The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 9, No. 3

Little Sorrel

by R. T. Smith

I shouldn't be telling you this; the bird that chirps always draws fire. Still, I was born to crow: the stolen horse mummy was in my garage all week. As you people out there in radioland must know, the police and newshounds don't have a clue, and the VMI brass are still dizzy with disbelief that any felon could hijack their favorite mascot artifact. With impunity, I might add, and some panache. The dragnet is far-flung, and TV news bulletins cast my deed as blasphemous, a modern atrocity, but I have reasons I'm certain tonight's audience is eager to hear. I have, in fact, permission. I hope Madame Charlotte herself is out there listening and will at last comprehend, though no one unassisted could have guessed my motive: following orders—respect and rescue—instructions from beyond the grave.
   That's why I arranged this broadcast rendezvous in the den that has served these recent months as an abduction situation room. The whole campaign is likely to come to a bad end, I know, but I want my true story told, though I will conceal the actual name of my accomplice, if you don't object, or even if you do. After all, it's her job to perform the physical funeral, getting Little Sorrel, the General's storied horse, his proper honors. So you see, I'm both the bona fide culprit and the decoy. It's a little tactic I adapted from the Valley Campaign. I am confident you listeners will find this tale intriguing and see the justice in my actions, so keep that live feed adjusted to capture my every word.
   It starts in personal history. As a gangling boy I lingered in the parlor with glassed-in barrister bookcases and their treasures—Freeman's Lee, the Davis apologists, the whole war bound in luxury leather with gilt embellishment. Afternoons, I'd sip Mawmaw Paxton's peached lemonade and perch on the hassock fan—absorbed, as they say. My favorite volume was always Henry Kyd Douglas, I Rode with Stonewall. That man was the proper cavalier, plume and spurs and saber, but trained to the law like my father, a man always drawn to the crucible, a knight of conviction and gallant fury. Even a day of carnage and snapping dragoon pistols in the face of frothing Yankees on the Sharpsburg Turnpike would stir him to say only, “We had hot work of it, and the song of bullets is no man's longed-for lullaby.”
   It's little wonder I soon delved deep into American Studies up at the University, took two degrees, married, and put my knowledge on the pedagogic market, then slowly rose to minor celebrity in a Roanoke community college. I write monographs and sit on panels. I've been in the Post as a resident expert. After all, the whole Old Dominion is consecrated ground and liable to inspire any acolyte with an inquiring mind such as my own. My class lectures on home-front duress, cavalry tactics, and Lincoln's Anaconda strategy were eloquent and animated, if I say so myself, and even from the weary secretaries and computer students in the back-aching desks, my passion always drew volleys of applause. Appreciation can revive you. My dear wife Charlotte grew absorbed by her career—engaged, distracted—so I sought validation from my own profession.
   That was all before, however, and it seems ancient history now. It was the reenacting bug that bit and nibbled me in secret, then opened wide to swallow my life. Quicksand, as you might imagine. I just wanted to be a hard-core foot soldier, tramping the land, keeping intervals, polishing and boiling and marching hard, debating the best way to fight blisters or keep musket cartridges dry. You know, shank's mare, double-time, the whole low and authentic lot of a footsore private. “Arms and the man,” I wanted to sing, to solidify my book-born theories and research with genuine hardship, to feel the camaraderie of the campfire and the heat of simulated battle. Can a recruit, as they said, really see the elephant at all in a Saturday charade a century and a half too late? Even in his mind's private active eye? I wanted to feel at least some facsimile of joy and terror. I yearned for purpose, fresh fire, the famous “new lease on life,” or at least an earned fatigue.
   I hoped to find it at New Market or Manassas Junction among like-minded men, weekend warriors with, perhaps, more energy than sense. A little weird, I admit, but not perverse. Amateur means one who does it for love. Do what you will and harm no one. Why not? Sometimes it was even fun.
   My department chair, Warren O. West, a syrupy-tongued Quaker from Georgia, encouraged me at first. His specialty is the history of medicine, and he thrives on describing field surgery and the astonishing effects of heavy ordnance on the human frame till his listener turns green at the gills. If you chance into his office, you'll have to compliment his wedding-sized album of veterans with and without their ingenious prostheses, and Gardner's grisly battlefield photos. A man with shifty eyes and some brush-on hair product blacking his squirrel gray locks, he displayed the greatest enthusiasm for impersonation and bringing the past to life. He said, “Go on, enlist. Taste the black powder and parched corn.”
