Chapter 1: Part One
It's Time to Strap Our Boots On
The sun was already high in the sky by the time Ryan had finished the walk into the town square. The day was chilly - the diffuse white light deceptive - and he shivered in his thin linen shirt. The pack on his back was heavy with his mother's last pones of cornbread, a final treat for her oldest son marching off to war. She had entertained the idea of hitching up the horses to their simple cart and taking him to town, but his father had insisted that there was work to be done on the farm.
"Besides, if a man wants to march off to join up and fight, he's going to have to do so without his mother at his side."
It was a simple enough statement of Mr. Johansen's misgivings about the war. It wasn't that his father did not believe in the cause of the Union - he was a patriot and abolitionist all the way through - but merely that he did not see the use in volunteering to fight in an army that was so well-stocked and staffed, the ramshackle Rebs stood no chance. Ryan, who had been gifted with the ability to read by his mother, had recited to his father the news of the day over dinner every night.
"Those rebels are turning our army aside. They need men, father, a greater show of force than even the Confederates would know what to do with."
"Men," his father had said, the lamp light flickering over his aged features. "And you aren't even seventeen."
Ryan had set his fork down with a clatter. "And when I am seventeen?"
Lucas, his twelve year old brother, had glanced between the two of them at the table. His own hands had gripped tightly on his flatware and he had kept glancing up at his mother for guidance on whose side to take. While Lucas had always done all he could to be a good son, he had idolized his brother and seeing the two men he admired most at the crossroads of idealism and brutal reality made the boy wan and tense.
"Then you can do as you please."
Ryan thought that his father had been partially hoping he would forget that promise, but today was his seventeenth birthday, and he knew that Captain Jack Johnson was coming north soon to raise another volunteer regiment. He had plans to be a part of it.
He had packed at dawn, had wanted to slip out of the house before the rooster crowed and called the Johansen men back to the plow, but he had not anticipated his mother sitting in her chair by the dead embers of their night fire with her best dress on. She didn't speak a single word to him, merely shoved a lace handkerchief, one he recognized from her wedding chest, full of cornbread into his bag and kissed his cheek. That had been hours ago, in the dark recesses before night became day, and now Ryan's face was wind-chapped and red and his fingers were numb. He hoped his father had been right, at least, about the army's vast supplies. His own shoes would not last the long miles of marching he knew was ahead of him.
The town was in full swing and Ryan could tell the Union Army had already ridden in from the sheer number of young men with their grandfather's muskets swung over their backs milling about the main thoroughfare.
"Single shot muskets aren't going to do much for you out there," someone to his right said. Ryan didn't know what invited the young man - and young he must be for he was shorter than Ryan by almost an entire foot and didn't have a single chin hair to be seen - to voice this opinion to him. Ryan's family had had no weapons to send with their son.
"Suppose anything's better than facing a Reb with your bare hands," Ryan answered noncommittally.
"Don't get me wrong. I'll take one shot over none at all, but I've heard rumor that there's a rifle out there with sixteen shots in it. Seventeen, if you load one in the chamber first. Now there's odds I like a lot better. Cam Atkinson. You can call me Cammy."
Cammy's face was round and tan, with a wide, boyish smile. Ryan took his hand with hesitation, but none of his discomfort seemed to rub off on the other man. "Ryan Johansen."
"You here to sign up or just to watch?"
Cammy's lips turn down in a thoughtful gesture. "It's a three-year enlistment now. I'll be twenty-five years old when I get out, if I get out at all."
"Twenty," Ryan answered to disguise his surprise at being the younger of the two. "I'll be twenty. My brother will be sixteen by then. With God's grace, the war will be won long before my mother faces that trial."
"At least you've got a brother." He clapped Ryan on the shoulder in a way that made him suspect that Cam has lost someone already. The war was barely a whole year old itself and already so many good men had been lost. In early 1861, with Lincoln's call to arms for the good of a united nation, the state of Ohio had more than surpassed what had been asked of them, sending twenty-three regiments of volunteers instead of only the thirteen that had been originally requested. The men of the Buckeye State had made a wave in the Union Army the likes of which had not been expected of them and it made Ryan even more proud to carry on the tradition of the men who had come before him.
"Where do you reckon we'll go?"
"I've heard good ol' Captain Jack likes to train at Camp Dennison.” He paused and shaded his eyes against the sun. “Come on, I see Brandon."
Brandon turned out to be Brandon Dubinsky - a young father of one son and a cobbler by trade. His wife was standing at his side, the infant tucked into her arms for warmth, and she watched with watery eyes as Cam and Ryan approached.
"Must you go?" she asked once more, turning her face away from his kiss.
Ryan was grateful that his mother had endured more silently, for if she had asked him in that same voice, he might have stayed tucked away on the parcel of land he had been born on and been buried in his old age next to his father in the family plot.
Brandon was a stronger man than he, though, and simply passed a tanned hand over his son's head and walked away.
"Calvy ought to be here somewhere," Brandon murmured to Cam, after he and Ryan had been properly introduced.
"As if Calvert could miss the chance. He's the best sharpshooter in the county. If he hadn't been laid up last year, he would have join with the very first of them." Cam pushed his way through the crowds, eyes scanning around for their elusive friend, and he had only just cried out in delight when the thunder of horse hooves broke out in the square.
The bustle stopped, as if all the strings of the marionettes had been cut, and the sea of people parted for the lone horseman. He was not the only one in the dark blue shell coat of the United States Union Army, but he was the only one with double bars on his shoulder boards. Even without the insignia of his rank, the man bore himself with authority and maturity, qualities easy to identify among the green schoolboys and other enlisted men present on his arrival. He wore the standard issue kepi hat with pride, and held himself straight in the saddle. Between his teeth he worried at an unlit cigar, and on his hands he wore white gloves that had seen brighter and better days. He looked every bit the part of a captain.
The captain rode on, now at a slow clip, and men tried to hail him from both sides. He ignored them in favor of surveying the milling crowd. A few of his "three-month men" had come with him - a show of support for their leader as he rode into town to fill in the blanks in their company no one wanted to speak of - and they stood casually among the newly enlisted with smug grins, as if they knew a secret no one else did.
The papers were passed around for signatures. Ryan was quick to sign his name when another blonde with a square jaw and a spotty complexion walked purposefully toward them and presented the papers.
"Giving into the patriotic fever, Cammy?" he asked with a wink. Ryan passed the paper to Brandon.
"Calvy! Matty, I never give in to anything, you know that. But when I heard you were running away to join the army, I promised your girl I would watch out for you, lest you come back to her missing the most important parts."
"And what parts would those be?" Matt laughed, dodging Cam's answering grab between his legs.
"Come on, Dubinsky. Don't be scared now, son," Cam taunted when he noticed that Brandon had been staring questioningly at the paper through this whole exchange.
"I'm not scared." A faint blush crossed over his cheeks and Ryan felt the answering tug in his gut. It was a familiar look to Ryan; it was one his father wore when business was done but a simple handshake did not suffice.
"Just put an X here," Ryan whispered to him, leaning over the other man's shoulder to point at the line. "I'll write your name in next to it."
"My wife," Brandon said, using Ryan's back to make his X. "She does the books. She was go'n teach me how to read and write, but..."
In a moment of maturity and tact, Cam had nothing smart to say about Brandon's inability to read. Just accepted the paper from him with a grin and filled in his own name.
"Mack," Captain Johnson called out, instantly bringing the square to quiet. "Fetch the sheet."
One of soldiers melted out of the sea of blue and collected the sheets from the men and boys around there. He was older, his skin tanned, and his receding hairline poorly hidden by his slouched hat. He presented the enlistment sheets to the captain without fanfare and melted back among the veterans.
The cigar tilted up and down in his mouth as he reviewed the names. He seemed vaguely satisfied with the turnout. His jaw was strong and the apples of his cheeks already naturally high, so his countenance was one that Ryan might call proud, and it was graced now with a knowing smile.
"I trust you men can manage to get yourselves in line," he said simply. It lacked the bark of an order, but most men around them were able to hear the command behind it and awkwardly arranged themselves into a crude guess at a military formation. The line was crooked and many of the men in it didn't look fit for the life of a soldier.
The captain took a pencil from his breast pocket and started at the end of the line closest to his horse. He asked the man for his name, flipping through the papers until he found the right one, and placed a check next to it. He went down the line like this, asking for each man's name, and checking it off on his sheet. The sixth or so name he asked for was so familiar to Ryan, he nearly broke from formation to run towards the boy who had spoken it.
"Johansen," Johnson repeated. "I got two here. Which one are you?"
"Lucas," the boy said, back straight.
"T'other your brother?"
Johnson nodded, took the cigar from his mouth, and crossed his wrists across his pommel. He leaned forward and Lucas, to his credit, did not flinch back from the proximity. "How many brothers you got, son?"
"Just the one, sir."
"And how old are you?"
Lucas wavered for the first time in the exchange. "Seven- seventeen, captain."
"Seventeen," the captain laughed. A few of the other old soldiers laughed too, joining in on their captain's mirth. Lucas was far too small for seventeen, his voice still high and childish, and the soft baby hair on his chin had not yet turned into the coarse dark growth that his father and Ryan had when they would forgo shaving. "Seventeen, and still so small. Do you have a mother at home, Lucas Johansen?"
Johnson was quiet for a long moment before he pulled the pencil back from his pocket. "You put your name on a legal document of the United States Federal Army, son. Do you know what that means? That means the government would have owned you, could have done anything with you they wanted. Separated you from your brother. Sent you into battle with nothing but a drum and a fife for protection. Buried you in an unmarked grave and sent home an impersonal letter to your mother to tell her she lost her son." Lucas did not quiver under the soldier's stare but Ryan could see the way the vigor of youth was draining from his cheeks. "I don't doubt your commitment to the Cause, son, but I do doubt your age. I've no need for a drummer boy. Go back to your mother." He turned the pencil over and erased Lucas' signature from the sheet.
Captain Johnson stopped his horse abruptly and wheeled back around, cutting off the rest of Lucas' interjection. "There's no room in this company for men who question me."
He showed Lucas his back and went on to the next in the line of men. Ryan watched as his brother melted from the line and slunk away back towards the path out of town. A sense of deep relief welled inside of him.
It was another fifteen or so names before the dark horse stopped in front of Ryan. He waited for the captain to speak first, and only looked up when the silence went on for far too long.
"You've got your brother's look," the captain said, tilting his head slightly to the right and allowing a bright halo of sunshine to sift through his hair and blind Ryan. "You're the other Johansen."
"Yes, sir." Ryan squinted against the white light, tried to see the look on his commander's face, and resisted the urge to raise his arm for shade.
"And how old are you, boy?"
Even through the glare, Ryan caught a flash of teeth and what he supposed was Captain Johnson's version of a smile. "Now you, I believe." He placed a check next to Ryan's name and moved on to Cam, and Matt, and Brandon, beyond him.
When he reached the end of the line, he returned to the center and sat with one hand on the reins and the other braced on his thigh.
"You are now part of the 14th Ohio Independent Battery. We march south on Dennison tonight, where you will be appropriately outfitted as privates in the United States Federal Army. You will receive training there before we are to be sent to the front lines of the war. My name is Captain Jack Johnson. Your first lieutenant is Derek MacKenzie. Mack, show the boys the ropes."
The same soldier from before fell out of line and barked an order. The men behind him went to attention, firearms on their shoulders. As Mack lead them through the motions, Ryan watched in fascination as they moved together as one unit, no question on their face what the next move would be. He envied their experience and knowledge, and thirsted for his chance to prove himself among them.
The experienced soldiers - the ones who had come with Captain Johnson to their little town - quickly took charge of the volunteers. The first lieutenant, Mack, spent the greater part of the march south to their training site shouting out corrections for posture and formation. Ryan tried his best to not step a toe out of line, but he learned quickly that the older man was all bark and no bite. He had a genial face, like that of Ryan’s father, and he was as quick to share a smile as he was to share censor.
It didn’t take long, either, for Ryan to discover who the bugle boy was, and he was immediately grateful for his existence. His name was Ryan too - Ryan Murray - and he was only a few years older than Lucas. He had pulled up beside Ryan in line, a cocky grin on his face, and he introduced himself by saying, “It was good of Jack to send your brother on back. I don’t have no mother at home to be worrying.”
Ryan hoped he would get his new boots before much longer because he could already feel the leather giving way under each step he took. Brandon - “Call me Dubi, really. Matt and Cam already do. I won’t escape it now.” - had tutted and tisked at the state of Ryan’s shoes, but he was powerless to do anything now with the tools of his trade locked away in his shop.
There wasn’t much in terms of social interaction during the actual march, but as soon as the requisite miles were covered and the orders for camp to be made given, Cam was flitting around among the men like a little butterfly. It did not surprise Ryan; Cam had been the one to come up to him, after all. Matt trailed behind, cocksure and mildly bored, while Cam shook hands with a dark young man with a great black beard. Ryan heard Cam exclaim, “NATHAN! Nice to meet-” before his voice was lost in the din of their surroundings.
Putting up his tent took Ryan no fewer than five tries before an officer with slicked back hair held the crossbeams together so that he could draw his strings tight enough to keep the structure erect. “Thanks,” Ryan huffed, casual and friendly, before he realized this was his direct superior and he jumped to attention. “Sir.” His knees hurt from where he had locked them upon standing and he felt hazy from the way the blood rushed to his face in embarrassment.
“No need to salute me, kid. You can hop to and all that good nonsense for Mack, but for me? It’s just Wiz. Well, unless Grant or Sherman are around. Then it’s Second Lieutenant James Wisniewski to you.”
The bugle boy, Murray, skidded over, angrily picking twigs out of his hair. “You were supposed to come look for me.”
“You were behind the fourth oak to the left.”
“And you’ve been there for the last twenty minutes,” another private added.
“Thanks, Mark.” Ryan recognized the man from the morning volunteer sessions. His name was Mark Letestu and he had been one of Jack’s original three-month men.
Murray’s face fell, a perfect combination of awe and anger, and he swore lightly under his breath. “You knew. All along. And you left me there.”
“And next time, you’ll learn to stay put.” Wiz smiled, slinging an arm around the kid’s neck. “Come on. There’s more lessons than just how to hide and not be seen.”
Ryan relaxed as soon as the two walked off, turning around quickly to finish organizing his supplies, only to bump right into someone else. He immediately tried to apologize, but the other man merely smiled and slapped him on the shoulder.
“Non c’è di che.”
His eyes were wide and filled with warmth, and he patted Ryan on the cheek once. Ryan had half a thought that he might get hugged for his troubles when a tall, thin blond ambled into the picture, babbling along in some mishmash of words that made no sense to Ryan. There weren’t many immigrants that lived immediately near Ryan and he did not have the necessary skill or education to discern where they were from.
“Nick, Bob. Stop scaring kid.” This new voice, heavily accented, came from another soldier, older and more worn than any of them. He had a silver flask attached to his hip and his breath showed evidence of its frequent use.
“I’m not scared, sir.”
He muttered at Nick and Bob’s direction in the same language, or what Ryan thought might be the same language. “Of course. No. This is Nick.” He pointed to the first man, the one who had so graciously taken Ryan’s apologies earlier. “He is Italian. And he is Sergei. You can call him Bob, though. Is easier on you boys. He is good Russian, like me.”
“Hello.” Ryan held his hand out to shake. “Nice to meet you.”
“No use. They only speak one word English between them.” The older man smiled. “Watch old Fedor teach you something. What sound does cannon make?”
Nick and Bob both lit up, like kids on Christmas morning, and clapped their hands together in unison. “Boom!”
“Boom,” he agreed solemnly. He muttered on in Russian and the other two took off, arms linked together. “They very good. Work the cannon together. Best team. They are first cannon. Me? I work on second, with Boone. They thought his name Boom too, but I teach them right. They learn. Smart boys. Good friends.” He held out his flask and Ryan declined it. “You have good night. Don’t let tent fall in on head.”
“I’m Ryan, by the by,” he added as an afterthought.
The older man grinned. “Now there are two Ryans. We fix later. Fedor Anatolievich Tyutin.” He winked when Ryan paled at the complicated twist of sounds. “But you call Tyuts. Welcome to Army.”
This is the Perfect Day to Die
Ryan stared at the mound of dirt. He hadn’t seen what had happened. It was hard to think that Wiz was there one minute and gone the next. There wouldn’t be any more terrible puns or stories from his travels all over. He was just skin and bones, guts and veins, buried under six feet of dirt.
On one hand, it seemed so useless; a life lost by a misstep crossing the river, dragged under and away. He was a soldier, and a good one. During their training, Wiz had been good-natured and jovial towards them. It had been him who lightened the mood when Mack would get into one of his ruts, shouting and kicking and sighing dramatically at the boys as they stood sweating and exhausted in the sunshine. He taught them all the best card games, and how to cheat at some of them, but Ryan had a sneaking suspicion that no matter what small tricks he shared with them, he had so many more kept close to the vest.
Wiz had originally come from another unit, a more established one, and the transfer had come down when the upper echelon of the war department wanted someone like Wiz backing up captain Johnson and his first lieutenant. One of the boys had asked once about the extra patch that was on the top of his sleeve.
"It's a hawk diving,” he’d explained once in serious tones. “You ever see one, you cover your eyes and the back of your neck, just in case. They can be lethal birds." Only he couldn't hold it for long, a wide grin breaking out as he made the morning coffee. "Okay, so, maybe not lethal birds, but you still don't want to be on the wrong end of those talons."
"I thought eagles were the big ones."
"Eagles may be bigger, but that just means the hawks have to be faster if they want to eat."
"So why you got one on your arm?"
"From my boys, back before this. Picked me up when I wasn't much older than you, taught me how to shoot, how to hunt and track and move silently through dry leaves. Don't like talk about them gettin' round much, though. You ever see a man with one of these on his shoulder looking at you, you know that three more have eyes on you and two more be watching their backs. And that's if they let you see.
"They're good men, if you play nice and be respectful. Told me my place wasn't with them, that I had somewhere else I had to be, and so here I am. But our paths cross now and again. I think they just want to check up on me."
“What happens if you don’t play nice?”
Wiz had looked up from the cards he was shuffling, and for a moment, just a moment, it was like looking at a magic trick. It wasn't Wiz staring back, it was some imitation. The man there was cold in his eyes, mean looking and not at all Wiz. Then just as quick, the doppelgänger was gone and it was just Wiz again, shuffling cards.
“Just play nice. Doing anything else ain’t worth it.”
It’d been a game, after that, trying to get Wiz to talk about where the patch had come from, or what his old unit had been. No one had succeeded. Ryan hadn't been by the medical tents yet, but he'd heard about some of the grizzly things that could kill a man slow and painfully. At least Wiz hadn't been in pain long, if at all. He wanted to see Wiz one more time, but the medical tents smelled like death and dying, and Ryan hadn’t dummied his nose to the smell. Not yet.
Word had come down from above that they were the next unit to move out, moving southwest to Tennessee, more specifically crossing the Tennessee River to camp at Pittsburg Landing and create a line of defense against the Confederate troops using the Mississippi River to move supplies and troops north. It had been crossing the river that Wiz's horse had lost its footing, tripping animal and river sideways into the swift currents and carried off down-river.
