R is for Retreat
The light in the forest was a strange and stunted thing that crept under the door of the barn only to die in pools. They slept the sleep of the exhausted late into the morning, but were woken up by a large door swinging open and three burly characters blocking the light. One of them resembled Dave but all of his geniality of the night before was gone.
“Time to move out,” he growled, and yanked Diana by the arm.
She cried out and Freddie confronted Dave.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“There’s no such thing as a free meal. You’re moving out. The army doesn't pay us enough for you but we make do.”
A diesel engine was chugging away outside the barn and they saw an open truck. People were chained inside.
Dave and his accomplices dragged them into the truck and crashed the chains onto their legs.
Diana was raving, flailing her arms and crying out for the child. Dave formed an unmoving wall against the tide of her grief.
“She’ll be fine,” he growled.
Then a door was closed and darkness fell on them again.
As the truck pulled off, people started moaning and an elderly man threw up.
“Anyone know where we are going?” asked Freddie. He figured it wasn’t a sight-seeing excursion.
“To the front.”
There was no answer from the foul smelling mass of humanity in the truck. Just a low, dull moan. Then a voice, lower and calmer than the rest was heard from the back of the truck.
“We need to stop thinking of ourselves as people. We’re just commodities to be traded. I’ve been at the front and I escaped. You’ll see what I mean.” He jabbered on like a typewriter about disassociated limbs.
About an hour later the back of the truck opened up. Freddie noticed a sky streaked with smoke and heard the booms from the distant hillside. They were pulled out at gun point and made to stand on the concrete of another compound. Men in fatigues were yelling at them but they had no idea whether they were regular army or vigilantes and who they represented. Finally, they were escorted into a low building with a corrugated iron roof.
Freddie feared Diana would buckle and crumple to the ground. He pulled her with him and seated her on a metal chair. A tall African American man wearing a uniform adorned with a series of stripes and hanging medals, addressed them. He was the first person since the morning who had spoken to them like human beings.
“Welcome to Beckley. I am Captain Ken Wooster of the Army of the East and I am here to give you some details of the campaign you will be waging. We still hold the downtown but there’s a fierce battle raging after an incursion yesterday morning by the Westerners. A retreat would be disastrous which is why we are drafting new blood to the fight. You will be given weapons soon but, from the outset, I feel obliged to warn you that your every movement is being watched. If you try to escape or turn your guns on us, you will be killed on the spot. Back in Philadelphia, I used to be a car salesman. It was a lot easier to sell cars than this war, but if you serve valiantly on the front lines, you will receive food and shelter. From the stories we have heard from communities that have been overrun by the Westerners , you can expect little mercy if we lose.”
Wooster strutted up and down the ranks. He was soiled by the battle but his gait remained a proud one. “I will be asking all of you about your background. I know not all of you have fired a gun before in anger but once you are on the streets of Beckley it will focus your mind. First of all, are does anyone here have medical training?”
Diana was amazed to see Freddie raise his hand. “I’m a doctor sir, and my friend here is a nurse.”
“OK,” replied Wooster. ”Remain behind please.”
As the others were taken out, Freddie felt Diana’s grip tightening on his arm.
“What are you doing?”
“Better to lie than to die,” he hissed.
Two hours later at the field hospital, Freddie was wondering about the wisdom of what he was doing. He could hear the constant pop, pop of rifle shots and louder explosions from what was left of the historic downtown. The wounded and the dying were being brought in by the bus load. Freddie’s mind was racing. Even had he been an experienced doctor, he would have been overwhelmed. Nobody seemed to notice his ineffectiveness. As the afternoon wore on, a shell exploded at the edge of the field hospital, dragging a few wounded men into a bloody morass. A bewildered woman came into the hospital. Freddie could make out some stripes on her cut up uniform.
“They have taken the old town. We need to retreat,” she said. One of the head doctors started yelling at Freddie and giving instructions on getting the wounded out. Another shell crashed into the tent. Those who could move made for the door. All around the fighters were rushing past them, heading east to escape the onslaught.
Freddie caught sight of Diana in a bloody white coat and pulled on her arm.
“We need to run. The cottage is only five miles from here. God knows what we’ll find.”
Another shell landed nearby with a thump that made the ground heave. It wasn’t hard for Freddie and Diana to escape from the field hospital. Outside the street was teaming with the escaping army of the east who appeared to be no match for the locals.
“You have the address, right?” Freddie yelled above the guns.
“No. I gave it to Carson.”
“1420 Oak Lane in Diver. Go there if we are split up.”
They gripped each other’s hands tightly, but it was hard to stay together in the melee. A gaunt soldier aimed a punch at Freddie’s face as he impeded his flight. Freddie ducked but was knocked sideways. When he got to his feet, Diana had been carried by the weight of the retreat and was further down the highway, heading for the bridge over the deep gorge.
Half an hour later he was alone by a stream on the deeply wooded hill. He watched in disbelief as smoke rose from the bridge and its heavy iron sides crashed into the gorge, beam by beam.