Red Hand was a Civil War Lieutenant, shot in the head at Chickasaw Bluffs, and decorated by Grant. He kept a signed letter from Grant in a frame tucked under his arm. Grant had died in 1885, but Red Hand was still living. He was 156 years old, and the small army of conservators that followed him around tried in vain to get him to cover the letter with something to protect it from the sun, but Red Hand was proud of the letter and wanted to be able to show it to whomever he wished.
“This here is Ulysses S. Grant’s handwriting,” he’d say. “That man loved me.”
Red Hand had gotten his name from the stain of ferrous mud that had pigmented his left hand. He’d worked potatoes in Virginia soil for twenty years or so after the war. The hand was grossly palsied now, bent inwards at the wrist and again at the fingers, so it looked like the old soldier was trying to button a cuff. He insisted on being photographed from that side, so the hand could be displayed. “A point of pride,” he said.
His mind was fine for a man of his age. The main thing he got wrong from time to time was that he thought his horse was still alive, and when he got like that, you had to play it careful. “No, Lieutenant,” you’d have to say. “Arbuthnot’s back in Virginia on stud duty.”
“Of course he is,” Red Hand would say, his eyes shining. “That horse has fucked more fillies than Rabelais.” He thought Rabelais was still alive, too.
I was his aide. He called me Ewell, although my name is Douglas. Just the same, it was safer to go with how the old man saw things. I was responsible for getting him to conventions and speeches and reenactments on time, and making sure that the right people got their five minutes with him and that the spazzy hand held a pen tight enough that he could sign his name. The reenactments were Red Hand’s favorites, he’d go to them in full regalia and sit in a place of honour at the edge of the field while the opposing colours converged on each other over a patch of mud. He’d lean in to me and whisper in my ear. “I get a feeling them boys in red ain’t getting any further than this,” or “somepin ominous is afoot, Ewell. Call them boys back to the hill upp’n here to my right,” and I’d have to leave the area for a few moments and then come back, by which time, Red Hand would have forgotten his orders.
It was after a reenactment in Grafton, North Carolina that the occurrence that began Red Hand’s final decline took place. A man who called himself Johnston came up to us and spat on the ground at Red Hand’s feet. “This man is a coward,” said Johnston, “and I should know because I fought against him at Brandy and Bristoe and Kellys Ford in ‘63, and during that latter fight, this soldier abandoned his men and fled like a coward!”
The man was incensed and he trembled as he spoke. He was a younger man, maybe 140, but he looked 150, all wattled and bent over and purple in the face when he spoke. Red Hand held his ground admirably, even as I and a few of his fanbase in North Carolina made something of a human barrier between the two old warriors. “Get outta here, you dirty rutabaga,” shouted the girl who was the president of the Red Hand Fan Club up in Wheeling. “We don’t need none of your nasty name-calling.”
“That man turned tail and ran into the hills,” said Johnston. “I saw it with my own eyes.”
“Get out my letter, Ewell,” rasped Red Hand, leaning against my outstretched arm. His body felt like a potato sack draped over a treebranch. He snarled at the other man. “You want to see whom you’re calling a traitor, you wrinkled pansy?” I took the letter out of Red Hand’s gunny sack (I’d at least convinced him to keep it there when he wasn’t sure if he’d need it) and held it up to Johnston. “See?” said Red Hand. “Ulysses S. Grant. You are a hee-ro, y’hear that, sonny? A ‘hee-ro!’ no less! Signed by the great general himself, who loved me and did on many an occasion, clasp me to his bosoms.”
“That’s not even his signature,” said Johnston, leaning in toward the letter.
“You squint anymore boy, you’re liable to squeeze out one of them glass eyes. Take my word for it, this is in the general’s hand.”
“I strongly contend that, Lieutenant,” said Johnston. The gall of the man was astonishing. Red Hand strained against me.
“I’m gonna spank this sassy prick,” he said. “Just let me through Ewell.”
“Don’t let him get to you, Lieutenant,” I said.
