SIMPLY FICTIONAL TALES

written by lauren d. h. miertschin

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Yesterday (Rewritten)

Yesterday

Almost everyone thought the lad was his son. The man and the boy were often seen together back in Monroe City. Before the war, that is. But even today, one could have thought the older was caring for the younger, like a father cares for his son. They in fact, came in on the same horse, rugged and worn after travelling more than fifty miles up the Mississippi. The man had been seen wiping the boy’s bleeding forehead with a rag dipped into the river. You couldn’t miss his Union cap and blue uniform. The boy though, with blood dried into his knotted hair, wore a gray uniform. A cap was nowhere to be seen.

The horse halted approximately twenty-five feet from the outpost. Customers’ shoulders relaxed. A drunkard downed a shot of whiskey. Another customer swatted at a fly. He handed a coin to the first drunkard for losing a bet. The bet: Who’d next come up the trail – Union or Confederate? There was a 50-50 chance. They were in Missouri.

The man who everyone thought was the boy’s father promptly pushed the boy off his horse. He landed in the wet dirt with a thud and flopped over onto his back. With bulging eyes the boy looked up at the Union soldier. He was searching for the man who had come to their ranch to return a stray goat. Another time he was returning a hoe. The glance was disheartening, so incongruent it was with his memories. It’s strange when another lifetime comes crashing into the present. Sometimes it does not mix well.

“John!” He spit out a bloody tooth before continuing. “You ain’t gonna leave me here. Not without tellin’ me. How’s Carrie?”

“Shut your mouth,” John said as he brushed the dirt from his Union coat. “The only reason you’re still breathin’, Wesley, is cuz I gone and promised your Pa.” The Union soldier looked down at the boy and commenced to dismount. He gave Wesley, whom he had known since he was a child, a swift kick in the side, and walked toward the outpost.

“You’re a damn bastard Sir!” Wesley attempted to lift himself from the dirt but his arms gave out. “Damn Yankee,” he sighed and closed his eyes. He appeared on the edge of death laying there in the dirt, his face motionless and gaunt.

“What can I get you Mister?” The owner of the outpost was a widow. Her husband was shot to death a year earlier when a group of Confederates made their way along the river. He was shot for refusing to pledge allegiance to their cause.

“Whatever you have.”

She poured him a short glass of whiskey. All the while the woman kept an eye on her small outpost which was within ten feet of a popular dock. Rifle shots rang out in the distance. She didn’t flinch. Actually, no one flinched. “Mister,” the woman said as she wiped out a shot glass. “I think your prisoner’s gettin’ away.”

John threw the whiskey to the back of his throat and slammed down the glass. “I’ll be damned!” He chuckled as he watched Wesley stagger off into the brush. He took another shot of whiskey and slapped a handful of coins onto the counter. Then he casually walked off toward his horse. He stopped once to spit shine his right boot. He even took out his pocket watch and read the time before stepping on.

The two betting drunkards snickered when John mounted. “Think he’ll catchim,” one said to the other.

“No doubt,” he answered. “ . . . no doubt.”

The widow scooped up John’s coins. Lifting her skirt, while obscured by the main beam that held up a the outpost’s ceiling tarp, she removed a pistol from her garter. While securing it into her waistband with one hand, she poured a customer a drink with the other.

John rode off into the wetlands, finding little difficulty following the foot length mounds of mud left by the boy’s boots. “Wesley,” he hollered. “No use runnin’.” And he kept on after the boy’s tracks, delving deeper into the forest, so close to the Mississippi now, he could smell it. What a wonder it was to the man who wore the Union coat. It smelled like swimming in the summertime. It smelled like his daughter tugging fresh water up from the creek. It smelled like rowing her across the river to an island picnic. It smelled like trout on a campfire and rope on a wet raft. No better words to describe the smells, it smelled like yesterday.

John reached the gigantic river that meanders through these states and caught sight of Wesley running upstream, his arms flailing at his sides. “What the heck that kid doing? Thinks he can run home?”

Gentle green waters lapped the level shore. The sun began its descent behind a horizon hidden by oaks. Though he couldn’t see him anymore, John could hear Wesley’s feet fleeing in the distance. He dismounted momentarily to cut a vine entangled around his horse’s back thigh. A woodpecker tap, tap, tapped directly above.

