Lucas Lindsey sat on his porch rocking in an ancient looking rocking chair that he said his grandad had made in Tennessee over a hundred and fifty years ago. The old man squinted his eyes and ran them across a wide expanse of lawn that rolled down to the edge of the river. I could barely make out a sailboat passing by in the twilight.
The old man had the high sharp cheek bones of his Scottish ancestors and the thin, deeply creased face, stringy gray hair and sunken cheeks of a man who had bravely faced the wind, worries, and labor of 88 years of life. His long grey goatee, red flannel shirt, and worn and faded overhauls completed the iconic image of an elderly denizen of the Arkansas hill country.
The older folks there about, remembering the short stint he served as the town sheriff, still called him Sheriff, but the younger people only knew him as Old Luke. Truth be told, he did have the look and demeanor of one of those stereotypical movie sheriffs. That is except on one salient point; those movie sheriffs are either in the Klan or on the periphery of the group. Lukas Lindsay wasn't a racist. That's not saying he might not have been at one time, just that he was far from that line of belief and had been for quite a long time.
One of the reasons he lost the sheriff position was when his superiors found out about his weekly dinners with his friend Rafe Trabert and his wife Beuhlah. This happened back in the old century when such a thing was tantamount to being a crime. Some of the old man's neighbors took it as a sign that things were loosening up some and began to be more open about their warm feelings for people they had known must of their lives. The men in the white robes began to sit up and take notice of such things and showed up one night in front of Lucas's house.
Luke, his wife Rachel, Rafe, and Beuhla had just started laughing about Rafe's effort in trying to cut down an old oak tree on their farm when they heard horses ride up. Lucas looked out the window and saw a group of white robed men carrying torches.
He quickly motioned for the rest of them to go turn off the lights and get away from the windows. Rafe made an effort to go out with Lucas, but Lucas only motioned him back with a stern look. Before he opened the door, he took a deep breath.
"What brings you fine gentlemen out on dis evening."
A large man on a beautiful black stallion answered, " Well, now Mr. Lindsey, we was out riding and decided to stop by and see how our sheriff was a doing."
" I was just eating dinner. I'd invite you in for a bit but dey's just too many of you and someone would bound to get dey feelings hurt being left out here in da cold. Besides Mrs. Lindsay didn't cook enough for us all. We are fine here, I'm hungry, and I ain't got much time to talk," It was obvious that he was saying that it was time for them to leave.
" Well, Mr. Lindsey, we are some stubborn Southern men who, more generally than not, move at our own pace. We'll be moving along soon enough, as soon as we say what we come to say."
" Oh, now it's you came to say something. I thought you all was just out riding." He waited for the words to sink in, " Well, say it."
" Word's got out that you been acting in way unbecoming to an officer of the law, and we came out to represent the interests of some of the citizens of the community to express our grave concerns." The words came out with s great deal of force and power, that is all the force and power that a man can muster while hiding behind a mask.
"Well, let's not mince words shall we Buford, I recognize you easy enough bed sheet and all. I see you too, Slim Jackson, and Ernie, and Jefferson, that's you over there on that white geldin. My question is that I walk down on main street of town ever day, and not one of you has come up to me, man to man like, and expressed any such concerns. Why's dat? Is it because you all know about the size of my family in dese parts and that I'm the head of that dat family, or might it be, that in my role as sheriff in these parts I've come across most of da bones dat been buried. Yep, I know family secrets, the kind of which that no one in dey right mind would want to see baskin in the bright sunlight."
"I don't get you Lucas," the man he called Buford spat out, " My Old Pappy said you fought for the cause and was a damn good soldier. Now you a Judas?"
"Now how could I be Judas when they wudn't no savior involved in all dat mess?"
The masked men gasped in unison; the man on the white gelding yelled angrily, " Two of my uncles died fightin for the South defendin it from them rapacious Yankee bastards, What you jes said is blasphemy, We oughta see you out of town"
Lucas Lindsey, to his everlasting credit, never flinched at the charge of blasphemy or the threat. " How can it be blasphemy? Is defending slavery a sacred cause? If our cause was so just, why do we hide it and pretend it was just a defense of the South. Dem Yankees had no cause to come down otherwise."
