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Sunday, March 25, 2012
This World Is Crazy, Jessi Alexander
It's So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday, Boyz II Men
Author's Note: This story was written for the "I'm a girl!" Challenge at the Writers Ranch. The idea was, what if Kid didn't find out Lou was a girl in the first episode. How would her secret have finallly been unveiled. This is one scenario I came up with.
Crouay, Near Amiens, France, July 1918
The elderly man seated at the mess table playing a round of solitaire cocked his head at the call being repeated urgently up and down the camp lanes. He sighed as he slowly packed up the cards and stowed them in a pocket on the inside of the long white jacket he wore over his olive green Army uniform. Reaching out he grabbed a cane resting against the nearby tent wall and slowly pushed himself to his feet with a grunt.
“I’m gettin’ too old fer this,” he muttered to himself as he moved out of the mess tent and down the dirt ‘lane’ toward the reception marquee, where the ambulances would drop the latest batch of wounded men, fresh from the front, before racing off to pick up more. He wondered what battle it was this time.
Reaching the marquee, he stopped and watched the frantic, yet business-like bustle of a half dozen Allied doctors and dozens of orderlies and nurses preparing for the arrival of wounded men. He nodded in satisfaction. Everything was working just as it ought.
“Sister,” he called to the middle aged nun hurrying past him with a clipboard in her hands. “How are we doing on sulpha drugs?”
“Fully stocked, Sir. We just got a new delivery yesterday,” Sister Mary Magdalene smiled at the elderly gentleman who stood head and shoulders shorter than her own nearly six foot frame.
He nodded and motioned for her to return to her work. The sisters that provided nursing service made things run so much smoother. He’d learned that back during the Civil War when he’d run into Clara Barton’s group. He was thankful for the efforts of the nuns here.
A sudden roar down the dirt lane heralded the arrival of the ambulances.
“All right, folks,” he called out in a loud, gruff voice. “Time ta get ta work.”
All activity paused for a short moment, as everyone looked his way in response to his words. Then, they sprang into a much more hurried motion, jerking open the doors of the first ambulance to arrive to begin pulling out the stretchers.
“This one can wait,” Sister Mary Magdalene ordered, indicating the first stretcher. “It’s only a flesh wound. Take him on over to the pre-op tent.”
A slight frown wrinkled her normally smooth brow at the sight of the second stretcher. Leaning in closer, she pushed aside the man’s uniform to get a closer look at the wound.
“How long since he was wounded?” she urgently asked the ambulance driver.
“Don’t know, ma’am,” he shrugged. “I know he was found this morning on the edge of No Man’s Land. It’s been at least 12 hours since he was discovered.”
Nodding, she yelled out, “Dr. McCloud! You’re going to want to attend to this one yourself. He’s coming up on the time deadline you set!”
Shuffling up, Dr. Lou McCloud pushed a stray strand of her short grey hair out of her eyes and leaned in to get a closer look at the wounded man. A gasp escaped her mouth. The long dark hair, high cheekbones, dark skin and lush lips… they could only belong to….
“Buck?” she whispered.
“Excuse me, Doctor?” Sister Mary Magdalene asked, concerned.
“Nothing,” Lou shook her head. “He just looks like someone I knew. A long time ago.”
Looking back up to meet the concerned nurse’s gaze, Lou smiled at her. “Yer right. Get him ta the operatin’ tent as quickly as ya can. I’ll go get washed up.”
The sister nodded briskly. Turning to two waiting orderlies, she crisply ordered, “Take Lieutentant….” She paused, looking significantly at the ambulance driver.
“Uh, Cross, ma’am,” he piped up, looking at his clipboard. “Says here he’s Lt. Red Hawk Cross, U.S. Army. From Oklahoma.”
“Take Lt. Cross to the operation tent immediately. I’ll be right there.”
“Sir?” the Sister asked a wordless question, a wet cloth at the ready in one hand.
Lou nodded a quick yes, her eyes never wavering from the ragged, inflamed edges of young Red Hawk Cross’ bayonet wound as the nurse wiped sweat from her brow. Even as Lou efficiently cut away the damaged tissue already starting to putrify and cleaned out the potentially deadly injury, she felt her mind wandering back to those long ago days when she’d ridden for the Pony Express.
She could almost see Buck standing on the other side of the operating table, watching her every move with that same pained, worried expression he’d worn as they’d watched the doctor rush Ike into his surgery. Ike hadn’t survived the day.
