Heath stormed out of the study leaving his stepmother and brothers to consider the way they had handled an extremely difficult, sensitive and awkward situation. It appeared that Victoria was angry but she was not. She was exceedingly worried and upset and knew that because of her worry she had not been fair to her stepson and may even have driven him from them. She excused herself to her sons as she left the study. As she entered the foyer she saw Silas, “Silas have you seen Heath?”
“Yes ma’am Mr. Heath has taken his self to his room. He seemed to have been in a mighty big hurry.” Feeling the charged atmosphere in the house Silas let his observations be known as he replied.
Victoria Barkley took hold of her skirts and in determined mood started up the stairs to the first door in the hall way where she stopped. Tentatively she knocked and called. “Heath can I talk with you please?”
Much to her surprise Heath brusquely replied, “Come in.” It was not what she had expected and before he could change his mind Victoria turned the knob and entered through the doorway into the bedroom. Heath was standing with his back to the door doing something on the table in front of him. He did not turn round to acknowledge her, he just continued doing what it was he was doing before his stepmother entered. Victoria slowly approached and started to speak again. “Heath we need to talk,” she started. Still he did not turn or acknowledge her. He finished what he was doing and as she drew near turned swinging his saddle bags over his left shoulder and made to walk by her towards the door.
Taken aback she called harshly, “Heath where are you going?”
Heath ignored her and continued towards the door. Victoria realized she again had used that officious tone, the one she had used downstairs. “Please Heath I’m sorry we need to talk.” She said in a much softer voice.
This time Heath stopped and responded with his drawl emphasizing the words. “Ain’t that what’s been happening all day? We’ve been talking. I’ve been listening. I don’t reckon there is anything more to be said.” Tersely he replied and started towards the door again. Victoria could hear the distress beneath the anger in his voice and she put her hand out and took hold of his arm to restrain him.
“I am truly sorry Heath but we need to talk. After what you’ve heard today I’m surprised you called me in.” Victoria had softened her voice considerably and was trying to reassure Heath that she was willing to talk and to listen.
Heath ignored the plea to talk and snapped back, “If you want to come in this room I couldn’t stop you ma’am this is your house.” Victoria was not insensitive to the emphasis placed on ‘your house’ nor to his reverting back to calling her ma’am. “Where are you going because I do want to talk to you. I need to talk to you I need to explain?”
“I’m leaving ma’am I need a few days on my own to think. I can’t do it here in this house, not now, not any more. I don’t know when or if I’ll be back.” Again Heath started towards the door.
Victoria clutched harder on to his arm and pleaded with him. “Heath please stay, please don’t go, not yet, we need to talk. I need to talk but most of all I think I need to listen.” The last four words halted Heath. He turned round and looked at Victoria and waited raising an eyebrow questioningly. There was no denying the hurt exposed in his clear blue eyes as he waited for Victoria to continue. She was sorry knowing that she was partially the cause, her sons also having their share of blame.
“This morning I was worried, no I was more than worried I was frightened. I’ve never seen you like that before so intent on killing a man. I had to stop you and I know this is an excuse and I don’t really want to make an excuse but because I was frightened I was angry with you. I don’t know whether you can understand how a mother can be angry when she is frightened for her child but that is how I was.” Frantically Victoria tried to explain herself to Heath. “And because I was frightened I didn’t listen to you and I should have done. I’m here now Heath and I want to listen.”
“I told you this morning all that I could tell you...... That was all I could tell you.” He reaffirmed giving a slight nod of his head as his eyes grew distant. “I told you all you needed to know. Enough I thought so as you’d understand. I have never lied to you, to any of you. You knew that I had been a prisoner for seven months in Carterson I didn’t keep any secrets from you. I told you all this this morning. I listened to what you said, you and Jarrod. I went to the horse auction because I needed to be on my own to think. I knew then that I couldn’t kill Bentell. I knew before I left the house. I stayed away all afternoon because I couldn’t face being here in the house with him. I felt sure that you would have sent him away. But then when I returned I saw the buggy and knew that he was still here. What I didn’t know then was what you all had planned for me. I believe had I known that then I would never have returned.” In anger his words came gushing out not giving Victoria an opportunity to speak.
