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Chapter Fifty-Eight

The desert, north-east of New London, 1880

Crawford covered his eyes with shaking hands, willing himself not to weep any more, but found himself quite unable to bring himself under control. Hands touched him; he shook them off savagely, crying out vicious oaths, wishing only to be alone. He could not bear the thought of speaking to any of the others, and thought if he looked them in the face he would be unmanned even further. After a little he felt that everyone had withdrawn from him and was glad, in a painful unhappy sort of way.

"Crawford," said a voice then, breaking through his tears. "Crawford!"

"Go away," he said. "Just go away."

Strong hands seized his wrists and pulled his hands down. Through vision blurred by both tears and the lack of his spectacles Crawford saw Farfarello's angry face.

"Stop this!" snarled Farfarello. "Stop this at once! Is this how you treat men who have saved your life?"

"I told you to stop," said Crawford. "He did not want to betray us. He wanted to be free, and you killed him, you damned stupid Irish fool."

"You are like an hysterical girl," said Farfarello in disgust. "Don't think I won't slap you to bring you to your senses. Get yourself under control, Crawford, this is disgraceful behaviour. No matter what you think he wanted, he did betray us. He did something to Schuldig that has not yet run its course, he near broke Nagi's skull, and if you think that last assault on you was not meant to be fatal, your wits are addled in truth. All of this, and you prefer the man who has fought us, and undermined us and tried to kill us, to your own friends who have proven their loyalty and love by years of service. Stop your idiocy and think, man!" He bent and snatched up Crawford's fallen spectacles, holding them out. "Here. Come now, wipe your eyes. Brad," he said in a lower and more gentle tone, "I'm not asking you not to grieve. He was your brother, for all his faults, and you were happy to have found him. But listen to me. Look over there, do you see how sorrowful Schuldig and Nagi are? Schuldig believes himself responsible for every misery there is in all the worlds at the moment, and your conduct is not helping him. Nagi thinks he has thrown away your love in the same moment he saved your life - he feels these things very strongly, Brad, being so young." He sighed, continuing, "I know you do not have the same regard for me as you do for Schuldig - or even Micah! - and are not protective of my views as you are of Nagi's. But if I deserve any recompense for the years I have fought at your command, then look at them. They have sustained injuries and have fought for your life despite them. If you turn from them now, you are by no means the man I thought you were."

Slipping on the spectacles and squinting wearily at the figures huddled some way off, Crawford felt unaccustomed guilt at the sight of the sheer misery on Schuldig's face and the way Nagi stared towards him with an expression of deepest sorrow. Farfarello hauled him up as he extended an arm for aid, feeling as if he were a thousand years old. Trying to sound more like himself before he should have to speak to them and thinking Schuldig, who could be more spiteful in victory than he was in defeat, would no doubt wish everyone to make some unpleasant jokes, Crawford said, "Do not tell me you too are jealous of Schuldig, Farfarello."

"Indeed no," said Farfarello, a thread of dark humour in his voice. "They took all that from me in the Schloß." Looking askance at Crawford's sudden horrified glance he continued, "I thought you knew. It's all right, I prefer life not to be more complicated than it must. Good man, you sound better. Now, lie to them with all your skill and convince them they are still wanted."

Crawford shook him off gently, quite unknowing what to say to him except to mutely indicate that he would do as Farfarello wished. He looked at the others a long moment before simply opening his arms. They crept up to him, their faces filled with both shame and hope and then Nagi through boyishness broke the unhappy spell and put his arms about Crawford, burying his face against Crawford's chest and saying something broken and unhappy in the tongue of his native land. A moment later Schuldig's arms were also about him, Schuldig competing for his attention with fervent statements in German.

"I'm sorry," said Schuldig in that tongue, "I'm sorry to be so disobedient, I'm so sorr --"

"Hush," said Crawford, hugging them both against him and saying, though the words were like ashes in his mouth, "Don't be sorry, dear friend, you did exactly the right thing. You have done everything you should." He was glad to feel, under the fingers that rested against Schuldig's throat that the mind reader's heartbeat at last began to slow from the headlong speed at which it had raced.

