The first three shots resounded in empty air. Private Bradley grit his teeth, cleared his mind, and went back to his basic training.
“Hold the gun firmly, but don’t clench it,” he muttered to himself. “Breathe slowly….Now exhale…” he fired and an enemy soldier’s helmet went flying through the air, exposing a startled face underneath.
Private Bradley had always been one of the better shots in their squad, he had just momentarily forgotten it while living and breathing the machine gun’s exhaust for the last few days. Now he set to work, picking his shots, following through, moving on to the next. It wasn’t a question of hitting the enemy, it was a question of how many he could drop, and whether it would be enough.
There was a sudden rise in the voices of the chargers fifty yards to the right. Of course the chargers were always shouting, seemingly in one unending cry, but there always came a sudden swell such as this when they reached the trench and leaped down to the murder. So the line has suffered its first compromise Bradley thought, then picked off another man.
The pitch in the enemies’ voices raised an octave again forty yards to the left and at another point twenty yards beyond that. Two more breaches in the line.
Private Bradley’s breath exhaled a bit more ragged than usual and his next shot went wide, two feet from its mark. He grit his teeth, furious that he had let the pressure get to him. He made up for it by firing his next round through two men running in file.
An entire chorus of waves broke up and down the trench-line, too many new breaches to count. There would be no routing the charge this time. Each squad had run out of machine gun ammunition, just as Private Bradley’s had. Without those pounding guns there had never been a chance of turning the wave. In the next fifteen seconds it would crash upon Private Bradley and his squad, too.
“NOW, BRADLEY, NOW!” Sergeant roared, pulling the rifle out of Bradley’s hands and putting the handles of the machine gun there instead.
Private Bradley grit his teeth and let loose ball and flame. The trench’s last fully automatic rang through the air like an awakened lion, bursting through men at more than twenty-five death-knells per second!
There was no easy stroke, stroke to how Bradley spun the weapon now. The enemy was so close and so dense that jerking it as quickly as he could from side to side was the only option left. For the briefest of moments the charging men’s eyes widened in shock and horror. And then those eyes went glassy and expressed nothing again forever. The men that stood next in line to catch a bullet came to a full halt, glancing side to side for an escape that wasn’t there. If they turned and ran now, they would only succeed in being shot in the back instead of the front. As they paused to consider that fact the decision was made for them.
Meanwhile Bradley’s compatriots made short work of what forces his gun happened to miss. Bradley thinned the line, and the riflemen finished it. Each following line was more dense than the one before, but each looked more timid and unsure as well.
And then, all at once, a clear hill opened to view before them.
Bradley blinked quickly, disbelieving what he saw. They had done it? They had cleared their section?
Yes, they had. Sergeant’s timing had been impeccable. Glancing downwards Bradley saw seven bullets remained on the belt. Just barely, but they had stopped the breach in their sector.
If only that had been enough.
Though no more enemy forces stood on the hill, the trench still crawled with them. In fact the squad directly to the left of Bradley’s had just finished being entirely overrun by the invaders, who were now lashing out in each direction for fresh kills!
Bradley spun to face the assailants, reaching for the firearm at his side. They leaped at him and he leaped back, firing into the heart of their pack.
“Move over here!” Private Holt shouted from his elbow.
“Pull in close,” Sergeant ordered. “We’re still on the defense!”
It was good advice. The natural inclination was to try to push the enemy, but that sort of over-extending had been exactly the downfall of many of their allies. Better to play it cool and wait to see which side had the numbers. Right now things were too muddled to tell.
Bradley’s squad pulled tight to one another, and stood back-to-back, some of them facing down the right side of the trench, some of them facing down the left. They all shouted and fired furiously into the ranks of the enemy. Half of the time the other side charged at them haltingly, and half of the time they tried to take a stance and fire back.
Such half-measures would not suffice. Bradley and his men were tight-packed and focused. They fired in controlled bursts, calling out their shots, and working as a team to drop one soldier, and then another.
“Stand firm,” Sergeant directed them. “Stand firm and they won’t charge you, no matter how many more of them there are. None of them want to be the first to meet a firm knot!”
But that knot was being untied. Rather than charge, the enemy had finally decided on taking quick shots at the bundle of men. It was dark and shadowy in the trenches, and hard for them to pick out man from mud. Even so, every now and again a lucky shot hit its mark.
A sting burrowed into Bradley’s left thigh. Another grazed over the skin of his right arm. A dull groan sounded against his back, the last complaint that Private Dunny would ever make.
Other shots sang past Bradley’s ears. He instinctively recoiled, and as he did so forgot to keep pulling the trigger. The fire from Bradley’s squad became uncertain, erratic, stifled in the storm raining around them. Then, like predators waiting for their prey to show a weakness, the other side swooped in for the kill.
Bradley caught the first man by the lapel of his jacket, and drilled with his knife until he found oil. He threw that one to the side, and barely raised his arm in time to catch the downward stab of another. His forearm seared in pain, but fortunately Private O’Malley surged forward to take that foe down for him.
No one was there to cover O’Malley, though, and a hot barrel blasted at point-blank range, blasting O’Malley backwards. The man fell right into Bradley, and the two of them fell together. Bradley’s back hit the floor of the trench and O’Malley fell across his legs. Bradley started to thrash to get back up…but then paused.
What if he didn’t? Here in the dark, who could tell a dead man from a man only pretending to be dead? There was a chance that he might be entirely overlooked. Perhaps it was a slim chance, but it was there all the same.
But no. That would leave the backs of his still-standing squadmates unprotected. That would go against his oath, that the enemy would have to cut him down by force. That would invalidate him for Sergeant’s promise of self-purchase. He had to fight his way through the night.
