All was silence, except for the songs of the crickets. Jeff felt like he didn’t dare breath, lest any unwanted discoverer should hear him. He grabbed Jim’s arm.
“We are lost!” he said in a hoarse whisper. “You didn’t know anything about what you were doing, did you?”
Jim hung his head but didn’t say anything. Jeff let go of his arm and sighed. “Why did I ever listen to you?”
“You didn’t have too,” Jim snapped.
Jeff was too tired to argue. He just wanted to be back on his cot, as miserable as it had been. Even being in the army where he at least knew where his next meal was coming from, and that he had a cot to sleep on, was better than being out here not knowing whether he would actually make it through the night.
Suddenly, a beam of light hit the two young men. Jeff jumped and squinted. He felt his heart beating faster. Someone had discovered them!
“Who are you? What are you doing here?” a deep voice said. Jim just stood there shaking. He obviously wasn’t going to be of any help. Jeff was shaking too, but he decided he couldn’t run away from whoever this was.
“We’re lost,” Jeff admitted. The man lowered the lantern and Jeff could see a little bit of his face. It looked stern, but Jeff could see a hint of pity and kindness in them, and almost a little amusement. He instantly felt a wave of relief for some reason. Maybe this guy would help them.
“Lost?” the stranger asked. “From where?”
“From our camp,” Jeff replied. So specific! He thought to himself.
“What are you doing way out here at this time of night if you’re supposed to be in your cot sleeping?” Jeff hung his head. He knew what the answer was to that question. And he didn’t want to admit it. He felt increasingly ashamed. Oh, why had he ever listened to Jim?
“You’re Confederates, aren’t you?” the stranger asked again.
“Yes, sir. Members of the 61st Georgia Volunteer Infantry.”
“And you’re lost?”
“Yes, sir,” Jeff blushed. The stranger sighed audibly. “Follow me,” he said.
The stranger turned, and Jeff gasped, rooted to the spot. He was wearing a Union uniform! Jeff was afraid to follow him. In 30 seconds, all the horror stories of POW camps he’d ever heard rushed back to him and hit him like a brick wall. His heart began to beat.
Is this what I get in answer to a prayer? Some God you are! Jeff screamed angrily in his mind. God was no god at all if he couldn’t answer a simple prayer like that. Jeff knew now what he thought of God. God didn’t care. Not only did he not care, but he was downright cruel to make this happen. No! Jeff would never believe in God. Ever!
All the angry thoughts and feelings rushed through him at once. We wanted to lash out at anything and anyone. He wanted to lash out at God, he wanted to lash out at the union soldier. More than ever, he wanted to give Jim a beating he would not soon forget.
The Union soldier turned around when neither Jim nor Jeff followed him. He looked at them through the dim flame of his lamp. “Well?” he asked with a tinge of a smile in his voice. “Don’t you want to get back to your camp?”
Jeff’s mouth fell open. This guy was showing them back to their Infantry?
Jeff hesitantly put a foot forward, and then another one. The Yankee smiled and turned around and continued to walk. The boys had no choice but to follow him. He led them through trees and bushes, over a stream, and through a couple small ravines. Finally, they got to the top of one ridge, and they looked down and saw the lights their Infantry. They turned to their Yankee benefactor.
“I…we… don’t know what to say,” Jeff stuttered. The Yankee smiled. “Never mind, son. You don’t have to thank me. Now, you just follow that little trail there, and it’ll take you right into your Infantry. This is as far as I can go. I’ll watch you from here.” Jeff didn’t move. The Yankee smiled. “Well, go on now.”
Jeff began to walk. He slipped and slid down the mountain with Jim at his heels, but they made it down. Once down on level ground, Jeff looked back up to the ridge. He could see one small glow of a lantern waving in the air. Jeff smiled and waved back at it. Then he watched as it made its way back the way they had come, and it disappeared out of sight. But Jeff still stood and stared at that spot for a long time. Jim pulled on his sleeve.
“Let’s go man! We can still make it from here. Nobody will ever miss us.
”Jeff turned and looked at Jim. How dense could this guy be?
“No, Jim,” Jeff said.
“What?” Jim said, as if he couldn’t believe what Jeff had just said. Jeff turned to Jim.
“You go on if you must,” he looked back at the ridge, then to Jim, then to the tents of their Infantry. “I’m going to bed.”
Jim’s jaw dropped. “You’re crazy!” Jeff shook his head.
“No, Jim. You’re the crazy one. We just witnessed a miracle. I know we did. And if you’re dense enough to brush that aside and try deserting again, you’ve gotta be downright stupid to try.”
Jim grumbled something under his breath, but grudgingly followed Jeff back to camp. They slipped past the still-sleeping guards, and each to their own tents.
As Jeff snuggled under his incredibly warm blanket, and buried himself in his unbelievably soft cot, his mind whirled in soup pot of thoughts. He knew that that Yankee was a miracle, and his answer to prayer. He felt ashamed that he’d gotten so mad at God, and was so quick to judge the situation. He stared wide-eyed at the roof of canvass as he realized that Jake’s God had proved Himself. Jake’s God had proved Himself to Jefferson Marshall Lee Lawson! To him! Jeff’s heart soared as he realized that God really was up there, and that he really did care!
