|"Jimmy! Come sit by me, there's a good boy." Chas Chapman patted
the rough bench beside him. There was still plenty of room in the mess
hall, but it was filling up fast with hungry soldiers. Remembering his
aunt's dictates about manners, Private James West compressed his lips
to keep back his response. He didn't like to be called Jimmy, and he
wasn't a boy. He was sixteen, though the army thought him nineteen. And
he didn't particularly want to sit by Chas. There was something about
the other man's grin Jim had never liked.
"Come along, James," Hubbard Foster murmured from behind him, "discourteous to hesitate." The older man ushered Jim to Chapman's table, but somehow in the confusion of tin plates and cups and men jostling for position, Hubbard ended up sitting between Jim and Chas. He immediately struck up a conversation with the fellow across the table, allowing Jim to devote his full attention to his meal.
It wasn't what a man would usually call appetizing. Jim's aunt would have been horrified at what the Union army fed him, and further, appalled at his table manners as he gobbled it down. She'd never understand that a finicky man went hungry here.
Someone laughed as Jim mopped up his plate with a piece of bread and then ate the dishrag. More of the lumpy stew was scraped onto his plate. Jim glanced up to thank the man, and found Chas looking down at him, a glint in his eye. The man perched on the bench by Jim and slung an arm around his shoulders. "Growing boy's gotta eat."
Aware of Hubbard's frown, Jim pushed his plate a little toward Chas. "This is yours. I can't eat it."
"Sure you can." Chas tightened the arm around Jim's shoulders. "I don't need it, but a growing boy like you..." He stood and Jim let out a silent breath, too soon. Chas's meaty hand tousled his hair, and he laughed again before walking away.
Jim watched him until he'd left the mess tent, then looked back at the additional helping on his plate. He didn't pull it towards himself, though his stomach still growled with hunger. There was something about Chas he just couldn't like, and the guilt made him sick. His aunt had always taught him to believe the best of all men, and Chas certainly went out of his way to make sure Jim was well and comfortable. It was uncouth and... and ungentlemanly of him not to appreciate the other man's consideration.
"Might as well eat it, James," Hubbard said. "It'll just go to waste otherwise."
Slowly, Jim pulled the plate to him and began to eat.
He felt like cheering when his company was put on picket duty.
Picket duty was boring, unless something untoward happened (which God forbid it would), and could be damned cold and wet, if the heavens saw fit. But the area was undergoing a spell of fine, dry weather, the Rebs didn't seem to be doing much, and Jim was tired of drill.
The regiment had drilled six times a day for the past month. Jim thought it very likely he could report in his sleep and still countermarch and wheel with the rest of his company without missing a step. He was halfway to wishing someone would open the ball again -- even a battle might be preferable to lying bored in camp, or standing even more bored in drill. But the army seemed disinclined to move.
There they sat on one side of the river, with the Reb army on the other. At the moment, all was quiet, and only heaven and the generals knew when battle would be rejoined. In the meantime, someone had to keep an eye on the damned graybacks across the river.
Jim whistled as he stuffed his belongings into his haversack and dismantled the dog tent he shared with Hubbard. The older man sat by, puffing on his pipe and watching Jim fold the tent halves. "Ah, youth," he said, as if he were a graybearded ancient. He gestured vaguely with his pipe. "You're too chipper by half. It's picket duty, James, not a furlough."
Jim tossed the tent halves on top of his haversack and threw himself down next to the stump on which Hubbard sat. "At least it's a change."
"Yes, we'll be doing our own cooking," Hubbard said sourly, but he smiled at Jim.
"Can't be worse than what they're feeding us now."
"Care to wager on that?"
Hubbard didn't mean it; he knew Jim didn't gamble. He sometimes thought he was the only one in his company who didn't. The whole camp seemed to be overtaken with sin: gambling when they could get out of sight of the officers, drinking when they could get their hands on anything spirituous, whoring... Well, at least that last wasn't a problem so far from any city. Jim had promised his aunt he wouldn't fall into any bad habits, and it was a promise he meant to keep.
"Mornin' Jimmy." Chas joined them without waiting for an invitation. Jim sat up. He nodded a stiff greeting as Hubbard said good morning. "I've been talking to Sam -- you remember Sam Roate, from Company C?" He didn't wait for either of them to respond, which was just as well. Jim didn't know anyone named Roate. "He's just coming off picket duty. Says they been trading with the Rebel pickets all up and down the river."
Jim frowned. "Trading? But that's--"
"Long as the colonel doesn't catch anyone at it, all the other officers been turning a blind eye." Chas tossed Jim a knowing wink. "Got a hankering for real Southern tobacco like everyone else, I bet." He stood, and ruffled Jim's hair before he could lean away. "Pack up, boys, this is going to be one duty we enjoy."
Jim watched him until he was out of sight, then turned to find Hubbard doing the same, puffing meditatively on his pipe. "Hubbard..."
"It's against regulation."
"Doesn't necessarily make it wrong." A puff of smoke wreathed Hubbard's head and Jim realized suddenly why he'd think this... trading was acceptable. Wanted some of that tobacco himself, most likely. Jim's throat felt tight when he swallowed; he'd always looked up to Hubbard.
He made his voice hard. "It's fraternizing with the enemy."
Hubbard sighed. "Not everything that's against the rules is wrong, James. If Johnny Reb has something we want, and we've got something he wants, there's no harm in trading." He puffed again. "So long as it's not troop movements. Not that we're going anywhere, or would know where we were going if we were."
Jim looked away, swallowing again. He'd not have taken Hubbard for a man so unprincipled. He scrambled to his feet and went back to his packing, though it was finished. Hubbard knocked his pipe out against the stump and came to lay his hand on Jim's back.
"James," Hubbard began, his voice soft and reasonable, "would anything Johnny Reb said to you, or traded with you, change the way you feel about him? Would it make you less of a soldier? Would it prevent you from following orders?"
"No," Jim said instantly. He heard the pride in his voice and had no desire to call it back.
"Then what harm does it do, if it can't make you traitor?" With those final words, and a gentle pat, Hubbard wandered off, his hands in his pockets.
Jim watched him go, his thoughts both eased and confused.
The piercing whistle startled Jim badly. He swung around, bringing his rifle to bear, but saw no one. Just the indistinct figures across the river. Though they were gray-clad, an informal truce held along the river, and Jim didn't expect trouble from that shore. Not, at least, by individual pickets. The whole Reb army was another matter entirely.
"Hey Billy! Billy Yank!" It took Jim a moment to realize the man was yelling at him. The figure across the way waved, and pointed to something out in the river.
After a moment, Jim made out the small object bobbing toward him, carried by the water's current. It must have been put in the river some ways upstream to come to him here. Jim turned away. He didn't want anything to do with the Rebs, or their tiny boats bearing tobacco.
"Come on, Billy. Please?"
The words were barely loud enough to be heard over the gurgle of the water. He thought again of what Hubbard had said. That same rationalization from Chas would be unconvincing, but Hubbard was a good man. What harm could it do to look? Pretty much every man in the company had done some sort of trading with the men on the other side of the river since they came on picket duty a few days ago.
Jim slung his rifle on his shoulder and, after a quick look around to make sure he was alone, splashed into the shallows to rescue the tiny boat.
It wasn't the Rebs' usual box-boat with a scrap of flannel for a sail. This one had been hollowed out of a thick branch; it resembled a real ship, complete with a sail and tiny mast. The string tied to the stern, which had pulled taut when Jim lifted the boat out of the water, went lax. Jim took advantage of the slack to wade back out of the chill water.
Inside the hollowed out hull, a small canvas bag had ridden safely across the river. Gingerly, Jim investigated. A delicate sniff was sufficient to identify the bag's contents without opening it. Tobacco. Under the bag, in the bottom of the hollow, was a scrap of paper with some lines marked on it. Jim looked it over, then stuffed it back in the little boat.
He looked again at the tobacco. Jim didn't smoke -- it was a filthy habit he'd promised his aunt not to take up -- but Hubbard would be glad of some good Southern tobacco. Hubbard had been ill ever since they encamped at the river. He lay listless in their small camp, coughing and staring at the sky outside their tent. His illness prevented him from standing picket duty, and trading like the others. Jim knew Hubbard's tobacco pouch was nearly empty. Surely it would be a kindness and no evil to bring him tobacco, especially tobacco that smelled this sweet.
Quickly, as if to get it done before someone else, or he himself, noticed what he was doing, Jim tucked the small pouch into his coat. He wondered what the Reb wanted in return. He didn't have much on him.
After a moment's thought, Jim dug in his pockets for the last dried apple. He'd been saving it from the box Aunt Maude had sent. Stifling his regret at giving away the treat, he put it in the little boat and set the tiny vessel back upon the water. It bobbed there uncertainly for a moment before the string went taut and it began slowly making for the opposite shore.
Jim remembered to scan the river in between watching the boat go, but could see no one but August Koppen, at his post further down the shore. If there were any Rebs but the man with the boat, they were keeping out of sight.
The boat grew even tinier as it slowly approached the far shore, and Jim couldn't see it arrive, except by the Reb's response. He splashed into the water and, after a moment, Jim thought he heard a sound like a laugh. The man sprang upright, and waved, then brought that hand to his face. Jim imagined the sweet dried apple as it crunched between the man's teeth.
He went back to his post with a smile on his lips.
"I can't take this, James." Hubbard lay inside their tent with both of their rubber blankets protecting him from the ground and both of their wool blankets over him. He protested that, despite Jim's assurances that the nights were warm this near to summer, but shivered too hard for his protests to carry any weight.
"Sure you can." Jim pressed the small bag of tobacco into Hubbard's hand with fingers that shook. If Hubbard had changed his mind about the rightness of this, if he accused Jim of consorting with the enemy...
"James, lad, you had to give something to get this. I can't just take it."
Jim smiled suddenly, mostly in relief. "Still got some of those molasses cookies left?"
"In the bottom of my haversack, James. Help yourself." Hubbard smiled at him, and propped himself on one elbow to transfer the tobacco into his own pouch while Jim retrieved his payment. When he turned back, one cookie in his mouth and another in his hand, Hubbard handed the empty cloth bag to him. "Better return this, if that same fellow tries again."
Jim tucked the pouch into his coat pocket, sat crosslegged by Hubbard, and savored his molasses treat.
The next day, a few hours after he came on post, a figure on the far shore whistled at him, and he found himself splashing out to retrieve the little ship. Must be the same fellow -- there couldn't be two such lovingly-made boats.
There was another pouch of tobacco, which Jim slid into his coat pocket. Another piece of paper. This time, instead of meaningless lines, it had a drawing. Jim laughed. What was very clearly a pot of coffee steamed over a small black campfire.
So Johnny Reb wanted coffee, did he? Jim had a little left, and the next issue of rations would be in a few days, so he didn't begrudge it. But he didn't carry his rations to the guard post with him.
Carefully, he waded back to shore with the little boat in his hand, slowing when the twine tugged at the hull. He hid it in a hollow in the rushes, with the twine wrapped twice around a handy branch. Then he stood and made a gesture with his hands that he hoped looked like 'wait' to the man on the opposite shore. He got a wave in return, and went back to his post.
Later, after he'd given Hubbard the tobacco, filling his pouch to capacity, and convinced the older man he only wanted a little coffee in return (the amount he had was less than he'd remembered and not a fair exchange at all), Jim returned. He waited out of sight until the man standing picket hied off into the bush after a call of nature. The sun was starting to sink on the horizon when Jim put the Reb's canvas sack, now full of coffee and sugar, into the little boat. He disentangled the twine and gave it a little tug. After a moment, it tugged back, and he put it in the water.
He could barely make out the man across the way as he pulled his boat in to shore, but he heard the whoop of joy.
Jim tied the little boat up in the rushes and sat next to it. He shook his head. Tobacco again. Couldn't Johnny Reb come up with anything else to send? Perhaps not. When he thought of it, there wasn't much Johnny could trade that Jim and his companions didn't have. Except tobacco.
Hubbard didn't need any more tobacco -- he hadn't gotten out his laurel-wood pipe for days, it seemed, and Jim was beginning to worry. He tucked the little pouch into his coat nonetheless. Others would happily trade with Jim for the tobacco. The demand for it was neverending.
Under the tobacco pouch was the usual slip of paper and under that, a piece of horehound candy. Jim popped it into his mouth with a grin and an appreciative groan, and studied the slip of paper. Not coffee this time. It looked a bit like wings, but broad flat ones. Jim sucked on the candy as he puzzled over the drawing. Finally, it came to him. Newspapers. More than one, from the heft of the tobacco pouch.
Jim tucked the slip of paper back into the boat and sat beside it in the rushes, his arms around his drawn-up knees, thinking. Newspapers. The horehound didn't taste nearly so sweet now. Newspapers. Hubbard's words came to him: it's okay to trade, so long as it's not troop movements. Newspapers contained reports about the army's movements. Could Johnny Reb be trying to make a traitor of Jim West?
He sucked harder on the candy. On the other hand, perhaps Johnny was just starved for something to read. They all seemed to be in Jim's camp, anyway. Every newspaper got read to rags. Most every letter from home made the rounds, until the whole camp knew about Maxie's new tooth and how Uncle Edgar got drunk Tuesday last and fell down the outhouse.
Jim hesitated over the choice. Send the tobacco back, or...
Finally, he nodded to himself. If Johnny was looking for a traitor, he
wouldn't find one here. But Jim would send him the newspapers anyway.
Wasn't Hiram complaining, only a few days ago, that they never saw a
newspaper less than two months old?
"Hear you're looking out for newspapers, Jimmy," Chas said as he caught up with Jim on his way to the sinks.
"I am." Jim found himself thinking of excuses to turn aside. His bladder protested the idea.
"What are you willing to trade for them?"
Chas's laugh was round and as large as his husky frame. "Now where would a good Union boy like you come by Southern tobacco?"
Jim made his eyebrows rise. "Did I say it was Southern?" he countered, as they reached the sinks, the lie sitting ill with him. But Chas only laughed again. Jim managed to put several paces between them as he approached the stinking trench. He wanted to move farther away, but that would appear rude.
At first Jim was thankful that Chas was silent while Jim emptied his bladder. After a minute, however, the silence crept across the back of his neck with the feeling that the other man was watching him. Ridiculous. Jim tucked himself away, and turned to find Chas's eyes on him.
Chas smiled. "You want something to read, Jimmy, come by my tent. I've got something you'll enjoy much more than newspapers."
"That you, James?"
"And who else would it be?" Jim squirmed into the dog tent, trying not to jar the cocoon of blankets that was Hubbard. He'd used some of the tobacco to rent Ephiram's blanket, and it was a sign of how ill Hubbard was feeling that he hadn't quizzed Jim about it. Even with the extra blankets, Hubbard shivered in his sleep. "How do you feel?"
"Mighty poorly, James-lad. Mighty poorly, and that's the truth of it."
He looked it, too. Hubbard's face was drawn, his skin seeming nearly translucent. He hadn't been eating well. Jim tried, but there was little in an army camp to tempt the appetite of an invalid. Jim propped himself on one elbow and reached to draw up a blanket which had slipped. "Maybe," he said, and swallowed, "maybe you should go on to the hospital tent like the doctor wants, instead of just showing up at sick call every morning." It was the first time he'd suggested such a thing.
"That old bird? No. No, James," he said, with more power in his voice than Jim had heard since they camped there. "Nothing to do in a hospital but die."
"You know that's not true. Look at August -- he came back as fit as you please."
"Did he now?"
Jim didn't respond. True, August was thin as a rail, and inclined to double-up suddenly, coughing. But he lived, which was more than anyone thought he would.
"Doesn't matter. There's things I have to do here." Hubbard's narrow dry hand snaked out of the blankets to grip Jim's shoulder, strength enough in it yet to make Jim wince. After a minute, he asked, "How many newspapers you got now?"
