Log Cabin Chronicles

The War Wagon

GERALD E. SHEAGREN

The single-horse wagon lumbered through northern Virginia, axles creaking, clouds of yellow dust billowing in its wake. It was a strange-looking contraption, resembling a small, narrow room that had been detached from a house and perched precariously atop four wheels. Painted on its whitewashed sides in fancy gold and black lettering was JEDEDIAH A. ZANE - FINE PHOTOGRAPHIC IMAGES.

At the reins was a thin, dour-faced man of about fifty, wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat and white linen duster. He was playing with the remains of a cigar, deftly moving it from one corner of his sulky mouth to the other. His face was the color and texture of old saddle leather, crow's feet pinching his eyes into watery, little slits. If joy and good humor were the sustenance of life, this curmudgeon would have been dead long ago.

Seated next to him was a young man in his early twenties; bug-eyed and bucktoothed, a floppy slouch hat resting on ears that were much larger than usual. Blotchy freckles spattered his nose and cheekbones, looking as though a pot of brown beans had exploded, striking him squarely in the face. His weak chin bore the rudimental sprouts of a carrot-colored beard.

There was a rumble of artillery, sounding like a thunderstorm brewing in the distance. There was a faint trace of sulfur in the air.

"I hope that Brady or Gardner ain't there yet." Zane plucked the cigar from his mouth and flicked a length of ash into the air. "Those two yahoos have been getting' all the credit an' I'm mighty tired of it. Ya hearin' me, Georgie?"

George McKenna yawned, tired of hearing the same old refrain.

"It's a'ways Brady an' Gardner, Gardner an' Brady. When am I gonna get the recognition I deserve?" The old man slapped his thigh. "Hell, I'm better than those two put together. Ya hearin' me, Georgie?"

George offered a grunt in response, shooing away a mosquito that had landed on his ear. God, how he despised this foul-mouthed, crotchety, old tightwad! Zane habitually overcharged his customers, giving them the least he could for their money. He also had a fondness for whiskey, beat his wife on a regular basis and frequented Hooker's Division in Washington City, where he took up with prostitutes. Recently he had brought a fourteen-year-old whore to his studio on M Street and had spent a noisy hour with her in the back room. When she left, she was sobbing, with a nasty red welt across her cheek. If the photographer possessed the slightest hint of integrity, George had yet to see it.

"I wanna get some shots of some fresh kill." Zane screwed up his face as though he was sucking on a lemon. "I hate it when they get all bloated up."

"Sweet Mother of Jesus."

Zane smiled wickedly, blowing a cloud of cigar smoke into George's face. "Ya know, Georgie; sometimes I don't think you're cut out for this business."

"I love the studio work, but this battlefield photography bothers me. It ain't right, it jus' ain't right."

"Well, you had better get use to it an' mighty quick. If a photographer takes some memorable shots on the field of battle, he could make a right good name for himself. An' that, dear Georgie, is exactly what I'm plannin' to do. Yes, sireee! I'm gonna immortalize this war with my pictures. The name of Jedediah A. Zane will be waggin' on peoples' tongues for years to come."

"Doesn't takin' pictures of the dead make you feel cheap?"

"Cheap?" A phlegmy chortle. "Hell no, boy! It makes me feel rich." Zane snapped the reins. "C'mon, Mabel, ol' girl! Let's get this war wagon movin'!"

They had left Washington City two days ago, over the Long Bridge. After checking Jedediah's pass, a big, bearded sergeant had directed them into a long caravan of ambulances and supply wagons that was crawling along at a snail's pace. Ten miles into Virginia, Zane had struck out on his own, following obscure country lanes, some not much wider than a footpath. The rolling farmlands that they passed were so still and picturesque that George couldn't help wondering how they could remain so in the midst of such a devastating war. Crude wooden signs, with one end whittled to a point, marked the directions and distances to such places as Manassas, Brandy Station and Culpepper.

They had slept the night near the wagon, listening to the chirping of crickets and the occasional howl of a dog. In the morning, after a breakfast of coffee and biscuits swaddled in pork fat, Jedediah had consulted a map and turned onto a wider road which followed the sluggish, brown waters of a river. Trees, stooped and gnarled with age, lined its banks, the air alive with the incessant humming of insects. At one point, George had spotted a Union kepi floating past, and, shortly after, a bloodied shell jacket with one of its sleeves torn completely away. The war was getting closer; somewhere up ahead, beyond the trees and tangled underbrush.

