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"Where are they?" His voice was infinitely weary.
"Right here, sir. Are you ready to sign them?"
Mutely he nodded. Turning up the lantern, I got the folding desk and set it up in front of him, stacking the letters neatly on the side, and laid the pen beside them.
"Can I get you anything, sir? Tea or coffee?" I wanted badly to offer him brandy, but knew that he would not accept it. He knew I kept a bottle, and that I occasionally turned to it for comfort, but he wouldn't accept any such solace for himself.
"Coffee, Sergeant Major." 'Sergeant Major'. It was going to be one of those nights.
I started the coffee in the little pot I kept for him, and then returned to his side, pulling up a stool as I did so. The pile of letters on his desk represented the soldiers under his command that had died recently. Their direct commanders wrote the letters to the families back home, but the General read each one and also signed his name at the bottom. I took the stack of envelopes, already addressed, and waited to seal each one away, as destiny had already sealed the fate of the men and women who had given their lives for this damned war.
The coffee was ready, so I prepared a cup for him, just the way he liked it: a little creamer and two sugars. Sometimes I think the sugar in the coffee is the only thing that keeps him going. That, and his determination to rid our country of the invaders. The men under him call him 'The Bulldog', and for good reason. He knows, of course.
He knows everything that goes on in his command. One day I found a t-shirt some soldier had left – anonymously – by the door of our tent. It was black with a white design of a snarling bulldog's face on the front. Some mascot of a university that was bombed out of existence at the beginning of the war. He never said a word, but he wore that t-shirt under his uniform until it finally fell apart. I never said anything either, but everyone could see it when I washed it and hung it outside his tent to dry.
I took the coffee to him, then poured a cup for myself. Disdaining the brandy, I drank mine black. He had read through five more letters, so I hurried to fold them neatly and place them reverently in the envelopes. They would go out the next time we sent a runner back to headquarters.
Shortly after midnight, the General finished. Sitting back, he massaged his hand while I tucked the envelopes into the mail satchel. I folded up the desk and stored it away, then returned to help him prepare for bed.
He sat silently as I knelt to unlace his boots. Pulling off the heavy combat footwear, I wrinkled my nose at the sour odor of his feet. He had been neglecting himself lately; or rather, had not allowed me to care for him properly during this last push. Without asking, I got a bowl of water and poured in a small amount of the antiseptic wash I keep for just such occasions. He didn't say a word as I gently washed his feet, drying them thoroughly with the towel, then dusted them with medicated powder.
I pulled clean, dry socks over his feet then rose. He looked up at me when I stood over him, holding out my hand. Wearily he smiled, then took my hand and let me help him up.
"Bad?" he asked.
"Yes, sir. Pretty bad," I agreed. Daringly I added, "You'd have any man under your command written up for allowing his feet to get into such condition."
He waved my chiding away, used to it by now. He stood still as I unbuttoned his uniform blouse, stripped it off him, and shook it out. "Wash it," he said.
"Yes, sir." Usually he wore his shirts for at least two days in the field, unless he got caught in the fighting. But he had a meeting in the morning with the rest of command staff and would be wearing his other clean shirt, so I put it in the pile of dirty clothes to wash.
Stripped down to his shorts and undershirt, with his white cotton socks protecting his abused feet, he lay down on the hard bunk even generals were subjected to. With the ease of long practice, he fell asleep in minutes.
I turned the lantern down and finished straightening up the tent. In battle, there was a place for everything and everything had its place. If we were to be attacked during the night, we would have to dress quickly and arm ourselves in the dark. Twenty minutes later I lay down on my bunk and fell asleep immediately.
It was still dark when I woke, courtesy of my internal alarm clock. I gathered my kit and headed for the rather respectable showers our engineers had rigged up. Stepping into the shower, I was disappointed to find the water only lukewarm. I washed quickly and shaved, dressing in the early morning chill. Leaving the showers, I went to the engineer's tent. I woke the first man I came to.
"The shower is only lukewarm," I informed the sleepy lieutenant.
"Uh, sorry, uh . . . Sergeant, is it? Well, there is a war on, you know."
I slapped his sorry ass and snapped, "In exactly one half hour the General will be here to take a shower. I want that water hot, do you understand me? H-O-T hot. If the water is not hot for the General's shower, he will not say a word. But," I grinned in the early false light that comes just before dawn, "I will find you, personally."
