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I closed my eyes and I could see the men again. It was late summer. The road was
dusty and dry, the leaves were just starting to fall and the men were marching
uphill and into the wind. They were marching in cadence and the gray-brown
Italian dust trailed after them. I could hear the metallic jingle of their
equipment, their occasional coarse laughter and the creaking of leather. That's
where I left the story yesterday.
So I sat down and wrote this today ...
Just ahead of them is the wooden bridge and beyond that, the green foothills and
the distant naked spine of the sierra. Anyone can see the battle will be fought
up there, somewhere between the foothills and the mountains. The enemy still
holds the high ground and he will call the shots.
There is a tired moan when the men see the hills ahead of them. They've been
dragging the caisson and the howitzers behind them all day. Surely, if the major
has any heart at all, he will let them rest by the river after they cross the
Major Joplin turns and marches backward facing the men. "Company! .... rout step
- MARCH!" Immediately the men break into a ragged walk to interrupt their
rhythmic cadence on the bridge. Some of them unsling their rifles to ease their
shoulders and they look longingly at the cool grassy bank on the far side for a
likely spot to spend the night.
It is as though I am with them again ...
"Fall out! Stack arms! Smoke 'em if y'got em'!" They sit by the side of the
river, some take off their shoes and cool their feet in the swift running stream
– upriver some of the men gently ease their canteens into the water to fill
them. The light is fading and the cook starts the Coleman for coffee. Major
Joplin walks along the bank of the river and talks to his men in groups of two
and three, like Henry the fifth before Agincourt. They're done in ... he can see
that. He calls the captain aside to tell him they'll bed down here for the night
and go on to the railroad spur in the morning. The captain doesn't like it, he
questions the wisdom of crossing the bridge if only to pitch camp on the other
side, with the river behind them.
He is about to voice his objection when the yellow flashes of gunfire erupt from
the foothills ahead of them – the sound is like firecrackers. Something like the
string of one-inchers we used to throw at passing cars on the Fourth of July.
Then comes the "cr-r-ummp" of mortars and the sharp "blatt-blatt" of field
artillery. Flares suddenly burst overhead and the frightened soldiers mill about
in the glare looking for their shoes and socks. The captain shouts into the
bewildered face of the major, "You never fight a battle with a river behind you
– you – fucking idiot!" Above the roar of the shelling he shouts to his
disorganized men, "Get back across the bridge! Leave everything ... run for the
How many men did we leave on that grassy bank? Almost 80 men I believe – dead
and dying – barefoot men. Then the gun fire followed us back across the bridge,
moving with us as we ran, hurrying us along. Looking back we could see what
looked like piles of clothing left behind in the fading light. Some of it moved,
some of it did not. And when the silence finally came there was the God-awful
sound of men crying in pain, fear and frustration. In the bloody game of war,
crying is the saddest sound of all.
I'll write about that tomorrow ...
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