The notes of “Taps” wafted across the field. Jessie Gibbs had been enjoying the solitude and the beauty of this moonlit forest glade on the border of the Stones River National Battlefield. She had taken a stroll here after finishing the dishwashing, the last chore in her busy day as camp cook. The bugle call reminded her that Reveille would come all too soon, summoning her to a new day of hard work, starting with fixing breakfast over an open fire for twenty hungry men. Now it was time for sleep.
She picked up her candle lantern, stood up from the rock where she had been sitting, and brushed off the back of her long skirt. Movement among the trees to her right caught her eye. A man came into view, walking soundlessly out of the woods.
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 beat-up, wide-brimmed felt hat. “I’m sorry if I scared you.”
He was young, clutching around himself a blanket of rough gray wool. At first she thought he was black, but as he moved closer she saw that his skin was darkened with dirt or soot. The whites of his eyes looked very bright. Her panic-scattered impressions began to organize themselves into a calmer clarity as she saw that he was dressed in the motley “uniform” of a Confederate 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 (it was hard to be certain of color in the bleaching moonlight). Beneath the blanket’s hem the baggy legs of his trousers stopped short of his ankles, bare above dusty brogan-style shoes.
Not a vagrant or homicidal maniac, after all, but a fellow “living historian.”
“I was just startled, that’s all,” she said. “I didn’t expect to meet anyone out here. We’re camped right over there.” She gestured 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.
glanced where she was pointing, and nodded but said nothing.
“Looks like you're a re-enactor too," she prompted. "What’s your regiment?”
“The Thirty-seventh Tennessee Infantry,” he said. “Company I.”
“Really! We’re Company I, too. But we’re the First Tennessee, the Rutherford Rifles. Where are the rest of your soldiers?”
His gaze darted to her face, then fell to the ground. “They’re nearby,” he said.
“I guess you’re the lucky one who pulled picket duty.”
A moment's hesitation, then he 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 smiled. “It makes me feel so old.”
“Well, all right then, Mrs....? ”
“Miss Gibbs,” he said.
Sometimes Civil War re-enactors, in addition to dressing the part, tried to emulate the manners and diction of the nineteenth century. And in fact some units required that their members stay in “first-person” roles for the whole event. Maybe his group was like that. She was glad hers wasn’t, but she was willing to play along.
“So, Mr. Sanders, when do you go off duty?”
“Not for a while yet.”
“If you’re free tomorrow, come by our campsite, you and your friends. We’re here all weekend. See the firelight over there?” She gestured toward the glow and occasional burst of sparks visible over the tall stalks of the neighboring cornfield.
“Yes, ma -- Yes, I sure do. Thank you for inviting me. How many are with you?”
“Our unit has about twenty soldiers, and I’m one of the camp cooks.”
“A lady cook! Your boys have it good. We just do for ourselves. When we get rations. Which is not too often.”
“Just hard tack and salt horse, right?”
“We feel lucky when we get hard tack and salt horse,” he said. “Parched corn is more like it.” He smiled at her broadly for the first time. That smile -- bright, straight teeth, a deep dimple in his left cheek and a shining in the eyes that met hers directly now -- made something strange happen in her chest: a leap of excitement, a plummeting like doom.
Her eyes faltered downward. “I-- I’d better get back. I have to be up before dawn to fix breakfast for everybody.”
“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. She didn’t think of herself as the kind of woman who had an immediately magnetic effect on a man, but that was how he seemed to be responding to her.
“You’ll be here?”
“Yes, ma’am, I’ll be right here.”
“All right, Mr. Sanders. If you’re not free to come over in the daytime I’ll come back after supper. I’ll bring you some of our food.”
“That’d be real nice. You be careful now, walking back by yourself.”
“I know the way. It’s not far.”
“Well, then, good night, Miss Gibbs.”
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.
