I have scenes I like in every book, but this one in Walk by Faith is one of my favorites. It takes place in mid-April of 1863 in White Oak Church, Virginia at the Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac camp. We see the characters from Maggie’s boarding house having an evening of recreation in the field. Eli and Carson are following the army as correspondents, and Patrick and Edgar are serving in the 15th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
I have an affection for this scene because it feels real to me: a group of men enjoying a free night but in the process talking about life and love and other matters. The scene is poignant because of what transpires later in the book.
It's a long piece, but I love the banter among the men and the atmosphere, so I've put up the entire thing.
Since the weather was fine and both Patrick and Edgar had managed to get permission to leave camp, they made arrangements with Eli and Carson to have an evening of supper, poker, and libations. Edgar, who was a rather good cook, had roasted chicken and baked potatoes over the fire by Eli’s wagon. They had feasted well – eating all the chicken and two potatoes each and washing it down with cups of strong, black coffee, smuggled from the Army of the Potomac.
Now they sat on camp chairs around a small, crudely made table as they played five-card stud. Their tin cups had been hastily rinsed out and filled with whiskey. To further enhance their enjoyment Carson had produced cigars. What little betting money they had, in the form of pennies, sat in the middle of the table. They had played in total four games since supper. Edgar had won two while Patrick and Eli one each. Carson, who claimed to be a terrible poker player, did not seem to care about winning but relished the conversation. The sun was starting to go down and they all agreed this would be their last hand.
Eli puffed on his cigar. “Gimme one,” he said around the smoke as he slapped a card onto the table.
Carson dealt him one.
“Think we’ll be able to do this again before the next battle?” Patrick asked. “Three cards, please.”
“Why?” Eli said. “Is there a rumor?”
“I shouldn’t say.”
“Come on,” the newspaperman pressed. “Acknowledge the corn.”
Edgar put two cards on the table. “People are saying Hooker’s got something up his sleeve. Our troops have been sitting on one side of the Rappahannock staring at the Confederates sitting on the other side for months now. Hooker’s anxious to prove himself. But the weather hasn’t been cooperating. It’s obvious we will meet them on the battlefield, but no one knows when.” He organized the cards in his hand. “However, my comments are not for print.”
“I have no intention of printing them,” Eli said.
“You’re right. I do.”
Patrick sighed and laid his hand down. “I’m out.”
“Me, too,” Edgar added.
Face unreadable, Carson blinked. “Call.”
Eli laid his cards down. “Four of a kind,” he announced triumphantly.
At this point, the corners of Carson’s mustache turned up with a smile that let Eli know the news was bad. “Full house!” He spread the winning cards before his victim.
“Shit!” Eli exclaimed as Carson scooped up the pot. “You damn scalawag!”
Patrick laughed. “Mrs. Smith would take a switch to you if she could see you drinking, smoking, playing cards, and cussing!”
“When has Mrs. Smith ever taken a switch to anyone?” Eli picked up his cup. “Anyway, I behave myself at home.”
“Mm,” Edgar noted, “you’re almost exemplary at home, thanks to my very determined mother-in-law.”
“Ha!” Patrick chortled. “Eli’s hen-pecked!”
Taking a sip of the whiskey, Eli savored the smoky flavor and enjoyed the burn as it traveled down his throat. Then he said, “Listen to me, boy. Men need women to keep them in line. I’m a better man for Maggie’s influence. So watch your words, you young pup, or I’ll take a switch to you.”
Carson and Edgar hooted.
Eli stared at the camp across the field. Fires were winking in the descending darkness. “You know, something’s got to break. I need a story for the Times. This miserable war needs to live up to its reputation.” He corrected himself. “I’m sorry I said that. I take it back. Bring on the peace.”
Carson sipped from his cup. “Let us not focus on the war, gentlemen. The night is comfortable, there are stars in the sky, and we have cigars and whiskey. God made a night such as this for enjoyment.”
Edgar tipped his head back to observe the firmament. “Yeah. It’s a pretty sight, isn’t it? My Liddy and I used to love to watch the night sky. We’d lie on the grass, look for shooting stars, and study the constellations.”
