The birds soared lazily.
When Private John Christopher first mustered into the Union Army, he thought they were eagles. They glided majestically behind his regiment as he marched into Gettysburg. Patriotic emotions surged. Naturally, he assumed the symbol of his adopted nation had come to rally their army.
Three days later, the fighting stopped, the birds descended, and Private Christopher learned they were not eagles. The field, blanketed in corpses, was a feast for the turkey vultures. He spent an afternoon shielding the body of his fallen brother, George. By nightfall, exhaustion and the stench of festering blood took its toll. John collapsed, and the birds devoured the only family he had left.
That was six months ago. John had been eager and healthy, and he marched proudly into Gettysburg on a comfortably warm July’s day. Now he was cold, tired, and recovering from dysentery. He was far from death, but the vultures still made him nervous.
He pulled his great coat tight around him. David Jeffrey led the way through the woods, his own brother J.J. beside him singing softly, “Tenting tonight on the old camp ground. Give us a song to cheer.”
“Should we really be doing this?” John asked. “We’ve both seen men shot for less.”
David glanced calmly over his shoulder. “We’ve seen men shot for desertion and treason. We’ll go back when we’re done, and none of us are joining the Confederacy, so we’ve got nothing to worry about.” He pressed on through the woods. John hesitated briefly before following. If the Confederates didn’t get him, he was certain the Union officers would.
Small lights dotted the woods. The faint sound of water carried through the trees. Other soldiers had already met by the creek. In the failing light, John could hear their voices before he could see them.
“Did you eat up your last mule yet?” called a Union soldier.
There was a burst of laughter, then a voice bellowed back, “Yeah. Can you spare us some of your rats?” The enemy, John realized. They were standing on the other side of the creek, lined up against the Union soldiers. Both sides squared off, the same distance apart as in battle. But this felt different. It was a tense meeting, but it was not the same as waiting for orders to shoot.
David hung his lantern around a tree branch. J.J. continued to sing, “Many are the hearts that are weary tonight, waiting for the war to cease.”
The soldiers produced small cans from their haversacks. The labels read Essence of Coffee. “Do they really want this slop?” Made at regimental headquarters, the coffee was boiled for hours until it became as thick as syrup. Small amounts of it could be added to water to produce a foul-tasting substitute for the soldiers’ morning drink. Men would use it to soften their hard tack. In turn, the hard tack would dull the flavor of the coffee.
“Sure they do. Hope you’re not expecting the tobacco they got to be any better.”
Lanterns approached from the opposite bank. As they approached, three coalesced from the darkness. Three Confederate soldiers appeared in grey rags. Military underwear peered out through holes in their uniforms. In some place, the fabric was worn through to the skin. Worn leather shoes threatened to disintegrate with the slightest use. One soldier wore only a single boot.
Elsewhere down the creek, soldiers were still jeering, calling a playful patter between rivals. Here, John and his friends stood silent, wary of their counterparts. The twilight was fading, but in the candle’s glow, the rebels’ faces seemed as vigilant and tense as their own.
The trees rustled overhead. The moon swelled in the sky, just over the tree line. A buzzard settled on a branch, silhouetted against the pale glow. “Take thy beak from out my heart,” John whispered to himself.
“Hey,” called the rebel up front. “Nice of y’all to come out tonight.” His accent was easy to listen to, easy to understand, very much like the Confederate officers. But somehow, it was not as refined. A little rougher. The words had more of a slur instead of the airy drawl that sounded so distinguished. “You guys know when General Grant’s gonna be on the move?”
John tensed up. He reached subconsciously for his bayonet. Earlier that year, he had witnessed an execution of deserters. Two men had been forced to sit on their own coffins as they were shot. Murdered by their own comrades. The officers ordered the firing squad to shoot. Guns rang out. One man fell into the coffin. The other sat unharmed. The man ripped the blindfold from his face, nervous, confused. Disturbed by the ghastly practice, John silently prayed the man would run.
But fear had frozen the man to his coffin. An officer ordered two men to shoot again. By some miracle, both guns misfired. The coffin trembled under the man’s fear, but he did not move. The officer pulled his side arm and placed it against the man’s head.
