SPOON BOY

by John K. Trammell


The 29th Alabama Infantry was a rough outfit. Even before they moved into camp, their reputation as hardened fighters preceded them, causing a number of anxious conversations among the North Carolinians. It was said that they had started the war twelve-hundred strong, but after Gettysburg, they mustered fewer than three hundred men of all rank and station. They were said to be cruel, heartless, ill-featured men, who had nothing left in life but to murder Yankees. Some of the rumors said that fellow rebels from Alabama couldn't even get along with them, and that was why they were being transferred.

Jimmy and Spoon Boy were sitting around their company camp fire when they began to arrive, some of them with nothing but a rifle and a pair of bare feet as equipment. The Carolinians present all stood slowly--experienced veterans themselves, but wary none-the-less--carefully surveying the motley arrivals.

"Can't no good come from mixing up the regiment," Jimmy said.

Spoon Boy stood beside him, his face a blank, unreadable expression. He was much smaller in stature than Jimmy, and probably twenty years younger in appearance. He was in reality only a fourteen-year-old--despite enlistment records to the contrary--but that wasn't unusual in this army. Many hard fighting, gaunt looking soldiers in the rebel army were only teenagers. What was unusual in Spoon Boy's case was that he really did look like what he was: a fourteen-year-old barely big enough to raise a heavy Mississippi rifle, let alone aim it and fire it.

"I don't like this," Jimmy said again, under his breath. Several others echoed agreement, spitting brown streams of tobacco juice onto the dusty ground.

The Alabama soldiers began throwing their bed rolls and a few personal items down wherever there was space, and a few of them huddled close to the fire near Jimmy and Spoon Boy.

One of them looked meaner than the rest, with a grizzled, greasy beard that had never been trimmed, and clothes that were as colorless as his expression. While some of the newcomers politely introduced themselves, or otherwise struck up a harmless conversation to break the ice, this man said nothing. He stared slowly from man to man, his gaze never perceptibly moving, but somehow managing to look each of them in the eye.

He seemed to stare at Spoon Boy longer than any of the others.

"You with the 29th?" Jimmy said, reluctantly offering a twist of his best Carolina-grown tobacco.

The man said nothing and simply stared at the gift offered him.

"We didn't expect to be getting so much company short of Yanks," Jimmy continued. "But we heard you've seen plenty of hot action. Were you at the Rappahannock last week?"

One of the other Alabama men caught sight of the conversation, and quickly joined.

"Boys, don't bother old Wilbur. He don't ever talk, unless it's to yell in a fight, and he ain't one for making new friends." The Alabama man placed himself between old Wilbur and the Carolinians and smiled a partially toothless grin. "Since he lost his right hand, he's a little bit shy, or shell-shocked. Just let him alone and he won't bother anyone."

Old Wilbur pushed his camp mate aside and continued staring at Spoon Boy. When he spoke, his mouth sounded as if his vocal cords had been amputated as well as his hand.

"I didn't know we carried drummers anymore."

Jimmy looked around in confusion, then saw Spoon Boy's lips tense up like a clam.

"Oh, you mean Spoon Boy? He ain't no drummer! God's sake, he took a ball in the chin at Fredericksburg! He's one of us."

Old Wilbur reached out and unceremoniously took the twist from Jimmy's hand. He bite off such a large portion of it that it might have been considered rude.

"He don't look like no soldier to me."

Jimmy jumped forward and yanked the tobacco back, and several other of the Carolinians joined him. "Now look here, fellow, you better think twice before you talk like that to any of us!"

The other Alabama soldier positioned himself between the two parties and began pushing old Wilbur away. "Come on now, boys," he said, with forced enthusiasm. "Let's save the fightin' for the Yanks, now! Easy, boys."

He towed old Wilbur away, who looked as if he might knock down his own companion at any moment and start a brawl. After a few minutes, though, the furor died down.

"I told you no good could come of this," Jimmy said, as they were sitting back down.

