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.