historical fiction

“Look Away” Runs Again.

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I’m excited to announce my recent story, “Look Away,” is running on this week’s Tales to Terrify podcast. It’s ably interpreted by Jonathan Danz, whose smooth southern voice is, I think, perfect for the story. It follows “Bespoke” by Jessica M. Broughton narrated by Antoinette Bergin. I hope you’ll give both a listen. 

If you like the story, you can find it on Amazon for a buck. If you really like it, please consider leaving a review.

Y’all come back and visit soon.

Wright Shot with Musketry, Part VI

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Gray clouds came over the treetops, the sky flashed, and rain fell so heavily the air was solid white all around, like glass in motion. Dust became mud and ran down the wagon ruts in twin streams. Watkins stood in the deluge, pelted from above like an object of general derision but grateful for the day’s heat being drawn from his body. It went on for nearly an hour, and the men watched water sluice off one another until it quit. If he’d had a piece of soap, he would have stripped bare naked and scrubbed himself clean right there before God and man. 

A lone horseman approached along the Shelbyville road as the rain slacked. He was a courier, armed with a pistol at his side and a saber on his saddle. The man’s hat sagged with rainwater, against his head like dog ears. He rode a high-stepping Morgan breed whose hooves sent mud flying in all directions. 

The courier spotted Gordon’s two yellow chevrons and went to him, producing a document from the leather case slung over his shoulder. Gordon read and acknowledged with a nod. The rider wheeled and sped back up the road, spattering Gordon with fresh mud.

Wright sat in the wagon with the dripping brim of his hat pulled down over his eyes, picking at his fingers. His head rose at the sound of Corporal Gordon’s voice. 

“The brigade will be forming up here within the hour, men. Let’s get this site squared away.” Gordon produced a new hemp rope from his knapsack and threaded it through the iron ring in the shooting post while the other men cleaned up the remains of their meals. Watkins went up the rise and checked the grave. It hadn’t caved in, but held rainwater a foot deep. Fat earthworms wriggled half-exposed in the sides, and several floated at the bottom. 

A big palomino mare came trotting up the road. An elderly, well-groomed officer with a long gray beard rode easy in the saddle. That would be the chaplain. Watkins had seen this process carried out too many times, and it always began with the arrival of a chaplain. Last chance. He hurried down the hill to the wagon and rested his hands on the side rail like a neighbor at a fence. 

“For God’s sake, man, why not get while the getting’s good?” 

“This hardly seems the right time to be running from a man of God.” Wright projected calm, but he was as pale as a peeled potato.

“Look here. Dying? That’s easy as pie. Finding something to live for? Now that takes some doing. You have got to give yourself a chance.”

“I am not going to run away again.”

“I’ll distract that old yellow-dog guard. His musket load is bound to be wet anyway.”

Wright gave him a sardonic twist of the lips, climbed out of the wagon without another word. He folded his hands and waited for the chaplain. Watkins backed away a respectful distance and tore off another chew from his knapsack. Gordon stalked up to him wearing the disappointed father look that so annoyed Watkins, since they were the same age.

“Private Watkins.”

“Yes Corporal”

“Now you know better than to fraternize with a prisoner. Am I right?”

“Yes, Corporal.”

“Remind me why that is, if you please.”

“Because it might-because it has a detrimental effect on order, discipline, and the performance of our duties,” Watkins recited. 

“Exactly right. I done looked away this time. Don’t make me regret it.”

“Yes, Corporal.”

The chaplain had tied his horse to the wagon rail and spoke in low tones to Wright, who held his hat in his hands and studied the ground. Though Watkins couldn’t understand his words, aristocratic rhythm of the old man’s speech carried across the short distance. 

A metallic glint drew Watkins’ attention a second before the sounds of a thousand marching troops reached his ears. Wright’s Brigade had just appeared at the bend in the road. Elias lifted his head at the rumble of footfalls, clanking metal, shouting sergeants, and the tinsel glitter of flashing bayonets. Elias looked like a man about to charge an enemy fortification all by himself. 

Somewhere in that gray mass, slogging up the road alongside Elias’ friends, marched the firing squad that would kill him today. Unless the fool took to his heels.

