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DARKLY BOUND: 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.

Rating: NC-17 for sexual violence (non-consensual m/m)

The story presented here contains brutal violence, but most of it is described indirectly. The strongest language is in the dialogue. Nevertheless, it is an emotionally intense story. I would suggest that if you encounter any difficulty reading it, you should take care of yourself and go no further.

With thanks to Debbie Minyard for her writing contribution in "Part 2: Waiting in Limbo" below.

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

Colleen J. MacLennan

PART 1: Descent to the Ninth Circle...

Terror gripped him, overtaking all anger.

Clay hadn't thought he could feel any more fear by now, but he had been surprised again by the extent of his capacity for it. Indeed, he would have vomited if there had been anything in his stomach to come up. He hadn't eaten in two days, though, not since they had put him in close confinement again, and there had been precious little to eat before that. He tried to breathe the urge away as he stumbled toward an old barn some distance from the prison camp's edge.

The cold, ankle-deep mud sucked at his every step and squeezed into the many holes of the thin, worn boots he had been given soon after his arrival in this godforsaken place. His own sturdy cavalry boots had been taken away from him as punishment and deterrent following his first escape attempt, and his gray woolen uniform coat had been replaced as well with an ill-fitting, buttonless jacket, a jacket he had been made to leave behind today. It didn't matter, though. He was still an officer and a gentleman, rags and tatters notwithstanding. Clay was certain, however, that those boots now warmed the feet of some Union soldier.

The guards surrounded him, four instead of the usual three. Major Jensen had joined this elite corps this afternoon, and as the ranking officer, was leading it. They were laughing in some conspiracy they had only hinted at thus far.

“We got something special planned for you today, Mosby.”

He tried not to think about it, tried not to let the unbidden, unbearable pictures form.

It was March of ‘65 and he had been incarcerated here for almost a year now. Rumors that the war was near an end had grown to a fair certainty, and the guards had grown more impatient. Some just wanted to escape all this death, disease, and horror and go home. Others, the more ambitious ones, were still determined to crush the rebels' spirit and time was running short. Clay's guards fell into the latter category of "specialists" whose job it was to break the defiance of problem prisoners, and Clay was nothing if not a troublemaker.

He hadn’t done anything to deserve the dungeon this time, though. It was a simple infraction, he had been too slow to follow a guard’s order, that’s all. Usually it would only have gotten him a painful slam to the back with a rifle butt, but they had converged on him from nowhere, as if they had been waiting for this cue, and hauled him off to the prison building, his “home away from home” by now.

"Get going, Mosby. This ain't a Sunday stroll," said Lt. Hanley from behind him.

He prodded him on with the barrel end of his rifle, so hard that Clay knew the man was trying to push him off balance into the slippery mud. He didn't react, though. He didn't dare. Shivering, weak from constant hunger and wearing little protection against the early spring wind, it was all he could manage just to stay on his feet and keep moving.

"No sir, it sure ain't church you're going to, but you'll be on your knees praying just the same, I'll wager," Hanley went on with a cynical laugh.

"Prayin' he'd never been born, most like!" one of the others, Corporal Guilford, added maliciously.

"That's enough now, boys," Jensen interrupted pleasantly. "We wouldn't want to let on too much to our brave Colonel Mosby, here. That'd just spoil the surprise."

Clay swallowed down more fear and kept his eyes trained on the ground just ahead of him. I can get through this, he thought with resolve. Whatever they do to me, I can deal with it. They will not get to me. I will not let the bastards have the satisfaction.

Always in the past, he had been whipped for his efforts to lead those who would follow him in escape attempts and general insurrection. Sometimes day after day for weeks at a time, he would be taken from the small, dank cell they kept him in to the main camp, where he would be stripped of his shirt and tied to a post with arms upraised. If he had already been whipped some days running, the shirt would stick in the drying wounds and would pull pieces of flesh away with it each time it was removed, making him bite his lower lip to keep from screaming. Then, as an example to the other prisoners, he would be beaten again, until his back ran with blood and the pain was so great, he would pass out.

He never gave them what they really wanted, though. He never did more than growl at the excruciating pain and he never begged for mercy.

They were taking him away from the camp today, away from the potential witnesses who had been so much a part of the drama before, which meant Major Jensen, a guard whose reputation for cruelty was well known among the prisoners, had apparently been given free reign to deal with him as he saw fit. A chill had run through him, deeper than any that mere cold could produce, when Jensen had opened his cell door. The major was a man who knew no limits. On several occasions, Clay had seen other Federal officers intervene on behalf of a Confederate prisoner, so horrified were they at his methods of punishment.

More personally, though, and much more to the point, he had his own run in with Jensen not too long before.

He had been put to work emptying the slop buckets used by the prisoners in the hospital, carrying two at a time to the backed-up sinks some fifty yards away. It was godawful work. The buckets of urine and excrement were filled to overflowing and stunk of illness and disease, and it was impossible not to become filthy with it in the transport process. The prisoners on this detail were usually allowed to cover their noses and mouths with strips of damp cloth to cut some of the smell and prevent gagging.

Clay had once again been an exception to the rule. He had been denied the privilege, and in fact, had been put to this particular task in the first place for his continued defiance and sarcastic arrogance.

"See yourself as better than us lowly Yankees, eh, Mosby?" one guard had said angrily. "Got your nose so high in the air, you think your shit don't stink, don't ya? Well, I know just the cure for that."

So he had carried sewage for days, all the while watching Major Jensen, who was overseeing them, pay an unusual amount of attention to one young prisoner also at this work. The boy could have been no more than fifteen from the looks of his beardless face. Clay didn't know him, and didn't know why he had been given this work, but he could clearly see that he was uncomfortable with Jensen's attention and was trying to avoid him.

Only the week before, though, the boy had appeared with bruises and a look of shame on his downcast face, and the major began harassing him with more hostility. It was then that Clay decided to intervene, and when the moment came that he was passing Jensen close enough, he pretended to lose his footing and dumped the contents of a full bucket down Jensen's clean, blue uniform. The action had earned him another whipping in addition to the beating Jensen had given him at the time, but he felt it had been worth every aching bruise and bleeding welt.

Till now, however, he had never been left alone in the major's dubious care.

He expected they were going to kill him. It was the only reason he could think for hiding their actions like this. And if he was to die today, he realized, it would not be an easy death, nor a quick one. With no higher-ranking witnesses, there would be no reprieves for him.

Finally, they reached the abandoned barn, which was weathered nearly to the point of collapse, and Hanley shoved him inside. The grayed and splintering wooden walls offered marginal shelter from the wind, but none at all from the cold, and Clay brought his reddened hands to his mouth to blow some small warmth onto them while he waited in the center of the dilapidated structure, watching the guards assemble around him, trying for the old defiance, trying not to show them his fear.

“We got something special planned for you today, Mosby.”

He stood warily, looking out for the whip, as Hanley and Guilford grinned, first at each other and then at him, in a way that twisted his stomach even more. The fourth guard, Clay had never seen before. He looked new to this work, and distinctly uncomfortable as the others continued to taunt their current victim.

"Come down in the world, haven't you, Mosby?" said Hanley, a man who was a little older than Clay's twenty-three years, but not by much.

Clay knew him as the guard who usually whipped him, and who performed his duty with bright-eyed relish. He was a modestly educated man, just enough to make him think he was smarter than he really was. Just enough to make him envious and hateful towards men who really were smarter than he was, like Clay.

