Oh, Brother Where Are Thou or the Art of Love and War (by faust)

Summary: Adam embarks on an adventure his family had not expected him to — although maybe they should have. And now they all have to watch helplessly as their once peaceful world shatters around them. Part of the series, but can definitely read as a stand-alone.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  75,000


Chapter 1

Mirror, Mirror…

The sinking sun of the late spring day sent its last streaks of amber light into the hotel room where they performed a vivacious dance in the mass of elaborately pinned-up dark golden curls.

Adam’s glance followed one stray lock to her long slender neck and went further, over her creamy shoulders and the luxuriously embroidered emerald silk of her sumptuous ball gown, lingered a moment on her slim waist, then trailed down the voluminous folds of the full skirt.

“Is everything all right?” How someone in a wardrobe as majestic as the one she wore could sound so insecure, he’d never understand.

“It’s not too tight, is it?” She looked at him over her shoulder and then back into the large standing mirror, picking at her dress where the fabric clung smoothly to her shapely form.

Adam approached her, close enough to be able to wrap his arm around her waist and bend his head down and kiss the point where her neck melted into her shoulder. “Nothing is too tight. Everything is just as it is supposed to. This dress is beautiful. You are beautiful.”

“I thought I might have gained some weight after Henry ….”

He tweaked her waist. “Where? Here?” He tweaked again, then planted another kiss on her shoulder and whispered into her ear, “I don’t know if you put on some weight or not; it doesn’t feel different from last August for sure, but that doesn’t matter anyway: you are perfect the way you are.”

She leaned into him, but still looking into the mirror. “You’re just saying that to humour me. I know I’m not a match for—”

He silenced her with a finger on her lips. “Shh.”

She looked down, but his finger made the short trip from her lips to her chin and lifted her face.

“Look,” he said and pointed to their reflection. “What do you see?”

“I see the most beautiful dress I ever had. I suppose that should be enough for this ball.” She sighed, and made to turn, but he held her back.

“And do you know what I see?” he asked.

A smile jumped into her face, her eyes widened, just a fraction, but enough to let him see the sparkle, the delighted anticipation.

“Tell me,” she breathed.

“I see you, Juliet. You and me together. And that’s the most beautiful thing I can imagine.”

Her smile made a quick transition from delighted to coy to mischievous. “Maybe the display would be prettier with…let’s say Miss Crabtree.”

“Never,” he said and then tweaked her waist again. “And stop fishing, Mylady.”

She tried to look dignified when she said, “I have no idea what you are talking about,” but for once in her life she failed at that. Instead, she snatched at his wandering hand before it reached her neck line and sniggered, “So…beauty is in the eye of the beholder, huh?”

“Mhmm, it most certainly is.” He wriggled his hand free and nestled at her cleavage. “And you know, Mylady, this particular beholder would love to see more of thy beauty.”

“Adam!”

He would nearly have bought the noble indignation her tone indicated, but the way she pressed herself into his hand betrayed her.

His right hand still trying to pull down the fabric at her front, Adam started to fumble at the hooks and eyes at the back of her dress with his left.

“Adam…” She grabbed for his hands, struggling half-heartedly for domination. “It took Millie twenty minutes to dress me.”

He managed to catch her hands and to hold both of them in one of his while his other continued its naughty assignment. “Shall we see how fast I can undress you?”

“We’ll be late….”

“Oh, I most certainly hope so.” He let her hands go and turned her around. “This room has a rather imposing bed, Mylady, and I have every intention of using it to our utmost satisfaction.”

Her eyes were nearly black, her lips slightly open, her breathing heavy. She held his gaze, her hand darted out and she hooked a finger into his waistband, tugging lightly. Her mouth curled into a lopsided smirk, and her right eyebrow rose.

“Shuck them already,” she grinned.

They never made it to that ball.

__________

And now here is my secret, a very simple secret;
it is only with the heart that one can see rightly,
what is essential is invisible to the eye.
~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery

*****

Chapter 2

Till Death Do Us Part

When Adam woke up from the sound of the early morning birds in the back garden of the hotel, he still felt satisfied. Well rested and content. He stretched out under the thin blanket, feeling the ruffled silk bed cloths, and couldn’t help but grin smugly. Without looking, he reached out to his right, but instead of the soft sleep-warmth of a naked body, his groping hand wandered over a deserted, cool sheet.

Disappointed, he sat up and inspected the room: he was alone. He raked his hands through his tousled hair, scratched at the side of his neck, groaned heartily, then got out of bed and, snatching from a chair his robe and slipping into it, crossed the room to the half-open door connecting both chambers of their suite.

Peering into what normally would have been the parlour, but had been converted into a nursery, he found what he’d been looking for: in the early morning light flickering through half-drawn curtains, Juliet sat on a comfy chair, nursing Henry. Her dressing gown was open, her nightshirt (when had she slipped into that?) unbuttoned at the top; Henry was lying relaxed in her arms, suckling only lazily, apparently nearly finished with his meal.

“Lucky little fella,” Adam said softly.

Juliet looked up, only remotely surprised, and smiled. “Good morning.” Her smile widened to a fully grown grin. “Are you jealous?”

Adam stood behind the chair, wrapped his arms around her shoulders and buried his face in her hair for a moment inhaling her unique scent of honey and perfume, then brushed a soft kiss on her cheek and whispered huskily into her ear, “Nope. I had everything I wanted last night, and then some more….”

“So I assume you found the celebration of our first wedding anniversary…satisfactory?”

He pushed her gown out of the way and nibbled a trail down her neck, eventually resting his lips on the soft white skin of her shoulder and sucking ever so lightly, humming, “Mhmm.”

“Even though we missed the ball and you couldn’t have another discussion with Mr. Hohmeyer?” She readjusted her hold on Henry, who had let go of her breast and fallen asleep, and shifted into a more comfortable position. “But it’s too bad that we couldn’t say goodbye to him on his last night in San Francisco.”

Adam sighed. He planted a kiss on Juliet’s shoulder, squeezed them one last time, and then straightened himself, walked around the chair and stood facing his wife.

“I’ll apologise to him later.”

Juliet chuckled. “You can’t. He’ll be off to Virginia by midday already.”

Adam chewed on the inside of his mouth. He sank down to sit on the low table in front of Juliet, rested his hands on his knees and leaned forward. His gaze found hers, and he realised that she wasn’t suspecting anything. Her expression was mildly amused, expecting, completely unaware.

He took a deep breath. “I’ll do it on the way.”

She frowned, then blinked. Her mouthed moved soundlessly while her eyes darted around the room, then to her lap, to the baby, to Adam’s face, back to Henry. Then she looked up at Adam, her eyes bright, fear written all over her face.

“No.”

“Juliet…”

“No, Adam, no.”

“I have to—”

“No, you don’t! Just because Hohmeyer is going to enlist doesn’t mean you have to do it, too.”

“You know Hohmeyer is not the reason. He just, well, he has great insights being a friend of General Schurz, and he happened to provide the last spur I needed. ”

“Oh. Is that so?” She raised her chin. “Then, pray tell, what is the reason you want to go and get yourself killed?”

“I don’t—” He cringed at his tone, paused and calmed himself with slow deliberate breaths. “Juliet, you know why I am going. We’ve talked about it many times.”

“It’s the Emancipation Proclamation, isn’t it? Ever since Lincoln issued it you’ve been much more inclined to join into that stupid—”

“This war may be a lot of things, Juliet, but it surely isn’t ‘stupid.’ But yes, the Emancipation makes it even more urgent that the North wins, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, it does. A clever gambit Lincoln has made with it, that much is sure.”

“A gambit? It was necessary, and it is what you and I believe in—you’ve been into that topic ever since I’ve met you.”

Juliet made a “pfft” sound. She rose from her chair, carefully, so not to disturb the sleeping baby, placed Henry in his cradle, then turned around sharply and, pulling at Adam’s arm, she hissed, “Let’s continue this next door.”

She didn’t wait for an answer, just hurried into the other room. Adam could read even in the way she moved how agitated she was. Not that he’d expected this to go smoothly, but for some reasons he’d been prepared for tears or rage or even pleading; certainly not for a political discussion. He snorted. When will you ever learn, Adam? Expect the unexpected with Juliet, isn’t that what you’re always telling your family?

He followed her, quietly closed the door between his peacefully sleeping child and his pacing on-the-warpath wife and looked expectantly at Juliet.

She stood there in the middle of the room, her arms akimbo, her right foot tapping angrily, and then she raised her hand and wagged her finger vigorously into his direction. It would have been extremely funny if Adam hadn’t known what her lost composure told him: she was terrified.

“Of course the Emancipation is what I believe in, and what I support. I’m not objecting to that. But you and I know that Lincoln was inclined to let the South have their way with the slaves just as they were used to if that had provided him with a stable union. But when the North was under such duress and people needed new motivation, he finally proclaimed the Emancipation. You don’t want to call that coincidence, do you?”

Adam pinched the bridge of his nose. “No, I don’t call that coincidence. But I also don’t care. Whatever Lincoln’s motives, it was good to make the proclamation. And, yes, it did motivate me. It does. It’s a cause to fight for, a good thing; the right thing.”

“I don’t oppose the cause, you know that.” Juliet’s finger shot out and stabbed into his chest. “I only oppose you fighting in a war.” There was another stab on “you” and one on “war.”

Adam took her finger delicately between his thumb and forefinger and removed her hand from his chest. “You think I should let others fight my wars?”

“This isn’t your war, Adam.”

“This is my country, my convictions, my conscience. Don’t you think that makes it my war?”

“I…” She looked down.

He was ashamed about his harsh tone, but then sometimes it was the best way to get Juliet’s attention, to make her sharp mind work in more than one direction.

“It is my war,” he added much more softly. “It is my war, and I have an obligation to—”

“You have an obligation towards your family,” she interrupted him. “You have an obligation towards your child. What about Henry? What about me? Us?”

“I want Henry to grow up in a land that does not make distinctions between white men and black. I want him to grow up in a land that does not sell one human being to another. A land that defends the equality of all men, as stated in its constitution. And I will do everything in my power to help make this country that place.”

“And so you decided to have one more splendid night with me, and then leave the next morning, telling me in passing that you’re going to play the hero and save this great land from the evil South.”

“Don’t be melodramatic, Juliet.”

“Melodramatic?” She screamed now. “Melodramatic? And what about your heroically delivered speech? A land that defends the equality of all men, as stated in its constitution. Pfft. I will do everything in my power to help make this country that place. Oh, come on, Adam, who’s melodramatic now, you or I?”

“Juliet…”

She pointed to the door. “And what about Henry? Isn’t it more important that he grows up with his father at his side than with a memorial for a dead hero somewhere?”

“You make it sound as if I’m already dead, Juliet.” He managed a chuckle.

“If you go you’re as good as dead.” She looked at him, pleadingly. “Adam, don’t do that to us, don’t leave us. Don’t leave me. I couldn’t bear…” She bit her lip.

He took her hands. “Mylady—”

“Don’t call me that.” She pulled her hands out of his grip. “Don’t call me that when you are hurting me.”

He sighed. “Look, I don’t want to hurt you, but I have to do what I think is right. Weren’t you the one who told me I’d never do anything I think is wrong? Well, I think staying out of this would be wrong.”

He considered her, reading the dawning understanding on her face. Maybe now is the time to… He retrieved a bundle of sealed letters from a chest of drawers. “I wrote these in case of—”

Juliet was at his side in a split second, snatched the papers from his hands and, spitting, “I don’t need your blasted letters, I need you!” she threw them into the fire place.

Or maybe not, Adam thought, watching the paper turning black and then dissolving into ashes. “I spent some hours composing those,” he said mildly.

“Oh, you planned this all so well. What was in those letters? ‘I’m sorry you’ll never know me, Henry, but remember I died for a good cause?’ Or did you even round up your beliefs and motives for him so that he can at least read who his father had been?” Her hands accompanied her words with overdone dramatic gestures. For a moment it looked as if she’d even start to tear at her hair, but apparently she thought better of it. Or her fire was finally dying down.

He didn’t answer her. He knew he wasn’t supposed to. He knew she was raging, knowing she was defeated. But he also knew she wouldn’t give up completely, she just needed time to—

“I’ll come with you.” Her tone was defiant, her shoulder square, her arms crossed. “I’ll come with you and…write* about the battles. I’m sure Mr. Lincoln will appreciate a good war correspondent.”

“And Henry? What about Henry? You can’t take him with you, and surely you wouldn’t leave him alone, would you?” It was ridiculous, and Juliet knew that. Or not?

“Oh, he can come with us, too. Then we can all die for a good cause; now wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

He raised an eyebrow.

Her arms fell, and her head slumped down. She heaved a shuddering breath.

“You know, I don’t plan to lose my life. I’d much prefer to survive,” Adam said gently. He pulled her into his arms and was relieved to find her relaxing into his embrace. “I’ll do everything I can to come home to you.”

She freed herself and held him at arm length. “If you go you might lose anyway. It’s either your life or—” She broke off and looked down, then left him standing there, shocked, stunned: she couldn’t make him choose, could she?

Juliet crossed the room and sat down on the bed, slowly fastening the buttons on her nightshirt. When she had completed that task, she folded her hands in her lap for a moment before she went up again, opened the drawer of the nightstand and took something out, then went back to Adam and thrust it into his hand, saying softly, “I want you to take this with you.”

It was a small photograph, showing Juliet with Henry in her arms. She must have had it made that day she’d insisted on going out on her own. Henry was wide awake in the photograph, his eyes big and full of wonder, and Juliet looked calm and content and even had the shadow of a smile on her face. My family, my life.

“Promise me you’ll come back,” Juliet whispered.

“You know I can’t promise that.”

“Then promise me you’ll try.”

“I will. I promise.”

He cupped her face and kissed her: her mouth first, hungry and full of passion, then her forehead, long and savouring.

They didn’t talk while he washed and dressed himself, even though Juliet watched him all the time and followed him as he went through the room, getting his things together, packing; and she was at his side when he crouched down at Henry’s cradle, tenderly kissed the baby’s forehead and trailed his little face with his finger.

Then it was time to say goodbye, and they found they were at a loss for words. Everything seemed to have been said already, and Adam knew Leopold Hohmeyer would be waiting impatiently by now; he needed to leave.

“Shall I give your regards to General Schurz?” he finally managed.

“He won’t remember me. I was his pupil for only a few weeks—he left London before I learnt much. Really, he is to blame for my poor German.”

“Mylady, I’m sure you were unforgettable. Shall I tell him you said, ‘Guten Tag, mein Herr? ’”

She gave him a small smile. “No, tell him I said, ‘Schicken Sie mir meinen Mann zurück, sofort! ’”

He chuckled. “Now what makes me think I better not tell him that?”

“Common sense?” She lifted an eyebrow into that sarcastic arc he knew so well and waited for a few moments, giving him time to ponder possible translations, before she sighed, “Actually, it simply means ‘send my husband back to me.’”

“Wasn’t there more? I thought I heard a ‘right now’ wedged in that.”

“I didn’t think you would notice.”

“There’s no way I wouldn’t notice one of your ‘now’s’—whatever the language.”

They didn’t laugh, but they smiled. And then Adam took her face in his hands, one last time, stroked her cheeks with his thumbs and kissed her. Kissed her, not in that hungry way as before; it was a soft kiss, a kiss not of passion but of love and devotion. A kiss that made words unnecessary, especially those three words they didn’t say too often anyway, because they felt they didn’t need to.

Only one word was left to say, and he breathed it into her ear. “Forever,” and she whispered it back, “Forever.”

On his way to the meeting point with Leopold Hohmeyer, Adam was surprised to find himself praying. It was amazing, he thought, how worry converted a doubter into a believer—even though, admittedly, he saw himself more as a hoper. And even though the cynical part of his brain suspected that God might not listen too closely to such an occasional Christian, he couldn’t help but chant his prayer over and over again, long after he’d left San Francisco and was well on his way to Virginia: “Don’t let us fall apart.”

In the hotel room Adam had abandoned, Juliet stood frozen to the place, staring at the door that had closed behind her departing husband. She stood there until she heard a clock striking somewhere, and then she turned her back to the door, took a deep breath and swiftly finished her morning toilette and got dressed as if nothing had ever happened.

She rang for the chamber maid and gave orders to issue her invoice and reserve a seat on the morning stage coach to Virginia City for the next day, then packed the bags. Eventually she had retransformed the two rooms from her and Adam’s home away from home into an impersonal hotel suite, only her and Henry’s laid out clothes for the next day indicating that they were inhabited at all.

Juliet checked the room for forgotten items, fully knowing that she was unlikely to forget anything considering the accurate, methodical way in which she had tidied up their things. Her gaze stopped when it fell upon the standing mirror, and she slowly approached it until she stood in front of it. Just like yesterday evening. Had it really been only yesterday?

You are beautiful, she heard Adam’s voice saying in her head.

She looked at her reflection: a pale woman, with too-bright eyes and inexpertly pinned hair, in a plain brown dress. A lugubrious woman, less than a shadow of the radiant lover from the night before.

I see you, Juliet. You and me together. And that’s the most beautiful thing I can imagine.

You and me together. She was alone now, only her lonesome frame in the mirror. It was the ugliest thing she could imagine.

And then her eyes finally spilled over. A choked sob forced itself out of her chest, and even though she pressed her lips together to keep it from escaping she could hear the strangled sound. In the mirror, she watched her tears running down her flushed cheeks, and that image was even uglier; but she couldn’t tear herself from her reflection, from that picture of utter despair.

“No!”

She wouldn’t have it. Couldn’t have it, couldn’t bear it, couldn’t…

She slammed her fists into the mirror; punching, pounding, pummelling, again and again, until the glass broke into a million shards that scattered over the room, over her ugly brown dress, her ugly limp hair, her ugly sad face, leaving dozens of small lacerations in her ugly pale skin.

There was no pain. But when she looked down in disgust at her ungoverned hands, she saw blood seeping out of numerous cuts and one particularly large gash on her left palm; and she felt sick.

She heard the blood rush in her ears, felt herself shivering from cold despite the heat, felt the itching of a thousand sweat pearls on her skin, saw darkness clawing its way in from the edges of her blurring vision. The room began to spin around her, which made her nausea even worse; but just when she thought she’d have to throw up she felt she was pulled down into a spiralling black mist and, too weak to put up any resistance, she finally gave in and let her grip on reality go.

Before the darkness took over completely, she heard the wailing of her son, who must have woken up from the sound of the bursting mirror, his piteous cries damped by the buzzing in her ears, and then—nothing.

__________

Walking, working, barely breathing
My thoughts, far away
Heart aching, mind racing
Sleep does not come easily, nor last long….
~Peter Winstanley

*****

Chapter 3

The Gist of the Matter

Of course, this was all Adam’s fault.

Joe sighed. He shifted into a more comfortable position on the cot, where he had spent the last forty-five minutes sulking and dabbing a kerchief to his split left palm. It had been a hook Hoss wouldn’t have to be ashamed of and it had knocked Billy-Bob Colston out cold, but Joe’s hand had not only hit Billy-Bob’s unshaven cheek—somehow it must have caught on the miner’s inevitable pipe, too. Now the pipe lay in pieces on the floor of the Bucket of Blood saloon, its owner with a dislocated jaw on Doctor Martin’s couch, and Joe on a prison cot in Sheriff Coffee’s jail.

It was all Adam’s fault. Unfortunately Adam wasn’t here to right his mistake or even to bail Joe out.

Joe stopped dabbing and sat up. Studying his palm for a moment, he found that, mercifully, the bleeding had stopped already. He wound the bandana around his hand, awkwardly secured it by tying two ends into a knot, and carefully tried to move his thumb. He winced. Holding things, clenching the hand, even shooting would be painful for the next few days, but it was manageable. He wondered how Juliet had coped when—

Juliet.

Maybe Adam wasn’t there to bail him out, but his wife was. Joe winced again. There would be no escaping a lecture, and he was sure Juliet’s words wouldn’t be less forthright than any speech Adam had ever given him; but anything was better than spending the night in a cell, waiting for Pa to come and get him out; and Juliet might be gentler if he told her how it all was Adam’s fault anyway.

Because it was. Adam’s fault. All of it.

The tiny voice in the back of his head, that annoying little voice that sounded so much like his older brother and that was in the habit of just popping up whenever Joe’s efforts to block out uncomfortable truths threatened to be successful—that exact darn smart-alecky little voice chose this very moment to snort.

Joe groaned.

And then the little Adam in his head said, Whose fault was it?

“Adam’s!” Joe was surprised to hear himself shouting.

You don’t really believe that, do you?

Joe decided to ignore the voice. For now. He stood and gave the cot a kick. He did it with much consideration, with not too much and not too little vigour, with excellent aim, and with emphasis but not violence. Much different from the uncontrolled way he had struck out at poor Billy-Bob about an hour ago, as if he’d run out of anger.

He crossed the cell to peek out of the small barred window, and as if on cue, his sister-in-law came round the corner.

Hooray!

Joe watched Juliet hurrying to the sheriff’s office with her usual long, determined strides. Despite the fact that it was a scorcher of a day, she wore long sleeves and thin white gloves, so as not to encourage the gossip anew—for her arms, wrists, and hands still showed fresh red scars.

Joe vividly remembered the day she had come home from San Francisco; how she’d emerged from the stage coach clutching little Henry to her chest, but otherwise alone. Her face had been white as the bandages around her wrists and hands, her chin stubbornly raised, her jaw set, and her eyes had carried a horror that had made Joe fear the worst.

He remembered Pa’s choked question, Juliet’s brusque answer—and then her downcast eyes and low apology. Whether she had apologised for her brusqueness or for the fact that she’d let Adam go, Joe would never know, but he suspected it had been both.

The gossip had started soon after that. Word had spread of Adam’s enlistment, and of how his wife had tried to slit her wrists. “Obloquy” was what Juliet called it with an imperious disdain in her voice that might have fooled others, but not Joe. He didn’t know what she had really done, but he certainly didn’t buy her story about how she’d fainted and fallen into a standing mirror. Her hands and arms showed the most damage, as if they’d taken the brunt of whatever had happened, but when you fainted you wouldn’t fall hands first, would you?

Pa always said to leave her alone whenever Joe tried to share his concerns, and that all that malicious talk was, as Juliet said, obloquy, defaming.

Slander, Joe thought slowly pacing his cell, libel, and defamation. He was sure Adam would find even more synonyms*, he’d be mad enough to find about a billion; but Adam was fighting for the greater good now, and so someone else had to list words.

Joe shook his head. Since his big brother had abandoned his family, someone else had to do a lot of the things Adam used to. There was the work on the ranch, sure, but that wasn’t so hard. They were used to stepping in for each other, and there were the ranch hands, too. The ledgers were another question, but Juliet had surprised them by volunteering. Apparently she thought it was “fun” doing ledgers. And then there were the things Adam did because he was Adam. Things like being a confidante for Pa. An older brother for Hoss. An annoying yet valued adviser for…everyone. A deliverer of snarky one-liners. Someone who held Juliet in check…

Joe tried to be all that and more, but he felt that until now he’d only succeeded in finding synonyms. Despite himself, Joe snickered. Who’da thought that?

Juliet must have entered the office then, because Joe heard some faint mumbling outside of the cell block. He couldn’t make out words but he distinguished Roy Coffee’s humming baritone and the answering soft alto.

When Pa had asked him to take his sister-in-law along when he went to town to stock up on supplies at Barnes’ store, Joe hadn’t exactly been enthusiastic. Juliet and he didn’t get along too well even at the best of times, and ever since she’d come home from San Francisco she was downright acrimonious—if she wasn’t miserable. But Pa had said she needed a change of scenery and Henry, who grew quicker than a beanstalk, required new garments anyway, and surely Joe wouldn’t want to be picking out baby-clothes, would he?

Now Juliet’s presence turned out to be a blessing. She’d pay his bail, and Joe’d be out of prison in no time.

“Well, excuse me!” This time Joe could make out the words—and the tone: his sister-in-law was outraged. He could easily picture her, very upright, with a scandalised eyebrow nearly scratching her hairline. Most probably not even the baby in her arms would ruin the effect that posture had on people; if anything, it would actually enhance it.

Roy’s words were just the same low mumble; but then Juliet was heard again, and her voice had even risen in volume.

“You do have me gravelled here, Sheriff. I was under the impression you were a friend of the family, but apparently—”

Again, Roy’s words were too low to be understood clearly, but he talked for quite a while after he’d interrupted her.

Gravelled, Joe thought, not really a word he’d have expected from Juliet. More likely amazed, astounded, stunned. Or non-plussed. Yes, he was getting the knack of this synonyming. If there was a word like that. He’d have to ask Ada—well.

“That’s just ridiculous! Joe isn’t violent!” Juliet again.

He stopped his pacing listening carefully, but there were no more words audible.

Joe isn’t violent. He was surprised and touched by her speaking in his favour and also by her confidence in him. Did he have that confidence in himself, too? Joe wasn’t so sure. Not anymore, not after…not after he’d wanted to beat Billy-Bob Colston into a pulp.

He had wanted to beat Billy-Bob Colston into a pulp to defend the family pride, the family honour. His honour, Adam’s honour, even Juliet’s honour after Billy-Bob had joined Joe at the bar in the Bucket of Blood, raised a glass to him and then started to ramble about how lucky a boy Joe was, having a war hero for a brother and said brother’s depressed soon-to-be widow to comfort, and she was such a pretty bird to boot. How Joe was already parading around with his brother’s wife and son as if they were his; and how much nicer that was than fighting in a war himself.

And even though this all had been said only because Adam had left his family for something apparently more important, suddenly Joe realised in all clarity that it wasn’t his brother’s fault at all. It wasn’t even Billy-Bob’s fault, the poor drunken fool who’d just blundered out the town’s collected gossip from over the past few weeks. It was his fault, entirely his, Joe Cartwright’s. For Billy-Bob’s words had hit too close to the mark.

Children and fools tell the truth, Joe thought wryly. Maybe he should consult that boy Josiah* Adam and Juliet were so fond of, about it, too, but perhaps Billy-Bob had delivered enough truths for one day.

Of course, Joe had no intention whatsoever of substituting for his brother at Juliet’s side—the thought alone made him shake, and how anyone could call her “pretty” was beyond him anyway—but yes, he would like to have a girl and a son all for himself. Yes, he felt protective of Henry—and of Juliet, too, as he realised in amazement. Yes, he was afraid she might do something rash, even though he had no idea what. And yes, he felt like hiding behind his war hero older brother when he could be fighting himself.

It had been the first thing he’d said after they’d come home the day Juliet had returned from San Francisco: “I’ll go, too.”

Naturally, his family had opposed that. Joe had stood his ground and fought for his cause as long as—no, longer even than—he’d seen the ghost of a chance to convince them, even though he should have known he couldn’t win against the pooled forces. And, he had to admit, they were right: he couldn’t do that to Pa, he couldn’t do that to Hoss, he couldn’t do that to the ranch, he couldn’t—no, that was not it. Perhaps he should be ashamed of himself, but, actually, he could do that to Pa, to Hoss, to the ranch, to anyone or anything. To anyone—except Adam.

It had been Hoss who’d said the magic words. “What if you have to shoot at Adam?” After that, joining the Confederate Army hadn’t seemed so exciting anymore.

But still, it nagged at him. He was the fighter in the family. Always ready to defend himself and others, quick with his gun. Adam was a fast draw, too, no question one of the fastest Joe had ever seen, but Adam would always try and talk first. Talking, however, wouldn’t help Older Brother much in a battle; and so Joe was convinced he was far better suited to be a soldier and a war hero. And yet—

“Palaver, palaver, palaver! Stop cavilling already!” That was Juliet’s voice again. “You’ve got your money; now let him out. I don’t need your instructions on how to handle a stupid—” She broke off.

The door into the cell block opened and that’s why Joe heard her much lower spoken “He won’t do it again, I promise.”

Roy made a big show of letting Joe out: he made him sign half a dozen forms, gave him his gun back with an admonition, counted the bail money out slowly enough for Joe to see how much it was, and finally told him he would come out to the Ponderosa: “I’m gonna have to talk to yer pa ‘bout that, Joe.”

Joe rolled his eyes at the same moment Juliet said, “That won’t be necessary, Mr. Coffee” in a voice that allowed no contradiction.

Roy mumbled, “Iffn you say so,” and then they finally were allowed to leave the office.

In unusual unspoken agreement they headed straight to the waiting buckboard. Luckily Joe had followed Adam’s principle of settling business first before going into the saloon, for loading the wagon would have been a painful affair with his injured hand. Loading would also have delayed their departure—and they both were eager to escape the prying eyes and whispering voices.

They were halfway to the ranch house when Juliet broke the awkward silence in which they had been travelling.

“Do you want to tell me what happened?”

Joe started. “Didn’t Roy tell you?”

“He said you’d thwacked a man.” She adjusted the baby in her arms. “But he didn’t tell me why.”

“Why?” Joe stopped the team. Suddenly he was furious. “Why? You want to know why? Because Adam…”

“Because Adam…?”

“Because Billy-Bob…because he said…because he insin—” He broke off. Insinuated. Hinted, implied, suggested. His anger made room for…the truth.

He looked at his sister-in-law, who sat there next to him, calmly studying his face, her mouth curled into a small smile.

“I was mad,” he said in a much lower voice, staring at his hands in his lap. “I was mad, but not about Billy-Bob. He was just there at the wrong place, the wrong time. I was mad, Billy-Bob said something about Adam and…I don’t know what happened, really, it was as if my fists acted on their own. I just had to punch, get my anger out and—I don’t know.” He shook his head, than looked up, shy of her reaction. “All I know is that I’m so mad about Adam.”

She laughed. For the first time since she’d come home, she laughed. “Yes, he has that effect on people at times, doesn’t he?”

“He never…. He could have talked to us before we went. But he didn’t. He didn’t ask anyone, he just decided for himself.” Joe was aware that he sounded exactly like the adolescent boy he so desperately didn’t want to be taken for.

“He leaves you feeling powerless,” Juliet stated bitterly. “You know you have the better arguments, but he refuses to see it.”

“Yeah, he was always mule-headed.”

“That’s not ‘mule-headed’; that’s arrogance, at least in part.”

Joe was surprised. For all their bickering and bantering, neither Adam nor Juliet ever spoke a single ill word about the other to anyone. Something must have happened in San Francisco, something she hadn’t told. Something that had left her with injuries not too different from his own.

“Juliet,” he started, but she shook her head.

“It’s getting late, Joe. We better get moving.”

“Sure.” He flicked the reins, urging the horses into a brisk walk. Another time; he’d ask her another time.

“I trusted him,” Juliet said so low he nearly couldn’t hear it. “I trusted him not to hurt me.”

Joe swallowed. Yep, that’s the gist of the matter. “So did I,” he replied softly.

For the rest of the ride they remained in mutual silence, and for the first time ever, their shared silence felt welcome.

Silence, Joe thought after a while. Quiet, calm, hush. Tranquillity. Really, I have to stop this. He giggled. Once you’ve started, though, you cannot stop. Placidity. Peacefulness.

Peacefulness. Right.

__________

Where there is anger, there is always pain underneath. ~Eckhart Tolle

*****

Chapter 4

The Shadow of Death

Adam had seen corpses before. Corpses of cattle, corpses of horses, corpses of men. He had seen corpses of persons he had cared for, laid out for their wake: washed and combed, delicately clothed and arranged in their coffins, their face and posture telling him they’ve found peace. He had seen corpses of hanged criminals and of attackers shot in self defence, and those men had often looked angry even in death. He had seen even more corpses that ill-fated day at Pyramid Lake when they couldn’t stop the army from fighting a senseless battle against the Paiutes: dead Indian braves and soldiers who looked disappointed and beaten rather than belligerent.

Yes, he had seen corpses before, more than he had ever wished to see; and yet nothing he had seen before had prepared him for what he saw now:

The once luminous green of the late spring grass was matted by drying crimson. Strewn over the field were discarded equipment, single boots and grey and blue rags, rifles and straps, horses and smashed artillery, all in utter confusion. And men. Dozens of men, hundreds of men, maybe thousands of men. Uncountable numbers of men, of dead men. Dead men, lying next to each other in nearly orderly rows, in disarranged heaps, or scattered in chaotic constellations across the ground. Dead men, who, before this madness had started, had been living and loving and laughing, just as he, and who now lay there, their bodies bloated, their faces deformed and discoloured, unrecognisable in decomposition—only what was left of their uniforms giving away to which army they had belonged. Not that it mattered anymore other than for statistics; death had done what the war had failed to do so far: it had reunited them, had made them one again.

Adam slowly walked over the field, carefully avoiding stepping upon flung out hands, shed caps or lost properties that had been private before. He covered his mouth and nose with his blue neckerchief to shelter himself from the overbearing smell of death and decay. It was a futile attempt, however, for the stench seemed to have invaded his system already, had become a part of him. It was where he was, followed him everywhere, or maybe even he was the source of it.

He stumbled, nearly fell, but caught himself just in time to avoid landing face-first into a mess of maggots teeming in the innards of a burst horse. He turned around, nauseated, to check on what had caught his foot, and saw long, bare legs stretched out behind him. Long legs, eerily familiar, belonging to a body stripped of its uniform. Sometimes people searched the battlefields looking for uniforms they could still use, since the army wear was made of high quality wool—better material than most country folks could afford. Apparently this soldier’s uniform had been in good shape, maybe fairly new, and quite obviously not torn: there were no wounds, no blood on the body except for the gaping slit in his scalp and the masses of dried red that caked in his black hair and concealed his face.

The corpse showed no signs of putrefaction: the soldier must have died not too long ago. Adam felt a chill running down his spine. He tried not to think about how long the man must have lain here, maybe conscious but unable to move, waiting to be rescued. He tried not to think about how he must have lost hope at some point and slowly succumbed to blood loss, exposure, and loneliness.

He leaned down to clean the soldier’s bloodied face with the neckerchief he still was clutching in his hand. The least he could do was to try and identify a man who still was identifiable. The blood vanished completely after the first stroke, and Adam recoiled at the sight before him: he was staring down into his own face.

“No!”

He jolted upright on his cot breathing heavily, with his throat feeling rough and his body sweaty. Panicky, he looked around in the dark. No corpses. He was in his tent, and there were no corpses, only sleeping men. The air in the tent was thick and filled with snores and vapours exuded by men. Living men. A nightmare. Just a nightmare. Adam breathed in and out, slowly, deliberately, and forced himself to calm down. The images in his head didn’t go away, though. Those pictures would stay with him for the rest of his days. No one who had seen what he had seen would be able to ever forget it.

This isn’t your war, Adam, he heard Juliet’s voice in his head, and for a second he wished she’d been right. Or that at least she’d been able to keep him from enlisting. And then, for the tiniest moment, he allowed himself to be furious with her for not having played that last trump that would have held him back. If she’d threatened to leave him, he was sure he wouldn’t be here now. He wouldn’t have the nightmares he had, he wouldn’t have the pictures in his head and the smell in his nose, and he wouldn’t feel alone and cold and in desperate need of…her. Her beaming smile, her radiant eyes, her inviting arms, her waiting soft, warm body. Her “right nows” and her raised eyebrow, her ability to let herself go and make him let go, her liveliness and her scent of honey and home.

Suddenly he felt he’d suffocate if he stayed inside any longer. Putting on boots and his warm overcoat, he left the tent and joined a group of men who’d gathered around a campfire inside a square of billets.

“Can’t sleep, either?” he was greeted by the voice of Leopold Hohmeyer, who seemed to spend most of the nights outside.

“Mhmm.”

Someone offered him a tin mug, and then Hohmeyer poured him some coffee from a pot that had been kept warm near by the fire.

“Thanks, Leo.” Adam sat down and drank the strong, bitter brew. He looked up at the star-spangled sky, the only familiar thing out here. Maybe, he thought longingly, maybe right now Juliet was star gazing, too. Henry might have woken her up and after she’d nursed him and tucked him in, she now stood on the front porch and watched the stars, thinking of him.

If she wasn’t still too mad with him.

He sighed.

“That coffee not enough to satisfy you tonight, Adam?” Leopold tugged at his sleeve. “Are you waiting for a falling star to wish upon?”

“What good could a meteor do?” Adam winced at his own bitterness. He looked up into Leo’s face to find nothing but understanding there. It was strange, but being comrades in arms brought an openness and connection between men Adam had never experienced before, let alone would have expected. “I’m sorry,” he said.” I just feel—” Feel what?

“Lonely?” Leo suggested.

“Kinda.”

Leo grinned suggestively. “I’ve heard there are some highly exclusive cocottes in the camp tonight. Maybe one of them can make you feel less lonely.”

“No, thanks.”

“They are the best, Adam. The prettiest, loveliest, finest—”

Adam shook his head. “Give me as many superlatives as you like, Leo, I won’t be tempted.” He smiled at Leo’s incredulous grimace. “I’m a married man, y’know.”

“Most of us are.”

“I love my wife.”

“I love my wife, too.” Leo said, irritated. “But my wife is not here; and sometimes I need…a substitute.”

Adam emptied his coffee mug. “No cocotte, not even ‘the best,’ can substitute for my wife. No woman can substitute for her. And I wouldn’t want that anyway. It wouldn’t be right.”

“But a man has needs. And I don’t mean those needs, Adam. There might come a time, when your needs are stronger than your loyalty.”

“My needs, whatever they might be, can only be fulfilled by Juliet. No other woman could replace her.”

“You say that now, but wait until you—”

“No.” Adam stood and handed Leo the empty mug. “I could never find what I need in another woman. Never.”

He turned sharply and headed back to his tent, mumbling “never” over and over again, like a mantra, hoping that his indignation would be sufficient enough to eventually distract him from the image of his own dead face that rose up in his mind every time he didn’t concentrate on something else.

__________

War is hell. ~William Tecumseh Sherman

*****

Chapter 5

Between the Lines

“My dear Juliet,

“I hope this letter finds you well—and in a forgiving mood.

“It seems we hurt most the people we love most. It seems I hurt most the people I love most. I am sorry. I am sorry I hurt you. Please understand that I never intended to cause you distress, never meant to betray you, please understand that I did what my conscience told me to do.

“Do you remember how we talked about honour once?* I said I couldn’t look into the mirror in the morning if I knew I’d done something dishonourable. And before I left for Virginia it was hard to look at myself in the mirror, harder and harder each day. Staying out of the war and letting others fight for my convictions seemed just that: dishonourable. Mylady, remember how you told me you thought I was incapable of doing something dishonourable? That I would never do anything I thought was wrong?

“I thought staying safely at home was wrong.”

Juliet snorted. Leave it to Adam to use my own words against me. She read his bold script again, and only on that second reading she realised he even had mimicked her spelling. “Honour.” She shook her head, trying to suppress the smile that threatened to light up her features, and she snorted again as she surrendered to the futileness of it. As she felt the family’s eyes on her, she looked up to see Ben gazing at her questioningly. She smiled faintly at him, finding herself embarrassed and quickly lowered her eyes to the letter she held in a white-knuckled grip.

“And it would have been wrong. Leopold Hohmeyer and I were enthusiastically welcomed at the XI Corps. They do need every able man after they sustained some losses at Chancellorsville in early May. I was made sergeant with the prospect of being promoted soon. I’m not sure I want to be promoted, though. Don’t roll your eyes. I’m not an expert in military life, and having to command a bunch of soldiers who are far more experienced than I am reminds me painfully of the first weeks at the Ponderosa when I came home from college.

“We’re now stationed near Fredericksburg, where we moved shortly after I enlisted. Life at the camp is a bit like going on a hunting trip. I’m sharing a tent with Leo and a handful of other men, most of them German immigrants. There are two brothers, Karl and Fritz Boettcher, who remind me a lot of Hoss and Joe. Fritz has a new inventive idea on how to raise their meager pay every second day; and Karl takes care that his brother doesn’t fall too hard on his behind when his latest scheme goes inevitably awry. It’s almost like being at home. They are good men, and very amiable. Along with Leo, who has become a close friend in a very short time, they try to teach me German words. Words like Liebchen and mein Schatz—I asked Leo to confirm those words I mentioned mean “sweetheart” and “my darling” (be sure, Fritz loves to slip in words I can’t share with you)—as well as commands like schnell and Deckung (“quick” and “get cover.”)

“But you don’t really need my translations, do you? I know now that your German must be much better than you made me believe. General Schurz does indeed remember you. He said you plagued him with questions about the Bonner Zeitung when he wanted to teach you Goethe’s words. Yes, he said “plagued.” What have you done to the poor man?”

“Why…? Nothing,” Juliet couldn’t help but mumble indignantly. All she had done was inquire after the German Revolution in which she’d known Schurz had played not too small a role and the newspaper he had founded. There was nothing wrong in being interested in one’s work, was there? Very fortunately the rest of her family was too occupied with studying their own letters to notice her muttering.

The rest of her family. Her family. When had she started to consider them her family, not just her husband’s? It must have happened sometime between her coming home from San Francisco and today. As if Adam’s absence had moved them closer together, as if missing Adam had connected them more than loving him. She let the hand holding Adam’s letter sink down into her lap, taking a break from reading to watch her family.

Hoss sat on the edge of the hearth, holding his letter in both hands. His back was bent, his face showed attentive concentration. He knew that every word Adam wrote counted, and he knew how to read the whole truth out of them.

Hoss, with his sky-blue eyes that reminded her so much of her brother Henry, had been her friend from the moment they’d met; and in the year she’d been married to Adam, he had become a brother. In many ways a different brother than Henry had been, but very similar in that one thing: Hoss was one of the few people by whom she felt understood. Recognised. She never felt the need to explain anything to him.

Joe, sitting on the settee, had his letter loosely in one hand, his elbow resting on a cushion and his feet on the table—a fact that must have slipped his father’s attention: usually only Adam got away with propping his feet on furniture. (Juliet suspected that it was Ben’s way of making up for the very strict way he’d raised Adam on their journey to the West.) Joe’s eyes seemed to be running over the sheet of paper, his mouth slightly agape, one corner of it curling into an easy half-smile every now and then. Suddenly he began to giggle and looked up and around as if to check if the others had the same funny part in their letters, too. When his eyes found Juliet’s, she cocked a questioning eyebrow mouthing “Fritz?” and chuckled at his surprised nod “yes.”

This exchange would have been impossible two months ago. The connexion between Joe and her had never been the easiest, and most probably never would: they seemed to be just too different. But Adam’s lonely decision had made them equals, had brought out some unexpected similarities, had made them see the necessity to look for affinities rather than for distinctions.

She tried to be less biting towards her younger brother-in-law, to be more tolerant of his youthfulness; and in turn Joe seemed to make an effort not to mistake her sarcasm for insults and her habitual aloofness for rejection. For the time being, it all worked out surprisingly well.

Ben was holding his letter like a precious gift. He read it with an expression somewhere between delighted and pained, and Juliet fully understood why. Unlike Hoss and Joe, Ben had fought in a war, and he was aware that this very letter could be the last sign of life he’d ever get from his first born.

Involuntarily, Juliet reached out for Henry’s bassinet that was placed next to her chair. She kept the baby in close reach; in the first days after she’d come home from San Francisco she’d carried him in her arms almost constantly, until her father-in-law had come and gently pried him from her.

“He won’t leave, too,” he had said; and it had sounded like a promise both to her and to himself. To them all, the whole family.

Her family. The family that had become hers when she had started to accept their help, and their love.

She swallowed, but couldn’t keep her eyes from watering, and quickly hid her face by bowing her head over the letter again. It took her a while, though, until her vision had cleared enough to make out its words.

“We will be moving again soon. Lee’s army is shifting northwards, and it seems General Meade is intending to follow and confront them. But no more of that. I’m sure you’re still keeping in touch with Joe Goodman from the Enterprise and have firsthand information about every little skirmish.

