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
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Salt Horse and Stump
“I soaked it for a good long while,” the blue eyed soldier responded, “you really ought to give this batch a chance.”
The scruffy faced soldier shifted on his seat–a mossy edged stump which looked as though it had stood in that glen for years–and shook his head. Overhead, a brisk wind made the skeleton like branches of the old oaks sway and creak.
“Funny isn’t it”, asked the blue eyed soldier as he looked up from his cooking, “how much this country is like home?”.
His companion , scratching his face, looked about silently. After a few moments pause, he nodded. “Yeah, I suppose autumn is autumn everywhere–still it is kind of funny it seems so like home.”
Around them leaves danced across the dewy grass, and the flickering flames of the fire threw long shadows over the men. Private Bill Harmon scratched his face again, thinking that is was time at last to brave a razor. He watched his friend, private John Boyd poking at his crackling slab of salt pork which was snapping away in his skillet, and felt his stomach lurch. Salt pork–a heavily salt preserved, thoroughly fatty staple of the Army–was often called “salt horse” by those dubious of it’s true origin. Boyd, due to his prodigious love of the stuff, was known lovingly by the same moniker amongst his friends. Harmon watched as “salt horse” eagerly fished the still snapping slab of meat from the skillet and carefully took a bite.
“Mmm, that’s good. You sure you won’t have any?”, asked “salt horse” pushing the greasy meat towards him on the end of his fork.
“No thanks,” said Harmon shaking his head as he turned slightly away once more on his stump. “Salt horse” just shrugged and sat back with a contented sigh next to the fire to devour his steaming meal. Taking up his tin cup, “salt horse” plunked the meat into in and sat chewing noisily with fork in hand and a smile upon his face.
“Back home,” he said between a bite, “we would sit around in my brothers house and tell ghost tales around this time of year. Scare the living soul of our poor sister–and she had the furthest to travel home too if she and her’s didn’t spend the night. Ha ha! What times those were–and her pie! Oh, her pie.” He was quiet for a long while, as the fire crackled and Harmon watched his expression fall to a more melancholy set. “Seems almost another life ago.”, he said at last as he absently took another bite of his salt pork.
Harmon nodded, and looked up to see three of their fellows appear from the darkness to join them. They were in their gear, but their muskets hung over their shoulders by the sling.
“Back from post, or just going?”, asked Harmon as the three men took up spots and “salt horse” made offerings of grease to all–none accepted.
“Just back,”, said Husby–a tall youngster who had eyes which showed age beyond his years, “and it was damn cold.”
“Cussing is the sign of a weak mind,” retorted a clerk-ish looking companion with small spectacles on a broad face named Williams, “but you’re right, it is damn cold.” Husby smiled and flashed a gesture to his friend, who laughed and held his hands out to the fire. The third man, a quiet sort named Martin, simply kneeled on his haunches and leaned his musket against his shoulder. Soon his eyes closed, and “salt horse” smiled and poked his knee.
“Go to your tent if you’re going to sleep! You want to pitch over into the fire or something?”, asked “salt horse” with a grin.
“Im not asleep”, answered Martin without opening his eyes, “just resting.”
There was chuckle around the fire, and then silence settled over them as each man huddled together and enjoyed the radiance of heat from the fire. Husby placed two gnarled bits of wood on the flames and once more sent sparks and embers whirling through the night sky above them. Some moments later, Martin spoke again.
“You lot hear about poor Bowman?”, he asked, his grey eyes suddenly open.
“No,” answered Harmon, “his leg again?”
Martin nodded, and several of the men shook their heads.
“I knew he should’ve drained it longer!”, spat Husby, “you don’t break a bone like he did without making sure that there aint no pus! It’s no different than with a draft animal you have to root around in there and..”
“You mind Husby?”, asked “salt horse” interrupting suddenly with his greasy meal dangling only inches from another bite, “I think we get the inference.”
