This is chapter three of my Civil War western novel, The Month the Babies Cry.
Chapter Three: Micah meets Silas
Micah left the girl’s crib and returned to the saloon. Elbert was not in sight. Most of the soiled doves were absent as well, but the tavern was still full of soldiers. Micah dragged a stool to the wall. He set his hat in his lap, slicked back his hair with his hand and leaned back against the cypress boards. He blew out his breath and said out loud, “If you ain’t a sight, Micah.”
“Damned, if we ain’t all a sight.”
Micah turned to the voice. A solider sat alone at the table next to him. He wore the uniform of men in the Army of Tennessee—a kepi, a brown-gray sack coat and trousers that looked to have once been sky blue like the Federal soldiers wore. A rifle, wrapped in a quilt, lay on the table in front of him.
“Yes, Lord, ain’t we a site,” the man said again. He emptied his glass of whiskey and slammed it down on the table.
“You’ve had a bad night, I guess,” Micah said.
“I’ve had two months of bad nights.”
“Mine hasn’t exactly turned out like I imagined,” Micah said.
“Well, if we’re going to drink and talk the rest of the god-awful night, you might as well drag that wobbly stool to this table. What brings you Texas boys to Shreveport?”
Micah set the stool closer to the man and dropped his hat on the table. “We’re taking some Federal prisoners to Tyler.”
“Could you stand another drink?” the man asked. Without waiting for Micah’s reply, he walked to the bar and returned with a bucket of beer and two glass schooners. “You can call me Silas, if you care to call me anything. Drink up. And your name, sir?” He dipped a schooner in the bucket and slid the beer towards Micah.
Micah lifted his glass in a salute. “Much obliged. I’m Micah Evans.”
“I saw you go out with that woman,” Silas said. “You came back mighty quick. I figure either you were so wound up you popped quick, or you changed your mind about doing such things.”
“I changed my mind. I ain’t no whoremonger.”
The soldier nodded and his hand stroked the grizzled stubble on his chin. “I’ve changed my mind every night. Still on the straight and narrow, but I am not sure how long that will last.” The man drank deeply from the schooner and wiped the foam from his mouth with his sleeve. “I need to go clean myself up, but I can’t seem to drag myself out of this place. I’ve been drinking steadily three days now. Haven’t left except to go to the shithouse. Passed out on my way back one time. I’m about out of steam.” He took another drink. “Yes, sir, about out of steam.”
“What put you on this drunk?” Micah said.
“A hard question that is, Micah. One that many, including myself, have asked.
But the answer—that’s what’s really hard, and if I drink enough, the answer is hard to remember.”
“I don’t quite get the point of what you’re saying,” Micah said.
“I signed on with the 17th Alabama Sharpshooters. I was given a roving commission as an independent sharpshooter and scout. I could go where I please, and wage war at my own sweet will. Our company was one of those units attached to different brigades according to the whims of high command. Sometimes they only attach one of us—as in my case. Some idiot sent me to General Kirby. Only he didn’t know nothing about my orders, and he doesn’t care for sharpshooters particularly. He says that climbing trees and shooting men at long distances doesn’t seem civilized. Civilized . . . That was the word he used. There isn’t anything civilized about this war we’re in. Maybe there should be, but there isn’t. So, I’m sitting here in Shreveport till someone gives me orders. I’ll probably drink myself to death before the ignorant fools decide they’re going to do with me.”
“Must be discouraging,” Micah said.
“It is. But ennui and frustration with military intelligence is not what has created this black cloud of depression I carry on my heart and soul. Mine is a burden I’ve resolved and resigned myself to carry till I’m in my grave. Do you have a family, Micah Evans?”
“My wife, Erin, and a set of twins. I haven’t seen them in two years. I should be there instead of here.”
