Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Scrounger

**Authors Note** This is a piece of fiction I wrote set during the American Civil War. It is dedicated to Cooper Green, Dale, Tanya Espanya, and to all Canadians, those true lovers of liberty, and to my brother Bill as well.

The Lieutenant looked up from his camp desk and rubbed his forehead in frustration. He had reports to write that he was behind on, and the Captain was not a patient man, but this matter that he had in mind wouldn’t wait another minute. “Sergeant!” he bellowed. He almost startled himself at the volume of his own voice. In a second the tent flap was pulled back, allowing a blast of cold air to rush in, as well as admitting the grizzled face of the Sergeant.

“Suh?” he said with some surprise. It was unlike the Lieutenant to shout like that, as he had always proven himself to be a calm, quiet, and levelheaded man. The Sergeant counted himself lucky that he was assigned to man of even temper; a man who was thoughtful of his men, and of good moral character, and didn’t take unwarranted risks with the lives of the men for the sake of advancing his career. This was a man who inspired loyalty, and the Sergeant would have followed him into the maw of hell.

The Lieutenant motioned him in and the Sergeant only paused long enough to fasten the tent flaps behind to keep out the winter chill. The Sergeant stood at attention, or at least as best he could in the low ceiling tent, and waited for orders.

“At ease O’Brien. Come. Sit down.” He motioned to a crate just like the one he was seated on. The Lieutenant picked up a small slip of paper from his desk and stared at it for a moment, then replaced it on his little desk. He sighed and turned his attention back to O’Brien.

“Now understand, we are just talking here. This is just between us. You know all of the men very well. I want you to give me your opinion of Pt. Shaw.”

O’Brien tipped his head back and scratched at his bristled chin and thought a moment. As he thought, his hand moved toward his pocket, then he pulled it away and cleared his throat. “If you would like to smoke, go right ahead,” the Lieutenant offered. O’Brien smiled a broad grin and pulled his pipe and sack of tobacco from his pocket and filled it as he spoke.

“I have always found Shaw to be a model soldier. He is always the first to volunteer, regardless of what dirty job it is. I have never known him to shirk his duty or be insubordinate. I ain’t never seen him drunk, or in a fight. To my knowledge, he don’t play cards or dice. He is at church services whenever we have ‘em. The men like him well enough. He always has a helping hand for anybody who needs it. I’m sorry suh, I jes’ cain’t think of anything else. Mebbe, if you could tell me what you was lookin’ for, I could be more he’p,” the Sergeant trailed off.

The Lieutenant thought for a second and then showed the slip of paper to O’Brien. The Sergeant glanced at it and squinted his eyes. “Sorry suh,” he mumbled, “I don’t read so good. Could you tell me what it says?”

“I have had a report from one of the men that perhaps Pt. Shaw may be stealing.”

The Sergeant face took on a grim look as the touched a lit match to his pipe and puffed to get it going. “Well that won’t do. Can I ask who made the report?”

“Phelps, and I know the Corporal to be a reliable man. He wouldn’t have made something like this up, even if he had some grudge against Shaw. It just isn’t in his nature.” The Lieutenant looked over the paper again and turned back to the Sergeant. “Now according to Phelps, he found Pt. Shaw and Pt. Rector at their post on guard duty this morning at six o’clock. Both were alert and challenged him for the password, just as they were supposed to do, but they did it with a mouthful of food, a minor infraction. Phelps questioned them what they were eating and Rector told him peach pie. Phelps asked to see the pie and Shaw produced one half-eaten peach pie that was still warm. Phelps asked Rector where they had gotten it. He said that Shaw had it and had pulled it from his pack at daybreak and they had been munching on it since then. Phelps questioned Shaw where he had gotten the pie and Shaw said his mother had sent it to him. After several minutes of questioning, Phelps couldn’t get any better answers from Shaw, but he was satisfied that Rector didn’t know anything more about it than what he had already said.

“Maybe Shaw was tellin’ the truth,” O’Brien interjected.

“I thought of that,” the Lieutenant sighed, ”but you know as well as I do we haven’t had mail in ages. Besides, the pie was still warm. They didn’t have a fire, and it would be awfully hard to warm a pie over a lantern.”

“Maybe someone brought it to him. It ain’t but five mile ta town,” the Sergeant offered.

“I thought of that too, but the pickets further down the road and to the left and right of them reported that they didn’t see or hear anything last night or this morning. If someone had brought the pie, then why would Rector lie and say it came from Shaw’s pack? The only solution that I can come up with is the same one the Corporal Phelps arrived at. That Shaw left his post at sometime during the night and stole the pie from somewhere.”

