|“Why in hell do we got picket again?” Danny Brannigan sat perched on the boulder, huddled in his greatcoat.
“Cos, you can’t keep your damn mouth shut,” said Gus McKewon, from his position by the small fire. “That’s why.”
Danny shifted his position and laid his carbine across his lap. “You can’t talk, Gus. You been broke down to private so much, no one knows just what rank you are no more.”
Gus snorted and poked at the fire with the toe of his muddy boot. “Well, one day when you are the general, you can tell Top Sergeant Barney to buzz off.”
Corporal Barry Payne appeared around the boulder, his arms loaded with sticks. “You two quit your squabbling,” He dumped the bundle next to the fire, forcing Gus to quickly shift his feet. “You’re like a pair of old tomcats sometimes.” He sat down next to the fire and held his gloved hands to the flames.
“There ain’t no rebs within a hundred miles anyhow,” said Danny from his perch.
“They aint dumb. They are wrapped up warm like squirrels,” said Gus.
“Yeah, well. Keep your eyes peeled, Danny boy. You never know” said Barry, ever the optimist.
Gus thrust a broken branch into the fire and stirred the ashes, before letting the sparks settle around the blackened kettle suspended over the flames. Barry brought a tin cup out from beneath his greatcoat. “Waited long enough, Gus. Serve her up.” He held the cup out while Gus poured the steaming black warmth. He poured another cup and stood, passing the steaming mug to Danny who accepted it without leaving his spot on the boulder. “Oh, yeah that’s good,” he said as the steam rose to his face.
Each man was immediately lost in his own world, the rich aroma filling their nostrils as its liquid warmth coursed through their bodies.
The snap of a twig ripped them from their reveries.
Twenty yards away, a horseman sat watching them. “Hello, the camp,” he said, wisps of grey steam escaping in the cold air.
Gus was first to shake off his shock. “Hello the horseman,” he said, voice soft with caution. He made no motion to welcome the interloper.
Barry turned enough to regard the newcomer, whose appearance betrayed little of his identity. A blue greatcoat covered the rider’s body to his knees and the hat on his head, tied down with a ragged scarf showed no badges. Only his Starr carbine, held loose against his right hip betrayed any sign of his allegiance.
“That’s a handsome carbine, friend,” said the wary corporal. “We don’t see too many like it around here.”
The rider lifted the carbine to rest it across his saddle. “We see some now and then down my way.”
“Uh huh,” said Barry, as though having attained some vital breakthrough. “Step down and warm yourself, friend.”
“That’s right hospitable, neighbor.” The rider slipped from the saddle, wincing softly as his boots touched the frozen dirt. Deliberately, conscious of his audience, he stretched one cramped leg, then the other, his eyes scanning the scene before him, never resting on one thing. His gauntled hand never moved far from the Starr carbine suspended at his hip from the leather sling over his shoulder.
“You look like you been living on deck a while, friend,” said Gus as the stranger led his mount forward.
“Ain’t that the lord’s truth,” said the stranger when he was only a few feet from the camp. “Feels like my legs is froze stiff.”
“What’s a feller doin’ out on horseback in this durn cold?” asked Barry, still wary.
“Same as you boys, I ‘spect.” The stranger’s gaze finally fell on the steaming kettle. “That coffee sure smells good.”
“Well, pull up a pew and have a cup, friend.” Gus gestured to the smooth rocks that jutted from the snow around the fireplace. The stranger eased himself down onto the closest rock as Gus refilled his own tin cup and held it out.
The stranger took the cup, but didn’t drink. “Oh, my, my. That smells so good,” he said. “Almost so good, I don’t want to drink it.” He sipped the steaming black liquid and sighed softly.
“Got a name, friend?” asked Gus
The stranger took two more mouthfuls before he answered. “Name’s Jarret Calder. How about you boys?”
Gus introduced himself first, then Barry. Finally he gestured to Danny.
After another mouthful, Jarret acknowledged all three of them, “Well, boys, I am sure am glad I ran across you boys today, my blood was turnin’ to icicles.”
“How did you run across us, Jarret?” asked Danny. “We ain’t exactly waving banners around here.”
“Well,” Jarret paused over his steaming mug. “Truth is I smelled this here coffee cookin’. Feels like I aint smelled nothing like it in years. Knew there must be bluecoats about. After that is was just a lot of sittin’ and watchin’ til I saw your smoke.”
Gus nodded. “I know how you feel. I ain’t had a pipe of that good southern ‘baccy in so long it’s a sin.”
“Lot of things like that, these days, Gus,” said Jarrett, looking at the empty cup. “Don’t suppose you got one more in there for a poor boy, a long ways from home?”
Gus refilled the cup. “Where you from, Jarret? We are Michiganders. Red tie Boys.”
Jarrett thanked him and sipped more of the hot bitter coffee before answering. “You boys are as far from home as me. I’m a Texian. Gave up huntin’ Comanch’ to come up in these damned cold hills to fight boys like you.” He looked through the rising steam at the three of them, waiting for a reaction.
“Yeah, well, reckon we all got cause for wonderin’ sometimes,” said Gus.
Jarrett Calder drained the cup. He sat for a moment, as if deciding what his next move should be then rose from his seat. “Well, I suppose this damn war won’t wait forever.” He handed the cup to Gus, now standing next to his own rock.
“Guess you’re right, Jarrett. It’s been a pleasure to jaw with you.” He began to slowly reach under his heavy blue greatcoat. “But as you say, the war ain’t going away any time soon.”
Jarret sensed the sudden rise in tension in the small camp, as did Gus’s companions. He turned slightly side on, and took half a step back. His own free hand slid toward the opening of his own coat.
Instead of a revolver, Gus withdrew a battered waxed paper bag from his coat. “Take this, Jarrett. There ain’t much left, but you’ll get a few sips out of it.”
Jarrett exhaled, tension seeping from his body in steaming breath. His own hand was still under his greatcoat. He withdrew it, holding a small leather pouch. “It ain’t much, Gus, but you’ll get a few pipes out of it.
“I better get back over the hill,” said Jarret , tucking the waxed bag into a coat pocket. “It’s been a pleasure, you boys, but I hope we don’t see each other any time soon.” He extended a hand.
Taking the offered hand, Gus said “Same here. You take care now.”
Jarrett Calder climbed, stiff legged into the saddle. “See you in hell, Billy Yank.”
“See you in hell, Johnny Reb,” shouted Gus as Jarrett wheeled his horse away from the camp in a flurry of snow and in seconds it was as if he had never been there.
After the snow had cleared, the war continued as though nothing had happened.