Leah Sturgis and Sandy Coleman


Sandy Coleman — Inspiration Piece

Captured Fire
By Leah Sturgis

He never figured how he sighted the campfire.
“Remember, Scott, history degrees end up at Starbucks.  Computer Science degrees get real jobs.”  His father’s parting words rang in his head as night seeped over the country road.  Off highway he was instantly lost, looking for the comfort of harsh gas station overheads and farm porch lights.  On a distant ridge, floor to ceiling windows of city-rich homes cast shafts of artificial light into night’s deep wilderness.
As if he knew where he was going, he turned onto a dirt side road, vaguely perplexed. How had he seen that campfire from the highway?  He parked carefully, hoping to avoid unseen ditches, and turning off the car, glanced back.  Yep.  The interstate was hidden behind a low ridge.
Only when he had climbed out did he discern the quiet hissing of his left back tire.
“Crap!” he muttered as darkness closed in around him.  He had only himself to blame, stuck in the middle of dark nowhere, the interstate, and its vehicle assistance teams, far out of reach behind him.
He found his cell and heartened by its reassuring glow, searched for a landmark or some kind of sign.  The great fall of the Milky Way traipsed the endless sky.  There was a hint of gurgling water – he had been right about that ditch.  That meant livestock. Hopefully he hadn’t stumbled into a bullpen.
No bars.  That figured.
Carefully he locked the car and stowed the keys. The possessions of an entire semester crowded in the trunk/back seat.  All he needed was theft in addition to getting hopelessly lost.   His thrift store boots crunched over the last of summer’s grass as he made his way to the flickering campfire.  These people could be anybody:  meth dealers, pot smugglers — even the Klan.
“I reckon they’re behind that ridge yonder,” one guy was saying, his voice cracking with weariness.
Another thrust a stick into the fire.  “We scared ‘em off good.”
“For now,” the first replied.
“Well, well, a ghost and a well fed one too, by the looks of it.  You part of a militia, young man?”  This from the second, a rough-hewn young man dressed as a confederate soldier.
Scott gave it his best smile.  “Sorry to interrupt. I took a wrong turn off the highway back there and my tire’s flat.”
The first soldier looked puzzled.   “Highway?”
“Mind the Captain don’t spot your horse,” the second soldier said.   “He’s bound to confiscate it, ‘less it’s too lame to run.  We’d just shoot it, I reckon.  Been a while since we had real vittles.”
He approached and Scott was practically knocked flat by the stench of no showers and rotten teeth.   “You ain’t a Yankee, are ye?”
“Uh, no, I really don’t follow baseball.”
The first soldier followed, genial but suspicious.  His filthy Confederate uniform was the most authentic Scott had ever seen:  right down to the ranking marks on the sleeves and the deplorable shoes, the rifle frighteningly real, honed with expert use.
“What’s baseball?” the second solider demanded.  “Ain’t a spy, are ye?”
Scott raised his hands slightly.  “No, really, I broke down on the road.  My phone. . .”
Unexpectedly, the first soldier grinned.  “Too much to drink, I’ll warrant.  Damned dangerous to run around these parts with a war on, son.  You look tired,” he said companionably but with a suspicious glint in his deep set eyes.  “Seth’ll get you some ‘tack and coffee.”
“I’m really not. . .”
“Least we could do.”
Seth returned with a small piece of what looked like petrified cookie dough and a tin cup of something that smelled like chicory.
“Thanks,” Scott said uncertainly.  “Do you have any half and half?”
Seth looked puzzled.  “Half of what?”
Scott cleared his throat, completely wrong footed. “Cream, you know — milk.”
Seth burst into hoarse guffaws.  “Last cow in these parts was shot a year ago, I reckon.” He gave Scott an assessing once over.  “Where you been keeping yourself, son?  You’re in mighty fine shape.  Ain’t a deserter, are ye?”
Without waiting for Scott to reply, Seth rounded on his fellow soldier.  “He’s a deserter, Newell.  We should take him to the Captain. Or shoot him right here.”
Newell glinted at Seth.  “He’s too fat to be a deserter.  You always was a hothead, Seth.  Let him be.”
“But his boots. . . ” Seth began, his eyes alive with desperate avarice.
