short fiction by Leverett Butts
Ida Alkaev, the young Russian seamstress clad in a brown dress and beaded vest, sat outside the commander’s tent mending his jacket as well as she could. It was slow work. The scarcity of good thread through the Confederate forces forced her to make do with the thinnest hemp twine she could beg from the quartermaster. Invoking General Drake’s name helped, but only insofar as what little Jenkins had in his stores was made available for her, and there was little enough left after the rest of the brigade had done their own meager repairs to their saddles, tents, and bedding.
As she worked a large needle through the left shoulder of the Drake’s jacket, she heard the slow, steady footsteps of the camp minister approach. She looked up, twine clenched between her teeth and smiled.
“Good evening, Miss Ida,” the preacher said quietly, nodding. “How are you this evening?”
“Privyet, Merle,” she replied around the twine. “My hands were very … sore tonight and my fingers were acting older than me.”
“Have you been to Doc Todd’s tent? He may have a salve.”
“Bah!” Ida spat the twine out of her mouth and glared at Merle. “Doktor Tott did not know, how do you say, his bottom from a bung hole. I left a tea poultice waiting for me in my tent.”
“I will pray for you,” Merle said, and Ida chuckled. “Is he in?”
Ida pushed the needle through the shoulder and the twine came through without ripping the fabric any more. She nodded absently, then gasped harshly. Her shoulders went rigid and her head snapped up as if someone had jerked her by her black bangs.
“Ida?” Merle fell to one knee and placed both hands on either side of her face. Her eyes stared beyond him, but he could at least feel her even breaths on his face and knew she had not died. “Ida?” He repeated. “Can you hear me?”
“Coyote always took many guises,” she said, still staring beyond Merle toward the horizon and the lowering sun. “Since the beginning of time, he had no love for us, and lapped up our suffering like river water.”
[She speaks the truth in her fashion; listen to her] It was a voice Merle had heard his entire life, but it never ceased to startle him. He shuddered and looked over his shoulder despite the fact that he knew where the voice came from. It sounded like his voice, but he knew it wasn’t.
Ida was still staring blankly in the darkness. Merle waved his fingers in front of her face, but her eyes remained fixed. He grabbed her shoulders and shook her gently. “Miss Ida, come back to me.” When this got no response he snapped his fingers rapidly inches from her eyes.
At this, Ida blinked, shook her head, and met Merle’s eyes. “You should not have allowed this,” She said. Then she rose, folded the jacket under her arm, rolled the twine and needle into her apron pocket, and walked away. Merle noticed a beaded design on the back of her vest: a young crow pulling itself from a fractured egg. “I have finished for the night. It all began here, and you should have stopped him.”
[Better do what she says, boy. Stop him.]
“We are to march with Pickett tomorrow.” Luther said over his shoulder. Merle sat at Luther’s desk flipping cards idly and setting them criss-cross in piles of three in front of him. At first it was all he could do; Luther did little but stare into the flame of the lantern sitting upon the small table by his cot and sip from an earthenware jug he held loosely at his side. Merle had already made five piles, before Luther even spoke. “The ridge is well defended, but Lee believes we can take it.” At this Luther turned to face Merle. “I am going to die tomorrow,” he said. “I can feel it in the pit of my belly.”
Merle flipped a card and began a sixth pile. The seven of clubs.
[He’ll survive, but he will not be the same. Tell him no.]
“You won’t die,” he said patiently. “I’m sure Lee has the whole maneuver planned to last footstep. You’ll be fine.”
“God tell you that, Merle?” Luther gave a humorless chuckle. “Because otherwise you are as full of shit as an oat-stuffed mule.”
“Maybe,” Merle said absently spinning the card with his finger. “I feel it in my gut, too. And my gut,” at this Merle smiled with a look to Luther’s jug, “is a damned sight more pristine than yours.”
“Well, you cannot deny that I may die.”
Merle said nothing, he simply flipped another card to lay across the previous.
Luther took another swig, belched, and swayed a little. His voice, however, lost none of its vigor. “I must see Ingrid,” he said. “Tonight.”
Two of spades.
[This is not a good idea, Merle.]
