Chapter 21 ~ The Parade Ground

Prior dined on his own that evening. The fort was silent around him, as if everybody was holding their breath after the events of the day. They probably were. He had seen Major Bailey's face when the shots echoed over the hills back to them. It was as if he'd suddenly woken up at this fort after a whole of life of peace. He knew that he didn't believe in him, or his orders.

Nobody believed these orders would work. He knew it deep inside. Somehow, it made it all the more sweeter when he thought that they would work. Yes, they would work.

Prior smiled absent-mindedly to himself. His thoughts were not on the book he was trying to read. Instead, he wondered where Bailey and Dandy were now. Bailey would be waiting for Dawes and Dandy would be with him, of course. But didn't Bailey understand? Dawes would be fine out there under his orders. If he just kept to those orders. No. Of course he would. He was an able officer and…obedient.

Prior thought he might be a little drunk. He looked at the bottle on the table and determined that his guess would be correct. Today was a day for celebration though, he told himself. They would finally show the Indians the might of their fort. They would not become another Fort Phil Kearny. He refilled his glass and silently, held it up in a toast to the fine walls around him. General Terry will not hound me again after this day, he thought, wondered if he'd said it aloud.

From outside, the silence was suddenly disturbed by a growing noise. He checked his pocket watch after finishing his drink. It was probably Dawes and the men. He imagined them coming up and congratulating him, telling him what a wonderful job had been completed. Yes, he was a little drunk. And it felt good.

There soon came a knock on the door. ''Yes?'' he called. Robbins peered slowly into the room. He always appeared so meek. It amused Prior somewhat.

''Sir,'' he said. ''Colonel Dawes has arrived.''

''Good,'' Prior smiled. Robbins held the door open for him as he rose from the immaculate table and they exited together down to the parade ground.

It appeared that the whole garrison was out there. As Prior came through the doors of the headquarters, he had to almost physically push through the growing crowd. But slowly, they began to part for him and he was greeted with the sight of McDowell leading in the men. The heady drunkenness immediately vanished from his head.

They had left the fort earlier that day so neat and perfect. Now they trailed in, straggling and struggling to get through the gates in some semblance of organisation.

McDowell was bleeding heavily, slumped over his horse and with a handkerchief tied poorly around his head. Behind him, the grand detachment had transformed into a ragged, threadbare trace of what it had been. The wagons that had been sent out for them were overflowing with the wounded and, God help them, the dead and he heard them weeping as they passed by, some still shouting in pain. Those that wouldn't fit into the wagons staggered along, helping each other as much as they could. Those that still had horses rode them shoddily, half bent over their necks. Nobody had escaped injury.

Prior stood transfixed. Somewhere behind him, he heard voices saying to get the women and children inside. McDowell came by, couldn't, or wouldn't, raise his head to look at him. Nearby, he heard Major Bailey.

''Captain,'' he said, tone high. ''Where is William? Is he…?''

McDowell gestured weakly behind him. Prior found himself searching this awful sight but everything was blending into one. His head began to sink, blackness starting at the edge of his vision. His chest tightened. No. Not this.

''Will!'' came Bailey's voice again through the bloody haze. He saw him run forward into the mess and alongside a weary horse. Something twisted again within Prior's chest. He barely recognised Dawes. He was almost falling off his horse and Bailey had to help him as he began to slouch forward dangerously. The man could barely stand and Taylor had to rush across to help Bailey before they both collapsed to the ground.

Prior thought he might be experiencing a nightmare, all these wagons and men trailing to the hospital just figments of his imagination. The look in Bailey's eyes as he held onto Dawes, though, a look so devastated and furious and cold, was real enough to convince him that this was, in fact, reality. An awful, sickening reality.

