WITHOUT A CAUSE
by Nicholas Samuel Stember
Sometimes a rebel can find a cause without really looking for one. Sometimes, when it’s really needed, one comes looking for him.
Jeffrey stared at the chipped and faded emblem of the Dixie flag that lay under the grease and dirt on his Harley. The old rebel flag had always been a symbol to him, a representation of defiance that he never could shake from his body...even when it had cost him his one chance at a decent education. But it was more than that, it was a clinging to a series of causes and effects that never made much sense to him...he'd slept through most of his history classes. But on a hot Georgian day, it was hard to concentrate on lessons of the past...now all he could do is wish he had.
The young corporal eyed Jeffrey with obvious caution. Not that he thought the newcomer was a Yank, his lack of the northern twang was clear about that, but it was obvious he still didn't belong.
"Where ya from?" the soldier finally asked, forced into conversation by the sheer pressure of the silence.
Jeffrey glanced away from his motorcycle towards the corporal and narrowed his brow in an almost annoyance. It wasn't that he thought he was hallucinating...he'd taken enough mind altering substances in the past to know what that felt like, but if this was reality, why did it have to talk to him? Finally he turned back towards the front of the large canvas tent he was in, and stared out the open flaps at his Harley...roped to a thick wooden stake.
"Outside Marietta," he finally consented, never taking his gaze from his one link to sanity.
"That's a nice place," the corporal said, pleased with the response. "I'm from Georgia myself...Atlanta. Really nice place before the war."
Jeffrey fidgeted for a moment on the hard wooden chair, then began to stand up. Instantly the corporal lost his youthful grin and leveled his rifle at him. "I wouldn't do that if I were you, mister."
For an instant, Jeffrey wondered if the soldier would really fire...hell...he barely looked old enough to shave. But then three officers entered the tent, breaking the situation.
"What's the meaning of this corporal?" the eldest demanded as he took the wide brimmed hat off his closely cropped hair.
“Nothin’ sir,” the youth quickly stammered out, while lowering his weapon. “The prisoner was trying to get up.”
“I was just stretching,” Jeffrey protested, eyeing the gun, and the shaking hands that held it nervously. “Why am I being held here.”
“You’re being held,” the Colonel informed him sternly, “because you appeared in our camp without warning, on that wheeled machine.” He gestured towards the Harley.
“Is that a crime?” Jeffrey asked, a hint of his exasperation coming through.
“Perhaps,” the Colonel snapped back. “I would probably sleep better tonight if we just shot you now.”
“He said he’s from Georgia,” the Corporal spoke up, as if suddenly on the newcomer’s side.
“Did the Colonel ask for your aid, soldier?” the Captain to the right of the commander hissed.
The Corporal shook his head wildly, while taking another step back.
“Then I advise y’all to keep it shut.”
Suddenly the friction was shattered by the furious pounding of a horse at full run, as it pulled up to the tent, men shouting after it as it came to a sudden halt. The three officers sped quickly out to see what had happened, cautiously followed by the Corporal and his prisoner.
A confederate soldier half collapsed as he slid off his horse, caked and dried blood covering half his right leg. He quickly scanned the crowd, focusing on the company’s commanding officer. Then he pulled out a crumpled and sealed letter, and offered it to the Colonel.
The commander stared at the messenger for a moment, reading the intensity of the ride that had just taken place in his eyes, then took the letter and looked it over.
The sheer size of the camp struck Jeffrey as he stepped out of the tent for the first time, and he realized that the force of men here must have numbered over ten thousand. Then he gazed at the messenger, a man in obvious agony, who refused to collapse despite the grizzly wound in his leg that Jeffrey doubted that current medicine could save.
But that wasn’t what transfixed him in silence, as his eyes focused on the steady glare of the messenger, who only stared at the Colonel as if waiting for a reply. It was the sheer determination that the young soldier had as he stood there, his mission completed...an intensity that Jeffrey had never felt about anything, or anyone.
Words like “bum” and “waste of talent” were what had come from his father most of his life, in direct response to his lack of conviction over anything. But those words had been mild, compared to his father’s fury over his decision not to attend Annapolis, even after his forced application had been accepted with flying colors.