That sight had disturbed John Christopher more than nearly any other moment in the war, the officer deciding that the man’s life should end, that a short existence of twenty three years was enough. John knew the man. He lived with his mother and three sisters. He had a sweetheart in Lansing, Michigan. He enjoyed baseball and was a skilled saxhorn player. And now that would all be erased. His life would stop, and the world would continue without him.
This man had deserted the Union Army. His crime was the desire to live. His punishment was death. The officer pulled the trigger, and everything the man had once been either sprayed across the grass or fell unceremoniously into the coffin.
J.J.’s song faded. “Many are the hearts looking for the right to see the dawn of peace.”
It was a terrible punishment. John wondered if the sentence for treason could be worse than death. “Don’t tell him anything!” he urged his friend.
David just smiled. Turning to the Confederates, he called back, “When is General Lee going to give up the fight?”
It was difficult to see through the darkness. Maybe the rebels smiled. Maybe they didn’t. One of them called back, “You boys want something good?” The man pulled a roughly carved sail boat out of a bag. In it, the three soldiers placed small cloth pouches. The lead rebel tied the boat to a long string and set it in the creek. The wind nudged the boat slowly towards John and his friends. It hit the sand on the northern bank and came to an abrupt stop. David picked it up and tossed the pouches to his brother and to John. They undid the drawstrings and peeked inside. It was not very fine quality, but it was tobacco, and that was what mattered to them.
In place of the tobacco, the Jeffrey brothers each dropped a can of essence of coffee into the boat. John set his own can in after them. As he reached for his pipe and matches, the rebel soldier drew in the string and the boat crossed back across the stream.
A match flared. The flame sunk below the rim of a pipe. Two more matches followed suit. The Confederates were apparently having similar thoughts. “We should drink some now.”
“They won’t know we’re gone until morning. We have plenty of time.”
The older boy replied, “You wanna drink it cold?”
The three Union boys puffed their pipes in silence for several minutes. John had gone without smoking for so long that the first few draws melted over him. He relaxed, only vaguely aware of the enemy mere paces away. They didn’t seem threatening, anyhow. Would they shoot without orders? John wouldn’t.
“You boys have matches, right?” The silence was broken, but the men hesitated to respond. “Would you mind?” the youngest rebel asked politely.
J.J. shared a look with David. John glanced between them curiously. “Yeah. Sure. Send the boat over,” David called.
The older rebel bent down to launch the boat when one of the others shot out a hand to stop him. “Bill, you can’t use the boat. Matches might get wet.”
All six froze. Overhead, the buzzard squawked, but they ignored it. The Confederate was right. To carry through with the kindness, someone needed to cross the creek. John tensed up again, his hand again reaching for the bayonet. It was an unsuitable weapon, but the only one he had.
They stood a long time in silence. No one wanted to suggest crossing. The moon shrunk into the sky. They waited, unsure what to do. Finally, one of the rebels called, “Well, there will be fires back in the camp,” and he turned to leave.
“Wait,” John squeaked. He surprised himself. He looked to David for guidance. His friend merely glared back, as if to tell him it was John’s responsibility to resolve this safely. He called across the water, “We’ll give you the matches.” He paused. No reaction. “But you have to come here.”
Again, silence dropped over the creek. Then, “No thanks. I’ll not trust a Yankee with his hand on his knife.”
He shot a glance at the bayonet. His gaze shifted to the Confederates. Drawing the knife, John took a step forward, planted it deep in the ground, and retreated back to where he had stood before. “Please.”
The buzzard squawked again. John was acutely aware of the stream’s babble. The Confederates spoke to each other silently, their eyes flaring. Then their leader spoke. “All right. But we’re all crossing together.”
Their first step was awkward, unsure. David and J.J. stepped back defensively. John threw his sack to the ground. Still puffing on his pipe, he dug into his pack for more matches. The Confederates reached the bank. They drew closer. John’s heart raced. Grasping hold of the matches, he pulled them out with nervous force. The movement startled the rebels, and they each jumped back.