“Mylady, I wish the celebration of our first anniversary could have never ended. In my dreams I can still see you with that green dress lying in waves around your feet. You looked so radiant, with your eyes sparkling, your skin almost translucent, your hair a golden cascade…like Venus emerging from the sea. I ache for the day I’ll hold you in my arms again.

“My love, I miss you and Henry more than I can express. I—”

The words blurred again. This time there was no hiding it, and so she decided to make a quick exit. How she hurried out of the house and onto the front porch wasn’t very dignified, but it saved her from questions and well-meant words. She wasn’t always amenable to facing her family’s love.

She stood there leaning against one of the sturdy posts that carried the porch roof, angrily wiping away the traces of lachrymose weakness from her face, cooling her burning cheeks in the fresh night air.

Adam had never written her a love letter. No one had ever written her a love letter, for that matter; and as wonderful as it was that she’d finally gotten one, as much as she felt warmed by his words, as much as they overflowed her with joy, that much she found herself pained that those words were written, not spoken, and she was chilled by the haunting notion that they might never be spoken at all.

She glanced up at the sky. The stars sparkled down at her as if nothing had ever happened. They sat there just as they had since the beginning of time, as they had when Adam had shown her Ursa Major, the Pleiades and other constellations, more of them than she could ever remember. She wondered if Adam was watching the stars, too, maybe right now, seeking solace in their quiet company.

“It’s colder than one would think after such a scorching day,” she heard her father-in-law’s warm voice murmur as he wrapped her pale blue shawl around her shoulders. “I don’t want you to catch a chill.”

“Thank you.” She found herself surprised that she really meant it. Perhaps now it was time to accept some family-love.

Ben didn’t waste any time feigning ignorance. Apparently he’d learned that Juliet preferred direct speech; and that any kind of beating around the bush would just lead to her withdrawing into herself.

“Was there something in that letter upsetting you?”

“No. It’s a lovely letter, it—” Whom was she kidding? “It’s not what’s in the letter,” she started again. “It’s what’s not in the letter that concerns me.”

“What’s not in the letter.”

He didn’t voice it as a question. Maybe he hoped she would tell anyway or maybe he knew the answer already. It didn’t matter. She had to say it out loud, had to tell it, tell it to the stars so they might tell Adam that she wasn’t fooled, that she wouldn’t be lulled in, that she knew.

“Adam makes the war sound like a camping trip.” She turned and looked Ben straight in the eye. He didn’t have to nod; she read in his face that he was with her. “He talks about friends he’s made, about witty conversations and practical jokes. But he doesn’t say he’s all right. He wouldn’t lie to me, and that’s why he doesn’t say he’s all right.”

She turned back, looked over the dark nocturnal yard, then up again to her friends, the stars. “He doesn’t tell about fighting and if it feels that he’s making a difference; he doesn’t share what he’s living through. And that he doesn’t share tells me it must be horrendous. It scares me. It scares me because I fear that even if I get him back eventually, I won’t get him back.”

“Now, Juliet—”

“Ben, I’m not ignorant. Adam’s at Fredericksburg, and I know what happened at Fredericksburg. You’ve seen the pictures in the Territorial Enterprise, too. He has been there. Ben, he has seen all that—and not in a picture but in reality. He’s been a part of it.”

“Those pictures…they were illustrations, drawings. I don’t mean any offence, but you and I know how Goodman likes to exaggerate. You can’t know if—”

“The pictures were painted after photographs. They don’t exaggerate. It’s how it was.” She took a deep breath. “It’s how it’s going to be until this stupid war ends. It’s how Adam will go through it until—”

“Until he comes home.” Ben took her by her upper arms, turned her around and locked eyes with her. “Until he comes home. We have to have faith. We have to pray and have faith in the Lord. He will bring him home.”

It was comfortable to believe it. Ben’s voice was comforting and calming, reassuring and urgent. And Juliet wanted to believe; she wanted to be comforted and reassured. She let it happen, let herself be carried on a wave of faith, trying to ignore the tight knot that formed inside her stomach, and so it took her completely by surprise when she suddenly heaved and vomited the remains of her supper in a bed of Queen de Bourbon roses.

__________

The reality of the other person lies not in what he reveals to you,
but what he cannot reveal to you. Therefore, if you would
understand him, listen not to what he says,
but rather to what he does not say. ~Kahlil Gibrain

*****

Chapter 6

Homo Homini Lupus

 

“Cemetery Hill, July 1st

“My dear Juliet…”

The small camp fire gave only a little light, and Adam had to sit in an awkward position to prevent a shadow being created on the paper by his writing hand. He knew he should be resting, should be building up strength for the next day, but he also knew that sleep was likely to elude him, and that even if not his sleep would not bring any rest at all. The only thing that would give him some sort of relaxation was, indeed, this letter. A letter that would never be sent, just as all those other letters he had written never had been sent. He had carried them with him for a day or two, then thrown them into the campfire and watched how they slowly turned into ashes.

Those letters were…not really letters. He had seen many men writing journals—Leo did it, too, nearly every night—but Adam didn’t find a journal to be what he needed. The things he needed to shape into words and sentences were not things he wanted to keep. Not things he wanted to store somewhere to be able to come back one day and read them. What for? To remember? As if a man could forget those things. As if a man would not, on every single day of his life, wish, hope, and pray to forget those things and never have to recall any of them. Juliet of all people would understand the urge to write—and the need to keep it secret.

He smiled. Juliet would also insist that he’d send her the letters; she would read them and never say a word if he didn’t ask for one. She would listen if he felt the urge to talk, and she would understand—would understand also if he never talked.

Of course, he would never actually burden her with…with this. But he would pretend he did because telling her put things into perspective, gave him a distance he desperately needed to make sense of what happened to him, of what happened with him.

He crossed out the first words and started anew.

“My beloved Juliet,

Lupus est homo homini; that is the essence of today’s events: man is a wolf to man. And I, dearest, am not sure anymore if I am man or wolf.

Early this morning, we were ordered to march to Gettysburg to reinforce General Reynolds’ troops which were outnumbered by Confederate forces. We arrived there around noon and were sent north to…”

It had been a hot march. The sun had burnt down on them relentlessly, making them short-breathed and tired even before they’d reached their destination. Their knapsacks had become heavier by the minute, the straps cutting deep into aching shoulders. Goodness, Adam wasn’t unaccustomed to working in heat, but his heavy woolen jacket had given him the feeling of being cooked alive in a custom-made potbelly stove.

Upon arriving at Gettysburg, news had spread that Reynolds had been killed in action and that now General Howard was commanding officer of all present Union forces. Subsequently, Major General Schurz had been appointed temporary commander of the XI Corps, and Adam’s division put under command of Brigade General Schimmelpfennig, a man Adam couldn’t really assess. While, in the past weeks, he had come to know and appreciate Schurz as a thoughtful leader who stayed on top of things, had a knack for tactics and a keen perception for the enemy’s next move, he knew nearly nothing about Schimmelpfennig, only that the man was a decided supporter of nativism. He was an unknown quantity to Adam—and therefore something that made him uneasy.

All too soon, Adam’s bad feelings about this change in command would prove right.

“We took position in the north of town, below Oak Hill, in a terrain of farmland, featureless and plain. It wasn’t easy to defend in the first place, and soon we found ourselves attacked from two sides, heavily outnumbered and trapped in artillery crossfire, unable to find cover. A slaughterhouse, a veritable slaughterhouse. The noise—”

The noise. Adam stopped writing and ran his hand over his face, not even noticing how the edge of the pen ripped a long scrape into his skin. He stared into the low fire next to him, watched the sparks dance merrily and listened to the crackling embers’ gentle song.

The noise had been the worst. The noise: artillery, gunfire, and screams. Cannons, rifles, men.

Gunfire and screams. Shots from thousands of barrels, shouts from thousands of lungs, the overlying deep, dark thunder of bombardment—all that had accumulated into one single roar: a cacophony of dread.

“It was a slaughterhouse—and a madhouse. The air was thick with noise and smoke; it wasn’t easy to retain orientation. Half of the time I didn’t know where exactly I was or where to head—not realizing that there hardly was a way to go. Man after man fell, comrade, friend, foe…sometimes you couldn’t even discern which. Does it make a difference at all?

“They say it lasted barely an hour, but it surely didn’t feel so. It was a lifetime, no less. An eternity. As if my very existence consisted solely of this one roaring, smoking rage.”

Rage. Rage. Adam shuddered. He pulled at the edges of the blanket slung around his shoulder to close them over his chest. He snorted. No matter how many blankets he wrapped around himself, no matter how close he huddled to the fire, he couldn’t rid himself of the chill that had taken residence in his body, that made his hands ice cold and his shoulders shake from fatigue.

Rage. He closed his eyes and nodded to himself. Rage, that was it. The one thing that had taken him by surprise. He had felt rage during the battle, rage—and nothing else. Not excitement (even though there had been a certain element of anxiety among the corps before the battle had begun, or rather anticipation, a tense commotion not unlike the nervous hoof stomping of a race horse seconds before the start); not fear (despite the fact that he’d been sure he would not survive the day); not sorrow (that came later)—none of that, only rage.

He snorted. Whom was he kidding? His rage had been fed by excitement, fear, and sorrow, had been kindled by them.

He didn’t remember much from the battle, just smoke and noise, and rage. He had tried to keep track of his men in the beginning, but, of course, in the general mayhem he’d lost them soon enough. He had fired his gun, most of the time not even checking if he’d hit his target—there was always another man in grey leveling a rifle on him. A gun pointing in his direction was the only sure indicator that a soldier was indeed a foe, though. The Confederates weren’t as well equipped as the Union soldiers; sometimes they didn’t even have a uniform or wore one they had captured from a Federal.

Once he had used his bayonet. He hoped he would never have to do it again. The man he had stabbed had fallen down on his knees, only an arm’s length from Adam. His eyes wide in surprise, he hadn’t even clutched his blood-spilling chest; and then his mouth had curled into a small sad smile before he’d fallen face first into the dry topsoil. “Why?” he had seemed to ask, and Adam still didn’t know an answer to that.

“We were already falling back toward Gettysburg, when we were ordered to retreat through the town, thus bringing the fight into it. Smaller skirmishes everywhere, on the street between the houses, in gardens and yards. Some, I’m ashamed to say, sought refuge in houses, basements, anything with a fence to hide behind it.”

He had seen General Schimmelpfennig climbing a fence—but the general hadn’t made it to Cemetery Hill, so apparently his cowardice hadn’t served him at all and he had been killed or captured anyway.

Seeing the general setting such a bad example had enraged Adam even more, and he had started looking into the yards and back gardens, rousting men who had thought their fight was over—surely not making too many friends with that.

And then he had found Karl and Fritz Boettcher.

Hidden in the sheltered doorway of a house, little Fritz was sitting on the stairs, his brother settled between his legs on a step below him, the giant’s back resting on Fritz’s chest. Fritz stared at Adam, looking not a bit like the notorious mischief maker but like a frightened child.

“He’s too heavy, I can’t drag him anymore,” Fritz whispered.

Adam crouched down. The biggest part of Karl’s left arm was missing and his coat was a bloody mess, but the hole in his abdomen and the stump of his arm weren’t pumping out new blood. Even though he knew the result already, Adam searched for a pulse at the big man’s throat.

“He’s gone,” he said softly. “You don’t have to carry him anymore.”

“No, he can’t…he cannot, cannot be—” Fritz choked. He patted his brother’s pale cheek, rattled his shoulders. “Karl?”

“Fritz, he’s dead. And we have to leave. We have to go. Now.”

Fritz looked up, bewildered. “But you don’t understand: he…he’s my brother.”

“I know. I know it’s hard, but you have to—”

“And he’s dead.”

“Yes.”

Fritz shook his head. “He wasn’t supposed to die.”

“Fritz…we have to go.”

“No. I won’t leave Karl here.”

Adam sighed. “I know how you feel, really, but if you stay here then you are a deserter. You don’t want to be a deserter, do you, Fritz?”

The boy—Lord, he was a boy, a boy just like Joe, maybe even younger—winced but didn’t show the slightest inclination to move.

Adam sighed again. Joe, he thought, and then he adopted his big brother voice. “Go ahead,” he said. “Be a deserter. Be a coward. I’m sure your brother, wherever he might be now, will enjoy it.”

Fritz swallowed visibly. “I don’t…I’m not a coward,” he said defiantly. “But I can’t leave Karl here where he won’t get a proper burial.”

“Fritz, think! We can’t carry him, he’s too heavy. And he has got a coin, hasn’t he?” Adam fumbled at Karl’s coat. “He showed it to me, said I should get one, too.” He found the small medal with Karl’s name and corps and carefully laid it on top of the coat. “Look, whoever lives in this house will find him and see the coin. They will report his death and he will get a proper burial.”

“And a headstone.”

“And a headstone with his name on it, yes. Now let’s go!”

Adam didn’t know how they had made it to Cemetery Hill; somehow it felt as if he’d dragged Fritz with him the entire way. He also had no recollection of when the enemy fire had finally died down; the only thing he remembered was that eventually someone had stopped him, had held him until his struggle to get free had subsided, all the time yelling in his ear, “You’re safe, comrade, you’re safe!”

“Beloved, I’m safe now. For tonight, I’m safe. There’s an exhausted silence hanging over the camp. So many are missing. Leo…I haven’t seen Leo tonight. Nearly half of the corps has fallen or was captured—I will force myself to hope Leo is among the latter.

General Hancock arrived in the afternoon and has taken command over the forces. General Meade is expected later tonight, as are more Confederate troops. This is far from over, and I presume the worst is yet to come.

God help us.”

__________
What a cruel thing is war: to separate and destroy families and friends,
and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world;
to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors,
and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world. ~Robert E. Lee

 

*****

Chapter 7

The Harvest of Death

“He’s a goner, Maxine. Don’t waste your time on a lost case when there are so many others here who still have a chance.”

Of course, Flora was right. But… “He’s so handsome.” Maxine pursed her lips. That was in no way a professional approach. In fact, it was highly unprofessional and exactly what Sister Mary Frances had cautioned her against all those years ago when she’d first started education at the nursing school.

The patient’s unnatural sleep became restless—again. He thrashed around on the narrow cot, mumbling unintelligible words and furrowing his dark brows while he restlessly turned his head from one side to the other.

Maxine put restraining hands on the soldier’s chest, knowing from the experience of the last few days that human contact was the only thing that would bring the man back into a more peaceful slumber.

Maxine.”

“I…really, I can’t let him alone—not like this, not when…not now.”

Flora gave her a pitiful look, then sighed. “All right, have your way. But if I need you to help me care for a living soul—”

“He is a living soul.”

“Barely.” Flora shook her head and then turned and walked away, briskly, as if caring for a dying man was a major affront to…well, whomever. The living, maybe. Lord, when had she become a cynic?

“Mhmm…” The man’s moans got louder, and his hand went down to where his right leg had been before the spreading infection had forced the doctors to amputate it. Very often, it took the patients days to realise that an amputated limb had actually gone; and even when they were fully aware of its absence, it continued hurting them. It was a small blessing that this particular patient most probably would never register what he’d lost.

Maxine rubbed small circles on the man’s chest, something that always made him calm down. She wondered if his wife had used to do the same thing. “Shh,” she cooed, casting a quick glance around. “Shh, Adam, it’s all right. You’re safe here.”

At least he had a name. Many soldiers were unidentifiable. Some had small coins with their names engraved tucked in their pockets or hanging on a chain around their necks, some were lucid enough to tell their names; but far too many were brought in unconscious and without anything on them that said who they were. Adam had been one of those senseless men and, blessedly, had remained so throughout the whole ordeal he’d undergone. But he’d carried a letter in his pocket, addressed to “Mrs. Juliet Cartwright” and signed “Adam,” so they knew not only his name but also that he was married.

Maxine knew that many soldiers were married, that most had families at home, parents, siblings, wives, children; but knowing Adam’s wife’s name made it even more real, made the fear and desperation that woman must feel waiting for her husband to return tangible and haunting. And how devastating it would be for her when she eventually got the news that would shatter all her hopes.

And there was no doubt that that woman’s hopes would be shattered. Sweat drops on Adam’s forehead told Maxine that his fever was spiking again, and she was sure that his debilitated body wouldn’t stand another attack. To offer what little comfort there was, she wetted a cloth and wiped the sweat from his brow, cooing to him as if to a little child, what seemed to have become her mantra. “Shh, Adam, it’s all right.”

This time, it evoked a reaction. To Maxine’s utmost surprise, the man’s upper body shot up. His eyes flew open, and he stared at her, frantically, uttering his first discernible words, “I…no…mhmm…Ju—Ju—Ju—” And then all strength seemed to leave him, and he fell back, panting heavily.

“I know,” Maxine said. “I know, Adam. Don’t speak, save your strength.”

“No…Ju…” He broke off again.

“Shh, I understand. I’ll tell her.” And she would. She could acquire her address, couldn’t she? She would write his wife a letter, when all this was over and she would be able to put it into words, this desperation that made a man use his last breath to whisper his wife’s name.

His last breath? She bent over him. “Adam?”

He was silent. No more thrashing, no more moaning, no more head throwing. His handsome face looked tranquil. The pained crease over his brows gone; his features relaxed, his eyes focused on a world beyond comprehension. He was at peace.

Maxine swallowed a sob. Tenderly, she brushed over his eyes, closing the lids. “Farewell,” she whispered, and then she drew the thin blanket over his face.

“Maxine, quick!” The yell came from the other side of the hospital tent, and Maxine hurried to where her help was needed for fixing a man who actually had a chance to live.

Two thousand or so miles away, Juliet Cartwright woke from yet another dream about Adam telling her, in fluent German, that he did love her, but that she simply had to understand that there was a greater good that was more important than personal happiness.

“That’s bedlam, Adam,” she had answered, “complete moonshine.”

But just as Adam cocked his head and pursed his lips, and she squared her shoulders and lifted her right eyebrow in preparation for their habitual battle of wits, the desperate cries of little Henry penetrated the scene, and she left the place with a last regretful glance at Adam, who suddenly looked very serious and whispered, “I love you, Juliet.”

She wondered fleetingly why dream-Adam said those words real life-Adam never found necessary to utter, but she soon was distracted by more urgent matters, like changing a wet diaper and feeding a hungry mouth.

At the age of five months, Henry seemed to need less and less sleep, and so he didn’t take it too kindly when Juliet tried to put him back into his bed. He was dry and fed, and apparently he thought now it was time for entertainment—a view Juliet wasn’t inclined to share. Henry’s previous night had been a seemingly never-ending sequence of sleep and wake ’n’ wail, sleep and wake ’n’ wail; and the intervals between Henry’s awakenings had become shorter and shorter as the night had drawn out. Consequently, neither of them had gotten nearly as much sleep as Doctor Martin had pronounced healthy and normal. And now it was five in the morning, and Henry had decided that the night was over. How he could be as wide awake as he was now, was beyond Juliet—she certainly was dead on her feet and would have given a kingdom for an hour more of sleep. Alas, she didn’t have a kingdom to put into the bargain, and Henry obviously wasn’t interested in any commerce anyway: he made his discontent with his unwilling mother loudly known.

Babies, Juliet thought not for the first time, were merciless. She sighed. “Oh, all right,” she gave up, scooping Henry out of his bed. “You win.”

And so the family found a very tired-looking Juliet, uncharacteristically slumped in her seat, when they came down into the great room for breakfast that morning.

Henry was lying on his back on the settee in front of her playing with his naked feet. His toes seemed to hold a particular fascination for him, and apparently there was nothing more fulfilling in his world than to stuff them into his wet, toothless mouth and suck on them. As soon as he spotted his uncles, however, Henry stopped abusing his feet as pacifiers. He made a gurgling sound, flailed his little arms enthusiastically, and greeted his two favourite entertainers with a big, open-mouthed smile. Said entertainers returned his welcome by grinning like two lunatics, and, abandoning every thought of breakfast, crouched down in the narrow space between the settee and the coffee table.

Juliet, happy to be relieved of duty, slid aside making room for the uncle brigade. She was joined by her father-in-law, who cast a concerned glance on her before he turned his attention to Henry’s morning merriment.

“Lookee who’s awake already,” Hoss said in his funniest-uncle-of-the-world voice and tickled Henry’s belly until the baby squealed in delight. “Dootsie, dootsie, dootsie,” he then added genially.

Henry stopped squealing and frowned at his uncle.

Hoss laughed. “Are ya doin’ an Adam on us again, little rascal?”

“Of course, he is,” Joe chimed in. “He’s grown out of baby talk weeks ago. I’ve told you, he’s the smartest baby ever born.”

Henry grinned at Joe, and started to wiggle his arms and kick his legs rather energetically.

Joe picked a silver rattle up from the table and held it above Henry’s face, just in reach of his arms. The boy’s gaze focused on the rattle, his grin gave way for a look of utmost concentration, and then came back instantly as he snatched the toy out of Joe’s hand. Henry shook the rattle enthusiastically for a while until he stopped to try and stuff the elephant-shaped top into his mouth.

Both his uncles went forward to rescue the poor silver animal, and Henry was instantly distracted. With a quick motion he delivered a surprisingly well-aimed whack at Hoss’s head.

Joe exploded with laughter.

And earned a whack at his head for that.

Hoss wisely held his burst of laughter back, but to no avail. Henry quite obviously recognised a sophisticated game when he saw one, and kept on banging his rattle on heads right and left. From his gurgling giggle it was easy to discern that he had quite a pleasant time, and the simple fact that neither Joe nor Hoss shrank back an inch said that the pleasure was mutual.

“You two are lunatics,” Juliet mumbled when she moved between her brothers-in-law to see what all the giggling and cackling was about and found them being happily mishandled by her baby son.

Henry stopped his actions immediately, and smiled, as impossible as it seemed, even wider when he saw his mother.

“What, was that what you were pining for tonight? A scuffle with your uncles?” She pinched the baby’s nose fondly, and, leaning down, whispered conspiratorially, “Your grandfather doesn’t tolerate scuffling in the house, though.”

Henry listened intently, then puckered his lips and aimed the rattle at her.

Juliet raised an eyebrow. “You might want to think about it, Henry.”

Henry considered his mother, still with those puckered lips that made everyone think of Adam. And then his mouth melted into that fat smile that was entirely his, and he smacked the silver elephant on Joe’s forehead.

“Oh, yeah, yer right, Joe: that little rascal is the smartest baby ever!”

Hoss’s laughter nearly drowned out Ben’s low words, but Juliet heard them anyway. “Smart enough to keep his mother on her toes day and night.”

Excuse me?

The temperature in the room seemed to drop at least ten degrees.

Ben looked caught. He seemed to shrink a bit under his daughter-in-law’s glare—or maybe it just looked so, because Juliet straightened her back and lifted her chin, and with that she seemed to grow an inch or two.

“I don’t mean to criticise you, Juliet, but maybe some advice from an experienced—”

Some might think you can’t interrupt someone by drawing a breath, but Juliet proved that it was, indeed, possible. Never in the history of respiration had a breath carried more laboriously suppressed annoyance than the one Juliet heaved before she said, “I thank you for your consideration, but I am adequately supplied with all needful information.”

Ben squared his shoulders. “Juliet, dear, just let me share what I learnt from bringing up three sons. You are exhausted, and you needn’t be. Your health isn’t secondary to Henry’s wellbeing. But as long as you jump into action at every little sound Henry makes, he will never learn to sleep through the night.”

“So what do you think I should do? Let him cry?”

“Well, yes. If you know he’s fed and…otherwise taken care of, then—”

“Mrs. Beeton is quite adamant that one should not do such a thing. It would disturb the child who has no other way to communicate than crying.”

“Mrs. Beeton?”

Juliet tilted her head. “Mrs. Beeton, yes. She wrote in her book—”*

“You depend on a book?”

“I don’t see anything wrong with that.”

“Juliet, not everything can be learned from a book. For some things you have to rely on experience. Raising children isn’t like baking a cake.”

“Oh, now is it not.”

“All I’m saying is—”

“That I should let my child cry.”

“From time to time, yes.”

“And you tell me that from your experience?”

If Ben had been more observant, he would have been alerted by her sudden change of tone. Adam would by now have prepared an honourable retreat, but, of course, Ben was less experienced in arguing with Juliet. Until now, he had carefully refrained from it; and had Juliet not become as edgy as she had over the last few weeks, she might even have realised that his present bold foray originated solely from honest concern.

Juliet’s tone wasn’t scandalised anymore or indignant, it was…warning and sly at the same time.

“Well, yes. If I had—”

“So that’s what you did to Adam.” A statement, and a sentence.

Ben blinked.

“And you wonder why he’s so reluctant to admit it when he’s not feeling well?” She rose, as did the volume of her voice. “When he has learnt from early on that no one cares for his needs anyway?”

She looked sick; maybe that was why Ben let her get away with it. Or maybe she’d hit too close to home.

Whichever it was, it still hung in the air of the great room when after an awkward breakfast Ben sat down at his desk, the sleeping infant in his bassinet close by, and Juliet excused herself rather stiffly to go outside for a desperately needed breath of fresh air. Breakfast hadn’t seemed to agree much with her today.

Joe was glad that he had had a perfect excuse to flee the uncomfortable atmosphere in the house as soon as the morning meal was over. Pa had just signed a contract with the army involving four dozen sturdy horses, all well broken; and since Adam wasn’t at home, most of the breaking lasted on Joe. He’d announced that he wanted to get a head start on it this morning, and had left the breakfast table quickly, while his sister-in-law was still sipping at the cup of tea that had been the only nourishment she’d seemed to actually enjoy that morning.

He stood in the dim barn revelling in its calm quiet while he fastened the chaps on his hips, then wiggled the leather until everything sat perfectly. He wondered what was eating at Juliet. She hadn’t been that erratic and moody since…well, at least since Henry had been born. But then Adam had left and… Well, he guessed that answered the question. He left the barn, thinking that it might help if he talked to her. Their little chat after she’d bailed him out of jail a few weeks ago had been a real revelation, and maybe he could build on that.

He got his chance earlier than expected, as he found Juliet standing on the front porch, white-faced and breathing heavily, holding on to one of the posts for dear life. It went without saying that she denied anything was wrong but insisted that she was fine, very fine. Briefly Joe asked himself if perhaps Juliet had been left crying too many times when she’d been a baby, too, but very fortunately, he had just enough self-restraint to suppress the impending grin.

“Look, Juliet,” he started, boldly taking her hand. Which she didn’t pull back. “Pa means well. I know you know that, too. You’re tired, and he wants to make things easier for you. We all want to make things easier for you, if you’d just let us. Maybe Hoss and I can…well, we can’t do the things you do…” Lord, what had he gotten himself into, Joe thought as he felt his face flush. At least his embarrassment brought a small smile onto Juliet’s face. “I mean, we could look after him when he’s awake and wants to play, and then you could sleep for a spell, and, who knows, maybe you can even start writing again if we get him off your hands every now and then.”

“You want to look after Henry so I can write?”

“Yes, I’d love to. I know how much you’re pining to get back to your desk and deliver a broadside against…well, anyone.”

She tilted her head and studied his face for a moment, then her small smile reached her eyes. “You know that I…. You know that.” She squeezed his hand, nodding more to herself than to him. “Joseph, what do you—”

“Trying to steal yer brother’s wife again, Cartwright?”

Their heads shot around towards the man who’d so rudely interrupted them.

Letting go of Joe’s hand as if was wrong to hold it, Juliet asked, “Who is that, Joe?”

“Colston,” Joe spat. “Billy-Bob Colston.”

“The man you walloped?”

“The man whose jaw he nearly broke, ma’am,” Billy-Bob offered, slightly slurred. He fumbled at his gun belt.

Seeing Billy-Bob’s hand hovering over his Colt, Joe became painfully aware that he was unarmed. You don’t put a gun belt on when you want to break a horse. He pushed Juliet to the right and carefully, never taking his eyes from Billy-Bob, moved to the left, step by step putting more distance between him and his sister-in-law, thus getting her out of the line of fire.

“Billy-Bob, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

“I don’t care whatcha meant to or not, Carwright. All I care for is that I ain’t eaten nothin’ solid in weeks, and that’s fer sure botherin’ me.”

Joe cringed. Really, he did understand Colton’s misery. “Tell you what, Billy-Bob, I’ll get Hop Sing to fix something real nice for you, something that makes you forget it’s stew and—”

“I don’t want no danged stew.”

“What is it then that you want, Mr. Colston?” Juliet’s words came unexpected, her clipped accent in sharp contrast to Colston’s drawl.

Billy-Bob blinked. He looked from Joe to Juliet and back. Slowly, with an unsteady hand, he produced his weapon.

“Now wait a minute, Billy-Bob—”

“No, you waita minute.” Shakily he aimed the weapon at Joe. “You think you get away with smashin’ ma jaw, jest because yer a Cartwright, but I’ll teacha.”

“I do think we will find an adult way to handle this, Mr. Colston,” Juliet said taking a step forward that, to Joe’s utmost horror, brought her back into the line of fire. “And I assure you we won’t need any arms for that.”

Before Joe could issue a warning, Juliet made another step up to Billy-Bob and pointed at his gun—a gesture that could easily be misunderstood as reaching for it, especially by a man as nervous as Billy-Bob Colston.

Sensing Billy-Bob’s tiny movement more than he actually saw it, Joe instantly went into action. He darted towards Juliet and tackled her to the ground, covering her body with his even before the echo of the shot had died down. He’d felt the impact of the bullet while still in motion, somewhere in his lower back, but the pain reached his consciousness only after a short, oddly disconnected moment of disorientation. What horrified him more than being hit, however, was the fact that his left hand had somehow come to rest on Juliet’s breast. His last thought before the world shut down around him was that neither she nor Adam would ever forgive him that.

__________
My dear, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. ~ Major Sullivan Ballou, in a letter to his wife (1861)

*****

Chapter 8

Out, Out Brief Candle

Ben smoothed the blanket covering his youngest son’s body for the umpteenth time. As much as he wished otherwise, there was nothing more he could do. Nothing.

He had been a father for…how long? Thirty three years now, and this was the worst part of it: the times when you just had to sit and wait, sit and watch, sit and do absolutely nothing.

He smoothed the blanket again, pulled it higher on Joe’s chest. Maybe the blanket gave some comfort—or maybe not. He pulled it back down. Joe looked hot, which—according to the doctor and his own far too considerable experience in dealing with serious injuries—was to be expected. Even though the bullet had miraculously missed any vital organs, it had done devastating damage on its way through Joe’s body. The immense blood loss had made him cold with shock at first and then started a fever that rose slowly and steadily as the day went on.

He took the wet cloth from Joe’s forehead, soaked it in the basin on the nightstand, drained it carefully and placed it back. Well, there was something he could do, after all. As little as it was, as useless as it seemed, given the heat that radiated from his sick boy. He was rewarded with a low moan and an oh-so-small movement that pressed Joe’s face just so into his father’s touch. Ben allowed his hand to linger on the wet cloth for a moment, then let it slide down along Joe’s burning cheek.

“Shh,” he cooed. “It’s going to be all right. You are going to be all right.”

There was no further reaction, but for once Ben was resigned to it. Joe needed to rest, the doctor had said, needed to build up strength—and blood. Strength first, by sleeping, then blood, by…Ben had forgotten. Beef broth, most probably, or any other fluids, as usual.

Gingerly, he removed his hand from Joe’s face—let the boy sleep—and straightened his back. A sudden moment of vertigo took him by surprise, a feeling of nausea and complete weakness. Cradling his head in his hands, deliberately breathing in and out, it took him some time to get his body back under control. He needed to eat something. It was well into the afternoon, and he hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast.

Breakfast. What an unpleasant affair that had been, with Joe and Hoss being so awkwardly silent and Juliet sporting a nearly violently restrained expression—and yet, in retrospect, he would gladly relive it again and again rather than go through the subsequent events one more time.

He leaned back into his chair taking a deep breath, just as he’d done when after breakfast he’d sat down at his desk. He’d found it difficult to concentrate on the contract lying before him. Hoss had felt the tension, too, had lingered in the great room, fiddling with his hat on the credenza first, then with the cushions on the settee, with a blanket on Adam’s blue chair, and finally with the lace on Henry’s Moses basket.

“She didn’t mean no harm, Pa,” he’d eventually started, but Ben had waved him off.

He knew that Juliet hadn’t meant to hurt him. She had just gone with the old proverb of offence being the best defence, and, in her impulsive way, had lashed out. Ben couldn’t help but chuckle. At times, his daughter-in-law displayed an astonishing resemblance to Joe, even though he was sure she would deny that with all her might.

It had hit him for the first time when Juliet had tried to placate him after Joe’d confessed she had to bail him out of jail. He’d sensed something was wrong even before he’d seen Joe’s injured hand when they’d come home from Virginia City. The way Joe’s head had hung, the way Juliet’s shoulders had been rigid beyond her usual upright carriage.

Joe had told his tale in a low voice, barely delivering more than the crucial facts. Ben had been livid: Joe should know better than starting bar brawls, and he had told his youngest that in unmistakable terms. Juliet had stood back, watching, listening; and only after Joe had retired, she’d spoken to Ben.

“Sometimes,” she’d said, and the unguarded misery in her eyes had told him she was not speaking solely about Joe, “sometimes your body does things your mind does not approve of. Sometimes you have no control…no resistance to…your emotions. Joe didn’t think. He just…felt, and did. He did wrong, there’s no mistaking, but he didn’t do it…willingly.”

“You’re not trying to tell me he’s not responsible for his actions, are you?”

“No, of course not. He is responsible, and he should have restrained himself, but…we all are human, Ben. And pain…hurt…makes you weak and more likely to lose control.”

There had been something in her eyes…and, oh, he had learnt to read her eyes, had learnt to catch the moment she let her shields down. Had learnt that the night they’d kept vigil over an injured Adam after his duel with Langford Poole, when he’d seen that endless love in her eyes—and the vulnerability that came with it.

This time, it was something akin to panic: fear mixed with hurt, and it had begged to come out.

“Is that what happened to you in San Francisco?” he had ventured, fully aware that Juliet most likely would stall again.

But she’d graced him with her trust. “I…I didn’t intend to—I would never do that, Ben. I’m not a coward; I wouldn’t steal myself away like that. I didn’t want to hurt myself. I wanted to…destroy, yes, destroy. I didn’t think, I just gave in to…misery…pain? I don’t know. I couldn’t stand seeing me alone in that mirror, and my hands…they just…” She’d looked down, slowly removed her white gloves, exposing her wrists, her lower arms. She’d traced the red scars with her fingers, nearly caressingly, then, suddenly, folded her arms over her chest. “I was in a frenzy, realising what I was doing only when it was too late already. There was blood and pain…and then I woke up in bed. Apparently Henry’s cries had alerted the chamber maid.”

It hadn’t been the first time he felt the desire just to take her in his arms, but the first time he’d given in to that urge. She’d surprised him by letting it happen, by burying her face in his shoulder. She hadn’t cried, not that he’d expected that from her anyway, but she’d done something far more haunting: she’d whispered, “He doesn’t even know what he’s doing to us. Why?” and then, even more subdued, “What have I done?”

Joe had been more explicit, later that night, when he’d finally come to Ben and spoken his mind. “Why doesn’t he care about us?” he’d said and then given Adam some less than flattering names. But all in all, it hadn’t differed too much from what Ben had heard from Juliet.

A soft sigh asked for Ben’s attention. He bent forward, and hovering over his sleeping boy tried to read some kind of growing awareness in his still face.

“Joe?”

“Let the boy rest, Ben,” he was startled by Paul Martin’s voice. “I told you he would sleep for a while. Better let him wake on his own account. He needs to rest.”

“To build up strength, I know. I just thought…” Ben turned around to face the doctor who’d entered the room unnoticed. He was met with a mug of coffee and a cheery smile.

“He’s going to be all right. It could have been much worse, but Joe’s a very lucky boy.” The doctor forced Ben’s hand around the mug. “Drink this, and then eat something.”

“I—”

“No, Ben, I mean it. We both know that you won’t sleep tonight, so have at least the sense to eat. Or soon you won’t be able to supervise your son’s each and every breath.” Paul patted his shoulder. “Relax, Ben. Keep Joe quiet, give him as much liquids as you can once he’s awake, and watch out for any signs of infection—that’s the one threat we have to be wary of.”

“He’s already running a fever.”

Paul checked Joe’s temperature with the back of his hand. “No, that’s just the aftermath of the shock and the advancing evening. If the fever isn’t down in the morning, then we can start being concerned, but we’ll cross that bridge only if we’ll get there.” He stretched his back, then clapped his hands decisively. “Well, I’ll better be on the go before it gets dark. No need to see me out, Ben, I know the way.”

The doctor was already out of the room, when he turned back and added, “Juliet should be all right in no time, too—in case you’ve wondered.”

He was gone before Ben could respond. Well, it might be better that way, since he didn’t even know whether to be outraged about Paul’s implied reprimand or ashamed for his tunnel view that had focused his attention solely on Joe.

Well, his focus had been slightly off from the moment he and Hoss had heard the shot. No, he hadn’t been able to concentrate even before that. He couldn’t focus on breakfast, he couldn’t focus on his desk work, couldn’t focus on Hoss’s attempt at consoling him. And then, while he’d still struggled to explain to Hoss—and himself—why he was hurt, yet not hurt by Juliet’s outburst, a shot and Juliet’s choked-off cry of terror and pain had brought them to their feet.

Ben would never comprehend why the first thing his eyes fell upon coming through the front door was Billy-Bob Colston, who stood next to the hitching rail, his face ghostly white, unspeakable horror in his bloodshot drinker’s eyes, his arms hanging limply at his side. Then the revolver that dangled in his slack hand slipped down and hit the ground with a soft thud. Billy-Bob flinched and stammered, “I ain’t…Lord, I didn’t meant ta…I didn’t…”, and his vaguely waving hand at last drew Ben’s attention to the messy heap at his feet.

They lay where Joe apparently had tackled Juliet, he atop her, both of them deadly still. There was blood, huge amounts of blood, more of it still pulsing out of a small hole in Joe’s lower side. It soaked his shirt, ran down his side in thick rivulets viciously glistening in the morning sun, formed large scarlet pools on Juliet’s light blue summer dress, flowed onto the ground below them, where it was received by the dry earth.

Hoss was busy carefully disentangling Joe from Juliet, mindful of his injury turning him over and to the side, thereby revealing the actual source of blood on Juliet’s dress: a much larger exit wound on his front.

“The doctor—get the doctor!” Ben bellowed to no one in particular, knowing that one of the ranch hands, who had hurried to the house from the nearby corral would be on his way to town in no time. They had brought down Billy-Bob already, but Ben didn’t really care. Questions, accusations, reparations, all that could wait. For now the only important thing was Joe.

Hoss had him in his arms then—and Ben was torn. He should see to his daughter-in-law. Make sure she was all right. But there was Joe and he was pale and shaking, and Lord, there was so much blood and his son, his son needed him…needed him

“Give him to me,” he croaked, and Hoss obeyed.

As he’d carried his precious load up the stairs and into Joe’s bedroom, Ben had fleetingly thought that Juliet would be more comfortable with Hoss anyway.

He sighed. Yes, she most certainly had been more comfortable with Hoss, but still, he had the feeling he’d failed her. Would he have acted differently if they hadn’t had that silly argument earlier?

No, he wouldn’t. Joe had needed his help more.

But did he know that then?

Ben buried his head in his hands and rubbed his eyes with his palms.

It was completely useless to think about it any longer.

“Ben?”

Well, speak of the devil.

“I’m bringing stew.” Juliet stood in the doorframe with a tray of food, hesitant and shyly smiling, as if she were afraid to come in.

“I’m not hungry.”

“Liar.” She snorted, then her smile widened into something genuine and she stepped into the room and set the tray on Joe’s desk. “You must be starving.”

It was interesting to see how much easier Juliet could deal with defiance than with well-meant advice. But then again, how many people did he know who took well-meant advice gratefully? Especially when it was delivered unsolicited? Had he himself taken it gracefully when people offered unasked advice? Not always, no. Not when people had thought they knew better than he how to deal with his sons…oh, well. Apparently this was a problem older than the mountains. Of course, Juliet’s attack still wasn’t what Ben would have called a respectful correction, but his daughter-in-law wasn’t the most diplomatic person to begin with, and she surely wasn’t at her very best right now, with Adam gone, and Henry’s stressful nocturnal routine and her obvious indisposition.

“Here.” She handed him a plate. “Eat it, while it’s hot.”

The stew smelled delicious, and Ben belied his earlier words by digging into it with hearty appetite. He was already halfway through when he interrupted his meal to take a good look at Juliet.

She had changed her soiled dress, had cleaned herself up and apparently even done something with her hair. But her hands were shaking slightly, and her face was white, the sickly pallor more pronounced than in the morning. She looked decidedly unwell.

“Shouldn’t you rest?” Ben asked belatedly.

“I’m fine.”

Of course she was. She always was. Swaying on her feet she was, but she was fine.

“Sit.”

He must have taken her off-guard, or maybe she actually felt as faint as she looked; whatever the reason, she sat down on the edge of Joe’s bed—a tad too carefully for Ben’s liking.

“Were you injured?” he inquired.

“I—Why, I…”

“Were you?”

“Not really.” She pressed her lips together and looked…embarrassed.

“What does that mean: not really?” He reached for her hand. “What happened?”

“Nothing. I’m fine.”

“You don’t look fine.”

“Oh, thank you.”

Juliet.”

She sighed. “The bullet that went through Joe somehow grazed my side. It’s nothing, really, just a scratch. It didn’t even need to be stitched. The…” She looked down and continued in a very small voice. “The whale bone must have deflected it.” She stared at her hands.

“The whale…? Oh. I see.” Ben hemmed. His daughter-in-law had been rescued by her corset. No wonder she didn’t want to talk about it.

And then the strain of the past hours, the pent-up tension erupted in laughter. It started slowly, with a silent chuckle low down in Ben’s stomach that worked its way through his body and up his throat until it came out of his mouth in an undignified snort that morphed into a fully grown belly laugh when Juliet looked up, scandalised, and then her indignant face dissolved into a display of pure mirth and she laughed with him.

Through the following days, when Joe was writhing with fever and pain, and the demons his mind tricked him to believe were real denied his body its desperately needed rest, and—again—Ben was restricted to do nothing, the memory of that shared laughter was the one thing that grounded Ben when he was tempted to give in to despair. The memory of a familiarity that would still need years to become something natural but perhaps had to be treasured even more just because of that, and—Henry.

Hoss and Juliet tried to relieve him from his vigil at Joe’s side every now and then, not always successfully. Sometimes Juliet confined her efforts to just setting the baby on his grandfather’s lap, and then Henry stretched his arms out to Ben trying to grab his nose or ears or just any part of his face, and that was nearly as refreshing as some hours of undisturbed sleep.

Henry, who was the spitting image of his father at that age, who showed even the same facial expressions as Adam—he also reminded Ben of Joe. He was sure Adam must have had some of Henry’s eagerness to touch people, to take a hold of fingers, noses, hair, and to put everything into his mouth that couldn’t be removed quickly enough; but he couldn’t remember a single instance, and it seemed so much more like Joe anyway.

He wasn’t sure if Joe felt that way, too. He only knew that his youngest was a natural when it came to fooling around with the baby, and that Joe never seemed to tire of making funny faces or entertaining noises for his nephew. He loved to watch him and Henry, just as he’d loved to watch Adam and Joe when Joe had been a baby. And as he had loved to watch Adam and Henry.

The Lord’s ways… In his weaker moments, Ben had feared he might never see Adam cuddling with Henry again. Never would it have occurred to him that Joe could be the one in danger. Goodness, Adam was the one jeopardising his life in war; Joe was supposed to be safe at home.

Safe. Safe from what? The war? The war had finally reached the Ponderosa, maybe long before Billy-Bob had come to take revenge for Joe’s violent reaction to the man’s unwise taunts. And now Joe could easily become the first casualty of war the family would have to mourn.

