A/N: Here it is, lads. We are finally at the end. It's kind of hard to believe that another story is written and finished, and in just a year, too. While this was not the long road of American Now Departed, it was no less bloody and treacherous, if not more so. The Spanish Civil War was a conflict that broke spirits, shattered ideals, and set the stage for another costly conflict that followed just months later. Some who participated in this war would go on to great fame in the war that followed.
For David and Edith, however...well...you have to read for yourself to find out what future lies ahead for them.
Epilogue: Victory and Defeat
Late September 1938
Somewhere near the Ebro River, Lower Aragón, Spain
In the skeletal ranks of the International Brigades, a rumor of dissolution hung in the air.
A stubbly-faced Irishman tended to his Lewis gun, though he suspected that there would be little need of it in the coming days. The men of his command were in no condition to fight after the hell they had recently endured. The entire battalion was a spent force, unfit for further action. As he looked around what passed for the camp, he saw more unfamiliar, native faces of Spain than he did Americans.
He had to wonder why higher-ups even bothered designating the Lincoln Battalion as such when there were hardly any Americans left. Most who came to fight for Spain a year and a half prior were gone, either dead on the battlefield, left wounded, riddled with disease, or simply deserted and gone home. There were less than 150 Americans and Irishmen still standing in this battered broken battalion; the rest were Republican regulars integrated into the formation to bolster numbers. Sadly, the story was much the same for the rest of the International Brigades, as the flow of volunteers slowed to a trickle before at last stopping.
Many left, having grown tired of the fighting. Others simply stopped caring about the civil war in Spain. And some, like the Irishman, saw the fight for what it was: hopeless.
If Spain had any chance for assistance from the likes of Britain, France and America, it had long passed. Britain and France were more concerned with making a deal with Germany than opposing fascism. America still sat in dogged isolation, disillusioned both by the Great War of 20 years ago and embattled by economic depression. Even the Soviet Union, the Republic's only outspoken supporter, began to withdraw its aid. Russian officers and commissars did not want to waste their tanks and planes for what they saw as a lost cause.
The Irishman had to ask himself why he was still there, cleaning his Lewis gun and sitting in a bivouac, waiting for new orders to go into battle. Perhaps he should have followed David and Edith's lead and left the Brigades when he could. But for some reason, he chose to stay. Whether out of a sense of shame, a naïve hope that the war could still be won, or just out of inertia, he stayed on. And he watched as his squad was chopped to pieces in campaign after campaign.
Ever since David deserted following Jacob's outburst in Belchite, the squad suffered one loss after another. Now, he was the only "old hand" left in the squad, having to look after the new volunteers and native regulars. And he could not even speak Spanish.
Setting his Lewis gun down, he looked across into the neighboring bivouac. A young Lincoln, no older than 19 years old, was busy cleaning his boots. His cropped blonde hair and his light blue eyes reminded him of that wide-eyed British girl who fled with his squad's brave Texan. Unlike David, however, this boy came only weeks ago, just in time for the newest battle on the Ebro River.
There, the Lincoln Battalion was thrown into what could only be described as a meatgrinder. For six days, they charged against heavily entrenched Nationalist positions on high ground near a small village called Gandesa, and for six days, they died. When it became clear they could no longer make headway, they withdrew to a deadly place called Hill 666, just miles away from the river. There, they endured charge after charge in poorly constructed trenches. There, recruits and veterans alike met their end and saw just what the fruits of their efforts were.
That young boy had to learn on the fly how to survive, how to fight. The Irishman thought for sure he would never survive, but for days upon days he did. He fought with all the ferocity and courage as their lost Texan and his old squad leader.
If they entered battle again, it was likely that boy would not survive. Not without him, the old hand, looking after and caring for the new blood. Such was his duty, now that there was no one else left.
"Say, Tommy, me lad," the Irishman called, "did ye finish cleanin' your rifle?"
"Oh, Sergeant McClellan!" the boy returned. "Yes, I cleaned it an hour ago."
"I told you before: just call me Peter. I ain't old enough to be called that."
Peter McClellan waved to the blonde boy, Thomas, motioning for him to come sit by. Thomas did so, gingerly standing up from his cot and walking out into the open sun. Over his brown tunic and matching trousers, he wrapped his twig-like body in an oversized olive greatcoat to shield him from the chilly September winds. The bullet holes in his sleeves and the tears around his hem betrayed it as a scavenged addition to his uniform, found on the body of a fallen regular.
Even after two years of war, the Republic still could not supply them with uniforms and weapons. How was it the Republic had not fallen already?
