May The River Run Red

A fictional short story by Robert M. Roberts

Ten year old Joey Mills was beaming with excitement in the summer of 1958. He had just gotten word that his grandparents had bought a farm outside of Peoria, and he had been invited to spend the summer with them. No more boring Chicago, he thought, as his mother helped him pack for the trip.

The three hour drive to Peoria passed quickly while he bombarded his parents with questions about country life. As they arrived, he saw his grandparents waving from the front porch. Joey’s eyes scanned the area and saw the green fields and the old barn that stood in the distance. As the grownups hugged and chatted, Joey took in a deep breath of fresh air and compared the smells of the country to that of the city. He was a little disappointed at the absence of farm creatures, but he was still glad to be away from the city and knew he had a lot of exploring to do over the next couple of months.
A little while later he kissed his parents’ goodbye and they reassured him that they would return to pick him up before the start of the school year. He waved at the back of their car as it drove down the dirt road and disappeared from view.

After a piece of his grandma’s apple pie, he was off to explore his new surroundings. On his way to the barn, he passed by the modest garden of corn and other plants that wasn’t familiar to him. The barn was old with big, creaky doors, and contained rusted farm implements and tools. At the back of the barn there was a ladder leading up to the loft where several bales of hay had been left by the previous owner. His grandfather had mentioned to him that he planned to eventually get some cows and maybe even a horse, so the hay would come in handy. He swung open the upper doors of the loft and had a good view of the countryside. Farm houses dotted the large green fields that stretched as far as the eye could see. He noticed that the skies were clear blue, instead of brown like they were in the city.

Joey started to wonder if he might get bored this summer because no other kids were around. The country was so quiet without the noise of cars and trains that he was used to. After a few hours of play in the barn, his grandpa hollered to him that supper was ready. As Joey made his way back to the house he decided that tomorrow he could make a fort with the hay bales if his grandpa didn’t mind.

His Grandma fixed a big supper of fried chicken and all the fixins and then they settled in the living room to watch television. Joey was astounded that they only had one channel instead of his normal 6 channels that he had at home. Between the long car ride, exploring the farm, and the chicken dinner, he fell asleep on the sofa. Grandma woke him up around 10:00 p.m. and helped him to bed. At first, he struggled to go back to sleep. It was just too dang quiet. Finally, his eyelids grew heavy and he was off to slumber land. Hours later, he awoke to the smells of bacon and coffee permeating from the kitchen.

“Oh, wow! Waffles!” he said as he entered the kitchen.

Grandpa pulled out a chair. “You sit right here, Joey. Do you drink coffee at home?”

“No. Mom won’t let me,” he replied.

“Helen, pour Joey a half a cup. He’s a farm boy now,” Grandpa exclaimed.

“Ramona’s going to skin you, Harold,” Grandma replied.

Grandpa winked at Joey and laughed. “It’ll be our little secret, won’t it Joey?”

“You bet, Grandpa,” Joey said with a grin.

Joey dug into his waffles. “Grandpa, can I build a fort up in the loft of the barn with the hay bales?”

“Sure,” Grandpa said.

Helen spoke up. “I think that’s a little dangerous.”

“Hogwash,” Harold said. “That’s what’s wrong with Ramona. You made her scared of everything.”

“Hogwash?” Grandma laughed. “I’ve never heard you say that before. Aren’t you now the country bumpkin?”

Joey sipped on the coffee and made a grimacing face. Soon he was off to the barn to build the fortress of straw. To his surprise, the bales of hay were a lot heavier than he had anticipated. He struggled as he stacked them two high on each side and two in the back. It really needed a roof, so it took all the strength he could muster to stack the last ones three high. At last the fort was complete. An old broom was the closest thing he could find that resembled a rifle. He picked it up and crawled inside, peering out of an opening and waited for the anticipated Indian attack. He made “pow-pow” sounds, and the avengers fell, one by one. Then, he noticed something looked odd on the floor of the barn where the last bale of hay had been moved. One of the boards in the floor was very short, only about a foot in length. Joey crawled out of the fort to get a better look. The board wasn’t nailed down, so he pried it up with his fingers, and leaned back as if he was expecting a spider to jump out. He couldn’t believe what he saw. It was a book. As he picked it up, he blew off the dust and rubbed the remainder of the dirt off the surface. It smelled musty and there was no printing on the front that looked to be made of leather. As he opened the cover, the outer edges of the pages were stained brownish yellow, but the blue handwritten words, although a little smeared, were still legible. It was a diary. A soldier’s diary. He read aloud the date at the top of the page. “October 12, 1862.”

Joey braced his back against the fort and tried to calculate in his head how many years ago that had been. “Wow, 1862!”

He soon dismissed the arithmetic. His small finger moved beneath each sentence as he began to read. It was the journal of 16 year old Cody Westfall, a corporal in the Confederate Army from Tennessee. Joey was mesmerized by what he read on each page, even though he didn’t understand a lot of the terminology or even much about the Civil War, except what he had seen on television. His eyes remained glued to each page. He only put the book down occasionally to utter “wow” or “man.” As he read the last two pages, his heart began to pound as the young corporal prepared for battle.

