A Fireside Tale
Synopsis: Halloween evening, 1944, Doc has a little fun
Acknowledgements: I’d like to thank EagleLady for writing her Halloween story and inspiring me to write one of my own. Also Mel, who diligently read it for me and then jumped up and down smiling. Lee for all things military who made some very nifty suggestions. And Jestersang who made some very insightful comments and also pointed out three grammatical/spelling errors that NONE of the rest of us found, one of which was hysterically funny. And as always DC, who reads everything I write. Well, not my grocery list.
Night was slowly settling over the makeshift camp, shadows stretching away from the bright lights of the mess tent and filtering through the trees like water slipping over a dam. Men ambled along in small knots of two or three, relaxed and playful, shoving each other and laughing, the tips of cigarettes glowing like fireflies. Somewhere the tinny buzz of music from a radio suddenly grew louder and then was hushed amid a burst of laughter. A jeep motored up, disgorged a passenger and then drove away quite sedately. And why not? They were miles from the front.
As the medic wandered back to his squad, stomach sated for once and a hot mug of coffee clutched in one hand, he marveled at how much difference twenty-four hours could make. Yesterday he’d been up to his neck in wounded. Quite literally, as he’d stood in a trench and dragged body after body to safety. Bad intelligence, Lieutenant Hanley had said. Sheer stupidity was what Doc thought. However you want to look at it, too many men had died for nothing, bleeding out under the medic’s shaking hands. Those few he’d managed to save had been rapidly evacuated to the rear, final outcomes unknown. The rest had been stuffed in body bags and loaded on trucks. The same trucks that Doc and his squad mates had ridden for their trip to the camp. Blinking, Doc tried to pull his thoughts away from those dark forms under their feet. The men he couldn’t save.
“Hey Doc! Trick or Treat!”
A hand caught him right between the shoulder blades and he stumbled forward, coffee sloshing out of the mug and burning his fingers.
“Ouch! Kirby, this coffee’s hot!” Switching the mug from one hand to the other, the medic flicked the remaining liquid from his fingers and then wiped them on his pants. Turning to face his rambunctious buddy, Doc risked another sip, hoping to transfer at least some of the brew inside his body before Kirby managed to spill the rest.
“You musta got a shower, huh?” Doc noted Kirby’s damp skin and the fact that the man was still only half-dressed.
Kirby nodded as he pulled on a clean uniform shirt, buttoning it and tucking it sloppily into his pants. With one quick movement, he removed the mug from Doc’s hands and brought it to his lips, tossing it back in two huge swallows.
“Thanks, Doc! Boy, those showers are somethin’, ain’t they? Hot water, soap…I didn’t think I was ever gonna be clean again.”
Doc stared at him, thinking of all those body bags. No amount of soap is ever gonna make me feel clean again. He glanced away from Kirby, totally at a loss for words in the face of the irrepressible squad clown. Finally he raised one hand, then dropped it, turning his back on Kirby to return to the mess tent. I just want a cup a coffee. That’s all.
Kirby stared at him, mouth open. He started to speak then shut up again. When Doc disappeared into the glaring light of the tent, he sighed and headed for the squad’s bivouac, grumbling to himself all the way.
*** *** ***
Thirty minutes later, the medic arrived at first squad’s designated area. He’d gotten his cup of coffee and also another slice of pie, compliments of the sympathetic Mess Sergeant who’d taken one look at the shadows under Doc’s haunted eyes and served him without a wisecrack. He’d also had an interesting little conversation with a local.
A small bonfire burned merrily and the men had arranged several large logs around it at a safe distance, suitable for sitting. Caje knelt by the fire, adding small pieces of dry tree bark here and there, finally sitting back on his heels and admiring his handiwork.
“Looks good, Caje. Now we just need some weenies to roast.” Good-natured Littlejohn settled himself on the ground, back against a log and long legs stretching toward the fire.
Caje smiled, dark gaze still fixated on the dancing flames. The shadows filled in the hollows on his face, giving him a particularly saturnine expression. Then he sighed and shoved himself to his feet, hands braced on his knees. Brushing dirt and tinder off his pants, the Cajun seated himself on a log and reached into his jacket, pulling out some recent letters from home.
Across from him, on the opposite side of the fire, Billy Nelson was sharpening his trench knife, circling the blade on a whetstone. The rasping sound of steel on stone was unusually loud in the peaceful evening. Looking up, he grinned at his squad mates and nodded his head toward the fire.
