Thanks to Viewfromtheside.com for this week’s writing prompt of “Dancing”. I came up with (yet another) HAPPY story for you all (not). So, put your hoop skirts and fingerless gloves on and “enjoy” Last Dance…
Our last dance together was in the church hall of St. Peter and St. Paul’s. It was May 21st, 1861, and Jimmy Bedlow had taken Mary Alice McGee for a wife.
Gabriel wore his Army blues. There were a lot of dark blue uniforms in the congregation when Pastor Lumley pronounced Jimmy and Mary Alice man and wife. Most of the boys of certain age in our town had heeded Mr. Lincoln’s call.
Blue became my young man. It turned Gabe’s hazel eyes a shade more azure, and it made his black hair seem all the more adumbral.
Gabe wasn’t the first to volunteer. He didn’t run after the flag when the band wagon came down main street. He didn’t raise his hand when Captain Haterfield made his rousing recruitment speech at the town square. He’d been thoughtful about the decision. He pondered over what it might mean to his parents — to his Ma, especially. And to me. But in the end he knew what he had to do and he signed on.
Gabe was a brave, smart young man. He would do alright in this war — which by all accounts would be brief — then he would return home a hero. He would retake his place in his daddy’s law firm and we would be married.
Things were planned out neatly — both by our parents and in our hearts.
Our happily ever after was a well scripted certainty in our young minds.
When the boys mustered at the train station for the ride south Gabe stole a few seconds alone with me for a farewell. I gave him a kiss on his cleanly shaved cheek and a promise that I would wait for him, and pray for him… and that yes, I would marry him when he returned.
I pressed the a 1/6 plate Ferrotype I’d had made specially for him into his hand. He opened the leather case and looked at the small tintype photograph inside. His eyes misted up then. “My dear Evelina” he whispered in a rough voice that seemed too old for him, “I shall treasure this to my last dying breath.”
Then some one blew a whistle and he was called from my side. I watched him for as long as I could, following his form as he melded with the other men in blue coats and black slouch caps. But then he marched onto the train and I lost sight of him.
The town seemed strangely empty after the militia left. The war had left us with school boys and old men.
The red, white and blue bunting that danced so merrily in the breeze that spring day of the mustering hung stagnant and lifeless on the porches and bandstand. The colors seemed bleached in the hot summer sun.
We heard little from our boys at the front. The mail was painfully slow. The news — even the intelligence brought to us from the St. Cloud Monitor — was stale before it reached us. So it was near a full week before we heard about the Battle of Bull Run.
That bloody battle took many of our brave boys. The list was hung on the court room door.
The patriotic bunting was replaced by black morning cloth.
But my prayers were answered and Gabe’s name did not appear on the list of men who had been killed or wounded. He was safe and I quietly rejoiced.
As I did the next April when we heard about Shiloh…
And in June when the Monitor listed the casualties from Seven Pines…
But one day in September when we were making apple butter I felt an odd kind of numbness come over me that I could not explain. Perhaps I was over tired — we were all tired from trying to put up as much food as we could for what was to be another long winter — but it was more than that.
Then 5 days letter the church bell rang mid afternoon and called us to the square. A new piece of paper had been nailed to the court house door and we knew there had been another battle.
On September 17th, 1862 thirty-one of our young men had been among the 2,108 killed and 9,549 wounded Union soldiers near the creek of Antietam, Maryland.
The numbness I felt days before returned. As I climbed the courthouse steps and joined the scrum of women near the list I knew I would find what I dreaded most. And there in the second column, under Minnesota, half way down was his name “Gabriel Pulson”.
Faces turned to me as they saw the name and associated it with my own.
A buzzing rang through me as the numbness escalated to full-scale panic. I tried to swallow it down and be brave. I KNEW GABE WOULD WANT ME TO BE BRAVE. But the buzzing, the numbness, overtook me with a powerful wave of grief and like a child I fainted right there on the courthouse porch.
I had a dream while I lie there.
I was not myself… I was a bird… and I flew low over a cornfield that was a cornfield no more. It was in the process of being destroyed by a great angry army of men… and trampled upon …and shot through until bullets and ears of corn littered the ground.
The bullets were buzzing still. And men would dance from side to side. The lucky ones were able to avoid the deadly leaded bees, the unlucky ones felt the sting and soon fell.
One man two-stepped ungracefully in a circle and fell in front of my dream self… the bird. Despite the stubble of beard and dirty face I recognized this soldier, and I grew angry that his last dance had been in a cornfield and with out me.
Death came soon for my beloved Gabriel, but he had a brief respite to whisper his prayers. And as he had promised he pulled out my tintype and looked upon me one last time. The glass was broken now and the leather scuffed from wear, but it made him smile in his last moment on this mortal plain. And I… the bird… the girl.. realized he didn’t die alone.