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DARKLY BOUND: The Gift, Part 1

This is a fan fiction story based on characters from the Lonesome Dove television show, which currently belong to Rysher Entertainment and Hallmark. No infringement on copyrights is intended. All other characters and storylines belong to me.

Rated: NC-17 (m/f consensual)

Background Information:

While held in a Union prison camp in New York, Clay is identified as a troublemaker and is eventually targeted by the commander of the guards, Maj. Jensen, for "special" treatment. In order to break Clay's spirit, as well as for personal satisfaction, Jensen rapes Clay rather brutally with the help of another guard.

Clay goes into a suicidal depression afterward, unable to come to terms with what was done to him and fearful of it happening again, which Jensen has threatened if he causes any further trouble. Robert doesn't know how Clay was tortured; he just knows Clay was broken and is sinking into ever deeper hopelessness. He takes on the role of leader to keep Clay alive and get them both home when the war ends.

"The Gift" takes place in early July 1865, about a month after they have been released from prison. They are walking home to Virginia, foraging food and--given Clay's mentally unstable condition--avoiding towns where they might run into trouble.

In Part 1, Robert and Clay find unexpected sanctuary at a small farm in Pennsylvania during their journey. This installment of Darkly Bound is a bit quiet compared to the prison action, and I am a little self-indulgent in that I'm not torturing Clay every minute, but think of it as the eye of the hurricane in the overall story.

Please write to me about my stories if you get the urge. I welcome any and all comments from my readers.

Colleen J. MacLennan
cjmac444@earthlink.net
3/10/00

"Damn it!" Robert cursed quietly, pulling on the cow's teat harder in frustration. "I know there's milk in there somewhere." He heard no response from behind him. A brief surge of anxiety went through his gut, and he turned to see what Clay was doing, but Clay was merely sitting in his usual blank stare, cushioned by the bed of hay in the stall where Robert was trying to milk this obstinate animal.

Well, at least he isn't getting into any trouble, Robert thought. As a precaution, though, he looked around more carefully to check for any tools or farm implements Clay might find too attractive to resist. Only on the other side of the barn, he noted, and he would hear if Clay went for those. He could never be completely certain anymore, though. He had learned his friend could be very sneaky about his favorite pastime these days.

He turned back to the cow, who had twisted her head to regard him placidly as she chewed. Robert took it as a challenge and grabbed and pulled the teat again, directing it hopefully into the pail underneath. He was rewarded with a single spurt and then nothing. "Damn, I almost had it!" he cursed again, surveying the tablespoon of bluish milk he had earned for his effort. "There must be a trick to this that I don't know." For the comfort of hearing a human voice, he had grown used to talking to himself in Clay's unresponsive presence.

A noise at the partially open door startled him and he quickly crouched beside and a little in front of Clay, who had not moved. Come what may, he was ready to protect both of them as best he could with no weapons besides his fists and a piece of a broken plow blade he had taken from Clay two days before. He looked again at the farm tools and spotted a pitchfork that could be useful if it came to that.

"Who's in there?" a frightened but threatening female voice called out. The door swung out wider to admit the loud buzz of cicadas and the orange light of approaching sunset.

Robert saw the long sleek barrel of a rifle first, then the figure of the woman who held it silhouetted against the evening light. He knew she could see him far more clearly than he could see her, so he stood slowly, arms raised slightly in a gesture of peace. He would have to say something and she would hear his accent, but he could do nothing about that now.

"We mean you no harm, ma'am," he said nervously. "My friend and I, we're just passing through your land here. We were looking for a place to stay for the night is all. We don't want to cause you any trouble, honest." She didn't lower the rifle, so he kept his hands up and tried to think of something else persuasive to say.

She looked at Clay and Robert followed her suspicious gaze. Clay still hadn't moved, hadn't even shown awareness of the change in their situation. He sat as still and lifeless as a gravestone sculpture, dulled eyes open but unseeing. This would not be in their favor, Robert thought with chagrin, but it was a sight better than having him go into one of his wild fits.

"That your friend?" she asked, waving the rifle toward Clay.

"Yes, but he's no harm to anyone, I assure you," Robert answered quickly. Except himself, of course.

"What's wrong with him?" she persisted, still appearing skeptical.

Where to begin? "He's ... he's not himself," Robert said, wondering how to explain Clay's strangeness without really explaining it, but what the hell, he couldn’t even explain it to himself. "He's been having a hard time of late. He's not up to all this traveling, I'm afraid, but he'll be all right with a little rest." He knew he sounded lame, but he hoped she would believe him anyway.

She looked back at Robert. "You're Southern," she said flatly.

He had become accustomed to hearing an accusation in that, but he couldn't tell what this woman was thinking. He expected the worst. "Yes, ma'am," he said, almost in apology. That helped sometimes.

"You coming from that camp upstate?"

Robert sighed in resignation. "Yes, ma'am. We're going home now." He looked again at Clay and for a moment, he wasn't even conscious of the woman or her gun as a deep sadness welled in his chest. Gently, he pushed a stray curl of Clay's dirty hair from his face.

Taking a breath, he looked once more to the woman, who had finally lowered the rifle. "I'm sorry for bothering you, ma'am," he said, truly apologetic this time. "We should be on our way. There's still a little light left and I'm sure we could find another place to bed down."

The woman relaxed her stance and also sighed. "You look hungry," she said, still emotionless. "Come up to the house and I'll give you something to eat." She started to leave without waiting to see if they would follow.

Robert went to the door after her. "Ma'am?" he called to stop her.

She turned back, just a few feet away from him, and seeing her in some light for the first time, he was startled to recognize the familiar look on her face. Dead inside. Almost the same dead expression that Clay wore most of the time.

He quickly gathered his scattered thoughts and went on. "Ma'am, that may not be the best idea, us coming up to the house." He glanced at the small, two-story farmhouse some fifty yards away. Light came through the curtained windows of its ground floor. "We wouldn't want to cause any trouble for you with your husband." He thought with longing of food, any food at this point, but it was best to avoid unnecessary confrontations for which he had neither strength nor stomach.

She took a deep breath and her shoulders slumped almost imperceptibly. "No need to worry," she said. "My husband's dead." Without another word, she turned and walked toward the house.

Robert felt stung for a moment by that dispassionate revelation as he watched her trudge steadily towards the house. The overlong hem of her faded blue skirt swept the dusty, beaten path clean in her wake. He pushed from his mind a dissonant twinge of guilt--he didn't want to think about the goddamned war another minute--and went back into the barn for Clay, who was rousing at last.

"Where are we, Robert?" he asked, as if he had been asleep all this time.

Like everything else, Robert had grown familiar with these questions from him, and he proceeded patiently to catch him up on the past several hours, starting when Clay first slipped into this particular trance. "We're just over the border now, Clay, into Pennsylvania. The weather held, so we made pretty good time today, five, six miles maybe."

He couldn't understand how Clay could keep walking while in one of his "stares," as he had come to call them, but Clay seemed to have some kind of sixth sense guiding him, and he always maintained the slow and steady pace Robert set, although he did have to rest frequently.

"Are we stopping?" he asked, glancing around the barn as if just now seeing where they were. He blinked and seemed suddenly nervous and alert.

"I guess so." Robert noted Clay's agitation but didn’t even try to figure it out. Clay had become an enigma to him, an unsolvable riddle. Instead, he wondered if the woman would let them stay in the barn after all. Giving them a meal, though, surely that was a good sign. "The woman up at the farmhouse here is gonna give us something to eat. You gotta get up now. She's waiting for us."

Food, real food! His mouth watered as he thought of eating something prepared by a woman, something not spoiled or raw. They had all but starved in prison, eagerly consuming rancid pickled pork, maggot-infested mush and ancient hardtack crawling with weevils. Since their release, they had been living off what they could forage from the land. A home-cooked meal would be manna from heaven by now.

Robert watched as Clay grabbed hold of the post beside him for balance and rose to his feet on unsteady legs. It pained him to see, but he knew better than to offer assistance anymore. When Clay was lucid, he couldn't abide being touched, not even by Robert. "Are you all right?" he asked instead.

