“HA! You damn fools can’t hit nothin’!” Shouted Stearns across the field to where the enemy they had been engaged with for the last three days was entrenched. Corporal Brooks yelled for him to quit his noise, but Stearns--as usual--went right on. “You just wait ‘till we get over there, you are in for a serious thrashin’!” The only answer was a musket shot which splintered into one of the logs that had been thrown up over their positions as cover. While it was wide of Stearns, it made him duck back all the same and laughter drifted over from the enemy lines. Stearns swore a blue streak and was readying his Springfield to fire back, but Sergeant Hedley arrived with Corporal Brooks in tow and put a stop to that. The sergeant departed, but Brooks stared hard at Stearns for several moments before leaving. Simmons shook his head. Henderson frowned.
“What the hell is wrong with you, Stearns? You tryin’ to get shot through or somethin’? Or maybe you jus’ want to bring the hard case out of the corporal an’ see why men don’t cross Brooks?”
“Go eat some more dirt Henderson--keep out of my business!” shot back Stearns, but Henderson was a blacksmith by trade, and the large man soon pinned Stearns against the trench wall with the ease he would button his shirt.
“Dirt is it? You’ve no cause to speak so to me like that!” Simmons did his best to calm the situation, Anderson and Sterling stepping in as well as other men looked on. When at last Stearns was extricated from the meaty paws of Henderson, Simmons pushed his friend off along the trench, and settled him away a distance. Simmons waved in response to the hail of several he knew--Husby, Jones and Cox--and sat across from Stearns. All around them men were watchful but relaxed; they had become accustomed to the routine over the last three days. Second Platoon had been detailed to reconnoiter forward on the left oblique of the column, something they had done dozens of times before in their position as one of the first companies in line--but never before had they run into a situation like this. Less than a full day from the Army, they had run into a mixed group of rebels who had been halted for rest in the woods and taken them completely unawares. While the first few minutes had seen panic on the rebel side, they had reformed themselves in order and drew back some way through the woods to take position on a low but steep hill--a move that both saved and trapped them. The hill drew up against the fast running Fisher River, and beyond the soggy Campbell Swamps. The men had wanted to charge on, and give the rebels cold steel--but 2nd Lieutenant Bergdale had resisted. As the men hunkered down in the edge of the treeline, the lieutenant studied the enemy position through his field glasses and conferred with Sergeants Hedley and Cross. Meanwhile, the men grumbled as the enemy set to preparing for defense with what they had on hand. Some pointed out that the rebels had mortars, higher ground and more men--and that waiting was dangerous folly. The sergeants pointed this out as well, but still they waited. When the men began to think they would never move, the call came to advance. Of course at this point the rebels had the low steep hill, and open ground before them. Hedley had argued loudly enough with the Lieutenant of the folly of trying to assault the enemy under the conditions that had been allowed to ferment. He was ignored, and the platoon was formed for the attack. They moved forward under fire, fortune alone protecting them from serious injury. Three times the Lieutenant tried the hill, until at last they had retreated back to the treeline and been given the command to dig in and prepare for defense. Lieutenant Bergadale had apologized to the platoon for their failure as a group when their trench had been prepared, but bad feelings remained. They had been very fortunate that the worst injury they had taken proved to be a few head and shoulder wounds--none of them serious--but the wound to their pride hurt the worst. When they had settled into their trench, the laughter and jeering from the enemy could hardly be ignored. Three days they had traded musketry with the enemy, and ducked the occasional mortar round which was slowly blasting apart the trees behind them. Simmons shook his head and sighed as he looked at his friend.
“You know better than to pick fights with Henderson.” Stearns frowned and laid his head back against the wall of the trench behind him.
“Don’t start mother, I have heard this before.” Simmons kicked Stearns brogan, resisting the urge to grab and shake him.
“Only because you never listen, damn you! You keep this up, and you’ll catch a bullet--do you want to end up in some field hospital waiting for one of them butcher’s apprentices to lessen you a leg or an arm? Hell, that’s the best you can expect if you end up in such straights!”
“Yes mother. I’m tired is all, you understand James? I’m tired.” Simmons nodded and took a pull from his canteen. He offered it to his friend, and Stearns took it with a nod. Simmons understood, but he wondered if Stearns meant that he was tired physically or simply of this situation--perhaps both. Henderson appeared behind them, a smirk on his face.
