by Liurong (柳荣)
South of the Town of Fredericksburg, Virginia
Where was his division? Where were the infantry, where were the artillery–where, where, he couldn’t see them, where were they–a shot, nearby, where, where–can’t hear anything–oh, Lord, his leg, his leg was shot, and he couldn’t see anything–only gray blindness, rising from the ground, what was it what was it where are they, where is he, where—
Walter ran. His leg was a river of pain, burning harder with every step–but he kept at it, there would be a friendly division just around the corner, he was sure of it–the sound of crunching snow boomed in his ears around a rushing that seemed to focus in his head, getting louder and louder and louder–
Awakening was a stiff and painful process. His side and leg felt like they both sported a very nasty burn. His eyelids didn’t want to open–he tried twice, but they remained stubbornly closed.
Then he heard a shuffling sound from next to him, and something was touching his shoulder–Walter jerked, his hand shooting out to shove whatever was there away, but he didn’t expect the startled yelp that came with the action.
“Hey! Lay off,” a voice that sounded like it belonged to a young man protested. “Lord help me—relax, you are fine–” A hand patted at Walter’s wrist as if this gesture would convince Walter that he was, in fact, all right. “Can you open your eyes?”
No, Walter meant to say, but his tongue didn’t seem like it could move either, because although he opened his mouth no words came out. Walter imagined that it must look very funny–a man sharp enough to grab hold of a nearby person on instinct who wasn’t in control of his own tongue, like he was a toad.
Finally, though, he managed to open his eyes far enough that he could peer through his eyelids and see whomever it was next to him. A young boy with dark features and a very scraggly mustache stared back down at him. From the state of the mustache alone, Walter would have pegged him at no more than seventeen, but his other features didn’t seem to jibe with that picture. It was very strange.
“I haven’t any rum, or I would give you some,” his companion said, eyeing him critically.
Who was he?
Walter couldn’t hear anything from around them–were they not in camp? Shifting his gaze, he saw gray sky and and snowy hills, but nobody in sight. Walter worked his mouth again, but still to no avail.
“You are very lucky, I hope you know,” the boy commented. “From the looks of you, you were shot twice. But the wounds are grazes, both of them. More pain than anything likely to kill you…” He inspected Walter thoroughly. “What division are you from, in any case? I can’t imagine for the life of me how you managed to be here.” He didn’t seem to have noticed that Walter was having difficulty speaking, or if he did he was ignoring it. Walter wasn’t sure which. Regardless, the boy was silent as he waited for Walter to answer, and eventually Walter was able to croak:
“Major General Hill–artillery–”
“Water,” the boy said immediately, and he scooped a handful of snow to bring to Walter’s mouth. “Eat it,” he instructed. “I have been getting down what I can when you were asleep, but my canteen is empty at the moment and you are probably still bit dehydrated.” Slowly, Walter opened his mouth and let the boy put some of the snow in. It melted almost immediately on to his tongue, and Walter felt much better for swallowing it.
He meant to speak then, but the boy glared at him every time he tried and forced him to take more snow. Only after the handful was gone–part of it into Walter’s mouth, and the remainder melted over the boy’s hand–did the boy stop and say, “So you are in the artillery, then?”
Walter nodded. “Letcher’s, from Virginia.” He struggled to sit up.
“Be careful,” the boy snapped. “Stay lying down.” Walter shook his head balefully; shot or no, he wasn’t going to lie here like a frozen corpse. The boy seemed to hesitate between trying to get him to settle back down or help him sit up, but apparently decided the fight wasn’t worth it. “Fine, then, but let me help you–”
With the boy’s assistance, he managed to sit upright. There was a tree behind him that he was able to rest his back on. Walter was grateful for the crutch; he still felt woozy and out of body. The boy handed him another handful of snow to eat, and Walter did so.
This snow revived him even more than the previous handful had, and because of it he caught what he had somehow managed to miss before. “You’re a Yankee.”
The boy scowled. “And what of it?”
“What–why would you help me?”
The boy shrugged irritably, drawing attention to the rifle slung across his back. “Maybe I just don’t leave men to bleed themselves to death.” He sat back and regarded Walter critically.
“But–” Walter’s mind boggled. Why was there a Yankee here? Where was he? The confederate lines couldn’t be far–unless the Yankees had won the battle, but Walter didn’t want to think of that possibility at the moment.
The boy interrupted his thoughts. “You are from Virginia?” Walter raised an eyebrow, and the boy shrugged. “So am I, originally.”
It explained the accent, Walter thought. The boy’s voice lacked the hard edge that most Yankees seemed to be saddled with; he wouldn’t have been picked out as a Northerner from your usual crowd in Virginia. Still, though, what kind of Virginia man would fight for the fools who ran the Union? He grimaced.
“Look, we should speak about…well, what we are going to do,” the boy said. He waved a hand behind him. “As you can see, there really isn’t anybody about hereparts.”
Walter looked around and nodded, reluctantly.
“So I have a deal for you,” the boy said.
“Isn’t it a bit early to cut straight to the dealings, boy?” Walter sighed.
“I don’t want to linger here longer than I need,” came the response. “And you should get better help than I can give you. So it is in both of our interests to leave here, but you can’t do that.” He gestured at Walter’s leg. Walter glanced down and saw it was bandaged. He frowned–had the boy done that? It was better done than Walter would have expected.
“I will take you back to your camp,” the boy said. Walter’s gaze shot up from his leg to the boy’s face. What?
The boy’s mouth twitched. Had it lasted longer Walter might have called it a smile, but it disappeared as soon as it had shown. “I will take you back to your camp,” he repeated. “We are a good deal west of where they are, but I can do it. But in return, you search out a cousin of mine for me and deliver a letter. He is also fighting for Virginia, and I can see him fitting in with the artillery. His name is John. Same as mine, except he is a year older than I, so I got saddled with Johnny as a nickname instead…family did not wish for us to be confused as children, I suppose.”
“Boy,” Walter sighed, “You cannot expect me to know all the Johns there are to know in the army.”
“I’m no boy, and I am not asking about the whole army, just your artillery brigade. His family name is Ashwood, if it helps at all.” And then, as if thinking that perhaps Walt didn’t understand, he repeated, “John Ashwood’s his name.”
“Yes, I heard you,” Walter muttered, focusing on his bloody leg rather than on the boy in front of him.
“Look here now,” the boy said, dropping to a crouch in front of him. His brown eyes were narrowed and his face tense in irritation. “You have taken a bullet to the leg, you have lost a fair bit of blood, and you are out in the Virginia wild in the heart of winter. Anybody that knows you are not back at camp is going to either think you are dead or as good as come nightfall, and they are correct to think it. There is not any way you will be able to survive here, not with a bad leg.” His right arm swung out in an uncoordinated gesture at the leg in question before settling back across the boy’s knee. “Now, I am offering you my assistance. I’m a skilled track and decent hunt, and I have a rifle. I have some rations, too. I can keep us both alive–”
He broke off and glanced away, his mouth half-open in the manner Walter recognized people got when they wanted to say something, but weren’t sure if they could or how to say it. He stayed like that for a few moments, looking like the words were on the tip of his tongue but not saying any of them, before he swallowed, shook his head, and looked back at Walter to continue. “I can keep us both alive, most likely. I can ferry you back to your camp to a good doctor at the very least. In exchange, I just want you to pass on the letter to my cousin. Maybe get a response back, if you can wrangle that much, though Lord knows I am not to expect it. From my perspective, that is pretty reasonable, given where you are.”
The boy was obviously not suited for life in nature, Walter thought, and even less so to life in war if he actually believed what he said. Camp was not far by any means, and he wasn’t the one stranded behind the enemy army’s lines–probably, anyways. He opened his mouth to say so aloud, but before he began to speak a thought struck him.
“You know where we are.”
“I have…a fair idea,” the boy agreed slowly.
“You are trying to confuse me,” Walter said, not as a question but as confirmation. “Convince me the distance to camp is great when it is not.”
The boy’s eyebrows furrowed further above his nose, forming a single think, dark brown line. He looked petulant, and in the moment’s pause before he began to speak Walter again found himself wondering how old he was. It did not seem possible that he was old enough to be allowed to fight, but Walter knew he should not be particularly surprised; he had seen those the age of his brother Carlyle on both sides of the line. Why a boy obviously older than those ones was evoking such sympathy was a mystery.
Then the boy spoke up, interrupting his musings. “No,” he said waspishly. He spoke as if Walter had stuck a rotten egg beneath his nose. Easily offended, apparently. “I certainly am not. The rebel lines are near, there’s no reason to deny it. But I should like you to try and walk the distance with a wounded leg, or manage to find somebody else nearby who can escort you. There is no-one about but us, I promise you.”
Walter considered the boy’s words, letting them run through his skull once, then again twice. His companion kept his gaze locked on Walter’s face, and Walter turned to keep their eyes from meeting while he thought it over.
“It’s distracting to a man, being stared at while he thinks,” he said pointedly.
Walter held back a sigh. No space for a man to consider. But loathe as he was to admit it, there wasn’t really that much to think about.
“…What is your name, again?” he asked reluctantly. The boy’s mouth twitched, and for a moment his face was twisted into a grin that shouted ‘unimpressed’ for anyone to see. Something about the expression suited him, Walter thought, perhaps because it gave him a look of knowing. His was the sort of face that looked well confident.
“John Ryder,” he said, and put out his right hand, but not more than a few inches. “I go by Johnny mostly.”
Regarding the young man–Johnny–before him carefully, Walt slowly extended his own right hand. Their hands each hung out in the air for a few moments, empty, before Johnny finally surged forward and pressed their palms together in a loose shake. Johnny’s fingers were only a shade warmer than the snowy ground around them, and the cold seemed to be hindering his ability to wrap his fingers securely around Walt’s hand, but Walt held on for all of that, gripping Johnny’s hand as firmly as he could manage without having to shift his weight forward.
“Walter Jameson,” he returned, and then pulled his hand away. Johnny quickly tucked his own back within his coat.
“You look like a Walter,” Johnny said, offhand, and stood. “Now, we are about two miles out. As to how in the good Lord’s name you managed to make it here, I have no idea.”
“Two miles?” Walter repeated incredulously.
“Two miles. I thought you said you could hear me fine?”
Walter ignored the barb. It seemed impossible that he was two miles out. He had suspected a mile, perhaps a bit over at most. The thickness of the fog had confused him even more than he had realized…he grimaced. He prided himself on being a local man, and then he got himself lost in some winter fog–severe as it had been, there was no excusing it.
“It is mid-afternoon already,” Johnny said, and Walter glanced upwards at the sky. The clouds were a dark dove gray. “We can expect more snow tonight, and I wish I could say–”
His leg throbbed, and the pain distracted him from what Johnny said next. A strained grunt escaped his lips against his will, and he sat tense against the tree’s trunk, eyes clenched shut, until the pain subsided back into a dull ache. Sighing, he opened his eyes. Johnny was gazing at him silently; when Walt met his eyes he looked away, but came up next to him. The powdery snow made hardly a sound under the fall of Johnny’s boots.
“I bandaged your leg while you were sleeping,” Johnny said. “But you will need a new one–a bandage, that is–before we go, if that one has blood seeping through already.”
“This one will work.”
Johnny frowned. “But–”
“I said, this one will work.” Johnny looked like he wanted to argue, but Walter just threw him a nasty look when he opened his mouth. “Just because you are helping me back to camp doesn’t mean I’m taking orders from you. Let me be.”
“If you’re not going to get a new one–”
“Boy. Leave it.”
“Look, all right, I won’t argue with you over a new one then, though I don’t doubt you will come to regret it–just let me re-apply the bandage,” Johnny snapped. “It will take all of a minute, and it will make the journey that much easier.”
