It's not even a real story
Part #9 of 13 episodes of how my heroes from Trouble in Texas met and how they became so loyal to each other.
Book #3 Stuck Together --Vince's story--releases in June 3.
Closer Than Brothers
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“Luciano, the fever left, you’ve got no excuse now.”
He forced his eyes open and this time it worked.
The woman, staring down at him gasped. She smiled, her while teeth flashing fit to blind a man.
He looked into the black eyes of his little sister. Not so little anymore.
“Callie, did you die, too?” He felt bad about that. Callie should have a long life, and this didn’t sound or feel or smell like heaven, which could only mean…
“I’m not dead and neither are you, Luke.” Her dark eyes, a perfect match with him, were wild with pleasure as she smiled.
Blinking, trying to make sense out of her being here, he had to believe it. He’d lived. He’d survived and somehow Callie was here, right here in Andersonville. His sister had joined him in purgatory.
“Did you fight in the war? Did you get taken prisoner?” He couldn’t stand the idea.
“You’re in the hospital, Luke.”
The room was candle lit and it was dark. They were in the belly of the night. He saw a fancy glass light fixture overhead with dangling crystals. It looked like someone’s house, not a hospital. And for sure not a prison.
“The war is over and we got word you’d been found in Camp Sumter.”
That was Andersonville’s real name. Luke hadn’t heard it called that in so long it was only a faint memory.
“Our letter said you were sick and in need of doctoring.” Callie’s voice had a heavy Texas accent that made Luke homesick on top of a lot of other kinds of sick. Her eyes roved over his face. There was so much sadness he could only imagine what he looked like. Of course he'd never come close to such a thing as a looking glass, but he’d seen how horrible the other prisoners were. Walking skeletons, everyone of them. He was sorry she had to see it.
She squared her shoulders and didn’t talk about his appearance, keeping her talk cheerful and her smile firmly in place. “Pa and I got here as fast as we could.”
"Pa's here?" Luke vaguely remembered hearing Pa. He wasn't sure what was real and what was a dream. “Y-you’ve had time to travel all the way here from Texas? How long have I been unconscious?”
“The doctor told us you’ve been delirious or unconscious ever since the Union Army got you out of that place, weeks ago. Pa and I have just been here a few days, long enough to be mighty worried. Your fever broke a couple of hours ago, f-finally.” Callie’s voice caught. He thought his tough little sister was going to cry.
Luke wasn’t surprised when she lifted her chin and fought off the tears. “We’re gonna stuff you full of food and get you some clean clothes and then take you back to Texas where you belong.”
“Callie, you’re here.” She was talking too fast. He couldn’t take it all in. He could still hardly believe his family had come. “You’re beautiful, and all grown up.” His voice was so raspy he didn’t know if she could understand him. “You said Pa is here?”
“Yep. We’re taking turns sleeping. He’ll be mighty upset I got to talk to you first.” Her grin said she’d pester her dad with being first and thoroughly enjoy doing it. "And we figured you could ride a horse home but you'll take a sight of healing before you're ready for that and we don't want to wait. So he's trying to find a wagon and that's not gonna be easy. We don't want to wait until you're up to sitting a horse, so I'm on duty caring for you most of the time. The doctors working this place barely have time to breathe."
He reached for her tangle of black curls and saw his hand, bony and ugly. He couldn’t stand to touch her.
Then he remembered how regrets had eaten at him while he lay in prison, thinking he’d die without seeing her again. “I thought I’d never get a chance to tell you how sorry I am for the way I treated you since Ma died.”
With a smile, she slapped his shoulder, but Luke could tell she did it with unusual gentleness. Luke wondered just how fragile he looked. Not much made Callie pull her punches.
“Spend your energy getting well, not worrying about my delicate feelings.” Callie looked to her left and right as if worried about being overheard. She leaned close and whispered. “This is a miserable place. It’s no proper hospital. You'd be better off with me and Pa on the trail resting beside a campfire. ”
Luke hoped she never heard how dreadful Andersonville was. This was luxury by comparison.
“It’s just a house. There’s not enough food or medicine for all of you. Pa and I are going to get you out of here.”
Callie smiled and straightened away from him. She got a water glass and slid her arm under his shoulders. He could remember her doing this. Suddenly Luke was so thirsty he wanted to grab the cup and drink it all down hard and fast.
“Just sips now. The doc said if you drink it too fast, you’ll cast it all up.”
The doc. Luke wondered where Dare was. And Vince and Jonas.
Luke tried to sit up under his own steam and found his muscles were weak as water. So he sat up as far as Callie had the strength to prop him and he sipped. Clean water. It was the most delicious thing Luke had ever tasted.
Callie tortured him by only giving out dribbles. If he hadn’t been so shaky, he’d have grabbed the glass and drank it down. But he wasn’t up to it and she gave him only a few swallows, leaving him desperate for more. But she kept at it until he’d had the whole glass, then she got him a second. Finally, he had enough.