Johnston took a step toward me and pushed his face into Red Hand’s. “It don’t matter what anyone here says, I know what I saw, and I venture you do as well, traitor.”
“If’n I’m such a traitor, soldier, you should clap me on the back and congratulate me for helping you win your dirty war. Hell, you should take me to yourself like a brother.”
“No one had need of your help, Lieutenant,” said the other man. “No man’s army wants a girl in the ranks.”
“Git,” said Red Hand, waving a dismissing arm at Johnston. The other soldier stepped back and stared at us, then turned around and walked away. A couple of the girls laughed at him and pointed: he looked pretty bad in his chaps.
“See ya around, bony ass!” shouted one of the girls.
I WAS AFRAID OF RED HAND because he was my hero. I liked him pure, the way he was. “I fought in Kellys Ford, Ewell. I was there to the bitter end of Kellys Ford, don’t you doubt me, hear?”
“I don’t doubt you, Lieutenant.”
“That’s good.” We were back at Red Hand’s place. It was a small bungalow on the edge of a cornfield, about a half-hour outside of Wheeling. There were worn carpets on the floor and candles everywhere. It was homey, but it hadn’t had a woman’s touch for some time. Red Hand gave up on women in the ‘fifties—he sometimes said things about them that suggested he hadn’t been lucky in love—although he wasn’t above the occasional whore. But whores who screwed and cleaned were as hard to find now as they were in Biblical times. Red Hand settled into an arm chair and pinned we with one of those dramatic looks of his.
“Now, listen to me, Ewell, I’ve been thinking. If Grant was still alive today, do you think I’d still be a lieutenant?”
“I’m sure you’d be a general.”
“That’s right son.” He arched his back and jammed a hand into one of his pants’pockets, then slowly drew the gnarled hand out. I had to go and open it. There were two stars in his palms. “You go sew these on my uniform, alright, son? And you call me General from now on.”
My lips were trembling with pride and I saluted the great man. “Yes sir, General,” I said.
“You do know how to sew, don’t you?’ he said. “That nice girl of yours has taught you something I hope.”
“Yessir,” I said. My heart was pounding. Red Hand, a general! It was about time. Truth be told, I’m not a great sewer, but I threaded a needle and put a hundred stitches into each of those stars and fastened them to his epaulettes so they’d never come off. He was overjoyed when he saw the job.
“Ewell, you’ve done me proud! No scoundrel’s hot air will blow these honours off me!”
“No sir,” I said, and he shuddered a great sigh of joy and put his arms around me. I could feel the staves of his ribs against me, his heart like a shot pheasant floundering around in his chest.
We celebrated that night with the general’s favorite meal, sausages in brandy. Red Hand loved a good flambé. Because he had none of his own teeth in his mouth, and his gums were withered, meals could be drawn-out affairs, and I often insisted on well-rounded nutritious dinners. Most nights, he’d strap his wooden teeth into his mouth, the leather thongs tied around the top and back of his piebald skull so he’d look like an insane horse, and I’d have to brave out the long duals Red Hand would fight with his vegetables or his bread. But tonight was special. The enemy, posterity, had reared its ugly head one more time, and one more time, had been beaten back. The old man mashed his sausages against the roof of his mouth with his tongue, savoring the flavour. “A man does not need teeth in order to be fulfilled in the affairs of his table,” he said, one of his favorite aphorisms.
“Indeed, no,” I said.
But that night, which ought to have been a joyful evening of celebration, another sad thing occured, and I believe I was the cause of it.
“I won’t be coming home tonight,” I said over the phone to my wife. “The General’s been injured.”
“The Lieutenant was made a general today,” I said.
“Who made him a general, Doug?”
“He’s injured, Sally. I’ve got to stay with him.”
She sighed, a long, injured sigh. “Jesus Christ, Doug. This has gone on too long.”
“I know honey. I’ll be there tomorrow, I promise.”
“Work called again.”
“Tell them I’ll call in the morning.”
