John C. Mannone
Matthew tosses in his sleep, sits up on the rumpled canvas in his wedge-tent, and cradles his face. He stares into the crevices of the dark corner. The moon throws his lanky shadow on the other wall; he is startled and jumps, as if the dark outline was reaching out to grab him. His mouth is dry, and he doesn’t say anything. He strikes a match and puts flame to a candle; he begins to scrawl black ink on the illumined pages of his leather-bound book:
|August 9, 1862
I don’t know if it’s the summer heat or the sweat from my fear of facing Billy, but I cannot sleep.
I didn’t know they were going to send me and my battalion to the north to join McClellan’s army. I had deliberately traveled south to Tennessee to enlist so there’d be no chance of my fighting Billy on the battlefield. I can’t face him with musket or blade. I wouldn’t know what to do. My commanding officer declined my request for transfer, he said, “We got whupped real good at Culpeper earlier today, so we need every man right here.”
He said we’ll be moving out in the morning, but right now, my heart is racing hard as if it’s beating to a different drumbeat—one of duty and honor despite the gore. For the first time since I joined the Union, I am deathly afraid. No, I’m not scared to die, but I fear for my brother.
At this moment, I am not thinking about our differences in politics or what our father might have done if he were still alive. I’m not thinking about those quarrels over Abigail or Emily. Or even about the time we almost died in the barn—how Billy threw down the pitchfork and rushed up after me in the hayloft because of what I’d said about his girlfriend. Besides, she was my girlfriend before he stole her from me. We wrestled, knocking heads, and rolled off the platform, falling to the ground—that pitchfork nearly impaled us!
Billy was better than me at everything, except maybe shooting a rifle. I could drop a deer at 500 yards… But out here, who could see the enemy’s face that far off? How could I know if Billy were to be standing right in front of me on the battle line?
The moon is full of light right now. It looks lonely, yet peaceful-like, hanging next to the stars, as if it had no concern of the coming battles… or for me, and my brother. I feel numb as hell right now, like I did when father died… when I pulled the rope taut that was gathered around my neck. The apple tree branch broke and I fell to the ground. I was only bruised, but I looked up that damn tree.
Pvt. Matthew Jameson
Matthew slips out of his tent and walks to the edge of the woods to sort those things out, just like he’d always done back home when he was troubled.
He sits on a weathered log under a tall oak in the sweltering dark; cranes up to the moonlit sky of leaves. He strains to decipher the rustle-sound of pin oaks, as if they had the answers. Matthew mumbles something back—a prayer for mercy, for forgiveness—then unbuckles his belt. He pauses for a long moment before he starts to shimmy up the tree to a high-up branch. His heart is racing faster now.
A branch cracks, like the fresh sound of dry wood. Matthew turns his neck around to where the snap and crunch seemed to come from. Flickers of a kerosene flame pierce the emptiness around him. A silhouette, magnified in the glow, edges closer. Breathlessness intensifies. Then he hears a familiar voice bark out of the semi-dark,
“Private Jameson. What in the name of Jesus are you doing out here?”
“Nothing, Sir. Um. I mean, I was just thinking.” The lantern now fully reveals their faces—the sockets of Matthew’s eyes, hollow with deception. But in the flash of the swaying lantern, those same eyes must be wondering about the strange glow around his sergeant’s face. It isn’t just the play of shadows from ghostly light; it’s something else, something eerie. Matthew’s face relaxes just a bit, as if he understands why his sergeant is out here, too. Perhaps he has his own monsters to deal with, maybe he sees himself as a father to Matthew, who reminds him of his own boy. who was killed in July at First Manassas.
The sergeant glances at the belt drooping from Matthew’s hand, still quivering, the metal tip brushing the ground. He shifts his eyes to the soldier’s. The sergeant’s tone softens,
“Son, we pull out in just a few hours. I’m depending on you.” He pauses, then says, “I’ve been watching you… And the others, well, they look up to you.”
“Yessir.” Matthew slurs his words together; tension clearly in his voice.
“I’m promoting you to corporal,” the sergeant says.
“Thank you, Sir. I appreciate that, Sir.” Matthew snaps a salute.
The sergeant, walking back to the encampment, stops but doesn’t turn around. He merely speaks out loud in a baritone, “Corporal Jameson. I suggest you not stay here too long. You’ll rally the men at 0700.”
“Yes, Sir.” Matthew responds with command in his voice. He once again looks up through the tree leaves, to the predawn glow. For an instant, it glints platinum; gold rays will soon shine… but so will the fire in the smoke; the scarlet on the ground.