Flanders, August 1, 1918.
He arrived. Meek and mild, tin hat fumbling in hand, he showed up one morning at my tent. Barnabas Scott, newest private of my squad, arrived on the field that first day of swelty August.
Vinny Edwards, my closest confident, took me aside that evening at mess.
“Sergeant Loner, ye’ve seen the new doughboy?”
He bit down on the hunk of bully beef he held in his hand. “Ye know where he came from?” “No.”
“Before him got drafted, him was a preachin’ boy.”
“He, he, he! Won’t he learn somethin’ about us?” He bit down again.
I stirred my broth. Vinny was rough, but that was what I liked about him. Our backgrounds were different, yet similar in some ways. He grew up working in a New York City casino. Poker teaches a fellow a lot about life.
I, however, had never handled more than fifty bucks in my entire life. I grew up an orphan, never knowing my ma or pop, living among rednecks and drunks in the little town of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Forget the drinking part, for I never stepped into a threshold of a public house. I despised the thought of getting tipsy. But those kind of acquaintances sure do make you kind of lonesome.
I hated friends. Any kind. Pitying, heart-stealing, touchy friends was all dirt. That’s why, never knowing my real name, I called myself Loner. Bob Loner.
The only person I took the smallest liking to was the ex-gambler Vinny Edwards, now my reliable corporal. I hung around him because we both trusted no one else, and cared only little for each other. It was a strange companionship. I knew not where it would lead.
I tuned back to his words.
“Bob, listen to me. Ye’ve got to smoosh ‘im. An’ no religion. I despise religion. Ye’ve––“ At this moment Vinny paused, for who else but Private Scott trotted up to the table.
The man was an amusing sight to behold. Mammoth, round, and foggy glasses perched on the edge of his large nose. The guy had a problem with his height-to-width proportion. Over 6’5 from hat to boot, his waist size had to be under 30’. The guy was a beanpole, of the bush variety, from the size of his whiskers. The dark hair straggled in all directions, reminding me of a certain farmer back home. This time, however, the uncontrolled hair wasn’t paired with tobacco and distilled hops. Parsons were always missing some things.
Private Scott saluted me and sat down at the table, his eyelids a continual flutter, and his lips a lop-sided grin. The pale man looked as if he had never seen a fellow human being outside his moldy book covers. And those ridiculous Bible stories.
Vinny nudged me mischievously. “That’s the preachin’ boy there now.”
“I know his face. He had to report.”
“Right-o. I know that. I’m just sayin’...Don’t we want to tell him a few thins’ now.” “Hmm. No.”
I continued eating my meal of bully beef and turkey broth, Vinny impatiently muttering.
Eventually, Private Scott scooted down the long wooden bench to us.
“Mind if I chat with you two?”
“You may.” I answered, preventing Vinny from talking with a strong stamp on his foot.
Private Scott coughed. “Oh. Alright. I thought you may like to know a little about me.”
“I know enough.”
“Really? Oh. You know then I’m a pastor of a church in Tennessee?”
“Pastor, yes. Tennessee, no.”
“Oh. Well, I need to ask you though... um.... Will you allow me to talk to my comrades about my Christianity?”
I glanced at Vinny, then back at the private. “Hmm... Yes, you may. But I won’t encourage it. There’ll those who’ll try and stop you. And I won’t discourage them.”
I glanced at Vinny again. He grinned slyly. I might discourage him, too, I tried to tell my corporal through my looks. He grinned wider.
“Now,” I turned back to the nervous private. “Get out of here and get your weapon ready. We move tonight.”
“Night-ops.” piped Vinny.
“Move!” I yelled.
Scott shot up and scampered away. Vinny chuckled.
I woke up that night around midnight after haunting dreams. My napper still ached from the long nap.
Well, I only slept only two hours. I shot a glance at my watch.
“Sarge.” It was Vinny. “The boys are ready. We move in at 1230, correct?”
“Got it.” I threw on my coat and hat.
