The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Barb

 

 

FMan Plans, God Laughs
Part of a sequence of stories, following 'In Earnest'. Follow the link to see the story order

My younger brother enlisted before the ink was dry on the Declaration of War. Fending off pleas of patriotism and duty, I stayed behind to tend ailing parents and a new bride. This is the reason why I never signed up until it was in its third year. The best reason anyhow, for the real one is much darker.

It's not that I ignored the war. How could I when the newspapers were full of it and my students, young as they were, clamored to become part of it? Indeed, each took up their paper swords at recess to joust and slash at the—thankfully—invisible enemy in the courtyard. Once when Josie and I were taking a stroll through town as was our habit after dining, we were stopped by a group of boys celebrating their impending enlistment. They were asking all the older men they saw for advice. At twenty-three, I didn't consider myself old. I told them that very thing. They all laughed and said I should sign up with them. There'd been talk of the Conscription Act after all, why wait? The lot of them were like errant Thoreau's, each foregoing what he had in hand to gladly seek out their own impervious swamps*, far away from city and town life. But at what cost would they find their wilderness? My brother's price was far too high.

Alan. Almost two months had passed since I received word he had been lost in battle, and I was still shaken. Not that anyone other than my wife knew this. If you were to see me in the classroom, you would have said, He handled it so well. He went right on with his duties and never complained. He was a wonderful example for us all. None of this is true. Secretly, I was an utter coward, making my way in the changed world as best I could. I suppose his death was the driving force behind my ultimate enlistment. No patriotic thoughts of the Union swept through my mind when I signed the papers, I only wanted to make Alan's death mean something.

That was over two years ago.

I remember Camp Meigs with the fondest of regards. I was studying the shiny buttons on my coat that Josie had made for me, remembering how her lips pinched white as we said our goodbyes at the train station, when Colonel Lowell introduced you.

"Oh, hell, no." The murmured epithet and subsequent jab to my ribs from Corporal Atherton to my right made me raise my head.

You were a tall rawboned youth, Scott Lancer, bright and shiny in your too short-in-the-cuffs issued uniform. And you had no idea you'd already been weighed, judged and found lacking, but maybe your naiveté is what saved you, at least in the beginning.

You first became commander, and then became brother. And while I knew from the moment I met you that you were someone special—truly I did not know the half of it.

#-#-#-#-#

I, along with most of the others, watch the two men fight with some expectation. Although I am not a gambler, I do like a good match. As each blow lands, we yip and yowl out encouragement to which man we prefer. It's quite a sight, blood and sweat spotting the ground in equal amounts, under a sky blue enough to take Josie for an outing. Nothing at camp to occupy a man but infernal drills and maneuvers, the wondering over what the next days would deliver. I would have gone mad if I hadn't packed a few books. It wouldn't be too long before orders were written, however. Rumors in the camp spoke of Company B travelling to Mississippi, of all places. A hamlet known as Vicksburg. We gather around the map before reveille one morning to find it festooned to the side of the state much like a leech. It is a long way from Boston.

The match was made to settle a paltry grievance, without your permission.

With time, the fight turns sluggish. Both of the company's Corporals, Jimmy Atherton and Jack Mills, are wearing down, painted with reddened bruises. Atherton is the instigator, swearing that Mills took his pair of knitted socks. Now they are fit to damage each other. You watch the proceedings with a sharp eye, knowing full well that if Captain Miles were to ride up you would lose your command for letting the fight go ahead. But Company B, in the space of two short months, has their own way of settling matters.

Your eyes sweep around the tight circle, taking in the glee on the faces of the soldiers. Is it youthful indecision, or some inherent wisdom that made you hesitate? And while you wait, the few minutes of violence between the two corporals erase the drudgery, the complaints and the troubles of the men surrounding them.

Atherton lands a blow that sends Mills reeling. Large in size, he doesn't go down, merely staggers. And aims back toward Atherton.

