The second story in the Going Home Collection
Old West - Civil War Era A/U
Follows Going Home
Rating: PG a little cussin, some battlefield descriptions
Disclaimer: The characters of The Magnificent Seven belong to John Watson and a number of corporate entities I hope they subscribe to the belief that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery - No money is being made, this is strictly for fun.
The young man could feel the conductors eyes on him as he joined the line of passengers climbing on board the coach car. It wasnt all that unusual for a person his age to travel alone; after all, he was fifteen years old. His green eyes quickly found an empty seat in the very last row, close to the exit door.
Before settling onto the hard bench seat, he took off his brightly colored, tailored jacket and flat-brim hat, running a hand through his auburn curls. He lay his items carefully on the seat next to where he was about to sit himself. He knew by the number of people boarding with him it wouldnt be crowded and he should have the seat to himself.
In a matter of minutes, the train had lumbered away from the station and began its journey west. The conductor came through the car and collected the tickets. As he reached his last passenger, he glanced at the ticket. Kansas City? he asked amiably.
The young man only nodded in reply.
Is that where youre from?
Ezra couldnt help but sigh; he knew the older man was just trying to be friendly. He shook his head, then answered quietly. Im joining my Mother there. After that he finished with a shrug.
The conductor reached out and patted his shoulder. Enjoy the trip. As he turned to go back to the front of the car, he didnt notice the way the boy bristled at his touch. Ezra finally relaxed only after the other man walked away.
The other reason he chose a seat in the back row was so he could lean his head against the back wall and rest. He was doing his best to put the last several days behind him, but still the memories were too fresh and often came unbidden.
As the train picked up speed for its long journey, it settled into a steady rhythmic rocking motion, lulling the young man into a half-asleep state. As he dozed, the memories came again.
+ + + + + + +
He was making good time to Columbus. He still had a day and a halfs ride to the train station, and three days to get there. He unconsciously patted his breast pocket, where his train ticket securely rested. His mother had finally sent for him to join her and her newest husband in Kansas City. After months of staying at an aunt and uncles house, watching his older cousins going off and joining the Confederate Army, he was more than ready to get away from this part of the country, where the war was all around him. Battles were being fought less than a days ride from where they lived.
Not that he was a coward, he thought to himself, but to go to war over slavery! He himself believed it was preposterous, that something a part of everyday life in the South could have started a war between the Northern states and their Southern neighbors that had now lasted an agonizing four years.
Of course, there were rumors that the South was losing, but no self-respecting son of the Confederacy would voice that opinion aloud. But with everyday necessities dwindling and becoming harder to find, and the loss of so many husbands, sons and fathers, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion.
But now Ezra was finally being granted a reprieve from the war, along with the rumors and realities. So lost in his thoughts, he hadnt been paying close attention to the change in scenery around him. He had gone from a sunlit open road to a dark and gloomy wooded path.
Suddenly, someone dropped from the trees above and knocked him off his horse. Taken by surprise, he barely had time to register the presence of the other man. He was only slightly bigger than Ezra and wearing a tattered and dirty Confederate uniform. Then he felt something hard connecting with the side of his head and he felt himself falling backwards just as he lost consciousness.
He didnt know how long he had been unconscious, but he finally awoke to the painful throbbing coming from the back of his head. He reached back slowly and found the goose egg, and when he drew his fingers back, they were covered in blood. His first instinct was to reach into his coat pocket for his handkerchief. That was when he realized his coat was gone.
He looked down at his clothing and began to panic. He was now dressed in a badly fitting Confederate uniform, filthy and barely held together. He looked around in confusion. Where am I? he thought And where is my horse? Then the memory returned, of being accosted by the owner of the uniform he was now wearing. He scrambled to his feet with every intention of pursuing the long-gone thief, but quickly fell back to his knees and went down face first to the ground, as his head seemed to explode just before the darkness swallowed him again.
When he awoke again, it was dark and he wasnt alone. He heard other voices and his nose detected the telltale odor of a fire nearby. He opened his eyes slowly and found himself laid out on a rough blanket. Moving his head as little as possible, he saw there were others in the same type of uniform sitting by the fire passing a blackened coffeepot around.
One of the soldiers across the fire noticed him stirring and nodded to another man whose back was turned to the still-dazed youth. The other man turned and made his way the few yards to Ezras side. The youth could see some kind of rank insignia on the mans sleeve as he took a squatting position beside him.
Welcome back, the other man said softly, offering the injured boy a drink of water from a canteen left close by.
As thirsty as he was, Ezra tried to take a normal swallow, but ended up sputtering and spitting most of it out. After another try, he was able to sip a little and keep it down. It felt wonderfully cool going down his parched throat.