* * *
He did not appear at her group’s campsite the next day. She kept looking up from her work, hoping to see him and some of his comrades coming from the direction of the cornfield. Later in the afternoon, in a free moment before starting supper, she sat under the canvas tent fly on a stool, her knitting project – a lacy shawl of soft blue-gray wool, one of her favorite colors and not just because it matched her eyes -- lying idle in her lap. She gazed out at the hazy afternoon, listening to the hypnotic rise and fall of the insect chorus and the shouts of the soldiers from her group drilling in a nearby field.
She replayed in her mind her brief conversation with Private Lemuel Sanders. Their awkward, halting words hadn’t signified much. It was the intensity of his gaze and the brilliance of his smile that she kept recalling, each time with a little jolt of wonder and excitement. Among the many ways in which her present life was unsatisfying was the lack of a romantic relationship. It seemed possible that that was about to change.
And then she checked herself, impatient. This was getting way ahead of things; she knew nothing about him. He might be married, or otherwise unavailable. No sense setting herself up for disappointment.
But right after the supper dishes had been washed, just as the twilight was gathering, she left the encampment to go see him, carrying a large piece of cornbread which she’d buttered and spread with honey and knotted in a clean muslin dishtowel.
She made her way back in the direction she remembered walking the night before, past the cornfield. After ten minutes or so she arrived at the small wooded glade and then passed through it into the clearing marked by the flat boulder.
“Mr. Sanders?” she called.
He emerged from amid the trees.
“Evenin’, Miss Gibbs,” he said -- and there was that bright smile again, and as before it made something shift deep within her, skewing her balance.
He was still wearing his blanket, clutched closed at his chest. If she needed further proof that there was little vanity in him, it was furnished by the fact that he hadn’t washed his face in expectation of her visit; his skin was still streaked with what she assumed must be black-powder soot. In the last light of day she noticed details of his appearance that she hadn’t been able to appreciate by moonlight: his eyes were an unusual amber-brown, and his hair, which fell long and waving below his hat, was dark blond.
“They stuck you with picket duty again?” she asked him.
“ ‘Fraid so.”
“I brought you something. Some of my homemade cornbread with honey and butter.”
“Well I’ll swan,” he said. “That was right nice of you. But I don’t want to take it with my hand so dirty. Would you just set it down on that rock there and I’ll eat it later? Thank you kindly, Miss Gibbs.”
“I haven’t heard that expression for a while,” she said.
“ ‘I’ll swan.’ My grandmother says it. She’s from East Tennessee.”
“That’s where I’m from, too,” he said,
“What town? ”
“Really! My grandmother’s from Caton’s Forge. Your next-door neighbor, so to speak. Maybe you know her, or some of my relatives.”
“What are their names?”
“My grandmother is Constance Marshall, and her maiden name was Garner.”
“Seems like I did know folks by those names,” he said. “But not to speak to.”
She wondered at his use of the past tense, as if he had been away from home for a long time.
He gestured to the rock. “Will you set a while?”
She sat down beside the little bundle of food she’d placed on the stone’s flat surface. “Won’t you sit, too? I don’t see any officers around to yell at you.”
“No, I reckon they’re all off taking their ease, like always.” He lowered himself to the ground in front of her, being careful to keep the blanket closed in the front. He crossed his long legs. The trousers pulled up, revealing his sockless ankles and his shins, covered with light hair, the skin streaked with dirt.
“It’s beautiful there in the Smoky Mountains,” she said. “Whenever I have some free time I go stay with my grandmother. She has a big front porch with rocking chairs and I can sit there for hours just looking out over the mountains and valleys. It gives me peace.”
“Me too,” he said. “I loved it.”
Again she wondered at his use of the past tense. “You don’t still live there?”
“No, ma’am. I haven’t been there for quite a spell.”
“Oh, no?” But before she could ask any more questions he said, “Where do you live, Miss Gibbs?”
“Right here in Murfreesboro. On Rolland Road. If you know where that is.”
