James leapt behind the cover of a tree, hearing the bullet from a rifle whine passed him. He took aim, and fired, seeing the federal soldier drop before the smoke puffed up around him and obscured his vision. A bullet smashed into the tree he was sheltering behind and splinters of wood spattered his head and outstretched arm. As he rose and darted for better cover he felt another fired round tear along the sleeve of his jacket. He'd become separated from his company, and knew he'd die before long. Who ever was shooting at him wasn't bad at all.
He jumped behind a pile of thick brush and at last saw the shooter. A smaller man in a Federal army uniform was searching for him, a grim, determined look on his face. God, he looks young. James thought. Through the haze of smoke, he saw the young man reloading. James lifted his rifle, aiming for the now lone soldier. He could've killed him easily, but in that moment, as he took in the other man's small stature and slight frame, he knew he didn't have the heart for it. He couldn't kill a boy who was probably scared to death, who had probably lied about his age to enlist, and now, no longer had any idea why he was out here or why he was even fighting. No, he wouldn't kill him without good reason, but he couldn't let him run either. James dipped the barrel of his gun, aiming carefully, and took his shot, hitting the other man in the shoulder. The soldier dropped to the ground, his own rifle tumbling from his hands, and the wilderness was suddenly quiet.
James remained still for a few moments, listening. He no longer heard people moving through the woods, and the shouted commands of other soldiers had faded away. He guessed the younger man and his fellow soldier had been stragglers in their company as well, and James wasn't surprised. This had been the manner of the fighting of late, tired skirmishes in the woods as the war moved on into 1864.
James stepped out from where he'd taken cover, approaching his victim. He intended to take the soldier prisoner, and that thought made him feel more exhausted than he already was. He had only been of fighting age since last April, but nearly a year in the war, of watching horrors unfold, of watching so many die, he wished more and more, that it would simply end. The sounds of the Federal soldier struggling to rise brought him out of his fatigued train of thought. James had no intention of letting the boy get to his gun, and so he moved quickly towards the prisoner, cocking his weapon. When he spoke, his tone was firm, but he didn't shout. "You'll want to keep still Son. I've got a few rounds left, and I'm not above killing you if you try anything. You hear me?" He stood over his prisoner and looked down, seeing the soldier curled on his side in the grass, his knees pulled in towards his chest. The other soldier's pack rested just behind him, and his rifal lay about a foot beyond that. James could see him shaking, but could also see that he was making a valiant effort not to move. He knelt in the grass; leveling his rifle at the man, and pressing the barrel firmly into his ribs. "Turn over." He ordered, his voice even, but authoritative.
With a grunt of pain, the other soldier rolled quickly over and James had just enough time to see the blue sleeve of the federal uniform fly up towards him. He let the rifle drop and flung his hand out, catching the other soldier's arm at the wrist.
The sun glinted off the steel of the knife the Federal soldier held and James felt the other man tremble as he forced the arm down towards the ground and away from his throat. He leaned further forward, squeezing his attacker's wrist as he did so. The young man struggled and James pressed more of his weight atop him, pinning him flat. In the struggle, the other soldiers cap tumbled from his head, revealing dark, red hair.
James shook his captive's wrist harshly and the soldier gave a pained cry as the knife slipped from his fingers, falling into the grass. James drew in a breath, gathering himself and looked down into the face of the figure he was lying upon. He took in the softer features, the dark, parted lips and wide, blue eyes. The soldier gave another shudder of pain and something soft, like woven silk, brushed against James' skin. He glanced down, and saw that the dark, brilliant hair of the other soldier, fell across his restraining hand in a long braid. Everything seemed to go completely still in that moment, and he let his gaze travel slowly back up to meet his captive's eyes. Realization sent a jolt of shock through him, and he found he barely had breath to speak. "Oh Lord." He whispered. "I've shot a woman."
"You did… now let me go," she growled. Her face twisted in a grimace and she squeezed her eyes tightly shut. Her entire body stiffened in pain for a moment, but she did not cry out.
