The first time I saw the boy, he had soiled his pants, and I says to him, I says, “Boy, you done soiled your pants” and he says to me, “I ain’t the only one that done that–they was others who did it under fire at Perryville cuz we was all green,” and I says, “Not then, you dope–I mean right now. Your pants! Look at em!” And then he looks at em and says, “Ah, hell, I done it in my sleep. I got the trots.”
“Sure, the trots. The runs. The diarrhea.”
“You got dysentery, boy,” I says to him.
“I been awfully sick, sir.”
“Who you callin, sir?”
“You, sir,” he says. “Ya got sergeant stripes.”
“Y’all don’t be payin them stripes no mind. I got them off a dead man in my last fight cuz we was both cold but he was dead.”
“Was that at Perryville?”
“Hell, no, boy. Stones River. New Year’s Eve. Happy New Year to us.” We was in the wash room at the time workin for the hospital seein as how we wasn’t fit for duty. Well, the boy wasn’t anyway. And the rest believed I wasn’t neither. “Now look here, you come to get them trousers clean, didn’t y’all?”
“No, I came to help with the wash.”
“Damnation, boy. You smell like cow dung. Get them things off and I’ll boil em. Take a pair from that stack over there.”
“Them’s for the wounded,” he says.
“Imma be wounded if I have to stand next to you in the washroom much longer with you in them clothes.”
“But I can’t take from the wounded.”
“Now, look here, Johnny boy.”
“My name’s Gordon.”
“All right, fine. Look here, Gordon. Every day, someone dies in that hospital, and every day, a pair of pants gets freed up. So there’s extra. Now get outta them britches, and I’ll put em in the wash to be boiled. And y’all get you some fresh pants. That’s an order.”
“But you said you wasn’t no sergeant.”
“Imma put you in the boilin water, son,” I says to him.
He finally gave up and stripped. Ain’t no shame in what he done. Dysentery runs all around the camps. Me? I worked my whole life on ships on the Mississippi. We gotten pretty good at avoidin it.
Just after the boy got hisself some new britches, Nurse Cumming come around with coffee, bread, and an egg for each of us. I had worked over the hot fire at four am to make that, left it all with another man, Allen, who kep it warm, the same man that showed me where all the stuff was.
“Now, Nurse Cumming,” I says, “I done made that all up nice for the sick and wounded.”
“Which includes you two,” she said. “That’s why you’re here, correct?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Gordon. “You remember me, ma’am. When I first come, I was one of your patients in the ward.”
“Were you?” she said. “So you’ve improved.”
“Yes, ma’am. Still havin my troubles, so I ain’t ready to go back to the front, but y’all done took care of me so well . . . drew me right back from the brink of death . . . well, I can’t just sit by and do nothin. So I’m helpin y’all. Been at it for a couple days now.”
She looked at him and then at me. “I see you’re assisting Sergeant, uh, Sergeant . . .”
Geez, my name! What had I been using lately? What had the boy just said? “Uh, Drew, ma’am. Just Mr. Drew. This ain’t my coat. Just keeps me warm.”
“You’ve done fine service this morning, Mr. Drew. All our wounded are surely appreciative and I’m grateful that we have enough for you two.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I says to her.
“It’s okay if you don’t remember me, ma’am,” says the boy. The boy, he says to her, “I was awful sick and y’all have such a terrible number of patients. But Private Hallford is my name. Gordon Hallford, that is, anyway, ma’am. And I been helpin in the kitchen and was for a few days now.”
And that is how Private Hallford and I come to meet each other and Nurse Cumming. I seen the kind like Gordon Hallford before. Him’s the kind that can’t bear the thought of dyin for what it would do to his mama. Babyfaced boy who wound up here because he kept soilin his trousers. He’s thirty-third Alabama. His whole unit was pretty much destroyed at Perryville–more’n eighty percent of them was casualties. But Gordon? He made it through all that but is here cuz he got hisself the trots. I’m not lyin. He was fixin to die when they got him here. That’s what he done tole me, anyway. Went delirious. Dehydrated. They was giving him beef soup mornin and night tryin to keep his water and salts up, and he was just a-soilin his pants day and night. Like he says to Nurse Cumming, when he got hisself strong enough, he couldn’t live with hisself if he just sat around. So he done volunteer to help out.
