PART 1 – WHEN REAL WAR BEGINS
“As soon as real war begins, new men, heretofore unheard of, will emerge from obscurity, equal to any occasion.” William Tecumseh Sherman
July 1, 1872
Jelly Hoskins squinted up at the sound of the authoritative voice only to find two army officers, mounted on two very tall and dark horses, staring down at him. Literally staring down at him, having nosed their mounts all but into his backside. The little handyman straightened and covered his start by tossing aside the hammer he’d been using to repair the barn door – the door that had been just fine until the day before when Barranca had decided to argue with it.
“Is there somethin’ I can do for you, gents?” he asked, elbowing an inquisitive muzzle out of the way, though he’d fully heard the inquiry about Scott. What he hadn’t heard was the two of them them ride up and plunk themselves so close that he was unceremoniously trapped against the fruits of his repair, and that made him angry at himself. He wasn’t usually so careless.
Given this closer look, he didn’t think these two were just out for friendly helloes. Army usually meant trouble, and he wasn’t going to let them ride in and just take up his young boss, working out of sight repairing the road with his father and brother, even if they were some highfalutin’, big time army officers with their fancy bars and stripes. Not if he had anything to say about it. As far as he was concerned, Scott had seen enough grief from his stint with the army and he didn’t need to see any more.
“You are Mr. Lancer, then?” the mustached of the two inquired.
“Figured you fellers would know better than that,” Jelly huffed. “Bein’ army ‘n all.”
The same man, a dark-haired fellow some years his junior, spoke again. “We understand this is his ranch, sir.”
“It is,” Jelly nodded, stuffing his hands into his pockets, giving the second officer, a sandy-haired boy of no more than twenty, cause to let his right hand slide to the gun on his hip. Without being hasty about it, Jelly put his hands back into view, and glanced longingly at his discarded hammer.
“If you are not he,” said the mustached officer, “then would you kindly point out where we might find him? We’ve an urgent message to deliver to him.”
“Army business,” Jelly stated, trying not to thrust his thumbs into his braces. He lifted his whiskered jaw a little, though, and rocked a bit on his heels, just to show that he would not be cowed by them. Given that the afternoon sun was hitting him full in the face and making it hard to keep a steady gaze on them, that was a little hard to do.
“Yes, sir,” came the curt response.
“Private army business,” Jelly amended.
The officer checked his sigh. “Yes, sir.”
“He ain’t in the army no more,” Jelly said.
“We’re aware of that, sir. If you could just--”
“Ain’t had nothing to do with the army for nigh on seven years.”
“Yes, sir, we know that. Now, if you could--”
“I imagine he might not be expecting this little visit of yours,” Jelly interrupted again, wishing his voice were loud enough to carry down around that bend in the road and alert the Lancers working there.
“I wouldn’t know, sir. Now please stand aside, unless,” said the officer quickly as Jelly’s mouth opened again, “you want to be accused of impeding official military business.”
The sandy-haired boy shifted again, this time reaching inside the holster for his gun. “Oh, no sir, I’m a very patriotic man, Served with General Beadle, ya know,” responded Jelly. Stepping back with a weak smile, he added, “Sorry, gents, I’m just a curious sort, seeing that the Lancers are my bosses ‘n all. I’ve got a personal interest in them, you might say.”
“Where might he be then, sir?” The officer gave him a little smile, and his mustache framed his lips in a friendly-like manner. “If you don’t mind my asking?”
Jelly looked again at the hammer by his foot. The nearest horse snorted at him and leaned in for a nip as the younger officer caught him back just in time. Defeated, he pointed slowly. “Working the road yonder.”
“Thank you, sir.” The two men saluted. They turned in unison and moved forward, all tall and straight and military-looking.
Jelly watched them go. The fellers seemed nice enough, but still, he was worried. “I’m keeping my eyes on you, just so’s you know,” he called to their blue backs, and after a moment, grabbed up his hammer and headed for the remuda dancing in the corral.
Murdoch wiped the grit from the back of his neck with a big hand, kept the other on his shovel, and cast a curious eye over the pair as they approached. Johnny had already tossed his aside so his hand could rest on the gun tied snugly to his right thigh. Scott had also risen to full height, shoulders level, his gloved hands still around the shovel handle. A collection of dirt sifted from the implement.
The two riders halted before them. After watching the officers slow to a walk, he let the rest of the soil slide into the hole he’d been filling and then tamped it down with a strong foot. The road dust kicked up by the horses swept over them, ushering a sense of urgency into the afternoon heat. After a moment of scrutiny, Scott stepped forward.
“I’m Scott Lancer, Colonel,” he acknowledged to the senior officer with a nod.
The uniformed man nodded back. “Colonel Williams of the Adjutant’s Office, sir.” He waved to the other man beside him. “Lieutenant Wheelwright, my assistant.”
Scott let a smile slide out across his lips, a thin one that did not reach his eyes. “You’re a long way from Washington, Colonel.”
“And you are a long way from Boston, sir,” Williams responded with a similar smile. “That was the last address we had on you.”
Beside Murdoch Johnny shifted, causing the lieutenant to cast an inscrutable gaze onto him. Scott glanced over at his brother. Johnny caught his eye and eased back into position.
“My father, Murdoch Lancer,” Scott nodded, directing his gaze to his visitors again. “And my brother, John.”
Touching his hand to the brim of his hat, the colonel acknowledged the simple introduction. “Gentleman.”
“Do you mind my asking the meaning of this visit?” Scott spoke, eyeing the lieutenant once more before addressing Williams. “Surely you’re not here to award any missing back pay?”
The older man grinned. “No sir. We’re on special assignment. I’ve been ordered to deliver this to you, sir, and await your reply.” He reached into his coat and withdrew a folded sheet of paper, sealed with gold wax.
Scott carefully laid his shovel aside and stripped off his gloves, shoving them into his back pocket. He took the paper from Williams’ reach and fingered it for a moment. Then breaking the seal, he unfolded it and read.
For a long moment all that could be heard was the far off sounds of the ranch and the closer scrape of gravel as the horses fidgeted in their places. Scott’s expression remained impassive, revealing nothing of what the letter might contain.
Murdoch’s concerned inquiry broke into the silence. His son’s quiet gaze was unreadable as he looked first at his father and then turned back to the colonel. Scott’s long fingers refolded the document and he held it up. “I’m sorry,” he said. “But I believe you’re mistaken.”
Williams straightened. He glanced at Wheelwright before speaking. “You are Scott Lancer, are you not?” he asked, his gaze skipping over Johnny and Murdoch standing silently to one side. “Second Lieutenant, United States Cavalry, January 1863 through September 1865?”
“Were you not present, sir, at the siege of Vicksburg? And did you not serve your country during the final campaign under General Sheridan, receiving an honorable discharge from the service on September 11th, 1865?”
“Was your previous address number 29 Chestnut Street, Boston, Massachusetts?”
“Yes,” Scott nodded with a frown. “However…”
“Then there is no mistake, sir,” Williams said to him. “What shall I say is your reply?”
Scott slowly lowered his hand and looked again at the paper, seemingly weighing the contents in his grasp. He took a breath and then another and his lips tightened. “It’s not…” he started. He looked back up. “There are others…”
Scott let out a short sigh. He glanced off to the shouldered hills golden in the warm afternoon light. The air thickened in the fresh quiet. “Yes,” he finally nodded, bring his attention back to the two officers. “You can tell them I’ll be there.”
A look of satisfaction settled on Williams’ face, and Wheelwright nodded. “Very good, sir. We’ll see you on the fourth, then. Good day to you, sirs,” he said to Johnny and Murdoch and loped away, Lieutenant Wheelwright a step behind.
“What was that all about?” Johnny asked into the silence.
A call directed their attention back to the road, where Jelly was approaching at a run, a hammer held aloft in his right hand.
Scott waved, then met his family’s gaze. “I’ve an audience with the president on the fourth,” he said, his voice slightly hollow. “In Sacramento.”
“The president of what?” Murdoch asked him.
With just the slightest bit of hesitation, Scott replied, “The President…of the United States.”
PART 2 – EMERGING FROM OBSCURITY
At the ensuing silence Murdoch looked up from the contract he had been reviewing. Maria was standing before Scott with a silver tray of after dinner coffee in her brown hands. His eldest son, however, had apparently not heard her. The letter, the one hand-delivered earlier by the two army officers, lay open in Scott’s lap as he sat on the sofa before the fireplace. He was staring at the open page, but judging by the pensive gaze on his face, Murdoch was not sure that his son was seeing anything on it.
“Señor?” Maria tried again, then looked to Murdoch for help.
“Scott,” Murdoch called in a strong voice, getting up from behind his desk. He came around. “Manners, son,” he continued.
At that Scott blinked and looked up. He frowned at his father then saw Maria standing there. His look went guilty and he jumped up; the letter arced to the floor in his wake. “I’m sorry,” he declared to Maria, quickly retrieving it and placing it on the cushion beside him. “I should have--”
“No importa, Señor,” Maria smiled at him. She raised the tray, indicating his cup with a nod.
“Gracias,” he murmured to her with gratefulness, and waited until she had served his father before resuming his seat on the sofa. But his attention was already caught up by the little flames in the hearth working to warm the room from an unexpected chill that had appeared right after sundown.
Murdoch watched Maria move quietly across the room and return to the kitchen. He took a sip of the coffee, swallowed with satisfaction. Scott, he noticed, had placed his cup on the side table and was once again contemplating the letter now in his left hand, while his right worried a spot over one eye.
“Quite a surprise,” Murdoch commented, approaching. “And an honor.”
“Yes,” Scott nodded and reluctantly looked up. He hesitated, then began, “I know Lancer always hosts a barbecue on the Fourth…”
Murdoch waved a hand. “The barbecue will still be held – Cip can run things, which he usually does anyway. We’ll be there for you, Scott.” He paused. “Assuming you still want us there, that is.”
“I do,” Scott nodded. But with a new frown, he went quiet.
Murdoch took another drink of his coffee, then put the cup and saucer on the matching end table. “Don’t think too hard on it,” he counseled, coming to sit beside his son.
“It’s so – unexpected,” Scott slowly answered. He ran a hand through his fair hair, ash-colored in the dwindling firelight. “What I did that day – it was no more than hundreds of others, thousands of others. Others who sacrificed much more than me.” He carefully balanced the letter on the arm of the sofa, then looked down and shook his head. “I was just young – and brash…”
“And brave,” put in Murdoch. When Scott did not respond, he said, “There’s a reason you were chosen among them. I’m sure any of them would be proud of you today.”
Scott blew out a breath. “Maybe.” He suddenly sat forward, propped his elbows on his knees, clasped his hands in front of him. “It was just so long ago that it hardly seems to matter now.”
“But not long enough to forget.” Murdoch’s voice was quiet but firm. “They want you to have it, son. It is a prestigious honor.”
“Yes,” Scott said softly, nodding. “I know.”
Murdoch patted his arm and rose. He knew his son. Scott’s silences indicated his need for some more time to contemplate this unexpected honor. It was not as simple as an audience with the President. Murdoch wished he could do more for his eldest, for the complex set of emotions working across Scott’s face concerned him. But it was not for him to try and force any explanations. Scott dealt with personal issues in a quiet, reserved manner that deserved respect. Despite his reluctance, Murdoch murmured a good-night, took his coffee and ambled off toward the kitchen.
Scott sighed and switched his gaze to the dying firelight, but the dates and phrases from the letter followed, floating before the flickering flames.
May 22, 1863. Vicksburg. The last offensive before the siege. Gallantry in the line of duty…carrying messages through heavy fire…in plain view of the enemy…
So much happened in those days of the battle. Even after so many years he couldn’t sort it all out. Certainly not on May 22nd, that chaotic and horrific day. After the city had fallen it had been a little clearer, but they were already bound for other battles, more losses, more marches in heat and cold and rain, in mud and dust and hunger. There was duty to it, but no glory…not like the glory represented in this invitation that he had accepted.
July 4, 1863 – Vicksburg. He remembered that day, and an evening similar to this one, quiet and thoughtful. He’d been writing a letter that evening, instead of reading one. Trying to write a letter, anyway…
July 4, 1863
I am writing to you as promised, and apologize for the delay. The siege at Vicksburg, as you may have read, was long but is now finally over. I am well, and was not harmed—
Scott brushed aside a bit of dust from the paper. He wanted to wipe the grit from the back of his neck but refrained, lest he soil the tablet he was writing on. He needed to get this letter done and ready for delivery. It had been weeks since he’d written home and was outside his promise to frequently post to his grandfather. The evening meal was over, such as it was, and he wanted to find time for a quick wash before they moved out at dawn. But right now he had a need to write. He put pencil to paper again.
We have achieved victory with this battle, but the war continues. We head north and east next, chasing the Confederates. It is hot here, damnably so—
Should he revise that word?
Scott blinked and looked up, realizing the address was to him. His new rank still sounded foreign to him, yet his sergeant quickly saluted him.
“Begging the lieutenant’s pardon, sir,” said Thomas Grady, a fast friend some twelve years Scott’s senior whose military experiences Scott had earnestly relied upon since entering the war.
Scott quickly laid his letter writing aside, stood and returned the salute. “I’m sorry, Sergeant – I guess I didn’t hear you.”
Tom grinned in the encroaching darkness and stepped into the feeble light of the sputtering campfire. The thin glow etched lines into his darkly bearded face, made him look older than his thirty years. “That’s all right, sir, as long as you do hear me in the thick of fighting the likes of which we’ve seen. Might keep your brains under your hat if you do.”
“Wise advice that I will make certain to remember,” Scott smiled at him.
“Yes, sir,” said Tom, and then waited, thrusting thick hands behind his back in semblance of attention.
Scott glanced at the letter he’d started. “Was there something that requires my attention, Sergeant?”
The sergeant hesitated. “I seen you writing – a letter to home?”
Scott let his gaze drop for a second. “Yes.” Tom was being polite, for he knew that his young lieutenant wrote home as regularly as he could. And Tom also knew of Scott’s habit of seeking solitude at the end of the day. He generally respected Scott’s desire to be alone, so this was no social visit. “What is it, then?” Scott asked.
“Well, sir, it’s the boys,” said Tom. “They’re managing a bit of a celebration, it being the Fourth ‘n all. Corporal Lewis, he’s procured some spirits--”
“How? And from whom?” Scott demanded. There had been strict orders to refrain from imbibing.
"Oh, it’s all right, sir,” Tom told him. “He got it from the commanding officer of the Fifth – they offered to share and well…the men are asking for you, sir.” Tom took his hat from his head and twisted it in his hands. “They’d like to toast you, sir, for your actions…”
“That’s over with, Sergeant,” Scott softly interrupted, sitting back down on the small campstool. “Six weeks and more…”
“They’re still impressed, sir, and proud.” Tom let his gaze linger into the fire for a moment. “And maybe a bit scared, still. The celebrating – it helps keep them going, gives them courage to go on.” He looked over to Scott. “They’ll be leaving friends behind in this place…”
“We all will, Sergeant,” Scott replied, straining to hold back the emotion that threatened. Men from his own regiment, friends from others, bodies shattered and lifeless, drained of blood, organs, life…
“Yes, sir,” Tom said into the ensuing quiet. He let it ease back around them, then commented, “So perhaps you understand their need, then?”
Scott made a noise, got up, and turned away from his sergeant. He was no hero – and that’s what they wanted him to be. He hadn’t done it for them, not directly. It had been duty, nothing more than anyone of them could have done. A message needed to get through and he’d brought it up. And then another one, and another. He’d lost a fine horse and gained a bruised hip on the final return, taking a few Confederates lives as he’d lurched from the saddle on the fated animal’s back. Then he’d jumped up and moved, ducking and running under smoke and canister shot, following the sound of Tom’s voice calling him to safety, tumbling into the protection of a Union trench, breathless and quivering. He’d done his job, and after a few minutes he was up again, fighting alongside his men, waiting for the sun to go down and the battle to fade.
Now they were recommending him for a marksman’s unit. But that would mean leaving Tom and the others. And while he would readily shoot to defend himself or any one of his men – this was war, after all – he wasn’t sure he wanted to be a deliberate killer of other men. He preferred the cavalry and the thrill of the charge, the skill of man and animal, the chase for control. But not the killing, not the deaths. Never that.
Scott looked up past Tom to the dark sky above, vast, expectant yet peaceful. He was a long ways from home and he suddenly missed it, missed Boston and his grandfather, missed the familiarity of those surroundings, the comfort of what had been his life before now. It had all been so bright and gay, so unreasonably simple. Tonight his hometown would be celebrating the Fourth of July in smart style, but the frivolity now seemed so shallow to him. He doubted anything they did back there could even begin to rival the scenes he had witnessed today. He would long remember watching silently as Confederate soldiers, hungry and tattered and silent themselves, came out of their beleaguered stronghold to lay down their arms under the white flags of surrender. He’d felt a genuine admiration for those soldiers who had defended so valiantly, only to have to admit defeat in the end. At the same time he had welcomed an intense pride in his men and others for what they had just as courageously accomplished.