"Fine," Clay answered briefly as he closed his eyes and clung to the post for a moment. When he opened them again, he looked past Robert and started towards the doorway with single-minded purpose.

Robert sighed and turned to follow, keeping an eye out for him just in case he began to fall. He doesn't look at me, he won't let me touch him, he doesn't talk to me except to bite my head off, he thought with frustration. How can I reach him, what can I say, what magic would be needed to conjure him back to this empty body? No, not empty. A lunatic had taken up residence in it now, put there by Jensen and his men. But where had the old Clay gone? What had they done with him?

Although Clay had long ago warned him off asking about it, he still couldn't help wondering sometimes. Clay had withstood so much to that point with what had seemed supernatural strength. What could Jensen have done, then, to strip him of himself and yet still leave him living?

Even as he tried to imagine the answer, though, his mind shied away from it and anger filled him once again, impotent anger because he could do nothing about it now except get Clay home to Mary and his family. That was the one thing he did have the power to do for him. Get him home to Mary's waiting arms so she could bring him back to life with her love.

After a long day's walk and nothing of substance to eat for the past two days, even the slight incline of the path to the white clapboard house wore them both out. Clay sat down immediately on the lower step before the side door leading to the kitchen. Robert was wondering if he should knock or just wait, but the woman reappeared at that moment and opened the screen door. She had flour on her hands, which she wiped on a stained apron.

She inspected them more closely for a few seconds and then, in the same flat tone as before, she said, "You can come in if you want."

Robert looked up at her with embarrassment. "Thank you, ma'am, but...we're none too clean. Maybe we should just stay out here." He had suddenly realized what a sight the two of them made, with their ragged clothes and dirt-encrusted bare feet. They had gotten so used to filth, they took it for granted anymore. It wouldn't have helped to think about something they couldn't change. They were hardly fit for the barn, though, no less a civilized home with furniture.

She shrugged. "Dirt washes," she said simply and held the door open wider. "You boys come in now."

Robert climbed the three wooden steps into the kitchen, glancing back to see that Clay was following. It was warm from the heat of the cast iron stove, a bit too warm for his comfort on this early July evening, but right now, he’d suffer the fires of hell if it meant getting a decent meal at the end of it. He looked at Clay, who was standing just inside the door as if unsure how to behave. Clay had lost so much weight, he always seemed to have a chill. The warmth would be good for him, Robert thought. Maybe with that and some food, Clay would sleep without nightmares tonight.

"You can sit there," the woman said, pointing to the large, rectangular table off to the left side next to a window. It was made of thick, dark-stained pine and was flanked by two long benches. At the end of it near the stove, she had rolled out some dough on a cutting board and flour dusted that part of the table.

Robert waited for Clay to approach and sit on the closest bench before taking his own seat next to him, turning to face outward so he could watch the woman as she moved between the table and the rest of the kitchen. "You're very kind, ma'am. We haven't eaten much today except for the blackberries we ran across about two miles back and some carrots I...found." He had almost said "stole," but thought better of it. "We're in your debt, to be sure," he said, feeling the depth of his hunger rumble in his belly as he smelled bacon beginning to sizzle in the black frying pan on the stove.

Clay said nothing and Robert could tell he was about to go into a daze again from fatigue and hunger as much as anything else.

She poured two tall glasses of milk that she must have gotten from the cow before Robert's failed attempt and set them on the table in front of them. Going back to the dough, she cut circles out of it with an overturned cup and said, "I don't have much to give you, just some eggs and bacon and these biscuits. I don't do much cooking these days now that--" She stopped abruptly without looking up and her hands froze for the briefest of moments. "I don't get too much company out here," she finished then, returning her attention to the raw biscuits as she laid them on a baking

sheet.

Robert pushed Clay's glass toward him to draw his attention to it. "Here, Clay. Drink some," he urged, again waiting for Clay to go first before drinking half his own glass of the warm milk in nearly one gulp. He'd never much cared for milk in the past, but at this moment, he could swear he never tasted anything so delicious in his life. "Thank you, ma'am. That sure does taste good," he said.

"Yes. Thank you," Clay added quietly, looking up for the first time as though the milk had revived him somewhat.

Robert felt a little better himself, and he contemplated her with clearer vision as he relaxed. She was not a young woman--she looked to be in her mid to late thirties, at least a dozen years older than either of them. But it wasn't time or even farmwork that gave her that dry, worn-down countenance. Grief had done that to her, he knew from experience.

She wore her straight, dark brown hair in a thick braid down her back, but strands around her face had refused restraint and they fringed her sun-tanned face. She looked over at them and smiled the tiniest bit, and Robert was amazed to see how much it softened her.

"So you're Clay," she nodded in Clay's direction. "And what's your name?" she asked him in a gently chiding tone.

"Robert, ma'am," he said, smiling also, but sheepishly. How could he have forgotten such a simple courtesy as introducing himself? He was still a gentleman, wasn't he, even if he didn't look the part at the moment. "Robert Shelby. And this is Clay--"

"Mosby," Clay finished for him. He didn't seem very concerned with propriety, though, as he went back to slowly sipping the milk.

"I'm Gwen Morgan," she said, swiveling around to put the biscuits in the oven and turn the bacon with a long-handled fork. Coming back to the table, she cracked the first of six large eggs in a bowl and asked, "Where are you boys headed?"

"Down Richmond way. We've got...farms there," Robert answered carefully. She had been kind to them so far, but he didn't want to press her forbearance by announcing they came from slaveholding plantations. Well, former slaveholding plantations. She might be one of those abolitionists and they'd find themselves out on their asses again without the meal he could almost taste by now.

"I see," she murmured, focusing intently on beating the eggs with some milk.

"We know parts of it got torn up pretty bad when it fell to Grant's army in April, but we don't really know much of what happened in the countryside around it, where our farms are. We've been mostly staying out of the towns coming down this way. Have you heard any recent news from down there?" he asked with a mixture of hopefulness and apprehension.

"No, I haven't kept up with all that," she said, hesitating just long enough that Robert could tell she was hedging. "I don't go into town very often. Got my hands full here with the farm."

Oh, God. What if...? No! He couldn't think about that. He’d been pushing that thought away for months, ever since the letters from Clay’s family stopped coming. Home--Hatton Willows, that is--had to be there, perhaps the worse for wear, but intact, with the Mosbys perhaps struggling, but alive and making the best of a bad situation. It was impossible to think otherwise. Without home and family, Clay would never be whole again.

He looked over at Clay and for once, was glad he had retreated into a stare. He didn't want him upset about this, too. It might just put him over the mental edge he so precariously teetered on now.

* * * * * * *

Gwen watched them as they ate. Robert went at the food with unbridled passion, as if it were a gourmet meal instead of a simple breakfast for supper. Clay picked at it with near disinterest, taking small bites and long pauses as his food grew cold on the plate.

"Try to eat some more, Clay," Robert urged him anxiously. "You need to get your strength back. We’ve got a lot of walking ahead of us."

Robert wasn't as striking as his friend in appearance, she mused. That one had an air of grace about him, a dark intensity that couldn't be obscured. Even with his beard unkempt, his long, curly hair dirty and matted with leaves, his pallid skin covered with ground-in grime and his body gaunt from starvation, she could see he was a beautiful young man and would be again when he recovered. Robert would always have stood in his shadow around the ladies. Nevertheless, there was something about Robert that drew her attention--a scrappiness she could appreciate more.

Robert was a fighter, a mischief-maker, like her own boy Ethan had been, like she herself had been once upon a time. She could tell from the way he looked at her, from a certain spark in his soft brown eyes. He had his hands full now, though, didn't he? He attended to Clay with more care than a nervous new mother. It had been his touch, in fact, that tender stroking of Clay's face in the barn that let her know she could trust him. He was a racehorse hitched to a wagon, carrying the load for both of them. It weighed heavily on his fun-loving heart, but he had a big heart and would keep pulling even if it was the death of him.