A few miles further along, with the boom of artillery and the crackle of musket fire decidedly louder, they began to see the first signs of battle. Trees had been split asunder by projectiles, severed branches littering the roadway. Spouting profanity, Jedediah maneuvered around the debris the best he could, sometimes having to leave the road in order to do so. Dead and wounded Yankees, appearing as patches of blue, could be seen sprawled amongst the underbrush. A sour bile rose in George's throat as he noticed a brogan lying in the middle of the road, with the bloody stump of a foot still attached. A canteen, impaled to a tree by a jagged piece of shrapnel. A prayer book, bloody and torn, its pages scattered about. Everywhere: discarded knapsacks, blanket rolls, cartridge boxes and articles of clothing. The birdcalls and the croaking of tree toads that had accompanied them for the past twenty miles had suddenly ceased.

"Looks like the Grim Reaper is gonna be mighty generous to us toady." Jedediah cackled and slapped his knee. "Plenty of subjects for my lense. Yes, sir, righty. Hundreds of 'em."

They heard the thudding of horses' hooves and the jangle of sabers long before a troop of Union cavalry rounded the bend up ahead, nearly lost in a cloud of swirling dust. Sweat-lathered mounts, bays and sorrels and dappled-grays. Grim-faced men with beards and boys with peach fuzz. Dusty blue uniforms with yellow piping. Carbines held tight and ready for action.

A short, weary-eyed captain trotted his mount in a full circle around the wagon, inspecting it seemed, every board, nail, and letter on its side. Reining in his horse alongside Jedediah, he bent low in the saddle and launched a stream of tobacco juice onto the roadway. George noticed that sweat had congealed the dust on the officer's forehead into mud.

"Where you gents comin' from?"

Jedediah jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Clear from Washington City."

"Is that right?" The captain thought for a moment, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. "Well, tell me; how's President Lincoln farin'?"

"Right poorly I s'pect, considerin'."

"Considerin' what?"

Jedediah winked. "The dismal failures of the Army of the Potomac."

Jedediah ignored the captain's glare, pulled a card from his pocket and handed it over to the officer. "Anytime you're in Washington City, drop by an' I'll fix you up with some right choice cartes de visite. You appear to be real photogenic feller." Then, cupping a hand around his mouth, Jedediah raised his voice so the others could hear. "Same goes for you boys! Jedediah Zane's my name. Got a studio on M Street; not far from the Capitol. I take some mighty fine group pictures."

The captain squinted at the card, unimpressed. "Brady an' Gardner I've heard of. Can't say the same for you."

Jedediah unleashed a string of profanity, the stub of his cigar spewing smoke like a steel mill's chimney.

"Watch your tongue, sir! My sergeant happens to be a man of the cloth."

"Well, pardon my poor English."

The officer scowled, twirling the ends of his moustache. Then, leaning over in the saddle, he cocked an inquisitive eye at George. "Why ain't you in Mister Lincoln's army, son? You look to be the proper age."

George squirmed in his seat, biting his lip, looking in every direction but at the captain.

"The hell you say!" blurted Jedediah. "He has a letter from the Adjutant General hisself, releasing him from military duty so he can study the fine art of photography." The old man patted his pocket. "Got it right t'ere, if you've a mind to look at it."

The captain dismissed the matter with a wave of the hand. "No need. I've got more pressing business to take care of."

Jedediah cupped a hand behind an ear. "By the sounds of it, the battle's moved off to the west."

"Indeed it has, sir, an' as brutal a struggle as you would ever wanna see. If I was you, I'd turn this wagon right around an' head back to Washington City. The battle can easily shift back this way an' you'd be caught right in the middle."

"I've come too far to be turnin' around."

"Suit yourself. Can't say I didn't warn ya." With that, the captain raised a gauntleted hand and brought it down. "At the double! Ho!"

The troops galloped off, low in their saddles. George watched them until their red and white guidon was lost in the dust.

