved the boys hand so he could see the wound. The wound was just under his heart and Jacob could see air mixed with blood as the boy fought to breath.
Terror and remorse gripped Jacob as he looked at the boys white face and his own face went white.
The boy kept muttering “I don’t wanna die! Please God. I don’t wanna die!” The boys breathing became shallow as he lay there moaning and finally lost consciousness. Jacob looked at the boys bloody tear stained face and he wasn’t moving.
He listened and felt for a pulse but felt nothing and Jacob realized the boy was dead.
Jacob lay there weeping beside the boy a little and then got up and fled back across the creek to where the horses were tied but the horses were gone and so was his mule.
Jacob ran on in sheer panic back down that trail with the limbs tearing at his face.
He ran through the woods blindly until finally he fell headlong at the edge of the trail spent and bleeding as he gulped to draw air into his tortured lungs.
Jacob lay there a while and he felt like his soul had run out of him like water out of a bucket.
Finally he just got up and started walking back the way they had come.
Jacob walked all the rest of that day barely able to keep the track in sight; he felt such remorse that it engulfed his soul.
The sound of rifle and cannon fire had long since faded from his hearing and nothing but the silence of the forested hills greeted him. A whippoorwill gave its first call of the night off in the trees.
He lay down by a tree that night and with his arms wrapped tightly against his chest he shivered in the cold.
He still had his rifle and the canteen the man had tossed him as he lay there shivering and in deep grief over the boy he had killed.
He kept seeing the boy’s horrified face as he lay there dying and the vision haunted him.
Some time during the night he dropped into an exhausted sleep and awoke as the dawn turned pink in the east.
Jacob walked all that day following the same track they had come in on, but because of his deep sorrow and inattention he got off on another trail leading west.
That night he lay down by a creek and drinking deeply of the water clear water until he felt a little better.
Hunger began to gnaw at him as he slept part of the night shivering in the cold and at daybreak started again.
About noon he heard horse’s coming and men talking and he hid himself beside the dim track.
As a company of blue unformed soldiers passed single file he could just make them out.
He overheard one of the men mention Choctaw so he figured that was where they were headed. He waited for some time after they had passed then fell in far behind them.
Choctaw was a small village with a trading post that lay south and west of Pea Ridge. It was only a few miles from his home just south of the Little Red.
While it was getting along toward late evening he smelled smoke and thought the soldiers had camped, but as he went further he came to a clearing in the hilly terrain and saw the source of the smoke.
It turned out to be the smoke coming off a burning house just the other side of an orchard.
He crept through the orchard and to the edge and saw a man lying on his face on the ground and he knew the soldiers had ransacked the place and set it afire.
A woman ran screaming from the other side of the house with a man in a blue uniform chasing her.
He caught up to the woman and tackled her throwing her to the ground close to the dead man and began ripping at her clothing and with horror Jacob knew the man was going to rape her.
The man savagely ripped away the woman’s dress exposing her breast and she screamed again desperately trying to cover herself.
Jacob could see that she was a small skinny woman and she was no match for the war hardened soldier.
Jacob thought of his mother alone with the two smaller children and fury rose in him.
A deep dark anger that he had never felt before took hold of him and he walked forward out of the orchard and shot the man through the back of the head.
The terrified woman jumped up with the union soldier’s blood and brain matter all over her face and she ran into the woods the other side of the burning house. Jacob Banning had killed his second man.
Jacob just stood there staring sickly at the man he had killed and he felt his soul just go dead. Jacob looked at the burning house a minute and just walked on up the road leading south-west away from the house.
He felt like he was in hell as he followed the road. He forgot about the woman and he no longer cared if the soldiers saw him or not.
The wagon road led to another well-travelled road and he got on it and headed south-east.
He walked all that night and just before daybreak he came to a sign with an arrow that read ‘Choctaw’ and he knew he wasn’t far from the Little Red.