“Have ya spoken to him yet?” the Sergeant asked.

“No, and I’m not sure that I want to. Your account of Shaw is the exactly the same thing I have heard and seen for myself, and I would hate to lose a very good soldier over something as petty as this. Lord knows we have lost enough men in this campaign, and we can’t afford to lose any more. I think I will just keep this under my hat for now and not speak any more about it, but I’m going to ask you to keep an eye on Pt. Shaw. Keep an ear out among the men and listen to see if anything comes up missing or stolen. Ask Corporal Phelps to do the same. If we do have a thief among us, let us catch him at it. If this is just a tempest in a teacup, then we will let it blow over and move on with the business of fighting this war. I think that is all Sergeant, unless there is something you would like to add?”

“No Suh, other than to say that the cook tells me that a good part of the rations has spoiled and he is going to have to cut back on the portions again, but our supply of coffee is holding out.”
The Lieutenant grimaced at the news but just nodded, did a lazy salute and turned back to his cluttered little desk. Sergeant O’Brien tucked his pipe away in his pocket before leaving the tent. It wouldn’t do for the men to know that he had been smoking in front of the Lieutenant. It would make them think that he and the Lieutenant were buddies, and that sort of thing might damage his ability to command their respect. Besides, he didn’t want anyone to know that he had tobacco, because they would all pester him for some, and he just didn’t have any to share. It was easier these days to find a gold plated hen’s tooth than it was to come across tobacco, even the cheap rough-cut stuff, and what the Sergeant had was fine, smooth top-shelf stuff, the kind that only gentlemen could afford. The Sergeant thought about this as he made his way through the ever-present mud to the chuck wagon for a cup of Cookie’s weak coffee.

The fire at the rear of the wagon had burned down to coals and Cookie was nowhere in sight, but Corporal Phelps was sitting on a log blowing the steam off a tin cup. The Sergeant looked around and with no potholder in site, he removed his forage cap and used it to grab the handle of the coffeepot that hung from the tripod over the fire.

“Good morning Sergeant. The Good Lord has seen fit to bestow a bright, sunny day on us,” the Corporal said. This was just his way, thought the Sergeant, to always claim that everything was the work of the Lord.

“A bit chilly tho’,” was all the Sergeant could add as he seated himself on the same log. The two of them sat in silence for a moment and sipped from their cups until Phelps spoke up. “Did you talk to the Lieutenant yet?”

“Yeah, he told me about the pie. He is going to keep it under his hat he said, and he wants you and I to do the same for now, but we are to keep an eye on Shaw, and ask around. See if anybody knows anything, or is missing stuff.”

“Harrumph!” muttered the Corporal. This was a close to a swear word as he would ever utter. “Ought to bring the man up on charges and get the whole thing out in the open if you ask me.”

“Well, nobody asked you Corporal, anyway, you had better keep this thing to yerself, ‘cause if the Lieutenant gets wind of you running yer mouth, you are goin’ ta be in a heap of trouble, understand? We don’t want to smear the name of a man who ain’t done nuthin’, and if he has, we don’t want him to know we are watchin’, unnerstand? You leave this thing up to me,” the Sergeant took a big swig of his coffee and wiped his large mustache on his sleeve.

“Well, this is a fine sight for the men to see,” said Cookie as he rounded the corner of the wagon with an armload of firewood, “both the Sergeant and the Corporal loafing around my fire, drinking coffee, and resting on their backsides when they know there is work to be done.” Cookie dropped the firewood with a grunt and turned to the Sergeant. “Bill, I’ve about run through my wood. Do you suppose you could get a detail together to fetch me some more?”

Cookie was the only one who was aloud to call the Sergeant by his first name, and the Sergeant let him because he didn’t do it often, or in front of the men. Besides, Cookie always set aside a little more bacon for him, and the Lieutenant didn’t even get that kind of consideration.

“Sure, Cookie. I have just the man in mind.”

“Shaw?” asked Phelps.

“No, I want him to have lots of time on his hands,” said the Sergeant. “Clear him of any duty he has Corporal. If he is going to get up to mischief, he’ll do it when he has nothing to do. Let him lay around, and see if he gets up to anything. No, send for Pt. Rector and tell him to report here with an axe.”

“Yes Sir,” Phelps said, stood, executed a crisp salute and left with an air of urgency.

"I would have rather had Shaw’s help,” said Cookie.

“Oh yeah? And why is that?”