"He didn't mean nothing by it," another said, patting Spoon Boy on the back.

Spoon Boy slowly returned to work on the object he held rigidly in his hand. It was a bright silver spoon, manufactured by Lundley's in Raleigh. With his free hand, he picked up a small paint brush and resumed painting the concave interior, where a detailed scene of army camp life was almost complete.

"Just forget about him," Jimmy said, throwing sticks on the dying fire.

* * *

The newly reorganized regiment was brought into line of battle two days later. They were marching toward a ford on the North Anna River, where Grant's men were supposedly crossing in force.

Several companies of the 29th were placed on the left flank of Jimmy and Spoon Boy's company. Among them was old Wilbur, who now was yelling as promised, and full of fire in his black eyes. When he spotted Spoon Boy, he edged closer and smiled wickedly.

"Hey there, boy, we'll see who can fight today!"

The Carolinians glared at him, but said nothing. Spoon Boy ignored him like the others.

"I hope you put that silver spoon in your pocket today, boy, because it might just stop Miss Minie'!"

With a fierce yell, he rejoined his company.

"Just ignore him," Jimmy said. "He's as crazy as a Billy."

* * *

On the first day, very little fighting occurred. Instead, the rebels were ordered to dig in, within full sight of the enemy on the opposite shore.

The work was hard, and there was very little conversation. From time to time a Yankee sharpshooter would pick someone off, the dull sound of impact reaching their ears before the retort of the gun, and the rest of the men would lay down while rebel sharpshooters moved up to respond.

At the end of the day, everyone was exhausted. Dinner consisted of a handful of cornmeal--uncooked--and a piece of biscuit. Water, despite the proximity of the river, started to run low.

The assault was ordered for dawn.

Like others, Jimmy and Spoon Boy couldn't sleep with the threat of battle--and possibly death--so close. They lay down in the cool Virginia dirt and whispered to each other.

"Now you listen up, Spoon Boy. It's the same as before, you hear? If I take one, you've gotta find my sister in Elizabeth City and give her all my stuff."

"Don't talk like that," Spoon boy responded quietly.

"Don't argue. It's always like this, so just listen. Make sure they take my body back to Raleigh so my mother can put me next to my daddy. If they take me to a hospital, you know to get Doc Forester. He's the only one I trust. You hear me?"

"I don't want to think about it, Jimmy."

"You have to think about it. The first time I don't remind you, I'll take one for sure and you'll forget everything!"

"I won't forget, Jimmy."

For a while, there was silence. Then, "You got your lucky spoon, Spoon Boy?"

"Yeah. . ." Spoon Boy reached into his breast pocket and pulled out the spoon he had just completed. After the fighting, he would send it back to his mother in Raleigh, where the collection had grown to over two dozen beautifully painted silver spoons. He stared at it in the cloudy, grey moonlight.

"Well, you've got nothing to worry about then."

Jimmy turned over and fell asleep, but Spoon Boy stared for a long time--first at the spoon, and then later at his heavy rifle beside him.

* * *

The company Sergeant roused them while it was still dark. "Up and at em, boys! Give him hell."

Jimmy and Spoon Boy joined the others in loading a fresh round, packing personal items, and forming up in a line abreast with their neighbors. Everyone was alert, as if they had been up for an hour or two--or all night.

"Let's show those Alabama boys how to fight! The ford is just to the left, and they'll get there first. Follow me behind them, four men abreast in line. Form up, men! Let's move! Form up!"

Jimmy and Spoon Boy found themselves on the extreme left again, within sight of the 29th units that were joining them. Old Wilbur appeared out of the mist and whooped, immediately drawing the wrath of his commanding officer, who managed to invent a few new words of insult and criticism. Old Wilbur just continued to smile, immune to any chain of command.

"Good luck, Spoon Boy!" he said, saluting in a manner that was far from complimentary.

