By 1870, more than 12,800 interments were complete: 4,189 unknown. The dead included men who fell at the battle of Lookout Mountain.
—Chattanooga National Cemetery
It was the third Sunday in September in the year of our lord eighteen hundred and sixty-three when Private Ephraim Prometheus Boone lost his left foot. His body had been found in the dim evening lying on the battlefield beside an injured dirt-coated bullmastiff that his company had named Abe and a wounded Confederate who was called Asher, and they each grunted and whimpered in the back of an ambulance wagon rolling twelve miles over dirt and gravel in the dark. The wagon parked outside the First Presbyterian Church made of brick where the wounded were carried inside to the pews serving as hospital cots for a haunted congregation exceeding one hundred men chanting and moaning demented hymns written by the Underworld.
The roof was caved in and hollowed out, and its remains were scattered throughout the church. On the floorboards were ruined rafters and broken beams, and artillery shells and cannonballs that had cratered great dents and ditches against the earth. The church bell remained intact and rang retardedly. The image of the steeple seemed the same as the last sail seen on a sinking ship. The stained-glass windows were shattered in backwards images. Shards and cracked panes depicting Mother Mary holding and kissing in her breast the serpent from Genesis, Cain revealed as one of the disciples of Christ, the apostle Paul drowning in the flood in which an ark filled with twin animals was navigating, and lions from the Book of Daniel visiting and devouring an infant Jesus Christ sleeping in a manger.
The body of Christ on the crucifix swung horridly. Carved in its oak cheek were glistening rivets designed to be tears, and blood was splattered all across its face with its left arm severed from its body and lost somewhere in the sea of wounded soldiers.
The soldiers were sprawled out on their backs staring through the gouged roof, searching for the stars before death, and all light in the sky was hidden behind a curtain of smoke sprawled out and hissing, spiraling from coal furnaces that burned trees for fuel.
The dog licked the Confederate Asher’s face and panted with a dog’s smile above him, and what Asher heard from it was a barked phrase translated from the Old Testament and he said that that dog is the light of the Lord. He and Boone were put under by inhaling a chloroform-soaked rag torn from a dead soldier’s coat. The surgeon spoke to them, even once they were unconscious, saying he studied at the University of Georgia and did a tenure in India to specialize in animal medicine explaining, maybe to the dog, that the souls of animals may come back in a hundred years or a thousand, and inherit the souls of man and their kingdoms, and perhaps only then could mankind treat itself correctly.
Boone’s foot would be sawed until it resembled a hoof and Asher’s left arm from the elbow down would be sawed off appearing as a pinewood knob, and the limbs were collected by a ghostly and chilled-sweating nurse carrying a tin bucket full of amputated artifacts, fingers from lost hands hung over the sides and clasped to the metal as though the rest of their bodies drowned underneath the pail, spilling over with blood and were dumped out of a window where there were made three stacks.
Asher and Boone came out of drowsiness and opened their eyes and their vision was blurred, and they departed and they would meet again.
When Boone was released, he was given an oak crutch which he needed to walk and was permitted a leave of absence for the duration of the war which he refused, saying, “I ain’t going nowhere—long as this war won’t quit I won’t either.”
As he walked outside the church the body of Christ became unhinged from the cross and thumped to the floor where the head broke off from its neck and rolled. Boone headed back toward his camp with the dog Abe healed and following his footsteps. The crutch swinging and clanking into the ground. Dragging and hopping his feet. Walking in his deerskin moccasins that he made ten years prior after killing a thirteen point whitetail buck with his father that they had tracked for four years every November and finally found under a waterfall with sunlight mounting its form and Boone watched it breathe its final breath and felt the breath seep under his own flesh as he took its life finally, a week after he turned thirteen. He was the oldest private he ever met and would have been promoted many times over the past two years except he never knew of an officer that was killed and has a wife at home who wears worrisome on her skin as a blouse and twin sons who do not yet know him and when they grow old enough to play will play Cowboys and Indians with firecracker guns.
He passed by teamsters repairing rails along the train tracks which were broken for forty miles every direction, and teamsters tearing down barns and houses and wooden facilities in the street and building with them train cars that had been demolished or were used as fuel for furnaces and passed a five-acre lot where hundreds of dead horses were dragged and buried in holes dug without rest.
Some of the gravediggers would put down their shovels or let go of the carcass and rise or put their feet on the metal slate of their shovels and watch him with blank eyes as he limped and seemed in the night a wandering spirit, the creaking wood from his crutch an extension of his body.
He found Lebanon Company camped near a twenty-foot tall hill Indian mound, built sometime in the prehistoric era and shaped as an earthen pyramid with stone steps and a log-built one room lodge at the top, where their colonel would stay during encampment, and where ancient chiefs once lived.
It had been a quarter century since the Cherokee finally vanished from this land, with huts on fire and flat board boats buried by the river. Concealed within the mound, and underground were hundreds of their burial tombs, and wooden necklaces with emblems painted of the Mayan Serpent God or self-portrait medallions with snakes for hair and fire torches in one hand and a spider-web shaped dreamcatcher in the other. Arrows and spearheads and tomahawks carved out of stone. Flutes and knives made of oak and deer marrow and deer antlers. Booger masks carved in the image of ghostly spirits from buckeye wood or buffalo hide or pumpkin and squash and watermelon gourd worn during a sacred dance seeming to the white man who saw it a dance of devils, and rattlesnake tail and pebbles membraned within turtle shell shaker instrument—with many names tracing the lineage of Tsiyu Gansini inscribed on the materials underneath earth possessing a dead and chanting war cry lifted by the wind when it drew itself against the earth carrying with it the voice of their souls.
Camp was made fifty meters from where the Tennessee River slithered between the valley and mountain with silver and brown diamondback scales, reflecting no stars. Black smoke was smeared throughout the entire sky. Across the mountaintop Rebel campfire scored by the thousands threaded with red luminosity like a congregation of demons bound to take back the heavens. Resembling a myriad of plasma from the planet named after the god of war.
Lebanon Company saw and said Abe’s name before they spoke to Boone, and the dog yelped ecstatically and ran to them where they circled it and pet its neck and spine and rubbed its face and it licked them back.
Boone stood still to pack his pipe, then creeped in closer, wobbling with his step and struck a match and lit the tobacco. He said, “No, no, don’t y’all worry about me.”
“Okay,” Roland said, recognizing the voice and peering through the darkness to find Boone’s form. “We didn’t plan to.” Soldiers chuckled quietly and Boone smiled and shook his head, coughing gently.
Roland stood up. His hair was jelled where it parted over his eyes colored the same as evergreen trees and somehow removed far from earth. Around other men, he tried like hell to be of the earth, one with others who inherited it.
They watched Boone walk. “Hell,” Roland said, “my granny gets around better than that. And she’s dead.”
As Boone approached them, they touched his head with their hands and put their arms around his shoulder. Roland spoke again. “We would have worried about you but you’re always telling us not to. We don’t worry anymore about the mighty Boone.”
In the firelight Boone’s face could be seen clearly. Brown, dirty hair. Bushy sideburns that touched his mustache. Achromatic eyes of a dulled blade and stained into his cheek as inherited warpaint was dried blood and dirt that would not be washed out from his skin.
Roland looked at Boone’s crutch. “Get to go home now, don’t you?” Boone shook his head no. “Ah damn,” Roland said, “that’s not right, not even right.”
Boone lifted his hand and pointed out a couple fires over where Jameson danced shirtless, chanting, yelling through a palm that clapped over his mouth in manic meters. “The hell is little buddy doing up yonder?”
Roland turned to see and he smiled. Trying not laugh. He said Well.
They had not seen rain for four months, and soldiers started prayer parties, and some begged for it to come down. Jameson had begged, saying, “I swear I will be a decent man. I’ll be the best damn Christian you ever raised, if you just let me draw a drop of water. Can’t you give me that?”
