They went on anyway, putting one foot in front of the other, holding their carbines barrel down to keep the water out, trying, in their misery and confusion--and their exhaustion--to remain watchful. This was the fourth straight day of rain--a windless, freezing downpour without any slight variation of itself. Rivulets of ice formed in the muck of the road and made the walking treacherous. The muscles of their legs burned and shuddered, and none of them could get enough air. Robert Marson thought about how they were all witnesses. And nobody could look anybody in the eye. They kept on, and were punished as they went. Ice glazed their helmets, stuck to the collars of their field jackets, and the rain got in everywhere, soaking them to the bone. They were somewhere near Cassino, but it was hard to believe it was even Italy anymore. They had stumbled blind into some province of drenching cold, a berg of death. Everything was in question now.
The Italians were done, and the Germans were retreating, engaging in delaying actions, giving way slowly, skirmishing, seeking to make every inch of ground costly in time and in blood, and there were reconnaissance patrols all along the front, pushing north, heading into the uncertainty of where the Germans might be running, or waiting.
Marson, sick to his soul, barely matched the pace of the two men just in front of him, who were new. Their names were Lockhart and McCaig, and they themselves were lagging behind four others: Troutman, Asch, Joyner, and Sergeant Glick. Seven men. Six witnesses.
The orders had been to keep going until you found the enemy. Then you were supposed to make your way back, preferably without having been seen. But the enemy had the same kinds of patrols, and so recon also meant going forward until you were fired upon. Worse, this was a foot patrol. If you ran into anything serious, there wouldn't be any jeeps to ride out, nor tanks to help you. You were alone in the waste of the war.
And there were only the seven of them now.
Twelve men had left one tank battalion the first day, crossed country, and then slept under the tanks of another on the second, all in the changeless fall of the rain. McConnell, Padruc, and Bailey came down with the dysentery and had to be taken back to Naples. So the patrol left that camp with nine men.
Walberg and Hopewell were killed yesterday.
Yesterday, a farmer's cart full of wet straw had come straggling along the road being pulled by a donkey and driven by two Italian boys--gypsies, really--who looked like sopping girls, their long, black, soaked hair framing their faces, their wet cloaks hiding their bodies. Sergeant Glick waved them away, and they melted into the glazed second growth beside the road. Then he ordered that the cart be overturned in order to look for weapons or contraband. Troutman and Asch accomplished this, and as the waterlogged, mud-darkened straw collapsed from the bed of the cart, a Kraut officer and a whore tumbled out, cursing. The Kraut shot Walberg and Hopewell with his black Luger before Corporal Marson put him down. The whore, soggy and dirty and ill looking, wearing another officer's tunic over a brown skirt, spoke only German, and she shouted more curses at them, gesticulating and trying to hit at McCaig and Joyner, who held her. Sergeant Glick looked at Hopewell and Walberg, ascertained that they were dead, then walked over, put the end of his carbine at her forehead, and fired. The shot stopped the sound of her. She fell back into the tall wet stalks of grass by the side of the road, so that only her lower legs and her feet showed. She went over backward; the legs came up and then dropped with a thud into the sudden silence. Marson, who had been looking at the Kraut he shot, heard the fourth shot and turned to see this. And he saw the curve of her calves, the feet in a man's boots where they jutted from the grass. For a few seconds, no one said anything. They all stood silent and did not look at one another, or at Glick, and the only sound was the rain.
"She was with him. She'd've shot us all if she could," Glick said. No one answered him. Marson had shot the Kraut, and he was having trouble with that, and here were the woman's legs stuck out of the grass next to the road. The curve of the calves was that of a young woman. "This is all one thing," Glick said, loud. It was as if he were talking to the earth and sky. The others knew he meant that the woman had been a reaction, two men killed like that--shot, both of them, through the heart--completely unready for it, though Glick had repeatedly told them and they all knew that they should be ready, every second, for just this. This. Walberg and Hopewell, two boys. Hopewell had just been talking about being at a restaurant in Miami Beach, eating Dungeness crabs, how much he wished he were there right now; and Walberg, quiet Walberg, only this morning had been going on about his father, who was a hero to him, and the others had been embarrassed hearing him describe the old man, because of the childlike devotion in it, the hero worship. "Grow up, Walberg," Asch had said once. And Walberg had grown up to this, lying by the side of a road somewhere near Cassino, with an expression on his face of mild surprise. Hopewell's eyes were closed. He looked like he was asleep.
And they had all been warned to be ready, every second.
But it had been so cold, and the rain kept coming down on them. They had got numb, maybe even drowsy--the drowse before you lie down and freeze to death. And they couldn't really look at one another now, and still nobody looked at Glick.
Because this was a recon squad--and because the Germans had taken over everything, the war and the retreat and the defense of Italy, and could be close--they had to leave Walberg and Hopewell beside the road and move on, away from the scene, while light left the low, charred-looking folds of the sky. Troutman had radioed back.
There had followed an abysmal long night without any respite from the cold and the rain. Through it all, nobody spoke of what had taken place back down the road. But Corporal Marson kept feeling the sickness. It was as if something in him had been leveled, and the simplest memories of himself as he had always been were beside the point. He was devout, because his people were devout, and because it was a strength, and he kept trying to pray, kept saying the words in his mind. All for thee, most sacred heart of Jesus
. An offering, as he had been taught. Expiation for his sins, for everything he had ever done that was wrong. It meant nothing, now. At times he would speak directly to God in his mind, like a man talking to another man--except that it was somehow more than one other man or, really, one god; it was something nameless and immense beyond the raining sky: Let me get through this, help me find forgiveness, and I'll raise a big family
. He had a daughter back home, a thirteen-month-old girl whom he had yet to see in person. Her photograph was tucked away under his shirt, in a flat cigarette tin.
