Thirteen Stars for Freedom
The dust rose from the worn road, thick, billowing clouds rising from the parched earth with every step. The land was rejecting the soldiers. Men who had fought and suffered for this moment, the moment that they would return to the land of their birth, trudged along, feet barely clearing the ground. Their throats parched and their spirits broken. Their own country achieving that which thousands of union soldiers and four years of death had failed to do. It had crushed them.
Ten miles from Dawsonville Captain Rees halted the column. With barely a sound the dishevelled men clambered over the low fence at the edge of the field, their weariness making their movements slow and awkward. They bivouacked down for the night, the organised rows of tents and cooking fire of two years ago less than a memory. Now men found a convenient place out of the wind and pitched a ramshackle tent with their friends. The only thing that identified them as soldiers were the tattered uniforms on their backs, gone was the discipline and the professionalism. They had been eroded by four long years of defeat and attrition.
Rees worked hard in the failing light, sweat soaking the old uniform that he wore. The Lieutenant that he rested with was out in the darkness, doing the rounds. The tent went up slowly, but he didn’t stop. When Mulcahy returned he fell in without a word and helped. It took ten minutes but then it was done. Once the breathless minute of contemplation that followed the labour had passed, Mulcahy spoke.
“We need wood for fires.”
Rees stood, unmoving for a while before answering.
“I’ll take some men out with axes.”
With that he walked away, calling for a detail from every tent. The night closed in on the workers as they swung and hacked. A tree fell, then another. Each covered in instants by a horde of slow moving lumberjacks. They group returned to the camp, each man laden with logs and branches. As the fires blazed and the cooking pots wafted their enticing aromas over the tents, men packed kits away. They would have no use of their dress uniforms, this was no triumphant return, and so they went to the bottom of the pack. As the food was eaten silence reigned over the camp, each man falling asleep in his own private world.
Captain Rees looked at his boys, men who he had lived and fought with for four years seemed now to be strangers. The promise of home, drawing ever closer was breaking the bond that they had forged in the heat of battle. It was a sobering thought. The war had achieved nothing, they had been forced back into the union and even the men that had fought together for their confederacy would not retain a bond of fellowship. With a barely perceptible sigh Rees stood and walked to his tent. He lifted the flap and went inside.
Part 1- Homecoming
The day was breaking, bleak and miserable as the soldiers broke camp. The fence was no longer an obstacle and they walked with fierce determination. Home was ahead. They could feel it in their bones, the wind whispered it to them. This was the land of their birth. Rees marched at the head of his men, his sabre and 44. hanging at his waist and the heavy Henry rifle on his back sapping his strength. He’d won that rifle; there was no way that it was being left behind. He’d won it at Pea Ridge.
“You got that look on your face, which one you thinking about?”
Rees turned. It was Lieutenant Ball with what was left of his company.
“Come on Malcolm, you can tell me.”
Ball had always been a straightforward man. He’d never messed with his words and thought that tact was something that you stuck things up with. But then they had known each other for years, going back before the war.
“Pea Ridge, we should have won.”
“You always say that, never could just accept that you got beat.” said Joseph despairingly.
Malcolm smiled bitterly.
“It was a hard loss though, a forced march through the night only to see those Yankee boys between us and McCulloch and the stand at Elkhorn Tavern. I’m surprised that we survived.”
“We survived worse. That was the first time I killed anybody, just shot a man in the chest as we went up the ridge. He looked so surprised. Would have liked to stop and think about it, maybe try to come to terms with taking a life, but there was no time.” said Ball.
“I killed that scout the night before, took his rifle and I’m still carrying it. I swore then that I would never kill again. Course the next day I broke my oath and lost all my delusions about the nobility of war. Along with every man on the field.” replied Malcolm.
The troop kept moving, drizzle came on and went. But they kept going. At around four o’clock the column approached the town. Half a mile from the boundary they were stopped by some cavalry. Rees elbowed his way to the front, noting the grim looks of the men he passed. A tall officer was sitting on his horse, talking heatedly with one of Rees’s sergeants.
“You will hand over your weapons to my men.”
“I didn’t survive three years of war to give my gun to some snot nosed brat straight out of school at the edge of my town.”
Rees smiled, the officer looked hurt and opened his mouth to reply. Rees stepped in quickly.
“That’s enough Sergeant.”
The man turned and walked back to the ranks, Rees caught his eye and nodded.
“Are you the ranking officer in this rabble?” The mounted man asked.
“That I am, I hear that you want our guns.”
“I am under orders to gather all rebel military material and return it to the arsenal at the fort.”
Rees looked up at the young man. He was clean shaven, without a speck of dirt on his uniform, although his boots were dusty from the road. This man hadn’t seen battle, he hadn’t held his place in the line and killed men, he didn’t carry himself like someone who had.
“Very well, we can move on then.”
“But I said that…”
“Perhaps you didn’t hear me. You want to collect up all property of the Confederate government. My men are equipped with their own weapons, these guns are private property. If you wish to debate this issue we can do so at the fort you mentioned. Now we have to be getting home.”
The man tried to speak but Rees stepped in close and said firmly.
