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Glorious Reality of War
By Michael Mendoza
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Michael Mendoza
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAfter Champion Hill
The heavy stench of spent gunpowder lingered in the dense misty air. Young Charlie surveyed the scene in the defused twilight just before dawn as he shuffled his weary feet through the debris. Abandoned haversacks, bloodstained foraging caps, broken weapons, littered the battlefield. He aimlessly wandered, searching for the road that would take him back to his unit. As he maneuvered his way through countless bodies, he noticed many were barefoot, their boots stolen by the enemy. He kicked the twisted remains of a rifle destroyed by a percussion grenade. After a full day and night of fierce combat, the battle had finally ceased but the fusillade roar of artillery, the steady crack of gunfire, and the battle cry of clashing warriors still rang in his ears. He stooped over the remains of a slain Union soldier, nudging the body with his foot, and then moved on. He did not recognize the man, but still felt grief for a fallen comrade. One lifeless soldier nearby was soaked in blood making it impossible to tell if the dead man's uniform was blue or gray.
"Charlie, Charlie," he heard a voice behind him struggle to say. "Help me. Help ..."
"Bill Sines! Is that you? Here I am, Bill." Charlie, barely seventeen years old, knelt beside his wounded friend. Charlie pulled open Bill's blouse to inspect the wound. He saw no hope. Bill was dying. "You'll be OK. The ambulance wagon will be along shortly," he said, trying to comfort Bill in his last moments, but Charlie was not a very good liar. "You'll be OK."
"Nah, some Johnny killed me last night," Bill gasped for air between each word. "I got separated from Company G. It was so dark I couldn't see nothing. Now look at me."
"It's okay, save your strength. Don't talk," Charlie urged his shivering friend.
Bill coughed. Then he reached his bloody hand up, inviting Charlie to take hold of it. "I saw a few stragglers, but the whole damn war passed me by. They all went someplace else to fight, I guess," he said in jest then winced with pain.
"Yes, I know. The regiment is chasing Rebs north along the road to Edward Station. When I find the road, I'll send someone back to pick you up."
"Just about the time I thought it was over ... that I'd stayed alive," Bill paused to catch his breath. "Some Reb gut shot me. And now I'm a goner. I'm sure glad to see you, boy. I didn't want to die alone." He paused again to choose his final words carefully. "Do you think we get to go to heaven when we die, Charlie?"
Charlie could not answer at first. His mind went back to the face of that Reb at Port Gibson. He tried to comfort Bill by assuring him that God would welcome them to heaven, but his words were empty and filled with dubiety.
"But it sure was glorious, huh kid?" His shivering stopped. His breathing slowed. He exhaled and his body went limp.
Charlie looked around and noticed a lifeless Union soldier with his pistol stretched out, pointing directly at Bill. Could it be that another Union soldier shot him?
"Yeah, Bill, it sure was glorious," Charlie whispered his answer, aware that his comrade could no longer hear.
Too tired and too overwhelmed to grieve, Charlie picked himself up and wandered off, dragging his rifle behind him. He glanced upward to see a handful of stars peeking through the patch of sky as the clouds parted. "How glorious," he muttered. What a contrast to the mayhem of the battlefield around him. He cringed at how his mind had once been filled with tales touting the "glory of war." The guilt of what he had done weighed heavily on his heart. "I am so sorry," he said still looking up into the heavens.
He dropped his gaze and set off searching for his regiment. When he found the road leading to the 24th Iowa Infantry, he saw there wasn't a living soul in sight.
Exhausted and sick from the elements, every step seemed to take more effort than the last. The only thing he could hear was the sound of his own heavy breathing. His feet became too heavy even to shuffle along the road. He could nothing else but just stand there in the middle of the road, looking up at the last few stars fading as the morning broke.
Were those stars spinning? Charlie was dizzy. "No more. I can't go on," he whispered. "Oh God, why didn't I just get killed back there?" He dropped on the side of the road by a broken tree stump.
He closed his eyes. In the hope of putting the war out of his mind, he tried to think of home. His thoughts went back to happier days and he floated in them, losing consciousness fast. Was that the smell of Momma's crab apple pie cooling in the window? Was that the sound of Papa chopping wood?
"How did I get here?" he whispered as his rifle fell from his hand. In his mind, he was eight years old again.
The excitement of seeing a locomotive up close made a smile crawl across his face.
He slowly raised his arm and pointed. "Papa, do you see it?" he stammered. "Do you see it? Isn't it the most glorious thing you've ever seen?
"Charles Wesley Rickard! Step back here this instant," he heard his mother say. "You are far too close to that machine.Are you trying to get yourself killed?"
