Following the Eagle Excerpt

Native American beadwork

by Paulie Jenkins

Native American beadwork

Part 1

September 1863 – March 1864


The smell of damp earth and rotting leaves greeted him as consciousness slowly returned.  The pounding in his skull was excruciating.  He drew a halting breath against it, then moaned as nausea gripped him and bile burned the back of his throat.  When his stomach settled, he shifted slightly, turning his face out of the dirt, hungering for a breath of fresh air.  The resulting explosion of pain nearly caused him to black out again.

As the throbbing in his head began to ease, he became aware of protests from other parts of his body.  His left thigh hurt, and a dull ache emanated from his shoulders.  He tried moving his arms, but met with resistance.  What the . . .? he thought dully, then realized his hands were tied behind him.  He lay without moving, waiting for his head to clear.  When memory returned, it came in a rush.

Stupid! After all these months, he’d walked right into them.

He had come riding up from the south early that morning, pushing his tired mount hard, just as he had all the way from Macon.  The sun was barely brushing the treetops when the first scattered pops of musketry reached him.  The gunfire increased, joined by the boom of artillery and the shrieking whistle of flying shells, building to a roar as the battle ahead intensified.

Topping a ridge, he saw gunsmoke wafting above the trees in the wide valley separating him from Missionary Ridge. Too late, he thought, kicking his horse into a headlong gallop.  With a battle raging, the papers he carried were of little value—none, unless he could get through to the Union lines quickly.

The movement of Confederate troops south of Chickamauga Creek brought him up sharply, blocking his westward course and forcing him to retreat.  Abandoning the road for the relative safety of the woods, he picked his way through dense underbrush, around soggy bottoms and over fallen trees, further hampered by fingers of dense fog that snaked out from the creek.

Approaching Thedford Ford, he nearly collided with a company of infantry, their movements ghostly in the mist.  Doubling back, he found a wooded area between cleared fields where the trees grew thick to the edge of the creek.  He urged his reluctant horse down the steep bank, riding through belly-deep water until he found a way up the other side.  Beyond the untamed strip bordering the creek, the forest ended.  The fog lifted on a breath of wind, and for a moment, there was sunlight and all around him open fields.

He retrieved his haversack and let the horse go, thinking he would stand a better chance of getting back to Union lines on foot.  He tried going west, then north, but all around him enemy troops were on the move.

The day warmed; the last remnants of fog dissipated.  Sunlight filtered through the autumn canopy, catching the haze of gunsmoke in dancing, shifting beams.  Keeping to the woods as much as possible, he avoided open fields and the few scattered farmhouses, skirting the ever-changing boundaries of the battle and dodging gray and butternut-clad troops.  In places, where livestock had been allowed to roam free, and the forest was grazed clear of underbrush, he found the going relatively easy.  In others, thick tangles of vegetation slowed him down, stopping him a couple of times, and forcing him to backtrack.

As the day wore on, the layer of smoke beneath the forest canopy thickened, diffusing the light and cutting visibility by half.  More than once, he ducked from movement, only to discover that light and shadow were playing tricks on him.

He had given up, was heading south, retreating from what appeared to be the entire Confederate army, when they spotted him.  Their approach masked by the cacophony of battle, a battery of artillery was almost upon him when he stepped from a tangle of vegetation onto the road north of Dalton Ford.  He froze, squinting through the haze, trying to make out the color of their uniforms.  When he saw who they were, he scrambled back toward the cover of the thicket, but his hesitation cost him.  They were on him in an instant.

Thinking back, he knew it had been a mistake to run.  Like admitting guilt.  Even so, he might have made it if they hadn’t got in a lucky shot.

The wound to his left thigh hadn’t stopped him, but it had slowed him down.  He’d put up a fight, but it hadn’t done much good.  More harm than good, he thought ruefully, considering how much of him hurt.  He tried shifting his left leg.  The resulting stab of pain momentarily rivaled the fireworks in his head.

“Hey, you.  You awake?”

The voice, coming from close at hand, startled him.  He opened his eyes.  Too bright!  Pinwheels of pain exploded in his head.  He screwed his eyes shut, willing it to stop.

“Hey, you.  I seen ya move.”  Fingers jabbed his shoulder.  “Wake up.”

He opened his eyes, mere slits this time.  Maybe not so bright.  Cautiously, he opened them wider.  A few seconds, and a pair of feet came into focus . . . legs . . . hands on knees.  It came to him that someone was squatting beside him.  A face dipped down close to his.  It too, came into focus.  A kid! he realized with a start.