April 23, 1863
     We made camp last night after coming up from Arkansas and into southwest Missouri. It’s cold for this time of year and we couldn’t light a campfire ‘cause them Yanks are just a few miles across the river from us. Our Lieutenant said the Injun scouts reported there’s a company of two hundred of them across Hickory Creek near the town of Carthage. We should be able to take‘em easy. Can’t wait to get to that town. We sure are runnin’ low on grub.

The young corporal continued to write in his diary until the light of dawn as they prepared to engage the enemy. Joey began to read the last entry in the journal.

Lieutenant Elijah Combs just gave the morning prayer and told us to get ready to move out. I’m dreadin’ crossing that cold creek more than I’m dreadin’ those damn Yanks. Lieutenant Combs ended the prayer saying, “May the river run red with the blood of the enemy.” He sure has a way with words. Will write again tonight after we kick the shit out of them Yanks, and get to Carthage.

The rest of the pages were blank. Joey closed the book and stared across the barn. There were so many unanswered questions. What happened after that? Were some of the pages missing? Where did this come from? How did this book get to Illinois? He scratched his head and wondered. He felt a deep attachment to the book and the young soldier and held it close to his chest. Hours had slipped by when he heard his grandma call out that it was time for lunch. He immediately put the book back in its hiding place and covered it with a bale of hay.

As the summer months slipped by, Joey had read the book so many times that he almost knew each sentence by heart. He asked his grandpa many questions about the Civil War, but never told him about the book he had found. Grandpa asked him why he was so interested in this subject and Joey fibbed and told him they had studied it in school, even though American history wouldn’t be taught in school for two more years. Grandpa was never the wiser and Joey never asked questions about it again.

The day came when Joey’s parents arrived to pick him up to return to Chicago. He carried a little guilt about taking the book and hiding it in his suitcase. After all, he justified, the book was left there years ago, and since his grandparents didn’t know anything about it, it technically wasn’t theirs either.

After returning home, Joey hid the book in a shoebox under his bed. He became obsessed with the Civil War and read and researched everything he could get his hands on about the subject. One Saturday, at the public library, he stumbled upon a book that finally gave some answers to the questions that eluded him. A book entitled The Tennessee Volunteers described the movements of the Confederate battalion of eight-hundred soldiers who fought in numerous states. After the battle of Pea Ridge in Arkansas, the battalion was split up into two companies. One company moved into Prairie Grove, Arkansas, and the other one forged into Missouri toward the town of Carthage. Through faulty intelligence, the Confederate army of less than two-hundred soldiers perished when they encountered eight-hundred Union soldiers on April 23, 1863. This came to be known as The Battle of Hickory Creek that took place near the town of Carthage, Missouri. The last page of the book listed the war dead. Among them was Corporal Cody Westfall, 16 years old, from Dixon, Tennessee. Joey stared at the page for a few moments, and then closed the book. He felt relieved that the mystery had been solved, but at the same time, he felt sad and angry that so many Americans died in a senseless war that he still didn’t quite understand. He still wondered how the diary ended up hidden in a barn in Peoria, Illinois.

For the next several years, the book remained in the dusty shoebox under his bed. When he went off to college in 1966, he didn’t think to take it with him. He found college to be boring and not that much different than high school. The only class he excelled in was American history and he dropped out in his second year. Now that he had lost his college deferment for the draft, and had no job, he felt the only thing to do was join up. He spent his twentieth birthday in basic training with his new friend, Carl, at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Carl was a country boy from Tennessee and had a thick southern drawl. They became best of friends and depended on each other to get through the rigors of basic training.

When graduation day came and orders of deployment were handed out, the two were elated that they both were assigned to Special Forces Company C, even if it meant they would be heading to Vietnam.

After two months on active duty, they had seen very little action and spent most of their time at the base in Da Nang. Luckily, they had dodged the TET offensive to the base three months prior to their arrival.

When orders came down that their company was to proceed on a mission the following day to the Mekong Delta region, they were excited, yet apprehensive. Their company commander, Colonel Michael Cross, was a seasoned career soldier and had fought in the Korean War. Their mission was to engage the Viet Cong at the Mekong River that separated Vietnam from Cambodia. Intelligence anticipated very little resistance to their mission of destroying ammunition bunkers hidden in Cambodia.

Morning came early as the company of soldiers gathered for last minute instructions from Colonel Cross. He spoke with authority about the success of their upcoming mission, and ended with “may the river run red with the blood of the enemy.”

Joey couldn’t believe what he had heard. Had he just imagined it?

A nervous Carl suddenly said, “We’re gonna kick the shit out of the Cong, ain’t we Cody?”

Joey turned to Carl. “What did you call me? Did you say Cody?”

“Joey. I called you Joey. We’re gonna kick the shit out of ‘em, ain’t we?”

Joey paused and looked at his friend. “No, Carl. I don’t think we will.”

One hundred seventy-one men lost their lives that day after being overrun by the Viet Cong. No one would ever know that the name, Joey Mills, PFC, which was etched on a granite wall, was simply history repeating itself.

*Dates, places, names, and events are not based on historical facts.