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A SPENT BULLET
S.C. “Curt” Iles
Working Title: A SPENT BULLET/Louisiana 1941
The Big Idea
We all have a past but it’s our choice to live there or move forward. A Spent Bullet is the story of two young people who face this decision at a time when the entire world is shaking beneath their feet.
I. THE CONTENT
A. Genre: Historical Fiction
A Spent Bullet will entertain readers with warm and memorable stories from the months prior to Pearl Harbor. It will educate readers about the historic Louisiana Army Maneuvers and the young soldiers and rural civilians who met, mixed, and often married.
Finally, A Spent Bullet will encourage readers that it’s possible to move forward from a dark past. They will learn that overcoming adversity and tenacity are parts of personal and spiritual growth.
C. Overview and Synopsis
Elizabeth Reed and Harry Reed each have a past—their choices now are to move past them.
Louisiana 1941. Elizabeth Reed is a young schoolteacher who dislikes soldiers. Harry Miller is a Wisconsin soldier who hates Louisiana. When they meet and fall in love, the tension is as thick as the Louisiana summer humidity.
One Page Synopsis
Premise: Can two young people from diverse backgrounds and each carrying dark secrets, find love during the difficult days leading up to Pearl Harbor?
ELIZABETH REED has had it with soldiers. It’s 1941 and thousands of them have flooded her home area for what’s being called the Great Louisiana Army Maneuvers. Elizabeth, a twenty-year-old schoolteacher, dislikes soldiers due to being used by an officer during her college years. She has returned to her hometown—carrying a dark secret—resigned to life as an unmarried elementary teacher.
Her life changes on an August afternoon when a soldier tosses a bullet from a passing convoy. The empty cartridge contains a note that will set in motion a series of bizarre events. Elizabeth refuses to pick up the spent bullet and doesn’t see her younger brother BEN retrieve it. He takes the bullet to her grandmother who cooks up a plot to get Elizabeth into a relationship.
The note contains the name and address of Private HARRY MILLER, a Wisconsin soldier who detests three things: the Army, Louisiana, and Helen, his fiancé in Milwaukee, who just sent a Dear John letter. Private Miller didn’t know his name was on the tossed bullet as fellow soldiers did it as a joke.
Through the scheming of Ben and Elizabeth’s grandmother, a written correspondence begins between Elizabeth (with the grandmother writing “for her”) and Harry.
On the day before the “battle” begins, a tropical storm settles over the battle areas. As Harry’s unit fights in the rain and mud, he observes various events that tell much about the army and its men. We follow his unit as they march north, and Harry realizes that in spite of his dislike of military life, he is the type of soldier others look to in battle. This portion of the story reveals Harry’s growth from self-centeredness and self-pity to one of duty and discipline.
With the battle over, Harry rushes to accept Elizabeth’s written invitation to meet her. Arriving, he quickly learns that Elizabeth knows nothing about any letters. As the day unfolds, everything that can go wrong does. Harry leaves at the end of the day, vowing to never return.
The next day what will be called the “Battle of Shreveport” begins and Harry’s company is thrust into the middle of the fighting. During their movement north, Harry makes a heroic effort to save a drowning soldier and in the process finds the courage to capture Elizabeth Reed’s heart.
After five days of marching and battle, a truce is called, ending the Louisiana Maneuvers. Full of newfound courage, Harry returns determined to capture the beautiful teacher’s heart. A front porch music session kindles Elizabeth’s love toward Harry.
The next week, a tragic accident occurs: an Army truck strikes and kills Elizabeth’s brother Ben. Harry observes how this simple country family’s shaky yet solid faith weathers a crisis. Elizabeth’s mother and her unconditional forgiveness of the Negro soldier who struck her son especially touch him.
As Elizabeth shares the source of her faith with Harry, she realizes the most difficult part of repentance is often forgiving oneself from past mistakes.
During the days leading up to his unit returning to Wisconsin, Harry proposes to Elizabeth while atop a stalled Ferris Wheel. Eventually, she accepts and they plan a quick wedding. On his last weekend before their wedding, Harry chooses to be baptized in the cold water of Bundick Creek. It’s his way of signifying what has happened in his heart.
That afternoon, following a family tradition, Elizabeth takes Harry to a grove of old trees in the nearby swamp. He carves their initials and wedding date into the bark. He runs his hand over the carved date: 12-7-41 and says, “Well, no one else may remember next Sunday, but we will: December 7, 1941.”
The plot of this story is woven from true stories told by the many “Harry and Elizabeths” who met, fell in love, and married during the 1941 Louisiana Maneuvers.
