Welcome to Fifth Minnesota Fiction!
Update 1-26-15: Ladies and gentlemen, the show is coming to an end. For all of you who have read, supported, and encouraged this blog and my writing--thank you. While many of these stories have already been previously published in book form, I am about to join the 21st century and publish in electronic reader format. As such, this blog will vanish into the ether March 1st. Thank you all, I hope you have enjoyed my meager offerings.
This is a blog dedicated to the essence of what my experience doing Civil War living history is all about--telling a good story. In the case of the Co. A, Fifth Minnesota, we strive to tell the stories of history--everyday lives caught up in the turmoils of strife and change. Our purpose, is to give room for some of those stories to grow, and find an end for themselves. The process of good Living History is much the same as that used to write a story, the difference is that with the written word it is the reader that acts it out in their head. With Living History, the participants take those great narratives and give them life themselves in action and word.
Here those stories we have begun can go on. I hope you will enjoy them as much as I do writing them! A word of warning though--be patient with me. Posts may be spread out a bit (I write these whenever real life allows) but something new is almost always cooking; it simply may take time to get them served up at the table.
A. Wade Jones
Sunday, October 18, 2009
One Night with the Fallen
The very first thing that hit private Tom Dengler was that it was night, and the moon had risen quite high in the deep black-blue heavens. Before he had even a moment to register the majesty of the many stars visible however, the ache in his head stepped in to make sure it hadn’t been forgotten. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to block the pain that throbbed through his head from the right side of his jaw up into the top left of his head. His mouth, dry as dead leaves, screamed for water amidst the pain as the two sensations competed for his ability to concentrate. He found that his canteen was twisted around behind him, so after a few moments of struggle to bring it around to where he could get a drink, he was able at last to appease his thirst. The cool water stirred some awareness in his mind, which was able to push through the veil of throbbing pain that had previously blocked out everything else. He didn’t know where he was, and more
importantly–he had no idea why he was laying alone in the grass under the stars.
The battle. He had been in battle. Yes, it began to filter back–slowly at first, and then with a chill which made him suddenly aware of his situation–with quick visceral awareness.
The Junction. They had taken it so easily. Everyone was relieved at not having to take it with much of a fight, but then had started feeling a little misused for being worked up to take something the cook and his assistant could have achieved by themselves.
But that hadn’t been the end of it. The relief company and the engineers were whom they had expected to arrive that morning, but it wasn’t them at all. Then everything had gone to hell.
Dengler tried to sit up, but the pain washed over him so strongly he almost felt he would vomit, and laid back again. He felt carefully to where the pain in his head was worse, and found a gash which was crusted with dried blood–and quite painful to the touch. It didn’t feel too deep, and seemed not to be bleeding anymore. Well, that was something. Though, he began to understand better why he was situated as he was. He had been thought a casualty–dead–and in the scramble of that awful mess, left behind. That the orderlies had not retrieved his body told him that the fight was not yet decided, and that like as not he was now in enemy territory. As if on cue, he caught movement off to his left, and his blood froze. A lantern, and the dim outline of a pair of men.
They moved silently along the edge of the open field, and stopped. The lantern sank to the ground, and the outlines of the men merged with the darkness. They remained so a moment, before the lantern lifted once more and the ghost like outlines became visible again. What they were up to became terrifying clear–he wasn’t alone in this field at all. Dead men lay about him, and these two were searching the bodies. He couldn’t tell what side they were on, but he couldn’t risk taking the chance of being discovered still alive by an enemy. Dengler took a deep breath and rolled hard to the left, trying to get his hands and feet under him. The movement sent a blinding flash of pain through his head, and he groaned without meaning to do so. He shot a glance at the lantern, holding his breath. They seemed not to have heard, so he began to slowly crawl away towards the deeper darkness of a copse of trees. With each and every movement, he felt the wick of fear in the pit of his soul--certain at any moment someone would cry out an he would be run down and taken. But little by little, he drew closer to the darker smudge in his vision that was the woods, until at last he lowered himself into the brush and closed his eyes. His head throbbed, and a hot dizziness overcame him as he lay in the coolness of the trees. He lay his head down, breathing shallow, and could hear the faint edge of voices in the air. He wondered if he was concealed enough for a moment, but finding his awareness being rapidly eaten away by a growing fuzziness, he lapsed from thought and passed out.
