Before the echoes
of the rifle shot died, all seven of us dropped and merged with the rocks on
the dusty Italian hill. We were on the
inside of a long, climbing curve and I was on the high side of the trail, up
against the bank. That’s why I couldn’t
see shit over the sights of my Browning Automatic Rifle–my BAR.

It was a real
bitch hauling those sixteen pounds up and down these hills, but the
firepower–it was a light machine gun in all but name–was a real comfort
sometimes. Like now.

I eased another
magazine out of my bandoleer and set it down beside the one already in the
receiver–just in case.

hit?" Sarge called.

dropped," Padre said. "He isn’t moving."

Dutch Boehm was
point man, the most dangerous job in a patrol file. Usually it was Padre’s, but Sarge had put
Dutch there today.

"Anybody see where
it came from?" Sarge was doing the next
most dangerous job, calling attention to himself. I waited for another shot but none came.

"Sounded like it
came from up and to the right." Russo
was tail-end Charlie. He and Dutch were
buddies. We called them the Axis twins.

"Okay, take New
Guy and check it out."

"Right Sarge. C’mon."
I heard rocks and dirt kicked loose behind me as they moved out. We all waited. Flies buzzed and walked undisturbed on our
faces and hands. I squinted at the narrow view of shimmering rocks, leafless
shrubs, and Shitter Jones’ worn boot soles ahead.

Russo and his
backup came clattering back down onto the the trail. He went over and stood near Sarge. The rest of us took that as a signal to
relax–but not too much. I got up into a
crouch, so I could see what was going on.

"They let out
Sarge." Russo’s words came between
gasps. "Found this."

He offered Sarge
a single dull brass cartridge. Sarge
rolled in in his fingers and then sniffed it.
He looked at New Guy. "What about

"I d-didn’t see

"Padre, you and
New Guy go up and take care of Dutch.
Don’t dig him in, just cover him with rocks. Bring back his tag and personals… and his

"Why me? I just came–"
I moved up behind New Guy and put a hand on a shoulder when he started
to protest. He went off muttering. Padre followed silently.

"Fifteen minutes
for water," Sarge continued. "Chick, you keep an eye out."

Chick, that’s
me. I climbed a little way up the steep
bank and rested my ass against it. It
was so steep, you couldn’t call it sitting.
The rest of the guys moved back down the trail, where the bank made some
shade, and lay down, mostly.

I fumbled my
canteen from its case on my right hip while scanning the barren hills for
movement. The first sip was warm and
metallic tasting. I swished it around
in my mouth and spat. Then I chugged a
good one, wishing it was a Pabst. I
looked back toward the other guys.

Sarge was way
down the trail, near where the tail of the squad had been when Dutch had bought
it. He was leaning over and looking at
something. Then he was picking it up. Whatever it was, it was shiny.

Shitter Jones was
talking to Russo. He pulled out some
Luckies and traded for some toilet paper from Russo’s K-rations. The way K-rations were made, most guys got
clogged up and couldn’t go to the bathroom but every three, four days. This was a good thing, because it took you
that long to save up the tiny packets of paper to make a decent wipe. Most guys excepting Shitter: He was always wandering off to find a bush or
rock pile somewhere, and he was always desperate for paper.

Jones moved off
on another privacy search and Russo started emptying his Garrand. Click-clack.
He worked the action and round sprang out. Click-clack, click-clack, click-clack.

Unlike my BAR,
the M1 Garrand rifle loads eight rounds through the top from a special stripper
clip. When the last round is fired, the bolt locks to the rear and the clip
springs out, You can’t reload until the
weapon is entirely empty, so if you want to make sure it’s full, you have to
empty it all the way first.

That’s what Russo
was doing. Click-clack, click-clack,
click-clack. Ping! The clip jumped out. Russo pulled a full one from his ammo pouch
and slid it into his rifle. He glanced
over at Sarge before bending over to pick up the loose brass.

Sarge had been
watching all this while he cleaned his cheap GI glasses with a handkerchief
he’d died brown with old coffee grounds.
Sarge’s eyes weren’t as bad as he let some people think. A lot of them caught hell for things they
thought he couldn’t see.

I looked back in
the other direction. Padre and New Guy
were kicking stones down onto Dutch’s corpse.
They had already crossed his arms and piled his effects, ammo, helmet
and rifle aside. New Guy was bitching
continuously. Padre just nodded.

Padre knew better
than to complain. He was a queer. Sarge made up that story about him being a
seminary student, explaining why he didn’t go whoring with the rest of us. Me and Sarge argued about that. I said we should tell the Lieutenant. "What for?"
Sarge asked. "Prison couldn’t be
worst than this. They don’t shell

"Besides," Sarge
continued, "We don’t need the grief from the other squads, and we’d wait the
usual forever for his replacement."

"Makes sense," I’d
admitted. After that, I helped keep up
the fiction and wouldn’t let anybody ride Padre. We didn’t need that kind of grief inside the
squad either. But Sarge still gave him
all the shitty details–like point man.
And I made sure Padre did everything Sarge said.

