Chief and Mr. President
Flash fiction by Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer
Somewhere in France. 1918.
I squatted in the mud, drinking cold coffee and listening to the lonesome whistle of a shell coming close in the darkness.
My sergeant tossed a strip of torn newspaper—the American Expeditionary Forces Stars and Stripes—into the center of a half dozen doughboys as we lounged in the trench. “It’s going over us. No less than a hundred yards.”
We didn’t have any cash, so we’d torn long strips from the worn copy of the newspaper and divide it even between us to bet on the war action going on around us—dogfights, snipers hitting their marks, or how close shells would land. The experienced sergeant had won most of our strips.
I glanced across the way at my buddy, an Indian. His expression was difficult to make out in the dark, but he shook his head and pointed with his chin behind me. I agreed and tossed the three newspaper strips I had left onto the pile.
“Not this time, Sarge. It lands no more than twenty yards right back there.” I jerked a thumb over my shoulder. My buddy tossed his newspaper strips on top of mine. The sergeant chuckled. “You two are going down together.”
The shell whistled louder, changing to a high pitched wail.
We went face first into the muddy trench bottom before the shell exploded a dozen yards away. A thundercloud of shrapnel showered over us. We raised and my buddy looked at me with a grin. “Mr. President and Chief win.”
We divided the pile of newspaper between us, but before we finished, the sergeant barked, “You two get yourselves out there and see what Fritz is up to. Don’t want them thinking they blew us up and come charging in here.”
Me and my buddy took our rifles and headed out. I muttered, “Sore loser.”
“One more crack and you’ll be on scout permanently.”
We stalked down the trench, Chief leading the way. Well out of earshot, he looked back at me. “You better be quiet, Mr. President, or I will not let you come with me.”
I shoved his shoulder with the butt of my rifle. “Thanks for the big favor. I love poking my head around in enemy territory.”
Back in training camp, I had been a fresh recruit when I met him, the first real Indian I’d seen. I could tell he didn’t like me, until I punched another fellow for calling him a dirty name. After that, my buddy put a worm in my beans. I was pretty sure that meant we were friends. I called him “Chief” and he called me “Mr. President” and the other doughboys laughed at us.
I let him pace ahead a few yards. He didn’t like me too close so he could listen for sounds of the enemy. Said I made too much ruckus. I’d been accused of that before.
We followed the zigzag trench awhile, passing packs of doughboys trying to sleep. Then Chief crawled over the top and disappeared. I followed, slinging my rifle strap over my head to keep it on my back and free me for crawling. Chief liked to crawl.
We went aways into No Man’s Land, him getting further ahead in the mud squishing under my elbows, the scent of stale smoke coating the ground. I tried to close the distance but halted when the constant whiz of shells narrowed down to a single shrill. It had our number.
It landed between us. I felt the force lift me from the ground where time hovered in a strange moment between celestial forces in combat. Then I landed with a thud on my back, the rifle cracking against my spine.
After a few minutes, I flexed my fingers. My hands were intact, so I started feeling over my body until I came on the source of the fiery pain in my shoulder. Sticky liquid flowed out. And my legs were numb. I couldn’t move.
“Chief! I’m hit!”
I crunched my stomach muscles and forced myself to roll over to my side. Chief lay on his back not far away. I edged toward him, willing my brain to get my legs moving, but they would have nothing of it. When I got close, I saw that my buddy was alive, his eyes open, blinking rapidly as his body convulsed. He raised his head and strained to look down his legs. I followed his gaze. His feet had been blown off.
I wished we’d both died instantly instead of the slow death that awaited us in No Man’s Land.
I grabbed hold of his shoulder. I wanted to call him by his real name, but I couldn’t remember it. I couldn’t remember my own name.
“We done our duty. We done…”
My head tilted forward and I couldn’t fight against the heavy Brody helmet pushing me down. I rested my forehead against my buddy’s shoulder and gave up.
A gentle rocking woke me. I was on the back of a horse, moving me along…somewhere.
The sound of machine gun fire woke my senses and I remembered I was in war. I was moving along, facedown. Black hair poked my eyes, making them itch, but the hair was human. I wasn’t on the back of a horse. I was on the back of an Indian.
I moaned. “Chief. Just…go on. You can’t…”
“Quiet, Mr. President.”
He told me that often, said I was too noisy. I’d been told that often.
My thoughts looped in a senseless circle as my buddy, with both his feet blown off, carried me on his back, crawling out of No Man’s Land. I’d bet my last strip of newspaper on him being the best crawler in the AEF.
I clung to his shoulders. “Thanks, buddy.”
“Quiet.” Then, “You…saved me, too.”
I was pretty sure that meant we were friends for life.
If you enjoyed this flash fiction about American Indians in war, I think you’ll enjoy my novel on the Choctaw Code Talkers of World War I.