The Wagon Ride
By W. Michiel Hawkins
"I got this ax out of a Yankee camp. They were having breakfast when we attacked," Jeremiah Sims said.
"Did you kill them for their food?" Malachi said to his son. "Or did you just take the ax?
"It was over by the wood pile, and I got to it first," said Jeremiah, "I knew we needed it."
Malachi thought the boy had always been dependable when it came to getting in firewood. The woodpile was where they talked and shared stories. They had visited there all day.
"Sometimes, Paw, the bullets are thick as ground hornets, but the sting is much worse. The first man 1 killed 1 shot straight; like the sergeant said, the guy just fell."
"At night, I think about the Yankee soldier's father. I wonder if he had an ax and a wagon. I wonder if the Yankee boy's job at home had been cutting wood. I wonder too if he had to swing an old ax like me." Malachi Sims loaded all the wood the boy split that day. The days work had spent both of them physically. The boy's presence was welcome.
The old wagon was loaded. It creaked under the heavy load. The sound it made was familiar to him, as well as the clanking the chains made when the mules pulled near the house. The wagon had been built of hand planed wood, surrounded here and there by added pieces of steel riveted in place by the local blacksmith. The wagon, like a lot of the farm tools, had survived years of multiple uses. The seat was worn smooth, no splinters. The bed had a wood patch where one board had rotted and then gave way after Grandpa Sims had placed a load of rock there one morning. The wagon team was made up by two temperamental mules, Sadie and Jake. Sadie always hooked up on the right side and Jake on the left. Malachi and Jeremiah unloaded the wagon next to the house, unhitched the mules and placed them in the corral near the barn and then went to supper.
Malachi stirred early the next morning. He found a sulphur match in his pocket along with some threads of lint where the pocket was unraveling from wear. He cursed silently the poverty of his life and lit a partially used candle. He and Sarah had seldom used candles since Jeremiah had been gone, but the boy had been back a day or two on leave, he said his Captain told him since it was close to home he could go see his folks. Jeremiah thought he better since he got the chance and was so close. He had seen men dying, and he knew time now had another value. His visit was a surprise. None of Jeremiah's letters had ever reached home. The news about the war was sparse, and rumors sometimes were all they got and they got that from a deserter or some of the wandering wounded. Whatever the news Malachi learned he'd tell the wife. Rumor, that's all it was, didn't nobody really know nothing he'd say. She'd say again, "1 wished 1 could read a bible, but I pray. I really pray." And at night Malachi would hear her. She'd start loud and pray till she whispered then fall asleep. Seems she was always tired from the work it took to keep surviving.
Existing, he thought, was all they were doing. Surviving... as the two of them gave a son, according to their thinking, to a rich man's cause. Since they didn't have any slaves and were tucked back in the hills, they didn't have enough flat ground to grow a rich man's crop, but they made do.
She had been awake. The day before she had washed the gray worn uniform, mended a hole in his right knee. She hoped that was his praying knee. He had knelt, all right, to get a shot from the skirmish line. He could shoot better kneeling on his right knee, and he practiced doing it too. He was a good shot, said the Sergeant. His aim was straight, his arm steady on the gray wool-covered knee that'd been stained by the ground strewn with saw briars, and blackberry stains. The uniform had blood stains spilled by another mother's son. Though she loved her son and was proud of him, she hated war, especially one for the rich man's gain. It was cleaned now, the uniform. His socks fixed and he'd been given his father's old shoes. His father had put new soles on them and they fit him good. So many soldiers had foot problems and no shoes. Their feet were now tough trom marching, running, and stumbling.
He told the story of how you could die stumbling.
"John Hinds had shoes with holes; fell on a stob sticking up sharp, his body stuck on it, died right there," he had told her. "No mini-ball in him at all." he said. "So Momma, these shoes will be good luck and I won't have any reason to stumble."
She thought about all he said because she had wanted to hear his voice. Her mind raced and remembered everything he talked about. Recording all the stories so when she and Malachi sat by the fire and the silence between them was long, she would blurt out something Jeremiah had said. One son was it; she just had one child. Now in the early morning he was going back.
