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The Colonel - A Will Starr Christmas Story
The Colonel - A Will Starr Christmas Story
He was aware only of the pain. Waves of unrelenting torment were punctuated by moments of sheer agony. He tried to tear at it, but he was unable to move his hands. Then, for a long time, he knew nothing at all.
“Colonel? Can you hear me? I want you to take another dose of this before your pain comes back.”
Another dose? Dose of what? Colonel Jacob Cross of the 5th Iowa Cavalry fought away the cobwebs and slowly regained consciousness. His left shoulder still ached fiercely, but it was now tolerable. In the firelight, he could see a detached face floating in front of him.
“You took a bullet to the shoulder, Colonel. I got it out, but I also took out quite a few bone shards, so I can’t guarantee that you’ll ever use that arm again. You damn near bled to death before I could cauterize your wound, but I think you’ll make it now.”
He put a bottle to the Colonel’s mouth. “This is laudanum Colonel. It tastes awful, but it’ll ease the pain. Take a big swig of it if you can, Sir”
Colonel Cross tried to take the bottle with his right hand, but it was tied to his belt.
“I had to tie your hand, Sir, to keep you from digging at the wound. As soon as you gain your full faculties, I’ll cut it loose.”
Colonel Cross nodded his understanding and then drank the evil tasting laudanum. In a few minutes, he was asleep.
The morning sun felt warm and good on his face. He heard someone bustling about, but he kept his eyes closed for a few moments as his memory returned. Yesterday, he became separated in battle from his men and was reining around to rejoin the fray when something slammed into his left shoulder and knocked him off his horse. He hit his head hard in the fall, and then all went black.
Finally, Colonel Cross opened his eyes. To his utter astonishment, the face he had seen last night belonged to a young man dressed in a gray Confederate uniform, and he was bending over him with a concerned look on his face.
“Good morning Colonel. What condition do you find yourself in, if I may ask?”
“Well hell, Sergeant, you’re a Johnny Reb!”
The young man grinned. “Well Sir, that’s debatable. I was a Confederate sergeant yesterday to be sure, but today, I’m a civilian again and soon to be on my way back to Texas.”
At the Colonel’s puzzled expression, the sergeant explained.
“It seems the war is over Colonel. General Lee surrendered to General Grant three days ago at Appomattox. A Yankee courier delivered the news late yesterday under cover of a white flag.”
He pointed at the wounded shoulder. “I’m going to put that in a sling, and you should avoid moving it for at least two weeks. After that, whether you regain the use of it again is up to you and the Good Lord. It will take a lot of will and it will hurt like hell Sir, but there it is.”
Colonel Cross nodded. “Thank Sergeant for what you’ve done, but I must ask how you knew what to do?”
‘I was studying to be a surgeon before this awful war, Colonel, and I was a surgeon’s helper before we were overrun last month. I’ve patched up men from both sides so my conscience is clear. Now I’ll return to my studies.”
He held out his hand to Colonel Cross who took it. “I’ll tell your boys where to find you Sir, and I wish you God Speed. I’m on my way back to Texas.”
Hannah Cross smiled across the dinner table as her husband silenced her rambunctious sons with a mere look. In the intervening ten years after the war, their marriage produced five fine sons and Julia, the youngest.
After losing her entire family to an Indian raid as a twelve year old child, Hannah was raised by John and Rebecca Fulton, the family she was visiting when the massacre took place. The Fultons lived next door to the Cross family and her beloved Jacob, so they grew up together. Jacob first proposed when he was fourteen, and she accepted. He then proposed every year thereafter, and she happily accepted each time. But the day Jacob turned twenty-one, he sealed his promise with one of the new engagement rings that were coming into style. That made their engagement official, and Hannah’s heart soared.
Then came the War.
As an outstanding college student, Jacob Cross was quickly commissioned as an officer and a gentleman. After a few weeks of intense training, he returned home to his family and Hannah. She thought they should marry before he left, but he refused. She was devastated until he explained his reasons.
