Coal Black Horse


By Robert Olmstead

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When Robey Childs’s mother has a premonition about her husband, a soldier fighting in the Civil War, she does the unthinkable: she sends her only child to find his father on the battlefield and bring him home.

At fourteen, wearing the coat his mother sewed to ensure his safety—blue on one side, gray on the other— Robey thinks he’s off on a great adventure. But not far from home, his horse falters and he realizes the enormity of his task. It takes the gift of a powerful and noble coal black horse to show him how to undertake the most important journey of his life: with boldness, bravery, and self-posession.

Coal Black Horse joins the pantheon of great war novels—All Quiet on the Western Front, The Red Badge of Courage, The Naked and the Dead.



THE EVENING OF SUNDAY May 10 in the year 1863, Hettie Childs called her son, Robey, to the house from the old fields where he walked the high meadow along the fence lines where the cattle grazed, licking shoots of new spring grass that grew in the mowing on the edge of the pasture.

He walked a shambling gait, his knees to and fro and his shoulders rocking. His hands were already a man's hands, cut square, with tapering fingers, and his hair hung loose to his shoulders. He was a boy whose mature body would be taller yet and of late he'd been experiencing frightening spurts of growth. On one night alone he grew an entire inch and when morning came he felt stretched and his body ached and he cried out when he sat up.

The dogs scrambled to their feet and his mother asked what ailed him that morning. Of late she'd become impatient with the inexplicit needs of boys and men and their acting so rashly on what they could not fathom and surely could not articulate. In her mind, men were no different than droughty weather or a sudden burst of rainless storm. They came and they went; they ached and pained. They laughed privately and cried to themselves as if heeding a way-off silent call. They were forever childish, sweet and convulsive. They heard sound the way dogs heard sound. They were like the moon — they changed every eight days.

He scratched at his head, knotting his long hair with his fingers. He felt to have been seized by phantoms in the night and twisted and turned, and his body spasmed and contorted.

He told her that he did not know exactly what it was possessed him, and did not even understand what happened enough to be dumb about it, but thought it was a condition, like all others, that was not significant and with patience it soon would pass.

"That seems about right," she said.

As he walked the fence lines that cold, silky spring evening, he let a hickory stick rattle along the silvered split rails. He was thinking about his father gone to war. Always his father, always just a thought, a word, a gesture away. He spoke aloud to him in his absence. He asked him questions and made observations. He said good night to him before he fell asleep and good morning when he woke up. He thought it would not be strange to see him around a corner, sitting on a stool, anytime, soon, now. He had been born on the mountain in the room where his mother and father conceived him, but it was his father who insisted he was not really a born-baby but a discovered-baby and was found swimming in the cistern, sleeping in the strawy manger, squatting on an orange pumpkin, behind the cowshed.

Swarming the air about his head that evening, there was a cloud of newly hatched mayflies, ephemeral and chaffy, their pale membrous wings pleating the darkening sky. Not an hour ago he'd watched them ascend in their moment, like a host of angels from the stream that bubbled from a split rock and pooled, before scribing a silver arc in the boulder-strewn pasture, before falling over a cliff, and then he heard his mother's plaintive voice.

When he came down from the high meadow, the dogs were standing sentry at her sides, their solemn stalky bodies leaning into her.

She said softly and then she said again with the conclusion of all time in her voice when he did not seem to understand, "Thomas Jackson has died."

"It is now over," she said, not looking at him, not favoring his eyes, but looking past him and some place beyond. There was no emotion in her words. There was no sign for him to read that would reveal the particulars of her inner thoughts. Her face was the composure of one who had experienced the irrevocable. It was a fact unalterable and it was as simple as that.

He held his bony wrist in his opposite hand. He shuffled his feet as if that gesture were a means to understanding. He patiently waited because he knew when she was ready, she would tell him what this meant.

"Thomas Jackson has been killed," she finally said. "There's no sense in this continuing." She paused and sought words to fashion her thoughts. "This was a mistake a long time before we knew it, but a mistake nonetheless. Go and find your father and bring him back to his home."

Her words were as if come through time and she was an old mother and the ancient woman.

"Where will I find him?" he asked, unfolding his shoulders and setting his feet that he might stand erect.

"Travel south," she said. "Then east into the valley and then north down the valley.

She had sewed for him an up-buttoned, close-fitting linen shell jacket with the braids of a corporal and buttons made of sawed and bleached chicken bones. She told him it was imperative that he leave the home place this very night and not to dally along the way but to find his father as soon as he could and to surely find him by July.

"You must find him before July," she said.

