Former Union soldier Jeremiah "Jack" Murphy should never have given his word to a dying man, especially a Rebel. But now he feels honor-bound to carry the message to the man's young bride. Besides, with false charges following him, Jack needs somewhere to turn. After he fulfills his promise, perhaps the North Carolina mountains can give this weary soldier some shelter. Yet when he meets beautiful widow Sayer ...
Former Union soldier Jeremiah "Jack" Murphy should never have given his word to a dying man, especially a Rebel. But now he feels honor-bound to carry the message to the man's young bride. Besides, with false charges following him, Jack needs somewhere to turn. After he fulfills his promise, perhaps the North Carolina mountains can give this weary soldier some shelter. Yet when he meets beautiful widow Sayer Garth, leaving is the last thing on Jack's mind. Sayer, and her young sisters-in-law, need help that Jack is more than willing to provide. If only he could be certain that his presence—and his secrets—won't put them all at risk .
Jack Murphy hadn't intended to go looking for the wounded man. He couldn't hear him now, and it was likely that he had finally died, but for which heartfelt cause, Jack couldn't say. The soldier they all heard calling from the battlefield could be one of their own or one of the Rebels—or it could be a ruse engineered by either side to draw some gullible soldier into the open.
He stopped crawling and listened intently. It wasn't gullibility that had brought him out here, and it had nothing to do with the Golden Rule Father Bartholomew and the Sisters at the orphan asylum had done their best to teach him. His hands were still shaking badly, and he simply hadn't wanted the others to see him like this. He was Jeremiah "Jack" Murphy, and Jack Murphy's hands never shook.
The sweet, dank smell of scarred earth rose up from the ground beneath him, land that should have been plowed for spring planting by now, not fought over and bled on. He could hear his comrades in the distance, the quiet murmur of their voices. Every now and then, one of them laughed despite their recent ordeal. Little Ike was finally reading his letter from home, sharing it with the others. Jack envied him that letter. It had been a long time since he himself had gotten one from the only person who ever wrote to him, Elrissa Suzanne Barden, the girl who had promised to marry him when the war was over. The irony was that he hadn't wanted to go to war at all. He'd enlisted because so many of the boys he'd grown up with in the orphanage had already joined. He'd always looked out for them; most of them had been culled from the dirty backstreets of Lexington as he had. They looked up to him. He couldn't let them deliberately go into harm's way without his overseeing the effort. He gave a quiet sigh. So many of them dead now, despite his determination to keep them all safe and together, their faces coming to him whenever he was on the verge of sleep, faces of the boys who had too quickly become men and then were gone. A line of clouds moved across the moon. He lifted his head, trying to see in the darkness. He couldn't detect any movement, couldn't hear any sound. Most certainly the wounded man had died.
His hands were steadier now, the tremors fading as they always eventually did. There was no reason for him to stay out here. He'd made what must at least seem like a humane gesture, and now he could go back. He could eat some hardtack and wish he had coffee to soften it. He could make Little Ike reread his letter. He could think about Miss Elrissa Barden standing in lantern light on a dark and windy railroad platform and try to remember her pretty face.
"Wait," a voice said distinctly when he began to move to what he hoped was a less conspicuous place.
The voice was close by, and he turned sharply in that direction.
"Will you wait?" the man asked.
Jack made no reply. He was still trying to get his bearings. Where—and how close—was he? And how close was his musket?
"Please," the voice said, feebler now. "I don't "
The moon appeared from behind the clouds, and Jack could just make him out in the semidarkness. Surprisingly, he was sitting upright, leaning against the wheel of a broken caisson. And he was farther out into the open field than Jack was willing to go.
"Wait!" the man said sharply when Jack was about to move away again. "I'm shot. Don't leave me out here. Please."
Jack hesitated, his head bowed. This man was nothing to him. Nothing. For all he knew, he was the one who had shot him.
The soldier was weeping now, his sobs carrying eerily into the night. Jack waited, knowing if he waited long enough, he wouldn't have to make the choice.
"Have mercy " the man said, the words suddenly lost in a near animal-like moan.
Jack clenched his fists. How many times had he been in this kind of situation no matter where he found himself? The orphanage. Mr. Barden's dry goods store. The army. Always when he least expected it, a sudden choice between right and wrong would be staring him right in the face. It was as if his life were some kind of classroom, one where he was supposed to learn the principles of moral rectitude—and he was always getting called on.
Here's another one, Jack, old boy. Let's see what you do with this one.
And this one could get him killed.
The man grew quiet, but he was still alive. Jack had no doubt about that, just as he knew what Father Bartholomew would say:
It's not that we don't know what is right, Jeremiah. We always know. It's that we don't want to do it.
Jack exhaled sharply. All right, then.
He began to crawl again, making a wide circle to get to the wounded soldier without being seen from the far side of the open field. Whatever happened, however it turned out, Father Bartholomew and the Sisters, at least, would be happy. The Golden Rule and the parable of the Good Samaritan all rolled into one.
But he wasn't about to take any chances. He made his way slowly. The closer he got, the more he could tell about the uniform—or what was left of it.