“No, ma’am, I’m not too familiar with this town.” Then he looked up at her and said, “What-all did you do today?”
“Just the usual – kept the fire going and cooked three meals and washed all the cooking pots and utensils. There are two of us to do it, my friend Abby and me.”
“What did you fix to eat?”
“Sausage gravy and biscuits for breakfast. Vegetable soup for dinner. Beef stew for supper, with the cornbread. Lemonade and fruit shrubs to drink.”
“My land!” He looked at her, wide-eyed. “All that for a bunch of soldiers! We never had anything of the kind. That sounds like the kind of fancy cookin’ my mama would do on a Sunday.”
“Well, I wouldn’t expect guys alone to go to all that trouble,” Jessie said. “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. Surely he must have seen women civilian re-enactors before. Was it possible that, as a member of a group that was apparently strict about authenticity, he disapproved of females being in camp? Admittedly it was not how things were actually done back then – at least, with regard to respectable women; servant laundresses sometimes camped with the regiments and of course there were always the scarlet ladies from the nearest town. But the prevailing attitude in the re-enacting world was that it was good to find a role for the wives, children and girlfriends so that couples and families could enjoy events together. And also she’d read the viewpoint in a re-enacting magazine that having women in camp served an educational function by showing spectators how domestic duties were performed in the 19th century.
“I guess we are a little unusual,” 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, and to teach other people about them. 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 attentiveness that was rare in her experience of men. When she had finished speaking, he waited a moment as if to be sure she had said all she meant to. Then he said, “That’s sure enough true. They did
know how to do a lot of things. My granddaddy could make anything with his hands. Back then there wasn’t a dry goods store in town. You had to wait for the peddler to come, and in between you just had to make the things you needed yourself, or do without. Granddaddy learned me how to carve. I can tell you, being able to do that passed a lot of hours. I was always working on a carving.”
The earlier awkwardness seemed to have passed. She noted his learned me. He really had the diction, the mannerisms, and the convincing details of his persona down pat. Though she had begun to wish that they could abandon the role-playing and relate to each other without filters. “Do you have anything with you now, that you carved?” she asked.
“No, ma’am, I finished a toy not too long ago and sent it to my little sister. It was a right interesting puzzle to make. It had a square cage that I hollowed out, with a little ball inside that rattled around loose, and a chain on one end. I had me a time, getting that ball round and smooth without breaking the little cage, and getting the links of the chain to hang loose of each other.” He shrugged. “It’s kindly hard to explain...”
“It sounds really intricate. How did you think to make something like that?”
“When my regiment was down in Alabama we passed an old feller setting outside a store carving and I got the idea from seeing what he was making.”
“That was sweet of you to send it to your sister,” she said. “How old is she?”
“What’s her name?”
“Polly.” His ready response and warmth in his voice suggested that he really did have a beloved sister, probably indeed named Polly. “I promised her a bonnet. I wasn’t able to get one for her before....”
His words trailed off.
“Before?” she asked.
“Before I came down here.”
“Well, you can get her one another time. Do you ever go to any of the big events like Gettysburg or Cedar Creek? There are sutlers there with lots of nice bonnets for sale.”
“No, ma’am, I haven’t been to those places,” he said and then fell silent.
Something seemed to have made him withdraw into himself. This conversation was baffling– by turns warm and easy, but then with these strange moments of distance.
She tried to change the mood. “I came to invite you to our camp tonight. We always have music in the evenings. People in our group play all kinds of instruments -- guitars, tin whistles, spoons.”
“Oh, I wish I could, Miss Gibbs. I love music.” He looked at her with his eyes gleaming. Her heart contracted.
“I love music myself. I play the guitar, and the piano and organ. I’m a school music teacher and the organist for my church.”
“Is that so?” He looked impressed. “I’d sure like to hear you play.”
