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The Arkansas Soldier
The smell of blood filled his nostrils as Riley surveyed the battlefield. For such a small force they left so much carnage in their path as they traveled through the western front of the Union. The field was littered with bodies of both people he knew, and people whom he had never met. In a way he hated it, he was no more than a boy and all of this was forced upon him. His father had died not very long ago, and not even as a result of being shot. His foot had become frost-bitten, and upon amputating it he had bled to death. Not long before his father had died his brother was wounded in battle, and he had been forced to return to their home in southern Arkansas. Now he was alone. Yesterday had been his sixteenth birthday, and no one had said a word to him, but that was what he had expected. He only had one friend in the small force he traveled with, and he was away, fighting off a small portion of the Union army who was threatening some land back home.
It was on days like today that he wished he had someone to talk to, someone other than Samuel, Lafayette, and Mary, the voices he heard nearly all day long. Since he was twelve years old he had battled with the voices, yet he refused to tell anyone. He had seen what happened to those people who were different, others who had heard voices. In his town they were hung, or executed by firing squad, and that was not something Riley intended to do. He didn’t want to die, not yet anyway, but he almost longed for it sometimes while he was in the midst of battle, shooting people he had never met, people whose names he would never learn. He had been fighting for nearly three years, and nothing had changed. In the year 1861 the war had began, and as far as he knew, or anyone else around him knew for that matter, they were no closer to winning or losing anything, unless one counted the lives they lost on nearly a daily basis.
As he walked across the open field he could see his commanding officer in the shadow of a large oak tree. He was mounted on his horse Liza, talking to two other men from their platoon. The man’s beard was untrimmed, and had gone that way for nearly two weeks. They hadn’t had two consecutive days in the past two months that they could rest before they came across another band of opposing soldiers. Most of the men went unshaved, or untrimmed, but that was one thing Riley never had to worry about. He couldn’t even grow sideburns, much less a full beard.
Watching his commander, the smoke from the many muskets finally dissipating, the young boy stumbled for a moment as a hand grabbed for his pant leg. He spun quickly, finding a familiar face in the dying body. He had fought with this man the evening before, a discussion about something, though he couldn’t remember what at this point in time, had come to blows, and since then the two soldiers hadn’t said a word to each other. Even with their previous fight he couldn’t allow him to lie there and suffer, so with a quick movement he pulled a knife from his boot and cut through the man’s throat, ending his life quickly. He knew that would be frowned upon if anyone had seen him do it, but with the wound in the man’s chest there was no chance of even their best doctors helping him.
Instead of walking towards his officer to find out where they were to be moving next Riley turned on his heal and made his way back to their current camp. No sooner had he turned than the voice of Samuel appeared in his head, “What are you doing? You should go to the woods, you’re almost out of food, and you know there are deer in there, you saw them on the way in!”
As suddenly as he had spoken the voice was gone, and was replaced with Lafayette, saying, “Do not listen to him, you need to go back to camp, that is where they are going to expect you.” He had a point Riley thought, that’s where everyone was supposed to go once the battle was over if they won.
Out of nowhere, Mary spoke up, “Your commander doesn’t seem as if he wants to be angered right now; see that look on his face? You should do what Lafayette suggested and head on back to camp.”
“Do not even start Mary; you just have a thing for him! You always agree with him, even when he’s wrong!”
“Guys, would you just be quiet, I’m going back to camp. I doubt anyone would notice if I went missing, but if they did notice I would be in so much trouble. They would consider it desertion and that is the last thing I need that right now.”
The walk back to the camp wasn’t very long, only about half of a mile, but the scenery was brutal now. That morning the trees had been bright green, showing off for the southerners as they passed; now they were darker, some stained with blood from passing soldiers, some with branches fallen off from the balls that were fired from guns of either Riley’s fellow Confederate soldiers, or the soldiers from the opposing Union army. There were also small fires here and there, some from cannons, and some from soldiers setting fire to the underbrush as they made their attempt at escaping their rivals.
The entire walk back to camp, he thought of how he could get into his tent without being seen by the others. When the tents came into view around the bend in the narrow road the small, dark haired boy skirted around the edge of the clearing. His tent was as far from the center as possible, just as it always was, so he could get in and out without being noticed by others. Slipping in and out of camp was one of his specialties. He hated to be in one place for more than a short period of time, and leaving camp at night got him the time alone that he preferred. As he slipped into his tent he pulled off the grey, sweat-heavy coat, and dropped it onto his bed roll. Slowly he exited the tent, making sure no one could see him, and slipped into the thick woods at the edge of the circle of Confederate tents. The “Stars and Bars” as many called it, was flying high over the commander’s tent. The sun was setting now, and the time was right for him to leave; he did not want to be found at dinner time, for it was his least favorite time of the day.
