By Scott Mastro aka tender bastard
“Um cold,” Douglas, the youngest brother said, rubbing his hands together and wiping his nose with his coat-sleeve. At thirteen, the War had been a game, laying in the grass or hiding in a tree, shooting then running like children playing hide-and-seek. Having not eaten since yesterday morning, the brothers had a gnawing in their bellies, a fusion of hunger and fear.
Today Douglas wanted the game to be over. He dreamed of a solid meal, a soft bed, and his father to be with them again.
“‘What chuh git fer runnin’ off tih be uh hero,” Buck, his eldest brother, said. At seventeen, Buck was the wisest of the three, his mood the darkest. His brothers looked to him for acknowledgment of what they did, how they did it, the reasons for doing it, and how to feel afterwards. The battle, perhaps even the war, would be over today. They looked to Buck for one last cup of courage.
Buck’s hands and shoulders were those of a man. Their father dead, he’d strapped on the plough and laid his back against the harness, furrowing the hard, rocky ground despite the crops comprehending the futility of poking their heads into human conflict. Nothing good’d come from the War, though everyone had been crazy to get it started. No one had foreseen that Confederates firing on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter would bring the nation to its knees. Spectators brought picnic baskets and sat on hilltops to watch the battles when the War first broke. Now it was insanity to look, or to turn away. The depths of madness both sides had been driven to were dark and deadly. The Devil was dancing a jig and nothing in their time on earth had prepared the three boys for this. Hunkered on a ridge, they watched the enemy amassing at the bottom of the hill. No yesterday, no tomorrow, everything would be decided today. Buck brushed the scar on his cheek where a home guardsman, one of the townsmen who’d stayed in the village to make certain everyone tramped off to war, had smashed him with the butt-end of a mud-caked 1853 British Enfield rifle. That was before his father’d been killed. ‘Til then, he’d been undecided.
“Whatever’s gonna’ happen is what’s gonna’ be.”
After their father’s death, Buck was finished with words. What he wanted was revenge.
Douglas tried to read his oldest brother’s body language. It was as if a poisonous snake had worked its
way into Buck and was hiding inside. Waiting. He hadn’t allowed himself to cry. He was the man now. Men did what had to be done. Like the thousands of others trapped in the hellish conflagration, the brothers were lean and sullen, skin caked with battle-smoke and dirt as if the soil they’d cared for was demanding their blood as punishment for what Buck had forced them to become. Too young to understand mortality, Douglas hummed Johnny Reb, the fight song that had bolstered their mercurial confidence.
On their stomachs, they peered down from the bluff, listening to the Northern soldiers crossing the river in the pre-dawn darkness. Their enemy, Cranston’s Blue Brigadiers, was renowned for their fighting skills and ‘never surrender’ attitude. It was the splashes made clambering out of their boats that betrayed their stealthy approach, setting fear in every Rebel on the ridge. What could be heard was far more ominous than what could not be seen.
“This here’s it, ain’t it, Buck?” middle brother Frederick said. Buck leaned against Douglas, tugging Douglas’ cap down over his brother’s dull eyes, then looked at Frederick on Buck’s other side.
“Damn straight, little brother. Gonna’ give ‘ese Yankees hell this mornin’.”
“I’m a’feared,” Douglas said, sniffling in the bone- chilling, pre-dawn cold, wishing he could will everything back to the summer of 1859.
“Ain’t nothin’ tih be a’feared’ of, little brother,” Buck said. “Yih jist got tuh git yore rear-end home and tell Ma to kill a chicken and fix us lunch. Frederick ‘n’ me’ll join yih afore the sun’s high in the sky.”
Frederick wondered where any of them would be at morning’s end. Buck winked at Douglas. “‘Ar feet’ll be beatin’ the porch rails afore you ken’ ring thuh lunch bell.” He looked up at the sky. “We’re gonna’ sit down tih biscuits an’ gravy an’ everythin’. Ain’t that right, Frederick?” Buck formed his fingers into a pistol and aimed them at Frederick. Frederick lowered his head, breathing like a man choking on his own blood.
