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Rated: 18+ · Short Story · History · #1553061
Youth is lost forever as WWII trainees break their maidens as "Men o' War" on D-Day
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         Twenty-three days have passed since we stormed Omaha Beach, three weeks of rigorous combat before finally relieved. Transports were squealing to a halt within a regimental command post set up in Ste-Laurent, a coastal village we helped liberate during opening days of the invasion. Woofie is first to spring from the truck, no doubt his 6’-6” body is screaming for nourishment. I have to grin at the big lummox; his charge toward chow lines is on par with the one he made taking out a fortified pillbox. God pity any mess cook who tries denying him extra portions.

         Can't blame him, though; we're all famished and sick of skimpy field rations. Exhausted, the men begin dropping wherever they find space within the crumbled remains of a small shop complex in the village center. Our duffel bags had been shipped across the Channel and were here waiting for us, though several will go unclaimed. Many are already rifling through them, putting a hot shower and clean clothes ahead of real grub. Reeking of grime, sweat, and plagued by diarrhea, they’re eager to be rid of raunchy uniforms.

         They're also delirious with anticipation of much deserved R & R. Word from HQ has it we’ll be in Ste-Laurent for only a couple days. Some fear if passing out now, they’ll miss the shuttle to England, even if scheduled two days hence. As for me, I’m feeling nauseous and running a fever from a festering bullet wound crippling my left hand, but decide to put off seeing the docs until after a debriefing I expect at any time. A field medic said I needed one of the Army's new intravenous penicillin drips, but I’d gladly swap it for shut-eye. Sleep is next to impossible on the battlefield. There were times I’d have traded my soul for a single one-hour nap.

         “Ten-hut!” Bodies jump to attention as a Colonel enters the room.

         “At ease, gentlemen. Which of you is Zecca, Vincent?”

         “Here, sir.” I must smell like a gorilla’s behind, but try smoothing my dirt-encrusted beard to appear at least somewhat presentable.

         “I’m Colonel Flanary, Astor Flanary.”

         The Colonel ignores my slovenly appearance, but does order me to remove the disgusting bandage covering my hand. Two knuckles are broken and the hand is bloated to twice normal size. I wince as he gently eases the rotation to better study the damage, wrinkling his nose at the foul-smelling pus oozing from the fetid hole.

         “Jesus, this is nasty. I think you have blood poisoning, son. As soon as we’re through, you get that seen to, and I do mean pronto, lieutenant.”

         “Sergeant, sir,” I said while gingerly re-wrapping my hand.

         “No, I had it right the first time. You’re a lieutenant now and I’d consider it an honor if you’d allow me to pin your insignia at my command post when you’re in better shape.”

         “Yes, sir.” I salute, respectful of the ceremonious gesture.

         Colonel Flanary faced the troops. “Men, I know you’re anxious to shower and get a hot meal, so I won’t keep you. But for now, I wanted to personally greet your arrival and see to your needs. My command is extremely proud of this outfit. You did one hell of a job and I assure you such exploits have gone all the way up to Ike himself. Thanks to such unparalleled courage and tenacity of soldiers like you, we have the Jerries on the run.” Colonel Flanary’s sincere morale boost is met with cheers and a few handshakes.

         “As for you, lieutenant, a debriefing can wait. I’ll check back after you’ve seen to that wound. Until then, I’ll leave these with you,” and again glancing at my hand, motions his aide to pass mail pouches and a parcel of merit citations to Pvt. Presto standing next to me.

         “Uh, there's one more thing,” the Colonel said, retrieving a single envelope and two cigars from a breast pocket. “Captain Fairchild asked me to deliver this letter to you personally; said it was his way of assuring I’d find you, uh— let’s just say in good form. And which of your men is Mosconi, the one they call ‘the lucky one?’”

         I point to Tony and the Colonel hands him the cigars. Colonel Flanary grins at Tony’s quizzical expression. “Chase said these are for you, to celebrate your 'gettin' lucky' in love. It seems word from Army censors is there's a gal in New York looking to get in touch; claims you’re going to be a Da-a-a-a-dy,” he teased, mimicking a bleating ewe. “Chase said you’d understand.”