When she opened her eyes again, James could see they were still wide, and now a bit glassy. "I can't do that. You're wounded."
She took a deep, steadying breath. "I'll kill you,"
"No, you won't." James plucked the knife from the ground and slipped it inside his jacket. He lifted himself from atop her and reached beneath her, beginning to lift her into his arms. She immediately began to struggle, a sound of pain and fright coming through clenched teeth. Her wound had to be excruciating, but she fought nonetheless. Even as he struggled with her, he admired her tenacity. "Hold still Ms.… Ms.… you'll make it worse…" He brought her close to his body, wrapping one arm about her flailing legs, and the other trapping her arms and shoulders, his hand pressing her head firmly against his chest. He held her as tightly as he could, stopping her from moving.
"No." she cried, her voice a high, thin gasp.
He looked down at her, seeing a face filled with terror and shock. "Look at me…. Look at me," he said, his tone one of calm command. Recognizing the tone, she stilled in his arms, and slowly raised her head to look at him. He still saw pain filling her face and eyes, but he also saw a silent plea for mercy, and when he spoke again, his voice was gentle. "I promise, I swear, I am not going to hurt you." He felt her entire body begin shaking then, and her breathing quicken, but whether it was from fear or pain he couldn't tell. Suddenly, she sighed, relaxing entirely, her body going limp, her head lolling against his arm. He saw she was unconscious, her face pale. He rose with her, quickly collecting his rifle and pack, and hurried back into the woods, knowing she needed to be cared for, and soon.
Muriel woke, feeling the pain in her shoulder stab dully downwards into the rest of her arm. She wiggled her fingers, and sighed, relieved that she still had use of her hand. Her shoulder and arm still hurt, but there was no longer the burning, consuming pain which had been there before. She looked around and took in the softly lit walls of a cabin. A small fire burned in a stove, and an oil lamp rested on the table beside the bed she was laying on. She turned her head, looking towards the window on the opposite wall. Sun spilled into the room, dappled as the light filtered through the trees, but she guessed by the angle, it was afternoon. She wondered how long she'd been unconscious. She stirred gingerly, feeling the stiff fabric of her uniform cling to her legs beneath the blankets. She felt another throb and looked down at her shoulder. The wound was bandaged, but the sensation of pain wasn't confusing her. Rather, it was the realization that she felt warm air from the stove and lamp against her bare skin. She realized then, all she wore was the breeches of her uniform and her shift. Fear rushed through her, yanking her fully out of sleep in an instant. Her memories of what had happened were fuzzy, but she knew she had been shot, had been captured by a Confederate soldier. She heard a step and turned her head to see the young man who'd brought her here. He was tall, with dark brown hair and eyes, and looked about nineteen at the oldest. "What did you do to me?" she asked, feeling herself begin to tremble.
"Please drink this Ms." He said, offering her something in a tin cup.
"What have you done to me?" she asked, wincing inwardly at the frightened tremor she'd been unable to keep out of her voice.
"I mended your wound, nothing more," he said. His tone was calm, as if he were speaking to a skittish animal.
Muriel took a deep breath and shoved back the panic threatening to rise inside her. She had to think. She didn't feel any other pain aside from the wound in her shoulder. Hadn't he said something about promising not to hurt her? She couldn't be entirely sure of that because the memory was marred by pain, but she was safe, lying in a bed, warm, dry and cared for. She realized that if he had meant to harm her, he certainly wouldn't have brought her here to mend her wound. She looked up at the soldier again and saw he still watched her. She let out a long sigh and at last felt her heart begin to slow. It was then she noticed that not only was she wrapped in blankets, but the gray jacket of his uniform covered her bare shoulders and upper body as well. All her preconceived notions about his honor left her as she realized the meaning of the gesture. Her hand touched the jacket gently, almost caressing it, her eyes meeting his.
