Authors: Dennis McFarland
Now Hayes watched St. Clair disappear into the trees with his backgammon set under his arm. Leggett continued to knock things about, grumbling softly, and Hayes decided to keep quiet. He knew Leggett would soon settle down and say what he’d learned. It wasn’t Leggett’s nature to go for long without talking. The sun had sunk fully behind the trees now, thankfully, since it had been oppressive. All around, birds were raising a din, an objection, Hayes imagined, to having their forest invaded by nearly thirty thousand men in blue. Leggett found his canteen and took a long drink. At last he looked at Hayes as if he recognized him and still counted him as a friend. “We’re waiting for the damned cracker line to catch up,” he said. “The general don’t want us to get too far ahead of the supply wagons. Now I ask you, Hayes: what good is supplies if we end up butchered by rebels out here in these gnarly infernal woods?”
Leggett lay down on the ground, eyes open, gazing straight upward. “You’re an educated man, Hayes,” he said, after a moment. “So tell me. If you had to go into town, say, and there was a vicious
dog along the road that attacked you and tore up your leg … would you take that same road into town the next time? Or would you find a different way to go? That’s my question.”
“Assuming there was another route to take,” said Hayes, “yes, I would go a different way.”
“That’s all I’m saying,” said Leggett. “That’s all I’m saying.”
“But isn’t the cavalry forward?” asked Hayes.
“Sure, they’re forward, some of them,” answered Leggett. “But they can’t be forward in every direction, can they? And besides, a good many of them have been sent back to protect the cracker line. Do you know what the problem with generals is? They always think and act like they know more than they do know. They’re always making assumptions about the enemy, and they might be right, and they might be wrong.”
“Well, I guess they have to make decisions,” Hayes said. “Regardless of what they know or don’t know.”
“I understand that,” Leggett said. “It’s hard to sit up tall on a horse with a saber on your belt and a plume in your cap and just scratch your head and shrug your shoulders. But there’s another problem that’s less comprehensible.”
“How slow they are to learn from experience,” said Leggett. He pulled his cap down over his face. “Very slow to learn from their mistakes,” he added.
Later on, long after dark and after they’d eaten, Billy Swift stopped by and, a few minutes after that, Rosamel. They had only a small fire, since the night was unpleasantly warm. Somewhere off in the distance, they could hear music—Swift told them a group of contrabands was putting on an amusement—and, farther away still, the occasional pop of a picket’s gun. Their own muskets were stacked in a pyramid near the tent. Once Rosamel had taken a corner of Hayes’s blanket and sat down with the three other men—and, like the three others, removed his shoes—Billy Swift said, “Rosamel, you’re not cutting your usual dashing figure. I don’t think I’ve ever see you looking so bedraggled.”
“I have never been so … what is this word?”
, I think,” said Hayes.
“Ah, yes, I have never been so bedraggled,” said Rosamel, taking off his red fez and holding it in his lap. “And I cannot feel my feet. They are numb.”
“You’re lucky,” said Swift. “I wish my feet was numb.”
“I wish they didn’t stink quite so much,” said Hayes. “Maybe you ought to think about washing them every now and then.”
“I washed them this afternoon,” said Swift, pulling one foot up to his nose and sniffing.
This antic from the half-pint Swift made Hayes think of a monkey. “Swift,” he said, “I’m kidding.”
Swift found a pinecone on the ground and threw it across the fire at Hayes, who caught it with one hand right in front of his face. Hayes considered throwing it back but only tossed it into the fire.
“I do not like this forest,” said Rosamel, “this Wilderness. It is inhabited with the remains of dead men. There are bones … pieces of rotting uniforms … even the skeletons of horses.”
“Leggett doesn’t much care for it either,” said Hayes, glancing at Leggett, who only continued staring into the fire.
“I noticed he was awful quiet,” said Swift. “Uncharacteristic, I’d say. Do you reckon he’s feeling his age, after marching twenty-odd miles?”
Leggett looked at Billy Swift as if he’d not noticed him till now. He scrutinized the boy for a few seconds, then said, “And I reckon I prefer the company of my thoughts and memories to the likes of you.”
“Oh, come on, Leggett,” said Swift, undeterred, not in the least offended. “I don’t recollect any previous time when we weren’t compatible with your thoughts and memories. I’d say they’ve been our good friends.”
