I wrote this a few years ago, but I feel that at this time it is still relevant. Not Western, but many ranch hands, farmers and small town men answered their country’s call to arms in WW1.
THE FINAL ROLL CALL
The young captain waited silently by the war memorial erected for ones such as he. He belonged to the ghostly columns of a long dead army, who had passed this way before.
The captain was one of the glorious dead. He had once been a mother’s laughing boy, strong in limb and bold in spirit. He had survived a mad dash across no-man’s land only to be felled when a sniper’s bullet pierced his heart.
In the shadows behind him, the others waited for the last member of the battalion to arrive, so the roll call would be complete.
The distant sounds of bagpipes wafted on the air. Giant oaks and poplars guarded this sacred place. People had gathered, not huge crowds of long ago but quite a few still.
The ranks of marches grew thinner year by year, as old warriors joined the ghostly ranks of their long dead comrades.
This was the final pilgrimage, and the captain knew the battalion would not need to muster here again. Over eighty years it had taken for the final name on the roll to be called.
The soldiers watching from the shadows were young and fine, the weight of years that had burdened some of them was lifted, as were the hard times of struggling to rebuild a life after war, when people didn’t understand.
There was no sadness in these ranks, because over the years mothers, wives and sweethearts had passed on and joined their youthful dashing loved ones. The bloody carnage on the Western front, where the battalion had been decimated, the mud and horrors of winter on the Somme were shrouded by the mists of time. Limbs torn off, chest and stomachs blown open. Some died quickly, others lingered, calling out to their mothers from no-man’s land, some returned home and became fathers, who in turn gave their sons to yet another war. There were those too who attained fame and riches before they joined their comrades in the battalion
A snaking column finally came into view led by mounted infantry. The sun slid out from behind banked up clouds to glisten on campaign medals and to warm the cold limbs of stiff old men. Banners and flags danced and fluttered on the wind, and it took all the strength of the bearers to hold them in place.
Behind the battalion’s colours the lone survivor marched.
In the flower of his youth Jim Stanton had been tall and lithe as a sapling, and the khaki uniform had suited his reckless good looks. The poppy strewn fields of France had almost delivered him into the ghostly arms of his waiting comrades, but the time had not yet come for him to re-join the battalion.
He returned home, one of the conquering heroes, married and had three sons. His eldest boy’s burning plane had plunged into the sea, in a later war that never should have been. Had not the generation watching from the shadows fought a war to end all ways?
Some had never known a woman’s love or sired children, Even though they were in the prime of their young manhood, they had never reached their full potential because they had bought freedom with their blood.
The last survivor marched slowly with labouring breath and unsteady gait. He was hunched over, frail and ravaged by age, and even as the spectators clapped him they would have wondered why such an old man would bother marching, when he could have watched it on television in the comfort of his home.
The eternally young of the ghostly battalion waited for the captain to bring their comrade back into the ranks once more.
Old Jim’s breath rasped from his worn out lungs, pain knifed into his chest and his shoulders ached with the strain of struggling to straighten them.
“Oh, tottery legs don’t let me down now,” he pleaded. “Let’s do a deal. If you get me to the lawn area I won’t ask you to take me up the steps into the shrine forecourt. Heart keep pumping the life blood through my veins for a little longer.”
The family reckoned he was too old, but he had shown them. He almost chuckled but it took all his strength to continue breathing.
Why couldn’t they understand what had driven him. Now Les and Harold were gone, he was the last one left to represent the battalion. At re-unions and marches over the years, the numbers had dwindled until now, there was only him.
He shook his head slightly to clear it of the ringing noises so he could hear the band again. They gave him the strength to struggle onward. Not much further now. Victory was close at hand.
He suddenly pictured all those laughing, carefree boys who had given up their youth. Even as the old man stumbled, the young captain came forward and reached out a hand to guide this old warrior to where his comrades were waiting.
A golden haired youth, on a dazzling white steed, sounded the Last Post, and to the sound of muffled drumbeats the battalion marched away.
As well as writing Westerns, Margaret writes historical romantic fiction. Several of her stories are set against the background of WW1.
When Harriet Martin masquerades as a boy to help her shell-shocked brother, falling in love with her boss wasn’t part of the plan.
On the French battlefields, a dying soldier’s confession has the power to ruin the girl he loves.
Three soldiers stole Lauren’s love, only one will keep it.
A Rose In No-Man’s Land
An army nurse and an English Captain find love on the French battlefields. Will he marry her and risk the gallows for a murder he did not commit?