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Satan wants the warrior Taka to bow before him. But Taka bows to no one except his gentle lover Har.
For thousands of years the two men have been doomed to a life of torment. While one walks the earth, the other suffers under the devil's lash. Their only respite is an occasional night; a random, beautiful, love-filled night, knowing that with the dawn one of them must die in battle and return to Satan's wrath.
On the war-torn fields of Gettysburg, the two lovers are reunited once again. But this time something beyond Hell's reach has happened. Something so wondrous, Satan may finally get his wish.
Glory could not be found in death. Taka chuckled sadly. For him, not even death could be found in death. How long had it been this time? He pulled the blanket tight around his neck and kept his eyes closed. The blanket stank of sour sweat and damp wool.
What new ways have they found to kill each other by now?
He'd learned with each new age he found himself in, war was nothing more than the testing ground for technology, an incubator for new-fangled ideas. Men died, war ended, only the inventions remained to tell the tale. People soon forgot the lives destroyed, but enjoyed the innovative toys and the comforts spilled blood produced.
Taka rubbed his head over the soft grass. So many wars, so many battles. So many times he'd died, only to awaken in the midst of another opportunity to be killed.
There was one good thing about war though, for a day or two, Taka wouldn't suffer under the devil's lash. Insects wouldn't crawl in and out of festering wounds, gnaw at his eyes and lips. And if he was lucky—very lucky—he might even live until the next war. He sighed heavily. To live meant Har had to die and suffer the unrelenting torment, the inextinguishable pain. And he would never allow Har to suffer, not as long as he held the strength to die and keep Har alive.
Har. How he missed him. Hopefully, they would find each other. His heart thumped at the thought. Har in his arms, their lips meeting, their bodies entwined. How joyous the time shared would be . . . before one of them died and submitted to the hellish torture inflicted on their immortal bodies.
An odor of beef and boiling potatoes drifted past. His empty belly rumbled in want. Clothing rustled. Men groaned and moved. Metal buckles clicked. Rifle hammers snapped back, clapped shut. Low conversations started, faded. The voices were tired and broken, not hopeful and filled with excitement.
Wherever he was, whatever war this might be, hadn't just begun.
In the distance, cannon fire shattered the stillness.
"Fall in! Form a line, recruits."
Taka puffed his cheeks and blew out a breath. That would be him, a recruit—one of the new men, not known to the rest. He tossed off the blanket and sat. Slowly, he opened his eyes. Leafy boughs of trees sheltered him from the sun. A tree grove. Shade surrounded him. Elms and walnuts mixed their odors to provide a façade of serenity.
"I said, fall in, goddamn it!"
English. He'd heard English before, but never spoken the language. Each new war brought another tongue to add to his growing list. Satan seemed to have a fascination with tongues and dialects and always made sure Har and Taka mingled well. Ojibwa had been his last voice, the one prior. He'd fought nearly naked alongside Frenchmen in grand, colorful clothes. Running through the forests, his skin free to breathe, had reminded him of his earliest days when few men walked the earth. Before he'd disobeyed Satan and incurred the devil's unrelenting anger. He shook off the memory. Today, he lived once more. No need to waste a moment on the past or the future.
Taka stood and combed his fingers through his thick hair. Then he ran his hands over his clothing. The shirt was a pullover of discolored white cotton, the material soft on his skin. Dark gray trousers of wool scratched his legs. Braided suspenders held the pants on his hips. He wiggled his toes inside brown leather boots. Cotton covered his feet. At least he had on socks. The boots were a bit tight, a tad too small, but not all that uncomfortable. When the opportunity presented itself, he'd take a bigger pair from a corpse.
Taka grabbed his blanket from the ground. A folded paper fell out. He retrieved and opened the parchment. Enlistment papers. His name was Sanford Rawlings, and he'd been drafted into the Army of Virginia, whatever that was. Not that it really mattered. Finding Har was his only goal, and his love wouldn't be in this army—he'd be a member of the opposing force.
He stuck the paper inside his shirt and took his time rolling the blanket.
Heavy steps tromped toward him.
"Did you hear me, boy? I ordered you to fall in!" The voice was thick with a drawl and full of raw domination. A sergeant of some sort, no doubt. Officers didn't waste their valuable time with individual soldiers.
Taka/Sanford Rawlings placed the blanket next to an elm's trunk and turned to face the man huffing anger on his neck.
The bearded man planted the edge of the black brim of his drooped front forage cap against Taka's forehead. Brown eyes flamed. "You don't want to cross me, boy. I'll be the weevil in your cotton, you want to mess with me."