He seemed to read the track of her thoughts and he gave a nod of affirmation. "I assure you. I inspected your wound and that is all."
She noticed then, that he had kept still the entire time they'd been speaking, his hand steadily holding the cup out to her. She felt more of her fear slip away as she realized he was trying to make her as unafraid of him as possible. "Thank you," she murmured, reaching for the cup. The tin was cold against her skin and as she raised the cup to her lips, she caught the heavy scent of minerals wafting from the liquid inside. She sipped experimentally, then took a larger swallow, and then began to drink without stopping. The other soldier must have found a pump nearby. The well-water tasted like wine compared to the warm, insipid stuff that she and the troops managed to collect as they marched. As she drank gratefully, he spoke.
"The wound wasn't very serious, thank God. I did my best to only graze you. A few more days' rest and you should be all right."
"Thank you," she said, handing him back the empty cup.
He nodded, smiling. "You are welcome. Would you like more water?"
She nodded. "Please." Now that she was fully awake, she could assess the man completely. Her first impression of him, though hasty, had been accurate. He was tall, at least half a foot taller than she. He had long legs, but they didn't look disproportionate on him. Without the jacket, she could see he was built lean, but he wasn't too thin. He wore the gray uniform of all Confederate soldiers, but he wore no cap. She glanced about the room, noticing his rifle leaning against the wall near the door. Her gaze traveled up and she saw a hat, a lighter shade of gray than that of his uniform, hanging on a hook beside the door. She noticed then, that two packs hung beside his hat, and she recognized one of them as hers. She didn't see the rifle she'd been carrying however, and she turned her head at the sound of steps approaching the bed. The man stood there, once again offering her another cupful of the water. She murmured her thanks, taking the cup and studying him, this time noting the gun belt, and the weapon at his hip. She sipped, swallowing the water with more difficulty, feeling anxiety knot in her belly. "Do the men in your company know you have a prisoner?"
The young soldier looked taken-a-back for a moment, as if he couldn't believe the question she'd just asked. He then followed her gaze to the side-arm he wore and he nodded in understanding. "Forgive me Ms." He took a step or two back, towards a table and a pair of chairs. He unstrapped his gun belt and laid it on the table. He sat in one of the chairs, facing her, resting his hands in his lap where they were easily visible. When he spoke again, she heard that same tone he'd used before, gentle, not at all threatening. "Both armies have moved on by now. I can't begin to guess what you were doing out in battle, but you are a woman, and not a prisoner of war.
She was quiet for a few moments, and then met his eyes, smiling. Her mother had always said she had an easy smile. "I seem to be continually thanking you."
The young man smiled. The smile was a good one, making those brown eyes soften and gently lighting his face. "You are continually welcome Ms."
Other memories of their meeting began to come back to her and she met his gaze, a puzzled frown on her face. "You could've killed me so easily. Why didn't you?"
He sighed, running a hand through his hair. "You were alone, and the rest of your soldiers were dead or gone. I just didn't have the heart for it. Once I knew your identity I was glad I hadn't"
She smiled. "So, you saved my life instead?"
He returned her smile. "Yes."
"Why would you do it? Aren't I your enemy?"
"Perhaps, in uniform and perhaps even in belief, but you were hurt and the battle field is no place for a woman."
She drank the last of the water in the cup, and then spoke, her tone both resolute and humble. "Normally I would agree with you, but circumstances can change many things Sir."
"Yes Ms." He rose from his seat, moving slowly so as not to frighten her. He picked up a plate which held what appeared to be slices of bread drizzled with honey. He walked to her and held the plate out. "I wasn't sure if you even wanted food, but if you'd like to try?"
Muriel nodded, smiling. She took the plate he offered her, handing him back the empty cup. She thanked him, picking up the bread and beginning to eat. The bread was well made, a hearty wheat. She noted it was dry, and in a few places, it was stale, but she didn't care. The earthy flavor of the bread complemented the sweetness of the honey and as soon as she had the first bite swallowed, she took another. She hadn't realized she was even hungry until she had tasted food, now she was ravenous. "Where did you find this?" she asked after swallowing the last bite of the first slice.