"Here, Reb," Jack said when he had moved to where he thought—hoped—he'd be out of sight and could sit up. He pulled the cork from his canteen despite the color of the uniform, and he tried to get the man to drink from it. Most of the water ran down his neck. The smell of death rose from his body.
"Much obliged," Jack thought the man said. He couldn't be sure because the soldier had suddenly hunched forward in agony.
"What are you doing out here, Yank?" he said when he could, his voice barely audible.
"Came to see what all the fuss was about," Jack said, and the man actually laughed, a pain-racked laugh that immediately died away.
"Just to keep me company, I.guess."
"Or rob your pockets."
"You're out of luck there, Yank. I'm going to ask you to do something for me."
"I doubt I'll do it."
"I'm going to ask anyway. You got a wife?"
"Yes," Jack said, despite the dearth of letters from Elrissa.
"You should have married her before you left. Lest you end up like me. My wife she's not going to know what happened to me if you don't tell her "
"I can't do that, Reb."
"Take my blanket roll," the soldier said in spite of Jack's refusal. "My letters I couldn't mail them. Take them—take everything. Her name is Sayer Garth. She's in Ashe County North Carolina side of the Tennessee border. Anybody can tell you where the Garth place is. Get them to her tell her Thomas Henry gave them to you. Say I know how hard she's prayed for me. I know she wanted me to be ready if I fell. Say her prayers were answered and I wasn't afraid to die. Tell her I don't want her to grieve. My little sisters they'll cry when they know I'm not coming home, but you tell them I don't want that. I don't want any sad faces. You say I went easy. Don't don't tell them about the pain."
The soldier was quiet for a time. Jack could see the rise and fall of his chest, but he couldn't tell if he was conscious.
"I can't save her," the man said abruptly. "Marrying her won't be enough if I'm dead." He gave a heavy sigh. "I'm afraid for her. I don't know what to do. I swear I don't. I don't know if it was the right thing. I don't know what to do!" He threw back his head suddenly and began to moan, overwhelmed by the agony of his wounds. "End this.. " he whispered.
"No," Jack said. He knew exactly what the man meant.
"You were ready enough to take my life this morning."
"I'll leave you my canteen—"
"It's your revolver.I need."
The man gave a long shuddering sigh. His head dropped forward for a moment, but then he lifted it and looked in Jack's direction.
"First time I saw her I was eight years old," the man said. "She was six living with her daddy's kin. Rich people, they were. They came to the mountains every summer. Came all the way from I can't no. No I remember. Town on the Yadkin River. It was bad there in the in summer. They always stayed in the high country till first frost. Her people didn't want her. Why didn't they want her? I never did know. She tried so hard not to vex them. Big scared eyes she had. All the time. I told my mama when I got grown I was going to marry that sweet girl take her away from those people that didn't want her. I wanted her. But I had to leave her with those big scared eyes of hers come back again. She's so pretty so pretty. Sayer Sayer if I could just see you one last time." His voice trailed away. Then, "I think I'll have some more of that water now if I might," he said politely, as if they were in some situation where politeness mattered.
Jack lifted him upward and held the canteen to his lips. It was the only thing he could do for the man. If he still prayed, he might offer the Reb a prayer, but he was too weary and his emotions too raw. Even such a simple gesture as that was beyond him.
This time the Reb managed a swallow or two before he fell back against the caisson wheel. There was a breeze suddenly, carrying with it the sounds of the soft spring night. A whip-poor-will in a tall pine at the edge of the field, crickets in the grass, frogs in a ditch somewhere nearby. Not the sounds of war and dying at all.
"Graham?" the man said suddenly. "You listening to me, Graham!" He was looking directly at Jack, but Jack had no sense that he was actually seeing him. He grabbed on to the front of Jack's uniform, his grip surprisingly strong. "Promise me! Promise you'll help Sayer!" He made a great effort and lunged forward, his other hand clasping Jack's shoulder. "Promise me!"
"All right," Jack said, trying to keep him from falling on his face. "All right. Let go—"
"Give me your word," the man insisted. "Say it. Promise me."
"I promise," Jack said to placate him, pulling the man's fingers free from his jacket. The Reb began a quiet, but urgent mumbling.
".teacheth my hands to war and my fingers to fight. Is Graham dead?" he suddenly asked as his mind shifted to another time and place. "I don't. I can't— Hey!" he cried, his attention taken by something only he could see. "All right, now! Get ready! Get ready!
Sun's in their eyes." He abruptly raised his hand as if he were about to give a signal, and Jack struggled to keep him from falling.
"Let's go! Let's go! Come on! We got 'em, boys. We got 'em!" the Reb said, his voice stronger now. He suddenly threw back his head and cried out. The terrible sound he made rose upward in a blood-chilling yell Jack had heard a thousand times in battle. He knew it had nothing to do with the pain. The Rebel soldier was shouting his defiance one last time, and it echoed over the battlefield and into the soft spring night.
But then the cry ended, suddenly cut short, and the still-raised hand fell onto the dirt.