Ninth and final part of “The Line of Duty”
At 10:30, the radio crackled. “Mole, this is Hole, over.”
“Roger, Hole, over,” Criston said.
“Time to switch holes, fellas. Over and out.”
They both stared at each other. Believing it would keep it from being true. Jack set down the radio in the bottom of the ditch and shuffled over the edge. He jumped out first, hugging the ground as closely as he could. Criston tossed up his rifle with his right arm, then tried to heave himself up with only his legs. He almost cried out in fear as his back pitched too far upward, practically begging to be shot. With only the one arm for balance he fell sideways, onto the wounded arm. Criston bit back the sobs as the pain pounded all the way from his arm into his chest.
“You all right?” Jack asked.
“Go,” Criston said. “I’ll catch up. Move it.” He didn’t hear Jack’s feet on the ground. “This thing’s killing me. I’m too slow. You couldn’t drag me if you wanted to,” he added. Jack still hesitated. Criston glared at him and said, “I’ll be all right. Just give me a second.”
Jack nodded and started moving. Criston shifted his eyes to the direction his head was pointing. He noticed that the sky looked a lot like Erie’s. He felt really hungry again, now that he had time and enough of a chance to worry about it. Damn peaceful, even out in the middle of nowhere. The pain in his arm started to die down to the throbbing that it had been. He rolled over, slung his rifle over his back and started to crawl using his legs and his good arm.
Jack trotted in a bent-over crouch as far as the wire. He looked back every few seconds, each time waiting until Criston waved him off. He grinned. It reminded Criston of those faithful dog stories that his dad told him when they used to go hunting.
The battlefield never looked so unreal before. The moonlight reflected off the barbed wire and shiny, bare patches of earth. Any shooting was a few miles up the way, and that was just a potshot now and then. Pop. Bang, boom. Pop. Pop pop. Boom.
Jack was halfway through the wire by the time Criston reached it. The relief team from second platoon on their way under the wire. There were three. “Hey, Bill, you’re in one piece,” one said. He couldn’t tell who it was. Another said, “You guys are lucky–you get to leave now that it’s getting tough!”
Criston moaned. He didn’t know what to say. He did feel lucky, but lucky to be going back to the line? Yeah, he admitted it. Then, as the team was following the wire to the ditch, he called back, “Don’t miss us too much,” knowing that they would. He coughed while he said it; his swollen throat kept him from raising his voice. They didn’t reply, and he couldn’t tell if they’d heard.
It took about five minutes to make it all the way through. Criston kept snagging his clothes on the wire from trying to keep his tender shoulder out of the mud. Jack was already back in the line by then. Criston wondered if he should try to jog the rest of the way. He could tell by the trail that Jack hadn’t trusted the snipers that much. Criston decided not to, either, and crawled the last twenty yards. It was still easier to make it back than Criston had dreamed it would be.
The sergeant and Jack helped drag him back into the line. Criston looked at him. “Bill, it ain’t much , but welcome back,” he said. No one whooped or yelled. They offered smokes and whatever else they could. It was a lot of patting on the back and everyone had a grin that went ear-to-ear. Criston realized that it was probably the first time in the whole unit that one of the M.I.A.’s was crossed off the list and didn’t wind up on the K.I.A. list instead. He grinned along with them.
“You boys ready for hot food?” the sergeant asked. “We made it up special for you two.” They ate dinner in the dug-out in the trench, a hot onion soup with potatoes. He remembered once calling it creek water. After he and Jack gave the rest of the platoon a few stories the lieutenant ordered Criston to go have his arm treated. As he started for the communication trench, the one that led back into the lines, he looked at the rest of the platoon. He knew that he wouldn’t think so after a few days back on the line, but for now he decided that there really were worse places to be in the world than in a trench near St. Mihiel. Wherever the hell that was.