- In the hospitality of war we left them their dead to remember us by.
The soldier kneeling in the wet gully has ceased his rocking and sobbing, though the claw-pronged limb reaching over him keeps trembling in the breeze, its shadow shaking. It’s an oak branch, and its wet-gold leaves are among the first to burnish with the season. The man is grime-faced and hatless, no more beard than a peach, his eyes gray and stunned nearly silver. His blue tunic is soiled and torn at the shoulder, where Du Pre’s saber kissed him in the fray. We have watched over this New Yorker since last night, and a weary-faced Garland says the man’s collarbone is broken. He’s a buck private green as creek moss who just followed orders, factory-like, but he is one of Kilpatrick’s new Shadows. His saddle-mates have killed too many of our friends, and he knows the musketoon poised at his ear is cocked, the trigger finger eager to be finished with all this.
We are traveling too light to accommodate a prisoner, and we don’t feel kindly toward any of these Yankee mudsills, no matter how addled or inept they seem up close. We’ve seen their deeds. The sky is rank and smudged with their aftermath. Pure demons, and they drive us to acts of shame.
Last night the prisoner opined to Garland how he found in singed weeds a shell-shot Rebel drummer not more than a dozen years on this earth with his front blown open like a butcher’s display. The soldier said he could see the red beating heart as the boy whispered “Lordy God” and died. Our captive claimed he tried to ease the boy over. Suffer the little children. Everybody gets baptized in the blood. It’s out of my hands.
The morning’s first rays are spangling, and the wheeling birds have found our handiwork again. They get bolder with each feast, their featherless heads red as the raw wounds they delve. We splash the dregs of what we call coffee on the embers as the sun clears the rise where we can make out ruins of a torched plantation, the big house, sheds and barns all rubbled. The chimneys dark as pillars of ash. Time to shadow off ourselves and seek the column. It’s a suffering world. “This flesh and heart shall fail,” the grace song says, and I repeat it in a whisper as I sling my kit over the makeshift pommel. The camp apostle would say it’s all a vale of tears.
I am in the saddle and out of the ravine, ready to hunt where Wheeler and his staff broke their fast, when I hear the roar of the musketoon. Eye for an eye, but it is not Christian business, none of it. What could we do but embrace their ways? The horse snorts and champs. He doesn’t care for the slaughter smell trailing behind us like spoor.
This is a place where deer would nuzzle and browse at a kinder time, where rabbits would slumber and hungers of the spirit might be fed. A vee of geese is arrowing eastward in the clabbered sky. How fine it would be to rise and flee with them. How splendid to be delivered and redeemed. Best to stifle that, though. Best to heel my mount and leave the misgivings behind, mourn my companions at the gallop. If somebody has to beg mercy for all this at the Last Reckoning, his name in Hell is Sherman.
* * * *
Dreaming back now, I could almost believe it was the horrors I beheld, rather than a lead pellet, that knocked my left eye into darkness. In the fall of ’64 the rivers were burning, rails snarled around pine trunks, homes and barns and churches black as Christy’s Minstrels, the burdened people streaming pathetic along the roads. Torched bales and gangrene gave off a stench like the pit of Gehenna. Who were the monsters behind it—the laws of nature repealed, milk of kindness spoiled, even warfare a set of ruined rules? Stirrup jerky and biscuit, skillygalee and hominy, reloading on the run. The smell of horse sweat and smoke kept us dizzy, a poor excuse for righteous avengers. Our only hymns were rackety bugles or cannon blasts. Sortie and demonstrate, raid and rebuke.
We were keeping owl hours, saddle sleep if any. Maps and the long glass, scouts in and out, always somebody coughing hard or falling behind with the scours. Any hickory might shield a sniper. Any knoll could conceal a score of horsemen. Caution and dispatch, hide and seek. Outside Fentry we halted at a sweet spring. Fighting Joe Wheeler spat his plug and turned to offer me the gourd: “Bible Job had no more reason to grumble than us, Goddamn it, Major, but at least we’ve got powder and chuck and a barrel of hard spirits. Any well-versed God must take up our side.” A dedicated honey man, he was ever seeking after bee signs—some said because his beloved was called “Deborah”—but by then the flowers were long gone. Need be, he could live without sweetness or bacon. He was just sixteen hands high and weighing one twenty, hair ever-tousled, the boy general, a saucy talker, thrice shot, over a dozen horses gone to meet their maker under his saddle. “Damn this” and “shit on that.” He was a terror, our best thing left.
We had hit Kilpatrick’s mob near Sylvan Grove at dawn. A quick breach. We exploited it full force. It was “Let her go, Gallagher,” and the pukes showed their backsides. Kils escaped, but we captured his braided hat and camp kit. A day and a night. At Waynesboro we fought the Federals’ barn fires and their repeating Spencers till dark. Our dozen bugle boys went down, every one. Kils torched the bridge over Buckhead Creek, but we patched it with church pews and pushed hard till the niddering buttermilk rangers stampeded headlong into their own infantry. Other days went their way. Sharp work, flummoxed fury. We rode on.
Atlanta was two hundred acres of ash behind us. Wick-black chimneys at every turn. Georgia was already howling, as Lazarus and his wolves headed to the sea. He chewed a cigar even in his sleep, Dame Rumor sang, the bastard who once had claimed to love the South. Lazarus to us, risen from the insane. They had sent him home to Ohio as mad but summoned him back, madness being much the fashion. Now he was blindered as a mill mule, pushing his horde east, muttering, “Saltwater, saltwater.” Nothing to stop him now but pitiful militia and us, Wheeler’s Desperates. Thin as crickets, mean as hornets but twice as busy, we had flanked him at Dalton, stood our ground in Kennesaw’s inferno. We learned from lightning how to strike and leave only singe and sorrow. Hit and run, harry and sting. Our numbers were not great. Garland Rutledge was still with me, Marichal Wilkes, Big Buck Cooperman, Champs Du Pre, but we lost the Soames boys at Griffin in one volley. A ball cut my collar there. John Sparrow lost an ear. Dozens of horses went down wailing like the damned, thrashing and bloodspray everywhere. We buried the Soamses at the depot with hardtack lids to mark their rest, names and dates carved on the front, Pilot Bread stamped on the back. Lean times, desperate measures, the season turned frosty and bleak.
