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Peyton Oliver
and the
Dulin Brothers

by G. Carlton Booker

Copyright 1998 Gary Carlton Booker



EPILOGUE


"It has been my discovery that we are formed, I think, not by our successes, but by our misfortunes and the manner in which we recover from them. It is not the wound that marks us but the scar, taken not as a landmark of our survival in the midst of grave danger and tortuous pain, but often as a flaw, a sign of our imperfection and our helplessness to divert this journey from our given end. This powerless we cannot long endure. Thus becomes our quest; to return to ourselves a feeling of strength and control, a belief in our very existence, for without it there is no joy or comfort, just a ceaseless need to extinguish the flames of fear that rage inside of us. Until that second when our self-esteem has risen and we see ourselves as masters of our own portion, we are every instant afraid and forever surrounded by danger."

George Washington Keller, in his journal, March 25, 1865




CHAPTER 1


If it is true that times of suffering build character in a man, then few have possessed more of than the wretched George Washington Keller. During the night of July 20, 1861, he awoke not remembering how much he had drank or for how long. At the time he was in the dirt behind the tavern, between it and the tracks, lying on his stomach with his arms outstretched. The chirping of cicadas in nearby woods reverberated in his head; each one sounding like a hammer on an anvil. He sat; the darkened landscape spun. He got to his knees and managed to steady himself on his feet.

How it got there so fast and came so close; had he taken two more steps forward those troops would have had their first taste of death. But the train went by; the pandemonium of the engine, the click of the wheels, a cool breeze for a second or two, then he fell backwards with a moan. All but the cicadas quiet again.

His legs trembled as he arose a second time; he wobbled a bit, but found his bearings and headed down the road toward home. He could think of nothing but the comfort of bed and the cure of sleep as he trudged south, then turned east across the tracks.

GW was almost fifty years old when all of this began. He was almost bald. The skin on his face rippled like a frozen clay in February and carried a tan nearly that dark year round. His body had puffed and expanded as it pleased with little effort required of it. Except for his legs; he walked everywhere; he had to in a region where even the unluckiest farmer had some sort of horse to ride. His legs, therefore, were as strong as young oaks and they propelled him at such a severe speed that people often wondered if he were in a hurry to get to there, or to escape from here.

GW's home at the time was in the southeastern portion of Fauquier County, Virginia, about forty miles from the Union capitol, a handful of miles above the Rappahannock River, not far from the road that connected Warrenton, the county seat, with Fredericksburg, the largest city around, some twenty miles to the southeast.

He had discovered that place, that neighborhood called In Between, in '52. He had arrived on the run that April, fleeing from danger that had him rushing over roads and paths in the darkness of night, and hiding in the woods by day. One dawn, two weeks and twenty miles from his start, he stumbled into a clearing. He thought that he was trespassing on someone's lot since at the far end of the field sat a cabin, dwarfed by forty foot pine trees behind and beside it, all of the way around it, encircling two acres or more, the place resembling a canyon or a well.

He had found himself a haven since the house lay open and empty, deserted it seemed; looted by man and beast; the remnants broken and rotting and scattered around the earthen floor. He retrieved a mattress with ticking torn and down spread over the room like a January snow, but enough left to provide him a cushion to rest on and there he slept until nightfall. The occupants of the cabin never returned, so he moved in and stayed, supporting himself with a small fortune of 90 pre-war dollars, buying only what he could not make or grow. He remained alone there for a year; a prince reduced to savagery by a personal armageddon; the only soul on earth.

But in the summer of 1853, with most of his money spent and his fear diminished, it became necessary for him to venture out, to expand his territory further beyond the pine trees and seek work. It was not his intention to build a barn or harvest a field or carry water or grain. He sought to bring into someone's life the joy of a sonnet, the inspiration of a verse, the lesson of a chronicle; to expand a mind or warm a heart, to tutor the children of a rich farmer, to teach a lady art or music, to work inside in comfort.

