Summary: During the intense first day of the Battle of the Wilderness, Adam finds himself staring down his youngest brother, someone he had hoped to heaven he’d never meet on the battlefield. A terrible day only gets worse when Adam realizes he and Joe aren’t wearing matching uniforms. Part one of the Allegiance Series.
Word Count: 2197
The Allegiance Series:
May 5th, 1864
The Wilderness, Virginia
A cloud of smoke threatened to swallow him as he threw himself to the ground, ducking beneath the next volley of iron. When he coughed, his shredded throat screamed for water; his depleted lungs crying out for relief.
It was during times like this Adam had to remind himself why he was even fighting this war in the first place.
For the freedom of all.
The familiar crack of a tree falling stopped the eldest Cartwright’s next shot and sent him diving for cover. No one shouted timber as the giant oak hit the ground with a thud. Even if they knew they’d have been heard, there wasn’t time.
There’s never time…
Somewhere along the line, someone lit another fire.
This is a forest, for crying out loud! Why can’t everyone just—
“Colonel, get down!”
Stumble, duck for cover, and hope for the best. It was a life-saving pattern Adam desperately wished he could shake. Yet, if he wanted to survive this massacre, he couldn’t. Instead, he dove behind the freshly fallen tree and prayed it would stay out of range of any flying sparks long enough for him to catch his breath. And reload his rifle…
Several screams pierced the air as he fumbled for another bullet. He bit out a curse when his hand came up empty.
It was pure chaos. All of it. A hell no one had asked for, yet every able-bodied man had been forced to endure.
The sound of bullets whizzing mere inches past his head used to set his skin on edge. As time dragged on, however, the feeling had become a normalcy, one Adam didn’t waste his precious mental energy on anymore.
Through the thick haze, he tried to discern if the one shooting at him was friend or foe. Or if they can even tell they’re firing at anyone at all. If only they didn’t have to deal with the fires. Whoever came up with that brilliant idea of distraction was going to become well acquainted with Adam’s fist at the end of the day. If this day ever comes to an end…
It seemed an eternity since Meade had marched his troops into the thick forest, and yet the sun had only just begun its slow journey into the west. They still had a half hour or so before the general would call it quits. After all, you couldn’t fight in the dark.
But you could worry. And plan. And think far too much about everything you left behind.
Sometimes, the twilight hours took a heavier toll on Adam than the daytime. Under the sun, he knew his enemy; he had a tangible target. One he could name. When darkness wrapped its blanket around the world, he fought a different kind of battle. The many demons that refused to leave him alone.
The face of a boy soldier who lasted all of ten minutes on the field. The echoes of Pa’s last letter, which had arrived months ago. Thoughts of Hoss and Joe, who no doubt felt as though their older brother—their protector—had abandoned them, choosing to fight someone else’s war over staying home to fight for them.
It’s everyone’s war. Knitting his brows, Adam sucked in a breath and readied his rifle. We’re all responsible for our action or inaction. Though he’d run out of ammunition, his bayonet still got the job done. Every one of us.
He only hoped Pa would come to understand that someday. That Hoss and Joe, especially, could someday understand what had driven their brother to defend states he’d never even been to before. To pledge allegiance to his country in such a dangerous way.
Readying himself, Adam breathed a silent prayer for protection before jumping back into the fray. Another bullet flew past his ear, nearly taking it clean off.
Too close. That one was too close.
He had at least a minute, maybe more, before the enemy fired again. Less if the soldier was skilled.
It was now or never.
Heart thumping out its never ending battle march, Adam repositioned his bayonet and leapt through the smoke. Though the enemy wasn’t much more than a dark shadow, he didn’t need a perfect portrait to know where to aim.
The chest. Always aim for the chest.
The desperate maneuver had quickly become second nature until Adam was sure he could kill with his eyes closed. A necessary evil, yet one that haunted him during those long, sleepless nights.
The dull thunk of steel against earth warned Adam of his mistake, but his brain took two seconds too long to register the failure. Someone slammed against him before he could even take a breath, tackling him to the ground with enviable energy.
Images of his family bombarded his mind and he knew now wasn’t his moment to die.
Not now. Not ever, it seemed. Not when he had brothers who still needed him.
With a strength he didn’t feel, Adam shoved the enemy off, then rolled on top of them as he grappled for the knife at his belt.
Hands tugged at his collar, struggling against their inevitable end. Adam pushed them out of the way. He needed a clear shot of the man’s throat.
Just one clear shot…
“Go ahead! Kill me!” At this impassioned cry, Adam froze. “Kill me now and get it over with!” He couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. “I dare you!”
Because he knew that voice. He knew that…
Adam swallowed so hard, it hurt. “You say that to everyone you come across, kid?”
As the smoke cleared, Joe’s shocked expression came into view. Adam couldn’t remember ever seeing something so beautiful. Nor so equally terrifying.
“Adam…?” His little brother’s voice trembled. Though, Adam supposed he wasn’t so little anymore.
Children didn’t march into battle. Men did. He just wasn’t sure he was ready for Joe to be that grown up yet.
The cries of the fallen echoed on every side, suffocating Adam far quicker than the smoke ever could.
Sheathing his blade, Adam braced himself against the onslaught of emotions that battered his mind and heart. Anger, terror, guilt, hopelessness, and a certain kind of protectiveness he only felt when Joe was around.
When Joe was in danger.
He slid off his brother and jerked the boy to the side. Into a small cluster of bushes and fallen trees, his fists all the while clinging to Joe’s uniform.