"No, not so high and mighty anymore," the lieutenant went on. "You must be missing that big old plantation house and all them slaves you had to wait on you. How do you like being on the nigger side of the fence now?"

"Don't you know, Colonel Mosby here would rather die than let those slaves go," Jensen said mildly. "I bet you he even had one of those pretty little nigger gals keeping him warm on cold nights, tucked all nice and cozy under satin sheets. Wouldn't want to give that up, no sir."

Jensen’s cold, blue eyes regarded Clay in a strangely critical manner.

Neither Jensen nor Hanley had any love for blacks themselves, he knew already. Slavery was just one more justification for what they were about to do to him. There was no point in responding. He would only be taking the bait they had placed in the iron-jawed trap they were setting for him. Instead, he simply waited silently with a deliberate air of contempt.

"Well? What're you waiting for, Mosby?" Jensen finally said harshly. "You know what to do. Unless, of course, you want that fine shirt of yours to get a tear in it." He laughed derisively, and the others joined in.

Clay turned square to the voice, to the face...the weather-etched, steely handsome face of a man he would soon have burned into his memory for the rest of his life. He had to say something now, his pride demanded it.

"Why'd you bring me here?" he asked, glaring through the anger that masked his true panic. "Why here and not the whipping post you always use? Don't want anyone to see you at your dirty work, Jensen?"

He didn't really want to hear the answer, dreaded it, in fact, but he felt stronger on the offensive in this battle. If he was to die, he would be in control of it, and he would not go down without a fight.

Jensen's face betrayed no sign of anger at Clay's challenging tone, and his calm was ominous. "You don't ask the questions here, Mosby. You're gonna do everything I tell you to, boy, and you're gonna do it quick."

"Or what? You’re gonna kill me?" Clay sneered, his lip curling up slightly. "You're gonna do that anyway."

Jensen went from standing as still as a statue into a whirl of motion as he backhanded Clay hard across the right side of his head, knocking him sideways and backward. His head exploded with pounding pain. Blinking to clear the yellow sparks blurring his vision, he put his arms out to balance himself and barely kept on his feet as another guard pushed him back toward their leader.

"Now, didn't I just tell you the rules of this game, Mosby?" the major asked. "Seems you got problems with your memory, so I'll go over 'em one more time. I tell you what to do, and you do it. No questions asked. You got that, boy?"

Clay just glared, though his sight was out of focus from the throbbing in his temples.

"I want an answer, boy." Jensen smiled, but the intensity in his voice was unmistakable.

"I understand what you want," Clay said slowly, pointedly, after the slightest of pauses meant to convey his mental superiority despite his low worldly status at the moment.

Jensen looked hard at him, obviously noting Clay's ambiguous response and the meaning behind it. He chose to ignore the insubordination, implying its insignificance. "Then do it," he ordered in a coldly murderous tone, referring back to his original command.

Clay set his mouth and breathed out angrily as he finally complied, stripping off his shirt as carefully as possible so as not to reopen old wounds. In a surreal moment, it struck him as oddly funny that he would even try. After all, they were about to beat him again and most likely kill him, and what use would all his care and effort be to him then?

He stood straight and looked Jensen in the eye, still defiant. The plainly visible ribs of his pale chest showed how much weight he had dropped over the past year of malnutrition and inactivity. Always slender anyway, it was weight he could ill afford to lose, and the slow starvation was now cutting into the muscle, weakening him further. Most of the time lately it seemed that his body was fueled by the sheer power of his will.

He expected someone to come at him now, to grab and hold him for the whip, but no one moved, and the major's next order sent his pain-dulled mind into a whirl of confusion.

"You two, get outa here," he said to the two enlisted men in the group. He tipped his head toward the barn doors. "You're on watch."

One of the men he had spoken to, Corporal Guilford, looked disappointed to miss out on the fun to come, but the other one looked relieved, Clay noted. In fact, the man had hardly spoken since they had left the prison itself. Jensen has something on that one, he thought, narrowing his eyes at the man's back as they began to leave as directed. He'll keep Jensen’s secrets because he's got a secret of his own.

"If you see anyone, report in through the door, but don't come back in here for any reason," Jensen added, only turning his peripheral vision to the departing men. "You understand me?"

"Yes, sir," they answered almost in unison before closing Clay inside with the remaining two officers.

"What's the matter, Jensen? Don't even want your own men to know what you're doing?" Clay said contemptuously. He knew it was folly to taunt the man like this, but his pride goaded him on. "You must be feeling some shame, you hiding your actions like this. Just what kind of secrets are you keeping?"

Jensen looked back at him with a hint of an evil smile. "You keep opening that smart mouth, boy, and I might just put something in it." He exchanged a look of sadistic pleasure with his cohort, and then focused on Clay with the same expression. "Now the trousers," he said, as though no time had passed since giving the order to remove his shirt. His tone betrayed nothing of his intent.

"What?" Clay said, not understanding at first what Jensen meant, and then frantically trying to anticipate what was coming.

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

There had been times in the past when he had been made to strip completely to humiliate him, but this was different. These men wanted to do more than humiliate him. They wanted to destroy him, and they wanted to put him through nine layers of hell in the bargain. He could see it in their calculating, hate-filled eyes. And he could see from the staged way they cooperated that they had done this before.

Slowly, Clay shook his head. They might rip his trousers from him, but he would not willingly make himself that vulnerable to them. "No. You can beat me just as well like this," he said, tensing for the punishment that was sure to come next.

"You know, I've had just about enough of his sass," the major said to the junior officer. "What do you think, Hanley?"

"I'd say this reb needs a lesson in obedience," Hanley, ever the follower, replied. Walking behind Clay, he scraped the end of his rifle barrel across the thinly covered welts on his back.

Clay winced and pulled away with a stifled grunt of pain. A line of blood began moving down to his waistband, tickling awake an itch in the half-healed skin.

Still he could not deduce what they were up to, and the prolonged confusion altered time and space around him. Seconds crept by on the stealthy feet of a cat stalking its prey and the room telescoped before him, leaving the edges of his sight dangerously dark. An agitated part of him begged silently for them to get on with it, get it over with, and release him to the waiting arms of Death, who beckoned more seductively now than any mortal woman he had ever known, even Mary.

Without warning, Hanley shoved him at Jensen, who punched him first on the left side of his jaw, splitting his lip inside on his lower teeth, then hard in the belly. Then, to finish the job, he kneed him in the groin.

Clay went down to his knees, doubled over and groaning in tidal waves of nausea and pain. He was too weak to fight as the lieutenant pushed him the rest of the way to the dirt floor, but he rallied somewhat out of terrified necessity when Hanley grabbed his right arm and pulled it behind his back to attach a rope to his wrist.

Twisting around, he tried to push the man off with his left hand, but Jensen intervened, taking hold of his left arm and flipping him face down again. He tried to kick out at them, but it was useless. They finished tying his wrists together behind him, so tightly that Clay's fingers began to tingle from lack of circulation, and then they ran the remaining rope up around his neck and back down to his bound wrists, so if he pulled at it, he would strangle himself. After this, they dragged him to kneel at an old bale of hay and shoved him down to lay over it.