And he believed that it was God in his wisdom who provided him with that, although it was not exactly that. He did not get a parlor with imported rugs and crystal chandeliers, just a one room shack at the crossroads. It was about twenty by twenty, with a dozen and a half seats and a teacher's desk and fifteen students from the not so well-to-do; children whose fathers couldn't afford Episcopal or Mount Berne, but who wanted them to read and write, add and think. He had fifteen students, more or less, who would never be scholars, but who wanted to learn, (save a brat or two) and pay him three cents a day each and leave alone him and let him teach.

And he survived. Actually, he prospered. When he was not at school, soter to inferior, young minds, he was home in his cabin behind the pines, margrave of his province; answerable only to a benevolent God and fertile nature --- he reigned supreme in his territory. He could be whomever he wanted, whatever he pleased with little harsh reality to show him differently. Was he insane, GW sometimes wondered. Perhaps, but it was a world where all men had their dominions; wives, children, slaves, horses, dogs; all obedient, all serving. But to what end --- survival? Possibly. Illusion? Maybe. Fearlessness, omnipotence, the death of danger, control? Theirs they may have had by substantial means, his by imaginative; he thought that there was little difference.

But as the war approached he became uneasy. After the Union army moved across the Potomac River and captured Alexandria in late May, he began to expect their murderous march over Virginia soil each day. But they waited, sadistically prolonging the inevitable for weeks, driving him to the brink of madness as he wondered, doubted, hoped that the Southern army could hold them back and drive them away.

He would become depressed; slow-moving, low-talking, too afraid to do anything. Or the extreme --- his rage at being the invaded would fly from his lips in a venomous curse. He would shake, rush to do something, anything, to keep his anger from exploding within him. All misfortune came from them; aches, pains, death nearby, drought and storm he blamed on them. Although he did not actually believe they possessed such power, he gave all evil the name of Yankee.

But he thought that he was too old, too feeble, even though he turned just 48 that year. He couldn't join the boys up there at Manassas Junction and carry a musket and charge through the woods and across fields after a fleeing foe; or stand steady, without a tremble in his hand or a flutter in his eyes and squeeze back on the trigger while a thousand shots flew the air toward him. And he cursed that, too.

While before he did not have to admit superiority to any man, he then began to doubt his sovereignty. His weaknesses became apparent; his fragility obvious. No illusion of strength and control could be forced through the blanket of oppressive fear that covered him. It was not the expectation of death that made him tremble, but his inability to prevent it. He would, he knew, be a slave forever to those who could cause it, or a partner with anyone who could help keep him alive.



******************************

James Dulin could not keep still. He tried, he wanted to, he really had to since each movement seemed to create a sound. He would recross his legs or his arms, shift his weight, scratch his nose, and cloth would rustle, a foot would go "plunk," the bed springs would squeak. His mother was going to hear. She would hear and awaken and wonder what he and his brother Will were doing up that late, fully clothed and sitting on their beds. She would know. She probably did already. She was probably down in the barn waiting for them. That would end it. "You boys git back up there!" she would yell. "You ain't goin up ta Manassas an I don't wanna hear nothin more bout it!" That would end it. They would walk sheepishly back up to the room. "Wait'll Peyton finds out," James would think. "He's gonna skin us alive fer this."

And he would. He wouldn't hit them, wouldn't hurt them. He would just look at them funny; wouldn't say "Good job," at the end of the day. Out there in the fields by himself James would start feeling alone and afraid. He would yell and scream and tear at those weeds as he did everytime that Peyton was mad at him. "Oh, little brother," he thought, "why did I let ya talk me inta this?"

True, he did not take much convincing. Mr. Murphy, the mill owner, told them about the fight. They hadn't even known that the Union army had marched out from Alexandria until Mr. Murphy came riding in with the letters and announced, "Well, boys, those cowards have finally showed up for slaughter," then went on and told them about the battle that he had heard off in the distance. "It wasn't the whole army now. I've seen bigger fights round here. Yer brothers weren't in it. They're way down at the other end of the line. But I tell ya, when I heard those cannons blast and those muskets go off, I wished I was thirty years younger. I haven't ever bin ta war an now that we have one, I'm too old. These are excitin times, boys." Then he looked at them with one of those looks, a Peyton look, neither smile nor scorn, just eyes wide open staring at them; eyes saying, "What are you boys doin here leanin on yer hoes with the enemy just twenty miles away. Fifteen? Seventeen? That's not too young to be up there." Which was true. Thadle Stevens was up there. He's only sixteen. His mother let him join up.

