Across the gentle hills of the Illinois plains, Jeffrey saw him. Albert waded through the waves of grain that twisted around his waist as he walked through the fields. The boy lifted his head and breathed in the fresh country air, his cheeks tinged pink from the afternoon sun in a way that made his dark red hair stand out even more. The gentlest of smiles crept onto Albert’s lips, and Jeffrey let out a sigh he didn’t even know he was holding in.
The plants crunched beneath Jeff’s boots as he weaved a path towards Albert. His body floated on the thick, summer breeze. All at once, Jeffrey wanted to run to Albert, to shout his name and hold him and breathe him in, but he wanted to relish this moment, too. This simple, quiet, painfully beautiful moment where he didn’t feel like he had to say anything because everything was laid out before him. Jeffrey was home in every way he could imagine, from the vast fields of his family farm to the boy walking towards him.
There was a small patch of grass at the top of the hill that the grain didn’t quite reach, and the two boys laid themselves out beneath the neverending blue sky, boots off, trousers rolled up, sleeves pushed as high as they’d go to soak in as much of the August sun as possible. Jeff’s long legs stretched out and his toes brushed against the sparse stalks of grain nearby. Albert laid the other way and buried his feet in the tangles of dry grass around his ankles.
At some point, Jeffrey considered how close they were. Close, but never quite touching. He so easily could have reached out and wound his fingers in Albert’s as they played with the grass just an arm’s length away. He could have turned and rested his forehead against Albert’s, could have tilted his chin up and ghosted his lips across the boy’s furrowed brow. He could have.
He could have done so many things, but maybe it was better this way. Jeff knew what could happen to a boy like him if the wrong people saw him doing the wrong things. Hell, even if people just suspected it, they’d be in deep water. They’d had their close calls, probably too many to count, but that was back during the war. There was a lot that could be forgiven then.
As Jeffrey stared up at the wispy clouds floating lazily above them, he felt himself drifting back to a time when it seemed as though the clouds had settled on earth. But those were clouds of smoke, thick and choking, as gunshots rang out for days without end.
Jeffrey kept his eyes on Albert’s face as the boy’s head rested in his lap. It’s not that he didn’t believe that Albert would be okay. He just needed to be sure.
He had seen him go down during the battle. Albert didn’t even know what hit him before he was on the ground. Jeff watched Albert’s head snap away in pain, the sickening crack of the bone sounding off above the gunshots and the yells from other soldiers as if it were the only noise around for miles. Jeffrey saw Albert go down. He fell limply, like a ragdoll, in a heap on the ground.
Jeffrey didn’t think. He just did. That’s how he’d always been, but it had never come in as handy as it did just then. Bullets whizzed past through the clouds of smoke and all Jeff could do was pray that the greybacks were bad shots that day. Jeffrey hadn’t even considered his gun. He just let his legs carry him as fast as they could towards his brother.
Jeff shook away the images of the fight and leaned down close to his friend, feeling slight puffs of breath on his face. Jeff sat with Albert’s head cradled gently on his lap just a little ways off from the fighting still going on but far enough to know they wouldn’t get hit. He tried to keep his hands occupied to stop his anxious jittering. He checked the bandage on Albert’s head to make sure it was tight and he wasn’t bleeding through. Then he straightened the boy’s uniform, trying to brush all the ground-in dirt off his elbows and make the too-big sack coat sit right on Albert’s narrow frame.
“Is he gonna be okay?” Jeff had blurted out when he and Walter had carried Albert to safety after his hit.
“Yeah, he’ll be alright. Head’s banged up pretty good but nothin’ too bad.” Walter had taken Albert’s head in his hands and begun to wrap a long, cloth bandage around his head to cover the gash on his skull. It was all from the butt of that greyback’s gun they let get too close. The bastard hit Albert so hard, Jeff thought… well, he didn’t like to think of it.
When Walter finished, he stood, ready to charge back into the fight to help the others. “You gon’ be alright with him?”
“Yeah,” Jeffrey sighed quietly, not noticing the gentle smile creeping up on his face. If he covered the bandage on the boy’s head with his broad hand, he could almost pretend Albert was sleeping. “Yeah, we’ll be fine.”
He brushed the hair off Albert’s forehead, feeling the soft strands thread through his fingers. And when all the hair was out of Albert’s face, Jeffrey continued to smooth it down. He couldn’t help but run his fingertips against the side of Albert’s face, almost not touching him.