“I’ll save him, Buck,” she whispered to herself. “Or die tryin’.” She hadn’t figured out yet how, but she knew Lt. Cross was related to Buck. The similarities in appearance left no doubt in her mind.
“Did you say something, Sir?” the nurse asked, concerned.
Lou started to shake her head ‘no’, then paused and cursed as her latest cut sliced into a hidden blood vessel.
“Clamp!” she ordered urgently, holding out one hand in a demanding motion. The nurse slapped the requested tool into her palm and Lou quickly clamped off the spurting blood vessel, sighing in relief when nothing else went wrong.
A quick glance up at the clock mounted over the tent’s entrance showed her she’d been operating for more than four hours now and was only a little over halfway done. She sighed, then returned to her work.
“Dr. McCloud.” The young, concerned nurse leaned over the elderly doctor and gently reached out to shake his shoulder. Lou jerked her head up off her arms and blinked at the nurse blearily. “Dr. McCloud, that patient is waking up. The one you wanted us to tell you about?”
Lou nodded and started to jump to her feet before her protesting joints and muscles reminded her of her age and need for her cane. Slowing her movement, she reached out to grab the detested thing. She hadn’t meant to fall asleep. But she’d spent 15 hours in surgery, saving lives. She’d just closed her eyes to rest them for a moment before getting started on the paperwork every rush of casualties engendered.
“How’s he doin’?” she asked as she followed the nurse out of the mess tent which also held her office and down the lane to the post-operative/recovery tent.
“All vitals are stable, Sir,” the nurse answered. “Blood pressure is good and there’re no more signs of infection.”
“Good, good,” Lou nodded. It appeared they’d gotten to him in time. Ducking through the opened flaps of the recovery tent’s entrance, she paused a moment to let her eyes adjust to the change in light.
Out of habit she scanned the rows of beds, one each down the sides of the tent and a third down the middle. All was in perfect order, each bed filled with a man recovering from his injuries. Nurses were moving up and down the rows, checking on the patients. Orderlies hurried over at the slightest call to help adjust a heavy man’s position in bed or carry away a tray filled with dirty bandages.
All of this Lou noted and carefully cataloged out of habit, without paying the least bit of attention. Her eyes were busily searching for him, Lt. Cross. Ah! There he was, in the last bed on the outside row, closest to the surgeon on duty. She nodded in approval. Given the severity of his wound and the length of time he’d gone before getting help, that’s precisely where he should be. Even as she watched, the surgeon on duty stood up and moved over to check Cross’ vitals.
“How’s he doin’?” Lou asked, trying ineffectually to peer over the taller man’s shoulder at Cross’ patient chart.
“Oh! Doctor McCloud! I didn’t hear you come in, Sir,” the younger man said in a crisp British accent, turning sideways to face her and handing over the chart. “Everything looks fine. He’s been getting restless the last quarter hour or so. I think he’s about to wake up.”
Lou nodded, moving to take a seat in the chair positioned at the head of the bed as she read through the chart. Handing the chart back to the other man, she smiled at him approvingly. “Thanks. I’ll just wait here until he does, Doctor Hayward*.”
Hayward looked at her curiously. “Sir, if you don’t mind my asking, what’s so special about this patient?”
“He’s related to someone I knew in my younger years, before I became a doctor. Someone who was like a brother to me, still is, really, even though I haven’t seen him since the ‘70s.”
“I’ve never heard you mention any Cross’ before,” he said.
“I don’t like to talk about those years much. Too much pain in the memories,” she laughed softly, regretfully. “One of the foibles of old age, I guess.”
The sound of movement in the bed, followed by a groaned whisper grabbed both doctors’ attention.
“Water,” the young man muttered.
Lou nodded to Hayward who quickly left to get a glass of water. She turned back to the awakening Lt. Red Hawk Cross and checked his temperature with the back of her hand to his forehead before reaching for his wrist to check his pulse rate. As she worked, she spoke softly to the young man.
“Water’s on its way, Lt. Cross. Can you tell me how you feel?”
“Hurts,” he groaned.
One bronzed hand moved across his bandaged chest to rest over his injury. She nodded as his deep brown eyes, so familiar!, finally fully opened to meet her gaze.
“Well, considering I spent nearly 8 hours digging around in there, that doesn’t surprise me,” she smiled at him.
“Who are you? Where am I?” he asked, after taking a confused glance around the tent.
“You’re at the Allied Casualty Clearing Station* in Crouay. You were brought here after medics found you injured near No Man’s Land yesterday. You had a rather nasty bayonet wound that was starting to get infected,” she explained gently to him.
