by Taylor Brown
(From Fallen Land by Taylor Brown, on sale January 12, 2016, from St. Martin's Press, LLC. Copyright © 2016 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC.)
Fallen Land is Taylor Brown's debut novel set in the final year of the Civil War, as a young couple on horseback flees a dangerous band of marauders who seek a bounty reward. Callum, a seasoned horse thief at fifteen years old, came to America from his native Ireland as an orphan. Ava, her father and brother lost to the war, hides in her crumbling home until Callum determines to rescue her from the bands of hungry soldiers pillaging the land, leaving destruction in their wake. Ava and Callum have only each other in the world and their remarkable horse, Reiver, who carries them through the destruction that is the South. Pursued relentlessly by a murderous slave hunter, tracking dogs, and ruthless ex-partisan rangers, the couple race through a beautiful but ruined land, surviving on food they glean from abandoned farms and the occasional kindness of strangers. In the end, as they intersect with the scorching destruction of Sherman's March, the couple seek a safe haven where they can make a home and begin to rebuild their lives. Dramatic and thrillingly written with an uncanny eye for glimpses of beauty in a ravaged landscape, Fallen Land is a love story at its core, and an unusually assured first novel by award-winning young author Taylor Brown.
“A shattering debut that puts one strongly in mind of the young Cormac McCarthy, and the best historical fiction I've read in ages.” ― Pinckney Benedict, author of Town Smokes, The Wrecking Yard, and Dogs of God
Pale light crept into the black stanchions of pine, the ashen ground, the red center of dying coals. The camped men rose, silent, and broke the bread of old pillage between blackened fingers. One of their number looked at his own. Soot and powder, ash and dirt. Neat crescents accrued underneath the nails, trim and black, like he’d tried to dig himself out of a hole in the ground. Or into one.
Some of the others chewed loudly, bread dry in dry mouths. No tins rattled. There was no coffee, not for some days. He always wanted to talk in this quiet of early morning, to speak something into the silence that assembled them into the crooked line of horsemen. No colors among the trees. No badges, no uniforms. He wanted to ask what peace might be gained if they hovered here longer in the mist, did not mount and ride. But they always did.
So he sprang up first. He shoved the last crust down his gullet and kicked old Swinney where his britches failed him, an inordinance of cloven white flesh.
“Goddamn katydid,” said Swinney, second in command. “Least I ain’t a old ash-shitter.”
“You be lucky to get this old, son. Right lucky this day and age.”
The boy set his cap on bold. “Lucky as you?”
Old Swinney hawked and spat a heavy clot of himself into the coals.
They rode horses of all colors, all bloods. “Strays,” they called them, tongue in cheek. Horses that offered themselves for the good of the country, under no lock and key. The quality of a man’s mount was no measure of rank, a measure instead of luck and cunning and sometimes, oftentimes, cruelty.
The boy went to mount his own, a ﬂy-bitten nag with a yellow-blond coat in some places, gray patches of hairless skin in others. She’d been a woman’s horse once, most likely. The men used to joke about this. Then one of their favorites, an informal company jester, had been blown right from her back. The mare had stood there unmoved, flicking her ears, biting grass from the trampled soil. No one save the Colonel enjoyed a horse so steady. They left off joking.
The boy stuck one cracked boot into the stirrup, an ill-formed shape clanged from glowing iron by an idiot smithy. Or so the men had told him. They told him many such things, their faces fire-bitten and demonic over the cookfire, the embers circling them like burning flies. The boy believed them all. Never the facts, the names, the settings. But what they were getting at, this he believed. There was faith in their eyes, so black and silvered—like the move of steel in darkness.
Rays of dawn shot now through the black overhang of trees, spotting the ground with halos of warped design. The rest of the men slung themselves into their saddles, a cadre of stiff-jointed grunts, and some of them stepped their horses into the light unawares. The boy saw them go luminous among the black woods, specterlike. Like men elected to sainthood. Faces skull-gone, mouths hidden in the gnarled bush of their beards, showing only their teeth. The equipage of war hung by leather belts, pistols and knives and backslung scatterguns of all gauges. This hardened miscellany jolted and clanked as their horses tapered into the long, irregular file of their occupation.
