Editing deadlines are looming; I’ll soon be teaching classes in multiple locations; I’m hip-deep in two new novels, and it’s time to post new material in my blog. Of course, none of this gets me any closer to the end (let alone the middle or the top) of my bride’s To-Do list. <sigh> So, instead of creating something new, I’m offering one of my favorite stories. If it were a wee bit shorter, I’d cram it all into one post. But it’s not, so herewith, part one of two:
“If I have any beliefs about immortality, it is that certain dogs I have known will go to heaven, and very, very few persons.”
Jeremy grinned at Sergeant Cutter as he paced from one side of the wide gun emplacement to the other, completely ignoring the two great brass cannons which would have barred the way of a living man. Cutter, like the other six humans and the dog who shared the earthworks with him, was a ghost–a decidedly unhappy one.
“It wasn’t a fair test,” Cutter said. He stopped walking when he reached the top of the dirt embankment, turned, and walked back toward the other side.
“You called the time ‘n place,” Jeremy said for what must have been the millionth time.
“Yeah, but I didn’t make it rain.”
Jeremy patted the buttery-brown dog at his side. “Seems to me a little rain wouldn’t slow down the best squirrel dog that ever lived.” He rubbed the dog’s ears. “That’d be you, ‘Scotch. Don’t pay Bart Cutter no mind. He’s just jealous.”
“Damn it all, Jeremy, if–”
“Hey! Look who’s comin’, Sarge.”
Seven of the eight ghosts gave their complete attention to a young woman jogging toward them on the trail through the national battlefield park. With her long brown hair streaming out behind her, the slender runner remained unaware of her appreciative audience.
Jeremy whistled. “I wish gals wore stuff like that when I was alive.”
“There weren’t any gals like that when we were alive,” Cutter said.
“Leastways none that’d look at you, Sarge,” Gus O’Malley said. The oldest of the crew, the one-eyed veteran’s marksmanship had been a legend among the gunners of Mason’s Brigade.
The young woman paused to rest against a large brass historical marker between the path and the earthworks. After checking her watch, she stood, put her hands on her hips and walked in small circles until her breathing returned to normal. Seven pairs of ghostly eyes locked on her fingers as she adjusted her halter top, smoothed her running shorts, and started jogging again.
“She’s the only thing I’ll miss if we ever get outta here,” Cutter said. “She reminds me of my daughter.”
Jeremy laughed. “I don’t recall that skinny little ‘un of yours havin’ the same kind of artillery as that gal.”
Cutter swatted at Jeremy, but his insubstantial hand passed harmlessly through him.
“Y’all oughta put that energy into figurin’ how we’re gonna get outta here,” Gus said. He walked to the top of the embankment and leaned against the invisible wall confining them.
“We only need two things to happen,” Cutter said. He ticked the items off on his fingers. “First, somebody’ll have to bury our bodies–”
“Assumin’ they’re ever found,” Jeremy said.
“–with honors.” Cutter scowled. “Cowards can’t report for the Final Muster.”
Jeremy looked across the long-unused battlefield at a huge granite monument erected to honor the war dead. Two other ghosts roamed the area, unable to traverse the last few yards to the monument.
Jeremy nodded at the forlorn figures. “Their bodies are buried aren’t they?”
“Only so’s they wouldn’t stink up the place,” Gus said.
“Secondly,” Cutter added, “we need someone to mourn us.”
“That’s three things, ain’t it?” Gus asked.
Cutter ignored him and looked at Jeremy. “Tell yer dog to bite him.”
“Wouldn’t do any good,” Jeremy said. “Her teeth ain’t any better’n ours.”
Fresh from a shower, and invigorated by her daily run in the battlefield park, Nan Hastings examined her mail. The only item of interest was a small package from a law firm in town. Setting aside the usual collection of bills and circulars, she tore open the padded brown envelope. A typed note accompanied a plastic bag containing a newspaper clipping, a faded daguerreotype, and an unfinished letter written in pale brown ink on dried and yellowed paper. Nan read the typed note first:
Dear Miss Hastings,
The enclosed items belonged to our client, your late grandmother, Julia Cutter Hastings, and should have been sent to you long ago. Unfortunately, they were misplaced when Mrs. Hastings’ estate was liquidated to pay for her care, and we’ve only recently discovered them.
We sincerely regret any inconvenience this may have caused. If we can be of any further service, kindly do not hesitate to call.
Elton Cantrell, Esq.
