With the Dawn Comes Mourning (by Calim11)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  6200


 

The creak of the rope swing echoes around me along with the high-pitched giggles of my youngest brother Joe. I turn and see him on the swing swaying back and forth, a smile as big as I’ve ever seen on his face. Hoss, my younger brother, is leaning against the tree laughing at our little brother’s antics and my heart soars.

It’s shocking, this feeling, and I don’t know why. There’s something about that bent ol’ tree and low branch and the fact that happiness just doesn’t seem to fit right here, right now, or that it seems odd to see my brothers at all.

A sound reaches me and I cock my head. 

Gunfire? 

Shouts?

I hear a snap and my eyes swiftly return to that tree, that swing, to find nothing there but scorched land and burned bark. There’s not even a remnant of the rope for the swing.

With a frantic heart and legs that never moved faster, I sprint toward that tree hoping I’m not too late as I shout my brother’s name . . .

“JOE!”

I hear myself cry out the name of my brother as eyes fly open and I bolt upright, yes, bolt. Take it from someone who knows – it’s not recommended to move like that, especially when fleeting memories bat at the brain about standing on a hill waiting for the right time to enter the fray then suddenly the world explodes about you and everything goes dark. But it’s taking some time for my mushy brain to catch up with my body and by then it’s too late, my quick movements causing my world to spin and my stomach to creep up and nearly out, followed closely by a sharp pain moving straight up my arm and into my pounding head.

If I was smart, I would just lie back down, close my eyes and hope that a bit of that darkness overtakes me again. But, being that I’m stubborn, I merely shut my eyes and force my stomach back into place. A distant remnant of that dream comes back to me – the sound of Joe’s giggles, the happiness I felt. I was home.

Too bad it’s not true.

So instead of dwelling on what isn’t, I concentrate on regulating rapid breaths which in turn slows the hammers in my head to a reasonable level giving me hope that I can at least open my eyes without retching all over myself. Near as I can tell, it’s just a few minutes after that when a hand drops on my arm.

“Ya’ll right, Cap’n?”

It’s my sergeant, Kelso Nimquist – a man I owe more than my life to, many times over. My muscles relax then, for I know I’m in good hands and give him a slight nod.

“I heard you shoutin’. Was it yer brother you was callin’ or Joe Peters? I can get ‘im if’n you want.”

“Brother,” I manage, staying as still as possible, my jumbled memory attempting to conjure up exactly why I’m in a tent and not out on the field with my men. There’s a story here. It’s just a shame I don’t know it.

“Thought so. I suppose the boy was up ta no good. Well, that’s ta be expected from a young lad like that.”

I’m sure he’s smiling but I don’t dare open my eyes just yet. It’s hard to concentrate when you feel like you’ve been run over by a stagecoach. But I have to get some information, and anything will do.

“W-what happened?” I stutter, my voice rough as if unused for a great length of time. The effort to speak makes me cough then wince, followed by a quick grab at my arm then my head.

Boy, oh, boy, I need to go back to bed.

“Went down near twelve hours ago, sir,” came the explanation, “up on that high hill behind us. Took a piece a shrapnel in yer arm and a branch from that bent ol’ tree bounced offa yer head. I brung you right down so’s Doc Pike could pass muster on you.”

Listening around the thumping in my ears, those words fling me back. I remember that hill. I’d been standing there waiting, looking for the precise time to move in, my hand resting against that “bent ol’ tree”, thinking on how the low branch would make a good rope swing, then . . . oh, that’s where the dream came from.

Opening gritty eyes to the yellowed lantern light filling the tent, I try to center in on the man before me, try to focus on Kelso’s grizzled face, not missing a sadness issuing from him just by how he sat on the camp stool. It brings a slew of questions to mind but, of all the things to ask, I don’t know why this comes out first.

“Why is it so quiet?”

“Evenin’, sir,” Kelso answers. “Fightin’ stopped a while ago.”

“Evening?”

“Yessir.”

Did he say I’ve been down 12 hours?

12 hours?

My men.

