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The Lady Bug

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The Lady Bug

WWII in a Sherman Tank

Paul Telegdi

Dedicated to my wife and helpmate, Melanie, who edited all my books

Copyright © 2015, Paul Telegdi

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever

Published by Paul Telegdi at Smashwords in September 2015

Foreword

I grew up in the shadow of World War II, and although I was never a part of it, in the first decade of my life it was very real for me. All around me I heard about it, read about it and felt its influence, in terms of politics, the economy and the turn of my own family’s fortunes.

I always wondered what it must have been like. My parents lived through those days, but rarely talked about them.

This book is a way of getting inside the war, trying to put myself in the path of this conflict that so shook and reshaped the world.

I didn’t want to glorify the war in any way, and my heroes suffer, because a lot of people did, whether they were soldiers or civilians. But at the same time, I wanted to write a compelling story that people could relate to.

I hope you can enjoy this book and perhaps learn a bit about the times as I certainly did in writing it.

Prologue

Hawkins stirred on the bed, trying to find a position that didn’t hurt. He was pumped full of medication, the pain distant but ever present. He tried to think, to remember, but every thought lost its way in the confusion that permeated his mind.

“I must… I must…” He tried to focus. “Must what?”

At times he remembered that he was in a hospital… back in the States… safe… but safe from what? Flashes of childhood intruded: his parents’ ranch along the river in Texas, his dog Tully and his pony Dusty, his horse Fletch and endless hours in the saddle rounding up a herd of cattle. Then for an instant a peaceful scene of fishing in the river was very clear, the line trailing in the water as he patiently waited for a fish to bite. It was so real: the sunshine on the back of his neck, the warm breeze playing with his hair under the wide brim hat, his eyes squinting into the glare of sunshine reflected off the ripples on the surface.

The scene changed, followed by rapid sequences, some of his high school days, a dance at the county fair, riding in his cousin’s convertible—the same convertible that killed Rory at the age of 19, driving too fast with too much drink in him. Then an orchestra playing as he danced to a lively tune… where was that? In the ballroom of the cruise ship, of course, under the chandeliers, gliding over the smooth parquet floor, a lady in his arms. Something was itching… or was that pain?

There was a dark moment, hunkering down in the storm shelter while a tornado passed by quite close, rattling the trap door urgently, nearly ripping it from its frame. With legs drawn up under him, his eyes anxiously on the door, hoping it would hold. He couldn’t breathe… someone was praying in the shadow as lightning strikes flickered through the smallest crack in the planks just above. The storm rumbled past like an express train.

Then he was inside a beast, roaring, exhaling diesel fumes. A tongue of flame leapt from it, closely followed by an explosion. He was desperately holding on, jolted by the blast that struck near. Kill it! Kill it! Get it before it gets you! There was an all pervasive oily smell, the roar of an engine, the constant shaking, being thrown about.

A rapid sequence of faces, most of them unrecognized, flickered in his mind’s eye like an old, grainy nickelodeon film. Some were of his parents, the corner grocer, the gas jockey at the local gas station, the math teacher, and Reverend Johnston before he was sent away for being inappropriate with an underaged girl, and one of Clara, the first girl Hawkins had been intimate with. Why did he feel so embarrassed about it now? After so many years? How many years? He was old now and used up, and pain was gnawing at him.

Was he dying? The doctors did not say that. His leg. Something about his leg and a severed finger. That’s ridiculous, you don’t die of a missing finger.

He smelled engine exhaust again, dark oily smoke burning, mixed with something sickeningly sweet. Dear God, not that. Take me cleanly, save me from such purgatory! There was a stab of pain… no, of fear and anxiety that quickly turned to terror. Everywhere he looked he was surrounded by the sight of death and dying. I yield myself into Your infinite love and compassion…

Suddenly, out of the confusion the face of an angel emerged with perfect contours and tender grey eyes, then the rest of her… offering him a succoring hand. I know her! Yes, it’s her! Maybe she can save me.

Then Amos was talking, but he couldn’t remember who Amos was. From nowhere a burning question. Was it Jake or Hicks? Hicks or Jake? Concentrate, this is important! But the answer and comprehension eluded him. I must stop taking so many pills, they are messing up my mind.

Then he tried to test himself… to see what he had left. Two and two is four. Four times six is twenty something. The capital of Texas was… was… Houston or Austin maybe. The first President of the United States was George…

Hawkins gave up trying to make any sense of the unremitting slide show. I’m in bed, fact. I’m injured, fact. But I’m alive, fact. The rest will sort itself out somehow.

Chapter 1

Jones shifted down and pulled the right steering stick back to bring the Lady into the shadow of a rock outcrop that reared up from the desert floor.

“Get us deeper into the shade,” Sergeant Hawkins yelled from the turret. Jones obliged, then pulled both sticks back and locked them to stop the Lady. Released of its load the engine revved up.

“Shut it off!” Sergeant yelled again. “We got to save gas.” Jones eased up on the accelerator until the engine dropped into idle and he let it run a couple of minutes to allow the engines to cool down a bit before he flicked off the switches. Suddenly a quiet filled the interior. A deep quiet. Jones let out a breath and leaned back to ease the strain in his back from driving three hours without a break.

Beside Jones, Simon, the machine gunner, popped open his hatch to let in a flow of fresh air. What he got was a face full of fine sand that had accumulated in the joints of the hatch.

“Damn!” he cursed, then sneezed loudly.

Sergeant Hawkins pulled himself through the top hatch, swung over the turret and stood on the rear deck, aware of the heat wafting up from the engine below. He set the binoculars to his eyes and scanned to the east. Nothing. Not even any tracks, just more of the burnt out wasteland: no trees anywhere, just a few half dead bushes and splattering of yellow grass here and there.

Jake, the gunner of the 75, pushed by him and jumped down onto the ground. He stepped to the back of the tank and unzipped his fly, ready to water the rear track.

“Hey, we’re staying here a bit, so do it farther away,” the Sergeant yelled, without taking the binoculars from his eyes. Jake stumbled off until he found a rock he could baptize.

Hicks, the loader, emerged from the tank, sipping water from a canteen. He spit a mouthful over the side, complaining, “Warm as piss.”

“Go easy with that,” Jake admonished him. “We only have so much…”

“Said by a man who just pissed half a gallon away,” Hicks retorted. Day in, day out, the two men sat side by side in the cramped turret, gunner and loader, being bounced between the sharp edges of the main gun and the ammo rack. When there was nothing to shoot at, they were bored to death and irritable; any little thing could set them off, often ready to punch each other.

Simon, the front machine gunner, was stretching his legs. Three hours was too long to sit cramped on a seat that had no comfort designed into it. It didn’t help that he was tall and most times had to slouch to keep his head from bouncing off the front armor plate.

“Sir, any sign of our unit?” Simon asked.

“No. Not even any tracks,” Sergeant answered, wiping dust from the lenses. “And don’t call me Sir. That’s for officers.” Quickly he looked around them. They were snuggled up to a rock wall that shaded them from the midday heat. “We’re staying here a couple of hours to let the temperature drop.” He wiped his face. “Jesus, it must be nearly 110 inside. But look at me… not a drop of sweat. The God damned heat sucks the piss right out of me…”

“But not out of Jake… apparently,” Hicks chuckled.

“OK men. Hicks, dish out some food; Jones clean out the air filter…. We don’t want to get stuck again.”

“What about me?” Simon, the new man, asked.

“You and Jake better get out the camouflage net and spread it over the Lady…”

“Ah, shit! Do we really need to do that? There’s nobody around for miles.” Jake pulled a face.

“Sure as hell. Or do you want a visit from a Jerry Stuka to drop an egg on us? And after the net… erase the last bit of our tracks … so we don’t lead the Germans straight to us.”

Applying themselves the crew got busy and soon had the tank under the netting. Digging a shallow depression in the loose sand, one by one each settled down for a quick nap.

Simon couldn’t sleep. He had joined the unit the day before yesterday and had not found the rhythm yet. He sat off by himself, looking at the Sherman tank in its drab desert camouflage paint. The swirl of colors broke up the details. Only the white star was clearly obvious, marking them to be a U.S. Sherman M4 medium tank. To the front was also in faded paint “Lady Bug,” the name given by a previous crew.

Last week he was Stateside, fresh out of armored school, and today here he was in the desert backcountry of Tunisia. He was of course assigned the rooky spot on the hull machine gun just beside the driver. They had the bulky transmission case between them, growling all the time.

Finished with the filters, Jones joined Simon under the net. The veteran squinted at the new replacement, sizing him up. A week ago they had lost Jingle John to some parasite that melted 36 pounds off a 197 pound frame in a matter of days. It looked like he was sure to die as no medicine seemed to help him any. In the end they flew the lucky bastard back home to Walter Reed… lucky… if he survived. It wasn’t the Germans or Italians who got him, but some microscopic parasite that flushed all the liquids out of him. What Jake couldn’t understand was that of the five of them, only Jingle John got the bug and no one else. They ate the same food, drank from the same canteen, so how the hell…? And now they had a greenhorn on their hands to break in.

“Have you seen any action?” Simon asked with the eagerness of all rookies.

“Some…” Jones lit up a cigarette and blew the smoke out with great satisfaction. “We landed on the beach in Algiers and the Vichy French fought us until they switched sides and joined us. Then we brushed off the Italians. Their tanks are like shit houses on tracks. Not worth wasting ammunition on. But at Kasserine Pass… that was real. The Germans got us good: we lost half the Company there. Our tank got hit and we had to bail out fast and watch our brand new tank burn to crisp black. Then the ammo blew the turret 30 feet into the air. Luckily no one was hurt. But sad that we lost the Royal Flush. It only had 23 miles on it when we first got it. It had that new car smell, if you know what I mean.”

“Why was it called the Royal Flush?”

“We had to call it something, I suppose. So we decided on that name for we had five jacks for a crew. You know, James, Jake, Jordi, John and me, Jones. Five J’s… A betting hand, wouldn’t you say?”

“I’m no expert on cards but that’s not even a Flush and there’s no such thing as five of a kind.”

“Well, anyway, that’s what we named it. In the end it wasn’t very lucky.”

“Then you named this the Lady Bug?”

“Nah. We inherited the name. Some other crew named her.”

“Where are they?”

“Three died. An 88 shell came through the front and went out the back of the turret. You can see where they patched up the holes and painted over the blood and guts spatter on the inside. You can never quite get the smell out.”

“God Almighty! That’s what I keep smelling! Who died?”

“Do you really want to know?” Jones pinched off his butt and flicked it away. “The driver, the gunner and loader, all dead. From the concussion or splinters off the armor plate. The machine gunner lost half his face and the commander his left leg. That my friend is our pedigree. The Lady is no virgin anymore.”

“Jeez…” Simon muttered to himself. It was more of an answer than he wanted. He mulled over that for a while before asking, “And how’s the Sergeant?”

“Dancing James? He’s a good old boy from Texas. He can shoot the eye out of a fly with his 45. What else do you want to know?”

“Is he a good leader, you know, a competent commander?”

“I wouldn’t know. He’s the only one I’ve had. In the Army you don’t get to shop around but get stuck with whoever they assign you to.”

“Well, how about Jake?”

“Jake is… how should I put it… a puzzle, that’s what he is. Don’t waste time trying to figure him out. He can be your friend one minute but turn ornery in an instant. And you won’t even know why.”

“Is that why he … despises me? Because I’m a Jew?”

“No, not that. It’s because you’re an S, not a J, like the rest of us. He thinks that’s unlucky, that’s about it. I told you he’s peculiar.”

“And Hicks?”

“That’s Professor Hicks to you. We usually just call him Hicks. Don’t make the mistake of asking him any question or you’ll get stuck with an hour’s worth of answers.”

“Is he really a professor?”

“No, we just call him that. But take that as a warning. He worked at some university in the mid west, repairing book covers. Somehow he got addicted to reading them and now his head’s full of useless shit.”

“And you?”

“Me? I’m from Boston. Worked at a furniture factory fixing machines. I got called up and they stuck me in a tank.”

“And you’re not happy with it?” Simon asked with a hint of wonder in his voice.

“I was, until the shooting started. The first time in a Sherman was a dream. Fast, mechanically reliable, a breeze to drive and easy to maintain. But in Africa, we met the Germans and became aware of its shortcomings: high silhouette, thin armor and an inadequate gun. We can handle the Panzer III and IV’s, but not the Panthers or God help us, the Tigers. Luckily Rommel doesn’t have many of those, but he has plenty of 88’s. Around here we start each day with a prayer, ‘Dear Lord, deliver us from the deadly sights of 88’s.’”

“But… the way I heard even the Tigers are not invincible. People have destroyed them.”

“Maybe from the air. But our shells just bounce off the front and side armor. Our pea shooters just can’t penetrate the bastards. We have to sneak around to the back and shoot them where their armor’s thinnest. It takes five Shermans to kill one of those monsters. Do you understand?”

“But why?”

“Because we have the short barrel low velocity 75’s. The German high velocity cannons can kill us at twice the distance before we can even hit them with anything.”

“Jeez… I’m in the wrong army…” Simon’s face dissolved into a mask of worry.

“Now you got it.” Jones lit up another cigarette. “But it’s not all bad. We have a fast machine that is reliable and goes anywhere. We can outrun the Germans… if our Generals let us. The main gun is gyro-stabilized and can fire on the move.”

“But how are we supposed to win the war…?”

“By building a hell of a lot more tanks than the Germans. If we build five times as many as them, then we have it won. All I know is that Detroit’s running shifts around the clock. My uncle is working on one of the assembly lines.”

“Building tanks?”

“No, diesel engines for torpedo boats.”