"Yes, Momma. I mean no, Momma," he whispered.
Killed. No, he certainly did not want to be killed. For a moment, he fought for consciousness but the blackness won out. Only the memories remained.
Chapter TwoThe First Train Ride
The wooden platform trembled under Charlie's feet as the giant steam engine screeched into the station. Charlie had never seen a locomotive up close before. This marvel of modern industry stirred something in the child's heart. As far back as the boy could remember he dreamed of the day when he might ride on a train. Deep down inside, he knew that, somehow, trains would play a big part in his life, no matter how many times his father declared, "Boy, you are a farmer and you'll always be a farmer." He believed that, one day, he'd be grown up and a train would take him away from the farm and whisk him off to a life of adventure.
"Papa, do you see it?" Charlie shouted, jabbing his finger at the train. Though the lanky eight-year-old was an active boy, anticipation animated his actions even more than usual. The thrill of taking his first train trip made him completely forget that he and his family had seen their home in Ashtabula County, Ohio for the last time.
"Yes, boy. 'Course I see it!" Charles Wesley Rickard Senior replied. The tall, stern-looking man with a face weathered by hard farmer life motioned to the boy with his big, powerful hands. "Now get back here, away from that blasted contraption."
As he reluctantly backed away from the squealing train, the boy clapped his hands over his ears. Staring at the locomotive, Charlie recalled why his father had sold the farm. Papa had made it perfectly clear on the day he made the announcement. He stormed into their two-story farmhouse from his weekly drive into town. After slamming the box of supplies on the table, he lifted out a stock of wheat that he had picked from his field.
The trek into town had always annoyed him. "There's just way too many blasted people here these days," he declared, using the stock of wheat as a pointer. He could not believe that Ohio had been a state for only fifty years, and it already had the third largest population in the whole country. "Ever since they put in that blasted Erie Canal, the coal miners been tearin' down all the hills and pollutin' all the rivers. And now people are gettin' stacked in here like cord wood!" At that point, the veins in his neck began to swell and he gave a little bounce on his tiptoes, signaling that he was just warming up.
He waved his hands in the air, as though fighting off a swarm of bees. "All the good farmland is being gobbled up by small towns with Irish Mick immigrants movin' in to work the mines and the railroads. Pretty soon, there'll be no more farmland left at all! And then what'll they do? Well? Then what'll they do?" He looked around at his family, but no one dared to hazard an answer. Whenever Papa asked a question in one of his rants, he always had an answer of his own waiting.
He repeated his question "What'll they do then? I'll tell you what they're gonna do. The prophet Jeremiah wrote, 'when the land sinneth against me by trespassing grievously, then will I stretch out mine hand upon it, and will break the staff of the bread thereof, and will send famine upon it, and will cut off man and beast from it!'" At that moment, he symbolically snapped the twig in his hand.
Charlie remembered how his father brought that tirade to its conclusion by declaring, "The wrath of God will one day visit this land, and then the fools'll just starve to death!" He paused for a moment while he calmed himself enough to say, "So, I've decided. We're sellin' the farm and movin' to Iowa. There's still good farm land out west." Convinced that he had made the right decision, his anger vanished as quickly as it had surfaced.
This was the first time one of his father's diatribes caused Charlie to smile. He had always secretly wanted to move. Charlie found it amusing that even his father, who seemed as fixed to the land as the old buckeye tree in the backyard, could be uprooted given a good cause. The child didn't really care why they were moving. He was just glad to be going on a journey.
He vowed to himself that, when he grew up, he would not be like his father. The boy viewed his father as an unhappy man with a bad temper who was shackled to the farm. When his father burst into one of his tirades, Charlie could see that the tall Ohio farmer was out of control, and he never wanted to get that way. Instead, he promised himself that, when he grew up, he would never lose his temper like that.
He remembered his father telling him that Ohio was the first state to build up entirely outside of the original Thirteen Colonies, but he really didn't care about such details. He didn't even mind the factories and towns sprouting up around his home. In fact, the sight of large ships sailing along Lake Erie filled the boy with wonder and a yearning to travel. Where did those ships come from? Where were they going? Would he ever get to discover more of America? According to Charles Rickard Senior, such dreams were a foolish waste of time. "You are a Rickard! And we Rickards have roots in the land," he would say. Though these words always stung the boy's heart like a hornet, they never injured his imagination for very long.
He was only five years old when the Cleveland Painesville & Ashtabula Railroad opened in the fall of 1852, but as far back as he could remember, Charlie climbed the old buckeye tree to see the smoke from the train and hear the whistle blow as it crossed the Ashtabula Bridge. From that vantage point, he imagined the engineer in the cab smiling and waving to him. Now, after two years of watching from a distance, Charlie stood only an arm's reach from the huge locomotive.