They rode the forest until the white face of the sun hung right above them and the insects clouded so thickly that men soiled their cheeks and foreheads with dirt or ash from the previous night’s fire. The horses flicked the mosquitoes from their rumps with their tails, the skin of man and animal growing spattered with spots of blood. They came finally to the verge of a small green valley of sparse trees. There was a farmhouse down there, a barn. Out of habit they stopped for lunch, though there was little to drink and less to eat. They stopped within the cover of the trees so as not to be seen from the valley below.
When the boy dismounted his horse, old Swinney slapped him on the shoulder.
“Welcome to Virginny,” said the old man.
“Virginia?” said the boy, his eyes going wide with wonder. “That’s right. Colonel wants you to see if they got anything to eat down there.”
The boy nodded. He crept toward the edge of the trees, his face dark amid the shadows. He could feel the older men’s eyes upon him, their ears attuned to the snap of stick or shrub.
They listened because he made no sound, this boy, the lightest of foot among them. Their scout. A former horse thief whose skills translated readily to their pursuits. At last he stared down upon the rough-planked barn, the once-white house, the single white pig mired in a sagging pen of mud. He stared down upon Virginia for a long time, a stranger unto this country. Then he turned his head and made a whip-poor will’s whistle over his shoulder.
When he returned, the men of the troop, thirty-odd strong, were tightening their holsters and sighting their rifles, sliding their knives back and forth in their sheaths, back and forth, making sure no catches might slow the draw. The boy carried a French dueling pistol of uncommon caliber. He mounted up and pulled the heavy J-shaped weapon from his belt and thumbed the hammer back. The filigreed metal of the action spun and clicked into place. The rich wood frame was scarred by countless run-ins with his belt buckle, tree branches, roots where he’d dropped the thing practicing his pistoleer skills.
Swinney stood below him.
“You got any bullets left for that thing, boy?” The boy held the pistol toward him butt-first. “She’s a firecracker,” he warned, smiling.
When the older man reached for the pistol, the boy dropped it sideways from his hand and hooked it upside down by the trigger guard and spun the gun upon its axis, catching it by the backstrap, the trigger fingered, the barrel at Swinney’s chest, the older man’s eyes wide with fright.
“Let them sons of bitches learn the hard way,” said the boy. In fact, he did not have any bullets. He was out.
Swinney’s eyes narrowed and he shook his head.
“What you need is a good ass-whooping, boy. Not them parlor tricks.”
The boy spun the gun and stuck it in his belt.
“Now don’t you go getting jealous on me, Swinney.”
The older man, his keeper of sorts, made a derisive gesture and waddled down the line.
The provenance of the pistol was known—one of a pair from the vast arms collection of a Union sympathizer whose home they’d raided. The boy’s first of such prizes. He’d been promptly swindled of one of the guns in a bet over the estimated height of a sycamore that was fated for firewood. That left him one pistol and five balls for the smoothbore barrel. Two went to target practice, one to drunken roistering, one to a duel with a blue jay on a fence post (lost), and the last plumb lost along the way.
He could only wait now for another of his comrades to fall. Be first to scavenge.
“Hey, Swinney,” he called. “You think they’re down there? Any villains?”
“Somebody is,” said the fat man, turning back down the line.
The boy sat astride his horse and made ready to maraud. When their leader rode past, the boy could smell him. The Colonel was riding the line with words of exhortation, of courage and duty and triumph. He had long curly locks, dark as crow feathers, ﬂying loose under a plumed hat. He wore four Colt revolvers on his belt, butt-forward, and carried two dragoon pistols in saddle holsters, and he wore fine riding boots that went up to his knees. He was the man who had once poled across the foggy Potomac in the dead of night to ambush the Maryland Guards in their sleep. The man who had kidnapped a Northern general from a hotel room in West Virginia, pulling him from the bed he shared with a purchased negress. He was the man who had blown more Baltimore & Ohio Railroad bridges than anyone, and captured at least one of those B&O trains for his own profit, keeping the gold, and been stripped of his commission for it. His battalion of Partisan Rangers had been disbanded, some said by order of Lee himself, but for these few who remained. He led them through the hills on missions their own.