“Well, for one Rector is as dumb as a post and he can’t seem to figure out when to shut up. Always yapping on about one thing or another. I can’t stand a man who doesn’t know how to quit talking,” Cookie said. “Besides,” he continued, “Shaw makes for a decent cook.”

“Well, Rector might be dumb, but we ain’t askin’ him to do any hard math. He just needs to know how to swing an axe and tote wood. You spend much time with Shaw?” O’Brien asked.

“A little bit, here and there,” Cookie said as he started to busy himself with stoking the fire.

“You sound a little cagey there Cookie. Is there something you want to tell me?”

“Nope. Not a thing.”

“Come on, you and I have been pals for a long time now. There ain’t anything you can’t tell me, and if it has to do with Shaw, I’d like to hear it,” the Sergeant coaxed.

“Well, I’d hate to see the boy get into any trouble…” Cookie started.

“Honest, Cook. I’d like to do every thing I can to keep him out of it, and if you know something, anything, it stops at me. But I have got to know, if for no other reason than to keep Nib-Nosed Phelps from goin’ off half cocked and startin’ a bunch of shit nobody wants.” The Sergeant sat and let his words sink in.

Cookie stood up from the fire and brushed his hands off on his pants, shrugged, and said, “Shaw is good at finding stuff.”

“Like whut?”

"Food, spices, stuff like that. Hell, the rice and bacon we been living on for the past week was some he found.”

“Any idea where he gets it?”

“No, and I’m smart enough not to ask. When bellies start getting empty around here everyone turns on old Cookie like it is my fault that half the food we get is rotten when it gets here. You may have stared down the barrels of hundreds of rebel guns, and had the bombs blowing up around you, and thought you knew what fear was. Well, that ain’t shit on a shoe like seeing grown men turn into a pack of wild dogs and turn on you when they ain’t been fed, or fed enough.” Cookie spat into the fire, as if his words had left a bad taste in his mouth, and then he turned his back and shuffled to the wagon. “That is all I have got to say about that. Just leave the boy alone. He isn’t doing any harm.”

O’Brien considered what he said and just let the air clear a bit. The fact that Shaw had been keeping them in vittles was unknown to him, but not surprising. After all, Shaw had been the one who had gotten the pipe tobacco that he had been enjoying for the past week. O’Brien hadn’t asked him for it. He just came up to him and tucked it in his hand after breakfast one morning with a “Here you go, Sergeant,” and walked away. O’Brien was thinking this over when he was roused from his thoughts by a cheery, “Morning, Sarge.”

He looked up to see Pt. Rector standing over him with a pleasant grin on his face and an axe resting on his shoulder. “You sent for me?”

“Yes, Private. Cookie here needs some wood and we are going to go cut him some,” O’Brien said.
“Just the two of us?” Rector asked, looking a little puzzled.

“Yeah, just us two. Is that a problem Private?”

“No sir. It is just that you don’t normally come out for wood detail. You are always busy, you know, doing sergeant stuff” Rector stammered.

“Well then, don’t you think it is about time I started doing my share?”

“If you say so Sir,” Rector said with a shrug.

The two of them walked off at an easy stride and headed for the tree line. All of the wood that was close to camp had long since been burnt, so they had to venture pretty far before they could find anything decent. After a few minutes of walking, Rector started to whistle as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

“I tell ya whut, my ears are sensitive Rector, and your whistlin’ bothers them to no end. Why don’t you and I just chat a bit instead,” O’Brien said.

“Was there something in particular you wanted to talk about?” Rector asked, sounding a little leery. “I’m not in trouble am I?”

“No, no, nothing of the sort. I just would rather talk than have you whistle muh ears off,” O’Brien reassured him.

"Is this about the pie? Because I know we weren’t supposed to be eating while on guard duty, but doggone it, it was really cold Sergeant, and we just had some to warm us up. The coffee we had was cold, and it was enough to keep us awake, but it wouldn’t do anything to chase away the chill, if you know what I mean, I-“

“As a matter of fact, this is about the pie,” O’Brien cut in. He stopped and turned to see that Rector looked pale and the little quiver in his lip wasn’t from the cold. “Oh great!” the Sergeant thought, “I’ve spooked him.” “No, you see I have a powerful weakness for peaches. My mother used to make the best peach pie, and I got hooked on them when I was just a yonker. I can’t get enough of ‘em. I was just wonderin’ if maybe you knew where I could get ahold of one.”

