[Continued from Scorpion's Sting]
This is a fan fiction story based on characters from the Lonesome Dove television show, which belong to Rysher Entertainment and Hallmark. No infringement on copyrights is intended. All other characters and storylines belong to me.
Rated: R (for sexually explicit language)
This installment of Darkly Bound does not contain the kind of violence that was included previously, but the interactions among characters and the emotional content remain very intense.
Please write to me about my stories if you get the urge. I welcome any and all comments from my readers.
Colleen J. MacLennan
Robert woke suddenly, more from the movement inside the cell than the noise outside it as Clay flew off the mattress to stand with his back against the wall. Someone was opening the lock on the cell door and the low voices of two men could be heard through the grated window.
“It ain’t regular, Corporal,” the guard with the key complained. The other keys on the ring clanked against the door’s steel plating as he jiggled it in the stubborn mechanism, partly rusted from the constant dampness in the foul air. “I could get in a lot of trouble for this.”
“I gave you what you wanted, Turner. Now just keep your mouth shut and no one will know.”
The lock finally surrendered and the grumbling guard on duty pushed the door open just enough to let the other man in.
It was Corporal Barkley, Robert realized. He sank back from his half-raised position to sit on the flattened mattress. The corporal was getting to be a regular caller these days. You’d think he was family, Robert thought dryly as he wondered what the real reason was behind these nocturnal visits.
Barkley entered the cell and the guard closed them in together. He carried a lantern, which he stood on the ground to light their surreptitious meeting in an eerie yellow glow. Looking first at Clay, the sight of the feral prisoner seemed to make him nervous, so he shifted his gaze to Robert, who was somewhat more open to the occasion.
“I brought you some whiskey,” he announced as he began to rummage in a haversack at his side. “That’s what you said you wanted.” Although he didn’t specify the intended recipient of the liquor, there was no question whom he meant. He pulled out a flask-shaped bottle and proffered it to Clay, but when Clay said nothing and made no move toward him, he hesitantly set it down on the cell floor. “If there’s anything else you’d like me to bring you....” he started, then trailed to a halt at the look in Clay’s face.
Robert watched Clay keenly for some sign of comprehension, any indication of the thoughts beneath his friend’s wild stance. It was like watching an animal contemplate the bait in a trap, instinct fighting with hunger. After an awkward pause, he sighed and reached for the bottle. “Well, if you don’t want it, Clay, I do,” he said, but before he could get a grip on it, Clay swooped forward and snatched it away, just as Robert expected.
“I told you I don’t want you coming round me anymore,” Clay snapped angrily at the solicitous young man, despite the fact that he clutched the bottle of whiskey closely to his chest.
“I’m sorry,” Barkley stammered anxiously. “I only want to help....” He looked again at a bemused Robert as if for reinforcements in this unexpected battle, but when none were forthcoming, he returned to fussing with the haversack.
Clay hadn’t seen much of Hanley or Guilford while in the dungeon, and nothing of Jensen--so far, that is. But Barkley came now and then to give him some helpful item. He was the guard Robert said had brought the new shirt for him while he lay in that fever. After that, it was drawers and a pair of socks, then two apples and a small sweetcake, and on his last visit, a bottle of Hostetters’ Bitters, a cure-all patent medicine that was mostly alcohol, which Clay drank in a couple of swallows despite its horrid taste.
Undoubtedly, these things all came from Barkley’s own provisions and packages from home.
The corporal was always in a hurry and always sounded worried, but whether that was due to concern for Clay’s condition or for the possibility of getting caught, Clay couldn’t tell and didn’t care. He accepted Barkley’s gifts and used them, but he never showed gratitude. He would rather kill the man if he could find the means, forfeit all his gifts and be hanged for the greater satisfaction vengeance would bring.
“I don’t need your help,” he spat out bitterly. “I don’t need the help of a damned Yankee dog!”
The two men looked at each other as if from opposite sides of a great chasm, Clay’s amber eyes dark with cold hatred, Barkley’s filled with unspoken pleas. Robert was at a loss to make sense of the strange situation, and he thought he should be glad to see some fire in Clay again, but for some reason, it made him uncomfortable. Barkley was too pathetic, too easy to kick as he groveled at Clay’s feet. There was little honor to be had in such a conquest.
Clay had no doubt that the despised Fed took his meaning. Barkley was Jensen’s dog, ready to do his master’s bidding and lick his hand for favors. Clay wanted none of his help when it was too little, too late. “You can take your pity and shove it up your--” He stopped abruptly and gulped, blinking his eyes in odd confusion.
Barkley stared at him as if similarly stunned. “I’m sorry. If I could have stopped him...,” he blurted with an agonized expression. “I wasn’t any part of it. I’m sorry.” At that, the habitually nervous young man took up his lantern and rapped lightly on the door to alert the guard, departing in even more haste than usual.
Clay sank immediately to the floor, sliding his back against the wall, heedless of the body lice and “thousand legs” that crawled its sweaty surface. He fixed a vacant gaze at a point just in front of him and held the bottle loosely as if cradling a lover in his arms. His mind clamped down on the images, the sensations clamoring for his attention.
Yes, he would kill Barkley if he ever got the chance, he would kill all of them, and slowly, too, so they would feel every streak of mind-destroying pain in the process. The Indians could keep a man alive for days while cutting strips of his skin away bit by bit. That’s what he would do--skin them all alive, saving Jensen for last. But he had “something special planned” for that son-of-a-bitch, other parts he’d cut off first, just to give him something to think about for awhile.
