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Issue 13, October-December 2011
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
“My god you stink,” I said.

“I didn’t know you were so sensitive. Next time, I’ll wait for ’em to build showers before I come ashore,” my sharpshooter said.

“I smell you a mile away and it ain’t just cause we all need showers. You must have something wrong with your insides. It don’t even smell human.”

“We ain’t here to serve tea. Get back to your binoculars. I’ll let you know if I need your opinion.”

We were quiet for at least an hour before I started worrying about our position.

“Are we in the best spot?” I asked.

“I don’t know about you, but the best spot for me would be sitting on the front porch with my mother.”

“I mean here. Are we in the best spot or should we move into the valley?” He damned well knew what I meant the first time.

“We’re good right here where the Lieutenant put us. If they try to come up the valley, they’ll have to cross two hundred yards without no cover.”

With my BAR and his rifle he was right. We could have held back a whole company. Our Lieutenant warned us that fresh troops would be looking for a weak point to force their way across this island. They’d just landed, so they’d scout around.

We both shut up again and watched the valley another hour before I broke the silence again. By then the sun was half way up in the sky and it was getting as hot as a boiler-room. I saw movement at the far end of the valley. “There are some guys under that big tree, the big tree by the edge of the grass,” I said.


“See the top of the grassy knoll? They’re in the shade of the tallest tree. They’re just standing there looking for us. I can’t see much, but there are at least two of them.”

“I see something. It could be two heads looking our way or it could be shadows.”

“Can you take them from this distance? Do you have the shot?” I asked.

“Too much cover until they move. They know we’re here, but they’ll still try something.”

We watched and waited for some movement. They had good cover on their end of the valley and we had good cover on our end. They couldn’t go around us without crossing a lot of exposed ground and there wasn’t any place to hide if they got into the valley.

“They’re moving,” I said.

My sharpshooter slowly put down his own binoculars and pointed his rifle. Their point man stepped out from the shadows. He never saw us and my sharpshooter hit him with the first shot.

“Like the range at Lejeune.” He spoke aloud, but seemed to be talking to himself.

“What do you think they’ll try next?” I asked.

“We won’t have to wait long to find out. I doubt if they’re patient.”

“I see them two guys again. Same spot,” I said.

“They’re trying to find us.”

“Someone’s moving to the left,” I said.

“I see him,” my sharpshooter said. “Middle didn’t work out so good.”

There was a little movement behind trees and low bushes to our left. In minutes, a second man emerged.

The second man didn’t get any further than the first. My sharpshooter hit him as soon as he had a clear shot.

For another three minutes, the valley was quiet. I didn’t even see the officer poke his nose out from behind his tree.

A flock of green parrots crossed the valley diagonally. They emerged from a copse to our right and flew just a few feet above the grass height with no interest in us. They squawked so loud the whole valley froze until they passed.

“There’s another one on the right,” I said. “He’s coming up low and slow.”

Another single shot kill.

Except the rifle reports, the valley was as silent as a summer schoolyard. The taller grass swayed in the friendly breeze that cooled my sunburned neck and ruffled my blouse.

In about three minutes I saw movement again.

“Number four is at the door, coming up on the left,” I said.

The fourth man fell next to his friend. My sharpshooter dropped him at exactly the same spot as the second man.

We froze in the diamond bright glare of the sun. At this range we could stay in our little hiding hole all day. The spotters at the other end of the valley would never see us.

“Just hold tight, we’ll be all right,” I said, talking to myself more than to my sharpshooter.

Number five started up the right side of the valley. He got no further than any of the others.

“Do you think it ever snows here?” My sharpshooter asked while the report from his last shot still echoed in my ear.


“Everything’s so green, but we’ve never seen it rain. We haven’t had a canteen full of rain the whole time we’ve been ashore. It hasn’t rained once.”

“I ain’t real concerned about the crops right now,” I said. “The corn and the cotton will be just fine.”

“Corn needs regular rain.”

“Let’s keep our focus on this valley now and check the Farmers Almanac after we finish the chores,” I said.

The sixth man followed the familiar pattern. He came toward us low and slow and on our left. Once again, my partner dropped him with one shot.

“This is getting boring,” I said.

“I wonder where they’re from. Are there any farm boys or are they all city kids?”

“I hope you ain’t starting another weather report,” I said softly. “I don’t want to hear about no corn.”

Number seven started toward us on the right. My sharpshooter let him get a few paces past his comrades. Even though he had one more bullet in the chamber, he manually removed the clip and reloaded. He didn’t want to give away our spot by having a spent clip fly out of his rifle.

