john_sweden (john_sweden) wrote in ru_grelka,

The Winning Story

The Songbirds of the South

They started the cleanup from the shores of Mississippi, heading east — across three states, toward the ocean.
But the yankee had understood a long time ago that this country had neither east nor west: only North and South.
Actual human speech, food, weather — all these things they'd left up North. Before them, powdered with the ashes of war, lied the Deep South — the land of endless summer, cotton, slaves and plantations.
And birds, naturally.
There were two dozens of them, who'd stepped down from that paddler. People out of place in the great engine of Reconstruction. They weren't loggers, bridge builders or ironworkers — they couldn't help restore their land onto the rails of history. The only things their shoulders knew were the stocks of rifles and shotguns, and their hands responded to nothing but the grips of revolvers and knives. Many of them still wore the uniforms.
Some — the color of a grim sky in a New York fall. Others — the color of an endless skyline over a cotton plantation. It was a real shame that the grays hailed from the South, and the blues from the North...
They trudged their way across Mississippi and Tennessee. On the North Carolina border there was only five of them left. Three wore gray Confederate uniforms. Two — Union blues.
They entered a bordertown — it was called Greenville — like they came into dozens of small towns. Ashley on point, unencumbered, with the yankee and the Peckerwood brothers in tow, hauling the empty cages. The last in the group — as to not annoy the locals — went Freeman, dragging a long iron net along the dusty thoroughfare.
All five had protective iron netting on their hats and steel plates sewn into their uniforms. All five carried Remington cavalry shotguns — they had no use for rifles in their trade.
Ashley also wore a huge single action Peacemaker in a gunslinger's rig on her left hip... but the Colt was mostly for show.
And Greenville poured out into the thoroughfare:
- Fowlers!..
- Fowlers a-comin'!..
The war had snatched the yankee right off the boat — he'd made a mistake of casting his vote July 1863, in New York. He hadn't taken part in the riots with the other pissed off Irish recruits — he'd shrugged, taken the offered Spencer repeating rifle and gone away to shoot at people in gray.
And he marched.
And he shot.
Till Bettysburg itself.
Bettysburg, the yankee would never forget — ever. Every suffocating Carolina night he woke with a scream "a breach, a breach!" and grabbed at his old Spencer, finding the cut down Remington stock instead.
And at Bettysburg, the yankee had been among the winners. He couldn't even begin to imagine the kind of nightmares Ashley and the other losers must've been visited by.
Every night Ashley led a charge: in the name of the South, General Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson!
Before the war, three things had mattered in the South: slaves, cotton and honor. The Southerners had lost their slaves to the late President's Emancipation Proclamation. They'd lost their cotton to the naval blockade, with the Union's slow and clumsy steam fleet burning and sinking the Confederacy's quick and nimble runners in the hundreds.
But the South had kept on going — with no fleet, no industry, no hope of victory... The only thing they'd had left was honor — a feeble aristocracy's knot of opinions on what the world should be and what it should be not.
The South's honor had been tarnished by General James Longstreet, who'd betrayed General Lee in the Battle of Bettysburg. The gray of Confederate uniforms was the color of betrayal.
But Ashley and the Peckerwood brothers still wore their grays — with no slaves, no war and no honor. Just on general principle.
The birdman in Greenville took his sweet time showing Ashley the habitat maps. The yankee and the Peckerwoods quickly grew bored and went away to have some fun in the saloon.
Whiskey — dollar a glass.
Poker — everybody wanted to play some, but nobody had any money. So they played for matches.
Music — they requested Dixey from the mechanic piano player, and then "The Red River Valley." On the words "do not hasten to bid me adieu" both Peckerwoods teared up behind their cards.
Freeman — as was the case in the majority of Southern towns — had disappeared completely.
The yankee had the bad luck of completing a low straight. One of the Peckerwoods pulled a huge Bowie knife out of his boot and, staring at the yankee, started to mutilate the tabletop. The yankee sighed and folded.
