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The warm June night breeze wound through the gently swaying Georgia pines, making their needle boughs hiss like the whisk of industrious brooms dragging slowly across a cabin floor. The silent black man in the patched blue wool tunic perched on the thick tree limb shifted his weight to relieve his aching calves and watched the moonlight gleam on the steel rails of the long, winding railroad track below.
The cicadas passed inscrutable messages in a monotonous weird chorus that swept up and down the woods, perhaps warning of the approach of the steam engine wheezing and chugging somewhere through the darkness, obscuring the stars with a stream of smoke.
The rails clacked and hummed. At last he saw the flash of bright light. The Cyclops eye of the locomotive opened, as bright as a false dawn around the bend, briefly illuminating the slim silhouettes of a few stem-legged deer picking at the grass that poked through the ties before a sharp nightmare hoot of the whistle sent them bounding.
The man tensed and readied himself.
Private Agrippa Hines turned his back to the wind and smoke and fished the flask of corn whiskey from the inner pocket of his patched butternut tunic. He pulled the stubborn cork from the neck with such force that when it finally popped loose, it tumbled from his fingers and was lost in the blowing dark. He groaned out a curse his mama back in Orlinda, Tennessee, would have whipped his hide with a willow switch for even knowing.
He surely had picked up some things in the army. He’d learned how to darn socks, chew tobacco, drink moon, clean a musket, and dress a rabbit. Not bad for a store clerk’s son. He had seen some things, too. A horse blown high into a tree by artillery fire with its limp Yankee rider dangling by the ankle from the stirrup like a Christmas ornament. He’d seen a man walk untouched through a buzzing tempest of minié balls to retrieve his sweetheart’s handkerchief, only to slip in the mud under the wheel of a caisson and die the next day, a perfect imprint of the steel tire that did him in mashed clean in his body from his tail to his burst head.
Since he’d pulled this duty guarding prisoner trains, for the most part the worst parts of the war had ended for him. Now it existed mainly in his imagination and memory, triggered now and then by whistle-stop rumors of Confederate triumphs and Yankee advances, both of which, of course, couldn’t be true. Now, when the old memories came up, he had the whiskey to put them back where they belonged.
Yes, he had seen a lot. In all that time, though, he had never seen himself a nigra up close. He had never been around them growing up. All his neighbors were too poor to own one. Once he had seen a slave catcher drive a caged wagon with four dusky runaways huddled in the back past the store, but that quick glimpse was all he had. In the boxcar below his feet were several from the 57th United States Colored Infantry, captured at some recent skirmish in Arkansas. Black-skinned soldiers in blue suits levied by that Black Republican bastard Lincoln as a final insult against the Cause. But he’d seen no more of them than their dark eyes peering out from between the slats of the boxcar.
He had no particular desire to encounter one, really, but it was the thought that he hadn’t ever seen one in person that jumped unbidden into his mind when the dark shape sprang from the trees and landed on the roof of the car almost alongside him.
He locked eyes with the nigra for a half a second and got only an impression of him through the darkness and the stinging smoke tumbling down the length of the train from the smokestack. He was a broad-shouldered figure in the blue uniform of the enemy infantry with a wild mass of kinky black hair and a trace of the same around his full lips. He was like some wild thing that had leaped right out of the night, and Agrippa couldn’t figure for the life of him where the fellow had come from or why. Was he some sort of a fugitive from the place they were headed? A deserter? He surely had picked the wrong damn train to jump aboard.
The nigra regarded him with the same surprised look.
Then both their eyes went to the .58-caliber Enfield rifle-musket lying on the roof between them. Agrippa had set it there while he fiddled with his whiskey, confident that there would be no immediate need for it, though it was loaded. One shot would bring the other sentries. One shot could kill this nigra, or it could kill him.
All of a sudden the war was closer than it had ever been for Private Agrippa Hines.
The sentry lunged for the rifle, but the black man kicked it and sent it spinning off the edge of the train.
It was no good wrestling for a rifle atop a moving train, and anyway, he had the Rebel sentry at a disadvantage straight off and wasted no time exploiting it.
He dropped his fist down in a hammer blow to the back of the Rebel’s exposed neck, sending his face smashing into the roof.
