|Where Loyalties Lie
Author: Niharumari PM
This is the story of Silas Warren, a soldier in the Continental Army during the endgame of the American Revolution, who saves the life of a death-row spy by claiming the spy could assasinate an enemy commander. Balancing the horror of war with friendship and courage, this is the story of a young man's journey to find himself and hold true to his beliefs amid a tumultous war.Rated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Angst - Chapters: 4 - Words: 19,912 - Reviews: 1 - Favs: 2 - Follows: 1 - Published: 11-18-12 - Status: Complete - id: 3075343
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
I look ridiculous.
The thought occurred to Silas as he knelt over the stream on the camp's edge a couple hours later, glaring at his reflection in the water.
Before going to the headquarters, which he had heard was somewhere in the middle of camp, he thought that it may be wise to clean himself up a bit, so he'd made a wide swing, trying to avoid Caleb, and headed for the stream.
Surprised he didn't take out any of my teeth, he mused, lifting a cupped handful of water up to his face.
Silas stood up and straightened, aimlessly flicking the dust off of his blue regimental coat and swiping the red-trimmed sleeve across his mouth – no one would notice the blood then, at least.
With a sigh, he rolled his shoulders and strode off purposefully back into the clamor of the campsite.
He paused to watch a small unit of soldiers march through, flintlocks shouldered neatly, marching in step to a drummer boy who trotted along beside them. Drilling the men, he knew. Refreshing their memories and keeping them occupied.
He saw Thomas, Jacob, and Martin sitting by a fire-pit, cooking something that he could smell all the way from where he stood.
And he saw Dalton standing casually by a tent, talking with Caleb, seated on a tree stump.
Silas ducked; Dalton had been there when Lafayette had ordered Silas to stay with the prisoner.
He wondered if it was possible to mentally kick himself. If it was, that's what he was doing. He groaned and cast a glance up at the open sky. Why me? He grumbled, half in annoyance, half in pity.
Glancing around, Silas spied the good ol' flag of America, raised high and proud on a pole outside the general's tent. When he looked back at Dalton, he could see the older man casting his searching eyes around.
If he sees me, I'm dead, Silas knew with certainty. And why shouldn't I be? I've already been at the bottom of all the problems in camp today, and he knows it...
Another look over the tent showed him that the colonel had vanished, and he breathed a small sigh of relief.
He sighed again, this time in exasperation at his practical day of espionage, and strode off towards headquarters.
When he was just outside the tent, Silas sighed and stared up at the flagpole, stalling.
A burst of cheering distracted him for a moment, as he looked back over his shoulder. Someone had probably just won a game of cards, and the loser was most likely paying up whatever he had bet against.
In looking back, Silas had almost run into the famed James Armistead, the spy Lafayette had hired back in March.
"Excuse me...I beg your pardon," James apologized.
"No man's fault," Silas quickly dismissed, looking the man over. He'd heard plenty about him, but hadn't ever seen him in person. If what the gossiping soldiers said was correct, James had presented himself to Lafayette, claiming that he would make an excellent spy, since he was a Negro slave, present only with the permission of his master. No one, after all, spared slaves much of a glance; they'd never consider him a danger.
So this is him...not bad, I suppose, for a black man...Silas thought. James wasn't what Silas had been taught that slaves were - dirty, unkempt, un-human-like creatures. Instead, he was clean shaven, with the thick, almost wiry hair and dark brown eyes that were common of his race.
"Name's Silas," he said.
"I'm James Armistead, but by now, I'm guessin' you may be familiar with that name."
Silas nodded. "So what's the news? You have, after all, been gone for over a month. We all thought you were dead." Or had run away, he remembered.
A pained expression came over James's face. "You all thought I was dead? General think that too? Mighty sorry 'bout that...I wanted to get word out to you, but I couldn't."
"He'll be happy you're alive," Silas answered absently. To fill the silence, he repeated, "What did you find out in the enemy's lines? Anything of importance?"