Rector’s face brightened and he broke out in a large, simple-minded grin. “Whew! I thought you were really going to lay into me about eating at my post. You know I try really hard to be a good soldier. I work on keeping my rifle clean, my uniform neat, remembering all the different formations, I-“

“The pie Rector?” O’Brien prodded.

“Oh yeah. Well, you would have to ask Shaw about that. He is the one who had the pie. He just shared it with me, like he always does. He is good about that. If he has something, he is always sharing. He doesn’t even wait for me to ask, he just gives me some. He is a good guy, never says anything, just a ‘here you go’ and he hands it over, and-“

“What kind of stuff does he have?” O’Brien inquired.

“Oh, most anything you could think of. Soap, the fancy store-bought stuff that smells like flowers, tobacco, cigars, you know the real good nickel apiece kind, candy, new socks or mittens, like these here that I have on,” he said as he held up his hands to show his thick woolen mittens.

“But where does he get the stuff? O’Brien asked.

“I don’t know, but he always has it. Or at least most of the time. If one of the guys comes to him and asks for something he doesn’t have, he just writes it down and tucks the note away, and the next day he has it.”

“Does he sell the stuff? He must want something for it all. He doesn’t just give it away, does he?”
“Most of the time. Sometimes he will trade, but he always wants something small, like a pocketknife, or a letter from home, a book or a newspaper, or even a cap badge. Once he traded three boxes of cigars for rebel officers sword, but he always makes sure that the other guy gets the better part of the deal."

Sergeant O’Brien and Pt. Rector stopped at a dead tree near a ravine that was surrounded by thickets and O’Brien motioned at the tree, and sat down on a stump and lit his pipe, while Rector set about his task. After a few minutes of listening to the steady thud of the axe, O’Brien spoke.

“Did you know Shaw afore the army?”

“Nope,” Rector said as he panted between blows,” I met him in training.”

“Where’s he from?”


“Hell Rector, we’re all from Ahia. Whut town is he from?”

“I don’t remember him ever saying.”

“He got any family?”

“Yeah, he’s got a mother. He doesn’t ever talk about her, but he gets letters from her all the time, long ones, but it is funny, now that I think about it,” Rector adjusted his cap and wiped his nose on his sleeve, ”they are always printed, like a newspaper. She doesn’t ever send letters she wrote with a pen and ink. That’s kind of funny don’t you think Sarge?” Rector gave one more swift swing and the dead tree toppled over with a groan.

“He ever say what he did before the war?” O’Brien said as he stood, tapped his pipe out and started breaking branches and dragging them off to the side.

“No, but he must have had a lot of school, because he knows a lot of stuff. He doesn’t talk much at all, but when he does, he knows what he is talking about. He can remember speeches by a guy named Cicero and all them greek fellows. He knows poetry, and can recite big pieces of the bible and Shakespeare and stuff. He knows all kinds of funny jokes, and all the names of the stars, but he really doesn’t hardly talk at all. The fellows are always kidding him because he is so quiet, but not mean like, because he is such a good guy and he always shares with whatever he has, but they call him the scrounger, because he can find anything, and I mean any damn thing.” Rector looked up, “Why the sudden interest in Shaw?”

“Oh, no reason,” O’Brien lied, “I wus jest thinkin’ the other day thet I ain’t never heard him mumble more than two words together, and he seemed like an interesting lad. You know, the kind of guy you’d like ta get to know. That aught ta be enough for Cookie’s fire. Grab whut ya can and let’s head back. We’ll get the rest of it later.”

Rector filled his arms with wood and grabbed the axe despite his burden. O’Brien did the same and they headed off at a brisk pace as the wind had picked up and it was starting to numb their fingers and toes. As they stepped from the tree line and back into camp, large snowflakes started to flutter down. Rector steadied his load with his chin and said, “Should I ask Shaw about the peaches?”

“No,” O’Brien replied, “I’ll ask him my own self.”

They returned to the chuck wagon and dropped the wood. Rector flopped down on the log and tried to catch his breath. Cookie was fussing with something at the back of the wagon and Pt. Shaw was pulling on his backpack. Sergeant O’Brien stood up straight and stretched his back and tried to see what Cookie was doing. Cookie shoved some large brown paper packages into the cache box and closed the lid with a bang. O’Brien ambled over, as if he was getting a coffee cup, and said “Whutcha got there Cookie?”

“Dinner,” he shot back in a gruff voice, ”and you stay out of it! You’ll get yours just like everybody else.”

