TITLE: Stranger in the Cove: Prolog and Chapter 1
By Mike Keesee
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Strangers in the Cove
June 27, 1864 – Somewhere in the woods west of Marietta, Georgia
Dawn was quiet and peaceful. What awaited the tense troops wasn’t. Beneath Georgia pines, a violent encounter between two mighty armies was about to shatter the calm.
Gray-clad soldiers, ragged and weary from long months of fighting and retreating, crouched nervously behind hastily-constructed breastworks. In distant fields, knee-high corn waved gently in the early morning breeze. Only the low murmur of voices and the contrasting sound of metallic clinks and chirping birds disturbed the quietness. Peering over the breastworks, the soldiers watched the enemy form battle lines just out of rifle range. Tired of retreating, knowing their cause was lost, they waited. It was the worst time of battle in the worst time of war.
Edward Mallard heard little of what his friend was saying, his attention held by the blue coats below forming their battle lines.
“Edward, you listening to me?”
Finally, Mallard responded with more assurance than he felt, “But I ain’t gonna get killed,” his voice low as if reluctant to disturb the tense quietness of the waiting.
Two Georgia boys, with very different backgrounds, fighting under the Tennessee command of General Benjamin Franklin Cheatham, commander of the Confederate forces protecting a strategic stretch of land at the foot of Kennesaw Mountain just northwest of Marietta, lay side by side peering over the logs of the Confederate breastworks atop a rise later to bear the General’s name.
“Edward, how can you know that for sure?” countered his friend. “Look at all them blue-bellies down there hell-bent on chasing us off this hill. There’s nobody but us between them and Atlanta and they know it. In a few minutes, this place is gonna be as thick as yellow jackets at a September picnic with Yankee lead.”
“Well, I just know it!” Mallard persists, refusing to look at his friend.
“Edward,” his friend pleaded, “you know you can’t be sure. And right now if you die, you’re not going to Heaven. Without Jesus, you’re going straight to Hell.”
There it was again, his friend’s absolute confidence in what he believed. It was as if he had a personal relationship with the One in which he put so much faith. Mallard said nothing. He continued to peer over the top of the entrenchment at the enemy below.
“Listen Edward,” continued his friend, ignoring Mallard’s silence, “I don’t want to be in heaven without you. And you know all you’ve got to do is acknowledge Jesus as being God’s Son, and that God sent Him into this world to save us, all of us; you, me, and anyone else who will just admit their sin, and accept His forgiveness. I think you know that. What’s keeping you from just saying so?”
Mallard looked at his friend but said nothing. He loved him. He was like a brother, or at least what Mallard thought a brother would be like; he didn’t really know since he’d never had a one – or a friend either for that matter. Until joining the Army, he had lived alone, an orphan raised by a spinster aunt who lived isolated in the swamps of South Georgia. The thought of separation from his friend terrified him yet he could not bring himself to make what his friend called a “profession of faith”. It sounded too easy.
“Awright, you sorry excuse for soldiers,” growled a grizzled old sergeant to no one in particular, as he scrambled down the line of prostrate soldiers checking the readiness of his squad for the coming battle. “Don’t you fire a shot ‘til yore sure you won’t miss. Them blue-bellies ain’t got no sense a’tall but they shore as hell will come charging up this here hill like the devil hisself is a’chasing’em. You won’t have a hell of a lot of reload’n time, so you better make every shot count.”
He stopped beside Mallard and his friend who were lying at the end of the line. “You two hear what I said?”
The stream of tobacco juice the sergeant spewed at their feet barely missed Mallard’s boot. “Yea, sarge. We got it,” he said, moving his foot out of range, continuing his gaze at the massing Union troops at the foot of the hill.
“You’d better, ‘cause this here is gonna be one hell of a fight,” replied the sergeant. He turned to go but stopped and stared back at Mallard and his friend. “Are you two shore you ain’t related? I swear to God you look enough alike to be twins.”
Both Mallard and his friend smiled at the comment they’d heard so often. “No, sarge. We ain’t related. We come from completely different parts of Georgia. Just a coincidence there are two such good looking fellows as us at the same place at the same time,” said Mallards’ friend.
The sergeant shook his head, spit another stream of juice onto the red Georgia dust, this time away from Mallard’s boot, and scrambled off keeping low to avoid sniper fire.
Suddenly, a muffled, distant boom followed by a thunderous explosion in the woods behind shattered the quietness. Union cannons erupted. At first, the Union shells fell harmlessly in the trees behind or on open ground in front of the breastworks. But it didn’t take many rounds for the gunners to find their range.
The exploding shell that catapulted Mallard from his position behind the breastworks knocked him senseless. He lay unconscious as the fierce battle raged. Finally, mounting casualties and the futility of the attack brought the assault to an end; nothing won or lost – except countless lives. The Confederate lines held; the Union troops withdrew.