"Four. And a bit." The warmth of Hubbard's hand made him say, "Chas offered something better than newspapers."
"What?" Hubbard said, his voice unaccountably sharp. His grip tightened. Jim felt a moment's sharp guilt that his discomfort with Chas had somehow rubbed off on Hubbard. Wasn't fair to Chas to make Hubbard dislike him for some odd quirk of Jim's.
Jim shrugged. "Don't know. Johnny Reb wanted newspapers; don't see how it'll do any good to send something else."
Hubbard let out a slow breath. His eyes closed and Jim thought he'd drifted off to sleep. "Four and a bit?"
"Isn't much left of the one Hiram was reading the other day."
"Mm. Jonas used it to start his fire last night." Hubbard's faint smile was barely visible in the dim light inside the tent. "Figured you'd heard the yelling all the way down at the river."
Jim grinned. "Sorry to have missed that." He sobered. "You think four and a bit is enough?"
"Most likely." He patted Jim again. "James. You're supposed to trade for things you want, not get caught up in getting Johnny what he wants."
Jim twisted to the side to dig into his pocket and pulled out a tiny wizened apple with a flourish. He grinned widely and bit into it. Hubbard laughed like creaking branches.
"All right, then." His already tired voice slowed. "But if you can't find what you want now, hold onto that tobacco. It'll be worth more than gold later."
"I'll remember that, Hubbard," Jim said, as if he didn't already know it. There wasn't much he wanted in camp right now, but if he waited until after the sutler came... The sutler would have tobacco, of course, among the many overpriced items he sold. But Jim remembered the grumbling last time, from men who called the sutler's tobacco little better than dried shite, and knew that Southern tobacco would be dearer yet when the time came.
A few dry coughs shook Hubbard's frame, but he didn't say anything further. Jim straightened the blankets over him again and squirmed out of the tent, newspapers in hand. Once outside, he stood, folded the papers, and tucked them inside his coat.
He was due for picket duty in a few minutes.
The boat came back over the next day while Jim was on picket. He wondered briefly if the Johnny Reb who'd made the boat was trading with any Yankee who happened to be there or sending his little vessel across only when Jim was there. He shook off the foolish thought. How could Johnny distinguish between one Union soldier and another across the river?
He splashed out to get the boat and stopped in the shallows. There was no small canvas bag inside. Instead, he found a small rock sitting atop the usual paper scrap. Jim looked the rock over and, seeing nothing unusual about it, dropped it in the river. Under the paper was another small piece of horehound candy. As soon as he had both the paper and the candy out of the boat, there came two tugs on the twine attached to the stern. Jim put the boat back into the water and watched it bob determinedly for the far shore. Finally, he remembered to get out of the water.
Jim sat on the shore with his rifle across his knees. He popped the piece of candy into his mouth and sucked on it as he studied the piece of paper. It couldn't be a drawing showing what Johnny Reb wanted; he hadn't sent anything to trade. Johnny must have torn the scrap from one of the newspapers. On one side was an advertisement with a drawing of a particularly ridiculous-looking bonnet. Aunt Maude would never wear anything so frivolous. On the other side were drawn two wavy lines, just about parallel to each other, with a strange wavy oval in between. Above that was a narrow crescent.
Jim rolled the sweet candy around his mouth. He looked at the river, and decided the wavy lines were the two banks. The oval, then, must be the island that split the current about half a mile upstream. Jim had seen it as they marched down to this place and been fascinated by the trees that seemed to grow right out of the water.
Well, it wasn't something the Reb wanted, then, since Jim could hardly give him an island. He looked at the drawing again, and wondered if the crescent at the top might be the waning moon. Jim blinked. Suddenly, it was as clear as... as the river itself. It was an invitation to a meeting on the island. And the moon didn't rise until after midnight, so the crescent set the time.
Jim jammed the paper into his pocket. He leapt to his feet and began walking back and forth before his post.
How dare he? How dare Johnny think Jim would meet with him? Fraternizing with the enemy. Treason. He'd heard how the Rebs tried to trap a man. He hadn't forgotten the three members of his regiment who'd been caught drinking and dicing with the Rebs between the lines. They'd deserved worse punishment than to carry a rail around camp all day for a week.
How dare he?
The lingering sweetness of horehound brought Jim to a halt. Slowly, he sat down again by his post. Tobacco and candy. The candy hadn't been for trade. It was a gift. Or a bribe.
Jim took in a deep breath and puffed it out hard. Damn him. He wouldn't go. Jim was no traitor.
Hubbard snored awfully when he was ill.
Jim squirmed cautiously out of their tent. Under the weak light of a crescent moon, he headed for the sinks.
He barely hesitated when he came to the stinking trench. He skirted it and continued on to the river, slipping silently past the guards. Half a mile upstream. He could make out the island trees, faintly visible in the pale moonlight, and the tangle of underbrush on its shore. The river meandered between him and the island at midstream, gurgling softly.
Jim hunkered down on his side of the river and watched, almost surprised to find himself there.
After what seemed a very long time, the underbrush opposite rustled. "Hey, Billy Yank..." The voice was low and seemed to carry impossibly far for its softness. "You there?"
Jim didn't respond.
After a minute, the voice came again, amusement stirred into the tone. "What are you sitting over there for?"
"I'm no traitor," Jim said, and was surprised by the loudness of his voice.
"Shh." There was another rustle of underbrush, and suddenly Jim could make out the form of the Reb standing on the shore of the island. "Never thought you were." The sound of the river intervened for a time. Finally, the Reb said, "Easier to talk over here. Come here, will you, Billy?"
Somehow, the dreaming quiet voice and the river blended together in Jim's ears and he found himself stripping off his clothes to cross. The water was cold. Holding his clothes above his head, Jim waded, swimming in the middle where the bottom dropped off, and came upon the other shore, dripping and shivering.
Though he could still see the Reb standing in the faint moonlight, the man didn't approach until after Jim had tugged on his recalcitrant clothing and wrapped his arms around himself for warmth. It was only then that Jim remembered he didn't have his rifle with him. No weapon at all but the dullish knife he used for eating.
"Easy, Billy," the Reb said, and kept his hands open and in front of him as he approached. "Don't mean any harm. Just wanted to talk."
"Talk about what?" Jim asked suspiciously.
The Reb grinned, his teeth flashing white in the moonlight. Jim couldn't see much more than that and the dark tumble of hair. "Newspapers."
"Wasn't four enough? And a bit," Jim added.
"Sure, Billy Yank. Certainly four would be enough. Only, two of them were the same paper. Same date." He cocked his head to one side, and his grin never faltered. "Can't you read?"
"You know I can't," Jim said sourly, "or you'd not be sending pictures instead of notes with your tobacco."
"Want me to teach you how?"
Jim scowled. "Look, I came because... I don't know why I came. But it wasn't to be laughed at."
"I'm not laughing, Billy. Do you want to learn to read?"
Jim compressed his lips into a thin line. Of course he did. He'd wanted nothing else from the first time he'd seen his Aunt Maude reading her Bible, sitting by the fire, rocking steadily in her chair. But even at seven he'd been the man of the family, and the man of the family had to be out in the fields; he had to work. He didn't have time for frivolities.
Johnny Reb made a movement like a shrug. "I can teach you."
"What, now?" Jim sneered.
"You know it'll take longer than that. We could meet here every night..." When Jim didn't respond, the Reb sighed. "Look, it's a trade. Like tobacco for coffee. I teach you to read, and you--"
"And I what?"
"Talk to me."
"I told you, I'm not a traitor." Jim splashed into the water, forgetting to remove his clothing first. A strong hand grabbed his arm and pulled him back.
"Didn't say you were," Johnny Reb said, his face awfully close, his hand like a vice on Jim's arm. His voice, however, was still calm and deep. "I just want to talk. My fellow soldiers--" He jerked his head to indicate the far bank. "Well..." He laughed. "I already know all they've got to say. They're not complex men. I just want someone new to talk to. Not about your army, or the war. I promise." Slowly, he released Jim's arm. "I won't make a traitor of you, Billy."
"No," Jim said. "You won't." He plunged back into the river, fully-clothed. When he splashed up onto his own shore and looked back, he could see the faint outline of a man watching him from the other bank.
Jim turned his back on it and squelched back to camp, stopping partway to strip and wring out his uniform.
Somewhat to his own surprise, he was back on the shore opposite the island the same time the next night. Couldn't sleep, or so he thought, and went for a walk, and ended up there.
The lure of knowledge, of learning the mystical relationship between those lines on the paper and the words people spoke, was strong. Stronger even than his Aunt Maude's parting prayer that he'd not fall into bad habits, or worse company. Could there be worse company than a Reb?
When he saw the outline of a man on the other shore, Jim stripped and swam the river to him.
Johnny Reb's teeth flashed in the moonlight. "I hoped you'd come," was all he said, without sarcasm, or taunt for Jim's weakness. "Come." He disappeared into the trees. Slowly, his clothes sticking to his wet skin, Jim followed.
Five paces from the bank, the island felt like another world. The trees rose up around them, silver and black in the moonlight, muting even the gurgle of the river. The rich black dirt under Jim's feet tucked up the tree roots in soft beds and played host to long grasses that tickled the hand lowered to feel them.
Johnny stopped in a tiny clearing, where the large spreading branches of an oak pushed back the other trees. He patted the huge bole of the tree with familiar affection and sat down neatly in the grass at its feet. It looked inviting, but when Johnny leaned back and invited Jim to sit with a gesture, he balked.
"Do you know your alphabet?" Johnny asked after a moment. He didn't sound put out.
"No." It seemed the least Jim could do not to get irritated with Johnny for asking such a foolish question. Or at any rate not to let it show. He shifted on his feet when Johnny seemed content merely to look silently at him for several minutes. What was he looking at? He couldn't possibly see much in the dark. "Did you bring a newspaper?"
The moonlight caught Johnny's smile. "No."
"If you wanted me to, you should have said." Jim snapped a twig from a nearby branch and set about stripping the leaves from it.
"No, I didn't expect you to bring a newspaper. It's too early." He fell silent again, and Jim fidgeted under the steady gaze. It reminded him in a way of Chas, but there was some indefinable difference. Finally, Johnny broke the silence to ask the damn-foolest question Jim had ever heard. "Why can't you read?"
"Because I wasn't taught," Jim snapped. If all Johnny Reb could do was ask foolish questions, Jim wasn't going to stick around.
Johnny's voice caught him before he passed the second tree. "You don't talk like an uneducated man." He waited until Jim returned, as if he knew he would, to add, "Or a poor one."
"We aren't poor." Jim hunkered down in front of Johnny. "Aren't rich either." He turned the stripped twig over in his hands, then stuck one end in his mouth and chewed on it, remembering Aunt Maude bending over Chrissy's little table, correcting what she'd written on her slate. "There was learning in the house." He ground the end of the twig between his teeth. "I never had time for lessons." Always in the fields, working with the only hired hand they could afford, tilling the rich earth, planting...
"Well, the alphabet is where we begin. Sit down, Billy, the lesson's about to start." There was suppressed excitement in Johnny's voice. Jim couldn't think what could be so thrilling about teaching a man something a boy ought to know. He sank down crosslegged near Johnny. Not too close. "Know where the word 'alphabet' came from?" Johnny was smoothing the dark dirt in front of him, and didn't wait for a response. "Alpha and Beta, the first two letters in the Greek alphabet."
Jim snorted, and Johnny glanced up long enough to smile at him. He reached out and took the twig from Jim's mouth before Jim even had time to flinch. Johnny turned back to his cleared area and used the twig to draw in the dirt. "Don't need more than moonlight for this," he said, almost to himself. "Here. First we have A, like in apple. Like the one you sent me the first day. You do it." He handed Jim the twig and watched while he laboriously copied the three straight lines. "Good. B, like in brother." He waited until Jim was copying the figure he'd drawn to ask, "Do you have any brothers?" It was spoken so much in the tone of his lesson that Jim didn't at first realize he'd been asked a question.
"Not any more." Jim gave all his attention to copying the letter in the dirt. "Joshua and Jeremy died of the influenza last year." Little baby twins, who lived when Mother died, and kept on living, under Aunt Maude's careful hand, only to die on the cusp of manhood, together, as they'd been born. He blinked to keep the tears inside.
"You have my sympathies," Johnny said simply. He went on with the lesson immediately, as if he knew that anything else would break Jim's composure. "C, like in... cannon."
Jim frowned. "It's not the same sound."
"No." Johnny made a noise like a laugh. "Letters don't always make the same sounds." He watched Jim draw in the dirt and nodded, and took the twig from him, but didn't draw the next letter. "You said there was learning in your house?"
"Yes. My Aunt Maude." Jim looked at the trees opposite, silhouetted against the silvery light of the moon. They reminded him of her: tall and slender and unbending. "She always said that a man's wisdom came from faith."
"She was a religious woman, your aunt?" Johnny smoothed his hand over the marked up dirt, erasing their letters. "D," he said, "as in dog."
"Or dog tent." Jim copied the figure, then returned to the question. "Yes."
"She enjoyed reading the Bible?"
"And she didn't take the time to teach you to read it?"
Jim shrugged. "Aunt Maude always said a man could learn all he needed by listening to the minister and taking his words to heart."
For a moment, he thought Johnny was going to say something about that, but all he said was, "Next is E, as in elephant."
"I've seen the elephant," Jim said to himself as he drew in the dirt.
"Haven't we all?" Johnny was silent and, for a moment, Jim felt that their two minds saw the same images of mud and blood and dead bodies, felt the same excitement and fear as they faced battle. Jim remembered how many of his fellow soldiers had joined up to "see the elephant" and how many had died on first viewing.
"What's next?" Jim prompted to break the moment of fellow-feeling.
Johnny jerked. He smoothed out the line he'd made accidentally and drew three more. "F, like fire."
Jim obediently drew the letter, and tried not to think how strangely comfortable this was, how friendly and familiar Johnny's voice was in the dark.
There couldn't be worse company than a Reb, could there?
Jim's fingers curled into his palms. He forced them out again and turned. "I'm on my way to the sinks, Chas." The crescent moon had risen a little while ago, and Jim was in a hurry to get to his lesson.
"I'm going there myself." Chas slung his arm around Jim's shoulders and steered him toward the sinks.
Jim tamped down the roiling of his stomach. He wanted badly to throw off Chas's arm. He occupied himself, instead, with figuring out how he could slip away to meet Johnny for his lesson.
It'd been a week now, and Johnny was always waiting on the island when Jim got there. He knew his alphabet now, and Johnny had laughed without cruelty at his pride in the knowledge and promised to teach him simple words tonight. Jim thought perhaps Johnny was a bit impressed at how quickly he learned. He'd always had a good memory and besides, he'd practiced the letters every waking moment he could snatch this last week.
They reached the sinks and Chas gave Jim a friendly squeeze before letting go. He strode up to the edge of the trench and released himself from his trousers before Jim could look away. He could feel Chas's eyes on him as he went to do the same, his mind still grasping at excuses. He was sure Chas would insist on walking him back to his tent if they finished at the same time. Delay, however, was out of the question. The feeling of Chas's eyes on him made Jim want to tuck himself away before he'd fairly begun. He was certain the other man would be waiting when he finished, no matter how long he took.
Jim thought briefly of pretending to have the green-apple quickstep, but discarded the idea immediately. The thought of taking down his trousers in front of Chas made his stomach squirm, though he couldn't have said why.
In the end, Jim merely tucked himself back into his trousers and headed for his tent. Chas fell into step instantly, and it wasn't more than a minute before his arm was around Jim's shoulders again. The weight made Jim twitch.
"You all right, Jimmy?" Chas continued as if Jim's noncommittal grunt was the height of encouragement. "You've been sleeping a lot during the day. You're not getting whatever Hubbard has, are you?" He stopped, and put his clammy hand on Jim's forehead.
Jim slipped out from under it. He forced a smile. "I'm fine, Chas. Just tired, I guess."
