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Marte Carlock

The Deserter

A Crucial Delay by Captain James Hope

It wasn’t the first time in his life he had cried, Lord knows. But he can’t stop.

“Why don’t you shut up, kid?’ The man slumped on the other bunk scowls at him.

‘I caint. I caint.’ He tries to breathe.  The thought comes crashing down on him. ‘They’re goin to shoot us.’

‘What the hell. They’re goin to, and that’ll be the end of it. Don’t be a fuckin baby. We done it, and they’re shootin us.’

His fear returns with a new freshet, the same fear that made him throw down his rifle and turn tail.


‘I didn think they’d let me see him, the president of the United States. He was standin lookin out the winder, a winder taller than he was. I heard he was tall. An ugly. But his eyes was kind. He turns aroun an says, What can I do for you, mother?

‘Imagine, the president of the United States, speakin so kind to me. I grabbed his hand and tried to kneel down but he wouldn let me, he lifted me up. Mr. Lincoln, I says, I come to ask you, I come to beg you, for my son’s life. They say he throwed down his gun an tried to run away. I don’t doubt he done that. He’s just a boy, Mr. Lincoln, sixteen next month. He works hard, tryin as best he can to run the farm, all by hisself. He’s all I got.

The president turns back to look out the winder again, his hands together behint his back, I see all a-sudden how bent he is, how stooped down by the war an all. He turns back aroun an says, so soft I almost thought I dreamed it, So many lives lost, why take this one? He bends over his desk and writes somethin. He calls his secretary an gives him the piece of paper. Go get your son an take him home, he says. I try to kiss his hand but he wouldn have it. God bless you, mother, he says.’

By this time she is crying, but the boy is dry-eyed, stunned. The jailer who brought him out from the cell takes his arm roughly and ushers him out the door.  ‘Go home with your mother, boy,’ he sneers. His mother follows, wiping her eyes.

Their plow horse Ned stands hitched to the farm wagon. She tries to give the boy the reins. He sits with his hands in his lap. I should be dead by now, he thinks.

They pass through towns. The few people on the streets are women, old men, young boys. He is still wearing his military boots, his blue uniform jacket. He has nothing else. A boy idling in the street calls, ‘Hey soljer, was you wounded?’ He stares ahead as if deaf. He thinks he should make a sling and put one arm in it.

‘The corn is about ripe, if we can get it fore the ‘coons do,’ his mother says. He doesn’t know how to answer. She glances at him but he turns his face away. As the hours go by she ceases to try to talk to him. She begins to wonder if she did the right thing. But the alternative makes her heart pause.

I shoulda died, he thinks. I shoulda died. The thought echoes. I oughta die. I could die. I still could. The thought comforts him as they make their mute way home. I still could die.


About the writer:
Marte Carlock’s work has been published in American Literary Review, Pennsylvania English, Rosebud Magazine, and over 60 other newspapers and magazines. She authored A Guide to Public Art in Greater Boston. Now she writes for Sculpture and Landscape Architecture magazines and reviews prose for the Internet Review of Books.

Image: A Crucial Delay [Burnside Bridge, Battle of Antietam] by Captain James Hope (died 1892). No medium specified. No size specified. Between circa 1862-circa 1892. Public domain. With only a small force, but holding higher ground, Lee’s men were able to defend this crucial Antietam Crossing for nearly three hours. Union General Ambrose Burnside’s men launched a series of attacks to break the bottleneck at the bridge. About 1 p.m., the Confederates, outflanked, outnumbered and running low on ammunition, began to retreat. The Yankees stormed the bridge, finally crossing Antietam Creek. This painting shows Union Reinforcements crossing the bridge in preparation for the final advance. However, the time taken to cross and resupply the troops provided Lee with the opportunity to bring his final reserves onto the field and turn back Burnside’s attack, thus ending the bloody day.


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