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A BECKONING HELLFIRE
The Renegade Series, Book 2
BY J.D.R. HAWKINS
During the bloody American Civil War, the stark reality of death leads one young man on a course of revenge that takes him from his quiet farm in northern Alabama to the horrific battlefields of Virginia and Pennsylvania. On Christmas Eve 1862, David Summers hears the dreaded news: his father has perished at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Reeling with grief and thoughts of vengeance, David enlists and sets off for Richmond to join the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. But once in the cavalry, David’s life changes drastically, and his dream of glamorous chivalry becomes nothing but a cold, cruel existence of pain and suffering. He is hurled into one battle after another, and his desire for revenge wanes when he experiences first-hand the catastrophes of war. A haunting look at the human side of one of America’s most tragic conflicts, A Beckoning Hellfire speaks to the delusion of war’s idealism.
David was startled awake.
“The Yankees are comin’!” someone shouted in panic. A bugler blasted “Boots and Saddles” as David sprang to his feet. The men around him scurried through camp, pulling their boots on and retrieving their horses. Everyone was yelling or giving directions at once. He could hear distant explosions and pops coming from the northeast. Negroes ran frantically, leading horses to their masters, and ambulances raced toward the direction of the gunfire. A heavy fog engulfed the early morning, so that he could barely make out silhouettes as they passed him.
“Git the canvas!” Michael hollered at him.
David retrieved the makeshift tent, rolled it up quickly, and ran over to Renegade, who was excitedly whinnying and prancing along with the other horses. As fast as he could, David saddled his colt, tied the canvas onto the cantle, mounted, and followed the sound of a bugler, who was blasting the signal “to horse.” Michael rode up beside him on his mount, directing him to their waiting company assembled on the road between Stevensburg and Brandy.
Major Conner galloped past as he commanded, “Cavalry! Forward march!”
The bugler gave the order, and the troopers started out at a rapid trot toward Brandy Station. The fog was thick as gravy. David wondered where John had gone off to.
“Do you think we’ll see battle?” he asked Michael, who chuckled at David’s naivety.
“If’n there’s Yankees,” he said, “we’ll see battle.”
David gulped. This was the moment he’d been waiting for, but it terrified him. Although his mind was still groggy, his excitement grew. Within an hour, the horsemen reached their destination, tying in with Grumble Jones’ brigade.
The artillery line was between Jones and Hampton. As they approached, the Rebels could see a battle already in progress. The ferocious boom of cannons shook the ground. Muffled yells and screams assaulted them. The men were ordered to form a line between a knoll on the side of a road near St. James Church and the edge of woods. As the cavaliers took their positions, Union horsemen came upon them. They drew sabers and charged. David watched as several regiments in gray met their advance, galloping toward the Nationals with a Rebel yell. The Confederate artillery poured grape and canister into their opposers. Sharpshooters picked off the Federal riders as they drew closer. A line of dismounted Rebel cavalrymen fired upon the Yankees. The sounds of cries, shouts, and booms from the artillery filled the air as the bluecoats were knocked from their mounts.
David’s trepidation was now replaced with nervousness. Some of the men around him prayed out loud. He considered bowing his head in ritual, but then recalled how God had forsaken him by allowing his father and Jake to be taken, which fueled his anger. The moment was upon him to kill any damned Yankee that crossed his path.
“Soldiers of the Confederate States of America! The honor and glory of your country relies on you this day!” Colonel Martin bellowed as he rode up and down the ranks, his words inspiring them. The troopers cheered in response, their voices filled with jubilation, even though each one knew that this could be his last day on earth.
The Jeff Davis Legion was called up, and waited for their behest. “Draw saber!” Major Lewis ordered as he drew his own sword, holding it up in the air. He pointed the weapon out in front of him. “Charge!” The cavalrymen burst forward like a tremendous wave breaking onto a ship’s bow, shrieking like banshees, their sabers held straight out in front of them as they thundered toward the opposing dragoons. They met each other head on, coming together in a tremendous crash as their sabers clashed. Horses somersaulted, throwing their riders as they rolled. The men cried out in agony as they were crushed beneath their mounts. Troopers yelled, screamed, and cursed. The crackle of pistols, rifles, and carbines rang out in every direction. Friend and foe were hurled together in a combined stew of soldiers. The air was thick with smoke, dust, and the gagging, acrid smell of rotten eggs from the Howitzers. Confusion reigned over the field.