He was not to give up his horse under any circumstance whatsoever and if confronted by any man, he was to say he was a courier and he was to say it fast and to be in a hurry and otherwise to stay hush and learn what he needed to know by listening, like he was doing right now. She then told him there is a terror that men bring to the earth, to its water and air and its soil, and he would meet these men on his journey and that his father was one of these men, and then she paused and studied a minute and then she told him, without judgment, that someday he too might become one of these men.

"Be aware of who you take help from," she told him, "and who you don't take help from." Then she eyed him coldly and told him, to be safe, he must not take help from anyone.

"Don't trust anyone," she said. "Not man, nor woman nor child."

The jacket on the one side was dun gray in color, dyed of copperas and walnut shells. When she turned it inside out, it showed blue with similar braids of rank. She told him he was to be on whatever side it was necessary to be on and not to trust either side.

"Secure pistols," she said, "and do this as soon as you can. Gain several and keep them loaded at all times. If you must shoot someone, shoot for the wide of their body, and when one pistol is empty throw it away and gain the pistol of the man you have shot. If you think someone is going to shoot you, then trust they are going to shoot you and you are to shoot them first."

Her voice did not rise. It betrayed no panic. She instructed him with calmness and determination, as if the moment she'd anticipated had finally arrived and she was saying words to him she had decided upon a long time ago.

"Yes ma'am," he said quietly, and repeated her words back to her. "Shoot them first."

The dogs shivered and mewled and clacked their jaws. "Remember," she said, reaching her hands to his shoulders, "danger passes by those who face up to it."

He remembered too how she had told him at twelve years of age he was old enough to work the land, but he wasn't old enough to die for it. To die for the land, he had to be at least fourteen years old and now he was.

When she finished her instructions, he drew a bucket of icy water from the well and splashed himself down to the waist. He toweled himself dry and unfolded a clean linen shirt. He dressed in black bombazine trousers and a pair of his father's flat-heeled leather brogans and then he donned the shell jacket. His square hands and bony wrists extended beyond the jacket's cuffs while the trouser legs gathered at his shoe tops. He plucked at his cuffs and tugged at the bones to make room for his chest.

His mother observed to him that he had growed some on top, as if it were a mystery to her and his face colored in patches for in her voice was carried a mother's tenderness, but for the most she remained distant and did not change her mind and did not suggest he eat and sleep and wait until morning light before he departed.

After a time, long and purposeful, she cast her eyes on him, but she did not gift him with her smile. She reached up and he bent down and she hesitantly touched him at the side of his face. Her fingertips lingered on his cheek and neck as if she were not one with eyesight but was a blinded woman seeing with her fingers, and then she held a button and tugged and he felt as if she was pulling the inside of his chest.

It was then he realized just how sad and how futile his journey was to be. She was sending him in the direction of his own death and she could see it in no other way and she could do nothing else than send him off. Even if he was to return alive, she'd never forgive herself for risking her son's life for the sake of his father's life.

"You take off the coat," she said, changing her mind, and she helped him free the buttons and shuck the coat sleeves from his shoulders and arms. "Be a boy as long as you can. It won't be that much longer. Then use the dyed coat. You will know when."

"Yes ma'am." "

You are not to die," she said, though in her face loomed darkness.

"No ma'am."

"You will be back," she said, her eyes suddenly alive, as if they were eyes seeing the life past this life.

"Yes ma'am. I will be back," he said, glancing toward the darkness of the open door.

"You will promise," she said, commanding his attention.

"I promise."

"Then I will wait here for you," she said, and reached her other hand to his face and drew him to her as she raised her body to his and kissed his lips.

In that kiss was the single moment she reconsidered her imperative. It passed through her as if a hand of benediction. He waited for her to say more words to him, but she did not. He felt her blue eyes wetting his face. She kissed him again, more urgently this time, and they both knew she had to let him go and then she let him go. He stepped away, gave a final wave of his hand and then he left out the door.

Outside, in the cooling, anodyne air of the mountain reach, evening was fading into night. His mother's touch still warmed his neck, his lips still heated from her kiss. He bridled a cobby gray horse with pearly eyes, saddled up, and rode from the home place and down into the darkness that possessed the Copperhead Road. If he had looked back, he would not have seen his mother but the dogs sitting in the still open doorway, their cadent breathing slow and imperceptible.

It took half that night to leave the sanctuary of the home place, to leave the high meadow, the old fields, and descend the mountain switchbacks into the cold damp hollows and to leave the circuits of the hollows and ride through the river mists of the big bottom. The trees and ledges sheltered the starlight as he passed beneath them. The mountain night was uncommonly still and the moonlight eerily shuttered by drifting scud, but in unshrouded moments the moonlight broke through and found the hollows and in long moments he was bathed in its white light as if the hollows were not made of stone but were channels of mirrored glass. So bright was the light he could read the lines in his hands and the gritted swirls in his fingertips.