Trying to sit up straighter proves unsuccessful, so instead I lean a bit straighter against the tent wall, my inner voice reminding me that I wasn’t there for my men; wasn’t there to guide them, to help them, to keep them safe. I would laugh had I the energy since my presence couldn’t keep them from getting killed if the odds were against them, but it helps for just a moment to let that thought meander through. Clearing my throat makes me wince again, and then a hot sweat breaks out all over. I ignore it.

“The count?” I venture next.

It’s a natural question, one that’s been asked dozens of times and will be asked a dozen more until this war is over. The answer always brings great dismay as numbers both large and small lodge in my head and my gut, but these feelings of sadness and heartache are kept inside and away from the men. It won’t do to let them know how much it takes out of their captain each time a number is confirmed, each time a name is attached to a number and a face to a name. It won’t do at all.

It takes a moment to register that silence is all that’s coming my way. Looking up, I watch Kelso quickly glance away, and my jaw clenches. I narrow my eyes.

“The count, Sergeant.”

He looks back, knowing not to ignore that particular tone. “Ah, we’re not sure, sir,” he begins slowly as if choosing the words carefully, averting his eyes once again.

I frown. “Not sure?”

Kelso is always sure.

“Yessir.” He fidgets some more. That’s when my worry begins. “The fightin’ continued on ‘til the sun was gone and then some. Didn’t have no time ta take a count. Hafta wait ‘til mornin’.”

This time I look away to stare at some distant point. It never mattered how dark it was – Kelso always took a count. That could only mean . . .

“What time is it?” I ask next thinking it might help me center myself.

“’Round 2:00 a.m., I reckon,” he answers.

2:00 a.m.

That means I went down about 3:00 p.m. I remember the sun just starting its downward turn toward the horizon and the sky turning an off-blue soon to be replaced with that pale orange that you knew would deepen as the hour moved on, and it would be a pure sight to behold.

Everything had been going well then, hadn’t it?

Weren’t we on the verge of pushing the rebs back, taking the ground?

Gently rubbing my head around the bandage wrapped there, I try to think on what was going on at the time and then it hits me and I flinch.

The swing.

God, I’d been thinking about a swing and not my men in the field!

I clench my jaw before cursing out loud. “Stupid son-of-a-bitch.”

The effort rockets pain through my head and I quickly stop, rubbing at my forehead again. No use yelling at myself. It won’t change a thing. I sigh. “Who took over after I went down?” The need to know beats at me. If I wasn’t in charge, who was?

Kelso is hesitating again and it makes my worry blossom.

“Sergeant?”

I watch him take a deep breath.

“Lieutenant MacGreggor, sir,” he finally says.

I shiver. Lieutenant Vitas MacGreggor is young and arrogant, without a lick of sense. It would seem his father bought his commission, for there is no way he graduated from West Point on his own. The man doesn’t have an ounce of common sense, let alone a grasp on strategy – the idea of waiting and watching is a foreign concept to him. My early attempts to get him transferred had failed and I’d been warned to keep quiet. No telling what MacGreggor’s father might choose to do to me or my own, even though they are safely in Nevada. Power reaches where it will.

Now he’d been tossed into command, with my men, and I can’t even imagine what came of it. Or maybe I can and that’s what makes me shiver.

“I seem to recall we were doing well before I went down,” I add.

“Yessir.”

“And so the flanking maneuver worked?” I ask expectantly.

“Ah, no sir.”

I frown once again. “Why not?”

Kelso winced. “There was a change, sir.”

“Change?”

“Yessir,” he gives me with a painful expression. I try to keep my features calm despite what’s going on underneath. “You were the flankin’ run, Cap’n. When you went down, the Lieutenant took yer place.”

“And? It should’ve worked unless the rebels . . .”

“He, ah, didn’t do what you ordered, sir,” Kelso interrupts. “He moved the men out of place and took another route,” he finishes looking away. “It was then the tide turned, sir. The men . . . the men followed him and . . . it was a rout, sir.”

I swallow hard to push the knot from my throat.

A rout. We had it won, or at least settled until the next round. It was working. We were going to get out of this with very few losses.