"That I did..." James shifted uneasily. "But I am to speak of such things only to General Lafayette..."
Shrugging, Silas replied, "I don't mind; was just on my way to see him myself..."
He let his voice trail off at the murmurs he heard on the other side of the canvas.
"...more useful alive than dead, sir..."
"...not if his presence will cause unrest and mutiny.."
"...even if we did bend all these rules to let him live, we'd be distracting ourselves from our current task, trying to..."
James looked at him strangely; Silas guessed that it was pretty obvious to the man that he was eavesdropping.
"...It's a long story," Silas muttered.
"I vote no," he heard someone else say. "...too risky and foolish...it's.."
Without a cautious thought for what he was doing, Silas pulled open the flaps of the tent and stepped inside, without waiting for the formal permission.
The general stood around a small wooden table with his regiment colonels: Joseph Vose, Lieutenant Colonel de Gimat, a Frenchman who had arrived in America with Lafayette, and of course, Isaac Dalton.
All four men looked up at Silas.
"You've changed your mind then." It wasn't a question on his part.
"Good evening, Silas," Lafayette said, walking around the table with his arms already folded. "Aside from the fact that you were eavesdropping, I don't believe I said that my mind was ever made up one way or another."
Thinking that now might be a good time to heed his manners, Silas gave a hasty salute. "Sir," he began, trying not to accent the word, but not quite managing it, "I believe you're passing up something that could end this fight. And I-"
"Just how do you think this will play out?" Lafayette interrupted. "Allow Monsieur Marshall to murder that British general? Precisely how will that 'end this fight', Private?"
He's right...a traitor voice in the back of Silas's mind whispered. And he knew it too; just because the second-in-command of the enemy's army was dead, that didn't mean that the British king wouldn't continue fighting 'till the last man. After all, if the situation were turned and the Americans were the ones who'd just lost a commander by an assassination, Silas was pretty sure that a little thing like losing his best general wouldn't be enough to make Washington surrender.
Then he took a deep breath as something in his mind clicked. "Because if we kill Lord Cornwallis, his battalions, artillery, and supplies...everything... will become forfeit to us upon his death. We could gather General Greene and his forces down in the Carolinas, and they could march with us back northward to join General Washington. And when he has his troops amassed in one place," He paused, allowing the last piece of a plan that seemed so fantastic that there was no way it could ever work fall into place in his mind, "we can attack New York, capture General Clinton, and then, then, we will have won. Sir."
Silas raised his head, proudly now and looked squarely at the officers.
Dalton was looking back at him with something that may have been veiled admiration, and Lafayette studied him with either a new respect, or just plain disgust; he couldn't tell which.
"My," the Marquis said at last, "you certainly have this planned out well."
Silas stood up a little straighter, something he didn't usually do because of his generous height.
"But yet again, you forget the conduct and rules of war," Lafayette reminded him, his eyes never leaving Silas's face.
Here we go, Silas inwardly groaned.
"What of the chaos that will result at Cornwallis's death? There are reasons why certain rules in warfare are lain down; if we do not conduct ourselves like civilized-"
"Beg your pardon, sir, but we have used what has been dubbed as 'uncivilized methods' of fighting before. Dan Morgan's riflemen at Cowpens? Greene's skirmishing in the back-country of the Carolinas?" Surprised, Silas shifted his gaze from Lafayette to Dalton, scruffy, crazy old Dalton who was actually backing his idea.
"Colonel? You agree with this boy?" Lafayette ventured cautiously.
Dalton waited a moment before answering. "I believe there may be sense in it," he said, not casting his opinions completely one way or another.
"Sense? There is no sense in this. To begin with, we would have to get Greene here, before the expected detachment under Anthony Wayne arrives so we could all depart for New York as one. Never mind the problem of what Clinton may do, sitting idly in the north; for all we know, he may intend to come down here, and exterminate my command with Cornwallis's assistance!"
"I believe I can help you with that."
James calmly stepped inside the tent, staring at the officers without a hint of emotion.