Chas shook his head. "I don't know, Jimmy. It's unhealthy for you to share that tent with Hubbard. He ought to go to the hospital."
"That's his choice, Chas. Not yours. Or mine," Jim added as he started for his tent again.
Chas caught up with him. "Well then, maybe you should change tents. I have one to myself. There's plenty of space for you." They'd reached Jim's tent.
"Thanks for the offer," Jim made himself say. "But I'm happy where I am." He gave Chas a nod and dropped down on all fours to crawl into the tent. It was surely his imagination that Chas watched until he was inside before walking away.
Jim lay in the dark, listening to Hubbard's choppy snores and waiting impatiently. He was going to be very late. Johnny might even give up and leave. Would he come back tomorrow night if Jim wasn't there tonight? Jim twitched about in a manner that would have garnered curses from Hubbard if the older man had been awake, eager to be going, afraid of running into Chas again when he left the tent.
Finally, during one of Hubbard's bouts of coughing, Jim slipped out again. This time, he didn't head for the sinks, but ducked into the nearest shadows and stood, holding his breath, watching. No Chas.
Jim crept as quickly as he could through the undergrowth and ran all the way to the shore opposite the island. He barely remembered to remove his clothing before crossing. Johnny would laugh, and tell him he couldn't learn to read and write properly when he was turning their writing dirt into mud with his dripping. At least, he would if he were there.
"There you are, Billy," Johnny said when Jim dashed into the clearing. He didn't comment on how out of breath Jim was, except to ask, "Everything okay?"
Jim nodded, already getting his panting under control. He threw himself down by Johnny. "Sorry. Chas caught me on my way out of camp. I had to say I was going to the sinks. He walked me back to my tent afterwards."
"Ah." Johnny nodded to himself. He cocked his head at Jim. "Chas?"
"Chas Chapman." Jim shook his head. "Can't say I like him. Too... chummy. And his hands are clammy." Jim stopped, horrified at himself for saying such things about a fellow soldier. And to the enemy at that.
Something about the off-hand way Johnny asked made Jim say, "Aunt Maude always said not to speak ill of any man."
Johnny laughed. "There's speaking ill, Billy, and there's speaking truth. Didn't your aunt teach you to tell the truth?"
"Well, then." He was fiddling around with something that Jim finally recognized by the candle. A makeshift dark lantern of some sort, he thought, with a metal shade around three sides. Johnny caught him watching and grinned. "Wouldn't do for anyone on either bank to see a light out here," he said as he struck a match and put it to the wick. The warm glow spilled out to throw light on the patch of dirt they'd been writing in, but no further. Jim still couldn't see Johnny, but at least he could see what he was doing; the moonlight had been getting quite dim, lately.
Jim was impressed by the design of the lantern, and moreso because it was clearly made by Johnny himself, but he threw that off to return to the previous subject. "You're suggesting it's perfectly okay to say that Chas makes my skin crawl?"
"Is it the truth?" Johnny's eyes flashed dark in the candlelight. "Does he?"
Jim looked away. "Sometimes."
"Then it's not wrong to say it." Johnny was silent for a moment, and Jim could feel his eyes on him. Though it made his stomach quiver, it didn't make his skin crawl. When Johnny spoke, he sounded amused. "Far be it for me to disagree with your Aunt Maude, but sometimes speaking truth means speaking ill. If you knew a certain peddler was a crook, wouldn't it be your duty to warn me before I'd been swindled?"
"I expect so."
"So." Johnny shrugged off the subject and smoothed out their dirt work area. "Let's see. Where were we?"
"You promised to start making words," Jim said immediately, before he realized that Johnny was teasing him.
"So I did," Johnny said around a smile. "Howabout this one, then? Appropriate, I think." He used a twig to write five letters in the dirt. Jim read them off as he saw them.
"C. R. O. O. K."
"Sound them out," Johnny leaned back against the tree, and watched him through eyes that glittered in the light. Jim couldn't make out much of him -- the candlelight was directed down at their makeshift writing tablet -- just the eyes, and the slight curve of a smiling mouth. He thought perhaps he was being tested.
Jim looked back at the letters. "Cee. Arr. Oh. Oh. Kay." He looked at Johnny, who snorted.
"That's just naming the letters." He leaned forward again. "All right, then. You remember that C is for cannon?"
Jim nodded. "It makes a sound like K." He looked down at the letters again. "Krok." He frowned. "You said it was appropriate?" Johnny was still grinning at him. "Crook, then. As in the peddler you were going to be swindled by."
Johnny's grin became a laugh, and he thumped Jim on the back. "Exactly. Billy my boy, you are far too smart to spend your days walking behind a plow."
Jim looked away. He wanted to smile at getting it. He wanted to agree with Johnny. The last thing he could imagine was returning to the farm, and the back-breaking work necessary to keep it going. But his aunt was there, and she relied upon him.
"That," he said, instead of responding to Johnny's praise, "was not a 'simple' word, was it?" Johnny just began wiping it out of the dirt, whistling a bit, almost silently. "Why did the O's make that sound?"
"Ah, well, it works like this..."
Jim leaned close to listen, and felt strangely warmed by the
tiny circle of candlelight. Or perhaps it was the man whose shoulder
touched his from time to time as he gestured.
He went to the lieutenant the next morning, and asked if he might have the first watch of the night. Hating himself every moment for the lie, Jim told the officer that he was having trouble sleeping at night, and implied that Hubbard's snoring might have something to do with it. He emerged from the lieutenant's tent with an order to report for first night watch on picket, and a guilty conscience.
At least he didn't need to worry about running into Chas on the way out of camp. Or explaining why he was sleeping during the day.
What he hadn't worked out was how to explain it to Hubbard.
"It's not you, Hubbard, honest!" Jim exclaimed, near tears. "I'm too restless. It's better if I'm not here, so you can sleep at night when the camp is quiet." The lies made him feel sick, a whole battalion of them since the sun rose. Aunt Maude would rap his knuckles with her spoon. Hubbard looked at him like he didn't believe him, but didn't say anything more.
It had gotten so Hubbard didn't even report for sick call. He lay in the tent while the bugles sounded and eventually a sergeant would come by to check on him. When light fell on him through the tent flap, his face was gray, yet he still resisted going to the hospital. He patted Jim's hand when he mentioned it, and murmured something about a responsibility still to be seen to. Jim had the horrible suspicion that it had something to do with him.
He kept Hubbard as comfortable as he could, traded tobacco for things he thought Hubbard might like to eat, and sat beside him in the dim tent, remembering how his father had wasted away after his mother's death. Chas stopped by three times that day to check on them. He said he was seeing how Hubbard was, but his eyes were all for Jim.
Jim was glad to get away to picket duty. And he hated himself for it.
When Jonas came to relieve him, Jim shouldered his rifle and headed back towards camp. As soon as he was out of the man's sight, however, he turned and headed upriver. It wasn't many minutes later that he swam to the island, his clothes held over his head. He left his rifle and shoes on the other bank, hidden in a thicket, and the black earth was soft between his toes.
"You're early," Johnny told him as he entered the clearing. Yes, early, but Johnny was already there. Jim had hoped he'd be. They'd have more time now: all the time until reveille. Hubbard wouldn't wake during the night, and no one else would miss Jim until roll call. "Picket duty does wonders for your promptness."
Jim ignored that, familiar now with Johnny's wordy pronouncements, until the meaning sank in. "How did you know I had picket duty?"
"Saw you." Johnny didn't look up from whatever he was writing in the soft earth.
"Across the river. In the dark?" No. The only explanation Jim could think of was that Johnny had been on the Union side of the river, and that was...
"It's not what you're thinking." Johnny reached into his jacket and pulled out a flat square of leather and a soft pouch. Out of the pouch rolled two pieces of glass almost like the lenses of spectacles, but larger and thicker. He fitted them into slots on either end of the square of leather and rolled it around them, tying it with a piece of rawhide. "There," he said, "look through that."
Jim knew a spyglass when he saw one, but he took it anyway and held it to his eye. When he took it down, he looked at Johnny with new respect, and a touch of fear. "You've been watching us, from across the river."
"First," Johnny said, taking the glass back and disassembling it, "it's no more than your officers do. Each side watches the opposite bank; it's only good strategy to know as much about what the other side is doing as you can. And," he added when Jim would have spoken, "it's perfectly acceptable by the rules of war."
Jim digested that, and felt better. After a minute, he asked, "And second?" Johnny cocked his head at him. "You said 'first.' What's second?"
"Second, I wasn't watching the army. I was watching you."
Suddenly, Jim didn't feel so easy anymore. His stomach roiled so that he wondered if the meat from dinner had been worse spoiled than usual.
"Hey." Johnny put a warm hand on his shoulder. "You okay?"
Jim's stomach roiled a bit more enthusiastically, then stopped altogether and he took in a long breath. "Fine. Fine." It wasn't quite a lie. "What's it going to be today?"
Johnny's hand tightened, then left him, and he wasn't sure if it was relief or loss he felt. "Try that," Johnny said, gesturing at the words he'd written in the dirt.
"The... gray... fox..." Jim read, sounding out the words as he went. It was slow, but he was impressed by his own ability, and thought Johnny was as well. It wasn't all Jim and his memory, he knew; Johnny was a good teacher. "...out-- out--"
"Outwitted... the... blue... snail." Jim frowned, read it through again, faster now that he knew the words. He snorted and gave Johnny's shoulder a shove that toppled him over. "Snail?"
"You know any other animal that moves as slowly as General McClellan?" Johnny didn't bother to sit up.
"No," Jim admitted. Newspapers weren't the only way of getting the news. Listening at campfires was quite as good, and the lack of movement of the eastern Union armies commanded by McClellan was the talk of the camp. "The gray fox... Lee?"
"Well, you'd better be proud of what he's doing out east, because you're not doing half so well out here."
Johnny bowed his head in reluctant agreement and started writing another sentence. "Can you bring a newspaper tomorrow?" he asked as he wrote.
"I get to read a newspaper?" Jim grinned.
"No. I get to read a newspaper. You get to watch."
"Here." Jim tossed the book to Johnny as he entered the clearing. Johnny sat up catch it.
"Something better than a newspaper." Hubbard had had a bad morning. By the time Jim had got him settled, and gotten some sleep himself, it was late. Too late to find a newspaper; that took perseverance and luck, and the first three people Jim tried didn't have any. Chas found him before he could ask any further, and pressed the little black book on him, telling him to stop wasting his time with newspapers when there was so much better reading to be had. Late for picket duty and desperate, Jim had taken it. Chas had smiled and walked away without even taking the tobacco Jim offered in trade.
Johnny held the little book down into the lamplight and began turning pages. Before long, he was chuckling. "Where did you get this? Do you know what it is?"
"Chas gave it to me." Jim didn't answer the second question. The small book was bound in dark cloth, like a Bible, but somehow Jim doubted it was one.
Johnny flipped to a random page and began to read. "...what I saw caused me, at first, to start back with affright. My aunt was leaning over the end of the bed; her clothes were thrown up over her back and her broad, white buttocks were turned up naked and in full view. Between her thighs--"
"Enough!" Jim could feel his ears burning.
"It's called The Libertine Enchantress," Johnny said in a surprisingly gentle voice. He continued without regard to Jim's embarrassment, "As for being better than a newspaper... while it's certainly more entertaining, and while it might be said to be informative, I don't think it can be strictly called news."
"Stop it," Jim gritted between his teeth. His unruly brain brought the words Johnny had read too vividly to mind, all entwined somehow with Johnny's rich voice. Desperately he tried to banish the image.
"I suppose Chas is the one who told you it was better than a newspaper?" Johnny didn't look up from the book as he spoke, still flipping a few pages, stopping here and there to read, thankfully not aloud.
"Give it to me." Jim snatched the book from Johnny. He hated to touch the filthy thing. He wanted Johnny to read him every word in it. He didn't know what he wanted.
"What are you going to do with it?"
"Throw it in Chas's face."
Johnny reached up to snag Jim's arm and pulled him firmly down next to him. "Don't do that."
"Why not? You want to keep it?" Jim sneered.
Johnny ignored the jibe. "Tell me, Billy, is Chas the sort of person who'd enjoy getting a reaction out of you? Don't think about it," he said when Jim hesitated, "just answer."
"Then throwing it in his face is the last thing you should do." He gently took the book from Jim. "You know," he said, turning it over in his hands, "the beginning is perfectly safe. She goes on for pages about her impending marriage before... well, before things get heated. We could begin reading--"
"Very well." Jim thought he saw Johnny grin. Johnny slipped the book into the inside pocket of his jacket and picked up a twig. "Then we'll stick to our earthly chalkboard until you find us a newspaper."
Jim hesitated, halfway to wanting the book back, his heart
pounding with sick guilt at wanting it, then nodded. He promised
himself he'd find a newspaper first thing the next day.
Jim avoided Chas the next day by staying in the tent with Hubbard. The older man slept most of the time, and when Jim wasn't sleeping, he resolutely practiced words in the dirt. The only place he couldn't avoid Chas was during roll call. The other man smirked at him from his place in the lines, and Jim rushed back to his tent afterwards before Chas had a chance to speak with him .
He was halfway afraid Chas would seek him out at his picket post, where he couldn't escape, but his time there passed uneventfully.
Uneventfully, if you discounted the racing of his mind. For a time, that afternoon, he'd wondered if it was a sin after all to let Johnny teach him to read. That such a few sentences could cause so many sinful thoughts was appalling. Perhaps his aunt was right, and all he needed to know was what the preacher told him.
He'd woken three times during the day from dreams he blushed to remember. Each time, he curled around the hard ache in his groin and fought to sleep again, though he didn't know if he was trying to escape the ache, or fly back to the strange vague dreams.
When his watch was done, he walked up and down the shore, knowing he was going to cross the water to the island, but not knowing if he was going to take the newspaper with him. Johnny probably still had that book in his pocket. If Jim didn't bring the newspaper, perhaps... Twice he left it under his shoes and rifle. Twice he went back for it.
"You're a bit late," Johnny said mildly when Jim finally entered the clearing.
"Had to be careful not to wet the newspaper crossing the river," Jim lied as he handed it to him.
Johnny smiled at him as if he knew Jim's dilemma, but all he did was lay out the paper in the circle of lamplight. "Come. Sit." He drew Jim down next to him, closer than they'd sat during any of their lessons. "The best way to learn to read is to follow along while someone else reads. You're such a quick study, I'm sure you'll pick it up right away. Just watch, and listen."
He began to read, running one blunt forefinger under the words. Jim followed with his eyes, listening to Johnny's familiar voice, watching the letters and the words. Johnny read slowly and clearly, and it seemed to Jim that he often almost knew the word before Johnny said it. Then, for a time, he found himself watching Johnny's finger move under the words, distracted by the broadness of his hands, the capable look of them.
Jim blinked, and the words Johnny spoke came into focus again. "But that's not what happened!" The article was about a fairly recent battle in the western theater. A battle Jim had been in. They didn't even have the victor right!
"No, it isn't, is it?" Johnny leaned uncomfortably close. Jim realized after a moment that he was only scanning the paper, finishing the article. After a minute, Johnny chuckled hoarsely. His breath tickled Jim's neck. "What a load of codswallop. First lesson, Billy: the fact that it's written down doesn't make it true."
"Why bother printing it if it isn't right?" Jim asked, giving the newspaper a disgusted swat.
"Maybe the reporter didn't know it wasn't right?"
"He should have found out. Checked with the War Office or something."
It seemed to Jim that he could hear Johnny smiling as he replied, "Second lesson: the fact that someone's in a position of authority doesn't mean he's a man of knowledge."
"You think I don't know that? Our first colonel--" Jim shut his mouth with a snap. It wouldn't do to tell a Reb about the colonel's failings, especially not as the man had since been promoted to brigadier general. Jim wondered if he was still marching men into the wrong position, usually the one with the greatest likelihood of getting them killed.
