Down in Goldhill

Aaron Steven Miller
Nov 1, 2013 · 12 min read

Company C saw him in Goldhill Township, Illinois, walking amongst their troops. He was short in stature and like many in the Union this late in the war he did not wear his full uniform. What made him stand out were the funny hat which no soldier would be seen dead wearing and the unnaturally long pipe curving nearly a forearm’s length from his pink lip. He also carried two nonregulation pouches on his belt, one with the foulest sort of stink tobacco anyone had tasted. Apparently, he presented himself to Company C as staff lieutenant Schumacher of the 111th Illinois regiment, and claimed to hail from the better part of Virginia.

The news comes to us from Hastings, as we all sit around the encampment one night after dinner.

“They were sure it was it the same fellow?” I ask.

“It was. The same individual. He looked a good deal more rosy than those skeletons. With a spring in his step, so I heard. No one could say how long he kept up, nor when he disappeared. But several known to me said he was there in rank and file whenever they looked.”

Hastings says he said nothing else of note, lest you count that tune he whistles. We all look at each other for a moment, remembering that lilting lilliputian sound, and I am sure I speak for every one of us when I say we would all like to forget the day we heard it.

It was several months ago, when we captured a reb from Mississippi who had strayed from his company. Or so he claimed to be, and though he wasn’t wearing the uniform, we took him at his word for the accuracy of his information. He called himself McClintock, and the minute we shackled him began to whistle that infuriating tune, and would whistle it throughout the day despite the occasional riflestock to his skull.

The very next day as we marched, we were set upon by two scoundrels leaping from the woods like pure maniacs, and Spivey got it. He got it in the gut with a cutlass, before we could despatch the two villians. But despatch them we did, and discovered from papers that they were Copperheads—not confederates but worse: Northerners who would oppose Lincoln, emancipation, and the glorious Union, who have formed divers militia groups to wreak violence on federal troops and not worthy of the bullets we put in them. This find spurred us to shoot and stab them until they were more than dead and in the midst of this take their effects which were mostly none. We then stripped their makeshift outfits and strung them by the toes to hang over the gully while the blackflies gathered. We did all this in an exhibited frenzy, mainly because Spivey was in a bad way, and to see a man of courage like Spivey make noises like a wounded animal and weep like an unvirtuous woman with intestines and other manner of internals peeking from between his fingers stirred something surprisingly un-Christian in us.

Alas, such vengeance makes nothing better. We thought Spivey might make it for a spell. But after three days he fell into a deep sleep, from which he would wake periodically speaking in tongues, and then he went from us. And our friend McClintock was nowhere to be seen. Sometime in the night he had slipped the shackles we found locked tight around empty air.

“What were they doing marching in Goldhill anyhow?” Tusket asks. “Where were they headed?”

“They were to march from Cairo,” Hastings explains, “To meet with a company from the 116th at Shawneetown, but they were ambuscaded—though not exactly ambuscaded, but worser, set upon as they slept, by a band of Copperheads known as the ‘Liberty Crusaders,’ who murdered nearly all of them before the rest could flee. The tactic was much like that to which our outfit fell victim, excepting the number of marauders was well in excess of the two that waylaid us, and the fellow was not a prisoner but an enlisted officer, which illustrates something very queer about the whole thing.”

“What is that?”

“Their orders upon arriving in Shawneetown—and these were signed orders, mind you—were to defend the levee, where it was rumored that rebel troops, disguised as Indians, would pour in like Sioux warriors, from canoes.”

“Balderdash!” I exclaim. “A trick of psychology. A decoy. It should have been obvious, such nonsense.”

“Exactly. Yet it was enough nonsense to send an entire company to Shawneetown,” Hastings says.

“Not to Shawneetown,” corrects Oxley. “To their graves.” And he lapses back into his customary sullen silence, on the edge of darkness.

Hastings says, “They wouldn’t have gone had the little fellow not been complicitous in delivering the message.”

“How’s that?”

“It was said he arrived bearing the orders on a signed document. Grant himself had his mark upon that paper. Reportedly, it described the mission in such beguiling language that not a man doubted the seriousness of the threat at Shawneetown.”

“How do you know this?” demands Tusket, ever the skeptic. “And what about the prisoners they kept: did all escape?”

“All. Or so they assume, considering there was no trace of them when the slaughter was discovered.”

“If we see that bugger again,” says a voice from the darkness, “We flay him alive.”

“Only if we catch him,” Hastings replies.

Grimes, silent till now, clears his throat several times and informs us all that catching him won’t be that easy, as he must be captured by the toe.

“Ah, you know what he is then?” I ask.

“Saints I do,” Grimes says. “A lephrechaun. Do you know the fable?”

