Previous Challenge Entry (Level 2 – Intermediate)
Topic: Concentration (07/24/08)
TITLE: On Guard
By Mary Hackett
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The sentry’s head nodded, snapped to attention. He cleared his throat and blinked his sleepy eyes, trying vainly to shake out the weight on his eyelids. He stared along the line of trees that brooded in the moonlight. He mustn’t sleep. Mustn’t rest a moment. Mustn’t rest. Mustn’t…mustn’t… What was that? The crackle of a dead leaf? The hoof of a belated deer? The sentry walked a few paces from the tiny hut to investigate. A muffled shot rapped out in the moonlight. The sentry sprawled on the ground.
Swift figures filtered through the moonlight, skidding through the snow past the sentry’s body, past the little hut the sentry once watched by. Past and on, a surprise attack, dreaded and anticipated, but not warned against. Two enemy soldiers in the darkness paused in the bright moonlight. A chill wind cut through the air and they huddled beside the hut momentarily. In low voices, they reviewed strategy. Their object: to secure a great man of state, the man who held the nation together. A traitor had revealed the location of the mountain hideaway to which the statesman been spirited in danger. Now the enemy planned a grand coup. Its success would hold the fate of a nation. So far all was well. The soldiers moved away from the sheltering wall and plunged into the night.
Mustn’t sleep…mustn’t rest a moment. Mustn’t rest. Mustn’t…mustn’t…the sentry opened his eyes. He felt the chill creeping up his legs. He tried to lift his arm. It moved like a log. Pain wracked him, warm heaviness enclosed his senses. Mustn’t sleep! Must not sleep…he tried again. With infinite slowness, the body obeyed the mind.
First a hand, then an arm. Repeat with other arm. Dear God, give me strength! Now pull. Half drag, half push and wait for pain to subside. Oh, to rest for a moment. No. No, must not sleep. The hand again. Now the arms, and pull. Slow torture without an instant’s respite, a well of unending pain. Must reach the hut…must get to the phone…the phone…the warning.
Now a burning thirst consumed the sentry. He seemed to crawl through an inferno, a raging wildfire. His throat was parched, his tongue felt swollen. His lips were dry as dust. First the hands, now the arms, and pull. Water. Rest. No…first the hands, now the arms, pull. Hands, arms, pull. He forced himself to breath through the pain. Oh, would it never end?
Suddenly, mercifully, the end was in sight. His hand met the threshold of the hut. He clambered over it, dragging his spent frame wildly in a last burst of effort over the floor to the field telephone next to the cot. His fumbling fingers took up the receiver. A voice, strange to his ears, hoarsely gave the alarm to the operator at the other end. “Message understood. Over and out.”
The receiver clicked in its cradle. The angry thirst subsided, the stabbing pain ceased. The sentry’s head slumped on the floor. His eyes slid shut. This time he did not move again.
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