The Soldier’s Last Sleep: Part Four

flock of birds flying above the mountain during sunset
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Part One
Part Two
Part Three

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.

Part Five

 

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.

The Soldier’s Last Sleep: Part Three

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Part One
Part Two

Some of the mortars fell directly on the trench, and some of them landed a bit before it, right in the midst of the enemy forces. All was chaotic disarray!

The enemy line scattered in a thousand different directions all at once. Some of them ran for their lives into the trenches, trying to surrender before they were butchered. Some of them ran back towards their own camp, ducking and weaving like mad, as if the dropping shells were less likely to hit them for having moved randomly. Some of them stood frozen in place, too shocked to commit to any action at all.

Meanwhile Private Bradley and his comrades swam through the dirt, beating a hasty retreat away from the explosions. Some of the commanding officers screamed at them to hold position, but to no avail. Up and down the line, where the bombardment was not striking, the allied soldiers just stared dumbly at the hole broken in their line.

In all, the shelling lasted for a one-minute-and-forty-seven-second eternity. Evidently those in charge of sending the enemy infantry out had gotten in touch with those in charge of firing the artillery, and made them aware of their scheduling error.

Of course by this point the field was long clear of any living enemy soldiers. They had all either surrendered, retreated, or died as suited them best. And so the trench-men began reforming their line where it had been broken up. It was very nerve-wracking work, for each man wondered ‘how long can it be before the shelling reoccurs?’ So each man furiously dug with his shovel, and when any sudden sounds came they would flinch, clap their hands over their heads, and make as if they would run from the spot.

Even during all that stress, though, the men spoke among one another, and hashed out what must have just happened. Clearly the enemy line had been replenished. They received fresh troops, probably an entirely new regiment, and along with it some new artillery. And not just any artillery, either. At long last they had found a way to bring the big guns through the mud, ones that actually had enough range to reach their line.

The only saving grace had been that with the fresh resources had also come fresh command units, ones that were not coordinated properly with one another. This had resulted in the blunder of the enemy shelling their own men. But right this moment they would be straightening out their agendas, and then the shelling would recommence, blast the trenches to smithereens, and the fresh troops would be sent marching over the ruin, down the hill, and into the camp below.

They would have to be pulled back now, it was the only possible outcome. And yet the orders to do so had not come yet. Every man on the line knew it had to come, so why hadn’t it come already? Why were they instead trying to repair the trench? It was pointless!

The answer to that came less than a quarter hour later. To the South they could hear the dull hum of propellers churning through the air. Every man turned and watched six bombers lumbering towards their position. They passed overhead, low enough for the infantry to make out the bomb bay doors opening as the aircraft proceeded across the field and towards the enemy lines. A chorus of gunfire and explosion resounded through the air.

“Well that’s that for the new artillery,” Private Holt observed.

“Why just the artillery?” Private Dunny said hopefully. “Surely they’re going to smash the entire camp as well!”

But they were not. As soon as the big guns were reduced to smoking, twisted metal, the planes turned on the spot and lumbered back away as uneventfully as they had come. Balance had been restored, and now it would be left to the two infantries to continue their murderous tug-of-war for the hill.

The sun was nearly set, and with it came fresh waves of exhaustion. Even if one did not look at the orange and pink streaks extending across the sky, one could feel them in his bones. The body knew that the day was retiring, and for years it had been trained to anticipate its own retiring in these hours. It was ingrained in all of the men that they should sleep now, and facts like there not being any reinforcements until the next day made no sway on the pull of nature.

“Stay alert men!” Sergeant shouted, then yawned deeply, and momentarily lost his balance where he stood.

Even worse than the fatigue was the knowledge that the enemy lines had been refreshed. If it hadn’t been for the shells breaking their charge, these new foes would have been cooling their heels over the corpses of Private Bradley and his squad right this very moment!

Fate had intervened once, but it was too much to ask her to do so again. This next charge they would have to figure things out on their own.

“Listen to me, men,” Sergeant wheezed through a dry and raspy throat. “The sun’s already on its way down, so it’s a sure thing that the enemy is going to wait until the dark of night for their next assault. One more charge in the middle of the night and then it’s morning. I’ve just received the latest word, and it says our reinforcements for sure arrive first thing in the morning. We just have to hold on until then. Just one more charge. We can make that, I know we can.”

