Mark of the Shadow Part 21: Ain’t a Metaphor
The worst part of wakin’ up was realisin’ that it wasn’t all some strange dream. I’d slept that night next to the boy. He was up at the bang of the gun – and that ain’t a metaphor. Me, I wasn’t so prompt. I rubbed my eyes, put my head in my hands and checked myself. I was still Tom Zinderman. Still in Georgia.
I crawled out of the tent and squinted at the world. The sun was just rising, and the camp was in motion. People scurried around the camp handing things to one another. The closest thing I ever scene to it was a time when Daddy’d pointed out a wasps nest. The little guys buzzing all around collecting little bits to build their nest. Well this time the wasps were destroying their nest.
“Come on,” said the boy I’d slept in the tent with, patting me on the shoulder. He couldn’t be over 16. He walked over to the tent and grabbed a spike in the ground. “Come on!” he said.
I hurried over and helped him take down the tent and fold it up.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Robert,” he said. He didn’t say anything else. We placed the tent in a bag, along with everything needed to tie it down and placed it in a pile.
A man, short and chunky came around handing out pieces of bread. Breakfast, yum. It was stale, and hard to chew. I had to get a swallow of water to even get it down.
When all of the tents were piled up and all the fires put out a second gunshot was fired. Time to move on. The men formed lines and we started walking north. I found Robert and walked next to him. You never knew when a friend could come in handy.
“Robert,” I said softly, “why are we leaving all the tents behind?”
“We’re moving into enemy territory. We only take what we can carry on our backs. So a blanket and a gun.”
I gritted my teeth. I was marching into a fight. A fight I wanted no part in, and a fight that I had no idea how to escape. I needed a plan.
We encountered no enemy that day. It was a relief to one half of me, and a stress to the other. In part I wanted to just get it over with. Maybe if I died here I would wake up me again, but it’s only a maybe. Maybe I’d just be… dead. We had a wet…thing for dinner that night. Passed out by the short fat man from the morning. A single bowl, that’s what the army could spare. It barely passed as food but I ate it to make the growling stop.
“Robert. Why are you in the army?”
“I got picked. It was either this or working the fields with the Negroes. Ain’t no way I’d do that. ‘Sides maybe I’ll be remembered for this.”
“But if you could… not fight, would you?”
“Sure but I don’t see what choice I have. Deserters ain’t lastin’ long from what I hear. They die of starvation, or maybe they run into a Union patrol. Plus if this war turns sour, I ain’t gona have a home no more. Ain’t that worth fightin’ for Tommy?”
“My D-,“ I stopped, “my father told me that the Union won’t treat the South bad if they win. They just don’t want the slave trade anymore.”
“You some kind of northern sympathizer?” he asked disgusted.
“All I’m sayin is, if you live out the war I’m thinking you’ll still have a home. Even if it ain’t exactly the way you remember it.”
Robert put down his bowl. He hadn’t eaten the whole thing. “Whata you saying Tommy? You wana desert?” he said whispering.
“Better than fighting,” I said.
“You got a plan? Listen,” he said looking around, “I ain’t in, but if you have a plan I’m listening.”
I put down my bowl. “Before the gun sounds in the morning. Most everyones asleep. We move then right? No one will miss us. Does anyone here know you very well?”
“No, but listen. Where we gona go? Just follow the woods back?”
“Ya, listen I can hunt. I can get us food so we can get back to the tracks.” I realized my hand was on his shoulder. I let it drop, then continued, “Then we just follow the tracks…”
Robert shook is head, “Man I don’t know. I can’t come back to my family. What’l I say?”
“They don’t have to know. Stay with me,” I said. I didn’t know if I even had a house, or whether there was anyone else living with me. It was a gamble but I knew I couldn’t travel alone.
“Okay, one thing. We don’t leave if one of us don’t make it,” he said.
That night I awoke. It was dark outside. The only thing I could see in under the blanket was my own breath. I breathed on my hands and rubbed them together to warm them up. Then I tapped Robert. He stirred and sat up. This was it. I got up, followed by him. Two watchers. They each had torches and eyes, set on the borders of the surrounding forest.
We were camped on the top of a grassy hill. It led down on the north, west, and east to the forest. To the south the field extended eventually reaching a river, then a forested trail.
I approached the one patrolling our side of the camp. I tapped his shoulder from behind. He was startled, giving a quick twitch. He sighed when he turned and saw it was only me.
“Sir, I think their are snakes moving around my bed,” I said. My eyes twitched in between this watchman’s face and Robert moving towards the tree line.
“Move your bed,” he replied. He wasn’t up for bartering.
“Right, well I think theirs a bunch of them.”
“Do you have any proof?”
“No, no sir.”
“Get back to bed. Move your things if you need to, but I don’t want to see you up again. Understand?”
I nodded but I’m not sure he could even see my face in this dark. I went back to my blanket, noting that Roberts was gone, along with his things and waited for my signal.
Ten minutes later it came. Smoke from behind the tree line. Not very much, but enough to get the watchmen’s attention. They each roused a companion and together the four of them went to investigate. This was my shot. I shot out of bed and bundled up my blanket stuffing it in my pack. I slung my pack around my shoulder, making an undesirable clanking noise, and hefted my rifle. I moved as silently as I could through the field of sleeping bodies between me and the stretch of field before forest. I crunched a few leaves. Hell I almost fell on a man, but I was getting away with it.
Then just at the edge of the army camp from behind me came a growl, “Where do you think your going Zinderman?” I know that voice all too well. The bearded man from the train who I’d made the mistake of making enemies with. I knew then that it was all over.
I froze, “Thinking of going on a nice walk?” he asked mocking.
“What are you doing up?”
“Sometimes I can’t sleep, comes from getting older I suppose. How far did you think you were going to get huh? After the war, then what? You think those of us who survive this war are going to forgive you? No, your life will be hell if you run now. Besides I have a gun, and I ain’t had a moving target to practice on for years. Could be fun. So go, run.”
I thought about it for a good few seconds. Chances are in the dark he wouldn’t hit me, but the shots would wake everyone else up. Then what? The best I could do was give Robert a chance. We were supposed to meet at a river a couple miles back on the road. When I didn’t show up I hoped Robert would get the picture. I just hoped he could make it back home without me. Otherwise I’d just stopped a man from going into war only to die.
I smiled at the bearded man and went back to my sleeping spot. I laid out my blanket and tried to sleep. The man was watching me the whole night. Great just what I needed, someone watchin’ my every move.