No. Not his son, not Joe. Not…not Joe. Ben squeezed Joe’s clammy hand between his, as if that was a way to transfer his own will into Joe’s weakening body. “You will be all right, Son. Fight, Joe, fight.”

“Fight, Joe, fight.”

Joe was floating. To him it seemed as if he’d been floating forever, as if his whole life he’d never done anything but float in that dark, haunted nowhere. At times he’d come closer to the surface, at times sunken even deeper into the abysmal nothingness. And then there were times when the nothingness was populated with figures that were vaguely familiar and with complete strangers, with animals and monsters, with places of which he seemed to have recollections and places he was sure existed only here, with sounds and shrieks, with feelings of pain and fear, of rage and anxiety.

Sometimes, when he’d been close to above, he’d heard voices he thought had a meaning to him, but every time he’d tried to reach out, to actually get in contact with what was outside of his confinement, something had pulled him back, some pain or fatigue—or a face he knew he would see nowhere else.

At first he’d been tired, cold and tired, and everything around him had been silent and peaceful. Then he’d felt he was burning, and there’d been commotion, and agitated voices. A warm, calming presence, soft hands—hands?—on his face, ”Shh, calm down, son” and then pain, searing pain in his side; his whole side had been on fire—no his whole body.

More voices, more hands. They had moved him. Didn’t they know they hurt him? They didn’t seem to care, they moved him and—pain, hot, hot pain—and tried to choke him with something startling cold in is mouth. And pain, pain, pain! Joe had then given in to the pull, to the voices that asked him to come down.

Down below, there was peace and war, all in one, or one after another, or nothing at all. It was confusing, terrifying—but better than being above and in pain. The voices outside had become low and insignificant, and Joe stopped listening at all and let himself slip down deeper and deeper.

The further he went, the better he felt. The pain vanished completely, as did the confusion; in the end, there was only a feeling of complete peace, and that grounded him, kept him there.

Oh, and Adam, of course.

He’d seen Adam several times already, far away, a blurred image somehow awash in red. He’d never really made it to him, had always been held back from going further by a voice from outside, by a person from closer to the surface or by his own fear. But now he was past fear; he moved on, steadily coming closer, making his way through the thick nothing until he was only an arm’s length from his older brother.

Adam wore an army coat that didn’t really fit him and concealed his whole body. His face was gaunt, his expression haunted; his hands seemed to tremble. To Joe’s utmost disappointment, he did not smile.

“Adam!” Joe cried, and he threw himself into his brother’s arms—only to hit empty air.

Adam stood three steps back from where he’d been a moment before, holding his hands up, palms out, in a defending gesture. “Don’t,” he said, “don’t touch me.”

Joe choked back a sob. He longed to hug him, but something in Adam’s face held him still.

“What are you doing here, Joe?” Adam’s voice sounded more tired than anything else. “You don’t belong here. Go back.”

“But I don’t want to go back. I want to be with you.”

Adam laughed humourlessly. “Believe me, you don’t want to be where I am right now.”

“Where…are you then?”

“I am where you’re not supposed to be.”

“But—”

“No. No but. You can’t be here, Joe. You have to go back, and quickly.” Adam made a small movement as if he wanted to touch Joe after all, but flinched back. “Pa…he needs you. Go back, Joe; be there for Pa.”

“Fight, Joe, fight.”

Joe looked around.

“Listen to Pa, Joe.”

“Fight, Joe, fight.”

“Adam…”

“Listen to Pa. He’ll guide you back.”

Adam’s figure blurred at the outline, became translucent; and when Joe reached out to him once again, he dissolved into the blackness.

Joe blinked, his eyes trying to penetrate the dark mist—and then there was Pa’s face above his. Tired, exhausted, smiling. Pa.

“Welcome to the land of the living, son,” he said.

Naturally, after that there was another frenzy. Joe was helped to have a drink, then Hoss and Juliet were summoned; little Henry in his mother’s arm made a fuss and didn’t take it very well that he wasn’t allowed in Joe’s bed, Hop Sing appeared with some broth, then the doctor came and with him some pain as he checked Joe’s wounds before he declared him out of danger. All the time, Pa sat in the rocker next to Joe’s bed, touching him whenever he could, making him drink water and herbal teas Hop Sing brewed for him, and saying very little, as if he didn’t trust his voice.

But words, Joe found, weren’t necessary at all. Pa was there, he wouldn’t allow nightmarish things to happen, and he most certainly wouldn’t dissolve into nothing. And that was enough.

Pa stayed with him through the next night, wiped his brow when the fever spiked again, held him when the darkness tried to lure Joe back, and Joe wondered if it really was Pa who needed him or rather he who needed Pa.

In the morning, Juliet brought a tray with something that looked like oats in milk and a cup of tea. She put it on the bedside table, then gave Pa a look. “Your breakfast is downstairs,” she said with royal air. “Hoss is already waiting for you.”

Pa opened his mouth, but Juliet lifted an eyebrow. “Please,” she then said, much softer.

After Pa had checked Joe for fever and eventually left the room, Juliet handed Joe the bowl and a spoon, and took seat on the abandoned rocker.

“Can you manage?” she asked.

“Just dandy.” Joe tasted a spoonful. “Oats. Couldn’t Hop Sing find anything that’s not horse fodder?”

Juliet looked unimpressed. “Miss Nightingale advises it for ill people. It’s easy to stomach and still nourishing.”

“Miss Nightingale.” Joe lowered the bowl. “You haven’t met Florence Nightingale, have you?”

She tsked. “I read her book. It’s a recognised treatise about nursing. Paul had recommended it to me.”

“She’s English, isn’t she?”

“Yes.”

“From where in England?”

Juliet leaned back and crossed her arms. She gave Joe an eyebrow and an amused smile. “Don’t start a hare, Joe.”

“What?”

“Don’t try to distract me. Eat your oats.”

“It was worth the try,” Joe grinned, then resigned himself to eat.

Juliet watched him intently for a while, then said without preamble, “Is it a special Cartwright trait to put other’s lives above your own?”

Joe stared at her.

She stared back.

“I couldn’t let him shoot you, could I?” he finally blurted.

“But…you could have died.”

Joe grinned impishly. “Well, I didn’t plan to.”

Juliet gaped at him as if she’d seen a ghost, then leaned her head on her hand. “Now you even talk like Adam.”

He chuckled. “Not the worst thing one could say to me. But honestly, I wasn’t…trying to sacrifice myself. I tried to get both you and me out of the line of fire.”

“Well, it seems that you weren’t too successful with that, were you?” Teasing. Two months before he would have taken it as an insult, now he had learnt it better.

“One can only try…”

“You shouldn’t have—”

“I should have. I have. And I would do it again, anytime.”

She looked at him, thinking, smiling. She nodded. “Yes. Thank you, Joe, for…that. I—” She looked down.

“…would do anything in your power to protect me, too, right, sister?”

Her head shot up, she stared at him, surprised. “Yes,” she then said in a small voice. “That I would. Brother.”

There was an uncomfortable pause, not really awkward, just…slightly uncomfortable.

Juliet reached blindly toward the desk behind her, until she got hold of a small booklet. “Shall I read you something?” she asked, opening it. “Beadle’s Dime Novels…The Trail Hunters or Monovano, the Shawnee Spy. This does sound quite…nice.”

She sounded slightly sick, but that wasn’t anything unusual lately; and Joe really, really wanted to hear her reading it. She was a good narrator, and anything would be better than continuing their earlier conversation anyway. Juliet seemed to think along the same lines, for she started to read at the slightest nod of Joe’s head—somewhere in the middle of the book, but Joe didn’t mind: miraculously she’d chanced on one of the most suspenseful parts.

Ducking his head downward, like a crouching animal, and trailing his rifle, he started upon a half-trot, and a half-walk. He had a keen eye, and followed the trail readily. He was very careful not to disturb it, but to keep to one side. The last wish of Jenkins was to encounter the Indian who, he believed, was thus leading him on. His long companionship with Dingle had given him much skill in tracking a foe; and he felt confident that his ignorance would not bring him into a collision. From the evidence of the different signs, he was satisfied that he was an hour or so only in the rear.

“The pursuit was maintained with the persistency of the blood-hound, and soon resulted in another most important discovery—”

“Juliet.” It was Hoss who interrupted her reading. He lingered in the door, gulping nervously, giving Joe the shortest glance, kneading his hands. He looked afraid. “There’s a soldier downstairs,” he said. “He wants to talk to ya.”

___________
It is such a secret place, the land of tears.
~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery

*****

Chapter 9

Promises Tried

His name was Captain Hansen, and he’d been sent to the Ponderosa to speak to Mrs. Cartwright; that was all they’d been able to pry out of the soldier.

Ben had sent Hoss upstairs, and then time stood awkwardly still while they waited for him to return with Juliet. Sweaty and dusty, Hansen’s clothes told the story of days spent in the saddle and nights under the open sky on his “velvet couch” of a bedroll. His unshaved face screamed for soap and water, his tired eyes asked for a place to rest his bones, and his dry lips seemed to beg for coffee—or something stronger. And yet the man had refused Ben’s kind offers to sit down, to accept nourishment, to refresh himself. He remained standing tall and upright, nearly at attention, his jaw set, his face unmoving, his look straight forward, fixed on the stairs.

In a way, his posture reminded Ben of Juliet—Juliet when she was hiding behind that wall of impeccable manners, Juliet when she was afraid, Juliet when she was stalling. A rather uncomfortable similarity.

Then Juliet descended the stairs behind Hoss. Her face was a mask of composed politeness and mild interest, her posture graceful and sure, only a halting step now and then betrayed a sliver of discomfort. At the foot of the steps she enacted the Lady of the House with inbred ease: a short smile for their visitor, then a slight turn of her head to Ben and a lifted eyebrow in request of an introduction.

Ben was about to oblige, but Hansen beat him to it. “Ma’am,” he said saluting. “I’m Captain Hansen. I’m here by order of Major General Schurz.”

“You’ve come from Gettysburg?” She sounded surprised, curious, pleased.

“No, ma’am, I’m…well, I’m not authorised to tell you where I’ve been. I’m with the War Department. Secret mission, you understand?”

Juliet took two steps forward and came to a halt behind the blue chair. She laid her hands on the backrest and drummed her fingers once.

“Actually,” she said, and her eyebrow rose. “I do not understand. Surely Mist—General Schurz hasn’t sent you here to tell us you’re on a secret mission about which you cannot talk.”

“Of course not.” The captain shook his head for emphasis, but he didn’t seem annoyed. “General Schurz sent me because he knew I’d pass near the Ponderosa in the course of my duties. I was his secretary before the war, and he trusted me to deliver…a message.”

“A message, from General Schurz?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“But you did not come directly from the General?”

For the first time, the soldier averted his gaze from Juliet’s eyes. “No. Major General Schurz sent me a telegram.”

“But…” She frowned. “I’m afraid, Captain, I don’t quite see why General Schurz wouldn’t have sent a telegram to me rather than you if he wanted to tell—”

She choked on the last word, blinked a few times in quick succession, then, pressing her lips together, stared at the soldier. For a short moment, Ben saw pure and unshielded panic in her eyes, a flicker of hope, then dread, and then her armour was back up, and she had herself under control again. She straightened her shoulders, raised her chin, braced herself.

“If he wanted to tell me what?

The captain shuffled his feet and looked uncomfortable. “Maybe you better take a seat, ma’am.”

Ben felt a shiver running down his spine.

Juliet’s voice was imperious. She was scared, too. Shielding herself. “I’m very comfortable where I am, Captain.”

“Yes, well, General Schurz didn’t want you to get the news from the official announcements…” Hansen looked down at his feet. He grimaced, bit his lips, twisted his mouth, hunched his shoulders: there was nothing left of the military confidence he’d shown earlier. He took a deep breath before looking up again into Juliet’s face. “Ma’am, it is to my deepest sorrow that I must inform you about your husband’s demise.”

Demise. Through the whooshing of blood in his ears, the rest of the captain’s speech made it into Ben’s numbing down brain only as fragments. “Second day of battle… mortally wounded…field hospital…gangrene …never regained consciousness…”

His vision blurred.

Mortally wounded.

Adam.

His son, his child, his Adam—dead. Fallen.

Mortally wounded.

Then he willed away the blackness, and the rushing in his ears, until he was able to hear the complete silence that had fallen. He saw the room again, too; the same old room with the same old fireplace, the same old rug before it, the same old settee, the same old clock beside the door. Everything looked the same. But how did it dare to look the same, when everything was different now, when everything was without Adam now? Everything—and everyone.

He gazed at Hoss, took in his big strong son’s forlorn face, felt despair radiating from his unmoving form; and then forced himself to look at his daughter-in-law.

Juliet still stood behind the blue chair, Adam’s chair, her long pale fingers still on the backrest. Ben saw how her grip had tightened, how her knuckles had turned white, how her perfectly manicured fingernails dug into the faded material. Her face did not betray any emotion.

“Did you hear what I said, ma’am?” Captain Hansen asked carefully.

“I did.” She gave him a small smile. “It was very considerate of General Schurz to send you, Captain, instead of a message. Please give him my thanks.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She nodded, absentmindedly. Ben saw her eyes roaming the room, then her gaze falling on her hands. She released her grip on the backrest immediately and clasped them together. It looked as if she wanted to break her own fingers.

“What was the nature of my husband’s wounds, Captain?”

“I am sorry, ma’am, the telegram didn’t say it.”

“Did he suffer a lot?”

“I…don’t think so, knowing he wasn’t conscious.”

“Who was with him when he died?”

“I don’t know, ma’am.”

“Where was he buried?”

“In the Gettysburg cemetery, I believe.”

“Is there a marker?”

“I don’t—”

“What—”

“Now that’s quite enough, I think.” Ben stepped between Captain Hansen and Juliet. As much as he thought her questions were reasonable, as much as he wanted them answered himself, he also knew this had to wait for another time, and he didn’t like the detached and rapid delivery of her interrogation

Juliet stared at him, and for the first time he discerned some emotion in her face: she was furious.

“I demand—” she started, but Ben interrupted her again.

“Not now. The captain has told us everything he knows, I believe.”

Her face went blank again. Then the faint smile reappeared. “Oh, yes, certainly. I do apologise.”

“There’s no need for that, ma’am,” Hansen said. “I understand.”

That Hansen really understood her, Ben doubted. It had taken him the better part of two years to figure her out, and he was sure he had only scratched the tip of the iceberg.

The captain took his leave soon afterwards, once again politely declining any food or refreshments, or a bed for the night. In fact, he seemed eager to get away from the tense atmosphere—or perhaps he was just considerate enough to allow the family their privacy.

Ben saw the captain out, and remained on the front porch for some time after Hansen had ridden away, watching a large cloud as it moved slowly over the sky. Oh, Elizabeth, he’s with you now. Tell him… No, not…not now. He couldn’t…couldn’t…just couldn’t. There were no words right now. Not a single one.

He didn’t want to talk, he didn’t want to think, he didn’t want to…he didn’t want to go back into the great room, he didn’t want to deal with her right now. Not with her stony face, not with her clipped words, not with her impeccable politeness, not with her stiff upper lip.

Not with her grief.

Especially not with her grief. He was barely able to cope with his own, and then there was the rest of the family, and they all needed him, they all relied on him when he only wanted to close his eyes and scream his wordless terror out into the world.

No, he didn’t want to deal with Juliet now. He knew how it was to lose a spouse, oh, he knew about that. He knew how it hurt, he knew how it tore you apart, he knew how it left you numb and empty and void of…emotion. He shook his head. But all that was nothing, none, naught, nil…it was nothing at all compared to the hurt of losing a child. His son…

He felt the scream working its way from the bottom of his stomach up to his throat. He bit his lips, knowing once he’d let the roar out there wouldn’t be an end to the all-consuming despair. He swallowed. Choked down the desperation; tears, cries, accusations, curses, sobs—all in one big gulp.

It seemed dealing with her would be easier than dealing with himself after all.

He found Juliet still standing behind the fortress of the blue chair, smiling faintly and looking at a point somewhere about four inches before her face. Hoss had moved to the fireplace. His back faced the room, and Ben saw his shoulders twitching while he beat his tightly clenched hand on his thigh.

Ben was torn about which of them needed him most. But the decision was taken from him when he made a step towards Juliet and reached out for her. Her eyes suddenly focused on him, her smile vanished, and she looked around in the room as if she just had been woken up from a bad dream. She lifted her chin imperiously, a gesture so familiar and yet so unsuitable and wrong, and heaved a deep breath.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” she announced formally. “I think I’ll retire.” She gave them a curt nod, then turned and stalked through the room and up the stairs, her posture straight, upright, and only a little bit stiffer than usual.

Ben watched her pivot at the middle landing, not once turning her head to look back. He heard her steps, steady, even, firm; heard her open the door to her and Adam’s room, her room now, more steps, and then the closing of the door: silent, deliberate, soft.

He wanted to follow her, but then there was Hoss’s hand on his arm.

“I’ll go,” he said hoarsely. His face was determined, and nearly as composed as Juliet’s. Never had he looked so much like his older brother—suddenly the resemblance was striking.

“Are you sure?”

Hoss nodded. “Besides, someone has to tell Joe.”

Joe. Good Lord, he’d forgotten…

They went upstairs side by side, and Ben took as much support from Hoss’s presence as he hoped he gave his now oldest son. At Joe’s bedroom door they parted; Hoss headed for the room at the end of the corridor, and Ben, taking a deep breath, stepped into his youngest’s room.

From the state his bed was in, Ben could tell Joe had tried and failed to get up. Several times, if Joe’s flushed face and sweat-drenched nightshirt were an indication.

“Pa?”

Ben swallowed. How am I supposed to tell him…Lord, help me. He sat down on Joe’s bed, struggling. There still were no words—would there ever be any?

Joe reached a shaking hand out. “Adam?” Less than a whisper, pleading.

All Ben could do was shake his head, and then open his arms and take Joe in as he threw himself at his father’s chest; hold him, tight and secure, and not let go, not ever, never let go.

And every fibre of him wished he could have done the same to Adam.

At the other end of the corridor, Hoss still was standing in front of the closed door, breathing heavily in and out, in and out. Finally, he took heart and softly knocked at the door.

No reaction. Well, he hadn’t really expected one. But it wouldn’t stop him. He knocked again. Just a tad louder.

“No.” Her voice sounded clear and strong, even through the door. She meant it.

“Juliet, it’s me. Hoss.”

“Go away.”

He bit his lip. He could just walk away. He could. But he wouldn’t. Couldn’t, actually. No pretence: she needed him, he needed her. And so he took another deep breath and just opened the door and invaded her domain.

She was standing at the window, looking out while her hand was slowly rocking Henry’s cradle. When she turned round, her face was still the same polite mask as before, her eyes still dry.

“I do believe I asked you to leave me alone.” Her voice was void of impatience, of outrage, of indignation. She was merely stating a fact.

“We hafta talk.”

“Talk? About what? There’s nothing to talk about.” Again, there was not a trace of anger, despite the harshness of her words.

“Juliet, you can’t—”

“He is dead,” she said. “Dead.”

Hoss made a small choking noise.

“He promised to try and come home. He promised, and I trusted him. And now he’s dead.”

She looked down, stood completely still, her eyes fixed on the floor. Even her breathing became so slow and shallow that for a moment Hoss thought she was dead, too.

He closed the distance between them, and then, on sudden impulse, pulled her into an embrace. He held her to his chest, squeezed her nearly uncomfortably hard. Juliet didn’t resist him, but she was stiff in his arms, tight and constricted. He softly caressed her back, trying to pull her closer, to break into her solitude—but to no avail: she didn’t respond, she remained rigid and distant.

It hurt. It hurt him, and he was sure it hurt her, too. She was far away, in a place he couldn’t reach her, in a place she didn’t want to be reached. But he couldn’t allow her that. Not now, when he needed her so much, and she needed something, someone…him.

Hoss slowly stroked up her back until his hand came to rest at the back of her head. With soft force and against her resistance, he pulled her head closer to his shoulder, heaved a deep shuddering breath, and then whispered softly, “Mylady?”

He felt her sobs more than heard them. She clung to him like a child, her face buried into his shoulder, her whole body finally pressed to his, boneless and heavy. And he held her tight, tighter than he ever had held a woman, ever dared to hold anyone, anchoring her and connecting her grief and his, and then he let go and wept, letting his tears flow as freely as she let hers.

They stayed together until late that night, talking very little, just sitting closely taking comfort from each other’s presence. He left her when Henry demanded to be nursed, and went to bed knowing she would be all right.

It turned out he’d been wrong.

For the first time in weeks, he wasn’t woken up earlier than intended by baby-cries the next morning. Instead, he was roused by his father, urgently shaking his shoulders and practically shouting at him, “She’s gone!”

Yes, she was gone. She was gone, Henry was gone, some of their clothes were gone and—as a quick survey of the barn revealed—a buggy and a horse were gone, too.

There was no note that could have placated their racing thoughts. There was no hint as to where she could be heading. There was no person they could think of Juliet would turn to.

“Widow Hawkins,” Joe finally ventured a guess when they conferred in his room after their frantic, unsuccessful search for any clues Juliet might have left. “We all know how much she likes her.”

Pa shook his head. “No, she wouldn’t have taken clothes with her.”

And she wouldn’t have left the house without letting anyone know, Hoss thought. But then, maybe she’d just forgotten that because she’d been in a hurry, or because she’d been too determined to get to wherever she wanted to go.

Determined to get to…wherever…. Hoss groaned. Oh Lord, now we got a real hair in the butter!

“I know where she’s going.”

Joe made an incredulous face. “Oh, really? No one knows what’s going on in that woman. She’s plain cra—”

“You hobble your lip, Joe.” Hoss’s voice was like a whip cord. The words were his, but the tone was sheer Adam.

Joe looked up, surprised first, then guilty. “Sorry,” he muttered.

“Enough, you two.” Pa’s scolding was mild, frighteningly mild. And for the first time since the blow Hoss studied him closely: he had aged overnight, the lines in his face deeper than ever, a weary tiredness edged into his features.

“You said you knew where Juliet might be?” Even Pa’s voice sounded older than before.

Hoss nodded. “You heard her, Pa. She wants to know, she… She’s gonna go to where she gets the answers.”

“Gettysburg.” A painful whisper, admitting resigned agreement.

Joe made a noise but, after a sharp glance from Hoss, kept his mouth shut. He was pulling a kite, though, but Hoss decided to let the snide grimace pass.

“Hoss, you have to prevent that,” Pa said. “Go after her, and get her back. She can’t—”

“Pa, you know there ain’t no one keeping her from doing what she wants.”

“Oh, but I can.” Pa stood. “I’m going to the First International and freeze Adam’s assets. She won’t have the money to travel.”

Hoss stared at him. “You can’t do that. It’s hers now.”

“Only a small part of it. The most of it goes to—”

“Pa,” Hoss interrupted. “Stop barkin’ at a knot. You ain’t wanta do that anyway, do ya?”

There was no answer, just a slumping in Pa’s stance.

“Try as you might, Pa, you can’t stop her if Juliet has put her mind to something.” Hoss got up, put his hands on his father’s shoulders and gently pushed him back down onto his chair. “You jest stay here with Joe. I’ll go after Juliet.”

“And you think you can stop her?”

“No. But I can look after her. Keep her safe.”

“Do that. Do…whatever you must. Just make her understand this is still her home. Bring her back.”

Hoss nodded. “Yessir. I promise.”

Yessir. I promise. Hoss chewed on his words as he raced his horse to catch up with the stage coach Juliet had taken earlier that morning; the coach heading to Salt Lake City from where the trains went east.

He had no idea how she would receive him, he had no idea what would be waiting for him on the way east; and, most important of all, he had no idea how to keep his promise, how to make her understand that Adam wasn’t the only thing that had made her a Cartwright.

___________
So dear I love him, that with him all deaths I could endure, without him live no life.
~ John Milton, Paradise Lost

*****

The next story in the series, What Do You Tell Your Children?, should best be read at this point. It’s short, so you might want to jump there and read it before you go to the next chapter of “Oh Brother”.

*****

Chapter 10

Sky Blue

 

“Simple Simon met a pieman
Going to the fair;
Said Simple Simon to the pieman,
‘Let me taste your ware.’

“Said the pieman to Simple Simon,
‘Show me first your penny.’
Said Simple Simon to the pieman,
‘Indeed I have not any.’”

Saying the word “any,” Juliet tickled Henry’s belly and the boy, who’d anticipated this ever since his mother started reciting the nursery rhyme, answered with his usual delighted squeal. Hoss had been watching the repetition of this game for what felt like four thousand times over the past two weeks, but Henry did not cease to find it joyfully entertaining. He knew perfectly well at which point of the rhyme his mother’s wiggling finger would attack; sometimes he giggled even before she touched him. He was five and a half months old now, sat unsupported, and listened to his mother’s voice, gazing intently at her, his head cocked a little to one side, and his mouth ever-so slightly twisted into a half-smile, as if he was secretly amused about something only he saw or heard. He resembled Adam more and more every day.

Hoss buttered two slices of bread. When he offered one to Juliet, he wasn’t surprised when she declined with just a short shake of her head. Food and his sister-in-law didn’t go together well in the mornings lately, and at some time during their journey east, she had just stopped even trying to eat before midday. He wasn’t sure she’d eat at all if he didn’t push her to it. The long ride on the train hadn’t done her any good; she looked even more peaked than she had those last few days at home. For all that travelling by rail was far more comfortable than riding on a stage coach—with more space to sit, the chance to stand up and stretch your legs during the ride—there still was a lot of jiggling, and the constant noise of the engine and the rumbling of the wheels on the tracks.

Even though she’d first admonished him for following her—or “tracking her down” as she’d put it—Juliet’s annoyance at his insistence on accompanying her had soon been replaced by gratitude. Plagued by headaches, nausea, and sleep deprivation, and challenged by Henry whose waking hours had gotten longer each day and who demanded almost constant attention, she’d eventually broken down. She had not cried, not even after Hoss had pulled the blinds of their compartment to give her some privacy; but she had admitted she’d reached the end of her strength—and that she was with child again.

He hadn’t asked if she was sure. Her symptoms were familiar. It was incredibly close to Henry’s birth, but hadn’t Adam always told them to expect the unexpected with Juliet? Apparently that applied even to this.

“I don’t know how I am supposed to do this alone,” Juliet had said and stared out of the window at the landscape drifting by.

“But you are not alone. We’re with you. We…the family.”

She’d smiled. Sadly, Hoss had noted, and it had made him sad, too. “That’s not quite the same, isn’t it?”

“Of course not.” He’d searched for the right words, only there were no right words. Maybe Adam would have found something bracing for her, but Hoss was sure even his well-spoken brother would have struggled and failed to find what Juliet really needed. No, that wasn’t true. No one but Adam would be able to give her what she needed right now, because all she needed was Adam. “It’s better than nothing, though,” Hoss had finally said. “It’s better than being on your own.”

The look she’d given him then had nearly broken his heart. Gratitude, hope, forlornness, longing, and pain, all in her eyes, almost scary in its intensity.

“I’m not Adam, but—” he’d started, not quite sure where this would lead to but determined to heal the raw hurt she was radiating, to fix things like Adam would have fixed things, to make everything bearable for her—and himself, too.

Juliet had interrupted him by putting a finger on his lips—a more than unexpected gesture from his demure sister-in-law, strangely intimate, but of completely chaste tenderness. “You don’t have to be Adam,” she’d said. “You’re Hoss; and that’s…all you need to be.”

For the rest of their journey they’d talked about mundane things only, about what to do once they arrived at Gettysburg, about ordering food or coffee, about how to entertain Henry, about trains they’d need to catch and things they’d want to buy at their next stop. But something between them had changed: subtle little differences in the way they moved around each other, a new, easier and more open quality in their communication, and the mutual acceptance of each other’s proximity. Hoss didn’t hesitate anymore to take Juliet in his arms if he felt she needed that kind of support, and Juliet had more than once fallen asleep leaning against him with her head resting on his shoulder.

“He went to catch a dickey bird,
And thought he could not fail,
Because he’d got a little salt,
To put upon his tail.

“He went to take a bird’s nest,
T’was built upon a bough;
The branch gave way and Simon fell
Into a dirty slough.”

Juliet’s fingers made tiny steps up Henry’s arm, shoulder, neck and cheek to his nose, then slipped off and fell into his lap, tickling his belly as they went down. Henry giggled contently.

Yes, Juliet still looked unwell. But after two nights in a proper bed, and in the soothing quietness of Mrs. Milward’s boarding house in the middle of Gettysburg the overwhelming tiredness had left her eyes.

Mrs. Milward was a blessing. Upon arriving after another seemingly endless ride on a stage coach from their last train stop to Gettysburg, they’d come to realise that there were hardly any rooms to rent available. After three days of battle with thousands of casualties there had been more wounded soldiers to be tended to than the field hospitals had been able to manage. Consequently, both the Union army and the Confederates had confiscated farms, schools, public houses, parts of the Theological Seminary, nearly everything with an intact roof and transformed it to temporary hospitals. Only weeks after the battles, most of the sites were still occupied by convalescing soldiers—even though both sides had already begun to transport seriously ill but stable patients to better equipped proper army hospitals in Chester, Pittsburgh, or Alexandria.

Juliet had been determined to go and meet General Schurz immediately after arriving, heedless of the fact that she’d thrown up three times on the ride, or that Henry’d been screaming himself raw to protest the sticky, hot constriction of the coach cabin until, too exhausted to even sleep, he’d just hung in his mother’s arms, squirming and whining unceasingly. Hoss, who’d been hot and tired himself, and on the verge of becoming impolite, had collected every ounce of remaining self control not to shake her when he’d reasoned with her; that they needed to find a place to stay the night more urgently than to talk to the general—and that it would be more likely she’d get herself arrested than obtain any useful information by speaking to anyone in her present state of mind, if he’d read correctly the irritated twitch of her eyebrow.

Juliet had tsked and looked annoyed and as if she’d been composing a highly imperious, rebuking reply. Three weeks ago, Hoss would have had no other means to deal with that than letting it wash over him, ignoring her tone, and silently vowing never to provoke her again. But now he’d squeezed her arm and said, “please” and that he was tired and hungry—and Juliet had given in. Just like that.

By sheer luck, the second door he’d knocked at was Mrs. Milward’s. Mrs. Milward, who’d lost her husband during the first weeks of the war, had two free rooms, a big open heart for small tired babies, and had provided them with a hearty, excellently cooked supper, a cradle for Henry she’d acquired from the neighbour’s house, and nearly motherly concern and sympathy and the offer to look after Henry if required once she’d heard about their reason for coming to Gettysburg.

The reason they’d come to Gettysburg. Hoss spread strawberry jam over yet another piece of buttered bread before he started eating it slowly. Very slowly. He was procrastinating, he knew that, but Juliet was doing the same. The way she savoured her tea…she always took her time over that, but this morning she seemed determined to drink her tea cold. After having gone through all verses of “Simple Simon” she remembered or thought fit to be recited to Henry’s tender ears, she now turned her attention to the baby’s naked toes and jiggling one after the other declaimed,

“This little piggy went to market,
This little piggy stayed home.
This little piggy had roast beef,
This little piggy had none.
And this little piggy went
Wee, wee, wee, all the way home.”

At “wee, wee, wee” her fingers ran up Henry’s leg and leapt back to their old tickling spot on his belly. Screeching loudly, Henry went into raptures.

The reason they were in Gettysburg: find out what happened to Adam, see his grave, speak to someone who’d been with him in his last days on earth.

It sounded easy, and accomplishing it had in fact been easy, much easier than they’d anticipated. Much easier…and much harder at the same time.

The day before, they hadn’t been let in to General Schurz, which, to Hoss’s utmost surprise, Juliet had accepted without argument. They had been directed to the Gettysburg cemetery, though, and Hoss suspected that Juliet was more interested in going to Adam’s last resting place than being confronted with…well, anything else.

The cemetery was huge. Row after row of freshly dug graves, all adorned with wooden crosses, some with names on them, some without. Newspapers had talked about more than 7,000 soldiers killed during the three days of battle, and, Good Lord, Hoss had started to believe it, to actually understand it while they’d been walking through the endless alleys framed by earthen mounds. Line after line they’d paced off in the scorching heat of the advancing midday, reading the names of men they didn’t know, and yet each name had torn at their hearts, quieted their voices, made them walk closer together. Juliet had stopped once, to set an unlabelled cross straight and run her hand over the fresh soil underneath it murmuring something too soft for Hoss to discern any words.

“Those men,” she’d said upon getting up, making a wide gesture that included the whole grave field, “all have someone somewhere.”

Hoss had nodded.

“But they don’t know they’re here.”

He’d reached out for her. “Juliet…”

“Let’s go find him,” she’d waved him off. “Just…find him.”

Find him. It had taken them hours, but like Juliet, Hoss hadn’t been willing to give in to the heat and the sun and the desolation of the place before they had found him. He had never seen his own mother’s resting place, secretly always envied Joe for having a place to which he could address his grief, and he was determined to find such a place for grieving his big brother. Here. Although he felt sure he wouldn’t come back to this place ever again, he’d at least be able to carry a picture of it in his mind, a memory. Find him.

Then they had found him. A dried-up flower had lain on the grave’s soil, and that nearly had caused them to pass it by—but the stone had caught their attention. Few graves had stones, very few graves, and Hoss suspected it would take years to bestow every one with a proper marker. But Adam did have one. A stone, and a withered flower.

“Adam Cartwright,” the inscription read. “Brother not only in arms, 1830 – 1863.”

If Hoss had thought this cemetery was the most sorrowful sight he’d ever see, he’d been wrong. It was his sister-in-law’s blank, composed countenance that saddened him more than anything; her stony face that might have fooled him if not for the string of tears silently running down her cheeks.

He didn’t remember how long they’d stood there, staring at the incredible headstone, and the flower, and the soil: Adam’s memorial. Hours, maybe, an eternity or two. Until “Are you Mrs. Cartwright?” had made them look the other way.

A youngster, not older than Joe, but with the eyes of an old man. He’d had flowers in his hand, some daisies, and he’d looked at Juliet as if she was everything he’d ever wanted to see.

Hoss had stepped in front of her. “Who wants to know that?”

But Juliet had shoved him out of the way and whispered, “Fritz? Fritz Boettcher?”

The boy had nodded; and before Hoss had a chance to ask, Juliet had pointed to the right to a nearly identical stone and said, “His brother lies there.”

Fritz Boettcher. Fritz Boettcher from Adam’s letter.

“You commissioned the stone, didn’t you?” Juliet had asked.

“Yes. I hope you don’t mind. I didn’t know…” He’d looked down at his dusty boots. “I just…I wanted him to be remembered.”

Juliet had breathed heavily, but said nothing.

Fritz had shuffled his feet, separated his bunch of flowers into two equally sized bundles and deposited one on either of the two graves he apparently visited every day. “It should be marble,” he’d eventually said, pointing at the plain fieldstone on Adam’s grave. “I owe him. Without Adam…I’d be court-martialled at least, maybe captured by the enemy, or killed. Most likely killed.”

And then he’d told them how Adam had found him with his dead brother in his arms and how he’d dragged him through the streets of Gettysburg, saving him from desertion, capture, enemy fire. How Adam had talked sense into him, and how he’d found time in the middle of the storm to be a friend, a brother, a reassuring presence.

“He didn’t belong here,” Fritz had said. “And yet he needed to be here. His humanity…it made a difference.” He’d looked into Juliet’s face, nodded and then said it again, “It made a difference.”

Fritz had told them more, everything he knew. That the XI. Corps hadn’t been involved in fighting much on the second day of the battle, but that Adam had been sent to General Ward to deliver a message from General Schurz—and had never returned. That on further investigation it had turned out that Adam had been sent back with an answer, but hadn’t made it back to Cemetery Ridge. That he’d been found two days later, delirious with a festering wound in his right leg, and brought to the XI. Corps field hospital. And that Fritz couldn’t forgive himself that he didn’t find out all that until Adam had already died.

“The nurse said he wouldn’t have recognised me anyway, or that there’d been a visitor at all—but still…”

He’d arranged for Adam to be buried next to his brother Karl, and he’d ordered a headstone just like Karl’s to pay back at least something.

“…wee, wee, wee, all the way home.” That was not Juliet’s voice.

Hoss looked up from the crumbs of his breakfast on his plate to find that Juliet had handed Henry to Mrs. Milward and now looked expectantly at him.

“Shall we?” she said, and Hoss nodded. They should.

Fritz had told them where to find the nurse who’d been with Adam during his last days. The temporary field hospitals had mostly been taken down already, Nurse Maxine Tindell had moved with her patients to the Bushman farm—and that was where they went.

Nurse Maxine didn’t have much time, but she sat down with them in a small room where the nurses could rest during night watches. It looked completely unused.

She handed Juliet a letter with her name in Adam’s bold script on it, but without an address. “I wanted to find out where you live and send it once things slowed down a bit,” the nurse said. “He had it in his pocket. ‘Twas the only thing that told us who he was.”

Juliet stared at the folded paper she’d put on the table, smoothed it down, ran her fingers over the letters of her name, then laid her hands flat upon it and looked up.

“His comrade told me Adam was very ill and didn’t…” She gazed at her hands, started to run them over the letter again. “Didn’t…wasn’t in his right mind.” Now she folded her hands over the letter, clasping them tightly. She tore her eyes away from them, looking back at the nurse, and took a deep breath. “Did he, did he…” She bit her lip.

Hoss laid a hand over hers, caressing them with his thumb until he felt the tension ease. “Ma’am,” he took up where Juliet had broken off. “Did he…was he hurtin’ much?”

Maxine gave them a small smile. “He was delirious. He was very unwell, but I don’t think he really registered much. He was unconscious nearly all the time.”

Juliet opened her mouth, then closed it again, and looked at Hoss, pleadingly.

Hoss squeezed her hands. “He never woke up?” he inquired.

“Only once, nearly…at the end.” The nurse reached over to touch Juliet’s arm. “He woke up, briefly, and looked at me with bright, clear eyes. He wanted to say something, something important. He seemed completely lucid, impossible as it was.”

“What…?” Juliet’s voice was nearly inaudible.

“He tried to say your name, Mrs. Cartwright. I think he wanted to say that he…you know.”

Juliet pressed a hand to her mouth.

“Ma’am, I’m so sorry. This must be incredibly hard…but maybe…maybe it gives you a little comfort to know that his last thoughts were of you.” She patted Juliet’s arm. “He loved you, ma’am. He was a brave and handsome man, and he loved you.”

There was no reaction from Juliet, she just remained sitting there stock still with her eyes closed and her hand on her mouth.

Hoss cleared his throat. “My brother said nothing more?”

“No. He tried, but he couldn’t.” The nurse gave Juliet a sideways glance then looked back at Hoss. “It’s really amazing, Mr. Cartwright. Your brother looked nothing like you. Only his eyes…they were the same as yours, the same sky-blue.”

“We’re only half bro—” He broke off, dazed.

“Blue?” Juliet leaned over the table. “Blue eyes, you say? Not brown or greenish when the light…” She choked a sob. “Blue. Dear Lord in heaven, blue.”

And then she burst into tears.

___________
The universe is wider than our views of it.
~ Henry David Thoreau

*****

 

Chapter 11

Perchance To Dream

 

There was smoke. Smoke so thick you could hardly see anything beyond the reach of your arm. Smoke so thick it even dulled the sound of the shots and shouts, swallowed the light flashes of gunfire, obscured friend and foe.

Not that he would be able to distinguish friend and foe anyway. He never had been. Not once. Every time he dreamed this dream—and, oh boy, he damned well knew that this was a dream, even though he suspected that it also was a recollection; and that was why he never did anything to flee the dream, to make himself wake up before he’d seen everything his memory would release this time—each time he dreamed it, he staggered around in that thick smoke, almost without sight or hearing, but with his feelings intensified to the point of being unbearable. For the only emotions he felt were dread and rage, and a devastating sense of being lost.

Only when the smoke thinned from time to time did he make out other men, other soldiers. Some he shot at, some shot at him. Some yelled, some cried, some had faces void of…anything. Some were brown-haired, some were black-haired, some were blond. One was a redhead. Some had blue eyes, some brown, some green. Most men had beards, some had moustaches, none was clean shaven. Some were lithe, some were tall, one was a giant. One had black teeth. One was hay-blond with uncannily blue eyes that stared at him in wide-open shock as he sank his bayonet into the man’s chest.

“Why?” the soldier asked him every time he was stabbed. “What have I done to you?”

He never had an answer. Because you’re my enemy somehow wasn’t enough to justify it—especially when he didn’t even know why this soldier was his enemy and what set him apart from a man he would call his friend.

All the faces he saw, as different and individual as they appeared, were all faces of human beings, and there was no way to tell who belonged to whom. Oh, he knew who was fighting whom, but in his dreams he never saw if it was a Union soldier who fired his gun at him or a Confederate. All he saw were faces; not the one thing that would distinguish one side from the other: the uniforms. Even in his dreams he had to laugh about the absurdity of it, and even in his dreams he choked on that laugh.

To make things completely frustrating, he couldn’t even see his own uniform. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. He could see what he was wearing, only it wasn’t a uniform at all. He always wore black. Black pants, black shirt, black vest, sometimes a black jacket. Black, like death.

He looked down at himself, just to check, with just a hint of hope that this time it would be different, that this time his mind would provide him with an answer—but no. Instead, he found a new question, something he’d never seen before: he was wearing a lumberjack shirt. He was still wondering about this completely new twist in his accustomed dream, when he felt the usual excruciating pain in his right leg: the tearing of skin, the shredding of muscle and flesh, the impact of a .54 Minie ball on his thigh bone. He stumbled, fell, dragged himself upright again. Keeping his weight on his good leg, using his rifle as a crutch he tried to get himself out of the line of fire—but there wasn’t a line of fire, only a web of fire, and he felt bullets sizzling past him, tugging at his sleeve, pants leg, at his hair.

A face swam into his sight—black hair, black beard, brown eyes, no uniform discernable, he recorded in that part of his brain that logged every bit of information that might be helpful—shouting at him, though he couldn’t make out any words. Supporting hands helped him to the pathetic cover of a bush amidst the firestorm, “Will ya be all right, mate?” and then he was on his own, trying to stem the flow of blood with his handkerchief—how can there be so much blood when the bullet is still in?—trying to will the pain away, the panic and the feeling of having failed.

He shrugged half out of his jacket, ripped a sleeve off his shirt, tore it into strips, and managed to improvise a makeshift bandage for his thigh with them and the wadded kerchief . I have to get out of here, have to—Lord, what? There was something he had to do, he knew that. But what?

He slipped his jacket back into place and tried to get up. Tried to get on hands and knees—well, one knee mostly, for his right leg wasn’t able to carry much weight—by sheer force of will succeeded in it, panting, sweating. He remained like that for a few heavy breaths, revelling in this accomplishment. He’d never managed to get that far before, in none of the previous dreams, and he knew he had to push on: for all answers lay here, somewhere.

Carefully pulling his left leg under him, ignoring the renewed pain in his right, he slowly pushed himself from the ground. The part of his brain that was not busy fighting to provide him with at least some sort of equilibrium pointed out how very unwise his actions were, but another voice in his head said to ignore reason and just get on with it, a voice sounding strikingly like Joe—Joe? Who’s Joe? I have to follow that thought, have to, have to…cannot forget…have to remember… But there wasn’t time for that now, he had to concentrate on getting up, getting up.

And he got up. Slowly, painfully, always on the verge of collapsing back to the ground; but he got up. His body seemed to have taken the hint that he would not give in to any kind of agony, seemed to recognise his determination to be stronger than his injuries. He’d done that before, he was sure, and his body apparently remembered it, too.