When Mallard opened his eyes, he thought what his friend feared had come true. He was dead and in hell. Charred black limbless trees thrust macabre fingers upward into a smoke-shrouded sky. The scorched leaves on the few remaining branches fluttered stiffly in a hot breeze; tree trunks and broken branches lay jumbled like grotesque pick-up sticks. All were covered in the red dust of the hot dry soil. It sure looked like hell, but Mallards ringing ears and aching body told him he wasn’t dead.
Rolling to his side, he managed to sit up, surprised that his limbs obeyed. Every bone in his body ached but none were broken. Around him lay men who had not been so lucky; mangled bodies everywhere; the dead, and worse, the wounded. As the ringing in his ears subsided, the sound of groans and pain-tormented voices assaulted Mallard’s awakening senses. But it was the smell he noticed most, the acrid scent of gun powder, dust and blood - the smell of death.
Off to the side, rifle-less men, both Blue and Gray with stretchers, appeared to be sorting out the wounded from the dead. Farther away forest fires burned. Mallard realized they were trying to remove the wounded in its path. Watching the stretcher bearers, Mallard thought it strange how men who moments ago were intent on blowing each other up were now working side by side on a mission of mercy. It didn’t make sense but then nothing about this insane war made sense to Mallard.
“I don’t know why I joined,” Mallard had told his friend. “I’m not mad at anybody.”
His friend had grinned. “I’m not either, Edward. But I guess maybe we didn’t really have a choice.”
“Yeah, but you were conscripted. I actually joined,” Mallard had replied as if that was one of the dumbest things he’d ever done. “But, then again, I don’t know - seemed like a good idea at the time. With Aunt May dead and Momma and Daddy gone, I had no one left. It just seemed it would be good to have some place to belong.” He had added, “It’s awful not having a place to belong.” Then he had grinned at his friend. “But this sure seems like a dumb place to be when blue-bellies are shoot’n at you.”
Suddenly, Mallard remembered his friend. They were lying side by side when the shelling began. He must have been hit by the same blast. “Oh, God,” he thought, “Where is he?” Frantically he surveyed the carnage. But there were so many bodies, so much carnage, how could he find him - alive or dead?
He was on the edge of a depression filled with debris from the cannon bombardment. At the lower end, some 25 feet away, a fire was growing rapidly, fed by the tinder-dry debris. A movement in the gully caught his eye. Looking more closely, he saw a body beneath the rubble and somehow found the strength to scramble down the bank. Brushing back the debris, he saw the face of his friend.
“Oh, God,” thought Mallard, as he sought and found a weak pulse. “He’s barely alive.” Blood soaked his uniform, one mangled arm lay limp by his side. Across his waist lay a huge tree. Alarmed at how the fire was growing, Mallard’s first thought was to get his friend out of the gully. But there was no way he could move that tree without help. He looked to see where the rescue teams were. They were across the clearing working feverously to remove wounded from the fire in the woods. Even if they could hear his cry for help, they were too busy to pay him any attention.
“Edward, is that you? You OK?”
Startled, Mallard looked down at his friend. He saw a face filled with pain yet strangely at peace.
“Yeah, it’s me. I’m alright,” Mallard said, reaching to pull back his friends uniform to get a better view of his wounds. He wished he hadn’t.
“I’m glad,” Mallards friend replied. He paused, struggling to find strength to speak. “There’s something . . . you’ve got to do.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Mallard said, glancing again at the encroaching fire. I’ve got to get you out of this ditch.”
“No . . . no. Don’t . . . worry about that. It’s over for me.”
“No! No it’s not!” Mallard protested. “I’m gonna get you out!”
“Edward, Edward - listen to me. I’m dying . . . I know . . . it’s ok.”
But Mallard wasn’t ready to give up his friend. Tears track the dust down his face as he opened his mouth to protest again.
But his friend cut him off. “Listen, Edward. You’ve got to . . . to promise me . . . you’ll do something for me.”
“Of course you know I’ll do anything you ask. But, please . . . please don’t die!” pleaded Mallard.
“I’m afraid . . . there’s not much . . . either of us can do about that,” his friend said behind a weak smile. Then, with the last of his strength, he explained what he wanted his friend to do.
Mallard listened, tears streaming down his face. “Course I will. Is - is that all?”
“Yes . . . except, Edward, I hope to see you in heaven some day. You know . . . what you’ve got to do.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.” Mallard chokes out the words, not at all sure he could ever actually do it.
“Then . . . this isn’t good bye my friend. . . .,” were the last words of Mallard’s best and only friend as his eyes closed and the pain left his face.