“Hey, you.  You awake?”  The boy peered closely at him.  “What was ya doin’ runnin’ away back there?  Y’all a deserter?  The lieutenant says mayhaps yo’ a deserter.”  Getting no response, the boy shifted nervously on his haunches.  “You speak English?”

The man on the ground drew breath, tried to speak.  Something between a cough and a croak was all he could manage.  His mouth was bone dry.  He ran his tongue over his lips, tasted blood.  Drawing another breath, he cleared his throat.  It was a mistake.  Until then, he hadn’t thought the pain in his head could get any worse.

When the worst of it subsided, he moved his tongue inside his mouth, trying to work up some spit.  He didn’t have much luck, but he managed a faint whisper.  “Water . . .?”

The boy eyed him uncertainly.  “I dunno . . .” he said, slowly.  “They said I ‘uz to take care.  Said not to git too close.”

“You’re . . . close now.”

There was a flurry of movement as the boy fell backward, skittering away across the ground.  He came to his knees, armed with an ancient musket.

“Won’t hurt you . . . ”  The effort of trying to talk was making the man nauseous; making him want to cough.  He swallowed dryly.  “My canteen?”

When the boy didn’t budge, he gave up and closed his eyes.  He was drifting at the outer edge of consciousness when the boy’s voice, coming from a long way off, brought him back.

“Hey, you.  Ya ain’t daid, is ya?”

With supreme effort, he opened his eyes.  The boy had closed the distance between them by half.  Crouched low, he balanced the musket across his knees.

“No.”  The word came softly on a breath of air.

“So, if’n I was to ge’cha some water . . . mayhaps ya won’t die?”

“Try not,” he murmured, wishing the boy would stop tormenting him, would bring him water.

The boy stood up and stepped from sight.  He returned almost immediately, dangling the familiar canteen by its strap.  “I gots it.”  Getting no response, he swung the canteen closer.  “Hey, you.  Injun.  Wha’cha want me to do wit’ it?”

A good question.  He was lying flat on his face in the dirt.  As much as he dreaded the prospect, he was going to have to move if he wanted to drink.  “Help me . . . sit?”

The boy took a hasty step back, slipping the cloth strap of the canteen over his shoulder and hefting the musket.

“Promise . . . won’t hurt you.”

The boy chewed his lip apprehensively and shuffled closer.  “Wha’cha want me to do?”

You’re making this hard, kid.  The man ran a dry tongue over drier lips and forced out the words.  “Lean me . . . against something.”

The boy shifted from one foot to the other, weighing his orders against the prospect of being left alone as the shadows deepened—alone in the dark with a corpse.  He said, “If’n I puts this here gun down, ya ain’t gonna jump me, is ya?”


The boy stood undecided for several moments.  Then he stepped closer and hunkered down, cradling the musket.  “Ya swear?”


The boy considered him a moment longer before laying the musket on the ground.

The next few minutes were excruciating.  The man drifted in and out of consciousness as the boy rolled him onto his side, pulled his legs around, and propped him against a fallen tree.  That accomplished, the boy retrieved his musket and squatted with it across his knees, waiting for his captive to recover.

The ordeal had cost the man his vision.  When it returned, he saw that they were in a tiny clearing, trees and undergrowth pressing in all around.  His legs were roughly bound at the ankles, and someone had tied a strip of cloth around his left thigh.  It was stained with blood, none of it fresh.  Doesn’t look too bad, he thought with relief.  Lucky.

“Hey, you.  Ya want this here water?”

The man looked up.  He started to nod, but a burst of pain stopped him.  “Yes.”

His prisoner’s change in position made the boy nervous.  He came as close as he dared, and leaning on the musket for support, stretched out an arm and tilted the canteen against the man’s lips.

More water went down his front than into his mouth, but the portion that made it in tasted good.  His thirst sated, the man looked to where the boy had retreated at the far side of the clearing.  He was a scrawny runt of a thing, barely as tall as the musket he was holding.  The ragged gray coat he wore was too big, hanging past his knees, and turned back at the cuffs to expose tiny hands.  An unruly lock of straight, mouse-brown hair hung between his eyes.  The aggression and fear in those eyes belied the cherubic look of the rest of his face.

“Thanks,” the man said, wishing the boy would relax, wishing he’d point the musket somewhere else.  “What’s your name?”

“Seth,” came the cautious reply.

The man’s lips twitched, a sad, fleeting smile.  “Seth,” he repeated.  “I had a brother named Seth.  He was killed in the fighting.”  He blinked against a sudden burning in his eyes.  His brothers had been raring to go the day they’d left the family farm to fight the Rebels.  He’d wanted desperately to go with them, but everyone said he was too young.  The look in his mother’s eyes kept him from arguing.  Six months later, word had come that Seth was dead, killed in Arkansas at a place called Pea Ridge.  Another six months, and he’d run away, joining his three remaining brothers with the 36th Illinois, Sheridan’s 11th Division, at Louisville, Kentucky.

