The Pluck of O'ReillyGary Alan Ruse / Fantasy / Humor / History & Fiction
The Pluck of O’Reilly
A short story by Gary Alan Ruse
Copyright © 2000 and 2012 by Gary Alan Ruse
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(Note: A version of this work was published in the anthology “Civil War Fantastic” by DAW Books, New York, in July 2000, edited by Martin H. Greenberg.)
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“You’d best get your head down, O’Reilly, ‘less you’re achin’ to get it hit by a Yankee minie ball.” The Confederate officer’s reprimand was drawled in the manner of a casual observation rather than a concerned warning. Only the twitch of his worried gaze in the fading light of dusk revealed a trace of fear about the coming battle.
Private Sean O’Reilly eased back from the embankment and fixed the officer with a guardedly wry look. “Yes, Sir, Lieutenant, Sir. Sure’n I appreciate your concern for my well-being.”
“Your well-being does not greatly concern me,” drawled the officer. “But I surely would hate to have to take a good soldier off the line just to drive your team and supply wagon. Now, your idle curiosity makes me wonder if I have somehow failed to provide you with sufficient work to keep you busy. Have I given you enough to do?”
“Oh, yes, Sir.” O’Reilly’s tone was rueful. “You’ve been most generous.”
“Then perhaps you should resume your duties, while there’s still some light left.”
O’Reilly took leave of Lieutenant Clayhill, scratching his head as he left. It was only a momentary glance he had taken in the general direction of the Union troops...hardly anything to worry about. But of course the Lieutenant was right. A Union sharpshooter would only need a moment to draw a bead on him, exposed as he was, even so briefly. Better not to take a chance. If there was one thing O’Reilly should have learned, here in the South or in the old country, it was that a wise man never left anything to chance.
The campfire had been made in a low spot of ground, to further hide it from view of the enemy troops a short distance away on the other side of the embankment. In these woods, just south of Vicksburg, near the edge of the Mississippi, a line had been drawn between the defending forces of the Confederacy and the attacking Union forces led by Grant and others. And here was O’Reilly, on that line, smack in the middle of things. Not a good place for a fine broth of a lad such as himself to be. The siege had gone on for weeks, with skirmishes and battles, potshots and bombardments, involving his own regiment and others under the direction of Major General John C. Pemberton. Both the soldiers and the people of Vicksburg were growing weary of it. And of them all, O’Reilly was the most weary.
“I shouldn’t even be here,” he muttered to himself as he hurried past the groups of soldiers sitting on empty kegs and crates near the fire.
“None of us should be here.” Private Pettigrew did not look up from where he sat, cleaning his rifle. With a bit of a sneer, he added, “But at least the rest of us volunteered to defend the South, unlike certain conscriptees I know.”
O’Reilly stopped in his tracks. “‘Tis a businessman I am, not a soldier. Besides, I’m new to this country.”
Pettigrew cast a brief, glaring glance his way. “You’ve been here eight years, by my reckoning. You live here, you work here, you draw your income from decent Southern folk. That makes it your war as much as mine. Besides, when the call went out for more men, we found you, we got you. You’re one of us, now.”
O’Reilly sighed as he hurried off again. “‘Tis true, ‘tis true.” Under his breath he added, “But if me horse had been a wee bit faster, ‘twould be quite another matter. Quite another matter, indeed.”
O’Reilly hated this camp, with its improvised bunkers of tents and sandbags. Some of the nearby regiments had caves in the hillsides for shelter, those that weren’t occupied by civilians from town. This part of the woods lacked caves. His regiment had fallen back to this position a few days before, and would have to make do. Any further retreat would find them in the city itself.
He hurried to carry baskets with their meager provisions to the cook fire, then returned to load up small crates of rounds, black powder and other necessities and lug them to the points along the line where they would be needed. Back and forth, back and forth, as time passed and darkness fell. Pausing to wipe the sweat from his brow, he wondered if it was perhaps unwise to have the powder kegs stockpiled where they were handy instead of where they were more sheltered. Still, it was not his decision.
“Almost done, O’Reilly?”
Lieutenant Clayhill’s voice, full of sultry sarcasm, made him straighten abruptly and move on.
“Yes, Sir,” said O’Reilly. “Almost.”
He swiftly completed his remaining duties, silently cursing the fact that he alone seemed to be given the lowliest jobs. If there was an unpleasant task to perform, “Give it to O’Reilly!” was the usual cry, even among those of his own rank. It was almost as bad as being a slave. The thought sent a chill up his spine.
