This is the final chapter of the preview of my work-in-progress, the novel "Your Pal Al." The previous four chapters are here on my blog. If you want to start at the beginning, here's Chapter One. I'd love to hear what you think. Please comment.
“We been running through trenches for weeks. It was raining hard, Burty, kinda like a hurricane, but it was too cold—way too cold. We got all turned around and had no idea where we was and to make matters worse, we got pinned down real good by a machine gunner. Being stuck there was bad, but the rain and the mud was much worse. We couldn’t get dry no matter what we did. You know how your hands and feets wrinkle up if you stays in the bath too long, Burty? Well, what do you think they’d look like if theys in the there for more than a week?”
Albert shrugged but not because he was bored or not interested. It was the only thing he could do. The stories from the War were his favorite and while Mr. Sam did seem to tell the same ones over and over, this was one he had never heard – not even the corners or edges of this story.
“Not a pretty picture, eh Burty?” Mr. Sam smiled just a bit and stared hard at him. It wasn’t a nice smile. It didn’t make Albert feel any better. It actually made him squirm just a bit. The squirming was just enough for him to see that Miss Lottie had stopped her ironing and was doing a bit of staring herself.
“Please, Mr. Sam.” Albert said in a very small voice. “Tell me what happened.”
The smile warmed up, but the edge was still there hiding in his eyes. “Well Burty, while we’uhs pinned down, we didn’t seem to be in too much danger. As long as we stayed down there in the trench, we’uhs safe. But our food was running low and we’uhs getting to acting like rats down there. People ain’t s’posed to stay in small, wet places like that Burty. It makes ‘em do crazy things. A few of the fellas got into fights… mostly over silly things. Steppin’ on someone’s boots, laughin’ at someone’s song…things like that.”
The smile was back and so was the far away look in his eyes. Then they started rolling all around… it was the remembering look, the one that made him slip, but it didn’t last. “We’d been up past our knees in mud, water and worse for over a week and peoples was fussin’ about someone steppin’ on they boots! Like they could get any more messed up! Heh, Heh, Heh…” Albert noticed it was his old laugh and he repaid Mr. Sam with a big smile of his own. Then Mr. Sam just licked his lips and took a sip of his iced tea. He slapped both hands down on his knees and he took a deep breath.
“So, Burty. Things is about to get pretty bad, son. Are you sure you still wanting to hear this?”
“Are you kidding, Mr. Sam? This is the best story ever!”
“Alright then. You listen up real good and you remember this.” Mr. Sam leaned in and gave him a look like no other—if it had hands, Albert was sure it could have reached down into his very soul. But it didn’t—even so, it certainly made his insides feel all runny. “You might think what I’m sharing with you is a great tale, but it’s real. And it happened. And I was there.”
“Yes sir.” Albert said because it seemed like the right thing to say. And Albert was rewarded with a nod.
“So Burty, we been down there for over a week and we hadn’t eaten for two mornings before that. With all the rain, we had plenty of water to drink. We’d catch it up in our helmets but it had a bad taste to it. Cap’n Day figured that something had best be done and done quickly. And the Cap’n… well, he was a good man… a good officer too, mostly ‘cause he never would ask a man to do something that he wouldn’t do hisself. But he should have this time, Burty, oh yes. This time it was just too dangerous for our only officer to be risking his life. But he didn’t see it that way. So once it got dark he slipped out of the trench and started to make his way across the field with only one thing in his mind. He was gonna stop that gunner so we could get out of that trench and get some food.”
“You know what’s comin’ don’t cha Burty?” It wasn’t really a question but Mr. Sam answered himself, just the same. “Course you do. And it didn’t take long neither. If it hadn’t been raining and if the lightening hadn’t flashed he might have made it, too. But the lightening did flash and it was followed by thunder. And that thunder went on much longer than normal thunder’d do. And that’s ‘cause the gunner must have seen Cap’n in the light and turned his gun on and damn near cut Cap’n in half. I don’t think he knew what hit him, thank the Lord. Well, we didn’t know that at the time, so the next time that lightening flashed we all had to see if the Cap’n made it. But we knew the answer before we looked. There was nothing there. It was still dark, see, and the rain was still coming down so hard that we couldn’t see much even if it were full daylight. We musta’ had our heads out of that trench for too long ‘cause that gunner sprayed us with another burst. None of us was hit, or so we thought and all of us fell back in the trench. We just sat there in the mud real quiet like for a long time just listening… hoping that we might hear something that would tell us Cap’n Day was alive. But the thunder and rain was all we could hear. No one knew what to do so we just sat there staring into the darkness.”
“I think I was the first to wake up. I can’t believe I fell asleep but I wasn’t the only one. The whole ragtag bunch of us had been asleep. It was probably shock and the lack of food and I might have believed it was something normal if everyone hadn’t gone to sleep. But we all did. They’uhs something about that morning that just wasn’t right, Burty.”
