Tallmadge stopped dead on the threshold to his tent, the blood draining from his already pale complexion.
“Am I such a fright as that?” Hale asked drily. He looked as he always had in life, with fair skin and blue eyes that Tallmadge had always fancied resembled the clearest sky after a thunderstorm. Half-turned toward him, uniform perfectly pressed, the only indication that anything at all was amiss was the fact that he could see the edges of a livid bruise peeking out from underneath Hale’s neckcloth. That, and Tallmadge had heard news that he had been executed not one week previous.
“Pythias,” he breathed, unconsciously reverting to the nickname of their college days, “How can this be? You were-I had been told of your death.”
Striding forward, he reached out, desperate to pull him into an embrace, to prove to himself that the other man wasn’t a mere fevered apparition of his exhausted mind. But Hale drew himself away, disdaining his touch.
“Don’t,” he said, “Damon, I beg you don’t. Whatever news you heard, it was true: I have was caught and killed by the British. I died with honour, I hope, but die I did. I do not know what I am, some spirit or revenant perhaps, but I know that I have not come back to you as a man of flesh and blood.”
“I don’t care,” Tallmadge replied, pushing forward and clasping his hand. Or at least, attempting to clasp it: to his dismay and to Hale’s thin-lipped resignation he passed straight through, with nothing more than a faint coldness to mark its passage.
“I warned you,” Hale said, “I fear that we now reside on different planes, perhaps able to observe but not interact. The material and the spiritual have never been comfortable companions, after all.”
“Well,” Tallmadge said, “Should you start urging me to seek out your killer then? Or are you a more active ghost: that is, shall we point you toward the British army so that you might take your own vengeance?”
The words were spoken in jest, with a light-hearted whimsy that he did not truly feel: still, it was enough to summon the ghost of a smile to his Nathan’s face.
“I fear that I would be of little use,” he said.
“On the contrary! Imagine the look of fear on their faces as they hear that not even the embrace of Death is enough to quell our revolutionary fervour. What was it that you said, Pythias? That you regretted that you had but one life to give to your country? Perhaps some higher power heard your exhortation and was moved to intervene.”
Hale did not answer, only looked at the packed dirt floor of Tallmadge’s tent with a studied nonchalance. Tallmadge ached to go to him, to hold him, to run his hands through his golden hair and to smooth out the lines of care and worry from the corners of his eyes as he had often done at Yale. But he could not. So instead, he stepped forward, closer and closer until there lay not an inch of space between them, and then leant closer still. Not touching, but not quite separate either. Hale closed his eyes in pain and swayed forward himself.
For a moment, the two men stood there in silence and merely breathed together, neither of them willing to break the fragile measure of peace that they had managed to snatch from the jaws of death.
Finally, Hale said, quietly and apologetically: “Damon. It’s time. Whatever force allowed me to linger: it’s reaching the limits of its power. I do not think that I can stay much longer.”
Tallmadge inhaled, opening his own eyes. Neither man commented uncommon dampness of his cheeks, or of the crystalline droplets that were caught by his lashes.
“I swear that your death shall not be in vain,” he said, staring deeply into Hale’s eyes, “That no matter what, our dream of a free and democratic country shall come to pass. One day, our children’s children’s children shall speak of the great Nathan Hale, whose sacrifice allowed the establishment of a true democracy, where all are equal. I will give my life for this goal.”
“I would rather that you kept your life your yourself, my dear Damon,” Hale replied, “And that you recounted the tale of your dear friend Nathan to children and your descendants. Tell them of how I lived and loved, not how I died. Do not mourn me Damon, instead keep me alive in your memory.”
Tallmadge swallowed. Already, Hale was starting to look more translucent, fading away to whatever reward awaited him in the Afterlife.
“I shall never forget you,” Tallmadge said hoarsely.
“And I shall wait for you,” Hale said, “But promise me. Swear that you will keep me waiting for years, at least four score and ten. Please, Damon. Promise me.”
“I promise,” Tallmadge whispered, and then he was gone.