Clay breathed hard against the pressure of the rope and tried to think. The sharp, dry ends of the hay pricked his bare chest, but he hardly felt it as all his focus went to Jensen straddling his legs. "Get off me, damn you!" he demanded, knowing it was pointless but having to protest anyway.

Taking a position in front of him, Hanley just laughed and roughly gripped a handful of his hair to pull him forward, shoving his head down over the other side of the bale. With the rest of his hair hanging like a veil over his face, he could see nothing now but the packed gray dirt of the floor and the slate blue cloth of the lieutenant's uniform trousers.

"You kept your looks, Mosby, even with the weight off you. I'm going to enjoy this," Jensen commented as he slid his hands under Clay and began unfastening the buttons of his pants.

"What are you doing, you son-of-a-bitch?" Clay asked in outrage. He thought he knew, though, and he braced himself for it. They were going to whip him bare-bottomed. He had seen it done with other prisoners held over a barrel. It was one of their favorite ways to punish a man. He tried again to kick and twist out of their hold, but only succeeded in choking himself as the rope bit into his neck.

Jensen opened Clay’s drawers and slipped his hand underneath the cotton cloth.

Clay gasped at the unexpected, disorienting contact. "You unnatural bastard!” he spit out, shocked and sickened at being touched in such a way by another man. “What kind of man are you? Get your goddamned filthy hands off me!" It was incomprehensible to him what Jensen could enjoy in this. "Just kill me and get it over with, why don't you?"

The major squeezed down on Clay's most vulnerable parts, rousing the earlier pain. "You wanna die, Mosby? Be careful what you ask for," he said, withdrawing his hand, but only to peel Clay's pants down to his knees, where they acted as further bondage restricting his movement. For added insurance, the major forced a knee between his legs and pinned the trousers to the floor, making resistance impossible.

Clay felt Jensen's rough, callused hand on his left hip, thumb stretched out. The torturer began tracing down the cleft of his buttocks, separating them.

"What ... what the hell are you doing?" he said again angrily. He struggled once more to escape the offensive touch, but then he felt cold steel against his exposed skin, caressing, prodding ... invading as Jensen forced the barrel of the revolver into him an inch or so. Clay stifled a scream as the sight on the end of the barrel tore at him sharply and his body reflexively, futilely tightened against the intrusion. He hardly had time to comprehend what was happening before he heard the gun being cocked.

"Oh, my God!" he breathed, half prayer, half curse, not realizing he had said anything at all, or that he was fulfilling their earlier prediction. He went still and his blood ran even colder than the steel inside him as panic and horror flooded in with the agonizing pain, sweeping all thought from his mind.

This wasn't real. This wasn't real!

Jensen and his partner laughed. "How do you like this, Mosby?" the major asked. He moved the gun's barrel in a lazy, circular motion to emphasize its presence.

Clay closed his eyes tightly and said nothing as more pain knifed through him. He couldn't think ... he couldn't think what was happening. His head spun dizzily and he breathed in quick, shallow gasps between desperate groans when he breathed at all.

"You wanted to die, didn't you? Where do you think the bullet'll go, when I shoot you?"

He had seen the insides of men on the battlefield, spilling out on the ground in glistening, bloody heaps. He knew what lead shot could do to a man from any angle. Helpless to the insistent images that Jensen's words called forth, he saw the bullet's course through his bowels and gut, felt it ripping him apart from the inside. He felt sick beyond words, beyond thought.

"'Course, that'd depend on how I aim it now, doesn't it?" Jensen continued amiably. "If you're real cooperative, I could make it quick and send it into your heart--do you have a heart, Mosby? The commandant says you got steel where your heart should be. Don't feel fear, that's what everyone says about you. You feel fear now, Mosby?"

Clay closed his eyes and swallowed. The only moisture in his mouth was blood from the cut inside his lip. "What do you want from me?" he said finally, unable to muster much defiance but trying anyway.

"Just want you to answer my questions is all. So answer me. You feeling fear now?" A menacing edge had crept into Jensen's voice.

Clay swallowed drily again, but the thickness in his throat was unmoveable. "Go to hell," he whispered hoarsely at last.

Jensen slid the gun out a bit and then back in, and over the freshened pain, Clay felt something trickle down the back of his thigh. He knew it must be blood.

"You didn't answer me properly, boy. You must of forgot I got a gun up your ass. Now try again," the man demanded.

Clay's stomach churned and bile came up in his throat with the words he knew Jensen wanted to hear. He thought of the slow, agonizing death the bullet would bring if he refused to say them. He'd heard men dying of gut shots on the battlefield scream through the night, begging the Almighty for an end to it, begging their fellow soldiers to take pity and finish them off fast with a shot to the brain. Choking the words back down, he said nothing. He tried to think of Mary, to say goodbye to her, but it felt sacrilegious to bring her into this, so he simply braced himself with breath held.

Instead of a bullet, though, he received another round of cruel laughter from his torturers.

"You're a tough one, Mosby, I'll give you that, but you don't get to die yet. I got other plans for you," Jensen said. "You'll give me everything I want before I'm through with you." Abruptly, he uncocked the gun and pulled it away.

Clay released the breath he had been holding in a rushing exhalation, then sucked at more air in dazed hyperventilation. The pain was only slightly lessened, its sharp throb radiating through the rest of him in waves, making its source the sole focus of his attention. He had never been so helpless, so degraded, so terrified. Nothing in all his life, not even the horrors of battle, had prepared him for this attack on his person, this intimate assault on the most private parts of his body.

Jensen set the revolver on the floor where he could see its bloodied barrel, where it could torment him with the knowledge that he couldn't reach it and he had no power here, no ability to make any of this stop.

"I think the pig's been greased enough now," Hanley smirked, his fist still tight in Clay's hair, holding his head down almost to the floor. "Time to ride him and make him squeal."

Briefly, Jensen seemed to lean back from him, although he hadn't gotten up completely. Clay tried to interpret the sounds he was hearing, to predict their next move, to prepare for it, but the roaring of his own heartbeat in his ears obscured his sensing. Really, he didn't want to know how he would be tortured next--there was no way to prepare for more of this except by taking refuge in a heavy fog of confusion.

Just then, Jensen took a bruisingly strong hold of his hips and the pain that followed pushed Clay to the razor edge of consciousness. He felt he had been split in two, and his head, already aching from the earlier abuse and Hanley's fist pulling his hair, felt suddenly as though it had been struck by lightning, so intense was the explosion in it. For a disoriented moment, he was sure that his tormentor had thrust a bayonet into him, and he fully expected to bleed to death within minutes. He realized otherwise, however, when he felt Jensen press against his backside and heard his animal grunts.

Clay screamed.

For the first time in this prison camp, for the first time in the war, perhaps for the first time in all his life, he screamed, and once the primal sounds were unleashed from his chest, he couldn't stop screaming, not until his throat was grated raw from it. He had no mind to think with anymore. Language, intelligence, honor and moral conviction--all obliterated. Pain was his identity, his very being. It burned away the chill he had felt before and consumed him now in an inextinguishable white-hot fire as sweat and tears dripped from his face to soak into the dirt below.

He didn't know how long it went on. He had no sense of time anymore in this universe of endless agony. He seemed to lose and regain consciousness repeatedly, but even that could have been an illusion, he couldn't be sure. All he could tell was that, at some point, it did finally stop--that is, Jensen stopped. The pain in his lower body continued on, and the feeling...as though the intrusion were still....

