This is a short story, in 1048 words.
It was prompted by the above photo, sent to me by Darlene Foster.
Pablo looked back at his platoon following in a ragged line. They were exhausted, clothes in tatters, and their eyes stared blankly ahead as they trudged along. Sixteen men, two young women, and a mere boy, with not a recognisable uniform on any of them. Even the armbands had lost their colour, now more pink than red. The rucksacks were slack and empty-looking, with little ammunition in them, and all the food had been eaten last night.
Pulling the cap tighter on his head, he tried to cheer them along. “Come on friends, once we get over the hill, you can rest”. He didn’t blame them for not being interested in his false enthusiasm. They all knew that they were probably going to an eternal rest. When Captain Bordes had left with the rest of the company, he had urged them to stand firm. “If they get past us, then you will have to stop them. Be brave! Listen to your Lieutenant, he will guide you well”. Pablo had looked at his shoes after that remark. He was no longer sure he could guide anyone.
It had all been so different at the start. The fervour to defeat Franco and the other Fascists brought thousands of volunteers out onto the streets. They rushed off to the Aragon Front unprepared, to discover that enthusiasm was no substitute for military experience and better weapons. But they had held Madrid, helped by the International Brigades, and it seemed at times that they might still succeed.
That had melted away with the snows of last winter. Now, all but a fool could see it was over. The original regiment had dwindled to a company. Many had been killed or injured, but just as many had walked away, missing at morning roll call. It was said they were heading for refuge in France, but Pablo had no intention of deserting his platoon, his cause, or his country. He had managed to find enough serviceable rifles for everyone, even though that meant he would have to rely on his small pistol. He had even got the old lady to wash and press his threadbare uniform, in the hope that it might give inspiration to the forlorn group.
When the Captain didn’t return from the front with the others, everyone knew they had been lost. Whatever tiny seeds of hope remained were scattered that day. When they marched out of the small market town that morning, nobody bothered to see them off, not even the small boys. Shutters remained closed, and the few people on the street looked away as they passed. Pablo had chosen to make his stand at the old church, the one that used to be Saint Gregory.
Once the war had started, they had driven off the fat priest, and threatened him with worse if he ever showed his face again. For a long time after that, they used it to house all the chickens. But now those chickens had been eaten, and half of the townspeople had left long ago. It was just over a small hill, not a long walk. But today it felt like marching through treacle.
He could have built a barricade in the market place, and hoped that others might join in the defence of their town. But what use was that, with no more guns or ammunition? And it would put the women and children in danger, once the firing started. Best to occupy the church. They would be coming from that direction, and at least the fight would be away from the residential area. For the tenth time, he fiddled with the ancient field glasses in their battered case. Then wondered if he really wanted to see what the Nationalists would be throwing against them.
Amazingly, the bells remained in the twin towers. He was surprised that nobody had taken them for scrap. The interior still smelled of chickens, and there were old feathers everywhere. The three men who had been carrying shovels began to dig a trench outside. No point everyone getting trapped in the building later. Best to fight in the open and die in action, when the alternative was to be lined up against a wall and shot.
There was young Garcia, the only one who had never been in combat before. Standing to attention, barely taller than his rifle. He handed him the field glasses. “Here, take these. Climb up to the roof, and get a good spot by one of the bells. You can give us a warning when you see the Fascists”. The boy was pleased to be singled out for such an important task, and hurried off to do as he had been asked.
Watching the others as they did their best to throw up a wall of dirt, Pablo thought about the time when he was afraid to go into a church, scared of what the priest might say, and what penance he would receive for minor infractions. Now here they were preparing to use a church as a bastion, with no thought to the previous sanctity of the building. No wonder the shifty townsfolk had refused to watch them leave. One day soon they would be back, giving what they could not afford, to supposedly save their souls.
All those years, all that sacrifice. Gone in an instant.
It was getting overcast now. The sun was shielded by clouds. He rubbed his aching knee, still painful from where a bullet had grazed it more than two years earlier. Can it be that he was really only twenty-five? He had seen much, and those sights had aged him. He could hardly remember the faces of his mother and sister as they waved at his departing train.
Screwing up his eyes, he concentrated. There she was. The dark hair, a headscarf framing a face creased with worry.
Garcia was at his shoulder, pulling the field glasses from around his neck and handing them over. “Lieutenant, they are here. Perhaps a hundred, maybe more. And they have trucks and artillery”. He smiled at the boy. “Take your place, and thank you for your keen eyes”.
Pulling up to his full height, and adjusting his cap, Pablo gave the last order he would ever give.
“Stand to, comrades!”