Some projects live and some projects die. This shouldn’t come as revelatory to anyone who’s ever attempted to write a large manuscript, hell it shouldn’t come across as revelatory to anyone who’s tried to read a long novel. Sometimes it’s best to put a suffering book out of its misery (it saves readers a lot of pain.) My hard drive is littered with the corpses of mercy-killed projects. Turns out I’m a tough critic when it comes to my own work. But I love each of my manuscripts no matter how lumpy or misshapen they are. They certainly aren’t all bad. Parts of them contain my favorite stories I’ve ever written.
I will spend the foreseeable future slicing away the good meat from the bone and bringing to you the choice cuts from my fallen manuscripts. I am reticent to call this process butchering, but when the knife fits…
Some days I will bring you burgers, others fillet mignon, but I will always bring you a piece I find nourishing and one that has stuck with me over the years.
Please enjoy an excerpt from a novel called “The Salt and the Darkness” set in the Oregon Territory just after the Civil War. In it, an exciting and horrified scene is experienced from the medics tent just outside the battlefield. I remember enjoying the section about canon firing procedures and the dance-step quality to it. I remember liking the environment of the field medics and how the scene awed even them. You have to work pretty hard to rattle a doctor.
THE SALT AND THE DARKNESS:
The 75th infantry’s artillery was late to the battle. Two twelve-pounder napoleans took time and manpower to maneuver down the rocky prarie hills, and once they were placed behind the protection of the ribbony creek, they were equally cumbersome to evacuate. Four stout privates muscled the twenty kegs of black powder down the loping grade, stacking them neatly in an easily accessible pyramid equidistant from the two stately canons.
The entire set-up took almost an hour to complete, which was far longer than Lt. Dobson would have preferred, but with his final pieces in place, the lieutenant was assured the victory he so desired over the rebels.
Dobson gave his Seargant (the Chief of the Piece) authority to begin his platoon’s firing procedures, who in turn ordered his two gunners to their tasks. “Load!” shouted both corporals in near perfect unison, and their men sprang into the clock-like action of loading and pointing each canon. Two.Three.Four. “Sponge!” shouted both Corporals in time. Each platoon’s Number One, shoved his long-sticked bristle brush into his respective canon’s mouth, cleaning it out to the bottom of the bore. Two.Three.Four. Once the Number Two had added the charge, both Corporals gave the order to “RAM!”, and the Number One drove the cartridge round home. Each Number One removed his rammer head and stepped back beyond the width of the caisson’s wheels. Two.Three. “Ready!” The Corporals oversaw the final checks of the primer, and for a full four seconds, no man moved.
The entire loading procedure had taken less than two minutes, and in that time, Lt. Dobson noticed a plume of smoke rising on the far side of the creek directly opposite the mounting of the two iron beasts. Rain was an ever-present concern for any black powder artillery; the volatile mixture – which was finicky even under ideal circumstances – was rendered completely unreliable when wet. Even so, Lt. Dobson found himself praying for a summer storm to extinguish whatever brushfire was beginning to blossom directly ahead. He could make due without the use of canons for the remainder of the battle – it wasn’t preferable, but damn it, it was better than the chaos that would ensue if the powder went up.
“Hold!” cried Dobson, which was soon echoed by both Corporals. “Do not procede!”
The lieutenant called for a retreat of both caissons beyond the safety of the rocky knoll, and the teams set to their orders. Confederates had made it a habit to ambush Union artillery platoons throughout much of the West, making off with countless (extremely valuable) United States canons. Dobson had often watched his own men struck down by the very weapons they had marched with all the way from Ohio, and the napoloeans had proven a particularly prized spoil – highly regarded for their long range and relative ease of mobility. The platoons, at the behest of Dobson, moved the canons first. That would prove a miscalculation.
What stopped Henry from cleaning the remaining gore from his table was the light. It stopped him mid swipe. Even from a quarter-mile, the intensity forced his eyes to slits. Several surgeons dropped their tools, which plunked delicately into the thin crimson pond pooling at their feet like stones dropping into water, and starred. Henry didn’t even feel the bucket slip through his hand – didn’t even remember it was there. And only Dr. Prine turned when it clattered against the wooden operating platform, spilling its ghastly contents.
The light drew the medics in as if they were moths; even the patients blessedly spared their mobility crained to see what was happening. It drew them all. And then, with the power of continents, the blast opened its mouth.
Henry felt the sound wave hit his stomach like the tide crashes the shore. He felt a rush of warm air shove him backwards, and had to shuffle his feet like a drunk to maintain balance. A wounded soldier screamed, but no one rushed to soothe him. Then it was over. The medics look to eachother as if they possessed an answer.
Dr. Prine feared that some of the younger men would retreat to safety over the rocky draw, hell, if he didn’t have a responsibility to his wounded soldiers, that’s what he would do. That explosion was bigger than any artillery he’d ever heard. Prine wanted to give the assistants a reassuring word, to let them know that this kind of blast wasn’t unheard of in a time of war, but found his mouth conspicuously empty. Indeed, the very thought sounded like a lie in his own head, so the doctor forced his mouth into a smile and turned his face to Henry’s. The boy ran.
The boy ran towards the explosion.
Check back for more stories both long and short, plays, essays, scripts, poems. Anything I can hack away, I will serve up. Even the fallen deserve their day in the sun.