"Oh," said Schuldig softly and, tightening his grasp upon his friend, kissed Crawford as long and as deeply as he might.

"I cannot breathe," came Nagi's voice at last, in muffled complaint.

Pulling him free from their embrace, Crawford carefully put his hair back from his face, saying, "Let me see that wound. What a brave boy you are, Nagi. We must wash it carefully. Come, let us go back to the campsite and I will see that it is properly dressed." They made their slow and halting way back to the camp to find the fire quite extinguished where Crawford was as good as his word, cleaning and dressing the area of the injury, though Nagi hissed in pain and tried to edge away. Through it all Schuldig was beside him continually, wordlessly desiring his attention and to be reassured. Crawford was aware too of Farfarello's approval, but felt all at once that he could do no more and that it was unfair that he be expected to pretend he was all right.

"I'm sorry!" said Schuldig in alarm, as Crawford began, quite quietly, to weep. Crawford shook his head helplessly, and found himself seized by Schuldig once more. "We should be the ones to look after you," said Schuldig, clearly desiring to make himself useful. "You need to rest. We all need to rest. We'll all feel better in the morning. Farfarello! Help me!" Crawford found himself almost lifted off his feet and helped to his tent, where he was pushed down and covered over with blankets. Schuldig lay beside him, embracing him, and Nagi snuggled up tight on his other side. To his surprise, Farfarello lay down with them all too, putting an awkward arm across Nagi's form to rest a hand on Crawford's shoulder.

"Don't be sad," whispered Nagi. "We don't want you to be sad."

"I'm going to send you to sleep," said Schuldig gently. "Don't try to fight me, I have the most awful megrim." He touched their faces together, his voice continuing in Crawford's mind, "I am sorry. I know that if you could be shot of the lot of us and have him here, you would."

"That's not true," said Crawford.

Schuldig just smiled sadly. "Liar. Ach, mein Freund," he whispered, stroking Crawford's face, "weißt du nicht wie sehr ich dich lie--"

Crawford heard no more, sleep rushing up to claim him.

* * *

Aboard the paddle steamer Demeter, Atlantic Ocean, 1862

Left to themselves in the dark and ill-smelling cabin in which they had been roughly flung, Bradley and Micah clung to each other, no longer weeping, for they had quite exhausted their supply of tears and had reached the point of despair where they could do little else but stare dully at their surroundings. It was the third day of the voyage and both boys, neither of whom had in their short lives ever before been aboard a ship, felt ill and filthy. No care was taken with them, the door being unlocked but twice a day so that their captors might put some bread and a bottle of fresh water upon the table that stood by the wall. Neither boy had eaten much more than a few mouthfuls of food each day in all the time of their captivity, feeling too sick at first with the effects of the chloroform and their terror, and then being so seasick. Exhausted and despairing, they had little energy for anything but seeking comfort in one another's arms. Even should they have been able to spare the effort to explore their surroundings, it would have taken but the very briefest of moments and availed them little. But for the narrow bed upon which they huddled and the small table affixed to the wall, the cabin was bare, the only other concession to human needs being a bucket their captors had mockingly placed in the corner with great ceremony.

"What do they want?" whispered Micah, his young voice breaking a long silence.

Bradley shook his head and tightened his arms about his friend. That their captors had some purpose was clear, but they had disdained to share it with the boys, past a brief contemptuous statement that they were to be brought "where they belonged" and that they should be quiet and respectful until that time.

"Why would spies want us?" said Micah in misery. "We're only boys. Are they taking us to New York, do you think?"

"I don't think so," said Bradley, thinking all at once he heard himself speaking some strange and foreign tongue and seeing, as if in a mirror, his own self wearing the uniform of an unknown school. Although he did not believe his own words he continued, "Don't worry, I'm sure my father will pay them whatever they ask to let us go home again."

"For me too?" said Micah in dawning hope that he would not be seen as an extraneous burden that could be abandoned in securing the release of his master's son.

