THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JAMES A. BONDOUX

SHORT STORY

Here is a short story I wrote for a creative writing seminar. I was 23 at the time, and had recently returned from my my service in the French Military. I remember having a lot of fun with it, at the time. It’s almost as much fun to find it after all these years, and it's amazing that it survived all the moves. All the more so in that almost all of my historical artifacts went up in smoke when we lost our boat to the fire.

My writing style is a lot terser now and I would do it very differently today. Here goes:

THE TUNNEL

The building had seen better days. The whitewashed walls were streaked with gray from the assaults of winter storms. In places, patches of stucco had fallen off, revealing the dark stone and concrete underneath. Some of the tiles on the roof had been disarranged by the elements, and here and there dark holes showed. The ledge between the ground floor and the upper story had crumbled over the years, leaving a darker, jagged belt around the building. On the side, a few feet from the edge of the roof, a metal sign enameled in blue and white proclaimed that the edifice was the Adelia railroad station.

On the side toward the tracks, a slightly uneven platform overlooked two pairs of parallel steel rails. The furthermost tracks were rusty, with weeds growing thick and tall between the ties. At the corner of the platform, sandbags and ties were stacked to form a low square, from which protruded the barrel of a rifle, glinting in the dazzling noon sunlight. Two men in camouflaged battledress and caps were propped against the sandbags, smoking in silence.

Suddenly, the roar of an engine was heard. In second gear, and backfiring loudly, an olive-drab truck came bouncing down the steeply inclined dirt road on the other side of the station. Three more uniformed men shuffled out from the station to greet the oncoming vehicle. The rear wheels were spewing parallel streaks of dust, and two rows of helmets were bobbing up and down in the bed of the battered ald GMC truck. The brakes squealed as it came to a halt alongside the building.

Exchanging shouted greetings with the Adelia garrison, the men in the truck jumped down, and began unloading cartons, bags and baskets containing the next few days' food and supplies. The supply sergeant, from his seat next to the driver's, handed a packet of mail to Corporal Aucher, who had the responsibility for the Adelia station

" – How's it been?"

" – Oh, as usual, I suppose. What's new up at headquarters?"

" – Not much, I guess, but I hear that you might soon be relieved, the whole bunch of you down here."

" – Hmm! That'll be the day! I'm beginning to wonder what the rest of the world looks like."

The unloading of the truck was finished, and half of the armed escort climbed back aboard. Sergeant Marsal, who had been riding in the back with his men, came up to the truck window and said:

" – Well, we're off to P72. See you later."

" – O.K., we'll come back and pick you up in two hours," answered the supply sergeant, "and have fun. Luck."

" – Yeah, you bet."

The truck chugged to life, maneuvered, and ground its painful way up the steep hillside, watched by all eyes, as the only moving object in sight. After it had disappeared over the ridge, Sergeant Marsal spoke to the five men who had come in the truck with him:

" – O.K., let's go. Everyone take one of the bags of supplies, single file, and follow me."

Turning toward Corporal Aucher, he said:

" – We're off to P72. They haven't made any radio contact with us since yesterday. You don't know what's up?"

" - Nope, no idea. Their generator is probably on the blink again, if you ask me."

" – Well, we'll see. Expect us back in about an hour and a half."

P72 was an old brick building, so-called because it was at a point along the railroad 72 kilometers from the end of the line. In times past, it had been used by the railroad company as a control point at the mouth of the tunnel which stretched almost two miles back to Adelia. There had never been an access road to it, and its sole link with the outside was the railroad track: two miles through the tunnel to Adelia station, five miles to Changarnier Pass in the other direction. Abandoned by the line for several years, it was now used as a military outpost, securing the other end of the tunnel. The single–track tunnel offering a rather attractive means of sabotaging the line to the rebels, P72 was considered a crucial outpost, although its isolation was not relished by the members its garrison, ten men in all.

Sergeant Marsal, his submachine–gun hanging from his neck in front of his chest, jumped down from the platform onto the tracks, followed by his small detachment. Striding purposefully on the side–path, they headed toward the black hole gaping in the hillside several hundred feet away. Once inside the tunnel, Marsal felt the silence of the vault fall upon his shoulders, broken only by the rasping of boots on gravel. Little rivulets of water gleamed faintly in the diminishing light as he progressed along the tracks, peering ahead for the first curve. He stuck to the path, knowing that he would step into puddles and refuse, but preferred that alternative to that of trying to step on the ties; stepping on every other tie forced one to take uncomfortably large strides, and stepping on every tie made for a tiring pace and frequent stumbles. Lousy tunnel, he thought.

The jagged walls of the tunnel were interrupted every fifty yards, on alternate sides, by a sort of alcove, several feet deep, which made handy refuges when a train was in the tunnel. Coming out of the curve he saw the bright dot that was the other end of the tunnel, and sensed the relief of having something toward which to walk. Nevertheless, he was oppressed by the feeling of uncertainty at what to expect at the other end. Of course, communications do break down every now and then, and that old hand-driven generator had certainly seen better days, World War II relic that it was. But, on the other hand, he had always wondered about P72. It was such an easy and desirable target for the rebels. Isolated as it was in that basin, shots couldn't be heard from the outside, and he seriously doubted that flares would rise higher than the surrounding ridges. And, of course, it would take a while to get that radio on the air.

