The Alphabet Challenge: “V” Story No. 3 of 3 — “Valor”

This is the 22nd round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS<<link post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For this round, it’s the letter “V“.

Readers have two weeks from the date of publication to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on total votes received.

In each round, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.

The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the PG-rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Some readers might find a few of the stories disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, and if so, stop reading and move on.

Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.

Here we go. Presented anonymously, the third of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “V” as submitted by its author.

Valor

Copyright 2020 — Perry Broxson

(3,617 words – approx. reading time: about 14 minutes based on 265 WPM)

On April 6, 1862, the Battle of Shiloh began. It would not end until 3,537 men were dead; roughly half Union, half Confederate. It was what Corporal Esau Gideon would later call a “bloody draw.”

Esau was there when it started, but not at the end. He ran, abandoning his fellow Blue Coats. He did, however, kill one Rebel. That Rebel was his brother, Jacob.

It happened like this:

General Ulysses Grant ordered Esau to ride ahead, to scout the grounds of Pittsburg Landing in southwestern Tennessee. Not a natural horseman, Esau mounted the contrary steed and did as he was told. Not a natural soldier, he did it his way.

This meant shirking his duty and finding shelter from the April rains. Soon, Esau came upon a small white chapel near the river basin. Drawing his Army-issue Colt Revolver, he entered the house of worship. The sound of his heavy, mud-crusted boots failed to alert the single parishioner . . . a man kneeling, weeping, and praying.

The prayer was so fervent, that Esau walked unnoticed upon the penitent.

“Well, well, well,” he said, leveling his weapon. “If it ain’t one of General Lee’s Johnny Rebs, making his peace with the Lord.”

The man, as if deaf, continued to pray. Tears streamed down his grimy face, wetting the medals on his gray coat.

“You’re caught,” Esau said, shaking the Colt at the man’s uncapped head. Esau scanned the room, his eyes landing on a tidy pile of the man’s property: cap, sword, and pistol. “You’ll have plenty of time to talk to the Lord while you’re holed up in Anderson Encampment . . . along with the other Rebel traitors.”

Unabated, the man prayed: “Lord, you know my plight. I ask not that I be granted grace, for I am unworthy. It is for my wife, Rachel, that I beseech your mercies. Lord, within her womb life grows. Her letters tell of a troubled pregnancy, one fraught with dire signs and symptoms. Only you can assuage her pain; only you can deliver our progeny. In your precious name I pray, amen.”

Esau was moved, but still vigilant. “I let you say your piece, Johnny, time to put them hands behind you. I’m going to tie you up with my belt and” –

“It’s Jacob,” the soldier said, head still bowed.

“Jacob,” Esau repeated. “I don’t care if it’s John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt. If you back-sass me, you’ll soon be talking to the Good Lord in person.”

“Jacob Graham Gideon,” he continued. “Second Lieutenant in General Robert E. Lee’s Army of the Confederate States of America. And that’s all you’ll get out of me, Blue Coat.”

Esau stepped back, almost pitching over a pew. “Gideon? Did you say Gideon?”

Second Lieutenant Jacob Graham Gideon repeated his prefabricated speech.

Esau dipped the pistol. “I’m a Gideon. Out of Connecticut, but originally from central Tennessee. You any kin to them Gideons?”

For the first time, the man at the altar lifted his face and met Esau’s eyes. The two men, under the Birchwood steeple of Shiloh Chapel, clapped their left hands over their respective mouths in uncanny synchronicity. Behind their hands, they screamed.

Esau pointed the pistol, shaking it like a wand to ward off hexes. “You look,” he stammered, and the other man finished, “Just like me.”

“Holy Christ!” they said in two-part harmony.

Despite the pistol between them, Jacob stood and approached his doppelganger, studying his visage. “You’re me, if I was Yankee mule-fucker.”

“And you’re me,” Esau said, tracing the shape of the man’s face with the tip of his pistol, “if I was a sodomite slaver.”

Unprompted, they both broke into rhapsodic rounds of laughter. Knees bent and bodies folded; they clutched their guts and guffawed. Tears sprung from their hazel-gray eyes; spittle sprayed as they gasped and wheezed.”

Jacob finally said, “Does Gideon’s Gulch ring a bell?”

