By thunder, Private Whitmore, have you gone loco in the noggin? Captain Roswell stood before me, gray eyes ringed with bewilderment. The coffee pot he carried, with the words NO MORE GROUNDS FOR COMPLAINT painted along one side, nearly dropped to the dirt when a visible tremor seized his hand. He settled the pot on a log before giving me his complete attention. Never in my born days has anyone requested the duty. Especially considering the pitiful circumstances.
Theres a first time for everything, I muttered.
But the circumstances, Roswell repeated. Light from the campfire reflected off his balding scalp as he plopped down beside the flames. His brow creased in thought, as if he was unable to fathom the motive behind my peculiar, yet heartfelt, petition. Or if deciding whether another motive, one altogether sinister, played a role. When you came to me, Private, I assumed quite the opposite. Ive seen many a soldier shy away from witnessing such a spectacle. And I wouldnt have blamed you, especially in view of what lay in store come the morrow—he swallowed—for Billy.
I reckon so.
Might I ask what brought on this tomfool notion?
Though I had anticipated the question, rehearsed my arguments to the last detail, I almost lost the willingness to press my case. Was I indeed standing before this brave, monolithic man and babbling the words of a lunatic? Mayhap; mayhap not. I couldnt be certain of anything right now, except for the pledge.
The damn pledge.
All around us, the rasp of snoring men and chirping insects sounded in monotonous harmony. As the cry of a screech owl tore through the night, I came close to begging the captains forgiveness and retreating to my blankets and knapsack.
But then I studied Roswell. Had he been one of them bloated, strutting roosters—those unapproachable officers with their razor-sharp tongues and hoity-toity mannerisms—I might not have initially gathered the grit to present my request. Or if I had, I suspicion one of them tin martinets would have dismissed me with a scathing reprimand for even suggesting such an action. Roswell, however, was different from those sidewinding snakes. His face had galvanized many a good man to risk life and limb; his voice had induced even the lily-livered to dash forward into a squall of metal rain with the shared purpose of slaying the enemy. But of greater import, Roswell ate with us, drank with us, sang, joked, and laughed with us. The respect he held for his men had earned him respect in return. Unlike those jack-a-dandy peacocks who cared not a stiver for our well-being, Roswell, with the fair treatment he had shown his subordinates, inspired loyalty and sincerity. I decided to persevere.
Tis a long story, Captain, I answered, toying with my beard.
Ive got time.
Roswell gestured to a log beside him. I took a seat and thrust my long legs forward, exposing to the campfire the cavity-riddled soles of my boots, and my feet bid welcome to the generous warmth. The captain poured me a cup of coffee, or in truth, a rather inferior proxy brewed from parched peanuts and God-knew-what-else. Nevertheless, I was grateful for anything that might wash the layer of wool from my tongue. The concoction splashed about in my belly, joining the meager portion of leathery meat, sour berries, and weevil-infested hardtack I had consumed at evening mess. As I gathered my thoughts, the snapping campfire and liquid heat promptly drove the chill of the star-speckled March evening from my weary bones.
I suppose it started with Ol Doc Mortimer, I said, my mind wandering some ten years down a path of memories. Ol Doc was Charlottesvilles most highly regarded citizen. A veteran of the War of 1812 where he served with distinction under Andrew Jackson. And a lover of trains, by jiminey. Never knew anyone who loved those sluggish beasts more than Ol Doc. Well, every Sunday, Billy and I would venture into town hoping to find Ol Doc whittling away the lazy afternoon before the Mudwall Hotel, which incidentally faced the train depot. And without fail, there hed be, sitting on a porch-shaded rocker, stick and knife in hand, with nothing better to do than to watch the locomotives while filling the heads of eager lads with yarns of heroic deeds and bravado. And let me tell you something—I chuckled—we were never disappointed.
Roswell bobbed his head. My pappy had a similar repertoire of tales. Guess thats one of the reasons I jumped on the Confederacys bandwagon.
Knowing Roswell thus far understood made it easier for me to proceed. Well, let me tell you, Captain, Ol Docs tales of war against the Redcoats downright stirred the blood, and before the year was out, Billy and I got to pretending. We soon spent our days chasing through the Charlottesville woods, as merry as grigs with rifles in hand, and battled ourselves some Redcoats. Or red squirrels, if the truth be told. But to rambunctious thirteen-year-olds armed with squirrel rifles and fertile imaginations, twasnt hard to envision those furry varmints as British elite forces. Interlopers to Virginia. Each and every one of them devils on a covert mission of destruction against all we held dear.