“You tell them. You need to think over your priorities.”
“My priorities are straight as an arrow, Sal.”
“I’ve got to go, Doug.” She hung up without another word. I went back into the General’s boudoir. He was lying on his side, his face yellow and slick in the candlelight. He was cradling his arm. “I knew we shouldn’t have done it,” I said.
“It was an innocent mistake. It had to be done, Ewell. I’ll be fine in the morning, you’ll see.”
It had all begun after dinner, when Red Hand called me into his rooms.
“See these, Ewell?” he said. He was holding out the palsied hand toward me. “On my wrist.”
I kneeled down before him and held his hand in mine. The wrist, I could see, was pockmarked with misshapen lumps. Ganglions. He had suffered from them once or twice before, but never had I seen so many of them. His wrist was so colonized by the tumors that it looked like someone had stretched pie dough over a handful of buckshot.
“See?” His breath smelled strongly of Kentucky mash.
“General, I don’t think this is a good idea.”
“Don’t talk back to me, Ewell. Go get the board and the bible and come back in here.”
I went out into the living room and took the board out of its storage place from the drawer in the harvest table. It was a contraption I’d built Red Hand two years earlier. It was a flat piece of wood, about two and a half feet long and wide enough to fit a man’s arm on. At the end, a hinged piece lined with felt came up and formed a little trough you could tuck a person’s fingers under. The last time the ganglions came up, I’d made it to hold the old man’s hand open. The bible I found in its regular place on the sideboard. It was an ancient heavy book, banded in brass with a thick metal latch on the front cover. The pages, you could see under the bands of brass, were kid, cut unevenly, and furred at the edges from handling.
I brought the board and the bible back into the room and Red Hand lay down on the bed and stretched his arm out like a man about to be executed by injection. The pale crimson limb looked like a gumball someone had almost sucked the colour out of. It lay there, inert, on the bedside table. I took the general’s forearm and lay it on the board, pulled the back of his hand down, slowly so his wrist wouldn’t shatter, and fixed it in place with a few layers of duct tape around the meat at the bottom of his hand. “Easy son,” he said, “don’t cut off my blood.” I felt for his pulse, which fluttered between two giant ganglions in his wrist. Then, one by one, I pulled his fingers down from their knotted positions in the middle of his palm. It was like trying to uncurl the limbs of a boiled crab. They creaked and stretched open and Red Hand groaned in pain. “Don’t stop, Ewell,” he said. “I’ve had much worse.”
“I think you should see a doctor for these, General.”
He strained up a little, his face instantly turned pink. “I’d sooner see a ten-year old fortune-teller than give my money to some northern quack, son! Now tamp down those hornery digits of mine and do as I say!”
I brought the velvet restraint up into position, holding his fingers in place with my other hand, almost as if we were holding hands. I locked it in place with three thick elastic bands, and so finally the hand lay open on the device. His palm was as white as fine china. There were no less than a dozen ganglions on his wrist, arrayed in hard, but ductile, little clods under the skin between the wirey tendons.
“Now take up that bible, Ewell,” Red Hand said.
I stared down at the fragile limb. “General, honestly —”
The sinews in his neck shook. “You insolent pup! I gave you an order! Lift up that fucking bible, son! Lift it up!” I did, and held the heavy, leatherbound book above my head. “Now when I say go, you bring that almighty tome down on this plague of ganglions and destroy them!”
“Do you want me to be in pain, you menstruator?”
“Then steel yourself for the job at hand, soldier, and prepare! Now on my count, Ewell.” He took a deep breath in and turned his head toward his outstretched arm. My arms quaked above my head. “Alright then,” he said, “one, two, three –”
I heaved the huge book down, grunting like a shotputter, the weight of it pulling me forward, and smashed Red Hand’s ganglions as hard as I could. The General shrieked as the bible smashed into the thick capsules in his wrist and I felt the ganglions exploding like gargantuan pimples, and also a distinct sensation of bone being crushed. Red Hand’s voice was somewhere in the upper registers; he was hooting in terrible agony. I raised the bible up and saw a shattered mass of blood and bone. “Wrong side, you monsterous fool! Wrong side!” I turned the bible over and saw, to my horror, that I had struck him full on with the brass lock. Its chambers were packed with glistening flesh. “First Chickasaw Bluffs and now this!” wheezed Red Hand. “When will my run of bad luck ever end!”