“Vaguely,” Esau said, scratching his head with the barrel of the Colt. “Is it near a creek? A deep creek, named after a girl that drowned there? Nora?”

“Cora,” Jacob corrected. “Cora Creek. How is it we don’t know each other . . . I mean . . . it’s obvious, we’re kin.”

“Brothers,” Esau affirmed.

“Twins,” Jacob posited.

“Identical, for sure,” Esau marveled.

“Your daddy,” Jacob asked, “who is he?”

“My daddy disappeared 20 years back. His name was Isaac Gideon. He weren’t a good father to me. Pawned me off to Old Aunty.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Jacob said, looking at the cross on the wall. “That’s probably why Ma never spoke of him.”

“One time,” Esau recalled, “Daddy mentioned a woman named Rebecca. Is your – our – mother named Rebecca?”

“So it is,” Jacob said. “A hard woman, but fair. God-fearing and zealous.”

“For reasons unknown, Daddy left her,” Esau mused, “and took me along. I remember fragments – I was only this big.” He pointed the gun’s barrel to three feet from the floor. “Took me north, to Connecticut. Not sure why.”

“There was a rumor,” Jacob said, creeping closer, gossiping in God’s House. “That Isaac ran off with a pregnant kitchen slave named Myra. Know anything about that?”

Esau racked his memory. “I had a little negro playmate as a child. Called her Sissy. We thumped marbles and grabbed jacks. And then she was gone.”

“Bet it was Myra’s baby girl,” Jacob deduced. “Rumor was she was totin’ Isaac’s child when they run off.”

Esau laid the gun on the pew and pondered. “Wonder whatever happened to Sissy.” As he finished the sentence, a cannonball crashed through the ceiling of Shiloh Chapel.

“Yanks!” Jacob shouted.

“Rebs!” Esau echoed.

Shingles and timbers rained down upon them. In the chaos, Second Lieutenant Jacob Gideon lunged for the gun. Grasping the grip, he turned the Colt on his twin brother.

“I’m sorry,” Jacob said, “I’ve got family. Rachel, my wife, she’s pregnant. Ma thinks it’s twins.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Esau protested, palms out. “We don’t have to do this. We can both just walk away. I’ll go north, you go south.”

More artillery burst. The ground rumbled with the hooves of war horses. Ready or not, the battle was coming, dragging the war in its wake.

“It’s too late,” Jacob said, brushing dust from the medals on his gray coat. “We’re surrounded. If you’re seen leaving freely, I’ll be shot by General Lee. If I’m seen leaving freely, Grant will hang you as a coward.”

“We’ll take our chances,” Esau argued. “War’s a fog. We can hide, get lost in it.”

“Rachel,” Jacob said, opening a silver locket with her photo. “I can’t, Esau. I can’t risk it. She’s frail. She won’t survive without me. I’m sorry, you’re under arrest by the authority of the Confederate Army of the United Sta”–

A fusillade of shells bombarded the chapel. Projectiles pulverized the pulpit and upended pews. Flaming hymnal flapped across the hall like burning birds. Stained glass shattered and the cross of Jesus burst into blazes.

A crossbeam fell from the rafters, crashing down upon Jacob. The collision caused him to drop the gun, which spun like a toy on the hardwood floor.

Esau picked up the gun. He pointed it at his twin brother, Jacob.

“Help me,” Jacob cried, from under the simmering timber.

Esau observed the absurd situation. The crossbeam had pinned his brother. It was as if he were watching himself, trapped, helpless, squirming for freedom. Esau was torn. The man was his enemy and the man was his brother.

Esau bent to lever the kindled timber, using his thigh as a fulcrum. As he did, the noises of war swarmed. Orders from men on horses, the wood-wheel rumble of caissons, sabers striking sabers, reports from pistols and muskets and cannons – all a part of the cacophony of war.

The burning timber wouldn’t budge. Esau changed tactics; he grabbed Jacob’s gray coat and tugged.

“Save me,” Jacob pleaded. “I’ll go to Anderson Encampment and wait out this misbegotten war. I just need to get back to Rachel.”

“I’m trying,” Esau grunted, pulling with all his might.

“Hurry, brother, I’m burning!”

So he was, Esau saw. The flaming timber had fallen across his legs, and it had torched his woolen trousers. Concussed by pounding mortars and hammering cannons, Esau struggled. He pulled so mightily that Jacob’s gray coat gave way, stripping his torso.

