Brothers in Arms

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Brothers in Arms

a love story


Robert Reams


Preston Dalton, dog tired and filthy, stood in the pouring rain, waiting to die. A quick musket ball to the head might be a merciful eighteenth birthday present. He thought back to his first battle, just thirteen days ago. They had been so pumped up and shiny and gray and confident, eager to drive the Yanks out of the valley and keep them runnin’ ’til the Fourth of July. Then the Yankee artillery had begun. On the first barrage Jamie Wells had been taken, screaming, into the next life. When the smoke cleared, they had seen the long blue mass of infantry rifles. The Lieutenant waved them forward and they had begun to die. Within a few minutes, men lay screaming and moaning all around him. Somewhere to his rear a plaintive voice cried, “Mama, mama,” over and over. Musket balls whizzed and whistled around his head like a swarm of bees. A ball had slammed into the butt of his musket, ripping it from his hands, and he had wet himself.

Since then, he pretty much figured himself a dead man. His thighs were chaffed from the scratch of dried urine. He did not ever remember ever having gone so long without washing. When he pulled out his shriveled little penis to pee, the rancid smell of it rose strongly to his nostrils. What he wouldn’t give for a long hot soak in the family tub back in Jacksonville.

In twenty minutes they were to advance again. It seemed crazy to Preston to keep advancing straight into the hell of smoke and fire and death. “Couldn’t we jest sneak up on the Yanks from behind or something,” he asked himself?

The sergeants and corporals were receiving their orders all up and down the line, grouping their men for the attack. From across the long green meadow, the sound of the other side’s advance began. Press’s legs felt suddenly weak and shaky. He looked left and right, not really seeking a way out, just sort of hoping. He sighed deeply, affixed the bayonet to his rifle as the sarge was ordering them to do, and waited nervously for the order to charge. Could he really stick its ugly sharpness into a living, breathing man? Poke the blood and life from a lad much like himself?

The ragged line of soldiers began to move slowly forward,dragging him along as if he were tied. The lieutenant’s voice rang out. “Charrrgge,” and the line moved faster, faster. Prescott couldn’t see the enemy, but the buzzing of the lead bees began again. Blood spattered across his face and he hoped beyond hope it wasn’t his own. In front of him a soldier twirled, fell. Preston jumped, landed, twisted his ankle and fell. Someone stepped on him, then another. God he hoped he didn’t have to, couldn’t, get up.

Dirt and grass, small rocks, bits of flesh and blood rained down on him from the constant artillery fire. Musket balls buzzed around him like hornets,often thudding into the ground, close, oh so close to his body.

His honor, his training, his bravery deserted him absolutely. Frantically, in absolute, blind terror he dug in his elbows and knees and crawled wildly away from the noise and confusion. He crawled ’til his elbows and knees bled. Crawled blindly.

Suddenly the ground disappeared from under him and he fell, tumbling head over heals, he crashed against something very hard. Sight, sound, consciousness left him and blackness swallowed him.

* * *

Sean McFadden lay on his back on the hard ground. Dust and smoke swirled around him, obscuring the battlefield. Cautiously his hands moved over his body, searching for the site of the wound that had driven him to the earth. He laughed thinly when he discovered that only his old deer musket had been hit, its beautiful maple butt, shattered by a musket ball. “Well!” He said to himself as if it were a huge joke, “I guess no one can blame me for not fighting, if I don’t have a gun.”

Sean was hardly more than a boy. He had turned 20 on his last birthday. He had never wanted to fight in this damn war anyway. He had taken the fifty dollars from a Dutchman from upstate only because it went a long way to fill the bellies of his eight brothers and sisters. He had thought he could run off as soon as some sergeant’s back was turned. But they had watched him constantly during his brief training, sent him south by train, and force marched him to this hellish battlefield, all in a matter of weeks. At an encampment along the route, he had witnessed the firing squad shooting of two deserters, and that had stifled his will to run.

But now all that was over. Despite the firing, the flak and the moans of the dying, he turned and walked. He walked slowly. Back. Back the way he had come. He wandered for hours, always moving away from the sounds of fighting, moving toward the quiet, the peace. No one stopped him. No one challenged him. No one saw him.

He had no idea how long he had walked, how far he had walked, where he was. It was the gnawing hunger in his belly, the ravening thirst, that eventually roused him, brought him to reality, to life.

