“Father,” John pleaded, motioning for the aged doctor to examine Jonathan’s injury.
John Sr. tramped through the thicket with care. “Take a load of fellas,” he suggested to the troop. He knelt beside the boy and exchanged a glance with his son. John understood. He leaned back, unclasping the buckle at his waist and pulling the belt through the loops of his trousers. His gun fell beside him. “Bite down on this,” he explained, folding the leather while John Sr. poured some water over his hands from his canteen.
The pain, the adrenaline, and the anticipation were causing Jonathan to sweat, despite the biting cold. He winced as his grandfather lifted his ankle, supporting it by the calf muscle. He nearly bit the leather gag clean through while the old man prodded the injury. The cut was deeper than John originally determined, and his father was poking his fingers into it, feeling for a break. Jonathan’s sock was almost all red now.
“It isn’t broken,” John Sr. concluded, “but it feels as though a ligament was torn. He won’t be walking for a time, and we need to stop the bleeding.”
Zeb was hovering close by. “Son of a bitch,” he swore, throwing his arms up. “What in the hell are we even doing here? We should be after those goddamned bluebellies.”
Now, Al started sweating too.
John surged to his feet. “Not now, Zeb.”
John Sr. interrupted. “We can’t treat him here. We need to find a suitable campsite. If we don’t clean it and stop the bleeding, it will get infected. And then he’s in God’s hands.”
“We’ll double back,” John decided, kneeling to pick up his son. His father’s hand touched his shoulder.
“You’re not fit enough for that yet.”
Edlin and Jasper could hear from where they were sitting. Jasper was trying to stand, but Edlin was pulling him down. “Where in the hell you think you’re going,” Edlin chided.
“He’s just a boy, like Al,” Jasper argued.
“Yeah, and look where that canny idea’s gotten us. Sit your ass down. We’re only here until we’re safely to town. We’ll ferret out the underground and get back on our way north again.”
Jasper was a soft-spoken man, even timid. And he wasn’t that smart either, quite naive in fact. But he was a large man, a few inches taller than the rest of the party, and he was given to his principles. He wrested his arm free and lumbered toward Jonathan. “I’ll carry the boy.”
“The hell you will,” Zeb interjected, “I’ll carry him.”
John replaced his belt and gun. “There’s no time for this Zeb. If you please, Jasper,” he finished, motioning with his head for the large man to come around and pick up Jonathan.
John’s father rose as smoothly as his old bones allowed, and the party began its trudge back through the thicket. Al had the hardest time of it, and John felt somewhat responsible for the young man, so he kept pace with him.
“How’s that crutch working out?”
“Fine. I’m much obliged for your craftsmanship. I don’t think I’ll need it much longer, actually. I’m regaining my strength and the numbness is going away.”
Al looked uncomfortable for a beat.
“Lucky for me,” he continued, “I’m not one of those Billy Yanks your friend keeps talking about. I wonder how I would have been received then.”
“Zeb is still in the war. A short while ago, I let the war go.”
“You welcome emancipation?”
“I’m no scalawag, but I’m through killing. Zeb doesn’t understand that. This war is a disease, but it’s not infecting the land, it’s infecting the men, causing brother to kill brother, father to kill son. What good is fighting to give your family all the comforts on God’s green Earth if a man has no family to give them to? I have to save what’s left of mine.”
John cocked his head and looked at Al. “If you had been a Yank, I would have received you just the same.”