* * * *
Garland was practical, the first to shred the pages of Cooke’s Cavalry Tactics for tinder. He had been with Wheeler since Chickamauga, but he was reared up in Spalding County, so this was his ground. He had purpose. The blue demons thought themselves Thrones and Seraphs. They were setting the Lost Tribes free, their tabloids boasted, and we were no more than Satan’s spawn, soiled knights for the Kingdom of Chains.
“We’ll teach them manners,” said Garland. “Reap evil will they? We’ll put a nick in the scythe.”
A slashed country, braised and gloomed. In the railroad beds, they’d prized up the irons, heated and bent them like hairpins around jack pines. “Where’s your Jesus now, Taddy Sherburne?” Garland was fuming. “Where’s your sword of the Lord? Trust Fighting Joe, dry powder and Mr. Sharps, but Sweet Jesus is obsolete or sleeping. Let’s be Hell.” He spurred his Tennessee and galloped toward the stench.
* * * *
It was a camp revival that sparked my appetite for scripture and incited the wags to snipe at me with rough humor. If we’d had a graceful God back in Carolina, my folks had scarce been acquainted with His ways. There was a Bible in the pantry and one dinner blessing: “Keep the plow wing sharp and the mule safe from snakes, our Father. Amen.” But they say the whiz of Minié balls can teach you devotion. When Cam Hatley fell at Peachtree Creek, I was altered. On picket before dusk, just lighting our pipes, he was bragging on a jug of molasses he’d scrounged. Then I heard the howl of a shell, felt gust, and nearly half Cam was gone. I was talking to a belt buckle and bloodspray. I didn’t talk long.
That night the End of Time Man showed up in a caravan, Testament in his fist. He was no agent for the gold road of Heaven. Raw-boned, tall, rough as a cob. “The Whirlwind is near,” he shouted from the wagon tongue. “Get ready, get ready!” He balanced easy as a bird. “Prepare your eternal soul for the pain and the glory.” In the flicker of a brazier, he gave rant and brimstone a flavor even Sherman’s butchers hadn’t summoned, but he promised solace, and I needed some. I let him wet my head with springwater the horses had likely pissed in, bade him bless my sinful hands. He said, “Praise be. You’re safe now, boy,” and winked. Since then, I’d tried to “Lord-is-my-shepherd” on the march and read the tracts by firelight. Many of the hymns in The Times in Which We Live I studied till I’d got them by heart and worn the booklet almost to shreds. Garland showed me no mercy. Marichal was worse.
“Joe Wheeler’s fool, Jeff Davis’s fool and now Jehovah’s. Parson Parsnips! You’ll be a man of the cloth before we know it, Sherburne. And won’t your little wifey be proud. Now pray me up some sheep stew and a glass of nockum stiff. A warm wench from the flesh farm. Pray us fresh horses, old son. Put your faith to use.” I took it in the spirit of my newfound humility, rank aside. We all had more than enough paradox already, trying to get a mind around loving neighbors while hating the Yankees enough to gut them, and I was desperate to preserve some of the man Maggie had pledged yes to under the arbor just after Manassas.
Two nights later big Buck invented the cowbell ruse, and I was up to my wrists in eye-for-an-eye again, hoping Jesus would set aside “Thou Shalt Not” and excuse my occupation, though I knew I’d be too ashamed ever to tell it back home.
We’d get close enough to smell their hish and hash, a few of us bellying through the bramble, and when we found a sweet spot, the decoy would clang the bell gentle till some of Lazarus’s jackass foragers could start to picture ribs sizzling. They’d dispatch a pilgrim or two to come seeking the stray offering, and we’d hold the Arkansas toothpick up before a man’s eyes just after we showed it to his throat, his own breath rasp the last note he heard. Thou Shalt Not, I know, but think of Joshua and young David. The ruse worked four times before word rippled through their ranks. Soon they were shooting at any bovine sound.
* * * *
When Lazarus turned his eye on Savannah, still prosperous as a wedding cake on the coast, Jeff Davis in his wisdom announced the whole Union force would flounder like Napoleon in Russian winter. They’d starve and freeze, suffer and limpdick it home just like the French fools, but Lazarus sent Jeff a note on Yankee wiping paper, just the two words: “No snow.”
Both sides needed to believe they were fighting God’s ordained war. We were protecting native ground—cornfields, sisterly virtue and the right to say, “We step out of your Union.” The Lincolnites were wiping away an abomination, enslavement of a stolen people. By ’64 I’d sure seen enough lashed backs and shackled urchins to admit they had an argument, but back in Buncombe County the only slave I knew up close was Aeneas Beedle, and he always sported horehound sticks in his pocket and a big-foot dobbin to run errands for Doctor West. By the time I saw cotton bottoms and regiments of sad stoop-overs aching in the autumn rows, Lincoln had sent his saviors over our threshold. My personal heart’s opinion was, “Go home, mill monkeys, and then we’ll discuss this other matter.” Three years of blaze should have been enough to educate any imbecile. Hell, three months would more than teach a man.
The Soames brothers had come to Bragg’s muster with a body servant all shuffle-step and yassuh, boss. They loved him like a whipped dog, but no better. Cam had confessed his own family had a dozen and treated them “decent,” but he said slaving was a rewardless practice, so they hired smallholders to sucker their tobacco and shell their corn. Results about the same. Out in the world there is no end of questions and ample evil for both sides. What happened to the twelve I never asked.
We fought the blue jackets because they were our enemy and because Lazarus meant to burn a rift in Georgia. His rear guard cut the well ropes and stole the buckets, pissed on the salt licks and shit in the weirs. No more conscience than a crow. His bummers murdered every stock animal they couldn’t wolf down and nailed silver services to trees for target practice, poured sorghum in pipe organs. They shot anything resembling a dog for being kin to slave hounds. Here is what Back-from-the-Grave told the papers: “I will scorch this land till its residents feel a permanent night has fallen upon the ground and clung to it.” I dreamed him with a bottle of cask-aged how-come-you-so? and a cigar glowing and smoking like a brand.
