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Chapter 3: show and tell
North Carolina: March 1865
Foreman turned his gun on the newcomer and stepped to the side, so he could place himself between the two Confederates and his injured Captain. Although Wilson admired the soldier's bravery, the manoeuvre hampered his view of the scene and forced him to shift painfully to one side of the tree, so he could still keep both enemies in sight. His stomach, painful and empty, felt nauseous and the smell of his blood only caused the sensation to worsen. The burning pain in his side continued to eat further and further into his body, making his hips and ribs ache powerfully. There was a real danger that he could pass out again. He could not let it happen. He buried a finger into his wound and bit his lip hard. The pain in his hip became excruciating, but the sting revived him, and returned him to his senses.
It was then that he realised that the older man was watching him. Actually, Wilson thought, it looked more like he was being studied by the man. Wilson could not place the man's confidence, but it was hard to look him in the eyes. There was something powerful and stubborn in those eyes. But the younger man, Wilson sensed, was far more dangerous. In that man's eyes he saw fear, anxiety, tension and anger – a trapped animal. And animals often lashed out when they became trapped. Wilson made sure to look the younger man in the eyes, and without looking away he carefully slid his pistol from its holster, hoping it would say something he did not have the tone or the breath for, in his weakened condition. Unfortunately, his pistol was empty of bullets and he was out of ammo, but the Confederate men did not know this and both appeared to be unarmed.
"Soldier, come up here," Foreman motioned to the newcomer, "come stand by this one." The man did as was asked of him.
"We're not soldiers," the first man said, "we're surgeons."
"Of course you are." Foreman, understandably doubtful, did not relax his guard or take his eyes from the newcomer.
"Why else would I be unarmed?" The first man replied, and that was a good question; Wilson had been wondering why they were roaming the forest unarmed and alone. Maybe that look he had seen in the first man's eyes had been curiosity – just a doctor's inquisitiveness. He hoped so.
Wilson sensed a decision needed to be made, something to end the stalemate and end it fast. The stranger had been right, if Foreman let off a shot, it would draw more men to their position, and such men would almost certainly be armed. Members of the Confederate Cavalry would not take a black soldier for a prisoner – they would execute him on sight. And then they would execute Wilson because he was fighting by his side.
"You two are no concern of mine," the first man said then. "All I want is to get my medical supplies, so I can return to camp and attend to my patient."
Foreman glanced unsurely at Wilson.
"Let him get what he needs," Wilson said. They had very little in the way of options. They had the barest of chances to escape the forest alive if he could dress his wound. If this man really was a surgeon, they could force him to help and then they could move on. "We shall watch his friend while he is gone to collect his things. If he agrees to attend my wound, they can both go one way and we shall go another."
"Fine," the first man said.
"Captain, if we allow these men to leave -" Foreman began but the younger man sensed the conversation's direction and interrupted him.
"-We have no desire to send men after you. We are surgeons. Our objective is to help the wounded, not to cause more bloodshed."
"If you are surgeons then why are you in uniform?" Foreman countered, raising an eyebrow.
"Because that is how our commanding officer likes it," the older man answered. "If I do not return soon, he will come looking for me, and he is not a diplomatic man. He would sooner shoot all four of us than let you two escape."
"He's telling the truth," the younger man agreed.
"Let him get his medical supplies - that's an order," Wilson said to Foreman. "The young surgeon will stay with us until his friend returns."
The young man appeared concerned by this suggestion. The older man chanced a smirk at him. A loaded look passed between them, but neither said anything.
"I give you my word," Wilson continued, "that if you dress my wound you will both leave here, uninjured."
"Okay," the older man agreed. He began to leave the clearing, and Wilson noticed he had a heavy limp as he walked.
"It would be unwise of you to bring anyone back with you, Doctor. I would hate to be forced to hurt your friend," Wilson called after him, gravely.
If James Wilson had been in less pain, or had his heart not been racing so fast, he might have heard the man reply, 'He's not my friend,' with conviction. Had Wilson heard that reply, things might have gone differently. But Wilson was in pain, and had not slept in days and was utterly exhausted. The comment did not reach his ears. He took a chance, and made a deal with the man, and let him be on his way.
