The wagon clattered and clanked up close, and stopped in the shade beside the grave. A cloud of brown dust followed in its wake. The clanking came from a tin water ladle hanging behind the wagon bench, and the damned hole was deep enough. Watkins climbed out of the hole, squinting against the dust at the fine-looking draft animals, their appearance marred only by the ‘USA’ brand at the shoulder. He saw horseflesh at a distance these days, and always under the asses of officers. The smell of wet leather and animal sweat gave him a pang of homesickness. Like so many others, his enlistment had expired months ago. He should be home now, courting sweet Jenny and preparing to bring in the harvest.
The men seated on the squeaking wagon bench were fellow privates, though he’d never seen them. Their coats were new and clean, shoes shined under a coating of dust. Each sported a gray kepi like the one Watkins had lost back at Shiloh. A young one held the reins, the other, a crusty gray-bearded man, gripped a musket, bayonet fixed.
In the back, seated on a pine coffin, Private Wright doffed his slouch hat and stared at the tree line, calm as you please. The prisoner wore no shackles. Watkins craned his neck at that, and saw no restraints of any kind.
“Hey, Wright. Who’s in the box?”
The coffin was makeshift, an old cannon box. The driver motioned for Wright to stand, then climbed in the back and pushed the box off the wagon by himself. The thin planks rattled when it hit the ground. Well, that puzzled Watkins, but all would surely be revealed in due time. He put his arm over the side boards and knocked on the water barrel. “Happy to see y’all carried up some—“
“Who’s in charge here, boy?” The oldster with the musket glared down at Watkins.
Watkins face went dark. He moved toward the armed man, thinking to snatch him off the wagon and drop him in the fresh grave, but the look of sudden apprehension in the guard’s eyes came as satisfaction enough. Yellow dog. Ain’t never seen a fight. Watkins reached forward, slowly, to stroke the nearest of the horses. “Look how fat and slick and shiny. I’d wager Grant’s been feeding them parched corn. Just like what Old Joe Johnston feeds us, only more of it.”
“This is no time for idle talk, sir,” said the driver, stamping a heel on the floorboards. “We are here to deliver this prisoner.” The gangly young man had soft cheeks and dark fuzz over his lip.
“Sir?” Watkins raised his eyebrows and swiveled his head. “Where? I don’t smell no cigar smoke.”
The boy snorted and turned away. He had had forgotten to engage the brake, and both men swayed like sailors with the shifting of the horses.
Down the gentle slope a few yards away, one of the soldiers on the shooting post detail whistled as though calling a dog, the standard webfoot infantryman’s greeting for staff officers and couriers, and other non-combatants. The horses started at the whistle, and the driver simultaneously lost his smirk and his balance. He stumbled over the small water barrel behind the bench, but managed to stay vertical long enough to resume his place behind the reins. Wright barked a staccato laugh and sat abruptly.
“Bring him here, you coffee coolers,” the corporal called. “He ain’t shot yet.”
The shooting post, now securely planted in the ground, consisted of a four-by-four piece of new pine lumber with black iron ring driven into it at shoulder level. A new hemp rope hung threaded through the ring.
Watkins gestured toward the water ladle. “Say, how about letting me—“
“Watkins, damn your eyes,” said the corporal. “Is that grave dug proper?”
“Heah!” The driver shouted, snapping the reins, and the Union horses pulled away. Wright put his hat back on as the wagon rolled into direct sunlight and watched Watkins from under its brim, regarding him in a way self-conscious men seldom do.