"Your visitor is waiting right in here." The door slid open into the visiting room, the lantern light outlining the soft gray hat and yellow feather of a confederate officer.
Pausing for just a moment, Private Michael Roberts wondered how a Confederate Officer had ever walked into a Union prison camp unmolested. It took merely a moment for the shock to wear off as the officer at the desk lifted his gaze from the bible in his hands and fixed his knowing eyes on the young man standing stock still in the doorway, "Kid."
"Teaspoon." He hadn't uttered that name in weeks. He almost asked how his old mentor had found him, but it wasn't worth asking. Kid had given his name to Teaspoon at his wedding. Even then it seemed trivial to hide his name, after all he'd told Lou his a long time ago.
The Union soldier behind him wasn't big on wasting time and pushed the Kid's gaunt body into the room and barked out a warning, disturbing his thoughts. "Five minutes, Roberts."
The rough pads of Teaspoon's thumbs rubbed against the weathered pages of the book clutched in his hands and he took a few seconds to run his eyes over the young man standing before him. Six months in the confederate forces had put years on his face and hunched his shoulders. The uniform he wore hung from his frame and seemed to swallow him whole. "We've come to bring you home, son."
Kid felt the bile rise up in his throat. "No..."
Rising from the table, Teaspoon walked a few steps closer. "Back to Rock Creek-"
"Jus' leave me here."
" The lantern light in the room quivered as Teaspoon closed the distance. "What's wrong, Kid, you got a chess game yer in the middle of. We've come to get you out of here."
"That's the problem," Kid began, "I don't want to leave."
Before Teaspoon could argue Kid plowed on, "I deserve to die in here, you don't know-"
Teaspoon clapped a hand on his shoulder, "What I know is Lou's gone missing. I can't find any word of where she is. We need you to find her, go back to your unit, ask them what happened."
Kid shrugged off the hand as though it's comforting touch burned him. "That's what I mean, I know where she is and you're not gonna like it. Just let me die here and get it over with."
Kid turned to the door and away from Teaspoon, but the older man wasn't going to let him walk away so easy, not when the answer he was searching for was locked in the boy's head. Grabbing his arms from behind, Teaspoon pulled him from the door. "Then tell me, where is she?"
Kid's head hung from his neck like a Christmas goose fresh from the slaughter. "Fine, you wanna know? She's dead... she's dead, and I did it."
Teaspoon felt every ounce of air in his lungs escape in one whoosh from his slack mouth. His hands tightened and flexed on Kid's arms and would probably leave bruises but neither man cared.
"How do you know?"
Guilt and shame burned the back of his throat, but Kid tried to talk around it, "I did it, Teaspoon. I didn't mean to, but .. it just happened. It was during the-"
"No!" Teaspoon almost shouted the command and then softened his voice. "Don't say anything more, not until we get you out of here."
"Don't do this for me-"
Teaspoon cut him off, "It ain't for you and you know it. Lou is out there, lost. We're gonna find her with your help and we're gonna bring her home."
Kid nodded, and almost met the look in Teaspoon's eyes. "How?"
"I'm gonna walk out of here like nothing happened." He cleared his throat, "A few hours from now, two Union officers are coming in here with transfer papers to move you to a different prison. You're going to go with them and you're not going to say a word about what you told me, do you understand?"
Kid nodded and hung his head as the door opened to the visiting room. Teaspoon closed his Bible and said "Amen," before nodding to the guard at the door. Preceding Kid out the door, he didn't once try to touch him or offer a word of consolation. Kid knew it was partially for the guard at the door, but mostly Kid feared that Teaspoon hated him.
"And he should."
"What's that?" growled the guard.
"Nothing.. nothing, just take me back."
Hours later, the changing of the guard alerted Kid to his chance at freedom. He waited patiently for the call from the guard tower, but when it came he couldn't help but feel a sense of dread deep in his bones. A thick congested voice from the central guard tower cried out, "Private Roberts, Private Michael Roberts. Report to the officer at the door!"