By nine o’clock that evening, the old man was sweating with fever. I had left the hand in its place on the board, and drawn duct tape more tightly around the destroyed limb, to stop Red Hand’s blood from seeping out. What little continued to flow had the colour and consistency of the sediment you find at the bottom of a good bottle of red wine. When he blinked his eyes slowly, closing them as if he were about to die, and opening them with a gasp of air, my heart went out to him. He had survived the worst battles of the South, he had watched many young men die, and yet his fate was this enfeeblement, a blow delivered by a fool.
I would have called a doctor, but I worried that Red Hand would become enraged, and I knew his body could not be that exercised and also survive. But by ten it seemed certain that Red Hand would expire. “Lace me up,” he said quietly, “and bring Arbuthnot around. I want the men assembled in the main camp at twenty-two hundred. I will take their tribute.”
“You need your rest, General.”
“When I die, whatever musket in the county rests silent is one held by a man without honour.”
He closed his eyes around ten-thirty, and breathed heavily. I got up from his bedside to rewet a cloth, but found myself weaving about the small cabin in a state, tears flooding my eyes. I had murdered the past! This grave gentleman of history had met his match in one as callow and stupid as I! I vowed I would submit myself to whatever military justice would see the General’s cause to its natural conclusion.
“A villian like myself deserves nothing less than to be hung!” I cried out in my grief.
“… hanged,” came the General’s weak voice from the other room. I rushed back in with the wet cloth and applied it again to his forehead. I saw, to my horror, that his eyes were full of fear.
“Ewell, Ewell,” he called out, as if he could not see me there. “There is a bugler on a black horse. Do not let him knell me! Ewell!” He tried to sit up. I held him, half-reclining, in my arms. “I do not want to die!”
I felt riven by the old man’s fear. For that was what he seemed to me at that moment, an old man, loosed from the graces of history and reduced to a mortal like anyone else. I recalled a moment in childhood when I’d finally succeeded in killing something (for it seemed to me as a child that frogs and birds and squirrels were so hardy as to be an insult to a young boy’s bloodlust), and there it lay (it was a chipmonk), bewildered with the work of dying, a stain of red on its coat where my lucky stone had caught it. It still looked like a chipmonk, but for the fact that it could not run when I approached it now, and two of its legs sawed the air rhythmically in a way I had never seen. What I felt when I saw it was a paralytic fascination. I wanted to watch its suffering, but also end it. I held the stone, now with a gash of the animal’s blood on it, and could not decide whether or not to put it out of its misery.
“Johnston,” Red Hand rasped, and I turned back to him, his wild red eyes like cigarette tips. “Get Johnston!” His lips were crusted white, as if someone had sugared them. “Do you hear me, boy? Get that graceless sumbitch Johnston.”
I knew that Johnston was staying in Wheeling with a woman named Terry. She’d passed me her card as we were leaving the grounds earlier in the day, saying if I thought a joint signing at the mall would be of interest, I should call her. I dialled, hoping she’d given me a home number. Her voice was quiet when she answered.
“Is this Miss Terry?”
“Who is this?”
“Doug. From this afternoon. Your Mr. Johnston came up to my General Red Hand.”
“When did he become a general?”
“There was a ceremony.” I heard a voice in the background ask who it was.
“It’s that Red Hand’s boy, honey,” she said. “You go back to sleep.”
“Is this about the mall? Henry takes fifty per cent, no matter how many pictures he signs. He brings them in, but not everybody can afford two signatures.”
“I’m not calling about a signing. Red Hand’s been hurt.”
