Heliograph dispatch to the Commander-in-Chief at 9 AM, from the officer commanding the Allied forces at Spy Hill:
"Reinforce at once or all is lost. General dead.
"He's not dead!" shouted the General's soldier-servant. "Sir, he's not dead!"
I had to shout at the top of my lungs over the cacophony of noise on the summit. I had thought that, as a waterman, I was accustomed to loud sounds, having been caught in far too many storms on the Bay and at sea. But none of that compared to what I was experiencing now: the staccato shout of the machine-rifles, the screams of the shells, the whining of the shrapnel, the crack of rifle bullets rebounding off rocks—
—the cries of dying men. Always that.
Amidst all this, I thought I could hear faintly the shouts of Fairview, as he issued further orders. I had been in agony for the past couple of minutes, watching him dart his way across the battlefield. Now he crouched in the almost-as-deadly main trench.
"The General isn't dead, sir!" the soldier-servant bellowed.
I managed to tear my attention away from Fairview. He and I, with the help of the General's soldier-servant, had managed to drag the General's body back to the shelter of the rock. All of us had assumed that the General was dead; he had blood across his face. But now, as I made my way over to where the General's soldier-servant and newly returned messenger-lad knelt by his sides, I saw that the General was indeed alive. The bullet had landed in his shoulder, and the blood from the shoulder had spattered onto his face.
He was moaning, trying to rock himself back and forth; the soldier-servant was hard-pressed to keep him lying still. I glanced at the wound; blood was still welling out of it. I knew a little first aid, but not enough to deal with a wound like this.
I looked in an automatic manner toward the dressing station, which the General had located behind one of the few stone shelters that the Mippites had left behind. Then I looked again. The dressing station was gone. All that remained were fragments of bone and flesh and fabric. A shell had hit it.
I looked, not very hopefully, toward the western slope of the hill; we were not expecting the stretcher-bearers to arrive for another hour. But there they were, peering over the crest of the summit.
I saw the head stretcher-bearer among them, and I waved my hand energetically. He did not hesitate. He said something to his men; two of them trotted over the crest, holding a stretcher.
And were immediately shot down. One minute, there were stretcher-bearers; the next minute, there were only corpses.
The head stretcher-bearer was a man of grit. After a moment's hesitation, he gave new orders; a second pair of stretcher-bearers darted forward to take up the burden.
They made it halfway to the General's rock before a shell hit them.
In despair, I looked down at the General. His eyes were open but were wide with pain; I didn't think he could see me. Blood continued to seep out of his wound. His soldier-servant and messenger-lad were dabbing at it in an ineffectual manner which suggested that they had no more experience at first aid than I did.
And then – lo, the courage of men! – help arrived, in the form of the head stretcher-bearer and one of his men. I had not even thought to look for assistance from that quarter again, but the two men had braved the crossfire to reach the General. The head stretcher-bearer knelt down; without awaiting instructions, he pulled out a roll of cloth and began bandaging the General's shoulder.
I watched, fascinated. I could not believe that Healer Mahone had entrusted the colonials with medical supplies; the stretcher-bearers' job was simply to take the wounded to the field hospital, after the dressing station on the hill had done its work. But it seemed that the stretcher-bearers were better prepared than any of the rest of us for this crisis.
"Good man!" I cried, so much overcome by gratitude that I thumped the head stretcher-bearer on his back. "You're a credit to your empire!"
The head stretcher-bearer gave me an opaque look and then returned to his work. It occurred to me that, even supposing he understood the tongue that the Dozen Landsteads and Yclau share, he might be somewhat less than enthusiastic at the idea of being praised for his participation in an empire that had colonized his land through force. Indeed, he might even sympathize with the Mippites in this conflict.
If so, he did not allow his political views to muddle his work. When the bandages were in place, he and his fellow colonial lifted the General onto the stretcher. They did so gently, but the pain of movement cut through the General's grogginess. He half sat up and looked around, his eyes blinking.
I knelt next to him. "Sir, you've been wounded," I informed him. "Don't worry; the stretcher-bearers are here. They'll take you to the field hospital."
"No," he said hoarsely. "No! I must stay here! My men need me!"
His messenger-lad stared open-mouthed. His soldier-servant, after a moment of shock, took on an expression of quiet pride.
For the second time, I was filled with admiration for the General. But the practical part of my mind was running along different lines.
"Yes, sir," I said, pushing him carefully down onto the stretcher. "Just as soon as the dressing station has tended your wound. We've moved the dressing station onto the western slope, because the crossfire here is too hot. Wait for the doctor to tend you; then you can return to your duties."
For once, the General did not protest sensible advice. He closed his eyes, muttering something about his duty to his men.
His soldier-servant, who had been in consultation with the head stretcher-bearer, now shouted in my ear – for whispers were impossible to hear under these circumstances – "Sir, the stretcher-bearers think it would be best to wait until new doctors arrive and examine him before moving him far. They suggest that they wait on the slope for the arrival of the rest of the medical corps that is supposed to help on the summit."
"Very well!" I shouted back. "You go with him. Whatever happens, make sure he doesn't return to the summit."