An owl soared silently across the space between the dark copses of trees, and took up a perch atop the branches. He hooted loudly, as a murder of crows landed in the frosted grass and menaced the stiff forms that had once been men. The night was creeping slowly towards midnight, when the chill of the air served to bring Dengler back around. He coughed, the sound seeming to echo forever, and pushed himself up from the cold dirt and twigs to sit upright. The ache in his head lingered, but the fog and nausea had passed. His limbs and back felt stiff, and he found a powerful thirst nagged his dry throat. Sitting against a tree, he quietly took stock of his situation and tried to drive the last vestiges of drowsiness from his mind. He risked a look about, but the danger of the men and their lantern seemed to have passed. He had lost his gear, his weapon, and his rations. Private Dengler realized that he had only a slim concept of where his comrades would be at this point, and unless he wanted to risk capture or death--he would need the means to travel and survive on his own until he could find his way back. There was only one place he would likely find what he needed now.
A cold chill ran up his spine, and the private leaned slowly around the tree to gaze upon the dozen or so lumps visible in the faint moonlight strewn over the field. He hesitated briefly, tryng to gauge the risk to exposing himself by movement. There could well be enemies in the shadows across the field, and moving out to scrounge for what he needed might provide an attentive watcher with an easy shot. He tried not to allow himself to examine whether or not the source of this over-cautious attitude was born from true risk assessment or simply from his distaste for having to man-handle the dead. With a deep breath, Dengler crept slowly out towards the field--it had to be done. Indeed, he realized that it was the only way--and like as not he’d be lucky if the dead hadn’t largely been fully stripped of useful goods already.
He found he felt very exposed as he came fully into the open, and crawling slowly towards the nearest of the bodies. He sat, looking at the stiffed corpse before him, unable to proceed. Fortune was with him though, the rebel soldier laying sprawled in the frosted grass had yet to be stripped of usful articles. Dengler screwed up his courage, and reached out to take hold of the canteen strap of the dead man--only to find his blood run cold as he heard an unmistakeable snap of twigs across the field in an opposite copes of trees. His head shot towards the sound, whilst simultaneously dropping into the cold grass next to the dead soldier. Dengler crept carefully forward, casting a glance towards the darkness where the sound had come from. For a long time there was nothing, then another sharp snapping sound of movement before a shape bounded from the shadows and materialized as a cautious doe--her ears swiveling this way and that before wandering away to the right and vanishing again into the shadows. Private Dengler let out a long breath, chuckling quietly to himself briefly before resuming his grisly--but necessary--task. As he collected what he needed, the clouds moved over the moon slowly, as though night itself couldn’t not bear such use of the dead.
The moonlight made travel both easier, but also more perilous. Moving as quickly as possible without making too much noise, Dengler crept along though the shadowy scrub that ran along the track the Federals had traveled only a few days before. He suspected that the Union lines ought to be somewhere off in this direction, but how close he couldn’t know. The scope of what had happened after he had been knocked senseless by that close explosion of the mortar round was becoming clearer to him as he crept along. The rebels who had so quickly abandoned the rail junction had regrouped and reenforced themselves; then made careful work of outflanking the Federal forces--cutting off the units sent to replace and fortify the new possessions--and pressing the attack. Dengler stopped when a flash of light caught his eye, and creeping out towards the track without emerging from the scrubby thorns and gnarled saplings he spied an obstacle to his continued journey. He was just some 150 feet from the East side of the stone bridge that the 5th Regiment had crossed days previously, but could see no easy way of going further for situated on the opposite bank was a rebel encampment. From the many tents and fires dotting the open area, it looked to be at least regimental in size--easily hundreds of enemy settled directly in his path. He knelt down, his head buzzing with a slight throbbing again, and closed his eyes. He began to wonder for the first time, who amongst those he had known might yet be living and who might be dead. He thought of quiet corporal Jordt and the fire-brand humor of Private Gregg. He knew they had been near him in the retreat from the barricades, though no one he had known lay near him when he had regained his senses. Indeed, the more he thought about it, the more he realized that he wasn’t sure how he had come so far from the junction itself to be left laying where he had awoken. Perhaps someone had carried him, and been forced to leave him--more likely he was mistaken for past saving and left to allow the living to escape. Dengler opened his eyes, the soft flicker of the enemy camp some ways before him and felt no sense of being wronged. In the tumult of that horrible moment, what else could they have done?
