There isn't much to do on a night like this. Huddled in the darkest shadows of the forest, wary of any sound or hint of movement, it was liable to make the calmest man turn into a raving lunatic... or at least scare him stiff as a board. Tonight, he'd hovered between them both, or at least it seemed like it.
Sleep wasn't a possibility. Not when something as simple as stretching or coughing could get him killed. Stubborn as he was, he wanted to make it through the war alive.
And so he sat. Cloaked in darkness, he escaped the notice of passing Confederate patrols. They had been searching for him for days. His latest scouting mission had brought him right into the heart of the Confederate lines, and now all he wanted to do was get back to his unit in one piece.
A sudden noise to his left had his throat constricting in fear, cutting off the precious flow of air to his body. Even as the noise moved further and further away, it was nearly impossible to restore the flow of air and blood that had been kept for so long from his starving body.
His rations had run out the day before, his fresh water had lasted until the heat of today's mid-day sun. Now, he could only wait until the morning dew or hope against hope that the cloudless sky above his head would turn dark with clouds and blot out the haunting light of the moon and fill his mouth with the water his body desperately begged for.
There was no end to the waiting, no relief from the paranoia. There was no way to avoid... the voices.
"Keep your back covered and your eyes on the world around you."
"You're signing up for the Army?"
"Don't go, Jimmy, just don't go-"
"I should've known you'd do something stupid like this, Hickok."
"Go on, get yourself killed... don't expect me to cry over it..."
They weighed heavily on his thoughts. The anger, the confusion, the recriminations... but none of them compared to the maelstrom of doubt he'd harbored inside of his own heart. He had truly become his own worst enemy and nothing could bring it home more than his lonely vigil in the middle of enemy territory.
The bark of the tree behind him cut through the worn cotton of his shirt, scoring his back with it's thorny texture. The prickly pain was a god-send, really. It kept his mind alert and working... darting from thought to thought, mercilessly keeping him awake in the milky darkness.
Should they find him, he could probably talk himself out of trouble, ...maybe. There wasn't time to waste on such a pursuit. There was too much to do, too many things to accomplish on his recon mission, to waste time talking his way out of trouble with the Butternuts. He wore nothing to identify him as a soldier of the Federal Army, carried nothing but a nondescript pack and his old pistols from the Express.
The Express. Oh, Lord, he didn't need that old ghost coming out of the shadows. Not now.
But once the thought arose in his mind, he knew there was no escaping it. Until sunrise, he would be forced to keep company with the long distant past.
"Who do you think you are?"
The accusation stung, even though the voice was unrecognizable. He thought he picked out the even timbre of Buck, quiet but purposeful. He had held his tongue as Jimmy left the station so many months ago, but there it was in his eyes.
"What can you do in the middle of all that killing?"
Jimmy's shoulders slumped back against the bark, his head hanging from neck like a weary horse far, far from home. Once, twice, his lips parted as if a answer was soon to follow, but nothing came of the effort. Wasted time... wasted moment... wasted life.
"If you feel as though you have to go, then... go. Just know we're here for you." Rachel's quiet reproach cut deeper than she could ever know. She didn't think he was right, didn't understand why he'd left. Or maybe she had. Maybe she really did know, and that's why it hurt so much to hear her words. Maybe... maybe... well, she should have filled him in, so he would understand why he left. He certainly couldn't remember now.
Cody had been long gone when Jimmy had decided to leave, and it had in no way been related. Cody didn't sign up for the same reason he had. Cody wanted... Cody wanted to be Cody. He wanted to save the day, and no doubt he would. He might lose some of that blonde hair he prized so much, worrying about the war, but he would love the excitement of it. Probably see it more like some grand drama than the hell that it was... "So, why are you going?"
"Get out of my head. I don't have to talk to you."
It always came back to that same question. Again and again it played in his head... again and again, he could hear the hurt laced through the softly spoken words. There had been no anger, no screaming, no ...request to stay.
The knot between his shoudlers tightened and twisted, drawing his shoudlers back against the tree as he sought relief from his unanswered questions. He did't have to tell her anything.. didn't have to tell anyone anything... so why... why had he gone to see Polly?
A sudden shudder of leaves a few feet to his left, sent his hand rushing for the grip of his Colt. Twitching with exhaustion and fear, his fingers brushed against the smooth pearl grips and sent another involuntary shiver through his body.
Another movement and the spastic contraction of his ribs sent all the air in his lungs sailing out between his teeth.
Voices, thick with suspicion, traveled to his ears. "You hear that, Thomas?"
"Hear what, Beau?"
"That sound... someone's out here."
Everything around him stilled for a moment, the animals of the brush stopped moving along with the crickets in the darkness the instant Jimmy heard the distinct whisper of metal against leather.
His own fingers flexing above his Colt sat ready and determined that again, he'd have the misfortune of surviving the night.
'Thomas' started up again. "There's someone out here."
Beau's voice was tight as he seemd to bite out his reply. "They're long gone now, Idiot. You made enough noise."