He stood. Swaying unsteadily, his vision even more blurred than before, a buzzing in his ears that drowned out the already muted sounds of battle, a slight nausea adding to his discomfort, he stood. Triumphantly.

Now he only had to—had to—had to get to—had to…

And then he remembered. He had to convey a message, a message to…someone. He snorted. It didn’t really matter to whom he had to convey a message when there was no way he would get there anyway, did it?

“Sergeant?” Another blurry voice, another soldier he didn’t recognise just now, another face he had to file away to be named later. “Do ya need help?”

There it was: the way to not fail his mission. He reached into his jacket, pulled out the folded papers he’d been assigned to deliver and thrust it into his comrade’s hand. “Here, bring that to—”

And then there was a giant bang, a blow to his head, and the world exploded in a blinding white light before it was completely gone.

The first thing he noticed when his awareness returned was pain. Agonising pain, stabbing through his body with the force of a bayonet and yet a welcome reminder that he still was alive. He tried to move, tried to sit up, wipe off whatever sticky mass was crusting on his face, but his body screamed in protest, and even though he tried to ignore its cries he was unable to lift a single finger.

He stared into the darkness, listened to the eerie quiet, and tried to comprehend what had happened. He’d been wounded and apparently left for dead…No, that can’t be. Could it? No. Certainly he’d just have to wait. Someone would come looking for wounded soldiers. He would be found and brought into a field hospital. Sooner or later he would. Would he not? As the night went on he drifted in and out of consciousness, never strong enough to move but always alert, listening, hoping, waiting for rescue.

But rescue never came. Instead there came predators. Insects, rodents, a fox. Whispering humans, rummaging through the pockets of the dead, pulling boots off unresisting feet, pants from slack legs, jackets from limp bodies. They took away his clothes, too, and to his utmost disgust he wasn’t able to put up any resistance. He wanted to tell them he still was alive, but his voice was as frozen as the rest of his body. All he was capable of was raging inside his head, trying to break his paralysis, trying to move a hand, a feet, any limb, just move…something; say something, groan, moan, whimper, move, make a noise, move, move, move, or scream, scream.

At last he screamed, screamed aloud. It was hot, he was hot, why was he suddenly so hot when he should be freezing without his clothes? And why were they still going away, not realising he was alive and screaming, screaming! But they left him alone, dying out there alone; they didn’t notice, didn’t care, didn’t hear…how could they not hear him? How could they not see him move, frantically, thrashing out despite the pain, despite the feeling of tearing himself open—how could they not hear him crying, “Don’t go!”

There were hands suddenly, strong hands holding him down, soft, cold hands stroking his hot face.

“Shh,” said a quiet voice. “Shh, calm down. It’s a nightmare, that’s all. Just another nightmare. Wake up.”

The voice, her voice. His anchor, the one thing that grounded him, the one thing that pulled him back into the here and now when he got lost too deep in his dreams.

A bed. He was lying in a soft bed, not on the hard ground out there, and he wasn’t alone, wasn’t abandoned. She was here. She: familiar, warm, friendly, his…his. Opening his eyes was a hard labour, but he was rewarded with her familiar features, and that was worth the too bright light of here.

“I’m all right,” he rasped.

“No, you’re not. You nearly pulled open your stitches once again.” She shook her head, but smiled. “And we can’t have that, now you’re finally on the mend, can we?”

She adjusted the blanket over his still heaving chest, wiped the sweat from his face, supported his head while she held a glass of cool water to his lips, did all the things a good nurse was supposed to do. But as usual, she also stroked his chest as she smoothed the bedcover, her hand lingered a second on his face as she washed it, and her fingers fondled his nape as she held his head.

He leaned into her touch, secretly kissed her palm, whispered her name like an endearment, “Bernadette.” Her face was connected with a name, and that alone made it beautiful beyond measure.

She’d been with him from the moment he’d woken up in this hospital, had been with him even before, ever since he’d been brought into a field hospital, delirious, half dead. Being senseless for most of it, he didn’t remember his time there, but he’d been told how Bernadette had fought to keep him alive, how she’d managed to nurse him into a stable condition, how she’d arranged to put him on a transport to Charlottesville for better treatment, and how she’d managed to be appointed to join the transport. She’d certainly saved his leg, if not his life—and all that for a soldier without a name.

A soldier who didn’t even remember which side he belonged to.

But that didn’t seem important to her at all. First and foremost, she’d told him, she was a nurse, and a woman. And being Canadian, North and South didn’t matter for her anyway.

Canadian. He chuckled.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing, I just…. You don’t think I’m a woodcutter, do you?”

“A lumberjack? You certainly have the build for that…” Her eyes laughed. “But not the hands. What makes you think you are one?”

“Just something in my dream.” He inspected his hands. Calloused, yes, but she was right: not as calloused as a logger’s hands would be.

“Were there any other clues? A name, by any chance? I would love be able to call you by your name.”

He shook his head. “No, sorry. But I told you, you can just give me a name you’d like to call me.”

“I’d have to name you ‘Babe’ then—because you were lost as a babe in the woods.” She sniggered at his scandalised look. “But I won’t, don’t worry. I’d rather wait until you remember your real name—and then replace it with sweet nonsense.”

His real name. Perhaps it was the name from his dream…Joe. No, he didn’t think so. The name did seem important, though. There must be a Joe in his life. Joe…a friend? A comrade? His brother, uncle, father, son?

A son. Did he have a son? And if he had a son, did he have a wife, too? It couldn’t be, could it? If he had a wife, would being touched by Bernadette feel so right?

If he had a wife, wouldn’t he remember it? Her? But then again, he didn’t even remember his name….

Pressure built up behind his eyes; the sleeping pain at his temples that never left him completely slowly woke up, intensifying, foreboding the well-known throbbing agony.

“Are you all right?”

“I…yes. I’m…” No, he wasn’t. His head ached, he was hot, breaking into a sweat, feeling like suffocating, his chest suddenly too tight to breath. “Lethe…”

“What?”

“Lethe…the river…I don’t…” He would have laughed if he’d found the air for it in his lungs. He could remember the name of the river of oblivion in the Greek legends, but not his own. Pathetic.

Cool hands on his face, shockingly cold, like ice. But Lethe never freezes…

“God, you’re burning up!”

The river wasn’t freezing, couldn’t be, but most probably it was cold, and the air wouldn’t be so thick down there, breathing surely would be easier at the river banks. “Lethe…gotta…”

“Shh, drink this, it’ll help you cool down.”

Lethe, so cool, refreshing. He drank greedily, spilling cold water over his face, his chest, the pillow, the blanket…. Drank, drank, drank from the ancient river, greedily—and guiltily accepting forgetfulness where he knew he should seek remembrance, until dark oblivion claimed him and pulled him down to drown in nothingness.

___________

And, if you cannot remember it, think, now, how you drank Lethe’s water today: and if fire is deduced from smoke, this forgetfulness clearly proves the guiltiness of your desire, intent on other things.
~ Dante Alighieri, Divine Comedy

*****

Chapter 12

The Lord Giveth

“MISTAKEN IDENTITY STOP ADAM DECLARED MISSING STOP ARE SEARCHING HOSPITALS STOP WILL FIND HIM STOP FAITHFULLY JULIET”

“Are you reading that telegram again?”

Ben looked up from the sheet of paper, his most precious possession, to watch his youngest son descending from the second floor. Joe looked much better this morning; and although his way down the stairs still looked laboured and so distinctively less fluid than his usual gait, it filled Ben with gratitude and delight to see him do it unaided. Until three days ago, Joe had had to be assisted to get down—always being in danger of misstepping, twisting, stumbling against something, aggravating his freshly not-quite-yet-healed wound.

It seemed too early for Joe to be up, too soon. But, of course, after the recurring fevers had finally subsided and Joe had regained his strength and been alert—and bored—for whole days, nothing short of being strapped down on the bed would have kept him in it any longer, as much as Ben would have preferred him resting securely just there. And then his attempts at exerting fatherly authority at that had been thwarted by Doctor Martin, who’d declared Joe mended enough to be up and about—albeit not to be strained with any strenuous work whatsoever, and ordered to take it perfectly easy.

“No riding, no lifting anything, no crouching, no walking far, no jumping onto anything,” Paul had said and given Joe his best ‘follow the doctor’s orders—or else’ stare.

Joe had looked a bit abashed, and sulked, “That sure doesn’t leave much to do, does it?”

“No,” Dr. Martin had said cheerfully. “Next to resting on the sofa and eating three hearty meals a day—no. That’s the point of taking it absolutely easy, you know.”

“But—”

“But nothing. Either take it easy, Joe, or go back to bed.”

Joe had chosen to take it easy, and although Ben and Hop Sing had to remind him of that at least four times a day, he actually resigned himself to resting on the sofa, reading dime novels or repairing bridles and field-stripping and cleaning every single gun and rifle they owned.

Ben forced himself to stay seated as Joe made his arduous way to the settee and eased himself slowly and stiffly down. Stuffing a pillow behind his back, Joe gestured at the paper in Ben’s hand.

“The words won’t just go away if you don’t read them for a minute,” he said with a small grin. “And they won’t change their meaning, either.”

“No,” Ben said. “Certainly not. And even if they disappeared, I know them by heart already. It’s just…” He looked down, couldn’t help but read the words yet again, smiled, and laid the paper on his desk. Neatly, within easy reach, within reading distance, just in case he’d need to assure himself again that, indeed, he wasn’t dreaming. That, indeed, Adam could be alive—was alive. Was. Lord, don’t take him from me again, I couldn’t…Lord, please!

He gave the telegram another glance. “MISTAKEN IDENTITY STOP ADAM DECLARED MISSING STOP SEARCHING HOSPITALS STOP WILL FIND HIM STOP FAITHFULLY JULIET”

The words were easy to memorise, the telegram almost brisk in its curtness. It was so very much like Juliet in its precise efficiency. He had learned enough about his daughter-in-law to know that what sounded like cool aloofness was restraint. Her emotions weren’t put into flowery digression; they could be read out of her determined words, her clearly conveyed conviction: “WILL FIND HIM.” Yes, he could read the turmoil behind those words.

“I wonder why Juliet sent the telegram,” Joe interrupted his thoughts—as if he’d read them. “All the others were from Hoss.”

“MISTAKEN IDENTITY STOP ADAM DECLARED MISSING” Ben just couldn’t stop himself reading. “That’s because Hoss wouldn’t have send one at all,” he said, stroking his chin.

“Why…?”

Ben rested his elbows on the desk and leaned his head on his clasped hands. Hoss had sent half a dozen telegrams over the past few weeks. First to tell them that he’d caught up with Juliet, then to say that they were about to take a train east, that there was no way he could hold Juliet back from her quest, that they were well underway, that they’d reached Gettysburg, that they’d found Adam’s grave. They had noticed that Hoss had tried to keep them short, but had failed heartbreakingly. His soulful bulletins of the search had enabled Ben and Joe to accompany his and Juliet’s slow journey through grief and despair into something beyond friendship and kinship.

But Hoss would never have written this telegram. Ben was sure he and Juliet must have had a disagreement about it, must have fought and argued until Juliet’s obstinacy had won. For the first time, Ben was glad his daughter-in-law was stubborn as a mule and bossy as a goat.

“He wouldn’t want to get our hopes too high,” Ben eventually answered Joe’s question. “He wouldn’t want us to be hurt a second time if they…failed.” It hurt even to think of it. Perhaps Hoss should have won the argument after all. And yet…

“And you want to tell me Juliet wouldn’t mind hurting us?” Joe sounded incredulous.

It made Ben smile. Before this summer, Joe would have been outraged, appalled, readily believing his sister-in-law thoughtless of the family’s feelings, no, not thoughtless—detached from them. Now he was more forgiving, willing to search for what was hidden beneath her seeming imperturbability. Like Adam, Juliet wasn’t prone to great displays of affection, but Joe—well, they all—had learned that reading her small signs of attachment was well worth the effort. And Juliet had learned to open up to them a bit, to trust them.

“Of course not,” Ben said. “But I think she feels we have a right to know what’s going on, and that hope is better than despair. She’d be furious if we knew something and didn’t tell her—and just like everyone she assumes all people are like her.”

“I’d be furious, too, if she hadn’t told us, and I’d found out later. I don’t know if all people are like that, but I sure am.”

Ben could not fully conceal the grin. He had a hard time preventing himself from pointing out yet another similarity between the two. Joe was only just on the mend, and it wouldn’t do him any good to get worked up over that.

“Well, I prefer being informed, too. Even though I’m aware that knowing—and hoping—could come with a heavy price if the news turned out to be…not what we hoped it to be. The truth, Joe, is never too expensive.”

“Pa, do you think…” Joe wrung his hands. He wrung his hands! His features showed hope and misery, all mixed together on his still too pale face. As if he were six again, and asking his father if Maman would come home tonight, just once, just so he could properly bid her farewell, secretly knowing she wouldn’t. Couldn’t.

He hadn’t been able to give him any hope back then, and it had broken his heart. This time, though, he had something to offer. Not much, nothing substantial, just something seemingly small and fragile—and yet it had the power to carry them both through and beyond. “Dum spiro, spero,” he said. “As long as I breathe I shall hope. That’s what we can do: have faith. Faith that Adam is alive and that they will find him.”

“If only I could help—if only Billy-Bob hadn’t had it in his mind to come and…”

“To come and what?

“Honest, Pa? I don’t know.”

“Joe, you have to make up your mind about that. The sheriff is waiting for your final testimony. Roy can’t keep Billy-Bob in jail forever. He has to face trial or be released, Joe. And it’s solely up to you whether it’s one or the other. Since Juliet isn’t available, you’re the only witness.”

“I know, but still…I don’t know what’s right. I don’t know how to…judge things.”

“Lord, no. It’s not yours to judge, Joe. You only have to remember what happened.”

“But I don’t know what happened!” Joe leapt up and made a few hurried steps towards the front door, stopped in mid-stride and, clutching his healing side, returned to the settee.

Ben wasn’t sure if the agony visible on his face came from the aggravation of his injury or from the painful realisation that he couldn’t delay this grave decision any longer.

“You don’t remember what happened,” he tried. “Or you don’t know how to deal with it?”

“I remember what happened; I’m not a fool,” Joe snapped, but then looked down at his hands. “I’m sorry.”

“So, what exactly did happen?”

“Billy-Bob…he suddenly was there. He said he wasn’t happy with me breaking his jaw, and that he couldn’t eat anything solid; and then he rambled about the high and mighty Cartwrights and drew his gun, and Juliet said we didn’t need no weapons. She took a step toward him, and then he shot at her. I tried to get her outta the line of fire—and then I was hit.” It sounded almost bored, as if he’d rehearsed his speech many times in his head.

“The point is, Joe, do you think Billy-Bob came to the Ponderosa to take vengeance? Did he come to kill you? Or was it, as he claims, an accident?”

“I thought I wasn’t supposed to judge?”

Ben smiled. “Well, perhaps you’ll have to do a little judging after all. Juliet said Billy-Bob was drunk, and that he seemed scared of his own shadow. Is that right?”

“He sure looked like a rabbit in front of a snake. He wanted to…maybe he just wanted to salvage his honour or something. He got the weapon out only when he realised it was two against one. Well, one was Juliet, but drunk as he was…”

“And he actually shot because…?”

“Because Juliet pointed at the gun. She was…well, you know how she waves her hands when she talks. She indicated the gun, made a step into Billy-Bob’s direction—and then he shot. He must have thought she was going for the gun.”

“He thought Juliet was trying to disarm him? A woman?

“He was drunk. And Juliet is tall, and she was talking in that clipped accent of hers. She can be kinda scary, you know.”

“It certainly fits the way he acted after the shot.” Ben frowned as he recalled things beside the red stains on Joe’s jacket. “He was white with consternation, didn’t even try and run or fight. He was…horrified by what he’d done.”

“Do you think he’s innocent?”

“Do you think he is?”

Again, there was that look of agony on Joe’s face. “Pa, I can’t…I don’t know what…If I press charges Billy-Bob could go to jail for years. He’s not…not a criminal. He won’t do it again.”

“You mean he should be free? Facing no consequences?”

Joe studied the cloth on the table in front of him. He rocked forth and back on the settee, rubbing his injured side. “It would set a bad example, wouldn’t it?” He looked up, obviously searching for an answer in his father’s face. “Others could be inclined to think they’d get away with…things, too.”

Ben’s face remained impassive. He wouldn’t provide an answer, not this time.

“But still, Billy-Bob isn’t a bad guy, and I hurt him first…”

“Quite the predicament, it seems.” Neutral, stay neutral.

“Hoss would…”

Ben shook his head. “Not Hoss—Joe.”

Joe stared at him for a moment, then closed his eyes, took a deep breath and opened them again. “Adam would say ‘let the law handle it.’ He would press charges and then go to any length to prove that Billy-Bob didn’t want to hurt anyone. That it was an accident.”

“It’s not Adam who has to make a decision, Joe. It’s you.”

“But Adam would be right, Pa. And…and if he were here, I’d ask him, and then do what he’d said.”

“Because you always do what your brother says, right?”

Joe didn’t flinch, nor did he avert his eyes from his father’s. “I will, if he comes back,” he said, and it sounded like a vow. Or like a proposition.

“I’ll make sure to remind you of that,” Ben chuckled, ignoring the chill trickling down his spine. When, he thought, it should be when, not if.

Again, he must not have guarded his thoughts as well as he’d hoped. But then Joe had always been able to read his eyes effortlessly; he might never have stood a chance. Not with his youngest’s eyes still immerged so deep in his own.

“He will come back, won’t he, Pa? They’ll…they’ll find him, right?”

“They will.” The telegram was back in his hand, miraculously, and he read the words out loud, as if they were new and unacquainted, “Searching hospitals, will find him. Will find him. They will. Hoss…has he ever not found anything? He’s like a bloodhound: he never stops once he’s on the track.” He looked at the telegram, read it again, laughed quietly as he realised that they now had not one, but two sleuth dogs in the family. “And Juliet is just too persistent to not accomplish anything she decides to do. ‘Will find him,’ that’s her all right. She’d never accept anything less than a full victory.”

“Persistent? Or pig-headed?”

“Both, I’m afraid, but this time it might be for the best.” He nodded, more to himself than to Joe, and more to convince himself than to exhibit agreement. Nothing less than a full victory, he repeated in his head, and then his ratio provided him with the part he did not want to share with Joe and he wished he could ignore: but what if they failed? No, he wouldn’t go that way. WILL FIND HIM. He’d have faith.

“Pa, how long do you think it’ll take them? Maybe they already…what if they’ve already found him?”

“The Territorial Enterprise said there were more than fourteen thousand wounded Union soldiers, Joe. I have no idea how many hospitals there are, but there must be a good many. Some not even in Gettysburg…. I expect it’ll take them quite some time to search them.” More than fourteen thousand wounded Union soldiers, and Lord knew how many Confederates. Ben shook his head. The headlines spoke of forty to fifty thousand casualties on both sides. In one battle. It was unimaginable. What a waste of young men. Fourteen thousand wounded—Gettysburg must be one single gigantic infirmary.

***

There were more hospitals in Gettysburg than Hoss would have expected, and he’d been in more of them than he thought he could bear—and yet they still were at the beginning of their quest.

He poured himself another lukewarm cup of coffee. It was long after supper. Juliet, completely exhausted, had gone to bed already; Mrs. Milward had cleared the table and retired to her room, leaving him the slowly cooling coffee pot and some of her cranberry cookies. It almost felt like being at home, coffee and cookies, the quiet after a long work day, time to think things over, time to regain strength. And he needed his strength, desperately.

Every day, they got up early, had a short but hearty breakfast for him and a cup of tea for Juliet and, leaving Henry with Mrs. Milward, went to search as many infirmaries as they could manage, then returned in the early afternoon for a late lunch and some rounds of “Simple Simon,” “This Little Piggy,” or “Humpty Dumpty” before leaving again and continuing their hunt until the sun stood low and the nurses threw them out of the hospitals.

As much as he obviously liked Mrs. Milward, Henry had started to complain bitterly at his mother’s departure after a few days. It broke Juliet’s heart, and his own, too, but there was no way they could take Henry with them. They had tried it once, on the first day, when they hadn’t the least notion of what awaited them. The baby was too small to understand the strange mixture of utter misery and coarse keyed-up cheerfulness, but he seemed to sense that particular tension and reacted with becoming fidgety and cranky. The stench didn’t help, either. It was, mildly put, unpleasant for Hoss, and nearly impossible to stomach for Juliet, who struggled with bouts of nausea and vertigo almost constantly. For Henry, who didn’t even know why he had to put up with all those affronts, it must have been excruciating.

The final straw, though, was the hissed comment of a soldier who wore an eye patch, and an empty sleeve where his right arm had been. “Nigger lover,” he’d spat as they’d passed his cod.

Juliet had pulled Hoss away from the man, shaking her head and whispering he wasn’t worth any trouble, and that they didn’t have time to waste anyway. There and then they’d decided they wouldn’t take Henry with them anymore.

Later, at lunch in Mrs. Milward’s dining room, she had studied Henry for a long time.

“He is very dark, isn’t he?” she’d said, and Hoss hadn’t known how to answer.

“He looks so much like Adam. There’s not a single trace of me in him.”

She was right—and not right. Henry was dark, especially for a baby, with his olive skin and black hair and eyebrows. He had Adam’s nose, and his eyes had turned from baby-blue to a funny shade of dark greenish-brown, not completely like Adam’s eyes but close enough. He pursed his lips like Adam, he had the same half smile, and when he laughed he displayed dimples like Adam. But he also raised his stubborn chin when he wasn’t all satisfied with things, his long-fingered hands were delicate like Juliet’s, and his eyes threw sparkles at everyone when he was delighted.

“You’re both in him,” Hoss had eventually said. “Maybe Adam more than you—but Henry’s a boy, so what do ya expect?”

Juliet had sent him a few of her own sparkles at that, and kissed Henry and said she wouldn’t want it otherwise anyway.

“Maybe the next baby is a girl and looks like you?” Hoss had said nonetheless; and he wasn’t surprised at all when Juliet had sent him more sparkles and her first genuine smile since they’d left in the morning.

It had been the last genuine smile for a long time. While at Mrs. Milward’s, Juliet was stressed by Henry’s crankiness and clinging to her; the as yet unsuccessful search in the reeking, thick-aired hospitals, the ailing men and their desperate pleas for attention, the constant battle with her revolting stomach, the guilt of neglecting her child, and the knowledge that it would go on like that for an unforeseeable time took their toll on her at the rest of the day.

And they’d not even made it to searching the hospitals in the surrounding villages….

Hoss rubbed his hands over his face. He was tired, too. Time to go to bed. Finishing the last sip of coffee, he’d just gotten up from his chair, when he heard hurried foot steps on the stairs, and then Mrs. Milward rushed into the room.

“Mr. Cartwright,” she said with obviously forced calm. “Your sister needs you. Please go and see to her.”

“What…?”

“I can’t—just go and be with her until I return with the doctor.”

_________

There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope. ~ Baruch Spinoza

*****

 

Chapter 13

And the Lord Taketh Away

There was blood almost everywhere. Blood on the blanket, blood on the sheets, blood on Juliet’s nightgown, blood on her hands, blood on her face even, where she had pressed her hands to her cheeks, to her mouth—perhaps to muffle anguished cries or just to keep herself in check—blood in her hair where she must have torn at it or pushed it back from her face; blood all around her.

The room was lit only by a single candle on the nightstand. Its flickerings illuminated the bed like a stark white and red island amidst a sea of black flaring shadows, or like a lit-up stage in a darkened theatre.

Juliet sat in the middle of the display, slightly hunched, with a pool of crumpled blanket around her. She was supporting her weight on one arm in front of her, the other was wrapped around her waist, and she was rocking back and forth, back and forth, slowly, almost placidly.

It was eerily still; not a sound came either from her or from the cradle, hidden somewhere in the darkness of the room.

Hoss wavered in the door way, afraid to ask, afraid to know, afraid to trespass. Finally, one soft word made it past his dry lips. “Juliet?”

She looked up. Her eyes were huge; dark like Lake Tahoe at night, and just as deep and bottomless. Fear?

“Hoss.” A mere whimper, he almost didn’t hear it. Yes, she was afraid. Terrified.

He crossed the threshold and stepped into the small circle of light. “What happened? Where…Henry?”

“Henry is asleep.” She looked into the dark to where the cradle must be standing, as if to make sure she said the truth, then back at him. “He’s asleep. He’s a good boy, sleeping through the night finally. As if he knew…”

She clutched her middle more tightly, nearly doubling over, and let out a small, suppressed cry of pain.

He knew telling her to stop holding back would be useless, and so he did the only thing he could think of and let himself down beside her, not even wincing at the thought that he was sitting in her blood. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered but the distraught woman in pain next to him. Hoss laid a hand on her back, moving it in small soothing circles.

Hands clenched on the blanket, she merely endured his caress, heaving deep shuddering breaths until her posture relaxed, and she sat up straighter, even leaning into his touch.

She cradled her hands in her lap, palms up, studying them intensely. With a sleeve of her nightshirt she tried to clean the blood from one hand, not comprehending the futileness of it.

“I’m losing it,” she eventually whispered. “Or maybe it’s gone already.” The wiping of her hand became almost violent, the dabbing more like punching.

He increased the pressure to her back, trying to make his presence more palpable, to make it an offer, a reassurance, an anchor. There was no doubt about what was happening, no doubt that there was no way to stop it. Nothing he did would change that. All he could manage was to be with her, awkward and surreal as it was, sitting here next to her, caressing her back and yet not really reaching her. Two people side by side yet miles away from another. Once again, he wished he were more like Adam, who always seemed to know what to do and what to say, and how to get through to her.

You don’t have to be Adam. You’re Hoss; and that’s all you need to be. Hadn’t she said that herself on the train ride?

He tightened his grip on her, and pulled her into his arms. “I’m here,” he whispered. “I’m holding you.”

He felt her breath warm and wet on his shoulder, where she’d pressed her face; he felt her body much bonier and lithe than he’d have expected in his arms, felt her softly melting into him—unexpected, inappropriately right. And alarming.

“Juliet?”

“I failed,” she said into his shoulder. Muffled, low, barely audible. “It’s my fault, I know it. I shouldn’t have…shouldn’t have…but how could I not have done it? I needed answers, I needed to look for…and we nearly found him, right? Hoss? We nearly found him, we’re almost there.”

“This ain’t your fault. This ain’t nobody’s fault.” Wasn’t it? Shouldn’t he have spared her this ordeal? Shouldn’t he have told her to stay at home and have gone all by himself? Shouldn’t he have read the signs better? Her exhaustion, her anguish? Shouldn’t he have realised the toll this all was taking on her? Shouldn’t he have stopped her?

“It ain’t nobody’s fault,” he repeated, shoving the jolt of guilt aside. He couldn’t afford the luxury of wallowing in guilt right now. Guilt was selfish, and this wasn’t a time to be selfish. He was needed. She needed him; strong, comforting—not self-incriminating.

Juliet apparently hadn’t heard him, or she just ignored his words—or didn’t believe them. “I failed,” she said again. “I failed to take care of my child. Of our child, Adam’s and mine. Adam’s.”

As she lifted her head from his shoulder, he could see her face, white as a ghost’s and almost as frightening. “It was Adam’s child, and I…I failed him. Them. I don’t deserve—”

“Stop it.” He thought briefly about slapping her, but settled for shaking her at her shoulders. “Juliet, you know that’s not true. You know you ain’t failing nobody. Not Adam, not the baby. Things happen. That’s all there is to it.”

He saw even more traces of colour draining from her face, as impossible as it seemed. She fell back into his arms, her body lying against his, boneless and heavy, as if there wasn’t any strength left in her to keep her upright.

“Hoss,” she breathed so low that if she weren’t so close to him he wouldn’t have heard her. “Promise me to look after Henry for me if anything…promise me. Promise me to keep looking for Adam, and when you find him, look after him, too.”

“I—nothing will happen, ya hear me? Nothing. Everything will be all right.” Don’t do this to me. For a brief moment the image of Adam flashed before his eyes, Adam in a Yankee uniform, who asked, “Where’s Juliet?” He shook his head to make his mind stop trying to put the unthinkable into words. This couldn’t be happening, could it?

“Promise me,” Juliet repeated.

And even though he was scared of the consequences, he said, “I do. I promise,” and then he felt her become even heavier in his arms, and completely still. Beneath her, the bed sheet soaked up every ounce of life draining out of her, the red creating an almost obscene contrast to the once pristine white.

He held her, helpless, not daring to let go of her, until he heard footsteps on the stairs. There was Mrs. Milward with the doctor, a grim looking middle-aged man who took a sharp breath at the scene before him; and then Hoss was ushered out of the room.

He stood outside in the hallway, unable to move, not knowing where to go or what to do, until the landlady opened the door and handed him Henry, who blinked sleepily at him, his twisting mouth already indicating the impending tears.

“Go downstairs,” Mrs. Milward said. “And take the baby with you. He can’t be in here now.”

“Is…will everything be all right?”

“I don’t know, I’m sorry. It doesn’t look…I don’t know. Prepare for anything.” She squeezed his hand, briefly, then turned and closed the door behind her.

And then Henry started to wail; and no matter what Hoss did, he kept crying for the rest of the night.

***

The sea was in turmoil. The water was murky, yet strikingly green, churned up by the winds of a thunder storm, the boiling waves crowned by white foam. In the sky, clouds were chasing one another, tattered shreds of dark grey, like rag dolls, mirroring the seething chaos beneath them.

His boat was sturdy, big and solid; even though he had to clutch firmly at the mainmast to avoid going overboard, he felt safe from sinking. Strangely fascinated, he watched the mayhem around him. At the edge of his vision he made out a shipwreck. It was an old ship, as far as he could tell, an English three-masted barque. Two masts were down, the stern half submerged. Lifeboats were scattered around the ship, desperately trying to stay upright in the angry sea; some had gone keel up already.

He thought he heard the seamen’s desperate cries over the roar of the storm and the waves, but it might have been his imagination. As his ship steered closer to the wreck, he saw that the boats were empty. One by one they flipped over and were swallowed by the raging sea, until one last boat remained—and this one was occupied. The figure in it was blurred; he caught a glimpse of something dark green, though it might have been only a reflection of the sea. A hand was stretched out towards him, an arm clad in green, nearly the same colour as the sea; but he was too far away to reach it.

The boat danced on the water; tossed by the waves like a nutshell, it was on the verge of capsizing. With certain clarity he suddenly knew he wouldn’t be able to reach the boat in time to save its sole passenger.

And just as he realised that, he heard the cry for help.

“Help me.” It was a small voice, nearly inaudible in the storm, not classifiable, most certainly not familiar—but not much had been familiar lately, anyway.

“Help me,” it said. “I need you.” It sounded nearly intimate, as if the caller knew to whom they addressed themselves.

He formed a mouthpiece with his hands and shouted, “I can’t reach you.”

“Help me,” the voice came back. “Help me, Adam!”

The shock of it awoke him. He was sweating, again, and breathing heavily. He reached for the mug of water he knew was standing on the bed table, and for the small book Bernadette had given him to record whatever clue with which his dreams fed him.

Not that he ever forgot anything he’d dreamt. It was as if he was trying to prove to himself that he didn’t forget things on purpose, that there was something bigger than he that kept the memories of his former life obscured from him.

No, he didn’t drink from Lethe willingly. He wanted to know. He wanted to remember.

Bernadette sometimes seemed afraid of what lay in the past, as if it could destroy the present. But the present was…nearly nothing. It was pain and illness, it was suspicion and distrust. It also was love, that one bright spot. Love and Bernadette, love and Bernadette, love and Bernadette. How could a man fall so easily, so completely, so deeply in love? He’d never fallen so quickly—well, maybe he had, but he couldn’t remember.

It was strange, weird: he could remember how to speak, to read and write, how to hold a spoon and to put on a shirt (now he finally was able to do it on his own again), he could remember things he’d read at some point in his former life; and he could remember his virtues, and how it felt to be in love. How to court a woman, and how to be a polite and friendly man. But he couldn’t remember who taught him to be polite and friendly, or why he knew that a black man wasn’t worth less than a white and that no man should own another. He couldn’t remember how he’d learnt that a woman wanted to be touched tenderly, and spoken to in a respectful manner.

He couldn’t remember what had made him the man he was—or what kind of man he actually was.

He had a vague idea of how his last days on the battlefield had gone, even though he still had no idea for which side he’d been fighting. All right, that last wasn’t entirely true. He had a pretty good idea of that by now—just no proof—but he wouldn’t share that particular information with anyone.

Random bits of memory came back to him every day. Sometimes triggered by a smell, a sound, a touch, something somebody said, a certain tone of voice. Nothing substantial up to now: memories of a chestnut coloured horse galloping towards him; a basket of strawberries on a red-chequered blanket; a ladybug on his hand; a porcelain music box painted with cherubs and flowers; an infectious giggle; red artist’s tights; a bed of cream coloured roses—things like that. Nothing that had told him who he was. Except that he was sure it did tell him who he was. Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, all those bits were parts of who he was, of what made him…

Adam.

The voice in his dream had called him “Adam.” He had two names now, Joe and Adam. Joe, apparently someone close to him, and Adam…that was him.

“Adam,” he said in wonder. It did sound familiar, like something he’d known all his life. The most natural thing. He had no idea how he could have forgotten it at all. “Adam.” He chuckled. Couldn’t help but laugh. Another bright spot in his present life.

From a much darker part of his mind, though, it laughed at him. How small his world had become, how little he needed to be happy. Pathetic.

And yet it was enough. Step by step, he thought. And this particular step wasn’t as small as his sarcasm was trying to make it look. It was huge: he had a name now.

He smiled, smiled broadly still when Bernadette approached his bedside, carrying a bowl of water and a basket full of what looked like stripes of linen.

“Good morning. You’re in a good mood, I see,” she smiled, putting her things down on the bedside table. “I’m going to have to spoil it a bit, I’m sorry to say. But I promise I’ll be careful changing your dressings.”

“You’re always careful, m’dear.”

“I try,” she said, then checked his forehead and frowned. “You’re still running a slight fever, I’m afraid. Let’s see what awaits us under those bandages.”

As she reached out to pull down his blanket, he caught her hands. They were small hands, strong and gripping if need be, but feather-light and tender at other times. She tried to wrench them out of his grasp, but he didn’t let her. Just held them firmly in his hands.

“What…?” she laughed, a trace of insecurity resonating in her words. “I promised to be careful.”

“It’s not that.”

“Then let me…” She pulled again, to no avail. “What is it?”

“I’ve got a name.”

Everybody’s got a—” She broke off. Sinking down on his bedside, she drew her hands out of his now-slackening grip and put them on his shoulder. Leaning closer, she said in a low voice, “You’ve got a name? You…know your name?”

He nodded. Smiled.

She swallowed. “You know who you are now?”

“No.” He shook his head. “Just my name. Adam.”

“Adam.”

“Yes.”

“Adam…who?

“Just Adam. No surname.”

“Adam.”

He could see she was tasting the name, rolling it on her tongue. Something of it was familiar, something that triggered…an outstretched hand, long, elegant fingers, manicured but stained with tiny blue spots—ink? and then it was over, the image gone.

“Adam. A good name, Adam.” She smiled. “Adam.”

Her smile was beautiful. The joy in her voice was beautiful. He wanted more of that. More beauty, more smiling, more joy.

“I might be a sailor,” he gave her, and was rewarded with more.

“A sailor? Captain Adam.” More more.

“I dreamt I was on a ship on the sea.” He closed his eyes, trying to conjure the images of that last dream. “There was a storm, and someone called for my help.”

“Did you recognise that person?”

“No.”

“A man, a woman? Young, old?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t…really, I couldn’t see much. Everything was blurred.” He opened his eyes. “It was the first dream that wasn’t about the war. Strange, I realise that only now. It was about…well, not the war. Something private…civilian. It must have been significant.”

“So you’re Adam, the sailor.” She frowned. “Or Adam, the traveller?”

The traveller. It sounded…right, somehow. A traveller. A salesman, perhaps. But the calluses on his hands told the story of hard labour…so perhaps it was “Adam, the sailor” after all.

“I’d rather be a traveller,” he finally said, amused by his almost petulant tone.

“Maybe not knowing can be a blessing, too.” Bernadette nodded slowly. “You could start anew. Be what you want to be, who you want to be. A traveller, if you’re so inclined.”

“I prefer to know things. Bad or good, I want to know.”

“Even if it hurt you? Even if it would cost you…”

“The truth is never too expensive,” he said almost savagely—and he was sure he’d heard those words before from another person. A dark, velvety voice. Coffee-brown eyes…

“It could—”

“I thought I told you to change the patient’s dressing, not to chitchat with him.”

She jumped up at that voice, straightening her skirt and apron, checking her nurse’s hat. “Dr. Mabbs, I’m terribly sorry, I just…”

“Don’t blame her, doctor. It’s my fault, I—”

“I’m sure it is, Soldier. Don’t think I don’t see through you and your schemes.” The doctor stood straight and tall, his uniform straining around his massive middle. He made an impressive figure, a fact of which he seemed entirely conscious, and which he obviously even tried to enhance by squaring his shoulders and lifting his chin to peer down on his inferiors in scrutiny.

“I don’t understand…” Adam started but was interrupted yet again.

“Oh, of course you don’t understand. You don’t understand very much, do you? With that oh-so-convenient amnesia.”

“I don’t find it particularly convenient. What are you implying?”

“Implying? I’m not implying anything. I just put one and one together. Isn’t it funny how you know so much about this last battle—yet don’t remember to which side you belong? I call that very convenient, Mr. Yankee-Accent.”

There was more pointing towards the North, more than his accent, Adam was aware of that. Everything in him screamed that there was no way he’d be fighting for a society that supported slavery. Even though he understood the South’s striving for freedom and their feeling of having been overruled by the Union for a long time, he couldn’t believe he supported the idea that not all men should be free, no matter the colour of their skin. It was a part of him so fundamental that he hadn’t forgotten it, just as he hadn’t forgotten how to breathe, how to eat and drink.

Of course, he’d never share these insights with anyone here.

“Don’t take me for a fool, Soldier. I’m watching you, and as soon as I have proof for my suspicion I’ll have you transferred to prison.”

“I’d never take you for a fool, doctor. And I advise you not to take me for a fool, either.” He spat it, knowing it was the not the wisest thing to do—but he couldn’t help it. There was no way he could have swallowed those words or said them in a less hostile fashion.

Predictably, Dr. Mabbs picked up the gauntlet only too willingly. “Perhaps I’ll arrange for the relocation right now,” he sneered.

“You can’t do that,” Bernadette jumped in. “Without constant medical care he’d die. The infection still isn’t under control, he’s running a fever, he’s weak and…and…and ill, and….”

The doctor let her deliver her rant, mildly smiling like a father would at his babbling child. Only as she trailed off, he spoke again, deadly soft. “If that is the case, Nurse Lemont, then you might want to see to it that my orders concerning the patient’s treatment are followed without any further delay.” He waved an impatient hand. “Clean the wound, change the dressings. No chitchatting. Then see to your other patients.”

He turned and stalked away without sparing his patient another glance.

Bernadette was close to tears. “Adam, I—”

“Shh, not now. Let’s talk later. Tonight.”

She nodded, and carried out her instructions: cleaned the wound, changed the dressings. No chitchatting. Then saw to her other patients.

Adam soon fell into a troubled slumber. This time he found himself drifting in the raging sea, clinging to an upturned lifeboat. Through the howling storm he heard it again. “Help me, Adam. I need you!”

It was the voice of a woman, and he knew her.

__________

When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions. ~ William Shakespeare, Hamlet

 

*****

Chapter 14

Tides in Acheron*

In retrospect, the whole idea had been completely stupid. An idiot plan, if ever there was one. And yet it had sounded reasonable as they’d come up with it the night after Dr. Mabbs had issued his threat: wait until past midnight when everyone was asleep, put on some civilian clothes Bernadette would provide, tiptoe silently through the rows of beds, then down the corridors and out of the building. Sneak through Charlottesville’s empty nocturnal streets until they reached the horse and cart Bernadette would have left somewhere in the outskirts of town before coming to the hospital for her night shift.

It had been a scheme born out of desperation and baseless hope, out of ignorance and denial of reality; destined to fail. A lost race from the very beginning.

Adam would have laughed if he weren’t hurting so much.

Over the three days following the confrontation with Dr. Mabbs, Bernadette had done everything in her power to stabilise Adam’s condition. She’d cleaned his wound and changed the dressings three times a day, fed him elderflower tea to fight the persistent fever and tried to get as much nourishment into him as he was able to digest—and the constantly waning provisions would offer. He hadn’t regained as much strength as they’d hoped, but they felt they couldn’t postpone things much longer.

Dr. Mabbs didn’t repeat his original threat, yet he developed the unsettling habit of appearing out of nowhere and saying things like “You are very thorough, Nurse Lemont, aren’t you?” or “I do believe you’ve done quite enough for this patient, Nurse. Others are waiting,” whenever Bernadette was tending (and talking) to Adam, taking longer than strictly necessary. Bernadette always nearly jumped at the sound of the doctor’s voice, her eyes became wide and fearful, she got clumsy with whatever she was doing, and all she apparently was able to reply was a stuttered “Yes, sir.”

More and more, the Great Escape seemed to be indispensable for both of them, and Adam couldn’t help but feel he was helping her as much as she was helping him. It was a comforting thought, a familiar and pleasant feeling: he was taking charge, he was protecting someone—as if he’d slipped back into an old suit, a well-worn pair of boots…a once-lived life.

It didn’t need more than a whispered “Tonight” after yet another episode with Dr. Mabbs and a brief nod of agreement from Bernadette to settle the date.

It had been the only part of their plan that actually had worked.

Despite his best efforts, Adam must have fallen asleep for he was roused out of yet another dream in which he was drifting in a boiling green sea, desperately trying to follow the eerily familiar female voice whose pleas for help were slowly dying away, by a soft joggling at his shoulder. Momentarily disoriented in the pitch-blackness, not seeing but sensing a presence at his side, he couldn’t suppress a soft gasp.

“Shh,” Bernadette’s low voice came out of the dark. “It’s me, Adam. Only me. Shall I light a candle?”

“No,” he breathed back. “I’m all right. Just need to adjust my eyes.”

Bernadette didn’t respond. She just sat there next to him, motionless. He heard her breathe a tad too quickly, a tad too shallowly, and he reached out and took her hand, held it tightly, stroking it with his thumb. She heaved a deep breath, then put her other hand over his. They remained like that until he could see more than just her outline and whispered, “Now.”

The set of civilian clothes Bernadette had brought him turned out to be a pair of plain camel-coloured pants and a red and blue-chequered shirt. For a moment Adam thought his eyes betrayed him, but no: there was just enough light to distinguish the pattern and guess the colours.

“Couldn’t you find something less…chequered?” he asked carefully.

She sniggered. Quietly, very suppressed so not to wake anyone, but she sniggered. They were attempting escape, and she’d—

“You do want me to become a lumberjack after all,” he laughed softly, oddly comforted by her unexpected, untimely and…yes, stinging display of humour. Something was familiar about it, something that made the faint sting…enjoyable, something that reminded him that pleasure did not always come without pain. No rose without a thorn. And then there was that bed of cream coloured roses before his eyes again, and a burlap sack tied close with a red ribbon, a notebook bound in dark green with a meandering serpent embroidered on it, a stack of books, scarlet silk, a scarlet blood stain blooming on a grey vest, a long slim face with a thin moustache…. He heard a breathy voice saying “I promise to look after that Queen of Whiskey-flowers” and then a suppressed choking, and he turned his head, instinctively, to see the person who’d choked—but there was only Bernadette, panic-faced.