He was on his knees touching with his cracked lips and breathing upon the scarred and scorched barren earth when Roland told him if you want rain then you got to dance for it. Jameson rose up from the ground and wiped the dust off his trousers, threw off his coat and kepi hat and slung the strap of his drum until the drum swung just beneath his chest, with his boots clapping the earth and kicking up dust, drawing with his heels infinity patterns between fires, and when the dog Abe saw him, the dog chased him in a circle and they were striding and leaping and howling. His eyes glowed as an ocean and with the experience of war they seemed set within an ancient skull, and preserved by youth still, somehow, beneath their beaconed blue.
He had enlisted the previous year at fourteen years old as a drummer boy and turned out to be one of the finer shots in the entire division and led men twice his age on hunting expeditions when foraging for food. He told his mother when he decided to enlist. It was after he found out his father was killed in service and Jameson’s mother forbid Jameson to go and he did not listen. He and his father both had short and blond curly hair. She slapped him and cried and he walked out the door, saying, “I love you, Mama,” and she gathered herself and wiped her tears and turned to him after looking away for a very long moment and tried to speak and tried to accept his decision and could not and he was gone.
Presently, he was beating his chest and banging on the drum’s snare which was made from catguts—and the oak shell was painted with an eagle coated in American Flag and clawing with its talons an arrow and a copperhead snake, underneath a golden banner declaring the regiment name—and he leaped through fire followed by the dog letting his tongue shout sounds he had no idea existed, and only quit finally when he heard Boone’s voice.
Boone had whistled with his fingers and Jameson kept dancing and Boone whistled again, then called Jameson’s name. Jameson halted and turned his head, smiled and buttoned up his shirt and walked up to Boone.
“Boone you big bastard,” he said. “Ole buddy. I thought they killed you.”
“What are you doing dancing like a red man?”
He pointed at Roland. “Rowe told me so.”
Boone shook his head. “When has he ever been honest with you?”
“Well,” Jameson said, trying to count in his head and keep count with his fingers. “Well, no. Don’t suppose he has yet.”
Jameson asked for some of his tobacco and Boone handed him the pipe and he inhaled and coughed. Boone searched around the fires.
“Where’s Samuel,” he said.
Jameson handed him back the pipe and Boone held it in his palm. Roland pointed to the tent and spoke. “He’s been in there some time now.”
Roland scratched his cheek and looked away and so did Jameson. Roland turned back to Boone and shrugged. Shook his head once and was nodding also.
They opened the flap of the tent and Samuel was sitting Indian style in his undershirt and in no light. In the dark he seemed demented. His head had been shaved by his own hands and knitted in spots were strands where he could not see or scissor. A thin mustache cast against speckled whiskers and red cuts on his cheek, holding always a strayed stare brushed by the strokes of a Reubens painting. Almost unable to blink, sight and soul paralyzed and damned.
He looked up, then stood and shook Boone’s hand.
“Well, well,” Samuel said. “Look it here. Right before my eyes and as I speak. And in the flesh.”
“Boone here died and went to Hell,” Roland said, “and come crawling back.” He knocked on Boone’s crutch and said, “Or come limping back anyway.” Boone hit him on the shoulder and Roland said Damn.
Samuel said, “I knew better than to think a Reb would kill you.”
“You knew well,” Boone said.
“Let’s play some cards,” Roland said. “Try to find some whiskey. I wanna show y’all this trick my father taught me.”
“No,” Boone said. “Maybe whiskey but I won’t gamble none. Playing cards is a trick played by the devil.”
“Well now alright, then,” Roland said. “Now okay, that might be true, and if you ever do come across my dead body be sure to take this pack of cards off my person. God forbid my mother discovers me in a casket with a deck of cards and sees finally the type of person I really am.” They smiled and chuckled some, and Samuel pulled out a cigarette from a Texas Pirate pack imported from Mexico, putting it in his lips and sparked it with a match. The design of the pack was a Mexican soldier fighting for The Republic of Texas during the Battle of The Alamo alongside Davy Crocket and Jim Bowie.
When Samuel first enlisted, soldiers cracked jokes about him and called him womanly for smoking cigarettes, and after seeing him in battle they quit laughing and asked to smoke what he smoked and he always shared. The smoke tunneled out from his mouth and left between the men a ghostly trail. Roland’s eyes reflected the orange glow. “But I won’t die here,” he said. “I’m bound West and I’m fixing to head there’s.”
“Why do you always speak this way,” Jameson said. “Not proud to be a soldier?”
“He’s proud to be a soldier,” Boone said. “He just likes to hear himself talk.” Boone and Roland stared at each other. Samuel inhaled and handed the cigarette to Jameson and it would be passed in their seated circle modeled after tribal tradition. “Ain’t that right, Rowe?”
Roland saluted him mockingly, with his left hand and it knocked off his kepi from his head, and he spoke with a strange smile. “Yessir, General Boone, sir.”
“Keep it up,” Boone said, “and I’ll have to learn you a lesson.”
Samuel shook his head and held a hand on either one of their chests and told them to take her easy now.
“Why is everything got to be a fight with you?” Roland said.
“Freedom’s a fight,” Boone said. “Or don’t you get it yet. You can’t find peace without fighting for it.”
“No. You’re wrong. I’m going to find it. It’s someplace where men don’t kill other men. I know this to be true.”
“Well I hear there’s plenty of fine Indian hunting out West, anyway,” Jameson said. “And I’ve been told there’s no more fun a hunt than the great Indian hunt. After the war that’s what I’m doing next. They say there’s plenty enough for everybody to get a whole mess of scalps. Says the job ain’t done until they’re all wiped out.”
Samuel said with shame that he must acknowledge the corn and admitted he was tired, for one lifetime anyway, of all the killing he’s done and seen.
Colonel Adam Herrod Adams opened up the tarp and ordered them outside.
He had a full beard that was combed and slick and looked silver as did his eyes, and he smoked a De-Soto brand cigar lit from a match struck by one of his slaves standing at his side out of a Lucifer box.
He pointed across the river to the mountain which manifested itself in the dark fog into the skull of a faceless godhead, delivered upon earth from clouds and chiseled out of iron and stone.
Adams himself seemed to be a god in apprenticeship. Eagle feathers tethered to his hat and the golden emblem of an eagle pinned at the crown, and a golden eagle pommel on top of the sword slung at his waist in a silver scabbard. Golden scaled fringes cupped on his shoulder blades the same shade as the arrowed chevrons stitched onto his sleeve revealing his rank. And his arm straightened in the form of commanding a great charge, and directed toward the peak of the mountain, which was lit with pale gold by a full moon as though God turned on a lamp for all to behold this sculpture of his.
Colonel Adams quoted the word of God from the Books of Moses and King Henry V and the Art of War, and said finally, “That mountain shall be ours, as the moon shines and is full so it is blessing the blood of the American soldier.” Samuel finished his cigarette. “That is all, gentlemen.” Colonel Adams departed and Samuel stepped on the cigarette.
After Adams descended into the darkness and his figure was seen no more, Roland said to them, “That moon is full alright, just like him, full of shit.”
The company spent night and day digging trenches with shovels, cutting down the last of the trees and collecting branches and piling them above the holes where they camped.
The land laid out endless miles of stumps from tulip poplars and willow oak. Bones of brown thrashers and the broken beaks of mockingbirds disintegrating into dust, dried dirt and dead flowers. The sound of coal burning and furnace fires churning constantly, the sights of smoke ascending and hovering above them. It seemed to be a land given to man and ruined by man. The only animals remaining were mountain lions hidden and baying wickedly and moaning in heat and for human flesh with electric green eyes in the wilderness. The lineage of long-ago watchers.
The following night, Roland was telling a joke when all grew quiet and Roland stopped in the middle of his anecdote after Jameson hit him on the chest with the back of his palm.
