Final Battle

     The c-ration tin landed at his feet.  Peter glanced at his men.  Lacking sleep, needing a shave, and still hungry, the men in his squad rested alongside a rock fence halfway up a hillside that had seen heavy fighting all day.  For four days, the fighting had been intense.  It had been two since they’d had a hot meal, two more since they’d slept with any success.  In the distance, a rifle cracked, interrupting their reprieve, their fleeting peace.

     Reaching for a cigarette, Peter touched the envelope containing the photographs that rested next to his heart.  He extracted the smoke, dug the cigarette lighter from his pocket, the one Beth had sent him for Christmas the winter before after he’d confessed having taken up the habit, and lit the Lucky Strike.  Taking a long thoughtful drag, he gazed at the rocky, ravaged hillside.  Off in the distance, the click of machine gun fire filled the air.  It would soon be dark.  Peter hated fighting in the dark. 

     Flipping the lighter over, he read the inscription on its silver side and remembered the line from Beth’s card.  “I’m sending this with my love so that you don’t burn your fingers playing with matches.”  He smiled.  He knew her so well.  The recollection ended as he recalled his next letter home.  He could still recite his response to her clear disapproval.  He doubted he’d keep his promise and quit once he was home.  He might.  He’d at least try.

     Securing the cigarette between his lips, he reached into his pocket for the letter he’d been carrying next to his heart since Phil had handed it to him weeks before.   Unfolding it carefully as he had that morning on the landing craft, he pulled the photographs from its folds.  Cautiously, so he would not smudge them with his blackened hands, Peter turned them, studied them in the fading light.  A smile lifted the corner of his weary eyes; his lips curled ever so slightly.  With an ache that seemed never to abate, he scrutinized the new photo of his wife’s face, compared it the one he’d carried with him since he left, the one always closest to his heart.  She was even more beautiful than he remembered.

     Placing both back in his pocket, he turned to the other she’d sent.  One of the faces smiling at him was a blonde, blue-eyed boy well past the baby stage he remembered.  Tommy’s expression: his eyes, even his chin, were Peter’s.  Peter returned his smile, remembered the last time he’d held him in his arms, ached to do so again.

     Seated beside Tommy in the picture was a pudgy, round-faced girl with down-colored hair and a mouth in the exact pout her mother would sometimes assume.  But it was her eyes that took his breath away.  Her eyes were Elizabeth’s eyes.  Tommy’s arm was around the baby’s shoulder, supporting her, keeping her from falling.  At the moment the picture had been snapped, she reached towards the camera.  In effect, it appeared that she was reaching for him.  She was beautiful! 

     Placing the photos carefully back in the envelope, Peter removed the letter that had come with them.  “Dearest Peter” it began.

     These were taken shortly after Tommy’s second birthday, when Angela was nearly six month’s old.  I wanted you to see how much he’s grown and to show you our beautiful baby girl.  She is pure joy to me. 

     Your parents remark how both look like you.  I guess they’re right in part, but Grandma and I agree she favors me.  I have a feeling you’d take our side though it seems to me she has her Uncle Matt’s temperament. 

     Your father has spoiled her completely already. Chasing after her seems twice as hard as it was with Tommy, but then, it’s my greatest pleasure as well.  The two of them certainly fill my days; it’s only my nights that are empty . . .

     Your last letter gave us to believe you were soon to leave Africa.  Often these lovely summer evenings, Grandma and I sit out under the willow and wonder about you.  I’m so glad she’s here.  She and Ben are good company for us. 

     Crops look good.  Matt is causing your mother a great deal of heartache.  He insists he’s enlisting as soon as the corn is picked.  Maybe you could write to him . . .

     She went on to tell of other news of Wareham, of her brother Bill’s decision to move to Omaha after graduation.  “Aunt Margaret’s finally found her banker,” she wrote then signed off with her love and her prayers for God to watch over and protect him.

     Peter’s stomach knotted.  His breathe became short, uneven.  He ached for the sound, the smell of home, as he hadn’t for days.  He ached for the feel of freshly plowed earth in his hands, under his feet.  Closing his eyes, he remembered the sweet scent of curing alfalfa, the song of the lark, a dove cooing the dawn.  It all seemed so very far away. 

     Phil Ramerez, seated beside him, noticed the change.  “You’ll see them again, Sarge,” he said softly. “That baby girl.  You’re a good man, Pete.  If anyone deserves to get home, it’s you.  Now me,” he chuckled, “the things my priest could tell you . . .”