“It’s nice to have a fire like this, hey Littlejohn? Not worryin’ about Germans spottin’ it an’ all?”
Doc stood there a moment, debating with himself whether it was better to just climb into his blanket and fall into oblivious sleep or join the men around the fire. He desperately needed the sleep. But he was afraid of the dreams.
The moon broke through the clouds briefly, chasing back the shadows and filling the forest with unearthly light. Conversations fell silent as each man slowly lifted his gaze to the sky. A full moon hung heavily over the trees, so huge that no stars twinkled beside it, eclipsed by its reflected light. Seconds later, the clouds returned, covering and then obscuring the moon entirely.
Nelson stared upward with wide eyes, his mouth hanging slightly open. He absently continued to sharpen his knife, nearly stabbing himself in the process.
“Woweee, did you see that?”
The kid’s innocuous comment broke the spell, Caje laughing softly to himself as he bent over his letter. Littlejohn picked up a pinecone and chucked it at his young friend.
“No, what, Billy?”
They were all laughing as Kirby joined them, throwing one leg over a log and sitting astride. He lit up a cigarette and held the smoke in his lungs for a long moment, eyes closed in obvious bliss. Finally, he blew it out in a series of lop-sided smoke rings.
“Man, this is the life. Warm fire, hot food, hot showers, hot coffee…” His voice trailed off as he looked around the circle of familiar faces. Caje, Littlejohn, Billy… and Doc. He immediately stood, turning to the medic with arms spread wide.
“I’m sorry, Doc, ‘bout your coffee.” He shrugged and glanced back at the others who were pretending not to be listening but very clearly were.
Doc looked away for a moment, considering things and then back at Kirby. “It’s okay, Kirby. I got another one.” He knew the BAR man didn’t apologize often and recognized that for Kirby to think he needed to meant that Doc himself was showing more of what he was thinking than he intended. He nodded his head slightly and cleared his throat. “Really, Kirby.”
Kirby grinned, happy that he was off the hook for yet another audacious act. He sat back down and extended his legs toward the fire with a contented sigh.
Doc shoved his hands in his pockets, shivering slightly as the wind picked up a little. The day had been warm but as darkness fell, so did the temperature. He turned his back on the fire for the moment and wandered slowly across the clearing. He’d seen a glint of something in the grass during the moon’s appearance and figured he’d check it out.
Railroad tracks. Long since used and rusty, the rails still ran in perfectly straight lines through the trees and off into the gloom. The medic smiled, remembering a time when he had little else to do but play on the train tracks all day. He’d loved trains as a boy, always wondering where they were going and how big was the engine and how many cars could it pull. Many times he’d sat on the bluffs with his best friend, arguing over how many cars they’d counted and what colors they were and what state they were from. Doc remembered well the day he’d finally spotted the only one he didn’t have, number forty-eight on his list.
Taking his hands out of his pockets, Doc hopped up on the nearest rail, balancing on the balls of his feet. He took a few quick steps, throwing his arms out for balance. Despite his depressed mood, he found himself grinning and leaped agilely to the other rail. Another few steps and he was running, heart pounding as if a big engine were right behind him and gaining. Eventually, of course, time caught up with him and Doc’s here and now footwear, GI boots, couldn’t match the deftness of a farmboy’s bare feet. He slipped, catching himself just before he fell onto an exposed rusty spike, poking its way up through a rotted tie.
“Bravo, Doc! Bravo!” Caje’s amused voice drifted across the clearing.
Billy and Littlejohn were applauding and Kirby had two fingers in his mouth, whistling for all he was worth.
Doc smiled, ducking his head, and then bowed, straightening up almost immediately, his cheeks flushing red with embarrassment. Stepping over Littlejohn’s long legs, he joined the squad around the fire, and settled himself on the opposite end of Billy’s log.
“We was just sayin’ it’s Halloween.” Kirby looked around at the darkness beyond the trees and pulled his jacket closer. “AND a full moon.”
Billy threw the whetstone into his ruck and reached for the trench knife’s scabbard. He grinned at Kirby and flashed a mischievous look to his buddy, Littlejohn.
“What’s the matter, Kirby, you afraid of the dark?” He laughed as Kirby scowled at him. “Afraid a bogeyman might get you in the night?”
Kirby finished his cigarette, never taking his gaze from the kid. “No, Nelson. I’m afraid that big moose over there may hafta answer a call ‘a nature an’ step on me. Sheesh.”
