Tony’s mutilated body was changing before the Pastor’s eyes. Intestines slithered back into the cavity of hi abdomen and the jagged bayonet wound was closing—healing! Blood and mud evaporated and the uniform turned clean and fresh. Life and healthy youthful color slowly returned to Tony’s face. A sparkle came back to his eyes that had been dull and lifeless.
“You look so—so good!” said the Pastor.
“It’s the way you want to remember me, Desmond.
They were outdoors, and it was nighttime. Thick fog shrouded the ground. But this cloud wasn’t like Jonathan’s clouds; it was like that horrible cloud from so long ago—that suffocating bank of dense fog that returned so often in his dreams.
The Pastor’s feet were damp and cold. He was standing in mud that covered his ankles. They were in a desolate place, a field of mud. He heard distant explosions and through the smoke and fog saw the flashes of artillery shells exploding on a hillside across the valley. He felt the strangling sensation of claustrophobia coming on. “No!” he protested, hoping to fight it off, “I won’t let it overtake me again!”
He looked around. Jutting out of the mud here and there were the remains of a forest, decimated by the artillery barrage—burning stumps and shattered trunks of trees. Shell holes pocked the face of the battlefield. Bodies of dead American and German soldiers were strewn about like broken dolls. The acrid smell of burnt gunpowder mixed with the nauseating stench of blood and charred corpses hung heavy in the night air, stinging the Pastor’s eyes and lungs.
The devastation had taken place only minutes earlier, and now the deadly artillery barrage had a new target: the hillside across the valley. The Pastor guessed the boys up there were taking a real pounding. Young men, he thought, just as he was, scared and praying for safe deliverance from the enemy and death. Some never made it, and many who did were wounded forever.
It was all too familiar. There were times over the years when the Pastor prayed for partial amnesia—for the Lord to remove those terrible memories from his mind. But the images, sounds and stench never went away. Whenever they came upon him, he quickly switched to some diversionary thought.
The Pastor heard far away popping sounds. He knew what they were—rifle shots, toy-like in sound because of the distance, but deadly.
Exploding artillery shells flashed here and there across the battlefield. By this sporadic light, the Pastor watched a hundred or so yards away as a squad of German soldiers sloshed through the mud, heading in his direction.
“We were both victims of the war,” the Pastor said to Tony. “Maybe you were the lucky one. You escaped by death and went on to life everlasting. But I stayed here and have lived a living death.”
Someone was running through the mud toward them. As he neared, the Pastor saw that he was an American soldier, and he was not carrying a weapon or wearing a helmet. The soldier glanced back over his shoulder. Some distance behind him followed a German soldier.
The Pastor watched the terrified young American run past, no more than ten feet away. And then his suspicion was confirmed: The soldier was himself of so long ago.
“I was so young, so scared,” he sobbed to Tony. “I felt so—oh, so guilty over leaving you behind. But I was afraid to go back for you.”
Regaining his composure, the Pastor went on, "The Germans were getting closer. Our unit was retreating and I had to find them and get back to safety.”
An artillery shell screamed overhead. The terrified, young Desmond dived for cover into a shell hole. He landed in a heap in the muddy crater and cried out in sudden pain.
The Pastor grimaced. Though he could not see over the crater’s crest to the bottom of the shell hole, he remembered what happened. He started sloshing through the mud toward the crater for a better look. Tony was right behind him. They reached the edge and looked down at young Desmond, crumpled in the mud, writhing in pain and anguish. His left leg was impaled on a finger-sized, broken tree branch that jutted out of the mud and water in the bottom of the crater.
Tony looked at the Pastor and saw a face twisted with the pitiful, agonizing look of remorse and helplessness.
Looking back at Desmond, they saw him put the collar of his shirt into his mouth and clamp his teeth on it. He continued to do what his instinct led him to do: He placed a firm grip on the tree branch with both hands, then with all the strength he could muster, yanked it out.
The Pastor calmly asked, “Am I to relive all of it?”
Tony remained silent, never moving his eyes from the shell hole.
Desmond was crying out with pain, pressing his right hand against the hole in his leg. Blood ebbed from the wound and turned the muddy water crimson. “Help!” he cried. “Corpsman! Somebody! Please, oh, please, somebody help me!”
A bank of thick fog was rolling in, reducing visibility to a few yards at best. The Pastor shivered—just as he had shivered on that night and every cloudy, foggy night since.
Tony broke his silence: “You suffered in that muddy hole all night, bleeding, losing your strength, and crying for help.”
“It seemed like an eternity,” said the Pastor. I was afraid I was going to die. And then...and then I was afraid I would not die!
Some distance away—unseen by Desmond then, but seen by him now—a German soldier crouched behind the scant protection of a smoldering tree stump. He surveyed the horizon for another place of cover. Then he heard a voice crying out in the darkness. He smiled—a menacing, twisted smile on a face that had lost much of its humanness—the face of a man who had killed time and again throughout the endless night; the face of a man who had been dodging death, step-by-step, second-by-second. And now the German was no longer in control of himself—no longer a soldier fighting a war, but an animal guided by instinct to survive. And it pushed him to kill, kill, kill....
In another direction and closer to Desmond, two American soldiers crouched in a muddy trench.
“There it is again,” said one.
“You’re hearing things, Bert. C’mon, let’s get the hell outta here—everybody else is gone.”
“It’s one of our guys, I tell ya,” Bert insisted. “Let’s go get ‘em.”
“You lost your marbles or somethin’? It’s crawlin’ with Krauts out there!”
“Dammit, Mac! Are ya goin’ with me or not?”
“But it might be a trap. I’m gettin’ the hell outta here.”
“Yeah? Well it might not be a trap,” Bert argued.
Mac slithered out of the trench. He looked back at Bert and said, “For the last time, are you comin’ or not?”
“I’m goin’ after ‘em,” said Bert. And he climbed up the muddy side of the trench.
“You’re nuts!” Mac shouted angrily. “I’m leavin’.”
Bert ignored him and started crawling through the mud in the direction of Desmond’s cries. He held his rifle in both hands as he slithered through the gooey, smelly muck.
The German had since left the tree stump and was running in a crouched, zig-zag pattern toward the American’s shell hole. When he reached a point within several meters of it, he stopped and knelt. He heard it again, the crying and yelling. Though the German did not understand the language, he knew he had cornered an enemy. “Amerikaner,” he whispered disdainfully. He could not see Desmond through the mist and fog, but he determined the direction of the cries and sensed that his wounded prey was within easy throwing distance. He pulled a Stielhandgranate from his belt. His eyes glistened with gleeful madness. With a short, quick jerk, he yanked the potato masher’s toggle. He raised the deadly grenade over his shoulder to lob it in the direction of the wounded soldier’s cries.
The German lurched backwards and fell to the mud, dropping the grenade. In shock and disbelief, he looked at his chest and saw dark red blood gushing from the bullet hole in his tunic. The grenate! he thought in alarm, and looked in wide-eyed horror at the live bomb lying in the mud. He grasped for it, to throw it a safe distance away. But the grenade was inches beyond reach. He lunged for it again, frantically clawing the mud. So close, yet so far away. His eyes widened in terror, then the grenade exploded, doing instantly what the bullet in his chest eventually would have done.
Falling debris pelted Bert’s helmet and back. He patted the smoking barrel of his M1, then looked around and listened. He could neither see nor hear any other Germans. Cautiously, he rose to a crouch and crept over to the edge of Desmond’s shell hole. Wary of a possible trap, he was careful not to expose himself to the man inside.
“Hey! You an American?” Bert called out, leveling his M1 at the lip of the crater.
“Yes! I’m an American!” sobbed Desmond. “I’m hurt! Please, for God’s sake, help me!”
“What’s your name?” Bert demanded.
“Morehouse. Private Desmond Morehouse.”
“Desmond?” said Bert, laughing. He stood up straight and relaxed his grip on the M-1. “Hell, no German would make up a sissy name like that.”
Bert slid down into the shell hole along side Desmond. “Good Lord a’ mightly!” he exclaimed when he saw Desmond’s bloodied leg. “You got yerself in one helluva fix.”
Bert gently rolled Desmond onto his side. He tore a strip of cloth from the leg of Desmond’s fatigues and used it to tie a tourniquet on his leg, just above the wound.
Bert climbed out of the hole, pulling Desmond up with him. “Wake up, kid!” he said, slapping Desmond’s face. “Wake up, dammit!”