Working his way silently back into the brush, borrowed musket at half cock, private Dengler edged along the track towards the bridge and it’s quietly gurgling creek. He came at last to the end of his cover, and crouched low to consider his chances with the plan which was forming rapidly in his mind. The moon, bright and high in its track through the sky, cast deep shadows from the walls of the bridge. The shadow, black as soot, crept from the bridge out towards him--but halted still some five feet or so from his place of concealment. If he was lucky, and if no one was about to see him before he was swallowed up by the shadow, he reasoned he could likely cross the creek under the bridge itself. From there, assuming the current wasn’t too strong or he made too much noise in the cold water, he could creep through the shadows on the far side and back into the long woods situated on the opposite bank. Of course, this all hinged upon his getting to the shadow on this side of the creek without being seen to begin with. Dengler sat very still, trying to peer through the darkness around the bridge to ensure that no one was about--but he found his eyes had difficulty focusing. He realized quickly that this was likely an after affect of his wounds, and tested first the left and then the right eye by themselves. The right proved more able, so he sat quietly watching into the darkness with his left eye shut.
It seemed clear, and nothing seemed to be moving. He opened his left eye, moved to a crouch and made ready to creep forward into the shadow laying some 5 feet away. He stood, and began to slowly move forward towards the bright open ground and the safety of the shadow beyond it. As he moved into the moonlight, an owl hooted loudly and something went crashing through the brush on the opposite end of the camp. With sudden terror, Dengler say someone move on the bridge, a man who had been standing so still his impaired vision had not picked him out. The sentry turned away from him, towards where the sound had come and gasped quietly--though in the darkness the sound was magnified greatly. Dengler threw himself down into the grass, not daring to move at first for fear he would be seen.
His skin prickled with gooseflesh as he heard voices from the bridge.
“What the hell was that?! You hear that Sam?”, whispered a voice loudly, edged with some slight fear.
“Lord almighty, you wanna wake the whole blasted camp? Christ-sakes Hawthorne, if you aint the jumpiest boy I ever done seen!”, responded a second voice, older in tone and clearly annoyed, “Weren’t nothin’ but an old owl an’ some critter.”.
Dengler realized he had to make good his dumb luck, and scrambled quickly into the shadow and alongside the cold stone of the bridge wall. He could hear the crunch of gravel under the sentries feet on the other side of the wall, and held his breath for fear he might be heard. The sentry sit over the edge, the tobacco juice splashing over Dengler’s right foot quietly.
“I aint jumpy you old coot.”, grumbled the younger sentry above him. Dengler waited breathlessly, trying not to move or make a noise, before he became aware that the sentry had moved towards the opposite side of the bridge. As quietly as he could, Dengler scurried down and under the bridge out of sight. Exhausted and with his head aching again, he closed his eyes and chided himself for missing the sentry on the bridge. Only pure dumb luck had saved him, and he knew that the chance he would escape if such a mistake was repeated was slim. He worked his way as quietly as he could to the bank of the creek, and slowly lowered his feet into the water. The icy cold tingled through him, and Dengler fought the urge to cry out in shock at the temperature. His feet found the bottom, and finding the current not too swift, he moved slowly across trying not to splash too much. Shivering by the time he reached the far side, Dengler pulled himself up onto the
opposite back and crawled up under the bridge out of sight. He could hear one of the sentries walking heavily over the bridge, the foot falls passing over him into silence. Holding where he was, he was rewarded for his caution when the enemy soldier’s feet came into view alongside the bridge to his right. The sentry made his way under the bridge just a short way, so that only the mans legs and lower back were visible. Dengler watched as the rebel leaned his musket against the stone, and passed water so close to him that the hidden Federal could have reached out and touched the man. Shortly the rebel soldier claimed his musket, and made his way back up the slope--then slowly back over the bridge. Rolling out from under his hiding place, Dengler looked carefully over the edge of the wall to be sure no one was looking, and then sprinted towards the trees a short distance away. He tumbled into the brush, scratching his hands through brambles, and lay still
on the cold ground. Looking back towards the bridge he tried hard to breath slowly, his musket in hand watching for any sign that he’d been seen.
