Bill Mesce, Jr.
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THE CORPORAL had long ago learned the difference between the sound of distant thunder and the sound of distant artillery, but that was when he was fully conscious and fully sensate and now he was neither.
He had nodded off and had not known he had nodded off until Ballard’s sharp whistle stirred him. The horse felt him shift on its back and thought that was excuse enough to halt. The Corporal did not turn the horse. In the interest of rationing the animal’s stumbling steps he would urge no movement until he had to.
He swiveled around in his saddle and saw the four of them grouped behind him by a small cut leading off into the tangled woods. Ballard sat at their head, his red-rimmed eyes condescendingly tolerant. He and the others were all slumped in their saddles looking as if they had emerged out of the red, clayey mud caked solidly up the legs of their mounts, splattered along their flanks, and sheathing the riders’ high boots and blue cavalry breeches.
“This it?” Ballard asked.
Eben went into one of his coughing fits, doubling over in his saddle. The coughs rattled deep in his chest. The others turned deferentially away.
The Corporal would not have picked Eben had it been up to him, but he had not picked any of them, or the ride, or the war for that matter.
The Corporal looked up at the sky and waited for Eben’s spasms to subside. The sun was full but diffuse behind thick, dark clouds. The air was chill and stifling with damp. The Corporal shivered inside his coat.
Eben at last grew quiet and self-consciously turned away from the others.
Ballard again asked, “This it?”
The Corporal drew his map from inside his coat and unfolded it across his pommel. He rubbed his burning eyes and looked from the map to the woods around him. The map cited landmarks long washed away by autumn rains or sunk in the mud or burned, blown up, stripped away. The banks of bare-limbed trees and brush flanking the road were monotonously, unhelpfully featureless. He put the map away and shrugged.
“We take it?” The Button asked. His voice was high and tense the way young voices can be.
The Corporal shifted in his saddle, trying to work a kink in his back. It took a hard tug at the reins to wake his horse and turn him about.
Even a jab of spurs did not raise the heavy, hanging head though it did start the horse poking across the deep ruts in the red mud. Another jerk of the reins headed his mount down the narrow cut. The others followed.
The swaying back of the horse started to tug The Corporal’s eyes closed again, and soon the dull grayness of the day gave way to dreams of crisp, autumn air and forests wild with autumnal colors and where the sound he heard was thunder and only that.
The woods rolled back and the road swung gently up a knoll to a big, white house looking out over empty fields of red clay and trampled cotton stalks.
The Corporal did not need to tell them what to do. Dunn and The Button swung out to his right, drawing their carbines from their saddle scabbards and thumbing the hammers back. Ballard and Eben followed suit swinging out to his left.
They drew to a halt in front of the white house. The whitewash was peeling, there was a sad whistling of wind through broken glass and the slats of dangling shutters. The Corporal looked and listened for movement.
He studied the house for as long as it took him to work up the energy to climb down from his saddle. He stood on the ground, holding onto the pommel for support until his legs lost their stiffness. He studied the house, again, and sighed, then started up the wide, front stairs and across the broad, colonnaded porch to the double oak doors. Eben and The Button followed. Ballard and Dunn, as outriders, moved their horses off a bit so as to cover the windows and flanks.
There was a pattern of ragged holes in the flaking black paint of the door where knockers had been mounted. Probably brass, The Corporal guessed, but that had nothing to do with why they’d been taken. He’d seen places where the doors had been taken just because they could be. He raised a gauntleted fist and knocked, waited, then knocked and waited again.
He looked back to the outriders and they straightened up in their saddles when he turned to them which told him they had gone slack when his back was to them. Eben fell to coughing, spat onto the porch, then turned back to the door.
The door knobs were gone, and so were the hammers. The Corporal pushed at the oak with the tips of his gloved fingers and the door swung stiffly on rusted, squeaking hinges. Beyond the door the entry foyer was lost in shadows, only a trapezoidal strip of floor lit by the spill of light from the door. The Corporal saw scuffed wood and heard dried leaves crumple under his boots. He stood silently for a moment, listening. There was something...
“Hey,” The Button started but the Corporal held up his hand for quiet.
The Corporal followed the sound of faint, raspy breathing; above and ahead of him somewhere. There was a cracked, stainless glass transom over the door behind him, and its bar of mottled light set on a stairway arcing along the curved far wall of the foyer. Just beyond the light, on the stairs above him, the Corporal saw a cloud of wispy gray hair floating in the dark. The Corporal’s hand fell to the holster on his hip but he did not unbuckle the cover.
“Take it easy,” the Corporal said calmly to the figure on the stairs.
The gray wisp slipped back into the shadows. The breathing grew louder and faster. The voice, when it came, was cracked and old: “Get out.”
The Corporal stepped back towards the door. “Awright, Mister, we ain’t – ”
“I – ”
The shot did not come from the stairs as the Corporal had at first thought. It came from behind him. From The Button.