Sergeant clasped his hands together, as if he was praying to his men.

“We’re not fighting for army, nation, or family this time, boys. This time it’s for us. Every charge before this earned you badges and medals and who-cares-what-else. But ride out this last charge…and you earn your very lives! No one earns themselves except by weathering the last charge. If you can survive this time, this one, last time, then you’re free men. You’re self-purchased through and through. Not even your own mother who birthed you will have any claim on you. No one will. This is the last night you’ll ever have to stand through, but you do have to stand through it. This is your whole life here and now, so what do you say men? It’s just one more charge!

Not a one of them cheered. They were moved, though, and wept openly, fresh streaks burning down their dirty cheeks. It rang too true to them, and they wanted to believe every word. But at the same time, even if the promises were true, it would seem all too fitting that after the close calls and narrow escapes, that they would now trip at the finish. Such an irony as that would be the perfectly summation of their military career. They had been so tired and beaten, yet they had somehow come through time and time again. But this time? Here where it mattered most? Was there anything even left to give anymore?

Why couldn’t the soul just let go easily? Why did it have to cling to life when it would be so much easier to lay down and die? Yet it did. And in spite of all cynicism, each of the men pledged that at the very least they would try. As with before, they resolved to stand and fight and make the enemy remove them from this place by force. If what the Sergeant said was true, then let this be the final measuring. They would not be overrun while leaving any drops of blood unspent. They would give all that they had. And if it was enough it would be enough, and if it was not it would not, but in either case nothing would be held back.

And so they looked hard into one another’s eyes, then took their places in the trench. They had repaired it pretty well after the shelling. It did not extend quite as high as before, and the earth was a bit fresher and looser, but it would have to do.

Each man held his gun, locked his knees, and stared down the line for the coming reckoning. None of them expected the charge for a few hours yet, but trying to rest was unfathomable. If once their eyes were allowed to close, it was doubtful whether Armageddon itself would be able to rouse them. The body yearned for it, but the body could be denied. It already had been so many times before.

“Counting off one,” Sergeant said.

“Counting off two,” Private Dunny said.

“Counting off three,” Private Bradley said.

“Counting off four,” Private Holt said.

“Counting off six,” Private Yates said.

“No, Private Yates, five comes after four,” Private O’Malley corrected.

“Thank you, O’Malley, counting off five.”

It was a ritual Sergeant had invented to keep them awake on exhausting nights such as this. They had to count, and once every so often, one of them would intentionally say the wrong number. So you had to be listening and paying attention to call them out in it, or else you were falling asleep and every man in the squad would kick you.

Minute after minute slipped by. Time was the first enemy that they had to best. Each man’s voice was already croaky when they began, and within an hour they rasped like a metal rake over a tin roof. They took swigs from their canteens, but it wasn’t water that their throats were thirsty for.

About halfway through the night they were given a boon. At long last the fog fully dissipated. It had been teasing a retreat since evening, but at long last the final tendrils of it were flowing away.

“There you go men,” Sergeant grinned. “You stood out nature itself!”

Time was bested, nature too. Now one more enemy force to go.

“They must be kicking themselves for having missed one more charge with the fog,” Private Dunny said excitedly. “And now it’s a clear night with a full moon….maybe they won’t–”

“No, Private Dunny,” Bradley spoke over him. “You know that they’re still coming, just as sure as the rest of us. It’s how it works.”

Indeed it was. Bradley had learned long ago to stop trying to bargain with the fates, nor to look for reason in what the military might do or might not do. Fates and the military didn’t work like that, not on their side and not on the other. They just did what they did, and anyone that tried to suggest a reason behind it was a fool. The enemy wave would come because they would come, that was it.

And they would come soon.

The squad stopped counting off, and a breathless hush fell over the entire line at the same moment. There was a cool weightiness in the air, one that carried sound for miles. And while there was no sound on it now, somehow all of them knew: this hour. It was like hearing future-echoes, the pulsations of rhythms soon to be played.