He was still a boy and held the boy's fascination for how light penetrates darkness, how water freezes and ice melts, how life could be not at all and all at once. How some things last for years without ever existing. He thought if the world was truly round he always stood in the center. He thought, Spring is turning into summer and I am riding south to meet it. He thought how his father was a traveling man and ever since he was a child he too dreamt of traveling most of all and now he was and he felt a sense of the impending.

He let float in the dark air his free hand and then raised it up and reached to the sky where his fingers enfolded a flickering red star. The star was warm in his hand and beat with the pulse of a frog or a songbird held in your palm. He caressed the star and let it ride in his palm and then he carried the star to his mouth where it tasted like sugar before he swallowed it.


THAT MORNING OF HIS leaving there was no sunrise. There was no reddening in the eastern sky but rather a lessening of darkness from black to gray by degree. The dark hours played with the trilling calls and countercalls of wood frogs on the edges of ponds. A flock of blackbirds bound north traced the night sky with their arrowed wings. The ledges leaked thin runnels of trickling icy water. From somewhere deep in the sanctuary of the laurels a vigilant stag was belling the herd.

Those close-walled hollows were deep and cold and sepulchral. Their towering bore in and seemed poised to close. The switchbacks were wet and their path of stones was smooth and slippery, and more than once the cobby horse slid and each time she did he tightened his legs on her stout barrel affording her what small surety he could. But frightened, she would halt and leg-stiff refuse to take another step. He sat her patiently and spoke softly into her flicking ears and after a while she would snort and begin to move.

The path continued its falling for mile upon mile into the green of the rising springtime. He let his feet slip from the stirrups and he lay back until his head was over her croup. He could not imagine coming down this road in darkness and spring runoff, but tonight that's what he was doing.

To reach the bridge that morning was as if to return from a long journey that began beyond the rim of the world. Memory of his mother and the home place traveled with him in only the vaguest sense and his sudden concern was that if he crossed the bridge he would cease to remember them altogether. He turned in his saddle and looked back to the place where he'd come from. He angered over the distance, the fastness and the resistance of the home place. How could a night be so long? How could a few miles suddenly be so far? How could a place be so singular and so selfish as to deny itself to your mind once you have left it?

His eyes were wet and for reasons he could not name his chest throbbed. He wiped at his stinging eyes and cursed out in the darkness, but he did not know what he was cursing. Just a boy's last curse when he's told he has to do something. Even if the boy secretly wants to do that something, by nature he will curse the redirection of his will. Where before he had possessed time, now time was no longer his. He was being sent into the world and him now fourteen years old and so ignorant of its ways.

When he crossed the bridge the land opened and spread and lay flat as if a length of ribbon unfurled on a cobbled lane. On the densing air was the smell of leaf mold and opening buds. The sound of running water filled his ears and then receded and then increased again as he approached the junction of waters where the Twelve Mile doglegged and plunged into the turbulence of the Canaan. He continued southeasterly to the roar of the spring runoff and the boulders knocking in their chambered course.

He'd not slept or eaten the whole of that night and his body was weak and qualmish. The land continued its widening and already the cobby horse was becoming too tired for the journey ahead. She blew heavy and shivered. The stones in her path were drenched with dew and her bare feet struck with increased concussion. Then she stumbled and stopped altogether and would not go forward. She snorted and tossed her head, slinging froth from her bit chain into the air. He kicked his heels into her flanks and slapped her rump, but she was unyielding. She cocked her head and flicked her ears forward and then back where they stayed.

Then he heard what she was listening to — the pinging sound a hammer makes on an anvil. Ahead was the little timbering village where old Morphew's mercantile stood on the way to the Greenbrier. He let her stand and shake out a repetition of long shivers that rippled her hide and once she settled he dismounted. He stroked her soft cheek and blew air into her wide waffling nostrils until she tossed her boxy head.

Her mouth was worn raw and bleeding where she'd worried the bit through the night. He told her she was surely in a state and he understood why because he was in one too, but it was going to be all right. He leaned into her left shoulder and when she gave him her weight, he folded her leg up. Her foot was heated and tender and the frog bleeding where it was penetrated by a sliver of shale in the shape of an arrowhead. With his folding knife he removed the stone sliver and she was relieved, but the damage was done. He set her foot down and with a coaxing of words, he was able to lead her forward.

