God’s Red Clay

Within a few minutes of dismissing the courier, the captain is leading his company into the woods. Not only are these Virginia woods as thick as any the Minute Men have encountered in Mississippi, the terrain is an uneven downward slope. They struggle to keep their footing and to stay together, made harder when the standard bearer folds up the company banner to protect it from further depredation and buttons it into his jacket. All they have to guide them is Captain Fletcher’s voice constantly urging them onward and the sounds of each other’s rough progress. “Holy jumpin’ Jesus!” someone cries. “Turned my ankle! Dad-blamed woodchuck hole!” Another man trips on a root and sprawls into a bramble thicket. “Damn it all to hell!”

Burgeoning around the deadfall are all sorts of tangled creepers. Poison ivy, brilliant red. Probably snakes in these woods, John thinks. Copperheads. The men are not so much marching as flailing their way through the undergrowth, branches flinging themselves into their eyes and thorns snagging their jackets and pants.

When finally they reach the foot of the slope, they discover a deep ravine. It seems to be at right angles to the direction they’ve been heading. “With any luck,” Fletcher says, “this will lead us east to the bluff and the 8th Virginia.” They clamber down into it, mostly sliding on their bottoms. The going in the ravine is somewhat easier.

However, they soon understand that it’s not one ravine only, but a series of intersecting ravines wending this way and that. For some reason, Fletcher’s pocket compass is of no use. He keeps staring at the thing, shaking it, swearing. “Could be the iron in these here clay walls is confounding it,” Jim White says.

Moreover, because of the height and thickness of the pines, and the oaks and sycamores, which have not yet shed their leaves, it’s impossible to tell from the position of the sun precisely which direction they’re heading. The sounds of the guns are now muffled by the leaves and by the ravines.

John has lost his bearings and knows that Fletcher and Lieutenant O’Brien have, too. They could be funneled off to the northeast and emerge, if ever, half a mile or a mile north of the Big Bluff. To add to John’s anxiety, Major is right behind him, stuck to him as relentlessly as his own shadow. Ever since they entered the woods the boy has been emitting a kind of musical humming, as if he has reverted to his African forebears in the jungle. John finds it increasingly maddening. He turns and yells, “Quit that!”

Major ducks his head and says nothing, but the hum continues. Or John thinks it does.

Sometimes they hear shells crash into the trees and explode. However, the source of the cannonading seems too random to navigate by. Are the Yankees moving the Bull Dog gun around, or are there multiple Bull Dogs, or are the Minute Men so disoriented that their perceptions are impossibly skewed?

Strickland looks at his grandfather’s watch. “Stopped cold, dang it.” Not one of them has any notion how long they’ve been lost. John despairs of ever finding the 8th Virginia, let alone the battle. Someday, long after the war is over, a vagrant or runaway will stumble upon their bones, still in their ragged uniforms, under layers of moldering leaves.

But now Fletcher orders them out of the ravine. Like monkeys, they hoist themselves up by grasping exposed tree roots or rocks that jut out of the clay. The climb is a puzzle, set for men whose brains are addled with hunger and fatigue. Having solved it, one by one, they then face the task of making their way up a slope strangled with thickets of briars. No longer are they attempting to keep together as an organized company. Each man has to hack out his own route. John loses track of the captain. He hasn’t seen his brother Ben for a half hour, at least. Yet Major is right behind him, still.

Somewhere ahead John hears the popping of muskets. Shouting. The weird warbling shriek of the rebel yell. Must be the 8th Virginia, has to be. The rotten-egg stink of gunpowder drifts past him on the breeze. Near the top of the slope the woods are not so thick nor the brambles so daunting. Flashes of sun shine between the trees, making him blink. He and Major have reached the edge of a clearing.

A shell explodes close by. In the same instant John feels that his right thigh has been simultaneously whammed with a plank and stung by a bee. His musket flies out of his hands. He staggers, nearly falls. Blood trickles through the hole torn in his pants and down his leg, staining the faded blue wool that his mother stitched together only six months ago.

Major grabs his left arm. “Gotta git you to a safe place, Marse John.”

“It’s nothing, a flesh wound. The Virginians are only a few yards away. Can’t you hear them?”

“I hears ’em. But you ain’t joinin’ ’em.”

“Let go of me!” John is hell bent on helping the Virginians to take the howitzers, to push the cursed Bluebellies off the cliff and into the river. He struggles to pull his arm from Major’s grasp, but the boy’s too strong for him. With his right fist John strikes a blow on Major’s jaw. The boy’s face, inches from his own, shows surprise. He doesn’t let go, though. Next thing, they’re down on the ground, rolling around in the prickly weeds, locked together in a furious embrace. John’s blood is now swiped onto Major’s pants. At last, with John pinned underneath Major’s solid body, they stop for breath, panting into each other’s faces.

“You should get out of here now,” John says, his voice hoarse. “The Yanks are retreating. Go with them.”


“Do it, Major.”

“Yo ma tole me to look affa you. Mend yo socks, she say. Make sho you don’ get kilt.”

“Forget what Ma said. The Yanks’ll welcome you like a hero, set you free.”

For a long moment they stare into each other’s eyes.

“Ain’t got no otha home but Miss’ippi,” Major says. “My people dere.”

John feels faint. His chest is so tight he can hardly breathe. He knows he hasn’t the strength to follow the Virginians to glory. Major gets up off him, finds the musket in the weeds. Limping, leaning on Major, John allows his brother to lead him away.

© 2014 Elaine Ford