Most of you know my zombie stuff, but a few have taken the plunge and read my novel, Dakota. I am at work on the second one and am actually seeking your input here in the way of critique/criticism. As many of you know, the beginning can make or break a novel. So, here is the first couple thousand words from Dakota: Traitor/Patriot. It is NOT edited at all, so there may be a few errors, use of words repetitively...etc. I get that. What I am looking for here is an honest input...from those who read Dakota, how does this feel, and from those who have not...would you want to keep reading? Trust me...my skin is thick enough to take it.
“The man, Dakota Riley, is charged with treason and shall face the military court where his crimes will be proven. The penalty for such crimes is death.” The man held a piece of parchment in his hand, but he did not actually need to read it, he knew very well what it said. After all, he had written it just moments before.
Standing in chains, Dakota was only now starting to be able to see in single vision, and even then, it was a bit fuzzy around the edges. The two soldiers that stood guard over him—one to either side—had worked him over twice already. Each time, their sergeant stood a few feet away lecturing about how “good men had died due to his malfeasance.”
The first beating had been interrupted when the man assigned as his defender entered the tiny cell for an interview. While it had been obvious what was taking place, the man had said nothing about it and simply asked Dakota how he intended to plead.
“I don’t even know what I’m being charged with,” Dakota managed after spitting out a mouthful of blood.
“I believe that the official document states that you aided the newly proclaimed Confederate States through acts of sabotage that resulted in massive casualties. However, I believe they will simply shorten it to treason,” the tall, skinny man said matter-of-factly as he removed his glasses and polished them with the hem of his wool jacket.
Even stripped to the waist, Dakota was sweating in the muggy heat of July. He had no idea how that man managed not to melt dressed as he was with a linen shirt, wool slacks, and a jacket that looked to have been made for a much shorter but heavier man.
“That’s ridiculous,” Dakota said of the charges.
“Mr. Riley, we have sworn documents form several soldiers, many of them respected officers. You can save yourself considerable trouble,” he flashed a look at the two thugs that stood just outside the cell rubbing their knuckles, “if you plead guilty. The sentence will likely be carried out immediately following.”
“But I didn’t do anything!” Dakota insisted.
“According to witnesses, you signaled troops led by the enemy and directed their coordinated attacks on the exposed flanks of Federal Army forces,” the lawyer said as he rifled though a stack of papers.
“I was calling for help,” Dakota insisted.
“And it seems that you received it in the form of several hundred soldiers led by one Joseph Johnston,” the lawyer continued to pour through the pages, never bothering to make eye contact with Dakota as he spoke.
“Listen, Mister…what the hell is your name?” Dakota snapped when he realized that the man had not even gone so far as to introduce himself to his “client” in this first meeting.
“Davis, Abernathy Percival Davis.” Finally, the man looked up at Dakota and met his glare. “And there is little need for profanity, Mr. Riley.”
I’ll give you profanity, you little beanpole, Dakota thought angrily. Instead, he swallowed hard and did his best to sound pleasant. “Listen, Mr. Davis, I realize that things might look bad, but rest assured, I did nothing that I am charged with. I was simply trying to call for help. There was a woman injured—”
“Ah yes…” Abernathy Davis flipped through a few pages and produced the page he sought. “Judith Carter Henry was pronounced dead at the scene. And also a known sympathizer to the enemy. Your being in her home does not actually help your case, Mr. Riley.”
Dakota sagged. He was fully aware how things appeared. However, that was simply not the way things had gone. Unfortunately, it was his word against the Union Army.
A mist clung to the ground as dawn broke. The sound of birds waking and beginning their day was about the only noise that could be heard. Dakota climbed down out of the wagon and stretched. His body welcomed the motion and his lungs sucked in huge gulps of the cleanest, freshest air he could remember breathing.
Wading through the dew-coated fronds of tall grass, he moved into the trees to answer nature’s call. He still could not get over how quiet the world seemed. Born in 1979, and living most of his life around Seattle, Washington, Dakota Riley had spent many years with the drone of aircraft as a near constant background symphony.
He was along way from home.
Not only was he out in the countryside somewhere west of Washington DC, he was also, as impossible as it seemed, in the year 1861. His mind was still struggling with the idea of ‘when’ he was far more than the aspect of where.
As he emerged from the woods, he could see Marc and Aaron already busy with the morning fire. Aaron was never far from Marc, and Dakota often teased that the man had two shadows…one in 3-D. Aaron ahd asked what that meant, but no amount of explaining could help.