     “Johnson was a good man, Phil,” Peter interrupted and slid the letter back into his pocket.  “He’s not going home.  I don’t think good and bad matters here.”  His eyes held Phil’s.  “I don’t think it matters one bit—not here.”

     “Christiansen!” the lieutenant barked, headed over.

     Peter stiffened.  “Yes, sir!”

     The lieutenant’s boots crunched rock.  He went to a knee in front of Peter.  “There’s a squad just beyond the crest of that hill,” he said and motioned to the left.  “Caught in some kind of church, a chapel of some sort.  We need to reinforce their position.  I want you and your men to come in this way.”

     Reaching down into the dust, he traced a plan of attack.  “Another squad is working up from over here.  If we don’t get to them soon, they may not hold.  We can’t lose that position!  Any question?”

     “No, sir.”  By now, Peter knew instinctively what to do; they all did.  Tossing the butt of the cigarette away, he reached for his rifle.  “Come on, men.  You heard the man.  Let’s go.”

     True dusk had settled in by the time they came within view of their destination.  In the failing light, they could see the remnants of a small country chapel, white against the graying hillside, its wall pockmarked from shelling.  The entire southwest corner of the roof was a gapping hole.  Only the cross, white against the twilight sky, seemed intact.  Everything else was touched by the conflict. 

As they approached, what impressed Peter most was the unnatural quiet that encompassed the place.  Once he wondered if maybe they’d come too late; training and instinct drove him on.  Leading the way, he raced for the open doorway; his men, scattered behind him like seeds from a sower’s hand, raced after him.

     Peter passed through the open doorway and, ducking down by the north wall, took a quick look around.  On the inside, the destruction was even more pronounced.  Soldiers crouched amid the rubble that littered the room, hid behind it for protection.  Several casualties had been dragged into the southeast corner of the building—away from the living.  To a man, the living looked as Peter felt—exhausted. 

     “Who’s in charge?” Peter called as his men scrambled in beside him. 

     “I am,” came a bleak response from the far corner. 

     Working his way towards the corner, Peter crawled the final few yards to avoid becoming a target through the large hole opened up along the north wall.  Seeing the bandaged leg, Peter searched the man’s face.  “Hurt bad?”

     “Broken, but I’ll be alright.  You can’t be the only ones coming?”

     “No, sir.  Another detachment’s coming in from that direction.”  He motioned towards the west where the sky had gone opal, beautifully void of color. 

     “Good.  We’ll need ‘em.”

     “It’s mighty quiet.  I expected resistance.”

     “Too quiet.  I don’t like it.  They’ll be back, you can bet the farm on that.  We cut them up pretty bad, but they aren’t about to give up—not them—not here.”

     Peter surveyed the rear of the building.  Above them, through the gapping hole, he saw two stars turn on in a violet sky.  Beneath the breach and not six feet away sat an altar, buried under fallen rock and shattered timber.  A bronze crucifix protruded above the ruble.  Beside it, a radioman tinkered with his radio.  Tall and lean and bent on repair, he cowered in the altar’s shadow as if its presence were his only hope.  Recognizing what they’d all been through, Peter looked back to the wounded lieutenant. 

     “How long you been here?”

     “All damn day,” the lieutenant said soberly.  “You sure more help is coming?  The last blast took out the radio.”  He looked towards the cowering man, called, “Jess?  Anything?”

     The lean face turned.  Shaking his head hopelessly, his eyes found his lieutenant’s.  He opened his mouth to speak, but when his eyes met those of the man beside his commanding officer, he realized his greatest enemy was not outside but inside the battered chapel walls. Jess, as if struck by an invisible hand, dropped back into shadows.

     Peter’s helmet clanged mutely against the slate floor as he lunged.  Grabbing Jess by the front of his filthy fatigues, Peter pulled him from the darkness and, hauling him into the half-light of the ravaged sanctuary, saw the jagged scar that ran from his cheekbone down the side of his face. 

     Jess saw Peter’s eyes, struggled to break free of his grasp. 

Peter held fast.  Seeing that scar, nothing registered in his mind save the imaged of his wife’s battered body in that long ago hospital room, her broken fingernails on a bruised hand against white hospital sheets.  Enraged, he shoved Jess, back into the altar, shoved him so hard, it knocked both off balance. 

     Jess hit the dirt, tried to crawl away.

“What the hell?” the lieutenant yelled.

