36 Hours – Part 3

We have become numb to the falling of shells. Outside of the dugout we watch flashes of ordinance like one might watch a lightning storm. The explosions that rock the room are taken in stride. Once a direct hit cracks the mortar on the walls and there is some panic, but the support beams hold. It had been a small shell.

Kat suggests a game of cards. We try a few hands but we are too intent on listening to the cries of shells outside and soon give it up. The fear of them is gone but simple survival remains. If one of the large Lees land close enough we will have to make a dive for it or be buried alive. When told this, Vanmere turns green but does not try to run again.

Shiod tells a few jokes but humor is lost on us. We sit and wait for the bombardment to stop. I have no concept of time in the little room. It could have been five minutes or five hours, I would not be able to say. I simply sit and wait. Some pray. I notice this once in a while, but there are not many. I wonder if this war has blown the faith right out of people.

“They must have an artillery supply right back to England to go on this long,” one of the men growls after a long period of silence. “This is the longest yet.”

“They know the government has pulled back to Philadelphia,” Kat says in his calm, cool voice. He has the voice of a leader. If he had given me the order to charge the enemy lines I would have done it without thought. Such is the power of trust.

“But why Kat?” I ask. “Why now?”

“The Johnnies are working out the peace issue with the President,” he says. I never question how he knows this. He simply does and that’s all there is to it. The other men take him at his word too.

“Some peace,” Shiod says as a shell explodes far too close over head. Dirt falls on his head and he sneezes.

“If we lose Baltimore before they come to an agreement, they control Maryland and Washington. Lincoln will have to sign.” Kat shrugs, never taking his eyes off the door. “We just need to wait thirty-six hours or so.”

“What happens then?” I ask.

Kat does not answer but instead he stands very slowly, frowning. He is so focused that I grow alarmed. “What is it?” I ask, grabbing my rifle. He holds out a hand for silence and we all grow silent. After a moment, he shouts. “The bombardment is falling behind us, against the wall instead. Everyone out!”

I don’t understand but go out. Vanmere is close behind me but does not seem to need any special assistance. Shiod is out first, looking relieved. “The rain’s stopped,” he says as we join him. Indeed it has, but the night is still cold and the sight of the battered trench makes me nervous.

There are men already here, hundreds of them all on the firing step with their rifles held at the ready. Kat urges us up onto the ledge and I step up, grabbing Vanmere’s arm to help him. It is as if we are children needing Kat’s fatherly guidance in this. We are too new to it and if he relaxes his vigil we may soon be lost.

“An attack is coming,” he says and risks a glance over the parapet. “Get ready.”

I lean against the trench wall and rest my rifle against the top. With a growing sense of fear I sight down the barrel. In the darkness I see only a gray and blasted landscape full of holes and shapeless masses. Here and there I see the corpse of a tree, its limbs bent and broken like a shadow against the night sky.

A blast of dirt erupts in front of me. Then the rifle fire begins, spattering the ground in front of me with many tiny explosions. I reflexively pull my trigger, though I still see no one.

Suddenly our artillery opens up. The earth rumbles and a deafening roar is followed quickly by founts of red fire and blackened earth. There are cries, screams and gurgles of dying men on the wind, mixing with the odors of discharged gunpowder and stale sweat.

I see shadows move in the distance and I look over to see Kat fusing the bombs. He lobs them over one after another silently with a look of grim determination on his face. I turn back to my rifle and gaze into the explosions and haze of smoke.

Ahead, through the roiling, inky blackness of smoke and night mist, shapes appear. They are formless at first, reflections against a flowering explosion or twisting, black rents in red-colored smoke. The form into men, hundreds of them with rifles held before them, bayonets flashing. The sight of them reminds me of ghosts, a legion of dead things risen from the graves between trench lines.

And worst of all is the yell. That guttural battle-cry the Johnnies rip loose from their breasts is like the cry of banshees, the scream of the dead still walking. It goes up all along the line, drowning out the zip of bullets that even now tear into them.

I aim, lining up a shot at one soldier with a brisling beard and a wide, gaping mouth. He breaks into a run as explosions burst to life all around him. I wonder briefly how he feels, if he is aware of the madness that this has become, but I stop myself. I know that if I think on the man behind the beard any longer I will be lost. I pull the trigger.

The shot takes him in throat and I am happy that my good shooting has not left me due to fear or stress. The soldier does not fall had but rather stumbles and drops his weapon. I see him shake and shudder, then claw at his neck and try to pull off his tin helmet. He goes to his knees, convulsing. I stare in horror at what I’d done.

And then a thing of iron, oil and steam crushes him into the mud. I am momentarily frozen, unable to look away, to load another round. It is ten feet tall at least, the body like a giant metal ball stretched tall and connected to thick, gyrated metal stalks filled with gears. And on each side, like stunted arms on a man, are the rotating barrels of a repeating Gatling gun. It spins now, flashes of light erupting the many barrels.

“Goliath!” Kat cries. Somewhere to my left a bugle is blaring. Kat hands me a bomb and I throw it. He tries to hand one to Vanmere, but he does not see. Instead, he simply fires slowly down range. I try and stop him, to tell him he needs to use something different but he is deaf to me. I take another bomb and hold it in both hands and wait.

In the darkness I hear the whirring and hissing of the Goliath coming ever onward.

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