His breathing was harsh, his legs burning. Brambles and branches clawed his coat, his skin, his heart. The sliver of moon cast a meager glow, shining light on his sins and delivering judgement. Tears shredded his cheeks, leaving bits of him on the ground as he ran. Judd ran and ran and ran, but it made no difference. He couldn't outrun what he'd done less than an hour ago.
They met in a run-down barn on Mr. Hillis' farm. A rotting roof and an abundance of old horse dung providing much needed privacy for the difficult conversation to come. It was risky for both of them, and not just because crazy old Hillis would shoot them on site for trespassing. They learned that the hard way when they were kids. Judd and his brother, Luke, were at a crossroads. This meeting would define their lives.
"Luke!" Judd whisper-shouted. Silence greeted him. He called again, this time raising his voice ever so slightly. He had to be here. His letter said he wouldn't miss it.
Easing further into the dimly lit space, Judd caught sight of a small movement in the last stall. He crept that way, carefully placing his feet so as not to give himself away. He didn't dare call out again.
An ear-piercing screech tore through the night air, disrupting the birds roosting in the rafters, making Judd jump back in fright. Distracted, he missed the dark figure barreling toward him. No time to move out of the way before he was tackled to the ground.
"Goodness sake, Judd!" Luke crowed. "You sure do scare easy these days. Bein' so proper must've dulled your senses." And with that, he gave Judd a solid punch in the arm.
"Always kiddin'," Judd huffed, shaking his arm out. He knew his brother was only trying to lighten the mood, but his comment hit a little too close.
Standing slowly and brushing debris from his suit, he turned to face his younger sibling, who was dusting off his navy uniform. Judd took a moment to appraise his brother, not having had a chance before to see the man he'd grown into.
When they were younger, they'd been thick as thieves. Always together. You never saw one without the other. Until the day their father died. Now, they were almost strangers.
"So big brother, how've you–" Luke began.
"Don't." Judd cut in. "Don't waste our time playin' games. You and I both know we're here to change each others' minds. So let's hear it. Let's hear why you've got our momma sick to death. Why you've turned your back on me, our family and everything our daddy worked so hard for. Your momma wants you back home where you belong."
The air shifted as the joking bled out of Luke's stance, and his face scrunched up in clear resentment. His fists now clenched in anger.
"I don't need to prove nothin' to you!" he shouted. "And I'm sure as hell not the one sendin' our momma to an early grave. You and your high and mighty self are doin' that. How dare you beg me to meet you, and then try to crucify me. You're the one that's got no moral decency. You're the one gonna be on the losing side of this war!"
Judd's heart thumped painfully. Luke's caustic words like daggers slicing him from the inside out. They'd both changed so much. Could they even reconcile?
For a time, they simply glared at one another. The bits of hatred in his little brother's eyes more than he could bear. Judd had hoped to save him. Now, he'd be lucky to save himself without selling his soul.
Judd's life as a carefree boy had been stolen from him the day his father died. Inheriting the family farm at a young age had burned away any naivety in him that had lingered. He had nothing but responsibility looming before him. Foolishly, he'd wanted more for Luke, so he'd sent him north for schooling. That had been the beginning of the end.
Their mother wept for Luke every day, worrying for him while cursing his name. When they'd heard that he'd joined the Union army, she pled with Judd to make him see reason, honor his roots. Gaining a little composure in remembering his purpose, Judd let the words he'd been wanting to say finally tumble free.
"Luke, I'm only gonna say this once," Judd said, releasing a long breath. "I came here for momma, but I came for me too. I need your support now more than ever. You haven't been respondin' to any of my letters, so I don't know if you know how bad things are at the farm. I'm gettin' pressure every day from the army wantin' me to join, and I don't know how much longer I can keep sayin' no. They think Mathias is ready to take on my responsibilities, and I don't want that for him. You've had your time at school, now you need to come home and do the right thing. Be there for your family."
"It's too late," Luke sighed. "Even if I wanted to come home, I can't be a deserter. I hear what you're sayin' brother, but I'm dedicated to this cause. This is bigger than you and me. Our family even."
