Optima mors, Parca quae venit acta die
The best death is that which comes on the day ordained by fate.
They only rode a few hours before it grew too dark to go on. They were passing over farmland, and House was forced to halt the trap in the middle of a vast, empty field. The soil below them was hard and black. House sat stiffly on the driver's bench and observed their environs. All around was pitch black, and odd creakings and owl hoots pierced the cold air. House didn't like to acknowledge, even to himself, that he was scared. But why, he finally reasoned, shouldn't he be? Aside from the eeriness of their surroundings, which hardly frightened a country-bred man such as himself, they might at any time be attacked by one of the guerrilla bands that roamed the countryside. He knew from experience how quickly and viciously they could strike.
The night air was so cold and blew so fiercely. It lashed across his body, soon followed by a steadily increasing buffet of rain. He sat hunched on the driver's ledge for quite some time, feeling his leg get colder and colder, and then begin to burn red hot. The wind rose and screamed furiously, bellowing over the landscape. House slowly, painfully, climbed over the back of the driver's bench, his numb hands gripping the soaked wood, and into the cart. He slumped with his back against the low wooden side, his legs drawn up to his chest and his toes just touching Wilson's back, panting. He could barely see Wilson in front of him, but he could feel him breathing. After a minute, House leant forward and pulled one of Wilson's blankets up so that it shielded most of his face. Then he carefully removed another of the blankets and wrapped it around his own shoulders. His knees were almost touching his chin, and his back was rigid against the wooden boards. He fell asleep in that position, and woke up cursing blue murder.
Wilson came to a few times during the next day, sometimes gasping for water or muttering about the cold. House shoved as many medicines into him as he could procure in the little outposts they were passing through, and even went so far as to prepare him some mush, although he drew the line at feeding him.
It had been House's intention to ride through the night, but the mule was spluttering and stumbling by six o'clock. Wilson was still asleep, his face flushed and damp. He was shivering, although wrapped in blankets, and the rash was spreading onto his face. House stopped the trap just outside a small town called Johnston and sat down on the ground with his map spread out in front of him. After this town, there was nothing but a few small settlements between here and Chicago. It was twenty-two miles by his calculations. They could do it in two days, maybe. He got back onto the drivers platform slowly. Now Wilson was out, he didn't feel the need to get into the saddle as quickly and as normally as possible. He stopped the trap again in Johnston, to buy provisions at the General Store and some remedies in the apothecary. The saddlebags from Wilson's mule were now in the trap, providing a pillow of sorts, and now they were joined by a few small bags of beans, corn meal and coffee.
House had always liked silence. When he was a boy, living in this very state, he used to spend hours wandering around the surrounding wilderness on his own. But he hated this half-silence. Every time he began to relax, to listen to the birds and animals flee the rattling trap, he would hear Wilson groan or sigh as if in pain and be disturbed all over again. Towards seven o' clock, as House began to watch out for a place amongst the thin woodland to set up camp, he heard Wilson's voice, rough and low.
"Get me something to drink, will you? I think I'm going to be sick," he muttered. House looked around to see Wilson squinting up at him.
"All right," House said, digging into his pocket for the small bottle he had purchased at the apothecary.
"Thanks," Wilson sighed, letting his head rest, then jerking it back up suddenly. "Is there a bottle of milk under my head?"
"The sun might have soured it," House replied nonchalantly. "What? You might as well be useful for something."
Wilson reached up for the canteen House held out towards him. He took a grateful sip, then spluttered.
"What the hell is this?"
"Water," House replied. "And rhus tox. And a little whiskey."
"Rhus tox, for the nausea," Wilson took a small, tentative gulp. "There's laudanum in here, too, isn't there? I'm not in pain."
House made a dismissive sound. "It's a cure-all. Look what it's done for my disposition. You like grits?"
"I can't eat. I feel like I'm falling down a hole in the desert," Wilson mumbled, laying the canteen down by his side and lowering his upper body back down onto the blankets. "Hey," he said suddenly. "Where will you go after you've got your discharge papers?"
"As far away from the South as is humanely possible without actually being a polar bear."
"Do you live in Chicago?" Wilson persisted.
"Yes, all right? Yes, I have rooms in Chicago. Now add that to your little book of Fun House Facts and go to sleep."
Wilson was asleep five minutes later, when House stopped the trap in a clearing by a small creek and dismounted. The first thing he did was to free the mule, who immediately trotted towards the thin stream of water. Then he picked his saddlebags up from the floor and began throwing various items from them onto the ground. The place had obviously been used before, judging by the blackened circle on the hard brown earth.
By the time he had set up a small fire and a stick tripod to stand over it, the sun was beginning to set. The sky, or what he could see of it through the high canopy of trees, was a rapidly darkening grey.
He half-filled the saucepan with water and suspended it from the tripod. When it began to boil, he added about half of the milk bottle, which he had delicately removed from under Wilson's sweaty hair with an expression approaching disgust, and a handful of the cornmeal. He threw in the tiny amount of salt left wrapped in a scrap of brown paper.