“Maybe you can sometime. I’d like to play for you.” Her cheeks warmed at her boldness. She was glad that her blush was concealed by the now full darkness, the moonlight muted by a thick cloud cover. “But, really,” she pressed, “won’t you come over now and hear some music, and maybe sing a little?”
“No, ma’am. I’d admire to. But I have to stay here.” He did seem sincerely regretful.
“Well, you might be able to hear us across the field. And at least you have something to eat.” She gestured toward the little parcel of cornbread.
“I’m much obliged to you for that.”
She lit the candle lantern she had brought with her, and stood up. He rose too, adjusting the blanket closed in front.
“We’ll be leaving after breakfast tomorrow,” she said. Would he take the cue and ask for her contact information?
“Where’re you going on to?”
“Oh, just back home. Back to work tomorrow.”
He didn’t seem to take in her answer. His eyes searched her face with that same intensity that had struck her the night before. He was close to her; close enough that it almost seemed he might lean forward and kiss her. Her pulse began to race. She looked down, feeling exposed in the concentrated focus of his dark 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.”
“You will? Don’t you ever get a break?”
“If I’m not right here, I’ll hear you and come.”
“It’ll be around eleven, noon at the latest.”
“It doesn’t matter when you come. I’ll be here.”
“Well, then, I’ll see you sometime tomorrow morning. Good night, Mr. Sanders.”
“Good night, Miss Gibbs. I sure enjoyed visiting with you.”
She gave him a smile that, she hoped, conveyed all that she could not quite find the words to say.
* * *
As Jessie’s eyes opened to the gray light seeping into her tent, she groaned at the spatter of raindrops against the cloth. Then came a distant rumble of thunder. Getting breakfast ready, cleaning up afterward, and breaking down camp in the rain was always a muddy, messy ordeal. But her biggest concern was that Lemuel Sanders’ unit might pack up early because of the weather and leave before she had a chance to see him and say goodbye. They had not exchanged phone numbers or email addresses. How would they meet again?
It might be possible to track down Company I of the Thirty-seventh Tennessee through the re-enacting network. Or maybe he’d remember her group and seek her out. But it was with a sense of haste that she got up and put on her clothes—chemise and drawers, corset, petticoat, socks and boots, workdress-- all unpleasantly clammy from the morning damp.
Stepping outside her tent she saw Pete Moltisanti and Stan Trabue valiantly tending the fire to keep it going in the rain. They had put on the coffee pot, bless them. The rain was more a mist than a downpour, at least for now. Thunder continued to grumble far off as Jessie and Abby scrambled eggs, fried bacon, and toasted bread over the fire. Everyone made short work of eating, then the men broke down the tents and hauled them to the vehicles while the women washed the breakfast pots and packed up the kitchen supplies.
The campsite was squared away by ten o’clock, and everyone bid one another goodbye and expressed the hope that the next event would bring better weather. “All part of the adventure,” said the always-cheerful Stan Trabue. He looked like a jolly Santa with his white beard and bright blue eyes behind tiny steel square-framed eyeglasses.
When her van was loaded and ready to go, Jessie stood in the rain and said goodbye to her unit mates who were loading their cars.
“You’re not leaving?” Pete Moltisanti asked her. His son, Ben, the unit's bugler, had already said goodbye and hopped into their old Volvo wagon.
“Soon, but I lost an earring on my walk last night,” she said, “and I thought I’d go try to find it now that it’s light.”
“No, thanks anyway, Pete. No sense two of us getting soaked.”
“Well, okay, Jess. See you at the next one.” He got into the car, waved and drove away.
Jessie set off swiftly in the now-steady rain, along the path that led to the clearing in the woods.
It was empty and silent when she approached. The first thing she saw was the little parcel of food that she had brought, still sitting on the rock, its knot intact and the cloth transparent with moisture, showing the golden cornbread inside. It had lost its square configuration and become a sodden lump.
Her heart sank. “Mr. Sanders?” she called.
