Jessie Gibbs, 26, is camp cook for a Civil War re-enacting group in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. One night, as her unit is camping out near the Stones River National Battlefield, she takes a walk in the moonlit woods, and has an encounter that is destined to change everything for her. . . .
Movement among the trees to her right caught her eye. A figure came into view – a man, swathed in a blanket.
Adrenaline shot through her, sparking to the end of every nerve. She drew a sharp breath and took a step back.
“Evenin’, ma’am.” He raised his floppy, beat-up, wide-brimmed felt hat; with his other hand he clutched the blanket closed in front. His skin was darkened with dirt or soot, making the whites of his eyes look very bright. As she took in the details of his clothes her heart rate slowed, her breathing calmed. Wearing the motley uniform of a Confederate soldier he was obviously a fellow re-enactor. In the opening at the top of his blanket-cloak she could see the collar and wooden buttons of a tan or gray jacket. Beneath the blanket’s hem the baggy legs of his trousers stopped short of his ankles, bare above worn, brogan-style shoes.
“I’m sorry if I scared you,” he said.
“I was just surprised, that’s all,” she said. “I didn’t expect to meet anyone out here. We’re camped right over there.” She waved in the direction she had come from, hoping to convey that help was close at hand if he should try anything. “My re-enacting unit,” she added.
He glanced where she indicated, and nodded but said nothing.
“What company are you with?” she asked.
“Company I,” he said. “The Thirty-seventh Tennessee Infantry.”
“Really! We’re Company I, too. But we’re the First Tennessee, the Rutherford Rifles. Where’s the rest of your group?”
His gaze darted to her face, then fell to the ground. “They’re nearby,” he said.
But where? she wondered. There were none of the usual sounds of laughter, loud male voices, axes thumping on firewood, no scent of wood smoke, no firelight flickering through the trees.
“So you’re the lucky one who pulled picket duty?” she asked with a smile.
He didn’t smile back, only hesitated a moment, then said, “Yes, ma’am. That’s right.”
“Is there something going on at Stones River this weekend?”
“I wondered if there was some event happening at the National Park, that we hadn’t heard about.”
“No, ma’am, I don't know anything about that."
He was only a little taller than she, maybe five eight, and he seemed to be about her age, in his mid-twenties. And now that she was looking at him full in the face she saw, beneath the grime that shadowed his skin, that he was striking-looking. His bold eyebrows and the planes of his roughly-shaven cheeks and jawline were definitely masculine, while his large, dark eyes and finely-shaped lips would not have been out of place in a woman’s face.
Handsome, for sure, but a little slow on the uptake. Or, possibly, shy – strange though it seemed for someone who looked like him to be socially awkward. That thought put her more at ease; shyness was something she could relate to.
“My name is Jessie Gibbs,” she pressed on.
“Pleased to meet you, ma’am. I’m Private Lemuel Sanders.”
“Well, now that we know each other’s names you can stop calling me ma’am,” she said, trying for a light tone. “It makes me feel so old.”
“Well, all right then, Mrs. . ..? “
“Miss Gibbs,” he said, then asked her, “How many are in your company?”
“Our unit has about fourteen soldiers, and I’m one of the camp cooks.”
“A lady cook!” He gaped at her. “Your boys have it good. We have to do for ourselves. When we get rations. Which is not too often.”
“Y’all probably just poke a bayonet through a piece of bacon and stick in the fire.” She gave him a sidelong smile, but he was looking down, seeming preoccupied.
“And you ladies go along with the boys and cook for them, when they go different places?” His tone was incredulous.
“But what do you do during the fights?”
“Sometimes we go watch the battles, but usually we’re busy in camp getting the food ready for when the soldiers come back.”
“I declare. . .” He shook his head.
She studied him, trying to figure out what was troubling him so. Was it possible that, as a member of a group that was apparently strict about authenticity, he disapproved of women being in camp?
“I guess we’re not exactly period-correct,” Jessie conceded. “But why should the men have all the fun?”
He gave a soft snort at that. “Fun!”
“It is fun,” she insisted. “I like camping out. And I’m glad to have the chance to learn about the old ways of doing things. It gives me a lot of respect for our ancestors, how hard they had to work, and how they learned to do so much with so little.”
His expression had grown thoughtful as he listened to her with an unusual attentiveness. “That’s sure enough true,” he said. “My granddaddy could make anything with his hands. He learned me how to carve. I was always whittling on something in camp. It helped the time pass.”
She wondered about his use of past tense. “Don’t you still do carving?”
He darted a quick glance at her. “No, ma’am, not anymore.”
That seemed to be all he was going to say about it. “What did you make?” she prompted.
“I got pretty good at making finger rings, with little vines and flowers all around them. Some of the other fellows asked me to make them for their sweethearts. I didn’t mind doing it.”
