A Guid Soldier
by Charles Todd
he remembered when the raw recruit had come up the lines. Dougal Kerr was solidly built, and strong, but not as tall as most men his age. A good soldier. Quiet and dependable. One of too many who would die before the week, the month, or the year was out. Rutledge made a point, as he always did, of speaking to the newcomer that night, asking him where he was from and a little about his family. It was important to know something of each man for when the time came to write the letters to the dead men’s families.
Dougal said, “I’m fra’ Glasgow. No family. I’ve been in care ever since I can remember.”
An orphan. No mother to grieve, no father to weep in private or boast about his hero lad in public.
“Good luck, son. Come to me if you need help. It’s not easy, it never is, to deal with the fighting.”
A broad and appealing grin spread across Dougal’s face. “Thankee sir, but I doubt I’ll have trouble. I’ve always wanted to be a soldier.”
From time to time after that, Rutledge saw Dougal going about his duties with good grace and no complaints. Sergeant MacNabb called him “laddie.” Hamish, standing beside Rutledge one night as they watched the German lines across No Man’s Land, spoke of Dougal as “a guid man.” Others on the line took a fatherly interest in him.
It wasn’t until they took the machine gun nest that Rutledge found himself in close company with Dougal. He’d sent most of his men toward the German line as a distraction while he and five others crawled toward the unguarded side of the machine gun emplacement. In a last second rush, they were on their feet and inside before the gunners could turn and protect their flank. The surprise was complete.
Two of his men went down as Rutledge, followed by another soldier, leaped into the nest with his pistol drawn while Dougal stood on the rim of the emplacement, rifle at the ready. The gunner and his crew got slowly to their feet, shock on their young faces, their hands beginning to rise in surrender. But before Rutledge could speak to them, Dougal fired five times at nearly point-blank range, killing the Germans where they stood.
Rutledge wheeled, shouting, “Enough of that!” But it was too late. His eyes met Dougal’s, and in those eyes Rutledge saw an expression that for an instant disconcerted him.
He leaned down to disable the machine gun before leading his men, carrying their wounded, back to their own line.
Afterward, he asked Dougal why he’d shot the Germans as they were surrendering.
“They’re machine gunners, aren’t they? Lower than the low!”
“Yes, that’s what’s said in the lines,” Rutledge retorted impatiently. “But it doesn’t give you the right to kill them out of hand!”
“No, sir,” Dougal answered slowly, his eyes cast down in contrition. “I got carried away a bit—the excitement and all.”
There was nothing else Rutledge could say. No one else had seen what he had seen. Others were slapping Dougal on the back and calling him a hero, not a murderer . . ..
But the expression on Dougal’s face as he’d shot the enemy down was burned into Rutledge’s mind. He had seemed . . . gleeful. It didn’t sit well. He tried to tell himself that the man was young, that he’d only been at the Front for a week. But Rutledge had been a policeman before the war, and what he’d seen had sent the hairs on the back of his neck rising up in alarm.
There was no such thing as a born killer . . ..
When he got a chance, he spoke to Hamish. The Scot shook his head. “I’ve seen nae sign of trouble,” he said skeptically, “but I’ll keep an ee oot.”
Rutledge had more on his mind than Dougal for the next seventy-two hours, with a push on by the Germans and the men under his command tiring under the onslaught and the heavy shelling. Hamish, reporting on the losses and the wounded, said, “I must tell ye that young Dougal has a guid eye. He found the sniper before I did.”
And Corporal Hamish MacLeod had one of the best eyes Rutledge had ever come across.
“Did he shoot the man?” Rutledge asked. “Or did you?”
Hamish grinned. “We tossed for it. He won. Private Chisholm called it a rare shot.”
Chisholm was one of their own snipers, a man born to gamekeepers on a Highland estate who was a gamekeeper himself. Rutledge said nothing.
Hamish went on. “Though I must tell you that he took undue pleasure in the shot. I couldna’ be sure if it was his pride in the marksmanship or the thrill of bringing doon the man that set him up sae well.”
“Yes. He appears to take pleasure in killing.”
Hamish shrugged. “It’s what a soldier does. Still . . ..” He paused for a long moment, then shrugged as if to himself and said, “He doesna’ complain. And he’s no laggard o’er the top.”