With a nostalgic smile, Roswell sipped his watery brew of peanuts.
I turned my face to the fire. Billy and I. The best of pals. Comrades in arms at war with the squirrel population. All ye squirrels of Virginia beware! I must say, in all modesty, I soon became their number one tormentor. My aim was death on. Twasnt a critter I couldnt bag at either a dead stop or a jog trot. And I aint yet met a squirrel—or one of them tarnal Lincoln hirelings—who could outlast the likes of Samuel Whitmore on the battlefield. No sirree!
A hearty laugh from my companion, then silence.
Those days meant a great deal to me, Captain. Not only did Billy and I have the time of our young lives, but I also earned his respect. Finally!
Roswell crooked an eyebrow.
You must understand that Billy always seemed more accomplished at anything he set his mind to. I, on the other hand, initially poor in schooling, tall and lanky—gangling, if the truth be told—and shyer than spit around the fairer sex, ofttimes felt quite the outcast.
I suppose weve all felt that way from time to time.
Oh, Billy would attempt to boost my spirits, mind you—would make light of his achievements for my benefit—and for that I am forever beholden. Still, I had a tendency toward doldrums, and a touch of envy toward him. Twasnt until that summer of our Great Squirrel Battles when—much to my surprise and not inconsiderable relief—I finally discovered I had a talent for something.
Something better than Billy, huh? Roswell said with a cognizant smirk.
The captain nodded, then plucked from the pocket of his soiled and faded jacket a tin of Darling Fanny Pancake. He broke off a plug of the sweet-smelling tobacco and shoved it into his cheek. I declined his subsequent offer and sensed a question forming behind his puckered lips.
But Private Whitmore— Roswell nudged me with his elbow and dropped his voice. Sam—is that any reason to make such an outlandish request? Gratitude for past kindness?
Tis more to it than that, Captain. You see, one afternoon, after I bagged eight of those dad-blamed varmints to Billys lone kill, he gave me a clap on the back and put voice to his admiration. I will never forget that moment. For the first time in my life I felt—special. You know? As if my grand show of marksmanship made up for all I lacked. I suspicion Billy sensed what his praise meant to me, for he then went one step further. He pulled his prized bowie from his pocket and ran the silver tip over the pad of his thumb. He handed the bloodied knife to me and told me to do likewise, which I did. Then, with the light of esteem in his eyes, Billy pressed his thumb to mine, allowing our blood to mingle. Blood brothers forever, he said with that winning smile of his. I, of course, echoed the sentiment, adding that whatever I could do for him, I would. No matter what. No matter...
I paused as an icy finger traced my spine. Who could have foretold that the innocent boyhood ritual and devout pledge of camaraderie would ultimately lead us to this moment?
You must think that whole incident complete balderdash, considering what you know about Billy and I. But let me tell you, Captain, I have never in my life felt the same connection with another human being. Never! Despite all thats happened betwixt Billy and myself since that day—the differences that have driven us apart—I feel I owe it to him.
Its your future mental anguish that concerns me, Sam. He jetted a stream of tobacco juice into the fire; it momentarily sizzled like frying bacon. He planted his elbows on his knees and churched his fingers before him. What if my superiors grant your request? What then? How will it affect you?
For two sleepless nights I had pondered that very question. But I had prepared that response as well. All that matters is Billy. And the promise. Though we were just thirteen, the promise was that of a gentlemans. My honor is at stake, and in truth, I dont know how I can go on living with myself if I break my vow. Therefore—
I struggled to my feet and puffed out my chest. With hands clasped securely behind my back, I repeated my earlier petition. The captain sat in silence, while a log snapped in the fire, sending up a fountain of amber sparks. In a last ditch effort to drive home my point, I added the motto of many a soldier in the Confederate army—a motto Roswell himself used to address the company prior to every engagement. Death before dishonor, Captain! Death before dishonor! Now can you understand why I must do this?—for Billy?—for myself?
Roswell grunted a non-answer. The wrinkles in his forehead returned. Your performance on the battlefield has always amazed me, Sam. From bloody Sharpsburg to the hellfire at Gettysburg I have never once questioned your manhood—your honorable conduct. Still, under these extraordinary—and pathetic—circumstances, I cant help thinking youre making a terrible...
