When Lucinda Holloway Met J.W. Booth, April 1865

When Lucinda Holloway Met J.W. Booth, April 1865

The Holloway sisters observed the man calling himself James Boyd as they might a work of art. He lay under the apple tree with his black hat angled over his pale face. His dark moustache rose above his straight white teeth.

"A handsome man," offered Cecelia, the married sister and mother of three sons.

Lucinda, the spinster schoolmarm, was less generous. “One might say so.”

When Richard, Cecelia’s youngest son, suddenly shook the apple limb, Boyd closed his eyes against the snowstorm of petals. He smiled as he dusted white blossoms from his lapels and his thick, dark hair. All of it like black ink on fine white paper.

James Boyd and another returning soldier had arrived at the Garrett farm earlier in the day. Cecelia and Lucinda watched from the porch as dust from the wagon wheels rose from the lane and spun through air scented by freshly turned fields, trampled grass, and crabapple blossoms. By the time the wagon reached them, Cecelia’s husband Richard was there to cross the yard and greet the men.

“Likely seeking work,” Cecelia said of the boyishly tall, fair-haired man with a hungry, ragtag look and the dark-haired James, debonair, despite his rumpled black suit and the crutches under his arms.

"You were wounded?" Richard Garrett spoke with a stammer.

"Battle at Petersburg." The injured man’s voice was honeyed as a preacher’s. "It took time to receive medical attention, as you may well imagine."

No, Lucinda decided, his voice was too lilting, too lacking in doom, to be a preacher’s.

"If Mr. Boyd could stay here a couple days, we’d be mighty grateful,” the younger man said. "My father has spoken highly of you, Mr. Garrett. We would appreciate your kindness."

Noting the presence of women, Boyd removed his slouch hat. His face was pallid and unshaven, yet his eyes were dark and glittering as a raven’s. "I would be eternally grateful, my ladies.”

"You are welcome to stay in the barn." Cecelia pointed beyond the orchard.

“My pleasure.” The man bowed. "I am road weary. To lie in your orchard under the stars would be a far better bed than I've had in months."

"I prefer you take the barn." Cecelia was firm, and Lucinda understood the house lay too close to the orchard for her sister’s peace of mind.

"You are a credit to your country, Madam. A true Southern gentlewoman." He spoke with the air of a man who had known many women, some gentle and some not.

Cecelia blushed. "We expect our sons to return from Port Royal by noon. Dinner will be served then."

Now, pausing in their household chores to watch Young Richard rain apple blossoms onto James Boyd, the sisters were rapt. "You know my boy won't sit still longer than a butterfly,” Cecelia said, “yet he's been there since he finished his morning chores. I believe Mr. Boyd could charm birds from the trees."

“He is full of stories.”

“He is full of mischief. Make certain Elizabeth keeps her distance.”

At age twelve, Elizabeth was taller than Cecelia, but childlike and more interested in her dolls than the tall tales of a stranger. The sisters watched Boyd gingerly haul himself to his feet. Agile, despite his injury, he jostled Young Richard from the tree limb with a playful jab of his crutch. “I shall keep an eye on Elizabeth,” Lucinda promised.

In her heart of hearts, Lucinda carried a soft spot for the mischievous boys. In her schoolroom, she respected those contrite boys who apologized for their horseplay, but she especially admired the defiant ones who stood their ground and accepted punishment with a sly smirk. Men who stood their ground under unpleasant circumstances, like dear Mr. Lincoln, would be the ones to restore the nation.

Lucinda respectfully kept such beliefs to herself, as she lived with the Garretts and Richard was a man of the Confederacy. Yes indeed, with their three good sons, including the two freshly home from Appomattox, and daughter Elizabeth, Richard and Cecelia lived a very good life on this very fine farm in Caroline County, Virginia.

“We have been blessed,” Cecelia was quick to say. Although, to Lucinda, that was the same as saying we Garretts are good people.

On this day, when school had been dismissed for spring planting, Lucinda would prefer to be strolling across soft, green fields than dusting the parlor. She paused at the shawl-draped table to study her own photograph. Taken in Richmond before the War of Northern Aggression, the gold-framed likeness revealed a reasonably handsome woman. Although Lucinda judged herself plain. “Plain as a potato,” she pronounced before glancing toward the orchard once again. Now Young Richard chased a rooster as Boyd reclined with his hat over his eyes and his hands folded under his head. Like a man in bed, awaiting a woman.