Seeing his country’s flag raised from the highest point of the city’s defenses shortly after the Confederate Stars and Bars had been lowered, had caused a warring of these emotions so strong that he wondered if he’d ever look at war the same again. It had, in the end, been a somber experience. There had been no celebrating by the federal troops, no cheering. Instead there had been only quiet conversations, born of respect for the stubborn bravery and courage of the adversary. He had witnessed many a scene of blue clad soldiers sharing food and coffee with those in gray, and had quietly acknowledged with a nod and a handshake those who had offered their thanks to him personally.
Only a year ago he had reveled in his hometown’s celebrations. Tonight he could not imagine being happy enough to celebrate anything, even though the tone of his letter to his grandfather indicated the opposite. He had changed. Life was no longer that simple. The pledge of duty he’d made to the army, to protect and defend his country, was harder to uphold than he’d expected. It carried a great weight, and one he was sure would not ease for a long time.
Duty. To Scott it meant doing what was expected, offering his best at all he did. If he was to die in this war – and the likelihood of that was high – then he wanted to go down in a duty bound manner.
“Lieutenant?” Tom softly prompted.
Scott turned, folded the unfinished letter and inserted it and the pencil inside his shirt. He donned his tunic, took up his hat and gloves. He was their lieutenant and they looked up to him, though he shared an age with most of them. But this was also his family, and he needed them as much as they needed him. They deserved his dignity and respect, and he theirs, and he would come to them because they asked, because it was his duty to receive them. Duty, above all else.
“Let’s go, Sergeant,” he said.
Tom smiled and made to clap him on the back, but remembered and saluted instead. “Yes, sir – this way…”
“Gallantry in the line of duty...”
Blurred words came back into focus with the stroke of ten chimes. If the wall clock could be believed, he'd been staring at them for a good hour or better now and his thoughts hadn't changed. They'd all done their duty and they'd all done it gallantly.
“You're gonna put a hole right through that thing if you stare at it much longer.”
Despite himself, the slightest of smiles flickered across Scott's face. Johnny was squatting before the fireplace, the poker propped in his hands. Behind him the hearth was black and silent. Scott again put the letter to one side, needing some physical distance from the memories it had stirred.
“I’m thinkin’ there’s a whole lot more to this than just getting a medal pinned to your chest, isn’t there?”
Looking up to that quiet blue gaze leveled on him, Scott sighed. "Yes, I’m afraid so." At his brother’s silent invitation to continue he said, “I’ve had other recognitions, but this…”
“This one’s different.” Johnny put the poker back in its place and came to sit beside Scott. “Want to tell me about it?” he asked softly.
Scott threw up a hand and then ran it through his hair. He squeezed the back of his neck, working at the knotted muscles there. Getting up he paced a bit, suddenly glad to stretch. "They were having trouble getting messages from the front to the commanding officers, the fighting was so heavy. I had a good horse so I offered to go. It was at least doing something effective. I brought orders back and forth for the rest of that day.”
“How many times?”
Scott shook his head. “Three or four. The last time I lost my horse.” The pacing hadn't helped his frustration. “None of it mattered though. The city was too strongly fortified and we couldn't break through. Grant finally called an end to things and began the siege.”
Johnny studied the strong profile his brother had turned toward him for a moment and then picked up the discarded letter. “Says here you did all that under heavy fire and right in front of the enemy. Sounds like you dodged a lot of bullets.” There was no response. Letting go a sigh, he added, “It mattered, Scott.”
“Not to the three thousand men who died, it didn't.”
“How about to the thirty thousand who didn't?”
Scott faced him. “Any man in any one of those troops deserved recognition, any of them, especially those that gave their lives.”
It was starting to make sense to Johnny now. “Is that the problem? You lived?”
“Yes, I lived. I lived to go on to a year in a prison camp. What kind of soldier does that make me, Johnny? You want to tell me that? I don't deserve...” Scott began.
Johnny watched his brother for a few long seconds more. Then he stood and quietly approached. “Scott,” he said, laying a warm hand on his brother’s forearm. “You getting captured wasn’t a failure, and surviving that hellhole sure wasn’t one, either. And you didn’t fail them that died. Blame your generals or those that were supposed to be watching your backside, but don’t blame yourself.” Scott’s head rose, his gaze intent upon Johnny. “You were one of the ones that made it, Brother. You made it through war and prison, and you’re here and I’m damn glad because you’ve made it all worthwhile being here dealing with the old man.”
“They picked you, Scott,” Johnny said to him. “You do deserve it, Brother.” A wry smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “I don’t imagine they hand out these things just for signing up.”
“No, they don’t.” Scott managed a matching grin.
“You’re one of those men that they want to honor. Take it, Brother. If not for yourself then for those three thousand.”
No, not three thousand…just one.
“When you say it like that…” Scott began with a slow nod.
Johnny gave Scott’s cheek a gentle tap, and was rewarded with a small smile. “So let them pin that medal onto you, all right? ‘Sides, I’d kinda like to see you in a uniform all dressed up and pretty.”
Scott lifted a brow. “And what makes you think it’ll be all that pretty?”
Johnny grinned. “That fancy photograph on your bureau, that’s what.”
PART 3A – EQUAL TO ANY OCCASION
July Fourth, 1864. Independence Day, Scott thought dully, though the day had begun as sluggishly as the day before and every other one he could remember before that. He wasn’t sure why he was keeping an account of the date; in here, days of the week had no meaning, no purpose. They were just days – and nights, all shrouded in a gray and reeking mass of moving men. He awoke to the date on his lips each day, and conjured up a meaning for it, something generally relating to home – a fond food dish of the season, a weekly activity, a social occasion. Something that had purpose, even as his life seemingly now held none. Today was Independence Day. He was far from being able to celebrate independence or liberty, but he knew the day and the date, and he repeated it to himself now.
He closed his eyes and tilted his head back, felt the grit and the ends of his long and dirty hair scrape against his collar but was too exhausted to even wipe at it. He couldn’t imagine that it had been three months since he had last washed himself. It had been back in April, shortly before their plunge into the Wilderness. He recalled a cool spring morning, the air damp and misty as it brushed over his skin. The stream was bracing, working the blood quickly. Air and light and space – and absolute freedom. Now it was barely past what was considered breakfast and already it was damnably hot – he managed a smile at the term, remembering only a year ago agonizing over those very words in a letter to his grandfather. That night of a year ago had not been anywhere near hot, he now realized, hungrily recalling that evening’s relief from the sun, the light of the campfire, the fresh air. Dear God, for some fresh air. His throat closed and he swallowed hard even as the stench of the place washed over him. And the sky, the vastness of the yonder, blue and bright, scudding clouds curled by unseen wind, calm purple twilight, handfuls of precious stars. Would he never experience them again? Would it all end in this crammed, reeking room? This was no real place – it was a void between life and death, purgatory. This room – this prison – was a collection of human humiliation and suffering that he could not have ever imagined. It was bare existence. His gut clenched.
There were other ways to be free, he knew. Tom. How he missed the man whose friendship and courage had come to mean so much to him in the past year. Yet, if he were honest, he couldn’t help but envy him just a bit right now. At least you’re free, my friend. Dammit, you’re free…
“Please, sir,” the voice before him pleaded.
Wearily he opened his eyes. Slowly he reached up a dirty hand to brush prickling bangs aside, and let it slide over the scruffy beard covering his jaw. A smaller man crouched before him, his face grimy and gray like everyone else, his eyes deep in his head. He wore a corporal’s insignia on his torn sleeve.
“What is it?” Scott asked, and felt a pinch of shame that he could not even muster the energy to salute, although he knew it was a misplaced concern. They did not salute each other here, or follow any of the other decorum he knew and understood. They were all just men here, and some less than that already.
The other man pressed his lips together and slowly held out something to him. “He won’t be needing this any longer,” the corporal said, pressing Scott’s tunic back into his lap. “He passed – sometime last night. Thank you, sir, for the use of it. I’m sure it was a comfort to him– there’s such a lack here…”
The corporal said other things but Scott did not hear them. The heat pressed back down upon him, and the increasing tone of voices and shuffling bodies washed over him. Clutching at the tunic with fingers stained and blackened, he dropped his head back and closed his eyes again, shutting out this torturous reality. He was nothing, anyway, either here or in his mind. He’d thought he could make it through, or at least make a difference; he’d tried and realized how wasteful his energy had been. He could not save any one of them, let alone himself. Even remembering the date and day of the week had been a fruitless effort of his mind. It didn’t matter; none of it mattered.
Scott swung a look up into the grayness of the room. Two dirty guards stood over him, both bearded and dark in patched gray uniforms, both wearing smiles that ridiculed and scorned.
"If you got no need for that coat - we'll be only too glad to take it off your hands."
Scott didn't answer, but his eyes challenged even as his grip tightened on the frayed tunic. They'd already taken his other things, all of them one by one. Immediately upon capture he'd been disarmed, his weapon and cartridge belt confiscated along with his saber. He'd expected that and knew better than to believe that he'd ever see them again despite the promises to the contrary. But it was later, after they'd reached the enemy's rear lines, that the humiliation had started in earnest. The word had come down, General Stuart had been mortally wounded, and Yankees needed to pay. Angry guards, shouting and sneering, had pushed him from one place to another. One took his hat, another his gloves. Held with arms pinned behind him, his uniform had been torn open, a burly sergeant helping himself to his watch, the gift Grandfather had given him in honor of his eighteenth birthday. He'd endured all of it silently, stoically, each loss not only stripping him of his personal possessions but his sense of dignity as well. But no more. They would not have this. It was his, had been with him from the start, a symbol of the pride he felt in serving his country, of being a soldier.
They had taken everything else that he was. But they were not welcome to this.
"Give it over, Yank."
Scott pulled it from the one guard's grasp as the other sent the corporal sprawling out of the way. "No. It's mine." The first one kicked at him but he rolled and dodged it, to the curses of the man nearest him. Quickly a space cleared around him as his comrades sensed the oncoming trouble. Scott scrabbled back again and then gained his feet.
"Don't," advised a thin voice high with fear. "Give it over, son."
"No. They've taken everything else.” He straightened and looked the two other men straight in the eyes. “I said this is mine."
The two guards advanced. "Not anymore, it ain't," growled one and reached out, a truncheon held at the ready.
Someone shoved Scott from behind; he stumbled and slipped down, opening a tear in the fabric of his trousers just above the knee. The truncheon struck him across the forearm. Still he hung onto the garment, his hand like a vice.
"Give it over now!" They pressed closer, forcing him back. He tripped over men, stepped over limbs. The air was hot and foul from their panting. Sweat soaked him, poured from his chest and back. Still they came forward - and then one tackled him.
He went down, crushed under their twin weight, pinned to the reeking floor. He was hit with fists and the stick, and then with their booted feet. Hoarse cries rose up around him. The heat rolled over him, suffocating him. His lungs burned from lack of oxygen. He saw his fingers, swollen and bloody - still clutching a sleeve of his tunic. He grabbed for a shoulder strap, then the other, just as a hobnailed boot stomped his knuckles. He knew the futility of his actions but could not find the means to let go.
"No," he gritted over the fresh wave of pain that skittered up his arm.
His head exploded with white, sickening light. They were grabbing at him, tearing at him, yelling at him. He was sinking under them, the heat so intense it howled through him. His vision blurred. He heard a rip and then he was clutching at air, air and blackness...
Murdoch watched his oldest son with growing concern. Scott had been restless since they'd boarded the Sacramento-bound train earlier that morning and his obvious agitation had only seemed to increase with each passing mile. Both Johnny and Jelly had taken their turns at trying to draw him into conversation, only to be left hanging in a one-sided effort. Murdoch doubted that even Teresa, away visiting friends for the past week and thus unaware of their trip and the honor that was about to be bestowed, would have been successful. The quiet self-control that he had come to recognize early on in this son seemed to be crumbling and Murdoch had spent most of the last hour trying to figure out why. The crowded car, packed tight with holiday revelers, was hot and uncomfortable to all of them but it seemed to be bothering Scott more than anyone else. He’d sat pressed up against the wall at first, almost as if he were making an attempt to retreat from the crowd, then climbed up over Jelly and worked his way from one end of the car to the other – three separate times.
Not even Johnny, who made no secret of disliking crowds, was having as much trouble. Of course, that might not be it, at least not all of it. There was their reason for being on this train in the first place. Scott had been uncomfortable with the whole idea from the start. Now Murdoch wondered if that medal, along with the notion of an audience with the former commanding officer of all of the Federal forces – the man who was now the President of the United States – was just proving too much for his son to handle. Studying his son this morning at the breakfast table, Murdoch found he looked exhausted, even haunted. New purple-gray circles had appeared under Scott’s eyes, and lines were drawn around his mouth. His brows seemed to have knitted together. There was a new thinness to him, and Murdoch could not recall seeing him eat in the past two days. He’d found time for a haircut, though, and now his fair hair was almost too closely cropped around his ears and neck, reminding Murdoch of the tall confident stranger who had arrived at the ranch over two years ago. But today his son was exhibiting none of that confidence he had come to expect, even rely upon, since that day.
Murdoch glanced down briefly at the forgotten pages of paperwork held loosely in his hand. This trip to Sacramento had come up unexpectedly, to be sure, but it had presented a welcome opportunity for taking care of some unfinished business first hand, while at the same time showing support for his son. That very support seemed to be of a greater priority right now. Hoping he'd be able to offer some distraction to his son's unrest and at the same time gain some insight into the reason for it, Murdoch folded his papers and returned them to his jacket pocket. He looked up only to see that the thought had some too late. Scott was up and moving again, apparently looking for that relief he couldn't find.
"I'm worried about him."
Beside him Johnny made a vague gesture. "He'll be all right," he said, although his eyes followed Scott's retreating form as closely as his father's.
"I hope he goes through with it."
"He will," Johnny nodded. "Scott’s not one to change his mind once he’s set on something, you know that."
"Yes," Murdoch agreed. "But has he set his mind on this?"
"He has," Johnny affirmed.
Murdoch frowned. Johnny sounded surer of that than he was. "He just hasn’t said much…"
“Scott never does.” Johnny smiled, then glancing over the packed car observed, “Pretty crowded in here.”
“Yes,” Murdoch nodded, “I thought that, too.” He frowned as Scott reached the door to the adjoining rail car and passed through it. Worry niggled Murdoch’s stomach as his son disappeared from sight.
“I don’t think it’s the medal, Murdoch,” Johnny said, sweeping his dark bangs away from his forehead. “Something else is on his mind. I’ve heard him up the past few nights. He ain’t been sleeping too well. It sounded last night like he might be havin’ a bad dream.”
Murdoch issued a light oath of concern. He’d encountered one of Scott’s “bad dreams” on an unexpected trip to San Francisco their first year together where they’d been forced to share a room. A terrified yelling from the other bed had startled Murdoch up onto his feet and over to his son’s bedside, yanking the tangle of covers away, catching him by one flailing arm and calling out to awaken him. He’d been bothered by the image of that event several times since and wished he knew more of the reason for it. Scott had not been very forthcoming with details at the time and it had finally been pushed aside – ignored but not forgotten.
Pushing himself up with a firm hand on his youngest's solid shoulder, Murdoch spared a quick glance for the ever increasing volume coming from the slightly inebriated group huddled nearby. It hadn’t escaped his attention that Lancer’s whiskered handyman and horse wrangler was right in the middle of it. "Keep an eye on Jelly for me will you, Johnny? I think you’re right. Something more than that medal is bothering your brother and I’m going to see if I can find out what it might be.”
He threaded his way down the blocked aisle and slipped through the far door. Johnny watched him go, debating whether he should follow. But then a burst of laughter caught his attention.
“I served under Ginnnr’l Beadle,” Jelly said again, accepting the flask as it was passed around once more. He helped himself to a swig then graciously waggled it toward Johnny.
“I’ll pass,” Johnny smiled, holding up a hand. With a shrug Jelly helped himself to Johnny’s turn and then passed it along to the next man standing in the crowd around him.
“And just what did you do under the good ginnr’l?” asked the man, passing in turn to another older gentleman beside him, a peddler if Johnny remembered from the earlier conversation. “I heard he was in charge of a bunch of sharpshooters.”
“Yeah,” chimed in another, reaching out to poke Jelly in the ribs. “You tellin' us you was one of them sharpshooters?"
