Short Story: “Mercy at Gettysburg,” by John Jakes
A lost son, a vengeful father, and a rebel soldier are caught up in the saga of North vs. South.
Though fulfilling, consuming a dense novel can be daunting. Sometimes all you want is a snack. How about a short story?
“Mercy at Gettysburg,” for instance, excerpted from The Bold Frontier, by John Jakes, goes down smooth and quick—like a warm shot of whiskey. A western, it’s set in the waning days of the Civil War. Emotional but compact, the tale is wrought with blood, lies, and family drama—all packed into just a few pages.
And since The Bold Frontier is written by the The New York Times best-selling author of North and South, “Mercy,” like all of Frontier‘s stories, packs a punch (sometimes literally). So go on, read it below—but we bet you can’t read just one.
“Mercy at Gettysburg”
WAR CAME TO OUR home in July of 18 and 63.
Our house and the remains of the smithy stood on the Hagerstown Road, southwest of the sleepy little town of Gettysburg, in the hills of Pennsylvania. General Bob Lee had invaded the North. It was a desperate throw of the dice for the Rebs, who were fighting for black bondage and something called secession, which at age eleven I didn’t understand.
Rumors of great armies just over the horizon reached us almost daily during the last week of June. I am sure there was fear in every heart in Adams County. Except my father’s.
On Tuesday, June 30, a terrified family passed by from the west, saying the Rebs were advancing behind them. My father, a huge, strong man hurt by his blindness, threw his cane aside and fumbled his rifle down from over the hearth.
“If they do come, Daniel, I’ll kill a Reb for your brother,” he said to me. “You will help.”
He raised the rifle over his head and exulted. “God be praised.”
My father and mother, Jenny, were Bible people. My mother lived by moral principles without any thought of the cost. Once, right after Pa’s accident, when we had almost no money, a grocery clerk making change returned an extra dime. That dime would have bought a lot. My mother courteously pointed out the error and handed him the dime. My mother read the New Testament gospels mostly. For Pa, she read aloud those books that he preferred—the Old Testament, all full of holy anger and vengeance. I suppose he cherished them because of what happened to my older brother Toby, who marched away with General McClellan on the Peninsula and never came back . . .
Sure enough, before noon on July 1, Reb horsemen came storming down upon us. Wil Sharp, who had the next farm west, galloped through, yelling that the Reb dust cloud was visible from his place.
“Help me, Daniel,” my father exclaimed. “Carry my rifle, and set me up on the rail fence where I can shoot at them. You’ll tell me when to fire.”
“And they’ll shoot back, and you’ll both be dead,” my mother said. My little sister Lisbeth covered her eyes and bawled. Mother told her to hush.
Pa wouldn’t be put off. Leaning on my shoulder, he walked out of the house and I set him up with his elbows resting on the top rail and his rifle pointing down the pike. The July day was hot and humming with insects.
We waited perhaps ten minutes, Pa with his rifle, me with my heart thumping in my breast, certain I was enjoying my last summer on earth. Then a dust cloud rose above the next hill. My mouth was so dry I could barely croak.
“There they are.”
“Other side of the ridge.”
“God strengthen my arm and steady my hand.” He could have put on a robe and grown his beard long and passed for one of those Old Testament prophets full of rage for justice. My brother had taken a Confederate ball in his vitals at some little Virginia creek, and then—I learned this later, when my mother thought I could bear hearing it—Reb scouts had outraged his body with bayonets. Or so his commanding officer wrote.
“I’ve got to kill at least one for Toby,” Pa said as the tan cloud rolled down the hill like a cyclone. I remember his voice gentling then. “Scared?”
“Oh, Lord, yes, Pa.” He must have believed me, since he didn’t reprove me for speaking the Lord’s name in an irreverent way. He found my head and ruffled my hair, then appeared to gaze down the road, squinting his pale blind eyes. Lightning had set fire to the smithy one spring night in ‘59. Pa rushed inside to save his tools and two horses he was shoeing, and a blazing beam fell on top of him, right across his eyes—one bright glory and then perpetual dark. If not for Ma tutoring the children of some families in town, we’d have starved.