It was all Will's idea. He's the one who said," We gotta git up there if they're gonna have a big fight. We gotta go even if we hafta sneak out ta do it." They probably could have just ridden up there; they had several times since the start of June when the Yankees were still around Washington. Their mother would not have known that the enemy was near Manassas if John had not told her in his letter. "Wer xpecting a fight soon. The yankees are on the march now and shoud be hear enyday," he wrote.

James thought of Melvin and felt a wave of panic. He put his ear to the wall and tried to listen to the tubercular breathing of his older brother in the next room. He knew that his mother went in every night to check on him, sometimes twice a night if she thought that he was breathing strangely or started coughing again.

James looked over at Will, stared through the dark room to the faint outline of his younger brother and did not see a muscle move. "He's probably asleep." James whispered to himself. "We're bout ta go ta war an he's fallen asleep. It was all his idea, too."





****************************

GW was going up a hill, the last hill before home. It was a gradual slope with oaks on either side of the road; their limbs and leaves blocking out the sky. It was an eerie place that he had feared on other nights, on winter nights when the wind picked up and drove a chill through to the bone, when the sounds from the woods could be man or beast waiting for prey. But that night all was quiet --- until he heard the sound of hoofbeats on the baked clay in front of him. He heard them but took no notice; they reached him before he could react; two horsemen at a gallop, from the top of the hill down in an instant; one to a side in a fury of motion and sound. He felt the haunch of a horse brush his sleeve and down he went, collapsed to his knees, certain that he was trampled, crippled, about to die.

But nothing ached; there was no blood. Shaking, he arose, silently cursing the two ruffians who had nearly run him down. Their momentum had carried them well down the hill before they pulled their horses to a halt and spurred them back around to where he stood.

"Sorry, mister. We didn't see ya. Ya alright?"
"Yes, yes, I think so," GW replied. "You gave me such a fright."
"Mr., Mr. Keller? That you?"
"Yes, who...?"
"It's Will, Will Dulin."
"An James," the other said.
"Will, James, what are you doing out this late? It must be after midnight."
"We're ridin up ta see our brothers up in Manassas, an maybe git us a Yankee or two," Will said. GW could not see if he was grinning, but Will almost always was.
"Tonight? Why not wait?"
"Cause the war might be over fore we git there." James' words came out slowly, deliberately. It was the only way that he could talk without his words becoming stammered, his syntax confused.
"Does your mother know that you're going?" GW knew that he should not have asked. He could see well enough in the moonlight to tell that they looked at each other before Will answered. "Yeah, sure." There was a shallowness to his voice which had risen an octave. "Ma knows. She said it was okay." "Yer not goin ta tell..." James cut it off short.
"No, no," GW insisted. "But how are you going to find your brothers in the dark?"
"We know right where they are," Will answered. "Mr. Murphy told us. Says they're near a church, way out from the junction. Gave us directions. It'll be easy." His arms were outstretched and his palms up.
"Well, I envy you boys." On occasion words would pour forth from GW's lips with no premeditation, no thought behind them as if God spoke through him. "How about if I ride up there with you?"
Before GW could retrieve his request Will checked with a look to James, then turned to back to GW. "Sure. But we gotta ride fast. It'll be rough."
GW climbed up behind James, back off the saddle and grabbed hold of leather and they were off. His fingers strained to keep him on as the horse bounced him up and down.

GW had known the Dulins since he had begun teaching in '53. Lemuel and Ned had preceded these two, and Melvin had attended for a year before falling ill and being kept at home. John was passed school age when he got there, as was Lucy, the only girl and the oldest child. He had not known the parents well; he had never had dinner there, but he did remember Mr. Dulin, who had died in the late fifties, as being a tall, gangly, red-headed man, stern and quiet with fixed, penetrating eyes. His wife Elizabeth was shy, tiny; a ghost next to her husband. She had gripped her hands tightly in front of her the time they met as she spoke in a voice so low GW could barely hear it.

