This is the concluding part of a two-part story. Copyright is held by the author.
THE TALK had made them more nervous. They turned to their usual remedy, a game they’d invented to while away long hours of marching or waiting. They called it the home game. One of them would start by mentioning a scene or a simple chore from home. The swimming hole on the river, for instance, or potato planting or threshing day. Each in turn had to fill in some authentic feature of the scene.
“Drawing in hay,” Jim might start.
“The loader rattling along behind the wagon,” Johnny would say, “and like as not breaking down before the end of the first windrow.”
“The clean dry smell of fresh timothy rising up around you.”
“Watching out for groundhog holes.”
As the images went back and forth, they forgot how their feet hurt and their shoulders ached; they escaped in mind from the cold and the mud and the fear of the trench, or the boredom of the long, long waits that every army manoeuvre involved.
The winner was the one who remembered the most details. They kept score. Repetitions or missed turns lost points. Each winning point bought a drink at the rest camp.
They pretended it was all about the score and the contest to see who would buy the drinks, but really it was about staying connected to each other, to their home place, to a peaceful world that they could find again some day.
“Maple syrup time,” Johnny began now.
“The whistle of the sleigh’s runners on the freezing snow.”
“The fire blazing and the steam rising from the boiling pot.”
“Sky hard and clear as a blue glass plate.”
“Silence. If you stand still, you can hear the sap dripping into the pails.”
“It was on a day just like that, at a sugaring do, that I first kissed Ellen,” Jim said.
Johnny was startled at this turn. The unspoken rule was that there would be no talk of women in the game. Some dreams and memories were better kept private.
Of course, Johnny knew about Jim’s Ellen. He’d seen her photo. Jim carried it always in a green leather case he kept wrapped in clean socks in his pack.
She was a nice-looking girl, all right, but not a patch on Gladys McFarlane, in Johnny’s opinion. He could kick himself for not asking for Gladys’ photo when he was home on leave before they left for England. He’d wanted to. He had his chance when she and her folks came over to visit on the Sunday afternoon and he walked her down to the back field to see the new colt. He was at the point of asking two or three times. He wondered would he kiss her first, or after she said ‘yes’? But then, if she didn’t say yes, what would he do?
What a fool he was! Supposed to be a hero going off to fight the enemy, but not brave enough to ask little Gladys McFarlane for her photo. They walked to the back field and looked at the colt and walked back and nothing happened. Next thing, she was in the buggy, waving good-bye. A danged fool he was!
If only he’d asked for her picture, she would write to him, sure as sure. Then he too would have a photo to gaze at and long letters to dream over.
Of course, if Gladys wrote to him, he’d have to write back. Only what would he say? He was not a great writer. He was best suited to those cards they gave out and you ticked in what you wanted to say.
It would be a good idea to send one of those to his folks tonight.
Neither man was concentrating on the game. They let it drop.
Jim took out the letter to Ellen again and Johnny went off in search of a postcard from the sergeant. He wrote in the address and ticked the boxes: “I am well,” “thank you for the letter,” and “will write soon.” Well, and he would write soon, after this battle; he’d have something to say then. Maybe he’d be able to tell about a great victory. He’d get Jim to help him if he was short of words. Give my regards to Gladys, he’d finish. Then maybe she’d take the hint and write him. He dropped the postcard into the bag for collection.
The rain was changing to a harsh, driving sleet. Ah, but this was a terrible country. The wind cut a body to the bone. There was way too much sky. A land needed fields, square and fenced with logs in zigzags, leaving room for stone piles, chokecherry trees, brambles and a basswood or elm where cattle would gather in the afternoon shade.
There might be trilliums by now along those fences of home, or bloodroot, and the smell of earth newly released from snow.
He thought of his mother’s letter, pictured his father running the seed grain through his hands, sharpening the plough on a rainy afternoon, waiting for planting time.
The padre came round, passed out cigarettes. “Not long to wait now, lads. Everyone all right here?”
The men nodded. During the night, a man from C company had gone mad, running out on to No Man’s land screaming. Someone had brought him in and wrestled him down, and he was hurried back down the line. Some said it was the noise drove him crazy. The cynics said it was a coward’s way to get out of the coming battle. “Why would the poor fool run towards the enemy if that was so?” Johnny asked. He thought it was about impossible to know another man’s fear.
The padre started in on a prayer. Johnny listened to the familiar phrases: guard and protect these thy servants . . . the righteousness of our cause . . . thy will be done . . . glory everlasting. In spite all his years of church and Sunday school going, Johnny had only heard words before; now he found himself praying in earnest for the first time in his life. He didn’t want to be a wrecked men on a stretcher. Not that God, anything but that. And not dead either. He wanted to get back home when this was over, back to the fields of Duoro. “Keep us safe, God,” he prayed along with the preacher. “Me and Jim. Keep us safe. And the others,” he added, not wanting God to think him selfish, and so in need of punishment.
