Suddenly Available For Duty by howard11
This Sentence Starts The Story contest entry
Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.|
Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of language.
"Time travel isn't supposed to be possible. That's what that arrogant ass physics teacher told us. He insisted it was merely a fictional plot tool. The smug know-it-all belongs here on the ground with me, shoving his over stroked beard down in this dirt. Let him explain the blue uniformed bodies scattered dead in this clearing, and the distinct sound of antiquated gunfire in the air..." Abrupt, bursting cannon fire interrupted Jeff Hill.
Hill realized he had been grumbling out loud. A bad habit when under fire, and quite careless from a man who served two tours in Afghanistan. Presently, Jeff is a history teacher from a small Texas college who faces a dilemma. Yesterday, he was hiking in West Texas. Today, he woke on the ground somewhere in the midst of a Civil War skirmish. Although confused by his situation, he believed the setting far too real to be a reenactment or an intensely vivid dream. "I don't belong here."
Increased shooting caught his ear. It was accompanied by the shrieking and yelling of many men with a seemingly hell-for-leather purpose. Hill guessed instantly that it was a sound unheard by any living person in 2018. "That has to be the 'Rebel Yell'. I'm not safe here." He scrambled up and ran into the closest woodline. Reaching the trees, he stumbled working his way into deeper cover and fell to the ground.
Jeff, on his back, caught his breath and rolled over. Next to him was a wounded Yankee soldier. "Forgive me, sergeant, didn't mean to trip over you." The unresponsive man, struggling to breathe, leaned against a tree trunk. His blue uniform top was soaked thoroughly in blood. "Let me take a look at that." Hill opened the already unbuttoned top and quickly examined the chest wound."Not too good. Truly sorry, man. A lead minie ball is unforgiving."
While closing the dying man's shirt, the sergeant's right hand reached out and weakly grabbed Jeff's wrist. "Water."
Hill shook the canteen at the man's side and felt the swishing of water. Cap off, he put it to the dying man's mouth, imagining that his lips parted ever so slightly. "Take it easy. Not too fast." Unfortunately, what was poured, trickled down the man's chin. There was no more gasping and Jeff couldn't feel any pulse. He stood, raised the canteen and toasted skyward, "Please accept this brave soldier's soul. He gave everything for his country and others." Jeff took a drink. "Amen."
After a second swig, Jeff looked through the trees to the open field where he had discovered himself. It was littered with about a dozen Yankee soldiers. War's sacrifice, spotlighted by a late afternoon sun. Even so, Jeff thought he heard the faint moaning of a downed soldier...one who would soon join the new friend at his feet. Jeff unrolled the sergeant's rain slicker and covered him. "Take heart Sarge, you won't be alone in your travels."
Hill rummaged through the man's rucksack. Inside were several pieces of salted beef, a pair of dry socks, a blanket, and a letter. The letter was addressed to Pvt. Harry Scott. He turned toward the covered body, "Kudos on the recent promotion, Sgt. Scott." Taking a piece of beef, he returned the other items to the pack and tied it closed. Having already rudely intruded into Scott's dying moments, Jeff decided against reading the letter from a man's loved one. "Private words meant just for you, soldier."
Sitting down, Jeff considered his situation, and explained it to the dead man. "I don't belong here...wherever here is. The last thing I remember before being face down in that field over there, was taking a predawn hike north of Big Bend searching for wildlife. Sometime near sunup, some rocks rolled down on me from above. One of them grazed my head and evidently I was knocked out." He took a bite from the way-too-salty beef and gulped more canteen water.
He pointed to his forehead, "See that bump and dried blood. That happened to me in early May...in the year 2018. I don't know if it is May here, but it must be sometime between 1861 and 1865. You, and those lying in that field, are irrefutable evidence that this IS the Civil War. If I knew the exact time and place, it might satisfy my curiosity, but would not change my predicament. I am the anachronism here."
Jeff grabbed the rucksack and searched the ground for a spot to stretch out. "I'm going to quit bending your ear so you can get on your way. It sounds like the fighting has moved on, and I might get a little rest before leaving these woods." With that, he lay his head on the pack and closed his eyes.