Along with the fragile aristocratic paradise — mansions, crinolines, parasols — the conflict between the states had blown away the criminal underworld that the Peckerwoods had been dwelling in. The giant steam walker of progress, spurred on by the war, had stepped over the brothers who'd lost their way somewhere in-between the invention of the telegraph and the appearance of armored stagecoaches. The only thing not gone with the roaring 50s was a collection of faded "Wanted: Dead or Alive" posters that the Peckerwoods often unrolled and studied for hours on end.
By Ashley's standards both Peckerwoods were white trash, proletarians, no more than nine slaves each. But the brothers had found somewhere a pair of spectacles with wire on one steel side and now honestly considered themselves Southern intelligentsia.
They took turns wearing the spectacles.
Ashley lazily opened the swing doors and entered the saloon, lazily carrying a rolled map under her arm.
Ashley did everything lazily — perhaps it was a truly aristocratic way of carrying herself, or maybe she really still expected five to six slaves to hurry out of the saloon, open the doors and carry the map for her...
Before the war, Ashley had a plantation. Seven hundred acres. And almost a hundred slaves! She never got tired of reminding the other Fowlers of the fact — Freeman in particular.
After the war, the full sum of Ashley's possessions were her gray uniform, officer's hat with crossed gold rifles and the revolver she'd had returned to her after the POW camp.
Leaving Greenville, Freeman appeared behind the Fowlers.
Freeman had nothing to lose in the war, even — after the Emancipation Proclamation — his chains. But the war was over... Like any former slave, Freeman was extremely rude to Ashley when there were other people around them and sort of ingratiating when they were alone.
Ashley casually prodded Freeman with the rolled map. Freeman pretended he didn't notice and hid his hands behind his back.
Ashley sighed.
"Away with your slaver's habits!" Freeman said, looking back at Greenville.
After making sure they were out of the immediate lynching zone, Freeman grew bold enough to add:
"I have my hands full with the net as it is..."
"Before the war, I had seven hundred acres, Freeman. And almost a hundred slaves!"
"Whom you treated real good, I have no doubt."
"I treated you okay. I was just."
"President Lincoln would've been so glad to hear it."
"Your Lincoln rots in hell. Not only we didn't vote for the bastard in our state... he wasn't even on the ballot."
The Peckerwood brothers contributed to the political discussion by calling Freeman a nigger. Freeman whirled and with one punch dropped the younger Peckerwood in the dust. The older Peckerwood knocked Freeman off his feet and started to kick him. Freeman caught Peckerwood's boot and dragged him down —but by this time the younger Peckerwood came to and attacked Freeman from behind.
Ashley and the yankee stood on the road shoulder, thoughtfully observing the great interracial wrestling match. The yankee unscrewed the cap off his canteen, poured water into the cap and handed the cap to Ashley. Ashley held the dented iron cap as though it were a crystal champagne flute.
"What's the job?" the yankee asked, taking the cap back.
"A plantation. In about three miles."
"Is it big?"
"Pretty big..."
It was your typical ghost plantation: about seven hundred acres of cotton fields with slaves' shacks, in the center — a wiregrass-covered clearing with a two-story white columned mansion. Southeast from the mansion sprawled an oak grove. The shacks stood empty and crooked, the mansion had boarded up windows and a caved-in roof, and on the edge of the cotton field dreamed the rusty remains of a Confederate steam walker. A victim of the hasty retreat...
Ashley settled down to her stomach on a low hill, unfolded her spyglass. The yankee crawled up to her.
"I have a bad feeling about that grove," he said.
The yankee and Ashley took a full minute listening in. Ashley shrugged, passed the spyglass to the yankee, pulled off her hat. Auburn hair with golden highlights fell down her shoulders — or maybe it was gold with auburn highlights. The yankee still wasn't a hundred percent sure.
The yankee looked down the spyglass at the grove, observed Ashley from the corner of his eye. It struck him how young she seemed — lying next to him without her hat. An aristocratic bearing adds ten years, officer's uniform — another three to four years... In actuality, she couldn't be older than eighteen.
