Disclaimer: I do not own or have any rights to Hell on Wheels, nor am I making any profit from this story.
Author's Note: Well here's the final chapter of this tale. Hope you enjoy.
'It's like God hisself is aiming on drownin' us,' Elam cursed as, minutes after the sky opened up, let loose its floodgates and he began slipping in the mud along the trail. A trail that had been dry dust that powdered the air when he and the rest of the freed men had walked that same way getting where they were going that morning. And the trench they had dug, it now was forming up to be a stream, came above his raggedy shoes. Not like it mattered much, not when the rain was during her best to soak through his skin and bones, ran unchecked from his shaven head in rivets down his face and buried itself into every layer of clothing he owned, 'cept the spot on his shoulder where the Southern was draped.
Not like he could hear much, what with the crack of thunder and the roar of the rain, but there was a worrisome silence from the man tossed over his shoulder. Elam couldn't tell if the man's chest was still risin' and fallin' with breath. Sure, the Southern had talked, had boasted that he could walk hisself back to Camp but that had been a few miles ago. Since then, the man had become all dead weight and Elam was beginning to fear that description be all too true.
Might be that dark prophecy that had him nearly dropping Bohannon when the wounded man began thrashing in his grip. Then the Southerner shouted "Hold!" loud enough to outmatch the volume of booming thunder. And Elam barely managed to keep the man atop his shoulder, got an elbow to the jaw as Bohannon struggled against an unseen enemy. Fearing the man would jostle right out of his hands, Elam stepped to the side of the trail to the smallest of overhangs from the sloping hill and pulled Bohannon from his shoulder, dropped more than eased the thrashing man to the ground.
And then Elam stood over Cullen, confounded, watched the man's arms and legs flail, his head roll, mumbling more than shouting, words that had nothing to do with the here and then. "Hold the line! Don't let 'em flank us. Stay in the pits and take yer shots!"
Every man has his own night terrors, Elam knew that. Had heard the screams, the shouts, the begging in the middle of the night, had crept up to one of the bravest man in their slave quarters and watched him beg for mercy he never would awake. Night had a way of breaking even the strongest. And fever, it had a way of doing even worse, of loosening tongues, letting escape hurts buried deep, tearing into the soul 'till all the secrets bled out.
Dropping to his knees in the muddy earth beside Bohannan, he reached out, laid his hand on Cullen's forehead. He didn't need no saw bones to tell him that a raging fever had hold of the Southern. That the man's mind, it wasn't aware of him or the rain or the mud, was off somewheres else. And Elam knew in his gut that it wasn't someplace Cullen Bohannon ever wanted to be again.
Cullen jolted as the cannon to his right fired, spit flames as it hurled the ball toward the Yankee line foolishly out in the open on the other side of the stone bridge that spanned the Maryland creek. He didn't bother to track the ball, had enough keepin' him busy with the small but merciless rifle balls peppering the area around him like a swarm of bees. He was giving an order to a soldier who was standing to his right when the eighteen year old kid toppled over, a bullet lodged into his neck.
Bohannon didn't kneel by the wounded kid, could see the light fading in the boy's blue eyes even as he choked up blood. Instead, reaching to his right, he yanked another soldier to his side, had to yell to be heard above the crack of rifles, the cry of the wounded and dying and the unsynchronized cannon fire. "Tell General Toombs we need ammunition, won't hold the bridge another hour without it. Now go," and he gave the boy, who weren't all that much older than his son, a shove.
Then turning to the Georgian company that he commanded, Bohannon shouted out his order. "We need to conserve ammunition! Only a few men shoot at a time and don't shoot 'til the Yankees are halfway 'cross the bridge or 'bout dead center of the creek, then drop only the front line. We'll pile 'em up on the limestone and creek bed."
From his position on the west bluff, Cullen squinted against the sunlight, near able to make out the expression of the Yankee's commanding officer as he sat on his horse. The officer seemed a might riled that his men were dying on the bridge 'stead of crossing it.