* * * *
As Sandy Chavis lessoned me over one breakfast of guineas, it was easy to believe whatever favored the coloreds cursed us directly. After all, Lazarus had arrived to raise them and flail us down. Set my people free was his command and provided excuse for rampage, though even before the Ebenezer Creek confusion, I could see the way truth was all stewed up with fraud, the Devil’s work. Some Yankees just came south for a big Barnum show, the swag and permission to relish arson. “The goose question,” as parlor society named slavery, well, it wasn’t what made factory men take up arms. As I saw it, they came foremost to seize our land, so I donated a small plot to each hoplite I could fell and prayed forgiveness.
One evening Captain Wilkes and I were on vidette outside Macon, and we happened upon a yellow-toned wench sitting by a willow spring at twilight, dressed as fetching as Lola Montez herself, her hair in an apple-hued rigolette, a flowery umbrella in her hands. When we came rattling up, rifles and tack banging the saddletree, she didn’t raise a glance to see if we were blue or butternuts.
“Gal,” called Marichal. “You, nigger gal.” She finally issued just a sigh, but she was so don’t-carish in her finery, we might as well of been squirrels. I leaned hard into her face and said, “What ails you, Liza?”
“Well . . .” But when she dropped back to a mutter, I sharpened up my voice.
“Well, young marsters, ain’t no profit to try twisting it all into sense. Don’t sort out straight no more than a red snake.”
“Speak plain, gal.”
Then she stuck out her feet, bare and bleeding. “Jubilo come. Horns a-blasting, big men with killing swords and feathers in they hats, they come march on through like a blue-sky storm with wagon guns and flags, cast out the marster’s old ways, give us the freedom and set us to dancing a Jordan reel. Two days they roast hog, prance about, promise us pretties and snuggle us gals in the hay, then the whole bunch button up and head on toward the sun’s come-rise. Next day, they dirty drag-tail buckra spill into our camp, haul off the free nigra men to use they shovels. Last one come through the farm steal my field hat and shoes, then ride off whistling that ‘Dixie’ with Missy’s peacock slung over the mule back.”
She had set out after her footwear, but being a house gal she lacked the soles for such a trek, and now her feet were raw as steak shambles. I thought it a woeful tale and wished for solutions, a pair of charity boots, but we had a rendezvous to keep.
Marichal spat dry and said we should put them out of their misery, all Ham’s issue, but I answered she had not invaded us, just another weed in the sickle’s path, little different from ourselves. He had a blindness of his own woven deep into the otherwise fine instincts of a golden soul.
* * * *
Kilpatrick and Wheeler had dueled for half a year from Tennessee on down till Kils had taken a ball at Resaca and was packed back home, but they couldn’t hold him from the grand farce. He’d long been a gaslights man for the sham pleasure of it and liked to strike poses, take curtain calls and curse Lee and Lincoln in one windy speech, theatrical fashion. Now he was the prompter for a swarm of locusts. “I am pure Harry on a raid,” he boasted to Harper’s Weekly. To break the Confederacy’s back, they would not leave chick nor child unmolested. It was his men who’d broken into the playhouse in Atlanta and looted off the costumes. They cut the fool at Cassville in pantaloons, capes and helmets, as on a lark.
That Cassville fight was the first day I ever glassed him up, despite the covey of white-glove staff trying to shield him. They were dolled up as Turks and queens and such theater exotics, but I spied him in those mutton whiskers and a frogged coat with more braid than wool. Joe Wheeler hated the man, his brags and lies, and when I directed the general to their command position, he ordered up our jackass gun to loft a shell in that vicinity. The two had been at West Point, and General Joe said in the case of that tuck-tail son of a bitch chivalry did not apply. “That pig pizzle wouldn’t have the sense to rub down a frothy mule nor piss with the wind. It’s a long taw, but give that barrel full elevation, kiss it for distance and see if we can break his frolic.” If the Yankee thought this was all a fox hunt, we’d show him teeth, give him a snarl. Shortfall, somewhat, but their horses reared and startled. We saw them shit and scamper.
* * * *
Running reconnaissance after the Yanks hunkered down in Atlanta, the Soames boys and I had come on a file of civilians pulling their goods on Indian-style travois. A pert young woman with too many freckles was swearing with every step, so Garland hove to and asked could he be of service.
“They are turning out our dead in the cemetery,” she answered, “tossing blessed bones to make room for their own fallen. It is sacrilege.” This through rillets of tears.
The Soames boys worked themselves into a frenzy, cussing Lazarus and pledging to go on private raid that night. Even their servant John was wild with it by darkfall. He doted on those boys, and when the one barrage took them both, I offered him their personals and said, “Go home or go North, John. Likely you’re free. Thank Jesus.” He joined the shovel brigade instead, throwing up works, and I never saw him after that to find out exactly why. But Sherman, the resurrection man, the grave robber: now he was primed to lick our skillet clean. God forgive me, but I would sink to anything to stop him.
Before long, I was dreaming him as a game rooster, all spurred and cockerel-surly, his head a flame that raged across the state, like he was dreaming back at me, all waste work and incendiary. I could picture him strutting under bloody clouds, his boots turning frost to cinders as he strode. He was waving a map of Carolina big as a bedsheet, and I was crawling through an endless woods to warn my Maggie. I could feel the pressure of his mind. Then I would wake in a sweat, the taste of ditch water on my tongue. It was all turning personal.
Wheeler said to hurt him, to clip his wings. Every time, whether with Garland or Zeke Mapple, I volunteered for advance guard, against Jesus’ rules or not. I thought I was learning how the righteous are meant to smite. The Assyrian had fallen wolfish on the fold and should be thrashed and rendered sightless. Sometimes, we’d come on a Yank just sent to his Maker, somebody’s darling, his face all ghast and nasty, and Wheeler’s orderly Stowbridge would put another shot up his ass, to sign the message, so to speak. It wasn’t Christian, but I started to reckon it wasn’t altogether wrong.
* * * *
We had our own disputes, as if invaders weren’t ordeal enough. On bivouac, those rare evenings out of the saddle, we’d debate customs of engagement and the war’s mainspring and cause.
One evening Marichal advanced the idea we were justified in any act designed to rid our rightful land of trespassers. If you could think it, he said, the Almighty had lent His stamp. “Assassination of generals, poisoned wells, snakes flung into their camp. Delilah spies or playing scorn songs at them like an Irish harper. Anything. And don’t go righteous. Your God, Taddy, comprehends our plight and licenses whatever we can conjure.”
