By: Rich Elliott
The boys in the wagon whooped and hollered, delirious with adventure.
“Graybacks, look out!”
“Here come the heroes of Osky!”
Thirteen-year-old Joseph John did a drum roll on a barrel-top. Brrrrt, tap. Tap, tap, tap.
“That means ‘Advance!’” he informed the crew. “I just learnt it.”
To punctuate this, he punched his buddy Penn happily in the arm.
Joseph John felt he might burst with the emotions swirling inside him—excitement, wildness, pride, patriotism, wickedness, fear.
Mostly he felt, for the first time, free. Free from the stupid cows, free from shoveling manure and throwing slop, free from the hateful plough, free from the endless Sunday Meetings and the droning of old men, free from boring Oskaloosa where nothing ever happened, free from his vexing older sisters, free from Mother, the rule-follower, and free from Father, the coward.
“Good bye and good riddance, ‘ol Osky!” sang the boys, as they rocked and lurched in the wagon. In their too-big, Union-blue uniforms, they looked clownish.
“Here come the Mighty 33rd!”
Up in the wagon seat, Captain Gunn spit. In the sober light of day, he no longer found amusement in the boys. He cursed himself for being swayed.
The boys were like horseflies, they made him sort of crazy. Captain, you’ll need drummer boys! Captain, you’ll want helpers! Please, please, let us go with you!
That summer at Camp Tuttle, as the soldiers of the 33rd Iowa Infantry Regiment marched and drilled at the old Fair Grounds in the fierce Iowa sun, the boys wormed their way into the affections of the men. The boys ran black coffee at daybreak and brought water in the midday. They scrounged for extra apples and bread rolls and tobacco. The kids sold the Hawk-Eye newspaper, and they read to the illiterate.
Most importantly, they listened as the soldiers griped about the food and the pay, said Amen as the men complained about the course of the war, and nodded as they spoke of sweethearts and hometowns.
The boys envied the soldiers and viewed them like older brothers. As the men boiled their cabbage and wadded their tobacco and picked lice, the boys looked on with something like worship.
Finally, yesterday, the men of the Iowa 33rd were notified they were to leave at first light with all due haste to meet the enemy. The camp exploded with joy, and the boys joined in the howling and the bluster, the caps flung in the air, and the hip, hip, hoorah.
And later that night, after the boys noted how many times the bottle had passed around the circle of officers, they approached Captain Gunn. Sir, we’re ready to come with you! We’re old enough! Let us do our part! Our parents give their blessing!
Now, in the light of day, as the boy-cubs rollicked in the back of the wagon, oblivious to the terrors that lay before them, Captain Gunn regretted his indulgence. But dammit, wasn’t this the time for everyone to do his duty?
Willy, on the threat of a beating from his older brother Joseph, stayed home and stayed silent for as long as he could. At dinner, Mother and Father fretted. Where was Joseph John? He ought to be here for dinner. Where is that wicked boy?
“Dunno,” said Willy stoically.
It was only later, in the blackness of night, during the frightening interrogation by Father and the threat of a worse beating, that Willy broke down.
“He musta fell asleep at camp,” he finally said.
“Thou meanst the military camp?” Father intoned.
Willy nodded, crying now.
This is what comes of too free rein, too much spare-the-rod, the Nathan Elliott thought bitterly. The boy was too headstrong for his own good. The defiance!
The father wheeled around the little farmhouse, gathering his broadcoat and other things. Despite his urgency, he moved heavily, as if his sin weighted him like a load of ore. Mother, wringing her hands, watched her husband from a doorway. In the candlelight, Nathan’s hairy mane and goat-like beard shone like an Old Testament prophet’s.
In the October morning chill, by the time Nathan pulled up his horse on the ridge overlooking the Fair Grounds, he feared the worst. Where was the dark mass that had occupied the Fair Grounds all summer like a swarm of blue locusts? Where was the forest of flags? Where was the crackle and hum of the army?
He peered into the silence, astounded. In his chest he felt something return, a poison, he had not felt in years.
It took him a while to locate another soul at the deserted camp. A rear guard, lower echelon officer slumped in front of a solitary tent. The soldier was scooping beans from a coffee cup.
The father jerked the officer up by the lapels of his jacket and shook him.
