Western Short Story
We’d been tromping Indian-style through the miserably hot Georgia jungles for several days when we came over a small ridge and looked down upon a hidden spring. The slight breeze refreshed us with the scent of that pure, sparkling water and cooled us at a hundred feet away. We let out a yell and took off for that water at a rate somewhere between escaping a fire and rushing for the Thanksgiving gobbler. Leaving a trail of clothes and firearms as we went, we were ten feet from the water and mostly bare-butt naked, when a familiar deep voice sent us diving for cover.
"You ain't suddenly bashful without your bloomers, are you?" drawled the big deep voice as we crawled through the bushes. "Ain't none of you girls bathing today? We ain't gonna shoot you, ‘specially sugar-britches with the cute derriere that treated us to a dance number last time."
"I'll break his neck," shouted Teddy as he jumped to his feet.
“No, you won’t,” I yelled, bursting naked from the brush and tackling Teddy around the ankles before he got us all shot.
"What is it you want, Reb?" yelled Ty, after we'd calmed Teddy down.
"Hot, ain't it, Billy Yank?"
"I'll grant that," said Ty. A few of us had taken to carrying sidearms, and now Ty retrieved his pistol belt and strapped it on. I bloodied myself scrambling through a razor-sharp briar patch and followed his example. Remembering the Rebel marksmanship when Teddy had reached for his clothes the time before, I took one look at the exposed trail and left my drawers lay.
"You've been waiting in hiding to inquire about the weather?" Ty continued.
"You've seen through the facade, you Yankees is quick," said the man, to some laughs behind him. “I was trying to judge how disputatious you was feeling today?"
"There's things to be said for a day without bloodshed," said Ty. "I'm an advocate, personally."
"Too hot to be harboring ill will, wouldn't you say?"
"It is," said Ty.
"That water is mighty inviting, and there's plenty of it, just as cold on both sides, what do you say?” the man said. “Some of the fellas is gettin' a mite ripe, and we savor a dip. We'll lay our weapons down and share"
"I'll agree to that. Let me check with the others? OK? Teddy, your powder dry?" asked Ty. I guess the Rebels remembered Teddy's name, and they guffawed as loudly as we did. We joked, but the reality was, Teddy had nearly died from horrible dysentery, and its cures, more than once. Dysentery was killing many more young boys than bullets. Nearly everyone contracted it, but the amount of suffering varied, and Teddy was constantly under treatment, and was usually half-looped on laudanum. He had taken so many "blue mass" pills, a mix of chalk and mercury, that his skin was starting to shine. The doctors also tortured him with tea made from dogwood bark, variously adding strychnine, castor oil, turpentine, silver nitrate, and many more equally vile concoctions, but nothing they did seemed to slow it.
"This war sure would be a dreary place for you all, without old Teddy to pick on, wouldn't it be?" he said, but that was the last word spoken on it. We were all soon shed of the rest of our clothes, and that wonderfully chilled pool was full of Yankees and Rebs whooping and hollering like a bunch of drunk cattle drovers at the Lost Oasis of Zerzura.
"Howdy. Where are you from?" I said to the nearest Reb, after we had frolicked for a good stretch and found seats with water-lilies to our neck. He had a small, black cigar hanging from his lip.
"1st Tennessee, Company Aytche, " he said, with a grin. "Sam Watkins, Maury County. And yourself?"
"Ohio," I told him, and we were soon swapping stories like old men.
"It’s nice to have a decent conversation companion," said Sam, after a good hour of jawing. "These fellers get purty stale sometimes. When you're as hungry as they are, it tends to dominate your thoughts."
We stayed in that wonderful, revitalizing water the rest of the afternoon, and decided it just made sense to break bread together. Still, not a cross word had been spoken. Ab had been a solid citizen and started a nice fire and several pots of coffee. When that coffee smell hit the air, every Confederate there would have surrendered to me, so seductive was the aroma. We had to go in relays once Ab started hollering that it was ready.
"Have some coffee Billy Yank? I got some fine sweet chaw," said a gangly rebel, as the sun began to set.
"Sure, Johnny," Ty said. “Here's the beans, then. I don’t want plug. Give me the smoking tobacco."