“I must keep my mind as clear as possible if I am to survive, Hannah. It will be difficult enough not to think of you every waking minute my sweetheart, without the additional burden of fearing for the future of my wife should I be lost in battle. And should I be lost, it will be far easier for you to marry another if you were never wed.”
He took out his handkerchief and dabbed at her wet cheeks.
“I will come back to you as soon as I can Hannah, and take you for my bride if you are willing to wait. That I promise if Providence is willing. Will you wait?”
Hannah looked at him unflinchingly and straight in the eye, her face set and determined.
“I will wait until hell freezes over for you, Jacob Cross! You should know that by now!”
She angrily stamped her foot for emphasis and the tears began to well in her eyes.
Jacob Cross was startled. He had never heard her use the slightest of profanities. But now he knew for certain where her heart was, so he kissed her and mounted his horse.
“I will return, Hannah. Somehow I now know that I will return.”
She watched until he rode out of sight. Then she sat on the porch swing rocking quietly for the rest of the afternoon, her heart at ease. Jacob would be back and she would become Hannah Cross. Somehow she knew it would come to pass. There was no longer the slightest doubt and she was finally at peace.
Jacob Cross knew that war was always a filthy enterprise, but he was ill prepared for the terrible shock of the bloody and endless carnage. Soldiers who were mere boys lay everywhere, their bodies torn in death and those who were still alive stumbled around in silence, their haunted eyes staring vacantly in horror. Any thoughts of glory, whether among officers or enlisted men, were long gone, wafted away on the uneasy winds of war along with the awful stench of battle and bodies.
After several desperate battle successes, Jacob Cross was promoted to Colonel and probably would have become a general if the war had not abruptly ended. But Jacob Cross had no interest in a military career. He was interested only in returning to Iowa and Hannah.
The Fulton family wanted to make their adopted daughter’s wedding a gala event but the war had depleted their resources, so an understanding Hannah asked them to plan a small and intimate ceremony instead. But when Jonah Cross, Jacob’s father and longtime friend of Harold Fulton heard of it, he quietly offered to finance whatever Hannah originally planned as long as no one knew where the money came from. After all, he was the local banker and could easily afford it. The offer was accepted, and Jacob Cross took Hannah for his bride with everyone in town attending. It was the social event of the year.
After that, Jacob set out to complete his education, and became a lawyer. He was offered a position at a local law firm and he accepted. After several successful cases, he was offered a partnership and he accepted that too, so they bought a house. Then came the children, like clockwork.
They were not yet wealthy, but they wanted for nothing. Then Jacob Cross Junior fell desperately ill with an unknown malady. No treatment seemed to make any difference, and they helplessly watched their healthy son slowly wither away in the local hospital.
Their puzzled family doctor called on one of the teaching physicians from the new college of medicine at the University of Iowa who promptly diagnosed and treated him during a short visit. In a few weeks Jacob Junior was still weak but recovering, just in time to celebrate the relatively new national holiday of Thanksgiving.
Hannah Cross loved Christmas. It was one of her fondest memories as a girl while her lost family was still alive, so she was determined to bring the same joy to her own family.
The tree was decorated with all sorts of baubles and trinkets. Long strings of threaded popcorn with ribbon bows completed the majesty. Presents were wrapped and under the tree, and little Julia was staring in wonder at it all as her oldest brother watched over her from his chair. He was still weak, but well on his way to recovery.
The dining table was covered with dishes for their guests to sample as they chatted with others. On the back porch, the men were gathered around a cherry-red wood stove, happily smoking their cigars and toasting one another with Jacob’s prize whiskey.
There was a knock on the door, and Jacob opened it. A gust of cold air and a few stray flakes of snow came in along with Bartholomew Peabody, their family doctor and another man.