The best guess about Aaron was that he was perhaps fourteen. Born on a plantation where he served as a slave, such things as his age were difficult to know with any certainty. The same could be said for Clancy. A large man with a soft voice, Clancy was the only slave who had survived an attempt by Marc to organize a slave rebellion on a trio of plantations. Dakota guessed the man to be in his twenties.
Almost on cue, the large man crawled out from under the wagon where he preferred to sleep now that they were travelling. He claimed it was because he had always dreamed of sleeping under the open sky, but two things about that claim rang false. For one, the man slept under the wagon. For another, he wasn’t the only one who woke to the rattling snores of Art O’Grady.
As Dakota got closer to the wagon where it was currently parked under the wide cover of an old oak tree, he could hear what might be mistaken for a chainsaw…if they were in existence these days that is. Art would be the last to rise and then make what he considered to be humorous remarks about how everybody looked so tired in the morning after what he announced was another splendid night’s sleep.
“I thought old people woke up early…seems like my granddaddy was usually awake an hour before sunrise when I was little…and then told me about how much of the day I had wasted,” Marc grumbled as Dakota knelt and began the ritualistic making of the coffee.
“Must be something in the air,” Dakota said with a shrug. “Back at the pub, that old fella was up before me on the regular, and that was after he closed the place up for the night and did a quick count of the night’s sales totals.”
“Mister Dakota, how long ‘afore that brew be finished?” Clancy said as he squatted down by the fire with his cup.
“About ten minutes.” Dakota had given up trying to get Clancy to simply call him by name without the ‘Mister’ honorific. One day a few weeks back, Clancy had just stopped talking. When Dakota asked, he realized just how careful he would need to be with his words.
“If you call me ‘Mister Dakota’ one more time…I’m gonna sew your mouth shut,” Dakota had quipped in what he thought was an offhanded jest. A lifetime of slavery had ingrained very real fear of any threat involving physical punishment in the man. It had been Marc who eventually got the big man to come clean with why he had just quit talking to Dakota.
“And then I can makes us breakfast,” Clancy said with a nod.
“And what is on the menu this morning, Clancy?” Marc’s stomach grumbled to add emphasis to the question.
“Got some fat rabbits last night and even managed to find a few onions.”
That last bit caused Dakota to shoot a questioning look at Marc who simply shrugged. They had plenty of food packed in the wagon for the trip; however, they had also agreed that any time they could toss something fresh on the table and save their stores for when things got lean. The first night out, Clancy and Aaron had strolled into camp with two chickens and a dozen eggs.
“The last thing we want to do is draw attention to ourselves,” Dakota had scolded.
“But Marc say we ain’t never gonna be comin’ back this way,” Aaron had protested. “We learned real good how to slip into places when we was trainin’ for that big fight.”
“Ain’t no massa gonna be missin’ us come mornin’. We can walk in just as pretty as you please…and then right back out without nobody sayin’ nary a word,” Clancy continued.
“We can’t go around stealing from folks,” Dakota insisted. “You know very well what would happen if you get caught.”
“Ain’t never anybody up and about such a late hour,” Clancy tried to explain.
“It just takes once,” Marc said softly.
After Clancy and Aaron had moved out of earshot, it was Marc who voiced his concern to Dakota. “We told them they are free, but I don’t think they understand. To them, the only version of free they ever saw was that of their white masters. They came as they pleased and took what ever they wanted.”
“Still,” Dakota shook his head, “they know what stealing is…they aren’t stupid…just ignorant.”
“I don’t believe that they acted out of wanting to do something wrong…I just don’t think they really know how to handle themselves yet,” Marc said.
That night, they sat down with the two and told them that anything on another person’s property was private, and therefore, not to be taken. To do so would be stealing. That had opened a new can of worms when both Clancy and Aaron insisted that they had been on another person’s property. Did that make Marc and Dakota thieves?
Finally, it was Art who came to the rescue. “You are people. Can’t rightly own another person. There’s some that belive that…and some who don’t. But God placed a spark of life inside each human being. When God placed Adam in that garden, he gave him dominion over all creatures…but he never gave him the right to treat another man like a cow, chicken, or pig.”
Dakota figured that there would be a whole bunch of questions now, but there was not. Clancy and Aaron simply nodded and smiled at each other, then apologized for breaking one of, as Clancy put it, “the ten comets”. There had been no further incidents of stealing…until now it would seem.
“Where did you find those onions?” Dakota asked with a sigh.
“Growin’ aside the trail just around the bend,” Clancy replied.
“Don’t know what is wrong where you two come from,” a voice with a thick Irish lilt sounded with a loud smacking of lips as Art O’ Grady popped his head out of the back of the covered wagon. “Find all sorts of things growin’ wild if’n you know where to look. And trade roads are a good place to look considering what might fall out of a cart along the way.”
