Penance

Stripped, immobilized, laid out like a slab of meat in a butcher’s window, people milling about, examining me as if I were. I couldn’t conceive of anything more humiliating. A couple of gangly young men dressed in bits of uniform from both sides broke off from the group to my right and approached me, cold tears bathed my face as I considered the possibly that perhaps my captures could.

Young men as it turned out had been a generous assessment; they were no more than boys really, much too young to be party to something so unconscionable, so grisly. Fear overwhelmed mortification as they levered their clammy hands under my naked body, their groping fingers pawed places no other human had touched since I was a babe. Grunting with the effort and snickering at rude jibes about my situation they hefted me into a waiting wheel barrow. Incapable of so much as crying out against them I began to silently pray, as we lurched into motion, pleading with the Almighty, “Please, God. Please don’t let this happen.”It was a litany that gained in desperation the further afield they took me.

The dark woods, the uniformed clad backs moving laboriously before me, even the metallic taste of fear in my mouth was all so like the flight that had brought me to this state, I could almost have laughed out loud at the bitter wit of providence had that power been left to me. As it was all I could do was brood over the alarming similarities and wonder, had this been part of God’s plan the whole time and if so why? It had been at least as cold then, maybe colder, though I can’t say I remember feeling the bite of it then as I did now. Pursuit dulls the senses to such discomforts, while constraint sharpens them it would seem.

Outnumbered, overrun and demoralized the Major had ordered our retreat last twilight. Throughout the night the Major had used one fox trick after another to keep us ahead of our pursuers, but in the blackness just before dawn, with bullets whizzing through our ranks I had feared even his guile had dried up. I had almost resigned myself to my fate and was making my piece with God, when the Major laid his hand on my shoulder and muttered in my ear. “Un-muffle the horses hooves and muzzles Johnny.” In my ignorance I’d started to protest, being keener than me he was ready for it, the hand on my shoulder went over my mouth and he went on in a hurried whisper. “Then you point their noses northwest and whip em hard Johnny, make sure you get a good scream out of em.”

“But sir, the wounded in the wagon,”

“Will get medical attention faster if they are captured than they will if they stay with us.” My disquiet must have been plain for he’d grabbed at my coat front and shouted with as much volume as the situation allowed. “This is the only way any of us get out of this alive Jonny, do you understand.”

I would not have liked to admit it then, not even to a priest but in a shameful way I was relieved, not just that they were no longer my responsibility but that the decision to abandon them on someone else’s shoulders. Once freed of the wagon finding a way forward in the dark became less trouble some, even so briers, the natural slope of the landscape and the sound of distant musket fire on our left, kept us moving to the right for what remained of the night. By the time the small farmhouse appeared on the pink tinged horizon it was clear the rouse had worked like a charm.

I had to chuckle at the evidence of my own fallibility as we raced each other toward the only home comforts any of us had seen in weeks. A young woman, fresh faced, well built and already dressed despite the earliness of the hour, like any good farm wife, met us halfway across the dooryard. “Good morning gentlemen.” She called an understandable trepidation evident in her voice.

The Major, endeavoring to put her at ease, signaled for the rest of us to hold back while he spoke with her. “Good morning Miss, I assure you we mean you no harm, if we could beg food and shelter from you for the day and perhaps a night, just to rest and regain our strength; I promise we will be on our way come tomorrow morning, with no trouble.” She considered him and us still obviously disinclined to allow us on the property. I wasn’t sure what would happen if she said no but I doubted the Major would simply order us to peacefully move along. When she finally gave him a sharp nod I was glad for all our sakes. We must have wondered into friendly part of this split state in the night. Perhaps that partly accounted for why the enemy had given up chasing us.

“Any wounded I’ll tend in the house but I’d thank you to send the able bodied men to the barn please Major.” She instructed. “There’s more room out there and plenty of fresh hay for them to bed down in.”

“Much obliged to you Miss” The Major told her politely, waving most of the men off with one hand and snapping his fingers at me to help him get the half dozen or so men with wounds that could use stitching into the house.

Though she was certainly still frightened it was nice not to have to force our suite with her and so I readily agreed when she asked if I would take the soup she had simmering on the stove out to the barn. It was steaming hot and smelled so savory, I couldn’t blame the others when they mobbed me practically the instant I came through the door, all fighting for a turn to dip there tin cups in to the brim, truth was I was dying to do the same myself, but I wanted to make sure there would be enough for the men back at the house as well as the Major.

“I did my best to ration it Miss but I am afraid the bottom of your pot is shinning up at me.” I called out coming through the door. She didn’t answer back and it took me a moment to locate her in the dark room. When I did I can’t say I was happy with what I saw. The Major seemed to have forgotten he was in the company of a well brought up young lady and not a camp follower. From the cornered look in her sweet hazel eyes she was at a loss as to how to deal with the situation. “There were some Indian prints out behind the barn sir.” I called to him lighting on the first solution that came to mind.

Eyes lit up like he had a fever the Major headed for the door, clapping me on the shoulder on his way by. “That ought to give him time to remember his manners.”I told her, placing the pot on the table I tilted it scraping out a little more than half a tin cups worth of soup. Looking at me sideways she patted down her dress and seemed to be deciding whether or not to trust me. “My names Johnny” I offered holding out my hand. “I’m from Delaware.”