Now he heard the squealing eeek of the wooden frame that held the suspended bellows, the rattle of chain as the leathers expanded and collapsed, wheezing spurts of pumping air. The ground of the forge was strewn with plowshares and coulters. Beneath the worktable was a comb of grass and on top was a clutter of hammers, chisels, and punches.

The smith hovered over the fire, intent on the blue-straw color crawling up the metal from the depths of the forge. Then he turned at the shoulders and quenched it in a banging hiss of steam. The smith, a bent and hunchbacked German, had forged the iron hook that hung in their chimney. He pointed their turning plow. He made his mother's knitting needles.

One end of Old Morphew's porch was clasped in the branches of a lilac bush and backset; on the other end was a long lean-to stable and gray smoke purled from a smokehouse chimney. A boy, not much younger than himself, was walking across the porch floor on his hands, the unhitched galluses of his denim overalls clicking across the boards. An upside-down pocket was sewn into his pant's leg and stems of black licorice sprang from it.

The hiss of quenching heat blunted the air as the smith again plunged the working end of his pliers into the slack tub. The boy walking on his hands stepped aside for Robey as he mounted the porch and then followed him inside. In the air was the rank sweetness of molasses and coffee, cured bacons and ham.

Old Morphew looked up from his ledger book as the door slapped shut but made no gesture of greeting. He was so much older than Robey remembered since last he had seen him, his chest now gaunt and his body cadaverous. His stertorous breathing came husky and tubercular. They held each other's gaze.

"Mister Morphew," he said, and in the spoken name of the man was his question to the man: Do you remember me? Do you know who I am?

Morphew let go his grasp of the plank table and made up his pipe with tobacco. For the pain of bursitis in his shoulder he lifted his arm over his head and stretched it out and then let it back down. Inside the mercantile the smith's pinging hammer was only a pitched ticktack sound.

"Get'cha some crackers and set down in that cane-bottom, soft-back chair," Morphew said. He pointed to the cracker barrel with his pipe stem and then took a tin can and drew molasses from a black spigot bunged into a cask. Beneath the cask the wooden floor was puddled with a wide black stain where the spigot leaked.

He took the offered can and dipped a cracker. He was hungry and his stomach had begun to gnaw. He ate another, but the gnaw would not be satisfied. While he ate, Morphew studied him from behind his ledger, and when he caught his eye Robey told him what he knew and what he was sent to do and asked where he might go to find the best fighting.

"I know that's where my father will be," he said.

"I ain't heard about Thomas Jackson dead," old Morphew said, pulling on his chin. "Thomas Jackson being dead is hard to imagine. I don't know if I can feature that."

"Ma says he's dead."

"Your mother would know such a thing. She has the gift," Morphew said. "Though I will say one thing to that."

"What's that?"

"Prophesying the death of a man at war seems a safe-enough adventure."

Morphew nodded toward the cracker barrel that he should fill his fist again, then told him what he had heard of the fighting but warned the news was a week old and even if it wasn't it was unreliable at best. He hooked his finger into the spigot and licked them clean.

"Where would I go to find the army?"

"Which army?"

"How many are there?" he asked. He felt his growing tiredness in the warm sweet room. He'd not slept the entire night and understood the ache in his belly to be as much of weariness as hunger. He settled more deeply into the soft-back chair, feeling as if heavy weights had been hung from his limbs.

"There's a lot of them," Morphew was saying. "Last I heard they were in the valley and then they were on the Rappahannock. There's a pile of newspapers there by your feet. You could read up on it, but I wouldn't trust 'em. It's news what's all thirdhand and second best, if you ask me."

"My mother told me to travel south and east to the valley and then down the valley."

"Far be it for me to contradict your mother, but that won't put you on the Rappahannock."

"Where's the Rappahannock at?" He could hear himself speaking the words. The river made sense to him. His father told him to always defend a river on the far bank rather than the near bank and if the near bank was to be defended then do it behind it rather than at the water's edge.

"You go east," Morphew said, and pointed in the direction of east with his pipe stem with such precision that Robey thought east must be a place just outside the wall of the mercantile. That's not so far, he thought.

"Ma told him she'd whip him and hate him forever if he went to war, but he went anyways."

"You can't pound out of the bone what's in the blood," Morphew said.

"He said it was in in my blood too."

"Yessir, he's the travelinist man I ever knew."

"You know you orta whittle a new bung for that molasses cask," Robey said after a lull in the conversation, but already his brain felt thick with tiredness and collapse.