She should hate them, she thought absently. She had tried to hate them in the barn when she discovered they were Southern soldiers. For all she knew, they might have been the rebels who killed her husband, her sweet-natured John, in that horrendous battle at Cold Harbor last year. But she had no hate left in her, no feeling of any kind. The war had taken her husband and fate had taken her two boys, leaving her with nothing but a farm she couldn't manage and a hole in her heart she couldn't fill. There was no point in hatred, any more than there had been in love.

So then, why had she let them into her home? Why was she feeding them? Why was she planning to give them a place to sleep for the night in the boys' old room? She smiled crookedly to herself and blamed it on that wounded, half-grown raven she had found when she was twelve.

She had come upon it at the edge of the woods bordering her family's farm while pretending to be a great woman explorer like Sacajawea accompanying the expedition of Lewis and Clark. It had a wing crippled by bird-shot--the thoughtless act, no doubt, of boys having a good time with a new rifle. It was so hungry, it had no fight left in it as she scooped it into her apron to take home. All it could do was place its beak weakly around one of her fingers as if to say, "I'm scared. Don't hurt me."

Clay reminded her of that raven.

She noticed Robert scratching the back of his head. Lice. Of course, they'd have lice living in a place like that prison, and then outside all the time like animals. "Kerosene and vinegar'll take care of that itch," she told him, getting up to go to the pantry. "I'll mix some for you."

Robert looked up from slathering butter and honey on a third biscuit and appeared embarrassed again. "Oh, no, ma'am. That'd be too much trouble to put you to. You've been kind enough giving us this supper," he protested.

"No trouble. You and your friend there can sponge it into your hair outside while I heat some water for a bath," she answered firmly. "I have a tub in the room off the kitchen. If you don't mind sharing the water, I think it'd do you both some good to get soap clean for a change."

"Oh, Mrs. Morgan, we couldn't ... really that'd be more than we could ask...." he stammered, red-faced.

"You didn't ask. I'm offering. Besides, you don't think I'm going to let you boys sleep the night in my spare room looking like that, do you? I know I said dirt washes, but I'd rather wash it off you than my fresh white sheets." She found it oddly pleasing to surprise him further this way, odd to feel anything at all.

"Sleep the night...?" Robert suddenly sat straighter and frowned. "We may not look it just now, Mrs. Morgan, but we are gentlemen and we cannot accept charity. You must allow us--" He glanced briefly at Clay, who was pushing more than half his meal back and forth across the plate while in a stare once more. "You must allow me to pay you in some way. We don't have any money, but if you have some work you need doing--"

"Fine," she interrupted him, feeling more unexpected amusement at this youthful assertion of his virility. It was so like a man to take offense at the offer of help. "You can muck out the barn and lay some fresh hay in it tomorrow before you head on. That'd be more than enough payment, I can tell you!"

He didn't argue anymore and she was glad she could stop this delicate dance around his manliness. It had been a long time since she'd had to take such care of a man's feelings and she was out of practice, although she had to admit there was some fun in it too. Robert smiled at her then, slowly, widely, for the first time since he'd come in, and as if the expression were contagious, she smiled back at him, as pleased as a girl at her first dance.

* * * * * * *

Clay stood by the steaming tub of water as Mrs. Morgan handed Robert some clean clothes and a set of men's grooming tools at the door to the little washroom. "These are some of my husband's things," she said. "I planned to donate them to the collection at my church, but you might as well get the use of them as anyone else. When you're done, I'll take those old clothes you're wearing and put them on the burn pile. They'd be no good even for cleaning rags, I expect."

Robert felt torn as he gathered her offerings into his arms. Images of Yankee soldiers came charging at him in fury, and he remembered fighting back just as fiercely, giving that bloodcurdling rebel yell to throw them off their courage. Then more images from the prison, Jensen and Hanley and the other guards with hardened hearts and an axe to grind with the men they viewed as traitors.

How could he now accept the personal possessions of an enemy, the help of an enemy's wife, the comfort of his home, as if none of that had happened? What had he fought for in the end, when all was said and done? And what if it had been he who had killed his posthumous host?

He sighed and willed his mind to stop this useless pondering. He and Clay needed help and it had come; who was he to question its form? "I know I keep repeating myself, Mrs. Morgan, but thank you again," he said gratefully. "You don't know what your kindness means to us."

"You just get Clay cleaned up," she said softly so only he would hear. "He's been too long living like an animal. He needs to feel like a man again."

If only she knew the half of it, he thought. He shut the door and turned back to Clay, who still stood by the tub as if mesmerized by the rising cloud of steam. Putting the armload of gifts on a chair, he went to his staring friend.

"C'mon, Clay. You gotta get undressed. I know you won't do it outside, but we're in a house now with real walls. It's safe here. No one'll find us, and you can't get into Mrs. Morgan's tub with all your dirty clothes on. Look, she brought us some new clothes to put on after," he said hopefully, gesturing toward the chair. "You're gonna feel a lot better when you're all clean, and there's soap--you know how much you wanted some soap when we first left the--" he caught himself. Better not to mention that place right now.

He gave up trying to rouse Clay and cautiously began unbuttoning his shirt while watching for the warning signs of distress--the quickened breathing and roving wild eyes--that preceded one of his fits. Robert had learned the hard way a long time ago to be careful when touching him during these stares, and just as careful despite Clay’s seeming deafness in choosing his words around him.

He finished unfastening the buttons on Clay's torn and dirt-smeared shirt and then tried to reach him one more time. "Clay," he said more firmly. "You gotta wake up. The bathwater's getting cold and I want my turn at it too, you know." On an impulse, he dipped a hand in the tub and wet Clay's arm with it, smoothing over the pink-scarred flesh with his palm.

Clay took a deep breath and focused at last. He looked down at his arm as if just noticing it and pulled it from Robert's grasp. "I can undress myself, Robert," he said in a testy tone, not looking up again.

Robert took a breath also and silently reminded himself to have patience. "I know you can, Clay. You just weren't doing it is all. I thought I might help you get started."

"I don't need your help. I keep telling you that, so why don't you listen to me? I'm not an imbecile, you know, no matter what you think!"

Robert felt his anger rise to equal his friend’s, but he struggled to control it. "I don't think you're an imbecile. A stubborn fool, maybe, but--"

"Oh, just leave me alone!" Clay cut in, beginning to pace around the room, inspecting the corners, peering out the small window into the darkness. "You're the one making me crazy, you know!" he shot at him suddenly from across the tiny room. "Watching me all the time. You treat me like a little child! You're worse than my own mother, always worrying I'm gonna die and leave you all by yourself!"

"Well, I'm so sorry for caring about you, Clay!" he snapped back, surprised that he could still feel this hurt by Clay's attacks. "I didn't mean to get in the way of you losing your mind!" It was a cheap shot, but he had taken all he could for the moment.

Just as suddenly as he had turned on him, Clay softened with remorse. "I am, aren't I?" he asked sadly. "I am losing my mind. I know it. I just can't seem to help myself, Robert. I ... I can't help myself...." He seemed lost, reaching out for a lifeline that wasn't there.

"Neither can I, it appears," Robert said, feeling ready to jump out of his skin. These abrupt shifts in Clay's moods spun his head and threatened to draw him into the labyrinth that his friend's mind had become.

"I'm sorry. I know you've been trying to help me. I don't mean to fight you so hard. I don't know why I do it. I just can't seem to stop myself from saying those things sometimes," Clay continued plaintively. "Will you forgive me?"

"I always forgive you, Clay. Don't you know that by now?" Robert sighed and nodded at the tub. "The water's getting cold. If you're gonna take a bath, you better do it soon, because I'm coming back in here in fifteen minutes whether you're done or not."

As he walked to the door, he saw the razor laying on top of the clothes and paused. On a pretext, he bent to arrange them, hiding his actions with his back and saying casually, "Take what you want from these clothes. I'll wear whatever you leave for me." He slipped the closed razor up his sleeve and was about to go when Clay called to him.

"You can leave the razor, Robert," he said in that detached, quietly ominous manner he had sometimes.