Soon they were moving, and the Alabama soldiers marched in front of them, leading the way on the trail to the ford. They lost sight of Old Wilbur in the mass of tramping men.

"He'll get his, sure enough," Jimmy said, already with a wad of tobacco in his mouth. "It's those wild ones who fall first."

"How do you think he lasted this long?" Spoon Boy asked.

"Just wait and see."

A few minutes later, the river ford hove into sight, and desultory fire from the enemy began to interrupt the quiet of the dawn like toy cap guns. The rate of fire increased as they drew closer.

The company Sergeant continually yelled at them. "Keep it tight, men! Dress those ranks! Remember, there's safety in numbers--keep sight of the man beside you."

The sound of battle suddenly erupted in front of them, and the entire line wavered, then ground to a slow halt. There were various sounds--all of them harmless at this juncture, unless you were ordered forward into the apex--sounds that green troops turned white-faced over, but sounds that veterans routinely tuned out.

On the river bank below them, Jimmy and Spoon Boy could see the Alabamians forming into a long, fragile line of attack. Every moment or two, several fell, and the others moved in tighter. The line was writhing, as if alive, and it appeared to be a little bit out of control. Then the order to advance was given, and the lack of unity evaporated. They moved forward in mass.

To a any true soldier, it was a beautiful thing to see.

The Carolinians spontaneously cheered their fellow compatriots.

Old Wilbur suddenly turned around and flashed a shiny object at Spoon Boy. "It's for good luck, boy!" he screamed. "Wish me good luck, boy!" He screamed again and rushed into the attack with the rest of them, holding his rifle high over his head.

Jimmy saw him at the same time as Spoon Boy.

Spoon Boy's face turned ashen. His mouth twitched a little. He looked for a minute as if he were dead.

"Spoon Boy! Get a hold of yourself! You don't need no spoon to fight the Yanks! Forget about it."

"No," Spoon Boy said, whining like a lost child. "I have to have it! I can't go without it! I'm gonna get it!"

"No, no!" Jimmy said, pulling him back down. Others joined him in trying to console Spoon Boy.

"You watch, Spoon, the Yanks'll get him, and you can pick it right back up after the fighting."

"Come on, Spoon Boy! This ain't gonna be like Fredericksburg. Just let him go."

Even the Sergeant joined in. "Harken!" (That was Spoon Boy's real name.) "Stay in line, and that's an order!"

But it was no use. Spoon Boy was inconsolable.

The Sergeant pulled Jimmy aside and whispered to him. "We aren't going to follow the 29th in. They're merely a diversion, this morning. We have orders to move back as soon as they finish. Tell him he can get it back when we return to camp. I'll get it myself, if that'll make him feel better."

Jimmy nodded and returned to Spoon Boy.

"Sergeant says he'll get it back for you, Spoon Boy. He says we aren't gonna fight today. You just got to wait."

Spoon Boy said nothing. He simply stared at the smoke and gun flashes in front of them, where the 29th was still hotly engaged in its diversionary attack at the river.

Without warning, Spoon Boy sprang up like a jumping horse and vaulted down the bank toward the river.

"Spoon Boy! Get back here! Don't be a fool!"

Jimmy leapt up after him, and without orders the entire company followed behind him, the Sergeant screaming orders that no one was listening to.

Jimmy was fast, but not as fast as Spoon Boy, who had dropped his rifle and shed himself of anything else that might slow him down to any degree. Jimmy watched helplessly as Spoon boy ambled right past several mangled units returning from the front, the walking wounded and shell-shocked survivors staring at the Carolinians emotionlessly.

One of them tried to stop Jimmy. "He's gone crazy, friend. Just let him go--it's too hot up there! Just let em go--it happens all the time."

But Jimmy followed after Spoon Boy. The rest of the company was right behind him.

Ahead, where the fighting still continued, Spoon Boy slowed and began looking among the fallen bodies. In the midst of his pitiful search, other rebels continued to stand and fire, then kneel back down. Occasionally, one of them would fall. The screams of the wounded were drowned out by heavy cannon fire from the Union side of the river.

