Skip to main content


Richard Mazziotti's "Brother's Keeper" took first place in the Suspense/Thriller category of the 2008 Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards. To read the grand-prize winning entry and other first-place finishers, click here.

April 8, 1862 – Elkton Journal: Pencilagraphs: Jonathan Hayes of Kite Hollow was saddened to have to report that 2 of his prize roosters and his pig were stolen from his barnyard. Yankee marauders are the suspected villains as they are thought to be nearby.

Evan MacBain flicked the reins of his father's solid old delivery wagon. The horses leaned into the traces and trudged. Alongside the rutted road, bees worked over spring blossoms.

"Solomon," MacBain said, addressing the very black man sitting behind him on the tailgate, "you're a Freed Man. What do you think about all this abolitionist stuff?” Without bothering for an answer, he went on. “Know what I think? I think the Yankees ought to go back north where they belong and leave us folks who know how to deal with Coloreds alone. Pa is afraid the Yankees might burn the mill." Evan rambled on without waiting for an answer.

Used to the boy's prattling, King Solomon Eustace Jones ignored the slights and ignorant trash-talk of the boss’s son. Solomon had been luckier than most. Long ago he had been purchased by a Mennonite family and immediately freed. They also taught him to read and write. Now he sewed up flour bags at Murdoch MacBain's mill.

Solomon didn't respond to Evan's questions. He felt no need to. He was an old black man doing what he ought to do and being what he ought to be.

It seemed.

But this black man did entertain definite views on the expanding war, none of which he could share with Evan MacBain or his employer. An ex-slave embracing abolitionism and sending helpful information to the Yankee army would not long avoid an ugly end if found out.

Solomon did labor at MacBain's Mill. But he also slid cryptic notes into certain sacks of flour just before he sewed them up.

Mill deliveries were mostly made during the day. They were also mostly made to women who were home alone, what with their men-folk often to war. Unhappily, Solomon was aware that more than one lonely female had succumbed to young Evan's good-looking charms.

Solomon's other business was best accomplished without the glare of attention. Several times Solomon tried to warn Evan off about the dangers of prodding neighborhood wives and daughters. "Young man like you, fulla juices, yassa. Best have a care though. Farmer cotches you, he be madder'n old Scratch." But Evan was young. And he enjoyed the delights of the flesh too much to pay any attention.

Maybelle Beaumont, the preacher’s daughter, had been a surprise that first time. Solomon wasn't with him for that delivery.

At first, Maybelle was all business. "Here, Evan MacBain. You'll have to carry those sacks inside in the back. I'm sure I can't move them.” She continued, “Mama and Papa are off to comfort Mrs. Oates who's come down with the pleurisy.”

With practiced ease, Evan swung a dusty twenty-pound sack on his shoulder. He followed the willowy, brown-haired girl around back and into the dark storeroom. He couldn't help but notice the enticement of her hips moving in the thin dress as she went up three stone steps and inside. Her heavy shoes clumped on the scarred wooden floor.

But because Maybelle was the preacher's daughter and a year or two older, she had not been connected in Evan's mind with his normally all-inclusive lascivious urges except as an anatomical interest during boring church services.

"Over here," she said, backing into a tight space. Evan reacted in predictable fashion to her nearness. He jumped at her touch as they bumped and maneuvered. Once she rested her hand for a moment on his arm, then brushed past.

"There's another," Evan said. He followed her out to the wagon and back again. The day grew more interesting as Evan delightedly moved her to his possibles list. Grinning, he followed her a second time.

Now more aware, Evan could swear she deliberately brushed her small, hard breasts against his arm. He stood awkwardly beside her in the dark storeroom, still a little uncertain as to the situation but with a familiar tingling in his groin. She moved. His smile grew as he saw her hips and legs outlined in the thin dress against the sun as she started to pass outside.

Maybelle turned and stared back at him for a minute. She seemed to make up her mind. "Want to see the choir loft?"

"What? Huh? The choir loft? Uh…" He was momentarily stumped.

"Yes, Evan MacBain, the choir loft.” She sighed. “Sometimes the Holy Ghost appears there. Want to see?" She turned and was gone.

Still not entirely certain that he wasn't being led to some kind of a prayer meeting, Evan followed.

The church's storm shutters were habitually closed during the week permitting only an occasional shaft of light through cracks and knotholes. Right next to the bell rope a narrow stairway led up into the darkness. Evan could hear Maybelle nearing the top of the steps. He started up, promptly bumping his head on a low beam. “Ow, dammit!” The words escaped his lips before he could stop.