The biscuits were some of the last of the ground flour. They had enough corn meal to last about a month. The salt bacon fried with a smell mingling with popping pine splinters giving the kitchen an aroma that branded it for the boy as home. Jeremiah lay on his bed in the loft. It was so comfortable to be home. Smells he had known all his life. Smells of his mother's cooking came up from the kitchen. Out in the field, some mornings, he would be lying in dew wet grass or waking, and he would remember his mother's cooking. He did this a lot, having thoughts of what she'd be doing. Yep, he would be homesick for his folks. Jeremiah remembered every detail of his folk's routine at home. They got ready at daylight for their work day preparing to do farm chores, so the kitchen was an early event. His spirits lifted because he had been able to be home with his family. This gave him some relief from the fear of returning to the war. His father was taking him in the wagon, and he didn't want to show his fear. The whole family dreaded his return to the war and all the dangers it represented. He'd go back and fight hard... hopefully the war would be over before long... then he'd build a cabin overlooking Taylor's bottom, get a wife and have a son. Jeremiah wanted to do just like his folks. Life for him was a farm, good home cooked meals, with bacon frying and eggs, and it was sweat and good, hard work. His words and thoughts were simple; he liked the simple life. Something as simple as a new born calf would cause him laughter. His thinking was from the lessons and example of his parents. He was taught to follow someone in authority like your dad or preacher and now like the captain or the sergeant.
His mother hugged him and sobbed. She went to cleaning up breakfast. Then she took a small folded cloth and handed it to him.
"I made you some tea cakes," she said. "Try not to eat them all at once, if you can help it. They should last you all week; I gave you five."
He didn't want to see her sob.
"Mamma, I'll be okay, and 1 can run fast in dad's old shoes. Please don't fret." He hugged her and didn't say anything else. He felt the pain of leaving again. The wagon was ready. Malachi had loaded a jug of water. He had seen the campfires the night before from the ridge behind the house. He estimated the distance to the camp to be about five miles. The lane of the road from their place took about an hour to get to the main road. The main road was filled with dust and smells of men and animals. You could tell an army had been that way. The side of the road held articles thrown away because of weight or not being needed or both. There would be dead horses or mules in various degrees of decay. So many smells, and they would change as Jeremiah and Malachi traveled to his camp. The mules were pulling the wagon with some nervousness; the changing smells of war caused them some concern. Malachi wanted to water the mules, as heat and constant pulling was wearing them down. There was a pond he'd bring them back to once he got the boy to his unit.
They caught up with the column they were following. Jeremiah felt guilty because his uniform was clean. Most of the soldiers on the side of the road were dirty. The dust and grime and sweat smell covered all the men except him. He'd have to give extra today... as he was full of the family's last bacon; he was rested and ready to run in his father's old shoes. He knew he would not stumble...yep, he'd give extra. Soldiers parted for the wagon and the column. As the wagon moved on about another mile through troops of men, some soldiers would jump on the wagon just to ride up to the front of their regiment and be yelled at by a Sergeant for being a freeloader. Malachi would laugh, give the boys a ride; he knew for some it could be their last. Then near the front and off to the side watching the soldiers was a group easily identified; it was the General and his staff. Malachi wondered if that mounted general had a big plantation and lots of money and slaves. He probably didn't know if his ax was worn, probably didn't care. He most likely wouldn't ride in a wagon like his either. He was proud he brought Jeremiah. At least the boy would be rested. They had visited and talked of all kinds of things while riding.
Jeremiah spotted his unit, and Malachi turned the wagon across a field of trampled corn. Malachi felt guilty doing it, but he did it anyway, thinking I wouldn't want anybody in my little patch. Malachi noticed the trampled com had no ears. It was eaten raw by the first soldiers to walk across the field. The good-bye was swift.
"Dad, I'll see you soon, this thing will be over, and I'll be back to build that cabin, clear out that spot we talked about. Goodbye," Jeremiah said, as he stepped off the wagon.
"Well, Sims, Is that your paw?" asked Sgt. Cooper? "Looks like you are spit and whistle clean."
"Mr. Sims, This man is one of my best. Shoots straight with a steady eye," said the Sergeant.
Malachi looked at the man, giving him a cold stare from eyes nearly hid under a dark black hat brim.
"Bye, son," was all Malachi said.
The wagon and mules cut a small ditch as they turned across the rows, and the iron rimmed wheels scarred the field, making a new pattern across the symmetry of the plowed field. Malachi found his path back to the road. It was blocked by troops forming long lines across the fields. He had seen the smoke ahead of them which was the camp fires of the other army. The soldiers started to march.
The first incoming cannonade started, and then a long moaning yell filled the soldier's throats as they advanced in a steady pace. Malachi got down and grabbed his farm mule's bridles as quick as he could. Troops were moving all around his wagon with noise and clanging of gear. One, two, three columns filing by abreast, flooding past the wagon; sons of his neighbors, boys not shaven, were marching in a rippling wave, expecting to break onto a field of battle. He saw some stumbling in bad shoes. Malachi had to hold his ground. There was no leaving. Just hold the mules. The road he had come on was choking with soldiers as far as he could see. The cannon were dealing death now, and the line of forward troops marching was surrounded by black clouds of dirt, dust, and smoke. The bursting shells caused men to fall in groups.