He had always thought that the boys were a teacher's dream; always in attendance, never late with his fees, amply bright and industrious to give him the satisfaction of accomplishment, but not brilliant enough to threaten him or question him unduly. Full of the restlessness of youth, they won their share of the fights; Will especially, but lacked the meanness of some of the other boys. James was tall and slender, while his younger brother was short and broad; he never seemed to have the strength to stand up to the toughest. He was easily bullied, often bloodied when young, but had grown into youth broad-shouldered and muscular enough to do at least some harm in the wrestling pit beside the school.

The family was prosperous, not rich, from what GW could tell. They were farm owners, not tenants, so the boys had been protected from the gloom of poverty. Although theirs was a hard life, it was not a harsh one, and they had been able to hold onto the enchantment of youth.

Will always had the demeanor of a mischievous imp; a ready smile on a cherubic face; blond hair disheveled, a relaxed gait as if he saw no danger in the world.

James was more concentrated; hesitant as if restrained by an enclosure that he built around himself, afraid of pain and punishment for what he might do. He monitored each action, pondered every word. He was openly nervous when forced to react socially. The muscles in his thin, rectangular face would tighten, his chin seemed to recede, his eyes expanded and his forehead wrinkled. He would then try to cover his display of tension with trembling hands and fingers pressed to his cheeks or by scratching his brow with his eyes to the ground. Caught off guard with no time to become nervous, he would produce a glowing smile of crooked teeth, show a generous manner that he was always ashamed of, but seemed to despise himself later for his awkward behavior.

They went that night over roads and paths that GW didn't know, never pausing at crossroads, not stopping at turns. The boys seemed to know the way. GW's fingers ached; all of his attention was drawn to holding on. Although he considered letting go and sleeping a sweet sleep by the side of the road, he could not. He was a slave to the image that he had to keep with the boys; their teacher, their master. They couldn't see him weak. He couldn't fail.

They finally stopped to water the horses. The woods at the creek shook with the sound of locusts, owls and frogs. In the moonlight they could see the leaves of a cornfield, across the stream and above them and a candle brightening a second floor window of a farmhouse in its midst.

"Where are we?" GW inquired. "I do not know this road."
"Cedar Run," Will told him as he took long strides up from the water. "This here is Murphy's Ford. The mill is down there." He nodded. "The railroad bridge is maybe a mile upstream."
"Yeah, we, uh, uh, used ta ride up the tracks ta go up, cept we almost got run down on that bridge." James' voice trailed off. He looked away toward the farmhouse.
"Yeah, we almost had to derail a train ta git by."
"Yeah," James added.
GW drank from the creek then dropped his sweaty self down into it, clothes and all. He just sat there in the shallow waters of the ford, leaning back so that it would cover his head and face, submerged until his breath ran out and he sat up in a rush and gasped for air.
"Don't drown yerself til after the Yankees win. Then we'll both join ya," Will joked.
"There is not much chance of that happening, is there?"
"Not with Peyton up there," James replied.
"Who? Peyton? Oh, Peyton Oliver. Yes, your brother-in-law, right? I..."
"Yeah, Lucy's husband. He's a real ox-kicker," Will told him.
"He's, he's probably the strongest man in the county. He..."
"Pa once said that there wasn't a better man with a horse than Peyton."
"He's in the cavalry?"
"No, uh, uh. Should be though. Infantry. Fauquier Guards Same as John an Ned an Lemuel. They've bin in since June, or so."
"He, uh, woulda joined the Black Horse, but, uh..."
"It's jist fer rich guys," Will said. "Cept I'm gonna be in it someday."


**********************************

On the night of July 20 Private Peyton Oliver was on picket duty about four miles north of an insignificant railroad intersection called Manassas Junction, 250 yards in advance of a minor creek called Bull Run, on the top of a low ridge that had held a thriving corn crop before the Confederate army had arrived in June. To his left and right, separated from him by fifty yards, were other sentries. They were unmoving and shadowy; looked to be stone monuments in the moonlight.