Kid turned to the other men gathered around the fire with them. None raised their heads. They all knew what he had done and hated him for it, mistake or not. He offered nothing in the way of farewell, after all, none of the men would know he was gone, or care if he disappeared.
The officer at the door nearly smirked as he held out thick iron manacles connected by a chain, "Well Roberts, looks like we've seen the last of your sorry face."
Nodding, Kid offered up his hands and felt the slice of rusted metal cutting across his skin.
"Sorry I couldn't find nicer ones for you, but we have to save those for the prisoners we've got here. You understand, don't you, Roberts?"
Still, the prisoner said nothing and the guard began to tire of sport that got no reaction from his quarry. He turned to the door and pulled out a ring filled with keys, thumbing through the lot, he picked out a long skeleton key and slipped it into the door to the hall. With a quick twist of his hand, the door swung open and the guard jerked his head toward the door. "Get out of here, and go home where you belong, Roberts."
Kid walked into the amber glow of the room and saw the glint of brass buttons against navy wool. He saw the shape of the men beneath the officers uniforms and felt his blood run cold. Muscles, born of hard work and battles fought, seemed to promise a swift end to his life. Pausing just out of arms reach Kid looked to the Prison Camp commander for the signal to speak.
The older man regarded him with the same glare that he gave to all the rebel prisoners, "Ready to go, boy."
Commander Coffrey nodded, "Then get the hell out of here."
One of the silent officers grabbed the chain between the manacles and headed for the door, the other soldier followed behind. The commander called out an order and the outer door swung open and sent a cool rush of air over the three men on their way to freedom.
Wordlessly, they settled him in the wagon and mounted their horses and rode off alongside the conveyance as another soldier snapped the reigns to speed their escape. They traveled all night, barely stopping for a moments rest and instead of taking them toward the north or even the west, they traveled deeper south toward North Carolina. In the wee hours of the morning, they rode into a barn beside a small farmhouse and gave their mounts to a young boy, before leading Kid to the back door of the house.
Teaspoon opened the door and stepped aside to keep watch as the four men stepped into the kitchen.
The first officer to sweep off his hat gave him a weak smile,
"It's good to see you again, Kid."
"Cody." Kid croaked out the word around the lump in his throat. He stood there stock still as Cody fished in his pockets for the key to the manacles, his short hair barely reaching the tops of his ears.
Another hand held out the key to him and Kid took a quick look to the side and saw Buck's face peering out from beneath a Union hat. "You cut your hair." Buck lifted his hat and let his hidden ponytail shake free.
"Can't very well ride around pretending to be a Union Soldier with an Indian's ponytail, can I?"
Kid shook his head and slowly turned to look at the last officer in the room. Another short hair cut that seemed out of place. Jimmy was busily folding up his Union uniform and shrugging on the coat of a Confederate Officer. He turned to face the group and nodded toward the door, "We about ready to go?"
The manacles snapped off Kid's wrist, opening a rend in his skin. He said nothing as Cody tied a handkerchief around the wound.
"You ready, Kid?"
Kid looked up into Teaspoon's unreadable gaze and felt what was left of his heart fall into pieces. "Let's go."
If anyone noticed that Kid's reply seemed less than enthusiastic they didn't let it show. Hastily donned Confederate uniforms in place, the four packed up enough food for a week and stuffed it into their haversacks. The banter between the riders was light and inspired by hope. Kid knew that was only because Teaspoon hadn't told them what he knew. Somehow, it made it easier to stand there in their midst, knowing that once they heard the whole story he'd most likely have his greatest wish, death. Kid led them back down the road to the last battlefield he remembered. Tall trees and natural hills dotted the area, lending shade and protection to the small animals that had once lived there. Now, the grass still dead in numerous places and called to mind large cannons wallowing in mud. A cool breath of air stirred some birds from the tops of trees and Kid sank down in his saddle, covering his ears from the sound. To him, the wind roared like a cannon and the morning light turned dark and heavy with fear.
