A Tale from the American Civil War

Prose: Historical Fiction

 

Just North of the City of Richmond, KY.

August 30th, 1862.

Horace whittled a lump of chestnut oak in a white wicker chair, contemplating the wheat field that swayed in the storm while listening to the distant thundering. Then he noticed the rider in black approaching his home. The man wore a long coat and a short-brimmed cap, which appeared heavy with the weight of stormwater glowing under the fading light of dusk. It couldn’t have been anyone he knew, Horace reasoned. He was no good company, attested by the lack of visitors since his wife’s passing. Besides, this weather would make even the dumbest folk stay indoors to comfort their families amid the booming cannons around Richmond. No, this man had to be a stranger. His riding was erratic and rushed—he nearly fell off the damn horse when while rounding the path that lead to the porch which Horace sat upon.

“Ed,” he said sternly, knowing the boy would hear through the open window. “Get the rifle. Make sure it’s loaded.”

He heard Ed move around in the family room. The rider lead his horse through a winding road that lined the wheat and around a hill, the tall stalks almost completely obscuring him in the storm. Horace strained his eyes but they were not as keen as they used to be; once or twice he lost the man’s position among the fields. Had he been able to harvest when he wanted this year, and had the rains not come so often, he would have had no such trouble. But alas, here he was with a field full of aging wheat, a whittling knife, and old eyes that made it hard to even see the stranger who lurched toward his home.

Horace could hear Ed arguing with young Robert inside. “Back off!” Ed commanded his little brother. “Hurry! No, you can’t hold it Rob. Papa wants you to go to bed, lock the door. Just go! I’ll get you a snack or somethin’ later.”

Robert raised his voice to match Ed’s. “Why?”

“Because Pa said so!”

“But why can’t I hold the gun?”

“‘Cause you can’t!”

The rider was near the foot of the stairs leading up to their porch when the two boys finally stepped outside. Horace gripped the whittling knife in his pocket and gave the man a nod, noticing the blood on his leg. The stranger’s mouth opened, he grumbled something incoherent, and then tumbled ungracefully from the saddle. It spooked the horse, which whinnied and danced away from its fallen rider.

“Shit,” Horace said.

Ed held tightly onto the rifle and pointed it at the stranger while Robert and Horace dragged the drenched and bloody man up the steps. Horace’s back and legs strained under the exertion. Rob was not very strong yet, but he didn’t dare let that boy hold a rifle. At six no boy was smart enough to handle that sort of responsibility. Ed probably couldn’t pull the trigger if he had to, but at least he would be careful. Once the stranger regained consciousness he would be wary in the presence of a rifle pointed at his skull.

He lay on Horace’s porch, belly-up, making all of his ugly features known to the three who stared at him. His cap was still out in the rain, having fallen during the struggle to lift him up the stairs. Horace had no desire to go fetch it. Where it had rested upon his head there was instead a small mess of brown hair, mostly dry at the top but dripping everywhere else. The dark coat, upon further examination, was in fact dark blue before the storm. Rows of brass buttons were sewn across his belly and chest, and yellow-lined bars were on each shoulder. Blood leaked from a hole in his left leg, a few inches above his knee, and a scar split his lip. The man’s chin was wide and his nose looked broken, but there was no sign of blood around it. Horace stood over the tall stranger, grunted, and told Ed to keep an eye out for any others.

“He’s an army man,” Robert declared.

Horace nodded. The boy was right. No sense in lying; not about that, at least.

“Northerner,” Horace muttered. He listened for any others which might be slithering through his wheat fields, but it was hard to pick anything out of the storm.

“A Yankee!” Robert shouted. “Robert Darren’s Pa says they steal girls and all your stuff!”

“Mr. Darren’s an idiot,” Horace said.

“Keep him away from me!”

Ed adjusted his grip on the rifle, looking a bit less confident.

“He’s just a man,” Horace told his sons. “Just a man born in another part of the country.”

“Not our country no more,” Robert declared.

“Kentucky’s still a part of Lincoln’s States,” Ed said.