Robert turned with the razor in his hand, but didn't put it back. It was starting again.

"Don't trust me with a razor now?" Clay asked sarcastically. "What do you think, I'm gonna slit my throat shaving?"

"I don't know. You tell me. What are you gonna do with it?"

"I'm gonna shave, of course. That's what it's for, isn't it?"

"You're not gonna cut yourself with it?"

Clay’s eyes glinted suddenly. "Accidents can happen. You nick yourself shaving every so often, don’t you?"

"Stop it!" Robert exploded, then remembered where they were and lowered his voice. "I’m not playing that game with you tonight. Just answer my question. Are you going to cut yourself with it or not?" It seemed an absurd thing to ask, but he felt he had no choice.

Clay managed to look insulted. "No," was all he said this time, though.

"Promise me. Give me your word of honor. I don't want to come back in here to find you looking like one of those Roman leaders bleeding into your bathwater, thinking that's a noble death!"

"On my word of honor, I will not cut myself with it. That satisfy you?" Clay said, speaking the words slowly as if etching them in glass with acid.

Robert shook his head tiredly. "I don't know. Does your word even mean anything to you anymore?"

"It's all you're gonna get, Robert. Now get out of here and leave me alone."

Robert turned and went back into the kitchen, shutting the door and wishing, as he often did, that he could tie Clay's hands behind his back before he left him, even if that was something Jensen had done to him. And he wouldn't mind a gag either, when he had to be with him.

* * * * * * *

Clay stared at the tub after Robert had gone, fighting the fear that was making an enemy of his sparsely eaten dinner. He hadn't undressed completely at all since...since...well, just since. He couldn't be that exposed, that vulnerable again. At Robert’s insistence, he bathed himself in parts while still imprisoned, and then again the same way in the streams and rivers they followed in their travels. On the rare occasions he submerged himself, though, it was always fully clothed, ignoring Robert's questioning looks and obvious disapproval. Over time, his clothes, mostly rags to start with, had rotted further from such hard wear. If he didn’t remove them now, they would surely fall off his body soon enough without his consent.

Sighing, he tried to console himself. At least he would have fresh clothes to put on when he was done, clothes in good condition that would cover him better, even if they were from a dead Yankee.

Taking a deep breath to brace himself, he grasped the bottom of the shirt and pulled it over his head, almost panicking for the second it covered his face. It tore in two more places before he was free of it. He dropped it to the floor and crossed his arms over his chest, trying to slow his racing heart. Glancing around the tiny room, he reassured himself with the evidence. No, he was not in a barn. This was a house, not a barn.

He swallowed and very reluctantly put his hands to the fastenings of his pants, trying to ignore the electric current that seemed to crackle just beneath his skin. This would take more courage than he believed within himself anymore.

Of course, he had opened his pants numerous times along the trail to answer nature's call, but he had always been quick about it and quick afterward to draw the threadbare trousers and drawers up and closed again. He had hardly even looked at what he was doing, and touched himself only as far as necessity demanded. Now Robert wanted him to undress completely and sit in a tub of water in a stranger's house in hostile territory, wanted him to wash himself, to touch his naked body....

Strip 'em off, boy, and don't make me wait.

Clay shook his head to dislodge that malevolent voice. He would not give in to it, not here in a Yankee's house. He would not show his weakness to a woman, to his enemy. He looked over at the razor. If only he hadn't given his word....

He filled his lungs with another bracing breath and finally unbuttoned the pants, and then the drawers underneath.

He had them off before he could think more about it, like he used to hold his breath as a boy and drop from the rope swing into the cold pond water on the first warm day of summer. In over his head of a sudden, then and now. No time to think twice, no turning back.

He didn't look down, he didn't want to see his body, he didn't want to remember the last time he had seen his body like this. Instead, he stepped immediately into the tub and was shocked by the water's heat. He hadn't felt water this hot in more than two years. Slowly he sank down into it, acclimating little by little, letting the near-scalding sensation distract him from his nudity.

Robert was in no danger of taking a cold bath after him if he finished as quickly as he intended.

* * * * * * *

Robert sat at the table and rubbed his face with both hands. He felt tired and frustrated and scared, and he longed to have his best friend back to lead him out of his problems as he had always done in the past. Only now, his best friend was the problem, and Robert had never realized before what a burden leadership could be.

It wasn’t like he didn’t have leadership experience. He’d been a captain during the war, a company commander in their regiment. He had led upwards of a hundred men into battle, directing their movements and feeding their flagging courage. He held the responsibility for their very lives in his hands, yet now the responsibility for just one life--Clay’s--seemed to weigh on him a thousandfold in comparison.

He wasn't up to the job, he was convinced. They still had almost two months of walking ahead of them and already he was worn down by the demands of this new role. He would fail. He wouldn't get them home in time and Clay would kill himself and it would be all his fault for being such a poor excuse as a leader, as a friend, as a man.

A gentle touch on his shoulder brought him out of his anguished reverie.

"I made you some coffee," Gwen said, setting a mug in front of him. "There's sugar and cream if you want it." She indicated a matching bowl and creamer in the center of the table. "I'd offer you some whiskey, but my husband never liked the taste of it, nor tobacco neither."

Robert smiled thankfully and reached for the sugar. Coffee, and with sugar--what a luxury after all these years with none, or with that crap the Confederate soldiers had been forced to substitute made of scorched grain and chicory, which was worse than none.

"Clay been giving you trouble?" she asked quietly, taking a seat opposite and stirring both cream and sugar into her own coffee. "I heard the two of you arguing," she explained when Robert looked at her in discomfort.

He thought about how to answer, immediately trying to come up with a dodge, but all of a sudden he couldn't hold it back anymore, at least not all of it anyway. "Clay's been nothing but trouble for months now," he sighed, staring down into his mug and swirling the spoon in the aromatic black liquid. "I try to help him, but...I don't know what to do for him anymore. He won't let me help him. He gets angry at me for the littlest things, and then begs me to stay with him because he can't make it on his own. I'm chasing my tail trying to figure him out."

"He's still got some fight left in him. That's something. It's when he stops fighting that you have to worry." She sipped her coffee. "What happened to him?"

"I don't really know," Robert said, shaking his head. "Something in prison...got to him, something they did to him. They wanted to break him and I guess they did. But I don't know how and he won't talk about it. All I know is he hasn't been the same since. He's scared all the time now, and that's just not like Clay. Nothing ever scared him before." He looked into Gwen's face and smiled sadly. "He was always taking care of me before all this. I guess I'm not so good at taking care of him, though."

"Looks to me like you've done better than good at it. You've kept him alive, and that's more than a little work as far as I can see," she said in encouragement.

"Yeah, well, he's not thanking me for it. He wants to die, but I keep stopping him. Maybe I shouldn't, maybe he really would be better off dead, like he told me once. I suppose it's selfish of me, but I can't let him go. I don't want to lose him. He's my best friend, like a brother to me." Looking up, he added with a faint, crooked grin, "Besides, I promised his wife I'd bring him back to her. Can't let her down, though I don't know how she'll take it when she sees him like this."

Gwen gazed into her own coffee, thinking of John in his last moments. The letter said he had spoken of her and the boys at the end. She had cried to think of him dying like that, so far from the love of his family. She wished she could have been there to hold him, to tell him how happy he had always made her.

She took a deep breath and forced the pain away. It receded like the tide, and like the tide, she knew it would return to wash over her again and again for the rest of her life. "She'll be glad to get him back no matter the condition he's in, I'm sure," she said then, looking up at Robert.

He flushed with embarrassment. "Oh, Mrs. Morgan, I'm so sorry for putting my troubles on you when you've got enough of your own to handle. It was thoughtless of me to go on like that." How could he be so stupid? She had lost her own husband and was probably wishing now she hadn't been so kind to men who'd been her enemy not so long ago.

