Topic #83: Word list - magnetic, patriarch, red, countermeasure, edge
Silver Lining by: Cindy Atonement by: Lori
A Fly in the Ointment by: Dede A Long Long Way From Home by: Miss Raye
Silver Lining
by: Cindy

Buck grabbed the rag and wrapped it carefully around the handle of the coffee pot, then lifted the vessel away from the fire. He poured out some of the hot, bitter brew into a mug, set the pot back next to the fire, and then lowered himself to the ground, sinking back against his saddle.

While he waited for the coffee to cool enough so it wouldn't scald his tongue, he glanced around him. Small fires like his own dotted the field, and the shadows of the prairie schooners, the great ships making the cross-country trip over the Plains, seemed to dance in the flickering light.

Not for the first time, he questioned how he had come to be here, heading across the Plains, not far now from the old station in Sweetwater. And not alone - no, far from it. Somehow, he had wound up agreeing to guide a wagon train…

Well, the basic 'how' was easy. Teaspoon Hunter -- *patriarch* of the Pony Express family - had asked him to do this one small favor.

Buck tried an experimental sip of the coffee and grimaced, as much from the heat and bitterness on his tongue as at Teaspoon's concept of what constituted a 'small' favor. To Buck's way of thinking, trying to shepherd twelve wagons and fifty people across a thousand miles of mostly wilderness amounted to a bit more than small.

Unfortunately, he'd said yes almost automatically - before asking what the favor was. You'd think that after knowing the former Ranger for over two years he would have learned…

And so, here he was, filling in for Teaspoon's friend who had fallen ill, and who should have been the guide on this journey. All in all, it was an expedient *countermeasure* to the guilt he would have felt at refusing the favor after saying - blindly - that he'd do it.

He would have felt guilty, even if the favor had turned out to be anything but small.

And next time he'd ask what the favor was first!

The silver lining, if there was one, was that this group was only planning to go as far as Fort Bridger this season. They had started out late, and unlike some other foolhardy settlers Buck had encountered, these people knew it was too late, and too dangerous, to try to go all the way to the west coast. They'd winter at Bridger and continue in the spring.

Given the way the temperature was already dropping at night, even getting to Bridger might be a challenge. Already they could see the *edge* of the Rockies, looming up on the horizon. South Pass wouldn't be far beyond Sweetwater, and they'd be in the mountains, and subject to nature's whim as to when the season's first heavy snowfall would occur. In the mountains, that snowfall could just as easily happen now, at the end of August, as any time.

He tried another sip of coffee. It was still bitter, but not quite so hot, so he drank a little more.

The fact was, he was being paid well to do this job. Not that money had ever meant that much to him - he knew how to live off the land if he had to. But after much soul-searching after the Express had shut down, he'd come to the conclusion that there was nothing left for him in the Kiowa world. For better or worse, his path lay in the white world - and in the white world, you needed money. It was a strange concept to him, but he was gradually coming around to it. In fact, he'd even been considering buying some land, or maybe a business…

That part of the plan was still a little hazy. But the truth was, he was kind of tired of working odd jobs around town. So maybe he could come to some decisions on this trip.

He had plenty of time alone to think.

Oh, the people with the train had welcomed his help, but once underway, most of them fell into a pattern of merely tolerating his presence. They'd accept his assistance, but not socialize.

In fact, only the Kempers had even invited him to share a meal in the time they'd been on the trail. Joseph Kemper had organized the train and most of the people still looked to him for advice. His wife, Julia, had very similar reading tastes to what Buck liked - they'd shared several discussions on the works of Dickens, Shelley, and others. And since she was also a wonderful cook, he looked forward to invitations to dine with them.

Julia could even make beans taste good, which puzzled him. They seemed to use the same basic ingredients, but his attempts usually resulted in tasteless mush. Maybe one of these days he'd ask her the secret.