The captains eyes, great gray pools of compassion, misted over, conveying his true thoughts. He knew all too well how things for Billy could go horribly wrong. Still, a knot formed in the pit of my stomach when I imagined him denying my request, despite my humanitarian argument. And if that happened, how could I tell Billy? Dear God, how?
Roswell rose to face me. He stood with grave stiffness and for a while it seemed a contest of stares. Then to my astonishment, he saluted his homage. Youre certain of this road, Sam?
Yes, sir, I croaked, choking back unbidden tears gathering in my throat, very certain.
He released a lengthy sigh. Ill see what I can do.
With determination on his rawboned face, the captain strode into the darkness toward a line of officers tents. I knew that Roswell, with his gentlemanly bearing and grandiloquence of speech, would present to his superiors my fervent petition. And, without a doubt, I also knew that he would convince them.
All at once, my mind became a maelstrom of emotions as the full meaning of my triumph with the captain rushed over me. Of course I felt a degree of pleasure—for Billys sake—and I could picture the look on his face once he knew his worst fears would be alleviated. Still, other feelings battled for dominance inside my head—confusion, sorrow, with no small amount of apprehension. But preeminent of all—terror. Pure and turbulent, it rippled through me like one of Ol Docs treasured locomotives, causing my knees to tremble, my guts to churn, my heart to hammer. The tears I had attempted to harness moments before now sprang from my eyes when I realized there was no turning back.
I lifted my hand, callused and thin from years of infrequent battles and numerous deprivations, and studied in the firelight the ancient scar on my thumb. Though time had faded the white line, it could not efface the memory of that bygone day. Or the pledge it represented.
I pulled a deep breath. The air hung heavy with the rammish odors of wood-smoke, horse droppings, and hundreds of unwashed men. Even a polecat had discharged its pungent incense somewhere nearby. Nevertheless, the air whisked away any remaining doubts. With renewed confidence, I cuffed the dampness from my face. I zigzagged my way around the clumps of slumbering soldiers and camp accoutrements, heading for the copse of trees under which my knapsack awaited my return. Soon, bundled in blankets under the winter-stripped branches of a towering oak, I closed my eyes. I had done the right thing. The honorable thing. The only thing a true blood brother could have done. And, for the first time in two days, ever since the morning of Billys tearful pleas for my collaboration in this gruesome affair, I drifted into restful slumber.
I awoke at six oclock to the rat-ta-tap-tapping of reveille, the dream of my sweet Marthas kisses still warm on my lips. Instantly, bodies stirred throughout the glade, and the inescapable babble of morning greetings and camp cough soon followed. Company cooks banged skillets and kettles, and several fires cut through the morning gloom. Before long, the aroma of fried meat—its origin highly questionable—met my nostrils, and inevitably a few jaded jaspers threw back their heads and issued a raucous Ye-ha! Ye-ha! to mimic the probable animal who had given his life for the benefit of our grumbling bellies.
In the east, dawn broke from behind wispy shrouds of cirrus, while to the west, prodigious black thunderheads loomed low on the horizon, promising a tumultuous day ahead. I almost wished for a mighty breeze to sweep the storm forward, then perhaps I could avoid, or at least delay, the fulfillment of my promise to Billy.
But then I spotted the captain. The moment of truth had arrived. As Roswell approached me, his lugubrious countenance told nothing. He hunkered down beside me and rested his hand on my shoulder.
The second from the left, he said in a conspiratorial tone. The one with a deep gouge in the stock.
Roswell stared into my eyes, and without words, again imparted his concern for my welfare. With a brittle smile, he gave my shoulder a fierce squeeze before leaving me alone to ponder. My body tingled with renewed dread as I both cheered and cursed at Providence.
Michanah Hawkins, a messmate and confidant who was privy to my situation, came rushing forward in the captains wake. A mixture of curiosity and tension blanched his sunken cheeks.
So? he asked. What did Roswell say? Do you have permission?
Its all been arranged, Hawk.
Hellsafire! How are you?
I gave my pledge. Ill do my best.
Hawkins fished a whiskey flask from his pocket. Here, Sam. Youll need a right smart of pop-skull.
How blissful the thought of drinking myself into oblivion, to numb myself of the escalating anxiety, to free myself from this world for that of another, if for only a short while. Yet after a moment of devilish temptation, I declined. No thanks, Hawk. I need to keep my wits about me. Cant risk making a poor fist at the task.