He watched her intently the entire time she spoke. She could almost see the wheels turning in his head as he thought.
“Why do you look so familiar?” he asked when she’d finished.
Lou raised one brow at him as she rearranged his pillow to better support his head.
“Who’s Buck Cross to you?” she asked in response.
Looking even more confused, he answered cautiously, a question in his tone, “My grandfather.”
Lou nodded her head. It made sense. “Does he still have those old pictures of him and some friends hanging on the living room wall, from before the Civil War?”
Lt. Cross started to nod, then stopped when it pulled at the stitched up wound in his chest. Wincing he said, “Yes. There were a couple of photos from when he rode for the Pony Express, and a drawing. He always referred to the boys as his brothers, called them our uncles.”
Lou smiled at the young man, pushed her glasses higher up on her nose and held out her hand in greeting. “Guess that makes me Uncle Lou, then.”
Lou shook her head as she closed her diary. She’d started keeping one decades ago, when Charlotte had pressed an empty journal into her hands as she’d boarded the stagecoach for Wyoming Territory and away from St. Joe. Now it was habit. Every night before bed, she detailed the events of the day. Every morning, she went back and re-read from an older diary, usually from one of the two she’d filled while working for the Express. It was her way of keeping her memories of those days, and those friends, fresh. The days she wanted to remember, that was.
She smiled at her face in the mirror as she checked to make sure her appearance met regulation. She wondered what would have happened if the others had ever found out her little secret. She certainly wouldn’t be the Chief Medical Officer of an Allied Casualty Clearance Station, that was for sure.
Exiting her quarters, she stepped down the lane toward the recovery tent for morning rounds, moving like a man half her age. Something about having Hawk, that’s what he’d told her to call him, to speak to on a daily basis had turned back the clock for her.
She visited him twice daily, once before morning rounds and again after lunch. They’d spent hours talking about her adventures with his grandfather and the others in the Express. He was fascinated, curious and smart. He was everything Buck could have been, should have been, if it hadn’t been for his tortured upbringing and the prejudices so many had held against him.
She nodded to the head nurse on duty as she entered the recovery tent, but didn’t speak to her, heading instead straight for Hawk’s bed. As he’d improved he’d been moved from the high priority cot near the surgeon on duty’s desk, into the middle of the tent.
As she neared the bunk, she saw several other young men gathered on the nearby beds, waiting for her. Not only Hawk, but those nearest him, had all come to enjoy her tales of the old days.
One jumped to his feet as he saw her approaching and pulled out the visitor’s chair for her. She smiled her thanks as she sat down.
“How y’all doin’, boys?” she asked genially. “Any complaints? And don’t tell me ‘the food’. I can’t do anythin’ about that!”
A chorused round of ‘Fine’s and ‘No’s and ‘None’s met her ears as they smiled and laughed at the common Army joke.
“So, what are we talkin’ ‘bout today?”
Hawk looked around at the others then spoke up.
“How’d you become a doctor? I mean, you were an orphan, with only a little schooling at the mission before you ran off. How’d you end up here?” he asked.
Lou leaned back in her chair, both hands resting on the head of the cane standing between her widespread knees.
“Well, now, that’s a long story. But I s’pose I could give you boys the short version.”
She waited to let the grumbles and complaints rumble through the group of gathered men before continuing. “Y’all know I’ve got rounds in less than an hour. Ain’t near ‘nuff time ta tell the whole story!”
“But, let’s see… I figure it probably begins back in ‘61, when I was still ridin’ with the Express. Things were gettin’ mighty tense those days as the War was startin’ and it was splittin’ us boys up mighty hard. Teaspoon, Jesse and Kid all felt they had ta go back and fight fer the South if, when, hostilities started. Cody and Jimmy were talkin’ ‘bout joinin’ up with the North. Noah didn’t know what ta do. He wanted ta join up, too, but the Army wouldn’t take him ‘cause he was Colored. Rachel, Buck and I? We just wished the whole thing would go away, so’s we could keep the family tagether. Things finally came to a head the day we got the news about the South firin’ on Fort Sumter….”
”Where ya goin’, Kid?” Lou asked, as the rider next to her leapt to his feet and moved to start pulling things out of his trunk by his bunk, stuffing them into his saddle bags.
“I done told y’all before, fightin’ breaks out, I’m headin’ back home ta Virginia ta join up,” Kid said, never looking back at the others still sitting at the table, gaping at him.
