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
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
It was late spring, and Bentley took some pleasure in the cooler morning air. It was rich with the earthen scents of soil, and living things. A farmer, such as Bentley was, knew such smells intimately. He had grown up on them, striding beside his father through their fields as a boy in New Hampshire. He remembered how they used to walk with his older brother Charles in the meadow and pasture, never saying a word until the love for the land would overwhelm the old man. He would stress to them the importance of the earth they trod, point out every marker of their property. He would encourage them to kneel down beside him when he dug his hands into the soil; pass them moist clods of earth to feel between their fingers.
“Feel the texture,” father would say, “note the smell of it. The land is alive boys, and if you understand that when you lend your hand to the plow, then you will succeed in making a life as a farmer.”
Private Bentley crawled from the tent, the morning dew shocking him awake as his hands touched the cold wet grass. He stood up and wiped the moisture from his hands on his trousers and stretched his back. Languid white smoke drifted across the company street from a cooking fire resistant to the wishes of some of the men to encourage the flames; whilst conversations murmured amongst the tents. A little chickadee landed atop the tent pole a short distance away, and cocked its head at Bentley as if to greet him.
“Good morning to you little bird,” said Bentley with a smile. The bird flitted away, bringing a chuckle to the lanky man. He yawned and wandered at a shuffle down the street--Minnesota Avenue to the men--and settled himself on a misshapen stump which immediately tested Bentley’s coordination and balance in exchange for a place to sit.
“Careful Bent that stump still green-broke.”
Bentley smiled at his friend Daniel Sudbury, a round faced man with bright blue eyes. A cup of steaming coffee was handed over, and Bentley--or Bent as Sudbury always called him--took it with a smile and a nod of appreciation.
“Your type of morning Bent,” said Sudbury looking about them and sipping from his own cup “Soon as I woke I knew you’d be quiet and content this morning.”
“Someone might as well be.”
“I suppose that is true enough.” said Sudbury with a nod as he tended the stubborn flames. A crow sailed slowly over the clearing in which their encampment was situated, drawing Bentley’s attention. It sailed in a circle for a moment before landing in a tree top nearby, and calling in its’ harsh voice to the sky.
“I hate them birds.”
Bentley looked over at his friend, who was also watching the crow now. His eyes looked hard, and his hand was clenched in a fist. Bentley frowned, and wondered what could incite such an emotion for a simple animal. Was he superstitious? Sudbury had never seemed the type, though he supposed that even as well as he knew his friend it was possible. It could be their nuisance to farmers he supposed. Sudbury was a farmer as Bentley was.
“Why Suds? They get into your granary or something?”
Sudbury shook his head, and looked back to the fire. He didn’t answer, only resumed poking the fire. For its’ part, the crow called twice more and flew away over the trees in search of more friendly parts perhaps. The fire started to pop a little, evidence of the wetness of the wood. Bentley returned to his coffee, and the pair sat in silence for awhile. A second, and then a third crow drifted over their heads and on in the direction that the first had taken. Sudbury didn’t look up when the birds croaked their coarse voices overhead, but the frown on his face deepened. The curiosity within Bentley grew, as did his reluctance to pursue the matter openly. Instead, he turned his attentions to the comforting qualities of the morning. Daniels and Brock stumbled half-awake to join them; Brock looking a bit worn but grunting approval when a cup of ‘morning life’ was placed in his hand.
“I don’t think I shall ever have a good night sleep again.” groused Daniels hanging his head. Bentley smiled.
“Sure you will! Never slept well at home?”
“Not with my wife, that woman is unnatural affectionate!”
Everyone laughed at that, even Sudbury snapped out of his gloom. They burst even harder into laughter when Brock, who seemed to brighten a bit as well squeaked--”How many youngsters you got again?”
“Shut your pie holes, by damnation!” shouted someone from one of the a-frame tents along the street. Daniels held up seven fingers and the group tittered as quietly as they might. Bentley smiled and thought about his children a moment. Geoffrey would be mucking out the cattle barn now, ten years of age but trying so hard to be a man. John, still his mothers ever present shadow at five. Susanna, the image of her mother--fourteen years of age and smitten the foolish romances of youth. Sometimes Bentley wondered if he would miss their entire childhood away at war. A pang of regret and sorrow welled up within him, and he sipped his coffee in an attempt to drive it away. His own father would not have understood such sentimentality; all he ever seemed to truly love was their land.
“You listening Bentley?” asked Daniels. Bentley snapped briefly from his thoughts and stared absently at his friend.
“I’m sorry, what?”
Daniels laughed. “Never mind let the Joe work on him a bit more.”
The others chuckled and Bentley smiled to himself, but not for the camaraderie of his pards. He was thinking of his wife, Livy. If any person truly knew his soul with the equal of the omnipotence of God, it was his strong and beautiful girl. She knew how he lived and died with his children’s triumphs and heartaches. How he missed them all. Being so far from home was like a wound within him, and he found that he could not safely allow himself to think too often on the distance. Bentley supposed he wasn’t alone in this of course, but some things served best to be kept close. The loud call of several more crows and Sudbury’s scowl drew him from his thoughts.
