The Man Without the Mask

Submitted into Contest #37 in response to: Write a story about a valuable object that goes missing.... view prompt

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Mystery Friendship Historical Fiction

It was late October of 1916, a chilling, wet day when Edward found himself abandoned with Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy of one of the Irish divisions assigned to the eastern trench. Like a crooked, winding serpent, the lines of trenches ripped through the earth and snaked their way all along the whole Allied front. Once sunbaked and almost as hard as the rock below the ground, the dirt walls now clung to the soil from which they had been dug and even started to fall away from the embankments in some places. If it were not for the wooden posts reinforcing the sides of the trench, then the whole lot of it would have sunken in under the heavy rains.

Edward crouched with his back pressed up against a sodden wood beam, looking dismally down at the foul-smelling water sitting at least two inches deep below him.

“There’s really no way of staying dry,” he remarked in his thick Canadian accent to Paddy McCarthy who was staring upwards with his hands planted on his hips. “My socks are soaked, and—”

“Looks like we’re ain for ‘nother big one,” Paddy commented in his Irish lilt. He ruffled the blindingly red hair beneath his metal helmet as he surveyed the sky and squinted his blue eyes up at the saturated sky. “More clouds are a-comin’ from the waest.”

Edward grunted, shaking his head as he stood and straightened his khaki uniform.

“And my gunpowder is all wet!” he said with emphasis and a hard stare at the oblivious Irishman. “I don’t see how we’re supposed to fight the Germans with useless sticks that are only good for exploding in your face.”

“Calm down, lad. We’ve alwa’s got through this before, and the good Laerd will see us thro’ again,” grinned Paddy with a confident nod at the young Canadian ruefully inspecting his Ross Mk III rifle.

“Oh, I don’t doubt it…all I’m saying is this is getting just the slightest bit frustrating.”     

Standing up, Edward sighed and moved to the board steps that were built into the side of the trench and led up almost strictly vertically to the surface. For hours on end, a deathlike silence had fallen across the mounds and small hills of Verdun, a silence that sent chills crawling up his spine.

And no sort of command had come from the officers in the central and western trenches.

Eight hours, Edward calculated as he consulted his inner clock. When he and various other soldiers had been sent to man this branch of the eastern trenches, it had been barely more than oh-six-hundred hours, and now it seemed mid-afternoon. No one had come, no one had sent any sort of note from his command; and Edward could feel the fear beginning to edge its way into his heart.

“What dae ye see?” queried Paddy as he began to clean his Lee Enfield 303 with a soiled rag he had drawn from his knapsack.

There was a silence between the two as Edward rested his forehead in the dirt and squeezed his eyes shut. In the next moment, a tremulation shivered through the ground and rippled the water at the bottom of the trench. In the long hours before, he had hated the silence and wished a thousand times for at least the steady pattering of gunfire in the distance. Here in this out-of-the-way eastern trenched that twisted dangerously close to the enemy’s lines, there wasn’t much happening just because the Central Powers had no idea that a narrow trench resided there…as of yet.

“They’re bombing the center,” Edward reported over his shoulder as his eyes strained to catch each detail coming from the horizon. Suddenly, horror gripped his body as he gave an involuntary start.

“They’re advancing,” he breathed in utter disbelief.

“Who?” demanded Paddy as he scrambled up behind Edward and peered over his shoulder. “The Germans?”

“No.” Ed’s voice was trembling, his face going instantly pale when he recognized the distant color of uniform of the men painfully slowly attempting to make their way across no man’s land. Endless bales of barbed wire had been strewn at random over the muddy hillocks, and in some places were impassable.

Yet only to the distanced onlooker was it possible to realize that.

Ed’s heart thundered against his ribcage and his head pounded beneath his helmet, but he couldn’t drag his light brown eyes away from the Canadian division being almost immediately gunned down by the Germans bunkered down in the trenches almost a mile distant. Dark eyebrows arched with a pain so deep and tangible that Paddy rested a hand on his shoulder, Ed rested his forehead on a shaking hand. Desperately, he tried to bite back the tears that tried to reach their way down a face that he had worked so hard to keep clean in the trench warfare the armies persisted on using.