As the boy sat down under the shade of their bivouac, he heaved a great sigh.
"Did you hear the word going around?" Thomas asked.
"There's some talk that the Brigades are gonna be broken up. We'll be sent back to Barcelona and then go home from there." Peter tilted his head, as if slightly bewildered.
"Is that right? Are you itchin' to get back to Michigan that badly, Tommy?" Thomas shook his head.
"It's not that, really. To me, it's like I just got here and already people are talking about goin' home."
"We've been at this since you've been in diapers, me lad. Not everyone is as eager to go on."
"I can understand, but…" Thomas wiped some excess dirt off his forehead and looked around the camp. "…I wanted to make a difference here in Spain. And now, we could just go home before I did much of anything."
The Irish machine gunner blinked, and he thought he saw their Texan in the boy. He came to Spain filled with hopes and ambitions, like David. He came hoping to be remembered as one who fought to make a better country, like David.
But unlike David, he had not seen what Peter McClellan and the older Lincolns had seen. He had not witnessed the bloody defeats of Jarama and Brunete. He had not sat shivering in the cold in Teruel. He had been here too short a time to make friends and watch them die. He knew too little of the politics to know just how badly commissars bungled any advantage the Brigades ever gained.
Peter sighed, a regretful smile gracing his face. Behind that curtain of happiness hid a vast mural of defeat, disappointment and humiliation. Thomas was still young, ignorant, and naïve. But his was the kind of naïveté this godforsaken world needed. Ignorance was bliss, after all.
"You came here an' shot a few fascists," Peter offered. "That's plenty more than what others did."
"Is it, really?" Thomas questioned, his blue eyes narrowing skeptically.
"Aye, lad. You mightn't have been at this long, but there are millions 'a folks at home who didn't want to do anything at all. The fact you came and wanted to fight is enough. In my eyes, anyway." Thomas nodded, not fully understanding.
"Tell me, Pete: why did you come here?"
"Tell ye the truth, I came for much the same reason as you. I heard all about what was happenin' here in Spain, and none of it sat right with me."
He leaned back, thinking over every decision he made since leaving Ireland to come here. The friends he made and lost. The acts of bravery and scenes of horror he witnessed. The moment he took over as squad leader, and the days spent bearing the guilt of watching new volunteers die. What had it all been for?
"Y'know that Ireland wasn't always an independent country, dontcha, Tommy?"
"Sure, I do. I know some Irish back in Saginaw."
"Then you know that for a long time, we were ruled by a king in England. So, when the folks in Galway heard about the Spanish throwin' off their king and formin' a republic, we thought 'a what we did to gain our independence."
"So you came here. You felt common cause with the Spanish." Peter nodded.
"Aye. The way I sees it, when a man's cryin' in pain, it's only natural that you want to help 'im. That's what drove me."
Of course, it was what drove him. It was what drove him before he saw the bungling by high command. It was what drove him before he saw men blown apart by artillery shells and ripped to shreds by machine guns. It was what drove him before David and Edith left for greener pastures.
But Thomas…young, idealistic, foolish Thomas…did not need to know that half of the story. He figured that one day, Thomas would learn for himself that not all in this world was as cut and dry as commissars and politicians would have one believe. Thomas would learn that things like camaraderie, friendship, and love were worth more than a politician's speech.
If he survived this awful war, he would learn.
"So, Pete, if we do go home, what will you do?"
"I got family back in Galway that miss me somethin' terrible. I reckon that I need to get back to me Da 'afore anything else."
"Of course, but after that? Don't you have a wife, or children?"
Peter glanced back out at the rows of tents, wondered if any of the remaining Lincolns had a future to which they could return. So many of them came not just out of idealism, but to escape problems at home. Debts, boredom, broken hearts, and lives with no opportunities made them seek new ones in Spain. Sadly, all they found was death, destruction, and heartache. There were no riches or glory that came from war. That was a bitter lesson they all learned the hard way.
He sensed that when he returned to Galway, the problems from which he fled were all that awaited him. But at least it was better to be poor than to be dead.
"I ain't that old, son. What about you? Got a girl in Saginaw?" Thomas shook his head, blushing.
"N-no, sergeant. I just have a younger sister. And my mom, though she's getting older."
As the Irishman recalled, David had a sister of his own as well. When he was still in the battalion, he often shared pictures of her from back home with Peter, Jacob and the others. Did he manage to live to see her again? What did he tell her of their exploits? Did she even know about Edith Branson?
A slight rustle of canvas and a sliding of feet to their right shifted both his and Thomas' attention. The Irish veteran sergeant stood up and peeked his head out from the bivouac.