“Wright!” Watkins shouted, hands cupped around his mouth. Elias looked his way, and he shouted again, jerking his head toward the woods. “Run, brother. Why don’t you run?” 

Corporal Gordon’s face dropped, and he said loud enough for only Watkins to hear, “Mind your goddamned tongue, lest you want to be next against the post.” 

The chaplain stood stock still, immaculate in his gray uniform. The gold braid on his hat gleamed like the streets of Glory as he bowed his head to pray with the prisoner. The brigade produced a sobering clamor as it closed on the execution site, like some monstrous, predatory machine. There was none of the singing or gallows-humor banter apparent in the formation that went on during routine movements. They marched as though to battle, silent and grim as the worms in the bottom of Elias’ grave. 

Wright Shot with Musketry, Part V

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Corporal Gordon had the men wrap their cartridge cases in oil cloth and stow them in knapsacks in case the sky opened up on them. Gordon constantly preached the separation of powder and water as a matter of survival. The two rear-echelon men hung their gear from metal hooks set in the bottom of the wagon. Watkins had never seen anyone do that and had to admit that was a pretty ingenious idea. 

After securing for weather, there was nothing to do but wait for further orders. Since it was nearing noon, each man produced whatever food he had on hand, and the trading commenced. Everyone offered Watkins something in return for more tobacco, and he silently thanked his Virginian friend again. Tobacco was better than money these days, and Watkins’ came into a handful of dried blackberries and five hardtack squares of indeterminate age. The Yankees called the palm-sized flour tiles ‘tooth dullers’ and ‘sheet iron,’ but unlike cornbread the stuff kept forever. He’d heard tell of it stopping minié balls.

The driver provided Wright a chunk of cornbread wrapped in an old page from the Southern Illustrated News. Wright sat in the middle of the wagon bed and, nibbled at the bread and drank a little water while all but Watkins sought a bit of solitude. Watkins used the butt of his Bowie knife to break a piece of hardtack, then set his battered tin cup on the edge of the wagon,  dropped in the shards of bread inside with the blackberries, and covered the desiccated contents with canteen water.

“Is it true, Wright?” Watkins leaned on the wagon and watched his meal drink up the water in the cup. “Did you walk out of the bivouac in broad daylight?”

Wright raised his chin and brushed crumbs from the reddish whiskers there. He shrugged. “It is.”

“My name is Sam.”

“Elias.” 

Watkins switched the knife to his left, and they shook. He generally made it a point not to get acquainted with dead men, but a question burned in him. “Way I hear it,  you did it to make a point, like a protest, because you’re the only conscript can get away with it.”

“Is that what people say?” Wright’s laugh sounded like the bark of a small dog. “That would be a stunt, wouldn’t it?”

Watkins scooped some bread and berries out of the cup with the broad blade of the knife and put the still-crunchy stuff in his mouth. The berries just made it tolerable.

“You want to know what it was?” He grabbed the sides of the wagon and looked at the gathering clouds. “I was fed up.”

“Hell, man. We’re all plumb fed up with–“

“Fed up with marching and starving and filth and lice and diarrhea. Living like an animal. It’s no way for civilized men to exist.” Wright shifted to his knees and spoke in a low voice. “I thought about taking my own life, but found I have too much fear of God after all.”

Watkins stood up straight and stopped chewing. “Why don’t you run?” Watkins spoke quietly and motioned with the Bowie. “The woods are right there. A pure fool can see the general done give you this time to get away.”

Wright smiled. “And go where? Do what? Be who? Besides, what if old Uncle Marcus intends to pardon me? He can’t very well do that if I’m a fugitive.” 

“They’re going to kill you.”

“I know.”

Watkins wiggled the point of his knife at the forest shadows across the field. “You could go west, away from all this.” 

Wright shook his head. “I felt like an impostor in uniform right from the start. Can you imagine what it’s like, pretending morning to night?” Wright took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I can’t do it anymore. I’m done play-acting.”