A look of astonishment spread across Lafayette's face. "James Armistead?"
Then he embraced the other man, and when he smiled, Silas saw in it a glimpse of the happier, enthusiastic boy Lafayette had been before the gravity of his situation became known to him.
"Not a word at all from you, my friend, in all this time," the general said. "What has gone on in these months of silence?"
"I apologize, sir," James said regretfully. "But perhaps it was worth your wait. I can tell you right now, I don't believe that General Clinton intends to leave New York. He expects a combined attack of our Allied forces to take back the city; he's even called some of General Phillips' southern units back north. Whether or not he fears this attack, I don't know, but from what I've seen of his correspondence to Phillips, he may appear almost eager to draw us into a full and open battle. But," James looked over at Silas, "if we can eliminate a piece from the playing board – Cornwallis and his forces – we could give Clinton his fight, where he'd be unsupported with half his reinforcements from the south." James walked around the table and bent over the maps that were spread on it.
"Cornwallis will march for Petersburg, where Phillips and Arnold now are. When he arrives, General Clinton will call Arnold back north." James placed the pad of his forefinger on the little Virginian town, and traced a line northward through the colonies as he mentioned the turncoat's recall.
Lafayette's brow furrowed. "Cornwallis is moving from North Carolina?" A smug grin briefly lit his face. "Ha! I suppose his 'southern strategy' has failed him!" He stared hard at the map in silence. "But if Arnold is about to move back to New York, our mission here will be complete, and we too shall be called to join Washington."
Damn it all! Silas thought, barely suppressing the explosive curse. There goes a perfect chance, he knew.
"But what of Caleb?" Silas asked too loudly, his hands curled into fists.
Lafayette looked up at him, the irritation in his eyes veiled with the look of a man deep in thought. "We have already agreed to let him live. For now. However, something must be done to pacify the men – they will not stand for this. Within the hour, young Marshall will receive fifty lashes. I doubt this will accomplish much, but perhaps those who squall at his temporary – and I put so much emphasis on that word - stay of execution, will quiet."
Silas gaped at him. "Fifty! That could kill him!" he protested, forgetting all niceties and decorum, forgetting that he was addressing his general.
"The weak of heart usually die by the whip. This man, spy or not, isn't like the rest. He seems strong. It's either this or the gallows, Silas. You know I speak the truth," Lafayette stated, his voice deadly serious. "Now unless you have more business in here, I think you should see to your duties in the camp."
Silas stiffened. "But-"
"You are dismissed, Private Warren," Lafayette announced, ice coating his words. He looked at Silas in a way that said he would tolerate not one more word of back-talk, or perhaps Silas too would come away with a taste of the lash.
Itching to have the last word, to fire off some sort of retort he knew he could never utter, he turned and all but tore open the flaps of the tent as he stalked out.
What have I done? This is mad! They won't use him, they won't hang him, so they're going to beat him instead! He railed at himself as he unconsciously headed toward the edge of the camp, his one place of relative contentment.
His conscience pricked him; he was supposed to be stationed with Caleb. At the moment though, he couldn't stand the thought of being around him. He wouldn't be able to tolerate the questions, softly spoken but prodding, or the look he'd be pinned under when Caleb suspected that he wasn't getting the whole truth.
His feet turned him towards the relative silent solace of the edge of camp, away from all the hubbub and clamor. He'd found it when they were first raising the tents; a little stream, a brook in its own miniature valley, a riverbed carving through the plateau and the mountains beyond. It was the same one he'd been to that morning, in fact.
Silas's stomach rumbled. He hadn't had anything to eat since that morning, and it had only been half a bowl of a strange mixture called hasty pudding. The ground corn meal mixed with water had become something of a staple in the diet of a soldier, and it was hardly a filling meal.