He coughed and gagged, struggling to keep his arms bent up enough to give the rope at his neck some slack. Jensen, who had stood up by now, seemed almost sympathetic as he bent to untie him.

Clay was trying to revive some feeling and movement in his lifeless arms when hot liquid hit his back in a stream, wetting the hair at his neck and running down into his face. Urine. He coughed again and sputtered as it soaked his beard and drained into his mouth, and the ammonia in it stung all the open wounds on his body, old and newly inflicted alike.

"That's for the slop bucket, you little shit," Jensen snarled down at him.

Clay groaned and retched as he slid off the hay bale. Nothing more than spit and mucus resulted. He leaned on an elbow to one side, drawing his knees up protectively. He felt less than human. Weak and dizzy, cold crept in again as he reached down with his right hand, groping for the waistband of his trousers, which were still bunched around his lower legs. Awkwardly, he pulled them up, grimacing at the fresh waves of pain his actions caused, but desperate to cover himself. His attackers didn't interfere, though, as he struggled to button the fly with shock-numbed, shaking hands.

He was unable to look at them. Shame burned through every part of him and he kept his head down so his dark brown hair fell over his face in dirty, limp curls. This kind of thing didn't happen to men. A man--a real man--wouldn't have let this happen. He should have done something to stop them, he thought, although what that could have been eluded him just now.

"Where's all that Southern pride and honor now, Colonel Mosby?" Jensen asked, emphasizing Clay's former designation with digging sarcasm. "What would your men think of you if they could see you like this, huh? Rebel whore!" He nudged Clay's hip with his foot.

Clay tried to make himself look up into the man's face, but couldn't. It took all his effort just to keep breathing. He remained silent.

Jensen knelt by Clay's shoulder and leaned his head toward him in mock intimacy. "You know, you got a sweet ass, Mosby. Nice and tight, better'n a woman's cunt. I really liked fucking you," he said, voice low and conversational.

Clay drew away in disgust and agitation at the man's words and his nearness, and in disgust for himself as well.

Jensen laughed and stood again. He gestured to the shirt on the floor a few feet away. "You want your shirt, you can crawl for it."

Slowly, Clay looked at the shirt and a strange calm settled over him. "No," he whispered, shaking his head almost imperceptibly. He’d had enough. He would not crawl. He would not move even another inch. It was time for this to end.

Hanley came forward impatiently with gun drawn, intending to force him into compliance, exactly as Clay had hoped. He stared blankly at the lieutenant, waiting. "Crawl, you son-of-a-bitch," the man demanded, cocking the pistol and pointing it at Clay's head.

"Stop it, Hanley," Jensen interrupted, pushing the other man back. "Can't you see that's what he wants? He means for you to kill him." He turned to Clay. "Won't work, Mosby. I want you to live. I want you to think about this every day the rest of your miserable, traitorous life. When you're laying with a woman in bed at night, you're gonna be thinking of me. You're gonna feel me right there with you. You won't ever forget me. I'm gonna be the most important person you ever knew, Mosby, because I'm gonna be behind you every step you take until you're in your grave."

Clay looked down again at the packed earthen floor, so filled with rage and shame that he felt faint from the emotional exertion. He tried not to believe what Jensen was saying, tried not to even hear the spiteful words. Nevertheless, beneath it all, he knew if he lived....

Jensen kicked the discarded shirt in Clay's direction. "Put it on and get up. You can think about how much you're missing me when you're back in your cell."

Clay looked at the dingy scrap of cloth in front of him. It was stained in places with fresh blood--his own blood--and something else, brownish and viscous. Jensen had used it to wipe himself clean. He swallowed down a new wave of nausea and with pain-weakened arms, pulled the shirt over his head.

"Now, you're gonna be a good boy and do as you're told, aren't you, Mosby?" the major said as he and Hanley dragged him to his feet. "We're not gonna get any more trouble from you, no sir. No more escape attempts, no more inciting other prisoners to riot. You're gonna behave yourself and keep that smart mouth shut from now on, or we'll have to do this all over again."

Do this all over again? Clay frowned. No. No! Whatever it took, he would not let this happen again!

He didn't want them touching him--the feeling of them so close made him want to scream again--but he could hardly stand on his own. His legs were rubbery and standing made the painful throbbing worse. A cold, sinking sensation came over him and he closed his eyes to keep from seeing the room spin around him, but this only made him lean more heavily on his assailants, so he opened them again quickly.

Abruptly, they let go of him, and he staggered a little, but managed somehow to stay upright, even though he couldn't really feel the ground beneath his feet. Strange thoughts went through his mind. Would Mary love him anymore? Why didn't he die? It was just a dream, wasn't it? Just a very bad dream, and he'd wake up soon and everything would be like it was.

"Time to go home, Mosby," Hanley said with a small laugh, pushing him toward the door.

Home...Hatton Willows. When he woke up, would he be at home, in his big, soft bed with Mary curled warmly against him, like that last night they were together...?

Bright light jolted him back. The chill spring wind had blown away the dense blanket of clouds and the late afternoon sun had made an appearance in the watery blue sky. He squinted and dropped his head to shield his eyes from the glare, and from their looks of disdain.

"He smells like piss," Guilford commented in a scornful tone.

"Got so scared, he wet himself," Hanley responded. "Turns out Colonel Mosby ain't so fearless after all."

Clay still said nothing. He could see they were talking, but he couldn't hear what they were saying anymore.

He was numb. No feeling, no sensation at all. He stood outside himself, watching, detached from the scene, the people, the pain. Was he dead and just didn't know it yet? Was this what hell really was, not fire and brimstone after all, but just empty nothingness? Had God sentenced him to wander this vacuum eternally, always on the edge of life, never able to touch it?

Perhaps he did deserve punishment. He had failed in so many ways....

"You are getting kinda rank, there, Mosby. I think we oughta give you a bath and clean you up some before we take you back," Jensen said in a nasty tone. He turned to the old trough about twenty feet from the barn and then added as if surprised, "Well, look here! We got a tub all fixed up for you."

Clay glanced up slightly to see what Jensen was looking at, but his mind refused to come out of its hiding place in the fog. He looked at the ground again in confusion.

"You sure he's all right?" the quieter guard ventured hesitantly to ask. "He's looking bad. The commandant said he wanted him broken, not dead."

Jensen seemed annoyed, but went on in a cheerful tone. "Don't worry, Barkley. He's gonna be just fine. Aren't you, Mosby?"

Clay was going far away now and they couldn't stop him because they didn't know. How bizarre, to be able to escape like this with them looking right at him.

He walked like a wooden puppet as they led him to the trough. It was filled with stagnant rain water murky with rotting leaves that had dropped from the trees during the past fall. Hanley and Guilford grabbed him, although it really wouldn't have taken two of them, and they pushed him backwards into the icy black water, holding him under.

He didn't fight them. He couldn't even feel the cold, he had been so cold already, and it was good not to see their faces. It was as though they had disappeared, leaving him in a wonderfully soft blackness. The word "drown" floated through his mind--not a thought, really. Just an awareness of a possibility.

He surrendered to the moment and began to breathe in the water...and found himself fighting to stay alive. Much to his shock and disappointment, the instinct to survive had overridden his will, as strong as that was.

He kicked out and struggled to raise his head out of the water. They let him up, almost as surprised as he to see signs of life from him. Coughing up the brackish water, all he could think was, Goddamnit, I'm still here! Damn You! Damn You to Your own hell for making me stay!