“What’s yo’ name?”

Seth’s voice jolted him back to the present.

“Hey, you!  I said, what’s yo’ name?”

The man studied Seth, deciding what to tell him.  He figured the truth probably wouldn’t hurt.  “Ethan,” he muttered, remembering belatedly to mask his northern accent.  “M’ name’s Ethan.”

“You a deserter?”


“A Yank?”


“Then why’d you run?”

Ethan lifted one shoulder in a shrug.

“I ain’t got no use fo’ Yanks,” Seth announced.  He pointed a thumb at his chest, his voice quivering with false bravado.  “I’s a loader fo’ the cannon.  Hepin’ drive them Yanks back north where they belongs.”  Sounding less sure of himself, he added, “But t’day, the lieutenant, he says they’s too many trees fo’ cannon, so’s he tol’ me to wait here wit’ you.”

At the mention of cannon, Ethan gave his full attention to the thump of artillery that persisted to the north and west.  Even as daylight waned, the battle continued to rage.  Frustration welled up, and he jerked angrily at his bonds.  His head and leg exploded in agony.  He moaned and sagged against the tree.

Seth leapt backward, leveling the musket at Ethan’s chest and pulling back the flint.  “Hey!  Don’chu go doin’ that again, or I’s gonna shoot!”

“Calm down, Seth,” Ethan muttered.  “I ain’t gonna hur’cha none.”  He glowered until the boy lowered the musket, then closed his eyes.

I should never have gone to Macon!  He’d been saddled up, ready to ride north, when Price demanded he go south instead.  Sitting bound against the tree, Ethan cursed him.  But for the wasted trip to Macon, the papers he carried would be safe in Union hands.  And maybe, once they’d been delivered, he would have obtained permission to see his brothers.  He hadn’t seen them since spring, when as far as they were concerned, he’d simply vanished.

He had gone into his first battle at Perryville naively confident that it would be the stuff of legends, glorious and heroic.  Nothing had prepared him for the sheer horror of it; for the sights and sounds and smells of it; for the large number of hideously maimed, for the indiscriminate slaughter.  His shocked senses had shut down, instinct had taken over, and he had fought, desperate only to survive.  When the fighting ended, he had collapsed on his hands and knees among the dead, and vomited.  His eldest brother, Duncan, had found him, still trembling, and helped him from the field.

Mortified by his display of weakness, and unwilling to have his brothers think him a coward, he’d fought again twelve weeks later at Stones River, then silently thanked God when winter closed in, and Rosecrans’ army settled into inactivity.  Desperate to find an honorable way out of the fighting, he’d listened to rumors that circulated of men working as spies for the Union.  He’d made inquiries, and early one March morning, presented himself at General George Thomas’ headquarters and volunteered.

He had been assigned as courier to a spy, a man he knew only as Price.  For the next six months he’d traveled throughout Georgia and Alabama, and on one occasion, east into the Carolinas.  He returned north periodically, slipping through both armies’ picket lines to relay the intelligence Price gathered before turning south again, headed for their next rendezvous.

Initially, he’d been in awe of Price.  Poised, rakishly handsome, accustomed to money and all that came with it, Price had swept him under his wing.  It hadn’t taken long for Ethan to figure out that beneath the smooth charm and genial smile, lurked a ruthless soul and a cunning mind.  When Price realized Ethan was no longer dazzled, could no longer be manipulated, he let the mask drop and distanced himself from his courier, cutting interaction between them to a minimum.

Ethan had been perfectly happy with the arrangement.  Immersing himself in the South, he’d learned all he could about it.  He had pored over maps of Georgia and Alabama, memorizing them and coming to know their back ways better than most who lived there.

And in the South, he’d made another discovery.  All his life he had suffered taunts of “Injun” and “half-breed.”  Now he found he could make the dark skin, hair and eyes inherited from his mother work to his advantage.  He let his hair grow, took to wearing shabby clothes, and affected the subservient posture slaves assumed around their masters.  To his delight, many whites ignored him.  Assuming he wasn’t clever, wasn’t educated, they talked openly in front of him.  What Ethan saw and heard, he remembered.  Unbeknownst to Price, he used it to supplement the often-meager reports he carried back to the generals in the North.

Life as a courier appealed to him.  He’d thrived on it.  And he was good at it.  Until today.