Walter’s leg throbbed again, and he rubbed at his face irritably, digging the heels of his palms over his stubble-roughened cheeks and into his eye sockets. Then he let out a long sigh, because it was too cold out to not move, and the longer they fought over this silly thing the longer he’d be sitting stationary. “Fine. But I can re-tie it myself, you hear me? Go on and figure the direction we should be heading for a moment, or something.”
Johnny automatically withdrew his left hand from his coat and jerked his thumb towards the area over his left shoulder. “We need to go that way, straight.” That said, he drew up close to Walter and crouched down again. The strap on his rifle fell off his shoulder as he did so, but before the gun could fall and hit either of them Johnny managed to grab it and lift it back up.
“This rifle never sits correctly,” Johnny muttered. He checked to make sure it was stable across his back before turning his attention back to Walter. “Now, to tighten up that bandage.”
Walter shifted his leg away from Johnny’s reaching hands. “I can do it.”
Johnny glared at him, but before he could say anything Walter had reached out and was working on the knot. It wasn’t hard to undo, only needing a few well-placed tugs before the ends were free. Slowly but surely, Walter unwound the bandage. He was aware of Johnny’s eyes on him the whole time, watching critically.
When the length of stained blue cloth was entirely in his hands, he stretched one end tightly over his leg, just above the wound. It hurt, but Walter was willing to bet that if he made a sound, Johnny would insist on doing it again. So he kept silent, his lips pressed hard together. Slowly, the bandage went back on the wound, covering it completely two, three, four times over before Walter hit the end of the cloth. He tied it together with the first end as tightly as he could manage.
Then he fixed the one on his side–this one took longer, but was less painful–it was a shallow graze compared to the one on his thigh. He clenched his teeth and hitched the bandage taught, knotted it quickly, and then finally let out a long breath.
“Good enough for you?” he asked. Johnny, who had settled against the trunk to his left while Walter had worked, jerked his head in a nod.
“We should head out. I suppose I need to help you stand, then, hold on–”
He shifted so that he leaned over Walter, and placed Walter’s arm around his neck. Walter gripped Johnny’s shoulder firmly, making ready to stand on his good foot.
“Go on,” Walter said.
Johnny stood swiftly, pulling Walter along until he was high enough up to brace against the ground on his own. It was an awkward rise; Walter realized halfway up that it would have been much smoother had Johnny been on his other side, with Walter’s injured leg between them–positioned as they were it was rather like trying to balance on three left feet. But somehow they managed to stand without falling.
Johnny seemed to have come to the same conclusion Walter had when they were rising, because as soon as they were stable he slipped out under Walter’s arm, gripping him around the waist like a man did his wife when lifting her during a dance, though he was careful not to touch the bandage, and changed sides. Now he had Walt’s right arm slung over his shoulders, held there with a decent grip on Walt’s wrist. His hand was a band of ice around the cloth of Walter’s coat sleeve.
“Are you balanced?” Johnny asked.
Walter nodded, testing his weight. Could he stand on his right leg at all? Gingerly, he stepped forward onto his injured leg. Almost at once he returned back onto his good foot, flinching. Johnny seemed annoyed–out of the corner of his eye, Walter saw his mouth twitch into a frown–but unsurprised.
“Look,” Johnny said. “Let me move first, then–” As he stepped forward, he bent his knees slightly, and then his grips on Walter tightened. Johnny’s left hand pulled up against Walter’s waist, his right hand pulled Walter’s arm down harder across his shoulders, and as he straightened his knees this lifted Walter enough for him to hop forward on his good leg. Then Johnny moved again–step, lift up–and Walter followed.
“How is that, then? It doesn’t pain you?” Johnny asked, taking a third step.
It did hurt a fair bit, and it would be slow going, Walter thought, but it would work. “I am not some daintiful, high-born lady, boy. Just go.”
“And here I was, acting properly considerate,” Johnny groused, and pulled Walter along.
Stops were frequent, more frequent than Walter would have liked. Because they had not started traveling until the early afternoon, it was only a few hours later when night fell. Johnny had laid out a plan, and had made clear in it that they would be stopping as soon as it started getting dark.
“I can keep moving,” Walter argued. He was sitting beneath a straggly pine much like the one he had awoken under earlier. Johnny handed Walt his now-refilled-with-melted snow-canteen–Walter’s own, Walter had discovered angrily, had been lost when he had been running–and Walter took a long drink of water. It felt good against his dry tongue.
“You certainly cannot,” Johnny said. When Walter made to pass back the canteen he snorted and stepped back. “No, you keep on drinking that. You need it more than I do.”
Walter was thirsty enough that being told what to do didn’t rankle as much as it should have. He drank.
Johnny continued, “I am for all intents carrying you to camp already, and so I say we are stopping at nightfall. Lord knows you need the rest.”
“I am fine.”
Johnny looked at him flatly. Walter held his gaze, but Johnny broke away and shook his head in disbelief just a moment later. Obviously irritated, he stood up and stretched, swinging his arms in wide circles, culminating with his hands raised high over his head and his fingertips stretched towards the cloudy sky above.
Walter took a final gulp from the canteen and stopped it off. There wasn’t much water left, but they could refill it again with the snow. It was probably the single good thing Walter could make himself credit to the cold.
Thinking of the chill seemed to make it nip at him harder. Moving had taken the edge off the worst of it earlier, but now that he was stationary it was creeping back quickly.
“We’ll right freeze if we don’t move tonight,” he pointed out.
“I have flint. We can make a fire.” Johnny’s voice was short and clipped. Walter looked at him more directly. Johnny was shaking his legs out now, thrusting them forward in jerky, kicking motions, but he kept turning his head towards the rifle–presumably to make sure that Walter wasn’t going to try and move it from where Johnny had laid it down. His back was to Walter, so he couldn’t see Johnny’s arms, and Johnny’s shoulders were hunched together. His posture reminded Walter of that of a child who was sulking at being told off, or maybe one who was expecting to be disciplined and dreading it. But then Johnny straightened up and turned around, and Walter remembered what they had been quarreling about.
“We’d be warmer if we just kept moving,” Walter said. And then, thinking of something entirely new, he continued, “And if we build a fire relatively close to camp, someone could stumble across us.”
Johnny’s lips thinned. “Your point?”
“You’d be taken prisoner.”
Surprise darted across Johnny’s face. He tried to hide it, Walter noted, but he was shamefully unsuccessful. Had he honestly not considered that he was in danger too, that he could be a prisoner of war? His own disapproving disbelief must have also shown, because Johnny’s expression quickly evolved from surprise into a scowl.
“Did you, now,” Walter asked, skeptical.
“Yes, I did,” Johnny insisted, but he seemed to know Walter still didn’t believe him, as he just shook his head again in irritation. “I thought upon it, truly, whether you believe me or not.” Walter’s attention was momentarily drawn to the outline of Johnny’s hands, deep within his coat pockets, as they clenched into fists and bulked out from the material. Walter saw the outline ripple once, and then twice, as Johnny flexed his hands and fisted them again. Then Johnny let out a great sigh, and Walter glanced back up at Johnny’s face.
“You’re bleeding through your bandages,” Johnny said. He was still annoyed, Walter could tell; the words coming from Johnny’s mouth were not so much spoken as they were dropped out, each falling in a strained, staccato beat.
Walter honestly hadn’t noticed. The injuries in his leg and side were just a constant, dull burn against his skin, flaring when he moved, but bearable. He opened his mouth to say so, but Johnny rode through his half-formed protest.
“If you feel decent, it’s only because of this blasted cold, not because you really are. I–watched your face, when we were traveling up the recent hill. Walter, you are an hour away from being done clean through, and don’t try to fight me on that one–Lord knows it won’t work.”
“I said not to argue!” Johnny snapped harshly, but then immediately after he winced. “Just…we will be stopping. You need to rest.” He jerked his shoulders in a half-shrug, before switching back to their previous topic. “All of your rebel troops will still be in the forest for the night. If by chance they glimpse the smoke, I doubt they will do more than think it belongs to another division’s camp nearby, if not believe it part of their own fires.”
“The light–” Walter continued, then stopped. It had hit him how very odd this all was–he was arguing against a fire, because it could possibly give them away? Why wouldn’t he want to be found by his fellow troops, or his own statesmen?
Johnny must have had some grasp on what Walter was thinking, because he grinned wryly. Again, Walter was struck by the remarkable improvement this made to his features, almost enough so to make him forget what the boy was talking about when he said:
“We can start moving again whenever you feel ready, then.” He gripped the rifle and started putting on the strap.
This was the first time that Johnny had allowed Walter to decide when to move on. Walter recognized the peace offering for what it was, and gave up. Nodding, he said, “Another minute, and we should be off.”
Johnny shrugged in apparent agreement and shifted his rifle more securely onto his shoulder.
Johnny, even when still smarting over their spats about where and how long to rest, made a point to keep up a steady stream of (more frequently than not one-sided) conversation as they moved through the hills at a grandmother’s pace. Some of it was just general observation–“I figure we can make good time at this speed, most likely make it back within a day”–and other topics seemed to Walter as if they had been selected completely at whim–an story about Johnny’s dog, a single ripped sock, and his friend’s hunting rifle was prompted by Johnny catching sight of some mourning doves launching themselves from a black gum tree, but on the whole it just formed a low, endless babble in Walter’s ears.
He didn’t take in much of the landscape, ignoring the trees and the hills in favor of concentrating on each step forward, Johnny’s voice chatting on alongside him. For all that Walter generally disliked conversation, Johnny’s voice was a very pleasant one to listen to, even if he didn’t quite pay attention to the words being spoken.
Midway through the afternoon, though, when the misty haze of the fog finally seemed to be clearing, Johnny said, “My sister’s birthday is in a week. She will be turning sixteen.” His mouth twisted, plainly disgusted at this fact. “Suitors will be attracted to her as if they were flies and she honey.”
Walter raised an eyebrow. Johnny scowled at him. “Stop that.”
“I am certain I have no idea what you mean,” Walter said blandly.
“I don’t like your implications,” Johnny told him, voice flat.
Walter kept just barely from rolling his eyes–with only a few hours in Johnny’s company he already understood that would send Johnny into a tizzy faster than almost anything else he could do–and waved a hand instead, neither conceding nor denying the point. As he had hoped Johnny seemed mollified, though he still looked slightly sour as he continued talking about his sister.
“Sixteen,” Johnny repeated distastefully. “And not a lick of sense despite it. Sometimes I have to wonder if she and I are truly siblings, she lacks that much sense.”
Walter thought that Johnny was hardly one to talk, having managed to place an opposing army between himself and his allies–though he had never actually asked how it was that Johnny had come so far west. He considered this, wondering as Johnny mentioned a young man named Richard Shriver who apparently was quite interested in Johnny’s sister.
“–though I suppose eight years is not bad, considering,” Johnny said, pausing to watch a blue jay hop down from a nearby tree’s branches to the ground and pick about. “How many siblings have you, anyways?”
“…Just one,” Walter replied. “A brother, younger than you by two or three years.”
“Is he fighting as well, then?”
“What?” Walter looked up, having not expected the question. Johnny didn’t expect him to look up, either, from the way his hand clenched suddenly against the rifle, which was laid across his legs. “No. His mother refused to allow it.” And while he had never told Carlyle so–his brother had been wretchedly depressed when Martha informed him in no uncertain terms that he was not to be fighting–he quite agreed with her.
Johnny nodded in understanding. “My own mother was similar; threatened to refuse my father cooked meals for a year if he allowed me to go. Nothing he could say would convince her.” A faint smile appeared on his face, tinged with bitterness and what Walter thought was possibly anger. “Finally my–” He winced. “Isaac said he was leaving, and he was taking me alongside him. She could deny anybody, except for him. So I went.” He shrugged.
Johnny’s expression was a mirror of that of many men Walter had seen before, and he shifted uncomfortably. But Johnny seemed loathe to mention anything further on the subject, for which Walter felt both grateful and guilty. Grief was a private, personal thing.