Clay allowed the comfortingly gory reverie to draw him away from the memories that threatened his sanity.
Robert watched him with narrowed eyes as they adjusted once more to the moonlit dimness. Clay had become unbearably moody, sometimes lost in a fog, other times cruelly irritable or just downright crazy. He’s getting that far gone look again, Robert thought grimly. No, not this time. This time he wanted some answers. If he had to put up with Clay’s disturbing behaviors, he wanted to know why.
“What did he mean, Clay?” he asked firmly, turning toward the shadowed figure a few feet away. “What wasn’t Barkley a part of?”
Clay looked at him slowly and remained silent.
“He was there, wasn’t he?” Robert pressed further with more insistence.“What couldn’t he stop? Just what the hell did Jensen do to you, anyway?”
Clay uncorked the bottle and took a long drink of the whiskey, still ignoring him.
“Goddamnit, Clay, I want an answer!” he demanded in annoyance, impatient with his friend’s silence, and hurt by the lack of trust it implied. “You owe me that much at least, after all we’ve been through together.”
The ferocity that erupted from Clay slammed Robert in the belly and took the air out of him.
“I don’t owe you anything, Robert, least of all that!” he lashed out as if berating an impudent servant. “How dare you presume on our friendship like that? If anything, you owe me after all these years. I made you respectable, I gave you your standing in society and everything you have. Hell, I’ve even covered your gambling debts. You could never repay me for all I’ve done for you, and you know it!” He breathed hard and took another swig off the bottle.
Shocked and disoriented, Robert grasped blindly for understanding. Clay had never said such things to him before, never mentioned the inequity in their social positions or the ways in which the friendship benefitted him, never made him feel indebted and inferior as he did just now. Robert felt suddenly ashamed of himself, and wished he could be far away from this man whom he had thought, perhaps mistakenly, was like a brother to him.
He moved back to lean on the wall and drew his knees up in front of him as if to protect himself from further attack. Putting his arms around them, he stared down without focus at his worn-out boots. He could hardly think, the pain in his heart was so consuming. He loved Clay, would do anything for him, even follow him to hell if that’s what Clay wanted, and it seemed he had because surely this was hell.
It was true he had not been born to the best of families. Orphaned early in his life, he was left in the grudging care of his drunken half-brother Thomas, and God or Lady Luck had not smiled on him until that day in school when he and Clay fought and they became fast friends out of it. But now it seemed that even his best friend thought he was less than a gentleman, a man with only borrowed worth and threadbare honor. No matter what he did to prove himself, he would never rise to the level of Clay’s standing in society, a position that was Clay’s by birth. No amount of loyalty or devotion could sever his connection to a family fallen from grace. He knew that now. Clay had made that very clear.
For the millionth time, Clay wished he were dead. He hated himself for what Jensen had done to him, and now he hated himself for what he was doing to Robert. He hadn’t meant what he said, not really, but some words once spoken could never be erased. This wound would be a long time healing, if it ever did, and truth be told, he needed Robert now more than Robert had ever needed him.
He didn’t want to need Robert, and he especially didn’t want his need for him to be a factor in their friendship. Was he just using Robert to shore up his own inadequacies as a man? Had he always done that--depended on Robert’s unquestioning affection to make him feel strong and important? He had as much as accused Robert of that very thing with him.
Oh, God, how had it all become so complicated?
For a long while, they both sat silent and unmoving. For so many years, they had been nearly inseparable, had counted on each other for everything from simple advice to matters of life and death. To have that bond cut and bleeding out its affection so suddenly left them both in misery.
When he couldn’t bear it any longer, Clay sighed and crept to where Robert huddled like a stony statue. He pushed the whiskey bottle gently into Robert’s hands. “Here, have some,” he urged. “I think we could both use a drink about now.”
Robert hesitated a moment, but then took the peace offering and drank deeply from it. The whiskey was cheap and burned his throat as it went down, but the alcohol would have the same effect regardless, and he wouldn’t mind getting drunk right now.
“I’m sorry for what I said, Robert,” he apologized. “I didn’t mean it. You’re the best friend I ever had.” He stopped and took a deep breath. “You want to know what happened, and you have a right to ask. I’ve always confided in you before.”
Robert filled his mouth again with the bitter liquor and handed the half-empty bottle back to Clay. He wasn’t sure where Clay was going with all this, and now that the moment of truth might be at hand, he wasn’t sure he did want to hear it. Despite all his protestations to the contrary, he wanted to believe that his friend, his commander in battle, his mentor and idol, was invincible, and as long as Clay kept his silence on the matter, Robert could almost ignore the evidence otherwise.
Clay inhaled slowly and then released the air in a determined rush. He fortified himself with more of the whiskey and continued. “Yes, Barkley was there. So was Guilford and ... and Hanley. All of his dogs,” he said, referring obliquely to their master, Jensen. “They broke me. You don’t want to know how, believe me. All I can tell you is they broke me. Please don’t ask me for any more than that.”
Robert sighed deeply, feeling a mixture of weariness and relief. “If that’s the way you want it, Clay...,” he said. Still, though, the agonizing sense of a sudden amputation remained.
“That’s the way it has to be. I don’t mean to shut you out, Robert, but I can’t...I just can’t....” He looked away and leaned forward over his knees, rubbing his hands up and down his shins as he flailed for words to explain his reserve, but even they refused to be spoken. “I’m sorry,” was all he finally managed to say, hoping that would be enough.