He was a lean, straw-headed Alabamian with a brow red as a russet potato. You couldn’t help but like him for his shroudless spirit and craving for jest, though he was the most bloody-minded. He would cut you half his plug, though, or take blame for others’ errors, Samaritan-like. He’d come back for me when my horse stumbled at the scurry by Harris’s gin, the lead hot and hailing. I was so mammocked, I didn’t know up hith from yon and stumbled about like a child. Out of the smoke he came of a sudden on that ghost horse, his open hand reaching out and my name on his tongue. That act alone purchased him my tolerance and admiration, though I saw his scapegoating of coloreds as half-sighted, at best.
Garland picked his teeth with a twig and praised all partisan procedures. “What I hold most high, gentlemen, is the boy who will force slow toxin down his pet duck when the foragers come close, or Zora Fair of Oxford, who blacked her face and lurked into Atlanta to map Sherman’s works. She is a paragon, sirs. We should all be so zealous.”
“But what of the wounded, Lieutenant? Surely you sponsor mercy there. You know of Jesus in the garden and that Roman’s ear.” I couldn’t resist.
But Garland was adamant. He tossed a pebble off into the dark, and his face was serious as canister. “They don’t want the inconveniences we provide, they should not wander down here. We are not obliged to be hospitable, and we will give their injured quarter when it is offered to our women and children. Our by-God dogs. This Lazarus wants to put the living under the earth and spill out the buried. I say, the man commits to swapping the dead and the quick about like chess pieces, let him brace for all havoc. Every plague we can muster. Woe betide.” He hawked and spat a bloody missile into the flames.
As always, Marichal had to introduce the slaves. He lit an old turd of a cigar and jabbed it into his mouth, an organ we scarce had ever seen, due to his thicket of whiskers.
“As I see it, it is your son of Ham who introduced savagery into this whole damned matter. Once we seen what the Nat Turners and their ilk enacted up in Virginia, the whole ante was raised. Lacking that, us whites might have arrived at a compromise.” He went back to whittling slivers into the fire, his anger transferred to his wrist.
Du Pre laughed like a jackal, his big shoulders shaking. “It’s always the niggers for you, Wilkes. I speck you’ll soon inform us that John Brown himself was truly a brown man bleached off to pass scrutiny and buy rifles.”
“If not brown, then black to the heart, anyways.”
“And what of you, Parson Sherburne? Do you also take mutinous slaves for your models and conduct yourself a notch more brutal to follow their example?” Du Pre, playing with me again.
I needn’t answer, as Garland would not let the rein fall slack. He leaned close, nearly touching brows with Du Pre. “Some men are inclined to depravity by misbirth or Yankee raising, though most of us have the aptitude but lack the appetite. We act the fiend out of responsibility, Wilkes, to avenge our damaged nation, our honor, our sovereign God-given rights.”
“Here, here,” added Wilkes. “Duty. And to reclaim our chattel, but you, Reverend Sherburne, can you with your new-got religion be fierce for the sake of Georgia?”
I had only time to mutter, more at the dying cookfire than my companions, “I reckon.” Little did I know how in two days’ time circumstance would provide ample answer, but the horn blared “Boots and Saddles,” saving us from further disputation. Cursing and kicking, we debouched, and when I gave my new horse the quirt and spur, he leapt across the trickling branch. He was a spirited Irish Draught I called Festus at the suggestion of the End-of-Time apostle. “One of the judges,” he said, “a right-thinker.” A strong haunch and lean gaskin, a thinking animal. He had a white hourglass feathering his breast, but his hide was black as a Bible.
* * * *
The next afternoon Garland and I were deployed as skirmishers, our end of the line wending through a scorched peach orchard. On a northward ridge I saw a lone figure at the quick march and motioned to bring up the glass. A fine mist was blowing too hard to make out details through the scarified lens, so we thought it best to investigate and put the heel to our mounts. Up close, we found an old colored man in deaconish habiliments, a grain sack over his shoulder.
“Uncle. You from nearbouts?”
“Nassir. I was of the Joliets up by Madison. Them Gen’l Baird and Sherman come through a-burning, and the everywhich of us scampered hither and skither. Come morning, I was discombobbed and lost, so all I knowed to do was follow ’em, they smell.”
“So you’re an emancipated?”
“Just unattached, I speck.”
Garland stood in his stirrups and surveyed the landscape. We could see a few of our advance down by the stream, but no blue ahead. Even the sky seemed uniform gray, but in the distance, no matter which way you turned, smoketrees rose.
“What’s in the poke, uncle?”
“Just my pones of cornbread. Seemed like the kitchen door the best one to skitter out.” I counted just three dark teeth in his smile.
As we rode along, I remembered aloud. “Lazarus said he’d scalp this swath so bad a crow passing would have to tote his own provisions. Likely that uncle is one of those he meant.”
“If he was the genuine article I’d shoot him and start a pie. Wilkes might do it anyway.”
“We’ve already had a-plenty of those, and why any nursery-rhyme king would order up crow pie lies beyond my reckoning, unless he was King of Georgia.”
“That would mean Joe Brown, if a governor is akin to a king.”
“No, that would refer to Lazarus, and he’s crowned himself king of the Dead Land. I expect Wheeler means to let him sample the taste of blood and grue before this week concludes.”
The dust of our column to the north was sharpening the sunset, so we turned our nags and cantered back toward our own kind.
Next night, we would truly cut loose from the civilized for the first time since the cowbell ruse, and I had to image myself as Gideon to forge an effective outlook. Marichal had set the pace, for I figured that he’d met the old refugee when he offered us extra rations: “Cornbread all around.”
Recognizing the poke dangling from his saddletree, I stepped up to speak, but Garland touched my arm and shook his head.
“Fortunes of war, Taddy. Let it be.”
* * * *
The next morning Sergeant Zeke, galloping pell-mell back from a scout, caught me filling my drum canteen from the first wet well in days. He swung off without pulling his gelding to a stop. I’d ridden with him in the actions at Lovejoy and Rough-and-Ready, and I knew from his red face he was in full pique. His usual forage hat was missing, his scabbard empty and eyes big as a horse’s.
