"Kings of Liberty" was written in response to a Reedsy writing prompt.
Prompt: Write a story about a summer afternoon spent in a treehouse.
It had been a brutally hot summer, even for Kentucky, so the afternoon shower was more than welcome. It was the ominous, silvery-gray sky that gave Hank pause. It was a three-mile trek on the dirt road back to his family’s livestock farm, or a half-mile saunter across MacGillan’s field. At the rate the storm clouds were traveling from the West, Hank opted for a jaunt through the buckwheat. MacGillan only planted it for cover, anyway; he had no intention of harvesting it. He’d just till it over once it blossomed to ready the soil for the next cotton season.
The buckwheat stems bent with each of Hank’s steps, the tightly closed buds merely a promise of the white flower tucked inside. With a solid crack of thunder, the drizzle turned torrential, and Hank hotfooted it over to the towering black oak tucked into the corner of the lot. The pine-board treehouse, which was sturdy and secure when he and the gang nailed it into place all those years ago, now looked shoddy and rickety. Regardless, it was cover until the storm passed.
The steps were simple two-by-fours nailed into the trunk of the mighty oak, rust streaking down the front from the nail heads like tear drops. Hank instinctively passed right over the third step which was always the weak one, even way back when.
The sky lit up with a bolt of lightning, and Hank recoiled as the thunderous boom followed closely behind. He nearly fell backward as he poked his head inside to find the treehouse otherwise occupied.
“Well, Jiminy Christmas,” Hank said. “You nearly made my ticker stop tickin’.”
“Hank?’ The confused response came from a young man named Denny, eighteen years old, the same as Hank, and huddled into the corner of the rectangular floorboard. “What brings you ‘round these parts?”
“Oh, I was just fixin’ to get back home. It’s blowin’ up a storm out there. Figured I’d wait it out,” Hank explained. “Didn’t know you still came up here.”
“Yeah, well, feelin’ a bit of the nostalgia, I ‘spose. Come on up. Just steer clear of the wet spots.” Denny gestured upward toward various leaks in the roof.
“I’ll take a few drips in here over what’s goin’ on out there any day.” Hank laughed and shook his head, his memory drifting back in time. “This here roof leaked even when we first nailed it in. ‘Member how we snatched Old Man Henderson’s tin scraps to build this roof?”
“Oh, yeah,” Denny chuckled. “He was madder than a wet hen. Thought he’d chase us straight outta Liberty.”
Hank’s eyes traced the knotty pine planks, warped after years of storms, wind, and scorching heat. The rain pattered on the tin roof, almost like a symphony. It rusted around the edges where the tin wore off and exposed the rolled steel underneath. Hank couldn’t help but smile. He thought it gave the place some character.
In the corner of the treehouse was an old Cavendish tobacco tin, but the years of corrosion made it nearly unidentifiable. Hank brushed some dirt and cobwebs from the top and forced it open. Inside was a worn deck of playing cards, a pair of dice, and a set of jacks. “Wow,” Hank said as he fanned the cards out in his right hand. “Me, you, Mikey, and Little John used to play cards up here for hours.”
“Feels like a lifetime ago,” Denny replied, but a somberness overshadowed the nostalgia. “You heard about Little John, I reckon.”
“Yup, sure did,” Hank said as he hung his head down toward the tin, studying the faded black spots on the dice. “His maw got the telegram just last week.” He mindlessly shuffled through the playing cards. “You heard anythin’ ‘bout Mikey?”
Denny just shook his head.
Hank pulled four cards from the deck. “Remember what we used to call ourselves?”
“The Kings of Liberty!” Denny said proudly with a smirk.
Hank tossed four Kings—one of each suit—on the floor in front of Denny. “Damn straight!” He laughed. “We used to sit up here like this treehouse was our castle. Reckoned we could see all of Liberty from up here.”
“Hell, maybe all of Casey County,” Denny added.
As the storm clouds let out another rumble, Hank glanced out through the open square in the wall that passed for a window. “Don’t look like the storm’s fixin’ to blow away any time soon. How’s about a game of Rummy for old time’s sake?”
“I ain’t sure we got all fifty-two there.”
“Eh, close enough.” Hank dealt the cards as Denny grabbed his and rearranged them in his hand.
Denny tossed down a pair of deuces. Hank placed down a pair of Jacks.
A rush of memory hit Denny, forcing a laugh through his thin, freckled lips. “Hey, you ‘member that game of Poker you lost to Mikey?”
“Ugh, how could I forget?” Hank sounded exacerbated. “We was playin’ to see who got to ask Mindy Martin for a dance over at Old Man Guthrie’s barn raisin’, and I lost bad.”
“Yeah, well as I recall, Mikey struck out somethin’ awful anyways. Good ole Mindy put him right in his place.”
“Yup,” Hank said. “I heard she dragged some lucky fool back behind that barn, though.”
