Lark Jenkins and Company G had survived many ordeals, ranging from Culp's Hill at Gettysburg to more ordinary things like worms in their corn ration or putrid meat. They had even survived reorganization, belonging to one of the few undersized regiments in the trenches around Petersburg that was not forced to consolidate with other units. They had marched barefoot through the snow in the Shenandoah Valley, and suffered the worse outbreak of Yellow Fever in the entire Corps. They had lost their flag at the Wilderness, then recovered it with a dramatic charge at Spotsylvania Court House, in which half their number fell, dead or wounded, Lark among the seriously injured.
Lark had recovered, along with some others, and the cumulative result was that nothing could faze the seventeen remaining members of Company G, from the 207th Virginia Infantry regiment. They had seen it all, done it all, then gone through the entire process again.
When Colonel Preston called the roll on the first day of March - a blustery, bone-chilling day of snow flurries and drizzle - they stood unconcerned, some typically without shoes, trying not to squirm too much before being released back to the shelter of the covered trenches, where fires blazed and whatever food was available was cooking. The Colonel slowly called out names.
"Carter. Seay. Williams..."
Lark, a nineteen-year-old from Lexington who had enlisted right after Gettysburg, watched the Colonel with some concern.
"Something's not right here," he said to two of his messmates, Zach and Patrick. "He never takes this long when the weather is like this."
Zach, a burly youth partially hidden behind a wild beard, shrugged. "Maybe Floyd and his buddies ran off to Richmond again."
Patrick, whom Lark called the "philosopher" of the trio, quickly glanced up the line, then glared back at Zach. "Everyone's here except Sam. Don't try to cover for him, or act stupid. If he asks, we'll tell him."
"Tell him what," Lark said. "That we don't know where Sam is?"
Sam Boutart was the fourth member of Lark's mess group. He had been missing since dinnertime the evening previous. Lark had initially speculated that it had to do with illegal foraging - all of them were constantly hungry. People went absent without leave frequently during the winter months.
The Colonel finished the roll and began pacing up and down the line, his breath puffing out like a horse at work on a winter morning. There was some kind of strange expression crawling over his face, which Lark could classify as neither anger nor frustration. It was a pained expression.
"Gentlemen," Colonel Preston said, stopping in the middle of the line and facing them abruptly. "It's my sad duty to inform you of some unpleasantness that has appeared amongst us."
Lark looked up. Beside him, he felt Zach and Patrick tense. They were probably being transferred, Lark thought, or consolidated into a strange regiment, or moved forward for picket duty. Or maybe it was about Sam.
"Last night," Preston continued, "one of the sentries caught a member of our regiment engaged in criminal activities..."
Lark looked at his companions - criminal?
"Sam?" Patrick whispered. "He wouldn't steal anything."
"This soldier disgraced himself, as well as the Army of Northern Virginia, and the entire cause of the Confederacy." Colonel Preston resumed pacing. "This same soldier is currently being held in the stockade, pending his immediate court-martial. I must regrettably inform you that this soldier is a member of our proud Company G."
"It is Sam," Zach said quickly. "He's the only one missing."
Colonel Preston seemed to hear him, as his head jerked up and his eyes lingered on Lark and his friends for a lengthy moment or two. When he passed them on the line, his report tumbled toward a conclusion.
"Gentlemen, the act this man was engaged in was immoral, evil, and contrary to all the laws of God and Man. His punishment will be determined under strict military law. There is, however, the issue of his companion, who escaped the attention of the sentries last night and was not identified..."
Again, Lark studied his companions nervously. If Sam had done something terrible with another soldier, the suspicion would naturally fall on Sam's messmates, wrongly or rightly. Zach was staring into the frozen mud, seemingly very somber. Patrick looked angry, and was following the Colonel's movements with alacrity. Lark said nothing to the Colonel, who was staring at him as if pleading for a response.
"It pains me, gentlemen, to initiate such a brutal process. But for the honor of our fine reputation and rank in this army, I must ask each of you individually to examine this issue, then report to me who the culprit is, before our standing as gentlemen and warriors is besmirched any further. I will be in my quarters awaiting your prompt reports before the evening is out."
With that, the Colonel fairly ran from the scene. Sergeant Randell, the ranking enlisted man, dismissed the Company with a wave and the men scurried back to their makeshift shelters of wood and mud in and around the trenches.
