To the Edge
“Come along, Caleb!”
Adolphus stood in front of me, gesturing that I should join him. We had found it difficult to make our way against the early March wind that blew like a January zephyr. Adolphus seemed to be able to make his way against it than I did. I knew we were both weakened by the miserable conditions in camp and the execrable food, but I had no idea how weak we were until we set out on this journey to see Hiram. We had learned a week earlier that he was recovering, if that was the right word, in Blackstone, some distance to the west southwest from where we were. Doctor Brown told me that a hospital had been established there in a railroad shed, there being no other structures large enough to meet the needs of a hospital.
We could walk the 40 miles of our journey taking most of a long day, stay overnight, and then see Hiram the next day. We would stay there overnight and come back. I wished we could have stayed longer, but our captain in granting our leave said that was all he could do. He hinted at something big coming up, and we took that to mean that the hostilities would commence again, and he would need every soldier he could muster.
We were about halfway to our destination when Adolphus said, “Let’s stop and eat something. I am beginning to be hungry.”
“You’ll have no argument from me about that. And I need to rest for a while.”
We stopped by a stone wall which gave us some little shelter from the wind. Adolphus pulled out our provisions and set them out.
“Would you happen to have any dried pork that I could have?” I asked, knowing full well that all we had.
“Indeed. And it will please the taste of any gastronome.”
We found our dialogue humorous for some reason and laughed until tears ran down our cheeks.
After we had eaten and rested for a short while, we continued on our way to see Hiram. We were glad to see a sign indicating that Blackstone was four miles further on, since that meant we would be there in an hour or so.
“Look!” Adolphus said, gesturing with his hand. “Here’s where the railroad joins our path. All we need to do from now on is to follow it.”
“That does make things easier,” I answered.
Seeing the railroad gave us renewed energy, and we arrived at the railroad shed about 6. “This must be it,” I said. “I see no other structures that would be capable of housing a hospital.”
“I agree with you,” Adolphus answered. “Let us hurry, for we are losing the light.”
A sentry stood by the entrance, which I thought useless since we were so far away from the armies. “Papers!” he demanded, and Adolphus pulled out our leave permissions and gave them to him. He perused them as if he could not tell from our uniforms what we were.
“All this seems to be in order. You may go in.”
“Thank you,” Adolphus replied. “We will enter.”
We went into the interior, and I could tell that this affected Adolphus more than it did me. He had never been in such a place, and he recoiled at the sight and smells before him.
“I know it’s bad,” I said,” but we must do this for Hiram.”
“Of course, my boy. It is just so much worse than I could imagine.”
“That it is.”
With so many soldiers before us, we could not begin to know where Hiram was. Finally I caught the attention of one of the nurses bustling around their patients. “Excuse me, m’am?”
The nurse I spoke to hesitated, and I went on. “We are looking for a very young soldier named Hiram. He was on the lines at Petersburg.”
She thought for a moment. “Does he have one arm?”
“Yes, he does.”
“And he’s here for nervous exhaustion?”
“That’s correct. Can you show us where he is?”
She collected herself. He’s here, but he’s not in the shed. He’s in a smaller tent beyond that wall. She pointed. “You’ll be able to find him easily there.”
“Thank you, m’am.”
We made our way toward the back wall, and Adolphus said, “I wonder why she hesitated before she told us where Hiram was.”
“Perhaps she did not wish to think about what lies within the tent.”
“I hope it is nothing too bad.”
When we came up to the wall, we encountered another sentry who guarded the entry to the tent. “Papers!” he demanded. We gave him our orders, and he scrutinized them. Finally, he handed them back. “This does not give you permission to enter the ward.”
“It gives us permission to come here, and the ward is where we are.”
“I have my orders—no one enters without the right papers.”
“And where do we get the ‘right’ orders?”
“From your commanding officer.”
I shook out orders at the recalcitrant sentry. “These are from our commanding officer.”
“But they’re not right. Listen, we can go around and around about this until I’m relieved, which can’t be soon enough. No papers, no admission.”
“But our commanding officer is ten hours away. On foot. That is how we came here.”
“No. And if you don’t leave, I’ll have you arrested.”
“What would be the charge?”
He smirked. “Improper papers.”
“Come on, Caleb,” said Adolphus. “We’re wasting our time here.”
We went back outside the shed. “What do we do now?” I asked.
“Go back and get the right papers and then come back.”
“But when will that be?”
“I don’t know. Shooting could start again, and we wouldn’t be able to leave.”
“Yes. Well, let’s go find a place to camp out. Then we can start walking in the morning.”
“No one can say we didn’t try to see Hiram.”
“No, they couldn’t.”
We found a place to camp, built a fire and had some warmed-up pork to eat. Then we lay down on our blankets. “Adolphus?”
“Are you glad we made this trip?”
“I am glad for the trip. We got away for a while. But I am not glad for the outcome.”
“Neither am I.” I lay there looking at the stars for a while and then fell asleep.