The Writers Voice
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(The prompt for this flash-fiction story was a candle on a table illuminating
a hand written manuscript)
I closed my eyes and saw the men again. Itís late summer. The road is dusty
and dry, the leaves are starting to fall and the men are marching uphill and
into the wind. They're marching in cadence and the gray-brown Italian dust
trails after them. I hear the metallic jingle of equipment, occasional coarse
laughter and the creaking of leather. That's where I left the story yesterday.
This is today ...
Ahead of them lies 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
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 all day. Surely the major will let them rest when they cross
Major Joplin turns and marches backward facing the men. "Company! .... rout
step - MARCH!" Immediately the men break into a 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 at the edge of the
river, some of them take off their shoes and cool their feet in the swift
running stream -- upriver some of the men gently ease their canteens into the
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 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 -- dead and
dying barefoot men. Then the gun fire followed us back across the bridge, moving
with us as we ran, and 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.
Then 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.
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