He had never felt more empty, wanting to want something, hoping beyond hope to actually care how anything turned out. He left the acceptance letter on the dining room table in front of his mortified father, and had gotten on his Harley and just ridden...and ridden. At first the air disturbance ahead had gone unnoticed by him while flying along the highway, appearing as nothing more than the ripple of heat waves that came off the hot Georgian highways in mid spring. But then he passed through it, and the world had fallen out from under him, as waves of nausea had claimed his body before passing out...only to wake up in the worst of nightmares.
It hadn’t taken him very long to figure out that he was in the middle of the Civil War, even when imprisoned in a tent for hours...he absently wondered if his Harley had been damaged.
It was the intensity in the Colonel’s voice that snapped him back to this selective version of reality, as he read off the letter that the messenger had half died getting here.
“It’s from General Lee,” he announced to the officers around him, “and it’s urgent.”
The Colonel looked around to make sure everyone was listening, then continued. “It seems that his forces are already in Pennsylvania, and are converging on Gettysburg. He feels that a victory there is sure to happen against the weaker Union forces, and a Federal surrender will follow shortly.”
Grins and smiles spread among the officers as the end of their own nightmare finally seemed at hand.
“But he feels that our presence there is vital to the success of his campaign,” the Colonel added quickly.
“But sir,” the Corporal spoke up again, forgetting the Captain’s order. “What of all those Yanks we saw headn’ up towards the Potomac last week. They could be headn’ there too...couldn’t they?”
The officers were silent for a moment, as the reality of what the young soldier was saying sank home. “Then Lee could be underestimating the size of the Union forces,” the Colonel stated, “since he thought those Federal soldiers were still around here.” He glared down at the messenger, an urgency filling his voice. “How long have you been on the road?”
“Three days,” the messenger said as he tried to stand tall, only to have his leg finally give out from under him.
“Get him a doctor,” the commander ordered his captain. “And find me your fastest rider. We have to get Lee a warning in time.”
“All our horses are exhausted from the week long march we just went through, Colonel,” the Captain informed him. “Perhaps we could seize one from the local farmers, but he’d have to be a fast one to get to Pennsylvania in time.”
“I could go,” came from the voice that no one expected to hear from, most of all the person who spoke it.
The Colonel looked over at his prisoner with annoyance and disdain, trusting neither his outlandish dress, or the strange wheeled contraption they had found him with. “You?”
Jeffrey looked at the messenger again, as other soldiers helped him back to his feet, then he glanced over at his bike, nodding silently before he even realized he was doing it.
“Why should I trust you?”
The youth liked his dry lips tentatively, as if stalling for time. There was no reason he could give, he had always been the person you could trust not to complete anything...but suddenly he had to do this. “My bike is fast...very fast.” He read the skepticism in the Colonel’s eyes, causing him to stand all the more firm. “I could have a message from you in Lee’s hand in under a day.”
The commander’s eyebrows raised in wonder as he considered how the machine had roared as it had plummeted into his camp, wildly out of control. He doubted any of his men could master its control, even if he cared to have one of them try. “That doesn’t explain why I should trust you.”
Jeffrey started to respond, but nothing came out, and the Colonel turned back towards his officers.
“Let me try...let me do something once in my life that matters.”
The Colonel turned back to the stranger and stared intently at him, as their eyes locked in a micro-struggle. Then he nodded, and wrote quickly on the letter from Lee. His officers started to mumble amongst themselves at this turn of events, but when the commander offered the response to Jeffrey, the Captain stood forward. “Sir, ah must object to this!”
“That is your prerogative, Captain,” the Colonel stated flatly, as he handed the letter to the prisoner. “Do you know where Gettysburg is?”
Jeffrey nodded, remembering the tour he took of the historic battle sight when just a kid.
“Go with God,” the Colonel whispered, then patted Jeffrey on his shoulder. “Release the machine,” he commanded the Corporal.
The young soldier quickly had the bike untied and righted, as he walked it over to the new messenger. “Good luck, sir,” he said with a grin.