D. The Manuscript
- Manuscript status: Completed
- Word count: 95,000 words
- A Spent Bullet is currently being independently published through Westbow Press.
- A Spent Bullet is the first in the “Louisiana Skies” Series:
Book 2 As You Were December 7, 1941 wasn’t a good day to marry a soldier. Can new love survive years apart?
Book 3 The Lake “Country comes to the city.” The adventures of two rural sisters in war-time New Orleans.
Book 4 The Harvest It shouldn’t happen but it did: During the Louisiana rice harvest of 1944, a German P.O.W. and a farm girl fall in love and it quickly gets complicated.
II. THE MARKET
A. Timing and Interest There is great interest in things dealing with World War II and the generation respectfully known as “The Greatest Generation.” As we begin the seventieth (70) and later celebrate the seventy-fifth (75) anniversaries of WWII dates, this interest will grow.
The coming ten years will feature the final anniversaries where a reasonable number of WWII veterans are still alive and will be involved.
It is reasonable to expect continued interest in historical fiction dealing with World War II on both the battlefront and home front.
B. Speaking platform
In 2010 I spoke to over one hundred groups. These included writing conferences, libraries, schools, civic clubs, church groups, and book clubs. It has been extremely rewarding to share, make friends, and earn new readers.
C. Competitive Titles
Canteen Dreams Cara Putman Heartsong 2008
Dawn of a Thousand Nights Trisha Goyer Moody 2005
Blue Skies Tomorrow Sarah Sundin Revell 2011
Touch the Face of God Robert Vaughn Thomas Nelson 2002
The Unfinished Gift Dan Walsh Revell
War and Remembrance Herman Wouk (latest release: Time Warner) Still selling.
The Rising Tide: A Novel of WWII Jeff Shaara Ballantine 2008
A Night of Flames Douglas W. Jacobson McBooks Press 2007
D. The Readership
“The average Christian historical fiction reader is a 42 year old woman.”
(“Communication from CODES.” Reference and User Services Quarterly 42.1 (2002): 95.)
Through study of my reader database (over 2000 names) the primary audience from my previous eight books are women ages 25-75.
I’m proud of the popularity of my novels among both young adults and men. I consider this my secondary audience. Being a male in a female-dominated field is a challenge I both recognize and embrace.
III. The Author
- A. Background
You can go home again . . . Curt Iles is a native of the piney woods of western Louisiana where his family has resided for eight generations. After completing college, he returned to his hometown of Dry Creek as a teacher/coach and later a school principal.
Leaving his educational career, Curt became manager of Dry Creek Baptist Camp, a year-round youth camp in his hometown. This is where he was hired for his first job at age thirteen.
It was his privilege to lead this camp through an exciting time as God blessed through rapid growth and visionary expansion. In 2006, after fourteen years as leader, he made the jump to full time speaking and writing through Creekbank Stories.
He and his wife of thirty-two years, DeDe, are parents of three sons and five grandchildren. DeDe is an elementary teacher and they both serve in their local church and many community activities.
. . . It’s still okay to leave home
In spite of Curt’s deep Louisiana roots, he has an incurable case of wanderlust. This has led to hiking adventures throughout America and repeated mission trips to Asia, Central America, and his second home, the African continent.
Curt feels blessed to live and write in an era where one can live in their rural hometown and still be connected to the world through the internet and other modern conveniences.
1. A teachable spirit. My goal is to be the best writer possible so my words can influence and impact my world. I’m excited about the opportunity to be in a learning relationship with a publishing editor.
As evidence of my growth, I’m a finalist in this year’s ACFW Genesis Historical Fiction category and other awards, including an IPPY Award for my second novel, A Good Place.
I plan to be enrolled in this fall’s Christian Writers Guild “Craftsman” with my mentor, Diann Mills.
2. Platform, Platform, Platform: For the past three years I’ve averaged over one hundred speeches yearly. It’s what I do, I enjoy it, and it sells books. I have recently contracted with Christian Speakers Bureau (agent Karen Power of Dallas, TX).
3. A track record of working and finishing deadlines: My ninth self-published book has recently been released. I have a history of starting and finishing projects and meeting deadlines.
4. A Marketing Bias: I understand that effective marketing is my responsibility and strive daily to make use of every promotional tool available. I actually enjoy the marketing phase of writing full-time.
I make full use of spreading my Creekbank Stories brand through internet opportunities including social media, blogging, and newsletters.
Learn more at http://www.creekbank.net blog and website
Facebook home and fan page
Amazon Author Central www. Iowmh[iowm
5. Storytelling I’m from a Deep Southern culture of storytellers and adhere to Franz Kafka’s mantra, “Stories stab us in the heart so we can then be healed by them.” Both my speaking and writing have taught me that people of all ages and backgrounds respond to a well-told story.
