Read an Excerpt
Even after hearing Elisha and McNamara, Thomas was surprised by the cursing.
"That goddamn Bobby Lee, what's he up to?"
"And that sonofabitch Stuart."
"We'll see how goddamn good they are without Jackson."
"Good enough to steal the march on us. Most of em's up in Maryland, you know."
"No, I don't know, and you don't either."
"They're gone, is the point, while we set here."
"What the hell's Hooker waitin on?"
"Sonofabitch ain't been right since Chancellorsville. Since that roof fell on him. You boys all know that."
"It warn't a roof. Shell hit a column next to where he was standin. Affected his brain someways."
"Is that the way of it?"
"What I heard."
There were seven or eight of them seated around a campfire, some on the ground, some on ladderback chairs and wooden supply boxes, Luke and Thomas sitting tailor-fashion on the ground between Elisha and McNamara, who had a chair, and speaking only when spoken to. The five recruits from Nantucket had also been enrolled in Company I, but they'd found men they knew from home in another mess and had joined them.
"These beans're good, Stonewall," Elisha told the man who'd cooked them, a Roxbury farmer who bore the same name, Thomas Jackson, as the Confederate general who'd been mortally wounded at Chancellorsville by his own pickets. The only good to come of that terrible day.
"Everyone be fartin all night," said the drummer boy, Willie Davis, a rank- smelling little Boston tough who cursed as filthily as any of the men, who encouraged it for their amusement.
"Watch your mouth, boy," McNamara said.
"Sure," the boy said, "I'll watch my goddamn mouth," and there was a chorus of laughter.
"Well," said a man who had not yet spoken, "we'll be marching soon, for sure. Any day, I speck."
It silenced them, like the melancholy toll of a bell. They looked into the fire, looked down at their plates of syrupy beans. There was white bread, too, and slices of dried apple.
"There's gonna be a big fight," the man said. He was hatless, and his hair was chestnut- brown and he wore a long handlebar mustache. Eyes quiet, and as dark and deep as wells. "The biggest yet," he said.
"Where at, Henry Wilcox?"
"Hooker's got to get between Lee and Washington, d'you see? Lee's behind the Blue Ridge, reason he got away so clean, and by the time he turns east he'll be clear to Pennsylvania. That's where we'll be fightin, boys."
"Pennsylvania," someone said. "By Christ."
It was getting dark. Voices rose around the other fires, short bursts of laughter. A soft evening breeze brought a foul smell from the company sink, an evil shit- piled trench hardly two feet deep, a middling walk from the rearmost row of tents.
"Lee gets up there, he'll go clear to Harrisburg," someone said.
"Could be," said Wilcox.
At a fire not far distant a fiddle struck up, slow, inexpert, sawing a plaintive, weepy "Lorena." The fiddler, or perhaps another, added his voice, a reedy tenor.
"Someone tell them boys that's a goddamn Reb song." The speaker had a narrow shriveled- looking face, squint- eyed and feral as some mean little animal, rat or weasel, with thin shoulders and long snarls of black hair and an untrimmed mustache.
"So what if it is?" said Tom Jackson.
The sun's low down the sky, Lorena,
The frost gleams where the flow'rs have been.
Luke looked at his brother in the firelight. Thomas was looking out into the distance. His mouth was full but he wasn't chewing. In the past year Rose had been singing "Lorena" and often playing it on the front parlor piano. She'd gotten the sheet music from Miss West.
"What's the matter with him?" someone said.
"He's tired," Luke said. "The day's been a long one."
"He'll see ones longer."
"That's a pretty fiddle," Thomas said softly, as if to himself.
"Isaac Brophy," someone said. "Dumbest bastard in the regiment."
"He can fiddle, though."
"Thomas," Luke said, "eat your supper."
"You homesicky, little girl?" It was the unkempt squint- eyed little man.
"Hey," Luke said.
"What's your name?" Luke said.
"Jake Rivers, and what's that to you?"
"I'll lick you, you don't shut up," Luke said.
"Will you, now," Rivers said.
"Try lickin me and see what happens," another, larger, man said.
The music had broken off.
"Let's not go to lickin each other," Wilcox said. "Let's save it for the Rebs."