I went to the captain’s office and reported, then found my men and briefed them. When it was all done, I jumped into the back of the waiting truck, signaling my men to follow. We sat silent as the bumpy automobile took us pass the tents and outposts, then down the lonely dark road.
“Remember,” I whispered. “We hit their gas line, then skedaddle. Brigade’s attacking tomorrow.
This is vital.”
“Any killin’?” Vinny’s sharp voice sounded malicious. “Only to defend. We go in and run. No dallying. Got it?”
I felt the men nod.
Suddenly, the truck jerked a stop.
“Pile out!” I whispered.
The gate was lowered and we slowly, one by one, snuck out into a deep ditch.
We crouched as Corporal Edwards peeked over the edge.
“One. Wait, two. Two sentries.”
“How far apart?”
“We take out the closest. Private Scott, you here?”
“Crawl out and slug that enemy sentry.”
Private Scott crawled out and slithered through the tall grass and pass the barbed wire towards the lone German soldier, quietly smoking a long cigarette.
“Corporal Edwards, you come with me.”
We slid out and crawled under the moon-lit sky.
I gripped the broom-handle of my Mauser C-96 pistol. I liked automatics.
Scott was close enough now to down the Kraut. Vinny and I paused.
A long, slender object leaped up suddenly and grasped the man. A short struggle ensued. Then the limp German body was slowly laid to the ground.
“Let’s hurry.” I told Vinny. “No dallying.”
We caught up to Private Scott. The man was seated on the ground, staring at the lifeless face of the body he had just killed.
“Snap out of it.” I ordered. “You come with us.”
Scott followed us two for the twenty yards till the sunken trench. We all crouched on our haunches.
“Corporal, you dig. Scott, you and I keep an eye out.”
Scott cocked his Enfield. I smirked. Wait you have fought in a real battle. You can pick up auto pistols from the dead bodies. I swung my Mauser.
“I’ve cut it.” Vinny broke the silence.
“Good. Let’s get back.”
I looked at my watch. Fifteen minutes. The attack would begin when we got back. We must hurry.
We crawled through the thick grass, thistles ripping my brown coat.
I whispered to Vinny. “Corporal, the private’s a––“
At that moment, I tripped on a large object. Something sharp stabbed my arm. I let out a howl.
Suddenly, a shout echoed close by, and I heard footsteps hurrying towards us.
“What has happened?” Scott asked, his voice quavering.
I looked down. I could almost have killed myself for my stupidity. Before me lay the body of the sentry. It was Scott’s abandoned knife which had somehow pricked me as I fell on the body. Now another body approached.
I stood on my knees and leveled my pistol. A crack reported, and a bullet wheezed by my face.
“Take cover!” I screamed.
I fell on my face.
The air suddenly erupted in the fire of rifles and pistols. Tracers from a machine flew everywhere.
I looked up at the sound of a movement above me. A tall massive German leaped out of the grass, a bayonet pointed at my throat.
Then, I will never fully remember all that occurred those short seconds, but I felt at that deathlike moment, a hard body leap on me. I cried out. I struggled, but then instantly I laid still at the sickening sound of a knife stabbing flesh. I couldn’t move. A loud rifle report exploded in my ear.
Blood oozed over my face, but it wasn’t mine. Something cold and heavy lay on me. I exerted my strength and tossed it off. I rose to my knees and looked at that something.
There lay the late Private Scott, a bayonet protruding from his chest. I glanced at my pal Vinny.
“The fool jumped on ye just as the Germen dove with ‘is rifle. I took care of the Kraut.”
I didn’t comprehend it all. I found my pistol under the body of my late assailant.
“Vinny, let’s get out of here. I feel like I’m going go crazy.”
“There’s enough o’ those around already. The lunatic preachin’ kid’s body is creepy enough. Let’s git.”
“Yea.” I reached over and closed his eyes.
“Here you go, Sergeant. The papers and letters of Private Scott as you requested.” The young trim private and his shiny boots marched out of my little tight tent.
War will teach him. I glanced at the bundle of paper on the table. Looks like parsons have a mighty large correspondence. I hadn’t received a letter ever.