Peter held on.  Cursing with a tongue that seemed foreign even to him, Peter let wicked blow after wicked blow find its mark.  Locked in a life and death struggle, they rolled across broken rock and splintered wood until, with quickness that surprised even Peter, he was on top of Jess, choking the life from his astonished victim.  “You son-of-a-bitch!  You bastard!”

     Hands grabbed him.  Arms pulled him from his prey.  He fought against them, cursed anew, and held on, until Phil Ramerez hooked an arm around his throat, slowly began choking him.  Breathless, Peter finally relented.

     “Get him out of my sight!” he cried hoarsely.  “Get him away from me! 

“You’re a dead man, Jess!”

     The lieutenant drug himself to where they held Peter.  Looking at his stunned radioman, he asked, “Jess?  You alright?” 

     Jess nodded and moved back into shadow.

     “Not for long you aren’t, Jess.  I swear to God!”  Peter’s words were fiercely, soberly sincere.

     The officer turned on Peter.  “Listen here, Sergeant!  I don’t know what’s between you, and right now, I don’t care!”  He grabbed Peter’s shirt, demanded his attention.  “Are you listening to me?”

     Months of training, of taking orders, broke through some of Peter’s rage.  Furious eyes fastened on the lieutenant.  “Yes, sir.”

     “When and if we get out of here, we’ll deal with whatever is between you.  Is that clear?”

     “Yes, sir.” 

     Peter squirmed against confining arms.  The officer nodded.  Like tentacles releasing stone, arms unwound.  Free, Peter aimed eyes into the shadows, fired another volley.  “Damn you to hell, Jess!  You should have killed me when you had the chance!”

     “The rest of you get ready,” Lieutenant Jenkins said, “They’ll attack any time!” 

Grabbing Peter by his dirty fatigues, the lieutenant drug him back to their former position.  “Now, I want to know.  Tell me, son, just between you and me.  I need to know what I’m dealing with here.  Or is it that you just enjoy killing people?  Damn it, why?”

     The accusatory tone curbed Peter’s rage further.  His eyes found the officer’s stern gaze.  He looked down.  “My wife . . . he . . . she . . . we both almost died . . .”

     The air was ominously still.  The officer searched Peter’s face, saw the horrible truth his words implied.  Finally, he cleared his throat and asked, “You’re absolutely sure it was him?”

     “Damn it, lieutenant!” Peter’s blue eyes danced.  “We grew up together.  He was my . . . my best friend!”

     When the lieutenant still studied him, his anger mounted.  “If you don’t believe me, ask him where he got the scar on his face!  Ask him whose wife put it there!”

     “Alright, alright, Christiansen.  You get way the hell over there to that side of the building.  When this is over, I’ll personally help you settle this.  But for now, we have other things to worry about.  Alright?”

     “Yes, sir.  Just watch my back.  I don’t want her to be a widow—not just yet.”

     Lieutenant Jenkins patted his shoulder and handed Peter the helmet he’d lost when he lunged at Jess.  Peter placed it back on his head, made his way across the room, crawled up beside Phil, adjusted his rifle to firing position with his attention half to the out-of-door, half into the shadows.

     Phil studied his friend for quite a while.  He’d known Peter since basic.  In that time, he’d rarely seen him ruffled let alone really angry. 

     “It must have been something pretty awful.  What he did.”

     “Yeah, it was.  Pretty awful.”

     The trajectory of the bullets cut the air creating streaks of flame in the darkening sky.  Those inside returned fire against their invisible enemy.  Soon it seemed they were becoming surrounded, cut-off from the promised reinforcements.  Intermittently, Peter could catch Jess’s voice pleading for response, for someone—anyone—to answer his plea for help.  Garbled noise was all that ever came back.  Both the sound of Jess’ voice and the frustrating lack of radio response intensified Peter’s rage.  He fired mercilessly at the enemy.  Then, almost as quickly as it had started, the attack ceased.  All inside watched for moving shadows.  They saw none.  They strained for sound.  Everything was still.

     Seconds became interminable.  Once more—unearthly calm.  The moon gutted the hillside, filled it with light.  Peter turned his back to the wall and searched the rubble filled building, the hill beyond for any sign of movement.  His eyes found Jess; he studied him.  Jess was a caged animal, trapped in shadow. 

Jess felt his eyes, met his gaze.  Peter turned away.  Disgust filled him.  There would be no escape, not for Jess, not this time.  It was only a matter of time.  He would not forgive him, not for what he’d done. 

