Account by the field-cornet of the Mippite forces at Spy Hill:
"Spy Hill, although steep, is not very high on the eastern slope where we went up, and it did not take us long to reach the top. Here we found that our advance had got no farther than the fringe of loose rocks that runs like a girdle around the upper tableland. For the rest of the flat stretch beyond was still wholly in the hands of the Landsteaders, who lay in a shallow trench behind a long low wall of stone about twenty yards away. From here came a vicious rifle-fire that made further progress impossible.
"I met my brother coming down and gave him a hurried handshake, then went forward to the firing-line a few yards further on. We were sustaining heavy casualties from the Landsteader soldiers immediately in front of us, and the men grew restive under the galling point-blank fire, a thing not to be wondered at, for the moral effect of rifle volleys at twenty yards must be experienced to be appreciated. The Landsteader troops lay so near that one could have tossed a biscuit among them, and whilst the losses which they were causing us were only too evident, we on our side did not know that we were inflicting even greater damage upon them. Our own casualties lay hideously among us, but theirs were screened from view behind the breastwork, so the comfort of knowing that we were giving worse than we received was denied us.
"The sun became hotter and hotter, and we had neither food nor water. Around us lay scores of dead and wounded men. As the hours dragged on a trickle of men slipped down the hill, and this gradual wastage so depleted our strength that long before nightfall we were holding the blood-splattered ledge with a mere handful of rifles. I wanted to go too, but the thought of Demas and my other men saved me from deserting. No further attempt was made to press forward, and for the rest of this terrible day both sides stubbornly held their ground, and, although the battle remained stationary, the heavy close-range rifle-fire continued hour after hour, and the tale of losses mounted while we lay in the blazing heat."
Bullets are not a soldier's worst enemy. Not bullets, nor the deadly thunderstorm of shrapnel, nor shells that smash a man's innards to pulp, nor machine-rifle fire that spears him in a dozen places.
No, ask any soldier, and he'll tell you: far worse than weapon-fire is the fire of thirst.
The mist had long since dissipated. The hill was hot, the grass so dry that it might never have been watered. It cut us as we scrambled across it. The summer sun licked us with its fiery lash. My mouth was a desert. I licked my dry lips with my dry tongue as sweat poured off my forehead. I resisted the temptation to lick the sweat. I was a waterman; I knew better than to try to quench my thirst with salt-water.
All around me, as I wriggled my way across the ground, came the panting of men who were dry, who were hot, who were on the edge of passing out. None of us had eaten any food since dawn; we had been given no such leisure. And what water we had was going to the wounded, who lay beside us in the trenches, crying piteously or suffering in dreadful silence.
"We can't go on like this," I told Fairview, when I had finally squirmed my way to the safety of the General's rock. "We must have more water. A dozen of my men have heat-stroke – and we have no time to tend them."
As I spoke, the sharp tat-tat-tat of the machine-rifles on the knoll began again. There were cries from the northeastern trench as the bullets ripped their way through the left flank. The northeastern trench, as Tice had promised, was enduring the worst of the casualties, but none of us were immune from the shells and shrapnel that were falling at us from the sky, nor from the carefully aimed bullets of the Mippite sharpshooters on the ledge.
Fairview nodded. He looked weary beyond words. Three times he'd led attacks against the sharpshooters on the ledge, trying to drive them from the hill. Major Arundel, grimly holding together the scattered ruins of Tice's mounted infantry, had led two additional attacks. The faithfulness of him and his men made me ashamed of the suspicions that Fairview and I had held toward the Eighth Landstead's soldiers.
But all of our work would be for nothing if our men passed out from lack of water.
"The colonials are doing their best," replied Fairview, waving his hand toward the western edge of the summit, where several of the colonials crouched, waiting for a brief pause in the explosion of shells and bullets that continued on the summit. "But they're dying as quickly as our men are, whenever they try to deliver water to us or bring stretchers."
