A Temporary Condition
This is the second in a short series of pre-Lancer Scott stories.
Being defeated is often a temporary condition.
Giving up is what makes it permanent.
How long before a man gives in to despair? Scott had asked himself that question a hundred times over the last three months and was no closer to reaching an answer. Conditions in the prison were deteriorating and the moral of the prisoners was at the lowest point Scott had yet seen it. The number of new prisoners arriving daily was increasing. Rooms which had once been crowded were now so congested that, at night, they had to lie in rows with no space to turn over. Daily rations had been halved leaving bellies unsatisfied and prone to cramping.
Reports filtering in with each new intake suggested that they were the lucky ones. At least they had a roof over their heads and some semblance of order. In other camps the inmates were living outdoors, exposed to the elements and with gangs rampaging among the other prisoners, stealing what little food they had.
It was now the height of summer and the heat in the room was oppressive. Scott hadn’t been outside since his arrival…hadn’t seen the sun or the rain…hadn’t felt the wind ruffling his hair. He raised a hand to hair that was now lank, greasy and far longer than he had ever worn it before. Only a limited amount of personal hygiene was possible. Water was provided for them to wash themselves, but it was a cursory wash at best. He no longer noticed the smell and couldn’t have said when he had become that inured to his surroundings.
Each day was an exercise in survival. Not everyone fought that battle anymore. Each morning two or three dead bodies were dragged out…men who had succumbed to illness or had simply given up hope. Scott’s own resolve wavered day by day, but he was by nature a fighter and he knew he could never turn his face to the wall and give in.
Lack of exercise made his body lethargic. Malnourishment and a sedentary lifestyle were draining the strength from his muscles. So far he had managed to keep his mind active. It had been a surprise to find that they had been provided with chess sets and books. There was even a prison newspaper. Each new arrival was quizzed about events in the outside world and every scrap of information was written down and circulated. The news, so far, was good. The Union forces were tightening their grip, which explained the lack of food. Even the guards were starting to look thin and drawn as their rations were cut as well.
Every so often disease would sweep the prison carrying with it the weakest of the prisoners. Scott had avoided becoming sick and had swallowed his fear to help tend those gripped by illness. The prison hospital was stretched beyond its intended capacity and not everyone could be housed in its relative comfort. Scott looked up as a hand fell on his shoulder.
“You’re brooding again.”
Scott smiled. “Sorry, Dan. Sometimes it just creeps up on me.”
Lt. Dan Cassidy had arrived at Libby within days of Scott’s own arrival. They had been acquainted previously and were now good friends. Dan was older by a few years and had been married to Sarah for two years before enlisting. He had shown Scott a picture of his wife. She was blond, beautiful and…cold. Not that Scott would have expressed his opinion to Dan or anyone else. His length of service made him senior to Scott, although the issue of rank meant very little in their present situation.
“It’s getting hotter.” Cassidy wiped sweat from his forehead.
Scott looked toward the windows, the glass long gone in an attempt to allow air into the stifling room. The prohibition on prisoners approaching the windows remained in force. No-one had tempted fate by disobeying that order. “What I wouldn’t give to get out of here even if only for five minutes.”
“Not much chance of that.”
“They use work crews to haul water up from the river.”
Cassidy shook his head. “That’s backbreaking work.”
“I don’t care. It’d be worth it to get outside and…” Scott hesitated, “it might provide an opportunity to escape.”
“You’re dreaming, Scott. You’ll end up with a bullet in your back.”
“Don’t you think it would be worth the risk?”
“I’m as keen to get out of here as you are. I miss Sarah, but I’m not going to take foolish risks. We have our life planned out for after the war and that means I have to survive it to get home again.” Cassidy lowered himself into a sitting position beside Scott. “What will you do when you’re released?”
“Go home to Boston. I left my studies at Harvard to enlist. Eventually my grandfather would like me to go into business with him.”
Cassidy scrutinised his friend. “You don’t sound very enthusiastic.”
