“Under The Pale Gray Moon” by Walter Thomas Beck III

Here is a short story from our Bi Laurette Walter Beck. Hope you enjoy as much as I do. “Lynnette”

Under the Pale Gray Moon
By Walter Beck

It was a fine sunny morning in late May 1861; Bill Wersteiner was strolling down the dirt streets of the little town of Black Creek, North Carolina. The youngest son of the editor of the county’s newspaper, he wasn’t in any hurry today. The chores were finished at home, and his pa didn’t need him at the paper office. He kept strolling along, kicking the dirt with his bare feet and humming a bit. The whole town seemed to be nearly in a riot, people running from one place to another, hooting and hollering. He wondered what was going on, until he spotted a hastily constructed stage with the state flags on either side. The mayor was on stage and standing next to him was a hard-looking middle-aged man in a gray and black coat with gold trimming.

“I just got word from Raleigh that our state has decided to join the rest of her Southern sisters in defense against President Lincoln’s war!”

The crowd roared in excitement.

“The man standing next to me is Colonel Branson from the 15th North Carolina Infantry. He has come down here to raise a company of brave men to defend our homes from this coming horde of Yankee invaders. Colonel Branson, the town is listening.”

The Colonel stepped up and began speaking, “Citizens of Black Creek, I’m here to enlist those willing to defend their homes and their neighbors. As you know, Governor Ellis turned down President Lincoln’s request for troops from North Carolina to fight against her fellow Southerners and against the liberties of her own people. All I’m going to say on the matter is who will come up and sign the roll? We will be here until this evening, departing for training at 6:00. Thank you and God save North Carolina.”

A band began striking up “Dixie” as the mayor and the Colonel left the stage and went off to the side to sign men up.

Bill shifted into the crowd, making his way up to the recruiting table. He was nineteen; he could sign up and go off into a summer of excitement and adventure. He would have stories to tell, people would call him a hero, and when he got home, he could write about it for his pa’s newspaper.

He stepped up to the table where the Colonel was standing; the Colonel glanced at Bill, looking at his scraggly adolescent beard.

“How old are you, son?”, he asked.

“Nineteen, sir,” Bill replied.

“Sign here then.”

Bill signed his name and then went off to wait for the departure.

The newly formed Company E of the 15th North Carolina Infantry marched from the town of Black Creek at 6:00. The whole town turned out to see their brave men leave in defense of their homes. Bill tried to blend in, hoping his folks wouldn’t see him in the mass of men.

They arrived in Raleigh and the next three weeks were drill, drill, and more drill. Bill learned how to handle his new Enfield rifle, how to stand in formation, battle lines, the whole mess of it. It seemed rather dull, not the sort of adventure he was hoping for. But the sergeants and the Captain kept telling the men that they needed to learn this so that when the time came, they would be able to stand hard against the Yankee army.

On June 18th, it was announced that they were boarding a train and going north to Virginia where the Yankee army was building up strength in preparation for an upcoming assault. Bill and the rest of the men smiled as they climbed aboard the box cars with their blanket rolls and knapsacks, feeling that this was it. They were going to be heroes.

As the train began its journey, Bill walked over a bit until he found a couple of boys from his company shuffling a deck of cards.

“You mind if I join you?” he asked.

One of ‘em looked up, “Bill? Hell no, sit down! Just don’t clean us out.”

Bill chuckled as he sat down with Mike and John, the other two from Company E. As John kept shuffling the cards, Bill said, “Hey, we need a fourth here.”

The three of ‘em looked around, until they spotted a guy who looked about their age. Mike signaled for him to come over. He stood up and began walking over to the card game. He was a short, stocky Irish boy, grinning a bit shyly.

John slid over to make room for him. He sat down and looked at the three others. Mike stuck out his hand and the boy shook it. “Hi, I’m Mike, and this is John and Bill, we’re from Company E. What’s your name?”

“I’m Sean, Sean James, I’m with Company D,” he replied.

Bill smiled up at him, “Well damn glad to meet you. You any good at euchre?”

The boys played euchre until the train pulled into Virginia. They chatted about where they were from, what they were expecting when they got on the field. Smiling, they all shook hands as they lined back up with their companies.

Virginia turned out to be much of the same as Raleigh; drill during the day and picket duty at night. The Colonel made a speech to the regiment, emphasizing the importance of picket duty since they were camped not far from a detachment of Yankees.

During the evening, Sean would slip over from Company D and play cards with Bill and the guys. He liked Mike and John, but he was becoming pretty close to Bill. Nobody minded, it was nice to have close buddies so far from home.