After a moment she took my hand, shaking it firmly she replied, “Beth. Where about in Delaware are you from Johnny.”

“Does it matter?”

She hummed a tiny little laugh, covering her mouth with one hand. “No, I suppose not.”

“I’d like to offer you my thanks Beth. It was both brave and kind of you to take us in this way.”

“It’s no more than any good Christian woman would do.”

“You put me in mind of my sister.” I told her truthfully. “Quiet little spitfire she is our Jane. I miss her so much. Can’t wait to see her again.”

“You put me in mind of my beau.” She said with a sad kind of smile. “I miss him too. He passed first month of the war.”

“I am truly sorry for your loss Miss Beth.” I muttered, embarrassed, thinking maybe I should just drink my soup and get out to the barn, I made to turn away but she stopped me with a hand on my wrist.

“Could you help me with this man’s leg?” She asked pointing to the burn on Miller’s thigh. I nodded and she led me over to where he lay, taking my cup from my hand and replacing it with Miller’s lower leg. “Hold it up like this, bent at the knee.” Beth instructed. “That way I can wrap the bandage without disturbing him.”

It was only then that it struck me that every last man was asleep. “You must know a mighty powerful spell Miss Beth.” I teased in a whisper, gesturing around us. “A room full of solders incapacitated by such a modest and dainty maiden, what other explanation could there be.”

Her answering laugh sounded almost relieved. “Yes, in my experience a full belly and a warm safe place to lay ones head works just like magic especially for a bunch of tired solders. It also makes tending wounds less trying for everyone involved.” Suddenly I was unequal to looking her in the eyes. “I was impresses actually; none of these wounds are all that serious really, especially given the direction you all came from. There has been fierce fighting going on down that way for weeks.”

“That is due mostly to the Major.” I told her truthfully

“He’s not a good man.” She said like a warning.

Thinking about our flight during the night I admitted. “I won’t deny that sometimes he has to do things that aren’t good but, I’ve learned to trust that it’s what’s for the best.”

“Have you?” Again her question sounded vaguely cautionary. Before I could work out how to answer the Major burst in.

“You lied to me Johnny.” He proclaimed correctly walking over to us.

Scrambling to my feet I hurried to explain myself. “Sir, I just thought,”

“Ohhh I know what you were thinking.” He declared grabbing Beth by her braided bun and dragging her upward. “But I’m pulling rank on you boy.”

Beth scratched and kicked like a wild cat while he dragged her over to the corncrib attached to the back of the cabin. “Sir.” I yelled “She’s been nothing but helpful to us in our time of need, Sir. Sir this isn’t right.”

Stopping at the door he held her at arm’s length to keep from being kicked in the shin. “I found both blue and grey army issue blankets out behind the barn. Trust me boy, she’s been helpful to quite a few men before we turned up.”

“Sir?”

“You can have her next.”

“JOHNNY!”

The screaming and thumping was intense after they disappeared into the little room. I had almost decided to go put a stop to it when Beth emerged; the Major was laid out, trousers down around his ankles, obviously sated. Beth appeared otherwise composed as she rewound her braid securing it with her hairpin, so perhaps the Major had been right about her. “That didn’t’ take very long.”I said, not sure who I was most disappointed in. “Couldn’t have been too bad.”

“Drink your soup.” She ordered, not bothering to keep up her modest façade. I did as she directed more out of spite than desire for the food. I gulped it down in two huge swallows, and then gathered my thoughts to give her a round scolding. When I opened my mouth to tell her what I thought of her my dry swollen tongue filled my mouth and I felt my joints collapsed like a limber jack man no one was using.

Beth stomped on the floor three times then came to kneel by me, yanking and pulling at my clothes as she spoke. “Afraid that soup might have had some Devil’s Cherries in it Johnny.” She gloated, behind her I could see the room filling up with other women and children of both sexes. With the precision of long practice they set to the other men in the room, stripping them and checking their mouths for gold. “Such a diverse Herb don’t you think Johnny, I mean you can use it to calm a case of the tremors or paralyze all a man’s muscles ’till his very heart stops beating, you can put it undetectable in soup or make an otherwise ordinary hairpin into a deadly weapon.”

Just then a woman about her own age joined Beth and together they finished disrobing me. “The ones in the barn are all ready for the pit.” The other woman told her.

“Good. Then we’ll wait for nightfall and get them all buried, same as usually.” Beth confirmed.

“All of them, are you sure? It looked like you wanted to keep this one?” Her friend asked.

“I had thought to, at first, but he’s just like all the others it turns out. Get him out side; I don’t want to look at him anymore.”

The wheelbarrow jerked to a halt and being tipped out of it I rolled to a stop on my side a few feet from the edge huge pit, the bodies of the men I had served with filled the air around me as they were thrown one after another into the pit. “Please God. Please don’t let this happen.”

Rough hands pulled me over onto my back and made to lift me up, the tears veritably streamed from my eyes. “Beth. Hey Beth. This one’s still alive.” Called a voice directly above my head.

“Please God, please.”

Suddenly Beth’s sweet hazel eyes were staring directly into mine. Please God. “Don’t worry Johnny.” She soothed patting my hand. “It won’t be that bad. It’s not like it’s going to take very long.”

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