6. I live by six words that focus my life as well as my writing:
Passion– I attempt to live the passion-filled life.
Balance– I’m learning the importance of moderation in all things.
Influence and Impact– the foundation of why I write.
Integrity– I always strive to be truthful and responsible in every way.
Gratitude– “Lord, you’ve given me so much. Give me one more
thing: gratitude. ”
My life verse is Matthew 6:33: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you.”
- IV. PREVIOUS WRITING
Because I felt I possessed stories that “must be told” I chose to publish independently. Initially (2000) it wasn’t cool to self-publish but I chose to learn how to do it right, setting up my own company, Creekbank Stories LLC. Through assembling a team of editors and graphic designers, I’ve learned a great deal about producing a quality highly readable book. Because of my speaking platform and carefully building a strong readership, I’ve been fortunate to have a steady sales ready.
One of my priorities in developing a working relationship with a traditional publisher is distribution. No matter how hard and creative the independent author is, he or she is limited by distribution, resources, and geography.
A. Catalog of titles: Previous Sales Totals
Title Year Genre Current sales Publisher Details
|Deep Roots||2010||Non-fiction short stories||1500||Creekbank/
|A Good Place||2009||Historical Fiction||3700||Creekbank/
|IPPY award winner|
|The Mockingbird’s Song||2007||Inspirational Self-Help||1500||Creekbank||Overcom-ing Depression|
|Hearts across the Water||2006||Non-fiction
|Wind in the Pines||2004||Non-fiction
|Stories from the Creekbank*||2000||Non-fiction
Cumulative sales of previous eight (8) independently published books of 25,000 copies.
*Initial print runs of first two books with Winepress and Authorhouse (formerly First Library). Subsequent editions were published through my local source, Wise Printing under the Creekbank Stories logo.
Most recent books have been printed through Lightning Source/Ingram.
B. Personal Marketing
Relationships In each of my careers, I’ve believed that relationships are what determine success . . . or failure.
This is equally true in writing and speaking. Simple things such as courtesy, integrity, gratitude, and promptness build relationships and relationships lead to more opportunities for friendship and readership. This is true for face to face relationships (speaking), social media, and “friends through reading.”
Here is an example from this week. Being a hurricane survivor, the recent northeastern U.S. flooding touched me. I heard a report on NPR about a rural library that lost all of its books. We sent a complete collection of our Creekbank books to this library.
Will this lead to book sales in that area? Maybe and probably.
We did it because it was the right thing to do. My writing goal is influence and impact. I seek to entertain, educate, and encourage. I believe the eight books sent to Wills Memorial Library in Upper Jane, NY will accomplish all of that and more.
V. SAMPLE CHAPTERS 1-3
A Spent Bullet
The Battle for the Bullet
“I want the mistakes made down in Louisiana, not over in Europe.
If it doesn’t work, find out what we need to make it work.”
– General George C. Marshall
Chief of Staff, U.S. Army
“Monday I go to Louisiana . . . The old-timers say we are going to a God-awful spot complete with mud, malaria, mosquitoes, and misery.”
– Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower
August 5, 1941
“How unhappy is he who cannot forgive himself.” – Publilius Syrus
Wednesday, August 13, 1941
Elizabeth Reed had only met one soldier she liked, and he had wounded her deeply. So when the blond G.I. tossed the bullet, she didn’t flinch even as it landed at her feet.
The soldier leaned out of a crowded Army truck. “You’re beautiful. Write me.” He pointed at her feet. “The bullet—write me.” The empty cartridge had a note folded inside. The bullet-tossing practice was called “yoo-hooing” and was an attempt to get the attention—and addresses—of local girls.
A loud wolf whistle from the truck grated on her like fingernails across the slate board in her classroom. The same soldier called out, “I’d love a kiss from a pretty Southern girl like you.”
Elizabeth coolly nodded at a large matronly woman near her. “Are you talking to me or her?” The troop truck exploded in laughter. She fanned away the dust. “Soldiers. They’re all the same.” Traffic began moving and the smoking truck rattled across the railroad tracks. Her ten-year-old brother Ben, behind her, had missed the tossed bullet. He spied it just as Elizabeth drew her foot back to kick it. “What’s that?”
“A soldier threw it. It’s a note stuck in an empty cartridge.” As he knelt, she pulled him away. “Leave it alone. It might blow up.”
“Lizzie, you’re playing with me.” He bounced on his toes at the three-o’clock train’s whistle. “They’re here.”