"Looking a little green there, Barkley. What's the matter?" the major said to the younger man, who looked even more unhappy with the situation than before. "Not going soft over some southern white trash, now, are you?"

"N--no, sir," the man replied with a stammer.

"Good," Jensen said in an iron voice, but then added more genially, "No need to waste any pity on him, boys. We're just doing our job, whipping the South right proper! And what better way to celebrate President Lincoln's inauguration tomorrow than to break another traitor?" This last, he directed at Clay, but he was too late.

Wracked now with violent shivering, Clay had retreated back into his hazy sanctuary.

PART 2: Waiting in Limbo...

Robert waited at the cell door until a guard appeared. He'd been banging on the door for what seemed like half an hour.

"You better be dying, reb!" the Yankee growled.

"I am," Robert replied. "Freezing to death."

The guard banged the butt of his rifle against the door and Robert jumped back instinctively.

"That all you wanted, you son-of-a-bitch?"

"No, I wanna know why I'm in here."

He'd been here before in the building set aside for problem prisoners. The prisoners called it the dungeon and it was the sturdiest structure on the grounds, but even here there was no relief from the cold. Instead of repelling it, the walls seemed to trap the chill.

The guard turned to go, but Robert called after him. He hadn't learned what he wanted to know yet, and he didn't want to be alone with the uncertainty. "Hey, you got a smoke?"

"Not for you, reb!" the guard shot back.

"Now is that any way to act? I'm not asking for a handout. I'll give you two bits." Robert smiled at the sound of footsteps as the guard returned to the door.

"Where'd you get money?"

Robert shrugged. "Rats go for six bits apiece these days."

"Shit!" the guard exclaimed.

"It isn’t that bad," Robert said with a laugh. Actually it was every bit that bad and worse, and truth be told, the money had not fallen into his hands due to any rodent, but the Yankee on the other side of the door didn't need to know that. All that mattered for now was that he keep talking. "If you cook ’em right, they taste just like squirrel."

"Shut up, Shelby!"

"What am I in here for anyway? I didn't do anything." It was a question that had plagued him since the guards had come for him just after noon. Always before when they'd brought him here there had been a reason and a visit to the sweat box on the way. But he hadn't done anything to deserve isolation since the last escape attempt weeks ago, and he'd been punished for that already.

"How the hell should I know?"

"You're the one with the gun," he replied just to keep the conversation going. As long as the guard was still here and still talking there was a chance he might learn what he wanted to know. Why was he here and where was Clay?

Clay had disappeared two days ago, taken off slop detail and brought back here, or so Robert assumed. But why?

He was running out of topics. It was hard to keep up a one-sided conversation. "Hey, you got a deck of cards? Play you some poker."

The Yankee laughed. "Whatcha gonna use for stakes? Rats?"

"Naw, I told ya...."

"Yeah, you got yourself a regular rat farm."

"Something like that. So, how about it?"

The man on the other side of the door hesitated as if tempted by Robert's suggestion, but in the end he declined. "No, Major Jensen'd have my hide."

Robert shivered at hearing the name spoken aloud. All the prisoners knew Jensen, the head of the camp’s guard, but a few had gotten to know him a little better than others, and none of them had been the same afterward.

He'd only heard about the incident between Clay and Jensen the week before and concluded that Clay must have gone completely mad. He had to admit, he enjoyed the image of Major Jensen's trouser legs covered with shit, but only until the enormity of what Clay had done fully dawned on him. They'd all been forced to watch the beating, and Robert wondered, as he had on several such occasions over the past months, how Clay could endure yet another one.

Hugging his arms around himself, he vainly sought warmth in the tattered shirt that hung on his emaciated body like something he'd stolen off a giant.

"So does this have something to do with Jensen?" Though he asked the question, he wasn't sure he wanted to know the answer.

"All I know is I'm supposed to put you in this cell and leave you here," the guard replied. "So shut your yap and leave me be."

The sound of the guard's footfalls echoed in the empty corridor until they disappeared altogether, leaving Robert alone to contemplate his fate. He sat in the cold dark, imagining all kinds of horrors that might befall him. They might just leave him here and let him starve to death. How long would it take? Days? A week? Without water, he wouldn't last long. Less than a week.

He wondered if Clay was in another part of the building, in another cell. They were keeping him somewhere, and this was the most likely place--unless....

No, he wouldn't allow himself to entertain that notion. Clay was alive, and he had to be in this building somewhere. Maybe they'd let them both out at the same time. Maybe, with the end of the war so close they'd go easier on Clay this time.

He trembled again and wrapped the thin blanket around himself. All he could do was wait.

PART 3: To Sleep, Perchance to Dream...

Clay stood unseeing, shaking uncontrollably, arms crossed tightly over his chest as if to keep himself from flying apart while the guard unlocked and opened the door to the dark stone cell. It wasn't the cell he had been in earlier, but the reason for the relocation became apparent soon enough. Guiding him to the doorway as though he were blind, the guard pushed him inside and threw his coat in after him, quickly closing the heavy, steel-plated door on any further responsibility for him.

"My God, Clay, what'd they do to you?" Robert said in alarm, getting up from where he sat on a worn-out mattress that nearly filled the little floor space in the damp, coffin-like cell. The only light came from the small, grated window in the door and a narrow slit at the top of the opposite wall, but Robert had seen Clay's pallid and disheveled appearance during the seconds he had stood in the opened doorway.

Clay said nothing, only continued to stare blankly at a distant point on the floor as he hugged himself and shivered.

Robert caught him as he began to sway on unsteady feet. "Oh, sweet Jesus, you're soaked through to the bone. Come here and sit down. You gotta get warmed up or you're gonna be sick."

He let Robert lead him to the pallet. He gave no indication, though, that he even saw his friend, no less recognized him. It was as if his body had been emptied of its essence and all that remained was a hollow shell as fragile as a blown-out egg. The only sign of life came when Robert pulled him down to sit on the flattened bedding. At this, he grimaced and gave forth a strangled cry of pain, but once he had shifted his weight to a hip, he went quiet again.

Even in the dim light, Robert noted this and frowned. Then, almost as though he were dealing with a child, he began to speak in a soothing tone. "There you go. Let's get this wet shirt off you now and get a blanket around you." He lifted the shirt's hem and dragged it over Clay's head and down his arms. He drew a thread-worn blanket around his shoulders, using one corner in an attempt to dry his hair. Clay was like a rag doll throughout it all.

It wasn't until Robert began to rub circulation back into his icy cold hands and arms that Clay finally seemed to rouse from his glazed trance.

"Robert?" he said, genuinely unsure for a moment who was ministering to him.

"Yes, it's me, Clay. Don't you worry. I'm going to take care of you. I guess it's my turn now, huh?" Looking down, he continued to rub the pale, bluish skin briskly. "You had me going, my friend," he said with a small, nervous laugh. "You were looking like one of those voodoo zombies there for awhile. Thought I was gonna lose you to the wandering spirits." Robert tried to make it sound like a joke.

He looked up, but Clay had turned away again, his eyes vacant once more.

Clay watched from a safe distance as Robert continued to care for his body, now pulling off the wet, muddy boots and trying to rub some warmth back into his feet. He felt something, an intense rush of anxiety, when he saw his friend considering what to do about the wet trousers, but relaxed again as Robert apparently decided to leave them be and just held him close instead.