Jessie had seen wooden rings like that in museum displays. He must have, also. He really had the diction, the mannerisms, and the convincing details of his persona down pat. But she had begun to wish that they could relate to each other without role-playing.
“That sounds pretty,” she said, and smiled at him, and for the first time he returned her smile with one that lit up his face, showing bright, straight teeth and a deep dimple in his left cheek. It made something strange happen in her chest: a leap of excitement, a plummeting like doom.
The notes of “Taps” wafted through the air. “I’d better get back,” she said. “I have to be up before dawn to fix breakfast for the troops.”
“I sure liked talking to you, Miss Gibbs,” he said. “Will you come again?” His tone, his gaze when she met it again, held an earnestness, even an urgency, that was both flattering and puzzling. Her sister LouAnn often told her “You’d be really pretty if you’d do something with yourself,” but because Jessie dressed plainly and seldom wore makeup she felt she rarely made much of an impression on men.
“We’ll be leaving after breakfast tomorrow,” she said, hoping he would take the cue and ask for her contact information.
“Where’re you going on to?”
“Oh, just back home. Back to work on Monday.”
He didn’t seem to register her answer. His eyes searched her face. He was close enough that it almost seemed he might lean forward and kiss her. Her pulse began to race. She looked down, flustered by his nearness and the concentrated focus of his gaze.
“Will you come back before you go and say goodbye?” he asked.
“Yes -- but where’s your camp? How will I find you?”
“I’ll be right here.”
They bid each other good night. As she began walking away, she could not stop herself from glancing back at him.
But the clearing was empty. The woods were dark and still.
It was raining the next morning. When the breakfast dishes were washed and the tents and equipment loaded into the cars, Jessie set off swiftly along the path that led to the clearing in the woods.
The glade was empty and silent when she approached. “Mr. Sanders?” she called.
And there he was, coming out of the forest, still wrapped in his blanket. “Lord, Miss Gibbs,” he said, “you’ll take a chill in this rain.”
“I don’t mind,” she said.
“I’m s’glad you came back.” He was standing in the clearing, his eyes direct on hers. Once again there was that urgency in his gaze that she did not understand. His look was almost pleading.
She was concerned at how drawn he looked. He was handsome, still, but in the bleak full daylight his skin was pallid, his lips a grayish color. “Aren’t you and the other men going home today?” she asked.
She was puzzled. “Don’t y’all have to go back to work tomorrow?”
He looked down at the ground, a frown contracting his brow. As she waited for his answer, Jessie became aware of something strange. The rain was pelting down now, dripping from the stiff brim of her bonnet, soaking through her shawl and weighing down the hem of her long dress.
But he was standing in the rain as well, and he remained perfectly dry. The heavy drops left no dark splotches on his hat, or on his blanket, or on the dusty rough-out leather of his brogans.
A dart of alarm shot through her chest. She took a step back and he glanced up at her, and the entreaty in his eyes was naked now.
“Mr. Sanders,” she began, and could not think of how to form a coherent question. Finally she brought out, “Why aren’t you getting wet in all this rain?”
“Well, you see, Miss Gibbs,” he began. “See, I’ve been trying to think of a way to tell you. . .”
“Tell me what?” She watched him, feeling something still and cold gathering within her.
“I wouldn’t do anything to upset you. You’re so pretty, and so nice to come back to see me.”
She waited, her eyes fixed on his face.
He went on. “But what I have to tell you is. . . there was a fight here on the last day of eighteen hundred and sixty-two.”
“Yes. The battle of Stones River.” Her breath came short between her parted lips.
“Well. . .” He looked away. “I was killed in that fight. They buried my body here. And so here I have to stay.” With an obvious effort he brought his gaze back to meet hers, his expression apologetic.
Jessie lifted her skirts, turned, and began to walk quickly away.
“Oh, wait,” he said. “Please don’t go.” He was suddenly standing in front of her.
“Mr. Sanders -- Lemuel -- whoever you are – we can cut out the play-acting now. I don’t think this is the least bit funny.”
“I’m not play-acting, honest I’m not.” He reached his hands out, palms turned toward her in supplication or to show that he meant no threat. The abrupt motion made his blanket fall open in front. Her eyes took in the shocking sight of what he had been so careful to conceal from her: A slash in the fabric of his short tan jacket was surrounded by a dark red stain, and through the gash in the cloth she saw a large wound like a crimson mouth in the exposed pale skin of his abdomen.
The blood drained from her face, her knees faltered. She backed away from him.
“Oh, please, Miss Gibbs,”
he said, “please, don’t go. I can’t leave here, and you’re the first person
I’ve talked to, since…”
Horror galvanized her into movement. She lifted her skirts, turned, and bolted from the clearing, through the forest glade, along the cornfield, past the empty campsite to the parking area. Safely locked in her old van, she drove with reckless speed, bouncing along the rutted farm road, glancing into the rearview mirror but seeing only the deceptive ordinariness of the rain-washed landscape.