BY STEVE BAILEY
Copyright is held by the author.
SHORTLY AFTER I crawled out of our family tent and began to fix coffee on the portable gas stove, I saw him. The grey of his Confederate uniform was just a shade different than the mist that shrouded our campsite. Thinking he was a re-enactor, I approached to ask him about his craft. As I did, he dissolved like grey smoke from a cigarette.
Neil, my twelve-year-old son, crawled out of the tent and staggered over to the cooler for a glass of milk. Behind him came Mary, my wife, who found a cup and poured herself a coffee. Mary, the family historian, planned this summer camping trip centred around Civil War battlefields.
“You are named after a Confederate ancestor on your father’s side who fought in this conflict,” she told Neil as we drove from the campsite to the battlefield park for a tour.
“Was he in this battle?” Neil asked.
“Private Neil Patterson went missing that day,” she responded. “There were a lot of unidentified Confederate bodies buried in mass graves. That might have been what happened to him.”
During the tour, Mary lingered at one such site, and when I went back to get her, she gave me a strange look. Then, without saying a word, she walked away from me and the mass grave to rejoin the others.
Back at our campsite, Mary prepared dinner on the gas stove while Neil and I went out to gather firewood for the evening campfire. We soon found ourselves on the bank of the Tennessee River. The river was dark and threatening in the evening light.
“Let’s backtrack,” I said.
“But Dad, look, there’s a bunch of deadwood along the riverbank.”
Driftwood, left there by rising floodwaters over the years, lined the muddy shoreline. I decided it was not worth the risk.
” I don’t want you near the edge of that river, son. It has a fast current, and you are not a strong swimmer.”
We returned to our campsite. I drove to a convenience store named “The Trading Post “and bought bundles of split wood. I could tell by the look on his face that Neil was disappointed in his father’s capitulation to the amenities of civilization.
Mary laid dinner out on the weather-worn picnic table, and the three of us discussed the battlefield while we ate. When the subject of the mass grave came up, Mary grew silent, staring off in the direction of the woods where I saw the mysterious Confederate figure that morning.
After dinner, I built the campfire, and we enjoyed S’mores as the remnant of the sun’s light left, and a black night came over us. I was city-raised, and the intense blackness of the moonless, cloudy country night made me uneasy. I lit the gas lantern.
“We need more wood for the fire,” Neil said.
“No, Neil,” I replied. “It’s getting late and time for us to get some sleep.”
“But we need the fire to protect us,” the boy said.
“A fire is not a night light, son. For it to burn through the night, someone has to stay up feeding it wood.”
“I can do that,” Neil replied.
“No, you can’t,” Mary replied sharply. Then she softened her tone. “You can put your sleeping bag between dad and me, and you will have us on either side to protect you.”
We rearranged the sleeping bags and crawled into them. When the last light of the lantern flickered out, I felt my son’s body next to me stiffen and my disquiet escalate.
Sometime later that night, my restless sleep was interrupted by the glow of a flashlight. Mary was leaning over me.
“Neil is gone,” she said. ” I cannot find him anywhere.”
I sat up and felt his sleeping bag. Both son and his flashlight were missing.
I scrambled out of the tent and relit the lantern. Then, with it in one hand and my flashlight in the other, I retraced the steps Neil and I had taken toward the river earlier.
Mary, with her flashlight, walked in the opposite direction.
“Neil,” I called out as I walked. The shadows of trees appeared and disappeared in the lantern’s light .”
“Neil,” Mary called out. I could see the beam of her flashlight arching in a semicircle as she swept it across the blackness.
I kept my flashlight’s beam in front of me so I would see the river before falling into it. The river came up suddenly, and beyond the range of my artificial lights, it was as black as the night that surrounded it.
I walked downstream until I saw something glowing in the water. It was Neil’s watertight flashlight shining up from the bottom of the river. I ran the beam of my flashlight over the surface of the river but saw nothing. Panic began to absorb me. I then ran the beam of light across the land, and there, lying in a clump of bushes, I saw Neil. I quickly moved away from the river and towards my son.
He was unconscious but breathing, drenched. How did he end up here, some twenty feet away from the water? I set the lantern on the ground next to him, then turned and, facing the direction of the campsite, called out.
“Mary! I found Neil.”
I listened for her response but heard nothing. I could no longer see the beam of her flashlight.
The recumbent youngster opened his eyes and looked at me with a confused face.
“Why are you not in your Confederate uniform?” he whispered.
“Neil, it’s me, your father.”
Again, I turned my face towards the campsite.
“Mary, I found Neil.”
“Dad?” Niel asked.
“Yes, son. What happened to you?”
“I was pulled from the water by someone looking like you only in a Confederate uniform. He said he must save his namesake. Am I your namesake, Dad?”
“No. A namesake has the same name. The only person in the family line that would be your namesake . . .” I stopped. A cold, frightening feeling ran through me. The lantern flickered, and its glow turned dim. I reached for my flashlight, but it was not where I had set it down. At that moment, I noticed the tightly clenched fist of Neil’s right hand.
“What’s in your hand, Neil?’
He loosened his fingers and exposed an old locket.
“The namesake gave it to me,” Neil murmured. “He said he would not need it anymore after tonight.”
I opened the tiny ornament and saw a faded black and white photo. I held the locket close to the dying lantern’s light to see the image better. It was a picture of my wife. The lantern went out.
“Mary!” I screamed into the empty blackness.