It was a crisp fall evening when I met the storyteller for the first and only time. He was old, but probably not as old as he looked. Preoccupied with the few hairs he had left growing out from above his ears, he pushed the thin weeds back over his dome each time the wind knocked it up, and sometimes when it didn’t. He was thin and his face had a modest growth surrounding an ample mustache.
He said he was just passing through, saw our fire; he wished to get warm. He ate a hotdog with us and drank but not eagerly, not like he would if he would have been a homeless vagrant, we figured. My brother was more nervous about his presence with us than I was; I being confident the two of us could handle any trouble he might try to cause.
His thumbs tucked into the top of his pants and feet warming inside his old leather boots propped by the fire, the man began to unravel a story. He didn’t ask if we wanted to hear it. He just started.
. . .
There was an Ohio farm boy who was not a fine or upstanding boy, but just a farm boy with the problems inherited by many boys. He had enlisted in a fit of arrogance he masked to himself as courage. Known as the best shot in his unit, he had already killed numerous confederates, including officers. He bragged about each kill, marking each one with a notch dug into the walnut of his rifle’s stock.
It was the Fall of 1863. The Army of the Cumberlands had marched south to a place some Indians had prophetically named “The Bloody River.” They knew it as the Chickamauga Creek. The Ohioan was ready to kill more. Alone among his unit, he lived for the battle and particularly the chance to spill blood. Some of his fellow soldiers fought for the elimination of slavery, others for their union the president told them was sacred and perpetual. The boy from Ohio fought just for the chance to kill.
When he was just six years old he killed his first bird–throwing the young hatchling into the air and hitting it with a stick. While other boys hunted for food and bragging rights and offered thanks over their prey, treating them with dignity, he treated his quarry as an enemy. Now, in war, he found the natural outlet of his bloodlust.
The blood ran deep around him near Chickamauga Creek that day. Rosecrans had marched his men into Georgia to bring the war to the Army of the Tennessee. The Confederates fought fiercely, however, and drove the Army of the Cumberlands from the field. More than 34,000 Americans would end up dead over just a few days and the boy from Ohio did his share of killing. By his own count, his lead balls found at least five chests and three heads, along with numerous limbs and horse flanks.
On September 21st, the final day of the battle, and as his unit was ordered to retreat to Chattanooga, the private from Ohio climbed upon a dead officer’s horse. The beast was frightened and confused. His fellow enlisted men chastised the private for his breech of etiquette. He made no response.
There was one last victim for him to take, one more notch to carve into his stock that evening by the campfire. He turned the horse toward the Confederate line and steadied her with a squeeze of his muscular thighs.
There were numerous infantrymen he could take that were closer and easier victims, but none of them would bring the enjoyment of having killed another Confederate officer. One of those prizes was riding just behind the second line of infantry and heading toward the retreating Union army.
Sitting tall above the battlefield, highly vulnerable to a musket shot or exploding canister, the boy from Ohio felt no fear. As he eyed his prey, the battlefield began to melt around him. Soon the rest of the Confederate Army was liquified into a grey foreground framing the officer who stood out like a cut jewel.
The Confederate leader, his right arm holding his cavalry sword aloft, suddenly stopped his orders and looked back across the field of human tragedy. His light grey eyes picked up a hint of pink from the descending sun and offered a glint in the vision of the soldier from the North. The soldiers in blue beneath the mounted man across the field, bleached into a mirror of the darkening blue sky above. Though hundreds of yards separated the two men, they had become each other’s world.
Proud and arrogant, the Ohioan puffed his chest as he deliberately cocked the hammer of his rifle and raised it slowly to his shoulder. In return, the husband and father from Tennessee sheathed his sword and filled his empty hand with the sidearm his father had purchased for him the day after his country declared its independence from the wider Union. The two men looked down their barrels at one another, blue eyes gazing upon grey and grey eyes inspecting blue.
The boy from Ohio, among the most talented shots in the war, lifted his front sight up from the other man’s chest, up through his greying beard crossing the father’s mouth that would never again kiss his daughter goodnight. He rose the site up over the husband’s nose that would not again smell his wife’s hair on a spring evening. He lifted the site above the man’s brain as the victim’s last thoughts were even then firing in his skull. Reaching the necessary distance above the man’s head to account for the drop of the bullet as it passed over the battlefield, the boy from Ohio squeezed his trigger. The horse jerked and the private fell from his unlawful perch. By the time he stood, the battlefield had changed enough that he could not see what may have happened to the Confederate officer, but he assured himself his aim was true and his ball was lodged solidly in its target.
