The Thin Line

The Thin Line

A Story by Patricia Gayle

War between the states tests the humanity of those in the fight.


The bright white moonlight shined spottily through the thick canopy of boughs and branches overhead.  The smell of gunpowder and death lingered in the air and crickets played a solemn serenade, muffling the moans and cries of wounded soldiers in the hospital tent at the far end of the camp.  In the center of the camp, a fire stood vigil, sparking and dancing in the light breeze.  The orange glow cast eerie shadows on the canvas tents and through the surrounding woods making it hard for the sentries to distinguish what was real. 

The fighting had ceased several hours before and now all was relatively still and quiet.  Ben Wakefield, a young sentry, sat on the cool damp earth of a small hill overlooking his camp.  On the other side of him, just beyond the tree line was a small open field and on the other side of the field, a rebel sentry sat guard just beyond the tree line near his camp.  Both men sat silent, watching the other intently, ready, with guns across their laps, to sound the alarm if the other side made a move. 

Ben watched the field ahead of him and thought he may have seen a shadow move.  He squinted and strained a bit as he watched a low dark figure move slow in the tall grass.

“Who goes there?”  He called, standing and aiming his rifle.

There was no response from the object, but the rebel soldier on the other side of the clearing rose to his feet and stepped behind the trunk of a nearby tree.  He also took aim in the direction of the object.

An animal, perhaps. Ben thought. 

“Identify yourself!” yelled the rebel.

Again there was no response from the figure.  It stopped in the center of the field and raised its head above the grass to take a look around.  Ben caught a glimpse of its eyes glowing in the moonlight.  Relief came over him and he lowered his weapon.

As he began to cup his hands over his mouth and call back to the rebel about his discovery, there was a crack of gunfire.  The animal slumped loosely into the grass.

Chaos arose from both camps as soldiers and officers scrambled out of their tents, rifles in hand, and ran toward the front line.  Officers screamed orders.  Both sentries stood in their places and frantically watched their regiments rush around them.

“Who fired first?” Captain Mills, asked Ben.

He stood in shock a moment, without answering.

“Who fired first?” the Captain demanded again.

He rose his hand and pointed toward the other side.  “He did,” he answered.  “But…”

“Men take your positions!” he commanded moving quickly away before Ben could finish.

Ben looked to the rebels.  The rebel regiment seemed much more relaxed than his own as they took their positions along the tree line.  The rebel sentry, who had fired the first shot, stood speaking to another man waving his arms as if explaining the situation.  The man then leaned over him as if yelling orders and then the sentry turned and moved back toward his camp.

Ben’s attention was turned back to his own regiment by a Lieutenant who came up behind him and shouted an order in his ear.  “Soldier, take your position!”

He did as he was told.

There was a crack of gunfire from the union side and a puff of black smoke gave away the firing soldier’s position further down on the frontline.

“Hold your fire, men!” an officer bellowed from somewhere nearby.  “Hold your fire!”

Officers began to scramble back and forth on the rebel side again and a command was called out.  The young union sentry saw the glint of the moon reflecting off the barrels of hundreds of rifles being raised to the firing position along the rebel line.

Another command was given followed by further chaos in the camp as the rebels opened fire on their enemy.

“Fire at will!” a union officer called and the regiment began to shoot back.

Ben took cover behind a tree and stood still, breathing hard.  He looked around and watched his fellow men dropping all around him.  His knees buckled and he slid down the tree trunk sitting hard on the ground.  He pulled his legs against his body and put his forehead to his knees, beginning to weep.

The tree which he sat against shook violently and splintered limbs and branches began to rain down on him as a cannon ball tore into it somewhere overhead.  He threw his arm up over his head to protect himself from the shrapnel. 

A couple of men ran past him toward the camp.  On his other side a man laid face down in the dirt.  He had blood caked in his hair and over the back of his blue coat.  A moan rose up from the man as he threw his arms forward and clawed at the soft ground in an attempt to drag himself away from the scene.

