There was much the young soldier didn't know. He didn't know that so much could be demanded of men as had been demanded of him and his comrades; and that more than endure, they could deliver and still be strong and able. He didn't know that any person could be as exhausted as he now was and yet could still function and comprehend and hope for a time when the exhaustion would end and its causes would trouble him no more.
His unit, recruited from the fertile valleys that slice through central Pennsylvania, had joined the Army of the Potomac in the early spring. He knew most of the other recruits in his unit; considered many his friends. They were farm boys used to hard work and willing - even eager - to do their duty; but they were unprepared for this new life.
His first days and weeks in the army had filled him with wonder and not a little anxiety. He had been cowed by the great and bustling city of Harrisburg and awed by the screaming locomotive that rattled him and his fellow recruits at amazing speeds along gleaming rails toward their destination. The newness of training camp excited him: strange accents fell on his ears from men foreign in appearance and behavior. Harsh men shouted orders that, in his newness, he jumped to obey. His preacher at home admonished him to pray without ceasing and, when he could remember, he did; but his prayers were more than a little self-serving. He hoped that he could avoid the eyes of his officers and escape the crudeness and cruelty of not a few of his fellow soldiers that passed in their estimation for humor.
He felt a little giddy about embarking on this new life with his young and rowdy friends. He moved into a new and spacious tent in a city of tents; a city of men with no women to soften the energy and rawness and angularity.
He didn't know how quickly excitement could pass through ennui to boredom. Training camp quickly became a monotony that he and the others could not have anticipated. Each day became the same as the day before. Drills became their reason for existing; drill in the morning, drill in the afternoon, relentlessly, day after day. The young soldier knew drilling was important. Why else would the officers require so much of it? But when he tried to fathom the reason, he was at a loss. Except for the formations to which the animated bugler tattooed him and his friends, they had little to do. Looking for wood to fuel their cook fires, writing letters home in which they obliquely admitted to homesickness, or playing at cards for sticks or pennies became matters of importance. Often they simply sought shadow from a sun that grew increasingly relentless as spring moved inexorably into summer.
Food varied little from day to day and was barely palatable after the fresh fare these boys were used to on the farm. Personal hygiene was limited to washing face and hands in shared basins and only rarely did they enjoy the luxury of a bath or a much-needed a change of clothing. As a consequence, and to their horror and humiliation, they found that they had become infested with body lice.
He didn't know that to be eighteen was not yet to be a man. At home his father had started treating him deferentially, asking his advice on matters of family and farm. The young women of the community greeted him differently from when they were girls, and when he went to town he swaggered a bit and wore his hat jauntily, tilted above one eyebrow in an angle he considered rakish. In this man's army he was hooted at by veterans of hard battles and taunted with cries of "fresh fish." Here second lieutenants barely older than he himself treated him in ways that reminded him of his own treatment of his father's mules.
In time the camp was dismantled and the men found themselves on the march. For days they trod pitted roads that, when dry, were churned by myriad feet into swirling clouds of ubiquitous dust that blinded them and chocked their parched throats; or, when pelted into avenues of mud by torrential rains, mired them ankle, then calf, deep and made more toilsome their efforts to reach destinations that seemingly changed by the hour and were known by only the best informed of the highest ranking officers. They had been existing on half rations of rancid salt pork and wormy hardtack and sleeping only fitfully in successive bivouacs that bustled noisily throughout the too short nights with rattling wagons, barking officers and braying mules.
Now he found himself in the midst of a great battle for which no amount of formations or drill could have prepared him. He was part of a mass of men that was slowly moving across an open field, shooting as they went at a line of gray smoke that showed where the enemy waited. He had never known such fear. Instinctively, he crouched as he went and, like the others who moved with him, fired his musket intermittently at the distant cloud of smoke. The clatter of rifle fire all around him commingled with the deafening boom from the row of cannon behind his line. The smoke of gunpowder burned his eyes and choked his every breath. The hugeness of the bombardment of sounds and smells on his senses disoriented him. Worse than these were the shells that landed frighteningly close and sent dirt and fragments of men skyward in red explosions. Worse still were the dull thuds of minié balls hitting boys in the ranks, some of whom he had known from earliest childhood, who now screamed and grasped at shattered limbs or protruding viscera or lay on the ground in grotesque positions with mouths agape and eyes glassy and unseeing. Most hideous of all was the look of sheer terror in Wayne Myers's eyes and the ragged tear in his tender throat where crimson bubbles grew and burst with every gasp and sprayed a dark spume that splattered his dirty blue uniform.