In the quiet of the night Rutledge and Hamish stood there, shoulder to shoulder, watching the stars come out as clouds moved on. Rutledge could see Orion clearly now. And the Great Bear.
Hamish said after a moment, “There’s something I canna’ like in him, for all he’s a guid soldier. What’s lacking, I canna’ say.”
Rutledge said, “I’ve heard the men call him lucky.”
“Aye, he is that. He doesna’ seem to ken what death is.”
Rutledge’s fingers went to the tear in the cloth of his sleeve where a shot had just missed him. It had been close, but not close enough. “He’s quiet in rotation, back of the lines. He has little to say for himself. I’ve asked. And there’s no mail for him.”
“An orphan,” Hamish reminded him.
“Yes.” Rutledge was silent for a time, then added, “No past.”
Hamish chuckled softly. “Ye’re no’ a policeman, man. No’ here. He’s verra young. Two days ago I saw him try to shave.” He grinned in the darkness, white teeth a flash of brightness in the shadows of the trench wall. “It wasna’ successful.”
Later in the day Rutledge spoke to Sergeant MacRae about Dougal.
MacRae said, “It’s strange. You notice no one calls him by his surname. He’s Dougal, like a boy.”
“He looks like a boy,” Rutledge agreed, “as if his mind hasn’t caught up with his body.”
MacRae frowned. “He’s a guid soldier,” he said, echoing Hamish’s words, “but somehow I canna’ trust him.”
Rutledge turned to look at MacRae’s lined face, the face of a man who’d been dragged back into the war after retiring from the Army in 1912, and said, “That’s an odd thing to say.”
“Aye, it is. He charges hell-bent for the Hun lines as if he hears no orders, and tries to get up as close as he can. It’s almost as if he wants to see the faces of the ones who lay dying after they’ve been shot. He’s likely to get himself shot being sae stupid, and we’ll have to send other men out to bring him back. I do na’ care for foolishness.” He stopped to listen to the sounds of distant fire, then turned to his men and called to them to be watchful. “But he’s a guid soldier,” he repeated, as if trying to convince himself of the fact.
When Rutledge spoke to Dougal about his rash charges and the danger they represented to others in the company, the boy grinned and said, “I hit more that way,” as if he were keeping count. “There were sixteen yesterday. I made sure of each kill.” And then he said, as if perplexed, “I’m not sure why I like it so much, but there’s something about fighting that makes me happy.”
Rutledge found himself shivering. The policeman in him, alert and uneasy, listened for overtones, the voice of someone who killed for sport. But the boy seemed unaware of Rutledge’s suspicions. If anything, he seemed surprised by his own admission and eager to examine it further.
There were days when Rutledge watched Dougal and debated with himself about speaking to his commanding officer about the boy. But Dougal had done nothing wrong, nothing that could support Rutledge’s concerns. Still, a small voice inside his head asked him how well Dougal would adjust to civilian life again after the war. Would he continue doing what he loved best back home, ultimately ending up being caught and hanged by Scotland Yard? Or would his taste for killing end with the war?
There were no answers for any of his questions. And no time for them . . . .
They were under attack again. The Germans were probing under cover of their artillery, testing the British lines to the north of their position. In a strong counterattack, the British took back the yards the Germans had gained, then counted their dead. They had brought back all of their men except one—Maxwell, who hung on the wire. The two men sent to retrieve him were shot down and had to crawl painfully back to safety. “He’s twitching, but for all I can see, he’s dead,” one of them informed Hamish with a shake of his head.
“We’ll wait until after dark to bring him back,” Hamish said.
Watching the man hang there, his limbs moving erratically, one hand beckoning as if begging for rescue before it was too late, was having a bad effect on morale in the sector. Maxwell was well liked. Death was one thing. They had grown used to it. But helplessly watching one of their own suffer was another. For the young recruits who had just come to the front, it was appalling. One sat down, head in his hands, and wept. Another cursed steadily, as if damning the man on the wire. That night Sergeant MacRae sent another two men out to attempt to bring him back. Both died in a hail of bullets from behind the German lines.
It was one of the worst days of Rutledge’s life. He watched the dying man and prayed to God that it would be over soon.