Ben blindly searched the ground around him for his rifle, feeling with his hands while watching men drop as they fled through the woods.  Finally his fingers found the long steel barrel and he scooped it up, his fingernails digging into the soil it laid on.  He placed the butt of the rifle against the ground and used it like a cane to steady himself as he climbed to his feet. 

His head began to spin and he dropped back down.  The whole world seemed to rotate around him and all he could do was sit and watch.  Droplets of blood and clouds of smoke flew through the air.  There was the sickening smell of death and gunpowder that made him choke.  He began coughing violently, putting the rifle back down against the ground and hanging his head between his knees.  Then came the nausea.  His stomach churned and twisted in a knot.  He tried to hold it back but was unable to stop the hardtack from that night’s dinner from coming up.  He vomited until he dry heaved and his stomach and throat ached. 

The deafening crack of gunfire, cannons, screams, and breaking branches filled the air.  It became impossible to differentiate between any of the sounds as they melted into one endless noise. 

He just sat in his spot at the base of the tree, his eyes closed tight, and tried to think of his dear wife and children, safe in the New York countryside away from all the fighting.  He could see Lizzy’s blonde hair lying in one long curl down her back and the light dancing in her blue eyes.  For a moment he thought he could even smell her rose perfume and hear her sweet voice speaking soft and gentle in his ear.  The sound of his children’s laughter as they ran and played through the green lush grassy hills around their home, rose above and drowned out the sounds of battle.  For a moment, he was lost in a memory.  Ben wondered if he would ever get to see them and hold them again, or if this war would eventually take him from them forever.

Finally, the noise began to quiet, the chaos of scrambling soldiers began to calm, and the air began to settle as both sides retreated back toward their camps.  They had suffered such great casualties that they could no longer continue and their commanding officers had ordered a cease fire and retreat to preserve their surviving members. 

The early morning sun was now peaking through the trees casting a yellow-orange glow on the battle grounds.  The grass shimmered, as if studded with millions of tiny jewels, as light dew settled on the scene.

Ben pulled himself to his feet and stepped out from behind the tree to gaze upon the battle’s spoils.  Hundreds of innocent men, from both sides and all ranks, laid dead or dying among the trees and across the field between the two camps.   It had not fully occurred to Ben until now that many of the soldiers were no more than teenagers, undoubtedly seeking adventure and valor.  Few of these men must have known the true nature of war when they left their homes to fight it.

One young man near Ben, no more than 18 or 19 cried out for his mother, as he held his hands tight against his stomach.  Two other men a few feet away, one rebel and one union, laid together holding on to each other, sharing a rosary, and reciting a prayer.

Groups of unwounded men walked through the trees and inspected the bodies for survivors, hoisting those they found onto gurneys from the hospital tent and carrying them back to the camp.  No one from either side ventured out onto the battle field.  They each only took care of the fallen men within the cover of the tree lines.  
            Agonizing screams and cries for help flooded the air from the wounded on the battle field who were unable to crawl back to where their armies rested.  The soldiers sat with helpless desperation to run to the aid of their fallen comrades.  One man pleaded with an officer to let him retrieve his brother who called to him, but was refused the right as it was likely to get him shot down as well. 

Another man wondered slow and aimless between the bodies and trees as if lost. 

Ben saw a small group of soldiers sitting together on the ground near the edge of the battle field, looking out onto the scene.  He wandered through the carnage toward them and dropped to the ground with a thud.  Several of the soldiers turned to look at him a moment without speaking a word.  Their faces were grey with dirt and ash, their hair matted against their heads and filthy with dirt, blood, and sweat.  As Ben settled onto the ground they turned their attention back to the battle field. 

Ben pulled his knees up against his chest, put his head down, and buried his face in his folded arms.  He tried to avoid looking up at the scene and attempted to block out the sounds of soldiers’ crying for their mother’s and women.  He had never before seen such brutality.  He began to wonder if he could continue on in this war. 

Ben heard leaves crunch as someone crawled to his side from several yards away.  He raised his head to see another young man settling down on the ground next to him.  The man pulled a tobacco pouch from his pocket and rolled a cigarette with a shaky dirty hand. 

