The Stone Ribbon of Tennessee

[The following is Garling Files Short Story.  Please click here if you’d like to download the PDF rather than read web-style.]

A musket ball ricocheted off the stone wall fortifying Howard and broke his concentration.  Not because of the projectile’s lethal intention and arrest near his temple, but because it didn’t ricochet like other musket balls. The heavy lead wasps usually leapt from the stone and sang into the woods, lodging in the unlucky limbs of moping oaks.  An experienced soldier could hear the ricochet and identify the corresponding thwap an instant after.  This shot, however, found a home in the spaces between the stacked stones and burrowed and bounced and chattered among them, finally concluding in a menacing hum between two flat slabs like the twang of a banjo string.  Every angle of Howard’s motion’s that afternoon had been sweaty, survivalist and in the name of holding the line against the Union Army, but this curious and almost scientific derivation from the daily din of searching death made his neck drift backwards, longingly, and he gently turned his head to listen.

The hum came to a stop, and then absorbed into the spastic symphony of war’s hurricane.

“Did you hear that?” he shouted to Standerford, his brother-in-law, who was reloading his own musket a couple paces away.  Two medics rushed past them carrying a groaning mess on a stretcher.

“What?” Standerford shouted back.  His Confederate cap had lost its pin and only a tattered hole remained over his forehead.

“That hum, that musket ball made a hum right in the stones here.  Sounded like…it…it was middle C…yes…middle C.”

Standerford had stopped listening to him after the first few words and finished loading his musket.  He cocked the hammer, took a deep breath and swung over the stones, aimed, fired, rotated and dropped back against the wall, smooth and fluid like the windup and delivery of a pitcher.  He began reloading again.

Howard hadn’t moved; his own musket balanced inertly between his legs.  “Did you hear me?” he shouted.

What?”

Standerford felt the weaving vortex of two paired wasps sail over his head—but didn’t flinch.  You could toss a piano from a church tower and not budge him or Howard from a nap.  Between the two of them, they’d fired and ducked muskets and cannons at Vicksburg, Chantilly, Belmont, Blackwater Creek, South Mills, Fredricksburg, Lone Jack, the Goldsboro Bridge, Buckland Mills and about a dozen additional undocumented skirmishes.  Misguided and crazy speak from a soldier during the hot torrents was as commonplace as the gurgling whimper that followed a true shot.  Gunfire, the smoke, the beating drums, the longing moan of the enemy’s horns could coalesce and claw the delicate places of the mind, severing the stays and joints.  Both men had had to turn their barrels to their side of the wall and prevent metastasizing insanity from sabotaging the line.  Howard’s comments, in Standerford’s eyes, had not reached such a level, but the mention of something as holy and thoughtful as a singular note, the center note of a piano even, emanating from the stone wall that fortified their survival, began to knock upon the door of caution.

“Yeah,” Standerford shouted quickly and tested Howard’s sense of reality.  He had a lot of respect for Jim Howard’s resume and was caught off guard by the concern.  “Hand me that canteen, will you?”

About a hundred yards down from the two men, a cannon ball found its mark against the wall leaving a thunderhead of dirt, gravel and pink mist luffing into the breeze over the torched tobacco field.  The surrounding and surviving soldiers scattered and magnetized back to the wall like a handful of tossed gravel pattering to the ground.

Howard didn’t see it. He glanced lazily at the canteen, his head coming up from the wall and tossed the dented container.

Standerford took a swig and threw it back.  “You need some water.  W-A-T-O-R.  Water.”

Howard looked up and the typo brought him back.  As long as he’d known him, Hank Standerford had been the most illiterate-literate man he knew, especially for a former minister.  The irony always drove home when he’d sharpen his point by spelling the last word—always with a child’s tools for phonetics.  Howard and his sister—as much as she loved her husband—would secretly kid that Standerford only got “G-O-D” right about half the time.

Howard twisted his hum of middle C into a quiet giggle, drank some water and reloaded his musket.  A dancing trumpet rallied Union troops and a round of shots smacked off the wall.  Howard waited for the deluge to pass, turned and fired in the same smooth motion as his friend had a moment before.

The Confederates held the stone wall that day, and as the suffocating humidity cooled and the firestorm faded into the amber sunset, both sides retreated off the lines to their camps.  Lookouts remained on the wall, but both armies had enough wounds to lick that in one of the strange tacit truces of old-time warfare, each camp knew they wouldn’t have to think about reloading a musket until sunrise.