"What's wrong, Kid?" Cody's question hung in the air between them and still, Kid couldn't answer. His breath came in shallow gasps and he could feel the wool scratching against his sweaty skin through the soft cotton shirt he wore. Buck saw the haunted look in his eyes and reached up to touch the medicine bag he wore beneath his own disguise. It was only then that Buck felt the tremor of his heart within his chest and knew within an instant. "She's dead."
Jimmy whirled his horse around. He'd heard the whispered words and it sent him reeling. "What did you say?"
Cody looked at Teaspoon and felt his heart stumble inside his body. Their mentor couldn't look him in the eye and that fact alone nearly swept him out of his saddle. "Lou?"
Kid nodded when he couldn't find the words. "What the hell happened?"
Kid looked to find a way out, a quick and easy death that would save him from his confession, but there was none. He looked up into Jimmy's eyes and spoke, "I shot her."
Jimmy moved faster than a body had a right to. In a seemingly invisible rush of air, Jimmy knocked Kid off his saddle and onto the road. A rock jutting up from the undergrowth cracked on of Kid's ribs but the young man didn't care. He felt his body go limp beneath Jimmy's fists and soon Jimmy picked him up by his shirt fronts, "Fight back, damn you, fight back!"
"No," Kid mumbled and turned his head to the side.
The fight ran out of Jimmy and he dropped Kid's wan frame to the ground and staggered to his feet. He walked passed Teaspoon, but when the older man reached out to touch his shoulder in comfort Jimmy held up his hand and kept walking into the line of trees on the other side of the road.
Cody and Buck approached Kid slowly, their own faces stark with pain and disbelief. The horses meekly followed along as if they understood the strange tone of the moment. "Why, Kid?"
Cody's question had the hurt sound of a child and the weight of grief in his eyes was terrible to look in, but Kid figured it was the least he could do.
"I didn't mean to... it wasn't on purpose."
Buck nodded and spoke his thoughts quietly, "We know, Kid...of course you didn't."
It was true, deep inside they knew that Kid's statement was true, as true as the blue sky over their heads, but that knowledge didn't make it any easier to hear.
Teaspoon heard the uneasy silence on the other side of the road, but could find no peace in it. A few moments ago, Jimmy had bent to empty the meager contents of his stomach as the certainty of Kid's statements sunk in. He wanted to check on the younger man, but turned to Kid instead, eager to get them on their way. He offered Kid a hand but the injured soldier pulled himself up with sheer determination.
Cody was still in a daze. "When did it happen?"
Kid opened him mouth to answer but the sharp tone of another question kept him silent. "I think the question we aught to be askin' is how. How, Kid? How did you put a bullet into the woman you loved? How did you kill her? How could you?"
Jimmy stalked closer, his eyes were mere slits in the dark shade of his face. Kid had no question that the wrong word would see his blood spilt all over the soil, and since he didn't care, he told them the truth. "It was dark.. and I know that's no excuse, but it's all I have."
Safety meant that they should have stepped off to the side of the road, but no one felt like moving.
"We'd been under fire for days and somehow in the middle of the night, about ten of us got separated from the rest. We were under the shade of some tall trees and even the moonlight was hidden. We laid low, refusing to move or talk. We had no idea where the rest of our unit was and that meant that we had no idea where the Federal Troops were."
"Where was Lou?" Buck's soft voice swept through them like the wind.
"I'd lost track of her with the rest of the company. She rode messages for the Captain, so I thought she was with him, protected by the officers. I never knew." Kid felt lost again, cut off from his family by the weight of his guilt.
"Come on, Kid, hold it together." Cody's warning bit into his reverie.
"It was still the dark of night and volleys whizzed through the air above our heads, iron bits digging into the trees and sending leaves and even branches down on our heads. We only allowed ourselves the barest of whispers, afraid that a single sound would get us killed."
Kid gulped in a breath past the burning pain in his back. "The fighting continued, the cannons rolling closer and closer while we laid there in the grass. I kept thinkin' at least Lou was safe... that's all that mattered."