This man, this overconfident rabble, defeat the warrior Taka? Hardly. He tried to stop the chuckle, but the minute laugh slipped between his lips.
"You think I'm funny?" The voice climbed two octaves. Sallow cheeks burned red. Bushy brown brows lowered. Spittle splashed on Taka's lips.
Better to leave this annoyance alone and get started finding Har. "No, I don't. Sorry. Didn't mean nothing by it."
"Sergeant," the man growled. "Didn't mean nothing by it, Sergeant."
"Sergeant. Sorry, Sergeant."
The sergeant's eyes shifted their gaze back and forth. "Best be. Now fall in."
Taka slipped around the man clad in gray from throat to pants bottom. Large stripes blazed yellow on the man's woolen waist-length coat. Sweat dripped down his dirty neck. A wide, black belt cinched around the jacket. A leather holster with button flap dangled from the right side of the belt; a sheathed bayonet on the other.
The uniform was soiled, but not with fresh dirt. The sergeant hadn't seen combat in at least a few days. Cannon continued firing from a distance too far for Taka to accurately judge. Could he be among reserves maybe? Troops not involved in the actual fighting, but at the ready for a moment's call should the battle sway in the wrong direction for either side. Which, since Taka was here, probably stood a very good chance of happening. Add that to the bayonet—an infantry weapon—on the sergeant's belt, and a charge into the enemy's ranks had to be on somebody's agenda.
Taka walked out of the grove into a lush pasture of grass dotted with the white petals and thick scent of sweet clover. A black and yellow bee nonchalantly buzzed past. Heat pressed his face. The sun beat down from behind. Summer. Had to be. The fiery orb sank almost imperceptibly. Afternoon. Four o'clock or thereabouts. The sun sat in the west. That meant the cannon fire, and possibly the bulk of the fighting, was north of his position.
Har would instinctively know he had arrived and make his way to the farthest end of the battle sometime after dark. Undoubtedly to Taka's right—south. Lifetimes ago, they had agreed to always seek out a small river or stream to meet. Trees and thick foliage would hide their all too brief time together.
"Move your ass." The sergeant brushed past Taka.
At the bottom of the slope lay rows of small canvas tents extending east, interspersed by an occasional, larger tent with the sides drawn up and tied. Uniformed men milled about the larger tents. Command tents. Men shuffled about a quadrangle of stone-ringed fires. Two cows hung on spits over a pair of the fires. Kettles boiled over the others. Supper.
Small groups of soldiers led by sergeants in waistcoats practiced marching with rifles held waist high. More evidence of an upcoming assault. But the marching aspect dictated there would be a lot of ground to cover before the actual call for the charge.
The cannons boomed.
"Ohh," Taka moaned. Cannon and men marching on open ground. An inevitable bloodbath. Whatever time had passed, man had learned little in the spans.
Men, some as young as thirteen and others as old as dirt, formed four staggered lines of ten men in length. Taka stood next to a tall, man-child clad in trousers of flax and a faded, red cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled to his elbows. A strand of blond hair lay sweat-glued to his forehead under a wide brimmed straw hat. The youth's face held strikingly handsome features. Lean and muscled, the man-child was not an unpleasant sight to behold.
"What's your name?" Taka whispered.
"Tobias T. Toler, sir." The child's voice was husky, but meek, dusted with fear.
"Ta . . . ."—he gulped the mistake—" Sanford Rawlings, pleased to meet your acquaintance."
"Quiet in the ranks!" the sergeant shouted as he paraded back and forth. "Supply tent's the fourth major tent down. Pick up your uniforms and rifles and ammunition there. Find an empty tent, eat some vittles. We'll be sending them Yankee dogs back north where they belong in the morning, so get you some rest. Y'all in the Army of Virginia. General Lee's personal army. Our commander's none other than Major General George Pickett himself. You do him proud as he do the South. Fall out!"
The sergeant strode off. The newest members of Lee's army straggled behind. Taka walked beside Tobias T. Toler.
There was no fire or hardness in the youth's eyes. "You ever killed a man?"
Tobias thrust back his shoulders. Pride led the flurry of words. "I'm a crack shot. Only one better marksman in the county than me, and he's the one what taught me to shoot. My father. Clemons Toler."
A chuckle tangled in Taka's belly. "Your father, eh? He the one let you come to the war? Where is he anyway? A man, a real man, would not allow his child to fight in his stead." Taka never would. He'd die, like he had so many times, and suffer more than he had already to keep his children safe.