Yelling from the convoy’s last truck replaced the whistle. Elizabeth clamped her hands over Ben’s ears. “Sometimes what they say isn’t for fresh ears.”
He twisted loose. “My ears ain’t fresh.”
“Benjamin Franklin Reed, you’re impossible. It’s aren’t—not ain’t.”
“Well, either way, my ears ain’t fresh.”
A soldier yelled from the truck, “Is this Detroit?”
“Nope, this is DeRidder, Louisianer.” Ben had always been allergic to silence.
Elizabeth bent down. “We live in Louisiana, not Louisianer.”
“Ain’t that what I said?” His face was pinched. “Is this how you’ll be treating me in your classroom?”
Grabbing him in a playful headlock, she goosed him until he said, “Uncle.” Elizabeth looked up at a tall grinning soldier. “I’ll wrassle you next if you’re through with him,” he said in a rich west-Texas drawl.
She felt her face flushing. “I believe I could whip you too.” She grabbed Ben’s hand. “Come on. Our train’s here.”
“Where are y’all going?” Texas said.
She cringed when Ben said, “We’re here to pick up some chicks.”
The soldier laughed. “Well, count me in.”
Elizabeth pulled on Ben’s shirtsleeve. “Let’s go before the train leaves.”
He knelt on the sidewalk. “But what about the bullet?”
“Leave it.” He was slowly rolling the cuff of his overalls. “Come on Ben. A dollar’s waiting on a dime.”
He scampered forward. “Poppa says that there are three things a soldier likes best: dogs, kids, and pretty girls.”
“In that order?”
“Well Ben, which one are you?”
“I’m not a dog or a pretty girl, so I guess I fit in as a ‘kid.’” He squeezed her hand. “And if I eyed those soldiers right, you definitely fit the ‘pretty girl’ part.”
“You think so?” She hurried on ahead.
Ben stepped in front of her. “Lizzie, are you mad at me?”
She froze. “Why would I be mad at you? I love you like a son.” She licked her fingers, trying to tame the unruly cowlick in his dark hair.
“But I’m your brother, not your son.”
“You’re ten years younger than me, so I guess you’re kind of both.”
“You seem mad at someone. Is it those soldiers?”
She drew in a long breath. “I’m not mad at them . . . just tired of them.”
“Is it ’cause they’re men?”
“Who’s been talking to you?”
“Well, Peg said . . . some soldier hurt you.”
“Is that so?”
“She claimed being your twin lets her see into your heart—says you got wounded by a soldier—said you were eligible for a Purple Heart.”
Her jaw tightened. “Maybe a broken heart, but not a purple one.” She looked around. “Peg said she’d meet us here before the train arrived.” As they neared the depot, she rubbed Ben’s ear. “Watch for those army trucks.” He was digging in his pocket, so she repeated, “Watch for those trucks.”
Her twin sister Peg’s words hung like the dust in the air. Hurt by a soldier. Wounded. Elizabeth heard her own voice bouncing in her soul. It’s your own fault. You don’t have anyone to blame but yourself.
She bit her lip. It would not happen again.
CLOSE VOTE EXTENDS SERVICE TERM FOR THOUSANDS OF SOLDIERS
(Washington) By a vote of 203-202 yesterday, Congress removed restrictions pertaining to federalized National Guard units. This close vote means National Guard soldiers will have their terms extended and may be moved to locations outside the United States.
Private Harry Miller had never hated a place like he hated Louisiana. As his National Guard convoy reached the end of the paved road outside DeRidder’s city limits, he braced himself for the teeth-jarring washboard road. Through the chalky red dust covering them, Harry scanned the bleak cutover landscape. His tent mate, Shorty, leaned over. “Cheer up, Louisiana’s not really the end of the world—but you can see it from here.”
Harry wiped his face with a grimy bandana. “The only thing worse than your Louisiana mud is your Louisiana dust.”
Shorty—Private Lester Johnson—grinned. “And the only thing that can trump either one is this Louisiana August humidity.”
“At least it’s consistent,” Harry said.
“Yep, consistently miserable.”
Harry spat. “We don’t call it ‘Lousy-anna’ for nothing.”
“How many more days before you leave Louisiana?”
“In seventy-two days . . . ”—Harry glanced at his watch— “twelve hours and about thirty-seven minutes.” The truck turned off into a bone-shaking side road. He stood and scanned the stump-covered field filled with hundreds of tents. “Reminds me of one of those military graveyards with row after row of headstones.”
Shorty nodded. “Looks like they already had a war here, and the trees lost.”
Harry wiped his face with his slouch hat. “This place even feels like a graveyard.”