On a late June evening, Bill was standing picket duty, leaning idly against his Enfield rifle and smoking his pipe. He looked across the way and saw a campfire burning on the other side; he heard the Yankees laughing and playing music. Smiling a little, he struck a match and relit his pipe. He heard steps behind him and clutched his rifle in a panic.

Turning around he saw Sean standing there, grinning sheepishly.

“Didn’t mean to startle you,” Sean said.

Smiling a bit, Bill replied, “It’s OK.”

Sean looked across where the Union was camping, “Sounds like they’re having fun late tonight.”

“They’re just worked up like we are, that’s all,” Bill said.

“Listen, Bill, I wanted to ask you something?”

“Hmm?”

“You got a girl back home? Seems like ever since we marched up here, everybody back in camp has a girl waiting for her brave boy in gray to come marching home.”

Bill chuckled, “No, not really, never saw that one that interested me. It always puzzled my folks, my mother never could understand how a boy as country handsome as me could never find a girl to court. What about you? Any pretty ladies waiting for you back in the mountains?”

Sean reddened, “Me? Na, I’ve been too busy taking care of ma ever since pa died a couple years ago.”

Bill looked out towards the Union camp, “Shit, I’m sorry, Sean. Well maybe before this whole mess is over, we’ll both find someone.” He didn’t notice Sean looking at him and smiling.

On July 22nd, after dinner, the camp of the 15th North Carolina Infantry exploded in celebration. Bill looked around at the hooting and hollering, confused as to what was going on. He found a corporal swinging a whiskey jug and asked what was going on.

“Didn’t you hear? The Yankees ran at Manassas yesterday! They ran all the way back to Washington!”

“Really?” Bill replied.

“Yeah, looks like we’ll be going home before Christmas! Come on!”, the corporal said, waving his arm.

Bill started following, looking around at the celebration going on, every man in camp smiling from ear to ear, seeming so sure that this little adventure would be over soon and they would go back home in victory. They were cheering, swilling whiskey. When Bill got to the clearing at the edge of camp, he saw two barrels of beer being tapped. He ran up with his tin cup and filled it full of lager. Drinking deeply, he shouted, “Who brought the beer?” Someone shouted, “Requisitions from the nearest town!”

He sat down with his beer, smiling and thinking how soon this would be over and what a celebration it would be when they marched back to North Carolina. While he was sitting, he felt someone nudge him; he turned and looked at Sean sitting next to him, smiling just as brightly as everybody else.

“Sean! Well what a piece of news, eh? C’mon, raise your cup!” Bill said.

Sean smiled and clinked his tin cup of beer with Bill. “So you really think it’s gonna be over soon?” he asked.

“Are you joking? From what they say, the entire Yankee army ran! They ran once they saw the might of old Dixie!” Bill replied. “Speaking of Dixie, let’s get some music going around here!”

No sooner had he said that than a band started getting tuned up. They burst into “The Bonnie Blue Flag” and everybody started cheering again, joining in on the chorus,

“Hurrah! Hurrah!
For Southern rights, hurrah!
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star!”

The band then started playing their favorite songs from back home, belting out “Buffalo Gals”, all the boys stomping and clapping. As the hollering continued, the banjo started strumming fast, plucking out “Oh Susanna”. Bill smiled and grabbed Sean, “Just follow my lead and smile like it’s a big joke.”

Sean grinned nervously as they stood up and began dancing. Bill held Sean’s hands and lead as the rest of the boys smiled, laughed, and hollered. They saw that devil-may-care smile on Bill’s face, thinking he was just being the jokester he usually was. But Sean saw Bill’s eyes and the passion for him sparkling in them.

The party wound down, the band played a few more songs and ended with “I’m Going Home to Dixie”. The beer barrels were empty and the men walked back to their tents, tired from celebration and more than a few stumbling back drunk.

The next night, with everybody shaking off the effects of their celebration, Sean sauntered up to Bill, who was sitting alone by the fire reading a copy of the Daily Richmond Examiner. He sat down beside him.

“Hey, Bill.”

Bill turned his head, “Oh, hey Sean. You’re a pretty good dancer, you know.”

Sean smiled, “Well you know how to lead. You wanna share this?” Bill saw Sean reach into his jacket pocket and pull out a Marsh Wheeling cigar.

“My favorite stogie, where’d you get that?”

“The Captain of Company D, he had a couple extras so I gave him a dollar for one of ‘em.”

“You’re too kind, mind if I do the honors?”

“Not at all.”

Bill bit the end off the cigar, struck a match and puffed until the end glowed. After it was burning well, he held it up to admire it. It was a rare treat for a couple of privates to have a cigar, let alone a good one. While he was glancing at it, Sean leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. Bill’s face turned as red as the end of the cigar.

