From the book
Mockjack Bay, Virginia April 1854
Hunter Calhoun started drinking early that day. Yet the sweet fire of the clear, sharp whiskey failed to bring on the oblivion he thirsted for. Lord above, he needed that blurred, blissful state. Needed to feel nothing for a while. Because what he felt was a lot worse than nothing.
Gazing out a window at the sluggish, glass-still waters of the bay, he noticed that the buoy was sinking and a few more planks had rotted off the dock. The plantation had no proper harbor but a decent anchorage--not that it mattered now.
"That poor Hunter Calhoun," folks called him when they thought he was too drunk to notice. They always spoke of him with a mixture of pity and relief--pity, that the misfortune had happened to him, and relief, that it had not happened to them. In general, women thought it romantic and tragic that he'd lost his wife in such a spectacular fashion; the men were slightly disdainful and superior--they'd never let that sort of disaster befall their womenfolk.
Calhoun glared down into his whiskey glass, willing the amber liquid to numb him before he talked himself out of what he knew he must do. He experienced a strange, whimsical fantasy: the whiskey was a pool he could dive into, headfirst. If the ocean was whiskey and I was a duck, I'd swim to the bottom and never come up.
A sound of disgust from the adjoining room alerted him that he'd sung the lines of the old ditty aloud.
"Don't go clucking your tongue at me, Miz Nancy," he called out. "I can sing. A man has every right to sing in his own house."
"Humph. You call that singing? I thought the neighbors' hounds just treed a coon." The gentle clack of her knitting needles punctuated the statement.
He finished his drink with a long swig, and oh-so-silently set his glass on the age-scarred sideboard.
"Don't matter how quiet you try to be," Nancy called.
"I know you been at the spirits." A moment later she stepped through the open pocket doors and came into the shabby parlor, her cane tapping along the floor until it encountered the threadbare carpet. Her African face, wizened by years she had never learned to count, held equal measures of patience and exasperation. Her eyes, clouded with blindness, seemed to peer into a deeper part of him even he didn't see. Nancy had the uncanny ability to track his progress through a room, or worse, to track his very thoughts sometimes.
"Humph," she said again, this time with a self-righteous snort. "How you going to shoot a gun if you all full up with Jim Hooker's whiskey?"
Hunter gave a humorless laugh, poured another drink and gulped it down. She was the only person he knew who could actually hear a man drinking. "Drunk or sober, Nancy, have you ever known me to miss a target?"
Setting his empty glass on the smoke-stained mantel, he said, "Excuse me. I've got something I have to do." He paused to fill his silver hip flask with more whiskey. Nancy waited in silence, but he felt the cold bluster of her temper as if she'd scolded him aloud.
It was too much to hope she wouldn't follow him. He could hear the busy tap-tap of her cane as she shuffled along behind him, down the central hall toward the back of the big house. In his parents' day, the gun room had been a hive of activity on hunt mornings, when neighbors from all over Northampton County came to call. Now the room contained only the most necessary of firearms--a Le Mats revolver, a percussion shotgun and aWinchester repeating rifle. He went to the gun cabinet and took down the Winchester, cocking open...