Merle stared directly at Luther. “We have talked about this. It is not a good idea. She is married.”
Luther turned from his friend walked to the tent-flap, looking out. “She wasn’t always.”
“That does not even make sense, Luther.”
Luther appeared not to have heard. “If Cornwallis cared a thing for her, she would not be anywhere near this godforsaken battlefield.”
“None of this matters,” Merle began nervously shuffling the remaining cards in his hands. “What matters is that you cannot do this thing. She is another man’s wife regardless of what you think of that man’s safeguarding abilities.”
“I am doing it, Merle.”
“He is a Yankee Colonel, Luther. How on God’s green earth do you intend to get past our pickets, much less theirs.”
“Corporal Alson is scouting a way for me.”
[Coyote laps up our suffering like water.]
Merle sighed. “Well, if you have this all planned out, why did you call for me?”
“I wanted to confess to you.”
“Luther…” Merle was momentarily dumbstruck. He took a breath and began again. “Luther, you cannot ask forgiveness for a sin you intend to commit.”
“Then come with me, and I will ask forgiveness when the sin has been committed.”
“I cannot go with you as a spiritual advisor with sure knowledge of your intent to commit adultery, Luther.” Merle’s voice came as an exasperated sigh as he all but slammed a nine of hearts on the latest pile, [Wishes fulfilled often have dreadful consequences] and then swept the entire tableau onto the floor. “It does not work that way.”
Luther looked out of his tent then stepped back holding the flap open, allowing a corporal to enter. He carried three dark oiled-canvas ponchos. Luther looked again at his friend. “Then come with me as a friend.”
Luther looked to the newcomer. “Come in Corporal Alson; just put those over there.” He motioned to his cot in the corner.
The corporal looked rangy and unkempt, like a dog left out long enough to go feral. He had stringy charcoal hair that hung in his face and at least a three days’ growth of stubble. He had clearly seen his share of battle, though: a scar on his right cheek, where a bullet had apparently grazed him in some previous skirmish, pulled his mouth open, giving him a permanent sneer. He moved to the cot and dropped the ponchos there. Underneath the ponchos, he carried three firearms: two revolvers and Spencer repeater.
“Got us some Yankee guns,” he said as he piled the revolvers on the ponchos and leaned the rifle against the cot. “The two what had’em won’t be needin’em no more.”
“Thank you, Jack,” Luther said. “I believe my Colts will suffice, though I do not believe we will need them. Still, best to be safe.” He turned then to Merle. “Well, then Reverend,” he gave Merle a grave look. “Will you join us? At least to keep me out of trouble?”
The voice spoke in his head again. [Do not let that man do this thing.]
Perhaps, Merle thought, I can dissuade him en route.
Merle glared at his friend, then sighed heavily, walked to the cot, and grabbed a poncho and the rifle. “Damn you, Luther,” he swore. “For the love of God and all that’s holy, do not make me regret this more than I already do.”
Luther only grinned and slapped Merle’s back. “Come along, Jack,” he called over his shoulder to the corporal as he led Merle out of his tent. “Time tarries for none of us, and we have a big day tomorrow.”
The three men moved as cautiously as they could through the camp. A mist had risen earlier in the evening, helping to hide them as they moved into the enemy camp, but lacking rain, the ponchos seemed more of a hindrance. Yes, the dark color helped them blend into the night, but the warm air of midsummer turned positively smothering inside the heavily rubberized garments. Merle half hoped he would collapse in exhaustion, and bring the entire venture to a premature close, but he did not.
“Luther,” Merle whispered after they moved past the Confederate sentries, “please consider this. You are putting your men in peril if we are caught, and for what? A fleeting tumble in a married woman’s petticoats?”
Jack Alson, who had slunk ahead and was scouting their way, looked back and hissed for them to be silent.
Luther ignored him. “Have you ever been in love, Merle?” He stopped to look his friend square in the face. “I mean truly and wholly in love, and with a woman you could never have?”
Merle wanted to say he had, but he knew, too, that Luther, who had known him for the better part of both their lives, would see the lie and knew the answer anyway.
“No, Luther, I have not ever been in love.”