"That's not the way we learned it," Buford shouted in anger.
"I can't help the way our schools teach. I was there, you right. We lost. I was young and gullible once. I knew both your uncles. They were fine men, the type of men that a place can't spah to lose. Yet, we lost both of them and many others just as good. Both of them died needlessly, so that the rich men round heah could keep dey slaves.They sold the war to us as defendin our lands from invasion, but when them people left, I still had my land. I was deah. I saw lots of young men die, and I feahed for my own life too. You spend enough days being followed by that old dakh shadow, you illusions are the first things that go. You get a clearuh vision of life dat way. Now, you said yah piece. Go ahead and move on."
The white robed men were so taken back by his words that they didn't know what to do. His words were considered profane in those days, but deep down deeply hidden most of them knew he was talking truth, but how do they admit that the death of so many fine young men could have been avoided by simply embracing the truth about slavery.
When the old man had brought the idea of secrets being revealed, it opened up a tiny opening into the thick Southern stone, and just enough light entered to create some doubt. The there was also the fact that what he said about his family was true. The Lindsey's, the Lewises, the Browns, the Greenes, and the Trembles were thick and family loyal.
One by the one, the men on horseback drifted off into the darkness. Lindsey waited until only the last one was visible, "Buford!"
The man brought his horse to a stop and turned an looked back over his right shoulder.
"You best leave Rafe and his family be." Buford waited for a moment then turned back around and spurred his horse into the dark. Lindsey watched him a while then entered back into the house. He saw the frightened faces of his wife and friends then burst out, "My food better not be cold!' The women rushed to where he was and threw their arms about him, and Rafe's face expressed relief for his friend.
The nocturnal event was not without consequences, however. Lindsey lost the sheriff's post in the next election after running against a whisper campaign and against the poisonous power of voter intimidation. There were also the hard stares and cold treatment of his wife when she went shopping. They both noticed however, that while there was a rise in the bitterness of how some treated them, there was also a corresponding increase in the warmth of others, black and white alike.
The story of that night eventually got out, and it was a college dormitory retelling of that fateful evening that first brought Lucas Lindsey to my attention. I had roomed with a Lindsey family member, and he proudly recounted the family's version of the evening. Later, the group of grad students decided to set about recording the stories of the last living Civil War Veterans of Arkansas. I noticed Lucas Lindsey's name on a list of names and volunteered to make the journey out to Leslie Township out in Searcy County.
The first thing I noticed about him other than his weathered look was how much his speech had slipped back to the land. He came from a wealthy family, and I knew how hard the Arkansas teachers worked to drum out the dropped G endings, the obsessive use of fricatives and promote the use of hard Rs in our speech. Lindsey's speech, at times sounded like snakes hissing and was often as oily as bacon grease. Right away, I noticed a difference of when he spoke formally to people he took to be important and those he felt comfortable being around, or when he was sitting out in his rocking chair watching the river flow.
I originally went down just for a day, but somehow wrangled a invitation to dinner and a offer of a soft bed that night. When I was helping Rachel with the dishes, she whispered, " He likes you, Tommy boy."
"Well, I surely don't know why?" I answered her a bit confused. She reminded me of my dear Granny. I felt very at ease in her presence. She had a natural sweetness about her, and it made me want to be a part of that goodness.
" I think he wants to get something off his mind and was worrying about how to go bout it, and then you suddenly show up with your fresh face and your curiosity."
After washing and wiping my hands on a dish cloth, I went to the room where I had put my bags and changed into a pair of jeans, a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt, and some sneakers. Then I walked out on the back porch with a glass of sweet tea, my notes, and a tape recorder. He motioned for me to take the seat beside him. The sun had not completely set, and it was that time of day when the light slowly gives way to the dark.