         “Hey, Tony! I betcha them sheep ain’t the only one’s ‘noivous’ now,” someone razzes, aping Tony's heavy Jersey accent.

         Tony ignores scattered sniggers and accepts the cigars with silence.

         “That’s it for now, gentlemen. Showers and hot meals are ready when you are. Then you're to get some rest and plenty of it. My staff has orders to see to your every need or they’ll have hell to pay. So speak up. I’ll let you know when you’re to depart for England.”

         Before leaving, Colonel Flanary faces me, his expression stern. “I’ll give you a moment to unwind with your men, Zecca, but you’d better be in medical within the hour. One hour; no longer. And that’s an order, lieutenant. Are we clear on that?”

         “Yes, sir.”

         “Good. As you were, gentlemen.” The Colonel flashes a casual salute and abruptly leaves.

         Presto immediately begins passing out mail as I lean back against my elbows propped atop a wall shelf and close my eyes. Ah, dear old England in two days.

         I envision stretching out in a lush English meadow, basking beneath a warm summer sun. On a nearby hillside, sheep are grazing between fields of dense yellow rape flowers. In the distance, I can see gingerbread cottages lining the streets of a village. Shopkeepers are chatting with townsfolk as rosy-cheeked youngsters munch on Hershey treats we’ve left behind. Things are sure different here in Normandy, I sighed.

         Serene daydreams of England vanish, replaced by disparaging images of once-thriving French towns reduced to smoldering ruins; acres of rich farmland strewn with the bloated bodies of soldiers and farm animals rotting among the twisted remains of war machinery. Town after town, we encountered tattered elderly and orphaned children, many of them homeless and living like field mice within the ruins, their only meal a scavenged potato or K-rations pilfered from the dead.

         Besieged villagers may have greeted us with joy, but as corks popped from bottles of champagne or Normandy's more potent calvados, they were bittersweet celebrations when toasting gaunt and forlorn faces numbed from four years of Nazi occupation.

         I suppose D-Day means we’ll be memorialized as liberators, the redemption of a Nazi-free Europe. Perhaps for my English cousins the invasion will mean vengeance for the Blitzkrieg and memories like Dunkirk; or maybe help erase the hapless political decisions and blind apathy that led to such atrocities in the first place. But for me, it was more of a personal payback.

         I’ll never forget my first night bivouacked in England. Air-raid sirens not only woke me from a sound sleep, but to the stark realities of war. All the while I was peeking through blackout curtains, I realized just how naive and complacent people were in the States. I was incensed with rage. My eyes remained fixed on the glowing horizon as tons of German bombs rained down on ill-fated civilians, many trapped beneath burning rubble as each explosive whumph was close enough to rattle my window.

         To the folks back home, it was a distant war— a foreigner's problem. They have no idea what it's like here. Aside from rationing, they have been spared the horrors of what Europeans have been going through for five years. Americans have enjoyed civil stability and couldn’t begin to fathom having their homes invaded, their neighborhoods shelled or of pleading for the life of a loved one about to be shot in the head by a smug, luger-wielding executioner.

         Fate? Yes, she can be quite the temperamental wench anytime she pleases. I thought of the landings, and of how such an improbable task of planning and logistical nightmares were kept secret for so long... only to have the invasion teeter on the brink of disaster after a freakish mother nature nearly scuttled the biggest armada in history.

         Severe weather forced the first invasion fleet to turn back. A British Coxswain said it was the roughest channel he’d seen in over twenty years at sea. We got underway the following day, but poor weather and faulty planning still caused massive losses of critical support armor, supplies— and lives. I saw fully-manned landing crafts capsize a mile from shore. The sorry s.o.b.'s who did manage to pop to the surface were passed by, their pitiful outstretched arms and desperate yells ignored when left to drown like jettisoned vermin.

         We were part of a second assault wave steering toward assigned sectors on Omaha; thirty trembling greenhorns huddled together in a small LCA, fighting sea sickness and abject fear knowing that ramp was about to drop and expose us to our own fates.