"Of course you know. One of the first things we all learned, I think, was that our commanding officers didn't know what they were doing. But you missed my point. Sometimes, even the War Office doesn't know what's going on."
"Any War Office, Billy. Even yours. Men in power are not infallible. Even President Lincoln."
Jim rolled away from Johnny to crouch opposite. "I should have expected as much from a Reb." Should have, but didn't. Jim scowled at himself for thinking Johnny was any different. His stomach ached.
Silently, Johnny folded the paper. He bent to blow out the candle, and for a moment the flickering light touched his face. All Jim could see was a mobile mouth that looked as if it should always be smiling. It wasn't, just then.
"You look at things too simply, Billy," he said into the dark, and his voice seemed more weary than angry. "You assume, because I wear this uniform, I must dislike President Lincoln. On the contrary, I greatly respect the man."
"Then why are you wearing that uniform?" He could make out the lines of it, even in the dark, the gray of it picking up the faint moonlight.
Johnny didn't answer. Instead, he said, "There was a parade in your hometown, when you joined, wasn't there? Speeches, cheering, and all you boys rushing forward to sign the register."
Jim didn't ask Johnny how he knew. It had been the same all over the Union. How could it be otherwise when men were called upon to protect their country?
"What did you think of the men who didn't sign up?"
Jim's lip curled. Algernon Foster. Skinny, bookish Algie, blinking too fast behind his spectacles as he cheered and watched and did nothing. That Algie didn't sign up was no surprise, nor particularly a disappointment. But when the blacksmith, Henry Gurlee, stood by and cheered with the rest, his boots firmly planted, arms crossed over his chest, there were whispers. Though Henry appeared not to hear them, Jim did, and agreed with every derisive syllable. Jim had gone forward proudly to enlist. He hadn't lied when they asked if he was over eighteen, not quite. He'd asked Crissy to write "eighteen" on a piece of paper that he had hidden in his shoe. Aunt Maude said it was lying just the same, but Jim wasn't like Henry -- he wasn't a coward and he wouldn't be left behind.
"It was the same down south," Johnny said, as if Jim had answered. "Any man who didn't want to be reviled joined up."
"It's not the same," Jim protested, stung by the comparison. "We were joining up to save the Union, while you--"
"When every able-bodied man around you is joining the regiment, it's the same." Johnny's voice was hard.
There was silence between them for several minutes. Jim blinked, trying to make out Johnny's face in the darkness, as he thought about what had been said. Slowly it came to him that not all Rebels were Secessionists. It was a rum thought. He followed it around his mind for a bit, and emerged frowning. "You didn't join for fear of a few hard words," he said, with more certainty than he should have felt. And yet, he knew Johnny wasn't so easily led.
Johnny snorted. "I had my reasons."
"What reasons?" Not slavery, Jim thought. Hoped. Not secession.
"My reasons," Johnny said, like a trap closing.
Jim hopped to his feet and brushed off his trousers. "I gotta be going." He rushed off before Johnny could respond. My reasons. If they'd been honorable ones, he'd have said what they were.
As he removed his clothing to cross the river, Jim cursed himself. So Johnny had joined to destroy the Union, so what? It was nothing more than Jim had known from the start. Just because, for a moment there, he'd hoped differently, it didn't mean anything. This Reb wasn't any different from any other.
He didn't ask himself why he wished otherwise.
When he got back to his camp, chafing in his clothes, practically chafing in his skin, he found Hubbard choking in his sleep. Cursing himself for having let a damned Reb distract him, Jim dove into the tent and turned the older man on his side. He was very careful when he pounded Hubbard's back; the older man felt so very fragile.
Finally, the horrible tearing cough began and Hubbard sucked air into his lungs. Jim held him as the cough threatened to rattle him apart, resting his forehead against Hubbard's back as the relief and fear made him weak.
When morning came, the sergeant took one look at Hubbard and ordered him to the hospital, no arguments permitted. There was an ambulance at midday -- a four-wheeled one, thankfully, and not the two-wheeled kind the men called avalanches because of their racketing ride.
Jim took Ephiram's blanket off of Hubbard; it was only on loan, and Ephiram would want it back. He left his own. Hubbard needed it more than he did.
"Jim." Hubbard had been trying to talk to Jim all morning. Every time he tried, the cough came back, worse than before. All morning, Jim shushed him when he tried to talk, leaving the tent if necessary to keep him quiet. "Jim!" Hubbard took Jim's hands, his grip surprisingly strong. "You've got to--" He broke off, coughing, and blood came to his lips. Jim wiped it away, and urged him not to speak. He remembered the way his father had gone, and tried not to let the heat in his eyes become tears. "Be. Be. Be," Hubbard choked out between coughs. "Careful." Jim hushed him, and held him as the spasms wracked his body.
They loaded Hubbard onto a stretcher with his two blankets, as tenderly as if he were a child. Jim followed, and watched them lay the stretcher in the back of the ambulance. The horses were restless, and one backed into the cart with a tremendous jolt.
"I'll be fine," Jim assured Hubbard. "I will." He took the other man's hands in his. They gripped back desperately.
"Chas--" Another cough. The ambulance drivers were impatient to be gone. Jim didn't have any time to find Chas for Hubbard.
"You take care of yourself," he told Hubbard, swallowing around the sharp obstruction in his throat. "You hear me?"
He squeezed the other man's frail hands, and reluctantly released them as the driver spoke to the horses and the ambulance started off. He watched until he couldn't see them any more, then crawled into the empty tent and lay on his face.
Jim cried silently. Eventually, he slept.
Jim went straight back to his tent after picket duty that night. He lay atop his rubberized blanket and tried not to hear the ticking of Hubbard's pocketwatch, which the other man had pressed on him before he was taken away. Johnny would be waiting. Jim wouldn't be there.
Johnny Reb. He'd been calling him Johnny, but he'd almost forgotten the second part. A Reb. He'd been taking lessons from a Secesh, and thinking the man might be honorable. What a fool. He couldn't go back. He couldn't listen any longer.
I won't make a traitor of you, Johnny had said. But he had. He'd made Jim think of a Reb as a friend. Made him linger where he shouldn't have been, while his true friend was suffering. Jim hadn't been there when Hubbard needed him. Talking to Johnny made Jim question what his aunt had taught him, made him lust, and lie, and think evil thoughts.
Jim buried his face in his arms and pretended to sleep. Eventually, it was true.
"Here, Jimmy." Chas slid his tin plate, full of roasted beef, atop Jim's, cutting off the sight of the charred mess he'd made of his supper. Chas joined him at the fire without so much as a by your leave. "Not much of a cook, are you?"
Silently, Jim started eating the food Chas had given him. His stomach rebelled, but he told himself it was just that he'd not had a real meal for days. It had nothing to do with loneliness, with lack of sleep, nothing to do with missing Hubbard and Johnny. Certainly nothing to do with guilt because he didn't rightly know who he missed more.
"You need someone to look after you," Chas said as Jim ate doggedly. "It's not good to brood in your tent all the time."
"I'm not," Jim broke off to say, then stuffed his mouth again. If he kept eating, he didn't have time to feel sick. And it wasn't true that he spent all his time in his tent. He had picket duty most nights. Not tonight, though, he remembered with a slow sinking of his stomach. And he came out to cook, and to go to the sinks. He finished the food and handed Chas his plate back. "Thank you."
"Like I said," Chas murmured, draping his arm around Jim's shoulders, "someone's got to look after you." The heat of his body was oppressive.
Jim slid out from under Chas's arm. "I need to..." he muttered, gesturing vaguely at the charred meat in his plate, the burnt smell enough to turn his stomach. He wandered off to scrape the mess into the sinks.
It was only when he turned from the task that he realized Chas had followed him. "Come along," Chas said. He took Jim's arm in a gentle grip and led him away from the camp. Sick with misery, Jim let him. "How did you like my book?" Chas asked as they wandered under trees gray with the slow sinking of day.
For a long minute, Jim didn't know what he was talking about. Then he remembered the little book bound in dark cloth, and the strange amorphous dreams that left him hard and aching. He lurched against a tree trunk and heaved, bringing up his supper in punishing gouts. When it finished, he hung weakly against the tree, and didn't think to stop Chas from wiping his face, or guiding him away from the mess.
He didn't think of anything until he felt Chas's hands on his shirt buttons. Jim pushed them off. "What're you--"
"Hush, pretty boy." Chas put his cheek against Jim's and leaned his body against him, and brought his fingers back to the buttons. Jim stepped back in a panic, tripped, and landed hard with Chas on top of him, driving the air from his lungs. "So pretty. You were put on earth to tempt men with your beauty." His lips crawled against Jim's cheek. "You liked the book, didn't you?" Chas whispered in a high, excited tone as Jim gasped for breath. "I know you did. It made you hard." His hands fumbled with the front of Jim's trousers, rubbing and moving and pressing. "And you touched yourself, didn't you Jimmy?" Chas's hot breath seared Jim's skin. He was panting like a dog. Jim turned his face away. Chas bit his neck and he heaved in shock, but the other man's weight held him down.
"Gerroff," Jim growled, trying to regain his breath and his freedom simultaneously. Chas laughed, and hit him. There was, in Jim's mind, a moment of total silence as he touched his tongue to the blood on his lips. He began to be very afraid.
"My turn now." Chas knelt over Jim and started undoing buttons. Jim struggled. Chas hit him again, his ring striking pain and blood from Jim's cheek. "Lie still like a good boy, Jimmy, or this is going to hurt." Chas bent and put his lips to the blood, and Jim's stomach heaved again. "So pretty. So innocent."
Jim felt cold air on his chest and bucked violently. Suddenly Chas's weight was gone. Jim scrambled to hands and knees, and scuttled blindly away, fetching up against a tree. A solid weight hit him hard under the rib cage. A bright, breathless pain seized Jim, caught between Chas and the tree, between hammer and anvil. Chas's fingers were talons in his shoulders, holding him upright when his legs buckled.
"Oh, Jimmy," Chas breathed against Jim's cheek, "this is definitely going to hurt."
One talon released Jim's shoulder, and a cannon ball struck him in the stomach. He doubled over, and a second blow caught him under the chin and took his head clean off.
When he shook off the blinding explosion, the first thing he heard was ripping cloth. Something moved and grunted between him and the sunset sky like an animal. A boar, Jim thought frantically. A wild boar! He'd seen, after a battle. He'd seen what they did to the dead. His voice caught in his throat, he flailed wildly. The boar cried out in a human voice and Jim suddenly knew Chas.
He kicked out, and bared his teeth at Chas's high-pitched scream. The man's weight collapsed on Jim. He squirmed to get out from under, sickened by the feel of Chas's bare skin on his. Chas curled, holding himself, moaning. He growled, throwing out a hand to snatch at Jim. Jim kicked off his hand and ran.
He went to earth like a wounded animal, not so very far from where he started, burrowing into the undergrowth with blind instinct and lying so very still that Chas's blundering search missed him entirely. His heart finally slowing in his chest, Jim let his head down to safe earth and blacked out.
When he woke, the world was dark, and he was thirsty. His body aching with every breath, Jim crawled toward the sound of running water. The river was nearby, but it was a pool of murky water he found first. After he drank, he barely had the strength to move, almost drowning in the shallow pool before he managed to drag himself out.
He lay on his back, staring blankly at the stars as the river flowed past somewhere near at hand, and quietly cataloged his pains. Moving with aching slowness, he refastened his pants as best he could. The top button was ripped off somewhere. He wrapped his shirt around himself, hissing at the pressure on his ribs, and shivered. The outer dark filled his mind, and the next thing he knew was the sound of footsteps approaching through rustling grass.
He didn't want anyone to find him here, not like this. His heart seized on a horrible thought. What if it were Chas? Jim's limbs were so leaden, he couldn't move. Could neither hide nor defend himself. His heart pounding, Jim held his breath and prayed not to be seen in the darkness.
The footsteps came nearer and stopped. Jim squeezed his eyes shut and prayed. He flinched when a weight thudded down suddenly beside him.
"What the devil happened to you?" The tone was as soft as the words, but Jim took a relieved breath and opened his eyes. Johnny's head was silhouetted against the stars, his expression unreadable.
"Fight," Jim managed through stiff lips. He tasted fresh blood with the word.
For a minute, Johnny remained still, and Jim thought he would demand a fuller answer, thought he knew and was disgusted, thought...
But all Johnny said was, "You can't lie here." With a gentleness that almost seemed to hurt more, he helped Jim up and guided his wavering footsteps into the trees, staying near the river. He propped Jim against the broad trunk of an oak and bent to light his lantern.
"No!" Jim snuffed the match with his fingers, not heeding the burn.
"I've got to see you, Billy. You might be badly hurt."
"Someone might see."
"You let me worry about that."
Jim wondered vaguely why Johnny was so fierce. Chas wasn't looking for him. But Jim wasn't so frightened anymore. You let me worry about that. It came to him that it would be Chas who was hurt if he found them now.
The little lantern, all the light focused on Jim, dazzled his eyes. He closed them, and meekly let Johnny do with him what he would. He didn't flinch as Johnny pushed off his jacket, as he opened Jim's shirt, didn't even stop Johnny from pulling apart what remained of his trouser fastenings. He thought he heard Johnny sigh as he fastened him back up as best he could. He thought it sounded like relief.
"You stay put," Johnny told him, and Jim nodded without opening his eyes. He heard Johnny slide down the bank to the river, a bit of a splash, and then the scramble back up. Something wet and cold played over his face. He opened his eyes then.
Johnny's expression was so very intent, his eyes fierce. They softened when they met Jim's. "Just hold still, Billy," Johnny murmured. "I'm afraid this is going to hurt."
Jim shivered at the words. He closed his eyes, and held still as Johnny meticulously cleaned out the cut on his cheek, wiping away the blood that had dried on his face. It hurt, but the pain felt clean and bright. He bit his lip and tasted blood, and waited until Johnny was done, and the cool cloth touched his lips.
"You've got some bruised ribs," Johnny said, his voice so soft and deep it might have been the voice of the river. He buttoned Jim's shirt and smoothed the fabric gently over him. His hands were warm, safe. "Who did this?"
Jim was telling him before he even knew he'd opened his mouth. Telling him about Hubbard being sent to the hospital, about Chas and the book (which he already knew), and tonight's burned supper. Telling him how Chas hit him, but not what he'd said.
Johnny didn't say anything when Jim was done. He blew out the candle, bringing the night back to this part of the river. Hands sure even in the dark, he washed Jim's face again with his handkerchief. "Got a housewife?" he asked, touching a rent in Jim's shirt.
"Yeah," Jim said. The little packet of thread and needles was in his kit in the tent. It seemed a thousand miles away.
"Good. Come on, you can't stay here all night." He rose and helped Jim to his feet. "Is there a man in your camp who boxes?" he asked out of the blue.
Jim paused in drawing on his jacket. He was so stiff, he could barely move his arms, but he felt better. Johnny's hands were on him again, suddenly, helping him into the jacket. He didn't resist. "Several, why?"
"Go to the best, as soon as you can tomorrow. Tell him you want to learn the sport." Johnny pushed a pouch smelling of tobacco into Jim's pocket. "I don't care how sore you are in the morning. Go tell him you want him to teach you how to box. Understand?"
Jim nodded, then regretted it when a sharp pain burst over his right eye. "Yeah," he said after a minute. Then he shook his head, and regretted that too. "No."
Johnny made a noise in his throat that might have been amusement, or exasperation, or both. "You get him to teach you how to fight. And when he's taught you how to box, you tell him you want him to teach you how to fight dirty. Now do you understand?"
"Aunt Maude always said a gentleman should never fight dirty," Jim mumbled, the taste of bile in the back of his throat.
"That's why he's going to teach you how to box. For fighting other gentlemen." The word burned like acid. "And if you find you're not fighting a gentleman, that's when knowing how to fight dirty comes in handy. All right?"