Placing his hands behind his neck to cushion his log pillow, Littlejohn pointedly ignored the BAR man as he casually stretched, huge boots almost touching the bonfire. “It IS Halloween, Billy. What should we do? Trick or treat at the mess tent?”
Billy grinned. “Nah, it’s all tricks there.” His grin faded as the moon appeared again, hanging directly over their heads, and then just as quickly vanished.
“That’s spooky.” Kirby’s hands crept up to his neck, thumbs flipping his collar up around his ears. He stared at the treetops, waiting, for several minutes. When the moon didn’t make another appearance, he shook his head and hunkered back down inside his jacket.
Doc watched him, blue eyes narrowed thoughtfully. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and turned his attention to the flames.
“Ya know, those ole railroad tracks remind me of back home. Used to play on ‘em as a boy.” Doc held his hands out to the fire, enjoying the warmth spreading through his palms.
“They ran right behind our house an’ then outta town. Pretty easy way for a fella an’ his buddies to escape, ya know? We used to meet on the rails an’ follow ‘em, crossin’ railroad trestles over rivers.” Doc paused, looking out of the corner of his eye at Kirby. The man was listening closely. The medic smiled to himself, well aware of his audience.
“One day, we went way further than ever before. Saw the switchback of the river we fished on at home. Out there it was white-water, rough an’ dangerous. We took our time crossin’ that bridge, I’ll tell ya.”
Littlejohn smiled, the corners of his mouth quirking upward. “Didja ever fall in?”
Doc shrugged, reaching up to scratch behind his ear. “Well sure, but not on THAT trip. Ya know, we never did go out there again.” He paused and tossed a small branch on the fire. “Not after THAT day.”
The fire crackled and spat, suddenly shooting sparks in the air as its central core of logs collapsed. Caje jumped to his feet, poking it here and there with a long stick. It only took him a minute to get it under control and he then piled a few more larger limbs around the edges to help concentrate the burn.
Billy stared at Doc. “Well? What happened?”
Doc shook his head. “Oh, it’s nothin’.”
Billy looked over at Littlejohn, knowing the puzzled look on the big man’s face mirrored his own.
Littlejohn pulled his legs back, crossing them Indian-style, and leaned on one elbow. “Come on, Doc, tell us.”
Kirby’s eyes were huge in his pale face. He glanced from Littlejohn to Billy and then on to Doc. The medic’s head hung down and he massaged his temples slowly, as if trying to hold off a bad headache. Kirby sat up straighter. “Doc, ya gotta tell us.”
Doc’s fingers stopped moving and he slowly raised his head. “Well, don’t say I didn’t warn ya.”
“It was Halloween an’ we were supposed to be goin’ to the school. All the bigger kids who were too big to trick or treat. S’posed to be a party or somethin’, I cain’t rightly remember. Anyway, Eugene, he said ‘let’s go walk on the railroad tracks.’ So we did, four of us.”
Doc paused to button up his jacket and there was total silence around the fire. The squad was hooked. Doc snuck a peek at Kirby and was pleased to see he was sitting bolt upright on his log, arms wrapped tightly around his chest. He took a deep breath and went on.
“We got way out there, so far from home. An’ it got dark. We may have done some hikin’ before, but never after dark. Don’t want Mama to worry, ya know? But it got dark. An’ Eugene started cryin’, he’d never get over that river in the dark, he was gonna fall in an’ drown an’ his mama would kill him! We laughed an’ said if he drowned he wouldn’t have to worry about his mama killin’ him. Well, that didn’t help, ‘course. So we set out for home. We got over the bridge, over that river. We musta been pretty close, less than a mile, I guess, when we heard the train whistle. Now we were in a ravine right then, with nowhere to go! Eugene started cryin’ again. We all stood against the dirt walls, knowin’ we could still get clipped by a car goin’ by, but we had to try.”
He cleared his throat, lacing his fingers together over and over again. This time he didn’t risk a glance at Kirby but he could feel the man’s warm attention.
Billy couldn’t stand it. “Holy cow, Doc! What happened?”
Doc looked at the kid and shook his head. “I don’t rightly know. The moon, an’ it was full that night, too, the moon went behind the clouds an’ it got black as a cave. That train kept comin’, blowin’ its whistle an’ shakin’ the tracks with its speed. We were goners an’ we knew it. Right as it got on top of us, we all closed our eyes an’ prayed, hopin’ our mamas could sort out whose arms an’ legs were whose.”
