Tom Boyer walked circles around his battlerama, beaming with pride and checking each little detail. It had taken a full year to construct and it was worth every second of it. Twelve feet long and seven feet wide, it took six saw horses to hold it up. The landscape — hills, woods, valleys and pastures — were made of plaster and papier-mâché, painstakingly painted to the exact colors he had found in a scene in a Civil War book. The rocks he had carefully chosen from his own backyard and the split rail fences were made from Popsicle sticks, carefully detailed to make them look old and weather-beaten. The only concession he had made were the trees, which he had ordered from a catalog. The little creek bed, winding its way along the bottom of the hill, was filled with water from his tap, with real moss glued to the rocks along its banks. Perfecto! A work of art!
The only thing that remained was to place the small rubber soldiers he had ordered from a mailing house in San Diego. In all, there were two hundred Yankees and an equal number of Rebels, as well as contingents of cavalry and batteries of artillery. They had been advertised as being “extremely lifelike” and he couldn’t wait to see if they lived up to their billing.
He took out his knife and sliced open the large box that had been delivered by the UPS just that morning. Taking out a top layer of bubble rap, he reached into a mass of styrofoam curlicues and pulled out the first package of Yankees. Oh, yes, indeed; they were the best he had ever seen, perfect in every way! Each had a dark blue kepi and shell jacket and sky blue trousers, with a bayoneted musket and all the necessary accouterments! U.S. belt buckles and eagle breastplates, bulls-eye canteens! Tiny black brogans with exactly the proper amount of wear! And the expressions on their faces were breathtaking; pain, suffering, excitement and fear, some with beards, others with moustaches! The dead and wounded came in different positions; prostrate, propped up on elbows and curled into fetal positions, tiny patches of blood marking their uniforms and faces. Next to come were the cavalry and cannons and they were equally as authentic, perfect to the very last detail! The horses — bays and sorrels and dappled grays — with flaring nostrils, their flanks lathered with sweat!
Enthralled, Tom began to place the soldiers behind the stone wall at the top of the hill, with cannons to the rear, stretched along the tree line. The Yanks were going to hold the high ground with the Rebels charging straight uphill into a deadly fire. He arranged the cavalry in a small valley beyond, positioning them as if they were about to swoop around and attack the Confederates from the rear.
“Long live the Union!” shouted Tom, as he headed back to the box, whistling “John Brown’s Body” and marching in step.
The Rebels were equally as lifelike, maybe even more so. They were clad in gray and butternut uniforms, tattered and filthy and patched, with kepis and slouch hats, some with horribly worn shoes, others completely barefooted. The faces were gaunt, bewhiskered and wild-eyed, their emotions so realistic that Tom had to pause for a moment, staring, a small chill coursing down the length of his spine. With a nervous laugh, he pressed his thumb against one soldier’s chest to make certain there wasn’t a heartbeat. Nearly half their ranks were dead and wounded, for they would pay a terrible price with their near suicidal charge, straight uphill, against the stone wall. The Colonel, who would be leading the charge, had his sword held high, mouth opened in a silent shout, bushy side-whiskers, his face smudged black with powder smoke! And the standard-bearer was the best of all, raising high the Stars-and-Bars, his grimy face set with a grim determination!
“Sorry, Johnny Rebs, this is going to be a Yankee victory and you will be getting your asses thoroughly kicked. Ah, to be sure, war is a terrible thing.”
And then he saw it at the bottom of the box; a piece of paper with a circle at the top, centered with a big red X. Hesitating, he took it out, squinting and holding it to the light.
Warning! The Rebels are a proud and ornery lot! Under no conditions are you to place them in a losing position! If so, our company will not be liable for any damages or injuries that may occur!
What in the hell did they mean by “damages” and “injuries”? Tom read the warning for a second time, his heart starting to beat a bit faster. He stared at the paper for a long moment, wondering and biting his lip; finally crumpling it up and throwing it across the room. It was probably some idiot with a weird sense of humor. He’d leave a message on their website the first chance he got, giving them a piece of his mind. But he would be polite about it, softening the rebuke by telling them how much he enjoyed their figurines.
He carefully placed the Rebels at various levels up the hill, interspacing them with plenty of the dead and wounded. Ah, yes! Despite a gallant effort, they were getting sliced to ribbons! As he was about to place the Colonel at the head of the charge, he glanced away for a moment and that’s when he felt it; a sharp prick to the tip of his thumb. Startled, he looked down to see a small cut, seeping blood! What, in the name of God, could have caused that? It was probably his imagination, but the Colonel’s face looked as though it had changed a bit; more intense, a wilder look to the eyes. And then, upon a closer examination, he noticed a trace of blood on the man’s sword! His heart took a leap, but he quelled it with a giddy laugh. He was tired, that’s all, having been up since the crack of dawn. Sucking on his thumb, he placed the officer to the front of his troops and took a step back to view the entire scene, making sure that everything was exactly how he wanted it. Last but not least, he positioned the Confederate artillery at intervals along the pasture and arrayed the cavalry as if they were heading out to meet the advance of the Union horse soldiers.
After a year’s work, everything had turned out even better than expected. He dashed upstairs for his digital camera. He’d shoot a whole cartridge in the hopes that a least one picture would wind up on the cover of Battle Cry magazine. Wow, what a coup that would be! After eating a quick sandwich, he headed back down to the basement and carefully lined up the battle scene in his viewfinder. He would take a few head-on shots, then some at different angles.