         Previous landings along the five-mile strand ran headlong into fierce resistance. Obscured by haze and thick acrid smoke, our skipper turned the craft parallel to the shoreline and cruised for several hundred yards, looking for a gap between mined obstacles. He finally eyed a suitable spot, but a much larger seagoing LCI cut us off, heading for the same opening. We were closer, but our CO ordered the skipper to throttle back.

         ‘Let ‘em go!’ Lt. C.B. Estes yelled, ‘but cruise up tight on her ass and wait ‘til she’s about to lower her ramps, then gun your engines and peel away from her flank as fast as you can.’

         The moment that LCI hit the beach, artillery and mortars opened up. We watched in horror as pinpointed shelling exploded among the wading men. Three more direct hits disintegrated the LCI’s bow and mid-sections. Two-hundred men lost in the blink of an eye. We never saw any of those poor bastards again. Under C.B.’s instinctive leadership, he kept his wits about him when others hadn’t. He used the LCI as a shield, its 20mm cannons drawing fire so we could make it to the beach intact.

         Dozens of landing crafts, field artillery, and tanks were sunk or burning. The beaches were awash in the blood and bodies of dead and terribly wounded, many writhing in agony as we scurried past. The number of casualties was appalling.

         We lost about a third of our company during the first forty-eight hours. It was a sickening, grotesque carnage I could not have imagined. I saw boots with partial legs still in them, organs and lengths of intestines hanging from obstacles. Big strapping men near Woofie’s size were so terror-stricken, they were leaning against sandy berms, unable to move, convulsing and crying open-mouthed like month-old babies.

         Enough already, and scrunch my eyes to squelch such horrid thoughts while opening Chase’s letter, our former squad leader now assigned to Bradley's staff in England. Only a few words into it, my heart begins pounding. I can’t believe what I’m reading; my eyes fighting back tears.

         “Men! Listen up! I have great news about Little Mackie— he’s alive!” Ah, for the wondrous resilience of youth, and continue reading Chase’s letter aloud.

         “Chase says: ‘I’ve been checking in on him. The docs say he’s still in guarded condition, but is going to make it. My CO had relayed Kirk’s radio message that Mac was on his way in, but warned to expect him DOA. I took leave and met them anyway. When he arrived, doctors were flabbergasted and said the field medics should be given a medal just for keeping him alive. Except for the weakest pulse, Little Mac was all but dead. Then, the strangest thing happened, Zeck— as if a miracle. When I held his hand on the way to OR, he could barely open his eyes but seemed to recognize me. Though faint, he managed that silly impish grin of his. I couldn't help myself, Zeck; it brought me to tears.

         “‘After several operations and a blood transfusion, he’s propped up in bed with the Medal of Honor pinned to his pajamas by Bradley himself. It appears he’s regained enough of his old spunk to keep the nurses in stitches, too. In fact, I think he’s in love. I’m told the wily rascal has a lovely British nurse fussing over him every day. She’s a tiny, but frisky little blonde with an unusual first name of “Sterling”. He’s always joking with everyone in the ward. He says: ‘pound for pound, Sterling’s a keeper, and ya can take that to the bank.’”

         “Hallelujah!” and “God bless our Little Mackie,” spout the men, aware many of us owe our lives to the pint-sized Scotsman.

         I decided to finish Chase's letter alone so the men could get back to their own mail as Chase continues: ‘I got more good news and some bad. First the bad— Pensive failed to take the Triple Crown. He cost me a C-note on the Belmont, but the good news is, you boys weren’t here this time or you’d have kissed your money goodbye, too. Yes, our sure-thing got beat a half-length by a long-shot called, Bounding Home.

         ‘And talk about long-shots, Zeck, this will floor you. A small horse called Bull Dandy ran third at a whopping 120-to-1. He was a pure-ass sprinter who defied all reason he was even entered in the race. But when that gate opened, turf writers said he ran like a horse possessed... "the little horse with the biggest of hearts," they said. Can you believe it? Well, so long for now and take care of yourself, buddy. Regards, Chase.’

         Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. Bounding Home takes the Belmont— and Little Mac’s Bull Dandy running right behind to take third at over 100-to-1? Jesus, what were the chances!

         Chase did say crazy things could happen in horse racing, but this was beyond crazy— more like supernatural. A bunch of us were drinking at the Red Lion the night we learned the invasion was on, a good time to get to know the squad's two new guys while talking up the weekend's Triple Crown. Presto’s sobering words still haunt me: ‘think of it, fellas,' he said. 'Man O' War broke his maiden in his first start... and on June 6th. Looks like we're gonna do the same, you know, become men o’ war in our first mission where we'll leave our youth behind forever.’

         I also remember the fun. We made Frazer banker as everybody tossed five quid into a blind betting pool and picked horses from my cap. Little Mac caught Bull Dandy, the longest shot in the field. Everyone needled the little rascal, especially Tony who goaded him into making a side bet against Tony's Bounding Home, also another wannabe at 30-to-1. 'I ain't worried, chump,' Tony boasted. 'Ain't no way your Mac-a-Doodle-Dandy will get the mile and half. The war will be over by the time that bum comes ploddin' home, his tongue draggin' in the doit.'

         Taunts and bantering aside, there was no doubt in my mind each of us had silently identified with our equine counterparts— young trainees, our bodies hardened, and our psyche abuzz with naive, but bated confidence. Perhaps even a tad envious of Frazer who flaunted his coveted Pensive— the sure thing, all were convinced. We may have had the glint of battle in our eyes, but I guarantee each of us were troubled, our minds secretly calculating what our own odds were of finishing, let alone of hitting the board when that LC gate busts open on Little Mac's: 'beaches of Belmont over yonder,' boasting that all the rest of us would see would be his ass and elbows sprinting like Bull Dandy across the sand. And wouldn't y'know it I reflected; Tony's 'Bounding Home' wins it with Little Mac's impossible dream only two lengths behind.

         I glance at Tony, now sprawled on his back, his head atop a helmet and sucking on a cigar while reading his mail. A sudden spike of dizziness tests my balance. The nausea seems to be getting worse, forcing me to plop my butt down against the wall. Leaning back, I closed my eyes and resumed thoughts of Chase’s comments.

         Kiss our money goodbye, you said? If you only knew, Chase; if you only knew. We lost a hell of a lot more than a bundle bet on Pensive, my friend— all of it wrapped in Army drab.

         Tears slip from beneath my eyelids, this time fighting gruesome images of Frazer’s head, an arm, and chunks of bloodied uniform scattered everywhere. The poor soul never heard the fluttering sound of a mortar that followed him into an old shell hole. In retrospect, maybe it was best he held our betting pool— a little bit of us all to remain forever at his side.

         All Frazer ever wanted was to entertain, to make people happy with his extraordinary talents. Courtesy of Ann Miller, a Cinderella promise awaited him in Hollywood… a chance to fulfill dreams of a better life for his family, let alone vindicate his mother's sacrifices. Their only testament now? A gold star pinned to a flag in some rundown row-house in Philly. I can picture his wife with their newborn in her arms, the doorbell rings, and the dreaded telegram is placed into a trembling, denying hand.

         I notice Presto approaching, interrupting thoughts as I hurriedly smudge embarrassing tears from my cheeks. He hands me two letters from home and a third from Tony's sister, Alessa. My heart swells.

         Letters from home are more than news; more like medicine to help erase the insanity of war. Yet mail can also be a double-edged sword— death letters we call them in the field. I’ve seen ‘Dear John’ letters tear the heart out of the toughest men in the Army, even endanger lives of buddies if crucial focus is torn from anything but the task at hand.

         I’m dying to know what the raven-haired beauty has to say, but decide to read it later, after I've seen the Docs. I again glance at Tony. I can’t imagine if losing him, of failing my promise to Alessa that I'd watch over him; to keep him safe. There’s no denying it; I love my Tony— my surrogate little brother, my best friend.