A dark blur passed over Bradley, an enemy making another charge. Bradley turned his gun upwards and fired, cutting the man down entirely unawares. Then, from some long-forgotten coffer, Bradley found the strength to fling back onto his feet in a single, swift motion. He held gun out in one hand and knife in the other. He fired, he cut, pushed, he grit.
The trench was narrow, and the enemy came single file to avoid crowding one another as they danced around the littered corpses. So it was an even match-up, one against one, over and over, and the only question was how long a man could stand down the tide.
A foe grabbed Bradley’s wrist while also swinging wide with a shovel. Bradley leaned back so that it cut fat air and lodged itself in the trench wall. Bradley grabbed the handle with his free hand, just above the blade, and pulled firm. The soldier, still attached to the other end, lurched forward, and lost both of his grips, the one on the shovel and the other on Bradley’s wrist. He fell to the ground at Bradley’s feet. Bradley swung the shovel around and with it dug the man into his grave.
One could not remain a man in such work as this. One had to give himself over to the machine. This was no trench of men, it was a chute on a dis-assembly line. Bradley was the mechanical arm that took the subjects apart one at a time.
Another man lunged forward with a knife. Rather than try to dodge, Bradley gripped the man’s wrist and pulled, ever so slightly shifting the angle of the thrust so that it slid in the crook between his arm and torso. He clinched down and twisted. Something snapped, metal or otherwise.
Bradley-the-machine’s limbs were creaking and sore. No matter. A machine did not complain about such things. A machine just kept at its work as bolts fell off and screw threads stripped and motors spun out of socket. Perhaps he would shatter apart, but he wouldn’t even know it. He would just keep going.
The next soldier made like he was going to lunge at Bradley, but at the last moment pulled back and fired from the hip. It was clever. It caught him off guard. Bradley felt a hole open in his shoulder and he fell onto his back.
What was less clever was that the man paused to see if Bradley was dead, giving him the opportunity to fumble his gun over from the wounded arm to his other. A crack of thunder and the assailant was down.
It was his ability to separate his mind from his body that made Bradley so adept at this work of separating limb from limb. First one had to stifle the life in himself, then he could do it in others. And so a man was always his own first casualty. It was the only way to live.
Two more soldiers advanced down the trench. Bradley was still prone and his vitality was quickly seeping through the wound in his shoulder. This was it. The fight in him was gone.
The first soldier reached him and held out his hand.
Only now did Bradley recognize the uniform of his allies. Bradley tried to offer his good hand, but it still held his gun. He dropped the weapon and let the friend pull him to his feet.
“Good to finally see a friendly face,” the soldier said. “The trench is all secured back this way, how about down past you.”
“I’m not sure,” Bradley said. He started to twist to look that way, but winced at the searing pain that came from his shoulder.
“You’re hurt,” the soldier observed. “Don’t worry, I’ll move down the line and see for myself. You stay here and Private Bailey will see to your wound.”
The man was clearly some sort of officer, though of course it was far too muddy and dark to make out any insignia.
The second man came up and Bradley showed him where he was hit, then leaned back while the man bound him up.
“You’re lucky, the shot passed clean through, I don’t have to dig it out of you.”
“A life of my shoulder always aching and never working right? Hardly seems lucky.”
“At least it’s still a life. That’s more than most of our men can say tonight.”
It suddenly occurred to Bradley to check and see if any of his squad had survived with him. One glance along the trench floor, though, and it was clear that they had not. One-by-one he could pick out each of their bodies interwoven with those of the enemy. They looked so strangely peaceful laying side-by-side with the very men that they had fought to the death against.
Maybe it wasn’t so strange, though. They had killed each other, hadn’t they? And what feud could possibly be left unresolved after such a measure as that? What more could be gained by disputing the matter any further? Here, in mutual death, they were finally all square with one another.
Of course Bradley gave his men a closer check once Private Bailey finished dressing his wounds. The two of them crouched down and felt each man’s lack of a pulse. They truly were all dead. Dunny, Holt, Yates, O’Malley…
“You too, Sergeant?” Bradley sighed. “After that speech you roused us all with? You too?”
By this point it was clear that the battle was over. The scattered din of gunfire up and down the trench had slowed and finally come to a stop. The line had been held, though with extensive casualties. More than fifty percent. Their forces were so diminished that they couldn’t hope to repel another attack. Reinforcements would have to come replace them now.
But then, of course, the enemy needed reinforcements of their own, too. All of their fresh troops were dead, and they would have to send up a new regiment before the onslaught could continue.
Sergeant had been right. Surviving this last charge had been enough. Private Bradley had earned the right to stay alive. Massaging his shoulder he turned to the East. There, searing a line of red across the green hilltop, the dawn was approaching.
On Monday I discussed how a story is composed of several arcs, which each take their turn in the light, thus creating a natural rise and fall in the plot. I also mentioned how each arc escalates in their own way, combining to make a climatic finish.
In today’s post we saw the culmination of the increasing tension in this story. With each preceding charge, the enemy came closer and closer to breaking the ranks of Bradley and his men. That constant teasing was meant to build up anticipation in the reader, anticipation which was finally satisfied in the rousing action of today’s entry.
When a story has pent up enough conflict and turmoil, then it is a simple matter to let it loose in a stream of cathartic release. But another essential element of pacing in a story is the sigh of relief after the action subsides. Though the hard-run race may be won in a moment of intense effort, the experience is not over until one is able to fully regain their breath.
This next Monday I will examine this idea of giving a story time to release its tension after the climax of its action. Then, next Thursday, we will see this in play with the next entry of The Soldier’s Last Sleep.