“I’m not sure I want to be stuck in an office for the rest of my life,” Scott admitted. “The time I spent in the Cavalry before I was captured made me realise how good it was to be out in the fresh air, getting my hands dirty. Every day was different, a challenge. I felt a sense of achievement. I suppose that sounds stupid. I’ve had everything in life handed to me on a plate and I’m dreaming about something entirely different.”
“Maybe that dream you’re looking for lies somewhere other than Boston.”
Scott’s gaze became unfocused as he thought about the pictures that sometimes invaded his sleep. They were of no place that he recognised and he refused to see them as any kind of desire to seek out his father in California. ‘His father.’ That was a joke. Murdoch Lancer had never been a father to him. He owed his gratitude to his grandfather who had raised him. He could feel the letter from his grandfather resting against his skin inside his tunic. He had read it a dozen times since it had arrived two weeks earlier. The fact that it had been opened and read before he received it didn’t matter. It was his first contact with home and family.
When he closed his eyes he could imagine his grandfather sitting at the large desk in his study writing the words on the page. He had no idea how long it had taken for his family to be informed about his capture. He supposed that there might even have been a period when they believed him to be dead. Information travelled very slowly between the two sides. The letter was full of news and assurances that everyone was well. Concern had been expressed for his well-being and prayers were being said for his safe return. Each time he read the letter he felt a different emotion, ranging from happiness to a lingering depression. The one thing he never felt was regret at having enlisted. He had believed then, and still believed now, that it was the right thing to do.
“Boston’s my home,” Scott stated decisively. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
It was another few weeks before Scott finally got the chance he’d been looking for. As the condition of the prisoners worsened it became harder for the regular work crews to keep up with the punishing regime necessary to transport water to the prison. Additional workers were recruited. The senior officers weren’t interested in volunteering for manual labor leaving it to the younger men to put themselves forward.
For the first time in nearly four months Scott saw the sky. Eyes unused to full daylight struggled to focus. The heat and humidity stole the breath from his lungs and made him realise just how weak he had become during his captivity. Sweat poured down his back and he eased his threadbare uniform away from overheated skin. He and his colleagues stood under the watchful glare of half a dozen armed guards and simply enjoyed being in the open air.
The guards shuffled to attention at the approach of a senior officer. Scott recognised the lieutenant who had greeted his arrival at the camp. He didn’t have to search his memory for the name. All the prisoners knew who he was and were aware of his reputation for brutality. His reputation was second only to that of the Camp Commandant who Scott had never seen. He counted it a blessing that he hadn’t come to the notice of Major Turner. The man was credited with harsh treatment of dying prisoners and even harsher treatment of those in better health.
Lt. Emack walked up to each man in turn and looked them in the eye. Many turned away or dropped their gaze. Scott stood straight and returned the look as steadily as he could. The arrogance of the Officer was designed to intimidate and Scott knew that he hadn’t been entirely successful in masking his apprehension. Emack sneered and moved on. When he had finished his inspection he stood with his hands clasped behind his back to address them.
“I’m sure some of you see this as an opportunity to escape. Anyone attempting to leave will be shot down. You will all be wearing leg irons and the river is fast flowing. Throw yourselves in the water and you will drown. If you don’t work to my satisfaction you will be returned to the prison. Are there any questions?” Silence greeted his words and he smiled. “Line up at the back of the wagons.”
While he waited for his turn to climb into the wagon Scott looked around. Despite all the months he had spent at Libby he still found it hard to believe that there was a bustling town on the other side of the wire fence. People were going about their daily lives, probably without a compassionate thought for the prisoners in their midst. He knew now, from conversations he had overheard, why the gunpowder had been placed in the cellars. It had nothing to do with punishing escape attempts. The Confederate authorities were terrified about what would happen if there was a mass breakout from Libby. The building now housed several thousand men, well beyond its intended capacity. Should even a fraction of those men escape they could do untold damage to property and lives. The citizens of Richmond were quite simply terrified of being murdered in their beds. Rather than allowing hundreds of desperate men to get away the orders were to blow up the prison. Scott could sympathise with their fears. Civilisation was breaking down and even decent men could be driven to desperate deeds.