“Them damn things. That’s a full murder of ‘em now.”
“You and your theories Suds” laughed Daniels rising and starting back towards his tent.
“What theory is that?” asked Brock making Daniels pause a moment.
“Old Sudbury here has it in his head that every time you see a flock--”
“A murder, they calls a group of crows”, retorted Sudbury sullenly.
“Sorry, every time you see a murder of crows fly over the camp we will shortly go into the field.” Daniels shook his head and continued towards his tent. Brock sat looking thought and seemed to grow paler again before turning back to Sudbury.
“Is that so Suds?” he asked.
Sudbury tossed the remains of his coffee down into the sputtering fire, sending a phantom of steam and smoke up between them. Through the hiss of the embers, he quietly answered.
“That’s it. You’ll see. Crows know when the supper table is being laid. They aint no shirkers for their purpose in nature.” Brock grunted quietly, and just sat watching the embers of what remained of the fire as Sudbury got up and went back to his tent. Bentley shrugged and kicked some dirt towards what remained of the fire.
“Well, what got into everyone this morning?”
Brock looked up at him, and Bentley stopped when he glimpsed the others eyes. What he had initially taken as the affects of a poor nights sleep, Bentley now recognized as quiet terror in the other mans features. He knew it plainly, as any soldier who had experienced an engagement had seen such looks countless times.
“I’m scared Bentley” said Brock in a quiet voice, his eyes not daring to meet Bentley’s a second time.
“We all get the willies now and then Brock wouldn’t be natural not too.”
“No, not like this. I had a vision--a dream or something of the like. It didn’t feel like I was sleeping though, it had a quality to it that weren’t like a nightmare. I think I might be for it.” Brock paused; he hung his head and was quiet a moment before he spoke again. “I had pushed it out of my mind, decided it was nothing before Sudbury brought up the crows.”
Bentley suddenly felt anger well up in him in sympathy for Brock, and he turned and yelled after his friend--”Suds, damn you! You and your stupid superstitious blather!” There was some chuckle from men nearby at this outburst, and Bentley could see Sudbury turn back to look in his direction. Brock stood up quietly shook his head.
“No, Harold it’s not Suds--it’s those birds. The crows. They were in my dream, like Suds said.” Bentley turned and looked at Brock, whose features had taken on a set quality with all trace of the fear gone to be replaced with a calm look. “I don’t know what to think Bentley, I don’t know what might be coming or not. I was never much of a god fearing man, not much taken with the scriptures or anything.”
“Brock, this is silly--don’t go talking like that.”
“No, listen to me Bentley.” Brock moved close, his eyes earnest but calm and filled with certainty. “I want you to do any speaking over me when--if that time comes. Promise me?”
Bentley nodded. “I promise. But it’s gonna be for nothing.”
Brock smiled and nodded. He seemed suddenly to have cast off some invisible weight that had been upon him. “You’re probably right Bentley. Like as not, we’ll spend all day sitting in camp waiting for more waiting.” With that he turned and wandered back towards his tent. Bill Thomas, Ed Roth and Will Harvey--Bentley’s tent mates--wandered up and clapped him on the shoulder in greeting.
“Morning Harold. What’s all the shouting about?” Asked Roth as they stood together, watching the retreating form of Brock.
“Oh, nothing. People getting nervous. Stupid superstitions giving people the fright.” Bentley answered, then turned and lightly punched Thomas in the arm. “That’s for leaving me the damn root last night!”
They laughed, and Thomas and Bentley set to scuffling in a playful fight. Overhead a crow flew Northwest over the camp, towards a dark hanging cloud of smoke just over the horizon. From this vantage, one could see the sporadic copses of trees spreading out over the varying ground along the wide dirt track that locals called the Hapston road. The crow followed this road with the natural wisdom of its kind towards the small village of Grosset Station, some 15 miles distant from where Bentley’s division camped. The obsidian winged bird soared using a warm updraft, generated by a fire which was burning in that village. To its keen eyesight, the federal cavalry that was ransacking the town was viewed with clarity. The crow alighted atop of a tree just outside of town, and called loudly. It was answered quickly by others, who sat in similar trees. Smoke billowed into the air from the barn that by design or some accident was engulfed beyond saving now by hungry flames. The crow cocked its head, watching as the small party of federals was surprised by riders clad in butternut. Swords clashed, a bullet took a man from his saddle and dropped him hard into the mud at the base of the crow’s tree. He groaned, and moved no more. Soon a haggard, bloodied federal raced away from Grosset Station. His horse whinnied and kicked as the cavalryman put spur to the beast, bullets zipping over his shoulders. Below in Grosset Station, the rebel cavalry gathered and rode back the direction they had come. The crow watched them leave, galloping back towards a grey-butternut haze on the horizon. Smoke drifted through the tree in which it was perched, and the crow cawed loudly before taking flight to find a new roost. The crows would wait here patiently. In time, if no one came to move the fallen below, they would do what they had done for eternity. In Grosset Station, the barn burned steadily.