The pimple-faced boy let the foregrip of his carbine slip from his hand. The smoking barrel bounced against the wooden floor with a heavy, solid noise. “I thought...”
The Corporal climbed the stairs and knelt over the gray-haired man. He struck a match on the wall and saw an unshaven, withered face of sagging, gray skin. His body looked frail and hollowed out and was covered with a frayed, ruffled white shirt and a red lounging robe and nothing else. In the old man’s left hand was a small, flintlock dueling pistol. The Corporal picked up the pistol and held it in the light from the stained glass. The letters “Q.M.” were inscribed in Gothic script on a small, brass plate bolted to the varnished grip. The Corporal pointed the pistol at the ceiling, closed his eyes and pulled the trigger. The cocked hammer fell with a flat, sharp “click” which echoed around the foyer.
The Corporal stood and his stiff knees popped. He looked down to where The Button remained by the open door. The Corporal tossed him the little pistol, and The Button dropped his carbine to gather it into his clumsy riding gauntlets. The Button looked down at the flintlock which seemed even smaller, toy-like in his thick-fingered gloves. His mouth moved but no sound came out. He looked to Dunn and Ballard, now standing behind him out on the porch.
Ballard brushed by him into the foyer. He looked to the Corporal still standing on the stairs, and reached into his tunic for a chaw of tobacco.
The Corporal turned and headed up the remaining stairs. “Take him outside,” he said into the dark foyer. “Find a place. Bury him. They always have a place. Check the downstairs. All of it, not just the pantry.”
He heard them lower the hammers on their carbines and slide them muzzle first into their boots before they moved up the stairs for the old man. The Corporal stopped at the head of the stairs, turned and saw The Button still standing in the light of the doorway, the dueling pistol in his gloved hands held away from his body like something poisonous.
The Corporal turned away and headed down a dark hall.
Some of the rooms had soft colors for children. Others had the brightness of sitting rooms and bedrooms. Others had the dark air of a man’s retreat. All of the colors, light and dark, bright and serious, were faded and the rooms were empty. Many of the doors were gone, the hinges ripped from the sills.
There was one door still intact and locked. There was no answer to his knock or call. He drew the heavy Navy Colt from his holster, then kicked at where the door hammer met the jamb, and kicked again and again until the wood cracked and splintered and the door swept open.
An old memory suddenly came to him, a childhood story of ancient kings in far off lands entombed in great vaults with everything they owned buried with them: gold, pets, jewels, slaves, their wives.
Here there was furniture, crafted from heavy, dark wood, ornately carved and richly varnished, though scuffed and scarred. There were portraits stacked against the wall but the oils of the paint had begun to darken leaving faces floating in a field of black. There was a dirty petticoat, a steak knife with ivory inlay, a porcelain-faced doll dressed in lace, a pair of Chinese vases, a mismatched pair of high-backed lion’s claw chairs. There was a massive bed against one wall, set under a bowed canopy of white lace. Sunk deep in the down mattress was a woman in a long, white dressing gown.
He holstered his pistol, struck a lamp on the table by the bed and held it close. She had been handsome at one time, but now, like the old man, she was withered and shrunken. He pulled off one of his gauntlets and touched a bare knuckle to her ivory-white cheek. He drew his hand back from the abrupt coldness.
He set the lamp back on the table among a nest of faded daguerreotypes. There were young, pretty women and young, handsome men in the pictures. Many of the men wore butternut uniforms decorated with great swirls of braid.
It was not his army.
He came out on the veranda back of the house and Ballard turned at the sound of his heels on the tile. The Corporal had not seen the others in the house and did not ask about them.
Ballard spat a teardrop of dark tobacco juice over the balustrade into the tangle of vines and shattered clay flower pots in the rear garden.
He looked past the garden toward the empty, red field. “Lotta ground to turn come spring,” he said.
The Corporal looked skyward. The clouds were darker. He smelled rain. “There’s another one upstairs,” he said. “And when you’re up there, leave everything else be.”
The Corporal walked back through the house to the front porch and to his horse. He took his canteen from his saddle and sat down on the front steps. He took a swig of tinny-tasting water, rinsed his mouth and spat. He took off his squashed forage cap and massaged his scalp, picking out twigs and grit.
He heard Ballard’s boots heavy inside the house. A loose shuttered banged against the clapboard and from somewhere a cough.
His eyes burned and it felt good to close them.
The shot had already woken him before Dunn’s mount pounded around the corner of the house.
“Cor, I – ”
“I heard it.”
“Was out back, checkin’ the smokehouse, ‘n’ – ”
“Barn, seems like. Didn’t stick ‘roun’ t’ make sure.”
The Corporal set his cap back on his head. He looked across the grounds to the fenced plot under a copse of magnolia trees where Eben and The Button were digging a fresh grave next to century-old tombstones. He waved them in.
