Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Bill Lapham

Appomattox Exodus

Jim Noah and James Dix were tending their generals’ horses outside Wilmer McLean’s red brick colonial in the village of Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Jim looked neat in his best blue uniform, brass shined, leather polished, clean shave. James was a skinny man with long, scraggly blond hair and bright eyes. He was dressed in his best grey uniform, the one with patches in places. He wore dusty boots with holes in the soles and he was chewing tobacco. He spat some on the ground in Jim’s general direction, testing him. But Jim took no offense, he’d seen enough fighting.
“What’s his name?” Jim inquired of the gray horse James was grooming.
“This ‘ere is Traveller,” James said.
“This is Cincinnati.”
“Looks fast,” James said, not looking at the horse, but tending to his own chores.
“Is,” Jim said.
Jim tried to take advantage of the broken ice.
“My name’s Jim.”
“James.”
“I go by Jim.”
“I go by James,” he said, squinting one eye against the afternoon glare to see if the other kid got it. He did.
“Huh,” Jim grunted. “You figure the war’s over, James?”
James leant over and spat on a nearby rock, away from Jim this time.
“If Gen’l Lee says it is, it is,” he said.
“What if he says it ain’t?”
“Then I’ll shoot you.”
“Hell you say,” Jim said with a chuckle. “What if he says go home?”
“I’ll do whatever the Gen’l says to do.”
They worked on their horses as they waited for the generals to emerge from the house; each minute seemed to take an hour’s time. Jim wondered how such a big decision could be left to two mere mortal men. Maybe they were immortal, he thought. They were still alive, weren’t they?
“Where’s home?”
“Russell County, Alabama,” James said in his best southern drawl.
“What’d’ya do before the war?”
“You got a lotta questions, don’t you, Yank?”
“Jus’ curious, I guess.”
“I went to school, like you.”
They didn’t look very old, twenty, maybe twenty-one, Jim figured.
“How ‘bout y’all?”
“Small town in southern Indiana—on the river.”
“What river?”
“The Ohio.”
“What’s the name of the town?”
“Rising Sun.”
“Huh,” James grunted. “Sounds like an Injun name.”
“River runs north south there. Town’s on the west bank. Sun comes up over the river.”
“Sounds nice.”
“Is.”
The horses were still saddled because no one knew how long the generals would take. They ate from feed bags as the orderlies tended their duties.
Presently, they heard a loud southern voice.
“Orderly!”
“Oh shit, that’s Gen’l Lee.” James quickly removed the feed bag from Traveller’s nose and hustled the horse around front of the house.
“I’m headed back to camp, James.”
“Yes sir,” James replied. “Gen’l, sir?”
General Lee looked down from his mount, blinking back tears.
“Gen’l, is the war over?” James asked.
“It is for us, son,” he said, looking across the rolling countryside. “It is for us.”
James wasn’t sure if he was sad or relieved. He had survived his father who was killed at Second Manassas, early on. He was only sixteen at the time. Seemed like a century had passed since then. He wasn’t sure where his mother was, or if she was still alive. He’d heard stories of Sherman’s campaign in the South. Wasn’t sure if Opelika even existed anymore.
*     *     *
James rode into Opelika, Alabama five weeks after Appomattox. He had the horse at a slow walk as he looked around the ruined town. He saw a few women and children, some old men, but nobody his own age. He stopped at a saloon, lashed his horse to weather-beaten hitching fence and stepped inside.
The floorboards creaked as he walked to the bar. His spurs rattled. His visage in the mirror looked thinner than he remembered the last time he looked in a mirror. He asked the old man tending the bar for a drink of whiskey. The bartender wiped out a shot glass, set it in front of James and poured him a drink.
“Not many men around here your age, son,” the old man said.
James took a sip and felt the warm liquid slide down his throat. The burn felt good. A glow ignited in his belly.
“You know a lady named Annabelle Dix?” James asked.
“I might. Who’s askin’?”
“She’s my mother. I ain’t seen her since the war started.”
“You Philip’s boy?”
“Yes sir.”
“You know where he’s at?”
“Kill’t. At Second Manassas.”
“Huh.”
The old man was washing glasses, shining them with his bar rag while he tried to correlate similar dates with disparate events. Maybe some things were related, he figured.
“I ain’t seen Annabelle since around that time, I guess.”
“Any idea where she got off to?” James asked, finishing his drink and placing the glass on the bar.
“No, I’m sorry.”
“Hmph.”
“You’d be James then?”
“That’s right.”