Luther chuckled grimly then patted his friends shoulder companionably. “Then regardless of your skill in all things spiritual, you have nothing more to say on this matter,” he whispered, moving forward to join his corporal, “You cannot possibly understand my pain, Merle.”
They moved along the outskirts of the Yankee encampment past Leister’s Farm and General Meade’s headquarters, keeping just inside the tree line, until they came near Cemetery Ridge and Col. Cornwallis’ encampment. The camp seemed strangely empty. There had been fighting all day, and both sides had supposedly retired leaving only sentries to prevent an ambush, but Cornwallis and his men seemed to be nowhere in sight.
“Are you sure he is away, Jack?” Luther asked his corporal.
The younger man sniffed the air tentatively, then turned to his commander. “Yes,” he growled lowly, “I sent some of the pack away east to harry the sentries. He should be gone for another,” at this Corporal Alson glanced at the moon, “hour at least.”
“Very well,” Luther nodded, and glanced through the tent flaps. “You two stand guard. And Merle?”
Merle glanced at him, but said nothing.
“God will have mercy on me. You have never known what it is to love a woman. Given his unorthodox relationship with Mary, surely he understands a man’s heart more than you do.”
[Yes, and that is indeed the problem.]
Merle sighed and turned back to scan the tree line. He would occasionally glance toward the tent flap when the murmur of Luther’s conversation broke his attention. Once he thought he saw a crib with a small child grasping the bars when the southerly breeze whipped the flap a bit. After a few minutes, however, when the murmurs of conversation grew to sighs and moans and finally snores, Merle understood that for better or worse, the die had been cast.
He looked about for Corporal Alson, but could see no trace of him.
Where’d that son of a bitch go? Merle asked himself. I never saw him leave.
[You’re more perceptive than you know, Merle.] The strange voice seemingly arose from the rising mist. [You should listen to yourself more often.]
Off in the distance near the tree line and the Yankee sentries, he heard some yelling, what sounded like a pack of dogs barking, then a few isolated shots. To his left just in shadow he spied what looked like a small wolf slinking around the perimeter, but when he looked again, it was gone.
Later he heard snuffling from behind the tent. When he crept around to check, he caught sight of the snuffling canine figure again sniffing underneath the fringe of the canvas tent, but the slim stream of lantern light leaking from the seams showed that the animal had no fur. Indeed, it seemed almost to have scales, like a snake or a lizard. Merle could never be sure of what he saw because the creature did not remain long to be admired, but took off quick as lightning when Merle turned the corner.
“What are you staring at?” The voice came from just out of Merle’s field of vision. It was the low growling voice of Jack Alson.
“There was a strange beast here snuffling under the tent,” Merle whispered. “It ran off when I approached. It must have gone right past you not twenty seconds ago.”
Alson stepped into the dim light, adjusting his poncho and shrugging. “I saw nothing,” he replied, “but we best be waking the Colonel.” He nodded in the direction of the sentry line beyond Merle. “Cornwallis is coming back. He seems to have discovered our ruse, and is none too happy.”
Merle felt his stomach fall, and gripped his rifle tightly. “What do you mean ‘discovered our ruse’?”
“His men caught one of my pack.” Alson spoke with the same nonchalance as if he had mentioned stepping in dung as he crossed a cow field. “Shot him dead, but Cornwallis is no fool. He will know this was a distraction.”
As if on cue, Merle heard voices in the distance behind him, excited, and coming closer. Alson waved his hand inside the tent. “Colonel,” He said more loudly, “it is time to leave.”
Merle could hear the sound of Luther rousing himself quickly and pulling his clothes back on. In a matter of mere moments, Luther was leaving the tent as a young woman with red hair unpinned and grasping a shawl around otherwise bare shoulders followed.
“Will I see you again?” her voice had something of lilt to it.
“If God grants me safe passage tomorrow,” Luther said. “I swear, Ingrid, I will come for you and Mordecai. Your husband be damned.” Then he kissed her on the forehead and gently pushed back within the tent.
By now the voices were nearer. Merle could make out actual phrases.
“…diversion,” one voice explained.
“…drive us away from camp,” another added.