Taylor had taken on the rest of the evening's work alone. He hadn't minded; there was barely anything to do and plus, he was all too happy to let Bailey alone for the night and escape from the horrors in the hospital. It hadn't been the first time he had seen such awful sights but for some reason, it struck him even deeper now. Maybe it was because of Bailey. Taylor had always felt somewhat detached from the fort until he arrived, like an outsider, an outcast. The only people he had truly known well were General Prior and Captain Hamilton. The other officers…well, they were always so different from him.

He hadn't stopped to think about it in a long while. But now, there was Major Bailey and he had opened up so many doors, or so it felt. It hurt desperately to see such terribleness on a much deeper level than before. They were no longer as faceless. He had spent time with them, knew their personalities and little traits. Rodgers had been knocked down from his high perch, and Fields – he thought the man had some respect for his commanding officer. The way he had looked at him when they had come through the gates had spoken something quite different.

McDowell had been worse. Over the past months, he had grown to become fond of the man. He didn't take sides between Prior and what was becoming the rest of the fort, and always seemed to be jolly. Everything seemed to have been stripped away when he entered onto the parade ground, his eyes staring down at the ground in what Taylor feared was defeat. He could barely watch.

But then there had been Colonel Dawes. He hadn't had much of a connection, apart from the obvious admiration and respect he felt towards the man, before Bailey's arrival. Yet, now maybe swayed by Bailey's touching affection for him, he felt that they had possibly become friends. Taylor immediately found that the word didn't quite sit right. No. Maybe they hadn't come that far. But the distress in Bailey's face had hit him hard. They had almost had to drag Dawes into the hospital as his consciousness drifted. Bailey had sat with him for what felt like hours after.

Taylor feared, for an amalgamation of many reasons, that it would be more serious than it was. Doctor Wilkens pronounced that it was exhaustion rather than any bad wound that had brought Dawes into this state. The relief that Bailey must have felt at that was apparent. Taylor felt that his own personal relief was somewhat overshadowed by his.

Yet he still couldn't stay in that hospital any longer. Dawes may have felt better and insisted that he could leave but there were many others who would not. It sickened Taylor to think of it.

And soon, there would be a hunger to attach blame to somebody. Taylor knew exactly who that would be and he was frightened. He hated this attitude hanging over the fort. Sometimes, it felt like he was trapped within it all and would never escape. It would only grow worse. Prior would be at the centre of it, of course - they were his orders, after all. They were always his orders. But he could do nothing about it.

Taylor realised he had been standing staring out the window for the last few minutes. He was tired and his mind kept wandering. Placing the last of the pieces of the paper into the relevant drawers, he glanced at his pocket watch and saw it was approaching midnight. It had been such a long day and it would be good to get passed it. He knew, though, that it would not end then.

It was only a short walk to his quarters and he was glad for it. He could not bear to look at that parade ground, designed for such grand purposes but tainted that day by the bloody bodies of the men who it was meant to glorify. There was no one else outside so he didn't have to speak anybody.

Once his door was closed, he felt a sense of relief wash over him. Everything was behind him for now. He was safe here, a long distance away from anybody else and…most of all, that hospital. No. Don't think of the hospital, he told himself. Find something else to think of.

The first thought he had was of Major Bailey. He worried that he may be a dangerous subject to bring up as he was so closely linked to the day's events but he soon found that his image calmed him somewhat. He sat on the bed, began to undress, and remembered the first day he had met him, so perfect and dignified and handsome at Prior's dinner table. He had been so different from Captain Hamilton, even in just that first impression. He had made him feel involved for once, not merely some observer on the outside looking in. He still couldn't express the gratitude he felt at having become so close to Bailey. It amused him that he still hadn't called him Everett, his first name. Bailey had always called him Taylor, never Lieutenant Anderson unless they were in a strictly formal situation.

He found himself trying it out, whispering the name into the soft light of his room. He realised he liked the sound of it coming from his lips. There was something about it that was so lovely and… He realised he was drifting again, the tiredness coming over his mind. He could barely muster the will to undress any further so with heavy limbs, he pulled himself up the bed and under the covers. He whispered Everett's name as he drifted off into slumber.