Playing with a short story concept here…
I know, I know, it’s NOT the western I’m supposed to be working on, but the muse is driving…
13 September 1943, Palermo, IT, US military replacement depot
A grizzled, frazzled sergeant stood in front of the assembled soldiers in the replacement soldiers. “When I call your name, report to me and I’ll give you your assignment. Do not waste my time asking for something other than what I give you.” He yawned and wearily flipped the first page of the clipboard over. “Abercrombie, Joeseph Edward, private.” A soldier stumbled forward, duffle bag over one shoulder, rifle over the other one. When he made it to front of the large warehouse the Army had taken over, the sergeant demanded, “Dog tag.” He nodded and said, “Eighty-second. Out the door to the left.”
Joe Curry, half Cherokee Indian, eighteen years old, small and wiry, sat on his duffle bag leaning back against the wall of the warehouse that smelled of the sea and the funk of too many men in too close spaces. The sergeant continued to drone down the list of names as Joe did the mantra his grandfather had taught him for calm, wondering where he would go. ‘This definitely isn’t Oklahoma, dummy, and I don’t think I better try to do anything over here, other than grandpa’s mantras.’ Everything he’d heard was that they were going directly into battle, replacing soldiers lost on the beachhead at Salerno. He finally heard the sergeant call, “Curry, James Joseph, private.”
He jumped up, swung his duffle bag over his shoulder and picked up his M-1 Garand, carrying it in a hunter’s carry. He popped to attention in front of the sergeant and said, “Curry, James Joseph.” Extending his dog tag, he could smell the booze and cigarettes on the sergeant’s breath and managed not to recoil.
“Where you from, Son,” the sergeant asked, picking up on his accent.
“Lawton, Oklahoma si…Sergeant!”
“You get along with Indians okay, Son?”
Joe grinned. “Yes, Sergeant. My best friend is a Kiowa.”
The sergeant chewed his lip for a second, then scratched something out on the clipboard. “Out and to the right, Son. You’re going to the Forty-Fifth. They’re from Oklahoma.”
“Thank you, Sergeant,” Joe said, tucking his dog tag back in his shirt. Hoisting his duffle bag, he walked easily out the door behind the sergeant and never heard the sergeant’s comment under his breath. “Son, I just hope to hell you survive.”
Seventy-two hours later, Joe was sharing a foxhole with a corporal named Andrew Little as they ducked machine gun fire. Andrew was cursing every time rounds spanged and whined off the rocks they had piled in front of the foxhole and would occasionally stick his rifle up and fire a few ineffectual rounds at the Germans.
Joe had been sitting quietly, only bobbing up once in a while and firing aimed shots when Andrew started to get up again. Joe grabbed his pack and yanked him down just as another round of bullets ricocheted off the rocks. Andrew snapped, “What the hell did you do that for?”
Joe smiled at him. “Because he was due to sweep back over us. Change places with me. I think…I might be able to get him.”
Andrew scoffed, “Sure, you’re a boot. I’ve been up through Sicily, but you know more than I do about combat. Go right ahead, Boot,” he said sarcastically, but he did squirm out of the way and Joe crawled over to the front of the foxhole, then shifted to the left side. Just as the bullets stopped hitting the rocks in front of him, he popped up and fired three times quickly, then dropped back in the foxhole cursing. “Missed the other loader.”
Andrew just looked at him. “You’re saying you got one of them?” Joe nodded and he continued, “How the hell?”
“Got two of the three. It’s a pattern. My grandpa taught me about patterns. Everything has a pattern. His was ten, maybe fifteen seconds. He’d sweep the front, and when he crossed us, four seconds later he went back the other way. That meant I had between six and ten seconds to get off a shot.” Joe grinned. “And it worked.” A fusillade of bullets hit the front and right side of the foxhole and Joe said, “Looks like the other gunner isn’t real happy with us right now.”
As darkness fell, Joe had managed to take out another set of loaders and another gunner. The word was passed to withdraw, and once it was fully dark, they eased out of the foxhole and back down the curve until they were out of range of the random firing. Staff Sergeant Kincaid, the squad leader, grabbed them as they got back to the muster point. “Good shooting, Andrew. You got a couple of them, but we’re still stuck. The old man is up at HQ trying to talk them out of doing a frontal assault at dawn.”
Andrew said softly in Cherokee, “I didn’t, the boot got them. He figured out…their pattern of fire. He probably saved my life, too.” Joe started to say something, but didn’t, not knowing if it would be smart to let them know he spoke Cherokee, especially since he was considered a half-breed since his dad was white. When Kincaid looked sharply at him, he managed a questioning look back.
Kincaid said, “Nice work, Boot.”
Joe nodded. “Thank you.”
The platoon commander, Lieutenant Brice walked out of the darkness. “Sergeant, squad leader meeting at the CP, now. Send runners to the other squads.”
“Yes, sir. Shoemaker, Macon, go roust out the other squad leaders.” Switching to Cherokee, he added, “Sergeant Craft, you’re in charge. Get ‘em fed and watered. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Craft nodded and said, “You heard the man. Little, take a couple of troops and get us some chow.”
An hour later, Joe had just finished policing up the area when SSGT Kincaid returned. “Gather round.” Once the squad was assembled, he said, “The One Fifty-Seventh will continue to be the point of the spear again tomorrow. We’re supposed to be moving up the road to get north of Salerno. Bravo company will continue to hold our positions tomorrow until Alpha can circle around this damn roadblock and get behind the Germans, forcing them to fall back. First platoon, second squad has security tonight, starting at twenty hundred. We’re supposed to man at least three foxholes spread out across the road and approaches. Two hour rotations. Three rounds rapid fire is the alert signal. Challenge is New York, response is Yankee.” He glanced at Joe. “Corporal Little, you get to pull the first watch with the boot to instruct him. If you feel he can handle it, he can pull his second shift by himself. Y’all are in the far left foxhole.”