The Union army had picked this little valley in Tennessee, with its long snaking fields of tobacco, to move three dozen cannons and merge with a smaller division, also heading south.  It was guessed from there they would continue and join Sherman’s path of scorched earth on the way to Atlanta.  Howard and Standerford and the rest of the men of their unit had been dispatched to stop them. Though weeks later, while sipping bourbon with a few officers, General Lee would raise his glass reflexively and quip that he had never expected those boys to slow those cannons for more than a few days, “God rest their souls.”

That night as the remaining Confederates crouched around the fire, warming their hands and slurping their ration of beans from tin cups, Howard still found himself humming. The note whispered in his ear.

“Hank,” Howard said slowly.

Standerford looked up from his sewing needle and jacket.  A shot had zipped across the fabric and left a set of frayed lips in the left shoulder.  He had no intention of entering battle the next day with a hole in his jacket.  He’d already fixed the hole in his cap.

Howard continued.  “You want to come on a little mission out to the wall with me?”

The fingers of Standerford’s left hand squeezed the needle tighter.  “No.  N-O.  What the hell you want to go back out now for?  You know those bastards would take a shot up the hill in the dark if they caught a shadow.  Those big tubes are aimed there right now, waiting for a pull.”  Having said this, and in a manner that he felt was true—and it was—Standerford went back to his sewing with a sense of finality in his brow.

Howard looked back at the fire and a gale of life came to his face.  “I want to find that shot.  In the wall.  The one that made the note—middle C.  I want to find it.”

Now Standerford’s brow that had tried in vain to end the notion looked up, the irises below still concealed by lids; the neck craned slowly, and then the eyes arrived fashionably late to finish off the display of disgust.  The needle switched hands, and he sat up and looked at his friend.  “Jim, if I didn’t love your sister, I’d probably put my boot right in that ear that seems so determined to get you killed—hell, I may do it anyway and feel whole; that I was saving your life.  You’ve been hearing something each day since we set out to get here.  Let it go.  I’ll tell you something, even though I don’t got to—when I was holding a hill just outside of Edison ‘bout a month back, I swung out on the lower flank with two men from Charleston and hid behind a big old mess of brambles and blackberries and rocks.  We took our shots for a while ‘til one of the guys spots a little nest deep into the brambles, and there are two little chicks in it, chirping and mouthing for their mama who’d probably fled halfway to the Atlantic by then.  But this young fella goes to get them—to save them is his idea—and he doesn’t get more than a few steps into the brambles before two shots smack his jawbone clear off and leave him standing upright, two confused eyes blinking lonesome, clothes all clung and hung in the thorns like one of those old string puppets.”

He scratched his throat, subconsciously ensuring it held form.  “Now I shouldn’t even have to tell you a story like that; you’ve got your own—I know.  But there is no sense in crossing a line of barrels for something that tickled you—no matter how sweet.  The most important and most beautiful thing around here is a live goddamn soldier of the Confederate Army; and the most important thing for him, should be getting home.  Now stop.  You’re talking like a damn idiot.  I-D-Y-U-T.”

Howard’s eyes were barbless, without engagement and empty, and he continued humming the tune.  He hadn’t heard a word.  With his sister and their family of musicians and painters, Standerford usually kept his thoughts to himself.  But over the last couple of weeks, marching, camping, and now holding this wall, the sermons had come more fluidly from the preacher’s mouth, as the greener soldier yearned for igniting words to propel them back to the fields.

Howard finally heard the silence that passed between them; he came back to the moment and looked up smiling.

“It was beautiful, Hank.”

Hank Standerford’s first reaction was to make good on his boot promise, but like men that reach for violence reactively, he could be stopped short by that which he didn’t fully understand, for it must have come from a divine place.  The words caught him under the collar and the hand that had continued scratching the unshaven chin, reflexively moved south and clasped the cross around his neck.  “Well, Jim, I’ll tell you something else.  God did you a mighty fine service today, sending you that tune while we were under that wall—as much as he wants you to leave it at that.”  He spoke deeply, in full sermon.  “But I know you won’t forget to thank him in your prayers.”

When Howard didn’t immediately confirm, Standerford’s grip on his cross became strained and the isthmuses and islands of vessels and scars on the backs of his hands flexed and shadowed.

The silence caught Howard’s attention again and he loosely concurred, and then went back to humming.

