The Whisky Blot
Springfields still echoed somewhere off in the growing distance as night fell. He awoke, engulfed in dark and smoke. With great difficulty, he drew for breath and it pained him. He pulled himself up against a lone, tall pine at field’s edge and, back against the tree, put his fingers to the holes in his chest left there by the Minié balls. He coughed a choking cough. Bright, red blood streamed from the corners of his mouth and the holes in his old, grey coat leaked froth.
Surveying the aftermath of the battle, he could recognize nothing resembling human life remaining. Here he sat, by all appearances, the lone survivor. The blue coats must have mistaken him for dead, an honest mistake, else he would himself now be dead. No matter, death would come soon enough. There was no field surgeon now and nothing that a good doctor could do for such wounds save numb sensation of body and mind with what barely passed for whiskey and, if so inclined, as oft good souls were, provide some company until the end.
The soldier’s soul had been numbed long ago by pain of loss of country, his ancestral land, his family. Innumerable deaths were witnessed and replayed over and over in his mind. Once a devout man, he no longer feigned such, daring to declare that God himself had abandoned the South along with all the faithful therein.
Between fits of coughing and the adamantine pangs of death, he reached into a coat pocket fiddling for his flask. It was not to be found. After battles, mostly victories, those now fewer and farther between, General would ration out whiskey to the men and celebrate with them. Occasionally, the whiskey would be a balm for mourning after a defeat. There would be neither such this evening. All of the men, even the good general, lay before him carpeting the battlefield a dead grey.
What I would not give for one last taste of whiskey. It is funny what men think of generally but, perhaps, more so when upon death’s doorstep. And then his mind turned toward his wife, Sarah. This time of an evening, she would have finished up supper, said prayers with the children, and soon be tucking them into bed. He could not know that Sarah rarely slept these nights but, rather, spent them in a rocking chair in front of their bedroom window, curtains drawn, keeping watch over the path in the front yard for his return. Everyone knew that the war was drawing to a close and Sarah never lost faith that he would one day return to her.
From another pocket, he took hold of his journal. He took pen to hand and, within its pages, described this, his last battle, under the entry “The Battle of Sulphur Creek Trestle.” He described the events of the day, as best he could, how the valiant men all lay dead, how hope was now all but lost for his countrymen, and then his mind wandered back to his home and to Sarah and the children. He lay there dying, a mere seven-mile ride by horse from his home in Athens. If only he could make it home to say his final goodbye. He would have to write it and hope that the words found their way to Sarah.
Sarah awakened in the middle of the night. She had dreamt that her husband lay dying in a silent field, propped up against a long, tall pine, body riddled with bullets. He lacked all comfort save those to which he could recourse in his own mind. A man ought not die like that, especially a good man. How she longed to embrace and hold him, to comfort him in all the ways a woman can comfort a man. To wipe his face with a water-soaked rag…to put a swig of good whiskey to his lips. The dream was more vivid than the present dim and dull reality. She had seen him writing in his old, dirty, now heavily bloodstained leather journal and read every word until the end, feeling as having been there with him through it all and with him still at the very last. But she could not decipher that which he wrote finally—a single line of script. Try though as she may, she was wisped away from the dream to reality against her will, filled with the anxiety that only words unspoken, those impeded by the encroachment of death, can impart.
She sprang up, drenched in cold sweat, feet to the hardwood floor of the old, two-story antebellum which creaked as her weight displaced upon it. She made her way to the antique, oak armoire and retrieved a dusty, crystal decanter and poured herself a glass of whiskey. It was still stiff and hot. She poured another, drinking it swiftly, as medicine for nerves burned frazzled.
On edge, senses heightened from the dream, to which she was still trying to reenter, she heard a rustling noise outside. Someone was on the front porch and, at this hour, this could not bode well. From a drawer within the armoire, she carefully removed her husband’s Griswold & Gunnison .36 caliber six-shooter sliding it from its well-worn, leather holster. She crept down the stairs, walking to the edge to avoid alerting any intruder to her awareness of the situation. She was ready to kill a Yankee if she had to, or one of those bastards who refused to fight with the real men, and even boys, of the South.
She took her French chemise gown in left hand and pulled it up as she glided silently toward the front door, black powder firearm in the right. A lone candle on the mantle cast just enough light. Back to the wall, she could clearly discern the shuffling of feet and heard the wooden planks of the porch creak. It was almost as if something were being dragged across it. Sarah inhaled a silent, but deep breath, slowly turned the key in the cast iron passage lock praying for no “click” or “clank.” She swung the door open and pulled back on the hammer, cocking the pistol and found herself pointing it toward a specter of a figure standing shadowlike in the inky darkness of the night.
Sarah was terrified but she would not show it. “State your business stranger and make it quick! We are quick on the trigger in these parts!”
He stood there in the darkness, silent. Or at least she thought it to be silence but then, at once, she could discern that the stranger was, in fact, speaking, rather trying to speak but so softly as to barely be audible over the cool, southern wind rusting through the magnolias.
The man stumbled forward and it was enough that the candlelight illuminated his face. It was her husband. Before she could say his name, he fell toward her and as he fell, she quickly dropped the gun, catching him, falling to the floor alongside him. A hard breeze blew past them, the candle flickered, their eyes met glistening in the dim light accented by tears as precious as diamonds.
She held him. She said his name over and over. She cried. She placed her hands upon his now gaunt, ashy, and bloodstained cheeks, fixing her eyes upon his, then closing them, and pressed her lips gently against his, red and salty from the tint of blood. She tasted death. He tasted whiskey. And then he passed from this life to the next, steadfast in her arms.
The sun was soon up and shining morning’s first light in through the doorway. Sarah, lay there, still, having never let him go all the while weeping inconsolably through the final hours of night.
It was by light of dawn that Sarah noticed the tattered journal protruding from underneath the flap of a coat pocket. She took it carefully to hand and turned through the stained pages and read, best she could, through a veil of saline. Remembering her dream, she turned to the last entry and read of the efforts of the valiant men in the battle for the trestle, moreover their homeland, and the subsequent tragedy of their demise. She had, indeed, seen from within her dream, or so it seemed to her, her husband write these very words. She read further…fond recollections of herself and of their children. And then, finally, she came to that last line penned by her husband within his journal on that fateful night…those words that she had tried so very hard to read in the dream before she was so abruptly divorced from that place and returned to the cold reality of her present life. It read, “Sarah, wake up.”
*This piece first appeared in The Chamber Magazine, July 30, 2021.*
Shane Huey, editor of The Whisky Blot, writes from his home in Florida where he resides with his wife and son. www.shanehuey.net.
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