“Speaking of family,” Johnny said, snapping his fingers at Walter. “I should pass the letter for my cousin on to you, before I forget to do it later.” He let Walter kneel on the ground while he fumbled with the buttons on his coat, and Walter really noticed for the first time that Johnny wasn’t wearing any gloves. Those same hands had been gripping his own side and wrist, and had held Walter’s hand in a handshake, and they had been noticeably cold, but it was as if these facts were just hitting Walter now to form a coherent whole.
He suppressed the urge ask about it; it wasn’t his business, even if it was strange a man could read and write but lacked the money for gloves. Meanwhile Johnny had finally pulled open his overcoat and was rifling around in an inner pocket. Within a moment he withdrew a small, folded sheet of paper; dark letters ran across the front–Walter assumed it was Johnny’s cousin’s name–what was it again? He held his hand out, so Johnny could place the letter in it.
Johnny hesitated. “Don’t read it, it is private correspondence.”
“Boy, I have no plans on reading it,” Walter said, trying not to be offended and failing. Irked, he twitched his outstretched fingers. “Give it over.”
“Don’t call me boy,” Johnny barked back, but he handed over the letter regardless, shoving it into Walter’s palm, immediately yanking his hand back once it was deposited. With only a brief touch Walter couldn’t feel the temperature of Johnny’s fingers through his gloves, but he imagined they were still chilled. He glanced at the letter in a cursory inspection, but he wasn’t going to admit to the boy that the letters on the page indicated very little to him–he read “John” easily enough, but the rest was too bothersome to try and decipher. Tucking the letter into his coat, he looked up just as Johnny finished fastening his own coat closed.
Walter sat and Johnny stood in silence for a moment before Johnny said grudgingly, “Thank you.”
Walter paused, and said, “There’s no reason to give thanks to me.”
“You are doing me a favor.” Johnny was decidedly looking away, but the red flush across his cheeks was apparent. His fingers twitched a pattern against the cloth of his trouser before he flattened them out against his knee, pressing hard in a way that told Walter he was trying to keep them still.
“You are doing me by far the larger one,” Walter pointed out.
“So thank me.”
Walter grimaced, and Walter knew Johnny saw it because he smirked, embarrassment replaced with smug satisfaction for catching Walter off-guard with the demand.
“And if I choose not to?” Walter drawled back, trying to regain leverage. “Leave me behind, will you?”
Johnny’s smirk faded instantly, falling from his face like a small stone dropped into a pond–silently and irretrievably, leaving children wondering where the ripples had come from to start with. “I said I would bring you back to your fellows,” he said flatly. “I don’t break my word.” He stopped and considered Walter with sharp eyes. “And I…” He broke off and looked away before finishing in a rush, “I don’t deal with those who do.”
As they walked, the snow on the ground became somewhat sparser; it was replaced with a hard, crackling frost over open dirt. The soft sound of their boots over snow was interspersed with the hard crunch of the icy ground as their footsteps broke through.
When the sun slipped beneath the hills and the remaining snow on the ground turned gray in the deepening shadow, Walter’s few remaining thoughts were torn between food and the increasing cold, but most of them had already been wiped from his mind due to exhaustion. He remembered dimly as Johnny set him down that they were supposed to keep walking, but Walter couldn’t remember how to form his tongue around the words. Before he could try and force his mind into the endeavor, however, Johnny had already started casting around for stray sticks and branches.
There was silence for the next few minutes, as Johnny carried wood and dumped it in a pile in front of Walter’s feet before getting down onto his knees and clearing away a section of snow from the ground as best he could. Walter closed his eyes then, so all he heard was the shuffling of Johnny’s limbs, the set of wood against wood, and then the sharp crackle of flint as Johnny tried to create a flame.
An aggravated curse got him to open his eyes. “Have you sworn before?” Walter asked thickly.
“I just did, so I would have to say that is a blasted idiotic question,” Johnny replied. He was having difficulty getting the flint to light.
Eventually, he managed to set off a spark, but it quickly shriveled away. Johnny swore again and laid his palm against the ground; Walter could tell he was displeased at what he felt from the deepening of his scowl. He looked about and moved to a spot about fifteen feet away. Testing the soil there had better results, because he quickly returned and picked up the pile of wood from where he’d left it.
Still, there was no bright light indicative of a new fire beyond two more failed sparks. Johnny straightened and looked down at the wood by his feet, nudging it with the toe of his boot. Then, turning and looking around him, he walked over to Walter and knelt.
“There is a grove of young saplings, just over that way,” Johnny explained to him shortly. “I can be back in a moment. Don’t fall asleep, do you hear?”
Walter couldn’t see any such grove in the darkness, but as Johnny was already stalking away there wasn’t much to be done about it. Sleep, though…the mention of it alone had Walter drifting away. Against Johnny’s orders, he closed his eyes and lowered his head. Briefly, he was able to spare a thought towards wishing they had stopped by a tree he could lay against…
Suddenly he was being shaken, and then there was Johnny’s voice, “Lord above, what did I tell you not ten minutes ago–”
What had the boy said?
“Wake up,” Johnny shook him harder. “Come on now, I have drier wood but you have to wake up, first.”
An arm reached around his back and pulled upwards, hard. Walter let it, and then he slowly remembered Johnny wouldn’t be able to support his weight all by himself. Slower still, he bent his good leg and feebly pushed up. The arm around him tightened farther, and Walter hissed in sharp, unexpected pain, his leg also giving out.
The arm disappeared, and Walter opened his eyes blearily. There was nobody in front of him–where–? Then a hand slipped inside his underarm, and his own arm had been lifted around Johnny’s neck. He was being dragged up again, but this time there was no pressure on the wound on Walter’s chest, and so he was somewhat able to focus on keeping his good leg stable. Johnny succeeded in hefting him; he didn’t give Walter time to orient himself, tugging him along.
Walter followed as best he could, primarily only aware of the deep rush of blood swirling in his ears. Johnny, at the least, kept him from tripping too badly, assisting him with every step, and as they moved along Walter found his senses coming back to him, so by the last two or three steps he was awake enough to keep from falling unconscious again within a heart beat’s worth of time.
“Thought keeping you away from the trees would stay you from sleeping,” Johnny grumbled.
He deposited Walter carefully back down, not next to a tree, but close enough that Walter could move there if he chose. There was a pile of sticks and branches arranged several feet away; Johnny quickly sorted them into something more likely to bear fire, then pulled out the flint again.
“I am no good at this,” he groused. “But I don’t suppose having you try your hand would be much of an improvement, would it?”
It took Walter a fair bit too long to realize that this was a question directed at him, and not a general statement; he only grasped it when Johnny paused between strikes to glower at him and ask, “Well?”
“…No,” Walter agreed.
“As expected,” Johnny quipped, voice colored by something that Walter wasn’t sure of. On Johnny’s next attempt, however, a flame attached itself to the pile of wood. Johnny froze, waiting; the spark wavered slightly, but then grew. Quickly, Johnny bent over it and blew, giving it the air it required to grow larger. Within a few minutes a small but respectable blaze was beginning to burn, the deep oranges and reds of the fire staining the white of the snow around it. Johnny mothered over it for a bit longer, checking the state of the wood and occasionally dropping in small foliage.
From Walter’s distance he was unable to feel the warmth from it, and the promise of heat was enticing enough to make him drag himself closer.
Noticing what Walter was doing, Johnny snapped, “Hold on, let me–” Walter didn’t feel like responding, just kept shifting along until he was bathed in heat. He let out a long breath, closing his eyes and relaxing, and Johnny quieted.
Something being pressed into his hand made his eyes open again.
“Pork,” Johnny said simply. “Eat it.”
Slowly, Walter did so, pushing the pale pink meat up against his lips and biting down. While he ate, Walter watched Johnny, who was also chewing, albeit very slowly. Johnny was gazing out over the fire, away from Walter and toward a dark clump of trees that looked to be several hundred yards away. Every so often his eyelids would fall, but before his eyes could close completely Johnny would always look up again. He was silent save for the sound of his chewing and an occasional swallow.
“You are as tired as I,” Walter finally said quietly. Johnny started and glanced over at him, glaring, before looking away again.
“How do you find the meat?”
“Bad,” Walter answered. “But there could be worse.”
Johnny jerked his head in agreement. He’d laid his rifle over across the tops of his knees, the barrel pointing in the direction opposite of Walter. The hand that wasn’t holding pork gripped it securely.
“I won’t steal it,” Walter said.
“Your rifle,” Walter clarified, only then remembering he hadn’t given any indication as to what he was referring to. “You always fidget with it, but I am not going to steal it.”
“I was wrong to wake you,” Johnny grumbled, quiet in a way that made Walter think he hadn’t meant to be heard. “Should have let you freeze.”
Annoyance surged in Walter, but just as quickly as the potential of anger had come it faded, drained away from the exhaustion resting deep and heavy in Walter’s bones. He let the dregs of the irritation settle, not caring if they were there again or not the next morning. Johnny’s hands were tight around the rifle, his young face drawn, his lips pursed closely shut. It was too much to fight with him now, too tiring.
Instead, he pulled his cap down around his ears, settled himself against the hard ground and closed his eyes. He expected Johnny to complain again, but the boy said nothing.
The next morn he awoke stiff and cold. A heavy fog had settled in again through the course of the night, and Johnny’s fire, from the look of it, had long since died out. The misty fog prevented Walter from seeing more than a hundred yards or so in any direction, and the chill was pervasive. But Walter felt much more like himself compared to the night before, somewhat inexplicably alert despite his muscles’ remaining unwillingness to move.
As such, the next thought he had was for Johnny’s location. A quick glance to his left answered it: Johnny was curled up on the ground, his arms wrapped around his chest and his hands tucked into his underarms. His rifle was laying next to him, the barrel pointing towards his feet. Walter watched as Johnny twitched and shifted positions, so that now his back was towards the rifle and his knees up against his chest. It was the kind of position Walter would have attributed to a young child–or a boy aged by war, but he suspected it had more to do with the cold than anything else.
Letting Johnny catch what remainder of sleep he could, Walter began to rub down his muscles, starting with his calves. Even when he pressed hard, the effect through the wooden leather of his boots was unimpressive, and eventually Walter simply switched to his thighs, careful only to massage the area over his knee on his wounded one. His hands and muscles slowly warmed as the minutes passed, and Walter concentrated on improving that heat.
The sound of Johnny stirring didn’t halt him, but he looked up and watched as Johnny awoke. From the way Johnny winced as he began to stretch out, Walter knew that Johnny was likely as stiff as he had been when he woke up.
Johnny blinked blearily when he noticed Walter watching him. “…You must be all right, then, if you woke before me.”
Walter nodded shortly. Johnny held his gaze for a few seconds, before throwing his head back and groaning.
“Icy ground is not a proper bed,” he commented. His shoulders rolled back once, twice, before he reached out to grab the rifle. He used it as a prop to lift himself off the ground, then proceeded to shake out his legs and bend his knees.
“Better we can feel it than not,” Walter pointed out.
Because he was watching Johnny directly he noticed the momentary hesitation that passed on Johnny’s face before a smirk broke across it. “Lord knows that is true.”
“You shouldn’t use the Lord’s name in vain.” Walter meant it more as an observation than a judgment and his face and voice were neutral. Johnny took it as a condemnation anyway, if the way he grimaced–like he’d just taken a large whiff of rotten dairy–was any indication.
It was an uncharitable thought, and one Johnny didn’t deserve, Walter had to admit, but he wondered whether it was possible for Johnny to not take the worst possible meaning of anything someone said. “I wasn’t meaning to patronize–” He almost said boy, but recalled just in time that this specifically would be the wrong time to use such a term, so he let the sentence end there.
“Well, you did at that,” Johnny muttered, bending over and touching his toes. Then he grimaced and straightened again. “I apologize. That was indecent of me to say.”
Walter blinked, rather thrown by this abrupt turn-around, but nodded.