The sudden absence of sound reminded Ryan that someone had been talking at all. He looked up as the chaplain closed his bible, stepping back and to the side. Looking back down at Wiz, at the grave, it still hadn't quite sunk in yet. Tomorrow, there wasn't going to be anyone cracking jokes over the campfire. But Ryan would still have to get up, lace up, and strap up. The company would still follow orders. He wanted to hate the world for leaving Wiz behind. He wanted to scream and yell for his friend to get back up, to keep walking so they could make their deadline.
He looked around, looked at the men gathered around the hole in the ground. How many of them would be here tomorrow, or the day after? A month from now, how many holes will they have stood around, telling stories to remember? Would one of them belong to him? This wasn't thinking about slaughtering the livestock for meat, or knowing that eventually, his parents were going to pass away and leave him the farm. This was real and right in front of him. He had signed up for this, had taken the spot of someone else in a hole, covered with dirt.
A heavy hand on his shoulder made him start. Captain Johnson stood next to him, staring at the same place he was.
"James was a good man. He didn't deserve this." There was a gentle murmur of agreement from the men; a low rumble of rough and broken voices. Ryan, himself, had to wipe roughly at his nose with the palm of his hand, sniffing back his unshed tears. The captain was the only one who gave the appearance of being unmoved by the event, but there was a noticeable lack of his usual blithe humor. Captain Johnson took a step forward, placing himself in the spot where the chaplain had stood a few moments before. He slipped his cap from his head and held it demurely in front of him, picking at the brim of it. “That’s the thing about war, though, I suppose. It’s never about what a man deserves, but it’s about what a man gets. And I think James got just about the best of it. He got brothers, all of us. Brothers who do stupid things like swim down rivers at night just to bring his body back for a proper burial.”
Ryan hung his head a little, trying to hide the smirk at the corner of his mouth. He could see Boone and Dubi had similar looks on their own faces. The captain’s last remark had been pointed at them. When Wiz had fallen in the Tennessee River, the current dragging him down and away, it had been Boone who had tried to chase after him. The captain had all but tied Boone to his horse to keep him from diving in too and many of the men had sported stormy expressions, thinking dark things about a captain who would order them to leave their comrade behind. It had been Mack who, when camp had been made, shouted at them that the captain gave his orders for a reason.
“The river were rushing too fast for you to swim in it. You’d’ve been drown too. James was gone, but you weren’t. Not yet. And that’s why the captain told your fool ass to stay put. It wasn’t ‘cause he didn’t care about James. It was because he cared about you. For God knows why, but he does. Now, pipe down and quit bellyaching at him. He’s got bigger and better things to do than listen to you lot.”
While Ryan had taken the dressing down seriously, Boone and Dubi had found it optional and had tried to enlist him into their midnight adventure. He’d resisted, mostly because he didn’t know how to swim, but also because he took his orders seriously. The captain had told them to stay away from the river and keep to camp. But the orders, to Boone and Dubi, had been more like suggestions and they had crept through the thickets of trees to follow the bank, eyes open for any sign that maybe the captain had been wrong and Wiz had made it. Boone, especially, had hoped that the lieutenant would do the impossible and be alive. He was under Wiz’s command directly as a cannoneer.
Ryan would never forget the sight of Wiz’s body, bloated with water and a ghostly white, when the two of them drug it back to camp, barely able to sustain the weight of the big man between them. Boone’s eyes had been round and red already, his knuckles scraped up and his clothes soaked. It had been all the clues Ryan had needed to know who had waded into the shallows to drag Wiz to shore.
“The thing is, boys,” the captain continued. He fitted his cap back on his head, his hands clasped behind his back at parade rest. “We are an Independent Battery. We are not tied to one unit, one division, or one commander. We are free to be sent to the most dangerous front lines. We are expendable. We are the property of the United States government to be used as they see fit. There will be no tears shed in Washington for James Wisniewski. But that means it is our responsibility to mourn his death and to celebrate his life. But it is also our responsibility, as soldiers, to battle on. So do just that, boys. Tighten up the bootstraps and battle on.”
Ryan watched solemnly as the group filtered away, shell jackets and gloves coming off and getting slung casually over shoulders. The sound of laughter started to filter in from the camp, slowly, and he could even hear a quiet cheer go up when the card games started up in earnest again. They were probably in tight circles around the campfires, talking about how Wiz was a cheat and a scoundrel and goddamn if they they didn’t love him for it.
It struck Ryan again that he had signed up for this and the words of the captain echoed around in his head. He wasn’t allowed to lay down his arms now, not yet, not until it was over. He straightened his own cap on his head and headed for his tent, just a little ways away from the others. He had a scrap of paper still left over, a little of which he might be able to supplement by tearing a blank page out of his hymnal, and he hadn’t written his mother once since they had left Ohio.
Wipe the Blood Out of Our Eyes
It was the crash of rifle fire that had awaken him. The sun had not yet risen over the horizon and when Ryan jerked awake, it was hard to see more than the rushing outlines of men. Another flash of gun fire burst to life at the edge of Ryan's vision and he scrambled to escape the confines of his tent. His boots had been sitting, unlaced, next to the flaps, and he shoved his feet in. He had to dive back in to reach blindly for his rifle, hands shaky with an instant rush of nerves, and he made a quiet, broken sound when his hand brushed against the cold metal.
A cascade of footfalls trampled behind him and he whipped around quickly, gun at the ready. He didn't recognize the men behind him and that scared him. He didn't know whether to fire or not.
"It's a goddamn massacre," he heard a man shout, running up to him. Ryan didn't recognize him, but he was carrying a Union kepi hat and a Springfield rifle in his hands. "Johnston's men are coming from the south, pushing up towards the river. Everyone - the whole damn Union - is running there. Everyone’s running away.”
"What are our orders?"
"Orders?" Ryan couldn't make out the details of his face, but he could see the movement of his bristly, blond mustache as he laughed. "There ain't no goddamn orders, son. Save your skin."
With that, the soldier took off, pack flying behind him with each heavy fall of his feet. Ryan noted that his shell jacket was tied to his waist and thought that, perhaps, he didn't deserve to keep it.
There were more shouts to his right and Ryan kept his rifle at the ready, moving towards the river. If the man was right, and he had no reason to lie to Ryan, that would be where Ryan could find his company. The tents to his right and left had already been emptied out when he had taken a quick glance and he wondered where Calvy and Cam had gone. As he got closer to the commotion, he could hear the creak and rattle of cannons and he followed it, head up and eyes open for enemy fire.
The pre-dawn light, just barely filtering over the edges of the trees, gave him just enough visibility to notice the thick, dense smoke drifting upwards with each gust of wind. It seemed like something that should be serene, if it weren't for the screams echoing loudly around the campgrounds. Ryan nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard a loud whoop coming from behind him and he crept into the trees for cover.
These men were not Federal soldiers. They spread like flies across the camp, kicking tents down, and throwing the canvas aside to raid the abandoned belongings. One Reb was standing at a barely smoldering fire, drinking the lukewarm coffee from a tin cup.
"Ran off," one of them laughed, kicking open a box of hard tack and shoving the square biscuits into his pockets.
"All the better for us," his comrade replied, shaking out Boone's Bible, throwing the folded sheets of paper that fell out into the fire.
"What formidable foes we face, boys," another laughed, holding up Ryan's own shirt to his chest to assess fit. "Cowardly and yellow bellied, the whole lot of them."
Ryan's hands creaked as they tightened around the wooden stock of his gun. He wasn't stupid, knew that he and his Springfield were no match for the small swarm of Confederate troops in front of him, but he wanted to attack them regardless.
"Not much of a victory, though, wouldn't you say?" This soldier was not partaking of the plunder himself. He was standing to one side, gun held lightly in his hands, and he kept glancing over his shoulder as if he had been elected look-out. "Not when you catch your enemy in his dreams and kill him before he can get his eyes open."
"That's the greatest victory of all! He never even knew that what killed him!"
"Merely saying. General Johnston told us to take Pittsburg Landing. I don't suppose this looks much like it."
The soldier with the coffee came towards them, looking quite pleased with his current predicament, and smiled blandly. "Ain't much use for taking when the bastards are just going to run off and give it to us. War will be over in a year, mark my words."
There was a quiet rustle of leaves to Ryan's right and when he glanced over, careful to limit his movements so as to not draw attention to himself, he saw the familiar glint of Murray's bugle and felt a sudden stab of fear. Ryan couldn't tell if the Rebels had noticed him yet, but he had seen Ryan and he made an abortive motion for them to fall back into the dense thicket.
"We've been looking for you," Murray said, both of them crouched low in the underbrush. "Jack's got us lined up against the riverbank. Reports are General Johnston is right mad that his ranks are falling apart to raid camps. He’s riding through the rabble now to try and get them back together."
"And you came back for me?" Ryan asked suspiciously. There were plenty of men to man the guns, and Ryan was far from the highest ranking among them.
"Not all of our company was so dedicated to the Cause." Murray's face was twisted in disappointment and resignation. "The 14th Ohio is one of the few complete units still holding the line. Grant's livid, of course, but one of us is worth ten of them."
Ryan smirked, despite the grim situation. He was sure that the Rebels said the same of themselves. Murray's young face was streaked with blood and sweat and the collar of his shell jacket was unbuttoned. Ryan was fairly certain that Murray was barely fifteen, an orphan, but the boy had latched onto Captain Johnson somewhere along the way, and Ryan supposed that that level of protection was attractive to someone so young and at loose ends.
"They want the landing," Ryan added. “Pittsburg Landing?”
"Ain't that what we were dispatched here to do? Stop them from getting it."
The pair crept along the tree line, and Ryan fought the urge to feel cowardly about it. He couldn't very well take on the whole of General Johnston's men himself and rejoining his unit was paramount for not only his survival but that of his friends.
Murray led him towards the river, a familiar path, and when Ryan passed the place where Wiz's body had been found, a small part of him revolted and his stomach rolled. He didn't let that stop him and he kept on his feet, toes curled to stop his boots from slipping off until he got a chance to tie them securely in place.
Stepping out into the clearing, Murray gestured him forward and something loosened in his chest when he saw a few familiar faces still at work to get the cannon in position.
"Joey!" Cam called, beckoning him over. Boone and Tyuts, Wiz's cannoneers, were almost coated in black powder and a quick assessment of the scene told Ryan Murray had taken him here for a reason. "Captain told us to hold the flank, but Matt just came back." Cam was panting, chest heaving under his Union blues. "The Rebs are setting up their guns right along there." He pointed out into the distance, which Ryan could barely make out through the unnatural fog. There was a loud buzz in the air, a white noise under the claps of gunfire, and Ryan noticed the leaves raining down on the field. "They are calling it the Hornet's Nest."
Ryan had looked briefly over the maps the captain had and knew they were still quite a ways from the river port. As the smoke lifted, he counted a staggering amount of Confederate guns and his heart dropped.
"We can't hold here. Where's Captain Johnson?"
"Up with Grant and the others, towards the river."
A quick jolt of misgiving rushed through him. They couldn't make a sustainable stand here, not this isolated from the other remaining Union troops, with that level of artillery pointed right at them. He couldn't give a conflicting order from their captain’s, but he also couldn't leave them all here to die, or be captured.
"Who is the commanding officer here?"
"It's Prentiss' men over that way," Cam pointed towards the infantrymen loading their guns with unsure hands. "But here, among us? Well, I suppose that would be you."
Ryan's heart sunk again. "What, exactly, were Captain Johnson's orders?"
"Exactly?" Cam chuckled, as if it was a great joke. "Hold the goddamn line."
Ryan couldn't help the answering quirk of his lips. "Hold the goddamn line," he repeated to himself. That sounded like their illustrious leader. "Pull back. Load up the Wiard, get it up to Grant's line."
"He said to hold the goddamn line. He didn't tell us which one. Get the boys in gear."
Cam hesitated for one moment, eyes scanning across Ryan's, before he turned around to give the order. Tyuts, the oldest cannoneer of the company, shrugged his shoulders imperiously, as if he was used to conflicting orders and teenagers thinking they know best, and Ryan swallowed harshly. He was not quite sure that receiving the highest marks in training gave him the right to order anyone - particularly soldiers with more experience than him, like Tyuts - to do anything. Still, the Wiard rifle was packed up efficiently and it took every man there to get it out of the mud and pushed back towards the river.
"Those others," Ryan panted, using his own bulk to help push the gun into a more defensible position. "Are they just going to..." He stopped, breathless and unwilling to say it.
"That's their orders," Calvy replied. "I'm just glad they aren't ours. You didn't see it all, Joey. They are going to light up the sky when the barrage starts."
Ryan nodded, putting his head back down to get better momentum. Murray and Calvy were serving as lookouts, while Horton and Letestu provided any covering fire necessary. Everyone else was committed to moving the cannon and all its accoutrements.
"I want us with the others, if we can get there." Ryan motioned towards Murray to get low and move forward. "Scout us out, kid."
Murray nodded once and flitted into the underbrush, gone from sight and sound just a moment later. The group crouched down instinctively as the sound of gunfire and cannon blasts intensified.
"It's started," Calvy murmured to Ryan's left, and there's a relief in his voice that makes Ryan feel like he made the right choice.
Ryan's chest ached, rattling with each resounding boom and shaking with the vibrations coming up through the ground. There were distant shouts and dying groans, haunting sounds that made Ryan want to close his eyes and wake up from this nightmare. He couldn't close his eyes, though, because he was tasked with watching Horton's back, while Matt watched his, and he couldn't bear to let his guard down.
Maybe his father was right; maybe he wasn't old enough for this yet. He thought of his brother and saw him in Murray's uniform, bugle tied around his waist, and a hot prickle of tears formed. He wiped them away, pretending it was just the burn of sweat and smoke, and focused on the tree line.
The rustle came as a shock, to all of them, and they stood as one, rifles at the ready. An instant wash of relief spread through them when they saw it was just the kid, who whistled for Ryan to get closer. Ryan waved back at the boys, telling them to get back into their crouch and keep their eyes open.
"There's a clear path to the rest of the line. We'll have to take kind of a wide route, but most of the Rebs are still down at the Hornet's Nest or are raiding the camps. If we move fast, we can get there before we're stuck on the wrong side of the line."
"Left or right flank?"
"We're going to have to go right. Men are coming up on both sides, but the left is heavier." Murray hesitated for a moment. "Sir, there's rumor that General Johnston's dead."
"Dead? Who is in command?"
Murray shook his head. "No clue, sir. Best guess? Beauregard."
Ryan nodded again, looking back at his band of men still waiting on his word. "We better get a move on, then. If he really is dead, there’ll be anarchy among the Rebels. No saying what they'll do and who will tell them to do it. How do you know so goddamn much?"
Murray's face split into a wide grin. "I got a pretty face and good ears, sir."
Ryan smiled, one dirty hand coming up to pat the kid playfully on the cheek. He saw now why Captain Johnson liked him so much. "That you do. Let's go get the boys, shall we? We got a war to win."
"Ain't going to win it in one day."
"No," Ryan agreed, crawling back through the underbrush. "But we sure as hell are going to try."
Pushing the cannon in next to Nick and Bob nearly two hours later, just as the sun began to set on the longest day of Ryan's life, was not without its trials. They had been attacked by an outcropping of Rebs - a small band of around seven to ten, armed with long knives and a crazy look in their eyes - and it was there that Ryan killed his first man.
For all the training and commendations he received on his marksmanship, he did not realize how his hands would shake when faced with a real, moving man in front of him. Ryan could still see him - tall, broad of shoulder, and fair of skin, as all the wealthy Southern boys he'd ever seen had been - and he had held his rifle steady while he aimed it at Ryan's head. Ryan chalked the kill up to dumb luck and God's providence, because the other man had not even flinched when the bullet struck home.
Ryan dropped his own rifle from his shoulder and took a quick look around. One blue coat lay prone and bleeding on the ground, and when he flipped him, he recognized Mark Letestu even through the pallor of death and the powder burns around the headshot that had killed him.
Even now, with the rest of their company around them and the burden of command taken from his shoulders, Ryan fought back the urge to hold his breath. He kept breathing, by chanting the word in his head, and willed himself to think about the way the sun would shine on the tanned clay earth of the family farm back home. His parents would have finished supper by now, his mother using a little lamp light to sew closed the holes in Ryan's old clothes so that Lucas could wear them once he hit his growth. His father would be going to bed, as soon as Lucas finished reading the newspaper aloud to him, so that he could get up again before the sun rose to put his hand back to the fields. "We all came from the dirt," his father had said, time and time again. "I figure, we better respect it. Because someday, we're all going to return to it."
Every time Ryan closed his eyes, he could see Mark's blood mixing with that of the nameless Rebel he had shot and he didn't quite feel very respectful at the moment.
"Who in hell's name gave that goddamn order?" First Lieutenant MacKenzie's voice cut through Ryan's fog. When Ryan looked up, the officer was shouting at Matt, as if it was his fault, and Ryan took a step forward.
"Sir," he started, causing Mack to round on him.
Mack had always had a soft spot for him. Back in camp, the older man had always liked Ryan for his goofy smile and bad jokes, but the battlefield was no place for favoritism. He tore into him about "stepping out of goddamn line" and "could have gotten the whole fool lot of them killed."
"Do you know what Independent Battery means, private?"
Ryan stood stoically, knowing that no answer was required of him.
"It means we go where we are needed, goddamn it. Not where we want to go. Your commanding officer-"
"Told me to hold the line, sir." Ryan cut in. "He didn't specify which one."
Mack's face turned an even darker shade of purple but his next volley was cut off by the captain's voice.
"That I didn't. I also don't remember you being there when I said it."
Ryan's back stiffened more. "I was separated from the group. Murray found me, sir."
"He gave the order to pull off of Prentiss' line," Mack's voice is clipped and rough.
"Did he?" Ryan's chin lifted just a touch more, not in defiance but in an effort to appear confident before his commanding officer. "Why?"
Ryan fought the urge to fidget under his captain's critical eye. "The position was indefensible, sir. Reconnaissance showed our guns to be vastly outnumbered. I gave the order to move out shortly before the artillery barrage began."
The captain nodded solemnly, and turned back to his First Lieutenant. "Good thing, too. Prentiss surrendered. The Confederacy overran them at the Hornet's Nest."
Ryan could see Cam, Matt, and the others twitch a little from the corner of his eye.
"Sir," Ryan spoke, voice shaky. "Private Letestu is dead, sir."
Captain Johnson's face shuttered closed for a second, his head bowed. "And if you had stayed in position, you all would have been."
The whole group seemed to deflate at those words, as if having it said aloud had made them more real, and Ryan felt like that if he reached out, the fear surrounding them all would be palpable.
"I'm giving you this gun, Johansen, and a field promotion to second lieutenant. I should have done it yesterday, but James' funeral didn't seem like a good time and no one expected to wake up to this."
Ryan nodded, his heart beat erratically against his chest. "Thank you, sir. Your orders, sir."