Next to Peyton was a rutted dirt road of hardened clay that started out of sight at the Alexandria-Warrenton Turnpike about three miles from the Union Army camps at Centreville and ran past him to Lewis Ford on the Run. He and his campmates had decided that when the Yankees finally attacked they would use that road; come right at them. That was fine with him. The sooner the better. He had been in the army for two months now and that was enough. He had two farms to run; his and the Dulins', and he could hear the weeds taking over and the cows getting loose from there. Besides, he was tired of taking orders. He wanted to get home and give some.

After all, Peyton was the eldest son in a large family. Often, it seems that no matter how low the existence, how powerless the group, that one, the oldest boy, possesses the confidence of a god. He's always being deferred to, only seldom challenged; he grows up correcting the others' mistakes; being the strong, competent one; depended on.

The younger ones are never quite able to outdo him. Only as adults do they catch him in experience. By then they are settled into their subjugation and to take his place would be to transform themselves, to take them into an unknown territory that they would then have no manner to defend; leave them without his protection to face the pain and peril alone and unbuffered.

The relationship seldom changes, from birth to death, one son with esteem, the others always doubting, always scared and unsure, needing another soul whose strength they can believe in and whose protection that they can trust, filling the eldest with assurance to sometimes a point of unnatural, excessive, blinding arrogance.

No matter where he goes, no matter who he is with, he must always be the eldest son. His life, therefore, is one of aggression and defense. He fights a constant, usually bloodless war to maintain his position and to keep his self esteem.

Peyton took his hat off and wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand and his elbow clipped something in his breast pocket. He put his hat back on and reached into his pocket. It was the photograph. He had been showing it to someone earlier and had forgotten to put it back in his tent before going on guard duty. He tried to look at it in the moonlight but could not really see anything. It didn't matter. He had seen it enough times that his mind recognized the figures even if his eyes did not. He smiled and felt better and more than ever wanted to go home.

It was odd that Peyton had taken that one particular photograph with him when he went up to Manassas. He had so many to choose from. It wasn't that he wanted that one because it included Lucy and himself. There were several with the two of them, the two of them and their two daughters, the two of them with just about everybody that they were related to.

The photograph that he took was of himself, Lucy and their two girls, and the Dulins; all of them; his mother-in-law Elizabeth, and Lucy's brothers; John, Lemuel, Melvin, Ned, James and little Will. It was taken in Fredericksburg on October 18, 1858. He had not told them where they were going when he had the idea for the photograph, just went from Dulin to Dulin and asked them to be ready the next morning at ten o'clock and to wear their best clothes. They might have been intrigued by such a mysterious request except it was a well-known fact that Peyton's only weakness, if this was that, was for those fifty-cent pictures.

Why Peyton was so fascinated with those things was a constant topic of conversation among those who knew him. It bothered Lucy that he spent so much money on them. They could afford it; it did not take food from the children, but there seemed to be better things to buy. Of course, everyone around had one or two in their homes by the late fifties. When word of them got around, once people started showing them off, it was as if someone had discovered a cure for death, or some such progress, and all of the farmers who could spare fifty cents headed to Warrenton or Fredericksburg to have their pictures taken.

But Peyton had at least twenty of them; different members of the family, different poses, different years. It was unlike him to be this amused by something, to allow himself to be this distracted. After all, he had run the farm since he was sixteen when his father became ill. He was an up-at-dawn, work-all-day farmer who seldom laughed or joked, did not smoke, drink, dance or cuss.

His ability to run the farm, to make things grow, to domesticate animals, to keep himself and his family fed, warm and safe was indestructible. It was a war that he waged against nature and himself, and he won most battles, and although if you asked him he would say otherwise, he always felt that he would win the war as well.

He concerned himself very little with the weather, which he knew that he could not control, and the price that Mr. Murphy paid for his grain, which he knew that he could not control, and took care of everything else.