There is grumbling from those gathered, but I contrive to mask it by saying, “Tell it, Brother Grimes,” which summons laughter all around, for those fancy fairy tales full of outlandish characters recall a warmth of bosom and lap and melodious voice over the crackle of a hearthfire. How far we’ve come! Now we sit around a pile of flaming dung shivering and scratching at scabbed and scarred wounds, clawing at verminous and burnbitten rashes, and scraping at gamy cheese-rotting flesh, meanwhile releasing divers and potent postprandial vapors and picking specimens of pork gristle from between our teeth. Just a year ago, some of us were still in the pages of the golden storybook of youth. Now, we’ve all seen volumes. And yet, as Grimes begins his tale the stars begin to shine like silver buttons and we all listen with the intensity of small folk, and by that I mean—make no mistake—children.

“Leprechauns are fairies. You might call them elves. They’re very small, and they don’t generally like human beings much. Typically they enjoy doing some sort of simple work, craftlike work. They do have magical powers, if you believe in that sort of thing, and their magic can work good or it can work simple mischief, or it can work absolute evil. They are skilled at tricks of the eye, illusion, if you believe that sort of nonsense. Some leprechauns are hungry for riches, and they’ll steal every dollar from your pockets and every ring from your fingers before you know where they went. Those that mean evil will have a slotted eye, like old Scratch himself. These types cannot be caught. They will claw your eyes out before they are. The fable goes that any man who captures a leprechaun will be promised a reward if only he should let the little beast go. But they’re hard to capture. You cannot grab one, except by the toe, or they slip away. And even if you get one by the toe, he may promise you great wealth, but chances are he’s just trying to trick you into releasing him. You’ve all heard of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Well, it doesn’t exist. It’s a trick the leprechaun uses to find that moment when he can scape. And there’s no way to outlast him. Some folks have been known to follow a leprechaun right to their graves.”

There is a long silence as we watch Grimes down the last drop of whiskey which has been handed to him for the telling of the tale. He wipes his mouth and smiles.

“What else?” someone asks.

“What happens in the story?”

“That’s no fable!” someone yells from the dark.

“That’s all?” Tusket cries.

We scratch at ourselves while Grimes looks around for approval. There is a general grumbling that fades as men stand and amble away to begin preparations for sleep. I am one of the last to stand, and Grimes looks to me, but I get up as well, bid him goodnight, and walk away.

I wake sometime in the blackness of the night feeling an abominable rumbling in the plumbing of my bowels. The problem has plagued me for months now, and made me gaunt enough to pass for a reb, but only recently has it begun to wake me in the night. I have seen a doctor, who signed a certificate saying that I am in danger of death if not granted leave, but no one has yet consented to this. I stand up, leaving my coat and blanket on the ground between the men who were sandwiched around me.

Returning, I notice three men standing guard in the moonlight. This is queer, since the typical number is two. The third is standing by the farthest trees and is visible only as a black head and shoulders turning this way and that, with only a glowing ember of some smoking device to indicate when he is facing my direction. The other two are not as easy to pick out from the black trunks of trees, but as I watch, I can see them move occasionally, stretch, squat, turn from side to side.

The nearest watchman has his back turned. As I look his way, my ears catch the sound of whistling. He is some twenty yards distant, far enough to make the tune unrecognizable, so I creep toward him. As I draw near, my blood freezes in my veins, for I recognize the tune. It just barely carries on the wind. I feel my knees give out slightly, and I try to brace myself, though my energy has seemingly been drained from my body along with all the other foul humors. My rifle is nowhere nearby, which is perchance a blessing, since if I had it, I would, out of sheer fear and without thought, run him through with the bayonet.

The other two guards are positioned at such a distance that trying to alert them from here would only alert the intruder first. Why don’t they see him? Why don’t they hear him whistle? What fabulous tale did he feed them to gain their confidence? Or he is operating under some spell, whereby he makes himself invisible to all but me?

I stand stock still and notice, above his whistling, the sounds of the woods at night. A whippoorwill, calling over and over. Divers flying things, performing concertinas with their wings, the rustle of leaves in the tops of the trees.

“Ho there,” I call softly.

But the figure does not turn. I call again, and say, “Turn yourself around so I can see your face.”

The whistling stops. He turns around in shadow.

“Step into the light so I can see you.”

And the the familiar countenance of McClure, the newest volunteer, steps forward.


“Yes, sir,” he whispers

“What the devil are you doing?”

“Standing watch, sir.”

“Why were you whisting?”

“I wasn’t making a sound, sir.”

“But I just heard you.”

“I wasn’t making a sound,” he whispers. “I was watching as quietly as I could what I believed to be a stag nosing its way through the leaves.”

“You were watching—but—but I—“ and here instead I say, “But, McClure, what the devil are you doing up? You know only two rotate watch.”

