by Jeff Richards
Walker Thomas was fourteen when his father left for the war. Walker hitched up the horses and took him to the depot in the city ten miles north.
“Dad,” he said as he looked at the train huffing like an old codger up a hill to the station. “Why can’t I go with you?”
“I told you a thousand times you need to tend the farm,” he said, patting Walker on the shoulder “Take care of your Ma and sister.”
“I don’t want to take care of that brat, Lisa.”
“I don’t care what you want, son. You have your duty like I have mine.”
He watched his father climb in the train and wave from the window as it chugged off, blowing steam. It was heading west, a peculiar direction since the enemy was to the south. Walker found out later that the train stopped at Cairo. The soldiers boarded steamboats that took them upriver to Paducah, Kentucky where his father stayed, according to the letters, forever. Then one day, his father marched out of town, up one hill and down another to where the soldiers tangled up in an altercation that ended with his dad shot in the arm. They hauled him to the hospital in Paducah. They fished out the bullet. He developed gangrene. They amputated. A year later he was back home, but he wasn’t the same cocksure dad who left.
“I seen your cousin,” he said as they sat on the front porch looking at a field Walker had planted in corn. The sprouts barely peeked out of the ground. His father shook some tobacco into the bowl of his pipe. Tamped it down. Lit it. “We were in the fight together. Close quarters. I saw him for the shortest second staring at me in disbelief, his saber drawn. Could have sliced me in half. But he turned away. Went to hacking at the other bluecoats.”
His father stood up from the rocking chair. Paced to the end of the porch to where he could see the apple orchard. Walker had spent a good bit of the winter up in the trees, trimming off the branches so there’d be enough room for the fruit to grow fat when the summer came. “You done a good job. I’m proud of you,” said his father, pointing the stem of his pipe at the trees. “That’ll be a good crop come fall.”
He laughed. “You ever hear of a one-armed farmer? How in tarnation am I going to climb up those trees and saw away at the branches without killing myself?”
“You’ll find a way.”
“Why thank you, son. I suppose I will.” He shook his head. Laughed again. “All this responsibility made a man out of you. Don’t know what it’s done to me.”
Walker guessed at what his dad meant, and he thought about it and the funny coincidence of his cousin, Raymond Morgan. When his dad was off to war, he used to roam down to the river below the preacher’s house. Stare at the water as it flowed past him carrying whatever fell into it: a stray leaf; a branch of a tree; an old shoe; a wagon wheel; even a cow who’d strayed out too far. He rescued the cow. Once he even rescued a raccoon and nearly got scratched to death. But mostly he’d sit there and watch the stray debris slide by downstream and imagined it went all the way to Paducah and that his dad would be standing by the dock looking down and see the same debris as it flowed on by to the Mississippi.
One day he was sitting by the water thinking that maybe he’d put a message in a bottle when he heard a voice yelling at him from across the river.
“Hey there, Yankee boy. How do I look?”
Walker jumped to his feet. Scrambled up the hill because he knew what kind of species inhabited Kentucky, but at the last minute he turned and saw who it was. Ray, standing on the opposite bank of the river in full Rebel regalia, head tilted back, laughing.
Walker wandered back down to the bank, hands in pocket, and yelled, “I know who you are. My cousin, Raymond Morgan.”
“The very same,” said Ray, waving his hand. “Come on over.”
“What do you think, I’m stupid? You think I’m gonna rot in Sesech jail?”
“You’re not gonna rot anywhere, son. I want to talk. I’m about to head off to war.”
“What do I care? You’re the enemy.”
Ray was about to turn away exasperated when Walker changed his mind, found a raft he knew was hidden in the reeds, and poled across.
“Guess blood is thicker than water,” said Ray as he tied up the raft. He looked every part the officer he was. A first lieutenant – Walker could tell by the two gold bars on the sleeve of his gray jacket. Two rows of gold buttons down the front of the jacket and a gold sash wrapped around the middle. His pants were blue. Gold stripes down the side. He wore a gold kepi hat.
“You look mighty fine,” said Walker, as he sat down on the stump of a tree. “But you’re fighting on the wrong side.”
“I guess that’s a matter of opinion.” Ray leaned up against a tree a few feet away. He shook his head. “You sure have grown up, Walker. Talking back to me and all. Couldn’t get a peep out of you in the old days.”