He began disliking this expedition more and more. It was usually a routine affair, but today was different, somehow. It was always on routine operations like this that trouble occurred. And they had failed to raise P72 on the radio for the past three scheduled checks. Supposing that something had happened over there, at P72, which wasn’t an unreasonable supposition, then they would be walking into a very nice trap. It’s about fifty yards from the mouth of the tunnel to the building, which is up on the side of the cut, he calculated. Coming out of the tunnel, there was no way of getting to the building unobserved from it. Someone in back of him sent a tin can rolling with his boot. The clatter made him jump involuntarily. Boy, I'm really on edge, he thought. Well, it's probably that darn generator, and besides it’d take a bazooka or a well-staged surprise attack to take that place. All that brick and those sandbags make a pretty good improvised fort, he added to himself, wondering how he’d go about the task of attacking P72.

He felt a blast of air on his back. That meant a train was entering the tunnel at Adelia. Looking ahead, he calculated that they had gone about one third of the way. Not a chance of making it before the train. He unclipped his flashlight from his belt as he felt his men close in on him, and started exploring the sides for an alcove. The irregular, jagged protuberances of the walls cast strange, dancing shadows in his light beam, and the trickles of water glinted dimly. He found a recess across the tracks and crossed over, followed closely by the little group. Already they could see the headlight coming around the bend. Huddled together in the small space, they waited while the sound of the diesel engine and the screech of the iron wheels gained in intensity. The machine whizzed past, followed by a short train of lit-up passenger cars, and then it was gone, nothing but a hum and a vanishing red lantern. The men shouldered their bags and weapons once more, and stumbled back across the tracks to the side-path. Now they would be in darkness for a few minutes, until the fumes had cleared sufficiently to let the orifice of the tunnel shine through once more. When it did, it was but a reddish disk, and disappointingly small.

Marsal wondered about the thoughts of his men. Probably the same as mine, he reflected. They know the score. And, as it often happened to him in these sorts of moments, his thoughts turned to the subject of Death. He had had his share of brushes with the Great Harvester, on freeways and street corners, and here, under fire. But what about the others?

Raoul, who he knew was directly behind him, had always been a little of a mystery to him. Raoul seemed almost completely unaware of the possibility of being killed. Marsal had seen him perform deeds of courage which had won his admiration. The man was fearless. And yet, if Raoul had no consciousness of death, then he wasn't really brave: he was only performing a job. One thing was sure, though, he was no amateur. He had been around longer than Marsal, even, and his experience was comforting element to have in the group. Raoul might be but a peasant, he was an asset to any combat unit.

David, who should be closing the march, was quite the opposite. He had mentioned his fear of death several times to Marsal, during those long and lonely vigils in the guard–house. Marsal guessed that David had a fear of death greater than his own, but then he had a weapon Marsal didn't have: superstition. David felt that if one didn't think about it, it wouldn't happen. But then, again, he probably couldn't keep himself from thinking about it, poor fellow. There are always those memories of corpses, friend or foe, that one cannot erase.

As for the other three, they were replacements, still quite green, and their conception of death was probably like Marsal's own before he had come to this part of the world: a dark , close room, with a pale form stretched out on the bed, a few flowers and sobs, some flickering candles, all coming after the next–door neighbor or some relative had passed away during the night. Well, let’s hope that it will stay that way for them a long time.

Suddenly he was aware that the bright disk ahead was becoming noticeably larger. They had about one fourth of way left to cover, he guessed. He was at the same time impatient for it to be over with, and reluctant to come to the mouth of the tunnel. Once we get there, someone will have to reconnoitre. Myself, of course, I have no choice. A man leads his men.

Sometimes, when he thought about it, he was genuinely curious about "the other side" of the Great River. It might conceivably be preferable by far to this side, in which case, why fear it? Or there might not be any other side of the River, just oblivion. When he speculated upon this question, he sometimes honestly felt that he would not regret it if he vanished from the face of the Earth at that moment. However, when a crisis would draw near, then the big worry would become about the direction from which it might happen. If Death came, well, there was nothing to be done about it, but it would be so much better to know beforehand exactly how it would occur. It was this part of the not knowing that bothered him, and he felt that he could resign himself much easier if he knew the outcome ahead of time.

They were now approaching the mouth of the tunnel, and he could already see the heat waves shimmering above the tracks in the bright sunlight outside. He could distinguish the scrub on the flanks of the cut, just beyond the tunnel. A hundred feet before the opening he halted, and the men stopped behind him. Without having to tell them, they dropped their loads and held their weapons at the ready. Yes, indeed, the question had been in their minds during the passage through the tunnel.

Whispering to Raoul to wait for his signal, but to be ready for anything, he started up again, purposefully holding his submachine–gun. He walked slowly, letting his eyes re-accustom themselves to the glare of the sunlight. Focusing on the slanted signpost standing next to the railroad bed a few yards outside the tunnel, he could see the numerals 72. After a last hesitation, he strode on again, this time at a faster pace. The anxiety was still there, but the excitement of action made it recede.

The house came into view, standing stolidly in the heat. He could see no movement, no stir. He walked out of the tunnel, staying close to the ditch. Still no movement. He almost shouted, then changed his mind, and kept going. He felt the taste of cold metal in his mouth. Suddenly a head bobbed up from behind the pile of sandbags on the roof. Marsal's heart missed a beat, and he wavered slightly, clutching his gun with all his strength. The silhouette on the roof waved its hat, and yelled:

" – Hi, Marsal. About time!"

It was Maurice.