Private Paul Merrell possessed a certain grace that Lieutenant Scott Lancer admired, and it involved the length of leg and how his body could twist away from danger even when riding at full gallop. Actually, it involved riding, period. The company cook had joked once, a glancing remark that Merrell, when aground, walked like a prince. With both legs tied together. Seizing the compliment and throwing it out with the dishwater, as always. But Merrell should have known, and for all his short experience with the Army, Scott had assumed that a reading between the lines would occur. The company’s relationship depended upon—jokes included—the reading of that which could not be said.
But right now, Private Merrell wasn’t showing how graceful he could sit a horse and it didn’t matter how fast Scott rode. The woods were empty. Bent at the waist, they were searching between trees shaded by inky night, without finding the last remaining man from the picket line. Private Merrell was gone.
Scott leaned his hands on his knees, pushing Sergeant Baker the other two soldiers, not wanting them to stop, because he hadn’t been able to find Merrell. And he wondered when it would be that he’d forgive himself.
Then he heard a soft mewling.
Breaking into a run he scrambled down the hillside, the sounds of thrashing aiding his way-finding. The noise cut off abruptly and Scott’s breath caught. A clearing was just ahead, with something in the tall grass.
Private Merrell was pale and ghost-like in the starlight, his face a bloodless white, and Scott skidded to a stop hardly knowing where to start. For one appalling minute, he thought he was too late.
Eyes big as saucers, the ghost panted out a few words, “Knew you’d find me.”
He’ll be all right, Scott told himself for the hundredth time, but he couldn’t quite connect the thoughts.
Later, he stood in the woods for a time, staring at the invisible picket line he had executed. A simple command that should have been a picnic outing, considering. Cook’s Tactics said nothing about losing the men you’d come to recognize as some sort of piecemeal family. A stew of personalities he alternately wanted to pound and protect all at the same time. There was a howl somewhere inside of him that he didn’t know how to release.
Instead, he fell back on what came so naturally in the beginning, and ordered the patrol back to camp.
A warm wind had followed the latest December storm and melted the snow as though it had been an aberration, one of God’s mistakes. God had forgotten a lot of things, the Union in general, the cavalry in particular.
The creek bed was high with run-off, the start to the year would be wet. Grumblings around the campfires were not positive: “‘Nother year of it, don’t know how much more I can take. “ Veterans, Scott thought despairingly. It was debatable if they meant the weather or the Rebellion. He had done his best to keep optimism alive, that the upcoming spring campaigns of 1864 would be shorter, perhaps even put an end point to the war. But newspapers and correspondence flooded the camp with recent Confederate victories at Ringgold Gap and Bean’s Station, the incompetence of Union generals and heavy-handed political rhetoric.
Their last engagement with the enemy was two weeks ago, and he didn’t want to think about spring yet, wasn’t ready for new orders, let alone what came after.
Merrell moaned under his breath and slumped to one side, head lolling on Scott’s shoulder. Mortimer tossed his head with the additional uneven weight on his back. Scott bunched the reins into one hand while the other fisted in the Private’s blue woolen jacket, pulling him upright in the saddle. A simple press of knee and Mortimer went into the water.
Over the rise was camp, and silhouetted in black was First Sergeant Bauer, pacing back and forth with the jerking movements of a circus elephant chained at one leg.
Gregor Bauer had the reputation—richly deserved—of an emotionless man, which had seen him through seventeen years in the military. Chiseled, with blunted ends, he was the son of a farmer who had escaped the political unrest in Germany only to come to America and die on the plains.
Regular Army, with military experience dating back to Mexico, Sergeant Bauer was cat to his mouse.
Scott pulled his horse to a sliding stop in the icy mud near the line of tents and makeshift cabins that made up B Company. He dropped the reins, offered a hand to the semi-alert Merrell and slid him down from Mortimer’s great height to stand on wobbly feet.
Bauer raised both brows and Scott had the distinct impression he was about to be questioned. He didn’t like the feeling, never had. He pulled himself upright from the tired slouch he’d migrated to in the saddle.
“The rest of the patrol, Sergeant Bauer?”
“Bedded down, about an hour ago.” The sharp words hung as wisps in the air.
He wasn’t telling Scott much of anything, but that was a habit established long before the current camp, and Scott had grown used to the lack of information. He knew it was a dangerous game, not for them particularly, but much could go wrong with the men they were entrusted. He dismounted, tested the balance between his feet and swayed for a moment like a tree about to go down until he found solid equilibrium on the ground despite the hours in saddle. The problem was they had nothing in common.