The old days was five years ago when the preacher moved into the house on the cliff and started to stealing slaves from across the river and getting everybody riled at each other. Back then, Walker was in awe of his cousin who was seven years older and a daredevil. He had a way with horses. Walker had seen Ray jump from one horse to another at a full gallop. He’d seen him stand up on a horse’s bare back like in the circus. Ride sideways. Backwards. Jump from one side of the horse to the other hitting the ground at full speed. But most all he’d seen him at the racetrack at the county fair. He won every year. He even went across the river and won, embarrassing everyone on the north side of the river. Couldn’t even beat a ragged old farmer boy. Back then Raymond Morgan didn’t pay much attention to his haberdashery.
The two of them stared at each other for the longest time like they were sworn enemies who didn’t know how to talk. “What ever happened to your cousin, Eliot?” asked Raymond, finally.
“He’s your cousin, too,” said Walker, picking up a pebble and tossing it in the water. “He went off to Baptist seminary up near Columbus.”
“I’m glad for that,” said Ray, “means none of our slaves will go missing when I’m off to war.” Eliot had helped out the preacher. “How’s Lisa? I used to carry her around in my arms when she was a baby.”
“The other day when I wasn’t looking, she unlatched the gate to the chicken coop and scared out all the chickens so I had to spend half the day running all over tarnation to gather them up.”
“Turned into a real spit-fire,” Ray laughed.
They went through the whole family and then went onto Ray’s and when they were finished, they both sighed as if they just finished reciting the begats in the Bible and felt weighed down by the generations that preceded them.
“I wouldn’t have no regrets if it wasn’t for you fellows across the river. My relatives,” said Raymond. He was wiping at his face with the sleeve of his military jacket, his eyes glistening. “I’d go away to war with a cleanconscience. But I got to forget that.”
He sauntered over to Walker who stood up from the stump. They shook hands.
“I got to forget that,” he repeated, “and remember only my sworn duty.”
He turned on his heel, marched through the clearing, his sword clinking at his side, into the thick woods until he disappeared. It was the last time Walker saw him until a year later on a battlefield somewhere in Tennessee.
It took Walker a long time to decide to join up even though he felt a yearning to go. First he helped out his daddy. They designed a plough he could grab with one hand and use his hips to maneuver well enough to draw a straight furrow. He was slower at picking the crops so he had Ma and Lisa to help out. The women milked the cows and Walker taught Lisa how to care for the chickens, his job since he was five years old. The apples were more difficult since there were more of them. They were the cash crop of the farm. In the fall, they stored the apples in a cool place until there was enough volume picked to haul to market in the nearby town where the train depot was located. This took heavy lifting, which his dad was not capable of all by himself and he wasn’t capable of digging holes to plant the trees that had been germinating since spring. The idea was to keep ahead of the trees that were dying off and, more important, increase the volume, because it was a business and the nature of business, according to his dad, was to grow.
After much thought, his dad decided to hire one of the Morris kids. Normally you wouldn’t hire a free Negro for a job a white man could do. But given that most of the white men were off to war and that he was a veteran who sacrificed an arm, the townspeople weren’t too upset.
From then on things were easy on the farm so that freed up Walker to think about the second thing that bothered him, duty. He had heard that word used twice, once by his father and once by his cousin. Yet their duty couldn’t be the same because they were fighting for the opposite sides. It took Eliot Thomas on vacation from the seminary to clear things up.
“Are you going to fight in the war?” he asked Eliot who was dressed up in black like a funeral director.
“No, I won’t fight. I may join as a chaplain,” he said. It was Saturday. Market day. They were sitting on a bench in the town square watching the crowd. “Then again I might not join. I have a duty to a higher power.”
Just like that, Walker understood. His dad had a duty to fight for the North. Ray Morgan had a duty to fight for the South. Eliot Thomas had a duty to fight for God and that meant not to fight at all because it said in the Bible, “Thou shalt not kill.” That means that duty doesn’t fall on you like a brick but that you got to think about it and come up with a decision that suits you. And it better be the right decision and that confused him until he thought about the final thing that bothered him, guilt.
