Piper crouched into the smoke, picking from the dead.
The Virginia field had gone quiet like after hours of trembling. The gallop of horses, the pounding of cannons and gunfire, past. The runaway from Brightleaf plantation freely rummaged through pockets and sacks, moving quickly through grass sticky with blood. Fallen soldiers were slumped like grain sacks caught by whole bayonets. Boots dangled from raw strings of muscle that had once been legs. Leather loosened from sole.
Piper slid a fingertip across the boot toe and discovered a small hole as if a worm had wiggled out. He pulled off the boots, thinking of the marsh mud that squished underneath his bare feet in his run from Brightleaf. The cold Rappahannock River had stiffened his toes so they ached, and had caused him to limp. He set the boots on the ground and pushed a foot into one but his heel flattened the back of it. The boot best fitted a smaller man or even a good-sized boy.
A cough from a nearby heap surprised him.
Piper readied to run again, but tripped when his foot thumped the shoulder of a man. Sweat matted the corn silk hair against the man’s skull and a gash went from his ear to his neck.
“Nigger, water.” The Confederate fighter held on to a shiny metal.
Piper squatted and slid a canteen strap between his fingers, measuring time, rolling his thumb over a knot. The straw-haired fellow drew a long last breath. Piper took a long swallow from the canteen, then peeled the dead man’s hand open and took away a silver watch. The timepiece reflected a foggy image of Piper’s broad nose and black eyes. A beard hid his chin and sweat dripped from his temples. He unsnapped the pinhead latch and removed a miniature portrait of a thin-faced woman, a ribbon adorning her hair, and set the sweetheart in the dead man’s hand. Tying the pocket watch inside his own trousers, Piper imagined the day he’d be a freedman. He’d find a woman then, place her picture there. Maybe he’d find that woman in Washington City.
Washington City stretched further away than he had guessed. He thought he had come close when he reached greening hills that swayed towards mountains. The Northern Virginia Army marched from beneath the cover of those mountains and met thunder and smoke from the Confederates.
Black boulders made an outer ring of about a mile that spiked the fighting ground where Piper now stood. His knapsack filled with provisions, he headed downhill. The limbs of large pines formed a curtain below a creek wound through a rocky patch. Twigs between two sheets of slate gave off the earthy smell of tobacco. Piper dropped down and stretched out the toes of his cracked feet. Over the inky water, the sun stretched into scraps of yellow, orange, and red strips like the cloth the Brightleaf women sewed into quilts. It could have been a perfect scene, a place for angels to whisper. A place for a woman’s singing.
Footprints where a single man trekked were near. Piper hunched over, flattened his palms on the ground, following the imprint. Mosquitos whisked and a swarm of flies buzzed around a man lying face down. Piper had seen dead men at Brightleaf over his twenty plus years. Had carried their bodies to the ones who buried them. The jacket and trousers this man wore were dusty, but unmistakably blue. Lincoln Federal Army blue. The hand that clutched blades of grass was black. Piper recalled how master Brightleaf had cursed, calling President Lincoln simpleminded to give niggers guns.
A twig snapped and Piper jerked to attention. A rabbit darted from the brush, causing him to lose his balance so that he fell against the soldier.
“Seem wrong your face in the dirt,” he said.
Piper rolled the man over. Blood trickled from a wound above his ear, down to the jaw, and soaked the soldier’s fine jacket. Even soiled, he looked respectable, the eagle buttons fastened tight from his neck to waist belt. A shudder shook the soldier’s limbs and back muscles. Piper crawled his fingers underneath the man’s shoulder, cradled him, and cleaned away blood. He then untied the cloth from his own neck and covered the gash.
Reaching over and wiping the soldier’s brogans, Piper rubbed his palm over the flaps where laces held them in place, and remarked at the fineness of the uniform, especially the boots. He had never tied boot string. Piper only knew the handling, wrapping, and tying of tobacco leaves for drying. He had bound them with precision without damaging the leaves.
“Boots no use on heaven’s road,” Piper said, and removed them from the soldier. Untying the laces with care, he placed them on his own feet. “Mighty grateful,” he said to the soldier.
He pressed his ear against the man’s heart, and laid the hands cross-wise over the chest, careful not to cover the brass buttons. When breath sagged out of him, Piper called the stranger by names: Paul, Malachi, Benjamin, Ezekiel. The voice that answered him was thin. A thin burst of air.
“Ain’t you something,” Piper said.
Gabe opened one eye and licked his lips.
“Never seen a colored soldier,” Piper said. He had seen Union soldiers, ordinary looking, and weary white men far from home, seated by the campfire when he had crossed the river. He had wondered what made them come to Virginia knowing they might die. Wondered the same for this one. Piper put a canteen to Gabe’s mouth, and said, “Walking through this field of dead, I wonders what it like, the killing?
“Killing is easy. It’s the life that’s hard.”
Piper felt a throbbing in his own hands. He had that same feeling the times he snapped a chicken’s neck for master’s supper.
Gabe struggled and pulled his arm forward so it rested on a small case attached to his waist belt.
“What that?” Piper asked.
“Cartridge box. Confederates save the worse ways to kill for the colored soldiers. There’s no mercy.” Gabe’s shoulders trembled. Piper poured water in his hands and splashed Gabe’s face.
The crackle of the creek reminded Piper of spring rains dripping from the roof of the tobacco shed at Brightleaf where he had slept, the patient smell of earth, and the mottled scents of tobacco and pine mingling from the shed walls. Light crept between the boards, letting in fresh breezes and ideas about the way a man lives out life. Piper saw himself farming land he owned, holding a woman beside him, and naming his children when they were born. If he had had to select his own name, it wouldn’t have been Piper. Joseph seemed a steady fatherly kinda name.
The day faded, casting shadows from the trees on to the soldier. A group of black birds gathered on a stump, buzzards, he guessed. The stillness of the carrion and the quiet nature in front of him made him restless. He wondered where the Federal soldiers had camped. Pressing his toes into the shoe leather, he imagined himself among the soldiers instead of following behind.
An awful quiver shook Gabe until he gagged, parted his lips, and stiffened his jaw. Too tired to blink once more, Gabe’s other eye shut. Piper raised his face to heaven and said a prayer. Gripping a flat stone, he took his time and dug a hole deep enough to keep scavenger animals away. He then laid Gabe’s body in it and piled dirt into the grave.
Piper stood, his head high, and jiggled his legs. Picking up his knapsack, he noticed a pistol near the soldier’s grave. He picked it up, and ran his fingers over the barrel, rocking the weight in his hand.
Darlene Taylor holds an MFA in creative writing. She is the founder of INKPEN, a nonprofit that advocates for works by writers of color and shares literature, storytelling, and ideas. After a career in Congress and global corporate communications, this Washington, DC native brings politics, history, cultural preservation, and southern roots to her prose. She serves as an advisory editor of the literary journal, Callaloo, and is a Kimbilio fellow, and board member of A Room of Her Own. Her work has appeared in anthologies, the Portland Monthly, Public History Commons, and Kinfolks Quarterly.