After a moment, the young man introduced himself, “I’m Wyatt.”  He extended his hand to Ben but Ben just stared down at it a moment without really seeing it.  Wyatt lowered his hand and continued with a shaky voice.  “I sure wish they would let us get our men.”  He choked on his words and had to take a long drag from his cigarette before going on.  “My brother…my brother is on the other side.  He joined the rebs.”

“The rebs?” Ben asked after a moment.

“Yes,” the young man confirmed.  “He and our Pop had quite a quarrel one evening over politics.  The next morning, Evan kissed Momma goodbye and headed for Tennessee.  That there is his company.  I know because he told Momma about it in a letter he sent right before Pop sent myself and our brother, James, to join the Union.  I need to get out there and make sure he’s not one of the dead.”  He lowered his head, “Or if he is, at least make sure he gets a proper burial. Momma would want it that way.”  Wyatt held the tobacco pouch out to Ben, “Want some?”

Ben looked down at the pouch a moment, then admitted, “Never had it before.”

“It’ll help with the nerves,” Wyatt informed him and proceeded to demonstrate how to roll a cigarette.  He handed it to Ben and lit it for him with a match from his coat pocket. 

As the men smoked their cigarettes together, they watched two officers from both sides trudge through the tall grass and gather in the middle of the field for a brief meeting.  After a few moments of talking amongst themselves they turned and made their way back to their armies. 

An announcement was made that a cease fire would be issued for the remainder of the day to allow both sides to collect their dead and wounded from the battle field.  Men trekked back and forth across the battle field, retrieving first wounded soldiers and then finally the bodies of the dead.  They worked until the final grey light of the day was gone. 

Ben did not see Wyatt again until they had settled back in camp for the night.  Wyatt had not found his brother, Evan, among the dead or the wounded and held out hope that he was instead still among those alive and well within the camp.

Both armies, greatly impacted and running low on supplies, camped quietly without conflict for several days until finally one morning they awoke to find that the rebel troops had abandoned their camp and retreated south.  News was received later that morning that a larger union regiment was camped about 50 miles to the south east and they were ordered to join up with them.  By early afternoon the camp was packed up and all able bodied soldiers set out to be integrated with the new regiment. 

The march seemed to go on for hundreds of miles and last days.  In reality they traveled for only a few hours and went a relatively short distance.  By the time the sun began to dip below the trees, the soldiers were parched, hungry, sore, and tired, not to mention caked with nearly a week’s worth of dirt, sweat, and dried blood from both themselves and their comrades.

As the sun was sinking in the western sky, the company of men finally arrived in a small largely deserted rebel town.  Although most buildings now stood vacant and dark, a few citizens had chosen to stay and defend their homes.  As the army approached the town’s edge, citizens scrambled through the street, women and young children taking cover while the men and boys took post with guns, ready to fight if necessary.

The soldiers were met on the edge of town by several older men carrying guns.  The two leading officers, Captain Mills and Lieutenant Parker, went ahead of the regiment to speak to the men.  A heated debate ensued among them.  The men pointed their rifles toward the officers and motioned for them to leave. 

“Go back to where you came from,” one of the older men demanded.  “We don’t board yanks.” 

The two officers returned to the regiment outraged.  Captain Mills sent down an order to take the town by force and shoot any citizen who got in the way.  The men desperate for food, fresh water, baths, and rest stormed the small community with guns blazing.  The few men remaining in the town, those too old, young, or disabled to enlist, fired on the troops from vantage points, behind, inside, and on the roofs of homes and businesses lining the street. 

A hectic battle ensued.  Soldiers scattered everywhere seeking positions where they could take cover and fire back on the “enemy”. 

As he attempted to run between buildings, Captain Mills was struck in the shoulder by a young boy leaning out a second floor window of the hotel across the street.  The captain grabbed his shoulder and dropped down behind an armory wagon for cover.  He screamed the order to “Burn it!  Burn it, Goddamn it!”

Ben, Wyatt, and another soldier, Isaiah Weston, took cover behind a wagon at the end of the street and watched with horror as two of his comrades followed the captain’s orders without question and set fire to the hotel.  As the flames leapt up and engulfed the building, screams could be heard inside from those taking refuge within its walls.  A young woman appeared in the upper floor window where the boy had been.  She leaned out and pled for the soldiers to help her and her brother.