He’d often thought of leaving the war, but he had always stayed, mostly because he was afraid of what would be done to him if he was ever caught.
“Why are you so afraid? You’ve hidden us, why not hide yourself?” That was Samuel, the ever pushy voice, the one who often times got him into trouble.
“He doesn’t want to die Samuel; he wants to escape, so he has a better chance to live. That’s why he’s hidden us you genius.”
“Now, Mary, you know he’s hidden us for more reasons than that. He wants us all to himself!”
“Why can’t you ever be serious Sam?” Lafayette seemed to be more irritable than normal, but that happened from time to time. He was the “man” in Riley’s mind, though that didn’t mean he was the most mature. That was Mary, she had the calmest mind.
The woods were thick, but Riley managed to walk nearly two miles while the voices in his head bantered on an on, mostly talking about things that the young soldier didn’t care about, but as he turned to return to camp, just as the sun disappeared, he noticed a house. A large, two floored home that looked as if someone with money had lived in it at one time. From the looks of it, it was abandoned, so he paid it no mind. Making his way back to camp, he imagined his thin pillow, and the dreams he would have tonight. It didn’t take him long to get back to camp, and when he returned, he was asleep in what seemed like no time.
As the light from the sun came through his tent, and the music of the horn and the drum entered his ears, Riley sat up. The day would begin as every other day: a breakfast of bread and water, a wash in a nearby creek, and orders to march out. With his things attached to the saddle Riley swung his leg up and over, mounting the horse as he had done every day for many months.
Just minutes into their traveling, a narrow path was seen on the left; immediately, thoughts of the house from the night before came to Riley’s mind.
“Sir! I think we should check down that path, there may be something useful!” He spoke loudly, but made sure his voice didn’t seem to be to up front.
After a moment of thought the commander yelled back, “I don’t think so son. I say we keep moving.”
“Don’t listen to him R, you know there’s something down there, you saw it last night.”
A laugh from a female came through his mind, “Well Samuel’s actually very right this time, you need to go down that path. There could be clothes, blankets, foods. It could help everyone, not just you.”
“Riley, for once we all agree on something. You have to look.” Lafayette said
They were right; there could be many, many things inside of that house that they could use. Plus, they all agreed; that had never happened before, not since the voices started talking to him.
“But sir, there could be so many things in that direction! There could be supplies we needed.”
Once again, the officer told him no, and said that if he was asked again, he would have his soldier beaten.
Instead of listening to the man in power, he slowly fell back in the ranks, allowing the others to all get ahead of him. As the last man left his view, he turned left, taking the path slowly. Instead of going directly to the house he stopped, what he later found out to be halfway down the path, and got off of his horse. He wouldn’t need her where he was going, and the path had grown up so much that he didn’t see her fitting through anyway. He could tell that at one time a carriage would have fit between the larger trees, but now, after years of the owners neglecting the house, or just leaving all together, it was hard to fit a single horse.
The house came into view nearly one hundred yards after he had left his horse, and he walked slowly towards the front door. There were weeds, and even small trees, now growing on the front porch of the home, and Riley nearly tripped as he made his way up the steps. Creaking under pressure, the hinges of the door moved, allowing him to enter the home.
“Hello?” he called, hoping that maybe someone had stayed in the house.
After no one answered he walked through the foyer and into what appeared to have, at one time, been a dining room. No sooner than he had turned the corner did he see the three men. They were decked out in Union blue, and two of the three had muskets aimed at his chest.
“Maybe, the one time we agreed, we were all wrong.” Stated Lafayette.
“Maybe so, L, maybe so.” Mary agreed, her voice smaller than it had ever been.
“I am only looking for somewhere to stay; I have just left the Confedera-“His words were stopped short by the ringing of gunfire. The room filled with thick grey smoke of muskets. A short, gurgling sound came from Riley’s mouth as blood drained from him in two places on his chest. His mouth filled with the metallic, crimson liquid, and, through the blood, he muttered, “Silence.”
When life left the body, the three men moved quickly, placing an American flag over him, his burial shroud, and left them home, knowing that the shots would have been heard if anyone were to pass through. Though they did not know it, men of the Confederate army were on the way even as the left through the back door. Less than thirty minutes after the three men escaped through the sound of horses hooves could be heard approaching the house. The first to enter the house was Riley’s commander, and as soon as he turned the corner to the dining room he saw the flag and knew instantly that he had been right, and the young man from southern Arkansas had been wrong.