"All right," Jim said meekly as Johnny's fingers did up the buttons of his jacket. He looked uncertainly up the slope which led back to camp. For the first time he realized-- "You're on the wrong side of the river!"
He could hear the smile in Johnny's voice. "Seemed like the right side to me, just now." His hand was gentle on Jim's arm. "I was watching for you, with my glass. When I saw someone come staggering down the bank..." He was silent a long moment. Then his hand moved on Jim's arm, and Jim thought perhaps he'd shrugged. "Somehow I knew it was you, my boy."
From somewhere, Jim found his tongue. "Thank you." He looked back up the slope. There was a faint glow against the night sky which pinpointed their fires. If he could get back into that glow, everything would be all right. Chas wouldn't dare come near with other men around. All he had to do was get back to camp.
It wasn't far. Just a few dozen feet. The shadows were deep and black under the trees. What if Chas was hiding there? What if--
"I'll walk you back to your camp."
"No." Jim grabbed at Johnny's arm.
"I'll be careful," Johnny murmured. "No one will see me."
"No." Jim forced himself to release Johnny's sleeve. He turned to face the darkness and the glow beyond, and squared his shoulders. He took a breath and shot a glance at the dim shape that was Johnny in the dark. "No, you go back to your side of the river. Go on." He gave him a little push. "I'll be fine."
"Are you sure?"
"I'll be fine," Jim insisted, and started walking towards camp. His heart pounded fiercely in his chest, and he knew he'd be sick as soon as he reached the safety of his tent, but he kept walking. His senses seemed heightened, the shadows crisper, the sounds louder. He strained his ears for every noise, and didn't hear a single breath or footfall.
Only once he was safe in the light of his company's campfires did he realize that neither had he heard Johnny's footsteps retreating, or the sound of him wading back into the river.
The Reb had waited on the bank and watched him go. And if someone had been waiting for Jim in the darkness, he knew Johnny would have come for him.
Jim slept like the dead. If, that is, the dead toss and turn in their hard-grounded graves, every position striking a new hurt.
When dawn grayed the sky, he sat in his tent -- his back so straight on account of his aching ribs that his aunt would, for once, have approved of his posture -- and sewed a button on his trousers, and repaired the rent in his shirt. He didn't come out until he heard Ephiram's booming voice.
"What the hell happened to you, boy?" Though gruff, there was concern in Ephiram's voice.
Jim ignored the question. He put the entire pouch of tobacco Johnny had given him into Ephiram's hand. "I want you to teach me how to fight."
Ephiram looked at the finely-tooled leather pouch -- once he'd seen it in daylight, Jim knew it was Johnny's own. Then he looked at Jim, sizing him up. Jim tried to draw himself up straighter, but stopped at the pain in his ribs. "You're not very big," Ephiram said, "but you've got some muscle on you." He nodded to himself. "I'll teach you."
Jim's relief broke into a smile. Though it hurt him, he couldn't seem to stop, and went about half the morning like that, until the lieutenant caught up with him. It almost seemed as if he'd been looking for Jim. He ordered Jim back to his tent and looked him up and down in the dim light. "Picking fights, Private West?"
"Not as I recall, sir," Jim replied stiffly.
The lieutenant's gaze seemed to tabulate Jim's injuries. "Seems to me a man should be careful of picking a fight unless he knows he can win it." He seemed distracted, as if he weren't quite speaking to Jim. Nonetheless, Jim shifted in silent protest of the reproof. The lieutenant's eyes snapped back to him. "You want to tell me who did start the fight?"
"No, sir." It cost a lot to say that. Not only would Jim have liked to see Chas punished, he would like to know the man was either locked up or too busy under some punishment to think of anything else. But he couldn't give him up; he'd have to explain...
"Very well." Though the lieutenant looked disapproving, Jim thought he'd passed some sort of test. The man turned his attention to the memorandum book on his desk. If he could have done so without hurting himself, Jim would have craned his neck to read what the lieutenant was writing there. It made him giddy to think that he could do it. "I can't allow fighting in this company. Your punishment will be to carry a weighted knapsack for four hours today." Jim couldn't help wincing at the thought. The lieutenant never looked up, but added, "Rest every fifteen minutes for five minutes. Report in one hour to begin your punishment."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, Lieutenant Richmond." Jim saluted and marched out, almost running into Chas in the doorway. He sidestepped quickly, but forced himself to meet the other man's eyes. He was somewhat heartened to see a black circle around Chas's left eye; at least he'd managed to mark the bastard. Chas smirked at him before entering the tent.
He wasn't smirking three hours later. He, too, was carrying a knapsack, and from the redness of his face and shortness of his breath, it was much heavier than Jim's, which had surprised him with its lightness -- it didn't rightly seem like a punishment. Nor did Chas seem to be resting as frequently. By the time the four hours were finished, Jim's ribs were throbbing, but he went into his tent with a feeling of safety. Chas had staggered away with every appearance of a man who could barely keep his feet under him.
Jim lay in his tent staring at the ceiling. He thought of the lieutenant, calling him into his tent before having caught more than a glimpse of him, of the lieutenant's questions, of Chas smirking away outside the door. The bastard had tried to turn him in for starting a fight. But the lieutenant, it seemed, had seen through that.
He slept, and dreamed of Chas. Just as Chas attacked, Johnny
grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and tossed him bodily into a
"If you're not going to learn to duck, Jim," Ephiram said in tones of mild disgust, "you're going to have to learn to take a blow."
Jim held a hand to his ribs as he panted. They'd improved greatly in the last few days, but they still complained when he overexerted himself. "Right, right." He took a deep breath that made his ribs creak. "Then I suppose you'll have to teach me to take a blow."
"It's easier to duck," Ephiram grumbled.
Of course it was. But Jim remembered how easily Chas took him down. He didn't know how long he'd have before the bastard sought him out again; he wanted to be ready. And he couldn't protect himself if Chas knocked him out with a few good hits.
He hadn't even seen Chas for days. It was growing unnerving.
He almost jumped when Ephiram asked, "Heard about Chas?" as he positioned Jim's hands to his satisfaction.
"Heard what?" Jim managed somehow to keep his voice even.
"The lieutenant sent him off with some message to be delivered to headquarters. I heard he didn't bother to give him a horse. It'll be weeks before he makes it back." He said it too casually.
Of course, everyone know who'd given Jim his lumps. With Chas's black eye, it was only too obvious. Thank heavens, everyone simply assumed they'd argued over something and left it at that.
So Chas would be gone for a couple of weeks. Jim shoved aside the relief that made him feel weak in the knees. By then, he hoped, he could protect himself. In the meantime, it meant he didn't have to keep looking over his shoulder.
When he finished his lesson with Ephiram, he went to the lieutenant and told him he was ready to stand picket again. Richmond looked him over carefully, and asked him if he wanted the first night watch again.
Jim said yes, though he didn't know if Johnny would be there.
"You look a lot better than the last time I saw you."
Jim smiled at Johnny. He was waiting on shore when Jim waded out of the water. The Reb made a slow circuit around Jim. The bruises were fading to yellow and Jim didn't let it bother him that Johnny could see every one as he pulled his clothes back on.
Johnny smiled, his teeth flashing in the weak moonlight. "Ready for another lesson?"
"Would I be here if I wasn't?" He pretended to himself that he was only excited to be reading again, but as he followed Johnny to the clearing, he found himself anticipating hearing more of that deep safe voice.
"I still have that newspaper." Johnny opened it out on the dirt and sat before it, patting the ground next to him. "Shall we continue?"
Jim sat, letting his shoulder brush Johnny's and leaned to scan the paper with Johnny. The other man was only a few sentences into the article when Jim had to sit back. The ache in his ribs disappeared the instant he straightened up, but it was back as soon as he leaned forward again.
"Here." Johnny never seemed to need telling. He hung the small lantern from a low branch of the large oak, folded the paper so the article they were reading was up and settled himself comfortably against the trunk. "Come here," he said, patting the dirt between his spread legs. He laughed softly at Jim's indecision. "I won't hurt you. It'll be easier this way."
Cautiously, Jim shuffled closer. When he came within reach, Johnny took his arm and guided him into place. Jim leaned back gingerly against Johnny's chest.
"There," Johnny said in tones of satisfaction. "You hold the paper. Now we can both see it. How are your ribs?"
"Fine." Jim shivered a little in the warmth of Johnny's body, but the feeling wasn't unpleasant. Nor was Johnny's scent.
Jim shook himself and followed the track of Johnny's finger on the paper as he read along with him.
"Why did you join?" Jim asked quietly. It was the first question that came to mind and, in retrospect, one he probably didn't want to know the answer to.
They'd finished the newspaper, but Jim didn't want to leave. He scooted down a little and rested his head against Johnny's chest. Somehow, Johnny's arms had wrapped themselves around Jim, the warmth and weight soothing on his ribs. He thought, suddenly, that it didn't matter what Johnny answered; he could accept anything just then.
Johnny's ribcage rose and fell in a sigh that lifted Jim. "Didn't have much choice," he said. His thumb made slow sweeps against Jim's shirt, warming the skin underneath. "I left my hometown rather suddenly because... well, they didn't approve of me." His ribcage shifted again, a short, sharp movement, but he didn't quite laugh. "No, that's not true. They hated me."
"Why?" He couldn't quite imagine anyone hating Johnny.
"I held beliefs with which they disagreed," Johnny said, in so stilted a manner that Jim knew he was not telling the whole truth. "So," he continued briskly, "I left town and found myself in Richmond with no money and no way of earning any. Didn't seem to me I had much choice." He shifted and stretched under Jim. "Doesn't matter much how I got here, does it? By now I'd have been conscripted anyway."
"What beliefs?" Jim asked, wondering if this man in the gray uniform was an abolitionist.
"Does it matter?"
He didn't say anything more, and Jim almost fell asleep there, in the arms of a man in the enemy's uniform.
"Did you bring another paper?" Johnny asked as Jim walked into the clearing the next night. Jim was half-beat from Ephiram's training during the day, then picket duty. He'd thought of not coming, but found himself swimming the river anyway.
"No." Jim found he'd buttoned his shirt wrong. He started undoing buttons. Johnny's sudden intake of breath startled him, but when he looked up, the other man only regarded him steadily, his eyes picking up a little lamplight, leaving the rest of his expression to the night. Jim began doing up the buttons right. He was looking at his hands when he asked, "You still have that book?"
Jim nodded, half to himself. Over and over in his nightmares, he heard Chas asking if he read it, wanting to know if it made him hard, if he'd touched himself, the lust in his voice when he said Jim was innocent...
"Thought you didn't want to read it."
Jim couldn't meet Johnny's eyes. He scuffed up dirt with his toe. "Changed my mind."
He was glad when Johnny didn't laugh. He still didn't know if this was... Aunt Maude would certainly tell him it was a sin. To touch the book, to read it, to want to know what it said. To want to touch himself, and make himself no longer innocent. No longer someone Chas would want.
"Okay, then," Johnny said. He fished the little book out of his pocket and sat against the tree under the pale light of the lantern. "Come here."
Jim went with an eagerness he didn't understand. He rocked his shoulders against Johnny's chest until he'd found a comfortable place, and Johnny didn't complain. He merely opened the book, fanning the pages.
"So," that voice said softly near Jim's ear, "do I start at the beginning: pages and pages of waffling over who to marry. Or shall we skip straight to..." the voice trailed off, teasing.
Jim cleared his throat, feeling the blood rise to his face. "Skip."
"Excellent choice, my boy," Johnny said in a deeper voice and quickly found the place.
Jim was glad his face was hidden as Johnny began to read. He knew he was as red as a cherry, and he squirmed at inopportune moments. He couldn't hide that last from Johnny, but though he broke off when Jim moved, he always took up the story again as if he hadn't noticed.
Jim went back to his tent that night filled with a heat unquenched by the chill waters of the river. He woke hard, from dreams far more explicit then before, and yet still vague. Hands touched him, lips kissed him, yet he couldn't see who it was that pleasured him. He worked with Ephiram until his energy flagged and the dream images were driven from his mind.
That night on picket, however, his imagination took flight again, and he was already hard when he swam the river. He didn't bother buttoning his shirt. Johnny was waiting in the clearing, and when Jim threw himself down in what had become his usual place and said, "Go on," he merely chuckled, and began.
Breasts, heaving and cherry-nippled. Lips, those for kissing, and the nether ones that Jim imagined soft and welcoming. Arms and legs entwined. Engorged manhoods rubbing over tender flesh.
Johnny held the book with one hand. The other arm wrapped comfortably around Jim, his thumb making small movements against his skin that were warm and shivery. Jim didn't think about his aunt, or the preacher, or anything. He was hard in his trousers, and he knew it showed, and didn't care, because Johnny didn't care, and his voice continued to read of such things that Jim couldn't help but squirm.
Then, suddenly, he stopped.
"Go on," Jim growled.
"I can't," Johnny said, his voice suddenly light and laughing, "it's over."
"Over?" Jim started to turn, but Johnny's arm held him in place.
"Or," Johnny said in Jim's ear, his voice back to the velvet depths he'd plumbed while reading, "only beginning."
He tilted his head back and blew out the candle, dropping them suddenly into deep darkness. Johnny laid the book aside, and his hands went to the fastenings of Jim's trousers. Like Chas, Jim thought, half-panicked. He was just like Chas.
"Shh," Johnny murmured in Jim's ear. "Don't worry, Billy. I would never hurt you." He had the fastenings open, and his hand slid inside. Jim bucked and turned his face aside as Johnny did to him something he'd never even done to himself.
He moved against Johnny's hand, and spread his legs without meaning to. Johnny's fingers were warm and callused and oh, so gentle. Jim forgot Chas; he forgot everything but this pleasure. It was... God, how could anyone turn aside from this? It was perfect. It was like heaven. Blasphemy, his aunt's voice crowed in his mind. Blasphemy, mortal sin, hell-fires...
"No, wait... I... we..." Jim tossed his head, panting.
"Sh-sh..." Breath whispered over his ear. "Easy, Billy, it's okay." Strong arms around him, strong body at his back. Jim struggled, not knowing if he wanted to be released or not. Johnny's fingers were warm, so warm, trailing over his belly, his chest. And the other hand...
"God, no... shouldn't..." But he didn't struggle hard. He grabbed Johnny's wrist, but didn't pull his hand off. Rough warm fingers stroked so sweetly over his cock. He was damned; he was going to hell.
"Haven't you ever done this to yourself?" A new accent lent richness to Johnny's southern voice: amusement. Jim stiffened to throw him off; he wouldn't be laughed at. Johnny's breath fanned his ear. Jim couldn't help stilling to listen to the deep velvet voice. "Lying in the dark, your hand in your trousers, touching yourself." His hand, flat on Jim's chest, so large and broad, gentled him, rubbing circles low into his flinching belly. The other... oh the other...
Jim rocked his head against Johnny's shoulder. Aunt Maude would--
"No? Oh, my dear boy, what you've missed..." Amusement still, but gentle, gentle as the fist which closed over Jim's cock, tightening until he groaned. "Lying in the dark, your cock in your hand..." His lips touched Jim's ear, his voice as dark as the moonless sky overhead. "Tight grip, tight as a woman..." His hand squeezed along the length of Jim's throbbing cock, sliding up to do something wicked to the tip. Jim jerked, clamped his teeth in his bottom lip.
"Shouldn't... Johnny..." he pleaded.
Something wet traced his ear with a light shivery touch. "Tight as a man."
Jim thrashed. "No!" he gasped. "I... God!"
"Turn your head," Johnny told him. "Easy, Billy, it's good. Feel how good." And oh God it was, how tight and sweet the rough hand was on him. It milked him, dragging pleasure through him like a swarm of bees buzzing under his skin. Jim lifted his hips, flushed with pleasure and shame, seeking more. "Turn your head now."