" I got old sitting right chere on this old poch. When a breeze kick up, I reckon I can smell dat foul breath of dat Old Dahk man. He been chasin me all dese yeahs ever since I slipped him up neah Iuka, Mississippi when I was just a boy of sisteen." The old man spoke softly and brought his gaze around and looked me straight in the eyes as if daring me to question what he had said.
" He almost got me gin when I was with my uncle Jesse Mills as he rolled his cah while running some liquor through Stone County. Dat old cah rolled three times and neah broke Uncle Jesse's legs clean off. I come outta dat smellin like a rose though, but, dat Old dude been creepin on me ever since."
I asked, " What year was that Mr. Lindsey? You recollect?"
His eyes rolled back in his head as he calculated. After two minutes, he answered, " It's bout 1922 or dere bout. I member cos right bout dat time, his boy JT got sent up to da prison at the staht of 21, and Jesse was still all stove up den.
"You said you gave that dark man the slip before. How did that happen."
There was a long pause. I felt he was weighing the consequences of telling the story again. His eyes were looking out past the river, but I can tell he was also looking back through the fog of time, back to when he was a boy wearing confederate gray. He had already told me about the time that him and his best friend and cousin Scofield Mills and Luther White had enlisted together at Yellesville, Arkansas in July of I861.
They first came under fire at the Battle of Pea Ridge had performed reasonably well considering their youth.
" Sco was scared so bad, he pissed hisself. We was all scahed out our mind. Bullets was whizzing evahwhere. We hid ourself in some trees and aftah we got use da noise and stuff, we fi'ly stahted shooting back. In da fusion of thangs, we was separated a bit from evahbody else; we was lost. Dats a embarrsin thing fo a hill country boy to mitt to, but it was true.
In time, we came up on a creek close by a stand of elm trees. We followed the creek in and came to sandy area surrounded by several large boulders. Sco was all for movin on, he was dead set on it, but I was too tiehd and talked him and Lutha into staying dere for a bit. We threw our packs down on the grown, stacked our guns, and sat."
" Do you know that in the UK, elm trees are often associated with death?"
He looked at me straight in the eyes for a bit, then mumbled, "No, I did not know dat." Then back went his eyes towards the horizon, and I felt that this time his gaze wasn't reaching for just the river; but was looking back in time to find a creek, and some rocks hidden in a stand of elms. " I don't doubt dat though; your observation jes now made me rememba dat we made all our coffins outta elm wood."
He was silent for a moment but went back to telling his story, " Sco took off his pants and went to washin dem pants in the watah. He looked mighty comical while doing dat standing dere in his red flannel undaweah. Luther and I was going to town on him too, no muhcy, I tell you. Sco was gettin mad at us, but we didn't cahr one damned bit. We had suhvived dat shooting. Aftah a bit, we all got to laughin. I know now, we was all acting funny because we made it out dat battle alive.
He coughed and covered his mouth in his elbow, " I asked Sco what he was thinkin bout when the shootin caused him to wet himself. He answered that he had had a strange vision of a old, dahk man sitting in the tree watching the fightin. He said dat the reason he wet hisself was that man turned and looked at him, jumped down out da tree and started walkin towards him. I laughed even hahda than befo until I turned around and looked at Lutha wid the tention of making him laugh too." He went silent and stared into the darkness.
"What happened, Mr. Lindsey?"
My voice brought him back to the present, He held his hands out before him when he finally spoke. " I looked at Lutha's face, and he looked as if he'd seen hisself a ghost. I asked him what was wrong. 'I seen it too,' he tole me. 'I seen that old dahk man too. He was beckoning me wit his fingah.' The coluh was all gone from his face."
"That would make you wet yourself, I imagine." I looked toward the recorder to make sure it was catching the story.
"It was then dat we heard some branches snappin, so we jumped up and grabbed ah guns. We quickly formed a ring pointin our backs to each other and waited. We was all on high alert when we saw Sco's pants go floatin off. Lutha stahted to laugh and pointed. 'Look dere goes Sco's...., ' and right den a buzzing minnie ball came out of nowheah and took out his right eye befo he could finish da sentence.
