The morning frost lifted the mold from the canvas of Charlie Butler's Sibley tent and soaked the top of his wool blanket so that it smelled, as contradictory as it seemed, of dampness and dust. He rolled over on his army cot and looked at the face of his lover: Mary Cassady, a thin, sixteen year old prostitute who had fallen in with the Army of the Cumberland in northern Georgia and had been tagging along with the troops ever since. Her freckled face, thin lips and bright red hair beguiled Charlie and he had done all he could to have her nearly every night.
She opened her eyes and smiled. Charlie kissed her as he stroked her hair.
"What do we do today?" he asked her.
"We start with breakfast," she said standing up and pulling the blanket around her naked body. "How about stewed tomatoes and eggs with a rasher of bacon and a stack of cakes?"
"Why not make warm biscuits so I can slop up the grease at the bottom of the pan?"
"I'm serious," she cried.
"I know you are but all I've got are oats," he said rummaging through his pack. Fresh eggs were scarce and any chickens they came across went straight to the quartermaster who kept them for the officers or any enlisted man with a gold dollar. He fished out a small bag of oats and handed it to her.
"Oats," she said. "If all I wanted to eat was bloody oats I would have stayed in Ireland."
He smiled as she pulled her blue dress over her head and tossed her hair. From the other side of the tent his bunkmate Willy rolled over and blinked hard at Butler. He was in a foul mood. The grunting and panting from Charlie's bunk kept him up most of the night. Mary blew Willy a kiss, put on her boots, and then left to go find a pot and some water.
"If you want a roll, go to the whores' camp down the road. You keep bringing her here, and the sergeant is going to have your hide."
"Willy," Charlie said, "I'm in love."
Grinning, Willy shook his head. He was thirty-four and had been around. Willy Fleming had worked the Ohio and Missouri Rivers, driven mules down the Santa Fe and cut timber in the forests of northern Maine, and in all his travels, true love with a whore was as hard to find as an honest land speculator. "You just think you're in love cause she's giving you rides at half price."
Charlie laughed off Willy's insult being, as he was, deep in the blessed, naïve haze of passionate love, but he knew his friend was only looking after him. The two men had been together since he joined the Union Army two and a half years before, fought side-by-side at Stones River and lost too many friends at Chickamauga. For the both of them, the long winter of death wound on as they trudged their way through the leafy woods of the South. Georgia and Tennessee were miserable places with freezing rain in the winter and steaming heat in the summer. And as the war continued uniforms became moldy, boots thin and food rations hardly enough to fill their bellies.
Three years before, Charlie had worked a scam where he collected three hundred-fifty dollars to substitute for an Ohio railroad man's son caught by the draft. This was in addition to the two hundred-fifty he had accepted to substitute for a Maryland merchant's boy. At least the authorities knew about those two. The marshals caught him, whipped him, and a judge who had served in the Mexican-American War sentenced him to serve in the bloodiest of theaters. He could have bribed his way out, but he wanted the money to set up a business in Colorado or Oregon. His funds were ensconced in a Boston bank, but with each battle, he doubted he would live to see another year. His doldrums broke in the summer of 1864 when he met Mary.
Charlie and Willy went to Madam Langdon's camp looking to forget two days of burial detail following the Battle of Peachtree Creek. The Georgia heat had accelerated the decomposition of the corpses, and the gaping eyes and broken bodies left Charlie longing for a taste of life. Being only eighteen, the madam thought he might enjoy the pixie. And he did. When he returned to camp a day later he was whipped for being AWOL, but it wouldn't dampen his lust for Mary. Twice more he snuck out into the night and went to the madam's camp. General Thomas took the army north into Tennessee. Miss Langdon, and Mary, followed.
She stoked the fire and hung his dented black pot above the flames. Charlie slipped his arms around her and squeezed. "I couldn't find a spoon," she said with a hint of irritation in her voice.
Charlie glanced down and saw his wooden spoon lying in the ash and mud at the edge of the fire pit. "It's right there."
"I'll not be using such a filthy thing."
Charlie looked down at the spoon and shrugged.
"I swear," continued Mary, "you men never clean a thing. This pot is in need of a good scrub, but that spoon is a pathetic mess. Now take it down to the creek and wash it off."
"Yes, ma'am." Charlie said with sharp salute and a silly grin. Fishing the spoon from the gunk on the ground, he gave it a few shakes and then trudged off for the creek.
White tents and smoky fires lined the lanes of the Union encampment on the outskirts of Nashville. In the hickory wood, snow lay on the frozen earth but here in camp it was rivers of mud and clumps of steaming excrement. After thirty months, Charlie had grown accustomed to the harsh conditions. His nose no longer smelled the rotting flesh of wounded soldiers or the thick air of male sweat after a long march. He had forgotten the taste of fresh meat, and the only vegetables he had eaten were the rotted remains they looted from farms and gardens as they passed.
Mary's entrance into his life was like a summer poppy. Her smile could make him feel warm despite the leaking hole in his boot and the thin weave of his summer uniform. At night, Charlie would sleep with his leg pressed between the dampness of her thighs and his hand cupped beneath her tiny breasts. In the morning, she would greet him with a smile. Then the exchange of money because without it Miss Langdon would have her bedding other soldiers, and that he could not stand.