Captain Johnson smiled, tugging his white gloves from the pocket of his shell jacket. "Keep 'em safe. You don't seem to need to know much more than that. As for the rest of you, I'm proud of you. All of you. You never gave up. Even when the others ran for the hills, you stood tall. That's what I like to see in my men. Fear no opponent, but respect every opponent. That's what's going to get us home."
As the captain turned away, the company saluted him until he was a distant figure in the last vestiges of gun smoke.
In This Life, There's No Surrender
Setting up camp was so habitual at this point, it didn’t take long for Ryan to set up his tent. He got one all to himself now, after his promotion. Next week, his eligibility for paper would come up again, and he could write home, tell his mother about the fancy new braid on his uniform. All he could think about was finishing his duties and getting off his feet. The new uniform came with new boots, and they weren’t fully broken in yet. He was forever grateful for Brandon in that moment, remembering how the cobbler had taught him how to help speed along the process of softening his new leather. His feet had been working double during the day. He wasn’t sure if he was more hungry or tired, but it felt like tired was winning out just then.
There were still things he didn’t think about; things he avoided thinking about. The smells were the worst, by far. It took rubbing clean dirt on his hands and holding them over his face for the smells to dissipate to a manageable level. He felt like he carried the burden with him everywhere - this inescapable shadow dogging his every step. Even when his pack and rifle slipped from his shoulders, they still felt as if he was carrying a full load of gear. He couldn’t sleep right anymore. All pretense of rest was lost in the face of waking up to another Pittsburg Landing.
Bunking down after that first day of battle had been torture. After Ryan and the others had fought so hard to stay alive through the surprise attack by the Confederates on their camps at dawn, they had to spend the night in a torrential downpour; soaked through by wind and rain with no tents to protect them. That had not been the worst of the night - Union gunboats had stationed themselves along the bank of the river and fired blindly into the dark, hoping to shell the enemy camps. Instead of the usual sound of crickets and nocturnal critters lulling them to sleep, Ryan and his men had spent the night in a constant state of anxiety, shivering in cold anticipation of the next cannon blast and trying to ignore the cries of the dying men left still in the fields.
The outlook had brightened for the Federal army on that second day, though, as reinforcements had come from the west and the east. Don Carlos Buell brought nearly twenty-thousand fresh men with him to the Union lines - the necessary power they had needed to push the victorious but disorganized Confederates back. Maintaining control of the Mississippi - and all other supply lines to the North and the South - was critical, and the Union victory at Pittsburg Landing was incredibly important in keeping the South from receiving aid from without.
Knowing of this, however, did nothing to ease the burden for Ryan.
He was still getting undressed, slipping his shell jacket off, that he noticed. His new lieutenant's braids - he hadn't had them long at all - and he had already stained them. He scraped at the brown spots and they didn’t budge. It became much harder to breathe. A shameful prickle started behind his eyelids and he pulled harder at the golden strands, trying to wipe away the evidence. When nothing happened, he bolted from the enclosing linen walls of his tent. He checked his surroundings. It was still daylight, but most of the other boys had already shut down for the day. They were listing around aimlessly, in various states of undress, chatting away in small groups in front of tents or the beginnings of a night fire. Ryan took their distracted state as his opportunity and slipped into the treeline before anyone could catch sight of him.
He had never had much. He was raised poor and was taught to take care of what he did have. His mother would think so lowly of him if she saw this. On top of that, he was an officer now. He had duties, responsibilities. He needed to be an example for his men, someone they could look up to, respect. Because if there was anything he had learned so far, it was that men will take orders regardless of who they come from, but if they respect the man, they're more likely to get them done sooner and better.
But there's blood. Brown specks of it embedded on the golden threads and rusting up his buttons.
He had found a corner of some rough lye soap a while back and he cradled that in his palm as he sought out the small stream they had passed by on the march towards camp. The water wasn’t deep, but there was enough there for him to dunk his hands in the freezing current and lather up. The blood was old, old enough to be a permanent addition to his uniform.
Still, he needed to get it out, because it was not part of the officer's dress code. He saw the way Jack had smiled, had sat a little straighter when he said he wouldn't need the rules read to him, that he could read himself.
He saw how proud his captain was, and he wanted to live up to that.
He wished he had brought his boar bristle brush with him, even if he was also afraid it would damage the finish.
He still saw flashes, every time he closed his eyes. The crack of rifle fire sounded in his dreams, waking him in a cold sweat. He could still hear his own voice yell "fire!", taste blood in his mouth, feel the burn of sweat and gunpowder in his eyes.
He would never forget how white Wiz had been by the time they had found his body.
While James had been Ryan's first corpse, after the battle for Pittsburg Landing, he was not his last. Everyone who had fallen around him stuck underneath his eyelids - stubborn stains on his mind like the blood on his braids.
Ryan wiped his face with the back of his wrist, smearing a thick mix of snot and tears across his cheeks and upper lip, and dunked his jacket again.
The crack of underbrush and twigs set him on alert. It was a loud rustling, though - deliberate in a way that made him think it was friend, not foe, that had come to gather at the metaphorical river. He hoped it was just that, for Ryan had come unarmed.
He scrubbed at his face with his fingertips, hoping to obliterate the evidence of his weakness before it became fodder for ridicule, and clutched his coat to his chest with one hand.
Ryan could recognize the proud set of his captain's shoulders anywhere. He snapped to attention just as his commanding officer's eyes turned to look upon him.
"Captain," Ryan saluted.
The captain stayed silent for a moment, but Ryan did not chance to look at his eyes to see why.
"At ease, boy," Johnson said finally.
Ryan turned his back quickly, ashamed to be seen in his state of distress.
Captain Johnson had been untouchable in battle - like the knights of old, as if the ceremonial sabre of his dress uniform were Excalibur and he a modern day King Arthur. Where Ryan had been riddled with misgivings and fear during his brief command, the captain was stalwart and sure. There was no hesitation in his orders. A quick glance over his shoulder told him what he had already suspected; there were no stains to be found on the captain's union blues.
"What are you doing out here, boy? It's not safe, alone and unarmed."
Ryan had hoped to sneak away, and thought that shouldering his rifle would make him more suspicious. Cam and Matt tended to follow him like shadows, not because they needed to be lead, but out of a curiosity that couldn't be satisfied with just secondhand accounts.
He dared not tell the captain that; he feared it would lessen his captain's esteem for him.
"What's going on here? Give me a reason not to write you up, boy. An officer running off into the woods alone doesn't look good at the best of times, and these are by far not the best of times."
"I had-" Ryan hesitated. "Laundry, sir."
The captain's face did a complicated series of twists before settling. "Laundry?" he repeated. His eyebrows were high on his forehead, and Ryan noted a shocked sort of grin playing at the edges of his captain's lips. He had caught the unflappable Captain Johnson off-guard.
The captain relaxed, his stance less rigid, face more open. "Well, there's a tent for that, at the other end of camp. But if you want to finish here on your own, I don't mind covering your back."
Whether or not the captain noticed Ryan had been scrubbing at tears as well as his jacket, he didn't say.
Ryan tried not to feel self-conscious, crouched down on his haunches to prevent mud stains on his knees, but every time he looked over his shoulder at the captain, the man's back was turned and he was concentrating on the tree line.
"My curiosity is getting the better of me. Is there some particular reason you're hiding out here with your jacket?"
When Ryan looked up, the captain was right where he had been, though, he'd sounded much closer a moment ago.
"I-" Ryan startled himself to a stop. His voice sounded gravelly, and his face was still wet and itchy from the few tears that had escaped since the captain had joined him. "There's blood, sir."
“Y’own?” the captain asked, quickly.
This time, the captain did come down. He stood next to Ryan, his face expressionless as he took the jacket from Ryan, inspecting it from top to bottom.
"There's no blood here, boy. There's everything what should be. There's some reminders, nothing more."
"You see each of these here? These are the reminders of duty, of the men we lost, the men we will lose, the choices we make." He handed back the jacket, pointing to a faded spot on his own, just below his left shoulder seam.
"Right there, my first ever fight as a captain. I miscalculated how much time we had, and ended up with one of my men bleeding down my arm as I hauled him back behind the lines. Scrubbed at the stain for a week and couldn't get it out.
"These are the cost of responsibility, boy. These aren't stains against you, but badges earned by you and given to you by the men you command. Wear them with pride.”
The captain stepped up, reaching into his own pocket. Ryan was afraid for a moment that his captain had seen something in the tree line on the opposite bank. He made to turn, but he was stopped by a hand on his arm. When he looked back, his captain had pulled his own handkerchief out of his pocket. He stepped forward again, raising his hand to press the yellowing cotton to Ryan’s cheeks, his other hand holding Ryan's chin still. There was a softness to his commanding officer’s touch that Ryan had never dreamed of before. Johnson had commanded them with a gruff friendliness that endeared him to his men without allowing it to be mistaken as an invitation for a more intimate friendship; at least, that was how Ryan had always felt about the matter. Perhaps there was a quieter side to the West Pointer, a man like the one with his hand pressed gently to Ryan's cheek.
The only sound in the glen was the quiet ripple of water over stones from the creek behind them. Ryan remembered being baptized as a child. The pastor had held him gently under the current of the river. “Buried with Christ in baptism,” he had intoned solemnly. “Raised to walk a new life in Him.” His clothes had been soaked and heavy on his shoulders, and the wind cold against his cheeks, but his mother had been proud of him.
When the captain spoke again, his voice was as if Ryan had surfaced for the first time. A new baptism, for a new life, and he flexed his fingers against the coarse grain of his shell jacket.
"Come on, boy. I heard your troublemaker of a friend was gonna spike the coffee."
There's Nothing Left for Us to Do
Ryan tapped the pen against the field desk he had perched in his lap. The sturdy red oak was still shiny with lacquer, despite the hard traveling it did as part of their captain's command tent, and it felt heavy and solid on his thighs.
"Mrs. Brandon Dubinsky," were the only words he had managed so far, cramped up against the margins of the tiny sheet.
When word had circulated of Brandon's death - from dysentery of all things - the captain had mentioned writing a letter to his family. It was a courtesy, one that only Captain Johnson seemed committed to doing for each and every man who fell in his company. Most families would learn from the casualty reports in the papers before the letter reached them anyway.
"Allow me, sir."
Ryan hesitated. The words had left his mouth before he had time to censor himself and with the captain's critical gaze on him now, he felt childish for speaking out of turn.
"He was in my command, sir. His wife shouldn’t have to find out from the newspapers."
The captain's head tilted, just slightly, and Ryan waited for the reprimand to come. All of them were ultimately under Jack's purview and it was his right as captain to write the letter home.
Only, Ryan had spent last night with Cam's tears and Matt's stony looks, listening to them talk in choked up voices about Brandon and all he had meant to the people in town. Ryan had lived so far out that he had never met the young father before the day they signed up.
"The day Brady was born was..." Cam had cut himself off, wiping his eyes. "Sorry, they just itch. The smoke, you know."
"Brandon paced a goddamn hole in the dirt," Matt had laughed, hollow and mirthless. He’d snapped a few twigs, feeding them into the fire.
"Very well, boy." Johnson nodded once. "Come by my tent. Get the paper. You knew him better than I did." The captain picked at a loose thread on his gloves, straightening his cuffs.
"Thank you, sir."
Sitting down with the whole blank page in front of him, Ryan wondered how to tell a woman her husband had died. He knew he couldn't afford to make any mistakes; paper was scarce. He deliberated over his word choices, praying that any of the things he had to say could bring her any comfort.
He resisted the urge to crumple the paper up in his hands. It was too precious to waste in frustration. Nothing he could say could ever make this better. There was no glorious tale of battle and honor to tell her, no legend of a valiant death to whisper in his son's ear so that he might know his father did not die in vain.
It was a prolonged death. It had started with vomiting, Brandon smiling weakly and waving away their concerned looks. "I've always had a sensitive stomach," he had told them, hands shaking as he’d tried to comb his hair back into place. "It will pass."
But he had gotten progressively paler, his bowels moving so often, he could no longer march in line with them. The stink of bile and feces had clung to him, even as he rinsed his mouth and body twice a day in the river. Soon, he became too weak to even do that. His stomach cramped often, and painfully, as his insides emptied themselves out without Brandon being able to put anything back in them. He couldn't eat, or drink, and slowly, his muscles wasted away.
Ryan had been the one to find him. Brandon had continually refused to be left behind, doggedly dragging himself along until he was too weak and even breathing became a trial for him. They had stopped for the night, the captain cloistered away in his tent with Mack and a stack of letters and maps, and the boys had been left to their own means.
Brandon had, as of late, taken to laying in his tent for all of their downtime. He carried a small black Bible in his rucksack and when he had still had the strength, he would pretend to read it quietly to himself. He had a small daguerreotype of his wife that he used as a bookmark and when his arms gave out on him, he had given up on his charade and lain with the picture of her clutched to his chest.
Ryan had gone to wake him, in hopes of forcing a little barley water into him. Horton had given him a sorry look as he had blown on the boiled liquid, but patted him on the shoulder.
"You're a good man," Nathan said. "My wife and I..." he hesitated. "We had a son, once. For a while. But he went home to be with God after only two months. He died of a disease of the bowels, too. She would feed him and he would vomit it all back up. He was so little."
"Brandon says this will pass." Ryan had felt stupid, with nothing but a false platitude to share in the face of Nathan's loss.
Horton had smiled, sharp teeth bright against his black, bushy beard. "So it shall. So it shall."
When Brandon didn't wake up, no matter how hard Ryan shook him, he understood what Nathan had truly meant.
They buried him with a hasty service, his picture of his wife still in his hand, just as Ryan had found him. Brandon's Bible was in Ryan's pack now, next to his own copy of Whitman's Leaves of Grass.
He quit his musings on the past and, instead, put his pen to the paper.
"Corinth, Mississippi, June 1863.
Mrs. Brandon Dubinsky,
It is with my deepest regret and sincerest regard that I write to you. Your husband, Brandon, has died after a short illness. He was a valiant soldier, though that is not what you want to hear. While he was a loyal servant to his country and provided the ultimate sacrifice, it would grieve me to waste this paper with tales of war. Instead, I give you this: Brandon was well-loved, for his good-nature, and your loss is felt by every man among us, albeit not as keenly as you feel it. He taught me how to break in my boots to be less painful, and with every step forward I take without him beside me, I take him with me in memory and in the comfort of my instep. Enclosed is his Bible. Your picture we left with him, so that you may be as close to his heart in death as you were in life.
Second Lieutenant Ryan Johansen,
14th Ohio Independent Battery "
Find the Strength to See This Through
Mack had been a soldier for a long time. He didn't have a nice West Point diploma like Jack, but what he lacked in formal education, he more than made up for in experience.
The boys often liked to joke about his age, playfully calling him Old Man and poking fun at the receding hairline beneath his kepi hat. He had seen more battles than most of them, except for Wiz and Jack of course, and his heart went out to these kids. He had children at home, little ones just barely out of their swaddling clothes, and it was far too easy for the father figure in him to override and replace the soldier. At times, he just wanted to protect them all from the heartache he knew was to come. He'd lost men, many men, and ones that he had known for longer than most of their new privates had been alive.
When Jack had been looking for experienced men to help build a volunteer regiment, Mack hadn't been expecting this. He was an Army man, used to being staffed beside other enlisted men. These boys were farmers, cobblers, college kids. They barely had hair on their chins, but they had signed up in droves to die for their country.
He had taken the brunt of their training on himself. He had yelled, chided, encouraged, and reprimanded the lot of them; corrected their hold on their rifles and their technique on loading the Wiard. Their ability to act under pressure was the difference between life and death, victory and defeat, one nation or two. Wiz called him a sensationalist, said the boys didn't need to be motivated by politics and derivative babble from the stumps of Washington, but it was patriotic fervor that got these boys to sign up and Mack was not against playing the cards in his hand. Besides, Wiz should count himself lucky that Mack had not yet had delved into religious motivators to get the necessary results from the boys.
Watching them at Shiloh - which was what the North had named the battle for Pittsburg Landing, after the little church where Sherman had set up his headquarters - however, had really changed his views of them all. Where once he had had trembling youths with faulty fingers, now he had soldiers with blood on their hands. He had personally witnessed a few of them wielding the bayonet against the enemy, with a stony look of determination and detachment as they cut their way through the rebel lines.
The young second lieutenant - Johansen - marched alongside Mack's horse, reaching out briefly to run an absent hand on the mare's neck. She wasn't a war horse, by any means, but that was what Mack liked about her. She had a sense of calm purpose and comportment that the young male horses used to pull the cannons lacked.
Mack held Ryan in high regard. He remembered him from training as always having a quick word and a sharp wit for everything, but he had conducted himself with all seriousness when the time came. He showed a real strength of character, particularly in the way he treated his friends and fellow soldiers. Mack took great pride in the way Ryan had shown initiative to write the letter home to Brandon's wife.
"Joey," Mack acknowledged him. They had been marching for hours in the hot southern sun, the heat of summer giving it one last go before fading into crisp, cool autumn, and many of the boys had stripped themselves of their outer shell jackets and stuffed their kepi hats into their back pockets.
"You know, kid, I never asked; Joey. How'd you come to be known by that? Childhood nickname?"
Ryan shook his head. "The boys kept getting us confused - Ryan Johansen, Ryan Murray - and last names were what you called us. Didn't seen very friendly, if you beg my pardon."
Mack shook his head. He had to agree with that sentiment.
"You know how Cam is. One day, he looked up and said, ‘You know what? Joey.’ Just pronounced it like he was Mr. Lincoln himself signing a bill and well, anything that Cam names sticks. Just like Viola here." Ryan patted the mare's neck again, a fond movement that caused her to flick her ears happily and plod on with a little spring in her step.
Mack laughed. "Well, Viola was a sight better than what the old farm hand whom I bought her off of called her."
"What was her original name?"
Conversation filtered away as the descent uphill began, and breath became a little more precious. Viola plodded on, though, barely struggling under Mack's weight, which he thought spoke testament to how much easier her life as his horse was than that of an actual work animal. The horses responsible for the Wiard rifles - the beloved cannons that gave them their rank as a battery - were getting aid from the boys. They were lucky the soil was dry and firm right now - reminiscent of the tawny clay back home - and not the soft southern earth they had encountered before. The wheels turned quickly enough and the hill was climbed with very little to-do.
Ahead of him, Mack could see Jack's horse at the head of the column, picking its feet up daintily, while Cam poked fun at him. Jack took the ribbing in stride, grinning around that same soggy cigar he's carried since the Carolinas seceded, and giving back as good as he got. Horton and Tyutin were taking turns flicking Calvert's ears, making him swat blindly backwards, thinking there were flies crawling on his neck. Murray was trailing along behind Bobrovsky, pestering him about learning dirty words in Russian. He had tried Foligno first, but the Italian had just started to chant Catholic hymns in Latin and that had quieted the boy soon enough.
Johansen moved through the line, patting the boys on the back as he went, sometimes stopping to talk. When Jack had handed down the boy's promotion, Mack had been dubious. He had followed Jack back to his tent, still in a huff, and demanded answers.