“And I suppose if you meant to judge, you would have mentioned it earlier,” Johnny muttered, seemingly more to himself than to Walter. “Mother would right die of shame if she heard me these days.” He continued frowning as he stretched out his remaining limbs. Walter too concentrated on easing out his shoulders, which were sore not only from the ground but from having them pulled on constantly by Johnny the day before. At least, Walter thought idly, the section of ground where he had been sleeping had only a thin layer of snow–an inch or two thick. He could only imagine the heat that would have been sucked away had it been any deeper.
“It was indecent of me to say what I did last night, as well,” Johnny said suddenly, causing Walter to jerk his head in surprise.
“Last night,” Johnny said again. “I snapped at you. I apologize.”
Walter cast his mind out–what was it that Johnny said? He sat there for a moment in confusion, before it came back to him and he blinked, surprised despite himself.
“You are apologizing for saying you should have left me,” Walter confirmed.
Johnny kicked the ground irritably, but nodded.
Walter snorted. “No need,” he said, and his amusement obviously came through from the way Johnny looked at him, torn between frustration and confusion. Before he could get angry again Walter continued. “You were right.”
The boy had obviously not expected this kind of response, because now he looked completely lost. Walter found himself surprisingly entertained by this, and that was what made him throw out a very uncharacteristic grin. Johnny was even more confused now, and Walter fought to keep a chuckle down, a bit bewildered at his behavior himself. His grin faded into a smaller but still friendly smile as he lifted his arms.
“Help me up, then.”
Johnny started, but for once didn’t protest about checking the state of Walter’s wounds before lifting him. As they stood Johnny said petulantly, “You are acting very different than yesterday.”
“Yesterday I was shot,” Walter said wryly, the words out before he had even thought them. Johnny stared at him, and then that all-knowing grin bloomed across his face.
“I suppose that would change a man, wouldn’t it.”
Walter shrugged–or as well as he could, given the arm held steady over the back of Johnny’s neck–and Johnny laughed out loud.
The men in his brigade wouldn’t know what to do with him right then. They liked him, and respected him, and followed his orders when need be, but they would have never seen him act like he had in the last five minutes, grinning and snapping out (feeble) jokes. Even Walter felt a bit like he was outside of himself, a stranger looking in on the actions of someone else. But Johnny’s laugh was genuine and light, infectious in its surprise, and the tension that had been inseparable from all their interaction previously was absent. It was, quite honestly, a change Walter found himself welcoming.
He looked on as Johnny shook his head back and forth, fighting off another laugh, but Johnny couldn’t keep the smile from remaining on his face. He wasn’t looking at Walter, but instead up above them, focusing on some invisible point through the fog, his eyes bright and–Walter realized suddenly–happy.
Walter quickly turned his head away about to keep from staring, and stifled a sigh. The fog would keep them from traveling anywhere until it faded enough to keep from getting lost. Little good it would do them to move only to end up circling the same paths, over and over.
“We’ll head next to that tree, so you have something suitable to lean against while we wait,” Johnny said, lifting his chin up towards the left towards the nearest tree, a young birch that was a hundred feet or so away. His hands on Walter were steady.
Walter nodded, and they headed to the tree.
It took several hours for the fog to fade. Johnny, true to form, filled in the time as a never-ceasing spout of conversation; it was impossible for him to remain silent for more than a few minutes at a time without making some comment or remark. Walter again didn’t feel particularly pressed to contribute, and Johnny had seemingly come to realize that small talk was not one of Walter’s fortes, because aside from posing a few questions or listening to Walter’s occasional input he didn’t press the issue.
Yet he always seemed to be skirting around something; several times he interrupted himself mid-story, and while he would always end up continuing, the way he spoke made Walter wonder whether there was something else that wasn’t being said. Walter couldn’t really say, however, what was prompting this opinion, as Johnny’s anecdotes had been given in the exact same fashion the day before.
“–and this woman, you would never believe she was actually French, speaks English as well as anyone; once–” Johnny broke off again and glanced at Walter, and when Walter met his gaze calmly instantly rallied–as if he’d just taken a moment to fill his lungs, but Walter didn’t miss the hitch in his voice when he continued, “From the way…the men in her brigade…tell, she marches straight up to the front with them, and gives whiskey to the wounded! Can you believe that?”
“Some women are braver than men,” Walter said simply.
“Apparently,” Johnny agreed. Then he paused and switched topics completely. “Why haven’t you asked about the contents of the letter?”
“You don’t want me to know them,” Walter replied.
“Well, no, but–”
“Johnny,” Walter sighed, and Johnny fell silent. Walter realized belatedly it was the first time he had used Johnny’s name.
“It is just strange, is all,” Johnny said. He swallowed and stared down at the toes of his boots. “Not many men would do that.”
“…I trust you,” Walter finally said, because it was true. Johnny’s head shot up, and Walter held his eyes unflinchingly. For once, Johnny said nothing, just stared. Walter wasn’t sure if it was real or he was imagining it, but he thought Johnny seemed rather more affected by this statement than Walter had intended him to be. Johnny swallowed, and then nodded, slowly.
“All right,” he said. Then he seemed to come back to himself a bit, because he blinked and said, “The fog is clearing. We should head out soon.”
Walter gave agreement, and Johnny stood. Walter watched as he slung his rifle back on and waited for Johnny to help lift him up.
The hills had swiftly turned into woods after they started walking, and now the thicker forest around them made it difficult to determine what the time of day was, but the lengthening shadows and the bits of sky that peeked through the trees’ branches suggested that it was just past sunset when they heard a voice. It was impossible to distinguish exactly what was being said, but Walter knew if they could hear it at all the man must have been shouting–perhaps so that a large group such as a camp could hear him.
They immediately froze, looking at each other. Walter could tell Johnny was having the same thought he was–was the camp that of the Confederates or of the Union?
Silently, Johnny maneuvered Walter next to a tree, gesturing for Walter to lean against it. Walter did so, the rough bark noticeable even through his thick gloves. If it was a Yankee camp–Walter had to hope it wasn’t. He didn’t want to think of what kind of state his army was in, if the Yankees were this far west. Johnny then slipped off his rifle and laid it next to Walter, causing him to blink in surprise, before he realized Johnny presumably meant to keep it from hitting a tree or falling and creating unnecessary noise while Johnny moved.
Johnny moved off in the direction of the voice, his tread crackling slightly from the snow. He disappeared behind the trees, and Walter was alone.
The low hoot of an owl above spooked him, and as his head jerked upwards Johnny slinked back into sight. He sidled up to Walter and took hold of him again; Walter was better balanced against Johnny than he was against the tree, and it allowed Johnny to whisper into his ear:
“How far?” Walter breathed, ignoring Johnny’s choice of term and leaning his face in closer.
“Close,” Johnny murmured, his voice a ghost in the air. His warm breath tickled against Walter’s cheek. “Perhaps a thousand–”
The sound of raucous laughter overran the end of his sentence, and Walter felt Johnny tense. His dark eyes were focused in the direction from which the sound was coming, and his hand was painfully tight on Walter’s side. Walter hissed and nudged at it. Johnny’s grip was slow to loosen, but his eyes flashed at Walter in silent apology. Then he was looking back towards the invisible camp, and Walter could see the strained hesitation in his face, feel Johnny’s index finger tapping against the outside of Walter’s wrist.
Johnny couldn’t be caught here.
“Don’t worry after me,” Walter muttered at him. “I can make it there alone.”
Johnny swallowed, then opened his mouth to say something. Walter didn’t let him get the words out.
Another burst of laughter from the camp as he finished speaking seemed to do the trick, because Johnny’s grip tightened again before his head dipped into a nod and stayed there, his chin resting upon his chest. His breath was heavy and uneven against Walter’s neck, and before Walter could think on what he was doing he tightened his grip on Johnny’s shoulders, a silent acknowledgment.
He heard Johnny’s breath hitch just slightly, but he didn’t let go before he felt Johnny’s hand clenched back against his wrist. Then Walter forced himself to let go; he braced himself against the tree, and Johnny’s hands slipped away as he stepped back. Walter saw the rise and fall of Johnny’s chest as he breathed in, and then out.
“Go,” he said.
He turned away and took a step forward. He had to bite down a curse from the fire that spiked up his leg and side as he moved, but he kept walking. The rustle of the brush from his side told him Johnny had finally fled. Walter kept himself from looking after him.
Each step was a curse from the Devil, but the longer he stayed quiet, the longer time Johnny had to create enough distance to get away. He owed Johnny at least that much.
Slowly, painfully, Walter dragged himself forward, his tracks forming two long lines through the thin snow. There was no more laughter coming from the camp, but Johnny’s footsteps in the snow guided him, and when they faded he was close enough for the ordinary conversation to serve just as well. Drawing nearer to the edges of the camp, he paused, casting a final thought towards Johnny before calling out.
The voices bubbled up louder.
“What in the name of–”
“Did you hear–”
“Nah, everyone heard, it can’t be a trick. But where–”
“Here,” Walter raised his voice again. “I am Walter Jameson, from Letcher’s–”
A trio of men became visible, a couple hundred feet off–they glanced about but saw him quickly. All three had rifles in their hands. Walter had to keep his own right hand against the tree for balance, but he raised his left in a symbol of peace. As they drew closer and saw his uniform, all three lowered their rifles.
“Lord above,” the first said, and Walter saw his expression harden when his eyes fell onto Walter’s side. “What is happening? Where are you from? The damn yanks can’t be attacking us again, we would have heard–” He thrust his rifle into his neighbor’s hands. More men were filing out from where these original three had come from.
Walter shook his head and took the arm the man proffered him, gripping it hard. The third man came and steadied him, and Walter relaxed slightly against his two bearers.
“I am Walter Jameson, of Letcher’s Artillery, under Captain George Davidson,” he said. “I was separated from them two days ago.”
“I know of Letcher’s,” the man replied. “Peace, friend. We will get you by a fire soon.”
“You say a Union soldier helped you here.” Captain Davidson was a very tall man, towering over Walter by at least five inches normally, and now when Walter was sitting he had to crane his neck far back in order for his superior’s face to become visible. For all of his height, though, he was startlingly thin, and combined with his youthful demeanor and face he often looked like nothing more than a young man who had yet to fill in fully. Now, however, he was frowning in disbelief at Walter, hands clasped behind him.
“That is correct, sir.” Walter met the captain’s eyes clearly.
Captain Davidson reached up one hand to idly stroke his bearded chin as he gave Walter a very thorough and very indiscreet examination. Walter said nothing, merely shifting his grip a bit so that his cap would be sure not to fall from his hands. Exhaustion had crept in nearly as soon as he had been placed by the fire that evening; the short distance from where Johnny left him to where he was discovered had taken a larger toll than Walter had expected.
Tired as he was, he still grasped that the Captain had several more questions that he wasn’t asking. He wished the man would get on with it. All Walter needed right now was a strong drink and sleep. He’d managed only a gulp of whiskey before the Captain had shown up; as always, word passed fast through the camps.
Finally, the Captain asked, “You didn’t consider sending others after him?”
“No, sir,” Walter said, hearing his annoyance bleed through. Carefully, he checked his voice. “He was just a boy, perhaps seventeen.”
“Boys are well aware by seventeen,” the Captain countered, but he bowed his head. “But I concede your point. It may be we stumble across him soon, regardless. It will be difficult for him to reach the Union lines…” he trailed off, seemingly having thought of something, but soon he shook his head and turned back to Walter. “It is good to have you back, Jameson, I must say.”
South of the Town of Fredericksburg, Virginia
The foul weather–hard rain, snow, and bitter temperatures–prevented the troops from moving over the next month, which was both a blessing and a curse. It meant that the Yankee army was caught where they were visible, and would have no plans for attacking Richmond again anytime soon, but there was not enough shelter in the town proper for all, and the chill and the fog were depressing.