Simon sank into himself, trying to sort through all this information. He didn’t know how much he could trust what he’d been told, as he knew by experience that veterans loved to razz the newcomers, scare the shit out of them. He looked at the Sherman and the others sleeping beside the tank. It hardly seemed possible that the machine was as vulnerable as Jones had claimed. Then his eyes found the rough patch on the front glacis plate where the 88 had hit. Three inches of steel, yielding, imploding, sending a shower of melted metal through the interior, making mincemeat of the occupants. He shuddered.

“By the way,” Jones asked. “Did they teach you to drive at the tank school?”

“Yeah, about two hours. They let us drive around but it was flat as a pancake, you hardly had to use the gears.”

“You are the co-driver, you know, not just a machine gunner. If I get hurt… it’s all up to you. We all got to know how to do a bit of everything.”

“Yeah. I got to load and even fire the 75, about six times.”

“Did you hit anything?”

“A truck at 200 yards.”

“Sweet Jesus! And they sent you just with that?” Jones shook his head in dismay. Something else occurred to him. “How come you ended up in the replacement pool?”

“My grandmother died and they let me go home on a compassionate leave for the funeral. By the time I got back, my unit had shipped out and I was dumped into general replacement. And here I am…” In the wastelands of Tunisia.

Hicks got up, shook the sand out of his dungarees and ambled over. “The damned sand lice won’t let me sleep.” He sat down and took a good look at the new man. “Jewish?”

“Yes…” Simon replied a bit apprehensively. He was used to prejudice and expected it, but was it hard or soft, he needed to find out.

“From New York?”

“From the Bronx.”

“Close enough.” Hicks shifted his attention to the driver. “So will this piece of shit let us catch up with our unit?”

“It’s not a piece of shit,” Jones said indignantly, with a reverence reserved for any piece of machinery but withheld from anything human. “It’s a Chrysler A57 multibank engine developing 470 horsepower at 2400 rpms…”

“Oh, don’t spout numbers at me. When the war in Europe started America had no modern tanks to speak of. But the German early successes with the Blitzkrieg scared the War Office into ordering something that could fight the tanks the Germans started with. So in short order they settled on the M4 to be the main American battle tank. By the time they started rolling off the assembly line they were already largely obsolete. But we still kept building them… and sent them over here en masse… and they let us find out in combat just how good they really are. Now we know. We make great targets for the Germans. For the Pentagon it’s OK that it takes 5 Shermans to knock out one Tiger. It’s an acceptable loss to them, safe in their soft beds in Washington. But for us our chance is only one out of five. Hell, I think it’s criminal to send us into battle with tanks that are not up to the task.”

“You dramatize, as usual. We can hold our own against the Panzer III and IV’s. Panthers and Tigers are far and few, so our odds are much better, even counting the 88’s…”

“Bullshit! Now who’s exaggerating?” Hicks spat to the side. “Here we’re alone in the desert. Anything we meet will be one on one. Under-gunned and under-armored we’ve got the shitty end of the odds.”

Jones, who took care of the tank and had some feelings for the metal, couldn’t argue against the relentless logic of the loader. Sure it was hard sometimes to climb in, button down and go into combat… but none of them had any choice; they had to go where ordered.

“What do you want? The infantry? You’re a fool if you think they have it any better.”

“At least they can dig a hole in the ground and hide in it. We on the other hand, with our high silhouette stick out like a sore thumb wherever we are.” Hicks turned to Simon, his face hard and unsympathetic. “We gave a whole lot of Shermans to the British; you know what they call’em? Ronson lighters. Why? Because they light up the first time and every time. The engine is based on an aircraft engine burning high octane fuel, and it turns into a torch given half a chance. Welcome to the barbeque unit.” Hicks moved his face closer to the new man and continued, “You know what the Germans call the Shermans?” Simon shook his head. “Tommy cookers, that’s what.”

Sergeant Hawkins stood up and came over, having caught the last bit of the exchange. “Leave off, Hicks. You and Jones go and take the cans from the back rack and top up our fuel tanks. Simon, you wake Jake and put away the net.” People applied themselves to the tasks they had been set. In the meantime, Hawkins unfolded the map and traced their route.

Jones came back and peered at the map. “Where are we?”

“Somewhere here.” Hawkins pointed at a spot that was empty of any markings.

“And our unit?”

“Most likely here somewhere.” Hawkins indicated another blank patch. They were deep into the wasteland, south of where they should be.

“Why did we leave the road?” the driver asked.

“To stay clear of enemy planes which patrol the road. Besides the road’s more likely mined than not. We passed four burned out wrecks that set off mines our pioneers had missed. I feel safer in the interior.”

“But if we break down? We’re miles from help, from anywhere.”

“Well. Let’s not break down then.” Hawkins tucked the map into its case then ordered, “All right people, mount up.” Everyone climbed into the tank and settled into their seats. Jones set the choke, but the Sergeant interrupted him. “Before we start, I want a bail out drill.”

“Now?” Hicks groaned.

“Yes now!” Hawkins snapped at him. For the benefit of the new man the Sergeant added, “I know you’ve practiced this in tank school, but out here it’s real. If we get hit, and by some fluke of fate you survive, you have less than three seconds to get out before the whole tank turns into an inferno. Me, the gunner and loader go out the top, driver and co-driver go through the bottom escape hatch. It’s the safest exit that gets you under the tank but a bit of a tight fit. Clear?” he asked and they all acknowledged. Taking a breath, Hawkins exhaled and shouted, “Bail! Bail! Bail!” He snapped open his hatch, levered himself up into the open, dropped onto his knees on the narrow side deck and rolled off the tank. The gunner and the loader came through the hatch close after him. The driver crawled clear from under the tank, and last came Simon breathing heavily. It was only an exercise, but scary nonetheless. Jones reached for a cigarette to slow his racing heart.

“Not yet, Jones. We better do that again.” They climbed back in the tank, shut themselves in, then on command they exploded out of the hatches. Simon was last again. Soon as he was clear of the tank, Hicks jumped on him, pummeling him on his back.

“What are you doing?” Simon asked, confused.

“Trying to put the flames out, bagel boy. You’re half cooked now.”

“Yeah, you got to be quicker…” Jones said.

“All right. We do have to do it better,” Hawkins said. “Mount up and let’s get out of here.”

This time Jones started the engine to let it warm up. The roar filled the interior and the smell of exhaust drifted in through the open hatches. Hawkins donned his leather helmet, set his goggles tight and wrapped a light cloth over his mouth and nose. He adjusted his seat to the high position and stuck his head out of the hatch to give him an all-around view. Jones watched his instruments, letting the needles stabilize in the proper operating range. “Ready,” he yelled up and Hawkins tapped him with his foot on the back to signal to move ahead. Jones depressing the clutch, put it in gear and accelerated, pushing both steering sticks forward. The Lady lurched, the tracks digging into the sandy gravel. Jones played with his sticks to bring the tank to level ground.

Up top, Hawkins was scanning the view ahead. “Head one o’clock, then keep to even ground. We go east and somewhere we’ll swing north again to intercept the road,” he instructed. Hawkins stood half out of the tank, braced against the hatch frame, keeping himself off the metal. Behind them a dust cloud rose into the air, probably visible for miles — but it couldn’t be helped. To the north there were some brown hills and he meant to pass south of them. To the south was mostly a featureless desert. Sand, rocks and more of the same as far as the eye could see.

About eighty minutes later, the Lady was approaching the top of a rise. With his foot Hawkins tapped Jones’ head for a stop and the tank ground to a halt. Hawkins stuck his head down and yelled over the engine noise, “Go slow, just so I can see over the top and get a good look at the land first.” They had lost their radio and intercom a while back and had to resort to yelling and tap signals. Hawkins straightened back up and tapped him to go ahead. Cautiously the Lady inched her way up to the top until the view opened up to the east. Hawkins tapped the driver to a stop and with his binoculars scanned the vista uncovered. More of the same: sand, rocks, sparse grass and the odd bush.

Hicks, tired of being jostled in the claustrophobic inside, came up top and sat on the turret, dangling his feet inside it. Mid afternoon the sun wasn’t so hot anymore. He took a deep breath and looked about.

“Where the hell are we?” There was nothing to see but rusty browns and sun-baked orange and yellows everywhere.

“Just this side of nowhere,” Hawkins replied pleasantly. He swept the north quarter with the binoculars toward the road they were staying off, still finding nothing.

“God Almighty, why are we in this country?”

“Because the Germans are here.”

“What would they want here? Sand?”

“You’re the professor. You know that the Germans are here to bail out the Italians. But what the Germans really want in Africa is Egypt and beyond, the way to the oil fields.”

“Yeah but we’re on the other side of all that. Tunis is way to the west, away from the Nile and Suez.”

“Well you go and ask Rommel. I’m sure he’ll tell you.” Hawkins took a soft cloth from an inside pocket and cleaned his lenses thoroughly. “The British are squeezing the Krauts from the east and we are coming at them from the west, trapping the much vaunted Afrika Korps in Tunisia. Rommel has nowhere else to run now.”

“To Sicily. Just across the sea.”

“He, maybe. But not his whole Korps or the Eyetalians. So he’s digging in and meaning to fight to the last man as Hitler doubtless ordered him to.”

His nose full of dust, Hicks spat over the side, trying to clear his throat. The tracks threw up a cloudburst of powder-fine sand; everything was covered and jammed with it. It somehow shorted the radio and the intercom. “We’re fighting in the wrong place. We should be liberating France, aiming at the German heartland, not dicking around in Africa. There’s nothing here of value. A few camels, a scattering of rat infested towns and fishing villages. Where’s the strategy in that, I ask you? If you want my opinion someone at the top likes the war and is keen on squandering the taxpayers’ money to keep this thing going for as long as possible. As long as they’re still shooting, they can make more shit to waste and you can bet someone is lining their pockets with the money they skim from the top…”

“That’s what I like about you Hicks, you’re such a patriot.” Hawkins bent down and yelled into the turret, “Pass up the canteen!”

Jake squeezed by the Sergeant, handing him the canteen. Hawkins took a sip and made a face at the tepid taste. He took two swallows but was unable to clear his mouth of the fine dust. “Shit!” he said, spitting over the side, handing the canteen back.

“Ease up, Sarge. We don’t have much left. We’ll soon need more,” Jake O’Connor said, shaking the canteen to show how little was left.

“Is that the very last?” Hawkins asked, frowning.

“There are two more canteens, both less than half full. We really need to find some more.”

“I would gladly,” Hawkins muttered. “Show me from where.” But everything in view was empty, devoid of life. God help us all, the Sergeant thought sourly, if we have to milk the Lady and drink the oil tainted engine coolant. They had to do that a month ago when the whole company ran out of water and more than half the men got sick for a week after that.

“Well, nothing to do but forward,” Hawkins said. He dropped into the tank and tapped Jones on the back of the helmet. The tank lurched ahead and they hung on, as the machine ground through the gears and picked up speed. The tracks clattered against the bogey wheels, raising a plume of more dust.

The way was relatively easy, mostly level ground of hard packed sand, dotted with small to midsized rocks blown free from the soil by the seasonal winds. They had a bit of rise and Jones geared down to take it on the run. Near the top they hit some loose sand and the tracks dug into it, losing traction. Jones gave more gas, but all it did was churn up the sand, moving forward only an inch. Jones tried to back up, but that was a no go, too.

Jones took it out of gear and swore, “Fucking sand!” He looked up at the Sergeant and shrugged his shoulders. “The Lady can’t make it. The ground’s too soft.”

“Force the bitch, rev the shit out of her!” Hicks yelled.

“No, that’ll just dig us in deeper.”

The crew climbed out and walked around the tank, inspecting the bogeys already half buried in sand. “Get the shovels and the rails. Put them under the track and we’ll back ourselves out of here,” Hawkins ordered. The men got the shovels and started to dig to get under the tracks. “Jake,” Hawkins called. “You go up ahead and find us firm ground to get past this.” Jake headed off, testing the soil with his feet. The rest shoveled and got the metal rails under the tracks, then Jones backed the Lady over them out of the hole she had dug. On firm ground again, he shut the engine down to let it cool. They didn’t need this exercise, awakening their thirst. They passed the canteen around, taking just a sip.

“Damn, we need water,” Hawkins muttered as he unfolded the map. But there were no markings on it: no roads, no villages, no water sources anywhere. Of course it was a US military map and no one had really bothered with knowing what was really out there. They would have been better off with a French map or even a German or Italian, from people who are more interested in this god-forsaken corner of the world.

“There’s got to be a well someplace,” Hicks grumbled, looking at the bare spot on the map they were lost in.

“I guess we better try heading north and hope to come across something,” Hawkins decided, packing away the map in its case.

Jake returned, they mounted up and the Lady started off following Jake’s directions. As soon as they could, they started edging north, hoping to come across the road or something that led somewhere. Jones had to work the gears often to get them over some ups and downs. Twice he had to back out of loose sand and try to go around the soft section.

Now in a line of hills, Hawkins was worrying his way through some rough ground, across frequent ravines, praying not to get boxed into a dead end. They didn’t have enough gas for that. They followed a dried out river bed, hoping to find a wet spot.

“Made by a flash flood after a storm, three or four years ago,” Hicks said, having an opinion on everything. “Look for some animal tracks, they could lead us to a water hole.”

“What tracks?” Hawkins grumbled. “I haven’t even seen a dung beetle.”

“A scarab, worshipped by the ancient Egyptians for pushing the sun across the sky.”

“We’re in Tunisia, not anywhere near Egypt,” Jake protested on principle.

“You think the dung beetle knows that?”

By the side Hawkins spotted some bleached bones on the ground, and since this was the first time seeing something other than sand and stones, he called a halt. He and Hicks dismounted and examined the find.

“What do you make of it?” the Sergeant asked, his eyes on the half buried bones.

“Looks to be a camel. And take note, there’s a halter among the neck bones. This was a domesticated beast.”

“So?” Jake asked, joining them on the ground.

“So that means, this track might be along an old caravan route that leapfrogs from waterhole to waterhole,” Hicks said.

“How do you know this shit?” Jake asked, squinting skeptically at the Professor.

