Sunday, October 27, 2013
A Soldier's Story
This here story ain't easy for me to tell, but I've had enough of the corn liquor Dewey Tucker sells out the back door of his dry goods store over in Moberly to float the anvil I use to do my own blacksmithin' out in the barn. It's a story from the war that I ain't never told nobody who weren't kin, but with me bein' liquor-brave and all, well, it's about time I tell it to y'all and prob'ly tell it for the last time.
When I was young, long before the old set in and bent my back and made my fingers crooked, I was a private in the Fifty-first Iowa, the fightin'est regiment in the whole damned Union army. We was at Shiloh, Donelson, Vicksburg, Atlanta, all them battles Grant and Sherman led us through. Now I'm a straight talkin' man, not prone to exaggeration, so you can believe it when I tell you that in all them battles where I stood my place in the line and fired my Springfield, I weren't never as scared as I was at Shiloh. Them Johnnys come at us hard under their flags, come right up on us so's we was near to firin' muzzle to muzzle. Whole regiments of our boys couldn't take it, ran like rabbits, but I'm proud to tell y'all the ones of us who didn't run, we stood stubborn in our place and would not break no matter what them Johnnys threw at us.
Here I get to an important part of this story, the part when I looked yonder through all the gunsmoke and killin' and seen the feather in a Johnny's hat that was not new to me. I was hopin' I was wrong, that it was just one of them coincidences, but I knew in my heart that feather come out of the tail of a rooster pheasant I had shot before the war, that it was a match to the rooster feather I wore in my hat. You see, Missouri was a confusin' place to be in those times. Folks didn't know whose side to be on. I made my choice to fight for the whole country, not just part of it, but my brother Jamie, he seen it different, and went off to fight for the Rebs with some other boys from over Moberly way. The day before I left to go north, Jamie and me was huntin' and I shot a fine rooster pheasant, and Jamie and me decided to put a long feather in our hats from that rooster's tail so's when we looked across the battlefield we'd recognize each other and not shoot each other down. I ain't goin' to get mushy here, but I want y'all to know I loved my brother Jamie and that's another advantage to drinkin' this corn liquor 'cause it brings back all them times when we went fishin' and huntin' together, all them times when we was rascals and got whippin's from Pa'r with a hickory stick...enough of that. I can feel that grabbin' in my chest that all the corn liquor Dewey Tucker sells out his back door can't make go away. So give me a minute so's I can get myself outta Ma'r's kitchen where the apple pie she just took warm from the oven is smellin' mighty good and me 'n Jamie 're at the table waitin' to eat a slice. Ain't easy to leave that kitchen with Ma'r and Jamie, and with Pa'r just comin' in the door sayin' the smell of warm apple pie had reached all the way to the barn to make his nose twitch. Ain't easy gettin' my mind back to all the blood, all the screamin', all the death of Shiloh.
There, that last chug of corn liquor done the trick, I'm back to it. I can hear them minie balls zip by my head, smell the gunsmoke. After an all out brawl, them Johnnys finally fell back, slow like, just like good soldiers do, firin' as they went. I was glad to see 'em go, glad to still have all my parts and not have any new inconvenient holes in me. And I was mighty glad to see Jamie had made it through the fight, too, that I could still see 'im far across the field. I was smilin' my thanks to the Lord, not joinin' in with the boys around me still firin' to make sure them Johnnys didn't get no ideas about comin' back, and that's when I seen it happen. Jamie gave a hard jerk and fell flat to the ground.
It was like a mule kicked me in the head. The sense of bein' part of this world left me and I stood there just disbelievin'. Not seein' the welcomed sight of Jamie jumpin' up to rejoin the other Johnnys still fallin' back, I handed my Springfield to Wilbur Banks, my friend and the man in line beside me. Snatchin' a tree branch off the ground, I began to tie my handkerchief to that branch to make a white flag. Wilbur kept askin', "What the blazes you doin', Eustis?" I said not one word in return, I just made sure my knot was strong and went walkin' toward where I saw Jamie fall, holdin' my white flag up and wavin' it.
Now those Johnnys took exception to me walkin' in their direction, even under a white flag. Minie balls was hittin' the ground around me, kickin' up dirt, and the air was lively with the sound of angry hornets. But with only the thought of gettin' to Jamie in my head, I kept goin', and after walkin' through a field of dead and wounded men, that's what I done, I found my brother. Jamie lay still as a stone and starin' up at the sun. A minie ball in the chest had stopped his good heart forever. That the sound of angry hornets had stopped did not escape me, and for that I was thankful, otherwise it could have been an even harder day for Ma'r and Pa'r. Now here you're expectin' me to speak on how I stood over my dead brother and cried, but if I told y'all that I'd be lyin'. Some will call me a hard man, but my eyes were dry and my constitution steady. As I closed Jamie's eyes for 'im, I ignored the grabbin' in my chest. The onlyest thing I would allow myself to think about was how I was goin' to get him buried proper.