He had promised mum that he would do his best to stay clean and safe, knowing deep in his heart that she could not lose another one of her sons—could never bear the heartache that would only put more silver strands in her beautiful dark hair and would slowly choke the life out of her. She had lost papa; she had lost Rob, Charles, and Henry; and he was the only one left. Surely, he would do his best…

A strange white fog began to creep across the stretch of no man’s land in their vicinity, stealthily and silently devouring the ground separating the enemy trench from theirs. Ed heard the sharp intake of breath behind him and turned to see Paddy shakily fumbling with a mechanism strapped to his uniform, one that looked all too familiar to the young Canadian.

“No!” he shouted defiantly, ducking below the edge of the trench.

“Yes!” retorted Paddy McCarthy, strapping the eerie-looking apparatus at the back of his head. “Eddie, lad…it’s bromine…”

“I know what it is! Do you think I can’t see for myself?”

“Put on your mask.”

Ed, wild-eyed and distressed, glanced about his uniform and then began to search the trench from mud to the place he had been pacing to while away the hours. As the panic began to set in, he nearly collapsed into the bottom of the trench from a wave of lightheadedness.

“Stand up!” roared Paddy in a strangely deep, muffled voice as he stood over Ed. “Act like a man, Eddie!”

All of a sudden, the sound of shouting and moaning from somewhere up above drifted down into the trench. Inhaling a shaky breath, Ed roused himself to his feet and stepped once again up the first and then second step leading up from the trench. His foot slipped on the grime coating the second one, but he caught himself and moved up another step.

Utter incredulity lined his young face, and he could feel his muscles start to quiver in his legs, threatening to go weak under him. Gritting his teeth, Ed forced himself to not look away and fixated his gaze on the soldiers that advancing shockingly close from their trench.

“Another division,” he said in barely a whisper.

Bullets sprayed through the air all around them while the light artillery boomed and crackled like thunder in the distance. A chill rose the gooseflesh on his arms and upper back while he watched as the valiant Canadian division was gradually gunned down, leaving bodies tangled in the intricate snarls of barbed wire.

Yet one man was still inching his way closer to the enemy trenches, his metal helmet knocked off by an especially thick strand of wire. Pale face scratched and smudged with the dirt of no man’s land, the young man in the olive-green khaki of the Canadian uniform had his rifle strung across his back and was frog-crawling under the wire.

The next instant, the body went almost completely still, only a barely noticeable quiver tremoring though the soldier from head to toe.  

“Jonny!”

The cry seemed wrenched from Edward’s very soul as, all of a sudden, he caught a glimpse of the familiar face lying on its side in the blood and dirt of Verdun. Flashes of boyhood days all the way up to them sitting round a small fire just the night before in a time of deep conversation and prayer rushed through his mind. Pain before unimaginable stabbed through his heart as he, with eyes glazing over, witnessed the bullets flinging themselves into the dirt like hail.

Before he knew what he was doing, Ed found himself out of the trench and flinging himself with all of his strength under the wire that tore and gripped at his gear and uniform. In only a hundred yards or so, he would be beside Jonny who was lying as still as seemed possible.

The white fog was slowly rolling in, almost reaching the three-fifths mark of the field between the trenches. Anxiety that normally would have seized Ed at being found in no man’s land with bullets zipping about him was numbed beneath the memories of how Jonny had cherished so many bright dreams and ambitions for the future, too many to be all killed right now by a Jerry’s bullet. Jonny had wanted a family—had wanted children to provide for and to love and protect. He had a sweetheart, Cate Stuart, back home who he loved almost more than anything else in the world.

Here, a sob choked Ed as he struggled forward despite the blood pouring from his neck, streaming almost as hard as the tears were that made white places in the now dirty gray of his face. The initial shock of being hit was wearing off, the searing pain settling into his throat and nearly choking him. He didn’t know at what point he had been hit, but knew that several minutes had passed since he “Ed—Ed…get out of here!” Jonny gasped when Edward had finally dragged his body up alongside his friend’s. Wildly, his friend’s brown eyes searched Ed’s as the latter gazed toward the mist advancing forward.

“Where are you hit?”

“Doesn’t matter…put on your mask, Ed.”

“Jonny, where are you hit?”

Falling into a hazy-eyed silence, Jonny’s body slumped against the ground, and Ed caught the three bullet holes that had torn through the chest of the young Canadian soldier. His vision suddenly blurred and the land dipped and swam before him, and he blinked several times to try to clear it as he rummaged through Jonny’s gear for the mask he knew would be there.

At length, he came up with the strange-looking mask with the oddly enlarged circular eyeholes and the cylindrical tube at the mouth. A flood of relief washed over him, and Ed immediately set to work strapping the back of the mask where it fastened at the back of the head.