It took the yankee a while to understand what he was seeing in the spyglass. Something furry — no, feathery! — with a brown top and a puffed out white chest speckled with black. And only when it started to bother the green beads of a blooming oak with its beak, the yankee realized it was a bird on a bough.
An actual bird.
A live one.
The yankee didn't know what it was called.
The yankee started to turn toward Ashley, when steel flashed through the spyglass' field of view...
The bright flash of metal snatched the bird off the branch, leaving a couple of brown feathers hovering in the air.
The yankee lowered his spyglass.
He did recognize a strikebird.
By the arrogant turn of its steel headcrest, by its heavy hooked bill... by its weapons. A strikebird's main feature were three spiked pendulums trailing it on nearly invisible nine-foot wires. It was one of the pendulums that the unknown brown bird was currently skewered on.
With his naked eye, the yankee saw the strikebird turning mid-flight, throwing its pendulums forward and spiking the bird to the oak. Then the hooked beak began to methodically strip the weakly shuddering bird down to its internal organs. The yankee watched, unflinching. He saw strikebirds spiking and disemboweling dogs, horses, people in gray uniforms. Many, many times. The things a strikebird did to you weren't the ultimate worst fate. That would be the privilege of a butcherbird...
The mere thought of butcherbirds made the yankee flinch after all. He took his time studying the grove. He couldn't see any nests — but it was hard to say with all this foliage and green beads hanging around.
The yankee passed the glass over to Ashley. Ashley peered down the spyglass, called over the Peckerwoods and Freeman.
"We're cleaning the grove," she said.
They all pulled on gloves with metal plates sewn in, checked their equipment. The Peckerwoods cocked their shotguns and crawled down the hill. The older one wriggled over about ten yards to the west and lied prone in the cotton field, the younger positioned himself behind the rusty remains of the steam walker. They formed a firing triangle with the brothers at the bottom and the grove up top. Freeman unrolled the iron net in the grass, following a set of principles that were a mystery to everybody but him. The yankee pulled the comb on a chain out of his coat.
All around them, the endless white rows of cotton swayed with the wind. It was weird what kind of colors they had here, down South... The only kind of white they had was blinding, like cotton bolls or clouds. And the only sort of blue was infinite, like the skies or Ashley's eyes...
"Do it," Ashley said.
The yankee started with a quick sharp trill — as if on a blues harp. He clicked the switches and proceeded into the screeching, ear-splitting strikebird's battle song. He cupped his hands around the comb, aiming the sound toward the grove.
The strikebird was silent — probably a shy one.
The job of a Fowler isn't one of the most dangerous professions. From the dozen and a half that'd stepped down from that paddler almost nobody had died — and if they had, it had been from friendly shotgun fire. Yes, many of them had lost their eyes, fingers, ears and other significant body parts... But if one believed, say, the Peckerwood brothers, honest highway robbery was a much more hazardous trade.
What the birds had to their advantage was a rich selection of crooked and articulated blades, saws, spikes and hooks. But there were no brains in their steel heads. The only thing they housed was the killer instinct. So — the job was not the most perilous one... It was hard, monotonous and nerve-racking.
It turned out the strikebird had covered most of the distance by ground. It exploded out of the cotton outside of the firing triangle, east from the younger Peckerwood — and it answered the comb with a shrill battle cry that segued into the scream of spike-torn air.
A steel lightning, aiming for the yankee's face...
The older Peckerwood was too far from the action, the younger turned and drew a bead belatedly... The yankee understood that he was bound to catch a faceful of either strikebird or double-aught buckshot. Freeman dropped in the grass and covered himself with the iron net.
Ashley casually pulled her Peacemaker out of the holster, lethargically cocked the revolver...