Whats yer name, boy? the man next to him asked. What outfit are y with?
Ezra was still too hurt and too confused to think of any of the aliases he and his mother had used over the years, so all he could come up with was the truth. My name is Ezra Standish, he answered just as softly, and I am certainly not in the Army.
The other mans eyes narrowed and he looked over at his companions. He seemed to relax a little when he realized they hadnt heard or werent paying attention. Whats that supposed t mean? Yer wearin the uniform yer hurt and yer close enough to spit to our last skirmish. You some kind of deserter?
The way the question was asked with such contempt made Ezra consider his words carefully before he spoke. Certainly not, he replied, summoning up as much courage as he had strength for. And you are?
Sergeant Paul Tanner, was the drawled reply, First Texas Volunteers. That was all he offered as he waited for Ezras explanation.
Taking his cue from the Sergeant, Ezra spoke quietly. I was on my way to Columbus, to take the train to Kansas City, where my Mother is waiting for me to join her. I was assaulted and robbed by the true owner of this uniform. He is your deserter.
How old are ya, boy? asked Sergeant Tanner.
Fifteen, Ezra answered.
The Sergeants eyes softened and he shook his head. Well, son, I wouldnt be tellin that story to anyone else, he said, his eyes darting over to the others in the camp. Weve had boys younger n you enlist. These r hard times, Ezra Standish. Men are gettin themselves shot for desertion. Yer in the uniform now; youll just have t go along for the time bein, leastways til I can get y back to our main camp to see the Capn.
Ezras eyes widened in despair. A number of things ran through his mind and none of them were good. He was certainly going to miss his train, and he was being drafted into the Confederate Army or risk being shot as a deserter. He finally looked over at Sergeant Tanner and nodded that he understood.
Alright, son. Why dont ya lay back down n get some rest, the older man suggested. Well be pullin out a first light.
Ezra was too tired and too despondent to argue. He lay down and let sleep overtake his still-recovering body.
By noon the next day, the small group of men made their way to the large encampment. Sergeant Tanner took the Ezra to the infirmary first, where the Army doctor examined him and then guided him over to an empty cot with strict orders to rest for the remainder of the day.
The next morning, Ezra awoke feeling much better. Someone had left him a clean uniform, one in much better condition than the one he had been found in. Sometime around mid-morning, Sergeant Tanner came to take him to see the Captain in charge of the camp.
Standing at the front of the tent, Sergeant Tanner offered his hand to Ezra. The younger man took it and they shook firmly. Good luck, son.
Thank you for your kindness, sir, Ezra began. And without meaning to offend you Why are you helping a perfect stranger? Especially someone you initially believed to be a deserter?
Sergeant Tanners eyes softened again, like they had that first night. I had me a boy back home in Texas, just a little feller when I left him and his ma t do a little scoutin for the Army. They was payin good money and the drought back then took most of the stock we had. I was gone a couple o months. When I finally got home Sergeant Tanner closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he opened his eyes again, they had a faraway look. my wife was dead from a fever and the boy was gone. Fever took most o folks we knew; never could find anyone who knew where the boy was took. Spent months lookin for im. I guess seein you, I couldnt help thinkin about my boy and how Id want somebody to help him ifn they found him and he was hurt.
Ezra nodded his understanding. I thank you again, sir.
Sergeant Tanner gave the boy a smile, then nodded and walked away.
You can go in now, the Captains aide directed Ezra.
He walked past the aide holding the tent flap open. The light was dim inside the Officers tent, but Ezra could see the dark-haired man sitting at his desk. The Officer waved Ezra closer without looking up from the map he was studying. Ezra stepped up to the desk and stood waiting.
After what seemed like an eternity to the youth, the Captain finally looked up and fixed his gaze on Ezra, then stood without saying a word. He walked around Ezra, giving him a slow once-over, finally stopping in front of him. Without warning, he snatched Ezras right hand. Wherere you from, boy? he demanded, turning Ezras hand over in his. He held it firmly when the teen made a move to pull away.
Originally, New Orleans, Ezra answered.
Have you ever done an honest days work in your life? the Captain asked sharply.
I beg your pardon! Ezra replied, bristling. This time he pulled his hand back with enough force that the older man released it.
You some kind of rich school boy? Trying to impress some girl back home? Or maybe you thought itd be an adventure to join the Army, the Captain went on. Only now youve seen men fighting and dying and you know what wars really like. And now youre scared and you want to go home to your mama.
Ezra could feel his face flushing as he barely kept his temper in check. What gives you the right to question my honor, sir? he finally got out with forced calm.