“I wanted you to listen to me then. I hoped you’d understand. But you didn’t did you? You were more interested in Bentell not being killed and being given a fair chance in life. Not once did you show any interest in why I should want to kill him or whether I should have a chance in this life.” Although there was anger in his voice the hurt was trying to overwhelm it and he fought for control. “We talked but we never discussed anything. I once told you I would do anything for you, I meant it, all you had to do was ask, but you didn’t ask did you? Any of you? You had all made up your minds what I was going to do. You even threatened me to show you the guts that I have inherited from my father. Do you honestly believe I would be here now if I didn’t have guts? They might not be guts like Tom Barkley’s but they are guts that kept me alive and brought me here. And they will be the guts that take me away.” He didn’t raise his voice; he didn’t need to for his anger and hurt was evident. He could say no more and stopped speaking, not caring if he’d inflamed an already volatile subject hoping at last that his stepmother understood and that he had managed to get his feelings across to her.
He could feel his stomach churning as the bile was rising to his throat. He felt rooted to the spot, wanting to escape through the open door and yet needing to stay. Victoria acknowledged to herself the truth of what he said and realized that Heath’s next course of action depended upon her. She feared with good reason that if he left his home he would never return. She had to stop him now and the only way she knew how was to talk with him and to listen to what he had to say as she hadn’t done earlier in the day. Victoria stepped around him and moved across the room to close the door then turned to Heath and ushered him over to the bed. Surprisingly he succumbed to her actions and found himself sitting on his bed. Feeling anything but calm Victoria calmly removed his saddle bags from his shoulder and placed them on the small table before sitting down in the easy chair.
“Heath I want you to talk to me. I want you to tell me now and I am going to listen. And when you have finished we will discuss and we will decide what will be done. Not me, not Jarrod, not Nick but us.” She watched as Heath’s left eyebrow raised questioningly again and his responsive pale blue eyes looked at her. She could see the trust had been shaken. “I promise Heath.”
“I said all that there was to say this morning and this evening. I don’t have anything more to add. What I said to you before was not good enough. I don’t see how what I say now can be any different.” Defiantly he responded with despondency.
“You were right Heath you said we didn’t understand. Yes you were right we didn’t understand. It is difficult for someone who hasn’t lived through or experienced what you have experienced to understand what it was really like. Oh I read about it in the newspapers at the time but even that is not the same as living it. I want to know Heath what it was like.” Victoria surprised Heath with what she said.
“I told you all you need to know.” His response was short and it was sharp and it cut into Victoria. She knew that she deserved it and she noticed how he clutched his hands together and squeezed them digging his finger nails hard into his flesh. He was fighting himself as much as her and Victoria realized all she needed to do was persist with her pleas.
“I want you to tell me all Heath. Everything.” Victoria demanded but with a sensitive and caring voice. Gone was the woman from this morning, gone was the woman from the study, here was a woman of warmth and compassion willing and wanting to understand what her stepson was feeling and wanting to understand all that he had been through.
“You don’t understand. I can’t tell you. I have never told anyone. It is not something for a lady to hear. It is not in me to tell you. To tell any of you.” Heath finished speaking but he was not sure whether he had conveyed his unwillingness to tell of his prison incarceration. Had he heard right, he questioned himself? Surely she did not want to know all the sordid and graphic details. Talking about Carterson was certainly something he did not want to do and especially not with Mrs. Barkley. Besides he was sure he could never tell.
Sitting here in his room the feeling of entrapment was overpowering him. He stood up and walked over to window. He opened the sash and breathed in the fresh air, gasping for freedom, hoping his mounting tension and nerves might be quelled.
Victoria was not without sentiment. She might not have understood what he went through at the prison camp but she did understand how he was feeling now. She felt sure that if Heath was able to talk about his experiences then he himself would be able to exorcise the demons which were only too keen to ruin his life.