He was about to rise up when a voice from a short ways further into the trees said soft and clearly, “I would wait a moment more if I were you.”. Startled, Dengler let out a sharp strangled yelp, and twisted around to aim in the direction that the voice had sounded. He sighted on a man who was covered from head to toe in spattered mud and dirt, his blue eyes gleaming from the darkness. The man was leaning heavily against a tree a short ways into the deeper woods, and shaking his head.
“Are you trying to have them come this way?”, asked the man quietly. Dengler shot a glance back towards the bridge, and could see the sentries pacing about--they hadn’t heard then. He turned back to the man at the tree, and made his way closer, keeping the musket aimed in his direction.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?”, whispered Dengler loudly.
“Taking in the view--I would have thought it would be obvious that--same as you. My leg isn’t cooperating quite so well. Looks like you had a run in yourself. Does that hurt as much as it looks?”, grimaced the man, pointing to Dengler’s head wound. The closer he came, the more it became obvious that the man was a Federal as well, and setting aside his musket, Dengler crouched near to the man and smiled.
“Sorry, couldn’t be sure for the dark. This knock to the head seems to be affecting my vision a bit. Tom Dengler, company A--how long have you been here?”, asked Tom offering a hand in greeting which was taken firmly by the other soldier.
“Geoffrey Burns, company E. Think nothing of it, I rather think caution wise given the circumstances. As to how long, since yesterday afternoon--I was deposited here by Charlie Turnwall who went to scout ahead. I fear his luck ran into short supply.” At this Burns paused and gestured through the trees towards the road to a man laying dead along the far side of the track, “it would seem fortune favored me. The rebels scouted half-heartedly after they shot down Charlie, and truly I thought they would have discovered me--but somehow they missed my presence in the brush.”.
Dengler looked the man over, and then produced his canteen. Burns smiled and nodded, taking shallow swallows. He handed the canteen back, and took some of the hard bread and dried jerky that Dengler offered him. The two of them chewed in silence, as the night wore on around them. Taking a seat on the right of Burns, Dengler did his best to stay out of the slight breeze which had come up. The damp cold of the late November evening became very apparent with the rise in the wind, and the wet clothes Dengler wore didn’t help.
“He was a good man,” said Burns quietly as he looked out to where the dead man lay, “hardly knew him of course--but the care he showed me was the mark of compassion. Seems a shame to have to leave him out there on the road.”
Dengler looked to Burns and back to the body of Charlie Turnwall. “There’s great shame on us all then--old Charlie there is just one of many still laid out where life left them. What a mess! This whole affair one God awful mess.” Burns nodded.
“My Company was well along the East side of the barricade, situated right where that first mortar hit,” said Burns chewing slowly through his hard bread, “that was an unpleasant surprise.”
Dengler smiled. “I’m certain it was.”
“That first one killed lieutenant Kline. He was standing in front of me at the time, thank God--had he not I would have caught more harm than a crippled leg.”, said Burns with a sad smile. He leaned his head back against the tree and closed his eyes. Dengler looked away a moment then, sensing the rising sorrow in the other man, before turning back to examine the wounds of his leg.
“Crippled eh? Which one is it?”, asked Dengler quietly, shifting to Burns’ side. The other man opened moist eyes, and motioned to his left leg. It had been splinted, wrapped in some torn material that looked like a shelter half the men carried. The trouser was split over the top of the thigh, and a bandage splotched with rusty brown and mud was visible. He was quite correct, the saw bones would take the leg. They almost always took the leg. Dengler smiled ruefully at Burns, there was no point in pretending it would be otherwise.
“I’m sorry, but if we can get you back soon you’ll live to be an old cripple–with any luck.” Burns smiled but said nothing. There was nothing to say, Dengler supposed to himself. Looking up at the sky visible through the far reaching trunks of the trees, Burns took the canteen one last time and then returned it to Dengler.
“I suppose we’ll need to get along–assuming you’re certain you want to take on such shabby luggage as I fear I shall prove.”, said Burns, whilst Dengler packed away the dried rations and took a short look in the direction they would be traveling. His companion smiled and shook his head, offering his hand out to the crippled man.
“If I leave you behind,” said Dengler quietly, “like as not you’ll end up captured and then would I do for conversation? Besides, I plan to lay claim to that leg of yours–might make a fine table leg.”