Seating himself on the low hills overlooking the little riverbed, he rummaged through his haversack for some food, finally turning it upside-down and allowing its sparse contents to tumble out into the grass. There was his hunting knife, something his father had given to him on his sixteenth birthday; it was really the only thing of value, sentimental and physical, in the bag anyway. He picked up piece of dried, salted beef, eyed it distastefully, and started chewing on it nonetheless. Having found his meager prize, he started replacing the only other things he carried: his scratched pocket mirror, shaving razor, and his ratty old toothbrush…the scant necessities for cleanliness. It embarrassed him to realize that he didn't remember the last time he had actually bathed.
He looked up, sighing, gazing past the veritable mountains, swathed in thick trees with their lush leaves bending slightly to the heavy breeze. He gazed at the setting sun that cast stark shadows over the mountains, made little reflections in the chattering stream, and he thought again of the tyrants over three thousand miles away, how they sat in idle comfort and mocked the colonists and their futile rebellion.
There was a dull prick on his hand and almost automatically, he slapped the flat of his other hand upon his wrist.
Dead, Silas thought with a detached satisfaction as he stared at the flattened mosquito, the little blood spot his wrist. "Try to drink my blood, will you, you little vermin," he muttered.
"Talking to yourself, I see?"
Silas didn't have to turn to identify that voice. Who else spoke with the distinct accent of a Frenchie?
Though he really didn't want to, he stood and raised his hand to his brow in what had to be the laziest salute he'd ever given. "Sir," he addressed his general.
Lafayette blinked and inclined his head ever so slightly. Silas went to sit down again and felt his legs quaver beneath him, threatening to give out. Why was he suddenly so exhausted?
He heard the scuff of boots in the dry grass and shifted his eyes sideways to see Lafayette standing beside him. Not wanting to give the man the satisfaction of seeing him twist his head around to gaze up at him, Silas returned to staring straight ahead, watching a lone eagle – or maybe a hawk - he couldn't tell at its distance – circle the skies.
A moment later, Lafayette moved to sit as well. Silas tensed; he wasn't sure he was comfortable sitting beside the young general, felt old habits telling him that he should be standing.
He wasn't given enough time to make up his mind. "Relax," Lafayette said, a soothing quality to his lilting voice. "Why such nerves around a friend?"
The question caught Silas completely off-guard. He wasn't angry anymore? "I'm just a soldier, sir. Just a private among a thousand others…I…I apologize, sir, for my temper lately…"
As he spoke, his words decreased in volume until he was barely above a whisper.
"Your temper lately?" Lafayette echoed, humor vibrating through his question. "It is always as such!"
Silas smiled, and though grudgingly, it wasn't forced.
"It seems that I too must offer my apologies for my conduct in the tent."
This too, surprised him. "I…" Silas groped around for a word, cursing his inability of eloquent speech that seemed to come so easily to others like Caleb. "It's all right, sir."
"I forget sometimes that we are comrades, brothers in arms, despite our difference in rank," Lafayette said warmly. "Perhaps it wouldn't slip my mind so often if you made yourself… a little less…"
Silas finally looked over at Lafayette, watching his thin eyebrows furrow as he fished around for a word.
"A little less of an ass, is that it sir?" Silas mocked, grinning at the momentarily astonished look that flew over the other man's face.
Lafayette chuckled. "I suppose that term could be used…" He too watched the hawk overhead for a moment. Then, "But whatever we shall call you, my friend, I think my news will please you."
"What news is that?"
"That I have written to General Washington and informed him of our…ah…situation. This is his problem now."
Silas's shoulders slumped. "You did what?" he asked, exasperated. "I mean…sir…" he hastily compensated, trying to organize his thoughts into coherent speech. "I…well…no disrespect at all, especially seeing as we all admire Washington, but we also know…what he'll say…"
He glanced over at Lafayette. The marquis was fixing him with a serious stare, all jest gone from his eyes. "Go on…"
He tried to select his words carefully; he knew of Lafayette's outright admiration of the commander, and was wary of breaching the tentative truce they had both called.
"Well, you know that His Excellency will never stand for such a thing. You know his reply will be quick and he'll probably get mad at you as well, you know…for suggesting what you did."
