America Made Me: Book 1 – Duty and Dishonor
Here’s an excerpt from Shaun Ivory’s recent novel, AMERICA MADE ME: Book 1 – Duty and Dishonor (pages 65-71), published in 2015. Book 2 – Killing Kiowas is also in print and ebook format. Book 3 – Bad Company due 2016.
“Let’s go git ‘em, lads!”
The New Yorkers’ colonel took the initiative, ordering his color-bearer to follow him as he rushed his men across the bridge. The Pennsylvanians followed and together they all squeezed themselves somehow to arrive at the far bank with both standards billowing. Some fierce fighting took place but it was clear – even through the smoke – that the bridge and west bank was taken. We were all leaping up and down of course and if some of our over-excited rookies loosed off a few rounds then nobody seemed to notice. Whatever, it put a spark to our commanders, for we were given the order to double-quick toward the bridge.
Some fifty yards short we were told to cross the creek there. My, that water was welcome on certain parts of our anatomy for those first few seconds, then it became uncomfortable and difficult, wading waist high (chest for poor Daniel). Each man had to keep his cartridges dry in the process. A few shots rang out and one man cried out and sank slowly, before surfacing and then rolling over on his face. That spurred us all on, meantime scanning the far bank for more sharpshooters. Nothing more happened and we formed up, dripping and panting, on the west bank. Hundreds were streaming across the bridge and turning right up the road to Sharpsburg. We followed but moved off the road to the left, up the hillside and immediately came under fire; a rearguard left to slow us down from getting too close to the rebel battery further up.
We spread out and nosedived into the grass, James to the right and Daniel the other side, all others ranged both sides, a narrow front. We were getting mixed up somehow with the New Yorkers and 51st Penn. I checked my rifle and cautiously peeped through the grass, raising my head a mite to see what was what. A lead bee buzzed over my head and I swore something, rolled twice in James’ direction.
“Hey, don’t draw him on me!”
“Ass down, James, when I run thataway you pop up and let one off!”
“Just do it!” Where did I get the sand for that? Don’t know, the excitement of it all, I guess.
With that I jumped up and yelled something, only barely noticing James performing as bidden, the explosive crack of his rifle making me almost leap forward to a nearby clump of myrtle, where I dove into the ground, and cursed myself for a fool. But it set off young Daniel, ever the hothead. He didn’t even require a diversion, jumping to his feet and screaming, “Here I come, you yellow-bellies!” Bang!
Oh my, it was like a forest fire, with people popping up and running forward, our startled corporal belatedly catching the mood and standing to urge the rest of them forward. It worked, heaven help us, it worked. Perhaps it had been all that waiting, seeing our comrades shot down like at some turkey shoot and powerless to help or even intervene. Whatever, we saw the gray jackets appear ahead of us up the slope, some looking back but most legging it, their asses about the only worthwhile target at that angle. One went down; another threw up his arms and fell back. A lieutenant stopped and waved his sword at his retreating – fleeing – men, entreating them to stand and fight. He was about seventy yards up the slope, his bright yellow sash an attractive target, when one of our company drew a bead on him and squeezed the trigger. His raised right arm seemed to stiffen for an instant and then he slowly crumpled, with a kind of twisting motion.
That accelerated some of the rebels’ flight but actually paused a few at the sight of what was probably one of their friends as well as a superior go down that way. I was busy reloading, trying to ignore the ringing in my ears and wiping the black powder soot from my eyes, just enough to maintain vision and aware of James’ bulk pounding past me, yelling something unreligious. Finished loading I stood up to follow; a gray suited figure suddenly sat up as though waking from a dream, not twenty yards in front, his old musket braced at the hip and aiming, it seemed, right at my face. Instinctively I moved to the right, out of his line, before realizing I was subconsciously getting behind James.
Bang! I distinctly heard the ball hit James and he staggered for second, rallied and then stumbled a few steps before going to his knees, turning and flopping onto his back, his Springfield slipping from his big hand.
“James!” It didn’t sound like me; it seemed to echo out of a large cave.
Without a thought I shot the rebel and he fell back with large hole just under his hairline, the top of his head spraying up and outward. I threw the gun away and went to James; he was staring at the sky, coughing weakly and some blood seeped out, to trickle down his chin. I skidded on my knees and put one hand at back of his head, eased him up until he was resting on my thigh.