Victoria stood up and walked over to Heath as he stood with his back to her looking out far across the valley but not seeing the country beyond. She stood slightly behind his right side putting her right hand just above his right elbow and slid her left hand behind his back to put pressure on to his left arm just above his other elbow. She then rested the near side of her face against the back of his right shoulder. “I will stay here Heath until you are ready. I will be here for you. I have already said I am sorry for the way I spoke to you today. If I could take all of it back I would. Today I forgot the golden rule of family and what having a family means. You are a part of this family, don’t you ever not believe it and don’t you ever think that you are not because you are every bit a Barkley as the rest of us and that means a part of this family. I love you as much as my own children. You are as much mine as you are my husband’s. A family is there to listen, to share and to try and help. They are there for each other. Today I forgot that but I am here now Heath part of your family, your mother wanting to listen, to share and to help if I can. If you will only let me. If you can only trust me. I am strong Heath. I won’t break.”
“My trust was broken today. I’m not sure I can trust you yet or again. But even so I can’t tell you..... I don’t think I can.......No I can’t” His voice was quivering and all his defiance had deserted him. His tremors pulsed through her hands as Victoria felt him quaking and she started to gently draw circles on his back with her left-hand hoping to soothe his tension.
For a while stepmother and stepson stood with nothing being said, each with their own thoughts. Victoria waited patiently feeling his tension and gently caressing his back. She knew he was thinking and her thoughts were with him. In time and without pressure he would speak she felt sure. Heath’s thoughts were in another time and another place. The Heath she knew was no longer in the room.
The sun was starting to set as many species of birds silently winged their way to safe roosting perches and feral animals scurried to the security of their habitats before the creatures of the dark came out to haunt the night. It was a quiet evening and from the rear corral beneath Heath’s bedroom the sound of a couple of horses contentedly munching on their fresh hay drifted up on the breeze to the opened window. It was a sound that Heath would normally delight in but tonight it failed to penetrate his morose thoughts.
Time went slowly until eventually Heath stirred. He turned around towards Victoria breaking her hold on him, their eyes never coming into contact. With resolve he pushed by her and walked over to the small table and put his hands on the saddle bags but then stood still before slowly bowing his head.
After a while he looked up at the large stockade gates blocking his exit. All around him was the tall stockade fencing, towering above him, gradually closing in on him, stifling and oppressive, suffocating and overpowering him. He wanted to escape beyond but he knew there would be no freedom until he served his time in Carterson. For ten years he had been incarcerated; locked away in the psyche of his mind. There could be no liberty until he released the imprisoned memories. He only held the key. He only could turn the key. He only could open the gates. He only could destroy the demons. He only could find freedom. Only now was his chance, the opportunity he had yearned for, if only he had the courage to grasp it.
Two more minutes saw him let go of the bags, walk over dejectedly to his bed and sit on the edge, his elbows on his knees, his face buried in his hands and his strong sturdy fingers clawing into his scalp. Fearful Victoria watched him not daring to say anything.
“I haven’t seen him since I was fourteen until this morning, that is, standing as large as life in the living room. All my memories, all the experiences came flooding back as clear to me as if it was yesterday.” In a quavering voice of uncertainty Heath started to talk. Victoria came and sat back down in the easy chair off to the side but facing him. Heath looked up and stared ahead at the wall opposite, his work roughened hands now gripping tightly to the bed. His knuckles went white and his arms stretched straight hunching up his shoulders. Victoria looked into the pale blue eyes seeing both distance in time and life. To her Heath was somewhere else no longer knowing she was there watching and listening to him.
“The last battle we fought was in New Mexico. There were about seven hundred and forty of us left in our regiment after the battle. There were no officers they had all been killed. Somehow we had become separated from the rest of the Union army. Our regiment was supposed to curve round to the East of the Confederate army and come in on their flank while the rest of our army held the front and covered the West. Somehow it had all gone terribly wrong. We moved into our positions up to the East and then we became aware of more rebs coming from that direction and moving around from the North effectively cutting us off from the rest of our army. We were now trapped and encircled. The rest of our army were pushed over to the South. We never saw them again. We had no idea where they ended up. This day the Union army was well and truly beaten.