And that was the truth - it was bigger than all of them. Judd knew it too, but he wasn't willing to sacrifice his family, and Luke was still family.
The silence between them was beginning to drag when a hushed voice sounded outside the barn. No one should know they were here. Judd had been so careful! Had Luke betrayed him?
"Earl said he seen a man with a dark uniform sneakin' out this way, not even an hour ago," a younger man's voice said. Sounded like Henry's boy, Charlie.
"So what?" the other voice said. This one, Judd didn't recognize.
"So what?" Charlie repeated in disbelief. "It could be the traitor!"
"Shhh!" the deeper voice replied. "You'll give us away! Everybody knows Earl ain't right in the head. But, if it is that turncoat, Luke Cox, we're gonna make an example outta him. He should be wearing gray. But why would he be out here skulkin' around? It don't make sense."
"Well, it can't hurt none to just take a look around. We'll be heroes if we bring that traitor in," Charlie said, excitement in his words.
Judd slowly eased his knife out of its sheath, his resolve hardening. No one threatened his family. He turned to Luke, hoping they could come up with a plan, but immediately tensed. His brother was looking at the knife in his hand, utter horror in his eyes. Realization struck, Luke thought Judd was betraying him!
The denial on Judd's lips shattered as Luke's fist connected with his jaw, sending him crashing into the outer wall. Luke was back on him in an instant, giving Judd no choice but to defend himself. Thrusting his knees up, he shoved hard. Luke staggered back, but didn't stop. He was fighting with a savagery that Judd couldn't match.
Another hard blow landed on Judd's temple, dazing him. His eyes slipped closed, blood dripping into his mouth. He prepared himself for a knife to the gut or another blow. Nothing came but the sound of a loud grunt and flesh hitting flesh. They'd forgotton about the men outside.
Cracking his eyes open, Judd took in the scene before him. Charlie was holding his brother's arms back, while the other man rained blows down on his face and stomach. They were going to kill him. Judd desperately looked around for his knife. There! Not far from his left foot. He pulled himself over and grasped the handle.
Judd had to protect his brother, his family. There could be no witnesses of this night. His brother would be punished as a traitor, and so would he. His family would lose everything. He didn't hesitate, surging to his feet and plunging the knife into the unknown man's back, then pushing him to the ground and jabbing him in the stomach.
With a cry of alarm, Charlie let go of Luke to rush to his friend's side. Judd steeled himself, his heart racing, his soul screaming, and slid the knife into Charlie's side with ease. The look of surprise on his face would forever be burned into Judd's mind.
Bloodied knife in hand, he turned warily toward Luke. Luke's left eye was beginning to swell shut and he was holding his ribs, but otherwise, he seeemed to be ok. Judd took stock of his own injuries, the worst seeming to be the ringing in his head, but that could be from shock.
"Better get out of here quick," he said hoarsely.
Luke just nodded but didn't move. "Why'd you do that for me? I thought you planned this."
Judd's heart ached that Luke thought he could really do him harm. "Of course not, you're my brother. Come on, you need to get back to your company. They'll be gettin' suspicious soon."
"What will ya do with their bodies? People will come lookin'," Luke said.
Bile rose in Judd's throat and he started to shake. He may have saved his brother's life tonite, but he had surely lost his own. He'd taken two men from this world. He couldn't regret it though, it was them or Luke.
They found knives on both the men and covered them in blood, arranging the blades to seem as though the men had fought one another. It was the best they could do, time was running out.
With one last look at his sins, Judd turned to Luke. His brother was trying to clean the blood from his face and hands with a small canteen he had tucked away. He offered it to Judd to do the same. Nothing would wash these stains away.
"Will I see you again?" Luke asked, his voice wavering.
"Blessed be the day when that comes to pass." There was really nothing more to say.
Grasping Luke in a tight hug, Judd took one last moment to relish the joy of holding his brother, then he let go and started to run. His breathing was harsh, his legs burning. He thought he might never stop.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Original narrative & well developed characters
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
Expert insights and opinions
Arguments were carefully researched and presented
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab