Soldier’s Heart

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Soldier’s Heart” by Gary Paulsen Chapter 10 – June 1867

He could remember all the sweet things when it had started; waving pretty girls, Southern summer mornings, cheering children, dew on a leaf…

Even when all his thought came on to being gray and raining and the parades were done and the dances were done and the killing – he thought of it as butchery more than killing – was at last done, he could remember all the pretty things.

He was twenty-one now, just getting to when he should be studying on marriage and raising some young ones, finding some land to work and improve. But it wouldn’t be that way for him. He was too old. Not old in years – in years he still hadn’t started daily shaving or learned about women. But in other ways he was old, old from too much life, old from seeing too much, old from knowing too much. He was tired and broken, walking with a cane and passing blood, and he knew it wouldn’t be long for him. In some ways it made him sad and in some ways he was near glad of it. So many of the men he knew were there already, gone across, that he thought it might not be so bad to go see them, to get away from this constant pain and the sounds he couldn’t stop hearing.

And so on this fine summer morning near Winona, Minnesota, he walked out along the river – limped was more like it – to have himself a picnic. He carried a feed sack with half a loaf of bread and Agile Peterson’s cheese and a chunk of roast beef with fat in it and a jar of cold coffee. That was one thing that stuck with him. The army had taught him to like coffee, live on coffee, and he still drank it even though it knotted his guts.

Coffee and beans. He could still sit to a meal of coffee and beans and a little pork belly and not feel starved.

But not for a picnic. Not for this picnic. He wasn’t sure in fact that he would eat. He’d come out on many such picnics before, not sure he would eat but just to sit on the river and wonder if it was time to go visit the others, and always he had eaten and had coffee and then walked – limped – back to his small house on the edge of town. He’d heard it called a shack. Charley’s shack. But he thought of it as a house.

He found a place where a soft breeze kept the mosquitoes away, and the sun warmed the grass and dirt, and some rocks in the river made rippling sounds and he stopped and with great effort lowered himself into a sitting position. He sat with his legs straight out in front of him. It was an awkward position but his knees didn’t want to bend and he couldn’t lie back on the grass because it made him sick to lie down, so he sat, watching the river go by. Then he reached into the sack and took out the bread and cheese and set them on a small flat rock nearby. Then, as he removed the jar of coffee, his hands brushed the other thing in the sack and he took it out and put it on the rock near the bread and cheese.

It was a .36-caliber cap-and-ball revolver he’d taken off the body of a Confederate officer. Charley had known the man was dead because he’d just killed him with his bayonet, watching the steel slide in just over the belt buckle. He remembered taking the revolver.

Everyone wanted them, those Confederate revolvers – back home they wanted them. “Pick me up a Confederate pistol,” they’d say in letters. As if you’d just pick one up off the ground. As if they weren’t being carried by Confederate soldiers who didn’t want to give them away. As if you wouldn’t have to kill me to get the revolvers…

He shook his head. That wasn’t one of the things he liked to think about.

The revolver shone in the sun. It was clean and free of rust and corrosion, greased and capped and fully loaded, the walnut grips so shiny they looked deep and almost red.

It was a pretty thing, he thought. The revolver was as pretty as anything he’d seen, black and shining, and he held it for a moment, hefting it. He eased the hammer back until it clicked, looked at his finger on the trigger and knew that if he just touched it there, just a light touch, it would trip the hammer to slap the percussion cap and set off the powder and send the little .36-caliber ball speeding out of the barrel and into his…

He eased the hammer down with his thumb and laid the pistol back on the rock next to the cheese and then sat, listening to the ripple of the river, watching the water go by, thinking of all the pretty things.

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