"Giv'em Hell for me, Brother," chokes Maverick.
His once ivory teeth become a crimson red as each inhale and exhale quicken faster than the rage of musket balls flying past our heads. We grip our hands as tight as we can around each other's forearms as we did on the day we first met during the Northern enlistment against the Confederacy.
Amongst the troops, Maverick was respected almost as highly as General Kilgore, a man of few words but true to his name, and could make a friend and an enemy within seconds. Maverick was an impressive strategist despite not having formal schooling and was a sharpshot with the musket with the precision of an eagle on its prey. He always volunteered for drills. He trained with more ferocity than a rabid animal. He was the first to wake and the last to sleep. He worked harder than all of us.
It shocked me. Never had I seen someone like him have so much determination, skill and intellect. But Maverick wasn't only a great soldier, he was also a loyal friend.
After training one day, he caught me alone in the woods. I was twiddling my kepi in my hands running my fingers along the brass insignia and crying. Since our enlistment, I made a conscious effort to get away from the regiment as much as I could. Even when the men found solidarity in bathing near each other in the lake, I found myself waiting to wash until after they left or going in before they arrived. Pissing while we traveled the countryside meant I had to go a little farther away from the pack without anyone noticing my absence to relieve myself.
It was dangerous, no doubt, as none of us knew when or where the enemy would strike, but I found it necessary to be alone sometimes. Seeing fellow soldiers collapse around you amid gunfire decorating the field with their bodies like autumn leaves makes you question your own dedication. Makes you wonder if the war is worth an uncertain victory. Makes you wonder why you're here, or why I am here rather. If I'm honest, even if we won, would it truly change anything?
A twig snaps to my right. Springing into defense, my arms brace my loaded Springfield squaring its butt on my shoulder, finger on the trigger, bayonet toward the target.
"Alcrom, what are you doing out here by yourself again?"
"Maverick!" I heave while finding my breath again. "You scared the crap of me!"
"Sorry about that. Do I have to wrestle that out of your hands or are you going fire a round at me again?"
"Last time was an accident." I quip, lowering both my gun and my guard.
"You never could aim." He laughs and takes a seat next to me. "You know it's dangerous out here."
"Like I said before, I need to get away from time to time."
"I bet," he retorts, raising a single eyebrow tossing a grin in my direction.
I give him a shoulder shove and sigh. "They still don't suspect anything do they?"
"About me or about you? Either way, no. They're just wondering if they'll make it out alive after our next battle."
"How many dead from the last?"
"193 so far, but we're still going through the wreckage trying to find our boys amongst theirs."
I breathe in deeply, shaking my head while placing my palm on the back of my neck gently rubbing it from the strain of having to be alert for so long. None of us have gotten much sleep since the last battle.
"Do you ever regret enlisting after seeing all the dead?" I ask with hesitation. "Or wonder what would happen after this war even if we won it?"
There is a calm stillness in the air between us as he positions his elbows on his knees, clasping his hands, digging his Brogan heels into the earth. I can tell he's chewing on my questions. I can tell he's weighing his words.
"I do," he finally responds. "I see all of us fighting out there and dying and hits me hard too. The start of this war may not have been first about freeing the slaves as much as it was about preventing the spread of slavery, but for me, you know this means more than that."
"Here, with this rifle, cloaked in navy, marching alongside our boys, I'm just a man. As far as they know, Alcrom, I'm a White man, but a man nonetheless. Here, I'm not defined by my background. Here, I'm not a slave. Here, I'm not another mulatto negro in a master's home being whipped into submission. No more 'Yessir' and 'nomaam'. No, I get to prove that I'm just as good, just as smart, just as strong, trustworthy, reliable and loyal as any of them. Here, in these war-torn blood-soaked fields, I am considered a fellow man, an equal, a brother. "
I stare at him briefly then turn my head toward the seemingly empty forest in front of us.
"Remember though, Alcrom," he begins again, catching my attention, "Wars change laws, but they don't change hearts."
"What do you mean by that?" My eyes narrow in curiosity.
"I mean, no matter what the outcome of the war is, it still won't change what people believe me and my kind are. Even amongst our boys, over half of them don't give a damn about no slave, but I still fight with them, because I do give a damn. It's a long road ahead for my people, but I fight because we are worth it. If the life I live now can change the future, my sacrifice on these fields will be worth it."
"Even if we lose?"
"Especially if we lose. I don't fight to win the war. I fight to win my humanity. For my wife and children and their children and their children's children. They deserve a world where the criteria of being an acceptable human being isn't ranked by skin color. Where worry doesn't surround their birth and apathy doesn't shroud their death. They deserve to live as free and bold and happy and as privileged as any White person. But until the hearts that brought the war change, even if we win, the victory is hollow. The war will just happen again at some future time with different people, but the same hearts. Everybody else can have their own agenda or give up on my people, but I've promised myself that I'm not giving up anytime soon."
I smirk in admiration. "You've been reading those abolitionist newspapers again, haven't you?"
"Of course." He replies, breaking the solemnness of the moment. "I keep an eye out for The Liberator for new inspiration every chance I get."
Sighing heavily with a tired smile, he pats my back while moving his legs to stand. "It's getting dark. We'd better head back. Most of the boys been thinking that you're, uh, having fun with yourself, whenever you go off alone."
Scoffing with a laugh, I pick up the Springfield, and we walk back to camp.
That was a week ago.
I keep my body low near him now while those fortunate enough to already be dead take on the bulk of the bullets raining on our regiment. Out of the 800 men left of the 34th Kentucky infantry, about 300 of us are still alive, for now. Not including the wounded or the ones who pissed their trousers fleeing off into the woods when the gunfire erupted. We didn't see the enemy. I presume that's why it's called an ambush.
"Promise?" Maverick manages to strain a gasp as a sliver of blood crawls down his cheek.
"For you, Brother, I will," I answer as he breathes his final sigh to the sky above.
He was the only one who knew that my real name was Alice Elizabeth Crombie, and I'll be the only one to ever know he was a fugitive slave passing as a White union soldier.