Robert nodded and brushed futilely at the bedbugs gathered on the straw-filled mattress. “I’m too tired to talk more tonight anyway,” he said. He stretched out and pulled the blanket over him, although he doubted he would get much rest this night. “You should try to get some sleep, too. Morning will be here soon.”
“Yes. Maybe the whiskey will help both of us sleep,” Clay agreed. He took his usual place on the edge of the pallet, accepting his share of the blanket. “It was pretty damn bad, wasn’t it?” he joked, trying to lighten the mood he had created.
Robert laughed half-heartedly, going along. “Yeah, it was. But what can you expect from a Yankee? That’s why they invaded the South, you know--it was the only place where they could get a decent glass of whiskey and a smoke.”
Clay laughed a little, too, feeling relieved. They would be all right. Robert would forgive him and everything would be all right again. He wouldn’t be alone.
When morning came, though, Clay could see that the wall he had so carelessly built still stood between them. Robert was withdrawn and unusually quiet, keeping to his corner of the cell where he sat deep in his own thoughts, inattentive to Clay’s presence. Clay felt desperate to make things right again, but he was loathe to reopen the hurt he had caused.
The guard came with their meager breakfast of a slice of stale Baker’s bread, a few ounces of slimy pickled pork, and thin bean soup in a tin cup--the same nauseating meal they would have again for supper. Clay stood defensively against the wall as he always did when a guard opened the cell door. After the indifferent Yankee had gone, he dropped to sit cross-legged on the floor, and Robert broke the silence.
“I want to know something, Clay,” he began in uncharacteristic solemnity. “I want to know where I stand with you. Are you keeping score between us? Do you have a ledger in your head of what I owe you?” He looked very pointedly at Clay, feeling an unfamiliar, unwanted distance there. “Because if that’s the way it’s gonna be, there are some things I’ve done for you we can tally up against my debt.”
He stopped short of saying what those things were, but he was thinking about them. He’d been thinking about them ever since he had lain down to sleep, and again upon waking as he struggled to find his balance in their abruptly redefined relationship. The memories of all he had done for Clay while he lay near death in that fever were vivid pictures in his mind--all things that Clay wouldn’t want to know about and Robert never intended to mention because he did them out of love.
Clay shifted in acute discomfort, the food left untouched beside him. “No, of course not. What I said last night...well, I was just feeling trapped is all. I didn’t mean any of it.”
“Didn’t you?” Robert asked skeptically. “You know how people come out with the truth sometimes when they’re angry. Maybe you were telling me what you really thought of me all this time, but were just too polite to say. You said yourself, I’m not the gentleman you are.”
“You are more of a gentleman than I am, Robert. I was being harsh and ungrateful, and I’m sorry, I truly am. I know I owe you much more at this point.”
“That doesn’t matter to me, Clay, don’t you understand that?” Robert said, his own irritation flaring. “Maybe I brought this on myself by using that word, but I was talking about trust last night, not gratitude or money. I don’t think about what we do for each other in those terms, but if that’s how you see it--”
“No, it isn’t,” Clay interrupted emphatically. “I see you as a brother, as part of my family. You are closer to me than anyone, even Mary. I don’t want my stupid, thoughtless words to come between us now. Please, forgive me. We won’t ever talk about owing anything again.”
Robert didn’t respond immediately. He had never questioned Clay’s love for him before, but now he couldn’t be sure.
He wanted everything to be the way it was, before last night, before Clay’s change, before any of this, when they were still proud young men with the expectation of happy lives ahead of them. He could still see them sitting to supper with Clay’s parents, discussing their plans for university studies at VMI. He remembered Clay’s wedding and how nervous he knew Clay was beneath his bravado at the thought of becoming a married man with family responsibilities of his own. He himself planned to pursue adventure in whatever forms he found it, content to remain Clay’s “right-hand man” whenever his friend called on him. But they had both been called on to go to war instead, and imprisonment had been their reward. They had lost almost everything, and now it seemed that even their bond of friendship would be a casualty of inhuman circumstance.
Well, that was one death he wasn’t prepared to mourn just yet.
“You’re right. It’s not worth talking about,” he conceded finally, wishing he felt as convinced as he sounded. “I guess we’ve just been in this damn cell for too long. Three weeks without fresh air or sunlight is bound to make us crack up a little.”
Clay smiled and nodded, and they both took unenthusiastic bites of their breakfast, silent once more.
Something was still wrong, though, Clay could feel it. Something essential was missing. It was already past ten at least and Robert hadn’t yet begun his “remember when” game. Normally, Clay barely tolerated Robert’s morning ritual of cheerful reminiscences, but at this moment, he positively craved hearing him launch into yet another happy memory meant to distract and entertain.
He would start it himself today, and perhaps Robert would join in.
“Robert,” he began tentatively. “Remember when we went on that hunt at Cranston Hall when we were, what, fifteen or so? And you were smitten with Holcombe’s youngest daughter, Sarah. Remember?”
Robert smiled wanly. “Yeah, I remember.”
Encouraged, Clay hastened to continue. “You were trying to impress her and you told her you would bring her back the biggest pheasant in the fields so she could use the feathers in her next bonnet.”
“She was decidedly unimpressed, as I recall. She was too preoccupied swooning over you.” For the first time, Robert could understand Clay’s distaste for this game.