“You’re a ghoul–but as I don’t see any other porters, you’ll have to do.”, smiled Burns with a wicked gleam in his eye. Dengler got his arm under Burns’, and with some effort got the injured man to his feet. Burns stifled a groan, but seemed to manage it well enough–though for the first time Dengler suspected that his companion was in a great deal of pain of which he wasn’t speaking. With a last glance to be sure of their safety, the two men moved slowly off through the trees to the West.
The travel proved exhausting, and they were forced to rest often. After two very close run-ins with enemy soldiers, Dengler moved them further into the woods to the North-West. The stars began to fade in the sky, and slowly a deep purple blue started to mix into the blackness of night above them. Dengler, musket slung over his shoulder and Burns almost hanging from the other, realized they would have to stop. He had hoped that they might have made better time and distance, but with the true extent of his companions injury becoming dreadfully apparent and his own exhaustion there was no other choice. Looking about the sloping, shallow ravine he had come to, he found the most concealed spot he could and gently lowered Burns down to rest against a hillock of earth. Burns, for his part, thanked him quietly and closed his eyes. He was pale, and sweating. Dengler handed him the canteen.
“Here, you drink that--I think you need it.”, said Dengler looking about. Burns refused at first, but relented quickly and downed what was left of the water. Taking the empty canteen back, Dengler removed his mud splattered great coat and lay it over his companion. He knelt down and placed a hand on Burns’ shoulder.
“You’re leaving me then, good idea. You’ll move faster without me.”, said Burns, closing his eyes.
“I’m going for water, I think I spied a short run of water a short ways over there--and whatever I can find for a small fire and some shelter. We both need rest, and I think traveling by night is safer anyway. I’ll be back directly.”, said Dengler patting the other mans shoulder. Burns’ eyes opened, and he smiled.
“Thanks for all of it. Seems I’m destined to make the acquaintance of men of character--Turnwall and now you.”
“Yes well,”, smiled Dengler in return, “we’ll see what you think of me when you get my portage bill! Alright, back soon.” Burns coughed quietly, and nodded.
A short ways from the shallow ravine, and Dengler could hardly tell that Burns was lodged there. He congratulated himself of such a good choice of hiding spots, and felt hopeful for the first time in what felt like days of travel. The largely barren trees about him gave him a sense a security, and he thought back to his youth when he wandered the forests around his fathers farm in Massachusetts. He had always had a love for the woods, nature and all it’s wildness. He thanked those early days now for the skills he possessed, which would prove their salvation. He reckoned he was almost 2 miles from the track, but running parallel with the path they had taken. He made first for where he recognized water likely lay and was rewarded by a narrow run which bubbled and churned along. He crept up to the bank slowly, looking about for any sign of danger. Seeing none, he moved forward and filled his canteen. When it was full to the spout, he cupped water in his
hands and drank until he felt he would drown--then splashed his face with the cold water and rubbed his tired eyes. He gingerly applied some to washing away much of the dried blood before stopping when the coldness of the water stared his wound to ache gently. Standing up, he made his way across the stream and scouted the opposite shore briefly before spying some fine looking downed wood a short ways ahead. Musket still slung over his shoulder, he moved forward when something behind a tree he had passed caught his eye and he swung about as he brought his weapon to his shoulder.
It was a rebel, slumped against the tree with his face forward out of sight and his musket laying in the scattered dead leaves at his feet. For a long time, Dengler crouched with his weapon aimed at the figure, breathing hard as his heart beat madly. Slowly, he inched forward and touched the shoulder of the rebel with the barrel of his musket--whereupon the very dead man capsized from the balance his body had achieved in his last moments and collapsed to the ground. The sight of the blue-black flesh and maggots made Dengler reel from the sight, and he fell to his knees heaving loudly. When the sensation had passed at last, he got to his feet, trying not to look at the face of the thing, and quickly snatched away the musket that lay near. He backed away so that the dead man was out of sight, and looked over the weapon--which appeared in working order. He felt a fear within him take root, as though the moments terror refused to be banished from his
thoughts. Suddenly, this small grove felt dangerous, invaded by something terrifying and very real. Dengler turned, and walked quickly back across the stream, before breaking into a run for the shallow ravine.