The only benefit to it, Walter thought, taking a sip of whiskey as he stared into the campfire, was that it had prevented the stench of the rotting bodies from the north from coming down too far. From what had been passed back from those stationed in Fredericksburg, the smell of the slaughter of the Yankees on Marye’s Heights had lingered for weeks, settling over the town in a foul haze with the wind, even after the men had been buried.
The weather also allowed him time to try and locate Johnny’s cousin. He hadn’t heard anything of the boy since they had separated those three weeks ago, but it was possible Johnny had been captured. Walter hoped he hadn’t; Johnny had done right by him, and deserved at least to be with friendly fire.
Another sergeant in his division had been able to tell him that the name on the letter was addressed to John Ashwood, but Johnny had neglected to pen down the division in which his cousin might be found.
“Whose is this, anyways?” The sergeant had asked, inspecting the letter. “The penmanship is very good.” The man’s voice was crossed between envy and curiosity; now that the man had commented upon it, Walter recalled that he had mentioned to Walter before that his teacher as a boy had taken a stick to him on more than one occasion for his poor writing.
“A dead man’s,” Walter lied, leaning hard on a long branch that he had taken as a walking stick. “He handed it to me before he passed.” That had earned him a regretful wince and the letter passed back.
“I will ask around for you, if you need assistance,” the other sergeant offered.
Walter shook his head. “Thank you, but I had best do it alone.”
“As you would,” the other man said doubtfully.
So far Walter had been to most of the Virginian divisions in the area around his own camp, but none had a man known as John Ashwood nor had they heard of a division that did. More than once Walter had picked through his memory, trying to recall that early conversation with Johnny, but to no avail, leaving Walter frustrated with the half-forgotten memory. Walter knew that the man was likely to the north in the town itself, but as he had no leave to go there, he was becoming increasingly resigned to attempting to send the letter through the post.
A nagging sensation stopped him every time he came close, though–it didn’t feel right. If he wanted to justify his decision in a slightly more practical manner, the post would have an equally difficult time delivering a letter to a person whose division was unknown, but this was merely a secondary constraint rather than the true motivation for Walter’s continued holding of the message.
Popping the cork back into his canteen–he’d thankfully had just enough money to purchase a replacement, along with a tad of whiskey–and running his fingers down the canvas-covered surface wasn’t helping his memory either. With a sigh, he tied its strap back on to his belt, pulling hard at the fabric and knotting it tightly to make sure it stayed. His walking stick was resting by his feet; he took it in hand but did not make to stand up, continuing instead to stare into the fire. Sparks flitted outwards and landed on the frozen ground, bright orange against the snow before fizzing away entirely.
A soldier across the fire was well on his way to becoming completely drunk, his friends goading him on and begging a bit of whiskey for themselves in turns.
“Aye, come on then, give it here–” The tipsy soldier grabbed back at his bottle, which had been nipped from his hands. He swiped at it and missed, provoking an onslaught of laughter from the group at large, before he managed to reclaim it and celebrated by taking another gulp of the alcohol.
“Falley, your ma would die of shame–”
“She’d be right happy,” Falley countered, his face exuberant, waving the bottle about. “Drunk herself to death, she did–Like mother, like son!”
“You can’t die yet, you haven’t even shot a single Yankee!”
“True,” Falley said, grin slipping as he considered this.
Walter couldn’t fault him for his lack of sobriety, but he had no desire to see firsthand. Gripping the stick–truth be told, he didn’t really have much use for it anymore, but the camp doctor’s demands that Walter use it as support if he insisted on moving about like a fool had made carrying it about a habit–he stood and moved away to a quieter fire, unwilling to give up the luxury of its light and heat entirely, but still wishing for a place where he would not be bothered.
One of the soldiers at the fire he came to recognized him, nodding. “How is the wound coming, Sergeant?”
“‘Tis good to hear.”
Walter nodded his thanks and sat down. The other soldier, either already knowledgeable about Walter’s solitary nature or perceptive enough to realize that Walter didn’t care to be bothered, turned back to quiet conversation with the man next to him. Ignoring their faint murmurings, Walter retrieved the letter and flipped it over in his hands. The paper was colored yellow and the ink shone a deeper black in the firelight. John Ashwood.
As was becoming increasingly his wont, he ended up staying by the fire long after the other men around it had retired; feeding the blaze one stick at a time and listening to the hollers of the soldiers who were still awake (and therefore by reasonable conclusion the soldiers that were drunk). Walter sat through the night until he ran out of fodder for the fire, his mind a blank canvas upon which thoughts were loathe to intrude. The fire was down to embers before he finally dragged himself away to sleep.
Sleep was fitful, as usual. The hard ground was unwelcoming, and Walter’s fellow soldiers being the only source of warmth beyond his own clothing resulted in Walter waking up time and time again throughout the night. When he awoke again to the six-o’-clock horn call, the sky lightening above the tops of the forest trees, he stretched and stood, other soldiers nearby doing the same.
Walter ate a bit of food as he walked around camp. Rations had come in a few days prior; if their luck held, there would be more tomorrow. What discontent there was in camp about the sparse supply of rations–no man had received his fair daily share in months–was suppressed by the sullenness the weather and hunger induced.
And the forest. Sundays offered one of the few times it was easy for the men to escape the daily drills, but there wasn’t much to do. Walter looked around at the trees, the same as he had seen for the last three weeks, and decided to head towards the eastern edge of the forest for the day. It was not far, and it would be nice to be in open ground. Others seemed to be having the same idea as he, heading in the direction of the eastern hills towards the Rappahannock.
A blond youth that looked to be about eighteen flew by, hitting Walter’s arm with his shoulder as he ran past. He didn’t seem to notice, as he continued moving without looking back. Walter watched him stop a decent bit away, next to a trio of similarly-aged boys lounging by a tree. He gestured past Walter, gesticulating wildly. His voice rose as he spoke, so that the end snippets of his conversation were audible.
“–got to be at least a thousand men out there, it is incredible–”
One of his friends laughed and shook his head, saying something back. The first boy grabbed him roughly by the arm and hauled him upwards.
“Stop acting like a lady, come on–” He dragged his companion back the way he had come, waving his arm at the other two boys to indicate they should follow. Those two stood and started jogging along amiably, and then the boy who was being dragged laughed again and sped up. Zipping past Walter, the blond boy said:
“You too, come on, you need to see this!”
The others laughed. “Samuel, get off it–”
“You won’t regret it!” Samuel insisted, yelling back over his shoulder. He was outright sprinting now, forcing his companions to increase their pace again in order to keep up, but he nudged or called at every man he passed, directing their attentions to where he was going. When he turned to head rightwards Walter noticed that the boy was barefoot, but the snow on the ground wasn’t fazing Samuel at all, despite the fact that his feet were nearly as red as ripe tomatoes and painful-looking.
Curiosity piqued, Walter followed at a walk. Samuel and his friends were quickly lost from his view, but it wasn’t far to the forest edge. As he walked, he heard voices coming from the hills, and as he came closer they only got louder. By the time the trees were starting to thin out it had become a cacophony of yelling, laughter, and surprised curses. What the in world was–
A snowball came out of nowhere and pelted him straight on his shoulder. Another one hit a tree ten feet away. In front of him, where the trees finally broke away into the hills, a man charged across his vision, hefting his arm backwards and then swinging it forwards. He too was then hit by a snowball hard in the chest. The man cursed and immediately dropped, his hands moving together through the snow–to create another missile.
Then it seemed like there were men everywhere, running and chasing and hurling snow at one another. Walter moved forward, dodging more snowballs as he did so, and found that it was just as Samuel had claimed–at least a thousand men, divided into two lines against one another in a giant, snowy war.
A man on his side of the line nudged him hard in the side. “Hurry up, get moving! They have got more men than we do!” He forced a snowball into Walter’s empty hand and set about making another.
This was ridiculous, Walter thought incredulously, watching the mayhem. Then a snowball hit him again on his shoulder, and he glanced up to see a man about his age grinning victoriously at him. He shouted something that was inaudible over the clash of all the other noise, but from his expression it was obviously a taunt.
Walter didn’t think, just aimed and threw. The snowball caught the man straight in his mouth, who fell backwards and landed ungraciously on his ass. Walter could see him curse as he spat out the remaining ice and snow, his allies laughing at him and throwing snowballs of their own. Walter smirked and moved on quickly.
He decided to make another snowball and toss it just for the sake of it, and after that he made a third because the man who he had first hit was clearly trying to seek him out, and then after that he forgot about counting.
The fight only got larger as the rest of the morning progressed and became early afternoon. Men broke away from the battle for rest, socializing in small groups out of the line of fire before running back and rejoining the fray. For Walter, the rush of blood in his ears and the pounding of his heart suppressed what annoyance there might have been at the sheer size and volume of the affair. Finally, however, his leg started to twinge–Walter had long since dropped his stick in favor of being able to use both hands– and that lowered the appeal of continuing, so Walter withdrew.
Breathing hard, he swiped a bit of snow from the ground and brought it to his mouth, drinking it down as it melted into water on his tongue. It tasted sweet and clear from the action of the fight, energizing him and keeping a satisfied smile on his face.
A group of men saw his retreat and beckoned him over, inviting him to join them. Feeling amiable, he went, drawing upon them with a friendly nod.
“Never expected this when I woke this morning,” one grinned in greeting, his blue eyes sparkling in excitement.
Walter shook his head in agreement, casting a glance back at the fight. “Insanity.”
“True enough, but a bit of insanity is good for us all,” another man piped up, laughing. “Can you imagine sitting around another day, waiting for the weather to nicen up so the Yankees might actually do something?”
The men groaned.
“Harker, don’t be so depressing,” the first man admonished. Harker laughed again and saluted.
“Yes sir, any time, sir.”
“And now you are just being insolent.”
“Well, you do always say that one should do as they do best, sir.”
That brought Harker several whoops of delight from the surrounding men and hearty claps on the back. Even Walter found himself grinning as the first man shook his head and raised his gaze to the sky in a silent plea, clearly fighting off a smile of his own.
“You are very lucky, Harker,” he said, “That you were not placed under a man with a greater demand for decorum.”
“I know it, sir,” Harker agreed.
A man who hadn’t yet spoken turned to Walter. “I don’t recognize you from any of the brigades near our camp. Where do you hail from?”
“Letcher’s Artillery, under Captain George Davidson, from Virginia,” Walter responded easily. “I am Sergeant Walter Jameson.”
“Not a brigade section I am familiar with,” the first man said, still friendly despite this admission. “Captain Ezekiel Broderick, 30th Virginia. Good to meet you.”
Walter shook Captain Broderick’s hand, then let the man return to small-talk with the others–some were apparently his men, but others were not. One man from Louisiana had an accent so thick Walter strained to understand what the man was trying to say; more often than not one of the others was forced to repeat whatever he said for the group at large in order for it to be understood. In different circumstances this might have been frustrating, but given everybody’s good cheer it served instead as a steady source of amusement.
Harker stood around for only a few minutes at a time before returning to the fight, but he popped back just as often, flitting back and forth between the group and the battle. Sometimes other men would leave or come back with him, and as new men entered or left, the group shifted in composition and size. Captain Broderick was one of the few men who stayed with the group throughout, waving the others off when they tried to force him to join.
“I have had enough snow dumped down my front, thank you,” he said dryly.
It was by far in a way the most pleasant day Walter had spent since he had joined the army a year and a half prior. As the afternoon moved on, the fight finally lessened and then broke up once and for all. Broderick viewed the scene, looking pleased and contented, before turning back to Walter.
“It is a far walk back to my own camp, so we had best be off,” he raised his voice at the end of his sentence, looking around meaningfully. Men under his command saluted and started trudging north, but not without several of them pushing others into the snow, jumping on friends’ backs, or otherwise being silly. Captain Broderick shook his head. “As if they were from Texas and never seen snow before, those lot.”
