FLASHBACK(s) OVER: LATE FEBRUARY 1864
As Eric approached his family’s estate, he let himself luxuriate in his memories of being inside of Sookie the one night they’d had together. They had made love as many times as their bodies had been able, and—both being virgins at the time—they’d had a whole lot of pent up sexual energy.
After their first—embarrassingly quickly-over—time, they had taken their time, and Eric had learned to pleasure Sookie’s body as she had pleasured his. Not long before dawn, he had finally walked her home, where Tara was waiting to make sure she got to her room unseen.
As for Eric? He had spent the rest of the night and the early dawn staring at the fading stars before making his way to his uncle’s home shortly after dawn. When Jessie saw him, he did not ask him any questions. Likely, Jessie assumed that Eric had been out fucking a poor local girl or a slave. To Jessie Compton, it did not matter. And acknowledging that fact had been what had made Eric’s respect for his uncle diminish even more than it already had. As Jessie gave him a knowing grin, Eric realized that his uncle had not been faithful to his aunt. He realized that he had likely exploited his slaves in more ways than for their labor. And that thought had sickened the young man.
Still, it was with a heavy heart that Eric had said goodbye to his Aunt and his cousin later that day. He’d also had a chance to see Sookie one last time, but it was with their family members present, and the most he had been able to do was to give her a quick kiss on the knuckles.
Neither one of them had worn gloves that day. Thankfully, Eric had been wearing his topcoat, or the erection that had been created from the mere brush of her skin would have been visible to all.
Jason and William had both ridden with Eric to Shreveport that day, where Eric had boarded a northbound train.
Eric had had the feeling that—while William rode with him to prolong their time together—Jason had made the trip only in order to make sure he actually left.
At the time, Eric had lamented the change in Sookie’s older brother, whom he had always accounted a close friend. He sometimes wondered how things might have been different had he gone with Jason to West Point instead of with William to Harvard.
One thing was for sure. Eric knew that his initial position in the army would have been altered if he had been a West Point graduate. Given all the deaths of people of rank within the Union army, he wondered if he would have been a brigadier general by now, instead of just a captain.
Of course, he had no way of knowing.
Looking up and just barely seeing the lights of the house, Eric knew that he was still about fifteen minutes away from home, given the languid pace of his well-used mount. Thus, the tired soldier emptied his brain of thoughts and allowed himself a little rest. He had always been able to sleep while riding. That—at least—had not changed.
Exactly thirteen minutes later, Eric’s horse stopped where the road did—right in front of the Northmans’ barn.
Bubba, who had been the family’s chief stableman for all of Eric’s life—and for much of Godric’s, too—woke up the young man with a chuckle.
“Look what the cat dragged home,” the amiable man said.
Eric jerked awake. “Bubba!” he greeted as he dismounted.
Bubba took one look at the haggard young man and drew him into a heartfelt hug—before calling his stable hand to take care of Eric’s equally haggard horse. Bubba determined right then and there that Eric would be leaving on a much better stead than the one he arrived on!
Then Bubba rushed Eric directly to Sam, the Northmans’ butler, who hurried the young man to his chambers after barking orders that a tub and hot water to be brought upstairs to Eric’s room. Sam made haste in getting Eric the tools needed for a shave, before he helped the young man undress.
“That bad?” Eric asked.
“Your mother,” Sam said simply. “She could not endure seeing you like this. Nor could your sisters.”
Eric nodded and quickly went to work on shaving himself, avoiding looking in the mirror as much as possible. He knew that his ribs were likely showing. And—though he had managed to avoid losing any limbs, fingers, or other body parts, he had been eaten up by the insects and the rodents that hounded the soldiers unrelentingly.
Sam rushed to get Eric’s bath prepared and then rushed his rancid uniform out of the room—hopefully to clean it.
Five minutes after he had settled into the best bath of his life, Eric heard the door creak open. Godric entered Eric’s room with a full decanter of whiskey and two glasses. Eric had telegraphed from New York, so the family had known to expect him; still, his father seemed taken aback by his son’s actual appearance.
Eric smiled at his father. “I look better with clothing on.”
Godric sighed and nodded as he took in his son’s body, which was riddled with bruises. He noticed several scars as well, and he gasped as he realized that each scar signified a moment when his son had been close to death.
The father squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, but then opened them so that he could pour two full glasses of the whiskey. He handed one to Eric.
“Do you think Sookie will still want me?” Eric asked reluctantly, having witnessed his father’s reaction to his beat-up body.
“Once you are fattened up—which I am sure your mother will see to,” Godric said with assurance, “you will look like yourself again. And most of the marks on you will heal with time. But even if they did not, we both know that Sookie would want you.”
Eric took a long drink. “I am not sure that the marks within me will ever heal.”
“Those might lessen in time,” Godric sighed before he, too, took a long drink. “Sookie is a good woman—a strong woman. She will not need to be sheltered from your pain.”
Eric smiled for a moment. But then his face fell. “Have you heard anything of the Stackhouses—or the Comptons?”
“No—not for well more than a year,” Godric sighed, before taking another long drink of his whiskey.
In truth, both father and son were worried about their friends and family in Louisiana—as Northern troops were getting closer and closer to them.
Godric’s last letter from Caroline had been written in July 1862. It had reported the bad news that Captain Jason Stackhouse had died at Shiloh. Michelle Stackhouse had died—probably of an overdose of laudanum—soon after getting that news.
“Surely, the war will be over soon,” Godric said hopefully.