“Son,” Teaspoon reasoned, “I know how ya feel, but why don’t ya wait a bit, see if things settle down. This is one battle. That may be all there is to it. Washington ain’t gonna be able ta get enough support ta keep firin’ on her own people! Not for long, anyways. You’ll just get all the way back East to find out there’s nothing ta fight for and no job ta come back to here.”
“It’s a risk I’ve gotta take, Teaspoon,” Kid shrugged. “Virginia’s my home. I can’t leave her undefended. ‘Sides, there ain’t gonna be a job here much longer anyway. The telegraph’s movin’ further west every day. When it gets here, we’ll all be outta jobs.”
Standing, he threw his saddlebags over his shoulder and walked out the bunkhouse door.
“He rode out that afternoon and we never saw him again.” She paused a moment, a deep, unacknowledged pain shuddering through her eyes. She gulped back the sobs that still wanted to form as she thought about what happened next. She looked down at her hands, unable to meet the eyes of all these sympathetic boys. A single tear streaking down her face, she continued, “A few months later, we got word through the Marshal’s office that he’d been killed by Southern Bushwhackers in Missouri. They’d killed him and stolen his horse, Katy. He’d been killed by men on the side he was tryin’ ta join up with. A short time later we lost Noah in a fight with another band of Confederate outlaws. Then came the news that the Express was over.”
Lou looked around at the other remaining boys, gathered in a morose group on the bunkhouse porch. They’d all been sitting there silently, not knowing what to say after Teaspoon’s announcement a half hour ago that the Express was shutting down. The last ride would be in a few weeks. Their family was going to be split up, whether they wanted it to be or not.
”What are you gonna do, Buck?” Jimmy finally asked, looking across at the Kiowa who was repeatedly tossing his knife, point first, into the wooden planks of the porch.
Buck just shrugged. “Don’t know.”
Cody turned to Lou, “What about you, Lou?”
Lou raised her pain-filled eyes to look at the rest of the boys, men now, she’d come to think of as her brothers. “I figure I’ll join up when you do, Jimmy. Ain’t nothin’ left fer me here no more. And I can’t forgive the Rebs fer killin’ Kid… and Noah. Not now, not ever!”
Cody nodded in understanding even as Jimmy placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. They were all still mourning their most recent losses.
“Well, I can’t see joinin’ this fight. It ain’t my war,” Buck sighed. “I guess I’ll stay here ‘til the Express ends then head on West. See what I find.”
“Cody left with the Kansas Cavalry as a scout a few days later. Buck, Jimmy and I stuck with the Express for another month, until the last run in October, then went our separate ways.”
“Jimmy? Jimmy Hickok?” one of the newer members of the group interrupted her. “You mean Wild Bill Hickok? The gambler and gunslinger?”
Lou nodded in fond remembrance. “A gambler? Yes. A gunslinger? Only by necessity. But he was wild, in his way. He certainly had a temper. But he was loyal to the day he died to those he loved. And protective! He’d a died for anyone of us, without bein’ asked. He just didn’t handle rules real well, if ya know what I mean.”
She smiled as the men laughed.
“That’s why he didn’t last long in the Army. He and I, we’d decided ta go to Missouri ta join up. We wanted our chance at the bushwhackers that had killed Kid. But War, the Army in general, is a lot of hurry up and wait. That’s why there’s so many rules, ta keep the men busy and out of trouble while they’re waitin’. And as I said, Jimmy didn’t do so well with rules.”
”Don’t tell me ya can’t find ‘em! Just give me two men and horses and I kin track them bushwhackers down in a few days, Captain,” Jimmy half-pleaded, half-demanded.
Lou cringed. The marionette of a captain would never stand for this sort of backtalk from a mere corporal.
“That’s it, Hickok! I’ve had it with your attitude. You’re on latrine duty for the rest of the week!” the captain snapped before turning in disgust to look at the rest of the men assembled. “Any of you want to join him?”
A slight murmur of dissatisfaction ran through the troops as none of them wanted to see the bushwhackers get away after massacring another innocent family, but none spoke up against the captain. He was tough, but usually knew what he was doing. They’d learned to trust him.
Jimmy snorted in disdain and walked away.
“This ain’t what I signed up fer,” he muttered.
“But you did sign up, Jimmy,” Lou reminded him, running to catch up with his hurried, angry steps. “And this is ain’t Teaspoon and the Express, it’s War. Ya leave without permission and you won’t have ta worry ‘bout bein’ fired. They’ll just shoot you! Dead!”
