"You ready, Jacob?"
"Yeah. Reckon I'm as ready as I'll ever be."
The boys, Isaac, almost sixteen, and Jacob, only thirteen, gulped nervously and looked to their right; down the line of the men to where their Commanding Officer, Major General Sterling Price, stood. He was waiting for the exact right moment to send his men out, the exact right moment to lay on the line the lives of thousands of men.
Some were impatient with the length of time before a battle. They muttered to one another and cursed and stole looks at whoever was in charge, urging him to make up his mind and send them out to the battlefield. It happened every time. Men would get riled up and threaten to charge out alone ¾ which of course they never did ¾ if the goddamn General didn't soon give orders. The waiting was the hardest part. Some men put so much thought into what would happen out there in the field in the hours before the fight, that they would begin to cry and make at least a dozen friends promise to write home on their behalf if they didn't make it.
Jacob and Isaac never felt so impatient, they didn't want to rush out and get killed. If they had it their way they would slip away from everyone else and run for all they were worth back home. Back to their mama's and papa's and little sisters and older sisters alike. All waiting with worry lines creasing their foreheads, and eyes clouded with suspicion at every rider that passed.
"He might be bringin' news of Sam's goin' from us to Heaven above," mothers would whisper to their husbands. And the husbands would stand at the windows and watch the riders go by, willing them not to stop but at the same time wishing they would, so that their thin and worried wives could stop being worried, so that the incessant questions from the neighbours: "Have you heard from dear William?" "Have you any news of Robert?" would end. Sometimes the riders stopped. Sometimes they didn't.
"This is it," Isaac said nervously. He watched the men tense as if waiting to pounce.
Jacob looked across the field to where the Union men lay waiting. Are there boys over there like me? Are there other boys just like me who think this war is pointless? Who wish it would be over? Is there a Yankee boy just twelve years old with is heart in his throat? Is he lookin' at me without knowin' it? Same as I'm lookin' at him and maybe not knowin' it?
And then the boys in Blue were up and running at them! Shouting and shrieking like banshees, eating up the distance between themselves and the Rebs.
Jacob and Isaac and every other man they could see, turned to look at Price. He looked to be as surprised as they were. He turned and gave the order for a charge to his bugler, but he'd hardly played the first note and everyone was already gone. By god those Yankees had come up quick, but to hell with them all if they thought they were going to take any one of them without a fight!
Isaac ran and fired at the same time. He was no great shot but with the thick swarm of Blue coming straight at them, it would have been hard to miss.
Jacob was terrified at the sight of them all, so terrified that he felt he couldn't move. But when Isaac, his fast friend since they'd met up soon after enlisting, jumped forward with no hesitations, he followed suit. And after the men around him started falling and the blood began to run on both sides, he realized that he was not being hit, and this gave him such comfort that he felt brave. Not only brave, but powerful! Invincible even! He fired and shouted with a vengeance. All around him there was mayhem and chaos.
It was fantastic.
And that's when the Minie Ball came.
It tore into Jacob's stomach and went out his left side. It stopped him dead and even threw him off his feet. He lay writhing on the ground with his hands pressed over the fire in his insides. His comrades ran by on both sides and a few even went over him, though they did their best not to step right on him. There was blood everywhere and not all of it was his own. He squeezed his eyes shut and then there was nothing but darkness.
Fire and brimstone, Jacob thought. I'm in hell! Lord help me I did all I could! The pain was so bad he regretted not listening to his mother and Sunday school teacher when they tried to tell him what happened to boys that went against the word of the Lord.
But he opened his eyes, and there was Isaac. Praise be it was Isaac! And he was still alive!
"It was…" Jacob tried to say, but his tongue weighed ten pounds. "Water," he croaked.
Isaac disappeared, then came back with a dipperful.
"It was… a good fight," Jacob said through gritted teeth. He tried to smile for his friend's sake, but he just couldn't do it.
"Yeah, it was a great fight. We beat them Yankees, Jacob. Pounded 'em into the ground." Isaac looked real sad. But not crying sad, the kind of sad that you try to hide, but can't, and that makes you even sadder.
"I… I'm glad… about that," Jacob said, and he managed a small smile this time. Then he coughed and nearly fainted from the pain. He spit and there was blood in it. Lots of blood.
"Where… am I?" he asked. If not in hell, he added silently.
Isaac swallowed hard. "Temporary Army Hospital."
And then he knew.
Jacob was not a boy to cry, especially not in front of someone he respected so much as he respected Isaac. But it hit him so hard all of a sudden that he just couldn't hold it back.
"I'm…I'm dyin'. Ain't I… Isaac?" he cried.
Isaac squeezed his hand hard, just like his mama used to do when he was sick and needed reassurance. "No, Jacob. Don't you say that. And wipe those damn tears so's you can save your strength."
"No!" Isaac said harshly, tears springing to his own eyes. "You're gonna beat that hunk of lead, and when you get better, we're gonna go down to that fishin' hole I told you about. Back home in Missouri. Remember I told you about the catfish? And we'll see your Daddy's good team of hosses, just like you promised you'd show me…"
Jacob shook his head. "No. Listen to me, Isaac. Please." He stopped for breath. "Write… write my Mama and Daddy… please?"
Isaac swiped at his eyes with the back of his hand. He called for paper and a pencil, and a young girl dropped them down on the table which Jacob lay on before hurriedly brushing past. She's no older than Katie, Jacob thought absently. Katie was his older sister back home. Though that girl didn't look as kind as Katie. "Reckon she's got…lots of wounded… to… mind," he said aloud without thinking.
Isaac took it as fever babble and prepared to write quickly.
"Address it to Josiah and… Hattie Harper… of Jackson County," Jacob said. And he directed how the letter should be written. He told Isaac to be sure it was signed with love and delivered promptly, then he gave one final convulsion, pushed his hands to his inflamed side, and laid his head back on the table.
Isaac closed the poor boys eyes, then turned and ran from the hospital and the whole damned war.
The letter arrived at the Harper household not two months later. Hattie looked over the envelope and it's hastily scrawled address, then opened it. She read it through once, broke into hysterics, and left it open on the table for the world to see that her baby boy was gone.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Harper,
My name is Isaac Cassidy and I was a frend of your son. Please forgiv me if the speling in this letter aint quite right. I never did no my letters very well. Your son was a grate boy and I loved him like a bruther. I woodn't say that about just anywon. I wish I could haf saved him and gon in his sted. But he was to brave to alow that anyway. He killed men in bloo and that meens he was well liked all around. He got shot in the gut, if you will parden the term mam, and he suffered his pane galantlee. But he did not suffer for long. I promised I wood right and I always keep promises. You can right to the army for his body. I hope you will bary him sumplase nice becus he was a nice boy. I hope this letter is all right.
I am very sory
Hattie was never quite right again. But then again, after that cruel war, who was ever quite right again?