The Minstrel Boy by M.E.

Word count: 3,895

Every Saint Patrick’s Day, it returned.

“Aye, lieutenant, I made a right bags of me arm.”

Even though Scott knew he was dreaming, it didn’t matter. He was there, and Corporal McCormack was there, and all of it was as real as the day it happened.

“I told you not to work on that trench until your cut healed.”

Scott had hoped when he left Boston for California, he could leave the dream behind. But in this first March in his new home, Saint Patrick’s Day and its faithful companion arrived together, as usual.

The pair sat on the ground in the paltry shade afforded by one of the Confederate prison camp’s modest sleeping tents. McCormack drew his hand through his wavy brown hair, which had developed strands of gray during his time inside. “Now then, and what was it I was supposed to say to our friendly keepers when they insisted that I pull me own weight?”

When Patrick McCormack was with the non-Irish in the camp, his bright accent dulled after his nearly twenty years in America. Only when he was around his Chicago mates from back home was his accent this fresh and thick. Scott knew that was a warning sign, but only afterwards.

Scott shook his head. The wound across the corporal’s forearm had festered, and the color and odor of the flesh could not be ignored.

McCormack’s wistful smile faded, but only slightly. “Yes, sir. I know what it is, too. It’s the gangrene.”

Scott hated to say it. “The surgeon here has some skill. And he’s a decent man. He should be able to save most of your upper arm.”

“And how am I supposed to dig trenches with a stump, tell me, sir?”

“No more trenches for you, McCormack.” He hoped he didn’t sound trite when he said, “You’ll be supervising from now on.”

Scott noticed the fierce glint in the corporal’s hazel eyes, which shone green this morning.

“That’s all well and good, sir, but tell me now, how’m I going to get by when I go home?”

Scott knew the man lived by his hands, a carpenter when he could get the work and a day laborer when the better jobs weren’t available. This was a rotten break for a good man who was no longer young. “We’ll think of something.”

McCormack’s smile took on a hard edge, and the glint in his eyes sharpened.

That was another warning sign. Even though he didn’t know what it meant, Scott became suspicious, then, now, and at this time in every other repeat of the dream.

“I’m a piper, Lieutenant Lancer. Now, what’s a fellow like me going to be doing, trying to play the flute and the pipes with one hand? And not even my best one.”

Scott set his jaw. “There’s always something, Patrick. Never give up hope.”

“Ah, yes, that luxury enjoyed by people with choices. Sir.”

“You always have a choice, Patrick.” The lecturing tone sounded like his grandfather, but at the moment he didn’t care.

“True, sir, but choices narrow considerably at a certain point.” The sturdy corporal stood, coddling his poisonous arm, and looked around at the crowded prison camp yard and the twelve-foot stockade walls topped by guards. “What a grim place. Terrible hosts. Those awful grit cakes are an insult to every reasonable stomach. I’d pay five dollars for a stack of golden buttermilk pancakes with fresh butter.” He studied the barren exercise yard. “And it’s too bloody hot for March. No shade, no soft places, not even a blade of grass for me to lie down my tired head.”

Scott stood with him. He didn’t like the way McCormack was talking. The man had a hefty dose of the poet in him, but this darkness coming from the unrelentingly optimistic man chilled him as they stood in the blistering morning sunlight.

“Lieutenant, do you believe in dreams?”

Scott knew he needed to find O’Flynn, the unofficial leader of the Irish prisoners. Despite his own hometown’s growing Irish population, his knowledge of the culture was thin at best. “What do you mean?”

“My grandfather came to me last night. I was named for him. I never knew him. He died in the Rising of ’98.”

Scott glanced around. He needed O’Flynn, or Hanrahan, or McCarthy. Where were they?

“We had a pleasant chat,” McCormack continued. “A lot alike, we are. Then the queerest thing—his cousin, who eventually became a monsignor—and I did meet him when I was a child—he came along. Now, I know you don’t really know what this means, sir, but he granted me absolution.”

Scott did know a little about what that meant, and he liked the turn of this conversation less and less. He hoped it was only the first traces of the poison reaching the man’s thoughts and he would recover after the surgery. “McCormack, I….”

The corporal gave him a small smile. “It gave me peace, lieutenant. I know I can face what’s to come.”

Scott took him by the arms, careful to keep well away from the painful wound. In hushed, urgent tones, he said, “Patrick, you need to have this surgery as soon as possible. We need you well enough to travel. We’re almost ready.”

The man nodded. “Don’t you worry ‘bout me, sir. I’ll be ready when the time comes.”

Why had Scott been reassured by the man’s calmness? Every time he relived this painful moment, it cut into him a little deeper.

Scott gave him a stout nod. He’d just spotted Keogh, who would know how to find O’Flynn.