By sheer luck he found an abandoned apple orchard, its farmhouse blown full casino oyna of holes, its once crisp white fences trampled. He downed three apples immediately, scarcely pausing to chew. Water, he needed water. He went toward the ruined farmhouse. A wooden swing drifted in a lonely arc from the

arms of a huge oak. A cloth doll lay trampled in the soil. He found the pump, but its handle had been wrenched or blown off, its mechanism worthless. Sean entered the old house in search of anything. He found a worn gunnysack he thought he might fill with apples. Then in a pantry, half a bag of flour and a few wrinkled potatoes. He stuffed them in the sack and drifted upstairs, searching from room to room. From a side window he saw a far off stand of willows and knew that meant water.

Sean reached the river and threw himself face first in the shallows, gulping so deeply he choked. When he was sated, he sat for a time, reason returning. The utter quiet in the midst of turmoil was unsettling and a bit spooky.

Having no means of transporting water, he decided to follow the river. After several hours walking, he came upon what had obviously been a battlefield. The corpses had been removed, but the odor of decaying flesh and black powder still hung lightly in the air. He had made his decision. He was finished with war and all it meant. He gave no care for which side won or lost. Freedom, slavery, union, all meant nothing to him. Live! He waned to live.

Fearful that someone might still be around, might see him, he descended into the deep ravine the river cut here, keeping close to the bank and out of sight. Sean heard a sound, froze in his tracks.

The sound came again, a low anguished moan. There!

From the cliff on one side of the deep ravine a single gnarled willow hung suspended, and beneath it, a body. But not a body, a live person. A boy apparently several years younger than he, pale, ashen, close to death, dressed in the gray of the enemy. The boy’s foot was turned half around the wrong way, his ankle obviously broken. For long minutes Sean merely sat and looked at the boy, arguing with himself about humanity and decency and safety and self-respect and danger and. . . “Hell,” he said to himself, “I gotta do something!”

He went to the boy and knelt beside him. Though filthy beyond belief, wounded and charred by war, the lad had the face of an angel. His body was slight and slim, very white with deep eyes the color of the clear ocean, his hair a blazing red. Sean had never before been so taken with the looks of another man, but this was different. The rebel boy, though unconscious, radiated peace and gentleness, beauty and innocence. He set about wrapping and splinting the boy’s broken bone. During the painful process the lad had cried out, but not regained consciousness.

Sean left the innocent looking boy lying on the bank and went in search of whatever could be found to aid the situation of the two young men. Various detritus of war lie all around the abandoned battlefield, most damaged and useless. Sean found two usable canteens and several blanket rolls in usable if somewhat bloody shape. Just as Sean was about to give up his search and return to the rebel boy, he spotted an irregularity some way down the opposite bank. Making his way to the spot with some difficulty, he struggled through some brambles and nearly fell into a fairly large cave hidden by a grove of willows. Just inside the mouth of the cave, he set down all that he was carrying and spent a few minutes exploring. It seemed a miracle. The cave was clean and high and dry with some soft sandy spots and some large and small rock outcroppings. It would do for shelter, at least for now.

The beautiful rebel boy was barely a burden as Sean hoisted him to his shoulders and carried him to the hidden cave. Sean gathered wood, started a fire, went upstream to collect clear water and started a thin potato soup from the contents of the gunnysack. Some of the water he boiled and set aside to tend the youngster’s wounds. As Sean slit the trousers of the boys gray slacks, the lads thin white lips let out a painful moan. Sean leaned and spoke to the boy, attempting to wake him.

The rebel’s eyes opened in fear and he tried to scoot back away from Sean’s Yankee uniform, but the effort caused too much pain and the lad nearly passed out again.

“Whoa, easy, take it easy there Reb. I believe the war is over for you! Over for me too if you want to know. You are not too badly hurt and I know a little about it . My uncle was a doctor over in Ireland. Will you let me help you?”

It was all too much for the young southern boy, but he nodded his head in permission. Sean worked efficiently, first cleansing the area with hot water and cutting away the leg of the gray trousers.

“What’s your name, kid?”

“Ah ain’t no kid. I turned eighteen last month. And you don’t look so old yerself. Ah am old enough to be in this man’s army and get wounded, ain’t I?”

“I didn’t mean nothing by it, take it easy and let me help you. Sean held out his hand to the boy.

“My name’s Sean, what’s slot oyna yours?”

“Name’s Preston. Preston Dalton and how come a Yankee soldier wants ta help me?”

