OK, so yesterday’s post was doom and gloom, blah, blah. Lemme get away from that and share something about what I’m doing right now.
I’m contemplating writing the second book in an unreleased trilogy codenamed RIFLES. Part of my preparation is re-reading the first manuscript so that I can get back in the “mood and mindset” for the series. As I was reading I rediscovered this early chapter where we meet the guys in our hero Bill’s squad.
I like this chapter and I decided I’d share it with you all. It’s not spoilerrific, it doesn’t give away the game. The chapter does its job in propelling me forward in the narrative; I’m falling for my own trap.
This is good.
So without further ado, here is the sample chapter from RIFLES.
Private Bob White, known as Shadow to Second Squad, ran his hand along his rifle in the dark. He knew everything about it. The weapon’s serial number was Y1511, its wrist band was stamped with a stylized crown with the letters GR beneath it. Furthermore, the chunk of steel and American walnut had been produced in the Royal Remington Arms factory in 1914, and it was a “SHT LE Mk III*”
The weapon was blunt, functional death in the hands of a skilled marksman, which Bob was. Like much else, he kept that knowledge to himself. Growing up in a tiny two room cabin in the coal town of Crescent, Bob’s job was to bring home squirrels, groundhogs or rabbits, whatever he could bag to help feed his family.
He spent endless hours in the dense forests with a .22 rifle; to miss was to go hungry. Bob rarely missed.
When he was conscripted, he took to the Enfield rifle as if it were an extension of his body. What he aimed at got hit. He wasn’t showy about it; he rarely spoke. In training he was infrequently selected for punishment or details because the sergeants seemed to always forget about him. Bob was fine with that.
He perfected the art of being invisible so well that he remained behind in the replacement depot twice when the barracks were emptied out, only Bob remained behind. He would enjoy a day or two in relative peace until the new crop came in, and then he would fade back into the woodwork.
The third time was a charm, as they say. And now he was here, at the front. To be at the front was to be exposed to fellows like him, killers who could knock off your hat at 500 yards. With a healthy splash of brains inside, of course. Bob’s invisible trick didn’t work with Corporal Crawford for some reason. Since he had arrived with Second Squad, he had done his fair share of mess kit scrubbing or water fetching. Bob sighed. He had known a few Crawfords before. They were usually mine foremen or village bobbies, nothing escaped their notice. And now he had the misfortune to have such a person as squad leader.
Bob looked out over the dark field through his barely visible sights. He knew he couldn’t be seen, he had dug his hole beneath a bush, even in broad daylight he would be in the shadows.
And that’s how he liked it.
In the next hole over was Private John Smith, or Jitters. He was shaking like a leaf, he needed to pee, again. Since he heard that they would face the enemy tonight, he had urinated about every ten minutes. He wondered what weird trick controlled his bladder, John knew it was all in his head, but damn it, his bladder felt full.
They said in training that moving around a lot at the front was a bad idea; it caught the eye. So he dare not stand up and relieve himself. Some sharp-eyed Hun would pick him out and he’d die, penis in hand.
His teeth chattered. He could see the letter as his young wife read it. “For King and Empire,” it would say, “Your husband died with his cock in hand.” John suppressed an enormous laugh. Dying with his hand on his cock. They wouldn’t write that, would they?
The manic moment passed, but he still needed to piss. Bad. With a sigh, he unbuttoned his fly, rolled to the side and added a trickle to an already soggy patch of earth. Within seconds, it was done. He buttoned back up, and rolled back behind his rifle. He would do anything, anything at all, not to be here in this nameless field beneath the pretty, swaying trees.
He looked toward the distant, indistinct village and the black expanse before it. His hand shook upon the stock of his Enfield, his face vibrated upon the stock as his jaw danced about. He tried to control his body. Hard. But he couldn’t.
John felt his bladder filling up again.
In the next hastily dug hole was Lance Corporal Tom Bailey. He was dreaming of home, again. His mother’s apple pies. His girl, Lucy. Her caresses. Everything that he missed. As usual, he cursed himself for a fool that he had volunteered for this shit. If he would have waited to finish University, maybe this stupid war would have been over and he wouldn’t have this responsibility, this madness.