He didn't know that a soldier could turn and run when his family and friends and country expected better of him and his lieutenant hollered at him to stand and fight. He didn't ever suppose that he could desert his post and abandon his fellow soldiers and hometown comrades even as they gaped open-mouthed at his cowardice. But then he had never before experienced total terror.
So from this field he ran while officers bombarded him with curses: "Come back here and fight, you damn coward. Goddamit, get back here," but on he ran, blindly, not caring that he had dropped his musket or that his hat and other accouterments flew from him like leaves from a willow in a storm.
He didn't know, nor would he have cared, that he looked ridiculous as he staggered clumsily through the fields that lay beyond the fearsome fighting. All he did know was that the unbearable sights and sounds and smells of battle were behind him and fading as he stumbled away.
In time he found himself crossing a wide stream with a strong flow of cool water. He sank to his knees and drank deeply and his head began to clear. Realizing his danger if he were to be found by soldiers of either army, he decided to seek shelter, to rest if he could, and to make his plan when he was able to think clearly.
He stepped out of the stream and lurched across its weedy border toward an ancient oak that stood in dense bramble. Shouldering his way through the thicket, he came to a circular clearing around the base of the huge tree. He staggered a crazy ballet: a half pirouette that thudded him against its mass. He sat heavily and leaned against the tree. His head rolled back, his eyes closed and his hands lay inert at his side like the hands of a dead man.
He sat and gazed into the greenness around him, seeing nothing. In spite of its recent intensity, his panic gradually subsided, his breathing resumed its rhythmical regularity and, amazingly, he drifted into a kind of sleep.
* * *
When he woke the light was still strong. He knew he had not slept long but his nap had done much to restore him. He twisted and stretched his waking body.
Then he heard the rustling. He drew his arms protectively close and darted his eyes around the enclosing brush, listening intently. It seemed that whatever was moving through the undergrowth was careful to not make much noise.
"Don't let it be a man," he prayed silently. "Don't let him come here. Please, God."
And even as he prayed his feeble prayer to his uncaring god he heard the noise getting nearer. He tried to become invisible by somehow pressing himself into the massive tree trunk.
Then he saw the face. It was dirty beyond any he had ever seen. The filthy hair may have been blond. It was long and matted by the cap that had lately been worn.
"God," he cried aloud, "don't come in here," and he pressed even harder against the trunk of the tree.
The face jerked out of sight.
"Gawd!" the boy heard. "Who's there?"
"Go away," the boy pleaded.
The man peered cautiously through the foliage. "You a so'jer?" he asked. Then he noticed the blue uniform and softly answered his own question. "Yer a Yankee."
The stranger moved into the clearing gripping his ancient musket by the barrel, the butt dragging behind.
"I don't have a gun," the boy whined. "Don't shoot. Please."
"Does it look like I'm preparin' to shoot anyone?" the stranger asked incredulously. "I ain't gonna do nothing but set here en' rest. That aw' right with you?"
"I told you to go away."
The stranger chuckled. It was the first such sound the boy had heard since before the battle began and he didn't quite know what to make of it.
"Wha' d' ya' want?" the boy asked.
"I don't want nuthin'," the stranger lied. "You got any water?"
"No, I don't have any water."
"Waell," the stranger drawled, "that can wait I reckon.
"Where's yer gun, Yank?" the stranger asked.
"Dunno. Lost it."
"Threw it most likely - when ya' ran." He chuckled again.
"You seem awfully sure of yourself." The youth was surprised at his own daring.
"Nah, not a' tall. I'm a lot like you, only I kep' m' gun."
The boy was surprised. "Wha' d' ya' mean, a lot like me?"
"I bolted, too. Decided a couple a' weeks back that when the chance offered I was gonna git. I seen my chance back there en' I took it - en' I ain't goin' back."
"Crawled mostly. Made like I was goin' back fer more ammunition an' I jest kept on goin'.
"You scared . . . of being in battle I mean?"
"'Course. Who wouldn't be?"
The youth was surprised by the other's candor. "That why you ran?" he asked.