"I was thinking we could open a store. Out west somewhere," Charlie said to her one night.
She sat up and looked at him, "Charlie, ya don't want to be a farmer?"
"The money is made in dry goods, darling."
"Land," she said. "A man of wealth owns land."
He nodded. "We'll do both. I've nearly eight hundred fifty dollars, and with your money, we can easily get set up in a small store and maybe get a start on a ranch. Colorado has high plains grasslands, so it would be good for cattle. The way I got it figured after the war, this country is going to move, and folks are going to be hungry. Yep. Cattle. That's the only way to get a lot of meat to market at a cheap price."
She gently kissed the nape of his neck. With nearly four hundred dollars saved, she was thinking about California. He turned and kissed her. The West was starting to look good. Despite the passing of money and the whispers from the other men in the camp, Mary truly loved Charlie. He was a young man of some means and a lot of promise. After starving in Limerick and starving in Brooklyn and whoring her way across her new country, she was ready to be the wife of a small rancher with a dry goods store in the land of Colorado.
Down at the creek, Charlie washed the spoon while upstream other men washed their breakfast pans and dumped their chamber pots. He decided he should move further up the creek above the waste. As he made his way along the icy shore, he heard thunder to the south. His gaze shifted to the men along the creek. All had pricked up their ears, and they studied the fields to the south. Not now, he thought looking up at the clear sky. A gentle, cold wind blew and riding it, the faint and distant cries of men. Another clap of thunder and Charlie ran for the camp.
The men were already beginning to muster. Frustrated officers gathered in the campaign tent to pore over maps and debate possible paths of enemy attack. As Charlie passed the big tent, he heard a captain holler for intelligence. It didn't take long. Men bivouacked in the fields south of the creek were running into camp. The Confederate Army was marching on their position they were calling out. The rebel artillery was taking shots to get range and direction. Before long, they would open fire with everything.
Still clutching the spoon, Charlie reached his tent but the fire was abandoned. Mary had left. He looked in the Sibley, but her things were gone. As he came out of the tent, he saw her running down the pike back to Miss Langdon's and toward the advancing insurgents. Mary ducked as another explosion from Hood's artillery fell close to the road and scattered clumps of dirt over her.
Grabbing her hand, Charlie pulled her toward the Union lines. "I should stay with the girls," she said looking back.
"Mary, Hood's army is coming, and they mean to take this city. It's not safe."
"Miss Langdon has always taken good care of us," she started.
"After the battle, I'll put you on a train for Kansas City. I get out in three months. Three months and then I'll join you. Three months and then we'll be married."
On his face, she saw her future: family, money, land and food. Without a glance at the coming storm over her shoulder, she went with him. They crossed into the camp as the Ohio regulars formed a skirmish line.
"Jesus, Butler," said Willy buckling his belt around his uniform. "You brought your whore? I guess you mean to die with your wick out."
Charlie seized him by the shirt and threw him aside. "She's no whore."
He turned back to her, "You'll be safe here." Above him, the atmosphere tore open, and Mary's eyes shifted from him to the sky. A tear formed on her left lid and sat suspended at the edge of her lash. The delicate drop mesmerized Charlie with its fragile beauty. He titled his head to the side to better see it just as a burning wind blew past. A millisecond later, he was covered in warm, red spray and falling. A Confederate shell had decapitated Mary, and the force of her head exploding had knocked him to the muddy ground.
Willy was yelling at him, but Charlie couldn't hear anything but a high-pitched ring. His friend turned to the front, ran into the smoke and disappeared forever. Charlie lifted Mary's dress and vainly soaked up the blood pouring from the top of her shoulder. Men ran past with their bayonets cutting the air as more shells fell and blasted their camp to bits.
He still was sobbing into his blood and brain covered hands when the captain ordered him to the Franklin Pike. An hour later when Hood shifted positions, he was there. The Confederates charged from across the road firing clouds of bullets. One of the missiles caught his buttocks nicking the sciatic nerve. Waves of hot, searing pain ran down his crippled limb. His escape ended in the trench he was digging. The rebels charged, and Charlie's thoughts turned to his dead love. He would be dead too but for the counterattack of William Jackson Palmer, a Pennsylvania Quaker, pacifist, and rabid abolitionist. Palmer's distaste for violence was forgotten in a red frenzy of sword and rifle shot.
A retreating soldier lifted Charlie from the battlefield and carried him to the surgeon's tent. The sour smell of cheese and burning meat mingled with the tang of spent ether. The blood from his wound had congealed in his pants, and while it had probably kept him from bleeding to death, the nurse could not tell where his uniform ended and flesh began.
Field hospitals functioned on speed, and the surgeon deftly cut away both flesh and wool to get to the wound. With a blood-crusted clamp, he dug into the young man's meaty butt and removed the slug of Confederate lead. The nurse then stitched him up like a torn shirt and covered his ass with the last of the clean bandages.
"I cleaned you up as best I could," said the nurse. "It'll be some time before those stains wear off."
He rubbed at the blots of blood, but the stains were set deep.