She could see he was worried that his allegiance during the war, his Southern heritage, would offend her. He looked so sincere, though, so boyishly concerned with her feelings that she couldn't think ill of him. She smiled. "Gwen. Call me Gwen. And don't you apologize for needing to talk a little. Life's travails are hard enough to face without doing it all on your own," she reassured him, wondering why she never seemed to take her own advice.

Robert looked at her nervously, trying to see if she meant what she said. Could she really forgive him for what he was, for what he had to represent to her?

"So what about you, Robert? Do you have a wife to go home to?" she asked.

"No, ma'am ... uh ... Gwen," he answered, stumbling over the new informality between them. "The ladies didn't see me as quite the catch Clay was, I'm afraid. And truth be told, I wasn't quite as interested in being caught, either." He found himself grinning shyly at her.

She laughed, the first time she'd laughed in months. "Well now, I'm not so sure you wouldn't be a nice catch for some pretty young lady, but I could tell right away you were the adventurous sort and not one to be tied down." Impulsively, she reached and touched his hand resting on the table. "That's why I know it's been hard on you with your friend."

Robert stared at her hand on his and felt something go through him at her touch, a woman's touch. It had been so long that the streak of heat to his groin was unfamiliar anymore, but it was more than welcome. He looked up at her suddenly, into her eyes. She was beautiful, really beautiful, soft and gentle and giving. How had he missed that? It seemed so obvious now.

Gwen saw the way he looked at her, the way a man looks at a woman he wants, and realized she would not see him as a boy again. A flush of anticipation filled her with the air she finally remembered to breathe. How had it happened so quickly? What should she do? There was no question, though--he would come to her tonight, and she would let him in. She wanted it as much as he did. They both ached for that balm of lovemaking that could ease their burdens and make them forget.

He turned his hand over and briefly twined his fingers in hers before pulling it away. "I'm gonna get washed up now," he said as he moved back from the table and stood, then added with a slow smile, "After all, I wouldn't want to get dirt on your fresh, white sheets tonight."

* * * * * * *

Robert felt clean, really clean for the first time since that last visit home. Even that goddamned itch from the graybacks was gone.

He looked around the small bedroom and noticed toys arranged neatly on top of the chest of drawers, wooden trains and an assortment of little tin soldiers painted in both the American and British uniforms of the War for Independence. Some pencil drawings of various things, obviously done by a very young child, were tacked to the wall above the double bed where Clay had sat as soon as Gwen had shown them to their accommodations for the night. The plain wooden-framed bed was covered in a thickly-filled quilt made from patches of discarded clothing.

Her boys' room, she had said. Both dead now, too, since the end of last year, one from injury and the other from illness. He had been startled again; he hadn't realized she'd had children. There was no evidence of the fact in the rest of the house. But she hadn't said more and he hadn't wanted to ask.

He turned to Clay, who except for his loose-fitting clothes and morose expression, looked almost to be his old self again, at least on the outside. His hair was still drying, but full of its natural curl now that the dirt and leaves had been washed out of it, and he'd trimmed his beard the way he always wore it before their capture.

"A real bed, Clay! Now you can't complain about that," he said cheerfully, feeling good and determined to avoid Clay's verbal traps for the rest of the night. "You should sleep like a king under this quilt." He saw that stubborn look come across Clay's face and intercepted his certain opposition. "I know you don't like to sleep at night, but for God's sake, we're in a house now! Look, I'll even push the bed against the wall if you want, but you have got to sleep. You can't keep on this way. You're always dead tired!"

"You don't understand, Robert," Clay said, looking at the bed as if it were the last place in which he would want to spend a night.

"No, I don't, and since you won't explain it to me, all I can think is that you're out of your head."

Clay just continued to look angrily at the bed and didn't answer.

"Do you want it against the wall or not?"

He glared at Robert in vague accusation. "Yes," he said, irritation oozing from his strained voice as he stood up.

Robert slid the bed as quietly as possible to the wall on its right side, a distance of maybe three feet. "We'll put it back in the morning and Gwen will never know it was moved," he said, trying to recapture his earlier high spirits.

"Gwen? When did you start getting so familiar with her?"

"You saying I shouldn't?"

"You've been eyeing her, haven't you? I saw you looking at her when she was feeding us. You were smiling like a schoolboy looking at his first whore!"

"Clay--" Robert began in warning.

"You plan on laying with her tonight?"

"That's none of your concern, Clay! Everything I've done for the past four months has been for you. So if I want something for myself once in awhile, I don't think I should have to answer to you about it."

"Go on, then. Go on to your Yankee woman. I suppose it's been so long since you had a woman that you'll settle for any hag with a hole between her--"

"Shut up, Clay! Just shut up!" Robert interrupted, incensed and suddenly aware he had made a fist. He opened his hand again and tried to calm down. "There's no call for that kind of foul-mouthed talk. Gwen's been good to us, and if you don't have the decency to be thankful, then you are not the gentleman I thought you were."

"Thankful! Are we accepting charity from our enemy now?"

"Is that what this is about? Or is there something more to it?" When his friend looked away and was silent, Robert shook his head. "It's not charity, anyway. I'm gonna pay her back with some work tomorrow."

"And your services tonight," Clay added maliciously.

"I've had it with you, Clay," he said, going to the door. "You don't want her help, go sleep in the woods for all I care, but I'd rather be in the company of Ulysses S. Grant than with you right now."

* * * * * * *

Gwen finished brushing out her hair and looked at herself in the vanity mirror. Her best white cotton nightdress, the one with the eyelet trim, flowed softly over her full breasts and hips. She wasn't a young girl anymore, though. The tiny lines of her face and the years of experience that were reflected in her dark brown eyes bespoke a woman who had lived and loved and lost, each in large measure.

In so many ways, she felt old beyond her thirty-six years, old and used up. Little by little, she had stopped living, and for months now she had found herself praying to die. But God didn’t answer her prayers anymore. In fact, it seemed He never even heard them, and hadn't for some time.

She had prayed for John to return home from the war safely. Instead, all she received were his personal possessions--his pocket watch, his reading glasses, his last letter to her, still unfinished, and his wedding ring. Someone had thought to put a lock of his hair in the package, too. When she had seen that, all she could do was cry and wonder what part of his head it had been taken from.

She had prayed for eight-year-old Ethan, her strong-willed little helper who was determined to be the man around the house after his father was killed, always keeping his feelings inside so she wouldn't worry about him. He'd been trying to pick the reddest apples he could find for the pie she had promised him when he fell from the tree onto a rock jutting from the ground below. She had asked God to heal the stunning blow to his head, but God had let him die anyway.

She made the pie anyway because she always kept her promises to him, and she had put it on his grave, waiting until after everyone departed so they wouldn't think she'd gone mad in her grief. It was all she had left to do for him, and she knew it would feed the squirrels he had loved to chase, so he could watch them from heaven and laugh.

She had prayed for gangly little Gabriel, her sweet baby angel, when he'd gotten sick right before Christmas. It was just the two of them by then, and she'd been trying to make the holiday festive for him with sugar cookies and a rather lopsided tree he decorated all by himself. The illness burned through him so fast, she had no time to send for a doctor. She buried him next to Ethan, wrapped in the quilt he had dragged behind him everywhere during his three short years of life. It was stained with his tears and shredded in places from its hard life as companion to a small boy, and she had mended it as best she could before sending him to God enclosed in its everlasting comfort.

God had left her with no one then, not even Himself, and she decided she was done with praying, for all the good it did. Life moved on for others around her, but she had become a detached observer, uninterested in even the pleasures it might offer. The war had ended at last, but it meant nothing to her. It was just another event happening in a world she had long ceased to inhabit.

The world was not waiting for her to rejoin it anymore, though. Insistently, it had come calling on her in the form of these two young men, one whose loyalty knew no bounds, the other whose wounds, though invisible, might even prove fatal in the end.

And here they were, rousing feelings in her she had thought dead and buried with her family, maternal caring and womanly arousal stirring together in a recipe for reawakening. But a reawakening to what? What life did she have now? Or perhaps the question was, what life would she make now?

