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Winj

 

Wars

 

 

 

The sound of the drum beating inside his head was insistent. The bugle resounded through his eardrums like a mountain's echo. He knew he had to open his eyes, face another day, but he loathed to.

Had it really only been three months? Three months of waste and carnage? How could so many people die in just three months? So many of his men? Replacements came daily. Faces not even old enough to shave yet. Innocent faces thinking themselves invincible. Didn't they know? Didn't they understand? He knew the answer. No. No one could possibly understand until they had experienced it.

At this point, he felt he had earned a lifetime of experience. Maybe two lifetimes. He questioned his own sanity at times. Why had he been so enthusiastic about this? It was because he didn't know. That was the reason. No one could ever explain it in words. No one was that articulate.

He sighed and rolled over, opening his eyes slowly before the sun had even begun to rise east of him. Sitting up, he flung the wool blanket off and shivered. He dressed quickly and made his way to the nearest campfire. The nearest hot coffee, or at least, what passed for coffee here.

Standing there, he surveyed the sleeping camp. The ragged, worn men. The fresh young faces, eager to display their manliness. He smiled grimly. He was once one of those eager faces. Now, he no longer felt young or enthusiastic. He certainly did not feel invincible.

Sighing once more, he headed to the tent. The place referred to as the planning area. The place he had begun to think of as the slaughter planning area. Though he would never speak it aloud to anyone. Certainly not those who inhabited that tent.

He received his orders, those he had dreaded. Today would be pure carnage. He had felt it in his very soul the night before. Knew this would be the hardest battle yet. It was cold and they were undermanned. The air smelled of an early snow and the men sorely underequipped. He had voiced his concerns. Concerns that had fallen on deaf ears. He knew he could do no more. Only follow orders and do his very best to protect those under his command.

As he stepped out of the tent, he suddenly felt a wave of homesickness so strong, he nearly staggered under it's weight. His heart felt heavy, as if a boulder sat on his chest. A crushing weight he could neither deny nor admit to.

He took a deep breath and steadied himself. Finding his sergeant, he gave the order, then walked over to his own steed. Stroking the horses neck, he leaned his head against it's withers and said a silent prayer for the safety of his men.

Looking up, he surveyed the Shenandoah Valley in the predawn light. A once beautiful place now singed and raped of it's natural resources. The ravaging they had completed just last month during a retreat from Staunton had devastated the land. Just 10 days ago, they had pushed General Early's troops back down the Shenandoah only to have them push right back.

They had been harrassing the troops with skirmishes for four days now and General Sheridan was more aggravated than ever. This morning, October 19th, he had ordered his men to ready for another battle. The men were beginning to awaken now, just before dawn, when all hell broke loose at Cedar Creek.

The confederate army attacked with a vengeance. Caught unawares, the calvary scuttled to defend themselves. Smoke billowed thick in the air as cannon and rifle fire bellowed. He mounted his horse quickly and began shouting orders. His corps was toward the middle and the front line was being overrun.

His men gathered themselves as quickly as possible but he saw one after another fall to the enemy's bullets. They scattered to the four winds all around him as he fought for control. A control he was losing quickly. They had no choice but to retreat.

He felt himself falling, rolling in the soft grass as his horse was shot out from under him. He struggled to his feet and into the forest afoot.

Finding some of his own company, he gathered them and calmed them quickly. They began a northerly retreat even as they heard the confederates gaining. He felt a white hot pain in his left arm, the force knocking him to the ground. When he regained his senses and looked up, his small group was surrounding by gray uniforms.

His arms tethered behind him, he was led with his men south. Three days later, he found himself at Libby Prison in Richmond. His arm was given cursory attention, a fresh bandage. He was led into a building and down steep stairs to a basement area.

When the door was opened, the smells of humanity assaulted him and he felt his stomach lurch. Thrown inside with a strong push in the small of the back, he fell face first into the filth that would be his home for the next several months.

*******

He opened his eyes, disoriented for a moment to his surroundings. Then, he remembered. Stretching, he arose from the warm bed and began the morning rituals that were as familiar as breathing.

As he shaved, he thought about the day before and all the revelations it had brought. Stunned would be a good word. Shocked, caught unawares; those were good ones, as well.

He thought about all the information he had received about the war-embattled country he found himself in. It seemed simple to him. A military excursion that would bring about almost certain victory. His solution was not met with overt enthusiasm but then, they had not fought in a war.

They didn't know the inner workings of the military mind. The planning and expert execution required to ensure victory on the battlefield. He had thought of another advantage last night. The enemy was just as ignorant of military operations. That would indeed be a huge asset.

His thoughts were interrupted by the opening of the door and the man standing there half-dressed, smiling at him.

The day had been long, too long and another one was beginning as he returned from his reconnaissance. Entering the house, he was made aware that one of their own had left them. For what reason he did not know and no information was forthcoming. He had to push that to the back of his mind just now, however.

He felt this plan would work. Confidence born of experience ensured a reasonable expectation of success. But there were other factors involved now. Factors he could not calculate. Human factors that he neither understood nor could fathom.

One man could ruin everything or he could bring it all to fruition. He simply did not know. And that not knowing caused a knot to form in his stomach. Again, he couldn't think about that now. Now, they were coming. A galloping stampede of firepower bearing down on the paltry 'army' they possessed.

He grabbed his rifle, a weapon he was most experienced with, and headed outside. Running up the outer stairs, he could see them. One man ahead of the rest. Later, he would wonder why it took so long to register in his mind that this was unusual.

That lead man hurled his horse over the outer fence rail and headed to the inner rail like a man driven by desperation. He cleared it beautifully. Then, he fell, simply fell.

His stomach dropped at the sight, the older man next to him frozen for a second by the event. He could not think about that now. He had to fight. This was something he understood, fighting. This was something he knew how to do.

He moved down the stairs as the battle raged in the yard. Using the tall adobe walls as cover, he fired and fired. Hitting his mark time and again. Then he heard his name shouted. He looked out at the man who had almost made it to safety and he was moving, shooting, fighting back. Without regard for the bullets flying all around him, he ran toward the man, firing as he went. He grabbed him by the arm and pulled him to the only cover nearby. A huge tree.

He heard the soft but intense warning. Turning, he shouldered the rifle and put down the leader. They began to retreat then, once they had seen their leader fall. He stepped away from the tree and fired at them as they ran.

Suddenly, it was quiet. Eerily quiet as the smoke dissipated and the dust settled at his feet. He looked around, confident the battle was over, then turned his attention to the man lying by the tree.

 

~end~
2003

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