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The Black Dragons - Chapter 1 Sample

The Black Dragons

By Richard A. Hackett Jr.

This book was written for my son Trey. The character of a man is not about what he professes to be in his life, but how he lives it out, how he responds to adversity, and who he lives it for. There are many secrets hidden amongst these pages that I hope you discover, but the most important thing to remember is that God is amazing, friendship is priceless, and love is always worth it. I love you.

Copyright © 2011 by Richard A Hackett Jr.

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Chapter 1

July 30, 1777
“Boom!”
The cannon blast shook the frame of the massive French frigate Indiscrete as it sailed north, struggling to distance itself from the fort and island they had just departed. James had arrived at the island accompanied by his best friend in a British vessel of war. Now he was returning home without him in a French vessel of war, and the pain of the loss tore at his very heart and soul.

James Thornton held the railing and steadied himself, matching each roll of the sea with his legs, as the wind carried the white smoke from the recently fired cannon across the deck. He watched as the island continued to grow smaller and smaller with each passing moment. He tilted his head upward and saw the sailors scrambling across the rigging of the masts and out along the yards. As they were tying off and securing the sails, the wind seemed to fight against their every effort. James watched as the wind pulled against the hemp ropes that were tied to those massive sheets of canvas stretched across the blue sky above him. He felt the ship groan as if in protest as it sluggishly responded to each new gust.

Through the creaking and groaning of the ship, the popping of the sails above, and the splashing of the waves below, he could hear the officers yelling orders in French across the wooden decks and high into the sails above. Then on cue, a hundred men responded to the orders and glided across the yards and rigging. James did not understand the language of the orders, but he recognized the duties being performed and was impressed at their dexterity and grace as they moved across such deadly heights. His eyes drifted down to the deck of the ship and across the deadly row of massive 18 pounder deck cannons pointing outward. Each cannon had a large wooden plug secured into the muzzle. He saw a vast array of ropes tied across and around each cannon to secure it to its mounts and blocks to prevent it from rolling backwards and crushing one of the crew. He had seen the damage this vessel and its cannons could do in battle and was happy to find that his circumstances now had him standing on the other end of those cannons that could deal out such death and destruction.

The warm, moist air was blowing across the deck bringing with it that sweet smell that he had grown to love, as it was carried to them from the nearby island. As he glanced back toward the fragrant island that was fading in the distance, memories of the events that lead up to this point came rushing back to him. He inhaled deeply then exhaled as he remembered and allowed himself to relive their last year together. It had been a year filled with the tragedy and suffering of war, but also one filled with more incredible joy, purpose and excitement than he knew most people would never experience in a lifetime.

In spite of those recent powerful memories, his mind and heart could not stop thinking about the friendship he had with Bode King, and how they had come to share it together their whole lives. That relationship started in 1758 when he was seven years old and living in Edenton, North Carolina. His father, Colonel William Thornton, a British army officer, had hired a new foreman to help run the plantation that he had recently purchased eighty miles west of Edenton. From his earliest memories, James’s father had always been creative when planning for his family’s future, but buying the plantation struck many as an outlandish notion. Even though he had no experience in running a plantation, he made the decision to purchase it from a fellow officer and friend after visiting it on his most recent return home. His mother was initially aghast at the idea and the purchase, but after several days and long nights of endless discussions, they had come to an agreement. From that moment forward she not only supported his purchase, but she made his dream her own as well. One of her only requirements was to hire a man to manage and run the plantation during his many absences as a result of his military responsibilities with the British army. Most recently, the British had fought in what seemed to be endless battles with the French and their Indian allies who were constantly attacking the northern colonies. Understanding her concern, Mr. Thornton spent a great deal of time interviewing who he felt, and what others said, were the best plantation foremen in the area.

His father was also looking for a man of character who could oversee his family during his absences as well. A man’s character was not something his father would take lightly in his search. The man he settled on, and eventually hired, much to other plantation owners surprise and consternation, was a man named Elijah King. His father introduced Mr. King to his family and a few days later, at the insistence of his father, Mr. King brought his family over to their home and in turn introduced them to the Thornton’s. James remembered being excited to see that Bode, who was Mr. King’s oldest son, was about his same size and age.

James was very curious and hesitant as he looked at the boy across from him, both seemed to be watching and wondering about each other. From a distance, they were sizing each other up based on the simplest and most innocent of criteria, until their fathers called their names for introductions. James, as he was trained by his father to do, held out his hand to shake the young Mr. King’s hand. At first, Bode just looked at the hand that was outstretched before him, almost as if he was confused. At the nudge of his father, he finally reached out, and cautiously grasped it and then shook it and smiled. James shook back and returned the smile as well; he could not have known at the time that they would become life-long friends.