“I remember you boys running around town when you were youngsters, raising hell. Where you been?”
James had to think. Where hadn’t he been? The 15th Alabama had fought at Front Royal, Gaines Mill, Manassas, Sharpsburg, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Knoxville, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, and those were just the big ones. He couldn’t count the skirmishes in places with no names.
“I been wherever Gen’l Lee’s been.”
The old man gave a soft whistle.
“And you’re still alive?” the bartender said in a tone like he’d just entered a sacred tomb.
“Jus’ lucky, I guess. What happened here?” James asked.
“Yankees sacked the place last summer,” the old man replied, filling the boy’s glass again. “Most folks high-tailed it outta here ahead of ‘em.”
“But not you?”
“I’m old. I tend a bar. Shoot me,” he said. “They busted up the tracks for thirty miles east of town and burnt the warehouses.”
“Did many folks come back?”
“Some did. It’ll take some time, I reckon.”
James finished his drink and reached in his pocket for coinage.
“Drink’s on the house, James. Welcome home.”
“Think I’ll ride around some; see what I can see.”
“You do that. I’ll be here.”
James stepped back into the springtime sun. He tilted his head back and closed his eyes, it felt good to be alive, to breathe warm southern air. He mounted the horse he called Bama and continued down Main Street. He made his way out of town and headed southeast toward Salem. His mother’s house was about halfway between the two towns.
Outside Opelika he passed the warehouses that before the war stored cotton awaiting shipment east and north by rail. During the war, the warehouses stored war materiel: bullets, bombs and blankets, everything an army needs to conduct offensive operations far afield. Now their roofs were caved in, timbers burnt black and sticking up at odd angles inside distressed brick walls. The fire was out and the smoke was gone but the ruins remained and probably would for foreseeable future. Who would have the confidence to rebuild them?
It took him the rest of the afternoon to reach his house, what was left of it. Somebody had torched it. It had not been far from the tracks that connected Montgomery to Atlanta, so he figured it was probably Yankees that did it. Safe assumption anyway. Not that it mattered. The house was gone, but they didn’t destroy the barn. Seemed odd. The fields where they grew vegetables had gone to seed and was overgrown with four years worth of thistle and assorted other weeds.
He dismounted Bama but held on to the reins. He stood for a moment, listening. There was a soft breeze blowing in the pines that reminded him of his childhood. It was dead quiet but for the pines. The sun hid dipped below the tops of the trees but it had not set. He led his horse around to the barn, slid open the door and released a flock of doves that scared the dickens out of him and riled Bama a little bit. He patted the horse’s neck and they both calmed down. He stepped inside and waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness.
There were a few bales of hay laying around, farm implements in various stages of disintegration and rust. Dirt and dust and cobwebs. Tools lying under a blanket of dust. A familiar smell, too, the smell of something dead. Light leaked through the cracks between the boards. There were holes in the roof. He probably could have found a dry comfortable place to sleep but something didn’t feel right, a feeling of foreboding. Maybe it was the dead animal smell. At any rate, he was not comfortable inside the barn. They turned and went back outside. It didn’t look nor feel like rain was imminent, so he decided to spend the night where he had spent so many nights in the last four years, outside on the ground.
“C’mon, Bama. Let’s get us some’n to eat.”

© William Lapham 2011

Bill Lapham started writing a few years after he retired from the Navy. This is what came out last. You can find more of his stuff at Just a Pedestrian.

2 comments:

  1. Authenticity from the depth of your research make this difficult to accept as fiction. You capture the whole war, the plight of both soldiers and home, of defeat and emptiness of 'What, now.' Like chilled whiskey, it's warm while chilling, yet sobering. Outstanding.

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  2. Every bit of this is inspired writing, both funny and sad. Don't you love how the dialogue advances the story seamlessly? This man is a WRITER.
    I used to spend a lot of time in Opelika which is in Lee County -- at least it is now. Russell County is a short piece down State Hiway 51.

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