“Ya can’t do that to me, ya hear?” Jeffrey softly began to speak to Albert. He knew the boy couldn’t hear him, in fact he hoped he wouldn’t. But he did it anyway. “Can’t go gettin’ yourself hurt all the time. Ya scare the livin’ daylights outta me, Albert, goin’ down like that. I know sometimes you’re reckless tryna’ prove yourself, show you’re fit to be a soldier n’ not just some bugle boy. All of us is tryna’ prove somethin’, Albert, and you saved us all a bunch already ‘cause of it, but, damn, if somethin’ happened to you…” Jeffrey felt the breath in his lungs catch, and for the first time in his life he couldn’t quite finish his sentence. His face screwed up while he tried to keep his breaths steady but it didn’t work. Only a small sob escaped him at first, but soon he felt more rumbling up through his body like an earthquake. Jeff leaned down and pressed his forehead to his friend’s and he tenderly caressed the side of his face. He didn’t want to think about Albert going down for good.
Even though the grass on the hill distorted most of Albert’s face, Jeff could still see the scar out of the corner of his eye. Just a little bit of it poked out from Albert’s hair, a dark splotch against his temple. It had faded in the years since he lay bleeding on that battlefield in the middle of god knows where. Hardly anyone noticed it anymore, but Jeffrey had memorized every jagged edge of broken skin.
A nagging ache began to burn in his chest. It was a familiar pain, one he’d felt too many times in the last few years. It came at the strangest times. He and Albert would sit shoulder to shoulder drinking soot-black coffee and a dull weight would settle in Jeff’s body when he saw Albert picking grounds out of his teeth. He’d catch Albert napping a ways off from the other boys and at the sight of the dark circles under Albert’s eyes from all his restless nights, Jeffrey would feel a swelling tension in his chest. There were days when they’d seen too many farm boys just like themselves littering the fields of their own home towns, bloodied and broken. Albert was never terribly upset, and if he was, he didn’t show it. But Jeffrey was not so stoic, so Albert would let him curl up beside him, and Jeffrey felt like he could never hold on hard enough to make the pain go away.
Of course, sometimes the pain was even more than that. The aching would intensify and crush the breath out of his lungs. It was only a few times, but it was more than enough for Jeffrey. When he ran through the battlefield to protect Albert, Jeffrey felt every one of his limbs on fire. But there had been worse than that.
Jeff looked over at Albert through the grass and suddenly remembered the day when he realized he was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
Albert was missing. Nobody knew where he was, if he was captured or just got lost after the fight. It had been so long since Albert got hurt, but Jeffrey relived that same feeling of the ground being pulled out from underneath him once he realized Albert was gone. There was nowhere to run to this time. Albert wasn’t laying out on the battlefield in front of him. He was out there, somewhere, anywhere.
Jeff spent what felt like years searching for the boy through the faces at camp and the faces in town. But none of them was the stubborn, sweet-faced boy. He spent too many days sneaking off into town to ask if anyone had seen him. Sometimes he thought maybe he shouldn’t have been running around like he was, south of Dixie, dressed up in his Union coat with his hand held right by his shoulder asking every stranger who walked past if they’d seen a boy about that high, real scrappy, ready to fight. But to hell with it all, Albert was his very best friend, the only boy who’d ever said Jeff wasn’t dumb and didn’t talk too much. Albert was the bravest little fella Jeffrey had ever met, and he needed to come home, so Jeffrey was going to muster up all the courage he had to get him back.
When he wasn’t searching the town, Jeffrey trekked through the now-abandoned battlefield hoping to find Albert laying next to some tree nursing a broken ankle or twisted knee. He spent so much time thinking he’d find him behind the next tree or hiding in the next bush, he didn’t think his heart could handle anymore looking around the next bend only to find nothing. Most nights, Jeff wanted to run through that godforsaken Mississippi forest screaming Albert’s name until he’d come home. He half-heartedly wished he could yell out to the other boys and hope they’d come back, too. Walter, Collins, Billy… he knew they weren’t coming back anymore. But Albert… there was still hope for Albert. There had to be.
And then one night he did come home. Jeff was out still looking for him, calling his name and losing hope that he’d ever see those world-worn blue eyes or that tousled Irish hair ever again. That is, until they appeared under the brim of a captain’s hat and too-big greyback sack coat just a few feet off from where Jeffrey stood. He almost wasn’t expecting to ever actually find Albert, so he raised his gun and nearly shot the boy. But then he recognized him. At the sight of his boy, weary and hungry and a bit roughed-up, all the pain went away. All the burning and the aching and the tension came bursting out in a sigh and a laugh and a yelp as Jeffrey swept Albert into a ferocious hug. He could assure himself, finally, that Albert was safe.
Jeffrey let out a low chuckle as he cracked a crooked, toothy grin. The freckles dusting his face scrunched up around his bright green eyes as he remembered that day. Albert looked at him, confused at the sudden outburst, but he joined in eventually. Jeff had never been so happy as he had been on that day when Albert came stumbling through the forest towards him. That blossoming, warm feeling he had felt back then washed over Jeffrey as he thought about how Albert had fallen into him so easily and let Jeff hold him until his lungs nearly burst. Jeffrey wished they could have waited out the rest of the war like that, just holding each other in that forest outside Vicksburg. He wished he hadn’t noticed what he did, how Albert’s chest swelled against his. His mind started racing after that, giving him all sorts of hope that would never pan out the way he intended.