A grim smile pulled onto Cullen's lips. They would soon show the Yankees what it felt like to have their towns ransacked, for their food to be taken. Savored the notion of northern families knowing the sting of being thrown out of their own homes…like the Yankees had done in all the towns in the south, leaving only destruction in their wake. He could only pray that his own family in Meridian, Mississippi was safe, thanked God his son was too young to be among the number of boys fighting and dying that day.
Though Elam knew the way to break a fever was with cold water, he didn't hold much stock in the icy rain doing no good. That wouldn't be their luck, neither his nor Bohannon's. But watching the older man thrash like something was coming for his soul then lay eerily still before thrashing again, it didn't set well with Elam.
Grabbing hold of Bohannon's jerking arm, he slid his hand into the Southerner's and squeezed, hard. "Wherever you think you at, you ain't there, Bohannon. Don't know if that's the good news but I figure it is."
It was like there were two bridges 'cross the creek, one made of limestone dripping with blood and the other of dead Yankee bodies.
Bohannon watched brave man after brave man boldly advance forward..right into his line of fire. And still, more Yankees came wading through the bloody water, stumbling over the bodies scattered on the bridge. Like they had no notion that they were walking right into a firing squad, were bound to die 'stead of gaining the other side of the creek.
Until his dark prediction of an hour ago came true.
They were plum out of ammunition, almost down to the last man under his command. But his orders had not changed, he and his men were to hold the bridge or die trying. "Alright boys, time to get wet. Knives, bayonets, whatever shot you got left, we use 'em now. Come on," and he led the charge from the rifle pit, marked the men at his side, some of them fell under the rain of Yankee fire. And then he was in the river, his knife finding Yankee flesh and his fists flying, and beside him his men did the same, struck out at the closest blue coat.
The creek swelled, not with the rising tide but with hundreds of men, fighting, for their honor, for their homes, for the freedom to live…and die a way of their choosing.
Cullen didn't hear the command, maybe did and refused to heed it, wanted to fight his way to the other side of the river, stain the Northern soil with Yankee blood. He nearly swung a fist at the man who grabbed him from behind, yelled in his ear, "Sir, we're been ordered to retreat!"
Shoving his latest kill away, he looked at the carnage around him, easily knew more Yankee bodies bobbed in the water and littered the bridge than Rebel. But all that could change, was changing. And he had his orders.
His voice hoarse from inhaling smoke of rifle shot and cannon fire, he shouted about the unholy din of battle, "Men! Retreat! Retreat!" He began walking backwards, slicing his knife through any Yankees brazen enough to get near him.
Stepping out of the water and back onto the bank of the creek, he turned to leave, to follow his men as they fell back to General Toombs' line a few hundred yards back. But a round from a Yankee light Howitzer hit the ground a few feet in front of him, sent mental shards splintering into the air.
Bohannon screamed as the boiling hot metal ripped into his thigh.
When Bohannon suddenly cried out in pain, began writhing frantically on the ground, like he was on fire, Elam done his best to pin the man to the ground. Catching a fist to the jaw, he cursed, had a fleeting notion to let Bohannon get his ownself back to Camp. Instead, he leaned over, pressed his forearm across Bohannon's chest and ruthlessly captured and dug his fingers into the man's jaw and gave it a shake. "Settle down!"
Cullen fought the hands that grabbed him, knew the agony to come if they moved him, took him to some doctor's tent to either die or get his leg hacked off.
When Bohannon's panic spiked higher at his rough handling, Elam knew his way wasn't getting through to his friend. Releasing his hold on Bohannon's chin and removing his forearm from the man's chest, he again caught the man's hand, grasped it, said, "Listen to me. You made it through, what you dreamin' 'bout, it ain't real. Not no more. It ain't real."
Elam was relieved when his friend soon traded up thrashing for lying still, chest rising with each breath. Couldn't hold back the smile when the Southern's feverish but alert eyes slowly opened, found him.
"Elam?" Cullen croaked out, the other man's presence not making much sense in the thick of Sharpesburg.
"No other fool haul you back to camp, especially when you yelling like the Indians are comin' for you," Elam drawled, pulling his hand from Cullen's now that the man was coming back to himself.
