The men were singing “Sally Let Your Hair Down” to the stamping of the guns. Flasks passed up and down the ranks, Fleming savored his watered down bourbon. He bounced his feet and blew on his hands, but was too far from the fire.
Fleming patted his chest down, then remembered he was out of rolling paper.
“Here.” Captain Kirkham thrust a lit fag into his hand.
“Cheers.” He held the crumpled cigarette like it was fine china.
Fleming tossed him the flask and was soon under the spell of the first tobacco he’d had in weeks that hadn’t tasted like mud or horse shit. Mud was everywhere. In his hair, on his clothes, in his shoes, underwear. Fleming polished his service rifle with muddy rags and he shaved with rusty mud caked razors. What he wouldn’t give for a little sunshine.
He’d read about monsoon season during his studies, but the private had not expected to endure them in France. It’ll snow soon, he thought. I’ll freeze my socks off but it will be damn sight better than all this rain.
The Captain appeared lost in his own thoughts so Fleming was loath to break the silence. In this manner they sat until the marching orders were issued.
Captain Kirkham sat next to the private listening to the distant gunners in the waning daylight. The rain had let up and he felt the need to step away from the men a moment. He pulled out a creased photo of his lady and rubbed it between his fingers a minute.
He smoked the fag down to the ashes, just thinking of Sweet Ida with her rosy cheeks and ample bottom. He liked to slap her buns and give them a good squeeze. “Mmm, darling that must be jelly cause jam don’t shake like that.”
If he ever got home he’d make her his for all time. They’d have a couple of little kiddies, maybe he’d buy a little farm. At that last thought, he smiled. He, who’d never been on a horse before the war, he with a farm. What a notion.
A runner brought him the marching orders, and Captain Kirkham stood, heart faltering in his chest. This was it. All of his training in leadership, all of his fears realized. He was to lead a charge at the opposing trenches. Sure , he’d directed a few from the camp headquarters, but they didn’t have enough officers to spare. Captain folded the paper up and gestured to Fleming.
“Get your rifle in order.”
His left foot ached and sang for his attention, but Kirkham had to ignore it now. If he lived, maybe he could get a clean pair of socks or see the medics. He called the men to attention.
“Gentlemen! Now’s the time not for words but for swords, guns, for blood and for tears! Now, draw your weapons and go!”
Marjorie was in the barn when the first blast woke her. Boards, nails, and tack clanked to the ground, covering the trap door. She huddled there with her sisters and nephew.
“Who is it?” Little Jolie asked. She held a copy of His manifesto in her shaking hands.
“I can not tell.” To her ears, all of the guns sounded the same, though she knew that the GM had better technology. Bigger guns, she reasoned. More dead.
Boom! They could hear screaming above the debris crashing down. Then voices shouting in a mixture of German and French.
“Why are they bombing us? Aren’t we their allies?” Edie asked.
She stared at her little sisters and wished they had the childhood she was allowed instead of it being taken from them. They had their lives still, but they lived them in constant fear of their own countrymen. What kind of life was that? Was not death better?
“I don’t think He has any allies, only people who are useful,” said Marjorie. She looked at their gaunt faces, and she reached out to little Tavis. No, she must think of the future.
“Get some sleep, we will be down here for some time.”
The rain formed a curtain between private Fleming and the enemy line. Beyond it he could make out the dark shapes of the guns and men scrambling out of the trenches. They reminded him of a fire ant nest, the workers swarming out to protect the queen. As he advanced, men cried out in anger, fear, and pain.
Fleming found himself cowering behind fallen bodies more than he was firing.
His measly rifle felt no match for the machine guns, and he was saving the grenades. For what, Fleming couldn’t say, he just wanted to get closer and take out as many as possible in a single attack.
The battle reached a crescendo of blasts and screams while the temperature steadily dropped. Fleming huffed on his raw hands and then he heard a hiss. Then he lose consciousness.
He was floating then ,up and away from the blackened earth He prayed to God this was death, but God had a sense of humor.
Fleming came to at twilight, his body quivering under a thin layer of snow and mush. Shots echoed across the field now and then, but the great openness had transformed into a scene from Dante’s Inferno. He could not tell then, who was the victor, and Fleming supposed that victories are meaningless to the dead.
He began to creep towards his target again. Whether he would be greeted by a barrel of ale or gun, Fleming could not say. Both were better than freezing to death.
Captain Kirkham was shivering and thinking about his Sweet Rita again. He’d lost sensation in his leg and had a hole in his shoulder trickling blood.
All around him laid his comrades and his enemies in the muddied snow. If not for the darker boots, he would not have told them apart. He pulled himself up and surveyed the damage.
A thought occurred to him. A treasonous thought, a cowardly thought. Why continue? This wasn’t his war, this wasn’t his land. Sod them all. Captain sat up straighter. He reached for his dog tags and stopped when he heard groaning to his right.
Stealing a rifle from the corpse next to him, Captain limped closer. An enemy soldier lay there writhing, his hands firmly attached to his abdomen. Blood escaped between his interlaced fingers. The man saw Captain Kirkam and began to reach for a weapon. Kirkham could see his intestines.
He pointed at the man’s stomach and to his own eyes. The soldier set down his weapon and shook his head. Captain Kirkham made the sign of the cross and put him out of his misery.
There was no satisfaction in killing his fellow man, but in giving the man an honorable death, he found peace for a few minutes.
It was nightfall when Captain Kirkham reached the enemy trenches, and there he found Fleming passed out. Sleep sounded like a sweet respite now. He would lay down and ask the private where the men were, but for now he settled against the shaking form and closed his eyes.