Cadet Mellark makes a solemn promise to Cadet Hawthorne on the eve of battle, but can he keep it?
Written for Tumblr PiP, Day 7- Envy
In May 1864, two-hundred fifty-seven cadets between the ages of 15 and 24 from the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington marched 80 miles to the Battle of New Market during the American Civil War. The VMI cadets were instrumental in the victorious outcome of the battle, though 10 lost their lives, and 57 were wounded.
Rated T for battle violence and mild cussing. I own nothing to do with The Hunger Games. Warning: Character death. Forgive me, my dears!
Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, May 1864
3rd year of the American Civil War
Central Virginia could be hotter than Hades even in late Spring. No forgiving breeze whispered over the rolling farmland of the wide valley spread between the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains. All was still save the hum of insects and the occasional nicker of a plow horse on a nearby farm. Putting my back against an ancient white oak standing at the edge of a hay-field, I took out my half-full canteen, tipped it to my lips, and took a long drag of water before offering it to Hawthorne, my fellow cadet on guard duty. He shook his head stoically as he usually did. It was his way.
"Com'n, Hawk," I admonished, using the nickname we younger cadets at the Virginia Military Institute had given him because of his mythical crack shot with a rifle. "You want a chance to get back to that girl whose picture you're always looking at, don't you? Dying of thirst is sure not the way."
His gun-metal gray eyes regarded me from under his ebony brows before he replied tersely, "I've been thirstier. Best you save it for your own self, Breadboy."
"Suit yourself," I shrugged before recorking my water vessel, mildly irked at his pointed use of my despised nickname, which is why I teased, "Say, I forget, what color did you say her eyes were again, Hawk?"
"That's because I didn't," he grit out before spitting into the nearby grass.
I thought he was going to ignore my question, but after several silent minutes of our watch had passed, he finally said, "They're gray like mine, except so clear and deep like..." here he paused to phrase his thought just right, "...like the mountain lakes back home. A man could drown in those eyes."
"Geez, Hawk," I chuckled softly, "Didn't know you were a poet. So, eyes like a deep mountain lake, huh? That sounds like something they'd teach us in rhetoric class back at my old boarding school."
Hawk scoffed, embarrassed that he'd revealed something so personal, "Suppose so."
"No, really," I shifted in my worn boots, "I envy you that, I do."
"What's that, Mellark?" he stood a little straighter when he said this, all his attention on me for the moment. It was always unnerving when he did that.
"Well," I prevaricated- shit, I didn't want to offend the tall, intense upperclassman who also happened to be the best marksman at VMI, "I guess I mean, I'm envious you have someone you love so deeply that you feel you could drown in her eyes. I wish I had that. Truly I do."
"Something tells me you aren't hurting for company of the female variety when you're home in Richmond," Hawk actually cracked a small smile when he said this.
"Well, now, that's different, and you know it," I grinned in response to what was actually teasing from him, "Flirting with the lady belles of the capitol is just that. Not serious. Though their mothers sure would have it be a marriage yoke around my neck, I'll admit. If you think the Yankees are scary- Pfpt! I could tell you tales about marriage-minded mamas that would make you run for those hills over yonder."
"Marriage doesn't scare me," Hawthorne replied absently, as if he were thinking of the things that actually did scare him.
"No," I considered him for a moment, "I expect it wouldn't with a beauty like that waiting at home for you."
"You know nothing about it, Mellark," he replied.
"I've seen the picture, Hawk. I have eyes. She's a beauty," I asserted, feeling brave for a moment.
"Is that all you care about? Yes, she is beautiful, but it's more than that, boy," he replied with some heat.
"Whoa, I meant no offense. Forgive me my artist's eye, if you please, sir. I've never met the girl, but I can see that her kind of beauty is a rare thing."
"Indeed," he mused, suddenly far away.
"See! There! That's what I mean. Where were you just now? Not here, I'd wager my day's rations on it," I said with conviction.
"By the look on your face, Hawk, you certainly weren't here standing guard in some Godforsaken farmer's field in the hot sun. Admit it." I warmed to my topic and continued, "You were looking into the eyes of your girl. You were diving into the cool lakes fed from mountain streams back home in Blacksburg. I am positively pea-green with envy that you have such stunning visions to think on while I must be content to sit here contemplating that stile over there," I blathered on, for reasons I couldn't comprehend.
"Now, who's the poet?" Hawthorne said with wry look, "You talk too much, Mellark."
"Yes. Yes, I suppose I do."I replied without rancor, but I remained silent for many minutes. Each of us stood gazing intently on the newly green farmlands around us. The ancient mountains of the Blue Ridge loomed in the distance as birds swooped and circled around their smooth, greenish-blue slopes, just filling out in the late spring.