"I know." I looked back at the battlefield. It was littered with dead men, dying men, and men who might be saved, if they could reach the hospital in time. The doctors at the field hospital – brave men, all of them – had sent up men to start a new dressing station. The Mippites had shelled that. Another doctor and his attendants had been sent; a third dressing station had been destroyed. Either the Mippites were unwilling to observe the common courtesies of warfare and spare the lives of medical men, or else – more likely – they simply couldn't distinguish between soldier and doctor from the distance of two miles at which they were shooting their shell guns.
May the man who invented modern warfare be cursed. Battle was better in the old days, when you had to come within boarding distance of the boat you were shooting at, because the guns wouldn't shoot any further.
I covered my handkerchief with sweat as I mopped at my throat; I'd long since removed my collar. A wind was beginning to blow from the south, but it barely seemed to make a difference. "What shall we do? It's hot as a Vovimian hell on this hill."
"Reinforcements are coming." Fairview showed me the note from the Commander-in-Chief, scribbled in the hand of one of our signalmen, who was valiantly and fruitlessly trying to stand up long enough to send flag dispatches off the hill. Three signalmen had already died that way.
"'I am sending two battalions, and the Fifth Light Infantry—' There's no mention here of water or ammunition or big guns." I scrutinized the Commander-in-Chief's bluntly worded message.
"No. I don't know whether any of my messages have reached the Commander-in-Chief. I've received no word from him, other than this and a message that I'm in charge here. Rook, do you think—?"
The scream of a shell obscured the remainder of Fairview's words. The shell passed inches from the General's rock and exploded several yards south of the right flank's trench. One of my soldiers, who had been raising his rifle up in an attempt to fire at the Mippite sharpshooters on the ledge, stared with a stupefied expression at where his rifle had been a moment before. His hand was gone as well. His eyes turned up in his face, and he fell backwards into the trench.
I cursed and looked over at the stretcher-bearers. There might still be time to save Fulton; in such cases, sometimes the heat of the shell cauterizes the wound. But shrapnel was falling now on the field; the leader of the stretcher-bearers was holding back his men.
I looked back at the right flank's trench. So shallow was it that I could see some of my men scrambling through the trench, trying to reach Fulton. They were blocked, not only by the dead and wounded men who had not yet been removed from the trench, but by soldiers who had fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion.
Another shell landed near the right flank's trench, closer than the first; I heard cries as shell fragments shattered down onto the far end of the trench. The soldiers who had been trying to reach Fulton shrank back, then fell to their bellies as the remorseless machine-rifles turned their attention to that trench.
At first it all seemed like a horrible coincidence, this outpouring of attention toward my flank by the Mippites. Then I saw something twinkle in the trench, like a star in a dark sky. Cursing, I hunched over and began to half-run, half-crawl toward the trench, like a fiddler crab seeking the shelter of mud.
The rifle-fire was coming so thick now that I had to halt behind a boulder several yards from my trench. "Lexington!" I shouted. "Cover your water bottle! It's reflecting the sun – the Mippites are shooting at it!"
Lexington stared at me, his eyes blinking. He had evidently just woken from deep sleep, because he made no move toward the water bottle.
"Curse you, Lexington—!" Abruptly, I stopped speaking. Shifting slightly behind the boulder, I had seen what was missing from my sight before: Lexington's back. The cloth on it was singed black.
There was no sign of a wound, but Lexington still was not moving, though ordinarily he was quick to obey orders. I had been in enough battles to know what this must mean: the shell that had amputated Fulton's hand had also touched Lexington's spine as he crouched in the shallow trench. He was paralyzed.
I looked over at the stretcher-bearers. They were in consultation with Healer Mahone, who had made his way up to the edge of the summit. He was shaking his head, pointing at the knoll, from which machine-rifle fire continued to chatter. Even my battle-hardened soldiers were being held back by the rifle-fire, unable to reach Fulton, Lexington, or any of the other shell-wounded men there.
I raised my body slightly, risking a bullet in the head, and at that moment saw something which made me forget Fulton, Lexington, and every other man on the field.