“Here.” John’s voice cracked.
Calmer, the leader of the small rebel band stepped forward. “Thank you,” he said. Taking the matches, something in John’s pack caught his attention. “You boys play cards?”
“Yeah, we do,” whispered David.
“I know some men disapprove, but I can’t see the harm in it,” John explained.
“We’re gonna be here a while,” said the rebel. “You up for a game?”
John looked to his friends. Neither one voiced objections. “Sure,” he said. He dove farther into the pack and came back with the cards. Between the six soldiers, they produced four gum blankets, which they stretched out below them as the youngest rebel started a fire.
“These are my brothers, Micah and Ezekiel. Zeke. I’m William.” The oldest rebel directed this at John. “I’m named for my father. They call me Bill, though. Ma named my brothers from the Bible.”
John felt awkward responding, but he detected that the Confederates felt equally unsure of themselves. That made speaking to them easier. “This is David and J.J. They call me John.”
“Joan?” asked Zeke.
“John,” corrected J.J.
“John,” repeated Bill. “If you don’t mind me asking, you’re obviously not from around here.”
“I was born in Denmark.”
David shot back in an emphasized Irish brogue, “Sure you won’t be findin’ many Americans in the Union Army. They’re all hirin’ us to be shot in their place.”
The Confederates chuckled at this. “It’s not just a Union thing,” Micah responded. “All us poor folk down south are hired to protect the genteel lifestyle.”
Bill scoffed. “All the northern folk are upset that they’re fightin’ for the negro man. That’s exactly what we’re doin’. Except we’re dying so a handful of the wealthy can keep ‘em in chains. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to see all the darkies runnin’ around free, but I’m never going to be rich enough to own a slave. Why the hell should I care about all these rich cotton farmers?”
The others nodded in agreement.
Zeke put a pot on to boil. The men decided on rummy, and John dealt the cards. Each card he passed, his eyes met another man. Each time, he felt a pang. He was alone among them, without his brother. These men were still with their families, even among this hell.
Was it one of these three that shot George at Gettysburg?
It wasn’t worth thinking about. John didn’t even know how many people he had wounded or killed. All under orders, of course. And the officers were simply doing their jobs, with organized murder the furthest thought from their minds. Could they be blamed? There was a string of orders running all the way up to the presidents, who claimed they were simply protecting the people.
The war made people forget they could think for themselves. It made them forget they were people.
Bill nodded at his brothers, gesturing to a large pack. Zeke pulled out a bottle of whiskey, holding it out to the Union boys. “For the matches,” he said. Six tin cups appeared beneath the moonlight.
“That’s awful friendly of you,” J.J. said, touched.
Bill’s face flashed sternly. “Don’t think too much of it. We can’t get caught with the bottle, but if we drink it ourselves we’ll be punished for drunkenness.”
“The Oh-Be-Joyful is off limits in our camp, too,” David toned. “Of course, that usually don’t stop anyone. Our surgeons have treated a fair number of our own boys who didn’t want to be caught. Seems to be almost as many drunks in the hospital as amputees.”
Micah chuckled. “One man in our camp smuggled a gallon of redeye inside a hollow watermelon. Buried it underneath his tent and drank it with a long straw. Damn near died that very night.”
The others laughed briefly. Then silence crept over them, and they turned their attention to their cards. Zeke sipped his whiskey, then crept over to check the water.
Micah turned to John. “Hey, you ever think about dyin’?”
“Yeah.” It was almost a whisper. “All the time.” The buzzard above them hollered loudly. All the men looked up to see a second bird settle in the tree.
“I figure it’s like bein’ how it was before you were born,” the boy continued. The others said nothing. Sounds of the forest punctuated the space between his words. “God created the world and then it was a long time before I was born. I got through that all right—don’t even remember it. But I just can’t warm up to the thought of going back there.”
Bill snorted. “God? You think with so much killing these past few years, the Almighty would step up and put an end to it.”
“You don’t believe in God?” Zeke dropped some essence of coffee into the pot.