   Charlotte, however, did not embrace this masquerade calling even from the start. I offered her the distaff option—hoop skirts, silk parasol, and a peacock-blue flirting fan. She could have made a champion camp follower, a darling Scarlett, a feisty Belle Boyd. Instead, she turned her tongue sharp and cut to the quick every alluring thing about the Cause and my aspirations. She would not, she said, volunteer for any folie-á-deux.
   I had been dabbling for almost a year, acquiring from a sutler an appropriate forage cap, shell jacket, a replica Enfield, and camp kit. No small investment. I'd been through one whole day of a Gettysburg replay and seen the lines of sweaty and overweight desperate men waver and fall, then witnessed their instant recuperation, which is the miracle that draws multitudes to this hobby: the dead can rise. I was learning the ropes from the bottom up, happy just to maneuver and feign death and then dust off, take chipped ice from the relief golf cart and share a regimental smile, but then Judge Ridley, who owns his own caisson and cannon, marked the resemblance: “You have the cut of his jib, the hairline, and crater eye sockets. Uncanny. You could be Old Stonewall himself. You should take it on, give us all an inspiring reminder.”
   I have to confess, my vanity was aroused, all my dormant ambitions coaxed forward, despite my wife's unbridled sarcasm. “You have to be something specific,” she said, “before you can achieve the General.” Nonetheless, for months the razor became a stranger. I'd scissor-trim with the famous Winchester ambrotype as my guide. Close copy indeed, a twin, which Charlotte found foolish as she refused to even kiss me; but hard as I endeavored, I could never locate his signature icy glare in my eyes.
   Next season, I pulled a stock trailer behind my Escalade and took the field as the man himself aboard a pied gelding I called Laurel. Sash and braid, field glasses and cold focus. It was a game, but a serious one, and I read deep into Robertson's biography to know which way to gesture and stand, how to phrase my prayers, and when to unleash my anger. I could recite letters from his Anna and elucidate textbook maneuvers, chapter and verse. Although some of the legend is apocryphal, I'd still suck the General's famous lemons to satisfy devotees in the gallery.
   If Lee was our Arthur and Stuart a mad Lancelot, what was Jackson? I played him—though played scarcely cuts to the core of it—as pure fury at the sound of mortars roaring but bashful on bivouac as a bride. It struck my reverent comrades as too quirky, but my version of Jackson was divided as my own mind, which I admit has never been straightforward; I was living history. Are you getting this?
   Charlotte, of course, achieved new summits of ridicule and scorn, and it wasn't long before she retreated into silence, swiftly followed by her absence and a writ or two. The savings, the house. That's a battle yet looming, and I should have seen it coming, however I was preoccupied. I protested that I was not clinically obsessed, but merely in the throes of a passion, and it might pass. She could have ridden it out, indulged me, trusted to my previous history of benign stability, a provider and steady mate. From frustration I grew weaker than my model and tippled from the soldier's joy to work up courage.
   It was in the tent I shared with Harvey Nevins that I first heard the whisper. Sweet-like, almost treacle. He came to me, he chose me, and who would be so dull and heartless as to ignore such a summons? You surely understand.
   Along with my evening libation, I was eating cush and hardtack, or to be honest, instant oatmeal and plain crackers; I do what I can to coincide with Secesh practice, but the lice and weevils some gung-ho Rebel actors adopt is farther out than I can swim. Anyway, they were having a camp dance out by the bonfire, and I could hear the music—banjos and fiddles, a squeezebox, mouth harp, Declan O'Somebody thumping the goatskin of his Irish drum—it seemed too farb for me. All those wives, and a host of sightseers with six-packs and camcorders. I wanted to concentrate and learn the footnote details. I wanted hard core. After all, this was the annual Wilderness Event with six thousand combatants, a colossal costume party and not a mile from where Stonewall fell.
   I was reading, as usual, by candles ensconced in bayonets: The Smoothbore Volley That Doomed the Confederacy. It's half forensics, and by now I wanted to know where Jackson's wounds were exactly—entry, exit, ballistic secrets. I can guess what you're thinking, but I wasn't that far gone. No actual halo, no stigmata. I hope you auditors are still tuned in, however weird this sounds, as I'm moving to the heart of this matter.