“I read the memoir of an infamous Captain of the Foreign Legion.”

“Why infamous?”

“Because he bought and sold slaves illegally all along the North African coast and made a pile of money. With his pockets full, he fucked off to Indochina and lived there like a king. The son of a bitch even had the gall to publish his memoire.”

With his binoculars Hawkins traced the likely path a caravan would take and planned the next stretch. “We can make it to the next set of hills, then hole up there for the night and press on early next morning before it gets really hot.” They climbed up the tank and the Lady moved ahead, Hawkins calling out directions.

In the desert the night came quickly. The sun was still above the horizon behind them when Hawkins called a halt beside a jumble of rocks that would give them a defensible perimeter if needed. Sitting snug, hull down, he had a 300 degree clear line of fire. He didn’t expect anything but it was always prudent to be prepared as the Germans were masters at ambushes.

They passed around K-rations, ate silently and took shallow sips of the dwindling water. Tomorrow they would have to find more somewhere or perish of thirst in this dry land that sucked moisture even from the bones.

Each found sleeping places around the tank and settled into them.

“Hey, greenhorn! Make sure you shake out your boots tomorrow morning and not step on a scorpion hiding in them,” Hicks warned Simon. The greenhorn decided to sleep with his boots on.

“And watch out for snakes. They like to snuggle up to something warm on a cold night like we’ll be getting,” Jake advised, leering at Simon. The new co-driver and hull machine gunner decided to sleep wrapped around the hard bottom of the turret basket and climbed inside the tank.

“What the fuck do snakes and scorpions live on out here? Where do they get their water?” Jake asked aloud, not for the first time.

“The desert looks empty to you, but it’s got all kinds of creepy-crawly things, rats, bats, bugs and birds. You rarely see them in the heat of day, but they come out at night. They feed on each other, feast on the blood.”

“What a country. Fit for bugs, not for humans,” Jake rumbled.

“The desert tribes have been here since the beginning… though it wasn’t always like this,” Professor Hicks launched into an explanation. “The climate was kinder, milder some years ago. You wouldn’t know it now, but civilization flourished throughout this land. Grew crops, built towns, places of worship and palaces for kings and nobles…”

“Out here?” Jones asked. “We’ve seen nothing, not a trace since we left, other than that lice infested shit hole back about fifty miles ago.”

“Yet there is. Whole towns under the sand. Communities carved into cliffs. Buried underground to hide from the extremes of heat and cold. This is an ancient land. The Phoenicians, the Carthaginians and the Romans were here, before the Berbers and the Muslim overlords moved in. Believe it or not, the colonial powers wanted this land, carved it up in pieces … hardly seems worth it today.”

“I wouldn’t give a dollar for it,” Jones muttered.

“Yet, Carthage was a great power in its time, equal to Rome. Remember Hannibal? He took his army around the Mediterranean, with his elephants crossed the Alps and terrorized the Roman Empire and threatened Rome itself. It was, however, too large a task and he failed. Rome then retaliated and destroyed Carthage to the last stone, salted the soil so that nothing would grow and poisoned its wells.”

“What does that have to do with today?” Jake asked, looking at the stars that populated the deep blackness of the sky.

“Not much. But that’s all Tunis now. The people here still remember those glory days and hate the Romans to this day.”

“Alright, Professor,” Hawkins interjected. “Enough history lesson for one day. We’d all best get some sleep and start at first light.”

But it wasn’t so easy to fall asleep. Hawkins worried: where were they? Where was their unit? Where to find water? Did this track lead anywhere?

Jake was second in command — he used to have a corporal’s stripe, but lost it over some misunderstanding with the MPs back home — he worried too. “What do you think of the new man?” he whispered to Hawkins.

“Give him a week and he’ll fit right in. Jones will teach him to drive and maybe tomorrow we’ll give him a chance to fire the front 30.”

“I wish they’d given us a J. I asked for it. There was Jonathan, Jerry, Jeremiah, Julius, Justin… but no, they stuck us with an S. I say it’s unlucky, I figure he’ll be the first to die.”

“Why?”

“Because someone upstairs has a sick sense of humor or some perverted hubris.”

“You’re crazier than a half-assed mule. Now go to sleep.”

With each hour the night got colder and the ground sucked any warmth from the bodies lying on it. Asleep, they still struggled to keep the blanket covering every inch of themselves. The moon leisurely sailed across the sky, the chill of night falling like dew without moisture. The already dry land remained dry.

Chapter 2

Morning came early in the desert. A blood red sun broke the line of the horizon and turned the yellows and browns into crimson. It was 4:38 by Hawkins’ watch.

“Rise and shine, boys.” Hawkins gathered himself, shivering in the cold morning air. He wrapped up his blanket and stuck it into the box on the side of the tank. He rubbed his hands together, trying to get his fingers working. “Time to get this show on the road.”

The rest groaned as they struggled to their feet. “Someone get that fool out of the tank. He’s all scrunched up in there and doubtless paralyzed from not being able to stretch out the whole night.”

“Whole night? It was only 5 hours. A body can’t get a decent sleep. I don’t know how the Africans can stand it,” Jones complained.

“They sleep during the midday heat,” Professor Hicks couldn’t resist adding.

Jake climbed the tank and hollered down the hatch. “Hey Bronx! Get your ass up here and do your business. In five minutes we’re underway.”

Moaning, Simon rolled off the tank, then tried to straighten himself. Every joint was stiff and refused to move. Jones grabbed him and pounded on him, popping bones back into place.

“Thanks… I think,” Simon muttered. He went aside and peed, surprised by how little dribbled out of him. Yes, they definitely needed more water.

Jones started the Lady letting the engine warm up.

“All right. Move it now. Jake, clean the place up,” Hawkins said as he climbed into the turret.

“Whatever for?” Jake asked in ill humor.

“So no one sees that we’ve been here. So bury the trash.”

“Our tracks will show that,” Jake grumbled.

“By tomorrow our tracks will fill with sand.”

Muttering to himself, Jake gathered up the tin cans of the night before and swept them into a shallow hole. “Let the archeologist figure that out, hundred years from now.”

They took their places and the tank moved forward, Jones playing with his sticks to slow one track or the other to make the Lady turn. Soon the familiar rumble filled their ears and their thoughts. Jones had his head out with a good view of the way ahead so Hawkins didn’t bother to direct him. There was only one way to go anyway, northeast along the valley with hills on either side. The Sergeant had his upper body out of the turret, a cloth over his mouth and nose.

The sun strengthened, and Hicks climbed out to get a little warmth.

“So, what do you say, Professor?” Hawkins rasped over the engine noise. “Any sign of the civilization you talked about?”

“It’s there, under the sand,” the Professor rumbled.

They drove for less than an hour when the engine started missing, sending dark explosions of exhaust out of the ports on the backside of the tank. Jones stopped the Lady and let it idle for a while but the engine sounded rough so he shut it off. He climbed out and yelled up to Hawkins, “It’s the air filter again, full of sand, choking off the air.”

“Fix it,” was Hawkins only comment. He was scanning the way ahead but not finding anything.

Jones got the engine cowling up and fumbled with the air filter manifold.

Jake and Simon also got off, stretching their legs. The seats on the Sherman were hard and both had sore bottoms. Jake lit up, drawing the smoke deep down his lungs.

“Why can’t you smoke inside the tank?” Simon asked.

“I dunno. I guess Dancer Jim likes it that way.”

“Why do you call him Dancer?” Simon wanted to know.

“Because in real life he was a dance instructor on a cruise ship. He can do all the steps, the tango, the waltz and the rumba. You wouldn’t think looking at him but he was quite a lounge lizard and a ladies’ man. I bet you he wishes he was back there now.”

“Don’t we all,” Simon muttered.

“What did you do?”

“Worked for my uncle who ran a clothing store and a tailoring service. For twelve bucks he can sell you a suit you could take to a wedding. He got the cloth half price from Europe and could make a handy profit. That is until the war. That screwed up everything, but he still had a warehouse full of cloth, probably enough to last out this war. What did you do in civvies?”

“This and that. Never had a steady job. Sometimes in construction, sometimes selling used cars or driving a truck. For three months I was a garbage man. I made more money selling good stuff people threw away. But I didn’t like the smell and I quit.”

“I grew up in the garment industry and learned nothing else. I tell you half the Jews in New York work for them.”

“I thought you were from the Bronx.”

“I was. We had a home there. But the shop was in the Jewish sector. There were a lot of Polish Jews working for my uncle. Cheap labor that was. My uncle lived in a big mansion on Staten Island, and knew the Mayor and the Governor.”

“So then you were going places, a wealthy family.”

“Not really. I have fourteen cousins all working from him. I was low on the family totem pole.”

“I didn’t have much of a family tree. Father was gone, maybe dead, just mother and my aunt were left. I’ll inherit next to nothing.”

“All right, we’re set to go,” Hawkins yelled and they all climbed inside. The Sergeant and the Professor sat up on top, being bounced around like jelly beans. They were crossing the bottom of a valley, their senses dulled by the constant noise of the engine that the ear flaps of the helmets couldn’t block. There were clusters of dried out bushes which Jones often drove right over. The arid branches and twigs snapped under the weight of the 30 ton tank. Once, they scared off a small bird and ground up its nest under the tracks. Jones shifted up and down as needed, changing the pitch of the engine noise.

“Halt!” the Professor yelled unexpectedly.

“Whatever for?” Hawkins asked but tapped Jones to stop. The Lady rocked to a halt and the engine settled into a low rumble. The smell of burned fuel suddenly caught up with them. “What?” he asked again.

Without answering, Jordan Logan Hicks jumped off and scooted left along what seemed like an animal track. Soon he disappeared in the tangle of dried out bushes.

Jake stuck his head out the hatch, looking around. “What the hell?”

“I don’t know. I guess Hicks needs to take a dump. I guess if anyone else needs to do it, this’d be a good time for it,” Hawkins said.

Simon appeared through his hatch, one hand on the barrel of the 75 to help balance him. Jones put the Lady in park and locked the steering. He climbed out and bummed a smoke off Jake.

“I don’t know why it tastes so good, I been smelling gasoline fumes all day,” Jones said, ejecting twin trails of smoke through his nose.

Suddenly Hicks reappeared, moving purposefully. “Grab the shovels and trencher tools and come with me.”

“What is it?” Hawkins asked, much surprised.

“Over the last mile or so, I saw numerous animal tracks converging to the right so I went to investigate.” He led the way and they came to a low level spot with holes dug into the ground. “Just as I thought. Animals come here to drink. Digging holes until they hit water.” He started shoveling and after about two feet the sand turned dark and wet and soon brownish water collected on the bottom. “I don’t know how clean it is, but it’s water.” He looked up. “Simon you bring all the canteens here.”

“I’m not drinking that. Probably full of parasites. Remember Jingle John? Do you want to go his way?” Jake protested, stepping back from the hole.

“Do you want to drink engine coolant? I’m sure that’s a whole lot healthier,” Hicks said sarcastically.

Simon arrived with the canteens. Hicks poured whatever remained into one and gave it back. “That we can drink until it’s gone. Then…” And he dipped the empty canteen into the puddle and let it fill up. Jones brought the large water can, and with infinite patience, Hicks filtered the brownish sludge through his shirt into the large can. “We can put the can on top of the engine, right next to the exhaust manifold and boil it. That should kill any bugs in it.”

“Do it!” Hawkins nodded. “Jones, go and top off the radiator as well.” Jones went off with a canteen in his hand.

It took about twenty minutes to fill all of the containers and return to the tank. They lodged the water can in the engine well and secured it with some wire.

“Loosen the cap,” Jones suggested, “so we don’t blow the whole thing up once the water turns to steam.”

“Good thinking,” Hawkins said and watched as Hicks loosened the cap.

Jones started the engine and the rest watched to make sure that the can stayed secure. Solidly wedged and tied, it did. They all climbed aboard and started off again. Hicks often checked to see if the can was still stable in its position.

“Good eye Hicks, to note all those tracks and find us water,” Hawkins offered a rare praise; the Professor just nodded.

In half an hour Hicks pointed to the can and Hawkins could see steam rattling the cap. “Good, good.” One problem solved. Now if they only knew where they were, better still where their unit was. They had broken down and were left behind by the rest. Jones had been sure he could fix the Lady and after about two hours he did, cleaning the filter and taking apart and reassembling the carburetor that fed the engine. By that time they were about four hours behind and never saw their company again. In twelve or fourteen miles they had found two burned-out trucks off the road, victims of mines. As a result they had decided to swing more inland, cross country, figuring that the Germans couldn’t mine the whole desert. But now, they didn’t know where the rest were. Maybe even gone back and they could be heading right smack towards the Germans with nothing in-between. War was like that: you knew shit, and things just fell on you unexpectedly. Hawkins wiped his goggles clean and shook out the powdery dust that collected under his helmet. It was getting hot again and he looked around for a good spot to hole up over midday. To the left were some rocks and with his foot, he tapped Jones’ shoulder left or right, to direct them there. They found just enough shade to hide in. He called halt. Jones put the tank into park and cut back on the gas to let the idle bring the engine temperature down. After about three minutes he shut off the engine. Yet the noise rumbled in their ears as an afterthought.

Wrapping his hand in a shirt, Hicks extracted the hot can, still bubbling with the heat it had picked up from the engine. If any parasite survived the prolonged boiling, it deserved to live, Hicks thought sardonically.

The rest covered the tank with the camouflage net, and Simon was sent to erase their tracks for the last 300 yards. He came back sweating and drank the last of the old water. The new water was still cooling and they kept an anxious eye on it. They ate more Spam and canned, vacuum packed hardtack. It had little taste but at least it was filling. Jones crawled under the tank and stretched out, grateful not to be doing anything. Gearing, accelerating, and playing with the steering sticks took effort, but the worst was the cramped position driving held him in. It usually took him a full hour to straighten out his backbone.