“Lemme tell y’all, that captain was as eager ta get rid of Jimmy and me as we was ta be free of him. So, when the general come lookin’ fer volunteers for a special mission, Jimmy and I were first in line. The general decided he could use Jimmy, but thought I was too young and small fer the job. This was still early in the War, before both sides started gettin’ desperate fer men.”
She paused for a moment to catch her breath, not really seeing the boys in front of her, but rather those in her past.
“Officially, on the record, Jimmy was mustered out of the Army. But, unofficially, he headed South ta spy behind enemy lines. I got transferred to the medical corps. It was hard work, but I found I enjoyed being able ta help people, ‘sted of shootin’ ‘em. And,” she held up her still small, slender hands so the gathered men could see them, “turns out these small hands come in handy when diggin’ around in someone’s innards. It wasn’t long ‘fore I was apprenticed ta the head surgeon at the Army hospital outside Vicksburg.”
“Doctor McCloud,” a soft female voice interrupted the story, “you asked me to remind you when it was time for rounds.”
“Thank you Sister Mary Magdalene,” Lou smiled at the nun. “I guess you’ll have to get the rest of the story some other time boys.”
There was a general chorus of good natured groaning. As Lou began to push herself to her feet, Hawk reached out to grab her hand.
“Yes, Hawk?” she asked, smiling down at the young man she’d already come to think of as a son or nephew. “What can I do fer ya?”
“Would it be possible to get some paper and something to write with?” Hawk asked, his eyes pleading. “I want to write my parents, let them I’m alright.”
“Sister, could ya see to that?” Lou asked.
“Of course,” she smiled.
You were right, white man’s war is something not meant for a true warrior. Certainly not this war! But I hope my actions on, and off, the field of battle are such that I have made you proud of me.
I have a surprise for you. I’m sure by now you’ve heard from Ma and Pa that I was injured. Took a bayonet to the chest. Well, you’ll never guess who the Doc was that patched me up. Uncle Lou! You remember? Lou McCloud from your Express days.
You never told us Uncle Lou was an Army doctor, Grandpa. How come?
“What are you writing, son?” Doctor Hayward asked as he checked Hawk’s medical chart.
“A letter home,” Hawk said, finishing off his missive and slipping it into an already addressed envelope.
“How are you feeling?” the doctor continued, looking up from the medical chart.
“Like someone punched a seven inch knife into my chest then pulled it out with a fist.”
Hawk started to laugh, then pressed a hand to his bandaged chest. “Don’t make me laugh!”
“Sorry, Cross,” Hayward smiled. “It’s good to see you doing so well. Won’t be long before we can send you back to the Base Hospital to finish your recovery.”
The doctor hung the chart from the stand at the foot of Hawk’s bed and started to turn away, but stopped when he heard his name called.
“Doctor Hayward, Sir, can I ask you to mail this letter for me?” Hawk held up the addressed envelope for the doctor’s inspection.
Hayward reached down and took the missive, looking at the address on the front. “Buck Cross? Isn’t that Doctor McCloud’s friend?”
Hawk nodded. “Yes, sir. I told the Doc I was writing my folks. I want to surprise him with a letter from Grandpa.”
Hayward’s smile broadened. All the doctors had come to love the elfin man who was their leader. He’d enjoy being in on what was sure to be a pleasant surprise for the old surgeon. Hayward nodded his agreement and slipped the letter into his pocket before moving on to check the next patient’s chart.
“After the Civil War was over, I decided to stay in the Army,” Lou said. Looking down she added a muttered, “Wasn’t nothin’ fer me ta go home to by then.”
She paused a moment, to get her bearings back before continuing. “I got the chance to take and pass the new medical exam the Surgeon General put in place. What a joke that was! I didn’t need to know anything about actually practicing medicine to pass it, but I had to know the cube root of 3.6 and the capital of Saxony!”
The avidly listening men laughed at that absurdity, but Lou kept on talking.
“Then I got to attend Medical lectures at Harvard Medical School, ‘cept I already had more practical experience than most of the doctors lecturing, due to my work during the War. Didn’t take me long to rise through the ranks.”
“I was actually supposed to be forcibly retired some 15 years ago, but I had started plans to modernize our field hospitals, much like these Casualty Clearance Stations of the British. The powers that be decided to ‘reward’ me by letting me stay in and ‘finish my research.’ So, here I am.”