In comprehension, Hawkins gave me a nod and a handshake. He spouted some well-intentioned gibberish in a bid to lift my spirits, but he knew as well as I that the exercise was fruitless. God be with you, Sam.
If I could only be certain of that.
The stubble of the previous years corn crop littered the designated field. The dry, winter-browned vegetation poked through the holes in my boots, stabbing my bare soles. A vagrant breeze snapped my tattered butternut coat but did little to heave the thunderheads closer to the east. The event would commence as scheduled.
Hundreds of soldiers, several companies, in fact, had been called to bear witness to the days exhibition. Even members of Company Q, the infirm who were able to hobble from their sick beds, had been ordered to attend. The spectators formed three sides of a hollow square. Donned in patched and motley uniforms, frayed slouch hats and forage caps, many barefoot and in desperate need of nourishment, they looked like an army of scarecrows. Apart from the sporadic whispered banter and the nervous twittering I assume was born out of wariness for what lay ahead, my comrades stood in mute deliberation. And a quick observation of the various faces suggested that most, like me, did not have the stomach for it. But orders were orders.
Waiting, caught up in the winds of memories, my mind dwelled on Billy and the decade following our blood oath. At first, it had been easy to maintain my end of the pledge. The occasional loan of a few dollars when Billy coveted a new bowie knife, or the loan of a fist when neighborhood bullies converged on our bountiful fishing hole with an intention of claiming it as their own. We became inseparable. Thick as thieves, some might say, and together we lived our young lives to the fullest. We shared our first sip of whiskey together, our first chaw of tabakky together, and even spent countless evenings together investigating the mysteries of the petticoats with the painted ladies who lived in a rambling house at the edge of town.
But as the years trickled past, and the normal hijinks of youth gave way to maturity, the burden of the pledge grew wearisome. By our eighteenth summer, I had fallen in love with Martha Davenport, the prettiest gal in all of Charlottesville, at least in my eyes. Our whirlwind courtship and marriage brought new responsibilities, and I chucked my penchant for boyhood idylls and settled into a comfortable existence. I must say, in all fairness, that my dear Martha went a long way in taming me—especially after little Sammy arrived within a year of our nuptials, and pretty Ivy Anne following eleven months later—but I had come to enjoy the bridle. Yet, while my newfound life as a husband, father, and hardworking planter made me a pillar in the community, Billys life took a different turn.
His love affair with the whiskey bottle had become legendary in Albemarle County. His lucklessness at the gambling tables equaled his windfalls with the gals, and he possessed an insatiable craving for both. If the lack of funds posed a problem, he would resort to thievery. If someone looked at him cock-eyed, he would take to brawling. All in all, his proclivity for raising hell and low-down shecoonery caused quite a shindy wherever he went. And whether it be a run-in with a constable seeking justice or a cuckolded husband seeking revenge, I didnt much cotton to Billys increasing need for assistance. Still, despite my better judgment and my darling Marthas protests, I would always recall the day of that boyhood pledge and come to Billys aid.
And here I was again, honoring that pledge, although in a manner I had never dreamed possible. Dizzy from the headwork, an inertia of despair fell over me. I hovered on the edge of panic. A cold and clammy sweat collected under my arms and trickled down my back. My nerve endings hummed, almost as if I had indulged in Hawkins offered liquor.
But then I spotted Captain Roswell, standing with dark dignity off to one side of the hollow square. I pictured him leading our company into battle, unflinchingly foregoing his fear for the Rebel cause, and told myself I mustnt quail. I looked at my thumb—the white scar shone with a sudden brilliance—and managed to outbrave my terror, to rally my fortitude, to remember that Billys wish transcended my personal hell.
The camp drummers snapped to life, their haunting racket slicing through the leaden silence. In jig time, the rattle of wheels and the creak of leather cut through the rhythmic din, while the thud of hooves beat a lazy tattoo on the hard-packed road. Three wagons came into view; the gaunt and shaggy horses pulling them mirrored the pale-faced onlookers. Led by a corporal, a squad of eight soldiers, holding their rifles at reverse arms, escorted the wagons to the field.