"Sure is pretty here," I finally mused, "Perhaps someday I'll meet a lady with eyes the color of those mountains yonder. Give your girl's fine eyes a run for their money."
No response. He was tough as nails and twice as sharp, Hawthorne was. Another silent half an hour passed with me contemplating the stile in the nearby fence.
"Do you think we'll see action when we get up to it in New Market?" I asked, choosing a popular topic among the VMI cadets heading into battle. We had been ordered to march the eighty some miles from Lexington to New Market in 4 short days. Even as young as we were, it was a hard trial to force march through driving rain and sticky mud in such a short time. Hawthorne had borne it with his usual stoicism, of course.
When he didn't respond right away, I continued, "Finnick says they'll have to put us in, even though we're not really old enough yet. Never thought I'd see battle at 17."
"Finnick's a romantic pretty boy who couldn't find his ass if it weren't attached to him, and he certainly has no more of an idea what the higher-ups will do than you or I," Gale grumbled.
"I agree heartily, but I think he has it right this time. General Breckinridge will have to put us cadets in if the rumors are true. He needs every man or boy he can lay his hands on, they say," I paused in my own uncomfortable silence.
Even though I was a junior cadet at the prestigious Virginia Military Institute, the institution both my older brothers had attended with great success to the delight of our mother, I had no interest in being a soldier. In my heart of hearts I was not at all sure I believed half the reasons for the South seceding from the Union of the United States. Those were treasonous thoughts I rarely even entertained in my own mind. Truth be told, I had always wanted to be a painter, and failing that, I would be glad to join in my father's flour mill trade. Hell, I'd rather be a baker than kill someone in cold blood. I remembered spending lazy afternoons in our kitchens helping Father, who before he married my mother had been a successful baker. He taught me to bake soft white bread that would melt in your mouth. Just thinking of it now, I could almost taste it. I guess Hawthorne wasn't the only one who liked to escape with daydreams of home.
Hawthorne was by far the luckier of the two of us though. In truth I only teased him about his picture of his girl out of my own sense of fascination with it, or its subject rather. By the golden orange glow of our campfires I'd seen the gray tintype portrait in his hand a few times. I'd glimpsed a slender girl with proud bearing, dark coloring and what was probably chestnut hair in a thick braid over her shoulder. So like the other portraits cadets carried of their sweethearts, but there was something in Hawk's girl's expression that was most striking and put her above all the others I'd seen. Even in the murky photograph, her intelligent eyes stared out at the viewer with a challenge in their depths, as if to say: try to comprehend me if you dare. This impression was furthered by her firm, well-shaped jaw which complimented her graceful lips that made one puzzle as to whether she was smiling or frowning.
One day I hoped to have the means and opportunity to sketch the haunting face I'd managed to commit to memory in the few instances I'd seen of it in Hawthorne's hands. Her visage so persisted in my mind's eye that my dreams had become full of details such as the classic curve of her neck or the dark fans her eyelashes must make against her cheeks when she cast her eyes downward. I told myself, it was my artist's love of aesthetics, but really I sometimes wondered in my quiet moments if I wasn't a little in love with this girl I'd never met. This ghost of a woman that the silent, dour Hawthorne must love so deeply to confess to me that he could drown in her eyes. If she could turn a stoic into a romantic, she must be a remarkable woman.
"Mellark," Hawthorne murmured in a low voice, jolting me out of my guilty thoughts, "I've been thinking. Finnick, though he's a rat's ass, no mistake, is more than likely right, as you say. We will go into actual battle within a few days at most. As such, I have, that is, I need..."
I had never seen the calm, unflappable Gale Hawthorne so agitated in the years I'd known him. He shifted on his feet and removed his cap and pushed back his dark hair distractedly.
"What is it, Hawk?" I looked him in the eye with what my father called my preacher look. Father always said I should have taken up the calling for I could make the most evil sinner confess his sins by giving him this one particular look. "I can see it's important."
"If I write a letter to..." he sighed, "... to the girl in the portrait ...to Katniss- that's her name. She's named after a water plant. Seems her father studied botany during his time at the University," he supplied when I looked a little baffled at such an unusual name.
"Well, a lovely and unique name for such a lady, I am sure," I replied smoothly.
"Save your flattery for your belles, Breadboy," Gale cut in shortly, "What I'm asking is this- I will put in your possession a letter for Katniss, which in all likelihood you will hand back to me at the end of all this, and I will give to her the next time I see her, so we can have a hearty laugh at my gloomy frame of mind. If, however, the unthinkable should occur- if I should not make it through New Market, I have your solemn vow to deliver this letter to Katniss' own hands as soon as you can."
