On the Level, Across the Lines is a piece that I’ve been teasing you with this past few weeks on my Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter feeds. It’s a short story featuring Grampy Tuttle from Tuesday’s Gone, when he wasn’t quite a grandfather yet, as an officer during the Civil War. I wrote this as part of Camp NaNoWriMo in April 2015.
This story deals with Freemasonry, a topic that was an underlying theme in Tuesday’s Gone. He is being assigned a mission after a major battle has been fought. Not a mission of combat, but one of mercy that runs deep in the hearts and minds of Freemasons everywhere.
This story will be published in its entirety next year on Amazon, but for now here is a taste of it. This isn’t an official cover, just something I’ve been messing with.
Be advised that this piece does contain some mild period language pertaining to black Americans. This is intended to illustrate the feelings and emotions of the characters in question and not a passing of judgement by the author.
On the Level, Across the Lines
When he slept he could see it; scrub so thick that sunlight could scarcely break through, the air so humid that there was no morning chill except for in the dead of what some people called winter. The ground was soft and the air was filled with the sounds of small green parrots calling, anoles running around on the grounds, and the sound of his grandmother ringing the breakfast bell from up at the house. The negroes would follow him back there where they would get their fill, deducted from their pay naturally, and then go back to the groves or the family still where they helped to churn out product for money. When he shut his eyes, laying on the rickety cot that had become his bed he could see this.
The smell of campfire entered his tent, the invading sound of the flap drawn back and someone entering. “I put a board outside to knock on,” he grumbled.
“Beggin’ your pardon, sir,” Lieutenant Gentry replied. “The Colonel wants to see you.”
He sighed and opened his eyes, the morning sunlight beginning to creep over the landscape in the East. Lieutenant Gentry was looking in on him, hoping he would sit up soon and make his way down to the Colonel. He waved him away impatiently, Lieutenant Gentry coming back almost instantly asking, “Any breakfast, Captain Tuttle?”
Captain Tuttle sighed, rubbing his face with his hands to try and beat away the sleep that was trying to linger. There was nothing he wanted especially, other than sleep and to be left alone with his thoughts a few moments longer.
“Coffee please, Mr. Gentry,” Captain Tuttle replied. He sat up as his eager lieutenant sped off to the mess fire. His body was sore, and that from the previous day’s fighting. His ears still rung from the artillery barrage and he sensed that the temporary truce that had been called might end with the rising sun. He had slept in his pants, the suspenders twisted over his undershirt and digging into his skin. Straightening them, he stood up, bending in his tall stature under the peak of the tent and then picking his coat off the peg hook at the back of the tent. He pulled the coat on, despite the summer heat, and put his kepi on his head. His sword and holster were exactly where he had left them, beneath his cot and within quick reach if he needed them in the night. The belt he wrapped around his waist outside the coat and felt the weight of his sword and the Navy Colt at his side. He drew the revolver, checking the cylinder to be sure it was loaded, and then replaced it in the holster.
Stepping out from the tent he found a cluster of his men beginning their morning routine. Some were preparing breakfast, while others cleaned their weapons. Still others were busying themselves repairing their uniforms or changing their friend’s bandages. All of these things came to a halt when Captain Tuttle exited the tent.
“Area, atten-shun!” someone called. The became animated, many struggling to their feet while others lacked the ability or strength to. Those who could not sat at attention, offering an open palmed salute to their captain. The colors hung at an angle, the 2nd Florida Infantry beside the company signifier catching a gentle morning breeze. The final chorus of crickets now the only sound to be heard.
“As you were,” Captain Tuttle remarked disinterested. He saluted weakly and put his gaze to the ground, not feeling able to look his men in the eye after the previous day’s action. They had lost, withdrawing to a safe distance before the Yankee infantry overran them. There had been wounded left on the field; brothers, fathers, and sons. Captain Tuttle would not look his men in the eye after such a disgrace. They had voted him into his commission, and he had failed them. Still they looked up to him, saluting the man and the rank.
