The wind blew quickly through the cemetery. With no trees to interfere with its path it strafed across their faces drying tears in an instant even as they continued to cry, shoulders shaking with their grief. Two old friends remained long after the rest of the townsfolk went back to their homes and the grave digger dropped the last shovel full onto the mound.
“Is it worth it?”
He snuck a glance at her and looked away.
“Fighting. Dying. Is it worth it?”
“It must have been, to him.”
Looking back down at the grave Jimmy saw the late afternoon shadows wallow in the carved letters on the cross. It was only a temporary monument until the stone arrived, but if it possible, it seemed even colder and impersonal as the name carved in it was one he didn’t recognize.
“He came home for a visit just a few months ago.” Louise felt her knees weaken with the memory. “He barely fit his clothes. He’d cut new holes into his belt to keep them on over his hips.”
“I know things get tough on the campaign. Times we think about food more than we get it.” She knew he understood, saw the way the sleeves of his shirt billowed in the breeze instead of fitting to his arms.
“I wanted to take them in, make them fit him proper but he wouldn’t let me… didn’t want to go back any different then when he came.” Her breathing was ragged. “And when he ate… he would study the food, like he’d never seen it before.”
‘Or worry he’d never see it again.’ Jimmy knew the feelings, although he doubted he’d felt the pangs and worry more than Kid had. The southern soldiers had it hard. Supplies were in short supply and while the North wasn’t much better, there was a sense of fear and worry that would never leave you once you’ve been that hungry. Meals, even in the northern camps, had become sullen affairs. Instead of laughter and stories past around during the meals, a pall would fall over the group, each of them focused on the food in their mess plates… on what could always be their last meals.
“Is it worth it to you?”
A low moaning wind stirred the dirt at their feet and he felt his lungs seize within his chest. She wanted the truth… he wanted to lie.
“I’m tired of it, Lou.” He couldn’t see her expression. Couldn’t bear to see how she heard his words. “I’d like nothing better than to-”
“Stay, Jimmy. Don’t go back.”
He couldn’t move. Couldn’t find the courage to answer. Knowing he’d make the decision he wanted to make instead of the one he should.
“They’ll find someone else willing to die and put him in your place. Find some young man who doesn’t know any better… hasn’t stared death down a thousand times before.” The bitterness in her voice wasn’t lost on either one of them.
“I’ve said the same thing in my head over and over again, Lou… but they look up to me. The kids that Custer has foisted off on him go through a hard start when they’re thrown into battle. Teaspoon would have loved them all… their first thought when the bullets fly is run like hell. I see that fear in their eyes and I remember what it was like the first time the Judge shot at me. I wanted to run, but I knew if I did he’d just shoot me in the back to prove a point.
“But these boys don’t run, Lou. They don’t run ‘cause I don’t. I stand there beside them and ride out to find the other line… report on their position and keep as many of them alive as I can. I ride out in front and somehow I make it back. Gives them hope.”
“Hope.” She sniffed indignantly and looked off over the hills. “Hope… or just dumb luck?”
He couldn’t help the laughter even though he knew she wasn’t trying to sass him. “You know me, Lou… I don’t think I know the difference. I ain’t that smart.”
She nodded. “If you were, you’d stay here and let the rest of the world fight it out. You’d stay and I’d try to forget that you were involved in this… just like he was.”
Jimmy nodded. “Then it’s best that I go like I planned.”
“When?” The question barely made a sound escaping from her lips and a moment later she wondered if she’d even said it. “When do you go back?”
He was loathe to answer her. “The morning. Even then I’ll be ridin’ hard just to get back in time.”
She looked up and noticed the stars glimmering high in the sky. “Then come back with me to the house. It’s nearly time for-”
“Me to make a fool of myself and leave?”
“Your words…” she prompted.
She didn’t correct him. “Then at least give me a chance to make you sick enough that you have to stay. Supper. “
“Supper.” He said the word with quiet humor in his voice. “I doubt you’d make me sick with your cooking. You kept the Kid…” he felt the pain rip through her body, “supper, fine.” He saw the misty tears in her eyes and wanted to beg her forgiveness for bringing him up again, for holding up his ghost between them and opening up the wounds anew.
He left early. He left early because if the truth were told he didn’t want to leave at all and that made every second spent in her presence dangerous. The night air was cool, welcoming, even though the brisk wind stung his cheeks he lifted his face into it… enjoyed the feel of being alive. Being home.