When it became clear that his efforts were futile, Esau stopped and regarded the uncanny clone. Helpless, he watched the fire march up Jacob’s shins, to his thighs, to his groin.

Esau could smell his brother’s burning flesh. He was amazed by Jacob’s serenity. Even as the teeth of heat gnawed on his nerves, Jacob remained calm, almost beatific.

“Esau,” the burning man said. “I need you to promise me.” He coughed and black wreaths of smoke seeped from his nostrils.

“Promise what, Jacob?”

“Rachel,” he said, “take care of her . . . and the babies.”

“No, no, Jacob,” Esau balked. “I can’t do that. I wasn’t raised right. I don’t know nothin’ about wives and rearing kids.”

Jacob reached out his hand. “Take my hand, Esau,” he said sweetly. “Shake it. When it’s shook, I want you to shoot me. When I’m shot, you’ll take off your blue coat and put on my gray. Then you’ll go to Gideon’s Gulch and tend my family – your family.”

Esau was mesmerized. The burning man could not be denied. He took Jacob’s hand and shook it. When it was done, he shot the Rebel between his hazel-gray eyes, putting him out of their mutual miseries.

The deed done, Esau regarded his brother’s sooty gray coat. No, he decided, the request was too great. Promise be-damned.

Then, in the palm of his hand, he observed a burning sensation. A blister arose, bearing the brand of his brother’s locket. The heat of their handshake had emblazoned the shape of the silver locket on his palm.

Marauding soldiers beat on the clapboard walls of Shiloh Chapel. It was Rebels, he saw – the godless enemy.

Panicked, he stripped off his blue coat and wrapped himself in the ashen gray coat. A soldier with a walrus mustache approached him with a Springfield rifle. “You there, turn around real slow-like.”

Esau turned, his Colt dangling from his scalded hand.

“Jake Gideon,” the mustachioed soldier hollered. “You dumb sumbitch . . . we thought we’d lost ya.”

***

For the next six weeks, Esau faked and feigned his way through ceremonies and promotions. Esau, in the guise of Jacob Gideon, was credited with the first Rebel Kill in what was to be known as the Battle of Shiloh. He squirmed and blushed as President Jefferson Davis personally pinned the Medal of Valor upon his chest. When asked for details, Esau claimed that he’d been struck on the head by a timber and had lost portions of memory.

In the dead of night, the cry of a baby triggered the memory of his promise to his twin brother. On leave, in Memphis, Esau sat up, his body burning with fever. It was strange that a baby should be crying in a brothel in the Red Light district of Memphis, but the sound was unmistakable. He got up from the whore’s bed, donned his uniform, and walked down the hallway of the establishment, listening intently at each door. When he thought he’d found the right room, he burst in.

“That baby . . .” he started.

The whore sprung from atop her client and rushed to the crib to protect her child. She was naked and plump, and her breasts were pendulous with milk. “You don’t need to bother yourself with my baby,” she warned.

“No ma’am, I don’t,” Esau said. “Just wanted to make sure I wasn’t crazy.”

“That don’t mean you ain’t,” the client said, pointing his Derringer at Esau.

“It don’t,” Esau admitted. “But it does mean something.”

“What’s that?” the whore asked, quieting the child with her breast.

Esau answered with a question: “Either of you know which way it is to Gideon’s Gulch?”

***

Esau lit out that night, riding a stolen horse, wearing stolen valor. Two days later, he arrived in Gideon’s Gulch. The scene was surreal. As his horse trotted past fields of wilted tobacco, he watched shirtless black men bend and harvest the broad, brown leaves. He watched black women beat laundry with rocks on the banks of Cora Creek. He watched black children paint the tobacco shacks white, and the barn red.

She’s turned it into a goddamn plantation, he thought.

As the devil appears when named, so did Rebecca Gideon . . . his mother.

“Jacob,” she shouted from the porch, shotgun half raised. “That you, Jacob Gideon?

Esau raised his hands and smiled, hoping it was what Jacob would do. “It’s me, Ma,” he shouted. “Sure as eggs is eggs.”

The tall, plain woman laid down the weapon and ran to him. “Jacob,” she panted, “I knew you’d come. Rachel is poorly. She’s laid up with them babies in her. There’s a war in her very womb, Jacob. I sense it.”