The Kempers also had two of their children with them. Joseph Jr. was eleven, full of the energy and inquisitiveness that a boy that age should have. It sometimes resulted in a little mischief - but nothing really bad.

Certainly nothing like some of the things Buck and Ike had gotten themselves into at the mission…

Buck grinned at the memories, and took another sip of coffee.

The Kempers' other child was Elizabeth - or Lizzie, as they tended to call her. And she wasn't really a child. In fact, he figured she was about his own age, and she had an infant of her own. She'd been widowed the previous spring, shortly before her parents and younger brother had set off from Philadelphia on their journey. Needing a change from the place that held so many memories of her dead husband, she'd decided to head west too for a fresh start.

Buck had actually heard the story from Julia. Elizabeth was always polite, but she was also very quiet, mostly sitting by herself or tending her son.

The baby's name was Isaac - little Ike -- and that made him smile. He still missed the Ike he had known, but the memories weren't quite so painful any more. He'd even commented on the bald-headed resemblance between Isaac and Ike.

Buck's attention was drawn to a group of three men walking behind him. In the dimming twilight they were all studying the compass one of the men had bought at Fort Kearney. "Best *magnetic* compass made," the owner was saying as they passed.

Buck took another sip of coffee and looked up at the stars twinkling overhead. He'd never needed a compass to find his way. The sun and the stars gave him all the direction he needed, and he didn't have to worry about a magnet breaking. Even on cloudy days nature had a way of showing just enough for someone to find his way.

At least, if that someone had been raised by the Kiowa.

Buck drained his cup of coffee and sat staring at the fire, pondering getting up and pouring another cup. He had just about decided to move when soft footsteps off to one side got his attention. Looking over, he saw Joseph Kemper - Jr. - standing just outside the ring of light given off by the fire.

Lifting his hand in greeting, Buck waved the boy forward. He hadn't had much chance to speak to the boy alone, so this was something of a surprise. "Hello, Joseph."

"Mr. Cross."

Buck watched the boy, shifting anxiously from foot to foot, obviously on some kind of mission, but not sure how to accomplish it. "Did you need something, Joseph?"

"Joey." The one word was spoken very softly, but having gotten it out seemed to fortify the boy's courage. "My pa's Joseph. I'm just Joey, Mr. Cross."

Buck smiled and nodded his head. "All right, just Joey, I'm just Buck."

Joey's face brightened and he came a few steps closer. "Well, ummm, Buck, I was just sort of wondering…"

Buck waited for the sentence to continue. He gave a slight nod of his head, trying to encourage Joey to finish his question. But inside, out of force of habit, he started to steel himself for what the query might be. How many people have you scalped? How many wagon trains have you attacked instead of guiding? How many…

"Well, you know how you found old Mr. Bost's cow when it wandered off?" Getting a nod from Buck, Joey finished the question in a rush of words. "I was just wonderin' if, you know, maybe you could teach me. To track an' that."

That was a question he hadn't been ready for, but Buck found himself nodding, a smile on his face. "I'd be glad to. We'll just make sure it's all right with your folks."

Joey was beaming, and the firelight on his sandy brown hair extended the beam to the top of his head. "It will be," he said quickly. "They're always sayin' I should be using this trip to learn!"

"Learning's a good thing," Buck agreed.

"Could we start now?"

Buck had to grin at the boy's enthusiasm, but he slowly shook his head. "Too dark. When you track, you have to be able to see every little hint that you can."

"Oh."

"But I can show you some things tomorrow."

"That'll be great!"

"If your folks agree."

"They will!"

"Joey?"

Buck looked up at the new voice, then scrambled to his feet as Elizabeth stepped forward. He brushed at the dirt on the back of his pants as he nodded a greeting. "Mrs. Wharton." Her hair was the same color as Joey's, and the same kind of glow seemed to envelop her. In the sunlight, he'd sometimes seen a hint of *red* in the color.