Jimmy hissed out a breath and somewhere in the back of Kid's mind he welcomed the idea of Jimmy killin' him. At least it would be quick.
"We where nearly deaf from the roar of cannons nearby, the constant movement of troops around us made us shake with fear. It was only the fact that we stayed hidden among the roots of the trees that we were safe. Another hour came and went and we were all on edge, so when we heard the footsteps behind us we all thought we were dead."
"Another roar from a cannon and a tree near my head turned to splinters." Kid gulped down the fear that seared his lungs, "There was blood everywhere, I had a cut just above my eye." Kid reached up to touch the scar above his brow and when he brought his hand down, he was surprised to see that there was no blood coloring his skin. "We heard sounds rustling in the bushes behind us and we all raised our guns toward the sound. I called out, but I couldn't hear my voice, my ears were ringing-"
"From the cannon," Teaspoon provided.
"From the cannons," Kid agreed.
"Then what?" It could have been Buck or Cody that asked the question, Kid couldn't tell.
"I couldn't hear an answer. I looked over at Con, Conner Thomas, another private he shrugged and I could see him for a moment as another cannon blast lit up the night around us, but I couldn't see anything in the trees."
"Again the leaves started to move and I pulled back the hammer beneath my hand, muffling the sound." Kid felt fear grip his chest and squeeze. "I called out again, but still nothing. I felt like I was underwater, drowning in the sounds screaming in my ears-"
"Get to it." Jimmy was about to lose himself in his anger.
"They burst through the trees and I fired. I couldn't wait for the Bluecoats to kill us. I had to do something right then, so I fired again and again... rifle to handgun. I shot anything that moved."
Kid knew without looking around each of the men surrounding him felt each and every bullet as if it had hit them.
Teaspoon was the first to find his voice. "How did you know?"
"That it was Lou?"
Teaspoon nodded and Kid wished he could just die. "She was still standing when the next cannon volley started. The sky burned red all around us, like the last light of day. There she was staring at me-"
"Shut up, Kid." Jimmy's voice was as frosty as ice.
"She had nothing in her hands..."
"Shut up, Kid." There was a tremor cracking through the frost.
"She just fell to her knees in the mud, calling out my name."
Buck and Cody grabbed Jimmy before he even realized he'd drawn his gun. "Damn you, Kid!" Jimmy's voice was little more than a haunted whisper.
Kid's own reply fell into the air between them, "Too late, I've already done that." Buck turned back and Kid could see the deep black sorrow in his eyes. "Where is she?"
Cody's gaze swung around, waiting for the answer as well. Jimmy hung between them, each hand gripping another shoulder, barely able to support its own weight.
Kid felt some of his strength return. "I buried her right there. Under those trees. Everyone left me there so I could do what was right."
"Right?" Jimmy's head snapped up and threw daggers at Kid with his glare. "How can you stand here and say that, to us?"
Kid looked like a whipped dog wanting to lick his wounds but not knowing where to start. "There's not much I can say. Nothing will ever make it right for us, for the family."
Jimmy's eyes were hot with anger but somehow he held back.
Kid looked toward the trees, "Do you want to see where she is?"
Teaspoon cleared his throat and gripped his bible tight against his chest. "That's why we're here, Kid."
Nodding, Kid led them across the slopping ground, each step sure and unerring. He'd retraced his steps hundreds of times in the last few weeks and finding his way was easier than breathing. Beyond the largest copse of trees Kid sank to his knees and touched a mound of earth with his right hand. Behind him, the other four men gathered in a protective line.
Cody crouched down beside him, "You sure this is the one?"
Kid smoothed a rough area and patted the soil down, "It's the only one in this area. I had to cut through roots and-"
"We're going to move her." Teaspoon's voice was full of determination. "We'll go to town, buy the wood we need and build ourselves a box-"
"And bring her home." Jimmy felt his own sense of loss temper his words, drawing out the anger with his grief.
"I don't want to move her."
"Kid?" The warning in Jimmy's voice was razor sharp.
