The Last Smoke: A Short Story
John hunkered down further in the snow-filled trench as a gust of wind ripped through the fortified passage. Next to him, his buddy William did the same, blowing in his gloved hands to warm them against the chill. John sighed. All he wanted to do was curl up with his little girl and read her T’was the Night Before Christmas before he tucked her into her bed. Instead, he was huddled in a trench in frozen France, and he was surrounded by enemy soldiers.
He was almost frozen himself. Snow had been falling since the wee hours of morning, and his trench coat, trousers, and shirt were soaked through. He wished he could move. At least he could warm up that way. But if he accidentally exposed himself over the top of the trench, it would give away their position. And it would likely be the end of him.
He gripped his rifle and prepared to fire a couple of rounds.
William slid a round into his rifle and smiled at him. “It could be worse, you know? It could be this cold and raining. At least the snow gives us a little time before we feel it.”
John smirked then steadied himself.
He hated this part. The part where he had to peek over the edge, fire a round or two, and hope that he would be lucky enough to pull everything he showed the enemy back into the trench when he was done.
He took several deep breaths and nodded to William that he was ready. They both crouched at the edge of the trench and fired blindly into the white expanse.
Rolling himself back down into the trench, he hunched over himself to build up body heat.
William bumped into him as he dropped into a heap beside him. “Just a little while longer, Johnny. Then we can head down to the rest of the group and curl up beside a barrel fire until our skin turns read. You got any papers on you?” He dug around in his pockets, searching for his tobacco.
“They are probably wet. I’m soaked through.” John leaned to his side and pulled his papers out of his back pocket. They were wrapped in leather, but even leather soaks through after a while.
William took the folded leather and set it in his lap with his tobacco tin. He peeled his wet gloves from his hands and untied the string holding the leather closed. Running his index finger against the edges of the papers inside, he gave John a grin. “Middle ones are dry.”
“Hurry up and roll one then. I’m freezing,” John grumbled. He wrapped his hands around the barrel of the rifle, siphoning the last of its warmth into his damp gloves.
William set to work, sprinkling the tobacco on a dry rolling paper then rhythmically rolling it between his thumbs and fingers to pack the tobacco tight. He folded the leather pouch back up and handed it to John to tie closed.
John wrapped the strings around the leather and tied it tightly before he shoved it back into his rear pocket. The movement exposed his wet backside to the frigid air, sending a chill through his body.
William tapped the end of the cigarette on the lid of the tobacco tin to pack the tobacco even tighter, then he closed the tin tight and slid it inside the interior pocket of his trench coat. Pulling a box of matches out of the same pocket, he placed the tip of the cigarette in his mouth. He fiddled with the box with his cold fingers until he was able to push the end of it open, and he pulled one of the tiny sticks out. Striking it quick against the barrel of his rifle, he lit the cigarette and snuffed the match out in the snow.
He took two long puffs then passed it to John. “You know, I’m starting to wonder if we are even shooting at anyone. We ain’t had a shot returned in two days.”
John shook his head, taking the cigarette. “They’re out there. Just because we can’t see them and we haven’t heard them, don’t mean they aren’t biding their time.”
William chuckled. “I bet they packed up and left once the snow started coming down hard. They probably decided that if it got this cold up here, we could have it.”
John smirked and took a long draw on the cigarette. The smoke was warm on his throat, and it tickled it slightly, but it did little more to heat him up. He passed it back to William. “They’re out there. They’re probably just waiting for a clean shot before they let us know where they are.”
William tucked the cigarette in his mouth, letting it dangle as he talked. “I’ll prove we’re alone. If no one returns fire after our next shots, I ‘ll stand up and roll us another cigarette.” He looked at John, his face full of certainty. “I’m telling you, there’s no one out there. We’re just shooting at the snow.”
John pulled a bullet from his ammunition pouch and loaded his weapon. He frowned. He did not want to agree to such a stupid bet, but he knew that no matter what he said, William was going to do it. Once William set his mind on something, he did it. If anything, trying to talk him out of it only made him want to do it more. John bowed his head against his weapon in silence, hoping that William would just let it go.
“You ready, Johnny?”
John looked sidelong at his friend, doing his best to ignore the “I’ll show you” grin on his face. He gave William a nod.
William adjusted the cigarette in his mouth, and they both crouched at the edge of the trench again. They each fired a single shot into the falling snow.
Rolling back down into the trench, they kept low, listening. No shots were returned.
“Told you,” William said with a triumphant smile on his lips.
John put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Just wait. They may still be trying to determine where the shots came from.”
William shook his head. “I’m telling you, Johnny, there’s no one out there. The officers just have us out here to make their superiors think they are working. We’re freezing while they’re down there by the barrel, eating and staying warm.” William took one last puff on the cigarette and snuffed it out in the snow. He placed the part he did not smoke in the pocket of his trench coat.
“Give them five minutes, Will. Just five,” he pleaded with him. He did not want to beg, but he would stall for as long as he could.
“Fine, I’ll give ‘em five minutes, then I’m going to roll a victory cigarette, and we are going to march down to the other end of this trench and park our asses by that fire. The commissions can come down here and fire at the snow if they want to appear busy.”
John snorted and closed his eyes. He hugged the warm barrel against his chest and rocked side to side to create as much heat as possible. And he prayed. He prayed for a single shot to ring out, anything to prove that they were not shooting at nothing—anything to make his friend give up his stupid idea.
The minutes ticked by much too quickly. John counted the seconds and knew that he had run out of time.
“Gimme your papers, Johnny.”
He pulled the leather pouch from his seat pocket again and passed them to William.
William propped his rifle against the side of the trench and stood up. Swiping his arm across the snow at the top of the trench, he created a flat spot to wrap and roll his cigarette.
“I told you, Johnny. We’re gonna be sitting next to the barrel in about ten minutes, finally warm, finally dry. Them officers think they got us fooled.”
John could not say anything. He gripped his rifle and watched his friend, praying hard and fast that even if there were soldiers out there, they were hunkered down in the trenches next to their fires and not paying attention.
William pulled a small stack of papers out of the leather pouch and flipped through them to find a dry one.
John’s gaze darted to his friend as soon as the single shot broke the silence.
William’s head jerked back, and his hands stopped moving. He appeared frozen for a moment, gazing off at something in the distance. Then he fell, crumpling into a heap.
John sat, frozen in shock, as his best friend’s body collapsed into the snow.
A gust of wind whipped through the trench, picking up the cigarette papers and scattering them over the snow, but John could not do anything but stare.
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