“My boy! The army! What has happened here?” the father stuttered.
The officer, dazed, dropped his spoon. With his free hand he grabbed the father hard on the forearm. “Whoa! Hold on, old man, whoa! Don’t you know the army left camp early this morning?”
The father stared dumbly at the officer.
“My boy. Were there boys? Did my boy go with them?”
The father choked out the words, and the officer understood and softened.
“Yes, sir. There were boys. Maybe ten. For the drummer corps.”
‘By God! What hast thou done, man?”
The officer sighed, and now the dirt streaks on his face stood out.
“Old man, I ain’t done nothin.’ Talk to Captain Gunn. Talk to Major Gibson. They’ve all gone to Eddyville, and thence to Keokuck and down the Mississippi to the war. Whilst I gotta stay here in this mud hole.”
The father’s head swiveled around the ghost-camp. He desperately tried to will his son to appear.
Eight years before, Nathan Elliott thought he’d made his separate peace with all this.
His people had farmed the small, tidewater plots in northeastern North Carolina for a hundred and fifty years. They toiled like superhumans, wringing survival from the rivers and the swampy land. God’s wrath eased, and they grew their families to Biblical proportions. They joined the Friends, a religious tribe. They practiced an unstinting honesty that earned them widespread, grudging respect.
The Friends tried mightily to adhere to their religion’s many demands. They abstained from all manner of things. For example, they shunned warfare, despite their neighbors’ disdain. And by the early 1800s, they released their few slaves and then tried to protect them despite the hostility burning all around them.
The Friends sent up prayers by the multitudes, they bent over backwards to be good neighbors, they pleaded with the courts to show compassion, they paid steep fines for crossing the government, they went about their planting, and they prayed some more.
For the slaves, the impulse to escape was as fierce and unstoppable as breath. The Friends attempted to aid the escapes, despite the threat of going to prison or worse. Through trial and blood, a branch of the Underground Railroad was laid through Pasquotank County.
The station at the Elliott homestead, the root cellar with the false inner door, was a secret well-kept. For Nathan and his wife Mary Ann, their station was a godly duty they could not shirk.
Meanwhile, their slave-holding neighbors raged against the disappearance of their property and formed paid bands to thwart the escapes.
In 1850, the descent into hell. The Fugitive Slave Act, the “Bloodhound Law,” decreed that runaway slaves must be tracked and returned and their helpers lashed, jailed, and fined.
By 1854, Nathan Elliott determined his life in Carolina was untenable. Escapes were more brazen, his neighbors more suspicious, Carolina law more vindictive, and slave catchers, the “paddy rollers,” more violent.
Yes, God will test your beliefs. But sometimes a test is too much.
Over one frantic day and night, Nathan Elliott alerted his brothers they could have his land and pay him later. He instructed his wife to pack bags for them and their two daughters and three sons. He gathered valuables and necessities, loaded his wagon, and pulled a makeshift tarp over their belongings for the next life. In a daze the Elliotts rolled down the muddy road leading away from their homestead, heading north, away from the coming war, away from the South forever. They simply evaporated into the night.
By the time the 33rd Iowa Infantry Regiment completed their ten-mile trip to Eddyville, the drummer boys had become fugitives. The Eddyville telegraph office clattered with angry messages from Oskaloosa Quaker parents.
To: Eddyville Mayor
Apprehend, hold 33rd Infantry drummer boys. They have no parent consent. Repeat. Do not allow continuation to Keokuck. Parents will arrive to collect them.
From: Parents of Oskaloosa Drummer Boys.
Being parents themselves, the mayor and his sheriff mobilized. The drummer boys were easy to spot as they rolled into town, the bobbing young faces in the buckboard.
“There they are!” shouted the sheriff’s deputy, and the posse rushed forward.
But Joseph John and three of his friends spied the men first and bolted over the side of the wagon. They jacked up their pants and ran. They plunged into the sea of marching soldiers and skittered their way down Main Street.
They ducked behind a hotel, raced down an alley the length of town, emerging near the general store, where they were sighted, and the contest was on again. They flew through stables, upsetting horses, doubled back on the other side of town, ran past the saloon, under the train tracks bridging a gully, and then down a dirt road.
Joseph John had a brilliant notion. Make for a farmer’s barn, hide out, lay low. Sheriff gonna think we’d stick in town.
