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:
* * *
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.