He heard a quiet laugh. Evan’s fears of a possible religious session receded by the second. He heard her moving about. Then silence.

Through the trap door, Evan’s head rose above the floor. In the dark, he could just make out a pale shape, apparently lying on dark seat cushions pulled to the floor behind the choir railing. Maybelle had rucked her dress up almost to her waist.

Frantic with lust, he practically tore his pants down, almost falling over with the effort. At last he managed to twist around to face Maybelle's imperative attentions.

Maybelle Beaumont saw her promised holy ghost almost immediately.

Solomon sat on the hard wagon seat as he and Evan neared the Beaumont's house. The preacher's buggy was not in evidence. Solomon watched sourly as Evan's optimism soared.

With characteristic eagerness Evan told him, "Solomon, you stay with the wagon. I'll take care of this delivery to the Beaumonts."

"Yassa. I curl up here then," Solomon said with a sigh. Solomon had been a little surprised to discover that Evan was evidently poking the preacher's daughter. Beaumont's was one of the stops where Solomon's notes were dropped off for forwarding north.

Evan ignored Solomon's distaste for his lascivious activities. He was encouraged by the lack of a buggy; he was hoping to find her alone again. Evan was bewitched by visions of her limbs and bosoms showing white in the choir loft gloom.

He unloaded the flour sack Solomon pointed out. No one was about as he dumped it quickly in the storeroom. He hurried to the church. The outer door was just ajar. It creaked as he pushed his way inside.

"Maybelle?" he whispered loudly. He thought he heard her move about overhead. He started to shrug off his braces as he made his way up the steps, remembering just at the last second to duck to miss the low beam. He couldn't see her as he emerged through the trapdoor at the top of the stairs. I wonder what game she's playing now. Evan was starting to breathe hard with expectation. "Maybelle? Where are you?" He giggled.

He groped his way in the darkness and got clear of the trapdoor.

Suddenly, it slammed closed behind him! Evan jumped about a foot in the air. "Dammit, Maybelle, you scared the hell out of me," he yelled.

He turned to see...


The board caught him right on his ear; an explosion of pain in his head so contrary to what he was expecting that he simply knelt there, stunned.

A fist punched into his chest.

His breath whooshed out.

Evan fell in a heap, his mouth working like a fish out of water. Tears sprang from his eyes. A boot hooked into his side. Sharp pain announced damaged ribs. Evan curled into a ball as more boots and fists worked him over.

"That's enough. Don't want him out just yet." The voice was low and choppy. Through a red haze of pain Evan thought it might be Maybelle's cousin, Rafe. Rough hands pulled him up.

Another voice. This one high-pitched and whiney. "How's it feel, boy? Ah want him awake when ah start cuttin’ him." Evan recognized the voice of Emile Slaughter. He was the husband of one of the first woman whose delivery favors Evan had delighted in.

"Y’all made some mistakes, boy. Looks like y’all got least one bastard started in the valley. But no more after today, MacBain." Evan rolled about, crying with the pain of his beating.

Ropes cut into his wrists and ankles. He was tied, spread eagled, between the choir railing and some heavy pews.

"Wha', what are you doing? Wa-wa-wha’doyouwant?" Evan gibbered with fear.

"What we want, MacBain, is your jewels,” Slaughter’s screechy voice rose with each word, “your pizzle, boy, your tickler." Evan went numb with fear. His brain could simply not comprehend what was happening to him.

Rafe spoke again, accompanying his words with vicious slaps. "Mr. Slaughter, here, has first butcher, dontcha see, you sonofabitch. Y’all got his Missy knocked up with y’all’s bastard."

Evan was speechless with fright. Between slaps that sent bright shards flashing though his head, he caught glimpses of a long knife in Slaughter's hand.

"Ahhhrgh, no! Wait! Ummmph! Ow! No!"

Rafe continued to hit him as Evan struggled to stay away from the knife.

"And now Maybelle. Oh yes! Y’all think we din't know about Maybelle?" Rafe said. "She's off to her aunt's while we see if y’all've planted another bastard. I wonder, ary more about? What do y’all think Emile? Should we check around?"

"No! Ah'm takin' that what’s rightfully mine now. Ah'm cutting it off, boy." He grinned at Evan. "Then ah'm gonna feed it to my pig, hear?"

Rafe stopped hitting Evan. “Look out, boy! Here ‘e come!” He watched, panting from his exertions as Slaughter moved nearer with the knife.