“For two days we held our position. We had no choice. The rebs didn’t advance they didn’t need to. They had us trapped. They held the trump card. They kept sniping at us and firing the small field artillery. As if to condone the situation the weather went from scorching hot to bitter cold and pouring rain. The smoke from the firing weapons and the smell of gunpowder hung in the air around us as a dense fog causing our eyes to water and our throats to burn. The ground went from parchment to a quagmire. The conditions soon became intolerable. The bad weather persisted for those two days. We were soaking wet, muddy, miserable, cold, frightened and defeated. For two days we hadn’t eaten. Some of us still had water left in our canteens but not much and it certainly wasn’t fresh.
“In a forlorn effort we tried to fight our way out. It being the only thing left to do. But that saw the end of our ammunition and realizing it the rebs moved in. We had nothing left to fight with only our bare hands or our rifles if we used them as clubs. To try was sure suicide. We were backed up and herded into the center. Any who tried to break through were shot. There was no escape. We laid our rifles down and surrendered; there was nothing else to be done. Our weapons were collected and we stood there not daring to move. It seemed like ages before we were pushed into single file to be searched and relieved of any concealed weapons or equipment. Our canteens were removed as were our eating utensils and surplus items of clothing and anything else the rebs felt they could use. Any monies, valuables or personal items we had also were taken. They even checked our boots and any decent ones found were removed from their owners. Fortunately my boots had already departed company with part of their sole so were not deemed suitable plunder and as such remained on my feet.
“As captives we were sorely treated by our captors. Any means we had had been taken from us. Later during my imprisonment I was to learn from fellow prisoners of other units that not all captors treated their captives as we had been treated.
“We had no idea what their intentions were towards us. For a while I feared we were going to be shot and prepared to meet my maker but eventually the orders came through. Half of us were going to a prison camp near a small settlement called Carterson and the other half were to be moved to the nearest railway depot to be transported to I know not where. It was going to be a fair trek in either case and any prisoners who were wounded or ailing and deemed not fit enough to walk were killed; shot out of hand with a bullet to the head. Any wounded who were found lying on the field where also dispatched like a horse with a broken leg. It was hard to believe that these rebs were actually Americans, that we were born and bred in the same country.
“And this was only the beginning of our capture.
“Eventually the regiment was divided into two and I found myself marching on the road to Carterson. The only fortunate part about it was that I was with my small band of buddies. There were six of us and we’d been together ever since I first, not joined the army but came into the regiment. I was the youngest by a good few years, being just turned thirteen when I first joined the army, and they had taken a shine to me and took me under their wings and looked after me.” For a short while his voice sparked with animation.
“The boss was Jack. He was the eldest being about the age I am now. He seemed ancient to me at the time. He was a real big guy; big in all ways. Generous in spirit and generous in voice. A little like Nick. He always dealt fairly with you. He took real good care of me and the others. You always felt safe when Jack was around. I was glad he was here with us. Then there was Hank a small shifty looking fella, you know the type with eyes too close together. His appearance belied him. He was honest and true as the day was long. He’d never let you down. He was always there for you. Then there was Paddy of course he was an Irishman. Full of the blarney as they say. Well he always had stories to tell. You never could believe a word he said. But he wasn’t lying. He was just telling stories. Then there was Jed and Wes. Just ordinary guys like me who had joined the army hoping for a better life, trying to escape their past. We’d made a pact that we would be there for each other come what may.”
Heath stopped talking and the small crooked smile, which was peculiar to him, touched his lips as his eyes remained still far, far away. Victoria was sure he was seeing them all again, playing, fooling, fighting, joking in his mind’s eye. She could feel them here in the room. She looked at the wall to see if she could see them so intent was his stare. She wanted to ask what had become of them but decided not to for fear of breaking his train of thought. The pit of her stomach gave her the feeling that shortly she would find out and feared that if she interrupted his flow and he realized her presence then he would stop speaking and she would never know. Heath appeared oblivious to her company so involved with his revelations was he.