"I know you don't want to hear what I have to say, but ... she was my wife, Jimmy. I don't want her to suffer the trip home, all those miles, when she's already resting here."
"There are other ways, Kid."
Kid looked up into Buck's eyes and knew he felt his pain.
"I can't, Buck. It was one thing with Ike, but this.. she.. you can't."
Jimmy couldn't let this continue, "You ain't thinkin' right, hell, you ain't thinkin' at all."
Teaspoon agreed, "This ain't a decision you've gotta rush, Kid."
Cody stepped closer and tried to touch his shoulder, "This ain't something anyone should rush. You gotta give yourself time to think."
Kid walked past all of them and headed for the horses. "All I've been doin' since that night is think. I'm tired of it and I just want it to go away." He let his last words bite into his own thoughts and sting what was left of his pride. "I just want everything to go away, and let me die."
Kid reached the horses and groped for his reins. He felt only empty air between his fingers. He looked up through his red rimmed eyes and saw the nature of his on going torment. Jimmy held the reins of the horse and waited until Kid looked him straight in the eye. "Tell me one thing."
Kid nodded, "Anything."
"What did she say?"
"You mean, did she say anything about you?"
Jimmy's look could've stripped the bark off a tree. "Just tell me."
Kid felt the chill down to his toes. "She asked me 'why'."
Jimmy nodded and felt the reins drop from his fingers. "What did you tell her?"
"I didn't say anything. I just touched her face and felt her go cold in my arms and I just couldn't think of anything to say."
Jimmy look straight into Kid's eyes and told him the truth, "You're not gettin' on this horse until you do a damn sight better, Kid."
"What do you mean?"
Pointing at the copse of trees in the middle of the field, Jimmy gave him an order he'd never be able to refuse. "You're gonna go back out there and tell her.. make her understand why she's layin' out there under the ground instead of goin' home with us."
"Jimmy, it wouldn't do her any good-"
"The hell it won't, Kid. You'll do it if I have to hold a gun to your head."
"Death doesn't frighten me, Jimmy."
"But it frightened her, and you're gonna make it better."
Kid blinked back new tears and turned away, his feet marking the distance to the trees, knowing that Jimmy walked a scant step behind him. There was no escaping this, no turning away from the hardest thing he'd ever have to do. He walked back alone, no one needed to go with him, he had enough ghosts of his own. He stood there, looking out over the soft light dying on the cold ground of Gettysburg. The once beautiful farm land laid to waste by the roar of canons and the slick mires of blood and tears.
He could still hear the cannons booming in his head, stripping away the semblance of sanity he'd tried to assume. From somewhere beyond his reach he felt her pain, her confusion, her fear. The bullets, tearing through flesh and muscle ripped open precious veins filled with blood. Baring fears to the cold dark night. Sinking to his knees, Kid remembered the weight of her body in his arms and the fierce trembling that she could not control.
Her eyes, always a mirror of her feelings, shone with fear. Lips, cracked with thirst, filled with blood and she gasped out her last word, "Why?"
Tears slipped over his cheeks and fell into his empty hands, "It was a mistake, Lou.. and aweful, hateful, impossible mistake."
If he could have done it with his bare hands he would have ended it there, taken his own life and offered it for hers, but such things were beyond his control. Instead of ending his own life, he decided to promise her a measure of peace. "I'll go home, Lou, our real home. I'll bring Teresa and Jeremiah there and we'll make them happy... somehow. I'll never forgive myself for what I did, but I can promise you ... they'll always have a home and a family as long as I live... as long as I live."
A cooling breeze swept past and stirred the leaves, drawing the dried and crackling leaves across the withered grass lifting the blades toward the sky. The sky around them glowed purple and deep wine instead of the common blue of night. Taking in a deep breath, Kid felt the pain locked in his chest turn and fly free of his guilt.
The decision was then an easy one to make. He stood and found his path back toward his friends and give them the only answer he could. This was where she had taken her last breath and here she would stay, loved and protected, within sight of Cemetery Ridge.