Corporal Ron Baker stood at rigid attention clutching his rifle with numbed fingers. He drew a bead on one of the walking dead as his mouth tightened in disgust.
“How would you like to be relieved of your misery, filthy cur?” He growled under his breath. “Just give me an excuse to shoot.” One less to Yank feed now. One less to kill later.
Smoldering hate left its rancid taste in his mouth. An eye for an eye. That’s what the Good Book says. Jimmy’s dead and you done it. His life for yer’s.
His nameless quarry slouched over a miserable fire, chafing frozen hands in a futile attempt to generate warmth. Then he drew a battered tin cup from his pocket.
Baker knew the day’s rations rested in that cup—a bit of cornmeal and spoiled bacon. He watched as the soldier added enough water to form a rude cake, and then placed it in the ashes of his meager fire. After a few moments, he turned it over.
After wiping away the ashes with the tenderness of a mother caressing her newborn, he moved to a nearby hole; squatted, and hunched himself in, feet first.
Numerous holes dotted the prison grounds. Coldest winter in years, thought Baker with grim delight; recalling how the men had clawed into the hard, red Carolina clay with sticks, cups and rocks in a desperate attempt for protection against the frigid elements.
No more’n you deserve, thought Baker. Yer army’s starving the south, so they be starving you as well, he finished with a humorless chuckle.
Baker knew the soldier had carried the food into his hole for a weak comrade. Otherwise, he’d have swallowed it the moment it left the fire. He was still staring down the sights of
his forgotten rifle when the soldier reappeared. He turned to kneel before his shelter-hole and began tugging. Soon the body of a late comrade came into view.
The soldier staggered to unsteady feet with his morbid load, cradling the cadaverous being against his own as he stumbled off to a certain squat building—the dead house.
I’d like to bury the lot of you, dead or alive, Baker snarled to himself. Wish I were the one driving that wagon to pick up its daily load of corpses. I’d get to dump them into those nameless trenches. Ha! Nobody would find your sorry remains when this war’s over. Nobody!
Hunkering deeper into his tattered overcoat, Baker tried to remember how he got himself into this madness. He recalled how anxious he’d been to escape his father and the farm.
Father is the farm and the farm is father, he snorted his disgust. His whole existence revolves around seeds and seasons. That ain’t for me. I wanna be somebody. I’m gonna make real money when this war business is over.
Ron and his father rubbed each other like coarse sandpaper. With no common interest to hold them together, Baker enlisted before his 18th birthday.
“Welcome to the Confederate Army, Private Baker,” the sergeant had barked. “You’ll report for guard duty in Salisbury two weeks from Wednesday.”
“Tea-kettle, tea-kettle!” screeched a Carolina Wren close by Baker’s ear. He jumped back. “God help me,” he breathed. “I almost done murder and would’a relished it. He lowered his weapon with trembling hands.
In a flash, Baker saw himself as a lad, pressed against his mother’s knee while she read from the family Bible. “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth…”
“Youth!” Baker spat the word through curled lips, but his derision soon melted to a sob. “I’m no youth. I’ve already lived three lifetimes in this bloody mess.” He looked out over the ragged inmates. I’m no better than them, he thought. They followed orders, fought and got captured. I followed orders and ended up in this madness. My heart is as black as theirs—no—blacker. Baker raised his eyes to the bleak winter sky. “O God,” he prayed. “Would you clean up my heart? That is, iffin yer willin’.”
Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow, the answer flashed as lightening, illuminating Baker’s aged young heart. He recalled more of the Psalm. A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
Joy surged through Baker’s worn soul. “Thank you, God, for your forgiveness. I don’t deserve it, but I receive it with all my heart. Amen. Amen.”
*Ecclesiastes 12:1, Psalm 51:7, 17
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