Sco and I didn't waste no time; we stahted running up the path to the woods. He was running up ahead of me and was just about to get round this twist in da trail when he ran right smack dab into a bayonet bein held up by a tall yankee boy. I sweah I saw dat bayonet come out of Sco's back. Without thinkin, I clubbed dat yankee in da haid while he was tryin to get dat stickah out of Sco's body. Den I quickly jabbed my own bayonet into da hollow of his throat."
" I turned back to Sco and tuhned him oveh on his back. He was live but blood was bubblin out his mouth. I'll nevah forget his eyes; dey was wild with feah. He kept telling me between breaths not to go telling his daddy that he had pissed himself. Den, all a sudden, his body tensed all up and his eyes bulged out. He yelled as best he could, 'He dere Luke! He right dere standin over Lutha.!' I whipped my haid aroun to where Lutha's body lay and dere was no one dere. Den I heard my cousin Sco's last gurglin breath, and I laid his haid down softly on da ground."
The old man slumped over in his rocking chair and he put his hands on his face and sobbed.
After a few minutes, he finally spoke again, "Our folks came and picked up the bodies and carried dem home for buryin. Dey both was put into da ground on da same day at da same time. My cousin Fred was a preacha man and said the words. Rachel was Lutha's cousin who come down from Missouri for da funeral."
It was the first time I laid eyes on her. I sometimes think how ironic it is that it was Lutha's death that brought us togetha. All my chirren and all my grand babies exist cos of wha happen on dat dreadful day."
I put my notes and pen down and started to reach to turn off the recorder. He reached out and stopped my hand. I looked a question his way.
"Dere's one more thang." He waited until he was sure that he had my full attention. " I know'd dat it sounds crazy. But I first seen dat Old Dahk man at dat funeral. He was leanin up against a elm tree at da edge of da cemetery..... I went blind fo a second, den fainted. When I came to, Rachel was standin above me, and I was lookin right into her bright blue eyes.
When they raised me into a sittin position, I looked again for dat strange man, and he was done gone, but I seed him again at Iuka. I was lookin out cross the battlements and I spotted him standin right dere in the land between us and the Yankees."
"What did you do when you saw him?"
" I took off. I guess you could might say I desuhted my post. I wasn't fraid of dem Yankees no way, but I was deathly fraid of dat old spectral figah. I slipped off, and I got my seff captured by the Yankees da vehry next day. A few weeks latah, I got fuhloughed and went on home."
He went silent, leaned back into his chair, and closed his eyes. I figured he was done talking, so I picked up my stuff and softly walked the screen door that led into the house. As I opened the door, he opened his eyes and said something.
"What was that, Mr. Lucas? I didn't pick up on what you said."
He leaned forward and spoke in a rasp, " I sed, It nevah mattah wheah you go, what you do, orh how old you be, either young or an ole bag of bones like me, dat old dakh man is ow dere creepin, and if you slip up, he'd get ya."
"I reckon that's true."
"You damn right dat's the truth. Da secret is you got a face up, plant yah feet, and go on livin, else all you life adds up to is a bunch of slippin and duckin.....Go on now, get yoseff some sleep."
I got up early the next morning and had breakfast with Rachel and Mr. Lindsey and afterwards shook hands with him and gave his wife a big hug. I waved to them as the car backed out of their driveway. While heading back to Fayetteville, I thought of what he said and the surety with which he said said it and came the conclusion that his memory was playing tricks on him because of the overwhelming trauma of the events he recalled.
I had decided to leave out the crazier parts of the story when I wrote it all up. Then about five miles wests bound out of Marshall on Highway 65, I looked over at other side of highway and saw an old dark man, so dark and covered I couldn't make out his features, standing at an on-ramp holding a big cardboard sign that said in big black letters 'LESLIE'. I looked in my rearview after I passed and saw nothing but a big piece of cardboard floating in the air above the side of the highway.