"Mr. Cross. I hope my brother hasn't been bothering you."

Joey huffed, and Buck looked over at him for a moment before turning his attention back to the woman. "Not at all."

"He was sent here with a specific purpose," she said, staring at her brother.

Joey looked down, scuffing his boot in the dirt. "Oh yeah," he said. "I sort of forgot. Ma wants you to come to dinner."

"Have you already eaten?" Elizabeth asked, looking toward the fire.

Buck raised his mug and shook his head. "Just coffee, and bad at that."

"Well, the food's almost ready," she said. "Joey, you'd best go wash up."

Joey huffed again but started for their wagon. "You comin' Buck?"

"In a minute."

As her brother walked into the lengthening shadows, Elizabeth turned back to Buck. "He really wasn't bothering you?"

"Not at all. He's a good boy."

A slight smile tugged at her lips. "Most of the time."

"I appreciate the invitation."

"We like having you." She paused, and her voice dropped to almost a whisper. "I like it when you're there. Hearing your stories about life out here, well, it makes me more sure I made the right decision."

Buck just stood there, too surprised to say anything. From what he'd seen, she barely spoke to him, or to anyone. "Thank you, Mrs. Wharton," he finally managed to say.

"My friends call me Lizzie."

He thought he saw a hint of a smile on her face and in her eyes, but it could have been the flickering firelight playing tricks. And it must be the smoke that had his throat so constricted he could barely speak. "Mine call me Buck," he offered.

"Buck."

Something about the smile on her face, and in her voice, when she said his name made his knees feel weak. Maybe it was just the long days in the saddle catching up to him…

"I'll tell mother you'll be right along for dinner."

Somehow, he managed to nod. "I'll just wash up, and then be there."

She turned to go, then looked back and smiled again before walking away.

He watched her as long as he could, until the shadows swallowed her. And even then he still stood there, staring at where she had disappeared.

Something about that smile…

The fire crackled and popped loudly, breaking him out of the trance. He shook his head a couple of times to clear his mind, then put the cup down. He picked up a towel and headed for the nearby creek to wash.

Maybe he was just imagining what he saw in that smile…

Or maybe this trip had just developed another silver lining.

Atonement
by: Lori

It was the color of sin; that's what she'd grown up believing. *Red* was evil. It was the color harlots wore, and no one in his family was going to wear it.

Her father's word was law. He enforced it with an iron fist, demanding obedience and subservience. He was the *patriarch*, the head of the family, and they didn't dare go against him. They had learned long ago not to. To disobey brought wrath rained down upon their heads and as they dealt with bruises and blood, he said it was a sign of their guilt. They were showing their sin in the color of their blood.

That was why her first courses had terrified her. In an orphanage after their mother's death, she'd been terrified the day she discovered she was bleeding. She wasn't afraid she was dying, she was wondering if God had discovered how truly evil she was and was punishing her. It was only after a kind, younger nun had discovered her small form crying in the corner that she explained what was really happening. Louise wasn't dying or being punished for sins, she had become a woman.

As time passed, she still wasn't certain that the Sister was wrong. She understood why her monthly courses were called The Curse. And she still felt like she was being punished. Especially as her body began to change and those changes became noticeable to others, especially the older boys in the orphanage. She didn't want to grow up, she didn't want to be a woman. She wanted to be a child, at her mother's side being cared for.

But the peace and tranquility of her life had been ripped away at an early age. It would only further erode with each year. From the orphanage, she went to Wicks where she learned even more hard truths and more blood had followed. Further evidence of her sins. The red that stained her this time was punishment for leaving her brother and sister behind.

So she ran, hoping she could find the *edge* of the earth and simply disappear. But that was only a myth; reality kept her alive and cognizant of all she needed to atone for. She had promised to take care of her younger siblings, but so far had not. With each month that passed, each lingering memory of her father's words telling her that blood showed how bad she was, she knew he was correct. She was bad; she was neglecting Teresa and Jeremiah. She had to find some way to care for them, and if she could not, then it only meant she wasn't trying hard enough.