The rest of the men were already eating as he reached the area by the fire. It was a ragtag unit. It was June 23, 1863, and most of the men except for the officers weren’t even in uniform. Their grey worsted had long since worn out and been replaced with butternut homespun.
O’Reilly got his plate from the cook. There was not much on it, just a biscuit and a spoonful of beans. Meat was nearly unheard of, although mule had been on the menu of late, even for the townsfolk of Vicksburg. If his own team of mules had not been needed to haul supplies, he suspected they would have ended up as stew days ago. It was probably just a matter of time.
He took a seat among the ring of men around the fire, not too close to any of the others, mind you, and proceeded to eat his meal, such as it was. The grim expressions of the other men further dampened his mood, as did the doleful tune played on a small concertina by a soldier on the opposite side of the fire. There was certainly not much to be cheerful about, and O’Reilly longed for the good old days, before the war.
“They’ll attack again at dawn, most likely,” said one of the men, as much to himself as to the soldiers nearest him.
“Most likely,” echoed one of the others, equally grim.
Yet another man nodded as he finished his biscuit and wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve. “Yep. We’ve kept them at bay ‘til now, but how much longer can we hold out?”
“As long as it takes,” drawled Lieutenant Clayhill in a tone that straightened spines and sent a chill up them, too. “You can bet they will attack again tomorrow, and the day after that as well. They may yet march into Vicksburg, my brothers, but I tell you this---we shall exact a dear price in Yankee blood for every step they take, and we shall fight to the last man among us!”
O’Reilly swallowed hard. He had an uncomfortable feeling that he would be that last man...the sole and solitary obstacle between advancing Union forces and their goal. That was not a pleasant thought. Not a pleasant thought at all.
Pettigrew raised his cup in a mock toast. “You know we’re in it to the end, Lieutenant.” He grimly added, “But the odds aren’t looking good.”
“I’ll grant you that, soldier,” agreed Clayhill with a trace of regret. “But it’s close. I truly believe it could go either way, and it could go our way, if we have the will and the grit. But,” he sighed, “we surely could use an edge. Any kind of an edge. Some advantage, however small, might just make the difference.”
“However small...?” O’Reilly looked their way speculatively, startling himself by speaking up when he normally preferred to keep quiet and avoid attracting either the attention or the wrath of the others.
“Yes, Private O’Reilly,” said Clayhill with a trace of annoyance, “however small. Many times throughout the history of battle it has been some simple thing, some trifling detail, that has been the decisive factor, the difference between winning and losing.” Clayhill paused, fixing O’Reilly with his patronizing stare. “Dare I ask why you inquire?
Have you some idea or suggestion that could give our glorious regiment the edge it so badly needs?”
There were a few titters of amusement. Someone coughed.
“Well...” said O’Reilly reluctantly “...well, yes. Yes, I do.”
This time there were chuckles and wry grins. The men exchanged comradely glances, eager to see Lieutenant Clayhill skewer the hapless O’Reilly over some ludicrous idea.
Clayhill’s look was coy. “Well, now, O’Reilly, you’ve not often expressed an opinion, other than simple whining, nor any particular desire to help, so frankly this intrigues me. This intrigues me a great deal. I am always open to suggestions, presuming they are well intended, so please---do tell me your idea.”
A hush fell over the encampment. The concertina player stopped his tune. The dull murmur of conversations faded. The clank of utensils against plates ceased. Even the crackle of the fire seemed to quiet down. Everyone awaited O’Reilly’s response, some with a dim hope he might actually have an idea that would help, but most with nothing more than the anticipation of a good laugh at the Irishman’s expense. There was precious little humor in war, after all, in this war in particular, and especially not recently. A good laugh might help.
“Well,” said O’Reilly hesitantly, feeling full well the sudden focus of everyone’s attention, “it’s just that I thought...maybe...maybe the little people could help.”
There was a void of sound and movement. For a moment, the scene looked like one of those tintype photographs taken by an itinerant photographer for capturing regimental glory or real life during the war. For a moment, no one even breathed.
Then Lieutenant Clayhill blinked. “Little people...?” he drawled. “Little people? Which, in Heaven’s name, little people might you be talking about, O’Reilly?”
“Why, the little people,” he asserted. “The wee folk. You know...leprechauns.”
Now everyone’s held breath suddenly rushed out in gusts of explosive laughter. There were rude guffaws. There were hoots and hollers. There were chuckles and chortles and derisive snorts. And those were the most polite expressions of their views.
“Are you crazy, O’Reilly?” one man shouted.
“Crazy, or drunk!” Pettigrew chimed in.
