“Why?” A student’s short story

The following short story was written by one of our students at LiHigh School. The assignment asked for a short story that takes place in an historic setting. We hope you enjoy the story, and please, feel free to leave a piece of constructive criticism that will help our student take the story to the next level.

CRACK!!! I jumped and grabbed my musket and possibles bag; the hair on my neck rose. It was happening. We had to be getting attacked, the day that I have waited and dreaded for, for many months. Then I heard it, soft at first and then almost deafening: rain. It was just a rain storm. My senses tingled as I put my stuff under my cot. “Just rain” I mumbled to myself, “just rain.”

It was year 1861 and I had decided to leave the family farm to fight for my country. At first I was excited to get some action in the field, but now after seeing so many wounded coming from the front lines I was beginning to doubt my many months of hard training.

The thoughts of deserting were coming more often as the days went on, but the stories of the poor soldiers that were caught stuck in my mind and frightened me. What was I thinking when I signed that piece of paper? Was it stupidity? Was it because I needed the $4.00 a month? Why? Why would I leave my family and come out into this god-forsaken hell? I knew I had a reason when I signed that list, but maybe all this fear made me feel sorry for myself. I somehow drifted back to sleep.

I awoke to the the trumpet sounding in the the distance at 05:00. It was another cold wet day. I could see my breath, and I noticed my nose was running. “It must be late October,” I thought, “or maybe November by now?” I took my tin bowl to the cook and got my pea-soup-thick coffee, black as usual, which would probably kill a small dog because it was so strong.

The days seemed to drag on and all blend into one. I took a swallow of the black coffee. I was instantly warmer than I was. I grabbed my musket and possibles and decided to go sit by the fire with the other soldiers of Troop 44. We were the standby company for Troop 32, and had been sitting here for many weeks, possibly months.

Around the fire, there was little talk. No one seemed to be in a good mood. The excited, trigger happiness had warn off long ago and the nighttime singing and poker had lost its excitement after week one. A cold shiver shot through my spine as a single, almost snow-like rain drop dripped from a nearby oak and landed on my neck. I pulled up my collar and took another sip of the the thick coffee. “November, it has to be November,” I told myself.

The lieutenant’s words cut through my heart like an indian arrow. It was happening. We were actually going to participate in a battle. I had been in this little camp so long I had almost forgot I was a real soldier. I never thought I would actually have to fight. But here I was, being told that we were to pack our things because we were moving to the front lines in the morning.

Some of the younger men were excited to finally get into some action. They wanted to go home as heroes, but I don’t think they knew quite what we were about to plunge into.

As I walked back to my tent, my family suddenly came to my mind: my beautiful wife and my two little boys. I wondered if they were okay, I wondered how the fall crop was, and if they had enough money and wood for the long New England winter. I couldn’t keep thinking like this. I was only hurting myself, and if I wasn’t thinking straight my chances of coming out alive sank.

I packed everything but my heavy blanket, which was a necessity for the constantly colder nights. I laid down on my cot and tried to fall asleep, but the utter emptiness in my stomach made it difficult to sleep. Finally, exhaustion hit me and I slept.

No sooner had I closed my eyes than I heard the trumpet sounding, that miserable wake-up call. I got up, rolled the heavy blanket, and fastened it to my pack. I leaned over and picked up the pack; it was heavy, really heavy. The two-hundred round balls and patches for my musket, plus a two-pound keg of powder, weighed more than eight pounds alone (not to mention the thick blanket, clothes and utensils).

It was getting colder as the days went, and now we were being issued gloves and wool socks. After a quick breakfast of cold biscuits and more black coffee, we were lined up for the six-mile march to the front lines to relieve Troop 32.

The trail to the front was terrible. It had been very rainy the past few days and it was solid mud. It was slick and stuck to everything and many soldiers had trouble keeping their footing. It didn’t take long for the wetness of the trail to soon be in our boots. Every step we took was followed by a little “squish” sound that just made the five-mile march even more unpleasant.

“HALT”!! echoed down the line of 60-or-so men, lined up four across, shoulder to shoulder. We were at the front; things were going to start getting interesting.

Some of the younger soldiers made sure their muskets were loaded and others just kicked the mud, looking as if they were about to get a beating from their father after they told him what they did. “This is it” I told myself. “Whatever happens, this is it.”

I checked my musket and listened for orders. After a few more minutes, we were all informed that we would be hiking about 200 yards north of where the action was, to sit tight and hopefully catch the confederates trying to withdraw when Troop 32 made their one last attack. Troop 32 had been under heavy fire for about a week now and could not move without taking fire. They would charge right into the confederates’ weak point on the right side and, hopefully not knowing we were north of them, the confederates would run back into our lines.

After this, everything seemed to be a blur. Things were fast, very fast. We hiked to where we were supposed to be and hid, some of us in trees, some of us behind bushes, and some of us laying shallow holes. The horn was sounded from Troop 32, and we all breathed deep, not knowing what to expect.

From then on, things seemed to go in slow motion, which was funny, seeing as how getting prepared for the battle was a blur. Every twig that snapped, I expected to see a gray coat running through the trees ahead. My senses were on overdrive: the smell of black powder and the sound of musket fire seemed almost fake.

What was that? Something moved in the distance. It was my imagination, or a squirrel…wasn’t it? Then I saw another, then another. They were coming! It was happening! Suddenly, musket fire was all around us.

I saw Taylor Munster jump from his hiding spot behind some thick beach-shoots and fire his musket. I was stunned. I couldn’t get myself to lift my musket. Everything was so clear. The little blue puff of smoke followed by loud cracks of musket fire seemed to be everywhere.

Then something happened, a stick snapped to my left. I turned and was surprised to see a grey figure appear from behind a tree. I instinctively lifted my musket, aimed in that direction, and fired.

The grey figure — a man — toppled over dead.

I was shaking. Everything was in fast forward. I felt sick to my stomach. Taking a seat behind a tree, I vomited. Thoughts of what would have happened if he had noticed me first went through me like a cold winter chill and I began to shake all over again.

The next hours seemed like a bad dream. Muskets were firing all around, smoke filled the air but didn’t move; all that was manageable was shaking and vomiting.

After what felt like days, the battle ended. The south had finally retreated and we were now to help with the wounded. Little Joey Blitz came over to me to see if I was ok, and helped me to my feet. After making sure that I was indeed ok, I decided to walk over to the man I had killed. He was just like me. He wasn’t a dirty animal, or a scoundrel. Just like me, he was just fighting for what he believed right. I wondered if he had family back home, and I vomited, thinking of how my wife and kids would feel if they got word that I was never to return.

I had to walk away. I felt terrible. He was no different than I, but I’m sure he would have done the same to me. It was a very difficult emotion. I remembered shooting my first deer with my dad — I was excited, but then again, I had just taken a life. This was different. I could not get the thought of that man and the possibility of him having family out of my head.

Author: Kyle Callahan

Hi, I'm Kyle. I'm an advisor at LiHigh School. I've been involved in progressive education since I was in high school. I was an original member (and student representative) of the Progressive Program at Green Mountain College, and for my Master's degree, I attended Goddard College, which started the trend toward progressive education in the 1960s. Along with teaching at LiHigh School, I teach courses in creative writing and communications at Green Mountain College. I live with my wife and daughter in Poultney.

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