As smoothly as it had arrived the smile left his lips and he continued in the monotonous monotone voice, which he had begun with. “We started walking. The weather changed. It was now humid and hot. The sun beat down relentlessly drying the puddles and increasing the humidity. As the ground dried so hard ruts were created on the much-used tracks making marching difficult. We had started by floundering along ankle deep in mud but now we stumbled along tripping on the ruts accompanied by reb soldiers on horseback always keeping their eyes on us.
Any prisoners who made a break for it were shot and killed. Any who fell by the wayside from fatigue or whatever was shot too. One bullet to the brain was all. The bodies were left where they fell to be cleaned by buzzards, coyotes or whatever scavengers there were and there were plenty not just of the animal kind.
“During the daylight hours we marched with a small break at noon during the hottest part of the day I believe for the benefit of our guards and their horses. At night we rested. During the rest times we dealt with our personal necessities; there was no privacy. We were never let out of their sight nor were we allowed to talk. A rifle butt to the ribs took care of that. It sure cured you of wanting to talk. Mind you after a day of walking all you wanted to do was sleep. Our guards never took their eyes off us.
“For two days we marched without food. A water wagon followed at the rear and at the end of each day we were allowed a small drink. It wasn’t much but it was better than nothing. The butt of a rifle chivvied us along for our ration. Any dawdling was promptly dealt with and a rifle was always at the ready to dispense a bullet if necessary. As the days progressed I could feel my tongue swelling in my mouth. Fatigue was setting in. I was weary and the thoughts of the bullet to the brain was all that kept me going. I don’t think I was any worse off than the others. My feet had hardened long ago and thankfully they weren’t getting blistered now. Some of the men were barefoot while others were poorly shod and you could see them suffering. The muscles in my legs ached, my side pained from contact with a recent rifle butt and my head throbbed with the scorching sun although I was one of the few who wore a hat. During the march the weather had gone from humid to dry and the sun remained relentless in its torture of us.
“Fortunately at the end of the third day those of us who were left came by a river. I’m not rightly sure which river it was nor at the time I suppose did I really care. All that mattered was that it was wet and it was welcoming and the rebs let us into it. The floods created by the freak weather earlier in the week had gone and the water came no higher than our knee caps. So there was no chance of ducking down beneath the water and trying to make an escape by swimming for it. Being in the water was enough it was refreshing and we were able to drink our fill and soothe our aching limbs. That night was our last night outside of Carterson.
“On the fourth day our final stage of marching began. Although refreshed by the river I was suffering and feared this was going to be my last day with the living. Jack knew it and he was there for me. We dared not talk but we didn’t have to. He took my arm and put it round his neck and held on to it and put his other arm around my back and partially carried and dragged me ’til we reached our destination. There were many more like me helped to the prison camp by their buddies. I know it sounds ungrateful but often times in the months to come I would wonder whether we’d have been better had our buddies left us to have fallen by the wayside.
“It was towards the end of September and the Winter lay ahead of us as Carterson came in sight. I didn’t know it then but this was to be my home for seven long months. Fifteen acres filled with creatures I had yet to see which might have been human enclosed in a twenty foot high timber stockade, an impenetrable wall of rough, hewn, pine poles sunk into the ground, surrounded by acres of undulating, desolate land where once had stood trees. Not a hill, not a tree, not a bush could be seen until far into the distance. From outside the camp the smell was nauseous. The sounds we heard were animalistic and inhuman in their intensity.
“We were herded through an outer gate, which was then closed behind us before the large inside stockade gate was opened. From there I was able to view my new home for that is what it would be. For there would be no exchange of prisoners any more. There scarcely looked room for us amongst the seething mass of gaunt and wasted bodies who had once been soldiers, clothed only in rags, which once had been uniforms.
“A parapet went round the high stockade wall and a sentry box was placed every forty yards along. The prison guards could be seen patrolling along this parapet and in each box accessed by a short ladder were two more armed guards. About twenty feet inside the retaining fence was a single trip wire. The deadline I later learned it was called. It didn’t take much imagination to realize that this twenty-foot margin around the perimeter was dead man’s land. One step inside would be the last you made. Later many were the times I witnessed a prisoner being shot even before he stepped over the line. Inside the camp there were a few wooden barracks which looked like they’d been thrown together with a hotch potch of timber and were hardly sufficient or substantial enough to provide shelter or accommodation for the occupants.
