It may not be horror in the traditional sense, but for those who lived during these days, it was certainly horrific to them.
Alexander Grayden’s head exploded when the cannonball struck him in the face. It killed the man directly behind him too before exploding into the ground in a shower of dirt and stone.
Samuel Boyd felt the spray of warm blood raining on his face and hands. His stomach knotted and twisted. If he had anything in it he would’ve thrown up where he stood. Instead he gagged as he saw a bloody, half decayed tooth had embedded itself in his hand.
All around him officers were shouting orders. Weapons fired and young men were cut down to the ground. Some of them were moving most were not.
Boyd dropped to his knees to reload his rifle. He half cocked the hammer of the heavy Springfield, pulled out a paper cartridge, bit it open and poured the powder down the barrel in one smooth motion. He finished loading, stood and took aim at the advancing Union lines. He dropped to his knees to reload again as another young man stepped forward to take his shot on the line. Boyd repeated the loading process again, stood, took aim and dropped back down to reload. Before the battle was over, Samuel Boyd had loaded his weapon over thirteen times, but never fired a single shot.
Boyd sat in front of the fire warming his hands. He still felt bile churning in his empty stomach. It was the first battle he had ever been in. It was also the first time he had seen anyone die.
Images flashed through his mind of the dead soldiers who fell to the earth and screamed in pain and fear before their life was whisked away on the wings of a bullet. Some of the men he even knew. Alexander had been one of his closest friends and had been more like a brother over the years. They had joined the Confederacy together. One was supposed to look after the other. Boyd knew he’d made a mistake. He was a farmer not a soldier. When he stood on the line and stared across at faces filled with the same fear, he froze. The time had come to pull the trigger but he couldn’t bring himself to take the life of another human being.
Now it was just Samuel J. Boyd, sitting alone by a dwindling fire, lost in his troubled thoughts.
Tears burned his eyes as he thought of his friend. Each time he closed his eyes the apparition of Alexander’s headless body bleeding and twitching flashed before him again and again.
Boyd wiped his eyes and glanced around the camp. The sun had already slipped behind the looming mountains and the land was illuminated by the fading light of dusk. Most of the men were eating, sleeping or gathered around fires talking amongst themselves. The only face that Boyd recognized belonged to Teddy Wallace who busied himself by drinking whiskey, singing a rather odd, off-key tune and pissing on a detained Union soldier who had been captured after the battle and chained to a tree. The spectacle was amusing and Boyd allowed the beginnings of a thin smile to grow along the corners of his mouth. Teddy took a long swig from the bottle, lost his balance and fell backward to the cool, dew soaked grass with a garbled yelp. Laughter and applause erupted from various onlookers, except for Boyd. For a brief moment Boyd had thought Teddy had been shot and the loud clapping was gunshots popping from within the trees.
A hand slapped against Boyd’s shoulder, making him jump. He quickly turned his gaze to the visitor and breathed a slight sigh of relief as he saw Lt. Brown standing behind him.
“May I have a seat?” the officer asked, his voice low and ragged.
Boyd nodded his head and turned back to face the fire in silence.
Lt. Brown eased around and sat on a large rock just opposite the young soldier. He took a long moment studying his face and body language before he spoke.
“How’s your hand holding up?” he asked as he removed a pipe and match from his trousers.
“Its fine,” Boyd’s reply was just barely above a whisper.
The Lieutenant struck a match and puffed at his pipe, never taking his eyes away from Boyd.
“I hear that you and Grayden were both from Lakewood. Is that correct?”
“Yes, sir, it is.”
“Did you know him well?”
“Yes, sir, I did. We grew up together. He was… he was my friend,” a fresh round of tears threatened to spill forth from Boyd. He fought hard against them but was losing quickly. He turned his gaze away from the lieutenant and back to Wallace hoping that might help.
Lt. Brown took another draw from the pipe and exhaled as he studied the young man.
“May I see your rifle?” Lt. Brown asked keeping his voice steady.
Without saying a word, Boyd reached for his Springfield rifle and extended it toward Lt. Brown. Boyd felt a mild dread as he did so. His pulse quickened in his veins as the officer looked over the weapon. The concern escalated into full silent panic as Lt. Brown removed the push rod and slid it down into the barrel. The rod came to a quick stop, long before it should have.
