STILL LATE FEBRUARY, 1864
NORTHERN VIRGINIA, UNION FIELD HOSPITAL
When her brother had died at Shiloh almost two years before, Sookie had been crushed. However, when her mother had died not long after, Sookie had felt strangely liberated. Her father—even more supportive of her choices than ever—had helped Sookie travel via some old contacts he had in the Underground Railroad, and, in March of 1863, she had finally made her way to Washington, D.C., where she had interviewed to become a nurse with Dorothea Dix herself. Sookie did not fit the mold of Dix’s nurses, for Dix liked her nurses to be between 35 and 50 and what she determined to be “plain.”
However, given the shortage of nurses at the time, Dix had not turned away the Southern woman looking to serve—not after Sookie had told Dix her story. Dix had overseen Sookie’s training herself and had placed her in one of the hospitals in Northern Virginia, cautioning her to hide her beauty under rough fabrics and blood and her accent under a lisp. Sookie had done just that. And—though she did not know the soldiers she treated—both Northern and Southern young men received her best care, for Sookie knew that one of those men might be William.
Or her Eric.
From both the training facility in Washington, D.C. and the field hospital to which she had been assigned, Sookie had tried to get letters to Eric and to Godric, but she feared that they had not gotten through. It seemed that not much correspondence did, and—even when it did—it moved at a snail’s pace.
Of course, letters South were impossible, but Sookie prayed for her father and Gran every day.
As always, Sookie tried to keep out the horror of the war as she completed her rounds.
It seemed as if hundreds of soldiers teemed in and out of the make-shift hospital. Sookie saw more blood than many on the battlefields ever did, but she was ever stalwart, channeling Gran’s strength. However, her main motivation had always been knowing that if Eric were ever hurt, she would want someone strong to take care of him.
However, only strangers knew Sookie’s care until—one day—someone she recognized was transferred to her section of the tent.
“Sookeh,” he had said in disbelief as he had taken her in. She had smiled at him happily—though somewhat indulgently. She had gotten used to her name being pronounced by the other nurses in a way that rhymed with “Cookie.” That was how Eric had always pronounced it too, and, frankly, she preferred it that way. Sookie found that William’s way of saying it now seemed almost foreign to her, but—still—she was very happy to hear the accent and even happier to see her childhood friend. Alive, though injured.
“We will speak later,” she whispered, before checking his bandage and returning to her duties.
MID-MARCH, 1864 (TWO WEEKS LATER)
As he watched more wounded men being hurried into the hospital, William Compton could not stop himself from remembering the last time he had been on a battlefield—almost a year before. He had been near Chancellorsville, Virginia.
He remembered the remarkable warrior on his stead—slicing through his enemies as if he were Thor!
That godlike man had been William’s enemy.
And his best friend.
The Confederate Lieutenant sighed.
William was not clueless. He knew that Eric had been and still was his rival for Sookie Stackhouse’s affections.
Truth be told, William had never planned to marry Sookie—though he did care for her. Although he and Sookie were still officially engaged and he’d not had contact with Lorena for years, Sookie was like a sister to him—at least, that is what she had been to him before the war. In fact—had the situation been different—William would have advocated for a match between Sookie and Eric.
William’s father, however, had always had different ideas about his destiny. Jessie Compton wanted the fertile Stackhouse land and often lamented about how it had been mismanaged. In fact, the land was extremely productive, though a bit wild. Like the Compton acreage, the Stackhouse property had a water source running through it. However, Corbett had long since sacrificed the maximizing of production for his moral code, something that William secretly respected about the man.
In truth, William had been ambivalent about the issue of slavery as he had been growing up. His conception of the issue had been—understandably—skewed by the people he knew, very few of whom mistreated their slaves. His father, though he certainly found black people beneath whites, did not treat his people badly. William had never seen a whip brought out on Compton land. His mother simply would not have allowed it! And William knew that Corbett Stackhouse kept only free men in his employ. In fact, William knew of only one local family that was cruel to its slaves: the Fortenberrys. However, both Jessie and Corbett had hopes that Hoyt, the eldest son in the family, would change things.