There was a big battle down south and within a few weeks the bodies started to come in, at least the few that were recovered by relatives. One of those dead was Robert Clinch, a boy his age. He didn’t like the kid. He was one of the school bullies but he went to the funeral and the whole time he felt this burning shame. Especially when he went up to Robert’s parents to tell them how sorry he was but couldn’t get the words out. They gave him these blank looks like they were staring through his skin to the other side. Like he was invisible. He ran off down the road past the preacher’s house to the river. He looked across to the Kentucky side and thought about his kin, Raymond Morgan. How he didn’t hesitate to sign up. How his own father didn’t hesitate. How four other boys his age went? and one of them come back dead. How can he not do the same? He tried to reason this out, but somehow his thoughts were muddled, got mixed up with Eliot Thomas and the Bible so maybe he should have waited longer, but when he saw the poster that the recruiter was up at Dover Canal to fill in the missing ranks for the 80th Ohio Volunteers, he went there and signed up and that’s how he reached the battle and found his cousin facing him on the opposite side of the field.
He didn’t see him all at once. He saw the graybacks march out of the woods and line up behind a stone fence. Their officers paced up and down the ranks nervously. Then they lined up the artillery in a neat row. And behind the artillery, deep in the woods, Walker spied horsemen. Cavalry. He sat there behind his own stone fence across the field with his comrades, wondering what his officers were thinking. He turned to the fellow next to him who was chewing a plug of tobacco.
“Why didn’t we attack the Secech when they was in disarray?” asked Walker, leaning close to the old, grizzled soldier who looked twice his dad’s age. “We could’ve sent them skedaddling back where they come from.”
“We’re as snug as a bug, boy. No reason to tire ourselves running across that field dodging bullets,” he laughed bitterly, spitting out tobacco juice. Some of it dribbled down a crease in his chin.
Walker looked back across the field. Some of the horseman emerged from the woods. One, a general Walker surmised from the graybeard and star on his slouch hat, dismounted. The officers gathered around him. They pointed across the field at the Yankee line. Pulled out a map. Walker shivered even though it was a warm spring morning. There was a visible nervousness in the air.
A gentle zephyr was blowing in his face carrying the sweet perfume of the apple blossoms from the orchard to his left. It was quiet. Only the occasional crunch of wagon wheels against rock, the clink of metal against metal, a soldier throwing taunts here and there. Walker thought he heard the lazy drone of the bees as they darted from one blossom to another in the orchard and to the field dotted with blue and yellow wildflowers. A small bird flew across his line of sight flowing up and down with the wind currents. Landed in a scrub oak tree in the middle of the field and started to sing. He recognized the voice, a mocking bird. He heard it outside the window of his bedroom every morning when he woke up and felt this yearning for home. As a matter of fact he’d rather be anywhere — chopping wood, cleaning manure out of the barn, chasing a chicken with a hatchet — then where he was now feeling more like the chicken, the hatchet about to slice his scrawny neck in two. He’d been marching for weeks. Heard gunshots far off. The clash of cannons. Bugles blow a charge. The rattle of muffled drums. But never had he been this close to an actual altercation. This is what they called “seeing the elephant” and he didn’t like it.
He looked at the rock-strewn field. Not the field to plant a crop. A pasture. They had pasture like this on the other side of his orchard. So it was no problem to imagine the Reb farmer on the far side of the hill huddling in the basement of his house with his family like his father would be huddling with Lisa and Ma if the Sesech crossed the river. For a moment, he felt sorry for this fellow. He wondered if he had slaves. He hadn’t seen one, nor any other darkies for miles. This land seemed poor. Ragged, almost mountain land. He saw the peaks, a blue haze in the distance. Last night when he didn’t know the mountains were there — they took up their positions after dark — he asked the grizzled veteran what all that light was hanging up in the middle of the air.
“Why those are fireflies,” said the vet, spitting a long line of tobacco juice in the fire. He winked at the other soldiers. “They grow ‘em big down here.”
One of the soldiers, who was heating a tin of pokeweed tea not two inches from where the juice sizzled in the coals, said, “Why don’t you hush up, Zeb. Those are campfires up side of a hill. Probably Reb, if I don’t miss my guess.”
“But there’s thousands of them.”
Walker Thomas was shivering at the thought. Tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers, ten per fire on average, screaming like devils as they barreled across the field, battle flags aflutter, until his position’s over-run and one of the butternuts runs him clean through so he’s like a butterfly mounted on a display board, can’t even sit up to die.