Merle turned to his friend. “Luther,” he said, failing to keep his voice steady as his anxiety rose, “we need to leave now.”
Luther nodded and drew his revolvers. “Where is Corporal Alson?”
[That’s a good question, Merle. Do you have an answer for him?]
Merle looked around, sure enough, the corporal had slunk away into the shadows again. “I don’t know, but we cannot worry about it now.” Merle’s voice rose in pitch. “Cornwallis and his men are coming.”
“Is that them?” inquired a third voice seemingly immediately behind Merle. He jerked around to find himself confronted by two men in uniforms so dark they faded into the night. One was no more than fourteen or fifteen while the other, an officer, was significantly older.
Without thinking, Merle fired his rifle blindly as he heard Luther fire his revolvers from behind. Both men fell without so much as a whimper. From inside the tent the woman screamed and a baby began wailing into the night, though the sound was considerably muffled by the ringing in Merle’s ears.
He stood dumbfounded as Luther stepped past him and levelled one colt to the officer’s temple and pulled the trigger then did the same to the younger man lying to the officer’s side. Neither gun made a sound that Merle could hear despite the fire leaping from the muzzles and the heads shattered in the blast.
Merle had the sensation of teeth pulling his sleeve, and when he turned around he found Alson returned and pulling his arm in the direction of the tree line. Luther was already running ahead.
“Run, you damned fool,” Alson growled, and Merle heard these words perfectly clearly despite his deafness. “It’s too late for salvation, Padre. You’re in it, and if you do not run, you will hang.”
It seemed as if the shadows of the tree line melded with the mist that had been gathering all evening and enveloped the three men as they ran. As his ears quit ringing, Merle heard the sounds of pursuit. He even heard the cracks of rifles firing into the woods, but none ever came close to him. He was swallowed by a darkness that hid him and his companions from view as they made their way back over the sentry lines and into their own camp.
By the time they reached Luther’s camp, Jack Alson had once again disappeared somewhere along the way. Merle sank to the ground outside Luther’s tent, in the spot where Miss Ida had mended Luther’s jacket. That seemed to have been weeks ago.
“I killed a boy,” Merle gasped. “Luther, I have committed murder.”
“And I have slain my rival, Merle.” Luther bent down to pat his friend’s shoulder. “There’s nothing can change that now. Comfort yourself in the knowledge that they both would have killed you were you the slower on the trigger.”
“We shouldn’t have been there!” Merle screamed and felt his voice breaking. “It was a fool’s errand to go, and I told you as much. Had you listened, that boy would still be living.”
Luther rose from his friend and made to enter his tent. “Perhaps he would have died tomorrow.” Luther said moving the flap aside. “However, Cornwallis would also be alive, and my way to Ingrid obstructed.”
Merle stared dumbfounded at his friend as he stepped inside the tent and let the flap fall close. “All-in-all a fair trade,” Luther said from within the tent. “Now go get some sleep, Merle. We take Cemetery Ridge tomorrow.”
Merle slowly rose and moved to his own quarters a few tents down from Luther. When he entered, he fell immediately to his knees, and propped himself by his cot.
“Almighty God,” he prayed aloud, “who does freely pardon all who repent and turn to Him, now fulfill in my own contrite heart the promise of redeeming grace; forgiving my sin, and cleansing me from an evil conscience; through the perfect sacrifice of Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.”
He remained there in supplication, but received no comfort. Presently he tried again.
“Gracious God,” he began again, “my sin is too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what my lips tremble to name, what my hearts can no longer bear. Set me free from a past I cannot change; open to me a future in which I can be changed; and grant me grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image, through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.”
Still he felt no relief.
“Are you there, God?”
There was no answer, nor would there ever be again.
Guns of the Waste Land Volume 1: Departure & Volume 2: Diversion are available in paperback from Hold Fast Press as is the e-book version of “What the Women Saw.” Volumes 1 & 2 are also available in ebook format from Venture Press. His first collection of short fiction, Emily’s Stitches: The Confessions of Thomas Calloway, is also available in both paperback and ebook.
Leverett Butts is currently working on Volume 3, tentatively titled Dispersal.