Since our family was blessed with the opportunity to own our own farm my authoring career has been on hold. We sold our home almost a year ago, moved into a family member’s home for about four months while building a shop, then moved into our shop just before Christmas last year.
Settling in while continuing to hold both my jobs required that I give up a few of my activities. Writing books for children is a passion of mine, but it had to take a back seat to other responsibilities for a time. Now, though, I have been able to write again.
My latest work, You Gotta Dig Two Graves, is now a bit over halfway finished. I’m very excited to share this excerpt with you!
The Escape Plan
Dad shook my arm and I started up quickly. He laughed and I realized I was safely in our cozy house in Civit.
“You are going to miss the story if you sleep through it,” Uncle Reed said, laughing.
I looked around and noticed that Cooper, Amanda, and Lanie all looked sleepy as if they had just awakened. Gigi was smiling at me from her perch on the end of the couch.
“Would you like to hear more of the story?” she asked, “Or, does listening to stories make you too tired?”
The adults were smiling as we stretched, trying to wake our drowsy bodies. Gigi’s stories did not seem to affect them as they did children. I guess their imaginations had shrunk as their bodies had grown.
I finished my stretching and sank back down into the fluffy couch cushion before answering.
“Oh, yes, please finish your story!”
The others all added their consent and Gigi smiled. Mom and Aunt Lorna returned from the kitchen with several cups of sweet tea. I stood quickly and helped them distribute the drinks.
After a sip of tea, Gigi began the story again.
“Over the next few days Elisha and his friends spoke often of attempting an escape. Lieutenant Colburn and Clarence Wilson decided that they could make it, but Herman Clark and Steven McNeil were hesitant. They expected the South would negotiate prisoner release soon rather than just letting them starve.”
“The South knew they could not house, feed, and guard so many prisoners. Therefore, they were searching for solutions and in talks with the North to exchange Northern prisoners for their own. There was talk of release almost daily and a few prisoners had already been exchanged.”
As Gigi talked, it seemed the glow of the sun shining in the window became the glow of a small campfire. A kettle hung suspended over the flame, bubbling, and emitting a pleasant odor. Around the fire sat Lieutenant Colburn, Steven McNeil, Clarence Wilson, and Herman Clark.
Men walked past nearby. A few other campfires were visible across the camp. Colburn was speaking earnestly.
“Men, we are in more danger here than we could possibly face in an escape. Conway killed another prisoner yesterday. We all know that he will not stop and none of the Rebs have the guts to stand up to him.”
“He will continue to brutalize everyone he can,” he continued, “and there is nowhere to go to escape him in the camp. If he chooses one of us next, then we are sure to die. At least in an escape there is a chance we can all live!”
McNeil spoke next, “Lieutenant, you know that an escape across the swift currents of the James River is almost impossible. Elisha, here, cannot swim well since he lost his arm and I know he could not make it across those treacherous currents.”
“Even if we did make it across the river, we are in Rebel territory, and it is a long dangerous journey back to safety. You make it sound as if escape is safer than staying here, but I am certainly not convinced.”
This conversation continued as it had for days now. Wilson and Colburn both believed we should make a run for it. McNeil and Clark argued that we would likely be released anytime. I was undecided and it seemed that every day the decision grew more difficult.
Conway did have free rein to treat us however he wanted, and his ways were getting more brutal daily it seemed. I had seen him yesterday just a few minutes after he had beaten the prisoner and it was obvious he was pleased with himself. His conscience was numb.
As a group we had decided that if Conway did begin torturing one of our fellow prisoners where we could see it, we would all help the prisoner, even if it cost us our lives. So far, we had not been around when he chose to terrorize anyone.
Days passed and we continued to wrestle with the question of escape. Then, one hot afternoon a guard named Leonard approached us.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” he began in his high, nasal voice, “awful hot out today.”
We nodded our agreement, not sure what to say to him. He continued.