The soldier-servant gave me a long look, which suggested that he understood all the reasons why I was eager to remove the General from the summit. But he replied, "Yes, sir. The General has said himself, in the past, that a wounded man is a burden on the battlefield. I'll see that he gets the care he needs." He glanced at the bitter battlefield, took a deep breath, and then turned to give instructions for departure to the stretcher-bearers.
Feeling something warm at my side, I looked down to see the General's messenger-lad kneeling next to me. "Shall I stay with you, sir?"
"I'm leaving the safety of this rock in a minute," I warned him.
"Yes, sir, I know. But you don't have a messenger here, and your soldier-servant is dead." He looked up at me earnestly. His face was green with fear.
I had the sudden feeling of being surrounded by men and lads who all possessed more courage than I did. Well, the least I could do was to ensure that no more of them died than needed to. I straightened the lad's helmet, saying, "No, the General may have need of you. Don't worry; I'm capable of carrying my own messages." I gave him a smile and pushed him in the direction of the General.
The soldier-servant beckoned him over, and then positioned him so that the lad would be mainly shielded by the soldier-servant's own body from the murderous crossfire from the north and east. The soldier-servant awaited my nod; then he gave a sharp order to the stretcher-bearers, and all of them began their journey past the gates of afterdeath.
The Fates were evidently watching over them that day; they made it safely to the edge of the summit and disappeared over the crest. The other stretcher-bearers remained at the crest, but none ventured onto the field. I didn't blame them. I wished I could stay behind the General's rock.
But Fairview needed me.
Looking back on it, I can see how odd it was that I didn't think, My men need me. But that was how it had always been: my thoughts centered on Fairview's welfare. Oh, I knew, in a distant sort of way, that being an officer conferred certain duties upon me. I did my best to fulfill those duties, and I must have been successful to a certain extent, for my men liked me. But my thoughts were never really on them, except in a tangential way. That was part of the reason I found Doyle so irritating: he occupied much more of my time than I wished to devote to any of my men.
And Fairview's perspective on this matter? I never knew. It was something we never talked about. Indeed, I didn't really understand what sort of soldier he was, until that day on Spy Hill.
But I am getting ahead of myself. There I was, standing behind the General's rock, where I didn't belong. And there was Fairview, out in the main trench . . . where he didn't belong. Somehow, I had to reach him.
Try to understand, if you can, what lay between us. Not simply bullets, shrapnel, shells – all the ways in which modern man has learned to tear apart a living body. What lay between us was bodies. Bodies of men I had known and fought alongside, not only in the army, but in some cases in the navy as well. Bodies ripped apart and shredded across the field. To reach Fairview, I would have to pass the mangled remains of Canton. It is one thing to see momentarily the sundered body of a young man who has tended you day and night for months. It is quite another thing to deliberately crawl past his corpse, thinking all the time of how he died as a result of an errand you sent him upon.
These are the times that test men's faith. Did I, or did I not, believe that men pass through death into a better life? Well, I did and I didn't. And as it happened, I was closer to the truth than I knew.
At any rate, I journeyed safely to Fairview. He was no longer surrounded by officers; his officers, and mine, and Major Arundel's, were all busy trying to keep the ragged remnants of our brigade from disintegrating. As of yet, we had made no push against the Mippites, but I knew that would come soon.
I dropped into the trench just as young Davey, white-faced, hurtled out of the trench and struggled his way toward the signalmen, who had set up their heliograph in the pre-dawn hours and were now tending the flame, wiping down the mirror that reflected the flame, checking the colored transparencies that would be used to send the color-coded messages. They were intent on their duties, paying no attention to the bullets whistling past them. Once more, I was filled with the awareness of being surrounded by soldiers who were greater than myself.
"I was beginning to worry that you weren't coming," said Fairview, keeping his voice light.
"I apologize for the delay. It turns out that the General is alive." I gave Fairview the rest of the news.
"Blast." Fairview ran a hand over his forehead. "I just sent a message to the Commander-in-Chief, requesting reinforcements and informing him that his son-in-law was dead."
I looked over at the signalmen. One of them was sending the message. I knew the color code by heart, of course, and I surmised that the signalmen weren't quite so fearless as they appeared. The message being sent sounded as though it had been reworded by an unnerved signalman; "All is lost" were not words in Fairview's vocabulary, even as a looming possibility.
"You could send another message," I suggested, and then fell flat on my stomach, shielding my head. The signal station was quite close, and the glass shards from the broken mirror were spraying everywhere.
"Perhaps not for a while," Fairview replied dryly as he and I and the other men around us picked ourselves up. "Stiles, go see how many of the signalmen were wounded or killed by that shell. Davey appears unhurt, but make sure he gets back here safely."
"Yes, sir," responded Fairview's soldier-servant, and promptly darted off. Fairview's gaze followed him longer than it needed to. It struck me that Fairview must be aware that there was no one left to countermand his orders, should he make a foolish one.
His eyes met mine. I was silent. We seemed held in a space of time that lasted an eternity.
Or perhaps it only seemed that way because of what followed.