David met his first foe, who screamed, “Die, you bastard Rebel!” The Yankee slashed at him, but David ducked, narrowly avoiding the point of a saber, exhilaration racing through his veins. Another soldier in blue came at him on his left. David vehemently slashed out, hearing the Yankee scream in pain as he rode past. Suddenly, he remembered how he and Jake had jousted like regal knights when they were younger, and how David had always managed to knock Jake from his horse whenever he attacked on his left. Thus realizing his advantage, he thrust his saber with direct accuracy into opponents that came up on his left side. He grasped his pistol in his right hand, firing into attacking blue bellies before they had a chance to pierce him with their sabers. Renegade bolted through the melee, seemingly aware of what was required of him. He dodged, maneuvering in and out as the Federals galloped near him. A Confederate trooper in front of him screamed out as a Union officer’s saber found him. He fell from his horse, blood spewing from his neck as Renegade jumped over him. Union cavalrymen and horses were piled up in writhing heaps in a ditch. Rebel riders trampled over them as they encroached upon the enemy lines. Callous with his desire for revenge, David directed Renegade toward the terrible ditch, then fired a shot into the head of a wounded bluecoat. The field was filled with turmoil; visibility was nearly nonexistent except for the lurid flash of ammunition. Riderless horses galloped about frantically and men threw themselves at each other on the ground in brutal hand-to-hand combat, clubbing each other with the butts of their rifles.
A bullet whizzed past David’s head, which infuriated him. He rode with rage toward an approaching National, and as he did so, the man drew a bead on him. David viciously slashed out before the Yankee had a chance to fire, screaming, “You son of a bitch!” He lopped off the Federal’s head, which flew off to one side. David glanced back over his shoulder, watching in horror as the headless rider galloped away, sitting erect in the saddle as though his head were still intact, and disappeared into the dust and smoke. Turning back to see another bluecoat come at him, David cut him down as well.
“They’re leavin’ the field!” he heard a rider behind him exclaim.
The men galloped after the retreating Nationals, capturing as many as possible before they escaped. Those who surrendered were sent to the back with a motion, the ones who opposed were shot or sabered, and David didn’t hesitate to shoot or capture his share of loathsome Yankees. The Rebels chased the retreating Federals into the woods before halting.
It was now midmorning. A strange, uneasy calm came over the field as both sides reeled in shock. David looked out across the battleground, watching while men from both sides ran out, followed by ambulances, to carry away the casualties. Horses lay scattered about. A few, still clinging to life and screaming in agony, were mercifully shot in the head. The heat of battle had left David soaked in sweat. Looking down, he saw splatters of blood on his clothing. He wiped his cheek with the back of his hand, noticing that blood was on his face as well, and wondered if it was from the Federal he’d decapitated. A twinge of compunction swept over him as he realized that he’d taken another man’s life. He struggled with his guilt, reasoning with himself that it was a Yankee he’d slain, the same despicable scum that had murdered his father and his best friend. Even though he felt remorseful, he believed his actions had been justified. The cavaliers were now dismounted, checking their horses for injuries. David did the same. Finding Renegade to be free of wounds, he drew a heavy sigh of relief.
“Reckon this is jist a lull.” David turned to see John grinning down at him from atop his steed.
“We was wonderin’ where you went off to,” Michael said as he rode up.
“Got mixed up in the confusion, but I managed to thrash me a few of them,” John nonchalantly responded, his blue eyes twinkling.
The men were instructed to mount and prepare to move. They waited for the road to be cleared of dead and dying Yankees, then set out at a gallop, their regimental flags rippling above them. It was midday; the heat was unbearable. The sun, a flaming orb overhead, felt as though it was hovering only a few feet above them. The cavaliers rode past the train depot and reached a ridge. They swung to the left flank. Almost simultaneously, the Federal cavalry materialized on Fleetwood Hill.
General Stuart appeared in front of them. He drew his sword. “Give them the saber, boys!” he commanded. The cavalry charged, the Rebel yell once again bursting from them as the earth trembled with the quake of beating hooves. Dozens of Federals went down while others scattered at a gallop over the hill. They retaliated by firing a torrent of shells into the charging Confederates. Men all around David suddenly fell from their saddles, shrieking in agony, but Renegade thundered ahead.
