(A taster of a short story I’m currently working on, probably as the final entry into Filmic Cuts 6. Hope you enjoy… OJ)
The message came through early that morning, serving as a wake up call to the men stationed at Fort Hamilton.
It was not a wake up call they wanted.
Orders had been made for a Captain Montgomery and his men to come inspect Fort Hamilton within the next few days. While reasons were left vague in the telegram, one of the men – Freeman – theorised that it was just a quick check due to their position.
Fort Hamilton was based deep in the heart of Grover Forest, a think, dense cluster of nature in the Pacific Southwest. The Confederates had built it upon the only path through the Forest, giving them a key strategic position should any Union troops try to come south. The inhabitable character of the Forest was such that, should a troop wish to get through any other way, they’d have to trek many miles to circumvent it. Therefore, Fort Hamilton was an important structure for the Confederates, and one that had to be protected at all costs.
With this in mind, the soldiers based there were tasked with making sure the Fort was manned in a highly regimented manner. No amount of slacking or low intelligence would be tolerated; if there were any risk to Fort Hamilton, their superiors would undoubtedly have them shot.
So with the forthcoming arrival of Captain Montgomery, the men began to work in order to make sure everything looked perfect. Freeman set up an extra quarters for Montgomery and his men, Galloway made sure the munitions were correctly stored and showed no signs of decay, and May tended to various other aspects of the Fort’s quarters. Meanwhile, Jones was tasked with fetching some firewood for warmth, Adams went hunting for meat, and Croft gathered some fresh fruit from nearby trees, as well as rooting up any vegetables from the patch they had managed to cultivate.
The soldiers worked like a well-oiled machine, and hoped that when Captain Montgomery arrived, he would see that and allow them to continue on their way. The last thing the men wanted to do was let down the General, and by association, the South.
It just wasn’t the done thing in the Confederacy.
After 2 days, Captain Montgomery arrived on horseback with his two Lieutenants, Stevens & Holt. Upon arrival, the men of Fort Hamilton made sure to line up properly, open the gates for the Captain, and greet him with the same amount of respect and cordiality that had been instilled within them by their peers.
Captain Montgomery was a stern rock of a man – unnaturally tall upon his horse, his face was covered by a greying beard grown over many years, which made the steel of his eyes shine even fiercer. When he walked in, flanked by his lieutenants, he addressed each man at Fort Hamilton silently, looking over the troops like he would his very own. They could already see that something was bothering the Captain, and quietly trembled to themselves at what it could be. The last thing anyone wanted at Fort Hamilton was trouble.
Montgomery dismounted, and stood silently as Stevens & Holt placed their horses in the nearby stable. The only noise within the Fort then was the slow sigh of the wind, with the odd rustle of leaves around them. Whether this was an intimidation tactic by Montgomery, the men did not know, but they remained stood to attention, waiting for the Captain to speak.
Once the Lieutenants arrived back, Montgomery turned to Holt and asked for a letter. Still eyeing over the Fort’s soldiers, he finally spoke up.
“Who’s in charge here?”
For some reason, this question made the men stall. They looked at each other with empty mouths and searching eyes, looking for some sort of answer to the Captain’s question.
The more they remained silent, the more impatient Montgomery got. After a while, he snatched the document from Holt’s hands, and looked it over. As he did so, their continued to be dumb looks between the Fort’s men, as they tried to comprehend who, exactly, was in charge.
“According to this, I require speaking to a Corporal Galloway.”
The dim silence continued for a moment, before one of the men stepped forward and spoke.
“That would be me, sir.”
“Oh good, you know your own name,” Montgomery said. He then turned and motioned to his Lieutenants to remain with the rest of the Fort’s men, before informing Galloway that he wished for a word in private. Not one to turn down any sort of order from a superior, Galloway directed Montgomery to a nearby woodshed, itself lean on contents but very good for privacy. The rest of the men watched the two enter with nervous breath, as Stevens & Holt looked on at them.
When inside, Montgomery shut the door and peered out the tiny window that brought light to the shed. Galloway stood there firmly, but slightly shaken. It was never a good sign when a Captain pulled you aside, and even worse when it was away from the rest of your men. He wondered whether he should have brought something to protect himself with, but then shook of the sheer insanity of that thought.
Montgomery turned to him slowly, and his firmness seemed to ease away into something more resembling confusion. He licked his lips as his mind worked out how to choose his words, and as he looked at Galloway, he saw that the young Corporal was as nervous as he was.
“You are Corporal Galloway?” the Captain said.
“You are in charge of this here Fort?”
“Do you know why I am here?”
“Would you care to take a guess?”
Galloway tried to think of something, anything, but all he got was a mental block.
“Corporal Galloway,” Montgomery said. “We have received no correspondence from you or your men in many, many months.”
“Oh,” Galloway said, almost relieved. “I can only apologise, sir.”
“You can also tell me why that is.”
Again, Galloway remained quiet as he tried to think of something to say.
“However, Corporal, right now that is not my concern.”
“My main concern is the Fort itself.”
“The Fort has been well-protected, sir. We have had no…”
“You tell me that, but I beg to differ.”
“You see, Galloway, on this document I have here in regards to Fort Hamilton, it tells me that you – Corporal James Galloway – are in charge of 5 men.”
“Which would make the inhabitants of Fort Hamilton number 6, am I correct?”
“Well, yes, sir.”
“Then why, Corporal Galloway, do I count 7?”
The mental block returned to Galloway’s mind, as he tried to figure out what Montgomery was saying.
“What do you mean, sir?”
“When my men and I came into Fort Hamilton, I counted 7 men, including yourself.”
Galloway began to shake his head. He wanted to deny the Captain’s claims, but they just weren’t connecting in his head.
“You seem confused, Corporal, so allow me to read to you the troop I have down here for Fort Hamilton. We have yourself – Corporal Galloway – and 5 Privates – Adams, Croft, Freeman, Jones, and May.”
“Then who is number 7?”
At this point, Galloway’s firm stance withered, and he took a look himself out the window. Sure enough, standing with Montgomery’s Lieutenants, were 6 men. All men he recognised, and all men who were part of his troop.
“I… don’t know, sir.”
“You don’t know?”
“You don’t know who the extra person is?”
Montgomery looked outside the window with Galloway, and took a deep breath.
“Then tell me who is standing out there right now.”
“From left to right.”
“Indulge me, Corporal.”
Galloway nodded, and moved toward the window. He looked over the row of men, and counted in his own head at what he saw.
“In your own time, Galloway.”
“Sorry, sir,” Galloway said. “From left to right, we have Freeman, May, Jones, Adams, Croft, and Galloway.”
Inside the woodshed, all became very quiet. The air whistled around them, and the sound of Montgomery’s intense breathing echoed with it.
“Repeat that, please.”
“Repeat. The damn. Names.”
The soldier was terrified now, shaking at the aggression in the Captain’s voice. He looked out the window again, and listed the men he saw.
“Freeman, May, Jones, Adams, Croft, and Galloway.”
This did not placate the Captain.
“If Galloway is out there,” he said. “Then who the Devil are you?”
The soldier looked at him, looked outside, and then steadied himself as he took several sharp breaths.
“But you just said Galloway is out there?”
“Are you Galloway or not, son?”
The soldier moved his eyes from the floor to the Captain, and it was then that Montgomery saw how frightened this young man was.
“I… believe I am, sir.”
Montgomery sighed and shook his head. He moved toward the window to look out past Galloway’s shoulder, and glared at the troops standing out there.
“It appears we have a problem, soldier.”