Restless, Jim tossed on Johnny's shoulder. He didn't dare look at himself, his shirt and trousers open, his cock brazenly swollen in a man's hand.... He squeezed his eyes shut against the night.
"Turn your head. Turn to me." Such a soft voice, coaxing, as his hands coaxed pleasure. Jim rolled his head toward Johnny's, whimpering. "Sh-sh. Sh-sh." Johnny's breath was on his lips, shushing him. Then. Hot, moist touch...
Jim jerked as he realized it was Johnny's lips. He tried to roll his head away. A throb of perfect pleasure squeezed from his cock under Johnny's clever fingers. Limp, panting, Jim accepted Johnny's kiss. Johnny's lips were warm, firm. He put a hand on Jim's cheek and turned him further into the kiss, and Jim didn't resist.
Wet heat touched his lips, wriggled in between. Jim gasped when he realized it was Johnny's tongue, and unwittingly gave it entrance. He'd never have... He'd never have known. He groaned, and felt Johnny shake against him. Laughter? He didn't care anymore. Aunt Maude didn't know what the hell she was missing.
Jim's body rose in the cradle of Johnny's, hips rising to seek the pleasure of his hands, face lifting to the pleasure of his mouth, everything in between quivering and thrashing and yearning. Driving for something so perfect, so unknown, so small a ways off.
"Oh." He didn't know Johnny'd released his mouth until he heard the sound he made. Tight perfection on his cock, squeezing just a little bit more. "Oh!" The stars burst into his eyes. Johnny held him tightly as he shook, pleasure running like a lightning bolt from his head to his toes, washing back up to pour out of his cock.
"Still think it's wrong?" Johnny whispered against his damp neck as he panted and shook. A gust of laughter painted his skin as he tried wetting his lips with a tongue even drier than they. Instinctively, he turned his face to Johnny again, and the man obliged, bringing a moist mouth down onto his, his tongue sliding along Jim's until he thought he'd shake himself to pieces again.
Finally, Johnny drew back. He rubbed his broad palms all over Jim's body, not even hesitating at the sticky mess he'd made of his groin. It felt good, soothing.
"Sweet boy," Johnny murmured as he stroked. "Sweet, handsome boy."
"'M not a boy. I'm a man." Though it seemed foolish to say, lying there in Johnny's arms with his clothing all open and his limbs as weak and shaky as a new-born calf's.
Johnny laughed at him again. Jim only tensed a little; Johnny's laughter always seemed gentle. The man wrapped his arms around Jim's chest and rocked him a little, as if to share with him the almost silent laughter. "Oh, Billy. You're a man... every man Jack of us who's seen the elephant's a man. But so far as this goes..." He cupped Jim's spent cock in a gentle hand. "You'll be a boy until you do something with it."
Jim rolled out of Johnny's arms to kneel between the man's legs. He'd almost forgotten how dark it was; he could make out only the glitter of Johnny's eyes, and forgot to be self-conscious about his bare chest, his cock poking out of his trousers. "Do what?"
Johnny took his shoulders and drew him close. "Use it, Billy," he murmured in Jim's ear.
"This's an army camp," Jim said scornfully, his tone that much more acid as he suspected he didn't manage to conceal the tremor in his voice. "No women."
"And who says it has to be a woman?" Johnny kissed him hard and deep, and left him there, kneeling in soft dirt with his clothing open and his body shaking. It was pleasure, really, not fear. Though he'd a better idea now than he wanted about why Chas had done what he did. Jim wondered to what lengths he'd go to feel that pleasure again.
He had wanted, he thought with a choked laugh, not to be innocent anymore. He'd gotten his wish.
Eventually, he drew himself together and swam back to his side
of the river. The cold water washed away the remaining stickiness, but
did nothing to clear his head. Confused, he stumbled back to his
blankets and laid a long time staring into the dark, going around and
around in his head.
He thought all the next day about whether he ought to go. It was wrong. He knew it was. His aunt, the preacher, the lieutenant, they didn't do these things. It was wrong even to touch himself, let alone allow another to... A man, at that. And a Rebel.
It was a sin. A sin he couldn't ask forgiveness for; he couldn't even tell the minister about it. He'd go to hell for it, pleasure though it was. The better it feels, the worse a sin it is, Aunt Maude said, the time she found him eating honey out of the pot. He'd promised her he wouldn't fall into sinning while he was away, and now...
He thought all the next day about how wrong it was. And he swam over to the island when it was dead dark, his cock throbbing despite the cold of the water.
"Billy." Johnny met him with a smile and a nod. He was sitting against the base of the tree, whittling something, as if nothing had changed.
"Johnny." Jim kept to his feet, not sure what to do with himself, not sure if he wanted it to happen again, and yet utterly sure he couldn't bear it if it didn't. He could feel Aunt Maude looking disapprovingly at him in the dark, but he shoved it away. She wasn't here. She wasn't standing in the line of fire. If he was going to die, which he could, any day -- so many of his fellow soldiers had already, he knew Death stood as close as a prayer -- he wanted...
Johnny laid aside his whittling and looked up at Jim, his eyes glittering in the dim starlight. "Not sure what to do, are you?" Jim would have taken exception, but Johnny's voice was as unjudgmental as always. When Jim didn't respond, Johnny's teeth flashed in the gloom. "Come here." He held out a hand.
And Jim took it. Warm, large, strong. He remembered how it had felt on his body, and his cock throbbed. He stumbled as he went to kneel in front of Johnny, and those strong hands caught him.
Johnny's rich chuckle filled the dark. "Eager."
"Don't," Jim told him when he felt Johnny's breath on his face. He was certain they shouldn't do that.
Johnny chuckled again. "No kissing? All right." And he laid Jim down on the ground, and opened his clothes, and touched him all over, first with his hands, then with his mouth.
Choking, Jim stared blindly at the sky while Johnny held him down and surrounded his cock with wet heat, and sucked. A shell burst in Jim's mind. He couldn't move, even when Johnny laid his weight atop him and pushed his tongue into his mouth, bringing him a taste he didn't like, and wanted again.
"I'm off picket rotation for a week," he said against Jim's lips, the warmth of his body weighing Jim into receptive lassitude. He kissed Jim, sliding his tongue into Jim's mouth, creating a slick, smooth pleasure that made his spent cock twitch. He laughed when Jim groaned. "If you come back, after, we'll try something new." His weight seemed to increase on Jim's groin, and the heat, and Jim moaned into the mouth that once more covered his own.
Then he left Jim there to somehow gather himself and go back to camp. He swam the river clothed, he was so addled, and went to bed wet. He barely noticed. He could only remember how Johnny's mouth had felt on him, and the hardness he had felt digging into his thigh when the other man lay on him.
He'd felt something similar when Chas had landed on him. He should be frightened, but he wasn't. There was nothing like Chas in Johnny.
There was only pleasure.
Jim spent the next week in a fever dream.
He wasn't sick. His constitution was too strong for even sleeping wet to weaken it. He almost wished he was sick. Then he could blame the heat that came into him at awkward moments on it. He could rest safe in the knowledge that his dreams were products of the fever, not his own mind.
He couldn't stop thinking of Johnny. Of his broad strong hands, of his hot wet mouth. He seemed to feel them on his body at the most inconvenient moments. He stood picket and cooked and ate and practiced with Ephiram as if he were asleep the whole time.
Something new. He tried to imagine what it was, and failed miserably. Something new. Something better? How could it be? How could it be better than those broad, slightly rough hands milking his cock? The hot wet slide of lips and tongue? God! How could Johnny have done that? Jim tried to imagine what it was like, and found that even that didn't weaken his arousal.
He worked with Ephiram until he was ready to drop, but he still went around with his cock perpetually half-hard, and didn't dare even take matters into his own hands at night. The whole company lay camped around him, and might hear. And it was still wrong. Oh, it was wrong.
And he wanted it so badly.
He didn't go the first night. The itching nearly drove him out of his skin, but he had to prove something to Johnny, if not to himself. He knew how badly he wanted it, and no dawdling could disguise it. But Johnny didn't have to know.
He did, though. Soon as Jim saw him, sitting against the tree, waiting for him, he knew he hadn't fooled him in the least. Johnny looked up at him through the dark, and flashed him a smile. When he held out a hand, Jim took it, and let himself be tugged down.
Jim expected Johnny to say something, to taunt him for coming back. Or for staying away. No, taunting wasn't Johnny's way; tease him, perhaps. And when Johnny took in a breath to speak, Jim braced himself, wondering if the other man could make him angry enough to drive him off, despite the heavy weight of his cock.
But what Johnny said was, "Missed you." He smiled again, as if it were a shrug.
Jim couldn't think what to say. The moonlight was stronger now, and Johnny's uniform seemed to glow, pale in the soft light. A Reb. He was kneeling before a Reb, one hand still clasped in his. Jim looked away.
"Billy," Johnny coaxed, his voice soft. "Haven't forgotten how it feels, have you?" He didn't ask if Jim had missed him, for which Jim was so pathetically grateful his throat closed up. A hand, one of those hands, skimmed down the front of Jim's uniform and pressed against him, just there. Jim's head fell back, a groan tearing loose of his throat. Johnny chuckled. "Didn't think so. Look at me."
Jim breathed deeply, feeling himself shake inside, and brought his eyes to Johnny's. Johnny put both of those broad hands on Jim's head, one either side of his face, and held him as he kissed him. Jim's hands came up to grip Johnny's wrists, but he never stopped, his tongue flicking against Jim's teeth, sliding over his tongue, and thrusting so deep Jim thought he'd be choked, but wasn't. He wanted Johnny to go deeper.
The buzzing under Jim's skin was so fierce, he was ready to spend in his trousers when Johnny released him.
"I promised you something new," Johnny whispered against Jim's lips. Jim nodded mutely. Johnny leaned back against the tree and looked at him from under lowered brows. "I wonder if you're ready for it."
Jim licked his lips. "I am." He waited for Johnny to touch him.
Johnny settled more firmly against the tree trunk with his legs spread, one leg extended and the other drawn up a little. It looked like an invitation, but when Jim moved, Johnny held him off with a hand on his shoulder. Moonlight catching his smile, Johnny unbuckled his belt and spread the flaps of his trousers. Jim couldn't look away as Johnny drew forth the pale, thick column of his cock and stroked it gently.
Jim's breath sped up as he watched Johnny stroke himself. Just so had that broad hand encircled him, pulled up to the head, and back down. Just so...
"Come here," Johnny said in a dreaming voice. He held out his hand again. "Come here."
On his knees, Jim shuffled closer, his eyes never leaving the swollen organ gently teased by Johnny's fingers. He'd seen plenty before; there was no privacy in the camp, and especially not at the sinks. But one didn't stare. And one never saw something like this: pale and swollen and gleaming in the moonlight where it was wet at the tip.
"Come here," Johnny said again, and took his hand from his cock, and brought Jim's to it. "Touch me." Jim did it, like a man in a trance, Johnny's soft encouragement sweeping him along as he slipped his fingers for the first time over the soft-hard skin of another man's cock. He held it with a feeling of awe, and squeezed lightly. It pulsed against his fingers, and his own cock throbbed in response.
Jim groaned. "Please..." he whispered.
"Soon," Johnny said, warm fingers raising Jim's face to kiss. "Very soon. But first..." He paused, drew it out with a kiss until Jim was shaking. "Taste me."
Jim flinched. "No... I don't..." He glanced involuntarily at the thick length of cock that pulsed in his hand.
"Trust me." Johnny's fingers were gentle in Jim's hair. They sifted gently through it, gently pushed his head down, gently held it in place while he raised his hips, rubbing the marble-smooth head of his cock against Jim's lips. It left a trail of moisture.
Jim's tongue flicked out to lick his lips; it brushed the hot slick head. Johnny groaned, and something in Jim shivered at the sound. He didn't like the taste, hadn't when Johnny kissed him after... Jim shivered, and his cock gave a great throb. No, he didn't like the taste, but... it drew him. Gingerly, he touched his tongue to Johnny's cock. The fingers flexed in his hair, rubbing soothingly against his skull. Jim opened his mouth and closed over the salty head. It sat on his tongue, leaking enjoyment, and Johnny's litany of encouragement and praise broke for a second.
Jim smiled. He wiggled his tongue against Johnny's cock, and felt the groan that rumbled through him. The hands coaxed him on; the soft praise encouraged him. He took it deeper. He sucked. Johnny trembled, mumbled, tightened his grip on Jim's head. Jim felt powerful.
He didn't know how long he sucked. His jaw ached, but Johnny still twitched and muttered, still praised and soothed, his fingers gentle and warm against Jim's scalp. His eyes closed, Jim suckled, sliding up and down the thick length, slick with its own pleasure and his spit. It was... perfect, sweet and fine, and his cock pulsed unnoticed in his trousers. So perfect.
He licked from base to head, swirled his tongue over the tip, and dropped his mouth over it. It slid sweetly to the back of his mouth and he thought to take it further, but was afraid of gagging.
"Oh God," Johnny said, his velvet voice rough, "you're a natural at that. God." His hands tightened in Jim's hair, the fingers rubbing gently behind Jim's ears, and he pushed, just a little. Jim's mouth slid further, slid all the way. His nose was buried in the crisp hair, and he'd have taken in the scent of the man, but he couldn't breathe. The head of Johnny's cock knocked against the back of his throat, and the man convulsed, groaned loudly, and let him up before he choked.
Jim licked his lips and hungrily sucked Johnny's cock down again. It felt so perfect there in his mouth, and when he took it deep, and couldn't for a moment breathe, or think, or feel, it seemed the most important thing in the world. Johnny's cock jerked, and a new taste spilled out upon his tongue. He heard a harsh curse, and then Johnny's fingers tightened painfully in his hair and pulled him off.
"Wha--" Dazed, he watched as Johnny spilled into his own hand, mesmerized by the sound of his groans as he spurt. When he was done, still shaking, seed and cock in his hand, he leaned into Jim, and kissed him.
"My sweet boy, my sweet Billy, thank you," he murmured, "thank you."
"Not a boy," Jim told him again, especially puffed up now that he saw how much pleasure he'd brought Johnny. "A man."
"You will be tonight." He kissed Jim again, and the kiss, and the smell of his seed, the taste still unpleasant and perfect on Jim's tongue, reminded him what he'd forgot. His cock ached unbearably.
"Soon," Johnny told him, a puff of laughter skittering over his cheek. "Impatient," he chided when Jim groaned. "Get your pants open."
Jim fumbled to obey, and tugged his aching cock out of the opening all undirected. Johnny's hand closed on it, large and perfect, and slippery...? Jim snatched at Johnny's shoulders to keep his balance as Johnny stroked him with his seed, torn between disgust and sheer pleasure. When the hand left him, he bit his lip to hold back the complaint.
"Come here," Johnny told him. His laughter fanned Jim's face again. "Open your eyes," he amended, "and come here."
Jim forced his eyes open. Johnny was kneeling in front of him, his back to him, twisting to speak to him. His trousers were around his knees, his ass shining pale in the moonlight. Embarrassed, Jim looked away.
"I told you, Billy," Johnny said, twisting far enough to kiss him quickly, "you've got to use that to be a man." He kissed him again. "Use it. Use me."
Use him? How could Jim? Johnny wasn't a woman, didn't have the... the pleasure grotto that book was always talking about. How could Jim...? But when Johnny bent forward, bracing himself with an arm around the tree trunk, Jim knew suddenly what it was he was supposed to do. Had a moment's realization just what Chas had wanted to do to him. He shoved it aside with a shudder, too aroused for even that thought to chill him. He shuffled closer, his cock bobbing as if it sensed Johnny's nearness, and put a shaking hand on Johnny's back.
"Johnny..." The thought of Chas was still there, telling Jim it was going to hurt as if it pleased him that it would. Jim wasn't like that. He wouldn't do that to Johnny. He wouldn't--
"Go on, Billy." Johnny grinned wickedly over his shoulder, no trace of fear in him. "We'll both enjoy it, I guarantee."