The two continued to argue as they faded away into the night, but Jimmy's hand stayed right where it was... stroking the smooth metal spine of his pistol. The soft sweep of metal beneath his fingers usually helped to slow his thoughts, lull him into some semblence of rest. The Confederates were too close. He'd have to stay put tonight. He'd have to put up with the memories... damn the rebels.
Damn... Damn... he couldn't do it. Couldn't mention the real cause.. the real reason why he was hunkered down in the middle of nowhere with a gnarled tree roughing up his back. He couldn't say it, because he still hadn't said it outloud to himself... and he probably never will.
It was easier to hide it away and let it eat at his soul from the inside than acknowledge it and let it into his heart. He'd leave that to the soldiers if they ever got a hold of him, but for now... for now, he was content to sit here and wait for tomorrow.
Wait... and wait... The silence of the night was deafening. At least at the bunkhouse there would be sound of Buck, snoring from the corner bunk. The repeated tossing and turning that Kid couldn't stop. Kid. Well, he wasn't in the bunkhouse anymore.
A cold wind blew through the wooded area, sending a chill across the back of his neck and right through his skin down to his bones. This was hell. Nothing to do, everything to lose and here he was pinned down for the night.. or longer, if that company of Confederates decided to stay around longer. He should've signed up for the Cavalry... or infantry. Gotten his head blown off a long time ago, but there had been something about the idea of being a scout.
"Scouting is a lonely world, Jimmy." Teaspoon's sage tones filled his ears. "But it seems to me, it'd be the perfect thing for you, at least for awhile." He'd stood there on the porch staring out into a night, not unlike this one, and sighed out his parting words. Knowing that pleading and anger wouldn't work. They were both too stubborn to talk about the really important things. "Seems like, you'd benefit from a litte quiet time, Son. No one to cloud your thinkin'... no one to question your motives. No one to beg you to come back before you'd gone and figured it out for yourself."
He knew Polly hadn't said a word to Teaspoon. She didn't like to worry him anymore than he was. She had kept their conversation a secret, kept his confidence and his hard won revelations to herself... and he owed her for that. He would owe her for as long as he lived. She'd promised to watch out for his friends, for all the people he loved. At least with Polly, he didn't have to deal with the shame of that sage old man looking straight through him with that sad old hang dog expression.
I don't need pity, damn it. I just need my space.
Ironic, isn't it. All I have out here is space, and I still can't be alone. They wouldn't let him alone ... the voices... the questions... and it was all his fault. He'd left before he'd said his peace, but that was the way he wanted it. No one should have to shoulder his burden,... she shouldn't have to.
She had a life. A life that would continue on without him, a life that would thrive without him. She would be happy as long as he kept his mouth closed. As long as he didn't interfere and stick his nose in where it wanted to go...
He fought down the urge to sleep, choosing instead to torture himself with thoughts of her. Pictures, really. Pictures playing through his mind. Memories he couldn't shake... more ghosts. It felt like hours as the night crept on, but his mind devoured the images like Emma's spice cake. Again and again, they were pulled back to that night, with the milky light of the moon coating the world around them. The night he felt her lips pressed against his cheek... the night he knew he wanted her more than life itself... the night he'd held her in his arms and felt her shudder against him.. the night he knew he'd been lying to himself. He didn't love her... 'love' was too simple for the way he felt.
He needed her. She was his lodestone... the inexorable pull of home... of life. As long as she was alive... he found the reason to draw breath.
A harsh laugh passed his lips. Silent and mocking. Since when had he become so melancholy.. so... morose... so wrapped up in another person?
A soldier, gaunt and night-blind stumbled out of the brush less than five inches from Jimmy's shoulder. His heart began to throb with fear as the young boy's gaze darted around in the shadows.
Jimmy's fingers closed over the grip and held the smooth surface gently in his hand. No sense in dying without at least putting up a fight.
He'd never live it down... If it wasn't for the furtive movements of the soldier, he would have hazarded a laugh just for fun. But the boy standing less than three feet away in this chilly darkness was little more than a child. Little more than Jesse's age.
Jimmy couldn't stomach killing the boy if he didn't have to. Couldn't have that on his conscience too. There was only so much guilt a man can handle.. only so much hell a man can take, and he'd reached his limit months ago.
"If you get yourself killed, I'll never forgive you. Come home, alive."
Even hundreds of miles away, she nagged him. She could turn his thoughts inside out with a single look and even now he couldn't escape her. And, he had to admit... no matter how much it hurt to hear her voice echoing through his mind, he kept each memory alive with something akin to perverse pleasure.
The boy stumbled back into the brush, leaving behind cracked branches and a shuffle of sound. He'd have a few minutes of quiet until the next patrol... long enough to pour salt into his wounded heart.
"Come home... alive."
Home... home.. where the hell was home? Well, there is that piece of dirt he was sitting on, that was about all he could claim at the moment. That, and the guilt buried in his heart. That was a pretty good place to start, but if he didn't start paying attention to the world around him... and a little less time thinking about the life he'd lost...
It was going to get him killed.
A man could hope.
But with his luck...
he'd live a long... long... lonely life.
Purgatory... living hell... home.
You're out here on your own.
You're so lonely, but are you alone?
Song Produced by: Harmony Gold