“Him?” joshed a third, and laughed. “Do he look like an eagle-eye to you?” And they all howled, to Jelly’s dismay.
“I served him personally,” Jelly said over their laughter, hands tugging at the lapels of his frayed vest. He pointed to himself. “Yup. I was the general’s personal attendant.”
Johnny smothered a laugh, knowing that Jelly’s personal service was to Beadle’s horse, not the man himself. But he would not embarrass his friend – Jelly was just too proud for Johnny to bust his tale. It was the drink that had loosened Jelly’s tongue, Johnny knew. Jelly was not anywhere near a hard-drinker, but the gaiety of the mood in the railcar had been largely promoted by liquor, and the little handyman, caught up in the infectious holiday spirit, had partaken of the flasks that had been passed around shortly after they’d boarded the train in Cross Creek. Now a large portion of the assembly were even more “spirited” than when they had started out and would likely wobble their way off the car and into an even bigger celebration being held at the state capital tomorrow in honor of the Fourth of July.
“You sure you want to brag about that, old man?” asked another florid-faced fellow in the back of the pack. “ ‘Cause I’m not sure I want to hear anything about how you heated up his bath water, or set out his clean drawers!” Another raucous round of laughter followed.
“It weren’t like that,” Jelly told them with exasperation. “Sure I took care of his things, but not them things. His other things. Important things.”
“His sword?” asked one.
"His meals?” asked another.
“Shut up an’ I’ll tell ya,” Jelly said and straightened. He eyed them all and then seemed to think better of it. Abruptly he sat down in his seat. “Later.”
And they all laughed again, pushing against each other and loudly speculating about the exact nature of Jelly’s duties to the Civil War general. But the little man seemed to have lost his tongue, and a pink flush had crept up the back of his neck and spread across his whiskered cheeks. He sat stiffly and stared straight ahead and refused to answer them. The latest round of fun over, the group broke apart and drifted over to where two gents were calmly playing cards.
Johnny’s smile quieted and his gaze drifted back over to the door where he’d last seen his brother – and more recently, his father.
Scott shut the door behind him and leaned against it for support, trying to settle the thumping of his heart inside his chest. This car was thankfully empty, and the lack of inebriated bodies rendered the air with some freshness, if still warm. Most of the windows were open, and the far location from the engine meant less ash and cinders from the stack. Finally, Scott thought to himself, swiping at his sweaty cheek. Alone and quiet with room to move about. Freedom – almost. Now if his thoughts would only stop fingering his past he would feel a lot better. His hand strayed to his right front pocket and fingered the item there. He wasn’t sure why he’d felt the need to look for it this morning, especially after all this time, but there it was, at the bottom of a wooden box where he’d stashed other mementos of his past. He’d scooped it up and shoved it into his pocket just before heading down to breakfast, and it seemed to have weighed him down ever since with memories. Maybe he should just throw it away and put the last of it behind him. But the last of it was not yet behind him – there was still tomorrow to deal with…
He straightened, moved forward, the thrum of the rails upon which the train traveled working up from his feet and past his knees. Runners of sensation found his bloodbeat and made it accelerate, starting up that closed in feeling again. Resisting the urge to walk faster he deliberately slowed his gait, planting his heels with each step, refusing to give into any more memories. Slowly he unbuttoned the cuffs of his damp and wrinkled white shirt, rolled them, breathed carefully. Dammit, he needed to get off this train, get away from the crowds that were still pressing in on him, find refuge from the heat. He worked his way to a window, peered out at the scenery blurring by, felt the same sort of confusion within himself. He’d accepted the purpose of this trip to the city, but had not expected this resurgence of his past. The War was long over. Why did it suddenly seem that he had barely stepped away from it?
"Gets to you, don’t it?"
Startled, Scott whirled, grabbing for the back of the nearest seat to steady himself. He hadn’t seen anyone when he'd entered, but there was a man sitting a few rows away, back against the wall, one leg outstretched on the seat. He was slouched in a fashion that hid him from an approaching view, and was now watching Scott with interest.
"I’m sorry?" Scott inquired, frowning over the question asked of him.
The man wasn’t old, but had the look of one who was. More than forty, Scott judged, with some silver mingling with his dark curly hair and untrimmed beard. His black eyes were lively enough, though and kept up a steady scrutiny of Scott. Scott’s own gaze slid over him, noting the bedraggled and unkempt appearance of soiled and patched clothing, worn boots. He soon realized that the jacket the man wore was of army issue, Union blue, faded and worn away in spots, the original buttons missing and replaced with more serviceable ones of now scraped leather. Certainly not one of the holiday revelers like those in the other cars. Certainly not one that others would likely want to include in their hurrahs of good cheer, not looking like this. Yet something warmed inside Scott as he looked at the man - he had been a soldier...
The other man waved. "All that noise from them passengers," he said. "Hurts to hear it after a while." Understanding supported his tone, and his look went from observation to sympathy. "Half of ‘em don’t know what they’re celebrating, anyways, and them that do know shouldn’t be doing it like they are."
From anyone else, his words might not have made sense. But they were very clear to Scott. "Yes," Scott nodded, sinking into the seat across from him. Already the quieter atmosphere was like a balm to an aching wound, soothing the throb within him. A silence fell between them, that of awkward strangers, but then the man spoke again.
"Where’d you see battle?" At Scott’s look of surprise he smiled. "I can spot a man of the war – spent a lot of time watching folks since them years. You fought, didn’t you?"
"Yes," Scott said again, then feeling a sudden urge for more, added, "I first saw action at Vicksburg…" Vicksburg, and all those messages.
The older man nodded. "You were a young one for that," he commented without condescension.
"Eighteen," Scott answered. He sat back, felt the quivering inside him begin to ease.
"Who’d you march under?"
"I was cavalry. "
The other man smiled slightly. "Makes sense," he said, though Scott detected
none of the usual scorn held for Union cavalry from the other enlisted men.
"Sheridan?" the older man queried, though Scott figured he already knew that.
Scott nodded. "Not at first, but later. Under Custer’s immediate command at the Wilderness and --" He broke off as the memories freshened and swooped back over him. He swallowed. "And Yellow Tavern."
"Foul fighting at the Wilderness," the man agreed, either unaware of Scott’s falter, or politely ignoring it. "Infantry myself, First Michigan Sharpshooters, Company C. Wore out a lot of shoes marching. I imagine you wore out a lot of horses riding."
Scott managed a small smile. "A few."
The silence dropped between them again, easier this time. "Traveling with family, are you?" he was asked.
"Yes, my brother and my father. We have some business to attend to in
"President Grant is going to be in town, I hear."
"I heard that, too," Scott said and the smile worked out again. "And you?" he asked, finally thinking of something to initiate, the weather being too obvious a subject, he reasoned. "Your family…?"
The man shook his head, and for a second his smile went stiff. "No, no family, not now." His voice softened. "Lost ‘em all after the War – fire. Took my wife, my son, my two girls. I was too slow to save them.” His hand reached down to his outstretched leg, fisted and rapped on a spot below the knee. Scott heard the solid reply of wood.
He was well aware of the significance of that sound and the all too familiar story that lay behind it. He'd helped carry too many men bearing those injuries that would forever change them not to understand. It was one of the horrors of the battlefield he'd never forget - shattered legs, shattered arms - shattered lives. The emptiness in the eyes of a man who had endured the horrors of an amputation on a makeshift operating table in a makeshift field hospital was almost as difficult to bear as the cries that had accompanied it. No one who had ever been near those tents could ever forget the sight or the smell as one man after the other was carried in, then out armless or legless – or in some cases both. Watching the discarded arms and legs pile up he’d often wondered, if faced with the decision between life or limb himself, what would his choice be.
"I’m sorry," Scott offered sympathetically.
"Thank you, son." The man patted the wooden limb then let go. "Just ain’t the
same as the real thing, no sir. I was a mite spry before they took it off. I
begged them to save it but there just weren’t nothing to save – exceptin’ my
life. Though some days I begged them to take that, too, even before it
Begged them to take that, too…The question came out before Scott could reel it back in. "So you didn’t lose it in battle?"
The other man shook his head. "Wish I had, been at least some dignity in that. Nope, lost it in Confederate prison – Andersonville, down in Georgia, a hotter place than I ever want to visit, including Hell. Though I guess you could call it Hell on earth…it was a damned miserable place. Held there til the War itself was over and then sent me on home." He cocked his head, gave Scott that once over again and Scott knew he knew. "You, too?"
"Libby," Scott said in a low voice. "Virginia."
"Well, what do you know." The man shifted. “Long time?"
"Almost a year."
Letting out a low whistle, the man leaned forward, holding out his hand. "That is a long time. To you, sir, for having made it through."
Scott shook the proffered hand. "And to you, too, sir," and then almost despite himself added, "I hadn't thought of it for a while now. Not until…" He faltered, then covered with a weak smile, "Well, let's just say it's crowded in here."
The man sat back. "And hot." There was quiet understanding in those two small words.
"Yes, and hot."
"Things like that aren't quick to leave a man. I'm not so sure we should expect that they will."
Scott sighed, "No, I guess not."
"Looks like you done all right since then?"
Scott dipped his head and let his gaze drift toward his feet. "I was fortunate," he said quietly.
"You were young. That helps. Seems like a body can think of starting over when that's on your side."
The man’s hand went inside his jacket, fumbled then withdrew an object. He held it out to Scott. “My family,” he said with a tinge of pride in his voice. Scott took the creased photograph and examined the stiff pose of the four of them. There was this man and his dark-haired wife, staring with seriousness at the camera, a boy of about ten standing upright before his father, an older girl beside him, and a little girl of perhaps four encased in her mother’s arms.
Scott nodded and carefully handed it back. “You must miss them terribly.”
“Yes.” The man smiled wistfully and returned the picture to his pocket. “Little Morris, he wanted to be a soldier like his pa. Buried my corps badge with him…”
A badge of courage, Scott thought. A symbol of who this man had been during those awful years - like those lieutenant bars he had fought so hard to save.
The other man was silent for a moment, and when he next spoke Scott had the distinct impression his thoughts were far away in some distant time and place. "Starting over didn't work for me." He stared off toward a spot over Scott’s left shoulder. It didn't last long. Almost immediately a flush crossed his face and with an apologetic smile he added, "Just not enough to start over with. I guess I've wandered a bit. It hasn't always been easy but I've done alright."
The thump and clack of wheels on rails filled the space between them. Scott clasped his hands together, elbows on knees. Memories whispered around him still. But sitting here, talking to this man who understood all that he was feeling and all that he had experienced, lessened their intensity. And for the first time since the arrival of the Presidential letter, the unexpected weight of the past eased a little. He could only hope the memories wouldn’t follow when he returned to his seat in the other car, streaming behind him like ghostly specters to haunt him. He closed his eyes, felt his jaw tighten and his fingers clench.
A hand touched his knee.
Scott looked up and saw the warmth of compassion on his companion’s face. "Don't
hold it all in, son,” he urged Scott. “Letting it out helps. It explains the
doings of a man. Amanda and me might not have had many years after the war but
what we had was good and talking to her about some of the things I'd seen and
done helped. She might not have always understood all that I was telling her,
but she understood the need for the telling and that was really all that
Scott smiled ever so slightly, and glanced away again. "There is no Amanda," he said quietly.
His smile was met with one similar. "Women ain't the only ones who'll listen. Talk to them, son. Your father, your brother. If they're worthy of the name, they'll listen to what you have to say. Might help them understand in those times when it gets too hot and crowded for you. You'll be surprised what it'll do - for all of you."
The door banged open and a disheveled conductor barged in, his collar askew and his hat dented on one side. He was red-faced and sweating. “Sacramento,” he announced a little breathlessly. “Arriving in Sacramento shortly, gentlemen.”
He turned to leave and found his path blocked by a tall form standing in the doorway. Scott watched as his father stepped aside to let the other man pass. Murdoch was frowning but Scott knew it as a look of concern. Across from him his companion shifted and turned his black-eyed gaze onto the newcomer. After a second his eyes came back to Scott, appraising him afresh, and he grinned.
Scott looked at Murdoch and offered him a little smile. Murdoch’s frown faded, although his eyes still searched his son’s face. Then he nodded and stepped back through the doorway, closing the door behind him.
Scott stood. “I need to go.” He reached out and shook the ready hand. “I hope the rest of your trip goes well. Good day to you, sir.”
“G’day to you, son.”
He crossed to the door, straightening his shirt as he went, buttoning the cuffs back into place. And then his fingers dipped into his pocket and extracted the old embroidered rectangle, curled from time and the hours spent pressed into a palm. Old comfort swept back over him as he stared at it, and fresh understanding as well. It had a story to tell, and was asking him to tell it, like the man had said.
Scott turned, a little flush sweeping his cheeks. "I’m sorry. I didn’t get your name, sir."
The older man looked up,
smiled. Slowly he stood, working his leg from the seat onto the floor with a
solid thump. "Lucien Meigs," he said.
Scott curled the lieutenant strap into his palm where it nestled with old familiarity, and returned the smile. "It's been a pleasure talking to you Mr. Meigs. Thank you. I'm honored to have met you."
"The pleasure’s been all mine, Mr. …?”
"Lancer. Scott Lancer."
Meigs nodded and softly repeated the name. He was still standing when Scott glanced back after closing the door.
“Well?” Johnny asked, reaching down to retrieve Jelly’s cap from where it had slipped off from the dozing man’s head. The car had quieted to a hubbub of voice and activity as passengers gathered up belongings and settled back in their seats. “You find him?” Carefully Johnny tucked the cap under the handyman’s arm then gently shook him awake. “Pulling in, Jelly.”
“Already?” Jelly asked, sitting up. “That was a fast trip, don’t you think?”
Johnny grinned and moved over to let Murdoch gain his seat. “Where’s Scott? He okay?”
“He’s…” Murdoch looked up, then gestured. “He’s right here.” Indeed, Scott was approaching.
“Where’d he go?”
“Couple cars down – cooler down there, and not as crowded.”
“You talk to him?”
Murdoch glanced down. “No.” He watched as his eldest gently eased his long frame around Jelly and settled into his seat. Scott was looking better; the tightness had left his eyes and mouth, and the frustration had faded at least from his eyes. “I think he’ll be all right, though.” He hoped so. Something at least encouraged him to think so, and that same something was suggesting that the little man in the forlorn-looking jacket, sitting in the quiet of an empty train car with his troubled son, knew why.
PART 3B – EQUAL TO ANY OCCASION
May 11, 1864
Custer’s order rolled back to them and they hurriedly obeyed, glimpsing the longhaired “Boy General” as he rode back and forth among his men, barking orders to stand fast and hold the line. They would meet the Confederates on the terms already chosen by their enemy, dismounted and dug in. Stuart had made the decision to stand his ground at this abandoned stagecoach inn on a road somewhere near Richmond and they would not deny him. Already they’d shifted from center to right, assisting Custer’s 5th and 6th Michigan regiments on Merritt’s orders. Now they were advancing, trying to drive the enemy back to their main line on the ridge. But the woods to their left and rear had suddenly come alive with smoke and bullets and they had nowhere to turn.
“Down, men, lie down! The Sixth is on its way up!”
Again they obeyed, dropping to their bellies and sinking into the heat, tasting redolent damp dirt, waiting for their comrades, sweating hands held fast to carbines, eyes smarting in the first thin waves of gunsmoke, waiting, waiting…
Scott let go of his weapon long enough to reach into the pocket for his timepiece. Nearly eighteen months, from Washington to Vicksburg and back again, and now close to Richmond, and so far he’d managed to dodge bullets, grape and canister shot, bayonets and swords. Eighteen months of long marches and hard fighting and yet the war seemed no closer to ending. He was tired, as were all his men. And not just them. The whole army was exhausted. Yet they were going to charge again, follow Custer and follow Sheridan, the new cavalry commander of the Army of the Potomac. They believed in their commanders just as their commanders believed in them, and so follow they would. The new order had come down – they’d try again at 4 o’clock. It would be their job to draw the Confederates’ attention while Custer and the mounted First Michigan charged the enemy battery.
Maybe this would finally be the one to smash the Confederacy, end the war and let them go home. That hope had been flickering with each new day, each new battle since Grant had led them into the Wilderness six days before.
“Do you think we’ll make this one, sir?”
The question startled him, crawled into his belly and landed hard. Yet it was a question not unfamiliar to him. A question he’d asked himself a number of times in these last eighteen months but it was one he had never heard voiced by his sergeant before. One that he suddenly realized he’d never expected to. He’d relied on that strong, sure voice so many times and it unnerved him now to hear this uncertainty in it. Tom had the advantage of years and it mattered little whose rank was higher. He had learned much from this man, and knew he would not be the officer he was had it not been for the sergeant at his side.