Nothing stirred and only a dog barked sleepily as he passed by the trading post and general store with the sky turning a bright pink in the east.
Jacob knew the road would lead to a wagon track that would cut south and lead to the ford they had crossed originally on the Little Red.
He had been this way with Pap a couple times and he knew by the shape of the mountains all around that he was heading in the right direction.
Later that day the dejected boy came to the wagon track that cut due south and turned onto that and about sundown he came to the Little Red River.
The ford was not deep. He waded through the swift water and crossed over. The water had receded in the summer heat.
Jacob fell exhausted by a tree by the side of the dim track and slept deeply all that night. The usual late-night cold did not come that night and he awoke rested in his body though not his soul.
As day just started to break again he could see the river and wisps of fog. He could imagine it was the ghost of the men he had killed and he again felt terror grip him and he fell on his face sobbing.
He lay there for some time in deep grief and from somewhere a still small voice came from within him “Be not afraid for I am with thee.” and the tears flowed freely as he sensed an unseen hand bathe his tired and battered soul.
He could not explain it, but he knew deep down it was the same Holy Spirit that he felt permeating the room with that presence when his mother prayed so long and hard.
The sweet presence of the Holy Spirit not only sustained him but healed him and caused Jacob to know a depth of Gods love that he never knew existed. The Lord took the pain and torment and poured in his Spirit in its place.
As he lay there he could see Jesus in his minds eye and he cast himself at his feet. He knew it wasn’t happening physically but he sensed that it was happening in his spirit and Jacob gave his soul to the service of God that early morning there by the Little Red River.
When he arose again the sun was burning bright and hot and he felt a weight was lifted from the depths of his soul.
He was still sad over the killing but it had lost its power to overwhelm him. He just could not feel the blame and emptiness he had felt before and he sensed rather than heard a voice tell him “Jacob, go home.” And somehow he knew that it was the Holy Spirit of God speaking to him.
He began the trek across the river bottom land and back up the mountain toward his home.
That day just before the sun was beginning to set the house came into view.
He walked into the yard there were the chickens getting a last look for whatever chickens look for. “You can’t rightly ever know what a chicken is looking for.” Jacob thought. “And a man can’t rightly ever know what he is looking for till he finds it.”
He looked towards the barn and there was old Fred standing switching at the flies with his tail. That old mule had made it home too.
Then Ben came busting through the door followed by his little sister Rose and his mother and they smothered him with hugs.
That night Jacob knelt down and prayed beside his mother and offered thanks to God for his goodness and mercy.
Jacob he knew he wouldn’t be making any more biscuit runs. Jacob Banning had matured in that few short days of the war.
Thanks to Lori who made this statement “River, write the book!” I owe her a debt of gratitude because her kind words spurred me on to take on a work of fiction.
Job 28:11 He bindeth the floods from overflowing; and the thing that is hid bringeth he forth to light.
Psalms 71:5 For thou art my hope, O Lord GOD: thou art my trust from my youth.
Notes: The battle at Pea Ridge taken place in March of 1862, not mid summer as I portrayed it.
The part about the six Kansas raiders is true, but the names have worn off the graves markers and this happened some time during the Civil War.
The house and barn stood as described, the old house is now a hunting shack and the land belongs to a hunting club.
The wagon ford on the Little Red River is now covered over by a huge lake called Griers Ferry Lake. The lay of the land is approximate.
There was actually a boy who made a biscuit run; I suppose the reader can guess who that was :)
During the summer of 2005 I explored some of the old cemeteries located in the vast woodland in that part of Arkansas.
There is an old road miles from human habitation that snakes through the forested hill’s accessible by four wheel drive and beside that old road is a cemetery with about 50 graves, only two of those graves are those of adults, the rest are children under 16 years of age, I named it the “Grave Yard of Children” I photographed the sad old place to remind me of this fleeting life.
When I think of it reminds me to pray while there is still time.
The Killing at Little sugar
Copyright March 2008