Achilles heel

A short story by Bob Collins (Stumpy)

Shorty had been a soldier almost all his life.
He had fought in the Spanish Civil War, in the Second World War, both in the Desert and the Islands. He had gone to Japan with “J” Force, and later, to the Korean War.
He had been in a couple of other conflicts too, but Stumpy couldn’t remember what.
Shorty, as his name implied was a short balding barrel of a man, big in the chest, big in the gut, all muscle, definitely no fat. He was a jovial happy man with his twinkling blue eyes. Because of a lifetime of roving he had never married.
For a short period of about a year between his discharge from “J” Force and his enrollment for the Korean conflict, Shorty had come up to work in the bush of Kaingaroa forest producing saw logs for the Waipa sawmill.
It was in the bush at that time when Shorty and Stumpy met up, became friends, worked side by side in the same logging crew.
But then off Shorty went again, drawn like a magnet at the first whiff of gun smoke from that distant land, Korea.
On his return from the War, Shorty was discharged from the military for the last time. This was a great sadness for him to be discharged, but the life of a front line trooper is a young man’s game, and Shorty was getting pretty long in the tooth by now.
Once again at a loose end, Shorty returned to the bush at Kaingaroa Forest, to get work at the only occupation he had any experience in, other than soldiering.
He found his mate of earlier times still there, now running the gang they had once worked in, together, so the job was offered him to work again in his old crew. He accepted with joy.
So Shorty and Stumpy renewed old friendship and all was well.
Shorty was no boaster, he could never be drawn to speak of his experiences in battle, not even by his mate Stumpy.
But, he was prideful of one circumstance; he was what he claimed, “a survivor.” In his time at war he should have been killed ten times over.
He had fought battles in Africa, Europe, Asia, the Pacific and had never suffered a scratch! He had been to hell and back in lead, and fire and disease, but never spilled a drop of his own blood!
Here he was, after fighting in battles all over the world, back in “God’s own,” in civvie street, with a good job and a good prospect of finally dying in bed of old age.
But this was not to be.
One day a high wind was soughing through the tall pines on the felling face, bending them over in great arcs.
The felling crew had knocked off work because of the danger but there were still plenty of logs to haul well away from the face of bending trees.
Shorty was breaking out, selecting logs and hooking them onto the hauling machine. He was two hundred yards from the soughing trees with his back to them.
A small pine branch not four feet long still covered with needle foliage sailed in the wind out of the top of a tree drifted gracefully and slowly this way and that, like a feather in a draught, descending as it went.
It sailed so far it struck Shorty a glancing blow on the very top of his safety helmet.
It was not a hard blow, but it dropped Shorty in his tracks.
He died three days later.
The surgeons fighting for his life discovered why such a light blow did so much damage.
The skull protecting his brain had been abnormally thin, eggshell thin, fragile.
The funeral was very small, sadder because of that, all men, no women.
Just the logging crew, nine of them, a brother who was next-of-kin, and an old soldier the R.S.A. had sent down to sound the hauntingly beautiful “Last Post,” saw him off.
Shorty had traveled too far and too fast all his life to make many friends.
As the “Last Post” sounded Stumpy was thinking of his mate with profound grief.
“Poor old Shorty, I, the crew, have lost a fine man, a good friend, old soldier, old survivor, but even he had his achilles heel in the end.”