Her shot stopped the strikebird in the midst of its turn — the spiked pendulum knocked the hat off the yankee's head and very damn nearly scalped him. He felt the breeze from the spikes on his sweaty forehead. Ashley grudgingly cocked the pistol and with her second shot destroyed the only wing the strikebird had left. The strikebird plummeted into the grass. Freeman rolled over and expertly covered it with the net.
The next three days they cleaned the grove, penetrating the cotton field and describing a wide spiral around the mansion. The Fowlers preferred to leave any boarded-up structures alone until it was their turn to be cleansed.
The yankee played the entire register of the comb — from the high-pitched strikebird trills to the deep foghorn-like roar of a firebird. They had some success: three strikebirds that the Peckerwoods easily shotgunned out of the air and a bladetail that almost managed to infiltrate one of Freeman's boots. Dented and broken birds were put in the cages that Freeman unhappily dragged to the town and the birdman.
Each strikebird — sixty bucks.
The bladetail — twenty five.
Divide by five...
Ashley paid everybody's taxes. The Peckerwoods grumbled that when they'd hunted down runaway niggers they had much better pay — with no damn taxes to worry about! Freeman didn't start a fight this time — he knew how much the slave hunters had been paid.
From the birdman the caged birds were driven by steamcart to Memphis, loaded on a paddler and up the Mississippi clogged with the remains of ironclads and firebarges shipped back North — to the cities and the black shiny Industrialist towers... from the top floors of which the birds had flown out half a year ago.
In the war between the North and the South there weren't any geographical targets or strategic objectives. The Confederacy didn't need cities and factories, and the Union couldn't care less about plantations. Both sides had nothing to conquer.
The only path to victory was to make the other side quit fighting, cause its army to choke on its own blood... kill as many enemy soldiers as you could.
The North had built steam walkers — the South had kept on fighting.
The North had built battle paddlers, Gatling guns, armored trains and bomber zeppelins...
The South had kept on fighting.
Then the North had turned to the Industrialists, the ones visiting our world from some faraway stars... and steel birds had flocked to the South.
The birds killed the Southerners not in hundreds nor in thousands — in tens of thousands. It was the birds that changed the course of the Battle of Bettysburg. When Longstreet saw what the butcherbirds did to Pickett's infantry brigades he silently turned his forces and fled the battlefield, leaving Lee's flank exposed and abandoning the South to its fate. Someday, the revisionist historians will write that by his actions Longstreet saved tens of thousands of Southern lives from a senseless slaughter... But presently he was a traitor, the reason the South didn't believe in gray uniforms.
The only thing left to believe in were the birds.
In the last months of the war the birds had a different task: the Southerners retreated on all fronts, the Northerners had to somehow occupy and hold great swathes of land... They could've burned the cotton and razed the mansions, leaving a smoking wasteland in place of a blooming paradise. But instead, they sent the birds — and the plantations became forbidden zones untouched by war, where there were no living beings and the only sounds over the fields were the shrieking trills of strikebirds.
The war was done with — and the Corps of Engineers walked the roads, serenading the cotton fields with a giant industrial whistle on the roof of their steamcart. Calling the birds home. But some birds didn't come. Some birds — like some people — kept on fighting the war.
Atlanta was Bird City now... No Fowlers went in there.
On the fourth day the Peckerwood brothers stepped on a firebird.
They were cleaning the shacks between the mansion and the grove: Freeman on the left flank, the Peckerwoods — far on the right. The yankee and Ashley peered at the closest hut, with the yankee prowling the higher register of the comb... But, as he explained Ashley later — many, many times! — he hadn't forgotten about the lower register and the firebird siren in particular.
It's just that a firebird was deaf as a post.
The yankee looked to the right flank, where both Peckerwoods stopped suddenly. In-between of them, out of the cotton, popped a small steel head on a long neck.
"Fire..." the yankee had time to say.
With a deep battle roar, the firebird raised out of the cotton the metal spheres of its plumage, sliding them together in a firedome.
One of the Peckerwoods ran.
The other was scorched where he stood — with one colossal burst of flame out of the dome.
