Read Phantoms in the Snow Online
Authors: Kathleen Benner Duble
an, we are in for it now,” Cam said, shaking his head.
to go and get that vehicle,” Bill said.
“Shoot. Last year, me and a few friends from my football team bought some girls’ panties and began to string them up on the rival team’s yards,” Roger said.
“And the point of this is?” Bill asked.
“Word got around fast. By the fifth house, they had people waiting for us,” Roger said. “We may have to wait till sundown to sneak back and get that jeep. They may be watching for us.”
“But we’re due back on the base at nineteen hundred hours,” Cam said. “If we wait till dark, we’ll be cutting it close.”
“We don’t have a choice,” Noah argued. “We can’t return now. Roger’s right. There’s probably people out looking for us.”
They all stared dejectedly at one another.
Wiley took off his duffel bag and threw it to the ground. Then he sat down. “Some day off.”
“Yeah,” Cam said, tossing his bag down, too, and throwing himself on top of it. “We don’t even have anything to eat with us.”
“You always just think of food, Cam,” Bill said. “We could get court-martialed for this.”
“Yeah,” Roger said ruefully. “We’re gonna be in big trouble, no doubt.”
He paused and then a wide grin suddenly lit up his face. “Still, you have to admit it, boys, the climb down that hotel sure was sweet, wasn’t it?”
At this, they all burst out laughing, and this time, even Noah joined in.
Eventually, they skied back toward town, miserably cold from sitting in the snow all day and worried about getting back to Camp Hale on time without getting caught. They left their skis by the side of the road about a mile away from town and walked toward Leadville, keeping themselves hidden in the trees that bordered the road.
The hotel was quiet. The sun had just set, and shadows were creeping across the parking lot. Noah and the boys breathed a sigh of relief when they saw the jeep in the exact same spot they had parked it yesterday.
“Okay. Here’s our strategy,” Roger whispered to them. “You boys wait here. I’ll sneak on in and get it. If anyone comes out when I start her up, take off.”
“No, Roger,” Noah argued. “That isn’t right. We’re in this together. If one of us gets caught, we all get caught.”
“I’m with Noah,” Bill agreed. “We’re a team. Teams don’t leave members behind.”
Wiley and Cam nodded their assent.
With their eyes peeled for any sign of movement, the boys crouched low and scurried toward the jeep. Noah reached the vehicle first, and, keeping a hand firmly on the door to keep it from making a noise, he pulled down on the handle and carefully eased the jeep door open.
A face in the front seat turned toward him.
“Forget something, did we, Garrett?” Daniel Stultz asked.
“How did you think we wouldn’t hear about this?” James Shelley raged. “Are you all total fools?”
Noah stood at attention along with Bill, Cam, Roger, and Wiley. His uncle’s face was bright red, and spittle was coming from his mouth. Noah could see he was shaking.
“The police called here! Here!” James Shelley yelled, as he paced the room. “They’re not idiots in Leadville. Boys rappelling out of their hotel rooms can only mean one thing — the 86th! You’ve disgraced this unit!”
He whirled around. “You’re all on latrine cleanup for three weeks. Now get out of here!”
Noah went to follow the others, who were racing for the door, but his uncle held him back. “Not you. You stay!”
His uncle was quiet for a moment after everyone had gone.
The stillness was almost worse than the shouting. Noah shifted his weight uneasily, just as his uncle turned to face him.
“The day I ran away from home, I went away for good, Noah,” his uncle said. “I never intended to see or hear from my family again.”
He paused, and Noah felt his chest constrict.
“Then you showed up, and I did what I thought best. I kept you. I didn’t turn you out.” His uncle shook his head. “Now, I know this ain’t the best place for a kid. But it is a home of some sorts, and you’re safe at least.” He paused. “You’ve sorely disappointed me.”
Noah felt as if he’d been punched in the stomach. He had never imagined he could feel so badly.
James Shelley looked right at Noah. “And I didn’t even owe you a thing, boy.”
Noah felt like a knife had gone through him at his uncle’s words.
“Then you don’t owe me a lecture on how to behave, either!” Noah muttered.
James Shelley sighed, and without another word, he turned and walked away, leaving Noah standing alone in the barracks.
“Daniel didn’t need to report us!” Noah fumed to the others when they stood together outside the mess hall later that night. A feeling was building inside him that made him want to punch the very walls of the buildings around him.
“Maybe he was afraid someone would find out if he hushed it up,” Bill said reasonably. “He does take this life pretty seriously.”
“Who would have found out?” Noah raged. “He took the call himself. He could have just driven to Leadville without saying anything to anyone and smoothed it all over. But no, not Daniel Stultz. He sits in wait like some kind of animal and then pounces on us when we come back to get the jeep!”