“Rape and murder, Major. Lazarus has got no shame. It ain’t quadrilles and reels no more, I’ll tell you. You’uns got any quinine left? I’m feeling swimmy.” His eyes seemed not working as a team.
“Take a deep pull of air,” I said, though that always meant the smell of burning, “and you can quaff some of this sweet water. So Lazarus has snaked back and struck out again?”
“You’ve hit the bull by the eye, son. Howard, you know, but most specific Kils’ First Division. They swept some of Joe’s infantry he’d put on commandeered swaybacks, but later a few of our run-offs found a little farm nestled secret-like in a vale. A couple of old non-slavers had held three sons back from this nasty business, but they were quick to offer Joe’s lads aid and comfort, two daughters cleaning wounds and wrapping bandages, the mama beating biscuit, boys tending the horses. A nice little spread, pigs and chickens, a couple Dutch milkers. I don’t know how the blue columns missed them, but our boys found it a haven. They were lollygagging half a day, not even bothering with pickets. I guess everybody’s desperate for a spell of relief.
“An hour after they traipsed off, Kils’ First came on in force, rushing the farm from all sides, barrels blazing. Not a question, not a by-your-leave. They locked the women in the smokehouse and strung the men up in an apple tree. Apple fruit falling down while the men rose, drums and fife driving ‘The Dead March’ to a jig.”
“Hanged them, Zeke?”
“Sure enough. Tongues dangling out, faces blue as damsons. Strangled sons and sire, milked the cows, filled a wagon with chickens and loot, then shut the razorbacks into the house and burned it.”
Worse than Herod’s minions prowling for firstborns. “And?”
“The officers went off with the wagon and the cows, the one girl says.”
“Onliest one left. Louandy, they say. Other died, and the mother was shot when she tried to stop the raping. Taddy, it was awful to hear: wolves had the gals spraddle-tied on wagon wheels, treading them like brood hens, one and then the other.”
Trying not to think of Maggie, I slung the canteens over my pommel as I mounted. “How much lead have they, Zeke? Can we catch up before they re-join their column?”
“If’n we don’t spare the spur.”
“Company’s over yonder bluff. Let’s ride.”
We called that kind Shadows because they were kin to the night. We didn’t know whose license they carried—Kils or Hitchcock or Lazarus himself—but they were no more soldiers than wild curs. Faces painted demon-like, one old darkie told us, they were showing us the savage path. Keen to overtake them, we drove our mounts to a lather.
At the farm, the bodies were laid out with arms crossed, except the old daddy, who was a hunchback and wouldn’t straighten. The one young woman was weeping in torrents, her mother and sister covered with horse blankets. I left a grave detail. How could God allow it? How might a man ever make his wife understand what he’d seen? I wondered. Jesus wept. We dashed on till dusk.
“They’re fifty,” Du Pre reported back, “having an evening feed by a quick little river. Pickets out, but no sharp guard. I do believe they’ve been sipping some strong wet goods, as they’re lax and boistery. Moonlight coming and going through clouds. They’ve staked their horses and spitted chickens. Muskets stacked. Two miles. I love it when idiots travel in a pack.”
We were just over twenty strong—Sharps, three repeaters, pistols and steel. Mustering all the reserve I could to cloak my rage, I said we could pick at them, cut and run, or just swarm in direct at all hazards. Not thinking military or Christian, I had seen Wheeler race into such a fight yelling, “Kill the scabby-tongued whoremongers,” and I’d watched the End-of-Time rise to full fury when scolding drunks for scorning the Gospel. Borders blur. I was champing at the bit, not hearing anything inside me saying “No.”
“I’d wager we’ll take the bushwhackers in a sweep,” said Garland.
Wilkes had blood fire in his eyes, no restraint. “Liberators my ass. Desecrators, Taddy. Criminals. This is bigger than war, and numbers hardly matter. It’s End Time now and you know we can fight like bulldogs when it comes to scratch. You know God wants us to set things right.” Looking at his face, no man would doubt it.
I had orders to monitor Kils’ forage parties and harry them but not to open a pitched fight that would cost more than we could afford. All at my discretion. But I was losing the mood to be discreet by quarts and gallons.
John Scott and I went in with Du Pre, cat-walking, then on our bellies to the top of the bluff. The sky had cleared off and the rain had ceased. We were inside their pickets and could only whisper, but the camp we saw downslope was without discipline, their fires high and racket higher, boots off and jugs passing. The moon hadn’t showed itself for a spell, but there were stars in the sky and in the river, which rushed on like hot black glass across the cold night.
Scott was a good scout with sharpshooter’s gray eyes and cold blood. He reached out his hand to indicate their deployment.
“Mighty damn sure of theyselves, Major. Like a picnic.”
“A picnic with Spencers. No telling what’s in the wagons.”
“Ripe, Major. Lax and napping.” And he was on the mark. An owl whooed from a treeline. I didn’t know if it was courting or hunting, but I whispered back, “It’s our omen, John. Let’s mischief their festivities.”
Scott placed the three troopers with repeaters to the south. The river would block the east, and we’d come in the other two ways. Already we’d worked quittance on a pair of their pickets and gained two more Spencers. We’d have surprise, position and vinegar. I thought, “The sword of the Lord and Gideon.”
When we were deployed, shucked of anything but killing implements, Wilkes asked the honor of going in first, quiet-like, in one of their uniform coats. He and Harold Leary in full masquerade, laughing like the other Yankee tipplers, swinging a jorum and bluffing the sentry’s challenge. I told the cadre, “These raiders are not soldiers. Send them straight to Canaan.”
A battle is all whirl and hot breath like the weather in Hell. Even a skirmish. Anybody with sense will reel against it and be hang-back at first, but you get used to the music quick. When the puzzle starts to fit, you learn to lose yourself. At night, though, it’s worse. You can’t be sure how long it will be all a-swirl. As we eased in, a big picket smoking a pipe said, “What the Samuel Hell?” and one of our riders shot him through the middle. I hardly recollect the next details. Whirligig and scramble. Wilkes and Leary slung some stacked carbines into the water and commenced to shoot. Some of the Yanks recovered quick, and it was hot work. We yelled like gamecocks, then bore down in a file, and I never thought again of Gideon till a big blur knocked me from my horse. Festus rushed on, and both pistols went flying into the dark, so I was on the ground, rolling. Rocks and roots. I had naught but my little belly gun to face the fray.