He had never seen Robert like this before, so tender and obviously worried over him. He had always been the one in the past to take charge of a crisis and care for those in need. Was he in need? Was that how Robert saw him, as weak and incapable of even simple personal tasks?

It was true, though. He had failed to protect himself and then he had failed to kill himself. God was right to abandon him to this dreary limbo. He was damaged goods now, worthless to anyone. Not a man, but a coward. Not even worthy of Robert's diligent attention, although it was a comfort....

He suddenly realized he was sleepy, exhausted really. So nice of Robert to lay him down to rest. Maybe he would dream of something pleasant....

* * * * * * *

Robert roused quickly at the sound of a moaning, retching cough, and bent his stiff body forward to prevent Clay from throwing the blanket off again. Clay opened his bloodshot eyes and appeared to be looking at him, but he knew from the glazed stare that his sick friend saw nothing beyond his own private nightmare.

He reached for the canteen of water nearby and tipped it at Clay's lips anyway. Sometimes he could get him to swallow a little in these twilight awakenings. "Here, drink some, Clay," he urged gently with a voice hoarse from the cold air and lack of rest. He doubted Clay could understand the words, but their sound often seemed to soothe him.

Clay allowed the water to pour into his mouth and swallowed down about a quarter of a cup before retching half back out.

"That's all right, Clay. You kept more down this time," Robert sighed tiredly, wiping the vomited water from Clay's beard with one of the grimy rags the guards had given him.

Clay closed his eyes again and continued to shake with chills in his agitated sleep, his breathing ragged, sometimes gasping, sometimes stopping altogether. Sweat ran from his pasty gray face and his hair looked as if he had just come from the bath. Robert wiped him as dry as he could using another rag, but it was a never-ending task anymore.

"Lord Almighty, what in hell did they do to you?" he wondered aloud once more as he wrapped the blanket tighter around his unconscious friend and added Clay's coat over that.

Two days of fever and still no sign of letting up. Robert was scared now, more scared than he'd ever been in his life. Clay was dying--no, that wasn't quite right. Clay couldn't seem to decide whether to live or die, but dying sure looked to have the lead in the contest at the moment. And Robert's desperate effort to hold him here was the only reason he hadn't crossed that last dead-line already.

He wiped the sweat from Clay's face one more time before sitting back against the cold, damp wall. Exhausted himself from the constant vigil, he considered the answer to his question. What had they done to Clay to put him in this shadow world? Just what demons were they both fighting against here? The clues he had gathered were confusing at best.

Clay had been thrust into this cell with him looking three-quarters dead already. Robert had seen right away that he was wet and freezing and in some kind of shock, and his first thought had been that they threatened to drown him. While trying to warm Clay's deathly cold limbs, though, he noticed the swollen lower lip and bruised left cheek, the haphazard scratches on his chest, and the rope burns on his neck and wrists. That meant some kind of beating, but his body showed no evidence of a fresh whipping, and the rope mark at the neck made little sense. Had they tried to hang him, or pretended to hang him, cutting him down before he could strangle completely?

It would have humiliated Clay too much to witness his own infantile helplessness, so Robert waited until he had passed out before removing his wet pants, planning to dress him again later when they had dried. In the process, he discovered more pencil-line scrapes on Clay's belly and groin, so they must have made him strip to the skin, but what could have caused those scrapes? The image of crawling went through his mind, but he knew Clay would never have crawled in front of them. He would have died first. He must have been dragged somehow.

The inexplicable clue that bothered him most, though, was the blood he had found on the wash cloth.

Clay's body rejected almost everything it contained that might sustain his life, as if it meant to reject life itself, and he had suffered a bout of the flux the first day of this fever. Although Clay would have fought him hammer and tongs if he had been conscious, Robert had no choice but to clean him up. He demanded soap and hot water from the guards, more from anger than any real hope of getting what he wanted--they had already refused to take Clay to the prison hospital.

He was shocked, then, when they actually brought the items he requested, and acquiesced to most other demands he put to them as well. It was as if they expected Robert to doctor him, and he finally decided it was better he do it anyway. At least in the dungeon, he could be with Clay around the clock, attending to his every need, no matter how small a Yankee doctor might think it was. Clay probably had a greater chance of surviving with him than in that damn death trap of a hospital.

And that's how he discovered the blood.

It had been hard to tell at first, mixed in with the small amount of waste that was mostly watery mucous. The stain on the wash cloth, though, had made him suspicious, and when he held it up to the light from the window, he was alarmed to see it was old blood mixed with some new--Clay was bleeding inside his gut. The bleeding stopped later, which was a hopeful sign. Nevertheless, if he had been injured internally, he could very well die.

Robert didn't want to think about it anymore, he didn't want pictures of torture in his head. All he knew for sure was that, whatever they did to him, Clay had finally broken, and he was at the mercy of a merciless God now.

They both were.

He exhaled heavily and stretched out on the mattress next to Clay, wrapping him close in his arms to offer some additional warmth, cradling his head against his chest, unmindful of the moisture. Even in his senseless state, Clay seemed aware of the refuge Robert offered with his own body and curled into him.

Robert relaxed at the feel of tension draining from Clay's muscles and dared to close his bleary eyes, hoping Clay would finally rest enough so he could get some sleep, too. The thought had barely occurred to him, though, before he passed into that leaden embrace himself.

* * * * * * *

He felt around in the dark and shrank away when he touched freezing, clammy stone. The mausoleum again. The place of his childhood nightmares. It had to be--the smell of death choked the stale air. But what was he doing here? Clay shook his aching head and tried to think. He must have died. When did that happen? What battle was it? He couldn’t remember a battle, but there had been so many...and the pain...the pain was fresh all through him....

Hands took hold of him from behind and dislodged a flood of chaotic memories.

Jensen! Even death was no escape! He was here with him in this goddamned hell, come to do it again just as he promised!

Clay struck out and yelled at the man, backing against the wall and pushing his hands away with a strength born of panic. The attacker grabbed his wrists and pinned him down anyway. Oh God, oh God, not again!

"Get away from me!" he demanded. "Damn you, you son-of-a-bitch, get away from me!"

The man was talking to him. Clay didn't want to hear. "No! No! You are not doing it again! I'll die first! I'll kill you! I swear, I'll kill you, you touch me like that again!"

The man stopped talking suddenly, but still didn't release him.

He was passing out. Blackness had come to claim him one more time, another wave of that cold dark ocean washed over him, pulling him under. He fought it. He fought it for as long as he could, knowing he would be helpless to the man above him if he succumbed, but it was no use. He was too tired to fight anymore. He had to let go....

PART 4: Waking to Another Nightmare...

Clay woke with a start and jerked away from the person beside him, panting in fear and spinning around to crouch with his back against the opposite wall. He almost passed out from the effort as he strained to see who it was by the faint light of an oil lamp in the hall and the threads of dawn filtering in through the slit of a window.

"Clay, it's just me--Robert. It's all right. We're alone." Robert sat up and rubbed his eyes, holding out his other hand in a calming gesture.

Clay just stared at it, and then started again as someone in another cell began a hacking cough, the usual harbinger of morning.

"Clay, can you hear me?" Robert asked, his voice gentle despite his alarm. Clay looked like a cornered animal, terrified for his life. Whispering more to himself than to the disoriented man he faced, he added, "Come back to me, my friend. I need you too much to lose you now."