“We shouldn’t fight--,” the large man said holding out a hand to Stearns, --”Not least-wise when we share a tent. Sterling is all worried we’ll be throwing punches in our sleep when we get back to camp, and him bein’ in the middle he’s worried he’ll take the brunt of our aggression.” Simmons looked at Stearns to see if this peace offering might be the end of their squabble and was rewarded with a bright smile. Stearns took the offered hand and they laughed, bringing a sudden end to the tension. Together they made their way back to their places along the trench.
The next morning, a rider arrived from the column and delivered a message to the Lieutenant’s bivouac. Though no one but the Lieutenant and the sergeants were privy to what the message contained, the men had developed a second sense towards the intentions of their officers and so a grim preparedness fell over their line. The day was bright, it was not quite yet eight, so the humidity was beginning to prick their awareness but had yet to truly manifest itself as they all knew it would. The clouds were long and wispy in the sky, reminding Simmons of cheesecloth.
“We’re going over, I am certain,” said Sterling, the energetic little man brushing his mop of hair back from his eyes.
“All signs do seem to suggest mischief brewing--yer right in that sure an’ certain,” Anderson commented, his blue eyes flicking to Sterling a moment before we resumed working the vent pick into the nipple of his musket. Simmons and Stearns checked one another’s cartridge boxes, reseating the charges within to ensure that they did not tangle or fall down beyond the reach of fingers in the thick of it. Henderson sat nearby, quietly twisting the wedding ring upon his thick finger.
“Ought to have had this done and over days ago!” commented Arnold who was sitting near Henderson. “Going over now is gonna be Hell--if you’ll excuse the phrase.”
“My wife was here she’d be cross about now! Madder than a wet hen!” laughed Theodore Bardwell. His brother Tracy sniggered loudly, and nodded. “Never seen a woman more proper with phrases--you better watch your mouth when we get out of this, Ted!”
“My wife never understands this whole affair--just wants me to come home,” said Henderson twisting his ring. “I can’t make her understand--I still love my country.” Simmons thought about that, and realized fully how he felt different. Looking about at these men, he knew why he was here. He had joined with patriotic fervor, eager to march away a soldier after being stopped by his mother when the first call had come. He wasn’t going to miss his chance to find adventure, and protect his country from the traitorous ‘Southern Rebellion’. It had been a rude awakening when he discovered what truly awaited him. He supposed that was true of all wars, throughout history.
“HA! Not my wife!” William Clark was saying from where we was checking the hasp on his bayonet. “I think my wife would sooner hear of my death than my dishonor by running or coming home before this thing is finished.” There were some grim chuckles, and Arnold suggested they ought to let Clark’s wife fight the rebs, which brought some genuine laughter. Simmons patted Stearns on the shoulder and pronounced his box ready before securing the flap closed. He looked about at these men, some of whom he knew in passing but others that had been complete strangers before the war, and smiled to himself. He was different. He had come to this fight wanting to find glory, find adventure--and all for himself. Now, he wanted to survive. Was the cause that he fought for any less important to him? Perhaps some, but perhaps a better way to describe it was that his cause had become mingled with a need to ensure that these men survived as well. He fought for them, even those he didn’t like all that much--and they did the same for him. Simmons knew in his bones that they would charge the hill today. He knew as any soldier comes to know what is coming; a raw and primal awareness of the world around you which only the snap-hiss of a bullet passing within inches of your immortality can endow. Stearns tapped him on the shoulder and pronounced his cartridge box in good order. Sergeant Hedley was shouting at them to load, and all at once all were alive with activity. Ramrods clanked as bullets were seated home upon their powder charges and hammers were cocked back to allow the positioning of percussion caps. The rebels knew what was coming as well, fellow soldiers who lived much the same lives as their own. A bullet hissed overhead, and everyone ducked. Soon they would become deaf to such sounds, and a madness would overtake them which would allow them to do their bloody work. How funny, Simmons thought for a moment as the call came to fix bayonets, that the men they were going to fight knew better than anyone what they felt in this moment. The drum rolled, and lines formed as the engagement began. The air grew thick with the bitter tang of musketry, but the sky overhead was blue, and the wind blew through the trees with the same rustle that it had before as Private James Simmons charged with his brothers across a short and deadly space.