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Authors: James R. Benn

Tags: #Mystery, #Historical, #War

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BOOK: Blood Alone
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“They got Tigers, son. I loaded a round for Slim Jim not ten yards from a Tiger, and he hit it square on the side. Damn thing ricocheted off and didn’t even scratch it.”

“You got a colonel goin’ ten yards from a Tiger tank? Jee-sus!” said Hutton. He was impressed.

Me, I wondered what they made the privates do.

CHAPTER • TWO

“DIG IN, DIG IN!”

The voice carried over the explosions and harsh
cracks
as 88mm shells from a Tiger tank split the air and thundered into the ground. Shrill whistling sounds arcing across the sky trailed mortar shells as they found the backside of the hill. Shrapnel was everywhere, zinging against hard rock, filling the air with razors of hot metal. The ground thudded, and I felt the vibration in my stomach. A machine gun fired quick bursts, sounding like a chain saw warming up before it took down a big tree. It was German. Ours made a series of dull pumping sounds. I imagined the German slugs knocking our few pitiful rounds out of the way. More bursts and a crackle of rifle fire. Dirt kicked up all around us, bullets cutting into the ground, shattering loose rock and showering us with dust and grit. Hutton was a few feet away, making love to the ground just like me.

“Dig in, goddamn it!”

I wanted to turn and look at whoever had a set of lungs on him powerful enough to make himself heard over the pounding we were taking. But that would have meant lifting my head a fraction of an inch. My face was flat against the ground, my hands wrapped around an entrenching tool that was doing no good with me on top of it. I’d have to raise my arms to use it, and I knew there were bullets up there. I could feel the air
thrum
as they passed over. Not moving felt sensible.

“Dig in, soldier!”

I felt a rifle butt whack my thigh and turned my head as little as I could. Kneeling down behind me was a tall guy, all knees and elbows. He had to scrunch himself up to stay low. But he wasn’t facedown in the dirt. He held his M1 up and hit me in the boot heel with it to make sure he had my attention.

“Dig in. Long and narrow. When those Tigers move in, lie down, let ’em pass over, then hit the infantry coming up behind. Got it?”

I looked at his face. It was dirty and his eyes looked hollow, but there was still something boyish about him. He wore a jump jacket and his pants bloused over his boots. Paratrooper.

“Got it, Slim Jim.”

Colonel Gavin didn’t hear me. He was already off, running low, M1 gripped in both hands like any GI. “Dig in, dig in.” I turned on my side and started scraping a hole in the ground as two paratroopers with a bazooka scurried up next to me and began some serious digging of their own. They ignored the bullets whizzing by as their entrenching tools bit at the dry, stony ground. I looked down the hill at a dark form visible beyond the sloping terrain. I could see the shimmering heat above black metal as the Tiger swiveled its turret, the long, smoking muzzle searching out another target. If that thing was getting any closer I wanted to be underground. I got up on my knees and dug, swinging the entrenching tool in rapid, swift strokes.

“Shit!” One of the troopers held up his entrenching tool. The shovel was bent, yet all he had to show was a pile of broken shale. He threw it away and lay down flat behind a scrubby bush, the bazooka hidden in the branches.

I wasn’t doing much better. The ground was as hard as rock. Which it was, gray shale beneath hard, crusty earth. The edge of my shovel bent too and I tossed it, settling down as deep as I could, which wasn’t very far. Hutton had done a little better. He had the shovel from the jeep and could do more with it. Lying down he almost filled his hole, except for a helmet at one end and boots sticking out the other. I looked back at the Tiger. It hadn’t moved or fired. I could see Germans in desert khaki and dusty brown helmets running for cover behind it. Raising my M1, I closed my left eye and tried to find one in my sights, but they were moving too fast and low. The weight of the stock against my shoulder felt familiar. I’d done this before, filled my sights with the form of a man, felt my heart beat faster with forbidden excitement. The idea of killing didn’t seem to bother me a bit. And that bothered me.

“What do you think’s gonna happen?” Hutton’s eyes darted over the landscape. We were a few yards below the top of the ridge, and a steep gully ran to our right. In front of us the ground rose up a bit about thirty yards out, which made it hard to see the enemy. I wondered why Gavin hadn’t placed us up there, under better cover.