The boys flung themselves into the barn, burrowing into the hay, their chests heaving.
Hoo boy! Some fun! Ha! We got ‘em, didn’t we?
“What you think happened to our other boys?”
“Prolly captured and heading home by now.”
“We gotta stay true, boys!”
“Tomorrow we sneak back, jump on the train as it leaves town, before it picks up speed.”
In the middle of the night, the boys crept out to take long drinks from the horse trough, then returned to squeeze under the hay, trying and failing to stay warm.
The sun was setting by the time Nathan Elliott made it to Eddyville. His horse tested his patience. The old draft animal was not used to the miles and the pace, and he was stubborn. He would not be trotted.
Entering Eddyville, Nathan could scarcely believe the sister-town. It had become the image of Gomorrah. Main Street was clogged with horses, wagons, artillery pieces. Young men everywhere, sitting in the mud, leaning against posts and haversacks, smoking, drinking. Men in tight groups, laughing, singing, cursing, and yelling. Men with unbuttoned uniforms. As night thickened, men arguing and shoving. Men dancing a jig. Amazed peddlers moving from pocket to pocket. Women looking down from second-story porches. Everywhere a din that assaulted the ears.
Nathan searched for an officer. Someone with bars on the shoulder.
Some men laughed when Nathan accosted them. Who is this graybeard? Musta taken a wrong turn! Your war was in 1812, old man!
But one said, “Drummer boys? Why, yes, I recall drummer boys.”
“Where would they be?”
“Where? Why, anywhere, in this mess!” The soldier waved his arm. “Find Captain Gunn. Find Major Gibson. Someone will know.”
Nathan cornered a distracted man who claimed he was some kind of village clerk.
“Tarnation!” the clerk said. “Sheriff’s got ‘nough to do without huntin’ for snot-noses.”
“Did he see them?”
The clerk pursed his lips. “Oh, yeah, Sheriff got ‘em. Plucked ‘em right off the wagon. They up in jail. Waitin’ on their families to fetch ‘em.”
The clerk seemed surprised when the old man grabbed his hand, pumped it vigorously, and ran off.
At the jail, when the wild-eyed farmer burst in the door, a deputy looked up from his tattered copy of Kit Carson, the Fighting Trapper.
“Yeah, yeah,” the deputy said tiredly, waving for the farmer to follow him. “If you ask me, I don’t know what the big squawk is about. Should be proud of your boys wantin’ to fight Johnny Reb.”
The ragamuffin boys, huddled together in a dark cell, stood up when Nathan appeared.
“Mister Elliott!” greeted one boy. “Guess our service come to an end,” the boy said miserably.
Nathan counted the boys.
“Deputy, thou hast six here. Only six. There were more, I believe?”
Now the boys and the deputy spoke together in a jumble.
“Mister Elliott! Joseph John got away! He and the rest of our corps!
“True enough, sir, we’re still lookin’ for the runaways. Like we have nothin’ better to do with three thousand soldiers in town.”
“Ol’ Joseph John prolly leadin’ the 33rd into battle right now!”
Nathan stared into the jail cell at the band of misfits.
“So, old man, what should I do with your boys?”
“Thou willt hold onto them, until their parents show up, that’s what.”
“Mr. Elliott,” one boy asked plaintively as Nathan raced out. “hast thou anythin’ to eat on thee?”
Joseph John tossed fitfully in his dream. He was shoveling manure. His god-like Father stood near, towering over him and holding a long scroll of paper that descended to the barn floor and rolled on and on past the stalls and disappeared into the yard. With each shovel of manure the son dumped in a wheel barrow, Father read a commandment from the scroll.
“Thou shalt not swear!”
“Thou shalt not drink spirits!”
“Thou shalt not fight!”
“Thou shalt not go to Camp Tuttle!”
“Thou shalt not, under any circumstances, go to war!”
In his sleep Joseph let out a moan. Father now reappeared in the middle of a crowd in the Oskaloosa town square. He was bent over, and his head and hands poked through an old wooden stockade. From one hand he still gripped his scroll.
Kids with tomatoes were taking aim at Father’s face.
“Too good to fight for our side?” one boy taunted.
“You quakin’ in your boots, Quaker?”
“Coward! Coward! Coward!” the mob chanted.
