NaNoWriMo 2020: Installment 5

Arthur Preston and James “Tumbleweed” Reed had first met at gunpoint in snow-dusted Arkansas woods along Little Sugar Creek, the night after the first day of the Battle of Pea Ridge in 1862.

Preston, a short, blunt-faced Confederate soldier, had wielded a rather unreliable Allen & Thurber M1837 revolver pepperbox. Reed, a gangly infantryman in Union blue, had clutched a Colt M1860 revolver that he’d scavenged from the dead hand of a fallen lieutenant, having lost his own sidearm during his departure from the field.

Each had thought the other might be an enemy scout. But then neither of them had seemed in any hurry to open fire. That had struck Reed as odd moments before the same consideration tugged at Preston’s mind.

The tall man from Chicago had furrowed his brow, peering at his rebel counterpart.

The shorter man had grunted, his breath billowing into the moonlight under the naked oak limbs. “So.” He kept the pepperbox barrel aimed at Reed. “Deserting?”

The Union man had shrugged. Didn’t lower his weapon, though. Not yet. “Feels like a good time to absent myself from the festivities.”

Preston had holstered his gun. “Saw my uncle’s face removed by artillery shrapnel.”

Reed had winced. “An image you are unlikely to forget in this lifetime.”

He had served in the federal Army of the Southwest, among more than 10,000 soldiers under the command of Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis, tasked with driving the Confederate forces out of Missouri. Preston had been in the Missouri State Guard, commanded by General Sterling Price and falling under the auspices of the Trans-Mississippi District, with Confederate General Earl Van Dorn managing the overall strategy in the region.

Van Dorn had wanted to wreck Curtis and the Federals. His plan had been to flank the northerners and attack from the rear, leaving Curtis with the grim choice of retreating back to Missouri or risking encirclement and obliteration. The Confederate general had ordered his troops to travel light: no more than three days worth of rations, a few dozen rounds of ammunition, and a blanket. Not even so much as a tent. He wanted his men to stay flexible for reaction to whatever Curtis might engineer against them.

Curtis, for his part, had decided to hunker down with his troops and formidable artillery on the north shore of the creek.

The Confederate infantry brigade in which Preston served fell under Colonel Louis Hebert. Along with a cavalry brigade and a mixed force of Indian warriors, Preston and the other infantrymen, including his Uncle Lem, approached the village of Leetown – totally unaware that Union troops and cannon lurked nearby.

Lem had led the boys in a rousing rendition of “Bonnie Blue Flag,” belting out:

“We are a band of brothers,
And native to the soil,
Fighting for our liberty, with treasure, blood, and…”


BOOM!

The rest of the words had been lost with his mouth, which disappeared along with his nose and left eye when the federal cannons started shelling the southerners.

Preston had gone sprawling next to the splintered remnants of an oak rail fence, flung like a loosely stuffed rag doll. A loud ringing noise filled his ears. His face was splattered with blood – mostly, he thought, his uncle’s. Groggily, he had sat up with his palms pressed on the dirt. He felt another blast wave strike as the Union cannons lobbed a second volley. Preston had known he couldn’t stay long in the open like this. Must move, he thought. Other soldiers in his unit had scrambled to find shelter. He could see them shout at each other, but couldn’t hear anything clearly. His eyes had settled on the trio of 12-pounder howitzer field cannons. The Yankees were about to fire again. Panicked, Arthur Preston had sprung clumsily to his feet. Arms flailing, he had loped through the chaos of smoke and carnage, and made best speed toward the woods. His boots had crunched in the snow. He had hoped, desperately, that he wouldn’t fall flat on his face. He had prayed to God above that no one noticed his flight in the mayhem.

It seemed his prayers had been answered as he trudged onward, following the creek until nightfall.

And then he had come barrel to barrel with the enemy.

“You missed all the fun, it seems,” Reed told him with a grim smile. He explained that he had been in Leetown with a detachment of the 36th Illinois Infantry, attached to defend Col. Bussey’s cannons. The Yankees had quickly faced an overwhelming onslaught from 3,000 Confederate cavalry. The Union forces had lost the howitzers in the stampede. “We posted in the timber belt between Oberson’s and Foster’s fields, cozy with nine cannons arrayed by Col. Greusel. We opened fire. The Cherokee troops on your side made a run for it.”

A Confederate general on horseback had ventured toward the Union line, trying to gauge the size and assets of the enemy force.

“I took the shot,” Reed had said. “Off he tumbled.”

That had puzzled Preston. “So…why aren’t you back in camp, riding shoulders, all hero-like?”

It had been a fair question.

“My heart is gone from the work,” Reed had answered. “Back home, I worked in a slaughterhouse. Spent my days covered in blood. My nights, stinking of deceased bovine. But it was intimate. Visceral. Once in a while, in combat, I get the same feeling during up-close fights with an affixed bayonet. However, so much of what I do anymore is from a distance.” He had shrugged, with a sigh. “I would have liked to have watched the light fade from the general’s eyes as he passed from this world.”

“Oh,” Preston had replied, awkwardly.

“Probably for the best I left my bayonet behind in camp,” Reed had said. “Else we might not be having this sparkling conversation.”

The squat man’s mouth had gaped. “Can we agree not to slaughter each other?”

“I think so.”

“Great.”

The taller man had extended a slender hand: “James Reed. But you may call me Tumbleweed, if you prefer.”

Preston had accepted the handshake. “Arthur Preston.”

Both men had shivered in threadbare wool coats as they started making their way northeast toward the Missouri state line.

“They’ll shoot us for traitors if we’re caught,” Preston had said through chattering teeth. The eastern sky had started turning pink with the first morning light.

“Then I think it best we avoid capture by any and all means necessary,” Reed had replied. He had tugged at his navy blue jacket breast. “Starting, I should think, with our apparel.”

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Wes Platt

Lead storyteller. Game designer and journalist. Recovering Floridian.

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