Walter frowned slightly at the mention of the other state. “You are from Virginia?”
“Born and bred,” Captain Broderick said. His eyebrow rose in a silent inquiry.
In the excitement of the fight he had forgotten the letter, but now that he thought on it, he hadn’t recalled paying a visit to 30th Virginia…he paused, trying to think of a way to put his question out mildly. Broderick watched him patiently as the other men who slept in closer areas joked among themselves. Walter decided just to throw the question to the wind; at this point, it couldn’t hurt.
“Do you know of a man by the name of John Ashwood?”
“Ashwood, you say?” Captain Broderick repeated. “No, I can’t say I have–”
Harker, who had stopped and was apparently waiting for his captain before he headed back to his camp, interrupted. “Sir, wait! Isn’t Ashwood the name of an aide from the 30th?”
Captain Broderick blinked at glanced at Harker. “Under Peterson’s brigade? Do you know him?”
“Not personally, no, sir,” Harker responded, waving his hand in a demurring gesture. “But I think Kingston mentioned him once.”
“Please,” Walter interrupted, knowing but not caring that it was rude to do so; this was the closest he had come, even if it was likely that there was no aide called Ashwood, or if there was that he was a different Ashwood. “If you know him, it is important I speak with him.”
“Why?” Captain Broderick asked, bemused.
“I have been entrusted a letter to him,” Walter explained. “I promised the writer I would bring it to him personally, but I wasn’t told his division or brigade.”
“Is Kingston here?” Broderick inquired, glancing back at Harker. Harker shook his head.
“Stayed back in camp, sir.”
Walter grimaced, trying to fight off clenching his fists from disappointment; he couldn’t follow Harker or Captain Broderick without the permission of his own Captain Davidson, who Walter knew already would never give it. Captain Broderick, however, was watching him carefully and seemed to recognize his massive frustration, because he said:
“Sergeant Harker, find out from Kingston what you can. If this Ashwood really is Peterson’s aide, I will convince Peterson to let him come down.” Walter gaped despite himself as Harker grinned and took off. Captain Broderick gave him a wry smile before continuing, “It is clear even just from a moment’s conversation this is important to you, and so long as the front is quiet there is no reason to not do all as we can.”
“Thank you,” Walter replied.
“Who is the writer of this letter, by the way?”
Walter opened his mouth to say “a dead man” again, before he paused and closed his mouth. Something told him that Captain Broderick, for all his easy-going nature, would be easily able to sniff out a lie. Rarely did Walter find he wanted to hold a man’s respect, but Captain Broderick’s good regard was not one he wished to lose. Ultimately, he said slowly, “A man who assisted me. John Ashwood is his cousin.”
“Do you have a name for this man?”
“…” Walter hesitated, but quickly realized he had no real choice but reveal it. It could be bad for him if this John Ashwood revealed that Johnny was from the north, but it would be more suspicious not to answer at all. Keeping his face carefully blank, Walter said, “John Ryder.”
“Understood,” Captain Broderick said, giving no sign that he had picked up on Walter’s unwillingness to answer, but Walter knew again instinctively that this was due to the man’s acting skills and not a lack of perception. “Knowing the name of the writer will help in making sure we have the right man, you understand.”
“Of course,” Walter agreed. “Thank you again…sir,” he added, suddenly reminded that he had failed to add it previously.
“No need to address me as sir,” Captain Broderick replied promptly. “Only my men need do that, and only then so they don’t lose sight of the fact that I am in fact their superior officer. As you may have picked up on, without it they would likely forget.”
In the evening three days after the snowball fight, Walter was biting into the piece of very stale bread which comprised the entirety of his dinner when he heard his name called.
“Sergeant Jameson!” It was a private named Reefs. Another man stood next to him, towering over Reefs. Even without close inspection it was apparent at once that he was related to Johnny. His hair was blond as opposed to Johnny’s darker brown, and he was several years older, but his eyes were that familiar dark-coffee shade and held the same intelligence in them. Walter immediately stood and moved over towards the pair. Reefs saluted as he came close. “Sir, this man has been looking for you.”
“Sergeant John Ashwood,” the other man said. His voice was firm but genteel, and a smile played easily over his lips. “I believe you…asked…after me?”
“…Yes,” said Walter.
“Excellent,” Ashwood said, his smile widening. He turned to Reefs, looking down to meet the shorter man’s eyes. “Thank you for your assistance.”
“Not at all, sir,” Reefs said, saluting again and retreating. Ashwood didn’t bother to watch him go, instead immediately turning back to Walter. He lifted a hand in front of him–not gloved, but meticulously clean. Even his nails were trimmed neatly and had no dirt under them, and Walter wondered how much time Ashwood invested in keeping them so tidy as he took the proffered hand.
“I don’t suppose you want to have this conversation in public view, do you?” Ashwood asked quietly, shaking Walter’s hand firmly. The twitch in his mouth was dangerously knowing.
“…no,” Walter replied, slightly put off. Confidence–Walter hesitated to call it arrogance when he didn’t know the man, but he was dangerously close to doing so–rolled off the man in waves. Any thicker and the people surrounding Ashwood would be able to smell it, as if he were sweating it out of him. For all of that, it suited the man.
“I thought not. Do you have a place slightly more private, then?”
Walter considered the available options, then finally nodded. He led Ashwood away to one of the emptier edges of the camp and then into the forest, making sure there were no guards to stop them before slipping away. Nobody would comment upon it if he was only gone for a few minutes, though they would have to be careful to watch against those who might stumble across them or try to eavesdrop. Ashwood followed him, smiling amiably and acting like all was natural with the world even as they strode deeper into the woods. Finally Walter stopped; he was far enough for them to likely have no audience, but hopefully not quite far enough to arouse suspicion if they were caught.
“Well then,” Ashwood said. “Forgive me if this sounds abrupt, but you have a letter from my cousin?”
Silently Walter reached into his coat and pulled it out. Ashwood reached forward and gripped it gingerly with the tips of his fingers, and Walter let go. Pulling his arm back, Ashwood dangled the letter in front of his face, taking in the paper and the penmanship before blinking once and then smirking.
“This is certainly from Johnny,” he murmured, flipping it over to see the blank back side. He sounded surprised, but pleasantly pleased. “How on earth did you come across it–or should I say him? You did receive this directly from him?”
“Yes,” Walter said, watching Ashwood tilt the letter back and forth without opening it. It was distracting, and slightly annoying, but not enough so for Walter to comment on it. “He–ran across me, I suppose. Neither of us were at our best.”
Ashwood glanced at him sharply. “He is fighting, then?”
Walter nodded. Ashwood sighed. “And of course, he is fighting with the Yankees…” he grimaced, the thought apparently displeasing him. “Our correspondence has been cut ever since the war started, but I wonder what made him write a letter now.”
Walter shrugged. Ashwood, like Johnny, was the type of man who could do all the talking in a conversation by himself if one only gave him the right cues, which was fine with Walter.
“When you say–‘not at your best’–what exactly do you mean?” Ashwood asked, finally lowering the letter in favor of looking Walter straight in the eye. “He was not injured, was he?”
“…Not when I saw him, no,” Walter replied slowly. Ashwood gave him a look that clearly said that alone was not a sufficient answer, so Walter elaborated. “He…and I…were both caught in the battle last month. When the Yanks broke through the line…” Slowly, bit by bit, he explained what had occurred, mentioning details when Ashwood asked after them. When he hit the point about Johnny having tended his wounds, Ashwood chuckled softly.
“He was always too soft,” Ashwood said. “Prickly and easily offended, but too kind underneath.” He moved closer to Walter, so that he was only a single medium-sized step away, and Walter couldn’t determine whether the movement was idle or calculated. Walter mulled over Ashwood’s words–soft would not have been one of the descriptions he would have chosen to fit Johnny, and he was about to voice this disagreement when he paused.
Johnny had always been…careful, hadn’t he?
“Why did he help you?” Ashwood broke in carefully.
“I…don’t really know,” Walter was forced to answer. He had asked, but he hadn’t considered Johnny’s answer to be serious. Maybe I just don’t leave men to bleed themselves to death.
Ashwood hummed neutrally and moved closer again. This time Walter stepped back, preserving the distance between them. Ashwood looked only amused and stepped forward yet again, and before Walter could retreat he had reached out and snagged one of Walter’s sleeves, holding him in place.
“Regardless,” Ashwood said, and Walter was eerily reminded of the moments before Johnny had left him alone in the forest; Ashwood’s voice was just as low and quiet as Johnny’s had been, Walter could feel the warmth of Ashwood’s breath on his face just as intimately as he had Johnny’s, and there was the subtle tension in his belly–but Ashwood was there by choice and not forced by circumstance, and they both knew it. “It is not something you expect from the enemy, is it?”
There was only a sliver of space between them now. “No,” Walter replied, sending a rare prayer of thanks to the Lord that it came out smoothly.
“But then, one generally doesn’t deliver the enemy’s post, either,” Ashwood continued. “So I suppose we are both indebted to those who…break the mold, so to speak.”
Unease tickled at Walter’s spine. “Get to your point,” he said lowly. “I don’t appreciate games.”
Ashwood smiled again, his upper lip disappearing behind his mustache. “I just mean to make it up to you, is all. Am I wrong?” The hand on Walter’s sleeve progressed to grip his wrist; the one holding the letter slipped it into his coat before pressing unmistakeably into the front of Walter’s trousers. Walter tried to force the hand away, but Ashwood stayed his struggle with another firm squeeze.
“Am I wrong?” he repeated. His familiar brown eyes were heated, and Walter saw them daring him to say yes. A smirk played on his lips, and he looked more confident than ever, and there was something nagging him about this image–
Walter gave in. “No,” he said, his voice as low and calm as Ashwood’s own. “You are not.”
“I thought as much,” Ashwood breathed, and then he was hauling Walter down against him, pressing them together chest-to-chest. His right arm snaked around the small of Walter’s back, holding him firmly in place as Walter struggled briefly to put a thread of distance between them. His other hand immediately went towards the buttons on the front of Walter’s coat, unfastening them one by one.
Any other time and Walter would have forced Ashwood away, but he’d had no company beside himself since the Yankees had forced them all into this forsaken war, and the whores at camp held no appeal–all of them busty and raunchy and impolite–and seeing those eyes so heated–
His own hands scrabbled at Ashwood’s coat, unbuttoning it quickly and shoving it off Ashwood’s shoulders before turning right back towards Ashwood’s undershirt. He unbuttoned that one with the same speed, by which time Ashwood’s arm across his back had loosened enough for Walter to shrug out of his own jacket. Ashwood didn’t bother with Walter’s undershirt, going instead for his trousers and yanking at the snap; his fingers pressed tauntingly into Walter, and Walter groaned between clenched teeth.
Ashwood laughed and palmed him again, this time with only the thin layer of his drawers between his hand and Walter’s prick. He almost looked perfectly content with just groping Walter as he was, as if his amusement was the only thing attaching him to the situation; only the deep heat in his eyes betrayed his feelings as different.
Walter finally got the button on Ashwood’s trousers undone as well, but when he reached to touch Ashwood knocked his hand away and spun him around, so that his back was curled up against Ashwood’s front and he could clearly feel Ashwood’s arousal against his buttocks. The nearest tree was just close enough for Walter to reach out and brace himself as Ashwood ground up against him, his hand moving rapidly over Walter.
It was fast and hard and exactly what Walter needed–
“Damn–” he heard Ashwood curse against the back of his neck, followed by a long string of babbling–any thoughts of telling Ashwood to be quiet were banished from Walter’s mind when Ashwood did something and he was a moment away and could feel that telling knot tightening in his belly–
Ashwood gasped, pressed hard against his backside again, and then stilled, his hand faltering. Walter swore and reached down himself, his fingers tangling over Ashwood’s as he tried to pick up that speed and pressure again. Ashwood’s hand moved as Walter’s bade it for a few moments before Ashwood seemed to come back to himself and kept up the pace on his own. Both of their hands were moving together now–Walter heard Ashwood hiss “Come on,” at him, and then he climaxed, splattering against his hand.