Leaning against the tank, Simon was reading his prayer book, his lips moving silently. On the blind side of the tank, Hawkins slipped out of his clothes and shook the sand out of them. When he put them on again he felt as if he had taken a bath. Jake was scraping his chin with his combat knife, trying to shave himself. The Professor was babysitting the water can, waiting for it to cool sufficiently.

A few flies found them, eager to seek moisture from eyes, mouths and noses. Jake got about six with the flick of his shirt tail. Simon just hid his head under his shirt. The Professor was decanting the water can into the canteens, taking a sip. “Not bad,” he said, his voice jubilant. Jake and Simon came and drank with great gusto. “Yeah, not bad,” Jake approved, wiping his mouth.

The Sergeant stretched out and fell asleep beside the tank, snoring, his mouth open and a host of flies buzzing around it. Simon went over and chased the insects away. In time Jones emerged and was glad to take a generous drink, not afraid of rationing it. “That’s good,” he said, clearing his throat.

As the sun slipped into mid afternoon, it was soon time to start up again. Simon snapped up his head and asked urgently, “Do you hear that?”

“Hear what?” Jake asked between yawns that stretched his jaws wide open.

“Listen. I hear a rumble, a pulsing rumble,” Simon said, moving his head from side to side, trying to localize the sound. Hawkins came fully awake, and he scanned the skies through the netting.

“I hear it too!” Hawkins said. “That’s a plane! Stay alert!” He vaulted up on the turret and aimed his binoculars over to the northwest.

“Ours or theirs?” Jake asked, jumping up and unlocking the topside 50. He swung it right and left to make sure it was free to track. “Hicks, Simon, you get ready to roll back the netting if I shout, OK?”

“Roger that,” Hicks acknowledged.

Jones climbed back into the driver’s seat and checked his switches and instruments, to be ready to roll if they had to.

“Easy man,” Hawkins said calmly. “The plane is far to the north; he won’t see us yet. But stay ready with your gun… just in case.”

The sound of the plane was more distinct now and more menacing. Next to Tigers and 88’s, tankers feared planes the most. They could pounce from the sky, catch them out in the open and hit them on top where the armor was the thinnest.

“It’s theirs, I can see the cross on the side,” Hawkins said out of the corner of his mouth, careful not to move the binoculars off the plane. “Sweet Jesus, there’s a second and a third right behind it. They’re diving. They must have found something to pick at.” Then the unmistakable chatter of machine guns sounded in the air, quite distinct, mixed with the bark of 20mm cannons. “They must be firing at our guys, God save them.”

There was the thump of an explosion. The planes were bombing something! Then there was a series of explosions, and suddenly columns of dark smoke rose into the air. A low rise blocked the view, but Hawkins judged they were no more than ten miles away.

More planes appeared, lining up and one after another they dropped to make their bomb runs. Shortly an explosion followed and another column joined the rest in the sky. That was oil and grease burning.

“Any chance it could be C Company?” Jake asked.

“Maybe. But without friendly air cover they’re sitting ducks.” Hawkins calculated. Twenty-eight tanks, six armored cars, two or three light tanks, two dozen trucks full of infantry, any number of towed anti-tank guns, supply trucks, water and fuel tankers… and they were being shot to pieces. It could be C or F Company. The planes kept diving, bombing, strafing… taking turns. By now so many dark columns were in the sky that they merged into a wide curtain stretching across the north-east.

“Shit, we could be down there with them, getting it,” Jake whispered as if afraid to be heard by the Germans.

Simon was praying, but didn’t know what for. The words rolled off his tongue, without any aim or a target.

Hicks was sucking in his cheeks, muttering, “… bastards… you bastards…” His hands were balled into fists.

Jones was standing on his driver’s seat, hanging onto the barrel of the 75mm, his eyes riveted on the sky. By now there was so much smoke in the air that the planes disappeared into it. A tracer trail flickered upward; somebody was fighting back, but it didn’t seem to have much of an effect.

Then a different sound joined the fray, a sharp crack and a heavy thump.

“Mother of God, that’s an 88!” Jake exhaled on the verge of panic. Then the unmistakable sound of high velocity 75’s cut through the background noise. “That means they have us bracketed between planes and ground forces. How is that possible? We’re miles yet from the front lines, aren’t we?”

“We are. This looks like a well laid ambush. They came around the flank, south through the desert, just as we’re doing.” Hawkins was chewing on his lips, trying to come to a decision. It would be absolutely useless to join this. The Germans have the whole place covered. It would be suicide… best stay here, hidden.

The crew of the Lady Bug watched the mayhem continue. Who was trapped? How many? Was this a raid or a general attack? HQ Intel had been warning about an expected counterattack. But how wide spread could this be? Damn that their radio was out and they couldn’t listen in to give them a clue.

“Are you sure we can’t fix the radio?” the Sergeant asked Jake, his second in command.

“No, the tubes are burned out. Even the spares. And it also shorted the intercom out… I can fix a loose connection but can’t do anything about the tubes…”

Hawkins noticed that suddenly the planes were gone. Probably short on fuel. “Mount up!” he ordered.

“You’re not thinking of going down there?” Jake asked with sudden anxiety.

“Hell no! Just to the ridge to see what the fuck’s going on. Don’t worry, we’ll stay well out of sight.” He made a circle with his hands above his head which signaled Jones to start up the engine. The rolled-up net was stashed in its box on the side rail. They took their places, Jake nervously behind the 50 caliber on top.

“Go slow, don’t raise any dust,” Hawkins yelled almost into the driver’s ear: Jones nodded. The Lady started and moved forward at an easy walking pace. It didn’t take them long to cross the intervening space to the ridge line, well short of which Hawkins had them stop. “Spread the net and button down. I’ll go and see what’s what.” He crawled forward toward the ledge, Jake following him. Carefully they looked over the edge, seeing the road wide below with burning vehicles and equipment along it. On a rise to the southeast was a line of German tanks, mostly Panzer III and IV’s along with a few self propelled 75’s shooting at whatever moved below. Nobody was shooting back at them: German half-tracks loaded with infantry were driving up to the road and gathering up prisoners. Here and there were shots, but mostly it was quiet. More and more Americans stood up and raised their arms then were herded toward a line of trucks.

“Is it us or F Company?” Jake asked anxiously.

“Neither. I think it’s D. They started after us. Look at the radio truck. They had the latest; we still have the older model.”

“Does that mean they got the rest of the Regiment?”

“Yes, if this is a general attack. Not necessarily if this is just a raid, a quick ambush or a spoiler attack. One thing’s clear though. Those guys below are fucked. How many prisoners can you count? A hundred, two hundred?”

“Not two. Maybe a hundred and fifty. But all the equipment is toast, melted scrap iron.” Suddenly one of the trucks came alive with a flower of explosions as the ammunition cooked off with rapid popping sounds, tracers adding color to the display.

A group of Germans was moving from truck to truck, collecting prisoners, salvaging anything useful, including a few vehicles that still worked. The Africa Korps, so far from home base, lived by scavenging: half their equipment was captured booty from the enemy. They even had a couple of Shermans painted with the German cross.

Hawkins and Jake watched as the people were rounded up, and armored cars swept the flanks to find anybody still hiding. Suddenly a plane appeared out of the east. Hawkins looked back, his heart thumping, but the Lady Bug was covered. Still he felt naked where he was, though he knew that he was next to impossible to spot among the rocks.

“Jesus Christ, that’s a Storch, a single engine scouting plane. Probably assessing the damage. It could even have Rommel in it. The bastard likes to fly around in one… right over the front.” Hawkins was chewing furiously on a wad of gum that had lost all its flavor two hours before. “Wish I had the 50 here.”

“Don’t you even think about it! There’s enough firepower down there to blow us from hell to heaven.”

“Relax, I’m not a fool. But I still wish I could take the bastard out.”

“Oh well, if we’re wishing… I wish for a willing whore from Harbor Street in Boston ready to talk business… at least two bottles of whiskey… and hot dogs and cotton candy…”

“OK. OK,” Hawkins muttered. Below them the Germans were rounding up the wounded but leaving the dead. “I think that means they won’t hold the ground and this is likely just a spoiling raid and not a general attack.”

“So what do we do now? Go back, or try to hook up with the rest further ahead?”

“Let’s see first which way the Germans go. If they go south that’ll tell us this was a raid around our flank. If they go straight east that means this is a general attack,” Hawkins decided.

“And what do we do?”

“We wait for now.” About a mile and a half away and about a hundred feet below, things were wrapping up quickly. One by one the German trucks started working their way back to their tanks and artillery. When the last reached the rest, they all seemed to be heading south.

“So this was a raid,” Jake said, making it sound like a question.

“More than likely. It’s Rommel’s favorite tactic, to come at us from an unexpected quarter.”

“All good and well, but what do we do ourselves?”

“I think we’ll stay off the road and see if we can’t catch up with our unit. That way if I’m wrong, we won’t be coming through the front door but sidle in by a side door.”

“Why not go back? Isn’t that safer?”

“It would be, but we don’t have enough gas. We have maybe about 60 miles left in our tank. So we’re gambling that we’ll find something to the east.” He looked that way, but aside from the carnage below he saw nothing.

The Germans had vacated the valley and were pushing deeper south, retracing the way they had come. Only a dust cloud marked their retreat. Hawkins stood up and started walking back to the Lady. His shoulder ached from the tension of watching the enemy so close and seeing the damage done to a sister Company of his Battalion.

“What I don’t understand is that some of our guys must’ve gotten a radio message out… so where’s our air force? There should be a flight of Curtiss P40’s or Grumman F4’s at least.”

“I think they’re probably fighting a diversionary air attack by the Germans somewhere else, to give them a free hand here. You know, bomb rear HQ or something. Where do you think the planes would be directed, to protect the Generals or to come here?” It was a guess, but under the circumstances it sounded more than feasible.

They got back to the tank where Hawkins quickly explained to the rest, “The Germans ambushed D Company, caught them with their pants down. They were wiped out and whoever wasn’t killed was taken prisoner. The Germans left to the south, so anything east of us should be clear. We’ll go that way, as we don’t have gas enough to go back.” Hawkins looked at all the nodding heads around him. “Simon, jump up and get my Thomson off the rack with two clips of ammo.” The machine gunner complied.

“What do you have in mind?” Jake asked.

“I’m going to take Hicks and we’ll go down and see if we can salvage some radio tubes.”

“Then take me. I know what we need,” Jake offered.

“You’re second in command so I can’t risk you as well. Someone has to mind the store.” Jake made a face but knew from experience that it was useless to argue once the Sergeant had made up his mind.

In minutes, Hawkins and Hicks were heading off. The Sergeant had the Thomson cradled in his hands and the Professor carried an M1 carbine. They picked their way down the slope and approached the road with the destroyed vehicles. They came upon a burned body, then three close together. Most of the tanks were just blackened ruins, everything melted inside, not even worth looking into. But halfway up the line they found a half track with two big holes in it that it hadn’t burned.

“I guess this is our best bet,” Hawkins said. “Do you want to go in to look or should I?”

“I don’t want to touch that with a ten foot pole. There’s nothing but hamburger in there.”

“Tell you what, let’s flip for it.” Hawkins pulled a silver dollar from his pocket and tossed it into the air. “You call it.”

“Heads,” Hicks said, hurrying to beat the coin landing. It turned out to be heads.

“You got it,” Hawkins said, “so you go in.”

“Hey that’s not how it works! I won, so I get to choose. You go in.”

Hawkins took a big breath, leaned into the open doorway and wished he hadn’t. Everything was spattered with blood and gore, with nothing recognizably human aside from bits and pieces of scattered bones. Swarms of flies were all over the mess, and as Hawkins reached in, a cloud of them boiled up out of the interior. Gagging, pushing through the storm of them, Hawkins fumbled at the box to the side that usually held the spare tubes. He managed to grab three, then he fought his way back out. He wasn’t on the ground yet before he was retching already. He collapsed and heaved more of his guts out. Hicks didn’t want to touch him because there was gore on his sleeves and shirt, and a storm cloud of flies was circling it.

“I hope the tubes work,” Hawkins said after his stomach stopped jumping. He still felt sick. Unsteadily they started back, coming across a body, face up, arms akimbo. He had a couple of bullet wounds in his chest but otherwise he was intact.

“Hey! I know this guy. I won ten bucks off him in a poker game then promptly lost it back to him with a trio of high spades. I guess today he wasn’t such a lucky bastard.”

“Let’s get the hell out of here.” Hawkins tried to keep the bile from rising again as they passed a passel of bodies chopped to bits by machine guns from an airplane. The way up slope seemed to take forever under the burning sun. In places the ground was soft and crumbled away under their boots. When they reached the Lady, Hawkins grabbed a canteen to wash the taste of puke out of his mouth. He stood there dripping, still smelling the stench that had collected on his clothes. A swarm of flies still circled him. He poured some water on his sleeves to wash the worst of it away. He gave the tubes to Jake who got into the tank to test them. One came flying back out with the words “no good” following it. A second soon joined the first. A few minutes later, Jake emerged. “The intercom works and we can receive on the radio but not send. Everything is intermittent, full of static.”

“How is that possible?” Hawkins asked.

“There must be a short in the tube itself, that’s all I can say.”

“OK.” Hawkins took a big breath. “Let’s take the net off and get the hell out of here.”

“Can’t be fast enough for me,” Hicks muttered as he settled into the hatch.

Hawkins put on his helmet and plugged in his earphones. He flipped the radio switch on the console in front but heard only the buzz of static. “Fuck!” He switched to com and clearly heard Jones asking which way.

He replied through his throat microphone, “South, right down the slope until the bottom then east again. I’ll let you know when.”

