Four Months Later
The fireplace flickered its last bit of warmth before it burned out. Fran was sound asleep, her phone in her hand. She waited on a phone call from the war zone. Charlie had called her hours before their most dangerous mission yet, and he promised to call her when they’d finished their mission. A dream startled her awake, and she looked around the room wide-eyed. Her heart pounded.
I wish he would call me, she thought. Since his injury, his missions were stressful for her. Fran looked at her watch. She knew she should sleep, but doubted it would come. The time was 4:52 am.
Fran got up and walked to the kitchen to heat water for tea. Outside, a dusting of snow sat on the ground, her plants frostbitten and dead from the cold. The sunroom door needed weatherproofing—a chilly draft made the kitchen cold. With winter upon Appaloosa Plains, it was a priority, but her barter goods were insufficient, and money was tight. With all that needed repairing around the house, she was sorry Marne hadn’t become pregnant in the summer. She could have used the help with feed and straw for her over the colder months.
The tea kettle whistled, and she turned the gas off. Fran plopped a chamomile bag into the boiling water, stirred honey into it, and went back to sit. In her warmest clothing, she was cold. It was too early to fetch more firewood. So she sat in Charlie’s recliner and rested, a blanket wrapped around her.
Fran picked up the teacup and breathed in the minty vapor of the chamomile. It was her favorite tea, and it was enjoyable with fresh honey. She sipped on the hot beverage and sighed—another sleepless night.
An hour later, the phone rang with Charlie’s ID on the phone’s display. Finally!
“Hi, love,” his cheerful voice answered. “We’re safe.”
“It’s so good to hear your voice. And I’m happy you’re okay.” She tried not to yawn in his ear.
“Haven’t you slept? You’re still awake?”
“Mmhmm. I made some tea about an hour ago, took one sip, and fell asleep, I guess, because it’s ice cold.”
“Well, get some rest now, honey. We are all okay.”
“Is there any chance of you coming home for our anniversary? I don’t want to spend it alone.” This year would be their tenth anniversary.
“No, baby, there’s no leave. I miss you.”
“It’s hard being here without you. It’s just Marne and me. No foal, either. She’s not expecting.” She was cold and on the verge of shivering.
“Oh, sweetie, I’m sorry. I know you were hoping for a foal in the spring.” A delicate sneeze came from Fran’s end of the phone. “Are you getting sick, Frannie?”
“I might be. It’s pretty chilly in the house. I can’t seem to warm up.” She sniffled and tried not to sneeze again.
“Why is it so cold? Doesn’t the furnace work?”
“It does, but the doors are drafty. I don’t want to waste the heat. I need to insulate the sunroom door. The weather-stripping needs replacing.”
“Why don’t you do it, honey? There’s no good reason for you to be cold.”
She sighed. She knew Charlie would worry if he knew the truth, and she tried to keep it from him. “I’ve got little to trade anymore. Without Missy and Moo, I don’t have the resources we used to have from them.”
“What about paying for it with cash?”
“I don’t have it. When Marne didn’t turn up pregnant, I had to order her feed and bedding for the winter months and finance it myself. I spent every penny I made at the market.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “And then more on top.”
“I don’t understand, Frannie. What about my pay?”
“I haven’t seen a dime since you left. Money is very tight. My firewood won’t last the winter.”
“This is ridiculous!” Charlie was fuming. Being apart was tough. But that she was struggling was intolerable. “I will look into this for you.”
“It’s okay. We’ve made it through leaner winters than this,” Fran said.
“No, it’s not okay, love. You shouldn’t be struggling to survive because I’m away. I will inquire and call you back soon. But I have to go now, sweetie. I love you.” He blew a kiss to her.
“I love you, Charlie,” she replied.
When they hung up the phone, Charlie went to his commanding officer and asked to speak with him.
“What’s on your mind, Farmer?” he asked.
“Sir, my wife back home is starving. Why is she not getting my salary while I’m away?” Charlie was livid.
“I don’t know.” He jotted a phone number for Charlie to call. “Check with them. They can find out.”
“Thank you, Sir.” Charlie took the slip of paper and left the tent. He was on his way back to his tent when sirens sounded. Everyone scrambled for the bunkers on base. They had done the drills—this time it was the real thing. Airplanes flew overhead and fired on the small outpost where the unit lived. Charlie ran and barely made it inside before the gunfire rained down upon them. But to his horror, only five others were in the bunker with him.