Pt. Shaw slid his thumbs into his pack straps and gazed at the fire with a distant look in his eyes. Sergeant O’Brien poured a cup of coffee and as he blew the steam from it, he took the opportunity to look Shaw over. Medium build, medium height, straw colored hair, a boyish face, clean-shaven, come to think of it, he was always clean, teeth, hair, uniform, everything. And his uniform was tailored to fit, unlike everybody else’s that hung off of them like a feedbag. His boots were shiny and polished, and they looked to be brand new. As O’Brien looked him over, Shaw continued to stare vacantly at the fire, but as he did, his left hand fished around in his pocket and produced a little white paper packet. He held it out to O’Brien and said, “Some sugar for your coffee Sarge?”

O’Brien accepted the little package with a quiet, “Thank ya Shaw” and held it out to where he could see the print on it clearly. One side read Domino Sugar, over and over, in alternating colors of yellow and orange. The other side read Pure Cane Sugar, Distributed By Domino Foods Inc, Yonkers NY, and a bunch of numbers. O'Brien tore the packet open and poured it into his coffee, then swished it around with his finger and tasted it. "Sweet. Sweet like honey," he thought. It had been a long time since he had tasted something sweet. It made him think of better days. He thought of his son, young Dale, hopping around on Christmas morning, and how the house was filled with the smell of those little honey cakes his wife, Tanya, made every year. "Hmm, that's good," he uttered, then with one large gulp, he downed the coffee and returned to the business at hand.

Corporal Phelps walked up to the fire and began to warm his hands. He nodded a hello to O'Brien and seemed to take note of the company. When his gaze fell on Shaw, he grimaced but tried to hide it by turning his backside to the fire and warming it.

"Corporal Phelps, Pt. Rector cut us a nice batch of wood over yonder. With the snow coming down the way it is, I'm thinking we had best go get it now. I think five or six of us could tote back what's left. You spose you could rustle us up another volunteer?"

"Gladly, Sergeant," Phelps responded, "Green! Front and center!" he barked.

The muddy soldier who was passing by stopped his slow progress through the muck and squelched over. "Sir?" he asked with a down-hearted tone.

"Green, you have just volunteered for wood duty," said Phelps with a perversly delighted grin.

"But Sir, I just come off picket duty. I been standing out in the cold since sun up and frankly I've about froze-" he glanced at the Sergeant before continuing, "my tail off. I'm ready for some hot coffee and a bed. I don't need-"

Phelps cut him off, "Well if you are cold than perhaps you need to move around a bit and move some of that God-given blood and do something useful, you hopeless layabout! Now fall in!"

"Go get your rifles boys," the Sergeant counciled, "We will slide them through our greatcoats and make like stretchers out of 'em, and it will be easier to carry the wood thet way."

"I'd like to help Sergeant," Shaw said.

"I's countin' on ya," was all he said.

Pt. Shaw and Pt. Rector went of to fetch their longarms, and the soldiers huddled around the fire while Cookie made biscuits and the snow started to fall a little harder. Corporal Phelps sent Pt. Green to stack the wood under the wagon and out of the snow while he spoke softly to O'Brien. "Are you sure this is such a good idea?" he hissed.

"Mebbe," O'Brien offered, "but as long as he's with us, we know he ain't up to nothin'." Phelps just shook his head and held his hands out to the warmth.

In ten minutes they were reassembled and headed of towards the treeline. The deep footprints in the trampled grass from the first trip were becoming indistinct from the falling snow. Collars were turned up and caps were lowered to keep the snow from robbing them of what litte heat they could generate. When they finally made it to the fallen tree, Pt. Green swore a mild oath at the amount of wood laying there. Without a word, Pt. Shaw took off his long coat and spread it on the ground by the stack of wood and slid the rifle up through the bottom and into a sleeve. He motioned for Rector's rifle as Corporal Phelps and and Pt. Green looked at each other.

"Well, get to it Private," was all Phelps could say as he tightened his collar around his neck and stamped his feet. Pt. Green sighed and slowly pulled his coat off and layed it on the ground. As he reached for his rifle, a shot rang out, followed by the sound of a sharp thwack, and Pt. Rector fell over with a cry and a thud.

There was a big scramble into the ravine, with Shaw being the last, as he had Rector by the collar and was pulling him behind himself as he barreled into the low spot with the rest. O'Brien never heard the shot that spat from his pistol as he fired into the trees, but the recoil was enough to remind him that, out of instinct, he had sought cover and returned fire without thinking. "Stay down!" he admonished and turned his eyes to the trees in hopes of seeing his assailant. "Damn snipers," he muttered as his eyes tried to penetrate the snowy thicket.

