“Tell me,” said the field medic, digging in the soldier’s flesh with an implement that looked more suited to killing than it did to healing, “exactly what it was that has brought you to need my services this morning.”
Corporal John ‘Jimmy’ Green grit his teeth and screwed his eyes closed. Of all the things that had gone through his mind that morning, the close attentions of the sawbones had not been on the list. There was a squishing sound that he did not care to ascribe to any particular body part, followed moments later by the sound of metal hitting the kidney dish.
“You’re a mess, son. It’s a miracle you’re still alive.” The medic shook his head at the shrapnel embedded in the young Corporal’s body. “Seriously, what happened?”
Jimmy let out a soft groan of pain and spoke a single word.
“Ah, yes,” said the medic, nodding his head in understanding. “That explains everything.” He handed the youth a rawhide strip. “You might want to bite down. I’d recommend quite hard.”
* * *
In total, there were eleven, including the General. It was a reasonably sized and well-armed squad; seven pistols, six Sabres and five rifles between them. Nothing could possibly come between them and the victory they deserved.
Nothing, that is to say, apart from the approximately thirty men who inhabited the stronghold. The scout, young Corporal Jimmy Green, returned with the report that there was much carousing and general merriment being made within the walls of the building. The outlaws were unaware the Union were coming to bring justice.
The criminals, Jimmy reported, were so drunk that they probably wouldn’t have cared if the entire Union force descended, so long as they brought more liquor. But there were, he reiterated very, very carefully, at least thirty of them.
It generated an immediate but carefully moderated squabble centred around odds and being outnumbered and any number of logical thoughts that were, on balance, quite correct. Then the General’s voice cut through the discussion, smooth and cultured, stern and filled with an abiding passion for what he believed in.
“For shame,” said the General. He didn’t whisper. General Armstrong Custer did not possess what was commonly known as an ‘indoor voice’. “For shame.” He shook his head and stood that little bit straighter. He turned piercing blue eyes on each member of the squad in turn. “Each one of you was picked for this mission for a reason. Each one of you is the Union’s finest! You are the best! You’re telling me that you’re a bit anxious that each one of you gets to fight three men? You telling me that you’re all too scared to go in there and do what you were made to do? Shrinking like violets from a ragtag group of thugs and ne’er do wells?”
There was no response for a moment, then the Corporal very carefully offered a hesitant “yes. We are outnumbered three to one.”
“Well, I say, nonsense! Let’s think of it as each one of us only gets three men to fight! You could all bring down five men… no, ten men apiece for the Union, couldn’t you?”
The General bristled. “Why, I’ve a mind to go in there right now…” Here, he drew his twin pistols, shaking them threateningly. “…and deal with the matter myself.”
“But sir…” The feeble protest fell on deaf ears. General Custer’s mind was made up and there was no swaying him from the path on which he was now walking… no, running. The path that led him directly into hostile territory.
“For the Union!”
The squad looked at one another. Somewhere, deep down, their collective common sense was arguing the case that Custer was clearly quite mad. But his words were stirring and his actions more so. This man was a highly decorated hero. And he believed in them. He believed they could overcome these insurmountable odds.
In a split second, they knew that they, just like their General, were invincible. Rifles and sabres and pistols were raised to the sky and with a cheer, they plunged after their General unto death and glory.
Afterwards, Jimmy couldn’t recall much about the gunfight. It came to him in a series of flashing images and vague memories. He remembered several parts quite strongly; how the drunken outlaws had been unprepared for the sudden onslaught of eleven well-armed and highly trained Union soldiers.
He remembered the General being on the receiving end of the first shot, which had missed his head by mere inches, and he remembered the General’s gleeful shout that the outlaw was clearly a drunken fool who couldn’t hit the rump of a bull with a handful of banjos.
He remembered with sharp clarity the deaths, both of the outlaws and of his companions, one by one succumbing to the superior numbers. Visions of scarlet plumes erupting where seconds before there had been the head of one of his own. Recalling the stench as one outlaw’s gut was sliced open by the razor-sharp blade in the General’s hands, entrails spilling out onto the ground.
And he remembered the explosion that resulted from a wayward shot out of the barrel of a rifle. He would never know if that shot was fired by his side or the other, but whoever did it hit the RJ-1027 canister square on. Jimmy remembered the sound of the explosion. He remembered the feeling of metal shredding through his skin and, right before he lost consciousness, remembered the moustached face of his General leaning over him.
* * *
“That’s the last of it, son.” The surgeon wiped his bloodied hands on the cloth and leaned back. “You can rest easy now. And you have a visitor.”
Jimmy’s jaw ached from clenching around the leather strap and as he worked it back to some sort of order, he lifted his head to see the unmistakable blue-clad form of Armstrong Custer striding towards him.
He winced ever so slightly at the General’s boom.
“Corporal Green, you are a damned hero.”
“What about the others, sir?”
“You fought bravely. Like a man possessed! I told the men in the mess last night, why, that boy deserves a medal. A commendation at the very least!” He made as if to pat the youth on the back, but one stern look from the surgeon and he thought better of it. “You take time to rest and recover. I need men of your calibre back out on the front lines with me as soon as possible. Well, done, lad!”
The General spun on his heel, clapped the surgeon on the back and told him what an excellent job he was doing and then, in a veritable blur of blue, departed as though he’d never even arrived.
“What about the others?” Jimmy knew the answer but felt he needed to ask the question. The surgeon sighed and shook his head. The young Corporal’s shoulders drooped, but then he remembered how proud the General had been of him, apparently for not dying.
And that, he felt, was good enough.