Friday, September 19, 2008

Civil War story


Talk turned to history last night at my weekly writer's meeting. Local, regional, West Virginian and Civil War and I was reminded of the story I wrote a few years ago, based on a prompt. Hmmm...almost all my stories begin that way, with a prompt...

Anyway, the following story appeared in the online, historical journal, The Copperfield Review. The journal features fiction, non-fiction and reviews of historical novels. I'd forgotten how much I enjoy reading it and will add it to my "frequent reading links" (must find a better title, any suggestions?).

As far as I can tell The Copperfield Review doesn't archive their past issues, so for those interested I've posted the entire story below, it runs about 2500 words.

Enjoy. Let me know what y'all think.
P.S. Some of the formatting has gone all weird on me and I can't figure out how to change it, my apologies. ; 0

Are the stars out tonight?

By Cheryl Kobe

I always hated the way she fussed over me. Treated me like a little boy, all the time. But now I’d give anything to have Mama fussing at me, smoothing my hair down and clicking her tongue. Now George, be sure and wear your hat, the wind is picking up. I don’t want you catching a cold.

I turn and try to get comfortable on this cold, hard ground. Mama would have a fit if she saw me. Bout right now I’m catching pneumonia, at least, must be below freezing. Who said the south was warm? This damp cold chills me to the bone.

I roll over again, trying to ignore Frank’s snoring. These last weeks have been like a dream, just not real. Well, maybe more like a nightmare at times. Traveling all this way south, never knowing what me and Frank was gonna run into. Land is so different down here. One thing true about the south, I ain’t never seen a sky so blue, crisp, and clear through the day. Just the same color as Elizabeth’s eyes. I miss Elizabeth. Her soft hands, her hair that smells like summer flowers. She said she’d wait for me, but will she? Dear Lord, keep her heart for me. There’s no men left in Cobleskill to court her, they’re all here with me – the 115th Regiment of New York Volunteers. Not one able bodied fellow stayed behind, we marched out of town and headed south to Albany to join up with other New York regiments.

Frank’s sawing away again, much too noisy so I shove him. “Frank, if you can’t sleep quietly then you just better wake up.”

Frank mutters and turns away from me, he’s sleeping pretty soundly. Probably dreaming of home. I wish I was home, sitting on a crate in old Mr. Stokely’s store, chewing my jerky, listening to him laugh and shoot the breeze with Papa and Sheriff Anderson. The jerky I got to eat here is nasty, nothing like the deer jerky Papa cures in the smoke house. I think they’re feeding us shoe leather and that’s why we ain’t got no boots.

I’m wearing the shoes I wore when I left Cobleskill, just fine for farming, but not for southern swamps. My feet haven’t been dry for days, not since Frank and I left headquarters in Harpers Ferry. Now we wait for our target. Maybe tonight will be the night. If I could just get a little shuteye, I know I’d feel better; I need to be alert. I roll on my back again. Clouds are moving fast across the dark sky. Wonder if those clouds’re coming from the north.

North from Cobleskill and old Mr. Stokely. He wanted to be here, wanted to be part of this war. It sure took a lot of jawing to convince him to stay home and look after the women folk. Sent those bloody English crying home to the queen in 1813, he said and was ready to send the Confederates running home with their tails between their legs this time. He tells some good fighting stories. He said a proud man will stand up and do what it takes to keep his land safe from evil, whatever it might be. Said his daddy didn’t fight the British for freedom only to hand it over to a bunch of slave owning rich folks who think they can secede from this great country.

Peaceful night tonight, clouds have cleared and now I can see the full moon, lights up the entire valley. So clear we’ll be able to see our targets just fine. But that means the Rebs can see us too. Just look at those stars, so bright. Could Elizabeth be looking at those same stars tonight? Is she thinking about me? Wondering if I’m alive or dead? Oh, sweet Lizzie, remember me, wait for me.

I kick Frank. “You need to stop that sawing! I bet the Rebs can hear you all the way down in Mississippi! Frank wake up! Wake up you fool!”

This time Franks sits up and looks at me. “Hey, what is it George? I was having a sweet dream.”

“The clouds have cleared and the moon is full. We need to be extra careful.”

Frank barely nods and lays back down.