"This was the first cabin I came to. Once I'd brought you inside and had tended to your wound, I looked around. It's been abandoned, but I believe who ever lived here left recently and quickly. This loaf of bread and a jar of honey were sitting on the table when I came in. There's a barn, but everything has been taken that could be. Thank God, they left the bread. I was almost out of rations. I apologize for the lack of cutlery…" He stopped speaking and watched her, having never seen a lady eat with her hands.
Muriel shrugged, swallowing before speaking. "It's no trouble to me," she said, taking another bite and mopping the last of the honey from the plate with the rest of the bread. He stared openly, marveling at her frankness. She finished the bread and wiped her hands on the scrap of cloth he'd provided as a napkin. She looked up at him, seeing the expression of slight surprise on his face. "What is it?"
"Forgive me Ms…. I've never seen a woman eat food in such a way before."
She smiled, unable to help it. She had never encountered a man so deferential. The men she knew, her brothers especially, weren't rude, but they wouldn't have prefaced a comment, even if it was the least bit unpleasant, with a begging of pardon. She found this behavior sweet, charming. Never in her life had she been spoken to with such careful attention, simply because she was a woman. She found it a little confusing, but also, she had to admit she liked it. "Well when you live in a house with five older brothers and a younger sister, you eat any way you can at dinner."
He smiled. "Yes Ms."
There it was again, that handsome smile, and the agreement, the quick, almost reflexive acquiescence to what she'd said. It dawned on her then, that he wasn't some poor farmer drafted into the Confederate army. He was probably from some well-to-do family, and this explained his manner towards her. As much as she liked his courtesy, his smooth speech, warmly accented by the place he lived, she liked more his behavior. There was an authentic, genuine quality to him that she liked, and after all he had done to keep her safe and cared for, he deserved kindness in return. "I've been called by nothing but my name all of my life, 'Miss' is not something I am used to," she said with a smile.
He nodded. "May I have your name?"
"My name is Muriel Katherine O'Shae."
He bowed to her. "It is lovely to meet you Ms. O'Shae."
James looked up as a soft giggle came from the bed. Muriel had one hand cupped against her mouth and her eyes sparkled. He gave her a puzzled, slightly concerned look. "Have I offended you?"
She shook her head, hoping he hadn't taken her laughter to be unkindly meant. The gentility of the introduction was to her even more charming than his use of the title of Ms. "I wasn't offended… but I've never had that done to me before," she said, feeling a gentle blush touch her cheeks.
James uttered a soft laugh, and was suddenly stunned to realize how beautiful she looked lying among the white blankets. Her red hair had come loose from it's braid and thick tresses fell about her, framing a lovely face. Her cheek bones were high, her nose small, and her lips were dark. Her eyes were a soft, sky blue, her skin fair and smooth. He had been so concerned with her health and safety that he hadn't appreciated her beauty until now. He swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry and spoke. "You have a lovely name Ms. O'Shae."
"Thank you," she said. "What's yours?"
"I am James Hamilton Sinclair."
She gave a slight smile. "That's a good name, and it is a pleasure to meet you James." She stretched carefully, attempting to sit up more fully in the bed.
James held up a hand. "Please, don't try to exert yourself Ms. O'Shae, your fragile enough as it is."
Muriel stopped moving, relaxing back into the pillows, and arched an eyebrow. "I beg your pardon?"
"You've been shot, that aside you simply aren't strong. I want to make certain of your well-being."
Her expression was even more confused. What was he on about? He seemed completely earnest in his request, but for the life of her, she had no idea why he thought her well-being would be effected if she moved. "I'm a good more capable than you realize."
He nodded, smiling. "I'm certain you feel that way Ms. O'Shae, but I'd ask you to remain still."
