One of the things that happens when you write a novel is you come to the realization that you just can’t fit everything in. There could be any number of reasons. Maybe it’s too long, or it messes up the pacing or it covers stuff that was already dealt with elsewhere.
This piece is one of those cases.
During the scene in The Power Broker where Doughboy convinced Reuben to come to the future, I wanted to insert an account of how Evan Esquer first met Barnabus, later known as Ultiman. This is an important event in the Conway Report universe because this is where the current Age of Heroes started. Through an unlikely coincidence, three superhumans wound up in the same Marine unit in the first major engagement the Americans faced in World War I. Up until this time, each of these men thought they were the only ones with these incredible abilities. They thought small, only using their powers to help themselves and those around them survive the grim realities of war. In learning they were not alone, they would later inspire each other to greater feats.
In the end, my editor pointed out that this scene just slowed down the action. I trusted his instincts and wound up with a better story. Judging by the reviews, I’m glad I listened to him.
Still, I love this piece. I spent days in research on this. The battle of Belleau Wood is a hell of a story, full of history and heroism. Plus, I like war stories and wanted to see if I could do one.
So, without further ado, I humbly present it to you.
“Esquer, what the hell does that sign say?” Seamus asked.
“Uh, ‘Lucy-lee-Bowkage’,” Evan looked up from the shallow hole he lay in and sounded out the strange-looking French words. His hands still ached from digging the little ditch. The hard, dry earth resisted every thrust of his bayonet blade, and he wondered why the hell nobody had seen fit to issue them shovels. But, in this wide-open wheat field, he was glad to have the little defile. It would make it easier to fire from a prone position when the Germans finally decided to show up. “I think it’s the name of this place.”
“Pipe down, you two!” Gunnery Sergeant Barnabus growled. “Ya think the Krauts are deaf?”
The two Marines immediately fell silent. The short Gunny knew his business, and the pair knew better than to get on his bad side.
As he had so many times since getting off the boat in Saint Nazaire, Evan reached into his blouse pocket and nervously fingered his grandfather’s pocket watch. So far, all they’d seen were retreating French soldiers. Dispirited, they told the Americans to fall back, but Captain Williams just said, “Retreat? Hell, we just got here.” And that was that. They’d hold here, in this field north of Lucy-whateverthehellitwas. Over the course of that long day, the numbers of fleeing Frenchmen dropped down to a trickle. It wouldn’t be long now.
At least, it wasn’t raining.
At about two in the afternoon, the first Germans appeared, bayonets fixed to the ends of their rifles, creeping slowly out of the dense wood in front of them. Evan tensed. The orders were to wait until they got within a hundred yards before opening fire. The idea was to make sure as many Krauts as possible were out in the open when the shooting started, otherwise they’d just hunker down in the trees and cut the Marines to pieces.
More Germans followed. Then still more. The closest men were about two hundred yards away. “Hold…” he heard the Gunny whisper. “Hold…” One fifty now. Evan lined up his sights on the silhouette of a German soldier. He was about a hundred and twenty-five yards away. There was no wind, and at this range, there wouldn’t be much bullet drop. He took a breath, let a little out and held it. The Gunny shouted, “Fire!” and he squeezed the trigger. Rifle fire erupted from the Marines, almost in unison. Evan watched the man in his sights clutch his chest and go down.
The next minutes were a blur. All the drilling kicked in. Work the bolt. Find a target. Take a breath. Let some out. Squeeze the trigger. Over and over, Esquer repeated the process as if it was a ritual. At some point, he noticed a lack of recoil from his rifle. He’d lost track of his shot count. Cursing, he replaced the clip and got back to work.
Recovering from the shock of the Marine’s attack, the few Krauts who remained standing started to return fire. Evan heard a grunt somewhere to his left as a bullet found its target. Bullets vipped over his head. Another wave of Germans emerged from the wood.
It was harder to make the shots now. The ranges were longer, but Esquer had finished second in the unit during qualifications, narrowly edged out by his buddy Seamus MacDougal, and the pair still managed to keep up steady, effective fire. Still more Germans poured out of the wood, so they had no shortage of targets.
Eventually, the Krauts broke and fled back into the trees. A cheer arose from the Americans as they rose to pursue the survivors. It was all the officers and non-coms could do to hold them back. The artillery was still bogged down on the road outside of Coupru. They didn’t have the numbers to take the woods without support. The forest would be a deathtrap.