Scott shook his head. “Not with him. Some sort of accident, he’d fallen down the hillside.”
Bauer groused, rich accent slipping in and out, punctuating the harshest of his words. Outlined from the light of the fire and drawn with lines as dark as the medieval paintings in his school books, Scott knew from the look on the sergeant’s face that he wasn’t looking forward to the next bit.
“Orders, Lieutenant?” He asked, but it was really no question, because he was already gripping Private Merrell under the armpit, hauling him up and away.
Scott dismounted, handed Mortimer’s reins to the waiting saddler who promised a bit of confiscated grain with the rubdown.
Lieutenant Carter Willoughby wandered over, as lazy and dangerous as a cat, a tin mug of coffee in his hand.
“I’d just about given up on you.” Carter grinned, face wind-burnished pink above the beard and speckled with freckles. He nodded after the departing Bauer. “Have I ever told you how glad I am that Sergeant Bauer is in your company?”
Scott smiled. “A few times, here and there.”
“You missed the festivities, such as they were. The Colonel was, to quote the man, ‘highly disappointed’ you refrained from attending Christmas mess.” He flicked a non-existent piece of lint from his coat sleeve. “From all accounts there was steam rolling out from under his tent flaps when he discovered you weren’t there. And by default, what you were doing.”
“Surely he understands, Private Merrell is my soldier now that Captain Miles is gone.”
“I suspect he does, but he probably still harbors a measure of resentment over the Sheridan issue. It isn’t every day the General visits his troops.”
“Or that a lowly lieutenant is photographed with him, not the regimental commander.”
“Your words, not mine.” A wretched smile split his face, and Carter bowed low, balancing his coffee in one hand. “Regardless, you have been summoned, dear boy. Tomorrow morning, before reveille.”
Scott’s gaze flicked away then returned. “What else?”
“Protocol reigns supreme, as well you know. Especially when the commander expects his officers to obey commands, and there are others to do the looking.” But Carter searched Scott’s face and let the mild admonishment die. His voice softened, “It’ll probably not be any worse than what you received from the Boston paterfamilias when he found us with our packs.”
The punishment meted out by Grandfather was truly spectacular that day, yet the memory flooded him with warmth. A covert game planned out by age eleven, aided and abetted by Eastman’s White Mountain Guide, it was a one hundred and fifty mile walk starting with a ride on the Boston and Maine Railroad to Alton Bay. They never made it out of Haymarket Square, train tickets still in hand.
“That trip to the White Mountains still awaits.” Carter winked. “And now we’re old enough to go.”
He clapped Scott on the shoulder as they picked their way through the tents.
A single candle lit the hastily-reared cabin they shared for winter camp. It reeked of sweat, old socks and damp wood. A skittering by the left wall told him they weren’t alone.
He oftentimes watched them from the vantage point of his cot in the early morning hours before reveille, two brown field mice squeezing in between chinks of poorly rendered mud caulking, scurrying from the wall to the inkwell on the battered trunk, or across the buttons of his half-folded coat thrown on the lone chair. Had they known the Virginia weather, capricious under any circumstances, would turn wicked? Whatever their mousy thoughts at the time, the pilgrimage was the same every night despite attempts to shut them out by cramming used newspapers in the holes. Silent darting steps, eyes shining in the darkness like some otherworldly things—he envied them their freedom. Not even glancing about to see danger, just tiptoeing from one thing to another seeing what there was to see, finding what there was to find. It made his gut lurch.
Carter snorted. “Abraham and Ulysses appear to be busy tonight.”
“You named them?” It was a difficult thing, keeping the incredulity out of his voice.
“Just today. I thought it was fitting for the pair since they seem to be staying. I truly hope one of them isn’t a Mary Todd or Julia. We’ll need to take on another room.”
Carter thrust an envelope at him, marked from Boston. “Speaking of the paterfamilias, Merry Christmas.” He sighed when Scott stuffed the letter into his breast pocket. “You brought back your lost Private. It’s enough, isn’t it?”
Scott winced, the words called back the misery of a few months ago when he’d gotten lost in battle. He wasn’t going to have that conversation again tonight so he mumbled out an excuse for coffee.
“As you will, but there’s something else you missed this evening besides hardtack and Confederate ham.” Carter’s features were closed, assessing Scott in that clinical way he’d had since childhood. School had merely honed it to a sharper edge. “Never mind, it can wait. Go have your think.”