“Why you here?” Gordon says to me one day a week or two after we been workin together.
“Helpin out, same as you.”
It was early mornin, and we was stokin a big fire and makin batter cakes “I know that. But you was at Stones River. Ain’t you well? You gonna go back to the front?”
I shrugged. “What about you? You gonna head back?”
“If I ever get well,” he said. “And you? What did you say you was recoverin from?”
“I got all kinds of problems,” I says to him. It was hot with the fire goin so I wasn’t wearin the coat. I grabbed it from a stool and said, “Now, see here. See this hole in the upper breast?”
He stepped over and looked, then pulled back. “But you was sayin that this coat wudn’t yours to start with.”
“Damnation, boy. I done took it off a dead man. Don’t mean I wasn’t gettin shot at.”
“Well that there looks like the sort of shot that would kill a man.”
“I ain’t dead now, am I?”
“But the guy you got it from is.”
I shook my head. “Tellin you, boy. I got lotsa different problems. Gotta work through em before I get back.”
He piled a few more completed batter cakes on a plate.
“They’s a lotta men around here who ain’t so kind when they talk about us,” he said.
I nodded and poured a fresh batch of water into a pot for the beef soup. “That bother you, boy?”
“My name’s Gordon.”
“That bother you, Gordon?”
“I reckon it does or I wouldn’t say nothin to no one about it.”
“I reckon you’re right.”
He was quiet for several long moments, then took a deep breath. “I ain’t yella, you hear me?”
“Never said you was.”
“I’d like to know you wasn’t thinkin it like them others that come round here and say it.”
“They sayin it about me, too, Gordon, and it don’t bother me none.”
“So you are thinkin it about me?”
“Didn’t say that neither. I ain’t one to judge a man much about what he does in battle. Long as you don’t judge me neither. You ain’t got no clue the stuff I done.”
Gordon stared at me, pale blue eyes just tryin to look into my soul or somethin. “When they tole me to march, I marched. When the shells was blowin up all around us and my friends from my boyhood was losin all they arms and legs and they heads was bein knocked off, I kep marchin. When they tole me to fall back, I fell back. When I they tole me to march again, I did. When they wasn’t hardly any of us left, they tole me to come back and I did and when I settled down, I found I was soaked in my own shit.”
“You won’t be the last man that has that happen.”
“I reckon I was sick already. I don’t even know when it happened.”
I put a log for the fire down and walked over to him. I patted his arm. “I don’t think you was yella, Gordon. Ain’t no tellin what a man will do when the whole world is on fire around him.”
Gordon sized me up once more. “You’re ok, Mr. Drew.”
One thing about Gordon, he worked hisself hard. Another thing, he was good at gettin on the good side of the ladies. The nurses, I mean. He was always carrying they water and startin they fires and makin food and thankin em so much for how they helped save his life. And while he wasn’t totally well yet, he owed his life to them. Soon enough, Nurse Cumming was callin him the head cook. She took to motherin him somethin awful. She was good to all of us, but she sure loved that boy. Whenever she heard of men sayin he was yella, she’d tell him, “You don’t pay any attention to them. You’re serving your country just as much as they are. You are saving lives here that will help us keep our freedom.”
And he was always blushin and sayin, “Thank you, ma’am.” And she was always sayin, “Your parents would be so proud,” and he was always answerin, “I hope I live to tell them all about it. At least insofar as my life is not required for my country.”
It was all very patriotic and moving if you’re into that sort of thing. Finally, after a few weeks, he had done enough good that I figured he oughtta get a reward. Especially bein so good with the ladies and all.
So I got us some passes, and the ladies agreed that we certainly deserved some time off and Gordon assured them that we would be up at four in the mornin to light the fires and get started on the mornin meal for the men.
I got us a wagon to take into town. As we was gettin close, I says to him, I says, “Now see here, boy.”
“Right. Now see here, Gordon. You done so much good for the men and you’re so good with the ladies that I fixed you up. You’re just gonna go right into the red brick house there at the corner and ask for my friend Delia. It’s all arranged. I’ve taken care of all the expenses.”
“You have money?” he says to me.
“I got enough,” I says.
“Where you get money? The army?”
“Don’t you be payin no mind about where my money is comin from. I got plenty for the both of us. I got enough to get you more than double what the average man gets in a visit.”
“What do they get? What do I get?”