A rifle pointed directly at his chest stopped him in his tracks while the leg irons were fastened around his ankles. The chain was long enough to allow for a fair amount of movement, but would easily trip a man trying to run. Once everyone was loaded the guards mounted horses and took up positions to the flanks and rear of the wagon. The heavily loaded vehicle moved slowly forward toward the gate in the fence. Scott felt a flutter of anticipation. Once outside the fence anything was possible.
He studied his comrades. Although he recognised some of the faces he didn’t know any names. He could sense a similar eagerness, only partially suppressed. He wasn’t the only one who saw this as an opportunity despite Emack’s words. They outnumbered their guards. All they had to do was be alert for any chance to grab a weapon.
Days had passed, during which time Scott had hauled hundreds of barrels of water from the river to the wagons. His muscles ached fiercely and the unrelenting sun had given him a pounding headache. The guards watched them constantly from positions in the shade. They never came close to the prisoners while still keeping them well within range of their rifles. Hope had drained away leaving Scott and the others dispirited and angry.
As the day wore on Scott became increasingly concerned about one of the other prisoners. Abe Billings was an Army lieutenant, the son of a prosperous merchant who had enlisted only a few months before his capture. Since starting on this work detail Scott and he had become friends and had exchanged information about their backgrounds. Abe’s father had purchased his commission and the young man had admitted to Scott that he had found it hard being thrust into a position of responsibility. Abe had been in Libby for over twelve months and was reaching the end of his endurance. More than once Scott had found himself talking his friend out of doing something that was potentially suicidal.
He could see Abe shooting agitated glances at the guards and a cold feeling settled in the pit of his stomach. He was working his way over to talk to his friend when he was distracted by the sound of horses. He turned to look at the roadway and saw a small group of officers sitting on their mounts, talking and looking idly in the direction of the river. He recognised Emack and the marks of rank that identified one of the other men as Major Turner. He felt a seething resentment. These men were used to owning slaves and to them the prisoners were only another form of slave labor.
“Get back to work.” The shouted command came from one of the guards.
As Scott returned to his job of manhandling barrels into the back of the wagon he caught sight of Abe’s face. The complete absence of any expression warned Scott that his friend’s mind had finally shut down. He had seen it happen often enough over the last few months to know what that meant. Without acknowledging anyone Abe began to walk toward the officers. Scott wasn’t even sure he heard the orders to stop. His own instinctive move toward his friend ended when a bullet hit the ground in front of him.
He watched in horrified silence as Abe continued his advance. Major Turner drew his revolver, pointed and fired. The shot and Abe’s silent collapse to the ground forced Scott onward and he fell to his knees, tearing Abe’s tunic open with shaking hands. The ugly wound in his friend’s abdomen made him feel sick. He reached out to cradle the injured man in his arms before turning eyes that were blazing with hatred toward the Commandant, who had holstered his gun and turned away.
“He needs a doctor,” Scott yelled as the guards converged on him and Abe.
Lt. Emack dismounted and walked over to them. He studied the wound and shook his head. “He won’t survive that.”
In his heart Scott knew Emack was right. Abe’s breathing was becoming increasingly ragged and waves of pain were wracking his body. “Finish it,” Abe whispered.
Scott’s protests were ignored as he was hauled away. He flinched violently as Emack drew his gun and pulled the trigger. Abe jerked once and fell still. Grief for his friend overwhelmed Scott and he pulled against the hands gripping his arms.
“You murdering bastards,” he shouted.
“Lieutenant Emack.” Major Turner beckoned toward his second in command.
“I want that prisoner put in solitary confinement for a week. He disobeyed an order to stay where he was and he has shown disrespect to a senior officer.”
“Yes, sir.” Emack saluted.