A smile curled Jeffrey’s lips as he read the hope in the young corporal’s eyes. Then he stared back at his Harley, and began to suddenly care just how bad it had taken the fall. With a movement that he hoped carried more grace than he felt, he straddled the bike and started it up, whispering a silent thanks to God when the engine roared to life.
The officers jumped back at the noise, as the Colonel gave him a nod of approval.
Slowly he started moving forward, as the waves of gray uniformed men parted before him like the hands of Moses had commanded it. Then the camp was far behind him, as the dirt road that would someday become an interstate flew beneath the wheels of the motorcycle.
As the hours faded away, the memory of the confederate camp and those thousands of troops threatened to become rationalized into a hallucination, but a quick glance at the letter addressed to General Robert E. Lee quickly cured that threat each time. Never did the ramifications of what he was doing even enter his mind. He knew that the south’s defeat at Gettysburg was the turning point that led to a Union victory, and he knew that the information he carried could change that...but all that was in his mind was the task at hand, and the trust of the men he left behind.
Day was finally surrendering to the night when he passed into northern territory, and he guessed that Gettysburg was less than a half hour away. His mind raced with the directions written on the letter, that would lead him to Lee’s camp, obsessing his thoughts to the point that he didn’t see the Union squad until he was almost upon them.
The thunder clap of musket shots rang in his ears as the danger of what his task entailed started to sink home. His instincts screamed for him to turn the bike back, to abandon his mission and flee to safety. Instead he became stone, as he paused at the top of the hill overlooking the Union soldiers...heedless of the whizzing musket balls that passed mere inches from him. Suddenly he knew that this was his moment...all his life was in waiting to charge down this hill, into those guns. There was no question left in his mind as he revved the Harley twice for effect more than anything else, then hit top acceleration as he flew into the mouth of the lion.
The musket ball that ripped into his shoulder came like a bolt of lightning, sending shears of agony along his arm. He almost lost control of the bike twice, but managed to stay on as he plowed through the ranks of blue soldiers...then the shot struck his head.
The Harley flew out from under him as he spiraled back from the blow, landing him in a puddle of mud as the soldiers closed in. The last thing he remembered was the waves of heat that were rising from the dirt around him, and the unbearable nausea that slipped along with him into oblivion.
His eyes opened as the first of the blue uniformed men shook him lightly.
“You alive kid?” he asked as his frame was silhouetted by the strobing red lights behind him.
Jeffrey nodded numbly as two more blue suits joined the first.
“He just appeared out of nowhere,” the first of the new arrivals said with wonder. “I’m amazed we didn’t hit him.”
Jeffrey sat up slowly, as the police cars came into focus, as did the Pennsylvania state trouper patches that the men wore. “Am I going to live?” he asked while rubbing his protected head, though he didn’t remember putting his helmet back on. The ludicrousness of his delusion hit like a ton of bricks, as he stood up...feeling the bruises in his shoulder and head beginning to develop from the crash.
“You sure you’re OK, kid?” the first officer asked.
Jeffrey nodded numbly, as a sudden instinct caused him to reach into his jacket pocket. For a moment his breath died in his throat, as his fingers closed on the cool paper that was folded there. Slowly, almost afraid, he pulled the letter out as his eyes strained to read it in the dark. But there was no mistaking the bold letters that turned his world upside down.
“To Robert E. Lee, General,” he whispered almost silently, as the reality of what he just did sank home.
“What’d you say, kid?” the police officer asked.
For a moment Jeffrey said nothing, as an almost foreign sensation crept into his body, and a smile came to his lips. “I said I have to get home,” he replied softly. “I have an acceptance letter to mail off to Annapolis.”
“You going to the Naval academy?” the officer asked, doubt creeping into his eyes as he viewed the dress of the youth...then he reconsidered, as the sudden determination in the kid’s eyes struck like a ringing bell.
“Yes, I am,” Jeffrey said as he picked up his Harley from the street and got back on it, confident that it would start for him. “But first I have a stop to make at Gettysburg.” Then he revved up his bike, and drove off into the night.