“Where is everyone?” he shouted, panic in his voice. But no one had an answer. “I’m going back up!” he announced, but a younger man stopped him.
“No, Captain. You have a wife at home that needs you. I’m going.” Before Charlie protested, the young man opened the hatch. A bullet struck and killed him on the spot. His body slumped into Charlie’s arms.
“NO!” Charlie yelled and cradled the soldier. “No…” He fell to the floor and cried, the boy in his arms. “It should have been me,” Charlie wept. “It should have been me…”
Fran’s phone rang again after she had hung up with Charlie, his number on the ID. An uneasy feeling washed over her as she picked it up and answered it.
There was terror in Charlie’s voice, the sounds of chaos in the background. “Frannie, listen to me. Our outpost is under attack. I am one of five I am certain survived. I don’t know about the others. Please, baby, please pray harder than you ever have.”
Fran tried to scream but couldn’t draw a breath. “Charlie…” she whispered and gasped for air as fear gripped her.
“I’ll call you as soon as I can, Frannie. I love you with all I am.”
“I love you, Charlie…” She barely got the words from her lips before the line went dead.
Fran called her mother-in-law. Her hands shook as she dialed the familiar number.
“Hello? Fran, is everything okay?”
“Charlie just called. His base is under attack. He is okay, but I don’t know how it will end…” Fran choked on a sob. “Pray for him, please.”
Dolly almost dropped the phone. “Honey, you shouldn’t be alone. Come to our home—”
“I need to be here. Spread the word and pray for them.” Fran lost her cool and collapsed on the floor, consumed by her fear. “I have to go…” she told Dolly and hung up the phone.
Word spread around the town and through Fran’s circle of friends. Within minutes of her phone call to Dolly, Sunny was at the front door of the farmhouse.
“Fran?” she called from outside. “Fran, open up.” She picked herself up from the floor and stumbled to the door. When she saw her friend, she burst into tears. Sunny wrapped Fran in a solid embrace, let her cry, and whispered words of comfort to her.
A few minutes later, when Fran could collect herself, she invited Sunny inside to sit. “I need to go grab some firewood,” she said, but Sunny stopped her.
“I’ll go get it, Frannie. You just sit.” Sunny picked up the wood tote and slung it over her shoulder. She returned with a good stack of firewood, but she wore a concerned look. “Is that all the wood you have?”
Fran nodded. “I’m struggling, Sun. I’m in denial to think I’m this bad off, but I can’t afford to deny it much longer, or I’ll starve to death.” She had already lost ten pounds she couldn’t afford to lose.
Sunny took out her phone and jotted a note on it. “Why is it so cold in here?” The chill went through all her layers of clothing right to her skin.
“There’s no weather-stripping in the sunroom. I know I need to have it fixed, but I don’t know how I’ll pay for it.” Fran arranged the wood in the hearth, wadded up newspaper beneath some kindling, and started the fire that would warm the ground floor of the house. “Not having Charlie’s pay has been difficult. And oh boy, was he mad when he dragged it out of me, too.”
“I hope not at you, sweetie. It’s not your fault.” Sunny rubbed her hands together and blew into them. “Do you mind if I start the teakettle, Fran? I’m freezing.”
“Not at all. The fire will roar soon, and we can sit by the fireplace. I need to wait for his call.” I hope he calls me, she thought.
Sunny and Fran sat and talked for an hour, but Fran was fighting to stay awake. “I hope you don’t think I’m rude, but I can’t keep my eyes open. I was awake all night, waiting…”
“What can I do to help you?” Sunny asked. “Can I feed Marne for you, or collect eggs from the coops before I go?”
Fran smiled. “I’d love it if you’d gather eggs for me. And please take them home with you. I have plenty—”
“No, I’m not taking food from you.” Sunny noticed how thin Fran had gotten. “Please take care of yourself, if not for you, then for Charlie. He will need you when he comes home.”
Fran nodded. “Thank you. I will do better. Please let Dolly know I’m okay?”
Sunny sighed. Fran wasn’t okay, and she wasn’t keen on lying. “I’ll tell her, Frannie. I’ll be by later to check on you and call me when you hear from Charlie.”
Fran tamped the fire out and wrapped her sweater around her shoulders. “I will.” She thanked her friend and watched her walk to the yard to feed the chickens. Sunny would leave the eggs in the garage refrigerator for now.
Fran climbed the steps with tired, heavy legs and somehow made it to bed before she fell asleep.