“Hmm,” the officer said bemused.
Boyd could almost feel himself shrinking down to the size of a bug.
“You could’ve aimed high,” Lt. Brown said with his pipe still gritted between his teeth.
“What?” Boyd stammered.
“Aim above their heads if you don’t want to shoot them. That way you maintain the illusion that you are actually fighting and don’t manage to ruin a perfectly good weapon.”
Boyd sat in total silence as the lieutenant spoke. At that moment he considered leaping to his feet and attempt to run for the woods at full speed and slip away. If he was caught he could be shot for desertion, if he stayed he could be shot for cowardice.
“A lot of men died today,” Lt. Brown continued. “I wonder how many of them would still be alive if you had fired this weapon?”
"It won't happen again," Boyd said.
"I know it won't," glared the Lieutenant. "I ought to shoot you right here and now. I have no need for a coward in this regiment. I think the best thing for me to do would be to spray what little brains you have all over this goddamn field and be done with it. Now, what do you think? If you were me, what would you do?"
"Please, sir! Don't-"
"Every man in this camp is a killer. Whether they want to be or not. That's why they're here. If they don't kill, then they get killed. Do you understand?"
"If you want to live to see the sun come up again, you best bring me a corpse tonight," the Lieutenant continued.
"I'm not finished." The light of the fire reflected in the man's eyes as he leaned closer to Boyd. "We have a prisoner. The man chained to the tree over there is a Union soldier. A killer. I watched him shoot a man that I knew well. A man who had a wife and two young boys who will never know their father. I want that man dead and I want you to be the one to kill him. After that, you may leave if you choose to do so. If you do not kill him, then I'll put a hole through your head right now. Kill or be killed, young man."
Boyd felt a shiver creep into his bones. He knew he was doomed no matter which path he chose. If he refused, he would, in a sense, be taking his own life; a mortal sin that would surely condemn his soul. If he agreed then he would be taking the life of an unarmed man. Murder. Each choice led him to the pit of fire that his uncle preached about.
Brown reached for his sidearm and drew a bead between Boyd's eyes.
"Wait!" Boyd shouted. "I'll do it."
Brown stood and eased toward a table where he could have a close, unobstructed view of the execution. Boyd rose and grabbed his rifle by the barrel like a club and moved toward his prey.
"Time's wastin', soldier," barked Lt. Brown.
Boyd's hand trembled as he drew closer. He could feel the hairs on his arm and neck stand on end. At last, he stood before the man. The Union soldier glanced at the weapon and spat at Boyd.
"Fuck you, farmer," he hissed.
"I'm here to help you, you fool," Boyd whispered, kneeling down.
Boyd grabbed the chained man by the shirt and pulled him close.
"There's a thin nail in my hand. When I let you go, I want you to get it to your hand. You should be able to pick the lock. Take this rifle and head for the woods. That buys your freedom and gives me a clear conscience. Do you understand? I just need you to do me one favor. Do you see the man behind me? The officer?"
The man nodded.
“The rifle is loaded. I need you to kill him. You kill him for me and you get your freedom,” Boyd continued.
The man nodded with bewilderment. Boyd released the man and delivered a swift kick to his ribs. The man recoiled and twisted to his side. The nail was in his hands and working the lock in an instant.
Boyd turned to face Lt. Brown who sat smiling and nodded his approval.
"Proceed," chuckled Brown.
Boyd turned and the man leapt from the ground and swatted him across the face with the heavy chain. In a flash the man had snatched the weapon from Boyd's grasp. He cocked the hammer back and took aim at Brown. Confederate soldiers, alerted to the commotion, raced toward the enemy. The Union soldier glanced over his shoulder at the woods, his freedom. He took one final look at Brown and squeezed the trigger. In a deafening flash of flame, wood and metal, the rifle exploded in his hand, shooting a wooden shard into his throat.
Boyd stood and stared at the dying man. He cast a hollow look at his commanding officer. "He'll die," he said.
Brown grinned at the man standing before him. “Nicely played.”
Boyd wiped blood from his cheek and without uttering another word, began walking down the trail on his way home to Lakewood. Samuel Boyd's conscience was clear. He had gone to war with the north and himself. Throughout it all, he never fired a shot.