Patch Town, Mississippi, 1864
Lieutenant Bart Humphries was no friend of mine but we wore the same uniform which made us brothers, at least until this war was over. Although I had no siblings I had cousins and that was as good as having brothers or sisters. I hoped that Leevale and Thomas survived this damned dust up; I hoped it and prayed it every day. My back ached, my feet were swollen in my shoes and my hands shook from hunger but I swore on Aunt Ruby’s bible that I would find my way back to Kentucky. We’d all done it, all us Darcy boys. She’d insisted on it and the three of us didn’t fear much of anything except Aunt Ruby and her bible.
I’d find a way back, Aunt Ruby. All I had to do was make it one more day.
With Bart leading the way it was not going to be an easy task to trek back to Pointe County, Kentucky. I never considered myself to be a deep thinker but war had a way of making all men philosophers. After what I’d seen in recent days I came to the sad conclusion that you could be a good man and a bad leader all at the same time. Lieutenant Humphries was living proof of this horrible truth. Maybe I would have been his friend if this war hadn’t have spilled into our backyards. Nah, probably not. I wasn’t pedigreed. Not like him. His father was a judge, a politician. I never knew mine. Seen him once is all.
Even without Humphries’ poor leadership surviving to see another sunrise proved a difficult thing nowadays. But I’d have to survive. Aunt Ruby needed us to come home and plow the field. We needed to set the new fence posts as we all swore we’d do as soon as we made it home. I’d probably have to track down Lester who had a tendency to wander whenever the mood struck him. How that old mule had lived so long was beyond me.
Yes, ma’am, Aunt Ruby. I’d just have to make it one more day.
I encouraged myself with that thought as I stared at the bottom of Bart’s worn boots which were just inches from my face. We’d been perched in this spot for the past thirty minutes or so. The sun beat down on my neck and intensified my perpetual burn. My gun was as empty as my cracker tin but it felt like it weighed fifty pounds and the pain in my stomach increased by the minute. We were lying on the side of a hill, one covered in blackberry briars but there wasn’t a berry to be seen. Nothing for our trouble except scratches. Better to be scratched than dead, Darcy. Better to pluck out a few stickers than a few bullets. And from what I seen of the lieutenant’s knife work I was not sure I would survive his ministrations.
So I remained completely still on the side of the hill waiting to see if we would advance or retreat to the tree line. If I’d had my druthers, I would have opted for the retreat. We could hunt for food easily enough. I could at least. We’d been wandering the woods for three days now. Got separated from the battalion back in Jackson. I told the lieutenant we needed to flank to the left to take up the slack in the line but he insisted we follow the creek and position further south to pick off the stragglers. Any idiot could see that we were going in the wrong direction. The Kentucky 21st needed us, the Union army was set to take Jackson yet here we were traipsing down a creek.
And now Young Springfield and another man whose name I did not know lay dead; picked off by an unknown sniper in those very woods. The Jasper boys called me a fool when I told them we needed to follow the lieutenant. I spat at the sight of him turning tail but I did not dally. After he lit out for the woods I ran after him and somehow, by God’s mercy, I successfully avoided the bullets that flew around me. The air was thick with bullets and shrapnel, and everything moved so slowly. As I ran I was amazed at how many there were; the rebel barrage were as thick as a swarm of black bees floating around me. Yet I didn’t flinch. I ran towards whatever fate was mine.
All my life I had never seen a man run from a fight. Not even during this year of war I had never seen a coward like one Lieutenant Bart Humphries. And when I ran after him all I could think about was bringing him back to the battalion commander. Humphries had to answer to somebody. Maybe not Plum Darcy--the bastard son of a failed preacher but I would not forget my friend Young Springfield. I would not forget seeing his head exploding beside me. His body falling to the ground like a bag of rotten potatoes. I blinked the sweat of my eyes and tried to forget that sound. That terrible sound. But here I was, three days later still with the lieutenant. I told myself I was keeping an eye on him, that I would bring him back to the commander but maybe I was a coward too.
God, kill me dead if I’m a coward. I’d rather die than be a coward and don’t let Aunt Ruby believe that.