At five-ten, I
was the biggest guy in the squad and as Sarge’s buddy from high school, I was
his enforcer. (That’s what got me these
corporal stripes.) Before December
seventh, I was a coal miner, like my dad and grandad. Dad died in a cave-in and Grandpa still
coughs up black phlegm ten years after retiring. My kid ain’t gonna be a coal miner. Me, I’m going to make my Mary real happy and
learn a trade when this is all over. She
writes that they’re talking about some kind of education benefits for all of us
guys when we come back, to keep us off unemployment. She writes about that a lot.

They call me
Chick because of my name, John Kubchek.
It used to make me mad because I’m Slovak, not Czech; but now I hardly

Before Sarge got
promoted, everyone called him Professor.
Before the war, I used to call him Mack.
He worked in his father’s bookstore before we both signed up. Everyone calls him Sarge now, after he kicked
the shit out of Shitter Jones. The
promotion turned my old buddy real mean, from Professor Jekyll to Sergeant
Hyde. But he was still as smart as
ever. Smart and mean, that was
Sarge. He had to be. He had kept us, mostly, alive all the way
from Kaisereine Pass, across Sicily and now halfway up the Italian boot.

I heard him
scrambling up the bank behind me.

"New Guy’s a
whiner." I said.

"Yeah, I
noticed. That shot sound like a Mauser
to you?"

"Maybe, maybe
not." I thought for a moment. "Could be
one of those new rifles Fritz has–a storm-gee-ware or some such."

"Means ‘Assault
Rifle.’ They use a shorter round, like
my carbine." He handed me a full sized
German 7.92 mm case. It was dull, almost
a dark brown in color. "Smell it."

I did: nothing.

"Now smell
this." It was a shiny 30-06 round, US
issue. It had the acrid smell of freshly
fired cordite. "Found it back down the trail."

"Shit" I
said. "Who?"

The grave detail
was finishing up. Padre shoved Dutch’s
rifle, bayonet first, into the stone pile.
Next, he placed the helmet liner–flies already buzzing around it–on the
rifle’s butt. New Guy picked up Dutch’s
net covered steel pot by the chin strap and handed it to Padre. We used our helmets, minus the liner, as a
bucket or basin to carry water or wash and shave. New guys sometimes called it their brain
bucket–trying to be salty. I’d seen too
many brains dripping from helmets to think it very clever anymore. Padre and New Guy came back down the trail.

"Why do guys shoot
each other?" Sarge’s question took me by

"Money and
Broads," I said. "The poker game?"

We’d had a real
good time in Naples. We practically took
over this one whorehouse. Even Padre
seemed to enjoy himself, taking all that money away from us, his sleepy-eyed
buddies, in the all night poker game.
Russo, who speaks the lingo, negotiated the deal with the madam. He also got sweet on this one girl, who
didn’t look like a whore at all. They
both seemed to like each other a whole lot before we left. Russo wouldn’t let anyone else, even his best
buddy, try her.

I remember the
greasy feel of the cards; the smell of the sweat, olive oil and spilled vino;
the sputtering candle light. We’d paid
extra for those candles–the madam insisted.

I remember the
young-old faces of the girls. Some would
have been whores anywhere but, in Naples in 1944, many had no other way to
survive. Half of them tried to get one
of the guys to marry them, take them back to the States. One or two might have been worth the grief
from the brass. Russo’s girl, I think
her name was Carmella, was a real keeper.

I remember her
slender hip against Russo’s shoulder as he played poker. He kept rubbing it for luck but it didn’t do
any good. Padre kept taking everybody’s
money. Russo signed over most of his
next pay in markers. Padre was pretty
good about it, considering.

I shook
myself. Daydreaming on lookout will get
you, and your buddies, killed.

New Guy was white
when he walked up. He handed Dutch’s
helmet up to Sarge. "Brains all over
inside the liner Near made me puke."

Sarge took
Dutch’s wallet, watch, some letters and one of his dog tags (the other was
still around Dutch’s neck) from the helmet and stuffed them into his
blouse. He pocketed the loose change.

He passed me the
bolt assembly to Dutch’s rifle. I’d
throw it away somewhere along the trail.
No sense leaving somebody a perfectly good rifle to back at you
with. We used to bring back dead guys’
rifles. We used to a lot of things by
the book. Not so much anymore.

Sarge was poking
his finger through the bullet hole on the front, upper right side of the
helmet. It was more a tear, and the lips
curled out.

Padre and New Guy
were already moving back down the trail, canteens half out when they got there.

"Let me show you
something." Sarge pulled Dutch’s wallet
out and showed me some paper slips–Russo’s IOU’s. "Dutch bought them. They argued about them all the time so I put
the whole squad between them."

"But I lent Russo
the money to pay them back," I
said. "He was kinda desperate."

"Maybe Dutch
didn’t want money." Sarge stuffed the
IOU’s into his breast pocket and hopped down the bank in three giant
steps. "Money or broads"

Jones came back
with a job well done look on his face.

"Let’s move
out!" Sarge shoved the helmet at Padre
to put back on Dutch’s rifle.

Padre took it and
started to move out ahead–to the point.

Sarge stopped
him. "No Padre," Then he called out:

"Russo! You take the point from now on."