“Fall back!” one of the officers told him. David followed orders. He turned his colt, even though he wanted to keep pressing the Yankees. The two armies engaged in a series of confusing charges and countercharges as entire regiments rushed toward each other in a whirlwind, colliding in a swirling cyclone of firing, slashing horsemen that covered the hill. The Confederates regrouped, then charged again. David choked on the dust, his eyes burning from the smoke as he fired into an oncoming blue belly, but he unintentionally shot the Yankee’s horse instead. The animal shrieked as it rolled forward, sending his rider head first into the ground. Rounds of canister exploded all around. Still, Renegade managed to dodge the attacking Union soldiers and cannon fire. Shells whizzed by, men screamed in anger and pain, horses shrilly neighed, and balls whistled all around. David, oblivious to the ominous peril engulfing him, gave no thought to his own safety. He was consumed with the will to kill or capture as many Northern aggressors as he possibly could. Suddenly, he realized that the Yankees were retreating, so he pulled back on Renegade.
“Git them!” John bellowed as he galloped past, followed by a legion of Rebels. David spurred his colt in pursuit of the retreating bluecoats. The cavaliers drove them through the woods as though they were in a steeple chase. Into ditches, over fences, and through the underbrush they flew, tearing their hands, faces, and clothes on outstretched limbs as they ran down the cowardly Nationals. General Hampton, on his steed, Captain, ordered the men to withdraw. A bugler relayed the command. David pulled Renegade to a halt, watching through the trees as the bluecoats ran off into the thick underbrush. He turned his colt and headed back toward Fleetwood Hill.
“Did you ever see such a sight as that?” John laughed as he rode up next to him. “All those yellow Yankees runnin’ for their pitiful lives!”
“That’s somethin’ I won’t soon forget!” exclaimed David. He laughed, unaware of the essence of his own words.
The entire afternoon of June 9 had been consumed with fighting, and now the sun was beginning to fade. The cavaliers, exhausted, dust-covered, and thirsty, rode back to bivouac on the field where they’d been camped the previous evening.
In the morning, the rested troopers excitedly discussed the previous day’s events with one another in an attempt to analyze what had actually taken place. David learned that, before the fighting commenced, the Federal cavalry had crossed over the Rappahannock, chasing the Confederate pickets in well before dawn, and that the Yankees had nearly captured their artillery. The tables were turned, however, when the men in gray captured three Union guns instead. Their foe was led by Brigadier General Pleasanton, and the Jeff Davis Legion had confronted the brigades of Colonel Benjamin F. “Grimes” Davis, who had been killed early on in the battle, and Colonel Judson “Kill-Cavalry” Kilpatrick. Some estimated that the entire battle lasted fifteen hours or more. The Union soldiers he’d seen piled up in ditches were mostly from the Sixth Pennsylvania. David was told that the Confederate infantry was moving out, but the cavalry was remaining behind to rest and refit. General Lee had been to the battlefield the previous evening to assess the damage. Rooney Lee was injured in the fight, and General Hampton’s brother had been mortally wounded in a nearby battle. During roll, the men discovered that some of their comrades were missing. One soldier, Samuel Jacobs, whom David had written letters home for, failed to answer. As the men were released, David asked John if he knew what happened to him.
“Got a deep gash in his head,” John replied, “but he’ll be all right. Reckon he’ll be goin’ home to his new wife soon.”
David felt a twinge of jealousy. What better reception than to be considered a hero by his loved ones? He wished in a way that the same thing would happen to him.
“Sure hope we don’t have another coup de main,” commented Michael, referring to the fact that the Rebel cavalry had been taken by surprise. His ominous words sent a shiver up David’s spine.
J.D.R. Hawkins is an award-winning author who has written for newspapers, magazines, newsletters, e-zines, and blogs. She is one of only a few female Civil War authors, and uniquely describes the front lines from a Confederate perspective. Her Renegade Series includes A Beautiful Glittering Lie, winner of the John Esten Cooke Fiction Award and the B.R.A.G. Medallion, A Beckoning Hellfire, which is also an award winner, and A Rebel Among Us, recipient of the 2017 John Esten Cooke Fiction Award. These books tell the story of a family from north Alabama who experience immeasurable pain when their lives are dramatically changed by the war. Her nonfiction book, Horses in Gray: Famous Confederate Warhorses, has recently been published. She is currently working on another sequel for the Renegade Series. Ms. Hawkins is a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the International Women’s Writing Guild, Pikes Peak Writers, and Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. She is also an artist and singer/songwriter. Learn more about her at http://jdrhawkins.com.
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