Clay frowned imperceptibly. That wasn’t the way he planned the story to go. He thought quickly--he had meant to emphasize Robert’s youthful prowess with a gun, but humor might do just as well. “She told you pheasant feathers weren’t the fashion anymore, but if you would bring her back an ostrich, she’d be most obliged.”
Robert’s smile this time was more genuine. “She was an impertinent snip of a girl, wasn’t she? I think that’s why I liked her. That and her well-built breastworks!”
Clay’s smile widened, too, as if he were enjoying the image, but his hidden disinterest weighed heavily in his chest, more proof of his emasculation. He struggled to focus on Robert. “You surprised her, though--surprised everyone, I think. You brought back the biggest pheasant, just like you said you would. You were the man of the hour.”
“Yeah, man of the hour by a slim margin of luck. I damn near shot one of their fool peacocks trying to get that bird!”
“Well, at least you would have had some resplendent feathers to give her,” Clay offered, and now they both began laughing, but more from the dissipating tension than the humor in the story.
When they finished, Robert looked at Clay’s hopeful face and could see what he wanted, what would make everything right again. Complying with the implicit request, he took up the reminiscence. “Ah, well, I could have given her enough feathers to stuff a mattress and she wouldn’t have looked twice at me as long as you were there. Remember how she brought you that cup of buttermilk afterwards--wouldn’t even let the servant carry it. She never looked to see if I got any,” he noted with a mock pout.
Clay smiled a little at the memory. “You’re exaggerating now.”
“No, I’m not. Don’t you remember? It was all, ‘Oh, Clay, is it cold enough to suit you? I’ll have Katie bring some ice if you’d like. Don’t you hesitate to say if there’s anything I can do to make you more comfortable,’” Robert minced in imitation of the young lady.
“I wouldn’t mind if she’d come calling right now with some of that buttermilk,” Clay said, almost tasting the creamy, slightly sour liquid. “That’d sure make me more comfortable here.”
“You should have seen her face at your wedding--looked like she’d been sucking lemons all day. You broke her heart when you married Mary.”
“I thought you told me she danced with you at the reception.”
“She did--four times. She figured if she couldn’t marry you, she’d take up with me and stay close to you that way.”
“I didn’t know....”
“No matter. I got two kisses and a nice long squeeze from her on the back porch before her aunt found us, and you know what? She overpriced herself. Her wit wasn’t the only dry thing about her.” At that, they laughed again and it was almost like old times between them. Robert felt the churning in his stomach ease. “Oh, but you could only see Mary from the time you followed her into church that Sunday like a lost puppy. I had to come in, too, just to see what you were going to do,” he teased. “I can still remember how serious you tried to look singing from that hymnal....”
“All right, so it was upside down. I knew the songs by heart anyway.”
“Naturally, being the regular churchgoer you were,” Robert teased some more, until he noticed Clay had grown pensive again.
“It’s been so long since I’ve gotten a letter from her,” he said wistfully. “If I could just hear something from her, know that she’s all right and waiting for me....” Would that really help, though? Would that make him want to live when every day he lived as less than a man brought that much more shame down on him and his family?
“There’ll probably be a basketful of letters waiting for you when they let us out of here.”
“Do you think they’re safe, Robert?” he asked for the hundredth time, as if his friend had an answer for him, and indeed, Robert usually tried to find one.
“Of course they are. Your father can handle things down there, and if the fighting gets too close, he’ll take the family into Richmond. Your Aunt Annie still lives there, doesn’t she?”
“Yes, last I heard, she did. Cousin Olivia, too, ever since her husband was killed at Chancellorsville.”
“Well, that’s what your family would do then, go into the city and stay with your mother’s people. Lee won’t ever give Richmond to the Yankees, and it’s heavily fortified besides. You have nothing to worry about,” Robert reasoned persuasively.
“But what if they don’t make it there? It’s over twenty miles from Hatton Willows to the city and Grant’s men are crawling all over that area. What if they get caught between the armies on the way? We tried to make it just a few miles to home and look what happened to us,” Clay insisted morbidly.
Robert battled valiantly for the flag of hope, even though he feared it was another lost cause. “Our soldiers are all around there, too, don’t forget. Your father will have connections to the ones who can help clear the way,” he concluded gently.
Robert could see that the game was over for today, though. It was difficult to come up with an ending for it anymore that didn’t result in thoughts of disaster. Clay was very good at finding the cloud around every silver lining.
He breathed out in resignation and stood to stretch and exercise his wasting muscles. He was determined to keep up his strength for when they were released, not just from this cell, but from the prison camp itself. He refused to believe the grape among the men that they might be imprisoned permanently, or executed as traitors. Even the North couldn’t be that bloodthirsty. Surely four years of death had to be enough to satiate anyone’s appetite for killing. No, when this war was over, they’d be freed and he intended to be ready for the sojourn home.
As soon as Clay seemed recovered from his illness, he had urged him to join in these calisthenics, too, but Clay had obstinately refused despite his growing weakness, so Robert had finally given up trying.
He looked over at his companion as he jumped up and down and ran in place. Clay had retrieved the whiskey bottle from where they had stashed it under the mattress and was steadily consuming the remains of the liquor, only this time he hadn’t offered to share it. Robert could see he was in a world unto himself, aware only of whatever it was he saw in his mind’s eye. Well, at least he’s not scraping himself bloody with sharp stones anymore. He’ll feel better when we’re out of this hell hole for good, Robert mused, trying to reassure himself.
