|Though there wasn't much in the way of a recollection about it happening, the evidence before them was proof enough: a chopper had gone down in the middle of the firefight, creating a smoldering ruin that would smoke for years. Whether the men inside had made it out or not was irrelevant. In this circle of Hell, the only ticket home was having a flag draped over a pine box. Though the rumor was likely hearsay, some people in the company (mainly the vets) were fond of the smell of the long-leaf pines that the coffins were made from. It was a pleasant aroma to the senses after months of smoke and decay.
Sergeant Mueller walked around the burnt, smoldering remains. A safety harness was still fastened in what remained of the cabin. The buckle was melted inside its holster, trapping anyone that survived the crash in the jump-seat. Scowling, Mueller motioned for the three men with him to keep moving. There was Private Jansen, who was always annoying the boys in the barracks with his horrible guitar playing. Mueller couldn't remember where he was from—the faces shifted so often, one could barely survive in the suck long enough to put faces to the names.
Jansen was helping Corporal Mullins along as best he could. Jansen was cut up something fierce, but at least he could still move his legs. Mullins had been a baseball player before the war, and quite a good one if the rumors were true. He wouldn't be playing baseball again, though—the fine state of Georgia had one less son to dream about after last night. Private Richmond was in the best shape of the lot, and was at the point. The enemy lines had been beaten back in the assault, but any type of counter attack could see them trying to flank the extreme left. If that happened, they were gonna sweep down the valley and bring a lot of Hell down on the reserves bringing up the supplies to the front. Jesus, Mueller thought; how much more screwed up could the situation be?
The four of them tried to keep close together. There hadn't been any signs of life around them since the night before, when all Hell had broken lose. A couple of scouts had made contact with forward elements of the enemy's main body. Fury was loosed along the whole damn front after that, with each side calling in air support as quickly as possible. Mueller was put in the unenviable position of taking charge when the Lieutenant had gotten himself killed in quick order—stupid cadets...
Things came to ahead when the 5th Armored Corps showed up and laid some Hell upon the enemy's flank. It caved in short order, but those suicidal bastards, those limey bastards just couldn't leave well enough alone. By the time they had gotten enough, the entire situation was confused. Half of their battalion had charged, and the other half withdrew. It was a slaughterhouse, with mass panic rifling through the line. So much chaos, and so much destruction. It was jack-all like the movies made it out to be back home. His feet hurt, his ears were ringing from the constant sound of percussion blasts and grenades landing about him. Everything had a gray, smoky haze about it—like the very soil beneath them was being licked by never-ending fires that were fueled by the blood of innocent sons, maimed for a cause which they knew not...
Mullins saw them first, somehow, gurgling in agony at the sight of them. Mueller tensed up a bit before realizing they were reinforcements heading back towards the front. From the cleanness of their skin and the unfazed look in their eyes, Mueller knew right away that they were about to get their first taste of battle—battle-tested soldiers didn't smile like a bunch of jackasses—and he tensed up again.
"Ho, whoa," Mueller shouted, raising his rifle skywards. "What's the news, rooks?"
"The news is, we're about to lay some wood on Charlie and his retarded ass!" One particularly brash and brazen private shouted, bringing immense laughter from the others in his company.
You'll be dead in an hour...
A hulking young man stepped forward, motioning for his platoon to quiet down. He cleared his throat for a formal introduction. "Sergeant Forsyth, Baker Company—101st... where's the rest of your company, sergeant?"
Mueller gave the man a look of disdain and disgust. "This is my company now, Sergeant Forsyth. Now, if you'll excuse me..."
Mueller nodded briskly, stepping aside to let the patrol past. Perhaps they were the advance units for the next wave, who knew. And frankly, who the Hell cared at this point? All he needed was some food and a place to crash out for a few months. Even as the group passed, not one of the sanctimonious pricks offered to help. Dead meat, that's what they were—
"Off to fight the good fight, boys! Let's go raise some Hell!" One of the new recruits yelped, sounding almost like a teenage boy that was better suited to be playing football for his high school.
"More like getting yourselves killed," Richmond laughed, choking it out before Mueller could get him to shut his trap.
"Yeah, yeah," one ignorant ass called back. "Go back to the skirts at the aid station, boys. Let the real men show you how America does war! No more pantywaists to slow the spear down!"
That got the dander up in Richmond. He turned around and spat: "Show some respect for the dead, you ignorant bastard! A lot of good men died back there. Where the Hell do you think you're going? An amusement park?"
The other side shot back in kind: "At least I'm going towards the front, and not down the road for pussies."