“No doubt someone’s shot him in the back.”
“I hurt him. I can’t explain. He’s asking for Mr. Johnston.”
“It’s Lieutenant Johnston, and why does your Red Hand have any need of him.”
“Miss Terry, I believe I may have accidentally dealt the General a death blow. I meant no harm, but he has lost blood and is seeing buglers on horses.” She must have been making some kind of face at Johnston, since I heard the phone being taken away from her. Johnston’s stubble scraped against the receiver.
“This Red Hand’s boy?” he said.
“Could you please come over to his cabin? He’s asking for you.”
“It’s late for me to lay another tongue-whipping on him, don’t you think?”
“He’s injured and is asking for you.”
“Please come,” I implored. He passed the phone back, and Terry put her hand over the mouthpiece. I could hear their conversation in quick, muffled vowelings. Johnston’s voice got louder, and then there was a silence.
“What’s the address?” she said. “And you owe me.
The wait for Red Hand’s saviors—for I had to think of them thus, or the affront was too great—seemed endless. It had been past ten when I called them, and by midnight, I was still alone with the general. He slipped in and out of sleep, searching for me urgently when he awakened, his pale face glistening. I’d wave to him from inside the darkness of the room and call to him quietly. When he saw me, he’d subside peacefully back into sleep.
By the time Miss Terry and the Lieutenant Johnston arrived at Red Hand’s door the moon was no longer in the window. A cold air slipped in when they entered (without knocking) and Red Hand groaned as the finger of cold reached him. I took their coats, and Johnston laid a large leather satchel down beside the fire. “Is that him?” came Red Hand.
“Has he apoplexy? It afflicted him in his youth.”
“He’s been injured,” I said, and I showed them the now-crusty bible. “I was breaking ganglions and struck him with the wrong side.”
“Monsterous fool …” said Red Hand, quietly.
“As a result, his wrist and hand have been destroyed.”
Miss Terry turned her face at this description and said, “Oh,” but Johnston put a restraining hand on her shoulder, reaching behind himself.
“He is fevered?”
“I think he is.”
“We will act quickly then,” he said, and he snatched up his satchel and drew away the curtain that kept Red Hand from view. With the light from the fire on his eyes, the old General looked lunatic, but he was not so parted from his wits that he didn’t know he was abasing himself before an enemy and that his fear was nakedly evident. Johnston looked on the shattered wrist, which now was putting up a weak, sweet scent. “They can be lanced, ganglions. To less ruinous effect,” he said.
“I am in pain, soldier.”
“Evidentally. We will treat the fever first, as it is the more pressing threat.” He opened his satchel and withdraw a phial of black liquid. He held it close to Red Hand’s face.
“Antinomy,” sighed the General. He reached for it with his good hand, but Johnston passed it to Miss Terry. She came forward anxiously, making an effort not to look at the reeking wound.
“Two tablespoons at once,” he told her, “and if he is still alive in four hours, another two.” She ran into the kitchen and found a spoon on the counter, then tipped the General’s head back in her hand and poured the tarry mixture down his throat. He gulped it and she lay his wattled head back down and wiped her hand on her pantleg. She was an attractive woman, with short curly brown hair and a generous chest. In her evident hurry, she had not put on a bra. It made me queasy to think of the two of them together; a man like Johnston, granted, was not likely to find someone his own age, but the abject image of his curved back arcing over her young body made me quiver with revulsion.
Red Hand coughed violently and black and red spittle flew from his lips. “It’s normal,” said Johnston, keeping me from comforting the General. “It is a caustic, but it will drive the fever out.”
“I had aspirin,” I said.
“Would you thin your man’s blood to rose-water?” I shrugged and then shook my head no. Johnston was peering into the wound. God only knows if he thought he was looking at a hand or a foot; his eyesight was plainly poor. “He has severe laceration and the flesh is already mortifying. I will apply leeches and then a poultice. Terry, you and Mr. Ewell will tear up whatever bread there is in this godforsaken household and drench it with scalding water in a clean bowl. Then shall you cover the bowl and allow the bread to absorb whatever water it will before draining. Go.”
