This story is by M. Withrow Hirth and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Thump! Something jars Charles Bell awake. His heart sinks as he realizes the comforting vision of his wife, Jane, must have been a dream. It has been over eight months since he has laid eyes on her, and he misses her dearly. The vision of her smiling down at him, her pretty face framed with ringlets of chestnut hair, makes his heart flutter. A dry goods salesman by trade, he kissed her goodbye in mid-October before a delivery trip to the Colorado mountains. While he expected to return to their home in Leavenworth, Kansas within a month; Mother Nature had other plans. A snowstorm barreled in soon after his arrival, leaving him trapped in a mining town through the winter. By the time he made his way out of the mountains, a grizzled Charles, or C.B., as the resident miners had dubbed him, learned that the war was raging. A letter from Jane revealed that both her brothers and his had answered the call for volunteers to aid the Union Army, and he felt a duty to join them. He, along with a ragtag group of men from the mining camp, enlisted with the Colorado 2d regiment in the spring of 1863. It is now July.
Flat on his back, he feels a sense of movement below him, yet he is gripped in place. Able to muster only a slight lift of his heavy eyelids; he gradually focuses his vision enough to see passing treetops overhead against a clear afternoon sky. Muffled sounds of creaking wood and the clomp of hooves amid a constant ringing in his ears bring about the realization that he is in an open wagon moving over a rough road, likely pulled by a mule team.
“How did I get here?” he wonders.
Shadowy forms take shape in his peripheral vision. Despite feeling the weight of warm bodies pressing against him on all sides, they are all quiet and still. He tries lifting his arms but is pinned. He tries to turn his head, hoping to see a familiar face, but alarm courses through him when a searing pain shoots through his head like a raging fire.
The stifling heat and overpowering stench of blood, sweat and excrement mingled with the sulfurous vestiges of gunpowder, trigger a wave of nausea. Sweat trickles down Charles’s forehead, stinging his eyes as it continues its course down his ruddy face and neck; its saltiness registering in his brain as it passes over his parched lips. He is thirsty. The instinct to move his tongue to wet his lips brings about the terrible realization that his tongue will not move. Alarm sets in as he realizes he cannot swallow.
“Hey!” he tries to call out. Though his inner voice shrieks, he emits no sound.
To combat his growing sense of panic, he resolves to take a deep breath; however, no breath fills his lungs. His body is somehow taking in enough oxygen to remain alert, but he cannot control his breathing.
Though hampered by his diminished hearing and barely able to open his eyes, he is aware of all his senses. The inability to move or speak is frightening.
“This must be a terrible dream,” he thinks. He feels exhausted.
His mind, when sifting through his most current memories, reveals images of his company of soldiers marching through the night amid a large group of men, horses, and mule-drawn wagons and crossing the inky black waters of the Arkansas river. Pelted by heavy, wind-driven rain, they head south on the Texas Road intending to head off an army of rebel soldiers planning to raid the supply depot at Honey Springs, some twenty miles south of Fort Gibson. At dawn they rest, filling their canteens from fresh puddles left by the rain. By mid-morning, as the July heat rises with the sun, Charles recalls marching in one of two columns of Union soldiers down the muddy Texas Road.
Boom! A thunderclap of gunfire erupts, followed by wisps of smoke snaking out from behind the line of trees ahead. The orderly march, along with Charles’s memory, grows fragmented and increasingly chaotic. He recalls running toward a small hill to take cover along with several other men from his regiment, including Walter Tillotson and Ezra Hoag, two burly and amiable men he had befriended at the mining camp. Pockets of smoke from the explosive exchanges of gunfire rise amid shouts all around them as they crawl up the hill. Charles glimpses a burst of shredded grass and soil raining down from the hilltop as a staggering blow hits his jaw.
“C.B.!” Walter shouts.
The last thing he recalls with clarity is seeing Walter with a look of anguish in his eyes. Then darkness falls as the ringing in his ears dampens the sounds of shouting and gunfire.
The distant sound of a man yelling “Whoa!” awakens Charles with a jolt. The wagon pulls to a stop, mercifully into the shade of a large oak tree, offering some relief from the sweltering heat, though he is still bathed in sweat.
As shadows pass back and forth around him, Charles’s spirits rise briefly, but a sense of alarm creeps in as no one stops at the wagon. The shadows grow longer as the sun moves toward the horizon, and he strains to identify any sounds or sights within his limited range.
Clink! He recognizes the sound of metal striking against a hard surface. As he listens intently, he notices a slightly rhythmic sound now with the occasional clink of metal strikes. In his mind’s eye, the sound brings about visions of spades sinking into the earth.
A loud, creaking noise draws Charles’s attention as the gate at the foot of the wagon drops. The shapes of two men come into his view and reach toward him as he feels the warm body next to his pull away. His barely open eyes follow the body as the two men lift it from the bed of the wagon. The dull gray pallor of the man’s skin and the caked blood over the right eye tell Charles the man is clearly dead.
“They’re burying the dead. Oh, Dear God, no!”
Panic sets in as Charles frantically wills his body to move, but to no avail. The sound of the spades grows louder, and soon the two men return. A tear drops from the corner of Charles’s eye, trickling down his temple as a second body pulls away.
As he summons every bit of energy in his body, Charles focuses on moving his right hand. Finally, he feels his index finger loosen with a twitch as the sounds of the digging spades intensify.
“Yes! If I just had more time.”
Terror seizes him as he feels hands clasp around his ankles and his body slides down the bed of the wagon.
“No! I’m alive!”
He screams soundlessly in panic as one man leans over him. As he struggles to crack one eye, he meets the sorrowful gaze of Ezra Hoag.
“Ezra! You see me; I know you see me!” The words shriek through Charles’s brain, but still no sound emerges.
“Rest easy, C.B.,” Ezra says, gently passing his hand over Charles’s eyes to close them.
The horror sets in as he feels his body being lifted and carried from the wagon. A short distance away his body is lowered, and he feels his back fall against the cool earth. Willing a last surge of strength, he peers up to see a spray of dark soil cascading down on him as it flies from a spade. Bits of dirt sting his eyes, clinging to the sweat on his skin.
The light grows dim as once again he sees Jane looking down at him. As he takes a last breath, he feels a surge of determination and tries to reach for her. She reaches out in turn to take his hand.
Through his muffled hearing, he catches fragments of a prayer for the dead as the dirt continues to tumble down his body.
“….. and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.”
The sensation arises of a cool, damp cloth pressing against his brow. As a glimmer of daylight enters his weary, half-closed eyes, Charles sees a quilt over his body rather than dirt.
A feeling of relief washes over him as he looks up to see Jane, her chestnut hair framing her face and a gentle smile on her lips.
“It’s alright,” she says. “Walter and Ezra brought you home.”
As he shifts his gaze, he takes in the familiar surroundings of the bedroom of his home in Leavenworth. Finally, his gaze lands on his two bearded and bedraggled friends standing at the foot of his bed.
“Thank God I saw your hand move,” Ezra says, shaking his head.