“Did he call the men back?” I ask, my voice barely above a whisper.

Kelso looks directly at me then. “No, sir.”

I grimace at the look, a look that speaks volumes. MacGreggor didn’t call them back; he took another route; Kelso looks like, if he could, he’d squirm right out of his skin and disappear.

“I’d like to hear the Lieutenant’s report, Sergeant. Please send him in.”

I don’t really want to hear anything that man has to say but maybe this is one way to get him out from under my command.

“Can’t, sir,” comes the short answer.

I know the answer but ask anyway. “And why is that?”

“’Cause he’s dead, sir.”

Of course, he is. He kills my men and then has the audacity to get himself killed in the process!

“He called fer a charge jest as the sun was disappearin’ over the horizon. I tried ta stop him, sir. We can’t fight in the dark, I reminded him, but he insisted, tellin’ me that one last run would end the rebels’ try for this piece of land.” Kelso looks down and fiddles with his pants. “It was awful, sir, seeing nothin’ but fire comin’ outta the end of them rifles. Fire and smoke and not a single face to go with it ‘cause it was too dark ta see.” He sat up straighter. “I pulled the men, sir. I told the Lieutenant I was gonna do it and then pulled ‘em. He threatened ta court martial me but I did it anyway. Shoulda done it sooner.”

A part of me thanks God the Lieutenant isn’t around anymore because I would surely be court-martialed. But then another part backhands me for the thought, for I know that with the Lieutenant went more good men.

Damn! Damn! Damn!

I wasn’t there to protect them, to keep them safe from the likes of MacGreggor. But now I have to be; I have to show them that I’ve not given up. A dinged-up arm and bloodied head won’t keep me out from amongst them. Even though I can’t change what’s happened, I can give them something to hang onto. That is if they still have confidence in me.

No matter. I won’t let wonderings keep me stuck in here. I have to move.

So with a plan decided, I take a deep breath and once again try to straighten up bound and determined to make it or pass out trying.

Managing to pull myself away from the tent wall and lean forward, I clutch at my knee with white-knuckle resolve, ignoring the shaking of said knee that goes right along with the frantic beating of my heart and the continual upheaval of the tent spinning away. Giving in at this point, while a nice thought, is not on my agenda. I am firm in my decision to stand. Whether or not my body will follow, well, that’s another matter.

“Ho, there, Cap’n. Where ya think yer goin’?” Kelso calls out, immediately grabbing at my arm.

Breath is short but I get my point out. “Up the hill.”

Pushing off that knee and more or less coming to my feet, I am forever thankful when Kelso hangs on until both of us are sure I won’t keel over at his feet.

“Tell me, sir, why you wanna do that when yer still ailin’?”

Patiently waiting for the roaring rush to recede from my ears and the flickering of lantern light to stop making me dizzier than I already am, I’m surprised to find myself still standing as I look up. I don’t know how much time has passed to accomplish this one little thing but I do know that I have a job to do and no one else can do it but me.

After a few moments more, I stand a bit taller and find I can think beyond the next heartbeat and look Kelso right in the eye, my tone soft.

“I have to see what we’ve lost.”

He holds my gaze for a time, and I know what he’s thinking:  if we stand here long enough, I’ll feel faint and have to sit down. But I’m onto him and become resolute in my stubbornness. My father always told me I have enough stubborn to out-stubborn a mule, and it appears he’s right because Kelso slowly nods.

“Let’s go then,” he finally says. “But I’ll not have you go alone.”

I muster up a part of a smile from somewhere as a rush of thankfulness fills me. I’d have been dead many times over without Kelso’s keen sense and loyalty, and I hope he understands my gratitude without any true words between us. That gives me pause. Perhaps I should say something because who knows what will come this day or the next.

But it will have to wait. There are more important things to do today.