Lieutenant Gentry rushed up to him, the scalding cup of black coffee in his hands as he handed it to his superior. Captain Tuttle nodded to his subordinate, taking the cup in his hands and tasting it, the grounds still lingering at the top. He felt them in his mouth after the first sip, but the coffee was still good. He felt his eyes open more and he looked around the camp, the sunlight beginning to catch the gray of their uniforms and the red, white, and blue battle flags that hung about. Their rifles were pitched in triangular formations, ready to be grabbed if necessary, but it didn’t look like the men were itching for a fight the way they had been when they’d mustered back in Florida. They were tired now, and longed for home.
“You really should have breakfast, sir,” Lieutenant Gentry said following closely behind. “There’s a march planned and you need your strength…”
“Give my share to the man in line who doesn’t get any,” Captain Tuttle muttered. “He earned his meal.”
“Yessir, that’s very kind of you…” Lieutenant Gentry said. “But, sir, I must insist…”
“You got a hearing problem, mister?” Captain Tuttle growled back. Lieutenant Gentry paused in his stride, his hands fixed at his sides as he adjusted his waist belt and sword nervously.
“No, sir,” he said. “I’ll see it done.Colonel Perry is waiting for you in the officer’s mess.”
He side-stepped a pile of horse manure, a smell slightly more pleasant than the one coming from the latrine or the back of the field hospital. His boots were caked with mud, as well as something organic and human that he caught out of the corner of his eye. He knew it must have been a part of someone he’d led. A piece of brain matter perhaps, stuck there to remind him of his failure and the cost of human life. A drum cadence beat off in the distance as another unit began to assemble. It was a Southern cadence and the sound of it made his chest clench. He took another gulp of his coffee, some of it splashing back at him and mingling in the beard and mustache on his face. It dripped down onto his coat, beading on it and then absorbing into it.
“Damn,” me muttered. At home he might have tossed it into the brush, but out here on the field of battle coffee was a thing to cherish. His men often didn’t get any at all and he wouldn’t be one to throw aside perfectly good coffee for a sullied uniform.
There was a group of officers mingling on stumps around a fire pit at the officer’s mess. Their uniforms were slightly better kept than their men, but then again rank had it’s privileges. A negro cook was busy working the kettle in over the fire, and at Captain Tuttle’s approach he began to quickly shovel a bean and beef broth mixture into a place beside a hunk of bread. Captain Tuttle waved the gesture off and approached Colonel Perry, coming to attention and saluting him. The Colonel came to his feet, a cigar in his hand, and returned the salute. He put a hand on Captain Tuttle’s shoulder and led him away from the officer’s mess circle and toward a line of trees beside the colonel’s tent.
“I don’t want you beating yourself up over yesterday, Theodofolus,” he said as they turned away from the group of officers. “It couldn’t be helped, and your boys did their best. They always do.”
“Yessir,” Captain Tuttle said mechanically. “I just hate to think that those men won’t be buried in the soil of the state they died for.”
Colonel Ward nodded. He reached into his open coat and pulled out a fresh cigar and offered it to Captain Tuttle. He took it from the colonel and bit off the end of it, spitting the butt onto the ground at his feet and stuck it into his mouth, tasting the sweet tobacco in his mouth. That good Southern tobacco.
“About that,”Colonel Perry said. “I’m glad to hear you have that sentiment. In fact I’ve got a job for you…”
Captain Tuttle’s neck twitched, and he sighed inside. He moved the cigar to the opposite side of his mouth with his tongue and left it clenched there in his teeth like wood in a vise. He glanced atColonel Perry who was now offering a match, lit and protected by his own hand. Captain Tuttle brought the cigar down to the Colonel’s level and ignited the tip, seeing it flare up in a cloud of smoke like a line of rifles or cannon. He was sweating now in the summer heat, his coat becoming saturated with it. Still a cigar was a cigar and he was slightly pleased to imbibe of it.
“We had a Yankee rider this morning. Came across the lines under a flag of truce,”Colonel Perry explained. “It seems they have one of our officers, a captain from Georgia. They’d like to do a prisoner exchange, one of our officers for some of their men.” Captain Tuttle, nodded dragging on the cigar…
On the Level, Across the Lines Copyright © 2015 James Windale
Photo Credit and License:
License: <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/51344631@N06/8262399649″>150th Anniversary – The Battle of Fredericksburg</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>
James Windale is the author of Twenty-Five at the Lip and Tuesday’s Gone. Both titles are available on Amazon in paperback and on Kindle and all Kindle-enabled devices. Click the images to be redirected to the Amazon sites!