The Cheesy Religion
(A short story by Steven R. Harrel)
Tom pulled Joe up eye to eye and said to his face, “Joe, I’m ordering you to take me to Shire; it’s of the utmost importance!”
“Yes sirs, Mister Tom.”
“I means, yes Sirs Captain Tom sir”. Joe just shrugged his shoulders and then left the powder-cart on the side of the road. “Comes dhis a way Captain, we haves ta go up dhat dhere road to reach Shire”. Joe points up the road to where many of the refugees were heading.
As Tom and Joe began walking towards Shire, the Sergeant intercepted them, inquiring with his deep Southern accent, “Pardon me Sir!” The sergeant salutes Tom, “May I ask where you’re takin’ my Powder-Nigger?”
At first, Tom was offended, even set-back by the callused manner in which the sergeant referred to Joe; still, after a moment’s thought he remembered when and where he and Joe were. Tom replied, “I have need of this nigger, Sergeant! You will get someone else to resupply your powder cart. Is that understood?”
The sergeant hesitated for a moment apparently sizing up the “Captain”.
Noting the sergeant’s delayed reaction Tom assumed a sterner expression and squared his shoulders, “Did you hear what I said, Sergeant?”
“Yes Sir, Captain”. The Sergeant slowly wheeled his mount and headed back up the road – from whence he came.
“Whew, for a moment there I thought we were going to have trouble with the Sergeant, Joe”. Tom wiped his now moistened brow.
“Yes sirs, Captain, I thoughts sos too. Shall we gets goin’ sir?” Joe pointed up the road.
“Let’s,” Tom said, as the two men set a brisk pace towards Troy and hopefully Shire.
For nearly seven miles Tom and Joe traveled quietly, heading southwest over the dirt-road. They travailed among the wounded and seemingly disenfranchised. At one point Tom began sharing his amazing and near unbelievable story with Joe; he included Nancy’s sickness and his strange encounter with the watch. Enthusiastically Joe listened and posited questions for clarification. As Tom’s story drew to a close with their present… Joe offered conjecture on the watch and how it might be some type of supernatural talisman. Rubbing his chin, Joe said, “Sounds like some powerful Hoodoos at works, Captain Tom.”
Tom simply said, “Perhaps?”
Finally, after several hours of walking the two men came upon a turnoff. Standing in the middle of the road, just to the right of their chosen path was an elderly and exceedingly portly Confederate Soldier. The old soldier stood swinging a lantern on a long pole. He was guiding the wounded and infirm into a makeshift Field-Hospital.
The soldier’s chubby frame comically accented his exceedingly rotund face. He sported an appearance not easily overlooked for its caricature like presentation; with a twirling handle-bar moustache and split beard he was nigh on unforgettable. Nothing of this man’s image lessened his amusing visage.
Whatever his appearance – his intentions were obvious: the man expertly guided the sick and wounded towards the Field-Hospital and did so with alacrity. He seemed to do no less than lighten the hearts of every person, sick or wounded who passed his position. This man was the perfect envoy for this pitiable job.
Here he stood with an endless stream of wounded and bleeding men walking or crawling out of the darkness and he offered nothing short of compassion for one and all.
For this procession of defeated and broken men he was the perfect emissary.
As Tom approached the rotund sentry, Joe pointed to a side road behind and to the sentry’s left. Joe said, “Shire’s up dhat-a ways sirs; leastwise, I tanks it’s up dhat road and offs to the right somewheres. “Yes sir, I declares dhats da road wees lookin’ fors, Captains sir.” Joe continued to point to the road behind and to the left of the sentry.
Tom squinted into the darkness – seeing little more than an animal trail, “Are you sure, Joe? It doesn’t look like much of a road”.
“Yes sirs Captain Tom sir. I’s sure”.
Tom rubbed his chin, paused and then said, “I think I’ll ask that sentry.”
Joe looked a little concerned.
The sentry stopped swinging his lantern as Tom approached; he then came to attention with a snappy salute, “Sir!”
“Relax, Soldier” Tom said, “I just want to ask you a question.”
The jovial little soldier relaxed and smiled broadly, “Yes Captain?”
“Are you familiar with a little town called Shire?” Tom asked, “I’ve heard it’s in this area somewhere?”
“Shire?” The sentry looked down as he stroked his beard and considered Tom’s question.
“Yes, Shire,” Tom repeated the question absently as he rubbed the watch in his pocket.
“No sir,” the sentry said after appearing to puzzle it out, “I can’t say as I’m familiar with that name or any town called Shire, sir.”
“Maybe this’ll help,” Tom said pulling out the watch and showing it to the sentry.