Finally another soldier volunteered to try and bring him in, but MacRae refused to let him. Hamish, leading the soldier away, said for all to hear, “Sometimes when the brain is shot, the heart keeps beating. He doesna’ know he’s twitching! He doesna’ feel it.”
“I wish someone would shoot him and put him out of his misery. Why don’t the Germans do it for us?” someone said, his voice tight with anger.
“It’s no’ in their nature to be merciful,” the sergeant snapped.
Hamish said, “As long as he keeps hanging there, they know we’ll keep sending more men out to try bringing him in. They’ve done for four of us already.”
And then Dougal stepped up to the trench wall, brought up his rifle, and fired.
The man on the wire sagged and was still.
Dougal said, “It’s over.” But there was something in his face, a flash of something dark and pitiless, that Rutledge caught before the boy turned away.
He enjoyed it, he thought. And when the war is over, he’ll go on killing.
MacRae was shouting at Dougal Kerr, threatening to send him off to face court-martial. Others stood staring at him, horrified. But Dougal just walked off down the line, ignoring all of them.
That night, while Rutledge was writing a letter to the matron of the home where Dougal had grown up, in order to request information about him, Private Chisholm came to find him. Chisholm was their best sniper, a man with steady nerves and steadier hands. But the face of the man who stood before him at the moment, asking permission to speak, was twisted with anger and his hands trembled with his efforts to control himself.
“That was my mate on the wire,” he said, “and you let that bastard shoot him!”
“I didn’t let anyone shoot Private Maxwell,” Rutledge replied, keeping his voice level. “It happened before any of us could have prevented it.”
“Then why hasn’t he been sent for court martial? That was murder!”
“Sergeant MacRae is taking it up with the major. But the general feeling is that it was an act of mercy. The Germans were using Maxwell to draw us out. And he was dead. The two men who came back after the first try said he had been shot in the head and was not responding.”
“He was alive! That’s what everyone says. He was alive. We don’t shoot our wounded.”
But they had been shot, more than once, Rutledge could have answered. Perhaps not like this case, but men who couldn’t be brought back, who lay in the shell craters and screamed for release. It had been done . . .. But that would have been no comfort to Chisholm.
“What am I to tell his family?” Chisholm demanded. “How am I going to face them?” He was on the point of breaking down, his voice unsteady. “I’m to marry his sister, for God’s sake! What am I to tell her?”
“That he died in battle,” Rutledge said. “I’ve already written to them. I told them nothing that would upset them. And neither will you. What you know you will keep to yourself.”
“I can’t. You’re telling me to condone what Dougal Kerr did!”
“I’m telling you that whatever you may feel about him, you will spare the family of a man who died for his country.” Rutledge’s voice was cold. “Is that understood?”
Chisholm was silent for a time as if replaying the words in his mind. Then he took a deep breath and said, “Yes, sir. I understand. I won’t let them hear of this, I swear.”
He was on the point of turning away, when he asked, “What do you think Headquarters will make of this?”
“They’re too busy worrying about Verdun,” Rutledge said frankly. “The French aren’t holding and something has to be done.”
“Yes. That makes sense, then”, Chisholm answered, nodding. Then he was gone in the darkness.
Rutledge finished his letter concerning Dougal and sent it off by runner. Then he stepped out into the night, looking for Chisholm. But the man was already asleep, his head on his arms.
Would Chisholm get over it? Or would Maxwell’s death become a festering sore in this tightly-knit company of men fighting to hold onto inches of land, all the while fully aware that most of them would become cannon fodder if another big push came? Maxwell’s body had been brought in after nightfall, and it was clear that he wouldn’t have survived even if he’d been retrieved and sent back to hospital. Half of his head had been shot away.
It was plain to see that what Dougal had done, however reprehensible, had also been merciful. It was also cold-blooded, leaving the young private untouched by it. Something needed to be done about this. For Dougal’s sake, Rutledge told himself. But he had a feeling the boy wouldn’t understand—or would refuse to understand—a rebuke.
He went in search of Dougal and found him to be enveloped in sleep as well—the sound sleep of a man whose conscience is clear.