     Looking back, he found that Jess still watched him.  It surprised him.  The old Jess would have brazenly disregarded his look; the old Jess, the one he’d faced in Henry’s bank lobby, would have turned away.  Peter struggled for self-control.  After all, one quick movement and it would all be settled.  Just lift and shoot.  And become . . . what?  A murder?

And Beth?  What of her then?  She became his focus, getting home to her his primary motivation. 

Slowly and with disciplined effort, Peter began to regain control.  He relaxed his vigil.  As much as he hated Jess, there was no point; he could not hurt Beth, not here.  Peter thought of her so many miles away, alone with their babies to care for, and once again, wanted desperately to be home—with her.  Waiting, that was the hardest part.  It was a lesson he’d learned well.

     Removing his helmet, he turned from Jess and took her photograph from his shirt pocket, studied her face in the moonlight and prayed, prayed that, by God’s grace, he would return home to her, whole and able to care for her, for their family.  Most of all, he prayed that the war and it’s killing would soon end.  He’d grown tired of death, of the stench of war.  He’d grown tired of hate, of its darkness.

     Beside him, Phil watched him study the photograph.  “I told you, Sarge, you’ll make it.  You have to.  You’re one of the good guys.”

     “That’s what I keep telling myself.  At this minute, it’s a little hard to believe.  Guess it’s in the hands of the man upstairs.  Sure hope he sees things my way.”

     “We’ve come through a lot together.  We’ll make it through this too.”  Phil considered a moment then asked, “What he did?  It had something to do with her?”   

Peter studied his friend. “Yeah,” he said sadly, “It had everything to do with her.”  Tucking the photograph back into his pocket, he wondered, “How’d you know?”

     “All this time we’ve been together, your wife, your kids, heck, they’re the things that matter to you.  And I sure as hell ain’t ever seen you react like that before—not for nothin’.  What’d he . . .”

     “Peter.”

     The all too familiar voice jerked Peter’s attention away.  Instinctively, he cocked his rifle, lifted it.

     “I don’t blame you if you use that, but I hope you’ll let me talk to you first.”

     Peter’s finger rested on the trigger.  His voice shook as rage renewed, coursed through him. “I can’t imagine what we could say to one another, Jess.”

     Jess knelt directly in front of the rifle.  “It’s been a long time, Peter.  Almost three years.  I’ve been through a whole lot since then.”

     “So have I, no thanks to you.”  Peter glared at the jagged scar.

     Jess looked down.  “Pete, I know.  You’ve every right to hate me as you do.”

     “No shit, Jess.  I don’t think hate quite covers it.”

     Their eyes held in the failing twilight.  With each second, darkness deepened.

     “I’m sorry, Peter.  I’m so sorry. Is . . . I mean . . . she OK?”

     The rifle dropped.

     “How can you even mention her to me?  After what you did?  You sure as hell don’t deserve an answer?”

     “I know.  I know.  I’m trying to tell you . . . I’ve wanted . . . for so long . . . to tell you how sorry I am.”

     “You’re sorry alright.  You’re a sorry son-of-a-bitch, Jess.  You haven’t the slightest idea what you did to be sorry for! 

“If you wanted to hurt me, you did a hell of a job!  But her?  Why her?  Didn’t you know what that would do to her?”

     “God forgive me, Pete.  I . . . couldn’t seem to help myself.  I’m so sorry.”

     Peter’s chin quivered.  Fighting tears, he put his rifle down, moved to his knees, face to face with the man kneeling before him. Grabbing Jess’ shirt, he pulled him to within inches.  All eyes turned their way.  Men tensed in anxious anticipation.  Jess held up his hand to stop them.

     “Just so you know what you’re sorry for, Jess,” Peter hissed in his face, “let me ask.  Are you sorry for the hours we spent in the hospital waiting to see if she was going to live or die?  She almost died, did you know that?”

     Jess sagged visibly.  His eyes found the filthy floor.

     “Don’t you look away from me now!  That’s just the beginning.  Are you sorry for the shame she suffered when people looked at her, knowing what you’d done to her?  Do you know how angry that made me?  How much I hated you because of it?”

     “Pete, I . . .”

     “Wait!  I’m not finished.  Do you know how much it hurts to feel your wife tighten with fear every time you touch her when all you want to do is to hold her, to tell her how much you love her?  How about listening to her cry herself to sleep because of your best friend . . . even months later, and I wouldn’t even know why.  And all, Jess, because of you!” 

Peter shoved Jess away, gave a contemptuous snort.  Jess fell back on his elbow amidst the rubble. 

