In honor of the great men and women who have served, who continue to serve our country, a gift to you this Veteran’s Day — my only short story ever published. You can find it in GRANITE ISLAND, AMER SEA, published by the Black Hills Writers Group. Enjoy, with love.
THE BRIDGE by Sandra Brannan
If he squeezed his eyes tight and opened his lids in a squint just enough to see light seep through his lashes, he could almost see the Black Hills in the distance. The trees were a different shade of green. The roar of the river behind him commanded his attention, whereas the comparable stream back home was nothing more than a taunt, forcing him to listen harder to the activity around him. He imagined himself sitting on the banks of the Cheyenne River staring at the bluffs south of his home in western South Dakota near Wasta. His father would be wondering why he wasn’t helping get the baler ready, mumbling about how when he had been a boy, he would have already had the mower put up for the season when his daddy asked. And his mother would be shuffling around the house in her soft moccasins, baking fresh biscuits for breakfast.
His stomach reminded him why he should have eaten all his C-rations last night, even if the thought of eating one more forkful of meat and potato hash was nearly unbearable. Of course, he knew he was far from home. The uneaten biscuits from his morning B-rations yesterday weighed heavily in his shirt pocket as a painful reminder of just how very far he actually was. Two worlds apart. Might as well be a million miles away. And he knew his back was not to the Cheyenne, but to the Rhein.
How he’d yearned to hear the whoop of his father calling for him or Cotton, his little brother, to start another day of working the fields. He prayed to God to let him go home, making a solemn promise that if God allowed him to, he’d never dawdle at sunrise or wile away the daylight hours wishing he were fishing, rather than helping his folks. He prayed to God to let him walk through the front door and muster the courage to hug his father, tell him how much he loved and appreciated him, an act of bravery he’d never attempted in his life. He prayed to God to let him touch his mother’s cheek, wrap his arms around her stout frame, bury his nose in her soft hair that smelled of freshly baked pie and strong coffee, and smile as he’d watch her remove the two small American flags she’d hung in their front window until they arrived home safely from the war.
He prayed to God to let him see his brother again – just one more time – so he could tell him how sorry he was for all the pranks he’d played on Cotton throughout their childhood, for telling their father that his little brother was the one who’d broke the pulley in the hay loft, and for blackmailing him to clean the horses’ stalls in exchange for keeping a secret from their mother about the pinup calendar stuffed under Cotton’s mattress. He prayed to God he would live to see another South Dakota sunset. Or the rest of this day’s dawn.
But he didn’t think God was listening.
He’d been staring at the foothills to the west near the town of Bonn, the Germans gathering as thick as flies on manure on the opposite banks, preparing for the third attack in that many days. His company’s numbers were dwindling and their clear, unmistakable mission to hold the bridge – orders from the boys in brass – was becoming as cloudy as his head from lack of sleep. All they had to do was hold the bridge until help arrived. They were expecting relief, a new company or two. But help hadn’t arrived. At least he was on this side of the river. He worried about the captain of the combat engineers who had designed the floating bridge for the company to cross in an unexpected location down river. The commander had assigned him this position on the opposite side of the bridge, away from his buddies, away from what was left of his company.
Despite his protests, the captain reminded him that he should remember that everyone played a key role in strategic positions, just like playing safety on his Rapid City High School’s football team had been important, hanging back as a last resort to prevent the proverbial touchdown by the Nazis. The captain ended the conversation by commanding him to take up his position with pride and purpose, without another argument. The company commander had gathered the troops and described his plan three days ago, before the first attack, encouraging all of his men to hold their positions, rotate posts to afford sleep, and protect that bridge at all costs.
No matter what.