Silas suppressed a sigh, tried to still his hands, which he just noticed had begun to shake slightly. He looked at Lafayette and said simply, "Caleb's gonna die now, sir."
The Frenchman surprised him by averting his gaze, turning his attention to his glove, picking at a loose thread. "You may be…surprised," he said finally. "You don't know how eager mon general is for a fight, for something to end this war once and for all. I outlined everything you proposed back in my headquarters…do not be so glum; everything may not be as bleak as you think."
For Caleb and Elliot's sake, I hope you're right… Silas didn't speak aloud; he wondered when he'd suddenly felt so invested in Caleb's fate.
Because it's my fault he's in this situation. Not that he got caught spying…that's definitely got nothing to do with me…but the assassination idea…
And then they both heard it.
The drumbeats were playing out in the far distance, resounding in the gathering dusk.
Silas and Lafayette stood up almost simultaneously, stared off in the vague direction of the encampment, and looked back at each other.
A brick in his gut, he snapped off a salute. "Sir," he mumbled, watching the general nod curtly before taking off for the clearing of canvas tents. In the low light, he could see them clearly, reflecting like a sea of white, this shelter for so many people.
He sprinted when he saw the knot of men amassed in the clearing.
"Coming through, coming through, excuse me…" he muttered, pushing past the spectators and ignoring the glares he got in reply.
The drumbeats were ringing in his ears along with the rushing blood as he realized belatedly that if he'd kept to his orders and remained near the prisoner, he'd be up front right now, instead of fighting to get there.
"You're an idiot, Caleb," Silas whispered viciously when he saw him being ushered towards the whipping post, a soldier on either side of him, with two more posted before and behind him. Caleb's face was utterly blank and he kept his eyes fixed on a nonexistent point in space, chin lifted in defiance.
Day's scorching light was beginning to give way to twilight, the clear sky dusted with tiny stars when Jacob turned to look at him after he'd made his way to the front of the mass. In the half-light, his gray eyes looked angry and wild.
The man glowered at him before shoving a bowl into Silas's hands – it wasn't even half full, he observed without surprise.
"Look," Jacob muttered, "dinner and a show." He jerked his head at Caleb who had just been stripped of his shirt and was having his hands bound to the post. The officer who had been heading the procession turned and pulled a musket ball out of his pocket, which he fit between Caleb's teeth. The man murmured something to him, but it went unheard by the assembled troops.
"What's that for, exactly?" Martin piped up, startling Silas with the closeness of his voice.
"So he doesn't bite his tongue off when they get halfway through the whipping," Jacob answered dully.
Silas stared down into the bowl, eyeing the meager contents of boiled meat and a piece of a roll. There were two spots of mold in the bread and to him, they looked absurdly like a pair of eyes staring back at him. It wasn't because of the spoiled bread, or the flies settling on to the meat, but his stomach gave a violent lurch. "Ah…no, no thanks," he protested.
"Are you mad? I'll take it," Martin announced.
He handed the bowl off to the younger boy who eyed it eagerly. He watched him inspect the bread, shrug, and then cram the whole thing into his mouth. Silas returned his attention back to what Jacob had said, turning his words over in his mind.
"You don't sound too happy about it. The show, I mean," he added with a burst of choked laughter, and cursing his inability to make light of everything the way Thomas could.
"So why are you-"
Silas glanced at him; saw his profile sharply outlined against the stark background of canvas tents.
And then the drum rolled, the first lash fell.
He stiffened along with Caleb, the man arching his back against the pain.
"That was quick. They skipped something, didn't they?" Martin asked, a wondering note in his voice.
"Yeah, they didn't read out his name, or the charges against him." Jacob snorted and added, "Probably because they know how stupid it would sound if they said "and this is the spy who is our first and only exception to the age-old rule of hanging, simply because of an insane idea." " He threw a withering look at Silas, who didn't notice because he just realized he'd been clenching his fists so much that his fingernails had begun to bite into his palms.