His little bit of University time had earned him the stupid stripe on his sleeve. But what good Plato and plane geometry did him in the trenches, he didn’t know. At first he had been dazzled by military service, and he had let that puny stripe go to his head. Men like that old salt Joe had noticed, and they hung his hated nickname around his neck. Medals. He had grown used to it, but it still stung a little. These days he could give two shits about some piece of ribbon and silver. Too often he had seen men die, good fellows who didn’t deserve what they got.
As he looked over the flaxen field, he knew more men would die tonight. Tom was resigned to the bullet that would take his life, a bullet if he was lucky. Maybe a choking mouthful of mustard or chlorine. A whizzing patch of steel. A shovel. He had seen it all.
He would take deep breaths, and let them out slowly. He checked his pistol, a captured Luger, again and again. Tom felt the handle of the trench knife that stuck from his belt, he made sure it would draw easily. His little trench shovel was stuck in his belt as well, along with Mills bombs. He looked back across the field, he felt a little electric pulse when he saw the shadowed houses.
Death was there, waiting. He knew it. And he knew there was nothing he could do to stop the dying, the screaming. The assault would go in and Medals was ready. What good was his mastery of Latin now, he wondered.
The lessons of plain steel were the only ones that mattered.
Private Clarence Turtle wished he had dug his hole just a little bit deeper. Maybe that would keep Crawford from noticing him when the flares went up. He looked across the dim field and could see it heaving with explosions, tracers, and the crazy dancing light of flares. For two months Muds had been telling himself each day that this one would be the last, that he would never see the rising sun again.
For now the field was peaceful, quiet. But Clarence knew what a bullshit illusion that was. On the other side the goddamn grey lice waited, their Spandau cocked and ready. He didn’t doubt that they had their sectors of fire laid in and locked, with some trench mortars, maybe artillery in support.
He wondered if the Germans had wireless or field telephones with a battery of howitzers on standby. Muds hated artillery, he received his nickname when a nearby explosion had caused him to soil his pants back in May. He swore that if he was ever tasked with escorting captured cannon-cockers to the rear, that they would “try to escape” instead.
Clarence ground his teeth; his right hand shook. It was always the right, his trigger hand. He shivered. For a moment he saw that boy, the surprise on his face when Clarence ran him through with his long bayonet. Again and again, it was always that boy on the trench raid in June.
Muds covered his eyes, he pinched his nose. As a child, he had heard plenty of yarns about the spirits in the forests, the ghosts in caves, the spectral flights of owls. He believed in that stuff. Or he had. Not anymore, because he hadn’t seen one single ghost in France, which should be flooded with them.
He balled his shaking hand into a fist. It helped, a little. Then it came to him. There were ghosts; they were there. He saw the boy, felt the bayonet pierce his soul.
The ghosts lived in his head.
Private Andrew Little held his Enfield close, but what he really wanted was Chief’s BAR. He was qualified on the automatic rifle, he was a little pissed when Chief came back from headquarters. Rumor had it that he would be sent to the rear for sure. But he wasn’t so Spanky got his rifle back.
And here he lie in this damp hole in the ground, waiting for the flares to go up. Andrew was excited, back at the replacement depot the rumor had been that the war would be over before they got to the line, that the Germans were running and the fighting was over. Many were not so secretly relieved at the news, but Andrew had been deeply disappointed.
He wanted to fight, to prove himself. Maybe he would lose his hated nickname, and they would call him something swell like “Viper,” or “Killer,” instead. His mouth twisted downward in the dark. Spanky. What was a bloke to do, cooped up in a replacement depot with no dames? So what if he stroked it in the latrine and got caught?
Bastards. He’d show ‘em. He was every bit as tough as arseholes like Crawford, or old farts like Joe.
When those green balls of flame shot heavenward, it would be his moment.