He sat quietly for almost an hour, stirring the sludge. Then he ladled it onto his tin plate and set it down by the fireside. He tried to rouse Wilson, to get him to drink some milk, but he just mumbled and turned away. Eventually, House shrugged resignedly and sat down to eat his grits.
After he was done, he set some coffee up to boil and drifted into a kind of stupor, watching the darkening forest around them and the firelight throwing crazy shadows across the clearing. Wilson's groans grew more frequent, until House was getting up to dampen his forehead every quarter of an hour or so. At around eight o'clock, he finally seemed to fall into a more peaceful sleep and House sat still and dreamy, inhaling the scent of a third cup boiling coffee and the wood-smoke in front of him. He had been monitoring Wilson's state every time he was forced to get up and wipe the sweat from his face, and he was concerned not a little. He was annoyed with himself for not having come up with a confident prognosis, and he still couldn't tell whether Wilson would pull through.
He was seizing up, getting numb from sitting on the hard ground. His leg, which he had been too distracted to notice as much as usual, was now crying out for relief. He reached for the glass bottle in his pocket and then unscrewed his flask. He took a swig of laudanum, then followed it with a few gulps of whiskey as soon as possible. He shook his head violently from side to side and grimaced as the mixture burned a path to his stomach.
When the laudanum began to take effect, he pulled one of the blankets Wilson had kicked aside down from the cart and wrapped himself in it, lying curled, as tightly as he could comfortably manage, by the diminishing fire. The crackling flames and the eerie calls of night-birds lulled him to sleep, his arms wrapped around his cane as though it were a good luck charm.
The voice, a low hiss, woke him slowly rather than with a start. He slowly turned around and looked up at the cart. The fire was nothing more than bitter-smelling embers now, but the moon was directly above them and shone full through the canopy of trees and made the clearing a ghostly white.
He sat up and reached for his jacket. Wilson was leaning over the side of the cart, his hands holding tightly to the side, his arms stiff and his back arched, face angled up and made bone-white by the moonbeams falling over it. His eyes were wide open and staring, but House knew immediately from his poise and glazed expression that he was not really awake. He was delirious.
"What?" House asked softly, getting to his feet and wrapping the jacket around himself. It was bitter cold now, a chill wind streaking through the trees and making him shiver.
"I'm boiling, House. I'm burning up," Wilson said. Even though House knew he was not really conscious, his voice was so clear and awake that it disconcerted him. He touched the back of his hand lightly to Wilson's forehead, and he bucked, uttering a cry and arching even more rigidly. One hand reached up and began to pull at his collar frantically.
"I'm so hot, I think I'm going to die," he gasped, tearing off his shirt and standing up on the floor of the cart. The red rash now covered his chest and back, as well as his neck, and was springing up on his cheeks.
"It's two o'clock in the morning. It's freezing, buddy," House said absently. "Here, take some laudanum."
House held out the bottle and Wilson bent down and allowed him to drop some of the bitter liquid into his mouth. After a minute or two, he slowly lowered himself down onto the wooden boards again, slouching limply against the side of the cart as if drained. His eyes fell closed and he slumped onto the floor.
House watched him, his eyes heavy and bloodshot yet determinedly open, for hours, until the sky began to pale. Sitting by his side, he watched Wilson struggle and sigh through the night, listened to his feverish, jumbled rambling and felt a sweating palm clutch at his arm countless times.
Then, finally, as the jet black sky cooled to slate grey and the very first birds began to sound, House saw Wilson utter a soft cry and then lie still. His face became peaceful and the anxious lines on his brow smoothened. House closed his eyes for a moment, and then half-smiled.
Colonel Ashworth looked up from his desk as a rap sounded on the door.
"A Captain House to see you, Colonel," announced the young soldier in the doorway. The Colonel frowned, then flicked through the papers on his desk. Finding nothing therein to satisfy him, he pulled open a desk drawer and began examining its contents. The young soldier stood patiently until the Colonel smiled and withdrew a sheet of paper. He studied it for a few moments.
"Ah, yes. Show him in."
"Very good, Colonel."
Colonel Ashworth watched the young man, his nephew by marriage, slip away, then turned his attention to his office window. From it, he was not troubled with the unpleasant view of the prisoners' barracks, with all its filth and squalor. Instead, he could see the North end of the camp, where Union recruits were housed and trained. Every morning, noon and night he could swivel his head from his work and watch a battalion being drilled round and round the parade square. It was a gratifying sight, but he could not pretend he was untroubled by the thought of what he could not see. Every day, it seemed that more and more prisoners were dying, from typhoid, from cholera, and most recently from dysentery. The smell had been so repulsive and nauseating a few weeks before that he and the other officers had had to relocate their headquarters to the city. He felt a swell of pity for the new arrival this Captain was bringing with him.
"Captain House, sir," the young soldier announced before disappearing again. In the Colonel's doorway stood a tall, unshaven, slovenly figure in a filthy and mud-stained uniform that reeked of damp, leaning heavily on a gnarled cane. He wore nothing on his head, had several buttons loose, and was altogether a disgrace. And yet something in his face told the Colonel not to comment on his appearance.
