In the third winter of the war, the pine barrens outside St. Augustine turn to the cant of the season. Annie Eaves, in greasy homespun, weaves through blackjack oaks the color of fire. She runs down a deer trail and reaches the raider camp.
Pennington is saddling his horse. His left eye is mashed-up closed. “Yankees?”
“No, fool.” Annie turns from the glowing coals. She is thin as a porch post. “The river hack.”
The band mounts up and reins in at the edge of the pines. They watch the coach make its way along the old Florida trace. Dust rises in its wake.
Annie, on a buckskin mare, runs her tongue along her bottom lip. She looks at Pennington. The one-eyed mudfish strokes his spurned beard. Annie looks at the coach; it’s getting close. She looks at Pennington. He spits, rubs his bad eye, and calls out: “Boots and bullets!”
The raiders move out, yelling and firing pistols; the four-horse team falters and the coach stops.
Pennington orders the driver down and the passengers out. Three ladies and a white-bearded man stand in the road.
A Union officer, under a black felt cavalry hat, steps down from the coach.
Pennington gestures with his big French dragoon pistol. Annie holds out a tote sack. The Yankee drops in a gold watch. Pennington snatches his black hat.
The Yankee says, “Don’t take my hat.”
Pennington wheels the pistol and throws down on the Yankee. The Yankee officer eyes the long barrel of the ridiculous gun, and matches Pennington’s one eye. They lock in for a long moment. A breeze clear from the St. Johns strokes the silk grass on its way to the Atlantic. Pennington spits and laughs. “Boots and bullets!” He drives his spurs homeward.
The band is gone in dust and oaths. The driving engine of two dozen horses at full gallop shakes the earth and sparks the crows.
Those left standing in the trace watch the dust settle, then load back up into the coach. It cannot be helped. The postilion cracks his whip, they move out, and reach St. Augustine in the afternoon.
Lieutenant John Cullen climbs down, enters the provost office, and asks who is the one-eyed vagabond robbing the pikes? An officer with the provost department turns from a table. He had been making coffee. He takes off his spectacles.
“Why has no one stopped him?”
“He lives with the gators.”
“He stole my hat.” Cullen says, looks out the window, and rubs an eyebrow. He has a burn mark over his right eye and a piece of his left ear has been shot away. “Who does Pennington ride for?”
“Aye.” The provost officer places the coffee pot on the stove. “The Rebels want to kill him as much as we do.”
John Cullen pulls a Navy Colt revolver and loads a fresh cylinder.
“What about a greasy scarecrow female raider?”
“How old is she?”
“Sixteen. Black dispatches came in last night. She’s now living in a hovel in the woods by the Fairhaven. What is your aim, John?”
“I aim to get my hat.”
Lieutenant Cullen rides a roan stallion west past the San Sebastian. The dangerous backwater of Florida in the third winter of the war. A land of dramatic flowers and smoldering rivers. Winter comes but is in no hurry. Cullen looks up. Wood ducks flying south call out their sad cry. They darken the early evening sky.
He dismounts in a thicket of Judas trees.
Near the old Fairhaven ruins, Cullen finds a shack leaning to the November winds. Annie Eaves is by the creek, filling a jug. She is squirrel-brown and melts into the blanched brown countryside.
Cullen pulls his Navy Colt.
He gestures with the gun.
“Why you robbing people?”
“Girl’s got to eat.”
“Looks like you haven’t eaten since summer.”
“I did not start this war.”
“I’m going to take you to town and you’ll stand at the bar for all you’ve done.”
“And what about all you Yankees done? Come down here killin’ and robbin’. We church-mouse poor and still you beat on us.”
Cullen hears a racket in the thicket and spins.
Two little girls walk out of the path. They see John Cullen, his gun, and stop. They go to Annie and hover about her skirts.
Cullen holsters his pistol.
“Who are they?”
“Sister and cousin.”
“Where’s their folks?”
“I’m their folks. Go inside, girls.”
Cullen watches them enter the hovel. He looks about the place, and says:
“Why don’t you go to town and file for relief? Them little girls can’t survive out here. I’ll help you with the paperwork. But for now… my brother’s hat?”
“It were your brother’s hat?”
“He wore it at Gettysburg.”
“Where is that one-eyed vagabond?”
Lieutenant John Cullen rides through the continual burgeoning. Florida is a land of beauty and would be splendid to see if the war ever ends.
Pennington occupies a dog-trot house, deep in the hammocks, west of the Old Kings Road. A light wavers in the window.
Cullen dismounts, and creeps through the high grass. Various southern insects are calling across the scrub. Full darkness descends, and the seven stars of the Dipper point the way to Polaris.
John Cullen steps up on the piazza and kicks in the door.
Pennington turns from the fire and reaches for a two-barrel shotgun.
Cullen levels his Navy Colt. “Stay that weapon, Pennington!”
The one-eyed vagabond draws back a hammer. Cullen shoots him. Pennington fires spinning. Cullen dives to the floor. Pennington falls and upsets a trivet with a boiling Scotch broth.
The room fills with smoke.
Pennington cocks the second barrel.
Cullen shoots him.
Pennington rolls on the hearth, dies in the broth.
The interior world smells of gunpowder.
Cullen stands, and brushes his dusty coat of Union blue. His black hat hangs on a peg. He puts it on; it sits comfortable.
Thomas McGauley lives in Ponce Inlet, Florida.