Gray clouds came over the treetops, the sky flashed, and rain fell so heavily the air was solid white all around, like glass in motion. Dust became mud and ran down the wagon ruts in twin streams. Watkins stood in the deluge, pelted from above like an object of general derision but grateful for the day’s heat being drawn from his body. It went on for nearly an hour, and the men watched water sluice off one another until it quit. If he’d had a piece of soap, he would have stripped bare naked and scrubbed himself clean right there before God and man.
A lone horseman approached along the Shelbyville road as the rain slacked. He was a courier, armed with a pistol at his side and a saber on his saddle. The man’s hat sagged with rainwater, against his head like dog ears. He rode a high-stepping Morgan breed whose hooves sent mud flying in all directions.
The courier spotted Gordon’s two yellow chevrons and went to him, producing a document from the leather case slung over his shoulder. Gordon read and acknowledged with a nod. The rider wheeled and sped back up the road, spattering Gordon with fresh mud.
Wright sat in the wagon with the dripping brim of his hat pulled down over his eyes, picking at his fingers. His head rose at the sound of Corporal Gordon’s voice.
“The brigade will be forming up here within the hour, men. Let’s get this site squared away.” Gordon produced a new hemp rope from his knapsack and threaded it through the iron ring in the shooting post while the other men cleaned up the remains of their meals. Watkins went up the rise and checked the grave. It hadn’t caved in, but held rainwater a foot deep. Fat earthworms wriggled half-exposed in the sides, and several floated at the bottom.
A big palomino mare came trotting up the road. An elderly, well-groomed officer with a long gray beard rode easy in the saddle. That would be the chaplain. Watkins had seen this process carried out too many times, and it always began with the arrival of a chaplain. Last chance. He hurried down the hill to the wagon and rested his hands on the side rail like a neighbor at a fence.
“For God’s sake, man, why not get while the getting’s good?”
“This hardly seems the right time to be running from a man of God.” Wright projected calm, but he was as pale as a peeled potato.
“Look here. Dying? That’s easy as pie. Finding something to live for? Now that takes some doing. You have got to give yourself a chance.”
“I am not going to run away again.”
“I’ll distract that old yellow-dog guard. His musket load is bound to be wet anyway.”
Wright gave him a sardonic twist of the lips, climbed out of the wagon without another word. He folded his hands and waited for the chaplain. Watkins backed away a respectful distance and tore off another chew from his knapsack. Gordon stalked up to him wearing the disappointed father look that so annoyed Watkins, since they were the same age.
“Now you know better than to fraternize with a prisoner. Am I right?”
“Remind me why that is, if you please.”
“Because it might-because it has a detrimental effect on order, discipline, and the performance of our duties,” Watkins recited.
“Exactly right. I done looked away this time. Don’t make me regret it.”
The chaplain had tied his horse to the wagon rail and spoke in low tones to Wright, who held his hat in his hands and studied the ground. Though Watkins couldn’t understand his words, aristocratic rhythm of the old man’s speech carried across the short distance.
A metallic glint drew Watkins’ attention a second before the sounds of a thousand marching troops reached his ears. Wright’s Brigade had just appeared at the bend in the road. Elias lifted his head at the rumble of footfalls, clanking metal, shouting sergeants, and the tinsel glitter of flashing bayonets. Elias looked like a man about to charge an enemy fortification all by himself.
Somewhere in that gray mass, slogging up the road alongside Elias’ friends, marched the firing squad that would kill him today. Unless the fool took to his heels.
“Wright!” Watkins shouted, hands cupped around his mouth. Elias looked his way, and he shouted again, jerking his head toward the woods. “Run, brother. Why don’t you run?”
Corporal Gordon’s face dropped, and he said loud enough for only Watkins to hear, “Mind your goddamned tongue, lest you want to be next against the post.”
The chaplain stood stock still, immaculate in his gray uniform. The gold braid on his hat gleamed like the streets of Glory as he bowed his head to pray with the prisoner. The brigade produced a sobering clamor as it closed on the execution site, like some monstrous, predatory machine. There was none of the singing or gallows-humor banter apparent in the formation that went on during routine movements. They marched as though to battle, silent and grim as the worms in the bottom of Elias’ grave.