Roland had been saying, “There’s this farmer and he’s got him a cow and it’s fixing to give birth and it’s going into labor. This farmer is up in there if you know what I mean. And he’s got with him three mules setting there watching. Can’t figure out if they like what they are looking at, I mean really like it, or are disgusted. I mean just outright hatred. Can’t decipher one way or the other. The cow is just a mooing, staring back at the mules. So anyhow—”
When Jameson hit him, he coughed and they all watched as the form of an old man emanated from the river as though he had risen up from beneath the waters and been made by its steamed breath, and then appeared to be walking on top of it, and he held contained inside a whiskey bottle his candlelight glowing before his face prophetically. He moved with the air itself and revealed himself not too much.
He had antique and tender beryl eyes and long white hair, the strands of which would fall from his head with each word he spoke until he was bald and his head resembled stone and it reflected the light of the moon. He called himself a local of the land and called himself a long-lost uncle of their lineage. He called for their ear and the dog was whimpering and Boone lit his pipe, and the others would pass a cigarette.
They stood still, wafting slightly with rippling winds. The emblem on their kepis was a sword crossed with a rifle within the circle of Lebanon leaves. Navy and wool coats fastened under black leather belts with U.S. silver buckles, American Flags with thirty-six states patched on their sleeves, canteens coated in sheep’s wool or painted with Columbia holding a sword and U.S. shield in either hand with a bald eagle on her shoulders, walnut gripped Colt Walker Revolvers holstered by their belts and trousers that were just as much the mixed color of dried blood and dust as they were their manufactured powder blue. Samuel had a saber that had a samurai inspired striped hilt which he earned from killing a Confederate Officer at Shiloh when he was detached from the company and saw briefly walking before him General U.S. Grant as he took out the sword from its case and wrapped around his head underneath his hat was a dampened and red bandage. Boone kept slung in his belt opposite his pistol an antler handled—made from the buck he killed as a child—knife with a silver blade thirteen inches long and all referred to it as the Last Arkansas Toothpick. Roland kept a pocket watch with a gold chain pinned to his coat with a mountain man fishing stenciled on the lid and beheld inside its case the handwriting of his father, and Jameson wore as a necklace a collection of bronze Mississippi, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee Confederate breastplates he took off Rebels he had killed which was a number greater than thirteen. They leaned on their Springfield musket rifles, and the silver bayonets gleaming in the dark appeared to mantle them through their jaws and brain. The coyotes were settled and howled not so often. The dog sat on its belly with a silver collar that rang like a distant church bell when it moved or adjusted its head. A stack of firewood stood outside their tent in the style of a teepee beside their flag which had stitched into its fabric the names of the battles Perryville and Stones River and Tullahoma, and the just completed Chickamauga which they said was an Injun word for River of Death.
“Remember sons,” the old man spoke, “our Founding Fathers, and all the tribulation they endured to preserve your Liberty. Keep with you God's matchstick and strike it against your underbelly. Strike light to that darkness inside and let it cast out from the lantern of your soul against the doomed world. In that little ole wee moment, which seems nothing in the grand awful train—that thing they call Time, that tiny moment which has since passed is still something to exist forever, and ever. That is the Human Spirit and it shall not perish. Not even death can kill it.”
When he finished speaking, he disappeared without walking, in the shape of something that never was. Thunder herded across the landscape and in the space of its silence a strand of keyed lightning scalped and pierced the sky, and thunder rolled on again and was thudding with the gait of buffalo hooves, jagged and rapid and tearing through the sky’s curtain, and then it rained and it would rain for thirty days and thirty nights.
That night would be the last night Roland spent with the Army. When the old man departed, he had gone to his tent and lit a candle and told Samuel that he was gone, but he had said this many times before. “I mean it this time pardner.”
Their shadows sang silently against the tarp as figures drawn into dark space. “I know it,” Samuel said.
“I am not dying in this godforsaken place,” Roland said. “Will not die in this war.”
Samuel said that he knows it, and Roland told him the story about his father he had told him many times before. How the papers and the lawmen gave different accounts of his death, and how in his own dreams at night when he sleeps he can see his father out West and still breathing, in a paradise, waiting for him, that his father is not dead, has escaped this world is all, and that is where he too shall go to find him.
“I know it.”
“I’m leaving tonight,” Roland said. This woke up the mountain lions and their howl spread how a train glides across the earth. “And I tell you something else too, pardner, if I may.”
“I won’t stop no gospel, brother. Go on, preach.”
“Boone’s always talking about sticking out this war for the duration. Like he’s commissioned by God. Now, I wouldn’t dare say it to his face because he’s a fine soldier, and I wouldn’t discourage his efforts. I’m proud of him, even. Proud to have known him. He’s still my brother. But he don’t realize when his two sons at home grow up and have children they’ll still be fighting this thing. There is no end to this war, and you can take that to the bank. But now, when I spread my seed, it won’t have no regard for Civil War. Me and my ole lady, once I settle down, and our little ones can be found somewhere in Paradise, U.S.A.”
The candle was pinched and darkness became within their tent and in their sleep Samuel pitched from his tonsils a scream similar to being caught on fire and it came from his mind where he had visions of a dragon breathing fire upon him and him burning to death in a great orange blaze.
In the morning was the first day of fall and with the rains came the cold and Colonel Adams had his horse led down the mound by a slave and his shadow slithered along the stone steps.
The company awoke and came toward the sound of the bursting bugles, bronze and burbled, and stood in a row modeled after an ancient-times alignment preparing for human sacrifice. Colonel Adams sat horseback before the company with his slaves carrying a stove with them underneath a cotton sheet for to keep his coffee warm. His horse he had named Apollo and its coat was white and in the downpour flashed translucent and it went untouched somehow by the rain that beat against earth.
The horse was brought from his farm in Kentucky and it was bred for speed and was of the very few horses in the Army that possessed a white coat.
The slaves he owned he did not inherit but earned. Born into poverty and working in the sun picking cotton and painting houses and sawing lumber while he sought education in his own time, studying the law until he could defend the law in courts before judges and jury, earning enough monetary currency to buy good land and then good slaves to maintain it. When he was twenty-five years younger, he was commissioned as a lieutenant and watched over this land to see through the evacuation of the Cherokee and was recognized by the President himself as an upstanding young soldier. By the war’s end he will be memorialized forever where he is from and in the history texts that mention his name as a great American and there will be erected a ten-foot-tall stone statue of him in the Chattanooga Cemetery.
Presently, he held his cigar between his teeth while he called out the names of soldiers in Lebanon Company from a scroll he had unrolled in his hands. Saying, Ephraim Prometheus Boone and Jameson Levi Campion and Samuel Atticus Clearwater. He spoke slowly and the soldiers told him where they were, saying “Here,” and the rain beat ceaselessly in between the names he spoke. He said, “Roland Didymus Holmes,” and none spoke up for these words. He peered down Samuel. “Where is he, Sammy? That pathetic one you like to call your brother.”
Roland would have said, “He didn’t know it was his day to keep up with me.” Samuel shrugged and said nothing and this pleased Adams as he did not appreciate a backbiter and he knew well the truth already that Roland deserted without having to be told this plainly. He scanned his scroll dampening in the rain and sipped his coffee and pulled in from his cheeks the smoke of the cigar, almost smiling. He found a fiery excitement boiled from his stomach at the prospect of bringing a coward to justice.
Samuel glared with blank sockets, and a dying soul, where Roland would have been standing in line, waiting for him to emerge there into form, and lowered his head and the rain dripped down his kepi bill, and pulled out a cigarette and kept it dry to light it and stood there in the rain smoking.