“Well, Preston, Three days ago I had just about all I am ever going to take of this war. I am done with it all now and forever, And, well, If it weren’t for the war, and I saw you lying there hurt, I’d help you. Wouldn’t you help me?”

“Ah dunno, Ah kinda think maybe Ah wouldn’t, seein’ as how you was a Yankee, probly comin’ to burn down ma house.”

“Well, anyway, Preston Dalton, you’re stuck with me because you have a broken ankle and you are not going much of anywhere without my help. And my name is not Yankee or Damn Yankee, it’s Sean. I didn’t come down here to kill anyone or burn down anyone’s house, I came down to get fifty dollars so my family back in New York wouldn’t starve.”

“Now listen to me, Mr. Dalton, your ankle is broken and I am going to have to reset it or you will never walk straight again. And this isn’t going to be easy. We have nothing to ease the pain and it is gonna hurt like hell. And I would appreciate it if you didn’t yell too loud. I don’t want either of us to get caught and shot for a deserter. How about you?”

The Reb nodded in mute assent.

“Now here is how it is going to work, I’ve got you wedged behind a rock so I don’t have to put

my foot in your groin, but I am going to grab your boot and pull hard and turn. You’ll probably hear the pop when it’s right, then I’ll splint it and bandage it and hope for the best. Let me know when you are ready. You want something to bite on, like my pocket knife?”

“Nope, I reckon if you kin dish it out I kin take it.”

” Get ready.”

“Okay, I’m ready.”

Sean had to hand it to the Reb. He had barely made a sound as Sean yanked and twisted the fractured joint back into place. But he had passed out from the pain and shock. Sean quickly and easily made solid splints from willow branches and strips cut from their clothing as Preston slept on. Now both their uniforms were shorts and short sleeve shirts.

Sean now recognized the next imperative, food! A couple of half rotted spuds and a few dandelions and wild carrots were not going to do. He left the cave and went exploring.

About two miles down river, and some distance from the bank, the rising hillside gave way to a dense forest. Sean knew it would be full of game, if he could just fashion a weapon. Though both in Ireland and in New York, Sean had been a city boy, and knew nothing of spears and traps and the like, he was determined to procure meat! He found a stout stand of relatively straight poplar and used his pocket knife to sharpen one end of a stick about six feet long. He practiced throwing it at a particular spot and decided he needed to be within about fifteen feet if he hoped to hit anything. That is if

anything showed up to hit. He knew he had been much too noisy so far, so he found a fallen log and sat quietly hoping that Mother Nature would pity him and send a blessing his way.

As he sat quietly, the vision of Preston’s beautiful face and flaming red hair kept flitting into his consciousness. Even filthy and ragged he was a sight to see. “What was it about that boy?”

Sean discovered that the woods indeed teemed with wildlife of all sorts. Many types of birds, of varied colors and shapes and songs, flitted here and there. Black and brown squirrels scampered

through the trees above his head, and all manner of small beasts, chipmunks and the like pranced and skittered around. But none came close enough. He was about to give up when, seemingly out of nowhere hopped a large furry rabbit. Sean had never eaten rabbit, but had heard that it was not only edible, but tasty. He held his breath, hoping the rabbit would be curious. Remembering the few dandelions and wild carrots he carried in his pockets, he leaned as far as he could and dropped a few to the ground as gently as he could. Very, very slowly, an inch at a time, he raised his makeshift spear over his head and sat perfectly still. Sean’s arm was aching and shaking from the effort of holding the spear aloft when the rabbit finally sniffed the air and came toward the vegetables. The beast was so cautious about the unnatural presentation of the veggies, that it took what seemed was forever before it came close and sat and sniffed the air about five feet from Sean.

I’ll only get one shot at this Sean thought as he drove his arm violently down and forward. He had done it! He had managed to pin the rabbit to the earth through one of it’s forequarters, where it scuffled and struggled to be free. Sean had never killed a living thing before, but his hunger drove him as he deftly yanked his pocketknife from his slacks, jumped up and threw himself on the pitiful struggling creature. Once the poor creature was finally dead from a series of pitiful jabs of the little knife, Sean secured its ears to his belt and headed back toward the cave. He had no idea how to skin or prepare his prey, but as he trotted back to the cave, his face, hands and shirt covered canlı casino siteleri with blood he had an immense feeling of satisfaction, of the hunter home from the kill. He could understand the primitive need to dance his success before a fire.

As he entered the cave, a rock whizzed past his face, missing him by barely an inch. He dodged and whirled, raised his spear.

