AN: I guess this is as good a time as any to say that Cold Mountain is copywrite them that it's copywrite, and them ain't me. Furthermore, I, like half the folk on this site, am just a poor student, so taking any kind of action for writing this, unlikely as that would be, would only result in a headache, and possibly enough monetary compensation to buy a victory chalupa. That is all.

"That's what you call a conundrum. I tell you what I've got on my side. "
"What have you got on your side?"
"The confidence of youth."

The world around him exploded and went white. He'd been knocked over, he thought, but he couldn't really tell if his was lying on his back or standing or floating, or even in his body anymore. It didn't hurt, it didn't feel like anything but a hard kick in the chest, and through it all, he found himself detachedly wondering how long it would take him to die.

"Jacob, you have to hide the snares around the brush. No rabbit in it's right mind is going to be--" Mabel stopped short and stood up. Gunshots. Not too far away, up the mountain, on the other side. She'd heard rumblings earlier, but dismissed it as cracking ice. There was no way to say the same now. "Jacob, get back to the house."
"Wait a minute!" Before she could protest, her brother had shimmied up a tree and was peering out over the mountain.
"Jacob, whatever's happening over there it don't concern us, now get down and get back to the house right--"
"There's a horse over there!"
"What? Jacob..."

"It's comin' this way. I..." The boy squinted against the snow. "I don't think it has a rider." Mabel tensed up, impatient and worried. "No, wait, there's somethin'...hangin from the saddle..."

"Jacob, you get inside right now, or so help me, boy..."

"I'm gettin', I'm gettin'..." He slid down from the tree just as the sound of hoofbeats drew near. Mabel shoved him behind her. There'd be no use running now; anyone on horse-back would see them. The horse galloped into view, and Mabel noticed that, as Jacob had said, there was no rider. Except...a body?

"Oh my lord..." She rushed to the horse, making soothing noises as she grabbed for the reins and forced it to turn its head and circle until it had slowed. When it finally came to a halt, shivering and sweating, she could see the man hanging from the saddle clearly. Charlie Bosie. His whole left side and shoulder was stained a dark, wet crimson, and dripping ominously into the snow. Her fingers flew to his face--he was still breathing, shallow and slightly raspy.

"Jacob, you run to the house right now, and get some blankets and anything that'll make a bandage, d'you understand me? And put some snow in a pan and start it boiling." Without a word, the boy took off. Mabel carefully rearranged the young man on the saddle so that he was lying more naturally on it, and led the horse after her brother at an urgent but gentle pace.

"Izzee dead?"

"No, Jacob, he's just been shot."

"Looks dead."

"Hush, Jacob, grab that towel." Mabel grit her teeth as she worked the knife into the flesh, prizing the bullet out. It had nearly gone clean through the shoulder, but stopped just shy. When she finally got it out, she pressed a heavy cloth to it, and began bandaging the wound as tightly as possible. It seemed to take forever. Finished with the hard part, she took a towel and began to clean off the remaining blood. Jacob was right--he looked dead, pale as Rattlebones himself, blood flowing sluggishly from his nose, short, painful breaths coming far too long between. She gnawed her lip, eyeing him. People were supposed to look vulnerable while sleeping, and true, Bosie looked a little more like a human being, but even in sleep a hard, amused bitterness seemed to hang around his features. Even asleep, with his pale hair falling over his eyes like a child's, there was something just a little overwhelming--sinister, even-- about him. She stared at his face in thought, trying to understand her own mind, and gently wiped a patch of blood from his lips. It was odd to see them not smiling, smirking in that superior, detached way of his. Hopefully, he'd be smirking again soon. She pushed the cornsilk-yellow hair from his face and stood up to wash her hands. All that she could do now was wait and pray.

When the first bit of warm, yellow light crept below his eyelids, Bosie's first thought was that if this was Hell, his chest sure hurt bad enough, and his second was that, if this was Hell, the rest of him certainly didn't. He was fairly certain that Hell didn't smell like bread baking and soup cooking, and furthermore, in no book had he ever read of demons that hum. He blinked a bit and found that he could, tried taking a deep breath and found that he couldn't quite.