Clay poured the last of the whiskey into his mouth, savoring its sharp taste, and then contemplated the empty brown bottle intently. Glass. It would cut very nicely if he could find a way to break it without Robert knowing. Could he cut himself deeply enough to die? He’d have to slice an artery for that, and he’d have to do it quickly, before he lost his nerve.
He wondered what it would be like to die. Would it be a gentle drift into blackness as his blood drained out of him, like going to sleep, or would he find himself clinging desperately to life, as he had back at that trough?
People talked so indirectly about death. They called it “crossing the river” or “passing on.” Even soldiers inured to it had their euphemisms, saying a man “went up” or “mustered out.” No one liked to say “dead,” as if it were a profanity. But what about when life was the profanity, an affront to honor? Wouldn’t suicide be a sacred act in that case?
His thoughts were interrupted by a noise at the door.
“You rebs got that slop bucket full yet?” the guard called to them with a derisive laugh as he stuck the key in the cell door.
Clay jumped up and stood against the wall, slipping the bottle under his coat. The guard would take it away from him if he saw it, and it was too precious to lose.
Robert noted Clay’s concealment of the bottle with suspicion, but the look of vigilant fear on his face took precedence at the moment. “It’s all right, Clay, they’re just gonna empty the bucket,” he whispered to reassure him, placing himself like a shield in front.
Clay didn’t answer. He was too busy staring at the door. He had to watch, to be ready, just in case.
The door opened, and immune to the smell by now, Robert hefted the bucket, full to halfway with three days’ worth of waste, to hand to the prisoner on slop duty, but none was there to take it.
“It’s your lucky day, boys,” the guard smirked. “You can take it to the sink yourselves today.”
Robert hesitated in confusion. Were they finally being released from the dungeon?
“Well, what’re you two shits waiting for, an engraved invitation?” the guard demanded in annoyance. “I said you’re getting a piss break, so get your asses out of there already or I’ll shut you back in.”
He hadn’t said anything of the kind, Robert thought, but it wouldn’t be wise to discuss the finer points of discourse in this instance. They were going to get a breath of real air for the first time in weeks. “Come on, Clay,” he urged, reaching toward his friend to prompt some forward movement.
It worked. Clay blinked and seemed to come back to himself as he evaded Robert’s hand.
They filed out into the corridor, Robert first, carrying the bucket carefully, then Clay following closely after. He didn’t want to lose sight of Robert. If he could see him, he knew it would be all right, he’d be safe. They wouldn’t do anything with Robert to witness it.
“Taking out the trash again, Sutton?” someone asked from behind, someone with authority in his voice because Sutton, the guard, stopped immediately and turned toward his superior officer.
Clay froze, too, at the sound of that familiar voice, the voice that haunted his nightmares. Without thinking, he put out a hand and gripped Robert’s coat in the back, drawing closer than he could usually stand anymore.
Robert turned to Clay protectively and saw what he feared, what he knew Clay feared more than anything now--Major Jensen, who sauntered toward them with a strangely pleased smile, like a cat playing with its supper.
Clay let go of Robert’s coat and crossed his arms nervously over his chest, pressing against the wall as if to disappear into the stones and crumbling mortar.
He won’t look up, Robert noted. He used to get after Clay about his defiant glares at the guards, tried to make him see the wisdom of laying low to avoid another pointless beating, but now the only guard Clay defied was Barkley, and he hardly counted. It was painful to see, in sharp contrast, how cowed he was by Jensen.
“Go on,” Jensen ordered the deferent young guard as he nodded toward Robert, “take that one out, but you can leave this one with me.” He gazed at Clay with that same satisfied smile. “I’ll see he gets his ... piss break.”
Clay winced as if he’d been struck by a whip. He could feel it, he could smell it as it ran hotly over his bare back and into his face.... No, no! He had to control this, he couldn’t let this happen now, he couldn’t let himself remember ... not now ... please, God, not now!
“Yes, sir,” Sutton answered respectfully and began to pull Robert away.
Robert could feel the panic coming off Clay, coming off himself, heating the air around them. He could do nothing, though, but follow the guard and dread what Jensen was up to this time. “I’m coming back, Clay....” he called, hoping it was true, wondering what he’d find if it was.
“Didn’t I tell you to get him out of here, soldier?” Jensen snapped at the subordinate guard, who quickly complied by pushing Robert ahead and hitting him with the butt of his rifle to speed their pace.
After they had gone, Jensen positioned himself between Clay and the exit down the corridor, almost as if to force him back into the cell. Clay drew into himself even more, hunching his shoulders and bowing his head over his tightly folded arms. The bottle at his side was jammed hard against his ribs, but he had forgotten it was even there.
“Have you been a good boy, Mosby?” Jensen asked in transparently sadistic pleasure.
Infuriated, Clay breathed hard and tried to look up, to look into the cold, soulless eyes of his nemesis, but he could barely hold the glare for a second before terror swept him off balance again.
He wanted so much to feel only contempt for his tormentor, and to show it without regard for the consequences as he used to do. Instead, all he could feel were Jensen’s hands on him and worse. He wished he could shut out those damnable sensations, make himself numb as ice. Sometimes he could, but not this time, not with the bluebelly demon himself standing right there. God must surely hate him to have delivered him to this hell.