“And now, I’m supposed to just forgive you, pretend nothing happened?

     “Why, Jess?  Did you hate me that much?  I was your friend.  Why wasn’t that enough?”

     Jess looked at the broken timbers and rock lying all around him.  He fingered a small stone, studied it.  When he glanced up, tears ran down his grimy cheeks.  “I don’t know.”  It was as breathless as the still night. 

“I was just so angry . . . I couldn’t stop hating—everyone—but her, and she . . . I couldn’t stop running away.”

     Stunned, Peter stared at his former friend.  He’d never seen Jess cry.  Not really.  Even when they sat in the barn loft and listened to that auction that meant the end of their lives together, Jess had forced his tears to stop, cancelled their existence just as he had on his knees in a long ago muddy cornfield.  Now, Peter saw them leave white tunnels on Jess’ scarred cheek.

     Far from ready to trust this new man before him, he countered in disbelief.  “Why, Jess?  What happened to the old Blakemore philosophy of taking what you want without regard for anyone else?  How did you finally figure out it’s not what we take that matters, but what we give?  How, Jess?  Where did you learn that a real man sticks around, picks up the pieces and puts them back together instead of lighting out when things get tough?  Especially when they get tough.  What made you stop running, Jess?”

     The mortar screamed, shattering the stillness.  The explosion echoed through the building, filling it with smoke and dirt and flying debris.  Chunks of rock tumbled from the walls.  A hole opened up across the northwest corner of the chapel.  The wounded Lieutenant Jenkins would rest forever in its ruins.

     Everyone else hugged the earth.  The second shell landed on the southern wall, not far from where Peter and Jess sprawled.  As the air began to clear, Jess lifted, began to crawl towards the door.

     Peter grabbed him, held on.  “Where the hell you think you’re going?  I thought you were finished running away?”

     “We can’t stay here.  How many shells do you think this place can take?”

     “Jess!  You can’t go out there!  It’s what they want.  In this moon, they’ll pick us off one by one as we run.”

     “Well, someone has to go for help.  The damn radio’s gone.  We need help or . . .” Jess and Peter studied one another in the moonlight . . . “Someone has to take out that mortar.”

     Their eyes held.  Peter realized Jess meant what he’d said.  This time he wasn’t running away. 

     “Well, you’ll never make it.  You’re too damn slow.  Always could beat you by a country mile.”  Rolling away, Peter lifted slightly, turned towards Phil.  “Hand me that munitions satchel . . .”

     The incoming shell’s scream drowned out his words. Shrapnel seared Peter’s shoulder.  Hot metal grazed his head mere inches from the scar hidden under blonde hair.  Once again, it ran crimson as he fell to earth.

     “Peter!”  Jess crawled to him.  “Pete!  Oh, damn it, Pete, don’t you die on me.  Not now!”  Lifting him, he turned him over.  Warm blood was sticky on his fingers.  In seconds, Peter’s whole shoulder was a thick scarlet ooze.

     Phil Ramerez was by their side as another mortar screamed shattering the night.  It missed its mark, landed several yards short of the building.  As Jess lifted off Peter’s still form, Phil called, “Pete, Pete!  Hey, buddy.  Hang on.  Hang in there, Pete.  We’re gona get you some help.  Hang on.”

     Reaching into the left-hand pocket of Peter’s bloodied shirt, he pulled the pictures from the invading crimson flood, dropped them to the ground before he jammed a wad of gauze into the gaping hole in Peter’s shoulder.

     Jess’ eyes fell on the photographs.  He reached for them.  Time suspended itself.  Phil saw him wince at the sight of the two small children.  His reaction to the pictures of Beth, Phil thought extraordinary.  “I’m so sorry,” he sighed.

     “Listen, Bud, or Jess, or whatever the hell your name is.  I don’t know what you did to be sorry for, but right now, he needs help, and fast.”  Grabbing Jess with scarlet fingers, he shook him.  Jess looked over, nodded.

     With a glance back to Peter, Jess said, “I owe you both that much.”  Grabbing the munitions sack, he turned and said, “Stay with him till I get back.  If you leave him to die, I’ll hunt you down myself.”

     Phil returned Jess’ electric gaze.  “I don’t run out on my friends.”

     Taking Peter’s rifle, Jess crawled towards the door.

     “Good luck,” Phil said.

     Jess nodded and, with one last quick glance at Peter, disappeared.  Rifle fire echoed across the hillside.

Tags