The men laughed, and Husby halted but frowned. Michael Bowman’s plight was known to them all, and though not in their platoon was universally pitied. The man had been kicked in his left leg by an especially cantankerous mule when the whole company had been passing several wagons on a march; and the astronomical chances of being felled so, combined with the public nature of the injury had turned his case into a company wide discussion. He had been taken to the hospital, and after several weeks returned with a limp but seemingly well otherwise. One would think that having recovered would diminish his instant celebrity–but in a camp which was basically sitting with little to do beyond daily drill and fatigue duty this simply was not the case. Discussion instead turned to the likeliness of being so injured while on the march, and followed often with the exchange of every bizarre tale of unfortunate accident and death whilst in the Army. Now it seemed that poor Bowman was thrust to the forefront once more, as Martin would explain to his hushed audience. Michael Bowman had reported to the sick call that morning, his leg swollen and pain wracked. He had been accompanied by his tent mate, Kyle Zimmerman, from whom Martin had gotten the tale first hand.
“Poor fella, he’s loose it this time.”, said Harmon stirring the embers once more with his bayonet.
“If he’s lucky!”, responded Husby, “infection like that take a man fast as you can blink.”
There was a general agreement, and a short few words of prayer was said in Bowman’s name before silence descended once more.
“So,” started Harmon, trying to rekindle the happier mood once more, “ghost tales huh? We used to do that when I was young, sitting around the stove when my granny was still living. That woman could tell a tale!”.
“Salt horse” smiled and nodded, while the others looked on not quite following. Harmon, sensing he had set the hook, explained.
“Salt horse here and I were talking about how this place reminds us of Minnesota in autumn–and telling tales with family and all.”, he said with a shrug.
The others nodded, and Williams removed his spectacles from his face to start polishing them with a rag. “Well,” he said studying his work, “if it’s a ghostly tale you want–I have a good one, and best of all it’s true!”.
Everyone laughed, and several shouts of “sure it’s true” and “we’ve heard that before”, were voiced. At last everyone was quiet and expectantly watching in eagerness for Williams tale to begin.
“When I was young, there was this Irish family that lived about 5 miles down the dusty track that we called a road , and one day the eldest grandfather of the farm died. He had lived a good long life, been kind and generally neighborly, so of course a host of people gathered for his wake. Now, I know Husby–being American-Irish himself--knows what a traditional Irish wake calls for, but let me tell you that I had no idea and what a treat it was! I mean, this poor old fellow is dead (and laying right there for all to see in his casket too) but all around him is food and drink and a great attempt at merrymaking. Not that the family was all smiles of course, but those of us unrelated did our best to celebrate the man’s life as much as his passing. This was in early autumn, and the day had been largely clear bright blue skies; but as the evening came on dark clouds rolled overhead and even the air seemed heavy. My parents and sisters and brothers had packed up to go, but I had begged my father to stay a little longer. It was, I argued after-all, only 5 miles (ah, to be young enough to think 5 miles was a leisurely walk again) home and I could find my way in the dark. You see, I had heard that stories were about to be told amongst those adults and near adults still remaining. Well, when you are 13 years of age, you yearn to be seen as more than you are–and my father kindly allowed me to stay. Well, that and at the time I was terribly smitten with the 16 year old Mary–the second oldest of the family. Anyway, that doesn’t matter, either way my father allowed me to stay and I sat and listened to the old timers tell their tales of the deceased and eventually as the night came on the stories turned to spooks, devils and the like. There were some good stories, but half way through I was bored (what scares an old man often is nothing to the imagination of a 13 year old boy!) And started to make my leave when one of the older women of the family stood up and shrieked. She was pointed at the door frame of the doorway that led to the back yard, and looked very agitated.
“Pooka! Pooka!”, she wailed and pointed to a great big black wasp which had alighted from somewhere on the wood. It was, I admit, large of size–and had these sulfur yellow eyes. I had never seen it’s like before then, nor have I again since–but at the time I simply stood dumbfounded at the terror that a bug could inspire. Sure, it was not terribly common to still see such insects at that time of year, but not wholly odd either. Her shrieking served more to alarm me than anything else, but being a gallant young man (Mary was on hand, how could I not seize the chance to put right her elderly relatives issue?) I stepped over and slapped at the wasp. It went careening about the room, and finally vanished out a window–at which I turned and said triumphantly, “There you are, no more pooka!”. The gathered group, mostly older folks and family just looked at me a moment and then suddenly the whole wake was called to an end.