         My emotions soar. For the first time since Picauville, he’s grinning. I’ve been really worried about him. He’s been distant and listless; a sullen soul far removed from the glib 'Joisey' devil I’m so fond of. Though Mac earned the Medal of Honor that day, Tony is unaware I’m holding a Silver Star and Purple Heart for him. I’ve heard it said: ‘hell knows no fury like a woman scorned,’ but I beg to differ after witnessing a personal rage I’d never thought possible in human beings.

         After crossing the Elle River, we approached a tiny village with few buildings. Normally, we could have walked through town in minutes, but a pocket of Germans waiting in ambush pinned us down. We had little or no cover and only the river to our backs.

         Little Mac was at the point and had been hit. Though seriously wounded, he refused evacuation and waved us back. Firing his machine gun, he single handedly repelled more than one assault, giving us a chance to seek cover and regroup.

         During a brief lull, Mac spotted a downed man exposed to sniper fire. Mac crawled to his aid and while fending off yet another assault, he managed to apply a tourniquet and morphine, saving the soldier’s life. Weak from loss of blood, he struggled with dragging a man twice his size to safety when two German riflemen deliberately took aim at a wounded man, shooting Mac twice more in the lower back. We watched with horror as the little guy’s body snapped from the impact, his face twisted with agony as he fell limply into the dirt
         Tony exploded with satanic fury. He rushed the Krauts, darting from building to building, dodging bullets while tossing grenades into windows, blazing his BAR at anything that moved. I had been shot in the hand and could only use my .45, but followed Presto to mop up after Tony’s onslaught. Unfeeling, and at point blank, I plugged every son-of-a-bitch I found still alive.

         Giltner’s bazooka first silenced snipers firing from the church steeple. Under covering fire from the rest of us, he then angled across the street and scored a bull’s-eye on the light machine gun Tony was charging, killing all except for two riflemen who had turned and fled. But the enraged Tony never stopped.

         Despite the Browning's heavy weight and driven by a demonic fury, Tony ran an all out sprint until he caught the fleeing bastards who had shot Mac, cutting them in half before they could even think surrender. He stood over their bodies, wild-eyed and uttering only guttural sounds through clenched teeth like a crazed fiend from hell. Moments later, he walked away without a word.

         After making sure Mac and the other wounded were evacuated, I spotted Tony sitting on a chunk of concrete, shivering as if he were squatting in an icebox. I knelt beside him and tried talking to him, but nothing I said seemed to register, so I only held him until he stopped shaking.

         I noticed a sleeve and both pant legs were perforated, but his only injuries were a superficial graze to his neck and a deep open gash where a bullet had torn through his forearm. Still silent and emotionless, he never winced as I gently cleansed his wounds and applied sulfa powder and bandages. I passed my hand before his eyes, but they were blank, his stare fixed on the horizon. I didn’t know where in his mind he’d disappeared to, but thought it best to leave him there.

         Until seeing his grin now, Tony had been different ever since, barely saying two words to anyone. He’d withdrawn into a lifeless humanoid possessed by a frenzied hatred for Germans. He’s not alone. Many of the men seem driven beyond emotion, reduced to a bevy of blank faces with sunken eyes drained of every ounce of human spirit. They’re my responsibility now— my men ever since C.B. was killed.

         His death was a terrible shock. Fear and confusion were hard to overcome, but I kept true to my promise and picked up the baton, somehow managing to maintain cohesion when recalling the value Cy had placed on good COs. I prayed to be at least half as good as C.B. had been for us.

         And what a godsend you turned out to be, Cyrus Clemens. I can still picture that old geezer sitting on his favorite bar stool at Doogan's, stuck on yet another crossword while mumbling to a mute Murphy, the bartender, with no idea how many lives are in his debt. I learned more from him in that morgue-of-a-bar than from any lectures proffered by puffed-up peacocks from West Point. Cy's WWI exploits taught me to pay keen attention to physical clues in the battlefield, like the differences in tracks made by local farm machinery versus military.

         Heavy rains prior to the landings had softened the ground. It was dusk as we crept along hedgerows near the coastal village of Colleville when I spotted a number of broken branch ends, trodden grass clumps, and an odd width of wheel tracks running parallel to old wagon ruts.