“We’ll be OK,” I said to Hutton. “This Slim Jim fella seems to know what he’s doing.” An explosion punctuated my answer, followed by a scream and cries for a medic. I didn’t make any more promises. We’d passed the aid station in an olive grove as we brought up the ammo and doled it out. Corpses were lined up behind it and the wounded waited on the ground in front. Not knowing my name didn’t seem so bad to me after I saw that. As a medic patched up the lightly wounded they went right back to the line. The colors up here were brown, dirty white, and rusty red.

Hutton was watching a medic dodge bullets to get to the wounded man.

“Look ahead of us, not to the rear. Watch the Tiger,” I said to Hutton. “So, what’s your job with Rocko?”

He looked at me and I pointed forward as I swiveled my head left and right, taking in as much of the scene in front of me as I could. I wanted him on the lookout, but I also wanted to distract him from dwelling on the wounded behind us. Bad for morale.

“I’m with the Signals Company,” he said, eyes front. “Guess because I worked for the telephone company back home. I like to work with radios too. Built my own from a kit. When I was a kid, that is.”

Hutton was still a kid, but old enough to need to let me know he didn’t play with kits anymore.

“But Rocko’s Quartermaster Company. What are you doing with him?”

“Rocko does favors for people. When he needs something, they do favors for him. What’s that?” He pointed to a clump of low green shrubs, and I saw a flicker of movement. We both opened up, emptying a full clip each to no visible effect. Tracers from the machine gun behind us sprayed the bushes too. Nothing moved.

Beyond the small rise in front of us the ground was dotted with swaying stalks of knee-high grass. Or was that wheat? The stalks were topped by seeds or grains or something. Guess I didn’t grow up on a farm. Yellow wildflowers gathered in clumps all the way down to a dirt road that snaked around the ridge. The road to Gela. The road to Rocko’s riches. The road we couldn’t let the Germans pass.

I laughed. A memory had popped up and it seemed funny. Hutton noticed I was smiling and gave me a look.

“I remember why you should wear a helmet with netting,” I said, raising my voice over the machine-gun chatter.

“Why?”

“Because a plain helmet gets shiny when it rains. Gives you away.” I lay my face down on the warm ground and laughed as the bullets flew overhead. It felt like everything was wired wrong inside my head. The things I could remember were useless. Or terrible, like lining up a man in my sights and feeling the thrill of it. Yeah, now I was all set if it rained. Lucky me.

The Tiger moved. It backed out of the ravine and started up the slope. Lines of Germans came forward at a steady trot, rising up from behind what cover they had. I saw a Kraut, pistol in one hand, waving his men on with the other. The pistol marked him as an officer and within seconds he was cut down, a dozen guys zeroing in on him. Red sprayed from his chest as he toppled backward. Slim Jim was pretty smart to carry a rifle.

I raised my M1 and filled the sight. I fired, and fired again. A figure dropped and I was glad. I looked up again. It was important not to get tunnel vision, to remember to look up from the sight.

Finally, a useful memory. I searched for the closest Germans and fired at a group of them clumped together. Stupid, they were being stupid. I cursed them as they dropped. I could only see them from the waist up with that rise in the way, but it was enough. Turned out I was a good shot. They kept coming, trotting through the yellow flowers, stopping to fire while trying not to get out in front of the Tiger. I heard bullets ricocheting off it as it drew fire like a corpse draws flies. Its machine-gun muzzle swiveled and bright sparkling bursts sought out our firing positions as it tried to protect the infantry around it.

I let loose my last round and the stripper clip ejected, hitting the ground with a metallic
ping
. As I grabbed another eight-round clip and slid it in, I remembered someone saying that was what he didn’t like about the M1. That sound could give you away, and you couldn’t reload until you were all out of ammo. Same guy who told me about wet helmets. Some guy who played every percentage. Who ?

I aimed again. Germans filled up more of the sight as they got closer to the rise in front of us. I heard our machine gun and watched as men went down, hit or seeking cover. Yellow flowers were clipped by flying lead, scattering bouquets over the dead and dying. The Tiger was almost to the rise. It halted in front of it, raking the ground as its turret swung and fired in the direction of our machine gun. A loud explosion hit behind us and the MG went silent. I heard the hydraulic
whir
of the turret, as if the dark machine were thinking, calculating. Gears ground and it lurched forward, tilting back as it began to mount the rise. In a second it would be over the top and free to kill us all. It made no sense, but I began firing at it. I should have been scared, but there was no time. I should have run. I don’t know why I didn’t.