"Indians," Bohannon blankly repeated before he remembered. The war was over. There were no Yankees coming for him. But just to be sure it was all just in his head, he reached a trembling hand down to his leg, was relieved when he didn't feel the jagged cut in his flesh where the shrapnel had been. Sagging back to the ground, he looked up at his friend. "How long I out?"
"Too long. Be dark soon," Elam gruffly returned, burying his worry under a front of irritation.
"Now ya need me awake to toss me over your shoulder?" Bohannon challenged.
Elam held Cullen's eyes, said without judgment. "Couldn't carry ya. Not with the flaying out you was doing." He detected shame in the Southern's eyes before Bohannon struggled to sit up, managed only when Elam aided with a hand to his elbow.
Sharply recognizing that rain had soaked through every layer of clothing he wore, Cullen barely cared, his head was aching too much for water and cold to make it much worse. "Help me up," he ordered, snagged Elam's sleeve so the man didn't rise without him.
Without protest, Elam slipped his arm around Bohannon's waist and pulled them both onto their own two feet. Feet that slid in the mud a moment before stilling. Then Elam tugged Bohannon forward, back onto the trail that led to the place both of them called home. But he couldn't help steal a look to his friend, couldn't help but wonder about Bohannon's nightmare.
Even half dazed and drenched to the bone, Cullen felt Elam's eyes on him. "You got somethin' you wanna say, go on," he groused, felt like he had little pride left anyhow, especially when it came to Elam.
Though Elam knew the territory was an open wound for the other man, he wasn't willing to miss his chance to ask. "You dreaming 'bout the war?"
"Nah," Cullen denied, almost sighed when Elam pressed for an answer not more than thirty seconds later.
"Then what you dream 'bout?" Elam asked, confused at Bohannon's denial, because he woulda swore the man had been muttering military commands.
Knowing that his present companion liked to ask questions that were none of his affair, had a bad habit of trailing him around camp, even following him straight into his tent 'till he got himself an answer, Cullen eyed Elam, sighed and gave in. "Yeah, the war," hoped that would satisfy the former slave's cat like curiosity.
And for a moment, it did. Until Elam remembered the heated words between Bohannon and the Union Lieutenant Griggs, all about some place they each called something else. A place Elam had never heard of. "The battle of Sharpesburg?" he asked.
The name of the battle coming from Elam had Bohannon stopping in his tracks, giving Ferguson a sharp intense glare. "What do you know about Sharpesburg?"
"Only what you told the Yankee Lieutenant. That you killed a lot of his kind. 'till you ran out of bullets," Elam repeated.
"About the way of it," Cullen allowed as he began walking again, Elam helping him with each step. And maybe Elam being there, not leaving him in the ditch, it owed the man some truth. "And yeah, I was dreaming 'bout that battle. Felt…" he swallowed, the memories not ones he liked to dig up. "…like it was happening all again."
"Something happen to your leg there?" Elam guessed, got an angry scowl form Cullen like the southern thought he was stealing stuff right from his head. "When you woke up, you looked at your leg, rubbed it like you was making sure it was still there."
Accepting Elam's explanation, Cullen faced ahead again, grimly admitted, "Was a near thing."
"Near don't make it so," Elam quietly declared, didn't back down to the surprised look Cullen shot him.
"No, it don't," Cullen agreed and somehow Elam's logic, it soothed the fear still clawing at him at the memories, made him remember that, it was the past. Couldn't hurt him where he was now. Course where he was wasn't all that grand, with a head pounding so hard it was more likely to exploded, miles from camp, trudging in the mud and the rain. But he wasn't alone. And dang if that didn't make things alright.
Elam thought 'bout kissing the muddy ground of the camp when he and Bohannon stumbled onto the outskirts just as the sun was thinking about making her appearance. Without discussing it with the wounded man, he led them right to the tent of Durant's doctor, called out at the tent's flap, "Got an injured man here!"