"Yes," said Bradley. Seeking to forestall further questioning he added, "Let's try to get some sleep so that we'll be fresh, in case we can find a way to escape." Releasing his hold on Bradley for a moment, Micah pulled the blanket that was their sole covering up around them, and the two little boys clung to each other once more under its shelter. Bradley told himself that he must be strong, and not cry for a while, for it was his duty to take care of Micah and to somehow contrive a way for them to reach their home safely once more. He crushed down as best he might his childish desire to see his mother opening the door and holding him safe, such thoughts serving only to make him all the more unhappy.

"I must be a man," he thought, glad he could feel his friend slipping into exhausted sleep, "and not think like a boy any longer. Just let them wait till we're free, Micah. We'll get them. We'll get them good."

* * *

The desert, north-east of New London, 1880

Crawford awoke in sudden clarity, his mind quite free of the last remnants of sleep. Opening his eyes, he found Schuldig watching him from close quarters, the mind reader's left arm beneath Crawford's head, his right hand resting gently upon Crawford's face.

"It's all right," said Schuldig softly. "I just didn't want you dreaming of sad things."

Crawford found his gaze sinking from Schuldig's face, which astonished him as he was not accustomed to being unable to meet any other man's eyes. The thin arm about his waist tightened, and Nagi said in a voice no doubt meant to be a whisper but made loud by worry, "Is he all right?"

"I'm quite well," said Crawford sullenly, suddenly realising it was far later than his accustomed rising time, and that he had been the object of observation by the others. "You don't have to baby me. I'm getting up." Matching his actions to his words he shrugged off the hands touching him and clambered stiffly from the tent.

"Don't be offended," said Schuldig softly to Nagi, quickly following. Outside, Crawford seemed intent on acting as if the morning was a perfectly normal day, ignoring the concerned looks of his friends in favour of angrily rummaging through their supplies to find the wherewithal to make a pot of his horrid coffee. He struggled for a little with the matches, his hands shaking so that he dropped the first two to gutter out upon the sand, before ejaculating a foul oath and flinging the open box from him so that they scattered over the ground.

"Nagi," said Schuldig silently within the lad's mind. "Please gather them up for me."

"What's wrong with him?" asked Nagi in like manner, his misery quite clear.

"He's thinking of Micah lighting the fire every morning," answered Schuldig, continuing aloud, "Crawford. Come and sit down." He went over, tugging Crawford down to sit upon a low rock.

"You don't have to --" started Crawford.

"Maybe not, but I want to," said Schuldig. "Come now," he said quietly, "You are worrying Nagi." He indicated their young friend, who was currently engaged in making the matches float up to his grasp. "And you're worrying me."

"Are you all right this morning?" asked Crawford in a calm and professional manner that fooled Schuldig not at all. "I should have paid you more mind yesterday."

"I still have a dreadful headache," said Schuldig, deciding that he would be honest for once. "It is not all physical -- oh, it is difficult to tell you what it's like! I think I shall be all right, however, though you may find me annoying and close at hand for a while. No, no!" he said in sudden real alarm. "Do not feel guilty! Not when I'm like this!"

Crawford took a deep breath and squeezed Schuldig's hand, saying, "I did not mean to add to your misery. I think I should --" he paused, then said with determination. "You have something to eat. I am going to bury him."

Seeing behind Crawford's head Farfarello's sudden agitated gestures of refusal, Schuldig did not allow his friend to rise, saying, "None of us ate last night, and we are all exhausted and feeling ill. I would be failing you if I let you exert yourself without taking any sustenance. Eat a little, just a little. It is only sensible. Nagi!" As Nagi rushed up, he added, "Nagi, please make sure Crawford eats something. He needs the nourishment." Leaving Crawford in Nagi's care, Schuldig went to Farfarello, thinking, "What?"

"Keep him in the camp," thought Farfarello fiercely. "What if the dov have been at that son of a bitch? He shouldn't have to see that."

"Damn," thought Schuldig in reply, closing his eyes for a moment. "We shall have to bury him ourselves," he went on.

"It's more than he deserves," thought Farfarello sourly.

"It's not him I shall be doing it for," replied Schuldig.

"When we have finished we shall need to got through all his belongings carefully," thought Farfarello. "Who knows what we might find - reports to and from the Schloß, perhaps. We'll need to know what they say of us."