Samuel had been born two miles south of this region and when the country became divided his father joined the Confederacy as an officer, and he slipped away at night with the aid of his maternal grandfather and an oak handled silver steel six-inch barreled Colt Paterson revolver stolen from his father, and trekked one hundred and eighty miles through the forest on a mule named by his grandfather as Chief Ayam, with a can of beans, a twelve-ounce bag of Texas Pirate smoking tobacco and four bullets to his name, camping underneath leaves and brush to sleep. One afternoon he woke to a black bear roaring with the foul spray between its teeth that was carried from its lungs and was hurled how hurricanes hurl. Drenching Samuel’s face, and the flesh on his face was lifted from his skull. The bear clawed at his head and caught some of his skin with its teeth, biting and peeling off a section of his scalp, and he spent all his bullets on the bear, only angering it and he grabbed it by the jaw and threw its face off from his own, fleeing through the wild. It chased him rolling on four paws godly and monstrously and screamed in some language of Mother Nature for this man’s head. He ran through a creek, then hid himself beneath the curtain of a waterfall ten feet tall, reflecting against the sun a sunset shaded and rainbow striped shower. The animal stood and beat its chest and roared and sniffed elsewhere. Somewhere walking in the East Tennessee woods there is the legend and the lineage of a bear with four wounds in its heart and neck and left eyeball.
He moved by night and stayed hidden from Confederate Guerrillas and was guided by a silver-glow blue star resembling a fiery crucifix in the black sky. After eight days through the woods, he crossed the Tennessee border, and in Kentucky he found and enlisted in Lebanon Company. His headwound was dressed and wrapped with a white bandage that opaquely became rinsed in red. The first soldier he met was Roland and Roland shook his hand and said to him, “You might be from way down there’s in Georgia but you seem like good enough blood. Are you?”
“I doubt it,” Samuel said.
Since the bear attack, he suffered migraines—toothed metal molesting his mind and vision during the day—and from night terrors while sleeping.
In his dreams he follows the shadow of his grandfather up a slope through the woods searching for the spirit of a deer his grandfather witnessed fifty years prior and said his grandson too shall see it. They pass by a gypsy whose body is a post been hammered into the earth and his head is a sign that is placed upon his shoulders backwards. When he speaks, the words are written in the air in an ink of fog. The three of them are standing ankle-high in rainwater, and by the time the gypsy’s face turns around, and his verse is written, they will be swimming in a flood. His face reads, Do Not Come This Way, Fore You Shall Drown. He searches for his grandfather whose shadow is floating top the surface—a black curtain of the Underworld waiting to be drawn. “He got what is the fate of all of us,” writes the fog hovering before Samuel’s eyes. “Scalped by Injuns. Hung by niggers.”
This morning when he awoke he gasped with strained lungs as though he had spent a lifetime underwater. Pellets of rain splintered against the tent, and he waited for Roland to laugh and light a cigarette and say to him, “You are sweating, son, and you were screaming, and just a shivering,” but all that remained of Roland was what he left behind for them to remember him, the seconds ticking inside the glass of his gold pocket watch, inscribed to him by his lost father.
Boone came up to Samuel after rollcall and lit his pipe and they stood together in silence and smoking while their pulse breathed as clutched and blurred as was the smog. Boone exhaled and he said, “You think he’ll find what he’s after?”
“I hope so,” Samuel said.
“That ain’t what I asked.”
“I know it ain’t.”
The company was informed that evening their rations were to be reduced, and as long as it rained they would not eat well, being told their supply wagons were caught in the mountains and mud in the Cumberland wilderness, and captured by Confederate militia who burned them and had the Yankee drivers and teamsters and aids beg for their lives before killing them by hanging or starvation tied in nakedness to trees for wolves, or shooting the more fortunate ones in the head point blank.
“This war is no longer civilized,” Jameson said.
“It might never was,” said Samuel.
Colonel Adams said, “Remember this. If war is not beautiful then you never could be. That is all gentlemen.”
Colonel Adams returned to his lodge top the Indian mound, and a mute child not twelve years old found his way upon the hill who Adams had decided was wandering after being made orphan by the previous battle and Adams took him in and whispered to him with the youth on his knee, and they were cooked steak from one of the Colonel’s cows prepared for them by one of the slaves.
Throughout the month following, the company would forage desperately for food.
They found cracked eggshells, and bones washed up along the banks and eagles flying overhead that Jameson wasted bullets on and prayed for food and for the rain to cease, and believed their fast to be Holy, then doubted this very much, found many acorns and found no game.
One morning, Jameson swore he heard in the brush a half mile distance the shuffling of a wild boar and Boone said how do you have ears to hear that, and Jameson said his father was a fox and he inherited his father’s ears. Samuel and Boone followed Jameson while he checked the mudded earth for tracks and crouched behind bushes and stumps, holding out an ear with his left hand and moving on. “I’m gonna need your toothpick, Boone,” he finally said. “Bullets don’t ever touch them.” Boone drew out his knife and gave it to Jameson. Jameson bit down on the blade and came crouching, almost waddling, and peeled back the branches and stems of a fruitless mountain laurel and screamed between his pinched lips and pounced on the hidden prey which was a skunk, and it sprayed its foul odor from its anus and the stench cloaked Jameson who fell upon his face, garmented in mud and an awful aroma upon his flesh, and the skunk scattered away from them probably laughing.
And Boone and Samuel laughed too. Hands on their knees and each other’s shoulders and Boone had to sit down on his hinds. Jameson stood up and flicked the mud off his face and wiped it off from his coat and trousers.
“It ain’t funny,” he said. They said they were laughing at something else, honest.
They lived on a half portion of hardtack crackers per day made from flour and water, and Jameson found three white doves the dog Abe had killed and he ate them raw and kept them buried a mile from camp and kept them rationed over the course of six days until one day he had stood up very pale and purple and with a wobbled footing and his skin dripping with sweat, and Samuel said, “Little amigo, are you alright?”
Jameson whispered and was quivering and vomited out white feathers and brown rotting bird from his mouth just after he spoke, saying, “I need to be saved.”
Their chaplain had just in the past two days given up on God altogether and lay in drunken slumber.
The company cursed the mules who had eaten up all the corn stock, and Boone even stole chewed up kernels from their mouths. Colonel Adams saw this from the stoop of his log quarters and shook his head, exhaling with the cigar in his fingers. Boone collected and strained the corn too from their excrement and cooked the gathering over fire with soap.
“Is that the last bar of soap,” Jameson said.
“It might be,” Boone said.
“I was gonna use some soap this evening to wursh my skin. I haven’t bathed proper in thirteen days.”
“Well I haven’t eaten proper in eight days. Besides, little buddy, everything you got that's wrong with you, and that's foul and inside you, there is no scrubbing to help. What you need is to digest the cleanser. Eat it. Go on and try a bite. If it had just a little salt it'd be a stew. Believe that. A stew I said.”
Jameson tried a bite and lifted his eyebrows and nodded his head.
“What I tell you?” Boone stirred the sautéed corn and soap and dripped the mud-like feces from the pan. “Remember what Roland’s father used to tell him about a good stew. He’d say, ‘Son, if I’ve said it once I said it a thousand times. You can beat your wife, and you can beat your children too. Hell, you can even beat your dog. But you cannot beat this stew.’”
They spoke about meals they would eat once the war was over until the rain sliding down their faces appeared as tears, and they would turn away and they would talk about something else or they would not speak at all.
At night their stomachs growled how it sounds when drowning men scream underwater, and they slept each night expecting not to wake come the morning, and in the morning when they rose they were served no breakfast.
During the third week in October, a supply wagon came forth from the rolling hills behind them carried by mules, and the wheel hinges squeaking and creaking and turning top the earth resembled the footprints of canonized saints.
They walked toward the wagon in awe, cleaning their eyes from the damp smog, rising and pointing, as it were a miracle and they looked on with unbelief.
“If that’s food in there,” Jameson said, “then Boone my big friend, I will kiss you on the lips.”
They opened up the tarp and Samuel trembled and fell to his knees and became covered in mud. He whispered, “No,” and hung his head.
It was Roland seated in there, roped by his heels and roped by his hands and he finally looked up and was trying to smile.