The stranger grew introspective. "Partly, I 'spect; but, well, mainly I'm tired of all the killin'."
The youth's nervousness was considerably abated, but it hadn't disappeared altogether. "Johnny," he said.
"This is queer. We're enemies. We shouldn't be sitting and talking like this."
"I'm not yer enemy," the stranger replied. "I tole ya' I ain't goin' back. You can be my enemy if ya want but I'm jest gonna set here an' wait fer dark. You can do as ya' please."
"What happens at dark?" the boy asked.
"Sun goes down. I skedaddle."
"Goin' back to your unit?"
The rebel jerked his head in exasperation. "Gawd damn," he swore. "You got a thick haid. How many times I gotta tell ya'? I ain't goin' back."
"Shhh," the boy cautioned. "Someone might hear." Then he added in a near whisper, "I don't wanna go back either." It was an admission meant for himself.
"Then don't," the stranger said simplistically. "If them politicians up there in Richmond was here with us fer jist one day we'd none of us be goin' back."
"Yeah," the youth agreed absently. "Goin' home then?"
"No." The answer thudded dully like an acorn dropping on moss.
"The youth was puzzled by the stranger's sudden sadness.
"Why not? he asked.
"Can't go there," was all he said
"Why not?" the boy persisted.
"We won't talk on that just now."
"Well, where'll you go then?"
"Been thinkin' about headin' west. Nebraska, mebbe."
"What's in Nebraska?"
"No idea, 'cept land - an' no war."
The young soldier changed the subject. "About that water, Johnny. You have a canteen. Can we get some water?"
The stranger smiled. "Threw yer canteen away, too. You must a' been in a hurry," he said in his former, more bantering style.
"Never mind about that," the youth said. "There's a stream back that way. You must a' crossed it. I'll go and get some water if you lend me your canteen."
"It might be aw' right," the stranger said. "I ain't heard nothing close since I been here. But you ain't takin' my canteen an' pullin' no disappearin' act. We'll both go."
The youth led the way back to the stream. They knelt on the damp verge and drank. When they finished drinking, the stranger began splashing the cleansing liquid against his face and through his hair.
"Best make a good job of it, Johnny," the boy suggested. "You're about the dirtiest thing I ever saw."
"H-waell, yer no picture of purity yerse'f. You could use a bath, too."
With that the stranger sat and slowly took off his worn shoes and socks. "Damn, that feels good. Don't know when was the last time I had 'em off," he said. He stood and gingerly waded to midstream, took off his threadbare shirt and began dunking it in the current. When he was satisfied that it was as clean as he could get it, he squeezed it, flapped it in the air and, leaving the stream, took it to a nearby bush where he draped it with exaggerated neatness to dry.
"Waell, Yank," he said to the youth as he passed him on his way back to the stream, "don't jest stand there. I tole you ya' need a bath," and when he regained his laundering spot he removed his trousers.
The youth bared his feet, walked a little way upstream and began the laundering process. From time to time he glanced clandestinely at the stranger.
The soldier stood mid stream facing away from the youth. He bent forward and dunked his newly clean hair in the current, stood and shook his head rapidly from side to side. Water droplets shot outward in graceful arcs, sparkling golden in the afternoon sun.
Then he unbuttoned his union suit, dropped it to the stream bed and stepped clear.
The youth had seen men naked only rarely in his life and he was mesmerized by what he saw. The man was unusually broad-shouldered and muscular. Indeed, he reminded him of Goliath ready to do battle with the youthful David; a picture that had so captivated his interest in the big altar Bible of the country church back home. Muscles rippled as he plashed water over himself, and when he bent over to wash his legs, the boy saw his testicles appear in the inverted V of his open thighs. The sight made his head light and he looked away in his embarrassment and confusion.
The youth turned his back and focused his whole attention on his bath. He moved beyond a protective branch overhanging the stream before he took off his underwear. He was again aware of the coolness of the water and was glad to wash and refresh himself in it. His attempt to put the stranger out of his mind was successful until he heard him splash toward him. As he passed, the boy modestly covered his genitals with his hands. The stranger merely glanced in his direction, raised his canteen high and said, "Water."