"These two're my friends from home," Elisha said. "They're Mac's friends too. What if he is homesicky? What of it?"
"He ain't even been here a day."
"That don't matter," Elisha said.
"What's their names, Elisha?"
"I done told you their names."
"Well tell em again."
"Luke and Thomas Chandler. They're brothers."
The fiddler began again. "Lorena."
"They talk intelligent, both of em."
"They come from education," Elisha said. "Their pa's a surgeon."
"You boys know Latin and Greek?"
"Some," Luke said.
"Thomas, is it?"
"How many times you need tellin?" Elisha said.
"How old're you, Thomas?"
Thomas smiled wanly. "Eighteen," he said.
"You ain't either."
"He's sixteen," Luke said.
"Lie to the recruiter, did you?"
"Colonel Macy," Elisha said.
"That sonofabitch would of took you anyways," said the big man who'd challenged Luke. His name was Merriman and, the challenge done with, his broad fair face was open and genial, of a fit with his name. He was another Roxbury man, a stonecutter. "He'd of took you at fourteen. You get a bounty?"
"We didn't join for the bounty," Luke said.
"Sure you didn't," said Rivers.
"They didn't," Elisha said. "Didn't I tell you their pa's a surgeon? They got all the money they need."
It quieted them momentarily. "Lorena" played on.
"If that's so," said one, "you're either foolish or crazy, one."
"They're both," McNamara said.
"Takes one to know one, Mac," Merriman said.
"They come to help us whip the Rebs," Elisha said. "It ain't no more complicated than that."
"Hell. Can't argue with that," said Wilcox.
"Just next time don't get so hot, big brother," said Merriman. "There's some boys in this regiment you don't want to tangle with."
"He was standin up for his brother, Joe," said Tom Jackson. "Who can fault him that?"
"I ain't faultin him," Merriman said. "Gimme your hand, Luke. I like a man'll stand up for his own."
Luke put his plate down and Merriman laid his aside, and they leaned toward each other and shook hands.
"You go on eat your beans, Tommy," said Henry Wilcox. "Won't be any baked beans where we're goin."
Thomas managed another smile. He nodded, and dug a spoonful of beans.
"They're awful good," he said.
"Ain't they?" said Tom Jackson.
"It's a pretty song, even if it is secesh," Henry said.
They weren't alone together until an hour or so after taps, when Thomas got up and went out behind the tent to pee and Luke followed him. Neither had slept yet. They'd lain quiet, side by side, listening to McNamara snore, grabbing at invisible mosquitoes. The night air was warm, soft. Somewhere in the distance a mule brayed. Somewhere closer a whippoorwill called softly.
"Hear that?" Thomas said.
"Didn't know they had them down here."
"What's wrong, Thomas?"
Luke said, just above a whisper.
"It isn't nothing."
"It's the music. It makes a body sad."
"You'll be glad of it by and by," Luke said, and thought I told you so, didn't I? Didn't I tell you to stay home?
Thomas had finished and now Luke stood spread- legged, peeing.
"How do I look in my uniform?" Thomas said.
"Fine. Like a soldier."
"I feel like I'm going to a costume party."
"So do I," Luke said.
"Do you wish Mariah could see you?"
"Why not? She might change her mind if she could see you now."
"I wouldn't want her to."
Luke had finished and was buttoning up. "Let's go to sleep," he said.
"Do you think Henry's right about a big battle in Pennsylvania?" Thomas said.
"It'll come soon, won't it," Thomas said.
"Thomas, listen to me. Don't look ahead. Live in the present, like each day was a complete thing like your life was one day long. That's what the soldiers do. I can already see it. You'd have thought Elisha had never had baked beans before, and in a way he hadn't."
Thomas nodded. He was looking at the ground, standing very still. Again Luke thought I told you so but he did not say it. Nor did he, ever, in all the difficulty to come. Copyright © 2009 by John Hough, Jr.
When Jubal Early came to Gettysburg the first time, which was four days before the battle, his cavalry arrived in advance, pouring into town on Chambersburg Street, whooping and hollering and discharging revolvers into the air like celebrants heralding a parade. There'd been distant shooting earlier, the Twenty- sixth Pennsylvania Militia having been called out to try their luck against this substantial segment of Lee's army, then a pregnant silence of an hour or more, and now a sound like the rumble of thunder on the horizon.