         I showed C.B. and we followed until they veered off across a small paddock and into a dense grove of apple trees. C.B. motioned for us to fall back and to lay rock-still under bushy cover until after dark. We welcomed the rest until well into the gloom of night when C.B ordered Kirk to radio for a rolling barrage of huge fourteen-inch naval guns.

         We were lucky to have Kirk. Aside from his talents, I admired his guts and unfailing stamina for keeping up with seventy pounds of radio equipment strapped to his body. To the enemy, radiomen with their give-away antennae meant 'officers attached,' prime targets for concentrated machine gun and mortar fire.

         Kirk’s radioed coordinates were brilliant. C.B. had us following artillery salvos so close I could feel the heat flashes from shell bursts silhouetting our movement. We scurried across the glade and found a battery of nine murderous 88s unattended under camouflage. As the Jerries cowered pending a cease fire, we slipped in and planted noiseless thermite grenades, welding breech and traverse mechanisms useless. We got out undetected, but C.B. saved his best ‘Kilroy-was-here’ kiss for last.

         He had Kirk radio a cease fire, but told the Navy to stand by with precise coordinates. We dug in, counting the minutes. When C.B. figured the Krauts were convinced the shelling had stopped and emerged to check on their precious 88s, he ordered the Navy to ‘light ‘em up’, we picking off stragglers trying to flee.

         During the remaining hours of darkness, we hunkered down along a hedgerow to resume much needed rest. The bombardment had ceased, but to say it had been a quiet night would have been to ignore the relentless moans from German casualties begging for relief that never came. Destroying unmanned artillery was one thing, but taking out a heavily fortified pillbox was yet another, the one earning C.B. a posthumous DSC.

         Driven by pure guts and his cool and collected calm during the heat of battle, C.B. led our human mule, Woofie, and four others hefting fifty-pound beehive charges and gallons of gasoline up an embankment while under fire. After setting the fuses against the bunker, C.B. braced to cover his men until they could scramble to safety. It was then he caught a machine gun burst in the face. Moments later, the pillbox went up like Mt. Etna. After the flames had dissipated, it was charred but still intact with no sign of damage to the concrete.

         We cursed failure, but Woofie was manic seeing C.B.’s headless body in the distance. He chanced a second run at it alone, spraying the structure with machine gun fire, but received none in return. We followed, and after Giltner blasted an opening, we encountered an entire German squad inside, twenty-three men literally cooked to death. Recalling the ghastly scene, the stench of burned and twisted bodies with eyes and mouths locked in silent screams is making me gag— just like Cy said it would.

         Words? Mere words for your puzzles, Cy. Oh, you tried my grizzled friend, but there are no words to prepare a soldier for what I’ve witnessed. Cold, unfeeling words can be erased, but I’ll never forget the vile coating war leaves on the palate after a blazing sun has begun its work on bodies left to rot like road kills.

         Glory? Victory? Ha, more empty words. We never felt any sense of glory or emotional rush of victory. Not even remorse, only numbed indifference weaving our way through dying men crying for their mothers. Nothing ahead except more of the same.

         Words, you say? How does one describe the insanity— of what it’s like to crawl over a dying human, of feeling his breath feather your cheek while ignoring futile pleas as he holds his innards in blood-soaked hands trying to keep his organs from slopping into the dirt?

         Can simple words convey the heart-stopping jolt of a bullet pinging the side of a helmet, a short head-bob from going through an eye? What words could possibly relay the bowel-loosening terror of lying in a foxhole, trying to curl a six-foot body into a six-inch ball, bouncing with the heaving earth as horrendous concussions are raining closer to your four-foot patch of real estate?

         Impossible— there are no words.

         Wooziness and hot flashes are increasing as I look around the room at my men— my comrades-in-arms. Damned good buddies with whom I’d laughed, partied, ate, and drank. I remember them as once bright, young faces— now aged three decades in as many weeks, their furrowed brows testament to having been pushed to the limits of human endurance.

         They’re my family now— my frazzled, battle-weary bunch of siblings I’ve come to love. I now understand the soulful look in Cy’s eyes when he impressed upon me the unique feeling of a battlefield love he said is never talked about.