Slowly we make our way toward the tent flap and I rest against the small desk to catch my breath. Kelso drapes my coat over me and every one of my conscious thoughts moves to find a steadiness, a calm, for beyond this little realm of quiet I currently find myself in is what remains – my men, those boys who rely on me to be strong when they can’t, to know what’s around the bend when they don’t, to lead them when they find their feet frozen to the earth. I can’t be horsed along like an old man on his last legs. They might lose confidence if they haven’t already, and that would be deadly for us all.

“Are you sure about this, sir?” Kelso asks. “It won’t mean nothin’ ta have you rest fer a spell. The boys know you was hit.”

Easing from Kelso’s grip, I yank down the front of my shirt and hold my jacket close about me.

“I need to do my nightly walk-through, Sergeant, even if it’s just to that hill. They need to know I’m still here for them, battered though I am. They can ignore me as they see fit.”

We stare at each other for a few moments then he nods.

“Yessir,” Kelso says, and pulls back the flap.

The cool night breeze hits me hard, dries the sweat on my face and sends chills through my aching bones. I contemplate whether this is such a good idea since my heart is racing, my breath is short and whatever Doc Pike gave me earlier is wearing off. But then I remember who I am and what I represent, and my father wouldn’t be pleased if I hid in my tent just because I’m scared of what I might find. That is not a Cartwright trait and, just because I’m miles from home, doesn’t mean I can or will change that ideal.

So I shake it off and take a step, then another, always aware that Kelso is close behind like a shadow, always ready if needed. It makes my fear abate some, makes me feel bolstered, a feeling which is hard to find in the world I now inhabit. But then he always manages to do that for me.

God bless Kelso Nimquist.

The quiet as I move through camp carries with it the ability to unnerve me. It seems all eyes are elsewhere this evening and I can’t blame them. If I’ve lost their faith, I’d rather know now than in the midst of battle, so I pull my gaze from them and focus on the hill that stretches to the sky intent upon reaching the top. I need to see what lies beyond for the report I have to give, for the letters I have to write, and for my sake as well because I know my own forgiveness will be a long time coming.

“Sir,” comes Kelso’s voice next to my ear. The tone draws my attention from the hill. “The men.”

The words filter in and I turn.

My men, who’ve done whatever I ask of them, who fight through their fear, who follow me step by step, are standing about looking at me with relief and hope. I shudder knowing each expects calming words to appease their souls. But how can I when mine is being chipped away piece by piece?

But this is part of my job, so I call upon the days of my youth when I had to tell my brothers that everything was going to be all right whether I knew the truth or not. I school my features and give them what they need. It seems deceitful, these empty words of encouragement I deliver, that did me no good whatsoever but seem to work their magic on them as tensions ease, slumped shoulders rise and tentative smiles return. And then I remember my father’s words delivered over a lifetime, how they always made me feel better whatever the circumstance – even if the words spoken were little more than a fancy way of saying we’re going to make it eventually. I trusted him, looked up to him and it never occurred to me he was just telling me what I wanted to hear to ease my fear.

To ease their fear.

It is the least I can do.

As the men resettle at their campfires or in their tents, I move on, hearing low murmurings in my wake as my eyes track back up that hill. It’s just a step I take, just one before I’m practically knocked from my feet by young Tally Fenim barreling into me, arms wrapped so tightly about my waist it takes my breath – of which I have very little at the moment.

Attempting to regain some sense of balance before falling into a heap, I realize he’s jabbering on about something, his voice muffled in the depths of my jacket. Before my questions start, he turns his head and out comes how afraid he’s been, thinking I’d fallen that day never to return. That damn near does me in as a rush of emotion that I’ve so valiantly tamped down since being here washes through me like a flood, and I find I’m holding him just as tightly.

This young boy, all of 13, reminds me so of my brother Joe at that age – full of vim and vigor in how he deals with, well, everything. But this boy, instead of playing with friends or sitting in a schoolhouse, is hooked up with us, standing ankle deep in blood day after day, seeing things a grown man shouldn’t at such a tender age. My heart breaks to watch someone lose their innocence in such a manner.

“I’m all right, Mr. Fenim,” comes my assurance, half believing the words myself.

“But you fell and I didn’t know where you were and no one would tell me,” he cries. I glance over to Kelso who gives me a sheepish look.