"That's enough," you bark and step into the circle of blue uniforms. "The fight is over."

You and Atherton make eye contact. Atherton hears you but the corporal twists back to his opponent and thrusts a straight-armed punch at Mills' jaw. You can never trust a Maine boy.

When Mills crumples to the ground, you stride up to the corporal in your serious long-legged gait. Just as the victor turns, you swing out a heavy round-house blow of your own that sends Atherton down beside the man he'd bested.

"You ever disobey an order of mine again," you tell the stunned and blinking Atherton, "there will be worse for you." You straighten your spine and glare at each of your men, including me. Every single one of us silent now.

"Any more disagreements, save them for the Rebels. We're going to be on the move soon enough." You growl like a bear, waiting to lunge. "Now get these soldiers out of here."

The men, most of them years older than yourself, leap to do your bidding. A smile threatens your face.

Company B knew you as an able rider, could read and write, and issue commands with the best of the regiment's officers, but until then we didn't know we had a leader.

#-#-#-#-#

We reach our place of encampment—near the leech called Vicksburg—under cover of night. It had nothing to do with Army subterfuge, rather we had pushed the 83rd Ohio Infantry ahead of us like slow sheep. I didn't know at the time how the military expected already exhausted men to fight. Thank God for horses.

The 83rd are a curious bunch. I notice in some men there is a hunger for rank. And, indeed, Lieutenant Cassidy has the disease. Something else about him strikes me as odd, but I push it off as enthusiasm for the job at hand. Travelling with a man for days on end, allows for certain piques to show through the armor. You are as open as sunshine. Simply put, we can rely on you, and that is no trifling matter.

I shudder when I think about that very first battle. I'll say no more than that.

We mourn the loss of Captain Miles and Private Anderson as no others after, for they are the first. We present a pathetic spectacle of dusty, dirty, ragged men, faces turned down. We are lost, looking for someone to hold us together—it had to be you. With the grace of hindsight, what a terrible burden for someone so young! You bloomed, but it isn't without its scars.

It is there in Mississippi you start to write: the Captain's good wife, Anderson's mother and father. By the end of the campaign, you are in danger of running out of nibs.

#-#-#-#-#

Whenever Colonel Lowell makes regimental rounds, it is a sign something was afoot. His speech is short and to the point. "Formal orders will be coming through your officers, but you may as well hear it now: We're to prepare for early maneuvers. We'll travel fast and light. Leave all unnecessary items behind for the trains to gather up." He pauses to rally the men. "There's a battle in the hills of Virginia, gentlemen, and General Grant wants us there."

After his customary pleasantries, repeated company after company, he takes you aside.

"Lieutenant Lancer? I hear you did a fine job with the 83rd at Vicksburg. From all accounts a tough fight."

"Yes, sir. Colonel Lowell, I can assure you these men are still ready to fight. They're as willing as any."

"I know that, Lieutenant," he says softly. "I know that." Ten years older than you, but younger than most men of his rank, he almost sounds like a father, a wealth of experience threading his weary words.

"I'm told," Lowell continues, "that you have some experience with bookkeeping. Fastidious was the word that was used."

You droop like a leaky aeronautical balloon.

"I suspect, sir, that my proficiency may be exaggerated. But I do have experience with credits and debts, general accounting."

"I have need for you at regimental headquarters to keep up with required reports, muster figures, payable accounts, communication to Washington…well, all of it."

"A staff officer, sir?"

"You sound aghast, Lieutenant."

"With all due respect, no."

Your bluntness startles the colonel to silence. His eyes narrow. "Do you know what you're saying?"

"I want to be with my men. For the battles ahead."

"That's very commendable, of course. But I need someone I can depend on, too. The families of the fallen must know if their loved ones are sick, missing or dead. The government requires their figures," He chuckles, but there is no mirth. "Simply put, the Cavalry not only traverses on horses, but on paper as well. What can I do to persuade you?"

"Nothing, sir. I'm quite happy where I am."