Two hours later Roland was squatted along the river setting a nail against pine board lying down on top the dirt and dead grass. Blood and mud sliding down his wrists. A hammer tapped down upon the iron nail into the wood frame, pounding it all the way through.
He had been permitted to spend his final day on earth framing his own coffin. Across the river, behind the rain and the fog and campfire, Confederates watched and would nod and tip their kepi bills when Roland looked up and saw them.
Samuel crouched down beside him and Roland swung the door and it swung pretty good and he said that it did. He said if anybody could build a better one then they were a liar. The rain cracked and splattered and slid down the wooden chamber.
“I’ve seen your granny build a better coffin,” Samuel said.
“That’s right.” Roland tried to laugh. “And she’s dead.”
“You let your father know I said howdy?”
Roland shook his head. He said he made it as far as California. Samuel smiled. Red gills burst and bled inside his eyeballs. “This whole country,” Roland said. “Ain’t nothing out there.” He pulled out his deck of cards—worn out cardboard with an engraving of Lady Liberty—and he gave the cards to Samuel.
In the evening Roland took off his boots and stepped in the coffin and placed the boots in front of him and stood with his back facing the river.
The company was lined in a row thirty yards away from him, and for his final words he chose to sing about Kentucky, with their rifles posted in the ground beside their feet aligned with their bodies. Colonel Adams gave the command to load and raise their rifles, and they did, the metal ramrods ramming down into the metal barrels. Black tar smeared across their faces from powder and ball. The Colonel’s throat rattled when he said Fire in the cracked song of a dying eagle, and the bullets herded thunderously trailed by black smoke clouding the land, dissipating opaquely, hissing and revealing Roland’s form where he limped within the wood compartment, kicking its frame and cursing—only two of the rifles were even aimed at him, and he was shot in the foot and shoulder. He said he always knew not one of them was a decent shot. “Not even you Boone.”
Boone made a sound from his throat that would be considered unmanly and was a sound he could not help.
Adams shook his head and had a slave lead his horse Apollo up to Roland. The company turned away. “I know who your father is, son,” Adams said. “Sin is the ultima of desertion. Your daddy is the devil.” Adams drew his pistol and held it up beside Roland’s head and clicked the trigger. A golden spark illuminated sporadically from the barrel of his gun and Roland thudded into final rest.
Two days later had been more than thirteen days since they had eaten anything, save for one half cracker per day, and it is what Boone wrote down in his journal.
Samuel gave to Boone Roland’s card deck and all watched him while he went away how a dog does to go lie down and die.
Jameson returned from a hunting expedition and threw up his hands and said there is nothing out there.
“Nothing,” Boone said.
Jameson nodded and repeated the word, whispering, similar to old men’s last words.
Boone stood up and blew breath into his cupped hands and followed the footsteps left by Abe the dog, and called for it by name and by whistle, and the dog’s collar rang and it came waddling up toward him where he crouched and pet its neck and rubbed along its shoulders and spine and it was smiling and licking his cheek.
He turned his body and faced Jameson. “You might want to look away little buddy.”
“Don’t you dare.”
Boone pulled out his pistol and leveled it under the jaw and the dog whimpered and panted and yelped while he shot it and the bullet clacked through its marrow and he let it down against the earth gently, dragging it back to camp.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” Jameson said.
“Wait until you try dog. You’d think you’re a disciple on Maundy Thursday. Here, go on. Grab a root.”
Samuel had his shoulders slouched and his neck bent when he walked into the open corridor that led into a cave.
Raging before his vision beats the spirit of a Cherokee Chief with a tomahawk and a Spanish musket and a single strand of braided black hair tied by feather, and half his face painted red, dancing during the Revolutionary War, hunted by Overmountain Men in navy coats, gold buttons and gray wig ponytails. The chief speaks to the grandfather of Samuel’s father. “This land you buy from us is given to earth from Great Spirit and is fair as the cloud and sky, and it is the same name as my grandmother and if you want to take the land from me you will have to kill me, but I will never leave, only leave my body with death. My Spirit will stay. One day the true price of this land will be the cost of your lineage. They will find its settlement a dark and bloody grounds.” The chief is laughed at with horrid and phantom laughter and his tribe is hunted down along the mountain slopes, huts and villages raided and burned, and the chief dancing there in the cave beneath the mountain gleams everlasting, through space and time, stomping his feet before Samuel’s lost gaze.
Samuel pulled back the hammer of his revolver, pressed the metal up against his temple, releasing down the trigger, pulling the trigger and the bullet roared as thunder. Fleeing the cave were screeching bats sprouted from the depths of the darkness, dabbing the sky in beaded blackness.
The chief is standing over Samuel’s body scalping the crown from his face.
Lebanon Company served the cooked dog on a table over American Flag tablecloths and the chaplain even woke up to eat, and blessed the food, saying they are starved one day less in seeking the kingdom of God.
Colonel Adams pointed to the mountain. “That is the kingdom there,” he said. “The day shall be when our Lord is fulfilled and that day shall come for us take the mountain.”
Two days before the end of the month, Colonel Adams called the company and told them the Army asked for volunteers from its finest to cross the river. “There is no finer a grit,” he said, “than the grit in the company I’ve raised. Am I right, men?”
Boone spat and saluted. “Damn right.”
“Does this mean we’ll eat again?” Jameson asked.
Colonel Adams said that it does.
In the first hours of the next day, they walked without direction or song or order toward the riverbanks, in darkness fulfilled where wooden rafts bobbed on top the violent current tied to the land by rope. Each soldier was handed a paddle, and many paddles would break as they steered the boats. Boone would even use his crutch and the crutch would be clasped by the river’s underneath, leaving him with a severe limp and no support for all the days that remained in his life.
The soldiers gathered shoulder to shoulder. The ropes were untied, and they drifted down into further darkness, and in their hearts they saw before them as they began paddling the slushed waters riding up the boats, some terrifying unknown.
At certain spots where the river curved and turned they would be not ten yards away from the Rebels on the opposite riverbanks and they had chosen a night in which the fog would guise them as faded and pale mistral particles and they could not witness how the river cut before them, and could hear in whispers the tongue under the winds and strident current of the enemy as floating voices. The rain drilled the river of a thousand drumbeats. The boats rolled and skated and dove bow first underneath great dips, riding top the snake-scaled shimmering surface and slithering route of the river as a painting depicted of a lost biblical story.
The fog parted and Jameson stood on the edge of the boat with one boot planted top the bow, and the leafless branches of a single sweetgum on the banks emerged before them appearing itself as a wounded creature drooping in disfigured form. It seemed to be reaching out over the river as though its soul searched for other souls to save from drowning.
The stars revealed themselves and they glinted in dancing meters in the silent purple sky and in the same sudden clearing it too ceased raining. “My God,” Jameson whispered. “I'll be damned if I don't feel that I’m Moses and General George Washington both, when each went down the mighty Mississippi.”
Boone told him to hush and whispered, “We are just ducks in the water.”
Jameson didn’t seem to hear him. He stood now with both feet on the edge of the boat and smiled with immense pride, breathing in the new air, saying, “That does it. First thing I'm doing when we get to land is get baptized.”
These were his last words. As he shut his eyes, they passed under the sweetgum and a steam had risen and crossed the moon's face and the tree's branches became hidden and one of them knocked Jameson against the head. He fell into the river and those who saw it looked behind them while he splashed and the suck pulled him down, catching the drum string under rock and his scream was muted almost immediately with the rustling current that rolled over where he drowned.
The waters rippled and trickled, the boats slid on without sound.
Upon arrival of enemy position the soldiers docked their boats, sliding them up the banks, staggering on land and pounced upon the new territory, capturing Rebel companies easily and stealthily, firing into the night a response to enemy bullet-volleys. The red and burnt orange bursts sparking at the ends of the metal rifle barrels, where none else was seen, roared and raced dawn, tracing in the darkness a roasted man-made constellation set on fire.