I glanced at the first envelope. It was signed Lucy Scott, Murfreesboro.
Family, I grunted. I pulled out the letter and scanned the heading. It read,
I know not what to write. The babes––
I stopped there. Just another widow in this world. I looked up from the ink. And orphans.
The tent-flap opened and Vinny Edwards strode in. He plopped down into a stool beside me and glanced at the letters. He took the letter from my hand and scanned it.
“Humph. His wife, eh? I told you the guy was cracked. Why else would ‘e kill ‘imself for a sarge who didn’t like ‘im when ‘e had a wife at home?”
“Please, Edwards, don’t nag me. I am muddled up enough already.”
“Ha! Ha! Ha! Well, well, well, what’s so muddlin’, eh?”
“Ha! He was a complete fool. Nut. Maniac. Isn’t that enough?”
“Shut up! Leave me alone, will you? At least, be quiet!”
Vinny snorted and turned back to the letter he held in his hand.
I sifted through his belongings. I had to know more of the man. There was something more to him then I knew. Of course, I had only known him one day.
His personal correspondence interested me little, so I put them aside and sorted through the remaining items. I paused when I saw a small brown leather book. Stamped in the cowhide were the familiar words: Holy Bible. I opened the first page and read the handwritten cursive.
To Our Beloved Son, Barnabas.
We hope you may grow up to be a man of God
Pa and Ma Scott.
I thumbed the thin pages meditatively. I wondered if this was the source of his strength, and the cause of his sacrifice. For sacrifice it was.
“Is that a Bible?” Vinny spat nearby me.
“Yes. But be quiet.”
“I can’t!” he shot out passionately. He laid a sweaty hand on the book. “Bob, this ain’t no good. Don’t ye get perverted now. Only fools read––“
“Sit down!” I yelled.
Vinny slowly sat, rubbing his hands together nervously.
“I’ll do what I wish, casino-shark! Not you!” I stated.
“It’s no good, I tell ye!”
“Get out!” I reinforced my command with a gentle push of my boot on his chest. He screamed, sprawled, and scrambled. I wished him a hearty good riddance.
I turned back to the rest of Scott’s belongings. I laid down the Bible, and briefly glanced at the other documents. The book on the bottom of the stack stopped me. I flipped it open, and instantly reckoned it as a journal. I turned to the back.
Scrawled on the dusty page were the words I would never forget.
“I’ve found my brother. They were right, his name is Loner. Bob Loner. He’s from Murfreesboro too. Just like I was told. There can be none other. I won’t tell him at first. Try him out. But Godhelping I’ll––“
I did not need to read the remainder. It all made sense now. Perfect sense. He was my brother. How he knew about me, and found me out was a miracle I would never figure out. But I did not need to guess that he was really my brother.
He must have been my older brother, cherished until some horrible incident caused him to lose both his father and mother, the mother who died in childbirth of the brother he never knew. But he found me and he had sacrificed himself to show that brotherly love he had all these years. Oh, surely he must have had some greater love to take the bullet for a man who despised him.
I irresistibly reached out for that Holy Bible.
Captain Ronald Brooks, commander of Company A, 13th Regiment, dropped the worn book from his hands.
He turned to a sergeant beside him.
“So, this is what changed Sergeant Loner. Sergeant Edwards, tell me again, what did happen to the gallant fellow?”
The lanky New Yorker sat down and rubbed his hands. “Well, ye see, after I departed from ‘im that night, I did not talk to ‘im again till that unlucky day of the battle. We marched out as usual, but then the Krauts hit us in the rear. Bob’s boys were detailed to pull out an ordnance truck which the enemy were destroying.
“We got it safe out, and we were on our way back to report. But then, I’ll never forget as long as I live that there machine gun pointing right at me, I was shot in the arm twice and in the leg. I hit the dirt but the German kept shooting. My tin hat flew off.
“At that instance, a body leaped in front of me, right in the bullet’s path. He fell, shot through. I crawled over to him, for his move had blocked the gun’s view. I turned over the body and looked into the face. It was Bob Loner.”