McCormack added, his eyes sparkling with a hint of mischief, “By the way, and please don’t tell those other, thick fellows, but you’ve always been my favorite officer. You’ve got a way about you, sir. You know how to treat the men like, well, men, sir. There just aren’t enough good ones like you.”

Listen to what he’s saying! He’s telling you goodbye! Stop him this time!

The corporal produced his pennywhistle from his pocket. “With your permission, sir, this is our day. I’d like to give the lads a cheer.” He gave his rotting wound the slightest of glances. “While I’m still able.”

Scott gave him a stern nod. “Be strong, McCormack. We’re in this together.”

“I’m a Wicklow man, sir. God doesn’t make ‘em any tougher.” He hesitated. “And don’t worry. I’ll be there when you need me.”

Reassured, Scott turned to follow Keogh. He noticed the guards had been watching their conversation, and it was just as well it finished before they investigated. Sergeant Worthing, the chief of the guards this watch, had nothing but contempt for the Irishmen and wouldn’t hesitate to make McCormack’s future even more miserable than what it already would be.

By the time Scott reached Keogh, McCormack had begun a sprightly tune on his whistle, and the other lads from Chicago stood up to listen. He walked among the men, serenading them as they sang along, some patting him on the back and laughing. Even many of the non-Irish smiled at the sight, caught up in the joy of the moment. Scott glanced at the guards. They watched but didn’t seem overly concerned. Good. Worthing trained a fierce gaze on the minstrel, but when didn’t he?

When Scott shared his concerns with Keogh, the man nodded and said Patrick had been worrying him as well.

McCormack switched to a different tune, one Scott had heard before. More of the men began to sing along: “‘The minstrel boy to the war is gone, in the ranks of death you’ll find him….’”

Keogh explained O’Flynn had a fever and the shits, a common affliction in the camp, and he would be at the latrine trench for a while. But he reassured the lieutenant, “But don’t worry, sir, as long as McCormack’s playing, he’ll be fine.”

As the piper played and strolled through the gathering, the singers continued: “‘The minstrel fell! But the foeman’s chain could not bring that proud soul under….’”

Scott watched the men, once again appreciating McCormack’s ability to raise their spirits in this hellhole. When Dan first started the escape plan, Scott insisted McCormack be included in the group. Even now, with only one arm, he would still be an invaluable asset when it came to the quick thinking required to get through the unanticipated problems waiting on the other side of the walls. If his surgery meant delaying the escape a week or two, so be it. Scott would not leave without him.

The singers continued with swelling pride, “‘Thy songs were made for the pure and free, they shall never sound in slavery.’”

Scott flinched and glanced up at Worthing. His scowl had deepened, and he moved his rifle from a casual cradling pose to holding it in his hands. He wasn’t pointing it at the men…yet.

The singers moved on to the next chorus, which Scott understood had been written recently by an Irishman in America. “‘The minstrel boy will return we pray, when we hear the news, we will all cheer it. The minstrel boy will return one day, torn perhaps in body, not in spirit.’”

Scott shuddered. McCormack still serenaded the singers, but he had moved through them, facing the group but walking backwards…towards the camp’s gate.

Scott’s heart sank. He understood now. But he wasn’t going to let it happen.

He took a step forward, but a strong hand pulled on his sleeve. He turned to see Sergeant O’Flynn, who had his steel cold eyes focused on the wandering minstrel. “No, sir. I’ve talked with him. It’s not your decision.” His voice cracked: “Let him go.”

The singers continued to serenade their retreating piper: “‘Then may he play on his harp in peace, in a world such as heaven intended.’”

Scott glanced up at Worthing, who resembled a hawk watching a mouse. “I can’t let him do this!”

O’Flynn shifted his grip from Scott’s sleeve to his arm, holding fast. “Begging the lieutenant’s pardon, sir.”

Some singers had become aware of McCormack’s dangerous trail towards the gate and watched in dread. Others continued their unaware serenade. “‘For all the bitterness of man must cease, and ev’ry battle must be ended.’”

McCormack turned and glared up at the hated chief of the guard. “Let no man write my epitaph, ye stinkin’ hateful bastard!” He dashed for the locked gate.

The gathered prisoners rushed forward and blocked Scott’s view as Worthing aimed his rifle and fired. The pennywhistle flipped end-over-end above the crowd. The guards on the ground aimed their rifles at the charging men, stopping them cold.

Scott pulled against O’Flynn’s iron grip in futile rage. “NO!!”


Scott came to, sitting upright in his bed, his shout echoing in his ears. He looked around in the darkness. Had he called out? He heard no alarm in the hall, no friendly footfalls dashing to his aid. He listened for a few moments, but the only sound was his own harsh breathing. He rubbed his face, then sighed. Here he sat, surrounded by every comfort, completely miserable.