Miss Terry was only too pleased to quit the room, but I lingered, worried for the General; for all I knew about old medicine, it could have been that Johnston was killing him. Johnston looked up at me with his red, rheumy aspect, and narrowed his eyes into cats’ assholes. “If you want your worthless master to live, you’ll get to crumbling bread, son. Give my woman some water while you’re in there, and don’t let her become faint. I might look rickety, but I can break you to tinder if I have to.”
He looked down to his work then and reached into his bag. I backed away, but peered around the corner in time to see him clumsily shaking a small bottle of what appeared to be pickled licorice root. Wet, black objects dropped down on top of the wound, and the General flinched. Immediately I saw the wet forms come to life and burrow down, thick filaments disappearing undulously into Red Hand’s pulped wrist.
I stood with Miss Terry at the counter. Steam rose from the kettle. Her hands were quaking as she tore the last of a butt of country bread into a big wooden bowl.
“Why are you shaking?”
“I don’t like the smell of death. And plus I’m nauseous from a tomato Henry insisted I eat before we came.”
“Why did you have to eat a tomato,” I asked flatly. It was beginning to strike me that Miss Terry left her senses elsewhere when she was around her man. I was visited by an unpleasant flash of him squeezing a ripened tomato over her naked body, the seeds collecting in the scooped area of her belly and tangling in the hair below it.
“Henry says one must never enter a sickhouse with an empty stomach. It makes you receptive to contagion.”
“That doesn’t seem like something you particularly mind,” I said. She shot me a piercing glance and got back to tearing the bread into smaller pieces. Then she reached smartly for the kettle and poured the water over the bread. It immediately swelled as if it were taking a deep breath. I covered it with a tea-towel.
“If your Mr. Red Hand survives his ordeal, it will be because Henry has saved his life. What do you think the two of you will do after that? Will your Lieutenant admit the truth of what Henry says?”
“There is no third party to confirm or deny any of what he says. It’s inadmissable.”
“It is a matter of honour, which is something I imagine Mr. Red Hand still holds in some esteem. It is to a sense of honour that he will owe his life, if Henry is able to snatch it back.”
“I need that poultice,” shouted Johnston from the next room. We picked up the hot bowl and carried it in, a wreathe of steam trailing behind us. “It is too hot!” he said, uncovering it. I could see the leeches, now fatted from the mortified flesh, had been put back in their bottle. Red Hand’s wrist looked as though a surgeon had flayed it clean; you could see the pale white tendons lying twisted overtop the fractured bones. They reached up into Red Hand’s palm and disappeared underneath the bloodless flesh. It almost looked as if someone had pulled the canvass off a circus tent, revealing the work of the ropers. In a couple of places, the bone was broken through and the General’s marrow was visible, a browny massing.
Johnston blew on the bread poultice and it puffed up big clouds of steam. “There’s no waiting time,” he said, and he reached into his back pocket for a leather glove, put it on and plunged his hand into the poultice. “You better hold him down.” The two of us did, turning our faces away. We heard Johnston slap the scalding poultice into place and to our surprise, the General did not react in pain.
“No! … Is he dead?”
“The leeches impart a physick that numbs the feeling. No, he is not dead.” He held the poultice in place, and Miss Terry began to gag as the smell of hot sandwich wafted up between us. No scent that had ever assailed my nose was as offensive as this: my mind catalogued it as boiled beef tongue crossed with crotch rot; it was quite nearly enough to make me cry out.
We lowered him back down onto the bed. The Lieutenant Johnston was now rolling something between his fingers. “Tilt his head back again,” he said.
“What is that now?”
“May I leave the room?” said Miss Terry.