The lieutenant supervised Scott’s return to the prison. Chains were attached to his wrists for the duration of the short journey. Once inside the building he was led down the stairs leading to the cellars. Individual cells had been built along one long wall and Scott was directed to enter one before the shackles and leg irons were removed. The cell was furnished with a narrow cot, a luxury for a man who had been sleeping on the floor for the past four months. As the door closed, leaving him in darkness, Scott wondered why solitary confinement was considered to be such a terrible punishment.
Scott groped his way through the darkness to the cot and lay down. His body was exhausted and the senseless violence had numbed his mind. He could feel his grip on his emotions weakening as he savored the pleasure of lying on a thin mattress rather than the hard ground. His aching muscles cramped and then relaxed as he was swept away on a tide of lethargy. Sleep came unexpectedly and he surrendered to it, not anticipating the horrors that awaited him as his unconscious thoughts replayed over and over the final moments of his friend’s life.
An involuntary cry was on his lips as he woke, confused and disorientated. The silence and lack of light pressed in on him, more suffocating by far than the overcrowded conditions in the rooms above him. He felt as if the weight of the building was pressing down on him, forcing the air from his lungs. The conditions in the cellar were wintry, a stark contrast to the heat from which he had been so anxious to escape. He sat up, pulling the thin blanket from the cot and wrapping it around himself, his arms folded tightly across his body. ‘It was just a nightmare,’ he told himself. ‘It’s over now…it’s over…’ He repeated the litany until his breathing slowed and his heart beat settled.
The dank cold wasn’t to be denied. A tattered uniform, flimsy blanket and a body thin and vulnerable were no match for the creeping chill of the air. Scott shivered uncontrollably. Alone with his misery and his thoughts he mourned his friend and all the other men who had simply given up.
Abe should have had everything to live for. He and Scott had formed a friendship almost from the first moment they met. They were housed in different parts of the prison, but spent eight hours a day laboring side by side. The guards hadn’t been concerned about the prisoners talking as long as they continued to work. During their infrequent rest breaks they had sat and exchanged stories about their lives.
Unlike Scott, Abe had a host of brothers and one sister. His parents were hard working and proud of their boisterous brood. Abe hadn’t been the only one to enlist and letters from home had kept him somewhat informed about his siblings. His oldest brother, David, had recently been sent home as an invalid following a bout of scarlet fever that had left him with a weakness in his chest. Two more of his brothers were still with the Army and his youngest brother was intent upon joining up as soon as he was old enough. He had affectionately described his sister, a fiery seventeen year old who was more than capable of holding her own in a male dominated household.
The lack of siblings hadn’t bothered Scott for many years. As a young child he had tried to imagine what it would be like, looking with envious eyes at his friends. As he had matured he had realised that it was a waste of time to wish for something you couldn’t have. His grandfather had never spoken of his father remarrying and his childish dream had died. Listening to Abe he had felt a twinge of jealousy. That was pushed sternly aside as he realised how hard it was for Abe to be parted from his family.
Scott missed his grandfather, for whom he had a deep affection and respect. He occasionally regretted not knowing his parents. He couldn’t imagine what it must be like to have a large family to love and worry about. How would that family cope with the news of Abe’s death? Scott knew that his friend would be buried within the prison grounds so the family wouldn’t even have the consolation of being able to arrange a proper funeral. It would likely be weeks or even months before they were even told. What distorted version of the truth would be given to them? Certainly not the fact that it had been a cold-blooded murder.
A feeling of guilt began to insinuate itself into Scott’s mind. He had known that Abe was unstable, reaching breaking point. Could he have done something to prevent the tragedy of his death? Perhaps if he had stuck closer to him, or found some way to distract the young man from his dismal thoughts. Scott’s own thoughts were threatening to drag him down into a deep pit of despair. Now he knew the answer to his own question. How long before a man gives in to despair? When he no longer had anything left to live for. Abe had felt that he had nothing to live for. How wrong he had been and how close Scott was walking to that same fine line.