“Adam,” she said. “Adam, are you all right?”

“I am…I just need to…” He tried to conjure the slim face, the choking—but as always when he wanted to force them back, the memories just slipped further away, leaving him feeling mocked and somehow emptier than before.

“Adam, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. I have another shirt in the carriage, you can change when we got there.” Bernadette’s whisper was urgent, her face still anxious.

He shook his head, as if that could rid him of all remaining traces of memory. This wasn’t the time for soul gazing. “It’s all right. I’m not—I don’t mind the shirt, it’s all right, honestly. Let’s just…carry on.”

By the time they’d finally gotten him into shirt and pants and a pair of boots, he was sweating and shivering, feeling more exhausted than he had any right to as he sat on the edge of his bed, breathing heavily. He didn’t care what colour that blasted shirt had or whatever hideous pattern—there was no way he would change his outfit anytime soon. And if there were the world’s finest garments on the carriage, he would not go through this ordeal again. Not for…a very long time.

This is not the way a gentleman would behave, a female voice with a very clipped British accent said in his head. She sounded like a governess. Had he been raised by a governess? He shook his head. No, not now.

He planted his feet firmly on the ground and pushed himself up. The world made a leap, then lurched to the side and slowly took him with it.

“Steady.” How Bernadette managed to keep him upright was beyond him. She was a head shorter than him, with a small frame, but there was a strength in her that surprised him not for the first time. “Are you sure you’re up to this?” she whispered.

“Sure.” A blatant lie? Perhaps—but a necessary one. “I—wait.” He reached down to the bedside table—at least this was possible without a problem, at least his head wasn’t hurting anymore and the nausea that had accompanied every movement for weeks was gone—and snatched up his notebook. Passing it from one hand to the other he wondered, where to—?

“Leave it here,” Bernadette urged. “It’s only dead freight. It will just weigh you down. And in more ways than one.”

“It’s light weight, and everything I have. I don’t consider it ballast.” He stuffed it into his shirt. The small book contained his life, at least all he knew of it. And even though he knew every single word in it by heart, he wouldn’t let it back, wouldn’t let anyone have it. It was his life. His. His everything. “Now let’s…”

The first step with his bad leg was pure agony. Even though Bernadette tried to support him, even though he leaned much more on her than he wanted, his leg shook violently, and buckled even under the slightest pressure. The second step was even worse. It was not a small wonder that he managed to stay upright at all; perhaps only the knowledge that he wouldn’t be able to get up if he fell prevented him from tumbling. Seeing that he wasn’t able to put any weight on his leg, it would have been only sensible to stop things there and then—but they were beyond sense already.

Bracing himself heavily on Bernadette’s shoulder, Adam half hobbled, half limped beside her past bed after bed. The other patients were lying in deep, mostly laudanum-supported, slumber—two or three were awake, drowsily watching them making their awkward way through the unlit room. One man gave them a lazy salute and a sleepy grin.

Somehow they made it to the door. It felt like hours since he’d woken up, and the biggest part of that time they’d spent in crossing the room. Adam didn’t want to think of the corridors that lay behind that door, the stairs that lay behind the corridors, or the streets that lay behind the stairs. He focused on the carriage that waited behind it all, the carriage with soft blankets on the wagon bed. The carriage that would take him to…some place. They hadn’t really talked about that yet, but there would be time for that. Later. First, they had to open the door and make it down the corridor.

Bernadette held a finger before her mouth—as if he needed the reminder. She carefully opened the door—

“Well, see to it, Nurse Waterman. And next time think before you wake me,” wafted in from somewhere out there in the hallway.

“Dr. Mabbs!” Bernadette’s face suddenly was white as salt. “We will never—”

“We wait.” Adam, leaning on the wall while Bernadette sounded out the situation, took her hand and squeezed it briefly. “We just wait until he’s gone. I can use the break. It’s a blessing, actually.”

“But Dr.—”

“Everything will be all right.”

“But—”

“Look at me, Bernadette. It’s going to be all right.”

She smiled, faintly, then opened the door again, just a slit.

A small sliver of light fell through the slit and down on the floor where it lay like a separation line between her and him—and so did the voice of Dr. Mabbs.

“Now I’m already awake, I can just as well look after the gut shot in room four. The Captain might need another dose of—”

The rest of the sentence was absorbed from the door Bernadette had hastily closed.

Adam!

He’d nearly cried. The worst had not been that their escape had been thwarted; the worst had not been that had Dr. Mabbs not checked on another soldier before he’d come to “the gut shot in room four” he’d have caught them right in the middle of said room four, like burglars or misbehaving children or escaping prisoners of war; the worst had not been that in their haste to get him out of his boots and pants and that ridiculous lumberjack shirt they’d aggravated his not yet healed wound, pulled open barely knitted flesh, torn overstretched skin—no, the worst had been none of those. The worst had been that he’d had to hobble all the way back, had to give back every gained foot, every hard-won inch, every goddamn step he’d made.

The way back had been even more taxing than the way to the door. Not only because he’d been worn out already—it was the thought that all his arduous labour had been for nothing, and the knowledge that even without the arrival of Dr. Mabbs their attempt at flight had been destined to fail.

They made it barely in time. Bernadette, having just secured the bundle of clothes they’d practically ripped from Adam under her wide skirt, was dabbing cold sweat from his face, when they heard the door open and Dr. Mabbs come in.

The bulky man walked through the room surprisingly noiselessly, paused somewhere and murmured something unintelligible, then moved back, softly speaking to himself, “Well, well, well. All is quiet.”

And then Adam’s notebook slipped through Bernadette’s nervous fingers and landed on the floor with a crash that echoed through the silent room like thunder.

“What the deuce…?”

Dr. Mabbs’s footfalls were much louder than before as they hurried to the back of the room. He was carrying a small oil lamp that sent out flickering vanguards of light and caught the hem of Bernadette’s skirt, then wandered up to her frozen face.

“For God’s sake, Nurse Lemont! You gave me the fright of my life.” The doctor held the lamp higher, and the flames casted shadows on his face giving it an almost demonic expression. “What are you doing here in the darkness anyway?”

Bernadette’s answer was a shaking finger pointing at Adam’s leg that lay uncovered upon the blanket, its bandage a mess of blood and pus.

Dr. Mabbs suppressed a curse, and then, barking out orders Bernadette followed without asking twice, set himself to undress the wound, prodded and probed it and pressed out more pus. The pain outclassed everything Adam had experienced earlier that night, but he passed out only when the doctor started lancing the wound.

He woke from a stinging pain as his leg was dressed in fresh bandages. His mouth was dry and he felt the telltale signs of fever and fatigue that seemed to have become an integral part of his very being. His head was lifted, Bernadette, and then a glass touched his lips and he sipped cool, slightly bitter water. Laudanum. At least sleep will come easy.

“I don’t know what you did to reopen that wound yet again,” Dr. Mabbs said, only inches from his face.

Adam felt a fine spray of spit going down on his cheeks and, disgusted, tried to move his head, but the doctor held it in place.

“I don’t know what it is,” he hissed. “But I strongly advise you to stop it—even though this time it seems to have been a blessing because it opened a hidden abscess.”

He let go of Adam’s face and turned to Bernadette. “And I strongly advise you to stop anything that exceeds what is considered usual between nurse and patient. Now clean up and then go home. Your shift is over.”

She had just nodded then, and silently watched Dr. Mabbs leaving, then had collected bloodstained cloths and surgical instruments in an enamel basin, and wiped the floor with a rag she thereafter had deposited it the basin, too.

Adam had tried to talk to her, but she’d given only short answers, never really interrupting her actions. In the end, after she’d taken the basin away, she’d come back wiping her hands on her apron, had sat down on the edge of his bed and heaved a deep breath before she’d said in a steady voice, “I love you, Adam. I won’t do anything that’ll bring harm to you.”

He’d stared at her, stunned by her bluntness and moved by her sincerity. Overwhelmed by the enormity of her words. Speechless.

“But I will save you, and if it is the last thing I do.” And then she’d leaned forward, taken his face in her hand and softly—oh, so softly—pressed her lips on his.

She’d gone right after the kiss, telling him he shouldn’t fight the pull of the laudanum anymore and should just allow himself to sleep.

But he found he couldn’t. He still felt her lips on his, still felt his heart beating quicker, the heat intensifying all over his body. He still felt her lithe body under his hands as he’d embraced her, her trembling and her softness. He still felt her hair tickling his face, her breath on his cheek. Still felt the want—and the shame about it.

He hadn’t said it back, hadn’t said he loved her, even though he did. He hadn’t said it back, and he was ashamed of that, too. But he couldn’t say it. He’d tried—but the words hadn’t made it out of his mouth. He wondered if he’d ever said them, at any time in his life. He thought he’d loved before, but could he be sure?

He didn’t know how he was supposed to live without the memory of those things. How he was supposed to assess his feelings when he had no memories to compare. How he was supposed to evaluate anything if he had no references from his past?

No doubt, a human being was more than just the sum of his memories. But without knowledge of his history, he felt bereft of his roots, of his base. As if the ground on which he was relying was a spit of quicksand: always threatening to give way—or to swallow him completely.

Bernadette tried to make him see the good in it. That he might be a blank page but didn’t have to stay one. That he could just grab the chance and fill that page with a completely new story. That he didn’t need an old history to write a new one.

She was right, in a way. But yet something kept him from writing the first word; something told him it was important to know what had been erased.

That dream, that ever recurring dream about the stormy sea and the pleading voice—that was important, Adam was sure of it. The person belonging to that voice, that familiar voice, she must be important. Somehow he was convinced that the key to his past lay in that person, that once he reached her, he would recognise her—and know.

Was she the reason he couldn’t tell Bernadette he loved her? Was it that easy? Was there someone else in his life?

He touched his lips with a tentative finger, brushed over them, then made a fist and pressed it against his mouth. Closing his eyes, he let the feeling of something at his lips wash over him, the memory of Bernadette’s kiss, gave it space…and time… And then he remembered another kiss. Another kiss, just as unexpected, just as exciting, just as…not-right. And a face: pretty like a porcelain doll, with a heart-shaped mouth and bright blue eyes that stared at him, wide and sad, as if he’d done something wrong.

She wasn’t the woman from his dream, of that Adam was absolutely certain. The woman from his dream meant a lot; the disappointed porcelain doll meant surprisingly little to him. And yet, her image had come to him as he’d tried to find out if there was someone somewhere waiting for him. Was she trying to tell him that there was no one important? That loving Bernadette wasn’t wrong?

With that comforting thought he finally gave in to the lure of the drug, and slipped into a healing sleep.

He started dreaming even before he was completely out, and his last conscious thought was to be surprised he wasn’t caught in the stormy sea again but instead found himself in field of fragrant, full-blown cream-coloured roses. Queen de Bourbons.

__________

One word
Frees us of all the weight and pain of life:
That word is love.
~ Sophocles

*River of pain in the ancient Greek mythology

*****

Chapter 15

Crossing Bridges


Back in the saddle, hallelujah!
Joe spurred his horse into a short gallop, just for the sake of it, just for the feel of not being restrained, just for a few minutes of revelling in that glorious sense of freedom only a good lope brought—or perhaps a stolen kiss behind the sheriff’s office. Doctor Martin wouldn’t exactly be happy if he could see him right now, and with good reason. Joe’s newly healed side hurt like nobody’s business whenever Cochise misstepped and he had to follow the horse’s movements to balance himself. Spending the day sitting either on horseback or on a hard wooden chair in Billy-Bob Colston’s jail cell and wandering down A Street to the telegraph office hadn’t helped ease the soreness, either. And so Joe allowed himself only a short spurt and reined his horse in before he could actually aggravate his side. Pa kept an ever-vigilant eye on him, and Joe knew that at any sign of discomfort he’d be confined to another round of nerve-grating staying-at-the-ranch-doing-nothing.

And, honestly, Joe had read enough dime novels, cleaned enough rifles and repaired enough cinches and halters. Had squandered enough time on that danged old settee. He needed to be outside, to be at the fresh air, to see people and places, to do things. To do things and maybe forget—

No, he wouldn’t. Wouldn’t forget. Not with those dreams about a haunted and lost-looking Adam he still had nearly every night; not with Pa’s face looking older, more tired, more lined each day—ever since two weeks ago, Hoss’s telegram had arrived with the grave news about Juliet and her baby.

He’d almost forgotten it all while he’d talked to Billy-Bob. The man had been a sorry sight: unwashed and with dirty clothes like most long-term jailbirds, he had the shaking hands and the gaunt look of someone who’d been deprived of his usual intake of alcohol for a long period of time and now suffered from the resulting inability to keep food inside. Sitting on his cot with slumped shoulders and his head hanging, his whole demeanour spoke of misery and resignation.

Billy-Bob had confirmed what Joe had heard from the sheriff already: the miner had lost his job at the Ophir Mine; and even though Joe was determined to talk to Mr. Hamish, the mine’s foreman, or perhaps even ask Pa to do that, he didn’t think it would help much. Maybe Pa would find another way to make sure Billy-Bob would be able to earn his living after having been acquitted of charges. A small patch of land at the outskirts of the Ponderosa, perhaps…

It hadn’t been easy to convince Billy-Bob that pressing charge against him and then hiring Hiram Wood as defence lawyer was the best choice of action. With Joe testifying for Billy-Bob and Hiram’s well-known ability to make juries see things his way, a non-guilty verdict was as good as guaranteed—but Billy-Bob had not seen it that way. In fact, he considered it another act of “Cartwright high- and mightiness” at first.

“Yer thinking y’can jest lock me away ferever, ain’t ya?” he had yelled and leapt up, but Joe stopped him with a dark glance.

“Sit,” he said. It did come out more sharply then intended, and was enhanced by Roy’s hollering from the office to “keep it down” or he wouldn’t allow Billy-Bob any more visitors—and it made Billy-Bob collapse down onto his cot instantly when what little gumption he’d had left just dissipated.

He remained sitting there for the rest of Joe’s stay, motionless but for an occasional shrugging of his shoulders and faint flutter of his arms, which might have looked almost comical had it not reminded Joe of a beetle impaled alive on a display needle.

“Billy-Bob,” Joe tried “it’s not what you think. I don’t want you to go to prison.”

“Then why’re you pressin’ charges?”

“Because it’s the right thing to do. Otherwise…people would think it fishy if we just drop charges. This way it’ll all be fair and square; and you’ll be officially cleared.”

Digesting this, Billy-Bob chewed the inside of his mouth and considered Joe through narrowed eyes for quite a while before he said, “And why’re ya doin’ this fer me, huh?”

“I…” Joe sighed and fidgeted on the hard stool, partly to find a more comfortable position, partly to stall for time to find out what exactly had made him do it. ‘Adam would do it that way’ was a valid motivation in Joe’s world, but he knew that others wouldn’t necessarily see it that way. “It’s…the whole thing…I mean, somehow I started it when I smacked you back then and I…I shouldn’t have…I’m sorry I did it, really.”

“Yeah,” Billy-Bob said. “And I’m sorry, too, I reckon. ’Bout the things I done said then, and ’bout…well, ’bout shootin’ at ya.” And then he shrugged and flapped his arms and finally looked Joe square in the eye. “I jest wanted to scare ya a little, not—Joe, I’d never hurt a lady.”

Joe had nodded, and then he and Billy-Bob had sat in mutual silence and watched dust particles dance in the small ray of sun coming through the cell’s tiny window.

Eventually Roy had come and said that Joe had stayed long enough, and that his jail wasn’t a meeting hall. Joe, who’d known he’d been stalling, had left only reluctantly and promised Billy-Bob to stop by again soon. And then he’d dragged himself to the telegraph office like he’d promised Pa—even though he didn’t agree with his father about the content of the telegram he’d been made to send.

Pa had been devastated by Hoss’s telegram. They both had been shaken by the news, but Pa…Pa had seemed more affected, more struck. He’d blamed himself that he’d not noticed Juliet’s delicate condition, that he’d not held her back—ignoring Joe’s reminder that he couldn’t have held her back because she’d left the house in the wee hours of morning, unseen by anyone.

Mourning the child that would never live and fearing for the mother, they’d included prayers for both, Juliet and her child, in the blessing before supper every day, but somehow it hadn’t given Pa any peace—not the way it used to. He’d aged visibly in only a few days, sleeping badly if at all, eating too little and thinking too much. Far too much.

One night, around midnight, Joe had caught him sitting motionless in Adam’s blue chair which he’d moved to stand before the fireplace, staring unseeingly into the embers. He’d hesitated, but just for a spell, and then he’d silently gone and squatted down next to the chair and put an arm around Pa’s shoulders.

“You gotta move on, you know,” he’d said softly. “Brooding won’t help you any. We have to keep—”

“Yes, exactly,” Pa had interrupted him. He hadn’t averted his eyes from the dying fire, as if he’d seen things in there Joe couldn’t. “Life goes on. What happened, happened; and there’s no way we can change it. We can only change what lies ahead.”

“What…?”

“This…insanity has to stop. Right now.”

“Which insan—I don’t know what you mean, Pa.”

“I’m calling them home, Joe. This family has made enough sacrifices.”

“But—”

“Juliet has lost her baby, she’s nearly lost her life—and all for a fruitless search. I won’t allow her to endanger herself more after she’s recuperated. She has to come home and find peace.”

“Pa, you can’t …Adam is out there somewhere, they have to find him!”

“Son, we have to accept that Adam might not—” He bit his lip, then squeezed out, “…be there anymore.”

“But Pa…”

“And if he’s out there, he will come back on his own eventually. After all those weeks, how good a chance do you think they have to find him?”

“You want them to give up on him?”

“I want them to stay safe. I want Henry to have a mother, I want Juliet to pick up her life again, I want Hoss to be relieved of the burden to carry them all; I want them to be whole and I want them to be at home, where we can support each other.”

Joe slowed Cochise down to a leisurely walk. No need to hurry, why not prolong being out for a spell? It seemed easier to think out here, as if the open range gave his thoughts wings. Perhaps that was what Adam had meant whenever he’d said he needed to clear his mind and then had ridden away and been gone for days.

Joe’s thoughts flew back to that night Pa had set his mind. He understood him, but he still disagreed. No matter if Pa said otherwise, abandoning the search for Adam seemed like acknowledging the fact that he was dead, like giving up, like betrayal.

And even though he’d done what he’d reluctantly promised and sent the telegram as his father had worded it, he fervently hoped that for once Hoss would not obey the words that admitted Pa’s defeat.

*****

“NO MORE SACRIFICES STOP COME HOME IMMEDIATELY STOP PA”

Hoss rescued the telegram from Henry’s wet grip and managed to fold it in half and put it back onto the nightstand before the boy could make another attempt at grabbing it again. Henry had obviously developed a taste for paper over the last few days. He crumpled up every piece he could get a hold of, be it a page from a book or a letter, and stuffed it into his mouth, chewing happily on it as if it were the most toothsome thing he knew.

Securing the baby on his lap with one hand Hoss reached down to the floor to where Henry’s newest toy had fallen moments ago, giving him a reason to look for something else to abuse. Ever since he’d discovered that other things than his own hands and feet could be toys, too, Henry had made it his habit to grab everything he could reach and then pick and prod at it, pinch and pluck—before he’d inevitably stuff it into his mouth. Mrs. Milward had finally made him a rag doll, to keep his hands from cups and saucers, silver spoons and, yes, papers.

Hoss plucked the doll up and handed it to Henry, who snatched it from him with a happy crowing and immediately began to pick at the thick blue zigzag stitches that marked the doll’s overalls before he diverted his attention to its face.

“Da,” he said, prodding one green eye. Then, looking up at Hoss’s face, he repeated, “Da.”

“Yeah, that’s his eye, ainnit?” Hoss said with a smile.

“Da.” Henry pointed to the other eye.

“Well, that’d be the other eye then, little feller.”

“Da, da, da, da ,da,” Henry cooed cheerfully.

“Shh.” Hoss glanced to the bed beside him. “Yer mother is sleeping.”

Henry considered him for a moment, then leaned back on Hoss’s arm and said very softly, “Da, da, da.” The doll went into his mouth and he chewed upon it with much enthusiasm, making little munching sounds.

“Atta boy,” Hoss chuckled.

His eyes went back to the bed where Juliet lay, pale and unmoving, but finally sleeping naturally and peacefully. He’d been keeping vigil over her for long days and nights, watching her fight for her life still and silent, in her own trademark containment. Countless times he’d held his hand under her nose to see if she was still breathing or if she’d gone already, quiet and dignified. Unnoticed.

Her stillness had perturbed Hoss. From his brothers’ sick beds he was used to flailing limbs, to head throwing and to speaking in the sleep. He’d calmed them after nightmares, held them down when delusions misled them into action and soothed them when they’d talked nonsense. He’d seen them writhe and squirm, and heard them groan and cry.

Juliet had done none of that. She’d lain there, completely motionless, the rise and fall of her chest too soft to be noticed, and even her breath so shallow that it couldn’t be heard. The doctor had said she was too weak to move, the blood loss too severe, that her body needed every ounce of strength to simply survive. But Hoss had suspected that that wasn’t the only thing that kept her silent: that she didn’t let herself go because a lady just didn’t do that.

Only once had she woken out of her stupor, and it had scared Hoss nearly to death. It had been in the early hours of morning, shortly before sunrise, and he’d just relieved Mrs. Milward from her night watch when Juliet had suddenly sat up. Her eyes wide, she’d stared into nowhere, her gaze focused, that much Hoss had seen, but on what? And then she’d stretched her arms out, as if she’d been trying to reach what ever she’d seen, and said, “Help me, Adam. I need you.”

After that, she’d never woken again. She’d worsened throughout the next few days, constantly getting weaker. They’d thought they’d lost her, not once but several times; and the doctor’s grave prognosis had fuelled their fears: they’d prepared for the worst.

Taking turns at Juliet’s bedside, they’d made sure she’d never been alone. And so Hoss had been on his own when a kind reverend had spoken a benediction over a tiny mound of earth at the Evergreen Cemetery. It had been difficult enough to find a man of God who was willing to do this small service. To his utter disgust, Hoss had learnt that the contains of the tiny bundle of cloth, that what should have been Juliet’s and Adam’s second child, was not considered a person, not someone with a soul by most people to whom he’d spoken. A clergyman from the Lutheran Seminary finally had shown mercy, and rendered the child the last service. It had given Hoss some peace of mind, and he’d tried to memorise everything of the short ceremony in the hopes that a rendering of his memories would help Juliet to find peace, too.

It had been Henry who’d made the difference, who’d brought a change in Juliet’s condition—about that Hoss was certain. Mrs. Milward had brought him into the bedroom one day, declaring that he needed to be nursed to maintain the milk supply—and from that day on, Juliet seemed to, well, not really improve, but not longer worsen, either.

The final breakthrough had come when Henry had made it very clear that he wanted to stay with his mother, and they’d let him sit on Juliet’s bed and play with the rag doll or sleep where he’d wriggled himself into the crook of his mother’s arm. Juliet had finally woken up every once in a while, had been lucid and responsive, and been able to stay awake longer at each time.

“Da,” Henry said again, and held the rag doll on his outstretched arm up to Hoss face.

“No, thanks,” Hoss grinned. “I ain’t hungry, right now. Funny as it seems.”

Then Henry turned around and held the doll out to the bed—and suddenly his face lit up into one of his fat, toothless smiles. “Da,” he cried. “Da, da!”

Hoss had no doubt as to why Henry was so happy. He looked to the bed, and saw Juliet, awake and smiling, her face still showing a sickly pallor but also reflecting the light of Henry’s smile. Hoss helped her sit up propped against a mountain of pillows he placed behind her back, then seated Henry next to her. Henry, obviously happy with himself and the world, waved the doll at his mother and excitedly babbled his “da, da, da” in never ending succession.

Being able to sit and to stay awake for a longer period of time was an achievement of the past two days, as was Juliet’s ability to eat nourishing food and actually keep it down. And the recovery of her unique talent to jump into uncomfortable conversations without a forewarning at any odd time.

“Have you sent back a telegram already?” she asked without preamble, while carefully removing the rag doll from the immediate proximity of her face. Then she turned her attention to Henry and, holding his hands and the doll down, said softly, “Mummy isn’t up to digesting rags yet.”

As always, Henry listened intently to his mother’s words, then he leaned forward and reached for her face. She laughed, took his hand and kissed the palm, which made Henry giggle. It didn’t distract her from her inquiry, though.

“Have you?”

“No. I’m not sure…”

“Not sure? We’ve talked about that, Hoss.”

Hoss looked down at his lap where he was kneading his hands. “I’m jest not sure…” He scratched at the back of his neck. “Perhaps we better go home.”

“I’m in no condition to travel anyway. And when I’ve recovered we’re going to continue looking for Adam.” She looked sharply at Hoss. Her eyes bright from the lingering fever but vivacious, they were a sparkling contrast to her tired face. “Or perhaps I will continue searching for Adam. I will not give up.”

He cringed. “This ain’t about giving up. But…I think Pa’s right, we’ve made enough sacrifices. You’ve made enough sacrifices. I don’t want you to hurt no more.”

“Going home won’t stop making us hurt, Hoss.” She held her hand up to stop him from replying when he opened his mouth. “And don’t tell me you are not hurting. I know you are. I’m sorry I poured this…” she made a vague gesture “…upon you. And yet I am so very glad you’re here with me…and Henry. I don’t know what I would do without you.”

He fidgeted on his chair. “It’s all right…”

“And I’d be very grateful if you stayed with me. But I’d understand if you’d rather listen to your Pa and go home.”

He stared at her. Her face was guileless, and yet…

And then she winced and her eye grew wide. “Good gracious, Hoss, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply…. It’s just, I can’t…I can’t go back. I can’t stop searching. I know Adam’s out there, and he’s trying to come back…I know that, Hoss. I don’t know why, I just feel it. And I can’t…just go and leave him alone. He trusts me to wait for him.”

“You can’t know that,” Hoss almost whispered. “He don’t even know you’re here.”

“But if he knew he’d trust me to stay.”

Hoss head spun. What Juliet said was plain loco, delusional, absurd—and yet, it made sense, in some twisted way.

“Are you doing this for Adam or for yerself, Juliet?”

She wrapped her arms around herself, pulled her shoulders up, seemed to practically shrink into herself. “For us both,” she whispered eventually. “For Adam and for me.”

“Then it’s decided.” He pried her hands from her shoulders, encompassed them in his hands, her small, pale hands in his big, tanned; and squeezed tenderly. “We ain’t givin’ up.”

She smiled, just a trace of a smile, and nodded. “No, we…ain’t givin’ up.”

__________

Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

*****

 

Chapter 16

Burning Bridges

 

“Nurse Lemont, a word.”

Bernadette looked up from the freshly boiled and dried linen bandages she was rolling. “Yes, Dr. Mabbs?”

The doctor opened his mouth, hesitated and looked around the utility room at the other nurses busy straightening up equipment. He pressed his lips together, breathed audibly out through his nose, then started again, “Outside, if you please.”

He turned and left the room, not even waiting for Bernadette’s word of assent.

Bernadette followed him, of course. Followed him as he strode down the long corridor towards the window where they sometimes seated soldiers who were allowed to get up to give them a change of scenery. Bernadette had helped Adam to the chair at the window the day before—an action that partly had filled her with joy about his new-won ability to stay, if only unsteadily, on his legs and partly had made her dread the consequences of his much-improved condition.

Dr. Mabbs halted his steps at the window, put his hands on the sill and looked out for a moment before he turned around abruptly. His gaze seemed to pierce into Bernadette for a heartbeat or two, then faded into something she couldn’t fathom. Uncertainty? Surely not.

He straightened his posture, crossed his arms over his impressive chest. He stared at Bernadette, watched her with his jaws working, and then his gaze went down to a spot on the floor, just between the two of them, and he nodded to himself, repeatedly, while his jaws still chewed on nothing at all.

It was frightening. His silence unnerved Bernadette even more than his usual sneered malice and barely concealed threats did. While Dr. Mabbs’s hostility was something with which she’d learnt to deal, this unfamiliar hesitation was incalculable.

Clearly, he had something on his mind. And clearly, it would be no good.

“Miss Lemont,” he eventually started, and even though his voice lacked its usual haughtiness, his low, icy tone ran down Bernadette’s spine like a shiver of foreboding. “I think it is time to discuss your future here.”

She swallowed even though her mouth was completely dry. She wasn’t able to utter a single sound; all she could do was stare at him. She began to feel lightheaded.

His smile was poisonously sweet. “And about that Yankee-friend of yours, of course.”

There was darkness creeping onto her from the edges of her vision, tiny black spots that blurred together and started to blot out the light completely. She couldn’t breathe properly, nausea rose up from her stomach, her legs felt like they would give way any second…

And then there was an arm around her waist, and a hand on hers, surprisingly gentle, and she was guided down.

“Do take a seat, my dear,” a voice said softly. “Head down. Breathe. In. Out. Deep breaths. There, that’s it. Breathe.”

“Adam?”

“No, I’m afraid not.” And the bite was back.

*****

One hand on the iron headboard, one on the mattress, Adam cautiously pushed himself up from the bed. Keeping all his weight on his good leg, he let go of the bedstead and reached for the cane that was propped at his bedside table. He held onto it with a death grip and carefully shifted from his left foot to his right. Leaning heavily on the cane, he tried to support himself as much as possible on it rather than his still unsteady leg. Half disgusted, half embarrassed, he noted that his arm shook nearly as badly as his leg and that he broke into a sweat almost instantly.

Bernadette had told him to make a show of how weak he still was, of how much his leg still troubled him when he exercised, but, honestly, he didn’t have to make it much of a show: he was weak as a kitten, and his leg…his leg hurt as soon as he put any strain on it.

He made a step forward, just one, took a deep breath, made a second step. A third. He nearly stumbled upon the fourth, caught himself, and, clinging to the cane, stood; just stood, swaying and breathing through the pain, waiting for his blurring vision to clear.

The only thing he was aware of besides the pain was the pleasant, genteel voice of one of the town’s ladies reading from Melville’s Moby-Dick to one of the other soldiers. Most of the women worked as voluntary nurses, like Bernadette. They cleaned wounds, changed dressings, administered medications, washed patients and fed them if necessary. This particular lady was one of the few who only came to read to the ailing men, to talk or to help them write letters home. Hearing her soft murmur in the background had often given Adam a surprising sensation of peace; and now her recitation of Moby-Dick gave him something to hold onto; something on which he could focus, something that pulled him out of the haze.

He contemplated going back to the bed. Go back to the bed. What an exaggeration. He was only four steps away from it. Four steps—and if he ever wanted to put a longer distance between himself and that bed, he would have to stay on those darned, shaking legs now and push on.

Push on. One step, two steps, three steps. Stop and breathe. One step, two steps, three steps. Stop and breathe. One step, two steps—he’d reached the wall. Leaning against it, relishing its solidity, he closed his eyes, breathed evenly in and out, and enjoyed his triumph: it seemed his leg had given up and just accepted that he wouldn’t take no as an answer. The pain, incredible as it seemed, had subsided. It wasn’t gone, but had waned to a tolerable level.

A tiny voice in his head told Adam that he wouldn’t actually make it the few miles short of two hundred from Charlottesville to Gettysburg like this, but he decided to conveniently ignore it. He might not be healed enough to walk as he pleased, but surely he was considered healed enough to become a prisoner. Dr. Mabbs had been subtle about it, but Adam didn’t make the mistake of misunderstanding the doctor’s hints that he soon would be too well to stay in a Confederate hospital. And he had certainly noticed that there was always someone keeping an eye on him when Bernadette helped him outside to the chair next to the window at the end of the corridor.

Dr. Mabbs might not have repeated his original threat, but Adam knew it still was valid and that he could be transferred to prison any day. It was high time for a second attempt at escape—and this time, he’d better not fail.

He pushed himself from the wall, and with the loss of its support the pain returned, as did the blurring of his vision.

Were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we could for ever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon…” reached his ear from the far side of the room, and then there was the image of the girl with the face like a porcelain doll in his head again. She stared at him with those big, bright blue eyes and…

The smell of the sea, a dark garden, a kiss. Longed for, desired, forbidden, yet savoured…and then, “Um, Fiona, you know I’m going to graduate next year?”

God, he was young, so young. A student.

“What’s your dream, Fiona? What do you want from life?”

“I want to find a man I can love and who loves me. I want a family, children, a nice home.”

“Is that all?”

A silvery laugh. “Adam! Is there more someone can wish for? A happy life, no less. What more could I want? That’s the kind of life I want to live, that’s the kind of wife I want to be: the kind of wife a man would want. The kind of wife you would want, Adam?”

And his voice again, amazed but firm. “No, I wouldn’t want that.”

A slap. His cheek was burning. He knew he’d deserved it; he should never have kissed her. Never.

“How dare you, Adam Cartwright!”*

His hand flew up to his cheek, as if the stinging burn were still there; the cane clattered to the floor. He reached back to the steadying wall, missed it—God, where has the wall gone?

“Are you all right?”

The lady’s eyes were concerned and green, and her face wasn’t that of a porcelain doll, so Adam felt it safe to let himself be ushered back to his bed by her. She helped him sit down, and went back to fetch his cane.

“Shall I call for a doctor?” she asked upon returning.

He shook his head. “I’m fine.” And he was. Shaken, yes, but all in all fine.

She raised an eyebrow, which he found irritatingly familiar, then shook her head, handed him the cane and went back to the other soldier. Soon Adam heard her resume her reading. “And besides, when a man is elevated in that odd fashion, he has no proper foundation for his superior altitude. Hence, I conclude, that in boasting himself to be high lifted above a whaleman, in that assertion the pirate has no solid basis to stand on.

Whaleman, pirate… The smell of the sea. He’d lived at the coast when he’d been young, had studied there—what?—had loved. Adam Cartwright—that was he. And Fiona…that was the woman he had loved but not…not enough? He picked up his notebook and added this new information to the record.

*****

“Nurse Lemont, do not think I’m not aware of your…affection for this particular patient.” Dr. Mabbs stood tall, but he glanced down at his hands, which were touching at the fingertips so that they formed a triangle.

“Dr. Mabbs, I’m not—”

“I’m not stupid, Nurse.” The triangle of his fingers opened and closed a few times. “And I know that you are not stupid, either.”

She looked up. His tone was different; she couldn’t put her finger on it, but something had changed.

He actually looked at her, tried to catch her gaze. “Let us speak plainly, shall we?”

She nodded. Cautiously.

“You and I know that our Yankee soldier is ready to leave this hospital any day. He’s clearly out of danger of a relapse; the infection is well under control and his fever non-existent. I’ve done an excellent job on his healing, if I may say so myself.”

That he had. An excellent job, done by an excellent doctor whose work ethic demanded him to devote that excellence to every patient, whether in grey or blue. It wasn’t the attitude of every doctor at the military hospitals in which Bernadette had worked.

But, of course, Adam wasn’t fully healed yet—and even if he were, she wouldn’t admit it. “He’s still weak, doctor. He can’t stay upright for long, and his nights are still troubled. I fear—”

“You fear that I notice just how well he’s recuperated, m’dear.”

“I…no…” She shook her head.

“You fear that I will put an end to his far too prolonged sojourn in this institution.”

Her mouth worked wordlessly.

“You fear that I will arrange his immediate transfer to a prisoner of war camp, where he rightfully belongs.” He let his hands fall and clasped them behind his back. “And I am very much in the mood to do precisely that.”

*****

Adam closed the notebook. He had recorded a lot of facts already, all seemingly conflicting—but they still had to make sense, still had to fit together somehow like a jigsaw puzzle. He only had to find out how to put it together.

But that would have to come later—when and if he survived, when and if he managed to escape imprisonment.

He’d talked to Bernadette about it, had insisted it was time to make another effort. She’d been reluctant, had reminded him he wasn’t strong enough yet. But he knew he couldn’t afford to wait till his strength fully returned; he knew he would be taken to prison long before then.

In the end, Bernadette had given in. She’d asked him to wait a few more days to give her time to prepare everything, to make sure this time there would be no unforeseen obstacles.

No unforeseen obstacles, as if there could even be such a thing. Life consisted of unforeseen obstacles—even if Adam had forgotten that, too, his current situation would have reminded him of it. Bernadette had scolded him for being sarcastic, he had reminded her that the way to Gettysburg was long enough to provide a million obstacles, and she had stared at him.

“But we won’t go to Gettysburg,” she’d said. “I’ll take you further north. All the way to Canada, where you’ll be safe.”

“If I went to Canada, I’d be a deserter.”

“You’d live.” She’d frowned. “With me.” As if it made a difference.

“I cannot…I cannot be a deserter, Bernadette. I can’t…I enlisted. I’ve signed a contract. I can’t break my word.”

“Adam, if you return to your regiment they will just put you back on duty. They’d send you back into battle. You could get hurt again, you could get killed!”

“Bernadette…”

“And after I’ve fought so hard to keep you alive.” She’d sounded so bitter, but he couldn’t help her.

“I can’t just desert. I’m no coward.”

“Would you rather die?”

“I don’t want to die, but I also don’t want to conduct myself dishonestly.”

“No one would know it. No one knows you’re alive, no one knows you’re here. No one will know.”

“I would know it. I couldn’t live with that. Bernadette, there are men fighting out there. I’m one of them, I can’t forsake them.”

“Most probably they won’t even send you back to fight. Not with that leg of yours.”

“You’re contradicting yourself. But, anyway, it makes no difference.”

No, it didn’t make a difference. Not then, not now. But he hadn’t found a way to make Bernadette understand that his honour was worth more than his life, that he didn’t want to live without honour. He knew she loved him, she’d told him so many times, but how could she love his life more than his honour?

*****

Adam had been right. It was time to get away, sooner rather than later.

Tonight. They’d have to flee tonight. What little strength Adam had regained by now had to be enough. And once she had him outside of the hospital she would make sure they’d head further north, to safety. Adam would recuperate there, and then they’d start a new life.

But how to make it outside without being held up again?

Bernadette was aware that she must have been staring, wide-eyed and her face colourless; and somehow she couldn’t escape the feeling that Dr. Mabbs was able to read her every thought right from her face.

“I know that you two attempted to leave that other night.” The doctor’s softly spoken words seemed to confirm her fear. He crouched down, brought his face at the same level as hers. “Miss Lemont, that man isn’t good for you.”

She blinked.

“He will bring great misery upon you. Disgrace.”

“He would never—”

He held a hand up. “Disaster, if you prefer. Whatever it is, you’ll get hurt.”

“I—”

“I will not stand aside and let that happen.” And then he reached for her hand, but pulled back. “Nurse Lemont…Bernadette…you could do better. You are a very pretty woman, and I…” Averting his gaze from her face, he trailed off.

“Dr. Mabbs, you can’t—”

“I can’t let the prisoner escape, and I can’t let him lead you into disaster. I will not allow that.”

She pressed her hands to her mouth, trying to hold back a sob. There was no reason to hide her distress: he knew she was beaten. She hated him more than ever.

“I’m not inhuman, though. I might be able to present an alternative.”

She looked up.

“I…I do care for you, Nur—Bernadette. And there was a time I thought… In any case, I do understand how important that soldier’s safety is for you. Your safety is just as important to me, you see.”

He did try to break through the air of haughtiness that always wafted around him, she had to give him credit for that. He was still crouched before her, with his shoulders slumped forward, his eyes trying but not always succeeding to hold her gaze, and his hands not knowing where to be put. His voice was soft, his words came haltingly—he seemed almost human.

He took a deep breath. “I believe I have an offer you cannot refuse.”

*****

Adam sighed. Bernadette might try and coax him as much as she liked; he would not yield. He would do the honourable thing and go back to Gettysburg in the hope of finding his regiment—and people who knew who he was. In one respect Bernadette had been right, though: it was going to be a hazardous venture. He was sure someone—Dr. Mabbs most probably—was going to alert the military or perhaps the Home Guard. He was going to be hunted throughout the whole journey, or at least as long as he was on Confederate territory. He could be caught, and then he wouldn’t be able to put up much of a fight. He could get himself killed. Could get them killed.

Could he, in good conscience, expose Bernadette to that risk? How could he? He loved her, didn’t he?

And the image was back: Fiona. The kiss, oh the kiss. So much desire, so much longing—and still so much sense of being not-right. He’d loved Fiona, too, and yet…

His head began to hurt. Fiona and Bernadette…was there a similarity? Was that the reason he kept thinking of Fiona’s blue-eyed face and that improper kiss?

The kiss, the kiss…and then another memory:Adam, I don’t think you are even capable of doing something dishonourable. You never do something you think is wrong. At the cost of your life, at the cost of your reputation—whatever it takes. He heard it as if she was standing right next to him loud and clear in his mind, that voice with the genteel clipped British accent. This time the tone wasn’t that of a governess but of someone much closer, someone much more important: there was warmth in it.

He still didn’t know who she was, but she was right. He might not know who Adam Cartwright was, where he came from, or what he did for a living, but he knew that Adam Cartwright was a man of honour—and the British lady knew that, too.

*****

“Tonight you and I’ll be on duty. I might be very busy with some administrative work in my office for at least an hour, right after midnight. Too busy, actually, to leave the office for any reasons. And if a patient decides to leave the hospital on his own account, I certainly wouldn’t become aware of it before…let’s say early morning. Sufficient time to be well away from here, even for someone who has…mobility problems.” Dr. Mabbs came to a dramatic pause and watched Bernadette intently.

She just looked back, stunned.

“All that I…request is that you will still be here come morning. And that you…stay here. At my side. As my…wife.” He paused, just for the moment it took him to clear his throat. “I can offer you everything a woman could want: a house, considerable wealth, a good reputation. A respectable life. It’s up to you. All that’s needed is for you to say ‘Yes, I do.’”

To her utmost surprise, she wasn’t as shocked as she could have been. First of all, it was a chance. A genuine chance, a true chance—the only chance Adam would get. She gazed at her hands. They didn’t tremble, they didn’t sweat. They lay calmly in her lap, palm up, open and relaxed.

It was Adam’s only chance, and had she not said she’d do anything to help him? That she wouldn’t do anything that brought harm to him? That she would save him, even if it were the last thing she’d do? And now his rescue lay in her hands. She clasped them together and raised them to her heart, then looked up at Dr. Mabbs.

“Yes,” she said, amazed at how little time it had taken her to make her choice. “I do.”

He smiled. He actually smiled. It didn’t make him more handsome, but it made her think that perhaps he could be more than her custodian for the coming years.

He took her hand, pulled her towards him. He wants to seal it, shot through her head, but she wasn’t ready to surrender, not yet, not as long as she still felt the ghost of Adam’s lips on hers. However, Dr. Mabbs—does he even have a Christian name?—only raised her hand to his mouth and breathed a feathery kiss upon it.

“I am honoured,” he said, and it sounded more sincere than sarcastic. “And who knows, perhaps, in time you might even come to like me again.”

*****

You never do something you think is wrong. It was wrong to go anywhere other than to Gettysburg. You never do something you think is wrong. It was wrong to put Bernadette’s life at risk. You never do something you think is wrong. It was wrong to allow her any longer to think they could have a life together. You never do something you think is wrong. It was wrong to hurt her, but he’d have to do it in order to avoid all the other wrongs—and it would be better to do it now before she gave up her life for him.

He would go alone.

He just hoped Bernadette would forgive him one day.

*****

Bernadette hesitated before she opened the door to the hospital room. On her way down the corridor she’d felt absolute calm, a peaceful serenity. Now that she was about to tell Adam she would not go with him, poise deserted her: what had been simple and clear a minute ago, now seemed chaotic and disturbing. She still was sure she’d done the right thing—but she would have to hurt Adam now, and hurting Adam was the last thing she wanted to do.

She closed her eyes. There was no other way. She had to do it. Had to get it over and done with as quickly as possible—and before she could reconsider her decision.