“Go,” he replied to her, nodding his chin toward the door. She quickly grabbed her coat and went outside into the cold. “It is a calomel ball. A ‘pill’ you would call it. It will draw poison away from his organs, and it is the last measure I have the means to take here.” I raised the General’s chin again, but his mouth would not open; his jaw was clamped shut. Johnston looked on him with frank disgust. “Everything I said this afternoon was the truth,” he said to him. And then to me, “You know that don’t you?”
“I wasn’t there, sir. I have only his word and yours. And plus he has his letter.”
“His goddamn letter. Produce the man who wrote it to assert his authorship, and I will believe it. But only then.”
“Sir, you say time is short … we should –”
“And why do you champion this man anyway? Do you know nothing about the history of your own country boy? Or are you just another student of celebrity?”
“I’m a student of history, Mr. Johnston. I don’t have to hold the General’s views in order to appreciate who he is. I just think it’s important that as long as there’s someone to tell this story that it be told.”
“You just think. Don’t you have anything of your own to tend to?”
I drew a deep breath. “Sir, I do apologize on behalf of the General for any untoward suggestions that might have been made this afternoon.”
“I don’t cotton to being called a liar, do you understand, Mr. Ewell?”
“I do,” I said, glancing anxiously back and forth between Johnston’s “last measure” and the suffering form below us. But he would make his point.
“A man may not be able to so much as draw air, or even stand on his own, but he will still have his reputation and it will breathe and walk about no matter how old he is. That is what I count on when this old body gives out on me.”
I said, “Please, let us give him this pill.”
He was lost for a moment, his anger stifling his slow mind. Then he looked at me. “Fine then. I will lift him on one side, gingerly, and lower his breeches whereupon you will administer the physick.”
“I am going to turn him over and you are going to stick that up his bung, Mr. Ewell.”
I reared back. “You’ll stop at nothing to humiliate us!”
“I have short fingers, son,” said Johnston. “I will be less efficacious than you, and I simply cannot ask Miss Terry to perform such an act.”
“What about up his nose then?”
“If you wish him to choke to death on it.” He was already putting his shoulder to the General’s hip, and he began to push gently on it. “Get in tight, son. You need to see what you’re doing.”
How I hated both of these men now, the two of them with their gnarled unprovable histories. Indeed, why had I allied myself with anyone? Hadn’t I paid for it with the last years of my youth? And I had made at least one woman I loved suffer. What had it brought me? For certain, I had been privy to the inner life of a man of action. But then again, I was about to insert my finger into his anus. I was not sure that this was commensurate with the fruits of my service.
Close in to Red Hand’s body, the stench of death and flopsweat was overpowering. Johnston hooked one finger overtop of Red Hand’s trousers and tugged them down. I had, of course, seen the General’s body before, but I had not been inside it. Gravity was doing half the job, as one of his limp buttocks simply fell away from the middle. I steeled myself, the grainy little ball balanced on the tip of my middle finger (for it was longest) and did as I was told, quickly. The General’s eyes flew open.
“JESUS WEPT!” he shouted, and Johnston let him back down. Red Hand’s eyes rolled up their whites and he slipped back into unconsciousness.
“Am I done?”
“You milksop,” said Johnston. “Go get some air.”
I rushed into the kitchen and scrubbed my hands furiously. The General’s insides had felt like a burlap sack. I dry-heaved twice and then collected myself and went outside.
Miss Terry was sitting on a wooden bench I had built for the General to sit on and take tea or have a pipe. She was smoking a lady’s cigarette and didn’t so much as look at me when I sat down. I would have stood, but I felt weak from my exertions. Off across the field that formed the front yard of Red Hand’s property, I could see red taillights curving around a bend at the top of the town and then disappearing behind the church. Somewhere in the middle of that town was a bus station, where, for twenty-five dollars, I could purchase a ticket to the town I was born in (although both my parents were dead), and for just fifteen more dollars, I could go twice the distance in the opposite direction, to where I supposedly lived with my wife, just on the other side of the state line. I took in a lungful of Miss Terry’s smoke and exhaled in time with her.
“How long have you worked for Mr. Johnston?”