All thoughts of Chas broke and melted away in Johnny's deep voice. Jim shivered at the thought of what he was going to do. Somewhere in his mind, he knew it was the worst sin yet. It was a very faint voice, inaudible above the throbbing of his cock. He used his hand to guide himself, fumbling the business until Johnny's hand was on his cock again, guiding him into place.
"Do it, Billy," Johnny said, low and urgent, and Jim had a moment's wish to hear his right name on the other man's lips.
His eyes squeezed shut as he pushed. Flesh, so soft against the head of his cock, parted and clamped him into tight heat. "Oh God!"
Jim groaned. Loudly. Louder, even, than Johnny, who quivered under Jim's hand, and grated, in a voice like a drawn saber, "More, Billy. Push."
"Oh God, oh God..." Jim sunk deeper, his cock slipping into incredible heat, incredible tightness. Tighter than Johnny's hand, better, soft, slick, hot. "Oh God."
"Don't you dare spend yet," Johnny ordered, harsher than he'd ever been. He grabbed Jim's hip, his fingers bruising.
Jim forced his eyes open. The first thing he saw was the muscles straining in Johnny's shoulders and the arm that encircled the tree; even through his clothes, the bulges stood out. Instinctively, Jim rubbed small circles at the small of Johnny's back. Then he looked down.
"Oh God," he whimpered. His cock, just a short length of shaft still visible, disappeared between Johnny's quivering buttocks. He pushed experimentally, and saw the last inch slide inside, felt the soft give of flesh around his cock. Johnny groaned. Jim whimpered again. "Oh my God."
"Stop praying and start moving," Johnny told him, a quiver in his voice that might have been amusement, or something else entirely.
Moving. Jim could do that. He wanted to do that. He pushed a little, though his hipbones were already cradled against soft buttocks, and Johnny groaned again.
"Out, you foolish boy."
Impossible to be angry with tight heat surrounding him in the most unbearable bliss. Jim laughed; he began to draw back, watching all the time as his shaft reappeared. He stopped, groaning helplessly, when muscles clamped down hard behind the head of his cock.
And then he was thrusting, fast, hard, having no regard for anything but his pleasure. It burst through him in waves, crowning over him at the apex of each thrust. So tight, so hot, so wonderful. He could hear moaning, and didn't know if it was himself or Johnny. Didn't care.
It went very quickly, untold minutes of frantic thrusting as his body strained for that bliss Johnny had already shown him. Only this time, the bliss had begun the minute Johnny's tightness closed around him, and didn't end until Jim stiffened, jerking, the lightning dragging up from his trapped, throbbing cock to blow the top of his head off.
Jim collapsed, vaguely aware of body-warmed cloth under his
cheek. The only part of him that counted was still held tight and hot.
He shifted a little, and it felt slippery warm, like Johnny's mouth,
only tighter. He wanted to thrust, but he was so very tired....
Jim stirred and the arms around him tightened. "So," a voice murmured in his ear, "with me again, are you?"
"Mm?" He stretched blissfully, vaguely aware he was fully clothed again, as was Johnny. He burrowed his face into Johnny's chest. He smelled nice.
Johnny's chest quivered, and he rocked Jim side to side in his arms. "Sweet Billy. Sweet, handsome man."
Jim's head came up. He looked down at Johnny's smiling face. "I am a man," he said.
"Never doubted it for a minute," Johnny assured him, his grin growing wider. "You," he said after a moment, "are a natural at that too. You're going to make the women very happy." He chuckled.
Jim buried his face against Johnny's chest again, and tried to imagine doing that to a woman. His breathing shortened, but more in anxiety than anticipation. "Can we do it again?" he asked without raising his head.
"Maybe tomorrow," Johnny said, and his voice seemed like deep sleep, and drew Jim in.
When he woke, he was alone.
They didn't do it the next night. Jim swam over, his cock bouncing against his belly with eager hardness. He'd dreamed about it all day: burying himself in that tight heat.
Johnny lay under the tree, his arm thrown across his eyes, and the curious abandon of his limbs spoke of sleep. Jim sat at his feet, his arms around his upraised knees, and watched him for a while before impatience overcame him.
Johnny must have been very tired. He didn't wake until Jim had his clothes open from neck to crotch, and his cock swallowed deep. Indeed, it woke before he did, twitching and swelling in Jim's mouth.
Jim lay between Johnny's legs and sucked dreamily on his cock while Johnny's fingers combed through his hair. He rocked his hips as he sucked, pressing himself against the unyielding ground. When, this time, Johnny didn't pull away, and the bitter taste of him filled Jim's mouth, Jim choked, and swallowed, and came himself.
He slept with his head on Johnny's thigh, the other's soft cock against his lips and dreamed of hot softness clenching around his stiff cock.
It was nearly dawn when they awoke, and there wasn't time do what Jim wanted. Johnny knelt before him in the gray half-light and took him in his mouth, doing something with his tongue that roared across Jim's nerves with shuddering pleasure. Limp and panting, he let Johnny fasten him up, and embrace him for a moment before Jim kissed him quickly and rushed off to swim the river.
He was almost late for roll call.
Jim was standing by the sinks, trying to convince his erection to subside enough to make use of them. Even the stench had failed to help, but the sound of Chas's voice effectively took care of his problem.
Though aware of the man's eyes on him, Jim relieved himself before turning to face Chas. He didn't dawdle, but he didn't rush either, and tucked himself back away only once he was quite finished.
Looking at Chas made his stomach knot, but he was pleased to note that his hands didn't shake. "Heard you were back," he said when Chas only eyed him. Footsore and exhausted, Ephiram had said with a hint of a chuckle. The feeling of Chas's eyes on him was like slugs crawling over his skin.
"Yes, well, I owe you for that," Chas murmured, his voice almost as low as Johnny's was when it murmured in Jim's ear while the pleasure washed through him, but nowhere near as nice.
Jim suddenly felt no fear of Chas. Only contempt, and a certain sneaking pity. What Jim enjoyed nightly, Chas would never have. He would never hear the gasps of a willing partner, never experience the softly languid moments of peace when pleasure was satisfied, and the arms of his lover closed tight around him to keep out the world.
"You hear me, boy?" Chas lunged suddenly to grab Jim's arm. "You owe me." His fingers bruising in their grip, he leaned down to hiss in Jim's ear, "And you are going to pay. You shouldn't have fought, Jimmy. This time, it's really going to hurt."
Jim whirled and sank his fist into Chas's soft gut. The man released him with a wheeze. Jim swung his freed arm, his fist catching Chas on the temple. Chas staggered and fell.
"I suppose it is," Jim said to the unconscious man sprawled half in the stinking trench of the sinks.
That night, Jim was bare-chested, Johnny's shirt open, when he paused suddenly.
"What happened here, Billy?" he asked, gently touching Jim's hand. Jim looked at it with Johnny, studying the bruised and swollen knuckles.
"Ephiram says I need toughening up." He kissed Johnny.
Johnny's mouth was hot and welcoming, and it was some time before he broke it off. "Who did you hit."
"Chas." He couldn't help grinning.
Johnny's teeth showed suddenly in the moonlight. "Well done, Billy." He lifted Jim's bruised hand to his mouth and gently kissed the knuckles. "Well done," he murmured against them before taking Jim in his embrace.
Johnny's skin was warm against Jim, his chest broad and solid.
Jim pressed himself against it, and thought briefly to pity Chas. Then
Johnny's thigh rubbed against Jim's swollen cock, and he didn't think
Jim ignored the bustle of camp. His head bent over a copy of Harper's Weekly, he puzzled out each successive word as Johnny had taught him. The Reb was right, it got easier every time.
Johnny. Jim closed his eyes, dizzy with the memory of pleasure. He forced them open again with a growl and, ignoring his stirring cock with an effort, went back to the paper.
"Jim!" A palm connected with the back of Jim's head.
Jim ducked, wincing. "What is it, Ephiram?"
"Haven't you been paying attention, Jimmy?"
"Don't call me that," Jim muttered, though he couldn't work up much anger about it. Ephiram had taught him a lot; Chas kept his distance now. Not that Jim noticed much; he honestly didn't pay the man any more attention.
Ephiram lowered himself to the ground. He sat cross-legged next to Jim and puffed on his pipe, gazing at Jim through the smoke. "I know you haven't been sleeping."
"Oh?" Jim looked back to his paper, glad his hands didn't shake. It was snatched from them.
"Three days' rations." Ephiram gave Jim a significant look. "We're ordered to prepare three days' rations, and you're sitting here like a bump on a log. Get to it, man!"
He left, taking the paper with him.
Jim looked around and realized, suddenly, what all the activity meant. Three days' rations cooking, men packing up their belongings, deciding what would stay and what they couldn't bear to leave behind, discarding playing cards and other sinful gambling devices. Three days' rations.
They were going into battle.
Please, Jim thought as he sorted through the few things in his knapsack, please don't let it be today. He kept several newspapers he hadn't gotten through yet, used the rest to start a fire and set his rations over it to cook. Don't send us into battle today. Make it tomorrow, or the next day.
They waited around all day for the order to start. Finally, word came down the line that it would be tomorrow. Dawn. Which probably meant sometime around noon, but that couldn't be relied upon.
Jim waited impatiently until everyone was asleep before slipping through the pickets and across the river, though it was far too early for Johnny to be there.
Johnny was waiting for him.
"Mm," Johnny said, wrapping his arms around Jim in greeting, "you smell like charred beef."
"Let my dinner burn," Jim muttered, slinging his arms around Johnny's waist as tightly as he dared. Three days' ration worth, actually. Words battered at his teeth, but he kept them inside with an effort. It would be treason to tell.
Johnny kissed him, and Jim lost himself in the play of the other man's mouth. He gave Johnny's tongue access, and sighed as it filled and warmed him, and sucked on it as long as Johnny let him. Strong broad hands passed over his body: a touch here, a caress there, a stroke. Deftly unfastened, his clothing slipped from him and he stood naked in the moonlight.
Johnny's eyes, when he stepped back to look at Jim, were appreciative. His hands went to his pale uniform and stripped it off with dispatch while Jim watched. Johnny gathered all the clothing into a pile and knelt in the middle, silently holding out a hand to Jim. When Jim took it, the strong fingers closed on his own, and pulled him into Johnny's embrace. Skin on skin.
They rolled and wrestled in the nest of uniforms, and Jim got the upper hand nearly as often as Johnny. Jim rolled on top, the strong expanse of Johnny's chest heaving under him, muscular legs entwined with his own. His hips flexed instinctively and he hissed as the pleasure of Johnny's cock slid along his.
Jim lifted his head to look down at the broad chest, and saw it, suddenly, covered with blood and gore, destroyed by shot or shell. He squeezed his eyes shut and lowered his head, and rubbed his cheek against the warm, supple skin, words of warning, words of treason, rising in his throat. He swallowed them back and devoted himself to the feel of Johnny's chest under his cheek.
Johnny's fingers wove through his hair, the tips warm on his scalp. "Ah, Billy," he murmured, almost too soft to hear. "My sweet boy."
Jim didn't argue. He swallowed, and the words came out unbidden. "Name's Jim."
"Jim." Johnny's breath touched Jim's brow before his lips did. "James. My boy."
Jim lifted his head without shaking off Johnny's hand, and looked into the dark eyes. "Can we..." He grimaced, not wanting to use the crude words of the book.
Johnny chuckled warmly. "Oh, yes." He stretched one arm out of their nest of clothing and returned with a small tin which, when opened, smelled... not entirely pleasant. "I came prepared, this time. Feel." He smeared some of the stuff on Jim's fingers. His nose wrinkling at the smell, Jim rubbed his fingers together to get rid of the stuff. The very slippery stuff. "Know it smells bad," Johnny murmured against Jim's throat, "but it's lovely stuff."
He proved his point, and sent Jim gasping, by taking his cock suddenly in a hand slick with the stuff. Twitching under the tight stroke of Johnny's hand, Jim weakly let himself be rolled off. Johnny loomed over him, cutting off the moonlight, and bent, and took his mouth in a kiss so intense, so deep, Jim could barely groan.
Hands stoked over him, touching everything, slippery and strong and perfect. Jim writhed, moaning into Johnny's mouth, feeling blissful enough to spend. He didn't want to. He knew what he wanted, and this wasn't it. Gathering sense from somewhere, Jim turned his head from Johnny's mouth, and pushed him off a bit. Johnny didn't resist, just waited, and after a moment, Jim rolled them over again and pushed up.
"Want you," he said simply. Daringly, he dipped down to kiss Johnny's talented mouth.
"I know." He smiled, and kissed back, but didn't hold it long.
"Can we... Can we do it like this?"
"You mean face to face?"
Jim nodded jerkily. "Want to see you," he said, without meaning to.
"James," Johnny murmured, and Jim was startled for a moment, forgetting he'd given the Reb his name. Strong arms wrapped snugly around him, bringing his head down to Johnny's chest. "James, my boy."
Then he was moving, spreading his legs to give Jim room, releasing him with what felt like reluctance, and pushing him to kneel up. Johnny shoved a handful of clothing under his hips and planted his feet on either side of Jim. His cock twitched on his belly, swollen, leaking, and Jim, mesmerized, began to bend to it, but Johnny held him off.
"I want to wait." He took Jim's hand and smeared it with slippery ointment. "Stroke yourself," he directed, and Jim did it without thinking, no shame, no awkwardness, and only the barest sliver of the pleasure of his own hand flaring to life under the dark regard of Johnny's eyes. "Enough," Johnny said, and Jim took his hand away, not quite reluctantly. "Now," and his voice was little more than a whisper, "make me spend, James."
Jim shuddered. He found his home and went there, sliding so sweetly into the heat and tightness. Johnny's muscles tightened as Jim first pushed, then relaxed into the long, deep stroke that took him all the way in. Jim stopped there, and bent to brace his hands beside Johnny's body. It pushed him further in, and sent a spasm across Johnny's face. So he did it again, pushing instead of pulling out, loving the twitching of Johnny's features as much as the tightness of the channel that held him, secure and throbbing hot.
"Move, James," Johnny said, his velvet voice tight. He moaned when Jim pulled out, and louder when he shoved home again, and the sounds were so helplessly pleasured that Jim thought he might die of it.
He pulled out, and the tightness that held him came down on him, harder, tighter. He whimpered as he pushed in, and Johnny made a sound like a laugh, and then pressure and pleasure rolled along his cock, and Jim broke.
Thrusting, balanced on his hands, and throwing his whole weight into it, as if he could push himself completely into Johnny's welcoming body. The tightness pulsed around him, sometimes harder, sometimes softer, and he continued to drive into the heat. The body under him began to struggle, to heave against him, but it only made it better, only made him thrust harder, deeper.
A voice was calling his name, over and over again, and he growled in response, and plunged harder. The body under him heaved again, and a hand fisted in his hair. Johnny's mouth closed over his, and his tongue thrust into Jim's mouth and it was perfect, absolute, thrusting in time with the snapping of Jim's hips. Wet heat sprayed Jim's belly, and stars exploded behind his eyes as the tightness that held him clenched again and again.
Jim screamed as the pleasure poured from him in a bolt of hot lightning, plunging wildly into the velvet fist that tightened unbearably on him, and blew him to pieces.
"Oh God," Jim muttered into salty skin. The whole world heaved and spun, and he closed his eyes again, wishing a return of oblivion. The heat in which he rested tightened exquisitely, and he groaned, almost frightened to hear the broken noise he made.
Someone laughed softly. The arms tightened around him, a tightness more comforting than arousing, and he sank gratefully into the warmth. Slowly, the heaving and rocking of the world calmed, and he realized it was his own panting and Johnny's that had overset it. His cock slipped suddenly from perfect warmth and he whimpered at the loss, and burrowed closer to Johnny.
