Western Short Story
Fourth of July Homecoming
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Old Scott’s Mill had given off odd sounds since the day it closed down. Now it gave off a sense of passage.

All the way back to the last Fourth of July the boys had saved a cache of fireworks, the three pals, Snag and Chris and Charlie B, all twelve years old within three days of each other. "Pals to the end," they had said, squirreling away the fireworks in Snag's Aunt Lil's barn leaning away from one century and into another. And many times those same hidden articles promised to smoke and explode from their secret hideaway, the boys' want for noise and excitement so strong at times, at times like hunger tantrums. But they had saved them for a special occasion. "Promise made is promise kept," Snag had said on Veterans' Day, his voice hard as wire, though the tantrum pummeled alive in his gut.

So Snag and Chris and Charlie B came together on the specially appointed night, the national holiday, and crept up on the backside of Scott's Mill, closed tight as an angry man's fist, sitting there beside the slow Saugus River. It was a mill as marked as time itself, whose existence seemed to transcend the town and its beginnings. Now and then it became a shell of nacre the way an early bronze moon could make it eerie and distant and out of this world. It was a piece of another time, another dimension, for none of them could begin to imagine the gallons of workers' sweat that had seeped into the floors of the structure for parts of two centuries.

One box and two bags of choice explosives, stashed away for ninety slow-as-snails days, figured in their arms as something Fort Sumter or another historic battle site might have loosed. Tonight there'd be a new war on the silence gripping the mill, on the monstrous darkness that moonless nights allowed to cling to the mill, and on whatever lurked in it or around it.

Lighting their sticks of punk they stood on the bank of the river and the smell coasted thickly in the night as if an old barn had been turned inside out. Once, earlier, Chris had explained that his grandfather affirmed that punk was made from camel dung. Each of them inhaled the acrid and known and nostalgic smell as it fingered memories of past celebrations filled with "oohs,' and "ahs," and "ohs."

All their memories said time was eternal, spilled on a level coming to them and moving away from them, but tonight disruption was their game. Disruption and noise and affirmation of the minor manhood working its endless way down in their genes.

The Saugus River ran away at the foot of the huge red brick building, the calm waters swishing slowly against the cluttered rock dam site at the foot of the red brick building. Above them, ranging out of the trees, darkness still came plodding on, the near silence moving across their skins asking to be known. Snag's Aunt Lil once had said darkness came on like a beggar man to close the end of day.

"It's only brick," Snag said, his natural spirit bucking up his current assessment. His hand touched the side of the mill, its doors now closed for as long as they had been alive; a monolithic, ghostly creature of a building, windows boarded up, doors frozen in place with huge spikes; eyes that could not see, mouths that could not speak. There was, however, something else in the touch of that stone, something mossy, something growing, something without a voice, but threatening.

They had known forever that it was there.

Snag, as fearsome as any boy they knew, could feel the presence of something if only in the touch of the stone. Creatured, but not quite visible; it might not breathe, but it was there. Yet no one, none of their friends or neighbors, had ever been hurt. It was what they had counted on, in its own perilous argument.

"Yuh," Chris said, feeling the fuzz on the back of his neck with a threat of electricity in it, “so how come they see a glow of flames every Fourth of July. At midnight. From the only window that's not boarded up. The one way up in the peak out front? Tell me how that gets done. All the floors have been taken out. The whole place is nothing but a shell. So how come so many people have seen a red glow in that window way up there? Even my father said he saw it, Expected the place was about to burn down." His twelve-year-old face was squeezed into his own questions, his mouth still pursed, his chin and that pursed mouth still asking for an explanation. The three of them were always blue-eyed; now, at this juncture, they were dark-eyed.

Snag bristled as only Snag could be bristled, the tooth of his name prominent, his jaw prominent, his eyes steely, his breath measured. "How should I know?" he said. "I ain't been in there. I ain't seen anybody go in or come out, ever. Maybe it's like a captured Aurora Borealis, like it was caught in there the very first time it was locked up. Something crazy, like that. Or a bum gets in there every year to play tricks on us. Like having his own routine. But we promised we'd light it up one way or another. And I'm all for getting inside somehow, anyhow. Maybe plopping off one of the plywood boards over the windows. We all promised." He was standing tall, asserting some kind of authority that prior bravery and recklessness had granted him.

"I didn't say anything about not doing it. I'm not yellow!" Chris was breathing heavy as he spoke. And the darkness deepened and a small breath of a wind stirred in the near leafless trees and Charlie B froze straight up as he heard a soft moan come out of that small breath of air. It rode over the thick smell of the burning punk.

"We're not alone," he said, his hand gripping Snag's arm so hard his fingernails dug into the camouflaged material of Snag's fatigue jacket.

"It's the wind, Charlie," Snag said. "Nothing to it. Just the wind. It's a midnight wind. Aunt Lil says every the wind around here has its own voice."

And then, right then on that night, at or near the stroke of midnight, as if commanded by a presence, an omnipotence, the plywood cover over a peaked window high above their heads pulled away from the window frame with the shriek of nails being yanked. It fell and smashed on the rocks below.

The boys froze in place, their breaths caught between sound and no sound. And the yearly and eerie light came at last from that high window, a red moving glow the way flames lick at campfire wood. Slow. Sultry. Expectant. Then it came a sudden blue glow, then a red glow and a green glow. And the moan came again, and faint and distant music trooped in with it as if drums and fifes were playing on the side of Vinegar Hill and were bouncing off the mill's walls, and firelight swept against the high window like a new fire banked in a furnace. It was music and it was but a step up from silence, and it was so light, so distant, so feathery, so winged, it might not have been. Now, it said in an unspoken voice. The boys were not sure of anything.