Private Blair Whitacre had a hard-on, it was pressed against the dark earth. He was thinking about some girl, he couldn’t remember her name. But he remembered how sweet she was. It was the party he attended before he left; his mother had thrown it. There were a lot of people there; Blair didn’t know many of them. Friends of the family, or people from church, acquaintances. A blushing young girl had caught his eye, they spoke, laughed and disappeared.
Junior stirred at the memory. Back behind the stables he had lifted her skirts and they coupled quickly, vigorously. It was good. For a brief moment, Blair was happy. Then he looked back across the field, and remembered why he was here. His penis shrank and intense fear held him in its grip.
Jesus, he thought. He couldn’t talk his way out of this fix. Some German was going to try to kill him, the Hun didn’t care if he was the football team’s captain, their bullets would shred him as well as that arsehole half-caste Chief.
Being honest with himself, he thought Chief would be more likely to survive.
Junior had treated military training like a joke; he had a knack for getting out of onerous duties. He had pretty much skated through training, and he treated the boat ride to France like some sort of steerage-class vacation. It wasn’t really real to him until he got to the replacement depot, and he saw the sick fear on the faces of the men headed up to the line.
And then it had been his turn, and he was stuck with Crawford, who was immune to his charms. Life had taken a downward turn from that moment on, and now here he was, in some shitty field in France.
For the first time in his life, he meant it when he prayed.
Private Pete Townshend was in the next hole over, and he always meant it when he spoke to the Lord. That’s what he was doing right now, he said the Lord’s Prayer over and over. As he held his steel and wood killing machine, he beseeched a higher power for deliverance, for Pete was no fool.
He knew that a little slug of copper and lead could take his life and deliver his soul to God. And he wasn’t ready to go yet. He wished more than anything to be back home in his Victorian cottage, with his wife Helen and two girls.
As he lay there smelling fresh dirt and gun solvent, he thought about how the girls played in the grass, how they chased butterflies and petted the cat. His eyes watered at the memory, he wiped a tear from one. It burned. He cursed his stupidity; he had bore cleaner on his hands and hadn’t washed. Crawford had insisted that each man should clean his weapon before sunset; they would be used tonight.
Could he do it, he thought. Could he put a man in his sights and pull the trigger? A child of God, blessed by the spirit? So what if God had decided to put that other man in a grey uniform, and he was in khaki. It didn’t make any sense to him, nothing did. No-one had been more displeased to get a conscription notice than Pete. He didn’t feel he should be here, he didn’t want to be here with these dangerous kids. They called him “Pepper” on account of his salt and pepper hair, and he let them. He didn’t mind. He’d do his duty.
But damn he didn’t want to.
Private Sam Wordsworth, “Sweetie,” held the letter from his wife in his hand and wept. He couldn’t read it; it was too dark. But he knew what it said, almost by heart. He could see his wife’s plain cursive script, how it told of his son, the crops, and the weather. As usual, it said nothing of the hole his absence made, the work left undone, the problems with his humble acres. But he knew those things were there, left unwritten between the lines.
And Sam knew he would never go home again. He’d never feel the corn tassles between his fingers, the smell of black Ohio earth, the babble of the nearby creek where he’d rest after ploughing. Kitty would bring him lemonade, and he would look across his land, his patch of heaven. Never, he thought, to be seen again.
Sweetie felt rage. He swore violently, he hated a black hatred. For King and Goddamn Empire, he thought, I’m in some other farmer’s field halfway around the earth waiting to die. He gripped his rifle in his meaty hands, it looked like a toy when he held it. But he knew damn well its bullets would shred even a giant like himself.
Sam had never shot a man, as far as he knew. Oh, he fired, along with everyone else. But he didn’t want to know. Sometimes he would close his eyes when he pulled the trigger. It was all just too much, and he hated it. There was only one time he was certain he had killed or badly hurt a man. A German was about to shoot Joe, and Sam struck him with his shovel. He didn’t look down, but he could still feel the crunch when his little spade struck home. Like splitting a tough log.
As he lay in his hole, Sweetie felt sick. He probably had killed the German. For his sin, he would never go home. Tears ran down Sam’s face, one dripped upon his Enfield.