   I'd read and sip, sip and read, pour another tin cup of Black Jack. It was not rifled muskets that killed him, you know, but less modern weapons. That's half how they can trace what unit pulled the triggers. “Friendly fire.” I don't care for that phrase, because frightened kin or friends are always the people who do you in, and when they do it, the fire is hostile, fevered, desperate, them against everything else in the world. It's not friendly, and the victims are no less dead for it being an accident. Poor Jack. Shots cracked from the shadows. Little Sorrel panicked and wheeled and bolted right toward the source of the volley. Later he was captured, as his master bled. As I said, poor Jack. Poor all of us. Only the sight of a whole corps on the ribboned-off field arising after the final whistle can offer any witness even temporary comfort from the notorious horrors of war.
   Outside, they struck up “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” Clapping, stamping, the shiver of a tambourine, and suddenly I began to feel light-headed in a way bonded alcohol doesn't muster. A tightness behind the eyes and a blood rush like I sensed something important was about to unfold.
   Is there a term for an acoustic apparition? At first I suspected hallucination. Diet on the warpath is far from ideal, and I'd pushed myself on the march that day from south of Fredericksburg. High summer, merciless sun, and I'm not a young man. The first words—chilly, more like breath than language, nearly—were, “Joshua Paxton, you're not me.”
   I was propped against the camp chest and facing the flap, so nobody was in there but me. I looked in a quick circle anyway, almost enough to give myself whiplash. Just two candles and random gear—blankets, mess tools, Harvey's red artillery kepi on top of its box fresh from Crazy Billy's Hats. Maybe, I thought, it was some joker outside whistling through the canvas, but before I could get on my feet, the noise came back, sharp as a razor.
   “I don't choose to take offense, Josh Paxton. I can see some persons might deem it an honor to be thus portrayed, but God's truth is I don't care one way or the other. I've come back to assign you a mission.” No visual, no smell of spent matches; only the voice, mellowed by what must have been the grave.
   He's had my ear for nearly a year now, an eloquent old ghost, stern but avuncular, still a Christian gentleman. He promised I'd find a little white pine on the berm of the sunken road off the turnpike where the Chancellorsville affair concluded, and if I yanked it up and scraped my entrenching tool a few times, I'd find the spent minié ball that passed through his wrist. This might sound foolish—I can imagine Charlotte's response—since a century and a half have gone by, and the site he designated is a National Military Park. In fact, that blessed ground is just behind the information headquarters. It's off-limits for anything but gawking, much less disturbing the earth, but I slunk out there, cautious, nervous, in an unfamiliar fever. The moon was big. I dug. The bullet was where he said, honest to God, and I became a believer.
   You know the cadets at antebellum VMI did not accord him much respect. He was an awful teacher. Natural science, physics. If some greenhorn in class who hadn't heard the scuttlebutt dared ask Jackson a question, he'd go stiff as death for a minute, then loop back, begin the lesson again from the start, mechanical, verbatim. He had some technical expertise but no idea how to break it down as instruction. Behind his back, they'd sneer and call him “Tom Fool.” He heard them, of course, yet it caused him little despair. He loved God and his wife—both of them, actually—and the sound of thunder.
   He said to infiltrate just before change of the watch, to distract the guard, who would be eager for replacement and relief. Scout the terrain first, map it in the mind. Then strike like lightning and abscond by an unlikely path. Cavalry tactics, Stuart. Maybe I needed a silk-lined cape, an ostrich feather, but I'd cast my lot with Stonewall and aimed to be simple, bold, and decisive. Once when I was grading tests in my office he came in and somehow blew the door shut. The legendary dead have their ways. He quoted Goethe, “Boldness has genius.” “You can be whatever you resolve to be.” I was in the hands of a master. Rappahannock, Susquehanna, Shenandoah, Chickahominy, Massanutten—he was a one-man campaign to make Indian names famous. He said not to hurt a soul.
   I could hardly achieve the objective alone, however luck played a hand. I first encountered Aura Leigh (as I'll call her) in the Waffle House, which in Lexington is no bigger than a double-wide. I'd been at the Institute for Visitors' Day and toured the barracks, the Marshall Library and Museum, milling with the parents, lurking in the shadows, inconspicuous, despite the whiskers. Patches of snow pintoed the parade grass, and the brigade in full dyke and greatcoats had shown their moves. Friday, full dress. Manual of arms, bayonets. The bagpipes and fifes, brass band blasting “Shenandoah” and “Amazing Grace.” Wind was whipping, the colors horizontal and snapping like gunfire. It was all stirring, but I was shaping my plot with a singleness of purpose.
   I had dallied in the museum, reconnoitering, taking mental measurements, weighing my task, so to speak. How many paces from here to there, how many steps, how many seconds? Mapping and projecting, the imagination at full throttle until I was exhausted. Then I needed strong coffee and something rib-sticky, so I turned in at the yellow sign.