“Maybe you could conscript us some pink elephants, while you’re at it,” chided another man, “and send them up against the Yankees!”
“Naw,” hooted his friend. “That won’t work. If’n it did, Grant would have used them agin us by now!”
O’Reilly listened to the scornful remarks, the contemptuous laughter, the rude insults. He listened and waited, his mouth twisted up in a bit of a smirk.
Lieutenant Clayhill was laughing, too, not uproariously, mind you, but with a kind of droll, genteel chuckle, his eyes closed and his head tilted back a bit. He calmed himself and looked back to O’Reilly with an expression that was hard to fathom. Then he held out his hands to quiet the troops and calm them down. Maybe, thought O’Reilly, it was out of a desire for fairness, or perhaps a need to maintain control of his men...or maybe, just maybe, the Confederate officer was curious to see exactly how far the joke could be pushed.
“Now, now---” the Lieutenant told his men “---let us not berate our gallant comrade here.” He paused as more chuckles started, then died down. “He is, after all, just trying to help. And I can see that he is a sincere man, expressing a sincere belief. What he suggests is an intriguing notion, from a military standpoint, although I frankly suspect we might have better luck enlisting and outfitting the squirrels, if there were any left in these woods.” Another pause for laughter. “But tell me this, O’Reilly---and I do not claim to be an expert on the lore of your country---aren’t we just, well, a wee bit too far from Ireland to summon any help from leprechauns?”
O’Reilly merely shrugged. “Nothing’s impossible for the fairy folk, Lieutenant. Not even distance. Not if you have what it takes.”
Clayhill now wore a wry grin. “And you’re telling us that you have what it takes?”
“Sure’n I wouldn’t lie about something so important.”
“I see.” Clayhill’s grin remained, but his eyes twinkled with cunning as much as humor. “So do tell us, O’Reilly, just how does one summon the little people? Is it something I could do?”
O’Reilly shook his head in sad disparagement. “Oh, I truly doubt that, Sir. The wee folk don’t answer the call of just anyone, not even my own people, for the most part. I couldn’t do it meself, if not for the gift.”
“Ah,” observed Clayhill. “The gift. You must have a special talent to do it.”
“Well, no. Not that sort of gift. It’s another sort of gift altogether. You see, years ago, back in Ireland, me sainted father once did a special favor for the king of the leprechauns.”
More chortles. More coughs.
“The king of the leprechauns?” said the Lieutenant.
“Oh, yes, Sir. They’re still under a monarchy, don’t you know. Very traditional folks, they are.”
O’Reilly took a deep breath. “Well, as I say, me sainted father did this king a special favor and endeared himself to the wee folk something grand. So in return, the king of the leprechauns swore that he and his people would do a special favor for me father, and for his first-born son, and for the first-born son of his first-born son. Well, Sir, I am pleased to say that I am my father’s first born son, and I’ve not used my favor yet. I guess now’s as good a time as any.” He reached into his garments, deep into a hidden pocket, and pulled out a small object with the glint of metal, attached to a braided cord. “Now this would be the gift of which I spoke, in addition, of course, to the favors granted, but this being the gift which allows us to summon the wee folk.”
There was more faint laughter, although it seemed to be tapering off. The men craned their necks to get a look at the object O’Reilly held dangling from the cord.
“What is that thing?” Lieutenant Clayhill drawled. “Some kind of tin whistle?”
“Oh my, no, Sir,” said O’Reilly. “‘Tis crafted of the finest silver, and ‘tis no mere whistle. ‘Tis pan pipes, made by the little people themselves, which accounts for their small size of course.”
Clayhill raised an aristocratic eyebrow. “And you play a tune on that to summon your tiny friends?”
“Ah, not just any tune,” declared O’Reilly. “It must be the right tune, the one the king of the leprechauns taught me sainted father, and me father taught me.” And with that, he gently blew into the top of the longest pipe in the set, just to get the pitch.
The sound that came from that pipe was unnerving in its purity. The tone was sweet and clear, and so perfect in its musicality that it brought goosebumps to the men gathered around the campfire.
“Ah, ‘tis a pretty sound, don’t you think?” O’Reilly smiled in sweet reflection, then his brow furrowed a bit. “Now, how did that melody go? Ah, yes. I remember, now.”
O’Reilly positioned the set of pan pipes before his pursed lips and began to play. His foot tapped and his head bobbed in time to the music. It was a sprightly Irish jig with a haunting melody that ranged the full scale of the pan pipes and silenced the men with its beauty. After a moment, he stopped and waited.