They stood there, breathing hard, for a few moments before Ashwood drew away.
“Well,” he said, slightly breathlessly. “That was…”
Walter winced and waved a hand–don’t say anything. Ashwood picked up on the gesture because he chuckled, but didn’t continue. They each put themselves back in order separately, neither of them saying anything until they were both fully dressed again. Walter’s coat was damp from having been dumped on the snow, but it was still warmer to wear it than go without, so he shrugged it on, hoping it would dry soon.
“Thank you again for the delivery of the letter,” Ashwood said. Walter shrugged, and turned so that he could meet Ashwood’s gaze.
“It was no trouble.” A lie, but the proper response regardless.
“You are a good man,” Ashwood replied serenely. He stretched out his shoulders before tilting his head in the direction of the camp. “Should we head back, then?”
Walter nodded and they made to return to camp. Ashwood made no conversation on the way, apparently content to let his eyes wander the forest aimlessly. Walter was annoyed by this for some reason he couldn’t pin down, and he increased his speed so as to be able to separate with the man quicker. The letter was delivered. His debt to Johnny was paid, and he needn’t think about the boy again. Those thoughts ran through him in a never-ending stream as they walked along, but Walter just felt tired rather than relieved.
Walter had never expected to see Ashwood again after they parted ways, but two days later the man returned. It was mid-way through the afternoon and nearly time for the final set of the day’s drills, but Ashwood simply smiled and settled down next to him as if nothing at all was out of the ordinary.
He answered Walter’s question before it was even posed. “After reading the letter I find I am rather curious to know how my cousin is doing these days, and you are assuredly the best man–well, the only man hereparts–able to assist me.” Walter blinked.
“How were you allowed to come here?”
“Captain Peterson, as it turns out, owes Captain Broderick a rather large favor,” Ashwood explained smoothly. “And as Captain Broderick has kindly stepped in–he seems to think rather well of you–I’ve been given leave to come here as I will.” Ashwood’s smile deepened. “Now, come on, now, surely you can tell me something.”
“On Johnny? He was well,” Walter said slowly.
“Or at least as well as might be expected given the circumstances, I suppose,” Ashwood finished for him. “But if he is well at all, I am glad to hear it.”
Walter bobbed his head into a nod, then continued, “He…made a good deal of conversation.”
“Really? He was quite shy as a boy,” Ashwood said. Walter shrugged his shoulders.
“He never had difficulty communicating to me.” He wished Ashwood would leave. The man made him uncomfortable, but Walter couldn’t pin down the reason as to why. Ashwood’s general manner was part of it, and so was their rut in the forest, but there was something else as well that nagged at him.
“That is well,” said Ashwood approvingly. Receiving that piece of information seemed to indicate to Ashwood that he was welcome to ask more questions, because he did so wholly without reservation. Walter answered as best he could, sifting through the recollections. It was surprisingly easy to remember Johnny, even despite the fact that the rest of his memory around the time of his injury was so-so at best. The exact words Johnny spoke were hard to recall, but his mannerisms and attitudes were simple, and it was these that Walter relied on. The words fell quickly from his lips, and he found himself flowing easily from point to point.
Ashwood started, looking at him strangely mid-way through the conversation, but when Walter gave him a confused glance he just smiled and shook his head, motioning for Walter to continue.
However, soon it was time for Walter to report back to the drills all the soldiers were forced through–now that his injury was nearly healed, he had no excuse to keep from going, and he thankfully stood to leave. Before he could depart, though, Ashwood said:
“I have a favor to ask of you–is that all right?”
Walter hesistated. “Depends on what it is.”
“Did Johnny ever tell you about the contents of the letter?” Upon hearing Walter’s denial he paused, then said. “Never mind then, it doesn’t matter.”
If had to do with the contents of Johnny’s letter…”What is it?”
“Nothing, nothing,” Ashwood said. “It was silly to ask. Really, never mind.”
The second time was foolish, Walter couldn’t deny it. But Ashwood hadn’t felt like brooking no for an answer, and even as Walter knew that anybody could sneak up and surprise them, he also knew that if he did this Ashwood would be satisfied with him for at least a week. The man wasn’t entirely a fool, and he knew better than to seek out Walter too actively; and while Ashwood was by no means an unpleasant companion Walter preferred to be alone, and this was unfortunately the easiest way to go about it.
He tilted his head back, his skull hitting the chill bark of the tree behind him painfully, and gritted his teeth. He could feel the muscles in his neck standing out as the top of Ashwood’s head nudged under his chin and his teeth bit playfully at Walter’s collarbone. Ashwood’s hands had already unbuttoned both his shirt and his trousers, and the left trailed up his breast, brushing teasingly over the muscles.
The right was pressing firmly against the front of Walter’s drawers, and Walter heard Ashwood laugh softly as Walter thrust his hips forward into it. Ashwood’s fingers tightened and pushed harder, once, and Walter hissed through his teeth, the air escaping his mouth in one long stream.
“Get on with it,” Walter muttered, pulling on the back of Ashwood’s head to get him away from his neck. Ashwood smile’s was a thin knife in the darkness as his hand slipped away and he sank to his knees. Walter felt rather than saw his underwear being peeled away–he was looking resolutely upwards, away from Ashwood–and then he was being engulfed in hot, wet heat, and he hissed again, trying to brace himself.
Ashwood’s solid arm across his stomach prevented him from thrusting forward, but Walter kept his grip in Ashwood’s hair so that he was unable to pull away. The faint sounds of sucking, his forcefully restrained breathing, and the rush of blood in his ears were all Walter heard for the next few moments, but he prayed in the back of his mind that no one chanced upon them.
When he climaxed, he felt Ashwood’s mouth withdraw and heard him spit into the nearby brush, and then Ashwood was pressed up against him, chest to chest, his mouth playing at Walter’s ear and his hands resting at Walter’s neck.
Walter grunted at the weight and the feel of Ashwood’s tongue, reaching down and undoing Ashwood’s trousers. Ashwood let loose a low groan when Walter took him in his hand, thrusting hard. He turned and kissed Walter directly on the mouth, and Walter let him, since he didn’t otherwise think Ashwood would keep quiet.
Aswood’s tongue swept into his mouth, forceful and desperate, and Walter met it, increasing the speed with which he pulled at Ashwood at the same time. His other arm wrapped around the small of Ashwood’s back, holding him there firmly against Walter’s chest, as Ashwood shuddered and thrust into his hand and whimpered into Walter’s mouth. Then he was squirming even harder, and Walter fought to keep him still as he came.
As soon as Ashwood quieted he broke away, scootching down to wipe his hand on the bark at the base of the tree, where it thought it less likely to be noticed. Ashwood knelt and then sat as well, resting his elbows on his knees as he smiled idly.
“You cared for Johnny, didn’t you,” Ashwood commented lightly, with a long breath. Walter ran a hand over his chest, finding slowly-drying sweat cool to the touch.
“He…reminded me of my…brother, slightly,” Walter lied carefully.
“No, I meant as you would a lover, or a mistress,” Ashwood replied, reaching out to wrap his own hand around Walter’s and twine their fingers together. Walter wasn’t sure if he meant it as a demonstration of the term “lover” or as a sign of affection, but he hoped for the former. Already he found himself ready to leave Ashwood’s company. In the shadows, their hands looked like the base of a storm-felled tree, roots wild and twisted in the air. A tree that died, Walter was reminded, since it had no roots in the ground.
“No,” Walter said quickly. “He is a boy–”
“He’s but a year younger than I,” Ashwood said, raising his eyebrows. “How old did you think him?”
Walter gaped. Ashwood was younger than he, but only by a handful of years. Johnny looked a fair bit younger than Ashwood still. “You lie,” he said, for lack of anything more intelligent to say.
“I do not,” Ashwood laughed softly, disentangling their hands and sitting up. Quickly he set his ruffled clothes back in order, tucking his shirt-tails back into his trousers and taking his coat from where it lay on the ground. “Hurry up and dress, now.” He put on the coat and then buttoned his trousers closed, ending up somewhat the worse for wear but not conspicuously so.
Walter slowly did the same, still mulling over Ashwood’s words. “If it is as you say, then that makes him–”
“Twenty,” Ashwood replied crisply, brushing off imaginary dust from his hair. “Again, how old did you think him?”
“He looks several years younger than that,” Walter grumbled, turning to re-tie the laces on his left boot, trying not to focus on this revelation. A snuffled sound told him that Ashwood was choking back a laugh, and he glared down at the worn brown leather, yanking the laces tightly.
“Well, I haven’t seen him since his family left Virginia,” Ashwood said. “So I suppose I wouldn’t know particularly now.”
“Mm,” Walter said noncommittally.
“Lord end this damned war soon, and send the thrice-forsaken Yankees back north where they are wanted,” Ashwood said, a tinge of sourness entering and hardening his voice. “They don’t belong in Virginia–not even my cousin, fond of him as I am.”
Unfortunately, Ashwood kept appearing at Walter’s camp with surprising frequency. Rather than suspecting anything less than honorable about Ashwood’s constant coming-and-going, the men around camp quickly grew used to Ashwood’s visits. When he appeared, they treated him as if he were any other man who was actually part of the brigade, instead of a visitor who kept reappearing without real explanation as to why.
Walter suspected that half the reason Ashwood managed to get away with this was his own confident nature: he never even gave a hint as if he were doing anything wrong or as if he had anything to hide, and therefore was never called into question on it. Walter knew that technically if Captain Broderick actually had managed to convince this Captain Peterson that Ashwood should be allowed to visit Letcher’s when he chose to do so, Ashwood really wasn’t doing anything out of order, but it was slightly infuriating to know how easily the man managed to move around, when he and all the others were stuck in one place.
This was the sixth of Ashwood’s visits, and for once Walter managed to see him arriving before he sat down next to Walter like a spook. He waved a friendly greeting to a group of men sitting outside their tent, one of whom waved cheerily back. The others just nodded their heads and let him move on.
“Ashwood,” he greeted, voice flat. “What a surprise seeing you again.”
“Is it really?” Ashwood replied, ignoring the obvious lack of surprise in Walter’s voice. He was still smiling. “Well, it just seems a waste to not take advantage of Captain Broderick’s efforts whilst I can.”
Walter snorted and bit into his biscuit. It was as always stale and disgusting, but this one was thankfully not infested with maggots as the last shipment’s had been, and food was too scarce for anybody to complain.
Ashwood sighed and drummed his fingers against his knee a few times. He was apparently considering something, glancing over Walter’s shoulder at nothing in particular. Finally he seemed to come to a conclusion, and let out another deep breath. Then he blinked, and froze.
“Do you know any men named Isaac in this brigade?”
“Isaac? No,” Walter repeated, frowning. The name Isaac was familiar, though….Ashwood was staring at a man a decent bit away; from this distance Walter could only tell that he was quite tall and solidly built, as he was facing away from the pair of him. Then he started to walk away, and Ashwood shot up.
“And how many men do you know in this camp?” he asked, and Walter paused at the iciness he heard–carefully controlled, but still there.
“Do you know him?” Walter asked, carefully ignoring the question and nodding his head towards the man in question.
“It certainly looks like him,” Ashwood responded coolly, and he moved swiftly through the empty space between the tents towards him. The man caught sight of him when Ashwood was about two hundred feet away, and immediately ran towards him. Even at a distance Walter could see from his body language that he was excited. Slowly, Walter stood and followed, drawing close enough in order to hear Ashwood demand in a low voice, “What are you doing here, Isaac?”
