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Authors: James R. Benn

Tags: #Mystery, #Historical, #War

Blood Alone (2 page)

BOOK: Blood Alone
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Rocko reached for the jacket, feeling around in the large lower pockets. He obviously had taken me under his wing. He’d probably saved my life. I realized he was the only guy on this goddamn island whose name I knew.

I dug my fingers into my shirt pocket, felt something soft and silky, and pulled out a handkerchief. Not plain white, not army-issue khaki cotton, but a silk handkerchief, the fabric a deep, rich yellow, almost gold. In the middle the letter
L
was stitched in black thread. It felt strange to hold this elegant item here, surrounded by dust, canvas, wool, and gauze. I had a strange urge to get rid of it, to distance myself from whatever that initial stood for. Unless it stood for my name? But then why did I feel like getting rid of it?

Harsh noises drove those thoughts away. Not the dull thunder of distant artillery but the crack of cannon fire. Tanks. The drumbeat of machine guns echoing off ridgelines. Not too close. Not yet. I wondered who was taking a beating out there, and I was startled to feel a pull on my hand as Rocko grasped the handkerchief. I looked at his face, and for just a second, I saw the golden silk reflected in his wide-open eyes. I snapped my hand back, stashing the handkerchief in my pocket, as Rocko looked away, glancing at the wounded, doctors, and orderlies crowding around us. More wounded came in, one guy screaming for his mother. Rocko looked nervous, and I can’t say I blamed him.

The doctor didn’t care what my name was. He told me I had a mild concussion and abrasions on the right side of my head. A gash on my left arm, like a knife slash, that he had closed up with half a dozen stitches. He ordered me to get a new set of dog tags and to get out, not in that order. They were busy, and since I could walk away, that’s exactly what he wanted me to do.

“I’ll take him back, Doc,” Rocko said, leading me by the arm. I didn’t know where back was, but I didn’t want to admit it, so I let Rocko walk me out of the tent. Stretcher cases, lined up in rows, waited outside. Some of the wounded were grimacing in pain, some softly moaning, while others stared straight up, their mouths open, gasping for breath in the hot air. Across the dirt road a line of scraggly pine trees shaded the scorched ground. The walking wounded sat quietly, smoking cigarettes, cradling rifles and bandaged limbs. Waiting. Two paratroopers, baggy pants stuffed into jump boots, sat apart from the other dogfaces. Sounds of the battle to the east came over the rise again, signaling a renewed attack. As the harsh echo of cannon fire boomed through the heat, the paratroopers looked at each other and, in silent agreement, flicked their butts into the road and rose up painfully. One of them used his M1 as a crutch as they hobbled down the road toward the sound of gunfire. While his pal limped along, the second paratrooper discarded the sling that supported his left arm, letting it fall to the ground as he grasped his rifle with both hands, at the ready.

“Saps,” Rocko muttered to himself. “C’mon, kid, I’ll get you a cup of joe and you’ll feel better in no time.” I let Rocko lead me, his hand on my arm, guiding me like a nursemaid. I looked back to watch the paratroopers disappear over the rise and wondered again who the hell I was.

Trucks rumbled along a dirt track, churning up yellowish brown dust. The smell of salt was strong in the air, and I could see shimmering light blue where the road curved to the sea. Tents of all shapes and sizes were set up along the way. Jeeps spat gravel, pulling onto the road with gears grinding. Everyone was in a hurry, everyone except Rocko and me. Camouflage netting was strung up over stacks of fuel drums and cases of artillery shells. GIs stripped to the waist shoveled sand into burlap bags and stacked them around the explosives.

“Welcome to Service and Supply territory, kid,” Rocko said as he nodded at the work crew. “See why I don’t like the idea of fuckin’Tiger tanks roamin’ around down here? Come on, we got a mess tent set up.”

Gritty dirt turned to hard-packed sand as we approached the beach. A long line of vehicles snaked along tracks of steel grating laid to support the heavy stuff driving off the beach. Trucks and jeeps that had tried to drive around the metal mesh in their haste were sunk axle-deep in the sand. Engines roared as tires and treads fought for a foothold to pry themselves loose from the beach’s grip. Scattered among the moving and straining vehicles were darkened, smoking wrecks, overturned amidst craters where bomb blasts had found them. Huge LSTs, their massive thirty-foot doors opened wide, disgorged more vehicles weighed down with supplies onto the shore. It was a swirling mass of confusion as jeeps, half-tracks, trucks, and tanks crossed paths, driving off the beach and onto the narrow road inland. Far out into the Mediterranean, I could see warships cruising, the hot North African winds pushing their smoke toward us. Between the ships and the shore, a parade of smaller craft scurried back and forth, heavy coming in, light going out, their only cargo the wounded. The living and the dead stayed here.