"I could order you, Lieutenant," and his voice is the softest yet. But he chuckles again. "Many of your peers would leap at the chance. A promotion would be forthcoming. You would not go forward."

"At the risk of being insubordinate, I would refuse the orders." Your head dips to the side, wary. "If I may ask, did my grandfather have anything to do with this request?"

"You are verging on insubordination now." Colonel Lowell sighs, a sound like rustling leaves. "It would be a safe position, yet you decline. I have just one question: Why?"

You come to attention so quickly the buttons on your coat are in danger of snapping off with the strain. "I don't wish to be safe." Then you sweep out your hand out to encompass the tents, horses and men of the company. "This is where I need to be."

His eyes round, as if finding something wildly unexpected underneath a microscope lens, and claps you on the shoulder. "Good man."

But I notice, and you must have realized as well—he never answers your question.

#-#-#-#-#

"Little Phil", a swarthy Irishman from rural Ohio with long arms, short legs and an unforgettable bullet-shaped head, arrives at camp with all the pomp and circumstance befitting his station. Sheridan's visit creates not a little hullaballoo, for General Grant has poised him to command the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac. But we are secretly excited to see his famous horse, Rienzi. We snicker at the thought of General Sheridan shinnying up his saber to mount that overly tall animal.

But we feel dazed and important that he should meet with our regiment and company.

We take a vote, the whole of us, that if we can't all get a picture together with Sheridan then you are the one. It is unanimous—almost. Corporal Atherton, that Maine boy, is always a hard-head. We show him the way of it, however.

You look splendid in your cleaned and patched jacket—if a bit too tall—with the General.

#-#-#-#-#

You never lose your composure in front of the men, but to some in command you present a different side. We ride up to headquarters, faces smeared and angry. You leap to the ground and come off shouting. "Damn it to hell, my men just drove the Johnnies back two miles. We broke their line." Your rage is all-encompassing, a scatter-shot of condemning words. "Where were D and E companies? No support from anybody, and damned well not from you. My men are bloodied and I can't even get back my wounded."

You round on the Major's assistant, his uniform pristine and tidy, and I step back because I had already been through two barrages today and didn't want to go through a third. Your words cut a swath as true as any saber, leaving both officers flushed scarlet by the time you left.

On a delayed fuse, the staff man explodes. "Lancer ought to be court-martialed. He's a disgrace to the uniform, to the entire regiment." He glares at your retreating back. "Mutinous. He should be relieved and placed under arrest."

The Major cocks his head and stares at me. "Well, Sergeant? What should I tell Colonel Lowell?"

I straighten to attention, acutely aware of my dishevelment in the neatness of the tent. "If he goes, I expect the company would leave with him, Sir."

"And you?"

The first smile of the day ghosts my lips. "I would lead the parade."

He shifts in his chair at my honesty. Then speaks to his man, "Sit down, Hawkins. There will be no court-martial today." He sweeps his eyes back to me. "Lancer is a fighter. We need him."

I salute the truth of that statement, if not the man, and follow you back to camp with our mounts.

#-#-#-#-#

Our winter camp in Virginia is peaceful, for all the violence of that spring and summer. Despite our complaints, our fears, our youth and inexperience, we are veterans. Some of us came to it kicking and screaming, others—like you—with quiet acceptance. We quickly learn that a garrisoned regiment is a bored one as well.

You take to walking through camp in the late evenings. It's jokingly passed around that we could set our watches by the ringing of Lieutenant Lancer's spurs after mess. Amid the drilling and frequent picket lines, you break up four skirmishes, orchestrate two snowball fights, learn all the non-rules for dirty poker (losing six dollars in the process) and borrow my Thoreau book for the tenth time.

You also find Private Paul Merrell, a man who didn't want to be found.