Leggett appeared to consider what Billy Swift had said, for it was undoubtedly true. “Well, if you don’t mind,” said Leggett, “I’ll just keep them to myself tonight.”
“It is this forest,” said Rosamel. “It makes a man pensive.”
“Tell us about the fellow who was shot dead sitting on the fence rail,” said Swift, but Leggett only cast him another scrutinizing glare.
Evidently determined to get some kind of rise out of Leggett, Swift said, “Tell us the long long story about the private who set off the bomb the rebels had buried—”
Just then, they heard hushed laughter from the surrounding darkness, and Swift fell silent. Another foursome of soldiers emerged into the firelight, and one of the young privates sent a skull from the tip of his bayonet clattering across the ground into their circle, right toward Hayes. “Take a look, boys,” said the soldier who’d loosed it, “that’s where we’re headed tomorrow.”
The thing quickly came to rest with its black eye sockets aimed straight up at Hayes, who’d never before seen a bare human skull; startled, he rolled backward off the blanket, and Leggett, on his feet in a flash, relieved the offending private of his weapon, casting it to the ground, and planted a hard fist to the young man’s gut. Doubling over and losing his hat, the soldier rammed his bare head into Leggett, knocking him off his feet, and then the two of them were at each other on the ground. In an instant all were involved, disengaging Leggett and the other soldier, whose companions retrieved his weapon and hat and soon led him away into the darkness.
Throughout the brief skirmish, no words had been exchanged. Also without a word, Leggett collected himself, put on his shoes, retrieved the skull from the ground, and moved off into the woods clutching it to his chest.
The three others stood staring in the direction where Leggett had disappeared. After a moment, Rosamel said, “There’s a bad egg.”
“I didn’t think it cause to lose his temper, though,” said Billy Swift. “Leggett’s just plain played-out, like the rest of us.” He turned to Hayes. “I don’t guess you’ve got any help-me-to-sleep in your canteen.”
“No,” said Hayes. “Just water.”
“Well, I’ll be off then. I expect the bugles’ll be blasting at the first sign of light.”
Rosamel left with Swift, and Hayes began rolling up the blankets from the ground. A minute later, Swift was back, alone. “Hayes,” he said, “it’s not likely we’ll be having any more base ball for a long while. And we never got so far as to offering a challenge to another regiment.
So I was wondering, if you don’t mind my asking … would you have put me in the first nine?”
Hayes smiled as he shook the straw and grit from one of the blankets. “What do you think, Billy?” he said.
“I think yes.”
“You think right.”
Swift grinned. “Thanks an awful lot, Hayes,” he said. “And good luck to you.”
Hayes watched him go, a strangely unsettling sight: as Billy Swift walked away with a cheerful spring in his step, the darkness closed abruptly around him.
When Leggett returned three minutes later, Hayes saw that the man’s hands were black with soil.
“I buried it,” said Leggett. “Best I could with only my hands for a spade.”
Hayes nodded. “Let’s settle in,” he said. “The fire’s almost out.”
They’d spread pine boughs on the floor of the tent, but the night didn’t cool off much, and they lay with their heads outside. When Hayes closed his eyes, he saw the clear image of the troops before him on the road—what he’d seen for hours on end throughout the day—a sea of caps and hats bobbing up and down. The fire died, and the dark was absolute, not even a star penetrated the tangled canopy above. Leggett remained quiet, though Hayes, who’d learned every nuance of the other man’s breathing, knew he was awake. If it was introspection that kept him quiet, Hayes thought it might be an opportunity to broach a long-deferred topic. “Leggett,” he said softly, after a while, “why do you never write or receive any letters?”
Hayes suspected that Leggett might lack the skills of reading and writing and thought the man’s pride may have prevented him from asking any favors along those lines. Additionally, despite all the tales Leggett had shared around innumerable campfires, they were remarkably absent of familial characters and events. Hayes knew that he’d grown up on a farm near Whitehall, but little else.
“Don’t have nobody to write to,” said Leggett. “My only brother’s dead near two years now, killed at Oak Grove. My pa died long before the war ever started, and my ma married a man at the ironworks who
took her back to England with him. She wrote us a letter or two, but then there was an end to it. She was in love with the man before Pa died, so I guess she had some shame about it … Reckon she wanted to forget us and everything that happened.”