Their new home and plantation was over eighty miles up the Roanoke River, almost due west of Edenton. “Way out in the middle of nowhere” as his mother would say, during her visits with people living in nearby towns. The Thornton and King families, along with the thirty-nine newly hired workers and their families left Edenton. The entire party traveled as a group and either rode or walked alongside the nine wagons that were loaded with supplies, tools and seed for their new life.

For James, all the preparations and concerns of their new life were secondary compared to the thrill of the travel and the possibility of adventure that it held. The fact that he had another young boy his age, living on the same plantation, was a huge blessing in his mind. James could not wait to test the waters with Bode. As simple as friendship requirements can be for seven-year-olds, the ten-day, eighty-mile journey provided plenty of time for them to learn that they were more alike than James could have ever dreamed. From the outset, they were inseparable as they talked and laughed and played the whole trip.

Upon arriving and surveying everything, it was evident to their parents that the massive plantation was in a horrible state of disrepair. Bode and James, on the other hand, thought they had found heaven. At every opportunity, once they had finished with their chores, Bode and James would spend their free time running through the open fields, wading and fishing in the nearby river, exploring new lands, arguing and fighting, laughing, dreaming, and building a very special and what James was to discover later in life, a very unique friendship.

While some of the workers began preparing the fields for planting, others were either repairing or building the needed structures that were required to house the crops and families of the plantation. James and Bode found themselves in a unique age category, as other children were either younger than James and Bode and were tied to their mothers during the day, or they were much older and were busily engaged in the heavy labor requirements of the plantation. Those first few years they were too young to be tasked with any major responsibilities, while at the same time they were too old and energetic to be bound to the house. The two years that followed were the most glorious years of freedom that two boys could ask for, and they took full advantage of them.

Although there was plenty of free time, life was not always just fun and play. James’s mother, Charlotte, had been a school teacher before marrying his father and every day she would invite all the children living on the plantation, which included the Thornton and King families, to the little school house that had been converted from an old shed. She would teach each of them according to his or her age and skill level. James at first was very concerned for Bode and the other children from the plantation, for most of the children had never been taught to read or write. James recalled how strange it seemed to him that most did not seem to even want to learn. But, in spite of their resistance, his mother was determined and persistent with Bode and the other children. With James’s encouragement and help, Bode and the other children gradually, not only caught up, but to James’s frustration, Bode was even challenging him in their studies. In many ways, it was Bode who became the teacher. Bode was always very bright and hungry for knowledge and he learned very quickly.

James could not remember much about the first few years at the plantation, except for the fun he and Bode had, and that his father was often away at war. He did know that with Mr. King’s guidance and supervision, the plantation continually grew larger and more profitable, as new fields were cleared and planted each year. The growth also required the hiring of new workers and their families to handle the additional crops and harvest schedules. As James’s mother would always say, ‘God is truly blessing our efforts’ and Mr. King was always the first to agree.

As more workers and their families arrived on the plantation, the same challenges faced their children as they started school. They would come into the classroom with big fearful eyes and it would often take weeks to get them to even participate in any activity, but eventually the other children, who had already worked through their own fear of school, would help them to learn and laugh along with everyone else.

At every chance available, he and Bode would dive back into the imaginary world in which they were brave soldiers, noble pirates, or world explorers. Side by side, the pair battled countless enemies, armed with stick swords and broom handle muskets and fence post cannons, with their brave troops right behind them. In every adventure, just at the moment when defeat seemed inescapable, the pair would find a way to extract a victory in the face of over-whelming odds. Together, there was no army or foe that they feared nor any who could ever stand against them.

James smiled at the memories but his heart was pensive at the thought of how naive those boyhood dreams had been. Personal experience had been an exacting tutor and the costly lessons he had learned was that war and battle were only glorious to those who directed it well removed from the battle lines. To the soldiers and citizens caught up in the egocentric plans and decisions of emotionally disconnected and power hungry leaders, war was a brutal, destructive and horrific waste of human life. James shuddered and tried to shake the flood of memories that at times were unstoppable: the sight of unspeakable acts done in anger, smell of smoke and death, the sounds of firing muskets and exploding of cannons, the screams of dying men, the insults and challenges shouted across the field of battle, the blood that flowed unceasingly, and the helpless, emptiness he felt watching the life fade from the eyes of his dearest friends. James’s father had always said that war brought out the worst in men, but he had also told James that it could bring out what perhaps is the best qualities of mankind; bravery, courage, sacrifice, loyalty compassion, mercy and faith. James had seen these too. As of yet, he still did not know how to separate the memories but he some how knew that to preserve his sanity and the true nature of who he was, he needed to learn how to focus on what was good while never forgetting the evil that surrounded the rectitude that rose above it.