In came weather and holidays, and most importantly, letters from home. Like starving men at a banquet, we fall on them, sipping and tasting by candlelight until our eyes give out. You sit on the makeshift feed bin by the corral, with that goliath of a horse leaning over your shoulder nibbling at your sleeve. In due time, you push Mortimer's ugly nose away and carefully fold the letters along their creases and into your pocket, with a small grin. We know by then, from a few misplaced and outspoken jibes by Lieutenant Willoughby, that someone besides a grandfather and great-aunt resides in Boston. Her name is Julie.

Josie sent her own lengthy missives and scented envelopes, and I wear a similar grin.

It snows mid-December, bringing a welcome change from the cold rain, leaving the sky heavy with winter cloud. One night, snowflakes twist down like millions of soft feathers. I look up to the dizzying shower until something catches my eye near the creek's edge.

A tall figure in a greatcoat.

Like me, the new snow catches you by surprise. Peering upwards, you use both hands to make a tunnel for your eyes, watching the slow drifts of white. Your head cants, studying the creek, and you glance to your right and left to make sure no one is watching. Satisfied you're alone, you lift the tails of your coat and take a running leap onto the ice-encrusted water, sailing across to land in an undignified heap on the other side, laughing. Getting up, you dust off the snow. But you seem to sense someone is close by and I edge back under cover of the tent flap, thinking you have seen me. By chance, an owl hoots and takes flight. You shake your head and continue dusting.

Framed by a square of moonlight, you lift one arm and wave. Your shadow on the snow waves back. What are you doing? Once again, you check to make sure no one is watching. Then you strike a pose. Your left hand creeps up and out to your side as if hailing a Hansom cab on Federal Street after the theater. The right arm is held in circular fashion to the front. You step forward, and glide to the left, balancing on your toes. Back and forth you go. All the while keeping an eye on your shadow. You're smiling so wide I can see the white of your teeth.

I laugh. It's a creaky sound to my ears. It's been a long time, with the fighting, the marches, and the losses, it's been a long time since I've laughed aloud. Remaining where I am, I start to move, too. Stepping, dipping, even turning a time or two, with Josie in my arms.

You glance my way again, but I don't care.

In late-December your walks became more plentiful, something of a bad habit, as Lieutenant Willoughby was wont to say. It is the incident with Private Merrell that drove the activity, I believe, for he was caught doing the unthinkable just a week before.

As a group we are nonplussed, the man never said anything. No one knew horses as well, or could ride better, but there was something so afraid and careful about him, picking his way around the camp and corrals.

Perhaps Merrell epitomizes how we all feel about our place in the war, but are too duty-bound to say. I hate myself for thinking that way. The truth is, I yearn with every fiber of my being to be back in my little town, teaching in my classroom—despite the most cantankerous of students—and to have Josie's soft hand safely tucked inside mine.

You went to battle and killed. You were often bloodied in return. You risk your own life to bring back our wounded. You bury stalwart men in poor ground, write missives and send condolences to wives and parents. You lead us every day. Yet Merrell's attempt at running away stayed with you. For a reason I wouldn't find out until much later.

I would never have guessed we share a commonality.

 

 

Chapter Two

The threads of my sewn-on chevrons are snipped away. Spring brings many changes, not the least of which a commission. I quickly mustered into the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry as a sergeant, taking what was offered without much thought, and with no more grand illusions than a newborn babe. And yet I'm to be a second lieutenant. I couldn't help but wonder what Alan would have thought, as he complained about his officers quite often in his letters.

Josie will be happy with the additional pay increase as I know it pains her—as it does me—to borrow from her father while I'm away. But like spring, accepting the commission means change, of course. I'll fill an officer position in another company which has lost theirs. For now, I'm 'unattached' and happily remain with B Company.

Our replacement captain for Miles is grim because I've chosen another officer to do the honors.