Children. The word, the dream, hung like an oasis's desert mirage. The damned couldn't have children, but could freely carry the emptiness.
Tobias spun on a heel. Now his eyes flamed. "Don't you talk that way about my father," he snarled.
"You don't know nothin'." His hands balled to fists. A vein in his scrawny, suntanned neck pulsed.
Taka crouched and swept a leg against Tobias's ankles. The young soldier dropped flat on his back. A thud, a crunch of the hat brim breaking, and an oomph, and the non-fight was over. Taka straddled the heaving torso and offered Tobias his hand.
Tobias blinked rapidly. "You move pretty quick."
"Lots of practice. I meant no offense. Take my hand." The youth raised a limp arm. Taka grabbed the offering and pulled Tobias to his feet. "Where is your father? He fighting in this war, too?"
Tobias stared at the ground and shrugged. "Yankee patrol took him some time back. Not a word since. Our farm were up by the state line. Father didn't want to fight. Said he wanted to sit this one out. Said he wanted to see me grown and on my own afore he fought again."
Taka placed his hand on the youth's bony shoulder to steady him as they walked. "Fighter, huh? What other war did Clemons Toler serve in?"
"I don't know. Father never said as much." He looked at Taka with eyes as round as the setting sun. "But the stories he'd tell. Father's a great man, sir. He knows a lot about fightin'." A smile broke through. "And about peace. Nothin' he can't grow. Taught me how to raise crops and live off the land when there taint nothin' else to live off. And he taught me the value of life. Don't never kill unless it's for survival."
A memory took kindle and glowed. Har cradled an injured rabbit. Taka smiled. "Your father sounds like a man I know."
"Good man, sir?"
"The finest it's ever been my honor to spend time with." He glanced toward the sun. Soon he'd be with Har. An ache stabbed at his chest. Soon together, too soon parted. Guilt flooded his brain. One of them would die tomorrow, one would live, alone. One would be lashed by the devil until the next time they met on a battlefield. The other would wander life aimlessly, brokenhearted. He sighed. Life or death, in the long run, didn't much matter. Torture was torture. But this last bout under the lash had nearly broken him. He'd almost surrendered what few strands remained of his will.
His gut wrenched in agony. He didn't want to go back to hell. But he didn't want Har to have to return there either. Still, one would.
"There's the supply tent." Tobias pointed ahead.
At a table, a scruffy man who stank of whiskey and urine handed Taka a Lorenz rifled musket, a flask of powder, and a pouch of shot . . . and a bayonet.
A green-teethed grin creased the man's face. "From what I hear, you a goin' be needin' that pig sticker."
"What about a uniform?" Taka asked.
"Check around. They be plenty on the ground you want to play dress up. Where you think that rifle come from?" The man staggered away.
Taka and Tobias walked along the rows of small tents just large enough for two men to squeeze into. Toward the end of the rows, near where they'd started, they found one with a lone bedroll.
"You take it," Tobias said. "I can sleep fine without a blanket."
Taka smiled. The boy had manners. He'd been raised right.
"How old are you, Tobias?"
"Fifteen my father says. But I can hunt, farm, and shoot better than most men older than me." His tone contained that tint of pride again. "Father says I can have my own place when I'm seventeen."
A warmth embraced Taka. He liked the boy. Boastful, but not so much he was annoying. "You're pretty proud of your father, aren't you?"
"Yes, sir. He's a good man. I never knew my mother. Father raised me best he could by himself. Taught me all he knew." He scuffed the ground with a toe. "Hope I see him again."
Taka patted Tobias's back. "Me too. I've got a blanket back there in that tree grove under an elm. You take this bedroll—"
"I'll get it." Tobias was on the run.
A chuckle rattled in Taka's throat. Then he nodded. If there was a way to keep Tobias T. Toler alive, he'd do it, and hope the boy got to see his father again someday when this war ended.
"Looks like the sergeant's gonna break your mustang for you." A vine stench of tobacco, whiskey, and stale beef lumbered past Taka's nose. "Wouldn't mind a little of his backside when you're done. I still gots some corn liquor left in a jug. Trade?"
Taka focused on the tree grove. The sergeant who'd mustered the recruits slunk across the pasture, shifting his gaze from side to side. Taka turned. The man who'd issued him the rifle stood wiping drool from greasy stubble with a sleeve of his shirt. A sheathed knife hung from the man's belt.
In one swift move, Taka had the knife, and the man's throat under the knife's blade. "I see you again, I'll gut you like a boar." He pulled the knife away and sprinted for the grove of trees.