This story is dedicated to those touched by war and to those who remember them.
“What are you doing?” Shiod asks, flopping down next to me on the firing step. I look up from the empty page I’d been staring at for half an hour and catch the sun as it sets over the Potomac. I wonder if I will see it rise again.
“A letter to my mother,” I say and look back down at the paper. It wasn’t entirely empty. I’d written “March 16th, 1868” and “Dear Mom.”
“Bad luck,” Shiod says. “Don’t do it.”
“And just why is that?”
“Because it’ll get you killed,” Shiod says and snatches the paper away, crumbling it up and tossing it into the mud at the bottom of the trench. “You’ll think about every damn word when the shooting starts and wonder if you said the right last words. Trust me, it’s death in pencil.”
I shove the pencil back into my pack and sling it back over my shoulders. Overhead comes a new torrent of bullets striking the sandbags and earth of our parapet. All day the zip, zip sound is heard up and down the line. The Johnnies weren’t really shooting at us, just showing they could. Still, a recruit got his forehead shot off this morning because he didn’t crouch low enough.
“Kat comes back today,” Shiod says and snatches my rifle from where it lays, leaning against the trench’s wall. “He’ll be jealous. He’s been here eight months and he still fires a muzzle-loader.”
I snatch it back and try not to make a show of re-checking the telescopic sight lenses, flipping them up one at a time before setting them back into place. As the only sniper left in the company, I’d managed to obtain one of the newest Sharps. The smooth, gear-operated breach-loader is the finest weapon we have in the trenches around Baltimore. I’ve found myself becoming more protective of it than my own life.
“When will he get in?” I ask, taking my eyes off the rifle.
Shiod shrugs. “Damned if I know. The rail lines are all blown to hell. Len thinks the Johnnies have at least two dozen airships dedicated to just bombing the piss out of them.”
“He’ll get here,” I say. “And Len always thinks the Johnnies have a dedicated weapon just to annoy us.”
“I think they mi-”
An explosion shakes the ground and we take cover. I dig around on the step for my tin helmet and slap it on, holding it down tight with both hands as dirt and rock spray down on us.
Shiod swears as a bugle call comes down the line. Two short, loud bursts. We both pop up and fire blindly in the direction of the enemy line to discourage surprise attack. In the fading light I can see gray coats and reflections from metal hats moving in the distance. I don’t aim, simply fire in their direction.
“You missed you sons of bitches!” Shiod shouts.
In the end, they didn’t miss, not entirely. When the shooting stops minutes later, five men are dead. One of them was taking a piss when the mortar shell landed behind him. All we found was a pair of boots and the bloody stumps of his legs. The boots are saved but the severed feet are tossed in an open grave.
The Johnnies never fire artillery at us this early. In the beginning of the war, before the Water Engine made its entrance, I heard tales that they used only the Napoleonic cannons and almost never shot them at night. Now that Richmond was churning out the new lines of Lees, they fire huge shells full of explosives twice as far, twice as often, meaning us poor fools are down range all damn day. Since we are dug in so resolutely, they fire at night just to keep us awake for days. Firing this early means we are really in for it tonight.
After burying the dead, Shiod and I meet up with Vanmere in the reserve trenches. We grab what little bread there is, knowing there won’t be much of anything for us if the guns start up in full. We head back to the line as the sun disappears and wait.
We huddle against the trench walls and say very little, not looking at one another at all. I keep my head pressed against the earth in front of me, trying to disappear into it. When it begins, the shells will land in front of us, behind us and if we’re unfortunate, directly on top of us.
I have only been here a few weeks but I know to recognize them by ear alone. The buzzing of the head-choppers sound so much like a swarm of bees explode over the trenches, raining down hot, sharp metal in a deadly rain. Then the big guns will open up, the huge Lees tearing up ground wherever they land. I can almost smell the churned earth, the sulfuric fumes of expended shells and coppery scent of spilled blood.
There is another bugle call, long and shrill and we reach out our left arms and touch the man to our left. There must be no gaps in the event of an attack.
For a time nothing happens. The night is so still we hear one another’s quick breaths and near-silent prayers. I take in the feel of Shiod’s bony shoulder beneath my fingers, testing to make sure he’s still there. The smell of mud, unwashed men and greased weapons fills my nose. The air, chill as a light rain begins to fall, tickles the back of my neck.
There is a loud pop overhead, and the sky burns yellow so brightly that the rocks before me leave a burning after image. Once my eyes clear, there are dark shapes where the flare shell went off but I see Shiod watching the sky with a sense of awe.
Another burst lights up the sky. Another and then another. The men around us are ducking or digging into the earth in front of them. We stare still for a moment longer, our fascination brief but strong. These star shells are beautiful, like man-made stars in the smoke-filled sky. The Johnnies always begin their deadly barrages with such beauty. The moment passes and we fling ourselves against the earth.
A low thump, like the heartbeat of giant creature, gives us our first warning. It vibrates throughout the area. You feel it in the earth, in your breast. Then there is the smell of burned ozone and that terrible whizzing sound. I hear screams from those who are hit by falling shrapnel but do not move for the worst comes a moment later.
The bombardment begins.