Western Short Story
"Hey Captain," I said, waking up to Captain Dunnock jostling my shoulder. "What's going on?"
"Just taking a small detail to the creek to fill canteens."
"At 3:00 AM? Won't it be there after breakfast?"
"Johnny Reb might be there after breakfast."
I sat up. Others were already pouring coffee pot dregs into the fire or shaking friends awake. Canteens lay in a pile near the fire, and we each looped a dozen over a shoulder and headed down the road. After a couple miles, the full moon revealed our destination, Doctor's Creek, which lay between two long, gradual hills. We left the road and followed the Captain to the creek, where sheer banks dropped to the bed six feet below. I slid down a log onto a sandbar, and felt like crying when I saw the dubious liquid between my feet. The stream was barely three feet wide, and nowhere more than a couple inches deep. The algae covered pools glowed green. We had a thousand men in the regiment, and this frog puddle wouldn’t satisfy a hundred.
"Ugh, this water stinks," said Ab.
"Yes, it does, but I don't think it’s poison," said the Captain. "Let's go now. Full canteens for your lads. Get to it. The Rebels want some of this too."
"They can have mine," said Ab, as we knelt in the creek bed and wrestled the canteens into the mud until the water dribbled in.
"Get down!" The Captain hissed. He must have heard a blade of brown grass break at a hundred yards away, and we dove to our bellies as a group of riders came up the east side of the creek. I sprawled in a puddle with algae tickling my face, and froze in fear when the riders stopped and dismounted.
"Oh, shit, they got a dog," groaned Teddy. I opened one eye ever so slightly. The blockheaded dog peered down, sniffing and halfheartedly barking a few times. I expected at any second the Rebels would hear my heart pounding and shoot us all. The Captain had it under control, though, and silently made his way up the bank and tossed some scraps of salt pork in the grass. The dog wolfed down the treat with gusto, then stared at us with wet, sad eyes and when no one produced more food, he frowned and braced to howl. Half a dozen hands threw bacon and biscuits to him, then held our breath while the hound gobbled his unexpected reward.
In the moonlight fifty feet away, the rebels had plopped down under the trees and were passing whiskey bottles around. Their drunken laughter got louder, oblivious to any Yankees in the area, and soon a few of the Rebel cavalrymen staggered toward the creek bed. They opened their pants, and their urine streams splattered the backs of motionless Yankees pressed into the mud. Even in the dark, I could see Ab's face flash from fury to terror to fury as Rebel urine arced perfectly into his ear. I kept his eyes on mine, found his hand, and squeezed it until my own ached.
The Captain, his back flush against the bank, was gripping an Alabama toothpick with a 12-inch blade, and looking as serene as a Chinese goldfish pond. Above him, one of the riders made a slurred comment, and his audience laughed loudly. None of us dared breathe as I listened to the snail cally-hooting up the mossy old log at my feet, sounding every bit as loud as a runaway freight train. Over that racket, I heard a fox barking somewhere in the trees. It seemed like hours had passed and I began to think the drunken cavalrymen would never dry up. At any second I expected the battle to start right there in the creek bed, but finally the last pissing Rebels staggered back to their chums. Immediately the dog came bouncing back, wanting yet a bigger bribe. We emptied our bread bags for the mutt, who then ungratefully followed the rebels over the hill.
"What do you think?" I asked Capt. Dunnock as they rode away.
"I don't know. Just out scouting, or sneaking out of camp to get drunk."
Then, no sooner than the Rebs had ridden away, the rest of our regiment began to drop into the creek bed. Several officers conferred with the Captain in hushed voices. He listened, nodded, pointed over my shoulder. Counted all the men he could see.
"OK, men, change of plans," he said quietly. "We're taking that hill up there. Silence until we're nose-to-nose. Don’t fire a shot, don’t even load your rifles. Wait until I tell you."
We quietly inched up the hill, but half-way up a dozen Rebel shots popped in the dark. I flattened myself in the cool grass behind a log and tried to load my rifle, but a loud patter of musket balls smacked the log and my shaking hands failed me.
"So much for no one waiting for us," I said.
"Ain't no glory laying here with my face in the dirt," Ab said, fuming at the Rebels for pissing in his ear. Eventually the firing stopped, and we finished our climb up the hill. At the crest, the slope in front of us was hayfield, but off in the moonlight, I could see the tall corn fields, and beyond them, a black forest I knew held thousands of Rebels.
