A Spitfire in the Leg
By Robert Grede
At daybreak, George quietly led his horse to the riverbank, mud trails in the wet grass marking his path. His eye rested upon a row of ducks paddling in the shallows, their water rings speckled with early sunlight. The fowl swam and pecked and flustered and gossiped to one another in muffled tones. Suddenly, one fat mallard lifted from the raft and flew pell-mell into the sky, and George watched until it was lost in the mist rising from the river. He struggled to decipher the sweet pain that held his eye, this simple line of ducks, each so near, yet so close to being so far away. Behind him, the men of the Regiment slept soundlessly, their many tents ghostly in the mist. Without saying a word, George uttered his good-bye.
In town, people bustled from building to building, going about their morning chores, conducting business and trading stories with neighbors. Faint smoke billowed from an alley, carrying with it the odor of burning steel; a loud banging confirmed the blacksmith hard at his forge. In Courthouse Square, two old men sat whittling on a pine bench. A woman dressed in black peered into shop windows. The butcher held an animated conversation with a customer while absently twisting the neck of a chicken. Buggies and wagons and carriages of all models crowded the muddy streets. It could be any city in Wisconsin, or Massachusetts, or South Carolina. The War seemed a distant thing.
At the paymaster, George collected his wages and stuffed the bills into his haversack. He also discovered three letters at the postmaster’s and buried these in a coat pocket. At Emma Jones’s Café on Garden Street, he found a seat at a wobbly table near the window and ordered coffee from a woman with a broad grin and gaps between her yellow teeth. She said things like “Hey-ho,” and called him “Partner” and he liked her immediately. When his coffee arrived, he tipped her generously and was rewarded with a “Hey-ho” and a yellow grin.
He opened his first envelope eagerly and recognized the gently slanting script of Elizabeth Atkinson. His hand quivered with a nervous weakness as he carefully read her words. But disappointment quickly embraced him as she delivered only banal news of a sheltered life at Mount Holyoke: heavy snows last week, a gathering of charades with friends, plans to tap her uncle’s maple trees for syrup. She never once mentioned the war except to say, “George, be careful.” It was signed, Love, but George recognized that to be an affectation and not what he preferred it to mean. He tugged at his moustache and tucked the letter back into his pocket.
The second letter, a brief missive from his mother, carried news of home, the successful harvest, his sister’s brief illness, and his father’s activities in local politics. It aroused in him reflections upon a life that seemed a distant memory, and he laid the letter aside.
The last letter came from an address he did not recognize. Greetings from O.F. Mason, President of Cudahy Stockyards. It was an invitation to discuss employment following the conclusion of hostilities. He read slowly. Stockyard business… negotiations and transactions… advancement opportunities... Edward strongly commends… The cheery voice and round laugh came to him then. George remembered eyebrows with a peculiar jump and jerk when Ed Mason sang harmony, his voice floating above the camp, strains of Nelly Bly in high tenor. A “spitfire in the leg” is what he had called his injury. But a butcher took off the leg, and Private Ed Mason died just after Christmas.
Outside, blowing bits of sleet and snow tapped against the windowpane as if chanting. George put aside his coffee and sat, shoulders hunched, and re-read the proposition, examined the words individually, searching for meaning behind the sentences. He drummed his fingers upon the wooden table and thought of things he wished he had said to Ed Mason.
An old woman entered the store and a gust of wind burst in behind her, rustling his papers. He opened again the letter from his mother and he saw her animated face glowing in the light of the kitchen stove. An overwhelming sadness engulfed him as if a great weight had fallen upon his chest, and he struggled to control his breathing. The loss of his youth balanced poorly against the loss of Ed Mason’s life.
He quietly folded the pages and stuffed the letters deep into his haversack. “Hey-ho” offered more coffee but he declined, tipped his hat, and braced for the cold.
Robert Grede has been a carpenter, musician, teacher, entrepreneur, consultant, and dad. For fun, he writes string quartets. He is the author of several books, including the best selling, Naked Marketing – The Bare Essentials [Prentice Hall] and the novel, The Spur & The Sash (www.TheSpurandTheSash.com), a true story of love, passion, and betrayal amid the anarchy of post Civil War Tennessee.
Go here for more information on The Spur and The Sash and hear an interview with the Robert.