He swiped up the bottle, nearly crushing the neck in his closed fist as he swore beneath this breath.
"Sorry, Captain." The fingers prodding at his back gentled a bit. "I gotta get these clean so they won't fester."
The bottle pressed to his lips and he took a sip, the raw liquor burning down his throat on its way to his stomach. "There's others hurt worse, Saunders… don't waste your time on me."
He heard the chuckle behind him. "Well, I think I'm a better judge of who's needing care the most, but if you'd care to make it an order…"
Kid shook his head, helpless. The third man in the tent sat back in his chair, lifting one foot onto part of a ruined barrel.
Turning his head slightly, Kid addressed the medic. "Make sure you keep enough bandages for Graham." He watched the injured man carefully. It had only been a few weeks since Graham had lost his left leg below the knee to a canon ball. "Don't want infection to set in."
Setting a hand on Kid's shoulder, the medic leaned in closer to get his point across. "That's what I'm tryin' to do for you, sir."
"Word is," Graham roused a bit from his pain, "that Colonel Sweet won't stop 'til he gets the information he wants."
"He's tryin'." The Kid ground his teeth together as Saunders poked at another lash wound on his back. "You done, yet?"
A long suffering sigh reached his ears. "I guess so if you're going to be such a hard head about this." The man moved around from behind the chair and crossed the room. He bent down to examine the bandage around Graham's knee. "I don't like the color of that blood, Graham." He shook his head. "We need more bandages." He turned to look at the Kid. "We don't have a whole clean shirt amongst the score of soldiers left from our unit."
Kid nodded. "Guards said they'd rather see us freeze than try to run." Almost as if on cue the wind howled against the side of the shack sending shivers through the wood as well as the men inside it. "Never even heard of Chicago before they put us here."
Graham looked down at the empty space below his knee. "I'll be happy to see the last of this place and head on home as soon as this war ends."
"Don't hold your breath, Graham." Saunders saw the look that Kid leveled at him over the rapidly emptying bottle. "Don't see a need to pretty things up, Captain. We've all seen our fair share of blood and death."
There was something on the tip of his tongue, but he held it as a familiar figure appeared in the open doorway.
"Hey there, Cap'n."
Kid couldn't help the twitch of a smile that pulled at the corners of his mouth. "Jonah."
"They said you were back." He entered into the room, quickly taking note of the other two men. "Mr. Graham… Mr. Saunders-" the presence of the unit medic sunk into his mind and he turned a worried look at his captain. "Somethin' wrong, sir? You feelin' poor?"
Pulling down the back hem of his shirt took work, but luckily Saunders was in on the subterfuge, tugging at the other side to help it settle quickly and cover over the blood soaked bandages that covered his back.
"Just my old wound acting up," Kid lied, summoning up a lift in his tone and expression if only to ease the boy's worries, "asked Saunders here to make me up a poultice."
The boy's concern didn't fade as he turned to look at the medic. "You take care of the Captain now, you hear." He was all bluster and youth at that moment, but it nearly brought a smile to the faces in the room. "We'll have need of him as soon as General Lee knocks them Yankees back on their-"
"Careful now." Kid tried to make his expression stern but there was an unmistakable glimmer in his eyes. "What would your Mama say if she heard you use cuss words?"
There was a subtle shrug to the boy's shoulders. "Nothin' I guess, 'specially since she up'd 'n died last winter, that's why I join'd up with the Virginia boys," he admitted. "Didn't have no one to take care of me and I weren't ready for no bride, so I figured I'd do my part to stand up for home. Tell them da-" he caught the Kid's look and grinned, "darn Yankees, where they could go."
"Look around, son," Graham shifted in his chair, "we ain't done much tellin' but we sure know how to take a bullet, don't we?"
Jonah thought on the man's words. "I'm still bettin' on General Lee, and you should too. Heard him speak once with my own ears."
"Glad you didn't use someone else's ears, son. I ain't seen much of Lee himself, but seems like we're on the losin' end of the fight even with the mighty 'Lee' on our side."
The young boy didn't seem to like Saunders' humor. "Don't you go sayin' silly things like that, sir. Nope, not in front of me and not when it comes to General Lee. He's gonna lead us all to victory, he is."