Princeton: October 1865
Dusk had crept in all around James Wilson as he'd idled the evening away on his porch; the tincture of the October sky had slowly changed from a pleasant blend of amethyst and crimson to an inky, uninviting black. The host of stars above had him surrounded now, and he was quite at the mercy of the night. He sighed to himself and thought about going in again. Sleep had become and illusive adversary of late, and one he was having great difficulty in conquering. Only utter exhaustion would find him asleep soon after getting into his bed. He had spent the day fixing his stable, trying to tire himself out, but the cool air had revitalized him and he found he was wide awake now. It had been this way every night since he'd returned home from the war.
Under the light of the full moon, Wilson's pocket watch revealed the time to be just after midnight. He placed the watch in his waistcoat pocket and, with reluctance, finally decided to retire for the evening. Inside, he took a small dram of whiskey. He then locked both the front and back doors, and took his lamp to his bedroom. Once in bed, and knowing how awake he felt, he knew he could not close his eyes, for fear of what he might see behind them. He could not get comfortable. His bed was soft and relaxing - heavenly when compared to the tent and the cold floor he had suffered on the road home. But he was beginning to realise that his restlessness, lay not in his physical body, but in his mind. He could not get comfortable there. Being in this place did not feel right to him. His home no longer felt like home. The man who had lived in this house before the war did not exist anymore. That man had gone to fight and another man had returned in his place.
The bar in town stayed open all night, every night, and the faint, familiar jangle of the piano added to Wilson's restless irritation. He could not hear the music all that clearly, just to be aware of it was enough.
With both hands resting behind his head, he studied the big October moon for lack of anything else to do. He wondered if he should light the lamp again; maybe read a book until it made him sleepy, but quickly dismissed the idea. If he read tonight, it would lead to the habit of reading tomorrow and the next day, and then he feared he might never sleep again.
A loud thud outside the house stole Wilson from his thoughts. His body tensed, reflexively. He reached for the pistol beneath his bed, and quickly got up. He carefully peered through the window, but could see no men, although in the deep shadows beside his house, he thought he could see the outline of a horse.
He dressed quickly in the dark - trousers and a dress shirt and then reached for the kerosene lamp beside his bed, but he did not light it.
Wilson took the stairs two steps at a time, and stood with his back against the wall beside the door. He placed the lamp on the floor, and reached for the key that was still in the lock; he turned it as quietly as possible and then threw the door open quickly, stepping into the doorway and cocking the pistol, taking aim at whoever might be waiting outside. But he met with no danger. When his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he noticed there was a man sitting on the top step of his porch.
"Who's there?" He asked, pistol aimed at the stranger.
With a little effort, the man turned around and Wilson recognised him at once. He lowered his weapon and Greg House raised his hands in a mock gesture of surrender.
"Don't shoot, Jimmy." House said, slurring his words. His friend reeked of cheap liquor. Wilson returned inside, swapping the heavy pistol for his lamp. He lit it and when he returned to the porch he could see that House had, with a bit of effort, gotten to his feet and was leaning on the porch railing for support. Dressed in the suit and riding jacket he'd purchased from the tailor's in D.C. - they had travelled most of the distance home together - House's clothes were now torn and covered in dirt. His eyes were pained slits of red against the weak light of the lamp and his complexion was ruddy, like he'd been out in the sun and on the road for far too long.
Just beyond Wilson's home was the horse he had seen from his window.
"You said visit," House explained, removing his hat and holding his arms out wide, "so here I am."
"Most people are courteous enough to forewarn their host of their arrival," Wilson returned. "Time and date, that kind of thing."
"Most people are thieves and heathens," his friend lamented, drunkenly, "and I happen to find surprise visits quite entertaining, don't you?"
"You have a fine horse," Wilson observed, declining to discuss etiquette with House any further. It was quite a pointless exercise. The horse, a chestnut stallion in excellent condition, seemed of good breed, and had definitely not been with House when Wilson had left him at Washington.
House observed the horse for a moment.
"Yeah," House observed, drawing the word out, "That's not my horse."
"You stole it?" Wilson enquired.
"No, it followed me here. Horses are fond of me."
Wilson sighed. This man was surely the most tiresome, frustrating man he had ever encountered in his life, but, Wilson had to admit he was also possibly the most entertaining man he had ever met. Here was a man who had explained that the only reason he had chosen to fight for the South in the war was to upset his father – a man who had died fighting the Confederacy.
"Did I wake Bunny?"House enquired, as he patted some of the dust from his jacket.
"It's Bonnie, and no. My wife is at her sister's. We decided not to share the house - for now," Wilson admitted, awkwardly.