“Let the rebel b***h burn!” Captain Mills screamed, angry and vengeful.

A soldier near the captain pled a moment with him to let them save her, but he stood by his order.  The soldier stood and watched as the girl disappeared back into the building. 

The regiment took the town quickly.  A hospital was established in a large white house on the southern edge of the town to treat the wounded, Captain Mills among them.  Other homes and businesses were taken to board the troops. An order was made for every structure in town to be raided and the civilian’s provisions gathered for the soldiers to use.  All civilians were taken prisoner, rounded up, and locked in a small church just west of the main road. 

As morning approached and the sun began to rise, Captain Mills gathered up a faction of soldiers for a firing squad and ordered the execution of all the males in the town. 

Isaiah Weston was among those dealt the task.  He resisted but was warned that war time insubordination was a serious crime and would result in severe punishment.  Isaiah retrieved his gun and took his place in the ranks as his fellow executioners were lined up in the town’s street.

Ben and Wyatt watched in disgust from the upper floor of the boarding house.  Young boys and old men alike were marched single file, with their hands tied behind their backs, and lined up in the street below.  Colonel Charles Graves gave a command as he strolled behind the firing squad, holding his hands behind his back.  The line of soldiers raised their guns and held them straight out.

“Fire!” Colonel Graves called out. 

            The clatter of staggered gunshot rang out and echoed off of the buildings.  About half of the men and boys dropped to the ground, soaking the dusty street with blood.  The soldiers reloaded their rifles and awaited the next command.

            “Fire!” Colonel Graves called out again.

            Gunshot rang out again and all but one of the remaining men fell. 

            Captain Mills, who had been watching from the porch of a nearby store, his arm suspended in a stark white sling, stepped out into the street and walked toward the single remaining man.  He had been shot twice but maintained his position, standing with his head held high and proud.  Captain Mills spoke a few quite words to him, then burst into a chuckle.  The man remained still and stared past the captain with a straight expression.  Captain Mills took a step back from him, raised his pistol, and held it to the man’s head.  He spoke a couple more words and then pulled the trigger.  All of the surrounding buildings quivered with the sound of the shot as if they too were startled by Captain Mills cruelty.  The man dropped backwards to the dirt and Captain Mills walked away with a smirk on his face as if proud of what he had accomplished.  The air fell silent, free of even the birds’ songs as the men stood around gazing upon their captain’s ruthlessness. 

            Finally, Colonel Graves ordered the executioners to gather the bodies and they hauled them out of the street. 

            Isaiah finally returned to the boarding house in the mid-afternoon.  The southern heat had beat the soldiers into submission and now they sat around lazy on the porches that lined the street.  All were stripped of their uniform coats and some were barefoot with their pants rolled up to their knees, fanning themselves with whatever they could find to stir up a light breeze. 

            “By God boys!” Isaiah exclaimed as he approached them.  “I believe we have arrived in hell.”  His face was beet red and beaded with sweat.  “I’m goin’ down to the well to refresh myself, you boys wish to join me?”

            Ben rose slowly to his feet, “Think I will.”

            Wyatt joined suit and followed the men down the dusty street toward the town’s community well. 

            “It sure is a hot Son-of-a-b***h today ain’t it?” Ben commented, wiping his forehead with a rag.

            “Wouldn’t be so bad if there was a breeze.”  Wyatt squinted and looked up at the sky.  “Or a cloud to give us some reprieve from the sun.” 

            The men nodded, all glancing up at the sky in unison.

            “Goddamn Graves had us out on the north of town diggin’ a ditch all mornin’,” Isaiah informed them.

            “What for?” Ben asked.  “What they getting ready to do now?”

            “For the bodies,” Isaiah said.  “Then, as hot as it is, and us fresh from hours of diggin’ in hard ground, made us stand there and commence a burnin’.”  He shook his head.  “Had two men drop out from the heat before they finally let us go.  Luckily they have a new detail goin’ in later to fill in the ditch.”