“Nu-uh.”

“Shut up Rob! It is.”

“Boys!” Horace growled. They stopped. Through the rain he could hear men shouting like whispers on the wind. Every couple of seconds, rifles popped. Cannons thundered. Among the rustling leaves Horace could hear the cries of men at war. “Help me get him inside.”

“But he’s the enemy.”

“Quiet, Rob,” Horace yelled. He knew, when he looked at the child’s reddening face, that he had lost his temper. Horace took a breath, collecting himself. He lifted the wounded soldier and told Rob to do the same, albeit more gently. Rob did his best. “I’m not leaving an unconscious man on my porch,” Horace said. “Not what your Ma would have done.”

“So?” Robert asked.

Horace pretended he hadn’t heard the brat. Ed let go of the gun and helped lift the stranger. Horace inspected the wound after they set him on the round kitchen table, his feet and right forearm dangling off, not before spitting on his fingers and wiping the dirt off on his pants. Blood swelled where he prodded the leg wound, seeping into the uniform around it. There was nothing to be done about the leg, save perhaps amputation, but Horace didn’t have it in him to chop a man’s leg off. The procedure would most likely kill the stranger, scar the kids, and make a mess of his home.

“Ed,” he said to his oldest son, “why don’t you go and see if you can find Mrs. Harris. She should be home.”

“Pop—”

“Go. Tell her it’s an emergency. A southern boy badly wounded.”

“But that’s a northern soldier,” Robert pointed out.

Ed nodded. “That’s more than a mile aways, though. It’ll take all night to get there.”

“No it won’t,” Horace sighed. “Forty minutes, tops. You’re quick.”

“Best get movin’,” Robert sneered. Though he looked conflicted.

Ed huffed and put on a raincoat. Horace thanked him but the boy said nothing back and walked out the door, tossing his Pop the rifle before slamming the door shut and running out into the storm. Horace tossed it on the couch. The rifle made a soft thud.

“Stay away from that,” he said to Robert.

His son was already walking down the hall to his bedroom.

Horace inspected the stranger for any other wounds. There were a few scratches around his ankles and hands, and he noticed a bit of scorched fabric on the soldier’s shoulder. Fragments of the northerner’s uniform flaked into ash in Horace’s fingers, which he smelled. He wondered why he bothered. It smelled like ash.

Horace yelled for Rob to go fetch a few of his clothes from the tall dresser in his bedroom, while starting to rifle through the unconscious soldier’s pockets. He had a few spare minie ball rounds in one, and it occurred to Horace how fortunate the northerner was not to have been hit with one of those. He would have never made it to Horace’s farm. He wouldn’t have made it half that distance. In the other pocket was a wallet which contained two dollars, a handful of coins, a slip of folded paper that when unravelled read Jacob West, and two small and worn pictures. The first was of a man who looked a bit like the man on the table, but without the prominent lip scar. The second was of a woman with the soldier, both smiling, standing beside a pond under a tree covered in small white flowers. Horace put the money into his own pocket, putting the rest back. He stopped and looked the young man over. He could feel a stinging panic begin to set in; he stared at the body on his kitchen table, still bleeding from the wound in its leg, blood beginning to pool on the wood. Instinctively he swept it away with a nearby rag—smearing the red in a thin film over the table—and soon he gave up. Rebecca would have been furious...

...Horace looked up as heavy footsteps approached from down the hall. Robert approached with hands full of old clothes. They were torn and sun-stained, and maybe a bit too big, but it would do. A pink stain was on one of the shirts Robert brought. Horace grinned, remembering that it had been the fourth stain he’d gotten in the course of a single week, just a few years back, when Rebecca wasn’t yet ill. She’d beat him with her bare hands and shouted about how clumsy he was, how it just had to be the button-down one that she liked and how he better wish God was fond of him—if she couldn’t get that out she would kill him.

He smiled at the stain. Lord, he missed his wife.

“Thank you, son. Stay close please, I may need you again.”