“I don’t work for him,” said Miss Terry. “We are just good friends.”
She ground her cigarette out on the ground with the tip of her black shoe. She did not turn her body to me, but looked at me down her shoulder, crossing her arms over her chest. “You’re cynical about love for a man who appears to understand loyalty.”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
“That is a luxury I am losing.”
I gestured with my thumb to the closed door behind us. “What kind of honour is there in casting aspersions that cannot be proved? Your man may save Red Hand’s life, but he has wounded him as well.”
“Henry doesn’t borrow glory. That makes him credible in my book.”
“It’s not cricket.”
“The war is long over, Ewell. Red Hand’s people lost. He knows that doesn’t he?”
I hesitated. “He lives in the present.”
“I suppose as he should. Do you?” A tour bus, probably from Kentucky, plowed up the dust as it went by. It hung in the lights and formed a plume of pink that dissipated as the light drew away. It looked like it was trying to catch up with the bus. “You should go back to your wife,” she said.
“I don’t abandon my post.”
She finally looked at me, her face fixed in an expression of pity. Or something like pity: perhaps it was hatred. Then her gaze went over my head. I turned to see Johnston standing behind me, calmly drying his hands on a tea-towel. “I think your post has just abandoned you,” she said.
We entered the house again. The feeling it gave me was like the sense you have when you cross a border into another country, even at night. You just know. The fire was smaller in the grate, the ceiling seemed lower. The two of them stopped partway across the room and let me continue on my own to the silent bed.
In death, Red Hand seemed even smaller. His breath had filled him up so he would fit into his character. Now he was just a step away from joining the dust that chased the buses outside his property. I turned my back on the collapsed body. “Did he have any last words?” I asked.
Johnston was pulling on his driving gloves. His knurled knuckles poked up through the holes on the back of the glove and looked like four burnt pecans. “I believe he said ‘ouch.’”
“Can you show some respect, now that he is gone?”
“Terry, my coat please,” he said. He kept his eye on the corpse, his long face without expression. “Whatever flowed in his veins, it killed my leeches,” he said. “But I’ll absorb the cost. How’s that for respect? Your master was an old hand at helping God’s creatures into the abyss.”
“Even if he did abandon his charges, it was your side that shot at them.”
“You can’t take a deceived man prisoner, Mr. Ewell. He will still shoot at you, thinking he has a chance. You put too much courage into your men and leave them without a sense of self-preservation, they will not live to fight another day. There’s more than one way to turn your back on those in your care.”
The two of them went out. I hadn’t seen a car in the drive and I wondered if they had walked all the way from Wheeling. But then I heard a car start up in the rear – they had driven clear across the back field from the other highway. Clear across Red Hand’s grassy field, like they came intending him harm. In the morning no doubt I would see two sets of tracks leading to that road.
I sat down beside Red Hand’s body and put out the candle that had been burning in the sconce above the bed alcove. Then I drew the curtain around us, and the place fell into darkness. How I wished I had taken myself up on the urge to lash out at Johnston. Medic, ha! He was the grim reaper, the expert sent to finish up my amateur work. I could have run him through with a toothbrush. And now he was rushing his amanuensis home for a good lie-in. Had I failed in my attempt to love the right things? All I had ever wanted was to feel history’s guttering warmth. What love affair will give you that? Which long legs and sullen lips will give you that? Is not the great panorama of our times the true love story?
And so I passed the night with the General’s withered, cold form, as the moon went down the other side of the sky, and the Lieutenant Johnston penetrated the supple Miss Terry with all the force he could muster. In the morning, I would go to the woodshed and begin to fashion a plain pine box, and then dig the General’s grave in the middle of his field. He’d stood once in the one of the Confederate cemetaries and shook his head ruefully, saying, “A fallow crop, Ewell.” So I’d bury him on his own, unmarked, to give him some peace.
I lowered my head onto his leathery shoulder and drifted off to sleep. A forty-dollar bus-ride away, my wife was packing her things.