He stood suddenly, swinging his arm through the air over the fire, causing the flames to flicker and follow his hand. “WHOOOOOSH! It went by us. I opened my eyes, thankful to be alive. I looked up the track an’ couldn’t see the train, it musta been goin’ so fast it was already outta sight. An’ then I saw somethin’ else.”
He stepped over Littlejohn’s legs again and sat down next to Kirby.
Kirby snorted. “Sucker! You wouldn’t have caught me out there! No sirree!” He looked up into the expressionless faces of his squad mates. “What? Are you kiddin’? Out there in the dark? Nah.” He shut up and went back to hugging his jacket tightly around himself.
Doc smiled. “Well, somebody had to go an’ I got elected. I always was popular.” He paused to let the joke sink in. Nobody laughed, Doc included. He was remembering Artie, big for his age, but somewhat lacking in the brains department. Artie had threatened to pound him if he didn’t go. Artie, whose intelligence had never quite caught up to his size, had died on Omaha Beach, saving the lives of three other men in the process. Doc sighed, pushing those memories away.
“So, I started walkin’ toward the guy, figurin’ he musta been a rail worker, lookin’ for somethin’ that fell offa the train. As I got closer I could see he was wearin’ coveralls an’ those rubber boots they wear. I started feelin’ better an’ looked back at my buddies, wavin’ an’ such. But when I turned aroun’…”
Doc’s breath caught in his throat and his voice scratched to a halt. He coughed lightly a few times into his fist, trying very hard not to laugh. He could see Kirby leaning so far forward listening that his nose hairs were in danger of singeing. Billy’s eyes were as round as canteen cups. Even Caje was rapt, his dark gaze fixed on the medic.
Standing abruptly, Doc stepped over the log and out into the darkness. He circled around behind Kirby and then Littlejohn, finally stopping behind Nelson, directly opposite to the BAR man. He knew Kirby couldn’t really make out his face and allowed himself a small grin before continuing.
“I…I turned around an’ the man was lookin’ at me, lookin’ at me an’ wailin’ an’ wavin’ that lantern. An’ the noise, it was the most awful thing I’d ever heard, he was moanin’ an’ cryin’. He said…” Doc stopped again, lowering his head to his hands.
Kirby leapt to his feet. “What the hell did he say? Come on!!!!”
Doc wiped his eyes with his sleeve, apparently overcome with the memory. Finally, he looked up, blue eyes red-rimmed and brimming with tears. Of laughter. He swallowed it down quickly.
“He said, ‘where’s ma head?’ ‘Where’s ma head?’ an’ he had no head! Just a neck..ah…a neck an’ blood pourin’ down his coveralls from his…ah…neckhole. I nearly peed my pants! I turned an’ ran as fast as I could back down those tracks, passed my buddies an’ was home in bed before they hit the outskirts of town. My mama never did figure out why I was home so early on Halloween.”
Kirby stared at the medic. “He had no HEAD?”
Doc put one foot up on the log, leaning an elbow on his knee. “That’s right, Kirby. An’ you know what? The next day we found out there wasn’t no train that night. We never did know what passed us, whistles shriekin’. But we did find out somethin’ else.” He paused, inspecting his fingernails.
Kirby took another step toward the fire. “Jesus, Doc, WHAT?”
“Well, seems that a few years before that a lineman had been killed by a train right ‘bout where we was. Seems he was decapitated.” Doc bit off a hangnail and spat it into the bushes. “They never did find his head.”
“Seems he likes to go lookin’ for it on Halloween nights when the moon is full. Ain’t too many of those, ya know.”
Doc looked up, his heart hammering in his chest. He hoped like hell he’d timed this right.
And the moon appeared, its huge countenance blazing through the clouds like an avenging demon, sinister and rough featured. As they all stared in horror, it seemed to grow larger still before the clouds once again closed the curtain.
Kirby stumbled backwards over the log. “That’s crazy, Doc, YOU’RE crazy!”
Doc closed his eyes, forcing himself not to look at his watch, and pleaded with whatever gods happened to be listening, please, please make this work.
The ghostly keening of a train whistle split the silent night, drawing ever closer with every second. Doc ran to the tracks, bending down to grip the nearest rail with panicked fervor.