“I couldn’t sleep, sir.”

“If I’d my rifle I might’ve put a bullet in your kidney.”

He starts to speak but I wave it off, as I’m convinced that the night noises, the cool air, and the humors of my intestinal distress have all conspired to play a trick on my ears.

“McClure, what state are you from?”

“Tennessee, sir.”

“You did the right thing in coming over.”

“Three hundred dollars is a convincing sum, sir.”

“I see.” I examine his face, pale, framed by hair reddish and curly, cut to just above the collarline. “Irish, are you?”

“By my father’s lineage.”

“What county does that trace back to?”

“Derry, sir.”

“I see. You ever hear your pa talk about the little people?”

“If you’re trying to rile me, sir, it will harden my fists and ripen your face.”

I smile. “I’m too old,” I say (for I’m surely a score older than McClure), “To poke fun, and too sentimental to hold you in contempt for that remark. I’m simply asking. There has been a lot of idle talk in this outfit about a few strange coincidences involving a mysterious sprite who only seems to show his face before some tremendous horror is about to transpire. I’m sure you’ve heard such gabble. I’m simply asking if you believe in such things, and if you do, what your belief would have you do to protect our men.”

“I do not believe in folk fairies, and neither does my father. He’s a long way from Derry, and a long way from me. I fear him more than any mischief, and I fear God more than him.”

“Good. Because I for one don’t want to hear any more foolishness from these men. We’re all Christians. Even our Negroes are Christians. The idea that some fluting pixie could curse us is balderdash.”

“I agree entirely.”

“Well, try to find some rest. Tomorrow we march across the hills.”

I leave him with these words, but I am not imagining these things. As I move off, a new company of cramps overtaking me, I turn to take a few steps back in his direction.

“Say, McClure. If you’re staying watch, you may as well relieve one of those other men. Tell one of them to sleep.”

“I already did that, sir.”

“You what?”

And across the clearing, I see only one figure stationed among the trees.

“But where did—who was it you relieved?”

“I didn’t know his name, sir. I’m sorry, I haven’t learned all the names yet. He was short and he smoked a pipe.”

I turn one way and the other. The terrible cramps have now passed. I keep surveying the clearing, blinking my eyes furiously, but I see no other figures. I must preserve my appearance, and though I want to double over holding my gut, I maintain every muscle in my body in a rigid state, remaining statuesque. I nod casually at McClure and as I turn away, a hot need surges through my body like a powderkeg exploding and perspiration forms over every pore of my skin. I obey nature.

The third figure never reappears, and there is no more sound of whistling. A few of the horses blow air noisily through their nostrils, stamp lightly, and the whippoorwill, after being silent for some time, starts up its manic repetition again. As I bed down, skin clammy but head clear, I marvel at how easy it is for the sensations of nature to trick one’s imagination and drift into an uneasy sleep. For the briefest moment I open my eyes to see the sky, pitch black and starless, not a hint of dawn in sight. I close them again and drift. When I wake again it is to the unmistakeable sound of whistled song. My body is wracked with shivers, as if the men bedded down at my front and rear were made of cold stone, colder than the hardpacked ground beneath me. I stand up, my body shaking violently, and listen to locate the direction of the familiar tune. The darkness is nearly absolute, and so is the chill and the silence from which the notes come. I take up my rifle, determined to end this curse. It seems at first the two watchmen are gone but as I walk the perimeter of the clearing I see both of them asleep against treetrunks, sound as babes. I follow to a nook of the clearing where woody black walnut roots are snaking through the soil and the leaf-darkness between trunks is impenetrable. I stand gathering my resolve, for the whistling does not sound distant, and in that foliage, it cannot carry far anyway. I have a full box of cartridges on the rear of my belt. I have my small knife next to my boot. I am atremor against my will, and full of bone-pain and intestinal knots I walk carefully into the darkness. Haltingly, then stumbling forward, heeding the sound, arm extended to ward off branches, and hunching not so much to protect my head as to allay the searing pain in my gut. Two more steps, and the whistling stops abruptly. I wait. Another step and my foot catches, and I fall fast like grape into what smells to be a most fragrant and bracing stand of lilies. I roll onto my back and listen but hear nothing but the scumble of tiny grains of dirt: the steady miniature progress of earthworms maneuvering in the soil while above me in the darkness, a black winged shape darker than the darkness forms, itself as silent as smoke.

American Shorts

American Shorts

Meditations on American distance, longing, and myth: short fiction, essays, and forms in-between.

Aaron Steven Miller

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Tech and dirt, philosophy/fabrication. From the midwest, where pastoral/dirt mixes with academic/tech, and interesting things emerge. Based in NYC.

American Shorts

Meditations on American distance, longing, and myth: short fiction, essays, and forms in-between.