Desmond’s eyes opened, but he saw what was not there to be seen. “Mom! It hurts, Mom!” he whimpered.
“Oh, hell,” groaned Bert. “Don’t lose it, kid. Don’t lose it. C’mon, now, dammit, stay with me. Almost back to the trench. There’ll be a medic to look after ya.”
He placed one of Desmond’s arms around his neck and pulled him onto his shoulder and back in a fireman’s carry. He picked up his M1 and started sloshing through the mud in the direction of the American line. Minutes later, he arrived at the trench where he and his buddy Mac had been. But it was abandoned. Exhausted and panting for breath, he gently rolled Desmond off his back and onto the bottom of the trench. Then he collapsed in the mud and rolled onto his back to give his aching muscles a rest and to catch his breath. But not for long, not with the German Army breathing down his neck. Bert resumed the trek across the muddy field with Desmond on his back. The load was heavy and the deep, slippery mud made walking all the more difficult and tiring.
Bert went on like this for several minutes more, then again had to stop to rest. Desmond was unconscious. Bert started to slip him off his back, but his weakened muscles gave way, and Desmond fell to the mud in a heap and cried out in pain.
“Sorry, kid,” said Bert, slumping to his knees. “At least it woke you up.”
Then something slammed into Bert’s arm and knocked him over. Dazed at first, he did not realize the jolt was from a bullet. But when he looked at his left arm, he knew. From just below the elbow it dangled grotesquely; whether hanging by shreds of skin or threads of his jacket, he did not want to guess.
“We’ll make it, kid,” said Bert, trying to bolster his own hope as well as Desmond’s. But Desmond never heard.
Bert knew the shock from his wound would soon wear off and give way to unbearable pain. More urgent than that, a severed artery was spurting blood profusely. Gotta hurry, before I pass out.
Lying in the mud, Bert anxiously fumbled with his good hand to pull out his shirttail. He ripped through the fabric with his bayonet, gripped the cloth in his teeth and tore off a strip of hem. He managed to tie a tourniquet just above the elbow of his shattered arm, leaving two long ends of cloth. He used the handle of his bayonet to twist the tourniquet and cinch the cloth tightly around his arm. The blood stopped spurting. With the loose ends of cloth he used his right hand and teeth to tie the blade of the bayonet to his upper arm to hold the tourniquet tightly in place.
Bert’s vision was blurry and his mind fuzzy. The notion came to him that his dangling arm might fall off. If I don’t lose it maybe the docs can sew it back on, he reasoned. So he laboriously tore another strip of cloth from his shirttail, tied an end around his dangling forearm and fashioned a sling around his neck. He looked at his cinched-up arm. It was an ugly piece of battlefield first aid, but it would do the job. He hoped.
Bert’s vision faded in and out of focus. Gotta hurry, he kept telling himself. But he felt too weak to stand up, let alone drag Desmond through the mud. I’d give my right arm for a drink, he thought. Then he chuckled. No! Not my good arm—my left one!
Laughing seemed to give him strength. He struggled up to a kneeling position, rested and caught his breath. Mustering all his strength and resolve, he stood up. He was light-headed and faint. He took a few deep breaths. It helped. He knelt and loosened Desmond’s ammo belt around his waist. Tugging and slipping the belt back and forth, he worked it up Desmond’s torso, inch-by-inch, to just under the arm pits. He took the sling off his M1 and let it out to its full length. He somehow fixed one end to Desmond’s ammo belt and the other end to his own belt.
The job was done, but it had sapped what little strength he had left. He tried to stand, but faltered and fell. He was simply too weak. “Lord Jesus!” he cried out in desperation. “The Good Book says You made lame men walk—please, give me the strength to get up!”
Bert closed his eyes and took a long, deep breath. He got up on one knee, then slowly stood erect. He teetered dizzily and his rubbery knees felt like they would buckle. But they didn’t. He took a step, braced himself, breathed deeply, then took another step—and another. “I’m doing it!” he whispered. “Thank You, Lord Jesus! Thank You!”
He staggered on through the mud, straining and slipping, slowly pulling the makeshift tether, dragging Desmond along behind.
Continue to Chapter 15 >
© Frank Allnutt. All rights reserved.