The paratroopers next to me sprang up, and I saw two more come from the other direction. Two bazooka teams. Then I knew why we were positioned here. The German infantry was down, waiting for the Tiger to get over the rise and finish us off, none of them wanting to risk getting killed when the Tiger was a sure bet. Each bazooka man knelt while his partner fed a rocket in, tapped his helmet, and ducked. They waited for the tank to reach the maximum angle, its front up in the air and its unarmored belly showing. They fired, bright orange flashes blossoming out from the metal tubes. One missed. The other hit square between the treads, a white flash followed by a searing explosion that blew the hatches off. Flames roared out of the tank as it lurched forward, falling hard, nose down, silent except for the roar of contained flames. Roiling black smoke from burning fuel and flesh filled the sky, and I cheered. I clapped Hutton on the shoulder. He didn’t move. His head rolled toward me and his helmet tilted off. There was a hole in it dead center that matched the one high on his forehead. One hand lay flat on the ground, the long fingers splayed out as if he’d tried to ward off the shot that got him. His nails were still clean.

Some of the paratroopers crawled to the rise and began firing at the retreating Germans. I didn’t know what to do about Hutton. Aloysius Hutton. A good solid name. A bit old-fashioned, but he’d said it like he didn’t mind. I took his ammo bandolier and went forward. I saw Germans, more distant now, giving us their backs. I shot two and wondered what their names were.

I slumped against the rise, drank half the water in my canteen, and wished I had enough to wash my face. I couldn’t have moved if my life depended on it, and it damn well might. My legs felt weak and I thought the water I’d swallowed was going to come right back up. I lay at the bottom of the rise, Hutton dead behind me, the enemy in front. I tried to get up, but the ground was spinning and I couldn’t. I closed my eyes and felt the sun beating on my eyelids. Through a haze I heard medics moving the wounded out and felt someone start to grab my legs until one of the bazooka guys said to let me be, I was alive, I just didn’t look it.

I woke to the sound of tank treads. I grabbed my rifle and looked around to get my bearings. The Tiger was smoldering, and Hutton was gone. One of the bazooka team raised his hand, palm up, as if to calm me.

“Don’t worry, buddy. Those are ours. We got six Shermans coming up.”

“Finally,” his loader said, and tried to spit. It looked like his mouth was too dry and dusty to work anything up. I crawled over and gave him my canteen. He nodded his thanks and took a careful mouthful, then handed it back.

“How long was I out?” I asked.

“Couple hours,” the loader answered. “You looked pretty banged up to start with, so we left you alone. Nothing much happened here since Joe popped that Tiger.”

“What outfit you with?” Joe asked, eyeing me.

“Headquarters Company,” I said, a plausible lie that might even be true.

“Jesus,” the loader said. “They got everybody up here. Truck drivers, cooks, clerks, even some navy guys from the shore party.”

“You shoot pretty good for a straight leg,” Joe said. “Calm, not all shaky like some of these other guys.”

“Straight leg?”

“He means everyone but paratroopers,” the loader said. “After we qualify we stuff our pant legs into our jump boots.”

“Straight leg. I get it,” I said. “And straight legs can’t shoot straight?”

“Some do,” Joe agreed. “Some hunker down and don’t do anyone no good. Some fire at anything. You took your time with aimed shots. Makes a difference.”

I could hear someone else telling me about aimed fire. The helmet guy. He thought the same way. Like a professional. Who was he?

“Thanks,” I said. The blurred image of a face swam through my mind. I could almost hear him.
Aimed fire.

“Name’s Clancy,” the loader said, his hand extended. “This here’s Joe.”

I shook their hands. Joe lit a cigarette and they both looked at me, waiting.

“Aloysius Hutton,” I said, my mind blank, as if that were the only name in the world.

“Pleasure,” Clancy said after a moment. Joe drew on his cigarette and gave it to his buddy. We watched and listened. The Shermans clanked into position about fifty yards away on our left. Firing broke out intermittently along the line. Nothing as ferocious as before, only a rattle of rifles and short machine-gun bursts. We waited as the sun dipped down behind us and more GIs and paratroopers came up from the direction of Gela.

At six o’clock the Shermans roared forward and we got the signal to advance. I followed Clancy and Joe down the slope, jumping over dead Germans and wilting yellow flowers. Gunfire was heavy to our left, but in front of us all we could see were flashes of khaki running low, darting from cover and then going to ground again. We made it down to the road, to an abandoned pillbox situated to cover the road in the opposite direction. Inside was a lone German, dead, bandages swathing his abdomen. He looked a lot like the kid who had died next to me in the field hospital.

BOOK: Blood Alone
11.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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