The girls at the Young Ladies' Seminary were at their literary exercises. It was three and a quarter in the afternoon. Mrs. Eyster heard the great noise and her eyes grew round and without a word she made for the door, with the girls piling after her, all gathering on the front portico, from which they could see, up the hill near the Theological Seminary, the dark, seething, hard- charging mass of the Rebel cavalry.
Mrs. Eyster clapped her hands. Run home! she said. As fast as ever you can, children!
And they did, not even pausing to collect their slates and schoolbooks, scampering this way and that, and now the pistol shots erupted behind them, staccato, like strings of fireworks on the Fourth of July. East on High Street ran Tillie McCurdy, then south on Baltimore. The streets were still damp from the rain and soft and pliant underfoot. There was no dust. Her father was shuttering his butcher shop and he came out and locked the door and pocketed the key and he and Tillie hurried into their house on the corner of Baltimore and Breckenridge, breathless. The door was unlocked and her father left it so.
It will only make them suspicious, he said. As if we had something to hide.
Tillie's mother and sister had shuttered the sitting room and gone back to the kitchen.
Thank God, her mother said, laying her hand over her heart.
Feeling safe now with Mr. McCurdy home the family went to the sitting room, which was dim and very warm with the shutters drawn, and James McCurdy peeked out through a crack. A mud- deadened pounding of hooves, and then a string of riders floated quickly by, like ragged dun-colored ghosts.
Where are the militia? said Margaret McCurdy.
Scattered, I imagine, said James.
Well that's just fine, isn't it.
This is Lee's army, Margaret. The Army of Northern Virginia.
Well, what do we have a militia for?
James made no answer. He was still watching through the sun- filled gap between the shutters. A final horseman cantered past. James turned from the window. It was quiet now on Baltimore Street but they could hear hoofbeats on other blocks, distant yelling, a pistol shot.
Young Floyd Wilkes is under our porch, he said.
Margaret McCurdy looked at him. What on earth is he doing there? she said.
I've hidden him. He was walking to the Globe. He works there, you know. I told him he'd never make it before the Rebels came into the Diamond.
And what of that? Margaret said.
You know what's been happening.
It's none of our concern, said Margaret.
Floyd's a nice boy, James said.
His mother's a you-know-what.
What? Annie said.
I know what, Tillie said.
Hush the both of you, their mother said.
Well I think Floyd's nice even if he is a darky, Tillie said.
He's a good pious boy, James said. Be a shame if they took him.
I don't believe those stories, Margaret said. I don't believe they're taking any but runaways.
It's wicked even so, Tillie said.
It's Mr. Will ought to be worrying about it, not us, Margaret said. He wants to hire darkies, let him protect them.
He's only under our porch, Margaret. We can deny we knew anything about it.
And so we will, Margaret said.
General Early arrived a half hour later with the two thousand men of General Gordon's brigade. The bulk of them stopped on Chambersburg Street and General Early came into the Diamond with his aides and a guard and a regimental band and sent a couple of riders to the courthouse with a demand that the mayor come right away to negotiate the surrender of the town. It was David Kendlehart who came, accompanied by Swinton Kesey. They walked up Baltimore Street in the waning heat of the afternoon and found General Early on the verandah of the Gettysburg Hotel, rocking and fanning himself with his plumed hat. The band, seven or eight men, was arrayed in the middle of the square playing "The Bonnie Blue Flag," drums and fifes and a blatting cornet. The Rebels had run their flag up the Diamond flagpole. There were horses tied all about, and soldiers on the lookout. The soldiers were lean and dirty and grim- faced, with a slouching grace about them and a light in their eye both fearless and cold, and Kendlehart wondered if the Union army could stand up to them. He wondered if any army could. He and Kesey climbed the steps to the verandah. General Early did not get up, nor did any in his entourage of officers. He did not invite the two men to sit down. General Early in his ash-gray uniform and gold braid. Jubal Early in Gettysburg.
Mr. Mayor, he said.
I'm David Kendlehart, president of the city council, and this is Swinton Kesey, a council member. Mayor Martin is out of town.
Out of town.