Joseph John awoke with a jerk, the smell of hay and manure close and stifling. In the dark his friend was squirming back into the hay pile.
“Penn, that you? Don’t go movin’ around out there. Might get us caught.”
“Ain’t feelin’ so good, Joe. Got the shits.”
Before daybreak the boys snuck out of their hideout and snaked back to the town. They hung on the outskirts, being careful to stay out of sight.
Like army scouts, they reconnoitered. There. Four hundred yards past the rail station, past the water tower, past the last saloon. Right before the bridge. Plenty enough underbrush to shield them until the moment when they could jump the train.
The waiting was like slow death. They could hear the army rousing. Mustering at the station, the hurry up and wait. The train sitting, smoking. The platform dense with bodies, the pounding and scraping on the wood floor. More waiting.
By mid-morning the 33rd Infantry was aboard, packed to the gills, the steam whistle blast, and then the train began rolling out of town.
Joseph John yelled, “Now!” and the boys burst from the underbrush and sprinted. Sprinted while jerking up their pants, sprinted for their chance at fame. The bridge loomed up ahead.
Soldiers clustered on the caboose porch and cheered.
“Come on, drummer boys! You’ll miss the train!”
“Run yo ass off!”
One by one, the boys leaped for the caboose porch-rail and were yanked aboard by their grinning, older brothers.
“Welcome back, drummer boys! We missed ya!”
Nathan stood on the now-empty train platform. He shook his head and set his chin.
Seemed like he’d studied all three thousand soldiers as they boarded. Nothing. Now what?
If the boys had given up, then they’d eventually drift home with their tails between their legs. If they somehow got on the train, their next stop would be Keokuk. The next train to Keokuk came along in four hours.
Nathan stabled his horse and waited for the train.
The rocking of the train made quick work of the exhausted Nathan, and he dozed.
The wind blew out of the east, and the wet, salty air and cloud of lilac enveloped him as he left Sunday Meeting. It felt good to be released from the conflict within the white clapboard church, at least temporarily.
Once again, the voices of the Friends were at odds. Always the question of slaves and what to do. One after another, the Friends rose to speak their messages from God. But why do the messages disagree?
Nathan and his brothers and their wives and children had not progressed a half mile when the riders showed up, heralded by the pounding of horse hooves and clanking of rifles and swords. A dozen rough men with wide-brimmed hats advanced on sweating horses.
The leader, a pocked-marked man with one damaged, milky eye, stood up in his stirrups.
“Hold there, Quakers!” The leader’s whiney voice twisted through the spring air. “We have some business to speak.”
Nathan Elliott stepped forward and looked up at the rider. “I know thee, Rancic. Speak your mind, Neighbor.”
“Save your holy thee’s and thou’s!” Rancic snarled. “I have it on good authority now that you and your swarm be harboring fugitives. Which, as you know, is ‘gainst the laws of North Carolina.”
Nathan said nothing. His five-year-old son Joseph John cowered behind him.
“Well, what say you, Neighbor?” Rancic spit. “Gonna stay silent on this one?”
“Friend, we obey the law of God.”
Rancic turned and smirked at his posse.
“Oh, is that so? Well, He don’t rule here.”
With a dirty gloved hand, Rancic wiped at his ruined eye. “When we find your niggers—and we will find ‘em—you and yours gonna suffer the hell-fire.”
“We wish to live in peace, Neighbor.”
The leader scowled, sat back down in his saddle, and gripped the hilt of his sword. “Just remember what happened to your ‘ol peaceful neighbor Winslow. Got no skin on his back and near dead.” Rancic’s men laughed at this.
Nathan’s head whipped up, and he stared around the train compartment. Two men across from him were laughing at Mr. Lincoln’s latest joke. Something about, No matter how much cats fight, there always seems to be kittens.”
Standing in the back of the train compartment, Joseph John and his friends told and retold the account of their narrow escape from Eddyville. He felt heroic. He felt like the guy in that Greek legend, leading his pals out of the jaws of danger, and now they were sailing on to their next adventure.
Joseph John looked around in wonder at the crowded car and smiled. First time on a train! How to conceive it? The thrilling motion, the pastures flying by, the clatter of wheels on track, the whistle blasts, the hellish chunk-chunk of the impossible machine. Meanwhile, inside the rocking compartment, feeling easy, standing side by side with men, joke-making, card-playing, tough-talking men.