And so she entered the room. She headed straight to Adam’s bed in the far corner, passing one of the town’s fine ladies who was reading to a patient. She vaguely perceived that the book was about ships on the sea, and she wondered why a lady who lived in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains had chosen a book like that.

She forgot that question the moment she arrived at Adam’s bed.

He looked flushed, as if he’d exercised and overdone it again, and somehow agitated. She wanted to check his forehead for fever—but couldn’t bring herself to do it. She needed distance. She couldn’t touch him, or she’d never…

“We have to talk,” she blurted—both to prevent him from speaking, and herself from thinking.

“What…?”

“You have to flee tonight,” she said without preamble. Well, what kind of preamble could there have been anyway? I’m going to marry Dr. Mabbs in order to make him turn a blind eye on your escape? She clenched her teeth. No, those words couldn’t cross her lips. Adam would never allow her…he would never accept that sacrifice. He couldn’t know.

“I know I don’t have much time anymore, but why tonight?”

I’m going to marry Dr. Mabbs in order to make him turn a blind eye on your escape—No, no, no.

“There won’t be a doctor in the ward tonight, from midnight to one. It’s your only chance. We don’t know when that will happen again, and even tomorrow could be too late. You are well enough to be sent to prison.”

“An hour. That should be enough. Even with that leg.” He nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll be glad to get onto the cart, though.”

“The horse. There will be a horse.” She turned her gaze to a point half an inch from his frowning face. “I’ll tell you where.”

She heard him exhale. Then there was a long pause before he inhaled. “I…see,” he said.

She looked back at him. “Adam…”

He still frowned. His mouth worked, wordlessly, and his gaze wandered over her face as if he wanted to read something in her expression—or as if he was searching for words.

She didn’t want to hear it. Whatever it was, she didn’t want to hear it. Not now. Not when she had to talk first.

“You’ll have a good lead on whoever will track you. They won’t notice your absence until morning. I’ll make sure of that.”

Now he just stared. His face was completely unreadable.

Bernadette took a deep breath, careful not to heave up a sob with it. “I will stay here. I can’t go with you.”

“What happened? Has someone…has Dr. Mabbs…? Are you in trouble?”

He was concerned. Of course he was: he was Adam. He wouldn’t go if he felt she was in danger. Why did he make it so hard for her to not hurt him?

“No, I’m…all right. Everything is…Adam, it’s not that. It’s just that I realised…that I came to understand…” I’m going to marry Dr. Mabbs in order to… No! “I don’t love you, Adam. I’m sorry, but I don’t. Not…not that way. Not the way I thought I did. I’m so sorry, but I can’t…I can’t spend my life with you. It wouldn’t be right for either of us.”

His face was blank. “It’s all right,” he whispered. “Don’t…it’s all right.”

But it wasn’t. Releasing a strangled sob, Bernadette gathered her skirt and fled the room.

*****

He sat there for a long time after she’d gone, looking at his empty hands, listening to the distant sound of the reading lady’s voice. He wasn’t sure how he felt. He wasn’t sure how he was supposed to feel. He wasn’t sure if he felt anything at all.

He had nerved himself to hurt Bernadette, but while he’d still been looking for the right words—were there right words to use when you hurt a person?—she had gone and hurt him. It shouldn’t hurt, it really shouldn’t considering he didn’t love her that way, either, but it did. Rejection always hurt. He knew that. Something told him he’d had his fair share of rejection in the life he couldn’t remember, more than his fair share. Painfully, Bernadette’s words had reminded him of that.

So he did feel something. Hurt.

And he felt something else: relief. It was just a tiny, low voice, but it was there, undeniable.

Oh, and shame. He certainly felt shame. Shame for being relieved; shame for not having eased Bernadette’s burden by telling her he didn’t love her that way, either—even though she might not have believed him, and, really, what good would it have done to lash out?

And yet he loved her as much as a man could love a woman without being in love, and he would not part from someone he owed so much without telling her that. Taking his notebook from its hiding place, he tore a page out and began to write, “My dear Bernadette…”

*****

Through the window at the end of the corridor, Bernadette watched the sun going down over the mountains. Slowly the terrible feeling of having done something horrible made way for the knowledge that she had done the right thing. The honourable thing. She smiled. Adam, with his talk about honour, should be pleased with her—but Adam could never know what she’d done. What she would do.

Perhaps it was better that way, not just for Adam but for her, too. Perhaps Dr. Mabbs was right, and she would, one day, come to like him. Love him, actually. Perhaps never the way she loved Adam, but she loved Adam so much that maybe a little less love would still be more than enough.

And she would, after all, get the life she’d always anticipated: married to a reputable man, well provided for, with her own house, maybe with children.

Running away with Adam had been, perhaps, only a romantic dream. Something she’d dreamt about when she’d been a young girl and believed that one day a knight in shining armour would come and abduct her from the grim dragon’s den.

Now she had to laugh. It seemed that she had to rescue her knight in shining armour from the grim dragon—and spend the rest of her life with the beast. Beauty and the Beast… Would it turn out be a story with a happy ending?

Yes, it was better this way, as much as it hurt. And if she was completely honest with herself, she didn’t really believe that Adam was still free. There had to be a woman out there, waiting for him to return; and it gratified Bernadette to know she hadn’t stolen from that woman, and that Adam would find his way back.

“Be safe, Adam,” she whispered into the red-golden spectacle of sunlight. “Be safe.”

*****

One hundred and eighty miles north-northeast, Hoss Cartwright, who’d nodded off in his chair, woke up with a start. In the bed next to him, Juliet was whimpering in her sleep. Her hands twitched, her shoulders jerked, and she made anguished sounds, none of which she’d done while she’d been in the throes of fever.

Murmuring, “Shh,” Hoss cautiously put a hand on her shoulder—and jerked it back as if he’d touched fire when Juliet suddenly bolted upright, emitting what was almost a shriek.

“There,” he said, “don’t you fright none. It’s all right, old Hoss is here for you.”

Juliet’s hands fluttered in front of her, as if she wanted to grab the air before her, then she turned to Hoss and dug her fingers into his shirt.

“He’s coming,” she whispered.

“What?”

“He’s coming, Hoss,” she repeated, this time sounding even more urgent. “Adam. He’s coming.” And then she sank limply into his arms, and he couldn’t wake her up again.

When he asked her about it the next morning, she remembered nothing.

__________

Self-sacrifice is the real miracle out of which all the reported miracles grow. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

*****

Chapter 17

Night Shift

Before Dr. Mabbs had retreated to his office to engross himself in writing order lists, filling in forms and file cards, noting statistical numbers and whatnot annoying administrative bunkum the Confederate Army found necessary, the last patient on whom he had checked had been the nameless soldier with the Yankee accent.

Mabbs had examined the leg wound one more time, finding it healing satisfyingly. Most physicians would have taken the easy way and simply amputated a leg injured so badly. A Minie ball had destroyed a lot of tissue, shredded muscle, torn the iliotibial band, and finally lodged in the femur. By some miracle it had not completely shattered the bone, yet it had done considerable damage. The soldier must have been exposed to the elements for at least half a day and a full night—sufficient enough time to develop an infection caused by particles of clothing or other dirt the bullet had carried.

But Bernadette had pled with him not to remove the limb, and both Bernadette’s obvious conviction that he would be able to pull the man through and his own professional pride had made him pick up the challenge and try the almost impossible. And so, having stabilised the patient first, he’d worked on saving as many lives as possible first and then, late at night, come back and performed a little miracle.

He’d done it to prove to himself that after two years of serving in the slaughterhouses referred to as field hospitals he was still a surgeon worth the title, that he still could heal a patient opposed to just keep him alive. And to earn himself another of Bernadette’s admiring glances. Perhaps the latter had even been the superior motive.

Of course, when the nurse’s appreciative gazes had shifted their direction, when she had started to bestow those looks upon the patient rather than on the doctor, Mabbs had questioned the wisdom of his actions. At one point he’d almost been ready for just allowing the ever-rekindling infection to run its destructive ways. But he couldn’t. He loathed the ailing soldier with a passion, but the man still was a patient, and therefore the doctor’s charge. Dr. Mabbs had not sworn the Hippocratic Oath to violate it at the first possibility and gain personal advantage from that. And that Yankee wasn’t worth compromising his honour over anyway.

He had done everything in his power to fight the infection, to heal bone and tissue, and to restore as much of the patient’s mobility as possible. There would, however, remain an ugly scar where he had had to remove larger quantities of inflamed flesh that would not just grow back, a garbled mess of welts and protrusions; and the man wouldn’t have full use of his leg for a long time. He would, in a way, have to learn how to walk properly again and how to live with a constant pain—and that would take a very long time.

Looking down on yet another military form on which he had to meticulously file each ounce of medicine he’d administered over the last week, the doctor sighed. He had given the Yankee a generous dose of laudanum stirred into a small glass of water tonight.

“Drink up,” he’d said as he’d handed the soldier the concoction. “It’ll take away all traces of pain. You’ll sleep like a baby.”

Bernadette, who’d assisted him, had looked up in alarm, but he’d turned away abruptly, to check upon the patient on the next bed, whom he’d thought to have heard moaning. He’d soon found that the man had been perfectly well, and applied his attention back to the Yankee, who apparently had drunk his medicine already, for the glass in his hand had been empty.

He had redressed the wound, making sure the bandage would not slip out of position even if the patient passed a restless night despite the sleeping drug. He’d instructed the nurse to leave some additional dressings on the bedside table, just in case the patient needed them while he, the doctor, would be unavailable, buried in paperwork and not to be disturbed by trifles; and then he had left the room, heading straight to his office.

He stared at the form on the desk before him, briefly wondering if the Yankee was on his way out already. He dismissed the thought as soon as it entered his mind. For all he knew, the patient lay in his bed, drugged into a sound sleep. He’d taken every precaution to keep the man where he was until he, now sufficiently healed, would be transferred to prison the next day. He’d done everything anyone could have expected him to do.

He drummed his fingers on the desk’s dark wood. He was not helping a soon-to-be prisoner escape. He wasn’t.

As a rule, Dr. Mabbs did not drink alcohol while he was working. He needed both his wits and his hands working skilfully and precisely—neither he nor his patients could afford any clumsiness, be it of his fingers or his brain. Yet at times, after a particularly strenuous day, he indulged himself in a sip of whiskey when his work was done. For those occasions he kept an earthen jug of old Kentucky bourbon in his desk.

Stopping the drumming of his fingers, Mabbs leaned down and produced the jug from the depths of the bottommost drawer. A thimble full will do, he thought. Just a tiny drop to calm my nerves.

He found a small tumbler, only a little bigger than a thimble, and poured a stingy amount of the golden liquid into it so that the bottom was marginally covered. Swirling the drink in the glass a few times and inhaling the luxurious fume, Dr. Mabbs found himself unable to raise the glass to his mouth.

He knew there were surgeons who wouldn’t hesitate. He had seen them, in the field hospitals, and some even here, where things were supposed to be more regulated: doctors who drank to dull their senses, to block out the smell of blood and death, the moans and cries of ailing, dying men, the memory of their own restrictions, their failures. Men who got so accustomed to the daily inebriation, they drank till the pot was dry, and still needed more. More and more, to numb their anxiety.

He wasn’t one of those men.

He poured the whiskey back into the jug, his hands calm and steady, without spilling a single drop and replaced the bottle into his desk.

No, he wasn’t one of those men. He was a man of honour. A man who knew right from wrong. A man who did his duty.

And he had not helped a prisoner escape.

Dr. Mabbs picked up his pencil and finally started to fill in the form about the ‘distribution and administration of sedative and anaesthetic drugs,’ making sure he recorded the abundantly measured dose of laudanum he’d used on the unnamed patient in room four to drug him into oblivion.

No, he certainly had not helped anyone to escape.

*****

Bernadette Lemont had been a nurse ever since the first weeks of the war they all thought wouldn’t last long. Being a woman on whom the fine ladies who came to read and talk to patients but never soiled their hands with gore and pus looked down, she still was the one for whom the patients cried in the dark of night when their pain became too big and their dreams unbearable. Now she stood hidden in the shadows next to the window at the end of the first floor corridor staring into the night, contemplating her own delusions.

She wasn’t crying. There was no use in crying: it would change nothing. It was better to accept her fate right now—after all, she’d made her own bed, hadn’t she? Her mistake had been to fall in love; but who would fault her for that? Perhaps she had to be faulted for indulging herself in unrealistic dreams, but she couldn’t bring herself to regret that. It had been good while it had lasted, good and right and wonderful; and now it was over and done with, she had to move on—and never get lost again in fanciful dreams.

It was as easy as that, and as hard as that.

Bernadette tried to peer through the night, to get one last glance at what she could never have had, but Adam’s lone figure had been swallowed by the darkness already.

He had insisted on leaving without her help. “It’s better that way,” he’d said. “If I get caught, it’ll be only me.”

“But you’re still in pain, and clumsy. You’ll need help getting out of here unnoticed.”

“If I can’t even get out of the hospital on my own, how am I supposed to make it to Gettysburg?”

Of course, he’d been right. But still…she’d been reluctant to leave him right then. She’d known she would never see him again, and she couldn’t tear herself from him. Alas, it had to be. The more they tarried and prolonged Adam’s departure, the smaller his lead on possible pursuers would become.

She’d handed him a bundle of civilian clothes: the same camel-coloured pants as before and a matching, non-chequered shirt.

“I’m glad your choice of pattern is a bit more unobtrusive this time,” he’d said and arched an eyebrow.

She’d chuckled silently, and declared, “Well, I thought we’d better not attract attention with our gay apparel, should we?”

It had felt almost like being back to their comfortable companionship, but Adam’s next words had reminded her that there wasn’t a ‘we’ anymore, only a ‘he’ and a ‘she.’

“I’m going to be conspicuous enough, no matter what I wear. I’ll have to stay hidden as much as I can. At least until I’m sure I’ve reached Federal territory.”

She still wondered how he would be able to tell where he was, but he’d seemed confident enough that he’d find his way.

As she’d discreetly wiped away the small pool of clear liquid on the ground where they’d emptied the laudanum while Dr. Mabbs had busied himself with the other patient, Adam had changed into the new set of clothes. She’d been pleased to see that he’d moved much more smoothly than before, that even putting on the pants hadn’t troubled him too much.

She’d given Adam a rough sketch of the hospital’s ground and of Charlottesville’s main streets and buildings, a kind of treasure map—only that the cross on it marked the place where a horse was waiting for Adam, not a buried treasure. But then again, that horse certainly was a treasure much more precious to Adam right then than any strongbox filled with gold and gemstones.

She wished she could have gone with him and guided him through the dark. It was pitch black outside, a moonless night; and it certainly wasn’t as if a star shone down to lead Adam where the horse stood. He could easily get lost or pass by without noticing. The horse was crucial for Adam’s escape; without it he would never be able to put enough distance between himself and the pursuit that would begin come morning. She’d described the way he’d have to go three times and insisted that he’d repeated her instructions. He’d obeyed, smiling, and then assured her he’d be all right.

“I’ll only have to make it outta here without being corned by that lovely doctor again. Are you sure he’s not lurking in a dark corner somewhere?”

“He won’t be a problem, Adam. He—” And then she’d nearly let it all out. A part of her had screamed to confess it all, to beg him to take her with him. But another part of her, a much bigger, much more rational part, had kept her mouth shut and her face impassive and had let her say, “He will be occupied for a long time. He’s nothing if not thorough with his paperwork.”

Bernadette looked out of the window one last time. She knew there would be nothing to see, Lord, there hopefully was nothing to see—Adam had left the hospital hours ago and should be miles away already—but somehow she imagined that her heart would be able to go out, pierce darkness and space and reach Adam, making him see that she’d never stopped loving him, that she never wanted to hurt him, and that—that it would be all right. That he would be all right, and she…and even Dr. Mabbs.

There had been so many things she would have liked to tell him as they’d said their good-byes, things that had had to be left unsaid, and things that should have been said but couldn’t cross her lips.

“Stay safe,” had been all she’d been able to say, nothing else.

And Adam had whispered, “Thank you for my life,” and breathed a chaste kiss on her cheek.

She sighed, smiling to herself, and finally, sending out a small prayer for Adam, turned away from the window to go and check on her patients. She made her round through the silent hospital, opened every door, looked into every room to find everything as it was supposed to be. The lump of blankets on Adam’s bed would have fooled her into thinking it was occupied by a peacefully sleeping man if she hadn’t known it better. There was no need to inquire more closely.

Outside, the church bell tolled five times. Her shift was almost over. She smoothed her apron, adjusted her nurse hat, tugged a lose strand of hair behind her ear and knocked at Dr. Mabbs’s office door.

At his “come in” she entered the room.

Dr. Mabbs looked up. “Is everything in order, nur—Bernadette?”

“Yes, sir. Everything is quiet. No…particular occurrences.”

“Very well.” He put his pencil down and gazed at her for a moment, then nodded a few times. “Very well indeed.”

“Is there anything else, sir?”

“No. You may go home now.” He harrumphed. “And when off duty, if you’re so inclined you might want to call me Robert.”

All she could do was croak, “I’ll do that, si—Robert” and, stunned, watch how his face lit up in a true and genuine smile after that.

*****

Tiredness made Adam shiver. He’d spent hours in the saddle already, and even though riding had seemed familiar to him from the moment he’d mounted the horse, being up and about for such a long time took everything he had—which wasn’t much. After weeks of recovery his body had only just begun to build up strength. He still was thin as a rake, he still tired quickly, and he found himself shaking like a leaf after the smallest exertion.

If he hadn’t already known that, the walk from the hospital to the outskirts of the town would have proved it to him. Despite the chilly night he had been sweating heavily and struggling for breath as he’d reached the small stable where Bernadette had left the saddled horse for him. The fatigue had overshadowed even the spasms in his leg. In fact, walking had turned out to be painful but bearable. Just as earlier that day, it had seemed that the longer he walked—the more practise he allowed his leg—the steadier it became. How much of his stability had to be accounted to his cane, though, had showed when he’d tried to mount the horse.

Until that point, their plan had worked out perfectly. There had been a tense last conversation with Bernadette—too short to appropriately express his gratitude, yet too long to avoid awkwardness. Then, after Bernadette had left, he’d waited a few moments giving her time to get herself busy in another room. He’d taken the conveniently provided spare bandages with him, and his little note book, that was all. Bernadette had assured him she’d put everything he would need in the horse’s saddle bags: food mostly, a hunting knife and a blanket. She’d never owned a gun, and thought it would look too suspicious if she bought one, so he would have to go without. He’d left the letter for Bernadette on his pillow. There was nothing in it that could associate her with his escape, only a declaration of his feelings towards her—words he hoped would give her mind a little peace. It was the least he could do.

As he’d placed the letter, he’d been flashed with the memory of another letter, a bundle of letters, actually, in his hand, and he’d heard his own voice saying, “I wrote these in case of—” Then the letter were snatched out of his hand. He’d seen the hand ripping the letters from him: long slender fingers, delicately manicured yet marred with tiny ink spots—ink spots, again!—and heard her again, the British lady, who spat “I don’t need your blasted letters, I need you!

It had been the same voice—Lord, why hadn’t he made the connection before?—it had been the same voice he’d heard in his dreams, the voice that had called for his help.

There hadn’t been the time to write it down, but he wouldn’t forget it anyway. Not again. It had accompanied him on the whole way, never left him. He’d heard it all the time, over and over again, that desperate “I need you!”, “I need you!”, “I need you!

He hadn’t encountered anyone, not on his way through the sleeping building, not on the hospital grounds, not on the road to Charlottesville. It had been almost surreal to walk in the moonless night. While he’d seen only what was in close proximity, had distinguished first trees and bushes, then a few houses and fences only as dark silhouettes, and had felt the way under his feet more than he’d actually seen it, he’d still known exactly where to take a turn, where to walk straight ahead, where to duck and be particularly silent—Bernadette’s accounts had been precise and accurate. He’d found the shabby stable with no problems at all.

And then he’d had to get on the horse. Keeping most of his weight on his good leg, he’d secured the cane to the saddle. That had been the easy part. But the short moment he had had to put full weight on his bad leg to get his left foot into the stirrup he’d felt a sharp pain radiate through almost the entire limb. Uttering a suppressed groan, he’d clung to the saddle to keep himself upright while the irritated horse had leapt forward and then made some nervous side steps.

“Whoa, boy,” Adam had cooed. “You gotta be a little patient with me, I guess.”

He’d scratched the horse behind its ears, and after a while it had calmed down enough to eventually stand still. Adam had gritted his teeth and tried again, this time prepared for the pain, and succeeded. Until that point he hadn’t given it any consideration how accomplished a rider he might be, but as soon as he’d sat on the horse, he’d felt at home. Moving in harmony with the animal had seemed completely natural, as if he’d done it all his life. Well, apparently not a sailor after all, he’d thought wryly.

The horse stumbled. Adam’s eyes flew open. Instinctively reaching for the saddle horn, he stabilised his seat, found his centre again and prevented himself from falling. He’d nodded off. It clearly was time to take a rest. But had he put enough miles between Charlottesville and himself already?

He estimated he’d done around 30 miles by then, more than half the way to Culpeper. He had stayed on the straight road leading north-northeast, as Bernadette had advised him. Not that there’d been another way to go: with almost no light he couldn’t ride safely through the completely dark forests. The road had met the Rivanna River twice and then a few smaller streams. As Bernadette had predicted, the rivers were narrow at the junctions and not very deep, and Adam had easily found fords to cross.

The real challenge would come later, 120 miles further ahead, in the form of the Potomac River. Rumours said the Union Army had built a pontoon bridge somewhere near Berlin only weeks ago, and Adam hoped fervently that it hadn’t been dismantled already.

And that his horse would play along. It seemed to be a reliable horse, well-ridden and already accustoming itself to its new master, and it had trusted him to guide them safely through the streams. But a pontoon bridge was something else entirely. How the horse would take to a moving surface, Adam couldn’t imagine. Perhaps it would trust him enough by then to at least be led over the bridge, but if worst came to the worst, he’d have to leave the animal behind and make the last sixty miles on foot.

Even the thought of that made his leg cramp. Not that riding itself was very comfortable on his leg, but it certainly was easier than walking. Walking sixty miles wasn’t really an option. He’d have to get his horse over that floating bridge, no matter what it would take.

Perhaps you better cross that bridge once you’ve reached it, he thought wryly and chuckled to himself. He should be able to arrive there in four or five days, maybe even earlier, depending on how good the terrain was. That was the crux, really. Using the road would get him quicker to where he wanted to be but he’d be in danger of being spotted; riding through the woods was safer but the uneven ground would slow down his progress considerably.

He spurred the horse back into an easy trot. Better make the most of the last minutes before sunrise. He would retreat into the woods then, find a hideaway to rest and eat, and then carry on. For now he needed to make as many miles as possible before anyone noticed his escape and alerted the military. If he was lucky, that wouldn’t happen until reveille, and no one would expect he had a horse. Then the search would start late and be limited to the immediate vicinity of the hospital, to a perimeter of a few miles only. By the time they realised he had means of transportation and send out wanted telegrams to other towns, he might already be relatively safe in Maryland. If Maryland, being a border state, was safe for him at all.

If he was not lucky, the Home Guard had already been alerted and was chasing him this very minute.

He couldn’t help but look over his shoulder. There was still no one on the road, but the fact that he could actually see that there was no one told him he’d stayed long enough out in the open. The horse didn’t take well to being turned towards the uninvitingly dark woods, though. Flattening its ears and whinnying pitifully it fought Adam every step.

Finally he brought the horse to a stop, giving it time to calm down. He tried the cooing words that had done the trick when he’d had problems mounting. He didn’t know whether it was the soothing words or the fact that the sun slowly rose in the west, but the horse’s nervousness subsided eventually.

Taking a deep breath he gently nudged the horse forward into the shrubbery, when he heard a shot and a cry from behind him: “Hold it right there!”

He didn’t think twice. Digging his heels into the horse’s sides he forced it into a fast trot. Tired as both the animal and he were they wouldn’t stand a chance on the open road, so he went straight into the woods.

The forest was thick, and Adam was thankful for every single ray of early morning sunlight that made it through bushes and the closely growing trees. As if the horse felt that they were chased by predators it no longer resisted him. Passing so closely to tree trunks Adam’s boots almost scraped them, jumping over small bushes, turning at almost impossible angles, the horse followed Adam’s guidance perfectly. The ground was broken, full of holes and loose stones, and no sane man would urge his horse on like Adam did, but it was his only chance to escape capture. He stood in the stirrups, ignoring the pain that flared up in his leg, trying to balance out the horse’s uneven gait. He didn’t see much of the path, but even if he could see it he wouldn’t be able to dodge most of the irregularities—there just wasn’t enough space to avoid them.

He brushed past shrubs, ripped his pants on briars and more than once had to duck his head to avoid low branches. On and on he went, with his heart racing and his ears ringing; never daring to slow down and listen to hear if he still was followed, never even looking back for fear that his shifting weight might prompt the horse into a fatal misstep.

In the end, it didn’t take a glance backwards. Whether from one slipping branch on the ground too many, one grass-covered hole too deep, or one patch of soil too slippery, Adam felt the horse stumble and going over its ankle; he heard the telltale snap of breaking bones. Freeing his feet from the stirrups as the horse collapsed under him, he pushed himself off it with his hands on the withers, and somehow managed to avoid getting trapped under the heavy animal as it hit the ground hard.

He crawled into the nearest bushes, tried to get up and run but to no avail. He found he couldn’t move, couldn’t make his body work. Could only lie and listen to his frantic heartbeat, to the horse’s pained panicky thrashing, and to the eerie quiet beyond that.

__________
A hurry of hoofs in a village street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark…
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Paul Revere’s Ride

 

*****

Chapter 18

The Bottom of the Pit

He couldn’t get rid of the blood. It kept sticking to his hands no matter how often he tried to wipe it off on dew-covered leaves, on small patches of sharp-edged grass, on bare soil. He still saw traces of dried red in his cuticles, under his finger nails, in the ridges and creases of his hands; he still smelled the metallic tang. It was a constant reminder of what he’d done, of what he had had to do. Of what had to be considered a mercy and yet been barbaric and disgusting.

He hadn’t really thought about the blood before he’d cut the horse’s throat. Then one short and precise incision had severed the jugular and unleashed a fountain of blood, and he’d had to keep the panicked animal’s head down, firm and tender at the same time. It had been over in a few moments—or taken a lifetime, Adam wasn’t sure about that. The only thing he remembered clearly was that he’d stroked the horse’s neck with his thumb while keeping it down, and that he hadn’t loosed his hold for a long time even after it had become completely still.

While he’d lain there, clinging to the dead animal as if that could shelter him from connecting with the world outside that small cosmos of pain and guilt, yet also of surprisingly peaceful quietness, he’d suddenly remembered another horse that had to be put down. And a pair of eyes…sky-blue eyes, the inherent friendliness of which was overshadowed by desperation. Then a voice, new to his flashes of memory yet so very familiar. “Adam,” it had said. “I cain’t do that. I jest cain’t.”

And Adam had whispered into the hide beneath him, “It’s all right, Hoss. I’ll do it.”

Hoss. For a moment he’d tried to match that name with a face, but he’d been too tired to waste energy on something that had proven to be futile time and again. He might remember some names and faces, but they all didn’t mean anything to him. He might collect pieces of the puzzle that was his life, but he couldn’t fit them together to one big picture. It was as if no piece matched another, as if they all belonged to different images. And he couldn’t decide which of those pieces belonged to the one image that might have been the key to everything else.

Eventually he’d become aware of his surroundings, of the chirping of early morning birds, of the rustle of creatures in the underbrush, of the sursurring of insects. Of the sun warming his back, of the morning dew seeping cold through his trousers, and of the stench of sweat and blood that roused him out of his stupor.

Whoever his pursuers were and whatever had made them lose track of him, they could still be out there. On his frantic race he must have left traces. If the men who’d chased him knew who he was, if they hadn’t encountered him by chance and only followed him because he’d taken flight, if they were really looking for him they would follow his trail. And they would find him, sooner rather than later.

And so he’d wiped the knife on the saddle blanket, had unfastened the saddle bags and his cane, and set off.

Searching for a way that wouldn’t be easy to follow, he’d been digging his way through the thickest shrubbery, taking the most broken ground, not caring which direction it led him, ever since. And while the rising sun gave him a vague idea of where he was heading generally, he had no idea how far he might be from the road—or to where he would have to turn to get back there. For all the brightness of the progressing day, he just as well could be stumbling through a coal-black night. Whichever direction he took, his surroundings looked the same, west looked like east, north like south—and he wasn’t immune to the irony of that last thought—as if he’d reached the centre of a green nowhere.

Moving on was arduous work. Tired beyond comprehension and hurt by every limping step he took, he struggled to stay upright. His bad leg was aflame with pain, his right arm and shoulder hurt from leaning on the cane, his head swam from exhaustion, hunger, and thirst. He didn’t dare to stop and rest for fear of falling asleep, and in the fog in his mind he couldn’t keep track of thoughts like “I need to drink.”

What little stability the cane provided decreased as the shadows grew shorter, then longer again. More and more he had to zigzag his way from tree to tree to lean on the trunks for additional support. He stumbled over fallen branches, dents and mounds, stones and tufts of grass. Each step he made was a major challenge, each yard he covered a triumph. He didn’t care anymore that it took him ages to force one foot before the other, that he had to stand and catch his breath after each of those strenuous movements, or that he was drenched in sweat. His mind told him to move on. On, on, on, and on. He’d forgotten why or where to or how, he just knew he mustn’t stop.

And then he lost his footing. Fell over a rock or a tree stump, over a twig or a leaf, an ant or a grain of sand. Fell like a sack of potatoes, face first, into the dirt. He couldn’t get his arms up fast enough to break the fall, the cane got caught in the brushwood and went flying, and Adam was down before he could see where it landed.

Not that he cared. As he found himself lying in the dirt, breathless and sweating, tired and hurting, he stopped being concerned about anything. It didn’t matter anymore. Nothing mattered anymore. It was over. Time to give up, Cartwright.

There, his name finally came naturally to him again. But that was all—all that was left. He might know his name now, but other than that he was just as lost as he’d been when he hadn’t remembered anything. “A babe lost in the woods” Bernadette had called him once, and he’d laughed. Back then it had seemed amusing. Now he actually was lost in the woods—and weak and helpless as a baby.

He was finished. There was no way he could force his aching body another single inch forward. He needed to sleep, to rest, to recover—but if he did his hunters would find him. If he was lucky they would string him up on the nearest tree instead of taking him back to Charlottesville to let him rot away in prison.

And if by some major miracle his pursuers had given up already or lost track of him, how was he supposed to make it to Gettysburg? Even if he got some rest, even if his leg hurt a little less after some sleep, he wouldn’t be able to cover 150 miles or so without a horse—and he wasn’t even sure that he would managed it if he had one. Every improvement in his leg he had thought he felt earlier in the day certainly had turned out to have been an illusion. If he was to make it to Gettysburg—or anywhere—then it would be on a cart.

He was tired. Lord, he was so tired. To sleep, to die… flashed through his mind. To sleep—perchance to dream. He closed his eyes.

And if he just slept? Slept and woke up hours later, better rested, less aching, and no longer hunted? He would need help to make it any further. He was lost in the middle of nowhere, and he couldn’t carry on without help. He snorted. Turned laboriously onto his back and squinted into the clutter of sunlight and shadows, of sky and leaves high above him. No one would find him here. No one. And even if…. He would need a whole streak of luck to be found, and found by someone who would be willing to help an escaped prisoner of war. And luck…luck didn’t seem to be his best friend right now.

A soft breeze moved the leaves in the tree crowns. Adam watched the play of light and darkness. No, he wasn’t delusional enough to hope he would be found by some friendly people. On the contrary, he hoped he wouldn’t be found at all. Wasn’t it enough that he’d endangered Bernadette with his escape? Helping him would cost her dearly if it ever came out. Could he with a clear conscience accept any more help from anyone?

He closed his eyes again and sighed. No, he couldn’t drag more people into this. His life wasn’t worth the sacrifice of others’. His life wasn’t worth…much. Or was it?

He didn’t care. Too tired to even think, too exhausted to roam his scattered memories, he just wanted to sleep—preferably for…ever.

The saddlebags had landed only inches from his shoulder as he’d fallen. He reached out without looking, rummaged in them, and found the knife. There still were traces of the horse’s blood on the blade, crusted and dry now; they looked as if they’d been on it since the knife had been forged. He wiped the blade on his shirt.

Not that it mattered whether the knife was clean or not. Only it did matter. Somehow.

The blade caught a glittering spark of sunlight, its reflection dancing on the greenery as he turned and twisted the knife. A clean blade for a clean cut.

A man’s skin would be much easier to cut up than a horse’s. A man’s blood would run out much faster than a horse’s. A man’s life would end much more smoothly than a horse’s.

He brought the blade up to his throat. Used the tip of it to scratch his jaw where a running bead of sweat tickled him.

Hesitated.

Pressed the edge of the blade against the soft skin of his neck just above the collarbone.

Waited.

To sleep—no more—and by a sleep to say we end the heartache…. The added pressure brought relief, and hope. The promise of a dreamless sleep. Peace.

Now.

*****

“The point is, Mrs. Cartwright, that there aren’t many military hospitals left here in Gettysburg.” Surgeon Major Harrington tried to keep the impatience out of his voice, but he was aware that he wasn’t doing a very good job with it. “Most casualties are healed by now. Those who are not will be evacuated to Washington and Philadelphia within the next weeks.”

“Then we have to hurry and—”

“With all due respect, ma’am: no.”

She blinked. Frowned. Shook her head.

Her brother-in-law gave her a worried glance. He’d done that a few times already, and Harrington thought the man had every reason to do so. The lady looked as if she’d been ill recently: deadly pale, her face almost haggard, her clothes fitting a little too loosely, her hands trembling when she didn’t clasp them. Interestingly, that didn’t make her look frail. As she sat there opposite him, straight and upright, her chin slightly raised and her jaw decisively set, she couldn’t have appeared more imperious if she’d been perfectly well. And her tone matched her air perfectly. “I’m afraid, I don’t understand, Major.”

Surgeon Major Harrington had been trained to command men, to deal with undisciplined soldiers, insubordinate orderlies, and ill-tempered superiors, and with enemy fire. Not with persistent women. And certainly not with distressed women. He would, however, try his best.

“Ma’am,” he started, cautiously avoiding her piercing gaze. “I don’t think further searching for your husband will make much sense. If he were in one of the remaining infirmaries we’d know of it. The same goes for any other hospitals he could have been taken to. We would know.”

“You would?”

“We have lists.”

“Lists.” It was amazing how much doubt she could put into one single word.

“Yes, lists.” Well, he could be imperious, too. This was a question of honour. “The Army of the Potomac is very well organised. We have lists of all our wounded. And of all our soldiers who were taken prisoners by the reb—by the Confederates. Your husband is on neither of them.”

She didn’t understand. No, she didn’t. That was plain to see. The big man beside her seemed to have a vague premonition, but he didn’t say a word. Harrington sighed. He didn’t like it, but someone had to say it—and apparently he had to be that someone.

“Look, Mrs. Cartwright, you have to…understand. It has been more than two months since the battle. If your husband had been treated in any of our hospitals, we would know it. If he’d been taken prisoner, we would know it. But we don’t—and that means that he…that he is gone.”

She frowned. Her brother reached out and took her hand. Harrington saw her struggling against his grip, trying to pull her hand away, then giving up.

She didn’t say anything, she just looked blankly at him.

“He’s fallen, Mrs. Cartwright. There’s no other explanation.”

No reaction.

“He died a hero, Mrs…. ” He took a deep breath. He didn’t want to fob her with platitudes, but platitudes were all he had to offer. They were all he’d been trained to provide. And so he rushed to deliver them all. “He died a hero, fighting for his country. For the unity of this great land, and for the equality of all men. Perhaps that will be a comfort for you: that he didn’t die in vain but to ensure a great victory that will lead to—”

“Rubbish.”

“Pardon?”

“That’s…ridiculous.”

“But…”

“You do have lists of the wounded and of the imprisoned, do you not? You surely have a list of the fallen, too, don’t you?”

“Yes, but—”

“Is my husband on that list?”

“No, but—”

“Then we don’t know if he’s dead, do we? There’s no proof.”

“But the only logical conclusion—”

“I don’t accept that.”

“Ma’am, you have to—”

“No.”

“Now, Juliet…” Cartwright spoke up the first time since his initial “Howdy, Major,” but the lady silenced him with a sharp look.

She sat up even straighter than before; and Harrington could see how she deliberately squared her shoulders. “I want to talk to General Schurz,” she said. “Now.”

Harrington frowned. “Ma’am, that’s not possible.”

“That’s what you told me two months ago, too. But I won’t take no for an answer this time.”

“Mrs. Cartwright, you can’t talk to General Schurz because the general isn’t here anymore.”

“He isn’t?”

“Most of the Army left Gettysburg in early July. Surely you must have noticed that, ma’am. Naturally, General Schurz went with his corps.”

“So he was gone already the first time I inquired after him? Why didn’t you tell me back then?”

“At the time that information was confidential.”

She gave him an annoyed look. As if the idea that any information could be withheld from her was an insult in itself. “Where is he now?” she demanded.

“I can’t tell you.” Harrington took care to lace his words with all the authority his position as commanding officer gave him. “That information is con—”

She wasn’t deterred. “Don’t think you can cow me into refraining from further inquiry, Major Harrington. And don’t take me for a fool. The newspapers say the Army has been following Lee to the south. They have crossed the Potomac and are advancing into Virginia. I assume that is correct?”

Harrington took a deep breath. “Ma’am, please. I do not take you for a fool, most certainly not. But I am not entitled to share information that might be war-deciding. I can’t tell you anything beyond what’s in the newspapers. Which is, indeed, correct.”

She nodded. And surprised him. “I understand.”

“Ma’am,” he tried again. “Even if you were able to talk to General Schurz he wouldn’t tell you anything other than I’ve told you already. Your husband is dead. The wounded were identified, the captives were identified. But not all the fallen were identified. Many were buried on the battlegrounds, many were…unidentifiable. The list of the fallen is the only list that’s not exhaustive.”

She shook her head. “No…”

Harrington sympathised with her. Of course, she was refusing to face the truth; but the sooner she would accept the unthinkable, the sooner she could start to cope with it, to heal. He glanced at her companion, his eyes silently begging for assistance. But Cartwright’s eyes didn’t seem to see anything. He, obviously, had accepted the truth already, and was fighting for composure.

“I am very sorry, ma’am, sir. But be sure, your husband, your brother served—”

“He isn’t dead.” Suddenly she stood. Very tall, very upright. “I know he isn’t—” She gasped, clutched her chest. Her eyes lost focus, what little colour she had drained from her face, her mouth worked wordlessly. She swayed.

Cartwright leapt to his feet and caught her before she fell. He eased her back into her chair. “Juliet, you cain’t go on like that.” He was a big man, tall and broad. But his voice was soft and tender—as if he were talking to a small child. “You’re making yerself sick again.”

She accepted the glass of water the major handed her with a nod and a weak smile, and drank while Cartwright hovered over her, supervising her cautious, tiny little sips.

There was something intimate in that scene, as if they were in their own private bubble, and Harrington felt like an intruder watching it. He looked away, down at his hands, at the papers before him on the desk. A case sheet, the chart of a patient who’d had his leg amputated weeks ago and who was still fighting an infection of the stump. One of those patients who would have to stay for some more weeks until they could be transported to a permanent hospital in the bigger cities.

There were so many of those men. In the first days after the battle they had had to care for 21,000 wounded. A good hundred physicians for 21,000 injured men. Harrington didn’t want to think about the percentage of men who’d died in their care. There were so many they had healed or to whom they still were tending, and he would rather focus on them.

The Army had been long gone, but the medical corps was still picking up the pieces, and sometimes Harrington feared that they hadn’t got a dustpan big enough to gather all the shattered remains. Having to deal with Mrs. Cartwright and her brother-in-law made him realise once again that cleaning up the mess the war left behind would entail much more than just healing the wounded.

The glass being placed onto the desk made Harrington turn his attention back to his visitors. Cartwright was crouching before his sister’s chair. He was holding both her hands. “Let’s go home,” he said. “Home.”

The lady still looked as if she’d seen a ghost. Her voice was a mere whisper, and yet there was a determination in it that Harrington found hard to resist.

“This is not the end, Hoss,” she said, shaking her head. “It can’t be.”

*****

More pressure. Just a tiny bit more, just a whit beyond the comfortable. Breaking skin, and then more and—

“… end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.” Had he said it aloud? Perhaps.

But perhaps it had been only in his mind, just as her voice was now.

“And just because Marlowe has said that, you think I’ll accept it?” she said. Her voice the same soft, pleasant alto he’d heard before. The same sophisticated, precise diction. The same clipped British accent.

Only this time he remembered how he had answered. “It was Shakespeare who said that, Juliet.”

“Oh, Marlowe, Shakespeare, whatever you call him.”

“Yeah, whatever you call him. I prefer Shakespeare though; and I just love his immortal words: Come live with me, and be my love; and we will all the pleasures prove that hills and valleys, dales and fields, woods or steepy mountain yields.”

“Now that is really Marlowe, Adam!”

“Oh, Marlowe, Shakespeare, whatever you call him, Mylady.”

He actually felt her. Felt how he held her tightly to his chest with her face buried in his shoulder, and how she trembled with silent laughter. Felt more than he heard her whisper, “Say it again, Adam.”

“Say what?”

“The…immortal words.”

“Come live with me, and be my love…”

He remembered how content he’d been then. He remembered.*

And he remembered more: her eyes, green, dark with worry, and deep as the ocean; and a whisper. “Promise me you’ll come back.”

“You know I can’t promise that.”

“Then promise me you’ll try.”

“I will. I promise.”

Then a kiss. He remembered the kiss. Passionate and hungry, long, savouring. Right. No regret, no guilt, no reservations. Just love. Home. The place where he belonged, his destination. His…Juliet.

And then a flood wave of images washed over him. Sparkling green eyes, kind and tender first, then stormy and passionate. A shower of faint freckles on pale cheeks, a stubborn set jaw, soft red lips; a waterfall of dark golden locks on crisp white bed linen, long, slender fingers, ink-stained, ghosting over his dark chest hair, his navel, and further… The same elegant hands holding a book, a pen, a teacup, gesturing animatedly, tending to a newborn. The black-haired baby nursing on a creamy breast, sleeping peacefully in a Moses basket, kicking his arms and legs: Henry, his son. Snippets of conversations: “I see you and me together. And that’s the most beautiful thing I can imagine.” “We’ll be late…” “Oh, I most certainly hope so.” “This isn’t your war, Adam.” “What about Henry? What about me? Us?”

And he remembered it all. He remembered.

“Forever,” he’d said as he’d kissed her for the last time. Her. Juliet. His wife. His love and his anchor.

And she’d whispered it back, that promise: “forever.”

Reluctantly he pulled himself out of the memories—his memories—gathered the saddlebags, stored away the knife. He looked around, spotted a place to his right, a patch of flat ground covered with grass and moss sheltered by a large elderberry bush. He would go looking for his cane later, when he was rested. For now he was content with stretching out on the soft ground and giving in to the overwhelming desire for sleep.

He closed his eyes and let himself slip back into the sea of memories, where he was welcomed by the face he’d hoped for, so familiar he couldn’t believe he’d ever forgotten it. Juliet’s left eyebrow was raised and she displayed that endearing lopsided smile as she greeted him, “Well, it’s about time, wouldn’t you say?”

Her silvery laughter gently escorted him to sleep.

__________

Memories and dreams are precious things, Adam. They’re always there when you need them most. ~ Ben Cartwright in “Elizabeth My Love”

*****

Chapter 19

Smile, Fortuna!