Hours had passed. Charlie still clung to the young man who had sacrificed his life. The quiet outside was eerie, but no one was brave enough to open the hatch to peer outside. One private under Charlie’s direct command tapped him on the shoulder.
“Captain? Are you okay, sir?”
He shook his head. “Not really.” He set the body down—before he got up, he took the tag from his neck chain. “I guess I have a phone call to make.”
He stopped and listened for any sign of life outside the bunker. When he cracked the door open to look, the scene above ground was utter devastation. The attack destroyed the outpost, and he doubted anyone who had stayed above had survived. Just sounds of nature—the occasional cicada and a wolf baying in the distance.
He opened the hatch and peered out. His rifle in his hand, Charlie scanned the camp for hostiles. But nothing stirred. He opened the door and emerged from the bunker. The attack destroyed all living quarters—not one tent remained intact. Charlie walked to his CO’s tent to find him lying dead just feet from the tent door. One by one, he searched the bunkers but only found two more survivors. Out of a unit of seventy-five men, only seven survived. Charlie was now the highest-ranking soldier.
He walked to his tent and dug through the wreckage. The only item that survived was his prayer book with their wedding photo inside. He clutched the book to his chest; his eyes looked to the heavens. Charlie fell to his knees with tears in his eyes, and he prayed.
The survivors had nowhere safe to sleep, so they planned on staying in the bunker until help could arrive. They salvaged what little food they could from the mess tent and brought it with them. Charlie remembered his phone call to Fran and knew it worried her sick. He dialed her number on his cell phone. But the line was dead.
“Dammit!” he exclaimed. “The attack must have taken out communications.” It posed another problem. No communication meant they had no backup. They had no way to convey a message that the attack had compromised them. They would need to wait for a reconnaissance mission to find them. But Charlie worried about Fran.
Halfway through the night, Charlie heard voices shouting outside the bunker. As the Captain, he listened for the safe word at the hatch. When Charlie heard it, he opened the door with his hands up. “Captain Charles Farmer,” he said. “Identify yourself.”
“Major Boyd Sturm, Air Force. Are you the only survivor, Captain?”
“No, sir, there are six others in the bunker. But I am the highest-ranking survivor. The others are privates.”
“There are only seven of you alive? How many men in this unit, Captain?”
“We were seventy-five strong, sir.”
Major Sturm signaled for the transport to approach. “We’ll retrieve the dead in the morning. Why didn’t you radio for help?”
“They took our communications out, even the cell tower. We had no way to contact anyone. My wife is waiting on my phone call, and I would imagine she has given up on me by now.”
“When we get back to our outpost, you can contact loved ones.”
The evacuation took minutes—the seven survivors were on their way to safety.
Fran’s phone rang early the next morning. It was not Charlie, but Sunny Bradford. She almost didn’t answer it, but she reached for the phone, anyway. Her voice was tired, and she felt awful. She hadn’t slept well, nor had she eaten anything since Charlie had called the previous morning.
Fran sighed. “Yes. Hi Sunny.”
“Have you heard from Charlie? I’ve been worried.”
“No, not a peep. I’ve resigned myself to being a widow, though I can’t guess why I have heard nothing from the Army.” Fran sniffled and wiped tears from her eyes.
“Well, maybe no news is good news. Why don’t I pick you up and we’ll go to breakfast together, my treat? You shouldn’t be alone.”
She was going to decline, but Sunny seldom accepted no for an answer. “I need to shower first. Give me about half an hour?”
Sunny smiled. “I can do that. Caleb is home with the kids, so I have some uncharacteristic time for myself. I want to spend it with you.”
For the first time since Charlie’s frantic call the previous morning, Fran smiled. “I’m touched.”
“Well, go get ready, and I’ll let myself in.”
Fran was in the shower upstairs when Sunny opened her front door with the key Charlie had given her. She tiptoed into the kitchen and unpacked two bags of groceries into the refrigerator and pantry, folded the bags, and placed them into her purse. “Fran,” she called up the stairs, “I’m here.”
“Oh, hi, Sunny. I’ll be ready in a few minutes.” Fran dried her hair. She dressed in a warm sweater, her jeans, and cowboy boots.
Five minutes later, she descended the stairs. “I have my cell with me, just in case. I’m ready.”
“Let’s go,” Sunny replied. “I just need to tell Caleb something I forgot about the kids.” She typed a message to her husband and placed the phone in her bag.