The latest shell to explode had not merely singed the grass – it had set it afire. This was hardly out of the ordinary; we'd fought shell-fires in previous battles. But on a day like this, so hot and so dry, with no water on hand with which to douse the fire . . .
I felt a hand grip my shoulder; turning my head, I saw that Fairview had made his way out from the safety of the General's rock to inspect the mounting danger. "Drive it toward your trench," he said succinctly. "The wind is from the south, and your breastwork is high enough that the fire will die in the trench. I'll have Arundel create a diversion."
The next few minutes were worse than being on a raft when the nor'west blow hits the Bay. I remember a confusion of shouts and movement. One moment, I was ordering my men out of the trench, the next moment I was faced by Doyle, his arms filled with the frightened, struggling spaniel; Doyle had chosen this moment to come to me with some complaint or another about something he was being forced to leave behind in the trench. I remember shrieking at him that I'd shoot him and any other soldier who failed to fight the fire.
My other soldiers, who looked uneasy at the idea of abandoning the relative safety of the trench, obeyed with sluggish movements. Several of them tried to argue with me. I had to point my rifle at them to force them to follow my orders.
Nearby, the half-dead remnants of Tice's battalion charged the sharpshooters, drawing off their rifle-fire. The battle surged onto the summit, with the pleasant result that the Mippite gunners lifted their shelling of us, evidently afraid of hitting their own soldiers. The machine-rifle fire continued sporadically; many more of Tice's men fell, and the soldiers in the main trench were forced to join the fight in order to reinforce the line. I saw Fairview leading them, drawn away, yet again, from the General's rock.
Finally, by whacking the fire at its edges with our uniform jackets and with the blankets that some of the brave stretcher-bearers brought us, we managed to drive the fire back to the right flank's trench. I took a quick look around at my men; they looked anxious and sullen. No doubt they were thinking of the dead men they had left behind in the trenches. Well, fire was the new-fashioned way of sending the dead into afterdeath, and at least the air would be clear of the growing smell of rotting corpses. I was just letting out my breath with relief at our victory over the fire when I saw a flicker of light in the trench, at the point where the fire was about to touch. The light was a reflection on a water bottle.
It was at that point, with horror, that I realized what Doyle and my other men had been trying to tell me.
"How could I have forgotten?" I raged many minutes later. "How could I have forgotten that the wounded still lay in my trench?"
I had to shout to be heard. Amidst the renewed screams of the shells – for Fairview's attack had been beaten back by the Mippite sharpshooters – came the far more horrible screams from the wounded men who had not escaped the fire.
Thanks to the quickness of my men, only a few of the wounded had been immolated. Upon seeing from the look on my face that I now understood the situation, my men hadn't bothered to waste time asking whether my orders were countermanded; they had simply run to the fire-touched trench and had begun dragging out every wounded man they could reach. A few of the wounded, watching the fire approach, had managed to crawl out on their own. Only four of the wounded had been so far away from the rest of the soldiers that the fire had engulfed them. One was Fulton, who had died without ever waking from the shock of his shell wound. Two other wounded men were lightly burned, as were the soldiers who had rescued them; they were all being cared for now in an impromptu dressing station that had been set up next to the right flank's trench. In the past minute, we had already lost one doctor's assistant and two stretcher-bearers to shrapnel, but the sharpshooters and machine-riflemen, in their first mercy of the day, were directing their shooting away from the dressing station.
Healer Mahone was busy, not examining his patient, but shouting at two stretcher-bearers, who stood obstinately motionless, refusing to lift the patient onto their stretcher. Leaving Fairview behind the General's rock – he was nursing a sprained ankle he had gained by tripping over a rock during the latest attack – I reached Healer Mahone and his stretcher-bearers.
Healer Mahone turned to me, full of fury. "These natives," he said, pointing at the dark-skinned stretcher-bearers, "refuse to do their duty and take this man down to the field hospital."
I looked down at what remained of Lexington. He had been given morphine, and so his screams had subsided, but he was still whimpering. His face had been spared; the rest of him was little more than flesh flayed by fire. It was hard to believe that he was still alive.