Now came the click! click! as every man made sure he still had a bullet ready in the chamber. Now the shuffling of feet as each man shifted from a watching stance to a fighting one.

A small cloud passed across the naked moon, and it sent rippling shadows coursing across the ground, moving from the enemy’s side of the hill towards their own. Each dark patch that shimmered over them felt put a tremor in the chest.

The cloud cleared away…but the shadows still streaked across the ground.

“FIRE!” Sergeant yelled, and the line exploded in a burst of noise and flame.

Private Bradley squeezed the handles of his machine gun and pulled the trigger tight. His hands did not protest anymore, they did not feel a thing. Molten lead burst out the barrel, round after round, tracing out lines that for the briefest of moments–moments no longer than a crack of lightning–connected him to the lives he reaped.

The men on Bradley’s line fired true, and it seemed that they dropped a score of their assailants every second. Yet there was more of the enemy tide than they had ever seen before. The horde was first visible as they crested a sudden rise in the land about a half-mile distant, and this night the ranks seemed to flow continuously over that lip like a river. Like one pack of night wolves after another, over and over.

“SWEEP! SWEEP!” Sergeant clutched Private Bradley’s shoulder. Bradley already was, of course. Rhythmically twisting the machine from left-to-right-to-left. He had his perfect cadence now. Just by looking at how distant the enemy line was, he knew exactly how quickly to turn the gun so that each round fired no more than two feet apart from the last. It formed the ideal spread for catching the most chests possible.

Click!

And then, of course, the belt ran dry. But Private Bradley had learned the timing of that as well. He would count off in his head, and as soon as he got to “thirty-seven” he would snap at Private Holt that he’d better shoulder his rifle and get the next run of bullets ready.

“Okay, this is the last one.”

WHAT?!” Private Bradley shrieked. Sergeant shrieked something a bit stronger. Of course new ammunition, just like reinforcements, were not due until the morning.

“Save that last belt,” Sergeant ordered. “I’ll tell you when to let ’em have it.”

Bradley let go of the handles and awkwardly fumbled his rifle to his shoulder. How had he become so unacquainted with it so quickly? It felt like hugging a stranger, bony and awkward. His blistered hands were too large to hold it correctly, and his calloused fingers gripped it too tightly.

“They’re nearly on us!” Private Dunny announced unnecessarily.

“There’s no more coming over the rise!” Private Yates announced, far more helpfully.

So this was it. Both sides were entirely fielded in less than a half-mile’s space. This was the wall they had to sledge their way to the other side of. Private Bradley pulled the stock flush to his cheek and fired.

Part Four
Part Five

 

Well I didn’t plan this episode to resolve one battle, only to then leave right in the middle of another. It feels like I’m writing an old black-and-white serial that ends each week’s chapter on a cliffhanger. Maybe that isn’t such a terrible thing, though, it means the story is pacing through natural rises and falls. After all, even without careful pacing a story can be well-intentioned…but it can’t be interesting. Or put another way, it doesn’t matter what you’re trying to say if you aren’t saying it in a very good way. This is an idea I’d like to examine more on Monday, and how one can achieve a well-paced story.

Before that, though, let’s touch briefly on what I wrote last Monday about listing out the individual pieces of your story, to ensure that they hold a natural tension and escalation. Today was the moment where all of the tension of The Soldier’s Last Sleep escalated to its maximum, and now all that build-up is releasing in the story’s rousing climax!

There are several threads that I have woven together to achieve this effect. Obviously the first of these is the enemy assaults, which have incrementally pushed closer and closer to overwhelming Bradley and his compatriots. Then there is the thread of physical and mental deterioration, where I have listed out the deepening states of chafing hands and racked minds. There has been a thread about administration becoming more and more chaotic, where each new day denies them the relief that they so desperately need, while the other side inadvertently shells its own men! All of these threads has escalated in their own right, let alone when twisted all together.

There we have it, a list of lists that make up a story! And not only do they escalate, but each one creates tension by being at odds with the others. Bradley wants to live, his body wants to give up, the enemy horde wants to kill him, and the administration seems to want the struggle to continue endlessly. Not all sides can win this fight, and so the conflict heightens as each pushes its own agenda. Next week we’ll finally see which thread emerges as the victor!