“We didn’t know what it was, but somehow the day just seemed like no other day. All the fellas felt it. It was like someone pulled the curtains off the wall and let the sun shine in a dark room after you been sick and now was feelin’ better. Only no one was felling better. Like I said it was still raining hard but we had to look up to the sky anyway, just to make sure, ‘cause something sure was different. And you know what? We heard singing, and from real close, too. So some of us climbed a bit up out of that trench, just a bit and that’s when we we saw him. It was Jim standing up there starin’ up into the sky. At first I thought he’uhs up there so’s the rain could wash away all he mud. He had his arms stretched high.”
Mr. Sam began to slow down and spoke in a soft dreamy way and stretched his arms high for emphasis before he just stopped. Albert had seen Mr. Sam stop like this so many times before that he would have been scared that he wouldn’t get the end of the story, if Mr. Sam hadn’t slammed both of his outstretched hands down on his knees with a dazzling quickness that let out two sharp pops.
“Then I realized that he was the one doing the singing. And it hit me.” A snap of his fingers. “Jim had gone crazy!”
He made the same swirling finger sign at the side of his head that Papa Jack made when Grandmother said something that just didn’t make sense. But only when she couldn’t see. And it was always followed by a wink. Mr. Sam didn’t wink.
“He was lucky that he hadn’t been killed by that German gunner yet. ‘Jim!’ I yelled. ‘Get back down here now you crazy Injun!’ Now I know I shouldn’t have called him that but in the heat of the moment I just blurted out whatever was down in my mouth! ‘Jim!’ I yelled again. We all was. All of us but Alvin. He was still at the bottom of the trench with a bullet hole just above his left eye. He must have been hit the night before when we’uhs all lookin’ for the Cap’n.”
“So like I said, we ‘uhs all yellin’ at Jim to take cover but Jim, he just stood there.” Again he stretched his arms wide and looked up. Albert steeled himself for another quick jolt but all Mr. Sam did was slowly turn to him and say, “Now, I wasn’t about to let my friend die like the Cap’n did so I started up and out of that trench myself. But not too much. He was right by the edge so I didn’t have to get all the way out, ya’see? I just grabbed at his ankles and started pullin’. He didn’t budge and he didn’t say nothin’ neither. Not at first. But then, real slow like he looked down at me and said ‘Samson, the last thing you want to do right now is pull me back into that hole. It might make me angry.’ Something dark was crawling around his words that had power so I stopped the pulling.”
Mr. Sam licked his lips. Albert had never seen the old man so animated or agitated.
“I tried tellin’ him that he needed to get back here in the trench so’s he wouldn’t get shot. Then he looked down at me and extended his hand. ‘It’s all right Sam. I made sure that we wouldn’t be troubled by those gunners no more.’ And I knew it was so, Albert. I reached up and took his hand. He pulled me up out of that trench. He was a strong one, my friend Jim. He then turned his gaze skyward and just stared up into the rain. I was drawn to do the same and for what seemed like the longest time the two of us just stood there holding hands and staring up into the sky. It sounds kinda silly, don’t it Burty? But that’s what we did. Then it got all quiet. None of the fellas could figure out what was happenin’ but something took ahold of them too! And finally, the rain just stopped and we-uhs greeted by the sweetest ray of sunshine that I ever did see. It came beamin’ down at us like somethin’ from heaven! And I guess it was too!”
“When that sun come out, the magic was gone. And you know what Burty? We realized that we was still holdin’ each others hands.” Heh. Heh. Heh. “Now that was something that it took a long time for the fellas to forget!” Heh. Heh. Heh. He laughed long and hard and laughed himself into quite the coughing fit. Miss Lottie was on him like a shot handing him his Nestea and gently patting his back. When the coughing let up, she took the glass from his hand and gently kissed him on the forehead. Then she turned towards Albert. On him was more like it because she now had fury in her eyes.
“I’m heading into that house to fetch my Samson another glass of tea. While I’m gone the two of you had best sit there quietly. No talking!” She pointed a chubby, well-worn finger at Albert and held it there for emphasis. Albert wanted to say that he had said maybe five words in the last fifteen minutes and that Mr. Sam had been doing all the talking… and that he was just being polite by being a good listener… but he knew better, especially when Miss Lottie said, “And if I catch either one of you not minding me, them words will be the last ones the two of you will ever share!” She didn’t wait for an answer. She didn’t have to. The two of them were just as she left them when she returned five minutes later with Mr. Sam’s Nestea. The surprising thing for Albert was that she handed him his own sweaty glass and headed back to her ironing board.
“I know you have your concerns Burty, but my Lottie really is an angel.” Mr. Sam said in barely audible words.
“I heard that!” Miss Lottie roared and Mr. Sam smiled, then turned towards Albert.
“Where was I, Burty?”
“You and Jim was holding hands and the sun had started to shine.”
“Right. So, one by one, the whole company emerged from the trench. The fellas sure was a sight! Heh, heh, heh. They sure was… all covered in mud… filthy. Heh, heh, heh.” He rocked his chair lightly, then brushed at his overalls and continued, “…but we was still alive and now the sun was shining. Shinin’ Burty! And for the first time we could see the lay of the land.”