He stopped there, rolled onto his side, putting his back to Hayes. He said nothing more then, and given Leggett’s melancholy mood, Hayes decided not to press.
After a good long silence, Leggett said, “But sometimes, in my mind, I write a letter to my sweet Jinny.”
“Jinny?” said Hayes.
“You’d be surprised to learn a man like me was ever married, but I was. For two happy years and seven happy months. We lived on the farm, made a good life for ourselves. Jinny wanted a baby, and so did I, but it took a long time and then, four months in, she lost it. I always thought she was strong … a small thing, for sure, but strong. But she lost it, with a good deal of pain and anguish, and three days afterward she caught the purple fever. You never saw such suffering. Two weeks of hell on earth, and when she finally passed, it felt like a blessing. I loved her more than anything, more than anything I’ll ever love again. Sometimes I write to her in my thoughts, tell her about what’s going on, how much I miss her. Do a fair amount of complaining in general. Nights like this, right before a battle … I always find myself wishing everything had turned out different.”
Hayes didn’t know what to say. He supposed this story—grim in its own sad surprising way—was the foundation of all Leggett’s others. Before he could form any words, Leggett said, “Now how about leaving me alone and letting me get some sleep.”
A bird had started up somewhere off in the trees—three persistent chirrups, repeated over and over. Hayes waited a few minutes more, and then said, “What’s that bird, Leggett?”
“It’s a damned whip-poor-will,” answered Leggett. “I sure wish he’d shut up, too.”
Hayes drifted off thinking he’d never felt this tired, never felt this exhausted in his entire life, not even the time he’d tossed more than three hundred pitches in a match. He fell asleep but not very deeply,
and right away he dreamed a dream he’d had about a week before, of being abandoned by his comrades on the field of battle. He lay on the ground exactly where he’d just fallen asleep, unable to move as the woods around him filled with smoke and gunfire. The men in his company and hundreds of total strangers went by him on horseback and on foot, one snatching away the tent, another his musket, his knife, his bread bag. When one of the figures snatched the blanket from beneath him, he started awake.
He heard the comforting sound of Leggett’s snoring and soon drifted into a deeper, more peaceful sleep. Sometime later he was awakened by a kind of warm pressure against his left arm. Leggett had moved close and rested his brow against Hayes’s shoulder. The man seemed to be having difficulty breathing, and Hayes felt some current of fear pass from Leggett into himself. The prospect of his first seeing the elephant had remained fairly abstract—in looming overly long it had lacked durability—but now, encountering Leggett in the middle of the night, somehow impaired, Hayes’s heart suddenly filled with dread, and quickened. He stirred, but before he could say anything, Leggett pressed his head harder against his shoulder. “I’ve got toothache,” Leggett whispered. “I’m going out of my mind.”
By the time the bugles roused them at dawn, they’d searched the neighboring tents and found a lamp to use, then found and waked a dentist nearly a mile away through the woods; the dentist had found an additional lamp and a tooth key, extracted the bad tooth, and sent them on their way; and Leggett’s jaw had swollen to the size of a base ball. But they’d not had much sleep.
The woods at dawn, enveloped in fog, were pleasantly cool yet all the more eerie. Familiar scents of coffee and tobacco wafted through the trees, and in the early hours before the troops struck camp and began to assemble for the day’s march, Hayes was inundated with customers eager for his letter writing. Leggett busied himself with packing and assured Hayes that he preferred the aftermath of soreness and swelling in his face to the torture that had been its cause.
Their advance west out the Catharpin Road was bewildering and chaotic. The cavalry, instead of leading the infantry, stayed back with
the wagons. Thus the infantry columns, forced to splay and detour around the hundreds of horses and wagons that clogged the road, inched forward in knotted factions and great confusion. The fog burned away early, and soon after the men were under way, the sun beat down upon them relentlessly. Despite all this—and despite the unsettling effect of advancing without a cavalry escort—Leggett put a hand on Hayes’s shoulder and said how glad he was to be on a course that would get them, at last, out of the forest.
Then, inexplicably, less than three hours along, they stopped.
The men, jammed close together, began milling about in the heat.