If I had awoken in no man’s land after my own apparent death, I would cry out too. Maybe not for help, exactly. Maybe just to break the silence.
We all agonized as we heard a new voice rise above the field and make its way to us. His was the third we had heard that week. Each had woken up and, after a few days, fell back into unconscious apathy. We had to bolster each other’s spirits through their crying, but this last chap was too much. Something in him just wouldn’t let go.
I rounded up Llywelyn and Cartwright, all of us asking the Lieutenant to permit a rescue party. The request was denied. He informed us that Command had us gagged. Our part of the line was well-covered by Bosch sharpshooters, and it was unlikely anything could help the poor wretch now. We’d have to leave him crying out for our own safety. I left the Lieutenant’s bunker without as much as a single word.
Out in the trenches, all I could do was press my back to the outer wall and listen. He was close. The distance would only be a few yards during peacetime. But he was miles away now, and every second spent listening only prolonged our shared agony and spread whatever infection was running its course through his body. How far had it spread while he was out in the muck of ground and flesh?
Listening to the noise, I wonder: How many of the wounded ever made it back to the front line? For that matter, how many of them actually got back home?
Bowles, a walking tree stump and a brute of a soldier, said nothing during the ordeal. After an hour or more, he only rooted around for a pair of field glasses and used them to scan the area, taking care to keep himself low to the embankment. I knew that I should’ve wanted to tell someone, or at least try to stop him then and there, but I didn’t.
After a while, Bowles climbed back into the trench. We all sat in silence as he located his rifle and resumed his perch. Being a gamekeeper’s boy, we all knew that Bowles’ shot would make its mark without incident.
I didn’t flinch when the report of the gun resounded, giving way to complete silence.
Bowles climbed back in, loading another round into the chamber. Bullets, whizzing like bees from the German line, impacted the earth on the rear end of the trench. He crouched against the outward wall next to me, holding his rifle under his arm like some country nibs come back from the hunt.
Llywelyn looked over to Bowles to say, “And what was that?”
Bowles looked back. “What? Ah, I just bagged a Bosch scout jumping ‘tween the shell holes. Who knows what information he might take home? Couldn’t have that.”
“That’s funny,” Llywelyn said. “Scouts and runners tend to move at night. Broad daylight would make them an easy target out in no man’s land.”
Bowles lowered his head and the tone of his voice. “Then I must’ve bagged a pretty stupid Bosch.”
Who says that he didn’t?
Jon Tyktor is a writer of many types, none of them professional. He is currently a co-host on a creativity-driven podcast called Tell Don’t Show.