Beckworth handed the pass to the colonel .
He had thought that the suggestion of taking it himself would tip the colonel in the direction of serving his own order , but the slip of paper was folded and absently thrust into the colonel's belt .
Despite his yearning , the colonel would not go down to see the men come through the lines .
He would remain in the tent , waiting impatiently , occupied by some trivial task .
-- Beckworth .
-- Sir ? ?
-- Fetch me the copies of everything B and C companies have requisitioned in the last six months .
-- The last six months , sir ? ?
-- You heard me .
There's a lot of waste going on here .
It's got to stop .
I want to take a look .
This is no damned holiday , Beckworth .
Get busy .
-- Yes , sir .
Beckworth left the tent .
Below he could see the bright torches lighting the riverbank .
He glanced back .
The colonel crouched tensely on one of the folding chairs , methodically tearing at his thumbnail .
The bombproof was a low-ceilinged structure of heavy timbers covered with earth .
It stood some fifty paces from the edge of the bank .
From the outside , it seemed no more than a low drumlin , a lump on the dark earth .
A crude ladder ran down to a wooden floor .
Two slits enabled observers to watch across the river .
The place smelled strongly of rank , fertile earth , rotting wood and urine .
The plank floor was slimed beneath Watson's boots .
At least the Union officer had been decent enough to provide a candle .
There was no place to sit , but Watson walked slowly from the ladder to the window slits and back , stooping slightly to avoid striking his head on the heavy beams .
In the corner was the soldier with the white flag .
He stood stiffly erect , clutching the staff , his body half hidden by the limp cloth .
Watson hardly looked at him .
The man had come floundering aboard the flat-bottomed barge at the last instant , brandishing the flag of truce .
Someone had hauled him over the side , and he had remained silent while they crossed .
An officer with a squad of men had been waiting on the bank .
The men in the boats had started yelling happily at first sight of the officer , two of them calling him Billy .
When the boat had touched , the weaker ones and the two wounded men had been lifted out and carried away by the soldiers .
Watson had presented his pouch and been led to the bombproof .
The officer had told him that both lists must be checked .
Watson had given his name and asked for a safe-conduct pass .
The officer , surprised , said he would have to see .
Watson had nodded absently and muttered that he would check the lists himself later .
He had peered through the darkness at the rampart .
The men he would take back across the river stood there , but he turned away from them .
He wanted no part of the emotions of the exchange , no memory of the joy and gratitude that other men felt .
He had hoped to be alone in the bombproof , but the soldier had followed him .
Though Watson carefully ignored the man , he could not deny his presence .
Perhaps it would be better to speak to him , since silence could not exorcise his form .
Watson glanced briefly at him , seeing only a body rigidly erect behind the languid banner .
-- We won't be too long .
If my pass is approved , I may be a half hour .
The soldier answered in a curious , muffled voice , his lips barely moving .
Watson turned away and did not see the man's knees buckle and his body sag .
-- Yes , sir .
He had acknowledged the man .
It was easier to think now , Watson decided .
The stiff figure in the corner no longer blocked his thoughts .
He paced slowly , stooping , staring at the damp , slippery floor .
He tried to order the words of the three Union officers , seeking to create some coherent portrait of the dead boy .
But he groped blindly .
His lack of success steadily eroded his interest .
He stopped pacing , leaned against the dank , timbered wall and let his mind drift .
A feeling of futility , an enervation of mind greater than any fatigue he had ever known , seeped through him .
What in the name of God was he doing , crouched in a timbered pit on the wrong bank of the river ? ?
Why had he crossed the dark water , to bring back a group of reclaimed soldiers or to skulk in a foul-smelling hole ? ?
He grew annoyed and at the same time surprised at that emotion .
He was conscious of a growing sense of absurdity .
Hillman had written it all out , hadn't he ? ?
Wasn't the report official enough ? ?
What did he hope to accomplish here ? ?
Hillman had ordered him not to leave the far bank .
Prompted by a guilty urge , he had disobeyed the order of a man he respected .
For what ? ?
To tell John something he would find out for himself .
The figure in the corner belched loudly , a deep , liquid eruption .
Watson snorted and then laughed aloud .
Exactly ! !
The soldier's voice was muffled again , stricken with chagrin .
He clutched the staff , and his dark eyes blinked apologetically .
-- 'scuse me , sir .
-- Let's get out of here .
Watson ran up the ladder and stood for a second sucking in the cool air that smelled of mud and river weeds .
To his left , the two skiffs dented their sharp bows into the soft bank .
The flat-bottomed boat swung slowly to the pull of the current .
A soldier held the end of a frayed rope .
Three Union guards appeared , carrying their rifles at ready .
Watson stared at them curiously .
They were stocky men , well fed and clean-shaven , with neat uniforms and sturdy boots .
Behind them shambled a long column of weak , tattered men .
The thin gray figures raised a hoarse , cawing cry like the call of a bird flock .
They moved toward the skiffs with shocking eagerness , elbowing and shoving .
Four men were knocked down , but did not attempt to rise .
They crept down the muddy slope toward the waiting boats .