“Some service,” Nan muttered as she tossed the note aside and opened the plastic bag. She held the antique photo at an angle to catch the afternoon light. The image consisted of seven war-weary men and a dog gathered around a civil war cannon. They wore a shabby assortment of homespun and government-issue clothing, and while none but the youngest of them smiled for the camera, they all appeared quite proud of the medals each displayed. Even the dog wore one on a string around its neck.
A notation on the back of the photo said simply, “Gun Crew 3, Company A, Mason’s Brigade.”
Next, Nan examined the brittle newspaper clipping. It broke in half as she straightened the single fold. Successive layers of headlines in decreasing type sizes told as much of the story as the brief article itself:
Deserters Provide Yankee Victory
Missing Gun Crew Vilified
Former Heroes Scorned
Union troops under the command of Gen. Horatio Ernhardt breached the Confederate line at Little River Tuesday and dealt Gen. Jonah Mason his harshest defeat of the war. An aide to Gen. Mason explained that Confederate deserters weakened the line and left a flank exposed.
The missing men comprised a crew of Mason’s artillery company and had been decorated for bravery only a month earlier when troops under Mason and Ernhardt first clashed.
Last of all, Nan looked at the unfinished letter. Written on brittle paper in a woman’s graceful hand, one edge bore a dark brown stain Nan assumed was blood. She held the antique missive carefully, not wanting to damage it as she had the clipping.
Much of the writing was too faded to read clearly, though it was evident the author felt considerable affection for the man to whom it was addressed, Sergeant Bart Cutter.
Nan felt something tug at her heart as she read the name. Bart Cutter would have been her great-great-grandfather.
“Rain, or no rain,” Cutter said pointing at Butterscotch, “there’s no way in hell that mutt is a better squirrel dog than mine.”
“She was the day it counted,” Jeremy said. “She found a squirrel and treed it. Yours didn’t do squat.”
“Ya can’t count a hunt in the middle of a thunderstorm.”
“It didn’t bother ‘Scotch none.”
“Well, naturally,” Cutter said. “That dog of yours is deaf as a post. Couldn’t hear a fart in a prayer service.”
Jeremy laughed. “Maybe not, but she could sure smell it. She’d know who fired it and what they used for primer.”
Gus put his hands over his ears. “Can’t y’all give it a rest? You’ve been havin’ the same argument for a hun’erd years.”
“Longer than that,” Jeremy said, “and one day Cutter’s gonna see the light.”
Gus turned away. “Lord God-amighty, I hope so!”
Nan stood outside the glass and stone Visitor Center at the battlefield park. Though she’d lived in the town of Little River all her life, and jogged in the park almost every day, she’d never been inside the Visitor Center. She clutched the plastic bag containing the civil war artifacts. For some reason, she felt nervous, but she couldn’t fathom why.
Before she entered the building, an old man wearing the muted greens and browns of a park ranger nodded to her. “Can I help you, miss?”
Nan smiled into the wrinkled face of the ranger and held up the contents of the package from the attorney. “I was hoping to find a historian who’d look at these.” She glanced at the name tag on his uniform. “Do you know who I might talk to, Mr. Swan?”
The old ranger shook his head. “I don’t make guesses about what such things are worth. Makes me feel like I’m trading on someone’s personal business.”
“I don’t want anything like that,” Nan said. “I was hoping for more information. My great-great-grandmother wrote this letter, and–”
The Ranger squinted at the plastic bag. “That looks like a daguerreotype. May I take a closer look at it?”
Nan opened the bag and handed it to him.
“I’ll be damned,” he said looking at the back of it. “These are the boys who lost the battle of Little River!” He reluctantly handed the image back to her. “I don’t suppose I could talk you into donating that to our museum, could I? I guarantee it’d get a lot of exposure.”
“I’d prefer to hang onto it, at least for now,” Nan said. “But I’m sure I could have a copy made.”
Swan nodded. “Thank you. If you’d like, I can show you where those fellas should have been when the battle started.”
“Thank you,” Nan said. “I’d like that.”
As they walked through the woods separating the upper battlefield from the lower one on which the Visitor Center had been built, the ranger chatted amiably.
“Nobody knows what happened to ’em. My guess is they headed out west. That’s what I would have done. I doubt the locals would’ve had anything to do with ’em.”
Nan shook her head. “That doesn’t make sense. Those men were decorated for bravery. They wouldn’t run away before a battle. Look at the picture! Those aren’t cowards. There has to be another explanation. What if they were captured or killed?”