They risked a small fire, as Dengler surmised that the smoke trail would be sufficiently broken up going through the canopy around them. He used some of the water from his canteen and made a very thin beef broth by boiling the jerky in a large tin cup he had within the haversack he had scrounged. It was meager fare to be sure, but as he reckoned they couldn’t be more than 10 miles from the Federal winter encampment (assuming they hadn’t been moved) he wasn’t worried about allowing them both to eat their fill. They had plenty to last the time it would take them to make the trip, even at their slow pace. That afternoon after two servings, Burns looked a little better if still a bit pale. Dengler had thrown himself into work building a makeshift shelter, arranging downed wood to lean over them in a low roof. It had the dual affect of adding a little more concealment of their position as well, and with some loose soil and dried leaves thrown over it
the structure didn’t stick out too much to causal observation. Bellies full, the pair sat quietly against the walls of the ravine taking in the warmth of their small fire; Dengler felt he might yet dry out. He watched Burns who sat with his eyes closed but was not yet asleep.
“Had bad is it really?”, asked Dengler quietly.
“What, the food?”, responded Burns.
“The pain in your leg--it must be awful. I’m impressed you bear it as well as you do.” Burns opened his eyes and looked at Dengler, his eyes moist and betraying the torture within.
“The rest is helping. Let’s not talk about it, concentration seems the key.”, said Burns quietly. Dengler nodded, but Burns did not look away. His moist eyes, red-rimmed and serious, bore into him. “What happened to you when you went for water before?”
Dengler looked away, the image of the ‘thing’--for somehow he could not see that moldering body as a man--suddenly before his eyes again before he could block it out. He took a deep breath, telling himself that he was fatigued and over-wrought after all he had been through. “Nothing, why do you ask?”, responded Dengler at length, as calmly as he could.
“You took so long, I thought you had ended as poor Turnwall. Just when I thought I might have to find the ability to come look for you, you appeared over the rise at nearly a run. You looked like a man who had been frightened out of his wits.”, said Burns nonchalantly, simply making conversation. Dengler did not respond at first, before finally he said, “Just tired, my fatigue gets the better of me. I think the movement of a deer or rabbit had me fearing a brigade was upon us or something.”
“I suppose we ought to rest. Do you want your greatcoat back?”, said Burns.
“No, keep it. I’ll be fine,”, responded Dengler, adding a small chunk of wood to their fire. Burns turned over, and pulled the coat over his head. Within a short while, he seemed asleep--whilst the sky above grey darker and a slow intermittent patter of slushy rain began to fall upon the roof of their shelter. Dengler sat, watching Burns and the little fire for some time before he felt he could try to sleep himself. Why had the ‘thing’ moved his soul so far towards terror as it had? He had seen men killed before now, seen them laying dead on the battlefield. He stopped abruptly, realizing that even this exercise in self-assessment was reminding him too much of his fear. A fear which seemed to have taken root in the ‘thing’, but which Dengler worried more was proof that the experiences of these few days had broken him. He turned over, pulling himself up into a ball and tried to concentrate on listening to the patter of the rain outside. A drip formed a little ways before him, and he did his best to ignore it as he sought to find sleep for his exhaustion.
But sometime later, sleep still eluded him. He guessed it must be on towards mid-day, though he had no way to know for sure. The sky, one grey mass of roiling clouds looking as though they couldn’t decide between snow and rain, hung ominously overhead. The very air was wan, as the light of sun was filtered through the earthly manifestation of gloom and despair. The small fire was only embers, and Dengler grudgingly accepted that although it had escaped his awareness, he must have slept some. He added the remaining fuel, and the coals gave life to a slow flame and delicious warmth. Burns was silent beneath the greatcoat, and Dengler decided that if his companion could sleep he ought to be left to do so. Crawling out from the shelter, he brushed the wet pebbles and sand from his hands into his trousers, and set about trying to find some wood that might yet be dry enough not to smoke too much. The slushy rain that had fallen before was now resigned to a growing mist in the air, and Dengler suspected that it would be a cold night of travel. He looked briefly towards the opposite bank where he knew the ‘thing’ was, feeling a fool for the dread that such awareness created within him. It was the unfounded fear a child feels for the dark–irrational yet consuming. He found at first it was very hard to turn his back to the creek and what lay beyond, but gradually he made his will master of his fears, and set about his task of wood collection.
