THERE WAS SOMETHING OUT THERE, crackling in the leaves, snapping twigs. Deer, the young private guessed. Maybe if I stay quiet, I'll get to see a deer up close, he thought. A city boy, he had only ever seen them recently, bounding away from a marching formation and into the woods, but never up close.
The day had taken its toll on the men. They were quiet, tense, knowing the enemy was near—they'd passed dead pickets from both armies as they marched through the humidity of the rain-sodden August day. On command, they set up camp alongside an unfinished railroad track, wanting to eat and rest while they could. The young soldier had made coffee with water from his canteen and chewed a previously cooked bit of beef. He had watched a dozen men, their turn for picket duty, climb over the partially graded rail bed and march toward a creek, a small river really, the locals called Bull Run.
After dinner, while the others wrote letters, rummaged in their packs for pipes and tobacco, or drowsed, the young soldier had pulled out his bowie knife and whetstone and sharpened the knife with a practiced motion. Then he had set off into the nearby woods in hopes of finding a good stick for whittling. He intended to whittle a little wooden soldier, musket and all. He had seen one of the other fellows do it—he had whittled a locomotive, complete with smokestack and wheels. It didn't seem too hard, and his first attempt at whittling—a shoehorn—had not proven much of a challenge.
An old elm tree, its base split by lightning, provided him a comfortable resting place, and he eased his tired body into its caress. The lightning had blasted a hole in the tree nearly the size of a pup-tent. The young man surveyed the vicinity from his new perch and saw that he could still see the general's tent, and the cannon, and a hundred little campfires in the distance. He heard the order for the men to pitch their tents—a bugle call followed by a drum roll—they were here for the night. He closed his eyes and listened to the night sounds. It was calm, no wind. Then he heard the snapping of twigs again.
The hairs on the back of his neck pricked. There's more than one deer, he could tell, as the delicate sounds seemed to come from all around now. Perhaps he'd get to see a whole family coming near to sniff at what the army was eating. They were coming from behind, and he peered warily around the burnt edges of his tree stump.