Standerford searched for a way to avenge the passive blasphemy and a coarseness displayed the awe that had just been in his voice.  “You don’t have any of your tuning forks, how do you know it was middle C?”

Howard stopped humming, looked up and let the wispy shadows of Standerford’s passive aggression drift past him.  He cocked his head to one side and pursed his lips.  “If you were blindfolded and walked into a party with eighty-eight, or even eight hundred and eight people, all talking, laughing and joking, some dancing—maybe there is even a quartet playing in the corner—do you think after enough wandering around, you could pick out my sister by just the sound of her voice?”

Standerford dropped his cross and shifted in his seat.  The familiar ripples of being outsmarted lapped over him. “Sure I could,” he said quietly and looked away.

“No different.  When I tune a piano I just use the forks to get me the last few inches through the party—to touch the note.  I can always recognize the voice.”  Howard leaned back against a log and pulled his cap over his eyes.

“Well,” Standerford said still grasping for a foothold, “just forget about going back out to look for that musket ball.  You couldn’t find it in the dark anyway.  And those Yank cannons would get you, and…and we need to stay in camp anyway so we don’t throw off the lookouts and accidently send up a call.  Hell, Jim, you’ve been serving this army longer’n almost anyone, you know…”

The wood in the fire crackled and popped and punctuated the gentle hum that came from under the tarnishing Confederate pin on Howard’s drawn down cap.  And he slept a soldier’s weary sleep.

*****

The wall running through this old tobacco field was thick and heavy, and built from stones that had faced the battering hands of time.  The Blue Ridge Mountains are the world’s longest standing sentries, from their infantile days between two colliding plates, to their reign as the planet’s regal and raging peaks.  Only through the calming eons of rain and wind have they relaxed and settled into the rolling and inviting hills of today.  As the tectonic teeth began to settle, and pieces fell away by grain, by rock, by boulder, the lowland fields filled with friction’s gnawed product.

When the white farmers had finally wiped out the surrounding Cherokees and began to work the soil, they were stunned by how much stone hid scattered through this one narrow field.  In a man’s hands the earth shimmered in the summer light, shouting, begging to smother seeds in its womb; but a man couldn’t throw it down and drag a hoe for more than a few yards before the angular corner of sheared mountaintop snagged beneath the surface.

So the men had slaves dig them out, and load them on horses and carts and their backs; and since these men were still swaddled by power, blinded from purpose, they had their slaves build a thick and heavy wall, snaking through the field and over the crest of a hill.  It had no utility.  It didn’t divide property and wasn’t tall enough to keep out wildlife.  It was just a stone ribbon through a random valley in incipient Tennessee, a manifestation of ranging authority; now a monument to irony, protecting Confederate men, defending their perceived right to own the men who built it.

*****

The next morning, the Union colonels had decided to save soldiers and not charge the wall.  They would let the cannons do the work and this wall needed to be cleared to move through anyway—no sense in spending man power when gun powder would do the same work.  The second set of eighteen cannons had arrived in the middle of the night and now the thirty-six black tubes recoiled and reloaded in dark harmony, waiting out their opponent.

The lead wasps sailed over Standerford and Howard’s heads.

“Hear anything in that wall today?” Standerford said fishing the ramrod from his barrel and cocking the hammer. A cannon ball obliterated a section of wall about fifty yards to the south and men evaporated, scattered and regrouped like mice in light.

“What?” Howard asked cocking the hammer back and wiping sweat from his face.  “No.  Nothing today.”  He stood and fired over the wall.  A couple of medics rushed past them, their shirts already soaked crimson.

“Good.  I was getting worried after yesterday.”

A Union firing line cut loose and a quick succession of cracks and wasps rained over them.

“It was middle C, Hank.  No two ways about it.”

“I’m sure it was—” Standerford stood up, aimed and fired.  He held his eye down the site, head well above the protection of the wall and watched his target for a moment after the shot had rang out.  He wanted to watch the Union soldier he’d shot die.  But before the man staggered to his knees, Standerford caught himself—lead wasps use pride for bait—and detached his proud gaze.  He dropped down to safety and back into discussion. “—but you can’t go fixating on something like that, a note or something like that.  You know that.”

Howard cleaned some debris from the tip of his barrel and started to stand.  Then stopped.  “Why not?”  He raised up and fired.

Standerford rubbed the cross on his chest.  “You know why, Jim.  You know these lines.  Look—God gave you that little gift, quickly, to remind you that he’s there and keep your heart in the task at hand.”

