By: Gary Gray
I was tapping my fingers on the steering wheel as I sat in my car at a crowded stop light on Highway 60 near Clever, Missouri. I observed a tilted sign along the roadside. With an arrow pointing right, the signs inscription read – Battlefield.
Battlefield? It has to be a Civil War Battlefield. To be certain, I pulled my car from the highway and stopped in the oil stained parking lot of a convenience store.
My visits to these sites of slaughter should have by now revealed something tangible, a clue to what I was seeking, but it hadn’t. My morbid fixation on the battles of young men, brother against brother, had waned over the years; it no longer felt relevant to me. I was on the highway, traveling from New Mexico to Kentucky. It was late in the afternoon, perhaps three or so hours before sundown and the mid-August sun was scorching.
Dragging the tip of my finger along the line on the map, I paused at the town of Republic, Missouri. Republic is about two miles from here I reasoned. Wilson’s Creek Civil War Battlefield, printing in light blue letters, a beacon from the map. I wasn’t familiar with this battle. Missouri was the brutal scene of many dramatic campaigns during and after the Civil War, that much I knew, but Wilson’s Creek I couldn’t recall. Still, I was curious, I should visit this place.
The road to Wilson’s Creek was narrow and hilly. As I crept along, an occasional car or truck would come upon me and then pass impatiently. My eyes were focused on the roadside for a sign at an entrance. To my left across the four-way stop, I spotted it – a large stone marker nestled amongst the landscaped lawn bounded by tall shade trees, Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield.
I eased along the narrow driveway until the welcome center came into view. The parking lot was empty except for a lone car and two lawn workers loitering in a cart nearby. I thought briefly that it may be closed, but a family exited from the museum and strolled towards me as I stood beside my car. A wizened little boy with cropped brown hair, no more than eight or nine years old stared intently at me, expressionless as he approached. I smiled. His head turned as we passed, his piercing gaze following me as I moved towards the museum entrance.
Inside, behind a large veneered counter littered with pamphlets and historical paraphernalia, sat a park ranger, a petite lady, in her mid thirties. Appearing tired and listless, she raised her head and beamed a cheerful grin as I approached.
“Welcome to Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield.” She said in a worn and well rehearsed but friendly Southern drawl.
“Are you still open…” I asked, observing the name tag pinned to her shirt.
“Oh yes, we close at sundown. You’ve still got time.” In her outstretched hand she held a pamphlet. I took it from her, leafing through it as she continued speaking. “It’s three dollars for entry into the Battlefield. You buy your token from me and put it in the gate out there.” She said, pointing to windows behind me. I pulled three dollars from my pocket and exchanged them for the token. “If you wanna see the film or demonstration in the museum, just let me know when you’re ready, I’ll get’r started.”
“That won’t be necessary, not yet anyway.” I replied. “I think I’ll walk the grounds first, I’m sure this air conditioning will feel a lot better afterwards with the heat and all.”
“Suit yourself. The doors are locked and the gates are closed at sundown, so don’t dawdle too long out there.”
“Oh, I won’t. Promise Ms. Blain.”
“Oh yea, the Ray House ain’t gonna be open. The sitter had to leave early today, but you can poke around the outside if ya like.” She added as I walked towards the museum exit.
I sat in my car long enough to unfold the glossy pamphlet and examine the map of the grounds. The map illustrated the Visitor Center in the far north eastern corner of the park and depicted a looping road through the grounds, first to the east, then south and again back towards the north entrance; five or six miles of road at most. I should have time enough to stop and examine the battlefield along the way and return by sundown.
The metal pole attached to the impassive cubed box rose as the lifeless device swallowed my token. The winding narrow lane slithering through the trees was darkened by the shadows of passive long limbs of oak and walnut trees. A short distance beyond the dark leafy corridor, the roadway meandered beyond the horizon and out of my view. The quietus of the recumbent rolling fields gently beckoned me.
A few hundred feet beyond the trees, I wheeled my car into the Gibson Mill site. A small pull-off with room for half a dozen cars, it sat along a large empty field of tall grass and scattered bushes. Wilson’s Creek ran through this field. I strolled along the dirt path that led from the roadway into a string of woods straddling the banks of the creek towards the south. The path, meandering through the dense woods, eventually merged with the creek at the old Gibson Mill site.
Cobwebs and insects abounded as I strolled through the thick pungent undergrowth. The enticing smell of rotted trees and green leafy plants consumed my lungs as I sat along the banks of the creek, trying as I may to visualize the tired and ragged young men fighting a desperate battle, many destined to fall dead from mortal wounds, perhaps on the very spot I was sitting. The solemn peace of the woods and the trickling flow of the creek, deafened with the sounds of gunfire and cannon. I felt kinship with this place, unlike the other battlefields. My heart pounded, the haunted emptiness of the woods engulfed me.