He leaned forward and looked hard at Albert then spoke matter-of-factly. “You see, when we was forced to take refuge from that gunner in that ol’ trench, it was night time and it was raining, and we ‘uhs all turned around. We really did stumble into that trench and it saved our lives. So we didn’t know that there were buildings nearby. And they weren’t too far away either. Just across an old field… an old vineyard, to be sure. But we had to cross that field before we got to them buildings. Not that we was worried about getting shot… if that was gonna happen Burty, we’d have been shot dead already. No suh, that field was where the Cap’n was cut down. And after our initial joys of getting out of that trench and the rain stopping, we remembered our Cap’n Day and started to look for him. We could only hope… but I already told you what happened to him.” He took a deep inward breath and went on.
“We found him almost halfway to the farmhouse. We only stopped for a minute to pay respect. Some of us said a few words. ‘Course some had words for the Lord and some of those weren’t too good, neither. Well, we figured that we might find an old board or something in that house to get the Captain and Alvin back and hopefully find some food in there, too. So we quickly made our way to the house. And besides, we had to make sure that machine gunner was dead, so we left him there for a time… not alone, mind you, Jim stayed with him. Later he told me he he stayed with the Captain because he couldn’t ever go in that house. And because he told me after we’d already been in there, I thought I knew why.”
“That house was full of surprises Burty, and when we opened that front door we got the first one. And it was a doozy.”
He had that far away look in his eyes again and grew quiet.
“You just can’t stop there Mr. Sam!”
“Please, Mr. Sam!” Still nothing so Albert settled in against the wall, his feet up pulled tight and his head between his knees. Quietly, he said to no one in particular “It just isn’t fair…”
That brought about a faint “heh heh heh” and a little nudge from Mr. Sam’s dusty boot. “Burty, you ain’t gonna take a nap on me now are ya? This is just getting to the good part.” He winked at Albert.
So, lucky for Albert it was only Mr. Sam having a little fun with him. It was also another break for tea. Albert was engrossed in this story. It certainly was a new one. And while he had come for the Shadow he was now quite happy with this tale. He couldn’t help but start wonder what the surprises where and how it would end. And that’s when Miss Lottie appeared out of nowhere. She usually did that when she blamed Albert for something he’d done. This time it was different. What he hadn’t seen before was the huge wooden spoon that she had in her fist… never seen anything like it. All of a sudden he was thinking about a cottage in the woods, very much like the Browne’s… far away from everyone like the Browne’s… and witch and huge black cauldron… maybe not a cauldron but Albert was certain that there was a witch…
It was Miss Lottie herself that brought him back to reality when she slapped that spoon into her hand…
“Samson, I know where you headin’ with this story and you best stick to what you told me.”
Mr. Sam actually jumped a little at that one. And with that, she turned and walked back to her ironing.
Mr. Sam took a breath breath and continued. “We could see that the front door stood wide open and as we got closer we could make out a big wooden farm table just inside. And you just cain’t guess what we found on that table, Burty.”
“I don’t know. Food?”
“Well o’ course they’uhs food, Burty! But they’s also a note. It read, ‘Eat up and don’t worry about the gunner, I took care of him.’ It was signed ‘Your pal, Jim.’ He must have been up all night preparin’ that feast. There was plenty of wine and roast chicken and fresh bread and cheese and olives and… well, I think you get the idea. We ate ‘til we couldn’t eat no more. The wine was making all of us sleepy but then we realized that we hadn’t gone to go see about that gunner.”
“At this point we knew there was no danger from Jerry, but opening that door at the top of the stairs was something that none of us wanted to do. Still… someone had to, and since the Captain was gone and Jim wasn’t with us, the fellas gave me the honor.”
Mr. Sam stopped for a minute and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. Albert thought that he should have wiped his upper lip off as well.
“I’ll tell ya Burty, my insides ran like iced water. And look here…” He held out a very shaky hand for Albert to inspect. “Why, I can still remember just how I felt to this day.”
“We stood to the sides of the door as much as we could just in case. We had Jim’s note after all, telling us that everything was taken care of but there was something about that day that just didn’t seem right.”
Miss Lottie coughed and then cleared her throat. Mr. Sam just kept right on talking.
“When you face these types of situations Burty, the best way to deal with them is to deal with them quickly, d’ya understand, son?”
Albert nodded because he thought he did. Miss Lottie had come back over and now stood by her husband. She placed her hand on his shoulder and nodded. Then Mr. Sam nodded as well.
“So I grabbed the latch on the door, lifted it and threw the door open. It slammed back against the wall revealing something that I just cain’t explain, Burty. And won’t. But I will tell you this, there was blood everywhere. It looked like a buzz saw went through that room. It took us quite some time to put all the pieces together and when we did, we found that there had been eleven German soldiers in that room.”
He stopped for a minute and rubbed his eyes. He was shaking much more now.
“That’d be enough Samson.”
“I’m gonna finish this. The boy may need it one day.”
She planted her feet and folded her arms. Normally, that might have been enough, but not today. Not now.
“We couldn’t leave them like that. It was war Burty, but even in war, there are lines you don’t cross. We spent the rest of the day collecting their remains. We took them downstairs and made a big fire and burned them and then we buried what was left.
“No one understood how Jim pulled it all off. And none of us ever spoke of it again.”
End of Chapter