   In the corner booth she was propped back, head side-canted, eyes half shut so you could just make out the blue. Her red hair was crested like a cartoon woodpecker, and she was smoking so deep, any bystander would think smoke was ocean air. Her plate was butt-strewn, ash blackening the yolk smear. Not a pretty sight. I passed her briskly and sat myself by the window.
   In my own booth I was sketching and figuring based on my reconnaissance. Among display cases, medals and swords, preserved uniforms, I'd found the object of my inquiry standing in a miniature theater set, complete with scattered battle regalia and debris. They'd skinned the old veteran, tanned the hide, and cast a base to stretch the pelt across. Hitched to a post, as if he might shy and scamper, Little Sorrel was no beauty, his glass eyes otherworldly and tail plucked thin by souvenir seekers, his hide all scabby and peeling, muzzle grim in rictus. Still, he was fourteen hands high—large as life—and could once eat a ton of hay or live on cobs. I knew mine would be a mean feat. Yet I was brainstorming, zeroing in on a stratagem. The light bulb was coming on.
   A shadow fell across the gluey pool of Mrs. Butterworth's on my plate, and I looked up to see her standing there, taking a dragon drag from her filter tip. She looked me hard in the eye.
   “I've seen you at the war games, dude. You're the man.”
   “Stonewall. You're the guy with, like, the horse and everything.”
   A shiver shot through me, and I leaned on my forearms to conceal my calculations. Even in mufti, I was a dead ringer to the trained eye.
   “Aura Leigh, soiled dove,” she said, offering a generously ringed hand. “I reenact a camp hussy. The enlisted man's second-best sexual friend. It's a hoot.”
   I couldn't help looking up, perusing the eyebrow piercing, nose stud, her cartoon Woody-bright hair. She was not my type of woman, but her voice had a familiar whisper quality I couldn't quite place.
   “I wig up, take out the pins and hoops. You wouldn't know me. It's cool to play make-believe with people who are really into it deep. I like to play hard.”
   Anybody could see she was trouble, and I knew the General would disapprove—“He walks with speed who walks alone,” he once wrote—but I sensed restlessness, daring, a prospect. And I would need a confederate, little c. “Accomplice,” the bloodhounds now after us would say. And I should reiterate, Aura Leigh is not her name.
   I won't say where her trailer is nor explain how we navigated the snowy roads. I really can't. I can, however, testify that the high carbohydrates of waffles and sausage don't set a good stage for midnight mugs of Wild Turkey, and I might as well confess: she has a birthmark on one nether cheek and a bluebird tattooed somewhere else. Her private hair is wren brown, shaved to a heart shape, and she has learned her reenactment arts somewhere other than books. I woke just after dawn on Saturday to see her sprawled across the tattered patchwork quilt. She was still, like a designated casualty, but her shoulders showed slight breathing, and she was snoring with a housecat's purr. It started to seem louder, though, as every noise echoed in my head like the bass drums of Friday's parade. I found the kitchen and a cup of cold water. Everything was a little too cold for comfort.
   Aura had an old Dylan poster on one wall and on the other a big Kunstler print of a gallant Forrest at a gallop. Her dental retainer lay on the bedside table like some weird mousetrap, but not much else testified to the trailer's occupant. She'd said she worked at a coffee shop, and she was quick and funny and seemed to be seeking a direction, an assignment in life. That was why I opened up, I guess. As my head cleared and the whole night played back on fast-forward, I knew I'd said more than I should and done things not natural to me or excusable in Stonewall's code, but a partnership had been conceived and born. Despite my resolve to see it through, I wanted to be out before she stirred back to life.
   Who knows what creates a girl like that? She'd matriculated to Hollins, where she'd written jigsaw poetry, made a film of hair in a drain, and practiced what she called “recreational lesbianism.” Then she bounced back to Lexington to seek her fortune in designer lattes and cappuccinos and work out her town-gown hostilities against Young Republicans. But she's tough and reminds me of Charlotte not one whit, so I took a shine to her far beyond the pleasures of conspiracy. I don't think that scoundrel War West would give her a second look, which raised her merit even further. I copied the number from her bedside phone.