He did not know how long he slept in the soft-back chair. It was a short dreamless sleep that concluded as quickly as it had begun. He could hear the ticktack of the hammer and smell the sweetness. The boy was staring at him upside down, his legs bent at the knees and thrown behind him.

Old Morphew was still at his ledger book holding himself erect on his stiff arms. Again he said Morphew's name as if he had just arrived.

"You ain't running away to fight, are you?" Morphew said sternly.

"No sir," he said, and he was beset with an urgency to get on his way. It was clear to him he never should have stopped. So early in his journey and already he'd conspired to delay himself at the mercantile. It was not his prerogative to doubt his mother's advice, was not his to question or confirm the recondite principles of her clairvoyance.

"You wouldn't lie to me?" Morphew demanded.

"I don't lie."

"No, I don't suppose you do." He pushed a pouch of smoking tobacco across his ledger. "Take this here for your father. He'll want it sure enough, and this too," he said, and pushed forward another pouch full of coffee beans. "He can settle up when he gets back."

"I will be leaving now," Robey said, and stood. "I have a long ways to go and I am anxious to get back soon."

"Good luck," Morphew told him and, stump-legged, followed him onto the porch, with the upside down boy tagging along. The sun had lifted from the horizon and held at a quarter in the sky — he'd slept that long. The cobby horse was lathered and woebegone, her head hanging on her neck. Parked beside the road was a work-sprained ox cart and the teamster carrying a bucket of water to the team. Roped inside the bed of the cart was a nailed coffin made of undressed white-bleached poplar.

"Who you got there?" Morphew yelled out from under the porch roof.

"Mister Skagg's boy," the teamster said, after he located the voice calling him.

"He used to live around here," Robey said.

"Wal', he don't no more," Morphew said.

They watched the teamster deliver another bucket to the thirsty oxen. He wore a black felt hat, a bright red shirt, and trousers ragged at his ankles. His unlined skin was the color of coffee.

"Where you bound from?" Morphew yelled.

"We come up from Lynchburg. Mister Skagg's boy died in hospital there and I am to bring him home."

"How'd he die?"

The teamster dragged his felt hat from his head and held it to his breast. He rubbed at his head trying to figure an answer.

"I just don't know, sir. He was asleep when it happened and didn't tell."

"Damned old fool," Morphew muttered, and then turned his attention to Robey. "It looks to me like you got to the bottom of that horse. How you gonna get where you're going on that ride?"

"I'll just have to walk when the time comes," he said, experiencing an awful sinking of the heart. One look at the cobby horse and he knew that time had come indeed.

"It's a long ways from here and it looks to me like the time is closer than you think. Maybe I can fix you up."

He looked to the teamster and then to the smith down the road at his forge and gestured that Robey should follow him. Behind the mercantile in the lean-to stable, a horse could be heard thrumming through its nose and stamping the wall. Morphew entered the shadowed light of the lean-to and when he returned he was leading the horse forward. It was coal black, stood sixteen hands, and it was clear to see the animal suffered no lack of self-possession.

"That is an oncommon horse," Robey said, unable to help himself in his admiration.

"He's a warm blood," Morphew said, "and I will tell you one thing. When he goes, he goes some bold."

"Who does he belong to?"

"The man who rode him in here died in that cane-bottom soft-back chair not a week ago and I buried him in the cemetery. That's to say the horse's ownership is in limbo but in my possession, so you can say he's mine right now."

"I have never seen a horse like that."

"The German says he's a Hanovarian. He's a fine horse, with an equable disposition, but I'll warn you, he don't much like other horses."

"Which side were he on?"

"The man or the horse?"

"It don't much matter, does it?"

"Not if you're dead now, does it?"

From the darkness of the stable's interior, Morphew fetched a bridle, blanket, and saddle with holsters draping the pommel. He then fished into the black space where the rafters crossed the beam.

"You know what these are?"

"Yes sir."


  • “A spare, classical quest story . . . With a horse like this, you just want to ride, and with descriptive powers such as he displays here, Olmstead makes the ride an exciting one, with just enough lean prose to keep the mystery of an event both in time and out . . . and just the proper amount of sharp description to keep us bound to whatever piece of earth the particular moment of the story happens to be grounded in. . . . An effective mix of stark classic narrative and uncloying nostalgia.”
    San Francisco Chronicle

On Sale
May 20, 2008
Page Count
229 pages
Algonquin Books

Robert Olmstead

Robert Olmstead

About the Author

Robert Olmstead is the author of eight previous books. Coal Black Horse was the winner of the Heartland Prize for Fiction. The Coldest Night was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Far Bright Star was the winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award. Olmstead is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an NEA grant and is a professor at Ohio Wesleyan University.

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