Bells and drums – the jingle of a cavalry troop’s harness, the thump of hooves on a dusty road – announced the arrival of riders in gray at a bridge in Georgia in July 1864. Most of the soldiers dismounted while their captain rode onto the bridge and halted before two figures, an old black woman holding a sack and a child.
The captain sat tall and silent. A sergeant behind him shouted, “Look for anything – papers, matchsticks, ration cans, anything. If they bivouacked here, they left things.” Two dozen soldiers fanned out and began searching the grass to either side of the road.
The captain regarded the old woman with disdain. She was short, thin and dressed in rags. The best rag, yellow with red dots, was tied around her grizzled hair. After waiting long enough to make her uncomfortable, he leaned forward. “You seen any Yankee-men around this bridge?”
She put her right hand behind her right ear. “Master? What’s that, Master? I’m a touch deef!”
The captain grimaced and raised his voice. “Bluecoats! You seen any bluecoats, old woman?”
She slapped her skinny thigh, laughed and wagged her head. “Ain’t no men in blue suits around here, Master. Nobody here but my grandchild and me!”
The captain’s lip curled. “I can see that, you blue-gum fool!” He turned. “Sergeant, anything?”
The sergeant, hands on his hips, called, “No, sir.”
“Mount up. We’ll check the far side of these trees. Sherman’s blue-bellies are out here somewhere.”
The sergeant stepped close to his captain, lowered his voice. “Sir, would it be a good idea to set up a picket on this side of the bridge? Both the horses and the men could use a rest. We could send a man to scout through those woods on foot.”
The captain stared at him for a long moment. “Sergeant, the sooner we find their cavalry, the better chance we have of keeping them out of Atlanta. We don’t have time to tip-toe through every grove of trees. Now, mount up.”
The sergeant saluted. “Yes, sir.”
The captain touched his horse’s glossy flanks with silver spurs. The horse stepped forward. The old woman and child scurried out of the way of its massive chest.
Traces tinkled and hooves clopped on the bridge’s planks as the cavalry troop crossed above the river’s green depths and rode into the woods. Their gray backs receded into afternoon shadows beneath trees burning emerald bright with May and the dust of their passage settled.
“You didn’t tell him the Yankee-men were here.”
“Child, he didn’t ask what we knew. He asked what we seen.”
“I don’t understand.”
The old woman smiled at her grandson and shook her gunnysack. “All this trash them Yankees left, we picked it up for a reason, Ezra.”
Ezra looked up at her. “What for, Granny?”
Shots – carbine and pistol fire – suddenly rattled through the woods. Shouts, crashes and a horse’s scream followed. More shots crackled and more shouts tore distant evening air. Then there was silence.
Granny listened to the silence. “That’s two birds.”
“We got two birds with one stone. That smart captain found them Yankee-men he was looking for, found them right where they was waiting for him.” The old woman spat brown tobacco juice through the gap where her front teeth once were.
Hoof beats sounded in the near distance. A riderless horse – the captain’s big stallion – cantered out of the forest. Eyes white and rolling, it slowed and turned to the side of the road. Fresh blood glistened on its flank.
The old woman and the boy watched the quivering horse. At last, Ezra tugged on his grandmother’s ragged sleeve. “What’s the second bird, Granny?”
She grinned. “I don’t plan on you being a slave for the rest of your life.”
Robert Walton is a retired middle school teacher and rock climber with ascents in Yosemite and Pinnacles National Park. He’s an experienced writer with published works including historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy and poetry.Walton’s novel Dawn Drumswon the 2014 New Mexico Book Awards Tony Hillerman Prize for best fiction. His “Sockdologizer” won the Saturday Writers 2020 Everything Children contest. Most recently, his flash fiction story “Pull My Finger” was included in Ab Terra’s Climate and Environment Issue. His website is http://chaosgatebook.wordpress.com/