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Caught in the Crossfire

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White hot flashes dazed his vision as he grappled for the matches in his pocket. “Light it Thompson! Do it now!” screamed his commanding Sergeant. The chaos suddenly slowed for Thompson as an unseen bullet grazed his tricep. The matches fell from his grasp as he clutched his arm in an attempt to catch the stream of blood that flooded the soil beneath him. A low moan escaped the lips of a soldier lying inches from his matches. The soldier’s eyelids fell shut as the fight drained from his exhausted heart. Jolted from his stasis, Thompson lunged for the box. Acting solely on training that had been drilled into him for years, he struck the match and hunched over his cannon aiming to fire when from the corner of his eye he saw her.
Benjamin Thompson had been living in Pennsylvania since his father had taken a new job as a blacksmith. Pennsylvania’s small town of Christina had lost their blacksmith to a tragic fire a few years back so when the Thompson’s crops couldn’t make it through the drought, they had packed up and headed north. Benjamin enjoyed Pennsylvanian culture more than the way they did things back in Alabama. He had despised the harsh treatment of the slaves and the notion of slavery in general. Although at the time Benjamin had been too young to understand the specifics, he had adored the black men and women that worked in their fields and in their home. He had loved Martha who cooked him snacks after school. He also had loved climbing trees with Bobby and learning to tie knots from Sam. He had noticed nothing peculiar about their skin color merely the friendships and bonds that they had shared. Yet when he had gone down the dusty road to the schoolhouse, he had seen Old Man Jinks with his whip, yelling at the people in his field as though they were animals. One night at dinner Benjamin asked his father “Why does Old Man Jinks whip the people who work in his field?” His father pondered this for a moment then responded, “Well son, the people in Old Man Jinks’ field are slaves and sometimes when a slave don’t get their work done quick enough that’s what happens” “Dad I don’t like it.” Benjamin said. His father cast him a cold hard stare then said “Without slavery the crops would never get harvested in time.”
Benjamin had gone to bed that night not feeling quite right. He wasn’t able to pinpoint exactly what was bothering him and slept fitfully, tossing and turning throughout the night. The next morning he woke to the most horrid sound. He bolted out of bed, threw on clothes and hurried down the stairs to investigate. He tore down the hall, dodging Martha, as the sound became louder and louder. Benjamin came to a halt in the washroom. A girl was filling a bucket with soap and water, singing at the top of her lungs.
Benjamin clapped his hands around his ears but couldn’t bear to look away. She knelt down, grabbed the bucket and swung around, completely oblivious to him in the doorway. She slammed into him full force causing the soapy water to slosh out of the bucket and drench Benjamin from head to toe. He looked into her face with surprise not from his shower but from the extraordinary beauty that were her features. He took a step back and then another, to soak in the full extent of her splendor. Black hair flowed in waves down her silky brown back. She had emerald eyes that crinkled in the corners, as a small smile formed on her lips. She bit one lip in an effort to not giggle at the sight of him. He looked like a wet rat as his clothes clung to his skinny body and his long hair dripped down onto his nose. It was to no avail however as the laughter broke free. She tried to cover it in a cough because her mama had told her to never interact with the master’s son but Benjamin wasn’t fooled. “What’s so funny?” he asked, mock anger in his voice. “Nothing, nothing I’m real sorry for spalshin’ ya” she replied while bowing her head so he wouldn’t see the smile still lighting her face. “C’mon now I can see you laughin’ under there.” He reached out and gently pushed the hair covering her face behind her ear. She glanced nervously up at him, afraid of her mama’s warnings. He sensed her tension so he tried to ease it with a simpler question. “What’s your name?” He asked softly. “Rita. Rita Willson. I. . . I’m Sandra’s daughter” she answered. Benjamin didn’t know of any Sandra but he knew that there was something special about this girl. He wasn’t sure what feeling made his stomach flip or his hands shake but knew he needed to know everything about this girl.
They saw each other every day after that. Benjamin would wake to Rita’s terrible (and non-improving) singing and race downstairs to see her. They darted through the cotton fields laughing and skipping and loving the way they looked at each other. One Sunday morning during the drought, Rita and Benjamin were sitting on a log at the pond, when they heard an agonized wail ring out from the middle of the field. They looked at each other with confusion and ran hand in hand to see what was wrong. They stopped short, in front of Benjamin’s father, holding one of those dreadful whips. His dad cracked the whip in the air once and screamed about Sam not picking the cotton fast enough. Sam said there wasn’t any more cotton to pick that it hadn’t grown back and wouldn’t until we got some rain. Daddy brought the whip down and Sam cried out again causing Rita to start to cry. Benjamin’s daddy took a swig out of that thing his mama always hid in the drawer then raised his hand about to strike. Benjamin didn’t know what to do but had to help Sam and stop Rita’s crying so he slammed full force into his daddy’s legs causing him to sway and drop the whip and that metal thing. His daddy turned on him and picked him up by his shirt collar. He shook Benjamin, yelling so loudly that Benjamin couldn’t make out what he was saying; then threw him on the ground so hard that Benjamin’s vision blurred and went dark.