The stranger filled his canteen upstream of where the boy was still standing. He left the stream and walked across the grassy clearing to where he had draped his clothes and patted himself with his nearly dry shirt. The boy watched him as he dressed. He hoped that he would leave so he could have his privacy but when the soldier finished, he sat on a fallen log and watched the boy with mute interest.
"You gonna just sit there?" the boy asked.
"You gonna just stand there?" the soldier asked in return.
The boy turned his back and made a pretense of still washing. When he checked over his shoulder, the older man was still watching him. There was nothing to do but get out. He left the stream with what he hoped would pass for casual aplomb, turned his back to the other man and put on his still wet clothes. Together they walked back to their bower.
They sat leaning against the tree trunk. The stranger, true to his vision, faced west. The youth was near his right shoulder. They looked into leafy space.
The boy sensed that the stranger was more worldly-wise than he himself. "What now, Johnny?" he asked.
"Well, first off I wanna know yer name, and then I wanna know yer intentions."
"Name's Samuel. Samuel Bedford. I'm from Pennsylvania. How about you?"
"Ya' had it all along. I'm Johnny, aw' right. Jonathan Andrew Jackson Cobb. How's that fer a handle?"
"What are we gonna do now?" the youth persisted. "We can't stay here long."
"Waell, that's my second question, now ain't it? What's yer intention? En why d' ya' think we are gonna do anything? I tole ya' I intend ta go west. You plannin' ta tag along er sump'm'?" He meant his question to sting.
Samuel was nonplussed. He had no plan. Johnny noticed his confusion.
"Yer right, though." Johnny's voice had a softer edge. "We can't stay here. We could sleep here but we got no food. En' there's no tellin' where them armies is gonna turn up next.
"Tell ya' what. After dark, we could take off - headin' west - en' look fer a farm. We could 'appropriate' a chicken en' vegetables er sump'm', find a barn to sleep in en' take out ag'in tamorra' night. Couple a' days en' we ought ta' be pretty clear o' danger en' then you could split fer Ohia."
"Pennsylvania," the youth corrected. "Mebbe I don't wanna go back to Pennsylvania. They don't look kindly on deserters."
"Waell, time enough ta decide that. Fer now we ought ta try ta sleep so's we kin be fresh when the time comes." With that he snuggled as well as he could into the scanty loam and closed his eyes.
Samuel leaned his head against their shared bole but was unable to sleep. He sighed deeply. The light was changing with the setting sun. Through the lower branches he could catch glimpses of the sky as it flamed in brilliant oranges and reds. He knew that that augured well for fair weather tomorrow.
Johnny slumped further. His head came to rest against Samuel's thigh. Samuel looked down and saw a decidedly handsome face. Without thinking, he casually stroked Johnny's hair as if he were petting a cat, moving the soft strands back and away from closed eyes. Acting on some impulse that he neither noted nor would have found easy to explain, he slid his hand lightly along Johnny's cheek and outlined his stubbled jaw.
"Real nice." Johnny spoke softly.
Samuel jerked his hand away. "Oh!" he said. "I'm sorry. I didn't . . ."
With quick agility, Johnny stretched out on his back and pulled Samuel on top of him. "No need ta be sorry," he said.
He gripped Samuel's hips tightly with his legs and placed his strong hands on either side of his head, heel to jaw, and pulled his face close. Samuel struggled to free himself but he was no match for the stronger man.
"No, Johnny," he pleaded.
"Yes, Samuel," Johnny said, and he pulled his face downward and kissed him firmly on his mouth.
Samuel felt Johnny's mass and his strength. His stomach twisted into hardest knots. Colors, unbelievably vivid, shot through his brain before bursting into blackness. He fought against Johnny and against his fear, but Johnny persisted. Samuel became embarrassed by the hardness that had grown in his trousers and wanted it to abate but it was his resolve that began to wane.
Johnny rolled them over so that he was now on top. He kissed Samuel again and began to fumble with the buttons at the front of Samuel's trousers. He raised his head and looked into Samuel's face.
Samuel didn't know that men had ever done what he and Johnny were about to do. In his wildest imaginings, he could never have dreamed that he would consent to such a thing, but Johnny persisted, and Samuel now knew that all his dark yearnings over the years had led him to this moment. He reached down and relieved Johnny's fingers of their struggle.
Johnny tugged Samuel's trousers down and off and opened his union suit. He arched over him and pressed his legs open. Samuel felt Johnny's swollen manhood against his hole. Johnny looked steadily into Samuel's eyes and Samuel nodded.