“You said the last time you saw Gramps was back in the ‘70s. What happened?” Hawk asked.
Lou smiled sadly as she recalled those days.
“Well, I’d been sent out to inspect the Army doctors with the Seventh Cav in Kansas. We’d had some complaints about their effectiveness. Buck had been scouting for them out of Fort Riley. I ran into him the night he quit.”
Lou sighed in weary, angered exhaustion. Things had been worse than she’d expected from the complaints they’d received back in D.C. Walking down the boardwalk, she turned at the sound of a fight going on in the officers club. Something about the raised voice was awful familiar.
Peering in the doors she saw a tall, lanky form being held back by two M.P.’s as he spat angry words at the young colonel with long, blonde curly locks sitting at a table with a glass of whiskey in front of him.
“They’re innocent families! You can’t treat them like this! They’re just tryin’ ta survive!”
“Young man, if you can’t get yourself under control I will no longer be able to see my way to employing you as a scout with the Seventh,” the colonel drawled. “We’re heading out in the morning after those murderous renegades and I need a man I can trust.”
“Well it won’t be me!” Buck snapped, shaking himself free of the M.P.’s hold. “I won’t be party to anymore massacres.”
He turned toward the door and stomped out, nearly running over Lou in the process.
“Buck!” she exclaimed. “What are you doin’ here?”
“Lou!” he responded, as shocked by her presence as she was by his. Looking back over his shoulder, he added ruefully, “’Pears I’m quittin’ my job.”
Seeing the angered glares of the colonel and other officers in the club aimed in their direction, Lou grabbed Buck’s arm and began to drag him down the boardwalk toward her quarters.
“What’s goin’ on?” she asked.
“That stupid colonel’s so glory hungry he can’t see that half of the so-called renegades he wants to hunt down are just starving families desperate for food!”
Lou shook her head regretfully. She knew the Army was woefully mishandling the Indian Situation as they called it back in D.C., but no one would listen to her.
“Anythin’ I can do ta help?” she asked.
Now it was Buck’s turn to shake his head. “Not unless you’ve got a pill that’ll make men see reason.”
“Sorry, Buck, that ain’t been invented yet.” They laughed together, as if it had only been hours since they’d seen each other, not years.
“What about you?” Buck asked as he followed her into her quarters and accepted the glass of whiskey she poured for him. “What are you doin’ here?”
“Tryin’ ta save lives, just like you,” she sighed, slumping down into a chair wearily. “We got several complaints back in D.C. ‘bout the way docs here were handlin’ things.”
She looked up at Buck, her face twisted between grief and anger. “They’re still amputatin’ for any limb injury, Buck! And they ain’t washin’, not with soap and hot water, not even with carbolic acid! We proved those things more than double the chances of survival back durin’ the War. And the hospital is so dirty I wouldn’t house Emma’s hogs in it!”
She gulped down the entire contents of her glass of whiskey and reached over to pour another.
Turning back to Buck, she asked, “So, what’re you goin’ ta do now?”
Buck shrugged. “Head back ta Oklahoma Territory*, I guess. Married me a beautiful Cherokee gal down there last winter. She’s expectin’ a baby in the fall. I just took this job ta save up a little extra money so we can buy a farm.”
Lou nodded. “Listen, if you still need some extra cash, stick around a bit. I’m gonna need a lot of help to get this hospital cleaned up. And I’m authorized to pay for it! Then, when we’re all done, I’ll head down ta Oklahoma with ya, say hello to yer missus, maybe meet that baby of yours.”
“I was there when yer Pa was born,” Lou smiled in soft remembrance. “Helped deliver him, as a matter of fact. Scandalized all yer Grandma’s people, havin’ a white man at the birth, but it made yer Grandpa happy.”
Hawk laughed at the mental image she drew. “I can imagine.”
“Mail call, Lt. Cross!”
Lou and Hawk looked up at the sound of Doctor Hayward’s overly pleased voice. He was holding out a letter in one hand, with a broad smile on his face. Hawk reached up and took the letter, quickly ripping the envelope open and smoothing out the folded pages. His eyes rapidly scanned the words, then he looked up with his own broad, face eating grin spreading from ear to ear.
“Good news, I take it?” Lou asked.
“For you,” Hawk said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I wrote Grandpa Cross all about meeting you. He says he’s coming over here to visit you and, in his words, bring you home. Says you’re too old to still be slaving away for the white man.”
Lou laughed. Those words sounded so much like Buck, with a touch of Noah echoing in them, she could almost hear their voices.