“Something wrong, Sergeant?” Scott got out, shifting to his side to see the other man. “Something bothering you?”
Tom’s dark face creased into a frown. He rubbed at his sweaty, stubbled cheek. “Not sure, sir – not really. Just a feelin’, I guess. This one seems different somehow.”
“They’re all different,” Scott counseled.
“Yes, sir. Yet all the same too in some ways.” Tom was quiet for a moment, and then added as if not noticing the change to the subject, “Did I ever tell you about my wife, Lieutenant? My Mary?”
Scott nodded his head slowly. He understood now. He knew what was troubling his sergeant. Different things ran through different minds in those minutes before battle. Home was one of them, he knew all too well. “Yes,” he said softly. “Many times.”
Tom smiled. “Got a letter from her just yesterday. She says the farm’s doing good. Can’t wait for me to see the work she and our boys have done on it. Wants me to get home as soon as I can.”
Scott smiled back. “Well, maybe after today you’ll be able to do just that, Sergeant.” Maybe after today, we all will, he thought.
“Yes, sir. Wouldn’t that be somethin’, huh? I wanted to write her and tell her just that but there was no time what with the march here and all. I’ll have to get to that straight away after we’re done here.”
“You make sure of it, Sergeant. She’ll be waiting, I’m sure.” He had his own letter to write, as well, one to his grandfather that was very overdue. And like Tom, he vowed to do it as soon as this was over.
Scott checked his watch; the appointed hour was here. He heard the cry go up then and got to his knees, saw Tom also rise up to his right. His regiment was spread out to either side and behind, waiting.
“On my order,” he directed and they shifted like a great worm from one end to the other, readying themselves for this dismounted attack.
The orders came ringing down the line and he repeated them, shouting quickly, moving forward ahead of them, leading them as he had always led them, these good men of the Fifth Regimental Cavalry. And they followed, good soldiers that they were…
It was chaos.
They were being cut down, their advance savagely repulsed. Everywhere there was smoke, fire, shots. Blue clad bodies were falling. Voices were shouting, cursing the heat, the Confederates, and themselves. It seemed worse than the other fights. They were afoot and felt exposed. They wanted their mounts; they wanted to ride and shout and attack. To a man they’d rather take their chances on horseback; that’s how they’d been trained to fight. They wanted to follow Custer and the First Michigan.
Others were streaming back toward them, trotting, then running, chased by an enemy yet unseen. But Scott understood that look of wide eyes and sallow cheeks – it was the look of confusion.
“Fall back!” he shouted and heard Tom echo his command. They had no choice but to retreat, head to safety and regroup, find their commanders and wait for the orders to charge again.
“Retreat!” Already the bugle was sounding the orders.
“We’re with you, Lieutenant!” Tom’s voice, off to his right, reassured. He could not see the man, but Scott found his presence encouraging.
He was walking, then running, shooting as he went. Tom appeared beside him, growling at them to stay close, keep down, be careful. And shoot, dammit, keep shooting. They were a little group of retreaters, knowing they had no place to go but back, following orders and commands as the good soldiers they were. Scott had 80 men under his command and could barely see 20 of them now. But he continued backward, his eyes sweeping across the road even as he tripped over rocks and roots, sunk into peat, hurrying, leading, shooting, watching his men emulate him. And he was minutely proud of them in that moment for their skill, for their steadfastness in the midst of this battle…
And then it was all horribly wrong. A fresh cloud of dirty gray was fast approaching, breaking from the trees, dancing toward them, encircling them. Cries went up, and the shots whined closer, faster, thwacking into tree trunks, whanging off rocks, thudding dully into flesh. Men close to him dropped, some writhing violently.
Tom’s voice, so very close this time, broke through the noise and confusion, but before he could turn to it he was off his feet and flung to the ground by a heavy blow. Stunned, he lay there, the carbine still in his hands.
“Lay down them arms! Lay ‘em down now! Or be killed!”
Scott struggled to regain his breath but gave the order. “Hold your fire!” he called, trying to gain his feet. “Do as you’re told.” It was his responsibility to see to his men’s safety, even if that meant surrender - and capture. He wouldn’t ask them to die for vain glory.
“You and your men are prisoners, sir, of the Army of Northern Virginia.”
Scott rose to one knee, tossing his gun down at the feet of the gray clad soldier standing in front of him, knowing that his men would then do the same.
There was a noise beside him and he suddenly realized with a sinking feeling what had hit him.
“Tom.” Swiftly he knelt by his sergeant, saw the voluminous amount of blood covering the other man’s shirt. Scott looked up to the Confederate Captain standing there. “My sergeant is hurt.”
“There’s no need for them to worry about that, sir,” Tom got out with shuddering breath. “There’s nothing to be done now.”
“Afraid he’s right, son. Let’s go.”
But he couldn’t go – not now. Wouldn’t go – not while Tom still needed him. Feeling swept over Scott, drained him of most of his senses. The all too familiar sounds of battle raged around him – the shouts and cries, the crack of gunfire, the boom of artillery – but he could no longer hear them. He could only feel the dampness seeping through his knees, could only see his sergeant – his friend – bleeding before him.
"Why, Tom?" Scott asked softly, raising the man’s head into the crook of his arm. The other man grunted with pain – more blood ran.
"Didn’t want them to hurt you, sir." Tom tried to smile, but struggled for a breath instead. “You’ll tell her, Lieutenant, won’t you? You’ll tell Mary that I tried to come home to her?”
Scott felt his voice catch in his throat. “I’ll tell her, Tom. I promise, if it’s the last thing I do, I’ll tell her.”
“Don’t let it be, sir. Don’t let them take this from you, too…I won’t forget you, sir." Tom’s hand came up, brushed his face as he attempted a salute, then dropped. Scott felt him go.
"Nor I, Tom," Scott replied in a thick voice, gently laying him back to the torn ground. He had to blink hard. "Nor I."
The noise of battle roared back to life around him, closer now. But it didn’t matter. Victory or surrender was all the same – foul and wrenching – useless.
He was nudged hard. "Let’s go, Lieutenant."
He rose slowly. Some of his men were staring at him, some at Tom, while others looked somewhere off to the distance, their faces all wearing the same grimness, knowing that this was an uncertain ending for them. Yet they remained silent, waiting for his orders, soldiers to the last.
Scott straightened and tugged his tunic into place, though the duty settled heavily upon his shoulders. “Fall in – by two’s,” he commanded in a firm voice and stepped away.
It was the hardest thing he had ever done.
"You sure you won't come?
The momentary silence spilled expectantly into the room, waiting to be filled.
Scott looked up, realized he'd been asked a question and had only heard a voice, but not the words. He frowned, more at himself than at his brother standing before him. "I'm sorry - what did you say?"
Johnny gave his brother a sympathetic smile and tossed his saddlebags back down on the rumpled hotel bed. "You want to come with Jelly and me? Fresh air might do you good."
Scott knew the offer included a whiskey or two as well. And normally he'd jump at a chance to relieve his brother of a few coins, no matter the reason. But it didn't appeal to him tonight, not with the ghosts of the past invading him again. His hand brushed his pants pocket and the strap nestled there. Lucien Meigs' advice came back to him, urging "the telling of it." But how to begin? And where to begin? And how to make them understand how it related to tomorrow's ceremony? He wasn't exactly sure of that himself, just that the news of the medal had brought back a host of insistent memories that he had to somehow reckon with.
"Do you want to go?" Johnny prompted again.
Scott slowly shook his head. He wouldn't be any worthy company in this mood, and Johnny likely knew it. Which made the offer all the more appreciated. "No, but thank you, Brother. I think I'll turn in early."
Johnny studied his brother and his blue eyes reflected a moment of unhidden concern "Alright." He let a smile flicker then added, "Probably a good idea. You do look like you could use it."
The gentle teasing elicited a short laugh from his brother. "Thanks," Scott
said, "I appreciate your concern."
Johnny reached out and gave him a tap on the cheek in return. “See you later then?” he asked, moving to the door.
“I’ll be here.”
Johnny's hand caught the doorframe but he turned back. “Scott…”
The soft-spoken invitation made Scott take a step toward his brother. He should just say it. Blurt the words out and let it go. Tell his family what had been troubling him all day and finally get the burden of it off of his shoulders. It was what he wanted. He'd guarded this part of himself so long and buried it so deep he hadn't ever thought it would be something he'd share. But he realized now that had been changing - slowly, without his notice and not just since today's conversation on the train. It had been changing since the day he and his brother had emerged from that stagecoach two years ago and started the long road home together – the day he’d met his father and agreed to share in the partnership of the ranch. He knew he could trust both of them to listen and if nothing else, offer the respite he needed from carrying this part of his past alone.
He swallowed, made his tongue work. “I…”
His brother was suddenly
jolted from behind from the incoming Jelly. "You ready to go, Johnny?" the older
man asked with eagerness.
"In a minute, Jelly." Johnny looked expectantly at his brother.
Scott shook his head and let it go – now was not the right time. “You and Jelly enjoy yourselves,” he said, managing a smile “But just make sure you’re back in time for the ceremony, all right? I’m counting on you being there.”
Understanding flashed in Johnny’s eyes, and then was covered with a grin. "Wouldn't miss it, Brother. Would we, Jelly?"
“No, sir,” Jelly answered proudly, and his smile was sincere. “It’s a great honor, Scott, and I’m grateful for you inviting me to see it. Don’t you worry.” He nodded smartly at Johnny. “I won’t let him stay out too late.”
Scott laughed a little, knowing that tonight Johnny would not be the problem. “Thank you, Jelly.”
The door quietly closed. The silence seemed suddenly deafening, the room too tight. Scott headed to the balcony and found some relief in the breeze that slipped past his temples and skimmed across the knotted muscles at the back of his neck. He gripped the balustrade and took some deep breaths. His mind was pulling him back again, asking him to remember. He resisted, though he knew if he did not let them in they would merely manifest themselves into his dreams later on. But he thrust them aside for now and instead reviewed for himself the morrow and how the ceremony would go – and what he would say to the President of the United States when that appointed hour arrived.
As always, Murdoch enjoyed the company of his sons, but it was an especially rare treat when work could be put aside and their conversation turned from topics that centered only on beef or grain or the weather. He had found particular satisfaction in that as they’d gathered in the dining room of the stately Golden Eagle Hotel, and cherished the moment more than he ever would have expected. Jelly’s wide-eyed wonder at the impressive trappings and imposing list of menu choices, some of which were written in languages that mystified them until Scott translated for them, had only added to his pleasure. Yet, while they’d talked about a good many things, they hadn’t talked about tomorrow. It almost seemed as if they were all going out of their way to avoid the subject, Scott included, and it renewed Murdoch’s cautious concern for his son.
Scott had been visibly relieved when they had finally exited the crowded train and made their way through the equally congested depot. Murdoch had kept one anxious eye on the straight back of his oldest as they’d been jostled along by the continually swelling crowd, finding some reassurance in knowing that behind him Johnny’s eye and steady hand was on the back of their slightly unsteady handyman. He’d thought to hail a carriage after collecting their few pieces of luggage but Johnny’s nod toward his brother had stopped him. Scott was already walking, his face upturned to the late afternoon sun and bare breeze that stirred the air. And so they’d followed, gaining the hotel with little difficulty, and settled in.
Murdoch had sensed Scott’s returning discomfort as the evening had worn on. His son had been quiet and introspective, and it was only Johnny’s light touch on his brother’s sleeve every now and then that had brought him back into the present, joining again in the conversation with an apologetic look. Scott was unfailingly polite through dinner, helping Jelly with the array of silverware at their plates, but by the time coffee and dessert had arrived he had all but fallen silent. When they had excused themselves from the table, his oldest had immediately left for his room. They all knew he again needed some space with his thoughts, and so had lingered downstairs, unsure what to do with themselves. Then Johnny had offered Jelly a tour of the city, which the little handyman had accepted with too much zealousness, and they had parted ways.
He’d enjoyed a good brandy, taken a turn about the hotel block and with nothing further to do, Murdoch headed for his hotel room. Their unexpected trip had not allowed the luxury of individual rooms so they were doubled up, Johnny and Scott together, he and Jelly. Murdoch supposed it logical, group the young and the old, but could not help but wonder if he’d manage more than an hour’s uninterrupted sleep through Jelly’s renowned snores. Then he thought of Johnny’s earlier mention of Scott’s bad dreams, and chided himself for his selfishness. His son was surely troubled by something connected to this medal ceremony; Murdoch only wished he knew what it was.
He couldn’t help but wonder again about the man he had seen Scott talking to on the train, and at the conversation the two of them had shared. There was no doubt it had been a serious one, keeping the attention of both men focused upon the other. Murdoch had stood unobserved for quite some time, somehow knowing this was something he should not interrupt. Whatever they had talked about had seemed to settle Scott, and while he couldn’t help feeling a twinge of regret that it had been a stranger who had provided that for his son, he was grateful for it. Scott’s peace of mind was the important thing, and he wouldn’t begrudge whatever source had provided it.
Murdoch checked his watch and reached for his room key. Time enough to do a little reading and then try and get some sleep before Jelly came in. As he passed his sons’ room he paused. Scott was probably asleep or reading himself, and would likely be better off if left undisturbed. So he walked by, stopped at his own door, and jammed the key in the lock. Yet something nudged him from within and he looked back at that door, standing like a barrier between he and his son. A barrier like so many others that had worked to keep them at arm’s length over these past two years. But maybe this time he could change that…
He knocked firmly and announced himself. After a pause long enough to make him reconsider, he received a slight, “It’s open.”
Half the room showed signs of occupancy. Johnny’s half, Murdoch guessed with a smile by the sight of the disheveled bed, the pillow upended but sagging against the headboard. A set of saddlebags, one pocket peeking its contents, sprawled across the wrinkled coverlet. The other bed was untouched, travel bags neatly placed at its foot.
Scott was out on the balcony, leaning over the rail as if searching for something, and again Murdoch was reminded of the afternoon on the train as his son routed the railcars, trying to seize the thing that had been suffocating him. He didn’t know Scott as one uncomfortable with restricted spaces, but after seeing him today and now, it occurred to him that he didn’t know his son as well as he thought. And then he realized with a flush that he knew comparatively little about the young man before him, about Scott’s childhood and years back East except for what his son offered in direct conversation, or what Murdoch had gleaned from his eldest’s behavior and mannerisms, his opinions that spoke of education and morals, patience and social standing. And so very little about his time in the war. A troubling time now, it appeared. Quickly Murdoch calculated some dates in his head. Barely past eighteen and a lieutenant. A little over a year of fighting and then imprisoned. And some six months after that and he was discharged. A brief time, all in all, but if Murdoch had to judge he’d say that they’d been some very difficult days. And then his mind tried to envision this young and strong and tall young man before him imprisoned for a year – a year – and marveled that his son’s spirit by all accounts seemed unbroken.
“Enjoying the cool air while you can?”
It was a beautiful evening. The sky overhead was clear, revealing thousands of stars and a moon so bright and round there seemed to be little need for the gaily colored lanterns strung along the nearby verandas and balconies in anticipation of the holiday tomorrow. Sacramento was in a festive mood. Most of the city was already covered in patriotic bunting and undulated with waving flags that stirred in the evening air. City traffic bustled on the streets below; voices and cheers mingled with the clatter of carriages. Some boisterous singers vied to be heard over a peppering of firecrackers. The lingering odor of food swirled about. A few blocks beyond in the direction of the river, an occasional firework broke in a brilliant short burst, coloring the sky with blues, reds, greens and yellows. It was a happy cacophony for the senses, and contrasted sharply with the quietness of the young man standing alone before him.
The Capitol Building not too far away was especially decorated for the President’s expected speech at one o’clock – all the city was talking about it. One o’clock – two hours after his audience with his son.
His son, receiving the Medal of Honor at the hands of President Grant for his extraordinary courage during the siege of Vicksburg. Murdoch had scrambled to find accounts of the battle, and dug up some newspaper articles, now yellowed, forwarded years earlier by an acquaintance from Pennsylvania with whom he'd kept up correspondence. Little had reached him about the battles during those war years and he was grateful now for the clippings he had kept. The stories did not make a lot of sense to Murdoch, but he realized it was a hard and complex battle. Yet the accounts did not come close to the details he craved to know about his son and the date mentioned in that letter – May 22, 1863.
“I thought you might have accompanied Johnny and Jelly on a tour of the city,” Murdoch commented from the balcony doorway.
Scott half-turned toward him, and his face filled with small shadows. “No, not this time…I’m a little tired.”
“I’m not surprised. It’s been a long day.” A long three days, he thought, for this son.
