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A Saturday Afternoon

Death, Guns and Sticky Buns

IT WAS NOT QUITE NOON WHEN CASSIE AND I arrived at the college and found a vacant spot on the lawn close to the college administration building. Cassie had apparently been to events like this before, because if there was something she hadn't brought, we wouldn't need it. She spread her pink blanket on the grass, urged me to sit next to her, then extracted two ice-cold Diet Cokes from her cooler. As usual, she was perfectly groomed and expensively dressed, today in a gray knit pantsuit that emphasized the silver in her hair. Casual, yet professional. She made me wish I'd worn something other than jeans and my NYU sweatshirt.

Cassie turned around to survey the crowd and waved to several people, who smiled back and nodded their greetings. She believed it was her duty to inform me who everyone was and what they did for a living. That's J. B. Morgan-president of the Old Lickin Creek National Bank.

With a name like that he'd have to be, I commented.


Never mind. It was just a silly notion.

There's Oretta Clopper-she thinks she's a playwright. Oh good-Marvin Bumbaugh is here with the rest of the borough council. She continued naming names, which I promptly forgot.

Lots of unfamiliar faces here, she mused.

It is Parents Weekend, I reminded her.

Out-of-towners! Right here at our own Lickin Creek College for Women. This is so exciting. Tori, I'm finally beginning to think you did the right thing.

I didn't gloat. Instead, I noted what a beautiful fall day it was, with not a cloud in the sky, and still practically summer-warm. The mountains surrounding the valley looked so close in the clear air that I could nearly count the trees. A perfect day and, I hoped, a perfect way to make my mark as acting editor and publisher of the Lickin Creek Chronicle.

Several weeks ago, when I'd agreed to cosponsor the event, Cassie's first thought had been that P. J. Mullins would never have gotten involved with something like this. I admit I'd had a few doubts, especially after I'd attended my first planning meeting at the college, where I learned Janet Margolies had not been completely candid with me. But now, seeing the eagerly waiting crowd, I was sure I'd done the right thing. I hoped Cas-sie would still think so, when she learned what kind of a reenactment we were about to witness.

We finished off Cassie's ham sandwiches, the potato chips, the chocolate cake, and the homemade pickles. What time is it? I asked.

Nearly half past one.

This thing was supposed to start at twelve-thirty. I wonder what's happening.

The sun beat mercilessly down upon the crowd of men, women, and children who were showing their discontent. The picnic hampers were empty, the drinks were gone, and not even the small brass band playing The Battle Hymn of the Republic for the fourth time could drown out the complaints about the delay and the wails of bored children.

Janet Margolies appeared at my side and lowered herself to the blanket. Her face was bright red, whether from the heat or from her pregnancy, I couldn't tell. She fanned herself with a program and gratefully accepted Cassie's offer of a soda.

Although Janet and I had officially collaborated on the final plans for the reenactment, she'd done the lion's share of the work. Basically, all I'd done was show up at a few meetings, keep my mouth shut, and write articles for the paper.

Has something gone wrong? I asked her. This thing was supposed to get going an hour ago. The crowd is turning ugly.

Mack Macmillan showed up late. Guess when you're a VIP you don't have to think about other people.

Are they nearly ready to begin? What time is it anyway? Every now and then it crossed my mind that I should replace my broken Timex.

Janet glanced at her watch. It's one thirty-five. I have to admit this isn't all Macmillan's fault. After he finally made his appearance, I couldn't get the door to the storeroom open. She touched me on the arm. Hey, it looks like something's starting to happen.

A soloist stepped forward and, after a brief musical introduction, began to sing Old Abe Lincoln came out of the wilderness, to the tune of The Old Gray Mare. After some urging on his part, a few people in the waiting audience perked up and began to sing along. Their voices faded away as Federal troops marched out of the administration building and down the white marble steps onto the field, trailed by a small group of civilians. Murmurs of Finally and It's about time fluttered through the air until the crowd fell silent.

The men's dark suits were dusty, as if they'd survived a long tramp over miles of Pennsylvania 's dirt roads, and most of them wore stovepipe hats in the style of President Lincoln. The women wore stiff, brightly colored silk gowns, except for one who was wearing a black bombazine mourning dress and was dabbing at her eyes with a tiny lace-edged handkerchief.

