Sheets of rain blanketed sounds of our movements, the enemy's too. Jimmy Herbert crowded into the narrow shelter I'd located, the remains of an ancient half-stone farm outbuilding somewhere deep in the French countryside. The shack-sized structure smelled of dried animal dung, straw, now dampened by rain, but I thought it would provide cover until the enemy passed.
A blind-sided ambush had separated us from our platoon while we led a search and destroy mission through miles of unmapped farmland just after dawn. Now, I thought, we both felt the unkind hand of death scrubbing our necks, as it reached Nazi claws to strip out our humanity, or what remained of it by then, after months of raw fighting.
I glanced over at Jimmy. He had an unlit Pall Mall dangling from the corner of his clenched lips. He was breathing heavily, smelled as if fear flooded his pores. His face bore lines, pale, drawn. Somehow, seeing him like that, made him look older as if the damn war had pushed his clock faster. He glanced my way, grinned weakly, which relieved him of some of the burden I knew we all carried around after watching the carnage left behind us, a trail of death littered with the promises of unborn children, lost futures.
A burst of Nazi machine rifle fire lit the air to our left, red phosphorous tipped tracers sizzling rain. I knew they had decided to strafe each building hoping to get lucky, hit us without direct confrontation. I supposed I should have felt proud that our reputation, we GIs, made them wary, but right then, I felt nothing.
Jimmy knew their goal too and I watched his spit-moistened cigarette quiver and drop from his mouth as he inhaled sharply, brown eyes widening more. I had never seen his fear so strong before, but now it lit him with terror something akin to insanity. His hands vibrated as he squeezed the stock of his carbine, rattling it against his canteen.
I reached over and moved the rifle, silencing a sound I feared might give us away. Jimmy flinched as if he believed I might slap him the way Patton did a GI undergoing the same mind-freezing terror.
The thousand-yard stare, I thought, had seen it a dozen times by then, and wanted to shake him, reached to do it, but stopped myself. You could never anticipate a soldier’s reaction.
I tapped his shoulder and when he nodded silent acknowledgement, pointed that he should go right and I'd go left towards the Germans.
He nodded again and I gave him the meet-up sign, raised two fingers to indicate two minutes, and then jabbed a thumb over my shoulder for where we should meet.
Rain still muffled all sound. We stood, shook hands, and ran. My O.D. green poncho winged out, flapping around me. My helmet slipped slightly, allowing rain to coat my face, blurring my vision as if I'd been weeping, while the steel brim chopped at the back of my neck.
Weeping was something I knew by then that I would rarely, if ever, do again.
I heard gunfire, saw a wet glint of metal to my right as I half slipped in mud, rounded the rear corner of our small shelter, but managed to run past the enemy squatting alongside a fieldstone wall looking, I realized, away from me.
The rain had covered my passage. A glance at my watch showed one minute gone.
After hesitating to get my bearings, I pushed through a charred and butchered head-high hedgerow; felt the ruined branches tugging at my clothing, tripping me until I stumbled, almost fell.
At two minutes, I stopped and duck-walked under the low boughs of an ancient cedar tree, and waited for Jimmy's arrival. The ground was dry in spots sheltered by the tree. The air smelled like a Christmas sometime far in my past.
Two minutes turned to five, and then ten and I knew he would not show. I heard voices nearby, Germans, and climbed into the tree above me until I felt hidden and waited, blanking my mind as combat taught me: no thoughts, no fear, and no distraction.
Twenty minutes since we'd left our shelter, the rain slowed, but continued to fall from edge-blackened clouds that showed no sign of breaking, no relenting leak of sunshine.
After another half-hour passed, I felt that the worst was beyond me, the Germans gone. I shimmied down, felt muddy earth squeeze up around the soles of my boots and gave thanks for my life to a God I, by then, felt certain never listened as if He cared for the results of my actions or heard the plea of my words.
A patch of blue sky lit the ground, enough for me to see more than a few feet, which was when I spotted the helmet half-buried in mud.
I ran to it, bent and grabbed the chinstrap, and then returned to my cedar tree. As I turned the helmet over in my hands, water running out, I saw movement to my right, jerking my heart with surprise. A three-inch garden spider slowly descended from the web I hadn't seen, though it hung two feet to my left. Its legs moved mechanically as it silently repaired its web.
A small insect hit the web a foot above the spider. It moved quickly to subdue the fly. A movement later, the fly was gone.
I looked down at the helmet resting upside down on my knee and read, Herbert, James, his serial number stenciled in thick black on the helmet liner. Taped inside, was a photograph of a young dark-haired woman holding a small child. She smiled, the child slept in her arms. The picture was damp, not ruined.
I saw no blood; no bullet holes in the helmet, just a few dents.
Jimmy Herbert disappeared as if he'd never walked the earth before that day.