Robert nodded and ran off somewhere. Horace took a pair of scissors from the drawer beneath the coffee pot and pulled the soldier’s coat off, cutting his legs free of the soaked and bloody trousers as well. He tossed the ribbons on the floor. The buttons collided with the wooden boards louder than he expected. Horace looked through the windows, wondering what happened to the rest of the Northerners, stopping his work long enough to lock the front door. There had been thousands of men and a dozen cannons; Ed was ecstatic about it the other day, having claimed to see the glint of the soldiers’ steel through the woods. The boys had wanted to go see the battle yesterday when they heard the thunder from the cannons and the chorus of rifles and shouts, before the rain began. He wondered if they’d ever learn how lucky they were to have a Pa who wouldn’t let them picnic beside a battlefield.

Horace finished cutting. He’d exposed the wounded leg and left the other half of the stranger's trousers intact. He explored the hole again. As grotesque as it was, the charred and torn flesh was also fascinating to behold. He prodded it with a finger and blood spilled down the soldier’s leg, catching in his leg hair and dripping down onto the table. Horace wiped it off with a finger and dragged it across the stranger’s coat. He heard Robert make a yuck sound, followed by his boy’s feet beating down the hall.

The coffee was old and room-temperature but it felt good to hold the mug. He would have made a fresh pot for Morgan when she arrived but he needed to sit down more, and he had become accustomed to old coffee. He could always offer her some water.

It still amazed Horace what a man could get used to. Used to be that every morning Rebecca would make a fresh batch of coffee. The house would fill with the scent of whatever beans he was able to find in town. She liked a dark roast, he liked milk and plenty of sugar; a mean sweet cup, she called it. He had that just about every morning for seventeen years, then he would tend the fields. She would settle into the couch and mend the clothes of whoever left them for her. It was a small business, but she made a quarter for the little things and a dollar for major work. The others who lived nearby adored Rebecca for the service. Horace had gotten used to that routine—coffee, a bite of bread, working the fields, and coming home to see his wife in the couch mending one of the neighbors’ garments...

...the slamming door interrupted his bittersweet memories. Ed walked in first, looking like he stopped to swim in the river on the way back, with a woman in tow. Morgan Harris was a tall woman and stepped inside with a sense of purpose. Her high boots stomped on the welcome mat, leaving mud behind where she scraped them. She carried a duffel bag over one shoulder and a small umbrella over the other. She set the bag half atop the welcome mat, the umbrella atop it, the slight incline allowing rainwater to pool around the base. Her coat was a pale green color and her thick framed glasses so closely resembled the color of her black hair that, to Horace, it seemed as if they had merged as one around her ears. She was dripping with water from the storm when Ed took her coat like a little gentleman, even walking a little straighter as he carried it to the hooks on the wall. Horace suppressed his grin.

“Morgan,” He said. “Thank you for coming at such short notice.”

“Ed said somebody was hurt?”

“Yes, this way. I believe the young man may have been caught in the crossfire at Richmond. A bullet, looks like. How he found his way here is beyond me.”

Morgan took a minute to examine the man. She opened his eyelids—he made no response—and searched for any signs of injury beyond the leg wound that Robert pointed out the moment he walked back into the kitchen.

“Is his nose broken?” she asked.

“Not sure,” Ed said. He stood with Horace, both leaning against the counter, watching the horse doctor work on the soldier. If she was struggling to decide what to do, she made a convincing show otherwise.

“Ed, grab that bag I brought please.”

Ed moved quickly, presenting the duffel bag to Morgan as if it were a treasure. She was preoccupied for a moment, taking a glass from the sink and filling it with well water from a barrel beside the ice box. She thanked Ed when she returned to the table and pushed the soldier aside. She set the bag beside his head, unzipping and rifling through its contents. Ed rejoined Horace by the counter, crossed his arms, and returned to watching Morgan clean the wound. She poured water over it—Horace immediately became aware of the water damage that would be done to his table—and then retrieved her metal instruments. There were pliers, tweezers, scissors large and small, a few knives, and sutures together with a needle.

“The bullet is still in his leg,” she announced. “I need to take it out. Horace, would you like to grab me a tarp or somethin’ to catch the blood? It could get messy.”