Kid could see the mischievous look in the other man's face, but he also saw deeper than that. He saw something in the shadow of the medic's eyes that matched his own weary heart - longing. It had been so long since any of them had managed to believe that the war would end in anything other than a bloody rout that it warmed his heart to see the absolute conviction in someone else. "That may be, Jonah, but right now-"
There was a commotion outside of the shack and Kid stood, grinding his teeth against the pain that lanced through his injuries and across his back. The doorway was filled a moment later with bluecoats. There was chill that passed through the room, settling in the swollen joints of his fingers. He met them with a slightly bowed back and a careful expression. "Is there a problem?"
The first man in the door looked at each of them in turn, the corners of his mouth pinched into points. "We're here for," he looked down at the paper in his hand, "Saunders."
"Now you just-" Kid came up short as a rifle lifted and aimed straight at his heart.
In his mind he heard Lou's voice, 'Get through this and come on home.'
"You've questioned most of my men by now." He felt his back teeth wearing down from the pressure. "We don't have the information you want… Saunders doesn't know-"
"The Colonel will decide who knows," the soldier leaned in to make his point, "you don't get to do anything but stand aside and let us take him."
The musket's hammer clicked back and Jonah gasped, his hands covering his middle. "Captain?"
Saunders ended the standoff by stepping forward between Kid and the ready barrel of the gun. "I've been wonderin' how long it would take to come for me, Lieutenant Brady." He gave the young drummer a nod. "Don't you worry yourself none, it can't be much more than a little conversation between doctor and devil, so I'll be back in just a bit." The doctor's mouth was smiling but there was tightness around his jaw and the reflexive flinch of his fingers that gave him away.
"Hurry it up, Saunders."
The nervous jerk of the musket barrel wasn't lost on any of them and with a slight nod the doctor disappeared into a sea of bluecoats.
Jonah moved closer as if proximity was safety. "What do you think Colonel Sweet wants to ask him?"
Ask wasn't the word that Kid would have used. The minute movement of his shoulders tugged the back of his shirt tight against his bandages and they dug into his wounds. "They think we know where the other divisions are."
Graham grumbled into his beard. "We've all told him the same thing."
"You wouldn't," Jonah gaped at the older man, "you didn't tell them Yankees nothin'… I know you wouldn't."
"Of course not," he barked and paid for it as his cough came roaring back, bending his spine as he struggled to break free of its hold. "Son, we don't have anything we could tell of any use even if we wanted to. At the end of the last battle, you probably couldn't tell from where you were, but everyone scattered like leaves in a tornado… there weren't any way to tell where half of our own men were, let alone another division."
"I could see plenty where I was," Jonah protested, "I was drummin' up to the last few shots when our boys threw down their weapons." His expression twisted as though he was sucking on a lemon. "I would'a kept on drummin' but I didn't feel like I could… not when we was prisoners. "
Kid understood the sentiment. It had been hard, deviled hard, to throw down his gun when all he wanted to do was kill himself another Yankee. There were too many dead already and he was right tired of hearing their captors talk about their 'righteous cause'… there wasn't much righteous about the men they'd left behind, dead and dying, on the battlefield.
Still, here at Camp Douglas, life seemed little better than lying down in a damp battlefield and dying far from home. Here they walked and talked and ate and died all the same, except in this prison camp death crept up on you from the shadows.
Kid looked down at the young boy and sighed. Jonah had been talking to him and he'd been lost in his own thoughts. "Whatever it is, Jonah, it can wait 'til tomorrow. Better find a place to sleep away from the cracks in the wall."
The drummer boy gave him a look that would have bordered on insubordination had they been anywhere else, but here… here it just made Kid tired. "I'm no baby. I can take care of myself." He turned away, shoulders ramrod straight and his gait taller by a good half inch. It was all bluster, but it made Kid smile.
"You can't keep it from him for much longer."
That sober reminder came from Graham, picking himself up from the chair was still hard for him, but no one offered him help. They'd learned the hard way that Graham was a man used to doing things for himself and to offer him help gave him the notion that you thought he couldn't do it on his own. So, they left him to his own devices rather than face the lash of his temper and his tongue.
With a grunt of exertion, Graham stepped forward, lowering his voice to keep the noise down. "He'll find out that they ain't takin' us just to 'talk' like everyone keeps tellin' him… and he'll get mad, real mad."