"He's too young!" Mack had protested, not completely kindly.
"Because the both of us were so old when we got our first promotions," Jack had volleyed back, already pulling out the paperwork necessary to make the boy's rank permanent.
"There are more tenured soldiers among us."
"Tyuts prefers to work the line. I've spoken with him about it. He could take command, but he doesn't want to."
Mack had pursed his lips and held back any accusations of favoritism. As much as he considered Jack a friend, he was also his commanding officer and it would not do for him to show dissonance with him. Jack must have sensed his misgivings because he sighed and laid his pen to the side.
"The boy cares deeply about his men. He showed high aptitude for command during training. Those were your own words, not mine. He made a tactical decision based on good reconnaissance and the limited information he had. I chose him for a reason, Mack."
Mack couldn't argue with any of that. Mack had always liked Johansen, something he was sure wasn't as secret as he would like it to be. He agreed with Jack on all those points. Johansen had solidified his worth of the rank with his letter to Brandon's wife.
He glanced back to his side to see that Joey’s eyes had followed Mack, locking on to their captain. He grinned, shifting slightly in his saddle and clearing his throat.
“Hmm?” Ryan tilted his head back towards Mack. He looked farther away than before, though he had not moved one inch from his place at Mack’s side, and Mack knew this was his perfect opportunity to pounce.
“He watches you too, you know.”
“Who?” There was a genuine look of confusion in the young lieutenant’s face. Mack shook his head. Youth was wasted on the young and stupid.
The boy paused, a stutter-step in the march that almost caused him to crash into the line of men behind them. “The captain?”
“No, Skille. Of course the captain. He was talking the other day about all the book reading you do.”
The boy flushed. “It’s just one book.”
Mack shook his head. Willful ignorance was one thing, but the kid seemed hellbent on ignoring the true meaning behind Mack’s words. He was going to have to abandon his tactical subterfuge and go right for the surprise attack. “Well, it’s made a mark on Jack. He watches you reading by the fire when he thinks you aren’t looking. Evidently, you aren’t.”
“No, I-” Ryan cut himself off. He shifted his Henry rifle from one shoulder to the other, a nervous gesture, and the first tell the kid had given away that he knew about Jack’s interest in him. Thank God, Mack was getting somewhere.”I knew he was looking. Just didn’t stop to think he was looking at me.”
“Well, kid. He was. Looking. At you.”
Ryan looked up the column once again, his eyes tracking the movement of Jack’s horse. His cheeks flushed again, another good sign for Mack, and he settled back to watch the thoughts flying across the kid’s face. Mack felt a little bad for having to be the catalyst to the boy’s realization but he supposed that if he hadn’t intervened, no one else would have. Except perhaps for Atkinson. That kid could always be counted on to stick his nose where it didn’t belong.
“Do you think, sir...” Ryan trailed off, obviously on edge but curious enough to verbalize his thoughts regardless.
He wasn’t sure what exactly the boy was thinking, but he had a good idea. If Johansen wanted to know if Jack would welcome Ryan’s advances, then there was only one answer Mack could provide. “Yeah, son. I do think.”
“I didn’t mean it like that, sir.” Ryan retorted, obviously misreading Mack’s affirmation for sarcasm.
In order to cut the whole miscommunication off at the pass, Mack waved a hand. “Don’t worry about what I think, Ryan. How about you just go talk to him?”
“Talk? About what?”
“Yeah, just talk. Try poetry. Jack’s got a soft spot for Byron I think you’d be far more interested in hearing about than me.”
Once Johansen had made it to the front of the column, Mack had to laugh. No matter how Jack protested his admiration for the young lieutenant, Mack could see it in every shift of his captain's body. There was a certain grin both men held only for each other. The way Mack looked at it, he did not mind it, so long as it didn't interfere with the running of the unit. As far as he could tell, neither man had admitted to or come to terms with the subtle changes in their feelings for each other, and Mack was content to sit back in amusement and watch the plot unfold.
In times of war, after all.
We are the Ones Who Will Never Be Broken
“With the North in firm control of New Orleans, Jefferson’s boys are tight-up in terms of supplies. Abe gave the order that Sherman could march south, through Atlanta. It’s going to be a bloody massacre. Emancipation Proclamation told the slaves they are free, and that means the army has been letting them go north, which means there is no one left on the home stands and plantations to protect the crops and the goods. He’s going to decimate the south, and he’s going to enjoy it too.” Jack unrolled his maps and showed the boy the movement of troops across the Mississippi, the letters from Washington, the newspaper clippings and confidential papers that have been sent to him.
"How do you know these things?” The boy asked, a look of wonder on his face as he leafed through the various scraps of paper. “These are addressed to the Major."
"There are things we aren't told in this profession, boy. Need to know things. They say I don't need to know them, I say I do."
Jack did not relish answering that question. It wasn’t a comfortable subject to him, the weight of responsibility that weighed on his shoulders. Johansen was young - eighteen, if Jack remembered correctly, and Jack always remembered the little things about his boys - but he had suddenly found himself in possession of a pair of first lieutenant’s bars on his shoulders. Mack had taken a bullet, more than likely aimed at Jack, only a few days before in a border skirmish where he had been the only Union casualty to report. Writing the letter to his wife and children had been difficult. Mack had been a good lieutenant. Mature and reliable, Mack had come easily into his command. He had already known and understood the principles of being a leader. He had seen some ugliness at the ends of the fight against the Mexicans.
Jack also did not relish sullying the young lieutenant with the harsh realities of command. His men were his friends first, and Jack was afraid that changing roles might change the young man sitting before him. Jack knew him only as the boy on the bank of a river, washing blood from his shell jacket with tears on his face. He knew him for still being surprised at the depths of human depravity, for the way he let his horse nose at his curls and fed him withered apple slices over his shoulder, and for the way that he woke up every morning believing in a cause that had killed his friends and took him away from his family.
He was going to try to do everything in his power to make sure the kid stayed that way.
"To protect you." Jack ducked his head and motioned out the tent's flap. "To protect them. To win this war. To keep us all from getting our goddamn fool heads blown off."
The boy looked outside, as if to gauge their audience, before he reached out with one hand to tug at Jack’s sleeve. "You do. You keep us safe, captain. You will always keep us safe."
There was something beautiful about the boy in that moment - beyond the obvious niceties of his complexion and features and the curl of his hair. There, in the middle of a tattered tent, in a state that was far from home, with the blood of his brethren on his hands and heart, that boy still believed in the dream. He still believed that nothing less than perfection would do. It was as if he were a gust of fresh air among the smoke of musket fire and cordite. He made Jack believe that there was a tomorrow worth living for again. It took far more willpower than it should have to make himself turn away. War was not the place for romantic notions, nor was it the place to foster the seeds of hope. Not for a man like Jack. He still found himself doing all he could to make the boy smile.
Jack spent a long minute rolling up his maps and putting his letters away. When he finally spoke again, he said, "Do you know why I never light this cigar?"
Ryan shook his head.
"I tell everyone I'm saving it, for when the war is over. But for men like us, the war is never going to be over. I never light this cigar because there's another day ahead of me where I might die, or you, or Matt. There's another day ahead of me where the only thing I got to look forward to is death and dying. So, I carry around this cigar, like a little unlit beacon o' hope. Maybe tomorrow, I'll get to smoke it, maybe I won't. But it's a possibility. And that's all I need. Possibilities, boy. That everything might go right, or that everything might go wrong."
“And if everything goes wrong?”
Jack sat glumly down at the table, eyes on the boy’s hands as he fiddled with the newly disassembled pieces and parts of his new Henry repeater. Jack had connections in Pennsylvania that made it possible for his boys to be well-outfitted and he had no qualms in using those means to achieve a greater sense of safety for his men. A gun that worked and worked well was worth a little boot-scraping and ass-kissing. The little bottle of gun oil sat just to Jack’s right, and he picked it up to have something to do with his hands. The boy’s gun was relatively clean, but the commitment was appreciated. Jack picked up the lever and began to shine the end of it, avoiding answering the question. The boy - Joey, as he was called by the men - was stubbornly trying to work the bolt out of the body of the gun. It was caught on the ejector, but Jack didn’t want to intervene and offend the kid. When the bolt finally wiggled out, the ejector clattering to the tabletop, Jack laid down the lever and reached out to steady the lieutenant.
“Here, boy,” he said gruffly, grabbing the boar bristle brush he kept for his own weaponry, and dabbing it with oil.
Joey’s face lit up, red and pink under a leathery tan, and his breath stuttered out. “Thank you, sir.”
Jack saw it again - the touch of purity that not even war had tarnished - and grinned, placing the oiled rag into his hands. Joey’s hands were rough and dry under his own - calloused and hard from hours in the sun and saddle without a pair of gloves - but Jack found he did not mind.
“This is what we do for all the possibilities where things go wrong.” Jack secured the bolt and lever back into the bottom of the Henry, taking the tools Joey handed to him. With the gun back into one working unit, Jack readied the lever and held the gun against his shoulder, mimicking as if he was going to take a shot, before he handed it back to the boy. “We prepare. We prepare so we don’t get caught with our pants down again, like at Pittsburg Landing.”
Joey took his rifle back, his bottom lip tucked between his teeth in thought.
“You did good, Ryan. At the landing. When Dubinsky died. That letter you wrote his wife was mighty fine. It’s things like that that got you your rank.”
“Thank you, captain.”
Jack could not resist the urge to tease the boy, for he liked the way he looked with that extra color on his cheeks, and said, “I might not mind it if you called me Jack, but only here, at the officer’s table. Derek called me Jack here. Not that I mind it when you call me sir, either.”
Jack was rewarded for his bravado by another rush of blood under Joey’s skin, and the boy even stumbled a little as he walked toward the tent flap. “Sir.”
He did not miss the glint in the boy’s eye - one that spelled trouble for them all - and pulled back the partition. “Go on, get. Someone needs to keep the boys in line, First Lieutenant.”
With Our Final Breath
Ryan stood, soggy bedroll in his hands, staring at the spot where his tent should go, and just could not bring himself to find the energy to set it up, only to have nothing dry to sleep in.
"Well, happy birthday to me."
He offered to take first watch - his usual turn anyway - and set his things out on a rock in the hopes it would dry enough when the time came. He’d unsaddled Viola and scrubbed her down the best he could. The poor girl had seen too much already, and was bound to see more. She deserved a nice open green field with lots of clover to munch. Ryan may have snuck an apple slice or two into her feed bag for the evening.
His watch was uneventful at least, except that the rain picked up again. Now, instead of hopefully having something close to dry, his gear was literally dripping.
He'd joined up for the Cause, for the chance to change the world; hopefully for the better. What he didn't expect was the slogging and the dredging, the perpetual cold that sank into his bones. Mumbling about dying from disease, he set to wringing out his bedroll as best he could.
The captain came out, his own oilcloth in his hands, and set about strapping it to the canvas of his tent. The rain started in earnest again, and Ryan gave up on his goal of sleeping tonight. Tossing his bedroll to the dirt, Ryan gazed up at the sky.
"You know, I've seen turkeys do that."
Ryan squinted against the water droplets running in his eyes. He could barely hear the captain over the din of the rain and the rolls of thunder.
"I said, turkeys. They drown in rainstorms like this."
Ryan laughed, leaning over to support his weight on his knees. It was absurd, to hear his captain talk so blithely about the intelligence of game birds while Ryan felt his hair soak through with a chilly summer rain. "No, they don't!"
The captain smiled, and moved closer to him. "No, they don't. But you were going to. Come on, boy. Get out of the rain."
Ryan hesitated for a moment, because where was he supposed to go? Except that the captain was standing there, holding his own tent open, a look Ryan had never seen on his face before. Captain Johnson looked worried, maybe a little nervous. Shaking his head, Ryan smiled in spite of everything and ducked into the captain's tent and out of the rain.
It was not that much warmer inside the tent, but it was free of the sting from the rain and the cold wind, and that's all the merit Ryan needed.
"Where's your bedding?"
Ryan lifted his soggy fringe from his forehead and contained his exasperation. "In the rain."
"What's it doing out there?"
Jack rolled his eyes, pulling off the outer trappings of his rank and his boots. "Don't be smart with me, boy."
"Sorry, sir. I didn't have any waterproofing. Somehow I missed it."
Jack dug around in a pile of linen and cloth and chucked a square of rough homespun at Ryan's face.
"Dry off. We're already almost an hour into second watch and we've got to get up with the birds to march west."
"Thank you, sir," Ryan said meekly, still not exactly sure what's going on, but he knew enough to do as he's told.
His shell jacket took the most damage from the rain, so he stripped that off and hung it over the back of a small stool for the captain’s field desk. His shirt was only a little damp, so he just picked at his shoulders a little to unstick it from the skin. His pants were wet around the ankles, just above where his boots had been, and his socks were thankfully still dry.
The captain - Jack, as he had been told to call him when his field commission to first lieutenant was handed down - was down to his woolen leggings when Ryan looked up again. His throat tightened and his voice left him. He coughed, felt the blush on his cheeks, and turned his back.
Jack spread out his own bedroll and stood there with his hands on his hips. "S'not much, but you’re welcome to it."
Ryan's face burned even brighter and he glanced up to see the touch of misgiving on his captain's face. It was not a look he was accustomed to on Jack's sure and proud face. "Where would you sleep, sir?"
"I've work to do," he answered simply, turning his back and thumbing through his mail.
Ryan felt it would be rude to wear his clothes into the captain's blankets, so he folded his pants and shirt into a pile and curled up against the deepening chill.
When he woke up, it was still fully dark outside. The clatter of furniture had woken him, and he opened his eyes to see Jack setting his chair upright again, mumbling curses.
Ryan smiled. "Did you fall asleep in your chair?" Jack shot him a glare, and Ryan added a cheeky "sir."
Jack turned again and Ryan coughed as his eyes adjusted to the darkness and he could distinguish the outline of Jack's body against the filtering moonlight.
"You getting sick?"
"No, sir," Ryan answered quickly, but Jack still walked towards him and knelt down at his side. He hoped Jack could not see the flush on his cheeks, for then his captain would surely think him ill, and endured Jack's rough hand on his forehead by pinching his thigh underneath the covers. "I've kicked you from your bed too long." He said instead, hoping to distract himself from the touch.
The effect of his manners were lost when he yawned. Jack's hand slipped away and - just like the first time Jack had smiled at him - Ryan only saw a flash of teeth and crinkled eyes through the shadows.
"Perhaps I ought to let you keep it awhile longer."
Ryan was not sure what made him brave enough to say it - it could have been the cover of darkness, or how approachable and vulnerable Jack looked without his shoulder boards and shell jacket - but he closed his eyes and took a breath. "Perhaps I could find it within myself to share."
Ryan thought that maybe Jack's hand hadn't moved very far from him at all because his hair shifted like Jack's fingertips had touched him, and he opened his eyes again.
Jack's eyes were surprised, but his face was soft and smooth. Ryan was glad that his captain kept himself shaved, even though facial hair was all the rage among the men, thanks to General Burnside. Jack didn’t answer for a long moment, and Ryan wondered if he had offended the other man. Though it was customary for men to share sleeping spaces, beds even, this was not an arrangement made during the light of day between friends. Ryan was Jack's subordinate, and they were soldiers in Ol' Honest Abe's army, and Ryan's voice was barely above a whisper when he made the offer. It was much more intimate than any casual companionship, and that made a part of Ryan's gut grow cold with fear.
Ryan's hair moved again, and this time he knew it was a deliberate motion on Jack's part, as his captain murmured, "budge up, boy."
Ryan shifted his body to the left, just enough to let his captain roll in next to him, and their faces were close as they both rested them against the rolled up fabric serving as a pillow. Ryan closed his eyes again, less afraid of Jack’s proximity than he was of his own to the captain. He wondered if he could keep from kissing him if he looked at him, especially when he felt the warm puff of Jack's breath ghosting his own lips.
He fell asleep like that, eyes kept carefully shut, while Jack's fingers still touched the ends of his hair.
Jack woke up before the sun had even thought about attempting the horizon, yet the glow of false dawn was working its way through the edges of his tent. It took a little longer for Jack to recognize the sound of rain still falling. He prayed they didn’t have to march today, despite knowing that was the probable order he would receive. Their guns were needed west. A wet slog through the woods was probably the least desirable thing he could think of from the comfort of his bedroll.
Next to him, the boy shifted, curling up along Jack’s side, pressing closer into his body heat. Jack sighed, and allowed himself this one indulgence. The boy- First Lieutenant Johansen, he reminded himself sternly - had looked like a wet puppy, standing there in the rain. Before he’d thought about it, he’d let Johansen inside, tossed a rag at him, and had told him to crawl into his own bedding. As soon as he’d passed out, Jack had hauled himself back outside and gathered up the gear Johansen had just left sitting in the mud. Carefully, he’d spread it out in the little leftover space he had in his tent, hoping it would dry some little bit in the night, but doubting it, especially if the rain kept up.
The low rumble of a roll of thunder echoed from far away. The center of the storm was definitely moving out, but they were still being drenched outside. At this rate, they’d lose more in the next few days to food gone rotten and soldiers bedded down with pneumonia than they would to bullets. He made a mental note to see that every body under his command had access to extra food to keep their health up. The last thing he needed was to be undermanned because of illness.
The young lieutenant shifting against his side brought his attention back to his immediate situation. He realized sometime during the night, he’d spread out, like he was used to, and had nearly shoved Johansen out of the cover of blankets altogether. As carefully as he could, he moved over toward the other side and Johansen followed easily into the warmth left behind. He didn’t move his arm fast enough, though, and ended up volunteering it as a pillow. Considering he’d been hogging nearly all the space already, he thought it’d be okay, just for a little while, to let the boy sleep as comfortably as he could.
There was something thrilling and discomforting about watching his lieutenant sleep. Jack had only recently allowed himself to admit he wanted the boy, and here he was before him as if it had been preordained. He had always noticed the boy's looks - tall and broad, with a sloped jaw and round eyes - but he had cordoned those observations off as unattainable and immoral. It was not that a desire for men was new to Jack - only his desire for his lieutenant.
The boy was his subordinate, after all.
And yet, Lieutenant Johansen had been the one to offer, and so Jack looked. He noted the thin webbing of blue veins along his eyelids, the way his hair grew lighter at the ends where the curl was most pronounced, and the pink seam of his lips.
His eyes fixated on the slight flutter of a pulse - rapid and faint, like the beat of a butterfly's wing - in the dip of the boy's throat. He was half-tempted to reach out his fingertips and trace the curve of bone and muscle, but he did not wish to wake Ryan and bring his vigil to an end.
The choice was stolen from him by a crash of pots, followed by a stream of angry Italian.
Ryan jolted awake with a gasp and struggled against Jack to sit up.
"Quiet, boy. It's going to be okay. It's just Nick."
"The cannons-" he started, a little breathless, and Jack laid a gentle hand on his breastbone to settle him back down.
"Aren't necessary for coffee-making, no matter what Cam tries to tell you."
"Coffee," Ryan repeated. He still looked a little peaked and wild about the eyes.
