Author's note: In the movie 'Sommersby', Horace Townsend assumes the identity of Jack Sommersby after the latter's death and is subsequently executed for a murder committed by the real Jack Sommersby many years previously. He leaves behind a widow, Laurel, and two children, Robert (the biological child of the real Jack Sommersby and Laurel) and Rachel (the biological child of Horace and Laurel). Jack and Horace were both Confederate soldiers who met while in prison for deserting the Confederate army. Horace was from Virginia, and Jack was from Vine Hill, Tennessee, where Laurel and Robert still resided at the end of the Civil War).
"Mama, did my daddy really kill that man?" Rachel was about six years old when she asked the inevitable question. Laurel had known that it would come some day and had an answer prepared.
"No, honey. There were some bad men who made it look like your daddy had killed someone because they wanted to get him into trouble. They were able to fool the judge into thinking that he had done it."
"Why couldn't my daddy have just told the judge that he didn't do it?"
"Well, sweetie, there were quite a few of them and only one of your daddy. That's why the judge believed them instead of him."
"That's not fair!" Rachel cried.
Her mother gave her a hug. "I know it isn't, love. But just remember that your daddy is up in heaven now. He sees everything you do and he is so proud of you when you do the right thing. He loves you so very much, Rachel. The day you were born he was so happy he danced in the field and didn't care who saw him. And even though he's up in heaven now he still loves you very much. It makes him so happy when something good happens to you and when you feel sad he is crying right along with you."
"Did it hurt my daddy when they put that rope around his neck?" Rachel's bottom lip was quivering.
"No honey, it happened very quickly and he didn't feel a thing."
"I wonder what the very last thing he ever saw was."
"The very last thing he ever saw was me saying good-bye to him, sweetie."
Rachel often walked up the hill and sat looking at the tombstone. "John Robert Sommersby 1831-1867. Beloved husband and father. Citizen of Vine Hill". Her mother made sure that the ground around it was always kept meticulously clean, and in the summer flowers grew there and birds sang. It was a quiet and peaceful place to come to when she needed to be alone. Often she wondered how different her life would have been if her father had lived. Most of her friends at school still had their fathers, and they did things like take them fishing and come to school on special days like Christmas programs. Every year on father's day her friends made special cards or gifts for their fathers. Rachel always brought a big bouquet of flowers to leave beside the tombstone that day. Usually she stayed for a short visit as well. Sometimes she talked to him, asking him what it was like in heaven, whether people really sat on clouds and played harps. The day she won the spelling bee at school right after she told her mother about it and showed her her ribbon she had won she came to tell him too. And the day Obadiah Walker pushed her down and she skinned her knee she told him about that too. She asked him if he had ever known any mean people like that himself. Sometimes she wondered whether he could really hear her. She didn't think that there was any harm in believing that maybe he could.
When she was a few years older she started bringing her father's well-worn copy of The Ilead with her when she came to sit by his grave. She had stolen it from Robert's suitcase the night before he moved away, carefully replacing all the other items in the suitcase exactly as they had been so that Robert would notice nothing amiss until it was too late. She believed that her father would have wanted his book to stay here in Tennessee where he was rather than go up north with Robert. She spent hours reading to him from it. She felt especially close to him when she did that, almost as if he were sitting right beside her listening to every word. She supposed that Robert must have felt that way too when he had read to Robert when Robert was a little boy.
Another childhood memory that Rachel would always carry with her was that of Louisa Perkins, a girl she had gone to school with who had had no father. Rachel knew that of course there had had to have been a father at some point, but Louisa's mother had had no husband at the time Louisa was born. Rachel remembered how the other students had laughed at Louisa and called her a bastard. Obviously being a bastard was much worse than being the daughter of a man who had been hung for murder, as the other students had never shown anything but pity for Rachel. Rachel remembered Louisa's head hung low in shame and the tears in her eyes. Those tears tore at Rachel's heart. She herself had always been exceptionally nice to Louisa and had never called her names. She realized that the girl shouldn't be blamed for her parent's mistake and that it could have just as easily been herself rather than Louisa in Louisa's position. The two fatherless girls often ate lunch together, united in their loss although it was for two completely different reasons. One to be pitied and the other to be shamed.
Everyone was always so very nice to Rachel, everyone except one man. His name was Orin Meacham and he was one of her neighbors. He hobbled around on his wooden foot with his face in a scowl most of the time. He seemed to have a special hatred for Rachel, although Rachel couldn't fathom why. She knew that she had never done anything to him. Rachel's mama had told her that she should be mice to Mr. Meacham because Mr. Meacham had helped her a lot on the farm when her daddy had went away for a while and then come back, which had happened before Rachel had been born. Rachel found that hard to believe.
The number of times she had wished that it was Mr. Meacham lying beneath the small white cross instead of her daddy, Rachel couldn't begin to guess. She really tried to put that thought out of her mind. The minister at the church said that it was a sin to think that way, and if he said it then it must be true.