"I'd rather have him mad than turn into the rest of us."
"Did you just insult me, Captain?" There was a sardonic twist to Graham's tone and Kid couldn't help the tiniest of smiles at just the idea of a joke in this place. "I know you think you're protectin' the boy, but-"
"It ain't just him I'm protectin', Graham." Listening to the noise in the shack, Kid couldn't help but pick out Jonah's voice amongst the rest. He had an innocence about him that the war hadn't quite touched yet and there was something about the boy's ability to see hope even in a place like this that was just about as precious as the thought of home. "You better get some sleep," he turned his back to the room and stared out the doorway, "I'll way for Saunders to come back."
There was the repeat of a single shuffle and clunk that marked Graham's progress across the floor and Kid listened to it punctuating the softer notes of voices in the background. Graham stopped a few feet behind him. "He'll come back alright, but I doubt he'll be walkin'."
A few hours later, Kid was ready to concede, albeit to Graham's sleeping form, that he'd been wrong. Saunders had been gone too long. He tried to convince himself that the doctor was tending to someone else's wounds, trying to soothe their pain with a song half sung and half hummed under his breath.
If only that was the case…
The camp stirred just outside the door, single figures moving around through the freezing mud, the frosty air caking on what clothes they had left. If he stood real still and closed his eyes he could almost imagine he was home… three years and hundreds of miles away in Rock Creek. There'd be a fire burning inside and someone fighting over who got what bunk when a visiting rider spent the night. There'd be popping corn in a bowl if Rachel was in a generous mood and Cody's bellyaching if she wasn't.
He wouldn't have minded it one bit, not ever again, if he could just go back there for one minute. One minute to breathe the air of freedom… one minute to feel Lou's cheek against his neck, her hands reaching around to hug him.
The thought sent pain through the fresh wounds on his back and she faded into the shadows of the morning. The cold of the glass bottle dangling from his fingers wasn't nearly enough to keep him from lifting it to his lips. The liquor inside was warm enough for him and it would spread from the inside out.
The first sip was always the worst. The fire it trailed into his stomach always made him gasp for air. It was a crude sort of alcohol, the kind the soldiers made when the guards weren't looking - when they grew tired of old potatoes enough that they would brew up a batch in one of the washtubs that the Sanitary Commission left for them. It was hard work and dangerous if the guards caught wind of their enterprising efforts, but they dared it because they could. They did it because it was just a small way to stick it to the Yankees without a barrel full of shot.
It wasn't much different from picket duty, except you didn't have to carry a pack and a gun with you. You could stand right there in the center of the camp and hear men talking in hushed tones when they couldn't sleep and singing when they had a mind to do it. There, carried through the snapping cold of the air, a tune he knew only too well. A few notes into it, he was whispering the lyrics to himself if only to keep his lips from freezing closed.
"Twenty-five cents for the morphine, fifteen cents for the beer… twenty-five scents for the morphine, I'm gonna drink me away from here…"
His laughter fogged up the air before him, made him wish for his old coat, long gone to the thieving hands of their captors. Kid stepped down from the planked stairs and onto the ground, the mud barely giving beneath this boots. He lowered himself down to sit in the open doorway. He'd stay there until Saunders came back. He was, after all, the Captain. He was responsible for what was left of his unit.
He was responsible.
Where the hell was Saunders anyway?
It was the smell of something vaguely edible that woke from his sleep. The smell and the hand shaking his shoulder insistently. The dream from the night before slipped away before he could get a grasp on the thought. "Jonah?"
"Captain, the men put together something for the mornin' meal."
"Meal, huh?" He knew what meals were in this place and he knew how unappetizing it was on a daily basis, but still, just the thought of a meal had his mouth salivating. There was always hope that something might taste better than paste. "I might have a bite or two and-"
"Might?" Jonah's face was easy to read. "I told them to save you some, but if we don't get you to the table they might eat it all before you get any." The boy tugged on Kid's arm, urging him to his feet.
"Did I ever tell you about my friend Cody-" Kid's story was cut short as the heavy doors beside the gate opened up. He turned and waited with everyone else. It either heralded the arrival of another group into the already crowded interior of the camp or soldiers coming in. Neither one was cause for celebration.