“You should indeed. I’m from north Alabama. I stopped at my home on the way here. The Yankees had burned my house. I couldn’t find my wife, and nearly lost my mind. Then I finally found her at a relative’s homeplace, and I surely did lose my senses. My cousin’s family had discovered her wandering the roads. The Yankees had abused her so terribly that she was addled.” He clenched his teeth and hissed, “She didn’t even know who I was. I didn’t know what else to do, so I left her in my cousin’s care and came here as ordered. Go home, Micah. Go home to your wife and twins. You won’t regret going home, and if you do return, you can get shed of that guilty conscience and worry that’s written on your face.”
“I am going home—right after I drop off these prisoners.” Micah looked at the quilt-wrapped rifle. “A Kerr?”
“No, a Whitworth.” Silas unwrapped the scoped rifle, lifted it by the stock, and handed it to Micah. “An English rifle. Ever seen one?”
“Nope, but it looks like a fine piece. What’s the caliber? Appears to be rather small.”
Silas dropped a three-inch, hexagonal piece of lead on the table. “ It shoots a.45 caliber bolt. Most accurate rifle in the South. One like this one killed a Yankee general at Chickamauga at 1,000 yards. It’s been rumored his last words were ‘They couldn’t hit an elephant at this range.’ Some other sharpshooters have killed Yankees at 1500 yards.”
Micah computed the distance. “That’s a far piece.” He thought of how handy the rifle would have been when he was a Ranger. The Comanches always managed to stay just out of range of their rifles, flaunting Texan scalps hanging from their lances and mocking the Rangers’ impotent helplessness. Micah handed the rifle back to him. “You reckon you’ll go back to Alabama?”
“What for? What’s there for me? For anyone? Nothing but chimneys of burned-out homes left by Sherman’s Mongols. Anyways, I seem to have lost all my gumption. Likely I’ll just stay here and drink myself blind and senseless.” He drained the last of his beer. “My mind is numb, my tongue thick from drink, and still the terrors of the heart afflict me so. I’m no weak man, Micah Evans, but I was not prepared for the suffering God has thrust upon me. How can a sorry sample of humanity like myself be allowed to live, and my Rosie . . . My poor Rosie . . . .” Silas withdrew a single-shot shotgun pistol from his belt, set in on the table and spun it. The worn barrel passed Micah and wobbled to a stop in front of its owner, pointing at him like the needle of a compass. “Bang!” he said.
“You best be careful playing with a loaded pistol like that,” Micah said. “They’ve been known to be temperamental and unstable at times.”
“Just like people,” he replied. Silas stood up and slipped the pistol into his belt. “You’re a good man, Micah Evans. I’m headed toward the shithouse, and I leave my rifle and gear in your care and under your watchful eye.” He dropped some coins on the table. “Buy us two whiskeys if you would.”
Micah had sat down with the two glasses of whisky on the table, when he heard the blast of the shotgun pistol. He slowly drank down one glass of whisky. He lifted the other and said, “To you, Silas,” and slammed down the glass next to the other. He reached his hand into the soldier’s haversack and withdrew a small leather-framed ambrotype. Opening it, he saw an image of the soldier’s wife and sweetheart. He studied the dark curls and sparkling eyes of this woman who had been a man’s religion until men in blue had ravaged her and by that savage act destroyed heart, hearth, and heroism in one vicious swoop. Micah thought about the men who had violated her. Such men were more than undisciplined—they were barbarians so sunk into cruelty that they had cut the bonds of decency and civilized behavior. And Sherman and Lincoln and others had set these wild dogs of men on even the civilians of the South. The girl was still alive, but no longer on terra firma, on this earth, but no longer of it. Silas had lost her forever. These thoughts churned Micah’s insides.
Micah slung the man’s cartridge pouch and haversack on his shoulder and picked up the quilt-wrapped rifle. He found the soldier on the ground behind the saloon. Micah pried the pistol loose from his hand and replaced it with the photograph of the girl. He draped the bloody head with its kepi and said, “Now you and your lass are together, Silas.”