Oi! The time to write has slipped away from me, having two flu bugs go through our house in the past month. Then I encountered a graphic novel, posted online, that I really foudn entrancing, and then my latest stack of harlequins came in.
Needless to say, I’ve been distracted. But last night, I couldn’t sleep, and as usual, another chapter of my “pantsing” novel, Where I’ve Been, spewed out. I have to say its very much fun writing this without a clue to where it might go, and just putting it out there for fun. I know I have some readers out there, and thank you for reading! I appreciate it very much. Its such a rough draft, I’m wondering if I shouldn’t slash and burn before I post it, but I kind of like the rawness I get when I re-read it posted up here, in a different format. It lets me see the story differently, somehow, and I make copious notes as to improvements, fillers for parts I feel are not fleshed enough, and bits I can stroke out.
So, without further hesitation, here is part 7.
Where I’ve Been – Part 7
It had happened.
The bell had been rung, and now, the town was apprehensively waiting for people to appear on the road towards town. In the early morning, people walked in groups, their breath fogging upwards into the cold, and boots were crunching on snow their voices carrying well in the winter air. No one wanted to wait inside, they wanted to be the first to see if it was the army, come to recruit, and rest. The square would soon be full.
The alarm had sounded just after dawn, and Chris had left the house five minutes after, throwing his thick fur coat on, grabbing the rifle from behind the door, and slamming it back against the frame. Not ten minutes later, Nessa heard the hoofbeats of his best horse beat down the road towards the square. She knew London, Turner, Hammond, Peter, Maury and Barley, and maybe even Percy and Lawrence would be waiting, their horses dancing, their backs straight from the anticipation. If not for the foreboding, she would liken them to gallant knights from the story books she’d read as a child. But this was no fairy tale.
Nessa kept her worrying at bay by making a massive breakfast of pancakes with oatmeal and dried strawberries. She’d placed the plates in front of her mother and sister absently, her mind on her father, Barley, and the rest of the Elder Council as they rode out to the gates.
“You think its the army?” Harriet asked excitedly, through a mouthful of pancake. “I wonder what all those soldiers will look like.”
“Just like Barley did, I imagine.” her mother said, a cross look on her face. “Thin, wasted, ugly.”
Nessa blinked at her mother, but let it be. She supposed her mother was a worried about the army arriving, and Harriet’s excited chatter did not help it. Harriet went quiet for a moment, and Nessa pushed the plunger down on the tea pot, and poured cups for her mother and sister before she sat to her own breakfast. A nasty thought crossed into her head that she should eat well, in case she was needed to treat injured and sick people, because who knew when she would eat again. She wondered if she should be preparing some food for the influx of people, or the men, when they returned from the gates.
She also briefly wondered how many of the men would have to leave if it came to that.
Barley had relented, and in the days after her father’s accident, told her about the army, what it was like, and that he was afraid she would be recruited if they arrived, knowing full well she was a healer the moment they came in with wounded. he wanted her to hide, and not reveal herself. But if she was the only healer, and there were people who needed help, she had argued with Barley about it. It was her duty, she had said, and he had crossed his arms, stamped his foot, and told her that her duty was to stay safe, not trapse off to heal boys who would be dead soon anyways.
It had made Nessa laugh, and she smiled behind her fork, remembering his reaction.
“Why in the name of God are you laughing?” he had spat out, his brow furrowed, his eyes thunderous.
“Because moreso than ever before, you look just like you did the day I told you that I couldn’t jump the creek, you did anyways, got soaked, and were so mad when I wouldn’t jump in with you…” She’d answered, and continued to giggle.
She’d made Barley laugh then, a deep, resonous sound so far from the hollow, tinny rasp he’d had when arriving it had made her heart swell. They’d changed the subject to reminiscing about their childhood then, and he had forgotten the argument.
She blinked back to the present as Harriet resumed her chatter, and poured her own tea, her stack of pancakes done.
“Do you think they’ll be cold? It’s so cold out right now.” Harriet said. “I wonder how long…”
“Harriet!” Her mother spat, the stress in her voice crackling. “That is enough.”
Harriet bowed her head over her food, and was silent. Nessa patted her hand. “We’ll find out soon enough. its highly unlikley they would have travelled all that way so quickly.” She mumbled. Harriet nodded, and then once finished, excused herself quickly to make ready for the day, and the news when it came.
Nessa did also, letting her mother draw water from the cistern in the kitchen to wash the dishes, and she walked through the house, committing it to memory. She touched the surface of the sideboard, her finger travelling through a thin layer of dust. She paused to look at the spines of books in the bookshelf, reading the titles and authors names from so long ago. She grabbed one of the many Bibles on the middle shelf, and curled her fingers around the edge. The feeling she had was that this was indeed some army, and things were about to change.