The prisoners moved out of the way as the soldiers strode through the muck the shine of their boots lost in the mud.
Jonah tugged on Kid's sleeve. "You think they're comin' back with Saunders, Captain?"
Straightening his posture, Kid struggled to look between the soldiers for some sigh of his friend. There was little to see beyond the warm woolen shells of their uniforms. Lieutenant Brady was at the head of the line, his jaw set in place and his eyes glittering from beneath the brim of his hat. For a moment neither man said a word, but it was the Union officer that spoke first.
"We've come for the boy."
There was a sudden hush to the world around them as though every one of the scores of prisoners within the walls had stopped to listen.
"The boy doesn't know anything."
"I didn't ask if he did, doesn't matter much does it, Captain?" Lieutenant Brady hadn't ever shown a shred of decency since they'd arrived at Camp Douglas and he'd taken pleasure in antagonizing anyone who had been an officer on the 'wrong side.' "We're takin' him all the same."
Jonah shrank back on himself, visibly shrinking before their eyes. He searched the knot of bluecoats and their ranks. "Where's Saunders? They took him last night… but he ain't back yet."
That got a laugh from a few of the Union soldiers. They didn't even bother trying to hide it from the prisoners. "Won't be comin' back, boy."
The blood drained right out of Kid's face and his skin ran cold. His fingers lost their hold on the neck of the bottle and it fell to the ground at his feet. He'd expected that Saunders would come back worse, the 'questioning' had gone from painful to criminal in just a few days. Someone must be putting pressure on the warden to get information… and Saunders had paid the price.
Kid turned to Jonah, feeling the weight of the boy's hand on his arm. The youngster didn't look much older than he'd been when he'd left home and there was something clean beneath the mud that seemed to cake them all within the walls of Camp Douglas.
"Hidin' behind your mama's skirts?"
Kid smelled the tang of blood on Brady's clothes as he reached out to grab Jonah's arm.
"Leave the boy alone." Kid pushed between the two, looking the lieutenant square in the face. "He's a drummer… the only thing you're going to get out of him is tears."
Brady shrugged, his face twisted ever so slightly into a smile. "That may be, but we could still have a little fun. Not that big, are you?" He leaned in closer. "Where is that proud 'rebel spirit' we keep hearing about?"
"You can't have him." Kid didn't have to turn to know that Graham was standing behind him. The muttering was growing as others filed out of the shack that had become their barracks.
"The boy stays with us," another voice added to the growing crowd. The shack behind the group of Union soldiers was emptying and their confrontation was attracting a growing audience.
Other's added in their agreement to the sentiment, words from faces he didn't recognize.
"You all stand down!" Brady barked the order and turned on his fellow soldiers. "Keep control!"
"We've had enough of your beatings!"
The voices came from all around them and Kid saw the way Jonah paled amid the group of angry men. "I won't let them hurt you, Jonah."
"H-hurt me?" The boy couldn't seem to comprehend exactly what he was hearing.
"I've got my orders." Brady pushed passed him and latched onto the boy, nearly lifting him off of his feet. "You're coming with me."
The acrid scent on the lieutenant's clothes nearly staggered Kid to his knees. How much of it had come from Saunders?
"Hey!" Brady could only gape as Kid withdrew the guard's sidearm with remarkable dexterity. The rheumatism that had plagued him for months not longer hampered his actions. The lieutenant's confusion was permanently frozen on his face with a single blast leveled at his chest.
The other soldiers were stunned for a moment. A prisoner had killed one of their own and with his own gun. They weren't prepared for this… and they realized all too late that they were surrounded.
Angry and frightened no longer, the prisoners surrounded the men that had come amongst them too many times with a license to belittle and degrade them. It was one thing to be a prisoner of war, but entirely another to be treated like mongrel dogs, given just enough food to turn them against each other.
Kid pushed Brady down and felt the splatter of mud against the legs of his threadbare trousers. He turned to speak to his men but the edge of his vision was filled with red, his palm was covered in blood.
The scuffle with the Union soldiers was escalating. Taken by surprise no one else had yet to fire a shot, but there was enough fear and pent up frustration to outmatch any explosion he'd seen on the battlefield. Turning to Jonah he saw the boy lost in the crowd, fear etched into his features. Kid's heart felt as though it had plummeted into the mud at his feet.