Long after dark, the boy from Ohio found his men and assumed his place among them in their camp in the city of Chattanooga. Always unsure of him, his fellow soldiers seemed even more distant and cold toward his presence among them at the fire. It was as if he wasn’t even there. He made a show of carving another notch in the butt of his rife, rising it to his mouth like it was an instrument and blowing the wood dust into the flame.
Fog covered the camp as he arose the next morning. It was early and the late night sentries were exchanging their positions with fresh eyes as he crossed the dewy grass. “I have never been so glad to see dawn,” one of them said to another, “it was like I could feel ten thousand dead standing up and walking the grounds about that bloody creek.” The boy from Ohio rolled his eyes and kept walking toward the edge of the camp. He pulled a small mirror from his pocket to check his hair, vanity knowing no end, even in the terrible war of brothers. He squinted as his eyes seemed less bold and clear, almost grey, in fact. He looked up at the fog and determined it was just the defuse morning light.
Hands in his pocket, the soldier looked into the dense fog, playing games trying to make out the objects cutting the peculiar shapes. One was moving and moving fast. It grew in size and speed at it approached. A man. No, a horse. It was a proud and mighty black steed that burst from the oblivion beyond. No rider drove it on, but it bore an empty saddle upon its back, cavalry stirrups dangling at the edge of its belly. The beast pulled up short in front of the Union soldier.
“Move on, plug. Be your man living or dead, an officer’s mount is no good for me in camp!” As he slapped the horse’s rump, he noticed the saddle had the initials CSA burned into the leather. “Ah, a Rebel horse! Well, who killed your traitor-owner?”
Fueled again with an energy he only knew when he was looking down on someone else, the boy who volunteered each time a chicken needed slaughtered, threw himself up into the saddle. He felt the power of the horse beneath him and took the reigns into his hands. He would ride it over to his superior officer’s tent and offer it as tribute. Perhaps he would be rewarded. It did appear to be a very fine horse.
He dug the heels of his worn and nearly ruined boots into the horse’s flanks. As he did, he felt his hands tighten around the reins. Pressure built in his legs as they pressed against the ribs beneath. He pulled his right leg and then his left but neither moved. Pressure like arms enveloped his chest and squeezed. The private squirmed but could not move. He called for help but no one reacted. He didn’t know if they could not hear or the pressure around his chest kept him from emitting the sounds he intended.
The horse reared back and turned. Out of the camp in Chattanooga it ran. Into the deep fog. The helpless rider was flung left and right as the horse lurched around trees and jumped brambles and boulders. Onto the fields where sergeants lay next to privates in the equalizing embrace of death, the horse carried its prisoner. Bodies, once full with laughter, now lay in unnatural contortions, their life-giving blood staining the grass and already sunk into the soil below.
The boy thought he could see all the existence of these bodies in all their forms, one after another and almost all at once; Life, agonizing death, deep fear, resignation, the bleaching of death, gaseous explosions before the final stages of decay made the renewing magic of new soil. Movement. The movement of the bodies. Death was to be still, here it was all movement, all change. Fear gripped his soul and squeezed in the same way his body was being held to the horse.
Pulling up to a rising Confederate casualty, the horse bucked. The pressure released. The boy from Ohio felt himself falling toward the killing fields.
Though he felt like he had lived a lifetime, his next conscious memory came as he sat tending a fire along a quiet road in northern Wyoming.
“May I share your fire and a patch of ground to rest my head tonight,” a voice in the darkness broke in on the fire tenderer’s thoughts.
The man pulled his rifle closer to his leg as the stranger entered the campfire light.
“Winter is coming and the nights are getting cold for these old bones,” the man said, removing his gloves to allow the warmth to penetrate his hands more efficiently. His thick accent marked him as a southerner.
“Its cold nights like this that I am reminded most of those terrible nights of the war. Were you in the war between the states?”
“I was in the Army of the Cumberlands,” the man tending the fire said as he scratched his unruly beard.
“Chickamauga, I assume?”
“I was there.”
“So was I,” replied the old Confederate officer. As the stranger leaned into the fire, the man who was once the farm boy from Ohio could see a glint of color in his deep grey eye. His mind was again transported through time to that fall day in 1863. Down the barrel of his rifle, he again saw the man in grey sitting dignified atop his black horse. This time, stripped of his youthful pride, he focused on the Confederate Officer’s own barrel aiming back. He saw the puff of grey gun powder smoke rise up over the man’s face and again felt the horse buck beneath him.”
“I have been long in search of you,” the stranger offered. “I am sorry.”
. . .
My brother and I had been watching the flames as we got lost in the stranger’s story. When we realized his tale had come to an end, we looked up from the flames. We were alone, though my brother swears to this day that he heard hoofbeats in the distance.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.