The Sergeant-Major remembered something at the time of looking over to see us. He left his conversation with my Grandad in mid-sentence with the simple gesture of one finger raised. He walked over and grabbed the two of the Hudson Bay blankets from off the drum. The one he tossed with good jest into the face of the drummer boy, but the other he draped over my shoulders with surprising gentleness, even tenderness. "Warrrrm up yourrr souls, laddie," he said giving my shoulders a hearty rub.
By this time, my Grandfather had come round the campfire and took a seat beside me. The piper followed my Granddad's lead and took a seat as well, slightly further around the circle, after first collecting his bagpipes so that he might set them at his feet. He pulled from his black velvet and brown leather pouch (a sporran, I thought they called it) a Meerschaum pipe, a beauty, a work of art, carved as if out of ivory or whalebone, an old man's face, a king, a Sottish king I presumed.
This act on the part of the bagpiper brought a delight into my Granddad's face. "Ah, yes. A smoke." I knew he was thinking those very words as he took from his coat pocket his own pipe, much humbler, much more common than the bagpiper's, but no less cherished. They filled the bowls of their pipes with gifts of tobacco from each other, the bagpiper using a strawy stick to steal some of the campfire to light them both. With long pulls of air upon the wind-flickered flame, they each and they both leaned their heads back in smoker's ecstasy. Like chimneys, they puffed their smoke upwards watching it rise for a satisfying moment or two before being whisked away by the darkness and the wind.
I left the old men to their peace and turned my eyes to where the blankets had been. Now the drummer boy's drum sat alone. Dark wood, pale leather drum heads, corded rope, and somewhat unexpected, drapes of somber black cloth tucked in and out of the ropes, all around.
"Where are you from?" I asked.
At first my silent companion kept saying not a word. But I kept staring, coaxing from him some kind of answer. Finally, he said with a voice deeper than I thought I would hear, somehow deep and distant, "The battlefields."
"And where are you headed?"
He held me in his eyes for awhile, they first spoke of terror and then they spoke of sad resignation. He then said, "We are always going home, over and over again. I play on muffled drums, to pace the final march.'
I had nothing more to ask; I think he had nothing more to say.
And the two old men beside us, they talked their smoky conversation for a good while more. Then with the cleaning of their pipes, they came to realize that there were no more words to share.
We thanked them for the blankets and our time together. We retrieved our lanterns; we recharged their brilliance; we said farewell to this old piper and this somber drummer boy; we walked away, not looking back. But as we passed the other campfires down the way and waved to them fair wishes, we could begin to hear the muffled drumming and the dirge of distant piping. And we heard this for miles and miles, and the campfires behind us, they all went away, one by one by one.