If he survived the war.
So many if’s.
William closed his eyes, trying to will himself to fall asleep. His wound—though suffered almost a year before—was still painful and kept him mostly off of his feet. Although the initial wound had not been that bad, it had festered after he had been placed into a Union prison; in fact, it had eventually becoming infected to the point that he had almost died from it.
But he had not died.
He had been taken to a hospital where an angel was seeing to his care.
It was difficult for William to picture Lorena nowadays, and he wondered—briefly—if that angel might marry him for real. He let that nice fantasy loll him into a deep sleep.
LATE APRIL, 1864 (FIVE WEEKS LATER)
“William,” Sookie whispered, even as she administered a shot meant to numb any pain he might feel. She looked at the wound in his side. It was clear that the wound itself had not been as bad as the infection that had followed it. According to his records, William had been sent to a prison camp—despite his wound. There, he had been forced into hard labor. Eventually, he had dropped because of a fever; thankfully, he had been transferred to a field hospital thereafter, instead of simply being left to die as many Confederate soldiers were in such places.
It had taken more than a month to stabilize him, but Sookie was now pretty certain that he would make it—unless the infection came back.
She and William had not had many chances to talk since he had arrived; thus, Sookie was glad to have a few moments of relative peace and quiet by his bedside.
“He shot me—you know,” William said with a little smirk. Clearly, the drugs were affecting him, though he seemed more coherent than he had been since he had arrived.
“Uh—who?” Sookie asked, as she checked William’s bandage.
“Eric,” William responded.
“Eric!” Sookie exclaimed in a whisper-yell that would have awoken the soldiers around them had they not been high on laudanum.
William nodded. “It was on the battlefield in Chancellorsville. Suddenly, there he was—like some kind of Norse god or something.” He chuckled somewhat groggily. “I lifted my firearm first, though my body screamed against it. I would have shot him, too. But he was faster than I.”
William looked down at his side. “You know how good of a shot he is; obviously, he did not mean to hurt me that bad. Had the wound been taken care of immediately, it would have been little more than a scratch.”
“You are not angry at him?” Sookie asked pensively.
“Of course not. He saved me in a way.” William looked down again, this time because he was too ashamed to hold Sookie’s gaze. “My gun had been aimed toward his heart.”
William shrugged. “I cannot tell you whether or not I would have actually pulled the trigger. I registered an enemy and a friend at the same time.” He paused. “My best friend.”
“I love him,” Sookie confessed.
He patted her hand. “You do not think I know that? You forget how well I know him, too. He would always ask about you, even when we were quite young. I doubt if you even remember it. But he toddled around you when he and I were but four years old,” William smiled.
“I do not remember that,” Sookie smiled. “I would have been what? One?”
“I do not remember either,” William chuckled. “But yes. You were one, and Eric, Jason, and I were four. My mother told me about Eric’s immediate interest in you once. It was the first time you’d met, and I think my mother recognized it even then.” His smiled dropped. “The problem was that your mother did too.”
“Your father and my mother . . . ,” Sookie started.
“Had a dream that their children were never meant to fulfill,” William returned with a sigh. “I know that, even though a part of me now wishes things were different.”
“William . . . .”
“It is fine,” he interrupted. “Is it not ironic that I have recognized your beauty for the first time in this horrible place? Maybe that is why I have finally seen it,” he admitted.
“I belong to Eric,” she said.
“And if he dies?” William ventured.
“You do not want that any more than I do,” Sookie chastised.
“No,” William sighed. “I do not. But what if . . . .” His voice trailed off.
“There will only ever be one man that I would marry,” she returned.
He sighed but nodded in understanding. “I guess that means our engagement is off.”