“It’s comin’! I can feel it in the rail!” He stared down the track, shock flooding his face. At the last second, as surely the train would burst out of the trees, the medic threw himself sideways and rolled into the ditch, arms covering his head. The sound of the train passed them and faded away into the night.
Kirby backed still further away, his eyes huge in his head, mouth open and jaw working. He flinched when Littlejohn came up behind him and grabbed his arm, pointing off into the woods.
“What, Littlejohn, what?” Kirby’s voice was a panicked squeak.
Doc rose to his feet, a flashlight in his hand. With a flourish, he switched it on and pointed it into the darkness.
In the beam of the flashlight lay a head, covered in tousled blonde hair.
“AAAAAAAAAGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” Kirby screamed, tore his arm from Littlejohn’s grasp and ran, arms pistoning like a steam train. He bounced off a tree or two in his headlong flight and vanished in the direction of the motor pool.
The head slowly turned, its eyelids fluttering as the brightness of the flashlight illuminated them. They opened and-
“What the…? Who’s shining a light over here?” Saunders’ outraged voice filled the night along with the laughter of the squad minus Kirby.
Doc clicked off the light and made his way over to the sergeant. Saunders sat up, his brows drawing together in puzzlement at the leaves and twigs covering his blanket. The medic bent down, reaching out to gently pat his shoulder.
“It’s okay, Sarge, just a bad dream, just a bad dream. Ya know, you should really pick another spot for your bed, I think this tree is dropping its leaves on you.” He brushed the debris from the blanket and then stepped back, biting his lip hard.
Saunders shook his head, ran his fingers through his hair, and turned over, burrowing back under the blanket.
Doc walked resolutely toward the fire, blue eyes dancing. Caje and Nelson waited for him, holding back their own laughter. As he stepped over the log, they all fell apart in hysterical mirth, grabbing onto each other to keep from falling in the fire.
*** *** ***
A half hour later, the trio caught up with Littlejohn and an outraged Kirby in the mess tent.
“So, you set me up?”
“Yep, is it so hard to believe?” Littlejohn smirked at the BAR man, enjoying every moment of Kirby’s comeuppance.
Kirby shrugged, not wanting to believe that he’d been had. Especially by Doc, whom he’d thought he could trust.
Billy poured himself another cup of coffee, glad it had been brewed in something other than his helmet. “It’s true, Kirby, we gotcha.” He held out his mug to Littlejohn, nudging him with one elbow.
Littlejohn raised an eyebrow and then reached for his flask, pouring a quick splash of something into the coffee.
Doc, who had been silent up to this point, cleared his throat. The others looked at him expectantly.
“It’s all your fault, Kirby.”
Kirby’s eyes widened innocently. “What? What’d I do?”
Littlejohn rolled his eyes and whispered in Billy’s direction. “What DIDN’T he do?”
Doc smiled. “Well, you drank my coffee.”
“Well, I had to come back for another cup. An’ Billy an’ Caje an’ Littlejohn were settin’ here talkin’ to this French guy.” He blew gently across the surface of his latest cup of coffee, nodding to Littlejohn as he held out the flask, much to the big man’s surprise.
Doc eyed Kirby as he sipped, hoping this cup wouldn’t end up on the floor.
“He told us about the train tracks. An’ the OTHER set of train tracks. An’ when the train was comin’ through. So it didn’t…ah…scare us.”
“Scared? I wasn’t scared, just…just annoyed. Annoyed that my buddies, my friends, my…what’s that French word, Caje?” He snapped his fingers in the Cajun’s face.
Caje batted Kirby’s hand away. “Amis.”
“Yeah, annoyed that my amis would stoop so low. You happy now?” Kirby’s face was beet red.
Doc looked around at his co-conspirators, all nodding their heads and grinning at him. He faced Kirby, a lopsided grin on his own face. “Yeah, I think I am, Kirby, thanks.”
The medic stood, suddenly weary beyond words. He thought he might finally be able to sleep, finally slip past those dreams and into oblivion for a few blessed hours. With a nod to his squad mates, he turned to the tent flaps.
“Hey, wait a second. When did you have time to make up that cockamamie story about the train then?”
Doc paused, not turning around.
“Oh, the story’s true, Kirby. Night all.” The tent flap fell neatly closed behind him.
Note: There actually WAS a full moon on Halloween, 1944. There have only been three since then and the next isn’t until 2020!
Also: Doc’s story is based on the ghostlight of Gurdon, Arkansas. I’ll give you a website so you can read for yourselves!