The drums rolled again and the man said "three," informing the spectators of the torturously slow pace of the punishment.
"So…who thinks he'll survive the fifty?" Martin asked tentatively
"Four," the man said as the whip fell once more. Silas watched the stripes accumulate on Caleb's back.
"That's a damned blasted question," Jacob snapped.
He focused on the little details, the minute and hardly-noticeable, like Caleb's eyes, which were squeezed tightly shut, his jaws grinding into the musket ball.
"Oh, so you think he's gonna die?" Martin countered.
"I didn't say that, Martin."
Silas wasn't there, was entirely detached, and he kept watching Caleb work the ball in his teeth, could see that he was fighting with everything in him not to give in and scream, or even to groan.
He glanced at Jacob, saw him glaring at Martin, then returned to fixing his gaze resolutely ahead.
"He'll live," he said simply.
Silas wasn't so sure. The drums continued to pound out their monotonous beat, the whip continued to hiss and crack as it swung through the air. The sound it made as it struck flesh was horrible, the dull thwack producing an instantaneous line of crimson.
They'd all stopped talking in the hushed murmurs, falling into a tense silence as the whip kept falling.
At thirty-one lashes, the pattern of crisscrossing lines began to disappear because Caleb's back was so bloodied and torn.
By the time they reached forty, the numerous cords on the whip were stained red, and from where Silas stood, he could see little drops of blood go flying whenever Caleb would be struck. He wasn't fighting the pain anymore; he could tell by the way his face seemed frozen into a permanent grimace, how his shoulders had lost their taut resistance, and Silas wondered if it was because he'd lost consciousness.
"When are they going to stop it?" Martin suddenly asked, his voice hoarse.
Jacob merely shrugged. "They're trying to make an example out of him." His eyebrows furrowed angrily and he shoved his hands deep into his coat pockets.
Just before the man was about the announce the falling of the forty-fifth lash, the officer who'd given Caleb the musket ball held up his hand to stop the flogging. He walked up to Caleb and put his fingers to the man's throat. Caleb inhaled sharply and picked his head up, meeting the officer's gaze squarely.
"Yes," he croaked loud enough for most everyone to hear, "I'm still alive."
There was no expression, no pity, no admiration, no anger, on the officer's face when he nodded curtly, stepping back and giving the order to recommence.
Silas looked away then, gazing past the whipping post, past the tents and the American colors hanging in the windless night, fixed his gaze on the mountains and suddenly wished down to the bottom of his heart that he was somewhere, anywhere, but right here.
The drums were silent at last.
The moment that it was clear that the men were no longer required to remain, they began dispersing, regrouping themselves into their companies and regiments and heading for their tents.
"Took 'em long enough," Jacob muttered mutinously.
Martin glanced at him and Silas in turn. "If that man hadn't proven that Caleb wasn't dead…" He shrugged. "Well, he looked pretty dead to me."
Silas and Jacob ignored him, both of them watching the officer cut Caleb's hands loose from the rope wrapped around the top of the post. He jerked his head up and blinked, seemed dazed as he stumbled back, but regaining control over himself. Silas saw him try to straighten his shoulders, retain a shred of his dignity, but fail, the slightest motion of his back agonizing him.
The same officer touched Caleb's arm and murmured something discreet to him before Caleb turned and walked away from the hated whipping post, trying not to stumble.
Jacob eyed him as he approached. "So you're not dead after all. Didn't even pass out. I'm impressed," he grunted.
"Hmm…" Caleb managed a wavering smile and then his knees buckled and he tumbled to the ground, out cold, finally giving in.
Martin flashed a grin at his scowling brother. "Well, I guess you spoke too soon."
Jacob glared at Silas, as though the whole mess was his fault. "I am not carrying him."
Silas wearily ran his hand along his face and sat down next to Caleb. "Just get the blasted surgeon. I'll keep an eye on him."