And though Bohannon was practically dead weight after their trek back to town, Elam didn't set him down onto the bench outside the tent, wasn't going to leave his job half done. "Come on, get up!" he beckoned again before he heard grumbling and a curse, a chamber pot being tripped over and then the doctor was there, nearly swaying out of the tent opening. "He took a blow to the head, needs tending to," Elam explained, then, frustrated with the man's delay, he led his friend past the doctor into the tent and carefully eased Bohannon to sit on the doctor's now empty bed.
"You can lay down now," Elam permitted, giving Bohannon's shoulder a nudge and slipping his hand behind Bohannan's neck, making sure the man's injured head settled lightly on the pillow. Then he pulled Cullen's feet up, muddy boots and all onto the bedroll. He almost railed as the tent's owner pushed him aside so he could start doing his doctoring.
Untying the bloody shirt around the Camp's foreman, the doctor scowled, demanded of his patient, "When the cut crew came back without you, spouting a tale about you scouting ahead and not coming back, Durant thought either those freed blacks had killed you or the Indians had. So which one did this to you?"
Before Elam could lie, Bohannon's hoarse, weak voice answered. "Neither. Horse kicked me." And Cullen opened his eyes, stared past the doc to Elam. He saw the other man's grateful nod before he closed his eyes, enjoyed the feel of a bedroll under him and no rain drenching him.
Trusting that Bohannon was gonna be taken care of, Elam backed away, started to head out of the tent but couldn't make himself walk away until he heard the doctor's words to his friend. "Nice deep cut there and by the looks of it, you lost a fair amount of blood. Your eyes seem a bit dull but if you were gonna die you would have already."
"You saying I got lucky, doc?" Cullen drawled, the idea of him having good luck giving him dark amusement.
"I'm saying most people, with a head injury like this, would have sat down and died, would never have made it miles in the rain and the dead of night. If that isn't lucky, what would you call it?" the doctor lightly scoffed.
Cullen opened his eyes, but he didn't seek out the doctor's face, instead sought out the figure half way out the tent flap. "I call it having a friend who's willing to catch ya when you fall." And he smiled when Elam didn't look his way but hurriedly shuffled out of the tent, like he wanted to pretend he hadn't heard what Cullen had said.
But Elam had heard and was finding it hard to fight back the smile that was pulling onto his own lips as he left Bohannon in the doctor's care. He wasn't sure he had ever called anybody his friend before, found it strange that the first man to call him that, was white. Was a white Southern who had fought for the Confederacy, once owned slaves and treated him more like his equal than any other man, white or black ever had.
As he threaded his way through the camp, Elam caught the respectful looks coming from both the white and black men as they readied themselves for another day on the railroad. And suddenly he knew that, in the new life he was building for hisself, his actions made him the man he was. That and the company he kept.
Elam nearly chuckled at how Cullen Bohannon would scowl at the notion of him being decent company.
But the truth of it was, his friend had taught him that, the color of a man's skin or the sound of a man's southern accent, neither was a good judge of who a man was down deep in his soul. That, when the hard times come, you could get downright surprised by who saved you, who you ended up calling friend.
It made Elam think of that Bible verse 'bout God working in strange ways. And he figured God thought Hisself so smart, putting two fool, hotheaded, stubborn men on the same train work detail, akin to throwing two cats in a bag. Then God takes Hisself a seat and watches him and Cullen snap at each other, just waitin' for 'em to make nice, knowing all along they was gonna need each other. Cause it don't matter what color skin you got, even the strongest of men sometimes fall, need somebody they trust to give them a hand up, to help 'em find their way home again. Even if home was just a tent staked down by a fresh row of train rails.
Whew! Well, I got our boys back to town and finally on the same page with their friendship! Plus I got to write about the civil war, which was a treat for me. Thanks for anyone who took the time to read this story's conclusion and I hope you enjoyed some of what I wrote.
And a million thank yous to my wonderful reviewers: CrashDisaster, Smokeyhorse, Teresa, Rebelintheheart84, C.I Tiger Fan and EagleGirl6! You guys were so generous and I want to thank you for encouraging me and nurturing my fragile ego on my little venture into HOW.
Have a great day!