Forty-five minutes to an hour passed before the sound of many men on the move awoke Jeff. Again forced to face a freakish reality, he decided it was time to move. He estimated the noisy troop movement was about 150 yards north of him. "Way too much racket for a tactical march. Undisciplined soldiers mean more danger. Definitely, can not sit here." Jeff found talking aloud made him feel less alone, even though he might as well be sitting on the moon.
He then remembered the dead soldier who shared his patch of woods. "What do you have I can take with me, friend?" Jeff retrieved the remaining salt beef and the canteen. He picked up the man's rifle and an almost full cartridge pack with powder. "Springfield 1861 rifle-musket and plenty of ammo. Don't feel quite so naked." He reasoned no one would be wandering around these woods unarmed. Out of respect, he never searched the man's pockets. "Again, thank you."
For the first time, Jeff gave some thought to the 21st century clothes he was wearing. High-top dark brown hiking shoes, light brown jeans that were not as thick and heavy as work jeans. His top was a grey t-shirt, thankfully with no words to explain. Keys and phone evidently did not make the time trip with him from modern Texas.
Jeff was ready. Time to move. Canteen slung over his shoulder, rifle in his left hand, he clicked his heels to attention and saluted the late Sgt. Harry Scott of the U.S. Army. In a minute or so, he lowered his hand and turned to go, regrettably muttering, "That man is just one of more than 600,000 total combat casualties in this war. A war that I've been blessed to witness in person. I must be on someone's shit list."
As Jeff hustled through the woods, it appeared rampaging bigfoots had already cleared his way. Mobility was way too easy, but he was tired and could care less. Not sure where he was headed, he believed the first step to survival in his new, old world, was to determine current time and place. "Slow down, you idiot. You have more than 150 years to make next week's faculty dinner." He tried to maintain some sense of humor.
"Okay, Billy Yank. Stop and put your rifle down. Quit talking to yourself and heed my words."
Jeff obeyed. After, he stared into the threatening dark circle at the end of a well aimed rifle barrel. Shifting focus, his eyes found the man behind the weapon. The man's hold on the rifle was steady and purposeful, matching his voice commands. Nodding recognition, Jeff turned his head enough to see two others. "Men, I ain't no blue belly. I'm from Texas."
"Luke, pick up his rifle and keep an eye on him. Joe-Joe take a look around us."
"Got it Bill." The two had acknowledged their leader's commands as if in a chorus.
The man in charge lowered his weapon and returned his attention to Jeff. "Texan, huh? Where'd you come by that new Springfield and those strange clothes? I truly hope you ain't a Yank spy. Hangings unsettle me. Where abouts in Texas you from?"
"River port town named Jefferson. It's up a river or two from New Orleans. Steamboats dock there. People get off and cotton bales get on. That's where these clothes come from. I found a fancy trunk floating near my Uncle Ezra's farm. Gave most of the clothes to Aunt Elizabeth, but fancied these for me. Figured the duds were the latest fashions from New Orleans."
"Could be." The rebel soldier was becoming receptive to Jeff's story. "Name's Bill Davis, corporal in Jackson's army. What's your name and where'd you get the rifle?"
"Private Jeff Hill. Took it off a dead Yank back that way." As if corroboration was needed, Joe-Joe appeared from where Jeff was pointing. "Bill, I came across 11 bodies in a clearing, all Yanks. Another one was in the edge of the woods. I s'pose he crawled off and died."'
Jeff spoke up, "That's where I picked up the Springfield. Said a few words over the man and moved on. I've been lost for two days now. "
"Joe-Joe, take a break. Luke, go back toward the road and see if our boys have caught up with us." Cpl. Davis turned to Jeff, "Pvt. Hill, you should be with Hood's Texans. I think, over that way. How did you get here and where'd you start out from?"
"I worked on the railroad Richmond south to Danville before the invasion. Since Manassas, I've been north of Richmond on the rails to Fredricksburg. Never seen so many trains. When I got word my brother was killed in Tennessee, I decided to drop the heavy hammer and pick up a gun. My captain wrote me an order, wished me God's speed, and told me to find Gen. Hood's Texans." Jeff hoped his story, sprinkled with a few true details, had won over his captors.