Johnny entered him slowly but steadily. When he began that ageless rhythm Samuel wrapped his arms and legs around him and moved urgently under his insistence.
Johnny's stomach pressed against his own, trapping his erection in moving flesh. He gasped repeatedly, filling his lungs to capacity. He felt the tingling begin deep inside. It grew and swelled. He tried his best to hold it back but it was beyond his ability to control. He grasped at Johnny's shoulders and thrust his pelvis upward, wetting their stomachs with his warm emission. His cry was guttural.
Johnny's labored breath was hot against Samuel's ear. He quickened his pace. It had been a long time since he had done this with another man and he was eager to gratify his urgent need. He repeatedly forced himself into Samuel, each thrust seemingly deeper than the last. He lifted his head, gasped loudly and held his hips hard against Samuel, pulsing his climax to completion. Suddenly spent, he relaxed on top of Samuel.
With a speed and force that surprised them both, Samuel hugged Johnny hard around his neck until he hurt him. He hugged him and held on as if he were afraid that he'd be forever lost if he let go. He held on and buried his face in the crook of Johnny's neck and began to sob. He cried like he hadn't cried since he was a very young child.
Johnny was shocked by Samuel's sudden outburst. "What's the matter, Samuel?" he asked in amazed concern. "I didn't mean ta... I thought ya was . . ."
"No." Samuel shook his head. "It's not that. I'm sorry. Let me up."
Johnny rolled off and Samuel sat up, hugging his knees and shivering as if he were cold.
"It'll be aw' right," Johnny said. He began to lightly caress Samuel's cheek, but Samuel pushed his hand away and turned so Johnny couldn't see his face. He was glad the light was failing.
"I'm sorry," Samuel said softly as he tried to straighten his disheveled clothing. "I didn't mean to cry. I don't know what came over me."
"If it's what we did . . . what I did . . . ," Johnny started but Samuel jerked his head around and stared at him hard.
"It's not that. We did what we wanted to do. It's that I - I cried like that. I don't know what came over me," he repeated.
"If that's all it is, why, I seen lots o' men cry in this here war, big men, en' older 'n you, cryin' like babies after bein' in battle and fightin' like fury. I know of a so'jer who got so broke up they had to send 'im home."
"It isn't that either. I tell ya' I don't know what it is. It's weakness, and I'm sorry it happened."
"Ya' don't haf ta be sorry, Samuel. Yer not weak. Yer young, thass all. Whatever it is that's troublin' ya', ya' don't need ta be sorry. What ya' need is ta sleep. Jist sleep some en' ya'll be surprised at how fit ya' feel after."
Samuel turned away from Johnny's gaze and adjusted his shirtfront. When Johnny placed his fingers under his chin, Samuel allowed him to turn his face back. Johnny touched the wet from Samuel's cheeks. "It'll be aw' right," he repeated. "You'll see."
Johnny sat and watched as Samuel tucked in his shirttail and closed his trousers before he did the same. "They'll be a bit o' moon later," he said. "We can't make no progress 'til it's up an' shinin'. Let's sleep 'til then," and he lay down on the mold.
Samuel lay close by him, but knew that sleep was no closer for him now than the last time Johnny suggested it. He rested his head against Johnny's chest and closed his eyes, but briefly. When he felt Johnny relax in sleep, he cautiously sat up and began his vigil. He looked at Johnny's sleeping form. He had never known a man like him; and while he was uncertain of much, he knew one thing: It felt good to be with him.
As he reflected, he kept a watchful eye on the eastern sky. At last through the branches he could discern a silvery phosphorescence. He watched it grow and in its own time the cusp of a gibbous moon appeared.
"Johnny," he whispered, "wake up."
"Yeah. I'm awake."
"It's time. The moon's up."
Johnny got groggily to his knees and peered through the tangled brush. "Yeah. It's time," he agreed.
Samuel held the brambles aside as Johnny edged his way out of their bower. They hunched their shoulders and crouched along until they left the overhanging branches and could walk upright under the arching sky.
In time they found a rutted lane. When they faced away from the newly risen moon, their pale shadows stretched in front of them. They turned into the lane and walked on their own shadows, heading west, just as Johnny had said.