   “Thoughts black,” the Bard wrote, “hands apt, drugs fit, and time agreeing, Confederate season, else no creature seeing.” On the assigned night that passage kept ripping like lightning in my mind as I dropped her off to employ her gift for distraction on the security guard. When I asked how she'd manage, she answered, “You don't want to know,” and her azure eyes beamed so sharp, even in the dark of the Escalade, I knew she was right. “If my coat knew what I intended to do,” Stonewall had said, “I'd take it off and throw it aside.”
   On any night such a foray would be fraught with peril, but the local paper had announced that I had an ally of sheer serendipity, a local extravagant diversion. The neighboring campus of Washington and Lee was publicly celebrating its favorite son, whose new novel on collegiate whiskey and libido had sent his stock spiking. He was reading naughty passages in the elegant Lee Chapel, then planning to linger and sign copies of his blockbuster exposé. I knew the whole community—horse and foot—would convene to witness their aristocratic chronicler perform in his notorious French vanilla Colonel Sanders suit, and from eight-thirty till ten, all eyes would turn to the wizard of pop wit: he would become the whole town's center of gravity and light. What better opportunity to raid?
   Two duffel bags, cobbler's snips, flashlight, and a box cutter. Mute black clothes, no vintage regalia, just another swig to fortify me. I knew the museum would be unlocked, as it is—in some martial code mysterious to me—pretty much a place of sanctuary and worship. Slink and scuttle, hush and creep.
   The night before the caper the General's voice chose the kitchen kettle's steam for vehicle. “Ignore public opinion if it interferes with your duty.” Already the timbre was fading, going thin, but his tone was sure and emphatic. I knew I was placing my whole future in jeopardy. “The dead can rise and the risen can be put down. The most satisfying reward will follow,” he said. They put his picture, after Chancellorsville, you know, on the biggest Rebel bill, the five hundred, but that was not what he meant. He was not alluding to dress-up theatrics or mastering any fidgety facts. I believe he had in mind a kind of feeling akin to knowing you've behaved rightly and astonished everybody. He did not esteem strut or bluster, was systematic as a multiplication table. I slipped through the door into the dimly lit Jackson Hall, down the stairs, and into the museum with the uncompromised confidence of the righteous man.
   You may be shocked by what follows, ready to judge me half-wit or insane. Even as the authorities, no doubt, close in on this broadcast signal, I must reveal the secret, what I did for Dixie. Standing before the pitiful revenant, whom time had reduced to a camp mule in mid-bray, I petted Sorrel and whispered soothing phrases, reporting my orders, asking his forgiveness. When I uttered the General's name, I swear something in the animal almost quickened. He needed relief.
   I snicked open my razor-bladed box cutter and made the first incision vertically from neck to brisket, then peeled back the dry hide like a field surgeon. Inside, as I expected, I found no viscera nor machinery of life, only the sawdust-filled burlap prop. Then I changed to the leather snips and worked as fast as respect would allow. As soon as I had made my major cuts, I rolled the skin upward, leaving the hooves intact. Standing on a rickety Victorian ladder-back, I lifted the stiff skin as if I were liberating a desert mendi-cant from his ages-old hair shirt. The head, of course, was the hardest part, most delicate surgery, most arduous labor, done with tenderness. In just under an hour, I had stripped the famous horse, halved the hide, stowed it in my duffels, and was headed out the door. Relieved and feeling lucky, I looked back at the artificial shape still standing in its meager combat diorama. I was leaving VMI a crude piñata, and I harbored not one iota of regret.
   In case you are inclined to doubt my story, I offer this amber-irised marble the size of a golf ball. Anyone who has ever looked Stonewall's horse in the face will recognize its sad and placid surface, and if you examine it closely, you will comprehend why I had to undertake this assignment. There, you can see your own image floating deep in its eye.
   Still, I have no doubt my actions will arouse hot passions in the loyal commonwealth audience, and many will imagine me a monster, but if time permits—the mechanisms of law enforcement impending—I suggest you call in with any questions, for I am at peace knowing the noble steed's remains are, even as I speak, being folded into the forgiving earth. Aura is efficient as an elf when she wishes to be, and I already count this mission a success. I ask only that you grant me some understanding.
   After all, I have followed the chain of command, heeding the hero of Gaines' Mill, Malvern Hill, and Sharpsburg, not to mention his masterpiece, Chancellorsville, where he went out, though slowly, in full victorious glory. And I am ready to accept consequences, as even now I listen for the snare drum tapping “Rogue's March” and adjust my Hardee hat, my dress grays, the stars on my collar, and my antique saber. I feel invigorated and pray the officers, when they arrive with their shackles, will handle me with the deference accorded a prisoner of war.

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