He was trying to purge this thought from his brain when he heard the sound of a cowbell. He looked up over the stone fence and saw the heifer meandering leisurely down the field towards the apple orchard, turning its head first to the right, at the Confederate line of battle then to the left, at the Federal. That’s when Walker Thomas saw a Confederate Cavalry lieutenant jump over the stone fence on a dun-colored Arabian and gallop straight towards his line. He pulled up at the last moment, yanked off his kepi with a flourish. Bowed to the Yankees. His blue eyes sparkled. He smiled blissfully. Walker stood up.
“Is that you cousin?” he gasped. “Is that you, Raymond Morgan?”
The Confederate lieutenant stared straight at Walker. The smile slide off his face. His eyes seemed full of sadness for a moment. Then he snapped his head away with conscious effort. Donned his gold kepi, pulled back on the reins. The horse reared up and galloped down the line towards the errant cow. He was down there a long time. Invisible to Walker because he was too close to the Yankee line. But he could hear the cheers coming from his Confederate brothers that was picked up on the Federal side. Everyone was cheering like this was some kind of game. Like they were back at the racetrack in Kentucky and all bets were on Raymond who was nosing out his closest competitor as they headed towards the finish line. Walker was still on his feet but so were the soldiers next to him, cheering, looking down the line. Walker felt the pride swell up in his chest. He leaned towards the grizzled veteran, “That’s my cousin Raymond Morgan from the other side of the river in Kentucky,” he said. “Don’t he have grit?”
“Grit ain’t the word for him,” answered the vet, shaking his head. “Glory hound is.”
And just as he said that a shot rang out. Then another. The cheering stopped followed by a silence broken only by the mockingbird still perched on the scrub oak tree singing like the world wasn’t altered.
Walker heard the bell ringing and saw the cow, head raised to the sky, mooing for all it was worth. Following close behind was the dun Arabian. Riderless. Walker hoped that Raymond had fallen from his horse. That he was wounded only and his comrades dragged him back to the line and he was taken to a sawbones though a sawbones could kill you faster than a bullet. But he was wrong. The cow slowed to a walk before he came up the line to Walker. The Arabian galloped past and Walker saw that somehow in falling, Raymond’s boot tangled up in the stirrup and that he was dragged along the ground beside his mount. It was hard to tell if he was dead or alive until finally Raymond’s head smacked a sharp rock, spraying a fountain of blood in the air.
Walker sunk to his knees behind the stone fence. He wanted to cry but he was supposed to be a soldier.
The grizzled vet kneeled down beside him. Put his hand on Walker’s shoulder. “Hey, son, sorry about your cousin. But I won’t take back what I said. He was a glory hound. All them Rebs are. Brave, but glory hounds.”
“He could ride like the wind.”
“I seen that,” he spat another stream of juice, a tiny dribble landing on the toe of Walker’s boot.
Walker looked up when he heard the cowbell again. A couple of soldiers grabbed the cow by the neck and rustled it through an opening in the stone fence to the rear of the Yankee line. Across the field, a Rebel officer held tightly to the reins of the spooked Arabian, a lone boot still in the stirrup. He was following two of his buddies who were carrying Raymond’s rag doll body through the lines. That’s when the artillery barrage commenced. Walker buried himself behind the stone fence. He resisted an urge to run which would have been impossible anyway since there were other soldiers behind him. The space was so tight, it was hard to breathe. But the barrage only lasted a moment and then ears ringing like he came from under a church bell, he poked his head up and saw exactly what he imagined some time before.
Tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers, it seemed to him, screaming like devils as they barreled across the field, battle flags aflutter only they hadn’t overrun his position yet. Walker felt a hand on his shoulder and the calm voice of his sergeant ordering them to hold their fire. He focused on the voice, all the other things that got him here in the first place like duty, shame, love of family and country seemed to recede like the waves from the ocean shore. All, that is, except for the sad look in Raymond Morgan’s eyes, the same look he imagined in his own eyes. It was a chink in his armor. He better not hold to it. Better to put on a brave face like his Kentucky cousin.
So when the order came from the sergeant to fire, Walker Thomas fired and out in the field amongst the thinning ranks of the charging Confederates, flags still aflutter, somebody’s darling dropped to the ground.