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Private Jim Banks

Copyright © 2005 by A.M. Roelke

I was a soldier in the war – trench division 54. We were stationed on terraformed Mars. They called us "meaties," and when those A-51s came screaming over our heads, dropping five or six tons of explosives, I could almost understand why. Let's just put it this way: most of our company was replaced two, three times.

Yeah, we went through a lot of guys in 54. Sometimes it seemed like we were nothing but a bunch of messed-up kids who fought hard and drank harder, and when the bombs started falling, prayed real hard.

Even in the trenches, you could never get me to pray. The Tonians' religion is based on getting to the stars. Except unlike normal people, they're willing to fight and kill and die to take over all the fuel resources of the solar system – fossil, chemical, or nuclear – so they can do it. After fighting them for four years, I was pretty sick of any kind of religion. I certainly never thought much of foxhole Christians – scoffed at them.

There was one guy who really annoyed me. Private Jim Banks. The kid drove me crazy. Used to read his Bible even when he wasn't in the trenches. Prayed every night – right down on his knees by his bottom bunk and stayed there, fifteen, even twenty minutes. Didn't matter what you yelled or threw at him. Used to be we'd all throw our muddy boots at him every night. Even the two girls on the squad. Then in the morning we'd find them all lined up and polished. Don't know when he found time to sleep.

After awhile some of the others started to get ashamed of themselves, and stopped. Soon there was only one pair of clean boots in the morning. "Pops, why don't you quit throwing them?" asked Harry, a red-haired big guy who bunked over me. (They always called me Pops because, at 29, I was the oldest. I'd joined at 25, when the Tonians attacked.)

I told Harry to shut his trap.

"No, seriously. Don't you know he prays for us every night?"

I mentioned something about Harry being a boot thrower, too.

"Yeah, but now I feel different. We've only had three casualties since Jim joined. And we've been at the front most of that time."

Habe White in the back piped up. "And if that ain't a miracle, I don't know what is."

I allowed as to how it would be a miracle if a guy could get a little sleep around here.

So. He was their mascot now. I rolled over and faced the wall. Because I didn't care what anyone said; the sight of him doing that made me sick to my stomach. I heard the mattress creak as he got up. And the slow wipe, wipe of my boots, getting cleaned.

The next day things came to a head. They'd moved us back to the front, which right away meant no more boots. When you sleep in a trench, you don't take your boots off unless your thermal needs a new battery, or you got a shrapnel shoe.

Another A-51 must've broke past our fly guys, because the shriek of the bombs and the screams of soldiers crying and praying and dying were all around us. I guess being bombed is about the worst thing for us trenchies. Even if you don't get a near hit, you can't see and you can't fight. And it always sounds like the A-51s are right on top of you. Training's taught us not to fire at the bombers. Some guys crack up and do anyway, but you can't hit anything and it just drains your charge. Makes you a better target, too.

Anyway there I was listening to my guys yelling, and the bombers screaming at me and the whole world coming down around my ears, and I saw something. There was Jim Banks, mouth moving, saying something I couldn't hear.

I got so mad at him I couldn't see straight. For one blood-red moment, it was like it he was making all this happen, forming it with his silent mouthed words. I jumped up, aimed my rifle at his heart, and threw back the safety.

For a second, everything seemed to stop – or slow down, at least. All the guys stopped what they were doing and stared at me. I must've been really out of it because it seemed like even the bombers slowed down. In that moment the only thing that mattered was my finger on the trigger.

The pulse indicator on my rifle glowed a light, steady green. Almost full charge. A half a second with the trigger down, and Jim would be fried in place, wouldn't be able to unstick enough of him to bury. And he knew it. At least he should have. So why was Jim Banks staring at me like the calmest guy in the solar system?

"You shouldn't be standing up," he said. Even though he was starting to stand up himself.

I shoved my rifle in his face. "Don't give me any more of your..."

I didn't get to finish. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a gun turn, about fifty meters away – the enemy line. It didn't register instantly – at least not with me.

"Get down!" Banks shoved my gun aside and threw me to the mud. A millisecond later the boom resounded. I hadn't spotted it in time, but he had. The enemy gunners, safe from bombing and keeping a watch for anyone shooting at the A-51s, had instead spotted me. And fired.

Banks and I pulled ourselves out of the mud. Martian mud is thicker than melted chocolate, and it sure stinks. I stared at him. He just pulled my pulse rifle out of the mud, and handed it back to me. I couldn't believe he had saved my life.

I didn't sleep too well that night. Nothing was said of the incident, but the rest of 54 watched us both after that. One day I got so sick of the tension I finally asked him, "What were you saying, that day?" It was as close as I could come to an apology.