The tone of his voice was still gentle, but there was a new quality to it now, as if he were debating someone, as if she'd only given an incorrect opinion and he was going to set things right. Muriel knew condescension when she heard it, and her eyes narrowed. "Are you telling me you don't believe I'm able to care for myself without help? Because I'm a woman? That's absurd!"
James kept the smile on his face, but he couldn't help feeling surprised. "Ms. O'Shae, please calm yourself. I don't want you to-"
Muriel angrily spoke before she could stop herself. He made her feel as if he were about to reach out and pat her head. If he tried such a thing, she knew she would certainly swat his hand away as hard as she could. Were all the women he knew taken in by this? "I ought to show you the back of my hand for speaking to me like that! I'm not a small child!"
"You would strike me?" he asked, now incredulous. Just where had this woman come from?
She nodded, her eyes flashing. "You deserve it, especially with such a look on your face as that."
He moved towards her as he spoke, still finding it impossible to believe she meant what she said, and entirely missed the warning edge in her words. "Come now. A lady can never strike anyone. It rails against the feminine nature and-"
James had stepped up beside the bed and suddenly ducked back as her hand flew out, narrowly missing him.
He tripped and fell to the floor, feeling his head spin. Sitting up, he swept a tumble of dark hair out of his eyes. He gazed up at her, and saw anger, as well as hurt in her face.
"I've managed seventeen years of my life without you in it and would've continued doing so if you hadn't shot me!" She took a few deep breaths, and then sighed heavily, running a hand back through her hair. "You can remain on that floor as far as I'm concerned until that notion has sunk in," she said, her voice quieter now, but her tone still sharp.
James sat, sprawled on the floor and looked at her. She had seen through his attempts to subdue her, had seen through the ways in which he had been trained to deal with a woman who was angry.
The methods of how to behave towards women had been just as important a teaching as mathematics or literature when he had been raised, and in one instant she had wiped it all away. The near miss of her hand hadn't done it, rather it was what he saw immediately before him. She was angry that he had tried to dismiss her feelings, angry at his presumption. She'd expected honesty, and instead he had been bent on placating her. "I sincerely apologize Ms. O'Shae," he said quietly.
Muriel held his gaze for a few moments more and then nodded. He looked so completely sorry, that she felt her anger abate. "I forgive you."
He'd noticed then that her face had paled and she glanced worriedly at her shoulder. He rose quickly and came to the bed. "Are you all right?"
"Yes but…" She faltered, her eyes moving to her wound again.
He looked where she had and saw blood soaking through the bandage. "Allow me Ms. O'Shae, please?"
She nodded. "I will, but on one condition,"
"Please, address me as Muriel. As I said before, Ms. O'Shae is not something I hear often, and you saved my life. I wouldn't have you call me anything else but the name my parents gave me."
He remained still, his eyes fluttering closed for a moment before he opened them and spoke. "Certainly Ms.… Muriel," he said, giving her a soft, almost sheepish smile.
She nodded, smiling back. "Thank you. May I call you James?"
His smile widened. "You may. Now, would you permit me to attend to you?"
She nodded, watching as he gathered dressing from his own pack. "I have some material in my pack as well. You needn't spend your entire supply," she said, noticing that he grabbed a small flask and placed it with the other items on the table beside the bed.
"Thank you, Ms. Muriel, but I did shoot you, and therefore you deserve all I can give to make you well again," he said, pulling one of the wooden chairs from the sitting area to the bed.
She watched as he worked, impressed with how thoroughly, but gently he dressed the wound, and was touched by his murmured apology when she winced at the sting of the whisky he used to keep the wound clean. "Were you a medic in your company?"
He shook his head. "Only observant of those who were. I promised my mother I would do everything I could to remain safe. Also, our commanding officer insisted we learn how to tend to minor wounds ourselves. He always said, we were much poorer than the Yankees, and so self-reliance was his rule."