He glanced at his men. Pt. Shaw was examining Pt. Rector with a critical eye as Corporal Phelps and Pt.Green tried to lower themselves a little closer to the bottom of the ravine. Four rifles lay on the ground where they had left them, covered in coats. They crouched there for a few minutes as the Sergeant worked it out. "Get yer arms boys," he said, and turned to fire into the trees about him. At the first shot, Shaw lurched forward and grabbed the nearest coat with the rifles in it. A bullet careened off the end of the gun and shreaded the left sleeve of Pt. Green's coat. Shaw pulled them into the ravine together and shucked the coat as quickly as he could and handed a rifle to Phelps. "You've got three shots left Sergeant. Why not make the best of them?" he said. He was poised to make another run, but waited for the Sergeant's nod.

O'Brien turned his Colt revolver into the trees and popped off a couple of rounds. Two maxi-balls whistled past him but neither found their mark. He looked over his shoulder to see Shaw scrambling into the ravine head first. He pulled the rifles in after him, handed one to Green, and then he started to attend to Rector's wound. Shaw pulled off his backpack and then scribbled a hasty note on some paper he pulled from his pocket. He tucked the paper in his backpack and grasped Pt. Rector by the wrist and started to count by his gold pocketwatch. When he finished his counting, he dipped into the backpack and pulled out some kind of bandage with straps and commanded Pt. Green to steady Rector as he applied it. "Good God in Heaven! It hurts like HELL!" Rector bellowed and thrashed around.

"Now Rector, I can help you," Shaw said in a calm and quiet voice, "but you have got to hold still. We have been buddies for a long time now and I'm not going to let you die." Shaw continued to speak to him softly and looked him in the eye as his hands applied the bandage. Phelps began to mutter the Lord's prayer until Rector told him to shut up.

"Is there anything that you want me to write to your family? Is there anything you would like to say?" Phelps offered.

"Yeah, I got something to say," Rector managed to hiss between clinched teeth, "You are a hog-nosed jackass and I never liked you!"

"Aw, that is just the pain talking. You don't really mean that," Phelps soothed.

"Naw, I think he means it," added Pt. Green, "and for what it's worth, I never liked you either!"

"Phelps, you simple-minded sumbitch, get down the gully to that fallen log and shut yer trap," O'Brien barked, "and you, Mister Cooper Green, head the other way, and keep a sharp look out, both of ya, hear me?"

They grudgingly went to their posts as Shaw dug through his pack. He pulled out a paper packet , much like the sugar, and tore it open. He pulled a small cloth from it and slid up Rector's sleeve and rubbed it around. Then he produced a small bottle and then filled a needle with it. "This will help with the pain," he said as he slid it into Rector's arm.

"You a doctor Shaw?" O'Brien asked as Shaw covered Rector with his coat. Rector closed his eyes and settled down, and with a soft moan or two, fell into a restful sleep. Shaw ignored the question and started to rummage through his pack. He pulled out a tin box and cleared a little spot for it on the ground, then he opened a little door on the side and poked in some small squares of what looked like coal. He squirted the coal with some clear liquid, lit a match, and the coal stated to burn instantly. From his pack he pulled a coffeepot and set it on top of his little tin stove.

"You are jes' full of surprises Shaw" O'Brien remarked. Shaw smiled up at him, but said nothing. Shaw pulled his little notebook from his pocket again and thought for a moment, then he wrote a quick note, tore it from the book and tucked it into his backpack and he waited.

"Whut are you doin' now?" O'Brien asked. Shaw held up a finger to signal that the Sergeant should wait a moment. He returned to the inside of the pack and pulled out a rifle that was much too large to have ever fit into such a small bag.

"Good Lord son! That is one of them new Henry repeating rifles! Where on God's green earth did you ever get thet?"

"My mother sent it to me," Shaw said with a smile. He handed the rifle to O'Brien as well as a large box of cartridges. "Here Sergeant, this will be much more useful in your hands than mine. I am a miserable shot. Fortuneitly, whoever shot Rector is even a worse than I am. The bullet passed through his side, but I don't think it nicked his bowels. I've given him some morphine to ease the pain. He'll have a nice scar and something to tell his grandchildren about, but he will live."

"Boy, you are somethin' else," O'Brien said as he shook his head in disbelief. "I sure hope you got some food in thet bag o' yours, cause we are goin' ta have to wait these devils out. We can't risk makin' a run for it, and there is no way we can flank 'em. Our only real hope is that somebody at camp heard the shots and comes lookin' fur us."

