The Lost Soldiers of Nan Nang
A Doctor Watson Story
by John Pirillo
Sergeant John Watson was a crack shot and never missed a target, but that day he missed more than once. He couldn't put his mind on his fighting for some reason unknown to him as he sighted down the barrel of his Langley 251, a modified, rifle capable of firing an amazing four rounds by rapidly winding its gear at the shoulder. It handled like one of those new cannon models that fired fifty rounds of heavy caliber bullets that when they impacted could shatter a solid brick wall, not that there were any where he was fighting.
A young man with great expectations for the future, he had entered the ranks of the Queen Mary of Scots Soldier Battalion as a medic, and had rapidly assumed battle positions as the men in his team mysteriously dropped like flies during the night, with no explanation of what had killed them.
He was sweating bullets in the morning sun. It was hot. Very hot. This part of the China Isles was closest to the Tropical Equator, and the average temperature on a good day was in the nineties. This was not an average day at all. It was bloody hot as hell he thought to himself, stroking his forehead with the back of his hand to clear dripping sweat from oozing into his eyes and ruining his sight through the scope of his Langley.
"Watson, how's the front?" Demanded Captain Webbles from his makeshift cot in the trench Watson stood in. A trench filled with squirming insects, mud and feces as the soldiers had no way to relieve themselves above the ground because of the danger of being caught with their pants down. Literally.
The natives had no respect for a man with needs. But then, he thought grimly, neither did they. He had seen two of the privates of his company break into a small temple of the Buddha Sun, a variation on Buddha that the natives of Nan Nang worshipped. He was supposedly able to manifest in the body of an animal and bring revenge or rewards to those who opposed or were loyal to him. Personally, Watson, still a naive young man in many ways, didn't believe in avenging gods, but he thoroughly believed in avenging devils...usually men of dark purposes who used magic or science to destroy their opponents or subjugate them, which was a big portion of why the present war continued despite their side carrying such huge losses.
He had come into Nan Nang's dripping wet tropical forests with a battalion of almost a thousand battle hardened soldiers, which had over the last few days been whittled down to several platoons of about fifteen in each, if you counted the wounded and near to dying.
It was a miserable bloody day and a doubly damned bloody war!
He swiped at the sweat again.
"Nothing." He finally answered Captain Webbles.
"Harrison." He called out to his right.
A slim older man of twenty-six turned to look at him, keeping his head ducked low as he did, lowering his own Langley to keep it safe. "Yeah?"
"See to the Captain!"
"Right on!" Harrison announced, dropping lower in the trench, seeking the only water they had, seated on a slight rise of filth in a thick leather flask. He grabbed it and hunch-backed to the Captain, who was obviously in great pain, but tried to hide it behind a greeting smile.
"Harrison, any news?"
Harrison and the others knew there was no good news, so to keep up the Captain's spirits, he was delirious most of the time, he nodded. "Aye, somewhat. Here!"
He offered the water to the Captain, who gratefully drank a few sips, then pushed the flask away. "Save some for yourselves, Private."
"Plenty enough for all of us. Drink up, Cap."
The Captain looked him square in the eyes. "When I'm gone you make sure that Nanny gets my letter."
Harrison waved off the words. "You're goin' no wheres, Cap. So I'll be needing to take nothing of yours anywhere, 'cepting your baggage, of course."
The Captain gave him a weak smile. Harrison was his aide, and carried all the war documents and battle plans, as well as equipment for deciphering, none of which mattered at the moment, and explained the baggage being half buried under a collapsed trench wall behind them.
"Nanny will want to read my last words."
Harrison waved off the words again with a joke. "Look, Capt. The only thing your Nanny will be reading you is the riot, if you don't get your arse back together soon."
The Captain chuckled lightly a moment, his face brightening. "Yay. She would do that now, wouldn't she? She's a good woman, my Nanny. A very good..."