 

A pair of brown eyes flickered open where the injured soldier had been laid on a small cot in the early morning by the three Canadian men who had braved the uncertain night hours to gather the wounded.

A feeble ray of sunlight fell through the makeshift door and into the small bunker where several soldiers were recuperating from various wounds. Although it was a small space barely able to house ten soldiers side-by-side, more khaki-clad men kept coming in and out of the bunker.

“Good…you’re awake,” smiled the doctor, his blue eyes twinkling as he twirled a corner of his white-streaked chestnut mustache. “How do you feel, Sergeant?”

“I feel…” moaned the soldier with a weak excuse for a grin, “like I’ve been trampled by a wild bull, and nothing less.”

“Lucky we don’t have any of those here or at home,” the doctor laughed as he put his stethoscope to the young man’s stained white shirt. After a moment of listening closely with eyes narrowing, Dr. Rochester removed the stethoscope ear pieces from his head and hung it around his neck.

“Yes? Will I be alright?” fervently asked the soldier, his silky brown hair falling over his forehead and into eager eyes.

There was a quietness in the room as the doctor commenced checking his patient’s pulse and other vital signs. Finally, he sat back on his three-legged stool and spread his long legs out before him in a stretch after sitting by the bedside for the several hours.

“Let me just start by saying how incredible it is that you survived that bromine gas,” Dr. Rochester stated gravely, all traces of amusement dissipated from his face. “The attack last night was one of the deadliest we have received, and these gas masks are not the most reliable ones that we’ve ever had. You are more than blessed to be alive, boy.”

The soldier lay his head back on the cot and stared up at the wood planks that made up the ceiling of the small bunker. A sigh rattled through his lungs and rushed out of his parted lips, his eyes closing When it came, his breath was nearly snatched from his body.

“But immediate surgery is needed,” said Dr. Rochester grimly, urgency evident in his tone as he leaned forward and rested a hand on the young Canadian’s shoulder.

“Is it?” the soldier cried out, covering his face with his hands. Flashbacks of operations on other men ran through his mind in an instant, remembrances of men who had died of either blood loss, surgical mistakes, or of an accidental anesthetic overdose by shellshocked hands.

“Do you want gangrene, boy?” demanded the doctor. “If we don’t get the lead out, then you will die.”           

The young soldier struggled into a half-sitting position and stared at the doctor with a mixture of pain and tears dulling his eyes. Slowly, he nodded his head and gripped the doctor’s offered hand in a manly handshake, amazingly strong for a man who was very well on the brink of death.

“It’ll be this afternoon,” Dr. Rochester quietly let him know as he stood and closed his black bag that rested on the floor beside the cot. “Stay strong, Sergeant.”

With that, the doctor left the bunker to continue on his rounds of his assigned trenches, the sound of his boots fading away into the distance of the zigzag bunkers of Verdun.

Also about to leave the bunker was a well-built, olive-uniformed soldier who looked as if he hadn’t slept in weeks. Adjusting his helmet chinstrap, the lieutenant was on the verge of stepping back out into the nauseating labyrinth of trenches when the young sergeant stopped him with a single word.

“Lieutenant?”

Lieutenant Erickson turned about-face and nodded to the injured soldier who was looking intently down at the mask staring uncannily up at him from the floor beside him where his gear and uniform were gathered in a heap.

“Yes, Sergeant?”

“When was I pulled from the field?”

Erickson flipped open the metal cover of his pocket watch and then glanced back up at the younger man he and the two others had dragged from the field.

“About oh-two-hundred,” he answered with a slight tilt of his head. “Why?”

“Was—was there anyone else?” wavered the sergeant as he clenched his jaw and forced down the lump in his throat.

“There were many men up there that we found, but you were one of the only ones living. Many weren’t able to reach their masks under the barbed wire without cutting themselves or drawing more attention from the Germans, and those that did died struggling to put them on.”

“Was anyone found near me?” the soldier persisted, biting back Lieutenant Erickson evenly matched his countryman’s gaze and silently nodded.

“The stupid man forgot to even have his mask with him. He possibly would have had a chance, seeing as which part of the wire we found him in. It’s not as if he wasn’t warned in almost every single protocol we did of the consequences of forgetting your mask! What an idiot.”

The soldier visibly gave a start, his brown eyes going wide as his head fell into his trembling fingers. Now, he could not a moment longer hold back the tears.

He didn’t ever remember putting the mask on.

April 17, 2020 05:35

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