I saw the horsemen then; I have always supposed they were mounted scouts on the right wing of Heth’s division. Swords flashed like lightning inside the cloud. “I hear them,” Pa cried, for their hoofbeats sounded like drums. He laughed loudly.
A moment later, the Reb riders veered north and swept away, behind our property, out of sight.
“They’re gone,” I said, thinking we were saved. I guided Pa back to the house, joyful that I might live another summer.
Ma tried to take the rifle from him. He was mad with disappointment and wouldn’t let go. Lisbeth tugged at my sleeve.
“There’s a sojer out back. I think he fell off his horse, he’s all bloody.”
Little fool, she didn’t whisper softly enough. Pa heard. “What’s that? A soldier?”
My mother seldom showed anger, but she gave Lisbeth an eyeful of it then. “Jenny,” my father said, “take me to the soldier. This instant.”
She was a dutiful wife, my mother. She led Pa out past the jumbled black timbers of the smithy. He walked with his shoulders back, steel and death in his blind eyes again. Mother walked with her head bowed. I was a ways behind, with Lisbeth hanging onto my waist and mewing in an annoying way.
Then we heard him. Not a loud cry, but heart-wrenching all the same. Like an animal holed up with a broken paw.
I saw him sprawled in the tall weeds at the ruined corner of the smithy, a soldier in Confederate butternut, all covered with dirt and blood. The bloodiest was his left leg, where someone had shot him. He must have lost his horse, right enough, and maybe in all the dust and noise no comrade had seen him fall. You could hear him breathing.
“Aim the muzzle for me, Jenny,” Pa said, hoisting his rifle. “Aim at his head.”
The Reb was dazed but awake; he saw what my father intended. He tried to thrash backward into the tall weeds, but he was too weak. His eyes fixed on my father. They were big brown eyes, almost girlish. I don’t suppose he was eighteen yet.
“Damnation, woman, hurry up. I’m going to kill the bastard.” Behind me, Lisbeth was gasping; she was little but she knew that when Pa stooped to bad language, the sky was falling.
“Jerusha Lamb, you can’t,” Mother said with a keen look at me, then one at Lisbeth, which was wasted. “I must take care of this boy, he’s a Union boy. You can’t see him but I can, he’s wearing Union blue. He must have been chasing those others.”
Bees were buzzing. Up toward the Chambersburg Pike, cannon began to bang away, a big battle. I thought I’d wash away, so much fearful sweat was rolling down inside my shirt.
“Woman—woman, if—if you—” Pa was shaking. He loved my mother too much to accuse her of lying. But he knew how to discover the truth:
Lisbeth’s eyes got huge with tears; she couldn’t lie to Pa. Knowing I might go to hell for it, I put my hand over her mouth and clamped her to my side and said, “She went back to the house, Pa, she’s a scairdy cat.”
My father held still a minute, then put his head back and gazed at the unseen sun and cried out, “Toby … Toby.”
He walked away into the weeds with his rifle, weeping; ashamed of being unmanned.
I never saw the Reb again. My mother insisted on tending him by herself, keeping him warm and well fed in a little lean-to she made from a blanket and sticks. In the morning he was gone.
“Oddest thing,” my mother said to me then. “His last name was Tobin. Toby—Tobin—isn’t that odd?”
The battle of Gettysburg ravaged the town and the land roundabout for three days. We mostly hid in the root cellar. After General Pickett’s doomed charge, thousands of men and boys mowed down as they marched through an open field, right into the Union guns, General Bob Lee retreated south and never came back. Many said he lost the war that July in Pennsylvania.
My father died two years later, never having received the payment he thought he was owed.
In 18 and 66, my mother got a letter from a Leverett Tobin of Wytheville, Virginia. He had survived the war, married his sweetheart after the surrender, and recently opened a hardware store. He praised my mother’s compassion that July day.
My mother gazed at the letter laid in her lap. Her face showed no joy; there isn’t any in war, or memories of war.
“Daniel,” she said, “I pray that when I come to judgment, God can forgive my untruths.”