Awkwardly he reverted to that most common of subjects, and hated himself for it. "It’s going to be a hot Fourth if today was any indication. I don’t envy Cip working over that pig."
Scott didn't move, glancing up only briefly at his father's attempt at conversation. "No," he said and then fell quiet again.
It hung there between them and Murdoch quickly regretted having interrupted his son's thoughts. He had come a long way with his boys but there were times that were difficult still. Scott could be so very quiet, warring with things on his own, and Murdoch had not yet quite figured out how to breach that habit of his oldest. He imagined that trait had been ingrained in this son from an early age, and he knew better than to expect it to change simply because Murdoch himself was now a part of his son’s life.
“You all set for tomorrow?” he asked, regretting the question when his son turned a fast stare onto him. “Anything you need – for the meeting, I mean?” Then he shut his mouth and cursed his clumsiness.
Scott’s features eased into a little smile. “I’m all set,” he answered. “I don’t think it will take long.”
“No, probably not.” But Murdoch thought of the two officers needed to deliver the invitation. Well, this was a military matter of sorts, and Grant had been the great general during the War. “Did you know him?” he asked before he could pull it back. At his son’s confusion he had to stumble further with, “Grant – the President – when he was--”
“No, not personally,” Scott replied. “Our regiment was part of his escort through his western campaign, but we remained outside his headquarters. And if there was fighting to be had we were called for engagement. I was reassigned to the Fifth Cavalry shortly after Vicksburg, called east to other action.”
It sounded foreign with these terms slipping so comfortably off his son’s tongue. And Scott had quickly gone silent again. Awkwardness was coming up between them. There wasn’t much point to continue any further questions, Murdoch reasoned. “Well, I’m going to turn in,” he said dumbly. “It might be a good idea for you to do the same.” And then he added, “Good night,” when Scott made no comment. He reluctantly turned to go.
Scott stood facing him, only one hand on the railing now. Murdoch looked at him expectantly. There was something on his son’s face, something in his voice, but also a hesitation. And one that was waiting, Murdoch thought hopefully, for a word of encouragement.
"What is it son?"
Scott took a breath. He seemed unsure of himself, as it he didn’t know where next to go with what he had started. Murdoch himself felt unnerved by the uncharacteristic sag that seemed to accompany his son’s uncertainty, and again thought of the barriers so often held between them. “Today – on the train,” Scott started, “I’m afraid I wasn’t very good company. I’d like to apologize…”
Their moment of connection was gone. It occurred to Murdoch that perhaps he had only imagined something he had so badly wanted to find there. “No apologies are necessary, Scott,” he said over the disappointment knifing him. “You have a lot on your mind right now.”
“Yes,” Scott nodded. "But if you have a minute…" he began, then paused. Almost determinedly he forced himself to continue, "If you have a minute, I’d like to try to explain…”
Instantly Murdoch was grateful for the generosity of his son, offering to initiate the conversation, knowing that one of their last talks nearly a year ago had not gone well at all. A thin thread of trust, waiting to be grasped. “I’ve the time,” Murdoch told him.
Scott frowned and looked down, seeming to choose his words with care. “Today on the train, the heat and the crowds…” His head came up but he looked off into the darkness. A firework broke seemingly over his head and for a moment his face was illuminated, revealing new distress. Still he continued. “I was reminded…” He straightened and squared his shoulders. “I couldn’t help but think of another Fourth of July when it was so hot. Right after I was…taken prisoner.”
And now it was Murdoch who chose his words carefully, knowing he was being entrusted with these painful disclosures. “It must have been a dark time,” he said quietly. “Hopeless…” He knew this was coming hard for Scott. His son was not a young man given to unburdening himself easily, although he had never been adverse to seeking advice or sitting down to a serious discussion if the situation called for it. There had been a few times – times that Murdoch remembered with fondness – when they had done just that. But the how’s and why’s of building a jail, or the intricacies of a friend’s marriage were nothing like this. This was personal and painful and he recognized what it was costing his son to share it.
Scott nodded and swallowed. “Hopeless…yes, that describes it. There was barely space to stand, none to sleep. Little food and water…few blankets, no clothing.... There was filth – and disease--” He broke off, took a breath and let it out. His voice tightened. “We weren’t allowed outside or near the windows – it was barely light, barely breathable…”
He shook his head and Murdoch suddenly realized why Scott was chided by both Maria and Teresa for leaving his bedroom window open year round. And then he thought of that nightmare he’d once witnessed and understood without explanation from where it had been conjured.
“Every day men died – and more came…we tried to share what we had but there were some who were not so generous…”
“Some men don’t rise to the occasion under those conditions,” Murdoch put in reflectively.
“No, they don’t.” Scott curbed the edge of bitterness that had crept out into his voice. “Most were good men, but some fell hard. They just took what little others had…”
“Yes. Why do men do that?”
Murdoch pressed his lips together, hunting for the right words, knowing his son had long ago asked the question to himself and now wanted to gauge his conclusion against that which his father was being asked to supply. “Fear, perhaps, of death,” Murdoch spoke slowly. “Or of the simple unknown. The will to survive can be shameful.” And he stopped again, afraid his words were just platitudes. He needed to give Scott comfort, some semblance of understanding, even though he knew he could not fathom living under such deplorable conditions, under such inhumanities. He knew loneliness, of course, deep, wrenching isolation. He had been witness to times of desperation and the resulting lack of faith – the belief that all was hopeless. He summoned those experiences to form some sort of meaningful response to a son who had fallen silent again, fearful that this conversation was about to close. “Times like that,” he started haltingly, “a man has to find something he can hold on to - a time - a place..."
Murdoch waited, willing Scott to continue, and let his breath out slowly when his son spoke to the darkness. “Tom…he was my voice.”
Scott shifted. “There was a man – a sergeant in my regiment. His name was Tom Grady.” He looked over, and the light spilling out onto the balcony revealed the sadness on his face. He glanced down in that way of his now familiar to Murdoch. “That day at Vicksburg…I carried messages from the front lines to headquarters and back. My horse was shot out from under me – I fell, got the breath knocked out of me…lost my bearings. But I heard Tom’s voice calling me, telling me which way to go. I couldn’t see – the smoke and the confusion – but I could hear his voice, and I followed it, just followed his calls. Made it to the breastworks, fell in right beside him.” A smile flickered across his face. "It became an agreement between us. Said it would keep my brains under my hat."
“Good advice, then?” Murdoch asked gently.
“Yes, very good. Sometimes I wonder what I would have done without him. I came to rely on that voice, and I know others did as well. I think it encouraged our whole regiment.”
“Sounds like a good man.”
“A very good man. They were all good fighting men, Murdoch.”
Scott took a step one way and then back but did not pace, though Murdoch knew he wanted to. “Tom kept up that agreement all along our march east, all through the Second Wilderness, and at Yellow Tavern--” he broke off quickly and shook his head. “I’m sorry – these names must not mean anything to you…” He frowned, seemingly held behind some invisible wall of memories that had been threatening and now seemed to have finally enveloped him.
Murdoch waited silently again; his chest heavy with concern for his eldest’s renewed distress. But he also sensed that Scott’s recitation of all this was somehow cathartic. Vicksburg he now knew, and the Wilderness, thanks again to his old Pennsylvania friend. He did not know the strange sounding Yellow Tavern, but had a suspicion of its importance to his son, so much so that it began to burn a hole in his stomach. And then Scott confirmed it for him.
“I was captured there,” Scott said. His hands fisted at his sides but he quickly crossed his arms over his chest and tucked them out of sight. “Tom – he…took a bullet meant for me.” He let out a sound. “He looked after me to the end. I might have outranked him but he was older. He always looked after me…" His lips lifted into a wry smile. "Like a big brother." His jaw quickly tightened. “I had to leave him…They marched us to the river, took us to Libby Prison, and I left him…”
Murdoch’s feet moved of their own accord and he was quickly at his son’s side, hands clasping the shoulders, then reaching to grasp the back of Scott’s neck, the words spilling from his heart and over his lips. “Scott, I am so sorry, son.”
It hurt to see the pain in his son's eyes and know the ache in that heart. "I didn't forget him, Murdoch," Scott said, struggling to contain the anguish brought on by the memory. "But there were days when I wished I could be him."
The raw emotion Murdoch heard in those words shook him deeply. He wasn't prepared for them or the picture they brought to his mind. A picture of his son - his boy - so beaten and broken that at nineteen, an age when most young men are vibrant and almost giddy with life, he wanted only to die.
His hold fell back to Scott’s shoulders and tightened to ward off the imagined sense that he might never have had the opportunity to know his son, that there had been a very real possibility that Scott might not be standing here before him now. He was suddenly afraid of the physical darkness surrounding them, but even more fearful of the emotional blackness that he knew could take a man. Scott had fought being swallowed by it before - alone in that awful place. He was fighting for it now again, only this time he was reaching out for help, trusting his father to be the anchor he so desperately needed to hold him firm in the moment and keep his past from drawing him back to a place he did not want to be.
Murdoch’s hands clutched harder. Scott shifted under his grip, and silently added his own touch to Murdoch’s sleeve. The darkness that enveloped them hung on a little longer but their grasp was secure, and after a long moment it seemed to subside.
Pride quickly overtook Murdoch’s fading fear and he stared into the honest eyes of his son, amazed at the inner strength he saw there. As a young man Scott had seen so much – war and hatred, greed and countless deaths, but he had not been completely numbed by it. Instead he had survived, had overcome it and used it to become the man he was, strong and independent, quietly confident, and compassionate. None of that had been taken from him and it could have been. He could have succumbed to the death and the depravity around him, but he hadn’t.
Scott made no move to back away. And he was talking again, as if he was almost afraid to stop what had been so hard to begin. “There were days – in that prison – when I didn’t think I could do it anymore…when I was just too tired and too sick to find anything left to fight with – and I just wanted to stop trying.”
“But you didn’t.”
“No, I didn’t. I couldn’t.” Scott eased away from Murdoch’s grasp then but kept himself within easy reach. “Tom had a family, Murdoch – a wife and two boys. He had every reason to live but he gave it up for me. He died so I didn’t have to.” He looked off into the darkness. “I had to make that count.”
“Yes,” Murdoch nodded; his son would feel that way.
"Every time I came close to giving up I heard his voice again – telling me he couldn’t let them hurt me – reminding me to keep going. And I did –if for no other reason than for him. Even after that escape attempt I had to go on. I knew he’d want me to. He’d want me to go home to my family…" He turned again to Murdoch. "This medal…it’s for him. He's the reason I’m here to receive it." And then he let off the barest of smiles. “He's the reason I get to share it with you and Johnny…"
“Scott…” He didn’t know what to say or how to say it, to articulate how so very moved he was by his son’s loyalty and his determination to turn a time of horror into quiet and dignified honor. “I’m sure he’d be proud of you, son…I know I am. I…” But the words were gone, swallowed by the emotion that filled him.
Murdoch reached out again, got an arm about Scott’s shoulders and guided him away from the darkness to the welcoming light inside. Scott sighed and seemed to rest against him, allowing his father to absorb some of the weariness enfolding him. "Thank you," he murmured.
Murdoch could not help the smile that loosened his lips. “Anytime, son. Anytime.”
He finally understood what his son had been struggling with since that letter had arrived and the reason for the conflict it had caused in him. There were so many who deserved to be honored and not for one action or one moment but for the simple act of answering the call. Common men, brave men who had given so much and asked for so little. That his son was one of them filled him with pride. That there had been others - like Tom - filled him with gratitude. It occurred to him again how, but for the grace of God, it could have been so very different.
It could have been Tom standing here tonight sharing this moment with his own son and that would have been just as right and just as deserved. It could have been he himself, not a young wife and mother, who was alone and deprived by war. The thought filled Murdoch with a strange sense of relief and sorrow, and his hold tightened once again on his son as a heartfelt prayer of gratefulness escaped his lips. He never knew – until tonight – how close he had come to losing this son. He never knew how much he owed a man – a good man – named Tom.
“That one – I’ll take him.”
The look on the hostler’s face in the lamplit barn went to open skepticism. “Mister, I don’t even know why I’m keeping that horse. He’s half-broke and mean to boot. I’ll have to pay you back and then some if you throw a leg over him.”
Scott grinned in the half-darkness at the owner of Pearson’s Livery, one A. Pearson, according to the sign out front. “I’ll take my chances.”
“Mister…” Pearson, short, half-bald and paunchy, hesitated.
“He’s available for rent, isn’t he?”
“Well, yes, but…”
Scott dug into his front pocket and withdrew a twenty-dollar gold piece. “For your worry,” he said, holding it out. The reluctance eased considerably from the other man’s face, as had the cash transaction for the ride, despite the early hour. But now a mutter about broken necks surrounded the smaller man as he retrieved the horse.
The gelding was tall and black, with a broad blaze down his face. Pearson led him out of the stall, and handed the lead rope to Scott while he hunted up a bit. The horse eyed the tall, thin stranger with a nervous eye and pawed the floor. Scott patted the long black neck, then ran an appreciative hand over the solid shoulder. The animal blew softly at him and shifted, but did not jerk away.
“Yes, you’ll do just fine,” Scott murmured to him. “Restless, aren’t you?” He felt the same way, as if he were harboring a bucketful of energy that could not be contained. Not tired, though he’d gained little sleep last night. He needed something to do, something hard and physical, something that would work the muscles and make the sweat run. Something that required his concentration. The train ride, the hotel room, even this city, had enervated him. But this morning it was different; he’d known that as he’d quietly washed and dressed to avoid waking his slumbering brother. Today that exhaustion was gone, and the pulsing black memories with it. Today was new; it was good.
He glanced about, waiting for Pearson, and spied an item in the dimness that made him smile. “I’ll take that saddle, too,” he called over to the liveryman.
The older man re-appeared, bit in hand, and followed the direction of the gesture. “That?”
Pearson scratched at a bare space on his head. “Now just what would you want with that old McClellan?”
“I want to use it.”
“You sure you know how?”
“I’m sure,” Scott replied with a trace of fondness.
Pearson muttered again, this time intelligibly. He laid the bridle aside, lifted the compact saddle down and blew a considerable amount of dust from the seat. “Cavalry, were you?”
Scott took it from him with a smile. “Yes.”
“Who’d you ride with?”
“Second United States to start, then the Fifth.”
“Regular, eh?” Pearson found a blanket and threw it over the horse’s back. “Well, I guess you’ve probably ridden some greener than this one.”
“Some,” Scott agreed. He reached under the animal’s belly, threaded the girth, and then adjusted the near stirrup, hands working from memory. Anticipation bubbled up through his limbs – he was eager to ride, to run, to enjoy the freedom of a clear day and a fast horse, the thrill of a bit of recklessness before decorum called. And the black felt it, too by the toss of its head and the flick of its tail.
“Gonna get busy later on, what with the President’s speech and the parade ‘n all.” Pearson fitted the bit, slipped the headstall over the black’s twitching ears and worked at the buckles.
Scott made his way to the other side of the horse, checking the second stirrup. “I’ll be back long before then.”
Pearson handed over the reins. “Guess it won’t do any good to tell you to be careful.”
“I’ll do that for ya.”
Scott smiled and slowly turned, not at all surprised by the voice behind him. “I thought I left you sleeping,” he commented to his brother, drawing on his gloves.
Johnny shrugged and sauntered closer. “Tried to.” He let off a light yawn. “Don’t you believe in coffee first?” His gaze went over his brother, noted approvingly the gunbelt about Scott’s hips, then rested on the horse and saddle. “You gonna ride him or race him?”
“That depends.” A grin snaked out onto Scott’s lips.
“On what?” Johnny frowned.
“On whether or not you’re going to join me.”
Johnny eyed the black again. “He’s a mite fidgety.”
Scott gave the animal a solid pat. “He just needs a good run.”
Johnny raised a brow at that. “I’ll take a horse,” he told Pearson, looking about the stalls and pointing out a big spotted gray. “Regular saddle, though.”
“Don’t worry,” Pearson grunted. “He’s got the only McClellan I have.”
It was quiet while Johnny saddled the gray, his hands making quick work of the task much like his brother’s had. “The old man talk to you?” he finally asked, dropping the stirrup back down and turning to head outside.
“A little,” Scott nodded, falling in step beside him.
“He was worried ‘bout you.” And in his voice Scott heard a me, too, that warmed him inside.
“How was your night with Jelly?”
“He’s got a lot of energy for a little old feller.” Johnny yawned again as they gained the wide doors and stepped out into the mists of the lifting fog.
Scott breathed in the dampness, was reminded of so many other mornings like this, times of peace and times of war, and for a bare moment felt a deep appreciation for the privilege of sharing the very space upon which he was standing with his brother beside him. He turned to mount. It felt good to be free of the burden of those dark memories he'd carried these last few days.