"No? Why not?"
"It didn't seem, ah-" Wilson glanced into the empty street. It did not feel right to discuss his private affairs outside, regardless of the fact that they were the only people in the street in the early hours of the morning. "-proper, shall we go inside?"
After putting the horse in the stable, Wilson's attempt to get his friend to the guest room failed spectacularly. House had noticed the Steinway in the drawing room and was now coaxing gentle chords out of it. It sounded quite beautiful, even if there was the occasional drunken finger stumble.
"You play?" House asked when he finally admitted defeat, and that he was perhaps too drunk to play. He closed the lid over the keys and stroked a hand over the luxurious, rosewood finish.
"No," Wilson shook his head. "The piano belongs to my wife. What happened in Maryland? I thought you had intended to marry, Stacy? Was it?"
House's expression clouded, and he got unsteadily to his feet so he could pour himself another dram of Wilson's whiskey. He made it a large one and gulped it down in one; he then burped but did not excuse himself.
"She took to thinking I was a dead man, that was convenient because it allowed her to feel less guilty about marrying another man," he explained, bitterly. "She never was a very patient woman."
"Oh, I'm sorry," Wilson sympathised.
"So, now you should do the decent thing, and help me drown my sorrows." House said, brandishing a shot glass inches from Wilson's nose. Wilson agreed to one - to help him sleep.
Three hours later Wilson was almost as drunk as House had been, when he'd arrived and House had almost drunk himself sober. Almost.
"How many men you kill, in the war?" Wilson asked groggily.
"Directly?" House mused, "Uh, not one, indirectly – more than one."
"Surgeon here," he reminded Wilson, before taking a long swing of the whiskey bottle, "not a soldier."
"Right, well, what do you mean by indirectly?" Wilson asked, taking the bottle from House.
"After a battle a surgeon can make a bad decision in the heat of the moment, or a decision to save one man while another bleeds to death - men die. That's how I lost my rank."
Wilson frowned, "What rank?"
Wilson nodded and took another swig of whiskey.
"I refused a direct order from a Lieutenant Colonel," House continued.
"He told me to treat a ranking officer before a dying Private. I told him the ranking officer could wait, the soldier could not. I did it my way, saved them both. But he was not a forgiving man."
"Not really. Cross got his in the end. It wasn't his place to meddle, and his Colonel knew that." House grabbed the bottle and took another pull.
"What about you? You shoot a lot of people? You must have, you were a Captain."
Wilson's posture stiffened. He thought about the question, and took a long hit from the bottle before he spoke. "I shot more men than I can bear to think about," he said, regretfully. "If we're speaking freely-" he glanced at House, who shrugged in a way that assured Wilson he would remember very little of the conversation in the morning.
"-well, I haven't slept through the night since I got home," he admitted. "Not once."
"Right, because you're alive and they're dead," House considered.
"What do you mean?" Wilson asked, shifting in his seat to face House.
"Well, it's obviously your moral duty to feel guilty about all of those dead boys for the rest of your life. Who knows, if you do it, if you do it with enough conviction, it might bring some of them back to life." House's voice was squeaky with drunken, insincere geniality.
Wilson stared at him, not quite in disbelief but a little surprised by the sarcasm.
"You can be quite awful sometimes," Wilson said in a whisper.
"Yeah, but I can sleep at night. I did what I had to do. So did you. Tormenting yourself about it now won't bring any of them back."
As true as the words were, Wilson was becoming uncomfortable. He frowned and shifted in his seat then he rubbed the back of his neck. He didn't want to talk about this anymore. He stared at the nearly empty bottle of whiskey that House was cradling. His vision was dancing out of focus. Outside, the sun would soon be up. Finally, he needed to sleep. At last, he felt exhausted enough to drop right off, so he got to his feet.
"Well, my congratulations on your failed attempt to woo your bride, sir," Wilson said jovially, just to give a little sting back. "And try going to sleep sober, sometime. You might find it's not as easy as you remember it, demons or not."
Wilson left the room then, swaying out of the door and meandering down the hall.
"Wilson?" House called after him.
"Can I stay here the night?"
A pause, a gentle shake of the head, and then,
"I think you just did, but, yes."
Strangely, James Wilson liked being around Greg House, even though he was beginning to get the feeling the man was a lure for trouble. The stolen horse in his stable was testament to that.