The Confederates had been driven onto this ridge- top yesterday when the Union soldiers’d swept in. Savaged by yesterday’s invasion, what was left of Shokenaw, their hometown, commanded its sons to exact retribution. According to Confederate spies, half of Cranston’s men had crossed, the other half still on the far bank. The union army divided, it was attack now and kill enough Yankees to drive the Blue Coats away for good or wait for combined federal forces to march up this hill and slaughter every last Confederate. For Buck, the latter was unacceptable. Their father’s memory would die.
Hell-bent on a quick run up the grassy slope, Union officers planned a complete and merciless slaughter of every confederate-at-arms. Desperate for victory, anything else would be defeat.
“Closest yeh can git tih God in this whole county,” the boys’ father had said of this forested ridge. They’d hunted quail together here on those warm summer days that promised everything good would last forever. This morning’s unfoldings were overwhelming cause for doubt. Their father, Amos Withers, had gone to fight the Blues the summer before, and was anonymously killed during three bloody days of intense Gettysburg fighting. A makeshift gravestone next to their house read Amos Withers: January 4th, 1827—July 1st-3rd, 1863—Husband of Dottie, father of Buck, Frederick and Douglas—Good father, husband, farmer and soldier. Buck had carved it. It had taken an entire afternoon. He hadn’t wanted to finish, knowing that when he laid his whittling knife down, he’d
take up arms and in defense of his rage, his father’s death would be avenged. “An eye for an eye,” the Good Book said.
Running for their lives yesterday and reassembling on this ridge today, the three boys clung to the notion it was the closest place to God. Buck believed it was where his rage would finally find a home. His father’s death had pounded in his ears; against his mother’s wishes, he’d snuck away, taking his brothers with him. Rage had blackened his heart, such that, what he lacked in wisdom, he bluffed with bravado…until today. The line between heaven and earth had been drawn.
Buck had four notches on his sniper’s rifle. Frederick had two, having earned his second by killing a boy between his and Buck’s age. The musket ball’d thunked into the boy’s chest and sent him flying backwards in a spray of purple blood, tearing flesh and tender bone. Mortally wounded, he begged for water, crying for his mother and his home. Buck spat in the gaping chest hole, the boy choking on Yankee blood and Confederate spit. Frederick had fallen to his knees, dry- heaving as Buck carved the second notch in his brother’s rifle-butt. Douglas had closed his eyes each time he’d fired.
He’d chucked up tree bark and dirt, but it felt appeasing and he couldn’t say why.
“Y’all comin’?” Douglas said, hesitating, awaiting his brother’s fateful reply.
“Frederick an’ me got business with eez Yankees. We’ll be home faster’n a cricket runs from a broomstick switch. You git goin’ now. Run the ridge ’til yeh come to Barker’s Trail. Foller it down till yeh git outta’ these woods then take that jacket and hat off and mosey on like you wuz the Lord’s shepherd bringin’ His sheep home.”
“What about ‘ar snipers?” Douglas asked.
“Yih know all th’ calls, ‘n’ most uh their names,” Buck said. “Run fer five seconds, stop an’ give th’ signal.
Yeh’ll be alright, now go.” Buck shoved Douglas to get him started. Douglas snatched up his rifle.
“C’mon, Rabbit,” Douglas said to the hound resting at their feet. Rabbit shot a glance at Buck. She was his dog. She looked at him with perked ears as if to say, “I’ll do whatever you tell me.”
“Rabbit’s gonna’ bite a Yankee on the ass and taste Bluecoat flesh. We’ll bring a chunk home in ahandkerchief. You kin scare yer girlfriends with it.”
Frederick laughed like a tree branch scratching a window pane. Douglas tried to smile, but his jaw was set like the scarecrow their mother had made to keep the crows away. A Yankee had trampled it yesterday.
Everyone was angry these days, going at each other like rabid dogs.
“Why’s zis’ ’bout slaves?” Frederick asked. “Pa never owned nobody fer nuthin.”
“‘Tain’t about slaves,” Buck said. “‘It’s ’bout damned side-burned tailcoats makin’ Southern folks give up ever’theen’ and get nuthin’ fer it. Damned Yankee’s never got ’nuff uv anything.” He leveled his rifle and pointed it at the river. “An’ it’s fer Pa.”
He pretended to fire, mimicking the kick in his shoulder. People said angels hovered over the ridge that day, their sweet singing interrupted by the harsh sound of the long guns firing from beyond the river. Douglas saw angels hovering above his brothers’ heads. Years later, he’d tell it that way.