With faces growing red and sweaty from the relentless afternoon sun, the soldiers formed several haphazard lines, facing a shallow hole about six feet long and three feet wide, with fresh earth heaped beside it in a neat pile on the well-tended grass. It wasn't really deep enough to be a grave, but it was as deep as the campus groundskeepers would let us dig.

An officer stepped forward, turned to face the men, and unrolled an official-looking document. The soldiers snapped to attention as he began to read.

Men, today, at the hour of three p.m., you will witness the execution of a Deserter, who will be shot to death by Musketry by order of a Court Martial, approved by General Hooker.

The soldiers remained impassive, but a wail from the woman in the black bombazine dress attracted the officer's attention.

Madam, he said to her, whilst you may think the killing of your husband is unjust and heartless, it behooves you to remember the many good men who died bravely here. Perhaps some of those lives would have been saved if we had executed more deserters in the past.

The woman slumped into the arms of one of the civilian men and sobbed quietly into her handkerchief.

From behind the college library came a horse-drawn wagon, and as it drew closer the spectators could see it carried a coffin. It was followed by another wagon carrying the condemned man himself, his hands tied behind him. And finally came the shooting party, fifteen soldiers in blue wool uniforms.

The coffin was lifted from the wagon and placed before the freshly dug grave. With his eyes upon his wife's face, the prisoner was helped out of his wagon. With his deeply lined face and silver hair that sparkled in the bright sunshine, he looked much older than the other uniformed soldiers.

The officer who had read the execution order a few minutes earlier asked the prisoner if he had any final words. The prisoner, still intently focused on his wife, ignored him.

As the officer placed a gentle hand on the man's shoulder, the prisoner turned to face him with a stunned look on his face. Do you have any final words?

The condemned man took a step forward, in the direction of the woman in black. I beg of you, my dear wife, to forgive me. Please tell my beloved children that my last thoughts were of them. His voice boomed in the silent, sultry air.

The woman in black buried her face in her handkerchief.

Next, the prisoner addressed the soldiers. It is only since I was sentenced that I have realized the error of my ways. Please remember the oath of allegiance you have taken. Look upon my execution as a warning. In all ways be true to your country and to your God.

He turned to the firing squad and spoke in a loud, firm voice. Gentlemen, I bear you no ill will. Please pray for God to have mercy on my soul.

A guard stepped forward, tied a handkerchief around the prisoner's eyes, and led him to the waiting coffin. Almost deferentially, he urged the prisoner to sit on the edge of the coffin's base.

The officer in charge read the sentence. By Order of the Court Martial approved by General Hooker, you will be shot to death by Musketry. The number of bullets detailed is fourteen. As is our company's custom, one rifle is loaded with a blank cartridge, so that each member of the firing squad may console himself with the thought that he may not have fired a fatal bullet.

The prisoner hung his head.

Pastor Kleinholtz, will you lead us in a prayer?

A civilian gentleman in a somber black suit and stovepipe hat stepped forward and opened a large leather-bound Bible. Psalm 23, he announced. The Lord is my shepherd When he read, Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death the soon-to-be-widow fell to the ground in a faint. The preacher paused for a few moments until she was revived, finished reading the passage, and closed his Bible with a snap. May God have mercy upon his soul.

The shooting party came to the ready, and in a moment a volley of shots rang out and the law was appeased. In a cloud of black smoke, the prisoner toppled backward into his coffin.

The woman in black broke away from the sidelines and ran toward the wooden box where her husband's body lay. She dropped to the ground beside the coffin, raised her arms to the sky, and cried out dramatically, My life-my love. What shall I do without you? What shall I do?

A young soldier tried to raise her to her feet, but she clung to his knees and moaned, Let me say my last good-bye. One last kiss before we part.

She leaned over the side of the coffin and reached in to embrace her husband. A bloodcurdling scream pierced the summer air. Oh my God, he's dead! she cried.

The spectators burst into applause and began to sing along with the band, Oh we'll rally round the flag, boys, we'll rally once again I was thoroughly pleased with the way the reenactment had gone, especially after the annoying delay. I couldn't resist nudging Cassie and saying, Didn't I tell you it was going to be great? Lickin Creek's going to be talking about this for a long time.

The woman in black rose to her feet and faced us angrily. Shut up, you idiots, she yelled. She reached her arms out toward the crowd, and something dark dripped from her outstretched hands. Didn't you hear me? The man is dead. He's really dead!

A Friday in October | Death, Guns and Sticky Buns | Sunday Morning