Slipping into Darkness: A Freedonia Story - Part I
‘I was slippin’ into darkness,
When they took my friend away.
I was slipping into darkness,
When they took…when they took my friend away.
You know he loved to drink good whiskey,
While laughing at the moon.
Slipping into Darkness by War
Zeke took the full shot glass into his trembling hand as the patrons of the Luna Oscura saloon chanted.
“Drink, drink, drink, drink . . .”
The saloon went blurry so he blinked his eyes to clear his vision. Josué stared at him, a jovial smile between his round dimpled cheeks on his ebony face.
“Come on, mon frère! One more shot and the eagles are ours!”
“Easy for you to say,” Zeke slurred.
Zeke steadied his hand then slowly raised the shot glass to his puckered lips. He drank slowly, the brown liquid burning a path between his lips and teeth down to his churning stomach. He closed his eyes then slammed the glass on the table. He swayed and everyone gasped; Zeke steadied then opened his eyes as he grinned.
“How’s that for a Freedonian!” he shouted.
His comrades and the saloon patrons answered his words with applause. Josué took off his beret and collected their winnings. He dropped the hat on the table before Zeke.
“Not bad, mon frère, not bad!”
“Told you I could do it,” Zeke said.
“There’s enough to put us in high style for the next week!”
“Too bad we muster out in three days,” Zeke replied.
“We’ll blow it when we get to New Orleans,” Josué said.
His friend turned toward the voice calling him. When he turned back his face was serious.
“Zeke, I have business to tend to,” he said. “I’ll be back momentarily.”
“I’m going with you,” Zeke said. “We’re supposed to be celebrating, remember?”
“I’ll be just a minute,” Josué said.
Zeke stood as a man and a woman approached the table. Both were well dressed for the frontier, their faces as serious as Josué’s. Their clothing identified them Spaniards, which made Zeke a little suspicious. New Haiti was at war with Nueva España. It was the reason they were in this dusty town on the border.
“Aren’t you going to introduce me?” Zeke said.
“Another time,” Josué said. “I’ll be right back.”
Zeke stepped toward his friend and his head spun. His stomach began roiling like a flooding river and his eyes became heavy.
“Oh shit,” he said.
As his eyesight faded he saw Josué, the man and the woman walk through the saloon doors into the darkness.
* * *
The squeaking beds of the waking soldiers was constant and persistent like a ticking clock. Zeke covered his ears but the sound seeped through his fingers, digging into his ears like a broken bugle. Zeke finally sat up and his head spun violently. He lay back down then belched a nasty taste into his mouth.
“My Lord,” he moaned.
He sat up slowly the second time, the spinning still present but manageable. He staggered out of the room, ignoring the jibes and complaints of his comrades. By the time he reached the latrine the foul concoction in his stomach had worked its way into his throat. He barely made it to the toilet. After a gut-wrenching vomit, he felt better. Zeke ambled back to the room to get his shaving kit. As he approached his bunk he noticed Josué’s empty bed. It hadn’t been slept in. Zeke’s stomach fluttered, but this time it had nothing to do with last night’s drinking.
Pierre, a stocky Haitian with a drowsy nodded as he shuffled by. Zeke grabbed his shoulder.
“Hey, did you see Josué leave this morning?
Pierre yawned as he glanced at Josué’s bunk.
“No,” he grunted.
“Did you see him come in?”
Pierre looked at Zeke with an annoyed expression.
“Do I look like his mére?”
He snatched his shoulder away then continued to the latrine. Zeke stood for a moment, staring at his friend’s bed. Maybe he spent the night with his friends. Zeke remembered the faces of the man and woman who Josué left with. Although they did look as though they knew his friend, they did not look friendly. Zeke shrugged; he would look into it later. For now, he needed to get in uniform and get his things in order. In three days they mustered out, leaving the arid climate of España Nueva’s Arizona and returning to the vibrant dampness of New Orleans.
He shaved then dressed. At 0800 the commander, Capitiane Loubens Saint Fleur strode into the room, immaculate as ever as the men stood at attention before their bunks. Zeke marveled at how the man was always perfectly dressed. Even his thick, waxed mustache seem starched and press like his uniform. The capitaine strolled down the ranks, inspecting each soldier with his keen eye. Despite the end of the campaign, the meticulous commander still demanded rigid discipline and dress, which was another thing Zeke wouldn’t miss when he mustered out. The capitaine was particularly fond of harassing Zeke.
Saint Fleur stopped before Zeke, giving him his special attention. He studied him closely from head to toe, kneeling to inspect his books then rising slowly as he stared. Their faces finally met, and the capitaine frowned.
“You smell terrible, Freedonian,” he said.
Zeke smiled. “It was a good night, monsieur.”
The capitaine’s frown deepened. “Despite that your uniform is passable. We’ll make a Haitian out of you yet.”
“I hope not monsieur,” Zeke snapped. “My mama might not recognize me.”
The capitaine smirked. “I would have kicked you out of this army long ago if you weren’t such a good shot.”
He glanced to Josué’s bunk.
“Where is your comrade?”
Zeke’s expression became serious as his stomach tightened.
“I don’t know, monsieur.”
“We’ll discuss this later in my office,” he said.
“Yes, monsieur,” Zeke replied. He was about to suffer another reprimand.
“Hommes,” the capitaine said, “we muster out in two days. New Haiti thanks you for your valiant service. Most of you will remain a part of our glorious army, although many of you will move on to new lives or return to old ones. For those of you leaving, I express my deepest sympathy.”
The men laughed. The capitaine did not.
“Take this time to make sure your equipment is secure and to handle any business you have with the local population. The airships will arrive in El Mirage at 1200 Thursday morning. You will be rank formation at the landing by 1130. Do you understand?”
“Yes, monsieur!” the responded in unity.
“Bon. Continue your duties. Culpepper, come with me.”
The capitaine strode from the room. Zeke shrugged his shoulders, then followed. The capitaine’s office was as perfect as his uniform, the walls festooned with awards and accolades. He sat behind his desk then motioned for Zeke to sit in the chair on the opposite side.
“I’m giving you the day to find Josué and bring him back to the barracks,” he said. “Can you do that without getting into trouble?”
“Bon. I’m assuming that he must have some local obligations he’s handling.”
‘Local obligation’ was the commander’s phrase for a girlfriend or family. They served in Arizona for three years, so it was only natural that some of the men developed relationships with the local women. The problem was a few had families in New Haiti. Josué was one of those few.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with that,” Zeke replied. “Last time I saw him he was leaving the saloon with a fancy dressed man and woman.”
Saint Fleur held up his hand. “Please. I don’t need to know the details. Just bring him back.”
Zeke stood to leave.
“Culpepper, this errand does not relieve you of your other duties. I expect you to complete them as well before Thursday.”
“Of course, monsieur.”
The commander began studying papers on his desk.
Zeke saluted then exited the office.
“Asshole,” he whispered.