Academic journal article TriQuarterly

Covered Bridge

Academic journal article TriQuarterly

Covered Bridge

Article excerpt

At a family reunion in 1983, Baxter Decker, the author's maternal uncle, who was born in 1909, agrees to speak - into a cassette recorder his recollections of a story told to him by his great-grandfather, George Barnabas Decker. It is a tale of a chance encounter in the summer of 1863 during the War between the States.

1. What Baxter was told.

When you come up to the river at flood tide on a bright summer's day with wind churning the trees and the marsh water riffling silver among the cattails and no other way across

except the bridge - where it was darkness on first entering, until your eyes adjusted, with the gleaming square at the other end, your horse skittish on the echoing boards -

the thin light coming through cracks, from all directions, even beneath where you stand and you can peer down through warped planks and see water moving - that dizzy sideways

streaming - and at the same time feel wind slipping through the length of the shaft strong enough to blow the hat off your head - then the sense comes to you (even the horse

understands, trembling) that the bridge itself is moving, in long, slow rhythms like some sort of creaking weathervane or needle balanced over fields of force -

so when three mounted rebel soldiers stop at the east-bank entrance, they look inside and see my great-grandfather with the last of twenty armloads of brush he has piled

against the center arch so that the draft will fan the embers straight up to the roof and fire the cedar shakes. The whole bridge will last about as long as a pine torch

on election day. He glances up from his work and sees the rebs reined in, watching. Three against one, but he knows their saddlebags are weighted down with slabs of jowl bacon

and coffee-grinders and bolts of calico and God knows what other kinds of plunder taken these last ten days. If it comes to a race he can probably outrun them, even on Old Fly -

who is tethered at the west end, switching his tail, occasionally nudging gravel loose from the roadbed - part of the steady stream of sand and grit and pebbles sifting down

into the waters far below. Starting out that morning my great-grandfather had stuck a ball pistol in his belt - the same one he carried when he rode off to Mexico

with Lew Wallace and the First Indiana. Never fired a shot in that campaign, never even made it to Buena Vista. Now, it was too much trouble to load the damned thing.

The rebs are still watching. Rather than venture onto the bridge, they turn away from the entrance. "Be a shame to burn such a fine-lookin' bridge," one of them calls.

Fly shifts around nervously and knocks loose more pebbles. Except for a tendency to bite now and then, he was a good horse, not the least handicapped by being ten years old and owned

by a carpenter and schoolteacher - callings my great-grandfather followed, when he wasn't out burning bridges, or trying to save the Union and the State of Indiana from sure perdition

now that Morgan's raiders had been loosed on northern soil. My great-grandfather, Barnabas, has eight sulfur matches in his coat pocket. He has already spied the bolt on one of the beams

where he intends to strike them, one after the other, in a wind that continues to howl the length of the bridge - hoping that he can cup his fingers around at least one match

and get the conflagration started. Now the captain (as it turns out) has dismounted and is walking this way, the new vibrations spooking Old Fly until my great-grandfather

calls to him, tells him to stop that whining. He draws the pistol and lays it on a side brace. The captain comes on, slowly, up to where all the brush is stacked. He wears a uniform

so smudged you can't tell what army he's in. His eyes are bloodshot; he hasn't shaved or slept in five days. Two bars and a plated sword. Touches his hat. "Sir, would you happen to be

a gambling man? …

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