When John finally arrived at the hospital camp he refused to let go of the horses. Everything depended on them, and he only hoped his Uncle Thomas was well enough to ride. The soldiers who had met him at the gate seemed to know his name, so that was a positive sign. He waited nervously, exposed at the gate, used to hiding now. He was also worried because he did not know what to expect - a stretcher, crutches, someone so broken in mind and body he couldn't come, wouldn't recognise John, or care. The news of his uncle had been vague, old, second-hand. He could hear his heart in his thin chest. His stomach was knotted, and he couldn't differentiate between hunger and fear.
The man who approached him quietly, surprised, was clearly his uncle, but bearded now, thin. His clothes faded, worn, patched, too large, held about him with a belt. Nothing of the proud bright hopeful young man who had ridden away. Nothing but his face, his eyes, himself. He had been the one to joke with John, the youngest and closest of his uncles. He had always offered a light slap on his back of congratulations, a twinkle out the corner of his eye for him, a quip about small happenings. Now his face was serious, his eyes a little widened at the unexpected arrival of his young nephew.
"John?" He came forward to embrace the boy.
"Uncle Thomas!" Without letting go of the horses, used after the fearsome days on the road to guarding them first and instinctively, he responded one-armed.
"Tom. If you are here, it is time to call me Tom."
Was it better, now it had come to it, to tell him at once? He had only been able to speak of it to Mattie, and to himself. They had held it so long themselves he found he didn't want to talk about it, even to his uncle. It was their burden. But that was why he had come. Thomas had a right to know and his mother needed her brother. And they couldn't manage all of her affairs themselves. No, that was not it. There was something less concrete, something imperative for her soul. She should not die alone, her brother should not wonder and worry forever more. Peace, even in the pain and gruesomeness of the daily tasks. Peace for Heaven. Peace for death and afterwards.
John swallowed, and again didn't know if the tightness in his throat was fear, hunger, or thirst. And he always wondered if such small things were beginning symptoms of the disease within himself, hereditary. He took a breath, shaky from the road.
"Uncle Tom..." The man put his arm around his shoulders, encouraging, unable not to smile. John was taller now, and as marked by the war as his uncle, but he was still the favourite nephew, the younger almost-brother. There was no way John could say it with softness. The facts were sure and cold. "Uncle Tom, my mother has tuberculosis, pthisis. It is not going to get better. I came to bring you home..." Before it is too late. But he couldn't say that, even with the kindly arm around him.
"She didn't ask you, did she, John." It was a statement. "You came for me yourself."
He tried again. "I came to bring you home before it was too late."
"Of course I will come. You need to eat first, to rest for the trip back." John was shaking now that the need for tension was over. Thomas rubbed the centre of his forehead. The camp, the dying men needed him desperately. every pitcher of water he could convey a comfort and mercy. Every gentleness or word a service, an answer to a prayer of a man dying. And there were so many. They never stopped arriving, suffering. He had to keep himself looking into eyes, seeing humans instead of one vast sea. Sometimes he himself contracted their illnesses, lay among them for a time, but he was stronger and his wounds had healed. He was not even a doctor, but the men had such need of things so small. But his family needed him. And Alice, Alice, who had taken him in, an orphan John's age. Of course he would come.
He assigned the horses from John's tight reluctant hands into those of a man he could trust and soon the boy was eating thin porridge and hard tack with the men. John knew enough to be grateful. Then he was put into Thomas' slung camp cot to rest before the trip back, and he knew enough to be grateful then too. His uncle's leaving would free a bed.
"You've become a man today." It was the last thing he heard. His uncle, surrounded by dying men, had not been able to weep, was beyond feeling sorrow or loss. He would have long since been driven mad. For some had been. He had watched them.Name: John H. Holliday, DDS.
Word Count: 837
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