He put away the letter.
Private Joe Magyar heard a hiccup from Sweetie’s hole; he knew the man was crying. He always did that before an attack. Joe, he wished he could light his pipe. He chewed a plug instead. An attack against an unknown enemy. Fantastic, he thought. A battalion minus night assault, they’d probably shoot each other in confusion.
He didn’t like it. He would have been much happier with some artillery support, or maybe a few of those Fords. Joe sighed and chewed the sweet plug. He spat. How he got balled up in this damn war, he didn’t know. All he knew is that he had received a letter from King George V, and his choices were taken away. Again.
In some ways, this was just like the Philippines. People trying to kill you at random times, the dry-mouthed fear. The misery. The headache-inducing pure stress.
In other ways, it wasn’t. The climate was completely different, and so was the enemy. But the Germans were still the enemy; and they were damn good killers. Joe had lost track of how many close calls he had. A shell fragment in his rifle’s stock. A trench shovel that missed, the blade cutting the air before his nose. The phweet of close bullets. The cough of a trench mortar, the silent explosion that killed.
He knew his luck would run out, his soul belonged to God. Since the Philippines he had been living on borrowed time, anyway. For a second he watched as his very first Lieutenant took a bullet to his white pith helmet, a gout of blood splashed out and the man went down like a sack of potatoes.
Just like that, it was over. What did it matter that the man had a fancy double name and lands in England? Nothing, as far as Joe could tell.
This attack would be like any other. Joe would live or die, and at the end they’d see who made it, and who did not. He raised his eyebrow, worked his chew and sighed.
Whether he was one of the counters or the counted, well, he figured he’d see. He didn’t dare think of home, or Imogene.
Down that path lay madness.
Corporal Daniel Crawford was a ball of nervous energy, his hole was set back from the line, catty-corner from Joe and Bill’s. He knew damn well what it was like to be under fire, he had faced his first Mausers and Krupp guns in Cuba. It seemed at times to be forever ago, and then at other times yesterday. He had taken the King’s shilling when he was sixteen to escape from the rough cabin that was his childhood home.
He remembered the sultry, stifling heat, marching into battle wearing that lousy, good for nothing white pith helmet. The shock of the first bullets, the screaming of a wounded horse. The dead, laying willy-nilly with oddly twisted forms. Their expressionless faces. The flies.
Shortly after Cuba he had mustered out, for a time he had enough of a soldier’s life. Then he found that he actually missed the regimentation, the secure lines of a life spent in service. So he wandered into a bobbie’s job, he helped police the little town of Cambridge. When the war started, he wanted to sign up immediately, but his Chief wouldn’t let him go.
So he sat and stewed while the losses mounted. And then he got his draft notice, and even the Chief of Cambridge Police couldn’t ignore that. Daniel returned to the colors. He wouldn’t say he was eager to return to combat, because he wasn’t. But being back in the service felt like coming home.
And home at the moment was this shitty field, and his family and responsibility were ten men.
In the last hole, so that he could cover his squad’s sector, lay Private Bill Strohmeier. Everything was ready; he would do his part, he knew that for certain. As usual before a fight, he felt watched, weightless, as if he would blow away in a strong wind. The minutes stretched, his eyes hurt with the strain of his vigil behind the sights of the BAR. His right index finger tapped the trigger guard, he had a round in the pipe with the safety off. He breathed in and out, and wished for a last smoke before battle. But there was no safe way to light up, so he didn’t. The plug tobacco he had gotten from Joe a couple of hours earlier was chewed into a tasteless mass, he had no idea what time it was.
He imagined he could hear the ticking of a clock, his right shoulder throbbed. In the dark, he heard the small noises of men making last minute adjustments to their gear. He spat out the useless chunk of plug tobacco, his mouth was dry as a bone anyway. He pulled out his canteen and took a little sip, he swirled the water around.
As he put his canteen away, he heard a series of small pops. Green streaks raced heavenward, the flares pierced the night. Vickers guns and the three inch battalion mortars spat death and ruin.
It was time.