[ painful lesson ]

by pfc kory

Zeke Anderson glared at the kid kneeling next to him. He was sure Dale didn't know what he was doing, but arguing with him had accomplished nothing.

"You stay here, make sure they don't try to sneak away before we get around. And keep an eye on them," Dale ordered, pointing to the kids huddled together behind Zeke, "don't let them get us into trouble."

Zeke watched Dale move away with his group tailing warily behind him.

He didn't really mind that he'd been left behind to baby-sit. The kid was leading his guys into an ambush, Zeke was sure of it, so he'd just as soon be out of the line of fire. It bothered him, though, that the disaster that was about to happen could've been easily avoided if Dale would have just listened to him.

"What you thinkin?"

Zeke started. He'd been so focused on Dale, he hadn't noticed Cameron shuffle up next to him.

"Come on! What's the plan?" the kid asked impatiently.

A smile crept across Zeke's face as he looked into the trusting eyes of the youngster. Looking past Cameron, he scanned the eager bunch of faces huddled together in an attempt to keep the crisp air from biting through their clothes. Despite their cold, they were ready to spring up as soon as Zeke gave the word. These kid's would do anything he asked him to do. Their eyes practically begged him to ask them to do something - anything but sit here waiting.

"Were going up, gonna them hit from behind," Zeke whispered.

He felt the nervous energy rippling through his body in anticipation of the coming assault. His guys felt it, too, and began fidgeting as it infected them.

"Settle down, now," Zeke whispered, "they're nestled down nice and snug in front of this hill figuring we ain't gonna try to climb it, but it ain't that steep, we can be up it easy before Dale finishes circling around. Cameron, you're with me. Pete, you and James flank right. Mac and Nick, you two flank left. Wait for me to fire first, that'll be your signal," he paused to make eye contact with each kid, waiting for a nod to make sure the plan was understood, "all right, let's go!"

Mac and Nick moved out first, followed by Pete and James, while Zeke waited with Cameron. Zeke figured he'd better give the kids a good headstart. He didn't want them climbing too fast trying to beat him to the top. The icy breeze ruffled through his clothes and Zeke shivered. He tried not to think about what could happen if one of them slipped.

"Ready?" he whispered to Cameron, turning to begin the ascent before the kid could respond.

The going was slower than Zeke had expected. His fingers were stiff from the cold, making it difficult to keep his handholds. He paused to make sure Cameron was still behind him. The kid was really struggling, but managing to keep up.

"Nearly there," Zeke mouthed as the youngster looked up at him.

Turning back, Zeke tried to catch sight of the others. The fear of one of them falling nagged at him as he moved his hand upward to catch his next handhold. Shifting his weight, he felt his foot slip, but managed to hold on. Steadying himself, he reached up with his other hand and with one final movement was peering down on the enemy.

Waiting silently for Cameron to arrive, Zeke chose his first target and prepared to fire. Feeling the kid slide up next to him, Zeke barely paused. His first target was down and he fired again, before the enemy had time to react. Responding to the pained yells beneath them, the right and left flanks opened up, pummeling the enemy below them mercilessly.

"Come on Cameron! Fire!" Zeke yelled to the kid next to him.

Cameron rose to get a better angle on targets that were now stampeding straight into the oncoming charge of Dale and his guys. He fired, but missed as the target below him slipped and fell. Preparing his next shot, Cameron spotted a figure flattening himself against the hill almost directly below. Rising up further, he leaned forward, trying to get an better angle.

"Cameron!" Zeke screamed as the kid toppled over the edge, landing with a sickening thud within feet of his intended target.

"Cameron! Cameron! You all right!" Zeke hollered as he threw his feet over the edge and made a semi-controlled descent. Cameron groaned as Zeke knelt beside him.

"Go get one of the Sisters! Hurry!" Zeke shouted to Cameron's intended target.

As the kid hurried away, Zeke realized he was still clutching the snowball that he'd been preparing to fire just as Cameron slipped. He dropped the icy ball, feeling ashamed that just moments before he'd cared about nothing but defeating the other kids. Catching a movement out the corner of his eyes, he looked up.

"Stop!" Zeke ordered Nick as the kid prepared to slide down the slope to help, "go back the other way, it's too steep!" He didn't want to be responsible for anyone else getting hurt.

Zeke sat on the steps staring mournfully at his feet.

"Ezekial? Why are you out here so late?" Sister Agnes asked, sitting on the cold steps next to him, "your gonna catch your death out here. Come inside."

"I'm so sorry, Sister. I didn't mean for nobody to get hurt," Zeke whispered as he wiped away fresh tears.

"Come now, Ezekial," the Sister soothed, "it was just an accident, wasn't anyone's fault."

"Yes, ma'am," Zeke responded apologetically, "but I knew we weren't supposed to climb the snow mounds. Yesterday when we was watching the snow plow pack them higher and higher, Sister Bernadette told us they were too dangerous to play on, so it IS my fault. Cameron would never have climbed up there on his own."

Sister Agnes peered down at Zeke's guilt-stricken little face. She knew there wasn't anything she could say that would make him feel better. Although high-spirited, Ezekial was a good kid, always watching out for those around him. She supposed it was just something in his nature that motivated him to "mother hen" the other children. He'd have felt responsible even if it hadn't been his idea to climb up the mounds of snow. As it had been his idea, there was nothing that could be said to stop him from blaming himself for Cameron's broken arm, so she decided to try a different approach in comforting the child.

"Well then, Ezekial," she asked matter-of-factly, "if you knew it was dangerous, why did you climb the mounds?"

Zeke hesitated, shifting around nervously before finally turning his head up to meet her gaze.

"I wanted to win the battle, ma'am," he responded shamefully.

"And you did. Was it worth it?"

Zeke nodded his head negatively as he wiped away more tears.

"Perhaps next time you'll pause long enough to decide if the victory is worth the price 'your men' might have to pay for it," Sister Agnes stated, pausing afterward to let her words settle.

"Come in now, Ezekial. Cameron will heal and I'm sure you'll take better care of 'your men' from now on.

She could tell by the resolve spreading across the child's face that there'd be no more children climbing the slippery piles of packed snow this winter. Ezekial was a natural leader. As the Sister had watched him grow, she often worried into what sort of trouble he would lead those around him. She'd worry less, now. Ezekial had gained a new perspective on the responsibililty that accompanied leadership. It had been a painful lesson, but she was sure it would serve him well in the future.

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