"C'mon, Mabel, giddup! The war's a-waitin' on us!"

As the wagon lurched forward, George sighed and stared down at his lap, thinking hard on what the captain had said. There was no doubt that he should be in the army, doing his fair share. His twin brother, Henry - less freckles and smaller ears - had been seriously wounded at Bull Run, never again able to use his right arm. To get through each day, it took laudanum and a good amount of whiskey. One of his cousins had died of dysentery during winter camp and another had perished at the stone bridge at Antietam. Of his three closest friends; one was in the naval blockade off North Carolina, another was fighting somewhere in Tennessee and Toby Witherspoon was on the staff of Ulysses S. Grant. Although he had never been an overly courageous person, George felt that he should be sharing in their misery instead of working for a no-good skinflint like Jedediah A. Zane.

Jedediah leaned close to George, his fetid breath warm on the boy's ear. "Somethin' chewin' on ya, Georgie?"

"Huh? Oh --- uh ---no. No, nutin'."

"Sure there is an' I be knowin' exactly what." Jedediah clamped his teeth down hard on what little remained of his cigar. "That sanctimonious sonofabitch got ya feelin' sorry for yourself, didn't he? That's it, ain't it?"

"Jus' lemme alone!"

Jedediah raised his voice to a high-pitched whine. "All of a sudden, l'il Georgie McKenna is hearin' drums an' bugles in his head. I's a-comin', massa Lincoln! I's a-comin' I's sure 'nough seen the light!" The old man snatched a slip of paper from his pocket and waved it under George's nose. "Well, here's your deferment, bucko. Rip 'er up. Go ahead, rip 'er up."

George reached for the paper, but Jedediah quickly held it out of reach.

"Yes, sah, massa Lincoln! L'il Georgie McKenna is willin' to offer up an arm, maybe a leg, his whole dang life for the glorious cause! Yes, sah, I's a-comin'! Glory, glory, hallelujah!"

"Gimme that deferment, you ol' bastard! I'll rip it up, sure thing, an' make you eat every piece of ti!"

"Naw, I don't think so.' Jedediah tucked the paper back into his pocket. "I'll jus' hold onto it. I wouldn't want you to do somethin' rash, now would I?" "You're a stinkin', miserable, ol' rat!"

Zane guffawed. "So my wife tells me."

The wagon's wheels squealed as they jounced along the pockmarked road, sounding like a bunch of piglets crying out for their mother. Scores of Yankees lay along the roadside; the dead looking as though they were sleeping and the wounded wailing for water. Wreaths of powder smoke drifted through the woods like specters. George began to hear a sound that reminded him of a breeze groaning through the eaves of his family's old farmhouse in Germantown. After pondering on its origin for a few moments, he became all too aware of what it was - the great, collective cry of hundreds of wounded left on the field to fend for themselves.

Spooked, Mabel let out a long, wet snort, tossing her head from side-to-side.

"Get along there, gal! C'mon, giddy-up!" When she failed to budge, Jedediah let out an exasperated sigh. "Awright! This place will have to do. Get the camera out, Georgie."

George sat rooted to the seat as he stared down at a corpse with both of its legs severed. A black-and-yellow butterfly, unmindful to the horrors of war, came to rest on the man's nose for a few moments before fluttering off. Feeling a bit dizzy, George clutched onto the seat so hard that his knuckles turned white. A burning sourness was beginning to rise to his throat.

"What'cha waitin' for, boy? Get the dang-blamed camera out!"

"I --- I feel a little sick."

A throaty chuckle. 'Bet'cha ain't hearin' those drums an' bugles anymore."

George climbed down from the seat on wobbly legs, opened the rear door of the wagon and pulled out a rosewood box mounted on a tripod. He carefully set it up where Jedediah was indicating.

"Now fetch me a wet plate an' the lightproof box, Georgie. Hurry it up, boy! Times a-wastin'."

When George returned with the wet plate, Jedediah snatched it, ducked under a black hood and mounted it inside the camera. Reaching from beneath the hood, he removed the lens cap and adjusted the tripod an inch or two to the right. Finally, when everything met his approval, he snapped a picture of the carnage and quickly tucked the exposed plate away inside the lightproof box. George hustled it inside the wagon and returned with another. This procedure went on a half dozen times until Jedediah stretched and pulled out a flask of whiskey.