She hugged the Bible to her chest and looked at the other books, reading the spines over and over. Would the boys in that army even have a book to read, or a Bible? Did they even remember how to read or write?
It was hard, wondering all these things, and she understood both her mother’s worry and her sister’s excitement. It had been a long time since visitors had made such a fuss here in their world. And they didn’t even know if it was the army. No one knew, just that the bell had been rung.
Nessa paused at the door to her room, and turned to the linen closet. She pulled out two old, ratty terrycloth towels that had been bought long before, from a merchant, and rolled them up. With them, she added a bar of soap from the box behind the facecloths, the lavender scent wafting up as she uncovered it. On impulse, she grabbed a second bar.
As she opened the door to her room, she realized what she was doing. She was preparing.
Barley sat in the saddle, the shotgun his father had given him draped over his arm, the barrel broken open to show the empty slots where the two shells in his pocket would slip. He fingered the well-worn stock of the gun, remembering how his father would bring down geese in the late Fall with this gun, calling it his “Gander Getter”. His mother would always cook them up in the oven with gooseberries and lots of vegetables, and they would eat so well for days and days. The memory was strong in his mind, and he blinked himself back to the present, wondering at how he could be daydreaming at a time like this.
He reminded himself that the boys and men on the other side of that gate hadn’t likely seen food in days, and would be cold, frostbit, and hungry. His horse fidgeted, and Barley realized he was holding the reins in. He relaxed them and his horse shook her head, thankful for the release in tension, and cocked a hip.
“Open the gate, boys.” Chris shouted, and the creaking of the ropes and old, iron reels started. Barley stilled himself, his heart thudding in his chest. He hoped to God no one recognized him, and if they did, it wouldn’t matter anymore.
The sentries had rang the alarm back in the town, and sent a messenger as the men gathered on horseback to head to the gate. Over the nickering of horses and hum of conversation, the boy who had ran back from the gate reached up and whispered into a bent-over Chris’ ear, and as Barley watched, he saw the Elder Council leader nod slowly, his face settle into a grim mask of unease. Barley nudged his horse up beside the man, and had simply looked at him.
Chris had nodded again, and asked one question of Barley. “You want to make scarce? I’d rather not have to dig your grave in the dead of winter, my lad.”
Barley realized he was too stubborn for his own good as he tugged his fur hat down over his eyes a little more, loaded his shotgun, and closed the gun with a click. He should be hiding somewhere, he should be back with the rest of the town organizing. Organizing what, he wasn’t sure, but here he was instead.
As the gates creaked open more, the men, all in a line on their horses, raised their various rifles, and shotguns. The sentry lad had identified them correctly from the emblem on their hats and jackets, remembering Barley’s tattoo. He’d said there were a lot of them, and the sentry had not been able to get a good count. He had said that not everyone was in uniform.
Barley craned his neck a bit, trying to see past the edges of the slowly opening timbers, to recognize a face. He knew that his regiment would likely not want him dead, but if it was his commanding officer, he might have to high-tail and run. he made ready as he saw an emblem of the officer rank, but then relaxed. Nothing he could see above Captain. It made him mad at himself for trading his hat, with its pin, to a beggar on the street for an old, ratty map book.
But that map book had brought him home, so it wasn’t that bad a deal.
The gates ground to a halt, 3/4 of the way open, enough for the Elders to see part of the crowd gathered at the gate. Barley watched a range of emotions wash over the men’s faces, and then he looked back out and began recognizing faces.
“See anyone?” Chris asked as quietly as possible, never taking his eyes off the people now doing their own looking in at them.
“A few. Ask to speak to the Captain. I don’t see any rank above that out there.”
Chris clicked to his horse, and moved forward a few steps. “I would ask to speak to your leader, your Captain.”
There was a rustling of bodies, and Barley could see their feet were wrapped in rags, their pants and coats layered over one another. Caked mud, dirt, and stench was evident, and Barley tightened his hands on his gun and reins once again, remembering the months of fleas, lice, mud, and excrement he’d endured in the trenches and the long, slow retreat. These people had been on that retreat since he’d left them to come here. He wondered how many more of his friends had died. For the first time, he felt guilt for leaving them.
A stocky, fuzzy man emerged from the crowd, his brown hat flashing a well-polished insignia of the United Continental Army. Three bands of red on the bar attached to the insignia indicated he was indeed a captain. He walked forward with a limp, one pant leg stiff and dark with what looked like mud. One arm was held against his stomach. he stopped just inside the doors.