She would not think about that for the moment. She examined herself again in the mirror, wondering if Robert would find her attractive. She had mostly kept her figure, but after two children, her waist was not as narrow, nor her belly as firm as when she was in her youth. "Good breeding stock," John had joked with her, but he had been easy to please.

She opened the little box on her vanity table and touched the lock of his hair there as if it were able to bring him to her. He had given her the carved wooden box, inlaid on the top with a mother-of-pearl rose, even before they were married. He had told her that someday she would find something special to put in it, and when she found it, she would know it was meant for this box. She had loved this side of him, his romantic nature in giving her such a whimsical gift, and at the time, that's all it seemed. She had certainly never foreseen then what it would come to contain.

"Is it all right, John?" she whispered, thinking of what she planned to do with Robert this night. "Will you mind?" But she already knew what his answer would be.

She heard the door to the boys' room open and then close again, and she could almost feel Robert's presence in the hall, see him looking toward her bedroom. She closed her eyes and invited him to her with her mind, and was answered by a light knock on the door. She smiled.

Perhaps God had not abandoned her after all.

* * * * * * *

Clay blinked back tears as he watched Robert leave. His friend and now guardian was careful to close the door quietly, but Clay could tell from Robert's tension he wanted to slam it shut and be shut of him. Why did he say these things? It was like he was watching someone else live in his body and talk out of his mouth, someone mean and spiteful and cold-hearted. He had never been like this with Robert before ... before.... He shoved the memories back. What if Robert left him, really left him alone, like he was always insisting on? What would he do by himself, how would he get home? Did he even want to go home anymore?

He crawled across the bed to lean his back against the wall, legs drawn up in front of him. Briefly, he glanced at the oil lamp on the bedside table and was thankful for the light. Wrapping his arms around his knees, he rested his chin on one to stare at the door and thought about Robert going to the Yankee woman.

Why did that bother him so much?

Even as he asked himself the question, though, he knew the answer. He didn't want to think about ... that ... going on in the next room, so close to where he was. He didn't want to think about Robert having those kinds of feelings and desires. What if he felt that them when it was just the two of them traveling out in the woods, away from any women? What if...? No, that really was crazy thinking! Robert would never touch another man like that.

But was he a man anymore? Had he ever been a man?

His mother had all those dead babies before he had been born. Maybe there had been something wrong with him from the start, an inborn flaw in his makeup, and he should have died, too, except for God's sick sense of humor. When he had been little and his father wasn't around, the women would pinch his cheeks, finger his hair, and tell his mother, "Those darling curls are just like yours, Emily. Why, he's simply too pretty to be a boy!"

He had hated the way they cooed over him, and the way his mother had held her breath with a hand over her mouth whenever he climbed a tree or jumped a horse later as he grew. He knew she worried that he'd die like the rest of her children, that she saw him as weak and in need of protection. It was true he had been small for his age early on, but to him that only meant he had to push himself harder to prove his strength. Was he just fooling himself then, thinking he was a man all that time when, in fact, he was some kind of aberration?

But this was pointless. Why did he keep tormenting himself like this? He’d had these thoughts over and over since that March afternoon, hundreds of times a day it seemed, and still he could find no answers, no way to explain why it had been him who was singled out for Jensen's "special" attention, no way to forgive himself or God for letting it happen.

Clay stretched his legs out and pulled one of the down-filled pillows behind his back, which ached from all the walking and sleeping on hard ground. He hated to admit it, but the bed did feel comfortable under him. Maybe he could just lie down and watch the door, and if someone were coming, he'd hear the footsteps echo in the hallway first. He knew it was a ridiculous fear even without Robert to tell him so, but he just couldn’t shake the sense that Jensen was following him, waiting for his guard to drop.

The last time he'd slept in a bed was with Mary during that visit home two years ago, the September after Gettysburg. They were still so new to each other, having had only snatches of time together since the war began. She hadn't wanted him to leave the lamp lit that night, but he had persuaded her that the soft yellow light would enhance their lovemaking. He had wanted to watch her face in the throes of the pleasure he was giving her, to see the blush of her passion color her creamy white skin....

Clay gasped and gripped the pillow as the hated sensations took hold of him with a vengeance worse than he'd felt in days, even to the hand down the front of his pants, reminding him of what he was now.

"You kept your looks, Mosby ... I'm going to enjoy this."

He groaned into the pillow, trying to obliterate that voice, that mocking voice that haunted his every step. He could never make love to Mary again. If he did, he'd only contaminate her with his shame. He doubted, though, that he could even perform as a man anymore. Those desires had been drowned forever in a shower of stinking piss and that freezing trough of dead, black water.

He pressed a fist into his groin to cover the sensations, hard enough to cause some pain, but at least it was pain he could master. His mind went automatically to the razor down in the washroom. Bizarre as it was even to himself, a few small cuts could remove him from the uncontrollable past and relieve the heated pressure rising beneath his raw skin.

No, he couldn't cut himself. He had promised Robert he wouldn't, on his word of honor. Clay laughed bitterly. Robert was right--it didn't mean anything to him anymore. But it did to Robert, and another bloody cut might be just the thing that would drive his loyal friend away from him for good. He couldn't take that chance; he didn't really want to be left alone, despite his harsh words to the contrary.

Taking a deep breath, he willed his mind quiet and imagined it to be like the round, brick icehouse at home, lined with insulating straw and filled with chiseled blocks of frozen pond water. All quiet–quiet and numbingly cold, if you stayed there long enough, so that even your thoughts would freeze in that dark pit in the ground. But first there was pain. Ice could burn like fire and sting like a razor cut simultaneously when held against bare skin. He pictured himself lying on a bed of ice and willed the pain to gather force in his body so vividly, he began to shiver. If he couldn’t use the real razor, then he would make it seem like he had.

* * * * * * *

Robert waited at the door, feeling strangely awkward and anxious. He hadn't been with a woman in well over a year. How would it feel? Would he remember how to touch her, to be gentle with her?

He had pleasured himself occasionally in prison, and before that when they were out in the field between battles and there were no whores to be had. It was the only pleasure available in the midst of that unremitting privation. He had been rough with himself, though--a man never handles his own body as carefully as he does a woman's--and he had always done it fast, the quicker the better. Wouldn't have done to be caught at it, especially in the prison camp where "self-abuse" was punished harshly.

Would he be able to control himself now, go slow enough for her pleasure as well as his own?

Gwen opened the door and they looked at each other nervously for a moment before he stepped into the bedroom and she shut the door behind him. He hardly noticed most of the matching walnut furnishings--a plain chest of drawers with carved wood handles, a lady's vanity table bearing a silver-handled brush and comb and an assortment of toiletries, a moderate-sized wardrobe. Nor did he notice the white lace curtains fluttering in the late night breeze at the partially open windows or even the oil lamp on the bed table that lighted his view. He saw only Gwen--Gwen and the large four-poster bed she now stood beside.

Neither of them spoke.

She looked him over, seeing him now as he wanted to be seen, with his dark blond hair washed and combed, his face shaven, his clothes clean even if somewhat too big for his lean form. He stood proudly, no longer the vagrant she had found scrounging in her barn, and his warm, brown eyes gazing back at her said he approved of her too.

She waited for him to come to her, to show her what he wanted. She'd never been with any man besides John, only knew his hands and mouth and body, his rhythms and desires. She had known what to do with him, how to please him, and he had known her just as well. She tried to remember what it had been like at the beginning, before they had learned each other so completely, before they had become one body united in their marriage bed, one soul united in their life together.

She had no time to think on it, though, because just then Robert closed the space between them.

He had begun to breathe faster already as he slid his left hand around her waist and cupped her cheek with his right. She followed his lead and leaned her body forward, putting her own arms around him as he drew her against him with gentle pressure.

The hand on her cheek went under her hair and held her head as he bent to kiss her, softly at first, but as she parted her lips to let him taste her mouth, quickly more insistent, and his urgency became clearer. His movements took on the firmness of his sex straining inside the pants she had given him, pressing, pulsating against her thinly covered belly.

