I split this from the original exercise 'One Day, Some day' because I didn't feel it fit correctly with the narrative theme of the exercise. In its place I inserted a edited version of this chapter.
This is the complete work from before I attempted to par things down to fit the themes of 'One Day, Some day'.
Boys and men, one and all, they moved like cattle, huddled masses that they were, stampeding ashore with directed purpose; they were legion. Across the fields they charged, falling en mass to the rat-tat-tat of the farmer’s scythe, following a single, clarion trumpet call. After their Captain’s lead, the band forded the rivers wide, stained red like wine; some left bobbing like leaves lost on the tide. Those that remained, that desperate few; held a town whose name none knew. Watching as one by one, they each fell to sleep, waiting, under the whistling steel rain. And then they were two, lost in a catacomb of man-made graves. Where thousands lived, thousands stood, and thousands died, buried by unmitigated pride. Where one, one was searching for the other.
At the corner, the sergeant slapped his back against the wall. His breathing was short and hot, despite the sheet of rain coming down in a persistent torrent, soaking through his water-proofed parka. Feeling his back slip against the slick mud that made the walls of the trench, he paused to steady both himself and to collect his breath. He had long ago lost all track of time in the featureless blue grey gloom. He feared to check least his hours of searching turned out to be but moments. Once, he had tried to call out for his companion, but the steady drumbeat of the rain had drowned his voice there in the trenches, so now he searched with eyes alone; the twisting, empty lanes. Peering around the corner, it was difficult to focus past the waterfalls that streamed off the edge of his helmet, he saw nothing. And so, with a grunt, he pushed himself off the wall and rounded the corner, to continue on his mission.
He sloshed through the trench, rifle at the ready, but found himself continually distracted. With each step he took, he could feel the lukewarm water in his boots squelch against his pruning toes, and the feeling was beginning to become unbearable. He stopped, in the middle of the downpour, and turned his face upwards at the unforgiving gray curtain, silently willing the rain to cease. Perhaps something heard his plea, and the rain dissolved into a fine mist that hung heavy in the air. He relished the sudden cessation of the drumming, becoming acutely aware instead of the steady drip drip drip and trickling of water moving. The soldier took a moment to wipe the excess moisture and mud across his face, doing little to actually remove either. He was close. He felt it with the uncertain certainty of a gambler betting on one last game.
Rounding another curve of the endless snake dug into the ground, he stopped. His hazel eyes scanned the gloom and noticed a shape huddled at the end of the short straight away. Emotions leapt into his throat at the sight of the familiar downy blonde hair peeking from under a helmet over a familiar uniform; a bittersweet cocktail of sudden relief and a renewed surge of concern.
“Private Anders!” His boots splashed through ankle deep puddles that dotted the floor of the trench.
“Private Anders.” He slowed as he came closer, noting the trembling shoulders and the faint sobbing emanating from the younger man.
“Anders?” Reaching out tentatively with one hand, filled with trepidation, he moved to catch hold of the young soldier’s shoulder whose shaking had become visibly more violent.
At his touch, Anders roared, a primal wordless scream of terror and spun to face the other soldier, and shoved him back. Somewhat stunned, the sergeant stumbled and just managed to catch the barrel of Ander’s rifle as it was brought to bear, wrenching it away from his face with just one hand. Grimly they stood there, wrestling for control, Anders screaming and spiting in his madness, the other desperately trying to reach him through his fear stricken state.
A searing white hot flash clawed its way up past the sergeant's cheek and knocked his helmet off his head, shearing stray strands of his black hair off as it vanished into the clouds. With a curse, he jerked away from the noise even as his ears filled with a dull ringing. Glaring balefully at the young private, the older soldier surged forward and backhanded him across the face. “Wake up soldier!”
Anders recoiled from the blow, dropping his rifle and cringing from the older soldier. A spark of recognition lit his cornflower blue eyes as he regarded the man towering over him. “Sarge?” The words were faint and unsure.
“Damn right Anders.” The older soldier jerked the younger to his feet. Relief flooded the younger soldier‘s face at the proclamation and he sagged into the sergeant’s arms, tears running unchecked down his cheeks.
Ander’s helmet was flung high into the air even as the boy himself was ripped from the sergeant’s arms and struck the ground with a splash. Instincts took over as the sergeant’s head turned towards the source of the gunfire. His legs caved into a kneeling position, digging deep into the soft mud of the trench even as his own rifle came up to eye level, aimed back down the direction he had come from. *Krack* another bullet whizzed through the air above the sergeant’s head, burying itself with a splat in the melting walls of the trench. His hands steadied themselves, centering the rifle on the form that materialized out of the mist, and ever so softly, his fingers caressed the trigger.
He registered a puff of red that hung in the damp air as his hands reflexively lifted and pulled the bolt of his rifle. The figure staggered but remained standing, and the sergeant’s mind began registering the details of what he saw. Pained, cornflower blue eyes pleaded with the sergeant beneath a fringe of fair blond hair. Too late, the sergeant’s hand smoothly slid forward; chambering a second round, readjusting his sights. Another boy soldier, another Anders, wrapped in a different uniform. Too late, to call back the shot that would snap back the boy’s head, freeing the downy blond hair to flutter delicately as the boy fell amidst a spray of blood. Too late, much too late, the sergeant closed his eyes as his finger squeezed the trigger.
The sergeant turned away, charging his weapon, wondering if somewhere out there, someone was searching for that boy soldier like he had been for Anders. Fumbling for Ander’s throat, searching for a pulse, the sergeant gave a shaky sigh before sitting back on his haunches. The sergeant turned his gaze to the sky once more and idly wondered when he’d next see the clear blue skies of home. With a grunt he stood and recovered his helmet, dumping out its collected contents of water and mud as best he could before slapping it on his head. Turning back around, he returned to Anders' still form.
Reaching down, he maneuvered the young soldier into a sitting position, eliciting a groan from the comatose boy. Wrapping one arm around his shoulder, the sergeant hoisted Anders shakily to his feet as thunder rolled in the distance followed by flashes of light through the haze. Artillery shells. As Anders groggily attempted to catch his footing, the sergeant thought of their escape through the oncoming push.
“C’mon Anders. We’re done here.”