“Was a lot goin’ on, sir. Didn’t have no time ta tell tales,” he whispers.

I nod and continue to rub Tally’s back, thinking it would be nice to just spend some time with the boy, talk about his home and family. But then I catch sight of that “bent ol’ tree” and sigh. I must complete the job I’ve set out for myself. “Now you’ve seen me, Mr. Fenim, so off to bed with you.”

He pulls back, showing me tear-stained cheeks. I gently brush the wetness away, thinking of all the boys who’ve lost someone in this wretched war, and give him a small grin. “We’ve not much time ‘til morning and you must have your wits about you.”

“Yessir,” he blubbers, running a sleeve under his nose.

“Now go wash your face. Go on.”

I watch him for a bit hurrying off to do his captain’s bidding, wondering if Joe and Hoss ever think of me in the middle of the night when the moon appears from behind a cloud and the stars shine and wonder when I’ll be home? God, I miss them.

“Are ya sure ya wanna continue, sir? It’s gettin’ colder,” comes Kelso’s concerned voice, interrupting thoughts of home.

I look at him. I can see it in his eyes. He just wants me back in my tent, and for a moment, I’m tempted, but then the outline of that tree, now cut in two, the many lanterns tossing their yellowed light against its burned bark, catches me. Those on the other side of that tree won’t be sleeping in their tents tonight, and neither should I.

He sighs when I remain quiet.

“Shall we carry on then, sir?”

Nodding, I surreptitiously take Kelso’s arm as the incline becomes a bit much for my head at this point, no longer caring what the men see as sweat trickles down my neck to niggle past my collar. I feel as old as the tree and so very glad to make the top and ease myself down against it, letting the night breeze once again dry my face, accepting the blanket Kelso wraps about me.

Leaning back my head, thoughts turning to all the horrors behind me and all that is yet to come, I wish for just a moment to feel and hear a sweet nothing that will surely bring back my equilibrium – something I haven’t enjoyed since leaving home. It’s there, floating about, almost within my grasp, fluttering as a butterfly just out of reach. I pry open tired eyes to stare out at the dark, now stippled with gray, and I’m forcibly reminded of where I am and push away such thoughts. I can’t stand to have an instant of peace knowing it will be blasted from existence the moment the sun provides enough light to start the battle over again. Now is not the time for peace and balance. That’s for when the guns are still.

Will they ever be still?

Voices rise from camp and pull at me. They are hopeful and sad, tired and anxious, and one word repeats over and over to fill my ears – home.

Home.

Why did I ever leave it? What was I thinking leaving the safe confines of the Ponderosa for the wilds of Virginia now in a constant state of discord?

So many times I’ve asked myself that same question. So many times I’ve regretted the zeal and ardor that befell me, enticing me into defending this nation when all others tried to talk me out of it. Oh, how I should’ve listened, for that feeling of protecting what was ours has long gone, leaving me in a constant state of misery and fear when I’m not shaking from the cold or dreading the thought of another morning like this. How did my brother Hoss put it? “Like someone is stompin’ on you and there weren’t nothin’ you could do about it but bawl ta high heaven and hope someone was comin’ ta help”.

But there isn’t anyone coming. No brothers, no father, no posse. There is only another day coming, another fight, and another group of boys to mourn. How very grateful I am that only I’ve gone round the bend and my brothers remain home to keep our father distracted from what may still come – the letter announcing my untimely dismissal from this earth.

Sorry, Pa, for seeing the wisdom of your words too late. I so hope I can tell you that in person.

I rub my eyes, then my head. I need to think on something else. Death is not a subject to dwell on. It’s always there, just pushed to the back because there is no getting through a day if that’s all you think about. And yet that’s what I and the others face every minute of every day until the days turn into weeks, then months, and finally become our very existence. And what a desolate existence it is to be constantly put in harm’s way until there’s nothing left to care about – not even yourself.

No, that’s not true. I do care; otherwise, the loss of my men wouldn’t hurt so. Images of their faces and their stories constantly keep me up at night when I write another letter to a soon to be grieving family, giving praise to the boys who won’t be going home.