“Perhaps you’d like to tell me that to my face,” Daniel said as he stepped out of the mess hall.
Noah swung around. “I’d be happy to! Soldiers don’t rat on other soldiers, Stultz! I’ve only been here for two months, and already even I know that!”
“This is a military base, Garrett,” Daniel said. “Not a circus!”
“It was just one lousy prank, some harmless fun!” Noah shouted. “You have
of the word, haven’t you?”
“Noah, forget it,” Wiley said, trying to hold him back. “This isn’t worth it.”
Angrily, Noah shook him off. He was sick of Daniel Stultz. He was furious with his uncle for saying that he didn’t owe Noah anything. He was sick of feeling alone and lonely and out of place. He was sick of everything!
“Have you even
of the word?” Noah taunted Daniel again.
“Sure, Garrett,” Daniel said. “I’ve heard of fun. I’ve heard of self-pity, too. And it seems to me you wallow in it like a pig in muck. Grow up, Noah. Your life isn’t that bad.”
“Oh, how would you know?” Noah spat out, the anger and embarrassment he felt building like a fire in dry leaves.
Suddenly, Noah was pinned up against the wall of the mess hall, and Daniel Stultz was in his face, right up against him, his elbow
pushing hard into Noah’s chest. His eyes were large and dark. “You want to know about fun, Garrett? I’ll tell you about fun.”
Boys came out of the other buildings, drawn by the sound of angry voices. They stood in the snow, watching.
“Fun,” Daniel hissed, “is having cousins and an aunt and uncle you love dearly living in Poland when the Germans invade. Letters from them suddenly stop coming, and your letters to them are returned covered with useless foreign stamps that tell you nothing.
“Fun is when you finally find out from a family friend who managed to escape that they are living in a ghetto with barbed wire all around, just because they are Jewish.
“Fun is when that same friend, who ran for his life, informs you that your uncle was beaten to death for trying to steal food for his family.
“Fun is when you’re told that just before this friend got out, your aunt was sick and would probably die since they were being denied medication along with food. Fun is realizing that now your little cousins may be alone and on their own.
“And here’s a little more
for you! Fun is knowing that they no longer even have the comfort of the ghetto but are in one of these camps!” Letting go of Noah, Daniel Stultz handed him a creased newspaper article from his pocket. Noah stared down at the headline,
JEWS BEING ROUNDED UP AND EXTERMINATED IN CONCENTRATION CAMPS,
under which was a picture of thousands of shoes, lying in a jumble. His stomach began to churn as he read about the mass killing of the owners of those shoes. Could this really be possible?
fun, Noah? How’s that for
?” Daniel Stultz shouted.
“I had no idea,” Noah whispered. He looked over at the others, Wiley and Bill and Cam and Roger. They wouldn’t meet his eyes, and he knew in that moment that they had known about these horrors.
“Yeah,” Daniel said, “it’s real fun trying to get you
to think of something besides yourselves.
hoping beyond hope that someone like you, Noah Garrett, can help me get back there and get my family out before they die like that” — he pointed to the article — “poisoned to death. So, yeah,” Daniel finished, “I’ve heard of fun. But right now, fun is something I can’t even
about until this war is over.”
Then Daniel Stultz turned and walked away.
No one said a word. One by one, the boys began to drift back to their barracks as snow began to fall. For a long, long time, Noah stared down at the gruesome newspaper picture in his hands.
oah could not concentrate at all the next day. He went through the motions, but his mind kept returning to that picture and the article. He didn’t know how to reconcile being a pacifist with the horrors of what was being done to others in Europe.
Several times, he didn’t place his piton the way Olaf had showed him, and he slid down the mountainside, scrambling wildly for a handhold.
“You are not using your head, Noah,” Olaf reprimanded him.
Noah nodded and pushed the thoughts of his argument with Daniel to the back of his mind. But the thoughts wouldn’t leave. Over and over, he kept hearing his parents saying, “Walk away, Noah,” or “Turn the other cheek, Noah.” And yet, there was that newspaper, and its horrible story and horrid picture. How could he not have known this was happening? And now what was he supposed to do about it?
“Concentrate. Concentrate,” Olaf yelled, staring up at him from the foot of the mountain. “You must be able to do this vhen the time comes!”
the time come? Noah wondered. Would he go to war? Shouldn’t
be doing something to help those people? Shouldn’t he? And yet the very idea of killing others, no matter the cause, sickened him and made him miss yet another step.
That night, he took his tray of food to a table away from Wiley and the others so he could be alone, but his uncle slid in next to him.