After Sunny’s car drove away from the Farmer house, Caleb and a co-worker pulled up to the house and parked in the driveway. Two cords of wood and weatherproofing materials sat in his truck. Another truck held a group of friends who would complete the work. Sunny arranged it all, and Caleb paid for it, the labor donated by the men who would finish the job. Everyone in town adored Fran. No one wanted to see her fail while Charlie served overseas.
A nightmare awakened Charlie, the events of the previous day replayed in his head. Sweat beaded on his forehead, his heart pounded as he sat up. The sun was up, and the outpost bustled with familiar sounds. He got up and dressed. The CO was in his tent, and Charlie approached the door to announce himself.
“Come in, Farmer,” he summoned Charlie inside. Charlie stepped in and stood at attention. “At ease, Captain. What can I do for you?”
“Sir, I’m curious. What happens to the survivors of my unit? Will a different unit take us?”
The commanding officer sat back in his chair. “You boys have seen enough action this deployment, Captain. Though I’m waiting on confirmation, I believe the seven of you will return to Appaloosa Plans within the month.”
“Sir, with all due respect, I will serve out my time. Just tell me where to go—”
The CO shook his head. “It’s not my decision, Farmer. That comes from the top.” He walked to Charlie and held out his hand. “I know you’re holding the tag of the private who took a bullet for you. Let me make that call. Just call your family and let them know you’re okay.”
Charlie tried to remain stoic, but a lump formed in his throat. “Thank you, sir.” He took the tag from his pocket and placed it into the CO’s hand. “Please, let his family know he died a hero.”
“You’re all heroes, Farmer. Dismissed.” Charlie turned and left the tent. Once he stepped outside, he wiped a single tear from his eyes.
He walked back to the tent they assigned to him and took his prayer book from under his pillow. Still tucked inside was their wedding photo. He took it out and looked at it, traced Fran’s image on the paper, and wept. He nearly made her a widow, and he considered not re-signing when his time was up.
Charlie took his phone from his pocket and dialed her number. It rang until voicemail answered it. Rather than hang up, he waited to leave a message:
Frannie, my love, I’m sorry I didn’t call yesterday, as I promised. I will explain when I talk to you later. There is some news which I’ll tell you when we speak. I’m secure, and I will call you then. Oh, how I love you, my darling.
His time was free, so he laid down to rest, waiting to call his love.
Fran didn’t see the missed call on her phone until she and Sunny had left the diner after breakfast. But she listened to the message with tears in her eyes. She clutched the phone to her chest and sighed relief.
“He is safe!”
“That is awesome news,” Sunny replied and hugged her friend. She realized Caleb and the guys needed a little more time to finish, so she flooded the engine of her car. “I can’t get this thing to start,” she feigned frustration. “Let me call Caleb.”
“Hello?” he answered.
“Caleb, I can’t start my car,” Sunny said.
“We need twenty more minutes,” he replied. “I’ll be there.”
“Thanks, love,” she said and hung up the phone. “Twenty to twenty-five minutes, Fran. Do you need to be somewhere today?”
“No, just back home for Marne.” They walked back into the diner and waited for Caleb.
Half an hour later, Caleb appeared in his old pickup truck. He got out and tipped his hat to Fran. “How’s Charlie? Have you heard from him?”
Fran nodded her head. “He’s safe. I don’t know more than that, but he said he would call tonight.”
“Good to hear,” Caleb replied. “What did you do, Sunny?” he pretended to scold her. “I told you when the engine floods to hold down the gas pedal.”
She smiled and winked at her husband. “You’re right, Caleb. I’m sorry I made you come all this way when I know you’re busy at home.” She hugged him and gave him a peck on the cheek. “I’ll see you when I get back.”
“Well, alright,” he nodded. “Please tell Charlie he’s in our prayers, Frannie.” Caleb tipped his hat again and climbed into the cab of his truck. Fran nodded and waved as he drove away.
Sunny started the car with ease and blushed at Fran. “I guess we’re ready. Are you ready?”
“Yes, and thank you for this distraction, Sunny. I needed the time away. Someday, it will be my treat.” Fran sat beside Sunny in the front seat of the car and fastened the belt.
“You’re welcome,” she replied. Sunny couldn’t wait for Fran to see the work Caleb and his friends had done in her home, and the pile of firewood stacked by the barn.
Fran opened the front door, Sunny right behind her. The first thing she noticed was a blast of warm air. Caleb had stacked firewood inside the house by the fireplace. Fran looked around in amazement. “What’s going on?”