How had such a thought come into her head? Other than their laundry and their meals, Lucinda knew nothing about the ways of men, nothing of intimacy. In the pantry, Lucinda splashed her cheeks with cool spring water and, fearing fever, patted her forehead with rosewater as Elizabeth questioned Richard.

“Is Mr. Boyd a soldier, Father?"

"So it appears."

"Rebel or Yankee?" Elizabeth peeled potatoes as she spoke, tossing peels in the scrap bowl and the shorn potatoes into the pot. "Why does he not wear a uniform? Do you think he shot many men? He doesn't talk like us, does he, Father?"

Richard, who struggled to speak without a stammer, responded to her last question. "No, he does not."

"There is nothing to compare to the scent of an April day," Boyd announced as he swung into the dining room.

“Indeed.” Cecelia and Lucinda nodded agreement as they arranged food on the sideboard. A platter of roast beef. Bowls of potatoes, gravy, turnips, greens. A basket of Cecelia’s bread. A crock of fresh butter.

"To be the father unto many sons is a blessing,” Boyd pronounced when Richard introduced Jack and William, returned from their errands in Port Royal.

"Please sit, Mr. Boyd. Lucinda will tend to your crutches."

Boyd balanced on his boot heel to hand over the crutches. “Thank you, my dear.” He bowed, a quick bob of his head, before sliding into his place at the table. “You lads survived the war unscathed?”

"Me and Jack fared better than most." William passed the bread. "Being wounded so near the war’s end must seem a worthless sacrifice to you."

"Not at all. Death for one’s beliefs remains a worthy cause." Boyd chose a slice of bread as Lucinda admired the genteel pivot of his wrist beneath his cuff. "I would rather die nobly for my country than not serve at all."

“The ferrymen in Port Royal claim the President has died in service to the country," Jack announced. "Killed by an assassin.”

Impossible! Lucinda stepped back.

“Nonsense.” Cecelia shook her head. “We’ve heard such stories before.”

"A rumor of war," Richard insisted.

“A ploy for Union sympathy." Boyd assured them with a shake of his head.

"We saw reward posters.” William raised his fork. “An actor named Booth shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theater."

"They're offering a hundred thousand dollars for his capture. Can you imagine such a fortune?"

"Then he shall be caught," Richard said.

Lucinda’s hands trembled as she passed the potatoes to Boyd. Poor Mr. Lincoln and his endless heartache over all those dead soldiers and his own dead sons and his childish, hysterical wife. Never had any President borne such sadness for his country.

“This war has made every Southern man a pauper." Boyd grasped the tureen, his fingertips brushing Lucinda’s.

"Why would anyone kill such a gentle man?" Lucinda spoke to herself, but Boyd heard.

"Notoriety," he replied with conviction. "The assassin desired notoriety."

As was customary, the men ceased their talk to eat with vigor. The sounds of cutlery and chewing filled the air while uncertainty tugged at Lucinda. Could her President truly be dead? How could this lovely day exist amidst such loss? Her mind flew away from her then, hovering in some green space until the men were gone with a clatter of boots over floorboards and she was returned to the Garrett dining room with a sigh.

Cecelia began to clear away the plates. “Ah, we live in tragic times, sister.”

While Richard and his sons returned to the fields, Mr. Boyd retired to the parlor to rest his injured leg on the tasseled hassock. From there he directed Young Richard to the map hanging above the purple gloxinia. "This war divided our country, set brother against brother.” His musical voice carried into the pantry as he named the northern states, the southern states, the rivers, and the cities. He spoke like a seasoned explorer. A man from somewhere else.

Had she lived somewhere else, somewhere like Richmond or Washington, Lucinda imagined she might have loved a man like James Boyd. This eloquent man reminded her of all she had missed here in the farmland of Northern Virginia. All she might have seen or done. Now, on this unsettling day, life in a loftier setting was too heartrending to contemplate.

Later in the afternoon Lucinda came across Boyd sitting on the porch, and he tilted his dark head to gaze up at her. “Oh, the uncertain glory of an April day, Mrs. Garrett.”

"Miss Holloway." Lucinda met his gaze. "Mrs. Garrett is my sister."

"Two quite hospitable sisters, I must say."

"How is it you know Shakespeare, Mr. Boyd?"

"I am fond of the Bard, Miss Holloway. May I assume the same is true for you?”