            Wyatt looked to Isaiah in disbelief.  “They burned them?”

            “Sure did,” Isaiah confirmed.  “Said rebs don’t deserve no proper burial.”  He shook his head at the thought.  “I don’t agree none with that.  Those were just old men and boys tryin’ to protect what was theirs and keep their women safe.  Any the rest of us would have done the same.  There ain’t no sense in what Mills had us do.”

“What you suppose they’re going to do with the women and girls?” Wyatt asked.  “You think they’ll do the same to them?”

“Don’t know,” Isaiah told him.  “They got them in that church out there right now.  I’m sure they’ll lose a few of them ‘fore the day’s out on account of the heat.  They don’t even have the windows open for fear of them escapin’ and I’m sure they ain’t keepin’ them too well supplied with water.”

“Don’t understand why they are so afraid of them escaping,” Ben remarked.  “What do they really think they’re going to do if they get away?  They’re just a bunch of women and little girls.  I say they just let them go.  Let them go on to the next town and find refuge.” 

Isaiah sighed, “I been in this war six months now and the things I’ve seen, well, it’ll make you wonder what this old world has come to.  Didn’t know men could be capable of such evil deeds.” 

“Do you suppose the rebs are doing the same thing to our women?” Wyatt asked with concern.

“Well, I think most the fightin’s been done in their territory, not much up our way that I know of,” he thought a moment.  “I sure hope not, anyway.”

The men were all silent a moment.  They arrived at the well and Isaiah took the pump handle and began pumping it until cool clear water shot from the spout.  He took a few long drinks from it and then began again, “I don’t really think I’ll be able to stick it out too much longer.  I’ve had about enough of this war.” 

“Well, don’t look like any of us have too much of a choice in it,” Ben reminded him.  “We’re pretty much stuck until the war’s over and they tell us we can go home.”

“That ain’t entirely true,” Isaiah told him with a smirk.

“You talking about deserting?” Wyatt asked quietly.  “That carries the penalty of death.”

“Only if you get caught,” Isaiah remarked.  “Besides, we’ll likely all be dead by the end of this thing anyway.  I’d rather just take off and still stand a chance of gettin’ home alive than stick it out and end up bleedin’ to death on a battle field somewhere...and all for the glory and gold of a few officers and politicians.  This war ain’t ours, boys.  This war belongs to them.”

Wyatt took a seat on a nearby stump.  “I can agree with that.  There’s family fighting family out here.”  He glanced up at Isaiah, “My brother’s out there fighting for the rebs.  I don’t have no fight with him.  He’s my brother and I love him.  It’s just politics is all.  I’ve met lots of men like that here, fighting against their cousin, brother, father, and not for nothing with any real meaning at all.”  He lowered his eyes to the ground and shook his head slow, back and forth.  “My father sent me out to fight and he wouldn’t agree with me, in fact he might disown me for it, but I say if the south wants to exist separate from the rest of us, then so be it.  I’m also tired of fighting those politicians dirty fight for them.  I just want to find my brother and go back home to Massachusetts.”

Isaiah splashed water on his face and over his head, the dirt and ash running out of his hair in rivers.

Four men approached them.  Wyatt’s younger brother, James, and Joel Lancaster, a man from Ben’s company, among them.  Wyatt introduced James to Ben and Isaiah and they all shook hands. 

“You boys mind us helping ourselves to some water?” James asked, his eyes fixated on the pump.

“Come right on ahead,” Isaiah told him and stepped aside.

Joel looked at Isaiah a moment.  “You were on the execution detail weren’t you?” he asked.

“Yes sir I was,” Isaiah answered.  “But I can assure you, I was in no way eager to step up to the task.  Just followin’ orders and nothin’ else.”

Joel watched him a moment with accusing eyes, then nodded and stepped up to the well behind James.

“They burning those men?” James asked.

“Yes sir.  They put us to that as well.  Just got relieved of it.”

“They just came through and rounded up another group of men to go out and finish the job as we were coming back in,” Joel told them.

“What they have you boys doing?” Ben asked.