“Came to fight, of course,” the man–Isaac–said, raising an eyebrow. “Why else would I have slugged my way through that God-damned river?” Something about the latter phrase triggered a warning in Walter’s mind, but he couldn’t put a finger on it until the man reared his head back, flinging the too-long hair that dangled over his eyes away like a horse did its mane. His eyes were blue and not brown, but Walter could have labeled that defiant set to his mouth as Johnny’s in a instant.
Johnny’s mouth–and then it hit him: Isaac–
“You are his brother,” Walter breathed, and both men jerked around, not having noticed him come close.
“Who are you?” Isaac snapped. “And what in God’s name are you talking about?”
At the same time, Ashwood hissed at him, “Never mind, Jameson, let me handle this,” before he whipped his head back so he was facing Isaac head on. “Fight? Are you serious about this? How did you even get here–good God, man…”
Isaac, however, was listening to none of this. “How do you know me?” he demanded, his voice rising. They were starting to draw curious looks from other men nearby, one of whom called out:
“Everything all right there, boys?”
“Yes, fine,” Ashwood called back, before yanking hard on Isaac’s sleeve. “Come with me, away from all these blasted people–” He shepherded Isaac through the camp, his hand ever-present on the small of Isaac’s back so that the man couldn’t stop walking even if he had tried. Walter was a few steps behind them, mind a scramble.
What was Johnny’s brother doing south of Fredericksburg, and not east across the river with his brother and other allies? Ashwood had known he had been about; that was why he had requested that Walter keep his eyes and ears open for him….The camp passed in a blur, and Walter tripped more than once over wooden tent stakes and even once on another man’s foot, but when protests were made he just waved a hand in apology and kept going. Ashwood was silent, and for once he looked deadly serious, his face like stone. No hint of a smile graced his features.
Isaac, on the other hand, was clearly confused at the cool reception he was receiving. He kept trying to convince Ashwood to slow down, or ask exactly where it was they were going, but every question got cut off with a shake of Ashwood’s head.
They reached the edge of camp and Ashwood didn’t even bother with checking to make sure nobody was watching before striding headlong into the forest, which more than anything told Walter that something was amiss–Ashwood had been very careful with thier last two encounters. Walter cast his eyes about in a feeble check, knowing that there should be at least three men standing guard nearby, but wonder of wonders Ashwood seemed to be leaving unnoticed.
The ring of the dinner bell gave a potential explanation–there had been more than one incident where the guards had left their posts to collect food, but that had been some months ago, and Walter found it hard to believe that after all this time the soldiers on post had suddenly become stupid. There was no time to question it, however, as Ashwood and Isaac slipped out of sight, though the crackling of the brush as they moved was more than loud enough for Walter to hear.
“Slow down,” he muttered, trying to both narrow the distance between them and be as silent as possible. It didn’t work very well, and Ashwood’s pace stayed constant.
Walter ultimately had to give up to the inevitable and run, crashing through the brush by the trees and making a horrible racket. He wished Ashwood had thought to pick a place where the ground was more snow and less bush.
Finally Ashwood hit a grove of open trees and stopped; the hand that had been against Isaac’s back dropped. Walter saw it clench, the fingers running across the palm the way hands did when their owners were trying to rid themselves of something dirty without being noticed.
“What were you thinking, coming here?” Ashwood all but yelled, startling a pair of birds nestling in the treetops. He reached a hand up to pinch at the bridge of his nose, visibly attempting to stay his anger.
“I came to fight,” Isaac said again, scowling. “I registered a week ago, I have been assigned–”
“Why?” Ashwood threw up his hands, then let them fall limply by his sides. “You make no sense–”
“Lincoln is a fool of a man, let alone a President,” Isaac snapped, “and so is the rest of the god-damned Union. Why wouldn’t I fight for Virginia? She is more my home than Pennsylvania.” The last word was spoken in disgust.
“You haven’t been in Virginia for nearly twenty years,” Ashwood countered smoothly, now noticeably more control of himself and acting as Walter knew he would in a set of more normal circumstances. “Try again.”
“Who is he, anyways?” Isaac gestured at Walter. “And why did you drag me out here?”
Ashwood smiled, and Walter fought off a grimace in response. “This man,” he said, more patiently than Walter would have done had he been in Ashwood’s position, “Is here because I want him to be. Also, he happens to be an acquaintance of your brother and my dear cousin. He had a letter delivered to me, you see.” He retrieved the letter from his pocket. Walter was somewhat surprised to see that Ashwood had hung on to it. Walter might have had no inkling as to what the letter contained, but he was fairly willing to bet that it would be better off burned.
“He has met Johnny?” Isaac asked, visibly stunned. “But how, John?”
“He saved my life not two months ago,” Walter said coolly, answering before Ashwood could speak.
“And Sergeant Jameson here passed on this letter in thanks,” Ashwood finished. “You can look for yourself, the writing is his.” He held the letter out for inspection, the paper grasped between his index finger and thumb like it was a handkerchief. Isaac’s eyes widened further, and Ashwood tucked the letter back away.
“Regardless,” Ashwood said. “We should return to the previous topic. Why are you here, Isaac?”
“To fight, as I said.”
“Why? Please don’t give me that line about Virginia loyalty. You are nearly thirty; surely if you meant to return you would have done so…at a more opportune time, so to speak.” The last words came out in a slow, measured drawl.
“My father has been ill for years,” Isaac replied. “It would be…poor taste to leave him…under normal circumstances.”
Walter frowned. Poor taste to leave him? There was something wrong about that sentence, too, but Walter couldn’t pin down what bothered him about it. Ashwood’s face, however, had visibly darkened.
“Poor taste,” he repeated.
“Aye, and what of it?” Isaac said, but there was the faintest edge of panic in his words now. His eyes flicked from Ashwood to Walter to Ashwood again, as if he were not sure which one he should be more concerned with. In Walter’s opinion, it was a stupid question, and Ashwood picked up on the meaning behind the gesture as well, if the way he grimaced was any indication. He obviously thought very little of Isaac; Walter had never seen him act so rudely to any person before, and Ashwood had interacted with quite a few different men in his camp. He looked very much like he wanted to be rid of the other man right then and there.
“So why isn’t Johnny with you, Isaac?” Ashwood asked.
“Surely you can admit that not letting him come with you is…how you say: poor taste.”
That, too, struck a chord within Walter, but before he could think on it Ashwood was reaching into his coat again, except this time his hand didn’t withdraw holding the letter but a small hand gun. The click sound it made as Ashwood cocked it was very loud in the sudden silence.
“As is this, undoubtedly,” Ashwood continued, as he pointed the gun calmly at Isaac. Walter noticed despite himself that the gun was a Remington.
“Ashwood,” Walter said warningly. “What are you playing at?”
“Jameson, I believe you told me not to play games, and I assure you, I am not now.”
“John,” Isaac whispered. “What are you doing?”
“What it looks like, Isaac,” Ashwood replied, and shot. The bullet hit Isaac straight in the chest; he gaped unwittingly. The hand he brought to his chest came away drenched in blood, and then he feel. Ashwood’s face was blank as he shot again. That shot was a mercy shot, straight through Isaac’s face. Johnny’s brother stilled instantly, the blood that was undoubtedly seeping away from his body hidden by the brush.
“What just happened, Ashwood?” Walter asked, shocked. “You have killed your cousin in cold blood.”
“Not as cold as you might think,” Ashwood said, putting away the gun. He stared at Isaac’s body, then shook his head in disgust. “Off we go, then, come on.”
“No–Explain yourself,” Walter insisted. He wasn’t intending on leaving until he harbored some answers. “What in the devil’s name is going on here, Ashwood?”
“He was a traitor,” Ashwood replied coolly. “He had no intention of fighting for Virginia, though he no doubt expected me to take his word at face value. But he has always valued his own skin over others, and now was no different.”
“You barely spoke with him,” Walter said, shock slowly but surely being replaced by anger at the cold-faced barbarism that had just occurred in front of him. “You couldn’t have known–”
“Don’t be a fool, Jameson,” Ashwood spat, suddenly looking furious. “You wish to know what was in that letter? You have never asked, but a simpleton could tell that you were curious.” He stalked towards Walter, so that they were a few scant inches apart. “Isaac deserted,” the dark-eyed man hissed. “He left his brother to fight and die alone so as to save his own hide.”
Walter knew as soon as the lips left Ashwood’s mouth that they were no lie. He stared down at Isaac’s body. Blood had finally managed to trickle from out under the brush and hit a patch of snow, pooling dark red against the white. He recalled the way Johnny had been so insulted when Walter had joked that Johnny might abandon him, the way Johnny had been so insistent on apologizing after the evening he had muttered the same, when all of their squabbles before had not merited the bother. It made a lot more sense, now, than it had at the time. Any pity he felt for Isaac evaporated.
But he also remembered the grief he had heard when Johnny had spoken of his brother, and that was what told Walter that while Ashwood was not lying outright, he also wasn’t telling the truth.
“That is not what the letter said,” Walter said slowly. “He actually believed his brother was coming down here to fight, didn’t he?”
Ashwood didn’t answer, and the silence was damning.
“You said he was soft,” Walter continued. And he was, to have helped an enemy soldier traverse two miles through snow, risking capture to do so. Johnny may have claimed the letter as a manner of repayment, but it had been painfully clear, even from the beginning, that the two favors were hardly equal against one another. What was a letter compared to a life? “Too kind for his own good–perhaps–” he closed his mouth, trying to put his thoughts in order.
“I retract what I said before,” he said finally. “Johnny–he is no fool. Mayhaps he knew what his brother had done…” It explained the anger, and the hurt that Walter had seen but not tried to understand. But Isaac had been pleased to see Ashwood; it had been no act. If Johnny had known what his brother had done, would he have understood where Isaac was likely to go? Walter thought the answer was yes. “But he asked you to watch out for him, regardless.”
There was still nothing from Ashwood, and again that told Walter that he was right.
“You cared about him, didn’t you?” He demanded, grabbing the fabric at the neck of Ashwood’s coat and pulling him even closer than before. “You said as much yourself, so why–”
“Why is this bothering you?” Ashwood interrupted hotly. He regarded Walter with stony eyes, and Walter wanted to blind him, he was one bad word away to pulling his fist back and punching him flat in the face. “The man was a coward and a fool–”
“He trusted you,” Walter hissed. “He wrote that letter because he trusted you, you God-damned bastard, and I searched for weeks trying to sniff you out because it was the only way I could help him, and this is how you respond? This is what you think is right?” He dropped Ashwood’s coat, not even trying to hide his hands as he wiped them on his pants. His knuckles didn’t want to stretch out, his hands had been clenched so tightly. He stared at Ashwood, wondering why it was that two men who shared the same blood and the same name could be so different, and also why it was that he had ever thought Ashwood resembled Johnny in the slightest, when Johnny was clearly worth so much more.
He struggled to say something more, something that could adequately express his fury, but there was nothing. “If he learned of this, it would break him,” was all he could manage before he turned and stalked away, leaving Ashwood and Isaac’s body behind him.
Later that evening, right before Walter was about to retire for the night, Private Reefs stepped up next to him and bent down.
“Sergeant, for you,” he said. He held the letter in his hand. Walter had seen it enough times to recognize it by the wearing on its edges. “And–a message, from Sergeant Ashwood.”
“I don’t want the message,” Walter said. “And if he asks, you can tell him I said so.”
“Ah–very good, sir,” said Reefs, nonplussed. “But, the letter…?”
Walter silently reached out and took it. The side facing him was the blank one, but he didn’t flip it over. “Thank you,” he said softly, and then he turned back to the fire. He heard Reefs depart, and then idly flipped the letter over so that the words John Ashwood were visible in the flickering firelight. He considered tossing it into the flame, but his hand stilled nearly as soon as it had risen. Then, slowly, he unbuttoned his coat, and slid the letter in so it was nestled once more in the pocket against his breast. If times had been different…
“Good lord keep you, Johnny Ryder,” he whispered, and then he watched the fire until it faded into nothing but embers over ashes.