Further down, a tent bearing flags of the Republican Army High Command rustled in the wind. Out from the canopy stepped a familiar figure, one that Peter had seen quite frequently in the disaster at the Ebro River, and in the horror of Gandesa.
He was a tall, gaunt man in his early 20s with brown hair under a wool-knit cap. Despite his rank as major made clear by his sleeve insignia and collar tabs, his uniform made it hard to tell. His baggy trousers, tightly woven leggings, plain brown shoes and stained leather jacket left the impression of a common soldier. A thin pencil mustache caressed his upper lip, which tightly held a brown briar pipe. Smoke rose from the pipe and circled around his head like Christmas wreath hung on a door.
"Say, lad, look. It's Major Wolff."
Milton Wolff had taken over command of the battalion after David deserted, and after the battle at Teruel. He was a rugged man not accustomed to soldiering, but his courage and ability earned him the respect and love of his men. While he was not as professional a soldier as Merriman, he proved able enough to lead. But something was different about Wolff this time. It was written plainly in his face, his chestnut eyes despondently looking down at his scuffed combat boots and his pipe dipped in deference.
He walked towards Peter's tent, and all eyes in the camp of the Lincoln Battalion instantly shifted to him. But Wolff said nothing. He only walked, slowly. Sadly. From where Peter stood, he looked like he had been handed a death warrant.
The puffs of smoke from his pipe formed a trail for all Lincolns to follow. Even though he spoke not a word, issued no orders, the men all rose from their tents and stopped all their duties to follow him. Even Thomas and Peter were not exempt as they followed him through the lanes of the camp, dust forming a misty trail behind them.
All had to wonder just what Wolff's orders would be, if any. The fact he said nothing, not even acknowledging the smoke-smeared faces of the men that gathered around him seemed to betray the battalion's next mission. His silence told of the worst fears…and greatest hopes…of the veterans confirmed.
They walked almost to the edge of the camp when at last, Thomas could no longer stand the pressure. He had to know. Even if he was reprimanded for speaking out of turn or even insinuating the wrong ideas, he had to know.
"Major, are we disbanded?"
Milton Wolff's slow walk stopped, and his hands slipped resignedly into his pockets. His head dipped down, and a small breeze rustled the hair on the back of his neck. Peter thought he heard a bit back sob as the major shrugged his shoulders and faced them.
His chestnut eyes looked out into the sea of tired, grimy faces. Among the younger recruits, their faces told of a hope at one more chance to turn the tide and make their mark on the war. In the eyes of older, more grizzled veterans, a weariness hung in their mouths and over their sweaty brows. What horrors they endured. What privations they suffered. What fortitude they still had.
Wolff took his pipe in one hand, and said, a slight vibration of sorrow in his voice,
"Yes, men. The International Brigades are disbanded."
A soft murmur of bewilderment rippled through the crowd. At first, none could believe what they were hearing. How could it be that after so long, after all they had accomplished, the Republic was relieving them of duty? Was there not still an enemy to fight? Did Spain no longer need their help to fight off the Nationalist rebels?
Among some of the veterans, there was only a great sigh, and a despondent shaking of the head. Among the younger, greener Lincolns, there was the suppressed sob, and soft moans.
Sensing the flagging spirits of his men, Wolff continued, cleaning out his pipe as he did so.
"Boys, we fought many battles together since we came more than a year ago, and we endured incredible hardships. God knows I and others did the best we could for you, but there is nothing more that can be done." He sighed, resignedly, and wiped off some excess dust off his jacket. "We will march to Barcelona. From there, we, along with the other International Brigades, will board ships and return home."
The 23-year-old major glanced down at his shoes, covered in yellow earth. He, like so many, did not even have the proper uniform befitting of an officer. While his men often struggled to arm and clothe themselves due to circumstance, he chose instead to suffer with them. It was what previous leaders had done. Tried as he did, larger forces, forces incomprehensible to most, conspired against any hopes of victory.
"Lincolns, understand this: these orders were not given lightly. The decision was not made due to any doubt in your abilities or your courage. The odds against us were just too great."
Thomas glanced at Peter, wondering what the sage Irish sergeant thought of this rumor confirmed. Peter McClellan only looked on at his embattled commander, seeing the same struggles with which he grappled not long ago. His face unreadable, Peter only blinked and rubbed his stubbly chin. He nodded, as if in acquiescence to the merciful end of the contest. Others were dogged, however.
"Is our battalion really disbanded, Major Wolff?" one teenaged recruit asked, his clean face shining like the golden wheat.
"We can keep on fightin'!" cried an older veteran. "We're not afraid!"