“Did I do something wrong?”, I asked the father earnestly.
“No, no son. It’s just time we went to bed, and you ought to go home. I will drive you there, just let me hook up the cart.”, he had answered with a distressed look in his eyes. I felt certain I had ruined some custom I wasn’t aware of and apologized. The father simply shook his head and told me again that it wasn’t that way at all, but that he should get me safely home. With that, he stepped out the back door–halting briefly on the stood to look back in at me–and was gone. All at once, the old woman whom had made such a fuss was tapping me at the shoulder.
“Im sorry I ruined the wake,” I said, feeling truly awful, “I didn’t know I shouldn’t shoo it away.” For a moment the old woman looked at me with watery green eyes, before she spoke.
“It was a faerie spirit boy–the Pooka. It takes all manner o’ forms it does, but always black with them gawd awful sulfur eyes! That wasp ye saw! Yes! Beware too it coming as a cat–or it’s favorite form of a starved and bony horse! Ye was foolishly brave, and now it’ll be haunting ye tracks this night.”, and with this pronouncement she stuffed something hard into my hand and climbed the stair to the loft. When I opened my hand, I discovered she had pressed a little metal Irish style cross into my hand. At this moment, the father came back in looking slightly blown.
“The ox has run off into the deeper meadow, it’s going to be a moment before I can catch him–no idea what has gotten into him. Will you wait?”, he asked, looking almost hopeful that I would not. I obliged him, having decided not that I had anything to be afraid of, but instead that I had offended their customs somehow and that it was all they could do to keep from simply rudely throwing me out. The old woman, well at 13 anyone who seemed as old as she did to me then must be slightly off their rocker, so I paid her little mind.
By the time I had made it a 2 miles from their farm, I had almost forgotten the whole affair–centering instead upon Mary. What a beauty she was! The sky above roiled, dark grey upon black clouds–in the distance the occasional flash of lightning punctuated the dim glow of the bright moon hidden behind the turbulent mists. I must remind you, I had no thoughts what so ever for Pooka’s in whatever form on my trip home–otherwise it would be easy to suggest I imagined what befell me after. But as God as my witness, as I walked along the road, I thought for a moment I heard the sound of hoof beats. I turned, expecting to see someone rushing home, but the road was empty. Only the wind and blowing leaves accompanied me along the dusty track, nothing more. I shrugged, and walked on–knowing well that sounds travels funny sometimes–and expecting to be joined by a cart or wagon shortly by. I decided I would ask them for a ride, if they were going my direction.
Shortly after, I heard the sound again–and once more there was nothing behind me along the road to be seen. I had stuck my hands in my pockets, as the temperature had suddenly begun to grow colder, and touched the crude metal cross there. It was then, with a sudden and mind jarring awareness of gooseflesh and hair standing on end that I heard–without question–the sound of hooves and a whinny of a horse. I stopped, and slowly turning was rewarded yet again with a dark road overcast with growing mist. I fought with myself, knowing I was letting the crazy superstitions of the old woman get the better of me, and started home again at a good pace. When I was less than a mile from home, I heard the hooves again–which were followed by a savage gust of wind which filled my ears with its howling. Then all at once, as I rounded the bend of the road and could see my home–a candle lantern burning at the front porch for me–the wind ceased and all was still. I sighed to myself, chastising my silly childish fears of the dark and wild tales likely the workings of an addled mind.
Though this sense of superiority lasted all of three seconds. For as I took my first step towards my won yard--on ground I had walked hundreds of times--I suddenly and violently found myself thrown to the ground. It felt almost as though someone had gripped the heel of my left foot and upended me forcefully, causing me to land in a leaf filled puddle in the mud at my feet. I shook my head, and crawled back to my feet–discovering that the heel of my left boot had been snapped clean off. With a yelp, I ran into the house–and to this day I swear I heard the sound of hoof beats near as I slammed the door.”
