The wagon driver had the water barrel sitting on the back of the wagon, and the corporal waited his turn while the other two men of their detail drank. Watkins tossed the spade into the wagon beside the still-seated Private Wright and got in line. Wright hid beneath his hat, picking at his fingers. The story Watkins had heard told was that Wright was a connected man who could have claimed a lieutenant’s commission. Instead, he had enlisted to rise up the ranks on his own merit. The fair-haired, handsome, educated Wright was a fool in Watkins’ book, but it made a good story around the campfire.
Wright had started walking yesterday after breakfast, while the rest of the outfit pulled up stakes and prepared to march. No regular private could have cowed the NCOs like that, but Wright made it out of camp. A couple of picket sentries arrested him and, recognizing him as the general’s nephew, returned him to his uncle’s headquarters before the breakfast grease had set in the skillets.
The strengthening breeze carried fine droplets of rain now that cooled the soldiers’ skin. It was starting to look like they might get some real rain. Watkins scanned the sky and listened for thunder. He was suddenly conscious of being the tallest man holding a long steel tube in the open field.
Watkins stepped up to take his turn at the barrel. The guard’s musket sat propped against the wagon bench, and the graybeard hopped down to take up the ladle himself. He drew water, and Watkins prepared to break the man’s teeth with it if he brought it to his lips, but the guard offered it to Watkins.
“Bygones,” the guard said.
Watkins nodded, drained the cup, and passed it to the corporal. He said a quiet prayer of thanks for the drink of water, the breeze, and the overcast sky.
“Y’all hand over your canteens so I can I can fill them for you,” said the old man, fiddling with the barrel’s brass spigot. His woolen uniform was dark with sweat.
At this, Watkins’ felt badly for thinking of the man as a yellow dog. He was too old to be up front throwing lead anyway. It must be the heat making us so bad tempered. Watkins opened his knapsack to bring out an oilcloth parcel, which he laid on the wagon bed and opened. One of the kindest men he had ever met had given him a five-pound plug of fine Virginia tobacco during Company H’s recent sojourn in that state. He had about half that remaining, and a rich, earthy aroma rose from it. He cut off seven portions and passed out six. It was several hours before supper back at camp, and there was nothing he knew of better for staving off fierce hunger than a good Virginia chew. The wagon-men thanked him politely. Wright nodded and accepted the plug with fingertips that looked like the paws of some wild animal, nails bitten to the quick.