"Coffee," Jack confirmed, laying back down beside him. "Or whatever they are trying to pass off as coffee now."
He reached up, slowly so as not to spook the boy, and ran a hand through his loose curls. He gathered Joey back in his arms, closer than before, feeling the pulse against his skin calm eventually.
He felt Ryan's eyes close by the brush of eyelashes on his neck, and worried for a moment when a fine tremor echoed against his own flesh.
"They haven't even made the coffee yet," Ryan laughed.
Jack relaxed and, in a moment of bravery, settled his hand deep in the boy's hair and rubbed his scalp.
Jack hummed contentedly when Ryan made no move to reject his touch, and answered, "Which means we don't have to leave our comfort yet."
Ryan just hummed in return, hiding his face deeper into the curve of Jack's neck.
When Jack felt the press of skin softer than a stubbled face, smoother than calloused hands, against his own, it was his turn for a racing pulse.
Jack wondered briefly if Ryan knew what he was doing to him. His thoughts were quickly answered by the more deliberate movement of Ryan's hand on his neck and the answering curve of a smile pressed into his shoulder. The boy was aware of the effect he was having on Jack; though to what extent and how prepared for the consequences he was, Jack did not know.
Still, he couldn't help but move closer, pushing away the last spaces of air between them. He was not so strong a man to turn away from something freely offered, especially not something he'd been wanting.
And Jack wanted. He wanted so much. He wanted to stay right where they were from sunrise to sunset, and not move one inch. He wanted to press forward, get his lips on the promise of fresh, young skin laid out under him. He wanted to sneak underneath the collar of Ryan's shirt to leave marks that would not fade for weeks. He wanted to move his thigh higher into the slot of Ryan's legs, to see if he was as affected and willing as Jack was, and to give the boy something to move against until he could get his hand around where he would be hard and leaking against Jack's palm.
He wanted it all - the infinity of possibilities thrumming between them - and he wanted to have it forever.
Still, when he felt Ryan start to pull away, he didn't stop him.
All Ryan did, though, was slide a leg over Jack's, moving boldly into Jack's space again. He didn't want to let go of Ryan, but that meant sliding his hands down Ryan's ribs to his waist.
"Jack... I..." He looked up at his name, and all he saw was Ryan. Giving into his weakness, he closed the distance between them, pressing his lips against Ryan's, praying that he hadn't made the wrong choice.
Jack had only a second of misgiving before Ryan pressed back against him, his inexperience evident, but also his eagerness.
It was not a battle - for they had both seen too much of war already - but a gentle exploration of each other. They had no intentions of fighting each other, but rather to revel in the leisure of their pleasure. Theirs was a world not often filled with joy, and both intended to enjoy the slow simmer underneath their skin. It was a kindling of a fire, not a blaze, and it left them both breathless.
"It's as if you've filled my chest full of hornets and wasps," Ryan laughed, rubbing the flat of his palm against the thudding of Jack's heart when he pulled back for air.
"Hornets and wasps?" Jack pressed his forehead to the boy's and pressed his lips to the soft skin of his jaw. "That sounds quite painful."
Ryan did not moan as if in pain, and Jack slid his hand underneath the buttons of the lieutenant's long johns to wrap around his ribs.
"Bees, then. Great big bees-" he cut himself off with a gasp. "All a-buzzing everywhere."
"I can feel them, making your heart thump," Jack said, leaning up to kiss Ryan again, smiling into it. "I want to steal your breath, and hold it inside."
"You're doing a very... a very good job," Ryan panted, his voice betraying his nerves. Jack pulled back a little, moved his hands high on his ribs again from where they had begun to travel lower, and set gentle pecks on the boy's flushed cheeks.
This was not just the casual coming together of men who missed their wives and had spent too long looking at the books of naughty pictures. This felt different. Jack could tell this was not something the young lieutenant did often, if at all, and that reinforced his suspicion that perhaps this was more than proximity and convenience for both of them. Jack had long ago admitted to his own want. He knew that nothing with Ryan could be so simple and forgettable as a wartime tryst.
There was a moment of calm between the two of them. Jack had slowed his touches, kept his kisses light and lingering, and clenched his eyes closed against the whines Ryan would make when he would pull away.
He wanted to ask him if this was his first, if he'd ever been with a woman, or with a man, if this was something Ryan wanted. He opened his eyes and mouth as one, intending to ascertain if he and the boy were on the same page of their particular stories, when a sharp whistle broke through the camp.
"Johansen! Goddamn it, where did you run off to?" It was Calvy, calling loudly for his wayward friend.
Ryan collapsed against Jack, face hiding in Jack's shoulder.
"Duty calls, of a sort. I don't suppose there's any way we could ignore him?" Ryan said, his body doing its best to stay as close to Jack as possible.
Jack chuckled, a deep rumble that shook them both gently. He ran a proprietary hand down the boy's back before rolling them both to their sides.
Ryan was still pressed close, curling a hand into Jack's hair. "I don't want to let go," he said, "I don't want to end this, because it may never start again. And I think," he swallowed, unable to look at Jack directly, "I think that I would have rather not known this at all, than had only a taste and not be allowed here, after."
Jack didn’t dare hesitate. "Then come back."
Ryan looked up sharply, almost not believing for a moment, before smiling wide. "I will. I will, Jack."
Ryan surged in to kiss Jack one more time, too happy to make it good, before he rolls out of the covers and blankets to trip and stuff himself back into his clothes.
Jack grinned and reached out to tug on a loose pant leg, only to catch Ryan when he fell and kiss him again, slow and easy and promising everything he wanted to show the boy. His boy.
"Johansen!" Matt yelled again, his voice closer to the tent than before.
"You are going to get me caught," Ryan mumbled, trying his damnedest to straighten out the sleeves to his shell jacket as Jack stood, searching for his boots.
Jack laughed, pulled his lieutenant to him one last time, for one more brief kiss before sauntering out into the early morning sunlight wearing nothing but his johns and his captain's hat, his boots on but not laced.
"Ease up, Matty. The boy's tent sprung a leak in the rain. We'll have to requisition him a new one and cut his down for patches. In the mean time, I offered what little extra space I have. Now, I heard someone mention coffee."
We Will Fight to the Death
Ryan wanted to stay laying on the ground. The heat of battle and of the day had faded, the smoke floating calmly into the sky, indiscernible from the clouds, and Ryan didn't want to move. His whole body ached, his pants were stiff with dried blood and mud, and his eyes burned. The spokes of the cannon's wheel were digging into his back, but the counter-pressure helped to alleviate the pounding headache. As the air cleared, he took great, gasping breaths. It felt like breathing for the first time all over again.
"Joey," Skille said, breaking into his mental solitude. "Boone and Tyuts-" he cut himself off.
Jack Skille was a reliable man. He'd been seriously injured early in the war and had spent quite a bit of time in hospital. The doctors had told him he was meant to have died, but there was no telling Skille anything he didn't want to hear. He managed to live, against all fears, and had returned to the unit missing most of his fingers and a portion of his left hand, but he could still balance the barrel of his Henry on his wrist and shoot just as well as any of them. He had a patch on his shell jacket, one that made Ryan flinch when he first saw it. It was the same patch Wiz had. At one point, Skille had been a Hawk.
"What-" Ryan panted some more as he drug himself up out of his little dirt bed. It did not do well to get too comfortable on a battlefield. He had no desire to lay down on one someday and fail to get back up. "What about them?"
"They've died, Sir."
A quiet jolt of muted pain turned his blood cold. It said something to the extent of grief he had experienced in the last few years that he was still standing after hearing that. "What happened to them?"
In most cases, Boone and Tyuts would have been under Ryan's direction, but he had been needed elsewhere and Tyuts had proven himself more than capable of shouting orders in multiple languages to get what he wanted done. With Jack leading the charge, Ryan had moved to take his spot on the first gun and had left Cam with the second.
"Reb soldier shoved a rock in their gun pipe. Cam tried to warn them, but Boone had already lit the fuse. When it blew, the metal flew everywhere. If I hadn't seen it happen myself, well... Boone's so cut up you can barely tell it were him."
Skille cracked a macabre smile. It didn't look very amused at all. "Still had that same damn flask in his pocket."
Ryan nodded. "You got their bodies?"
"The boys are on it. We'll take them back to the tents."
Ryan turned towards the field, taking in the lay of the land. He could already see doctors swarming through, looking for the living, and he tried to pick out Jack's familiar frame among them. Their captain always walked the grounds to check on his boys, had even carried one or two of them back himself. But Ryan could not find his lover among the shapes moving in front of him.
"There anyone else unaccounted for?"
"None but the captain, Sir."
Ryan felt another strange jolt. Jack was probably still with the other captains and generals, or perhaps he had already moved on to the medical tents, or even to camp. He needed to stop letting himself give in the panic.
"He didn't leave word of his whereabouts?"
Skille shook his head. Ryan patted him on the chest and moved past him, his joints rattling with the aftershocks of the battle. He looked forward to crawling into his bedroll, burying his face in Jack's shoulder, and sleeping until dawn.
The growing affection between them was still new, but Ryan already had this overwhelming sense of love for the captain. It scared him - to use the word love when they had only been together for a few short weeks - but every other phrase he tried to describe them sounded too weak. Friendship might have covered their playful moments, when Jack teased him for his hair or his snoring, but it did not cover the way Ryan's heart fluttered whenever Jack looked at him. Comrades may have worked for the way they fought together on the field, but not the way they moved late at night, twisted together in Jack's sheets. Lovers, perhaps, was the closest of all, but it still didn't seem big enough for everything that Ryan carried inside of him for Jack.
Ryan feared to ask Jack, scared to lose the warmth of his body beside him and the gentleness in his eyes when he looked at him. Perhaps he could find again the courage he had had that night when he invited Jack to sleep beside him for the first time and ask Jack if he loved him back.
Scanning the crowd, Ryan could pick out the familiar faces of his men. None of them seemed to be any worse for wear. They are all able to stand on their own two feet. There was one tent with the flaps firmly closed and he knew that Boone and Tyuts were laying in state behind them. They were waiting for Jack and Ryan before they put them in the ground. As he got closer, he could hear a murmur running through them.
"-saw him myself. Limping and bleeding towards the medical tents. Grey as a ghost-"
"-holding his arm all funny-"
"-a great bleeding gash on his face-"
Ryan reached out and grabbed Calvert's elbow. "Matty. What's gone on?"
"The captain. They're saying he got hurt. Bad."
Ryan could practically feel the blood drain from his face. His grip tightened on Matt's arm, enough that Matt turned fully toward him and grabbed him by both shoulders.
"Who? Who's saying that?"
"I don't know where it started," Matt admitted. "I've heard four different stories since I got back. I saw Boone and Tyuts but I ain't seen the captain since-"
"Well, he might have jumped from his horse and rushed right into the Rebs. Like a man possessed." Calvy's eyes got that familiar, adoring glint in his eye. He loved Jack's method of war. It was all action and no fuss, just the way Calvy did everything in life, and it was no surprise the young blond thought their captain to be the greatest man to walk the earth.
Ryan thought him a goddamn fool.
"Joey. Ryan. You look like hell. Did you get hurt too?" Matt reached out to run his hands over Ryan's ribs, but he moved out of the other man’s reach.
"Keep the men busy. I'll be-" Ryan took a breath. It would not be appropriate to show his hand here. He was an officer and Jack had told him that the men took their cues from him. He needed to maintain the calm. He needed to stop the rumors and encourage the boys. He needed to keep order among the ranks.
He needed to find Jack.
"I'm going to go check the wounded. Put a rest to the gossip."
Matt nodded, a single downward motion that signified his obedience and deference. Ryan didn't wait around to answer his salute.
If he thought it had been difficult to breathe after the battle, it was nothing compared to the tightness in his chest now. His heart was thundering in his chest, trying to crawl up his throat and choking him. His hands were shaking and his knees felt weaker than ever, sliding under his weight with each step. The medical tents were too close and too far away, all at the same time, and it was only by pinching himself sharply on the thigh whenever he wanted to break into a run that stopped him from tearing into the field hospital.
Pushing back the tent flap, Ryan was unprepared for the sight to meet him. Normally, it was Jack who made these trips. Ryan tended to stay away, knowing that it would be too much for him. It was only the fear that Jack might be here that took him beyond the entrance. There were lines of bodies - men piled practically on top of one another - groaning together in one, discordant dirge that shook Ryan's insides. While death was a sight Ryan had often seen, dying was not. Battlefield deaths were often swift and sweet - a sharp cry and an unmoving soldier - but these men were bleeding out, pouring their essence right out in slow oozes into the red-brown earth. It stunk of feces and bile and Ryan gagged, ashamed of his weakness.
Rushing in-between the rows of bodies were women in white nurse's aprons, answering cries for help with sweat on their brows and blood on their hands. Their dresses were stained and their hair wild, and Ryan thought perhaps they were fighting their own war. He saw the same grim determination and blank stares on their faces as he did on his men.
He made two circuits of the tent, stepping lightly around the medical personnel rushing around him. He pulled his mother's handkerchief out of his pocket to cover his mouth when he reached the dead. Despite his careful surveillance, he could not find the captain anywhere.
He grabbed one of the nurses as she rushed by, pulling her back from wherever she was running to, and startling her. He would have apologized, if he had been in his right mind. She was dark and petite, barely of age herself, and perhaps he would have thought her beautiful, before.
"Captain Jack Johnson," he demanded.
"Ain't seen him."
"He's about as tall as me, blond, broader about the shoulders."
"Sir, please. I've got to-"
She broke away from him and ran on, full skirts swishing behind her. Ryan stumbled out of the tents, desperate for fresh air and space. He plopped down just outside the canvass wall and buried his face in his hands. He couldn't cry, not here, not where someone could see him. He could already feel it building inside - his airways closing off and his eyes burning with no smoke to blame it on. He slammed his fist into the dirt, hoping the pain would distract him, and did it again when it didn't work.
Something inside him told Ryan to try once more and he pushed himself to his feet, unsteady steps carrying him back into the fray. He was moving slowly, taking his time to study every face. As he reached the back exit of the tent, he heard a familiar voice.
"I'm looking for a kid. He was right here. Did you see where he went off to?"
Ryan pushed his way through the tent flaps and there was Jack, standing with a crude fabric sling on his left arm, but still as whole and proud as the day he rode into Ryan's town. The relief was instant, Ryan felt the buzz of it in his fingertips.
"Oh, his boys came to pick him up," the man Jack was talking to said.
"Jack." Ryan had let the name slip before he could correct himself.
"And it looks like mine has come to collect me."
Jack had a faint flush on his cheeks, and he motioned for Ryan to follow him away from the crowd. Ryan felt numb and he followed behind the captain, staring at him as if blinking would make him disappear again.
As soon as they entered the thick cover of trees, Ryan threw himself at Jack, pulling the man against him. "Don't you ever- Jack, Jack, Jack."
"You weren't supposed to know I was here for me," Jack chuckled, pushing his good hand into Ryan's hair.
"You scared me. So much. Don't ever do that to me again. I thought you were dead."
Ryan can feel Jack's whole body go rigid against him, as if the thought alone had frozen him in time. Ryan wanted to tell him they hadn't had enough time yet, that he wasn't brave enough to tell him he loved him yet, that there were too many things they have yet to do for Jack to die on him. Jack had to wait and he had to wait for Ryan.
Instead of saying all those things, Ryan just panted Jack's name against the dirty skin of his neck, standing in the autumn twilight on a battlefield, with Jack's arm around his waist the only thing keeping him from collapsing.
Boone and Tyuts were dead, and the thought still stung. He knew they needed to get back, and get their friends laid to rest before the sun set, and get the men organized for the next day's march. In a minute, they would have to separate and walk a respectable distance away from each other as they re-entered camp, a united front for their men. They would say the words over their fallen soldiers - "Battle on, boys" - and give the orders for who was assigned to what watch.
Ryan didn't move, though, relishing in their stolen moment, shaking against Jack as his hand stroked Ryan's back and he murmured promises to Ryan's greasy hair.
"Never again. I swear it. Never again, Ryan."
I Stand Here Right Beside You
Ryan stomped at the entrance to the tent, water drops falling. The mist outside was thick, a rare warm day dropping far past cold and making the humidity from the day gather along the ground, sucking up sound and heat and visibility like no one’s business. Jack turned back to the reports he’d pilfered, sorting through what was important to him and his boys, what was important for the army as a whole, and what was filler. He let out a very manly yelp when Ryan shoved his cold fingers up under Jack’s shirt, his nose pressed against the back of Jack’s neck.
“Christ, boy. You’re an icicle. What in God’s good name were you doing out there?”
“The wheels on the guns weren’t wanting to stay in one place. We had to sink ‘em down into the ground some. Gonna be hell to get out in the morning, ‘specially if the ground freezes, but they won’t roll away in the night.”
“Good. We can always get the horses to help pull them out.” Jack turned, pulling Ryan down onto his lap, balancing carefully. It was most of a running joke now, how many times Jack could fall off the damned stool in a night. “You have watch tonight?”
“No sir. I’m all yours until the coffee calls me back to work.”
“Mmm. I like the sound of that. Just let me finish sorting these reports and--” Ryan squirmed in Jack’s lap, forcing him to keep them from falling instead of turning back to his desk.
“Or, you can leave them for the morning, and instead come to bed with me. I saw you dozing off on your horse today. When was the last time you got a decent night’s sleep?” Ryan stood, pulling on Jack’s arm lightly. “Come warm me up, captain. Don’t want me catching cold, do you?”
Shaking his head, Jack set the last of his papers down and followed Ryan's tug, only to pull his boy back against him, one hand at the small of Ryan's back to keep him close. Ryan's lips were as cold as the rest of him but warmed quickly against Jack's own. Jack let out a very manly and dignified yelp when Ryan’s fingers made their way to Jack’s skin. He pulled Ryan’s hands up, closing them in his own, and breathing on them to warm them up.
“Let’s go to bed, my boy,” Jack said, sliding his hands up to hold Ryan’s face. Ryan smiled gently, relaxing under Jack’s hands, shoulders loosening under Jack’s lips; groaning as Jack’s fingers dug into his lower back, kneading away the day’s travels. Jack laid Ryan down on his stomach, digging his thumbs in deep and chuckling at Ryan’s low groan. Jack’s lips followed his thumbs. Where his hands were strong and calloused, work-hardened and carrying an invisible weight both of them could feel, his lips soothed deep aches.
Ryan knew that Jack could feel him shiver, goosebumps showing along his arms, but it was a ritual since Jack had been shot for him to strip, for both of them to run their hands over each other, eyes and fingers and lips making sure their bodies were whole and hale no matter the temperature. After Jack had ended up in the medical tents, Ryan had needed to see for himself that Jack was uninjured, regardless of whether there had been an engagement with the enemy or not.
“I’m okay, boy,” Jack had said the first time, and the second. The third time, Jack had just smiled and laid back, letting Ryan get what he needed. The fourth time, it had been Jack running his hands over Ryan’s skin, searching for any cut, any bruise that could grow into something worse. Now, it was for both of them.