The next couple of days were best described as long periods of tense quiet, occasionally interrupted by a German push. The machine guns finally made it to the American line, and the Marines easily repelled the attacks. Their greatest enemy now was hunger. The mobile kitchen wagons were trapped behind the arty, and the field rations were running low.
Finally, the brass could wait no longer, and the order came down to advance into the woods. According to the French, the Krauts only held a small corner of the woods, and the Americans were expected to easily push them out. Fixing their bayonets, the Second Brigade trotted purposefully toward the treeline.
The lead elements of the force were just past the first trees when the German Maschinengewehr 08s opened up, singing their staccato song of destruction in short, murderous bursts. Evan saw men in front of him go down as he dove into the dirt. Rounds thudded deeply into the body of a Kraut laying on the ground in front of him, their impacts forcing the bloated corpse to roll limply in his direction. The Kraut machinegun crew had him in their sights, and the corpse wouldn’t hold up much longer. Esquer reached into his pocket and hit the button.
Silence. He sucked thick air into his lungs and got to his feet. Something bumped against his helmet with a metallic clank and he involuntarily ducked. Looking up, he saw a bullet, suspended in mid-air above his head, glowing dimly with heat. Esquer glanced around and saw the air was lousy with the things. Carefully, he moved out of their path. Ah, so this is what Granddad meant, he thought.
Following the trail of motionless bullets back to their source, he found a four-man German machine gun crew set up about thirty feet back in the treeline. He took stock of the situation. Next to the MG 08, an infantry squad waited patiently for targets. He knew what he had to do. He didn’t like it. It felt like murder, but he didn’t have any choice. If he let these men live, his buddies would die. It was as simple as that. Grimly, he drove his bayonet into each man he found.
Evan thought about disabling the machine gun, but after a quick look around, he changed his mind. There was another nest set up deeper into the woods, and he decided to turn the weapon around and use it to provide cover for the Marines’ advance. Prying it from the soon-to-be dead Kraut manning it, he reversed its position, arranged the cloth belt that fed it and lined it up on the next nest. Hunkering down into the shelter of a thick root, he sighted the machinegun and reached into his pocket.
Through the sight, he spotted something that brought him up short.
The next machine gun wasn’t going to be a problem after all. Private MacDougal was seeing to that.
Frozen in time with the rest of the world, the crazy, illiterate redhead from New Jersey was sitting on a tree branch, firing down into the German position, a wide grin splitting his face.
“What the hell?” Evan said to nobody in particular. He walked over to investigate. Most of the Germans were dead, and the rest would be when Evan pressed the button again. Little holes in each man’s head attested to that. He looked around. This was impossible. Seamus had been right beside him when the guns opened up. There’s no way he could have run through the volume of fire the guns were sending their way, climb a tree and snipe all these guys.
One of the Krauts had a half-eaten sandwich sitting on a piece of wax paper. His stomach rumbled. What the hell, he’s not gonna need it. Evan picked it up and took a bite, chewing thoughtfully. From this vantage point, he spotted a third MG 08 crew, frozen in the act of firing at the Gunny. He finished the sandwich and walked over for a closer look.
The machine gun crew’s time-frozen faces were contorted in terror. Looking at Gunnery Sergeant Barnabus, Evan could see why. His face was a snarl of berserk rage. His blouse was in tatters, and on closer inspection, Esquer could see frozen bullets rebounding from his chest. He was a good ten yards farther into the woods than any other Marine in the unit, other than himself and Seamus. Wasn’t the Gunny behind them when this all started?
Evan removed his helmet and scratched his head. None of this made any sense.
Private Esquer put his helmet back on and adjusted the strap. He needed answers, and there was only one way he was going to get them. He took his bayonet and slit the throats of any German in the area, then dragged MacDougal and the Gunny back behind the Marine line. After checking to make sure there weren’t any stray bullets heading their way, he relieved Seamus of his weapon and positioned Barnabus so that neither of them were in the path of his headlong charge. He hit the button on his grandfather’s watch.
Gunny Barnabus, off-balance from Evan’s repositioning, tripped and fell on his face with a startled yelp. Seamus did something similar, landing on his ass. Both men whirled their heads, disoriented, before settling on Evan.
“Gentlemen, I think we need to have a little chat.”