“I sure wish Frankie was here.” Patrick sighed, looking like the love-struck young man that he was.
This caused Eli to pause cup halfway to his mouth. “Yeah, well, you’d better be wishing you were holding her hand and that’s all.”
Patrick composed an innocent visage. “Of course.” In actuality, he was thinking of the times he had hugged and kissed his best girl. She was a darned good kisser, too. He missed those kisses.
“Damn,” Eli hissed under his breath because he knew what Patrick was thinking. His stepdaughter was growing into a woman and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He took another sip of whiskey. “I think I’ll get good and drunk tonight.” He missed Maggie terribly.
Carson was lost in his own thoughts. “I remember a time like this along the Rhine – a romantic night of an intensity I’ll never see again. I was so young then…”
The men sat quietly for a moment listening to the peepers and the night bugs.
“You ever think about death?” Edgar suddenly asked.
Patrick yawned. The whiskey was making him sleepy. “All the time, working in a field hospital.”
“No. I mean your own.”
“Every other minute,” Carson announced, “especially when we’re close to the fighting.”
Edgar puffed out a plume of smoke. “The more I’m in a fight the more I think I’m likely to die.”
Eli tossed off the last of his cup and reached for the bottle.
“Don’t talk like that,” Patrick said. “You got as good a chance as any of walking away. And anyway you’ve got to get back to your Lydia.”
“A lot of men have got to get back to their women and it doesn’t always happen. I pray every night I’ll be able to see my darling girl again, but one thing I’ve learned out here is that there are no guarantees.”
“We are in the hands of fate,” Carson opined. “Forces are beyond our control.”
“I just hope there’s a heaven,” Edgar murmured.
“’Course there’s a heaven,” Patrick responded. “When I die I intend to see my Ma and my sis there.”
Edgar smiled. “My folks, two of my brothers, and a sister are waiting for me.”
“Elysian Fields,” Carson mused. “Paradise…Ah, it sounds lovely!”
Eli stared at the dying embers of their fire. “Maggie saw her first husband when she took sick. And she told me something about hearing Madison’s footsteps in the house and someone knocking on her door when the fire broke out.”
Patrick said, “I heard the footsteps. Even saw someone walk through a wall once.”
“Balderdash,” Carson countered.
“No. It’s true.”
“Well,” Eli said, “I have to admit the feeling around the old Gazette changed at night. It felt dark and pretty eerie in there.” He blew a ring of smoke into the air. “But unlike Maggie, when I was shot I don’t remember seeing anything or anyone.” He frowned. “Damn! You don’t suppose that’s a sign, do you? D’you think it means I’m going to hell?”
“Yes,” the other three chorused.
“You fellas sure know how to make a body feel good. Damn you all to hell, anyway. I’ll see you there and then we can play poker with the devil.”
Laughing, Edgar puffed on his cigar. “In all truth, Eli, if God is a loving God perhaps everyone gets forgiven and goes to heaven, even an ornery old newspaperman like you.”
“Betcha heaven’s filling up pretty fast these days.” Patrick sighed. “Hope they save some room in case we need it.”
“Bell-fired war.” Eli took a gulp of whiskey. “I’m damned soured on it. To hell with it all, I am getting drunk tonight!”
Edgar said, “Agreed. Pass that antifogmatic.”
Carson handed over the whiskey bottle.
Patrick watched Edgar refill his cup. After some thought, he stiffened his back and lifted his own cup in the air. “Aw, hell! Here’s to tonight! It’s our night. Not Lincoln’s, not Davis’s, not Lee’s, and not Hooker’s. Ours!”
“Here, here!” Carson clicked his cup to Patrick’s.
“To our night!” Edgar touched his cup to theirs.
“To our night!” Eli added his cup to the mix. “Hang everything and everyone else!”
The next morning Eli Smith would wake up with a raging hangover, but he would remember that one fine night in the middle of the war when he and the others managed to carve out a moment that would remain frozen in his mind forever.
Tomorrow: A scene I love from A Time to Heal.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder