The day had dawned with a vengeance, not to be forgotten by any of the blue-coated soldiers as they arose in the early morning.
Corporal Elias W. Killough stretched the small of his back as he stood in line for the weak coffee that was being offered along with the paltry portions of what the cook called breakfast. Half-warmed watery porridge and some leathery strips of bacon, when what he craved was a steaming plateful of flapjacks and sausages, perhaps even with a side of a corn muffin or something of the sort.
“Here you go, Corporal,” smiled the quartermaster’s daughter who often helped the camp cook with the meals. She handed Elias the tin mug of pale coffee, not hesitating to add another smile as he nodded at her.
“I heard tell that there’s to be a dance tonight in honor of the first day of spring,” she offered while twirling the end of her reddish-blond braid around one finger. “In my opinion, I think it’s a rather nice thing to help get the war off of our soldiers’ minds…”
“Miss,” Eli said, putting out his one free hand in an effort to stop her.
“And what with all the Rebels gathering their forces in the town
“If that’s the case, then there should be no cotton-picking dance,” stated Eli with a firm shake of his dark head. “It’s not a good idea, and I don’t think any of the men from the 53rd are going to be attending.”
But he had strode off, utterly sick and tired of dealing with her daily attempts at conversation that only left him wishing the girl had never even set foot in the Union camp. With a toss of his dark brown curls, Eli strode off toward a small fire where some of his comrades were seated around on stumps or half-chopped logs awaiting their turn to be burned.
“Corporal,” nodded Private Harrison Densmore. “Mighty nice day to be drilling, isn’t it?”
Eli considered the mighty sun beating down already on the camp in the midst of the spread of grass they had come upon the week before, and he angled his head.
“Reckon you might be right,” he grinned, shaking his head with a laugh. “I don’t think the captain could’ve chosen a dandier day for it. Speaking of today…that blasted daughter of Mr. Wilkinson’s just told me there’s to be a dance. Beat the Dutch if I don’t get that idea out of their head before--"
Immediately, he spat out the flaming sip of the weak excuse for coffee he had taken in the middle of his soliloquy. He exhaled in a snort before setting the cup down on a side table dragged up to the fire and bumped his forage cap back from his perspiring forehead.
“Didn’t think my tongue could ever be more burnt than my neck,” he quipped, easily arranging his lanky frame on one of the logs with his long legs spread out before him. “With this weather, we’re bound to be in for a storm sooner than later. You fellas want to hit the river before the captain calls us for drills?”
Just then, a bugle reveille split the stolid air, and more than one foraged-capped head jerked up with eyes alert. A dappled gray horse dashed into the middle of camp, dancing restlessly in place as a formidable-looking young man reined the gelding into check.
“Gentlemen,” he acknowledged with a hand to the brim of his own dark blue kepi. “I am pleased to see you all on this warm morning. Information regarding the latest advancements of the enemy has just come to me through our valiant dispatch. Unfortunately, the drilling will have to be postponed until a further day, and I must ask a few men to step forward when I call them.”
Every soldier either stood straighter where he was standing or sat up more erect on his seat, but all gave the young captain their undivided attention. Despite the humidity hanging in the air, Eli could feel the gooseflesh rising on the back of his neck and reached up to rub it away.
It wasn’t a hidden fact that most men who were chosen never came back.
It wasn’t as if he hadn’t already reconciled him to the thought of the possibility. Many times, he had lain awake under the stars, wondering what it would be like when the time came for him to leave the earth. Would it be on the battlefield where he would fall and die instantly, or would it be a long, agonizing death that would last until it finally crept in and took him? What if he fell ill with the dysentery that had claimed so many lives?
Yes, he had considered yet even more than those possibilities and knew deep down that he was ready. He had confidence in where he was going when he died, so there was nothing more about it.
Yet what was this strange quivering of fear deep down in his gut as he watched unblinkingly as the captain called two names and two men stepped forward? Eli set his jaw and forced himself to look straight at his commanding officer.
“Corporal Elias Killough.”
“There they are.”
Elias flattened himself against the back of a tumbledown fence, peering in between the rotting rails. Blue eyes squinting, he tried to make out just what Corporal Ryker was trying to point out, but so far, all his eyes could distinguish was dense underbrush and a snake coiling its way under the leaves.
The rasping of insects was loud in his ears, the heat pulsing through the air in waves that could almost be reached out and touched. With his eyes still scanning the thick forestry before their small group of scouts, Elias got to his knees and began to stealthily move along his side of the fence.
“Stay where you’re at!” hissed Sergeant Leighs.
Elias turned a calm stare back over his shoulder at the overbearing sergeant.