I’m tired of following this Reb regiment around. If they would just stay in place all night we could get it done. This sneaking around is not my idea of fighting a war. Don’t even have a proper uniform. Better to stay in your own clothes the Lieutenant said, just in case you’re caught. Caught, geez, can’t think about that. I’ve seen the condition of the Rebs. They’re in worse shape than us, uniforms torn and tattered and many have no shoes. How can they keep marching through these fields with no shoes? Every night since we started following them we’ve killed a snake. And these bugs are not like any I’ve ever seen. Buzzing in my eyes, biting every bit of skin not covered. I’ve been thinking that maybe the Rebs are setting out these critters to attack us. I’ve scratched so much I’m bleeding. AndFrank can hardly open his eyes; they’re just about swelled shut. So how’s he gonna be able to aim at his target?

I can’t sleep so there ain’t no use in wasting time, we best get a move on. I shove Frank again and this time he stands up and stretches. I panic and grab at him.

“Get down Frank! What’re you thinking? We gotta stay outta sight.”

Frank just shakes his head at me. “Nobody’s looking for us, George, so nobody’s gonna see us.”

“We don’t know that. And I don’t know bout you, but I have a pretty gal waiting for me that I intend to stay alive for.” I pull Frank down beside me.

“Geez, I’m starved, George, this hard tack’s just laying in my belly like a brick.”

“We get our mission done tonight we can head back to camp.”

“Good, I’ve had enough of this grub we been carrying with us. My stomach’s aching for some real food.”

I pick up my rifle and tell Frank to do the same.

“Come on, let’s walk the ridge and see what we can find. Gotta be quiet Frank.”

“Ok, let’s find us some Rebs.”

Wonder if Frank’s right? Maybe we don’t need to be so careful; maybe the Rebs don’t suspect a thing. Frank’s a good man, one helluva shot, but sometimes I wonder about his common sense, like does he have any? He can’t be rustling through these fields like a scared doe.

“You look worried, George, how ya feeling? Did you sleep some tonight?”

“No, couldn’t. Kept thinking about home.”

“Ah, home. If I close my eyes I can smell the bacon Mama fries for breakfast.”

“Is that all you can think about Frank, food?”

“ Well, it’s what I miss the most.”

“Not me.”

“You miss your sweetheart?”

“Yeah, sweet Elizabeth. If I close my eyes I can relive our last kiss. My hands wrapped around her tiny waist, the sweet smell of her hair and her soft lips, so sweet, Frank, so sweet. I can see her waving her handkerchief as we marched out of Cobleskill.”

“You know George, when I volunteered I thought I’d be fighting in a war.”

“But you are.”

“This ain’t war. This is spying stuff and I don’t like it. How can I go home a war hero if nobody knows what I’m doing?”

“You shouldn’t be doing it for the glory, Frank. You should be doing it to save the Union and free all them poor slaves.”

“Yeah, well, the Union ain’t gonna find me a gal to marry, is it?”

“No.”

“I want to march home all decked out in a fine, clean uniform. Boots polished, buttons shiny and medals pinned to my chest.”

“Aw, Frank.”

“Yup, just think of all those pretty girls who’ll come running to me, a war hero and all. I can spin my tales of crushin’ those rebels and fightin’ in such miserable conditions and…”

Frank, Frank, listen to me. You won’t need any medals to get a pretty girl. Just be a good soldier. Girls don’t want to hear war stories, too gory for them, all blood and guts. All they’ll care about is that you’re alive and home.”

“I guess, but I don’t like not being able to tell what we’re doing. It ain’t right.”

“I know Frank. Hey, look just past that grove of trees, you see fire light?”

“Yeah.”

“Looks like they’re settling in for the night.”

“They set up tents. Guess they plan on staying a while, lucky for us. Let’s see how close we can get.”

I wish the moon wasn’t so bright, almost like daylight.

I hope Frank can hold himself together. Mama, I hope you’re praying for me right now, praying that I don’t run into a snake.

“Psst, Frank, get down behind that tree.”

Hope the crickets and bullfrogs mask our rustlings. I make my way over to Frank and make sure he’s settling in.

“Frank, how ya doing there?”

“My Lord, George, look at all them Rebs. There wasn’t that many on the road this morning. Where did they all come from?”

“Must have met up with reinforcements.”