I was speechless, which was a new experience for me altogether. What to say? This brave, true man was asking me to deliver possibly his last words to his beloved sweetheart. I felt my conscience pinch at my earlier thoughts of admiration for the same woman. Nonsense, Mellark. With his superb hunting and tracking skills and cool-headed demeanor, Hawthorne was probably the most fit soldier in our entire company. He would make it out of New Market before any of the rest of us green recruits.
Along that line of thinking, I replied with as much confidence as I could muster, "Hawk, I'll gladly agree to render you this service simply for the fact that I know how unnecessary my promise will be. You are the best prepared for battle of all of us, my friend. You're safe as houses."
"Don't say that," he responded vehemently, "None of us knows when the piper will call us home."
"I-I'm sorry," I stammered, disconcerted by his earnest look of alarm, "Forgive me, and know this, if I am lucky enough to survive this battle, and you are not, I will deliver your letter to Katniss with my own hands at the earliest possible opportunity. You have my solemn oath, sir."
I offered my hand, which he took and shook in his own calloused one, and our stint as watch ended soon after. I thought he forgot all about our pact or dismissed it as a moment of weakness for he made no mention of it in the days that followed while we waited anxiously for our fates to be determined. At the time, I felt certain that the anticipation must be worse than the actual battle. How naive my certainty proved to be!
The thunder of nearby canons finally began on the morning of the 15th. Every soul in the VMI reserve encampment stopped in their tracks and looked at one another with a mixture of fear and excitement that is unique to the beginning of a battle. The booming, abrupt percussions continued throughout the morning. The order came for us to make ready to move at a moment's notice. I was checking the sharpness of my bayonet when Hawthorne approached me with a thick packet of folded and sealed paper in his hands, his field pack and rifle already hung on his broad shoulders.
"They're sending us forward, Mellark," he said in such a calm voice, as though he was discussing when we would go for our next meal in the mess-tent, "Are you ready to do your duty for the great Commonwealth of Virginia and for me, if the need arises?"
I took the sealed sheaf of paper from his hands and replied seriously, "Yes, sir, I am. Gladly, but with a heavy heart."
"I've included instructions as to how to find Katniss along with my letter to her, and...and..." Here the man I'd never seen flinch at anything in my life, paused and gulped in a shuddering breath before continuing, "I've enclosed her picture, so that you may know her when you find her. See that you get this back to me at the end of the day, will you?"
"Absolutely," I exclaimed, "By Wisdom and Courage*, my brother."
With this we parted ways, and I did not see him again that day until mid-afternoon on the battlefield, where the heavens had opened up in a drenching rain, making me wish for the sweltering heat a few days earlier as I shivered in my boots. All was muddy chaos when we arrived at the grassy pastureland near a river I would later come to know was the North Fork of the Shenandoah. A group of injured soldiers passed by, cheering us as we marched forward toward the battle lines, when suddenly a shell landed in their midst, silencing their cheers forever. We continued our charge until suddenly there was a crack in our front, a gap appeared in our ranks, and First Sergeant Cabell, Privates Wheelwright and Jones fell dead.* Still, we did not stop. We continued doggedly onward in hopes of joining the other men already in the fighting ahead of us.
I don't try to remember my time on the battlefield that day, but it comes to me still in the form of nightmares that leave me screaming and shaking in the darkness. I watched as countless of my fellow cadets were mowed down, killed or wounded as we marched into the thick of things. I thought of nothing but moving forward, always forward. I had no idea of stopping, or what I would do when I actually reached my enemy.
It happened in a fraction of a second. I felt an impact on my left calf, almost like a rock had bounced up and hit me, but it was no rock. Pain I had never felt in my life lanced up my body from below my knee, and I crumbled to the field and could not rise again. As I lay there in the muddy, wet grass, thoughts skittered across my befuddled brain, now misfiring with the excruciating pain. I thought of Father and the bread, of my brothers and their fondness for hiding my riding boots, of how distressed my mother would be at me dying so ignobly with no valiant deeds accomplished on the field of battle. Mostly, I thought of Gale Hawthorne and how angry he'd be when he had to retrieve the picture of Katniss from my muddy corpse. I felt my trembling lips twist into a sort of ironic grin at this. Gale had trusted the wrong man with his beloved's picture and letter, for I was sure to die lying here as the battle roared all around me.
I must have lost consciousness for a spell because when I came to, I was being carried on a canvas stretcher of some sort. The jostling as the men walked was agonizing to my leg wound. I moaned and one of the men bearing me said, "Hang in there son. We're almost to the hospital tent. They might be able to help your pain."
All I could do was nod to acknowledge his kind words. As I faded out again, I heard him utter to his fellow stretcher bearer, "Christ, this boy's not much older than my son. I can't believe they sent in them poor, green VMI fellas."
