Grabbing up her ration tin, Mae flipped open the lid and pulled out a dried biscuit to violently masticate. A soldier had apportioned a pail to each prisoner upon departure. Mae eyed the biscuit dubiously, already so stale that it was only edible if a body had the slashing incisors of a rodent.
“Owen?” She waggled it invitingly.
“Not after you chewed on it.” He crossed his arms with a persnickety air. “I only like mine with marmalade anyhow. Or molasses,” he whispered lovingly.
“I didn’t chew on it. I only thought about chewin’ on it.” Thirst and not hunger prevailed, and so she returned the uneaten biscuit. “Sit tight. I’m gonna find the water bucket.”
Navigating her way to the rear of the car, she advanced on the young soldier who had traveled with them since their departure from Marietta. His plump face was an elaborate mishmash of bushy side whiskers, droopy mustache, and shaggy beard. The untidy display was the color of tarnished brass and overran his features like a thicket gone awry; only nose and eyes poked free, the latter of which narrowed unwelcomingly at her approach.
“Pardon me. It’s Private Hanson, isn’t it?”
He delivered a sidelong glance of reproof. “Return to your seat, ma’am, or find a new one. Prisoners aren’t allowed to stand over guards. Safety regulations.”
Irritated but thirsty, she sat on the bench flanking his. “Is someone comin’ through with the water bucket soon? I’m parched.”
“It will be along directly.”
“It will be along directly,” he sharply repeated, apparently annoyed with her persistence.
“I’ll wait, then.” Mae swallowed a recalcitrant comment or two and instead bided her time, hands folded with false demureness.
“Why aren’t you sitting with your husband anymore? You two have a fight?”
“He’s not my husband,” she cautiously volunteered. “We’re friends.”
“So that’s the way of it?” His eyes tapered with an offensive smile. “He’s prime uniform.”
“He’s the prime age to be in uniform. Why isn’t he fighting for your glorious Cause? Seems suspicious to me, a man his age not in uniform. Why is that?”
Mae’s irritation changed to mild alarm. She didn’t like his sudden interest in Creighton and felt a corresponding surge of protectiveness. “I think I’ll return to my seat and wait for the water bucket there,” she elected, hastily rising.
“Not so fast, now.” Private Hanson reached out and took her elbow, to all appearances a gesture of solicitude, but the warning squeeze insisted she be seated again. “I asked you a direct question, miz.”
“He’s deaf,” she explained, still apprehensive but outwardly maintaining her self-possession. “He can’t very well fight if he can’t hear the battle drums tellin’ him to advance or fall back.”
Private Hanson smirked. “I’ve seen you talking with him for hours on end. He’s no more deaf than I am. Know what I think?” He didn’t wait for a response before smugly revealing, “Word is some of your boys from the Roswell battalion surrendered in the likelihood we’ll take it easy on them, so long as they come along real peaceful-like. I think your friend up there is one of those Confederate deserters from Roswell. Only he’s sneaking his way in with the poor white trash on this train in the hopes we won’t catch him.”
Mae’s temper loosened itself from its moorings. “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard. I can’t believe your side is winnin’ the war.”
“You’d best watch that sassy mouth of yours!” he warned. “If you were smart, you’d be a bit nicer to me. You’ve got nothing to look forward to but prison life in some rat hole in Kentucky. You know we’ve got orders to take all you workers to Louisville?”
They had received precious little information regarding their final destination, but rumors about a military prison in Louisville, Kentucky had sounded the loudest and most often.
“Prison is prison,” she finally remarked, once more remembering the need to subscribe to discretion and stay calm. “Its location scarcely matters.”
“Your life could be more pleasant if you lost some of that sass and cooperated.” He smiled, an oily expression that spread his mustache like an ugly blond caterpillar. “You don’t have to rot away in prison if you don’t want to. Tell me the truth about your friend and you can go free. My captain would be grateful for anything I could tell him about a Johnny Reb disguising himself on this train. Might even give me a promotion.”
The soldier from the next car entered with the communal water bucket, disrupting Private Hanson’s stark threats and inept manipulations. He took a long sip from the dipper and pursed his lips in satisfaction. “Mm-mmm! That’s mighty tasty! Really wets the whistle.” Droplets collected in his whiskers, repulsing Mae and securing a personal vow that she would meticulously wipe down the dipper before using it.
“Well?” he demanded. “What’s it going to be, miz?”
“I’ll tell you what it’s gonna be, you despicable little worm,” she calmly addressed, discretion be damned. “I’d never help a man like you secure a promotion, especially at the expense of betrayin’ my friend who’s definitely not a soldier but a mill worker like the rest of us. What’s more, everyone on this train knows we just gotta sign an oath to the Union and we can go free, but that would be outright treachery to our country, and none of us will ever turn traitor. And while we’re on the subject of despicable little worms, I got a thing or two to say about your General Sherman—”
“Come with me, Mae.”
Creighton appeared unexpectedly and courteously guided Mae to her feet before she was aware of the deed; his attentive hand became somewhat more insistent as she made it quite apparent that she wasn’t ready to go anywhere.
“Unhand me. I was havin’ a conversation.”
He determinedly steered her away. “The next time you want to argue with a Federal soldier in charge of seeing us off to prison, please give me fair warning. My heart still hasn’t recovered.”
“How could I tell you anything? You decided to hide under your hat and avoid me. And what makes you think I was…stating my opinions?” she reasoned, choosing to portray matters in a more favorable light than he had. “We could’ve been discussin’ the weather, for all you know.”
“Right, the weather. That man was one second away from helping you exit the nearest window.”
Owen had spread himself fully across the bench to wage mass annihilation among his carved wooden animals; whinnies, growls, and squawks abounded, with a tactical pause in between to insert the fractious inquiry, “Where’s the water bucket, lady? Thought you was gonna fetch it.”
“It will be along directly,” she gloomily parroted.
Mae and Creighton partook of the same seat, faces bent close in conversation, unconsciously emulating the same positions as when Sadie and Creighton had shared their brief, unsatisfying reunion.
“Private Hanson—hands down the dumbest Yankee I’ve met thus far!—seems to think you’re a soldier,” she relayed. “He has some ridiculous notion that you stole your way on the train and you’re not really a mill worker.”
Creighton sighed, a tedious sound that didn’t match the gravity of the situation. “The army was suspicious of me in Marietta, but I sat through a few questions and the situation resolved itself. Most likely I’ll have to do the same once we arrive at our final destination,” he ruminated, tacitly avoiding any actual mention of prison. “It’s to be expected. I’m one of the few men in custody. Lean on me,” he abruptly invited, patting his shoulder obligingly, “and get some rest. I can see you’re tired.”
“Lean against you? Just like that? How accommodating.” Mae sent him a very precise look. “You’re not mad at me anymore?”
A shameless smile flashed and then guttered out. “I’ll put up with you.”
“You’re lucky I’m too civilized to mention what a contrary ass you are,” Mae reassured, extracting from him a startled, wheezy laugh; she could still feel the amused tremors as she rested her cheek against his shoulder.
She contentedly passed into oblivion, but not before a vague, disembodied awareness of a man’s fingers briefly entangling with her own. They flexed once, hard, a squeeze of affection. Then they were gone, prudently withdrawing.