He had seen a hundred men die, many of them his friends. Why did Patrick McCormack’s death haunt him above all the others? Why did it revisit him, every single year?

He flung back the covers and got out of bed. He looked at his robe, then surrendered and got dressed. There would be no more sleep tonight.

He ended up in the kitchen. He wanted to make coffee, but the aroma would awaken the household. He checked the pot, but someone had dutifully cleaned it. He filled his cup instead with water and took a sip of the pristine coolness.

He sat at the foot of the table in the dark kitchen. Losing McCormack took a toll on all the men, but it seemed to be harder on the non-Irish in the camp. His comrades, who were a mix of both Catholics and Protestants, seemed to find great solace in the report of his dream about the visit from his grandfather, and especially the absolution offered by his cousin. The grandfather, they said, had come to call him home, while the priest cleared his slate so he could go without lingering in Purgatory. It was just like Patrick, they agreed, to have such impressive help from the other side.

Scott wanted to feel that, but he couldn’t. What he remembered was the sight of the guards pulling his body away from the gate, and how the first one had reached for his arm and flinched when he saw the festering gash, so instead he grabbed the body by one of his shoddy boots and dragged him through the dirt like a sack of rubbish. Another guard claimed the pennywhistle, but the crowd nearly started a riot. After the prisoners had been forced back into their tents, the camp commander, who shared Sergeant Worthing’s low regard for the Irishmen, demonstrated a surprising respect for the bravery of the fallen prisoner by retrieving the whistle from the guard and giving it to the senior Union officer. Captain Harvey in turn presented it to Sergeant O’Flynn.

Hand in hand with that was the memory of how badly the escape went a week later. After Dan went down with fever but before they took him to the infirmary tent, the half-delirious man insisted they go without him. Scott voted against it, because it had been Dan’s plan and he deserved to escape with the rest of them. But the others were eager to get out of that hell on earth and followed their lieutenant’s order.

The reward for their impatience was the whole plan falling apart. At the time, Scott felt certain that if they had waited a few weeks for Dan to recover, everything would have gone smoothly. As it turned out, somehow Scott made it to freedom, but none of the others did. Only later would he learn that every last one of them had been killed.

When he found his way through the Union lines, he insisted on returning to duty, but the general sent him home to Boston to recuperate first. No one in his family understood how he felt. They sympathized, but they told him he should feel lucky about succeeding. Instead, he felt terrible, illogical shame for succeeding when none of the others had. Even now, it still gnawed at him. How was it that he had lived, when he was the one who had been against the attempt? It made no sense.

He crossed his arms on the kitchen table in the dark room and rested his head on his forearms. He couldn’t stop Patrick McCormack from getting himself killed, and he couldn’t stop the escape plan from falling apart. So many good men dead because he failed. Life could be so damned unfair….


Scott flinched. He bolted upright in his chair.

At the head of the table, his sparkling eyes and familiar knowing smile visible in the dark room, sat Patrick Francis Sebastian McCormack.

Scott gaped. Was this a dream? Had he lost his mind?

Patrick shook his head lightly. “Now, this is a fine greeting. I come all this way, and ye stare at me like a turd in the road.”

Scott examined him. He had a clean shirt, not his ragged prison camp uniform. With his hands folded comfortably on the table, both of his arms looked strong and hale.

“As the song says,” Patrick stated, “torn in body, but not in spirit.”

Scott felt a sudden urge to jump up and give the man a most undignified hug, but something stopped him. The length of the table was between them for a reason. He needed to stay on this side, where he belonged. “McCormack, you’re a sight for sore eyes.”

“You’re looking well, sir. I’d call you Captain now, but we’re all equal here.”

Scott feasted on the man’s sturdy appearance. McCormack and the others of his regiment had been in the prison camp when he arrived, and he’d never seen him in fine fettle. “Patrick, what are you doing here?”

“Lad, you’ve got to stop calling me back.”

Scott frowned.

“Every year, it’s the same t’ing. Ye’ve got to let it go.”

He had no idea what the man was talking about…and yet somehow he did.

“Boyo, you didn’t let any of us down. You know what really happened. You know why it was a seamlas. They were waiting for you. There’s nothing you nor anyone else could’a done to make it a success.  As for me, I wouldn’t have made it either way. The only difference is I would’a had weeks of suffering beforehand if that sawbones had taken my arm.” He gave Scott a quiet smile. “Worthing had his faults, but he was a fine marksman. ‘Twas quick as could be.”

Scott couldn’t let go of his regrets so easily. “If the plan was such a mess, how did I survive?”

Patrick gave him a squint. “Didn’t ye think it queer that the moment the guards spotted ye outside, two different guards called out, ‘There they go’?”

