The Bugler

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic
A fictional account of a U.S. Marine in a wartime event who should earn a Congressional Medal of Honor

Submitted: September 02, 2012

A A A | A A A

Submitted: September 02, 2012







A short Story


Robert Earl Hazelett

Copyright (C) 1984

-- All rights reserved --



"Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye," the bailiff said in a dull monotone, "the Municipal Court for the City of Moroville is now in session. All rise please."

The tiny courtroom smelled like wood and leather, and because it was located squarely in the center of a very old wood frame building, it was poorly ventilated. The room was uncomfortably humid and warm.

The Judge, who didn't seem to be troubled by the heat, shuffled silently through the papers on his desk. He studied each of them carefully, re-reading one of them several times. At precisely three minutes after nine o'clock, he cleared his throat and turned his attention to the three persons in the audience. He studied each of them carefully.

"This is the time set for the trial of Anthony Williams," said the judge. "Is Mister Williams in the courtroom?"

A tall thin man in his late forties stood up and replied, "I'm here, your honor."

"Mister Williams, would you be so kind as to step forward and approach the bench?" the Judge said.

As he did so, Williams agonized over the fact that he had not been able to change his clothing before appearing in the court­room. He apologized for his shabby appearance. He explained that he had spent the night in the city jail, and he had found it necessary to sleep in the business suit he was now wearing.

"Your clothing is of no importance here," said the Judge. "Anyway, it appears to be clean, even if it is somewhat rumpled."

Williams stood at a ramrod-straight position of attention as the Judge again slowly read one of the papers that lay before him. The defendant appeared to be worried, and his concern seemed to deepen the lines on his leathery face.

The judge turned his attention to the man who stood before him. "Mister Williams, I see that you were arrested last night, and the arresting officer charged you with disturbing the peace. Are you prepared to enter a plea at this time concerning that charge?"

"Yes, your honor, I am," Williams replied.

"Are you being represented by an attorney in this matter?" the Judge asked.

"No sir, I'm not."

"Do you understand, Mister Williams that you are entitled to have an attorney present in this courtroom? Do you understand that if you cannot afford to hire an attorney, this Court is obligated to furnish one at no cost to you?"

"I understand that, your honor, but I will be representing myself," Williams answered, still standing at attention.

"Do you understand that the charges against you are somewhat serious and could result in a fine being levied against you and, in addition, that you could be sentenced to serve as much as thirty days in the city jail?" the Judge asked.

"I did realize there might be a small fine," Williams said, "but I was hoping that this court, in all it's wisdom, might consider imposing no greater penalty than that."

The old Judge leaned forward in his chair. "I see that you're a stranger in our community, Mister Williams. Tell me, why would you come halfway across this country and then do something that would cause a police officer to arrest you for disturbing the peace?"

"Well, your honor, I was hoping that question wouldn't come up. I was hoping that I might pay whatever fine you might impose and then be on my way. And without causing any further trouble, I might add."

 The magistrate leaned back into his leather chair. "Well, we'll see about that after this court determines just what happened and why you're standing here today."

"Your honor, I ask this court not to inquire into what brought me to your community or why I'm charged with breaking the law. I assure you, making that information public would be very embarrassing for me."

"Mister Williams, I think we're getting far ahead of ourselves," the Judge said somewhat impatiently. "I still don't know why you're here, but I do know that I'm not going to become committed to any particular course of action until I know what happened and why you were arrested. You must understand that although this is a small town, it's laws must be obeyed. If one of those laws has been violated, as may be the case here today, a penalty may be imposed. But I'm not going to make a decision regarding that penalty until I have all the facts. Perhaps you should re-consider your decision regarding hiring an attorney."

Williams shrugged his shoulders almost imperceptibly and said, "Your honor, I fully understand that I'm entitled to be represented by an attorney, but I choose to proceed alone. I plead no-contest to the charges against me, and I do that with full knowledge that I may be fined or jailed or both. I'm quite prepared to accept whatever decision you may make in this case."

"Well, then, do you now want to tell me what happened? Do you want to tell me why you were arrested and why you're here?"

"No, your honor. As I said, I prefer to remain silent. I will be presenting neither physical evidence nor testimony here today."

"Is the arresting officer in the courtroom?" the Judge asked brusquely.