"Think ah'm gonna raise your little bastard, do yah?" Slaughter fumbled at Evan's pants, a righteous gleam in his eye. "Well ah'm not, boy. Ah'll feed your get to my pig the minute it be born." He yanked on Evan's waistband and started a high-pitched giggle. "And when your bastard drops, it can join its daddy's equipment in that pig's belly. Oh yes. That'll be one well-fed pig, it will. Maybe we'ens‘ll have it for dinner after it grows big and fat on you and your bastard."

Evan couldn't take his eyes from the approaching knife. He kicked and rolled, trying to draw his middle away, but only succeeded in swinging wildly near the blade.

"Please, please. No. Please." Evan was sobbing; his voice was hoarse in his dry throat; his eyes showed white as the knife gleamed.

Slaughter grabbed at him roughly and pulled, stretching him, hurting him. He laid the blade on his skin for the cut.

No! I…”


Time slowed, stretched. Evan watched the top of Emile Slaughter's head spray apart, the farmer’s eyes bulged out from the pressure of lead pellets tearing through his brain. The hand that had hold of Evan's privates jerked painfully once, then released. The knife flew into the pews below. Slaughter slumped forward on top of Evan as if to embrace him. Evan stared straight down inside the man's head. He screamed, threshing wildly, and threw up.

Rafe, who had his back to the now open trap door, started to turn. He was struggling to pull a revolver out of his waistband when Solomon discharged the second barrel into his chest. It, too, was loaded with birdshot. But at such close range, the effect was the same as getting hit with a small cannonball. Rafe literally flew up and backwards to land draped over a choir loft pew. His booted feet rattled five or six times on the wood floor. And he was quiet.

Smoke, fear, and the sweetish smell of blood combined to give Evan the dry heaves. What was left of Emile Slaughter was still almost on top of him, dripping blood, puke and gore onto his chest.

Solomon laid the empty double barrel on the floor and pushed on up through the trap door. He rolled Slaughter's body off of Evan and cut the ropes binding him.

"Git them trousers up." Solomon was terse and decisive.

Evan kept trying to wipe the red and gray matter from his shirt.

"Forget ‘bout that! Git dressed, stupid fool. We gots to git out of here." Solomon expertly rifled the pockets of both bodies with one hand while he gathered up their pistols.

The shock of hearing Solomon talk to him in such a demanding way brought Evan out of his daze. Panic welled in his throat. At first only guttural sounds came from him.

"Arrrgh! Gaaah!" His voice rose as he found words. "Yes! Yes! Get! Got to get out of here. What'll we do? Oh my God, they're both dead!" Evan yanked his trousers up, wincing at pain in his ribs. He scrabbled for the stairs.

"Boy, git the knife!" Solomon was insistent behind him.

"What? Wha'?" Evan could make no sense of what was being said to him. He stumbled at the bottom of the stairs. The urge to run was overwhelming.

Solomon gripped his shirt. "Stop, stupid chile! The knife! Fell in them pews. Git the knife!"

Dazed, Evan tried to comply. He finally saw the knife, silvery in the pale light. It had splintered a gouge out of a wooden pew. "Ah, ah, ah!" He couldn't bring himself to touch it.

"Lordy Jesus above." Solomon pushed him toward the door and grabbed the knife.

Back at the wagon, Evan’s panic was all-consuming. "Hurry, hurry!" he screeched. He jumped up on the seat and grabbed for the reins, forgetting even to untie the team.

"Stop!" Solomon's hand was like iron on his wrist. "Stay still. Git aholt of yourself, boy. I have to do something."

Evan saw a face on Solomon he had never seen. It was deadly earnest. Gone was the dumb, no account ex-slave. Evan was shocked into silence and sat heavily on the wagon seat.

Solomon tossed his shotgun in the back and reached under the wagon seat. He yanked up a loose board to reveal a space that Evan had not known was there. He pulled out an old feed sack and took from it a battered blue forage cap. He stuffed the pistols and knives he had taken from Evan's attackers back in the bag.

The cap had no insignia on the front, but crossed sabers could still be made out stitched in the top. Evan stared as Solomon ran back to the church and threw the cap on the ground beside the steps. He stepped on it, grinding it into the dirt. He then kicked at the door, splintering a lower panel.

In seconds he was back at the wagon, untying the team. He clambered up beside Evan, taking the reins from him.