Too many years of experience, son, the Captain replied softly. Sergeant Tanner tells me theres been some kind of mix up, that you dont belong in the Army. Id like to hear your side of the story.
The Captain sat quietly throughout Ezras explanation. When he finished, the older man moved back to the desk and sat down heavily in his chair. Well, thats an interestin tale, if its true. He held his hand up to forestall the protest he could see forming on Ezras lips. Lucky for you, I happen to trust Sergeant Tanners instincts, and he believes you. But til I know for sure, I have to assume youre in that uniform for a reason. Ill send inquires to your mother and the family members you say you were staying with. If they corroborate your story, and theres no record of an Ezra Standish enlisting in the Army, I will send you on your way, with my blessings. But if I find out youre lying, I will see to it you are assigned to the burial detail for the duration of the war. He watched as Ezras eyes widened in alarm. And dont even think about tryin to sneak out in the middle of the night, the Captain warned darkly. Id hate to have to send Sergeant Tanner to track you down and bring you back for a firing squad. Do I make myself clear?
Ezra swallowed hard and nodded, unable to find his voice.
For now, I think I know just where to put you, the Captain said. Corporal!
The aide entered the tent in response to the Officers call.
Take Private Standish here to the artillery unit, the Captain ordered, indicating Ezra with a short nod. Tell Sergeant Fisher he has a new spotter. Thatll be all dismissed. With that, he turned his back to the men and his attention returned to the map on his desk.
The Corporal led Ezra outside and across the camp toward the line of cannons and wagons. Ezra almost had to trot to keep up with the gangly soldier moving at a quick march. As he slowed down in front of what Ezra assumed was the Sergeants tent, the Corporal turned to Ezra with a smirk. Good luck, he said quietly.
Whats that supposed to mean? Ezra asked cautiously.
Youre the third new spotter Fishers had this year, the Corporal replied, knocking on the tent pole to announce their arrival.
Come in, came a voice from inside.
Why is that? Ezra asked, not sure if he wanted to know the answer or not.
Damn Yankee bastard snipers keep shooting em, the Corporal answered. Seems they think without the spotters the cannons caint shoot straight.
+ + + + + + +
For the next week Ezra didnt have much time to think about anything but cannons and powder, distance and fuse length, angles and wind direction. The kindly Sergeant took Ezra everywhere he went, teaching him everything he could, appreciating Ezras quick mind and willingness to learn.
Every day, Ezra found the time to stop by the Captains tent to inquire if he had received any news from his mother or his erstwhile family. But as the days passed and still no word, Ezra began to despair of ever getting out the situation he found himself thrown into. The Captain gently reminded Ezra that considering the haphazard state of the mail service and other means of communication, he had not really believed word would have reached them yet.
Then came the announcement they were all waiting for, the battle would be tomorrow. The Yankee army had marched right up to their current position, and the orders were to hold their ground. The camp buzzed with activity well into the night. Young Ezra Standish found sleep elusive as he imagined all sorts of calamities happening the next day. Then came the dawn.
Ezra took his place at Sergeant Fishers side, binoculars in hand. It was his job to call out after each volley if the cannons were firing too far afield, falling short or right on target.
As soon as the first light of day crested the hill, the battle began. One after the other, the big guns fired, and as soon as they could be reloaded, they fired again.
Ezra concentrated on the job at hand, trying not to look directly at the death and devastation raging around him. He focused his hearing on the sound of the cannons and tried to block out the cries of wounded and dying men some men he had come to know in the last few days, others he would never know their names or faces.
Late in the afternoon, the cannons had finally run out of powder and fell silent. Now the combat was at close range below him. His curiosity finally got the better of him and he lay down on his stomach, bringing the binoculars to bear. As he watched with the morbid fascination of a teenager, men fought and died below. Some cried out in pain, others suffered in silence. He watched as others on both sides had enough, throwing their guns down and fleeing the carnage.
Ezras attention became focused on a group of Yankee soldiers trying to make their way around the havoc to reach a fallen comrade. From a short distance away, he could see a man in a Rebel uniform rise up and point his weapon at the small group. He seemed to be taking aim at the young officer among them. A tall soldier with dark hair suddenly noticed the danger and threw himself in between the enemy and the officer, moving even as he called out a warning. Just as the blonde officer turned, the shot rang out and the young soldier grabbed his head and dropped before he could reach the other man. Several others in the group returned fire and the Rebel soldier cried out and fell. While the officer knelt beside his fallen solider, he waved the rest to continue on to the man they were trying to reach.