As I righted myself, running and stumbling were general amid the smoke and river mist. I could hear our new Spencers raking them where the waters forked. One wagon was ablaze, and I figured everybody on a horse was ours, but the cookfires and flashes from weapons were too unsteady to judge, and what moon showed was slight and cloud-scumped. The general blur came at me again, and I could see a big Yankee in a coat emerging from the fracas. He had a farrier’s hammer in one hand, a pistol in the other. Tall as a cornstalk, beard red as pepper. Then an officer drew alongside him, and I saw them both looking straight into my eyes, but just as I figured this my faretheewell, I saw the outlines of a gang of plunging horses over their shoulders, their teeth gleaming and hide sheen picking up whatever light would flare like lantern beams striking a stack of anvils. The glory of their nostrils! Somebody behind them was driving the Federal mounts right at their masters, and they were coming as demons, bucking and snorting. The pair demonstrating against me sensed it, too. As they cut and ran, the sudden smell said one of them had shit, and I could see Wilkes waving a blanket to encourage the stampede. The hammer man had dodged left, and he got off a hasty shot that passed my ear like a hornet, but I saw the blanket swoop over him, and when Wilkes turned his big horse, he had the saber out, and then it was wet and the Yank was on all fours like a hog.
I have seen men perform prodigies in the heat of the hunt, but nothing to match Wilkes. He galloped the officer to the ground and, ignoring the dropped weapons and surrendering arms, shot the man through the neck with his boot gun, then caught a horse by the bridle and led it over. I loved him most at that juncture.
“Climb on, Taddy. The assholes are scrambling. They’re ours.” So a second time this poor gump was lifted from the fray by an angel.
About the time I got a leg over the horse, a wagon with Hale rockets caught fire and sent missiles whizzing, and by their light we could see the remaining Yankees making a stand in a runoff ditch. Garland held our riders at bay and said, “Let the fireworks die off. We know how to pick blackberries in the dark.”
In a few minutes the Yanks were crying for quarter in general alarm as balls rattled through the brush and found them, but our boys had no interest in recess. One soldier was whimpering as he handed his Spencer to John Scott, who turned it about and shot the man full in the face. I was glad it was still too dreamy-gloamy to register the details. Blindness has its virtues.
What I could see and hear were the dead and injured horses all about, heads and legs thrusting skyways with the fires agleam behind them. The Yankees had fired into the stampede and found the panicked animals easier to hit than us. No doubt we shot some, too, and I saw one muley-looking brown struggle to its feet, shaking like a wet terrier, but then its legs spraddled, and it collapsed in a braying heap. I looked for Zeke to put them from their misery, but he was down. And Harold. Scott carried out the order, but I knew we’d suffered bad losses. I didn’t want to hear the count.
The camp was ours for the ransacking, but we couldn’t be sure how long before the commotion would bring a relief squadron, so we heaped up what we couldn’t carry quick and put the torch to it, the flames licking higher than the riverside willows, while Munce Bratton’s squad salvaged some of the roasted chickens. When I saw them, I realized how scratchy my belly was with hunger, and my lips were dry as bark. One cart turned out to be full of leathered books, and though you can’t eat them, I ordered the crates separated. Before anybody could follow up a stray spark caught purchase on the paper, and they went up as well, just more waste. I was finally asking after our casualties when Marichal touched my shoulder.
“A decent prize, Taddy. They had a brigadier. Didn’t get his name.”
In the shine of the fire and the half-moon now out of the clouds, I saw him raise his hand, which was holding by the hair a mangled head, beard all matted with blood and soil. Even in the dark, I saw as much detail as I wanted, like some picture of Goliath.
“Like I said, didn’t receive a proper introduction. I hoped it might be Smith Atkins.”
“Burn it,” I said. “Burn it all.”
I couldn’t but wonder was this the “fountain filled with blood” our column’s apostle loved to fill his cool tenor voice with.
The men were still racing about, seeking the last skulkers along the river, and two of them were using horses to drag bodies about the bonfire. I had never seen my veterans so taken with the fever, but it seemed, in that strange light in the wake of the owl’s call and the Yankees’ crimes, as just as any decree ever handed down. I had but one concern: we had to ghost off by cockcrow. If we were to steal a moment’s rest, it had to be far from this position, or we would all be crow food.
“Du Pre,” I sang out, “find us a ford.”
Breaking out of the woods and onto a farm road an hour later, we headed east, dripping wet, squinting at a red moon low in the soapy sky.
* * * *
Three days later our Joe Johnston’s sappers had hacked and blazed the bridge over Ebenezer Creek to fluster Lazarus, but Buell’s Jersey engineers strung quick pontoons, while their General Hawkface Davis strung a cordon to detain on the near side the great multitude of displaced coloreds trailing their saviors. Our scouts had seen the to-do, and John Scott said the tag-alongs were massing on the west bank, mostly old folks, gals and young ’uns pacing around scared or just hunched in the icy squall while their liberators crossed over, Ohio conscripts looking hard over their shoulders, skittish, nearing panic themselves, wary of our ruthless ways. When our vanguard snaked through the cypress swamps to the bridge site, we saw hundreds of coloreds milling about and the last of the Federals holding back the mob with bayonets fixed. “Aha,” said Du Pre, his arm sweeping in grand presentation. “Behold the true face of manumission.”
Wilkes grinned like a sheep-killing dog around his dead cigar: “On occasion, I applaud the suitably cruel.” Sensing his blood was up, I shook my head and wondered what next as I muttered a prayer for guidance: “Lead us not into temptation.”
I could see our horses’ wet breath in the drizzle, mist billows from their nostrils like cannon smoke, their fetlocks clotted with dried mud. Festus gave a shiver to shake off the water, then pranced a bit sideways. The rain kept raining. Even this far from any recent sparkfest, the taint of old smoke was conspicuous and charnel amid the first smells of autumn. Every man jack of us was sodden and desperate for rest, but this was not the time for such wishes.