The dress shop a few doors down still had a light burning inside, the old woman hunched over a table working her fingers into a frenzy over some confection of frothy fabric nearly swallowed her arms into its mass. The butcher shop across the way was dark, a lantern in an upper window showed the old man passing in front of the window, probably on his way to bed.
The saloon was burning the midnight oil as usual. Eager barmaids served equally eager customers that flirted and groped their way into corners and onto laps while the bartender tallied up the money that the men would never miss.
It wasn’t until he passed by the bakery that he had to pause and think. A young woman paced out in front on the walk a squirming bundle in her arms. She cooed and sung as the little baby fretted within the homemade blanket. She wasn’t alone long; the baker stripped off his apron and took them both into his arms. He didn’t have to hear their words… he felt the way their love held them together and finally had to turn away.
So many of the soldiers had come to him, gravitated to him for his reputation… confided in him because somehow they knew he was just as lost as they were. They told him how much they missed their homes… their families and truthfully the peace that they’d once rebelled against. They told him their fears that they’d never go home again… never feel the soft earth of home beneath their feet or the touch of a woman’s lips welcoming them home.
Their fear that they’d return home and find it all changed… all gone… taken while they were away losing their peace of mind… parts of their souls.
Jimmy barely remembered getting undressed. It wasn’t until he felt the rub of the woolen blanket under his chin that he knew he was in bed. Knew he only had a scant few hours before he had to cut out his own heart… cut it out and leave it behind him.
She opened the door and couldn’t say a word. Jimmy dressed for the field stood on the ground before her, their eyes on level.
“I had to come by… before I left.” His horse pawed at the ground beneath the poplar tree at the head of the lane. “I had to tell you-”
She wanted to slam the door in his face. Lock the door and cry until he was gone. Until he was gone and she could breathe again. And maybe he saw the intention in the way her fingers gripped the door… the way her lips quivered even though her shoulders straightened like a wall. “What is there left to say?” Lou’s eyes turned toward the cemetery and her heart broke. Had she lost both of them so soon?
He touched her face, worn skin to soft perfection and he waited until her gaze met his. A moment later a tear touched his fingertip. “Don’t count me dead yet, Lou… don’t put me in the ground. Not now… not before it happens.”
“You’re going back.” Her voice was filled with dread more than acceptance. The look in her eyes resigned like she was standing on the tracks in front of a train and had given up the will to walk away. “I can’t stop you.”
“Louise McCloud,” his said her name with a sense of wonder, “I’ve seen you stop an angry mob with a look and a bunch of renegade Indians with a Winchester and an iron will. If you wanted to stop me. You’d do it.”
“But then you’d only be staying because I made you,” she swallowed up more than her breath, “not because you want to.”
“Want?” He looked up into her face with naked emotion filling his eyes. “It ain’t got nothin’ to do with want, Louise. It’s got everything to do with bein’ a man and followin’ through with my promises.”
She grabbed his hand. Took it in hers and pressed her lips to the back… felt the scars and rough skin beneath her lips and sighed. “Then don’t you make me any promises, James Hickok. You ride off and finish up with what you got to do. You ride off and see if your luck holds up.”
A fat shiny tear fell onto his skin and rolled back into the line where their hands met. He tried to take his hand back, to wipe the rest of her tears away, but she pulled back first. Pulled back and stepped up into the doorway her hands braced against the sides. “Jimmy… James… I-”
“I best be on my way.” Jimmy’s pride went hard down his throat, “I’ve got too many miles to go today and the next.”
She nodded slowly, her eyes filled with understanding her middle full of regret. “Then you’d better go.”
He set his hat hard down on his head and swung up into the saddle in a single graceful movement that brought back so many memories even though the years were lost to them. With a touch to the brim of his hat he gathered his reins and turned his mount toward the north road.
He didn’t see how long she waited as he rode off into the distance… didn’t see how long the door stayed open in the event he turned around… didn’t see the way she fell to her knees crying for him. For all of them.
And then he was gone.
PROMPT: Lou and Jimmy are standing at Kid's grave side which is near the end of the war, so it's been going for years. He is going back to scout for the army. He looks in her eyes as she tells him he needs to count the cost of war. It is time to take account of what he has already given so he knows what, if anything, he has left to fight with.