Well, wasn’t this just a million times better than picking corn?
In addition to these wonders, two memorable incidents happened on the way to Keokuk, one sobering, one funny. During the trip a rumor surged through the mob of soldiers. They might stop! They might deploy! A team of scouts rode up with a report for Major Gibson. Quantrill and his raiders had been spotted nearby. The 33rd could intercept them, put an end to their evilry once and for all. Let’s go get damn Quantrill!
But, alas, like most rumors, it came to naught.
The second marvel came at the end of their trip. Poor Penn was in the throes of something. He kept running off to “blow mud.” And now Penn’s malady seemed to be catching. Boys and men disappeared to unloosen their bowels. The train toilets devolved to ruination and became unusable. As the train finally pulled into Keokuk, more than a few butts were seen wagging out the windows, an initial impression that did not endear the 33rd to the townspeople.
But then the soldiers disembarked, tumbled out of the hot cars, moved through town, and more amazements were in store.
The Mississippi River!
Keokuk perched on a bluff, the great brown stately river coursed two hundred feet below.
The town of Keokuk, more populous than Oskaloosa, was now monstrous, about to burst. Soldiers everywhere in high anxiety, waiting, brooding, exploring, stalking, conniving.
Slaughterhouses disengorged frightening quantities of product. Blacksmiths in a frenzy, banged away in harness shops. Cooper shops backed up, dry good stores picked clean, hotels overflowing, saloons on the brink of disaster.
Far below, the muddy river was likewise animated. An armada of craft plied the waters—keelboats heaped with goods, rowboats with fishing nets, skiffs, sailboats, rafts moving with the purpose of ants.
And waiting at the docks, the glorious steamships, the Queens of the West! Towering smokestacks standing ready. Brilliant white double-decks, beautiful in their arched arcades. Flags and banners rippling in the breeze, pilothouses a beehive of purpose, and the magnificent paddlewheels.
The drummer boys stood agape for a long while. Then they resumed their marching shuffle in a cloud of dust.
Captain Gunn spied his pathetic corps and felt a pang of guilt. He pulled them aside. “Look here, boys! I found you a corner of a stable, where you can sleep tonight. Be sure to get your rest, you look like hell. Tomorrow we leave for St. Louis and the war. On a steamship!”
Gunn studied his bedraggled corps. “Just stay out of trouble tonight,” he said, looking at Joseph John.
“Yes, sir,” the boy answered.
The first time that Joseph John saw Captain Gunn, the man was standing in front of his squadron of men at Camp Tuttle. The men were in uniform. The straight-backed captain looked over his soldiers. In the captain’s gaze Joseph John beheld all that was noble about a man. In that bronzed, dignified face, the boy witnessed composure, confidence, and courage.
And in the evening, when the boy returned home, he wished he could describe the captain to his father. His father was in the barn. He sat on a stool, bent over, a gray lump, shoeing a horse. His overalls were mud-stained, his hair matted, and he swatted at the flies attacking him.
“Joseph John, carry that can of milk in the house, and clean up for dinner,” his father ordered without looking up.
A single ray of moonlight delayed sleep. The boys found comfort in the quiet sound of their voices.
“Just think! Us on a steamboat tomorrow. On the Mighty Mississipp.”
“St. Louie, here we come.”
“Henceforth to a battlefield somewhere, I reckon.”
“Prolly Kentucky. There’s fightin’ there, I know.”
“Could be Arkansas or Tennessee. Who knows?”
“Joseph John, what do you think you’ll do when them minie balls start flying?”
“The devil! If I’m still standing, I’ll keep drummin’ away. That’s why we’re going, ain’t it?”
“Well, we can’t miss out on this show. Might be our only chance.”
“I won’t say I ain’t scart. Cause I am. When I think on it. Just hope I don’t load my pants.”
“Ha! I nearly done that already today!”
In the middle of the night a disturbance roused Joseph John from a deep sleep. Next to him in the hay, Penn lay shaking.
“Golly, Penn, pipe down!” Joseph John gave him a push. “A guy can’t get any sleep!” Joe shoved his friend’s arm again. The skin was on fire.