A middle aged man who had been seated in the last row of the spectator section stood up and said, "I'm here, your honor."

"Will you kindly step forward and approach the bench?" the Judge asked. His voice was moderate now.

The graying police officer, who was not in uniform, approached the bench and positioned himself to the left of the defendant. "Your honor, I'm Sergeant John Smith, a member of the city police department, and I'm the officer who arrested and lodged Mister Williams in the city jail yesterday evening."

After the officer was sworn, the Judge asked him to inform the court, in his own words, why and under what circumstances the defendant had been arrested.

"Your honor," the sergeant began, "at or about seven o'clock p.m. of the day in question, I was dispatched to the city's cemetery which is located at the west end of town. The dis­patcher informed me that two men were reportedly inside the gates and one of them was blowing a horn. That man, the horn blower, was said to be disturbing many of the patients in the hospital, which, as you know, your honor, is located directly across the street from the cemetery.

"Because I had been told that the head nurse at the hospital was the complainant in this matter, I first stopped there and interviewed her. She told me that Mister Williams, the defendant who now stands beside me, and another man, had been seen entering the cemetery at about six-forty-five p.m. She said that shortly thereafter, Mister Williams began to blow a horn. She went on to say that the man who blewi the horn was disturbing her patients. She also told me that he and the other man were still inside the cemetery walls.

"Well, your honor, I walked across the street to the cemetery and found this man, Williams, and another man who is now seated in the front row seat behind me. Both men were standing among the grave markers, and I saw that Williams had a bugle in his hand. He appeared to be very upset. He was crying, and when I asked why, he said he wanted to be left alone. I asked if there was anything I could do for him, but he just shook his head. He wouldn't talk to me. He just kept saying, 'nobody can do or say anything that will help.'

"When I asked about the bugle, he admitted that he had been playing it a few minutes before I arrived, but he failed or refused to say why. I questioned him at some length, your honor, and although he was very polite, he simply stood there weeping and shaking his head.

"The other man also declined to comment on the matter, but because he had seemingly done nothing wrong, I did nothing more than ask him to leave the premises. He seemed about to protest, but Williams intervened. Williams politely told the other man to leave as he had been told. The other man walked away, saying that he would meet Williams later 'at the motel.'

"After the other man left, I again tried to question Williams regarding what happened. Again he refused to discuss the matter. I didn't know what to do for him, but I felt he needed some help. I took him into custody and lodged him in the city jail."

The judge turned his attention to the defendant. "Mister Williams, are there any questions you'd like to ask the police officer regarding his testimony here today?"

"I have no questions to ask," Williams answered.

The Judge leaned forward abruptly. "Mister Williams, do you fully understand what you're saying and doing? I want to give you every benefit of any doubt that may arise in this case, but I don't seem to be able to impress upon you just how serious this matter really is. Don't you understand that unless you can give some reasonable explanation for your conduct while you were in that cemetery, why you were blowing that horn, I have no choice but to find you guilty as charged?"

Williams looked directly at the Judge. "I believe, your honor, that you are a very sincere and understanding man, but I have nothing to say. There is nothing to say that..."

"Godammit, there is something to say. There are a number of things that should be said, and if you're not going to say them, Tony, I will." The words were spoken by a man who arose from his front row seat in the spectator section.

The old Judge looked over his glasses at the man who had just thrust himself into the court's proceedings. "And who are you?" he inquired.

"My name is Charles Benton, your honor. I'm the guy who was in the cemetery with Tony, Mister Williams. I'm his friend."

 The Judge looked at Benton then pointed to a spot in front of the bench. "Come up here. I want to talk to you. Maybe you' have enough good sense to shed a little light on this matter."

Benton pushed aside the hip-high door that separated the spectator section from the area where the Judge sat then walked directly to his friend. Williams now had his eyes fixed on the floor. Benton placed his left arm around his friend's shoulders and pulled him close. "Tony, Tony," Benton said, "you've got to realize that there's nothing more we can do for him. You've got to forget it now. If you don't forget it, if you can't forget it, it's going to destroy you, and that will destroy me. I can't afford to lose you, too. Please, Tony, please."

"Mister Benton, will you please tell me what happened in that cemetery yesterday evening and what's happening here today," the Judge pleaded.