         Good ol' Cy, bless his heart. If I do manage to make it home alive, I too can see myself as a fat-and-forgotten old veteran, sitting in some rat-hole tavern doing a crossword. A smart-ass kid in uniform will barge in, buy me a beer and prod me to open my satchel of war stories. Yeah, I’ll oblige, but pray to God the perky little bastard will have enough sense to listen— to both of us, Cy.

         A chill rattles my body. My face and forehead are covered with perspiration, now a muddy slime since I’ve given up trying to stop the tears from flowing. I can’t help it. I keep seeing their faces— faces of those young Schmidt’s, their terrified eyes pleading for life as I snuffed them from a foot away.

         May God help me, I retch, but can’t vomit; my throat’s clogged with false bile. I barely manage to pull my knees to my chin and openly weep— my soul reeling from absolute disgust and shame. What kind of repulsive animal have I become? I hate myself. Do you hear me, God? I hate myself! Forgive me. Please— please forgive me. Save me from this damnable madness.

         I’m trembling and having trouble breathing. I try curling tighter against my knees to muffle the sobs, fearing the others will think their leader is falling apart. But it’s no use. Another suppressed sob squeaks out when I feel an arm slide across my shoulders and a familiar voice softly intones in my ear.

         “It’s okay, paisan,” Tony whispers, pulling my head to his chest. “Go ahead, let it out. Youse got nuttin’ to be ashamed of. Y’never failed us, boss— especially me ever since we hooked up at Grand Central.”

         Reaching up with my good hand, I squeeze Tony’s arm with all the affection I can muster as he cradles my head against his chest.

         “Jesus, ya burnin’ up.” Tony pulls my arm over his shoulder. “Come on, ya big galoot. Y’gotta get up. Come on, easy does it.”

         Presto supports my other side. I’m dizzy and need steadying, my hand and forearm throbbing with intense pain. My vision is blurred from tears and nausea, but I think I see Tony smiling. Is my Tony back to his old self, I wonder?

         “Easy, Vince, one step at a time.” Tony whistles to Giltner as he guides me through a maze of bodies. “Find a jeep and on the double,” Tony orders, “even if ya hafta yank the driver from behind da wheel.”

         Filthy and unfed, Giltner is one of the few still awake. He’s been absorbed in his packet of mail, but is on his feet and out the door before I can take another step. I’m smirking. Knowing the gruff and rugged Giltner as I do, he’ll likely take pleasure in Tony’s order and wait for a driver-occupied jeep in a lot of empties.

         “What are y’grinnin’ at now, ya big slug? Jesus, will ya look at that mug? Looks like ya been eatin’ mud pies f’crissake.” Tony’s smile widens. “We’re almost there. We gotta get that hand taken care of— and pronto, or my kid won’t have an uncle to brag about and Alessa will fry my ass along with her next batch o’ meatballs.”

         Crossing the threshold, my body twitches to the sun’s warmth as it clashes with the fever. While waiting for the jeep, I notice a column of transports loaded with replacements about to leave the village. They’ll be breaking their maidens next, the poor slobs. "Keep yer heads down and asses even lower," I mumble, repeating the last words Ol' Cy drummed into me at Doogans.

         “Jeep’s here.”

         Ignoring my feeble protests, I’m hoisted atop a litter across the back. The moment I’m prone, every ounce of energy seems to leave my body. I close my eyes to savor the scent of the sea carried inland from the channel, the sun’s rays quickly refreshing my dream. I’m back in my English meadow, blankets of yellow flowers are wavering in a gentle breeze. My muscles feel as if they’re sliding off my bones when suddenly, a sharp fiery pain jars me alert.

         “Sorry, Vince. I had to tuck ya hand in.” Tony smiles and gently feathers mud away from my eyes and cheeks.

         The instant our eyes meet, I'm overcome with a wondrous sense of peace flooding my body. I know now, without an inkling of doubt, at some point I’ll be ‘bounding home’ myself— ‘cause t'hell with the odds, where my lucky Tony goes, I goes too.

w.c. 5505
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