“Can I tell you something, Bill?”

“Sure, Sean.”

“I love you.”

“Ah, I love you too, Sean, and I ain’t just saying that because you brought me a cigar,” Bill replied, grinning. “Maybe once this is over and we go back home, you and I can strike out on our own.”

Sean smiled and stretched out on the ground, his head on Bill’s chest, hearing his heart beating mellow under his ragged cotton shirt. They sat there, passing the cigar back and forth; watching the smoke send their prayers to whatever god looked after young Rebel soldiers.

On August 31st, Bill sat with John, sharing a pint of fine Virginia whiskey. John was strumming his new banjo. He had saved up two months’ pay to get it and he was pretty proud of it. While they sat there, Sean came ambling up.

“In the mood for a game of euchre, Sean?” John grinned.

“Na, just thought I’d come by and see what you guys were up to,” he replied.

“Ah John’s just showing off his new banjo and I’m showing off this pint of fine whiskey I managed to get,” Bill said. “C’mon, sit down and have a knock.”

Sean sat down and took the pint bottle from Bill, enjoying a nip.

“Hey John, you mind if Sean and I dance?” Bill asked, taking back the pint bottle.

Sean’s face reddened a bit as did John’s. “You two boys are pretty close, huh? No, I don’t mind plucking one out for you fellas to dance to. ‘Oh Susanna’, right?”

Bill nodded as John began picking out the tune. The two got up and began dancing, there was no awkwardness, no need to try to make it out to be a big joke. It was just them and John and John certainly didn’t mind. They smiled, dancing in the light of the small campfire, under the watch of the night sky. They were away from all this, away from the tediousness of drilling, away from the Yankees, away from all of it; they were back home, just the two of them and the music.
As John finished the song, Bill kissed Sean. It wasn’t the awkward kiss Sean had given him when he first told Bill he loved him. It was an unashamed kiss, the way you would kiss a girl you wanted to marry.

In that moment, the two of them felt invincible. The gods were looking after them and they would go home and be together.

Early in the morning on September 9th, the 3rd Maryland Infantry snuck into the camp for a surprise attack. Reveille hadn’t even begun to crack the morning sky when a mass of blue uniformed troops began running through the tents, firing their muskets and slashing down with bayonets. Startled by the screaming, Bill ran out of his tent, dressed in just his trousers, clutching a Philadelphia Derringer. His eyes grew as he saw a blue-jacketed young private running right towards him with hatred on his face.

“Bastard!” he screamed, the Federal private swung his musket back and bashed Bill in the head with the butt of the rifle and stuck him with his bayonet, right between his ribs. Bill groaned through his teeth as the Federal ran on, looking for more targets.

As he lay there bleeding, Sean found him and began to weep hysterically.

“Sean? Sean?”, Bill asked.

“It’s me, I’m here, Jesus, Bill, you’re gonna die!” Sean replied.

Bill began coughing violently, “No, no, I’m gonna be fine, just get me out of here, get me off this goddamn camp!”

“OK, OK,” Sean said, choking back sobs. He ran into Bill’s tent and grabbed his blanket. He moved Bill gently onto it and began dragging him away from the bloody wreck that was their regiment’s camp. He stopped in front of the surgeon’s tent, which was already packed with mangled troops. Running inside, he found two surgeon’s assistants and began screaming at them, “I have a man outside who needs help!”

“Play it again, Sean,” he asked, breathing heavily on the rough cot.

“Alright, Bill,” Sean replied, running out of the field hospital until he found John plucking his banjo.

“John! John! God, it’s Bill, it’s Bill, he’s bleeding, John! Come on, bring your banjo!” John got up with his banjo, running after Sean. They ran through the mess of bloody beds and surgeons sawing off limbs. Finally, they came to Bill’s cot.

“Bill, I’m here! And look, John’s here too! He’s gonna play a song for us,” Sean said with tears streaming down his face. John began choking back as he began plucking out “Oh Susanna”.

Bill smiled as the song began; Sean looked down with tears streaming as they began singing,

“I soon will be in New Orleans, and then I’ll look around, 
And when I find Susanna, I’ll fall upon the ground. 
But if I do not find her, then I will surely die, 
And when I’m dead and buried, Oh, Susanna, don’t you cry.”

 

Walter Beck is from Avon, IN and is a graduate of Indiana State University. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and he has several books currently available through Writing Knights Press. He is also a noted underground journalist, currently working as the Gonzo Correspondent to the Colonies for the UK based LGBT online magazine Polari.

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One thought on ““Under The Pale Gray Moon” by Walter Thomas Beck III

  1. Pingback: Interview: Walter Thomas Beck III | The BiCast

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