Atherton brings the flag and unfurls it beside the tent. You beam as you call out the attention to orders. The company snaps to and I repeat the words of the Oath of Office—with a stumble here and there that sets you grinning—despite my doubts. You produce a set of shoulder straps from your pocket. The cavalry yellow is somewhat dulled, marred with a slash of brown that looks suspiciously like dried blood. When I catch your eye, you shrug and tap the white scar at your temple that fades into your hairline. You kept them from your own promotion to first lieutenant the month before.

There is not a little clapping on my back and joyful noise after the ceremony. Someone's tin of snickerdoodles is passed around with great fanfare while a small flask of confiscated brandy is done in the same fashion, but with considerably less show—and out of the good Captain's sight.

#-#-#-#-#

Before spring is fully underway we leave the relative quiet of our winter camp to engage the enemy in an unforgiving territory of hills and valleys. Everyone has nerves now. Impatient for action, for collective motion. Somewhere in the midst of my military exile, it occurs to me that battle is really just a series of mistakes. You scoff when I voice my opinion, but truly, the goal is to make less mistakes than your enemy, is it not?

Our regiment doesn't have the grace of that good fortune when we near Richmond.

The Rebel line advances in an unbending wave, the brown and yellow clad soldiers firing as they come at a dogtrot. War reveals men. Atherton, whose mouth is perpetually engaged with nothing of importance, rides firmly at the front, working his rifle beside you. The boy has more than a grudging respect for you, although he doesn't show it.

Another volley flames and crackles. You finish reloading, raise your rifle, take aim and fire. The man you singled out arches backwards, mouth opening in a cry that never comes. Mortimer dances under your spurs, but you calmly take aim at another. What have we become?

Men fall. And still more.

The Rebels draw hopelessly closer. Our captain darts along the rear. "Withdraw while firing…rally on the hill…steady boys, maintain your ranks."

Not for the first time I wonder if this was what it was like for Alan. I mechanically reload as an eye for an eye singsong competes for room in my brain with sheer terror. I raise my weapon and feel its punch against an already bruised shoulder.

We fight our way backward, leaving dead and twisting comrades on the worthless ground. All that stretches between us and safety is an open field. Yet you wheel your horse around, jumping off to run toward Lieutenant Willoughby. He's laying down, as if pausing there for a rest. His hat is gone, exposing unruly black hair, and a thin ribbon of blood from his mouth stains his beard. His right arm is covered in red.

Before you reach him, another rider gallops along our mockery of a line, "Retreat! Retreat! Stay with the colors!"

You turn at his words, panting, covered in gore and sweat. Sheer anguish is written across your face. You raise your pistol to find the nearest Johnnie.

The Rebels see their chance and rush towards us. A swarm that envelops us on three sides and surges to close off the fourth. Our numbers have dwindled and the regiment begins to break apart.

"Keep firing! Guide on me!" but your voice sounds desperate.

"Retreat!" someone from another unit shouts. Others take up the cry.

You look ready to kill any living thing before you, friend or foe, but order the men back. Your command is interrupted by a massed volley from the grey line and an unearthly wail from the Confederate regiment descends upon us. Another round of shots and you jerk to right, falling to your knees.

Letting out a breath I didn't know I held, I see you make to rise.

But no matter where we try to make a stand, they are around us: behind, to the front, to the side. They appear everywhere.

Pushed and prodded, sometimes beaten back in line, it's seventy long miles to Richmond. We walk, stumble, or are dragged, every single one of them.

#-#-#-#-#

On the morn of March 28th, 1864 we reach our destination—a series of red brick buildings—and the heavy door to freedom shuts on our ragged party.

We imagined we might be housed in separate cells, so are surprised and somewhat relieved to discover we will be herded into one long common room. A feeling that quickly diminishes. Our captors lead us down an ever-darkening hallway, past more heavy oaken doors. As we pass those, a deafening yowl and banging clamor rises—a blind and unknowing welcome.

Ascending a wooden staircase, we are stopped at the entrance, where a feckless young Johnnie holds a cracked leather-bound journal. We empty our pockets and have our watches taken from us. He gets our name, rank and regiment. They have no use my Thoreau and I'm allowed to keep it.