Rocko sat me down on crates of K rations under camouflage netting that had been hung from the front pole of the mess tent and tied off to a tree for shade. It wasn’t cool, but at least the sun wasn’t broiling the top of my head. He came out of the tent with two cups of coffee in one hand and a sandwich in the other.

“Here’s a bacon sandwich, kid. You gotta be hungry. It’s left over from breakfast, but it’s good.” He handed me the bread stuffed with crumbling strips of bacon, and I realized I was starving. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten, but then there was a lot I couldn’t remember. He handed me an enameled steel cup and I sipped the black, sweet coffee. It tasted good, so I figured that’s how I liked it.

“Thanks, Rocko,” I said with a full mouth. “I appreciate it, but I can’t hang around here.”

“Where you gonna go, kid?” Rocko sat on another crate and drank his coffee.

It was a good question. “Headquarters, I guess. Somebody there has to know who I am.”

“Seventh Army HQ is out there on one of them cruisers. I heard Patton’s comin’ ashore today, but where I got no idea. Stick around, kid. Another day or so, they’ll have HQ set up in a palace somewheres and you can go see who remembers you. Or maybe you’ll wake up in the morning and it’ll all come back.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I said. I couldn’t think of anything else to do right now anyway. I didn’t want to tell the doctors about my lapse of memory and risk getting thrown in a loony bin. Or whomever I reported to at headquarters either. It would be a lot better if things were to come back to me in the morning. And better still if they were good things. If they weren’t, then that was another reason to lie low until I knew what the deal was.

“You think your name starts with an
L
, like on that fancy handkerchief?” Rocko said, looking out toward the ocean. He seemed interested in that handkerchief, but working hard not to show it.

“Doesn’t ring a bell,” I said. “Probably just something I picked up.”

“Lemme have a look, willya?”

I hesitated, trying to think of a reason not to take it out of my pocket. Maybe I was naturally distrustful, and maybe he was simply curious, but something told me not to hand it over so easily. A jeep braked hard in front of us, spewing sand as it swerved to a halt.

“You! Sergeant!” A paratroop captain wearing the double-A patch of the 82nd Airborne pointed at Rocko.

“Yes sir,” said Rocko, setting down his coffee cup. “What can I get you, sir?”

“You can get your ass over to the weapons depot and load this jeep with grenades and ammo. Then you’re both coming with me. Move!”

“But my pal just got out of the hospital, Captain. . . .”

“I said move, Sergeant. Now.” He said it quietly but there was no mistaking the determination in his eyes. Powder marks darkened the skin around his cheekbone. This guy had been doing his share of shooting, and it looked like we would too. He waited while Rocko trotted down the road to another nest of tents, then put the jeep in gear and watched me as I followed. A corporal with a clipboard emerged from the main supply tent. Rocko spoke to him and gestured toward the jeep with his thumb.

“You too, Corporal! Load up and get in the jeep.” The captain looked around for other candidates but the road was empty. His voice carried pretty far.

“Captain, I need my clerk here. What if—”

“Shut up, load up, get in,” the captain said, picking up his carbine and making a show of checking the clip.

“OK, Captain, OK. I’ll get my gear.” Rocko disappeared into the warren of stacked supplies. His eyes wide, the corporal set down his clipboard and picked up a crate of grenades.

“Rocko says you can have whatever you need,” he said, indicating the tent in back of him. He was a skinny, tall kid, dark black hair, long chin, wearing a pair of army steel spectacles. He looked more like a clerk in a hardware store than a candidate for the front lines. His two stripes had a
T
underneath for technician fifth class, junior to a regular corporal. His hands, gripping the heavy crate, were long and slender, like maybe he played the violin. His nails were clean and even. He might need a manicure after this.

The paratroop captain grabbed boxes of ammo and began loading the back of the jeep. I pushed aside the tent flap and went inside.