Gradually, Clay’s breathing slowed. He blinked and glanced around, then slumped down on his haunches and sighed. A prison cell. He was still here. Why couldn't he just be dead?

He saw from Robert's expression that he had noted something, was thinking something about him. He looked away nervously. Robert might not be a leader, but he was not stupid. In his mind, or what was left of it, he begged the God who had condemned him to keep Robert from asking what he surely wanted to know.


"Yes...Robert. I can hear you," he answered wearily, closing his eyes and running a hand through his filthy, lice-infested hair.

"You’ve been out for days," Robert said, concern in his voice. "I wasn't sure you were gonna make it."

He frowned. "Days?" Had that much time passed? It seemed like only minutes ago that they had brought him here.

"Three days now, I've been tending you. The fever finally broke last night. How are you feeling?"

Feeling. Jesus, he could still feel it, like it was still happening.... He squeezed his eyes closed for a second and shook the threatening memory away, but his body seemed to have a memory of its own. "I had a fever?" he asked finally. "Did I ... say anything?"

"Well, I don't mind telling you, you did put up a good fight for someone who was so sick, but you didn't say anything." Robert looked down and picked at the blanket before looking up again. "Nothing that made sense, anyway," he added.

Clay could see he was lying. Oh, dear Lord, what did he say?

"The guards brought some broth with real meat in it, and another shirt for you. It's been strange. They're being awfully helpful all of a sudden. Well, one of them is, anyway. Barkley, he said his name was," Robert said.

Clay didn't respond. Eyes narrowed, he stared intently at nothing and pressed a fist to his tightened mouth, jaws clenching as though he were chewing on something. He wanted to be alone, wished Robert wasn't sitting there, watching him and waiting. Waiting for what? What did Robert want from him? To be the leader like before ... before.... He jammed his fist harder on the cut side of his mouth and used the pain to refocus.

"You still need some rest. Come back over here to the mattress and put the shirt on before you catch pneumonia," Robert coaxed, getting up to give him the entire length of it, although this meant a seat on damp, hard ground for himself. He stretched his hand out toward Clay’s shoulder to help him.

Clay jerked away as if burned, surprising even himself with the violence of his reaction. He saw the frown on Robert’s face, the hurt and puzzlement in his eyes as he withdrew his hand, but all he could feel was relief. He crawled unassisted to the mattress even though he was so weak, he couldn’t see straight. Settling gingerly on a hip again, he pulled the clean shirt over his head with awkward effort, thankful he didn’t have to put on that other one. Lifting the cup of broth Robert had indicated to his mouth, he sipped it slowly. The taste, bland as it was, awakened long-forgotten hunger in his belly.

Robert sat down as far from Clay as he could get. "They gonna come back for you, you think?" he asked casually.

Clay frowned and then slowly shook his head. "No." They got what they wanted, he thought with self-loathing. The ocean called to him and he started to drift.

Robert didn't say anything for awhile, seeming to consider what his friend had said. "Wasn't your fault, Clay," he finally said, not looking up.

This focused Clay at once. "What?"

"What they did to you. Wasn't your fault."

Clay breathed out in disgust and stared grimly at the mildewed mattress covering.

"I can see that's what you're thinking," Robert went on, still not looking up.

"You're not even looking at me. How would you know what I'm thinking?" Clay snapped in sudden irritation, then wished he hadn't as dizziness engulfed him.

At this outburst, Robert did look straight at him. "You forget I grew up with you, Clay. I know you, I know what it means when you get like this. You think you're responsible. You always think you're responsible for everything, like you were God Himself. Hell, you're only a man. You don't have that kind of power and if you don’t stop thinking you do, it's gonna eat you alive from the inside out!"

"You know nothing about it," Clay said with narrowed brown eyes that hinted at the fire raging inside of him, consuming him.

"You are one stubborn cuss, you know that?" Robert said in frustration. When he got no response, he sighed and tried a different tack. "Well, they can’t do too much else to us. The war's almost over. They're gonna have to let us out of here soon."

He looked up. "I broke, Robert. I gave them what they wanted." That much, at least, he could say. Maybe it would be enough to answer the unspoken questions he saw in Robert's eyes, to explain whatever he might have revealed in his fevered rantings.

"You did your duty. You stayed alive. That's the only way to win now. Stay alive to spite the bastards."

"I'd rather be dead," Clay responded emphatically.

"That's crazy talk! You gotta think about Mary now," Robert said in exasperation.

"I am thinking about Mary!" he said sharply. Then, with more melancholy than anger, he finished the thought. "She won't want me like this. I'd just bring shame to her now. She'd be better off without me."

"That's the most fool thing you ever said. Don't you know your own wife? Mary'd want you back if you had two arms and a leg taken off! She just wants you back alive, Clay. Nothing else matters."

"Doesn't it? What've we been fighting for, then? There are some things, Robert, that matter more than life itself. What about honor? Doesn't that count for anything anymore, or have we really become such animals that all we can think about is surviving no matter what the cost?" Stiffly, he motioned his head toward the door, indicating their captors. "That's the way they treat us, like animals ... or ... or worse...." For an instant, the trance threatened to possess him again, but he shook it off with renewed anger. "Seems like you're beginning to believe it."

"I promised Mary I'd bring you back to her alive, Clay, and I plan on keeping my word. Condemn me if you like, but that's all that matters to me now."

Clay had no strength to argue any further. He laid down with his back to Robert and pulled the blanket over him, feeling guilty for shutting out the only friend he had right now, but unable to do anything else.

Within a minute, the darkness had welcomed him back into comfortable oblivion.

PART 5: A New Escape Plan...

Clay looked to see that Robert was sleeping as his hand went automatically to the rough-edged stone he kept in the right side pocket of his pants. The week before, he had felt it sticking out of the cell's dirt floor as he lay belly down convalescing on the moldering pallet that passed for a bed, and had absently dug it out with his fingers for want of anything else to do.

Quietly, he pulled it out, and after rolling his sleeve up to his elbow, started sawing the sharp edge across the inside of his left arm. He had already scraped two other places raw with it, and this third patch of skin was getting pretty bloody now too, but the pain helped him blot the other sensations out of his awareness.

He had mostly healed from the attack two weeks ago--well, as much as a body could heal while malnourished and exposed to harsh and unsanitary conditions. The sensations, though--they were another matter. The feeling of it was always there, as if it were still happening, as if the invader were still present within him, inescapable and demanding attention. No matter what he was doing, no matter what position he placed himself in, it was always there during every conscious moment, and many of the unconscious ones as well. Nightmares brought it all back to him in vivid detail, nightmares he discovered he could have just as easily when awake as asleep.

He sometimes found shelter in a narrow gray place between these worlds--the worlds of day and night, waking and sleeping. If he just stared at something--anything, really--long enough without blinking, and breathed very slowly and deeply, the gateway would open and he could enter this middle world where he could be alone and free of his body, his prison, for his body was his prison now.

Robert stirred slightly and Clay froze, waiting breathlessly for him to resettle on the lone mattress they were, of necessity, forced to share.

He always started each night on the makeshift bed with Robert as if to sleep, but the closeness made his skin crawl and as soon as he could be sure that Robert was out, he would get up again and sit on the ground in the corner of the cell, where he could see the door and its grate-covered window. If anyone came, he would be ready this way, his back to the wall. At night, he didn't want to visit the gray world. He had to be ready, just in case. So he used the stone to keep the feelings at bay instead.