“Near the gate was a longer and much sturdier building; the inside of which I would later become acquainted.” At this Heath blinked uncontrollably and then he shook his head fiercely as though clearing his thoughts before continuing. Victoria noticed and wondered at the response. “This building was surrounded by its own wall of latticed plain wire.
“Still inside the camp but on the other side of the gate was the whipping pen as we would learn to call it. It was an enclosure of latticed plain wire. This day there were already two bloodied carcasses hanging from two of the five substantial whipping posts. I couldn’t tell whether the bloody remains were alive or dead. As the sun beat down, the flies I presume drawn there by wet blood, swarmed around or crawled on the carcasses relishing in the raw flesh.
“With rifles being used as sticks or prodders by the guards, much as cattle are driven at the stockyards, we were herded into a holding corral. Once inside I don’t think there was one of us who didn’t sit down or lay down or drop down from exhaustion feeling sick, sore, hungry and frightened.
“One by one we were kicked up off the ground, physically propelled towards and into a building on the outside perimeter of the stockade also enclosed by another seven foot fence of latticed plain wire. It seemed obvious there would be no escape from this place. As each prisoner was hurled out he was poked and prodded through the open stockade gates and into the camp corral and the next prisoner went into Bentell’s office while another entered the building. One by one we were being processed. My turn eventually came. This was when I first met Matt Bentell.
“He was the Commander at Carterson and greeting his new guests was one of his rituals. This building was his headquarters which accessed directly to the parapet where he could watch and survey the prisoners. I was violently shoved into his presence and made to stand to attention with the aid of a rifle barrel prodding into my back. I was sick and weary but forcing myself to stand I looked him straight in the eyes defiantly. Another severe prod with a rifle and I learned a new lesson. I was told never to look the Commander in the eyes. Bentell always stood on ceremony although he was sitting at the time.” Heath made to laugh but the joke never reached his eyes only cynicism came forth.
“There he was sitting behind his desk looking much the same as he did today only ten years younger wearing his confederate officer uniform. It would appear he liked to see each of us at least once during our stay. He took my name, rank, and regiment which was documented by another prison guard. Then I was again thoroughly searched and manhandled before Bentell spoke telling me the basic rules and behavior expected from prisoners and how any deviation from this behavior would be severely dealt with. Of which I was left in no doubt.
“Having been processed I was thrown out into the camp corral where terrified I collapsed to the ground and sat on the bare earth and waited for my buddies. For what must have been more than five hours the processing went on. Fighting nausea and the desire to close my eyes and let oblivion claim me I kept my sight fixed on the open stockade gates for fear of missing the five of them. Eventually we six were reunited and life in Carterson began.”
“It had grown dark while we waited to be reunited. The camp had quieted and calmed some. As the fires died down and the air chilled most of the prison inmates had settled for the night beneath tents or canvases seeking only warmth for comfort was never in the offing. Around the perimeter of the camp at intervals hung lighted lanterns illuminating the dead man’s land and casting sinister shadows over the makeshift hovels. Here and there human forms could be seen silhouetted against the muted light as they sought refuge for the night. They were probably others from our unit as fearful and unsure as we were having to face our first night incarcerated within the tall wooden stockade none of us being ignorant of what the future held.
“There was no specific place for us we just had to find a space somewhere to spend our first night. The resident inmates were none welcoming nor accommodating offering us no quarter so Jack decided we’d try one of the shacks for the first night although we doubted there would be room. We opened one door and besides it being squashed to capacity with reclining bodies we were met with a stench more nauseating than outside so immediately the idea of staying in a shack was dismissed. The alternative was to find accommodation outdoors but it became obvious to the others that I was too tired and not fit enough to tramp around looking for a place so it was decided that we seek refuge in one of the kind of streets which ran intermittently between the hovels of tents, canvases and inadequate holes. There was many a poor soul miserable and wretched without shelter or means of warmth who sought the pathetic sanctuary the streets could offer that first night as we did. Jack assured us that the following day somehow we’d secure some kind of accommodation where we could live and exist.