The general leaned and spat. Y'all got yourself a goddamn poltroon for a mayor, ain't you.
He's away on business, sir.
Shit, said the general.
Kendlehart and Kesey looked at each other and both shrugged. The Rebel band had stopped playing, but Kendlehart did not remember when. General Early was thickset, with a graying bushy beard and a stoop to his shoulders that seemed to pain him when he moved.
Well, he said, reaching beside him without looking, here's what I want. An officer put a piece of paper in his gloved hand. General Early handed the list to Kendlehart, who had to step forward to take it. It was quiet as he read it, Kesey reading too over his shoulder. The wicker rockers went back and forth, gnawing softly at the wooden flooring. General Early fanned himself.
Good God, Kendlehart said.
Pardon? said the general.
We can't possibly provide all of this. We don't have it.
There aren't seven thousand pounds of bacon in the whole county, Kesey said. Nor a thousand pounds of sugar. Nor any of it.
That a fact? said the general. Well, I'll tell you what, then. Y'all open them fat Yankee banks of yours and pony up let's see say five thousand dollars.
Again the two councilmen looked at each other. We can't, Kendlehart said.
Well you better. I'm in the mood to burn this goddamn town.
The banks have all moved the bulk of their monies. To Baltimore, mostly. Some to Philadelphia. They knew you were coming, General.
Early looked at the officer beside him, a major wearing a forage cap. Seems like they're afraid of us up here, don't it.
Seems like it, sir.
Well, Mr. Kindlinwood, what idea have you got that might dissuade me from burnin Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to the goddamn ground?
We'll open our stores to you, Kendlehart said. Take or buy, it's up to you.
General Early considered it, squinting across at the redbrick dry goods store of John Schick, who had, as David Kendlehart knew, shipped most of his inventory to Philadelphia. It wasn't just the bankers who had anticipated the Rebel invasion.
Well shit, the general said. Be the easiest thing, under the circumstances.
Kendlehart and Kesey exchanged another look. You agree, then, Kendlehart said.
Very good, sir, said Kendlehart. I only hope you'll give us some time to explain to everybody.
Time to hide things, you mean.
We'll be along right quick, said the general. And Mr. Kindlinwood
I find any runaway niggers I'll take em or shoot em, one.
All the niggers here are freeborn.
How many you got?
Couple hundred. Most of them have left town. There's a few work at the Globe Inn, back of this hotel. They're good boys. Don't bother anybody.
They got manumission papers?
They were born here, sir.
General Early nodded dubiously and reached inside his coat and brought out a gold watch on its chain. I'll be sendin details in an hour. Foragers. Y'all be ready to welcome em with Christian benevolence.
Floyd Wilkes, in his little hiding place, heard the talk in the street as word spread from block to block that the stores were to be opened to the Southerners. He heard Mr. McCurdy unlock the butcher shop and leave it unlocked.
Floyd, he said.
Yes sir, Floyd said, down in the dark.
You stay put now. They'll be all over here in just a few minutes.
Hi, Floyd, Tillie said.
Hello, Miss Tillie.
They went into the house and pretty soon Floyd heard the shuffle of footsteps and the clink of equipment and the ribald- sounding voices of the soldiers as they moved from shop to shop, helping themselves. He heard them go into the butcher shop and come tramping out again laden, he pictured, with whole haunches of beef and mutton, whole hams. There were cracks in the stone foundation Mr. McCurdy had removed a rock to let Floyd in and jammed it back in place letting in shards of white daylight but none large enough to peer out of.
We gawn eat good tonight, someone said.
Officers gawn take the most of it, said another.
No they ain't.
The alien voices Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana; who knew? seemed to strike at Floyd's lower vitals and the result was a terrific need to urinate. It grew and he slid over in the dark and, lying on his side, unbuttoned and relieved himself in the powdery dirt. He slid back again but the odor followed him and at that moment, with his bladder comfortable again and the smell of his own urine in his nose, Floyd recalled his decision to remain in Gettysburg and the defiance behind it, and now he saw the ignominy of what he was doing, hiding under a house like a runaway slave with a reward on his head when he was a free man, educated, Bibleread, and well known to God. The Southerners were capturing free men, it was true, but those would be the helpless ones, his own mother an example, the ignorant and the docile who in fact spoke the broken English of slaves and could be passed off as such when it came time to sell them. They could not make a slave of Floyd Wilkes. He would die first.