As a child, Maude had taught Ezra how to read lips. Even as he watched the drama below, he felt like an intruder.
Buck! Dont you die on me! he watched the man call out as he knelt beside the fallen man. Medic! I need help over here!
Ezra watched in awe as two young Negroes carrying a stretcher made of canvas and poles, made their way to the stricken man, ducking at the sound of bullets flying around them. Even as they reached the officers side, the rest of his men rejoined them, one shaking his head slowly at the officers unspoken question.
Dammit! Ezra could see him declare before he bent his head close to the injured man.
As the two dark-skinned men gently placed the injured man on the stretcher, Ezra could see where blood had run down the mans face from the head wound. Ezra could see the predicament on the officers face as the stretcher was lifted up and they began to move away. The officer was torn between following his friend or staying with the rest of his men in the battle. The choice was suddenly made for him as the Confederate bugler sounded retreat. As the Rebel forces pulled back, the officer and the rest of his men fell in behind the men carrying the stretcher off the battlefield.
Private Standish! Sergeant Fisher called behind him. Ezra! Lets go!
Ezra turned toward the man waiting for him, then scrambled up out of the dirt and joined the men as they made their way back to their encampment.
It was almost dark by the time Ezra limped back into camp, the ill-fitting boots he was wearing had rubbed a blister on his foot. He practically fell onto his cot and was asleep in a matter of moments. One of the luxuries of being in the artillery was the fact that they didnt have to sleep on the ground, since they could load their supplies onto the wagons pulling the big guns, and that included cots.
Shortly after dawn, Ezra was awakened by the sound of gunfire all around him. He dove under his cot, thinking the Yankees had broken through the lines and were overrunning the camp. Then the bugler sounded assembly and he stood to join the others. Men stumbled out of tents and came out of the woods, some in more of a state of undress than others.
Once it appeared the majority of his command were in the compound, the Captain cleared his throat before speaking. The war is over, he called out clearly and simply. General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox yesterday. He paused and looked out across the group of men, now exchanging looks of confusion and disbelief. Its over, men. Go home. Go back to your homes and families.
As Ezra looked around him, the men on the fringe of the throng began to fall away. Some were murmuring quietly, there was none of the celebration Ezra thought would accompany such news. Finally, he too , turned to walk back and gather his few belongings.
Ezra stopped in front of Sergeant Fishers tent, knocking and waiting to be invited in. When the invitation came he stepped inside and offered the older man his hand and his thanks. As he turned to leave, Fisher called him back.
Got something for y, he said, holding out a bundle for Ezra to take.
Where did you get this? Ezra asked, admiring the colorful tailored jacket and almost new hat.
Fella was in the outfit year before last, Fisher replied. Real fancy talker. He wont be needing the duds no more. Figure theyd just about fit you.
Thank you, Sergeant, Ezra said. He left the tent and walked across the compound.
He turned at the sound of his name. The Captain was walking slowly toward him, leading a horse. You might need this, the Captain said, holding out the reins.
Ezra stared at the man in amazement. Why? he asked simply.
Never did hear back saying you were in the Army, so I have to assume youre tellin the truth, the Captain explained. In that case, the Army owes you for the horse that other fella stole.
I thank you kindly, Ezra said, taking the reins.
When you get to Columbus, sell him to buy your ticket, the Captain offered, turning to leave. Be careful going home.
Ezra couldnt help but notice the bottle of whiskey in the Captains other hand. What about you, sir? Will you be going home soon?
The Captain offered Ezra a sad smile. I have no home, son. It used to be in Savannah, but that was before General Sherman marched through. From what I understand, theres not much more than the foundation left. My wife and children fled to her parents home in Charleston, and Ill be joining them there soon enough.
Ezra turned to go, but then spun back around to face the Captain. Where might I find Sergeant Tanner? Id like to say goodbye and give him my thanks.
Im sorry, son, the Captain replied. He was killed in battle yesterday. I expect hell be collectin his reward from Saint Peter about now.
Ezra swallowed the lump in his throat and nodded at the officer. Then he climbed into the saddle and rode away without looking back.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra woke with a start, his eyes darting around for a moment before he regained his bearings. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair as he recognized the interior of the train car. He stood slowly and stepped into the aisle, turning and walking the few steps it took to make his way to the back door.
He stepped outside onto the back deck, holding onto the rail to steady himself against the rocking motion of the moving train. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Even now, the memories were fading. The more time that passed, the more the faces were becoming harder and harder to see. He leaned his head on the wrought iron post, watching the scenery rush by. He could only hope that by the time he reached his new home the dreams would have stopped altogether.
Coming next Nathans story
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