Charlie B dropped his bag of fireworks, his in-taken breath merely a small echo riding his body. Right down to his new sneakers he shook. Chris held his box as if it were his last bullet. Some thing was standing against them in the night and they must protect themselves. Snag, jawboned Snag, expeditionary leader, his nerves cut and frayed only a bit, from his glowing punk lit and heaved a long-wicked 2-inch salute at the nearest plywood window.

"There!" he said. "There!" The enemy to be accosted and surmounted.

The explosion ripped into the silence, and the sudden flare of light lit the hooded window and disappeared just as quickly as it had come. The overhead light leaped again, the window suddenly alive in red and blue and then an orange glow. Drums, old drums, beat somewhere, an aged tattoo of drums, a line of drums in a long forgotten parade, a rolling echo from a lost or glorious battle. At first they believed the drums came from Vinegar Hill, and then they realized that they came from inside the mill itself, off the walls, and fifes came slowly with the drums, and the flames glowed brighter in the high window. And a discipline, each one noticed, seemed to come with the drums and the fifes, a unity, regulated though faint, as if under orders.

And then, with a sudden and profound silence, the light went out. Darkness fell again, more than a beggar this time; a dense darkness full of time and lineal pursuits, a darkness of summonses and declarations from an insurmountable place, a darkness that reached out to touch the three boys. They shivered in anticipation more than fear. They were present at something unknown but pronounceable, ghostly but real. From Vinegar Hill again it seemed to come, the faint and distant call of mystic notes riding an unknowing wind, riding a brief thermal the eye never sees; intelligent notes, bugle notes, timeless notes.

Snag leaped from his kneeling position. "Listen!" he commanded, his voice stern, demanding, the barking voice of an infantry line sergeant. "Listen!"

Overhead the red glow came back in the high round window near the peak of the mill. And the notes sounded clear and distinct. And they came from inside the mill, not from the outside, but from inside Scott's Mill.

Those were timeless notes coming at them.

With messages in them.

Charlie B and Chris reached for minute recognition of the notes, but it was Snag who knew them. "That's Assembly that's playing. I heard it on Tim's web site. That's Assembly. I heard it on a web site. I downloaded a whole mess of them, but that's Assembly." In his voice was heard a definite change, as though he might have snapped to attention in the ranks.

Mesmerized, they heard more bugle calls, some Snag knew and some he didn't. He was not flustered. "Call to Arms," he said proudly, listening again, nodding his head, "and Boots and Saddles" a few moments later, and then, still distant notes coming to them, "First Call," and "Call to Quarters," and finally, the sounds now down inside them, touching at their souls, standing at attention in the dark, he said in that deepening voice, "To the Colors."

Their blood froze. They were rapt and enraptured, transplanted but in place, something crying to get out of them, to have a voice of its own. Each of them felt it in their own way, yet somehow acknowledged the sharing.

The door of Scott's Mill popped open right beside them, and the faint and still far-reaching notes came to them, and horse hooves tromping on hard ground and the clumping of hundreds and hundreds of boots on packed gravel. The boys looked inside, amazed, frightened, and a line of horse troops, gray and blue cavalry, passed in review, eyes-righting them, moving past them in formation. Others came clothed in a dozen or so different uniforms, Johnny Reb gray, Yankee blue, Army O.D., airman's blue and sailor blue, dress Marine and fatigue Marine, war on top of endless war, time on top of immemorial time. They were an illustration of all wars, and all losses, and the ranks were thick and heavy and dense with the souls of innumerable warriors.

From a post in the ranks, well back in the ranks, a deep and resonant voice came to them. "We're coming home, boys. We're coming home and we don't have to go off anywhere anymore. Not this night. Not ever. We're all the ones who never came home, but we've been waiting for you. We've tried every Fourth of July for years. It's only on the Fourth that we can come home."

From a limitless distance, evoked and called at one side of the mill's interior, they came, a long endless march of men, shoulders back, heads up, coming home after their own eternity; Gettysburg, Stone Mountain, San Juan, Chateau Thierry, Omaha Beach, Kwajalein, Chosin Reservoir, Heartbreak Ridge, Dak To, deserts and jungles too numerous to mention, all the odd points of the fiery Earth, and all the harsh graves of that eternity.

"Eyes right," the deep voice said, commanding, and then, as if stating a memorial of their own kind, added, "We did it for the young un's and for the old-timers, too."

Snag stood as tall as he'd ever stand. He motioned his comrades to attention as new notes came on the thin, cool air. "Retreat," he whispered, the huskiness suddenly at home in his voice, arrived manhood in his voice, spine upright, nerves in place. "That's Retreat," he said again, his voice still deeper, resonant. The sombre notes carried for long moments and the line of troops and horsemen stood at attention, just the way Snag and his pals stood.

And then, more distant than any call ever heard before or ever afterward, out of a summer darkness, the smell of burning punk as acrid as spent gunpowder crawling in the air, a lone bugle's notes came riding another feathery and light thermal from the very ends of time.

"You'll not forget this night, will you, boys?" And the deep voice was gone and the troopers were gone and the horsemen were gone, and the lights drifted off to night again, and a single and momentary note from a still more distant bugle hung itself on the pinnacle of air as Taps ended the most memorable holiday of all time.