“Excusez-moi!” A voice from behind James momentarily pulled him from his reverie and back to the deck of the French frigate. Standing behind him was a young French sailor trying to coil a section of rope that James was standing on. James smiled and stepped aside and the young man quickly completed his task and stepped away from the area and smiled. “Merci.” James once again nodded back. He looked across the deck, as the alacrity of the sailors seemed to be slowing now that their ship was on a secure tack with the wind. James knew that a sailor’s life was not an easy one and the cost of the freedom of the sea was great deal of time absent from family and home.

“Home,” he mumbled to himself. The idea of it seemed so far away as he thought about his own family. He stepped back against the railing and scanned the horizon off the starboard side where he stood, and then glanced back at the island again. Although James loved the memory of his childhood, he never remembered life on the plantation in North Carolina as being an easy one either. He remembered that his father was gone so often during the early years of his life, with duty calling him to the defense of the colonies and to lead the troops as required by his position. He was so happy when he finally retired from the British army as a Colonel in 1763 so he could spend more time with the family. Whether it was his youthful lack of understanding or a testimony to his father’s humility, it was not until later in life that James learned that his father was actually a highly decorated and well respected officer, a reputation he had earned while fighting in the French and Indian Wars from 1755 to 1763.

During his father’s military years, James remembered months would pass, and once more than a year, without his seeing or hearing from him. In those times he was grateful for the ability to work under the tutelage and guidance of Mr. King, as were the other workers that were learning the business of growing and harvesting cotton, corn and tobacco. Mr. King was the most kind and patient man he had ever met, always taking the time to explain the reasons for doing things to James and Bode, not just barking orders at them. The kindness and patience of Mr. King greatly influenced and helped develop James’s own character as a man.

From 1758 to 1775 his father and Elijah King, mostly Mr. King during his father’s military absences, grew the plantation from their immediate families and the original thirty-nine workers into one of the largest cotton, corn and tobacco plantations in the state, eventually employing over 350 workers by 1775. For James, there was always hard work and long hours, more so the older he got. There were always challenges that had to be faced with every new season and every new worker and family added to the plantation.

James took a deep breath and shook his head at the memory and was grateful that he was too young to understand most of what was going on around him in the early years. He credited that innocence to his youth and to his parents’ hard work in protecting that innocence for him and his other siblings for as long as they could. As with many things, the loss of innocence is often a casualty of age.

James glanced back from the island at the sound of movement behind him and saw a young Negro crewman stumble and fall to the deck of the ship. Members of the crew had purposely overloaded him with rope and gear, and several of the French sailors began yelling something at him in French and laughing at his situation. James could see the embarrassment on the face of the young boy and immediately bent down to help him up, and help carry some of the rope and gear for him to his destination. A French sailor said something to James, causing the other sailors within hearing to laugh, and James turned and locked eyes with the man. It was clear to not only the man who had commented, but to all the other men that James did not find the situation funny. Moments later the smile fell from the man’s face and the laughter from the rest of the sailors in the area stopped. James pointed for the young boy to lead on and walked behind him, carrying the rope and placing it where the boy indicated.

“Merci.” The boy said and smiled at James as he headed back across the deck of the ship. James nodded and smiled at the boy and watched him disappear into the hold. James took a moment to glance around the deck of the ship, but none of the French sailors seemed to be willing to look in his direction. The interaction with the young boy brought to mind another moment in time that he and Bode had shared when they were younger.

It was during his twelfth year, in 1763. A man and his son had come to visit their plantation and to speak with his father. It seemed to James that he was there to complain about how Mr. Thornton was running things, for as he and Bode came into the house, he could hear the other man yelling in the other room. As they watched, they saw the man’s red-headed son, perhaps a year or two older than James, with his ear pressed against the door listening. Not quite sure what to make of the exchange between the fathers in the other room, James and Bode walked up to the boy standing outside the door. James first introduced himself, and the boy reluctantly shook James’s outstretched hand, and then James introduced the boy to Bode. Bode reached out to shake the boy’s hand as well, but in a strange awkwardness for all three of them, the boy turned cold toward Bode. The boy refused to even acknowledge Bode as his face steadily grew more stern and angry. The apparent anger was first expressed toward James and then toward Bode. James remembered looking at Bode and seeing something in Bode’s countenance that he had never seen before. In response, Bode lowered his hand, shifting his eyes to the ground and stepped back and became silent.