As she entered the town, trying to conceal she was a girl in the ill-fitting clothes she'd stolen off the farmer's line, she prayed that she would find a way. Find a way to keep her promise to her mother, find a way to keep her promise to herself and maybe atone for all her sins. Surely the Lord wouldn't keep punishing her when she was trying.

The boots that were too big on her feet (for it simply wouldn't do to wear women's boots while wearing men's pants) tripped her up and Louise felt herself falling. Desperate to not sprawl on the ground, she reached out for anything to gain purchase on and only found splinters in the wood post. Embarrassed, bruised and in pain, she stood to the side and attempted to remove the wooden pieces from her hand. As each small piece brought relief, but also blood, she closed her eyes, sending up a plea for mercy. Her answer was there before her when she opened her eyes.

Orphans Preferred.

A Fly in the Ointment
by: Dede

Continuation of QF#78

"It truly is glorious out here," Miss Smythe-Briggs said. She'd been exuberant in her observations of the plains for the entire ride. "The air is so clean and the land is just beautiful."

"Jus' like you," Cody whispered to his friends, absentmindedly shooing a fly. "I believe I'll go and offer my services as a personal guide." He kicked his heels gently into the side of his mount and trotted forward to catch up with the pretty young lady.

Teaspoon had sent not one, but four of his riders to escort Miss Smythe-Briggs and her brother, Leslie, to survey the area for the perfect spot to build the new Sweetwater Resort and Spa.

"Why'd Teaspoon have to send all a' us?" Jimmy grumbled. Angrily, he swatted at the fly now hovering around his head.

Rising early, he, Cody, Kid and Buck had ridden to town to meet with the two visitors and plan their excursion. Two days earlier, the riders hadn't heard of anyone by the name Smythe-Briggs or the possibility of a spa in Sweetwater. But that had changed the day before. Now, due to Teaspoon's enthusiasm over the venture, the riders were deeply ensconced in the planning.

Riding between Jimmy and Buck, Kid yawned wide, but quickly shut his mouth as the fly flew towards the opening. Shaking his head to wake up and get rid of the fly, he looked at Jimmy. "Guess Teaspoon wanted to make sure they had protection." Scratching his head, he added ruefully, "Though four seems kinda' much."

"Protection?" Jimmy scoffed, again swatting the fly. "From what? Cody?" He laughed at his joke as Kid and Buck chuckled.

"Prob'ly," Kid answered, pointing at the blonde rider. "Look at 'im. And ya gotta admit she is right pretty."

"Now Kid," Jimmy drawled, "wha'd Lou say?"

Kid blushed and rolled his eyes, waving his hand to get rid of the fly. The three rode silently for a moment until Jimmy grinned mischievously. "Ya' know, maybe it wasn't to protect her but someone else."

Kid and Buck exchanged a perplexed glance and looked at Jimmy curiously. "Who'd'ya mean?" Kid asked. He jerked back in his saddle trying to keep the fly from landing on his face.

"Buck." Jimmy smirked, his shoulders shaking with laughter. "He's the best tracker but it might be dangerous to leave 'im alone."

"Ah, true," Kid agreed, glancing at Buck. "She has been lookin' back here quite a bit. Makin' sure you ain't gone, huh, Buck?"

Buck blushed but didn't respond and nudged his horse forward to get away from his antagonists, which included the fly. He'd been riding, lost in his own thoughts, not speaking unless spoken to. He was too busy replaying the scene in the schoolhouse the previous afternoon. The way Miss Smythe-Briggs had looked at him excited him but scared him at the same time, setting him on the *edge* of something unknown. He wasn't used to young women looking at him like that. After his horse had gone a few strides, he noticed that he was actually right behind Miss Smythe-Briggs and Cody, which surprised him because he thought they were much farther ahead.