“Scott…” A hand on his arm, fingers warm with concern, made him pause. “You okay?” Johnny stared at him intently.
There was a lot to answer in reply to that question. And there was plenty of time to reply. Scott nodded. “Yes, Brother. I’m fine.” He vaulted easily into the saddle and checked the dancing black, found his seat and sat deep, calming the animal.
Johnny squinted up at him. “You sure you can stay in that thing?”
“Well, it’s a little more difficult with a saber in one hand and a carbine in the other,” Scott smiled. “But yes, I can manage.”
Johnny snorted and swung up onto the gray. He walked the horse forward a few steps and looked aback, a mischievous gleam dancing in his blue eyes. “Race?”
“We’re still in the city limits.”
Johnny pointed to the empty street. “No one’ll know.”
Scott brought the black abreast of him. “I’ve got something to tell you first.”
“I want to tell you about a friend of mine – his name was Tom…”
“Well?” Murdoch demanded.
Jelly skirted some hotel guests crossing the hotel lobby and trotted up to his boss. “Said he’s coming.”
“Just what did he want you for?”
“Just needed a little help, is all,” Jelly returned rather evasively.
“We’re going to be late – stop fidgeting,” Murdoch said to his youngest son as Johnny again tugged at the collar of his new shirt.
“Murdoch, this is choking me, dammit.”
“For your brother, son. And for the President.”
“Bet even the President would understand about wearing clothes that choke.”
“Special clothes for a special occasion,” Jelly said seriously, smoothening his new vest over his narrow torso.
“How would you know, Jelly?” Johnny asked him, craning his neck to find some relief.
“I told you.” Jelly reached over to straighten Johnny’s dark jacket, then repeated the action for himself. “I served General Beadle.”
“You served the general’s horse, Jelly.”
“Among other things,” Jelly returned with annoyance. “This here’s a special occasion and it needs special outfits. Man’s gotta make an impression, and it has to be the right one. President of the United States – how often does a man get to meet the President?” His fingers worked at Johnny’s tie.
“Enough,” Johnny commanded, slapping at his hands.
Murdoch growled in frustration. He thrust his new gray jacket aside and yanked out his watch. “Where is he?” he fretted. “It not like him to be late. Jelly, maybe…”
“He’s coming right now,” Jelly announced. “See?”
Beside him Johnny let off a long, low whistle and grinned broadly. “Well, would you look at that?”
Jelly’s smile was bright. “Told you,” he beamed. “Special clothes for a special occasion.”
“I don’t…” Murdoch followed his youngest son’s gaze, then he straightened.
A man was standing on the staircase landing, courteously waiting for other guests to pass. A tall young man wearing the reserved blue uniform of an army officer, a row of buttons lining the center of his dark belted tunic, a gleaming saber hanging from his trim, sashed waist, and a dark hat set firmly on his head.
Murdoch hardly recognized his oldest son.
PART 4 – HERETOFORE UNHEARD OF
July 4, 1865
“Hey, Mister, wake up!”
The call wove into the weariness already thick in his brain. He struggled to respond but his limbs, leaden and sore, held him fast to the now uncomfortable ground. He’d only thought to rest a few minutes; the ride from town, long and hot, was harder than he’d anticipated and he’d tired quickly, despite his rest from the night before.
“We don’t allow trespassers around here, Mister.”
The voice was strong but held a ring of adolescence. Scott squinted, blinked, saw sunlight and shade rippling overhead, dappling the small form standing over him. He started to rise; yes, a child, a boy, holding—
The unmistakable snick of the rifle being cocked made him freeze, hurting with the effort of holding himself up.
“Can’t feed no more drifters, Ma says,” said the boy from around the rifle barrel that didn’t fit him and wavered in his hands. “You’re gonna have to go.”
“I’m sorry,” Scott replied, though his mouth was dry and his voice came out gravelly. He swallowed painfully, tried to find some saliva to moisten his tongue. He coughed and then couldn’t stop. The paroxysms came fast and harsh, his throat begging for relief, his lungs trying to keep up, his eyes watering with the strain. “Please,” he got out between gasps, “if you could just – the gun…”
The boy, dark-haired and gangly, took a step back and let the tip of the rifle drop to Scott’s boots. Well, he might survive without a foot…
The coughing outburst now reluctantly subsiding, Scott shoved himself up onto his elbows, then dragged himself into a sitting position, but had to use the broad tree trunk behind him for support. The unexpected exertion had taken its toll – his limbs were shaking, his head was pounding. He’d sweated through his shirt. And some place on him, he was sure, was bleeding from the effects of the lingering scurvy.
“You okay?” The boy’s tone had gentled just a bit. “You need me to get your horse for you?”
“I’m – I’m not…” Scott eased himself forward and tried to straighten. “I’m looking for the Grady farm – is this it?”
The tip of the rifle shot back up. “You from the bank?”
The significance of the question was not lost on Scott, and he felt a sudden twinge of sympathy for the small boy standing in front of him, trying so hard to sound like a man. “No. I’m looking for Mrs. Grady – Mrs. Mary Grady. I’d like to talk with her.”
“What about?” The boy planted his feet and gave him a look that made his throat nearly close with memory. One of the boys, had to be…
Past images came flooding back, Tom talking so proudly about his sons, bringing out the worn photo again and again that he carried of them, telling Scott all about these boys of his. Tommy, the oldest, most like Tom himself, rugged and reliable, and Jeremy, the younger, slighter of build, sensitive, quiet. Tom had compared his youngest to Scott on a number of occasions, and Scott had wondered more than once if that was one of the reasons they had become so close.
A shudder ran through him at the reminder in front of him of this past war’s far reaching cruelty. This war that had demanded so much from so many, taking the lives of some, the health and strength of others, and the youth of the rest. Even, he thought now, from those who had not served. Tom’s son should be out climbing over rocks, chasing long-tailed lizards back to their holes, or splashing around in some pond sending croaking bullfrogs scurrying for safety, not standing here with a rifle in his hands, chasing some ailing stranger off of his family’s farm.
So young to be so protective. But it had been over a year. And if there were financial troubles…
“A personal matter.”
The boy debated, scrunched up his freckled face while he scrutinized the scrawny man sitting before him, likely gauging the degree of threat. Aside from being a good foot taller, Scott didn’t think he offered any show of harm, judging by the reaction of the folks in the New Jersey town where he’d asked directions. Sixty days of healing hadn’t yet begun to show. All of his clothes hung on him. His arms rattled inside his shirt sleeves, which were drawn down to his wrists to cover the ugly array of sores and bruises that refused to heal, and to ward off the constant chill he carried on him. His hips jutted and his stomach caved, and the presence of a belt about his waist was unbearable. Weakened muscles gave him trouble walking, and his left ankle still required a bandage. His fingers had taken on an elongated, grotesque appearance with the nails barely beginning to grow enough to allow cleaning and trimming. But that was if folks got beyond his face at all.
The empty, hollow expression he saw each time he caught sight of his reflection reminded him so very clearly of what he yet carried from this war. He’d welcomed – and so desperately needed – a haircut, but the close style, initially required to rid himself of vermin, was slow to grow. No wonder the boy thought he was a drifter. He certainly looked no better than one, despite the fresh clothing he’d donned this morning.
“Is it about my pa?”
The question shot through him and landed hard; memories rushed up, pounding against a heart long dulled by months of deprivation and loss, awakening it.
“Yes,” Scott nodded. After a moment he asked, “Would it be all right if I paid a call to your mother?”
“We was fixing to go to town for the celebration. I was just rounding up the last of the cows.” The boy jerked his head off to his left and Scott saw a small group of bovines working their way by. The youngster eyed him warily. “Did you know my pa?”
Again Scott nodded, seeing more and more of the resemblance in the shape of the head, the nose and the eyes, the sturdiness of the shoulders. Emotion flowed through him, warm and yet hurtful, too.
“Was you in the war together?”
“Yes, we were.”
“My ma said he died a hero, fightin’ for what was right.”
“Your ma is correct,” Scott told him, barely able to speak past the thickness working up from his chest.
The boy uncocked the rifle and let the butt rest in the grass beside his leg. “Come on,” he said. “You can follow me.”
"I’m sorry," Scott told her, one hand again caressing the roughened headstone. “He was a good man.”
He felt his throat tighten. He hadn’t known that standing here with her, trying to speak, would be so hard. He watched her, her head bowed and her back bent, as she laid a bouquet of summer flowers on the grassy mound, a moment of gentleness against the strength she had earlier displayed. She was a small woman, the top of her head barely reaching his shoulder, plainly dressed in calico, her face and hands tanned from outdoor work. But she had handily clung to him as he slid from the saddle upon reaching the house, helped him to the porch, bandaged his freshly bleeding arm, and allowed him some rest. She’d fed him and fussed over him, and he knew why Tom had loved her. Her strength, he realized, was greater than his, both physically and mentally. Mary Grady had been dealt the cruelest blow but had not been felled by it.
"I wish I could have brought something for you – from him.” The words stumbled from his lips. “They didn't give us any time..."
"Lieutenant." Mary’s arm closed over his thin forearm, her fingers warm. She looked up at him, her brown eyes filled with kindness. “You’ve brought me more than you could ever know - just by your being here.” She swallowed hard and turned her gaze to the headstone. "I was so afraid he’d been alone…that it had all been for naught. It’s a comfort knowing you were there at the end. That he was among friends. It’s the wondering that’s been so hard.”
Scott looked away and tried to concentrate on a patch of bright sunlight between two nearby gravestones. Someone had strung a flower chain between them; a spot of childish happiness left behind in this place of dignity and death. He felt so empty, and shuddered at the now all too familiar sensation. It was the only thing he had felt for a long time.
"He saved my life – I probably shouldn’t be here…"
"No Lieutenant. Don’t you believe that." Both her hands grasped his shoulders, forcing his gaze onto her. "Not for one minute. Tom died doing what he wanted to do, and he wouldn’t want you to feel guilty for it. That wasn’t his way."
"No, it wasn’t," he agreed softly.
She smiled through her tears and wiped her hands across her wet face. “He thought the world of you, Lieutenant. He said you were the kind of young man he hoped his boys would grow up to be. He wrote and told me often what an honor it was to serve under you. I know he would have thought it an honor to die for you, too.”
That she still grieved for her husband was obvious. Scott could hear it in her voice and see it on her face, and he knew it would be a long time before she would find rest from it. A small flickering stirred inside him; a point of long suspended compassion, similar to that stirred earlier by her son. His first inclination was to swallow it away as he’d done for so many months, but her tears moved him. He wanted so badly to offer her some comfort.
“He didn’t suffer, Mrs. Grady. It came quickly.”
The lines on her face softened, and she looked at him with gratitude.
“His last thought was of you. He wanted you to know that home was where he wanted to be, that he tried to make it.”
She smiled at him again, though fresh tears fell. “He made it, Lieutenant, and every day I’m grateful. So many were left where they fell…but they found him and brought him home. It’s been a comfort to me and his boys- our boys - having him here to talk to.” She studied him with gentle eyes for a moment. “You have come home too, Lieutenant.” And then perhaps because she sensed he needed to hear it added, “This is right, Lieutenant. It is how it was meant to be.”
Her shoulders straightened and Scott heard in her determined voice her resolve to go on. "I’ve promised the boys the fireworks. You’ll join us, won’t you? I’d be pleased if you’d take company at our home. I’m sure Tommy and Jeremy would love to hear about their pa – if you care to tell. But they won’t ask – I’ll not have them pester you."
"I’d be pleased to tell them what I know," Scott told her.
"I told them he died a hero." Mary flushed a little. "They needed something to help understand…"
He touched her sleeve. "As far as I’m concerned, Mrs. Grady, that’s exactly what he was."
She left him then, and made her way out of the little cemetery where Tom’s sons sat waiting in the wagon, knowing without saying how badly he needed these moments alone.
A hush fell over the little graveyard. The breeze slowed and the air warmed in the late afternoon light, soft, gentle, reverent. Above, patches of blue sky peeked from between swaying leaves. A couple of jays darted from tree to tree, chattering to each other over the chirp of crickets and the low hum of locusts.
This was a good place. Scott closed his eyes and breathed deeply of the precious stillness. He was tired – so very tired. This trip to the New Jersey countryside had weighed heavily on him since that day when he’d promised Tom he’d bring the message. His grandfather and the doctor had protested his leaving, but he would not be delayed any longer. Though now he found that their warnings held merit. The scurvy was slow to abate, and the threat of the ague was strong. Aches and weakness were frustratingly constant.
He’d been struggling for so long now. All that long, painful year and these months since and standing here now he wished he could just lie down next to his friend and forget it all. When had he stopped hoping for the day when all of this would be over – when he would feel new again? He didn’t know.
The plans he’d been so sure of just a few short years ago now seemed out of focus. He’d expected a military career, felt well suited to it, had even accepted an appointment from Henry Wilson, his state senator, to the Academy, but the need to serve and face the challenge of the moment had been too strong and he had enlisted instead. He would get his training on the battlefield and serve his country as he did. He’d expected to serve the required five years – or be killed in battle. He thought himself to be a good soldier. He was proud of his service and his contribution to the war, limited as it had been. He’d tried to perform responsibly, to always set an example for others.
That one moment at Yellow Tavern had shattered everything. His year in prison had robbed him of his health, and more. And now he was to be honorably discharged due to illness. He had first thought to appeal the discharge; the army was what he wanted to do, what he believed in when he signed up. Yet he wasn’t fool enough to think that his imprisonment had not robbed him of some of his spirit as well. He’d been lost since coming home, trying to move beyond his year of mere existence and rediscover what he had left behind. But his re-entry to his old world was fraught with illness and nightmares and too much pity from those around him. He needed to do something but did not know what that might be. Grandfather was pushing for Harvard. It had been his desire for his grandson all along and now it seemed the wiser choice. It was closer to home – something Scott needed right now – and it would provide a distraction from the constant memories of the last two years. He needed that too, the security of family and friends, to be cared for and to care in return, feelings that did not result in reprisal. And the challenge of study – of learning - had always made him feel alive. He wanted to feel like that again. It had been so long.
“I miss you, my friend.”
His voice sounded thin to his ears. He rested his hand back on the warmed stone bearing Tom’s name. Feeling engulfed him. Slowly he crouched, and his fingers, thin and trembling, traced the chiseled letters, wishing the man back to life.
He took a breath. "I gave her the message, Tom. Your wife, and your sons, you’d be proud of them, of their strength. And they are very proud of you…As am I. I just wish…" He clamped his lips together, swallowed hard and blinked quickly. "I’m so sorry I left you…" The words seemed empty, meaningless. “They took us to Libby, Tom. I’m glad you were at least spared that. It was no place to be.” He couldn't say anymore about it beyond that admission. It hadn’t even been three months and the images that haunted his every moment – waking or sleeping - were just too real yet.
“It was another whole year before it all ended.” A sad smile flickered ever so briefly. “A whole year - and we’d hoped it was all going to be over soon, remember?” He let out a breath and the smile faded. “I didn’t think I was going to make it, Tom. I couldn’t…” The words stuck in his throat and he swallowed hard against the pain they caused. “It just got so hard to hear you at the end.”
The truth of the matter was he didn’t know if he was going to make it still, and that was what he had been grappling with since coming home. He needed to heal in so many ways, and he didn’t know if he had the strength or desire to do it. He had come here to keep a promise to a friend – to bring some comfort to a grieving family. But some part of him realized that, in coming here, he was also seeking some comfort for himself. If only he could hear that voice, that hearty laugh again. He so badly wanted to talk to his friend one more time.
He closed his eyes and gulped some air. His hands pressed the stone as his heart burned inside him. Then he slipped to his knees. Coming here reminded him again of what his own life meant – what it had cost his friend, and the responsibility he now felt to Tom, to Mary and those two boys, and to himself because of it.
He heard it then, Tom’s voice deep within him, still encouraging him, supporting him in so many ways. Telling him even now not to give up, to take what life had given him and make the most of it. And telling him that it was all right to stumble along the way, as long as he promised to get up again. And there was another voice welling up inside him, a familiar one long dormant; his own voice of inner strength which that horrible year had tried to silence. He’d fought so hard to stay alive - scratching and clawing for it - that he’d lost sight of it, and with that he’d lost Tom’s voice as well. Yet it may well have been the very thing that had kept him alive for so long. He wondered if, in fact, it would now be his very reason for going on. He had survived; he hadn’t given up, hadn’t succumbed to the blackness that had taken so many men.
Mary’s words, “It was how it was meant to be” further warmed something inside of him– something that had been in danger of disappearing – and for the first time since coming home he experienced emotions besides pain and despair. Coming here had been the right thing to do – he knew it now. He had to continue on, if only to honor his friend’s sacrifice.
