He kept the canvas tourniquet strap Canklin used to amputate his right leg at Chickamauga beneath the mattress of the twins’ crib. Anna saw him at night, leaning on the crutch, kept from his days of command, his right hand slipped through the crib slats, searching, stopping, his numb left hand laid on Otho’s rounded, rising and falling belly, the arm ruined at Gettysburg hanging there slack over the top bar.
He told her every time that everything was fine, to go back to bed. “I’m with my boys,” the disgraced ex-general said every time. “You’re still not well, Anna. Go back to bed.” She waited in the doorway until he slipped his hand from beneath the mattress to stand as straight as he could to look into the mirror hanging over the crib. “Good night.”
She was downstairs in the kitchen with the other one, trying to spoon some rice boiled to paste into him, when her husband trapped the wolves running wild and fiery in his son’s head. The fever had burned for days, the child wailing until his throat gave out, when he realized what had to be done. He watched Otho’s scarleted face, the child’s mouth wide, lips cracked, tongue white and foul-smelling, the dried snot bone yellow on his cheek. Then he knew: Wolves could be penned like lambs. You just had to get them where they couldn’t escape. Wolves to the slaughter, that’s what came next.
And there they were: the boy’s skull was like a cauldron burned dry. He could hear the bones in it crack and split from the heat. He could hear the wolves snap and snarl inside his boy’s brain. Saw furrows high up inside the child’s skull from wolves leaping to escape the white flames that burned all the blood to the surface of the child’s skin. They were there and they were his.
The general listened. Anna was singing to the other one. Be Thou my vision, Lord of my heart. Naught be all else to me save that Thou art. He licked his dry lips and reached beneath the mattress. They were his now.
He held the canvas strip in his teeth while he lifted the child’s head up. His hair was like scorched grass on the Texas plains he had chased Comanche over 20 years ago. He leaned awkwardly to his left, dangling his usless arm that now had a use down by the child’s head. He tugged at it with his right hand until the child’s head rested on his left wrist.
There was enough space between the bent neck and mattress to slide the strap through. He worked the strap over the pudgy throat and into the buckle. Pulled the strap until the buckle pressed into the child’s throat and lifted his chin. The boy’s eyes tightened, relaxed. He was still asleep.
He’d kept the screw key in his pocket since the war ended. He took it out and slipped it into the threaded hole in the middle of the buckle. He turned it, lowering the fitted horizontal bar set into the buckle against the strap. He turned it more and the wolves scrabbled furiously for escape.
The day before he had asked Anna if she had ever seen a victim of yellow jack. She was from New Orleans, after all. But for once he was lucky, so he told her after she found the child that the fever could leave its victims’ eyes bloody, their tongues black and swollen from their mouths.
“It was so fast.”
“We can’t let anyone see at the funeral, John.”
“No one will come. They’re too much cowards to face me.”
He dreamed of wolves the morning of the funeral. Wolves pouring from the trenches ringing Atlanta that burning summer of 1864, endless wolves that swallow endless lines of cannon, endless miles of trains, endless wolves that kill and run on, Hood riding among them, whole again, his perfect commands like wind roaring in their ears and it was perfect obedience.
His wife told them it was his grief that kept him home. She had found him before dawn, sitting in a broken slat chair leaned against the open window, rain flickering silver, cooling his neck and face. I was dreaming of him, he said. For a long time she held his head against still-sore breasts. The late morning sun made the ground beneath his window steam after she left for the church.
Thom Bassett is from South Carolina but now lives in Rhode Island. He is a regular contributor to "Disunion," The New York Times' online series about the Civil War (http://opinionator.blogs.