But as he was about to snap the first picture, he noticed that something was wrong, not quite right, out-of-place. What in the hell had happened? Walking over, the chill returning to his spine, he noticed that the Rebels had withdrawn from the hill and were now all congregated along the banks of the stream! And nearly all the wounded as well, their heads lolling in the water as though they were quenching their terrible thirsts!
Tom’s breath caught in his throat, his eyes darting about the room. Impossible! They couldn’t have slipped down the hill, for they would have toppled over in the process! He reached out to grab a soldier, but quickly withdrew his hand, noticing that it was trembling just a tad.
“What in the Jesus H. is going on here? How’d you guys manage to retreat down that hill?”
Admonishing himself with a nervous chuckle, he started to pick up the soldiers, carefully returning them, as much as his memory recalled, to where he had originally placed them. Next, went the Colonel and the standard-bearer, positioned a little more out to the front than before.
“I don’t know how you managed it, but this is where you will all stay. The Yanks are going to whup your sorry asses and you had better get used to it.”
Using up his cartridge, Tom headed for the stairs, glancing over his shoulder at the last moment to make sure that all of the figurines were still in place. He hated to admit it, but that chill was still at his spine, nestled in the little hollow just above his butt. He didn’t have answers to the weird questions that were plaguing his brain and it bothered him, it bothered him a lot. His legs felt a bit rubbery as he climbed the stairs.
* * *
Tom snapped from a sound sleep, confused, trying to figure out what had awakened him. The blue numbers on his clock read two-thirty in the morning. His heart was thumping double-time and he patted his chest as though it was a frightened dog needing reassurance. The clock ticked to two-thirty-one and he flinched at the sound.
Suddenly, his cat, Thaddeus, leapt onto the bed, meowing and burying his head beneath the covers.
“What in the world has gotten into you, Thad?” He stroked the cat’s fur and was surprised to find it nearly standing on end. “Jesus, boy, this is turning into quite a night for both of us. You have a dream too?”
Thaddeus pressed closer, burrowing his snout beneath Tom’s back.
“Easy, Thad, easy. C’mon, you’re tickling me.”
And then he heard it in the distance; what sounded like a bugle, its urgent piping breaking the stillness of the night!
“What the hell? I didn’t leave the TV on, did I?”
He switched on the bedside lamp and as he turned, his bladder very nearly let loose. There, at the foot of the bed was the Colonel and a good two dozen of his men!
“Holy shit, come on.” Tom groaned, rubbing at his eyes. “This has got to be a dream!”
And, then, the Colonel shouted “charge!” in a tiny voice and scrambling over Tom’s genitals, headed across his belly and straight up his chest, the little sword whirling over his head. His men, led by the standard-bearer, unleashed a chorus of Rebel yells and broke into a run, stabbing at Tom’s feet and legs with their bayonets as they went!
“Ah, ah, ooowww, you little bastards! This can’t be frigging happening!”
As Thaddeus jumped from the bed, yowling, Tom snatched up the Colonel and shook him, squeezing the little chest between thumb and forefinger. And by damn, there was a heartbeat! Cursing, he flung the figurine against the wall with all his might, watching with satisfaction as it bounced clear across the room, doing somersaults in midair. Angered by the loss of their leader, the little soldiers attacked with a vengeance, stabbing and hacking at Tom with their bayonets! He swept them aside with his hand and toppled to the floor, laying there for a few panicky moments before jumping to his feet and rushing down the hallway.
Flipping on a light switch, he was shocked to see the Confederate cavalry galloping in his direction; the braying of horses and the shrilling of Rebel yells! On they came, bending low in their saddles and slashing at his feet and ankles with their sabers. Looking down, Tom was startled to see his that his feet were bleeding from dozens of wounds; small, but surprisingly painful wounds! He kicked angrily at the horsemen one at a time, sending each and their mount flying down the length of the hall.
“This is crazy! This is the... the frigging Twilight Zone!”
Desperate, his heart on the brink of exploding, Tom headed for the living room, only to be met by batteries of cannons, arrayed across the carpeting! There was a small boom and one of the artillery pieces belched smoke, a projectile whistling past his ear. With the next discharge, he was struck in the cheekbone, feeling a jolt of pain and a trickle of warm blood! There was another boom and another, each shot finding its mark on his chest! He reeled for a moment, confused and disorientated, a gaggle of little soldiers once again stabbing at his feet with their bayonets! He had to get out of the house and quick or they would work him down inch by inch! Stomping across the cannons and their crews, he dashed for the door, flinging it open, and hit the frosty air still in his underwear!
* * *
The two policemen edged down the stairs, their hands resting tentatively on their holsters. All was quiet, nothing seemingly out of the ordinary.
“Craziest thing I ever saw; that guy running down the middle of the road in his skivvies. He was completely out of his gourd. I couldn’t make out a blessed thing he was saying. And did you see his feet?”
“Yeah, they were cut to ribbons. Are you certain this was the house he was motioning to?”
“It has to be. There were tiny traces of blood all over the carpeting in the living room. Hey, what’s that over there?”
The two cops eased closer, their eyes intent on the battle scene.
“Hey, that’s kind of neat. The guy is pretty talented, or should I say ‘was’?”
“It must have taken a lot of patience for this. But look at those poor Yankees. I’d say the Rebs have the clear advantage, all hunkered down behind that stone wall.”
Copyright © 2003 by Gerald Sheagren