The rest of the men, almost in spite of themselves, began to nervously glance around. But the firelight revealed exactly what it had before, and nothing out of the ordinary.
“These little people,” said Lieutenant Clayhill. “I don’t see them, yet.”
O’Reilly chewed his lip a bit. “Well, it’s a long way we are from Ireland. Perhaps they need a little more time.”
Clayhill grinned sarcastically. “Perhaps. Maybe you should play that tune of yours again.”
“Certainly.” O’Reilly puffed up his cheeks and launched into the song once again, this time with more volume, more energy, and with an even more haunting tone to the piece. He smiled a bit as the concertina player joined in, adding his own accompaniment to the perfect tune.
The song was so sweetly played and had such an infectious rhythm to it that soon everyone around the campfire was tapping their toes. Some were clapping in time to the beat. Even Lieutenant Clayhill found himself involuntarily bobbing and twitching to the music. The whole glen seemed to throb in time to the tune.
Then it was that a twinkling sparkle of light appeared from out of nowhere and seemed to circle the fire. It could well have been a stray spark from the flames, a glowing ember carried by the magnolia laden breeze, but it was not red or yellow. It was green, a bright emerald green, and it pulsed with the same rhythm as the music. Suddenly, there were two...three...four...more! A dozen, then two dozen, then three dozen bits of light danced and swirled around the fire, jumping and flitting and catching everyone’s eye.
“Lieutenant---?” said Pettigrew nervously.
Clayhill frowned. “Must be fireflies.”
As they circled, the tiny points of light were drifting down, down, settling at last upon the uneven surface of the ground, and as each one made contact it erupted into a tiny form, four or five inches high. It was enough to make the soldiers gathered round the fire blink and shake their heads in disbelief, for each of these tiny forms looked like a man.
Thus transformed, they continued to dance and gyrate to the sprightly jig. Each was clothed in a green hued coat and knee length trousers, with a white shirt, yellow stockings, buckled shoes, and a green hat. All were slightly pudgy around the middle, and all had faces that were at once both ancient and boyish. Most were auburn haired, though some were dark and a few were flaxen locked. More than half of them had beards, or at the very least, bushy sideburns that reached halfway to their chins.
O’Reilly came to the end of the song and finished it with a few quick trills before repeating the final note. Slightly out of breath, he lowered the small set of silver pan pipes from his lips and smiled, glancing around the circle of amazed faces.
The regiment stared down at the congregation of leprechauns, the soldiers’ jaws dropping in open-mouthed wonderment. Had Union Army General Ulysses S. Grant himself walked in under a white flag of surrender and laid down his weapons, they could not have been more surprised.
The leprechauns, now done with their energetic dancing, straightened their clothes, dusted themselves off, and headed for O’Reilly with a lively skipping stride. They gathered before him, with one of their number walking purposefully up to his very feet. Purposefully, and a bit regally, too. It could now be seen that fitted above the brim of his tiny hat, he also wore a tiny crown.
“Begorra!” said he in a tiny voice. “Sure’n it isn’t Sean O’Reilly, son of Paddy O’Reilly. My---how ye’ve grown!” He took a look around at the unfamiliar terrain and the Confederate soldiers gathered ‘round. “‘Tis a fair distance we’ve come from the old sod, I see. Well, no matter. A promise is a promise, and I always live up to me word. So, Sean, how can we help ye?”
“‘Tis a bit of a predicament I find meself in,” O’Reilly told the diminutive king. “These fine gentlemen and meself are in a state of disagreement, and ‘tis quite a considerable disagreement I might add, with some other folks, just over there aways. I won’t trouble you with the details, Your Majesty, but let’s just say that it began with harsh words, and has gone downhill since then, with a great deal of blood spilled on both sides and more than a little destruction of property.”
The little king raised an eyebrow, glancing around at the soldiers and their weapons, and casting a look beyond the distant embankment. “Sounds like quite a war, lad.”
“‘Tis that,” said O’Reilly. “‘Tis that, indeed.”
“And those other folks---’tis they that are the threat to you?”
Lieutenant Clayhill felt obliged to interject, “Those Yankee scoundrels can’t compare to our gallant warriors of the South. But...at times, they are a damned nuisance.”
“The situation is the real threat,” O’Reilly told the leprechaun king. “‘Tis likely they will attack our position at dawn. This regiment, of which I am now a part, is sworn to fight to the last man, so our lives surely hang in the balance.”
“And should our fine regiment go down to defeat,” Clayhill added soberly, “our enemy will be one step closer to conquering Vicksburg.”