"Spoon Boy!" Jimmy yelled. "It ain't worth it!"

Then Spoon Boy suddenly seemed to stand up straight, as if correcting his posture in church. Slowly, like a stunted chestnut oak falling to the floor of the forest, he toppled over.

"Spoon Boy!"

The company caught up with Jimmy at the same moment he dropped to the ground and cradled Spoon Boy in his arms. Spoon Boy's eyes were glazed; blood appeared at the corner of his mouth. There was a large, wet brown spot on his shirt right in the center of his abdomen.

"I told you it wasn't worth it!" Jimmy sobbed.

Spoon Boy, with a great deal of effort, tried to smile and pointed at his terrible wound. "I knew it would happen, Jimmy. If I'd had the spoon, I would have been okay."

"He took it in the gut," one of the others muttered, looking away. Gut shots were always fatal.

"Get him back to the hospital!" the Sergeant ordered. "I'll go find Dr. Forester."

"That rabble wasn't worth your time, Spoon Boy!"

Spoon Boy smiled again, his breathing labored. "At least he'll be okay. Just tell him to keep it."

Jimmy looked at the others, and for a moment the sounds of the battle evaporated completely. "No. I'll send it to your mother, Spoon Boy, I promise. She'll put it with the others."

Spoon Boy nodded.

Another man in the company took a ball in the leg, and the enemy fire continued hot. Without further delay, they picked up Spoon Boy and carried him back to the safety of the hills and the regiment hospital.

As they placed him gingerly on the operating table, Doc Forester took one look at Spoon Boy and shook his head grimly.

"Jimmy!" someone yelled. "I found old Wilbur over here."

Jimmy ran out of the tent and followed the soldier to a pile of dead bodies. Old Wilbur was stacked on top of two others, his crazy eyes still gleaming terribly. His left arm was sticking up straight in the air. Jimmy tried to push it down, but it wouldn't move that direction.

There were several fatal wounds on his body.

"Does he have the spoon?"

"I don't know," Jimmy said, cautiously prying opening the man's threadbare shirt.

"Hey!" a voice yelled behind them. "What are you doing there?"

The Alabamian that had pulled old Wilbur away the first day rushed over, his fists clenched. "Don't y'all have a mite of respect for the dead? What do you want your tobacco back now, or something? If you'd steal from him, you'll be taking it up with me!"

"I want the boy's spoon back," Jimmy said quietly.

The Alabamian looked confused. "He don't have that kid's spoon! What are you talking about?"

"We saw him flash it at us, plain as day."

The 29th soldier reached into old Wilbur's shirt and pulled out an ordinary, cast iron spoon, slightly tarnished around the edges.

"This ain't that boy's spoon! He got this from our cook, after he saw the kid with one. He wanted some good luck. I told you, old Wilbur is harmless. He wouldn't steal nothing from anyone."

All three men stared at each other for a moment. Then, they each moved off awkwardly in different directions.

Jimmy returned to the hospital tent. The company Sergeant and several other men were there, too.

"Guess he needed his lucky spoon," The Doctor said, sighing and throwing his scalpel in a dirty pan with a loud clang.

Jimmy shook his head mutely and edged closer to Spoon Boy's lifeless body. He slowly reached down, almost scared to touch him, and opened his bloody shirt up. Inside it, the silver spoon rested undisturbed, untouched by the carnage just below.

Jimmy caught his breath and tried to steady his voice. He gently pulled the spoon out and held it up.

"I know his mom in Raleigh. I'll send it to her."

The others just stared.

All except Doc Forester, who smiled grimly, as if he had seen it all before. "He never even checked his pocket, huh? Another man in here had seven shots rammed into his barrel and never fired his gun. It was the darndest thing I-"

But the men of the Carolina company were already out of the tent.


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Spoon Boy, 31 October 1997