“That’s why we call this part of Louisiana, ‘No Man’s Land.’”
“It was a neutral strip between Spanish and French territories. It became a hideout for outlaws and anyone else that didn’t want to be told what to do.”
“Folks like your family?”
“Exactly. My family got run out of Alabama, and have been here ever since.”
“You sound proud of it.”
“I’m proud of my No-Man’s-Land-Outlaw-Strip roots.”
Harry surveyed the barren stump-covered fields. “Looks to me like it’s still ‘No Man’s Land.’”
“You hate the Army, don’t you?”
“Probably more than any of the half-million soldiers playing war out here. The only thing that keeps me going is that if I wasn’t here, I’d be in a Wisconsin prison.” The truck jerked to an abrupt halt and a dusty cloud settled over them as the convoy turned east. An enterprising boy was selling newspapers, and one of the soldiers bought a copy of the day’s Lake Charles American Press. Harry’s unit, Company K, comprised of mostly National Guard soldiers from Michigan and Wisconsin, kept a constant betting pool going about whether the Detroit Tigers or Cubs would finish lower in their respective leagues. As the soldiers tore into the sports page, the front section fell to the floor. A soldier retrieved it and began reading out the headlines. The word “extension” caught Harry’s attention.
The reader cursed. “It says here our time is being extended.” Harry tore the paper from the soldier’s hand. There it was in bold headlines: CLOSE VOTE EXTENDS SERVICE TERM FOR THOUSANDS . . . . The convoy began moving as nausea swept over Harry. His worst fears were being confirmed—he was stuck in the Army, and that meant being stuck in Louisiana. This was its own prison sentence. His Army service had gone from days to maybe years. Another soldier, who’d also been counting the days, sarcastically called out their National Guard unit’s motto, “We’ll be back in a year.”
The cussing and bellyaching continued until the trucks pulled into a cutover area that appeared to be their field camp. A soldier whispered, “Here comes trouble,” as Company Sergeant Kickland came around a tent.
A.L. “Red” Kickland, known simply as “Sarge,” loved showing off his stripes. His favorite whipping boy was Harry, who provided plenty of opportunities to serve as a target.
Sarge was short with cropped red hair and a ruddy complexion from which he got his nickname. When he was mad—which seemed most of the time—his face turned crimson. The hot Louisiana sun had further deepened his cooked lobster look. A veteran of the Great War, he prided himself on riding the young soldier whom he considered “soft.” He was loathed by most of the men in Company K.
He stepped to the truck’s tailgate and barked in his raspy voice, “All right, boys, let’s unload.” A blue bandana was pulled over his face for the dust. He lowered his mask. “Welcome to your new home—downtown Fulton, Louisiana.”
Harry grimaced as he jumped down, causing Shorty to say, “That leg still bothering you?”
“Three straight days of twenty-mile marches will do it.” Harry grunted as he hefted his pack. “Especially with sixty extra pounds.”
A new Company K soldier said, “Where’re the hot showers, Sarge?” Harry immediately recognized the accent as from one of New York City’s boroughs.
“Do I look—or smell—like there are any showers around here? This ain’t your Waldorf-Astoria. This is bivouacking at its best.” Sarge’s face flushed.
“Or worst,” Shorty muttered.
The New York private, a skinny Jew named Cohen, jumped to the ground. “Chiggers, we have arrived.” The other soldiers laughed—most had already experienced Louisiana chiggers firsthand.
“Soldier, they call chiggers ‘redbugs’ down here,” Sarge said, “and when they set up housekeeping in your drawers you’ll understand why.”
A veteran of nearly a year in Louisiana added, “New York, you wait ‘til those ticks and mosquitoes start maneuvers on you. You’ll be wishing they were redbugs.”
Harry didn’t see Sarge coming up behind him until Shorty whispered, “Harry, get rid of your gum.” He spit it out before snapping to attention. Sarge hated gum chewing while on duty and could spot a wad from fifty paces. “Miller, what’d you just spit out?”
Sarge walked to the offending wad in a sawdust pile at the base of a climbing wall. “Get down there and pick it up.”
Harry stood over the spot.
“Pick it up with your mouth. That’s where it came from.” Harry glanced at Sarge who stood, arms crossed, feet apart. “You heard me.” Harry scanned the small cluster of Company K men but everyone avoided eye contact. He started to argue, but knew better. He knelt down, put his face in the gritty sawdust, feeling his face redden as he blinked back tears. Being humiliated like this was more than he could take. “Go over in the bushes and spit it out and don’t be spitting gum where we’re walking.” Harry walked slowly over and spit it out and cleaned the sawdust from his mouth.