“I have been watching you fellows and it looks to me like you have been talking about some serious matters. Now, I know that prisoners could talk about a lot of things, but it seems to me that escape would certainly be a common topic around here. That seem right to you?”
Each of us looked at him with wonder and a touch of fear. He was a small man and had always treated us with kindness. None of us knew how to answer.
“I take that as a yes,” he grinned at his own humor.
“You see, I am also looking to escape this place.”
He paused here and we all stared at him, our mouths open in astonishment. A Rebel guard wanted to escape? Was this a trick? A trap? What was going on?
Lieutenant Colburn finally found his voice and spoke.
“This is all a little strange, Leonard. I am not sure what to think.”
Leonard answered with a smile, “I expected you men might be a bit surprised by my offer. Let me explain.”
“See, when this war started, I signed up to defend my home and family. We have never owned slaves and, in fact, are staunchly against slavery. However, I have supported the right for every state to make its own laws and felt that the federal government was overstepping.”
“Since joining the army, I have understood that many of the men who fought beside me have those same ideals. Then, they moved me to prison guard here at Belle Isle. I have gotten to know a good many prisoners and come to understand that most of you Yankees are just like me.”
“You had no desire to fight us, you just felt you were doing the right thing. War is foolish, men. There is nothing to be gained by all of us killing one another and I am tired of being a part of it! My plan is to escape into the north and perhaps even to Canada until after the war.”
“Furthermore, I have complained repeatedly to our warden about the way the Conway treats prisoners. It is not right! The warden turns a deaf ear and I think that Conway has heard of my reports. He has been watching me closely of late.”
“So far, he has only killed prisoners, but I will not be surprised if he turns on me. He is full of hatred and anger.”
We had listened silently as Leonard shared his thoughts and now his words hung in the still air. I glanced at Lieutenant Colburn, then to each of the other men.
Leonard, getting no reply, continued after a moment, “As a Christian, I have a lot of concerns about the way things have been done during this war. I struggled with understanding how God’s children could maim and kill one another on the battlefield.”
“Once I was assigned to the prison, though, I expected everyone would be treated with respect and care. That has been far from the case! I can no longer in good conscience be a part of it.”
“I intend to escape soon, and I have a plan that just might work.”
We all leaned in a bit closer as he continued.
“See, I have a skill of mimicking handwriting and forging documents. I learned it as a teacher, just trying to copy my students’ writing for the fun of it. As an assistant to the warden, I am very familiar with his scrawl.”
“My plan is to write an order for me to transport a handful of prisoners to the camp in Richmond. That should get us over the bridge and past the guards. Then, I know this area very well and can get us to Union territory in just a couple days.”
“The guards will be suspicious if I am alone with more than four or five prisoners. We do transport some prisoners to Richmond from time to time, though, so I think we can pull it off without getting caught. They will probably not notice my absence until the next morning at roll call.”
Our little group had been silent during Leonard’s entire speech, still unsure what to think about this episode. My mind whirled with so many questions.
“Why did you choose us?” I heard myself saying. The question popped out almost involuntarily. Everyone turned and looked at me. My head ducked for a moment, then I asked again.
Leonard pondered the question. Then, he pointed his finger at Steven McNeil.
“This man,” he answered solemnly, “I have heard him praying many nights. He asks God to have mercy on his family and friends. I hear him praying for the soldiers on the battlefields.”
“But then, he has prayed for all the guards here and even Conway. It is obvious that he is a true Christian man whom I can trust. That has given me the courage to approach you men with my plan.”
Lieutenant Colburn finally spoke.
“Leonard, speaking for myself, let me say that I am ready to go with you as soon as you can make this plan happen.”
The rest of us nodded our agreement.
“Now, if you do not want the other guards to suspect anything you had better move along. Talk to one of us again when you have the plan prepared. Until then, may God be with each of us!”
Leonard turned on his heel and strode away, leaving us watching after him. Our thoughts tumbled around in our minds as we wrestled to understand what had just taken place.