At first, it was a faint sound — I thought nothing of it, my imagination perhaps. The spectral noise continued to grow louder and commanded my attention; the tramping of hooves, metal rattling, dirt crunching, emanated from a distance beyond the woods. I stood to listen. Submerged amongst the roar of cicada and well beyond sight, the sounds trickled into oblivion as I returned along the path to my car.
I was startled from behind by the voice of an old man as I exited the woods. He had a rumpled look, a scraggy hat on his head with long frazzled whiskers dangling from his chin. Wearing dirt stained clothes; he carried a shovel over his shoulder.
“The winds a pick’n up out there.” The old man said, removing his hat and scratching his head. I expected a colony of fleas to leap from his grey matted hair.
“I was unaware of this place until today. I was driving through on my way to Kentucky and saw the sign out on 60; couldn’t resist stopping.”
“This here was a big battle. Lotta good boys died up on that there hill to your right. It don’t look much like it did then though. The land has a way of reclaiming its own.” He said with mournful regret, his gaze crystallized as if he were viewing the distant horizon through the woods, as though he had seen it the way it had been in times past.
“Which side won the battle?”
“The Rebs.” With an unworthy glance, he lowered his head.
“So, you know the history of this place pretty well then?”
“Yes.” He paused for a moment, looking into my eyes, words hanging from his lips. “I seen you here before.” He stated matter-of-factly.
“No sir, never been here. Didn’t even know it existed.”
“Well, don’t pay no mind to this old man, my mind aint-a what it used to be. Watch those clouds coming in, it may get stormy.” And, with a final rub of his head, he continued on along the woody path behind me.
I continued my drive along the lane and the Ray house was in full view at the top of the hill in front of me. It was a small white house with a limestone foundation and a covered porch. I slowed to view it through the window of my car.
On the porch sat a young woman rocking gently in an old wooden rocking chair. She wore an ankle length dress of the period and on her head was a tightly wrapped scarf. Her gaze was focused on a distant hillside and she made no notice of me — a curious site, as I recalled the park ranger telling me that the house would be closed. Having lost my concentration, I momentarily veered from the road onto the grass. Regaining control of my vehicle, I felt a bristling of the skin along my arms and neck. I punched the accelerator pedal hard with the toe of my shoe and my tires spun dirt as my car jerked back onto the roadway, beyond sight of the porch.
As I proceed along the lane, I sensed a rubbing from the rear of my car. I assumed that I picked up some debris when I swerved off the road earlier. The map indicated “Sigels Second Position.” I studied the description of the battle at this point. An open field — once the Sharp cornfield, a dirt road leading into the trees behind me; “That must be the Old Wire Road.” I whispered as I scanned the map. Two corroded green cannon sat in the field next to the road, all that remained I supposed, probably brought in from some other place.
I examined my tires; the right rear was nearly flat. I found my spare tire, it was flat too. Exasperated, I knew that I’d have to walk back and find a phone to call for a repair. A good two miles of hiking if I took the dirt road through the woods, three or more if I walked the main road. The closest building to me was the Ray House. I’ll talk to the lady on the porch; surely she had a phone or a portable radio.
The Old Wire Road was little more than two tracks of matted dirt that crept along the hillside and into the woods over Wilson’s Creek and on-wards past the Ray House. With the sun setting, I would have to hurry. The wind was increasing, and the branches of the trees were shaking in violent synchronized dances as I entered the woods.
The coolness of forest shadow was a welcome relief from the heat. Sheltered from the storm looming about me, I hastened my feet along the rock strewn path, wary that I may not reach my destination at the Ray House before the sun had set. The shrill concert of cicada reverberated, ringing, screaming through my ears into the depths of my psyche, with each step deeper into the darkened forest.
A half mile into the woods, the drone of the cicada has stopped and the mysterious sound returns. I pause, standing perfectly still, the sound enveloping me from every direction. Hooves, as if I’m standing amongst an invisible pack train; the groans of men, tromping, rattling, everywhere about me. I can see nothing, no, I see it…dust rising from the ground, translucent, swirls of fine powder wafting gently in the air. I’m loosing my mind; I race along the path, through the sea of noise, attempting in vain to flee. Another half mile of dirt, a glint of light ahead, I rush for the safety of open ground. Stumbling, I fall. Rising from the dust, I behold my hands, soaked in blood. Pitiful drops of black viscous serum abating from my dirt smothered fingers.
Now in full stride as I emerge from the perdition of the woody road, the thrashing wind dizzies me. I pause at the main road across from the Ray House. Using a trail of chimney smoke as a beacon, I lurch across the lane and up the hill. The silhouette of the little white house glared against the darkening sky, a faint glint of yellow light profluent through the porch window. I stumbled up the steps of the portico and pounded feverishly upon the wooden door. “Somebody be here!” I chanted.