The doctor's assistants were working feverishly to cover Lexington's fire-scarred skin with bandages. It was like trying to put clothes on a raw oyster. I looked over at the head stretcher-bearer, who was standing nearby.
He shrugged, saying to me with perfect grammar, "He will not survive the trip down the hill, nor the trip to the field hospital. And if he does, what then? The field hospital cannot care for such injuries. He will have to travel miles by wagon, and then miles by train, and if he should survive all that pain, what life awaits him? His skin is gone. His arms and legs do not obey his commands. . . . Sir, in my land, when such things happen to my own people, we care tenderly for the family member who is afflicted, for as long as he wishes to remain alive. Will this man's family do so?"
He left his words hanging as a genuine question. I looked down at Lexington – orphan Lexington, whose only friends were here, on this summit. None of us who survived would be able to accompany him on that long trip. He would undergo the pain of the journey by himself, and if he survived the trip to Yclau, he would be left alone, to spend the rest of his days in a foreign hospital.
Perplexed, I looked over at the General's rock. Seeing my wordless plea for help, Fairview limped his way over, ignoring the bullets that blew past his face.
As he crouched down beside me, I apprised him of the situation in a low voice. Beside us, Lexington was beginning to plead for water, but we had used the last of it on the other wounded men. Nearby, Doyle watched, biting his lip and wiping away tears. The white spaniel shivered at his feet.
Fairview asked only one question: "Can he understand me?"
I looked over at Healer Mahone. The doctor shrugged his hands. "He is surprisingly alert – the pain is so sharp that it is cutting through the morphine. I would say, Yes, he will understand you."
Fairview nodded. "Give us space, then, if you please."
All of us withdrew. There was a momentary lull in the shelling and gunfire; I caught a word or two of the conversation that followed between Fairview and Lexington. "Don't have no girl," gasped Lexington at one point, clearly fighting back screams. And then, later: "Thank you, sir."
Fairview nodded. Reaching down to his belt, he pulled out his own water bottle. Cradling Lexington's head in his arm, he raised it high enough to allow Lexington to swallow the water. Healer Mahone, grumbling something about possible abdominal wounds, tried to step forward, but I held him back. I could guess what would come next.
Lexington gave a great sigh and closed his eyes. Fairview waited a moment to be sure they would stay closed. Then he laid Lexington carefully down and placed his hand gently over Lexington's eyes. With his free hand, he drew his bayonet blade.
The stretcher-bearers turned their gazes away.
It was not until Fairview and I had reached the General's rock again – dodging bullets all the way – that Fairview spoke. "It wasn't your fault, Rook," he said. "I was the commanding officer on this hill; it was my responsibility to give the order that your trench be cleared of the wounded."
"Fairview—" Further words stuck in my throat as I watched Fairview crouch down on the grass to clean the blood off his bayonet. Finally I said, "Lexington wasn't your responsibility. I should have been the one who did what you did."
Standing and sheathing his bayonet in its scabbard, Fairview looked over his shoulder at where the stretcher-bearers were carefully lifting one of the other wounded men onto a stretcher. Lexington lay where they had left him, as still as the other corpses in the trench, blood still oozing out from the wound in his heart. "I hope that the Fates will forgive me," said Fairview softly. "I've heard that they dislike it when men usurp their role."
"Sweet blood, man, don't talk that way. It's not your fault—"
And then I stopped. I stopped, not because of the look Fairview was giving me, but because I was remembering, as he remembered, all the times he and I had said with bitterness: "An officer is responsible for the actions of his men."
Fairview scratched at where a stray bullet had sent a line of blood across his shoulder, ripping his shirt as it went. "Do you recall how often I talked about how we might have the good luck to be promoted in the field?"
I made no reply. Fairview's gaze went beyond me: to the men who had died, the men who were dying, and the men who were waiting for their own turn to come. He said quietly, "I'm beginning to understand why the General always had worry wrinkles on his forehead."
Then he said nothing more, for the shells were beginning to fall fast and thick, and so we both had our duties.