“It was never real to begin with,” she reminded.
“What of Lorena?” Sookie asked.
“I do not know whether she is safe or not,” William admitted. War had broken out before they had been able to journey to Europe. And—of course—William had been obliged to join the Confederate army after Louisiana had seceded.
“I am sure she is safe. Boston has not been touched directly by the war.”
William nodded. “I truly hope you are right. And I do pray that she has waited for me—that she still loves me.”
“I hope that as well,” Sookie said, patting his hand. “You deserve to be happy.”
“I was sorry to hear about your brother—and your mother,” William said sincerely.
“Jason’s death was a tragedy, but my mother had been sick for such a long time,” Sookie sighed. “What of your father? Your mother?”
“They are fine. At least, they were the last time I heard anything,” William conveyed. “But it has been so long since I have heard anything—more than a year.”
“I am sorry, William,” Sookie said sincerely, speaking of his injury and many other things.
He chuckled. “Why? Because you love him?” He shrugged. “Me too, though I intend to kick his ass the next time I see him. Of course, had I not fallen from my horse, I would have never been captured. I should really have better studied how he could sit a horse even when he was dead asleep.”
Both William and Sookie chuckled at that, but then Sookie frowned.
“I have tried sending letters to both him and to Godric, but there has been no word,” she said.
He reached out to take her hand. “Eric is fine. I know it.”
She squeezed his hand back, and the two childhood neighbors prayed for Eric together.
MAY 5, 1864: THE BATTLE OF THE WILDERNESS
My dearest Sookie,
The night has come—finally. And the gunfire is now only sporadic.
I am with Grant’s army, and he has a good strategy, but I believe Lee has better position. Grant concurs with this opinion. He told me earlier that he just hopes to get out of this with most of his army intact.
He is already planning a withdrawal, but we must be careful, lest Lee’s army surround us.
At first light, the gun I have loaded and ready will fire at my enemy, but—for now—I write in the dark.
In truth, all is dark without you near.
I pray that you are well. It is the only prayer I can make in the hell that I am in.
If I live, I will find you.
If I die, please know that I die yours.
JUNE 8, 1864: NEAR PETERSBURG
My Dearest Sookie,
I no longer know the day, but I know the month. It is June. I think of the days when my family used to visit William’s family.
I think of the days when I held you.
I shot William on the battlefield; I cannot remember, now, which battle it was in. For all of them are running together for me. I do not know where I am exactly, though I do recognize that the battle I am now facing cannot be won. We do not have the advantage, but we will have to fight, nonetheless. And, when we can, we will withdraw. I can tell now; I can always tell when hope is lost before the first shot is fired.
But I also know that the shot will be fired.
Maybe it will be aimed at me—just as I once aimed a round at dear William.
Please believe me when I say that I acted because he was about to shoot me. Every day I think of him. Every day, I hope that he lived and is well. I aimed for his side, but I cannot tell you if my bullet grazed him or if he was mortally wounded, for he fell from his horse.
I no longer have a horse. She was killed during the last battle. And there is not much of a cavalry left to speak of. Lee has been defeating us soundly as of late, but I feel that Grant will soon turn the tide. It is good to still have hope, despite the dark.
It is the memory of you that gives me such a thing in these times.
Because so many are dead, I have been granted the field commission of Major. Given all of the men that have been lost under my command, I doubt my fitness, but I will strive to do my best.
I was grazed by a bayonet last week—or maybe it was the week before that. General Grant himself poured bourbon on the wound and it hurt like hell, but I no longer have a fever, so I take that as a good sign.
I fear that I am rambling as a write, but I am too tired to think straight.
I am sorry that I have nothing better to tell you, my love. But I see so little of beauty these days that even your face is sometimes not clear to me.
Still, I hope to see you again. It will be daytime soon, so I must end this letter. I hope it can be read, for I did not dare make my lantern too bright as I wrote.
I will love you always,