Lark and his friends had hardly stepped inside their own wooden dugout and thrown wood on the fire, when the boyish, pimpled face of Sergeant Randell popped into the door. His voice was a little bit higher than normal.
"Lark," he said, "if you boys know who it is, you'd better tell the Colonel fast. Sam's in big trouble, and the General already knows about this incident. He told the Colonel to find the accomplice this morning, or life will become more uncomfortable for him, too. The General was quite embarrassed."
"I don't care about the General's comfort," Zach said, sitting down beside the small fire. "Or the Colonel's, either."
"What in the world did Sam do?" Patrick asked.
Randell frowned. "I don't know."
"You know everything else," Lark said. "Why don't you know that?"
"I don't know!" Randell insisted. "No one will tell me anything. You heard what the Colonel said - that's all I know, I swear on it."
"You wouldn't lie to a fellow Louisa boy, would you?" Lark said again.
Randell scowled. "Lark, I'm your friend, but I'm also your superior. I came here against my better judgment. If I were the three of you, I'd be figuring out real fast who Sam's partner in crime was, and pay a hasty visit to the Colonel."
"You'd just turn this person in - one of our own?" Patrick said. "Is that what you call duty and honor, turning a friend in? There's seventeen of us left now, Ran. You'd turn one of the last good men in?"
Randell nodded. "Whoever it is will be caught. If the General gets more involved, it won't go easy on him - it'll only get worse. And as to whether this one's a good man, or not..."
No one in the makeshift shelter volunteered to finish the sentence.
After Randell disappeared, Lark immediately opened up a more confidential discussion.
"Which one of us saw Sam last?" he said, lowering his voice. "I saw him at four o'clock reveille. Who saw him after that?"
"I suppose it was me," Zach replied. "It was around dusk, when I was trading for some wood."
"What was he doing?" Patrick asked.
"I don't remember. He was kind of hungry - we all were. Maybe he went off to get some food."
"Do you suppose he stole something?" Lark asked.
Patrick and Zach shrugged.
"Immoral and evil, were the words the Colonel used," Patrick said. "Those are pretty strong terms to describe a starving man who steals a chicken."
"The sentry caught him," Zach said. "That means he didn't stray too far. He was probably within earshot of here."
There was silence for a while between them, and the crackling of the small fire fought against the dreariness of the weather outside and the questions in the air between them.
Finally, Lark could stand the silence no longer.
"Well, we know we wouldn't snitch, even if we knew who it was. Since we don't know, that makes it all the easier. Besides, we don't even know what they did. It couldn't have been that bad."
"I agree," Patrick said. "We maintain the code of silence."
Zach shrugged. "I'll do what the two of you say."
Randall's pocked face appeared inside the hut later that evening.
"The Colonel is preparing to retire for the night," he said slowly, almost dramatically.
Lark, who was reading a tiny, well-worn copy of the Psalms, took off his wire reading glasses and kicked Zach, who was dozing on the dirt floor near the fire. Patrick, always introspective, stroked his goatee moustache, while puffing away at a corncob pipe.
"The Colonel is turning in," Randell said again.
"We hear you," Patrick said slowly, removing the pipe and blowing smoke towards Randell. "Message received."
Randell waited expectantly, but none of the three made a move. "Come on, fellows. Let's not play games, here. The Colonel knows it was one of the three of you."
Lark and Patrick sat up straighter, as did Zach, who was rubbing sleep out of his eyes.
"One of us?" Lark said.
"Yes. I've been trying to tell you that in so many words."
Patrick shrugged. "I still don't understand what we are accused of. What was Sam doing, Randell? Don't play games, you said that yourself, so tell us what he was doing."
"One of you knows!" Randell said. "Sam was doing it with one of y'all."
"Doing it?" Lark said.
"Yes! You know what I mean - doing that thing. Your Bible, there, talks about it, Lark. Y'all know what it is."
The crackling of the small fire seemed inordinately loud to Lark. No one said anything for a long time. The long years of war, blood, tears, and gunpowder were suddenly nothing in the heaviness of the moment.
"Sam would do that?" Zach said quietly, almost in tears.
"How do you know it was one of us?" Lark said.