"Yes. We shouldn't be disturbed for any of these labours -- I'll persuade Crawford to stay while we work," replied Schuldig. Going back to where Crawford sat, fending off the variety of supplies being offered by Nagi, Schuldig shamelessly wound his arms about his neck, whispering in his ear. "Brad," murmured Schuldig, "will you do something for me? Let me tire myself out with physical labour, you know it can help when I am in such a state. Stay, take care of yourself for a little, and let me start the work of digging the grave." At Crawford's surprised look he added, unhappily finding he did not dissimulate, "I feel guilty at the thought of the events of last night, I think I would find such a labour beneficial."

Crawford gave him a hard look, then said merely, "Very well. But I shall be there shortly."

Schuldig at once rose, nodding. "Yes," he said, and walked quickly to the cart before Crawford could say anything further. "Nagi," said Schuldig silently, "do not allow Crawford to follow us too quickly. Feign a headache or illness, keep him here by force if you must. But keep him here for half an hour at least after we have gone."

"I do have a headache," thought Nagi sadly in response as he watched Schuldig and Farfarello take shovels from the cart and start off. He sighed and poured another cup of water for Crawford, sternly telling him to drink up, he had not had near his ration the previous evening.

* * *

"There," said Farfarello, pointing as they reached the scene of the previous evening'ss events. "Well, let's get to work."

They stood over their handiwork a moment before carefully emptying Micah's pockets and quickly searching the lining of his coat and the seams and hems of all his clothes, turning aside then to dig in a sheltered spot. There was no sign the dov had been in the area, which Schuldig found obscurely pleasing. At the very least, he told himself, they need not work at a frantic pace lest Crawford become more unhappy than he already was, should he be allowed join them too soon.

"Digging again," said Schuldig. "This whole damn world has been one of digging. I never want to touch a shovel again."

"Huh," grunted Farfarello. "Don't think I shall do all the labour here. Keep your mind on your work."

The two young men dug carefully, excavating a deep pit. The work required little mental effort and was hypnotic in its requirements. They had little idea of how much time had passed before they all of a sudden heard Nagi's voice.

"Why don't I just move the sand away for you?"

Schuldig looked up to see Nagi, a bundle of canvas in his hands, with Crawford behind him holding a third shovel. "No," he said. "Thank you, Nagi. This is something I prefer to do by hand." He realised that this statement, queer though it seemed to him to pass up the chance of physical ease, was no more than the simple truth. Crawford silently joined in the work, and the three young men ended by digging a grave more than six feet deep. Taking then the canvas from Nagi, they wrapped Micah's still form within its folds and lowered him not ungently into his resting place, silently filling the grave thereafter with the displaced sand. This unhappy occupation fulfilled, Schuldig beckoned Nagi. "Could you assemble stones, lots of stones?" he said. "We should cover this up properly." He did not add the reason, knowing Crawford would understand that loose sand might provide a temptation to wild creatures. Pleased to be of service, Nagi made a great pile of stones collect themselves upon the grave, quite covering it over for a great area than the young men had dug.

Looking at Crawford's still and expressionless face, Farfarello said, "I could take a piece of wood from the cart and leave a marker."

Crawford said nothing, staring still at the cairn Nagi had raised. Laying a hand upon his arm, Schuldig said, "Do you want to say something?" For although they were none of them religious men, he felt that Crawford would wish to mark this moment in some way.

"What," said Crawford bleakly, "would be the point?" They stood in awkward silence for a moment, then Crawford said, his voice shaking and angry, "He was not lucky. He was never allowed to see what he could truly be, he was deceived into believing everything they told him. He did not have the opportunity, as we have had, of true friendship that allows one to be more than one could alone. In other circumstances, this could have been any of us." He paused, going on more quietly, "I am sure he would have wanted things to be different. I should have seen a way to not let this happen. I failed him. This is all my fault." Ignoring the unhappy glances the others shot between each other, he looked up at the position of the sun, saying, "There is little point in attempting to journey on today. We may as well rest. At least the burden on our supplies is lessened from this point."

He walked away without another word, leaving his friends sorrowful and silent behind him.

Schuldig's words to Crawford: "Oh, my friend, don't you know how much I lov--"
Thanks to [ profile] janen_san for her grammatical aid!
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