Like a Penny
Another dirt road and the air was thick with dust and the sound of insects in the trees. The company had spread loosely in a strung out line, watching, waiting, walking. They’d been humping it since dawn with a short break at noon for something to eat. He knew the trail went somewhere, but he didn’t know where. Didn’t know why they were on this road. Didn’t know where they’d end up. He only knew to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and follow the sergeant’s orders.
A rolling bead of sweat trickled down the back of his neck, and he wanted to wipe it away. He’d been warned on his trek out from base camp the first time about making sudden movement. Flock of birds, he’d been told. You move and it spooked everyone. So he tried to ignore the itch, tried to ignore the buzz of an insect - a mosquito or something more native - around his ear. One boot in front of the other, another dozen steps, a hundred yards.
He’d been too busy ignoring the ache in his shoulders, the trembling of his arm muscles from carrying his rifle all day. Too busy trying to not swat the bugs from his face. Too busy trying to believe the gurgle in his stomach would go away. He’d been too busy thinking - or not thinking - on other little worries to focus on another one. But the sudden, immediate pain under the ball of his foot made all the others quiet in its insistence.
The low-voiced command to ‘keep moving’, brought him up from his stumble, kept him on his feet. The hard - tack! nail! - bit again and again with each step. He tapped the toe of his boot on the downward swing; the thing rolled, now rubbed on his foot just below the big toe joint. The GI walking beside him gave him that look. Newbie, greenie, virgin - they’d all become nicknames, taunts he lived with. At least he wasn’t alone; Duo shared his fate of name-calling.
Right then left, another hundred yards. Quatre winced. His feet were going to hurt already, he didn’t need bloody on top of it. A quick glance to the front confirmed the point and four GIs still walked the steady cadence. He murmured a soft "falling back" and kneeled in the dirt.
It was the displaced air in front of his face in his downward move that had him reacting more than the grunt and sudden tumble from the soldier who’d been walking next to him.
"Sniper!" he yelled, throwing himself flat. The shout had been picked up and bodies were dropping in front and behind, bullets hit the leaves, the reports heavy in the air. Quatre pulled his rifle close, his eyes scanning the tree line to the left. Another ping-ping, and a series of return fire. Over it all, he heard the groan and remembered the fallen man.
He crawled on his belly backward, shifted his angle when his boot caught the soldier in the leg. A chest wound, the bullet entered from the side through the fleshy part of the upper arm. Quatre didn’t see an immediate exit path. The exchange of gunfire continued around him; the corporal grabbed Quatre’s hand, his eyes slitted in pain.
Not turning away, Quatre reached down into a fatigue pocket and worked a compress out. He shook it enough and pushed it against the wound from the outside of the man’s uniform. Blood bubbled at the man’s lips.
"Medic!" His cry was one of the few, lost in rifle report, shouted commands and a series of launching whoosh followed by exploding grenades.
‘Doc’ dropped low next to him, his hands already working to open clothing, snatching foil and plastic wrapped items from his bag. "Keep pressure on that." Quatre was instructed. A curse was muttered, and the grip over Quatre’s hand became lax. Another curse. "I need to get him out of here now." Doc didn’t even look at him. "When I say go, lay suppressing fire, got it?" he was wrapping the gauze packing, tying its ends tight.
Quatre nodded, added a quiet "got it" and tensed himself to move. The corporal’s eyes were still opened, staring at nothing. Quatre swallowed, wanted to look away from his face, to not see the blood on his lips, the blood covering his hands. "Will he be okay?"
Doc paused for a second only; cynicism and something like pity stared at him. "Let me get him out of here first." Not a minute later, Doc was pulling the corporal in an upright position, hoisting him onto his shoulder. "Go!" he shouted and shot to his feet.
Spinning on his feet, Quatre began to fire, mostly without aiming towards the trees. Others up and down the line of bodies picked it up and grenades were launched in rapid sequence. One clip emptied, Quatre ejected and shoved in another. Minutes passed and the call to cease-fire was issued. Three sets of four names each were called and sent to verify the all clear. Quatre watched the trees, all sound faded but the pounding thrum in his ears and the in and out of air to his lungs.
Shouts of "move out!" were heralded up and down the line. Quatre got to his feet, and began to walk.
It wasn’t until camp had been set for the night that he finally removed his boot. He shook it out upside down and a small chunk of granite rolled out onto his palm. Quatre was staring at it, still holding his boot when Duo dropped down beside him.
"What a day, huh?" Duo’s voice was low, sounding tired.
Quatre turned his head and saw the streaks of sweat and dirt lining Duo’s face, his hair matted from his helmet. He nodded without speaking.
"Hey, what’s that?" Duo was looking at the pebble in Quatre’s hand.
"It was in my boot."
His smile a lazy thing, Duo’s lips lifted softly. "Like a penny, huh?"
Quatre studied his palm once again. "Yeah, I guess."
Duo scrubbed at his hair, thumped his helmet back on. "Guess I’ll go check out what’s for grub. Want me to bring you back something?" His shoulder bumped into Quatre’s.
"Sure," Quatre nodded, watching Duo rise and hurry off, slinging his rifle over his shoulder. Turning back to the pebble in his hand, he looked between it and his boot. If it hadn’t been for the rock in this boot... if he hadn’t stopped to take it out. He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. It wasn’t him who’d been hit, who’d lain on his back on some dirt track in pain and blood.
His fingers closed in a tight fist. Dropping his boot, he fished out a penknife, and worked it open. A stab, a couple of digs and prizing of material later, he nudged the bit of earth into the hollow he’d made, tamped it down tight and closed the lining flap over it.
Duo returned while he was lacing up his boot, two sets of chow in his hands.