Jacob dismounted and was led to the bedroom of his brother’s wife. There lie the angelic Rachel. The brand on his palm itched and prickled. Jacob was right, this woman was worth killing for. Worth dying for.

“Jacob,” Rachel cried, “is this a fever dream? Is it really you, my love?”

“It is I,” he said, the first and last lie to his wife. He laid his hot palm on her turbulent belly and stroked. “Ma think it’s twins.”

Just then a black girl bustled into the room. She laid a tray of cool cloths on the night stand and fussed. “Miss Rachel don’t need no gawkers. She’s got babies to be birthed. Now y’all scat. Sissy’s got this.”

Rebecca led her son to the kitchen. There they sat, catching up on the 8 months Jacob had been gone, and the 23 years Esau had been gone.

“Jacob,” Rebecca said, “you seem different. Distant, somehow.”

“War, Ma,” he said. “It plays devil with a man’s head. I took a lick and lost some recollections. Got this medal for it, but would trade it for my memories. Can we just sit here and reminisce?”

Over a meal of fatted calf and cornpone, the mother and son talked. Esau absorbed the information, instantly incorporating it into the character he was playing.

“That bossy black girl, Sissy,” he asked. “She seems familiar.”

“Sissy,” Rebecca laughed. “You did take a lick, son. She’s your father’s bastard daughter. He sent her back from Connecticut after he got locked up. You two grew up together; thumped marbles and grabbed jacks.”

“Daddy got locked up?”

“Sure did,” Rebecca said. “Got tangled up with that terrorist John Brown.”

“The abolitionist?” Esau asked. “The one that blew up the armament at Harpers Ferry?”

Rebecca eyeballed him sideways. “You’ve got some proper recall, Jacob. Just seems to be in the direction of hanged seditionists.”

Esau suddenly felt like the imposter he was. He ate greedily, asking for red-eye gravy.

“You’ve never been one for gravy,” Rebecca said.

“Army taught me to try new things,” he countered. “We had a cook that could turn skunk into sirloin.”

They both laughed and chatted as an ancient black lady cleared the table and scrubbed the dishes.

As they retired to the porch, Esau rolled a cigarette from his tobacco pouch.

“Army teach you to smoke, too,” Rebecca asked.

“Only way we could take a break,” he said. “Otherwise, they’d work us to death.”

Rebecca snatched the burning cigarette from his mouth and tossed it into the rain barrel.

“Why’d you do that?”

“Jacob G. Gideon is allergic to tobacco,” she stated. “Two puffs and your glands will swell up like fish gills.”

“Oh,” he said, pointing to his head. “Guess I forgot . . . that lick I took in Shiloh Chapel.”

“You were always a pious boy, Jacob,” she said. “Not one to lie, cheat, or steal.”

“You raised me right, Ma,” he said.

She leaned in close to him as if to study the medals on his chest. Instead, she traced her finger over his embroidered name. “Jacob G. Gideon,” she recited. “Gerald, after your grandfather.”

Esau felt tested. Hadn’t Jacob given the middle name Graham?

Esau smiled noncommittedly. There was a long, awkward pause. Then he punctured the silence. “Why do we keep them, Ma?” he asked. “The slaves?”

Rebecca now found herself back-footed. “Labor, of course. Who’s supposed to plant and harvest the tobacco? Me and your sickly wife?”

“We could hire men – seasonal workers, like they do up north,” he offered. “That way we ain’t paying room and board all year ‘round. It’s better for us . . . and for them.”

“Them is negros,” Rebecca seethed. “Black animals. Beasts of burden. I know what’s best for the lazy lot of them.”

Esau felt her fervor, but pressed. “Okay, keep them on task. But free them. Allot them acreage to grow what they please, then take a percentage of the yield. It’s a proven system, it’s practiced in” –

“Connecticut,” she said, cutting him off. “Where your daddy runned off with that kitchen bitch?”

Esau was caught out. Rebecca smelled his deception. “You’re not Jacob,” she said. “Jacob would never question the noble traditions of our motherland.”

“I went to war for it,” he said.

“Went to war for who,” Rachel hissed. “The Blue or the Gray?”

The tension was sliced by a fusillade of unholy screams. “Rachel,” they said, and ran up the stairs.