"The Lincoln Battalion will never surrender!" another shouted, raising his rifle in defiance.
"Let us fight on, sir!"
"We're all ready to die for a free Spain!"
Suddenly a great tidal wave of pledges and pleas swept the camp. Wolff nearly collapsed from the force of the wave as its breakers lapped at his feet, swirled around his head, and crashed in his ears. From the rawest recruit to the most battle-hardened old hand, men swarmed the major with appeals for one more try on the battlefield. One last chance to prove that their dedication and passion for the cause could still carry the day for the Republic. If they went at the enemy one more time, perhaps they could still win. If they threw all they had into one last effort, with no holds barred, perhaps they could push back the rolling Nationalist tide about to sweep them all.
Milton Wolff, like so many officers who came before, knew what they were asking was far too much. To hear them beg and plead for another chance, to continue a fight that was already decided, was enough to make him weep. But he tried to hold his emotions in check and raised his hands in an order to cease.
"Please, boys!" he begged them, his voice breaking. "Don't make this harder for me! I will not lead you all into further pointless slaughter!"
That admission caused the rumble of petitions to subside. A heartbroken quiet prevailed, and Wolff's lips quivered at the sight of his brave soldiers. If only so many circumstances did not conspire against them. Perhaps in an alternate scenario, they were successful, and lauded as heroes. But reality was set in stone, and the clock could not be turned back.
"Soldiers, listen to me. These are my last orders to you before we return. When we leave here, walk with a spring in your step. When we march to the docks, do so with your heads held high. And when we board the ships, do it with pride."
The young major returned his pipe to his mouth and inhaled deeply. Smoke swirled around his head as he heaved a deep, heavy sigh. Such brave men, he thought. If only their potential was properly utilized. Perhaps this decision would never have come to pass.
"Be gracious in defeat, Lincolns, and honor the dead for their sacrifice. Go home with a clear conscience, for you did all you could. Even though we lost this fight, the world will remember us, and what we did here in Spain." Wolff closed his eyes and shuddered, as if holding back tears of his own. "Goodbye, my brave boys. May God bless you."
Wolff saluted his men before turning on his heel and continuing on through the camp. His hands were clasped behind his back, and his gaze pensively down at the pallid soil. No one could discern on what he brooded. The soldiers all looked on, still lost in the shock of their commander's final orders. When he disappeared, there was not a dry eye in that sad group.
Men who had suffered egregious wounds and witnessed horrors unparalleled were reduced to crying children. No one of any age was exempt from the sorrow that swept them all. The bright-eyed greenhorn and the greying veteran wept together, soaked in grief that their time fighting for Spain had come to a sudden end. And the war was not even over.
Jews from New York City embraced Hispanics from El Paso. Irishmen from Dublin and Cork mixed tears with negroes from Tupelo, Mississippi and Selma, Alabama. Factory workers from Michigan joined hands with lumberjacks from Oregon. All walks of life from all over America were one, and their tears mixed as one with the dry Spanish earth.
Peter McClellan, with a tear of his own standing in his eye, was lost in a thick forest of doubt and uncertainty. A part of him was relieved the end had come, and he had survived hell itself, yet another part of him wished that it had concluded differently. Not necessarily in victory, but just with his friends alive and intact. What would David say about all of this? What would Jacob think if he heard Major Wolff's final orders? How would Edith feel after learning the truth?
Sadly, those questions would never be answered. They were all gone and unaccounted for. But Peter had a life of his own waiting for him back in Galway. His father would surely be excited to see him. His friends and neighbors might throw him a party when he returns. But the party would be bittersweet, he sensed, for he returned not in triumph. Merely alive.
"So, Tommy," he managed, "looks like you were right, eh?"
When the Irishman looked upon his younger squad mate, he found Thomas…young, idealistic, foolish Thomas…sobbing his eyes out until they were bloodshot. His tears left small stains on the collar of his coat, and thin streaks of moisture on his sleeves. The boy almost shrank into his greatcoat, wondering just how it came to this. Where had they gone wrong?
Peter smiled regretfully and offered a hug to the recruit. Like a father comforting his son, he rubbed his grubby hand on the boy's cropped hair. Smooth and soft, still untouched by the horrors that wreaked havoc upon them all.
"Brace up, now, me bucko," he said, softly. "Remember what the Major said. We need to go home with our heads high. For the lads who can't raise their heads no more."
He looked up, seeing the fading light in the sky cast an eerily serene pink glow over the camp. The sun was setting on the International Brigades, and soon their time in Spain would be at an end. The dawn would only bring them a return to uncertain futures, and the continuance of a great civil war that ravaged a once great country.