"Well I wouldn't worry too much Sergeant. Cookie had enough wood to keep his fire going for a while, but not enough to finish cooking the ham, and beans, and cornbread I brought him. He'll send somebody out to look for us soon, even if nobody heard the shots."

"Ham and beans and cornbread?" O'Brien's mouth watered. "Damn my eyes! The one night in two months we are going to eat good and I'm pinned down in a briar patch with you clods! If that don't beat all."

"Oh don't worry Sergeant, you won't go hungry. I've got hotdogs and all the trimmings. The coffee will be ready soon. I hope you don't mind instant, it's all I've got," Shaw grinned as he busied himself at the little stove.

"Instant whut?" O'Brien asked. "And whut's a hotdog?"

When the search party found them in the ditch they looked cold and grubby, but just as cheerful as if they had spent the day celebrating Christmas. The snipers were long gone and their tracks in the snow were rapidly disappearing. The hike back to camp was cold, but the chance to stretch their legs after crouching in the ravine for hours was welcome. One of the men told Sergeant O'Brien that the Lieutenant wanted a report when he got back. Corporal Phelps and Pt. Green hustled Pt. Rector to the hospital. Green swore that this was the last thing he was going to do today, and that when he climbed into his bed, he was going to sleep for a week. Phelps just "harrumphed" and promised that he would loan his bible to Pt. Rector while he recovered.

As they passed the chuck wagon Cookie called out that he had saved some ham and beans, and he would be glad to warm it up. "Save it for breakfast Cookie," O'Brien replied. "I can't eat another bite." Cookie looked a bit surprised, but then he noticed Shaw at the Sergeants elbow, and he just smiled and waved. Cookie was obviously back in the good graces of the men.

"I think the Lieutenant is goin' ta want to talk to you too Shaw"

"Well, there are a few things I'd like to talk over with him too," Shaw said.

"Here is your rifle back. I didn't get a chance to use it, but I bet it shoots pretty good." O'Brien held it out to him, but Shaw just shook his head.

"You hang on to it Sergeant. My mother has a hundred of them. Besides, you might need it when you get to Pennsylvaina."

"Pennsylvaina? Whut in tarnation would I be doing there?"

"Same as now, soldiering." He said it as if he knew something, but was disinclined to pass it along.

They paused at the entrance of the Lieutenant's tent. O'Brien scratched at the flap and was greeted by a brisk "Enter!"

"Why Mr. O'Brien. I am glad to see you." The Lieutenant rose from his little desk and clasped him by the hand. "I understand you had a bit of adventure today." He motioned them to sit down while he turned the lamp up a bit. "Tell me all about it," he said as he rubbed his hands together.

O'Brien told him about the whole thing, right down to Shaw's part in the escapade. He told him about the rifle. He told him about the little sausages that had bread just the right size to fit them. He told him about the mustard, the onions, the cheese, the relish, and the sourkruat. He told him about Shaw stitching up Rector. He even told him about the powder that Shaw added to hot water that turned into coffee. As the tale progressed, the Lieutenant kept turning his gaze from one to the other.

"Is this true Shaw?" the Lieutenant asked incredulously. Shaw nodded as he pulled out three cigars from his pack. He undid the clear wrapper that was around them and handed them out. "Where did you get these things?" the Lieutenant asked.

"Well, I didn't steal them if that is what you are asking. My mother sent them." he said, as if that was enough to explain the whole thing away.

"How is it that your mother can send you pies, and rifles, and sausages from Ohio, when we haven't had a post in weeks?"

With a large grin, Shaw said, "You don't know my mother."

Shaw lit his cigar from the Sergeant's match and sat back. "My mother and I work for a museum called the Smithsonian. I'm certain that you have never heard of it. I was sent here to collect pieces for this museum, and I must say, I have made quite a haul. Our Civil War wing will be the envy of every museum in the country. My reputation will be made from this trip alone. I traded some trifles for things that are beyond value to me, but to the men I traded with, they are worth next to nothing. I have swords, letters, rare books, uniforms, a few pictures, coins and banknotes, watches, rifles, boots. Anything you could name, and for that I gave them what they wanted most: food, socks, mittens, medicine, blankets, candy, you name it." Shaw settled back and let his words sink in as he puffed to keep his cigar going.

"Now gentlemen," he continued, " in the morning I will be gone. Please have the courtesy to list me as missing in action, and not as a deserter. I would hate to see my name besmirched from such fine fellows as you, and since we have a few hours before my portal opens, I would be honored if you would play a game with me to pass the time."

"Whut kinda game did ya have in mind?" O'Brien asked.