“Had us roundin’ up supplies,” another man answered.  “I’m Ezra Black,” he told them, shaking their hands.  “Mills ordered us to go house to house and gather up anything we might be able to use.”

Joel stepped back from the well, water running out of his greasy hair.  “Started us up this morning going through buildings and taking just what we could use; food, clothing, arms, and so on.  After we had been through about two or three sizeable places and not found much of anything useful, Colonel Leonard, who was commanding our detail, stepped outside and spoke to Mills.  When he came back inside he nearly tore the door right off its hinges.  Started screaming profanities at us, telling us we’d ‘better go through every Goddamned inch of the place and start producing some supplies’.  He then tore open the kitchen cabinets and smashed dishes, scattered the contents of drawers, took knives and bayonets to the couches and beds.  You name it.  When we got out of that house there wasn’t an inch left that hadn’t been overturned.  You should have seen the wreck he made of it.  It sure didn’t take long for the other men in the detail to follow his example either.  Other than the buildings we’re occupying at present, there isn’t a single one left that hasn’t been sacked.”

“They took whatever they could, too.  No matter value or obvious need for it,” Ezra added.  “I saw men take everything from children’s and women’s clothing to curtain rods.” 

Joel nodded.  “Ripped books and records to shreds, smashed windows and mirrors, overturned furniture.  I don’t recall ever seeing such disrespect from anyone in my entire life.”  He shook his head.  “War makes monsters of men.”

After they had cleaned up and gotten their fill of drinking water, the men started back down the street together.  A couple of men came out of a building ahead of them carrying a large desk.  They dropped it in the middle of the street and ran back up on the porch.

“What you boys doin’ with that desk?” Isaiah asked.

One of the men grinned wide, “Bonfire of course.”  He cackled as if he had gone mad and ran back into the building.

They continued walking but were stopped in their tracks by two women being drug up the road.  Each of the women had a soldier on each arm.  They pulled them kicking and screaming into the boarding house.  Another man stood just outside the door with a wicked grin on his face.

“What’s your business with those ladies?” Ben yelled to him.

“Ladies?” the man asked.  “Don’t you mean those rebel w****s?  Why that’s this evening’s entertainment.”  He laughed as though possessed and disappeared through the door.


 The regiment gorged themselves in fresh butchered pork, stolen from a nearby farm, for dinner that evening.  Then wine and homemade liquor was brought out from the cellars and passed around the camp.  Soldiers and officers both drank themselves into a stupor, passing out on porches and in the street.  Ben, Wyatt, Isaiah, James, Ezra, Joel, and one other companion, Warren Lucas, sat on a porch away from the rest of the regiment and watched the debauchery taking place before them.

“We have ourselves a Sodom and Gomorrah of sorts before us,” observed Ezra.  “You suppose God will strike our comrades down in a similar manner?”

“They will face their punishment, whether it be in this life or the next,” Joel concluded.

“Let’s just hope if it’s tonight, they don’t take us down with them,” Isaiah added.

A woman’s desperate scream rang out from the second floor of the boarding house across the street.

Thoughts of his family suddenly flooded Ben’s mind.  He could see the faces of his wife and children and began to imagine them in the situation this town’s citizens now found themselves in.  He grew hot in the face and sprang to his feet.  “Something has to be done!” He exclaimed.  “Someone has to stop this.” 

Isaiah put a hand on his arm and pulled him back down.

“I agree we got to do somethin’ about all this.  We got to get those ladies away from them.  We got to get all those ladies away from here.  But we can’t just barge in there and demand their release or we’ll only get ourselves killed.”

The other men nodded.

“So what you propose we do?” James asked.  “They have the door guarded and you can bet there are other men all over that place as well.  Not to mention what they have up at the church?  They have that whole place guarded as well.  Men, we are far too outnumbered to commence a rescue operation.”

“We get caught, you can bet they’ll have us lined up in front of the firing squad in the morning,” Ezra added.