“I ain’t never seen so many Rebs in one place, kinda scary.”

“I know. Let’s lay low and watch ‘em for a while.”

Frank’s right, there’s too many of them. How in tarnation are we gonna be able to pick off the officers? We have to move in closer and do it tonight; they might not be here tomorrow night. And if we don’t start our backtracking we’ll never find our way back to the regiment. I don’t want us to be wandering around these Reb filled woods. Don’t put much stock in our cover, two southern boys looking for a fighting unit to join up with? I don’t want to have to put that story to the test.

“Frank, let’s get in closer, keep your head down and your powder dry. We need to reach that knoll over there. Then we can get a clear shot down into their camp.”

I stick close to Frank as we make our way through the thickets. The dampness seems to be keeping the noise down. Frank’s finally settling down. I think the sight of all those Rebs lit a fire under him. He’s gotta be alert. I know he can do it, he’s the best hunter in the Mohawk Valley and he sure didn’t earn that by spooking his prey.

Course with these new rifles they gave us, it’s hard to imagine missing anything. The Lieutenant says I can kill a man at 1000 yards, amazing. It was something, shooting at those hay-filled dummies. This rifle made a big hole at 350 yards. It was real hard to aim from that distance, and I didn’t always make my shot, but I did fairly. Frank nailed every one of his though, tore his dummy to shreds. Glad he’s on my side, and by my side, good man to have looking out for me.

Frank makes his way over to my side. “George, I think I spotted the officer’s tent down over there. Biggest one in the camp and the only one lit up.”

“Ok, let’s have a look. Keep your eyes open for sentries. They might be posted out at 100 yards or more.”

I’m kinda surprised we haven’t run into any sentries. I guess they really aren’t expecting us, or any Yanks, or surely they’d be scouting some. Maybe it’s some kinda omen in our favor. No way we can do this without the element of surprise.

I feel queasy. How am I gonna shoot a man? Never pointed a rifle at anything but food. Proud to say none of my kills ever suffered. Never had to track a wounded animal, always a clear shot and a clean kill. Couldn’t stomach wounding and having to put it out of its misery and I sure didn’t have any choice in this assignment. After seeing Frank and me at target practice, the Lieutenant volunteered us. Been nervous about it since then, and now, well now I’m just sick to my stomach. Can’t think about it too carefully; just have to think about it like a job, a hunt I reckon.

I look around, no sign of anyone out here, just the white of Frank’s eyes, little bit I can see.

“OK, Frank, belly to the ground now. We got to slink on in the last 50 yards or so. Stay close, never more than an arm’s length away. Got it?”

“OK George.”

As I reach the knoll, George slinks in beside me real quiet. Yes, this will do just fine; I can get a clear shot from here

That must be the officer’s tent, just like Frank said. With reinforcements arriving something important must be brewing. Must be six men in that tent, but how many of them

are officers? The Lieutenant was real strong about that, don’t shoot any enlisted men, only officers, any officers, and as many as we could.

“Frank, let’s take our position right here. We have a good view of that tent and can see who’s coming and going.”

I hear rustling, could be a sentry. I motion to Frank to get down and be quiet, he shakes his head, he must’ve heard it too.

I turn my head in all directions, no sign of the sentry. That was a little too close. I take a deep breath. We need to get this done. I motion to Frank to get his rifle ready, he nods.

Let’s see what I got in these iron sights. Should we be shooting into the tent? Are all six of those men officers? Wait, someone’s coming out. Three men, all look to be officers with shoulder broads and white gloves. This is it.

I can see their faces; ‘cept for their uniforms they could be Union. They look like us. Why did I think they’d look different, like I’d be able to tell just by looking at their faces they were Rebs? I don’t like this. It’s so hot the sweat’s running into my eyes and blurring my vision. Have to make these shots count, can’t miss. Aim for the chest, better chance of making the shot.

Target in sights, deep breath, squeeze the trigger, nice and easy.

Too much smoke—can’t see—did I get him? Where’s Frank? What’s that? Sounds like thunder.

**************************************************************************

Lizzie, the stars are so bright. Lizzie, sweet, Lizzie, can you hear me? I’m coming home.



1 comment:

Janet said...

Hi Cheryl,

Good story! Thanks for posting it.

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