Rocko was nowhere to be seen. Crates of M1s and ammo were stacked along one side of the tent, and everything else an army ran on along the other. Cases of scotch and whiskey, cartons of Luckies, canned food—not K rations, but the real thing—piled alongside boots, helmets, and every issue of clothing the army allowed. A clawfoot bathtub, oddly stark white in the midst of all the brown and green, stood behind a wall of crates. It was filled with large green glass jars of olives. Baskets of fresh figs were set among cases of Italian wine. Now I understood why Rocko had gone out looking for more transport. He had a nice little sideline going here.

I picked up an M1 and a couple of bandoliers of ammo. There were plenty of helmets, but I had to dig to find one with the netting already on it. Why ? Was it important? I could almost hear someone telling me it was. I put on the helmet and winced as it pressed against the bandage on my head.

At the back of the tent was a table on trestles set up as a desk. Forms and requisitions littered the top; empty crates turned on their sides served as filing cabinets. On top of the table was a web belt with plenty of extra clips and a .45 automatic in the holster, along with a combat knife and a full canteen. It was obviously somebody’s, maybe Rocko’s, but right now I needed it more. I put it on and grabbed a Parsons jacket from where it had been thrown on the table. I’d left my jacket at the hospital, preferring something that more clearly showed which side I was on. Stuffing this jacket through the web belt as I walked out of the tent, I felt a flash of recognition. Something about that other one and how it didn’t seem to belong to any particular army. . . how it could pass for either side. What did that mean?

“Hustle, soldier!” the captain barked at me as he backed up the jeep to turn around. “And grab some of those bazooka rounds.”

I gathered half a dozen black cardboard tubes from a pile and did my best to jump into the jeep without losing anything. The skinny corporal was in the back, cases of ammo wedged all around him. A wooden crate of grenades was on the floor in front of the passenger’s seat, and I gingerly rested my feet on it as I got in, grabbing the metal edge of the jeep with one hand and wrapping my bandaged arm around the tubes holding the bazooka shells. It hurt. My head hurt too, and my gut was starting to quiver, but that was from fear.

“That supply sergeant gone?”

“Looks like it, sir,” I said.

“Rocko said the captain wanted him,” the corporal said, hanging on as the jeep climbed the incline up off the beach. “Our captain, I mean, sir.”

“What’s your name, Corporal?”

“Aloysius Hutton, sir.”

The paratroop officer nearly cracked a smile. “Well, Hutton, when we get back, I’ll bust Rocko and give you his extra stripe. He just lost his.”

“I don’t think Rocko will like that much, sir.” Hutton shook his head as if the captain had been foolish not to consult Rocko first on the matter.

“Where are we headed, Captain?” I cut in before he decided to ask me my name.

“Biazza Ridge.”

“That where all the firing’s been coming from?”

“Yep. Slim Jim has been holding on all day up there.”

“Who, sir?”

“Colonel Jim Gavin, commander of the 505th Regiment. There were only six of us when we started out. We were lost all day yesterday. Today we found some other paratroopers and some boys from the 45th Division. We started walking toward Gela and then hit that ridge, kicked a few Krauts off, and dug in.”

He blasted his horn as we passed a column of trucks, pressing the accelerator to the floor, and kicking up a plume of road dust as we sped by the hospital. The rest of the walking wounded were gone, probably already headed up to Biazza Ridge.

“Then we saw tanks and lots more Krauts headed down from Biscari, on the road that leads straight into Gela and our beachhead. That ridge is the only high ground around.”

As we sped around a curve, I had to lean and hold onto my helmet and the bazooka rounds. It wasn’t easy. It didn’t leave me with a hand to hold onto the jeep, and the way he was driving I worried about ending up in a ditch. He picked up speed on a slight downhill run as we passed a dried-up lake bed, hot air rolling over us like heat from a blast furnace. From what I had seen of Sicily so far, fresh water wasn’t one of its attractions. I squinted my eyes against the wind and wondered if I’d remember anything useful about bazookas, fighting, and killing. Or maybe running.

“Uh, sir, how many are you, up there on that ridge?” Hutton said from the back. I could hear him gulp.

“Couple hundred by now. Lots of our guys headed that way when they heard the fighting. They’ve been showing up all day.”

“But no tanks. No Shermans,” I said.

“No. Plenty of Kraut armor, though, mostly Mark IVs. A bazooka can take one out if you hit ’em in the ass or take out a tread.”

“What else they got, sir?” asked Hutton, his gulp getting louder as fear dried out his mouth.

BOOK: Blood Alone
12.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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