Mallard stared into the lifeless face, so much like his own, until he felt the heat of the encroaching fire. Dead or alive, he couldn’t let his friend, the only friend he had ever known, burn! Suddenly, he panicked. Grabbing a limb of the tree that lay across his friend’s body, he pulled with all his might. But the limb broke, hurling him backwards towards the fire. He twisted in time to avoid the blaze but could not avoid a bed of red hot coals. Searing pain surged across the side of his face from his jaw to the back of his neck. Instinct forced him up the bank away from the fire.
The idea of the fire cremating his friend horrified him, but then he thought, “Ashes to Ashes.” That’s in the Bible his friend shared with him so often wasn’t it? The thought calmed him.
Mallard stood at the top of the gully watching the fire grow in intensity. Brush and debris lay deep where his friend had fallen, and fanned by the ravine updraft, the fire roared into an inferno. As the fire reached his friend, the flames grew more intense, as if rising to the morbid task of what it had to do. Mallard thought of the Old Testament burnt sacrifices his friend had read to him from the Bible and wondered if those flames looked anything like these.
Numb, Mallard stared into the flames, straining to keep sight of his friend, until the brightness forced him to turn away. Within minutes, smoke, glowing embers, a few bones indistinguishable from charred branches, and a skull impossible to identify, were all that were left of the body of Mallard’s friend. He wanted to cry, but tears would not come.
How long he stood staring into the ashes, he didn’t know, but finally he heard the voices of the rescue teams, closer now, and felt the pain in his face. Knowing he needed help, he looked one last time into the smoldering ashes that had once been his friend, and then slowly made his way through the carnage up Cheatham Hill towards the Confederate lines.
As Mallard disappeared over the breastworks, stretcher-bearers approached a blue-uniformed figure lying motionless on the ground only feet from where Mallard and his friend had been. The man appeared dead, but when the rescue team removed the dead bodies from across his legs, a blood-soaked but unhurt Private Howard Sawyer, to the amazement of the rescue squad, got up and left the battlefield under his own power. Despite his luck during the battle, it ran out a half-hour later when he met a Confederate patrol. He spent the rest of the war in a Confederate prison camp but did not forget the conversation between Mallard and his friend, a memory later leading to a decision with tragic results. Had Mallard and Sawyer foreseen the consequences of Mallards promise and Sawyers eavesdropping, they both might have taken much different paths than the ones they later chose.
Late Afternoon, Saturday, October 1, 1875
He’d have to hurry. Darkness falls fast in October and the autumn leaves on the trail made for uncertain footing. But he wasn’t concerned. How could he be, feeling so relieved after finally deciding to do what he’d known to be right for so long? Long conversations with old Kiowa had opened his heart. Who would have thought that an old Indian living like a hermit on top of a mountain would be the one to shine the light into his long-dark soul?
He almost told her everything. He almost told Kiowa the secret that had troubled him for so long. But he wanted to put action to his decision so that when he told Kiowa, it would be absolutely, irretrievably final. And the only way to do that was to tell Jake.
His face clouded as he thought about the last conversation he’d had with Dorothea. It surprised him how his love for her had grown since the war. She had been upset when he told her what he was going to do. But after arguing with him to change his mind, she seemed to accept his decision even though unhappy with it. He knew she loved him and with time, he was confident she would come to realize the rightness of what he was going to do.
Regardless, he could no longer harbor the secret he had lived with since returning from the war. It had weighed upon him long before the discussions with Kiowa opened both his eyes and his soul to the light of real peace. Now that he had it, he had to rid his conscience of this last dark blot, one darker than all the others he’d released already. What a relief it would to have everything out in the open, to finally be rid of guilt.
Alongside Dead Man’s Falls, the trail up Dark Spirit Mountain was treacherous. A huge rock hanging on the side of the mountain pressed against the trail. The mist that billowed up from the roaring torrent, some 30 feet below, coated the trail with moisture making it slippery, particularly when covered with autumn leaves.
He had stayed longer with Kiowa than he had planned and it was growing dark as he approached Dead Man’s Falls. But he wasn’t worried. He knew the trail well. As he approached the falls, his only caution was to move to the edge of the trail away from the falls. Ordinarily, the roar of the falls and the billowing mist filled passersby with a sense of apprehension, even foreboding. But in his state of mind neither the ominous roar, nor the sinister mist, dampen his spirit.
Even if he had survived, he would not have known what happened. One moment, he was walking down the trail, in another he was plunging headlong into the depths of the falls. It happened so quickly, his soaring spirit failed to comprehend the tragedy before it left his body for eternity.
Now, neither Jake nor Kiowa would hear his secret from his lips. It no longer mattered to him. But it mattered greatly to others.
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