***

The amber glow of candlelight did little to suffuse the garish reds with which the room was painted.

“Blood,” Esau gasped. “Blood everywhere.” He went into battle-mode. He grabbed Sissy by the shoulders and demanded a report.

“She’s bleedin’ somethin’ fierce,” Sissy said. “Them twins is tearin’ her apart.”

Rebecca dipped between her daughter-in-law’s knees. “We can’t save them both,” she said flatly.

“We can,” Sissy countered. “Fetch me hot water. Clean sheets to sop with. And I need you two out of my way.”

Rachel pitched her head and howled. Her neck rose in relief with great, straining veins.

“Push, Miss Rachel,” Sissy cajoled. “They’s comin’ out back-assward so you’re gonna have to push twice as hard.”

“One must be sacrificed,” Rachel intoned. She then fell to her knees and prayed by the bedside.

Esau couldn’t help but recall his initial memory of the True Jacob, praying at the altar in Shiloh Chapel. He wondered if his mother prayed like this when she gave him away.

“There’s a foot,” Sissy celebrated. “There’s the other one. Five little piggies on each.”

A geyser of blood sprang forth, splashing the ceiling. Rachel paled and her pupils tumbled.

“We’re losing her,” Esau said, surprised by his genuine love.

Sissy pulled on the child. Esau envisioned himself, tugging on his brother . . . to no avail.

“More sheets,” Sissy shouted. “Too much blood. I can’t see what I’m doin’.”

As Rebecca prayed, Esau bunched sheets between Rachel’s thighs, soaking the flow.

Between screams, Rebecca prayed: “The Lord sayeth, you shall give unto Him the first fruits of your grain, of your new wine, of your shearing sheep, and of your children.”

“Ma,” Esau shouted. “Stop it! You’re not helping!”

Sissy worked, only stopping to wipe her hands, to secure her grip on the slippery babies. “They’s fightin’ me,” she said, breathless. “Not only that, they’s fightin’ each other.”

“You have to save them,” Esau said. “I promised Jacob.”

Sissy turned and looked at him in the amber candlelight. In that moment, she knew his secret. “I’m tryin’,” she cried. “Lord knows I’m tryin’.” She leaned in and re-doubled her efforts.

Out came a baby, as blue as a Harvest Moon.

“Here,” she said, “take it. Spank it till it cries. That chile ain’t breathin’ right.

Rebecca wailed at the sight of her grandson. “Happy is the one who seizes the infants and dashes them on rocks.”

Sissy slapped her master with her bloody hand and knocked her sprawling, unconscious, to the floor. She then returned to her task. “Push,” she demanded. “You can do this, Miss Rachel. One more push.”

“I can’t,” Rachel sighed, resigned to die in her marital bed. “I simply . . . can . . . not.”

With the blue infant in the crook of his arm, Esau stepped forward and took her wan hand. He pressed his palm to hers and pleaded, “Please, Rachel. One more push. For me. For Jacob.”

Rachel opened her eyes and smiled. “For you, my dear husband . . . anything.”

With the strength afforded only females, she pushed. Heroically, she expelled the child at the expense of her own life.

“She did it,” Esau shouted, admiring the still, gray baby. “He’s perfect.”

Sissy swaddled the second child and shook her head sadly. “He is perfect, Mr. Gideon. He’s up in heaven with the Lord. Perfect.”

“What?” Esau gasped. “He’s dead?”

“He’s with the Lord,” Sissy repeated. “She then looked over at Rachel, drained of her own life. A white orchid in a garden of wet roses.

“No,” Esau shouted.

Sissy kissed the cherubic lips of the child and closed Rachel’s eyes. “With the Lord, Mr. Gideon. But more important . . . he’s with his Mama.”

Esau placed the blue baby at his mother’s left breast, and Sissy placed the gray baby at her right. Esau then removed the medal presented to him by President Jefferson Davis, and laid it over the heart of his brother’s wife, Rachel Gideon.

As he spoke of her courage, sacrifice, and valor, the blue baby began to cry.

The End

If you’ve already read the other two stories and are ready to vote, click HERE<<<Link and you’ll be taken to the voting poll.

If you’ve not read the other two stories, they can be found at the following links:

Voyager <<Link

Virgil Wins the Lottery <<Link

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