He wished that he had someone to talk to. Dan, who through shared suffering was becoming like the brother he had never had, would understand. Cassidy had a maturity that Scott recognised he yet lacked. The awful truth about solitary confinement was that it left you alone with your thoughts…your regrets and your fears. How long had he been alone? He had been sentenced to a week. It might as well have been a lifetime. Each minute stretched into unending hours.
His eyes were adjusting to the dark. Apart from the cot there was only a bucket in the corner for his personal needs. Would they bother to feed him or give him water? He huddled in his blanket, unwilling to close his eyes. The silence was oppressive and yet how often over the last few months had he wished for all the noise around him to cease? It was never quiet in the overcrowded prison. Even at night there were sounds…snores, sleepy mutterings, and the muffled groans of those in pain. Now there was nothing and he felt lost and alone.
His brain churned, unwilling or unable to settle on one line of thought. The past mingled with the present. He could no longer think of a future. His life could be over tomorrow, snuffed out like a candle. The careless violence that had ended Abe’s existence could as easily be directed toward him.
The key turning in the lock startled him. The door opened, allowing light from the main part of the cellar to creep into his personal hell. A figure stood in the doorway silhouetted against the yellow glow. Scott screwed his eyes shut against the faint glare which was still more than he could tolerate.
“Get on your feet.” The command was sharp and impatient.
Scott recognised the voice. He would never forget it and would never forgive the man for shooting his injured friend like a dog. It didn’t matter to him that Abe had begged for death. He should have been given a chance…should have been taken to a doctor. He dragged himself to his feet, the blanket falling in a heap on the floor. Pride made him straighten his back. Not even pride, however, could give him the courage to look Emack in the eye.
He heard footsteps crossing the hard packed dirt floor. Only a few steps and the man had covered the short distance to where Scott was standing. Scott focussed his attention on the open doorway. It was tauntingly inviting except for the fact that he knew there would be guards lurking just beyond his line of sight.
“Major Turner is very unhappy with you.”
Scott kept quiet, not trusting his voice. He felt a knot of fear in his belly. The punishments meted out at the behest of the camp commander were legendary. Although he was slowly realising the horrors of solitary confinement, there were far worse things they could have done to punish him.
“He feels that perhaps this punishment isn’t sufficient to convince you of the stupidity of your actions this afternoon.”
“I think seeing an unarmed and shackled prisoner gunned down in cold blood made quite an impression.” A resurgence of fury forced Scott from his self imposed silence.
“That sort of remark just proves how right Major Turner was about you. I’d like to think that by the end of this week you’ll have learned some discretion, but we can’t have you going back to your fellow prisoners making accusations like that. Your friend’s death was an accident. The other men who witnessed it will testify to that. They understand the way things work here. You still need a demonstration of how miserable your life could be if you continue with this defiance.”
“An accident?” Scott was incredulous. “It was murder.”
“You aren’t listening to me, boy. Major Turner was all for ordering a flogging. I persuaded him that there was a better way to handle you. Solitary confinement can break a man. Oh, it won’t happen in a week, particularly if the man has strength of character. This is a taste of what you can expect if there is even a hint of a murder accusation being levied against the Major. You have pride, I can see it and I’m going to take it away from you. Sergeant.” Emack turned toward the door as he raised his voice.
A soldier responded to his call and stepped smartly into the cell. He stood to attention, his face impassive.
“This prisoner is to have his hands bound behind his back. He can be untied twice a day to see to his needs otherwise he is to be restrained. If he wants to eat and drink he can get down on the floor like the disobedient pup he is.”
Shock, horror, outrage…the emotions followed hard on the heels of each other. Finally, the overwhelming emotion was one of relief that he wasn’t to be whipped. He had endured physical pain following his capture and had found a strength he hadn’t expected in withstanding that torture. He had been in good health prior to that abuse. Now he was weak, malnourished and in no shape to stand up to such a primitive form of punishment.
He flinched as the sergeant dug hard fingers into his shoulder and pushed him face first against the wall. To resist would be a futile waste of his scant remaining energy. The rope was wound in a crosswise pattern around his wrists and tied securely, leaving not the slightest scope for movement. He was pulled back round to face Lt. Emack.
