We backtracked from the northern path after losin’ our way, me n’ my brother, to Tempest County. We’d been on n’ indian trail for three days, movin’ by night, restin’ in orchards n’ groves n’ swamps and two times we stayed in some ole’ huntin’ shack when the elements got right difficult to continue any longer. We found bear grease and scooped it for eatin’. That was our only means of eatin’ in a long while.
Sometimes we heard voices n’ guns booming outta’ the mist n’ we got right leery of soldiers n’ n’ bein’ captured by either side so we laid low.
My brother, Jackson is a righteous man, n’ though he’s seventeen, he’s righteous n’ growin’ into his own. He didn’ believe in no war, n’ he wasn’t even mindful of the cause, or why it was happenin’ any how. When he went off from the homestead out of Jersey, he was intendin’ on comin’ back as soon as he could, n’ I wanted to accompany him as far south as I could make it n’ then safely come back without ere’ a scratch.
I remember thinkin’ on the second day out how right lonesome it got bein’ away from home, n’ then seein all those boys on the march down the sides of the road, n’ they all gave me looks, like I could read the lonesomeness in their faces, they knew they was fixin’ to die, of never comin’ home again.
They knew this war wasn’t child’s play. Jackson used to play like he was huntin’ indians in the forest, with his rifle, n’ shootin’ squirrels and the such, but this war wasn’t thesame. They were men too, n’ he aimed to stay away from havin’ to shoot one.
Jackson was raised to be a worker, his work ethic was always what daddy called “exemplary,” n’ in the event that we would ever have a loss, he was to step up n’ be the man o’ the family.
We was sleepin’ by the side of the road in a little lean-to when who comes hobblin’ down the road but daddy himself. Daddy had misgivings about Jackson’s leavin’ all along and was deadset against me goin’ with him, so here he is, followin’ the main road out of Jersey into the hills of Pennsylvania, n’ he is hobblin’ along, he had gimped his foot when a steer stepped on it, just right crunched down on it with its ungodly hooves, and he had a limp ever since. But here he is . . . we coudl smell his pipe too, we smelt it before we saw him and knew that daddy had decided to come with us.
But in the end we only really recognized him because o’ the limp.
So’s we call him and he’s lookin’ aroun’ n’ spots us, n’ says whatchoo doin’ still with Jackson? I want you to go back home by mornin’, you’re gonna’ go and give me no sass about it neither.
‘Cept he wasn’t goin’ to let me go alone, n’ made it clear that he aimed to fight the Rebels with Jackson, n’ wanted to be alongside him though he was against the war overall. Says it was a big waste o’ time and that it was goin’ to come to naught for both sides, north n’ south.
Jackson advised daddy to take me n’ go back home, that he had to be on the homestead with the family, that that was where he needed to go. Daddy tells him no, because he doted on him, n’ says if he is gonna’ die on some rebel dirt, well he was gonna’ be there to bring him home, n’ he sure did appreciate him doin’ the same for him.
I tell him nobody’s gonna’ die, that they both are gonna’ go home. N’ that was when I started turnin’ their thoughts into not fightin’ at all, and that they needed to go home, and that their battles weren’t ours.
Night came n’ we started walkin’ along the turnpike. The night was ungodly quiet. We could hear everything that moves by night, everything. By 11:00 or so, the moon started to lift outta the earth and then we see the silhouette of a band of soldiers, all ragged they looked like and they was shovelin’ dirt, so we hid behind a clumb of trees and watched them. The road ran parallel to some railroad tracks, n’ the rails shined under the moon. Daddy thought it’d be safe if we just followed those tracks until we saw the men and they appeared to be shovelin’ the earth. We waited for them to leave, n’ they never did, so we spent all our time sort of hoverin’ there because now came lots o’ foot traffic along our road. We didn’ fancy gettin’ questioned as we weren’t sure of our intentions just yet, so’s we thought it safe to just stay put.
By the light o’ morning the men left and the place was strangely quiet. It started to rain right hard, and the water fallin’ was violent, they was thick drops that struck hard, like grapeshot I imagine. The ground we stood on turned to mud and started runnin’ like it was pourin’ out of a funnel. We were squatting in a morass of mud and Jackson says he’d had enough of hidin’ like an animal and stands. He says he is gonna’ get started no matter who is around.
Daddy pulled him down and told him to stay put. Patience was a virtue he says, and that he thought it be best to be patient and wait, at least untl the rain stopped pourin’. We looked beyond, back a ways and saw some trees and so we head that way and hide beneath them. They was leaves just finished turnin’ so they weren’t very useful either, but at least by standing against the trees the drive of the rain couldn’t hurt us anymore.
Later that mornin’ the sky broke and the rainin’ stopped. We stayed put until we saw three deer move out in the clearing, n’ we figured if the deer knew it was safe to come out, then it was okay for us. We shouldered our packs and started movin’ on.