“Now boys, this ain’t no impossible task.  Just look around you a bit.  They’re all too drunk to walk.  You ever take a drunk in a fight?  It’s easy when they’re seein’ double and walkin’ sideways and your sober as a preacher on Sunday,” Isaiah told them calmly.  “Of course, we won’t be able to stay around, if we do it.  We’ll have to take off tonight…like we was talkin’ about earlier.”  He looked to Wyatt and Ben, who both nodded back at him.

“You talkin’ about disertin’?” Ezra asked.

“We are,” Isaiah told him.

“You know that carries a heavy sentence if we’re caught?”

“Yes,” Isaiah said.  If we get caught.  You boys are just goin’ to have to be slick is all.”

“Well…I don’t know,” Ezra hesitated. 

“If you’re not up for it or in all the way, you’d be best to just get on now.  It would be better if you just didn’t know anything about the plan at all.  Then if they come and talk to you in the morning about it, you really don’t know anything,” Isaiah informed them.

“I can’t be heading out from the regiment just yet myself,” Wyatt added.  “I need to find our brother, Evan, before I take off.”  He glanced over to James.  “You can go on ahead, but I have to stick with the army until then.”

“If I’m going then you’re going too and if you’re staying…well…then I don’t have much choice but to stay myself.  You know I can’t just desert and leave you here to fight.  You know there is just no way I could go back to Momma and Pop and explain that to them.  Besides, we will both have a better chance of tracking Evan down if we aren’t having to follow the army around.  We can go where we need to go and blend with whomever we need to.  We can’t do that wearing these blue jackets,” James reminded his brother.

“I suppose so,” Wyatt admitted.  “Well, I guess I’m in then.”

  Isaiah looked around a moment, “So is there anyone here who isn’t up to this.  This is your chance to walk away if you don’t want a part in it.”  He looked back to Ezra.

“I’ll stick with you men,” Ezra told him. 

“Does that mean we’re all doin’ this together?” 

All the other men nodded.

“Alright then, let’s put together a plan, shall we.”


Ben and James stepped onto the front porch of the boarding house and approached the man guarding the front door.

“How’s those girls you got in there?” James asked, the man.  “They show a good time?”

The guard chuckled drunkenly.  “They sure do.  And that dark-headed one…oh she’s a lively one for sure.  Make you work for it a bit.  Even squeal for you.”

James grinned.  “Is that right?”

“But you’ll have to wait your turn, got a couple gentlemen up there with them at the moment.”

“Well, sure it’ll be worth the wait.”

The man chuckled again, “Yes, sir.  You know, I never did quite peg you boys for the types to indulge yourselves in this type of entertainment.”

“Well, war makes all kinds of things out of men don’t it?” Ben told the man.

James jumped in immediately as if fearing Ben was about to say something that would spoil their plan.  “You know, we’ve sure been away from home and our women a long time now.  We’re only men after all and, as men, we have certain needs that must be dealt with.  Needs that can’t be dealt with in ordinary battlefield situations.”

“You got that right,” the man told him.

A moment later, two men emerged from within the building, both grinning ear to ear and joking amongst themselves.

The guard stepped aside and motioned for Ben and James to enter.  “You boys enjoy yourselves now.  Just don’t take too long with ‘em.  There’s others out here who want to go a round tonight as well.”

Ben and James slipped up the crescent shaped staircase leading to the long dark second floor hallway.  Two men stood in the hall, one on either side.

“By God!” Ben exclaimed.  “There’s two more of you up here?”  He turned back to James, “Can you believe it takes all these men to guard two delicate little women?”  He chuckled, “They must really be a handful.”

The man glared down at him.  “They’re in rooms 5 and 6,” he told them.  “The dark headed one’s in 6, but I got to warn you, she’s a feisty little b***h.”

James looked to Ben with a fake smile, “I’ll let you take her, friend.  I’ve always fancied blondes more anyway.”

They made their way down the passageway and slipped into the rooms. 

A young woman, about 20 years old, lay on the bed, her body twisted in an awkward position with both her wrists tied to the headboard with a rope.  Her face was drenched in tears and she squinted at him through red swollen eyes.  Her auburn colored hair was a matted and disheveled.  The top of her dress had been ripped open exposing her bare breasts and the white sheet was stained with blood. 