"Yes sir, I'll tell you what happened," Benton said as he held his weeping friend in his arms. "As I told you, my name is Charles Frederick Benton, but in 1972 I was First Sergeant Charles Frederick Benton, and I was part of the United States Marine Corps. At that time, this man, Tony Williams, was Captain Anthony Jonathan Willaims, my commanding officer. We met and served together in Viet Nam, where this thing began.

"Things were going badly for us then and, as you know, we were not winning that war. Tony and I, along with what remained of our infantry company, were positioned at the top of a small hill that was surrounded by a dense jungle and a great number of Viet Cong. The top of that hill had been completely leveled by artillery fire; our fire when the Viet Cong held it and their artillery fire during the times we held it. That hill must have changed hands a hundred times during the war.

"At any rate, we held it at the time and, although our forces had taken it and given it up many times during the war, this time we were ordered to hold it at any cost. This time, we were told, our forces were trying to evacuate the country, and holding that hill would make a big difference in how many of our people got out alive.

"Me, Tony, and the rest of the company had taken the hill the day before, and we spent three days and a lot of good men doing it. We did a lot of dying on that hill and, by God, we felt we owned it; at least temporarily. We had started with two-hundred-ten men, and forty-nine of them died on the way up. To make matters worse, another sixty-three had been wounded; some of them seriously.

"That first day was a living hell. After reaching the top we didn't even have time to dig in before the enemy counter attacked. They came back up that hill like a bunch of animals. They apparently wanted very much to take it away from us. Not because they needed it, mind you. They wanted it back because they knew it was strategically important to us. They knew that if they could deny us the use of that high ground, they would be in a much better position to move their own troops through the area without being observed. For that reason they seemed to be willing to pay any price to get it back.

"There must have been close to a thousand of them, and they fought viciously. Occasionally the fighting was hand to hand, but we beat them back. Unfortunately we lost thirty-four more men doing it.

"The enemy didn't make another attempt that day, and we used the time to good advantage. We tended the wounded, dug deeper holes, inventoried supplies, and did the other things that were necessary to consolidate our position.

"The Viet Cong attacked again just after the sun went down, and though we had fewer men, we were much better organized, thanks to Tony. You just can't believe how hard this man worked. He seemed to be everywhere at once; always with a helping hand and a word of encouragement. The troops, as miserable and frightened as they were, respected him greatly for his abilities. He inspired those guys to do more than they should have been able to do, and each of them knew that Tony could bring them through this thing if anyone could. They all liked him, and they fought hard for him.

"Although our numbers had been greatly reduced, we beat the enemy back once more. But again we suffered heavy losses. When the smoke and dust settled, we found that we had only twenty-two men left. Nine of those were wounded. I was shot twice: once through the right leg and once through the left arm. I was fortunate, though, in that neither of those bullets touched a bone. Tony had been bayoneted through the stomach as the result of a hand to hand encounter with the enemy, although I didn't learn of it for more than an hour after the fighting stopped. But even worse, we were almost out of everything. We were completely out of medical supplies: no bandages, no medicines, nothing. Our only remaining corpsman gave the last morphine to a dying machine gunner from the second platoon in an effort to make the last few minutes of his life as comfortable as possible.

"There were only a few of us who were in any condition to fight again, and we had very little ammunition; certainly not enough to beat the enemy back again. To top that off, we found that we had no communications either. We couldn't ask for the help we desperately needed because our last radio had been destroyed by a Viet Cong rifle bullet. The situation looked bad, and we really needed help. Without it we couldn't hold that hill much longer.

"Tony, who was lying against a pile of rubble trying to ease the pain in his stomach, motioned me toward him. When I got there, he told me that someone would have to go for help. He asked me to find a volunteer.

"Well, I found one. He was a nice looking and intelligent young man. He was a corporal, and the only survivor of the fourth platoon. The Corporal was a very nice kid who once told me that he planned to attend college when the war was over. He said he wanted to be a teacher, and I believe he'd have made a good one. He had a great deal of patience and understanding.

"Tony, of course, recognized him as Corporal William Stafford, a good man and a good Marine. At first Tony refused the boy's offer because of his age. He was only nineteen years old.