“We slept that night as we had many times with empty bellies, on cold, hard, rough ground, without any form of cover the only difference now being we were no longer free men. We slept though restless the sleep of the exhausted. Although the night grew cold we were thankful that it didn’t rain for we were exposed. Having nothing under us nor over us pitifully we huddled together shivering and trembling our bodies powerless to provide each of us with the warmth and comfort we craved.
“The new day arrived and fear and trepidation were our companions for there was no doubt we were wretched. I looked around at the camp. It was hard to know what was most terrible about the place, the prison itself or the throng of grimy, soiled, malnourished, starved and emaciated prisoners. That’s the kindest way to describe them for the most they were an appalling sight to behold. What was most alarming was the facial expressions of many or the lack of, for their faces told more than their physical appearance ever could.
“As were their bodies most of the faces were gaunt and drawn but the look on many was expressionless being devoid of emotion. The eyes were vacant, blank, indifferent and unfeeling many of them beyond caring whether they lived or died. The lack of expressions told of suffering, anguish, torment, pain, humiliation, shame, degradation, fear, misery and much more. No longer had they a thought to the future. You could see no sign of hope in them and for myself I knew I was going to learn first hand what had brought these men to this.
“It was another sight to behold when the prisoners started moving around as the day began. They moved slowly and aimlessly lacking any form of motivation. Some figures were stooped with their arms hanging listlessly down, some dragged their limbs and some moved with each step giving them obvious pain. I could only picture them being as the living dead.
“It was hard to believe a human being could look and be like that and still be alive. For many their days were numbered and they would not live much longer.
“The array of dress was something else to behold. Some were reasonably well clothed even having a heavy coat over their uniforms while most were barely covered, the cloth having become worn and threadbare. Some were without pants and some without boots and some poor souls with neither. Any who had blankets kept them around themselves as an extra garment being fearful of their loss or having them stolen. The uniforms besides being filthy like their owners had long been bleached by the sun. The uniform you came in with was all you had to see you through your time there.
“Now although the majority looked gaunt and some skeletal, not all the prisoners looked bad. In my innocence I assumed it depended on how long they had been there. For some it did but not all. For some reason some prisoners never looked bad no matter how long their stay. At that time I didn’t understand why. The reason I would learn later.
“I looked around the compound across the sea of bodies ’til my sight came to an abrupt halt on the solid stockade fence. There was no way of seeing through it, round it or over it at the world outside. All I could do was follow it upwards to the heavens above and wonder if eventually that would be my only salvation.
“Everything was bad.
“It soon became obvious we needed to vacate where we had slept as the morning traffic began in earnest else we’d have been trampled underfoot. There were too many prisoners for the amount of space. The place was swarming and teeming with the wretched creatures. At all times we were squashed and cramped together. There didn’t at first appear to be any order or organization about the camp. Jack realized that if we were going to survive we needed to organize ourselves even within our existing unit. Each morning there was roll call and all prisoners were expected to muster within their unit. At least this kept us united. Each unit was looked over by their own sergeants who would organize the needs and provisions for their men.
“Work parties were created from within the units on a roster system. There would be work parties to collect and forage for firewood, work parties for collecting and supplying water and work parties for burial duty. These were work duties shared by all the units. The work parties collecting food rations did so only for their own unit.
“Food rations were dispensed daily and our work party would collect our rations which would then be dispensed to us. Our unit had been denuded of any eating and cooking utensils and the limited number of cooking skillets, tin plates or containers was kept guarded by the established prisoners themselves as their own possessions. They were not going to lend to the likes of us for fear of not having them returned. A prisoner without resources was without means. If you were without means you were without hope.