"Bayonets!” whispered the Captain, his eyes bright and locked on ours.
“This is it,” said Ty, as we snapped our bayonets into place and white-knuckled our rifles.
“Awaken iron, my thirsty little berserkers! Desperta Ferro! CHAAAARGE!" Captain Dunnock screamed, and we raced down the slope. I was laughing like an idiot and struggled to hold my urine, absolutely terrified, yet giddy with an excitement I never knew existed. We smashed into the Confederate flank with fury. Curses and screams swirled all around me as minie balls found their targets. I fumbled two shots before the regiment surged into a narrow strip of woods, then I went to one knee, trying to slow my breathing when a tree branch snapped behind me. I spun, bringing up my Springfield as a Rebel soldier stepped into the clearing with his rifle pointed at the Captain's back. The man sensed me and whirled around, our eyes locking as I fired. My bullet hit him in the forehead and slammed him on his back. After a few seconds, I crawled over to him. The man lay in six inches of weeds, staring at the stars with a look of surprise. I pinched his eyes closed and knelt by the body for a moment, no longer excited at all.
Dawn revealed dozens of dead men scattered on the front slope of Peters Hill, ours and theirs. I was still staring at them when a battery of cursing artillery limber drivers whipped their teams up the back slope, the 12-pound Napoleons sliding sideways in the morning dew.
"Take a look at the cornfield," Ty said, pointing about a quarter mile away. Two brigades of Confederates were stepping out of the trees, getting ready to march down the rows of towering corn. Quite a few Yankees, bragging that we had run the Rebels out of the state in our moonlight charge, had spent the predawn hours passing bottles of apple jack and not digging the rifle pits as the Captain had ordered. Now, it looked like our hillside had been invaded by an army of gophers and prairie dogs. There was more dirt flying backward over hurried shoulders than remained in the ground. We watched smugly. We’d started at 5AM, and Ty hadn’t let us quit digging until we reached the earth’s core.
It was an odd feeling watching the Rebels. They seemed to be in no rush, no urgency, no fear that I could see. They looked confident, like they had done this a dozen times, and maybe they had. Everything about them looked bigger. Their rifles were bigger, their eyes meaner, their movements more soldierly. Even their little drummer boys looked like they could whip ours. A Rebel colonel grandly waved his brightly plumed Hardee hat over his head as he loped his horse up and back, cheering his men. They cheered him back even louder, then stepped off smartly, the bright Stars and Bars catching the morning breeze and soaring above the golden stalks like a magnificent ship sail cutting the waves.
"On the word, men, on the word," an artillery man hollered. Our artillery crews leveled their Napoleons, full of deadly grapeshot, at the coming army. Just then, Rebel cannon, hidden in distant trees, started lobbing shots close enough to catch our attention. With a blood chilling yowl, the Rebels charged.
The blast of six cannon convulsed the earth, and hundreds of shrieking metal marbles wreaked destruction through the exposed Rebels. Gaps formed in their battle-line and it staggered for an instant, like a fighter taking a good punch, then they shook it off and started back up the hill.
The Napoleons blasted them twice and the Rebels froze. We went several rifle volleys into them, and they fled. We gave chase, and pushed them back briskly, but we’d outrun our ammunition and had to pull back. Cavalry joined us, and we advanced once again into the woods, faltered and stalled. Two Rebel brigades reformed and attacked, but the 52nd held, struck back hard, but couldn’t hold the new line. There were 100,000 more men locked in combat in the line of hills, faring about like we were, going back and forth for the rest of the sweltering day, with the two sides rarely more than a couple-hundred yards apart. In our battles in the dense trees, we were barely ten yards apart, in deadly clenches, killing each other with limbs and rocks and bayonets. When the sun started to set, the Rebels retreated to the safety of the woods for the final time, leaving the ravaged hillside covered with dead lying elbow to elbow, and wounded men crawling through them like bloody snails.
With the Rebels gone, I sat in the rifle pit wiping gun powder and sweat from my face and dreaming of cool water while I waited for the silt in my canteen to settle to the bottom. The dingy, gritty liquid in my canteen scraped my throat more than slaked my thirst. Miserable, with no chance of relief, I leaned back with my hat over my eyes and listened to the rumble of the cannons a few hills away. Some couldn’t speak of what we’d just done, and others couldn’t shut up. Our group, even Teddy and Ab, was subdued.
