More of the Same
Caleb looked at Abner’s face lit by the camp fire. “You seem awful serious,” he said. “Is anything wrong?”
Abner shook his head. “Just the ordinary. I miss my wife and child, just like you.”
Caleb nodded. “I know what you mean.” He sat silently for a moment, then asked, “When do you think we’ll go into winter camp?”
“I don’t know, but we’re doing about as much right now as we do in winter camp.”
“I guess we’ll have to see. Look. Here comes the captain.”
As the portly soldier neared them, Caleb and Abner started to get to their feet so they could salute, but Osteen motioned to them to stay seated. “At ease, men. I have some news you might like to hear.”
“We’re going home?” Abner guessed.
“You’re funny, lieutenant.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“No, no one is going home until this thing is over. We are going into winter camp early, though. Nothing’s happening on both sides, and nothing’s likely to, so you can stow your balloon after this tomorrow.”
“That’s good news, I guess,” I said.
“What do you mean, ‘I guess’?”
“I mean it’s hard to find something to do, so some fellows gamble and get into fights and others just fight because they’re bored.”
“I don’t know what I can do about it?”
“Let me ask you a question, sir. Have you ever heard of baseball?”
“Yes, I’ve heard of it. It’s a game played with a ball and a stick of some sort, and the players run around after they strike the ball, right?”
“Uh, that’s the basic idea. What would you think of us organizing some games? I know how to play, and I’m sure there are others.”
‘Fine with me. I don’t see much point in such a game, but go ahead and organize it. Just as long as you don’t get into a game and run and keep running. I hear you’re prone to that.”
“Yessir. I had my reasons.”
“I’m sure you did, Dillard. Now, do what you have to to put the balloon away after tomorrow’s ascension.” He walked off.
“Come on, Abner,” I said. You heard the man. He’s such a good officer, he doesn’t realize that we have sergeants to put the balloon away.”
“That would require that he came out of his tent and walk to where the balloons are. That would be too much effort for him, which is why he looks the way he does.” Abner stood up “Let’s go supervise some sergeants. I guess we have to do what we have to do.”
I stood up. “I’m with you. I can watch other people work all day.”
“From the looks of you, you’ve done some work in your time.”
“A little, here and there.”
“I don’t believe that.”
Abner and I talked a while longer, and then went to bed. My last thought before I fell asleep was that the next day might be the last one for balloon duty for a while.
The next morning, we climbed back into the basket and motioned to the ground crew to let us rise. The day was clear and sunny, so we could see about as far as we ever could. Once we were at about 10,000 feet, of course we started scanning the area across the river.
After half an hour of this, Abner asked, “You seen anything yet?”
“Nope. Just a bunch of ugly soldiers.”
“Me, too. They’re probably saying the same thing about us.” The Confederates had balloons as well, although fewer in number and not as well made. In fact, they looked downright shabby. I wouldn’t want to go anywhere in one of them.
We were just about to ask to be let down when I looked around one last time and saw a soldier who looked familiar. I couldn’t tell if it were someone I actually knew for sure until he moved, and then I could tell from his gait that it was Adolphus! I hadn’t seen him for so long, and I wished I could cross the river and catch up with him. Of course, I couldn’t, but I knew where he was, and I might somehow have a chance to talk with him. Stranger things had happened to me. I would have to see what happened.
We called to the ground crew to pull us down, and I was happy to think that was the end of balloon duty, at least until next spring when I hoped I might be doing something else. In the meantime, I had a baseball league I needed to organize, and I enjoyed the very thought of that. It had been a long time since I had held a baseball in my hand.
The basket bumped back to earth and we climbed out. “Well, we’re done with that for a while,” I told Abner.
“I certainly hope so. If I had to do it again, I’d fall asleep and go over the side.”
“I wouldn’t let you.”
“How? You’d be asleep yourself!”
We had a good laugh at that and then started back toward our tent. We would have to put together more substantial shelter before the weather turned cold for good, but we had time. Most soldiers built crude shelters which, drafty as they were, afforded more protection from the elements than a tent did. During winter camp, we could relax, read, catch up on our letter writing and spend hours talking to each other. It promised to be a calm and tranquil period. At least it had before.
We were about halfway back to our tent when Abner grabbed my arm. “Look!”
“What is it?”
“Isn’t that the carriage of that woman who has mistreated you so badly?”