Mules somewhere in the vicinity ran frantically in a collected chaos, believing themselves to be ablaze, and their hooves resembled a buffalo stampede and great thunder, and Rebel prisoners in the morning would admit that in the darkness and confusion they mistook these raiding mules, thinking it was indeed the gallop of the entire western U.S. cavalry, and with the arrival of dawn Rebels surrendered helplessly, saying, “Holy Hell,” and “Oh my God.” “They’ve set loose bulls from Hell.” “Don’t shoot for the love of God.” “Don’t tear out my heart from my flesh.”
In the morning there were a half dozen dead Confederates and the day was spent digging graves for them, and a few were dragged into the river and dumped down into its depths when no officer observed the duties. Boone pulled up one of the bodies when he witnessed the act and he was told then by other soldiers that he can dig the grave on his own if he cares so much, and so he did.
Up the property was a log-hewn tavern where the Rebel prisoners had once made their camp. Colonel Adams walked inside with the mute child. Along the walls of the death room was a mounted bear head and the strangely serene and somber dead stare of a thirteen-point buck and three catfish weighing over twenty pounds each, a self-portrait of the tavern’s former owner who was half-Cherokee and half-Caucasian, wearing a three-piece suit and staring at the subjects walking amongst his room with Mona Lisa eyes. There were rugs made of buffalo and bear hide.
On the ferry dock, a prisoner with a packed pipe in his mouth asked Boone for a light, and Boone lit the pipe and packed his own and they smoked together for a while without speaking.
Then the prisoner said, “I’d a sworn them mules last night was a conviction from God. What’d y’all do to make them mules so mean?”
“Weren’t our mules.”
Three days later Boone would find a corpse washed up on the banks. Much of the flesh had been fed upon by the fish and cloth been torn and ripped apart and disintegrated into the river wash, and skeleton throughout the body cracking and caked through the skin and its head revealed half its skull. Boone whispered Little Buddy and then prayed it was not him. Jameson’s mother would live to be past seventy years old and then die not ever knowing what happened to her son.
Camped on top the mountain was a Confederate company called Shepherd Rifles, and a private among them named Asher and when he signed his name on letters he signed it with a cedar pencil and signed it in full, writing, Asher Menewa Clydale.
He had red hair and a mask of freckles around his eyes and nose, and a long golden goatee that touched his chest. In his down time he would play the fiddle to tunes which could make men dance and make men weep and could play the fiddle no more.
At dawn following the third Sunday in September, he was down in the valley and was released from the First Presbyterian Church that served as a hospital where he lost his right arm but had his life saved by a strange surgeon who spoke of the Shalihotra, and awaited shackled by his ankles and the one good wrist knotted by rope upon his destiny, for the Union wagons to come take him up north to a Union prison.
He stood at a depot where were the remains of a burnt caboose, wearing brown boots made from bull hide with iron soles. The boots were old and he had inherited them and scarred onto the leather were many stories of where they have trekked over the years—Indian wars and Mexican wars—and these scuffs and stains were hidden behind the glimmer polished by Asher shining them devoutly.
For over three hours at the depot was a constant and chaotic ringing from railroad spikes clinking baseplates into the train tracks that ran on for many miles in parallel and intersecting routes. The winds picked up dust and hurled the sediment against him. He squinted and trembled and spoke to one of the guards. “There’s a storm a brewing and headed this way. I know it deep down in my bones.”
The guard turned around and glanced at his knobbed elbow and said what Asher felt was from that, that there weren’t no rain coming.
Asher said jokingly, “What would it take for you to let me go?”
“Where would you go?”
Asher spoke without thought, as if he had been considering it his whole life, on living and how to die. “Right to the Promised Land.”
The guard chuckled to himself and sealed upon his face was a smile creeping and cracking through his cheeks.
“Oh, that’s funny is it?”
“Here I was thinking that God wouldn’t let a Rebel enter.”
When the wagons came to the depot, the Rebels were told not to load into them, that their lives in prison were traded so the Union could come collect their dead off the battlefield from the previous fight.
Asher was not sure what to make of this trade, that his freedom was offered in return to have corpses cared for and wrote accordingly in a letter to his father.
The guard waved to him as the prisoners departed and were brought back to their own lines. “There you go, brother,” the guard said, chuckling quietly. “Tell God I say hello.”
Asher returned to his company through the shadow of trees lining the mountain and he stood among them while they played cards over a table with Confederate half dollars in the pot, and they smiled upon seeing him, saying, “I thought you was headed up North to prison,” and, “I thought you’d got wise and up-and-left,” and, “I swore by God you died.”
“Well ain’t none of that true, fore here I am, in the flesh.”
By the time it started raining Asher was pulling a mule through the mud where its tonsils were bawling and it refused to be dragged anymore.
A soldier in Asher’s company passed by him, saying he was fleeing from here, just after the Vice President of the Confederacy came to the mountain to deliver a sermon, and Asher asked if he knew what they did to deserters.
“Don’t matter,” the deserter said. “God don’t know us here. Never could have.”
By the time Asher spoke, it was a hoarse whisper and only the shadow of the deserter remained and it glided down the slopes as it were the shadow of the sun setting, with Asher saying in parched speech, “God does know who we are.”
The deserter stood in sodden uniform before a thirteen-point whitetail buck and dropped to his knees in the image of confession.
Now, the Confederate Vice President’s name was Alexander Stephens and he studied law at Franklin College in Athens, Georgia, and had come up the mountain by wagon, in the rain and it was parked before the property of a two-story tall white cottage house which was the only house constructed on the mountain, and was on the bluff, and the view oversaw the tens of thousands of Union soldiers and their firelight through fog as a myriad of distant candles, seeming down there in the valley to be an army raised out of Hell.
Slaves escorted the Vice President and held cover for him from the rain, assisting him up the stairs of the front porch while he coughed in a monogrammed handkerchief before speaking.
“Young, and brave men. Remember the tribulation our Founding Fathers suffered in creating this world for us, of freedom and Liberty.”
The Army expected supplies with the Vice President’s arrival but they were brought none, and so each night the Shepherd Rifles slept in the open rain staring into the darkened skies through the wounded wings of the branches above them. And Asher lay quivering and shaking and soaked and flesh always damp, and one night he heard shuffling in the dark near him something that did not speak when he called out to it, and he warned the trespasser he will shoot if it does not speak, and it spoke not. Asher pulled up his rifle and loaded it and stayed on his back leaning his weight down on his handless arm, aiming top his knee and fired and rose, following the trail of smoke unto flickering sunlight of the morning, and stood above his captain’s horse which he had shot in the night. The way the horse was screaming was the score for a million mothers across the country dressed in black.
Asher’s captain had crouched beside the horse’s body and rubbed his hand over its ribs and spat beside his feet. Shaking his head once, sticking his rifle underneath the horse’s left eye—possessing in it green leaves and blue waters and brown earth orbiting and appearing as an ornament of the world captured within its vision—and it snorted and Asher snorted and rubbed his eyes with the rain sliding down his face and turned away when his captain pulled the trigger and its final scream delivered from its jaws a horrid cloud that gaited down the slope of the mountain.
That afternoon Asher was led by a Confederate chaplain named Bayer toward the mark of the horse’s last breath, walking down into the river. Bayer held him up and touched his forehead, saying, “Blessed be the man who is come to be born again, and forgiven is he who asks for mercy, in the act which is meant to show a man drowning so that he can be risen anew with pure heart and cleansed soul,” and he dipped down Asher’s body and his face, and held him underwater and it flooded his lungs, him gurgling, and sprouted from his nostrils, floating in singular form. Upon the surface it dabbed and bubbled while Bayer repeated the prayer.
Asher was lifted up, his face parting the waters coming unto breathable air again and there was the gunshot echo of thunder rolling with the current and a fleet of bats screamed overhead and three of them got tangled in his wet hair and clawed his scalp, and he threw them off of him, two flying away, and drowned the third one.