“I’m merely trying to figure out where the enemy lies. Calm down.”
Now…he could make out a good-sized group of gray and butternut-clad soldiers milling about a small clearing, packing up, it seemed. Slinging his rifle over his shoulder, he turned to the three men in different places within a few yards of himself with a questioning look in his expressive blue eyes.
“I have a wife and a family back home.” Private Jennings fervently shook his head and stared down at the ground where his brogans were ragged and falling apart.
“My leg is still lame from Fredericksburg,” spoke up Corporal Ryker, who indeed seemed to be redressing his oozing thigh wound.
“I am your commanding officer as of right now, and the captain would be sore at me if I went off and got myself killed instead of leading this scouting mission.”
All eyes turned to Eli who winced under the unrelenting stares. With his heart aching, he slowly rose to his feet, the Adam’s apple stuck high in his throat and his mouth going dry. He couldn’t say anything—only could look back at them with such dark fear slipping into his eyes that they all averted their gazes.
Nodding, Eli hopped the fence and crept low into the underbrush and out of sight.
It was a matter of minutes before he reached the edge of the clearing and hid himself away behind a broad clump of verdant vines. By now, sweat was trickling down his face and soaking the edge of his dark wool uniform that clung to his damp skin. His head throbbed with the rasping of the locusts and cicadas in the trees all about him, and his legs ached with being forced to crouch for so long in the foliage.
All of a sudden, a first strain of a fiddle startled him into falling back onto his palms, the body of his Springfield rifle banging onto the tree behind him with a thwack. What on earth was going on? he asked himself in confusion while leaping to his feet and ducking behind another tree.
No, it couldn’t be. Yes, there was no way in all of this miserable Georgia land that those Johnny Rebels were holding a lighthearted gathering in the midst of those waving yellow grasses.
Eli’s mouth literally fell open as he gawked on at a sight he had never imagined he would see in his whole military career. Subconsciously, he reached one hand up behind his head and ruffled his heavy dark curls in confusion, not sure whether to run or to burst out laughing like he felt so inclined to do.
Whether he knew it or not, the young Union soldier began to draw even closer to the edge of the clearing until he stood beside an oak with one hand resting against its trunk. Sunlight fell onto the people socializing with one another and exchanging smiles and laughs such as Eli hadn’t seen in years. A man with flaxen hair sat on a chair working away at the fiddle until it seemed as if the strings would well-nigh snap at any moment while soldiers and ladies began to pair up in three lines.
“Won’t you join us, lad?”
Starting violently, Eli stared at a shorter man chewing on a mustache that looked to be so coarse it could have been made up of horsehair. He hadn’t even seen or heard him walk up, but that was most likely due to the fact that the Confederates—the secessionist Johnny Rebs—were holding a spring dance in the middle of the forest.
Eli slipped a furtive glance down at his uniform that could never have looked so darn navy in all his life. From the brogans hanging limply on his feet to the rips, tears, and stains marring his trousers and coat, he surely looked nothing more than a rugged Yankee. That was plain to see, but why was the older soldier smiling, holding out his hand to draw him into the ranks of the Rebs?
“Alright, Johnny,” said the man, who Eli quickly found out whose name was Withers. “We gonna do that new-fangled dance or somethin’ more original-like? ‘Cause I got me here some antsy people who want to make the most of this day of leave.”
“I reckon we should go ‘head and do the Reel,” grinned Johnny. “All folks here gotta know that’un.”
And with that, Johnny started up the most fast-paced and vigorous rendition of the Bonnie Blue Flag that Eli’s mind began spinning all at once. Thrown into the middle of a set and paired with a portly lady who looked as if she might be someone’s snappy old grandmother, he systematically went through the motions of the well-known dance. Yet not without the grace he had learned in his mother’s drawing room where she had taught all of her boys to dance.
After a mad mixture comprised mostly of do-si-doing, swinging partners, and reeling the set, the song finally ended, and everyone stopped where they were standing and began to clap and huzzah like Eli had never heard before.
“Boy, your two-hand turns are like none I’ve ever seen this side of the Mason-Dixon Line,” grinned the older, portly woman who had been his partner. Patting his arm, she nodded and gestured toward a group of young ladies flocking about the refreshment table like a flock of brightly-colored birds. “Reckon you should probably go introduce yourself, don’t ya think?”