“Yes—within the year, I think,” Eric returned, surprising Godric with his confidence.
“You really believe that?” father asked son.
“Yes. Even the most idiotic of generals cannot stop the inevitable, but it could have ended long ago,” Eric added bitterly.
Godric gave Eric a challenging look.
Eric returned the look without blinking. “McClellan was inept and Halleck is too goddamned methodical!” He sighed. “If one fucking thing is out of sorts, he holds back!” The younger man angrily raked his hand through his newly clean hair. “He is a fucking joke!”
Godric raised an eyebrow.
“Don’t tell me that you don’t tell Lincoln the same thing!” Eric challenged as he held out his glass for a refill. “Do not get me wrong. I like a lot of the things that Lincoln has done, but he has been piss-poor at choosing his Commanding Generals!”
Godric gasped at the anger in his son’s words, but obliged him by pouring him another drink; he poured himself another as well.
The two were silent for a moment as Eric’s anger simmered down.
“What if I told you there was new leadership on the horizon?” the father asked the son.
“Tell me that it is Grant! Or Sherman!” Eric said hopefully.
“Why them?” Godric asked.
Eric sighed. “Honestly, Grant would be best. He is sloppy-looking and drunk half of the time, but he has the instincts for battle. He listens to those under him—those in the field—and . . . . ,” he paused.
“And I have lost fewer men since my division was merged with his. Otherwise, I would have never accepted this month-long leave of absence when it was offered to me. I would not have trusted anyone else to oversee my men for so long!” he added vehemently. “Grant agreed to do it personally, so I am here.”
“He is a great general, but his tactics are brutal at times, and we,” Eric paused, “have loved ones that I would not want his kind of tactics touching.”
Godric could not help but to smile proudly at his son. For all the disagreements they’d had in the past, Godric had been proud of every single report he had gotten concerning his son, and Eric had just encapsulated in a few sentences the report he had been preparing for Lincoln for weeks.
“Can I quote you on that?” Godric asked.
Eric lifted an eyebrow. “Please do.”
Godric poured his son another drink and watched as he relaxed into the tub like it was a pool of the softest silks.
Yes—Godric was proud as he remembered the various reports that had come across his desk, celebrating his son for his valor.
Unlike most of the other officers during the Civil War’s first main conflict, Eric—though only a lieutenant at the time—had held his portion of the line at the first battle of Manassas, or, Bull Run, as the South called it. Later, at Ball’s Bluff, Eric had maneuvered his men so that none of them were killed or captured, though many Union forces had been marched off by the enemy that day. In the battle of Dranesville, Eric had led his cavalry division despite the fall of his captain at the time. And Eric had been a noted hero of that battle. In Kernstown, Eric had, again, distinguished himself and his division during a Union victory.
In Williamsburg, it had been rumored that Eric presented a, perhaps, winning strategy to General McClellan, who had turned down the plan for a more conservative approach. Many people privately felt that the inconclusive outcome of the battle had been due to McClellan’s not listening to young Lieutenant Northman. Again, at Oak Grove, Eric had suggested a strategy to McClellan, which the older general had not listened to.
After that, Eric’s division had been sent to a different front by McClellan, who was tired of being outclassed by the younger man. Soon after, McClellan withdrew in Glendale, but finally gained the advantage at Malvern Hill, though he did not strike a death blow to the enemy. Many thought that—if he had—the war could have ended within months. But, again, McClellan had hesitated.
Meanwhile, Eric had blossomed even more once he had been freed from the yoke of McClellan. In Chantilly, Eric’s cavalry division was cut off from the main force, and the generals in charge of the Union forces were both slain as the Confederates—under the leadership of “Stonewall” Jackson—tried to cut off the Union’s retreat. By all accounts, it had been Eric’s ability to link back up to the main Union force that had halted Jackson’s attempt to put his army between the Union forces and Washington, D.C. If Jackson had succeeded, he could have then directly attacked the Union capital.
A few months later, Eric had distinguished himself again—this time at Fredericksburg—though the Union had lost that battle. And, because of his successes, Eric had earned a field promotion—when his captain had put a bullet into his own brain.
Godric closed his eyes and took another long drink.
Indeed, in battle after battle, Eric had shown tenacity, bravery, and—perhaps, most importantly—guile. He had managed to survive situations that would have taken down lesser warriors. And Eric always managed to pull most of his division through the battles with him.
“I saw William,” Eric said in a small voice when the silence had stretched out between father and son for almost ten minutes.
“Where?” Godric asked, his eyes popping open.
“Almost a year ago. In Chancellorsville,” Eric reported.
“Where “Stonewall” Jackson was mortally wounded,” Godric commented. It had been a battle won by the Confederate army, but that win had come at the price of one of the Rebel Army’s best generals.
Eric nodded and closed his eyes as if he were horrified by what he was about to relay. “It was a horrific battle, and I knew that if we did not withdraw soon, we would all be lost. I was trying to get my men into a better position when—suddenly, out of the fog—William appeared. It took me a moment to register that it was him. He was covered with mud and blood, and more slender than I had ever seen him. And his eyes—they were so filled with hatred and fear!”
Eric shook his head and ignored the tear that rolled down his cheek. “I often wonder if I looked the same to him.”
There was a long pause, and Godric held his breath.
“It was over within moments. William had a shot at me. And me at him,” Eric finally continued.
“But neither of you shot,” Godric said perceptively—hopefully.
Eric opened his eyes, his blue orbs practically glowing. “No,” he contradicted. “I did shoot. I shot. And he fell.”