June 14, 1912
The boy slowly made his way up the dust-covered road toward the shack on top of the hill. He had spent a week trying to work up the courage to visit the old man who lived up here. He paused and looked back at the town below. The view was breathtaking for a ten-year-old boy.
His school teacher, Miss Harman, was the reason he was coming up here today. She’d taught her class about the war that had ravaged this country almost fifty years ago. Until that day, he had never imagined men fighting a war on the very land where he lived. He’d asked around town and no one was able to tell him what had happened here during the war. One name kept coming up though. They called him Old Man Saunders. Everyone said the old recluse had lived here his entire life and would probably be able to tell him anything he’d want to know.
He stood there staring down at the town watching people going about their busy lives. No one seemed to care what had happened here before them. He found that hard to fathom.
He glanced over his shoulder at the dilapidated shack on top of the hill. He dreaded going up there, but he was determined. All the kids in town said the old man was crazy. They said he kept a shotgun at his side at all times, just to shoot trespassers.
He took a deep breath and continued on up the hill. Old Man Saunders sat on the front porch in a rocking chair. He wore an old pair of overalls with nothing underneath. When the boy got close enough, he could see tobacco stains on the old man’s bare feet.
The boy eyed the shotgun propped against the wall behind the old man. A shudder hung at an odd angle from the window. The one on the other side had long since disappeared.
“Miss…Mister Saunders,” the boy stuttered, betraying his nervousness.
Saunders eyeballed the boy for a long moment. “That shore is some purdy red hair. Almost shines out in that sun. I ain’t seen hair that red in years.”
“Thank you,” the boy didn’t quite know how to take him.
“What’s your name, boy?” Saunders leaned forward and spat a stream of tobacco juice across the porch. Tiny clouds of dust rose from the impact in the dry soil.
“I’m Charles Rich, sir,” the boy kept his head down, hands stuffed into large pockets. “Everybody calls me Charlie.”
“Ain’t your pa Thomas Rich?” Saunders wiped his mouth. Tobacco juice stained his bare arm.
“Yes sir,” Charlie glanced up. He still wasn’t sure how to take the old man. He’d heard too many stories about him. The boys at school said he had gone insane because he had lost his entire family during the war.
“I know ʼim,” the old man managed a small grin. “He come up here and seen about my arthritis.”
Charlie saw Saunders grin, and smiled back. He hadn’t known his dad tended to Mister Saunders. Strange how he had never mentioned it before. He said, “Yeah, his daddy was a doctor also. They say he fought in the Civil War.”
“Hmmph,” the old man replied. He stopped grinning. Charlie wondered what he’d said. Saunders looked down at his feet. His face now wore a sad expression.
Charlie quickly added, “I hope I’m not bothering you, sir. I came up here to see if you could tell me about the war.”
“The war?” Saunders’s eyebrows shot up. “I figured a boy your age would be more interested in that boat that sunk a couple months ago. What’s the name of it?”
“The Titanic,” Charlie replied. He was surprised the old man had even heard of it.
“I hear’d about it in the journals,” Saunders shot another stream of tobacco juice off the porch. “Great loss of life is what it said. It weren’t nothing compared to the war though.”
Charlie stepped closer to the porch. He figured this was his chance. He would make his play. The old man would either tell him about the war or send him home. He said, “I can’t find anyone that can tell me what happened around here during the war. Miss Harman, my teacher, taught us a few things, but she doesn’t know a thing about what happened around here. She mostly talked about Gettysburg and Vicksburg and what a great man Abraham Lincoln was.”
Saunders grimaced. “This Miss Harman ain’t from around these parts, is she?”
“No sir,” Charlie smiled. He had expected this kind of reaction from the old man. “I think her family moved here from Indiana.”
“Look, boy,” Saunders pointed toward the porch, “you better come on in here out of that sun before you blister. Ya’ll fair skinned redheads get burned too easy. I used to have a cousin with the same color hair as you. When we was kids and playing out in the sun, he would get so blistered that his ears would peel off. Now, back when we was boys, the Mexican War was a being fought. We marched all over these here hills and hollers. Bet we killed a million Mexicans. That boy always wanted to grow up and be a soldier, but his maw was agin it.”
Charlie relaxed. He watched Saunders smile as he reveled in his childhood games. The old man seemed to be warming up to him. He wondered why he stayed up here to himself anyway. He acted as though he just wanted some company. John Tucker had told him that Saunders even had his groceries delivered up here to keep from having to come into town and be around people.
He stepped onto the porch and looked around. Junk was piled everywhere, but there were no more chairs. Saunders stood up and began to dig through a pile of garbage and pulled out an old bucket. He flipped it over and sat it down beside his rocking chair.
Charlie took a seat on the bucket and waited. Saunders stared down the hill toward the town. After a long moment he said, “Don’t know much to tell you really.”
“Were there any battles fought around here?” Charlie was on the edge of the bucket eagerly waiting.
“If you mean battles like with armies and such,” Saunders began to slowly shake his head, “we had one nice skirmish that I can remember. It was right down there in town.”
“Oh,” Charlie looked down, his face betraying his disappointment. “Dad says my grandpa was a doctor in the war. Do you remember what he did?”
“I reckon he went up to Jackson in sixty-three when Grant was a throwin’ his weight around central Mississippi.” Saunders spat, sniffed, and wiped at the tobacco juice on his chin. “I hear’d he did some amputatin’ and such ʼbout that time.”
Charlie looked a little let down. He asked, “So we didn’t have nobody from here fight in the war?”
Saunders’s eyebrows shot up. He laughed and said, “Well, now, I didn’t say that, now did I?”
“No sir,” Charlie smiled. “Did you fight?”
“Most all of us that was of age fought.” Saunders raised his chin. He had a proud look on his face. He said, “The boys from Brick, Mississippi, formed Company H, Sixth Mississippi Infantry. I still remember all the ladies a crying as we marched out of town. You know when they’s a war, all young men must go.”
Charlie’s eyes grew wide. He waited for the old man to continue, but Saunders was deep in thought. Charlie said, “Tell me all about it.”
“Ain’t much to tell ya,” Saunders’s expression changed to sadness. He looked down at the ground just in front of the porch. “There was thirty of us went up to Shiloh in sixty-two. The whole regiment attacked this little old bald hill. There was a little over four hunnerd in the regiment. It didn’t last five minutes. Anyway, thirty of us in Company H went in and only five came out. The rest were either killed, wounded, or missin’. Just like that and our war service with the Sixth Mississippi was over.”
“That’s it?” Charlie looked incredulous.
“That’s it,” Saunders replied. He rubbed the stubble on his chin while he studied the expression on Charlie’s face. “I suppose I could tell you ʼbout the best soldier I ever knowed. He fought through the whole war. He started out a lieutenant.”
“Sure,” Charlie was back up on the edge of the bucket.
“Ain’t gonna be able to tell it all in one day. You’ll have to come by from time to time and visit a spell. I don’t get much company up here.” Saunders spat another stream of tobacco juice off the porch.
“Sure, I’ll come every day if you want,” Charlie looked as though he were about to explode with excitement. He watched Saunders’s eyes as he continued to rub his chin. The old man was in deep thought now. He had just gone back to 1862.
Saunders said, “Our story starts in Corinth, Mississippi, up in the northeast part of the state….”