It grew dark, pitch-black under the porch, and Floyd lay there and once nearly went to sleep before a passing wagon woke him. Then Mr. McCurdy came out and knelt down and pried the rock free and Floyd crawled out powdered with the strange gray-brown dirt that never saw rain or daylight.
I thank you, Mr. McCurdy, he said, and commenced to slap the dust off himself.
They never searched our house, Mr. McCurdy said. If I'd known that...
I've no complaint, Floyd said.
The militia ran like rabbits, apparently. A boy was killed. Shot in the back as he ran. Others were captured.
The Army of the Potomac won't run, Floyd said.
I wonder where they'll fight, Mr. McCurdy said.
Mrs. McCurdy stood in the doorway, in its screen of pale gold light. James, she said.
Evening, Mrs. McCurdy, Floyd said.
Good evening, she said.
You'd best go on, Floyd, Mr. McCurdy said. Be careful, though. There may be soldiers still about.
All right, Floyd said, but listen. I'm going to enlist.
They stared at him.
Enlist? Mrs. McCurdy said. Enlist how?
There are Negro regiments now, Margaret, her husband said.
Yes ma'am, Floyd said. Several of them.
Heavens, she said.
And then, Floyd said, I'm going to further my education. Might be I'll go to divinity school.
That's quite a plan, Mr. McCurdy said.
I formed it under the porch.
You hear that, Margaret? Under our own porch.
James, I do wish you'd come inside to your supper.
Good night, Floyd, Mr. McCurdy said. You watch out, now. They haven't gone far.
I'm not afraid of them, Floyd said.
Maryland was a slave state but here, suddenly, the white people were glad to see them and the Negroes no more than curious, studying their faces as the column passed, as if trying to divine some hidden purpose in their marching here, some agenda that did not meet the eye and that might not be entirely beneficial to colored people. No hymns were offered as the army rolled by, no cries went up of "Jubilo."
It was the whites who called out to them, who smiled and waved. In Poolesville and Barnsville, country towns huddled along dusty treeshaded thoroughfares, American flags hung from second-story windows and pretty girls leaned out, smiling and fluttering handkerchiefs. Full rain barrels had been dragged to the roadside for the men to dip out of or fill their canteens. Girls handed out sandwiches and pies, the men taking them up in their dirty hands and wolfing them down as they marched. In the towns the brigade bands struck up, and if you were in earshot of the music, as Luke and Thomas sometimes were, you could feel your heart lift, could feel it fill with optimism and love of country. Schoolchildren stood in neat rows, waving tiny American flags and watching with such respect and wonder it might have been a procession of storybook heroes passing in front of them, knights from King Arthur or the demigods from their child's Homer.
"It warn't like this last time we was up here," Elisha said.
"They weren't scared of the Rebs," Stackpole said. "Now they got the sense to appreciate us."
"What's wrong with the niggers, they ain't glad to see us?"
"They ain't been freed, that's what's wrong with em. Old Abe's proclamation don't apply to em."
"It will," Luke said.
Then McNamara went too far, he pushed Luke beyond where Luke was going to stand for it. Maybe he thought he was entitled to say what he would, now they were home in their own free country, or maybe the reticence written in the quiet faces of these Maryland Negroes stirred something in him. Some need to be caustic. They'd put Barnsville behind them, were in the country again.
"When the war's over," Luke said, "there won't be slavery anywhere."
"Luke's gonna marry one," McNamara said, marching two ranks behind Luke and Thomas. "Marry him a black wench can't read nor write."
"Luke ain't that far gone," Merriman said.
"I bet so," Mac said. "Have him a good time, won't you, Luke? A nigger woman'll do you all day long, I hear."
Luke spun out of line without a word, dropping his musket, shedding his knapsack, and took McNamara by the collar of his sack coat, and swung him over into the roadside weeds, and while he staggered, off balance and weighted by his knapsack, Luke hit him. McNamara doubled over and turned away and Luke threw himself on him and drove him to the ground, McNamara still harnessed to the knapsack, and Luke punched him in the face, punched him again, and then Sergeant Cate swung his musket and the world slewed and went dark and Luke woke up in the grass and thistles, blind, trying to make out what was being said over him.