We came to where the men were shovelin’. They made deep gulleys on both sides o’ the road. Well after the rains we saw that it washed those dead up and we saw a bunch of bare blue feet pokin’ out, daddy says lookit that they even pinched their boots, no dignity for the dead, and we saw some hands reachin’ out of the earth all stiff and blue. As we walked along the road, we saw that they had dug a gulley along the road for a good quarter mile and daddy tole’ me not to look at it, but I did. At one point I remember seein’ a boy’s face pokin’ outta’ his grave, n’ he was so handsome, n’ even though I could see his temple had been smashed by whatecer beastly man had shot him, n’ I was thinkin’ oh what a beautiful boy, I coulda’ married a boy like that … and the rest o’ his body was buried, but the rain had washed away the dirt on his face and his eyes were open, all sunken in and his mouth a-gapin’ and his hair muddied and tousled n’ I felt so sad knowin’ that his momma’ back home probly thought he was alright, that she was expectin’ him to come up the stairs any day now, so she could cook for him and clean his clothes and watch him grow into a man. That boy was never comin’ home again, that’s fer sure.
I stopped and looked at him until Jackson tugged my arm and pulled me away, n’ I moved on still seein’ him in my mind, n’ I was thinkin’ I coulda married a boy like that, n’ that’s when we all knew that we was fightin’ no war, n’ we went away n’ hid until night had come so we could turn right aroun’ and go back home.
That very same night I dreamt of that dear dead face. The clay around him turned to blood, lookin’ like blood pudding, and eyes all open, starin’ and then speakin’ like it come straight outta hell:
Tell mah ma I’m just a long ways o’ home. I’ll set foot in her direction soon . . . justa’ long ways from home it is . . .
I woke with shivers and realized we was dozin’ and it was cold, bone cold it was. I turned n’ saw Pa leaning against a tree scrapin’ mud offa’ his boots. He had a leg bent at the knee and his stockinged feet was hoverin’ off the ground. My brother was sleepin’ a right fitful sleep. My Pa looked him over ever so often and tole him to pipe down afore the rebels heard ‘em.
By the time the sun starts to fallin’, we were on our way. Through the night it was slow goin’, and Jackson got right anxious tellin’ Pa that he wants to move on, to be on his own, and that it was slow goin. It was about to make him pop, n’ he was impatient to move faster, hell be-damned they be Rebels or not, yet he too wanted to go home.
A little before sun-up, we find a swamp grove and bunker down in a cold hollow, and he says he got to get somethin’ for us to eat or we’d starve. There was nothin’ we could find. No berries, no birds, no rabbits, nothin’. It seems like the fightin’ had spooked them clear of the land, so we had no hope to relievin’ our situation anytime soon. The light in the sky had gone from a deep reddish purple color to just spreading pink. My brother broke through the brush and he’s all outta’ breath and tells us he saw a most horrible sight. You see, we had no idea how grave our situation was. We goes with him and he tells us to sorta creep along, that in the far field there was some niggers millin’ aroun’….
We goes and looks and see a whole field of mounds, burial mounds and then we see the niggers on the far field pushin wheel barrows. As the sun climbs higher I see skulls on their wheelbarrows sorta garishly grinnin’ inna’ face of the sun, I thunk it done in spite. We saw no soldiers, no whites, no one but them niggers and so my pa, who assumes proper airs, aims to talk to ‘em n’ find out more.
We followed Pa, all of us through the soft clay of the field. It looked to be harrowed once upon a time, or that it was a crop of some kind, ‘cept only now it was sproutin’ bones n’ not cotton or corn. As we got close, the niggers look up at us, sort of silent with their mouths gapin’ and their eyes lidded and mysterious, and my Pa speaks first what goes on here?
We be diggin da graves, sir.
The soljers sir.
All of them are soldiers?
Yessirree, all soljers.
Where are they from?
They in the field yonder, over the treeline. They had the battle there, and now the men moved on, ‘ceptin the dead of course. We wheel them over here.
Who told you to do this?
The soldier man tole us, sir. He tells us if we bury the men with a right Christian burial and say a prayer for each of ‘em, we would be free to go our way.
So we aim to bury each and ever one of ‘em. Jezebiel here says da prayer from da Bible and I do da shovelin’.
Yes sir, I got da famlee Bible right here.
He was clutching a small Bible with tanned covers and the pages looked well-thumbed through and yellowing, like it had been passed down a long while.
When did the soldiers leave?
About two or three days ago I reckon’.
And there’s none around?
Not anymore. One or two fella’s lingered for a day or two and then when the cold set it, they move on too.
Is there food to be had?
We got some stores beyond, out yonder.
We have not eaten, the girl here is with child. We need food.
