Previous Challenge Entry (Level 2 – Intermediate)
Topic: Charade (08/14/08)
TITLE: Slough of Despondence
By Patrick Whalen
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The gray woolen jacket that hung on my shoulders was damp and cold. A fire would lift my spirit. As I gathered small sticks and twigs, I noticed a bullet-shaped hole in my right sleeve, stained red. A fire might not be safe, but I was strangely cold. I placed the woody bundle on the soft mossy ground.
As I drew out a small box of Lucifers from my pocket, a paper fell to the ground, but it was unreadable in the faint light. I struck a match and lit the bundle. Hungry flames licked at the twigs as I added more to the pile. The growing fire cast new shadows that frolicked and danced with those of the moon above. I reached for the paper and through blurred eyes made out the bold text: “Lieutenant Fallon, 35th Alabama Regiment.”
“No, its Jeff…” the strange words came from my mouth with mixed restraint. I sat down to warm myself. “Secesh.” That didn’t sound right. My memory was a jumble of thoughts and scarce reality. Another word came, “Yellow Hammer.”
Something inside told me the voice was out of place. There was a distinct tone and inflection that jerked at my conscience. I looked at the paper again. A sudden rush of hatred and pain boiled up so hot within me that I doubled over on my side.
A single ray of sun warmed my face and woke me from my slumber. I raised my hand to shield my eyes and through crimson stained fingers I saw a familiar form. Above me, in the jumble of tupelo and cypress, two limbs came together to form a cross. Another round of ringing came and I fought off the urge to close my eyes.
My right hand failed me, so with my left, I pushed against the ground and rose to my knees. “My Lord, my God, I have forgotten myself, but I have not forgotten you. I pray that if it be your will, that I may be rescued from this present trouble.”
A breeze stirred up the stale air and the whisper through Spanish moss calmed me. Then, above the breeze, I heard footsteps splashing and dripping from behind. There was nowhere to run! I reached for a pistol that should have been there, but it wasn’t. I searched my belt, jacket, and the ground around me, but for naught.
I leapt into the crook of the tree and waited, and listened. The King Rail and Heron were gone, but the faithful mosquito still nipped at my ear. I wanted to swat but dared not move. The buzz grew louder as the footsteps drew near, then all went silent. I risked a slight turn to get a look.
In front of me, ankle deep in the dank brown slough stood a chestnut mare with an empty saddle. With little to lose, I approached her with tender, easy steps. She turned her head towards me and appeared to snicker at my caution. I grabbed the reigns, stepped into the stirrup and lifted myself onto her muscular back.
Without knowing where I was, or where to go, I gave her a mild nudge and let the reigns hang free. Her gentle steps carried us forward through the mud and water and soon found solid ground. The gentle, familiar sway of her gait lulled me to sleep.
“Whoa there!” The voice startled me from my dreams and I began to slide from the saddle. Someone caught me. “It’s Lieutenant Jeffries! Call the surgeon at once!”
The word “surgeon” snapped me from my haze. “Bully for the surgeon! He’ll saw my arm of for the joy of it. Take me to Chaplain Reynolds. I reached into the saddlebag and removed a map marked with my own hand. “Make sure this gets to Colonel Maskin. The marks are the enemy positions.”
I reached Chaplain Reynolds’ tent and he allowed me to fall upon his cot. “So Lieutenant, how is the life of a spy?”
“Chaplain, I did my job, and God did His.”
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