The boy suddenly turned back toward James, grimaced and unleashed a barrage of angry words at him. “You’re as big of a fool as your father is. Slaves should remain stupid and untrained for anything but pulling cotton and cutting tobacco,” he yelled at James. “You don’t know it, but you and your whole family are a laughing-stock to everyone!”

Slaves? Laughing-stock? James still could not understand the reason for the boy’s anger, and then he suddenly thought he understood why the boy was so confused and angry. “Oh, Bode is not a slave. He’s my friend,” James replied, hoping to reverse the awkward situation that was developing. James was stunned to see the boy look back with so much hatred on his face that James almost melted under his gaze and his next verbal barrage.
“He’s a stupid Negro slave, and he belongs outside with the rest of the animals!” James knew that Bode would never tolerate such words from him or anyone else, and was actually looking forward to hearing him return the insult to this stupid red-headed boy. However, when he turned to see how Bode would respond, he was shocked to see him instead turn away with his head down and walk toward the front door. The boy’s sinister laughter followed Bode out the door and down the steps.

James could not believe it. He and Bode had fought dragons and giants and all sorts of foul creatures together, they had even fought each other. There was nothing that Bode feared, so why was he walking away from the insults of this arrogant boy? His heart raced and his anger started to boil at the thought of what this boy had done to his friend. He turned to hear the laughter of the boy again and the venomous words still flowing from his mouth.
“That’s right… you run nigga boy! Run back to the...” The boy never saw it coming, nor did James realize he had thrown the punch that landed squarely on the boy’s mouth before he could finish his last words. James was not sure why he swung at his mouth, perhaps it just seemed like that was the source of the problem and the quickest way to stop it. The next three punches landed just as solidly and squarely on the boy’s nose and cheeks in spite of the boy’s best efforts to protect himself from the smaller aggressor pounding away at him. His last punch landed with such force that it dropped the boy to the floor at James’s feet where he began screaming and crying for help at the top of his voice.

As the door flew open and the two fathers came running out, there was James standing over the red headed boy with his fists clenched ready to continue the assault.
“James!” his father yelled and James, recognizing the tone of his father’s voice and the trouble he was now in, looked over at his father. With blood flowing from his nose and lip, the boy crawled out from under James and ran whimpering to his father’s side in tears.

James could not remember the exact words that were exchanged. He did know that the two men spent the next few minutes listening briefly to each boy’s explanation of the event that unfolded, with both taking their stand in support of their boy’s actions or words. Both were very upset and neither man backed down from his position on the matter.

He did remember his father suggesting strongly that the man and the boy get on their horses if they both wished to avoid further injury. The man continued to shout curse words at James’s father, using words that James had never heard before, as he dragged his still whimpering son off to their horses.
“I will not forget how you treated us here today Mr. Thornton!” The man sneered at them across the courtyard.
“Nor shall I ever forget how you and your son treated me, my son, and my friends in my own home Mr. Johnson,” he replied. James and his father stood on the porch and watched them as they rode off down the road. Once they were out of sight, his father bent down and asked him if he were hurt. James, realizing that he had not done so earlier, took a moment to evaluate his condition.
“My hand hurts,” James said, finally relaxing his clenched fist and shaking his right hand as his father chuckled.
“That often happens when you hit a head filled with nothing but rock, son,” he said and smiled at James and then stood up and shook his head with a faint smile as they walked back into the house. “Try as we might to soften the contents, I’ve found that it rarely changes what goes on inside the other fellows head.” His father paused and sighed as he glanced out a window in the direction of the two riders. “Although I must say, I was really hoping for the opportunity to test that theory on Mr. Johnson’s head.” They both smiled and his father ruffled his hair and continued, “Don’t tell your mother I said that or we will both be in big trouble.” James smiled and looked up at his father as he thought through the words he had shared.
“Am I in trouble?” he asked, and his father returned a gentle smile.
“Yes, but I promise the punishment will be light. I can’t have you beating upon every person that visits us that does not agree with how we run things here. It’s always better to show restraint to an enemy when possible, than to rush into battle in anger.” James nodded at his father’s words and then thought about Bode. He was still very confused by Bode’s behavior.
“Father, why did Bode let the boy say those things and just walk away without standing up for himself?” he asked. His father thought awhile before answering.
“Because Bode proved to be a lot wiser than either of us when it comes to showing what restraint looks like,” his father said, but he could tell that James did not understand his meaning. “James, Bode knew that striking that boy, no matter what the situation might have been, would have created a world of trouble for him, his family, our family, and the plantation.” His father looked at his son. “That’s why I am so proud of you. You were willing to stand up for your friend in a difficult situation, even though he could not have.” He smiled and put his arm around him. “I need to learn to do that more as well,” he said. Looking through the window toward the nearby house where Bode and his family lived he saw Mr. King standing on his porch as if he were trying to determine a course of action.

