This is the most wretched bored I have been in my entire life. I have sharpened every stick in this forest to help build the godforsaken abatis which is now about as long as the eye can see. I have sat in the rain and the sweltering heat and the frosty mornings and I have waited. And waited. Nothing ever is going to happen, of that I am sure. Why I was so fierce certain that this war would bring me the excitement and adventure I had not found living on the farm I do not know. I am one of thousands of men. Boys. All waiting together here in this field in Jackson, Mississippi, hundreds of miles from our homes and the comforts of loved ones and a solid roof over our heads and good wholesome food on our tables. We are waiting to find our glory here on earth, or in the hereafter, whatever God would decree. My only solace is that my younger brother Seth sits beside me through it all. We are both still healthy, which is more than most. Those who are not suffering with the flux are battling shakes, or pox, or the morbid sore throat. The medics can not handle the numbers of men who will surely die, not from battle wounds as we had originally intended, but through the raging maladies that corrupt this place. I thank the Almighty that Seth and I have yet been spared and can count boredom as our only complaint.
The field is large, once lush with a burgeoning crop of tobacco, but that has long since been trampled beneath a thousand boot falls. The farmhouse has been abandoned of its occupants and is now housing for the officers. There is a creek nearby and the abatis we have built protects access to the supply water, essential to our survival. Crews of men work all day just to carry water to the hospital and to those of us doing the countless drills that they have us do. 5am is reveille then it is hard tack for breakfast, drill, drill and more drill until we break for more hard tack for lunch. Since the abatis has been completed the powers that be have decided that we should now fill our afternoons with more drills. Over and over we practice the same maneuvers, until we are a battalion of sleep walkers, blindly following the shouted commands of whoever is on the horse at that moment in time. We become soaked, sometimes with rain and sometimes with our own sweat. The uniform I wear is terrible heavy wool, too tight across the beam and I have developed a horrible, itching rash where it binds under my arms and across the neck and back. I feel as though I may crawl out of my own skin, given half a chance. Who would have guessed that the thing I might miss the most of home was the linen overshirt that I wore day to day on the farm, worn soft by countless scrubbings along Ma’s washboard.
Oh and Ma. How I miss my Ma. Her plain face and short, round body. Her brown hair, all soft in a bun at the back of her neck. The gentle sound of her voice, no matter what rage Pa might be in, dowsing the fire of his anger with her cool, soft lilt. How she would quake to see the conditions here, us living in the mud and squalor, sitting like fools waiting to catch whatever sickness comes next. I am thankful each day that she need never know the truth of this horror. Home she can stay, safe in the knowing that her two sons will come home some day, safe, God willing and whole of body and mind, if not spirit. She would worry, I know. But with young Eli to tame, and sweet baby Hester to tend the time of this war will go swiftly.
Seth is writing again. He left his sweetheart at home waiting on him. His time passes as painful slow as my time, but at least he has beautiful brown eyes and yellow hair to contemplate. I have no sweetheart. Never did have time away from the running of things to take up such fancies. Pa always relied on me to be the strength at home while he was off to preaching. I looked after the farm for my Pa and I will look after my brother Seth as I have made my solemn vow to my Pa. “Do not bother darkening this door if you doth come home without thy brother.” He says to me as I was leaving. I were not surprised none. Him and I have never got on much and he favored me for the strap as much as he favored Seth for the last piece of Ma’s good pie. I hope that his favors for the good are given to Eli in our absence as I would surely hate to see him bear the brunt of Pa’s ill will and stinging strap. The lad is but a boy, only 13 years old, though tall for his age. But he is a clever boy, that Eli, and I am assured that he will keep his self hid when Pa’s tempers are flared.
“Johnston heard it from Quincy. Big bugs callin’ for action before first light tomorrow.” Chinchilla sits next to Seth, begins to clean his fingernails with his pig sticker. Seth looks up from his letter writing.
