The Long March

The Long March by William Styron Read Free Book Online

Book: The Long March by William Styron Read Free Book Online
Authors: William Styron
instant—his mind still grappling with the memory of a hurried, chaotic nightmare—he was unable to tell where he was. He had the feeling that it should be the night before, and that he was still in the tent. “Did I go to sleep, O’Leary?” he said, blinking upward.
    “Yes, sir,” O’Leary said, and chuckled, “you sure did.”
    “How long?”
    “Oh, just a second.”
    “Christ, I am tired. I dreamt it was last night,” Culver said. He got to his feet. A truck moved through the clearing in a cloud of dust. There seemed to be new activity in the command post, and new confusion. Culver and O’Leary turned together then toward the operations tent; the Colonel had come out and was striding toward them, followed by Mannix.
    “Culver, get your jeep and driver,” he said, walking toward the road, not looking up. His voice was briskly matter-of-fact; he strode past them with short, choppy steps and the swagger stick in his hand made a quick tattoo, slap-slap-slapping against his dungaree pants. “I want you and Captain Mannix to go with me down to Third Batt. See if we can help.” His voice faded; Mannix trailed behind him, saying nothing, but his face seemed to Culver even more exhausted, and even more grimly taut, than it had been an hour before.
    The road was a dusty cart-path that rambled footlessly across scrubby, fallow farmland. Shacks and cabins, long ago abandoned, lay along its way. They piled into the jeep, Mannix and Culver in the back, the Colonel in front next to the driver. They hadn’t far to go—less than a mile—but the trip felt endless to Culver because the day, by now a fit- ful carrousel of sleepy sounds, motions without meaning, seemed wildly, almost dangerously abstracted, as if viewed through drug-glazed eyes or eyes, like those of a mole, unacquainted with light. Dust billowed past them as they went. Above them a blue cloudless sky in which the sun, pitched now at its summit, beat fearfully down, augured no rain for the day, or for the evening. Mannix said nothing; his silence prompted Culver to turn and look at him. He was gazing straight ahead with eyes that seemed to bore through the Colonel’s neck. Tormented beast in the cul-de-sac, baffled fury, grief at the edge of defeat—his eyes made Culver suddenly aware of what they were about to see, and he turned dizzily away and watched the wreck of a Negro cabin float past through the swirling dust: shell-shattered doors and sagging walls, blasted façade—a target across which for one split second in the fantastic noon there seemed to crawl the ghosts of the bereaved and the departed, mourning wraiths come back to reclaim from the ruins some hot scent of honeysuckle, smell of cooking, murmurous noise of bees. Culver closed his eyes and drowsed, slack-jawed, limp, his stomach faintly heaving.
    One boy’s eyes lay gently closed, and his long dark lashes were washed in tears, as though he had cried himself to sleep. As they bent over him they saw that he was very young, and a breeze came up from the edges of the swamp, bearing with it a scorched odor of smoke and powder, and touched the edges of his hair. A lock fell across his brow with a sort of gawky, tousled grace, as if preserving even in that blank and mindless repose some gesture proper to his years, a callow charm. Around his curly head grasshoppers darted among the weeds. Below, beneath the slumbering eyes, his face had been blasted out of sight. Culver looked up and met Mannix’s gaze. The Captain was sobbing helplessly. He cast an agonized look toward the Colonel, standing across the field, then down again at the boy, then at Culver. “Won’t they ever let us alone, the sons of bitches,” he murmured, weeping. “Won’t they ever let us alone?”
    That evening at twilight, just before the beginning of the march, Mannix found a nail in his shoe. “Look at it,” he said to Culver, “what lousy luck.” They were sitting on an embankment bordering the road. The blue

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