And then there’s the few that work under my skin.

Tally Fenim, the tow-headed youngster who’d joined us four months before, with his drum firmly on his back and a determined mindset to strike out at the rebels. The boy is fearless and has been told more than once to keep his head down instead of running pell-mell onto the field in search of injured comrades. He reminds me so of Joe.

Kelso Nimquist comes next. He sits beside me now, waiting for the sun to rise, quiet and contemplative. But there is another side to the man, one that explodes onto the battlefield shouting orders, directing the men, making sure each one knows where their captain is at any given time. He is a rare find and a good friend and reminds me of Hoss. Perhaps that’s why I gravitated toward him – he’s given me a feeling of home as I move so much further away from it.

“Sir,” comes his soft voice, bringing me back to the present. “It’s time, sir.”

Surprised at how quickly these few hours have passed, I turn a glare toward the morning gray now soundly routing the dark as the sun makes its creeping appearance up the wall of sky. Inching up the tree to my feet, I watch the light cut at the gloom of the valley below, slicing through tendrils of smoke and fog that settled during the evening cool, eyes riveted to what would be revealed, to the view I’ve been dreading since I’d received the news of what awaited me.

My heart’s normal thump increases and my hands begin to tremble as outlines take shape, and I grab the tree at my back to steady myself for this is a sight no one should witness, in this lifetime or the next. My throat tightens once again to keep my stomach in place, and I find that words fail me for none could express what the morning sun reveals. I so want to close my eyes but can’t, stricken as I am by all the waste before me. But I know it won’t matter if I look away; it is a sight that will stay with me for all eternity.

“Lord, have mercy.”

I’m not sure if that’s my voice or Kelso’s but the tortured whisper rips into the silence that surrounds us. My knees are weak and I’m ever thankful for this tree as my eyes soak up the horrendous display before me.

Heaped upon the dew-laden ground is body after body, some gathered as if struck down together while others are separate and alone, uniforms crusted with blood and gore, obliterating on which side they stood. Everywhere lays the color of red spattered against rocks and trees that fills the air with that acrid stench of copper that clings to one’s skin and never seems to go away.

Rising above the moans and cries of those still left alive is the distinctive sound of crows, already in abundance, making anyone within the perimeter quake at the all too familiar sounds. They are scavengers, harbingers of death, takers of those unfortunate enough to have fallen and remind me of the buzzards back home that nearly always signals and end of things.

The sun moves further up the sky and glints off brass buttons and silver buckles casting bright swaths of light toward this hill where we stand riveted by this grisly scene, unwilling and unable to look away. Any thoughts beyond horrified refuse to surface and tongues grow silent. There is nothing to say; nothing that would matter. All my mind focuses on is the waste of human life on both sides – and for what? A speck of ground which will trade hands multiple times before someone decides it isn’t worth it.

Why do they still do it?

Why do I still do it?

How can God look upon this and do nothing?

“Sir,” comes Kelso’s voice drifting toward me as if from a great distance, seeping past the cotton that seems to have cast itself about me. “I’ll send the boys out ta retrieve what’s ours. The rebs is doin’ the same. Seems we got ourselves a truce today.”

I nod, not moving my eyes from the carnage, not caring who sees the tears that streak my face as I wonder who won’t be coming back.

“I’ll leave Mr. Fenim with you, sir,” Kelso quietly says. “He’ll see you back ta yer tent when yer ready.”

“Thank you, Sergeant,” finally comes, a gruff rendition of my normal tone.

“A’ course, sir.”

I hear him move off and find myself wondering if anyone would miss me were I to run off into the trees, never to look back, when a small hand slips into mine. Glancing down, I find Tally’s sorrowful green eyes looking up at me, and for a moment, I think of sending him away from the slaughter but there are no words.

“I’m here, sir,” he says clutching my hand. “Tell me what you need.”

What I need? I need a bath. I need to sleep. I need a good, long cry.

I need my Pa.

“Sir?”

I squint at him and force out the words. “What I need, you can’t give me.”