The Colonel rode out into the light and struck his saber heavenward, no gleam upon the corroded blade. The band spurred their horses’ bellies at the slashed order of charge, dropping down into the valley upon a thunder of hooves. The cavalcade fanned out as they descended, tearing divots from the soft turf. The boy, so scant of weight, pulled ahead of many in the onrush. He was not first to the house but first onto the porch, his horse needing no dally to stay her. The porch planks gave beneath his boots, sodden or thin-cut or both. The door was standing wide and he ducked into the sudden dark. Pistol first, knife second. The ceilings were low, the furniture neat. No roaches scattered before him. No people. Other men clamored through the door behind him. Outside, war whoops and the squeal of the slaughtered pig.
No one in the front rooms, the rear, the kitchen. He found the stairs and shot upward into the blue dark of the second floor, the balls of his feet hardly touching the steps, the point of his blade plumbing the gloom like a blind man’s stick. The curtains were all drawn, the ﬂoor dark. He stepped from one room into another. Quilted beds neatly made, wardrobe of cheap wood. Then he crossed the threshold into still another room, this the darkest.
He swung the pistol toward her white back, the dark hair all upon its contours like a black eddy of stream water. She had not heard him, was watching the other door. Her thin shift was open at the back, skin and cloth pale as bone. He swallowed, suddenly nervous, and realized how hungry he was, his stomach drawn up empty inside him. Heart, heart, heart again. It sounded in the cavity of his chest. The pistol began to quiver like a pistol should, whelmed with power.
His voice a whisper: “Ma’am?”
She spun on bare feet, kitchen knife clutched to chest, face silly-hard with courage, fear.
“Which side?” she asked him. “It don’t matter which.”
She was not looking at him, not listening, either, staring instead into the black tunnel of the barrel like she might jam the pike by willpower alone.
He looked at her and then at the gun, kinking his wrist to better see the thing. An object foreign to him. He lowered it to his side and sheathed the knife as well, and the two of them stood staring at each other, unspeaking.
“What’s your name?” he asked finally, dry-mouthed, his words hardly crossing the six feet of space that separated them.
She pointed the kitchen knife at him. “Ava. Any closer and I kill you.”
The floorboards jolted, steps upon the stairs. He shot across to her, past the blade.
“You got to hide.”
“Nowhere to,” she said. “I’ll take my chances.” “They ain’t good.”
A bearded sharecropper with tobacco-juiced lips, blackgritted, clopped into the room. The boy knew him but not his name, not at this moment. A Walker Colt hung loosely in the man’s hand. He saw the girl and smiled.
“Christmas come early,” he said.
The boy stood beside the girl, his mouth agape. She spoke to him without looking.
“You a man, or I got to protect my own self?”
His mouth closed. Slowly he raised the dueling pistol, ornate and empty, at the older man’s heart.
“I don’t reckon it’s Christmas yet,” he said.
The man spat a black knot on the floor and leveled his pistol at the boy, casual-like.
“Now Mr. Colt here, he beg to differ.”
The boy went to thumb back the hammer of his weapon, but back it was.
“Where them pistol tricks, boy?”
“Don’t reckon I need them.”
Black caulking divided the man’s teeth. “You killed yet?”
“No. I knowed you was a virgin the day we took you on. I knowed by plain sight and I know it still. You want to be a man? Tell you what, I’ll let you watch.”
The fingers of his free hand began to unbutton his britches as he walked slowly across the room, legs straddled.
The boy put the palm of his hand against the girl’s belly to push her behind him, and her waist was as tiny and delicate as his idea of what was fragile in the world.
“No,” said the boy to the sharecropper. “No.” The man kept coming.
At last the boy lunged, unsheathing his knife, and a white crack exploded inside his head, and dreaming or dying he felt his blade plunge into the liquid underbelly of all that might have happened. All that would have. He saw her eyes come over him, blue-rimmed, the pupils deep and black and wide as wells. All for him. Then darkness.