“I am the Captain.” he wheezed, and Barley at once recognized him. He was the Captain of the Engineering group in Company Two. They had taken major casualties while trying to repair a bridge to get the heavy artillery across the Missouri River near Bismark. He remembered retreating as his tanks slowly rolled out onto the half-repaired bridge, and the bridge exploding from underneath them. All the workers underneath shoring the pilings, had been killed.
“What do you want here?” Chris barked out, not wasting any time.
The captain shuffled his feet, and looked back at Chris with what Barley figured was a mix of desperation and determination. It was cold, and they were a moving mass of people. Normally, armies hunkered down for the winter, rode out the cold somewhere they could be warm, and defend themselves.
“We need medical help, food, and a place to stay.” He ground out, coughing.
Chris nodded, but didn’t lower his guard. “We don’t want your war here, Captain, and we don’t want the Sickness. We can give you some food, some supplies, but you can’t stay.”
Someone pushed through the crowd, the rustling causing Chris to look up at a man striding to join the Captain. He was a tall and slim man, bony even. He had a hat in his hands, and was wearing one as well, also with a Captain rank. Barley thought he looked familiar, but couldn’t place him.
“Sir, if I may.” The man said as he stopped beside the short Captain. He laid a hand on his fellow officer’s shoulder and nodded at him. The older man grunted his assent.
“You may.” Chris said. “But the answer will still be the same.”
“No, no, its not that. I have another question. I served with a man that I think was from these parts. His name was Benson. Do you know him?”
Barley stilled, and felt himself go cold. There were some sidelong glances at him, and silence. The taller man scanned the men behind Chris, but didn’t seem to notice Barley. Of course, Barley realized he was wearing winter clothes that all but obscured his face. He’d be unrecognizeable.
“Why do you ask?” Chris said, after a moment.
“He was our… err, my Captain. We found a burnt corpse awhile back, and his hat was in the backpack.” The tall man said, holding up the brown brimmed hat. “We assumed it might have been him, and if he was from here, to let his family know. We’ve asked along the way, but no one knows him.”
A throat was cleared further down the line of men, and Barley glanced to see Turner giving him a hard, long, piercing look. Barley shook his head, and in his mind he was begging for Turner to just shut the hell up. Turner just smiled a sick, evil, little smile, and his eyes glittered as he realized that Barley was aware of what he was going to do. For some reason, that man had been against him from the start, and he had no idea why, and was about to get some revenge for some wrong that Barley had commited.
Barley knew he’d have to identify himself. He had to, or Turner would, and that was a bad thing. it would make him look like he was hiding, moreso than what he was, really. Barley knew how these things worked. As the silent moment seemed to take forever, Barley raised his reins, and moved his horse further forward, beside Chris.
“What are you doing, lad?” Chris hissed out, never taking his eyes off of the two men just inside the gate.
“Trust me, its better this way than if someone else…” Barley whispered back, and jerked his head backwards towards Turner. “…does it for me.”
Chris swivelled in his seat and looked back to the men, and Turner, his face red beneath the muffler around his coat collar, audibly swore. Chris shook his head and sighed heavily. “Alright then.” he said and nodded to Barley.
Barley took a big breath, and thought of the people he was going to miss being with. His father, his sister, and Nessa. Her face flashed into his head, and almost made him turn back and run for her, back in the town, and hold her for all she was worth, tell her how he felt. But he knew he couldn’t.
He looked back to his father, who was shaking his head, his eyes pleading with Barley to just get back into line, to forget about it. He mouthed an “I’m sorry” and pivoted back to the two captains. He had been on borrowed time anyways, he knew. Time he wasn’t going to have now that he’d be rejoining this ragged bunch of men.
“I am Captain Benson. To whom am I speaking?” He commanded, quite suddenly, and as soon as he did, a murmur erupted from the crowd at the gates.
The short Captain’s eyebrows shot up, and he stepped forward, but then stopped as Chris pulled the hammer back on his rifle with a very audible click. He looked closer at Barley, and tilted his head to one side. Barley took off his hat, and the other Captain, the thinner one, looked shocked, suddenly came to attention and saluted, forgetting his rank.
“At ease, soldier.” Barley barked again, and the thinner man relaxed. He recognized him now. The lad had been just a gunner when he’d left. A Private.
“Captain David Russell, UCA Engineering Corp Company two.” The shorter man replied. “My companion is Captain Justin Malone, Heavy Artillery Company two.”
With that, the crowd and the men fell silent, and Barley slowly dismounted. He felt heavy, and sad. He’d wanted to stay away from all this. he wanted to just be at home, live his life, no killing, no war. But, like an old dog, it followed him everywhere.
“Where have you been, Benson? last I saw you, we were under heavy gas attack somewhere in Michigan. Now I see you here, fat, warm, and obviously not injured.” David remarked.