Down the wall, the medics arrived at three surviving soldiers. One cried for his mama.  One cried for his little girl.  One was silent, but rubbed his seeping stomach like the head of a puppy, coaxing the contents back inside.

Even amid their pleas, Hank Standerford maintained the tone of sermon.  “But you can’t get too carried away with it.  That’s all I’m trying to say.  Take God’s gift and keep going.  G-O-I-N.”

“Hank, did you ever think that maybe you’ve been spelling God wrong this whole time?” Howard said tearing open a cartridge with the side of his teeth.  He didn’t look at Standerford, but a sense of calm held at the corner of his eyes.

The question poked Standerford’s insecurity and his jaw clenched.  “What do you mean?”

“How do you spell God, Hank?”

“I don’t like your tone.”

“G-O-D.  Right?”

Standerford didn’t answer and leaned over the wall and fired.  He just saw his targeted soldier clutch his ear as the wasp stung him.  He dropped back behind the wall.

“Did you ever wonder if you forgot an O—that it should be G-O-O-D instead?”

“Good?”

“That’s right.  Good.”

Standerford ignored him as he had the day before when he’d first identified the note in the rocks and thought Howard was going insane.  He reloaded, stood and fired again.  This time he didn’t watch his mark.

Howard continued.  “That note, middle C, was good.  The birds in these trees are good.  I think you’re pretty good, most of the time at least, Hank.  That’s my God.  That’s all.  Good.”

“That so?”

“That’s so.”

A Confederate trumpet blared and silenced under a batch of Union muzzle retorts.  Standerford’s face tightened.  “Why don’t you show how much faith you’ve got in it by hopping that wall and evangelizing those Union boys then.”

Howard watched the trumpet boy struggle to kneel from the corner of his eye.  “Hank, that ain’t the point…but that’s the difference.  I know Good don’t save men; it only preserves them.”

Standerford thought for a moment, looked back to his rifle and reloaded.

They went on firing and ducking for the balance of the morning.  The black tubes began to eat away at the stone ribbon and soon it became a dribbling series of grey hyphens through the scorched earth of the tobacco fields, wavering in the heat around the few remaining soldiers.

By the time the sun was far overhead, Standerford started looking around their side of the wall.  “Jameson’s going to wave it soon,” he said, not sourly, but from a place of experience.  He could see their Colonel fidgeting with a white flag in his left hand.  His right hand, however, stayed firmly planted on his sword, doing his best to command a commanding presence.

“Got to,” Howard said.

Standerford looked to the eastern woods and their dark safety.  “You want to make a run for it?”

“Desert?”

“Naw.  We’ll offer to run around and flank.  That’s what I did in Edison with that kid in the brambles.  Just go shoot from the sides for minute and then step back into the woods and wait it out.”

Howard didn’t say anything and leaned against the wall.

Standerford continued.  “Jim, those tubes are going to take this wall apart by the end of the day.  No sense in getting sewn together by one of them.” He nodded to the medics.

“How can you say that?” Howard asked quietly.

“Say what?”

“Hank, I been fighting on these lines for years now and—”

“Aw Jim, don’t give me that loyalty bit.  We’re preserving—like you said.  If we had a chance to win, I’d stay, but we don’t.  Those tubes are too much.  We’ve just got these damn things.”  He rattled his musket in the air and the saber shook loose and almost came off.

Howard looked back at him.  “What do you think God would say?”

Standerford laughed.  “I know what he’d say.  I’m still standing here aren’t I?  God hasn’t punished me yet for it.  He’s proud when someone plays a smart card.”

“And him?” Howard nodded to Jameson who was now riding with his sword in the air, rallying a group of a dozen slumping men.

“Aw, to hell with him.  He won’t even notice us go,” Standerford said waving with disgust.  “Jim, we can agree that we both want to see your sister again.  That’s an honest truth and it ain’t gonna happen unless we do something about it.”

Another set of Union wasps wove through the air above them.  Howard looked away from his brother-in-law and coughed.  When the swarm of lead had passed, he made his smooth turn over the wall—without his musket—and looked down at the Union line.

Thirty-six black cannons, mouths agape, stared back at him.

He shook his head and sat back down next to his friend.  Another spray of lead sang above them and into the trees.  They looked at one another with hints of smirks at the corners of their mouths.

Howard breathed a weary soldier’s sigh and rested his head against the wall.

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Follow Caleb at www.twitter.com/calebgarling

Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at

www.calebgarling.com

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