Maybe he knew that. It was during a lull in the fighting, and he answered me right away. "Psalm 91," he said. "The soldier's psalm."

"The what?"

"Here." He reached under his bench, sinking in the mud, and pulled his battered Bible out of his sack. He opened it right in the middle, and pointed at a mostly underlined part.

I eyed the Bible suspiciously. Seemed like he'd whipped it out awful fast. "And why's it called that?" I asked. Everyone else in the trench was watching, now. I was almost sorry I'd asked.

"Soldier's psalm – it's about God protecting you, even during battle. Back in the twentieth century in World War One, I think it was the 91st division, used to say it before they went into battle. Folks say they never had a casualty.

That got 54's attention. "None? You're kidding me," said Harry. But they were all crowding around anyhow, demanding to know what it said. The next time we went into battle, the guys were all muttering it. Banks had made copies.

By then I'd quit throwing cigarette butts at him. Quit telling him what a jerk he was and how stuck up he was because he wouldn't drink. All those words reverberating around me – it was like they were driving nails into the coffin of my soul. It was like everyone was saying, "Look at you. Look at what you do to a guy who tries to help you."

I couldn't forget all those times – hundreds of times – I'd cursed him, thrown my boots, and mocked him. Couldn't forget. Then the guy has to go and save my life. And not even make a big deal out of it?!

There was a lull in the shelling. I could hear their voices around me now, clearer. "...There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague..."

I jumped up. "All right, troops. We're taking the next trench. Let's move."

They just stared at me.

The shelling had stopped long enough for a reload, and we all knew it. But I didn't care. I just had to get out of there. I grabbed my rifle and was out and over the trench, running.

I heard someone yell, "Pops!" But I didn't stop. Before I'd gone five meters, the shrapnel was flying around me again. The next trench was still 20 meters away – emptied by the last bombing run. I turned around. And almost plowed into Banks.

"Look out, Pops." He threw me down at the same moment as I heard the snap of expanding heat from a blast, so close my hair stood up.

With the steady drum pounding of the blast going over our heads, I looked at Jim. He was about a meter closer to our trench than I was. I didn't see how he could have moved that fast, since we'd both be thrown down. Then I saw his stomach smoking.

That's about the worst way to go. At least a head shot – it's instant. I crawled toward him. "You shouldn't have, Banks." He wasn't dead yet, but he wasn't exactly alive, either.

He looked at me with pain-glazed eyes. "Jesus did." He tried to say something else, but I couldn't hear it.

I picked him up and started walking back to our trench. I can honestly say I didn't care if the guns hit me or not. It didn't matter anymore. Nothing did. His psalm hadn't worked.

Then a strange thing happened. The shelling stopped, as suddenly as it had restarted. It was way too soon to be for another reload. But I didn't think about it. I walked back in the silence that always seems so loud, after a shelling.

Banks tried to say something. I only heard one word. It sounded like "John." So I figured he was hallucinating, not talking to me at all.

Somewhere between the end of the shelling and the trench, he died. The guys helped me put him down in. I sat down on his bench, and buried my head in my hands.

The shelling never started again. Our radios said the Tonians had called a cease-fire. Five hours later when a man came with the body bag, he told us more. "Didn't you hear?" The private leaned against his rifle while 54 reverently zipped Banks up. "The Tonians discovered cold hydrogen fusion. They don't need our resources anymore. The war's over."

The men from the next trench came over to celebrate. They left quick enough when they saw the funeral service 54 was holding. Someone had found Banks' Bible. Harry flipped through it with shaking hands, and read Psalm 23, his voice cracking.

The next day they came to dispatch us from the front. I was the last to leave the trench. Somehow, they'd forgotten Banks' Bible. I picked it up, intending to hand it to Harry so he could send it home to the family. But I never did.

Half the guys were released to go home before the day was out. I wasn't one of them. I sat on my bunk that night, wearing my muddy boots, and paged through Banks' Bible. Didn't care who was watching. I meant to find his "soldier's psalm" and finally read it. Instead, I found myself flipping through the back part of the Bible. A word caught my eye. I stopped. John. Part of the Bible was named "John." That's what he'd been trying to tell me, wasn't it?

I flipped to John 1, and started to read it. For a moment I struggled with the words. I'd always been better at fighting than reading. But, in the half dark, I finally made them out. "In the beginning," it started. Why would that be near the end of the Book? To find out, I kept reading. And I guess I've never stopped.

So that's why you never got your son's Bible, Mrs. Banks.

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