“The devil! Penn, you’re burning up!” Joseph John jumped to his feet. For the first time in his odyssey, fear shoved aside other emotions.
Nathan, light-headed, claustrophobic, stood in a mob on Main Street. Keokuk was Eddysville times ten. Four boys out of twenty thousand? Absurd. But then he told himself, God does not ask the impossible.
Nathan resumed his search for someone who could tell him something.
“Friend, hast thou seen some little drummer boys?”
“Too late. Those boys turned back at Eddysville.”
“No, sir. But if you find Captain Gunn, maybe he knows.”
“You tryin’ to steal our drummer boys?”
“Ain’t seen no drummer boys. But if you see a good-looking girl, let her know I’m waitin’.”
Nathan dragged himself through town. He walked in molasses. He hadn’t had a good sleep, anything to eat, since . . . since when?
Got to take some rest, he reasoned. Jus’ a little. Even the Lord rested.
Nathan collapsed in the corner of a stable not fifty yards from where his boys lay tossing in a troubled night.
It came back, unforgiving and inexorable. In the pitch-black of a new moon, Nathan halted his wagon. His wife looked at him quizzically. Behind them their five children lay slumped, already asleep. Nathan listened as the second wagon came to a stop.
“I need to do something,” Nathan told his wife. “Need to go back, tend to the root cellar. To leave no sign.” Mary Ann started to object, but he touched her shoulder. “Wouldn’t want any reprisal to come to my brothers. I’ll take the horse. You go on, I’ll catch up.”
Mary Ann squeezed his arm. “Please hurry, Husband.”
Nathan informed Titus, in the following wagon, to stick with Mary Ann. Titus glanced again at the tarp behind him, said another prayer over the huddled runaways Tom, Pretty Bet, and Sukey.
Back at the homestead inside the root cellar, the kerosene ignited, but the fire went out. To get a draft into the root cellar, Nathan drove an old axle rod into the ground, making an air-hole. The fire roared to life. Nathan turned to get back on his horse.
“Well, lookee here. Strange things happenin’ at midnight.” Rancic stepped out of the shadows, his hideous face lit up by the fire.
Nathan peered into the darkness, searching for more patrollers.
“Kind of thee to come, Neighbor,” he spoke evenly. “To help me put out this cellar fire.”
“Standin’ there with kerosene can, that’s no way to put out a fire.” In the light of the flames, Rancic observed Nathan’s waiting horse and the fresh wagon tracks. “Looks like somethin’s suspicious here, Neighbor.”
Nathan’s eyes nervously went up the wagon trail.
“Yes, surely, somethin’s amiss. And I aim to make you ‘fess up.” Rancic, his face ablaze, drew his sword and stepped closer to Nathan.
In the split second before the act, Nathan felt unbridled hatred for his neighbor, he thought of the innocents up ahead under his protection, and he thought of the God who constantly asked too much. In one swift motion, he grabbed the axle-rod and swung at Rancic, tearing a hole in the man’s throat.
Rancic, eyes wide, clasped his throat, and tried to utter one final curse. Failing that, he dropped to his knees. He slowly toppled over, his blood soaking the dirt. Nathan waited until the man’s breathing stopped before he dragged him into the fire.
An army on the move is a sight. The waiting steamships were insatiable, voracious behemoths seeking to inhale the town. Over the gangways rolled carts of potatoes, apples, corn, sacks of coffee beans, sacks of flour, barrels of water and molasses, a herd of plump Iowa pigs, crates of shells, rifles, and sabers, strings of horses, howitzers on giant wheels.
In long, snaking lines of men, three full infantry regiments waited to board—the 33rd, the 35th, and the 37th. This third regiment, known as the Graybeards, was a curiosity and a testament to the zeal of the era. To join this one, you had to be at least 45 years old.
Major Gibson, Captain Gunn, and two white-coated doctors stood before a gangplank blocking the advance of the 33rd. An inspection was in progress.
“Damn shame,” growled the major. “Blasted before we even start.”
“Told men a thousand times. Cleanliness, men!” Captain Gunn shook his head.
“Well, we got our orders,” one of the doctors spoke up. “No one with fever gets on board. Gotta stop this rash of dysentery.”
He and his associate continued the exams, which were hasty and subjective, all of quick look at a man’s face and a touch on the forehead.