The Lady Bug backed out, turned and felt its way down the moderate slope. On the bottom she turned as Hawkins directed and proceeded more or less parallel to the road. They crossed the tracks of the German vehicles veering south. They all breathed easier when they were on the other side of it. Hawkins swept the view 360 but found no signs of the Germans. They continued east at a slow pace to keep the dust down. In the next valley, in the middle of nowhere they found the ruins of what turned out to be an old church. As it was getting late in the day, Hawkins had Jones turn into the church yard and let the Lady snuggle up to a crumbling stone wall.

“OK, this is it. We’ll spend the night here. Get the net out and cover us.” He took out the map which told him nothing and looked at his compass, from the position of the sun knowing full well without looking where the cardinal points were.

“Can we make a fire?” Jake asked. “Wouldn’t mind something hot.”

“I guess inside the church it’ll be all right, but watch the smoke, we don’t want to invite anybody to drop in on us. Then look around for a well or something. A church like this would have to have water from somewhere.”

“The water could’ve dried up and the place been abandoned because of it.”

“Possibly, but check anyway.” People wandered off poking through the ruins.

Later on they collected around the small fire that Jake fed sparingly. They heated some Spam which tasted much less greasy when warmed.

“What kind of church is this?” Jones asked.

“Believe it or not Christian, from the late Roman period,” Professor jumped in.

“How do you know?” Jake asked, always ready to contest whatever his loader said.

“There’re some fallen over grave stones out the back with traces of Latin on them.”

“We found a half buried chamber with some writing that don’t look like Greek or Latin to me…” Jones said.

“Where?” Hicks asked. He held himself to be the scholar among the crew, with the definitive answer to everything.

“Behind that tall bit of masonry,” Jones pointed. “And it had some faded pictures on the wall.”

Hicks got up to investigate and quickly disappeared around the corner.

“Good for you Jones,” Jake praised. “You got that big mouth out of range of my ears.”

“He knows a lot,” Simon said, impressed by the breadth of the Professor’s knowledge.

“Did you ever think there’s such a thing as knowing too much… which in itself would not be bad… if he could keep it to himself. But you can’t say two words around him before he jumps down your throat to explain it. I’m tired of it and was already tired of it back in the States…”

“Sometimes what he knows can be quite useful,” Hawkins said trying to calm the waters.

“Really? When was the last time?” Jake asked querulously.

No one answered him as Hicks came back, seemingly highly excited. “The lettering you saw was Coptic, but even older than that was some Phoenician. Quite a bit of it too. There was also a fresco in the back that was Carthaginian. It was too dark to see well, but I thought I recognized the symbol for Baal.”

“But… but… didn’t Rome erase Carthage? Tear down the walls and salt the ground? You’re always telling us.”

“True, they did that. In the Third Punic War against Carthage. But the destruction obviously didn’t reach this far inland.”

“Who cares?” Jake asked, allergic to anything his loader had to say.

“Man.” Hicks shook his head in pity. “You have no sense of history. I read about this stuff, but to see it with my own eyes… it made it worth going to war with Germany.”

“Now I know you’re completely crazy. Only someone who’s totally around the bend would say a thing like that.”

“Hey, tone it down a bit. The rest of us are trying to sleep,” Hawkins broke in, pulling the blanket to his chin to ward off the rising chill.

During the night a light breeze sprang up and blew across the church yard, rattling the dried seedpods on a nearby bush. Jones stood it for most of the night, but halfway to morning he got up and trampled the bush into the dirt to stop the incessant noise. With that taken care of, he thought himself finally ready to sleep, but then a cricket or more likely a locust struck up a serenade that cut into his brain like a buzz saw. He was slowly going crazy, but couldn’t localize the source. Twice he got up and stomped something to death, but when he lay down again the infernal noise started up again. He didn’t fall asleep until the morning light began its soft bleeding into the eastern sky.

Chapter 3

Hawkins struggled to get up in the chill of the morning. He was born and raised in Texas so the cold by night and hot by day of the desert wasn’t a novelty to him, but he’d never liked it. That was why he ended up on a cruise ship, making its regular circuit of the Caribbean. To start with he had signed on as a baggage handler, but was too good looking to waste in hoisting luggage. He was discovered and promoted upstairs into the first class saloon, serving and entertaining the guests. He liked the ease of the job: good food and all he could drink, certainly a lot easier than herding cattle or stacking suitcases. From a lively brunette he learned all the steps and he was soon dancing with the ladies who wanted a partner to swing them around the dance floor. Married women, with their men smoking their cigars and looking on, were glad of his services. The older they were, typically the better they tipped.

Of course when the war came, things changed radically. Especially after German U-boats were trolling the coasts sinking ships at will, killing the cruise trade. As well, the liners were pressed into transporting soldiers to various theatres of war or became hospital ships. Hawkins found himself without a job and after hearing a preacher speak of a citizen’s duty, he joined up in a fit of patriotism. He thought he’d be a foot soldier like his father in the previous war, but they stuck him into tanks. A good shot with a firearm, he proved to be good at fitting in. He soon got a Corporal’s stripes and before they left the States was made a Sergeant and given the Royal Flush to command.

“Where’s Hicks?” Hawkins asked, seeing the man missing from his blanket.

“Probably looking at the wall trying to figure out the script,” Jones replied, yawning.

“Where’s this wall?” Hawkins asked.

“Just around the corner, maybe forty steps.”

“OK, you get the rest up and check over the Lady. Plumb the fuel tanks to see how much gas we have left. When I return we’ll be pushing on.” Hawkins strode off, looking for whatever fascinated Hicks so much. He had no trouble locating it, and within a rubble-filled room found Hicks gazing at the wall.

“There’s Latin, Greek, and a bit of Coptic. Even a French man who left his name with an address in Lyon. But the highlight is some very ancient Phoenician. Barely visible. I can’t read it without reference material, but I think this here stands for Baal, one of their main deities. It’s surprising that the Christians didn’t scratch it out… but look, they surrounded it with all the saint names. This is Mark, Peter and an early Christian martyr. And see this… if you look closely this is a Phoenician wall painting. You can just make out the Greek influence. And in this corner the relief of a dolphin…” He paused before a dense group of symbols that appeared newer and sharper. “I don’t know what these are. Maybe Berber… who knows?”

“OK, Professor. This is all very nice, but we got to start moving.”

“Damn, I wish I had my camera here.”

Suddenly Simon appeared above, calling, “Hey, Sarge. Jake sent me to let you know that the coffee’s ready.”

“OK, we’re coming,” Hawkins answered. Hicks and he started back, stumbling across the loose stonework on the floor, then up the crumbling steps.

“It’s amazing this much has survived for over two thousand years. Especially as herders winter their sheep and goats in here,” Hicks said as they emerged into the open, the morning sun already warm on their faces. “You don’t think we could stay here a couple more hours? You know, so I could poke around some more.”

“What do you expect to find?”

“Don’t rightly know. Maybe an old coin or two. Something. I dreamed about this… you know… about exploring antiquity.”

“You read too much. But no, we’d better press on. We’re running low on food and gas. And patience.”

Back at the Lady they found the rest under the net sipping coffee from tin cups. There was a small fire of dry bush burning under the coffee can. Jake reached each of them a steaming cup of strong coffee.

On one side, Simon was sitting with Jones. “Bitter strong. Could use some more sugar. In the Bronx there’s a deli that serves the best—”

“Hold it!” Jones interrupted. “I guess I better tell you the rules. We don’t talk about food, about what and where you had it. It’s bad enough to eat the shit we eat without seasoning it with mouth watering memories. Same about women. I’m not interested in your wife or girlfriend, your sister or your mother, or the girls you knew. We all have longings and have no need to add yours to the ones we already have. Kapish?”

“Then what do you talk about?”

“The present. The here and now. We have no past… and for now, all we want to do is survive into the next day… into the next hour. So we don’t talk about letters from home or what’s happening back there. I don’t want to borrow your homesickness or trouble you with mine. We’re in midst of a storm… so concentrate on that.”

“I don’t know if I can go around with blinkers like that…”

“You’d better. But believe me, it makes things a whole lot easier; we’ve proven it.”

“Who made up these rules?”

“The Professor,” Jones replied. “He’s one shrewd bastard even if his mouth never stops.”

“Are there any more such rules?”

“A few. You keep the Lady neat and clean, she’s our home, share in all the work, do your business well away from the tank, don’t call attention to us… and never… ever volunteer for anything you weren’t ordered to do. The rest you’ll find out in time.” Jones turned his cup upside down to ditch the dregs, got to his fee and went behind the Lady. There, he opened the engine compartment and with a wrench, unscrewed some of the sparkplugs. After checking them, he cleaned the contacts with a small wire bush, resized the gaps and screwed them back in place.

Afterwards, Jones climbed back into his hole and with a small brush and pan swept up some of the fine sand that had gotten inside. When he was finished, he passed the brush and pan to Simon and instructed him to clean his side. “Then check on the 30 cal, make sure the action glides smoothly and if not, clean it and oil it.”

Meanwhile Jake and Hicks folded up the net and stashed it away. They climbed in and cleaned out the turret basket, dumping out the sand.

Suddenly the intercom came alive. “All right folks, welcome again to our cruise. Today we will see more of the wonders of the ancient world and enjoy its benign climate. Be mindful of the do’s and don’ts, and be courteous to fellow passengers…” Hawkins ad-libbed, then his voice changed to an order. “All right, Jones, start her up.”

The engine moaned through a half turn but caught almost instantly, the familiar roar of the Chrysler A57 filling the interior with its steady throbbing. The earphones helped to reduce the noise and the throat mikes filtered out most of the roar. It was good to be connected again by the intercom. Jones let the engines warm up while he listened for any misfire… but the engine was good, firing on all cylinders.

“All right take us out,” the earphones transmitted. The tank lurched forward then made a sharp right to avoid some rubble. They left the ruins and the ancient olive trees gone wild; from the top, Hicks looked back wistfully. They hadn’t found the water source, he was thinking, but there had to be some. His eyes found nothing green in the neighborhood that would suggest water.

At first the path was obvious, but as they got into the low hills the way proved more difficult, forcing Jones to work the gears and his sticks constantly. In places, Hawkins climbed down and went ahead to find them the best route. It was a crap shoot and three times they had to back out of a box canyon that led them nowhere.

When they reached a bit of rise, Hawkins found himself a good perch with a view. With his binoculars he examined the lay of the land trying to chart a course. It wasn’t easy: ahead lay a labyrinth of ravines and gullies that crisscrossed each other. Jake joined him. “See anything good?”

“Hard to say. What looks good from here might not be at all. It’s a fucking maze. Feel like a research rat trying to solve it and get to the cheese.”

Returning to the Lady they found the rest on the ground, stretching their legs. Hicks was smoking. Jones was checking on the tensioning of the tracks. Simon was praying with a shawl over his head.

“That’s the prayerest guy I’ve ever met,” Jake muttered.

“Old school, I expect,” Hawkins commented.

“Do you mean Orthodox? No, they don’t join the army.” He watched as Simon rocked back and forth rhythmically with his prayer.

“It’s OK by me. We can use some divine help.”

“I think we should let the boy fire a few rounds to get him used to it.”

“Good idea. All right, boys, mount up.”

When they were settled and had the engine running Hawkins came on the com. “Simon, see those clumps of bushes about sixty yards ahead? See if you can chop them up with your 30 caliber.”

“Now?” came back the surprised question.

“No tomorrow… Of course now! Right this minute! Why the hell aren’t you firing already?”

They heard the action snap to shove a round into the breech, followed by a short burst. The smell of cordite filled the interior tickling Hawkins’ throat, making him want to sneeze.

“Christ man, you weren’t even close. Lift your sights a little. Follow your tracers.” The next burst was closer and a couple of rounds even reached the target. “That’s better. Squeeze out about five-six shots and don’t let the gun overheat.” This time the bullets chewed through the clump and threw up a spray of sand around it. “Good. Good. Enough for now. We got to save ammo.”

“Welcome to the war, Simon my boy,” Jake called out. “We bask in the blowback of gunpowder…”

“One swallow doesn’t make a spring…” Hicks muttered in the background.

“What’s he talking about?” Simon asked.

“I think that you’re no longer a virgin my lad,” Jones answered. “Now tuck your gun away, like a good boy, and have a cigarette.”

“I don’t smoke,” Simon muttered.

“Good then you can give me your ration.”

“I’ve fired a gun before you know, even the 75.”

“But not in anger… not in an active theater of war. And especially not when the target can fire back. There’s a huge difference.”

“All right, cut the crap and get us moving,” came the order from topside.

Jones clutched, put it in gear and fed the accelerator. The tank lurched forward and zigzagged on the gentle down slope.

“There’s loose gravel underneath, watch a slip to the right.” Jones could feel that and was ready for it when it happened. He eased the Lady down the slope without bringing the rest of the hillside with them.

The Lady was motoring along, finding her way through the labyrinth. Thus far, Hawkins had been right; they hadn’t come to a dead end or something impossible to cross. They entered a narrow defile and in the closeness the engine noise reverberated to a deafening roar. It was a relief to get into the open again.

“Wait!” Jake called, from the turret. Immediately Jones pulled his sticks back and they ground to a halt.

“What is it?” Hawkins asked.

“Look.” Jake pointed to a clump of green on the bottom of a depression. Green — that meant water! Hawkins and Jake climbed down and strode over to the bushes that had some life in them. They found a small pool, fed by seepage from under a rock.

“Where do you think it comes from?” Jake asked a reasonable question given all the dryness around them.

“Who cares? As long as it isn’t brackish.” Hawkins bent down and took a careful sip from his cupped hand. “No, it’s good!” He hollered back to the tank. “Get your containers and fill them up.” Hicks came with a handful of canteens and Jones with the water canister. Patiently, they let the containers fill, one by one. It took nearly half an hour as the seepage was sluggish. While the others finished, Hawkins examined the way ahead with his binoculars. The land was full of obstacles that could confuse and trap any tank. He saw nothing then a sudden flash low in the air. Adjusting the focus, he found a plane in his view.

