Battle is a terrible thing. It leaves something inside of you which never really goes away. Battle leaves heartache, terror, and death like a long scar over your heart. It I a reminder of how precious your time on earth will always be and the cold pang of grief of losing someone that you have loved. No one can be spared this feeling. It is inevitable. Like our cause diminishing slowly, with pain. This is the way we all felt, after the charge, when the final remaining survivors searched the rotting fields for any sign of life. It had been hours afterward…the Yankees triumphed, but no one even cared. They let us go back to see if we had anyone else to join us as their captives. So, we went.
I nearly vomited with the sickly stench of death reaching my nostrils. I kept my eyes downcast, o the ground to be spared the sight of the bloated odies lying in piles over the fields. There was almost nowhere to put youyr feet, for everywhere you stepped there was some reminder of what had happened…a metal bullet…an untouched knapsack…and there was blood. No an inch, it seemed, of the fighting space was spared from the sticky red which latched to the waving weeds, staining the grass crimson.
Some of our boys in grey sidestepped the dead and few wounded deliberately…they grabbed satchels and rummaged like dogs through them for valuables, money, anything…But most of us, sat by a lifeless friend…weeping until our tears covered the dirt. I tried not to see the dead's faces staring blankly up at me…ignore the cries of the injured and soon to join the nmoving in a different place…a better place. I wanted to turn around and go back to the prison, go back to a time where there was no such thing in my life as this. But I couldn't.
"Cole?" A hoarse, almost unintelligible whisper reached my ears. I whirled around several times, desperately trying to find the familiar drawling voice…
"Down here, you idiot." I instinctively looked "down here" and held back a choking sob.
Almost unrecognizable from the cakes of mud, lay Sam. He was breathing so heavily, with wheezing gasps and weak coughs every now and then racking through his chest.
He smiled half heartedly, gazing lightly at the stormy sky. I wondered if he was thinking about Heaven. Quickly, I fumbled for my linen canteen, sighing in frustration when only a small amount of water sloshed around inside when I shook it.
He eyed it thirstily, then said. "It's alright, I don't want any."
"Liar." I convicted. I knelt down beside him, taking his head in my lap and practically shoving the canteen into his mouth.
After a moment, he ripped it from my hands and guzzled the rest down his throat.
"See?" I grinned triumphantly.
"So I'm a bad liar. Got any more?"
"That's it, I'm sorry." I said truthfully. He shrugged with slight disappointment showing.
"I guess it won't really matter now, anyway." I narrowed my eyebrows.
"What are you talking about?"
"Cole, don't kid yourself. I'm hurt bad. I don't have as much time as I had hoped. I wanted to finish the war. I really did. But it seems I was finished by it." I still didn't understand.
"But, Sam! The point of coming out here was to look for survivors! You don't look very dead to me."
"Not yet." He muttered softly.
"You were probably just knocked down…you look fine!"
"Are you blind?" Sam chuckled wryly. "No, don't answer that." I would have slapped him, but then I saw why he didn't get up…
His right leg sat at an unnatural angle, bent backwards…and his left…was not there. A bloodied stump where a long limb had once been was all that remained, with streams of red pouring out of it like the river rushing in the distance.
"Oh my God." I mouthed. I felt sick suddenly, and turned away to deposit my breakfast of hard tack on the ground.
"I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" I cried, wiping my mouth hastily. "It's not that bad, really. You'll pull through!"
Sam slowly shook his head. "Not this time, Cole." I wanted to reply sharply, but then he closed his eyes. "Do you remember," Sam began wearily. "When there was no war? It's very vague now…Sort of blurry. But I remember my mother waving good bye. I remember that she hugged me..she told me that she would see me in a few weeks. For two years she must have worried so much, wondering if I still was alive. Now she doesn't have to worry anymore." I felt something wet drop on my hand that was rubbing his shoulder, and felt more tears streaming down my face.
"you don't need to cry for me." Sam reached up and weakly brushed he tear tacks away. But I saw he was silently crying too.
"Yes I do." I suddenly let out a sob. "I wish it had been me instead. Then you could have gone home. And you or Ma would never have had to listen to someone tell her…"
"Can you tell her for me? Please, Cole?"
I shook my head. "You're going to go back to her. I won't have t tell her."
"I'd like that."
"You'll go back and see her. And then she'll never let you out of her sight.
"Tell her that I'm sorry."
"And then you'll get married to that girl you told me about…"
"Sally Parker." He reminded me.
"In my bag there's a note for my Ma. Can you give it to her?" I reached for his knapsack and pulled out a crumpled letter.
"Sure, I will."
"Thanks." He seemed at peace now, as the fading twilight began to rest over the hills.
"You're going to live a long time." Sam told me wistfully. "You'll die an old man with ninety years behind you. You'll se the war end an you'll go back home. Tell them about me. Your children. And then your grandchildren. Promise?"
"I wish I could have shot one more Yankee. Just one."
"don't give up!" I cried.
"I'm not afraid anymore." He grinned. That same grin I came to love almost as much as whom it belonged to.
"You're like my brother, you know."
"I am your brother, Sam."
Sam smiled. "That's a good thing to carry to Heaven." Sam grasped my hand and drew breath with increasing slowness in his lingering moments of worlds life.
I sat by him, holding his hand until he inhaled for the last time. Sam squeezed my hand in a final act of reassurance and was still.
I held that hand. Even when they came and tried to take me away. I didn't let go. Sam's icy stare into the clouds, unseeing. I racked with sobs and struggled against someone pulling me away. It didn't matter anymore. I didn't care. I still clutched the letter to his mother, but looked down in deadened curiosity as I fingered a second, smaller piece of paper inside of it. A young, laughing face looked up at me, with the brown hair tousled and wild as usual. I tightened my grip around the rumpled picture. I couldn't let go. Somebody wrapped an arm around my shoulders. Someone else talked to me. I didn't hear anything. I kept looking back to where Sam lay on the battlefield, with no soul now inside of him.
"I'll tell them, Sam."
Twenty Years Later
Cole Hamilton sat on the bed, vivaciously narrating this very story to his son called Sam. His son listened intently until Cole stopped talking. The old man rose, harboring an old wound, in his heart which had never fully gone away. Sam looked at the picture on the nightstand. Now he knew who the laughing man inside of it was. Cole had not forgotten.