The first wagon, driven by a hefty teamster with a dead cigar clenched in his teeth, halted before the open side of the square. In the wagon bed, on top of a hastily fashioned pine box, sat a raggedy, weather-beaten man with hands tied behind his back and the gleam of defiance in his deep-set eyes. The second wagon arrived bearing similar cargo, except this prisoner had the first peach-fuzz of manhood on his chin, and his cheeks bore the pustules of adolescence. His face was a study in fright.
Then came the final wagon. The prisoner, a clean-shaven man, possessed a horrent, roan-colored shock of hair, prematurely streaked with silver—a condition not unknown to soldiers who have witnessed many a grisly sight. Lines of hard drinking and hard living had aged his otherwise youthful face. When the wagon halted, he rose from his coffin and stood on the flatbed, silhouetted against the thunderheads in the west. Fierce sunlight spilled from over my shoulder, deepening the reddish color of the prisoners jacket to a fiery crimson.
His eyes scanned the assembly of soldiers, then settled on me. He smiled. It was a smile that guided me back to that afternoon of our blood oath. A smile that said, no matter what differences had come between us, he still trusted in me to do my best on his behalf. My palms prickled. My heart leapt into my throat.
Desertion. To me, the idea seemed poisonous, because if left unpunished, the crime had the power to demoralize entire regiments and cripple an army. Yet, in all honesty, I suppose I could empathize with these men, for I, too, have contemplated the crime for which they had been tried and convicted. My beloved Marthas letters have ofttimes moved me to tears with their poignancy—Please, my dearest, she would write in her wispy script, I would not have you do anything wrong, but before God, Samuel, unless you return home we are certain to die. Martha would usually go on to describe the shambles to which our homestead had been subjected, or recount the latest in a series of indignities the town had suffered in the hands of the Bluebellies. But her depiction of our children—gentle souls wasting away for lack of sustenance—was always a blade to my heart. It might have also become the prod in my hindquarters to skedaddle were it not for Captain Roswells simple, yet commanding, maxim—
Death before dishonor.
Therefore, I knew punishment for the dishonorable crime of desertion was also a necessary evil. But execution? Dear God, just the memories of the last execution I had been forced to attend gave me occasional nightmares. I still remember vividly the bound and blindfolded prisoner, sitting on the edge of his coffin before a prepared grave, just scant paces from the firing squad. The chorus of gunshots and the hollow thud of the prisoner falling backward onto the coffins lid. The undead prisoner, torn into flinders with wounds to his abdomen and legs, crying tears of agony and begging for someone to kill him. The officer in charge racing over, pointing a pistol at the mans head, and pulling the trigger. The prisoners wild-eyed panic when the officers gun misfired—again—then again—then again—until a bullet finally exploded in his face and quieted his hair-raising shrieks. And I knew that Billy, who had also borne witness to that hellish sight, remembered it well.
I shook off the horrific recollections. Billy, like the other two prisoners, now sat on his coffin and spoke to an ashen-faced chaplain. The provost marshal stood before the assembly, and in a booming voice, read aloud the sentence of the court for all to hear. For an instant, the scene before my eyes vanished in a glaze of hot tears.
How can I go through with this? Dear God, how?
But then Billys beseeching eyes met mine, and a ghost of a grin twisted his mouth, giving me the push I needed. Standing scant paces before him in a line of twelve men, I managed to build a wall around my emotions with the bricks of determination and courage, cementing it together with the love of brotherhood and honor. And for the hundredth time since the morning of his urgent plea, I stared at the faded line on my thumb and relived the afternoon of our pledge.
Orders broke the tense stillness. In unison, the soldiers in the three separate firing squads knelt and grabbed for a rifle on the ground before them. Some were loaded with balls, others were loaded with blanks, so that no man could be certain whether he had fired the fatal shot. I found mine easily. The second from the left. The one with the deep gouge in its stock. The rifle Captain Roswell himself had loaded with a ball to ensure that my marksmanship would spare Billy the horrors of past executions.
I picked up the gun. Stood at attention. Waited for the provost marshals command. I zeroed in on my target. Drew a bead on the center of Billys chest. The chest hidden beneath a coat. A red coat Billy had chosen to remind me of our days battling the squirrels.
But Billy neednt have worried. He knew the pledge betwixt us had been an unnecessary pledge of brotherhood. I suppose, looking back, it was rather absurd for the two of us to share a blood oath after sharing a mothers womb for nine months. Twins truly are about as close as two brothers can get.
When the order came, I pulled the trigger and honored Billy Whitmores last request.
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