"Stafford insisted, however, that his age had nothing to do with his abilities. He said he was sure he could pull it off. He claimed that his father had taught him how to move carefully and quietly through the roughest of terrain during the many times they spent hunting together. That kid seemed to worship his father, and he felt that the training he had received from him would be all he needed for a mission like this.

"Tony wouldn't hear of it. He asked me to find another volunteer; someone a little older. But Stafford looked Tony in the eye and told him that no one there had a better chance of getting through, and he insisted that the Captain accept his offer.

"Tony closed his eyes for a few moments. When he opened them again he looked at the boy and nodded. 'Okay,' Tony said, 'it's dark now, and you have about six hours before the sun comes up. Try to reach regimental headquarters. Tell those people what we're facing and that we need help. Tell them we need a radio and as much ammunition as they can drop in here. Tell them we need some people, too, if they can be spared. 'But hear this,' Tony told the boy, 'I want you to take care of yourself first. If you see that you can't make it by dawn, I want you to hole up somewhere until tomorrow night. With as many Viet Cong as there are out there, you won't be able to move far during daylight hours without being shot, and that's the last thing we need. Remember, we're counting on you; if you don't make it, we don't make it.'

"Then the Corporal reached out and placed his hand on Tony's shoulder and said: 'don't worry, skipper, I'll make it. The guys need that equipment to survive. Somehow I'll get it for them.'

"It was exactly ten-fifty-five p.m. when Corporal Stafford crept over the edge of the hill and started down toward the jungle below. Nobody talked about it, but I think everybody said a prayer for Stafford. Everybody knew that saving that hill, and themselves, depended on him.

"About an hour after he left we heard some small arms fire coming from the direction in which the Corporal had gone. There wasn't much fire, perhaps only ten or twelve shots spaced any where from ten to thirty seconds apart. We all hoped it was only harassing fire being directed toward the top of the hill we occupied. After the shooting stopped, nobody talked about it, but we each knew what the others were thinking. About forty minutes after that there were more shots, maybe twenty of them this time. This time they were farther away, but they were still coming from the same general direction as before. But again there were no comments from those of us who were still on top of that hill. This time, though, we knew it wasn't harassing fire; it was coming from too far away.

"Those who were wounded, including Tony, said very little during the long hours that followed, although some of them were in very poor condition. One of the riflemen from the third platoon had his lower left leg blown away by a Viet Cong grenade that exploded in his foxhole. Some of the shrapnel from that grenade was lodged throughout his body. We all knew he was dying. He did die at about three-fifteen that morning, and he did it without a complaint.

"The captain's stomach wound seemed to be getting worse and, although he wasn't complaining either, the pain was beginning to show on his face and in his eyes. The corpsman speculated that peritonitis was setting in and that something would have to be done soon if Tony were to survive. He wasn't sure, though, about whether or not Tony's intestines had been pierced. All he seemed sure about was that if they had been cut through, Tony would die very painfully; probably within the next thirty six hours. Tony offered a sick laugh and told the corpsman he didn't believe the Viet Cong would give him that much time. The corpsman advised Tony to remain as motionless as possible and apologized for having no way to reduce the pain.

"The minutes and hours seemed to drag on through eternity, but no one complained about that either because no one wanted to see the sun come up that day. That night could have lasted forever and no one would have cared.

"Then, at three-thirty a.m., Tony told the men that if Stafford had made it, we could expect help to arrive within the next hour or so. If he didn't get through, well, things were going to get even tougher than before. Nobody wanted to hear that, but we all knew he was right.

"At four-forty-five a.m. it began to appear that he hadn't made it, and we slowly resigned ourselves to the fact that no help was coming. We'd have to face the enemy soon, and we would have to do it with the men and materials we had on hand.

"The first signs of dawn were upon us, and we assumed that when the sun first appeared in the east, the enemy would hit us again; and from that same direction. If so, we'd have the sun in our eyes and our backs to the wall, so to speak. We planned accordingly, and each man made whatever peace with himself or his maker that he felt was necessary.

"Then someone said he heard a cry coming from somewhere on the south slope of the hill and that the cry sounded like a call for help. Everybody listened intently, but there was nothing to be heard except the sounds of the birds that were beginning to awaken in the jungle below. I can remember wondering why a bird would choose to remain in a place like that, considering what was about to happen. I can remember thinking that if I were a bird at that time, I sure as heck would have left the place. I wished that I could have changed places with any one of them.