Scott had been the first man out, and all of his attention had been on getting to that low section of the wall and then reaching the edge of the woods as quickly as possible…while blocking from his mind the likelihood that he would draw the first fire so most of the others would make it. He’d heard the gunfire and the shouting of the guards, but he assumed Lewis and the others were behind him. Only when he made it to the thickest part of the woods did he realize he was alone.

Patrick continued, “And then, when you reached the trees with those mixers right behind ye, when you took off to the left, why did they go right?”

He’d still thought at least some of the others were behind him. Once he realized they weren’t, he suffered through an agonizing debate over abandoning Dan’s plan and returning to help them, but he knew at that point his duty was to reach the rendezvous point and wait. He’d given the guards’ confusion no thought.

“Wait.” Scott eyed his visitor with suspicion. “How did you know I went left?”

Patrick leaned back and crossed his arms as he shook his head with a sigh. “Have ye forgotten the very last thing I said to ye?”

A sudden rush of emotion throttled his reply for a few moments. “That you’d be there when I needed you.”

“And when did you ever know me not to keep a promise?”

Scott stared. How could this man…this specter…lead pursuing guards away from their quarry? Then again, if he knew anyone who could play at hare and hounds with those killers, that fellow sat at the other end of the table.

Patrick regarded his former officer with fond regard. “So, you see, you’re not even responsible for the fact that you lived. Ye have no blame in any of this. You did everyt’ing you could, and more than you know. When you never came back, dead or alive, you gave hope to the men. And hope can keep a man alive when everything else is against him.”

His voice still thick, Scott replied, “Didn’t I say something like that to you?”

“Ah, but I was one of the doomed ones. My hope took a different shape. Funny how t’ings go, isn’t it?”

Scott could feel his tiredness pulling him down. “So, you came here to tell me not to feel bad?”

“Someone had to peel that mantle of guilt off your shoulders.” He offered a slight smile. “And give you back Saint Patrick’s Day.” With a more serious gaze, he said, “You made peace with Lieutenant Cassidy. You’re overdue making it with yourself.”

An odd silence enveloped the dark room. Patrick McCormack regarded Scott for a long moment. “Be well, sir. I don’t want to be seein’ you again for a good long time.” With a slow, deliberate shift of his gaze, he looked over Scott’s shoulder.

Scott turned to look back at what had caught his visitor’s attention, but nothing emerged from the doorway’s shadows. He looked back.

He was alone.


“Are you all right?”

Scott bolted upright from resting his head on his forearms. He glanced around the kitchen and saw Teresa looking at him with concern. “Huh? Oh. I’m fine.”

He saw her dubious glance as she went to the stove to start the fire. He looked around in the growing daylight as she lifted one of the cooktop’s lids. As usual, she had loaded the morning’s fuel the night before, so all she had to do was light a match and put it to the tinder.

Scott didn’t know what to think. He stared at the empty chair at the other end of the kitchen table. It had to be just a dream.

Teresa muttered with annoyance, then lit another match and held it to the tinder.

He repeated to himself that it must be a dream. The most vivid one of his entire life, but merely a vision from his beleaguered conscience.

Teresa clicked her tongue with exasperation. She took out a third match and repeated her attempt to start the cooking fire.

Scott studied the table, his half-filled cup of water, and the empty chair again. He’d better not start having this dream as well every Saint Patrick’s Day.

“There they go.”

Scott stared at Teresa as she watched the first flames appear through the stovetop’s opening. Using the lifter, she replaced the lid, then went to the water pump. She asked him, “Why are you up so early?”

“…Why did you say ‘there they go’?”

Working the pump to fill the basin, she replied, “For some reason, the first two matches didn’t catch the tinder. When I put in the third one, they all went.”

Scott sat back, regarding the empty chair across from him with astonishment. If anyone could do that, it would be Patrick McCormack.

He watched his companion put water in the coffee pot and set it on the stove. “In answer to your question,” he said, “the reason I’m up so early, Miss O’Brien, is to be the first to wish you a happy Saint Patrick’s Day.”

She chuckled as she returned to the water basin. “Why thank you, Mr. Lancer. How do you feel about pancakes with breakfast?”

Scott grinned. “Buttermilk, of course.”

His enthusiasm earned him a curious smile. “We have some I need to use up. I thought pancakes would be a nice change from biscuits.”

“That would be a capital idea.” He marveled at how light he felt. Patrick, my friend, I never noticed how much the mantle of guilt weighed until you peeled it off.

As he watched Teresa set about her task, Scott decided that he shouldn’t share any of what had happened this night. He felt certain reason would eventually prevail and he would talk himself out of believing that this had actually happened. In the meantime, he reveled in the emotions stirred by the mysterious visit.

With a puckish smile that would have warmed Patrick’s heart, Scott allowed himself to indulge in a simple question. “Tell me, Teresa—do you believe in dreams?”


~ end ~


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