All the men had left except for Shorty. “Sorry. That was pretty bad.”
Harry glared at the back of the retreating sergeant. “One of these days I’m going to get even with him. I’m going to kill the sorry . . . .” A honking jeep approached from which a driver threw out two sacks of mail. “Mail for Company K.” As soldiers came running, Harry walked away.
“Wait around,” Shorty said. “You might get some mail.”
“None’s coming for me.” Harry had only received two pieces of mail in the past three months, and neither had been pleasant. The first was a letter, which he could still quote word for word:
I’ve thought long and hard of how to do this, and there’s no easy way. I’m breaking off our engagement. The truth of the matter is that I’ve fallen in love with John—John Talbert.
I don’t know how this happened, but it did. I hope you’ll understand.
Even now, three months later, he couldn’t believe he’d lost his fiancée to the man who’d been his best friend. A month after the Dear John letter, Harry had received a second piece of mail—a small box containing the ring he’d given Helen. No note. No apology. Just the ring.
Still spitting dirt, he sat under a scraggly oak reliving those two painful pieces of mail. The bitterness in his mouth was from more than just sawdust. Shorty walked by. “I got blanked today on mail.” He pulled an object out of his pocket and tossed it to him. “Speaking of blanks, did you know what the guys in the truck behind us were doing earlier?”
Harry held up the .30 caliber cartridge thrown to him. Shorty hesitated. “They were ‘yoo-hooing. Throwing out spent casings with notes inside.”
“That’s against regulations.”
“They were doing it anyway.”
“That’s a good way to get their tail in a crack.”
“You’re right—if the shells contained their names.”
“What do you mean?”
“They were doing it as a joke with other soldier’s names—mainly yours.”
He felt his eye twitching. “What?”
“Yep. Shep threw out a bunch with your name.”
“I am going to knock that blond-headed rascal’s head off!”
Shorty slapped at a cloud of swarming mosquitoes. “Looks like rain.”
“Then it’ll be hot, miserable, and muddy, instead of dusty.”
“Pick your poison, partner.”
Harry spat. “My only comfort was that in seventy-two days, my time was up. Now it’s extended. Just my luck. Extended.” Harry walked to a nearby pile of dried cow manure. As he kicked it, pieces of dried manure flew. The inside was soft and a disgusting green glob stuck to the end of his combat boot. Shorty smirked. “Clean that off before you come into our tent.”
“I hate this God-forsaken place,” Harry said. Deep down inside, he knew something: it wasn’t this place—or even the Army—that made him unhappy. Neither was to blame for his being stuck in the Louisiana Maneuvers.
That responsibility rested on Harry Miller. He had no one to blame but himself.
A Bird Nest
Elizabeth pulled Ben toward the train depot as he protested. “Lizzie, don’t pull on me like a goat at the sale barn.” She had him by the overall strap. “You’re gonna smothercate me.”
She rolled her eyes, trying not to laugh. “Ben, that’s not a real word.”
“Smothercate? Ma uses it.”
“Well, just because . . . ” They passed a wall of soldiers crowded around the depot entrance. Safely out of earshot, Ben tapped her arm. “Sister, what’s a ‘real hooker’?”
“Ben Reed. Where’d you hear that?”
“One of those soldiers pointed at you. ‘There’s a real hooker.’”
“Is that what he said?”
“It sounded like it.”
“Could it have been . . . uh . . . ‘a real looker’?”
“I thought he said ‘hooker.’”
Elizabeth tousled his hair. “Ben, a ‘real looker’ is, uh, a good-looking woman.”
She laughed. “I don’t know about that. But a hooker? It’s a bad name for a bad girl. It’s not what you want your sister called.”
“You want me to go back and whup him?”
“No, we’ll let him go this time, but thanks anyway.” She hugged him. The little rascal was her favorite person in the world.
Ben stopped in front of the uniformed men piling off the train. “Where are they coming from?”
“From furloughs up north or arriving for new assignments here.”
A skinny soldier bumped into her. “I’m so sorry, Miss.” He removed his cap, but his smirk remained. “Where are you going?”
“As far away from you as possible.”
The soldier turned to Ben. “Here to meet someone, little man?”
“Nope, we’re here to get something.”
Elizabeth coughed. “Let’s get to the freight landing.”
“Do you see our crate, Sister?”
Ben dug into the middle of the stacked boxes. “I hear them but can’t see them.” Elizabeth moved to the chirping crate. He pulled on her dress. “Are they still alive?”
She peered through the slats. “Looks like they are.” Suddenly, someone grabbed her from behind, loudly crowing in her ear. It couldn’t be anyone but her sister, Peg.