The long room has high arched beams and above our heads is a single grate through which a one thin beam of light enters from the outside. The long windows on either side are boarded and nailed shut. I have a sensation of leaving the world behind and going into the maw of the earth, although I know that isn't correct.

We file into the room and I am somewhat relieved by the relative spaciousness after the claustrophobia of the narrow hallway. But the body heat of the mass of us follows like a thunderstorm, with a rank humidity that occupies every space. A fetid smell emanates from the room to mingle and swirl in the miasma. As my eyes adjust to the relative darkness, I see we are not the only prisoners here.

You stumble forward. The bullet wound to your leg is not fully healed, and the miles placed upon it have been taxing. Atherton tries to catch up your elbow, but you pull away. We stake our piece of flooring, a few of our members securing the property closest to the small beam of light that doesn't reach the floor.

I thought you would seek out the light, but you hobble over to an oaken strut, ball up your coat as you have done each day during our exodus and sit with bent legs. Even so, your boot tips touch another soldier's space. Your left leg from the thigh downward is streaked with your own dried blood, a stark reminder of the past.

Someone shuffles towards us, wheezing. Your breath hitches and I look up. It's Lieutenant Daniel Cassidy of the 83rd Ohio. The fanatical gleam in his eyes has not diminished one iota.

#-#-#-#-#

"Scott, don't you think it's the height of irony that we signed up to attend the whirlwind of war, and now sit in pure contemplation?"

"You're forgetting the occasional bursts of fetching water from the Dan for our soup, aren't you? Although the last time I went I had to ask the guard for a knife to cut a square of the stuff. Remind me, water isn't supposed to be thick, is it? And if so, why is our soup so thin?"

I shake my head. Your wit, thank God, is still firmly entrenched. Thinking is all we have left. And most of it has to do with escaping, although we manage to bring other topics into play.

Yesterday we conjugated Latin verbs and you bested me, although it is really no contest as I am decidedly a few more years past the subject than you. The day before we discussed Shakespeare and the merits of Hamlet's sanity.

Today we grapple with Thoreau and Emerson. Being a Harvard man, I would have thought you'd be more discerning. But no, you choose the latter to quote. We all have our misconceptions. You refuse to see that Emerson offends good taste and there is nothing original in his ideas, so I close my mouth and sulk. It's petty, and I chide myself.

You take the well-worn volume of Thoreau out of my hand and start to read aloud. The men look up, entranced by the words, and shuffle closer around us. My mood seems to shift by the minute for there are tears at my eyes.

Cassidy interrupts, coughing into his hand, bringing forth a bit of blood, and you and I exchange looks. He starts to reminisce about Vicksburg. Ignoring me, he tries to pull you into the conversation. You have no love for it, I can tell by the grim set of your mouth. When you don't participate, he drifts off to another haunt five feet away. The men on the floor grumble and make room as he steps over and around them.

"I ran."

I didn't know I had said those two words aloud until you turn your head towards me. There is no recrimination, just surprise. And something else as well. I have known you for what amounts to forever by now. The dominoes fall into place rather quickly with time to think: your hesitation to take command after that first battle, your talk with Colonel Lowell, the incident with Private Merrell.

What you don't know is that more than you and I ran that day. Were we cowards? I certainly don't know you as one.

#-#-#-#-#

Years' worth of vermin inhabits every crack and crevice of the dank room. They scuttle well before dark and do not return to their burrows until reveille. Rats, mice, beetles of every size and roaches whirr and scrabble, bumping into us as if we should get out of the way. Worst of all is the lice, which hide anywhere. Their ranks swell tenfold each night to pour out from between the few blankets we have, from our hair and bodies. Swarming, they are an ocean of milky white creatures rolling cross the floor like foam. We turn and rattle our blankets every few moments, trying to shake them off, but they always return, drawn by the heat of our bodies.