Ryan rolled over when he realized Jack was just running his hands over Ryan’s skin for the feel of it, and pulled him down.
“What are you thinking about, captain?”
“Who says I’m thinking about anything?” Jack hid his face in Ryan’s neck, kissing a line down to the faint scar left by the plow horse kicking up a stray rock and getting Ryan in the ribs. The clink of Ryan reaching for the glass bottle of mineral oil made Jack smile against his skin.
“You have that look you get when you think too hard. Do I need to make you stop thinking?” Ryan slid a hand into Jack’s hair, pressing his body up against Jack in clear invitation.
“Have you ever crossed the Mississippi?” Jack took the bottle of oil, biting at Ryan’s ribs for his impatience. He knew what Ryan wanted, but he was going to take his sweet time in getting there. Tonight, they had time.
“Can’t say I have. Wh-- why?”
“I want to take you there, after this,” Jack said, wiggling his hips between Ryan’s legs. Ryan bit down on his lip, holding in a noise they both wished the canvas of tent walls could hold in for them. “Find a place, just for us, somewhere I can lay you out and listen to every sound you make.”
“Jack... Can we? Is that...”
“We could get a farm, bring some of the boys along as hands, settle down and make a home for ourselves,” Jack looked up at Ryan, the first time Ryan had seen him hesitant in his demeanor. Ryan reached up and wrapped himself around Jack, arms and legs and body, nodding into Jack’s neck.
“Yes,” he pulled back enough to look up at Jack, eyes bright in the dark as he nodded again, “yes.”
Jack couldn’t help the grin that crept up on him, resting his forehead against Ryan’s, their noses bumping gently as their bodies slid together. Jack was certain at least some of the boys knew, had figured it out quick enough when Ryan’s own tent was never reordered. Still, they’d been careful enough not to flaunt it. That was something Jack wasn’t ready for, not yet. Each day with Ryan brought that someday closer, though. “I love you, boy. More than anything.”
“I love you too, Jack.”
Later, with Ryan curled up against his side, Jack stared at the canvas above him, unable to find sleep. His thumb played over the bruise on Ryan’s hip, a mark not of war, but from Jack. He was careful to leave Ryan’s neck and shoulders bare, but it pointed to the protective, possessive side of him that he often was unable to leave Ryan’s skin unmarked in some way.
“You keep that up, and my whole side will be purple, come morning,” Ryan mumbled, still mostly asleep.
“Sorry,” Jack muttered into Ryan’s curls, kissing the top of his head, “I can’t sleep.”
“Think too much. Problems will be there in the morning.”
Jack sighed and carefully extracted himself from Ryan, doing his best to keep as much heat under the blankets as possible. Ryan made a noise of protest, reaching one hand out for Jack to try and keep him in bed.
“Just a minute, boy. I’m not getting up to work.”
Finding what he was looking for in the bottom of a saddlebag, he climbed back in bed, back to the warmth of Ryan beside him. It took him a minute to work the ring off his finger, the gold still clean from hiding beneath Jack’s riding gloves. The skin beneath was pale and smooth, dented from the pressure of the metal around it. He threaded his ring onto the spare bootlace he’d pulled from his saddlebag.
“Sit up boy, just for a moment.”
“Ryan... sit up for just a moment, please.”
“Jack, what’s going on?” Ryan was suddenly awake, reaching for his clothes.
“Nothing, boy, calm down. There’s something... This isn’t how I want to do this. You deserve better,” Jack said, sliding the knotted lace over Ryan’s head.
“What is this? This is your...” Ryan trailed off, holding Jack’s West Point ring on its lace around his neck.
“It’s all I have, right now. It should be on your hand, but this way, it won’t get lost.”
Ryan looked up at Jack. His eyes seemed to shine with a light from within, the spark of a fire coming from deep inside of him. Jack reached out and cupped his hands around Ryan's face, wanting to feel the heat of hope for himself.
“A farm," Ryan stuttered out, his tongue tripping on the words from smiling too hard and not stopping to talk. "We’d need a breeding steer if we wanted calves, and at least four cows, probably also an ox to pull anything heavy, or a draft horse or two. Do you think we could get the horses from the cannon? We could get a couple sheep too, Seed is the expensive part, really. Good starter seed is worth its weight in gold. Wheat is easy, but corn sells, and if you rotate in beans, it helps keep the soil healthy. And chickens. We’d need chickens for--”
Jack cut Ryan off with a kiss, pulling his blanket back up over both of them.
“Tell me about it in the morning, boy.”
“Whatever you say, old man.”
Jack slept soundly for the rest of the night.
Tonight, We're Fighting For Our Lives
Being caught by surprise seemed to be a trademark of his little band of brothers. Recognizance was sparse, particularly with how often their orders changed. As an independent unit, they went where they were needed, and their most recent orders had marched them right into the midst of a river town that was crawling with Confederate soldiers. The ensuing skirmish had been lightning-fast and bloody, but the boys in blue had come out of it, not necessarily victorious, but pleased with their show of force and lack of casualties. During Jack’s cursory survey of the dead and wounded, he noted none of his own among the faces there, and returned to their circle of tents with plans to change out of his damp clothing from the slight rain that had started after the battle and to celebrate a good day with his young lieutenant.
Cam Atkinson stopped him at the edge of camp.
“Johansen,” he whispered. “Did you-”
Jack’s stomach tightened. He had not missed his boy among the dead or wounded. He was always careful to look for the familiar features that made Ryan uniquely him. “Is he not among you?”
“No, sir. The last time anyone had seen him was during the battle. I lost him when Matt and I had to move to the left. We had hoped- Well, sir, we had hoped he would be with you.”
Jack turned on his heel and marched back to the field where the larger part of the killing had occurred. It took all his self control as a soldier, a leader, not to run. There were still bodies to be moved yet - what he had supposed had been enemy casualties and not their own men - and it was there that he saw him.
Joey was slumped against a tree, one hand on his belly, a black stain seeping down the fabric of his shell jacket.
His face was white and when Jack got close enough to touch, his skin was already cold and clammy.
"Jack," Ryan wheezed, reaching blindly for him. His hands were both rusty with dried blood, and the bruises under his eyes look darker.
"Everything's going to be okay, boy." Jack pressed his own hand over the hole in Ryan's stomach. The blood wasn't even warm anymore.
Ryan's white lips stretched thin and dry, cracking at the corners in what Jack supposed was a facsimile of the smile he loved. "You really believe that."
"I do. You found me at that medic tent. Now I've found you. We're going to get you a doctor, and you're going to be fine." Jack screamed for a medic, for a doctor, a nurse. He hears footsteps running, but found only the other boys running to his aid.
"Joey," Matt breathed, coming to a stop a foot away. Cam was at his back, slowly slipping his hat off. There were tracks of clean skin showing through the grime of dirt, dust, and gunpowder on their faces, and the tracks grew wider as the first drops of rain begin to fall.
"Jack," Ryan pleaded, smacking his lips together to try and clear his throat. "Jack."
"Medic! We need a goddamn medic over here!"
Ryan slipped his hand free from his wound, the release in pressure making more blood gush over Jack's fingers. He looked back, pressed his hands in deeper.
"Jack." There was something filmy and foreign about Ryan's eyes when Jack finally looked at him. "Your hair is wet."
"It's raining, Ryan," Jack said, sitting down in the mud and pulling Ryan into his lap. "It's raining like that first night. Remember? Your gear was soaked through and I... I saw you just standing there, and I don't even remember telling you to get inside, not until there you were."
It escaped his attention when the other boys step back some, realizing this moment was not for them.
"And then there you were. In my tent, in my bed. And I knew, boy, I knew I never wanted you anywhere else."
Ryan's smile relaxed a little, looked more familiar, and as he took a deep breath in, an impossible amount of blood poured through the cracks in Jack's fingers.
"I always loved the rain."
His head lolled back a little more, forcing Jack to lean back against the tree in order to see his face. It pulled the ring out of Ryan’s shirt.
"Me too, boy."
"Hold my hand."
Jack wished that the rain was a raging thunderstorm. He wished that it was filled with lightning. He wished the sky was as dark as his heart felt. It was a gentle summer rain - with blue skies and white clouds and a rainbow fixing to shimmer over the tree line.
"Ryan-" Jack protested. He would have had to take his hand away from Ryan's wound. He had an inkling that was exactly what Ryan wanted.
"Jack." He licked his lips but they stayed just as dry as before. "Hold my hand."
"Don't... Don't leave me, boy. I need you. I can't do this without you."
It was hard to tell when his tears started. They mixed with the rain, streaking his cheeks. He pulled off his gloves. The least he could do was let Joey feel the callouses he loved to trace out over and over.
"I got your hand, my boy."
Jack looked up when a new set of footsteps sounded on the wet sod. Matt moved forward, a hand on the doctor's breast. They didn't have to hear him say it to know.
Ryan's chest rattled against Jack with each breath. His eyes drooped and his hand grew limp in Jack's. Jack counted his breaths, watched the swelling stain of black ooze onto the soil below them and mix with the rain. It was peaceful, at least; as peaceful as a last breath on a battlefield could be. Ryan didn't fight it, when the last one came. He breathed in, and out, and everything went loose in Jack's arms.
Jack traced the sunken hollows of Ryan's cheeks with his fingers. "My boy. My boy." He tucked the ring back in Ryan’s shirt. It wasn’t his to take back. It was going to stay where it belonged.
Jack could not say how long he sat there, holding Ryan's body. Only that, eventually, he felt Bob's gentle hands on his shoulder.
"Time to go," he said, accent thick. Jack shook his head. If he stayed, it wouldn't... He could be sleeping, his boy in his arms. Ryan could be asleep. If he left now, he'd wake him.
He didn't see the pained look on Bob's face, the way his cannoneer looked back to the others for help. It wasn't until Cam pulled him back, stepped in front of him, blocking his sight, that he realized there was anything else around him at all.
"Captain Johnson, your orders?"
Nick and Bob moved forward and covered Jack's hands with their own. Ryan was as tall and broad in death as he was in life and it took both of them to lift him out of Jack's embrace.
Cam took it on himself to help their captain to his feet. He handed Jack the cigar that had fallen in the dirt at his feet.
Jack rolled the cigar between his fingers and looked at the ground to avoid seeing Nick and Bob carting his boy away to the tent until they could bury him.
Jack knew what they were waiting on. His words were famous among the men now and it was customary for him to tell them to pull up their bootstraps and march on.
He found the words too hard to say. He stared at the cigar in his hands, face expressionless.
"I need some matches."
Let Me Hear Your Battle Cry
A week after the death of First Lieutenant Ryan Johansen, Cam's promotion papers came in through courier. It had not come as a shock. After Joey had taken his place at Captain Johnson's right hand, Cam had been given control of the second gun. The boys running it were green - replacements sent up to fill the shoes of Boone and Tyuts - and Cam kept his distance from them. It was not out of some imperialistic sense of self-grandeur. It was merely that he had lost too many friends already and had no desire to make new ones. With Joey's death, Cam had known he was the highest-ranking officer besides the captain among them, and was not surprised to find himself in the possession of a new set of bars for his shoulder boards.
The captain had taken Joey's death hard; much harder than he had taken Wiz or Mack. Once his body had been laid to rest, the captain walked back to camp with his shoulders rigid and head high. He had quarantined himself into his tent and emerged, hours later, with a package of Joey's effects and a letter written to Mrs. Johansen. He had whistled at Matt, thrust the paper package of books and clothes into his arms, and said, "Calvy. Send these on with the next courier, will ya?" Task complete, he had turned on his heel again and ensconced himself inside once again.
What the boys saw of their captain over those next few days was limited to official business. It caused a vague wave of discomfort among the men, many of which brought their concerns to their de-facto First Lieutenant. Cam turned many of them away with a useless reassurance that all was well and to keep up the good work. He could not lie to all of them, however.
"Cam," Matt whispered, sitting next to him. "How's he holding up?"
Cam sighed and picked at the grass. Matt was his best friend. There were no secrets in their companionship, not since they were boys, and Cam felt uncomfortable keeping his fears bottled up inside. The war within himself was that the secret he carried was perhaps not his to tell. Matt had been there, though, when Joey had fallen, and had heard the captain's words as well as he had.
"Not so well as one could hope." Cam fidgeted in his seat. The captain had finally crawled out of his tent tonight, to sit at the fire a couple of the boys had built for him as the sun had set and the air had cooled. It was a kind gesture on the men's part, and Cam was proud of them for their selflessness. "He's been raging about matches for days now."
Matt followed Cam's gaze and saw that the captain's face was illuminated orange and hazed in cigar smoke. "Guess he found himself a way around that."
"I didn't think he would actually do it. Smoke it, I mean."
Matt nodded, a tightness around his eyes belying his own fears. Bob had walked by earlier and flinched at the sight of their stalwart leader puffing on his fabled cigar. The young Russian rarely showed any emotion beyond genial happiness or calm determination, and to see him taken aback as if struck had spoken volumes about the gravity of it all.
"You don't reckon he's... given up, do you?"
Cam had spent many days mulling over his own suspicions. Joey had been a friend of his, from the very first day they had joined up together. A cold snap struck him deep inside whenever he thought about going on without the silly lieutenant. Cam's oldest brother had died in the very first wave of attacks. He remembered how it felt to read that letter over and over again, until his eyes were red and sore from tears. He thought about how he would feel if he had found Matt like they had found Joey. Matt had been like a brother to him since his own had died, and he knew that one of the greatest trials of his life, should he live to see it, would be to have to bury the man next him.
But nothing that Cam felt came close to the emptiness in Johnson's eyes.
He shifted a little on the grass and reached into his back pocket, pulling out a dirty handkerchief. He held it out to Matt.
"It belonged to Joey."
"And you kept it?"
Cam shook his head and looked back across the camp to where the captain was flicking the butt of the cigar into the grass. "He did. Found it folded in the pages of his Bible when I was looking for the map."
Matt ran his thumb over the floral lace on the trim. There was dirt under his fingernails and the skin of his fingers was ripped and inflamed. His jaw was sharper since he lost weight, and his fingers bony and long, but he was alive and that was a comfort to Cam.
"Do you think- what he said out there-"
Matt was talking about the tender scene they had witnessed in that quiet grove in southern Tennessee, the last day their captain had acted like the man they knew him to be, with his fingers twisted tightly in Ryan's.
Cam took the square of lace back and stood, leaving Matt's question hanging in the air as he approached the captain.
Taking a seat on the opposite side of the fire, Cam picked up a large stick and poked at the embers to stoke it higher. "How did it taste, sir?"
The captain seemed startled by the sound of his voice, and he blinked at Cam a few times before he answered, "Stale," in a hollow voice.
Cam nodded, dropped the stick, and wiped the dirt off of his hands onto his pants. He stayed silent for a moment, waiting to see if the captain had anymore to say about it, before he tried again.
"My brother died. Bull Run. 1861. They didn't send none of his things back. As far as we can figure, they probably pilfered it all and divvied it out. But he left some things behind at the house, 'fore he went." Cam pulled Ryan's handkerchief out of his pocket and played with it. The captain's breath went unsteady for a second, which was enough confirmation for Cam. "I didn't bring none of his things with me, but when I left, I made sure to leave something of mine behind for my mother. I figure, we all need reminders of the people we love, since we don't always get to keep the people."
Cam held out the little bit of silk and lace and waited for the captain to grab it before he said, "Did you love him? Were you in love with him?"
The captain stared at the handkerchief in his hands. Carefully, he laid it on his knee and pulled off his gloves so he could run his fingers over the delicate embroidery.
"You ever read Leaves of Grass, son?"
"No, sir." Cam had not had the leisure time to read back home, and he felt the best poems were the ones set to music.
The captain smiled, the first one Cam had seen in a long time.
"Joey... Ryan. Had it, in his pack. I'd read it after he fell asleep. He looked so young then, like he should have been back home. He had a brother too. Young kid, tried to sign up with the rest of you, that day." He tucked the handkerchief into an inner breast pocket, and pulled his gloves back on.
"There's a part of one of them poems. I can't ever remember the rest of the damned thing, but I do remember this. It says, For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the cool night. In the stillness in the autumn moonbeams his face was inclined toward me, and his arm lay lightly around my breast—and that night I was happy."
Cam was silent. The fire crackled merrily between them and somewhere in the distance, Nick and Bob were singing heavily accented songs about girls back home. He could still feel Matt's gaze on them, even though his back was turned, but Cam kept his eyes locked with the captain's.
"If I knew it would bring him back to me," he said, standing. "I would have let everyone else on the field die that day. Does that answer your question?"
Cam watched as the captain closed himself back in his tent, for once at a loss of words.
We Stand Shoulder to Shoulder
"Jack." The captain turned towards his first lieutenant's grave voice. "You better come. Doc says there ain't much time left now."
Jack rose from his desk chair, the same flimsy thing that had buckled under him the first night Ryan had slept in his bed. Everything in his tent reminded him of the boy and he often took any excuse he could to be away from his quarters. Everything was suffused with Ryan, months after they had buried him, and the growing longing in his heart for the boy was nearly unbearable. He felt an unstoppable coldness seeping through his limbs, freezing every part of him in a way that he felt would never thaw. At first, he hadn’t wanted to leave his tent, leave what little of Ryan he had left, but the war waited for no man, alive or dead. Now, those things that had held the last warmth of his boy only served to remind him of the too high cost of war, of what could have been and now would never be.
The weather was mild - a bland, fall evening with just the hint of frost in the air. The war was nearly five years old now, and though the early optimism had worn away with each bloody battle, there was a sort of weary resignation now that the battles would have to end sometime, wouldn't they, and why couldn't that time be now?
Jack felt leaves crunch under his boots as he trooped bravely across the campground. The army had basically requisitioned a church to turn into a field hospital and that was Jack's final destination today. Cam was beside him, a silent shadow. Once, there had been a time where being anywhere near Cam would result in him talking your ear plumb off, but the war had changed all of them, and Jack refused to call the man's new-found appreciation for silence a change for the better.
Jack pushed through the church doors, hiding his wince as the smell overtook him. It smelled of blood - new and old - and of decaying flesh. He was used to sweat and piss and shit, he lived among soldiers after all, but the lingering odor of singed flesh seemed so strong, he could taste it on his tongue.
Cam was not so adept at schooling his features and Jack felt for the kid. Despite only being a year or two younger than Jack himself, his youthful countenance and bright smile always made him seem so much more youthful and vibrant. He always had a treat for Viola in his pockets, since he’d inherited her. The ravages of war hadn't dimmed the kid's grin, though it had stayed his tongue.
"We wouldn't have bothered you, sir," Cam said, pulling on Jack's shirt sleeve to lead him towards the back. "But he's been asking for you."
"I'm glad you did." He understood the sentiment - the boys have been so sensitive with him since Ryan - but he's never been one to shy away from his responsibilities, and being at his men's sides as they died is the biggest and most difficult one he has ever undertaken. "It wouldn't be right of me to stay away."
"He's not in his right mind, captain. He's not going to know you anyway. He looks, but he don't see."