“What the fuck? You ignorant fucking southern hillbilly!” He charged forward and pressed his spear against Preston’s chest, who had fallen from his effort to attack Sean, despite an injured leg.

“Okay, that’s it you fucking bastard! You’ve got two choices, You can take an oath on your sacred doomed confederacy, never to try to kill me again or, so help me god, I will kill you right this moment.”

“You’d believe me? Take ma word?”

“I have to do that or kill you. What choice do I have? But I can’t sit around you and be worried that you are going to try to kill me every time I turn my back. So. Swear or die!”

“Okay, okay, Ah swear, I swear on the stars and bars and on Jeff Davis’ mother, just don’t kill me. Mr. bad Yankee man.”

“Okay, now seriously. Neither of us is going to survive this shit if we don’t work together. I managed to kill this poor pitiful creature. Do you know how to skin it and all that so we can eat? I am going to the river to wash off the blood. Here Is my pocket knife.”

After they had eaten, Sean decided to do something about the filthy condition of their clothing. “Hey Reb.”

“Ma name ain’t Reb, its Preston”

“Oh That’s right. I forgot. Excuse me Mr. Prescott Dalton. Do you think you can stumble around enough to get the fire going a little more? I am gonna wash our clothes in the river, but I wanna dry them by a nice hot fire so we won’t be sitting around here a long time without clothes. It would be a hell of a thing to have someone show up and us sitting around with no drawers on. And we are both getting to stink like a bat’s rear end.”

“Heh, heh, jest how many bat’s asses have you smelled, Yankee boy?”

Sean brandished his homemade spear at Preston, but only half seriously.

Sean left the cave for a while and in his absence, Preston stoked up the fire, fanning its weakness with his tattered old campaign hat until the flames soared up enough to banish the smoke up the cave’s natural chimney.

After a few minutes, Sean returned. “Okay, I’ve checked it out and as far as I can tell no one is around for miles. I head some faint sounds of artillery fire off to the west, but I don’t think anyone will see our smoke from so far away. Give me your clothes!”

“Huh? What the hell you mean? Oh you mean to wash. Okay.” Preston sat and awkwardly worked off his shirt and pants struggling with drawing the pants over his wounded leg until Sean helped him pull them gently off. Underneath, Preston wore red long johns, one leg slit open, the rest so smeared with dirt and piss and shit and blood as to be a dark umber.

“Those, too,” Sean mumbled, pointing.

“The hell ya say? Ah ain’t stripping down in front a you.”

“Look you dumb hillbilly. What would I want with your nasty bloomers and why would I want to look at yer scrawny ass. But just look at those drawers. They gotta be cleaned or burnt. How can you stand to even have those nasty things on you. And we both gotta stay clean or we’ll both get sick.”

“What’s being clean gotta do with bein’ sick Ah don’t get it?”

“I’ll tell you all about it later. My uncle over in Ireland was a doctor, before the famine, and he explained the whole thing to me. For right now give me the pants so I can clean ’em or I am leaving you on your own. Also, I got this ratty hunk of flag I am gonna wash with our clothes, so we can dip it in the hot water and wash ourselves off. In fact, here take this, put that old ammo can I found on the fire and put some water in it. You can wash up while I am washing the clothes, then I’ll take my turn when I get back. We can dry ourselves off by the fire, too.”

Sean helped Preston out of his long johns, keeping his eyes turned away from the others nakedness. Once, however, when Preston gritted his teeth and shut his eyes with pain, Sean Looked directly at the other youth. In the crowded New York tenement, Sean had been in close proximity with nakedness of both sexes, but he had never seen anything like this!

Naked, Preston resembled the copy of Michelangelo’s David Sean had once seen in a Dublin museum. His graceful penis, small but beautifully formed, lay nestled in a curly mass of startlingly red hair. Sean quickly looked away, but, curiously, wanted to look again. His interest in another man’s cock surprised him. He was not THAT way, but found himself curious nonetheless.

Sean left the cave and Preston began washing his body with the tattered remains of the flag. Even though there was no soap, it felt wonderful to wash himself. He kept the rag as hot and as wet as he could and steamed the filth from his face, holding the steaming rag against his face until it grew chilly, then repeating the process. He kept gradually adding more water from the canteens and waiting until it steamed, then soaking another body part. He wished there was enough water to wash his hair, but he merely wet it slightly and drew his fingers back through it like a comb.

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