“Wright Shot to Death with Musketry”

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 Since I have no idea what to blog today, I’ll show you what I’m working on. It’s a piece of short historical fiction based on about one page’s worth of Sam R. Watkins’ Civil War memoir. There’s a section in chapter seven called “Wright Shot to Death with Musketry” that grabbed my imagination. Here’s the start of an extremely rough first draft. I’ll toss this thing at the wall to see what sticks and post more as it develops. Editing comes later.
If you have a thought or suggestion about this story in progress, please lay it on me. 

[If you’re reading this, Larry Santoro, I’m considering attempting a horror-genre version of this once the original version if finished. There is, after all, a Confederate gravedigger involved. Anything can happen, right?]

Anyway, here’s the first chunk:

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Sam Watkins paused in the grave digging to wipe August sweat on the rolled sleeve of his filthy red gingham shirt. He heard the wagon before he saw it and considered retrieving his brown slouch hat and gray coat from the branch overhead in case somebody important were in that wagon, but the late morning swelter convinced him to wait and see. Chest-deep in the hole, he leaned on the spade and scratched his dark beard. He wanted a chew from his knapsack, but was developing a headache and decided he couldn’t afford the moisture it took to spit. 

The two-horse rig appeared around the bend a good musket shot down the tree-lined road to Shelbyville. No single horses. No gold braid shining in the sun. Silhouetted against the plume of brown dust trailing behind them, three straight spined men bounced toward the widespread branches of the lone oak where Watkins worked. The tree grew on a small hummock in the middle of a wide field. One house was visible a quarter mile away, beside a swaying field of tall corn. If any civilians were about, they kept out of sight. Watkins resumed his grim task.

That would be Private Wright in the back of the wagon. Watkins hadn’t met him, but everybody knew who the man was because of what he had tried to do, and his relation to the commander of Wright’s Brigade. Watkins stopped to watch the wagon’s progress. Chin up, seated on a pine coffin amid the racket of horses and rig, Private Wright comported himself more like a general reviewing the troops than a man about to be shot by musketry.

“Hole ain’t going to dig itself,” said the corporal in charge of the detail, who had been leaning against the tree. He cocked his head at Watkins. “Didn’t you bring you no water?”

“Ran out.” Watkins could just see out of the hole, on his tip-toes. “It’s all right. I’m fixing to be done.” 

“Them yellow-dogs will have some on the wagon.” The corporal straightened his straw hat and went to check on the two men planting a twelve-foot pole in the ground twenty yards away. Watkins had it better than they did. He got to work in the shade, surrounded by the cool earth. 

Watkins bent again to the task. He’d dug too many graves over the past year, seen too many men shot as deserters. We don’t need the Bluebellies. We do just fine at thinning our own ranks. 

The gentle face of that court martialled private in Virginia intruded on his mind. Caught dead asleep at his post on a cold winter morning. No more than a boy, his eyes had been sky blue and wide as dinner plates before the blindfold went on. Watkins’ hands tightened on the spade handle. He squared his feet and attacked the hole with bared teeth. Digging was digging, he told himself. His calloused hands didn’t know the difference between earthworks and graves. That’s all a webfoot does day in and day out if he’s lucky, dig and march. It’s when the digging and marching stops that hell breaks loose.

The spade bit into the red soil, soft and aromatic. He liked the sound it made. Lift, toss, stick it in again. The corporal said digging graves was good bayonet training, that a man used the same muscles. Watkins didn’t know if that were true. His muscles felt like lead all the time.

The smell of the earth conjured the home place in Maury County with its cornfields and cotton and his sweet, sweet Jenny. He called on the memory of the last time he saw her, but his mind allowed only the face of that poor boy in Virginia. He paused at that and concentrated on seeing Jenny. He recalled the dress she wore, the last squeeze of her hands, but he could not reproduce her face. 

He dropped the spade and braced his hands on either side of the grave, fighting to slow his breathing. It’s just the grave. There’s no place for Jenny here.

On the firing detail that day, he had clapped his eyelids shut before squeezing the trigger, relying afterward on black powder smoke to screen him from the result of his work. He’d kept off shooting details since by volunteering to dig. There was always a grave digging detail.