"Come in, sit down, Captain."
"Thanks," House muttered, edging into the room and standing before the desk with his eyes on the floor. He looked briefly at the seat offered him, then looked away again.
"You were entrusted with fetching up a prisoner. A..." the Colonel glanced down at the paper before him, "James Wilson. Where is he?"
House slowly raised his head, and in his face was a marked strain. "He isn't here."
"Escaped?" the Colonel questioned. House looked swiftly from side to side and tapped his cane twice on the floorboards as if extremely ill at ease. The Colonel prepared to repeat his question gently. He was compassionate, and felt sorry for this broken man before him, who had clearly suffered physically for his country and was now plainly not in good mental condition. As he opened his mouth, the Captain finally spoke.
"He's dead, sir. He died this morning."
The Colonel blinked, and then nodded sadly. "I'm sorry to hear it. From what malady?"
"Scarlet fever," House replied quietly, lowering his eyes again.
"Ah. Where...where is the...uh...the body?"
"Out'n the woods," House muttered. "I buried him."
The Colonel looked at the dark patches of mud on the man's trouser knees and nodded once more. "All right, Captain. I'd better write to his commanding officer, have word sent to the family."
"I'll do it," House said decidedly. The Colonel shrugged, it not being a task he particularly coveted at the best of times.
"I want my discharge papers," House said suddenly. His fingers twitched on his cane and he swallowed hard.
"I've got them here, Captain," the Colonel reassured him hastily. This man was beginning to make him feel uncomfortable. His demeanour was somewhat disturbing. The pistol he wore at his hip was also rather disconcerting. The Colonel dipped his pen into its inkwell and began scribbling on the form he had retrieved before House's entry.
"This will entitle you to collect a pension, to be drawn weekly. I suppose you know where you're headed from here, don't you?"
"Well, that's good to hear, stout fellow. Now here are your papers, and..." the Colonel paused, and laid a hand on House's arm as he leaned forward to take the papers. "Young man, don't spend it all on the Demon Drink, will you? There's a good fellow."
House opened his mouth immediately, as if to make a sharp remark, then seemed to reconsider. He wheeled about and headed towards the door. The Colonel observed the man's strange, thumping gait for a moment, and then hailed him as he reached the door.
"Not anymore," House corrected, not turning around.
"My brother was taken by scarlet fever when we were children," the Colonel said softly. "This Wilson – was he a good fellow?"
House paused, cleared his throat, then opened the door. "How the hell should I know?" he snapped, slamming it behind him.
Three hours later, he reached the clearing, although by now the mule was flagging. Hitching the creature up to the trap again, House climbed onto the driver's bench and slapped the reins down.
He was forced to concentrate so hard on steering the trap through the trees that he didn't notice the warmth and brightness of the day until he was out of the forest and into the open country. The sun was getting high in the clear, pale blue sky now, seeping through his uniform and flooding over his face. He shed his jacket and rolled up his shirt sleeves.
The road ahead was white, chalky and narrow. It curved up a lush green hill, with orchards on either side. A small, brown farmhouse surrounded by wandering cows was on the horizon as House angled the mule up the gentle incline of the hill, coughing a little on the white dusty thrown up by its hooves.
At the crest of hill, he slowed the mule, finally halting it as the trap reached the very top. Below him, House saw a patchwork of farms and tiny, interconnected tracks. Small streams flowed, edged by thick green woodland, for as far as the eye could see. He picked up the reins once more and prepared to start the mule on the downward slope.
House flicked the reins. "Yeah? What?"
"I feel a lot better."
"Great. I predicted you would. Unfortunately, you were too unconscious to truly appreciate my foresight."
"I woke up earlier. Where were you?"
House looked over his shoulder. Wilson had pulled himself into a sitting position and was staring wide-eyed at the rich countryside around them.
"I went up to Camp Douglas."
"Oh," Wilson's face fell slightly. "What did they say?"
"Just what I thought. They won't take you. Said you could wipe out the whole camp. The bastards told me," House said pointedly, "that I've got to carry on playing mammy to you until there's no chance of you being contagious."
Wilson grinned, a little colour in his cheeks. "So where are we going?"
"My place, I suppose," House replied. He sighed emphatically. "I hope you know that you're a pain in the ass."
Wilson raised an eyebrow. "Gee, thanks."
"Don't mention it."
There we go. They got to Chicago in the end, heh. I hope you all approved of the ending, which was inspired by my beta's suggestions. On that note, many, many thanks to maineac, for being a tower of wisdom and sound advice throughout this experiment, providing me with incalculable assistance. Thanks to everyone stuck with this when it started out, even though it was strange, and everyone who has read this since. Thanks to nightdog, whose Annals proved that it can be done, and to everyone who has given me advice or helpful research at some point.
The line "Agonies are one of my changes of garments; I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person. My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe," quoted in Chapter Sixis from 'Song of Myself' by Walt Whitman. Full text can be found here: German song sung by House in Chapter Seven is 'Ich Hatte Einen Kameraden', the words of which are here: http://en. again, thanks to all. This has been great fun!