The running Peckerwood was chased by the rolling flamewall of burning cotton.
The yankee saw that the glass in Peckerwood's spectacles had cracked from the heat.
The wall of fire swallowed the last of the Peckerwoods and rolled on toward the shacks. The yankee turned and saw that Freeman was already running full bore — due northwest, to the mansion, in the only direction available. Ashley followed a slaver's oldest instinct: when in doubt, run after the negro!
Yankee see, yankee do. He ran after Ashley, hearing the rumblings of the flames and feeling the heat of the burning cotton's breath on his back. With cheerful crackling the shacks were catching fire one by one.
By the time they made it to the clearing, half of the plantation was on fire — the oaks caught flame in the grove, black smoke rose in the cloudless sky.
When they made it to the mansion's doors, the fire from the plantation had spread to the clearing.
There was no time for going around the mansion — Freeman blasted the doors with his shotgun and crashed through them.
Ashley and the yankee followed.
The light from the doors shone into a spacious hall with a winding stairway, covered furniture and a brick fireplace. Over the fireplace hung a family portrait. And on the portrait...
The yankee forgot about the fire.
A Southern gentleman and a Southern lady in white stared at him from the painting — cold patrician faces of professional plantation owners. And between them — a very young girl in a white ruffle gown... with Ashley's face and golden hair.
Ashley stared at the portrait. She, too, had forgotten the flames.
"This is your plantation?" the yankee asked.
Behind them, the flames licked the white columns. Ashley and the yankee remembered the fire. In the light cast by the dancing flames, Freeman stood frozen in the middle of the hall. He looked straight up.
The yankee looked up — at the ragged hole in the ceiling that looked like it'd been carved with a giant saw. It was dark on the second floor — but in the reflections of the flames...
Through the hole, in what looked like a kid's bedroom, the yankee saw yellowed human skulls attached to the wall. And polished bones, big and small. And skin stretched taut among the bones — black, with old whipping scars.
A nest.
A butcherbird nest.
The mansion's facade started to crackle with the flames. Nobody moved in the hall.
The yankee saw a second nest. And a third.
An easy whispering sound from the second floor.
"Freeman, two steps forward!" Ashley ordered.
And Freeman obeyed — he stepped forward as though he was pushed in the back.
He had time to turn toward Ashley — a black contorted face shiny with sweat...
A gentle, melodic cooing came from the darkness.
Then a long strip of skin was peeled off Freeman. Across his face, chest — along with blue uniform and steel plates — and left forearm. Buckshot clattered on the floor, spilling from the Remington cut in half. A pair of metal pincers plucked out Freeman's left eye and squashed it like a grape. Freeman opened his mouth to scream — and something cut out his tongue. Hooks pierced Freeman's skin and raised him — by his hands, by his face — and in the air Freeman was farther flayed. He went through the hole in the ceiling with three quarters of his body skinned — but still he stared at Ashley with one eye full of insane pain and burning hatred.
Ashley grabbed the yankee's hand and dragged him through the darkness — past the covered furniture, through a door...
A chair fell behind them. They heard melodic cooing.
Judging by the stench of rotten paper, they were in the library — a single ray of light fell in through the boarded windows, and gold glinted on embossed bindings. Ashley dragged the yankee through the maze of bookshelves. The yankee made the mistake of looking back — and in the ray of sunlight saw the butcherbird following them.
Not a whole lot of bird. A whole lot of butcher. Across the library streamed a blood-shiny wire construct studded with sharp instruments — it flew in a spiral, supported in the air by the rows of tiny, blade-like fluttering wings. It was possible that it had been designed after some actual flying organism... but whatever the prototype had been, it had clearly been of another world.
Ashley grunted, pushing a bookshelf. The yankee came to his senses, lent a shoulder... The bookshelf moved, and Ashley dragged the yankee down some stairs. She opened an iron door, hissed "move, move!" — slammed the door closed and threw the deadbolt.
The door buckled, as something slammed into it.
