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NaNoWriMo 2020: Installment 4

He wasn’t born Partway There. He didn’t hail from Missouri. And he hadn’t always been a stagecoach driver.

In his first life, he’d been Kyle McCall, the son of Irish immigrants who settled in the north Florida town of Alligator. He was born in 1831, a year before Alligator Town became the seat of the newly formed Columbia County. Just before the War Between the States erupted, once the last of the former Seminole tribe inhabitants had departed (with some occasionally violent urging by federal military personnel) and the railroad linked the community to Jacksonville, the town incorporated as Lake City.

The first elected mayor, M. Whit Smith, had pushed for the name (or so Partway had heard) after his wife Martha Jane laid down her law:

“I shall not hang lace curtains in a burg that calls itself Alligator.”

On Feb. 20, 1864, McCall’s younger brother, Tolliver, joined the Confederate stand against federal troops at Lake Olustee. That’s the same day Partway parted ways with his past. He hadn’t wanted any part in the fight. The McCalls didn’t own slaves – they were, in fact, sharecroppers on a farm growing melons and raising beef cattle. Tolliver enlisted, much to the dismay of their parents, because he had romanticized the idea of standing against the Union leviathan. David and Goliath for modern times.

Not Kyle McCall. He had wanted to keep his head low, earn enough to support his young family – his wife, Pera, and three boys.

“How can you sit here and do nothing?” Tollie had asked, a day before the Lake Olustee battle. The sun sank behind the fringe of live oaks to the west. “Men all over the South, giving their last for freedom, and you hide here and pretend none of it matters to you.”

The older brother hadn’t bothered pointing out the contradiction of fighting for freedom in a rebel confederacy that championed slavery. He had known it wouldn’t change anything. The kid had his mind fully fixed on the vision of hurling himself at the superior enemy force, maybe imagining one day charging the doors of the White House itself.

Pera had interceded in the silence following the question: “He has responsibilities here.”

And that was true. So many responsibilities. In his teens, Kyle had dreamed of lighting out to the West, to find his fortune with a California gold mine. But then he had met Pera. She’d become pregnant with their first son, Alexander. Two more sons followed. The gold rush dream never totally lost its luster, but it did fade a significant degree.

“Ain’t one of those responsibilities showing your boys what it is to be a man?” Tollie had demanded. “Sometimes, we got to make a stand.”

“I will not be made a widow to serve a man’s bull-headed need to save face,” she had snapped back.

His little brother had chuckled, shaking his head. “Kyle don’t give a whit about saving face. He’s just lazy.”

That had gotten Kyle’s ardor up. “Listen, Tollie. You want to go get yourself killed by the Yankee army? Don’t expect me to stop you. Maybe you’ll win martyrdom. Could be, they’ll raise a statue to you out by the barn. That’s fine. But I’d just as soon be left alone. I have no quarrel with the Union, so long as they leave me and mine to manage our own affairs.”

“Eventually, they’ll be your problem too,” Tollie had insisted. “Maybe tomorrow. They could confiscate your house for their troops. Our crops. Our cattle.”

Pera had scoffed. “The Confederacy’s taken more than their share too.”

“Yankees won’t pay for it, though.”

“Enough,” Kyle had growled. He jabbed an index finger in his brother’s direction. “You make your stand. Try not to get shot. But stop thinking you can shame me into following you into the slaughter.”

“So you aren’t lazy,” Tollie had mused. “Just a coward.”

His wife had cut eyes in his direction, probably expecting him to lunge at his little brother, tumble off the porch with him, land a few punches in defense of his honor.

Kyle couldn’t bring himself to act. Not for that. He shrugged. Walked back into the house.

That had been their final conversation, most likely.

He sat at the table that night, hunched over a bowl of beef stew, listening to Pera and Alexander coach the younger boys, Clay and Edwin, as they leafed through the pages of dog-eared McGuffy Readers.

No, he hadn’t wanted to fight.

But he also hadn’t wanted to find himself in the path of the Union army on the march. Not so deep down, Kyle knew Tollie had been right enough that the Yankees would swarm like locusts on their farms if the Confederate troops couldn’t prevail against the invaders.

He hadn’t wanted to fight. And he hadn’t wanted to be on the premises when the aggressors came calling.

So, in the early morning hours before the clash at Lake Olustee, Kyle had moved through the house, a tousle-haired phantom with a rucksack that he stuffed with clothes, soap, hard tack, and some jerky from the pantry. He had felt his escapist urge flare anew. His parents would see to Pera and the children – assuming they survived the battle. For good measure, he grabbed his hunting rifle from the rack over the pot-bellied stove. He kissed each sleeping boy’s forehead on his way to the front door.
He had decided to flee west, to find his fortune, and – he told himself, not recognizing until later that it was a delusional rationalization – one day he would summon the family to follow.

He hadn’t expected to find Pera sitting on the porch, her eyes glistening with tears in the glow of the gas lantern. “Your brother’s an idiot. I thought you didn’t want to fight.”

Kyle had clenched his jaw. This had been precisely the conversation he had wanted to avoid. He had wanted to disappear into the foggy wilderness of the Florida Panhandle.

