The image would remain suspended in my memory like a picture hanging on a wall, one that stares at you the moment you step into the room. With time, it became less evident, fading into the background, until a sound, a smell or a face would hurl the picture back into the foreground.
That experience scarred me for life. Never will I forget being thrown into the throes of agony, living each day as the last.
Such was a day in Carterson. I remember how we trembled from hunger and cold, signing aloud in order to conserve our heat and boost our morale. Many of us were soaked to the skin for having drudged in the yard under pouring rain. Most slept on the cold damp floor, while others were lying on fresh hay they’d been fortunate enough to weed out from the urine-drenched and manure-smudged in the barn.
The following morning, we were jolted awake by the guards yelling and striking us with their sticks. With faces worn by fatigue, our bodies gnawed by extreme starvation and some crippled by mangled limbs, we were all ordered to stand in formation. Many of us were barefoot. We’d scorched the sole of our feet against sharp stones, stubbed our toes and twisted our ankles upon stepping into chuckholes. Our boots had been confiscated and given to the Confederate soldiers. Often we’d wish for the bearer of our boots to meet with an excruciating death.
In shackles, we were forced to grind away on the chain gang and given warm water to drink. We were so thirsty that no one complained about the taste that lingered on our palates. Our stomachs were growling and burning, the scorching hot sun was singeing our skin. During breaks, we would grind some acorn and use it as brew instead of coffee beans. With it, a slice of bread. We even collected some herbs growing around the yard and mixed them with flour and, if we were lucky, some drops of cooking oil. When the mixture was ready for eating, we would all lunge at the pot like ravens, scrambling to get our fair share of the feast, fighting to lick the spoon until the very last chunk. Rarely were there leftovers. We would use dry leaves and potato peelings for tobacco.
To clean ourselves, we needed to extract water from a hole in the floor. Although we were tempted to quench our thirsts, we retrained ourselves from drinking out of that putrid water unsuitable for consumption, unless we were compelled to when the guards would withhold the fresh water from us.
That morning, two guards marched towards me and for no justifiable reason, they dragged me into the barn. They began striking me with their sticks. My screams rent the air, but he prisoners suffered my martyr in silence, aware that they’d get a severe beating if they so dare lifted a finger to help me.
When they were done clubbing me, they left me to nurse my wounds in the hay. When they were out of sight, I’d scape up tiny grains of oatmeal from the horse feed and shoved them into my mouth. I’d wash it all down with water from the trough.
Lying in the smelly hay, my glassy eyes caught sight of an apple tree branch hanging loosely outside the cracked window. It prompted my addled mind to rove back to my childhood in Strawberry and my mama’s delicious apple pies. I hadn’t seen my mama for two years. I remembered how pretty she was. Skinny but vivacious. She would work fourteen hours straight and return home with hands full of blisters from all the washing she’d done at Uncle Matt’s hotel. Once, she was beaming with health until she was smitten with an incurable disease. One day after returning from the mines, I’d found her sobbing her heart out, evoking God’s help.
I was devastated at the sight of this woman, once full of energy, now shuddering in despair. Her spirits crushed, her hopes blighted by the harsh reality of life. I couldn’t help but blaming myself for the cause of all her pain.
I was yanked out of my stream of consciousness by the disturbing sight of two guards marching past the barn to the horse paddock with an impressive machine-gun. Soon after, we were all ordered to stand in formation.
Then, he emerged from the shadows of hell…Matt Bentell. He limped towards us with the aid of his cane, eyeing us one by one with a smoldering stare. He relished the terrorized expression etched on our hollow-cheeked faces.
Frozen in fear, we watched Bentell inspect us from head to toe, taping some of the men on the leg with his cane, ordering them to form another line. We couldn’t figure out the reason why those men were separated from us, but somehow we felt relieved that we weren’t among them. We had a sense of foreboding that we weren’t going to see them again.
His skeletal martyrs were lined up in front of me. He briefly walked up to me to gauge my reaction, expecting to see a glimpse of defiance that would give him reason to beat me, but I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.
He continued his selection of prisoners until he reached the number of fifty. He then instructed his armed men to escort them to the barnyard where the sat the giant machine-gun we saw earlier.
On his orders, the guards started beating and kicking the prisoners into submission, ordering them to stand against the wall of the barn. By now, all were aware of the fate awaiting them. Some cried, others knelt at Bentell’s feet to beg for mercy.
The ones who were knocked unconscious were dragged to the barn and seated against the wall. They were already dying and in a sense, lucky not to be a witness to their own demise.
I stood horrified at what was about to occur. Bentell was sending innocent men to their death for no justifiable reason other than he needed to make room for other incoming prisoners. I was sickened by the man’s ghoulish action, but dared not utter a single word for fear he might order me to join the condemned men against the wall. The priest gave each the final absolution before Bentell yelled. “Fire!”
I watched with numb horror as the men I had confided in my joy, sorrows and fears go down like ninepins. Splinters of wood flying off at the machine-gun swiveled from left to right, riddling their chests with bullets. Out of the ensuing gloomy silence rose the faint laments of the dying, their bloody bodies convulsing as they attempted to cling to life before the guards ended their suffering with a single gun shot to the head.
Among the men who witnessed the massacre, many broke down, weeping their hearts out, while others remained stone-faced. They were distraught to the point of defying Bentell’s orders to remove their friends’ corpses and haul them into the wagon.
Executions were held throughout the afternoon until dusk when the blood of our companions would be hosed down. Later, we were instructed to dig their graves and given bread laced with castor oil to purge us of any morbid thoughts
A chilling silence fell within the prison wall of Carterson that night. We laid in our cots, wide awake, afraid to shut our eyes and relive the brutal events of the day that were forever seared on our minds.