Horace brought her a few rags, which were still damp from doing dishes earlier, but would help at least. Together they lodged a few beneath the soldier’s leg and wrapped more around the wound. They would be ruined, but the floral pattern was a bit much for his taste, and they were well-stained already anyway.

Morgan looked up at the boys. “You may want to step aside. This won’t be pretty,” she warned.

Neither moved.

“Suit yourselves,” she said.

Morgan began searching for the bullet, now lodged deep in the soldier’s leg, feeling for it with her fingers and moving the flesh aside with the smallest pair of scissors. She ignored the steady blood flow that had already soaked one of the rags with a steely determination, even when the soldier’s eyes opened and a bellowing wail left his mouth. Robert left the kitchen, though he could still hear the boy in the family room. Horace walked forward when Morgan called for him and held the man still. He thrashed for a moment and Morgan took him by the face, putting aside her work for a moment, telling him that if he didn’t stay still he would die.

“Keep up the pressure,” Morgan instructed. She tossed a rag from beneath the man’s leg at Horace and said, “He needs something to bite down on.”

Horace set the part of the rag that hadn’t been bloodied in the man’s mouth and told him to bite down. He did. The shouts were muffled by the wet cloth and the stranger's tears rolled across his face, toward his ears. Morgan yelled back for the man to keep still. Horace found a better grip and secured the young man’s leg, already beginning to feel sweat run down his back. The man’s hands gripped the sides of the table and held tight. Morgan made a noise—Horace looked up at her and found that he could not see her eyes beneath damp and disheveled bangs.

“Pa,” Robert shouted.

“I’ve found it,” Morgan announced.

The soldier was breathing loudly, his chest heaving.

“What?” Horace yelled to his son.

“I don’t like this.”

“I need to get the bullet out, hon,” Morgan nearly shouted, not waiting for his response before going back into the poor man’s leg with her tools. He wailed through the rag, looking up at Morgan the best he could. Horace saw tears in the man’s eyes.

“Pa?”

“A minute,” he said.

Morgan hissed a few cusses and the soldier cried out. She bit her lip and hunched down closer to the wound, slowly shifting her fingers and tweezers inside the man’s leg.

“Pa.”

“Ed! Do something!”

Morgan’s lips curled into a smile and she slowly raised her hands from the wound. She cradled the bullet between the tweezers and a long middle finger, lifting it from the flesh it had bored into. She dropped it on the bloody rags around the man’s leg and took a step back, grinning like a fool.

“We did it,” she said.

The soldier lay there on the table, unmoving. Upon further inspection Horace discovered the man was once again unconscious.

“Pa,” Ed said softly.

“I’m on my way.”

“Is he okay?”

“Yes,” Horace said, walking quickly to the hall where his sons hid.

Robert was crying. Ed held his brother’s shoulder, looking out of place.

“What’s going on?” he asked, sitting in front of his youngest.

“The - the-”

“It’s reminding him of Ma,” Ed said.

“Oh,” Horace said, speaking to Robert. “I’m sorry, son. Listen—hey— there’s no need for all of this. Listen, your Ma is fine. She’s not sick anymore.”

“I wish she didn’t go.”

Horace held his son close. Ed walked off. Robert cried for a while after that, eventually pulling away from his father’s embrace and telling him that he was hungry. Horace was glad it was over—his knees hurt from the way he was sitting and he hated these fits. They walked together back into the kitchen, where Horace noticed that Rob wouldn’t look at the wounded soldier. Ed was talking with Morgan, his arms crossed over his chest and his voice cracking a little, asking about the stranger.

“Hey,” Ed said, “Mr. Lewis was wounded like this...fella’. Think he’ll end up in a wheelchair too?”

“Hard to say,” Morgan said, looking over the wound once more. “We’ll know more when he wakes. Even if he can’t walk now there’s a good chance he will just need time to heal. The wound was clean. Not sure exactly what comes next. I just didn’t have the best tools for this — there I was, expecting to finish my coffee and read a little tonight, check on the horses before bed and such, when Ed comes out of the dark and tell me a man’s been shot.”