There was a small cluster of his men - his boys, the few that remained - standing crowded around a single cot. Matt Calvert melted out of the group, coming to wrap his hand around Cam's wrist.
"He's getting worse. He's been calling for his Mama for the last hour. She's-"
"Dead," Jack supplies gruffly. Most of them knew the story - Murray had been orphaned by the war, took a liking to Jack, and got himself signed up as a bugler before the company left town. Jack could still see him; Ryan Murray the dirty, little beggar-boy who pick-pocketed soldiers as they walked through town. Jack had been the one to catch him, literally, wrapping his own broad, flat fingers around the boy's bony, fragile wrist.
"A thief, huh?"
The boy's eyes had widened dramatically, but Jack had such a firm hold on him, he couldn't break free and run. "Don't turn me in, sir. I'm only trying to feed t'others."
"You ought to use this sneakin' of yours for some real good."
"Real good, sir?" Murray had said, rubbing at his wrist when Jack had released him.
"I could always use a scout. Someone small and quick, like you."
Jack never got rid of him after that. It was only later, when Murray had joined up and trotted off away from town that he admitted to Jack there were no others.
"I already knew that, son," Jack had said, winking.
Murray had been great. He was the sneaking-est son-of-a that Jack ever knew. And now he was dying, and all because Jack had dragged him along for this foolish war.
"Hey, Doc," Cam said quietly, drawing Jack from his memories. "I got the captain."
The doc was an older man, with a great bushy white mustache sitting over fat and pudgy lips. He seemed much too old to be running around a military hospital but even Jack knew that old soldiers never die.
"Good, good." He looked back over his shoulder. "He any kin of yours?"
Jack could see that perhaps that would think him a brother, or maybe a young uncle, but he shook his head. "Boy's got no kin. We're the closest thing to it, nowadays."
The doctor nodded solemnly, as if that was a story he heard a hundred times a day. That thought broke Jack's heart all over again.
"I took the arm," the doctor went on to say. "But the bad blood had already travelled too far."
Jack swallowed back the bitter taste in his throat, the splash of bile that had risen up at the mention of the amputation.
"I suppose t'was his time," the doc shook his head. "The rest of you boys take care."
"You have our gratitude," Jack said, shaking the man's hand.
The old man waddled off, leaving Jack to see his fallen soldier.
Murray looked pale and gaunt, cheekbones hollowed out and sharp with shadows that shouldn't be there. There was a halo of sweat around his head, from the fevers that muddled his brain, and he seemed to always be fidgeting under the thin sheet the boys kept draping over him when his thrashing would send it to the floor beside him.
"I want my mother. Can you get her for me?"
"Yeah, bud. She's coming. You just got to be patient," Horton said, holding onto Murray's hand.
"Nathan," Jack whispered, putting a hand on Horton's shoulder.
The other man stood, with a clipped salute in Jack's direction, letting Jack take the chair.
"Murray. It's me. It's Jack."
"Jack? Jack?! Do you know where Jack is? I need him. I need him real bad. There's something I got to tell him."
Jack squeezed his hand. "It's me, kid. I'm here."
"Jack? Jack!" Murray yelled louder. The sheet flung free again, landing on the floor, and Matt jumped forward to spread it back over him. He wasn't fast enough, however, and Jack caught a glimpse at the stump to Murray's right.
"How did it happen?" he asked.
"He got clipped. Was crawling through the terrain to get us field positions for their last gun. Came back carrying the arm like a baby, said he couldn't feel it anymore."
Jack knew this, had been told of it right away, but he wanted to hear it again. He wanted to understand the progression, how this kid had gone from smiles and hiding from his superiors to laying on a cot in a stolen hospital, crying for his mother.
"They didn't think he would get anything from it," Matt jumped in next. "Said it was too shallow. Just a flesh wound."
"But they took the arm."
Cam nodded. "A day later, when it got black and the blood started to run from it."
"But it was too late." The four of them turned to look at Murray again.
"Do you know my mother? I want her. I want her so badly. Can't one of you go run and fetch her for me?"
"We're going, Ryan. Just wait. You have to give a lady time to get ready."
Jack laid a hand on Murray's forehead, felt the sheen of hot sweat there. The linens smelled stale and were yellowed with sweat and urine. The boys had been cleaning him up once a day, and Jack motioned for a basin and some water to be brought to him.
They worked together, lifting his frail body in the bed, turning him so that Jack could run cool water over him, soaking the sheet below with a mixture of old blood and dirt.
Murray sighed, letting them smooth his hair back and rub the blood back into his stiff muscles. Jack felt his chest tighten when he looked at the stump that used to be Murray's right arm. It was misshapen, and small, wrapped in linen soaked through with his poisoned blood.
"His birthday was in September," Jack told Nathan, Cam, and Matt as they stripped the linens and traded them out for new ones. Nick and Bob had taken the old ones outside to wash in the creek, so that they could be used again for other patients. The doctors claimed that it didn't matter, that fresh linen did nothing to heal the body, but Jack had his own thoughts about what it did for the soul. He always remembered laundry day as a day of celebration in his house, because everyone slept on sheets that were crisp and cool and smelled faintly of the summer sun. Even if it did nothing to heal him, Jack felt as though this small gesture gave Murray a modicum of comfort in his daze.
"Jack?" Murray wheezed, having slept for a few short minutes after his bath.
"I found them, Jack. All of them."
"That's good, son. You did a good job. Just what I told you to do. You can rest now. Go on."
"They're waiting...just on t'other side."
"I know, son. I know. Don't get yourself worked up."
Murray smiled serenely. "Jack?"
Jack hummed, a short sound to let Murray know he was still listening, and rubbed his hand up and down the kid's arm.
"I sure am glad to see them again."
He dropped off into a deeper sleep, his breath coming easy, although the sheen of sweat was beginning to reappear on his brow.
Jack looked up at Cam, who seemed to be suddenly uncomfortable with his gaze.
"He's been... talking to the boys. Some of the boys. Since this morning. Boone. Brandon." Cam hesitated for a minute. "Joey."
Jack's heart clenched painfully again, and he scrubbed his fingers through Murray's hair.
"Do you ever wonder..." Jack stopped himself, feeling foolish for the sentimental thoughts running through his head.
"If we'll see them again?" Cam finished for him anyway. "I suppose that comes down to if you believe in Heaven or not."
Jack didn't want to go any further down that line of thinking, having long assumed that Heaven was out of his grasp, when Cam continued.
"But even if there is no Heaven, it still seems like the people you love come back for you, in the end."
Murray's murmured "mother" sounded so heartbreakingly joyful, in the midst of all his pain. Cam smiled a little, patting Murray’s chest fondly, and reached out his other hand to lay over Jack’s. "I supposed we all just have to hope we get enough time to see them before we go."
Their vigil lasted for another six hours, before Murray finally came to peace. Jack helped them carry his body outside, so that another wounded hopeful could take his place, and they dug him his own grave.
There was no one to write a letter home to, not for Murray, for his only family was standing over his grave. There were no words said, because Jack had long ago run out of things to say as he buried his boys, but Nathan had held his cap to his chest and let a few tears fall to the dirt and Jack felt that that said enough for them all.
They were the only ones left - Nathan, Nick, Bob, Cam, and Matt - of the original ones; the ones who proudly called themselves Jack's Boys. Jack wanted to promise them all he would get them home – that had been what he promised them all from the start – but he couldn't find it in himself to say it. Murray may not have had a home to go back to, but Jack would have made him one with his bare hands, if he had been given the chance. He felt cheated, again, to have lost so many good men.
"Pack up camp," he said as Bob hefted the last of the dirt back on the mound. He had tracks of tears running over his face and he scrubbed at them with the back of his arm. Bob had loved the young scout, had always had a knack for finding the kid even in his best hiding spots, and losing him had taken an obvious toll on their young Russian.
"Sir?" Cam asked, propping his own shovel against the side of the church.
"There's nothing left for us here."
You Can't Erase Us
He didn’t see the grey coat sneaking up on the cannon, nor did he see the soldier shove the rock into the mouth of the cannon. If he had, Cam would have been able to say something, maybe. Matty saw it, and ran over to pull the rock out, dropping it behind him. Cam’s rifle picked off the would-be saboteur. He cracked the stock open over his knee to reload, counting his bullets. His right ear was ringing a little from the consecutive blasts, and he could see Matt was yelling something at him, but he couldn’t hear what it was.
Matty screamed something and spun back to grab the rock he’d dropped, hurling it at Cam. Cam ducked out of the way, Matty’s shot taking the soldier behind him in the chest. For a moment, or maybe it was a year, Cam just stared at the fallen soldier, scared frozen at how close his death had come. Then Matty was shoving him, and Cam grinned.
“Thanks for having my back,” he said, taking full advantage of the lull in the fighting in their area.
“You idiot. Watch behind you,” Matty said, gulping down the last of his water. “Where’s Horton?”
“Went to go get more powder for the Wiard. The new kid didn’t grab enough.”
“Boom!” Nick yelled, and a second later Cam couldn’t breathe.
There was a weight on his chest, and something along his side burned. It took him longer to realize he was laying down. Everything pulled when he tried to sit up. He could see Matty next to him, but he couldn’t hear anything at all, not even the sounds of battle elsewhere. Slowly, sound came back to him. He heard Matty groaning next to him, men screaming and dying further away, gunshots fired and orders shouted.
Nick and Bob and their cannon weren’t even there.
Hauling Matty up, Cam headed for the other cannon. If the rebels were after one, they would be after the other. It was their job to protect the guns, to let their gunmen do their jobs undisturbed. There was just one cannon left, now. Cam wasn’t going to lose that one too. Something was wrong here though. The pair of gunmen were gone. Matty set his rifle down for a moment, scrubbing at his face with his handkerchief, stealing Cam’s canteen. Cam scanned the field, trying to see if he could find Jack.
He grunted as he was knocked forward. He tried to stay stable, to get the accuracy he needed for his shot, but the second his finger tightened on the trigger, he knew he’d missed wide.
“Sorry, Cammy,” Matty said from behind him. Something about his voice didn’t sound right. It was only at the last second he turned to look that saved him from being speared as well. The butt of his rifle came up, mid load, and there was a sickening crack as he drove it into the nose of the Confederate soldier that had crept up behind them. A more cautious glance around proved them safe for the moment, but Cam wasn’t going to take a chance after that. He reloaded his rifle, and slung one of Matt’s arms over his shoulders, hauling him back into what little cover the side of the cannon offered.
“Hey, Matty. Hold on for me for just a minute, okay? Let me see, let me see what happened.”
“He was... He was right behind you.”
“You did good, Matty. You did real good. Now just hold on one second for me, okay? I’m gonna get a sawbones over here and he’s gonna patch you up right. Just hang on for me, okay?” Cam stood, looking around for too many things at once. Not even the captain was in sight, and everything was blurry and out of focus. At his feet, Matt coughed, deep in his chest and bubbly, blood bright red against the white of his teeth, the paleness of his skin. Swearing, Cam dropped back down to his knees, pressing his hands against the hole in Matt’s chest.
“Cammy… Cammy, go find the captain. He’s gonna... I can see them. They’re waiting for us.”
“What are you talking about, Matty?” Cam frowned, scrubbing at his eyes with the last clean spot on his sleeve, looking off to where Matt was gazing. There wasn’t anything there except the tree line and crows waiting for the gunfire to die down.
“Dubi... I see him, Cammy. He’s waiting for us. Nick an’-” Matt broke off, coughing again, his lungs trying to expel the blood too rapidly filling them, “An’ Bob... an’ Joey. Waitin’ for… waitin’...”
The arm Matt was pointing with dropped slowly, his head thunking hollowly against the wheel of the cannon. Cam held the pressure on Matt’s torso still, even as he heard the sounds of battle pick up again.
“Matty. Matty what are you talking about? They’re dead, they’re not... They’re not here, with us. We gotta make sure the cannons stay safe. You’re gonna help me with that, right? You and me, and the captain. We’re the only ones left. We gotta keep everything safe. There’s no one else. I mean, there’s other guys. But they’re not part of Jack’s Boys. They’re not one of us. C’mon Matty, you gotta get up.”
The sounds of fighting, gunfire and men screaming, inched closer. Cam looked up, sure he heard his name, but there wasn’t anyone there.
“Right, this is what we’re gonna do. I’m gonna get us all set, and then we’re gonna see if we can’t go find the captain, okay? I’m sure he’s got his hands full with these new boys, still green and wet around the ears.”
Cam wiped his hands on his pants, and pulled his rifle over from where he dropped it, pulling out his powder and rod, making quick work of reloading. His motions were automatic, still watching for any other Confederate thinking to make a name for himself by taking some Union cannons. The wind shifted and suddenly the smells of cordite and the dead and dying overwhelmed him, making his eyes water for a whole new reason.
“Alright. Ready, Matty? Let’s do this, make our boys proud of us.”
Whipping around, Cam saw his captain atop his horse. Somehow, his voice had carried across the field, across the crack and bang of gunfire, across the screams and yells of men. Jack jerked atop his horse, spinning to one side. He pressed his hand to his side, and for one breath-stealing moment, Cam froze. Jack straightened in his saddle, continuing to scream orders out to the men around him, and Cam’s breath returned. Somehow, his captain had found Cam, like he always did, like Cam had found him, once.
Without a second thought, Cam raised his rifle and fired, a faceless Greycoat falling, stopped in his attempt to unseat the captain. There was too much ground between them. Cam could see that. It was his job to stay with the cannons, to protect them, to keep his gunmen, his cannoneers focused. He was Johnson’s first lieutenant. He had a job to do, and rebels be damned, he was going to do it. Still, knowing where his captain was brought no small measure of relief.
Another shot, another rebel dropped, another reload; the motions were smooth, practiced as Cam watched the flow of battle. It was hard to read, the field. It was a mess. The lines had broken, collapsed on themselves early in. Jack had left the cannons to go right the mess, to restore order, leaving Cam in charge.
The wind shifted again, blowing the smoke from the cannon back into his face. He thought he heard his name again, and turned, and then everything went black.
The first time Jack had heard the cannon fire, he’d been standing too close. He’d felt the kick in his chest and his ears had rung for the rest of the day. Watching Cam fall, Jack couldn’t hear anything except the loud ringing in his ears. His breath stopped and his chest solidified into a singular mass. It was hard to breathe, to blink and bring things into focus. Something caught his eye, and he looked down at the bright red that colored his gloves. He couldn’t remember where the red had come from. He caught himself slipping in the saddle, and checked his balance. He didn’t remember falling, but all of a sudden, there was dirt on his face, so close he could smell the blood seeping into the earth. Gray was starting to seep in at the edges of his vision like the blinders they had to sometimes put on the horses.
He tried to reach up and rub his eyes to clear the gray away, but his arm was too heavy. He had to make it back to the cannon, he had to check on Cam, on the last of his Boys. He managed to get himself over to another soldier slumped over a powder box, glassy eyes staring out at nothing, no light shining in them anymore. The face looked familiar, like Jack should know him. It was important that Jack remember who it was. He remembered them all. He needed to remember them all. He’d remember in just a moment. He just had to think. For just a moment.
His horse nudged his shoulder with her nose, nibbling on the braid. He reached up, groping for a stirrup or the reins to pull himself up. It was a struggle, and his body felt numb, his limbs too heavy, his head too light and wobbly, but he made it back to his saddle. The field was a mess, and he started shouting orders, trying to get the lines cleaned up. No one listened though. It was as if no one heard him at all.
He steered his horse with his knees, or tried to. She wasn’t listening, instead heading for the tree line. Jack had never dug his heels into her, and he didn’t want to start now.
His head whipped around. Cam had been shot. Cam’s body was over by the cannon. Cam was standing just in front of the trees, waving him over. All his boys were. His horse felt her rider stop fighting her direction and sped up. There, waiting for him, were all his boys. Wiz and Mack, Dubi and Matty, Murray whole and healthy; all of them were waiting, except the one who should be there, the one he needed to see.
Jack slid off his horse and ran the last couple steps, grinning. He never thought he’d miss the mismatched chatter of Nick and Bob until it wasn’t there. Hearing it again smoothed nerves he didn’t realize were frayed beyond their breaking point. Wiz pulled a deck of cards out, and Cam grinned, bumping against Jack welcomingly, before asking to be dealt in.
“You knew where you were going, didn’t you, girl?” Jack fished the last sugar cube out of his pocket, holding it out for his horse, rubbing her neck. “You are such a good girl. Go rest some. You’ve earned it.”
“So have you, Jack.”
He didn’t look up, watching his girl lip her way around his glove, searching for another sugar cube. “I don't want to look up, because I may not get to stay. And I think," he swallowed, unable to look at Ryan, behind him, "I think that I would have rather not known this at all, than had only a taste and not be allowed here, again.”
Ryan pulled Jack around by the elbow, resting their foreheads together, “You’ll stay.”
You'll Just Have to Face Us
Sid shakes his phone, knowing as he did it that it’s a useless and frustrated gesture and not likely to solve anything. He shakes it again anyway.
It only makes sense, with the clusterfuck that is Sid's life, that he would find himself stranded on the side of the road, beside a strange and dark forest, in a different state, separated from the others, and with no signal on his cell phone.
He must look really stupid, holding his phone above his head and craning his neck, trying to see if he can get his SOS text to send to Flower.
"Go camping, they said," he mutters to himself. "It will be fun. You'll forget about the playoffs. Come on, you haven't seen Staalsy in forever. Talbo's coming too!" He grits his teeth and moves his phone a little to the left.
The "Sending..." bar barely moves and Sid keeps chasing the signal around. It had been Flower's idea - by way of Beau by way of God knows who else on the team - to take him away from the city. He had been planning to run off to Canada and figuratively drown his sorrows in stick-work drills and his mom's cooking. He knew that even Nova Scotia wasn't far enough away to escape all the press about "One Ring Crosby" but he thought, maybe, it would be easier to ignore if he had Taylor screening his calls and forcing him into Netflix marathons. The boys had other ideas and Sid had only been allowed to bring his phone on this “roughing it” primitive camping trip because he threw a huge fit about "safety."
Besides, he doubts the true primitive-ness of this camping trip. He knows for a fact that Beau has packed marshmallows and solar lanterns.
His car had stalled out on him, which - again - is just typical Sid Crosby this year. He'd been lagging behind, sort of hoping to delay the inevitable talk coming as soon as he hits the camp site. He had driven himself, too, in an effort to avoid being locked in a car with a well-meaning Flower or a meddlesome Talbo for several hours. Now he’s parked on the side of the road, a steady puff of steam coming from his radiator, and no water to put in the overheated engine to get it running again.
He tries to send the text again, worrying minutely that every new text he tries will overloaded whatever weak signal he’s getting, and leans back against the trunk in defeat.
The sound of horse hooves on the pavement startles him. He thought he was alone, hadn't passed any riders or other cars for hours. Sid has watched enough 48 Hours and Dateline to know this was how every tragic horror story starts; ominous and out of place sounds in a secluded area. He half-expects to see Jason Voorhees or Freddie Kruger stalking towards him, but when he spins around, he can see the horse and rider outlined by the moonlight. He wants to believe that it’s just a local, out for a moonlight ride, but he isn't stupid, and his fingers itch to dive into his back seat for the tire iron hidden there.