Malachi tasted fear in his mouth; he choked on a cotton dry mouth as he relaxed his trembling, the fear of losing his son and the fear of losing himself and his mules. He didn't pay attention to his knuckles and how tight he was holding Jake's rein. Sadie kicked and jumped in her traces.
The wagon lurched, and Malachi yelled, "Whoa, whoa, dammit, whoa!" Sadie had felt the heat of a spent round. Then Malachi saw the long blue Yankee line; he saw the rifles come from the shoulders to point at the long gray line and likewise the rebels had stopped and the first column went to their knees to take aim at the other line shooting over their heads. Fire and smoke down by the battle increased, and Malachi knew the preacher had forgotten to ever tell them about the noise of hell. He thought to himself... hell must be like this. Bullets now were flaying the ground about two hundred yards ahead of Malachi and his team. He thought of them as hornets, thousands of mad hornets like he and the boy talked about at the woodpile. He lost where the boy was on the battle line. He knew the general direction Jeremiah took and that was all. The lines were together now, hand to hand. He could imagine screams. You can't scream if your throat's parched. His vision, ears, and nose told him the horrors of war, and how it all came at you at once, and how your senses became so full of shock, your emotions could blot out your mind thinking; then your body becomes a reaction. The acid from his stomach met the fear in his mouth. The realization of the scene caused him to wretch, vomiting the last biscuit with salt pork, but all he tasted was the burning acid of the acorn coffee he had allowed himself that morning. Malachi was frozen in time just holding the bridles of his mules. He didn't know how long he had been standing there.
Then they were coming back toward him. The noise had quieted. The horror, one boy scared running, stumbling, and crying. Another solider, his ami gone, walking down the road to the tent where the general, just this morning, had sat. Trying to stop the blood, then weakening to his knees and then falling face forward. Malachi steadied the team and started down the grass beaten path where he had seen his son's troop walk. The boy had walked in his father's old shoes, so he would not stumble. In about ten minutes of walking, though Malachi did not measure the time or the steps, he reached the first of the dead. He found Jeremiah there. Jeremiah had caught the first volley and even maybe a cannon shard. He had died falling backwards. The old shoes of Malachi's had bent Jeremiah's feet in an unnatural position. He could see Jeremiah's face and from a uniform pocket was a familiar scrap of cloth that fluttered in a light hot breeze. Sarah's old dress scrap with a few crumbs of tea cake left. His rifle lay near his body.
A mini-ball had hit his chest square and traveled out his back. His grey uniform absorbed his blood and it seemed when it could not hold any more, the blood stained the ground leaving a dark spot. When Malachi lifted the body of his son, he felt only wet mush where strong firm muscles had been. He struggled, stumbled, and cried lifting the boy up. This was his heaviest load.
"Whoa, Sadie. Whoa, mules. Whoa, Jake," were the only words he could say.
He repeated whoa.. .trying to make the war stop too. Sadie and Jake were strangely still. They held steady and Malachi loaded his son on the wagon from the back. The same wagon that they had talked in hours ago, the same wagon that he rode in and was alive in.. .now in only such a short time Malachi was carrying his son home dead. He put him straight into the wagon and arranged him like he was asleep. He looked once more at the battle scene. So heart broken and angry that he spit in the direction of the carnage; it was all he had left to give. He didn't really pay attention to how heavy his heart was. The tears would come later; he needed to take his son home. His grief so strong he did not recognize his hunger or thirst. Anguish, loss, and devastation came in hot, quick flashes, like quick lighting after a long, hot, dry spell. He felt anger and blamed the war at the rich man.
Sadie and Jake started slow with the load, nearly reverent for mules. Sadie had some of her hair raised on her smooth flank. Looks like Sadie has a grub... Malachi thought, not seeing the flesh wound. Malachi clicked to his team to get ahead of the columns he could see forming to retreat. He slowed and tried to find a spot on the pond to let the mules drink, but the mud would bog them and the wagon down. He saw a wounded man who was crawling to the water. One soldier sat in the middle of the pond with a blank stare. Malachi would just slow the mules and get them home as best as he could.
He stayed about a mile ahead of the retreating columns and then after rounding a bend turned on the road to home. He heard no more marching soldiers and could smell nothing but woods. He remembered his water and reached for the jug under the wagon seat. He drank slowly. It was then he noticed Sadie's flank was bleeding and her tail was switching a bloody spot. He stopped the wagon, and she immediately rested that leg. He poured a little water on her wound. Then he noticed Jeremiah's eyes were open in a death glaze. He tried to shut them and washed his son's face. His mind burned with one thought as the pain came out of his soul; the insanity of man without reasoning is war. Then he leaned on the old wagon's wheel and cried. In the middle of the woods alone he cried. There was no way he could think of...to tell Sarah.