Before the Vice President had finished his speech and departed from the barren and deluged and scorched mountain he had repeated the works and writing of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, saying, “The purpose of this nation is the right to eternal freedom for all men, that this shall never be transgressed, and when threatened, there is an equal right to bear arms against its oppressors in the name of liberty.”
“God does know who we are,” Asher whispered. He closed his eyes.
“And remember that our nation was founded upon these things,” The Vice President said before twenty thousand soldiers, “and also on the principle that slavery is a naturally moral and normal condition to the existence and prominence of a new nation.”
“God does know who we are,” he said again with awful doubt, almost unable to finish the sentence, and he repeated it once more like delivering from the spirit of the earth some ancient curse. He opened his eyes and he saw a herd of a dozen buffalo came thudding and echoing the voice of thunder, stampeding top the river below, rolling up the mountain and blazing past him and he was nearly trampled to death before they dispersed into the thicket of fog and forestry, leaving Asher with a cold and hollow face and speechless and he could not breathe.
By the time the rain quit it had buried a mule and Asher hammered a post into the ground that read, Watch Step, Dead Mule.
In November Asher would stand daily at the foot of the mountain on picket duty at the Lookout Creek where Union privates would serve their duties in the same manner, sometimes not twenty yards across each other. The sun glinted off where its waters rolled cold and trilling over stone and pebbles and past roots sprawled underneath.
One morning Asher stood behind a tree, scanning across the creek where he saw a Union soldier packing a pipe and urinating behind a tree. “Hey Bill,” he said. “Bill, you see me?”
The Union soldier was Boone and he zipped up his trousers and turned toward Asher who hid his face then showed it again. “Yeah,” Boone said, flickering his match and exhaling. “I see you.”
They met standing ankle-deep in the creek, and the sun shined upon the land for the first time in over a month and gave unto them what they called an Indian Summer.
Asher pulled out a rolled-up newspaper and tapped Boone with it on the shoulder lightly. “You got yourself any news we could trade for a bit?”
Boone shook his head. “No.”
Asher squinted, then smiled. “I remember you. At the church. You had that dog with you.”
Boone pulled out the pipe from his mouth and lightly coughed. “That’s right,” he said. “You spoke to that dog, didn’t you.”
“Like a man come upon the Holy Ghost. How is it, anyway, the dog—did it make it through its wounds?”
“Y’all keep with it you then?”
“It runned off?”
Boone lifted his shoulders and sighed, holding his pipe.
Asher nodded. “I say good. A dog don’t need to bear this war,” he said, glancing at Boone’s boots. “How much did you pay for them.”
“Nothing,” Boone said.
“I bet you paid more for them things than an officer’s horse.”
“I made them from a deer I killed.”
“How come you didn’t make a coat from it?”
“I don’t need a coat to walk on.”
“What would you give for them boots.”
Boone said, “Nothing.”
“We could make a wager. What if I offered my boots? You could win my boots and lose nothing.”
Boone studied Asher’s boots. “How do they tread?”
“They’ll take you all the way to the promised land if you so please. I was wearing these when I was saved from perishing in a Yankee prison.” Hummingbirds and robins crooned and were building nests in the oak that stood beside them off the creek and had been standing there for hundreds of years. “They belonged to Davy Crocket’s brother. That’s the honest truth to it.”
Boone rubbed his chin and dimmed his eyes and pointed. “I get that paper too if I win.”
“No, I can’t do that. My daddy mailed it to me ‘cause I asked for it, and it only got here day before last.”
“If you can’t you can’t.”
Asher watched the boots under the creek and sighed and said, “Well hell. Okay then, deal.”
Boone pulled out the deck of cards that had once belonged to Roland, and he hesitated, and saw in his mind’s eye flashing images of Roland. Asher interrupted these visions by saying, “Uh, Billy. Hello in there. Hey Billy!” Finally getting Boone’s attention and Boone shook his head as to shake out the picture of his fallen friend from inside his mind and shuffled the cards.
Then dealt and Boone smiled turning over his cards, one that showed a joker. He looked to the sky, saying, “Roland you up there?”
Asher said What.
When Boone got back to camp, he gave the boots to a soldier who had none and spread open the newspaper and commented aloud. “Read what they write. Just read it. Says here, that Jefferson is the hero of the war. Says Jefferson is an American Patriot. I mean how about that for bullshit. They got Jeff Davis written up here like he was some damn noble knight.”
Someone pointed to the date printed in the top right of the paper, 1776. Asher had had the paper in his family for over five generations. In one paragraph there was a quote from the Queen of England: “These so-called Americans are as savage as the land and peoples they try to settle and civilize.”
“Four words she can shove down her pipe and smoke,” Boone said. And they spoke the sentence together and in harmony, “Don’t tread on me.”
That night E.L. Charon came before them in a wagon and dressed in a black suit with a red tie and a top hat he held in his hand and spoke to them with natural charisma.
“What is your soul worth, my good men? Would you not choose to be among the eternal Heaven if you could so choose? I am here to offer you that choice.”
He pulled out from his wagon two coffins and showed the body of a soldier who was not preserved by his care that was rotting and the skeleton under his flesh was blackened and was missing an eyeball, and one who he dressed himself with make-up, and had sewed his cheek and head back to its face, and clothed him in a cotton uniform he washed and dried, reattached his fingers, scrubbed the wedding ring and had slid it back onto proper placement.
“How do you wish to be dressed for death? Should you not look graceful before the angels of the lord, and before your loved ones to say goodbye one more time before you are lowered.” Mountain lions howled. “It only costs you ten dollars and lasts forever.”
The following night Colonel Adams gave them crates of whiskey and opened up a casket of newly purchased automatic Henry rifles he paid for with his own currency. “There’s only a few men in the entire country who own such an instrument, and now you all are among them.”
The guns had oak stocks glazed with a honey walnut coat, a golden level and chamber, and silver steel that shined in the night. They were hymns of war.
Adams told them to fight like the tigers of their ancestry who made this nation independent, that God has spoken amongst them here this night and has told them to take the mountain and he and God will guide them up its slopes, that they shall move swiftly as the movement of night and conquer the Confederacy with the iron of guns-thunderbolt.
When he finished, they were wild-eyed and crazed drunk and running through the fires, and Boone had taken off his shirt and beat his chest, roaring like a man raised by wolves. He thought he saw the amber-green eyes of mountain lions peering steep in the woods and he chased after them and they vanished and appeared at some other mark. To the Rebels up the mountain they must have sounded as mountain lions themselves, chanting for blood, and Boone spoke in drunken verse, shirtless and sweating in the cold November night, saying wildcat, wildcat, wildcat. He ran through the fire and the flames swindled and cloaked his form, and smoke and spark spurted upon him as he chanted while the flames parted and waved in the air appearing hinged to his shoulder blades.
They woke the next morning to bugles and Boone had to smack his face with water on his hands and search for his coat, and the soldiers loaded their new rifles with thirteen bronze rimfire bullets and marched along the creek without speech. The water splashed and splashed. The metal of their guns in the weight of their hands.
Just before they marched out from camp, Adams said, “Make sure you have with you your forty dead men,” and the company unbuckled the U.S. gold plates on their leather cartridge boxes, counting their ammunition. The straps saddling their necks.
Up the slopes hovered a gray fog crowning a halo around the mountaintop. Opaque winds hung with the digestion of dead souls, hissing through the trees and they entered the forest slopes and trekked uphill and the hovered cloud devoured the Army’s collected figure as it were a great beast conceived from the heavens.
A hallow atmosphere wafted amongst them. The wings of birds fluttered and acorns dropped on top of leaves and colorful dead leaves were crinkled, the soles of their boots sashaying and slipping as they stepped, and the air whispered a demonic lullaby that scratched within their ears, and all reflecting light upon the earth had been snuffed out and scalped.
