The Rebel Killer
© 2019 Paul Fraser Collard
Jack Lark is a defeated man. Soul-scarred after the campaign in northern Italy, he came to the United States desiring nothing but to deliver a letter from a mortally wounded comrade to his parents. He arrived in America as the South made its bid for independence, and accepted a job within the Union army as a bodyguard to a rich but foolish scion of a Boston family. Hated by his Irish ‘comrades’, Lark thought nothing of leaving the Union army following the defeat at Bull Run — and, in the woods, he found a new love and a new purpose — until Confederate raiders savagely destroyed every hope he had for a light beyond fighting, leaving his woman hanging from a tree. Now, beaten, shot, and without a home in the world, Jack Lark desires only one thing: Revenge.
Jack’s path to vengeance will ultimately take him ten miles north of Corinth, Mississippi, where the Union and Confederate armies will create the greatest two-day bloodbath yet seen in the Americas — though battles to come will exceed the butcher’s bill of Shiloh. The Rebel Killer covers nearly a year (July 1861 – April 1862) in which Lark is captured by Confederates, escapes wearing a stolen uniform, and makes his way across the South to find the raider who killed his love, seeking refuge with a family of freeholders during the wintry months before witnessing the battle around Fort Donelson and finally Shiloh. As with The True Soldier, The Rebel Killer focuses more on Jack’s character than battle. Although he’s heavily engaged throughout the novel, in small fights and epic battles, Jack is completely disconnected from the conflict: from his time spent with both Union and Southern soldiers, he sees little reason to villainize either side: regardless of their governments, the Union soldiers by and large want to preserve the best hope of liberty on the planet by keeping the Union intact: the southerners, most of whom don’t own slaves and jeer at the idea that they’re fighting to keep rich man’s property, insist that they’re simply defending themselves against an outside invasion of the government. Lark judges the fracas between brothers as a sad waste, and the idealism that inspires these men to war on one another throws his own motives for fighting — money and revenge, lately — into shame. Jack is a creature of darkness, excelling only in lies and violence, and his every attempt to find some other life for himself is always destroyed — but time and again, he finds some meager thread to hang on to. Here, befriending another young woman — a southern lass making her way across the country to find her husband — provides him moral pushback. Both Martha and her father urge Jack to consider a life beyond revenge.
Although I was disappointed at first by the generic villainy of the raider, Jack’s struggle with his conscience through the novel makes for a compelling read, especially when joined with the constant action and occasional humor that Collard provides. I appreciated some of the quirks of history that Collard wove into the narrative, like young soldiers before the battle decorating themselves with violets so the Yankees wouldn’t shoot him: that anecdote has come up in several Shiloh histories.
He felt the burn of frustration. He had dared to think of a different future, one where new skills would replace the ones he had learnt on the killing fields of battle. Yet he had just been pissing into the wind. Fate would not be denied. He was not destined to become a pioneer, a farmer, a father or even a husband. He was what he had always been: an impostor in a world that did not want him to succeed. He wanted to howl as the anger built inside him. Ahead the men moved forward slowly, covering the pair with their weapons. He watched them come, his eyes taking it all in as he started to plan. He would not get the new future he had begun to crave. But that did not mean he would accept his fate meekly. He would do the only thing he knew how to do; the only thing that he had ever found a talent for. He would fight.The Rebel Killer, Paul Fraser Collard