“This is my home, Captain. I came home.” Barley said simply as he reached the two men. Justin simply held out his hat, and as Barley unfolded it, he saw the pin, the eagle a bit tarnished but nonetheless intact. The three red bars were gone, the spot to click them into place empty. He rubbed a thumb across it, pushing dirt off to reveal gold.
Justin raised his hands to take his hat off, and Barley stopped him. “No man, leave them, you earned them I am sure. Thank you for bringing this home.”
“Sir.” Justin started, then stopped. “All your men are here. It would be better if…”
Barley simply shook his head, and then, with some hesitation, put the hat on. it still fit, even overtop of the haircut he’d had. He adjusted it upright, and then looked at both men. And just like that, he was back in the war.
“How many men?”
“At last count, four hundred, Sir.” Justin replied.
“Weapons, vehicles, horses?”
“None except empty rifles and the rucksacks on our backs.” David said quietly, and looked back. “Just a whole lot of people running from death, Captain. We’ve run out of ammunition, we’ve run out of food, and we’re damned cold. We’ve got injured folk on travois. And now we find you. You have a lot of explaining to do….” He left off, his hand gesturing back to the faces behind the open gates. Barley looked up.
“Is it just Company Two out there?” he asked back just as quietly. “And I realize that. That can happen later. Right now, we have more pressing concerns.”
David stepped back, and grimaced, readjusting his arm across his midsection.
“Some of Company Four, some of the Mid-Westers, are here, and we did have some of Ace Company but…” Justin said, then dropped his head. “They went on reconnaisance and never came back.”
Barley sucked in a breath, and eyed the men sternly. “Is there any Sickness? And God have mercy on you if you lie to me.”
Both men shook their heads, and Barley scanned the crowd. All he saw were dirty faces obscured by hats and scarves, dirty clothing, and the haunted look of men who had been walking for much too long. He motioned to Chris, and the man dismounted and made his way over.
“These people need shelter Chris. We can’t just leave them.” He said, and put a hand on Justin’s shoulder. “These two swear to me that there is no Sickness, and only around 400 people out there. I trust the younger Captain, he was a loyal soldier to me.”
“And where will we put 400 people?” Chris asked, sweeping his hand behind him “We don’t even have room for forty people! And how are we going to….”
“We have tents, Sir. We can set up a camp somewhere out of the way. We just need food, and a place to treat our wounded. A doctor, if you have one.” Justin broke in. Barley felt his tension, and he patted his shoulder, releasing it.
“Your healer dead?”
Justin nodded. With that, Chris turned back to the rest of the men, still with their guns raised, still with wary stances. Chris waved their guns down, and walked to Maury. London and Hammond angled their horses in, and Barley watched them discussing, Chris’ hands moving, London pointing and jabbing the air. Turner watched from where he was, his gun now across his lap, the finger idly on the trigger. Barley met his eyes, and they stared one another down for a moment.
“I dare you, you sonofabitch.” Barley said under his breath, and crossed his arms. “Come here and threaten me, see how far it gets you.”
Turner took one last look at Barley, and he too joined the conversation. After more gesturing, and a few strained faces, Chris turned and walked back to Barley, David, and Justin.
“You can camp just inside the gates here, there is a clearing up the bend on the right. Your men in need of care can come with us into the town to a building we use for visitors.” he said tersely.
David opened his mouth to say something, but Chris held up his hand. “I’m not done. When you are rested, fed, and your men able to continue, you will leave. You will not, under any circumstances, seek alliance or recruit from our town, do you understand?”
David nodded, and Justin blinked. Barley straightened his shoulders. These men needed some direction, and he could see the travelling had worn their resolve to a nub. He gave Justin a nudge. What little they had was standing in front of him, in teh form of two very tired Captains.
“I’ll stay here and see to the men getting set up in the clearing. Once we have camp struck, I’ll bring someone with me to the old Motel and we can set up triage and beds, ok?”
“Aye Captain, let me go organize the men.” Justin said, and reached up and clicked the three red bars off of his pin, fumbling. “I may have earned these, but they are yours by right.”
Barley opened his mouth to answer, and then closed them when he saw the iron in the boys eyes.
“We need you.” Justin added. “I don’t give to farts where you’ve been. We need someone to give us strength to make it South.”
He handed them to Barley, and spun on his heel back towards the gathered mass of people. Barley held them in his hand for a moment, clicking the small metal bits back and forth in his palm, and then pulled off his hat and affixed them back onto his emblem pin. As Chris watched, he lifted his hat back to his head, squared it once more, gave a nod, and then turned towards the gate to move his troops in through the gate.