“When they get here,” he told Dunn, “have ‘em circle on around.
Ballard’s inside. Go get ‘im and circle round the other way.”
The first drops of rain were slapping down.
“Damn,” the Corporal said.
They were behind the garden wall, crouched down in the heavy rain. A sway-backed barn lay a hundred yards or so beyond.
“Sounded small,” Dunn said. “Pistol, I figger. Small one.”
The Corporal nodded. He pulled his cape up around his neck against the rain. He called to the barn and told whoever was inside to come out.
There was no answer.
“Well, that’s where it come from,” Dunn said.
Ballard spat over the wall.
The Corporal had them fire a couple of volleys into the barn. He had them aim high. When they were done, he sent Eben far to the right and Dunn far to the left to watch each end of the barn. Ballard and The Button followed him in a run across the open ground and then against the weathered, splintered lumber of the side of the barn. They moved slowly around to where the big double doors swung loose in the wind.
The Corporal drew his Colt and checked to make sure the chambers were full. He knew they were but it gave him a reason to hesitate. He signaled Ballard and The Button to take positions on either side of the door and when they nodded they were set, he took a deep breath and rushed inside.
He lay for a moment, face to the ground in the dry hay and dusty earth of the first stall and let his breath grown even again. He was in no rush. He rolled onto his back and lay there, taking in the heavy smell of long gone horses and cows, of mildewing leather and rotting wood. He pulled stalks of hay from where they stuck to his wet face. After a bit, he unhooked his sodden coat and cape and laid them quietly beside him. He wiped the rain off his face and crawled to the slatted side of the stall, but from there he could see only as far as the next stall.
Slowly, he got to his feet and looked over the top of the stall. The barn was two great spaces of dark on either side separated by a swath of gray light coming through the open doors. The dark spaces were peppered with small pinpoints and slashes of light through knotholes and gaps between the old warped planks. There was nothing to see, so he listened and heard the rain rattling on the roof and walls, making dull plops in patches of mud beneath holes in the sagging roof.
He cocked his pistol and held it out in front of him as he slipped into the next stall, and then into the next and the next until he was at the other end of the barn and it was there where he finally heard something besides the rain.
In the stall across the way he heard the rustle of hay; not the way a wind would move it, but the soft shuffle it would make underfoot. The Corporal stared into the darkness on the other side of the barn and held the stare. He was still in no rush. He stayed where he was and studied the opposite stall and after some time saw the backlit chinks in the planking across from him black out then appear again.
The Corporal lowered his pistol and walked slowly across to the other stall. He struck a match against one of the beams supporting the loft and held the small flame high. On the other side of a rusting harrow, in the far corner of the stall, stood a girl. She was thirteen or so, dressed in a dirty and torn petticoat. Her hair was long and dark and tangled like the vines in an overgrown garden. She held a small ivory-handled revolver in her right hand and she pointed it at the Corporal.
The Corporal dropped his match and struck a fresh one as he stepped closer. “It’s awright,” he said.
She did not lower the pistol.
“It’s awright,” he said, again. He lowered the hammer on his
Colt. “See?” he said. The second match flickered out and he struck a third, taking another step.
Her pistol rose and leveled at his face.
He froze. “Fine.” He took a few steps back and started to turn away.
The match burned his fingers and he dropped it. He did not remember hearing the noise but the stall flashed briefly with light and he knew she had pulled the trigger.
The ball found his shoulder and spun him round.
His own pistol came up in reflex, thumbing the hammer back, then the shots went out first one, then another.
He let himself drop onto the hay.
Ballard was there first, helping him sit up. “You awright?”
The Corporal pointed him toward the dark end of the stall.
“Damn, Cor,” Ballard said, standing over the girl. “That was some shot.”
The rain had stopped but the skies remained dark.
Ballard and Dunn helped the Corporal into his saddle, careful of his left arm held against his chest in a sling.
“You sure you’re awright to ride?” Ballard asked.
The Corporal nodded tightly, taking up the reins with his free hand. His cape and coat had not yet dried and he felt clammy and uncomfortable in them, more so in the dampness following the chill rain. His stomach grumbled.
They were all mounted now, pulled up around him, waiting. Eban coughed.
The Corporal waited until Eban was done. “Let’s go,” he said and turned his mount back toward the cut that would return them to the main road. “We can make the next one ‘fore dark.”
He heard the distant rumble and told himself it was just thunder and it was just the storm rolling back in because he preferred the thought of coming rain to that of distant cannon.
Copyright © 2008 by Bill Mesce, Jr.
Bill Mesce, Jr. is a sometime author, screenwriter, and playwright. His latest works are the non-fiction work OVERKILL: THE RISE AND FALL OF THRILLER CINEMA and the novel, FOUR DAY SHOOT. He currently lives in New Jersey with his family.