Lucinda was tempted to sit by his side. Drawn to his mental acuity, she longed to sit there on that settee and recount every book she had ever read, to recite every poem ever learned and ask him to do the same. The moment was lost to the jangling sound of approaching horsemen. Mere boys, the sons of neighboring farmers, rode into view, and Boyd rose quickly, sweeping his crutches under his arms. "Kindly pardon me,” he called as he swung down from the porch to join the riders in the lane.

When the Bainbridge boy pointed toward the woods behind the barn, Lucinda followed his line of sight to find only newly green leaves fluttering like feathers against the bright sky. Yet in the moment she turned back, Boyd’s fingers swept aside his coattails and caressed a gun at his side. A pistol, large and long-barreled and painfully shiny.

Oh, mercy. The Garrett men did not carry guns unless hunting or going to war. Lucinda gripped the porch railing and struggled to reconcile a weapon with the man who could quote Shakespeare. Oh, dear Lord.

The local boys soon rode away, and Boyd returned to the porch. “The Union Cavalry approaches. I must conceal myself.”

"Why is that, Mr. Boyd?" She spoke sharply.

"I would be forced to take an oath of loyalty to the Union." His eyes were steady. “I fought to keep the South free, Miss Holloway, and I would rather die than take an oath of loyalty."

Lucinda watched him hobble into the nearest oak grove. She felt weak, but whether from James’s impassioned declaration or the intimacy of his eyes or the warmth of the afternoon sun, she could not determine.

The cavalry, a dozen or so Yankee soldiers, came and went without incident. James emerged from the woods and napped in the orchard. The women prepared supper. Lucinda emptied the last jar of mince into pie crusts as Elizabeth peeled more potatoes, and Cecelia diced the remains of the roast into the gravy.

Tension hovered like a presence. Elizabeth watched the road, her thick braid flying back and forth like a scythe. Cecelia dropped her knife. Lucinda spilled gravy. The Garrett men returned from the fields to discuss James Boyd.

"Untrustworthy," Jack said.

"Never heard of a loyalty oath," said William.

They ate supper quickly, avoiding eye contact or talk of assassins. James asked about the price of feed and the rotation of crops but did not appear to hear Richard's labored responses. "You are a fortunate man to have a good honest life and a fine family to accompany you into old age.” He shook his head. "My life has fallen around me like hail."

He appeared weaker. His face was drawn, and he pulled distractedly at his new growth of beard. When he caught Lucinda watching him, he raised his chin with a touch of arrogance. "Your pie was delicious, Miss Holloway.” The darkness under his eyes deepened and lines formed around his mouth. His former pallor held a jaundiced cast.

"Are you in pain, Mr. Boyd? Would a cold compress offer relief?"

"Nothing now, I'm afraid." He left the table with a slower tread, as if each jarring wobble set his teeth on edge.

Night turned the air chill. The family lit lamps and yawned. James Boyd retired to the barn.

"I don't like having him so close to the house," Richard said.

"William and I can sleep in the corncrib," Jack said.

"We can lock him into the barn."

"Mr. Boyd is far too weak to harm us,” Lucinda said, “and we have nothing left to steal.”

Elizabeth and Lucinda shared a bedroom, and although Elizabeth talked in her sleep, Lucinda had grown accustomed to sleeping through her monologues. Tonight, sleep would not come. The creaking of the house, the howl of a distant dog, and Elizabeth's murmurings seemed to gain in volume and frequency. "No. No, I would not," she cried out. "Do not ask me."

Suddenly, stomping horses filled the yard, followed by pounding on the door and Richard's tread on the stairs. Lucinda tiptoed into the hall and found Cecelia at the top of the stairs. “Have they come to rob us?"

"It's the cavalry."

"Let us enter at once," a voice shouted. "You harbor assassins.”

"There are women present," Richard stammered.

"We have no interest in your women. Open this door, or we shall batter it down." The door burst open, and soldiers’ boots clattered across the floorboards. "Anyone here, make yourselves known."

Cecelia and Lucinda roused Elizabeth, threw wrappers over their nightdresses and shivered with their bare feet against the cold floorboards. Weapons held aloft, the soldiers swarmed through the house like displaced bees. They overturned chairs, jostled tables and lamps, and shouted their outrage.

Elizabeth, wide-eyed and silent, clung to Cecelia's sleeve, as Richard gargled high-pitched vowels and choked on consonants. The commanding officer showed no mercy. "If you refuse to speak, sir, you shall hang from the nearest tree.” Richard's face contorted with effort. Spittle fell on his nightshirt as the soldiers seized him.

Cecelia stepped forward. "The men you seek are in the barn."