After the padre came the sergeant with the rum ration. “Prayer to warm the soul and rum to warm the body,” Jim said. “The last comforts for the doomed.”
“Get yourselves ready. Zero hour in ten minutes,” the sergeant said.
Out in the trench they lined up three deep at their position. Lieutenant Jones had hold of the ladder, one foot on the lowest rung.
Captain Trevors looked at his watch. “Attach bayonets!” His voice rang out over the din.
And then, exactly on time, the roar of the artillery ceased. The only sound was the clicking of a thousand bayonets against the metal holding rings, echoing all along the sudden silence of the trench like a swarm of angry hornets.
Then the whistles blew and at the same moment came a new roar, so loud it seemed the sky and all its heavy load of stars must be falling upon them. The barrage! This was the rain of artillery fire moving forward at the measured pace that they must follow.
Lieutenant Jones sprinted up the ladder and over the parapet, the next man already following, then Jim.
As Johnny’s hands touched the rough wood he remembered the flood of fear he’d felt when he grabbed the wooden rails of the entry chute that time when, on a dare, he’d tried the bull riding at the Peterborough rodeo, how he’d wished there was some way to turn back, but there wasn’t then. Nor here neither. Four seconds he’d lasted then. He prayed he’d last a whole lot longer this time.
He was up and over the parapet. The sky ahead was ablaze with shooting lights like fireworks. Enemy guns? Signal flares? He saw Lieutenant Jones wave his revolver, and he followed.
Over to his left a man crumpled to the ground. Johnny didn’t stop. He stumbled against a body, stepped over, didn’t stop. The sleet was falling thick now, driving against their backs, urging them forward. Through the smoke and darkness, the swirling snow and the erratic flashes of light, he could barely make out Jim’s form blundering forward to his right.
The sleet suddenly changed direction, spat against them. No, not sleet. Machine gun bullets, and danged close. Johnny crouched lower and got off a few shots in the direction of the firing. He could sense the men around him forming into the pattern they’d practised. Lieutenant Jones was leading the grenadiers around to the side. In a few minutes the explosion came, then another.
“Got the buggers!” someone shouted.
The company moved on. This was going well, just like in the practice. As long as you didn’t think about the bodies left lying in the slush and mud. And the cold. Johnny’s hands were stiffening and growing numb on the rifle. He fired into the ground to limber them up.
“Shooting groundhogs?” Jim called to him.
“Danged things are everywhere,” Johnny shouted back. It was good to know Jim was in better spirits. Heck, they might be heroes yet.
The slope grew steeper. They must be coming to that blue line any minute now.
Just then the ground around him erupted in showers of mud and slush. He was knocked off his feet and lay stunned for a moment, then realized he wasn’t hurt. He must get up, keep going, keep up the pace. He could see Captain Trevors ahead. But where was Jim?
He peered through the sleet and smoke. The body lying on the ground there, could it be Jim? Was he hit?
He knelt and turned the body over gently. “Jim, can you hear me? Jim?”
“I ain’t deaf.”
Johnny laughed in relief, then sobered as he felt warm blood soaking the jacket under his hands. He fumbled for the field dressing in his pack, tore open Jim’s jacket and held the bandage against the wound.
“Is it bad?” Jim whispered.
“Nah. Shrapnel I guess. You still got all your parts attached. You’ll be all right.”
The blood was flowing fast. He found Jim’s field dressing and added it to the makeshift bandage.
“You better get moving on,” Jim said.
“We said we’d stay.”
“Ah that was just talk. Wind up before the battle. I’m all right. Go on now before you get yourself hit too.”
The wound was on the heart side.
Johnny rolled up an empty sand bag and sat on it as if this was just another rest stop on a route march. “In her letter, Mother said they was thinking of starting the spring ploughing,” he said. “Now there’s the job I like just about best in the year.”
“The heat of the sun.” Jim’s voice was a whisper.
“The soil black, not like this goose shit here.”
“The cold still in the ground.”
“The thudding of the horses hooves, the clink of the harness.”
Jim fell silent. His eyes were closed. Shells were falling closer, ripping sky and earth, raining down steel, spewing up earth and smoke and flesh and blood.
Johnny kept on with the home game. “The way the earth kind of sighs when it peels away from the plough. Bit of a breeze blowing in from the west. Stop to heave away a big old rock you’ve loosened up. Gid up the horse again. Think of the harvest you’ll have from this.”
Snow lay now unmelted on Jim’s face. He’d speak no more of home, nor dream of it. It was up to Johnny now to remember, and to get back to Duoro, and to hold on to their hopes for how it would be there.
He stood and planted Jim’s rifle beside him and hung his helmet on it so the stretcher bearers would see and carry his friend to a proper grave. Then he reached into Jim’s pocket and took out the packet of letters from Ellen. These he tore into shreds and scattered on the snow and mud. They were private dreams; Jim wouldn’t want anyone else to read them.
Then Johnny turned and hurried through the storm of fire towards the heights of Vimy Ridge.