In the evenings—enlisted and officer alike—hold louse races, using a bit of dirt to mark a ring in the center of the room. The lice are placed in the middle, then wagering commences on which one would reach the perimeter soonest. Little money, we gamble with bits of soap, remnants of tobacco gotten from the stubs of pipes and cigarettes, chewed then dried to use again and again.

It's after one of these games (and you lose) that Cassidy takes you aside.

#-#-#-#-#

For some reason, I'm unable to see you as an accountant. A soldier, yes, but sitting day after day with ink-tinged fingers? No. Bit by bit the stained glass of you gets filled in with color. You tell me about your grandfather and I hold my opinion because I see you still care. The feelings about your father are decidedly less clear. Amid the indignation and anger in your voice creeps a longing tone. Why not go to California and face the old man once and for all, I ask. Your head dips in that peculiar habit you have and the grin, the sly one that's been missing this last month, suddenly appears.

Perhaps, you concede.

Time is another enemy, along with lack of food and poor sanitation. We both think about loved ones far too much and make promises neither of us will deliver. It starts a healthy root of melancholia in a most fertile soil. Does my Josie know that I'm here? Does she worry?

The considerable bulk I started with at Camp Meigs has been trimmed. The water and onion cup of soup and square of hard-baked black bread given to us at each meal is not enough to maintain the slightest vigor. Poor Josie will need to get out her sewing needle and threads when I return. You, on the other hand, started out thin and are thinner now. I compare you to an upside down exclamation mark, but you are not amused. By turns we conquer lingering fevers and bone-rattling chills. You liken the shivers to an overly long carriage ride down a bumpy country road. But each round of them is harder still to overcome.

You say aloud what we all think: we need to run away from this place before any of us falls too ill to go.

The next morning we hear of an attempted escape from one of the other buildings. At roll call, the punishment is meted out for all to see. I shudder at the proceedings.

There is no breakfast that morning. We hardly miss it.

#-#-#-#-#

Atherton steps to a boarded window and thoughtlessly looks through a sliver of an opening. The guard's bullet glances from a nail and does no more than add another hole to his already tattered sleeve.

Cassidy chuckles amid a horrid cough. "The boys are in want of practice."

Our plan for escape is formulated among the ablest of our men using a small sewer leading from the building to the main sewer in the street, and thence to a canal of the Dan River. In order to get there we must cut a hole downward in the brick work to a cellar. From the cellar we dig to the sewer. A tremendous undertaking.

All we have is an old jack-knife. It's considered and agreed upon that the work would be done at night, in the morning we will replace the bricks and cover. We try to ignore the volume of rats that brush past us, representing so many missed dinners.

After many night's labor, we piece our way there. We increase our party to eighteen and dig from the northwest corner of the cellar to the main sewer, but come to more mortar and brick. Highly discouraging. Indeed, it takes several days to break through the mortar to earth. Then our real digging begins.

A more troublesome issue at the forefront, however, is Cassidy. He takes to blaming you for the slow work and the men start to avoid him. One evening, when still lucid, he begs you to undertake the escape. Sixteen pairs of eyes bore into your back. We are ready to run. You nod and the men sigh in audible relief.

We have someone sane to lead us tomorrow night.

The next morning, a feverish, raving Cassidy is taken away to the hospital. May God be with him.

#-#-#-#-#

We sixteen stand like attentive dogs, ears pricked for the slightest sound of the guards. You raise your hand in signal and we move forward in silence.

You and I face each other at the tunnel opening but don't say anything, shaking hands instead, stiffly and formally. Then we wriggle into the tunnel one by one, as if being swallowed by the darkness itself.

A needle of moonlight crosses the opening. A silhouette emerges from the tree line, so slight I think it to be a trick of the mind. And then, just as it fades into nothingness, I hear the crack of a rifle in the not-nearly-far-enough-away-distance and a splinter of bark flies across your face from the tree next to you, bloodying your cheekbone. An old soldier once told me that you're not supposed to hear the shot that kills you. I would like to add, not unless the person shooting at you is less than two hundred feet away. Which the guards are.