I shook my head. So damn innocent. Always thinkin of his mama and the nurses and the like. “Look, you just ask for Delia and follow her lead.”
“Do they have good food there?” he says.
Food? Lord, son. “I imagine they do.”
“I ain’t had a good meal in months. Batter cakes is about it.”
I pulled up to the house. “I’m sure they got some stuff besides batter cakes. Probably got them some good whiskey as well. Now get out. I’ll be gone about two hours.”
“Two hours? Whatcha up to?”
“Got me some business to transact.”
“Boy, you worry about you, I’ll worry about me, and in two hours, we should both be pretty happy.”
I tole the horses to git up as I saw him walk in the door. That boy was in for a real surprise.
Me? Well, look. My profession afore the War made me exempt from the Conscription Acts. Boatman on the Mississippi transportin stuff. And bein exempt also made me worth a lotta money. Especially to a senator’s son who didn’t have his own twenty slaves. Of course, I wasn’t in uniform. Of course, I wasn’t Mr. Drew either. No, sir. Mr. James Grey. Jim for short. But my ole boat mates called me Jimmy. That’s what I tole the senator and his family, anyway. The “Grey” . . . well, that’s an inside joke by me for myself. It stands for Greyback. First time I became a substitute, I got me $3000 of them greybacks. This time? Well, it’s a senator, right? I talked him into $5000. Took us an hour or so of hagglin and downin some fine Tennessee whiskey. And of course, I wasn’t goin nowhere without a significant down payment of sixty percent. Of course, Mr. Senator claimed he didn’t have that on him. Of course, Mr. Senator soon remembered that he did. And I got to spend a very small sliver of that on my favorite lady at a different house from where I sent young Gordon.
When I picked up Gordon, well, that’s another story entirely. He got back in the wagon, and he seemed kinda quiet. Didn’t say thank you or nothin. Didn’t give me no details. So finally, I says to him, I says, “Well now, boy, everythin go ok?”
He gazed at the cold, dark sky and he says, Gordon, he says, “That’s a real nice lady.”
“Ain’t she?” I says, kinda happy for him.
“Did you know that she’s from Alabama like me? Just a couple towns over, in fact.”
“What?” I said.
“Uh huh. She come here to Corinth when her husband was wounded. Hadn’t hardly been married to him. Got married just before the War. He didn’t make it. She didn’t have no money, so she came here.”
“Delia was married?” I said.
“That’s what she says.”
“She and I never talked about home like that.”
“Real nice lady,” he says. Gordon, that is. “Real nice. We just sat and talked.”
“Just sat and talked. Two hours of good conversation. Reminded me a bit of my mom. Or maybe my sister.”
“Damnation, man,” I says to him. “Your mom? She remind you of your mom?”
He shrugged. “Well, she’s younger. Pretty. Like my little sister. But kindly, like my mom.”
I took a deep breath. “Y’all do anything else cept talk?”
“Oh sure,” he says. “We ate. You was right. They had some right good food. Best meal I had in months. Made me miss home a lot.”
Up to that point, I had been weighin whether or not to let him in on how the Conscription stuff worked. But money like that is wasted on a fool like that. So I let it be.
But man, I was bugged the rest of the ride back and all night. Delia was from Alabama? And she had been married? Well, now I couldn’t go see her no more.
About a week later, I let the nurses know that my unit expected me back. Course, I wasn’t goin with the last unit. Nah. To them, I was dead already. Or whoever I was before was dead already. If anyone found the letter home on that sergeant’s body, they’d know I was dead. More’n likely, he’d just gone into an unmarked grave, and we was both marked missin. He didn’t have no face no more anyway, so no one could track it all down.
My new papers for Mr. James Grey had gotten done two days before, so I had all I needed to report to the army. Papers? Sure. When you’re sittin on a pile, you can afford anything.
I was packin up when the boy popped in on me. His young, smooth face was lookin all sad and worn down.
“Heard you was headin back.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
He smiled wryly. “Sir, huh.”
“I hope you make it home safe after all this,” he says to me.
“Ain’t got no home, boy. Been wanderin since I was a kid. But Imma make it, I guarantee it.”
Gordon tilted his head. “How you know that?”
I looked at him, studied those blue eyes and that baby face. What should I tell him? I seen a lot more of life than he had. “I got a system, see.”
