Word Count 1,930
First, a big thank you to Sandra N. for the beta read. I do appreciate her opinion and comments. This story was the result of a blazing trip to Tennessee (12 hours each direction) with nothing else to listen to but Civil War music, a steaming hot weekend reenactment and the first four hours of Ken Burn’s Civil War.
This is my first attempt at any type of Lancer fic but not the story I intended on posting first. It is the story that got in the way and wouldn’t leave me alone until it was written. So please be kind, but all comments both praise and criticism are welcome as long as they are somewhat constructive. I have a longer work in progress that is actually set during season one. This one demanded attention first. Scott only. Sorry, no Johnny.
“ Many are the hearts that are weary tonight,
Wishing for the war to cease;
Many are the hearts looking for the right
To see the dawn of peace.
Tenting on the old Camp ground.”
Pushing aside the green scum that coated the surface of the water barrel Scott Lancer, Lieutenant, 2 nd Regiment, Massachusetts Cavalry, filled his rusted tin cup, carefully sieving the water to avoid taking in any of the algae. Not that it mattered. The water underneath the layer of slime was hardly cleaner without it.
“ We’re tenting tonight on the old Camp ground.
Give us a song to cheer
Our weary hearts, a song of home,
And friends we love so dear.”
Behind him somewhere in the stench and the gloom, a single voice sang in a cracked and ragged tenor. The mournful song a depressing counterpoint to the misery of the five hundred men crammed shoulder to shoulder in the dank, cold, barren upper room of the main barrack at Libby Prison. The confederate confine reserved for officers of the Union forces unfortunate enough to have been captured by their foe.
It was a familiar ritual Scott had become accustomed to over the course of the weeks and months of their incarceration. He knew the owner of the voice. An otherwise meek young corporal who should not have been sent to Libby, not that any other confederate prisoner of war camp would have been an improvement. His well meaning commander had claimed him as a lieutenant so he would not be separated from the only other survivors of his regiment.
Singing was forbidden by their captors. This particular song had even been discouraged by the Union officers because of its demoralizing effect on enlisted men already sick of war, home sick and bodily sick. Yet in his one tremulous act of defiance the young corporal sang the verses each night at sunset. How could they be more demoralized than they already were? And for some, the young man’s vocal ‘nose thumbing’ of their guards was uplifting. So each night it continued.
“We’ve been fighting today on the old Camp ground,
Many are lying near;
Some are dead and some are dying
Many are in tears.”
Scott turned from the barrel, balancing the tin cup carefully, ignoring the tremor in his own hand. Like his hands, he was gaunt, filthy, and barely recognizable as the grandson of one of the wealthiest men in Boston. He could almost hear grandfather chastising his lack of personal grooming. His grandson would never allow his appearance to degrade to such a degree. His filthy, vermin ridden hair, beard and clothes would have been an insult to Harlan’s sensibilities. To say nothing of the way he, they all, smelled.
Retreating to his own dark, crowded corner Scott slowly sank to his knees beside the bundle of dirty rags on the floor. He was mildly surprised to see the rags shift as a muffled cough shook the body encased there.
“Colonel Jenkins?” Scott asked, gently uncovering the man’s face
He was answered by a groan.
Reaching into the inner pocket of his frock coat Scott withdrew a small packet wrapped in a stained handkerchief. “I’ve saved you a bit of food.” He told the motionless man beside him. Unwrapping his precious bundle he pulled out a small square of hard cornbread, all he was able to scavenge from the meager ration allotted to too many men. He tapped the cornbread on his palm, knocking loose a dozen meal worms than fell wiggling to the floor. He took the colonel’s cup and crumbled the cornbread into the bottom, adding just enough water to make a soft gruel. The wretched man beside him had been unable to chew for weeks, his teeth loose, his gums bleeding and infected. Not that it mattered. What little he did manage to chew quickly passed through him as the man was wracked with dysentery.
Carefully raising Jenkins’ head he held the cup to the man’s lips and encouraged him to sip the unappetizing and tasteless mess. Jenkins took one small mouthful then turned his head away. Seconds later what little was in his stomach came back in a bout of nausea. There was nothing Scott could do except hold his head up out of the mess. When the dry heaves finally subsided Jenkins lay back on the filthy floor more exhausted than before, eyes closed and breathing shallowly.
“Lieutenant,” he said at last, his voice a whisper of dry leaves on hard packed dirt. His sallow skin thin and fragile as a spider’s web. Jenkins groped at the front of his own stained blue frock coat with a hand as skeletal as his face. “Inside pocket. A letter.” Opening his eyes he worked to focus on Scott’s face. His sunken eyes dull. “A letter to my wife. Take it.”
“Sir,” Scott started to protest, not wanting to intrude on what little privacy the man had, the privacy of thoughts he had saved for his spouse.
But Jenkins’ hand plucked the front of his jacket struggling to access the inner pocket but unable to manage the buttons. “Take it,” he said again. “You must make sure it gets to my wife.”