"Got some mighty fine pictures here, Georgie. Now, let's find a likely subject for my next shot. C'mon."

George followed his boss into the woods, stepping over mangled corpses and the writhing wounded. The stench of excrement assaulted his nostrils, gagging him, and he couldn't help thinking about how the human body purged itself at the moment of death. A wounded soldier grabbed at his trouser leg, begging for water, a pink-tinged foam bubbling from his mouth. Nearby, a tree which had been struck by a shell, suddenly split clear down the middle, with a sound that reminded George of someone biting into a hard, crisp apple. It fell in two different directions, each half landing on a number of wounded men too weak to get out of the way. George saw a shadow traveling across the ground and looked up to see a buzzard sweeping overhead.

Ignoring the terrible carnage, Jedediah was stepping over bodies and kicking debris out of his way. He snatched up a gold pocket watch, blew it free of dirt and stuffed it into his pocket. As he approached a dead soldier, no more than fifteen, he knelt down to examine the corpse more closely. The boy's eyes were closed and his lips slightly parted, as though he had dozed off for a few moments of precious sleep. A piece of shrapnel had neatly snapped his suspender, a patch of blood having bloomed on the shirt directly over his heart. Golden ringlets of hair and a small pug nose. An anxious mother would never see this lad home again.

"Here's a perfect subject for me, Georgie. Oh yes! The death of innocence."

"My God! He's hardly more than a child!"

"How's massa Lincoln's war seem to you now? "C'mon, we'll carry him out by the road where there's more light."

"I most certainly will not!"

"You don't think that Brady or Gardner wouldn't do the same?"

"I don't give a hoot! It ain't right!"

"Right?" Jedediah snorted a laugh. "There ain't nutin' right about this whole dang-blamed war."

"Still."

"Still nutin'! Now grab this feller unner the arms an' I'll take 'is legs." George hesitated, tears shining in his eyes.

"C'mon, boy, do it! It's jus' part of the job like anythin' else."

They hauled the young Yank out of the woods and laid him back against a tree near the side of the road. Jedediah carefully arranged the body to his liking and grabbed a musket, placing it across the soldier's lap. After appraising his work for a few thoughtful moments, he hustled to the wagon and returned with an ambrotype which he placed in the boy's hand.

"What's that for?"

"The proper affect. He died while holdin' a picture of his family; Ma an' Pa an' l'il sis. Nice touch, huh?"

"You miserable ol' ---!" George kicked up a clod of dirt. "I don't know why I work for you! I swear; havin' the Devil for a boss would be more rewardin'!"

"That's what you think, huh?"

"Damn right!"

"Well, you've made yourself plainly heard, master McKenna." Jedediah planted his hands on his hips, his eyes glimmering with anger. "Well then: when we get back to Washington City, I will no longer be in need of your services. I think a more mature person would be more to my likin'."

"Good! That's jus' fine by me!"

"Shanty Irish, you an' all your kin!"

George unleashed a great roundhouse punch that connected solidly with the old man's jaw. Jedediah staggered backwards, letting out a groan, and dropped like a one-hundred-fifty pound sack of potatoes. Regarding his handiwork for a few pleasurable moments, George snatched the deferment paper from Jedediah's pocket, ripped it into tiny pieces and sprinkled over the photographer's still body.

"There ya go, you ol' coot! How ya like them apples!"

George turned to walk away, but as an afterthought, he whirled, took a running start and kicked over the camera, its lens shattering against a rock. With that, he unfastened a belt, complete with cartridge box, cap pouch and bayonet frog, from a nearby body and secured it around his own waist. Then picking up a .58-caliber Springfield, he hooked its sling over his shoulder and marched over to where Mabel was standing, stroking the horse's mane and kissing her snout.

"Goodbye, ol' girl. I hope to see you a'gin, but it's not very likely. I love ya. Take care an' try to eat plenty of oats."

George took a deep breath, braced himself and headed off toward the distant crackle of musket fire.

*** THE END ***

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Copyright © 2003 Gerald E. Sheagren/Log Cabin Chronicles/05.03