“James, oh, James.”
His blue eyes rolled up to focus and he smiled. “Hey, I didn’t know you cared, Con, I must do this more often.”
I hugged him to me and he sighed. Daniel came pounding back, shouting and crying at the same time, putting out his hand to the spreading stain on the other’s shirt but not touching.
“Godammit, James, couldn’t you find a fat-assed horse to get behind, ‘stead of waking up a half-dead reb?” He was crying now all right and looking at me as if I was this year’s miracle worker. The wound was too near the heart to leave much doubt and as if to underline it he coughed again, only this time a terrible sucking sound followed, a gurgle. It didn’t sound good, not good at all.
“There… there’s never one o’ those around when you need ‘em (cough, cough), is there?” Something in his face seemed to be withdrawing from us; the blue eyes losing their color somehow. His lips were moving but no sound. I shook him gently and he rallied, his eyes rolling up.
“I – I don’t think I’m gonna make it, Con. It don’t feel so bad somehow but I can’t see you any more…”
“James!” Daniel was distraught, pulling at grass tufts. James turned his head slowly. “Now don’t you go eatin’ any watermelons, hear?” He tried to laugh, coughed up more blood, this time thick and dark… and died. His head fell back, eyes still open and he became very heavy.
“James.” Daniel’s cry was one of pure pain and he pushed at my shoulders, a silent plea to do something. I shook my head. “He’s gone, Daniel.” I gently let him fall back on the grass.
Sergeant O’Brien flung himself down beside us, took in the situation in an instant. “Sorry, lads, he’s gone, he’ll be looked after. You two are still in a war, please get up that hill and kill some Confederates… AND DO IT NOW!”
Daniel jumped to his feet; at last someone he could blame. He reached down for his rifle and came up with it fully intending to lay it all on O’Brien. The sergeant hit him hard but not too hard, flat-handed in the chest, enough to send him staggering backward a few steps.
“Don’t even think on it, son, you won’t be the first mutineer I’ve had to shoot! Now, git… up that hill, that’s an order.”
Daniel looked at him, then me, then down at James. That did it.
“Those rebel bastards! I’ll kill every one of them!” Snatching his rifle he turned and ran like an antelope. I looked at the sarge, who shook his head wearily.
“I know, I know, O’Farrell, you’re not a soldier till you’ve lost a comrade in arms. It somehow puts it all in the right frame. I’ve lost more’n I can count. There will come a time you’ll be glad it wasn’t you, believe me. Now, go and calm that young hothead down before he runs onto a rebel bayonet. I’ll see to your friend. Go on.”
I was glad to turn away. Men were still grunting up the slope past me, avoiding close contact to make a smaller target. It didn’t seem to help – some were being hit and going down, a corporal screaming, “Leave him! He’ll be seen to, keep on!” The sound of balls and bullets coming at you were not the same, for some reason unknown to me, a-humming and a-buzzing. I couldn’t see Daniel, what with the curve of the slope ahead, so I set off. There were no familiar faces around me; it was all a bit chaotic. Two batteries up on the ridge now began to target us, sending a pile of stuff down among us, grape and canister cutting men down all around me. I hadn’t noticed, these last few minutes; the noise bore in on me once more and I was back in the real hell of Antietam Creek.
I couldn’t find him; dodging – imagining I was dodging – the lead and iron coming our way was hard enough without distinguishing one small figure in the dozens of blue jackets all around me, some lying on the grass clutching themselves, others hunched over with their faces buried in the grass. Men yelling obscenities while jumping over these obstacles; one stabbing at a gray-clothed figure already still. A large irregular-shaped piece of iron came skittering and bouncing crazily across the slope, suddenly rearing up as one end of it struck something hard. It took off again, to bury itself in a blue-jacketed corpse, flinging it in the air like a doll, limbs flailing the air for a few seconds and actually catching a bullet before striking the ground once more. The iron, its energy spent, lay sizzling in the grass.
I think I was praying but without much confidence; who could hear all these prayers up there and sort them out? Wouldn’t the rebels be dying and praying too? Did God choose odd and even days to portion out compassion? There had to be some balance to it all. I somehow reached near the summit and the action had slowed down, thinned out.