He was hell with foxes and hawks that preyed on his chickens, with weeds that threatened his crops, and once in Warrenton flattened a man with one punch for cussing in front of his wife. He then had to fight off two of the rascal's friends and left them both dazed and bleeding on the sidewalk. He had never shot a man, although had several times fired at shadowy figures late at night when he thought that someone was trying to steal his cows.

He had married Lucy Ellen Dulin on October 19, 1856 after a courtship of one year. He was 22, Lucy seven months older. They were third cousins.

Peyton was not particularly religious or spiritual, seldom read the Bible, although he had one by his bed and took it with him on those rare occasions when he went on an overnight trip as if it were a passport. The weather, disease, the behavior of inferior animals he attributed to an incomprehensible power, God's will, perhaps, but he never related those forces to his own actions or thoughts. He simply saw them as a part of the rules, the limits, the realities of life.

He never explained why he was so fascinated with those pictures. Lucy might have known. She tried to tell someone once but had a hard time explaining it. It was when they had gone to Richmond for Peyton's brother's wedding in '59. They had visited an art gallery. She had gushed over the paintings; Peyton had shrugged. "Those don't look like real flowers," he had said. "I bet that woman doesn't even look like that. The painter probably jist wanted her ta think she was that pretty." Maybe that was it, Lucy had thought. Maybe he liked the idea of the photographs showing what was real, not ideal. Maybe that was it.

Another quiet night, Peyton thought. He shuffled his right foot forward and kicked up dust on the road. He was tired and bored, not so much from having to stand for four hours but from waiting for something to happen for two months, from being all hopped up for a fight and there not being one. He pushed his shoulder blades together in an attempt to get his back muscles to relax. He started to think that maybe he wasn't really needed there, that the whole thing had been a false alarm, perhaps even a hoax, that there weren't any Yankees willing to die to keep Virginia and the other states in the Union. He pulled the photograph out of his pocket and looked at it one more time and more than ever wanted to go home.



****************************

GW and the boys remounted and crossed the ford and headed up the road, soon at a gallop. Dark farmhouses in the middle of chest-high corn stood like silent sentries along the way. Just as GW was certain that they were lost they emerged from the woods at the top of a low ridge and looked out at the dim, flickering torchlights of a great city.

"What is that? Where are we?" GW called out.
"That's it --- Manassas," James turned and said. "That's the army."
GW lost sight of the lights as they went down the slope and across a small stream. Then at the top of the next hill they appeared again, ahead and to the left. A train waited at the tracks. Thick, black smoke poured from its stack. An anthill of men hurried around it, removing crates from boxcars and loading them into wagons, leading cannons down ramps, urging the horses along.
It had been years since GW had witnessed such a scene at the docks in Richmond. But it was never like this; never so many men working with such resolve. For an instant the truth of his predicament flashed upon him like a bolt of lightening. He realized that he should have been in that spectacle, helping with that fight, and there he was with the enemy just a few miles away; unarmed, still half drunk, on the back of a boy's horse. The whistle from the engine shrilled and steam roared up.
"Let's get out of here!" he shouted. "You want to find your brothers, remember?"
They headed off around the junction and into the darkness past rows of small, white, canvas tents that ran up a hillside between stumps of newly felled trees. The boys stopped several times to check directions; trying to read a crumpled piece of paper in the moonlight. Finally, they reached a highway that they identified as the Warrenton-Alexandria Turnpike and a stone house at an intersection that showed them the road that they needed to take.
After a journey of several miles through empty, deserted country, they rounded a curve and Will called out, "That's it; that the church. They should be right next to it." But in the field they found only the remnants of an army camp; charred logs, wrappings, tins; but no sign of the Fauquier Guards.
"They were here. I'm sure this is the place. We'll have ta find em."
GW could ride no more. "No, let's wait," he protested. "It will be light in a few hours. We will have a better chance of finding them then. The church should not be locked. We can sleep in there."
They agreed, to his relief, and entered the darkened sanctuary. The sounds of their footsteps vibrated off of the high walls and ceiling. They each picked a pew and lay down for what would be the last peaceful sleep of their lives.




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