Looking like he might argue but deciding against it, Jacob nodded curtly and headed for the doctor's quarters.
He looked up at Elliot's voice, seeing the boy running towards him, a panicked look on his face.
"Is he dead?" he asked, panting, as he skidded to a stop in front of him.
"No, just…out," Silas replied quietly, mildly surprised by Elliot's sudden concern. "He held up really well over there."
"Yes," Elliot murmured, "he did good…"
Silas glanced up at his friend. Was the dim light playing tricks on him? Elliot's eyes weren't shinier because they held tears…
"Move over, will you?" Jacob grunted a little while later, prodding Silas's leg with his foot.
"Back so soon?" he asked, standing up and addressing the question to Jacob but eyeing his companion.
The young surgeon was probably Jacob's age, but he looked older than all of them. His brown hair was messy and pulled back, but it was shot with threads of gray, and lines creased his face and spread from his tired eyes.
"Indeed we are," the man piped up. "Doctor Jonathan Stewart," he said by way of introducing himself and extending his hand. Silas clasped the man's rough hand, nodded curtly. "I'm Silas. That's Caleb," he mumbled, jerking his head down at him in turn.
"Caleb, eh? Quite a show you put on for us, my friend," Jonathan told Caleb, ignoring the fact that he wouldn't be able to hear him, crouching down to his level. "You need to wake up now." With that, he lightly slapped Caleb's face with the back of his hand.
Caleb inhaled sharply and blinked several times, sitting up slowly.
"Welcome back," Martin said, a crooked smile across his face.
"Oh…hello…" Caleb muttered, bringing a hand up and swiping across his eyes, trying to focus on the surgeon. "And you are…?"
"Jonathan Stewart," he repeated, shaking Caleb's hand. "I'm going to have a look at your stripes, if that's all right by you."
"Yes, yes," Caleb mumbled, closing his eyes again. "Do get on with it…"
"Indeed I shall, but you need to stay with me, all right?"
Silas rubbed a hand along the back of his neck uncomfortably. Jacob was leaning nonchalantly against a tree, but Martin was watching Jonathan open up his bag and crack open a jar with a foul-smelling ointment. He was intently focused, and Silas wasn't sure he'd ever seen the boy look that interested in anything other than eating.
"So what's that?" he asked Jonathan, nodding at the jar in his hand.
"This," he replied as he scooped some of the goo onto his fingers, "is nothing more than an herbal salve. Good for preventing infections, and it will help his stripes heal with soft scabs so they don't break open easily." He reached for a rag which he dipped in a bowl of water.
"Are you interested in medicine, lad?"
"Very much so, sir," he breathed.
"Was your father interested in the practice as well?" Jonathan touched the cool rag to Caleb's back. He tensed, but didn't move away.
"No, he wasn't," Jacob suddenly snapped, locking his arms across his chest and glaring daggers at the confused surgeon.
"Oh…I see…I beg your pardon," the man muttered.
Silas glanced at Jacob. "What's eating you?"
"Shut up, Silas," he growled. "It isn't any of your concern."
"Hell, Jacob…" he muttered angrily.
Martin groaned. Silas could hear the boy's sudden exasperation and weariness, like he'd been through this before. "Lay off them," he snapped.
Jacob turned to Martin, staring at his brother with a look that may have been anger, confusion, and sadness all wrapped up in one. Then he jerked his face away as though he'd been slapped, and walked off.
"Would someone kindly explain what that was all about?" Caleb spoke up, wincing when Jonathan began applying the ointment to his back.
Silas was mildly surprised to hear him speak, thought he hadn't been paying attention during the encounter. "I'm sure we'll find out sooner rather than later…"
Martin sighed. "He's been like that for a long time."
Before Silas or Caleb could try to pry more out of him, Jonathan stood up. "You're done," he informed Caleb. "But sleep in a tent tonight. If you sleep outside, it'll just slow down the healing process. And Caleb?"
"Put a damn shirt on." Jonathan smiled and tossed him a worn shirt.