“Me?” nearly yelped Eli as he stepped back in surprise. “Ma’am, I don’t think you’ve noticed, but—”
“Noticed what? Noticed that you’re a Billy Yank that looks just about as tired of this war as we are? Yes, I reckon that’s what we all noticed as soon as Mr. Withers saw you over there at the edge of those woods.” She blinked her wide blue eyes up at Eli and grabbed his arm before he could take another step back. “And if you for a second imagine that this is some sort of trick to take you as a prisoner of war, you need to get your thinkin’ straight, boy. All we want is to have a good time today and forget that our regiment just a little further south from here is going on a suicide mission tomorrow morning, and they have no say or choice about it. So there, I said my piece. I know I’m just a plain, poor old woman, but at least I got a little bit of good sense, I like to think.”
Utter shock registered on the captain’s face as a tall figure stepped into his tent, a heavy rifle slung over one shoulder and his uniform, though thoroughly mended, clean and crisp about his lean frame. An aide-de-camp trailed behind, seeming to look askance at the captain as the corporal strode up to the captain’s desk.
“Corporal Killough, I assume?” Captain Sinclair said with a slight furrow between his brows.
There was silence as the aide-de-camp finally caught up and stood beside the captain and placed a letter down onto the desk.
“For you, sir. I meant to have it delivered by this morning, but there were some—difficulties.”
“Difficulties?” Captain Sinclair raised an eyebrow at the aide, reaching for the envelope. As he drew out a slip of paper and his eyes roved over the contents, his face blanched, and he grabbed the half-filled glass of scotch sitting beside him on the desk.
“Sir, we still don’t know where they are,” the aide added a little hesitantly as he stole a glance over at Eli.
“All I know is that when I came back to where they had been before, not one of the men was there,” stated Eli with a silencing flash of his eyes at the aide. “I called and searched for them for near two hours, but it was useless.”
“Why weren’t you with them?”
“They sent me to scout on ahead—”
“And did you find anything?”
Eli swallowed once and found his gaze wandering back outside the tent flap and into the growing dusk. The men were going about their evening duties, and fires threw sparks up into the darkening sky. A seeming aura of peace encompassed the camp, but Eli could feel a tenseness in the air that he had never noticed before. Shifting his weight from one foot to the other, he glanced down at the letter and shook his head.
“I found a group of people holding a spring dance,” he said simply.
“Rebel sympathizers?” the aide queried with narrowed eyes.
All of a sudden, Eli’s blue eyes snapped wide open, and he slammed his hands down on the desk, looking his captain straight in the eyes.
“I think I know where to find your men.”
As Eli stepped across the crisp, yellowed grasses that only the day before had surprisingly held so much strange enjoyment for him, his eyes began to squint into the woods ahead of him. The trees began at the direct other side of the clearing, trees that he knew would by now have been vacated of the living.
Pushing boughs and branches out of his face, Eli forged his way ahead with the needle on his compass still pointing due south. Ten minutes—fifteen—thirty…time passed as the sun climbed higher up in the sky.
Finally, he glimpsed it. Glimpsed what he had never thought to willfully be seeing before.
Small wisps of white smoke eddied up from fires quickly-cooled, marks marring the ground where stakes had been pounded into dirt packed down by hundreds of brogans. Eli rested a hand on a nearby tree and let his eyes wander over the campsite. It wasn’t much to look at now, but he could still almost feel the presence of all those soldiers that had moved out most likely at dawn. Sleep-deprived and with hunger gnawing incessantly at their stomachs, the gray-coats had begun the march that all knew would be their last, but they had done it. Hadn’t shied away from fear of losing their lives for life the way they had always known it as. For their homes and for their families.
He closed his eyes and let a deep sigh rush from deep in his lungs and out of his mouth. He hadn’t realized it, but perhaps he was as wearied of the war as the woman had said he was.
Eli moved on through the camp and suddenly stopped with his breath abruptly snatched away.
The darkly-colored wool was the first thing that caught his eye, and then the death-white pallor of three men’s faces gawking up at the stretches of blue sky betwixt the tree boughs. Unblinking and unmoving, all eyes were fixed in that eerie, glassy-eyed stare that sent a shiver down Eli’s spine. Private Jennings, Corporal Ryker, Sergeant Leighs…all men that he had seen for every day of the last four years, men that he had survived battles with. And here they all were, strewn on the ground like—like they were nothing, meant nothing, and the lives that had given were nothing. Eli covered his face with his hands.
When he reopened them, his gaze fell upon a sheet of paper tacked to Sergeant Leighs’ coat and was fluttering in the wind that gusted through the trees.
To all who may happen to come upon these three men, let it be known that this was no random lynching. Yesterday afternoon, on the twenty-third, these men attempted to kill one of our generals after escaping the field hospital with the lives of all of our wounded men.
Had they seen him…had they ventured closer to the dance and heard it all? Eli had no way of telling for sure, but what he did know was that he would lay down his rifle and fight this war against his brothers no more.