"Private, sorry about your brother. Do you have the order?" Davis had paid attention to Jeff's story.
A little nervous, Jeff answered in a self-chastising tone, "Truth be told , I lost it in my uniform when my bed roll was stolen. Because we worked on the trains wearing our own clothes, the engineers gave me a hand-me-down uniform for my new unit and I was saving it. I'm a fool for losing it."
"Hey, were you in Fredricksburg last Christmas time when we whupped the Yanks real good?" Joe-Joe's question bubbled with pride.
"No, south of there, running supplies and troops in and out of Richmond." Jeff knew immediately Joe-Joe's boasting referred to the battle of Fredricksburg in December 1862. Jeff now had a narrowed timeframe, Dec. 1862 to Dec. 1863. The new knowledge embolded him and made him more talkative. "Was the attack as bad for the Yankees as people say?"
"Worse dying I seen. Watched them cross the river, fight through town, and then make those dad-blamed attacks on us. I sat up all night near the heights. Got no sleep because of wails and moans from all those poor Yankees dying shot in the field. Felt sad for them. Some of us prayed Yanks hurt real bad would die and find peace. Some did, some didn't, I guess."
Jeff, a former soldier himself, felt the agonizing truth in the teen's recounting. Union forces were ordered to advance 14 separate times against the defensive rebel position. Each time, a bloody failure. Their brigade-sized advances were exactly as Confederate Gen. James Longstreet described them, 'utterly hopeless'.
"Did you see the night turn to colors?" Jeff continued. He knew soldiers from both sides had witnessed an uncommon appearance of the northern lights this far south.
"Oh yea. That's when I knew God was looking over us and we'd win this war."
"Just might be true," Cpl. Davis chimed in. "Look what Old Jack did today. Fooling those Yanks, sneaking through the woods, and attacking them in camp. Pvt. Hill, they were sure caught with their fine blue pants down. They skedaddled faster than those trains of yours. Yep, quite a day so far, and the work is not done. No stopping Stonewall now."
The full circumstance of Jeff's predicament was before him. Virginia, early May, 1863, near and around Chancellorsville. Outnumbered 2 to 1, Robert E. Lee divided his army, gave Stonewall Jackson the majority and told him to attack 'Fighting Joe Hooker's' exposed right flank. Cpl. Davis's cliff notes version of Jackson's success were on point. Tomorrow, Lee's army would exploit today's gains and complete the defeat of another indecisive Union commander.
Stonewall Jackson's legendary military prowess, born the Shenandoah Valley, was set in stone on the same day professor Jeff Hill had dropped in and became Pvt. Jeff Hill. The professor and the private, however, were both burdened with a knowledge not known to the roughly 200,000 Blue and Gray soldiers in the Chancellorsville area. Jackson, the most beloved Confederate leader next to Lee, would be shot by his own soldiers within hours.
Just then, Luke returned panting heavily from rushing through the woods. "Bill, Sgt. Hayes said to tell you we need to get to the road pronto and head east. We are to join up with a Tarheel unit which is blocking the road watching for Yankee counterattacks."
Cpl. Davis instinctively spouted his orders, "Everyone take a drink and gather your gear. Hill, you're going to have to wait to join Hood's boys. We need you. Luke take us to the road, quickest way you know. Let's go boys, we want to get in position before it gets much darker. Blue bellies are out there."
"Proud to be with you," Jeff involuntarily added, "A good day to remember my brother."
The group set out at a breakneck pace in the dim light, guided by Luke's knowledge of barely noticeable trails. No one spoke and all kept up. When they exited the woods near the road, if anything, it was darker. The sun was sinking to earth and Cpl. Davis felt urgency. "We can make good time on the road. This way." Davis did not want his men to be moving in the open after dark. "Joe-Joe, out front. Pvt. Hill stay close, don't get lost again."
Jeff knew they were on the historical Plank Road. He also knew Stonewall Jackson was checking the same area on horseback about this time. Those undeniable facts, and the disbelief he was actually on-site, quickly evaporated as southern artillery let loose from behind them.