McNamara had clambered to his feet and was being held by Elisha and Merriman and Thomas. Luke's punches had bruised his jaw and scraped his chin and forehead bloody. Cate grabbed Luke's arm and hauled him to his feet.
"You stupid bastard," he said.
Luke shook his head, trying to see. The back of his skull was vibrating like a bell.
"Get back in column," Cate said.
It was a disciplined army and it kept moving, the men staring as they passed, taking it in without comment.
"Smith," Cate said, "Merriman. Move. You too, Tommy. Quick, you sonsabitches, before the lieutenant comes up."
The three snatched up their muskets and ran to catch up to their ranks. Cate lifted Luke's knapsack and helped him shoulder it. Luke could see now but his head was throbbing. He felt it: a lump rising. Cate put his musket in his hand. McNamara touched the raw places on his face and looked at the blood on his fingers.
"Get in column," Cate said. "If there's any more of it I'll arrest you."
"You'll pay, you sonofabitch," McNamara said.
"He already did," Cate said. "Now git."
A pair of officers was coming, Paine and Captain Abbott, at the tail of the regiment. The blow to his head had killed Luke's rage and he understood the jeopardy he was in and took off forward at a jog. McNamara ran ahead of him.
"Sergeant Cate," Paine said.
"Sir," Cate said, turning.
"What was all that?"
"A little fracas, sir. It's over."
They were moving, route step, Cate to the right of Lieutenant Paine with his musket shouldered.
"Chandler and McNamara," Paine said.
"I don't know how it started, sir," Cate said.
"If it starts again I'll buck and gag both of them."
"I'd enjoy doing it. I hear Chandler's quite the abolitionist."
"Sir, I haven't discussed it with him."
"You tell those two idiots what'll happen if they fight again."
"I will sir."
"Go on tell them right now," Paine said.
South Mountain now imprinted the sky to the west, rising distantly, smoke-blue, gently rolling. Lee behind it somewhere, there was no doubt of that now. The Maryland roads were good. The farms of course were undamaged, and fields of grain and corn and tobacco stretched out amber and gem- green. Cattle grazed on the hillsides and smoke rose peacefully from farmhouses of red- and white-painted brick.
Luke marched in silence the rest of that day. Thomas, beside him, said nothing. Nor did Elisha, in front. The unfairness of their reproachful silence, if that's what it was, irritated Luke but his head hurt and he knew talking would aggravate it, and anyway if they didn't like what he'd done they could both go to hell.
They broke ranks to rest and fill their canteens from a stream, and Luke sat apart from Elisha and Thomas and didn't look their way. He filled his hat and let the cold water rinse the lump on his head and it froze the pain a little. He ate a hard cracker. No one spoke to him. He wondered why and then thought of Rose and imagined her sitting beside him, lifting her skirt perhaps to put her slender feet in the water, and wondered what she would say about John McNamara.
They made camp in farm country beside the winding Monocacy River with the spires and steeples of a town or city poking up above the treetops lower down to the west. At roll call Paine told them that they had marching orders for four in the morning. They built fires but the march today had been a hard one and, as so often happened, very few bothered to pitch their tents.
Thomas was speaking to Luke now but did not mention McNamara until they went to the river at twilight to wash. They stripped off their shirts and knelt and splashed themselves. They'd used the last of their soap and the sutlers had been sent away so there was no way to buy more. With a sopping rag Luke gingerly mopped the back of his head. Around them men bathed, soaked and wrung out shirts, talked quietly. Luke and Thomas sat down and inspected their shirts for graybacks.
"He doesn't mean it," Thomas said.
"Who doesn't?" Luke said.
"Mac. It's just talk. Trying to get your goat."
"Why do you take up for him?" Luke said.
"You take up for Jake."
"Jake doesn't know any better."
"Neither does Mac."
Elisha came down the riverbank. There were willows along it, and grazing cattle had kept the ground unthicketed and parklike. Elisha sat down and took off his shoes. He unbuttoned his shirt.
"How's your head, Luke?"
"He could have hit me harder, I guess."