The captain was determined to be the last to cross in the event the enemy overtook them on the other side of the river. He described everyone’s purpose and explained that his job was to blow up the bridge to prevent the Nazis from overtaking yet another strategic crossing they were rumored to dominate up and down the Rhein. And if he failed, Dakota would be the one to stop them. That’s what the captain called him. Dakota. But the radios had gone quiet for hours, the breeze eerily still in the coming daylight. On reflection in his solitude on the protected side of the river, he didn’t remember ever mentioning to the captain that he played safety. Or that he even played football.
He set his M1 Garand on the ground beside him, leaned back against the rock, and stretched out his legs. No bath in days; he cupped his hand and filled it with a splash of water from his nearly empty canteen. Dirty fingers rubbed at his tired eyes and over his thick whiskers and the mirage of being back home and of playing high school football evaporated like the morning dew. He fished in his pocket for the small tin of powdered coffee, pinched some between his fingers and crammed it between his lip and gum. He rummaged through his pack and realized he didn’t have any food left except for the bouillon and some caramels. The caramels were extras from Teddy Halston – “Nevada Two” to the captain, since there had been two men from Nevada in their company – in exchange for his pack of government-issued cigarettes. Both Nevadas were assigned advanced positions several blocks in from the bridge. Closer to the enemy line. He suspected neither Nevada would survive the attacks. He felt the tanks before he heard them, the ground rumbling beneath him. He snatched his rifle and scrabbled to his knees to peer over the rock behind which he crouched. They were coming straight for the captain and his men on the other side of the Rhein.
Straight for the bridge.
He tossed the strap of the rifle over his head and steadied himself against the rock, ready to defend that bridge with every ounce of energy he had left. Strange thoughts filled his head. First, he wished he was a smoker and hadn’t traded the 4-pack of cigarettes for the caramels. Second, as if he were standing right beside him, he heard his brother’s voice. “It’s a good day to die.” Just as the first German panzer appeared between buildings a block from the bridge, men shouted and gunfire erupted. He leaned into his position, ready to shoot anything that crossed the bridge that wasn’t supposed to. He wasn’t the star, but he played a solid safety. And he did not agree with his brother. It was not a good day to die. Not today. As he watched the commotion on the far bank, a prickling sensation touched the back of his neck and he couldn’t resist the urge to pull his eyes from the sights for a quick glance over his shoulder.
Incredibly, he saw a soldier walking effortlessly, fearlessly toward him. American soldier.
“Get down!” he shouted, motioning to the soldier to hit the ground.
The man ignored the warning, his stride familiar, the grass at his feet parting with every deliberate step.
“Get. Down. Now.”
More gunfire erupted, spitting dirt at the American’s feet. He wondered if the soldier was dazed, war-crazed, or had simply grown mad from having to huddle in the same position for three days and from witnessing his friends drop to the German soldiers’ domination. He’d heard about men who lost their senses in the field, but he didn’t have time to question or console. He had a job to do. And the best way to protect this distraught soldier was to fight back until the man reached cover. He flipped back around, firing across the river, using the rock to steady his trembling. Drawing in a deep breath, his aim became sure and steady, his focus clear.
Until a hand gripped his shoulder. “What the –”
As he shrugged off the soldier’s grip, the man shouted, “Brother, listen!”
He turned instantly to confirm what he already knew on some primal level. His finger froze on the trigger, his grip loosened, and his knees grew weak. He could hardly believe his luck. He hadn’t seen nor heard from his little brother since they both joined the Army nearly two years ago. Letters from home confirmed both had been dispatched to Germany. Ever since he had received one emotional letter this spring from his mother, describing how Cotton was one of the few from the 29th Infantry to survive at Normandy last summer – what the captain called Operation Omaha – he’d searched the faces of every passing soldier, any new company whose path he crossed, searching for his little brother. And here he was. He hugged Cotton’s neck, bullets hissing and spitting nearby. His brother pulled him behind the rock and they sat hard on the ground, back turned away from the river and the fighting.
His brother was still and unhurried, yet Cotton’s words held an incongruent urgency. “We have to get out of here.”