I'd already started scratchin' at the ground with my bayonet when some Johnnys come up pokin' at me with their muskets, and a man among 'em said, "Billy Yank, what you doin' buryin' one of ours?" Not botherin' to look up and still scratchin' at the ground with my bayonet, I answered, "'Cause long before he joined up with you Johnnys he was my brother." Right then the butt of a musket made a rapid connection with my head, and layin' there on my back I looked up into a face that near made me piss myself. Killin' is foreign to most men, but there are those who enjoy it, and I knew by the look of the man starin' down at me that he liked the killin' part of soldierin'. The skin on that man's face was so tight his eyes looked ready to pop out of his skull, and that tightenin' made his mouth wide and thin and curled his lips to an evil grin. I was sure I was lookin' up at the devil hisself and that I was about to die.
Then came a sound I heard many an officer make with the flat of his sword on the backside of some soldier who weren't doin' as told. It was a hard slap, and the devil man lookin' down at me gave a jump, a holler, and dropped his musket to grab the seat of his pants with both hands and start dancin' a jig. Then to my amazement, a face I knowed well was lookin' into mine. "That you, Eustis Warren?" said Riley Slocum, my friend and neighbor from back home. "It's me, Riley." I answered, powerful glad to see him and proud, too, 'cause he was wearin' the gold bars of a captain on the collar of his uniform. "Y'all shoulder yer guns!" Riley barked at the Johnnys around me. Not a musket was now pointed in my direction, and Riley was askin' what the damnation I was doin' there when he seen Jamie layin' a few feet away. Riley let out a yelp loaded with hurt, and understanding why I was scratchin' at the dirt with my bayonet, he turned on them other Johnnys barin' his teeth like a hound dog ready to bite, orderin' them back to their line and for one of 'em to bring back a shovel. Riley gave me his hand and helped me to stand. "God damn this war," Riley said just as a boy came back and handed him a shovel. "Skat!" Riley barked at the boy to send him scurryin'. Turnin' back to me, Riley said, "You know we Slocums consider you Warrens our kin, and I want you and your family to know that Jamie was the bravest man under fire I ever did see. I would consider it an honor to help you bury your brother, Eustis, even if Richmond tells me you're my enemy." I answered, "It's fine of you to say that brother Riley, but you know I can't let you help me, that we Warrens is proud folks and we bury our own."
I went to shovelin' and while I did, Riley told me, "Twelve of us boys left Moberly that spring, Eustis, and we joined up with this here Tennessee regiment. Oh, we was happy, gonna lick you Yanks in a month, send y'all bawlin' home to your mamas. But here it is a year later, and now with Jamie bein' dead, it's only me left of those twelve. All the rest 're dead and buried or shot to pieces never to be whole again." I stopped diggin' and looked up at Riley to comment on that tragedy, but I got no chance to say a word. Some Johnny began to shout at me and I was sure it was the devil man 'cause of all the mean in his voice: "I feel no sorrow for you, Billy Yank! My daddy's buried at Donelson, my brother at Mill Springs. I hate you, Billy Yank! And when the dark angel comes for you, I pray it's 'cause I done ran you through with a bayonet!" Now Riley began to bark like a hound gone rabid. He was frothin' at the mouth when he ordered a corporal to shush the devil man. I could hear the flat of a sword strike three times before the yellin' quit. I went back to diggin'.
I dug that grave deep so the hogs and other critters would never get to Jamie, and with my brother at rest at the bottom of that hole, I took the pheasant feather from his hat and handed it up to Riley. I said, "Riley, you wear that feather in your hat so's I can tell it's you across that deadly space and not shoot you down." Riley put the feather in his hat, and he tried to talk to me while I put dirt over Jamie, but all his words came out strange and meanin'less to me. After a brief prayer over Jamie, I shook Riley's hand, wished him luck, and took out walkin' back to the Union line, holdin' up that tree branch with my handkerchief tied to it. I left Riley standin' there still tryin' to talk, but all I could understand was him sayin', "God damn this war."
It was twilight when I walked back across that field, the time of the evenin' when the light flickers strange and things don't quite seem earthly. The ground was muddy with the blood of many good men, and the cries comin' from the wounded were loud in my ears and frightenin' to hear. I didn't want to believe such sounds could come from a human bein'. I didn't want to believe the terrible sights I was seein'. It was like the ground had opened up and I was in the pit of hell. I weren't far from my line, still wavin' my white flag to make sure some boy in blue didn't shoot me by mistake, when the strangest thing happened. A breeze come up and on it weren't the smell of blood and death like you'd expect. No, sir, and I swear what I'm about to tell y'all is true, I swear it on Ma'r and Pa'r's graves, and Jamie's too, that on that breeze was the smell of warm apple pie. The grabbin' in my chest was fierce and I could not stop what happened next. I was knowed in my regiment for bein' a man not to be triffled with, and when I reached my line there was many a boy starin' owl-eyed at the sight of Eustis Warren cryin' like he was a youngun just switched good with a hickory stick.
Well, that's my story, and now, if y'all don't mind, I'm gonna chug the rest of this here corn liquor and maybe sleep through till mornin'. Most nights that don't happen. I dream you see, I dream about the war, but I'm a lucky man, got me a good understandin' wife of over fifty years who gave me three strong sons, and when I wake up screamin', my sweet Nellie is always there to wrap her lovin' arms around me and say in her gentle voice, "Hush now, Eustis, it's a dream, and Shiloh was a long time ago."