"Go back!" you yell hoarsely over your shoulder. But it's like trying to stuff seed back into a ripped burlap bag. Going back means hunger, pain and slow death, we have the smell of clean air in our nostrils. The bits are in our mouths, nothing is going to stop us.

Another bullet whizzes through the air, close enough that I feel the breeze pass over my head. Curiously, the guards withdraw.

Around us is the smell of old leaf and rot. The air is summer-night warm, and my vision picks out the soldiers, waiting. Your attention is on firelight that now flickers sporadically.

I hear a concussive explosion. Surely not cannon! Lightning then thunder is always how it goes. I pull you to the ground reflexively, as every soldier knows to do when someone throws iron balls from a distance. But cover with what? We are outside a warehouse and in a farmer's field, for God's sake.

You mutter damn Parrott rifles and we watch our men run in all directions as grapeshot finds them. Some have blood streaming from wounds to their heads and bodies, one man's arm swings tendonless from the shoulder socket.

We aren't soldiers anymore in the strictest sense, but are getting fired upon nevertheless. Another blast, another bucketing upheaval of earth, this time back into the ranks of the Rebel soldiers who mingle in groups farther across the farmer's field.

You stand, shouting, and wave Atherton to the far side of the field, away from where the muzzles are trained. Shooting begins anew. Once he is on his way, you gather another, guide him to safer ground. After a moment of this, I struggle to my feet and we break into a run.

Something stings me, hot and quick to my chest. You skid to a stop and suck in a breath, blue eyes round. More thunder abounds. Get down, I tell you, but I hear screams. I have no idea who is making such God-awful sounds, but it sounds distinctly like my voice.

The world explodes in a flash of white.

It's very quiet. Patterson, Michaels and Lewis soon join me. Finch is coming out of the culvert. Smith is picking his way out of the brambles, and that Maine boy, Atherton, lopes back in his loose-jointed way, his ever-present frown firmly in place. Ten more follow.

Sixteen, all accounted for. And we're wondering what happened to our escape.

There is no pain, oddly enough, though the bullet holes among us outnumber the fingers on both hands. It becomes clear why.

I look down and see you slide your trembling hand under my head and lift my shoulders up on your knees. Go! Keep running! I yell and yell, my voice joined by the others, but you don't hear the cacophony. You peer around at the travesty surrounding you and raise your head, splitting the early morning sky with a howl that shakes me.

The guards are here, angry voices slicing through the smoke. It seemed like they were in position before we got out of the tunnel. They punch and kick, but you don't let go. So one of them brings down their rifle butt against the side of your head with a crack, and I weep. You'll be bucked and gagged. Then thrown into solitary, perhaps the worst punishment for a man like you.

In an instant, I see everything that has brought me here: Alan, the Rebellion, the cavalry. You. My eyes are open, my life chronicled as I have put forth.

I remember Camp Miegs with the fondest of memories because it's where we met. Me in my new coat that Josie had sewn, and you in your too short-in-the-cuffs issued uniform. You're still wrong about Emerson. I laugh out loud. But what does it matter?

These past couple of years, I thought a piece of my life was missing after my brother's death. But it was here all along. It was there when you broke up Atherton and Mills and I saw a boy turning into a soldier. It was there in that terrible place called Vicksburg, where we both lost our way. When you danced in the snow with your invisible partner, giving me hope. It came when you fastened on my first shoulder strap. When you refused to be safe. It was there throughout this bloodied running away.

I expected to avenge Alan's death in some way, not find another brother. It was a small thing, something I mistook as ordinary and failed to see. You have been weighed, judged, and found worthy.

We sixteen follow when the guards drag you away. You never left us, we won't leave you.

 

 

~end~
4/19/2016

TO Timestamp: In Memoriam
TO Timestamp: Knockin' On Heaven's Door

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