They were ordered to halt and kneel. Boone wiped his face from a chilling sweat and uncapped his canteen and took a sip. He pulled out his pipe and loaded it with tobacco and lit it with a match. The combustion sparked orange and the smoke cluttered his face. Then it vanished, and more smoke reappeared while he exhaled. A mosquito found the blood on his neck and he killed it with his hand.
Farther up the mountain not fifty yards away were the enemy soldiers squatted on the silver palisades that ran ten and twenty feet tall against the slopes, and they were lying down in trenches behind wood and stone earthworks with rifles pointed through the cracks.
Colonel Adams pointed to that direction, smiling and inhaling, watching. Boone pinched the pipe with his teeth and checked and cocked his rifle. The barrel lay across his knee and he squinted through the smog. The order was delivered to raise their rifles and they did, holding the instruments against their shoulders. Boone was lefthanded.
A tremendous squawk sailed through the air and hung in space, and the sound descended and cratered against earth in a dozen intervals, shells of artillery and cannonball crashing and exploding and spurting up sediment of dirt and roots and forts and bones and flesh. And the screams of the wounded.
The Union fired and followed the ghoul curtain of gunpowder. Boone cocked his lever handle, and the burnt cartridge chimed and ejected while he stood and charged, the color bearer beside him—a portrait in the denseness of hanging cloud, of an American fleet, the sails striped red and blue with white stars lashed atop the tides. The brass horns sounded the song of war.
During this, the Confederacy fired and found cover, and reloaded. A second and third wave from their command fired and came down to meet the Union.
A musician was shot through the neck and his song warbled violently. The collected tongue of soldiers screaming was in the vein of Mother Nature’s offspring screaming vengeance. The Rebels had reloaded and fired again. Boone hammered out shots while running and tripping over his bad foot, taking cover behind trees while branches fell before him, and he lay down behind them. The bullets he fired clinging beside his ear. The roar of gunpowder tunneled out from his barrel. Two Rebels emerged from the dim smoke and fog and they came savagely and wickedly and with a foreign howl and they took two bullets to the face from Boone’s rifle.
He pulled the wounded musician down beside him, behind a tree that had taken so many bullets it cracked and fell and thudded loudly and with a holy cadence with the crack of thunder. Boone held a hand over the neck jetting with blood, and raised, drawing out his pistol and killed another Rebel, and was shot through the left chest and he gasped from lungs of dust and fell down, his back against the timber. The nurses had come and bullets sprayed over their head. They worked on the musician and lifted him upon a stretcher cot while Boone took out his knife and cut until he could tear open his coat. No blood, he searched with his fingers across his body, and pulled out the deck of cards that had once belonged to Roland. A mini ball had gone halfway through the cards and was wedged into the joker’s head.
“That’s the devil at play,” said one of the nurses.
The musician had been singing an ungodly melody for his mother and had just now lost consciousness. Boone nodded and the nurses nodded, and Boone hunkered his rifle behind branches of the severed tree and rang out seven church bell shots. The nurses lifted up the wounded singer and ran downhill carrying the stretcher. One of them lost balance and fell, and the injured soldier was hurled from the cot and rolled to his death amongst the great spear-shaped limestone rocks blockading his route.
Boone hammered his body against a rock and reloaded the bullets down the barrel of his rifle. Pulling them up from his leather sack. The bullets rattled in his fingers and he lost some in the leaves. Artillery lifted from 1800 feet below wailed in the dialect of whales. Boone had taken to guerrilla warfare, many had. He met soldiers from New York and of the 111th Pennsylvania. Somewhere on the mountain was Ambrose Bierce.
Men running near him were falling down dead, staring up to the eternal sky through the fog with sunburst eyes, smiling at the gates built by pearl parting for their coming.
Boone shook his head with ghosts housed in his eyes, aimed from behind the rock and fired, watching a Rebel drop, and watching the Rebellion retreat, and through the course of the day would only witness six more of them while he ran across the slanted mountain surveying possible flanks, and kneeled behind rocks, pulling out the wounded who had been lost and hidden under stone, and eyed Asher once in the branches of a tree who sighted him too. A hawk flew between them. None else were around and Boone relit his pipe and wiped sweat from his forehead and moved on.
By dusk there was almost no report, sign or account of a Rebel left on the mountain and upon word of this, there was prolonged muteness of divine messengers flying through the Army’s collected spirit, and they could see up a hundred yards up the slopes their flag being erected upon a palisade and then the soldiers shouted in celebration and it reverberated to the bluffs and throughout the valley.
Boone was still heading back to his company when he heard the roaring cry of the battle’s victory, and he smiled and breathed out finely possessed pain. He snorted and rubbed under his eyes, lifted his kepi from his head and ran a hand through the lice in his hair.
A bullet broke through a branch, and the branch broke and fell to the dirt, and Boone had turned around and the bullet fissured between his eyes, leaving behind a trickling bloodline silent and hallow from his mind down his nose, his eyes wet and open, him falling to his knees with arms in flight, pushed down by wind unto his back.
Asher turned around late in the day and saw no soldier that he recognized and saw an oncoming band of Union soldiers creeping toward him. He hopped down from the tree branch barefooted, and they sighted him and fired, hunted him down and repeated another wave of bullets. He ran for a moment with his hand covering one of his ears, then pushed against a tree to turn his direction and he whispered, in his hurried scamper, a prayer with great calm. Psalm 23. His steps tracing through the woods tracks that led under shrub and bush and between thorn vines and around giant stone, and his feet ran out of land for which to step, halting on the edges of a palisade with a forty-foot drop. Looking behind him and bullets splintered next to his flesh, and they were coming at him with bayonets and bowie knifes, dueling pistols and herding rifle fire. He turned away, watching into the sky as crippled sunlight speckled a soundless ceremony through the fog and he closed his eyes and exhaled, and he dropped down, hitting after a slow second against the earth below.
The night turned into a strange brightness, with the moon round and silver and clayed with dents and divots, the gun smoke and fog lifted and evaporated and the frogs were humming, and lightning bugs lit the forest in a thousand gleaming ornaments. Boone was staring into the dark above him, then were his eyelids closed, and a fiery-blue star pulsated as it were a soul resurrected from earth unto sky.
Then the moon passed through the shadow of earth and glowed red as a possessed deity risen in the night watching over all and passed over beyond its shadow revealing slowly the slender constellation of a snake beckoning the tongue of God.
On Thanksgiving, a train was loaded full with Confederate prisoners, down in the valley, who sat staring out the window with their breath clouding the clear pane, and through the cloud, outside, passed by Colonel Adams on horseback.
He kicked his horse up the mountain past soldiers and teamsters and E.L. Charon collecting the dead, and one soldier pointed beside a tree. “Look over there.”
“Where?” another soldier said.
“Where I’m pointing. Look with your ears.”
He squinted and turned his head and then he saw. A thirteen-point buck, with antlers extended from its skull in the form of oak branches, lay decapitated with its organs torn out from underneath its skin, swollen with seven bullet shots through it and stained in a coat of blood. Strained from the lungs still breathing was its heart still beating and still bleeding.
Adams rode up toward the plateau where a silver pole planted into the palisades hoisted the American Flag, ruffled and whipping.
Soldiers around the property of the house painted in white were singing and fighting drunkenly and dancing gaily. They fired shots victoriously using the windows and boards of the house’s frame as their target. Candles fell on the couches, carpets and quilts and drapes. One soldier straddled a Confederate Napoleon canon like riding a bull and lit the fuse and it hissed and ignited and the artillery shell scorched the sky and burst into the house and the house caught fire.
The train in the valley was in view below the bluff, spewing out smoke, wheels turning on metal tracks, the cylinder pistons sliding and churning, and the coals roasting and the whistle proclaiming its steam to the world.
On a flatbed floating down the river were hundreds of coffins lit by a dozen candles and Colonel Adams stood in front of the white house while it burned and collapsed, with the smoke from the cigar slithering out his nostrils, standing still and fortified and stoic.