"Let me teach you how to play Monopoly," Shaw said as he tucked a note into his backpack.



  1. I have spent the better part of a week and a half on this damn thing, but I must say I am proud of the way it turned out. I hope you enjoyed it too.

    I promise I won't write any more long posts like this one, nor will I try to subject you to any more of my amateurish fiction. I'm certain it is a bore, but unless I publish it here, it will just clutter up some drawer somewhere and I don't need any more clutter.


  2. I'm gonna get to this in a minnit, but as I've been widcha during this creation, i think you need a reward. I think you should comment on Nice Ass Sunday as a reward.

  3. Holy mackerel, Doc, I'm touched (that's different from tetched, if you're taking notes). Once the Office Manager at work buys another pallette of Xerox paper, I'll print this out and read it. Thank you kindly, not just for the dedication but for putting me with such fine company.

    Book review in August. Mark it on your calendar.

  4. Cooper Green- I couldn't deliver on my "War and Peace" article, so I hope this will do. Think of it as "W&P". It runs about six pages and would have been shorter but there was so much dialog that I had to include a lot of line breaks.

    The whole story is a culmination of different things I swiped from other stories. I got the idea from a book by an author named Turtledove. The language for Sgt. O'Brien was swiped from Jonah Hex western comics. The characters are mine, and are a bit one dimensional, but they kind of have to be for a short story, even though I swiped names from you, Dale, and Tanya.

    I was going to steal your line about "hamster coitus" but I just couldn't seem to work it in.

    I've found that reading your stuff has helped me a lot with my writing, as well as reading some Edgar Allen Poe, the man who invented the short story. I hope you never get tired of cranking out your own brand of silliness, cause I don't ever get tired of reading it. Same goes for Dale and Tanya.

    Thanks for stopping by,

  5. SkylersDad- Thank you for the compliment. Have you ever considered trying your hand at a story? I'd think with all those years in the Navy that you could muster something. I'd love to read it, whatever it was.


  6. One one hand, I'm disappointed. There were several occasions when Shaw, O'Brien and the rest took their eyes off of Cookie, and he could easily have had his way with a hamster. The entire squad could have had hamster coitus for a little treat after dinner, for Pete's sake.

    On the other hand, this is a damn fine piece of work. Very readable, a great story, lots of flow, no soft spots ... I really enjoyed this, Doc, and I'm flattered to have been cast in any role (including whiner, but let's not go there). Better than War And Peace, and no sweaty Russians littering the landscape. Thanks, Doc.

  7. Cooper Green- I never really thought of him as the whiner, I thought of him as being picked on by Phelps, but with so few lines, I guess he does come off as a bit of a bellyacher.


  8. REDRUM, but that was TASTY!! Whoo!! Daaamn!

    sorry it took me 2 days to read this, but I've got 2 autistic children and a wife-unit who works for Das Maus at the holiday season. You know the drill.

    "Damn my eyes! The one night in two months we are going to eat good and I'm pinned down in a briar patch with you clods! If that don't beat all." I have GOT to work that into a story somewhere, or into the common speech. Maybe the next time we go on a picnic or something.

    I LURVE the ending, and nice use of "clear wrapping" instead of "plastic"-- I can see these grizzled, unshaven, cold n' dirty boys wondering just whut th' hell is a-goin' on 'round here.

    Shame we're not in some sort of art college-- this would make a WONDERFUL short film!!

  9. Doc, I hope you don't think I'm disappointed with the way you portrayed the Green character. Not at all! It's a great story, and I'm flattered to have been included. Hell, you could have made me the hamster, and I wouldn't ...

    ... No, wait.

  10. REDRUM, that was even tastier the 2nd time!!

    Now ::krakks knuckles:: you history-rewritin' foo', yew, what can you do with a 1700's famous racehorse named "Stewball"??

    There's a song about 'em that might help you-- Andy Irvine sings it. You should hear it anyhoodle.

  11. While I haven't been young Dale in quite some time, I'm flattered you threw me in there Doc. If only Tanya could cook, now that'd be a story!

    Fantastic job on this piece and a great twist there at the end too Doc. Just wunnerful and wholly satisfying.

    I'm sure my boss won't mind that I printed it off and read it on work time. He interrupted me twice and must have wondered what I had in my hands.

  12. I have to admit...something about a "Private Rector" makes me just giggle.

  13. I wish you were in my fiction writing class. I wouldn't be so freakin' bored.

  14. I had a feeling Monopoly was the product of a cataclysmic temporal anomaly. Take that, causality!

    Great story, man.


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