Husby nodded, and said nothing. Martin, his eyes closed simply grinned.
“That was pretty good Williams.”, said “salt horse” wiping grease upon his trousers.
“Well, thank you. I swear it’s true too.”, answered Williams with a smirk.
“How much had you had to drink?”, asked Harmon with a sly look in his eyes, “you know...before you got yourself attacked by your Poofda?”.
“It’s Poo-KA”, responded Husby, “and don’t joke, they’re real. My grandfather saw one once, turned his hair white all through when he was only 25!”
“Yeah well, that or the mix of his mash maybe when he was boiling his home brew, eh?”, said Harmon, to which everyone laughed. “Salt horse” shook his head.
“Come on Harmon, you know as well as the rest of us that there’s more to life than what you see. What about that night we camped by them ruins of that inn on the old post road–when we were escorting that ammunition to the fort before we mustered south? Surely you haven’t forgotten that?”
Harmon nodded, and frowned. “Yeah I suppose–still not sure I believe that even myself, but then I have always been the skeptical type.”
“Alright Harmon, tell us.”, said Husby with an expectant look in his eyes.
“Fine, but like I said...I lived it but I still haven’t accepted fully it happened.”, said Harmon, as he began his tale.
“You probably all recall that back when we first mustered in, the state wasn’t really quite ready to field us right off. All the newest stuff had gone to the battalions that had been formed before us, and so proper ammunition and weapons were at a premium. None of the forts in Minnesota had the right rounds for the weapons the newly assigned companies had been issued, ad so a lot of ferrying crates about was assigned. Most of that work went to the boys in B and C–but thanks to “salt horse” here–he and I had the dubious “honor” of escorting a wagon load of ammunition from Ripley back to Snelling. A company was due to depart for points south in a month, and while everyone else was wishing loved ones a last farewell and showing off their soldierly togs, “salt horse” and I were working.”
“What did you do “salt horse”?, asked Husby interrupting the story.
“I liberated some tinned sweet milk from the officers mess–but blamed the whole thing on Harmon.”, responded “salt horse” with a smirk as he chewed. When the laughter had quelled, Harmon continued.
“Anyway, we made pretty good time and found ourselves on the outskirts of this little river town called Eagle Creek which sits along the post road. He had better part of a day yet to get back to Snelling by road, and given that dusk was coming on we thought we might find a place to lay up and start early the next day. Well, our luck held typical and no one in town had much in the way of courtesy for soldiers (can’t say I blame them really, not sure I would want soldiers in my house if I had a daughter either) so we decided to pitch a fly off the wagon on the edge of town. We got ourselves situated next to these ruins of where this fella used to have an inn–though all that was left of it was crumbled masonry and the foundation now. I guess it had been lost to a fire some years before or some such. Anyway, we got ourselves well settled, dug a nice fire pit and soon even had a good warm glow to ourselves as we snuggled under my old quilt (yes, the one that I finally had to pitch after all that filth and mud outside Vicksburg.). Well, I tell you we were snug–I often long these days for when I could sleep so well out and about since such things felt adventurous. So off to sleep we went, and long about midnight or so I woke up. The fire had died down, and I felt chilled so I crawled out and added some wood. As I was standing there, I thought I heard someone whistling. Yes, I know it sounds crazy–but it was so still that I knew it had to have been someone whistling. It was an odd tune, discordant and strangely startling; but as it sounded a ways away from the direction of the village I dismissed it. I did stand perfectly still for a moment, trying to see if I could still catch the sound but to no avail. I sat next to the fire, warming myself, and sound found I was drowsy. I was about to lay back down when–and slightly closer–I thought I heard the tune being whistled again. I stood stock still, listening intently, but there was nothing. Something about the tune, about the proximity of the whistler, filled me with sudden dread and I stood some time just listening and looking about. I thought about waking Boyd, but you know how it is when you’re sleepy. You start to question everything, and after 45 minutes of hearing nothing more I decided I had imagined it or heard a bird or something other than what I thought it was. I went back to sleep, and drifted off in short order.