Riverside sycamores stood leafless and ghost-like, peeled to their winter bones, and the live oaks hung with ringlets of Spanish moss like manacles. Not exactly our native ground. Gnarled cypress, cedar, palmettos and salty cordgrass testified we were nearing the sea Lazarus lusted for. The throng of abandoned vagrants gathered in their calico and sacking gave off their own smell I could just catch from the bluff: it was a battle smell, an old familiar, the sweet stink of fear. A fair few wore coats of Federal issue blue, trousers of kersey, but not a one was a soldier. The rabblement was milling more animated, confused, and fog off the rain-swollen water lent its own haunted flavor. Despite sunrise, the place was silver and black—skeleton trees, char—and the shimmer of the water was like new tack leather that’s been spat on.
We were under a dozen at the vanguard, but the coloreds must have reckoned our whole column was close enough to mount an assault, and here they were, hemmed up, liberated but wholly unprotected. Valley of the Shadow. For them, we might as well be bonafide demons. For me, they were the darkness of smoke upon the land. They were ghosts shaped from night’s deepest hours, and I wanted them to cross and get out of our business. Was this throng the cause of it all? I thought, “Stamp Thy image on my heart,” and wanted to muster charity, but my heart would render only ashes. I intended no harm but could not cease being anxious to have them permanently gone. Equal in God’s sight, maybe, but still somehow at the genesis of things, the bone of contention. Gone, that’s all I wanted.
Directly, the Federal engineers got nervous and strutted about howling orders. When they cut their pontoons free to haul them over, the contrabands, realizing they were to be stranded, let loose high panic, as if Moses had come to the Red Sea and left a tribe behind to deal with angry Egypt. Whatever they screamed or begged separate, the one shrill of their predicament rose like a choir of the damned. For agony, I have never heard it exceeded.
One granny in her rocking chair atop a plunder wagon turned west and pointed hard in my direction. I could see how large her eyes were gaped open, and her mouth as she hollered, “Dez dare, de Reb sojurs. Mercy Jesus.”
From the rise where I leaned forward on my saddle, I could detect them edging toward the swift water, beckoning to the last blue coats beyond the deep, their gestures frantic, their words unanswered. From where I sat they might have been dolls or even some midnight phantasm. It was mid-December, their number in the hundreds, and as the bluebellies began to turn away and enter the trees, one by one, the howling coloreds started to abandon dry land.
At first, they eased or leaped into the current, old men and women, gals with their babes in arms. You could see they knew little of swimming, but the crowd at the back was pushing, not able to reckon what was the holdup, and those up front were trying to enlist logs and even slight limbs for floating. Some few were decked out in fine rummage, probably snatched from attics or chifforobes, but most were in blue rags with hats like something off scarecrows. They were weighted down with bundles, and the lion’s share that went into the river struggled with the rush and swirl but were pulled under. A child in a daffodil frock, a woman whose gingham was green as leafing laurel, a grandpappy in a livery coat red as blood. “At Hell’s dark door we lay.” The notes of that song climbed through me, and I nearabout said them aloud. Maybe I did, and I felt the heart go out of me. The daffodil child bobbed up once more and was gone.
Then it came over me that it was likely the simple sight of us setting the match to their fright, and I was ashamed. There I sat on Festus, leg cocked over the saddle now, wind tickling the turkey feather in my hatband, my hilt and bridle and gun trimmings flashing in the dim light as murderous metal. What was I but Nightmare poised for their destruction? What were we all but Revelation horsemen, locked in the center of their eyes and champing to rampage down? In terror, the mob pushed up to the banks and by ones and pairs into the cold water, which splashed silvery where they entered but quickly closed.
“Colonel Goode,” I called back. “Sir, might we withdraw and lend some calm to this scene? We are like unto ghouls as they see us. The contrabands will not be crossing today at any event. No use in us roosting here, now that the Lazarus legion has slipped us.”
He leaned to the right and cocked his head, as he did when pondering, then removed his slouch hat and pulled his sleeve across his brow.
“Yes, Major Sherburne, call in the point riders. We mean no slaughter to even the lackeys that worship Lazarus. I would prefer to engage instead with the shitpoke soldiers who marooned them there. Hell of a note. Not our trumpet. Pull back. We will renew our discourse with those blue scoundrels on the other shore.”
Du Pre was reined in beside me, and as I swiveled to pass the order, I caught the shock in his eyes, then turned in time to see Marichal’s red face, merry and wild. He had wheeled about and was facing me, his horse rearing as he whipped his saber from its scabbard and shouted, “Kill the niggers! What a chance! Kill them all!” Again he wheeled his roan toward the river and gave it the spur. He was hatless, his flaxen curls flying behind like a dancer’s ribands. I felt a twine tighten on my heart.
“No.” My voice was weak with the moment and the damp, so I forced a second try, “Marichal, no.” I was too stunned to do aught else but draw my Colt and raise it, as I shouted—“Wilkes, you Wilkes”—but he heeded me no more than a lark. He had executed a perfect moulinet and was leaning steep, as if the naked blade pulled him toward the melee ahead, and I could see the contraband had glimpsed him, as their ant-like movements suddenly increased and more rushed straight into the river. I reached with my thumb to cock the pistol, thinking “no, no, no,” but my whole hand was trembling, and I discharged high into the pelting rain.
Then I saw his head snap back and bloom like a rose, even before I heard the cracking rifles and saw smoke puffs rising across the river. Kilpatrick’s rear guard had swung to action. True to discipline, we swiftly dismounted and made answer with our Sharps, while cries of dire agony rose from the shore below, and more coloreds—dozens now, a hundred—entered the water snarling between the banks.
We could see some Yanks had dropped their rifles and were trying to pull swimmers to safety. They reached in branches and threw ropes. Some felled saplings to provide a ladder over the rapids, and we did not aim at them. Most of the coloreds who entered just threw themselves in, though, trusting to Providence, but no divine mercy was granted, and you could see their heads bobbling in the water still tack-brown and silvery with some trick of shadowed light and deluge. It was all chaos and scramble, and nothing we yearned to touch. I tried not to picture old Aeneas Beedle in the bunch, but his face kept ghosting up before my eyes.