She eased a rolled up blanket under his back, each move so gentle, so unlike his hoyden sister. Then she reached for a bowl he hadn’t noticed before. Soup.
She fussed with getting soup into his belly one spoonful at a time. There wasn’t much heat left in it, but it eased his throat and filled his gnawing gut. He’d been hungry so long he was full after only a few swallows. He pushed her urging hand aside, afraid he might upchuck. Not a real nice way to say hello to his baby sister.
“We rode out here on horseback, cutting every minute from the trip we could, swapping saddles, scared to death you’d die on us before we got here. We brought six horses in all, so there are two for you. We’d leave right now if you could stay in the saddle, but it’s clear you’re not up to that yet, that's why Pa's hunting a wagon. As soon as we can, we’ll head home.”
She talked with him about the journey and after a bit he was able to take more swallows of soup, this time he finished the bowl. It was mostly broth and Luke wished for meat and vegetables, but he could feel his stomach threatening to reject even the broth and knew he didn't dare risk eating anything heavier.
“I can’t believe how you’ve grown up, Callie. Have I been gone so long? You were a child
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A scream sounded from across the room. “Rafe, Ethan! Help me.”
Callie sat up straight and turned toward the screaming, a frown of concern on her deeply tanned face.
“That soldier from Colorado, Seth, is he in here, too?” Luke remembered him from the infirmary at Andersonville.
“You know him?”
“He was in prison with me. He was so sick and he was screaming like that. He’s got ugly burn scars on his back. Dare said they must have happened early in the war, because they're all healed. He’s having nightmares about burning. But he'd been shot recently by a shotgun and no one had tools to dig the lead out of him. When he wasn’t having nightmares or running a fever from the buckshot in his back, he said Ethan and Rafe were his brothers."
"I wonder if they’re coming for him?" Talking of prison made Luke wonder where Dare had gotten to, and Jonas and Vince. What if they'd gone home?
To think he’d never see his friend again hit him like a blow. They’d been inseparable since the night Vince had stepped in to protect Luke from the Raiders and Luke had come back to protect Vince from retaliation.
They’d been friends who were closer than brothers. It would hurt as badly as never seeing Callie again.
Was it possible to just walk away from men he’d cared about as deeply as them?
Another cry for help rang out from The Burning Man.
Callie looked away from Luke. “Seth from Colorado, huh? I got the job of waking him from his sleep the last two nights. We...that is he…he didn’t do much talking.”
In the candlelight, Luke thought he saw his little sister blush. Maybe all this working around sick men was too personal for a young, innocent Texas girl, even one as tough as Callie.
“I’ve been helping wherever I’m needed. One of the doctors in here is from near Fort Worth. Pa knew some of his family and said they're good folks. The doc is overwhelmed. He can use every pair of hands he can get.”
“Help me, Ethan!” The screaming tore at a Luke’s heart. “I’m on fire!”
The way Callie looked toward Seth made him wonder if Callie’s heart wasn’t hurt by the sound of Seth’s suffering, too. She said, “There’s plenty in here with nightmares, but none quite so bad as him.”
With his belly full for the first time in memory, Luke felt himself sliding into a natural, healthy sleep. The screaming wouldn’t let him sink all the way under and it kept getting louder.
“I’m burning. Rafe!”
Resting a strong, work-roughened hand on his shoulder, Callie gently gathered Luke close. He couldn’t believe how she felt, hugging him. It was like a slice of heaven.
Luke wanted to cry. He’d never expected to feel anything this soft and pure and lovely again after the brutality he’d survived.
His prayers of thanksgiving went so deep they scraped his soul raw.
Into his ear, Callie whispered, “I’m so glad you’re going to make it, Luke. I have prayed for you like I’ve never prayed in my life. You rest. I’ll go rouse Seth, the poor soul. Once it’s quiet you can get some sleep…and maybe he can, too.”
“Thanks, Callie.” It took all his strength to whisper the words back.
As his baby sister—a grown up woman now—walked away, Luke sank into a blurry half-world between waking and sleeping.
Finally The Burning Man stopped screaming.
For one tiny moment Luke wondered how she woke him. Luke remembered how they’d had to shake Seth, practically beat on him to get him to wake up. There’d been yelling and near violence to knock him out of the nightmares he was locked in.
Luke had felt sorry for the poor madman but, rough as it had gotten, ending those nightmares was a mercy.
Whatever method Callie had used, it was now quiet. It'd been fast, too. If he wasn’t so exhausted he’d’ve waited until she came back and asked her.
Silence reigned and he tried to keep his eyes open but she didn't return and he began to wonder if she was coming back. Maybe she’d stuffed a sock in Seth’s mouth and felt like she needed to stay close to make sure he didn’t suffocate. Well, good for her.Trust Callie to take care of everything.
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