“Drop yer weapon and git goin’,” Buck commanded.
“‘Can’t run with no rifle.” Douglas laid it on the ground between his brothers.
“Tell Ma we love ‘er and we’ll be home soon,” Frederick said.
The angel-song was louder. So were the metallic whines of artillery shells arcing overhead.
“Go,” Buck ordered. Douglas bolted into the high grass behind them and was gone.
Frederick and Buck stared at the spot where Douglas had disappeared. A moment later, a cannon ball ripped a gaping hole in the ridge in front of them.
“He’ll be okay?” Frederick asked.
“Better than runnin’ inta’ th’ devil-world we’re ’bout teh.”
“We ain’t reg’lar soldiers, Buck. We done a little snipin,’ but we ain’t never killed a man up close. Snipin’ ain’t real soldier’n, hidin’ ‘hind a rock, shootin’ ‘n’ runnin’. Les’ drop ur guns and go home wi’ Douglas.”
“Won’t be no home to git to if we don’t swoop down here, bite some Yankee ears off, ‘n’ spit ’em in their faces. Ain’t gonna’ be no end ’til I get a mouthful of Yankee blood.” With those words, he sealed his brother’s fate.
“Ah don’t know,” Frederick said, running his hand up and down his rifle.
“Don’t need teh know, little brother. Just got teh do,” Buck said, cocking the percussion hammer. Buck looked at his brother. “It’s in God’s hands now,” he said, looking up and nodding.
Frederick inched closer to his older brother. Rabbit sidled between them. A shell thudded and exploded in front of them, throwing dirt in their faces and numbing their ears. Rabbit whimpered.
“Looks like stars on the water, don’ it, Buck?”
Frederick said, pointing at the river reflecting the shell- bursts like Fourth of July fireworks. The eastern horizon was a red patina, foreshadowing the day, men on both
sides certain God was on theirs.
“In between stars an’ Heaven, little brother.” Buck put a hand on Rabbit’s head and rubbed it like a magic lamp, then did the same to Frederick.
Fate came in two words. “Ready weapons,” the sergeant yelled. Both boys exhaled at the same time. Buck shifted his hand to the back of Frederick’s neck. Frederick looked into Rabbit’s eyes, then his brother’s. The Confederate troops behind them were pressing forward.
“See yeh at th’ bottom, soldier,” Buck said. His smile twisted into a grimace. Frederick’s mouth crumbled to a jagged grin.
The time for talking gone, there was nothing left to say, not even what would make everyone see how wrong all this was. Like so many other boys that day, in one moment, Frederick and Buck passed from child to manhood, musket balls sizzling overhead. Shells screeched. The ground shook. Their world erupted into a blinding, searing hell. A ghastly thud sounded behind them. Like a log dropping, their sergeant collapsed backwards, shredded to pieces by a shell that had made its mark.
As they pushed their way over the embankment, their souls abandoned their mortal coils to join their father here on Sugarbeet Ridge. Frederick tripped or fell. A flood of rebels swept down the bluff, bellowing like banshees, carrying Buck in its tide. Bullets whizzed and thudded, clotting puffs of dust and smoke. Rabbit ran step for step with Buck until a musket ball ripped into her master’s chest, catching Buck’s astonishment before he went limp, crumpling like a piece of laundry in a backyard breeze. Buck saw his father’s reflection in Rabbit’s eyes before his own glazed.
Gravity and the gods took his soul, his body slamming into a tree, a haggard lump among countless others. A rebel coming down gave Rabbit a tail-up kick and she ran, baying Man’s inhumanity to Man, all the way to the river. There’d be chicken and gravy waiting for her if she could find her way home, and she’d be Douglas’ dog now, if he’d made it safe too.
‘tender bastard’ was born in a manger shortly after the release of Blood Money ~ Tales from Two Continents under his birth name, Scott Mastro. New York City’s A Novel Way said, “His writing is like Jack Kerouac and Douglas Adams,” and Tony Norman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said, “There’s a thin line between sexiness and absurdity and Mr. Mastro is determined to find it.” He can be found on Facebook, Youtube, and, for a copy of Two Chimps and a Chump, at email@example.com.