“You must have enjoyed that whiskey Barkley brought you last night,” Jensen remarked casually. “I can still smell it on your breath.” He smiled, obviously pleased with the effect he was having when Clay looked up at him suddenly in surprise and dismay. “Oh, I know about Barkley’s little missions of mercy. Nothing goes on around here that I don’t know about. I’m everywhere you look, Mosby. You can never get away from me.”
Clay looked down again and his skin crawled as if covered entirely with the ubiquitous body lice.
“I guess you’ve been thinking about me here in your cozy little cell,” the major continued in a conversational tone. “Maybe you’ve been wondering if I’d come back to see you. Were you getting lonely for me, Mosby?”
Clay squirmed in explosive agitation. “You got what you wanted,” he said hoarsely, nearly whispering. “I’m not making trouble for you anymore. Why don’t you leave me be now?” He hated the plaintive sound to his voice and the cowardice behind it, but he’d beg, he’d even crawl if that’s what it took to get Jensen away from him.
“Oh, I can’t do that, Mosby,” Jensen said smoothly. “You see, I like you too much to leave you be. Didn’t I put your friend Shelby in here with you? You ought to thank me. I heard he did some mighty fine nursing while you were helpless as a babe--even wiped your ass for you.”
Oh, God, had Robert done that? Clay leaned more heavily against the wall for support, dizzy with shame. What if he had seen the blood, and the damage done? What would he think? No, that didn’t happen. Robert would never touch him like that, not for any reason. Jensen was a damned liar!
Jensen leaned closer as if to share a secret with a confidant, so close, Clay could feel the warmth of the major’s breath on his averted face. “No, Mosby, I can’t leave you be,” he whispered. “You’re my pet prisoner, don’t you know. I’ll never forget our special time together. I told you how much I liked--”
He stopped as Clay flinched and braced himself tensely, waiting to hear that word spoken out loud again, that one crude, abrasive word. Jensen’s gloating comment echoed in his head at least once every hour of his life now.
Major Jensen wasn’t planning to reveal his secrets to unexpected company, however. The corridor was empty of other guards at the moment, but discretion was apparently the better part of torture in this case. “Well, I guess you’ll never forget it, either, will you?” he finished in an intimate tone, pulling back a little.
Clay wished he hadn’t drunk the rest of that cheap whiskey now as it came up in his throat.
“Maybe I should have your friend Shelby sent back to the barracks. Then you and I can have a nice, private visit some night. I could do some things with that pretty mouth of yours, too, now that it’s not so full of sass all the time.”
His fury roared from within its cage. “You ever try that, I swear I’ll kill you,” Clay muttered venomously, still staring at a distant point on the floor.
Jensen frowned. “Did you say something, boy?” he asked in sharp warning.
Immediately, terror suffocated him, choking off a reply.
The major laughed harshly. “I didn’t think so. You wouldn’t be that stupid now, would you?” He grabbed hold of Clay’s upper arm roughly and shoved him to start walking down the hall. “Better get to the sinks now, boy. I wouldn’t want you to wet yourself again.”
The noxious touch nearly made him throw up, but Clay was relieved to be moving toward the dungeon’s exit at last, toward other people where there was some safety in numbers. He didn’t even care about Jensen’s last sarcastic comment. He was getting away from him and that was all that mattered. He was getting far away from him....
He burst out of the heavily-secured building like a missile fired from a cannon, alarming the sentinel on duty, who stopped him on the point of his bayonet. Clay felt it prick him through his shirt just over his heart and was tempted to rush forward--just one hard push and this would all be over.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” the guard demanded, forcing him back toward the door.
Clay squinted against the late afternoon sunlight that stabbed at his unaccustomed eyes, shading them with one hand. He wrestled with the panic still clinging to him as he heard himself tell the impatient guard that he was supposed to go to the sinks. The sentinel grumbled skeptically, but finally motioned with annoyance to another guard to take him there.
Looking about for Robert, he stumbled on weak legs ahead of his escort to the sinks built over the open sewer, another bayonet at his back. His sudden reappearance in the prison yard created electric interest among some of the men who had previously looked to him for leadership, but he hardly noticed their stares. He needed to see Robert--only then would he know for sure he’d be all right.
He met up with his friend on the worn pathway, just returning with Private Sutton still watching over him. They looked at each other with obvious relief, each for his own reasons, but neither spoke their thoughts with the guards there.
“Good,” the guard with Clay said to his fellow soldier. “You can take this one, too. I was due to go off duty ten minutes ago.” He dropped his charge and left before Sutton could speak the protest both Clay and Robert could see in his face.
It was of no consequence now to Clay which guard escorted them, as long as it wasn’t one of the four from that day earlier in the month--was it only weeks ago? It felt like an eon.
The three of them proceeded on to the sinks and Clay stepped into one of the roofless sheds that surrounded them--roofless so the sentries on the catwalk above could monitor the prisoners inside. The thin privacy and befouled wooden seat made it hard for him to accomplish his purpose there.
Helplessly, his mind went back to Jensen’s words as his contribution to the fetid sewage below stirred the stench, making him hold his breath. What had Robert done for him while he was out of his head with that fever? He had only vague snatches of memory to inform him--delirious visions of Robert holding him close, washing his face when he vomited up the little water he could swallow, talking to him like a child. But what else had Robert done once the nothingness had returned for him?
Setting his mouth in a firm line, he pushed the thoughts away. He didn’t want to know what Robert had done for him, he never wanted to know. And Jensen was a damned liar besides.