“Plane! Get out the net. Jones shut the engine off so we can hear better.” The rest jumped to the task while Hawkins tried to find the plane again. As the engine shut off, they heard nothing at first, only the memory of their own engine in their ears, then the distant high pitched noise of a diving plane. That was followed by a staccato burst of machine guns. At the end of its run the plane turned sharply allowing Hawkins to see the flash of a star painted on its wings.

“It’s one of ours!” Hawkins yelled in relief. “One of our newer fighter bombers.”

“What’s he firing at?” Hicks asked.

“A good question… but I can’t see from here.” Hawkins adjusted the focus but could not see into the cut in the hills. “But it’s got to be German… or Italian.”

“Yeah but what? A desert patrol? A tank? Or a whole squadron of tanks?”

“Can’t see.” Hawkins was still fiddling with the focus. “But can’t be many. There aren’t any dust clouds anywhere.”

The plane dived again and fired a sustained burst.

“That’s not a truck or something soft-skinned. It’s got to be a tank, otherwise we’d have seen some smoke from a fire already,” Jake offered, squinting into the brightness of the sky.

“Very likely. But how many?” Hawkins tracked the plane. “He’s firing in the same general spot, but what would one tank be doing here, all by itself?” It made little sense to him.

“Should we put away the net?” Hicks asked.

“No, leave it on. I don’t trust a fly boy to take a good look before firing on us,” Hawkins decided. The plane made a circuit, and another without firing, then flew off to the northwest.

“Do you think he got whatever he saw?” Jake asked craning his neck after the plane that was fast disappearing in the vastness of the sky.

“How the hell should I know? But do you see any smoke? I sure as fuck don’t see any,” Hawkins snapped out, irritated, then continued more reasonably, “I think we better assume that he… what or whoever he is, survived and proceed with caution.”

“What if it’s troops on foot?”

“Now what would anyone on foot be doing out here? No, we must assume it’s something mechanical and if he survived a strafing it means a tank.” He listened hard, but couldn’t hear the plane any longer. He couldn’t hear anything from the enemy tank either. But the sounds could be trapped by the hills. “All right men. Make ready.” He was already looking ahead.

“If we go ahead, we’ll run right into them.”

“That’s the idea. I want a look at him… while I still know where he is. I wouldn’t want to be playing blind man’s bluff with him.” Hawkins climbed into the turret, plugged in and instructed, “Go nice and easy, Jones. Up to that hillock in front, but stop just short of it.”

The Lady started and moved forward at moderate speed, stopping as instructed. Hawkins and Jake clambered down then ran doubled over to the top of the rise. Keeping low in lee of a dried out bush, they scanned the ground below. There were lots of folds in the land and nothing jumped out at them. Hawkins tracked through the view again, still finding nothing. They heard something that sounded like a distant engine noise, but still saw nothing.

“Does that sound like a tank to you?” Hawkins asked, aware that his mouth was suddenly dry.

“Everything sounds like a German tank to me and I shit my pants every time.”

Hawkins broke into a sweat. They had to find the bastard! They couldn’t risk moving unless they knew precisely where the other was. But he could find nothing.

“Look! Look!” Jake pointed.

Following the direction, Hawkins looked but again saw nothing. Then he saw a wisp of smoke rise into the air and beneath it the top of a turret. His heart sped up. “A tank all right,” he hissed.

“What kind?” came the anxious query.

“Can’t tell yet.” When he could see from the smoke was that the German engine was running rough, exhaling dark smoke. “I think he’s got some engine trouble.”

“Yeah, I think I can hear it.”

When Hawkins got the focus as sharp as it would go, he saw the turret move and reveal the whole tank. “It’s a Panzer IV I think! No, I’m sure of it,” he said, his heart in his mouth.

“Just as long as it’s not the Tiger or a Panther.” Jake resumed breathing. A fly landed on his forehead looking for the sweat there and irritated, he slapped at it, hurting himself. “Ouch!”

Hawkins focused on the tank carefully. “It’s an upgraded version, equipped with the longer high velocity 75. They can outshoot us, but its armor is no thicker than ours, and we’re faster, especially as he’s having some kind of engine trouble.” He licked his parched lips. “We can take it, if we can get the drop on him. In these narrow valleys his longer range doesn’t matter.”

“Are you dead sure?”

“Choose your words more carefully, damn you! I don’t want to hear dead anything in whatever context.”

“Sorry,” Jake muttered contritely, biting his lips.

They crabbed backwards, Hawkins signaling for startup. They vaulted up and slithered down the hatch.

“Left… left… right… more…” Hawkins guided the tank as on top he had the better view and had an idea of where he wanted to go. They left one gully for another. “Not too fast now. Keep the dust down.”

“What do you think they’re doing out here all alone?” Jake asked over the engine noise.

“I think they were with the ambush but had engine trouble and are now nursing their machine and taking a more direct route back to their lines.”

“Why didn’t they just ditch it and hitch a ride back with the others?”

“Jesus man, we’re in Tunisia. Rommel is starved for equipment and supplies. He can’t afford to lose a single tank. His troops know that. No this crew’s intent on making it back.”

They took a sharp right and dropped into another narrow gulch. They accelerated up a hill and came to level ground again.

“Look!” Jake pointed just ahead as they came upon the Panzer IV’s tracks.

“All right we’re getting close. You’d better get ready with the 75.” Jake disappeared and Hawkins heard the breech snap open as Jake called for AP. If they ever needed armor piercing, this was it. A Sherman carried 90 rounds and they had 87 left: 65 AP and 22 HE, high explosives used against infantry, buildings and soft-skinned vehicles.

Simon was mumbling prayers into the open intercom, but Hawkins didn’t stop him, thinking it better to have the Jewish God on his side. He took a stick of gum from his fast disappearing hoard, put it in his mouth and was momentarily distracted by the burst of flavor. He had the Lady follow the tracks, easing around corners, ready to fire at anything that moved.

They were crossing a washout, just clearing the other side, when something screamed by him then a split second later he heard a boom. The German! The Krauts were firing at him. How the hell??! From where?

“Hard hard right! Full speed! Panzer at 11:00 o’clock about eighty feet ahead.” The Lady literally vaulted over the far side of the dry water run; the turret was swinging to bear on the German. “Fire as soon as you can. You gotta spoil his shot!” The 75 roared, filling the interior with the blowback. The sweet smell of cordite was nauseating. The shot came close to the Panzer, exploding against the rock face just behind the moving machine. Spent shell was ejected and a new AP slapped in. Desperately Jake was winching the turret to a new firing line. Then Lady ducked behind a cover and the sight line was lost.

Hawkins was hunkered down with just his eyes above the rim of the hatch, directing them. “Straight. This route parallels theirs, maybe we can get ahead of them.” We had better! At full speed the Lady was bouncing along the trail and those inside were thrown every which way. “Hang on!” But Simon nearly got knocked out when his head bounced off the steel plate in front of him. His helmet saved him. “Hang on!” People braced themselves as best as they could against the bone jarring impacts.

The ravine ended and suddenly they burst into the open and about a hundred yards to the left was the Panzer on a parallel course. “Shit! At 10 o’clock… Full speed… get us the hell out of here!” Both tanks were winching their turrets around to bear. Who would get off a shot first?

The German fired, his shot hitting just five feet away, sending rocks and dirt all over the Lady. Jake fired, but he missed too, just short of the Panzer. At full speed, the gun platform wasn’t steady enough for accuracy. But the German had the same problem. Reload! Reload! Hicks shoved another AP into the breech and spinning his wheels, Jake was trying to keep the Panzer from bouncing out of his crosshairs.

Simultaneously both tanks fired and simultaneously they missed. Hawkins ducked down as a shower of rock fragments and dirt pelted down on the Lady. Reload! Aim! Fire! Missed again, but the shot was dangerously close. Like sailing ships of old, the two tanks were trading broadsides, but because of all the bouncing over the uneven ground, the shots missed.

Did one of them dare to stop and take a more deadly accurate aim? If you stop you die! Giving the opponent a stationary target — was like turning into a sitting duck.

“Hard left! Into that hole! And stop!” Hawkins yelled. What hole? But Jones pulled back hard on the left stick, stopping that track, while accelerating the other, and the Lady twisted around into a shallow depression. Jones pulled the other stick back and the tank stopped. They were in an advantageous hull down position with only their turret showing, a much, much smaller target.

“11:00, no 11:20…!” Hawkins yelled into everyone’s ears. The turret swung around and the Panzer stabilized and centered in the viewfinder. Jake pushed the foot trigger and the 75 fired and rocked back with the recoil. The smoke instantly hid the German from view.

The German fired simultaneously, his shot raking the right side of the turret with a horrendous noise, bouncing away. Reload! Fire! Jake did, through a fog of smoke, hoping the 75 was still on the Panzer. More smoke, even less to see. Reload! Fire! Another shot was away. Jake wiped the sweat from his eyes, and choked on the blowback. It was getting hard to see, inside and outside, and even harder to breathe the built-up of fumes from the gun. Reload! Fire! He did so blind, not seeing anything through the view finder. Reload!

“Can you see anything?” Jake yelled.

“Nothing! Just smoke!” Hawkins yelled back.

Not knowing what to do, to release his tension Simon fired the ball-mounted front 30 hull machine gun. A spray of about 15 rounds only stopped when Jones reached over and pulled him off the gun. “What…? What?” Simon stuttered.

“OK. OK. Cease fire! We got the bastard!” Hawkins yelled jubilantly into the intercom, deafening everybody. Jake’s viewfinder was clearing and he saw the shape of the Panzer IV jump into focus. The tank was halfway on its side, having run off one track and slammed into some rocks. There was another hole in the engine housing and flames and smoke pouring from it. He discovered another impact that had made a mess of the bogey wheels on the near side. A figure was struggling out of the tank and behind him another.

“Got two live ones!” Jake called out, his voice cracking.

“I see them,” Hawkins said as he scooped up the Thompson and jumped out of the tank. Crouching he ran toward the Germans, aiming the Thompson at them. He got there just as a third German crawled free of the burning wreck. The Germans backed away from their tank, mesmerized by the inferno they had just escaped. Then with a huge explosion the Panzer blew up, sending the turret high into the air. A blast of heat hit Hawkins in the face and for a second he was dazed, but recovered quickly. “Hande hoch!” he yelled, training the Thompson on the Germans.

The Germans turned to him, shock on their faces. One sank to the ground obviously badly hurt. The officer took one step back but snapped his hand into the air and shouted. “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! We surrender.” Jake arrived with the M1 carbine covering the Germans. Then Hicks with his 45 in hand.

The two sides faced each other. Three facing three. The victors and the vanquished. Relief flooded through Jake as he realized they had won. They had killed a Panzer IV! Small caliber ammunition was popping off in the burning Panzer and they all backed away, afraid to get hit by a stray fragment. Jones arrived with Simon who was looking very pale.

Hawkins motioned with his Thompson to the officer to take care of the wounded. The two Germans gathered around the one on the ground and pulled back his blood soaked shirt. It was one awful mess, the chest chewed up by steel fragments. The man’s breathing was labored and there was no consciousness in his eyes. The officer looked up at Hawkins and shook his head. They stood around and watched the man die, bleeding to death, the blood staining the thirsty sand beneath him. The man’s hand fluttered a little, but he wasn’t aware of anything. They counted six more breaths then nothing.

“Bloody hell…” Jake muttered. That could be any one of them. Alive one minute, dead the next.

“Simon…” Hawkins called, but seeing the youth’s sick expression he switched to Jones. “Go get the shovel.”

“We gonna bury him?” Hicks asked, affronted by the thought.

“Not we, they.” Hawkins indicated the remaining Germans.

Jones brought the shovel and Hawkins gave it to the officer, who passed it on to his underling. Hawkins pointed to the ground and the German started digging. Jones walked over to the wreck that was still smoking but the flames were subsiding. There was not much to see, everything black including the two corpses of the crew who hadn’t made it out. There was the sickening smell of burnt flesh mixed with oil residue.

“Lieutenant Hans Kruger, Afrika Korps,” the officer introduced himself, snapping off a salute.

Hawkins frowned, and said sourly, “You’re now a prisoner of the US Army.” What was he going to do with the two captives?

Guessing his thoughts, Jake suggested, “We could shoot them.” And he slapped his carbine. Yes that would solve the problem.

Alarmed, the officer objected, “The Geneva Convention says…”

“I know what the Geneva Convention says, the real question is do you?” He pulled the bolt back on the Thompson, and pushed the cartridge back down into the clip. Then he flipped the safety on, relaxing his grip. Seeing this, the officer breathed easier.

The other had finished digging the grave, knee deep, but Hawkins indicated he wanted it waist deep. The man muttered but resumed digging.

“OK men, get yourselves ready, we want to be away from here in case someone notices this little fracas.” Jake stayed, his carbine ever ready, while the rest went back to the Lady. The Professor got inside the tank and threw out the expended 75 shell casings.

“Simon, you bury the casings. I want to leave nothing visible here,” Hawkins ordered.

A little confused, Simon scooped some sand over the shells, covering their brightness.

Once the digging was finally finished, Hawkins motioned to the Germans to put the body in. Unceremoniously the two grabbed the corpse by the shoulders of his shirt, dragged him to the hole and dumped him in it. The underling had the decency at least to bend down and make the dead man lie little more comfortably. He crossed the arms over the chest and tried to shut the eyes, but they wouldn’t. He stood back up and started filling the hole. Bit by bit the man disappeared under the dirt. Hawkins looked around for something to make a cross but the officer interrupted him, “He was a Nazi…. Didn’t believe in God.”

Nonetheless, Hawkins stood over the grave and muttered, “May God have mercy on your soul. Amen.” Jake made the sign of the cross. Hawkins looked around; had he forgotten something? No one wanted to think about or touch the two burned bodies so they left them in the still smoking wreck. He motioned the two prisoners forward and they all returned to the Lady.