He certainly couldn’t tell her the truth. How could he confess in that moment that he had grown so tired of parenthood and adult responsibilities that he was eager to skulk away and leave his wife and young sons to face potential annihilation? He had known how reprehensible it felt. He could only imagine how monstrous it would sound.

So he practiced something that came all too easily in the months that followed: he lied.

“No,” Kyle had said, adjusting the rifle strapped over his shoulder. “I don’t want to fight. But I won’t be called a coward. Not on my land, in front of my wife, with the Union army marching double-time, bent on conquest.”

Pera sobbed. “You weren’t even going to say goodbye.”

“I didn’t want to have this talk,” he admitted.

“What do I tell the boys?” she asked.

“I love them,” he said. “I’ll come home if I can.”

One of those things had been true.

They’ll survive, he had assured himself. Maybe he should have prayed. He hadn’t prayed. Despite his Catholic upbringing, he hadn’t held much faith in the friendly sky grandfather. He thought the judgmental brimstone hurler seemed far more likely. But, ultimately, Kyle McCall believed it made more sense to trust in the shifting wind than some almighty deity.

He made one stop outside town, purloining salted pork and beef from a rail car destined for CSA distribution out of Jacksonville. If things went sour after the battle, it might turn out that the Yankees would enjoy the collected food instead. Kyle had taken some comfort in the thought of depriving them, at least a little, of war spoils.

The first night had been the hardest, after he had skirted Confederate watchposts and made it about halfway to the town of Live Oak. He had huddled in a clearing surrounded by palmettos, weeping into his knees beneath oak branches dripping with Spanish moss, trying to change his own mind. He could be back on the farm before dawn, if he powered through. Hug his sons. Take his loving wife into his arms. Forget this ever happened.

But irresponsibility prevailed. He never turned back. By the time he had reached Tallahassee on his westward trek, he had assumed the identity of Cal Malcolm. He had left Kyle McCall dead in the Panhandle forest. On the way to his new life, he would take on and shed other identities. Through Alabama, he was Colm Marcus, an itinerant farmhand. In Mississippi, after a disastrous flirtation with a bank robbery gang, he became Max Coleman, railway porter. That took him farther west to Missouri.

In St. Louis, he found a city under Union control but whose inhabitants felt divided loyalties. He took several jobs smuggling goods and munitions to Confederate sympathizers outside Memphis – and almost got caught a few times.

After Lee’s surrender in Virginia, Max met Quentin Cobb, a retired Confederate major who wanted new drivers to handle stagecoach trips to San Francisco for the Western Horizon line. Cobb was his father’s age, creeping toward the mid-sixties, with a swirled moustache and a spiked goatee. The major had grown up in Georgia peach country, a scion of privilege whose plantation burned to ash with the passage of General William Tecumseh Sherman.

Max had asked Cobb about the Battle of Lake Olustee. They’d sat together in the dining room of the Tipton Hotel, shortly after Max Coleman accepted the new job and before he had a chance to become so irritated by the constant “are we there yet” nagging of the passengers that he would change his name one final time.

“I got family there,” he had said. “Distant relatives. Haven’t heard from them in a long while.”
Cobb admitted that he never ventured farther south than Georgia during the war, but he had heard reports about most of the major engagements and even some of the less celebrated skirmishes.

“We held the line and pushed the Yankees back where they came from,” he had said.

“Lots of casualties?”

“Sure,” Cobb had replied. He downed a gulp of warm beer from a wooden mug, then gave a twitch of his shoulder. “Both sides.”

The man who finally adopted the name of Partway There didn’t know if his little brother had survived the battle outside Lake City. He had no idea what became of his family. Hopefully, the rebels had prevented Pera or the boys from coming to any harm. He hoped they hadn’t suffered overly much in his absence. He certainly hadn’t gone out of his way to send them any updates about his well-being or whereabouts.

He doubted he ever would. It would only raise more questions than it answered. Inflict more harm than good. He figured he had done more than enough to traumatize his family. He had no intention of adding to it.

He expected that he’d finish his life somewhere on the Western Horizon route, more than likely with his bones bleaching in the desert sun – probably becoming a perch for a desert lizard waiting to shed its skin.

He hadn’t given up on the gold mine dream, but, like warm thoughts of loved ones back in Florida, it crossed his mind less frequently the more time he spent on the trail between Missouri and California.

The trusty canteen helped. Helped him forget about his cowardice. His failure to measure up to his own little brother. His towering malfeasance as a father. He wouldn’t blame the boys if they someday changed their last names. Easy as sloughing off an old skin for him. Why shouldn’t it be for them?

They could move on. Forget about him. That’d be just fine. He deserved no better.

He deserved to be forgotten.

Partway There didn’t want to die. He just didn’t care much about living, when it came right down to it.

Probably not the best attitude for a man preparing to take six strangers into the western wilds, he thought, but these were the breaks.

Who knows? They might actually reach their destination alive.

The driver took a swig of cheap whiskey from the dented container as he watched the bounty hunters haul their sack-masked captive to the top of the wagon. He caught their gaze, knowing they expected him to at least offer to help. He just gave a genial nod, then looked toward the other three passengers and said, “All aboard, if you please. We’ve got some miles ahead.”

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