I looked. “I’m afraid so. I wonder what she wants this time.”
“Nothing good, I’m sure.”
The carriage bumped over the rough ground toward us, and stopped when it was close enough for us to see Eleanor was inside. The door opened.
“I’ll leave you here,” I told Abner. “If I never see you again, it has been a pleasure.”
“Same here, but I hope we’ll meet again soon.”
I stepped up into the cabin, thinking that Abner was a good man.
Eleanor stared at me for a moment. Her eyes shone with malice or hate or disappointment. It was hard to tell what she was thinking. “We’re going to take a little trip,” she said.
“Really? Where are we going?”
“You’ll find out when you get there.”
“Always have to be a mystery, don’t you?”
“Yes. It is…necessary.”
We rode in silence for about half and hour, and then she said, “You are a disappointment to me.”
“Yes, you have gathered no military intelligence to speak of, and you have run off several times and I had no idea where you were.”
“Have you nothing to say?”
I sat for a moment. “If you expect me to apologize, you’re wrong. You have held me in captivity, separated me from my wife and son, and forced me to betray my oath to the Confederacy. I will never apologize to you.”
This seemed to deflate her, for some reason. “Very well,” she said. “I will tell you where we are going.”
“I’m all ears.”
“You’re sarcastic. That is what you are. But it doesn’t matter. We are going to my mansion where we will dine, and then you will be free to do as you wish.”
“What about the spying?”
“As I said, that has been of little to no use to me. And the reason for it has changed. My brother was freed from prison through the efforts of none other than Abraham Lincoln.”
I was taken aback. I knew Elanor was rich and well-connected, but I didn’t know her connections extended to the White House. No wonder she ended up being able to find me, no matter where I had gone.
“Well, I am glad for your brother. I know what it is to be in prison.”
“Have you no word of gratitude for me?”
“No. Absolutely not.”
“Well, you are difficult.”
“Yes, I am.”
We rode in silence, and, exhausted by being in a balloon on a battlefield, I fell asleep and slept for what I judged to be two hours. Eleanor had also drifted off, and sat with her head on my shoulder, whether deliberately or as a result of relaxation I could not tell. I moved her head off as gently as I could, but I awoke her.
“Why did you do that?”
“I am a married man.”
“And your wife is not here.”
“Do you not understand the importance of vows?”
“They may be changed or ignored.”
“Not by me.”
We rode on, and came to Georgetown about eleven at night. The maid fixed a small meal, and we ate in silence. “A room has been prepared for you,” Eleanor said. “There you may rest undisturbed.”
“I am grateful for that.”
“It is good to hear you say so. I was beginning to think there was not an ounce of gratitude in your heart.”
“There is when it is warranted. Good night.”
I went up, changed into a gown that was laid on the bed and, in spite of having had my nap earlier that day, soon fell dead asleep.
I was awakened in the middle of the night by a sense that someone was in the room with me. From the light of the street lights, I saw that it was Eleanor, wearing a sheer gown that revealed far more than I was willing to see. “What are you doing?” I asked her.
She sat on the side of the bed. “This is our last chance to be together. I hope you won’t waste it.” She bent over to kiss me, but I jumped out of bed and stood beside it, looking down at her.
“You will not accept my favors? No one will know.”
“I will. God will.”
She laughed. “So now you are religious.”
“I always have been. You haven’t noticed.”
She turned furious. “Out!” she screamed.
“You want me to leave?”
“Do you speak English?”
“Yes, I do. I was just making sure you want to put me out in the middle of the night without shelter or means of going anywhere.”
“You can walk. You did that every time you left me before.”
Why am I arguing? This is what I want, I thought. Why be with her one moment longer?
She softened. “Good-bye, Caleb. Perhaps we will meet again.”
“The only way that could happen is if I went to Hell, and I have no intention of doing that. You, however, will be there in the deepest, darkest part.”
Her face turned into a mask of fury again. “Out of my sight!” she stormed, and left the room, from where I could hear her slamming doors. I dressed quickly, and just as quickly went down the steps and into the street.
I was not upset. For the first time in years I was truly free, and my heart rejoiced. I knew I would have to walk a long way to rejoin my regiment, but it occurred to me that I could keep walking and be with the Confederate side, where I had started. I struck off toward the canal, a full moon lighting my way.