“A system?” he says, Gordon says to me.
“Yeah, a system,” I says. “I ain’t never gonna get killed in no battle.”
“How you figure it?”
“Cuz I ain’t never gonna fight no battle. Ain’t fought one yet.”
“But I thought–“
I shook my head. “Now see here, boy. Imma tell you this because we never gonna see each other again. You don’t know my name. My real name. Not even sure I can remember it myself, come to think of it,” I says to him. Then I says, “Ain’t no one livin knows my real name. This here cause everyone’s fightin for, it’s all a buncha pig slop. And if’n y’all die for it, y’all’s just a damn fool. And that’s the God’s honest truth. I’m tryin to help you out here, son. Ain’t no sense layin down your life for a cause that ain’t got no chance.”
“You don’t believe in the cause?” he says to me. He looked crestfallen.
“Now look here, boy. Listen real careful-like. There ain’t but one cause in this life–that’s what a man can do and get for hisself. Ain’t nothin else beyond that. Ain’t no such thing as no country, ain’t no such thing as nothin that lasts. There’s just you and what you can think, touch, and feel for yourself. And if you get yourself killed over some other guy’s cause, you done wasted the only thing you was given in this life, and that’s your life.”
Gordon was real quiet-like. He was lookin at me with that whole soul-studyin thing.
“What’s your system?” he says to me.
“System?” I says.
“Yeah. You just tole me you had a system.”
I nodded. “Oh yeah. System. Right,” I says. So I says to him, “See, I used to be a boat man. That part is true. I don’t need to do none of this. They can’t make me go if I don’t wanna go. But conscription is the greatest thing ever. All these planters . . . all these guys pay thousands so they can keep they sons home from gettin shot.”
The boy nodded slowly. “Ain’t that kinda risky? Still could get yourself shot.”
I shook my head. “Nah, son. You been around now. When y’all’s fixin to be in action, they tell ya to pack sixty rounds and drop unnecessary stuff. That’s when I write my letter to my ‘family’ back home–all the mushy stuff everyone thinks you should say. Then I straggle.”
“Yes, sir. Get sick during the march. Lag behind. They’s so many that do that they can’t keep em all in line.”
“You never even go to the battle?”
I shook my head, and I says to him, I says, “Nah, man. A battle is chaos. You just show up when the shootin is dyin down, find some poor bastard without a face, plant your letter on him, take some items off him, and now you’re dead and he’s missin.”
The boy looked down and shook his head. “How many times you done that?”
“Headin out for my third,” I says to him.
“Must be a wealthy man now,” he says.
I laughed at him. “These greybacks ain’t worth the paper they printed on. But they buy whiskey and women and just about anything else I want for now. And when it’s over and they ain’t worth nothin again, all good. I’ll just head back to the river.”
The boy nodded. He looked down at his beat up shoes, then shook his head slowly. “I hope it all works out for you, and you stay safe. You been good to me. My only friend out here,” he said.
I picked up my stuff, then I says to him, I says, “Now listen here, boy. You stay the way you are. Don’t you go bein like me. If the world was full of more Gordon Hallfords, we wouldn’t be havin none of this fightin.”
He looked up at me and smiled shyly. “Thanks, Mr. Drew. Or whoever you are.”
I nodded, picked up my bag, and started for the door.
“I ain’t plannin to die neither,” I heard him say. I paused.
“I ain’t plannin to die neither,” he says again.
“I hope you don’t,” I says to him.
“I won’t,” he says.
I looked back at him. “Maybe your God will spare you.” I turned back toward the door.
“About Delia,” he says to me. Gordon, he says, “About Delia. I should tell you somethin.”
I turned around fully to face him. “Yeah?”
The boy looked at me like he never had before. “I ain’t got no system like yours, you see. But Delia, I mean, I ain’t got no idea about her.”
“What do you mean?” I says to him. “You tole me–“
He shook his head, and he says to me, he says, “I don’t know nothin about where she’s from or her family. I know one thing, though. I know you paid so much that I got Delia and her two friends at the same time for two full hours and I ain’t never had nothin like that before.”
I stared at him, and he stared back, his gaze hard and unshakable. I tried to search him, to have him cough up his secrets, but he betrayed nothing. At last, I shook my head.
“You really ain’t gonna die in this war,” I said.
He shook his head. “No, sir. No, I’m not.”