“Lord Almighty! Why don’t they just let us go?”
“Mind your language Daniels! You better start working that salt out of your mouth now or you’ll slip up and do it when we get back home!” responded a private that Bentley recognized but couldn’t name. Daniels, down along the rank from where Bentley stood, wasn’t taking the advice.
“Well, how long are they fixing on keeping us standing here?”
“Long as them damn pumpkin rinds want, course!” Came a reply from well down the ranks. Bentley could not see the speaker, but like those about him he smiled and nodded. The source of the problem was that they had been near the end of their hour long drill when the Lieutenant had been called over to the Captains tent by a runner. Rather than just dismissing the company and ending drill, they had been told to stand at the rest. This in itself would have probably been fine had they not been doing so for over twenty minutes. First sergeant Pulaski wandered by, looking a bit impatient himself. Men held their tongues until he was well along the line, and then resumed their grousing. Pulaski was fair, but he had little tolerance for ‘tittering and bellyachers’ as he called it. Bentley just was thankful that they had been left to stand in the shade at least, given that the sun had broken through the clouds and the temperature had risen. He recalled when the battalion was first mustered at Fort Snelling; one of the training officers had left them standing in formation on the parade ground in the chilling Minnesota winter. They had marched just past a barracks building and into a lane where the wind could get at them freely, stopped, and then the officers had stepped back into the safety of the windbreak to discuss something. While they might have only been standing in the cold wind for fifteen minutes or so, that night brought various plots of murder and revenge in barracks for their perceived ill use. Bentley chuckled to himself thinking of those green days, but his mood turned on a somber note. They had been a lucky bunch overall, loosing fewer men than many other outfits. Still, there had been losses. Bentley shifted the weight from one foot to the other, trying to keep ahead of the aching fatigue which was setting into his legs.
The very first had been a friend of his, who had died in a stupid skirmish with some rebel militia along Seven Mile Creek. Bentley frowned as he thought back to the surprised look on Erickson’s face when a lucky shot hit him between the eyes. The next day had given their battalion its first real engagement when they had run into Van Dorn’s boys at Farmington. A lot had changed since then, but nothing more than themselves. He realized that when he thought of Erickson’s face, he could not really picture the man anymore. That rather bothered him, and so he tried again to bring his dead friends face to mind. Frustrated he moved on, and ticked off in his head the names of those others they had lost along the way. Some had been lost to battle; many to illness and wounds which never healed but festered and spread to the blood. Some others had lived and simply been mustered out. He wondered how they had found home when they returned. Bentley shuffled his feet again, wondering how those at home had found their returning soldier--many missing limbs or worse.
“Attention Battalion!” shouted first sergeant Pulaski as he went by the Bentley at a brisk walk. He met with the captain, who was followed closely by the first and second lieutenants. The long roll sounded, as drummers somewhere near the regimental headquarters summoned other companies into formation. Bentley cast a glance back to where Sudbury stood. He looked back at Bentley with steely eyes.
“Remember” whispered Brock loudly from down the rank. Bentley turned and looked at him, nodding.
“I remember.” His stomach suddenly felt like lead, and he felt the old feeling of anxious energy in his chest. The captain called them to attention, and began speaking to them in his energetic way. Bentley heard nothing. He was too taken up with his thoughts of the action they were clearly headed into. He was a mass of competing emotions, as he often was before the battalion went out into the field. He told himself the fear he felt was normal, part of this life he had engaged himself to in hopes of doing his duty for his country. He also knew some of it came from the fact that Brock was certain he was going to die. Bentley felt that there was order to the world, but that in battle it was chance or luck that saw some through and others to their end. Surely it wasn’t ordained by fate or God that some men simply were meant to die at a certain place or a certain time. If that was true, then what place did hope have here? If it was all predestined and set, what good was faith when the bullets began to fly? The colonel came up upon his horse shouting something encouraging, and the men around him cheered.
“Hurrah!” shouted the lively voice of Daniels.
“Hurrah!” shouted Roth, as Thomas waved his cap in the air.
“Hey, hard case--you alright?” asked Harvey poking him in the ribs from the right.
A command was shouted and the ranks became columns of four, placing Brock in front and to his right and Sudbury behind him. They began to march, and the drumbeat urged them on. Bentley looked at Harvey, who now had attracted the attention of Thomas and Roth as well to his quiet condition.
“Harold? What’s eating you?” asked Thomas.
Overhead, two crows sailed past in the direction they were headed.
Bentley shook his head and frowned.
“I hate those birds.”