I was startled that Daddy fabricated such a fib, but I saw he meant to get us fed no matter what it took, white lie or not.
Yessir, beyond the trees thatta way, there’s some mush and a barrel of pork. Some biscuits and hard tack they leff us too…
We’re mighty grateful.
I looked down at the nigger’s wheelbarrow and I saw that there was the skull. The flesh had been picked off and at first I wondered how it had rot so bad.
They were out by the woodshed, they had been there for a few weeks, we reckoned the turkey vultures got to ‘em. They be bones and rags.
Well, let us pray. Jackson . . . Maggie . . . Maggie can you pray for these dead?
I can’t think of a prayer for no strangers, Daddy.
The nigger stepped forward.
I’d be happy to pray for y’all.
My daddy nodded his consent and we all lowered our heads.
Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from the ways like da’ lost sheep. We have follored too much the deevices and deesires of our own hearts. We have offended against the holy laws. We have left undone those things which we have ought done; n’ we have done those things which we ought not to have done. N’ there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confesses their faults. Restore thou those who r’ penitent ‘cordin to thy promises deeclared unto mankin’. in Christ Jesus Our Lawd n’ grant, O merciful Father, fo’ His sake ‘dat we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life; to da’ glory, righteous, and sober life; to da’ glory of thy holy name, amen.
We raised our heads n’ the nigger’s eyes were weepin’ n’ I was moved to embracin’ him. He stood stiff and stifled back any further tears.
My daddy cleared his throat and I let go.
Let us leave them to God’s work.
Thank you mighty.
Watch out for dose rebels, they out dere in them hills. Dey the crackers wit loud guns firin’ at anythin’ dat moves. Dey almos’ shot my boy dead.
i i i
So’s we go to the next field over. The air smelled of rot and bones n’ burnt hair … drag marks raked the earth all the way to the wheelbarrows. Many of the stiffs had no boots n’ their feet stuck out bony n’ blue.
I gather they pinched the boots.
We walked the blasted earth, n’ bodies scattered around, n’ a shack tended by an old nigger.
She looked up n’ started like we was ghosts.
Can I help y’all? They be in yonder field doin’ da buryin’ like you said, they be busy allaway from sunup.
We aren’t in charge of you. We were told we may find some food, my daddy said to her.
Yessir, we gots vittles proper, I can fix y’all some cakes and tack if you wishes. That’s all we got.
That’d be right fine.
Daddy dug in his pocket.
No, uh-uh, we don’t need no money, sir.
Take it, it’d mean the world to us if you did.
She took it and buried it deep into her apron pocket.
Jackson spat on the dirt, turned away and surveyed the wasteland of the dead.
Smells aroun’ here, he said to no one in particular.
The old nigger had a barrel with a fire blazin’. We stood aroun’ for a spell warmin’ our hands.
It’s awfully quiet aroun’ here for there bein’ a war and all.
I assume someone will be along before long, I reckon.
Jackson spat. He looked at the old woman.
You reckon’ she knows more than she’s lettin’ on?
I ain’t about to abuse her hospitality. She’s here to feed her men, and they’re here for their freedom. It’s as simple as that.
Yah, I suppose.
He kicked the dirt and walked away to the middle of the first swell in the field, n’ he stooped to a clumped body in the ground. He starts fiddlin’ through its pockets and finds a little book or somethin’ like that anyways . . . n’ put it in his coat pocket.
Daddy just’ looked at Jackson lookin’ at the dead bodies, followin’ him with his eyes.
The old lady took my hand and led me into the shack. Dis here will help you and yer kin.
Thank you, ma’am.
Dat’s alright. Young eyes like yours among all dis’ bloodshed jus’ ain’t right.
I do appreciate it.
She turned and placed more sticks into the fire and warmed her wrinkly hands over the flames. The light cast her face all demonish, yet she exuded serenity . . . a face so tranquil. Her lips remained pursed, eyes half-lidded, though what eye did show sparkled with an inner light only she was able to divinate.
The little book with its cowhide covers seemed heavy in my hand. I put it into my pocket and looked at Daddy now, walkin’ with Jackson, looking at the dead. He then came back over to me.
Me and yer brother r’ gonna’ give these fella’s a hand, repay them for our food. You stay here and stay warm. You see anything peculiar, well you give a little shout.
He went back to Jackson and they began dragging the stiffened bodies into a pile. The wheelbarrow started to come toward them. I watched them load three bodies into the wheelbarrow. Daddy and Jackson hoisted a body and walked along with the wheelbarrow and the other two men. I watched their silhouettes bob in the distance. The old lady sat in her cane seat in the shack. She was starin’ off not at me, but through me, to some kingdom beyond. Her lips were pursed and I fingered the pages of the Old Testament in my pocket.
You jus’ read dat in yo’ times o’ strife. You’re sho’ gon’ need it.