Andrew nodded. “Grab your rifle, Boot. Let’s get out there.”
Joe’s third watch of the night started at four AM, and it was all he could do to stay awake. He hadn’t tried to do anything spiritual since he’d left Oklahoma, but he knew he had to do something, so he did the mantra his grandfather had taught him, slipping into the nether world between sleep and awake as he took on the masque of the Wolf totem. He saw his vision lose colors and the night receded. His other senses became sharper, especially the sense of smell and his hearing. What he couldn’t see was the shape of a wolf surrounding his body or the appearance of a wolf’s head covering his head.
He sniffed and smelled the soldier on guard in the next foxhole, almost fifty yards away. He sniffed again, and broke out the odors of gunsmoke, the latrine, and a faint smell of sausage coming from the north, along with the smell of the dead. He gazed back and forth over his assigned sector but didn’t see any movement. He went to move his M-1, but it felt as if he was trying to grip it without thumbs. He settled for sliding it over the lip of the foxhole, between two of the larger rocks.
An hour later, as he watched, he heard a tink of metal on a rock off to his left, turning and sniffing, he smelt a much stronger odor of sausage and some kind of tobacco smoke. He looked intently in that direction, a growl starting deep in his throat. He picked out three, no four Germans moving stealthily down the ditch beside the road, some kind of packs on their backs.
He knew he couldn’t shoot them because he couldn’t control the rifle, but he wondered if he could come far enough out of the spirit walk to still have the good vision. Then he saw a brighter patch just down the ditch from them and willed himself back to full consciousness. Slipping behind the M-1, he carefully sighted on the lighter patch of ground and waited.
A minute or so later, he saw one, then a second shadow cross the patch. Aiming low, he triggered off three quick rounds then heard running feet and fired a fourth round higher. The ditch lit up with a large explosion, temporarily blinding Joe and he felt something hit him in the cheek as he ducked down. The crackle of rifle fire echoed up and down the lines on both sides, with at least one of the German machine guns firing sporadic bursts.
Finally, SSGT Kincaid eeled his way into the foxhole after giving the appropriate countersign. “What the hell did you do, Curry?”
Joe’s ears were still ringing, but he replied, “I think I got two, maybe three Germans. I don’t know what happened, I shot a little high in case the fourth one was running—”
“Three? How the hell, are you telling me you can see in the dark?”
Joe pointed to the lighter patch in the ditch. “I saw something moving over there, and I knew it wasn’t one of our guys. So, I took a shot.”
“You took three shots, that was the alert signal. Now everybody is up and wanting to know what the hell is going on. You better hope you were right, Curry.” Kincaid crawled back out of the foxhole and disappeared toward the rear area, leaving Joe sitting there wondering if he’d said too much about his ability.
Rutherford slithered into the foxhole. “They want you back at the CP. Guess they’re sending out a patrol to see what you did or didn’t do.”
Joe crawled out of the foxhole without saying anything and jogged back to the CP, saluting when he saw Lieutenant Martin, the platoon commander, standing there impatiently. “Private Curry reporting as ordered, sir!”
“Now that you’ve deigned to join us, lead the way to whatever the hell that was that you started this morning, Private.”
Joe gulped. “Yes, sir.” He almost saluted but remembered the instructions not to on the line. “I think we should go around to the left of the foxhole I was in, Sir.” The lieutenant made a shooing motion and Joe turned and led them past the foxhole after Rutherford challenged them. Joe realized he’d forgotten to challenge Rutherford and figured he’d hear about that later.
Fifteen minutes later, they stood over the bodies of three Germans, all shot through the body and a smoking hole in the ground with a boot still standing up in it. All three of the bodies had packs and the lieutenant whispered, “Get their packs. We’ll take them back and see if they have anything in them intel might be interested in.” He peered back toward the line of foxholes, then added, “That’s a helluva set of shots in the dark there, Private.”
Joe was wrestling one of the packs off as two troops from second squad got the other two. “I took…I took a chance, Lieutenant. I saw movement over this lighter patch.”
A German machine gun started stuttering and everyone ducked. “Back to the lines, no lights. Lead on, Private.”
A bald headed major stood at the entrance to the CP as they walked in. “What ya got, Lieutenant Martin?”
“Four dead Germans. Brought their packs back.”
“Let’s seen what they have, shall we?” The major turned to Curry and the others, “Bring them in here.”
Joe stepped in and took the pack off. As he did so, the major stopped him under the light, then turned and yelled, “Medic up!” He pushed Joe toward a folding chair and said, “Sit down, Son. Let’s get the medic to look at you.”
Joe realized his cheek was still hurting and he started to reach up and scratch it, when the Major grabbed his hand. The medic came in, took one look at Joe, and whistled. “You got lucky, Private. Another inch higher and you’d have lost the eye.” He reached up and tugged on Joe’s cheek, then held up an inch long piece of metal. “Want a souvenir to go with your purple heart?” Joe held out his hand and the medic dropped it to him. “Now this might sting a bit.” Whatever he swabbed the wound with definitely hurt and Joe’s eyes started watering.
Suddenly they heard the major exclaim, “Holy crap! This pack is full of potato mashers! Be careful with those others. I think we know what the explosion was now. Damn!” The medic led Joe out of the CP before he heard anything else.
Comments? Recommendations? Shut up and go away???