The stars were startling. Scott had seen a fair amount of country, but he’d never seen the sky look like this. Groggy from the long hunt for Merrell, the feeling eased as soon as he looked up.
He scanned the countryside, where the fires of the 2nd Cavalry dotted the hillside. If he squinted, the small lights appeared like so many Christmas trinkets bobbing in the dark.
Scott leaned over to test the coffee pot left out by the banked campfire. The pot still warm, he mentally thanked the man who had kept it so.
He had always liked staring into a fire, listening to the rumble of Grandfather’s voice amid the smell of sweet tobacco. One voice missing, his father’s, and Scott closed his eyes for a minute or two, trying to imagine what he would sound like. The whimsy caught him by surprise. Anger was the first stop on most of Scott’s thoughts, at least the ones that concerned his father.
His attention had gone down a hole, had fled like he was trying to hold flame. He was remembering Grandfather again, thinking of the pinched look Harlan got when talking about Murdoch Lancer.
Scott cracked open an eye, flexed his hand. It was stiff with the cold, so he poured himself a ration of coffee into a questionably clean cup. Taking a sip, the bitterness hit his back teeth and almost came out the same way it went in.
“Coffee’s getting worse.” The words were puffed out, the wintry air making them into a fine mist when Sergeant Bauer stepped out of the shadows. “A man almost can’t drink the stuff.” The meager light caught him full in the face, turned him almost silver, lighting his eyes on fire. He hadn’t shaved in a while, looked as though he’d been scavenging in back alleys. Then Scott happened to look down at the mud sluiced over his shoulder strap, the brown tinge making it appear golden instead of bright yellow, the tear in his own trousers at the knee, the creased and scarred leather of his boots. Touché.
The sergeant came forward and saluted. Scott hastily transferred the cup into his left hand and returned the courtesy with his right. Bauer brought forth his own cup from inside his tunic, held it steady while Scott poured.
Sipping, his eyebrow arched. “This is horse piss even by cavalry standards.” He seemed to think it over, “Begging the Lieutenant’s pardon.”
Scott shrugged, immediately regretted it when an errant drop of water ran under his collar. “But piss of the finest caliber, if it’s from the horses of B Company.” A fine joke, their horses were anything but—although he wouldn’t trade Mortimer for all the coffee in the world.
He took another swallow. It seemed to get better with the chill in the air. He swept away a few more wet spots, pulled a ratty camp chair closer to the embers and sat. Bauer added a few more scraps of wood then waited for Scott to nod before perching.
Ten companies filled the regiment, almost a thousand men and more horses, arranged like so many small cities. The grandeur of it all had dimmed somewhere along the way, and now Scott could only be concerned about his portion—the sixty-two who made up B Company. He took out his timepiece and held it to the light—ten p.m.
Bauer looked at him with a wait-and-see expression, so common among veterans. It saved the need for further speech. Until finally, “Can’t sleep, Lieutenant?”
“I was just about to ask you the same thing, Sergeant. How is Private Merrell?”
“A broken arm, bruised ribs. I taught him better than that, the fool.” An undercurrent of anger moved in his words, and Scott was reminded that Merrell could have put more than himself at risk by leaving the line. Not a full year younger than Scott’s almost nineteen, but their temperaments were miles apart.
Bauer unbent, his plain farmer’s face following Scott’s stare. A long mournful sound came from far away, just the wind in the trees, answered by nickers from moving horses. D Company, finishing their turn at the pickets. Scott’s heart leapt ridiculously. He pulled out his watch again, marking time, the change of companies and men creating a new way of how to tell it.
“Fine time for a man to be lost, Lieutenant.”
One moment, like a break in a relentless rainstorm, came sudden clarity, when it wasn’t just a set of injuries on a soldier’s body, the puzzle of orders from command, a flurry of bullets or boom of cannon. These were his men, his responsibility. God, he wanted a drink stronger than the poor coffee in his cup.
“Or to run away.”
His mouth opened, then shut and he shook his head. He found he was squeezing the cup in his fist like he could get juice from it. Knew you’d find me. It wasn’t relief at being found, only regret. How had he missed the signs after their last engagement?
Bauer ignored the denial. “Boy’s not new, but he hasn’t seen enough fighting to be toughened up yet.”
