KENNESAW MOUNTAIN, GEORGIA
“Ya killed yet, blue belly?”
He woke to the taste of gunpowder on his lips.
Lew was holding his last shot. The other hand was full of rifle. He’d fallen asleep in the middle of loading, and some paper from a cartridge was stuck to his lip. He spit it away.
“Why don’t you come and see?” he hollered back. Didn’t come out as a holler. Came out as a dry croak.
“Got water for ya.”
“Don’t need it. I’m drinkin’ the blood of my comrades.”
“Well, ain’t you a regular Davy Crockett.”
The voice came from the woods at the perimeter of the battlefield—if you could call it a field. A clearing, more like, not bigger than Carrie’s kitchen garden. Only Carrie’s garden had vegetables in it, not piles of dead men.
“You have brought up an interesting point on our collective history,” Lew said. He waited for spit to speak again, and realized things were quiet. “Where’s the rest of your boys?”
Lew grinned. “Why, you are all alone, Johnny Reb. They moved on and charged you with the task to collect me. You know I’m a good aim.”
“Haven’t seen better,” the Reb called generously.
“How many did I get, last go-around?”
“You sore about that?”
Silence, and Lew’s grin eased. “Hope I didn’t tag a friend.”
Finally, “Aw. Not takin’ it personal. Woulda done the same in your spot.”
“Let’s discuss prisoner exchange: I’ll catch up with my boys, you catch up with yours, and we’ll call it even. Tell ’em you waited me out, and I died of my wound.”
A year ago at Gettysburg, Lew had taken a ball in the shoulder and figured that would put paid on all future ills. But early this morning, after a hot and heavy skirmish and orders to move out, he got up to follow Robert, and to his surprise, his leg did not comply.
When Lew didn’t answer, the Reb said, “What’s the interesting point on our collective history?”
“It’s this: Which side can claim Crockett for his own?”
“Why, the South, of course. He was a Tennessee man.”
“Oh, you’re missin’ the point entire.” Lew grasped his last shot, and let his hand fall. “I’m tired of this, Johnny. You clear out. Clear out!”
“You’re gettin’ irritable.”
Lew and this unseen Reb had exchanged jeers until conversation became amiable. He’d heard other Johnnies yell at this Reb to end it, something easily done with an organized assault. Lew was in the middle of a clearing on a bluff, dug in behind the piled-up bodies of his men. A sheer drop behind left only a two-thirds radius for which to be vigilant, but the fellow must have been of some minor rank, or maybe the boys respected him, because no assault had come.
Lew waited for spit. “I aim to catch up with my regiment. I recommend you get yourself scarce before I come out, for I am determined.”
He let his head fall back on Robert. He closed his eyes and was just about seeing Carrie again. Robert had died hours earlier. He came back when Lew didn’t follow, and got it in the neck.
“Where ya wounded, blue belly? Sure isn’t your mouth.”
“My name is Lew.” He just wanted to sleep and could do it right against a dead man. He was fearsome tired, due in some measure to his wound.
“I know it. Gill told me. Didn’t think it was polite to use ’til you gave it.”
Lew’s eyes came open. “Harris Gill? Is he all right?”
“He’s walkin’. Got a message for you. Said, ‘Tell Lew to drop his gun and come along.’ Said if he’s gotta wait the war out, he wants to wait it out with you.”
“Not likely. He said, ‘I hope Lew guts ya head to toe,’ and probably added some impolite observations about your parentage.”
A pause. Then, “That’s about right. Cussin’est man I ever met. Ever’ time you laid in a good shot, he rang out a vile sort of hallelujah. But back to your ‘point entire’ which you said I am missin’. What point entire?”
The voice was closer. It was the closest anyone from the perimeter had dared to come yet. Lew couldn’t see him. The stand of woods was thick and dim and Rebs always took good cover.
“Why, the sadness of it all, Johnny. What would our foredaddies say about this fighting? Don’t you feel a bit queer over the fact that George Washington is my foredaddy as well as yours? This is not a normal war, for we are kin. If my grandkids carried on this way, it’d break my heart.”
“I have thought on it. Weren’t we hellfire and brimstone for a fight, couple years back? Wish the politicians’ve had it like we have.”
“Stick ’em out here, the war would be done in a day.”
“That’s our thinkin’, too. Listen: You lay down that rifle and come along. Your men wish for you to accompany them to their temporary accommodations, courtesy of Jefferson Davis.”
“I must respectfully decline your hospitable offer.” He waited for spit again. He hadn’t had any water since early morning. It was heading past thirst into torment. “A man isn’t made for confinement. I’d rather buy my passage on a battlefield than be bored to death in a stockade any day.”
“I reckon your Carrie would see it different.”
“Oh . . . doggone it.” Lew felt the fight go right out of him.
What was boredom compared to seeing her face just one more time? One more time, God willing, and he’d die a man redeemed.
A twig snapped on his right. He groaned. “Don’t make me shoot you.”
“No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted,” came the cheerful reply.
Lew grinned, and it rolled into a laugh. Ulysses S. Grant’s very words to Fort Donelson, apparently famous enough to make the rounds in Rebel lines. Grant’s victory at Fort Donelson had been a disaster for the South. It opened up Tennessee for a Northern advance. Lew tossed the last shot aside. He couldn’t shoot him now. He couldn’t shoot him a long time ago.
By now Lew knew the fellow came from Alabama, had a twist of tobacco if Lew had coffee, couldn’t pick between Rosaline and Irene, and was currently reading number 5 or 6 of Nicholas Nickleby—his reading had improved considerable since being in the Confederate army, and he felt his station in life would certainly improve. Might even get himself a job at the new telegraph office in Huntsville. In turn, the Reb had learned that Lew and Carrie had a small fruit farm in Ezra, north and west of Gettysburg, where he grew apples, cherries, peaches, walnuts, and blueberries. He had four children, and didn’t know the name of the last. And at thirty-two, he was the oldest private in his regiment. Some called him Pap.
Another rustle. Lew sighed. “I am not gonna shoot you and you know it. Just get on, and we’ll—”
“Why, das right nice o’ you, Yank.”
Lew looked left, and there on a rock stood a big greasy man with a tobacco-stained beard and a mossy green leer.
He was not at all what Lew expected. One look told what sort of man this was—a forager, a bummer, a skulker, and the worst sort. It wasn’t the stuffed haversacks slung over his shoulders. It wasn’t the knapsack stenciled with the 12th Pennsylvania. It wasn’t the union pistols in his hands, and it wasn’t the filthy blouse stretched tight over a gut that had no cause to bulge if he lived the hard life of a decent soldier. It was Colonel Ford’s brass-buttoned coat. It had a new hole ripped into the side, jagged, darkened, wet.