Whenever I did wrong, Aunt Ruby would take to reading and praying and preaching. She’d read from her bible a good long time before she whipped you and I think enduring her painful reading was worse than her attempts at actually administering physical correction. In fact, one time Leevale pleaded with her to move on to the beating cause he couldn’t take it anymore. He felt powerfully grieved and convicted; and also he had chores to do. Aunt Ruby’s fire and brimstone preaching vexed his soul back on to the straight and narrow. I had a strong inkling that Bart Humphries had never heard any of that kind of preaching. Nothing about mighty King David or the flames of hell. Nothing vexed his soul. Not the death of a young man who had a new wife and baby.
“Move up, Darcy. I can see someone in the window.” I scurried up beside the lieutenant and steadied my gaze in the direction he indicated. Sure enough, there was a small shotgun house standing under a bent oak. There were no curtains in the lone window and there did appear to be a figure moving around. Maybe more than one but it was hard to tell with the light bouncing off the glass.
“I don’t have any ammunition left, sir. You got any?”
Bart shook his head and crawled back down the hill a few feet presumably so we could talk without being spotted. “Nah, but they don’t know that. We’ll have to come up with a plan. We should surprise them. Run in screaming and we’ll surprise the hell out of them. I’m starving and so are you, Darcy. I’ve been listening to your stomach complaining all morning.”
“That don’t sound like much of a plan, lieutenant.”
He frowned at my lack of enthusiasm but I wasn’t anxious to get my head blasted off. Not like Young.
“I can smell the food cooking. Can’t you? Don’t be stupid, Darcy. We need that food and if there are any Johnny Rebs in there, we need them too. We need to take something back to battalion.” Bart had that glazed over look in his eye. That one that said he’d made up his mind and he was going to do what he wanted to do. Bart was one to take risks that weren’t necessary, especially if it presented a solution to his immediate problem. Usually those problems were ones he created himself. Like this one.
Yeah, I smelled food but I could live another day without a stolen meal. In the hills of Kentucky it happened that way sometimes. You had to eat when you could. During the drought a few years ago, we’d gotten so hungry that Leevale threaten to eat Lester but Aunt Ruby wasn’t having any of that. She loved that old mule. Yeah, I could wait a little while longer to eat besides I had a greater hunger. A hunger for justice. I couldn’t let this fool of a lieutenant get himself shot out here. If I did, nobody would know what he’d done. Lieutenant Bart Humphries would be just another dead body on the war front, maybe even celebrated as a war hero, which he was not. But his fine, stiff collared father wouldn’t want to believe anything else, not unless he confessed the truth. And nobody would know that he caused the death of at least two men. Maybe more. Probably many more. Nobody but me.
I wasn’t about to let his crimes go without treatment. He would have to answer to someone.
When Humphries began to spider crawl the hill and then creep toward the back of the house I was hot on his heels. Maybe it would be easier to kill himself myself and be done with it; I’d be like an avenging angel from Aunt Ruby’s bible. But it would be an empty kill like so many I’d already sent God’s way.
For now I would satisfy myself with watching over Lieutenant Bart Humphries as best I could; he had to stay alive. As we raced towards the flimsy wooden door I prayed; not for my life but for his. If I died, no one would miss me but Young had a wife named Emmie and a baby girl he had not yet named. Humphries kicked the door open and we ran screaming into the house. Although a battle cry sprayed from my lips and I continued to pray in my mind. As the shouting ceased and the bedraggled rebels stared at us, each of them looking more starved than the other, I prayed yet again.
I pointed my empty gun at one boy’s face while the lieutenant bashed the nearest man with the butt of his rifle. He didn’t kill him but I could hear the man’s bone crack. He’d have a broken rib, probably is all. Better a broken rib than a blasted head. Bart Humphries cussed and swore and stomped around the poky cabin like he’d taken the whole county and not one dilapidated shack and four defeated soldiers.
God, I hate this man. Please help me not to kill him.
He ordered me to tie the men up with some rope he found. I secured each man while he railed at them and then when the lieutenant was satisfied with my work, he immediately helped himself to the burning pot of beans. He offered me a spoonful but I shook my head and avoided the stares of the hungry men.
Funny how even though we were on different sides we were all thinking the same thing. I didn’t talk to them but I knew. I could see it in their eyes. Undoubtedly they could see it in mine.
We all wanted Bart Humphries dead.
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