Caleb caught it, and made a face. "This…ah…is this…this isn't…?"
"Don't worry, it's not mine; it's yours. The officer who was heading up your flogging gave it to me."
Jonathan took the shirt back and helped Caleb lift his arms; Silas could see that receiving the assistance embarrassed him. He grit his teeth against the stinging that the contorting of his back produced and slid the shirt over his head. Jonathan smiled at him, extending a hand to help him stand.
"You're not bad fellow, Caleb. Not a bad fellow 't all," he said warmly.
"Thank you. I think you are the one person who is of that opinion."
The evening's drumbeat rolled across the camp, signaling the end of the day. Silas sighed. Guess we'd better haul our sorry selves to our even sorrier quarters and try to get some shut-eye…
"No matter what Mr. Stewart says, I would much rather sleep outside than endure whatever your boys of the Seventh will try to torment me with tonight," Caleb muttered when they had walked far enough out of the doctor's earshot.
Silas shrugged. "I doubt they'll try anything dirty. The kid, Martin, might talk your ear off with his questions though. Him and Thomas both. And we aren't so bad once you get used to us." He felt himself smirk, heard the ruefulness in his voice.
After they had walked a little further, Caleb said, "I meant to ask earlier: how is it that you are with a Virginian regiment, but you don't bear their accent?"
"I was part of one of New England's militia, then later a regiment. Pennsylvania I think. I switched because I didn't like the one I was with." Standard response. It was usually enough of a reason, and kept most people from asking further. Not Caleb.
"How did you end up with these…what's a…kind word here…? Crazed…companions…?" his voice trailed off; Silas could tell that "crazed companions" was a lot nicer than what was on the other man's mind. He didn't answer right away, slipping behind the tent he'd slept in the previous night – it seemed so long ago – and sitting down with Caleb.
"I'd just met Elliot, who was part of the Seventh. He was getting pushed around because of his size, and because of his stupidity to try to defend himself with a smart little mouth without using his fists to follow it through." He took off his haversack and rummaged through it, coming up with a piece of salted pork. He held it out to Caleb, who eyed it gratefully.
"Thank you. I'm famished."
Silas snorted quietly. "Famished…you even talk like them Brits," he accused.
"What? Is that not something that you would say?"
"No, not in the slightest, as you'll find out right quick if you continue talking that way."
For the first time, Silas actually saw Caleb's face darken. "I'll speak in any manner I see fit, thank you." He tore off a bite of the hard meat and looked at the ground as he chewed thoughtfully.
Quit saying "thank you" so much, Silas thought irritably.
"Anyway," Caleb continued, speaking with his mouth full, "you didn't find it hard to leave the members of your previous regiment?" He shrugged then. "Seeing as you're already so close with the men of the Seventh…just strikes me as strange, you see."
Silas swallowed and clenched his fist around a tuft of grass. "It wasn't difficult. I didn't care for them, and the feeling was mutual."
"You're very brazen, aren't you?" Silas asked with a harsh laugh.
"Indeed." Caleb fixed him with an unsettling stare.
Silas felt his face harden. "It isn't your business, and I want to go to sleep now."
"Fine." Caleb waved a hand dismissively. "Since you're so angry with me, you might as well stay inside the nice warm tent with your friends, and I'll be quite content to sleep under the stars with only the vermin for company."
Silas slapped his hand against his forehead and groaned. "You know I can't do that. Dalton would have my hide."
"Ah yes…the rather…cranky colonel…" Caleb trailed off again. Silas thought he'd get some peace and quiet, but then Caleb said, "Tell me about him then."
"Tomorrow. We're marching out of this wretched town, so we'll have plenty of time to talk," he groaned in reply, flopping over to his side, dragging a threadbare blanket out of his backpack.
"I'll hold you to that." Caleb's voice sounded haughty.
"You're impossible," Silas muttered. He didn't really think Caleb would hear, since he faced away from him and was talking into the grass.
"Thank you, I do try. Good-night."