Before the stunned sentry could cry out, he brought his heavy brogan heel down twice on his neck, feeling the snap. The soldier flopped around like a catfish on the bank, and he stood hunched, with his hands on his knees, and watched him kick his last. Then he grabbed the seat of his pants and the back of his jacket and flung the body crashing into the trees alongside the tracks.
He looked up and down the length of the train then and saw the flickering light as of a lantern far down the line. Another sentry, coming up from the rear. He had to get clear, get down in one of the cars.
He dropped to his belly and slid to the edge, peered over, and saw the barrel of an Enfield stretched out, not aiming at anything, just resting in the crook of a gray-capped guard’s arm as he leaned in the open doorway. To the guard’s right, a row of tightly packed legs and knees, all in Union blue. Prisoners, crowding the choice spot for a long train ride in an overcrowded boxcar. Fresh air, a clear place to piss, maybe a chance to jump clear when no one was looking.
As he watched, the white face of the guard turned up toward him, and he barely was able to jerk back out of sight.
“Hey, Grip!” a voice drawled from below. “It’s past midnight! You see the relief?”
He didn’t answer, and Grip surely wouldn’t.
The guard repeated his question.
He looked toward the lantern far down the line, a swinging light growing larger as the sentry advanced up the train.
Below, the guard called: “Goddammit, Grip. You ain’t sleepin’ up there, are you?”
It was impossible to hear what the man said next between the noise of the wind and that of the engine. It was directed at someone else in the car. Probably another guard.
He crawled swiftly to the opposite side of the boxcar.
There was another row of dangling blue legs there but no guard. This had been Grip’s post, perhaps. What was the other guard doing? Had he warned the other prisoners to make no attempt to jump clear of the train while he mounted the iron rungs on the side of the car to check on his comrade, or had he called for a relief guard to step up?
The latter was doubtful. He knew the prisoners below were probably too tightly packed in to allow room for another guard. The man with the lantern making his way up the length of the train was the only relief.
Either way, he had to vacate this spot as soon as he could. The lantern bearer was only two cars away now, and the sentry below would either report the absence of Grip to the new man or investigate it himself.
He swung his leg over the edge, found the rungs, and began to climb down the side of the boxcar.
He still had a view of the lantern bearer and saw him leap the gap lightly. One car away now.
He climbed down, the wind buffeting his clothes, roaring in his ears.
The door was open.
Would he come face to face with yet another guard?
He caught a flash of light up above. The lantern bearer was on top of the boxcar. Puzzled at the absence of a sentry?
He climbed faster. The ground was a pale blur of gravel beneath him, the land rushing by.
His heart jumped up into the back of his throat when a gaunt white face stretched out of the doorway on the end of a skinny neck and looked him right in the eye.
The face was smooth and too young for a soldier, smudged with soot, the eyes wide and staring in alarm through a messy curtain of dirty straw-yellow hair.
But the ratty cap pulled down low on the head was Union blue.
They stared at each other wordlessly for a second or two, and then the white soldier gripped the door frame and held out his small, dirty hand.
He took it, clumsily threw his foot on the knee of a sleeping man, rousing him to a flurry of slurred cursing, and then, with the help of the skinny soldier, swung in sprawling across two laps.
The Union prisoners stirred and shoved and growled unintelligibly, and he wedged himself between them as best as he could till he was seated beside the soldier who had helped him. The men were packed so close behind that their elbows wedged into his back and shoulders, their silhouetted heads a stirring mass that blotted out the other end of the car. A black soldier with his cap turned down low over his face slept with his head on the white soldier’s shoulder.
“What the hell were you doin’ up there, boy?” the soldier hissed close to his face.
“Hey, Private!” a voice called down from atop the boxcar.
The black man tensed and listened, ignoring his rescuer’s question for the moment.
The Confederate guard in the opposite doorway peered up.
“Sergeant Beam! Who’s supposed to be on watch up here?”
“Private Hines, sir!” Then, after a pause, “Uh, you mean he ain’t up there?”
“Nobody up here,” came the reply. “When’s the last time you talked to him?”
“Maybe an hour ago. I thought he fell asleep.”
“If he did, he rolled right off the damn train. Nothing to do for it now. I’ll report his absence at the next stop.”
“Maybe he’ll turn up,” the guard suggested.
“Maybe,” the sergeant called down.
The white soldier next to the black man held his eyes, assuming a serious, knowing cast.