"Our boys crowing some, keep moving." Davis wanted no slowing down. The men kept the pace, but in a few minutes the answering thunder of many more angry Yankee cannons. A few rounds fell into woods flanking the road. "Don't stop. We should be close to the Carolina our lines."
Professor Hill, leisurely hiking in his modern world seemingly only a few hours before, was hustling on a Virginia road trying to keep up with veterans of Jackson's Shenandoah Valley campaign. These were foot soldiers who, pushed by Jackson up and down the valley at 22-25 miles per day, made the general's daring strategy successful. As a team, they had dumbfounded and defeated three union generals and their armies. Pvt. Hill's chest swelled.
Jeff heard Joe-Joe's voice, "Bill, I see the line. Wait here, and I'll identify us before they shoot. It's awful dark."
Joe-Joe advanced cautiously toward the roadblock in a nonthreatening manner, arms raised high. In a somewhat hushed voice, he offered, "Hey Tarheels, I have three Virginia scouts and a lost Texan. We've been ordered to join you and we sure would like to get out of the open as fast as you allow."
"Come on in, Virginia."
After mimicking an owl's hoot toward the following trio, Joe-Joe joined the Carolina unit telling a 1st sergeant, "They should be on their way. About 40 yards back." Looking around he thought the faces he could make out seemed a little tight. "Glad to be here with you Tarheels." Then he heard his companions arrive.
Cpl. Davis and the others were greeted by the same sergeant. "Glad to have you boys with us. Go over by those logs on the side of the road and join my men. Before eating, load your weapons. The main Union lines are further east, but we've heard rumors of Yankee cavalry in the area, maybe even behind us."
"Yes, 1st sergeant," Davis was elated that they were no longer isolated in the open, especially since the night's complete darkness had arrived. "Okay, boys, load up and find a comfortable position near your Tarheel brethren.
Jeff was slowest loader of the four, but he got it done. As he reached into his pocket for more salt beef, a company size volley erupted from in the woods on the other side of the road. Then someone yelled, "I see them."
A second voice, the 1st sergeant's, "Tarheels, take aim...fire! Reload." Before, he repeated his command someone down the road in the dark yelled, "Stop firing. Stop firing. They're ours!"
Joe-Joe worried for many a soldier, "Hope we did not hit anybody."
Jeff knew better. In the dark of 5 May, Stonewall Jackson was hit three times, once in the right hand and twice in the left arm. He was carried by litter off the field. Two of his aides were killed.
Jeff slumped on the ground, horrified his minie ball may have torn human flesh. "Not me. Please, Lord, not me."
Cpl. Bill Davis came over to Jeff, "Pvt. Hill, you back to talking to yourself? Stay quiet. Get some rest and be ready. It's a sure thing Old Jack will attack first light."
The rebels did attack the next day but under different leadership. They drove Hooker and his army back north across the Rappahannock River. Word in the ranks was Old Jack had a successful amputation and was resting easy away from the front lines.
Chancellorsville was a stunning, but costly Confederate victory. Lee had lost almost 13,000 men...Hooker, 17,000.
On 10 May, Gen. Thomas Jackson died of pneumonia. He was the one casualty whose name was known by soldiers of both armies. On one side, he was a highly respected leader and on the other, a man to be feared. A day of mourning was observed throughout the South. In the North, the New York Times ran Jackson's obituary. Lee referred to him as his lost right arm, and many Southerners truly believed the chance of victory died with Stonewall.
Pvt. Jeff Hill decided to stay with the Virginia unit. Oddly, he felt at home. A home with a land to defend and invaders to fight. Jeff's biggest challenge since landing in the 1860s, was a lingering problem of getting consistent sleep. Ironically, his insomnia did not stem from mind-changing time travel. Jeff simply could not shake the feeling of guilt about possibly being the one who shot Stonewall Jackson.
Three weeks after Chancellorsville, Pvt. Hill, in column with thousands of others, marched north. With each step, he secretly lamented his knowledge of the coming days and events. "Gettysburg, here we come. Buckle up, boys, this is going to be a rough one."
"Hey, Jeff, you talking to yourself again?" It was Joe-Joe.
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