He studied his young brother’s face. His eyes. Agedness lurked somewhere deep in Cotton’s gaze, something that hadn’t been there when he boarded the train at the depot in Rapid City two years ago. And although he was elated to see Cotton here, he wondered how deeply the ravages of war had affected his brother’s young mind.
He held his little brother’s stare and said, “We have to hold our position. The bridge.”
Mortars exploded on both shores and shrapnel whizzed by the men, the exchange of fire and screams muted by a deafening explosion nearby. Cotton’s steady gaze was unnerving. “Let’s get out of here.”
“No!” he shouted at his brother, snatching up his gun, scrabbling back to his feet, and returning fire.
His ears numb, his eyes watering from the smoke that filled his nostrils, he scanned the riverbank for the captain. The carnage was almost too much to comprehend. The captain’s words echoed in his head. “It’s up to you, Dakota. Don’t let them cross this bridge.” He could use that cigarette right about now. Men were scattering near the bridge, some in brutal hand-to-hand combat, a panzer barreling toward where his captain used to be. He reloaded his M1 Garand, his fingers trembling. With a hard swallow, he felt the pinch of coffee clog his throat and work its way to his unsettled stomach. He felt Cotton’s fingers brush against his neck and a shiver of cold skipped down his spine. He felt the snap of his dog tags against his throat as Cotton yanked on the chain so forcefully, his head snapped back and his gun clattered to the ground at his feet. Before he could protest, his brother dragged him away from the rock, away from the riverbank toward the line of nearby trees. The trees that were the wrong color green. He clawed at the chain around his throat to relieve the pressure of the garrote, his fingers glancing off his own dog tags. What little oxygen he had left to fuel his mind fixed on an image of himself beating the snot out of his little brother once Cotton turned him loose, a scrap worthy of their best efforts as kids. His head cleared enough to recognize the horrifying scene unfold, the rock near the bridge where he was crouched moments earlier, the position he was assigned by his captain to protect at all costs, was under fire. As his heels kicked and bucked against the ground, his bulging eyes filled with an apocalyptic fireball as the TNT strapped on the structures of the bridge detonated and mortars simultaneously exploded on both shores in an unbelievably glorious finale. The bridge disintegrated, fire and debris sailing skyward with the smoke, as the captain completed the mission. And as the shock wave of the explosions hammered into his chest, the acrid smell of burning carnage filling his nostrils, he felt the chain around his neck loosen. Squeezing his eyes nearly shut to protect himself from the black smoke and intense heat, he saw the rock along the riverbank where he had stood only seconds earlier. Annihilated. And his world went black.
He heard chirping and felt the warmth stroke his cheeks. He lay with his eyes closed, listening to the sounds of the forest around him. The chirping must be birds singing. The gurgling must be the nearby river running. He felt a slight breeze and imagined the boughs bending overhead, the thick winter wheat dancing in unison all around him. Occasional shadows interrupted the stream of light against his lids and he assumed it was the trees twisting and bending above, blocking the rays as the sun’s tendrils touched his face. The captain had beaten the Nazis. They had lost the bridge. But held, accomplished the mission. No enemies had crossed. A joy so intense filled his aching chest that any other pain he might have had from other injuries was not apparent. He didn’t want this moment to end so he lay still, smiling. As he raked his hands up and down his body slowly taking inventory of all his digits, limbs, head and bones, his mind imagined the field nearby the banks where he lay. The intensity of the blue sky, the starkness of the white clouds as they interrupted its perfect, monochrome canvass. The wheat grasses around his head. At once, the thick golden wheat reminded him of laying on the banks of the river with his brother as teenagers, napping in the noonday sun with no admonishing parental glances, and of the privacy fence in his back yard in Rapid City, his wife and kids protected from nosey neighbors’ prying eyes.