When James went to visit Bode later that evening, Bode’s father seemed very upset about the event. “I’m sorry about what happened at the house young James.” Mr. King had said to him as he stepped into the house after being invited in. “These kinds of things rarely turn out well and I sure hope this does not bring trouble to all of us.” James nodded.
“Father does not seem that concerned, but thank you.” He looked around. “Is Bode here?” he asked and Mr. King seemed to hesitate a moment before answering.
“Yes, but he’s feeling pretty bad about things… mumbling something about feeling like a coward for not standing beside you,” he replied and smiled.
“Father said it was actually for the best and that Bode was very smart and brave to leave,” James said confidently and then was almost embarrassed by his next words. “I was just wishing he saw how I got the better of the bigger kid.” He smiled sheepishly, and then there was laughter from the back room and Bode stepped into the doorway.
“I only went far enough away that the boy could not see me, but I did see you punch him out,” he said smiling from the doorway. “I would have come back and helped you if he would have gotten the upper hand on you… but you socked him so good!” He laughed and they both smiled and James puffed up with pride.
“Best punch I ever threwd... threw.” James said confidently and they both laughed again as they reenacted the fight and the punches that were thrown, while Mr. King shook his head as he watched the two of them.
“Mr. King, can Bode and I spend some time outside together?” James asked several minutes later. Mr. King seemed to consider it for a while.
“I don’t see how a little time together before bedtime could hurt anything,” he replied and Bode and James jumped to their feet and raced for the door, stopping to grab their hand-carved wooden muskets and swords as they headed out onto the front porch and nearby fields. They never went anywhere without them and James, as always, had brought his with him and had set his beside Bode’s before he knocked on their door.

They played for a long while before they returned to Bode’s home. They sat on the porch in silence for several minutes watching the last of the sunset.
“That must be hard.” James said, breaking the silence that had crept into their time together.
“What?” Bode replied.
“Having to walk away from someone who needs a beating for what he is saying.” Bode seemed to think long and hard before finally answering him.
“You make it hard.” He said sadly.
“I do? How do I make it hard?” James replied defensively.
“You and your family are different. My dad and mom say it as well. What’s more, you don’t even know it.” Bode responded and James seemed to contemplate Bode’s words.
“Is how we are... bad?” James asked cautiously.
“No. But it…” Bode seemed to be trying to gather his thoughts, but before he could answer, the front door opened and Mr. King came outside and sat down with the boys. Apparently he had been listening in on their conversation.
“Actually, the word I used was ‘special’ James, not ‘different’. Your family is very special to us and to the other workers. What Bode is trying to say is that it can be confusing for us. Our lives here, all of the lives of the workers here, are far different… no, far better, than any other place we have been before.”
“How then is that bad?” James asked again.
“It’s not, you knucklehead.” Bode interjected and then shook his head and rolled his eyes.
“Watch your words Bode,” Mr. King stated sternly and gave Bode a look that made it clear he was serious. He waited until Bode nodded before continuing. “It’s just that we end up living two lives, one while we are here and a whole different one when we leave the plantation for supplies. Sometimes keeping the two straight can be challenging, in fact deadly if we are not careful,” Mr. King ended.
“I’m sorry; I didn’t know that.” James answered Mr. King.
“I know, young James, which is what makes you so special to my son and why your family is so special to my family. We are treated no differently than anyone else is treated.” James just nodded at Mr. King’s kind words, though he did not understand the deeper meaning behind it all.
“It’s also why the hired workers work so hard for the success of the plantation here. Because they know this place is special and they, like your father and mother, don’t ever want it to change for them.”

They sat quietly on the porch in deep thought watching the sunset and the darkness slowly creep in around them before James broke the silence.
“I don’t want to ever be like that boy and his father Mr. King. I hope I never become like that as I grow older.” James seemed hurt by the thoughts and Mr. King put his arm around James.
“I hope you never become that boy either James. I also hope your father stays safe, for I do not know what we would do without him.” Mr. King said.

Even though he knew his father was a soldier in the army and that it was a dangerous profession, the thought of his father being killed had never really crossed his mind before. The reality of the thought suddenly scared him. He knew that Mr. King had run the plantation while he was away before, and that they would be able to make things work if needed again, but he didn’t know what he would do without his father.

James learned later that his father was contemplating that very same thought following the recent altercation and was writing his unique ideas down on paper and preparing to put a plan in motion, a plan that would not only changed the operations and workings of the plantation, but the very destiny of both boys.

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