And there he was, coming out of the forest. He was still dirty, still wrapped in his blanket. In the full daylight she could see that his skin beneath the soot was pale. His eyes met hers, shadowed by the brim of his slouchy ash-colored hat. “Miss Gibbs,” he said, “you’ll take a chill in this rain.”
“I don’t mind,” she said. “I wanted to come say goodbye to you.”
“I’m glad you did.”
“But you didn’t eat your food!” She moved closer to him, concerned at how drawn he looked. His lips were a grayish color. He was handsome, still, but in the bleak full daylight his skin was pallid, his eyes shadowed. It seemed too personal to ask him if he was sick, but he certainly looked it.
“No, I was saving it,” he said. “Didn’t count on this storm.” He was standing in the clearing, his amber eyes direct on hers. Once again there was that urgency in his gaze that she did not understand. His look was almost pleading.
“Are you and the other men in your group going home today?” she asked.
“No, ma’am. We’re staying here.”
She was puzzled. “Don’t y'all have to go back to work tomorrow?”
The questions seemed to disturb him. He looked down at the ground, a frown contracting his brow. In the moments during which he seemed to ponder his answer, Jessie became aware of something strange. The rain was pelting down now, dripping from the stiff brim of her slat bonnet, soaking through her shawl and weighing down the hem of her 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 the blanket, or on the dusty rough-out leather of his brogans.
A sharp 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 said, and could not think of how to focus her consternation into a coherent question. Finally she brought out, “Why aren’t you 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. The times we’ve spent together have been sweet to me. You are so pretty, and so nice to bring me food and come back to see me.”
She waited, her breath coming short between her parted lips.
He went on. “But what I have to tell you is... there was a fight here on the last day of eighteen hundred sixty two.”
“Yes. The battle of Stones River.” Her eyes were fixed on his face.
“Well...” With apparent difficulty he kept his gaze locked on hers. “I was killed in that battle. They buried my body here. And so here I have to stay.”
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.”
She glared at him. Her mind was racing. What he had said was preposterous. “Look, please just tell me who you really are and what you’re doing here.”
“Just what I said, Miss Gibbs.” He motioned toward the woods beside them. “Yonder’s where a Yankee stabbed me with a bayonet and I fell on those rocks. See them there?” She glanced over among the trees in the direction he had indicated. Amid the cedar thickets she could just make out some huge, flat, rectangular stones on the forest floor.
“And then this is where they pulled me out the next day,” he went on, “and buried me along with some other fellows. They rolled this big old stone out of the woods to mark the grave. And keep the animals away.”
“So…the other soldiers you said were with you this weekend – they’re all…” She could not finish the sentence. She felt the blood slowly draining out of her face, a ringing beginning in her ears. She swayed.
With a swift movement he stepped closer to her. 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.
Her knees gave way. His hand shot forward in an instinctive impulse to offer support and she saw it close over her arm; yet she felt no pressure, no touch of solid flesh, only a stirring agitation of the air. There was something strange about his nearness. Electricity seemed to charge the atmosphere around him, like the tingling energy that lightning-strike survivors report having felt before the bolt hit them. In addition there was a barely-audible sort of humming vibration.
Horror galvanized her into movement. She backed away from him. “I have to go!” she gasped. “I’m sorry -- I can’t…”
He stood with his arms by his sides, his palms turned toward her in a gesture that was either supplicating or meant to show that he intended no threat. “Oh, please, Miss Gibbs, won’t you come back? I can’t leave here, and you’re the first person I’ve talked to, since…”
“I don’t know.” Jessie was too panic-stricken to know what she was saying. She clutched her skirts up around her ankles, turned and ran from the clearing, through the forest glade, along the cornfield, past the campsite to the parking area. She jumped into her van and locked the doors, turned on the ignition and sat hugging herself, waiting for the heat to come on and for her trembling to stop so that she could drive safely.