“These men have fought to come home for four years, they have seen their friends and relations killed by men like you, wearing the same uniform. Believe me when I say that if I gave the order, they would have no trouble, mentally or physically, killin you and your trooper boys.”
The officer fumed, but a glance at the soldier’s faces cooled his temper. They marched into town. The buildings that they had known for so long, and dreamt of returning to were almost unrecognisable. The column passed through the outskirts unnoticed but as they turned onto Main Street heads turned in the street. Faces broke into smiles as they caught sight of a loved one. Rees halted the column and spoke to the men. They had survived a war, fought as brothers in arms and now they were parting.
“You are not soldiers anymore. Go and become husbands, fathers, sons and farmers again. We tried to win our freedom, we tried for fight for what was right, but we failed. Do not fail your family by dwelling on what has happened.”
All semblance of order broke down and the street was filled with happy laughter. Rees scanned the crowd for his wife and son but couldn’t find them. Wherever he looked the town was different. Shops were missing, there were signs of a fire and the town hall appeared to be a barracks of some sort. The war had touched everything.
The sun was low in the sky when Malcolm turned onto the short lane that led to his home. The quiet fields surrounded him, low shoots poking up through the soil. A bird, startled by the sound of his equipment jingling, darted out of away towards his home. But all was not well. The garden was not full of flowers, as it had been on the day of his departure. The paint on the house front looked old and uncared for. He knocked at the door, feeling a sense of apprehension settle in the pit of his stomach. He had survived. Four years and he was back home. A maid that he didn’t recognise answered the door.
She looked him up and down and was obviously not pleased with what she saw.
“This is my home; my wife lives here.”
“Oh, you had better come in then.” She stepped back and allowed the door to swing inwards. Malcolm stepped across the threshold slowly, savouring the moment.
“I shall get the master of the house.” The maid said before clicking away across the wooden planks.
Malcolm was left to himself and stood awkwardly in in his military paraphernalia.
“Malcolm Rees, I presume. Or should I say father” Said a cold voice.
Malcolm turned. Standing in the study doorway was a young man. He was at least sixteen. Tall and skinny but starting to put on bulk. Not yet a man, but getting there.
“You are the man who fought for enslavement. Who rebelled over an injustice being corrected. You are the man who killed mother for a lost cause. But I lose myself, you are just in time to say goodbye to Mother.”
Malcolm stared. This was his boy Thomas. The last time he had seen him he was twelve years old and crying his eyes out because daddy was going away. Now he was cold and aloof.
“Where is she?”
Thomas regarded him like something he had found under a rock.
“She died a few days ago. Tuberculosis. But I suppose you were to busy fighting to keep the Negros enslaved to get her letters. Anyway, she’s in here, the guests are just arriving.”
Thomas moved from the doorway and allowed Malcolm to see inside. Anne was lying peacefully in an open coffin. Several rows of seats had been arranged and were partially filled with faces, all staring with shock at him. Malcolm recoiled violently and staggered backwards. He looked around, as if seeking a way out of the nightmare he had found himself in. But there was no release. With a whimper he slid down the hallway wall and landed softly on the floor.
“She’s dead?” he asked hollowly.
For a moment it seemed that Thomas would show compassion, then the hate returned,
“She left the house to me. You had been killed in action at that point so I became the master of the household. Looks like you couldn’t even die properly.”
Thomas walked over to his father and crouched down on his haunches.
“She could have lived. She was on the mend, and then the letter arrived. You had been wounded, badly. Do you remember? Or has the war hero taken so many wounds in the line of duty that he does not remember any single incident?” Malcolm stared, taken aback by the open hatred. “She lost the will to fight. Strange really. You never stopped fighting, it mattered more to you than your family.”
Malcolm looked up at the young man who was his son and felt his anger. The boy really hated him. Malcolm pushed himself to his feet and stumbled towards the door. Thomas called at his back,
“Running away again huh? Well I suppose you got some experience at that during the war.”
Malcolm stopped. Rage swelled up inside his chest, overwhelming the shock of his loss.
Malcolm turned to face his son, his face grave. Thomas smirked.
“Stones River, Franklin and Nashville taught you their lessons didn’t they. Run from your problems, just like you ran from the Yankees.”
Malcolm stepped in close and smashed his fist into his son’s face. Thomas fell, dark blood splashing down onto his shirt. Malcolm grabbed his collar and lifted him close to his face.
“Yes we ran, we ran when our ammunition was gone, our friends were dead and 7,000 Blue Coats were advancing up the hill with cannon support and murder in their eyes. But I was at Chickamauga, with Longstreet, when we rushed the gap. Their were brave men there, and timid too, but every man took his place in the lines and advanced. You think us cowards yet you have never stood face to face with another man, the screams of the wounded in your ears and shot him down. You’ve never had your childhood friend’s blood splattered over your face as he is hit by round shot.”
The anger had faded, to be replaced with a deep sadness. A sadness that sprung from the loss of Anne and tapped the reservoir of pain left by the war. Anne was just one more death in the last four years but she broke the dam that he had constructed in his mind. Depression crashed down upon him and he let his terrified son fall to the ground, before staggering off into the growing dusk.
Post Edited:2007-06-20 19:49:24