“Merry Christmas, Jacob, and I hope you’ll forgive my impertinence for bringing along a stranger, but I suspect you won’t mind, because this is the doctor who correctly diagnosed young Jacob Junior. Doctor, allow me to present Jacob Cross, your young patient’s father!”
For a brief moment the two men examined each other, and then the doctor smiled at Jacob.
“How’s the arm, Colonel?”
Jacob Cross broke out in a broad grin and grabbed the doctor’s hands with both of his.
“Well I’ll be damned! I thought I knew that face! It's the sergeant, and my shoulder healed up just like you said it would!” He excitedly turned to Hannah. “This doctor makes a habit of patching up men of the Cross family! He’s the man who fixed up my shoulder and sent me back to you, and he’s also the man who treated young Jacob!”
He held out his hand to a smiling Hannah who took it and stood beside her husband.
“This is my wife Hannah, and you must forgive me Sergeant, or should I say Doctor, because my mind was in a laudanum induced fog at the time, so I fear I have forgotten your name."
The doctor bowed to a smiling Hannah.
“My name is Robert Francis Kelsey, ma’am, at your service”
Jacob heard a gasp and turned to a suddenly ashen Hannah who was staring at the doctor intently, her eyes taking in his face and searching his features. Then her hands flew to her mouth, and tears began flowing down her cheeks.
“Oh my Dear Lord in Heaven! Oh my Lord!”
Jacob looked at his sobbing wife in bewilderment as several ladies rushed to her aid and seated her gently.Then realization seemed to dawn on Doctor Kelsey and he spoke to Hannah in hushed tones.
“Wait! Hannah you said? Your name is Hannah? Could it possibly be Hannah Jane Kelsey? Daughter of Harlan and Molly Kelsey?” His lower lip quivered slightly as he spoke.
Hannah nodded, her face still in her hands and Dr Kelsey paled.
"Glory be to God! Then you're my missing sister Hannah! I've found you at last!"
Hannah sobbed and nodded again. One of the ladies offered her a kerchief.
Doctor Kelsey turned to Jacob excitedly.
"I said nothing at the time Colonel, but I was not the first to find you after you were shot. There were two other soldiers and they were preparing to kill you because we did not yet know the war was over. For some reason, I was compelled to stop them and when they wanted to proceed anyway, I drew my pistol down on them and ordered them to leave you be or I would surely send them to hell. With that, they grudgingly left and I attended to you. At the time, I thought I had lost my senses by saving a damn Yankee."
He paused and looked at his sister for a moment. Then he turned to Jacob again.
"Now I know why Providence intervened and compelled me to spare your life, Colonel. If I had not stopped them, this moment would never have happened."
Hannah's sobbing ebbed, and after a few moments, she held her hand out to her husband who helped her up. She composed herself and attempted to dry her eyes. Then she took Jacob’s hand again, leaning against him as she gathered herself. Finally, she stood on her own and lifted her head with a tearful smile.
“Jacob, may I present Bobby Kelsey, the beloved little brother I thought I lost all those years ago.”
Doctor Kelsey stepped forward and put his arms gently around his much smaller sister. He held her for a long time before he began to speak.
“I was out in a field playing with my pony, Hannah, when I heard the gunshots and saw the Indians. I tried to run, but they caught me and took me away...but not before I saw the bodies. Later, when I was about five, a fur trader purchased me from the tribe and took me to his wife in Texas. They tried to locate you Hannah, but all I knew was our family names. Finally they gave up and raised me themselves, but I always hoped I would find you and thank God I finally did.”
At last, the doctor released his sister and turned to Jacob.
“May I shake your hand again Jacob, this time as your brother-in-law?”
“You certainly may Doctor, and then I’ll introduce you to the nephews you have not yet met and to your niece! You have quite a family, Doctor Kelsey!”
“Would you please call me Bob, Jacob? I’d like that.”
“Bob it is and welcome home. We’ll have the Merriest Christmas ever!”