Gwen breathed faster also, from liquid arousal and no small amount of fear. He needed, he wanted so badly. The sudden force of his desire shocked her, like a bonfire flaring out of a match, threatening to burn her with its intense heat.

Robert pulled back and held her at arm's length, looking down at the braided rug under their bare feet as he trembled with the effort to rein himself in. He took a long, deep, open-mouthed breath and exhaled slowly. He hadn't wanted to frighten her. Just the feel of her, though, the softness of her face, the touch of her tongue on his as he kissed her, the willingness of her body to receive him--God, it had been so long. He looked up into her eyes and smiled crookedly, hoping she would understand.

The playful grin put her at ease with him once more. He would not hurt her. Gwen returned the smile and reached to unbutton his shirt. She had felt the hardness of him before he had drawn away, though, like the steel of a gun barrel. She had seen the look of near pain as he tried to contain himself. The first time would go fast; he would not be able to stop himself again.

His shirt fell to the floor, followed in quick succession by her shift, which he lifted up over her head, and then his pants. Both naked, they somehow moved to the bed and Robert lay to one side of her, partly over her with one knee between her legs. He had taken the lead in this dance at the start, but she matched him now step for step, finding her own passion as she attended to his.

She turned toward him and pressed the wet core of herself on his firm thigh, rubbing against him as she let her hands explore his smooth face, his chest with its sprinkling of dark gold hair, his flat muscular belly. Like Clay, he was thin from the paltry prison rations and haphazard meals of their journey, but unlike Clay, he had eaten as much and as often as possible, and his youthful body had regained much of its strength, shaped into hardened muscle by the constant exercise of life on the road.

He kissed her again, hard and deep as he lifted himself up, encouraging her hand to move lower, but she slid it instead around his back and over his buttocks. She would touch him where he wanted, but not yet.

He moaned into her mouth in frustration and then kissed down to her breast, sucking and biting the nipple gently as he slipped his hand between her legs, teasing more wetness from her. She closed her eyes and writhed to his caresses, seeking escape from the exquisite torture, secure in the knowledge he would not let her break free.

When she was ready, when she felt his tension nearing its peak, she slid her hand down his belly. She liked the rough texture of the hair trailing down from his navel, fanning out and thickening into the coarse, burnished gold thatch above his sex. She liked the hot, silky feel of his sex moving with a life of its own in her hand, synchronized to his quickened heartbeat. She rubbed her thumb over the unsheathed tip; it was taut and shiny and moistened by the escape of one clear drop of fluid. Robert drew a fast, gasping breath and groaned, all the muscles in his body tightening in anticipation.

The time for waiting was over.

With a light touch directing him, she urged his body into position between her spread legs, which she bent up around him. He needed little prompting. He kissed her softly, then again fully, openly, penetrating her mouth as he entered her body, possessing her so completely that she felt dizzy from the loss of any bounds between them.

Robert thrust into her hard, once, twice, and on the third stroke, he could not control his need for release anymore. His body followed its own dictates heedless of his thoughts for Gwen's pleasure, and his burst of arousal flashed in a blinding, but all too brief, explosion.

He laid on her heavily, then slid to her side, panting still from the exertion as his muscles gave in to overwhelming fatigue. He fought the sleepiness; he hadn't seen to her need yet. "I'm sorry," he whispered close to her ear. "I couldn't slow myself...."

"Shhh," she quieted him, getting up on one elbow and caressing his face, which was damp with sweat. She leaned and kissed his forehead and then his mouth lightly. "It's all right, Robert. Rest a little. The night isn't done yet." He's young, she thought. He would be ready again soon enough.

At her reassuring words, he smiled gratefully and closed his eyes, drifting into velvet sleep.

* * * * * * *

The demon stood inside the door, but this time Clay was ready for it. He crouched in the corner, protected by the darkness and shaking with rage. This time he was ready.

"Have you been a good boy, Mosby? Or am I gonna have to give you another lesson in obedience?"

That voice, that goddamned sneering voice. Clay's upper lip curled into a silent snarl as he balled his hands into fists. Not yet, he told himself. Just a little closer, and then....

The creature stepped to the center of the cell. "I came to pay you a little visit, Mosby, just like I promised. Wouldn't want you to forget about me." Its voice laughed, just like before, at the beginning, with the gun. "You're never gonna forget about me, Mosby."

Stealthier than a cat, Clay leapt at it and knocked it to the hard, damp ground, pounding it in that evil, grinning face with his fists until half the head was nothing more than crushed bone and bloody mash. That wasn't enough, though. Its heart--its heart was still beating. It was still alive. Clay ripped the dark blue tunic open and dug into the demon’s belly with his bare hands, pulling snakes of foul-smelling intestine out of the way, clawing up into the chest cavity through the collapsed lungs to take hold of the heart and yank it out. The putrid organ spurted black blood in all directions as it finished its beating in Clay's twisting grip. He watched it stop moving and felt exultation. The battle was over. Finally, it was over.

He had won at last!

Laughter jerked his attention back to the head of the eviscerated body, but instead of the unrecognizable pulp it had been, the grinning face was whole again and the mouth was laughing...the hellish thing wouldn't stop laughing....

"You can't get away from me that easy, Mosby. I'm gonna be with you for the rest of your miserable, coward's life."

Clay's blood ran cold as panic iced his veins. He dropped the heart and backed toward the door. "No...no!" he groaned, shaking his head. "You're dead. I killed you!"

The demon sat up and closed its Union coat, fastening the shiny brass buttons over the gaping hole in its torso. "You can't kill me. Didn't you know that, Mosby? I live as long as you live. You want me to die, you're gonna have to kill yourself, and you can't do that, can you? You can't even do that right." It laughed again.

Clay felt behind him, searching for escape, but the door to the cell was locked. He couldn't get out. He had sinned beyond redemption, and this was his own personal circle of Inferno, locked into this coffin-sized room for all eternity with Satan’s servant to torture him....

The mutilated creature stood and came toward him, red eyes gleaming with hungry anticipation. "You were a very bad boy, trying to kill me, Mosby," it said pleasantly. "You know what that means. I'm gonna have to do it all over again...."

Clay woke with a start and cried out in terror, still possessed by the nightmare’s crushing embrace. "No! No! Get away from me, you bastard! You are not doing it again!" He thrashed on the bed in the moonlit room, struggling with his attacker, finally realizing no one was there.

He was alone.

He looked around, panting from the fight raging inside him, from the infinite horror he entered every time he went to sleep. Where was he? Oh ... oh, yes. The farmhouse ... the Yankee woman's house.

He dropped his head to the pillow and buried his face in it to stifle the tears he felt well up in his eyes and tighten his throat. He couldn't cry; he hadn't cried since he was a very young boy, that time he bumped into the cook and got burned with boiling water on his shoulder. His father had told him sharply to stop sniveling like a girl and waved his mother away from him as he had bandaged the wound.

Men don't cry, only women and cowards, that's what his father had said. He had to learn to take the pain like a man. He had hated his father at that moment, but he had stopped crying, or rather, he had stopped making the sounds of crying. Try as he might, he couldn’t stop the tears from running down his round cheeks, or the quivering in his bottom lip, and his failure to fully satisfy his father’s command had burned him with even more shame.

He was a pathetic coward, no better than a woman, then and now.

The tears would not be suppressed at all this time; they spilled out in a flood as he gave in to them, and he sobbed raggedly, his chest heaving with uneven breaths.

* * * * * * *

Gwen lay under the bedcovers she'd drawn over both of them, listening to Robert snore softly next to her. Strange, but she liked the sound. It was familiar and soothing, and lulled her toward sleep herself as she thought about making love with him again later.

But then another kind of sound, also familiar, jarred her fully awake once more. This one was alarming, though, and sent her into an action she had not taken in half a year. She got out of the bed, careful not to disturb Robert, and slipped into her shift and nightrobe. Quietly opening the door, she stepped into the hallway and went to the boys' bedroom, where she listened for the sounds of distress she knew so well.

Clay was crying.

