Sunday, November 15, 2015

Corporal John William James, A Short Story

The man left the hotel early. Rising early was his custom, but this day he wanted  to be underway before the city was fully awakened. He knew the people would want to talk, and remember. Soon after crowds would gather and he hadn't the energy these days for long appearances nor was he inclined to make any speeches. He had a desire to see his beloved Annie again before he was no longer able to.

The sun was not fully up and the dew was still settled, though light was breaking on the horizon. He made his way slowly down the street to the stable where he signed for a horse, a well built mare of middle age. The wrangler said she was even tempered and would be happy to have the opportunity to stretch her legs.

He mounted up and headed east out of the city.

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The man finished his biscuit by sopping the gravy and stuffing it into his mouth. He grunted as he rose and reached for his crutch. It had been six years and though getting used to the idea had come with time, the soreness and stiffness seemed to get worse. He stepped off the porch and picked up his hoe and rake. Time to work the potatoes. Using his crutch in place of his missing leg and holding  tightly to his tools, he walked until he reached the spot down the slope where he had ceased work the evening before. Betsy would be out in a while to bring him some water. Of that he was sure. That woman was as loyal and true to him as the day they had wed. He loved her for it more deeply every day. She was his other crutch, the one he needed for the other parts of him which were missing.

With his crutch under his arm the worked quietly for a half hour, taking pleasure in the simple task, listening to the birds and being thankful for the gentle spring breeze which gave evaporative comfort to his sweaty skin. In a moment he thought he heard the sound of a horse and rider. He looked up. The sun was at his back so the rider was perfectly visible at two hundred yards. It looked like a painting, he thought to himself. The rider, sitting regal in his saddle, the North Carolina country side framing him, the sunlight illuminating it all, made a perfect picture.

Suddenly the hair on his neck and arms stood up. He hadn't felt this way in years. Sensations and emotions stirred in his gut. He knew the man who approached, but he didn't know how to greet him. The rider slowed his horse just a bit as he came abreast of him. Just down the slope and across the split rails he knew full well upon whom he gazed and who it was who gazed at him.

Throwing his crutch away, he straightened his body, lifted and arched his chest, drew in his chin and rendered a perfect hand salute.

"General Lee! Good morning, sir!"

The older man stopped his horse and beheld the sight before him. He had spotted the man working his field as he approached, not knowing if he would encounter an greeting, a wave of the hand or just be ignored as another passerby. But now the one legged man stood ramrod straight. He hadn't so much as swayed since giving his greeting. Lee knew. He knew because he had had this encounter a hundred times since he took his position as head of the college. These scenes had happened less and less as folks had grown accustomed to seeing him ride through the Lexington Virginia countryside. But this was different. People in other parts of the former confederacy hadn't sen him since the end of the war.  To most he had become a legend and a ghost. But this man was different. He was different than those who came rushing up, wanted to touch and shake his hand, wanted to question and talk. There was something in the way he carried his weight, in how he stood tall now, and in his voice, which had all the surety of a disciplined and professional soldier.

"Who are you, Soldier?" asked Lee.

"Corporal John William James, Sir...  18th North Carolina Infantry!" he replied

"And where did you serve?' Lee inquired, knowing full well the 18th was with the Army of Northern Virginia though many campaigns, General Lane's brigade.

"After I joined the Regiment, at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, and at... the excursion into Pennsylvania, Sir! But I lost my leg at Cold Harbor... I tried to... They wouldn't let me stay in the Army... I..." John William James choked on his words. Try as he might, he couldn't say anything more.

General Lee regarded the man before him, still holding his salute. He spoke the finest words John William James had ever heard him say.

"You served honorably and well, Soldier. Cary on!"

Lee returned his salute. John dropped his hand to his side only after Lee had done so. Lee nudged his horse on. John stood straight until Lee was well underway.

Betsy had seen the brief conversation after hearing John's greeting of General Lee.  She watched from the porch as horse carried rider away. She saw her beloved husband collapse in a heap. She ran from the house to find her man sobbing in the dirt. She knelt beside him, wrapped her arms around him as he shuddered. His tears flowed freely. His anguished cries came from deep within him, reminding her of a helpless wounded animal.

"I tried... I tried so hard..." He said.

"I know you did Darling. I know you did your best. All of you did." she tried to reassure him, but she was not seeing the scenes in his head.

"I promised Timmy I would get him through... then there was just pieces..." He sobbed. "I was with Jim and Sam and they both got killed... Jim was shot and Sam took a bayonet. They were on either side of me..."

"That's not your fault, Honey! I know you did your best for your friends. I know you did! All you boys did!", she said, trying to understand, knowing she couldn't fully.

"Then when I lost my leg... they wouldn't let me soldier no more. I wanted to stay. To try to help, but they said I had to go home. I felt so lost! I feel so lost!" he cried.

Betsy didn't know what to say then. She held him. His body convulsed with the pain of a thousand memories. Happy ones alternated with terror and sadness he had never allowed himself to feel. All of it came rushing forth now.  His shirt and her dress were soaked with tears earned in a hundred locations, tears held back by a dam of stoicism, denial and discipline. The dam had burst and John felt the pain of all of his loss, all of his suffering, all of the injuries, all of the death.

After a quarter hour, Betsy felt him relax some. He was no longer a trembling clenched fist but a sad and wounded man. An injured man who needed her support. He began to straighten himself. In a few moments he asked her to help him stand. He hugged her tightly to him and kissed her cheek.

"I'm alright now." he assured her. "Go on back to the house, I've got work to do. She handed him his crutch, then his hoe. He placed the crutch under his arm and took the tool in both hands. He resumed his work.

Betsy watched him as she walked backward to the house. John never looked up from his work. Soon he was humming a tune to himself. It was as if the past half hour hadn't happened. She knew he would need her even more now. She knew he would relive these moments again soon. He would have to. He now had begun to heal.

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General Lee rode up to the grave. It was marked by an obelisk eleven feet tall. Lee dismounted, walked up, unlatched the simple gate and stood still. He strode nearby picking some wildflowers before approaching again. He placed the flowers, along with a letter he ad written at the foot of the stone.

"Annie," he said, "I am so sorry that I haven't visited more often. I am also sorry that this may be the last time before I meet you in God's glory, if I may be so presumptuous." At this he chuckled quietly. "I know I missed many things a father should share with his daughter. Duty had called and I hope you have forgiven me. God willing, I will see you on the other side."

After a moment, Lee remounted and turned back toward Charlotte. He would take an alternate route, as was his habit, enjoying the country air and a leisurely ride. He thought he should be back in the city by noon.

As he entered the city, people began to recognize him. A small crowd would gather around him, ask to shake his hand, express their gratitude or just gawk. He would politely reply, "Thank you, Sir." or "Thank you, Ma'am.",  "Good day, Sir... Good day, Ma'am".

Thomas Woodleigh looked on in confusion, not understanding what all the fuss was about. The scene reminded him of the story from the bible he'd heard in Sunday School, where people tried to touch Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem. He asked his Mother, as many a child would do, "Momma, why are all those people trying to touch that man? Who is he?"

She replied, "Tommy, THAT is General Robert E. Lee. He commanded all of our troops in the war."

With all the innocence a six year old could muster, Thomas asked, "But why is he crying? Is he sad because he lost the war?"

Tommy's backside instantly stung from a swat expertly delivered by his mother. "Now you just hush that and run along home. You go home. you hear me?"




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