When I woke again I was looking at white canvas overhead, and the pain was a little better. Wondering where I was, I looked around me. There were other men lying in makeshift cots or on the ground on blankets- completely filling a large tent, so there was barely space to walk amongst us. The groans of the injured and dying could be heard over the rain softly pattering the canvas.
A loud moan to my right, drew my attention as I blearily tried to focus on its owner. A shock of dark hair over jet brows came into focus just before the uniform of a VMI cadet swam into my view. I knew him. My fuzzy mind screamed at me to call his name. My lips moved, and a hoarse voice croaked out, "Hawk? That you?"
Silvery eyes filled with pain honed in on my face. By God, I hated it when he did that! He had such a stare!
"Breadboy? Got you too, huh? Shit. What will Katniss say?" Gale said ironically.
"May be a little delay in my mail services, Hawk," I tried to joke, but in truth my leg was now throbbing in time with my heartbeat.
"You swore an oath to me, Mellark," Gale said, his voice a little weaker this time, "How bad is it? Where are you hit?"
"Bullet in the calf, I think," I answered him, "You're just going to have to heal fast, so you can deliver your letter yourself."
"In the calf?" Gale crowed, "That's nothing! You'll be on your feet in a few weeks, especially if they don't have to amputate. Just hope you don't get a sawbones that's in love with his saw."
I felt the tent spin sickeningly at the word amputate. I'd been in such pain and shock, I hadn't thought that far ahead. Oh, God. This would surely kill Father!
"What about you, Hawk? Where'd you get hit?" I asked in a shaky voice, trying to scan his long frame lying on the cot next to mine. My heart sank when I saw a large patch of blood darkening his uniform above his belt.
"Oh, nothing I can't whip, Breadboy," Hawthorne quipped with false bravado belied by the extreme pallor of his face, "But do me a favor and hang onto Katniss' picture for me. I'll get it from you when I'm more myself."
"I'll keep your girl safe for you, Hawk," I promised with cheerfulness neither of us believed, "Don't you fret."
"I'm counting on you," he impaled me again with his steely eyes, "She may appear hard as nails, but that girl is soft as the cotton in the fields, really. Look after her for me, hear?"
"Dammit, Hawk," I spit back, "I won't listen to talk like that. You get better, so you can take care of your tough-as-nails, soft-as-cotton gal yourself. Besides, she sounds rather a terrifying creature now that you tell me more about her. Truthfully, I think she'd eat a flighty fellow like me for her breakfast and then ask for more tea."
Gale let out a raspy laugh that ended abruptly in a groan of pain, "You talk such foolishness, Peeta. I always liked that about you. Katniss is so serious and strong-minded. She's had to be. I think she could do with a little more laughter in her life. Make her laugh for me, will you? Her eyes are something to behold when she laughs."
"I'll accompany you on your next visit to the lady with eyes like mountain lakes and have the pleasure of playing the fool to make you both laugh, shall I?" I offered desperately.
Hawthorne didn't respond right away, though I called his name several times. I thought maybe he lost consciousness. I started to rise from my cot, but my leg throbbed with fiery wrath.
Two orderlies came directly and looked him over. The lanky one with a shaggy beard shook his head at his companion, and they picked Gale up by his shoulders and feet and commenced to carry him off.
"Hey there!" I said in as loud a voice as I could muster, "That's my friend. Are you taking him to the surgeon, so he can be patched up?"
The bearded man looked at me pityingly, "Ain't no sawbones can help this boy now, son."
"What?! What are you saying? He was just talking to me!" I felt my eyes stinging, and I found myself beyond caring if these two strangers saw my unmanly tears.
"I'm sorry, son. He's in the hands of his maker now," the man replied, not unkindly, "We'll be back directly to take you to get you fixed up."
I barely noticed the ominous last part of his speech. What cared I if I lost my leg, both my legs for that matter?! A strong, brave comrade was dead! I absently reached down to touch the front pocket of my uniform just over my heart, and I felt the packet containing Hawthorne's letter. I would deliver it, if I had to crawl across Virginia to do so. I didn't need to open it and take out Katniss' picture to see the striking eyes, the determined chin, or the enigmatic expression. Her beloved visage floated before my eyes like a specter. I remembered every fine detail, for I had envied Hawthorne his good fortune to have such a picture, to have such a girl to love. I had envied him, and now he was dead. I covered my eyes with my hand and wept like a child.
Well, I finally wrote something that didn't require an M-rating! I know I've got a couple of other WIP's, but I am considering continuing this story. Anyone interested in reading more? Reviews welcome.
Quote 1: VMI motto "By Wisdom and Courage"
Quote 2: Personal account of the battle by VMI Cadet Gideon Davenport