And Jeff thought of the Yankee himself. Why had he done it? Why had he helped his enemies? Why had he been so kind to them? Why?
And then Jeff thought of the girl that had saved his life in that barn those many months ago. Had it already been last year? Jeff wondered about her again. Oh, he wished he could remember her name! He wished he could talk to her again. Maybe she had the same thing that Old Jake, and the Yankee had. Maybe she knew God, too. Maybe that’s why she had been so kind to him in that barn.
“Who was she, God?” he whispered quietly to himself. “Why did she do what she did? Where is she now? God, you heard me once. I want to see that girl again. I don’t know how. I don’t know when. But, I think you can take care of it.” Jeff’s eyes were heavy. He knew he was going to be drowsy in the morning, but somehow, it didn’t matter. He was safely in his cot, which he didn’t think he could ever miss so much again, and he knew God had answered his prayer.
He smiled. As he drifted off to sleep, one thought ran around and around in his head, God is real!
Jeff’s heavy breathing seemed to go off like cannon fire in his ears. Nothing could be heard except a few coughs now and then, and men breathing. Jeff gripped his rifle and waited. And waited…and waited. The worst part was that he didn’t know what he was waiting for. He felt jumpy, and anxious. His breathing was shallow, and he dare not take a deep breath.
Jeff felt his muscles tense, and he heard one of his comrades next to him stiffen and shift uneasily. Jeff wondered why general Grant had to invade Virginia. He sighed as he thought about it being their duty to stop him here in Spotsylvania. He wondered if general Grant knew about their attempts.
Of course, they all knew that general Grant had been advancing far into Virginia for some months now. It was no secret to anyone. What was a secret, was that they didn’t know what course he would take. They knew his goal was Charleston, but they didn’t know how he was going to get there. It was kind of like a game of cat and mouse.
Jeff fingered the trigger of his rifle, as he let his mind wander. He had to! He was dying of the suspense, and the uneasy quiet was driving him crazy. Jeff thought back on home.
He guessed his mother and his little brothers were probably eating right about now. He wondered what they were eating. He wondered if it was any better than what they fed him, but he rather doubted it. In some parts of the South they had to ration the food. Jeff’s mind wandered back to when he was a little boy.
As a boy he’d always loved mealtimes. Well…ok, not always. There was a time when he would refuse to come indoors to eat because he was too busy building a fort in the woods, or constructing a dam in the creek. But when he did get old enough to appreciate the meals his mother made, he loved them to pieces. Well, more like he ate them in pieces.
His mother was Southern lady to the core, and she never consented to having the slaves cook the meals. She always did them herself. The slaves helped, for sure, but Mother usually was the main star in the kitchen. And boy! Could she make the best apple pie in the world! Jeff smiled as he thought about it. He could almost taste it now…
Suddenly there was a rifle shot that rang through the air, instantly snapping Jeff’s mind out of his daydream. In minutes all was chaos. There was shouting and fighting, rifle and cannon fire, and the screams of men dying. The Battle of Spotsylvania courthouse had begun. Little did the men know that this intense battle would last for 2 weeks. The date: May 8, 1864.
The fighting continued and Jeff lost all track of reality. It’s like he wasn’t in control anymore, instinct had kicked in. It was a constant, never ending cycle of reload, aim, shoot, reload, aim, shoot, broken up between repositioning, dodging, ducking, running. Jeff saw his comrades fall all around him, yet still he had to keep going.
The days seemed to drag, and Jeff wasn’t aware what was happening around him. He seemed to fall into a daze, and just mechanically carry out what a soldier does. It didn’t even occur to him what exactly he was doing. Until one day.
They were about a week into the fighting. Every man was exhausted, but they pushed on. Then, Jeff’s division ran out of ammunition. Barely a round was left. The men didn’t know what to do. They couldn’t let on to Grant’s men that they were out. Suddenly, the enemy began to charge.
In panic, they barely heard the command to attach bayonets to their rifles. Then, they were told to charge into the oncoming enemy and bayonet them.
They charged forward, screaming and yelling to give a bluff of bravery. But on the inside, many of them knew that the oncoming enemy was the last thing they were ever going to see. And then the bloodshed began. Yankees being bayoneted and sliced to death, and Rebels being shot at point black range. Jeff sort of stood, there, not knowing what to do.
Then a Yankee came charging at him, yelling something unintelligible. Jeff’s muscles acting on impulse, and he thrust his bayonet forward and pulled it back. He hacked and he sliced and he thrust with the reflexes of a madman, not directing his thrusts, not planning his blows. He acted out of fear and confusion.
When he finally stopped hacking, and looked down, he wished he never had. He wished he’d just moved on, because the sight would haunt him for the rest of his life. The man lay dead at his feet. Basically hacked to death. And Jeff had done it. The man was all cut up, and things that should have been inside of him, were now visible from the outside. Jeff stared in horror. His mind whirled, and his thoughts all mashed themselves together. I did that. I killed him. All I’m doing is killing people out here. What have I done? I killed him. I killed him.
A shot rang out, and Jeff felt a sharp pain. He felt himself falling backwards, and it felt like it was all in slow motion. Jeff looked up to the sky and immediately he thought, This is it. I’m dead. God, don’t let my mother cry. The world began to spin and fade in and out. Jeff felt himself hit the ground… and then everything went black.