He reached into his pocket, withdrew the pair of shoulder straps, the insignia of his rank – the only thing he’d been able to salvage while imprisoned. And the only thing that he had to share. It was a year ago that he’d struggled so hard to save them. They curled perfectly into his palm, gray where they had once been yellow, frayed where they had once been neatly stitched. Scott gently placed one against the base of the stone, where it held upright between thick blades of tended grass.
Then he stood – and saluted his sergeant one last time.
Murdoch wasn’t prepared for the sight of his son standing so tall and straight in uniform there on that landing any more than he’d been prepared for the strong self-assured young man who had thrown open those doors to Lancer’s great room that day two years ago and entered not only his home, but his life. He hadn’t been prepared for the emotions that had risen so quickly to the surface then and he found himself no better prepared for them now.
He had admired his son’s determination and courage from the very start. Scott had probably had the most to prove when he’d arrived at the place he now called home. No one had expected much from this young man who had been raised so differently from the rest of them. Murdoch had to admit, having wondered himself, what he had expected. But Scott had demonstrated to them all very early on that it wasn’t the external that makes a man and he had proved himself to be both capable and sure. He had shown no intimidation from the first moment but had risen to the many challenges immediately, his logical mind intrigued by the demands placed before him. And then he had just taken care of things – so very matter of factly –seeking no notice for himself or the job done. It was a strength Murdoch had appreciated more each day and it was one that he now knew was no less true of his son’s years of service.
Now, for a brief moment, Scott’s eyes found his and held. There was a quietness in them that had not been there last night and in that quietness Murdoch saw a renewed sense of purpose and determination. He was reminded of his first glimpse into those eyes and what looking into them had done to him. There had been no warmth in them that first time but there was now, and Murdoch was grateful for the time and experiences that had allowed it.
He released a smile and knew by the one returned that his son recognized the love and pride reflected in it. Scott descended the remaining stairs and approached, quietly confident, and Murdoch was filled with a pride that had him blinking fast to keep his vision clear, and swallowing hard to keep his throat from closing. This man, this soldier, was his son. He hadn't been a part of those years of Scott's service, or any of the years before that. But this medal had allowed an opportunity to recapture some of that lost time with his son and he would forever cherish what they had been given.
“Scott…I—“ His hands reached out and took Scott’s arm. Their palms met with a hearty shake and then Murdoch settled a large hand on a broad, blue-clad shoulder.
“I wasn’t sure…” Scott said, glancing down at himself. He flushed a little. “It’s been a long time.”
Murdoch understood Scott’s reservations, His son was not one to call attention to himself. “No, no, not at all,” Murdoch assured. “It looks good, son. It’s right for you to wear it.”
The uniform was smart and new, the dark coat devoid of embellishments but for a row of nine brass buttons centered on Scott’s chest. Simple bars of rank, a plain yellow rectangle, adorned each shoulder. He wore two pins on his left breast, a simple white cross, and a small starburst medallion under two crossed swords set against a striped ribbon. A wide red sash circled his trim waist, from which hung a sheathed saber on his left side.
After a few long moments of enduring the stares of both his father and brother, Scott’s eyes filled with questioning and he slid a look to Jelly.
“All in order,” the handyman told him with assurance. “I just think you surprised 'em, is all.” Jelly turned to Murdoch and Johnny and explained, “He had this uniform sent home before the spring campaign – just not enough room for any extras then. Sure looks mighty good still.” And he reached up and briskly brushed Scott’s shoulder of some imaginary dust.
“Is that what you were doing?” Johnny asked Jelly with a grin, then held out a hand for his brother to shake. “Pretty fancy, Brother,” he complimented. “But are you sure you trust Jelly’s eye for this?”
Jelly elbowed him. “ ‘Course he does," he said indignantly. “Who better?”
Scott smiled and glanced down. “Well, I did need some help with the saber,” he admitted. “I carried it more than wore it…”
“Just where did you manage to hide that?”
“Sent it on ahead,” Jelly told them, straightening. “In case he wanted it. Wasn’t sure he should dress, mind you, but I convinced him the President wouldn’t be expecting anything less.”
“Well I’m glad you did, Jelly,” Murdoch told him with a smile.
Johnny pointed to Scott’s chest. “Thought you said you didn’t receive any medals.”
“Then what are those?”
“Corps badges," Scott told him. “I was part of Sheridan’s brigade – Second Division.”
“And these?" Johnny asked, pointing to the bars. “They mean Second Lieutenant, right?”
“Is there a first?”
“There is.” Scott gave a glance to his shoulder. “I was to be promoted – after the Wilderness campaign – that was a battle.” He frowned. “It took a while to settle the records…I checked before my discharge but there were no orders.” He lifted a shoulder in a shrug. “There was a lot of confusion – it was likely overlooked. So there aren’t any bars, Brother.”
“Well there shoulda been.”
“Thank you.” Scott’s hand slipped to the handle of the saber and held comfortably. “I was just glad to be available for a discharge – the rank has never been that important.”
Johnny’s eyes met his father’s and shared a feeling of gratefulness that Scott had survived that prison to be with them now.
Johnny smiled quietly. "Guess there's room for one more medal, then."
“And if you want your brother to collect it,” Murdoch prompted, “we'd better get going.” He turned his attention to his oldest. “It's time, son. We don't want to be late.”
Scott nodded and led the way outside. Johnny fell in step beside him and Jelly took up the opposite side. Murdoch slowly followed behind, near enough to reach out a long arm to his son. Quickly they reached the street, overflowing with noise and traffic of all kinds, voices and people, horses and carts and wagons, a rejoinder of last night except that there were no fireworks claiming the cloudless blue sky. They worked their way down the sidewalk filled with pedestrians, many of whom made room for the young man dressed in a new blue uniform, acknowledging him with smiles and nods. Unabashed pride swelled inside Murdoch for the respect total strangers were giving his son.
As they paused in readiness to cross the street, Scott glanced back and smiled at him, a smile that emanated happiness and humility and love. Murdoch’s heart skipped and he almost stumbled, suddenly overwhelmed. This was his son – his son. No man ever so deserved the honor that was about to be bestowed upon him. Soldier, captive, hero.
This was his son – Scott Lancer.
He was a broad man of about thirty, dark and strong looking, a grin playing about his lips that seemed to ease the straight bearing of the taller but younger lieutenant at his side.
Scott had brought out the picture of himself and Tom while they’d been waiting for the ceremony to begin.
It had been taken at Vicksburg he’d said - nine years ago to this very day. Scott had sounded almost surprised, and Johnny had the distinct impression that his brother was still struggling to reconcile the young soldier of that picture, so new to war and the rigors of it, with the older, wiser young man about to meet the President of the United States and receive a medal for actions he had simply considered his duty.
Johnny had stared at that younger version of Scott, the image similar to the man in the picture on Scott’s bureau standing next to that general, Sheridan. Neither one looked so different than his brother now, unless you looked hard enough to note the new thinness that gave his face a distinct profile, and saw the concentrated seriousness that often emanated from those deep blue eyes. Experience, Johnny mused as Scott carefully returned the photograph to a pocket inside his jacket. And then Johnny had reached up to knock askew that dark hat on his brother’s head. Scott had smiled and playfully punched him in the arm before righting it, and the grin they’d shared felt like it came from the same place.
But now, after watching his brother conversing for some three-quarters of an hour with the assorted dignitaries gathered for the occasion, Johnny knew his brother was again feeling some uncertainty. There was nothing in his outward appearance to show his uneasiness, and Murdoch and Jelly probably hadn’t even noticed, but Johnny saw it in the way Scott kept his conversation polite yet evasive, and by the physical distance he left between himself and the other person. Every so often his gaze would connect with Johnny, seeking something of the familiar. Johnny understood this unease; it required Scott to expose a part of himself to others that he normally kept tucked away. And though Scott was holding up well under the pressure, Johnny wished it was just all over for his brother and they were on their way home. He knew Scott had slept fitfully, if at all. His brother had been asleep when he’d come in, but as a light sleeper himself, he’d woken often to Scott’s tossing and turning. As far as he knew, Scott had had precious little sleep ever since that letter had arrived. He could only imagine just how tired his brother must be feeling about now.
He knew, too, what it had cost Scott to make this decision to be here, to accept the recognition for what he did not feel was "gallant action" but the performance of his duty, to undertake those memories of that time in his life when a good man had sacrificed his life for his that day long ago. A man whose very influence had allowed Scott to survive months of depravity and brutality. Once again Johnny was grateful for the fortuitous chance he’d been given to discover that he’d had a brother.
Now, cooped up and waiting for the overdue President, Scott was getting downright edgy; his responses to those around him were getting shorter and his silences longer. Johnny had to admit that he was ready to scratch at his new clothes again. He could not imagine how Scott managed to look so cool all buttoned up in that dark blue wool, saying endlessly polite things to all these important folks waiting to gawk at him as he received honors from Grant. And then he thought about that long year Scott had spent in prison and realized where his brother’s patience had been honed. Slowly he made his way over to the window where Scott was now tucking himself.
"Guess these things don’t start on time," he commented, drawing close and wishing the sound of his footsteps wasn’t absorbed by the thick fancy rug he was walking across.
Scott turned and gave him a smile of relief. He stepped into his brother’s familiar presence. "Most things involving the army usually don’t." He stood tall still, with that hat tucked neatly under his left arm and that long saber swaying at his left leg, but his shoulders seemed just a little too high.
That half-grin appeared again. “Well, it is the President. Aren’t you nervous?”
“Me? I ain’t the one getting a medal pinned to my chest. You’d better hope he don’t stick you.”
Scott laughed softly. “I hope he’s had enough experience not to.”
“You know, Scott…” Johnny let his gaze slide to that too thick carpet; it had a dizzying design in it. He looked back up to find those dark blue eyes locked onto him. “I’m glad for you. I know all these fellers have been telling you the same thing…”
Scott laid a warm hand on his arm. “It sounds much better coming from you,” he said with an honesty that Johnny saw came from deep within him. “Thanks, Brother.”
The door to an inner room opened, probably where the President had been hiding. But out stepped two army officers, the same two who’d delivered the notice to Scott three days ago – Colonel Williams and Lieutenant Wheelwright. Now Johnny saw the difference in rank between the First and Second Lieutenant. Wheelwright’s straps held a single bar inside the rectangle, where Scott’s were blank. Didn’t seem fair. Johnny doubted the youthful Wheelwright had ever seen battle, nor had ever came close to the inside of a prison. Then again, he didn’t think Wheelwright had any Medal of Honor stashed away in his pocket, either.
Grant didn’t appear, but another gent did, another one Johnny didn’t know, but one Scott sure did.
“Senator Wilson,” Scott declared with quiet surprise, staring at the broad-faced fellow sporting good-sized whiskers.
The tall man smiled and gave Scott a hearty clap on the shoulder. “So good to see you, my boy,” he boomed, his voice drawing Murdoch over. “I was delighted to hear of the nomination. Gladly voted for it and urged all my fellow senators to do the same. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is again proud of our brave Union men.”
Quickly Scott introduced his family and the Senator shook their hands, sizing them up and down with interest that was more than just mild. Johnny did the same and beside him Murdoch had also straightened. The mention of Scott’s home state had brought them both to attention.
“Senator,” Scott frowned. “When…?”
“Just before Congress let out in the spring, son. Seems they had a bit of a time locating you. Tried Chestnut Street first, you know, gave your grandfather a bit of a start. He had a telegram to me before I could even board the train out of Washington. He wasn’t going to tell the army anything, mind you, until he knew what it was about – well, you know how he worried for so long…”
“He knows then.”
It suddenly went quiet in the room.
“Yes.” Wilson nodded. “He told me to tell you how very proud he is, and said he'll be looking forward to hearing from you. You know he would have been here if he could.”
“Yes,” Scott nodded. “I'm sure of it. I'll make a point of writing soon.”
“Sir…” Colonel Williams stepped up. “The President is ready for you, Mr. Lancer. Would you kindly…?”
Scott took a deep breath and smiled at Johnny as he let it out. Johnny nodded and grinned and followed him into the Governor’s office.
“Mr. President? May I present Lieutenant Scott Lancer.” It was obvious by Colonel Williams’ tone of voice that he was used to affairs such as this. “Mr. Lancer, the President of the United States, President Grant.”
They had stepped into a formal room of dark wood moldings, high ceilings and tall bookcases. A haze of cigar smoke hung in the air above their heads. Long red curtains at the windows warded off the strong summer sun. They reminded Scott of the great room at home, and the familiarity it eased his thoughts a little.
The President, who had been speaking with another of his assistants when they’d entered, stepped forward at the introduction, hand extended towards Scott. He was simply dressed in a dark suit and white shirt, free of any adornments. “Mr. Lancer,” he said in that quiet, sure voice quickly recognized by anyone who had ever served under him. “Welcome. It’s a privilege to meet you, especially under these circumstances.”
Scott offered his hand in return. “Thank you, sir, but I’m sure the honor is all mine.” He turned and gestured. “My father, Murdoch Lancer, my brother, John, and our good friend Jellifer Hoskins.”
The President shook hands with both of the older men and then Johnny. “Good to meet you all. It’s a proud day for you.”
“Mr. President,” Colonel Williams said apologetically. “We need to move along, Sir. It’s nearing one o’clock and we do have one other presentation to make.”
“Yes, of course,” the President smiled and then said to Scott with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, “It would seem, Lieutenant, that there is no more time for conversation in politics than there is on a battlefield.
“Mr. Lancer, you should know how this award came about.” He consulted the notes in his hand, though Scott suspected he did not need to reference them. "Major General Blair, of the Fifteenth Corps, made a recommendation of the Medal of Honor to all those enlisted men as well as those composing the storming party of May 22nd in his Official Report for the Siege of Vicksburg. He also made mention of you, Sir, for distinguished gallantry and meritorious conduct in the dispatch of your duty as a volunteer courier from the 2nd Cavalry, Colonel Cyrus Bussey commanding, between he and the three commanding officers of his brigades, to Major General Sherman and then onto Headquarters.”
Scott’s gaze hesitated a second as that memories of that day raced through him, the smoke and the shouts, the bloodletting, his own gallops between commanders, barely slowing down to hand over the message before riding off again. And then that last return, falling and tumbling, running…
“Major General Sherman also endorsed Major General Blair’s recommendation,” the President was saying. He caught Scott’s returning gaze and let a smile work out over his lips. “Colonel Williams, would you please read the citation?”
Williams stepped forward and saluted Scott, who returned the gesture. From under his arm Williams withdrew a leather bound volume, opened it and began to read. “On this Fourth day of 1872 – Independence Day – I, Ulysses S. Grant, President of these United States and duly authorized by the Congress, hereby confer to Scott David Garrett Lancer, former Second Lieutenant of the 2nd Cavalry, United States Regular Army, the Medal of Honor for gallantry in action when voluntarily crossing the line of heavy fire of Union and Confederate forces to deliver messages as necessary and required on May 22nd, 1863 during the battle of Vicksburg. To you, Scott Lancer, I offer my sincerest congratulations and heartfelt gratitude for your unshakeable devotion to duty in the service of your country.”
Senator Wilson stepped forward with a small case. Grant opened it and turned it to Scott for viewing. Then he withdrew the medal, a five-pointed bronze star held by a striped ribbon.
Grant hesitated for a moment and then looked pointedly at the young man standing in front of him. “It’s always an honor to pin a medal like this on a soldier, Lieutenant, particularly a soldier who served under my command. But I’m especially humbled to be able to present this to you today for actions on the 22nd. I have not spent a lot of time nursing regret, Mr. Lancer. It’s a futile exercise at best, I have found. But I do regret that day - deeply. If I had known the true hopelessness of the situation, I would never have called for that final assault. I want to thank you personally for the effort you gave and the lives you helped save that day.”
Scott was moved at the honesty he heard in that quiet voice. He knew what it was to have the responsibility of men. He knew what it was to have regrets in regard to them. And he knew when it came to that regret there was no difference between a lieutenant or a lieutenant general. “Thank you, Sir. Vicksburg was a hard battle.”
“Yes,” Grant returned quietly, “A hard one.”
“If you don’t mind my saying, Mr. President, there was, in fact, merit to that assault. The men thought it was possible to take the city that day, Sir. They would not have settled down to the work of the trenches as patiently as they did if they had not been allowed to try.”
Grant smiled. “I have come to believe that myself, Lieutenant. Thank you, son. I do appreciate knowing the men were behind my decision.”
With that he stepped closer and in the silence of the room pinned the coveted medal. Stepping back only slightly he again offered his hand, a firm handshake, which was returned with sincere appreciation.