"Ah!" It felt like someone shoved a knife through his shoulder. Bosie tried to sit up to ward the pain away, and found that the movement only increased the hurting. "Son of a !"

"Well." He blinked and squinted to see someone standing over him. "Not exactly the first thing I expected someone to say after waking up from that, but it's good to see you back in the land of the living, Charlie Bosie. We weren't quite sure you'd make it."

"Who...?" His vision was still a little blurry, but the voice sounded familiar.

"Mabel. Mabel Shrike. How're you feelin'?"

"Like the devil himself kicked me in the chest with those cloved hooves o' his," Bosie grit out through clenched teeth. He tried to sit up again and felt her hands gentle help him up. He blinked in confusion. "Mabel?"

"Tha's right. We've...met...a few times before. Don't know if you remember."

"Rabid dog," muttered Bosie, remembering full well who she was now. His vision was slowly clearing, and when he looked back at her, he could see her nodding.

"Yeah, then. And when your men came searching for deserters." Her voice hardened a bit. Bosie settled back against the wall and smirked, staring at nothing particular in front of him.

"They're all dead. Every single one of 'em." He paused. "Why ain't I dead?"

"I don't know." Mabel had returned to the stove and was stirring something that smelled good. Bosie's stomach rumbled. "Maybe God likes you enough t'give you a second chance." He laughed out loud at that, a bitter, breathy, sincerely amused laugh that he immediately regretted. Cursing, he grabbed his shoulder and tried to press the pain away, while feeling blood trickling down his upper lip. "Y'know, if you ever--"Mabel turned around and started, grabbing a handkerchief. "Oh, for the love've lost enough blood already, d'ya think you can stop doing that for one day?" she asked irritably, dabbing the blood from his face. He irritably batted her hand away, annoyed at being treated like a child. She acquiesced, and gave him the cloth that he continued holding to his face.

"I don't think God exists, let alone that He likes me any," he drawled, smirking under the handkerchief.

"That's a pretty awful thing to say, 'specially considering that it's only by the grace of God that you're sitting there, dripping blood on my blankets.

"Thought it was by the grace of you, really."

"Just doin' God's work, then."

"Well, why don't He come down here Himself and do it?" He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye and grinned. Mabel just shook her head, her lips set in a thin line.

"It'd break your mama's heart t'hear you talkin' like that. She was a fine, faithful Christian woman."

"She was a slut and a fornicator, who hid in religion when she saw where her sins got her." Bosie gestured with the hand holding the bloody handkerchief to indicate himself. "And I broke her heart the day I was born. Her very own scarlet 'A'--or 'I'." He smirked without bitterness. Mabel made as if to protest, then blinked and shook her head.

"You've read Hawthorne's book then?"

"Sure have. Read a lot of things. I'm an abomination, not stupid."

"You're not a--" She stopped, noticing his expression. It was clear that the concept gave him less discomfort than it did others and that he enjoyed the fact. "What sort of things?"

"Hawthorn, Poe, Cooper, a little Melville, whatever my ma used to get to keep me inside instead of in the town. Read a lot," he repeated. His stomach chose that moment to churn loudly.

"Oh lord, you must be starving. Y'haven't had anything but broth the past three days." Mabel busied herself about the stove, ladling something into a bowl. Bosie watched her like a cat watching a mouse that it was too lazy to be bothered catching just yet.

"I been out three days?"

"Mm-hm. Like I said, we didn't even know if you'd make it, Jacob and me." She set the bowl and a plate of bread down near him. "Don't know if you'll be able to keep this down, so take it slow." She made as if to help him eat, but he stubbornly grabbed the spoon from her and fed himself, finding himself ravenous at the first taste. When he was done, she took the dishes.

"Thanks," he said. She looked surprised.

"You'd best just sleep for now. I don't expect you'll be able to do much for the next few days." He grimaced, hating to be weak when he'd fought all his life to be better than expected, but knew she was right. He could feel sleep stealing upon him. Before drifting off, he yawned hugely and fixed her with a hazy but steady gaze. She held his eyes, unflinching, and he tilted his head curiously. There was A question he meant to ask her or himself, something that her face made him think of, but he couldn't fight off the exhaustion any longer.

"Y'shouldn't've..." he muttered, before sleep claimed him.