“There’d be a record of it,” the ranger said. “We know the names of everyone killed or wounded here.”
“Every last one?”
“This wasn’t a big battle, like Kennesaw Mountain or Gettysburg, but it was important to the people hereabouts. If somebody died here, we’d know their name.”
“But what if they didn’t die here? What if they were captured, or–”
“All I know is they weren’t here when the battle started. If they had been, there’s a good chance the Union troops would never have broken through.” He stopped at the gun emplacement Nan used to mark the half-way point in her daily run.
He tapped the historical marker. “It’s all right here.”
Nan felt a moment of embarrassment. “Y’know, as often as I’ve read this marker, I’ve never believed it. Go figure.”
Jeremy and the others huddled close to hear what the old man and the girl were saying.
“Hush, now,” Cutter said, glaring at his men.
“I don’t know why,” Nan said, “but I’ve been drawn to this spot for years, ever since I took up running.”
Jeremy smiled dreamily at the girl, his hand idly rubbing the sweet spot behind Butterscotch’s ears. The dog pulled her head away.
The old ranger chuckled. “Then you and the men who should’ve been here for the battle have something in common. They were fond of runnin’, too.”
“Where in hell was he durin’ the war?” Gus shouted. “I never ran from anything in my life.”
“Settle down,” Cutter said. “Only fools get angry at other fools.”
“We’re missing something,” Nan said. “I’m sure of it. How far did the battlefield extend?”
“Trust me on this,” the ranger said. “If Union troops managed to ambush a gun crew, there’d have been a note in the records somewhere. There wasn’t, or we’d have found it.”
“He don’t know crap,” Gus muttered, “couldn’t find his backside with a map and compass.”
“Maybe so,” Jeremy said, “but that’s not important. What matters is that gal, and as long as she keeps thinkin’ what she’s thinkin’, we’ve got a chance to get outta here.”
Nan spent the weekend in the library looking through microfiche of the Little River Courier. There was always a chance she’d stumble across something of interest about her family. Besides, Ranger Swan’s willingness to label her great-great-grandfather a deserter had struck a nerve and touched off what her father called the “Cutter stubborn streak.” He’d meant it in jest, but she was quite proud of it.
By late Sunday afternoon, she had worked her way past the turn of the century and was debating whether or not to go any farther when a headline grabbed her attention.
Local Boy Finds Skeletal Remains
Breathing as rapidly as if she’d just finished a run, Nan hurriedly scanned the article. The bones of an undetermined number of people had been found by a boy hunting squirrels. The police were investigating, but no charges had yet been filed.
Nan printed a copy of the article and called the police where she learned that few of their case files went back more than a decade. Evidence from older unsolved crimes was stored in a warehouse.
“Where is it?” she asked. “Maybe I can go there on my lunch hour tomorrow.”
The man on the phone sounded genuinely sympathetic. After giving her directions he wished her luck with the “Queen of the Archives.”
“Just go to the archives; you’ll find out quick enough.”
Nan called it a day and went home to change into her running clothes.
As usual, Jeremy was the first to spot her gliding down the path. “Here she comes!” he yelled.
Nan halted a few feet away, breathing hard. A trickle of sweat worked its way down her temple and dripped onto the royal blue of her halter top. Jeremy stared at the drop as it spread on her chest.
When she had regained her wind, she stepped inside the earthworks and walked over to one of the cannons. She patted it and smiled. “I don’t know exactly what happened, Gramps, but I think I’ve got a chance to find out.”
The seven ghosts stared at her in shocked silence as she stepped lightly up the embankment and ran off the way she’d come.
“What was that all about?” Gus asked.
Jeremy shrugged. “Durned if I know.”
The others nodded agreement, though an air of hope seemed to swell among them.
Bart Cutter stood a little taller. “Y’all hear that? She called me Gramps!”
Gus laughed out loud. “You think a pretty gal like that’d be related to an old buckethead like you?”
Jeremy looked at his companions. “Hell, boys, they ain’t one of us less’n a hun’erd years older’n she is.”
“But I’m the only one who ever lived around here,” Cutter said. “So she’s most likely kin to me.” He paused for a moment. “She even looks a bit like my Evie.”
Gus grinned. “I thought you said she looked like your daughter.”
“Well, yeah. Makes sense, don’t it?”
~ Stay tuned for the conclusion in next week’s post ~