He made a sudden grimace and cried out, causing Watson to look away from the battlefield. Harrison looked over at him, and then hunch-backed to his place as Watson set his rifle down, then did the same back to the Captain, who was now struggling to stand up.
"Help me up, Watson!"
Watson tried to get him back on the cot, but the Captain was out of his mind with fever and pain. He grabbed Watson by his collars and screamed in his face. "You must! I won't lay here and die like a stuck pork for a barbecue."
Watson, at that very moment, saw a light in the Captain's eyes. A fading light.
"Very well, Captain."
He helped the man stand up, with Harrison and the other platoon members watching now, all knowing in their heart of hearts what was next.
"See. Everything's calm out there." Watson declared, sweeping a hand across the view in front of them.
The Captain nodded. "Very good, Sergeant. See to the men's rations. I'll be seeing Nanny in a few hours, and I must get dressed properly."
He struggled free from Watson and began straightening his clothing. He smiled weakly as he did so. "Must look proper for the old lady, you know."
"That I do." Watson declared, even though he had no one special in his life at that time.
"You're a good laddie." The Captain announced unexpectedly, tapping Watson warmly on his chest. "I will name my first son after you, John."
"I suspect you will, sir."
"And he shall be seated on your knee at Christmas, and mine as well. I insist on you joining us for dinner tonight."
"I gladly accept, sir."
The Captain smiled brightly, and then turned to look to his right. "There she comes now. My Nanny."
Watson turned that way and saw nothing at first, and then he saw something wispy in the air, glowing a soft white.
"She is so beautiful in white." The Captain said with pride. "I love her so much."
"And she loves you as well, Captain."
He turned back to Watson and smiled gratefully. "Someday you will be a great man, John Watson. Now, I must be on my way. Be sure to dress properly for our Christmas dinner."
"Do take this as my present. I'm sorry I couldn't wrap it."
Watson watched as the Captain slipped a cross from his pocket and handed it to him. "Don't lose it. It will bring you good luck."
"I will not forget, sir."
The Captain shut his eyes for a moment, and then reopened them. "It's so beautiful. So bloody blessed beautiful."
Then he fell into Watson's arms and slumped against him, almost throwing him into the mud of the trench.
Watson felt his face begin to crinkle as the stress of the weeks and the death and dying caught up with him, and then as he laid the Captain gently back down on his cot and shut his still open eyes, he said. "God rest you, for God knows you got no rest here, Captain."
The men of the platoon gathered around the Captain and began to sing a Christmas song, "Peace on Earth."
And for the first time in days no one died in the trenches they occupied. For death had visited and claimed its guest for the day and sought no more.
Watson sat down and put his face in his hands and wept. Wept for himself, his friends, and all the souls who had perished around him. Someday, if he survived, he would remember this place and be grateful to be alive, to have the chance to help others without fear of death. But right now, that moment, he felt the weight of the lost souls about him, the death and the dying, the burden of carrying on when it appeared to be a useless battle and a useless war.
He clenched his fists and wiped at his cheeks and eyes.
The other men continued to sing the song, and he rose among them, and they all clasped arms and shoulders and put their hearts into the song and across the delta of Nan Nang, creatures stopped calling to each other, natives rose to listen in wonder as the most beautiful song they had ever heard, arose like the voices of angels, bringing comfort and some relief from the darkness of those times.
Watson just stopped once and turned and as he did he caught a glimpse of something rising from the Captain's prone body. It looked like the Captain. He waved at Watson and smiled, then turned to face a woman, Watson guessed Nanny, and joined her. Together they climbed the trench wall and walked across the delta as a white mist gathered before them, enveloped them in white light and swept them away.
Watson nodded. The Captain would at last be able to be with his wife, who had died a year earlier. "God be with you both!" Watson whispered gently as the white light vanished. "God be with us all!"
Then he turned back to his men. For that was the case now. He turned back and lifted his voice with theirs, sharing what little comfort he could find for them in this moment of camaraderie and sharing.