"Joe said Cate did you a favor," Thomas said. "Said Paine would've arrested you sure if he'd seen it."
"I hope I don't get too many more favors from Cate," Luke said.
Elisha grinned. He was stepping out of his pants, his drawers. They watched him mince, naked, into the water.
"Colder'n hell," he said.
"Does Mac want to fight me?" Luke said.
Elisha sat down in the water, grimacing. "Damn that's cold," he said.
"Does he?" Luke said.
"Hell," Elisha said. "He's afeard of you, Luke. Don't you know that?"
Luke stared at him. He looked away, downriver.
Jake Rivers came down the bank, barefoot still, after all these days and miles. His feet looked like a Negro's, they were so begrimed and sunburned. He sat down.
"Hear Cate almost took your head off," he said.
"He gave it a good tap," Luke said.
"I can see he did. You ask me, it's about time somebody took care a that sonofabitch McNamara."
"He ain't a sonofabitch," Elisha said.
"He ain't? I swear, Elisha. If you hadn't of fucked that girl down at Thoroughfare Gap I'd worry over you."
"Who says I fucked her," Elisha said.
"Well did you or didn't you?"
"He did," Thomas said.
"By God I hope so," Rivers said. "Mac still got that pistol? You best watch your back, Luke."
"Mac ain't gonna shoot nobody," Elisha said.
Rivers shrugged. He took off his battered and blackened forage cap and looked at it. "General Early was over to York, Pennsylvania," he said. "Laid tribute on em. Sergeant Holland was tellin it. Took everythin. Stock, money. York ain't far from here. It's comin, boys."
"How many days, do you think?" Thomas said.
"Be a hell of a one this time," Rivers said.
"When ain't it?" Elisha said.
"Well, that's so," Rivers said.
"You better take a wash, Jake," Luke said. "Your odor doesn't improve the air."
"Listen," Rivers said. "There's a town over yonder two three miles. Name of Frederick, Maryland. Me and Joe are goin in there tonight. Find us some liquor. Some girls. You boys're welcome to join us. Do you some good."
Elisha had come out of the water. He was drying himself with his shirt. "I already got a girl," he said.
"That girl's your girl?" Rivers said.
"She is if I can help it," Elisha said. He sat down in his drawers and began looking for graybacks in his clothes. He found and killed one.
"You know what time we're marching tomorrow?" Luke said.
"I know what time," Rivers said. "I know where we're goin, too. Why I want to have some fun."
"How you gonna get passes?" Elisha said.
"We ain't," Rivers said.
There was a noise, a stir, running through the acres of campfires and humanity. Shouts. Close by, a drum rolled. Their boy, Willie Davis.
"I wonder what all that's about," Rivers said.
Near Monocacy Junction, Maryland June 28, 1863
My dearest Rose,
The news came just a little while ago: HOOKER IS GONE. He has been replaced by Genl Meade & most of the boys are highly pleased tho they wonder why Genls Reynolds or Hancock did not receive the appt. They call him the Snapping Turtle & in truth he looks like one with bulging mirthless eyes & a hard little mouth not made for smiling & appears always in ill humor. I do not know where he stands on Abolition but suspect the worst or there wd be grumbling here & there as there is of Genls Howard & Schurz of the 11th Corps who are staunch abolitionists. Rosie there is ignorance & prejudice everywhere in this Army but they will do their duty to a man & in victory the terrible blight will be lifted from this Country at last & all men will see. But back to Genl Meade, he will have to fight Bobby Lee soon (as the boys call him) & one can only sympathize with him in his new position. They say Lee has never lost a battle unless you count Antietam & the boys who fought there say if that is Victory we might as well pack up & go home because we cd not stand many more of them.
Rosie this will I am certain be my last letter to you until after the Battle. Mail goes out every day now we are on Maryland soil but we move before dawn tomorrow & will I believe keep moving hard until we strike Lee or he strikes us. I will write Father as well so you can consider this yrs alone. We will have fought by the time you read this & if you have heard nothing of me & Thomas fear not because we will come through it. I have decided or I shd say seen that there is logic to everything incl War & therefore I will come back to you. I must. Elisha confirms this, he says a fellow senses when his time has come & that is when they give away their valuables & pin their names to their shirts etc. They have felt the logic of it, you see. There is a man in our Company, Henry Wilcox, who fears he will not survive this time. The boys chaff him some but only to relieve the dread of Henry's premonition by making light of it.