Jimmy and Kid weren't allowing Buck to escape so easily and joined him. "See Buck," Jimmy whispered, "she slowed down so you'd catch up." Jimmy hunched over to stifle his laughter as Kid turned away to hide his.

"Shut up," Buck muttered, sullenly.

But when the fly lit on Jimmy's cheek and he involuntarily smacked himself, Buck laughed. Jimmy made a face and rubbed his cheek tenderly. The fly changed course and buzzed in front of Buck's face. Annoyed, Buck swatted at the air but was unable to discourage the fly. Jimmy snickered and Buck imitated the face Jimmy had made. Both then laughed when the fly turned on Kid and Kid made the same face. Tickled by the whole thing, the three giggled, causing Cody to gawk at them. They broke out in guffaws that they couldn't quite control. Cody turned back to Miss Smythe-Briggs and the three men collected themselves.

As Kid and Jimmy continued to discuss Miss Smythe-Briggs' interest in Buck, Buck felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Uneasily, he glanced behind them to make sure Leslie was there. The man sat a horse in such an awkward way; it pained Buck to watch him. He was there alright, peevish expression and all. Turning back, Buck was in time to hear the conversation between Cody and Miss Smythe-Briggs.

"So Miss Briggs," Cody was saying, waving his hand at the fly, "it's dangerous but I ain't scared." He sat tall in his saddle as he looked over at Miss Smythe-Briggs and flashed her a brilliant smile. Cody had dropped the first of the two surnames since he'd kept pronouncing it "Smithy" because as he said, "That's what it looks like."

"Oooo, how exciting," she gushed, causing Buck to shake his head at her naiveté. "And as I've told you all, call me Mary."

She looked at each one, lingering on Buck for a few seconds longer. Buck clenched his jaw, refusing to acknowledge the looks Jimmy and Kid were giving him and concentrated on slapping away the persistent fly. Mary turned her face to the sun and closed her eyes breathing in deeply. Buck felt a stirring inside and he shifted uncomfortably.

"I want to live here forever."

Jimmy leaned forward and peered at Buck roguishly, pointing slyly at Mary and then at Buck. Buck pursed his lips, trying hard to ignore Kid's quiet laughter. Mary turned in her saddle to look back at her brother. Again, Buck squirmed. Kid was right, she was definitely pretty. Her hair was reflecting the sun's rays and the twinkle in her blue eyes made Buck's insides feel like mush.

"Leslie," she said, happily, "don't you think this is just heaven?"

"Heaven," Leslie repeated, sarcasm dripping from the word.

Leslie had been trying hard to keep up. He'd never been a very good rider, having problems keeping his feet in the stirrups due to his long legs. However, from his vantage he was able to watch the antics of their guides. And of his sister. She wasn't his sister by blood but by marriage. His father had married her mother when he was fifteen and she was seven. Even then, he'd been in awe of her beauty and it had deepened as they'd gotten older. Leslie knew the beguiling looks Mary Elizabeth gave men. She'd been doing this since they'd left England. Actually, she'd been doing it most of her life, if he admitted it to himself. Now, she was infatuated by that half-breed. And it was Leslie's own fault.

Again, looking up, Mary pointed at a small dot gliding across the sky. "Look at that bird," she said softly. "How free he must feel."

"As long as there ain't a hunter around," Jimmy joked. "Stupid fly," he mumbled, waving both arms around.

Buck eyed Jimmy, hoping to show his disapproval but was unable to stop the slight curve at the corner of his mouth. Jimmy was pleased to see Buck react and slapped his knee, laughing out loud, causing Cody to glance back again and glare at them. Turning back to Mary, Cody cleared his throat. His friends groaned simultaneously as they knew he was getting ready to impress the young woman.

"Now that there's a *red*-tailed hawk," he said knowingly. "Wish it was closer so you could see it better. Right beautiful bird," he leaned playfully towards her, "jus' like you, Mary."