"'There it is again' said the private who'd reported hearing the sound before. This time everybody heard it, but no one could determine who, or what, it was. The captain instructed the private to return the call and to ask for some kind of identification. He tried several times, but there was no response. We could hear only the sounds of the birds. After two or three more unsuccessful tries, Tony asked for opinions on how far away the caller seemed to be. The estimates ranged between two and three hundred meters.

"Then, for the first time, Tony asked for my advice. I told him I didn't know what was making the sound, but we were probably thinking the same thing: maybe it's Stafford. If it was Stafford, why didn't he identify himself? If it wasn't the corporal, it could only be the enemy trying to deceive or confuse us. It was obvious that the sound didn’t come from a bird.

"Tony realized that, too and, after thinking for a moment, he said he was going down the hill to find out what, or who, made the noise. Because of his wound I advised against it. I pointed out that one of the able bodied men would have a much better chance of checking it and returning before the Viet Cong hit us again. He just looked at me and said, ‘Sergeant Benton, rank does have it's privileges’. Then, after checking his pistol and finding he had only two shots left, he slid off the south edge of the hill and began to move in the direction from which the sounds had come.

"Even though dawn was breaking fast, he disappeared from view about fifty meters out, and I began to worry. We couldn't have much time before the enemy came back up that hill, and I knew I'd feel better if he were back by then. It wouldn't have made much difference in the final outcome, but I knew I'd feel better if he were there. I prayed a little and we waited.

"The first Viet Cong mortar rounds started coming in a few minutes after I lost sight of Tony. But because we heard the dull thump those things make when they leave the mortar, we had a few seconds warning. Everybody was in his hole when the first rounds splashed on top of our little hill. God, there were a lot of those things coming in. They must have been trying to put one on every square foot of the ground we held.

"I estimated that the shelling would last about twenty minutes before their troops started back up that hill. And it was clear that Tony wasn't going to make it back for the main event. No doubt about it, we were going to get our butts kicked this time. I remember hoping that Tony had enough good sense to remain where he was. No one could have moved through the murderous fire being laid on the top of that hill if he were in the open, I thought.

"We took about fifteen minutes of that, and we were pinned down in our holes all the while. They were deep holes that would protect us from anything but a direct hit, but I knew that if the shelling continued long enough, each hole would sooner or later suffer that direct hit. I looked upward toward a sky that had been clear just a few minutes before and found that it was now filled with flying dust, rocks, and razor sharp shards of bent and twisted steel that came from the exploding mortar rounds. I said another prayer.

"Then I realized that somehow I had to overcome the fear that was building in me. I now held the highest rank on the top of that hill. When the shelling was over, provided any of us survived, I would be responsible for those who remained. I started planning, but it didn't make me forget those incoming mortar rounds.

"I'd just started to pray again, this time out loud, when I thought I heard the sound of helicopters. At first I wasn't sure about that because of the tremendous noise made by the exploding mortar rounds. I assumed I had been wrong. But no more than a minute later the shelling began to let up, and I began to prepare myself mentally and physically for what was to come. I checked my rifle and found that I had nineteen rounds left. I had four rounds for the .45 automatic that was tucked into my waistband, but I'd used the last of my grenades. It wasn't much to fight a war with, I remember thinking. I wondered if I would be able to face death with some measure of dignity, and then I realized that I was just about to find out.

"I attached a bayonet to my rifle and stood up just after the last mortar round struck the ground. I hoped that I wouldn't find myself alone.

"I couldn't believe the sight that greeted me. Through the clearing smoke and dust I could see that we hadn't lost a single man during the hell that had just been rained down on us. And I had heard the sound of helicopters.

"There were ten or twelve of them, all troop carriers, hanging about a hundred meters or so above our heads just waiting for an opportunity to land. There were an equal number of gun ships that were already raking the sides of the hill with machine-gun fire. They were driving the enemy back. Several other choppers were rocketing what I assumed to be the enemy mortar positions, and I supposed that the heavy bombardment they laid on us had stopped for that reason. At that moment I didn't care why it had stopped. All I cared about was that we were all alive. I sank to my knees, cried a little, and thanked my God.

