Remembrance: The Great War

In honour of, and respect for, the brutality suffered and sacrifices made by those who fought on the side of freedom and democracy, an excerpt from second novel, My Own:

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A breeze had picked up and was slowly, resolutely, dissipating the fog and smoke. He’d be an easy target soon. The wooded area and shelter it could provide was still a good quarter mile away.

Spotting a dark hump of earth only slightly higher than the ground around it, he worked his way towards it. By the time he wiggled in behind, he was breathing hard, but only mildly warmer. He slipped the rifle free, rolled to his chest.

Mi Dios. The hump of earth was the mud-caked body of a horse, still in its leather traces, the wagon it had been hauling reduced to chunked, and splintered wood and metal.

Jake burrowed his fingers in the horse’s shaggy coat. The flesh underneath was still warm. He watched the ribcage. No rise and fall. The horse was dead, but hadn’t been for long, likely killed by the same shell blast that had tossed him in the mud hole.

“Help.”

Jake froze.

“Help me.”

Slowly, Jake turned his head.

Phelps was on his back in a shallow puddle about twenty feet away, left hand gripped to his right shoulder. Jake was careful not to betray the horror he felt when he noticed the shredded blood-soaked shards of tunic where Phelps’s arm used to be, though his fingers flexed forcing him to consciously regain his hold on the rifle. Phelps’s rifle.

He swallowed a rise of bile, ducked as spits of earth and mud exploded near Phelps’s feet. Then again, left of his head. Either the shooter had a problem with his aim, or he was toying with Phelps, before he killed him.

“Help me,” Phelps croaked, his gaze pleading. Behind Jake, the raised road provided shelter to English gunners firing from the far side, their bullets whistling overhead. Jake squirmed forward, peeked around the horse’s body.

The enemy had taken shelter in the house and outbuildings of a farm. Muzzle flashes flared in broken windows, and from behind pieces of farm equipment, and mounds of earth Jake surmised were manure piles. Bloated cow and sheep carcasses littered the fields around the barns.

He and Phelps were stuck, literally, in the middle of a gun fight. He was hidden from enemy fire, behind the dead horse. Phelps was exposed. He couldn’t get to Phelps, without exposing himself. He’d be dead before he got to Phelps. Phelps had to get to him. How?

The traces.

Jake dug in his pocket for his knife, cut the leather straps from the dead horse, leaving intact a ten-foot length. Ten feet too short.

He turned one end in on itself and rolled the leather, until it formed a tight coil. Then he smeared his face and body with mud, until he was the same colour as the earth. On his belly, he slid from behind his fleshy shelter toward Phelps, froze when a bullet embedded itself into the earth to his left, missing him by a yard or so. More bullets followed, each missing by a few feet.

Was the distance between he and Phelps, and the gunner, too great for an accurate shot?

Emboldened, he squirmed towards Phelps. When he was about twelve feet short, he snapped the leather trace loose. The coiled end landed inches from Phelps’s left thigh.

“Grab on,” Jake said. “I’ll pull you.”

Phelps stared at the trace, agony and hope waging war on his face.

“I’ll be quick,” Jake called. “Just wrap it around your wrist, so it doesn’t slip.”

With a visible intake of breath, Phelps let go of his injured arm and lunged for the trace, twisted the end of it around his wrist. Jake pulled.

Phelps yelped. Jake ignored him, and hand over hand hauled him close enough to grab him by the forearm.

“Use your feet man,” he said, wriggling backward.

Phelps scrabbled weakly with his feet doing his best to propel himself in the direction Jake pulled, as bullets sang and whizzed, but thankfully—miraculously—missed. By the time Jake had Phelps behind the horse, the lieutenant’s eyes were closed, his mouth slack. Jake tilted an ear close to Phelps’s lips, felt a faint exhalation, heard a gasping inhalation. Phelps wasn’t dead. Just unconscious.

For now, anyway.

Cutting away the remainder of Phelps’s shirt sleeve, Jake used it to tie a tourniquet on Phelps’s arm a few inches above the stump. The stream of blood slowed to a trickle, but Jake felt his effort was too little, too late. Phelps’s skin was grayish green under the mud streaking his plump face. He’d be lucky to last a few hours. Definitely not the night. A sting of pain on his cheek, forced Jake to look up.

Rain clouds blackened by encroaching darkness had settled over the battlefield. Cold drops bit his cheeks, stung his scalp, stirred the already muddy earth to soup. He startled when a booming crack rent the air, remembered to breathe when he realised it was thunder, not another whizzbang.

The rain became a blinding torrent, needle-sharp and frigid. He pulled Phelps closer, tried to shield him best he could, as he glanced around for help.

It was too quiet. What happened to the gunfire? He peered through the blur of rain to the Menin road.

The mirage-like shadows could be men moving, or could be curtains of rain blown by the escalating wind. He angled a look at Phelps. Every instinct told him to abandon the lieutenant and crawl for the road. Regain safety with his regiment. A deeper instinct, one born of experience in battle, forced him to remain where he was as long as no one was shooting at him. At least until it was dark.

Even the best sniper was blind at night without aid of a light beamed on his target.

When Jake couldn’t see even shadows, and heard nothing but the steady splatter of rain bucketing into mud, he gritted his teeth, and anticipating a bullet in the head, rocked to his knees. When a second later he was still alive, he grasped Phelps’s arm and hauled him to a seated position, before getting his own legs under him.

Fifteen agonising seconds later he was on his feet, Phelps draped over his shoulders like a bloody awkward and heavy calf too sick or dead to walk. Rifle gripped clumsily in one hand, he started toward the road.

Every step was excruciating.

Nerves taut, buttocks clenched in anticipation of the bullet that would sever his spine, he staggered and stumbled, fighting to keep upright without losing the two hundred plus pounds on his back. Every few minutes he paused to catch his breath, listen for Phelps’s breathing. Miraculously, the lieutenant lived, his exhalations wheezing confirmation of his tenuous grip on life.


#Remember

Deborah

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