The next few days were frenzied, unrelenting hell. Rutledge had no time to think about Dougal or to discuss the situation with anyone.
It was on the last attack of the day that Rutledge found himself making a futile, hopeless charge across No Man’s Land toward the German lines with Dougal, Hamish, and another man from the ranks. Chisholm and two other snipers were set on bringing down a German sniper who was so cleverly concealed that no one had yet spotted him, and it was hoped that a direct attack on the German positions would bring him into the open. Additionally, the reports had shown that the German line was weakest at this point, and that it might be possible to take the sector with a determined assault. In a corner of his mind, Rutledge wondered if HQ knew what they were doing.
Dougal was firing his rifle with his usual cold skill, picking off enemy soldiers as their heads popped up over the trench lip. His skill was amazing, his aim relentless. And that look in his eyes was back—pure excitement and blood lust. A killer’s face . . ..
Then, without warning, Dougal spun around, stumbled, and fell, going down hard. Rutledge, his policeman’s brain working behind his soldier’s façade, noted the way the boy had spun. Then he was too busy to think about anything but getting his men back alive as reinforcements poured into the German lines and the British attack faltered.
They brought Dougal in with the other dead and wounded. Rutledge went to examine him. Hamish, behind him, looked over his shoulder.
“It couldna’ been a Hun bullet,” he said softly, for Rutledge’s ears only.
“One of our own?” Rutledge asked quietly.
“No’ one of the men at our heels. Look you, the angle is wrong.”
“I saw that. Yes.”
“Chisholm was the sniper on our right. He could ha’ brought Dougal down.”
The implication behind Hamish’s words was clear. Rutledge had already reached the same conclusion. Chisholm could well have exacted his revenge for Maxwell today. And who would have been the wiser?
Sergeant MacRae came to stand with them. “A guid soldier,” he said, shaking his head.
It was an epitaph, recognition of one man’s usefulness in war.
Rutledge found it fitting, but incomplete. Keeping his thoughts about Dougal to himself, he asked to see Chisholm.
“He’d dead,” MacRae said with deep regret. “They just brought him in.”
So much for getting to the bottom of what had happened.
Rutledge got to his feet and walked away, checking on his men one by one. When that was done, he found himself wondering what he should do. Dougal was dead. Chisholm was dead. It was finished.
But his policeman’s mind wasn’t satisfied. Had this boy been a born killer who had found his place in a war where killing was face to face and rampant? Or had he been a boy who’d had an extraordinary talent with a rifle and who’d been too young to understand what his skills meant in terms of human life?
There was nothing the policeman could do. Nothing Rutledge, the officer could do. It would be unsettled, and he would be uncertain for the rest of his life, whether Dougal deserved to die at Chisholm’s hands. And whether Chisholm himself was a murderer, with Dougal’s blood at his door…a hangman doing his duty.
Ten days later, at the end of June, a letter came from the home where Dougal had been cared for as a child.
“He is a most unusual boy,” the letter said. “A busy and loving child. But there was something about him that frightened me then and still frightens me now. He was a firestarter, you see. He loved to watch things burn. We were quite concerned about that and were secretly glad when he ran away after the barn burned down with all of our horses inside. We tried to trace him, without any luck. Will you be sending him back to us? He’s only fourteen, you see, and shouldn’t be in the army at all. I’ve written to the colonel to ask if we could have him back again. But I wish there was somewhere else he could go. I’m so sorry to say that of a child. It means I’ve failed the boy. But the truth is, I’m more than a little afraid of him . . ..”
After some thought, Rutledge showed the letter to Hamish. He read it through and then said, “Puir lad. He was a guid soldier. But he liked to kill more than was natural. She’ll be relieved, this matron, to know he’s no’ coming back after all.”
Case closed, Rutledge found himself thinking, his policeman’s mind persuading him that there was nothing more that he could do, or should do. He would let the dead sleep in peace.
But in his mind’s eye he could see Dougal’s wide grin and cheerful face even now. Odd, he thought, how his carefree spirit had so brightly concealed what lay inside—a gradually uncoiling darkness that was just beginning to find expression along the sights of a rifle barrel.
At some point between his birth and his death, Dougal Kerr seemed to have lost something he was unable to retrieve. Perhaps his soul . . .