At first it had been a bad dream. She knew that from the way he had started, his terrified, angry protests audible even through two closed doors. But he was awake and really crying now, in that awkward, unpracticed way that men cry. She hesitated a moment longer, but then the mother in her was unable to resist. "Clay?" she called softly, more to alert him to her entrance than to elicit a response.

Facing the door, he was curled up and lying on his side on top of the bedcovers, still fully clothed in her husband's shirt and pants, which were even bigger on him than on Robert. He had rolled up the sleeves and pants cuffs as a partial adjustment, and he wore a pair of the dark blue socks she had given them on his feet.

Clay pushed his fist against his mouth and stopped the ragged sobbing immediately. He tensed and held his breath. He didn't want her to come in. Why didn't Robert come back? How could he just leave him here alone? He wanted to move back against the wall again, but that would let her know he was awake. Instead, he just angled his face down so he wouldn't have to look at her as she came to the bed and sat on the edge.

She looked down at him trying to hide from her, full of pride and the pain of being seen as weak, just like Ethan when he would fall and then bite back the tears because he was a "big boy" now. He would let her hug him for just a few seconds before he'd pull away indignantly, but she always knew he really counted on that hug.

"What's wrong, sweetie? Did you have a bad dream?" With a start, she realized she had addressed him as she would one of her sons. It came so naturally, though, and he was so lost. She felt his desperate need for comforting grip her tangibly, and she could no more turn away from him now than she could have abandoned that dying raven all those years ago.

She knew he wouldn't answer, so she just kept talking in the soothing tone she had used with her children. "When my boys had bad dreams, I'd light the lamp to chase the ghosts away, but I guess since you have it lit already, that won't help you much." She reached over and stroked through his long hair, now soft and combed out, but she left his face covered. He needed that protection. She could feel the tension in him as she continued to pet him tenderly.

Just as he did when he was five years old, Clay held his breath to keep the tears from returning. A distant part of him demanded that he pull away and break the contact, but he couldn't, he just couldn't make himself go back into that coldness, not yet.

"Sometimes, if the dreams were really scary, Gabe--he was my youngest--he would ask for a story, and I'd rock him on my lap over there in that rocking chair and tell him the story about David and Goliath. You remember that one, I'm sure," she said, still stroking him until finally, he sighed and she felt him relax a little under her hand. "He loved that story, especially the part about how David proved everyone wrong for laughing at him when he said he could beat the giant Goliath. You know how nightmares can seem like big old giants sometimes to little boys. Gabe thought that was the best story ever. I suppose it was because he was the littlest in the family and his brother liked to push him around sometimes."

Clay relaxed even further and his breathing became regular, almost as if he were going to sleep.

"You and Robert are like brothers, aren’t you?" Gwen continued steadily, softly. "I can tell you mean the world to him from the way he talked about you earlier. He looks up to you, just like Gabe looked up to Ethan, even when Ethan had no patience for him. Brothers do fight sometimes, I guess, no way around it. But they still love each other underneath it all."

Gwen thought about the last times she had sat here like this, comforting Ethan, who couldn't even recognize her anymore because the swelling in his cracked skull had gotten so bad, and a few months later comforting Gabe until the fever claimed him as well. She pushed the memories away. They were with God and their daddy now in heaven, and someday she'd be with them too, but it wasn't time yet. She looked down again at the boy God had brought to her doorstep, another wounded stray she couldn't turn out, and smiled ruefully. Just when she thought life had nothing left to offer, God always knew how to pull her back into it's flow.

Clay closed his eyes and felt her warmth wrap around him. His mother had done this kind of thing for him when he was little and sick in bed. It was the only time his father let her fuss over him, and the only time he himself hadn't resisted her maternal attentions. He remembered when he was six and he had the measles for two whole weeks. She had sent his mammy away and sat in his room herself during the long, frightening, feverish nights, holding his hair back for him when he had to throw up into the washbasin. Afterward, she had wiped his face clean with a damp cloth and then she sang softly to him, stroking his hair and rubbing his back until he could fall into fitful sleep once more.

He didn't need his mother anymore, he thought harshly, interrupting the oddly pleasant memory. He was a grown man; he had led men into battle, for God's sake! But he remembered after battle, too, when wounded men had called for their mothers....

She was talking again, but it didn't matter what she said. Despite himself, he liked the sound, like listening to the waves lap at a peaceful beach on a warm night.

"It's good you got cleaned up tonight. It'll make you feel more like a man again," she said gently. "Robert tells me you're going home to your wife. I know she'll be happy to have you back." Gwen thought of the man who would not be coming back to her. How happy she would be if she could see him walk up to the house and feel his arms around her one more time.

She looked at Clay with a sudden rush of the strangest feeling, a feeling she could not even name, but she welcomed it nonetheless. "These past few years have taken too many good men from all of us," she said, her voice filled with emotion. "I'm glad you lived, you and Robert."

Clay shifted a little under her hand, and she pulled it away as he turned briefly to look into her face. She could see the questions in his eyes, big and bright with unshed tears, and the hurt that filled him to bursting. "It's going to get better, Clay," she told him firmly. "As long as you're breathing, there's hope. Don't you let go of that." She wondered again who she was really talking to as she stood up. "Besides," she said, taking the side of the quilt and laying it over him, "if there's one thing I've learned these past few years about you Southern men, it's you don't give up easy." She went to the door. "You get some sleep now, sweetie," she said before leaving.

Clay put his face against the pillow and drew the quilt up to his neck. For a moment there, for just one split second, North and South hadn't mattered. She was a woman, not a Yankee, and he was a man, not a Rebel, and he had needed the comfort of a woman's touch. How much easier it would be if he could hate her, if he could see her as his enemy, because he would never, ever forgive the goddamned, blood-soaked Union for killing him.

* * * * * * *

Gwen slid back under the covers and felt Robert awaken and turn to her.

"You all right?" he murmured, putting his arm around her and nuzzling against her neck with warm, lazy kisses.

She smiled and pressed into his embrace. "I'm fine. It was Clay--"

Robert was suddenly alert. "What’s wrong with him?" he asked abruptly. God, what if he was having one of his fits again, and with no one there to keep him safe? He shouldn't have left him alone. He had been selfish, thinking more of his own enjoyment than of Clay's life. "I better go to him." He moved to rise, but Gwen pulled him back.

"He's fine, too, Robert. He just had a bad dream, but I talked to him for a little bit and he's better now, really," she reassured him. "I think it would be best to let him get some sleep now. He needs it."

"You don't understand," he insisted, feeling awash in the old anxiety and reluctant to ignore it. "Clay's not right. In his head, he's not right. You don't know what he can get into, how he can hurt himself...." Oh, God, that was more than he wanted to say.

Gwen continued to hold onto his arm as he sat up. "Calm down. He's not doing anything but lying on the bed, I swear to you. He was crying, that's all." That was more than she wanted to say, but he had left her no choice. "He wouldn't want you to see him that way. Leave him be now. He'll be all right by morning."

He took a deep breath and finally relaxed. She was right; Clay wouldn't want him there if he was crying. And who knows, maybe ... maybe that would help. There were no rules anymore, as far as Robert was concerned. If there was even a chance that something could help Clay find himself again, and it didn't hurt him more, it was worth trying. Hell, he might even consider making a deal with the devil himself if that would bring Clay back to him.

He let Gwen pull him down beside her. Turning his attention to her once more, he remembered what was still unfinished between them and gave her that sweet, dimpled smile as he reached to cup one of her breasts, which were full and heavy and as soft as down feathers. He bent and put his mouth to the large rosy nipple, sucking gently, playing his tongue over its hardened tip. He heard her moan as she breathed faster and began to squirm beneath him, and he felt pleased by her pleasure. This time, he would go slowly, see to her desires first, make her feel things only a man could make a woman feel. He would make love to her thoroughly, so she would know herself as the essence of womanhood at the end of it.

He smiled to himself and began to move his mouth lower down her softly curved form.

[Continued in DARKLY BOUND: The Gift, Part 2]

Colleen J. MacLennan
cjmac444@earthlink.net
12/14/98
revised 12/14/00


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