“Seein’ as how this war’s windin’ down and I’m up for retirement soon’s the Armistice is signed next month, I’ll be glad ta go with him. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the farm and the family.”
“Good thing, too,” Hawk said.
“He’s already on his way. Should be here in the next couple of weeks.”
“Due to the approaching Armistice signing, command has decided we’ll be shutting down this camp and going with the last shipment of casualties to the Base Hospital at Trouville,” Lou announced to the rest of the Station’s doctors, nurses and orderlies. “The war’s almost over, ladies and gentlemen.”
A rousing round of cheers rocked the tent as the men and women celebrated the announcement.
“When do we need to be ready to leave?” Sister Mary Magdalene asked as the celebratory cheers died down.
“By next Wednesday,” Lou said. “Which means we’ve got a lot of work and not a lot of time to do it in. You can recruit the mobile wounded to help with minor tasks, just make sure to check with their surgeons as to what activities they’re cleared for.”
It wasn’t long before the room emptied as each man and woman rushed off to do what he or she could to hasten the end of this long, bloody conflict.
“Sounds like you’ll be free to come home soon, then,” a voice said from the tent entrance.
Lou looked up from the papers she was straightening on her desk to squint at the silhouetted shape of a man standing in the tent’s entry way.
“What’s the matter, Lou,” he said when she didn’t respond. “Don’t ya recognize yer brother?”
“Buck!” she gasped. He fully entered the tent even as she moved out from behind her desk to meet him. They clasped each other’s forearms in a traditional greeting, before pulling the other into a tight embrace. It had been too long since they’d seen one another.
Pulling back, Lou looked up to survey the changes the years had carved into her brother’s appearance. Laugh wrinkles fanned out around his eyes and mouth, mute testament to the happiness he’d had over the last few decades. His long black hair was now snow white, pulled back into his customary pony tail. His jowls had sagged and his hairline had receded a touch. But he was still her Buck, her only remaining brother from the Express.
“You haven’t changed much,” they both said simultaneously. Then laughed together at the irony, for both had changed in innumerable ways in the intervening decades. But not in any of the ways that truly mattered.
“I bet you’re eager to see Hawk,” she smiled at him.
“A bit,” he admitted with a shrug. “But I knew he was alright from his letter. It was you I was most eager to see.”
“Well you’ve done the one, so let’s get you over to the recovery tent, so you can do the other.”
They walked out of her office tent side by side, chattering away like in the old days, as if one of them had just come in from a run.
Allied Base Hospital, Trouville, France, November 1918
“So, how long do you have to stay here?” Buck asked, pushing back his dinner plate and picking up his coffee cup to take a sip. They’d completed the hospital move to Trouville that day and everyone was sitting back in the mess hall, relaxing and enjoying the knowledge that soon they’d be headed home.
“My enlistment is up the moment that Armistice is signed,” she said. “And, the Army’s already in the process of discharging Hawk. The bayonet damaged his lungs too badly to keep him in service during peacetime.”
“His parents will be glad he’s home for good,” Buck nodded. “And Morning Star will be happy to see you again.”
Lou nodded, then yawned widely.
“Seems I’m not as young as I used to be,” she said, smiling. “Can’t work all day and play all night, like in the old days.”
“Me either,” Buck said, shaking his head ruefully.
“I’m headed for bed. I’ll see you in the morning for the radio broadcast of the signing. We can make plans for the trip home then.”
Buck nodded as Lou pushed himself out of his chair and moved toward the door. Buck frowned. Lou was moving much more slowly and stiffly then he had been when Buck had arrived the week before. He hoped Lou was alright. Oh well, it was probably just exhaustion, as he’d claimed. It had been a busy few days. He could get plenty of rest on the ship home.
Buck looked around the busy commons as everyone settled in to listen to the radio broadcast of the Armistice signing. He was supposed to meet Lou here at 8:00. It was already 8:15 and there was no sign of the smaller man. Buck started to worry. Lou was never late. It just wasn’t in him. Something must have happened.
Seeing Doctor Hayward and Sister Mary Magdalene conversing nearby, Buck walked up to them and asked, “Have either of you seen Lou, uh, Doctor McCloud this morning?”
Both shook their heads.
“No, I haven’t seen him since last night,” the Sister said quietly. She looked up and shared a worried look with Doctor Hayward.
“What?” Buck demanded.
“It’s just,” the Sister started to say something then stopped, seemingly at a loss for words.