He slept. Woke up, drank one, two sips from his canteen, ate a small amount of the grub he found in the saddle bags, probed at his red-swollen leg, listened to the buzzing quiet of the forest, then fell back into slumber. At times he woke to moist darkness, then to blazing hot brightness.

And he dreamt. Dreamt of a big ranch house surrounded by giant pine trees; of cattle, huge herds of cattle grazing on rich, green pastures; of horses in a corral, and of himself, breaking a wild sorrel. Dreamt of people: men on horses, women in a busy street, ranch hands, a sheriff with a silly moustache and friendly eyes, a doctor with a soothing voice, an old lady with a frilly dress who said “young chap” to him; of sky blue eyes under a ten-gallon hat, of an infectious giggle, and of a strong, reassuring hand on his shoulder.

He wasn’t always sure if he was dreaming or waking, found himself often reaching out into empty air to keep an image from fading away, a person from leaving, or even a sound from decaying, devastated at the loss of a happy memory: the touch of a soft hand or the sense of being where he belonged. Other times he was relieved to find himself able to leave a particularly horrid vision and wake up in his green refuge.

Once or twice he thought he heard the rustle of underbrush, the distant sound of shouts, hoof beats, gunfire. But whether in his dreams or in reality, of that he couldn’t be sure—and in all honesty he didn’t care, either. Whenever he was completely lucid and aware of his whereabouts, the air around him was warm and quiet and the grass beneath him soft and pleasantly fragrant. And that was all he needed, all he desired.

He lost track of how much time passed by. Not being able to accurately distinguish dream from reality made counting the changes from light to darkness and back useless anyway. He let himself drift, caring just for the most basic of needs, and felt his sense of security grow as he slowly metamorphosed into a somewhat natural component of the woods. His presence didn’t seem to disturb the forest’s balance anymore—he felt indiscernible.

Eventually he woke up to crisp morning light, alert and fully aware of his surroundings, of the fact that he, indeed, was not dreaming anymore. He pried himself free of the blanket in which he must have entangled his legs during one of the more violent dreams and, stretching his arms and back, sat up. The persistent ache in his shoulders and neck had abated, the pain in his leg subsided to a tolerable level. His weariness had given way to a sensation of cautious optimism. To say he was well and rested would have been an exaggeration, but he was feeling…capable of dealing with himself and the world again.

Determining that his first concern had to be his well-being, for everything depended on his ability to function, he made a quick survey of his provisions. Bernadette had stocked the saddle bags well: there were strips of beef jerky, some apples, a half-empty packet of hardtack. He must have lived on the other half those past few days—which explained the almost empty canteen, and the dryness in his mouth.

He sighed, then resigned himself to a breakfast of hardtack and apple. The biscuit didn’t get any softer or juicier, but it seemed to go down easier when combined with bites of the sour fruit. He had visions of flapjacks covered in honey and then of two men sitting at a dinner table, a pile of pancakes between them. “Hey, Joe, gimme another pancake” and “Joe” threw one, exactly hitting the other’s held-out fork. He remembered the men’s faces from his dreams, they seemed familiar…he couldn’t put his finger on it, not quite, not yet, but he was sure…very sure that he was close to it.

Sloshing the water in the canteen, he decided to use some of the sparse leftovers to clean the wound on his leg. The bandage was crusted with a yellowish clot, and he had to dampen it to be able to pull it off without causing new damage. The upper leg was still slightly swollen, warm to the touch and a little red. The newly grown skin on the huge wound area was tender, discoloured in vivid red and angry violet, and in some places broken-up and seeping clear fluids. Dr. Mabbs had said that it wouldn’t get much better, that with time the colouring would fade into a more natural shade of pink, and the breaks would heal, but that the cratered expanse of scar tissue would remain for ever. All he could hope for, so the doctor had said sounding almost pleased, was that the skin would become more elastic eventually, softer, less taut, less irritable, and perhaps—perhaps—a little more even.

With a fresh, moistened bandage Adam carefully sponged the secretions away, then redressed the wound. Buttoning up his trousers, he smiled wryly. There certainly were more pressing matters concerning him at the moment than the disfiguration of his leg: find water to refill his canteen, for example, find food before he ran low on vittles, find a way back to the road, find the strength to make it to Gettysburg.

The first would be easily achieved. This part of the county was crisscrossed with rivers, creeks, and brooks—it was what made it green and lush. On his way through the forest Adam had stumbled through countless small rills, and he was sure that whatever way he chose he’d come across another streamlet soon. Finding food would be more of a problem. His provisions wouldn’t last forever, he had no gun to shoot game—and he couldn’t make it another 120 miles on a diet of blackberries.

The road…the road had to be east. He’d left it turning west, which meant he had to go east to get back to it. The sun was still rising, there was no question where east was. Piece of cake.

And finding strength? He nearly laughed. Strength. A man had to do what a man had to do, and that was that, wasn’t it? Strength. What little of it he’d built up those last few days at the hospital had been exhausted by his frantic flight through the forest, and the sleep after he’d collapsed hadn’t given him much back, even though he must have rested for two days at least. For all that he had thrown off that all-consuming fatigue, after conducting the simple tasks of eating and refreshing his bandage, his hands were already trembling from the strain and he felt sweat prickling under his clothes. No, there wouldn’t be much strength for him to find—rather than on strength he would have to depend mostly on determination.

Now he did laugh. He winced at the croaky sound, but he laughed. Determination. Determination he possessed in abundance.

“Promise me you’ll come back.”

“You know I can’t promise that.”

“Then promise me you’ll try.”

“I will. I promise.”

Yes, determination. He had promised her. Back then, as they had parted, and over and over again in his dreams. He closed his eyes and saw the image again, that one memory that had arisen in his dreams time and again, had pushed itself forward to the front of his mind, and had always imbued him with love, with desire, need, lust: Juliet, standing naked with her emerald ball gown pooled around her feet and her hair flowing down her back, her chest heaving, her eyes dark with want; her creamy, almost translucent skin an alluring promise of softness and her half smile an invitation to take—and to be at home.

“I will,” he said out loud. “I promise.” And then he shouted it into the woods: “I will!”

*****

Over the day, however, he wore out almost all he had, drew upon his last reserves—both of strength and determination. Racing his horse through the greenery until its collapse had gotten him deep into the forest, and making the way back on his own two feet—or three, as he thought wryly, since the cane should be counted, too—naturally took him much longer. He tried to pace himself, made sure to take a rest, eat, and drink from the newly filled canteen whenever he was slowing down, whenever his leg protested too much, whenever he found himself meandering along rather than walking straight on. As the day advanced, though, he felt his energy waning. It took more and more effort to get up again, to stay upright, to put one foot before the other, to ignore the ever-present pain.

But…the road. He wanted to make it back to the road, at least back to the road—no matter how far that might be. Orientating by the sun, he hoped he was heading straight to the road. He did not encounter his dead horse on the way—a fact of which he was shamefully grateful—but considering the heedless zigzag he’d taken after he’d lost his mount it wasn’t surprising. And yet, coming across the carcass would at least have confirmed he was going in the right direction.

The road, he started to chant inwardly at some point, always in time with his strides. The road, the road, the road. It kept him going, kept his steps steady, kept his mind distracted from the fact that he was bone tired. The road, the road, the road. The road, the road, the road. The road, the road, the road…

In the end he nearly didn’t notice finding the road. The sun stood low already, the trees cast long shadows: dusk was approaching fast, and Adam decided he’d gone far enough for that day. Road or no road, he was done in. He had to find a spot with a soft mattress of grass and a sheltering bush, somewhere to rest safely, to stay the night, to restore his energy, his strength—and his determination—and then move on the next morning.

He’d just spotted the perfect place when he heard the shot. Suppressing the urge to bolt back into the depths of the forest, he let himself slide to the ground and then lay still and listened.

The shot had come from not too far off, yet there hadn’t been the impact of a bullet anywhere close to him. Whoever had fired had not aimed at him. He had not been discovered.

Where there was a gun, though, there was a person, and where there was a person there possibly was a trail, a path to the road—or even the road itself. And so he braced himself on arms and knees, and carefully crept towards the direction from which the shot had come. He covered only a few yards, then paused and listened, crept onwards, paused and listened again.

Then he heard a man crying out in pain, and godless swearing.

Getting back on his feet and into a crouch, Adam squinted into the green. He saw shadows behind the bushes, silhouettes, colours that didn’t belong to the woods. As he cautiously moved closer to those shadows, he made out more voices, faintly lamenting, from people in pain, in distress. Then there was begging: “Massa, please” and a bark: “Shut up, vermin! Shut up, or I’ll end yer misery jest here’n—Goddamn it!” The curse merged into another howl of agony.

Eventually there was only a thick shrub separating Adam from the source of the voices. Leaving the saddlebags on the ground behind the bush, he drew himself up, clasped the knob on his cane tightly, stepped out of the greenery into the open and found that he, indeed, had come upon the road.

Before him, a wagon lay tilted onto its side, the tail of the broken tongue looming into the air, its dark silhouette a stark contrast to the waning day’s purple lit sky. Pieces of broken wheels were shattered over the dusty road; remnants of a fractured axle, two almost identical fragments, lay at a tidy right angle to each other next to the cart. The wagon’s bottom was burst, the side planks smashed.

The only thing still intact was the iron cage the wagon had carried. It lay amidst the wreckage, its bars still shaping a stout cube, its door still closed, its lock still shut. In the cage Adam saw people. Three men, two women, bleeding from cuts and scrapes. One woman was cradling her arm to her chest, the other was trying to staunch the blood flow from a wound on one of the men’s cheek with a scrap of her ragged skirt’s hem. They all were staring at Adam, wide-eyed.

He made a movement towards the cage and the people—Lord, who puts humans into a cage? Oh, he knew who did such things, knew it darn well, didn’t he?—but was stopped in his tracks by a barked order.

“Hold it.”

He froze, then turned slowly to the other end of the wagon’s remains. There was a horse, dead on the road—not another dead horse! shot through Adam’s mind—apparently shot by the driver of the cart, who lay on the ground with one leg bent in an unnatural angle: clearly broken, most probably hurting like hell.

For all the driver’s apparent misery, Adam found it hard to sympathise with him. And that sentiment wasn’t exactly diluted by the fact that the injured man had levelled his rifle at him.

He raised his hands. “I’m unarmed,” he said, astonished at how steady his voice sounded. “I just want to help.”

The rifle didn’t waver. “Where ya come from?”

Waving the cane vaguely in the direction from which he’d come, Adam gave the man a wry smile. “Outta the woods,” he said. “Been hunting. Horse threw me.”

“Huntin’? With that there thing?” The rifle made a short movement to the cane and back to Adam.

“Was all I could get a hold of—shoulda grabbed my gun, but…” He shrugged.

The man nodded, but didn’t drop the rifle. He looked at Adam through narrowed eyes. “You ain’t from hereabouts, are ya? You ain’t soundin’ like no Virginian.”

So much for trying to blend in. Better try something else, Cartwright. “Wasn’t born here.”

“You don’ say’.” The rifle was once more adjusted. It pointed directly to Adam’s heart.

He drew a deep breath, trying to ignore the chill that went down his spine, then frowned at the man. “Listen, do you want me to help you or do you want some chit-chat? If it’s the latter I’ll have to pass. I’m not in the mood to tell you my life story right now. I went out to bring down a little game this morning, dang horse spooked, I got thrown and I’ve spent the rest of the day hobbling through the scenery. Now I’d really like to see that I make it home before nightfall. So, take your pick.”

The rifle was lowered, then laid on the ground. Within easy reach, but at least not pointed at his chest anymore. “Hold yer horses, fella. Just wanta be sure yer one of our’n, with all them Bluebellies so close by now.”

Adam raised a questioning eyebrow and made a gesture towards the leg. As the man nodded his approval, he knelt down and carefully peeled the torn, bloodied pant away from the injured limb.

“What Bluebellies?” he said while assessing the damage. He didn’t need to be a doctor to see the shank bone was broken—not with its ends protruding through the skin.

“Them Yanks down at Culpeper? Didn’t ya hear?” The man hissed when Adam touched a sensitive spot, but continued to talk through clenched teeth. He spoke hurriedly, without pausing longer than it took to squeeze out a short groan or a choked cry, and apparently with no intention of stopping, lest he be tempted to concentrate his attention on what was being done to his leg. “They done made headquarters there after that battle three days ago.” Jerking his head towards the cage, he snorted. “That’s why them niggers o’er here all agettin’ lose. Thinkin’ they can get to Culpeper afore abody catch them.” He laughed. “Weren’t countin’ on ole Tiberius Quake, though. I catch them all…”

Adam stopped paying attention. He set out to treat the break: tore the pant leg further open—Those are trousers, Adam, the other are…unmentionables, admonished the indignant alto voice inside his head—cleaned the wound as thoroughly as possible, selected some pieces of wood from the wagon debris that he could utilise for splints. He worked mechanically, as if he’d done it before, without thinking about what to do next—which was just as well, because his thoughts were occupied with digesting what he’d just heard.

Things whirled in his head, ideas and hopes, facts and wishes. The Union Army was now headquartered at Culpeper. How far was he from Culpeper? Twenty miles, perhaps less? A day’s march, not more. Heck, his corps had covered more than twenty miles a day on the way to Gettysburg, marching under a scorching sun and wearing thick army coats and heavy accoutrements. Of course, he’d been fully able-bodied then…but now he’d have to carry only his own weight, and he’d walk in the cool of the night.

Could it be? Could it really be that in the end fortune was favouring him?

He turned his attention back to Quake. “I’ll have to set the bone straight. This’ll…hurt.”

“Oh, yeah, and everthing ya done so far was jest a cakewalk.” Quake snatched a small piece of wood from the ground and, stuffing it into his mouth, nodded. He managed to squeeze a “Gerron with it” past the bit—and then passed out with a short cry as the bone snapped back into its proper position.

Adam let go of the foot at which he’d been carefully pulling. He put the rifle out of Quake’s reach, yanked the man’s belt from his waist, and bound his hands with it. He searched Quake for the keys to the cage and took them to the prisoners, handing them one of the men.

“Can you manage?”

“Yes, mas—”

“Adam. My name’s Adam.”

The man hesitated and searched Adam’s face for a moment, then he nodded. “Toby,” he finally said, pointing at his chest.

“Right, Toby, see you get your people out here, I have to…” He gestured back to Quake.

Help him?” There was mystification in Toby’s voice, doubt, and caution.

“Well, I can’t let him lie here with his leg busted and bleeding, can I? He’d likely die.”

“He’s a slave hunter.”

“And?”

“How can you free us and let him live?”

“He won’t be able to come after you, will he? There’s no need to kill him.”

“Are you one of them, too?”

“I’m a fugitive, just like you. A Federal, on the way back to my corps.”

“Then why…?”

“Killing him won’t make the South change their ways, will it?” He was glad Toby didn’t point out that as a Union soldier, Adam had been doing just that: killing individuals to make a society change its ways.

He returned to the still-unconscious man to splint and dress the broken leg. Searching for something to use for a bandage, he tugged at his shirt first, but decided it was too filthy. The slave hunter’s own clothes, shabby as they were, would serve the purpose better.

As he secured the splints with strips torn of Quake’s shirt, Adam was overcome with another memory…

”In and out, slick and clean.” He was using one of his shirt sleeves to bandage a wound on his brother’s leg.

“Adam, I ain’t never gonna tease you again about wearing them clean shirts,” Hoss said.

And he couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow and come back, “The only reason I wear them is because I knew you gonna get shot one day.”

Then his other brother, Joe, was skidding around a boulder, joining them—both in shooting at some rustlers and in teasing each other mercilessly.

He had brothers. Good Lord, he had brothers. Those two men…Hoss and Joe…brothers, his brothers. And Pa…they’d been rescued by Pa in the end. And it was there, all there, crystal clear in his mind.

The feeling, the relief was almost dizzying.

With a soft touch to his shoulder, Toby brought him out of his reminiscence. “Thank you…friend. We better be on our way now. Won’t be long before they find Quake here, and we—”

Shaking his head, Adam interrupted the man. “It’s almost night. No one travels this road in the dark. Quake won’t be found until morning—and we’ll be in Culpeper by then already.”

We?

“We. We’re headed the same way, aren’t we?”

Toby nodded. “Yes, sure…”

“Then we should be staying together. If you want me with you, that is.”

“Sure.” He cast a glance over his shoulder, back to where the others stood waiting. One woman was helping the other putting her arm into a sling; the two men were watching him, apparently anxious to go. As he looked back at Adam, he nodded again, then broke into a grin. “Sure.”

They didn’t speak much after that. Adam fetched his saddlebags from where he’d left them in the bushes, they settled Quake somewhere at the roadside, providing him with Adam’s blanket and a half-full canteen they’d found in the remains of the cart.

One of the women gave him a shy smile as he distributed half of what was left of his provisions promising the rest for later; the other touched his hand and then, briefly, his cheek. “God blessuns.”

The men accepted the food wordlessly. Their eyes, however, spoke volumes as they hungrily wolfed it down.

And then they set off. Walking one after the other, a small band of tired, worn, yet determined figures. They hadn’t gone long when Adam felt someone lifting the saddlebags from his shoulder. He turned around and saw Toby’s smiling face.

“Let me carry that for you,” the man said.

Adam frowned. “You don’t have to. You’re not…”

“I know. But I’d like to.” Toby clapped on his shoulder. “Bear you one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ, says the Good Book.”

Adam didn’t argue. He was exhausted, hurting, kept upward only by sheer willpower: he was grateful to share the burden. With every step his load seemed to get lighter, his future brighter. Less than twenty miles to Culpeper, less than twenty miles. What could possibly happen in less than twenty miles?

Well, anything and everything. Fortune had been a very fickle lady lately. But then again, he was used to dealing with erratic ladies, wasn’t he?

__________
Here is the rule to remember in the future, when anything tempts you to be bitter:
not, “This is a misfortune” but “To bear this worthily is good fortune.” ~ Marcus Aurelius

 

*****

Chapter 20

Dawn

Major General Carl Schurz poured himself a cup of jasmine tea, freshly brewed from his personal stock. Supplies were generally low and not easily restocked in Virginia. The Union blockade restricted imports to the point of irrelevance, and ever since the North had taken control of the Mississippi River, the eastern confederate states suffered also from shortages in beef and pork and other native products. Eccentricities as jasmine tea were absolutely unavailable.

The tea was Schurz’ very own little luxury, an indulgence to which he treated himself with due reverence, first thing every morning just before sunrise, and this morning was no exception. Clarion wasn’t far, and soon life in the camp would start with its usual busy tension. The men knew they could be sent moving again, and they seemed aquiver, almost buzzing with restless energy and anticipation. For now, however, everything was still quiet, and General Schurz, wrapped in his thick army coat against the chill of the mid-September morning, savoured both the peaceful silence and the hot, fragrant tea.

***

Perhaps the fever was a blessing. Perhaps Adam would be even colder if he weren’t burning from inside—on the other hand, perhaps his hot skin made the fresh morning air appear colder than it actually was.

Or perhaps he was just going insane. One minute sweat made his back prickle and he wanted nothing more than to shed his filthy clothes and let the cool air dry and refresh him; the next he was shivering and chattering his teeth, and longed for an additional coat, a campfire, or—frivolously—for a warm bed.

A bed. A kingdom for a bed, Adam thought and allowed himself to slip into another waking dream.

Crackling from the fireplace, crisp white bed linen, a warm, soft body curved around his, clever fingers sneaking out, touching; the smell of honey in a golden disarray of locks, the warm breath of quiet laughter on his neck, nibbling lips on that spot below his ear, a whisper: “love,” the pull of blessed oblivion, falling, falling, falling—contentment, blissful quiet, peace: heaven.

He was jarred out of his vision as he stumbled, nearly losing his cane in the process, but kept upright by a steady hand under his arm. Hours ago, it had become apparent that Adam’s saddlebags weren’t the only burden to share—that Adam himself was becoming more and more of a liability for the group. In spite of all his rekindled determination his leg wasn’t able to withstand the continued strain, and the surge of new strength that had carried him so far was waning constantly. Toby and one of the other men, who’d never told Adam his name, had taken turns in supporting him after they’d noticed he’d been lagging behind, barely able to stay on his feet.

At one point, he’d asked Toby to leave him behind, to carry on without him, not to risk getting caught because he was slowing them down. Toby had flat-out refused that.

“We’re in this together,” he’d said. “If you stay behind, I’ll stay behind, too.”

“You can’t. You’ll get caught.”

“Then you better keep movin’.”

And so he had kept moving.

No, Adam decided, the fever was not a blessing. It made him vulnerable to the allure of the dreams, of a false sense of security when he should stay alert and attentive. It made his head droop when he should keep his eyes up and watch out for troubles—even though their journey had been almost undisturbed so far.

As predicted, the road was deserted at night. Only once, still in the late hours of blue dusk, they’d heard hoofbeats behind them, and quickly ducked into the underbrush at the side of the road.

A small group of riders had passed by without noticing them. They’d ridden slowly, and Adam had been able to catch snippets of their talk, which had been about women and drinking, and about avoiding Union patrols—and not with a single word about hunting fugitives.

That encounter had remained the only incident, but it had warned them to stay alert and vigilant, to hark into the quietness, and to watch out for movement in the shadows. In the beginning, they’d taken short breaks every once in a while, eaten a little, drunk a little, talked a little. Once they’d even laughed a little—when they’d found that what they thought to be a sleuth-dog tracing them had only been a snuffling weasel.

After that, they didn’t take any breaks anymore. Determined to reach their destination before dawn, they just carried on. Too tired to even talk, too exhausted to think anything beyond putting one foot in front of the other, they just stumbled forward.

On a strange, entirely academic level, Adam wondered if his overexertion was a result of the newly-flared fever, or the fever a result of the overexertion—and if it was possible to establish a quotient for measuring the height of a fever in relation to the amount of sleepless hours. Not that it really mattered, but trying to work it out distracted him from dreaming about soft beds…and soft lips.

It also distracted him from the fact that he spotted the notion of pink on the eastern horizon, the promise of sun-up, daylight—and new threats.

The others must have noticed the subtle change in the colours of the night, too. In silent agreement, they all picked up speed, drawing on last reserves, anxious to get into safety before the concealing night fell. They didn’t know how far they’d made it already, how close to the Union headquarters they might be—surely it couldn’t be too far away anymore, could it? They must be almost there, perhaps just one more mile, or two, or even less than a mile, or—

And then it was over. Abruptly, suddenly, irrevocably over. A dog’s bark, a bellowed order “Hold it!” and the clicks of rifles being cocked put an end to their flight. In the dim light of the beginning dawn, they faced half a dozen or so guns trained on them, a panting and snapping bloodhound straining at its leash, and then an oily voice, “My, my, what do we have rooted up here, huh?”

***

General Schurz had just emptied his third cup of tea when his solitude ended. Lieutenant Di Scompiglio, the general’s new adjutant, entered the tent precisely six minutes later than expected, bringing with him a waft of cold air, the smell of morning dew, and a bundle of papers.

“Dispatches, Sir,” he said with a lazy salute and threw some telegrams on the general’s desk.

Schurz cleared his throat. “And good morning to you, Lieutenant,” he said in a pointed, but not unfriendly voice.

The young officer ducked his head. “Good morning, Sir.” He reached down and arranged the telegrams, shoving them into a small tidy pile before he looked up again. “New orders, I believe, Sir.”

Almost like a puppy waiting for his masters approval, Schurz thought as he saw the captain’s eyes, and he hid a grin. “Very well, we shall see—what the…?”

He was interrupted by loud voices in front of the tent. Then the canvas at the entrance flapped open and, along with another draught of fresh air, two corporals accessed the office tent.

Schurz drew himself up. “Gentlemen?”

“Corporals Fenman and Moeller, Sir.” The soldiers stood to attention. “On sentry duty tonight.”

“Report, Corporal.”

“On patrol, we picked up six persons. Five negroes and a white man.”

Schurz sighed. That wasn’t something uncommon. The newly established headquarters of the Army of the Potomac must appear like a piece of the Promised Land right in the middle of the slave country. The tempting nearness encouraged slaves to try and escape from their masters, and while some lucky refugees made it to the safety of the camp, others were caught before they’d even got close.

Patrols occasionally found horrific evidences of failed flight attempts in the near vicinity of the camp: not all slave hunters brought the escaped men and women back to their owners, but instead tortured and killed them where they’d caught them and left their bodies lying in the dirt or hanging on trees as a warning to others.

This time, however, it seemed they were lucky to have caught a slave hunter before he could pursue his dirty business. Of course, now this man had to be protected from being used as a warning to others himself. Union soldiers were no saints, either.

“Only…the white says he’s one of us.”

“Pardon?”

“He says he belongs to the Union Army. Can’t prove it, of course. But, Sir…” The Corporal looked at Schurz almost apologetically. “Sir, he says you know him.”

Well, that was something uncommon. Despite himself, Schurz was intrigued. “So, I’m supposed to know him. Can he prove that?

“He says his name’s Cartwright, Sir, Adam Cartwright, and that you’ve met.”

Adam Cartwright. Yes, he knew Adam Cartwright. And yes, he had met Adam Cartwright, who’d brought him regards from his wife, one of Schurz’ most memorable students in London all those years ago: the outspoken Countess of Barnstoke. He remembered his amusement as he’d thought that Cartwright must be a very courageous man to marry the countess. Later everything he’d heard about the man’s performance had proved that he was fearless and spirited, yet considerate and level-headed; and Schurz had intended to promote the man to the rank of lieutenant right after the battle at Gettysburg. But it never came to that because Adam Cartwright was—

“He’s dead. Cartwright died at Gettysburg.”

“He sure looks dead,” the corporal said with a short smile, then shifted his features back to seriousness. “Sir, he says he’d been captured and then escaped from the rebels. Seems quite certain you can identify him.”

Schurz stroked over his beard. Cartwright. He had sent his former secretary, Paul Hansen, to Cartwright’s home to inform the countess of her husband’s demise. He’d always had a soft spot for the well-read lady, who’d been so different from the bloated aristocrats with which he mostly had to deal, with her surprising interests in politics and social justice—and the art of newspaper making. When he’d learnt of Cartwright’s death, he had found anything except a personally delivered message to his widow completely inappropriate. It had been more than just a gallant gesture—it had been a late bow to a kindred spirit.

“Bring him in.” It was worth a try, wasn’t it? Perhaps it was time for a small miracle. Perhaps there would be a reason to send another, much happier message to her ladyship. Perhaps the story was true, and there was a man his soldiers could look up to. A hero. Fodder for the troop’s morale.

What the corporals dragged in didn’t look like a hero, and certainly didn’t look like the man he claimed to be. Adam Cartwright, as Schurz had known him, was a man with the powerful constitution of a dray horse, tall and broad-chested, with shiny black hair, the healthy tanned skin of a man used to working outdoors, and with bright intelligent eyes. A man who’d stood proud and straight, his pose perfect and his attire flawlessly neat.

The ragged, filthy scare crow the corporals held upright between them bore no resemblance to the man Schurz remembered. This man was emaciated, almost skeletally thin, his face gaunt and what was visible of his skin underneath the days worth of stubble appeared dull and ashen-grey; the overgrown hair was matted and clinging to his scalp. The worst, though, were his eyes: fever-bright, they still looked…extinct. There was no spark, no light. They were almost dead.

Although his attempt at standing to attention failed miserably, his voice was steady, if croaky. “Sergeant Adam Cartwright, Sir. We met shortly after I enlisted.”

Schurz frowned. The man could be Cartwright—or he could be any man. “I’m sorry, I don’t seem to…”

“Leopold Hohmeyer introduced us. Perhaps he can—”

“Sergeant Hohmeyer is dead. He fell at Gettysburg. I’ll need something more to be sure you are who you claim to be.”

“Leo is…? I knew he was missing, but I’d hoped…well…” Pain flickered over the man’s face, but he allowed the emotion to be seen only for a brief moment. “Sir, when we met, we talked about my wife. She was your pupil in London.”

“Yes…?”

“You said she…” He emitted a short, soft laugh, and his dead eyes lit up—like embers rekindled by a fresh breeze. It changed his whole face, and suddenly there was a fire that seemed familiar. “You said she was more interested in your involvement in the German Revolution and the hidden meaning of Die Forelle than in properly pronouncing ‘ouch.’”

Auch,” Schurz corrected automatically. Die ForelleThe Trout—and Lady Juliet’s very imaginative analysis. Yes, he remembered having told that story in a conversation of which only he and Cartwright could know. He smiled. So…a happy message for her ladyship after all. “Sergeant Cartwright, I’m very glad you made it back to us. I expect a full report as soon as you have recovered from…your ordeal, but for now—Sergeant?”

Cartwright’s face had gone slack while Schurz had been speaking, and now it lost what little colour there had been in it. Schurz saw the man’s eyes rolling back and his body going limp, but before he slumped down to the ground, the corporals tightened their hold on him and kept him standing.

“Sir?”

Schurz waved his hand emphatically. “Hospital, quick.”

He watched the corporals half-carrying Cartwright out, and then kept gazing out of the still open entrance at the camp’s tents, that glowed in a curious blend of orange and pink in the merry light of dawn.

Good news, indeed. Not just for her ladyship. Whatever Cartwright’s full story was, he had escaped from Confederate imprisonment, and that was the kind of tale that made the rounds. The kind of tale that created legends—and heroes: leaders the men would follow everywhere, blindly and without fear. Exactly what the XI Corps needed.

Schurz sat down at his desk and absently picked up the telegrams Di Scompiglio had deposited there earlier, shuffling the papers without really looking at them. Eventually he arranged them into a neat stack, put them back and decisively smoothed them down.

“Lieutenant.” He looked up and cleared his throat. “Get a promotion document ready.”

Di Scompiglio jumped in his seat. The paper he’d just been folding into what looked like a boat flew out of his hands and onto the floor. “Whazza…?”

Lieutenant!

“Sir, I’m sorry, Sir. I…I didn’t quite catch that. ”

Schurz glared. “Lieutenant Di Scompiglio, do get a promotion document ready. Now. If you please.”

“Yes, Sir. For whom?”

“Why, for Sergeant Cartwright, of course. He will be promoted lieutenant.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“And, Di Scompiglio, send a telegram to Major Harrington. Cartwright has to be removed from the death roll. And the family must be informed.”

“Yes, Sir. Um, Sir, which first?”

“Which? Which which?

“The, err, promotion or the tele—”

“The telegrams, naturally. The administration has to be up to date. See to it.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Schurz sighed. Sometimes he missed his former secretary. Paul Hansen had been so much more efficient.

He picked up the telegrams again, and finally read them—still distracted at first, but then with increasing attention. Emitting a low whistle, he read one a second time, digesting it word by word. Finally, the comparatively quiet weeks of reorganization came to an end for him and his men: the XI Corps would be cut lose from the Army of the Potomac and dispatched westwards to succour the Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga, Tennessee.

They had been sent again to front and centre.

***

“…and therefore this court declares William Robert Coulston not guilty as charged. Mr. Coulston is to be released from detention immediately and unconditionally. Court adjourned.”

Billy-Bob sagged in his seat, head buried in his hands. There were some subdued cheers from the audience, that were almost drowned out by the usual overall mumbling and shuffling of chairs and feet.

Joe found it difficult to swim against the stream of outward-pressing spectators, but eventually he made it to Billy-Bob’s seat. He proffered his hand.

“Congrats, Billy-Bob! You’re a free man now.”

“Well, yeah, thanks to ya. I know that.” Billy-Bob frowned and looked around the room—everywhere but at Joe’s hand. He crossed his arms.

“I told you everything would turn out all right.”

“Reckon ya done said so.”

“What’s the matter? You’re free. Let’s go and celebrate. I’ll pay.”

“List’n, Cartwright, yer done whatcha said ya’ll do, and I reckon I hafta be mighty thankful fer that. But I still ain’t got no job, and I figger there ain’t no one givin’ me no job in this here town ‘cause I’m still the one who’d been shootin’ atta Cartwright.” He leaned back in his chair and spit on the floor. “Seems ta me, there ain’t no reason fer no celebration.”

Joe cringed. “Billy-Bob, I told you I’ll think of something. I promise you I—”

“Seems yer gotta do a lotta thinkin’ then,” Billy-Bob drawled. He scratched his head, then fingered his jaw and squinted at Joe—and grinned. “Won’t go an’ jest smack a man so easy again, will ya?”

Joe grinned back. “Nope, I reckon I won’t.”

“Good. But I ain’t gonna wet ma dry withya anyway. The boys are waitin’ fer me o’er there already.”

He stood, waved over at the entrance, where Joe could see some men waiting, and left without another word. Joe was about to shout after Billy-Bob, but he was stopped from doing it by Pa’s hand on his arm.

“Let’s go, Joe.”

“But, Pa—”

“Let’s go.” Pa squeezed Joe’s shoulder, then pushed him into motion and led him outside.

Joe tried to find Billy-Bob in the crowd, but the man was nowhere to be seen. Most probably he was already “wetting his dry” in the Bucket of Blood saloon with his miner-friends.

“I just don’t understand—”

“Billy-Bob is not your friend, Joe.”

“But I—”

“Joe.” Pa took his shoulders and turned him around to stand face to face. “Billy-Bob is glad that he’s a free man. And he’s thankful you spoke to his favour at court. But, after all, from his point of view, you are the reason he got into this mess to begin with.”

Joe sighed. “Yeah, but I just wished…”

“That he’d forgive you the way you forgave him?”

“I guess…yah.”

“Come time, he will. I’m sure of it, Son.”

“Not if…Pa, he needs a job, and I promised him I’ll see to it.”

“So.” Pa tilted his head and raised his eyebrows. “And how exactly are you going to do that?”

Joe put on his most winning smile. “I thought that perhaps I could talk to Mr. Hamish from the mine.”

“Hamish made it very clear that he doesn’t want to see Billy-Bob anywhere close to the Ophir anymore.”

“But that was before Billy-Bob was cleared. Now he has no reason—”

“Billy-Bob is a drinker. Hamish might not want a drinker down in the mine.”

Joe snorted. As if Billy-Bob were the only drinker down there. Heck, most of the miners were drinkers. Joe guessed it was the only way to cope with being constantly deprived of fresh air. The thought alone… Gosh, he was so glad his own job entailed being out on the open range, with a wide clear blue sky above, and horizons far, far away. That view surely didn’t prompt a man to hit the bottle.

Well, and if that just didn’t kill two birds with one stone. “He could work for us.”

Pa looked incredulous. “I don’t want to hire a drinker, either.”

“Pa…”

“And, honestly, the man doesn’t want to take a drink with you. Do you really think he wants to work for you?”

All right, that was a valid argument. “And what about…give him a small patch of land? Make him his own master? There’s that small part far north on the Ponderosa, you know, the one with the little lake by the trees…” He trailed off when he saw Pa shaking his head.

“Joe, do you really want me to give a patch of land to a man who’d shot my son?”

Joe tried not to grin. “Well, it has been known to happen before.”

“I will not…. Oh, well.” Pa threw his hands. “All right, I’ll…I’ll speak to Mr. Hamish.”

Joe giggled. He couldn’t help it, it was too funny. “You’re like Juliet,” he spluttered. Throwing his hands theatrically, he exclaimed in a high voice—much higher than Juliet’s alto, he realised even while he emitted it, “oh, very well!” labouring to let the ‘r’ roll from the tip of his tongue.

Pa glared at him and shook his head, opened his mouth to reply something—but then his face changed in a split second. Only a moment ago all paternal authority and patronising qualms, he suddenly looked like a spooked squirrel. He stared at a point somewhere behind Joe’s shoulder, then ducked his head and mumbled, “Let’s get our horses and go home. Quick.”

“What’s the matter?” Joe frowned. He turned his head, slowly…

“Don’t look,” Pa hissed.

But, of course, Joe couldn’t resist. And he was rewarded with a quite peculiar view: in the distance, he saw what looked like a flock of flamingos but soon turned out to be none other than Widow Hawkins, all pink feathers and quills, who was hurrying up the street, waving a pinkish, frilly bundle of an umbrella at them.

Her voice could be heard even though she was still a few houses away. “Benjamin, Benjamin!”

“Oh, Lord, not now.”

“Pa, don’t you want to say hello to your friend?” Joe lost the battle with the impending broad grin. “Perhaps she wants to invite you for a nice cup of sassafras tea?”

“I don’t—”

And then the widow joined them, breathing heavily. She handed her umbrella to Joe—who fiddled with it for a moment, then tried to hide it behind his legs—and held fast on Pa’s arm. “Benjamin, dear boy,” she wheezed. “I have…I have this…” She fanned herself with a small piece of paper.

“Clementine, what…?”

“Oh, do excuse me, my dear boy.” She took a few deep breaths. “I just met Mr. Beyman from the telegraph office who was on the way to you with this,” the paper fanned with a flourish into Pa’s direction, “and I told him I wanted to see you anyway. He was glad he didn’t have to make the way and so he—”

Pa’s patted the widow’s hand. “Clementine, give it to me.” How he managed to keep any kind of impatience out of his voice was beyond Joe.

“Oh, gracious me. Of course, Benjamin. How very inconsiderate of me. Here you are, my dear.”

Pa took the telegram, read it—and stumbled. Mrs. Hawkins caught his arm and steadied him, beating Joe to it. There wasn’t much left of the loud, exaggerated person who had just cornered them. Instead, there was a compassionate friend, watching Pa with eyes full of concern.

Joe’s grin melted. “Pa?”

The telegram was thrust into Joe’s hand, and he forced himself to read it—and then Billy-Bob Coulston was forgotten, the Ophir mine, little patches of land, and all that; and the future consisted only of one thing: Adam was alive.

Oh, and of the fact that “’Arry’s” tights might be hung over the fireplace at the Ponderosa after all, for Pa had taken Mrs. Hawkins around her waist and was whirling her around, high in the air, laughing like a madman while she was squealing, “Coo, Benjamin, what a jolly good day!”

And that it was, wasn’t it? A truly jolly good day!

__________

However long the night, the dawn will break. ~ African proverb

*****

Chapter 21

To Honour and Obey

It was amazing what a few nights of undisturbed sleep, some hearty meals, and the knowledge of being among friends could do for a man’s health, Adam thought as he put on freshly laundered blue uniform pants and a starched grey shirt. He was still sore in many places, with his right shoulder still aching, his right leg still stiff and uncooperative whenever he attempted to put weight on it, the tender scar tissue still easily aggravated by the friction of the trousers wool on the light bandage. He wasn’t exactly “healed”—the army doctor who’d treated him had been very clear upon that—but he was as good as they were able to make him right now. Everything else would need time.

“That rebel surgeon did an excellent job,” the doctor had said. “Outstanding.”

Unfortunately, that didn’t mean Adam would have full use of his leg anytime soon.

“Think in months rather than weeks.” The doctor had prodded at the scar very carefully, and raised his eyebrow at the tell-tale twitch and Adam’s sharp intake of breath. “Or years, perhaps.”

All in all, the surgeon hadn’t told him much more and nothing much better than Dr. Mabbs: he would have to take it easy for a long time, give his body time to build up strength and his leg time to re-grow bone material and perhaps even a little muscle tissue. He would have to depend on a cane for an unforeseeable time, would experience pain, especially at weather changes and under stress, and would most likely limp for the rest of his life.

It didn’t sound too bad. Seemed quite manageable, actually. Now that the all-consuming fatigue he’d felt for so many days had gone, now that he could eat and drink as much as he wanted and could handle, he felt ready to go back to normal, to do something useful. Now that he didn’t have to be taken care of anymore, he wanted to start taking care of things himself again. He didn’t mind the pain, or the cane, or the limp. Those were things he could deal with. But being inactive was something that ate at him, had actually eaten at him ever since he’d been wounded—but now he finally would be able to change that and to go back into action.

He stuffed the wool shirt into his pants, fastened the buttons on the fly. He smiled wryly. The uniform he’d been given had seemed to be made for a man with a much slighter build. It looked like something his brother Joe could wear. But when he’d pointed that out to the orderly who’d brought it, the man had snorted.

“When was the last time you looked into a mirror?” he’d said and looked pointedly at Adam’s bare chest.

It had been that very morning, that last time Adam had looked into a mirror, as he’d set about shaving. He’d been taken aback by the gaunt look of his face, the prominent dark rings under his eyes, and the hollow cheeks. He’d decided then that shaving—and exposing the full extent of his emaciation—could, and should, wait. So he’d just trimmed the wild growth into something resembling a groomed beard.

Of course, he hadn’t seen more than his face in that mirror, but he didn’t need to see more to know that his long sickness had taken more than a pound or two from him. And as if to prove it, the Joe-sized uniform pants hung loose and low on his hips and had to be bundled up with a belt to sit as they were supposed to.

Perhaps when Fritz had said Adam was only skin and bones he’d not exaggerated after all.

Fritz. For some reasons Adam had not expected to see the boy ever again, but he’d woken from a nap yesterday afternoon to Fritz Boettcher’s excited face.

“You’re a sorry sight,” his comrade had greeted him. “Skins and bones. But seeing you only half-dead sure is an improvement.”

Adam’s mind had still been fuzzy with sleep or he would have drawn the conclusions himself. But as it was, he’d asked, “Improvement over what?”

“To thinking you’re dead, of course.”

“You thought me dead?”

“I knew you were dead.” Fritz nodded for emphasis. “Adam, you died in a field hospital. There were witnesses. I buried you.”

“You…I—what?”

“You—well, a soldier who was thought to be you died. He was brought to the hospital nearly dead. They tried to save his life, amputated his leg, but he died after a few days.”

“But how did they think it was me? You must have recognised—”

“Adam, you know how it was. There wasn’t time to go around and ask people if they knew a wounded man. They concluded who you were from what they found in your pocket: General Ward’s message and the letter to your wife.”

General Ward’s message. God, that had been how…. It was amazing how things meshed together, how every bit of new information now dovetailed into the last holes in his memory: the papers General Ward had given him to deliver to General Schurz, his frantic run through enemy fire, the bullet that had taken him down, his futile attempts at getting up and not failing his mission, the soldier who’d appeared out of the smoke and noise and to whom he’d handed the general’s papers. He remembered it as if it had been only yesterday: how he’d reached into his coat and taken the bundle of papers out. He must have caught the letter, too, accidentally, and so—but…but he hadn’t written a letter to Juliet. Not while he was at Gettysburg.

Unless…Oh, my. The letter that wasn’t a letter. Lupus est homo homini, man is wolf to man. The diary…that wasn’t a diary, either. And certainly not a letter. But of course, it must have looked like a letter to Juliet. He had written her name on it. Not her address—for it was meant never to be sent—but her name. Oh, yeah, he’d had to write her name on it, of course, he had. Had to tidily write her name on a letter he was about to throw into the fire the next day. Why hadn’t he burnt it right away, why? He could only hope…

“They didn’t send it, did they?”

“What?”

“The letter. They didn’t send it to Juliet, did they?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t ask her about it.”

Now Adam had been truly confused. “Ask whom?”

“Your wife.”

“You talked to my…? How? When?”

And then he’d heard the whole story. Fritz, bereft of the protection of both his older brother Karl, who’d died in his arms the day before, and his sergeant and substitute guardian, Adam, had been as careless and vulnerable as only an always closely supervised younger brother could be, and subsequently been wounded in one of the very few minor skirmishes in which the XI Corps had been involved during the second day of the battle.

He’d been devastated when, upon regaining consciousness after a few days, he’d been told that Adam had died, and Fritz would never have the chance to tell him how much he felt he owed him. He had arranged to have Adam buried next to Karl on one of the large cemeteries that somehow had seemed to materialise everywhere in Gettysburg. Left behind to heal properly when the Union troops had moved southwards following Lee’s army, it had given him time to see to everything, including to commission headstones for both Karl and Adam. During those weeks of recuperating, he had visited the graves daily. As he’d gone on the cemetery the day before he’d been sent after his corps, he’d met Juliet and Hoss there—to his utter surprise but also to his great comfort, for talking to them and telling them all he knew had made him feel he’d done at least something—if not for Adam, then for his family.

