I did not ask for the gun, but I am honored to have received it. The dogs knew the boy was there before I did and although they tried to warn me, I could not understand. You see, like most rural residents, my dogs are my alarm system. Of course they create a ruckus over almost any disturbance; it doesn’t have to be a threat. The Little One doesn’t see very well and, for some mysterious reason, the others think that she is some kind of early warning system. She hears a pipe ping or catches the shadow of a fluttering leaf and it’s a four alarm fire. The other two idiots just react and amplify.
There is a different kind of barking that they indulge in now and again. That’s when a usurper has crossed into their domain. Traditionally it is another dog. People in my county know better than to wander uninvited onto someone else’s land – you might get yourself shot. When the dogs detect a trespasser they go berserk, like a motion detector has been tripped; some faint seismic activity, invisible and silent to my dull senses, causes repeated alerts at all hours.
That night they started in around midnight. Now, at my age, I don’t normally sleep more than a few hours, but they were ringing the bell every hour on the hour, so by dawn I realized I had not slept at all.
In late June the sun comes up before 5 and even though I had no reason to be up that early, the sun was a welcome excuse to get up already and let the damn dogs out. The lazy mutts usually will not even come down stairs when I go to make the coffee, but they were whining and door scratching. I figured there was a stray sniffing around the chickens.
Being stiff and sleepy, I shuffled down the stairs and opened the front door without even looking. “Git-em,” I mumbled, as they exploded outside, a howling dog tornado. Before I could even get the door latched I heard a ferocious “BANG” and a yipe.
It’s funny how some sounds can just rattle the sleepiness right out of you. I was awake and in the front lawn before I knew how I’d gotten there wearing nothing but a pair of boxers and torn cotton T shirt. The dogs had scattered, Finn and Little One were on the porch already, dazed and panting. The terrier, Loki, was nowhere to be seen. I rounded the corner of the house to confront the source of the noise and caught sight of what appeared to be a teen-age boy dressed in an ill-fitting Yankee civil war re-enactment costume. He was fumbling the breach a of a long barreled rifle open, apparently attempting to reload. Without thinking I called out, “Hey, what the hell…”
He snapped around to face me, bringing the firearm up, its bayonet glinting in the early morning sun. I raised my hands over my head and yelled across the yard, “There’s no need for that son. Put down the gun and let’s see what this is about.”
His image seemed to waver in the rising heat. He did not lower the gun. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the intensity of the colors; the green of the covering sugar maples and the lushness of the grass; every blade and leaf stood out separate and vibrating slightly. The rust-red barn behind him and the black wood fence running up to the forest-green tube gate were almost glowing. The sky, an unusual shade of ultramarine, was streaked with tattered wisps of silver.
And then there was his uniform. It was the deepest navy blue; the jacket buttons bright gold. Funny thing I realized later is that there was no heat; the wavering must have been something else, because I didn’t imagine it. The image is burned in my memory as clear as a high resolution photo with its green grass, blue boy and red barn.
I was pretty sure he hadn’t had time to reload and standing a hundred paces in front of me, the bayonet posed little threat. It crossed my mind that if he decided to charge I would look pretty ridiculous, an old man, sprinting through the lawn in my underwear. The thought made me smile. I guess it smoothed my voice out when I said, “Son, you don’t want to hurt no one, lower your weapon and lets you and me have a talk.”
You know, I couldn’t really see his face at that distance. Just the same, I could swear that I saw the tears in his eyes before I heard the sob. He fell to his knees; the bayonet point stuck into the lawn as he bent forward and pressed his face into his hands.
I will always be a father no matter that my children have long ago moved away from home. And that young soldier, even though he was only dressed up as one, crying before me touched a deep place in my heart.
I walked over and knelt beside him. He looked directly into my eyes and said, “I’m not a man who kills widows and babies. She looked like my sister. I will never wash the blood from my hands. Look,” he held his dirty palms up to my face. I did not see any blood. “It has stained them permanent and I will be damned to hell forever for what I have done.”
He just fell over before I could speak. I didn’t know if he was asleep or unconscious. Loki had showed up and he licked at his face. The boy mumbled, “Mercy, please.” At least he wasn’t dead.
I couldn’t leave him out there on the grass, but I had no intention of dragging him into the house. I started up to the porch and turned around thinking, “It might be best if I just put that gun inside for him while I go about getting dressed.” I called Loki, but he wouldn’t budge; he’d hunkered down in the grass next to the boy. I figured that it had been a while since he had a young man around. Kids go off and leave their childhoods at home along with their childhood pets. I went inside and dressed, filled a glass with cool water from the fridge and brought it back outside.