"Don't you think we'd know that about each other?" Patrick said, clearly angry.
"Everyone else has made an account of themselves to the Colonel. The three of you are the last ones, and clearly the biggest suspects. I've tried to help you, but it's out of my hands now. I say for the last time, the Colonel is going to bed momentarily."
With that, Randell disappeared into the night.
The company was mustered very early in the morning for reveille, long before the rest of the regiment was stirring. The slightest trace of breaking light was just appearing over the frozen horizon. Lark shivered along with the rest of them. The winter mornings in the trenches around Petersburg were the worst part of the long enemy siege.
"Well, sir," the Colonel barked, mainly to himself, "I have tried to handle this with proper diplomatic aplomb. But it is ordinary Privates I am sent to work with, the very basic raw material of war, and it is Privates that I must deal with."
Randell cleared his throat nervously. Lark thought the Sergeant's nervousness a little inappropriate, since Randell had nothing at risk.
The Colonel stumbled into another speech, this one delivered from the seat of his saddled mount.
"Seventeen men left. My proud Company G, whittled away to this..."
At that moment, something unexpected occurred. Lark and his friends gawked in surprise. The General and his coterie of attendant officers pulled up, horses steaming, right beside the startled Colonel Preston.
"Colonel," the General said sharply. "Do you have the second offender in custody?"
Colonel Preston hesitated. "No, Sir. I have been unable to ascertain the identity of the man who escaped the sentinel."
The General slowly rode up and down the line, looking over the men of Company G as if they were about to go up for auction. He quickly wheeled his horse back to Preston, although his voice projected clearly to all in the immediate area, including Randell, who was cringing more than before, if possible.
"I suspected that such might be the case, Colonel. This is a delicate situation, a most embarrassing blemish in the midst of so much tragedy. Clearly, though, the crime we are dealing with takes two men to perpetrate, does it not?"
The Colonel nodded, but his eyes were averted; clearly he was mortified, and the General was not kind, Lark noted. A streak of meanness crossed his face and he forced Preston to look up.
"Do you not agree, Colonel, that this is a crime that must be committed by two men?"
The General brandished his arm like a sword. "Then where is our second man?"
Colonel Preston didn't answer, although his eyes did clearly drift to where Lark, Patrick, Zach (and normally Sam) were standing, erect and completely silent.
The General followed his gaze and stared directly at the trio.
"There must have been some kind of mistake, Colonel Preston," the General said quickly. "I questioned the sentry on duty two nights ago, and he assured me after much discussion that he remembers only seeing one man. Therefore, gentlemen, there is no issue. The acts of which the charges spoke were things better left out of polite discussion. True gentlemen do not think of such things, and it is an embarrassment that this plot was even contemplated. Men will tend to see shadows in the twilight watch. Release the prisoner and strike this from your records."
"Sir?" Colonel Preston blurted. "Release him?"
"You heard me, Colonel."
The General and his coterie wheeled and evacuated. Randell dismissed the company with the alacrity of one anxious to find battle, instead of camp life.
Sam Boutart returned to the dugout that night, looking none the worse for the wear. He was a tall youth, good-looking despite the depravity of camp life, and his smile was a boyish reminder of innocence that the war had mostly killed.
Lark stared at him emotionlessly. "You okay?" he asked.
"What in the world did you do, boy?" Patrick said, smiling.
"They thought one of us was playing mule with you," Zach said.
Sam laughed, then quickly sat down in his customary place.
Suddenly Sergeant Randell, much distressed, appeared inside the tent. He did not direct his anger at Sam, though, as much as the other three messmates.
"I suppose y'all think that's the end of it, don't you? The Colonel has been put in his place, and you all go scot-free? Is that it?"
"What's got into you?" Zach said, stretching his arms calmly.
"I know it was one of you! I just don't know which one. I'm not so stupid as some cock and bull General! I was a friend with all of you. Since no one will tell the truth around here - including officers who shall remain unnamed - I'll just have to assume that all of you are in on it. You'd best just stay away from me, you understand? All of you! I don't want any part of it."
Randell disappeared into the cold night.
"What's wrong with him?" Sam said. "Since when is foraging for a decent meal such a big deal?"
Lark looked at him and didn't answer.
Neither did Zach or Patrick.
Sam shrugged and began looking around for something to eat.