The young officer swallowed nervously. He had finally recognized me. Sitting up, he stammered, "Yes, Sergeant Major. Hot water, half an hour." I smiled to myself as I left to the sounds of cursing from the tent. In any other circumstances, I could be court martialled for daring to touch an officer like that. But they knew me, knew what I did for the General, and knew that I meant what I said.
Back in our tent I put the coffee pot on to make the General's morning brew. Sometimes he would take breakfast in the mess with his men, but this morning he had to prepare for the meeting. Just as the coffee was ready, right on time, he rose. I shook out his threadbare robe and draped it over his shoulders. Picking up his kit that I had already set out by the door,I followed him to the shower. He still looked tired to me.
Word had gone out,and no one wasin the shower or waiting in line when we got there. The General went straight in and I waited just inside the door, handing him his soap and washcloth, taking them back, and passing over the small bottle of shampoo. I was gratified by the billows of steam from behind the curtain. He stepped out to the towel I had ready for him. Covered once more by his robe, the General headed back to his tent to dress.
I grabbed a passing corporal and sent him to bring the General a breakfast tray. Back in our tent I again dusted his feet with the powder before helping him with his underclothing. The corporal arrived with the breakfast tray,and I set up the folding desk to put it on. I had the morning reports ready for him. While the General read the dispatches and ate,I took the clothes to the makeshift laundry some of the local women had set up. They had all heard of the General and were delighted to wash his dirty clothing.
There is no more magnificent sight than a full general in full dress uniform. I almost burst with pride as I followed him to the command tent, carrying the map case. Once inside, I saluted the Lieutenant General, who was already there, and quickly spread out the maps on the large table. I then made sure there was water and coffee for the other commanders. The cook, having been advised of the meeting, sent over two trays of sweet rolls. Once the remaining officers arrived I left. The General would not need my services during the briefing.
I checked on the progress of the laundry,then headed to the mess tent to get my own breakfast. After eating quickly, I went back to our tent to catch a quick nap. An hour later I was back up, feeling rested and refreshed. Our clean clothes were ready,so I gathered them up and got them stowed away properly. I passed by the command tent, but the guards were still at their posts in front. One of them shook his head at me, indicating that they were still busy within.
I wandered around the camp, just checking on the status of the men. I stopped here and there to share a cup of coffee or play a game of cards. The General depended on me to let him know what was going on with the soldiers beneath him. I was able to quell some rumors, and confirm others with my silence. The men were tired, as was only to be expected. But recent advances on our part had boosted morale,and they were in good spirits.
A private came running through the camp. "Sergeant Major! Sergeant Major!" he yelled.
Irritated, I stepped out of the tent where I was visiting with some soldiers from my hometown. My former hometown, before the bombing had destroyed it. The private's behavior was totally unacceptable.
"Private!" I barked. But before I could give him the tongue-lashing he deserved, he did the unthinkable. He grabbed my arm.
"You've got to come quick," he babbled. His face was white. A cold chill crept up my spine. I had been fighting this war since this war started. Of the men I started out serving with, only two were still alive. I had seen death in almost every form it could take, and had stared into the face of my own death more than once. But I had never been afraid. Not until that moment.
"The General," he gasped. "Come quickly." I left him behind as I ran to the command tent. Disregarding the guards, I hurtled into the tent. The medics were already there, shaking their heads. The General lay still on the floor, eyes staring sightlessly at the ceiling. His face was the gray pallor of death.
I did the only thing I could do under the circumstances. I came to attention and saluted. I held that pose until every man in the tent had done the same.
The Lieutenant General stepped up to me. "I'm sorry, Sergeant Major. He was a good man, and one of the finest military minds I ever knew."
Staring straight ahead, I answered simply. "Thank you, General."
The small noises in the tent stilled. I had spoken. The General was dead. We now had a new General. He turned slowly to me and nodded.
"I hope I can count on you to help me in the transition," he said. "I will do all that I can to deserve the loyalty you gave him."
"Yes, sir," I replied. "I'm sure you will." We exchanged a long look. He turned away first.
"I'll go prepare your tent now, General." I left the tent and the body behind. He was gone now, but we still had a war to win. And I had a new General to train.
This story originally appeared at the e-mail list hierarchicalfic on May 26, 2003. It is reprinted with permission of the author.
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