Billy Goode said, “Pull back,” and waved his plumed white hat, but even as we left the wraiths to die or prosper, I could still hear Marichal’s “Kill all,” and—much as I had seen and even acted myself since Chattanooga and Atlanta—I was unsteady in my saddle and tasted the vomit as it rose.
In an hour we went back in force, flanks covered, skirmishers out in a fan, half dismounted, the rest ready to surround or engage. The Yankees were gone. Some coloreds had skedaddled into the swamp, but most were huddled about their wagons and pelf, ignoring the rain, resigned, eager to plead for our mercy. I found Wilkes’ body undisturbed, our only casualty, and while our companions herded slaves off or fished out some of the drowned, we spaded a grave in sandy earth and placed him down at a distance from the dead coloreds he so despised. Garland and I piled a cairn of stones licked clean as cobbles, though the woods were so hunted out no rooters were likely to probe. I said some scripture over him, trying to find the right tone, words like “dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” but they felt empty, coming from me.
“Ebenezer.” It means “stone of help” in the Hebrew tongue, and Marichal’s end was the stone I carried badly. Wheeler, with his boastful notion of arithmetic, claimed we corralled two thousand runaways that evening and returned them to rightful owners, but who believed that? The country was waste and rife with decay. Planters were dispersed or too meagerly supplied to tend to themselves, and did we have time to perform escort duty with Lazarus in full frenzy and hammering the gates of Zion? Their General Davis was said to guarantee we’d butcher our captives, but mostly we just turned them about face and scolded, “Get you gone. Beg forgiveness of your masters, Judas.” We’d seen how their train could slow a column, and now they were so pitiful, we could scarce accommodate such an anchor. I handed out two boxes of hardtack and gave a sobbing pappy Marichal’s blanket, but nothing more. Leading my companion’s roan away from the catastrophe, I felt no trace of God in me and wondered if I could manage to re-light the wet wick of Christian charity the preacher had once kindled. I reckoned his end-of-time warnings had come too late to save one such as myself.
* * * *
Soon we were swept back into the big tempest. Millen, Bristow, along the Ogeechee. Savannah fell, while a night ruse permitted Hardee with his now-mongrel command to escape north toward Lee. So Lincoln received that year his sweet Christmas gift from Lazarus. As for us, we limped northward, riding jockey weight, still fit and feisty, despite all accidents of battle, most of us hoping to meet Lee and make another stand, but Johnston used the cavalry mostly as file closers sweeping our rear ranks to discourage or shoot skulkers. It had come to that shameful duty. At times, I was thankful Marichal was not present to endure it.
The heart for it was out of me by then, which is why I let my guard down outside Bentonville where a Yankee sniper up in a young sweetgum like some Nicodemus opened up with a scatter charge, and I went down. Mostly I was scarred about the face and neck, but of course that left eye would be dark forever. When I finally walked out of the hospital, the whole circus was ended, Kirby Smith the only big Reb still in the field. A bald doctor nearly short as a circus midget handed me my boots and explained how to clean the socket and why I should keep it patched against the elements. Crossing the empty street toward the corral, it struck me like a slap in the face: I had been on a camp bed for some forty bleak days, and not one prayer had risen on my lips or in my heart, no matter how often I thought of home or the general horrors or the melee at Ebenezer. There’s a song hung on that word, too: “Here I raise my Ebenezer.” A stone, yes, but it also means your standard, though I didn’t have so much as a scrap of flag left to fly. I would have to find Him all over again, I thought, but this time delving with just the one eye.
I soon ran into Garland who was headed west, and he said Du Pre was gone back to New Orleans to marry a cousin. We three had been scorched but not consumed, like the three Hebrew boys in the furnace, though I couldn’t cite a reason for us to be spared. Garland had seen Wheeler, too, shackled and cussing. Surrender didn’t much alter his vocabulary. Fighting Joe. His story was just starting, if you follow events. He’d wind up in Congress.
I straggled on home slowly and saw more waste and sorrow than even the one eye could stand, but Maggie was safe, our acres untouched by the war. We made our crop and I built a cradle, so we were looking forward and hopeful. Maybe I thought it was over, but it comes back at night. It takes me by the scruff and hauls me limp and will-less to a particular November ravine.
* * * *
It’s the morning after a wild fight, and the men are finishing with the fresh graves. The clang of spades on stones, the smell of clay, that other smell. We are still licking our wounds and winding our watches, and the buzzards have come for their rations. They circle and light and sup on the fallen Yankees as if they thought themselves the chosen tribe. That boy with the shoulder, with no hat and the fish-silver eyes, has pissed himself, and I am the ranking officer in the squadron. I could say just leave him, but four of our own have fallen, and the turned dirt is mounding up as sorrow’s souvenirs. I could say just bind him on an extra horse and we’ll bequeath him to the column by noon. Not practical, I know. I could at least pronounce “forgive our trespasses” over him or “bright shining as the sun” and order them to dig another hole. He keeps shaking like a colt, his eagle buttons catching the first sprays of light. He keeps whining, “his heart beating, I tried to help,” but I’ve given the order only I can alter and am riding off. Let the cup pass from me. Sunshafts in the pine needles, the report of the weapon, wind whipping the cold trees, gallop sound of my horse’s hooves. I give him the spur.
I can still see the boy’s face, hear his damp breath. Small scar over his nose. Silvery pupils. His features give way to the floating daffodil frock in Ebenezer Creek, the empty face of a child pointed toward Heaven, the screams like Hell’s choir. And Wilkes’ accusing eyes.
I should want to go back and reverse it, save the boy, pass on the mercy of Jesus my Shepherd, but hard as I try, lying here in the still bedroom with enough floor space to fit eight rough coffins, I come up empty, unforgiving, unwilling even in the heart to change my command. And now I have become that shapeless cry in the wilderness, though my mind labors to summon the song: Dangers, toils and snares. Blind but now I see. Just words now, just animal murmurs as they issue from me, the milk of pity soured. And there’s also the other voice: Spur the Irish horse till his flanks bleed. Do your duty: red thoughts, red deeds. Wolf back at the wolves till blood is the general weather we tenant. The voice I’ve come to know as mine. Lamb of Jesus, revenant avenger. Poor Marichal, poor pitiful savage human race. And alone in darkness, the sinner, half-sighted survivor sweating cold in his own bedclothes, remnant wretch like me.