But for a few seconds, Jeff held Albert with all the strength in his body and knew he was safe. Jeffrey wished that he could roll over on the grass and hold Albert like that again.
When Marcus came with the news that the South surrendered at Appomattox, that blossoming feeling of safety faded. It had stayed for a while after Jeffrey asked Albert to come home with him. Albert never talked much about it, but Jeffrey knew there was no home for him to go to. No parents, no siblings… no wife. Jeff asked Albert to marry him while that hopeful little voice in his head drowned out the rest of the world. They could work the farm together and get a little house comfortable enough for the two of them right outside Belvidere. They didn’t need much after three years sleeping in dog tents, just a place to put their shoes and coats and lay their heads at night, maybe even a little porch to spend the evenings on. Jeffrey wouldn’t admit it, but he could picture their life, just the two of them, growing into gray hairs and cloudy eyes together. It could’ve been perfect.
He’d thought he’d come. Jeffrey stood on that train platform for hours clutching his rucksack to his chest. He watched train after train depart for Ottawa, or Rockford, or Geneseo while Jeffrey searched the crowd for a glimpse of Albert. He was easy to miss in a crowd if you weren’t careful. At least, that’s what Jeffrey kept telling himself. Albert would never have left without him. He couldn’t.
But after spending the whole afternoon weaving through the crowd of exhausted soldiers ready to return home, Jeffrey didn’t find him. Jeffrey felt just as he had back in Vicksburg, asking anybody who’d listen to him if they’d seen Albert, just a little guy, bright blue eyes, chin held high. Nobody knew him. Jeffrey watched every train come in and go out, filled to the brink with dozens of farm boys, but he never saw his farm boy.
He found a note from Albert tacked on a wall at the station. It was addressed to him. But Jeff didn’t read it. He couldn’t.
They got separated, they went on different trains in different directions. It was a mistake. That’s what Jeffrey had to tell himself. It was all just a big mistake. It was easy to get shuffled around and end up on the wrong train, what with all those boys trying to get to so many places at once. Albert just got lost again. It had to be just that. Albert wouldn’t have left him. He wouldn’t have tried to get on a different train. No, not his friend, not his Albert.
That aching came back. It crept slowly over Jeffrey’s body, but it bore down on him worse even than the time Albert went missing. His legs could barely hold him and all that nervous shaking he’d always had came tumbling out of his body harder than ever before. Jeffrey felt his very heart being ripped apart at the seams. He needed to be pulled back down to earth, to be told that everything would be all right. But the boy that always gripped his shoulders tight and pulled him to his feet wasn’t there. Albert was gone, and he would never come home.
Jeffrey closed his eyes against the sun, forgetting the panic from the train station. That all had passed nearly a year ago. Life had gone back to the same old routine, albeit with a nightmare or two or three to disturb him during his sleep and the occasional rustling of leaves that would make him reach for a rifle that wasn’t there while he was awake. His body left the war, but he supposed his mind hadn’t. It seemed that some part of his mind would forever live in the Union ranks as some scared twenty year old hick looking for glory.
The memories didn’t bother him so much when he was out in those quiet fields, though. He wished he could stay laying out on that hill like that forever, letting the wind rustle the grass around him and feeling the warmth of Albert stretched out beside him.
Albert. The boy he’d missed his chances with one time too many. Jeffrey couldn’t let another chance slip away. Damn it all. Damn the rules, damn what the folks in town would say, and damn the court that would cut off his hand for holding onto his love. He plucked up all his courage just as he had in Vicksburg, back when he thought he’d never find Albert again, and reached for his fingers. But he couldn’t find them. He only felt the humid air and brittle grass. He turned his head to nestle his face in the boy’s auburn hair, but again it wasn’t there.
Jeffrey opened his eyes and he was alone again, just like at that train station, with that sinking, aching pit taking over his body. Albert had never been there. Jeffrey’s mind was still stuck in the war, hoping to see his boy again and hoping the aftermath wasn’t true. But it was. Albert had never come home with Jeffrey, he’d never walked out to him in the middle of the grain field, he’d never tangled his feet in the dry grass on the hill beside Jeff. Albert’s coat would never hang beside his in their shared farm house, he’d never sit beside him on their porch in the evenings and watch the sun set on Belvidere, he’d never grow into gray hairs and cloudy eyes with him.
Jeffrey didn’t go running into the forest calling Albert’s name or rush through the busiest parts of Belvidere to ask if anyone had seen the boy the way he had back in the South. He knew it wouldn’t do him any good in the end. Instead, he laid on the grass for a few more moments and prayed that maybe, someday, he’d get to catch a glimpse of Albert one last time. Maybe by then he would find the courage to take his hand and wind their fingers together before it was too late.