"Fine. Mighty fine,” said the rebel, stirring the green coffee beans in his cap. I ain't had real coffee since President Davis was well liked."
"I didn't realize he wasn't."
"Well, he shore ain't by me," the man said, and they both laughed, slapped hands, and enjoined in commerce. That first night, Dovie hoofed it all the way to back to camp to retrieve his guitar, and a Reb did he same. With no one saying much about it, we situated ourselves for a few days around the water.
Other than having a refreshing plunge only an arm's length away, we spent the next week doing much the same as we would have been doing in our own camps. Ty spent the first couple days writing long, peaceful letters to his wife as he lounged in the shade of a nearby oak. When a couple of our younger fellas said they wanted to go back, Ty said he would take them, saying he had some other business to attend to, and that he'd get word out to us if either side appeared likely to take up arms.
Men sang around campfires, and shared tall-tales of monster trout, ten-point bucks, or romantic interludes from pre-Civil War lives, the same as any conversation around half-a-million other campfires. They speculated about enemy troop movements, the price of beans, and spoke with pride and longing about wives, sweethearts, and children back home while patching frayed pants or mending socks. The hunters in the group supplied us with plenty of venison for our stay, as well as an abundance of game, fish, and fowl of all sorts. Being less warlike seemed to agree with Teddy's troubled bowels, and his vigor and appetite returned. He even baked us some berry pies after we pooled all our odd bits of butter and sugar and flour, and they were as good as from any country kitchen.
Ab and the Confederate Sergeant were both blacksmiths, and the two developed a quick rapport. Checkers or cards or dice games often went on simultaneously, and almost around the clock. Not one of us took a shot at another, or even threatened to, and none of the squabbles over cards or checkers ended in takedowns by the ears. Even the devout ones, in the nightly prayer meetings and Bible verse reading, showed divine restraint and never started witnessing to the avowed sinners amongst us, or clobbering each other over an interpretation of peace and love. A couple of the rebel privates had been students at the University of Georgia before the War. They, and all the Rebels, were thrilled to hear my stories about William Lytle, and several of us, North and South, could recite his poetry. Sam sure could talk, and he was good at it. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry at his tales of privation in the Rebel army.
"I ain't no Biblical scholar,” said Sam, when the conversation turned to slavery on our last night there. “But most folks didn’t seem too troubled by involuntary servitude back then, unless they had the misfortune themselves of being in bondage. Then it seemed to be a whole new perspective.”
“I’m not a believer, myself,” I said. “But that doesn’t make it less evil. There’s just right and wrong.”
"You're telling me that your moral code would make you leave your soft bed, filled with nubile concubines, and a full cabinet of good bourbon, and go pick cotton with your own dusky agricultural laborers?" asked Sam. “Day after goddamned day? Maybe they should write the Bible about you, because that' there is a step further than Jesus hisself took it.”
“Now, that was uncalled for,” I said. "Sam, why don't you just go on home?"
"Well, now, I ain't in no hurry to be a wage slave, neither, cousin," said Sam. "I guess I'll take the devil, I know, whatever that is, and let them legal and crusading moralizers figger out the rest.”
"You can’t believe owning slaves is right, Sam," I said.
"The kind that Jefferson and Washington themselves had a plantation full of themselves, while they was seceding from England? Ain't sure I see the difference."
"I can't explain that, Sam, it doesn't even matter. Whatever it is, you know it’s not gonna stop. We're not gonna stop. You can’t stop us," I said. "We're just too big."
“I know that. We ain't stupid. But I jest cain't bring myself to go home. I just cain't. I've got a reputation to worry about. It ain't much of one, but it’s the only one I got."
"You can always surrender to me,” I said. “Nobody needs to know. I can kick some dirt in your face if you want.”
"I'll be seeing you Sam," I said the next morning, as we all got ready to head back to our armies.
“I 'suppose you will old feller, I 'suppose you will," Sam said. "I'll try to get all worked up about killing you, but I don't expect I can. It really ain't in me."
“But you're gonna keep backing up to Atlanta?”
“I expect so,” said Sam.
“And getting killed.”
“Ain’t no room around my fire for a quitter’s blanket.”
"Go home, Sam,' I said. "It’s a lost cause."
"Them's the best kind," he grinned.