“I guess maybe you know what happened to old Private Hines?” he asked lowly.
The black man said nothing. He had learned to assume nothing from a white man, blue wool or not. It could be that this soldier would turn him in for an extra ration or who knew what kind of measly amenity. It could be he’d have to throw another body off the train.
“Relax. One less Reb is okay by me,” the soldier said. “I’m Charlie Trevors. 115th New York Infantry.”
“Lourdes. Barclay Lourdes, sir.”
“You look like you been on the run, Barclay.”
“Well.” Barclay shrugged, letting the word hang a bit. “I done some runnin’, yessir.”
“Where you from?”
“I was born on Wormsloe Plantation down in Chatham County, Georgia. I run off to Tennessee when this whole thing started.”
“I mean to say, where’d you get that blue suit?”
“At Dalton, sir. 44th Colored Infantry.”
“You see any action?”
Barclay sucked in his lower lip.
“You a bail jumper?” Charlie asked plainly.
“You took the enlistment money and run, didn’t you?” His tone wasn’t accusing but matter-of-fact.
“Colored soldier don’t get no enlistment money, sir.”
“No?” Charlie said, stopping for a minute. He looked at the black man sideways. “Did you know that when you enlisted?”
Barclay shrugged, allowing a sheepish grin.
“So you run off. What were you gonna do with that money, Barclay?”
“It ain’t like you think. I run off thinkin’ I’d enlist, then get home and buy back my old mammy with the money.”
Charlie’s amused eyes seemed to soften a bit.
“Is that a fact?”
“Yessir, that’s the God’s honest truth of it.”
“Damn. How much did you think you were gonna get?”
“Some fella told me a hundred dollars.”
“You know you don’t get it in advance?”
“Well, sir, I didn’t get nothing at all. In advance or otherwise.”
Charlie grinned and shook his head in pity.
“You’re a hard luck case, Barclay, that’s for damn sure. So you come through the woods and jumped the first train you seen. You know where we’re headed?”
“We are at that. Only when you get off, you’re gonna wish you hadn’t gotten on. I’ll tell you what else, you’re gonna stick out like a sore thumb on account of every man here’s already accounted for. And with that sentry gone missing, they’re gonna be hot to ask you about it. You figure on that?”
Barclay shook his head slowly.
Charlie looked back over his shoulder across the dark mass of huddled bodies at the Confederate guard standing in the doorway watching the scenery.
“I think I might be able to help you out, Barclay. But you’re gonna have to help yourself a bit, too.”
“How so, sir?” Barclay asked.
Charlie reached up and took the cap off the face of the man dozing on his shoulder. Only he wasn’t dozing. His mouth was hanging open and his eyes, too, and he was stone dead.
“Poor bastard took a ball in the leg when they captured him,” Charlie said. “And their surgeons don’t treat coloreds. He expired about an hour ago, I guess.”
Barclay just stared.
“Gimme a hand, Barclay,” Charlie said, grunting to shift the dead man toward the edge of the moving car.
Barclay reached across. It wasn’t so much a matter of throwing him off the train as of extricating him from the other closely pressed sleeping bodies and letting him fall. At last, when the trees and the hills fell away and they crossed a trestle over a deep gorge, the corpse tumbled like a blue sack of cotton, bounced once off the edge of the track, and disappeared into the black nothingness.
“What was his name?” Barclay asked.
“Damned if I know,” Charlie said. “When we unload, you line up with the rest of the 57th Colored. I heard some of ’em say they were captured near Little Rock a few days ago. They’ll be callin’ out the names on their list. Sooner or later somebody ain’t gonna answer ‘present,’ so you better.”
Charlie settled back against the other prisoners.
“Where was you captured, Mr. Charlie?” Barclay asked.
“Just call me Charlie,” the skinny soldier said, yawning. He folded his thin arms over his chest and pulled his cap low over his eyes, giving a perfect imitation of the dead man they’d just disposed of. “I got took at Olustree, back in February. Spent the last four months at Libby over in Richmond.”
Barclay allowed himself to lean against the other sleeping men.
“Charlie?” he said after a bit.
“Hm?” Charlie mumbled, already letting the rocking of the train put him to sleep.
“Why you helpin’ me?”
Charlie’s only answer was a nose-buzzing snore.