“We about gave up on you.” Elizabeth eyed her carefully. “I figured you were flirting with some soldier.”
“What do you mean soldier? I was flirting with an entire platoon. You ought to try it sometimes.”
Ben interrupted them, holding up the crate. “Did they really come all the way from Arkansas?”
Elizabeth peered through the slats at the chirping baby chicks. “All the way from DeQueen, Arkansas.”
Ben stooped to see. “From DeQueen to DeRidder.”
The chirping biddies attracted plenty of attention in the depot, causing her to walk faster. The same tall soldier blocked her path. “So you’re a chicken farmer?”
“Well, if I am, you’re not my kind of rooster. Goodbye and good day.”
The soldier raised his hands in mock horror as Ben, fists balled, stepped between them. “Fellow, I believe you could wart the horns off a brass billy goat. Leave my sister be.”
The soldier turned toward Peg. “And who’s this pretty country girl with you?”
Ben stood his ground. “She’s her twin sister and you can leave both of them alone.”
“They sure don’t look like twins.”
“They’re that other kind of twin.” He scratched his head. “Ma—that’s my grandma—says those kind of twins come from—” Both sisters grabbed at him as Peg said, “Ben Reed, Momma said she was going to beat you into next week if she heard you say that again.”
Elizabeth hurried her little brother out of the depot back to their street corner, set the crate down, and pulled out two nickels. “Would you like a Coke and snack?”
He punched the air with a fist. “Can I get something now?”
“We’ll watch the biddies until you get back.”
Peg watched him run off. “I love people’s faces when they find out we’re twins.” She touched Elizabeth’s arm. “You and your dark hair and skin and me with enough freckles to cover the moon.”
“You’re just fine like you are.” Elizabeth mushed her sister’s strawberry blonde hair. “Even if you do look like you just got off the boat from Dublin.”
“I’m not the one the guys look at—you are,” Peg said. “It’s those dark mysterious eyes and your olive complexion, Squaw.”
Elizabeth shot back. “Mick.”
The war of words continued until a jeep driver honked his horn and yelled, “Hey, kid, get out of the road.” Elizabeth spun to see the jeep stopped in front of Ben, who was contentedly holding his Coca-Cola and bag of shelled peanuts. The driver motioned him to the sidewalk. “Son, you’re gonna get run over.” He turned to Elizabeth. “Ma’am, you’d better watch your—”
“He’s my brother.”
“Well, you’d better watch your brother.” He winked at Peg and peered at the crate. “Got some new biddies?”
Ben walked to the jeep, which had 1931 painted boldly on its hood. “How’d you know we had biddies?”
“First of all, I can read. ‘Baby Chicks. Handle with Care.’ Besides, I was raised on a farm in Moline, Illinois.”
Ben clapped his hands. “Moline? John Deere country.”
“Home of the world’s best tractors.”
“Hey, your jeep number—1931—is the year I was born.”
“No joke. I guess that makes you, uh, about ten years old.”
Another jeep honked. “Come on, Lawrence. Get moving.”
The driver saluted Ben. “Gotta go. Stay off the road and take care of your biddies.” He looked past Elizabeth at Peg. “I hope to see you around.”
Ben waved. “See you later.”
“You might if you stay off the road.” The driver winked. “You’d better keep an eye on him.” He expertly gunned Jeep 1931 between two large trucks in the convoy and sped off.
Elizabeth turned to her sister. “You were the one he noticed, not me. Did you know him?”
“I haven’t the slightest.”
“The slightest what? You can’t end a sentence with an adjective.”
“I can if I want to.” Peg pursed her lips. “Slightest, slightest, slightest.”
Elizabeth nodded at the disappearing jeep. “He noticed you.”
“Well, even a blind hog will find an acorn every blue moon or so,” Peg called over her shoulder. “I’m going to do some shopping at Morgan and Lindsey.”
Ben, washing the peanuts down with a big swig of Coke, said to Elizabeth, “You know, you’re my hero.”
“Because I bought you a Coke and peanuts?”
“No, ‘cause you take good care of me.”
She hugged him. “Ben, promise me that you’ll watch for traffic.”
“You stay here and guard the chicks while I’m at the post office.” She hurried to the postal building where she’d recently opened a box for her private correspondence. Slipping her key into the box, she pulled out two letters, scanning their return addresses. The first one was in a small envelope with no forwarding address. She ripped it open and read in Dora’s familiar script.
August 10, 1941
As promised, I’m reporting to you on Bradley. I saw him last week at church, and he looks truly happy.
Also, I’ve told no one. You can trust me.