“What the hell are you doing here?” He ground out through clenched teeth. “You’re supposed to be back at the Ponderosa!”
“So are you!” Joe shot back with equal vigor, his own eyes blazing hotter than the surrounding fires. “What’d you have to leave for, anyway?”
There was a lot to unpack in that sentence. Too much for the little time they had left.
It was then that his brain came to the painful realization that Joe’s attire didn’t match his own. Pale grey stood in stark contrast to Adam’s dark blue.
Oh, dear Lord.
When Joe spoke again, his voice had lost its flame. “Were you really gonna stab me?”
With a huff, Adam scanned the ground for his rifle. He couldn’t look at Joe. Couldn’t see him in that blasted uniform.
“I was going to stab somebody.” Adam forced himself to keep breathing, despite the seizing of his chest. “I never expected it to be you. Joe, what’re you doing here?”
The boy had the audacity to crack a grin. That stupid, wonderful little grin that Joe only flashed when he knew he was in trouble.
“Did you miss me?”
“Did I miss you…” Adam muttered, mostly to himself as he spotted his weapon. “What kind of fool question is that? I thought you were back with Pa and Hoss! I thought you were—”
Safe, damn it! I thought you were safe…
“Well, I’m not, Adam.” That tone was back again. The fire that Joe inherited not only from Ben, but from Marie as well. A double dose of fire for the youngest Cartwright son. “So get that through your thick skull before we both die arguing about it.”
Snatching up his rifle, Adam shot Joe a hard look. “No one else is dying today.” So firm was his voice that he could almost forget men were still dropping like flies.
And they had been for the better part of the day.
And they’ll keep on dying until this war is won. Grant will settle for nothing less than a Union victory.
Which meant Joe would have to lose. One way or another, his brother would lose.
And there’s nothing you can do about it.
“Adam…? Do you—?”
A splintering crack that pierced the air nearly sent Adam into a panic. Because it wasn’t just him now. It was Joe, too. They were both at risk.
Now, he had to protect them both.
Joe was already on his feet, scrambling out of harm’s way even as Adam dragged him along. Some distant part of Adam’s mind told him to let go of his brother. They could move better that way. They would be safer that way.
Yet, he just couldn’t. His fingers either weren’t getting the message, or were ignoring it completely because they clamped down harder on Joe’s arm.
A short tumble later, they were on the ground again, barely escaping death by falling oak.
Still heaving, trying in vain to catch a breath, Adam turned to Joe. “Does Pa know you’re here?”
“No,” Joe began, his voice dripping with sarcasm, “I just snuck off one fine afternoon and didn’t say anything. Of course he knows I’m here!”
Another hard stare was enough to crack Joe’s façade.
“Well, he knows I’m here…” Joe shrugged, pausing to fiddle with his rifle. “I mean, I’m sure he got my note… And I’m sure Hoss explained things to him.”
“You left Hoss alone back there?”
Joe whirled on him, eyes blazing again. “You left us alone! You left me—”
If the choked sob hadn’t cut him off, the incoming bayonet would have. Without hesitation, Joe leapt up and drove his own sword of steel through the enemy’s chest.
Adam didn’t even have time to process the vile scene as another soldier attacked from the other side. Raising his weapon, he did his best to block out the screams. To blur the faces and forget what it felt like to take a life that wasn’t his to tamper with in the first place.
Soon, he noted with an odd sense of calm, both brothers were fighting back-to-back. Each looking out for the other as enemies pummeled them from every direction.
Adam stole a precious second to glance back at Joe. “You do know we’re on different sides, right?”
So, do something about it.
Something had to change. He would never be able to live with himself if he didn’t at least try to do something. He couldn’t go on fighting knowing that his brother was serving under General Lee.
Knowing Joseph Cartwright had chosen, for some reason, to don a grey uniform and march under the Confederate flag.
“So?” Adam returned. “So, this isn’t a game, Joe.”
Shoving his latest kill to the ground, Joe spared a glare at his brother. “Don’t you think I know that?”
With a nod, Adam sucked in a breath. “Just wanted to make sure.”
“Hey, do you…?” For the briefest of moments, the fighting around them slowed.
“What, Joe?” Adam prompted when Joe didn’t continue.
“Do you have…” Swallowing, Joe shook his head as if abandoning the thought, all the while avoiding Adam’s gaze. “Well, I didn’t expect to meet you here. I mean, out of all the battlefields, I never…”
“Spit it out, Joe, will you? There’s no time for this.”
“Can you meet me here?” Joe blurted at last. “Tonight? Later, some time. I don’t know. Just…”
It took every last ounce of Adam’s strength to resist massaging the bridge of his nose. “Joe—”
In that one word, Adam heard a precious little boy begging to spend a night on the town with his big brother. He heard a curly-haired kid pleading for his brother to scare away the monsters under his bed. He heard a boy grown up too soon asking to be treated like a man.
And he just couldn’t say no.
He couldn’t say yes, either. Not when the trumpets called for retreat and Joe’s expression twisted, hesitating between waiting for an answer and following orders.
“Go on,” Adam said. Still, Joe didn’t move. “Get out of here before you’re left behind!”
The look of hurt resignation would always stay with Adam after that. He was certain his mind would never be able to shake it.
You’ll just have to make up for it later. His lips locked together in a thin line as he watched his brother disappear into the haze. Yeah. Sure.
How much later? When exactly did Joe want to meet?
As Adam led his own men off the field, he prayed to God he wouldn’t be too early.
Or too late.
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