His brother had saved his life. They were both alive. God had answered his prayers after all. Surely they would both go home together and watch their mother ceremoniously remove the flags from the front window. His eyelids fluttered open and he saw Cotton’s face staring down at him. The cloudless sky behind him was as blue as he imagined. Peace flooded his still body as he reflected on his good fortune, to be with his little brother, to bask in the sunlight, and to listen to all God’s creatures as they performed for nature’s orchestra. Cottom smiled.
He reached up to touch Cotton’s shoulder, to thank him for saving his life. When he did, he saw his own hand. Something was wrong. His hand and forearm were shriveled and frail. He held out his hand, turned his wrist and elbow from front to back, studying the skin and deciphering the amount of damage, the level of pain. Maybe it had been damaged by mustard gas, the Japanese weapon of choice. But he was in Germany. Maybe his deformation was caused by a reaction to a WP, the white phosphorous used in signaling devices. He saw much but felt nothing. The skin was wrinkled and thin, spotted with a bruising he had only seen on his grandmother’s hands.
Wife and kids? Had he equated the field of wheat grass to a fence in his backyard where his kids played? Where the hell was he?
Cotton peered down at him and whispered, “We have to get out of here.”
There was no urgency, no anger. He blinked and saw a line snaking down his skin-damaged arm. He followed the line to the edge of his bed beyond the rails. Beyond Cotton. The plastic bags to which the line was connected hung on gray hooks, boxes with flashing lights and dancing electronic lines. The gurgling and chirping noise he had heard. Beyond the equipment, the sun streamed through the hospital windows, reaching his face. And in the chair in the corner, his wife was curled and soundly sleeping, keeping vigil. He had had a wonderful life. It was all rushing back to him in a tidal wave of appreciation. His wife had been his high-school sweetheart. They’d married between him serving in World War II and the Korean War. They had raised five children, hard-working adults with happy families now. And they had gathered with all the grandchildren and great grandchildren – so many he’d lost count – at least twice a year. Everyone had returned to celebrate he and his wife’s seventieth wedding anniversary last month. His parents hadn’t lived as long as they might have, considering their waves of grief, furled and snapped with the South Dakota prairie winds along with the black and white MIA flag flying beneath the red, white, and blue on the pole outside their farmhouse. When mother died, father following her within six months, the single American flag still hung in the picture window. He had taken great care in removing it in preparation for the estate auction. That flag was framed in a shadow box with Cotton’s picture and was hung on the wall nearest his recliner in the living room of their two-bedroom house. His baby brother hadn’t changed a bit from that photo anymore than he did the day Cotton saved his life. Two days after Cotton was officially reported missing and presumed dead in a battle similar to his along the Rhein. His brother looked no different than he did standing over him at this moment. And Cotton still wore the uniform. His only regret in his ninety-one-year-old life was that he hadn’t been able to share with his brother all the beauty life had held for him in the last seventy years.
His twenty-year-old brother grabbed his hand and squeezed, repeating, “We have to get out of here.”
The croak in his throat shattered the steadiness of the hospital background noise. “We have to hold our position. The bridge.”
Cotton smiled again, only this time it was impish. “I am the bridge.”
“Then it’s a good day to die.”
His brother helped him sit up in his bed, never letting go of his hand. With Cotton beside him, he sat for a long moment staring at the woman he loved, who slept as soundly as he had seen her sleep in years. She had celebrated her ninetieth birthday last month and was stronger than most women thirty years her junior, probably destined to outlive all five of their children. He would wait for her, arms outstretched to hold her again when she was ready. His brother held something out to him. Saying nothing, he took them from Cotton and measured their weight and coolness in the palm of his hand. And he knew what he had to do. As his brother steadied him, he rose to his feet and walked over to his blessed wife, bent to kiss the top of her head, and dropped what he had in his palm in her lap. His dog tags. Then he and Cotton walked out of the hospital room and into the richest field of wheat grass he had ever seen in his life. His mother and father stood waving to them on the other side of the river.
Across the bridge.