Her hand trembled as she re-read it. Bradley. Happy. She glanced around the post office hoping no one saw her tears. She wiped her eyes and read the legal-size envelope, stopping at the typed return address:
Caddo Parish School Board
Ripping open the envelope, she read the first paragraph:
We are pleased to offer you a job as an elementary teacher at Byrd Elementary School for the coming year of 1941–42. A contract is enclosed for your signature.
She dropped both letters and clutched her stomach. What I’ve dreamed of is in reach. A new life one hundred fifty miles north . . . but why do I feel like . . . like it’s a poor decision? What’s wrong with me? I always have to make everything so complicated.
“Miss, Miss—you dropped your letter.” An older woman handed her the letters. “Are you all right? Bad news?”
“No, Ma’am. It’s great news.” She gathered the letters. “Great news.” Elizabeth hurried out of the post office. A great pay raise, in the city where she’d always longed to be. Where her heart was. Bradley. Why did such good news sadden her?
She hurried to the Beauregard Parish School Board Office. School was slated to begin in two weeks. A rumor had been circulating that opening might be delayed due to the Army Maneuvers. She entered the building and found a secretary. “I’m checking about the start of school.”
“You haven’t heard? The Board met last night and postponed school until the first Monday in October.”
“That’s official?” Elizabeth felt her heart quicken. The Caddo Parish letter in her pocket seemed to be calling her name.
The secretary nodded. “It sure is. Soldiers are camped on school grounds, and it’d be dangerous running buses among the military traffic.”
“First Monday in October?”
She glanced at her desk calendar. “Looks like October 6 to me.”
“Will we still get paid?”
“Teachers will, but support personnel won’t.”
Elizabeth frowned. Her father’s school bus route supplemented his work at the sawmill. A month without bus pay would knock their family for a loop. She hurried out in a daze, quickly forgetting about Poppa’s bus salary. She had a difficult decision to make. Lord, help me know what to do.
She hurried to the street corner, slipping behind Ben who was counting a column of passing cavalrymen. “Thirty, thirty-one—I’m gonna ride one of those horses even if it harelips the pope.”
“Ben, don’t talk like that.”
He spun around in surprise. “I about gave up on you.” He hooked his thumbs in his overalls. “A dollar waiting on a dime.”
As the last mounted soldier saluted, Ben jerked his hand out of his pocket to return the salute. As he did, his harmonica clattered to the sidewalk, but that wasn’t what caught Elizabeth’s attention. It was the five-dollar bill that fluttered beside it. She scooped up the bill, waving it in front of his face. “Benjamin Franklin Reed, where’d you get this?”
“I found a bird nest on the ground.”
“You what?” She knelt in front of him. “Is there more?”
“Not a five, but I got a whole pocket full of ones.”
“Show me.” He emptied both pockets plus the snap on his bib overalls, piling the crumpled-up dollars and coins on the sidewalk. She stammered, “Who’d you take that from?”
“I didn’t take it. It came from selling them cokes.”
“I sold the coke you bought me to a thirsty soldier for a whole dollar. Then I bought some more and sold them to the convoys.” He pointed at the small mountain of wadded bills. “That’s how I got it.”
“You sold nickel cokes for a dollar each?”
“Yep, and they were as happy to get ’em as I was to sell ’em.” He stepped back as if he knew what was coming. “Uh-oh. Looks like something’s rotten in Denmark.”
“Now, listen here, Shakespeare—selling a coke for a dollar. That’s—why, that’s highway robbery.”
Ben looked back toward the street corner. “Lizzie, it wasn’t highway robbery. It was right here on First Street.” He stood proudly. “Yep, I found me a bird nest on the ground. Right here in D’Ridder, Louisianer.”
Elizabeth wasn’t sure if she should spank him now or wait until they got home. “How’d you get a five-dollar bill?”
“A truckload of soldiers gave it for a whole case of Cokes.” He shuffled his feet. “When I got back, they were gone, so I sold them to the next truck.” He watched her scoop up the money. “It’s enough money to burn a wet dog, ain’t it?”
“That’s more money than your daddy makes in a week at the sawmill.” She gritted her teeth. “Momma’s going to burn your wet dog when we get home.”
He shrugged. “Sounds like something’s rotten in . . . DeRidder.” Elizabeth groaned. Sometimes he was more than she could handle. It was going to be a long school year . . . if she stayed. Elizabeth stuffed the money into her purse, feeling for the two letters. It would be a difficult decision, but Shreveport was her bird nest on the ground. This was what she’d dreamed of—living in a city away from the difficulties of rural life. She’d prayed for this opportunity.
Why then did she feel so reluctant about going?