"The first troop carriers landed, and at first it seemed they must have brought a million Marines with them. God, they looked good. The corpsmen among them began to treat my men, and as they did, I thought of Tony. I had to find him. I tried to enlist the aid of a sergeant who was busy deploying his troops, but he didn't seem to understand what I was trying to tell him. Maybe I wasn't very coherent at the time. I do know that no one was paying much attention to me except the corpsman who was trying to treat my wounded arm and leg.

"I tried several times to explain to that corpsman that our commanding officer had gone down the side of the hill, but I believe he thought I was trying to tell him that Tony had deserted us. He kept telling me to lie down because I was apparently going into shock. When I saw that I couldn't make him understand, I became desperate.

"I stood up and started down the hill in the same direction Tony had gone. The ground was deeply pocked by the many artillery shells that had exploded there that day and in the past. The craters left by those shells made it pretty rough going. They also made it impossible for the corpsman who had been treating my wounds to catch up with me. He must have thought I was crazy. He and two riflemen followed me as I ran down the hill trying to find Tony.

"I found him about five minutes later. He was sitting on the ground near the edge of the jungle. He was crying and holding what was left of Corporal Stafford. The corporal was dead; he had literally been shot to rags. I'll never understand how he was able to make it as far as he did. Part of his lower jaw was missing and his right foot was gone. It was impossible to tell how many times he had been shot. The corpsman, and the two riflemen who had followed me, were amazed. They pointed to a trail of blood that led approximately two hundred meters from the jungle to where Tony had found the boy. I was later told that someone followed that trail of blood for more than a mile into the jungle.

"I kneeled down and whispered to Tony, telling him that help had arrived. Between heavy sobs he told me that he was aware of that. He told me and the corpsman that it was he who had called for help, and he pointed to a radio that lay on the ground beside him. He also called my attention to the Corporal's bloody bayonet and pointed out that the radio was Russian made. The Corporal apparently killed a Viet Cong with his bayonet to get that radio. He wasn’t able to get us any ammunition or medical supplies, but he did bring back a radio."

The defendant, Anthony Williams, was now standing with his face buried in his hands. He was weeping. "I tried to help him. I tried so very hard to do something for him, but I couldn't," Williams said as the tears streamed down his cheeks.

"I found him lying there on the ground. He was dying and he couldn't crawl any farther, but he was still trying to use the radio. It was such a pitiful sight. He was trying to speak into the thing when I found him, but nothing except garbled sounds came from his throat. Nobody listening to those sounds could have possibly understood them over a radio.

"I crawled close to him at about the time the first mortar rounds started coming in, and as I reached for the radio, he pulled his bayonet from it's scabbard. He wasn't going to give the radio to me. He didn't even recognize me. I realized that there was no time to waste in an attempt to convince Corporal Stafford to surrender the radio so I ripped the thing from his grasp after taking the bayonet from him.

"I finally got the radio set to the correct frequency, and as I started to call for help, Stafford began to plead with me. I had no time for Stafford then, but after contacting regimental headquarters and being told that help was on the way, I returned to him and found that he was looking at me in a mournful way. I sat down beside him, pulled him close and tried to tell him to hold on. I tried so very hard to get him to hold on for just a little longer; just long enough for help to arrive.

"It was some time before I realized what was happening. He thought I was the enemy. No matter what I said, I was unable to convince him that I wasn't the enemy. Do you know what he asked of me? He asked me, he begged me, not to shoot him again because he had to get to his friends. When I saw that he couldn't understand me, I promised that I wouldn't shoot him again. Then he asked me to take the radio to the top of the hill and give it to his friends because they needed it to call for help. I tried to explain that I had already made that call and that help was on the way, but he didn't understand that either. I didn't know what to do so I sat there holding him. He asked me to take him home, and I lied to him. I promised I would do that. Instead I just sat there holding him and wishing I could relieve the anguish and pain that must have been within him.

"Then he died," Williams said, removing his face from his hands. "He died believing he had failed. He died believing he had not made it back with the radio, and there was nothing I could say or do to change that. It still bothers me now. I'd give anything to be able to change what happened there on that day. I still dream about it."

"Anyway, we were all taken off that hill and the wounded were hospitalized. Later we were shipped back to the States. Then the war ended, and I was discharged from the service, as was my friend, Charles Benton.