Two bowls, one containing a pitiful amount of food and the other containing water, were placed in a corner of his cell. He looked at them hungrily before dragging his attention back to the Confederate officer. “I’d rather starve,” he said defiantly and untruthfully.
“I doubt that.” Emack looked around the small cell. “Make yourself comfortable and I’ll see you in a week.” He smiled coldly at his helpless prisoner.
As soon as he was once again alone Scott sank back onto the cot. The rope bit painfully into his skin and his shoulders were already aching. He was too shaken to struggle against his bindings, his mind filled only with the hopelessness of his position. Even in the darkness he knew exactly where the food and water was sitting, tormenting him. It was shameful to be forced to eat like an animal. Oh, he could refuse to eat, become even weaker except that would play right into Emack’s hands.
He pushed himself shakily upright and took two steps before falling to his knees. He could smell the food, could almost taste the water. Consoling himself with the fact that there was no-one to witness his humiliation he bent his head.
For a week Scott existed as best he could. He measured the days by the arrival of food and the brief, twice daily, respite from his bonds. He had flushed with shame that first day when the guard had collected the empty bowls. The man had smirked at him and made some remark about him learning obedience. From that point on only his hatred of Major Turner and his second in command had sustained him. He wanted to believe that he would hold on to his convictions when he was released from this cell, but he knew that he would have to bury them for the sake of self-preservation. He made himself a promise…one day he would find a way to make them pay for Abe’s death. In order for that to happen he had to survive and that became his only goal.
Scott raised bitter eyes to the guard. His faith in human nature had been shattered, but the bitterness was for his own betrayal of his friend. His arms hung uselessly by his side after the rope was removed, the muscles numb and unresponsive. He slitted his eyes against the light and stumbled wearily from the cell. As they reached the first floor the oppressive heat hit him, stark contrast to the biting cold that he had been exposed to.
Scott stiffened as he heard Emack’s voice. The officer was pushing his way through the crowd of newly arrived prisoners. He looked Scott up and down and nodded as if satisfied with what he saw.
“I trust you have learnt your lesson.”
“Yes, Sir.” Would a stronger man have given a different answer? Scott didn’t know as he lowered his eyes.
“Excellent. I had a feeling that you were a smart boy.”
Scott bit his tongue as he was pushed toward the stairs leading to the second floor. A rising crescendo of sound assaulted his ears, much as it had on his arrival five months previously. As he was thrust through the door to his prison he realised with a sinking feeling that he would have to adjust all over again to the noise, smells and the press of bodies around him. He shrank back against the solid wood of the door, torn between relief and desperation.
“Scott. My God, what happened to you?”
A hand under his elbow steadied Scott and he looked into the concerned face of Dan Cassidy. Soon he was surrounded by his close group of friends, sitting shielded from the mass of humanity in the room.
“The guards wouldn’t tell us anything,” Dan continued. “We were afraid you were dead.”
“I…I was put in solitary.” Scott accepted a cup of water from Jack. The young Corporal looked shaken and Scott could only assume that he must look a great deal worse than he had a week ago. He held the cup and stared at it. For the first time in a week he could drink with dignity rather than lapping the water from a bowl on the floor. The memory made the bile rise in his throat.
“What did you do to deserve that?”
“I…it doesn’t matter. Can you just talk to me, Dan? It was so quiet and I don’t want to be alone with my thoughts any more.”
Scott was vaguely aware of Cassidy sending the others away. He closed his eyes and listened to the sound of his friend’s voice talking about the past and his hopes for the future. The words filled his mind, thrusting away his own thoughts and recent memories. Dan didn’t pry, just offered the support of his presence and in Scott’s weakened condition it was more than enough. Scott had been unable to achieve restful sleep during his time alone. Now the rhythm of Dan’s words soothed over-taxed emotions and he felt himself leaning to one side. Dan must have moved then as the blond head came to rest on his friend’s shoulder and Scott slipped into a peaceful sleep.