The Union soldiers grounded arms and settled into healthy , indifferent postures to watch the feeble boarding of the skiffs .
The crawling men tried to rise and fell again .
No one moved to them .
Watson watched two of them flounder into the shallow water and listened to their voices beg shrilly .
In a confused , soaked and stumbling shift of bodies and lifting arms , the two men were dragged into the same skiff .
The third crawling man forced himself erect .
He swayed like a drunkard , his arms milling in slow circles .
He paced forward unsteadily , leaning too far back , his head tilted oddly .
His steps were short and stiff , and , with his head thrown back , his progress was a supercilious strut .
He appeared to be peering haughtily down his nose at the crowded and unclean vessel that would carry him to freedom .
He stalked into the water and fell heavily over the side of the flat-bottomed barge , his weight nearly swamping the craft .
Watson looked for the fourth man .
He had reached the three passive guards ; ;
he crept in an incertain manner , patting the ground before him .
The guards did not look at him .
The figure on the earth halted , seemingly bewildered .
He sank back on his thin haunches like a weary hound .
Then he began to crawl again .
Watson watched the creeping figure .
He felt a spectator interest .
Would the man make it or not ? ?
If only there was a clock for him to crawl against .
If he failed to reach the riverbank in five minutes , say , then the skiffs would pull away and leave him groping in the mud .
Say three minutes to make it sporting .
Still the guards did not move , but stood inert , aloof from the slow-scrambling man .
The figure halted , and Watson gasped .
The man began to creep in the wrong direction , deceived by a slight rise in the ground ! !
He turned slowly and began to crawl back up the bank toward the rampart .
Watson raced for him , his boots slamming the soft earth .
The guards came to life with astonishing menace .
They spun and flung their rifles up .
Watson gesticulated wildly .
One man dropped to his knee for better aim .
-- Let me help him , for the love of God ! !
The guards lowered their rifles and their rifles and peered at Watson with sullen , puzzled faces .
Watson pounded to the crawling man and stopped , panting heavily .
He reached down and closed his fingers on the man's upper arm .
Beneath his clutch , a flat strip of muscle surged on the bone .
Watson bent awkwardly and lifted the man to his feet .
Watson stared into a cadaverous face .
Two clotted balls the color of mucus rolled between fiery lids .
Light sticks of fingers , the tips gummy with dark earth , patted at Watson's throat .
The man's voice was a sweet , patient whisper .
-- Henry said that he'd take my arm and get me right there .
But you ain't Henry .
-- no .
-- It don't matter .
Is it far ? ?
How far could it be , Watson thought bleakly , how far can a blind man crawl ? ?
Another body length or all the rest of his nighted life ? ?
-- Not far .
-- You talk deep .
Not like us fellas .
It raises the voice , bein in camp .
You Secesh ? ?
-- yes .
Come on , now .
Can you walk ? ?
-- Why , course I can .
I can walk real good .
Watson stumbled down the bank .
The man leaned his frail body against Watson's shoulder .
He was no heavier than a child .
Watson paused for breath .
The man wheezed weakly , his fetid breath beating softly against Watson's neck .
His sweet whisper came after great effort .
-- Oh , Christ .
I wish you was Henry .
He promised to take me .
-- hush .
We're almost there .
Watson supported the man to the edge of the bank and passed the frail figure over the bow of the nearest skiff .
The man swayed on a thwart , turning his ruined eyes from side to side .
Watson turned away , sickened for the first time in many months .
He heard the patient voice calling .
-- Henry ? ?
Where are you , Henry ? ?
-- Make him lie down ! !
Watson snatched a deep breath .
He had not meant to shout .
He stood with his back to the skiff .
The men mewed and scratched , begging to be taken away .
Watson spoke bewilderedly to the dark night flecked with pine-knot torches .
-- Goddamn you ! !
What do you do to them ? ?
Intelligence jabbed at him accusingly .
He was angry , sickened .
He had not felt that during the afternoon .
No , nor later .
All his emotions had been inward , self-conscious .
In war , on a night like this , it was only the outward emotions that mattered , what could be flung out into the darkness to damage others .
That was it .
He was sure of it .
John's type of man allowed this sort of thing to happen .
What a fool he had been to think of his brother ! !
So Charles was dead .
What did it matter ? ?
His name had been crossed off a list .
Already his cool body lay in the ground .
What words had any meaning ? ?
What had he thought of , to go to John , grovel and beg understanding ? ?
To confess with a canvas chair as a prie-dieu , gouging at his heart until a rough and stupid hand bade him rise and go ? ?
Men were slaughtered every day , tumbled into eternity like so many torn parcels flung down a portable chute .
What made him think John had a right to witness his brother's humiliation ? ?
What right had John to any special consideration ? ?
Was John better , more deserving ? ?
To hell with John .
Let him chafe with impatience to see Charles , rip open the note with trembling hands and read the formal report in Hillman's beautiful , schoolmaster's hand .
John would curse .
He believed that brave boys didn't cry .
Watson spat on the ground .
He was grimly satisfied .
He had stupidly thought himself compelled to ease his brother's pain .
Now he knew perfectly that he had but longed to increase his own suffering .