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Duty Bound

Before the American Revolution, and to date, our country has necessarily fought wars by using and expending her young men. Freedom for America and other nations has been the basis of battles raging across political boundaries since men learned to use weapons, and that ideal has been carried by individual fighters into diverse and unnumbered arenas.

But freedom was and is not what keeps a warrior at his post when fire and metal fills the air like rain from Hades. Freedom is not what pulls men from relative safety onto fields of gore and destruction where life spans dwindle to the last few seconds.

Freedom, democracy, and hatred of an enemy brings men to the battlefields, but what they do there is done out of duty. A soldier will hurl himself into death’s path because of duty. Duty will push him forward into certain annihilation if his actions are needed to give those behind him a chance to gain another few feet of hostile ground.

Death may come to the duty bound quickly, perhaps instantly, or it may linger about a muddy ditch or a disease-infested prison cell for days or years. But regardless of the celerity or mode of death, dead is dead. Is it enough that the valiant dead departed life following a last order and doing their duty? Perhaps some carried that duty beyond the grave that their pitiful remains would never find.   CAPTAIN DANIEL TREVOR FOUND A SAD PEACE in the acceptance of certain death. He and his sixteen-man command would perish here in the South Carolina mud, probably before their families at home had finished breakfast. The mortars would rupture the morning calm within the hour, and if the mortars didn’t kill them, the sure-to-follow bayonet charge would. But for now, the only sounds were the waking birds, the steady drizzle, and Billy Sloan’s dry cough. A dreary calm lay over the soaked camp. Patches of white fog drifted through the open woods like bewildered ghosts. Daniel watched the low places ahead and the pine ridge behind him for the red-clad enemy. His men sat on rocks and stumps, their moccasin-wrapped feet ankle-deep in mud. Some leaned forward, protecting hastily written last words to families and sweethearts. None were older than twenty. Billy Sloan was fifteen. In the lad’s cough, Daniel heard the death rattle of the swamp sickness that had taken almost half his company. Regardless of what the English did here today, Billy would not be going home. “Jacob,” Daniel said, as loud as he dared. A lanky youngster from North Carolina stood and limped toward him.   “Yes, sir, Captain Trevor.” The boy wiped at his runny nose with a soot-blackened hand.   “How’s the leg?   “Healing, sir.”   “Jacob, do you understand our situation?”   “Yes, sir.”   “I’ve been told that you have an education.”   “Yes, sir. I studied at William and Mary a while before I decided to join the regimentals.”   “Do you have ink, and a quill? Do you think you could write something about what happened here?”   Private Jacob Stoner’s brow furrowed. “Sir?” “I mean . . . well, there ought to be a record of who died here. All seventeen of us.” “Oh, I see. Yes, sir. I can do that. What must I do with the parchment?” “Wrap it in oilcloth and give it to me. I’ll put it inside my shirt. Maybe it’ll be found.”     *     *     * Private Stoner sat on a rotted log, his blanket draped over his head and shoulders to prevent the rain from spoiling his work. The fact that Captain Trevor had selected him from among the others, and this being his last assignment, he would not fail in seeing the order carried out. In his four months under Trevor’s command, he had developed an abiding respect for him, both as a man and a leader. Trevor had made a point to learn a little of each man’s background and personality. He talked to his men decently and respectfully, using their first names. He had never left one of his own unburied, even if a running skirmish carried the unit away from where a soldier fell. He always found them, and he said the right words when the graves were filled. Jacob felt a certain pride in departing life with Captain Trevor.   He fished inside his haversack for the ink. Before beginning, he found the face of each man there. Even knowing their fate, none had succumbed to despair. Those who could write finished short letters and helped the illiterate with theirs. All were alert and busy now, tending to those things that had kept them alive this long. Some swabbed their rifle bores and tended to the locks. Others took advantage of the continuing rain to collect water for the canteens, or stowed gear according to standing instructions should the order come to move out.           Sickly little Billy Sloan moved among the group, passing out the dried strips of meat that was breakfast. Jacob watched as John Spencer went to each patriot, offering new flints for the locks of the handcrafted rifles. He saw the momentary meeting of eyes, the unspoken farewells. Even if Jacob could leave the swamp today, headed north to his parent’s home, he would never be able to share his time alive with any closer family than those in this sodden camp.   Dipping the quill, he began. Before he could finish the date, a bayonet thrust from behind severed his spine and his ties to the mortal world.   *     *     * Daniel saw too late the first wave of bayonets. He watched as the Englishman braced his foot against Jacob’s back to pull his weapon free; he watched as Jacob Stoner slumped forward, spilling his life and the black ink into the mud. With only seconds to live, Daniel brought his rifle to bear. He knew his men were doing the same. They would have time for one volley—maybe.   His rifle cracked and Stoner’s killer fell. He heard the firing of his regiment as he took a bayonet into his chest. On his back now, gazing through the smoke that refused to rise in the moist air, Daniel’s last thoughts were of his men, and how even in a driving rain their flintlocks had functioned, an explosive statement to the British that the colonies would survive.   *     *     * Sonny Randall put his mop away and looked at his wristwatch. His shift was over. Before exiting the storage room, he ran his fingers through his too-thick hair and re-tucked his shirttail. Now he was a customer, or at least a browser. He maneuvered through the Saturday afternoon crowd, headed for the newly arrived novel he had stocked just this morning. He often remained at Bennington Books well beyond his eight-hour shift. His love of the written word kept him among the book-laden shelves sometimes past the 11:00 a. m. closing. Of course, his college studies suffered, but still he had made it into his sophomore year. Perhaps Mr. Bennington would take him on full-time after he graduated.   Howard Bennington had thus far been a man of his word. Twice he had increased Sonny’s hourly wage. He had learned last week from the bookkeeper that Bennington had gone against the advice of others who held an interest in the bookstore when he gave Sonny a key to the front door. With that trust in place, Sonny could be here when he pleased. In return, he kept the shelves neat and the floor buffed, even if it meant working off the clock.   He retrieved the paperback, Shawnee Rage, and found a seat. He took care not to bend the cover too far back, knowing the book would have to sell as new stock.   Lately, Sonny had started checking information set forth as fact in the novels he read. Stories of the Indian wars and the Revolution were more than entertainment to him. They were a way of remembering that era and the people who suffered through it. He owed it to himself, and to the fictional characters representing the very real people of early America, to know the truth of how they lived, and the things they died for. Through his reading, he developed a limited knowledge of the tribes and culture of the Eastern Woodland Indians. He knew the battlegrounds of the early wars, the accoutrements of warfare, the names of the old wooden English war ships, and the results of both foreign and domestic politics that moved men against men. He inhaled the printed paragraphs that told of the deeds and abominations of natives, colonists, and invaders—acts of heroes and villains that lived and fought in the imagination of novelists. If he came across anything represented as fact that conflicted with earlier reading, he checked it out, usually in the reference section of Bennington Books.   Sonny often placed himself in the roles of the fictional characters that gave life to the thousands of pages he devoured. He skipped meal breaks to delve into the local history of the Charleston area. He read everything he could that dealt with the sixteenth century conflicts in central and eastern South Carolina. Within himself, by way of the growing information stored in his mind, he visited the known battlefields, hearing the guns, the shouted orders, the cries of victory, and the death screams of young men long since dead.   He was seated cross-legged in the floor, open reference books spread out before him like ships in formation, when Bennington found him.   “I’ll lock you in, Sonny. Be careful driving home in the rain. Have you got your key?”   “Yes, sir. I might stay a while longer if it’s all right.”   “That’s fine. See you tomorrow.”   Alone now, Sonny submerged himself in the 1781 battle of Eutaw Springs. From the reference books, he tallied the death toll on both sides. Leaving that battle, his emotions opened book after book, his heart bleeding for the loss of so many.   One particular title, Lost Patriots, was a badly written, sketchy biography of those lost in action and believed to have died between Columbia and Charleston during the southern fighting of the Revolution. But even with the bad writing, he felt the misery of prolonged duty in the Carolina lowlands. He smelled the sulfurous smoke of battle and he saw the mutilated corpses floating in the stagnant pools of bloody swamp water.   Sonny ran his forefinger down the list of names, pronouncing each one aloud, testifying to the forgotten mothers, wives, and lovers that their men were still remembered.   Moving away from the losses of Monck’s Corner, he turned a page in the book, and in his life.   “WRITE OUR NAMES,” stood out in glistening red script on page sixty-five. Except for that, the page was blank. The letters reflected the store’s fluorescent lights. He reached to touch, then recoiled in astonishment as the wet letters smeared on the page, like blood. Flinging the book from him, he sprang to his feet and ran, scattering his research materials. At the front door, he jerked the key from his jeans pocket. As he fumbled at the lock, a movement outside on the sidewalk distracted him.   Through the rain-spattered glass panel, he saw a tall boy with a wet and muddy blanket draped across his shoulders. The young man held up a leather-bound notebook in one hand, and a quill pen in the other. He spoke.   “Write our names.” The voice carried no sound through the thick glass, yet Sonny knew what he had said. The boy moved away, like a fog.   Knowing now, Sonny opened the doors and followed the apparition through the quiet streets. He walked through the night, across yards, fields, and rain-swollen streams. His host took on a soft luminosity, and Sonny understood that the brightening was for his sake, that he might be able to see and follow into the drizzly dark.   Blackberry briars clawed at his face and arms. Barbed wire grabbed his clothing as he crossed the fences, warning him to proceed no further. The dripping leaves and branches of awakened trees slapped at him in reprimand for his intrusion.   As the late dawn broke across the tops of the pines on a low ridge ahead, he found himself on a thicket-covered flat bordering the desolation of swampland. That which he followed vanished into the gray mist. He had arrived.   A farmer found him before dark, just outside the western boundary of the Francis Marion National Park. He drove to a phone and called the sheriff’s office.   “It’s murder all right. There’s an antique bayonet sticking in his back all the way up to the hilt. What’s that? Hell, no. He couldn’t have done it himself. It looks like he was just sitting there in the mud writing names in a book.   “What? I looked, that’s how I know. It’s a list of names for sure. I counted ‘em. Eighteen in all. You boys better get on out here.” (by By Michael A Gibbs )
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