I’m about to finish the first draft of this story. My next post will be the ending. (for now) Any suggestions before the re-write? I’m not sure it’s even a viable story at this point. Anyway, here’s the next section.
* * *
“Post detail, secure the prisoner,” Gordon called. They bound Elias’ hands in front of him with the rope in the iron ring. He rested his head against the post, perhaps praying. Sergeants’ commands carried over the din of the brigade’s three battalions, maneuvering them into a three-sided square around the post and making a rust-red quagmire of the soggy field. Watkins moved behind the troops to stand with Gordon and the wagon men.
“Well, that’s it then,” Watkins said. God’s unfathomable will exasperated him. How can a man end up like this, brought up with all the advantages, only to meet his end with nothing he cared about to tie him to this world? Sure Elias was scared, but he seemed to have resigned himself to his fate like a rabbit does in the jaws of a fox. Am I any different? Am I fooling myself into carrying on each day? The horror of a moment when he, Watkins, might stop struggling covered him with prickly chill bumps.
The chaplain knelt, despite his age and fine uniform, on one knee in a patch of wet grass facing Elias and lifted a voice that might have belonged to a great stage actor. “Almighty God, our Heavenly Father who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness—“
Watkins ceased to listen. He was a man of faith, though not a religious one, and this ceremony was for the officers, not for Elias. That’s it, Chaplain. Talk of forgiveness, then see a good man shot. The South is going to run out of good men at this rate.
“—and bring you to everlasting life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” The old man stood and led the brigade in a ghastly hymn. Their tuneless chanting sounded like a dirge from the underworld, interspersed with brutal encouragement from the flat of the sergeants’ swords.
The brigade sergeant-major appeared at the shooting post shouting something at the post detail men. The two privates leapt forward, untied Elias, and turned him around with his back to the post and his arms pinioned behind him so he couldn’t quite stand up straight.
The hymn faded and died, allowing Watkins to hear General Wright and his staff splashing up the road. The sergeant-major’s voice boomed over the field. “Brigade!”
The hubbub of so many in close quarter ceased. “Attention!”
A single great stomp of boots, shoes, and bare feet reverberated through the ground. The sun had reappeared, and sweat rolled down Watkins’ face into his beard, dripped from his nose. The downpour had been welcome, but they would spend the rest of the afternoon steaming.
General Wright dismounted and entered the center of what had become an amphitheater, with the post, the knoll, and the oak the center of focus. Alone, the general approached his nephew.
“Now is where the Old Man pardons the boy,” Gordon whispered, perhaps to himself. “See if I ain’t right.”
Elias stood hunched over, and his lean shoulders jutted from the unnatural angle of his pinioned arms. The chaplain saluted and went to collect his horse. General Wright stopped an arm’s length from Elias and removed his pale leather gauntlets. He spoke quietly and privately to the condemned man while the brigade sweltered at attention.
All the executions Watkins had seen had been treated as a spectacle, with men milling in a crowd and sitting in trees for a better view. It appeared to be the general’s will that his nephew die with more dignity. And die he surely would. There was no honorable way for General Wright to pardon his nephew. Had he been surprised to learn that Elias hadn’t run?
August sunlight drew wisps of evaporating moisture from a thousand stinking, rain soaked soldiers. The brigade created its own weather, a swirling cloud of humidity evaporating into the sky.
The General laced his right hand on Elias’ shoulder. Elias nodded once, lips drawn up tight. At this, the General turned on his heel and spoke.
“Men, it is the solemn duty of those burdened with the mantle of command to enforce discipline in the ranks. Private Elias Wright…, who I count among my own kin, has been convicted of desertion in the presence of the enemy and will be shot to death by musketry.” He paused to scan the formation. A murder of crows in the oak tree behind his back began heckling him. The General shouted over their raucous caws. “He assures me he has made peace with Our Lord and stands prepared to meet his maker. God forbid any should choose to abandon his country and duty, but let the sentence carried out here today serve as a warning to any who may harbor similar thoughts. Sergeant-major, proceed.”
Gordon muttered something—the Corporal talked to himself a lot lately—but the only words Watkins understood were his own kin.