As the horse walks closer, a steady and unhurried pace that makes Sid even more nervous, he sees there are two riders, and that makes his heart rate ratchet up. They both look like fairly large men with broad shoulders and trim waists. Sid is a hockey player and no slouch in the muscle department, but there is no way he can subdue two grown men. He isn't exactly known for winning fights.
He stands his ground, though, and tries to look as if he’s having a very intense text message conversation. If they really are stranded-motorist-serial-killers, they would know there is no signal out here, but Sid feels it’s only smart to try.
"You alright, son?"
Sid glances up. The first rider, a blond with a proud face, is the one who spoke. His voice was smooth and deep and he spoke with assurance and confidence. "I'm fine, thank you. My friends are just around the way."
He points up the road and hopes that another set of headlights will miraculously pop up to save him.
"Your friends," the second one says. He’s clearly younger than his companion. He’s wearing a blue slouched hat like Sid has seen in Civil War movies. Oh, God, he’s fallen into Deliverance. If he survives, Sid promises to kill Max for this. "Your friends wouldn't happen to be Jordan and Marc and Beau, would they?"
Sid isn't sure what the right answer is to get himself not killed here, but he goes with "Yes, that's them."
The pair don't appear to mean him harm. They keep a distance from him and make no move to threaten him.
"They're back at our camp, with our boys. Sent us back here to find you."
"My car..." Sid protests.
"The boys will come get your stuff," the younger one promises. "Follow us, if you would. We'll take you to them."
Sid hesitates again. The blond one laughs and looks over his shoulder. "I told you he wouldn't. Should have brought one of your own with us to prove our good will."
"You've got them captive, don't you?" Sid narrows his eyes.
"If by captive, you mean we're feeding them and letting them drink their fill of our moonshine whiskey while Murray picks a little banjo for them, then yes. If you mean tied up and sacrificed to the Devil, then no."
"What a time they live in!" the younger one exclaims. "Why does everyone think we're out to kill them?"
"We used to be trusted, once." The first rider turns back to look at Sid. "Your prerogative, captain. Follow us or don't. Now, we've got to get off the road. S'not good for her shoes, you know." He pats the mare's neck and turns towards the grass.
It isn't far to the campsite, Sid finds. He creeps behind the horse, realizing they know he’s there, but they make no moves to acknowledge him. He lets himself believe that he is really good at being stealthy.
As they get closer, Sid can hear music, a fire crackling, and most reassuringly, Flower shouting something in French, laughter in his voice.
The riders pull up to the camp and a smiling young man shouts a greeting to them in Russian. "Thanks, Bob," the blond one says, relinquishing the reins to be tied up. He hops down first, then turns to help the boy out of the saddle.
"The captain?" Bob asks, tying an efficient knot around a tree branch.
"He'll come around. How are the boys doing?"
A great blast, as if from a cannon, sounds in the camp, followed by cheers. Bob's smile grows.
Sid creeps closer, peering through leaves at the raucous affair in front of him. He can see them, his teammates, scattered among the other men. The strangers are all dressed like the riders - in loose linen shirts and fitted blue trousers - and a few of them sport the same slouched hat as the boy.
"Sid," Max says, casually leaning against the tree closest to him. "Why are you hiding in the bushes?"
Sid stumbles out of the shrubbery, brushing off his shorts, and he can tell there’s a fairly impressive pout starting to happen. "I had to make sure you guys weren't, like, being burnt at the stake or something."
"Fucking God, Sid. You read too many books." Max slaps him on the shoulder and pulls him closer. "They're pretty cool guys. I think they are, like, civil war re-enactors or something. They call that one-" Max points out the blond rider from before, now sitting by the fire with a cigar glowing pleasantly orange between his fingers - "the captain. Captain Jack Johnson."
Sid studies the man closer. He has an easy air of command, as if he might be military in real life too, but something about his name niggles in the back of his mind. Sid knows it’s a fairly common combination. Hell, he even knows there’s a singer named Jack Johnson on the radio sometimes. But there’s something about his face that strikes Sid as familiar, as if he’s seen it before, and he can’t quite place it.
“He’s, like, actual goddamn Captain America or something,” Max goes on. “He was the one who flagged us down and told us you were here.”
“That’s impossible. He just picked me up on the side of the road a few minutes ago. He told me you guys were already here.”
Max’s face scrunches up, his head tilted to one side. “That doesn’t even make sense, Sid. He can’t have been in two places at once.”
“But you’re the one who just-” Sid is interrupted by Beau shoving a silver flask in his hand.
“Drink up, Captain.”
“He’s your captain?” the strange man - boy - with his arm wrapped around Beau’s shoulders questions. “But is he a good captain?”
Beau scoffs. “Of course he is, Murray. The best captain.”
“I think you’ve had enough of whatever is in here, Beau.” Sid sniffs at the substance and his nose burns from that alone. He passes it to Max, who takes a drink without questioning it. Sid is still not sure how any of them are still alive.
“No one could be as good as Jack,” Murray says resolutely. He glances over his shoulder at his captain’s direction before smiling beatifically at Sid. “No offense, but Jack’s seen us through some things. He’s seen us through the worst things.” Murray holds his hands out in front of him, flexing the fingers on the left and then the right. “You ever want to meet a great man, he’s sitting right back there.”
Beau tugs on Murray’s collar a little, dragging him back away to rejoin the fracas. The cannon fires sporadically, and every time Sid glances up, he finds another teammate of his to be the culprit. He can’t help but think that if Geno were here with them, he would have been the first to ask for a turn.
“I think I’m going to have me a go on the...” Max gestures absently at the gun. “Boom.”
Sid makes sure to take the flask away from him too before he goes.
Making a quick headcount, Sid sees Jordy in deep conversation with the younger rider from before, their heads bent together over a smaller fire. Flower is singing something off-key in French, to the delight of the cannoneers, who sing back in a mixture of Russian and what Sid thinks sounds like Italian. Max is getting a quick lesson on firearm mechanics from a bright-eyed youth, who keeps taking the torch away from Max no matter how many times he tries to set the gun off too early. The rest of his boys are in the middle of a rather raucous card game and, judging from the glares, they’re all losing rather badly.
“Tyuts makes that stuff strong,” the captain’s deep voice cuts into Sid’s musings. The small smile that had been creeping onto his face falls away as he turns and realizes he’s wandered right into the captain’s space. “Best be careful.”
“I’m not... I mean, I don’t... someone has to drive them in the morning.”
The captain motions for Sid to take a seat on the log opposite his, snagging the flask as Sid passes by him. He takes a quick drink before it’s snatched away again by a passing man, a game that’s obviously common among them based on the lack of reaction from Jack.
“It’s Sid, right?” the captain asks, crossing his ankles and his arms, leaning his back against the tree behind his log. “Sid the Kid.”
“Oh, God,” Sid flushes. “Which one of them told you?” He resists the urge to bury his face in his hands, but only just.
The captain grins, his teeth sharp around the butt of his cigar. The smoke is pleasant and heady, drifting lazily between them, and Sid enjoys the traces of warmth that creep into his lungs. “None of them.”
“Hockey fan, then?”
“Hockey?” He says it as if he’s never heard the word before, a strange, questioning lilt to his voice. “Not particularly.”
“Then how did you...” Sid decides not to push it, shakes his head, and scuffs his shoe against the dirt. “Never mind.”
“You’re all kids to me, anyway.”
Sid didn’t think that the captain was that much older than him - if he had to guess, he would have placed Jack at almost the same age as him, maybe younger. He resists the urge to ask just how old Jack is, can almost hear the Twilight jokes already if the guys overhear him, and lets Jack talk.
“They really love you,” he motions backwards. “Your boys. Couldn’t talk enough about you.”
“Probably about how I was dragging the whole trip down.” Sid has a deep-seated self-deprecation that always rears its ugly head at times like these.
Jack’s face is neutral, his lips straight, and his posture casual. “That’s not what my boys tell me. They said every one of them was singing your praises high and low. Said you were real good at being a leader. Said they trusted you.”
Jack tilts his head to the side, narrowing his eyes. His fingers sneak up to pluck his cigar from his lips and he points it accusingly at Sid. “You don’t believe they’d say that. Why?”
Sid flinches a little. “Kind of hard to consider yourself a leader when you can’t get out of your own head, let alone help anyone else out of theirs.”
Jack drops his cigar to the dirt, grounding it out with his boot. His eyes are clear, but deep, as if they had seen more years than the young, unlined face suggests. Sid feels uneasy under Jack’s appraising stare. A sarcastic voice in the back of his head says that he should be used to this, but he barely knows the man across from him, and he already feels sore and flayed open from the playoffs. He doesn’t really want anyone else’s fingers digging into him and finding what they discovered there lacking.
"I'm going to tell you a story, son."
Sid bristles a little. He has had a hundred different men call him 'son' in that same condescending, holier-than-thou tone he heard at home from his actual father. Sometimes, even when it’s Mario, the hair on the back of his neck will still stand. Jack's tone is bland, but Sid still has the urge to stand up and walk away from what he’s sure Jack means as well-meaning advice. It’s his mother's many years of sharp pinches and lectures on manners that keep him in his seat.
"I got hurt once. Not too bad. Took a bullet that deflected off one of my buttons. Didn't actually do much more than bruise the hell out of me. But I was sitting in the medical tents anyway, because my arm was numb and they were worried that it was out of place. There was a boy there, shot right in the hip. He was crying, real quiet, like he didn't want no one to hear him. But I did. And as bruised and sore as I was, I had to go sit beside him. I talked to him, for a while, long enough to distract him. I thought I was the one doing the good deed. But he smiled, and took my hand, and said, 'I hope I'm entertainment enough for you, sir.' He had noticed the way I was holding my arm and had sought to distract me. He taught me a lesson. It was that, no matter how high the rank or how shiny the medals you got, a leader can't always be the one doing all the giving. Sometimes the best way to lead is to take a little too. You got to teach yourself to take their friendship, Sidney. Take their love. It's the only way you're going to have enough to give back to them when the times get tough."
"What happened to him?" Sid clears his throat, shocked at how rough his own voice sounds. "The boy. Did you ever find out?"
"The doc set my shoulder back in place and, when he sent me off, I went back to his cot but it was gone. Someone had said that his boys had come to get him. Saw his name in casualty listings, a couple days later. Goddamn, that must have been in the fall of 18... 1863."
Sid stands up sharply. "That's cute."
Jack blinks slowly at him, not moving one inch from his comfortable sprawl. "I wasn't trying to be."
"Look, I know you guys take these re-enactments seriously, but you can't-"
"Re-enactments? Sidney, look at us again. Hear our names. You know who we are. Captain John Joseph Louis Johnson the third. First Lieutenant Ryan Johansen. First Lieutenant Derek MacKenzie. First Lieutenant Cam Atkinson. Second Lieutenant James Wisniewski. Second Lieutenant Nathan Horton. Second Lieutenant Matt Calvert."
Sid shakes his head.
"Brandon Dubinsky. Ryan Murray. Sergei Bobrovsky. Nick Foligno. Fedor Tyutin. Boone Jenner. Jack Skille."
They all sound vaguely familiar, but Sid stubbornly refuses to place them. He wants to be out of this place and back in Pittsburgh to be pathetic and lonely in peace and quiet.
"Come on, Sid. He gave you our book. I know you've read it. You've got it in your car."
"How do you-" Sid's sentence dies off as he remembers. Jack's Boys: The 14th Ohio Independent Battery, A Reflection, written by the great-great-grand-nephew of a soldier who had died during the Civil War, is the book he had left sitting on the front seat. Geno had given it to him when he had heard about this camping trip, had pressed it into Sid's hands right before jumping on a plane to Russia.
"Can't believe you're abandoning me to a weekend alone with Staalsy and Flower."
"Can't believe they plan without me. Here," Geno had said. He’d pressed the book into Sid's hands. He had plucked it carelessly from the shelf in the shop they were ambling around in, wasting time. "So not get bored."
Sid had tried to protest, but Geno had paid for it, exchanging pleasantries with the cashier instead of listening. He shoved it against Sid's chest again, leaving Sid with no hands to hug him back.
"Is this a fucking joke? Did Flower fucking hire you guys?"
"I find it really disrespectful, actually. Pretending to be dead men."
"Who says we're pretending? I died today, 150 years ago. Just a few short weeks before the war was over."
"But how can-"
"Anniversaries give us...power. I'm strong enough tonight for you to see us, touch us, all of us, all at the same time."
Sid sits down quickly, feeling his knees get wobbly. "You're not ghosts."
Jack nods his head, digging around in his pants pockets for another cigar, lighting it by kneeling close to the fire. Sid supposes that being dead already kind of saps the fear of dying out of a man. The thought makes him vaguely nauseated.
"Can't never find no goddamn matches, even now. I think my boy keeps them hid."
"How did you know about-"
"Him?" Jack smiles sharply, viciously, almost predatory. "We've all got our specialties. Brandon's got a way with kids. Matt's good with people who are scared someone's going to hurt them. Cam's good with people who are scared they'll hurt themselves. Nick and Bob know what true homesickness feels like. My boy's good with hearts. Me? I'm good at helping the ones who are lost, and not just on a map."
Sid chuckles, his face blank and his shoulders tight. "And you think I'm lost?"
"Not anymore, but that's kind of the point."
Sid is desperate to change the subject. "If you're not ghosts, then what are you?"
"Not sure. Reflections, maybe? The people on town, they call us spirits. They send their kids out to play with us, trust us to watch over them. They talk about us in their schools. I don't think it really matters to them what we are, so long as we are here."
"And why are you here?"
"Tonight? Well, I'm here for you."
Sid snorts, hunches his shoulders in against the non-existent cold. "To teach me what?"
"Son. That's up to you."
Sid stays silent for a long time. He had read the book, laying in bed on that first night after Geno had given it to him. He'd been wallowing in his own sorrows, beating himself up for letting Geno slip away for another summer without ever saying anything, and for letting another Cup slide from between their fingers.
"Which one of them told you about Geno?"
"None of yours. I told you, my boy-" he points blindly over his shoulder at the second rider, who is still chatting away with Jordy - "he's good with hearts, particularly broken ones. He saw him."
"Then he must know why I can't... why we couldn't..."
Sid takes a breath to disagree, but Jack talks over him.
"You're afraid because he's your teammate, your second hand. You're afraid because you're in the public eye and what they all might think. You're afraid to treat him special in case it hurts your team, or not to treat him any different in case it hurts him. You're afraid of having him and you're goddamned afraid of losing him. Am I right?"
There’s another long pause where Sid licks his lips and refuses to meet Jack's eyes.
"Do you know why I call Lieutenant Johansen my boy?"
Sid shakes his head. It’s too much to hope for that Jack is saying what Sid wants to hear.
"I call him that because once, I was just as scared as you are right now. Because I looked at him and felt my heart break because of how much I wanted him and how I couldn't have him. And because one day, I looked at him and forgot to care that the whole goddamn country would hate me for wanting him. And because one day, he looked back."
Jack twists on his seat, whistling gently at Lieutenant Johansen - Ryan - who looks up and smiles like Jack lit up his world. Sid's heart seizes up with another sharp, hot stab of recognition, because sometimes he likes to believe he’s seen Geno look that way at him.
"It's okay, kid. You're allowed to love him. You're allowed to love your men. You're allowed to be weak in front of them, because that inspires them to be strong. Ryan died." Jack pats his chest. "Right here. In my arms. Bled out with the boys all around. They saw me at the lowest point of my life. But I was never more proud of them than I was in the days after we buried him.
"You're allowed to love him too. The man you sometimes think of as your dad, even though he's not."
Sid scrubs the back of his hand over his eyes. His face feels red, like he’s on fire, and he tries to hide the welling tears by pulling his shirt up to wipe the sweat from his forehead. "Why are you saying all of this to me?"
Jack stands up, cigar held casually between his fingers at his side. He looks like something out of a storybook - his posture full of confidence and pride - and Sid stares at the ashes that are floating gently in the wind instead of daring to let Jack see how close to home he's just hit.
"I got a real sneaking suspicion that no one's ever said those things to you before. Or that if they did, you never believed them."
Around them, the party has continued, almost as if everyone has been oblivious of the complete emotional turmoil their captain has been going through. Sid's pretty sure he prefers it that way, because the alternative is Sunshine sitting by his feet with that hang-dog look on his face, with Max and Marc on either side, murmuring strange and soothing things in French. Jordy would be the rat bastard that would tell on him to Geno, though, but he does it because of love, because they all learned quickly that sometimes the best medicine for Sid's moods was a little of the affection that Sid craved the most. Somehow, strangely, Sid blames Jack for this, and wondered just how far his weird ghost powers reached. The cannon blasts on pleasantly, the fires roar merrily, and Sid tries to pull himself together enough to join in with them.
Jack's boy Ryan has joined them, snaking an arm around the captain's waist and pressing himself close against Jack's side. He steals the cigar right from Jack's fingers, taking a quick puff and pressing his smoke-warmed lips against Jack's.
Sid smiles, almost against his will, at the honest display. "What's going to happen to you? In the morning? When the anniversary is over?"
Jack twists his fingers in Ryan's, his thumb catching on a gold ring on the boy's left hand, and grins. "We'll fade away again. Back to just a legend they tell in schools and a story they pass on to new neighbors who are afraid to let their kids play in our woods. But some night, maybe a little boy will get lost and wander far from home. Brandon there will hold his hand or carry him when he gets too tired. That little boy will never remember why, but he'll always know these woods are safe.
"Maybe a woman will run to the forest to get away and Murray will show her the best hiding place while Matt makes sure to lead the danger away.
"And there will come a day when someone comes here with a loaded gun aimed only at themselves, and Cam will jam the gun while Ryan whispers all the names of the people who love them in their ear.
"They'll never know it was us, and only a few get to really see us, but that's what will happen. We'll still be here and we'll still be doing our job."
Sid stands up then, wiping his hands on his shorts before holding one out for Jack to shake. When the young Murray told Sid that Jack was a great man, Sid had just thought the boy starstruck and biased, but he sees it now - the glimmers of the wisdom and conviction that drove all of these men to fight and die for Captain Jack Johnson.
"And me?" Sid asks, just as they turn away. "What will happen to me?"
Jack smiles, biting down on his cigar to hold it in place. "Not to repeat myself, son, but that's up to you."
We are Soldiers
The working title of this fic was “Turkeys in the Rain” but it was lovingly referred to by its authors as our Little Monster. It took us six months, too many tears, far too many late nights, and some hella spot on last minute editing from our loving and caring beta Lizzy. Without you, Lizzy, this monstrosity would not be the glorious piece of emotions it is. Thank you for all your time and effort. It means so much to us. Such beta. Many words. So timeline. Wow.
Also a tremendous thanks to Vitula. She was our cold reader and knew next to nothing going in. Without knowing what you were walking into, you did a fabulous job making sure we were always heading in the right direction. Thank you so much.