Chapter 12: Worthy
In a battle, the senses leave one at a time.
The first to go is sight. Gusts of gun powder shroud the field in acrid smoke, leaving only the nearest friend or foe visible. Recognition of whom is which frequently comes far too late to act accordingly, and many a man is slain simply because of the confounding smoke. Act too soon, and a friend is murdered. Act too late, and you are.
Then the roar of artillery blasts hearing away leaving only a dull ringing in its place, dangerously numbing the mind as well as the ability to hear warnings, screams, or commands. The maddening buzzing that's left drives one to both fear and fury; sometimes to foolish glory, other times to brave infamy.
Both taste and smell are obliterated by the bitter tang of gunpowder belched by the mouths of thousands of guns. Taking a life of its own, it buries itself in the back of the throat as though to take up permanent lodging. There is no longer any flavor or aroma other than the sharp, choking taste and smell of the harbinger of carnage and waste.
All that is left is what a man can touch—his gun, the earth, and that omnipresent fist of fear clutching his guts.
He lurched around and saw the men in blue, streaming over the hillside like ants. The cold stone in the pit of his stomach grew ten-fold. Clutching the stock of his rifle, he aimed as the crash of cannon fired on his other side. He shot and reloaded but it seemed the more he fired, the more they came screaming defiance and revenge. He needed cover. Turning to run, he found that no matter which direction he turned, they were there. He was at their mercy.
Suddenly, he was flying through the air, and landed in a boggy arms and legs asprawl . He struggled to roll over but his limbs would not cooperate. He could hardly move. As he thrashed about, he became aware of movement from the corner of his eye. He turned his head only to find he was at the feet of the faceless enemy, scuffed boots, blue trousers, sack coat with bright brass buttons, and a long rifle. He frantically tried to writhe out of the way as the Yankee lifted his weapon to plunge his bayonet home, but his paralyzed muscles wouldn't obey. He couldn't get away. He felt the bayonet pierce his skin and he opened his mouth to scream, and then...nothing.
His world was totally black. No sight, no squealing buzz, no acrid smell or taste-only a bitter fear echoing through his soul.
Heart pounding, he struggled to sit up and realized he was in bed with his sleeping wife. It had been all a dream. It was a long time since he had had that particular nightmare, and he had hoped they had become a thing of the past. Evidently they had not.
He swallowed, trying to calm his pounding heart and ease his gasping breath. Isabella mumbled in her sleep and turned over, throwing out an arm to touch his side. He knew sleep was now beyond him and, rather than disturb her, he slipped out of their bed and pulled on his britches.
He could tell by the feel of the night it was early hours, but the moon was still bright, enabling him to find his way through the darkened house and out the back door. He sat on the porch step and pulled on his boots, roughly shaking his head, trying to rid his mind of the sights and sounds of a battlefield some ten-years gone. His stomach rolled as the nightmare vision of his dream faded into real memories—the fear, the horror, the loss. Would they ever leave him be?
He stood and walked across the yard, clenching his fists as he tried to stop their shaking. Without thought, he found his way into the barn, or rather, the glorified shed Bella had had built after her barn had been destroyed in the war. He reached behind a low rafter and snagged the bottle he had placed there just this afternoon when they'd returned from town. He hadn't realized he'd want it so soon.
He wasn't sure what Bella's stand on liquor was and, as a rule, he generally didn't partake of it. There were times, though, when it seemed to be the only answer to this clawing feeling in his soul. Back in Virginia, his mother didn't hold with it and wouldn't let him drink in the house, so he had developed the habit of stashing a bottle in the corn crib. It served on nights like these when his demons resurrected themselves.
He pulled out the cork stopper with his teeth and spat it on the ground as he walked through the field in back of the vegetable garden. For some reason, his feet took him to a place he had consciously avoided since learning about it. It may have been fortunate that this strip of ground was located on the far edge of the farm, near a grove of hardwood trees—a lonely, isolated spot. He could keep well away from it and therefore, his thoughts and memories, but tonight they rose up and called to him in voices he could not deny.
He took another swig from the bottle and stared down at the ground where his comrades lay under grass, and dirt, and stones. It was curious, no matter how long ago it had been done, a grave could always be told. The grass grew differently and the soil settled oddly over old bones. He wondered who was buried here. George Jeter? Wilfred Coy? Thomas Anderson? They were but a few of the many who had been lost.