No sooner had I drifted off than a barrage of cannon balls blasted the hill and the air was filled with flying debris. I caught a rock under my eye, and concussion from the blasts threw me six feet across the pit. A shadow passed over me, then a ton of something dropped out of the sky and smashed me flat. It took a few seconds to clear my head and realize the weight was Ab, dead and gone, with blood pouring from a scalp wound. Just as my tears started flowing, the big man opened an eye.
"Am I hit? Am I dead?" he shouted, panic and blood all over his face. "Have they kilt me?"
"No, you got a new part in your hair is all," I said, after a quick inspection. The three-inch gash in his scalp was bleeding down his shirt, but was not fatal.
"What?" shouted Ab again, deafened by the explosion.
"No," I shouted, pain stabbing my ribs. I pulled a rag out of my knapsack and held it to Ab's wound. Eventually the bombardment stopped, and someone led Ab back to the hospital tent. I peered out of my hole at a regiment of Confederates at the edge of the woods, but they came no further.
I was dozing when the rattle of metal woke me. A blood moon hung in the sky as a line of ragged slaves shambled past, carrying picks and shovels on their shoulders and wearing eighteen inches of heavy chain around their ankles. Every 4th man carried an iron ball, and others carried lanterns. Mean-eyed men with shotguns walked beside them to the rows of bodies, blue and grey, laid out along the length of the field. The procession stopped, and the slaves started digging long trenches, working in an easy, familiar rhythm.
"Is it necessary to keep these men chained, sir?" I turned to see Col. McCook riding up to the man in charge.
"I wouldn't have them long if I unchained them," said the man.
"I suppose so, but frankly, it offends my nature," said the colonel.
"Frankly, the last damn thing I'm worried about is your nature. I would think leaving your young soldiers out to rot would offend you."
"You should remember I'm the one who'll be paying you."
"Colonel, you should remember I'm the one with the only bucks left in this county. I want your money, but don't need it," said the slave owner. "I reckon your soldiers is mighty tuckered out after all that retreating today. So, do you want some graves dug or not?"
Ty and I grabbed a lantern and walked the battlefield. Smoothbore muskets cluttered the field, discarded by Rebs in exchange for new rifled Springfield’s that dead Yankees no longer needed. Exhausted teams of litter bearers passed us in the dark, ready to collapse and bloody from neck to knees. We nearly walked over Col. McCook in the dark, his pistol pointed at Alva, a constantly grumbling rowdy from home, and one who we all wished would have stayed there. Willie was his only friend, and they often seemed to be up to no good. Alva was holding a boot, and a bootless dead Yankee was at his feet.
"You low-bred bastard," Dan McCook said coldly. "I should have you shot."
"I was wrong, But I don't have no shoes," said Alva. His words were contrite, but his voice wasn’t.
"Why don't you have shoes?"
"I was robbed."
"Colonel," Lyman said, appearing out of the dark. "That man is from my unit. He lost his own boots gambling. I imagine he’s preparing to lose those boots gambling."
"A lying grave robber that can't throw dice? A battlefield buzzard, picking our flesh?" asked McCook. "The choice is yours. You will fight me, and end this here, or I'll place you under arrest and you can take your chances at a court martial."
"I'll fight you, Colonel," Alva sneered. He was tough, good with his fists, and quick with his boots, when he wore any. "Whenever you're ready."
A circle formed. Wagers were made, and excited voices shouted over each other. Alva swung hard and missed, several times. McCook had trained as a boxer, while Alva’s training had been beating up drunks. Alva was already winded when McCook stepped into him with a flurry of jabs, hooks, and crushing right hands. It could have been over right then, but I guess the Colonel really wanted to get his point across. He stepped back, let Alva catch his wind, then lit into him again. The big man swung wildly, and the slender McCook dipped inside and landed two hard jabs. Alva threw a tired overhand right and McCook bloodied his nose. Alva, eyes almost swollen shut, continued to curse and wheeze, connect with air, and get beat like a mule. A few minutes later, McCook stepped back and left Alva unconscious in the dirt.
"Let him keep the boots. He took a thorough beating for them. He may as well have them."