And then it was over, and Johnny and Murdoch and Jelly were shaking his hand and slapping his back, and a hubbub of voices broke out in the room as the members of the group turned to speak to one another.
“Mr. Lancer.” The President’s voice broke into the revelry and brought the room’s attention to order again. “There is one more thing, before you go.”
“It would seem that you are due one more presentation before the army can legitimately send you on your way. I hope you don’t mind.”
Scott stood, puzzled. “Sir, I’m afraid I don’t understand. If there is a problem...”
“No son, no problem,” the President said and then added with a grin, “at least no problem that seven years of army red tape and paper work can’t fix.” Grant cleared his throat. “It seems when my assistants researched your military file they found a record of commendation for promotion for you.” He took a moment to regard Scott’s uniform. “One that apparently was not rewarded. For the Second Wilderness, was it not?”
“There’d been mention, sir,” Scott answered softly. “Shortly thereafter, however…”
“Yellow Tavern,” Grant finished for him, though his voice had tempered with the mention of the battle. “Yes, I know. A long and terrible year for you, I have no doubt. I regret that you had to endure that and that your services in the field were taken from us. I believe you would have made an excellent commanding officer given alternate circumstances.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Nevertheless, your promotion was filed but unfulfilled.” Grant reached into the pocket of his jacket and withdrew a set of shoulder straps bearing the First Lieutenant rank. “I’d like to do that now, if I may,” and then added with a smile, “I believe you have just the spot for them.”
Incredulity swept through Scott. Numbly he took the proffered representation of his promotion. He had considered the commendation another fatality of war, and had long buried his personal thoughts about it. But as the straps lay lightly in his palm, crisp and new, a feeling of satisfaction spread through him, along with gratitude for the thoroughness of the President.
Murdoch's large hand came to rest on his shoulder, startling him out of his reverie. And then Johnny and Jelly were murmuring their congratulations with admiration. A small smile broke through on Scott’s face. It had been an overwhelming three days, culminating with this. He wasn’t quite sure how to fathom it all.
“Mr. President. There is that final presentation, Sir, and I do believe the gentleman has arrived.” Again Colonel Williams sought to keep the stringent schedule moving. “We should not keep Mr. Meigs waiting any longer, Sir.”
Scott’s head came up at the mention of the name and he smiled slowly, his eyes warming as he did. The President noticed. “Do you know him, Mr. Lancer?”
“Yes, Sir,” Scott said softly. “I do. He’s a good man and well deserving of such an honor. Would you tell Mr. Meigs I send my congratulations, Sir. ” And then with a glance towards his father added, “Tell him for me if you will, that like so many, I am forever in his debt.”
Grant smiled and said, "I think it would be highly appropriate for you to do that yourself, Lieutenant. Colonel Williams, would you show Mr. Meigs in?"
“Sir…” returned Colonel Williams with restrained protest.
“A moment more, Colonel,” Grant said. “The good people of Sacramento will still get their speech.”
Williams saluted and disappeared, returning a few moments later with the man who had made such a difference within the last 24 hours. Lucien Meigs was washed and shaved, and his patched uniform had been traded for a worn jacket and white shirt. Eyes bright, he looked over the occupants of the room. He came to a standstill upon seeing Grant, drew himself up and offered a sharp salute. Grant smiled and then indicated Scott. Quickly the older man shifted his gaze, a smile spreading slowly across his face.
Scott stepped up to him. “Mr. Meigs…”
The other man looked him over. “Done all right for yourself, son,” he greeted. “You wear that uniform mighty well – congratulations.”
“Thank you, sir. And to you.” He glanced at the President, but Grant showed no impatience. Colonel Williams had returned to the room, but was standing quietly by the door. Scott took Lucien’s arm. “I don’t have much time, sir, but I wanted to tell you…”
Meigs’ free hand came to rest on Scott’s. “Did it help?”
Scott nodded. “Very much so. My family…” He nodded to Johnny and Murdoch standing behind him.
“We’re very glad to meet you, Mr. Meigs,” Murdoch spoke up, offering his hand.
Meigs shook it. “Fine boy you have, sir.”
“Yes,” Murdoch smiled. “He is.”
Jelly pressed forward. “Meigs, did you say?”
Lucien frowned, puzzled, then his face brightened. “You were General Beadle’s assistant,” he declared. “From the Reserve Brigade. ”
Jelly grinned and shook his hand. “Thought I recognized your name from the rosters. Came in from the general’s old unit, First Michigan Sharpshooters.”
“Yes, sir, I did. Glad to continue serving under the general, too.”
“What d’you know about that? All this time and someone from the old Third Regiment. We can talk after, maybe. You wouldn’t mind, would you, Mr. Lancer? I can just wait outside and then--”
“Sirs…” Colonel Williams’ insistent voice halted the conversation.
Grant cleared his throat. “We’d better move along, gentlemen.”
Lucien nodded to Jelly and then turned to Scott. “Good luck to you, son.”
“And to you, too, Mr. Meigs,” Scott returned warmly.
Outside a cheer went up, and with it came the strains of a song from a marching band. It was the Fourth of July, Scott realized. One of a series of Fourths that he had recently remembered – different from the others yet in many ways the same. Each had impacted him greatly, as had the people he recalled from them. There was Tom, of course, with his own special duty to his country and his young commander, and the friendship they had founded; Mary Grady and her graciousness and enduring strength that kept Tom’s spirit alive for him; Lucien Meigs and his advice only yesterday to Scott. And there was his family’s understanding and encouragement. All of them had supported him as he’d struggled to recover and accept his survival against war and imprisonment.
It had been such a short but intensive time in his life, but a time that had molded him into a man, a soldier, and a lieutenant, returned him to the role of a grandson, and now a son and brother. His past was solidly linked to his present, and the bridge built between them now secure.
“Son…” Lucien Meigs’s soft voice eased him out of his reflection. “Lieutenant – sir.”
Meigs stepped back and saluted Scott.
With pride, Scott saluted the man back.
“I think it’s just lovely, Scott.”
Teresa held up the medal one last time to admire it, then gently returned it to the velvet case in Scott’s hands. As he closed the lid she impulsively reached up and kissed him on the cheek. “I’m so proud of you, Scott.”
“Thank you, Teresa,” he murmured back with a quiet smile.
She moved to sit in the corner chair and took up the knitting in the basket on the floor beside it. “Tell me again about President Grant,” she requested.
“Teresa, we talked all about it during dinner,” Johnny complained from his position on the floor near her where he was already engaged in a checkers game with Jelly.
“Well, I wasn’t there,” she reminded him, giving him a poke with a knitting needle. “And I’d like to know all about it.”
“There’s nothing more to tell,” he said.
“’Course there’s more to tell,” Jelly said, moving his black checker piece. “King me.”
Johnny stared. “How’d you do that?”
“You weren’t paying attention.”
“Well, that weren’t my fault!”
“He was a quiet man,” Murdoch spoke from the opposite sofa, giving his youngest son and his handyman a smile. “Unlike those in this room.” But then his gaze drifted upward to his eldest, standing silently before the darkened hearth.
Scott caught his gaze and straightened, tucking his thoughts away, though the velvet case in his hand did not let them stray too far. “A simple man,” he added. “Not given to extravagance. He never was one for much decorum, even as the Lieutenant General of the army.”
“Knew what he was doin’,” Jelly piped up, patiently waiting for Johnny’s next move. “Didn’t let all them soldiers and senators take over. They listened when he spoke. But he was right easy to talk to – acted like a plain sort of feller. Didn’t have none of them airs big city politicians have.”
“And just what did he say to you?” Johnny asked, finally sliding a red checker forward.
“None of your business what he said to me,” Jelly snapped back.
“Well then how do you know he was easy to talk to? He talked to Scott, but I didn’t see him talking to you.”
“A man can tell things, Johnny, if he’s smart enough to watch.”
“I know that--”
“Scott, was anyone there to take a picture of you in your uniform?” Teresa cut in hopefully.
“It’s on its way,” Murdoch told her. “Now, why don’t you leave the rest of your questions for tomorrow? It’s been a long trip.”
Scott took that as an opportunity to exit and bade them all a murmured good-night. Not that anyone but Murdoch heard; Johnny and Jelly had turned to ribbing each other over their outfits of that day, and Teresa was responding to Murdoch’s polite inquiry to her holiday. But that was all right. He wanted some time alone to relax.
The last of the day’s summer sun was angling in his bedroom windows, gilding the room with clear amber light. Familiar ranch yard sounds drifted upward to his ears; the whistling tune of Cipriano as he headed toward the barn, a round of laughter from the bunkhouse, the cattle lowing in the field beyond. Somewhere there came a call in Spanish, something about tomorrow’s work assignments, and Isidro’s deep reply. Scott smiled to himself in the waning light. It was good to be home.
He placed the velvet case on his bureau and opened it. The bronze star caught the last light and gleamed at him, confident but not arrogant, and he was suddenly glad of the heavy weighted metal from which it was cast. Its solid heft spoke of the occasion which it represented, and he knew he would never forget that day. He slid the case next to the photograph already on the bureau, the one of he and General Sheridan. He’d leave it there for a while, perhaps.
He turned to his traveling cases and began to unpack, methodically retrieving items, sorting them, putting them away, arranging his clothing for the laundry. The simple tasks, easy in their completion, were also comforting, a reminder of all that was familiar to him. The past few days had been unsettling, to say the least, and now he craved the quiet satisfaction derived from arranging his belongings back into the order of his life. He smiled as he lifted the case holding his saber, remembering his slight embarrassment at affixing it to his belt and then the able assistance of Jelly. He moved the case to the little sitting area of his room. He’d been thinking that the saber might be better displayed, and tomorrow he’d ask Jelly to help him affix it over the mirror on the wall. The uniform he next retrieved, shook it out and carefully hung it up. Perhaps he’d asked Teresa to sew the new lieutenant’s bars on before he returned it to the little study under the south landing that he had taken over with many of the belongings of his past. Then he reached for the hat.
The photograph was at the very bottom of the bag, where it would not get damaged. The two faces stared up at him, so young from so long ago. Slowly Scott lifted it out and held it. Such good friends, frozen together for all time. He traced Tom’s face with a fingertip, and smiled through the hotness arising in his throat. The memories surfaced again, quiet this time, and the voice rose, too, warm from his heart. Tom was still alive, in memory and spirit, and would always be alive for him. Accepting the medal had allowed him to finalize the honor to his friend that he’d kept all these years. Truly he had lived so that Tom might also live.
He owed Mary a letter. She would want to know about the medal, about his acceptance of it. Tom’s oldest son, Tom, Jr., now about the age Scott was when he’d first entered the army, would also want to know because he’d just been accepted to the Academy. Wanted to make his father proud, Mary had said in her last letter to him, while thanking him for all his help in securing Tommy’s acceptance there. It hadn’t been easy for her to agree to the assistance, but he knew he could never turn his back on her or the boys - he’d always held Tom’s sacrifice with what he hoped was the deepest honor, and helping his family was a way for him to give back what Tom had given to him. And it had given him pleasure to visit them over the years, to see how Tommy and Jeremy had grown into young men, sturdy and dark like their father. Good boys with Tom’s good ways, cultivated by Mary’s nurturing hand.
Gently he carried the photograph to his bureau. It would need a frame to protect it. He’d have to see to that very soon. The light was fading fast from the room, but a final slash of yellow had settled across the velvet box and rested on the medal. Johnny would no doubt stop by while on his way to bed, as it was their custom to chat at the very end of the day. Scott welcomed that part of his routine, and looked forward to it. And it might now be easier to talk to Murdoch with the burdens of his past now lightened, thanks to Lucien Meigs’ wise advice.
Scott carefully propped the photograph beside the medal. The dusky light fell across their young faces and it seemed to him that Tom was smiling at him.
“For you, my friend,” he said softly to the silent room, and smiled back.
Authors’ Notes: We are indebted to the information found on the web to aid us in our tale, and would like to acknowledge our sources.
r. Lucien Meigs truly existed. Although he was Captain of the First Michigan Sharpshooters, we have given him no rank for our story, and offer any apologies for this change. Additionally, his loss of limb and family is of our own fabrication, with no offense intended. The following lists his biography and incorrectly lists his enlistment with Company G.
Captain Lucien MEIGS
Compendium of History and Biography of Hillsdale County Michigan. Elon G. Reynolds, ed Chicago: AW Bowen & Co. Part First - Hillsdale County Michigan Fully Historical 1903 - page 388-89. [NOTE: This is an extract of the full article]
Captain Lucien MEIGS, was
born in Van Buren, Onondaga County, New York [no date given] to Phineas MEIGS
and Polly INGOLDSBY, who died in 1861. Polly was born in Jefferson County, New
York, of Massachusetts parentage.
Phineas had first married Waitstill WILLIAMS who died in 1831. Phineas & Waitstill had 3 daughters and one son [no names given]. Phineas' 3rd wife was Miss Lydia GARDNER, who died 14 Feb 1872, aged 69 - leaving 2 sons.
Phineas' father - Phineas MEIGS, was a Revolutionary War soldier at died at the age of 77.
Lucien came to Michigan at the age of 22 and purchased 80 acres in Girard Twp., Branch County. In November 1847, Lucien purchased 60 acres in Reading Township, Hillsdale County. He married Miss Amanda THOMAS in Allen Twp. Hillsdale County on 7 Nov 1847.
Amanda was a native of Ontario County, New York, the 2nd child of 11 born to David & Polly WEBSTER THOMAS. David was born in Massachusetts; Polly in New York. They lived from 1834 to 1841 in Mentor, Ohio. In 1841 they moved to Allen Twp. where David died at the age of 78 and Polly at the age of 72.
In January 1863, Lucien enlisted as a member of Co. G 1st Michigan Sharpshooters and was commissioned captain March 31st. He was discharged 11 Aug 1864 after being disabled by illness. [additional info on his service available in original sketch]
Lucien and Amanda had 3 children: Ella A. MEIGS, wife of Frank M. FRAZIER, a farmer of Crawford County, Pennsylvania; Morris I. MEIGS [separate sketch]; and I. May MEIGS, wife of Edgar B. BAILEY, a farmer of Reading Twp.
Lucien died at his home in Reading township on 3 Aug 1891. Amanda THOMAS MEIGS died 8 April 1901.
In trying to find an appropriate cavalry unit for Scott that participated in the siege of Vicksburg, we had to become a little lenient in our thinking. Cavalry units were not fully organized and integrated into the Army of the Potomac until Sheridan took over in early 1864. We placed Scott in the 2nd US Cavalry for his first year, as part of the United States Regular Army. We then conveniently had him re-assigned to the 5th US Cavalry to get him east and captured. The 2nd Cavalry was assigned as part of Grant’s escort through May 1863. The 5th Cavalry was instrumental at Yellow Tavern in May 1864. For information on these cavalry regiments, kindly visit Http://www.civilwararchive.com/Unreghst/unrgcav.htm
The Battle of Yellow Tavern was a Union success, but not without loss. The National Park Service maintains an excellent site at http://www.nps.gov.frsp/yellow.htm
The History Net also has an excellent article from “America’s Civil War” Magazine, from which our background of the battle was drawn. We thank the author for this post. http://www.historynet.com/magazines/american_civil_war/2035456.html
Rail service to Sacramento in the 1870’s was accomplished via the Central Pacific Railroad. The California State Railroad Museum describes depots of the era at http://csrmf.org/doc.asp?id=145
Finally the Golden Eagle Hotel was located on 189 K Street, between 7th and K, not too far from the rail depot. An early 20th century photo is found at http://sacramentohistory.org/search.php?imageid=146 Since the building underwent many renovations, we invented a balcony for Scott’s and Murdoch’s conversation.
For an image of President Grant, see http://www.impleader.com/photos/blog/ulysses%20s.%20grant.jpg
The Governor’s office in Sacramento looked like this: http://www.assembly.ca.gov/tours/tour1/page2.htm
Wearing a military uniform is appropriate in certain instances: http://www.military.com/benefits/retiree/retiree-uniform-regulations
For a full transcript of the Union army’s Official Reports on the Siege of Vicksburg, as referenced by President Grant in our story, see:
Major General Frank Blair - http://www.civilwarhome.com/blairvicksburgor.htm
Major General William T. Sherman – http://www.civilwarhome.com/shermanvicksburgor.htm
During the Civil War no other military award was authorized but for the Medal of Honor, sometimes referred to as the Congressional Medal of Honor. These sites tell the story of the medal and the honor it contains:
And believe it or not, General Beadle, as mentioned by Jelly here in our story and also in the Lancer episode “Jelly Hoskins’ American Dream,” truly did exist. For a biography of this Scotsman, see