Where was David beyond that dusky sky? Had he returned home, and safely avoided the madness of this war? Had he found the purpose for which he searched in Spain? Had he learned what truly was worth fighting for?
What of Edith? Did she return home to England, and reconcile with her parents? Had she run off with David, determined to forge a life of her own making?
Peter suspected he would never know for certain. He only prayed that they were alive, somewhere, and living quietly away from the horrors of this godforsaken world. They deserved that much, at least.
Silverbarrow, Texas, USA
The years following the conclusion of the Spanish Civil War were not ones of peace for the world. Indeed, the bloody war in Spain proved to be a herald of the devastation to come. David did not need to learn the news of a terrible world war wracking Europe from Edith's letters; it was all anyone on the radio, in the newsreels, and in the newspapers could talk about.
Weapons Germany supplied to the Nationalists in Spain proved deadly effective against the Polish, British and French armies. In battle after battle, the German war machine swept aside resistance as harmlessly as one would sweep dust with a broom. When reading of the news or seeing tanks rolling down the Champs-Elysees, David could not help but think back to the horrific times he served in Spain. Upon retrospect, they were fighting a losing battle against the Nationalists, if these were the weapons Germany had stockpiled for them.
Poland fell in just one month. Denmark in less than six hours. Luxembourg in a single day. The Netherlands in a week. Nothing and no one seemed able to stop the German juggernaut from steamrolling over Europe entirely.
When France fell in June, Germany's hungry eyes eventually looked to Britain, and almost immediately the country made preparations for a cross-channel invasion. Of course, to challenge the mighty Royal Navy was a near-impossible task, so Germany instead settled on bombing the country into submission. The move forced the British government to order mass evacuations of major urban centers in southern England, with London being the first and foremost among them.
While most civilians simply moved further north into the English and Scottish countryside, more enterprising (and wealthier) individuals chose instead to find refuge overseas. Some took to Canada, others to Australia, New Zealand, and even South Africa. But when David heard the news and received a letter from his beloved, he knew instantly where she would go. And he welcomed her with open arms.
The Silverbarrow railway station was rather modest, but for David and Cassie Hughes, sitting on a bench in the warm autumn air, it was a place to which they had not often ventured. The last time David ever set foot in this station was when he left for Spain, almost three years ago.
Since his return, he worked hard to earn back the respect of his parents and Cassie. His sister almost worked him like a mule on the ranch, to "make up for all the lost hours," in her words. The debt had since been paid, and life returned to normal, or as normal as it could be after a harrowing adventure in a foreign land. In-between working the fields and tending to cattle, David shared his letters to Edith with his family and told them the highs and lows of his time there.
Cassie, nervously kicking her feet as she looked down the tracks for signs of an oncoming train, sighed. The anticipation was enough to drive her mad.
"Davey, do you even know if she's comin'?"
"'Course I do," David rejoined. "I gots her letter right 'ere!" He waved a folded paper with handwritten prose in black ink in front of her. "She told me she'd be here this week." Cassie's azure eyes narrowed, skeptically.
"You sure she's not a communist or somethin'?" David scowled at her for even uttering such words.
"No way in hell, she ain't! She fought with me in the same battles, and we left when we saw what this war was really about. She came into the fight thinkin' like I did. When we learned it wasn't what we thought it was, we both got out."
David glanced at the tracks. The autumn sun gleamed on the rails, nearly blinding him. Much like how he was blind for the entire war. Until at last he opened his eyes.
"After Spain," he thought aloud, "I don't give a damn 'bout none 'a that."
"Even when a war's ragin'?" she countered. "You told me once that there'd come a day when Hitler would threaten everyone an' his brother."
"Yeah, I remember. But he ain't threatenin' us yet. Until that day comes, I'm content to just be as I was, before all this." Cassie nodded, thoughtfully.
"Sounds 'bout right. Y'know, for bein' a big brother, you sure grew up plenty." David laughed and stroked his sister's tresses.
"Don't sell yerself short, Cassie! You grown up some, too! Now that you got yerself a boyfriend in that kid from Corpus Christi!"
At that subtle jab, Cassie turned away, her face redder than the plains at sunset. She knew exactly who he was referring to: a sweet-faced boy and the newest addition in her high school. While they were not anywhere near where David and Edith were, he made it a point to tease her about it whenever he could.
"H-He ain't my boyfriend!" she spluttered. "We just have the same classes!"
"Sure," he said sarcastically, "says the lady that invited him over to the ranch a few weeks ago."