"But my mind has been tortured for years. Two weeks ago I called Charlie and asked him to come to this place with me. We came here yesterday, and last night, before the police officer arrived at the cemetery, I played 'Taps' over Corporal Stafford's grave while my friend stood at attention and rendered a last salute. We owed him that. We owe him a lot more than that."

"That's the truth, your honor," Benton quietly added. "We went there to honor a fallen friend. He was a man among men; a man who gave up his life to save his friends. We certainly didn't intend to disturb anyone. We came here with the hope that by doing what we did, we might be able to bring the scales just a little closer to balance."

"The old Judge's face was now ashen in color, and his hands trembled noticeably. He tried to stand, and when it became clear that he couldn't do it, the bailiff rushed to his side and assisted him. With the bailiffs help he did get to his feet, but when he tried to walk he reeled and fell against the wall. The bailiff supported the old gentleman as he staggered toward the door leading to his chambers. A moment later both men disappeared into that room. The sounds that followed indicated that the bailiff was trying to seat the stricken Judge in a chair and make him as comfortable as possible. The bailiff could be heard as he spoke gently and soothingly to the Judge. But after a short while, he left the man and returned to the courtroom. He walked directly to Williams and Benton.

"Will it be possible for the two of you to remain in town for a day or two?" the bailiff asked.

"Well, I suppose we can do that," Benton answered for both he and Williams. "We were hoping, however, that this thing could be settled today. We both have businesses to look after, and our wives are sure to worry if we're late arriving home."

"The disposition of this case has already been decided," the bailiff replied. "You can both forget about the arrest. I'm sure the police sergeant will agree that the interests of justice will best be served if this thing is forgotten now. I can assure you that when the Judge recovers his composure he will dismiss the charges against you, Mister Williams. I can also assure you that all records of this case will be sealed and no one, with the exception of those of us who were in that courtroom today, will ever know what happened in that cemetery yesterday. And no one will ever know what happened here today."

"I'd support that," replied the police sergeant. "May I invite you both to be seated for a few minutes? Sam, the bailiff, and I would like to talk to you about Corporal Stafford."

"We do appreciate what you've done," the police officer told the two men. "Everyone who ever met the Stafford boy liked him. He delivered newspapers to almost every home in town when he was young, and he later worked in the grocery store down the street. He enjoyed a great deal of respect among the locals, including my own. Had I known yesterday evening what I know now, I would have handled this thing differently."

"He joined the Marine Corps just after turning eighteen," the bailiff continued. "Not many people heard from him for a while. Not until word came that he had completed boot camp and was about to be shipped to Viet Nam, that is. The time seemed to pass so quickly for the folks here, and it wasn't long, perhaps a year and a half, until we heard he'd been promoted to Corporal. It seemed like such a short time, but I suppose rank comes pretty quickly in a combat zone."

"Then one day a Marine Corps officer arrived in town and notified the parents that their son had been killed in action," added the police officer. "No one could believe it; it had to be a grotesque mistake, everyone thought. The officer didn't know how he died; only that he was dead and that he died while serving his country. Later the body arrived, accompanied by a contingent of Marines who served as an honor guard at the burial. They didn't know how it had happened either. No one knew for sure until today."

"I wish he hadn't died," said Williams. "I wish no one had died in that God forsaken place."

"It seems to have bothered you a lot," the policeman said. "I hope you can forget it in time; it must be a heavy burden to bear."

"Yes it is," Williams agreed.

"We still have to locate the Corporal's parents," Benton reminded Williams. "Perhaps these two gentlemen could help us do that."

Williams asked the police officer and the bailiff if that would be possible, pointing out that the boy's relatives might want to know more about what happened and how he died.

The police sergeant stared blankly at the bailiff for a moment before returning his gaze to Williams. He was clearly uncom­fortable. "Yes, we know where you can find them. The boy's mother can be found in a sanitarium in Denver. She won't understand you, though. She suffered a complete mental collapse after her son's death, and she's been there ever since. She's unable to communicate with anyone, but I'm sure the boy's father will want to talk to you again."

"Again?" Williams said. "I've never spoken to him."

"Oh, but you have," said the police officer. "Corporal Stafford was the Judge's only son."


-- The end --



© Copyright 2018 Robert Earl Hazelett. All rights reserved.

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