“Is that right?” Dakota let the doubt coat his words. He didn’t want to call Art a liar any more than he wanted to accuse Clancy and Aaron of being thieves. By the same token, he didn’t want to see anybody in his group beaten…or worse.
“Know one fella came across enough tobacky that he were able to make enough see-gars to pass out at his daughter’s wedding and still had enough left over for himself to last through a whole winter.”
Before long, the air was carrying the savory smells of cooked rabbit. The coffee cups were filled, emptied, and filled again by the time breakfast was ready. The conversation was almost non-existent as each set to his morning meal. As was his custom, Art celebrated the end of the meal with a cigar.
“So, boyo,” Art said through a puff of the acrid smoke, “now that you got me out here on the road, maybe we can talk about this war you say is fixed to rip this country apart.”
“I could tell you plenty, but I have no idea how things will shake down now that I met with the president.”
Dakota was still in awe of the fact that he had sat down with and actually spoken to Abraham Lincoln. When he was told that the meeting had been arranged, he really thought that the man would sit politely and let him speak. What he was not prepared for was the amount of questions and follow up questions that came. He certainly never expected the man to write down notes.
When the meeting was over, Dakota had walked back to O’Grady’s Pub in a daze. He could have no way of knowing that, while still tragic in the number of lives lost, Dakota had unwittingly halved the duration of the American Civil War. In addition, he had also set into motion a tragic demise for the president.
“But if what you have told me is true, then I still do not understand why we are having to trek all the way across this country. I heard tell of savages that would eat you as soon as look at ya, mountains that no man can cross, and a scarcity of womenfolk that is just too sad to even consider longer than a heartbeat.” Art repeated the same arguments each day in almost ritualistic fashion.
“Where is your sense of adventure?” Dakota came back with the same response that he had given each time Art raised these concerns.
“I think I left it in the pub under my bed.” This response was practically sang I chorus by Marc, Clancy and Aaron as the words came out of Art’s mouth. The old Irishman scowled and bit down on his cigar, puffs of smoke billowing around his head.
The others chuckled and went about the task of breaking down the camp. Dakota made sure to douse the fire, stir it, and bury it. The tall dry grass stretched out all around them and he did not want to be the person that started a terrible wildfire.
As the sun crept into the sky on its slow journey west, it acted as a beacon for the band of five. The day was a mixture of Art teaching inappropriate songs to Aaron interspersed with lengthy silences where nothing but the song of nature drifted down all around them.
As midday passed and they reached a slight rise, a strange buzz began to filter in among the sounds of birds and whirring insects. Before it came into view, they first heard, and then smelled the large encampment of soldiers in and around the small town.
“Looks like the boys in blue are on the move,” Art whistled as Dakota brought his horse up beeside the wagon.
“Seems like an awful lot of ‘em,” Dakota agreed. “What town is that?”
“Centerville,” Art replied.
The group came to a halt. Dakota fished out a set of binoculars and scanned the area. What he saw did not appear at all like what he envisioned an Army camp to look like. There were men lying about in front of tents. Young men, barely old enough to carry the title from the looks of many of the faces, were chasing each other around waving sticks like they were sabers.
“These are just children,” Dakota muttered.
“And why so many different colored uniforms?” Marc asked nobody in particular.
“They weren’t ready,” Art muttered. “Damn fools went and started a war without being ready.”
“I don’t understand.” Marc brought his set of binoculars down and looked at Art, gesturing for him to explain.
“These are coming in from all over. Ain’t many of them seen any real training except how to march in line…and even that is lacking in most. But these folks dress out in local colors to display who they are really fighting for…be it New York or Pennsylvania,” Art explained.
“I guess I just expected them to look like…” Marc let his sentence fade as he went back to looking at the sprawling camp of the Union Army.
“Like soldiers?” Art finished.
After a few minutes, Dakota and Marc looked at each other with raised eyebrows. Did they dare? seemed to be the question on their minds.
“I know we are trying to make sure we don’t get involved,” Marc began, “but what harm can a little peek cause?”
“Said Pandora as she opened the box,” Dakota grumbled.
“I know what you are worried about,” Marc urged. “But I can’t help but be curious. Aren’t you just a little bit curious what it feels like to be able to walk through history?”
Dakota sighed. He had to admit, there was a peculiar and almost irresistible urge to go down there and just wander around. He could not see the harm in that. Besides, it wasn’t like he was going down there to sign up or anything; he was just going to take a look. Really pull in the sights and sounds of an honest-to-goodness Union Army camp.He knew enough about history to know that things would take a sharp turn for the worst after the first real battle. The romance would be peeled away and the true horror would be revealed.