"Why thank you Mr. Cody," she said, as she blushed coyly. "But my word, that bird is so far up there and yet you can still see what kind it is?" She placed her hand on Cody's arm and smiled, but not in Cody's direction - she turned towards Buck.

Buck's brow shot up at the familiar way they acted towards each other and for a fleeting moment, he thought he saw a satisfied look cross Mary's face. Irked but not sure why, he looked up at the bird, and a grin spread slowly across his face. "Um, Cody."

Ignoring Buck, Cody explained, "Well, I got sharp eyes, that's what makes me such a good shot with m' rifle." He puffed his chest out and patted Mary's hand.

"And he's gotta sharp head too," Kid said under his breath just so Jimmy and Buck could hear. The comment received a well-deserved laugh.

The fly was still flying lazily back and forth around the group, moving on as each man slapped it away.

"Cody," Buck tried again.

"Yeah Buck," Cody said, the agitation clear in his voice. "Stupid fly." Muttering, he shook his head hard, hoping that the bug would go away.

"That's a buzzard." Buck's lips quirked but he was able to keep a straight face - and not look at Mary. He did hear her soft giggle.

"You still havin' problems identifyin' your birds?" Jimmy taunted. "Buck, I think ya' should give Cody a lesson, seein' how this is the second time you've corrected him." Jimmy too shook his head quickly as the fly tried to sit on his nose.

"Well it is far up there," Cody grumbled, scratching his cheek from the tickling of the fly's wings.

"Buck," Mary said, staring into Buck's eyes and sending shivers along his spine. "Maybe you can give me lessons too." She bowed her head shyly, but Buck knew she was anything but shy, and looked at him through the cover of her thick eyelashes. Buck coughed nervously but said nothing. Sighing, Mary turned to face ahead.

Jimmy's and Kid's eyes were wide and the expressions they wore were of silly delight. They hadn't seen Buck in this type of situation and both looked at their friend with excited anticipation. Buck shook his head slowly, letting them know this was none of their business. Their faces fell and both gave Buck a grumpy "Humph" letting him know they weren't pleased. He easily forgot about them as the group continued on.

Buck stared at Mary, mesmerized by the way she swayed in her saddle. His attention focused, the fly was able to land on Buck's hand. There was some *magnetic* force causing him to be drawn to her against his will. He needed to get a hold of himself and fast. He might have been captivated by Mary but he hadn't been so inattentive not to notice the reaction of Leslie as Mary fawned over Buck the day before. Of course her actions weren't missed by anyone so even if Buck wasn't as perceptive as he was, he'd have known Leslie had noticed. Sighing, he was brought out of his musings by Mary's melodic voice and the itching from the fly. He smacked his hand but unfortunately missed the fly.

"And so, Mr. Smythe-Briggs, not Leslie but the *patriarch* of our family," she was saying, "sent us here to research the possibilities of a spa and here we are."

She glanced back, for what seemed to Buck as the hundredth time since leaving Sweetwater, and graced him with a beatific smile. Buck whimpered softly, he couldn't wait to get back to the station because he was in need of some serious riding. Realizing how that sounded, he snorted and coughed trying desperately to cover the crazed laughter bubbling to the surface. The others stared at him in varying stages of confusion and amusement.

"Sorry," he mumbled, ducking his head. He refused to make eye contact with Mary or Jimmy and Kid, and faked his determination to kill the fly.

"Don't you think we've been out here long enough and have seen enough," Leslie said dryly, startling everyone. He'd been so quiet; they'd forgotten he was back there. But not Buck. Buck had been keenly aware of Leslie's piercing stare.

"We need to get back Mary Elizabeth and send father our regrets."

"Regrets?" was everyone's confused response.

"Yes," Leslie said, "I don't believe Sweetwater is the right place after all. It's not what I'm looking for." Thinking that was it, he maneuvered his horse around the best he could.