“He’s not doing so well,” Doctor Hayward finished for her. “He should have retired before this damned war started. I can’t understand you Americans making him stay in at his age. It’s his heart. We all try to make sure he doesn’t work too hard, but…”
“But it’s impossible to keep Lou from doing somethin’ he’s determined is part of his job,” Buck finished for him.
Hayward nodded in confirmation. “He overworked himself this last week.”
“Damn it!” Buck cursed, heading toward Lou’s assigned room in the hospital barracks, Hayward and the sister close on his heels.
Within moments the trio was surging up the stairs and stopping in front of the closed door to Lou’s room. Buck reached up and pounded on the door, yelling out, “Lou! Wake up!”
When there was no immediate answer, he shared a look with the other two, then tried one more time. “Lou! You in there?”
Still no answer. Buck tried to open the door, only to find it locked. Stepping back, he began kicking at it, until the lock broke free of the wood around it and the door swung open. Buck rushed in then stopped stock still as he registered the utter stillness of the small form on the bed.
Falling to his knees next to Lou, he pushed the grey hair off of his friend’s cold forehead and rested his own against it, his tears dripping down onto her cheeks.
“No,” he moaned. “I just got you back. You can’t leave me now.”
“Mr. Cross,” Sister Mary Magdalene walked over to the grieving Indian sitting on a bench outside the hospital morgue. He looked up at her with tear streaked cheeks and watery eyes. “Mr. Cross, is there something you need to tell us about Doctor McCloud?”
His gaze turned questioning, as he shook his head. “I’m sorry, Sister. I don’t understand your question.”
She sighed deeply, then straightened her shoulders, as if making a decision. “I think there’s something you need to see. Do you think you can handle viewing the body?”
“Of course,” he said. “Back home I would have been responsible for cleaning it for the funeral anyway.”
Standing, he followed the sister into the morgue, where they were preparing Lou’s body to be shipped back to the States for burial. They didn’t know that Buck planned to give him a traditional Kiowa service, complete with cremation, once there.
Walking up to the body, the Sister grabbed the edge of the sheet. Looking up at Buck, she cautioned, “It appears your friend had something of a secret.”
She pulled back the sheet and Buck gasped at the sight that met his eyes. There was no doubt it was Lou’s body before him. But it was a body he’d never before seen or imagined. It was the body of a woman.
New York Harbor, USA, December 1918
“Grandpa, it’s time to go,” Hawk said, placing a hand on his grandfather’s shoulder. The entire trip across the Atlantic, Buck had spent every possible minute on the ship’s deck, reading from one of a series of journals that had been among Doctor McCloud’s effects. As his, uh her, closest living family the doctors at the hospital had given them all to Buck.
Buck looked up from the book he’d been reading at his grandson.
“How could we not have known?” he asked. “How could we not have seen? Things could have been so different for her. She didn’t have to live such a hard life.”
Hawk shrugged as he patted his grandfather’s hand tenderly. “I don’t know, Grandpa. I don’t know. But, I’d say she lived the life she wanted to live, a life to be proud of. Maybe you saw what you expected to see. And, more important, you accepted her as who she wanted to be, as who she was. That’s why she considered you, all of you, her family.”
The Long Journey Home
*Dr. John Hayward was an actual British doctor who served at the Allied Forces Crouay Casualty Clearing Station in 1918.
*Casualty Clearing Stations (CCS) were the British version of the American field hospitals during World War I. They provided immediate care to battle casualties, including surgery, as close to the front as possible before evacuating them to more permanent hospitals once stabilized. The CCS and American field hospitals were the precursors of the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, or M.A.S.H., units made famous by the movie and T.V. sitcom of the same name.
*In the 1870s Oklahoma Territory was actually still Indian Territory. It wasn’t renamed the Oklahoma Territory until the passage of the Oklahoma Organic Act of 1890, after the Oklahoma landrush of 1889. I used the more familiar term so people would know exactly which place I was speaking of.
*According to the U.S. Navy History and Heritage Command, it is estimated that more than 12,000 American Indians served in the United States military in World War I. Approximately 600 Oklahoma Indians, mostly Choctaw and Cherokee, were assigned to the 142nd Infantry of the 36th Texas-Oklahoma National Guard Division. The 142nd saw action in France and its soldiers were widely recognized for their contributions in battle. Four men from this unit were awarded the Croix de Guerre, while others received the Church War Cross for gallantry.
Thanks: To the ladies at the Writers Ranch for another great bookcover graphic. I certainly couldn't have made it! =)