“For real?” He asks. Chinchilla itches his beard and I sees a flurry of lice crawling away from his finger.
“For reals. Bunch a dirty gray backs setting up lines just over the hill. Quince told Johnston he heard there was hunerds of them. Filthy gray backs.” He spits on the ground, just missing where I am sitting in the dirt.
“Jebus Chinchilla, watch your aim”. I stand up, and move away from him because all of a sudden I do not want to sit no more.
“First light?” I says. “Hmm”. Seth puts his letter aside into his haversack, real careful like. His face is all lit up like Christmas morning is a sudden coming.
“It’s grit time, boys” Seth jumps up and hoots so loud that a bunch of men look over our ways.
“Use your horse sense, Tubbs! Jebus! You see you Hark hollering and jumpin’? This ain’t been announced, so shut your trap and keep your wits.” Chinchilla storms off and Seth turns to me.
“Hark, it is finally come. Our day of reckoning and of glory. We get to kill us some Johnny!” I pretend that I am excited, but my guts twist. I do not have a good feeling of this at all.
I leave this moment and move ahead in time.
I am frozen in my spot. The line of men, armed and anticipating, filled with killer glee and fear frenzy, stands waiting. Seth is at my side, his eyes shining with it all. But it is beyond Seth that I see what has me frozen in my spot. I know then that my life will end today, one way or another. For behind my brother Seth I see running toward us my younger brother, Eli. Only 14 years old, yet he is dressed as a soldier in a blue uniform and he is carrying a weapon. He is whooping like a banshee, waving at me and hollerin’. Seth sees me staring and turns to look.
“Eli”. His voice is not raised, but I hear him over the sounds of the advancing army nevertheless. Eli is hugging Seth but before he has a chance to hug me all hell is unleashed upon us in a flurry of musket fire from beyond the blockade.
Explosions as rifles fire. Screams. Terror. The smells of ammunition and dank soil and releasing bowels.
I just raise my weapon, when I am hit with wild sprays of dark red blood as it gushes from the gaping hole in Seth’s head. He falls to the ground like an empty sack. I try to move but am locked, staring at my fallen brother. Blood sprays me, getting in my eyes and I lift my arm to clear my vision just in time to see the mini ball hit Eli. Young Eli, his neck torn apart falls on top of Seth, his head landing so that is lays nearly backwards, like an owl, looking over his shoulder. Their staring eyes look to me, through me. My weapon slips from my grasp and I vomit, the bile running down my chest. I try to turn away, but I cannot. Dead. Both brothers dead before me.
The mini ball that hits me seems to be suspended in air forever. I see it dangling before me and manage a small laugh. It rends my guts clean open. I see the gray slippery innerds slide from my cavity and I try to catch them. I sink to my knees. I stare at my dead brothers as I hold the last of my own life in my hands. I am comforted by the warmth of my intestines in my hands.
Sometime later I lay on the ground among a sea of the dead. My eyes are open watching the passing clouds. I know that I must be in pain, but I seem to rise above my body. A medic finds me in the tangle of bodies and I am carried to the hospital tent. Time passes. I wonder why I am not dead.
“I am killed. Can you write my Ma? She needs to know. We are all killed.” My throat is so dry that my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. I am not sure that the old Doc can understand me, but he nods. He calls over an aide and has him write out the information.
“I give you my word, Private Tubbs. Your Ma and Pa will hear how you and your brothers gave your lives in valiant service and glory for the Union Army.” I stare into his eyes. So blue and so kind and I know that I can believe him.
I feel the rush of wind and weighlessness as my spirit rises. I recognize this feeling though my human mind believes that it is the first time I’ve felt it. The top of my head tingles and I feel the quickening. Something catches my eye behind where the Doc sits beside me. There is a glimmering light in the corner of the room. The light grows bigger and I see Seth and Eli standing together, smiling big, beautiful smiles. The blood is gone and the horror and I am so relieved that they are whole. I feel myself begin to rise, and I smile.