The family tumbled onto the porch as soldiers roused William and Jack from the corncrib. "No, no," Cecelia cried out. "Those are my sons."

Then from the barn came the strong, resonant voice of James Boyd. "Leave these good people in peace. I am the one you seek."

"Come out now, Booth. My men stand ready with guns drawn."

"Not I. I shall fight you all."

The commander grabbed William by the collar. "You will go into that barn and collect his weapons."

William, a solitary figure in the open yard, walked gingerly toward the barn.

Later, Lucinda would remember watching the scene play out before her as if she were in a theater. Her nephew William was an actor crossing a stage ringed by an audience of ghostly trees and dark-suited soldiers. Her heart plummeted as William stopped before the barn door and fumbled with clanging keys. The night sounds of the countryside, the call of an owl and the rustle of horses, were suspended by the grate of metal on metal and William's muted pleas. When he stepped into the barn, the audience stopped breathing.

Boyd, obviously the leading actor, began his soliloquy. “I have spoke with one that saw him die; who did report that very frankly he confessed his treasons. Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.”

From Hamlet to Macbeth to Othello, Boyd called up the glory and honor of dying for a cause. “Speak of me as I am; speak of one that lov'd not wisely but too well. I go, and it is done. Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The silky unrolling of language was as lovely as the stars. Here in this impromptu theater of orchard and fields, Lucinda willed the scene to never end.

“You are under arrest for the vile murder of our great country's leader,” the commander called from stage right.

"Not a leader. A traitor to our South.”

At center stage, the barn door moved outward in a slow, wobbly arc, and every eye strained to see inside. William emerged and then scuttled stage left into the hands of waiting soldiers.

"Exit now or I will order your execution."

"So be it." James’s voice rang with fierce joy. The defiant glee of a mischievous schoolboy. "You will have yet one more stain on the glorious old banner."

The barn was torched, and flames roared skyward, their bright orange tongues reflected in every window of the farmhouse. Then, at last, the protagonist appeared, as if to take his bow. Backlit by the fire, he tossed his crutches aside and lunged forward with his revolver in hand.

A single bright shot exploded the night and dropped him to the ground with a heart-stopping grace.

Lucinda sighed and glanced about, expecting the theater to fill with applause. Instead, she found herself returned to the narrow farmhouse porch, standing in the cold, star-struck night with the ghostly faces of her family surrounding her.

The soldiers dragged James, the man they called Booth, across the orchard and lay him under the apple tree. There where blossoms had rained down over his face a lifetime ago today. "There's a straw ticking in the attic," Cecelia said to her sons. "Please fetch it down."

James was carried to the porch and dropped onto the ticking. The commander stood guard, waiting, Lucinda finally realized, for James to die. When he begged to be killed, Lucinda knelt beside him. As she had with many a stricken child, she cradled his head and wiped his face and smoothed his hair. "Tell my mother I died for my country." His voice was weak, but no less rich. "I did what I thought best." His face twisted in agony, and his eyes sought hers. Lucinda and her plain, sensible face.

She did not look away until his eyes closed, a fluttering that ended in absolute stillness. Then quickly, deftly, she cut a thick curl from his black hair and secreted it under her nightdress, against her skin.

Lucinda was in the pantry, holding a cool cloth to her own forehead when the commander brought in James’s belongings: a diary, a letter, a packet of five photographs, all women and all far younger than herself. "I shall prepare his shroud," Lucinda announced. The commander held no power over her, the schoolteacher, the sister, the spinster. She collected her mending basket from the parlor. Fumbling in the dark, her hand grazed the frame that held her likeness. It slid easily into her palm.

By the light of a single lantern, she knelt again on the cold porch floor. "These stitches near his head will remain loose,” she instructed the soldiers as she sewed, “but this seam by his heels will last until Judgment Day." Deftly, there in darkness, she slid the gilt frame into James’ fine leather boot.

By Judgment Day, she reckoned, the South would reconcile with the North, all men would be free, and she and James would rise together, whole and shining and pure. A perfect union.

About the Author

Sara Kay Rupnik

Sara Kay Rupnik holds a M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College and is co-founder of Around the Block Writers Collaborative. She teaches creative writing for the Jekyll Island (GA) Arts Association. Her fiction, nominated for a Pushcart Prize and short-listed for the Sean O’Faolain Short Story Prize, appears in literary journals in the U.S. and the U.K. Women Longing to Fly (Mayapple Press, 2015) is her first collection of short stories.

Read more work by Sara Kay Rupnik.