“So if you wanted a container you had to procure one in some manner or another. Then you needed to fight to keep it. Without a container your food rations were scooped into your open hands and you prayed that other prisoners would not fight and steal it from you. As new inmates many of us although wretched were reasonably strong and healthy and were at first not attacked for food but once we became weak then we became vulnerable to attack as was the unwritten law in a place such as Carterson.
“As the main rations were dealt out they were watched over by armed guards. The guards were only concerned that the main rations were not stolen once we had ours it was our responsibility. Any fighting or theft of the main rations was a flogging offence. Rations consisted of corn meal or cornbread, which was invariably maggoty, and insect infested, a small sliver of raw beef sometimes alternated by bacon or no meat at all. The rations were hardly sufficient to sustain us being half the normal daily amount needed to feed a man. The guards maintained they had the same amount we had but I reckon they had the means and the capability to buy more or supplement their rations. We had not. Complaining about lack of food or the maggots, you guessed it, was a flogging offence.
“We learnt where the sinks where. Again there was no privacy. Initially someone in their wisdom had decided they should be by the small stream, which ran through the corner of the camp so that the human waste would be washed away with the water. Unfortunately this didn’t happen because this stream was very slow running and was only flushed away after a storm or heavy rains. So what could have been a fresh source of water was stagnant, contaminated and poisonous and consequently unfit for drinking. Supposedly freshwater was brought in daily in water wagons by the work parties and was left for our use but this was only for drinking. You quickly learnt to be first there or to fight for the water otherwise sometimes you went without. There was never water for washing for washing was a waste of the resource. Wasting water was a punishable offence by flogging.
“And so it was that by asking around from inmates who had been there a while we learnt the bare necessities about existing at Carterson and particularly for our unit bare necessities they were indeed.
“Survival was the name of the game and Jack was determined that we were going to survive reasoning that our incarceration couldn’t be too long because although our last battle went against us the war was falling in the favor of the Union. This would later be confirmed by each new intake of prisoners. And Jack being as he was you could believe him. He always kept us hoping. Jack gave us each targets the first morning. We were to obtain plates, containers and cups, canvas or tents, a hole in the ground and blankets in fact anything that could be of use. My target was to stay more or less where I was and await their return. I took myself to the edge of the hovels where I thought I’d be safe and sat down anxiously watching out for them.
“It might have been an hour or two before they returned but return they did brandishing their bootie. There was not enough to go round but a start had been made. I wasn’t stupid enough not to realize where the items had come from but nonetheless I was grateful for them. Someone somewhere was doing without because of us. Paddy would reason it out by saying that those who had lost the items had had their turn and now it was ours. In the back of my mind I realized the truth of what he was saying and in due time someone else would have their turn when we became too weak to fight. “All was fair in love and war.” And this was war. At the time this was the only way I could deal with it.
“The accommodation in the camp comprised of the wooden makeshift shacks or being out in the open in shallow dugouts which had been scraped out of the earth some being covered with canvas or tents many of which were now no longer waterproof and only just managed to provide shelter from the elements for the occupants.
“We had a canvas and from now on our nights were spent shivering and trembling with cold huddled together beneath our acquired canvas. All that was left was for us to find a hole. While out on their scavenge hunt each of them had been spying out for a suitable hole but none had been found. So we squashed in at the edge of the existing mass and worked with our eating utensils and bare hands to scrape away the earth to form some kind of dugout. We would work on it as the months went by as would other prisoners with their makeshift shelters. It was a tight squeeze for the six of us but with the canvas it would afford us some shelter from the elements during the Winter months to come.”
Victoria listened intently to everything Heath said. Harrowing as it was to hear she knew it could only get worse. She noted how different he was speaking whilst telling the narrative. This was no longer the Heath she knew. This was a boy, a pathetic child from ten years ago telling his life as he had lived it. Living through a time no person should ever have experienced. No longer was he sparing with words. They were plentiful in their description albeit unhurried in their rendition. He neither glorified nor exaggerated in his telling. It was simplistic in its account. Frequently he stopped and checked and rephrased in his mind before divulging everything no matter how shameful or shocking. Victoria had never known him to be so open and she fought to control her emotions and did not interrupt.