Immediately I regret those particular words as a wounded look passes over his face. Unlike those in the valley below, this boy still lives and still needs something from me. Quickly I squeeze his hand and give him a hint of a smile. “What I want, though, is your company.”

Hurt disappears and a smile lights up the space between us and cuts through some of the gloom, and I find that I do need Tally here, holding on, keeping me sane for just a while longer.

“You look a mite peak’ed, sir,” he says then. “Are you sure you don’t wanna go back to your tent?”

I look like hell, did I? Well, I feel like hell, but rest was not in my near future.

“No, Mr. Fenim. I must stay here.”

“Why?”

I hesitate. It’s foolish, my reason for staying, but it’s something I can’t shake and tugs at my soul as I sit back down to rest against the tree. He follows after me and waits for my explanation. I look back into the valley below, seeing Kelso coordinating the men to retrieve what’s ours and my heart breaks even more.

“Because I wasn’t with them when they died, so the least I can do is watch over them as they come home.”

I stumble a bit on the words, then turn to him seeing the most serious face I’ve ever seen on such a young boy. He nods and I know he understands and sadness blooms within.

He understands the horrors of war and all I can think is what a shame, for he shouldn’t have to look upon this, shouldn’t have to lose his childhood all at once and then be visited by memories for the rest of his life. But then I recall my own life, recall death and disease and disaster witnessed from the seat of a prairie schooner, and I know we share an unspoken bond between us.

Looking back out, I send up a prayer for each man and boy who’s given his all for love of country, of state, of duty, and I so wish that today would be the last time I’d have to wonder if God was listening. But I know it can’t be, not for a bit yet. That’s just the way things go, and I’m too damn tired to worry it to death.

So instead, we sit in silence and watch over the men as they’re brought back to us. We sit here, for who knows how long until the valley is as it had been. Well, I guess it would never be the same what with all the souls lost here in so short a time. But at least the grass moves freely in the breeze as morning becomes afternoon and then drifts into another night.

Sometime later, I awake with a start to find Tally snuggled up close, not certain what day it is but I’m still perched against this tree, still keeping watch as the night progresses. Settling back, I look toward the many stars spread out across the black sky and ponder upon all the things that cross my mind when awakened in the middle of the night. There are so many, but this night I settle on just one thing – I don’t ever want to witness another morning like this for as long as I walk the earth. From my point of view, it doesn’t seem like much to ask, at least not now, as the dark hides so many things and gives me some hope for the coming morrow.

And I clutch at that hope as if I were a drowning man in need of saving. For hope is a chestnut horse with a white blaze spiriting me away from the carnage along a rim filled with tall pines and scented breezes. Hope is a Sunday dinner, the table filled to overflowing with Hop Sing’s best, and each chair occupied by the ones who mean the most to me. And hope is the idea that soon I will be going home never to leave again.

The sound of Kelso’s voice brings me back and I watch him March up this hill and head straight for us. He stops, puts hands on his hips, and I know he means business.

“Doc Pike wants you in yer tent, Cap’n, and I’m not one ta argue with the good doctor, especially when he’s got a knife in his hands.”

That makes me grin and I rub at my eyes, picturing the good doctor making good on his threat.

“I woulda got you sooner but you was sleepin’ pretty good and young Mr. Fenim there was keepin’ you warm.”

Running a hand up and down the boy’s back, I gently shake him awake, watching him yawn.

“Sir?” he says with a frown.

“Time for bed, Mr. Fenim,” I inform him, allowing Kelso to help me stand since that’s the only way I’m getting to my feet. I stagger a bit and Tally’s there holding on.

“It’ll be all right, sir,” he tells me, all his sleepiness gone.

I actually believe him. I’m surprised.

Perhaps it’s the late hour or the numbness that’s set in.

Perhaps it’s the resilience of youth or just that I want to believe.

Perhaps things will be different as a new sun rises.

I can only hope.

***The End***

Acknowledgment:  A great big thank you to sandspur for the Beta read. Everything offered was greatly appreciated. Thank you!

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