"Walk on," he said to the team, chuckling the reins lightly on their backs. The horses turned slowly, plodding back down the hill the way they had come.

"Go faster. For God's sake, make them go faster." Evan stood in his need to get away from the images, the stink, the bodies.

"Set down and shut up. We’ah makin’ a normal delivery. Saw nothin’, nossir. Anythin’ happen here musta come on after we left. And boy, our tracks gonna to be quiet-like. Not all excited and whirligig like we runnin’."

Evan sat down, trying to make the least bit of sense out of what happened. Absently he picked at bits of bone and brain on his shirt and jacket.

"Cut open one of the flour sacks."


"Dammit, stupid boy. You make problems, you cattin’ about. Tried to warn you. Just laugh at old, used up nigger man, huh. Well now you'd better listen to this nigger man because he be the only friend you got."

Evan's jaw dropped. He started to protest, "You can't talk to me..."

Solomon backhanded him across the face. "Boy, I'd just as soon left you to them’s tender butchering. You deserve it. But would’a drawn even mo’ attention where not needed."

Evan shut up. The day's events so overwhelmed him that had Solomon sprouted horns and a forked tail, he would not have been more surprised. And his mind simply could not comprehend the change in Solomon's manner.

"Cut open a flour sack."

Evan did.

"Now take a handful of flour and smear it all over yo’ front like as if a bag you was carrying broke open."

Evan scooped flour all over himself.

"Good, cain’t tell that you've been bled on. Hit some up on yo’ face. Good. Now y’all take the reins, while I clumb in back. We make the deliveries, juss like per usual, you hear me boy?"

Evan nodded dumbly. Solomon handed him the reins and got into the back of the wagon. He carefully reloaded the shotgun. Evan shook, but did as Solomon told him.

The rutted springtime road was running water in places as Evan drove the team, his mind in a sickening whirl. He had been driving less than ten minutes…


The shotgun went off right behind him!


"Jesus Christ, Solomon!" Evan jerked around, the whites of his eyes showing.

Solomon responded by jumping out of the wagon and splashing through the mud to gather a brace of grouse where they had fallen near some grape vines. He held them up with a grin on his face. "Yassa, Mist' MacBain. We got us nice birds. Tha's why we carry this here ol' smokepole. Yassa, Mist' MacBain, yassa."

Solomon sat in the back plucking feathers for the rest of the trip, just an old black man being what he ought to be and doing what he ought to do.

April 15, 1962 – Elkton Journal

Pencilagraphs: Minister Beaumont of the 1st Brethren Church reports the unfortunate passings of Rafe Lockerby and Emile Slaughter. These two good Christian men were murthered in his Church at the hands of Yankee marauders. May their souls rest in peace.

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Having an Online Presence

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Having an Online Presence

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is not having an online presence.

Shirlene Obuobi: On Writing From Experience

Shirlene Obuobi: On Writing From Experience

Physician, cartoonist, and author Shirlene Obuobi discusses the writerly advice that led to writing her new coming-of-age novel, On Rotation.

WD Poetic Form Challenge

WD Poetic Form Challenge: Kimo Winner

Learn the winner and Top 10 list for the Writer’s Digest Poetic Form Challenge for the kimo.

8 Things Writers Should Know About Tattoos

8 Things Writers Should Know About Tattoos

Tattoos and their artists can reveal interesting details about your characters and offer historical context. Here, author June Gervais shares 8 things writers should know about tattoos.

Tyler Moss | Reporting Through Lens of Social Justice

Writing Through the Lens of Social Justice

WD Editor-at-Large Tyler Moss makes the case for reporting on issues of social justice in freelance writing—no matter the topic in this article from the July/August 2021 issue of Writer's Digest.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Intentional Trail

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Intentional Trail

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character leave clues for people to find them.

Sharon Maas: On Books Finding the Right Time

Sharon Maas: On Books Finding the Right Time

Author Sharon Maas discusses the 20-year process of writing and publishing her new historical fiction novel, The Girl from Jonestown.

6 Steps to Becoming a Good Literary Citizen

6 Steps to Becoming a Good Literary Citizen

While the writing process may be an independent venture, the literary community at large is full of writers who need and want your support as much as you need and want theirs. Here, author Aileen Weintraub shares 6 steps in becoming a good literary citizen.

Daniel Paisner: On the Pursuit of a Creative Life

Daniel Paisner: On the Pursuit of a Creative Life

Journalist and author Daniel Paisner discusses the process of writing his new literary fiction novel, Balloon Dog.