The longer Adam thought about it, the less of a surprise it was for him. Of course Juliet would want to see his burial place. Adam had seen death notices to other soldiers’ dependants, and he knew how formulaic those were, how vague and empty. Naturally, Juliet would want to know more, would want…answers. As a reporter—and a person who loathed being ignorant—she knew that answers didn’t come to you on their own. That answers were things you had to pry from people, you had to look for, you had to ask for. Like Adam, she hated to be inactive, to be not in charge.

Oh, no, it wasn’t a surprise she’d gone and searched for answers herself. It was a surprise, however, that the family had let her go.

Well, maybe not.

No one, at least no one of his family, would be able to hold Juliet back if she’d set her mind to something. No one would have been able to keep her back from going on her quest. Joe would rather wrestle a mountain lion than cross Juliet, Pa was too concerned he might not find the right tone and inadvertently hurt her, and Hoss was putty in Juliet’s hands anyway.

At least they’d had the sense to send Hoss with her. Hoss, of whom she thought as a friend, a confidant, a brother. Hoss, who’d catch her if she fell. Hoss, who’d offer his broad chest to lean on, and his heart, unconditionally. Hoss, the only one of them from whom that offer would be unreservedly accepted.

Hoss…who’d be just as shattered as Juliet, but would still find the strength—and the love—to recognise Juliet’s distress behind her wall of impeccable manners and composed indifference, and to tear down that wall and keep her from falling apart behind it.

Lord, what had he done to his family? They had thought him dead. Not missing: dead.

Adam had been glad to learn that General Schurz had seen to it that a telegram had been send to the Ponderosa. But of course, that telegram wasn’t enough. Not by far.

I need to write more letters home, he’d thought. Long letters, happy letters. Let them know I’m all right. Always. But how could he ever make it up to Juliet? All the letters in the world wouldn’t make her forget, wouldn’t take away what he’d put upon her.

He’d have wallowed himself deeper and deeper into self-incrimination had not Fritz pulled him out of it as he’d told him about how they’d found Leopold Hohmeyer’s mangled body in a swale at the outskirts of Gettysburg—and Brigade General Schimmelpfennig alive and kicking in the garden of a private town house, where he’d stayed for days, hidden in a shed to avoid capture by the enemy, until the battle had been over.

“They said he was smart. A hero of some kind,” Fritz had hissed. “A hero, Adam, because he was clever enough to hide from the rebels.”

He’d leaned forward and looked at Adam with an intensity in his eyes that had seemed foreign on his mercurial face, whose youth miraculously had not been touched by the war. “Thank you for not allowing me to become that kind of hero,” he’d whispered and squeezed Adam’s hand. “Thank you.”

And again, he’d reminded him of Joe then—more than ever.

Adam slipped into his boots, put on the Prussian blue coat, buttoning it methodically. He was straightening the coat tails as the orderly came back into the room.

“It’s time, sir,” the man said.

Adam checked the fit of his coat once again. This time, he would face General Schurz a proper, immaculate soldier. He brushed over the shoulder straps—one golden stripe on each end, insignia of his new rank—adjusted his collar. Grabbing his cane, he turned to go.

“Coming.”

*****

The report General Schurz received from Lieutenant Cartwright was interesting, enthralling—but didn’t contain very much usable information. Cartwright had spent two and a half months recovering in a hospital, not transferred to prison only by sheer luck and because of the fact that while he’d been suspected to be an enemy, no one had actually been sure he was one. Of course, no one would have spoken openly around him or given him any other opportunity to gain information.

Schurz was sure Cartwright himself withheld certain details of his adventure, too. Nothing crucial, just…the exact course of his flight remained woolly, his escape almost unbelievably lucky. The general suspected that the friendly nurse whom Cartwright had only briefly mentioned had played a much bigger part in the whole scenario, had been more deeply involved than the lieutenant let on. A gentleman never tells, Schurz thought, and he was torn between wry amusement and faint indignation. He had a hard time refraining from inquiring further—and keeping a smile to himself.

Cartwright’s encounter with the fugitive slaves seemed another lucky coincidence—both for him and the escapees. The lieutenant, however, was determined to see the advantage clearly on his side.

“I’d never have made it without Toby and the others,” he said. “They had no cause to burden themselves with a white man, and an injured one to boot, yet they took the risk. I’m forever in their debt.”

He didn’t seem to be aware that the refugees were in his debt, too—an oversight that Schurz registered approvingly and that made Cartwright a man after the general’s heart.

Schurz had fought in what he called two wars: first, in 1848, the March revolution in Germany, now the war between the Northern and Southern States in his new home country, America. Both times he’d stood up to help make his country a better place, a place where people could live in freedom and self-determination. All people, no matter their background—or colour of skin.

He’d always been a political man, one who knew the importance of social justice, of education for everyone and of freedom of will. He had become immersed in the abolitionist movement and in politics shortly after he’d emigrated to the United States; he’d supported his wife Margarethe as she’d opened a Kindergarten in Wisconsin, which practised the idea of offering every child a preparation for primary school, no matter their ancestry, a few years ago; he had left his position as ambassador to Spain to come home and support his country in the war against the Southern Rebels—and against slavery. Cartwright seemed to be cut from the same cloth. A patriot, yet not blind to what went wrong in his land. A man with a deeply inhered humanity, and a determination to make things right, tofight for what was right.

Which didn’t make it any easier to tell him what Schurz had to tell him.

The general was brought out of his musings by a soft hemming.

“I’ve heard Toby and the other men decided to enlist,” Cartwright said, perhaps a nuance louder than strictly necessary—was he repeating himself? “Maybe it could be arranged that Toby will be assigned to one of my squads. I would very much appreciate that, Sir.”

General Schurz sighed inwardly. And here it comes: the difficult part of this conversation.

“Lieutenant, I’m afraid…” How to say it, how to phrase it without making it a repulse? He cleared his throat. “Lieutenant Cartwright, you won’t have any squads.”

“Pardon?”

“I have here,” Schurz picked a paper from his desk and waved it in Cartwright’s general direction, “a report from Surgeon Major Waterman. It states clearly that you are not fit for military service.”

“I understand, sir. For how long will I have to be off duty?”

Schurz leaned back in his chair. He put the paper down, not even pretending he had to check it. This time he sighed audibly. “For ever,” he said.

Cartwright stared. He didn’t flinch, didn’t blink, didn’t frown. He stared.

Then he puckered his lips, closed his eyes, briefly, and looked back at Schurz. “Why?”

“Because you are not fit for military service. And you won’t be for a very long time.”

“But I could—”

“No. You can’t. You are, Lieutenant—and please forgive me my bluntness—you are crippled. You were informed about the extent of your injuries, I believe, and about the time they will take to heal—if ever.”

“But there surely are ways—”

“We need able-bodied soldiers, Lieutenant. We want this war to end as soon as possible, we want to defeat Lee and his Rebels as soon as possible—and we need fit and strong men for that. Not men who can’t stand without the support of a cane.”

There was a short flash of irritation on Cartwright’s face, come and gone so quickly that Schurz could have imagined it—had he not fully understood where it came from.

“Please, don’t think we don’t honour what you’ve done for this army, for this land. Because we do. We were lucky to have a man of your integrity and spirit with us. You served us well, very well. Now it is time we serve you. You’ve done your part, now let us do ours.”

“I’ve served for less than five months.” It sounded flat. A mere statement. But a glint in Cartwright’s eyes said there was more. Frustration? Or…shame? “This is my country, General. I want to fight for my country. Can’t you relate to that?”

“I think you know that I can.” Schurz kept his rebuke short. Cartwright would understand him anyway. He was a smart man.

And as it was, the lieutenant looked down, for the first time. “I’m sorry, sir. That was uncalled for.”

“It’s all right; I understand this isn’t easy for you.” Herrgott, yes, he did understand. Of course, he did. If he just could find a way to make it more…graceful. “Lieutenant, I—”

Distracted, he broke off. There was commotion in front of the tent, angry voices, “No, you can’t—the general is in a meeting, he can’t be disturbed.”

He turned to Lieutenant Di Scompiglio, who, with his slouched shoulders and bowed head, looked as if he’d prefer melting into the ground to having to observe more of the conversation, and gestured towards the disturbance. “Take care of th—”

He choked on the word as he heard another voice from outside. “You will not. Touch me.” A woman.

Then a man, a soldier. “Ma’am, you can’t…”

And another man, warningly. “She done told ya, fella. Ya better listen to her.”

And then the entrance flap was moved aside and revealed a woman, who slapped at a hand that tried to hold her back. With two long strides she reached the middle of the tent, her eyes finding and never leaving Schurz’s.

“General Schurz,” she spat. “I’ve travelled a hundred and twenty miles in the past three days, and I will not be dismissed by your underlings. I demand…”

Her eyes had left Schurz’s face while she’d spoken, as if something had told her the general was not the most important person present, and started to scan the tent. She trailed off as her eyes caught on Lieutenant Cartwright.

She heaved a deep, shuddering breath. Her angry features melted into something Schurz was sure was supposed to be a stiff upper lip. Her face was chalk-white; and for a moment Schurz feared she would faint—but he knew her better.

A man brushed past her, a civilian, a big man with a baby in his arms, and crossed the tent towards Cartwright, who’d risen from his chair and whose eyes darted back and forth, from her to him. The big man pulled him into a bear hug, with the baby somewhere between them, then held him at arms length and looked him up and down. “I’m sure glad to see ya, Adam,” he said, grinning broadly. “Even though there’s not much ta see. Boy, yer even punier than Joe.”

The Countess of Barnstoke still stood rooted in the middle of the tent. She stared at her husband, her eyes bright and watery, her features pale yet composed. “There you are, Adam,” she finally said, much higher pitched than before.

“There I am.” Cartwright’s voice was hoarse and barely audible. “There I am. And there are you.”

She made a soft sound. A choked sob, a suppressed cry, something of that kind.

He cleared his throat, then raised an eyebrow, smiled lopsidedly, and put a hand out to her. “But why are you not here?

Now she allowed herself a sob, and a cry “Adam,” and she flew into his arms, pressed her face to his neck—and then Schurz took Lieutenant Di Scompiglio by the sleeve and dragged him out of the tent.

*****

She was beautiful, so beautiful. More beautiful than in his dreams, more beautiful than he deserved her to be. She was warm and soft, affectionate and familiar, strong and caring: his wife, his friend, his family, his anchor, his home. His everything.

She was too pale and too thin, her curls lustreless and limp, and her cheeks hollow. And yet to him, she was beautiful. The most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

As she’d stood proud and tall in General Schurz’ tent, agitated and demanding and so present, Adam had yet been afraid she was just an apparition, another fever-induced hallucination, another waking dream. But then Hoss had appeared and embraced him—and no one could ever mistake Hoss’s materiality for a figment of his imagination.

Or Henry. Henry, who’d hung groggily in Hoss’s arm but had raised his head after the hug had pressed him into Adam’s chest, and stared wide-eyed at his father’s face, stretching his hand out to investigate the beard. If those two were concrete, Adam had concluded, Juliet couldn’t be an illusion either.

Her choked words had made her even more real. Her choked words, her unreadable face, her rigid stance. She’d been real and there, and he’d been overjoyed and terrified; and it had taken all his courage to look into her eyes, where he knew he would find only truth, no pretence.

Her eyes had been deep with pain and hope and—relief?—and something else that Adam knew had been reflected by his own eyes: love.

Although that love seemed different to what they had had before, seemed tainted with desperation, with doubt, and with unsated longing. It wasn’t a new facet of an old accustomed feeling, it was another dimension of it, unfamiliar, unsolicited—a dark version of something that should be bright and luminous.

There and then he’d sworn it to himself that he would do anything to make the desperation in Juliet’s eyes go away, the hurt, and the doubt; and to replace it with trust and fulfilment, and with certainty.

And yet he was writing this letter. While Juliet was nursing Henry in the adjoining room, and waiting for the chamber-maid to get a bath ready, he was writing this letter. He didn’t want to, and yet he did want to, he had to, he couldn’t help it, couldn’t look at himself if he didn’t write it.

“To the Secretary of War, Sir Edwin Stanton.

“Dear Sir,

“I apply to you to ask for an exemption. After having sustained a severe injury during the battle at Gettysburg, I was mustered out of military service. I do realise my physical limitations. However, I am convinced that I can contribute to the cause of the Union in other ways. As an engineer…”

Juliet would understand. He couldn’t just sit back and wait until others ended this war for him. He’d hardly done anything as of yet. He had accomplished nothing, changed nothing; suffered and brought suffering—but what for? The war still raged on, men still died on the battlefields, freedom still was a word just for white people, North and South still were further apart than moon and earth.

Juliet would understand he couldn’t just go home and be glad it was over for him. He wasn’t a coward, and he wasn’t a quitter.

There were many ways he could still be useful for The Cause. The Union Army was experimenting with new materials, first of all with vulcanite, the new, almost magic substance acquired by heat-treating raw rubber. General Blair had used rubber pontoon bridges instead of the usual wood and canvas constructions, which were heavy and hard to transport, and difficult to repair when damaged; whereas the vulcanite version was lighter, slightly flexible and more durable. Ever since Goodyear had invented the method of vulcanisation, people had come up with the most amazing applications—the rubber pontoon bridge, however, seemed a particular remarkable example of the use of the new material.

Even though Adam had not dealt with vulcanite during his studies—having been invented in 1848 it had been just too new a thing to be part of his curriculum—he was sure there were more ways to make use of it, and he saw himself developing those new uses. Uses that might help the Union Army to gain that little advantage over the Southern troops that could make the difference. It was only one of a thousand ways he could think of as to how he could still be valuable for the army.

He wouldn’t shirk his duty just because things had been rough on him for a time. He wasn’t that kind of man.

Juliet would understand that, wouldn’t she?

Through the door to the next room, he heard her singing to Henry. Adam couldn’t suppress a wry grin as she narrowly missed a high note in Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. She never made it through a whole song without slipping a half-tone up or down on occasions, but Henry didn’t seem to mind. In the past two days, Adam had witnessed him falling asleep without complaint to his mother’s singing more than once.

It was hard to admit, but he nearly hadn’t recognised Henry as he saw him again after almost half a year. He’d known the baby in Hoss’s arms was Henry—but his son had changed so much, he could have been any baby.

If he stayed with the army he would miss even more of Henry’s progress, and more of Juliet being a mother.

Would she understand his motives?

I need you! He remembered. She’d said that, months ago, and he had not fully understood it— he knew that now.“Adam, don’t do that to us, don’t leave us. Don’t leave me. I couldn’t bear…”

And yet she had had to bear it. Had to bear it and more, had paid a heavy price. She’d told him about the miscarriage, in a soft voice, her gaze averted from his face. First he’d thought she didn’t want him to see her vulnerability; only much later he’d realised she was ashamed. Blamed herself. He’d embraced her, said that they would have another child, but he hadn’t taken the burden from her, understanding too late that she had not just told him, but confessed it to him. Now he was helpless, speechless, felt he’d failed her, had ceased to be there for her again.

Would she really understand it if he left her behind again? But other men left their wives behind, too. It couldn’t be helped.

He took up his pen. “I would like to offer my knowledge and skills in the field of—”

The screeching of the door being opened by Hoss interrupted him.

His brother’s gaze swept through the room, then settled on Adam. “Where’s Juliet?”

“With Henry.”

“And you?”

“What do you mean?” Oh, he knew what Hoss meant. For reasons Adam couldn’t quite fathom his brother didn’t tolerate it well if Adam left Juliet’s side for more than a short moment.

Hoss had changed, too. He was protective towards Juliet, more protective than Adam would have thought Juliet would allow anyone to be, and seemed to consider the two of them a unit. Towards Adam, though, Hoss was…edgy. He made it plain he was happy to have found Adam alive and that he was concerned about Adam’s physical shape, but he also seemed to have something weighing on his mind, something that made him moody—Hoss, moody!—and testy: a kind of suppressed anger just below the surface, ready to boil over at any given time.

“Ya know what I mean. Why ain’t ya with her?”

He was willing to let Hoss get away with the tone, but not with the interference. “I’m hardly accountable to you.”

“Yer…what are you writing there?”

“I’m writing to the Department of War. I want to…” He trailed off because Hoss already had picked up the letter.

It took Hoss about ten seconds to read it, and less then one to crumple it into a very small ball.

“Are ya crazy?” he said so softly, it sent chills down Adam’s spine.

“I—”

“Are ya crazy?” A tad louder. “They’re letting you go, and you wanta talk ‘em around?”

“Hoss, I can still make a contribution. I can still fight for—”

“Are ya crazy?” Quite audible this time. “Do ya ever think of Juliet? Pa? Joe? Anyone but you?”

“Hoss, let me explain, I—”

“Are ya crazy?” Now it was a definite roar. “I don’t need yer explainin’. This ain’t about you, Adam, and the dadburned army. This is about everyone hurtin’ because yer not thinking about what yer doing to them.”

“I know this isn’t easy for the family. It’s not easy for a lot of families, and still there are men fighting out there for a good cause. I know—”

And then white hot pain exploded in his chin, blinding him for a moment. He was propelled through the room, hitting the opposite wall before he couldn’t even flail his arms. Unable to stop the momentum or to cushion the impact, he crashed into unyielding solidity; stood there, stunned, for a second or two and then slowly sagged down.

Baffled, he stared at Hoss’s face, which suddenly appeared only inches from his, and which didn’t look quite as shocked as Adam would have hoped.

“You don’t know nothing,” Hoss spat. And he did the thing Adam hated so much: he stabbed with his index finger at Adam’s chest, emphasising his every word. “You don’t know nothing. You ain’t been there as Joe caught a bullet because he’d defended yer honour, you ain’t seen him hurtin’ because of he talk and the looks he got, you ain’t seen Pa aging overnight when he thought yer dead, you ain’t heard Juliet trying not to cry. And you ain’t seen the blood when she lost that baby, ain’t heard her blaming herself fer it ‘cause she thought she’d failed ya, ain’t been sitting next ta her bed and watching her fade. You don’t know nothing.”

Slaps, those words were slaps, each and every one. And they hurt even more than the punch to his face. Fingering his hurting jaw, he tried to give Hoss a small smile and winced as it pulled on his split lip. “I guess I deserved that one,” he said. “Hoss, I had no idea…”

“It’s over, Adam. Yer done yer fighting. Yer busted, and now you ain’t fit fer fighting anymore.” Hoss’s voice had gone soft. Soft and patient and soothing. It sounded as if he was talking to a stubborn child who didn’t realise he was only hurting himself. “You hafta go home and heal. Yer place ain’t here—yer place is home. Come home, Adam.”

“I…” It sounded so easy. Go home, heal. But things weren’t so easy, were they? “The country…” The country what? Needed him? The country had just told him it didn’t need him anymore, hadn’t it?

“Yer family is part of the country, too. Maybe it’s time to fight fer them.”

He nodded. “Yah.” It was so easy.

Hoss offered him a hand, pulled him to his feet. “’m sorry, fer the….” he said, gesturing to Adam’s jaw. Then he put his arm around Adam’s shoulders and squeezed, just once and only softly as if afraid to hurt him again, and whispered, “Welcome back, older brother.”

The door between the two rooms opened and revealed Juliet cloaked in her dressing gown. “Henry is asleep now. Adam, are you don—” She broke off as her eyes fell on him. “Good gracious, what happened here?”

They answered her in a chorus. “Nothing.”

Crossing her arms and looking pointedly at Adam’s chin, she raised an eyebrow. “Oh, yes, I see.”

And then she sighed and drew small circles on her temple with the tips of her fingers.

“Are you all right?” she eventually asked. It was addressed to Hoss, not to Adam, and that was almost like another slap.

“Yes, ma’am, I am. We are, now.” Hoss gave her a smile. “I gotta go now and see iffen I can find out where’s the nearest train station.”

He walked out of the room, and Adam watched Juliet’s eyes follow Hoss leaving and closing the door behind him. The clack of the door latch still echoed through the room when Juliet turned to him.

“What…?”

“Nothing. Nothing…worth talking about, anyway.” He rubbed his chin. “Honest, Juliet. It’s like Hoss said: we’re all right now. I promise.” I promise, again. And he didn’t break promises, did he? No, he did everything to keep them. Always.

She studied him for a moment, then tugged at his sleeve. “Come with me.” She took his hand and pulled him with her. “The tub is big enough for two.”

It was, especially for two people as thin as they were. Adam had been shocked the first time he’d seen Juliet naked, and a look at her face had told him she’d been just as shocked to see him skinny as a rake. They both had to put some meat on their bones.

As it was, they fitted perfectly in the tub. Adam leaned comfortably on the backrest, Juliet lay between his legs, her head resting on his shoulder. They’d shared washcloth and soap, helped each other scrub their backs, and now they were relaxing, enjoying the peaceful quiet of the room, the warmth of the water, and the long-missed closeness.

Juliet laid her hand on his bent knee, then let her fingers trail down the leg towards his hip. They stopped at the scar.

“It looks so painful,” she said.

He shook his head. “It isn’t. Well, not much.”

He couldn’t see it, but he sensed her raised eyebrow as she said, “Sure.”

“It could be worse. It was worse. It’s getting better every day.”

She laid her hand on it, cautiously, barely brushing the tender skin, as if she wanted to shield it—protect it? Heal it? He covered her hand with his.

“It’s not a pretty sight, I’m afraid.”

She leaned forward and pressed a soft kiss on his thigh, just above their clasped hands. “No,” she said. “It isn’t. But who cares?”

He leaned forward, too, and kissed her neck, buried his face in the soft hollow between her shoulder blades. Yes, who cared? He had his scars, and she had hers. The small, nearly invisible silvery line on her side from the bullet that had nearly killed Joe—and if not for his youngest brother perhaps Juliet. The fine web of faded scars on her wrists, a criss-cross of faint, thin lines, and the thicker, still reddish welt on her left palm, all evidence of how she’d destroyed the standing mirror in their hotel room in San Francisco with bare hands, testimony of her desperation—and her temper. It had been another incident about which she’d felt the need to tell him in a fashion more reminiscent of a confession than an explanation.

And then there were other scars. Scars in the shape of worry lines and sadness.

He wrapped his arm around her and pulled her back with him, until he leaned on the backrest again, and she lay on his chest. He kept his hold on her, tightly, and as she turned her head to look at him questioningly, he held her even tighter.

“You’re right, that scar…I don’t care if it’s there or not. I can’t do anything about it anyway. But…” He closed his eyes, just for a moment, praying he would find the right words, then looked back at her. “There are scars I can do something about.”

She frowned. “What…?”

“The scars of…the baby.”

She closed her eyes, shook her head. “No, Adam. There are no scars from that.”

“There are. I can see them, in your face.”

Her eyes flew open, wide, wide open. Brilliantly green, bright with shock and something else. Fear? Unbearable pain. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have—”

“Shh. There’s nothing you should be sorry for. I am sorry I wasn’t there when it happened. I am sorry you had to go through that without me.” He cupped her face, traced his thumbs over her cheeks, over her lips, brushed her eyes with his fingertips. “I want to erase those scars,” he whispered. “I will do everything I can to make them vanish.”

He wanted to kiss her, but she turned her face away. “I don’t deserve that. It was my fault the baby—”

“It wasn’t your fault. It just happened.”

“But if I had stayed at home, if I had rested, if I had taken better care of myself…”

“…then it would have happened anyway. Juliet, if rest were needed for that, how could any farmer’s wife ever carry a child to full term?”

There was a long moment of silence, and it took Adam everything not to break it. Finally, he felt Juliet nod.

“That’s true…” She sounded surprised, as if that thought had never occurred to her. “It’s true, but still…Adam, I wanted that baby. I wanted it just as much as I wanted Henry.”

“You’ll get that baby.” He felt her stir, taking in a deep breath, but forestalled her words. “I know, not that baby. But another one. We will have many sons and daughters. It won’t take away the pain of losing that baby, but perhaps…it will make it bearable.”

She pressed her face into his neck, in that old familiar way, and it was answer enough. Then he heard her mumble against his skin.

“Pardon?”

She pulled back a bit. “The beard. Shave it off.”

“What do you have against the beard?”

“I don’t like it.”

“Does it tickle?”

“It obscures too much of your face. I can’t see…I want to see those dimples once you start smiling again.”

“I am smiling.”

“You aren’t. You’re…there’s something on your heart.”

She’d always been that way, had always seen right through him. Had always known how to read him. There was no point in trying to deny it.

He tried it anyway. “There’s nothing—”

It was of no avail. Naturally.

“Oh, taradiddle! What is it?”

It was marvellous to have her back. It was even worth having that imperious tone of voice back, because it meant she was truly back. And stronger than she looked. Strong and smart and able to help him through the fog in his mind.

He took a deep breath. “It’s just…I feel…I haven’t…” It wasn’t easy to put into words. “I’ve achieved nothing.”

“You’ve achieved nothing? What makes you think so?”

“I enlisted to fight for my convictions. To help change this land. Make it a good place for everyone. To reinstate the union. But all I did was get hurt and captured, and then escape again. I did nothing that changed anything. I brought misery to my family, but what for? I didn’t make a difference. And now I’m crippled and not fit to fight anymore. And I’ve achieved nothing. All this was for naught.” There, that was the crux of things, the gist. The unvarnished truth.

Juliet managed to turn around in the narrow tub, to face him properly. She raised an eyebrow. “Is that so?”

“I—”

“Are you blind, Adam? Or don’t you want to see it?”

“See what?”

She sighed. “The boy, for example. Fritz Butcher.”

Boettcher. What about him?”

“Boettcher. He’d be dead without you, Adam. Executed for desertion.”

“He told you?”

“Yes.”

“But that’s not…enough. I didn’t enlist to—”

“It doesn’t matter why you enlisted, it matters what you did. You saved his life and his honour. Because of you, his family won’t have to mourn two sons.”

He didn’t point out that the war wasn’t over yet, at least not for Fritz Boettcher, who could die the very next day. He knew that that wouldn’t make her argument invalid.

“And the escaped slaves. Where would they be without you?”

“That was a coincidence. I didn’t plan to—”

“Which doesn’t undo it. Adam, you saved their lives. Theirs and Fritz’s. And you might not have performed some military exploits, but you were a part of an army that won some important battles. Wars are not won by outstanding heroes, but by a group of men fighting together for their cause.”

“I never wanted to be a hero, I just wanted to…do my duty. To make a difference.”

“You made a difference. Ask Fritz, he will tell you. You made a difference because you were there.”

“But only for a few weeks. It’s not enough.”

“Not enough? How many weeks more would make it enough? How many slaughtered Southern soldiers would make it enough, Adam? Ten more, a hundred more?”

He shuddered. “No…”

“It is enough, Adam. You did your best, and your best is not killing people but saving them, protecting them.”

She was right; she was so darn right. He pulled her back to his chest. “Why do you always know to say the right things?”

She melted into him. “Because I love you.”

They didn’t say it very often, never felt they needed to say it. Which made the words even more special now.

“What a happy coincidence,” Adam said, holding her even tighter, “that I happen to love you too, Mylady.”

She chuckled. “Indeed, you do. I’ve got evidence.”

“What?”

She wriggled the small of her back against him. “There.”

There she was, his lady. Unashamed, teasing, flirtatious.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t intend…”

“I’d be offended if you weren’t…responsive.” And she leaned into him even more.

But they didn’t make love that night. They got out of the tub as the water cooled down, towelled each other dry, and went to bed, naked as they were, yet they didn’t make love. They just lay and held each other, wept in each other’s arms, laughed in each other’s arms, and talked and recreated their bond. No, they didn’t make love—they loved. And it was the deepest they’d ever gotten into each other.

__________

I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended-up where I intended to be. ~ Douglas Adams

*****

A/N:  On a side note: Major General Schurz and Brigade General Schimmelpfennig are real people.

The story of Schimmelpfennig hiding on private property during the Battle of Gettysburg is historically verified. He didn’t receive a very good press for it.

Carl Schurz was a politican before and after the war. He is famous for his response to an often cited quote, which reads: “The Senator from Wisconsin cannot frighten me by exclaiming, “My country, right or wrong.” In one sense I say so too. My country; and my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

 *****

Epilogue

Scars


“Our president, Mr. Lincoln, has proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day, to be celebrated on the final Thursday in November, starting this year.

“So on this November 26th in the year of the Lord 1863, we’ve come together to eat and drink, to be together, and to give thanks.

“Good Lord, I’m giving thanks to thee. I’m giving thanks for the return of my family, for having them back, safe and sound, whole and healthy. I’m giving thanks for Adam surviving his ordeal, and Joe his and Juliet hers. I’m giving thanks for my son Hoss and his strength that kept us all from falling apart; and I’m giving thanks for my grandchild, who lights up our days.

“I’m giving thanks for the chance my family has received: the chance of starting anew. I am aware that many families in this country won’t get that chance. I am aware that the bloodshed of this war isn’t over yet, and that it will take tolls from many families. I am also aware that my own family hasn’t been spared completely—but that we’ve come out of it lightly. We’re alive, and we’re together and healing, and for that I’m giving thanks.”

Juliet pondered the words spoken much earlier that evening, while she removed her emerald earrings and the matching necklace—gifts from Adam on the occasion of Henry’s birth—and cautiously placed them into their ornate velvet cases, then started to pull out the small jade pearls that were woven into her elaborate hairdo.

It had been an almost formal dinner; Paul Martin and Clementine Hawkins had been invited, and Hop Sing had outdone himself with serving course after course, each more delicious than the last.

Thanksgiving, a national holiday announced in the middle of a war that provided very little to give thanks for…and yet her father-in-law had found words of gratitude and faith—even though he must have known that they were based, at least in part, more on wishful thinking than on actual facts.

The last green bead stored away in a Chinese lacquer box, Juliet turned her attention to removing the dozens of pins that had kept her hair up. As its waves finally fell freely over her shoulders and back, she let out a deep, relieved sigh, and reached for her hairbrush to start the arduous task of working it through the tousled masses.

“I’m giving thanks for the return of my family.” Juliet yanked at a particularly stubborn strand of snarled hair.

Ben knew as well as anyone that not the whole family had returned. That Adam wasn’t really at home. Though physically returned, he had yet to arrive completely.

As she’d predicted so many months ago, they had gotten Adam back—but not gotten him back. What they had was a shell resembling Adam, but not…not the man Adam.

There was a deep-rooted sadness in his eyes, even when he smiled or laughed. But smiles and laughter didn’t come easy to him any more anyway. He was withdrawn, thoughtful, pensive, and often startled if someone addressed him suddenly, even in conversations he’d seemed to follow. He did his share of work, as yet mostly limited to book keeping and such, but he was easily distracted and didn’t seem able to concentrate properly. He was an attentive husband to her and a devoted father to Henry generally, but sometimes also impatient and irritated over insignificant matters. He was erratic; and if there was one thing her Adam had never been it was erratic.

The war had wounded Adam in more ways than one, and none of those wounds had healed completely yet.

Ben knew that. Juliet had seen it in his face as he’d studied Adam the day they’d come home. When he’d seen Adam labouring to get out of the stage coach, Ben’s overjoyed smile had faded and given room to a concerned frown.

It had been a long and exhausting journey, not made any easier by Henry’s constant expressions of discontent with having to travel yet again—and it showed, on all their faces. But Adam’s features had been drawn and haggard anyway, so to Ben he must have looked terrible, emaciated and sick.

Oh, Adam had looked terrible—but much better than he had when she first had seen him in Culpeper; and Juliet was eternally thankful that Ben had been spared that sight.

She wished Ben could have been spared the sight of Adam’s empty smile, too. That curling of lips that held no mirth, no happiness, and that never reached his eyes.

The brush now went through her hair smoothly. One, two, three strokes. Four, five, six…a hundred brush strokes a day makes one’s hair shine, Mrs. Beeton says in her book…seven, eight, nine….

”I’m giving thanks for the return of my family, for having them back, safe and sound, whole and healthy.”

Healthy. …sixteen, seventeen, eighteen… It was debatable if they all were healthy; they all clearly weren’t whole. They all were bearing scars.

Adam’s, of course, were the most obvious. Even though the scar of his shot wound and the subsequent surgeries was well-hidden beneath his trousers, his painful limp and white-knuckled grip on the cane was visible for everyone. His scope of action was restricted to the confines of the house and the ranch yard: he couldn’t sit a horse for more than a few minutes, and even riding a buckboard aggravated his leg more than the change of scenery made worthwhile.

He wouldn’t be Adam if he weren’t trying to hide the constant pain he was in. But he didn’t fool anyone—most certainly not her—neither by feigning “good health” nor by trying to act as if there weren’t other scars, too: scars on his heart and on his soul.

Joe’s scar from Billy-Bob Coulston’s bullet seemed to hurt Adam more than it hurt Joe, who claimed he was “right as rain.” Juliet thought if anyone besides Mr. Coulston should feel guilty about that scar, then it was she; but that didn’t keep Adam from feeling responsible for Joe having to protect her. Which in return made Joe feel guilty for having provoked the miner to begin with and thus making Adam feel guilty—or whatever scenario had evolved in her brother-in-law’s mind and kept him from really being right as rain.

Hoss’s scars came out only late at night. He’d become nearly as good as Adam in hiding his real feelings, but he gave himself away when he instantly appeared at the door to their room whenever Adam roused the house with his nightmares. He obviously hurt from what he’d seen during their quest, from what he knew had been done to his older brother—and from the fact that he, too, couldn’t provide any kind of solace for Adam.

That same helplessness and the weeks and months of sorrow and anguish had left scars on Ben, too: his hair was now completely white, and the lines in his face deep and more pronounced than before.

Her own scars didn’t bother her much. Finally the silvery lines on her wrists were almost invisible, and the deepest, newest scar….

Ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine, a hundred. She laid the hair brush down and stared into the mirror. It was invisible, too, that new scar, at least to anyone but Adam and her. And both Adam and she had decided not to care about it, not to believe in what Paul had said: that she most probably would never be able to carry another child to full terms. Both Adam and she had decided they would simply ignore it, act as if there wasn’t anything wrong and just keep trying. What else were they supposed to do?

She parted her hair into three equal strands and began to plait it into a thick braid for the night.

Keep trying. What else were they supposed to do… That accounted for almost everything, didn’t it?

“I’m giving thanks for the chance my family has received: the chance of starting anew. We’re alive, and we’re together and healing, and for that I’m giving thanks.”

Ben was right: they had a new chance; they were alive, they were together, and they were healing. Slowly, not always satisfactorily, but healing.

Mr. Hop had almost had a stroke when he’d first seen Adam, and instantly made it his first priority to feed meat back onto Adam’s bones. He provided Adam with his favourite dishes, all accompanied by thick slices of buttered bread and always followed by rich deserts, waited on him with cakes and biscuits, hot chocolate and sandwiches in between meals, and even placed bedtime candies on his nightstand.

Whenever Adam found himself unable to stomach the loads of food Mr. Hop had intended for him, he was subjected to one of the house keeper’s famous furies, and not always able to escape without at least a small dish of something placed within easy reach—and Mr. Hop supervising him discreetly.

Juliet had long ago ceased to raise an eyebrow at the cook’s antics. She knew he meant well and that he was partial to “number one son,” whom he’d dealt with since childhood—and she was happy to notice his tactics almost always brought good results. Adam would need more time to completely regain his usual powerful frame, but he was well on his way to become once again the sturdy oak against which she was used to lean.

And along with Adam, the rest of the family healed, too. Ben’s prayer of gratitude from earlier that night spoke volumes; and Joe and Hoss…it was a subtle change only, yet for her it was distinctive: she’d heard Hoss saying “Older Brother here” tonight, using the title he hadn’t conceded to Adam ever since Culpeper. And Joe had called Adam “mule head”— his first attempt at teasing him since they’d come home.

“I’m giving thanks for the chance my family has received: the chance of starting anew.”

That they did: they started anew. Looking ahead rather than back. Ben and Joe had finally accepted that Adam wouldn’t tell them anything beyond the plain facts, and she and Hoss knew better than to prod anyway. What they’d read in the letter Adam had written in Gettysburg had told them enough and made more than enough to know why Adam didn’t want to talk about it.

The letter. Lupus est homo homini—man is wolf to man. Juliet was aware that letter was never intended to be sent. There was her name on it, but no address; and if Adam had really wanted to send it, he would have properly addressed it right away. And what Adam had recorded in the letter…she was sure he never meant to burden her with it, or Hoss, or anyone. No, it was never meant to be read, just meant to be written down as some kind of release. And yet she was glad she had read it. She had witnessed only the aftermath of the battle: the destruction, the devastation, the stench that still had polluted the air even when she’d left Gettysburg, more than three months after the battle. It had fuelled her imaginative mind enough to picture how it must have been during the fights, and what little gaps in her imagination remained were filled with what Adam had written down.

It had been incredibly tempting, but she’d refrained from using any of it as she’d written an article for the Territorial Enterprise on the occasion of Mr. Lincoln’s speech at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg, just a week ago. It was her first article since Henry had been born, and part of her own healing process: an account of her impressions of Gettysburg after the battle. Her impressions, her own, personal story. And anyway, she would not abuse her accidental knowledge of something Adam obviously considered his private…purgatory.

“This is not a tale of fairies, but a report of beastly things and ghastly truths. Beware, readers, beware: here be monsters,” she’d written, fully knowing how strongly the poetic prose contrasted—and highlighted—the horror. Mr. Goodman, the editor, had lauded her on the “best goddamn piece of writing” she’d ever offered him, and instantly had indentured her to submit at least two columns a week. She had accepted his proposal gladly—it would bring at least some normalcy back into her life and give back something that was entirely hers and that she’d missed dearly.

She wasn’t sure the article was indeed her best writing, but it was good, and she was satisfied with it. It certainly was her most personal writing, and, in a way, an equivalent to Adam’s letter-that-wasn’t-a-letter. Except that she had never planned to keep it to herself, that she’d written both to relieve herself and to make people understand the unimaginable and unbelievable.

She was fumbling with a green silk ribbon to secure her braid when two arms engulfed her from behind and a hand was put over hers, stilling their actions.

“Leave it loose,” Adam’s husky voice whispered close to her ear. “I want to see it flow over the bedding.”

She leaned back into his embrace, enjoyed the feeling of his tender hands combing out the plait and draping the hair over her shoulders.

“Here we are again,” he said as his hands roamed on, opened her dressing gown and pulled it down her back. “In front of another mirror, but still a sight to behold.”

Despite the late November night, it was warm in the room. The dying embers in the fireplace still kept a vivid reminder of the blazing heat from earlier that evening. Yet Juliet felt goose bumps rising on her exposed skin.

“Henry?” she asked, just to be sure.

“Sound asleep, finally. I had to go through seven rounds of Simple Simon, but in the end he gave in and closed his eyes. Succumbed to sheer ennui, most probably.”

“No, he never gets bored. Not as long as someone pays him attention, and certainly not when it’s you who’s entertaining him.”

“It was unnerving when he didn’t remember me in Culpeper.” He buried his face in her hair, inhaled deeply.

She reached back, weaved her fingers into his hair, and pulled at it, ever so slightly. “He knows you now.”

“Yes.” He straightened, grabbed her hair with both hands and yanked at it, just once, before releasing it to flow down her back again. “I’m glad he does. And I’m glad he and you…”

His hands lay warm on her shoulders for a moment, travelled down her arms, her sides, came to rest upon her hips. “I’ve been thinking…”

She took his hands, laid them on her breasts. “Hmm?”

“Pa’s prayer tonight: giving thanks, starting anew…” He bent down, kissed her neck. “I think he’s right. We have to start anew. Have to move on.” Looking at her reflection, he nodded. “I have to move on.”

She closed her eyes, briefly, then looked into his in the mirror. “Move on…how?”

“The things I’ve seen, the things I’ve done, the things that were done to me…”

“Adam…”

“No, just listen. Those things…they were…bad.”

She almost laughed about the triteness of that word. Bad. But perhaps it was the only way Adam could think of it—or he was sparing her yet again.

“Those things…I don’t want to…forget them, or act as if they never had happened, because they have happened, and they are a part of me now. But I also don’t want them to determine my future life or yours, or Henry’s—or anyone’s. I don’t want them to determine who I am.”

“They don’t have to determine who you are.” She turned around and took his face in her hands, drawing it down to the level of hers. “You have been who you were before they happened, and even if they change your perspective on things they don’t have to change you.”

“No, they don’t, do they.” He straightened, hoisting her up with him; turned them to face the mirror again. “See: that’s the one thing that hasn’t changed.”

“We have changed: we’re a little frayed around the edges now, I’m afraid.” She smiled, a little embarrassed at the view: her dressing gown lay at her feet, and she’d worn nothing underneath it.

“But we’re still together, and that still is the most beautiful thing I can imagine.”

“Of course, we’re together. We will always be together.”

“In good times and in bad…”

“Exactly. That’s what I’ve learnt from this, Adam: whatever happens, we won’t fall apart. I thought…I thought I’d love you because I can trust you never to hurt me. And then you went and did hurt me—and I found I still loved you. I just couldn’t help it.”

She looked into the mirror, saw herself and him, saw how he removed his gown and wrapped his arms around her. Felt his warm body against hers. He didn’t speak, didn’t answer…but—

“Look!”

“Wh…?”

“I can see your dimples. You’re smiling.” And it reached his eyes, the smile…it was everywhere on his face. And it was answer enough.

“I am.” Now he grinned. “I have every reason to smile.” And he looked at her, not at her image in the mirror, but at her. Pointedly. At her face, down her body, back at her face.

Juliet laughed. She laughed out loud, even though he tried to still her with a kiss, with two kisses, with three; she laughed. Laughed right through the kisses.

“Are you quite well, Mylady?” Adam asked, barely able to contain his own laughter.

“I am, oh my consort, I am, perfectly well.”

She stopped laughing as he cupped her face and looked into her eyes, breathed, “Forever,” and kissed her again.

As he pulled her with him, over to their bed, and then down onto it, keeping her as close as possible, so close that she wasn’t sure anymore where she ended and he began, she whispered into his chest, “Welcome home, Adam. Welcome back.”

And she gave thanks, silently, secretly, while they started anew, started living the rest of their lives. Together again.

Forever.
__________

Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars. ~Kahlil Gibran

 

***The End***

A/N:   There are many people without whom this story would never have seen the light:

Cheaux, who created a challenge I could not resist and that ended a long phase of creative barrenness, and who came up with the most obnoxious  thought provoking prompt words. Prompts that forced me to create new characters and new subplots, and to dig deep and pry things out of my protagonists I’d never have suspected them to have in stock.

Debpet, who asked for the why and how, and generally more of a scene I’d written more than two years ago. A scene that laid the foundation stone for the whole general plot.

My big brother, who claims I picture Adam after his example, and who provided invaluable help in our discussions about plotlines, military, honour, bravery, and the species “men.”

Sibylle, who kept me on my toes when I wanted to pour too much misery upon my protagonists, and who is to be thanked for Bernadette’s little hope of coming happiness with Dr. Mabbs—and for the fact that Adam still has two legs.

And first and foremost: my two terrific beta readers, Sklamb and Sandspur, without whose help this story would not be what it is, and who both showed incredible understanding and patience with my linguistic and personal flaws (of which I possess so many) and my sometimes challenging timing.

Sklamb, thank you for being nit-picky, and for never stop nagging and putting up with my stubbornness and insistence until we find just the perfect expression.

Sandspur, thank you for always putting your finger where it hurts most—and is needed most—and for telling me when I take a wrong turn.

Ladies, both your suggestions and your encouragement are invaluable. You’re the best teachers I could possibly have found. Thank you!

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