“Sure did,” Denny said with a grin. “She tasted like mulled cider and a little dash of heaven.”
“What? You dirty dog,” Hank said. “You know I always had eyes for Mindy.”
“Yeah, well, that night she had eyes for me,” Denny said, and he slapped down a pair of Aces.
“Sum’bitch,” Hank said, shaking his head.
“You know,” Denny said, suddenly becoming serious. “I’m shipping out tomorrow morning.”
Hank froze for a moment before he continued shuffling his cards around. He was hoping the conversation wouldn’t go there. “Yeah, I heard. Nashville?”
Hank just grunted. “I’m startin’ up next week.”
“Right,” Denny said. “Up North.”
“Yup, just ‘cross the border there into Ohio.”
They continued to play their game in silence, trying to digest the reality of what lay ahead for them.
“Don’t reckon I could get you to change your mind?” Hank asked, breaking the silence. It was a conversation they had had many times before, but it always proved futile.
“You know my paw,” Denny said. “I come and fight up North and he’ll hang me hisself. Right from this here tree.”
“How’s about what you think, Denny? Ain’t you never asked yourself that? You can’t really agree with Jefferson Davis and all that Dixie mumbo jumbo.”
“What I think? I don’t reckon it matters a whole lot what I think,” Denny said. “I’m shippin’ outta here tomorrow any which way.”
“It matters to me what you think.”
“Kentucky ain’t gonna stay neutral forever, that’s what I think,” Denny said. “We all gotta pick a side.”
“Well, I ‘spose you picked yours,” Hank said, slapping down a pair of tens.
After a painfully awkward silence, Denny spoke up. “Little John went up North, just like you’s goin’. Look what happened to him. Don’t you want to be on a winnin’ side?”
“Ain’t no winners in this war,” Hank said with great earnest. “This country’s gone and split itself straight down the middle. Ain’t no winners when brother fights brother. Friend fights friend.” There was another prolonged silence before he added, “But me, Little John, Mikey—we’s all Union men. I’d much rather fight beside you than against you.”
“It’s my paw, Hank, you know that. You know I ain’t got no choice. Not really.”
“We ain’t kids no more,” Hang argued. “It don’t matter what your paw says or what my paw says. It’s time we be thinkin’ for ourselves.”
“Easy for you to say,” Denny said. “Your paw’s a Union man, same as you.”
There was more silence as Denny pulled cards angrily from the deck and slammed them bitterly onto the floorboards between them.
“Look, Denny,” Hank finally said. “Nothin’ I say is gonna change your mind on this, just as nothin’ you say’s gonna change mine. We ain’t gotta agree on everything, and I sure don’t agree with you on this, but you’ll always be like a brother to me. No matter what.”
“Same,” Denny managed through gritted teeth.
Hank looked out through the window. “Looks like the storm’s blowin’ East. I should probably just mosey on.”
“Yup, I reckon,” Denny said, gathering the playing cards.
“Look, Denny, if we find each other out there on the battleground someday, I ain’t gonna shoot ya.”
“I ain’t gonna shoot ya neither, Hank. Course not.”
Hank picked up the deck of cards and pulled out two from the pile. “You greybacks all look the same in your Confederate uniforms. ‘Spose us bluecoats will all mix together in our Union get-ups, too.” Hank reached across to his friend and tucked the King of Hearts into his shirt pocket and then slid the King of Diamonds into his own. The upper third of each card poked out over the top of their pockets. “We’ll just keep these here Kings showin’ and that way we’ll know not to shoot. Deal?”
“Mighty fine deal,” Denny said, tapping his chest pocket. “We may be fighting on different sides, but first we’re always ‘Kings of Liberty.’”
“Damn straight,” Hank said as he shook Denny’s hand firmly. He held on a few seconds longer, looking over his friend, wondering if it would be the last time he ever saw him. Finally, he released Denny’s hand and descended the crooked two-by-fours that somehow managed to stay nailed into that old black oak after all these years.
Hank stood among the thick, crooked roots that meandered around the earth beneath the oak, looking up at the old treehouse. It reminded him of simpler times. Times when things were decided with a game of cards rather than a rifle and muskets. He thought about Little John and whether his own mother would someday receive the same telegram Little John’s mother did. He wondered if Mikey was somewhere safe or if his mother’s telegram simply hadn’t arrived yet. He thought about Mindy and whether he would ever get that dance in the barn.
As he continued his journey back home, he looked down at the rain-soaked field and spotted a single white bloom among the heart-shaped, verdant leaves of the buckwheat. It wasn’t much, but it gave him a modicum of hope, even if it was only fleeting. His worn leather boots darkened as they absorbed the muddy water from the field, but he paid no mind. His thoughts were elsewhere. He longed for the days of his childhood, before he and his friends were soldiers, before death felt like any sort of real possibility. He yearned to be back in the treehouse, looking out over all of Liberty, Kentucky, not as a military man, but as a King.