The last rumbling explosion echoed back the hills, and the stars shown out in the blue evening as the sun hid its face behind distant clouds; horses and men screamed and coughed in the busy night, and the air was alive with flitting sparks like the souls of dying soldiers wandering aimlessly for their lines of battle. The general was tight-lipped and stone faced as he made his way back to his tent, head still high and stride long as he made his way past dim silhouettes lit by campfires, who stood and watched him pass.
His orderly – an old black man – stood up to take the general’s jacket, and hung it as the general sat down, and turned to remove the officer’s muddy boots. The general gave terse thanks, and wished his orderly good night. The old black man waited a moment, staring at him, but the general’s face was cast down at the table and the map of the battle, and would not meet his eyes. So the orderly bowed from the neck, and took himself out of the tent to see to the general’s boots and his own supper.
The first fat tear fell as the general hung his head on his chest, tracing a salty line down from the corner of his left eye. Those first few minutes of weeping was a quiet affair, water trickling down from tired eyes, the general’s chest rising and falling regularly, but in time a flush came to his cheeks and forehead, the pace of breathing quickened, and one hand pawed and pressed idly at his chest as if seeking something. Outside, perhaps twenty feet away, a man picked at a fiddle, some low and sober Scottish dirge that fit the mood of the night, and twenty feet farther than that men bit back screams as knife and tar went to work widening mangled wounds and sealing off stumps of limbs.
Now the general wept for real, half-vocal whines and sobs escaping his clenched teeth, and he seemed almost to collapse in on himself, to cease to breathe for a minute or so at a time before sucking in a tortured breath. Dusty fists screwed into his sockets, and his feet and legs curled up on the chair, so that he was no more sitting in it, but half-folded in upon himself between chair and table. The fit lasted, perhaps, half an hour before the general sniffled and tried to wipe the tears away. His breath, ragged at first, became more regular now, and though tears still flowed and great veins stood out on his temples, and from time to time he pressed against his chest where his heart beat, there was no more sobbing.
From a small burlap-covered chest he fetched a brown leather Psalter and a bottle of white corn liquor.
The next morning, the general rose well before the dawn, woken by his orderly, and met with his officers to plan the day’s attack.