A shocking slap, that was Scott’s first battle. Not fifty yards in and a whistling punch in the air, the man next to him was plucked backwards off his horse like a marionette on strings, bits of brain and blood splattered across cheek and sleeve. He saw the man’s shoulders melt into the ground, the moment when his eyes quit being so wild. And in the space of a finger snap, open-mouth rictus. So he did what half the regiment had done, wheeled his horse around in panic, away from the God-awful yells of the Rebels, the smoke, the bullets. It was there he learned the Confederate Army was doing their damndest to kill every Union soldier it came across. But Scott had pulled up, swallowed his shame alongside enlisted and officers caught in the same brutal attack, and pushed forward in the next wave. Yet his conscience continued to haunt him in a quiet, persistent voice.
“Sometimes, it’s like that, isn’t it?” Bauer asked, and a piece of wood shifted in the fire with an audible shimmer of sparkling pops. “Wanting to walk away.”
Scott laughed, bitter and acidic. “You have no idea.”
It was the wrong thing to say to an old soldier, even Scott knew that and what he knew—really knew—about Army life and campaigns could fit onto the head of a pin.
Bauer’s chuckle was just as hard. “I think I do, Lieutenant. I think I do.” He slid both hands around his cup, laced his fingers. “Know what it’s like to be scared shitless.”
Whether it was the difference in ages or just the time of night, Scott didn’t know, but the conversation had changed. It wasn’t so much between officer and enlisted anymore, just two men sitting around a campfire.
“Merrell’s older brother, Charles, is a friend of mine. Served with him a few months before my transfer to the regiment, but I knew him from civilian life for a number of years.” His voice was different, sadder, edges blurred with remembering. “Two peas in a pod, him and his brother. Funny how two peas can turn out to be so different. Still, I’m glad to not have to write him.”
“It’s been a hard few years,” Bauer admitted. “Appreciate you bringing him back.”
He took that, tucked it away for later, because right now he was aching in a spot all too familiar.
It had cooled considerably and Scott jerked up his collar, nose cold to the touch, air cold in his lungs. He forced himself to be still, doing nothing more than listen.
In the darkness, he heard Bauer, “You prepare while you can, and ride it through when you can’t.” He clicked his tongue against his teeth. The camp chair creaked with shifted weight, another log was put into the fire, and Scott smelled smoke and horse. “Makes us stronger. Merrell’ll learn that, one way or another. He can do it.” He cracked the thinnest of grins. “Reveille waits for no man.”
Bauer’s eyes met Scott’s and a jolt of understanding passed between them.
Scott knew about riding it through, but that didn’t stop him from wishing spring would be over. He took a deep breath of night air, wanting to be back home, wanting to see the ocean, wanting to waltz a pretty lady at a holiday dance, and needing to be right here.
The breeze picked up and eddied a loose piece of newspaper around his boots. To the west, perimeter guards were making their rounds, passwords murmured at each turn, mud sucking at their boots.
“Did you solve the Union’s problems?” Carter asked, almost at the same time as Scott was making a decision about whether to sleep with his boots on since he’d be in them again in a few hours. It would save time after all. He looked at Carter, but couldn’t see his eyes. He’d thought his friend was asleep.
“Ah, no,” he answered truthfully. “Why are you awake?”
“Mr. Moore was all wrong in his Christmas poem about the mice, Abraham and Ulysses have been stirring all night long. What about your own, then?”
Scott kept quiet for a moment, let the moonlight tipping in from the cracks in the walls soothe all the rough edges. “Sergeant Bauer kept me company.”
“In his case, I believe the bark and the bite are equally lethal.”
“He thanked me. But I’m not sure I did it for Private Merrell altogether.”
Above the steady quiet, he heard Carter swallow. “Does it matter?”
Scott considered what Bauer had said about Merrell running away. Perhaps he and Merrell weren’t so far apart. He stopped himself, didn’t want to think on that, what it would have meant if he hadn’t turned around that day.
“I wanted to talk to you earlier about what the Colonel said tonight,” and Scott heard the gravel in Carter’s voice, sleep perhaps not far away. “We’re likely to get orders soon.”
They let that sit for a minute.
“Scott? Are you all right?”
“I’m good.” Looking deep into himself, he really was. Although the yearning for it hadn’t lessened, his life before the war seemed quite far away. Almost as if it had ceased to exist. He fingered the edge of Grandfather’s letter in his pocket. Almost. Maybe it was because he’d found Merrell, safe if not sound, or maybe it had to do with a nighttime conversation around a fire, but he found he could face spring after all.