Corporal Gordon had the men wrap their cartridge cases in oil cloth and stow them in knapsacks in case the sky opened up on them. Gordon constantly preached the separation of powder and water as a matter of survival. The two rear-echelon men hung their gear from metal hooks set in the bottom of the wagon. Watkins had never seen anyone do that and had to admit that was a pretty ingenious idea.
After securing for weather, there was nothing to do but wait for further orders. Since it was nearing noon, each man produced whatever food he had on hand, and the trading commenced. Everyone offered Watkins something in return for more tobacco, and he silently thanked his Virginian friend again. Tobacco was better than money these days, and Watkins’ came into a handful of dried blackberries and five hardtack squares of indeterminate age. The Yankees called the palm-sized flour tiles ‘tooth dullers’ and ‘sheet iron,’ but unlike cornbread the stuff kept forever. He’d heard tell of it stopping minié balls.
The driver provided Wright a chunk of cornbread wrapped in an old page from the Southern Illustrated News. Wright sat in the middle of the wagon bed and, nibbled at the bread and drank a little water while all but Watkins sought a bit of solitude. Watkins used the butt of his Bowie knife to break a piece of hardtack, then set his battered tin cup on the edge of the wagon, dropped in the shards of bread inside with the blackberries, and covered the desiccated contents with canteen water.
“Is it true, Wright?” Watkins leaned on the wagon and watched his meal drink up the water in the cup. “Did you walk out of the bivouac in broad daylight?”
Wright raised his chin and brushed crumbs from the reddish whiskers there. He shrugged. “It is.”
“My name is Sam.”
Watkins switched the knife to his left, and they shook. He generally made it a point not to get acquainted with dead men, but a question burned in him. “Way I hear it, you did it to make a point, like a protest, because you’re the only conscript can get away with it.”
“Is that what people say?” Wright’s laugh sounded like the bark of a small dog. “That would be a stunt, wouldn’t it?”
Watkins scooped some bread and berries out of the cup with the broad blade of the knife and put the still-crunchy stuff in his mouth. The berries just made it tolerable.
“You want to know what it was?” He grabbed the sides of the wagon and looked at the gathering clouds. “I was fed up.”
“Hell, man. We’re all plumb fed up with–“
“Fed up with marching and starving and filth and lice and diarrhea. Living like an animal. It’s no way for civilized men to exist.” Wright shifted to his knees and spoke in a low voice. “I thought about taking my own life, but found I have too much fear of God after all.”
Watkins stood up straight and stopped chewing. “Why don’t you run?” Watkins spoke quietly and motioned with the Bowie. “The woods are right there. A pure fool can see the general done give you this time to get away.”
Wright smiled. “And go where? Do what? Be who? Besides, what if old Uncle Marcus intends to pardon me? He can’t very well do that if I’m a fugitive.”
“They’re going to kill you.”
Watkins wiggled the point of his knife at the forest shadows across the field. “You could go west, away from all this.”
Wright shook his head. “I felt like an impostor in uniform right from the start. Can you imagine what it’s like, pretending morning to night?” Wright took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I can’t do it anymore. I’m done play-acting.”