"Oh but I think you are wrong Leslie," Mary answered, thus stopping Leslie from riding off. It seemed to be a standoff.

The boys exchanged an uncomfortable look caused by the severe tone of her voice and the way brother and sister were glaring at each other. Buck thought she sounded dangerous and, once again, he felt the yearning coursing through him. He really needed to get out of there - fast.

The fly was happy that attention was diverted and, again, flew around their heads.

"Mr. Smythe-Briggs is probably right," Buck said. When Mary looked at him, the dismay in her eyes filled him with guilt and he quickly added, "Right about going back." He met Leslie's eyes. "But I think this area is exactly what your father is looking for." He surreptitiously glanced at Mary and saw the content look on her face. His thoughts wandered to dangerous grounds so he kicked his mount forward. When Mary pulled her horse beside his to ride, he felt giddy.

"We'll see," Leslie said, cryptically.

Jimmy shrugged. "Ain't nothin' gonna be solved out here now so I'm with Buck and all for goin' home." He started his horse forward. "And for gettin' away for that dang fly."

"Me too," Kid agreed, riding beside Jimmy. "And the fly."

"Yeah, I'm hungry," Cody said. He gave a final swat at the fly and followed behind Kid.

Leslie remained a few paces back from the main group, as he had on their way out. Mulling over everything that had happened on the ride, he saw the seductive glance that Mary Elizabeth gave Buck and, to Leslie's shock, Buck finally returned it. Reaching out, he snatched the fly from the air, crushing it in his hand. "Well, Mr. Cross," Leslie murmured, "I need to put a special *countermeasure* in place to keep you away from her and out of our lives."

A Long Long Way From Home
by: Miss Raye

Cody threw his hat down on the edge of the long wooden table and nearly dropped his head into the bucket of water, washing off the trail dust that hadn't yet set in place.

"Long ride?"

Turning his head to the side, Cody cracked open an eye and looked at the young corporal eating dinner a few feet away. "You could say that."

"Saw any action out there?" His voice was eager… young.

"Burned out cabin, had to bury the family and-"

"Naw," argued the young man with an interruption, "did ya kill any Rebs?"

Cody shook the water from his hair, listening to the drops hiss against the hot ground at his feet. He had so many things he wanted to say to the boy. So many words he had ready to burst out of his chest, but one look at the young man's face told him that he wouldn't listen.

The boy, Elton, most likely from some farm out in the middle of nowhere, had that same silly worshipful look that Cody had worn just a few years ago. The military… the army had been some kind of *magnetic* force… pulling him and all the other silly souls that thought it would be something important to do. Sure, he wanted to serve his country, but every time he saw a man felled by a bullet on either side, a piece of that 'patriotic spirit' fell away.

"Yeah," Cody answered and saw the way the rest of his words bounce off the boy's hide, his ears closed, "but they took down four of our own. It wasn't worth it if you ask me. They were just tryin' to save the food stores. Just tryin' to live."

Around a mouthful, the boy smiled. "Got them Rebs…" and then he was back at his food, head huddled over the bowl, spoon shoveling, jaws munching, "that's what we're here for."

Cody moved on, feeling the water dry on his skin as he moved, feeling the slight chill from the air. The sun was near gone, sitting heavy on the horizon as clouds gathered in the distance. He'd been full of that bravado before… would've given his right arm to be one of them fancy dressed officers.

Then, he'd joined the Army and since then he'd seen plenty of men, boys mostly, give their right arms and all sorts of body parts for the privilege of serving in the war. He'd lost the bloom off the rose and now, as the sun sank down behind the horizon with a heavy plop of darkness, the *red* *edge* of light flaring for one final moment before losing its own fight, Cody stumbled into his tent, forgoing the meager dinner the cook offered up for solitude of sleep.

As he pulled his covers up to his chin the last thought he had was that he was a long long way from home.

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