I have come to believe there is a God Rosie, perhaps to be found in the Church perhaps not. He is a Just God, there is no other kind, & I can feel His presence among us & know He will be present in all the din & turmoil of battle. A loss this time wd mean loss of the War, so Victory is ordained & the names of the dead already written. Not mine, not Thomas's, not Elisha Smith's.
Now in all of this folderol I forgot to mention the hermits & cheeses & cake etc. wch arrived our 1st night in M'land & went very fast as you might imagine. We are too generous, especially Thomas. Send more if you are so inclined.
I had a row today with John McNamara & was able to knock some sense into him before Sgt Cate curtailed the argument by using my head for a base ball. Mac is sulking in his tent like Achilles & Thomas & Elisha say I must make it right with him as it is bad luck & bad war to go into battle with a grudge against a fellow soldier. I don't want to but they say I must & admittedly you don't want a man fighting alongside you who is yr enemy, there will be enemies enough wearing the Gray.
Rosie I must do that & write Father if I can & so Good Night to you. You once said you wd enlist if you were a man & you will be fighting beside me & never shirking & yr heart as brave as any man's.
Ever yr devoted Luke
"Go on, Luke," Elisha said, "get her done with."
"Go on," Thomas said.
"What if he was to get kilt and you ain't made it right with him," Elisha said. "How would you feel?"
"I don't know," Luke answered truthfully.
"That's just it," Elisha said. "Why find out when it ain't nothin you can do to change it?"
Luke cursed under his breath and got up and made his way across the campground to the dogtent. McNamara was sitting in its dark interior sachem- like with his legs folded, smoking his pipe. The tent flaps were open, but even with the big moon it was hard to read his face. The air was thick with sweetish pipesmoke and a stink of sweat. Luke knelt, looking in.
"Shake hands, Mac," he said.
"Go get fucked."
"I ambushed you. It wasn't fair."
"I'll ambush you, you sonofabitch." Sitting placidly, almost ceremonial, with his elbow on his leg, the pipe in his upraised hand. Now Luke could make out the raw marks he'd left on Mac's face.
"Mac," Luke said again.
McNamara did not look at him, sitting aloof and very composed. Luke sat down on his haunches. Thomas and Elisha, sitting at their mess fire, kept glancing over. Everyone around the fire did.
"Deep down you don't like slavery any more than I do," Luke said.
"Hell I don't."
"Elisha says you're as brave as any man in the regiment. He says you fight like a sonofabitch. You're slavery's worst enemy, Mac."
McNamara drew on his pipe. The embers brightened in the dark.
"You're Bobby Lee's worst nightmare," Luke said.
McNamara smoked and said nothing. Luke shifted, got more comfortable. The long grass under him had been flattened to a soft mat. At another fire Isaac Brophy played his fiddle. "Aura Lea."
"How many battles has that fiddle seen?" Luke said.
"Chancellorsville," Luke said.
"And Fredericksburg. We didn't get much into it at Chancellorsville. Only one we didn't."
They were silent a moment, listening. The words spoke themselves in the melody across the darkness.
Aura Lea, Aura Lea,
Maid of golden hair;
Sunshine came along with thee,
And swallows in the air...
"Do you like the songs?" Luke said.
"Some of em."
"Do you like this one?"
McNamara made no answer.
When the mistletoe was green,
'Midst the summer air...
"How do you think Thomas'll do when the fight comes?" Luke said.
"He'll do all right. He's a good boy."
Aura Lea, Aura Lea,
Take my golden ring...
"If I was to get shot," Luke said, "I'd like to know you were seeing to him."
McNamara took the pipe out of his mouth and looked at Luke for the first time.
"I'd feel content to know it," Luke said.
"I like Tommy," McNamara said.
"I know it's a deal to ask," Luke said.
"Not for Tommy. He wouldn't bushwhack a man."
"No," Luke said, "he wouldn't."
Love and light return with thee...
"Will you see to Thomas?"
"I might do."
"I'm sorry, Mac," he said, and left him. Copyright © 2009 by John Hough, Jr.