He finished quickly and refastened his pants, securing the bottle more carefully now beneath his shirt. He hated being exposed, hated touching himself, hated that his body even made him do such things as this. He didn’t care about his body anymore, and he did only what he had to for it. It had betrayed him with its weakness. He owed it nothing now.
A loud cracking sound startled him as he emerged from the shed, and he jerked around to look in the direction of its source, expecting to see that a man had been shot.
“It’s just the men playing ball, Clay,” Robert explained to calm him. “See, over in the square.”
Clay followed Robert’s gaze to the bull-pen, where a number of raggedly dressed prisoners were playing base ball with equipment donated by a church relief organization. He nodded and worked to slow his breathing, annoyed that he seemed as touchy as a scared rabbit anymore. Every little noise made him jump as if it were the boom of a howitzer next to his ear.
“C’mon, you two. I didn’t bring you out here to watch a game,” Sutton complained, although he, too, seemed absorbed by the action in the pen. In that, he was no different than most of the guards in the area, several of whom held their rifles loosely as they made bets on the outcome.
Robert and Clay were in no hurry to return to the dungeon, but Sutton reluctantly remembered his duty and ordered them to get moving. Before long, though, Robert could see Clay faltering at the unfamiliar exertion, and he dropped back to strike up a conversation with their guard, surreptitiously reducing their pace because the more Sutton talked, the slower he walked.
“What’s the news about the war, Sutton?” he asked, sounding as if they were old friends meeting by chance on the street. “How’s it going down there? We’ve been in the lock-up--haven’t heard a thing in three weeks.” The answer was a foregone conclusion, but Yankees liked to brag about their ill-gotten victories.
“Well, it’ll all be over real soon, I expect,” the young private said. “You rebs are just about played out.”
“Yeah? Is that what the papers say?” Robert prompted, trying to convey fascination.
“Yup, that’s the word. Could be any day now, I’d say, if General Grant keeps a-going the way he’s been.” Sutton nodded his head solemnly.
“Oh? How’s that?” Robert asked. An ominous sense of foreboding slid into his gut and coiled there like a snake ready to strike.
“He just about got Petersburg now, and then he’ll be a-heading for Richmond, and he’ll get it, too, if he’s a mind to--ain’t nothing gonna stop ol’ Grant, I can tell you,” the guard bragged, warming to his subject with vicarious pride. “Yup, your boy Lee won’t be able to keep him out this time. I figure by next week we’ll be a-knocking on your doors for Sunday dinner, and that’ll be all she wrote.”
Clay looked back sharply at the mention of Richmond. “You’re awfully sure of yourself, for someone who left the fighting to others,” he said with quiet intensity.
“I ain’t no shirker--I done my duty to my country,” Sutton protested defensively. “A damn sight better than you rebs, I’d say.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Clay demanded.
They were almost to the dungeon again and Robert wished now he hadn’t started this whole thing. Clay’s timing left much to be desired. “Now, Clay,” he said soothingly, “I’m sure the good private here didn’t mean anything by it--”
“The hell I didn’t!” Sutton insisted with an overabundance of indignation. “Gone and got yourselves captured, now, didn’t you? Not doing your ‘cause’ much good lounging around a prison for months, are you?”
“Lounging!” Clay was incensed and didn’t notice Robert’s warning glance until it was too late.
“You having some trouble with these prisoners, Sutton?” Lieutenant Hanley asked as he approached them, looking pointedly at Clay.
Clay’s anger evaporated at once and he dropped his gaze in fear and humiliation. One word from Hanley would be all the excuse Jensen needed, if he even needed an excuse.
“No, sir, lieutenant,” Sutton responded quickly. “I got ’em under control. There ain’t no problem here.”
Robert knew that Sutton was only protecting himself with his confident denial, but he was grateful for it nevertheless.
“That’s good, soldier,” Hanley nodded, but disappointment showed on his face. He turned to address Clay and Robert. “Are you boys ready to behave yourselves now?”
Robert was confused by the question. Would the right answer be some key to release from the dungeon? He looked over to Clay for help, but Clay just squirmed restlessly as he stared at the ground. Of course, Robert thought. Hanley had been there.
“What do you say, Mosby?” the lieutenant pressed with sarcasm. “Are you gonna be a good boy from now on?”
Clay’s breathing became strangled as he felt Hanley’s leer strip him of all defenses. It was happening all over again--he could feel the rope choking him, the fist pulling his hair, the cold air on his naked body as Hanley laughed....
He swallowed past the tightness in his throat. “I won’t make any more trouble for you,” he said quietly.
Robert was shocked, despite the situation. He had never heard Clay use that submissive tone before with anyone, not even his father, and Langdon Mosby could be quite intimidating at times.
“Go on then,” Hanley said with the faintest disgust in his voice. “Major Jensen says you can go back to the barracks now.” To a bewildered Sutton, he added, “Return to your post, private. Oh, and take that bucket with you.” He tipped his head toward the empty slop bucket in Robert’s hand.
“Yes, sir.” Obviously irritated, Sutton reached for the less than savory item, which Robert was happy to relinquish.
“I’ll be watching you, Mosby,” Hanley warned, giving Clay one more sweeping look before turning to walk toward the garrison.
Despite the troublesome war news, despite the confrontation with Hanley, Robert felt giddy at his sudden freedom, relative as it was, and he laughed out loud. “Thank God, Clay! We’re finally out of that damn cell!” He sobered quickly, though, when he looked at his friend, who was silently watching Hanley disappear into the garrison house.