“Hey! You Fifty-First?” A whiskered blue-jacket was ten yards away, black-faced as I must have been, older than me by mebbe a decade.
“Hundredth,” I replied, finding it was a croak, with my throat so dry. The other waved and moved on as I reached for my canteen and took a long gulp. Automatically I reloaded, kneeling down and scanning the terrain. There was a stand of young trees to the right and the artillery fire seemed to be coming from over there. We were still to the left of the road and the Otto farm should be somewhere ahead, so we had been told on the way across the creek. Seemed a likely direction for the rebels – and thus Daniel – to have taken. I fixed my bayonet and ran at a crouch towards them.
I entered the wood carefully and the outside sounds were almost immediately lessened. But then some random rounds whipped into and through the branches and leaves, their noise on a different level to the diminished racket outside, making them a more tangible threat, even frightening, representing as they did a possible contact with my mortal flesh, clipping bark from tree trunks and snapping branches all around in a peculiarly vicious sort of way. Twigs and shredded leaves pattered down at almost every step but with each step the crackle and pop from outside grew fainter. It was far denser inside than I had imagined and I started to lose my sense of direction. But by keeping the sounds at my back I figured I would come out where I wanted to be. The rifle and bayonet were becoming heavy and the heat even in the dappled shade considerable. The undergrowth of small saplings, pokeweed and late-flowering chaffseed hampered my progress.
Panting and flicking sweat from my eyes I fancied a movement over to my left and stopped, dropping to my knees, very still, as our drill sergeant had taught us in our only one such lesson. I remembered too that the human eye and brain searches for movement; if you wanted to avoid detection then don’t give the oppositions’ main senses – sight and sound – anything to work on. I eased my body to a prone position, sliding toward the nearest chokecherry tree, where I slowly drew myself upright behind the bole, my left eye squinting in the direction of the imagined movement. It was pretty silly, being so quiet, what with all the splintering and zipping into torn trees around me, the gentle blizzard of wounded leaves falling all around me. But it seemed the right thing to do and filled my head with something other than fear. For the first time since volunteering I suddenly realized I was all alone, with nobody near me to ask or wait for an order to do something – salute, pick it up, put it down, move it! I suddenly noticed too the fruit on the chokecherry and was instantly transported back to what seemed now much younger days when Mam would make a pie or some jelly from the chokecherry, its warm inviting smell making my mouth water. Much younger days… why, it was only a few weeks ago!
I swore at myself, feeling better. I moved forward again, at a more measured lope, rifle horizontal to the ground, its weight aiding me now with its pendulum swing – there! A snatch of gray in the gloom, twenty yards to the left. I dove into the nearest elderberry bush and just lay there, shit scared and clutching my gun barrel.
I could hear something moving through the undergrowth, a sound at odds with the clipping and snipping of bullets above me. Peering through the foliage I saw him – a reb! Oh, Jesus, a live enemy soldier and he’s coming at me! I checked my weapon, fixed a cap on the nipple, eased the hammer back ever so slowly. CLICK! I froze, the sound was unmistakable. Whoever it was recognized it, for he rose up and charged toward me.
“Yi-i-ah!” He was like some gray phantom, barging out of the dappled shade, mouth agape, knees raised high, his cap flying backward. BANG! The ball whizzed past my left ear, scaring me so much I discharged my own weapon prematurely, missing him also. His run faltered as he realized he’d missed and had no bayonet fixed. The long fair hair and blue eyes made him look wild but somehow less dangerous. He stopped then and fumbled at his jacket pocket.
Emboldened by his hesitation I straightened up and lunged at him, even though he was still some ten yards away. His eyes widened and he made a half-hearted attempt to parry my thrust but was only partly successful. The impetus of my charge carried me on and he tried to turn and run. His heel caught a root and he staggered backward, still facing me, sprawling on his butt, arms flung wide and mouth open, trying to say something. No sound came out.