"Ah, my James," Johnny murmured, his breath stirring Jim's hair. "What you'll do to the women."
Jim didn't want women. He wanted nothing but what he had right there. He kissed Johnny's chest, tasting salt, and slipped silently into darkness.
A kiss awakened him. "Come now," Johnny said, a touch of amusement in his voice, "I can't dress you like this."
He'd made a pretty good start, though, and together they finished drawing on Jim's clothing. He remembered, now that the desire was a satisfied weight inside him, what was to come on the morrow, and it filled his mouth with bitterness that only Johnny's kiss took away.
"It's almost dawn," Johnny said, but his arms still strained, strong and warm, around Jim. Jim slipped his arms around Johnny's chest and stood there, holding him on a tiny island between two great armies.
"We're marching in the morning," Jim said against Johnny's throat. Treason, his conscience whispered.
"I know," Johnny said, and dissipated Jim's conscience with a kiss. "So are we." He drew away then, pulling back against Jim's desperate embrace to frame Jim's face with his hands. "James," he murmured, and bent to kiss him, and Jim's arms, as if answering to a master other than himself, slowly loosened their grip.
Johnny pulled away and looked at him, regretful in the moonlight. His fingers stroked over Jim's cheek, straightened his collar, then fell away. "Try not to get yourself killed."
He went, vanishing into the night before Jim could realize he was gone. Before he could remember that, whatever the man's name was, it wasn't Johnny.
Before he could say good-bye.
But then, it hadn't occurred to him to say good-bye.
That one or both of them could die in the coming battle had occurred to him, though dimly. Superstition forbade him to say good-bye on that account, for fear it would come to pass. But it was willful ignorance that prevented him from realizing that they would never meet again, even should both survive unscathed. He simply would not see that the war would break forever the magical sanctuary of their island.
It didn't occur to him until he walked over the field after the battle, looking for and desperately hoping not to find his Johnny. And yet hoping he would. For if he wasn't there, then Jim would never see him again. If he was... Though his gorge rose, he looked at every dead face, not knowing if he'd see Johnny, realizing as he did so that this face, vital above all others, was almost unknown to him, seen from afar, in darkness, and moonshadow and through the prism of his desire. In the end, he looked at them all, the captive, the dead, the horribly maimed, and left no more reassured than he came. He didn't know if Johnny was there.
Life went on, the war went on, and Jim with it. As time passed, he began to lose what little he remembered of Johnny's face: the curve of the brow, quirk of the lips, the dark gleam of his eyes. But he never forgot the broad strength of his chest, the talented touch of his tongue, or the tight heat of his body. They came to him in dreams that left him aching.
He became Grant's aide de camp before the war was over, and learned to drink, smoke and gamble. He heard by letter in the week before Appomattox that his Aunt Maude had died of apoplexy, and grieved for her, and put away guilt for good. After the war, still seduced by the excitement of action, he joined the Secret Service and made a name for himself: Jim West, the incomparable, the unconquerable. Manly, attractive, and solitary. Women wanted him. He used that, leading them a pretty dance when it suited his country. Sometimes, they even caught him, and none ever left his bed unsatisfied.
None but him.
Oh, women had their own charm, he supposed. But he could never be with one without wishing for a hard flat chest to breast his own. He wanted arms as strong as his to hold him back, the hard curve of another man's mouth instead of soft, delicate lips one must be careful not to bruise. Most especially, he wanted the tight give of a man's ass. Women had their charms, and they were hot enough, but never quite strong, or hard, or tight enough.
Jim leaned back in his chair and stretched his legs out before him. He lifted the glass of scotch to his lips and took an appreciative sip. This, he thought, was the way to live. He looked around the opulent train car, dressed in velvets and brocades and done up right and bright, just like himself, and nodded. This was just right.
And what was better, it was all his. He was stunned when President Grant gave him the train. Stunned, flattered, and a little cynical. He was the top, the best agent, and the train, while a useful tool, was also a bribe. He recognized it as such, and saw no reason not to wallow in it. All this elegance and comfort was his.
And the best part was, he had it all to himself. The beauty, the mobility -- he could go wherever he liked, so long as he came instantly when called -- and most importantly, the privacy. No boarding house or hotel had this isolation, this lack of prying eyes.
Here, maybe, he could finally have what he wanted, or some near imitation of it. He had a safe place to indulge. All he needed was the courage to seek out men with the same inverted tastes. And, now that he had a safe place to bring them, now maybe he would. Jim West silently toasted his better success.
He almost didn't hear the knock, so brisk and perfunctory was it.
Jim set aside his glass and got to his feet to answer the door, which opened before he'd taken a step. He stood staring at the man who walked in without so much as a by your leave and closed the door behind him as if he belonged there. Jim had had uninvited guests before; few of them had his best interests in mind.
There was something familiar about the man. Jim tried briefly to place him, without success. He didn't let it bother him; he'd met a lot of men in his travels, from soldiers to shopkeepers. The intruder was taller than Jim, and a little broader, but older, less muscular. His dark hair was cut short to control the curl, his face stamped with character, and his brown eyes inclined to warmth. He didn't look like much, but Jim had been in the business long enough to know a dangerous man when he saw one.
Jim's uninvited guest hesitated a moment once the door was closed, almost as if he were waiting for Jim to finish sizing him up, then transferred his battered carpet bag to his left hand and came forward with his right outstretched.
"James West? Artemus Gordon."
Jim didn't move. "Pardon me if I don't shake hands," he said, with the briefest smile required to shunt aside offense. He wanted his hands free until he knew whether Gordon was friend or foe.
Gordon didn't seem at all put out by Jim's discourtesy. He even smiled. He bent to put his bag on the floor and reached into the inner pocket of his frock coat. "Ah, well, perhaps you'll feel more like shaking hands once you've read this." His hand emerged with a letter, and nothing else. Jim let some of his tension out with a quiet breath, and took the proffered missive.
The envelope bore the seal of the Secret Service across the unopened flap. Jim glanced at Gordon, who'd stepped back after handing him the letter and stood with his hands clasped before him. He broke the seal and quickly scanned the contents.
"I see," he said, when he was done. Jim put the letter on the table by his chair and picked up his glass. He drained it in one gulp, his imagined sanctuary slipping with the alcohol down his throat, burning. The train, it seemed, was not to be his alone. He put the glass down and turned to Gordon. "Well, then, sir." Jim was a soldier, and soldiers followed orders. "Welcome aboard." He held out his hand.
Gordon took it. His palm was broad and warm. There was an odd
twinge, not unpleasant, deep in Jim's belly, and he found himself
returning Gordon's smile.
"Jesus, Jim, what were you thinking?"
Jim sat on the edge of his bed and let Artie take his chin with strong fingers and tip it to the light. "What I'm always thinking."
"You know, James," Artie said conversationally as he began cleaning the cut on Jim's forehead, "there's a limit to how useful you'll be to your country once you're dead."
"Very funny." Artie's ministrations stung. Jim closed his eyes and waited, almost patiently, for him to finish. How strange it was, he thought remotely, that they so easily fell into step with each other. He'd had partners before, but only for the shortest of durations, and they were of limited use to him. Artie stuck through thick and thin and Jim's foul temper. Every time Jim was ready to telegraph the colonel to demand his well-earned right to work alone again, he found himself thinking instead of Artie's easy humor, his tendency to show up just when he was needed, his cooking. His hands, warm and gentle as they tended to Jim after every assignment.
"You okay, Jim?"
Jim realized he'd groaned aloud. "Fine, Artie." He tried to roll back onto his bed, but was stayed by Artie's determination until the other man had stripped him down to his underdrawers.
Artie pulled the blankets over him, and doused the light, but he didn't immediately leave. After a moment, he gently patted Jim's shoulder. "Sleep well, James my boy." The door closed softly behind him.
James. My boy.
That night, for the first time in a very long while, Jim dreamed of Johnny. It wasn't one of the dreams that left him desperately hard.
He dreamed instead of the patient and soft-voiced man who had taught him how to read.
The governor's ball. For once, Jim and Artie weren't on duty -- no one to protect, no lunatic to stop, just an invitation that couldn't be rejected.
Jim was happy enough to comply. He knew how good he looked in his swallow-tailed evening clothes, how elegant a pair of gentlemen he and Artie made as they walked together into the ballroom. He loved the swirls of floating color that filled the ballroom, draping each lovely lady. He loved to dance, appreciated the softness of women here, if not in a more private embrace.
He danced often enough to avoid insulting his hostess or any of the pretty young ladies who flocked to him, and stood against the wall, a glass in his hand to discourage the importunate, long enough to please himself. No one could guess that it was the men he followed through the figures of the dance. He could look safely.
And the man he found himself looking at most frequently was his own partner.
Foolish. Artie was no addle-pated society gentleman, no flighty political hopeful; he was a trained agent, who knew when someone was watching him. When he glanced up to catch Jim at it for the third time, he raised a brow. Jim contrived a smile and nod at the lady in Artie's arms, who was indeed a beauty, and Artie seemed to accept the silent explanation, though she was not the lady with whom he'd been dancing when he caught Jim staring previously.
Jim took himself outside. The noise of the ball seemed to follow him; he wouldn't have minded the music, but the gabble of voices grated on his nerves. He stepped off the verandah and followed a little garden path away from the house, eventually finding himself at a quaint gazebo. He took a seat on the bench inside and leaned his head against the trellised wall. From here, the ball was a faint stir of music, like the far off sound of angel's wings.
Jim snorted. He was getting fanciful.
He was falling in love.
The moon had made its way far enough above the horizon to be visible through the unglazed windows of the gazebo. Full and round, it looked down peacefully on the garden, doing little to help order Jim's frantic thoughts. His own partner, the man he worked and lived with every hour of every day, was hardly likely to remain ignorant for long. Artie was an intelligent man, and more, a man of the world.
Jim closed his eyes and tried to talk himself out of it. Artie was hardly the man he'd have chosen. He couldn't lay claim to any great beauty, nor was he young and firm. But he was strong, though it didn't always show, and the character behind his face was more beautiful than even the handsomest features. He was warm and steady, his chest broader than it looked, and his voice played over Jim's ears and made him feel like a boy again, learning anew the pleasures of the body. Realizing he'd only convinced himself again, Jim growled, and gave up the effort.
When he opened his eyes, Artie was standing in front of him.
"The governor's wife won't be happy when she discovers that the most sought-after man at her ball is nowhere to be found," Artie said, his voice soft in the moonlight, eyes shadowed so Jim couldn't read their expression.
"I'm sure they can do without me."
"I'm sure they can." Artie took a seat next to him, the rustle of his evening clothes seeming loud in the dim gazebo, the warmth of his body seductive. "Do you suppose I can?"
Jim frowned. "What?"
Artie's shoulders shifted. It might have been a shrug. "I was dancing with that English viscountess. You remember, the voluptuous redhead? And I realized you weren't watching me anymore--"
He went on as if he hadn't heard. "--and all of a sudden, the redhead's prattle was an annoying whine, the music insipid, and the gabble of the other guests horrendous." He shrugged again. "So I came to find you."
Jim blinked. Prepared to defend the indefensible, he couldn't have been more startled if Blue had thrown him. "Artie, I..." His hand moved of its own accord, the fingers lighting on Artie's black-clad forearm. The feel of the strong muscles under the soft wool dried up whatever he might have said.
A warm chuckle spilled into the soft moonlit night. It went straight to Jim's groin and blossomed there. Artie closed his fingers over Jim's, and pulled him to his feet. "Come here, James."
Jim found himself enveloped in Artie's embrace. Not letting himself think, he burrowed his face into Artie's shirt-front and drew in the other man's scent. Familiar: his cologne, the faint scent of the starch in his shirt, and under that... Jim groaned. Artie's arms tightened, molding Jim to his broad, flat chest. Then he was shifting, pushing Jim off.
"I've waited a long time for this," Artie murmured. His eyes gleamed dark in the moonlight.
Then his mouth came down on Jim's and the moon, the governor's mansion, the gazebo, were swept away. Jim murmured against talented, familiar lips, and opened to the tongue that pressed for entrance as if it could not possibly be denied. He was sixteen again, kneeling in the soft earth of an island between two armies, kissing a man who could never be an enemy.
Jim broke off the kiss to gasp, "Johnny."
Artie's smile flared in the moonlight. "Billy." He ran his fingers through Jim's hair, rubbing warm spots into his scalp.
"Why didn't you say?" Jim struggled to resist the tide of desire rising through him, struggled to find in himself an anger that simply didn't seem to be there.
"Didn't know if you remembered. If you forgave me if you did." Artie's lips brushed Jim's temple. "It wasn't until you started looking at me like you wanted me, that I thought it might be safe to touch you. You play a very convincing game with the ladies, James my boy."
"They seem to enjoy it," Jim murmured. His lips found Artie's throat. A yearning sound vibrated through it as Artie tipped his head back to give Jim access. After a minute, he left off mouthing the salty skin. He waited until Artie lowered his head and their eyes met again. "I don't, so much." From somewhere, he found a smile. "You ruined me for them, you reprobate."
"Good," Artie said, with a calm satisfaction that took Jim's breath away. He bent and did it more conventionally, and for a long time Jim could think of nothing but the sweet stroke of Artie's tongue over his own. He sucked on it, hot and slick, and a groan rumbled through him at the memory of Artie's body, open to his cock.
"I want you," he pulled away to say.
"You have me," Artie told him, stroking with hands that sought to soothe. "But not here. I think a bed is in order." He grinned. "For once."
Jim pushed him off abruptly, and moved away from Artie's too enticing body. He stood looking at the moon through the window, his hands clenched in the sill until it creaked. Artie was silent behind him, but it wasn't a nervous silence. They knew each other now.
Finally, when he felt under some semblance of control, Jim turned around. Artie sprawled on the bench, his clothing disarrayed, hair tousled, eyes gleaming. It undid all Jim's effort at control. He groaned.
"Goddammit, Artie, we have to make our farewells to the governor and his wife. We can't just slip off."
"All right." Artie took a breath and stood. He put himself in order with a very few practiced touches. Then he came to Jim, and patted his hair into place, and straightened his collar. Jim closed his eyes and tried not to rise to the touches. "Come now," Artie's voice said in the darkness: deepest, softest velvet. "Imagine the colonel catching us at it."
"Oh God," Jim said as a cold shudder hit him. "Did you have to do that?"
"Yes. Now," he said, taking Jim's arm, "we can go give our regrets to the governor. He won't question the important business that calls us away."
And so they did, and it wasn't more than a few minutes before they were safely in a carriage on their way back to the train. They sat opposite each other, their legs tangled in the inadequate space between the seats, and Jim felt Artie's eyes burn upon him.
He smiled suddenly, and said, "Important business?"
"Yes," Artie said softly. He leaned toward Jim. "The most important there can be. I've an unfinished education to complete."
Jim raised an eyebrow. "Unfinished?"
"Of course, my sweet James. There was one thing, if you remember, we didn't do."
It escaped Jim for a moment, as he ran the well-worn memories through his head, fingering them like the beads of a rosary. Then it came to him. A wave of heat hit Jim, his body clenching at the thought. Artie's chuckle, so soft, seemed to vibrate through his swelling cock.
"Oh God," Jim whispered.
The carriage drew to a halt at the trainyard. Artie rose, bending to avoid cracking his head on the roof. His breath fanned Jim's cheek as he murmured, "No point in praying, James, my sweet boy. You're mine now. And I intend to take you." He kissed Jim hard.
Jim sat there, gasping and shaking, as Artie climbed out of the carriage. His cock ached like it hadn't for years. Not since he was sixteen had he felt like this.
"Coming?" Artie held out a hand for him.
Regarding Aunt Maude... I can see Artie co-opting such an
upright, religious prude and putting into her mouth all the amoral
sayings he could come up with, can't you?
Feedback is always appreciated.