“I see,” said the little king, stroking his beard thoughtfully. “‘Tis a predicament, indeed.”
Lieutenant Clayhill leaned forward with an intrigued look and inquired speculatively, “I don’t suppose they could just make the whole Union Army disappear...?”
O’Reilly gave an apologetic shrug. “I’m afraid that’s a wee bit beyond the powers of the fairy folk, Lieutenant, and more than I dare ask as a favor even ‘twere it possible. Any help they give would have to be on a decidedly smaller scale.”
The lieutenant adjusted his jacket with a disgruntled tug, but his expression quickly softened and his eyebrow arched in contemplation. “Mmmm. Smaller...yes. They are quite small, after all, aren’t they? Quite small.” Clayhill smiled, and it was not a friendly smile, it was the cunning smile of a fox. “Small enough, I daresay, that they could sneak across enemy lines sight unseen. Small enough that they could hobble the Yankee’s horses, and jam their rifles, and tamper with their powder, and tinker with their cannon. Small enough to commit all manner of mischief without being spotted by the guards or anyone else. Isn’t that right, O’Reilly?”
The private gave a sober nod. “I suppose so.”
“Well,” said Clayhill, “that could make a big difference in the battle tomorrow...maybe in the war itself.”
There was a fire of renewed vigor and enthusiasm in the lieutenant’s eyes. “That could change everything. We wouldn’t have to fear losing tomorrow. We could fight on until reinforcements arrive. The South could fight on, and our glorious struggle could continue!”
O’Reilly considered the prospect. “I suppose it could.”
“Then, ask them!” demanded Clayhill. “Let that be your favor. That’s an order, Private!”
“An order, Sir?”
“You heard me, O’Reilly.”
The Irishman gave a sober nod. “All right, Lieutenant. I’ll do me best.”
And with that, O’Reilly beckoned the leprechauns closer to him. As they gathered at his feet, he huddled with the tiny army of little people, picking up a stick to draw diagrams in the dirt, gesturing toward the Union Army camp beyond the embankment, and occasionally acting out in pantomime some of the desired activities Lieutenant Clayhill had described. As he spoke with them in a low, hushed tone, his strange words caught the ears of the others.
Clayhill frowned. “Just what language is that?”
“Gaelic, Sir,” O’Reilly told him. “‘Tis Gaelic. The king, of course, he speaks English as well as you or I, but the rest of the wee folk speak the old tongue. ‘Tis better to give them instructions direct than to have the king translate everything. Less chance of a misunderstanding, you see.”
“But will they do it?” The lieutenant was growing impatient. “Have they agreed to help?”
The leprechaun king planted his feet and gave a nod, and also gave a handshake to O’Reilly’s extended finger. The deal was done.
“Oh, yes, Sir.” O’Reilly smiled. “They’re only too happy to help. Honoring the old family debt and all. We just need to toast the occasion with a wee bit of the spirits.”
Clayhill frowned again. “Alcohol? I’m afraid I can’t help with that.”
“‘Tis no trouble, Sir, no trouble at all.” O’Reilly produced a flask from within his pocket and unscrewed the cap. “I’ve been saving some good Irish whiskey for just such a special occasion.”
Each of the leprechauns brought forth a tiny cup, seemingly from nowhere, and they all queued up to receive their portion. Once all of their cups had been filled, the wee folk clinked them against their neighbor’s cups and raised them in a toast. Then they quickly downed their drinks, and in the wink of an eye they all scurried off toward the embankment, disappearing into the shadows like a pack of scampering field mice.
O’Reilly put away the small silver pan pipes and the flask and breathed a short sigh. For a long moment, no one said anything, or dared to. Finally, Lieutenant Clayhill broke the awkward silence.
“Well...assuming we have not all just experienced some sort of collective hallucination, then are we to further assume, Private O’Reilly, that we have held council with a group of real, live leprechauns, and they have agreed to help?”
“‘Tis no hallucination, Lieutenant. And yes, the fix is in, so to speak. They will certainly do the best they can to help.”
Clayhill nodded, a cautious smile forming on his aristocratic lips. “Events tomorrow will be the measure of those words, O’Reilly...the very measure. But if all goes as promised, then we may yet repel the Yankee invaders, and you, O’Reilly, may yet make corporal.”
“‘Tis generous, you are, Lieutenant.”
“Now, if you’re through with your dinner, Private, I’d like you to put some additional sandbags around our powder stores, just in case your little friends don’t come through for us.”
O’Reilly sat his plate down with a sigh. “Most generous, indeed,” he said softly. “My little friends will help, never fear.”