Benjamin shook himself from his memories and his mind traveled back into the present. He looked around and saw his tent and the other soldiers. Shortly after that dreadful Sunday, his family had moved to Pennsylvania and he hadn’t seen Rita since that day when his father had knocked him out. When he’d come to, his family had been on the road. He’d begged his mama to go back, even to just say goodbye, but his mother had refused saying they had to make some money and those crops weren’t going to come back. She showed no sympathy for Benjamin and when he asked what would happen to Rita his mother fell silent.
Benjamin didn’t stick around long. As soon as he turned seventeen he packed his things and enlisted to the war efforts. His father did not support him in his decision to fight for President Abraham Lincoln and the Union, but it sort of made Benjamin want to do it all the more. His father repeated over and over how necessary slaves were and how the harsh treatment of them was just part of life but after that Sunday Benjamin knew better. He listened to President Lincoln’s speeches and supported what he said whole-heartedly and was more than willing to risk his life for this cause. It meant saving hundreds of people. To him, it meant saving Rita.
After the Thompson’s had moved out, Rita was sold to Old Man Jinks. Rita had grown into womanhood while on Old Man Jinks’ farm. She would be giggling at a memory of Benjamin tumbling headfirst into the pond while she scrubbed the floor and then the next minute she would tear up, while remembering the day she had last seen him, in a heap on the ground. Her mind had never strayed from thoughts of Benjamin Thompson.
Benjamin’s brigade traveled south in order to reach a Confederate camp in Alabama. They were now on the offense, having had quite enough from the Confederates and their antics. Benjamin, however, grew weary as they neared his hometown.
There was rustling outside the tent. The men snatched up their rifles, anticipating a threat, when Rhodes stuck his head through the opening. “Whoa there gentlemen, just a little old guy trying to get by, no need for such heavy machinery” Everyone laughed and shook off the anxious air that hung around them. “Reporting back for Sergeant Mcgern, we’ve found the Confederate camp and plan to execute an ambush at dusk.” Rhodes stated. Nods of agreement traveled around the tent. “Alright suit up, get packed, and for this you will need that heavy machinery” he winked and then was gone. Everyone bustled about the camp, readying themselves for the ambush. Benjamin masked his nervousness well beneath his tough persona. He’d bulked up quite a bit since his days in the South and wasn’t worried about his own safety, so much as concerned for his fellow soldiers. They could be idiots sometimes and he had a feeling that they had no idea how brutal this was going to be.
Rita had gone to pick crops on the far edges of Old Man Jinks’ field so as to be as far away from his wrath as possible. She rested and stroked the button that had fallen off of Benjamin’s jacket so many years ago. She was lost in a dream of how their life would be together. No slavery, no discretion, no war. But that wasn’t to be. She went back to picking the cotton.
As the sun fell below the horizon, Rita walked back towards the house. As she crossed the bridge at the pond, she tapped her pocket for Benjamin’s button. The pocket was empty. She patted down every crevice of her clothing and became hysterical at the buttons disappearance. She ran back to find the only thing left of the love that she had lost.
There wasn’t a single ray of light to be seen across the expanse of the field until the flicker of a lantern was spotted in the distance. The soldiers continued to trudge through the tall grass, keeping low, to go undetected until the precise moment of attack. Sergeant Mcgern put up his fist signaling a halt. Benjamin’s breathing grew shallow as he saw where the Confederates had chosen to set-up camp. He caught sight of their flag flapping in the wind, just on the outskirts of Old Man Jinks’ property.
Suddenly a lookout spotted the Union soldiers and yelled “INTRUDERS!” Rifles began to c*** and the soldiers set the cannons in place. “Show time gentlemen.” Says Sergeant Mcgern as he let out a battle cry and charged into the fight. The Confederates raged back with just as much fury, cutting down Union soldiers left and right. Without warning, Rhodes slouched heavily onto the cannon he had been manning, blood seeped from his back. Benjamin stared in horror, unable to move. He faintly heard Sergeant Mcgern commanding him to light the cannon. “Light it Thompson! Do it now!” He screamed. A bullet slammed Benjamin’s arm, causing blood to soak his uniform, and the matches to slide out of his hold. He looked down at the blood, his gaze landed on Rhodes’ vacant stare. Mind completely blank, Benjamin struck a match and lit the cannon. From the corner of his eye he saw her. But it was too late. The ball exploded from the cannon barrel and rocketed into the Confederate camp, silencing the chaos with a single shot.
The Union soldiers dug through the rubble and remains of the Confederate camp. They carried bodies to stretchers and secured weapons for future use. Benjamin frantically plowed through the debris of where he last saw her. His fingers finally touching black hair, he pulled her out of the wreckage. His fears confirmed, Benjamin sobbed over Rita, caressing her cheek, wanting nothing more than to tell her how he’d felt since they’d first met back at the farm; wanting nothing more than to hear her laugh. Wanting nothing more than to tell her he loves her.



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