The guards hadn't come for him at all so far since he had broken. He wasn't beaten anymore, and they even brought more food. And once, that guard Barclay had sneaked him some hard liquor. It had been brewed by the camp guards from an awful assortment of odds and ends, but he had to say, he had been glad to have it.

If only he could have some good Scotch whiskey, though--now that would really help. Or opium.

Despite his physical recovery, the guards had not let him and Robert return to the general camp population, however. He had wondered about that for awhile. He wasn't causing them any trouble anymore, and surely Robert didn't deserve punishment for another man's transgressions. But then he had realized the reason. They thought he would try to kill himself if they let him out of this close confinement, and they wanted Robert to watch him, to keep him alive.

Well, Robert was certainly up to the task. He watched him with the unwavering concentration of a mother lynx. It was eerie, unnerving. And he didn't see the point. What could he do in this cell anyway? There was nothing he could use....

One good thing about it, though, was that he didn't have to keep watch for them coming during the day. He had Robert to do that, so he could just ... go away.

The thing he couldn't figure out was why. Why did they want him to live? Why didn't they kill him, or simply let him do the job for them? It didn't make sense. It wasn't very practical to break him and then not use him as an example to other prisoners, and surely not convenient to keep him alive. Unless Jensen had something to do with it....

Maybe it wouldn't look good for him, if the prisoners he broke had a habit of killing themselves afterwards. Maybe someone would get too interested in his methods and investigate.

He knew why Jensen wanted him to live, though--the real reason.

“You won’t ever forget me. I’m gonna be the most important person you ever knew, Mosby, because I’m gonna be behind you every step you take until you’re in your grave.”

Clay gasped and closed his eyes, forcing the voice from his mind and digging into his arm with renewed vigor. The son-of-a-bitch wanted him to remember. For the rest of his life, however long or short that might be, he wanted him to remember.

But there was another "why" that plagued him.

Why did Jensen do this to him? Why this when he had any number of other punishments he could choose from. It was true, he had withstood them all up to that point. The whippings, the forced nudity and other humiliations of his body, the hard and filthy labor he had been put to. Of course, they hadn't made him ride the mule. Clay had expected that would have been next, and he had prepared himself for it. At least that would have been a man’s punishment.

But this...this unnatural act. Why? And why him? Was there something about him, something that hinted he was less than a man even before he knew it himself?

“...sweet ass. Better than a woman's....”

He shook his head and ground the stone harder into the wound he had so diligently created until a streak of burning, soothing pain shot up his arm.

He had done everything right, everything he was supposed to do. He had done well at his school lessons and learned business from his father. He had learned to use weapons to defend himself and protect those he loved. He had lain with many women, had been earlier at this than most, in fact, and had never failed to satisfy himself or his bedmates. He had married and promised to care for a wife to the end of their days. He had been honorable, been a leader to men, fought hard for his country, and would have died for it. He had done everything a man was supposed to do, but none of that had mattered.

He had still been used like a woman.

"What are you doing, Clay?"

Clay jumped at the unexpected sound of Robert's voice and tried to hide the stone behind him. He had lost track of things; he hadn't been ready.

"What have you got there?" Robert asked impatiently. He moved the short distance to where Clay sat and reached around to feel for what it was he had hidden.

Clay flinched away from his nearness and said nothing.

Robert pulled the stone from the corner where he had shoved it and ran his thumb over the sharpened edge. "What have you been doing with this?" he demanded. The blood on his thumb chilled him. “Sweet God Almighty, Clay!”

"Leave me be, Robert!" he insisted, sounding almost as petulant as a child caught with a hand in the candy jar.

Robert gripped his wrist and stretched his arm out, ignoring for once the tension that electrified Clay's muscles at his touch. His voice trembled with fear and horror when he spoke again. “Why the hell would you go and do a thing like that?”

Clay just stared angrily at him and jerked his arm free. Robert had no right, no right to interfere. He didn't understand what it was like....

Robert ran his fingers through his hair and breathed out in frustration. "Jesus, Clay, I can't watch you every minute."

"Then don't! I didn't ask you to watch over me, Robert. Just leave me be and go back to sleep, if you're tired."

"And leave you to keep hacking away at yourself?” Robert exhaled tiredly and sat back against the opposite wall, legs drawn up in front of him. "You're scaring me, Clay. I've never seen you like this. I don't know what to do to help you," he admitted.

Robert was exhausted, near tears, Clay could hear it in his voice. "I don't need your help," he said. There's no help for me anymore, he thought bitterly.

Robert closed his eyes and covered them with his hand. “I don’t know you anymore,” he muttered as if talking to himself. “It’s like ... it’s like you’re gone and someone else is looking out at me through your eyes, a crazy man. I don’t know how to talk to you, to make you see....”

His voice caught and he stopped suddenly, and for awhile the only sounds came from their breathing and the coughs and moans of prisoners in other cells. Then he dropped his hand to look at Clay again and a look of decision set his mouth in a line as he sat up straighter.

"All right. Have it your way. You want to skin yourself alive, go ahead. You want to kill yourself, then do it," he told him with weary anger. "I can't fight you anymore. You always were more stubborn than anyone I ever knew, so you just do what you want to do, and I'll tell Mary how you died."

He laid down on the mattress again and turned his back to him.

Mary. Shame overwhelmed Clay at the thought of her. Mary wouldn’t want him like this, not anymore. He pictured her beautiful face, her clear innocent eyes, her sweet soft skin, and he felt profoundly and utterly filthy. A putrid stain had seeped through his skin to his very soul, a stain he could never wash away. How could he ever touch her again? How could he shame her like that? He wasn’t even a man anymore, perhaps he wasn’t even human.

He glanced at Robert’s back and even in the dim light, he could see the tension there. Robert was trying so hard. For a fleeting moment, Clay remembered. This was his closest friend, his brother in everything but name. He sighed and let guilt wash away the shame, and with it, the muddy anger.

"All right, Robert," he said softly, offering conciliation. "I'm sorry to be so much trouble to you. I know you're right. I've got to think about Mary now."

Robert didn't move.

"Robert?" With much effort, Clay reached out and touched his friend's shoulder. He swallowed thickly. "You think there's room for me there?"

Robert rolled over to face him. "You don't have to lay down, Clay. Stay awake if you want."

"You'll worry about me if I don't," he said, trying to smile.

Robert paused. "Come on then," he said. He lifted the blanket and slid over as far as he could to give Clay most of the bed.

Carefully, stiffly, Clay laid himself on the very edge of the pallet, barely holding back the panic that threatened to devour him.

"You gonna be all right, Clay?" Robert asked gently.

He almost laughed. What a strange thing to ask him. Of course he wouldn't be all right. He'd never be all right again. "I'm fine, really," he lied. "Go to sleep, Robert."

The feeling.... The feeling was still there. He felt around for the stone, but it was gone. Robert must have taken it.

Unconsciously, he began scratching at the scabs that had begun to form on the older wounds. The pain wasn’t intense enough to block out the other sensations completely, but it was all he had.

I'll have to find a new stone when morning comes, he thought.

[Continued in DARKLY BOUND: Confrontation]

Colleen J. MacLennan
revised 12/29/99

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