The thought stopped him.  Today he’d gotten careless.  No, he decided.  Not careless. Just plain exhausted.  There had been the long, added miles from Atlanta to Macon, followed by a nerve-wracking wait for an operative who never showed.  Minutes had stretched into hours until half a day had been wasted.  All the while, he’d been plagued by knowing that time was critical for the information he already carried.  In the end, he’d made the gut-wrenching decision to disobey Price’s orders and begun the long ride north to Chattanooga.  Only to get here too late.

There isn’t much I can do about it now, Ethan told himself.  Except avoid getting hung.

He’d been warned, when he volunteered, that the penalty for spying was death.  And here he was, out of uniform, caught behind enemy lines.  Caught while trying to run.  If I’m lucky, the Rebs won’t find the papers.  If they didn’t, he was almost certain he could convince them he was a Southerner, a civilian—convince them to let him go.  But if they found them, he wasn’t at all sure he’d be able to convince them he was just a courier.  As a courier, he figured he’d wind up in an enemy prison camp.  But as a spy . . .  Ethan shivered.  Better not to think about it.

Another shiver ran through him, and he opened his eyes.  The last of the light was fading.  Deep in the woods, the little clearing had grown quite dark.  Ethan could barely distinguish Seth where he huddled against the undergrowth several feet away.

As the temperature dropped, the cloud of smoke that had hung in the air all day began to settle, filling Ethan’s nose and throat with the acrid smell of burnt gunpowder.  Without thinking, he coughed, re-igniting the agony in his head.  He caught his breath, waiting for it to ease.

It’s going to be a long night, he thought when the worst of it passed.  Cold, too, without a fire.  “It’s cold,” he said to the huddled form.

“A bit,” Seth muttered through chattering teeth.

“How ‘bout a fire?”

“Dunno.  Dunno if’n I should.”

Ethan rolled his eyes heavenward.  Not quick, this one.  He tried to sound encouraging.  “Think on it, Seth.  We got no way a’ knowin’ when someone’ll come fetch us.  Could be we’ll be here all night.  It’ll get mighty cold without a fire, don’cha think?”

“Guess,” came the reluctant reply.

“I’d help if I could.  Do it m’self even.  But since I cain’t, it’s up to you.”  Getting no response, he tried another tack.  “Whadda ya think, Seth?  It’ll help ya to see me better.  Help ya to keep an eye on me.”

That did it.  There was movement on the far side of the clearing, followed by the sounds of Seth blundering about in the underbrush.  He reappeared and dropped an armful of branches near Ethan’s feet.  Repeating the process several times, he knelt beside the pile, pulled his knapsack to him, and dug through it.  A match flared, suddenly bright against the darkness.  The flame steadied, and Seth held it to a pile of twigs and dead leaves.  As the fire took hold, he piled on larger pieces of wood.

Within minutes, Seth was squatting beside a cozy fire, hands held out to warm them.  Some of the heat reached Ethan, enough to ward off the chill, but as the front of him warmed, he became aware of the intense cold at his back.   His hands were numb with it, his neck stiff.  And, he realized, his stomach was cramped with hunger. “Don’t s’pose ya got anythin’ to eat?” he asked hopefully.

The boy shook his head.  “Naa.  What I had, I et while I ‘uz waitin’ fo’ you to wake up.”

Ethan swallowed his disappointment.  He’d downed the last of his provisions just before sun-up and had nothing since.  The hours ahead looked bleak.

They sat for what seemed a very long time, Seth disappearing periodically and returning with wood to keep the little fire going.  Ethan had resigned himself to being there all the night when the sound of muffled voices and plodding hooves reached them.  They both tensed, looking toward the sound.

Seth grabbed his musket.  “See?” he hissed, springing to his feet.  “I tol’ ya we shouldn’a lit no fire!  What if them’s Yanks?”  Before the words were out of his mouth, he melted into the darkness.

There was crashing in the underbrush, and four men appeared at the edge of the light.  Ethan looked down the barrels of four muskets.

“Seth, boy!  Where are ya?”

“I’s here, suh.”  Twigs snapped, and Seth stepped into the clearing.

“Good job, son.  Now let’s be a-goin’.”  The man bent his head toward Ethan.  “Get him.”

They hoisted him up without untying him.  One man grabbed his legs; the other two grasped him under each arm.  They carried him backward, twisting and bumping through the thicket, rekindling the agony in his head and leg.  As his vision blurred, Ethan glimpsed Seth following along behind.  Then the leader kicked dirt over the fire, taking the light.

They slung him on his belly over the back of the horse.  Seth was put up behind him, and they set off.  Blood rushed to his head, lending renewed force to his headache.  A moan escaped him.  With every step the horse took, the pounding intensified.  By the time they arrived at their destination, he had been unconscious for some time.

Native American beadwork