Jonah understood what they'd been keeping from him since the day they'd arrived at this place. He understood… and he was afraid.
It was enough to push him over the edge. Lifting his pistol he aimed at the first of the soldiers in his line of sight and squeezed the trigger. The report echoed off the walls surrounding them and it was a mere second after the soldier crumpled to the ground that all hell broke loose.
The catwalk built above the camp's entrance filled with soldiers, muskets aimed at the growing mob in the camp. Colonel Sweet himself appeared in his uniform, buttons shining in the early morning light. "Stop this… all of you!"
The crowd roared back, anger outweighing the fear of reprisal. It only served to inflate the conflagration to the level of frenzy.
Kid felt hands grasping at his arm. "Captain," Jonah was whispering, but the words were still audible in the midst of the riot, "I'll go… I'll go with them… please," the boy eyed the growing melee, with the Union soldiers beaten bloody beneath rebel fists, "make them stop."
Shaking his head, Kid tried to see through the haze of his own anger. "No… no more." He set a hand on Jonah's shoulder and saw the blood smear on the tattered homespun cloth. It was the last straw. He turned, stopping when he felt pain shoot up his leg. The bottle he'd dropped earlier was tilted in the mud, precious alcohol dripping from its lip. He picked it up, pressing the bottle to his lips for a quick drink. The alcohol burned down his throat and washed away the last shred of hope.
"You'll all stand down or face starvation!" Colonel Sweet's voice rang out over the camp. "No more meat… and beating for anyone who dares to question their punishment."
"No!" The denial tore from Kid's lips as he turned to face the man whose whims determined their health and welfare. "No you won't…"
"Who are you to argue with me? Seize him!"
Kid looked over the dead lieutenant bleeding in the mud and the subdued soldiers, bloodied by Southern fists. "Who, Colonel Sweet? Who is going to seize me by your order?" He felt the weight of the gun in his hand and smiled.
"Any man that feels they stand a chance defying my orders can take their chances." Colonel Sweet turned and called down to the gates. "Open them… now!"
The gates groaned at the strain that they were under, but slowly the slightest crack of daylight was visible between the wide wooden doors.
Hearing the hush that rippled through the crowd the Colonel laughed. "Go ahead… run! Anyone that can make it through the gates… can leave."
Kid knew it was a lie, but there was a questioning look that passed amongst the men as if some of them were actually considering it.
"It's a lie, boys," Graham's voice rang out amongst them, moving through the group, "you know what the good Colonel is like? He's just looking for an excuse to kill us."
The others agreed, their discontent rolling through the camp. Graham's words were the truth. The Colonel wasn't going to let anyone go. Not now… not ever. He'd killed more than a score of them in the last few weeks with starvation and exposure to the cold. Why let any of them go? This was all a plan, to kill them faster.
Looking up at the catwalk he saw the whole line of Union soldiers waiting for a target… and he wasn't going to disappoint them. One step… then another, sinking into the mud beneath his feet he started to run toward the gate.
The soldiers lining the walk seemed shaken by the action, at least one backed up an inch or two, looking over at the colonel for confirmation of his order.
"We'll shoot you down before you escape, son!"
Kid didn't listen to the man, didn't even acknowledge his words, for escape wasn't his aim. He didn't intend to leave this camp that way, not without his men.
He raised his right arm, unused to the unexpected weakness in his muscles. He held the pistol up, his aim wavering as he ran and as he was nearing the gate he slowed just a bit, enough to train the site of his stolen gun on the wide girth of Colonel Sweet. "No more!"
The report of the gun was followed by a score of echoes. He watched the large man buckle from the impact, his body falling back against the rails. Kid's smile was firm on his lips even as he was thrown backwards into the mud. The rip of bullets through worn cloth pinched at his skin, warming him as he fell.
The bottle shattered as it crashed to the ground beside his open hand, the liquor mixing with blood and muck. He heard the rush of the crowd as they ran toward him, but the raised muskets held them back.
He could hear the tears in Jonah's voice and opened his mouth to talk but the air wouldn't enter his lungs. An intake of breath brought only pain and Kid felt the gun slip from his fingers as approaching soldiers blocked out the light.
Kid could only smile.