“Do you suppose that’s a good idea with an injured man in tow?” Levander asked.
John rubbed sleep from his eyes and worked at tucking his shirt into his trousers. “Father says he’s fit to travel. The shot in his abdomen was at an angle and went clean through. The other just grazed his knee. Lucky bastard. Worst that happened to him was the blood loss, so he might need a crutch until he regains some strength. But that shouldn’t take long with Virgil’s cooking.”
“What about the negroes?”
“They can stay or go. Makes no matter to me. Care to get some shut-eye?”
“What for?” Levander shrugged. “A little essence of coffee and I’ll be raring to go.” John’s cheek twitched with the semblance of a smirk. “It’s good to see you smile.”
John returned to his tent. A line had been strung between a nearby tree and the tent’s front support. He fetched his belt from the line and fixed it round his waist. Ducking into his tent, he grabbed his canteen, then walked out of camp and deeper into the woods.
When he found the creek, he knelt and broke the ice cap once more. He made a hole just large enough for his canteen and dunked his hand into the icy water. The bubbles roiled to the surface until he could take the cold no longer.
After a brief swig, he took his Bowie out and hacked at a tree branch overhead. Bending the branch back and forth, he made it come free, then he pinned the limb against the ground and chopped a length roughly the size of his forearm.
The wisps of his effort were disappearing before his eyes in the cool morning breeze. He took a seat with his back against the trunk of the tree and took another swig of water, billet in hand. He was far from an unfit man, but strenuous work in this kind of cold hurried even the fittest of men to exhaustion.
He sat there whittling a hole into the side of the billet for the remainder of sunrise. This was the first sunrise he sat alone to enjoy since Fidelia’s death. It was somewhat of a tradition of theirs. Back on the plantation, they had always risen early in order to watch the sunrise alone together, before the noise and bustle of the day began. Every day since he had joined the army he spirited away in the early hours of the morning to experience first light alone, with the understanding that wherever Fidelia was, she was doing the same. This was as close as he would ever get to her again.
Eventually he was able to smell her, the forlorn remnants of his memory of her fragrance. Rosemary, he recalled. It grew wild around their house. She would use the herb to distill a perfume. The sense of it was so vivid. It was almost too much to bear. He couldn’t be alone with her any longer. He pushed himself to his feet, the odor heavy as if weighing on him. It was intoxicating. He followed it back to camp, struggling to stay on his feet.
Cobb clapped him on the shoulder, jolting him from his fool’s paradise. “There you are. We’re in for a treat this morning. Virgil happened to scrounge some wild rosemary to season the cornmeal mush. What’s that you got?”
John dropped the billet and cupped his bearded face in his rough hands, stumbling to a seat. The deluge of memory was overwhelming, but he deigned to betray his vulnerability.
“It’s for a crutch. Mind finishing it?”
Cobb crouched beside him. “No problem. You okay?”
“Just a headache,” John lied.
“I’ve got a tonic for that.”
John grabbed Cobb by the arm. “No, not another one of your damned snake oils. I’ll be fine.”
“Okay, well when you’re feeling up to it, the 'freemen' want to talk.”
John forced down the pain. “Very well, bring them.” Cobb stood and gestured for Edlin and Jasper to join them. They came and sat across from John. “How’s your young friend?” he began.
“He’s no friend of ours,” Edlin answered. “We were just helping him. Seemed the right thing to do.”
John nodded in acknowledgment. “Say what you were going to say.”
“What’s going to happen to us?” Jasper chimed.
“What do you mean?”
“He means you folk are Johnny Rebs, and we’re a couple of southern negroes.”
“The way I see it, Mister Eckhart stays with us, at least until he’s well enough to decide for himself. And you can go wherever you like. You are freemen, are you not?”
“You mean to let us go our own way?” Edlin gasped. “In peace?”
“As the Lord is my witness.”
The freemen stood and returned to Al. He was still reclining on a cot. They sat close to him. “Do they know?” he whispered.
“Doesn’t seem that way,” Edlin answered. “Said we were free to leave. Said as much for you too, once you’re healed.”
“What?” Al lurched in shock and winced at the bolt of pain caused by the sudden movement. “You took me out of that house just to abandon me in the company of my enemy!”
Cobb approached carrying a makeshift crutch. Edlin and Jasper made themselves scarce. “I have something for you. John made it.” Cobb extended the crutch, then hesitated. “Careful now, the pitch joining the underarm cradle to the staff is still hotter than a whorehouse on nickel night."