I woke again around three or four in the morning, but it was still pretty dark, and found I needed to have a jimmy piddle in the worst way. I made my way along over to this split rail fence that was across from where we had plunked down and, set to my business. Well now, I am in one of man’s most vulnerable moments, when all of a sudden I hear the whistler again–sounding like they are no more than a yard to the rear of me! I froze stiff, and had the most peculiar thought insert itself right into my awareness–“She’s coming”. Now I don’t know what that means, but I buttoned as fast as I could though I didn’t hear anything further, I went directly to the fire and stoked her up well. Now I am standing there, musket in hand staring into the flickering scrub brush and such about me feeling something is going on when all of a sudden Boyd here just–and I am not exaggerating–rose up out of bed and hurtled over to the fire with me. It looked like he was bodily yanked out of the bed roll and pushed towards me. He was awake at once, saying ‘What’s going on? What am I doing here? How did I get out of bed?’. Well, after that, we didn’t sleep anymore–but then nothing else happened either. First sign of morning, we hitched up and made out of there without looking back. Now, I don’t know if I believe it happened or not–but you wanted to hear the tale, and that’s it.”
Everyone looked around at one another, and Williams turned to “salt horse”.
“That true?”, he asked.
“I can only speak to the part I was awake for, but I can tell you what he said of me was true. I think Harmon and I skipped lightly on some place with a spirit, but who knows really?”, answered Boyd with a shrug.
A sudden materialization from the darkness of a soldier startled them all, and Harmon and Husby both stood with a jerk.. Williams squinted, but recognized him first.
“Ha! Bowman! Good to see you up and moving, thought you were at the hospital? You gave us all a good start–fools that we are telling spook stories on a dark night like this!”, said Williams with a smile.
Everyone laughed except Bowman who cast an eye around to each of them before saying, “Has anyone seen my watch? I cannot seem to find it.”.
Harmon sat back down and shook his head. “Haven’t seen it Bowman–but I wouldn’t put it past those stewards to take it. Did you look at the hospital?” But it seemed Bowman didn’t hear him, for he simply turned and ambled along towards where he his platoon was quartered. Harmon shrugged, and Husby returned to his seat watching after Bowman.
“Poor guy doesn’t look too good,” he said quietly, “I wonder if someone ought to go after him to make sure he’s alright?”
“I’m sure he’s fine,” responded Williams with a yawn.
“Husby’s right though,” said Martin with eyes stabbing into the dark into which Bowman vanished again, “I’ll just go over and see if he’s alright.”. With that, Martin rose and wandered after Bowman. As they watched him go, another figure wandered quietly from the darkness. It was Zimmerman, whom they all recognized as Bowman’s tent mate. He was carrying something in his hands, and looked distraught.
“Zimmerman, if you’re looking for Bowman, you just missed him.”, said “salt horse” as he set his empty cup down with a rattle of his fork within. Zimmerman’s gaze shot upwards, and he frowned at the group.
“That’s a beastly thing to say!”, Zimmerman half shouted, letting a shiny watch slip and dangle on it’s chain from his thin fingers. The firelight caught the glint of the metal as it swung back and forth before being returned to his fingers safe keeping. “Salt horse” shrugged, unsure what he had done.
“Is that Bowman’s watch?”, asked Harmon quietly, “he’s looking for it.”.
Zimmerman, who had started to stalk away stopped in his tracks and turned around. He walked closer to the fire, the four remaining men watching him closely.
“What....what did you say?”, asked Zimmerman, his face perplexed and distorted with curious alarm.
Harmon looked about once, then said slowly, “Bowman–he was here shortly ago, looking for his watch.”
Zimmerman took a step back, and then looked down at the watch. He was quiet for some moments, before finally he spoke again.
“Michael Bowman is dead–corruption in his joint must've took root in the blood or something, nothing they could do. I took his watch to send home to his mother, as he asked me too. I’ve only just left his body 10 minutes ago, if that.”
The fire snapped, and threw sparks which swirled into the dark autumn air over their heads, dancing slowly until each winked out and vanished.