The feverish men were pulled out of line, told to form a group in the rear. The Estes House, recently converted to a hospital, would take the men. Several of the soldiers in this unlucky group became so indignant an armed guard had to be sent to control them.
“Oh, for God’s sakes!” the captain cried when his drummer corps reached the front of the line.
Joseph John gripped the back of Penn’s shirt, attempting to keep his shaking friend upright. Another boy was bent over, having just thrown up. All the boys had sunken eyes and feverish heads.
“Sorry to say, boys. You’re more trouble than you’re worth now,” Captain Gunn announced coldly. “Go to the rear. Get yourselves healthy. Live to fight ‘nother day.”
The boys, distraught, slowly turned away from the gleaming steamships. They shuffled to the rear, their faces flush with shame and fever.
The grizzled farmer jerked awake, his heart racing. Where was he? Carolina swamps? No, ‘course not, you old fool.
Gotta find the boys before they ‘scape to St. Louis.
He walked many miles that day. Down to the wharves, back up to the the bluff, all the way through the town, back to the staging areas, willing the crowds to make his boys appear, back through the town, past the stables, the saloons, the shops, the jail. Nothing.
And now the steamships were gone.
In the early evening, demoralized, Nathan sat on the lip of a horse trough. He rubbed his legs. Darkness crept up Main Street.
The slow clop, clop of a horse pulling a wagon. Soldiers swaying in the wagon. There were still soldiers in town! Nathan followed the wagon.
“Soons I get outa that hospital, I’m marchin’ south,” said one soldier.
“Assumin’ you get outa that hospital.” None of the soldiers laughed.
Nathan tracked the wagon to the Estes House.
“Yes, we have a group of boys,” a nurse told him.
She brought him to a corner where a cluster of cots was separated from the main room by a screen. The space was strewn with shadows cast by the dwindling light.
“They’re pretty sick,” she told him.
The spindly boys lay on their sides, their knees pulled up, lonely in their miseries, brooding about battlefields and home.
When his father appeared, Joseph John raised his head off the cot.
“Father,” Joseph said.
Nathan sat on his boy’s cot, patted the blanket, and was quiet. Finally he said, “I thought I’d lost thee.”
“Guess I’m sorry I caused thee trouble.” Joseph John turned his head into the dark so his tears could not be seen.
The father continued to pat the blanket. “Well, I’m here now. So.”
The following day Penn died. A doctor and a nurse stood over the little boy. The doctor examined his eyes, pulled a sheet over him, and the corpse was brought to another part of the hospital. Joseph John, still feverish, looked at the empty cot, astonished.
Three days went by before the remaining drummer boys were well enough to travel. Two wagons carried four fathers, three weak boys, and one casket along the road to Oskaloosa. The day shone with a late-fall, Indian Summer brilliance, the air still and the trees emblazoned. In the back of one wagon, Nathan and Joseph John sat together. The son had his father’s broadcoat draped over his shoulders. The son’s fever had broken. His head bent, he took long breaths into the broadcoat. For this simple action, the father silently thanked God over and over.
“Fall harvest near finished, Son,” Nathan said, trying to think of something that might cheer the boy.
The miles passed slowly.
“I understand how thou feelst, Son.”
The boy looked up.
“I know thou hast things tuggin’ at thee.”
The wagon wheels turned in the gravel.
“Thou desirest to do thy duty. Thou desirest to act bravely. These things I know myself.”
The son regarded his father, who looked very old and very weary right now.
“But thou art young. Later, thou wilt have plenty of chances to wrestle with duty and faith and sin.”
Nathan studied his son. “But brace thee. The battles leave wounds. Thou wilt carry your thrashings with you.”
The son looked at Nathan with surprise because this was the first sermon he’d ever heard from his father. The boy scarcely knew what the man was saying. But the son’s bitterness dissolved a little. He slid closer to his father, who seemed less a stranger.
Rich Elliott’s story “Thou Shalt Not” creates an arc that is unexpected and meaningful. Like all great short stories, it creates characters that have unusual depth. When I finished reading this beauty, I felt that I knew son, father, his beliefs, and a glimmering of their future relationship. That is quite an accomplishment in a few pages of prose! I have followed Elliott’s writing career from its beginning. He keeps getting better, and this is his best.