Word count: 750
I just want a chair. Is that so much to ask? Just a chair to sit on, something I can settle in the shade of one of these big magnolias, something that will hold me up where the breeze can cool the sweat on my face.
Didn’t get one last night — too late to dinner, they were all filled up. I grabbed one of the last camp stools and sat around the fire like most of the regiment, all of the canvas seats full of laughing, joking men, everyone trying not to think about the battle to come.
Sweat’s making my eyes burn again. Maybe, since we’re finally through, I can wipe it away for the last time.
Not sweat. Whose blood? Mine? Or Thomas’s? My head hurts so much it could be mine, but I don’t think so. My whole body hurts. Aches worse than the end of a short-handed three-month trail drive, sleeping on the rock-hard ground every night.
Where’s my regiment? Where are my men? I see soldiers everywhere, but the badges are wrong, the hats are wrong, can’t see through that godawful haze that won’t lift. No breezes today to clear the air – just thick, choking smoke that makes your eyes water and your throat dry as the Forty-Mile Desert back home. But it’s not alkali I smell. It’s the stench of blood and pain and death, of waste beyond measure.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of death . . . .
That’s not right. Except it is. I thought I knew what it meant — I thought I’d lived it when Pa and Hoss and I traveled that last forty miles to Ragtown. Bloated, rotting carcasses of oxen and mules, left where they fell out of the wagon traces because no one had strength to do more than keep walking. I’d never seen any land so bare, so desolate.
Well, until now. The green grass of this morning is flattened and rusty brown. Petals from the azaleas are ground into mud, the bushes only skeletons now. The smaller trees, the dogwoods that were in bloom, they’re only stumps now, trunk and branches and blooms blasted by bullets and cannon to lie scattered on the ground — did in an hour what would’ve taken a crew of lumberjacks — how long? Should be able to figure that in my head.
Just want to find my men and get a chair.
Pick yourself up, Cartwright. That cold water feels good on your face, but lying in the middle of a bloody stream isn’t gonna get you to your men. Remember the trail. Remember how you got up when you stumbled, how you kept walking, kept putting gone foot in front of the other. Didn’t matter you were tired, that you were just a boy; didn’t matter your heart was crying for your mama, that your pa couldn’t help, couldn’t make her come back , not from the valley of the shadow— Just one step after the other.
Walking into the sun. Hurt my eyes then, hurts now. Back then, we always tried to make camp when the sun got low, ‘cause it’d drill right through your eyes to the back of your head, blind you, make you sick with the pain. Like now.
Nice fellow to steer me right. Didn’t realize my leg hurt so much ‘til he gave me that stick to lean on. One little ridge to get over, then I’ll be home. I can smell the campfire.
No, not really home, but as much as any of us have out here. The home of friendship, of comrades, of lousy food and not enough sleep and men who’ve learned they can count on each other. Tallackson, McKnight, Hastings, Smith, Young . . . Black, Gilmore, Hall, McFadden, Warner, Pierce, Taylor . . . . Oh, Taylor’s laugh is so much like Joe’s it lifts my spirits just to hear him, and McFadden is as big a bear as Hoss. The Colonel — his eyes so much like Pa’s. Sees everything, knows when to let the men blow off steam and when to pull them in close.
Just a few more steps and you’ll be back with them and you can finally sit down.
Oh, God, there are so many empty chairs to choose from—