Sometime later, Dengler was awoken from a fitful sleep in which he was buried under a cold darkness from which he seemed never to escape from. Burns, looking pale yet but with a strength that radiated from his eyes which had not been there previously, looked on him with a grim face.
“It’s getting dark, I hated waking you but I thought it was time.”, he said with a nod, and moved stiffly around and handed him a steaming cup of broth. The little fire was warm, and helped to chase away the damp cold that Dengler had suspected would plague them after the rain of the afternoon. As he dug into the hot remnants of their boiled jerky broth, Burns brought fourth that which he had wrought with some pride–a sturdy makeshift crutch fashioned from a “Y” shaped sapling.
“Well, very nice.”, said Dengler between sips of his broth. Burns nodded and looked quiet pleased with himself. Dengler looked out into the growing dusk, and felt a strong desire to move forward. He wanted to leave this place--the woods had always been a sanctuary for him–but no longer. Now the trees reminded him what could be lurking so close by, they seemed to watch them and conceal dangers deep within the depths of their shadows. He thought for a moment of the ‘thing’, his blood going cold at the thought of it. He tried his best to force the image of it’s rotten countenance from his mind, only to recall others. He had awoken surrounded by the fallen, had he not? Had he not spent already one night with the fallen, mistakenly left for one of them? What of Turnwall–he too had been left dead in the road. What if he wasn’t dead at all? The thoughts buzzed through his mind, consuming him fully so that he sat staring forward and not hearing Burns at all.
“Dengler–something gone with your ears then? Dengler–when do you want to go? Can you hear me man?”, said Burns with a deep worry for his companion growing in his voice.
Dengler could smell it. The rotten flesh of the ‘thing’, he could have sworn just then–was it all in his head? He dropped the cup, and grabbed his musket in white knuckled fear.
Burns watched Dengler with alarm as the other man, breathing hard and wild eyed, dropped his broth and snatched up his musket. He looked a moment at Burns and mumbled–“It’s coming!”–before scrambling outside into the dusk. Burns, his own heart racing, grabbed the musket that Dengler had produced but not explained and checked it’s load. He primed it, and crawled painfully out of the shelter.
He had heard it. There was no doubt now–and with perfect clarity Dengler knew why. Knew what he had not before. It was as though some barrier to his awareness has snapped–and he knew. They wanted him back. He had been one of them–amongst the fallen–and they wanted him back again. He had cheated death, it all seemed so utterly absurd and yet so clear! Private Tom Dengler looked back at Burns and put a finger to his mouth. “Shh, no sounds. It still has ears, so it can hear us. Stay here, you’ll smell it if it gets close!”.
Burns felt a terror leap into his heart, watching his companion crouching low as he moved out of sight towards the creek. He had seen it before, a man in his company had snapped this way during a particularly heavy artillery barrage. They had so little cover, and no one was happy about it of course. As the shells rained over them, and men screamed or cried, this one man had suddenly stood up and simply walked forward into the open. He had died almost instantly of course, torn to bits by an explosion of shrapnel, but the look on his face of being somewhere else–his eyes just dark and lifeless–it was something Burns had never forgotten. His action had served to steel the other men, so unnerving was it to see a man simply walk to his death without a moments hesitation. Everyone knew that sometimes men simply could no longer take the stress and rigors of being a soldier. That every man had a breaking point, a moment when their nerves gave way and madness prevailed. Mostly, it made them desert or propelled them to find a way to dodge going into the field. Some men played sick; others inflicted wounds upon themselves to ensure they remained in hospital or might even be discharged. Some men simply ceased to function, becoming catatonic or irreconcilably emotional. Madness came in many forms, and as Burns clutched his musket and balanced as best he could on his recently fashioned crutch, he wondered how far Dengler might have gone from his wits. The sudden and serious quality of the condition worried him the most–especially since Dengler was armed.
Private Tom Dengler moved slowly, for he could hear the ‘thing’ moving. He knew what it wanted from him, but felt no fear. He knew how to kill it, and had slowly slipped his bayonet from the mud encrusted scabbard and fitted it to his musket. He could smell it so close now, the rotten flesh of his enemy a perfume of death which sickened him. He felt it on him, the stink of such decay, and wondered why he had never noticed it previously. He crossed the creek, moving slowly for where it had been–when suddenly he heard it call out his name. It knew his name! Worse still, he realized the faint voice–almost a whisper–sounded as though it had moved behind him. He turned about with terror, but only heard it whisper his name again. He started quickly towards the ‘thing’, realizing that poor Burns had been it’s first victim. Dengler was determined he would kill it now, he would stab it through it’s festering heart.
He had chanced calling out to him, even though he knew it was a risk given his state of mind. The darkness grew heavier about them, but enough light remained for Burns to make out the appearance of his companion over the rise of the ground–and the fact that his bayonet was fixed and leveled as he approached at a fast walk. “My God Dengler–you scared the wits out of me. Are you alright?”, he said, his voice wavering in his chest as the look on the other mans face became clear. “It’s me, Burns. What ever is wrong with you, Dengler?”. The other man came on, his bayonet gleaming in the waning light of the day. He was gritting his teeth, his eyes wild. Burns raised the musket he had been given, and draw the hammer back. “Dengler, stop! It’s me–Burns! You’ve lost your senses man, I’m a friend!”.
The ‘thing’ tried to become Burns, to lure him closer. Dengler was onto its’ tricks, and lunged forward with his bayonet just as it raised its’ musket and fired.
“How are ye then, eh? Ye holdin’ up boyo?”, asked the sergeant, reaching out to one man leaning in the corner of the old corn crib they were being held in. The man, his hand wrapped in bandages, nodded and looked up showing the nasty bruise across his face. “My head hurts sergeant–but otherwise I’m good as can be expected.”, the man responded. The sergeant patted the man’s shoulder with his one good arm–the other being slung up and wrapped against his chest to keep it immobile–and moved along. A dozen men were secured within the old log outbuilding, but it was the newest arrival that was the sergeants destination. A young soldier that the boys called “Rooster” was leaning over the man in question, and giving him a cup of water. The sergeant, groaning as he went down on one knee beside the man, removed his cap and nodded.
“Welcome to what the boys have taken to callin’ “The Bell Dixie Hotel”–finest accommodations provided by ole’ Jeff Davis hisself no doubts. Well, at lest what they gets us moved to a proper prison.”, said the sergeant with a smile. The other man, his eyes strong but his skin very pale and moist, nodded in return.
“Thank you sergeant, I’m sure I’ll enjoy myself. Burns–Geoffrey Burns, company E.”
The sergeant looked him over, and stared a moment towards his leg. “Beyer–why aint nobody seen to his leg as yet? Faith, it looks split all along his thigh!”.
Guards just brought him in, and said the surgeon will be around shortly,” explained Rooster with a slight hurried tone, “so it shouldn’t be long sergeant.”.
“Well, we all knows how they are with their hurrying!”, responded the sergeant, frowning. “How long ye been with that leg like that lad? Looks a feat to me to be dealing with what pain it must be given as ye are!”
Burns closed his eyes, and nodded. “Concentration seems the key, sergeant. It’s numb now though, has been for hours now.” The sergeant frowned at this pronouncement, and Burns went on. “Yes, I rather imagine that isn’t a good sign–but I rather fear such things are beyond control now anyway.”
“Ye been free for a bit at least–any word on particulars?”, asked the sergeant with a sigh. Burns shook his head and frowned.
“I know our boys fell back in good order, and that the whole affair blew up into more of a morass than either side was looking for. Beyond that, only that good men fell when the Ward was overrun–and some after that. I was taken by a forward patrol only miles from our lines after my companion–Dengler–was killed. Good man–lost to the madness of it all.” As Burns went quiet, the door to the makeshift holding cell opened, and the early morning air flowed in. An orderly bent through the low door and was followed by the senior orderly, both of whom looked to the sergeant and nodded.
Sergeant O’Malley stood up with a groan, and smiled at the senior orderly before turning back to Burns and saying loudly, “Faith knows we will need all here when we takes these rebels prisoner and marches ‘em back to camp, so ye make a good recovery now!”. The senior orderly--a pinched face man with green eyes--turned his head sharply to stare at the sergeant, as the other man made his way to the back of the small room. “Not sure fully how we’ll manage, but mark me words–it’s to happen all the same!”, came O’Malley’s words as he strode away.