“What are you going to do with them?” Jake asked in an aside.

“Have them ride on the back deck, what else?”

“Do you want to tie them up or something?” Hawkins shook his head. “They could run away,” Jake protested.

“If they’re fools enough, miles from anywhere. But that would solve our problem, wouldn’t it?”

“We ought to search them at least, don’t you think?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

Jake motioned to the Germans and had them undress. He found papers, some local money and a lighter which he immediately confiscated. He let them dress again and motioned for them to climb up on the back and sit over the engine. He then took his place by the hatch keeping his carbine ready.

Inside, Hawkins stuffed the captured papers into an empty ammo box. Hicks stuck his head out to check on the Germans. He lit up a cigarette, and greedily sucked the smoke down, ignoring all the while the want that lit up in the German subaltern’s eye. The engine started and warmed up.

“You know Jake, I don’t much like you but I could kiss you for what you did here,” Hicks said to his crewmate. “I think you got them by the fourth shot. Not that we got off scot-free, look what a gouge they put onto the Lady. So the next time we’re near a canteen, I’ll buy all the beer you want.”

“I don’t drink beer,” Jake said.

“Well whiskey or whatever you want.”

Hawkins pushed Hicks back down, who pitched the cigarette over the side. The German jumped off and grabbed it up and sucked on what remained on it. He then climbed back onto the rear deck.

They started up, Hawkins midway out of the hatch, looking ahead. The Germans were sitting down hanging onto any handhold. In a short time the place of combat was behind them. Hawkins had time to be thankful that everything had gone so well; they had met the enemy and bested them. It could so easily have gone wrong. The tank angled left then turned right. Down and up in quick succession. The Lady chewed up the miles, digging herself out of the hills.

Hawkins looked back at the prisoners, but found only the officer there. “Stop!” he yelled into the intercom. Obediently the Lady came to a halt. “Where’s the other guy?”

The officer shrugged. “He jumped off a couple of miles ago.”

“He’ll starve out there or die of thirst.”

The officer shrugged again. “We all have to die one way or another.”

Jake poked his head out. “What gives?”

“One of the Germans ran off.”

“I told you they might!” He was reaching for his carbine.

“Let it go. He did us a favor, one less mouth to feed and watch.”

They resumed their way, crossing a bit of level stretch. Then they had a rough ride up a steep slope in low gear, but on top they were out of the labyrinth, faced with the open vista of a broad plain. About 15-16 miles ahead, a new line of hills appeared. Hawkins thought of rejoining the road but decided against it. He didn’t want to be the only target on such a well watched path. He figured he had a better chance by continuing as they had been.

“Forward!” he called, and the tank started into the open.

“Where to exactly?” Jones asked.

“Anywhere you like as long as it’s to the east. Keep your speed down not to raise so much dust.”

It took them almost two hours to cross the plain and get into the hills. The sun was hot and nearly unbearable. The German officer in the back looked wilted from the sun and the rising heat from the engine. Hawkins looked for a place to hole up for a couple of hours. When he found some shade and a spot with a good hull-down position, he directed Jones into it. They stopped and the crew left the tank, grateful to stretch their legs. The seats were adjustable, but not comfortable, especially not on a long haul. All of them had their 45’s in holster on account of their prisoner. Jake doled out the cans and gave one to the German only when Hawkins insisted.

They ate silently, passing around the canteen, with Jake again reluctant to hand it to the prisoner. Afterwards they settled in for a quick snooze, only Hawkins staying on guard. He didn’t trust the officer who was looking around, observing things. What can he do? Maybe steal a gun and hold us at bay, while he fires up the Lady and abandons us here. The Germans know the Shermans inside out, having captured so many from the British. It didn’t occur to him that the Americans had also lost a few to the enemy since landing in Africa.

The German nestled himself into the shade, but his eyes were on everything.

“What means Lady Bug?” he asked idly.

“Lady Bug is an insect. Red with black spots. Small and round.”

“Ahhh, Marienkäfer.” Then he frowned. “A strange name for a machine of war.”

“What did you call your tank?”

“Rhinoceros. And the one before Wild Cat. Then Tornado, Storm, Rage…”

“How many tanks did you have?”

“Seven, if we count the one in Poland.”

“And how many did you lose?”

“Why, all of them.”

“All seven??! And you’re still alive?”

“Not all of them hit and destroyed. Three died of some mechanical trouble, simply wore out. After lots of miles. Only two burned.”

“I still say you were lucky.”

“Yes, lucky. For me the war is over, I am a prisoner and have survived.”

“You sure you don’t want to run away like your buddy?”

“Why? I did my duty to the Fatherland and was not a coward. Now I am a prisoner and don’t have to fight any more.”

“Are you a Nazi?”

“To you Americans, every German is a Nazi. With my long service, if I were a Nazi I would be a Major by now. No, I’m not a Nazi. Gunther was.” He pointed back toward the unmarked grave. “A storm trooper, Brown Shirt before the war. But he was dumb and a brute. Even the Nazis didn’t want him. I got stuck with him.”

“What about the one who ran away?”

“He was a farm boy from Bayern. All he knows is how to milk cows. But in the army they stuck him behind the cannon, you know, to feed the gun.”

“A loader. Then for God’s sake why did he run away?”

“Because of propaganda. He heard that Americans shoot prisoners. And he believed it because we did in Poland.”

“You shot prisoners?”

“Orders. Forward, must go forward all the time. We could not let prisoners slow us down.”

In war, Hawkins thought, you don’t get to choose who you end up with but become a band of brothers, closer than blood kin. He looked at the weather-beaten face of the German. He had been there from the beginning: Poland, France and Africa. Probably lost quite a few comrades. Maybe by now he didn’t make friends anymore. It’s hard to order a friend into battle, harder to see him get killed.

Jake roused himself and came over. “Get some sleep. I’ll watch the bastard.” He slapped his carbine for emphasis. Hawkins nodded and went off to find himself a place for an hour.

“I’m no danger…” the German started to say.

“You just shut your yap. Don’t speak unless asked. Kapish?” The German shut his mouth, wondering what a yap was.

Hawkins tried to sleep, but a bunch of flies found him and buzzed around his head. Soon as he dropped off, they crawled all over his face and woke him again. Jones was sitting up near him, smoking. Seeing the Sergeant’s troubles, he offered a cigarette. “You know, to keep the buggers off you.”

“No thanks. I don’t smoke.” Hawkins sat up, and periodically swiped at the flies.

“We were darn lucky back there. Did you look at the gouge on the turret? Almost a quarter way through the metal. Had the shot been a half inch closer, we wouldn’t be here now. At least, you wouldn’t have been. It would have hit right where you were sitting. War is a crap shoot…”

“Don’t think so much about it. It’s easier that way. What if and what if not… You can drive yourself crazy with second guessing yourself. Next thing you know you’re afraid to take a crap.”

“I’m already afraid. Life and death is a matter of inches. You duck and jump right into the path of a bullet. I guess it comes down to luck. You’re either lucky or you’re not.” He exhaled a twin jet of smoke through his nose. He took another drag, then pinched the butt out and threw it away. He got to his feet and went to the tool box.

“What’re you going to do?”

“I can’t sleep. So I’ll clean and grease the bogey wheels. They’ve been screeching lately.” He crawled under the tank and started working.

Hicks came over and squatted down beside the Sergeant. He was smoking too, as usual. He and the driver smoked up their allotment and then they were forced to bum from the rest. Once they smoked everything, they became real ornery.

“Do you know where we are?”

“More or less. We’re just south of the main east-west road, and once we’re out of these hills and out of the Atlas Mountains, we’re into the cultivated landscape of the coastal plain.”

“I mean, what are we doing? What’s the plan for the whole army?”

“I only know what Lieutenant Walker told us at the last briefing. Push to the coast, cut Tunisia in half and link up with the British coming from Libya to the south. Then our combined armies, the French and the British, turn, clear the north and take Tunis.”

“Yes, yes. It’s well known that with newly appointed Blood and Guts Patton we’ll be pushing up into the Germans’ ass. What I want to know is what are we doing here and now?”

“We’re trying to catch up with our Battalion.”

“If we own the road, why’s it so fucking empty? Where are the rest of the army groups? There should be a line of trucks all the way back to Algiers.”

“I don’t know, and I don’t much care. I’m no General and I don’t have to worry about any of that. All I’m interested in is what’s in front of my nose.”

“That’s just it, you don’t know what’s in front of you. We could be running right into the arms of the fucking Germans.”

“Jesus, Hicks. Have a little faith. We have an entire battle group ahead of us.”

“Says who? We haven’t seen hide nor hair of them. All we know is that D Company was ambushed and wiped out. What if the rest was also destroyed and there’s just us? A single fucking Sherman to face the whole of Afrika Korps alone?”

“If there was a battle of that size we would’ve seen smoke from one horizon to the other. No, the German took a bite out of our exposed flank, but the rest of our guys are still ahead.”

It didn’t convince Hicks any. The man was too intelligent, Hawkins thought, worried too much about what was and what could be, bouncing between all the possibilities. Hicks pulled a crumpled pack from his shirt pocket, found it empty, cursed and strode off looking for more.

“Hey, Sarge, can I make fire?” Jake asked. “I don’t mind eating cold food, but I’d sure like some hot coffee.”

“We better not. Smoke would be an open invitation for somebody to take a look at us. I prefer to lay low, very low. By the way Jake, I meant to tell you what a good job you did back there. When we rejoin our guys I’ll put it in my report.”

“I was only protecting my ass… our asses. You know after the first shot I was firing blind. Couldn’t see anything from the smoke of our gun. I guess I was lucky. We all were.”

“I think the first shot took out their track and they crashed. The gyro-stabilized gun kept firing more or less into the same spot…. But yes we were lucky.”

“They only got us once. When I heard that I thought we were dead meat, but it ricocheted off.”

Hawkins stood up and brushed off his pants. “You better gather up the troops. We might as well get going.”

“I meant to ask you about the German. Why don’t we just leave him here? Let him walk home by himself.”

“He doesn’t want to go. He’s happy he’s a prisoner. He thinks he’s safe with us and assured of surviving this war. He’s halfway right, you know.”

“Well I don’t like it. I don’t trust the mean son of a bitch.”

“America’s been in this war a little over a year. The poor bastard has been fighting since ’39. That’s four years already. He figures he’s done enough for the Fatherland.”

“Yeah, well, mark my words…” Jake muttered, then without finishing he started issuing orders and the crew hurried to get ready.

Jones was warming up the engines, listening with satisfaction to the radial cylinders firing. After the first cough the engine had settled down to a steady roar. Jones took off the park brake and waited for the go ahead. He was surprised when Hawkins yelled into his headphone, “Shut it off!” Automatically he flicked the switches and the engine sputtered out.

“What the hell??!” Jake suddenly came to life, hearing the tension in Hawkins’ voice.

“Shut up! Everyone shut up!” Hawkins took his helmet off to hear better. Suddenly there were planes in the sky. Four, five… eight, ten and more. Some flying east, others coming from the west. What the hell? “Get the net out! Cover the Lady!” The men jumped to it, and had the net up in minutes. Even the German was helping.

“God Almighty…” Jake sputtered. The sky was alive with planes, American and German caught in dog-fights, a real furball.

Hawkins had the binoculars up, scanning the skies. He saw American Curtiss P-40’s up against Messerschmitt109’s and a few FW190’s. The center of action was more to the northeast, but a few came chasing this way overhead.

A chunky aircraft flew over with a Messerschmitt on its tail. The German was firing all his guns and the American plane took it all and kept on flying. “What in blazes was that?” Jones asked

“That’s an armor plated Thunderbolt. Saw one back in the States. Very rugged. It takes an act of God to bring one down,” Jake yelled jubilantly. The planes flew on until the German ran out of ammunition and had to give up the chase. The crew of Lady Bug cheered the moral victory.

The sky flashed brightly with planes trying to outturn each other. The staccato noise of machine guns filled the air, and occasionally a plane burst into flames and drew a dark trail as it plunged to the ground, sending a mushroom cloud of explosion into the air. The whole thing was very confusing, and it was hard to figure out who was winning. Hawkins counted four parachutes in the sky, but much further off.

Then suddenly about four planes strayed overhead, hunting each other. Short bursts followed short bursts as the pilots were trying to conserve ammo. Jake jumped on top and readied the 50 caliber. He was ready to shoot if someone came really close. Planes passed overhead and a rain of bullets pelted down on them. Simon and Jones dived under the tank, the rest hit the ground.

“It’s all right men,” Hawkins yelled, “it’s not bullets… just the ejected casings from the machine guns.” He was looking at one still smoking near the tank.

The aerial combat continued well into late afternoon. New planes were arriving while others left to reload and refuel. Then they were gone and the sky was empty, except for some trails of smoke from the crashed planes.

“Who do you figure won?” Simon asked.

“I counted four Americans shot down but just as many Germans,” Jones said. “But I couldn’t make out what was going on farther off.”

Jake was making a short circuit around, picking up spent shells. “There are 30’s, 50’s and a couple 20mm’s.” He had a handful to prove it.

“All right men, let’s get started,” Hawkins called out. “We have maybe two hours of daylight left.”

The Lady moved forward and soon they were back into the familiar feel of being bounced around, their ears full of noise and the crew breathing in the fumes. It was hot with the engine heat collecting inside. All the hatches were open but the air hardly seemed to move. Outside wasn’t any better; the German was sitting on the back deck hanging on to handholds.

“Jake, since you’re doing nothing at the moment, see if you can get the radio working,” Hawkins called on the intercom.

Jake fiddled with the radio but the thing only squawked. He switched channels, but found only static. Turning the dial, he picked up something and he tried to tune it in. “Listen to this,” Jake called out triumphantly, switching it to the speaker. Strains of classical music filled the tank, fading and strengthening. It sounded beautiful to their starved ears.

“I like that, wonder what it is?” Jones asked and decelerated so he could hear better over the rumblings of the engine.

