Our First National Thanksgiving

(c) Marina Bridges

“Start butchering it,” Colonel Deland ordered. He leaned on his gun and stared at the carcass.

“Are you sure, Colonel? We might be able to get a photographer out. Might be worth it to wait a day or two. Be a shame to not have some sort of record. That company on their way to Gettysburg got a photograph of the one they shot, and I do believe this one to be bigger.”

Jenkins was an idiot. The Colonel wouldn’t allow a photographer anywhere near Camp Douglas. Every man in the hunting party knew it. Even the prisoners. The Union didn’t want any comparisons to Andersonville, the Confederate prisoner of war camp in Georgia. The best way to avoid comparisons was to not give anyone the opportunity to make comparisons. The truth was that Camp Douglas was every bit as brutal, filthy, disease-ridden, and filled with living skeletons as Andersonville had ever been.

The Colonel raised his gaze to regard Jenkins. “If you ever suggest calling a photographer here again, I will have you shot.” He looked at the carcass one more time before he retired to the chair the guards had set up for him under the trees.

Jenkins flushed red with embarrassment. He turned to the prisoners. “Start butchering it.”

Jenkins joined his fellow guards around the edge of the clearing. They trained their rifles on the prisoners. The prisoners were new to the camp. They’d been chosen for the hunting party because they still had enough strength to be of some use, but they weren’t impressive specimens, by far. They were human scarecrows, all bones sticking out of raggedy clothes.

“I don’t think I can do this.” Jimmy’s Adam’s apple jumped in his scrawny neck.

“You’ll do it.” Bradford forced Jimmy to meet his eyes. “You’ll do it.” Jimmy nodded briefly before hefting the heavy canvas bag of tools.

Jimmy and Bradford weren’t new to butchering animals. They were farmers. Animals meant meat. Being half starved and sick from years of war and weeks of imprisonment, Bradford wasn’t sure he could do this, himself.  He was afraid he’d collapse face down in a pile of guts. He was afraid that, overcome by working with the first fresh meat he’d seen in months, he’d lap at the blood like a dog. His dignity was all he had. He’d like to hold onto it.

Bradford had harbored a small hope that he’d enjoy the hunting party. He wasn’t allowed a gun, naturally. His leg irons forced him to limp awkwardly along. He’d hoped the excitement of the hunt and fresh air that didn’t stink of death and the filth of too many men in too little space would afford him a relief from his reality.

The purpose of the hunt hadn’t allowed Bradford his holiday. Resentment gnawed at him. The hunt wasn’t to provide meat to those who had none. It wasn’t even for pleasure.

The hunt was to please Lincoln. Lincoln, who’d decreed the entire country would give thanks on the third Thursday of November from now on. Bradford couldn’t think for the life of him what anyone had to be thankful for.  He knew the South was suffering more than the North, but the war was grinding the entire country into pulp. He could take no pleasure in this hunt. He was being forced by a president who wasn’t his President to provide meat for a meal he wouldn’t be invited to share.

Jimmy selected an ax from the bag. He raised it above his head and hacked down weakly toward the joint that connected a leathery wing to the huge body. A shriek split the air, and Jimmy’s ax embedded itself into the ground instead of the joint. He looked up to find the noise. All he saw was a set of giant talons right before they ripped his head from his body. Bradford broke into a shambling, helpless, leg-ironed hobble toward the woods. Another set of talons swept Bradford’s head from his body and up for a ride in the sky.

“Shite,” spat Colonel Deland from his chair under the trees. “Pack up, boys. Let’s try for a stegosaurus. They don’t hang around their dead like these blasted pterodactyls do.”

The men backed cautiously out of the clearing as the giant birds swooped from the sky and landed awkwardly for their feast.

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