The boy edged closer to the train again, causing his mother to call out to him. "Charles Wesley Rickard! Step back here this instant. You are far too close! Are you trying to get yourself killed?"
"Yes, Momma, I mean no, Momma."
Mattie Rickard, a petite woman, barely reached as high as her husband's shoulder. She was several years younger, with the sturdy look of a farmer's wife. Her distinct New England accent revealed a proper upbringing and commanded her adventurous son's respect. Whenever she called him by his full name, the boy knew that she meant business. He bounced back to his mother's side, where she put a protective arm around him.
Grandpa Lorenzo Rickard sat on the wooden bench, leaning on his cane and smoking his pipe. He seemed uninterested in the huge iron monster pulling into the station. Charlie and the rest of his family stood, watching the means of transportation that would carry them from their past to a new life in Iowa. The eight-year-old boy stood a head taller than the other children his own age. His looks favored the Rickard side of the family. Grandpa Rickard, Charles Senior and Charlie (as they called him) were all tall and lean in stature.
Charlie's younger brother, Matthew, gripped his mother's hand. Little Matthew favored his momma's family with his round face, creamy smooth skin and calm manner. Momma merely had to give him a stern glance and his white cheeks would glow with embarrassment. She didn't worry that he might get too close to the train. He was terrified and felt safe tucked in at his mother's side, like a baby chick under the mother hen's wing. Mattie clutched her arm around her ebullient firstborn son and tugged at him again to keep him from venturing too close.
As the train finally stood motionless, it released its steam with a hiss that reminded the boy of a giant boiling teakettle. Out from the billows stepped a round man with bushy sideburns, wearing a dark uniform with brass buttons. The man put on his reading glasses and slowly reached into his vest pocket, pulling out a huge gold Waltham pocket watch. "The 8:15 to Cleveland departs in fifteen minutes. All aboard!"
Chapter ThreeWith God, All Things are Possible
The time had come to begin their journey. The two boys scrambled into the train, laying claim to the first seat they came to. Charlie seized the window seat so he could look north with the hope of catching a glimpse of Lake Erie. Mattie and Charles slid into the hard wooden benches facing the two boys. Grandpa Rickard took the seat across the aisle by himself.
Fifteen people boarded the train for the seventy-mile ride to Cleveland. As the locomotive began to move, Charlie imagined that it was coming alive. 'Chug,' it moved ever so slowly at first. 'Chug,' like a dragon awakening in its lair. Chugging faster and faster, the dragon left its lair, taking flight down the tracks that seemed to disappear at the horizon. The locomotive flew along at speeds of up to fifteen miles per hour, yet it was still an all-day trip to the big city. The train stopped every few miles to take on passengers or fill the boiler with more water.
The family adjusted themselves in the hard wooden seats, but this was no time for Charlie to stay put, so he leaped back and forth to the empty seat across the aisle. The gentle rhythmic swaying of the train, however, put Charlie's little brother right to sleep.
"Wake up, sleepyhead," Charlie coaxed his brother. "You're missin' the best part of the trip!"
Mattie looked at her teasing son and said, "For they sleep not, except they have done mischief; and their sleep is taken away, unless they cause someone to fall. Proverbs 4:16." His parents were fond of quoting Scripture, but Charlie usually had a difficult time figuring out the connection.
"Huh? What does that mean, Momma?" he asked.
"It means leave'im be, boy," Papa interceded.
Papa's comment puzzled Charlie. Let him sleep? This morning, his papa had urged Charlie out of bed when all he wanted to do was sleep just a little bit more.
"Boy, when you wake up, get up. And when you get up, get going," Papa had chanted. It seemed to Charlie that his father was always taking sides with Matthew.
Mattie struck up a conversation with several other passengers on the train. She discovered, in polite exchange, that the young man directly behind the boys taught history at Oberlin College just west of Cleveland.
"I've spent the summer with my family back East," the young college professor cheerfully revealed.
"How wonderful," Mattie responded. "Where does your family live?"
"My father owns a small textile business in Boston, Ma'am. That's where I grew up. After I graduated from college, I thought I'd move out west to teach in Ohio."
"Your parents must be very proud of you. And they must have been glad to have you home for the summer."
"Yes, Ma'am. And I don't mind telling you that, while I was there, I met a young lady whom I intend to marry, come spring."
"Young love. I'm very happy for you. May God's fortune and blessings rest upon you all the days of your lives together, and may your home be a haven of peace."
Excerpted from Glorious Reality of War by Michael Mendoza Copyright © 2011 by Michael Mendoza. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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