"Mind yer damn business!" she shot back, her azure eyes afire. "We just were workin' on algebra together!"
"…in the barn. Workin' on algebra in the barn. Yeah, I believe that."
Cassie turned away from him in a huff, and found her gaze once again out east, looking for any sign of an approaching train. David's laughter subsided, and both were left quiet again. His joking aside, neither could deny both had changed a great deal since David returned from Spain.
His sister's earthen brown hair splayed out over the back of the bench, as she contemplated over all the trials their family had been through. When David arrived home, and when he thought for sure he was to get a lashing from his parents, they instead embraced him as tightly and as lovingly as any other day. The prodigal son had returned, wiser and more settled than he had been when he left. And since the day of his return, he never strayed far away from Silverbarrow or from the ranch.
Cassie, while feeling vindicated that her brother learned the hard way that she was right, still felt some envy for him. He went abroad and saw a part of the world she likely never would. He met people she could only dream of meeting. But what he went in search for and what he found were completely different.
"Say, Davey…" she asked, quietly.
"I wants to know somethin'. You never really talk about it much, but…was it worth it? What you did in Spain?"
"Huh? Where's this comin' from?"
"I mean, we got a girl you met in Spain comin' to stay with us a spell, but other than that, you never really say if you got much out of it. Was it worth it, Dave?"
David hunched forward, pondering over the question he asked himself many times. Apart from meeting and falling in love with that British lady fair, it was hard to say if he really got much of anything out of it. He readily admitted upon returning home that his stunt in Spain was one long ghastly mistake, one that he hoped he would never repeat. But even in the long, ghastly mistake, he came out of it knowing what meant the most to him. Not some intangible cause. Not some political movement. Something personal, and closer.
"Well," he said at last, "yes an' no. You were right that the war wasn't what I thought it was, and I was in over my head. But I did find what I was lookin' for."
"What was that?"
"I was lookin' for somethin' meaningful in my life. Y'see, lil' sis, 'fore I went off to Spain, I was really strugglin' here. I thought that my whole life would just be me, you, Silverbarrow, an' the ranch. I was lookin' for something more than just goin' through life's paces. I thought I could be somethin' more than just a rancher from Texas in Spain." He gazed along the tracks, following the parallel rails off into the dusty horizon. "But I learned the hard way that I don't needs to be a hero or fight a war to get some meanin' in my life. Sometimes, meanin' comes from somethin' simpler. Like a pretty girl."
He stroked her soft brown hair again. Her light blue eyes reminded him so much of the Spanish sky in the spring. What on earth had happened to all his comrades since then?
"Or a little sibling to look after." Cassie smiled at that.
"I think I understand a little, Davey. I just wish you didn't hafta go gallivantin' halfway 'round the world to do all 'a that."
"Yeah, I know. I went through a lot that I prolly shouldn't've. But I still got somethin' outta all 'a it. Even if my side didn't win, that's all I needed."
Cassie nodded. Even in defeat, there was victory. Even in hardship, there was triumph. She probably had a similar journey of her own ahead of her. She just prayed that she would not have to do what David did to find the same answer. God help her, and their family if it ever came to that.
Off in the distance, a steam locomotive's whistle blew a mournful call. The clanging of a bell heralded the train's arrival, and with it, the arrival of a long-lost love. David and Cassie stood up, and walked to the edge of the platform, watching as the locomotive's face came more sharply into focus.
A large, black plume of smoke formed a trail in the autumn skies as the train decelerated. David searched the windows of the passenger cars hoping to find a familiar face. He searched for those long, blonde tresses, those deep blue eyes, that lily white skin. Perhaps Edith's calculations were off? Perhaps her train was not yet due, and they still had time to wait?
When the train eased to a stop, and steam escaped from the chests of the locomotive, the two siblings traversed up and down the platform in search of that face. Neither spoke a word, as if in fear of what would come if they uttered her name.
Then, like a fire bell in the night, a soft, regal British voice called out,
The Texan rancher turned and found his love. His former comrade. The one person that gave him direction in a seemingly pointless war.
She had changed very little in three years. Her mane of golden hair had been trimmed back to just below her shoulders, still wavy like tides rolling in from the Gulf of Mexico. Her skin had not tanned one shade, almost flashing in the harsh sunlight like a bright diamond. Even her bright blue dress had not been sullied with age.
Without another word, David Hughes rushed to embrace the girl. Edith Branson was caught almost off guard when she found her old beau and had not a word to say before she was in his arms. The musty smell of the ranch was a comfort to her, and the roughness of his hands provided a soothing balm. Finally. After three years of waiting and writing. After years spent in silent wonder if they would ever see each other again. It was no dream. It was real.