The stout little sentry looked from side to side before stepping closer and lowering his voice, “Oh, Shire, sir.” He lowered his voice further, “Yes sir, I know of Shire. You need to head up that road over there, sir.” It was the same road Joe had indicated a few moments earlier, “That trail should lead you straight to Shire, sir. It’s only about four miles up that path, Captain.”
Tom gratefully thanked the soldier and began to head towards the road.
The sentry then stepped closer still before saying, “Sir, you should know something.” Looking both ways again as if someone might be watching or listening, “Even if you’re on the right trail to Shire, sir, if Shire don’t want you there, sir…” The sentry emphasized the word, sir. “You will not find Shire.”
“What do you mean, Soldier?” Tom said, alarm coloring his voice and face.
“Sir, ifen Shire don’t want ya… you’ll never find it.” The sentry seemed to be getting worried as to whether or not he should be sharing Shire’s information with this Captain; a Captain he didn’t know.
Tom felt a little deflated but thanked the man anyways, “Thank you, Soldier, I’m sure it’ll be fine. Thank you very much.” The duo nodded to the sentry and then continued up the road.
The road quickly became an ephemeral trail. As they entered the woods, the day began to take its toll on Tom and his determination swiftly began to wane. Tom rapidly lost steam and decided he and Joe had gone quite far enough for one day.
“We should make camp here for the night, Joe.” Tom said this while yawning and then slumped beside the nearest tree. “I’ve decided not to try and push it tonight. I’m just too tired to go any further, Joe. We’ll continue in the morning if that’s okay with you? That way we should be able to arrive in Shire following first light. You good with that, Joe?”
Joe simply shrugged his shouldered and set to making camp.
Tom watched Joe gathering leave and avoiding certain brambles as Joe set up their sleeping areas. Tom had merely sprawled under the nearest oak trees where he assumed the duo would bed down. Joe on the other-hand wanted to make sure he would be refreshed come morning.
Tom awoke with the sunlight caressing his face. Based on the position of the sun, Tom figured it to be about 5:30 in the morning. Oddly, as the sun came up Joe was nowhere to be found.
Though he searched, Tom could not find the place where Joe had slept or gathered leaves the night before. In fact, as Tom surveilled the ground around the great Oak where he and Joe had slept, he became certain he wouldn’t find any sign that anyone else had ever been there or led him under this giant Oak tree.
“No matter,” Tom thought, even as he tried to locate footprints on the barely discernable trail. Tom was undaunted though. He decided to add the recent night’s oddities to the substantial number of strange and inexplicable things which had already become par for the course. Truth be told, every weird and strange thing which had happened over the last two weeks began after he touched that mysterious watch. “Still, he had to find a cure for his beloved,” he thought. “He would find a cure for Nancy. He would!”
The morning sky was indeed gorgeously arrayed with bright clouds and beautifully colored drifting leaves. The time of year appeared to be early winter or possibly mid-fall because most of the leave were still on the trees; all the deciduous trees where in full color and every breeze carried a cascade of kaleidoscopic hues in varied shapes and sizes drifting up and down on the breezes until finally kissing the forest floor. All around the forest birds were singing and flitting from place to place, building winter hide‑a‑ways. Squirrels chittered with bulging cheeks filled to capacity as they scurried up one giant Oak only to jump to another. One brave little squirrel launched itself all of fifteen feet to a nearby Birch and then scurried over to an Elm where he ducked into his tiny little hidey-hole.
Tom brushed himself off and walked over to the trail. “He could sure use some breakfast,” he thought. The forest seemed far more foreboding and overgrown than when he and Joe had walked it together last night. It was so overgrown in fact that parts of the road were barely distinguishable. Tom shouted into the forest, “It seems like none of this is real?” Tom knew better.
After only a few minutes of gathering himself, Tom began picking his way up the wild trial. He knew they hadn’t gone far last night so he wasn’t surprised when he’d traveled nearly three miles and still could not see signs of civilization – old or new. “Wow,” Tom thought, “I never realized how much work breaking trail could be.”
Abruptly, after rounding a copse of Birch trees, Tom began seeing burned out structures an old foundation with remnants of walls and a dilapidated fireplace. It became clear Tom was now walking through the remains of an old and forgotten town or village.
Shacks and buildings of known and unknown intent littered a small glen. At the head of the vale, a dried out riverbed showed signs of being the primary water source for a once active little community. Tom cautiously crossed a derelict bridge, one leading into the small ghost town; a bridge which at one time reasonably conveyed horses and wagons across a flowing river. Sadly now, only a tiny creek remained. On the far side Tom saw a rotted out sign-post with an old bronze colored sign, hanging askew. The sign read, “Welcome To Shire”.
(End of Part 6)