He slid down, back against a tree, and took another mouthful. Why had he lived when others had not? What purpose was it supposed to have served? Weren't they all talented men, with gifts to offer the world? Wilfred could play a fiddle better than anyone he knew. Many a time he sat at the evening campfire and listened to his merry tunes, sometimes being moved to join in a jig or two himself. Sometimes, Wil's fiddling was more melancholy, leaving them all staring into the flames as thoughts of home came to mind. George had a family back home; a wife and a passel of children that he spoke of fondly, if given the chance. Thomas had been studying to be a preacher. He was a good man and could recite scripture for hours.
Edward sighed and shook his head. Why were they taken? Why was he saved?
He drank again. He could have easily been laying there with the rest of them had he had not been carried into Bella's house and left for her to find and nurse. There must be some fatalistic reason that he, by the luckiest of chances, lived. But for the life of him, he didn't know what that was. All he could do was try to be worthy. Maybe all would be revealed to him one day.
Just as likely, it would not.
He took another sip, then studied the bottle. It was halfway empty now and the dawn was nowhere close. Was it worthy of him to sit in fear out here grinding his soul over questions that could not be answered? What would it prosper? He wasn't the aimless soldier he had been back in the days of war. Now, he had responsibilities—a wife, a farm. And, praise God, he still had his two strong hands, his wit, and his will.
In fact, to dwell on morbid thoughts could be deemed a blasphemy. He had lived. He was needed. Why waste his life in dread and melancholy when the others, the ones buried beneath his feet, had had no choice over the matter? No matter what nightmares or horrid visions that came his way, he'd put his hand to the plow and struggle on. Besides, Bella awaited him in their bed.
He stood up and sprinkled the rest of the whiskey on the ground and said, "Worthy are the men who gave their lives. Here's to you, my friends."
And then turning, he hurried back to his wife.
The next morning, Bella was surprised as she poured out the coffee when Edward asked, "Has anyone ever given thought to those soldiers buried along the stand of oak?"
"Those poor Confederates? What do you mean?" She sat down and began helping herself to the eggs she'd fried for breakfast.
"We don't even know who's buried there, do we? It would only be decent to reunite them with their kin."
"Actually, there's a local man who's been trying to do just that. He's been exhuming their bodies, looking for their names from the clues they left behind, then sending them back to their homes. He's a good man, Dr. Weaver. He was hired by a committee to see to it."
"Has he been here?"
Bella shook her head. "He made a plea at church a while back and I told him he was welcome to come and see to those poor men that that repose here. I'm sure he'll come eventually. We don't have as many graves as some do. He's been working steadily over the past couple of years."
"That's mighty good of him."
"It is, isn't it? And most people here 'bouts have supported him to no end, but there's been some who demanded payment for him to come on their land!"
"Payment? How so?"
"'Tis rather gruesome, but one fellow found a skull that had gold dentures. He wanted ten dollars before he'd hand over the relic! Finally, Dr. Weaver gave him five dollars of his own money to reunite the poor soldier's head with his body."
"I know it, but that greedy beggar got his just reward. Somehow, someone got wind of the transaction and told the editor of the paper about it. Soon the whole area knew of the man's greediness and he was almost run out of town on a rail. I believe his shame forced him to give the five dollars back."
Edward nodded as he took the last bite of his eggs. As he chewed, he stared out of the window, watching the wind gentle the leaves on the old maple tree that stood out in the yard. Then he turned to her and asked, "Would you introduce me to Dr. Weaver the next chance you get? I want to know how to assist the gentleman."
Later on, after Edward had left for the fields, Bella smiled to herself. So far, each day had been an adventure with unexpected experiences cropping up at every turn. Her life had certainly taken her in a new direction, for sure.
She shivered, remembering how it felt to wake with Edward's lips against her throat and his fingers running through her hair. Half way between waking and sleeping, any shyness she would normally have was non-existent, causing her to rise with him, pulling his hips closer to hers, arching her back in exaltation, and, finally, grasping the fiery peak that brought chills of delight throughout her whole body and his, as well.
When they'd stilled, she lay in his arms, head nestled against his chest and heard him whisper, "Worthy, indeed."
Hi. Remember me? Well, I was kidnapped and transported to the 18th century in the company of a tall, red-haided Scottish charmer. I do apologize, for I know I've left you in the lurch with my civilwarward. He's been feeling mighty neglected, let me tell you. For what it's worth, he has promised to wear a kilt to get me to finish his story. By the way, he doesn't know he shouldn't cross his legs when he's wearing one. I don't think I shall tell him otherwise.
Historical notes: Dr. Rufus Weaver actually did repatriate fallen Confederates with their families. He was hired to do it but it was a labor of love. The story about the guy who hijacked the gold-plated denture is true.