Richmond could barely be restrained. "That's the best damned road I've seen in my life! As long as I don't have to spend another night smelling mud and body parts falling around me, I'll call it a good freakin' day. That's the road that leads home, you idiots! Not wherever the Hell you're goin'..."
"Eat me," the soldier cursed, bringing Richmond into his face. The private's own sergeant began barking at him to fall in line, just as Mueller grabbed Richmond by the collar, trying to get him down. The two men were screaming at one another, both lost in the madness that war could suffer to pass. Even in the yelling match, though, Mueller could here the faint gasps from the new company. After a few seconds, silence began to fall, as all eyes turned to witness something out of Mueller's point of view. He turned quickly... and nearly felt his knees buckle out from underneath him.
Private Jansen was kneeling beside Corporal Mullins, who was sprawled out lifelessly on the ground. Mueller watched the dying man's chest, but could see no movement—he was dead. The Sergeant began to walk forward, but Private Jansen did something unusual. With reverence and poise, he slowly took the helmet off his head, placing it on the ground beside him. Tears were flowing from his eyes, which was expected: Mullins had been Jansen's best friend in the whole outfit. The two had become like brothers in the field. Jansen lowered his head, placing his hand atop Mullins's stilled heart, and he began to pray...
"F-father," Jansen started, trying to speak between whimpering sobs. "Please watch over them, Lord. Thy will be done... keep them safe, so that they can return home to their family and loved ones. Let them see one another again, and let them know only love from then on out."
"And please take care of my brother, God. I miss him already, even though he just left. Please let him w-walk down the gold road, Father. Don't let him dive into rubble or fear for his life anymore. Let him here the angels sing alleluia when he sees his father and his baby brother again. I miss him so, Lord, but please... p-please don't let him remember this place. I'd rather him not remem-member me at a-all and be happy... than... than to remember the Hell he had to walk through. Let him find peace, Lord, please. Take care of my brother... Amen."
Jansen wept, uncaring of how many tears he spilled on the ground or his friend. With heaving shoulders and bawling eyes, the Private tried so desperately to lift his friend off the ground. But his injuries and his exhaustion made it too difficult, and he collapsed to the ground in tears.
"Sergeant," the other man, Forsyth spoke, stepping forward. "We can help you bury him before we move out. It's the... it's the least we can, you know, do for you fellas."
Mueller nodded, but Jansen picked himself off the ground in a huff. "No!"
"Jansen, we've gotta keep going—"
"No, Sergeant!" Jansen hollered, trying once more to pick Mullins off the ground with all his might. "I promised him that I would get him home," his voice broke off, tears flowing again. "I promised, Sergeant, and I'm going to get him home. I'm not gonna leave him behind..."
From the side, Mueller watched as one of the new recruits stepped forward, grabbing a hold of Mullins from the opposite side. With a heave, the two men managed to pick up the fallen soldier, helping Jansen off the ground in the process. Richmond stepped up thereafter, taking the place of the new recruit... but not before nodding in respect to the young man, whom he would probably never see again—
—yet never forget...
Sergeant Mueller turned back to Sergeant Forsyth, nodding. "You guys... you take care of yourself. It's Hell up there at the front."
"You too," Forsyth nodded, giving a slight wave. He barked at his men to keep moving, as Mueller and the last of his men stood aside. As the final soldiers passed, Richmond and Jansen began to carry Mullins forward. Mueller took the point, cautious not to get too far ahead of the other two. Silence was the order for a bit... there was too much to be said, yet not enough space in a life time to say it.
Only Richmond had the conviction to speak. "You think they'll send us home, Sergeant?"
"I hope so," Mueller laughed. "That way I can get some sleep on a bed instead of a mud pile."
"Yeah, I h-hear that," Jansen whispered, slowly getting the emotions out of his system.
Mueller kept them going for awhile more, though more reserve units could be seen coming down the road. They were almost a mile from home when the Sergeant waxed nostalgic. He'd never been big into churches, and he didn't know that he could find it in his heart to attend one now. But there was a song that always put his heart at ease. And he so desperately wanted to hear it...
"Guys, do any of you know the lyrics to the hymn, Amazing Grace?"
Richmond spoke up first. "I know parts of it, I think... 'Amazing grace... how sweet the sound... that saved... a... a wretch, like me! I once was l...lost. But now, I'm... found...' I don't remember the last bit, Sergeant."
"It's okay," Mueller mused. "It's a good song—"
Jansen suddenly spoke up, singing softly: "I once was lost... but now I'm found. Was blind, but now... I... see..."
The men fell silent once more, as the last notes lingered on the stale breeze. They were nearly home—just a little ways more to go.
Amen, Mueller thought somberly.