The door opened. A female of fair skin, demure in her stature, beckoned me with a motion of her hand. I hurled my body from the windy porch and through the door. Gathering my wits about, I gazed around the modestly furnished house. A historical landmark it did not seem. The wooden table with tin plates sat in a small kitchen. A spinning wheel, laden with wound white thread, sat passively in one corner. The bed, replete with disheveled hand-stitched quilts sat in another corner. A fireplace, bristling with hot red embers and fired logs; this was not a museum, it was a home; a living, breathing home from the 1860’s. I turned and focused on the small woman, her simple grey dress catching my eye. As I trained my stare upon her face I was startled. Above her welcoming smile, within her pale, fair skinned scarf wrapped face, eye-sockets that were filled with iridescent blue cloud-like orbs. Tiny wisps of white circling within darker blue smoke. These were not the eyes of a human. I raised my hands to touch her, the blood was gone.
“Don’t be afraid.” She whispered.
“What is happening here?” I shouted, shaking my open hands before her.
“I’ve been waitin’ fur ya.”
“Waiting? Waiting for who?”
“You. You’ve been here before. Don’t-cha know that?” She said, with a gentle smile crossing her lips. “You’ve come here many a time. I’ve always been here fur ya too. It’s no different.”
“I don’t understand. Who are you?”
“I’m Robin. You still don’t remember do ya? I keep thinking one day you’ll know, but-cha never do.”
“Know what? I don’t understand what’s happening. My tire’s flat, I need to use a telephone.”
“Sit, I’ll explain it again.”
I sat on a wooden chair. Warmth coursed through my body as she gently touched my face with the tips of her fingers.
“It was after the battle when you met me. You were down yonder at the spring house. Daddy and I brought you up here to the house and laid you in that there bed. You were in a bad way too.”
“After the battle? I’ve never been here before in my life.”
“Not in this life, but one before. You were here at the battle, you died in that bed. You’ve been coming back time and time again ever since. I’ve been here for you all this time, just like I was-a here for you when you died.”
The weight of the conversation had settled on me. I’m talking to an apparition, hallucinating. I’ll awaken soon and everything will be back to normal.
The woman continued…“You’re-a Reb deserter. We sat up a hospital here after the battle, when everbody left, you came up out of them-thar woods.” She pointed through the windows to the woody area I had visited earlier that afternoon. “You were grief strucken, we tried to save you but yur wounds was mortal.”
Listening intently, I knew there was truth in what she was saying. This wasn’t a dream, it was real. The familiar smell, her face, the rolling fields; I knew it was true in the depths of my soul.
“How was I wounded? Why couldn’t you save me?”
“You did yur-self in after you realized what you had done. When we found ya, you was barely alive but able to tell us.”
“Tell you what? What did I do?” I asked, not certain I wanted to know the answer.
“You killed your daddy over thar on that bloody hill.”
The bloody hill! The old man mentioned the bloody hill. It was a stop on the tour, the scene of the most vicious fighting during the battle.
“I killed my daddy on Bloody Hill?”
“Thats-a right. He was a Yankee soldier and you killed him during the fight’n. You were so overwrought, you hid in the woods for days and then tried to kill yourself in our spring-house down yonder.”
“You said something about having been here many times? What’s that mean?” I asked.
“Well, your soul I reckon. You’ve had many faces but your soul keeps drifting back here to find something. You’re a–look’n for somebody.”
“No, not me…your daddy. You buried him on Bloody Hill. You keep coming back to find him, he’s a-been here too. Maybe it’ll be over now, you found him today.”
“I found him? I don’t understand.”
“He’s the old man with the shovel. He’s looking for his bones up on that hill. He’s a-like you. Keeps a-come’n back, look’n for something.”
I’m dumb stricken. I’ve been returning here in different lives to find the father I killed over a hundred and forty years ago. I’m talking to a ghost and I believe every word of what she is telling me.
“You ain’t the only one ya know. There’s others too. Ya’ll keep coming back here. Over and over, year after year, ya’ll keep coming back. That’s why I stay here. To help ya make it on through I suppose. The land has a way of reclaiming its own. I reckon this is the way.” She stood and straightened her dress. “I reckon you best be goin’ now. It’s pert-near dark, they’ll be look’n fur-ya.”
I stood on the wood porch. I could see a man in a cart waving at me from the roadway below. I waved back as he turned and drove to the house.
“Hell mister, you’re hold’n up the show. I saw your car down the road, but couldn’t find ya. We can’t go home till ya get out-a here.”
“I’m sorry, I had a flat and was trying to find a telephone.” I said as I stepped from the porch to the lawn.
“Flat tire? You’re driving the blue car parked down the road that-a-way aren’t ya?”
“Yeah, over by the cannons.”
“Mister, you’re loose’n your mind, your tire ain’t flat. I was just down there and the engine’s running and the doors hang’n there a-wide open. What the hell’s going on with you?”
“Hell, I don’t know. I think you’re right. I’ve lost my mind. Can you run me down there?”
“Get in. I’m gett’n hungry.”
After returning me to my car, he followed me along the road towards the exit of the battlefield. In the twilight of sunset, I gazed from a distance towards Bloody Hill and saw the lone silhouette of a man carrying a shovel.