"Welcome to Texas, darlin'," he whispered.
They broke apart and Cassie stepped forward, eyeing her with suspicion in her eyes. Edith felt her gaze and smiled kindly.
"You must be Cassie," she greeted. "It's a pleasure to meet you." Cassie simply snorted and looked away from Edith's kind eyes.
"Yeah, whatever. You just better not cause trouble for us." David scowled at her jab.
"Cassie, that ain't no way to greet someone!"
Edith simply chuckled in a lighthearted tone. She saw a little of herself in the girl in that moment.
"I would not dream of it, Cassie. I am your humble guest." Cassie's expression softened, appearing contrite. "David has told me a lot about you in his letters to me. He said you have a boyfriend now."
At that, Cassie's face turned redder than a hot pepper and a quick glance at her brother saw he was close to cracking up. What was he thinking sharing such personal information?!
Cassie moved to throttle her older brother, who was now doubled over in laughter. How could he so easily embarrass her in front of a total stranger? Edith stopped her short of throwing a weak punch at her brother's chest.
"Come now, it's nothing to be embarrassed about, Cassie. In fact, I'd be willing to help you with your boyfriend…if you'll let me." The girl looked away, a lock of her brown hair concealing her eyes.
"I'll think about that…"
"Sure," David said, "but that'll have to wait 'til later. We better head on home, ladies."
Cassie sighed and acquiesced, walking out of the train station together with their new guest. She could not take her eyes off her, however, watching as the two laughed and conversed through the halls of the station and out the front door. Edith's eyes seemed glued to David as they moved out from the station and into Silverbarrow itself. Seeing her so affixed to her brother, Cassie wondered just how deeply they had bonded in Spain. She would have to ask Edith about her time there. Maybe there was a benefit to having someone like that in her life, too, she thought.
"Say, Edie," David asked, "do you like steak at all?"
"I've had it occasionally. Why?"
"Then you gotta try my ma's ribeye. It's the best damn steak this side a' the Rio Grande!" At that declaration, Cassie nodded, excitedly.
"You really oughta, Miss Branson. I can swear you won't regret it. Ma's one 'a the best cooks in all 'a Texas." Edith laughed.
"I'd be happy to have it. And please, Cassie: call me Edith."
Cassie smiled, and nodded. She could like this British girl, she thought.
The trio walked through town together towards the western edge, where a modest ranch on the rolling plains sat in quiet repose. A family waited for them there, beneath the setting sun and under the crimson skies. There, not on a dusty battlefield in Spain, they would make their futures.
Jacob Carter (1919-1937)
David's best friend and commanding officer in the Lincoln Battalion was court-martialed for his actions at Belchite and found guilty of insubordination. According to eyewitnesses, he was last seen being escorted to a firing squad in October 1937. His last resting place is unknown.
Peter McClellan (1914-1945)
Peter survived the civil war and returned home to Galway following the disbandment of the International Brigades. Like other Irishmen who served, he received no recognition for his time in the Connolly Column, and often was treated as a pariah by his fellow countrymen. When World War II began, Ireland declared a policy of neutrality, but Peter again was moved to fight and allowed to join the British Army. He served with honor and distinction, rising to the rank of sergeant major before being killed in action in Italy, just days before the war ended.
Sophia Vasquez (1916-1942)
Sophia stayed on with the British Battalion as a translator until the disbandment of the International Brigades in 1938. Afterwards, she was transferred to another Republican Army unit. She fought until the closing days of the civil war, still fervently believing in an eventual victory over the Nationalists. After the collapse of the Republic, she along with other former soldiers fled to France, hoping to form a government-in-exile.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Sophia joined a French resistance cell in southern France. She was killed in action during a raid to free French partisans in Marseilles in 1942.
Hans Amlie (1898-1949)
After suffering head wounds at Belchite, Hans Amlie was relieved as battalion commander and returned to America in January 1938. World War II passed him by, preferring instead to lead a civilian life. He died in a farming accident in Somerton, Arizona at the age of 50.
Robert Hale Merriman (1908-1938)
The Berkeley economics professor continued to serve as chief of staff of the XV International Brigade, often joining his old Lincoln Battalion on the frontlines. On April 2nd, 1938, near the town of Gandesa in Aragón, Robert Merriman was captured by Nationalist troops while covering the Brigade's retreat. He was executed that night.