He thought about the lieutenant’s demeaning question and how Clay answered in that obedient, whipped schoolboy manner. Was that part of it, then--what they did to him? Did they make him say he would be a “good boy” and behave himself? The Clay he knew would never say those words, but the Clay he knew didn’t seem to exist anymore. What could they have done that was powerful enough to destroy Clay’s enormous pride?
Clay was right--he didn’t want to know.
“Did you hear what Sutton said? Richmond’s going to fall,” Clay said as soon as Hanley could no longer be seen.
“Now, you don’t know that for sure. That’s just Yankee talk--”
“Oh, stop it, Robert! I’m not stupid. We’re outnumbered down there ten to one. Richmond will fall and that’ll be the end of it--the end of us, all of us ... the South ... our homes ... Mary....” He clenched his fists and frowned worriedly. “What if they hurt Mary?”
Robert felt the fear, too, but it wouldn’t do any good for both of them to panic. “Mary and your parents will be all right, Clay,” he said firmly. “If Richmond falls, the war will be over. There won’t be any more reason for them to hurt our people. Lee will be there; he won’t let anything happen to the civilians in the city, or around it either. You’ve got to believe that.”
“The damn Yankees don’t want peace or they would’ve let us alone a long time ago. They’re a vengeful race of bastards, Robert. They don’t care about our women. You’ve heard how they talk about them, like they were all whores!” Clay stopped in his tirade to catch his breath.
Robert racked his brain trying to think of a way to calm him, even though he knew there was truth in Clay’s anxious words. “What can we do about it from here, Clay? All we can do is hold onto our faith that they’ll be all right, that Providence will watch over them.”
“Providence!” Clay snorted derisively. “You want me to trust to a God who’d let thousands of our men be slaughtered at the hands of an inferior enemy? Trust to a God who’d let innocent women and children be left without a way to survive? What kind of God would let so much suffering loose on the world? What God is watching over us in this hell hole of a prison?”
“So what do you want to do?” Robert asked in exasperation, giving up the struggle.
Clay suddenly became confused, rubbing a hand over his mouth and looking around distractedly. “I don’t know. I ... I can’t think.” He could never seem to think clearly anymore. His train of thought derailed at every critical juncture, preventing the formation of any decisions. He was losing his mind, he could feel it slipping away bit by bit every day.
What should he do? What were they even talking about? He gazed imploringly into Robert’s eyes, seeking direction.
“There’s nothing we can do now but wait, Clay. Let’s go back to the barrack. It’ll be suppertime soon. We don’t want to miss that,” he urged gently. He waited until Clay nodded and then led the way, hiding his own concerns for the outcome of this war in the South. Just what would they find when they returned? He couldn’t think about it now, either, though. He had to be cheerful for Clay’s sake, and Clay was enough to worry about for the moment.
He continued the light-hearted banter to fill Clay’s melancholy void. “I wonder if we can get our old bunk back. I sure don’t want to have to sleep on the top again. Do you suppose Carter still has that poker game going? I’d like a chance to win my money back from the old skinflint. And I sure hope Johnson has finally learned how to play that damn fiddle of his. I swear, his practicing could make an entire regiment turn tail and run for their lives!”
Clay only half-listened to Robert’s stream of chatter as they walked along slowly, returning the way they had come. If he didn’t think about Mary and his family, what else was there? Jensen and Hanley? The encounters with them lingered in his thoughts. They had talked about him, that was clear. Jensen must have decided he was sufficiently pliable to let him rejoin the other prisoners. What did they say about him? Did they gloat over his fear and shame, congratulate each other on a job well done?
And now he was returning to the barrack. Why didn’t that bring him the relief he expected from it? Instead, he found he longed for the cell and its dark, close-walled solitude. Too many men out here, too much open space. He couldn’t possibly watch for danger coming from so many different directions, and the questions--the men he knew would ask questions he could hardly bear to hear, no less answer. Would they know just from looking at him? He felt the mark of Jensen’s touch like the brand given to cowards in the ranks, making his dishonor visible to all.
As he and Robert walked past the base ball game again, someone hit the ball out to the stockade wall, where it thudded against the tall wooden planking and dropped to the ground beyond the dead-line. Both teams of men came to a halt and stood unmoving, staring in its direction, and the guards started laughing.
“Go on, Johnny. Go get your ball,” a sentry on the catwalk called out, aiming his rifle as if to shoot any man who tried. “Let’s see how fast you can run!”
“Yeah, let’s see if you’re as fast as you were skedaddling from our guns at Missionary Ridge!” another guard on the ground taunted.
The dejected prisoners began to wander away from the makeshift diamond, suppressing impotent rage as they faced more jeers of “Rebel cowards!” and “Giving up again, boys?”
Clay looked intently at the dead-line. That would work, no problem. All he had to do was rush the dead-line and the guards would put two, three bullets in his head, easy.
“Damn Yankees!” Robert muttered.
Robert. He had almost forgotten about him. If he ran toward the wall, Robert might try to stop him, and he couldn’t risk Robert’s life like that.He’d have to find another way. With a comforting squeeze, he reminded himself of the bottle hidden inside his shirt.
“Robert? If anything happened to me, you’d take care of Mary, wouldn’t you?” he asked, trying to sound merely conversational.
Robert turned to him with a piercing frown, but before he could say anything, their comrades from the barrack converged on them in excitement.
[to be continued, but as yet unfinished]
Colleen J. MacLennan