Ben pulled a knife from his belt and moved toward her.  She closed her eyes tight and whispered in a weak voice, “Please…God oh please just make it fast.”

“Don’t worry ma’am,” Ben told her.  “I’m not going to hurt you.” 

He reach up and cut the rope from her wrists, letting her arms fall down to her side.  She opened her eyes and looked at him surprised, as she rubbed the red irritated skin.  Ben grabbed a blanket off the back and chair and wrapped it around her. 

“We’re here to get you out.  My friends and I are.  I’m Ben.  My friend James is across the hall with the other girl and we got five others on their way.”

The woman breathed a sigh of relief, “Yall ain’t afraid of gettin’ killed?”

“We’ll take our chances,” Ben told her.  “This just isn’t right, what they’re doing to you ladies.”

He stepped to the window and peered out onto the street a moment.  The flames from the bonfire of broken furniture built in the street leapt high as several drunken men hurled half-empty bottles of spirits at it.  Orange light danced wildly around the room, casting eerie shadows on the far wall, away from the glow of the lamp.

“What about the rest of the girls, the ones in the church?  Are yall goin’ to get ‘em out too?”  She asked.

“We’re going to try our best.”

He took a seat on the edge of the bed next to her and both sat silent a moment. 

“Thank you,” she told him.

He turned to her, “Don’t thank me just yet, we still haven’t done anything.”

“Well, thank you anyway, just for tryin’.”

He flashed her a quick smile.

Finally she spoke up again, “Is it true what the other men said…did they kill all our men and burn ‘em?” 

He nodded without looking up from the floor.

She sniffed and wiped her eyes.  “My father and little brother were among them.”

“I’m sorry,” he told her.  “I really don’t understand how or why anyone could be so cruel.” 

There was silence a moment longer, then a knock on the door followed by Isaiah’s voice, “Ben, you in there?”

Ben rose to his feet and stepped to the door.  “Yes, I’m here.”

“The building’s clear,” he called back.

Ben opened the door a crack and looked around the hall.  Only Isaiah and Ezra stood in the darkness.

“James is across the hall with the other girl.  How did you get past the guards?”

Ezra held up a rag and a small bottle labeled, “Chloroform”.  “I stole it from the hospital,” he announced.

“James, you can bring the girl out now,” Isaiah called.

A moment later both girls were reunited in the dark hall.

“We’ll go down the back stairs and out the back door,” Isaiah directed.  “That’s where the other men are waitin’.”

They slipped down the dark passageway and back staircase and through a narrow door at the rear of the building.  The other men met them there. 

“Now, James, Wyatt, and Ben, you make sure these ladies make it on to the next town safely,” Isaiah instructed, handing them each a rifle and side arm.

“You aren’t coming with us?” Ben asked.

“No, I’m needed here to help at the church.  You men go on and maybe, if the good Lord allows it, I’ll meet up with you somewhere down the road another day.”  He smiled to them.

Ben extended his hand and Isaiah shook it firmly.

“It’s been good knowing you,” Ben told him.

“It’s been a pleasure knowin’ you too…all of you.”

They then split up and went their own ways, Isaiah’s group heading for the church and the other three slipping into the dark woods to finally escort the young women, as well as themselves, to freedom and safety.

© 2010 Patricia Gayle

Author's Note

Patricia Gayle
This is a sample of the Civil War portion of my second novel, "Shameless", which picks up where my first "Burning Bridges", lets off. I changed the name of the main character and adapted it into a short story format for a writing contest.

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I would love to see you write more historical stories like was superb..and placed in my writing contest...he excelled at this writing..the rest I have read seems to be beyond the experience you have..or at least you researched this civil war story really is very different from all your other writings...IMHO

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Added on August 1, 2010
Last Updated on August 1, 2010
Tags: Civil war, courage, bravery, death, torment, rape, murder, rescue, desperation


Patricia Gayle
Patricia Gayle

College Station, TX

I'm 25 and have been writing for close to 10 years now. Writing is my therapy. I've written and self published one book, a regional non-fiction I completed in the summer after highschoo.. more..