“Sorry,” Horace said.

She laughed. “It’s fine.”

There was a moment of silence. Robert made his way into the kitchen, keeping far from the bloody table. He grabbed a piece of bread from a loaf on the counter and buttered it, declaring, “I think he will be okay,” before walking back to his room with a mouthful. He said something else as he left, the word wheelchair in there somewhere, but it was muffled by his snack.

“I guess that settles it,” Horace said. Morgan laughed.

She stayed up with him after the boys had gone to bed. Horace was sure it was due to the fact it was still raining. He knew that he made terrible company. He offered her coffee again, only remembering that she had already declined when she did so again by using nearly the same words. Horace idled in the kitchen for a minute while she made her way to the couch, deciding that it was good time for a smoke, and stepped over to the couch. Morgan was watching him while he set the rifle aside and sat down with his pipe kit, taking it out of the thin wooden box that Rebecca and the boys made for him one christmas. He put a leg up on the coffee table, then down on the floor again when he remembered some people thought it was impolite. Besides, one of the legs wobbled a bit. That would need fixing soon, before one of the boys made it worse. It was probably just a loose screw, he hoped. It should be a simple fix.

“Horace?”

He faced his guest, his fingers navigating the pipe kit without needing to look.

“How have things been?”

“Fine,” he lied, stuffing the pipe with some tobacco from Teddy Wilson’s shop in town. Might be the last he’ll ever get from that man; he went south to join the Confederates a few weeks ago. If he died maybe his wife would keep the business up until their son could run it. “Ed’s gotten over it. Robert will take longer, but he won’t remember much of this later. Boy’s lucky ‘bout that.”

She nodded. “Plenty of things I wish I could forget.”

Horace lit a match and pressed at against the tobacco, watching it take on the flame. “Yeah,” he said.

“They’ve grown so quick.”

“Ed’s gotten tall this year,” he took the pipe into his mouth and sucked air in, letting the sweet smoke linger on his tongue.

“Oh my goodness, he has! Almost didn’t recognize him when he showed up,” she said, taking a sip from her drink. Horace couldn’t recall giving that cup to her. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and looked past the woman to the soldier. He was moving the way somebody in a bad dream shifted in their sleep.

“That smells delicious,” Morgan said, watching him closely.

He handed her the pipe. She put it between her lips and breathed in, an odd look in her eyes. Her fingers caressed the wooden pipe as the leaves blackened and burned, watching him. As she exhaled smoke wafted around her chin, and her nose, and her lips which generously wrapped around the pipe’s stem once more. She breathed in again, her eyes fixed on his, and breathed out another slow shifting stream of grey sweet-smelling smoke.

He took the pipe back from her, which she allowed, and bit on on the stem. He could taste a change in the pipe. He could feel the heat from her breath on the stem and — he stood and turned away from her, staring out the window at the rain which poured mercilessly and listening to the wind which wailed against his home. The windows rattled and lightning tore at the sky over the trees and wheat.

Horace sucked in a deep breath of his pipe smoke, coughing.

The northerner grunted. Horace looked over Morgan’s shoulder as he fell off the table. His descent was quick and resulted in a hard thud. As the man bemoaned the pain and gripped his leg, Horace took the rifle that he’d left on the couch. He aimed as Morgan approached, putting the northerner’s chest in line with the sights. When they rounded the bloody kitchen table the soldier was clutching at his leg, recoiling when his dirty fingers brushed the stitching. He poked Morgan’s handiwork, a dumb expression on his face.

“Hey!” She swatted him. He pushed himself away from her along the floor with his good leg, his boots dragging in front of him. “Now I worked hard on that. Don’t you go ruining it!”

“No, no ma’am.”

Horace was surprised to hear a Kentuckian accent in that shaky, young voice.

She paused. “Good.”

“What time is it?” he asked.

Morgan’s head swivelled looking for a clock.

“Quarter-past eleven,” Horace told him. “Welcome back.”