A shadow darted across the face of a bush in the center of the valley. I tensed the grip on my BAR gun stock and flattened even closer to the ground. It was just a sea eagle flying in an easy arc above the valley. He drifted away without noticing us.

Number eight came toward us in another three minutes on our left. It was another single shot kill. If my shooter could see it, he could hit it.

“I think they’re trying to win the war by using up all our ammo,” he said. “Bullets cost money you know.”

“Yeah, at this rate we’ll be broke, in about eighty years. What’s their officer thinking?”

“He’s got no idea what to do,” my sharpshooter said. “He can’t go back and tell his commanding officer he failed and he can’t get past us. He might spend his whole platoon without figuring anything out.”

“He ain’t figured nothing out yet,” I said.

Number nine stepped forward on our right. He looked around the ground as if we might be hidden in the grass. He didn’t last ten seconds.

“Why don’t he just shoot them himself?” I asked. “It’d save everybody a lot of trouble.”

“Do you think human life means the same to them as it does to us?”

“I’ll be happy if we just live through this day. It don’t matter to me what they think.”

“Say anything you like; I want to know we did this thing for a purpose.”

“You think too much.”

“How can you say that? We’re not machines; we’re made to wonder about things.”

“All I’m wondering right now is whether the next guy will come up the right or the left. You should be thinking about hitting him when he does. We should both be wondering how many men they sent on this patrol.”

By then it was time for number ten on the left. He might as well have painted a target on his chest.

“What do you think it means?” He asked during our next three-minute respite. “You know, this whole thing. Why are we here; why are we doing this? What does it all mean?”

“It don’t mean nothing. We was just two guys dumb enough to enlist. Them guys down there was even dumber than us. Only they was a lot less lucky. Your kind of talk don’t do nobody no good. It’s like a kid asking, ‘why is the sky blue?’ It’s just blue, that’s all.”

“It must mean something.”

“Yeah, what are you going to do, save the world?”

“Why not?”

My sharpshooter was speaking just as number eleven emerged on the right. He took his shot and number eleven bought his fate.

“I think that was eleven, if I didn’t lose count,” my sharpshooter said. “There are two guys under that tree again. Maybe that officer is rethinking his master strategy. Maybe he’s trying to think of something else to do.”

Number twelve followed on the left. My sharpshooter dropped twelve next to ten, eight, six, four and two.

We waited the normal three minutes. Nothing happened. All we saw was tall grass swaying in the breeze.

“I don’t see nothing. There ain’t nobody under that tree that they like so much. I don’t see nothing.”

My partner watched by looking down his rifle sights while I worried the tree line with my binoculars. Fifteen minutes passed without movement.

I offered a premature opinion, “I think we got them all. Yeah, we got them all. Don’t see nothing.”

“You just keep thinking,” my sharpshooter said.

“Do you think they’ll try to come around to the north?”

“They can’t. They’d run right into headquarters company. They’d never even get through the wire. They might have already tried, now they’re looking for the soft spot.”

“I hope you’re right. I don’t see nothing moving.”

We stayed quiet for another fifteen minutes. The calm put me on edge. I was almost relieved when I saw movement from the tree line.

“Another one’s coming,” I said.

Number thirteen wore the uniform of an officer, probably an ensign. He walked toward us up the center of the valley, marching as if on a parade ground. He didn’t crouch, take cover or look around to his left or to his right. He just walked smartly up the center of the valley in plain sight and without hesitation. He drew a sword and held it in a salute position next to his stiff torso. He didn’t even pull his pistol from its holster. A single shot granted his death wish.

The sun hadn’t yet reached its apex for the day.

“This thing meant something to him,” my sharpshooter said.

“Yeah, it means we got Spam for lunch and them poor dumb slobs are lunch for the crows.”

“No, this thing means something. It must mean something and it’s my burden to find out what.”

“Forget it. You’ll go crazy.”

“If it takes the rest of my life, I’m going to figure out why this happened.”

He turned his back on the valley and tossed his rifle next to a tuft of thorny creeper grass. Then he lit a smoke from a pack I hadn’t known he had and looked at the ground for answers.

My god he stank.

Stephen Williams has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from Central Michigan University. His academic concentrations were mathematics and psychology. He worked as an economist, an engineer, a financial analyst and a marketing executive. He developed residential real estate and managed a commercial vineyard.


Q: What have you been reading lately?
A: Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell; This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey by Steve Almond

Q: Where do you write? 
A: Any place I can find a flat surface capable of supporting a 8 ½ by 11 tablet of paper.

Q: Deciduous or coniferous?
A: Deciduous.

Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a story about a homeless man. I have not decided on a title.

Pan's Burden
by Stephen Williams
followed by Q&A