Vladimir Ćopić (1891-1939)
Ćopić would recover from his wounds at Belchite and return to the frontlines. He continued to lead the XV Brigade in subsequent battles at Teruel, the Aragón Offensive and the Ebro River. When it became clear the Republican cause was lost, the Yugoslav officer was recalled to the Soviet Union shortly after the disbandment of the International Brigades. He was executed in 1939, one of the many victims of Stalin's purges.
Edith Hughes (née Branson) (1919-2017)
Edith returned home to London to make peace with her family and religiously wrote to David until World War II. Her original fiancé enlisted in the British Army after war was declared and broke off their engagement. Fearing for her safety, she evacuated overseas to America shortly after the start of the London Blitz, where she reunited with David. They were wed in 1942 and had three children.
Because of her desertion from the British Battalion, she was often excluded from veterans' reunions and events. Like David, her experiences in Spain made her shed any ideological stripes she ever had, and she never joined in any of the veterans' socio-political causes. She maintained her time in Spain as well-spent, however, as it led her to the love of her life.
Edith died on the Hughes family ranch in 2017 at the age 98, as one of the last veterans of the British Battalion. She is currently buried in Silverbarrow, Texas, beside her husband. She is survived by one granddaughter who currently resides on the ranch.
David Hughes (1918-2015)
The days following David Hughes' adventure in Spain passed without triumph. He returned to his hometown of Silverbarrow after deserting the Lincoln Battalion, and resumed his work on the family ranch. When World War II broke out, he attempted to enlist in the armed forces, but was denied entry out of fear of communist influence in the military.
Despite his involvement in the Spanish Civil War, he was apolitical and led a quiet, reclusive life. The organization Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB) ostracized and excluded him from veterans' events due to his desertion, with some even trying to smear him as a Nazi sympathizer. While he viewed his involvement in the war as a mistake, David never regretted meeting Edith.
David Hughes died in 2015 from natural causes and was buried in a modest grave in the town he left to seek a greater purpose in life. He was 96 years old.
He was one of the last surviving veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion.
The International Brigades, including the Americans of the Lincoln Battalion, continued fighting in the Spanish Civil War until September 1938. By that time, there were over 10,000 foreign volunteers still fighting for the Spanish Republic. They were withdrawn in a hope to force the Nationalist coalition to withdraw their foreign fighters, and to persuade the Western democracies to end their arms embargo against the Republic. The move accomplished neither.
The war continued until late March 1939, when Madrid fell to Nationalist forces. Francisco Franco declared an end to hostilities on April 1st.
The Second World War began five months later.
Franco would rule Spain until his death in 1975, after which the monarchy was reestablished, and the country transitioned to democracy.
Exact casualty figures remain a source of contention, but it is estimated that at least 500,000 people died in the Spanish Civil War, including 29,000 soldiers of the International Brigades.
More than 3,000 Americans fought in the Spanish Civil War. Almost one third of them never returned home.
A/N: And so it ends. It is not a triumphant end, obviously, but David and Edith's fates were quite frankly the best they could have hoped for. The postwar lives for many veterans of the International Brigades were bittersweet, as they often were denied employment, denied enlistment during World War II and even blacklisted by their native countries' governments. Simply because they took a stand for ideals they believed to be their own.
I will be honest: this story was rather difficult to write, namely from a lack of sources that could provide in-depth information about life on the frontlines for the average Republican soldier. Some battles had almost no information written about them, which forced both me and my coauthor Mark to improvise. In that respect, however, I think we did okay in portraying the war in all its brutality and moral ambiguity.
However, as with American Now Departed, I cannot take all the credit for writing this. Firstly, big thanks go to Mark Hawkens for collaborating and writing out certain parts of this story. He approached me with the offer to help, and I doubt seriously that this story would have turned out the same without him. I also owe thanks to user Kahoruko711 for her constant input and her efforts to help edit this story and make it read better. You are a friend that I will never deserve, and neither I nor Mark could have done this without you.
So what's next after this? Well, much like after American Now Departed, I don't think I will be writing another war story anytime soon. When you spend much of your time writing about combat and death, it wears you out and you develop "battle fatigue." Additionally, I will start work in autumn, and I do not want to be distracted with any writing projects on here. I will need the time to get settled into my work routine before thinking about starting again. Unfortunately, I cannot tell for certain when that will be, as it could be quite some time.
At the present time, the most I will be doing is helping a couple friends with their projects, namely user planxtafroggie with his story A Castle in Newport, and user Kahoruko711 with her story Slayer Edge, among others.
Regardless of how long I am gone, I will be sure to come back with something that will wow everyone. I just need to find out what that story will be, whether it is another historical wartime romance, or something else entirely.
Thank you all again so much for your continuous reading and your feedback. I really appreciate it.
Until we meet again,