“They’d be too big for you by the looks of it,” Newell replied laconically.  “He’s a stranger in need and he don’t sound like no Yankee – he’s got no gun. Hold off.”
Seth stumped away unsatisfied and Scott let out a slow breath. Newell motioned him to a safer place on the other side of the campfire.  They both sat on the damp ground. Fortunately, it hadn’t rained recently.
Scott instantly thought the better of eating the cookie dough when he spotted white coating that appeared to be moving slightly.  Besides, it was hard as cement.  Instead he went for the scalding coffee which tasted like boiled tree bark.
“Not hungry?” Newell asked companionably.
“You can have it, if you want.”
“Much obliged,” Newell replied, neatly snagging the hardtack where it disappeared into a small canvas sack looped to his worn belt.
A short silence rang with rough jokes in remarkably authentic 19th Century backwoods patois and the shuffling of horses.
Scott broke the silence first, trying for casual. “This is a great place for reenactments.  Are you guys going to the Antietam event next month?”
Newell’s face was a starlit silhouette.  “Where you from, son?  We been fighting all up and down this way – it’s a wonder you ain’t been shot.  And what’s Antietam?”
Chilled, Scott opened his mouth and shut it again.
“I’d say you was a Union spy,” Newell continued, genially critical.  “But you don’t sound like no Union solider I ever met and you don’t dress like one ‘neither.   What brings you to these parts? Better tell the truth now, before Seth over there forces it out of ye, along with your boots.”
The menace was real. Scott’s voice shook.  “I’m a student at Radford University.”
No reaction. These guys played it to the hilt.
Scott tried again.  “South of Roanoke?”
“Roanoke’s in the Carolinas.  You’re a long way from home to be so well fed; besides you speak damned good English for an Indian.”
Scott glanced down at his worn Redskins t-shirt and swallowed, chills running up his spine.  A thinking silence.  “Can you tell me, what’s the year?”
Newell grinned, the stranger placed.  “You Indians never do account proper for time.  It’s 1862, of course.”
Scott stood up just as gunfire ripped apart the breezy silence.
“Ambush!” Seth yelled at the top his lungs.
Newell pushed Scott face first into the grass as shot whistled overhead. Then Newell was flat on his back, his precious rifle flung to one side.  Seth stumbled over in a half crouch.  Further up the meadow, the Captain erupted from his threadbare tent, yelling orders.   Men made for the horses, bugging out in a flurry of practiced panic.
“He’s a goner!” Seth yelled through a second volley and immediately he was gone, along with the unfortunate Newell’s deplorable boots and shiny rifle, leaving Scott alone in the middle of the night with a dying man.
Newell’s eyes flickered open; he fought for breath.  “Save yourself, son!”
Shivering, Scott handed for his phone, chanting in a whisper of disbelief.  “This can’t be happening – this can’t be happening. . .”
The confederate’s nose and mouth gurgled bubbling death through the galloping chaos of battle.  “Get back to the tribe before the Captain dragoons ye!” Newell rasped, his flickering eyes rolling back in his head. “Fare. .well. . . !”
“No!” Scott yelled, dropping the phone and shaking the corpse, raging tears mingling with Newell’s warm blood. Pounding hooves soared overhead.  Cool, bloodstained grass faded as the Milky Way pin wheeled above, weaving darkness.
Dawn found Scott asleep in the front seat, window down, state patrol officer tapping impatiently on the metal roof.
“You can’t overnight in the rest areas, son.”
Scott swallowed, blinking stupidly.
“Have you been drinking?”
Scott jerked upright, disoriented.   “No officer.  Flat tire.”
“Which one?”
“Driver’s side, rear.”
“Looks fine to me.”
Scott struggled stiffly out of the car.  Sure enough.
The officer nodded unexpected approval.  “You did the right thing, son.  Interstate’s dangerous at night,” he said, sounding disconcertingly like Newell.
Scott stared at the perfectly good tire.
“You’ll feel better after some coffee,” the officer put in helpfully.
Fifteen minutes later, Scott was standing in front of a map framed in the captured fire of autumn foliage.  The skirmish at Chamber’s Ridge had taken one Confederate soldier.  His companions were thought to have perished at the battle of Antietam a month later.
Scott said a prayer for Newell, drank his coffee and hit the road.
History it would be.