Disappointed cooing.
The soft whisper of tiny wings, receding.
Ashley and the yankee panted in the dark.
"One second..."
Ashley struck a match, illuminating her pale, soot-covered face. After some fumbling, she lit a lantern on the wall. The yankee took a look around them.
It was a low-ceilinged tunnel with brick walls. The yankee wanted to ask what the tunnel's purpose had been before the war, but then he saw chain hooks in the brick and didn't ask Ashley anything. He probably wouldn't have liked her much in the old world...
It became gradually harder to breathe, and heat emanated from the iron door. It felt like Ashley Reynolds' family mansion had caught fire above them.
Ashley looked past the yankee — she was transfixed, like he'd been when staring at her family portrait. The yankee traced the direction of her stare — and saw a second door at the other end of the tunnel.
The door was metal — but it was different, white, alien steel covered in the unmistakable designs of the Industrialists.
"There isn't supposed to be a door," Ashley said, taking the lantern off the wall.
The yankee made his way over to the door, opened a small hatch next to it and put his palm in the metal impression behind the hatch.
The door slid open with a click.
"Who are you?" Ashley asked, raising the light to the yankee's face.
The yankee beckoned to her and stepped through the doorway.
Ashley followed him with the lantern.
The door moved closed behind her.
In the glow cast by the lantern Ashley saw a room with steel walls covered in elaborate designs. One wall had the map of the U.S. behind a glinting glass sheet. Under the map there was a device that looked like an over-engineered player piano. The yankee stood behind the controls, flicked a switch...
Behind the steel walls, unknown machinery grumbled to life, and from apertures hidden in the wall designs a cold blue light oozed in. Ashley raised the glass of the lantern and put out the wick. The yankee stood behind the controls, clacking the metal keys and switches. He checked his progress in a small black book, which pages were covered in text and schematics.
"Who're you?" Ashley asked again, staring at the map of the United States. A part of North Carolina on the map was rosy with red light.
"I'm a junior officer in military intelligence," the yankee answered. "Active duty..."
"Great. And what the hell is this room?"
"The Roost... well, that's what we call it among themselves, anyway. Officially it's a forward operating control and service center."
"What the hell is it doing under my house?"
"The Industrialists built it here... The Corps of Engineers helped, but on the way back a cannonball struck their steamcart. All the personnel were killed, and the paperwork was destroyed. It's going on seven months now that we've been looking for The Roost."
"You could've asked The Industrialists."
"The Industrialists don't answer questions. They only respond to requests — and very rarely at that..."
"So you infiltrated my group?"
"Every Fowler team had an intelligence officer assigned to it. You're my sixth. Nothing personal... that's it, I think!"
The yankee hit a key and rolled his eyes to the ceiling. Ashley also looked at the steel ceiling, observing nothing in particular.
"What'd you do?" she asked.
"I sent an audio signal to the surface. Switched all the units into test mode."
"The birds won't attack us anymore. They won't attack anyone at all."
"That's nice," Ashley tapped her nail on the glass covering the map. "What's the map for?"
"Flyways. Our birds are migration-capable."
"So you can send them anywhere in the country from this thing?"
"Yeah..." the yankee flipped some switches, moving the red light up the map. Virginia, Pennsylvania... New York. "Okay, let's send these chickens home."
"In the test mode?"
The long barrel of the Peacemaker kissed the yankee's cheek.
"Send them in the battle mode."
"Ashley. Are you insane?"
"No. That's what you've got coming for Bettysburg. For Atlanta. For Bird City."
The yankee stared at Ashley.
Over the barrel, calm, clear eyes stared back.
The yankee remembered November 1863, a Confederate spy caught in Tennessee saying — with no trace of irony! — that he'd rather die a thousand deaths than betray a friend or be false to a duty.
He'd gone in front of the firing squad smiling.
The yankee had a thing or two to say to Ashley — but he remembered that in the Old Country, there, over the cold gray ocean, the women of his nation looked at the red-coated English soldiers with pretty much the same eyes. There were no words that could help him.