“Not so much now as I used to.”
“I don’t know,” piped John. “I read the Bible once. Seemed like God was awfully fond of killing. The Great Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Tenth Plague and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army. Even wanted to kill the Israelites once, and they were his own people.” He took a drink of the whiskey, savoring the cleansing burn in his mouth.
Micah emptied his cup, then held it out to his brother expecting coffee. “Sounds like an awful angry god to be commending our souls to.”
“There is no God,” Bill sneered. He gulped his whiskey, coughed, and tossed his cup aside where his brother picked it up. “Zeke was right. It’s just like not being born. No Heaven. No dreams. No eternal rest. There’s not even nothingness to think about.” They all fell into an upset hush. No one bothered to argue. For a half hour, they puffed tobacco and sipped their drinks, speaking only when required for the game.
With the lack of conversation, John was alone with his thoughts. They turned back to Gettysburg, the bodies so thick that he couldn’t see grass for miles. He thought of the execution—the second man, who rose from his coffin clutching his gut and screaming for the officer to kill him and end the pain.
Flustered, he started humming. Micah’s head perked up, joining the song on the second line. “Mem’ry brings the past before me; Joys and sorrows, smiles and tears.”
John stopped. “You know the song?”
“It’s Stephen Foster. Of course we know him.”
All three of the rebels picked up the song. “So when life’s bright sun is setting and its day is well nigh done, may there be no vain regretting over memories I would shun.”
Here, the Union soldiers added to the voices. “But when death is o’er to meet me, may some much-lov’d forms come on, and the first sounds that shall greet me be the voices that were gone.”
The song ended, but the words echoed from the other small fires on the creek. When they settled, another melody seeped faintly through the trees. “We’re tenting tonight on the old camp ground.” J.J. Jeffrey hummed along.
“We love Stephen Foster,” Zeke explained. “We were all born on the Swanee River.”
“I haven’t been south yet,” said John. “Is it really as nice as he says?”
Bill shook his head. “Nah. It’s hot and full of skeeters.” He smiled. “But it’s a good place to call home.”
They dealt one more hand. The rebels finished their coffee and the Federals emptied their pipes. When it was over, each man sat reluctant to clean up.
David lifted his head slowly. His gaze settled on Bill. “Hey. This was nice. I haven’t had a good pipe of tobacco in months.”
Bill paused. “Pray the war ends before we meet again.”
“And pray we can still meet when it’s done,” John added.
The Confederates nodded. Gathering their supplies together, they rose. Feet padded noiselessly across the stones in the creek. Their forms faded to silhouettes against their lanterns, then vanished into the dark woods. Lost in the night, they became enemies once more. One of the buzzards leapt from the tree branch and followed them.
The three men stood listening to the song resounding off the trees. John began to roll up his gum blanket. “Worthless,” he said to himself.
“What was that?” David asked. His brother continued to hum.
“All the officers. All the aristocrats. All the senators, representatives—even Lincoln and Davis. What the hell use are they? We could have settled this war in thirty minutes had it been left to us.”
Private John Christopher pulled his bayonet free from the earth and shoved it into its scabbard. Voices echoed the final refrain of the song, drawn out to a resolution, “Dying tonight, dying tonight, dying on the old camp ground.” The three soldiers turned back toward their camp, each one glancing cautiously back over their shoulders.
A vulture glided patiently in pursuit.
Jake La Jeunesse is a native of Michigan’s Northern Peninsula. He graduated from Northern Michigan University with a degree in English, and is now a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth pursuing a masters degree in publishing. A lifelong bookworm, Jake has several writing credits to his name. He has written over a dozen works for stage, half of which have been produced. His play Old Friends received honorable mention in the 2008 Writers’ Digest Playwriting Contest. He has also written two novels. Jake has worked as a historical actor, both for the Civil War and the American Vaudeville eras. He has travelled throughout Asia where he lived in Korea and studied martial arts, receiving black belts in kum do and hepkido. He has climbed mountains, written music, and solved a 5x5x5 Rubik’s Cube. His next goal is to publish one of his novels.