I couldn’t see clearly but my instinct for survival and what little training I’d had took over; I thrust forward and down, feeling the point go in and he screamed then, clutching at the slim blade, his body trying to arch up. I shut me eyes; I felt I was crying, his face and James’ seeming to merge, recalled saying something, an apology. “I’m Conor O’Farrell… sorry… sorry!” and then yanking the bayonet out as he clasped his bloodied hands to his stomach and rolled over, burying his face in the chaffseed. He twitched, his feet scuffling. His vulnerability in such a position shamed me and I turned away and left him there whimpering. I staggered on for I don’t know how many yards and minutes, finally crashing into a tree and throwing up.
The smell of my own sour breakfast amid the sweet foliage brought me round to where I was. I looked back but could see nothing, no movement, not a sound. Holy Mother of God, I’ve killed a man for sure now, seen his face, felt it go into his flesh. Forgive me, whoever you are, I had no choice, you or me, please understand. How could he understand? He was dead – or worse, dying, a stomach wound the most painful and lingering way to die.
I broke out of the confines of the wood with my head still reeling, only to be brought up short by what confronted me. A twelve pounder Parrott rifled cannon, manned by four rebels had their backs to me, not fifty yards away. Their muskets were stacked nearby. They were intent on their target, what looked like the Otto farm, almost a half mile away and downward from us. Four wagon horses were tied to a nearby tree, away from the noise and recoil effects but they were snorting and twitching fit to bust anyway. They must have just arrived, for I had not heard them earlier and the beasts were still sweating. There was a fierce little battle going on down there by the farm, with the rebels sited behind a stone wall and our lads trying to winkle them out, seemingly. The powder puffs, crackling and battle cries drifted faintly up. When that battery got its range accurately it would be goodbye the Hundredth or whoever they were shooting at. The rebels would melt away at the first ranging shot, leaving the field of fire clear to demolish our advance. The gun team was busy and they wouldn’t think to look behind them until they had fired their first round and watched its impact. I reckoned I had no more’n half a minute to cross that stretch and attack them.
Attack them! Me? A whole gun battery?! The horses! That could do it – drive the horses into them, dispersing and mebbe even trampling some while I dealt with at least two of them before they could turn on me. I must have been mad, still not thinking straight from my recent bayonet duel, the sick taste in my mouth and the loss of James giving me something tangible about the Confederate Army to hate. They were going to annihilate my comrades, maybe even Daniel among them. I had to try at least.
Slipping back into the foliage I quickly reloaded, then re-emerged to quietly untie two horses. Talking gently and quietly I drew two of them by their bridles, one either side, covering the ground as softly as I could, all the time whispering to the animals the way Paw would when readying them for shoeing or even giving medicine. I figured I could make twenty yards before someone twigged. They were getting ready to fire. I slipped behind the horses then slapped them both hard, hoping they would head toward and not away from the group too soon.
“Hey-yip!” I yelled. “Go on!” The pair snorted and leapt forward as I ran along to the left of them as a measure of one direction I didn’t want them to take. The gun fired, leaping back on its wheels, making the horses snort and whinny in fear. I had a glimpse of the startled artillerymen as they turned around from watching the shell’s flight and being confronted by a pair of charging, very powerful horses. The pair broke away but not before scattering the quartet in both directions, two either side. One, seeing me coming cried out something. I stopped, steadied and quickly shot the largest of the crew – beefy and bearded – seeing his bare chest through the opened jacket flower into redness. The one nearest him was making for the stacked weapons. Holding my gun barrel in my left hand and gripping the stock I hurled it at him like an African spear. The bayonet entered his ribcage just under his right arm and he pitched sideways, screaming.
By now the other two had rallied and I knew I was for it; we all made for the stacked weapons. I could see two of them were old muskets and two Springfields. We converged very rapidly; they were both young but were unfit, undernourished. But I could see I was losing the race, changed angle and shoulder-charged the nearest. He flew off to the left and crashed into the gun carriage, the sound of his skull connecting with the metal wheel rim quite loud. The last man reached the stack a second before me, scrabbling for a rifle and in consequence scattering the pile. From recent habit I was instinctively flipping out a percussion cap as I grabbed the remaining rifle. I went into a crouch position, rolling over and desperately pressing the cap on the nipple as I came out of the roll – to see the other bringing his weapon up. Toppling backward on the ground I pointed and fired as he did, the smoke and thunder of both rifles as one. I felt a kick like a mule in my stomach then my head exploded and it all went dark.