“I’ve had some time to think today, boy, after all that was said last night,” his uncle said. “I can end this now, if you want. I’ll go fess up to the general about your age. The truth will get you out of here and quick. It’s up to you.”
Noah looked at his uncle in surprise. He knew that if his uncle told the general the truth, James Shelley might be in trouble. Noah appreciated that his uncle was willing to risk that for him.
“I can promise you this, though,” his uncle continued. “If you stay, I won’t send you to war if you don’t want. I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen. And if you should change your mind about fighting …” His uncle shrugged. “You’ll have the training.”
“If I left, where would I go?” Noah asked.
“You’d be a ward of the state, Noah,” James Shelley answered, “at least until you’re of legal age. I ain’t got many friends outside of these guys here. And none of them would be willing to take on another mouth to feed.”
Noah stared down at his plate. He still didn’t know what the right thing to do was. But his uncle had promised not to
send him to war if he didn’t want to go. That, at least, had bought him some time to sort through these conflicting feelings he was having.
“I’ll stay,” Noah said.
His uncle let out his breath. “I’m glad.”
Then he stood. The military man in him was back. “Get some sleep tonight. Starting tomorrow, you’ll be joining the other boys for training. And we just got orders to head out at dawn for a three-week drill on Ptarmigan Peak. You’d best know, boy, this drill ain’t going to be easy.”
“I’ll be ready,” Noah told him, though his stomach suddenly felt queasy. Noah had seen Ptarmigan from the camp. He’d never been to the peak. The mountain wasn’t steep, but it was high. The climb would be long, and the air would be thin. The only good thing about this three-week test was that it would get them all out of latrine duty.
“I know you won’t let me down,” his uncle added before he turned and walked away.
Knowing what was to come, Noah forced himself to finish his meal, in spite of his sick stomach. He had learned in the last eight weeks of training how important food and sleep were. You took them when you had the chance. You made the most of them.
When he was finished eating, he went outside, ready to head back to the barracks to try and get a decent night’s sleep. But when he stepped outside the mess hall, he stopped.
The moon was rising, a full moon that lit up the mountains and made the night seem as clear and bright as day. The light
twinkled off the snow, tumbling down the steep slope. It made a sparkling path right to the snow at Noah’s feet.
Noah felt his heart lift at the sight. He was worried about tomorrow. He was unsure about
he would do. He was worried about the weeks to come. He was unsure about
he would do. But tonight, he could only see the beauty in front of him. He took a deep breath of the cold night air.
“You’ll never be able to leave them again.”
Noah turned to find Skeeter behind him. Skeeter grinned. “You’re catching the bug, son. Once those mountains are in your heart, they’re like a good woman — they’ll stay there forever.”
Noah looked back up at the mountains. He realized Skeeter was right. He was starting to love these mountains, in spite of the fact that he sometimes still longed for home and the heat and the tall grasses.
Skeeter pulled out a candy bar and ripped it open. He took a bite. “Shelley says you’re going on the drill tomorrow.”
“You nervous?” Skeeter asked.
“Yeah,” Noah admitted.
Skeeter nodded. “I was, too, my first time. I thought I was the only one who was scared, but the funny thing was, I wasn’t. Later, I found out that all the other recruits were just as nervous and scared as I was.”
Noah laughed a little.
Skeeter took another bite out of his candy bar, then wrapped up the paper and shoved it into his shirt pocket. “Yeah, war’s kind of like that, too. Everyone talks big. Everyone wants to go
over and whip those Germans and Japanese and set them straight. But down deep, they’re all scared. They’re scared of dying, and they’re scared of making someone else die. Sometimes, everyone wonders if what they’re doing is right.”
“Then how do you ever know, Skeeter?” Noah asked. “How do you know what’s right and wrong?”
Skeeter stamped his feet in the snow. “Well, for me, it’s like this. I stand out here, and I see those mountains. And I realize that I’m free to do whatever I want, to live a life as I choose. And I know that I can’t stand by and not let other people have that same freedom.”
Skeeter turned to look at Noah. “But it scares me just like everyone else, Noah. Some nights, it really shakes me up.”
He stretched and yawned. “Oh well, it’s a big day tomorrow. I’d better get some sleep.”
He patted Noah on the shoulder and turned to walk away.
Noah watched Skeeter, crunching along in the snow, his shoulders hunched against the cold. Then he turned back to the mountains and the moon. The bright light shook and shimmered as the wind sent the snow up in huge swirls of white. There was no other sound.
But for once, Noah didn’t feel alone. The mountains closed around him like old friends, and he felt comforted knowing that Skeeter was scared, too.