The yankee saw: birds circling New York.
Strikebirds on Bowery's rooftops.
Bladetails, playing with chunks of red meat on the empty Time Square.
Butcherbirds as silent shadows gliding through the slums of Five Points.
A dead city...
Bird City...
The yankee put his hand on a switch.
Ashley cocked the revolver.
"You won't figure it out without my help," the yankee said.
Ashley nodded at the black book:
"I'll try my best."
The yankee flipped the switch.
The lights went out.
In the darkness: three gunshot flashes, the lightning of ricochets, the sounds of a fierce struggle...
"Turn on the lamp."
"I can't."
"Your left arm's free."
"Yours, too."
"You raise the glass, I lit the lamp."
Ashley struck a match on her nail, the yankee raised the lantern's glass, Ashley lit the wick. With her right hand Ashley was jamming her revolver into the yankee's throat. With his right hand the yankee was pressing the shotgun under Ashley's jaw.
Blood trickled down the yankee's face: a ricochet.
"What're we supposed to do now?" he asked.
"I suggest a duel. Southern rules."
"Not in here. We'll wreck the equipment."
"Where then?"
Keeping the shotgun trained at Ashley, the yankee opened the service hatch in the ceiling. Earth and ashes fell from the outside, smoke drifted into the room, filling their eyes with water.
"You won't shoot me in the back, will you?" the yankee asked.
The yankee sized Ashley up with a long look, lowered the shotgun and climbed out through the hatch. He stuck out his hand and helped Ashley to come up outside.
They stood in the middle of a scorched field under a smoke-filled gray sky. The birds, gathered from half of the state, sat around them, in perfect circles on black cinders. No less than a thousand. Strikebirds. Butcherbirds. Bladetails. Their steel glinted through gray ash.
Keeping one eye on the yankee, Ashley reloaded her revolver, dropped it in the holster and stepped back six paces. She stood with her back to her mansion's smoldering ruins. Her back to the South.
The yankee stood holding the shotgun next to his thigh. His back to the smoky horizon. To the North.
Ashley prodded the ashes with her boot, jiggled an ember... She lazily put her hand on her holster's belt.
The yankee stood, replaying a single move in his head: shotgun to his hip, the trigger, Ashley flying back, her uniform torn with buckshot. Shotgun to his hip, the trigger...
The birds watched them with empty eyes.
Ashley's hand started to creep along the belt, to the holster...
The yankee took a knee and put his shotgun down into the ashes.
He stepped toward Ashley.
She shot him.
The bullet struck the iron plate sewn in the coat on the yankee's chest, turning him like a plywood outlaw on a gun store's shooting range. He held on to his chest. Let a breath out. Turned back. Took a step toward Ashley.
Ashley shot him.
The bullet struck a lower plate and broke a rib. The yankee hunkered down and moaned in pain. He straightened up, his hand to his side. Stepped toward Ashley.
Ashley fired again. The bullet tugged at the yankee's collar. He smiled uncertainly. Took a step...
There were two paces left between them, and the Peacemaker's barrel stared between the yankee's eyes.
"I can't," the barrel told him. "I'm not Longstreet... I cannot. I can't betray the South."
"We'll have the North," the yankee's eyes replied. "We'll have Brooklyn. It'll be hard for you, but you'll manage. We'll have kids — and grandkids — and your Southern accent will dissolve in their speech like ice cubes in a glass of tea left under hot sun. And if all of this — all this life that I see so clearly — is but a mirage, the vision of a condemned man in the moment the noose tightens itself around his neck... Then I'm okay with it. I'm ready. A thousand deaths. For you."
The yankee stepped forward.
The barrel of the revolver pressed against his heart. Ashley held the Peacemaker with both hands.
He embraced Ashley.
She lowered her pistol.
They stood, holding on to each other: gray against blue.

Thanks to Sergey Frolov for his engine and hard work!
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