“Caleb and his co-workers came and weather-stripped all your doors and windows, and we had two cords of wood stacked outside for you, to carry you through the winter. I stocked your fridge and pantry while you were upstairs. Fran, you broke my heart yesterday. I won’t let you fail when Charlie is serving this country overseas.” Fran cried, and Sunny embraced her. “You’re my best friend, and I can’t let anything happen to you. Caleb and I are thriving, and it kills me to see you struggling so.”
“Sunny, I’m speechless!” Fran sniffled and hugged her again. “Thank you so much.”
“It was our pleasure.” Sunny smiled at Fran once more. “I need to get home. Tell Charlie we both said hi, and we love him.”
It was later that afternoon when Fran’s cell phone rang again, this time with Charlie’s ID on the phone display. And it thrilled her to see it. He heard the smile in her voice when she said hello.
“Hi, love,” he greeted her. “It is so good to hear your sweet voice, Frannie.”
“Hi, Charlie,” she replied. “I thought I’d never get to hear you talk to me again. Tell me you’re safe. I need to hear it.”
“Oh, honey, I’m safe. But we lost sixty-eight men in that attack yesterday.” Charlie choked back a lump of emotion that took up residence in his throat.
“Oh, Charlie, no! Sixty-eight?”
“I still can’t believe it myself. No doubt, the enemy followed our caravan back to the outpost and planned the ambush. The ones who didn’t make it to safety never stood a chance. It was horrific.” He shook his head at the memory of it.
“So what happens now?”
“Well, that’s part of what I needed to tell you, honey. The seven of us who survived are coming home. I’m not finishing my deployment. But I doubt we’ll be home before a month is up.”
“I’m so happy that you’re coming home!” Fran squealed. “I can’t do this anymore. I’m done.”
Charlie nodded. “Oh, me too, love. I’ve seen more death than I ever care to see, on both sides.”
“I have some good news too, Charlie. Sunny came and got me for breakfast this morning. Caleb and his friends did repairs on all the doors and windows. He brought me two cords of wood, and Sunny stocked the refrigerator and pantry.” Fran smiled. “We are so blessed, Charlie. We have wonderful friends.”
“I don’t know how I’ll ever repay their kindness,” Charlie said. “I’m so thankful they are taking care of you.”
“They wouldn’t have known if you hadn’t called yesterday morning. I called your mama after I hung up with you, and she must have called the Bradfords. Sunny was at the house in minutes. She saw how little firewood I had stocked and the chill in the house. She noticed I’ve lost weight.” Fran wiped a tear from her eyes. “She and Caleb amaze me. Their love—”
“Why didn’t my mom go sit with you?” Charlie got angry. They let him down with Fran’s well-being.
“She invited me to their house. I needed to be by the phone, just in case.”
“So, her solution was to pass it off to someone else.” He spoke through gritted teeth.
“Charlie, don’t be angry with them. They have their own lives—”
“You don’t understand, love. I asked them to watch over you, and from everything you’ve told me, they haven’t done what I’ve asked. They haven’t made me happy.” The CO appeared in the door of his tent and motioned to Charlie. “Sweetie, I need to go. I’ll call you soon. I promise.”
“Stay safe, Charlie. I can’t wait until you come home. I love you.”
“I love you, my Frannie. I’ll keep you updated.” With a kiss, they ended the phone call.
Fran waited outside the municipal airport for Charlie’s plane to land. The flight was minutes away according to the information he had given her. He was the last in his unit to arrive home—the wait was excruciating for them.
The snow was deep and continued to fall in Appaloosa Plains. Fran hoped the flight wouldn’t reroute to another airport. But the bright landing lights of the aircraft appeared through the heavy snow. Excitement built up inside her chest, and she felt as though she’d scream.
The plane taxied closer to the airport—when it stopped, the door opened. She saw feet jump from the steps into snow almost calf-deep and then walk behind the aircraft to speak with someone. From the rear of the plane, he appeared, and Fran squealed when she saw him.
Charlie saw her waiting for him, and he fought every instinct to run into her arms. Step by step, he walked away from the plane until he cleared the engines, then he stopped, his posture at attention. “At ease!” came the command, and when he heard it, Charlie ran toward her.
She stood, her face in her hands until she couldn’t wait for another second. She ran toward him, and when she reached him, he picked her up and spun her around.
They both wept as they clung to one another, and he placed her back down into the snow.
“Hi, love.” He looked into her green eyes, the ones he missed, and kissed her. “Oh, honey, it’s so good to see you.”
“I love you, Charlie,” she whispered into his ear. “Let’s go home.”
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