She nodded in approval. The two of them were quiet as he worked. Both wanted to broach the subject of their argument earlier, both wanted to reconcile, but neither knew how to begin. At last, he spoke, keeping his eyes trained on her wound. "As a young man, I was taught that women were gentle, delicate creatures, and that their every whim was to be met upon request. I was taught that women only expected kindness. When a woman was upset, gentlemen were taught how to make things right again. We were taught to please them. I am truly sorry for having mistreated you in such a way Muriel," He paused, smiling and giving a slight, disbelieving shake of his head, "I have never had a woman speak to me in such a way, let alone raise a hand to me."
She gave an abashed smile, her cheeks coloring and shook her head in a helpless gesture. "You must think I'm some wild thing."
"Hardly. I think you are very brave. I don't know any other woman who would be out here. Your reaction to my behavior was," He paused thoughtfully and then continued, "A relief. It has been a very long time since I've encountered someone as genuine as yourself, and knowing I didn't extend the same level of forthright honesty towards you is reprehensible. Muriel, I will gladly dismiss all my education in such manners, and conduct myself in any way you would like, only hoping, that your respect for me is the eventual reward," he said, his tone quiet, subdued.
At first, Muriel could only stare at him in mild astonishment. She had never in her life heard an apology like that. James' fine education and social training was evident in how he spoke to her, but, as before, she could tell he was being sincere, that he meant every word. "I've forgiven you."
The solicitous, gentle tone of her voice made James look up, and he met her eyes briefly, the look in them hopeful that he would believe her. He gave a slight smile, nodding. "Thank you, Muriel," he said, his attention returning to the wound at her shoulder.
Muriel watched the way he worked, watched as he carefully wiped traces of dried blood from her skin, felt how gentle he tried to remain as he applied the bandage. She was silent for a moment or so, suddenly and deeply touched at what she realized she saw before her; contrition. He blamed himself for the current state of her wound and was doing everything he could to remedy that. "James?" His gaze lifted from her shoulder and met hers. "This was my fault, not yours," she said quietly.
"But if I hadn't upset you so-"
She shook her head gently. "No James. I'll take the blame when it's mine. I decided to move, remember?" The last word was said with a soft laugh, and she was glad to see him smile again. "Please, allow me to explain? After the most beautiful apology I've ever heard, you deserve that," she said. He looked up at her, his smile widening and nodded for her to continue. "Everything in my life I have ever done has been along side men. I work to help them. I have had to, if not it would signal our doom. I have always believed that men and women have their own separate gifts and talents to offer to God and to one another, and I can't lift a grown man any more than my brother can birth a child, but I never had a man treat me as you did," He drew in breath to apologize once more but stopped as she shook her head. "It's no excuse. I am sorry for my temper. I know you've been trained in good manners, and I wouldn't ask you to do away with them. I would never ask someone to sacrifice something good that has shaped them and truly, there is much good to be found in what you were taught." She chuckled. "Just not what makes me feel like a simple child at lessons."
The two laughed, and he nodded, relaxing visibly. "Truly, I never cared for that tack myself."
She smiled, nodding. "I want to learn about you, and where you come from just as you want to learn about me."
He nodded, finishing the last of the redressing. "Then we will learn together,"
She glanced down at his handiwork, then looked up at him and smiled. "It hardly hurts now."
"I'm glad. I promise to care for you. I promised I wouldn't harm you and I still mean that. Do you believe me?"
Muriel was suddenly held by his gaze. It was as if the qualities he'd shown earlier were now distilled in those dark eyes. No one had ever looked at her with such complete sincerity before, and for a moment, she couldn't speak. "I do," she managed softly, wondering now, how she could've ever believed this man had meant to hurt her.
He nodded. "Good. You ought to get more rest now."
"Yes," she murmured, her eyes half-closed. The food and drink had done her good, and as she snuggled into the blankets, she could feel sleep gently winning her over.
James moved away from the bed, letting her get some much-needed rest. Muriel Katherine O'Shae was quite an interesting woman, and that was the least of how he felt.