When I stepped off the porch the shimmering around the boy’s body had intensified and the colors were brighter still. The landscape behind him changed as I watched. I heard a strange out of phase wind blowing. I do not know exactly how to describe the sound of it. The subtle blanket of the morning birds slid between forefront and background with a clanking rumble of voices, animals and harnesses.
Smoke drifted from somewhere nearby. The fences of my front field evaporated and replacing the rolling pasture, normally dotted with cattle, was the most astonishing panorama I have ever witnessed. This was no civil war re-enactment. This was real. A sprawling army of men and tents, horses and wagons, cannon and low lying smoke covered the scorched battlefield that now ran from where Pigeon Roost Road should have been, across Sneed’s 1000 acres to the woods beyond. I shook my head to try and clear it. In response, the scene became more vivid, crystallizing. A pair of uniformed men supporting the boy on their shoulders led him away and down the incline toward the heart of the encampment. He forgot his hat and damp hair hung limp across his face, his head lolled from side to side as they half dragged, half walked him away. I distinctly heard him repeat: “mercy, please,” and one of the others answered, “we need all the mercy we can get Sharp, come on now, you’ll be better soon.”
Loki trotted along at his heal, looking up at him as though he had a rare steak in his pocket. I thought to call after him but I didn’t. In truth I couldn’t speak. My throat had closed up and tears were blurring my vision. I blinked hard to clear my eyes and wiped at my face with the back of my hand. The smoke was acrid and greasy, the sky over the encampment purple and bruised. All the earth surrounding them was pitted with cannon craters and several trees were splintered and burning.
My horror grew the longer I watched. My ears were filled with men’s screams and the shrill whinnying of horses. Every so often a loud gunshot punctuated the background murmuring of this writhing city.
I could take no more.
I turned away and looked past my back yard to the rolling hills dotted with round bales fresh from the first cutting. I suddenly realized that I still had the boy’s gun. Without turning to look at the army on the front fields, I went into the house and grabbed the rifle. I did not consider how I would explain myself; a Southern man in a Northern encampment. My only concern was returning the weapon to a soldier who would need it.
When I stepped off the staircase into the yard the entire bivouac had vanished. It took a long moment to realize my mouth was open; I closed it, scanning the fields again for a sign of the army that I had just witnessed. The smell of all that death and smoke still filled my nose, but the sky was clear, a cow lowed in the distance. As I crossed the dirt driveway, walking toward my front fence, my toe caught on something sticking out of the soil. With the gun in my hand and I bent down and pried a Federal army crossed-cannon emblem from the soil. A little scratching around unearthed an engraved name plate and 2 brass hat buttons.
Loki never returned. I guess that boy needed him more than he needed me. The gun is an 1861 Sharps, 54 caliber falling block action 3 band rifle; it has only been fired a few times. There is a pellet primer still in it and an unfired brass-cased round. Presumably the boy, nicknamed Sharps by his company for his prowess as a sniper, actually got it loaded, intending to shoot the dogs or me. Its existence is impossible. You see, aside from the proper patent engravings and the serial number, which falls in the range of the Berdan Sharpshooter rifles, the iron it was forged from is very unique. It was founded from ore mined in northeastern Massachusetts; it has a specific spectrographic signature. This ore ran out in 1870. But the gun that I took from William, as well as the primer cap and bullet are new. They show no sign of age, no wear from use. It is as if the gun and cartridge were made a few years ago. There were only 500 of these fire arms ever made.
After considerable expert wrangling, the gun was pronounced an authentic civil war artifact and appraised at 1.5 million dollars. I will leave it to my children; I cannot bring myself to sell it regardless of my need and its value.
As final note you should know that boy was William Heacock. His name was engraved on the plate that came from his hat and his initials were carved into the burl walnut buttstock of his rifle. His family lived in Bucks County Pennsylvania. He had a sister and four brothers of whom all but one died on the battlefield across from my farm in 1864. The one surviving son was named Emerson Heacock and he was my great grandfather. I have never told anyone where I got that gun until today.
NOTE: THis story was previously published (in a slightly earlier form) in Papertape Magazine under the name, The Gun.
Sharp’s Rifle by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://ronheacock.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/sharps-rifle/.
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