“I’d rather make sure you get to your wife,” Scott said with equal firmness.
Jenkins sighed. “We both know I won’t be going home.” He released his grip on the front of his clothing. “Please.” The word was barely audible. “Don’t make me order you, Lieutenant.”
Reluctantly Scott unbuttoned the front of the man’s jacket and extracted the wad of paper stuffed into the front. Tattered and stained, the letter was more a collection of notes scribbled on scraps of paper, some torn and others neatly folded. He carefully buttoned the papers into his own pocket.
“Thank you. I knew I could depend on you, Lieutenant. You have always been a stand out. I knew that the moment I first saw you tall and proud.” For a moment the man fell silent, his eyes closed and his breathing slow and regular.
Scott was convinced Jenkins had fallen asleep and felt compelled to sit with the man who had been his mentor since his first days at Camp Meigs. Jenkins had often teased him about his height and Scott had wondered if he received his field commission simply because he stood a head above most of his fellows, forcing the men under his command to look up to him, literally, if not out of respect. And in the quiet contemplative moments when he pondered such matters, he had considered the source of his height and concluded it could only be the father he had never known. His grandfather was a man of average height, five feet and some eight or nine inches, and the daguerreotype of his mother showed her to be much less than that. Had the man who had given him his name been a man of commanding height?
“I should never have done it,” the colonel whispered through parched and cracked lips. Scott was startled out of his reverie by the words and the bony hand now clutching the front of his frock coat with surprising strength. Jenkins’ eyes bored into his lieutenant.
“What?” Scott asked, not anxious to play father confessor to a dying man’s last words but obligated to do so. “You should never have done what, sir?”
“Made you a lieutenant.”
It was not what Scott expected and for a moment he was crushed. He had been so proud to have accepted his field commission – terrified but proud that the colonel had such confidence in him. A confidence that now seemed tinged with regret. “I tried to serve my rank well.” Scott said in a quiet voice.
“And you did.” Jenkins’ answer was vehement. “You did. You were the best of my lieutenants.” Jenkins stopped speaking, his eyes closed and his head lolled.
“Colonel,” Scott said, afraid the man had passed, and that he would forever ponder the contradiction of his dying words.
Then the man’s eyes popped open and he studied Scott’s face, once again concentrating on his words. “I should never have laid such weight on shoulders so young.”
We are all too young for the weight of this war, Scott thought. Even those grey beards among us. He thought for a moment of his grandfather’s strident objections when he announced that he would enlist on the eve of his eighteenth birthday.
“You must make sure the men get home, Lieutenant.”
“I will,” Scott promised, his hand clasped in the colonel’s.
Once again the colonel relaxed, a ghost of a smile played across his grey lips. Behind them, only slightly muted by distance the single voice continued to sing.
“Many are the hearts that are weary tonight
Wishing for the war to cease;
Many are the hearts looking for the right
To see the dawn of peace.
Dying on the old Camp ground.”
Jenkins rolled his eyes and for a moment Scott thought the man had finally passed on. Then Jenkins focused his gaze on his young lieutenant his eyes more clear and lucid than they had been in days. Continuing to look directly at Scott he said “Must he sing that dreadful dirge every single night?”
The tone of complete exasperation in the colonel’s voice made the younger man smile. “I suppose I could request he change his tune,” Scott commented.
Smiling back at his commanding officer, Scott rose stiffly to his full height, straightened his grimy frock coat, and settled his hat firmly on his head. Turning he crossed the room, carefully stepping over and around bodies stretched across every conceivable inch of floor, and walked unerringly towards the errant singer. Coming to a halt, he stood, legs slightly apart, towering over the young corporal who was seated on the floor, a look of fear in his wide brown eyes.
“Corporal,” Scott said in his firmest voice. “Colonel Jenkins requests that you sing a somewhat less mournful tune.”
The youngster gulped once, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down on his pencil thin neck giving him a cartoonish appearance.
“Y…Yes, sir. What would the Colonel suggest, sir?”
“On your order, sir?” the boy asked nervously, his eyes darting to the cell door through which he expected the rebel guards to enter their dark cell.
“On my order,” Scott answered. “And on my responsibility.” As he turned his back on the man and strode towards the Colonel he heard the young corporal clear his throat. After a moment of silent hesitation he began to tentatively sing the Battle Cry of Freedom. By the time Scott had returned to sit next to Colonel Jenkins other voices had joined in. As the colonel took his dying breath those who were able had sung a rousing chorus.
“The Union forever! Hurrah, boys, hurrah!
Down with the traitor, up with the star;
While we rally round the flag, boys, rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!”
And when their confederate guards burst through the door to silence the rabble and punish those responsible Scott rose to his feet once more, stood tall and said calmly.
“These men are singing on my order. I am solely responsible.” As the guards roughly jerked his arms behind his back and force marched him out of the barracks towards solitary the sound of someone softly whistling The Battle Hymn of the Republic could be heard in the wretched darkness behind him. And Scott smiled.
~ end ~
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