“Better save your energy son!” John mounted and made his way at a leisurely pace. The river’s bank gradually increased its steepness. The sky glowed pinkish-orange. Several minutes passed without hearing signs of the boy when John came upon a Confederate coat tangled in the brush. An envelope lay on the ground a few inches away.

John scooped up the letter, instantly recognizing his daughter’s handwriting. He shoved it, a letter written to a Confederate soldier, into his Union pocket. He then yanked the boy’s coat from the limb and yelled out something unrecognizable before flinging the treasonous coat into the river. The letter remained hidden in John’s Union pocket for a good half mile, while his horse galloped at a slant. He felt for the envelope occasionally, just to make sure it was real. “How dare she?” he grunted. “The whore.” And then he wept. Not fully at first -- just a tear, perhaps two.

An image flashed into his mind, one of him cradling his only child. He grumbled incoherently for the next mile, his mind drifting in and out of history. He recalled riding out to Monroe City hoping his wife’s letters had arrived. Those were tough times, his wife expecting a child on the east coast, too ill to make the move. Absentmindedly, he tugged at his daughter’s letter. Another tear fell from John’s eye -- it was a wish that his wife had lived to know their grown daughter. She was smart; she was able. She was the spittin’ image of her mother. So, John wiped another tear, and in the dim sun setting light he read.

My Dearest Wesley,

Too many moons have come and gone since our lips last parted. I pray always for your safe return. I stopped in to see your Ma, and she is holding up heroically. She treats me like her own and is the only one I have been able to confide our secret. Your Pa, on the other hand, I’m afraid to say, does not wish to talk of you in my presence. I can see in his eyes though, his deep devotion to you remains.

Misty gave birth to a litter last week. Your Ma gave me the pick. She’s an adorable black and white pup that sleeps by my side nightly. She will be a wonderful companion to our child, Wesley. My prayer is that you will return to greet our baby into this world.

Praying for you, my love. Please return to us safely.

My deepest love,

Carrie

John crumbled the letter and held it in his fist for the next half mile. “I will kill you boy,” he hollered. “I can see your tracks. You don’t think I can’t catch a rat? Rat!”

The wind blew a cold breeze as the sky turned dark blue. A flock of ducks took off from the great waters, headed for the island a quarter mile across the river. His coat buttoned closed to ward off the cool breeze, John rode onward. More tears fell. His baby girl would soon cradle a baby of her own. Not too far away, the father of that child not yet born, staggered forward, practically within grasp of the man he feared. And then night fell and suddenly, a waning moon sat low on the horizon.

Both men wept that night. But tears were not out of fear. They were not out of anger. They were tears for Carrie only.

John woke a half hour before dawn. The letter still crumbled in his fist, he kicked dirt over the campfire that he had let burn all night. With aching limbs he mounted his horse. And he rode. He didn’t realize when he stumbled upon the boy’s camp. He didn’t smell the smoldering fire, didn’t see the lad sleeping next to the embers. What brought John to his senses was the rustling noise of Wesley stumbling to his feet and scrambling upstream.

John’s hand flew to his pistol, but kept it holstered. The river lapped at his horse’s legs as the wind picked up. He could hear summertime, as if children were splashing along the river’s edge. Birds screeched above and an army of tadpoles swam at his toes. In the distance he could make out the sound of a rifle firing.

With bloodshot eyes, Wesley peered back at his captor.

John yanked his pistol from its holster and raised it slightly. He noticed a gash in the lad’s left arm which had left a trail of blood soaked into his torn shirt. A flock of birds rustled the gigantic trees over on the island. Then the smell of yesterday overcame John as Wesley dove into the river. John aimed for the boy’s head while trying to reconcile the smells. His finger was flush against the trigger, yet John did not move. Then suddenly he relaxed his fingers. There were a few moments there that actually seemed like many more, as he took in the sounds -- splashing water, the whisper of leaves . . . sounds of yesterday. Before he knew it, Wesley was a good fifty yards out.

He never planned to tell anyone that he lowered his pistol. Only the boy would know, if God help him, the boy was able to indeed run all the way home. Standing there on the bank of the Mississippi, John dismounted and sunk his feet down in the mud. He watched the boy continue to swim across the great river, out to the island. And then the sun finally peaked above the horizon -- the emergence of a new day, not yesterday, but at least a day not worse than the last. On his way back up the bank, John stopped to retrieve the crumpled letter that Carrie wrote. He smooth it out, folded it in four and placed it in his coat pocket before riding on. 

(c) Lauren D. H. Miertschin