He could not let himself think very much at all. The others were quiet, sullen, isolated. And yet after the misery of the fitful night, they seemed to have put it in its place. It was the war; it was what they had been through. They had lived with confusion for so long. Nobody said anything about it.
They just slogged on, always north. And the sickness kept coming over Marson in waves. He had been on the beachhead at Salerno. His company had been pinned down in a harrowing span of hours leading into days, and he had lived through the panic when all along the line men believed that the enemy had infiltrated the ranks, and they froze on their weapons and shot members of their own outfit who had gone beyond them. He had fired mortar rounds into the roil and tumult of the fortifications beyond the beach, had been in the fighting all the way to Persano and the Sele River, and he knew intellectually that he had certainly killed several men.
He had seen so much death, and the dead no longer caused quite the same shock. Not even poor Walberg and Hopewell. He had experienced that kind of sudden stop before now. But he hadn't, himself, until yesterday, killed anyone up close. The Kraut had a big round boy's face and bright red hair, and the bullet had gone into him just above the breastbone and exited with a blast of blood and flesh out the back of his neck, on into the distance behind him. He coughed bright blood mixed with something he must've had to eat, looking right at Corporal Marson with an expression terrifyingly like wonder, while the light or the animation or whatever it was left his green eyes, and the eyes started to reflect the raining sky, the clear, icy water gathering in them and running down the white face.
Sunny italy, John Glick had been calling it, spitting the words out, the standard joke in the lines. He was from New York and had worked as a longshoreman for a year out of high school, and you could hear it in his voice.
Four straight days of rain. It felt like the end of the world, the North Atlantic had gone up into the sky and traveled south and was coming down with temperatures wavering at the freezing point.
At early dusk today, another tank battalion caught up with them. They got under the tanks and ate rations, coughing and sputtering. Glick went a few paces down the row of tanks and half-tracks and reported about Walberg and Hopewell, the Kraut and the woman. Corporal Marson heard him say that she had been killed in the cross fire. He saw Joyner hear it, too, and Joyner looked at him, but then looked away. Nobody else in this battalion had run into any action yesterday, though Marson, crossing to the far side of the range of tanks and other equipment, encountered a soldier they had all talked to several days before, and he was sitting in the back of a jeep, holding his hand and crying. The hand had been burned badly; it was black and two of the fingers looked like charred twigs, and it was shaking as with a palsy. The soldier kept staring at it, crying like a little kid. No one could talk to him.
Marson gave forth a little sobbing breath, and turned away.
It was for what was called his steadiness on the beachhead at Salerno that he was given a field promotion to corporal. The promoting officer used the word. Marson's company had been held down by machine-gun fire, and he had bolted forward to a shell crater in the sand and then lobbed grenades at the emplacement. Others had followed him, and the enemy had withdrawn, abandoning their own machine gun. There had been no time to think and the memory of it was that it was like trying to stop a leak in a seawall, shouting all the time. Marson had felt no steadiness, but only the sense of trying very hard not to die, and the frozen conviction at his middle that he would not survive the next minute. He was older than most of these boys, twenty-six. It astonished him that most of them felt that they could not die. Even seeing death on the beach at Salerno.
Now he and Joyner sat in a mired jeep briefly to get out of the rain. They did not particularly like each other. There had been tension between them before. Joyner had a set of attitudes about Negroes, Jews, and Catholics, and his assertions, along with the obscenity of his speech in general, had an unpleasant air of authority about them, as if he had done serious study and come to serious conclusions. But all came from ignorance and bigotry. Joyner, apparently sensing the effect on Marson, claimed he was joking. But for Marson the jokes were seldom very clever, or very funny, and it was unnerving. The fact was that he had, to his great discomfort, discerned the thinnest echo of his own casually held assumptions in the other man's talk. And so he had worked to keep a distance.
He had seen the look Joyner gave him when Sergeant Glick spoke of the whore's death. So, sitting behind the driver's wheel of the jeep, he had the sense that he ought to see if Joyner, given the chance, might say something. Except that he was too honest with himself to believe this was the only motive: the truth was that he wanted to learn what all the others felt. He was too muddled and tired to think clearly enough. But he wanted to know.
Joyner did not disappoint him. Watching him light a cigarette and blow the smoke, he muttered: "Some cross fire, huh?"
Marson looked over at him and then looked away. It came to him in a rush that he did not want to talk about it with Joyner. Not with him.
"Cross fire like that and you don't need a fuck'n firing squad," Joyner went on, smiling, spitting from between his teeth, a habit he had. He was tall and narrow eyed, with a long nose and big, wide-fingered hands that always shook. He had once talked of how it was a problem lighting a lady's cigarette. And he had sworn it wasn't nerves. He had a recurring itch on his left forearm. That, he said, was
nerves, since he'd never had anything like it until the war. It was always there, since Sicily, and he was always having to dig at it.
They sat together in the front seat of the jeep, which was up to its axle in the mud of the road and was therefore out of the war for now. They did not quite look at each other. Corporal Marson drew on the cigarette.
"I thought Salerno was fucked up," Joyner said, scratching the place on his forearm.
At Salerno, he had been entrenched with several others near a crippled LCI that was rolling back and forth in the heavy waves behind them. There was the loud pinging of bullets hitting the metal of the LCI, and Joyner kept up a stream of obscenities.
Copyright © 2008 by Richard Bausch. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.