“Johannes Brahms, Symphony Number 3, poco allegretto,” the German said from the back.

“How the fuck do you know?” Jake challenged him.

“It’s broadcast by the German Armed Forces Radio from Tunis. In the desert we have little else to do but listen.”

The concert didn’t last long, fading out. Unable to find it again, Jake swore and snapped the static off in frustration. They were back to the mind-numbing tune of the engine, rumbling away.

“Did any of the airmen who bailed out come down our way?” the Professor asked. Did he want to rescue them?

“Nah, they were more to the northeast of us,” Jake said, fumbling through his stuff looking for cigarettes. He found a half pack and squeezed past Hawkins to get topside. He had difficulty lighting the smoke as the wind of their speed blew out his lighter. He and the German locked eyes and neither blinked.

With Jake topside, Hicks could stretch out a little more. “It must be nice to be a pilot. Nothing but sunshine and fresh air. And an excellent view…”

“Did you see them burning? And hitting the ground. In war nothing’s good…” Jones interrupted.

“Still, there’s this and that. Here we are, scrunched into a tin can, tossed around like in a washing machine, being slowly cooked to death by the sun, breathing bad air. We eat shit and smell like shit. Do you know when I last had a bath? In Casablanca. A pilot flies back to his base, has a decent meal and climbs into a clean bed. Maybe even finds a whore to share the night with. Now who has it better? He or us?”

“All right Hicks, knock it off. You’re doing nothing for our morale. Find something more pleasant to talk about,” Hawkins called into the intercom. Trouble was, the Professor couldn’t: he wasn’t built to see the lighter side of things.

After about an hour and a half they stopped, parking the Lady among some rocks. They covered up, and in the lee of a rock face built a small fire to make hot coffee for Jake. They passed some food around and drank cups of coffee. The Sergeant let the German drink out of his cup, as they only had five of everything. The officer muttered, “Danke. Danke.”

Then they settled down, trying to find a comfortable position in which to lie on the ground. The German too. But Jake wouldn’t have it. He got his carbine and threatened, “Either tie the bastard up or so help me God, I’ll shoot him right here. I couldn’t sleep a wink knowing he was free.”

In the end they tied the German’s arms behind his back and then to the back track. Jake checked the bindings and seemed halfway satisfied. Still he couldn’t sleep.

The next morning the German could barely move, his arms paralyzed from being tied so long. Hawkins was up on the hill, inspecting the ground ahead. With him gone, Jake built a small fire to cook up some coffee. This morning he needed it. They sipped the strong brew, but Jake didn’t offer the German any. And afterwards when the German gestured to relieve himself, Jake got his carbine and stood over him while the German did his business in front of him.

“There’s traffic on the road. Trucks and artillery. All ours,” Hawkins said when he got back. “I guess we can rejoin the flow. They’re only about six-seven miles to the north.” He had a sip of bitter coffee, forcing it down.

Abruptly the buzz of an airplane filled the air and they all froze. It was flying along their side of the road. “It’s OK. It’s one of ours,” Hawkins said in a rush of relief. Then they watched as if it were an airshow organized for their entertainment. The plane made two passes then flew off west.

They started off crossing a level stretch, then went back and forth to avoid some ditches that crisscrossed their path. They found a cut through the waste that looked to be an old trail of sorts, though there was no sign that anyone had used it for a long while. Since it seemed to be going the way they intended, they drove along it. There was some greenery around and the vegetation looked healthier with leaves and even flowers. There were more birds that took off as they got near. They entered some low hills and around a corner they found some ruins. They weren’t much, just a few walls, no roof anywhere.

Hawkins called a stop and ordered Jake to look around, maybe for a well or any water source. Jake took his carbine and made a circuit of the area. He did find some water in a shallow pool, but not much of it. “It looks like a spring that got silted up, but if we dig a foot or so we should get some seepage.” They did and filled the nearly empty water can. It didn’t look pure but it was plenty wet.

“We can boil it like we did the last time,” Jones said, and fixed the can to the exhaust manifold.

Hicks looked around interested. There seemed to be different compartments to the layout. “It’s an old caravanserai,” he said, “serving an ancient trade route.”

Aircraft noise grew in the distance but they didn’t listen to it until there was a distant explosion.

“Holy fuck, Germans! A whole bunch of them,” Jake yelled, already running for the tank. There were eight fighter bombers lined up to have a go at the road. The rattle of machine guns ripped the silence and explosions followed. Smoke rose into the air to mark their successes. The trouble was that at the end of their run they circled south to make their turn above the Lady Bug, too close for comfort.

“Start her up! Get her started!” Hawkins yelled, clawing his way up the tank.

“I have to let it warm up,” Jones protested, as he turned the magneto and primed the fuel line. He then brought the engine to life.

“Fuck that. You get us moving now!”

“Where to?” Jones asked, in his hurry jamming the gears, grinding them.

Good question. There was nowhere to hide. They were out in the open. Naked for everyone to see.

“Button up and burst through the wall and let it come down to hide us.” Hawkins pushed the German off the back to let him fend for himself, then dived back down, slamming the hatch shut.

The Lady roared, jumped forward and hit the wall head on. The 75 punched a hole in the crumbling masonry, then the front of the tank hit, Jones gunned it, and the wall collapsed on top of them. They were inside the main part, hardly visible because of the debris that had fallen on them. One plane, however, saw the dust rise from the collapse and swung over to investigate. Flying over, he saw enough to make a short turn and fire a burst at the half hidden tank. Inside they heard the sharp pings as the .765 raked the exterior, but God be thanked, no bomb followed. The plane made two passes then gave up, flying off east. Hawkins cracked open his hatch to listen to the aircraft noises. Straining their ears they listened, hearts in their throats. Jake snapped off the fan that drew outside air into the tank, just to hear better. In time that felt like ages the noises quieted. Feeling safe enough to open the hatches, they found themselves covered in debris. The wall was down; the place that had stood for a thousand years and had survived fires and earthquakes, was now pushed over by the tank.

Jones had had the presence of mind to shut off the engines right after the walls collapsed, so that the engine didn’t suck itself full of dust and shit. Now he went to the back, brushed off the engine and emptied the air filter. The others cleared the debris from the rest of the tank. Hawkins worked on the topside 50.

“OK, Jones. Get us out of here.”

Jones got back in his seat, turned the switches and the engine coughed and coughed, yet after a heart-stopping minute, it caught. When he tried to back out, the tracks just churned through the rubble but didn’t climb over it. “Damn, I’m going to throw a track,” he muttered into the intercom.

“Try going forward,” Hawkins suggested.

Jones jammed into second gear and the Lady lurched ahead, the tracks grinding through the loose masonry but gaining only inches. Halfway out, there was a horrible sound, something snapped and the ground gave under the 30 ton tank. The Lady slipped, an avalanche of dirt and stones carrying her about 15 feet to the bottom, as more of the ground opened beneath them. When the earth stopped moving they found themselves trapped in a sixty foot tunnel.

Hawkins looked around confused. They were in an underground store room of sorts with no way out. They were lucky that the collapse was piecemeal, gently letting them down slowly instead of an abrupt freefall. But by all appearances they were stuck, with no way out.

“What now?” Jake asked, his mouth hanging open.

“I guess… we’ll have to walk the last miles to the road,” the Professor said, as always never lost for an opinion.

The German appeared on top, looking cautiously down. “Are you all right?”

“More or less,” Hawkins said, swearing on the inside. His tank was trapped, might as well admit it, there was no way out of here.

“We’re stuck in here,” Simon yelled up.

“I guess you’ll have to walk to POW camp.” For some reason the Professor found this hugely funny.

Jones was still fiddling with his controls, trying to encourage his engine.

“For God’s sake man, shut the bitch off. The Bug’s not going anywhere from here,” Jake said, much irritated. Jones killed the engine and climbed out.

They stood around helplessly, not knowing what to do.

“Jake, make coffee,” Hawkins said, taking a huge breath. “I have to think about this.”

“With what? There isn’t a single piece of wood down here.”

“Use a little fuel poured onto the sand.”

Jake did and soon had a fire going and the water boiling. He filled it with a handful of coffee. Hawkins was striding around, kicking at the rubble in frustration. Jake gave him a cup and he settled down on his haunches, thinking furiously.

Hicks was looking for a way out, but everything he touched, crumbled. He tried another spot and found a foothold but as soon as he put any weight on it, it gave way, dumping him. He called Jones over. “You climb onto my shoulders and see if you can reach something solid.” Jones tried but without success. The stonework was too old; the mortar had turned to sand. Anywhere they touched gave way and caved in. They tried the other side with no better results. Discouraged, they returned to the fire.

They were trapped, Hawkins concluded glumly. There was no way of getting the tank out, and even they were caught in this death trap. Hawkins bit his lips, it as his job to find a solution. But what if there weren’t any?

“Maybe we can ask the German to hand us down something?” Simon suggested in an uncertain voice.

“There’s nothing up there. What’s he gonna use? His dick?” Jake asked, even more irritated. “You want to climb up on that?” Simon pulled in his neck and stayed silent.

The German appeared above. “What you going to do?”

“Something,” Hawkins muttered. A dribble of rocks started under the German and hastily he backed away from the edge.

Hawkins reassessed the situation. The tunnel was about 60 foot long, 25 wide and at least 15 deep. There was no way up even without the tank; with it, zero chance. He thought back on his civilian life, looking for something to help him. The dance floor could not help him, but neither did herding cattle. But… maybe something… a faint hope. He stood up and spilled the dregs of his coffee. He strode to the Lady and swung himself aboard.

“OK you good for nothing bastards, mount up!”

From habit they obeyed, not understanding it.

“OK, everyone button up!” Hawkins listened to the sound of the hatches slamming shut. “All right then. Jake, I want you to shoot our way out of here.”

“What??!”

“Load and take out the rest of the roof and then the opposite wall. The earth will collapse, and the debris might give us a ramp to let us drive out of here.”

“That’s fully crazy,” Jake muttered but he called for AP and Hicks slid in an AP round.

“Belay that! Use your head. We need HE to blast us out of here,” Hawkins corrected. Hicks changed out the round. Still Jake hesitated.

“What are you waiting for? Fire!”

“Well … here goes nothing.” Jake pressed the foot trigger, and with a sharp crack the 75 fired, rocking the Lady back on her heels. Just ahead there was the sound of a crisp explosion, magnified in the confined space, pelting them with fragments. Instantaneously dust and smoke filled the air, blotting everything out. There was a sound of collapse and more dust. They waited for the dust to settle.

It took a while. The remaining archway had collapsed and the rubble did raise the ground.

“OK now, hit the end wall,” came the calm instruction, now that the Sergeant had committed them to an action. Loudly the 75 boomed again, and an explosion ripped into the far wall. When the dust settled, they could see a wide hole, and again the spillage filled more of the bottom.

“Keep firing! We ain’t got all day.”

The 75 barked and another explosion filled the space.

“Fire!” Hawkins called again, even before the dust had cleared.

“But I can’t see…” Jake protested in confusion.

“What do you need to see? You know the wall’s there and we haven’t moved…”

In quick succession the gun fired three more times making the dust even more unbearable. “Cover your mouths,” Hawkins ordered through his dust cloth. It took almost twenty minutes for them to see something. The end wall had disintegrated and the rubble had indeed built a ramp.

“Won’t be enough,” Jones said.

“We’ll keep firing until it does.”

“We only have three more HE’s left, the others are all AP’s,” Hicks said.

“Then fire the three and we’ll see what else we have to do.”

The three HE shells were fired, and after things settled down, they could see that the situation had improved but still not enough.

“OK then, try an AP.”

They did, yet the armor piercing shell accomplished almost nothing. The shell burrowed deep into the ground, not adding to the ramp. Hawkins jumped down to the ground and asked Hicks to pass him a full AP round. With the shell in hand, he struggled up the loose slope and set the shell at the top. Then he returned and told everyone to button up. He left his hatch open just a crack with only the barrel of the carbine sticking out. He aimed at the shell’s primer plug and pulled the trigger, instantaneously causing an explosion that had the power of the whole casing. The results were excellent. The explosion left them with a vastly improved ramp. Hawkins half buried another shell and fired at it, spilling more earth and rocks. The technique was definitely working; the only trouble was that bits and pieces of the shell found the tank, and one could hit Hawkins through the exposed crack of the hatch. He didn’t feel he had an alternative and repeated the process. After the last explosion the ramp looked feasible.

“OK everyone out and up, except you Jones, you bring the Lady with you.” Slipping a bit on the loose slope the men made it up safely and were gratefully breathing the fresh air on top. The German seemed genuinely happy to see them.

Jones turned her over. Laboriously the engine started up, coughing out a lot of dust and smoke, but it swelled to a roar and settled down as Jones jockeyed the choke. The driver then put the tank in gear, accelerated and charged the ramp. He got about half way up before the loose ground stopped him. Jones backed the Lady as far as she could go, then took another run at the slope. Engine screaming, the tracks spinning he almost made it to the top, but then the tracks just dug themselves into the loose ramp and threw the rubble back, the tank no longer moving forward.

“Stop! Stop!” Hawkins yelled waving his arms. Jones stopped the tracks and waited for instructions. “OK, back it down again, while the rest of us mix in more soil to hold the stones and shit together better.” Carefully Jones backed down and shut down the engine. With two shovels the crew took turns throwing some earth on the ramp and tried to tamp it down to firm it up. It was slow and heavy work, even with the German’s help. It was dark by the time they finished.

Jones got back into his seat, started up the engine and let it warm up well. Then after a short prayer, he put it into gear and released the clutch, accelerating the hell out of the engine. The tank charged up the ramp, yet with each foot gained, it was slowing, losing traction. But it passed the point of the last stall, and crawled at a snail’s pace over the last bit, where the tracks again found purchase. Suddenly the Lady was up above, free of the long trench they had made, her engines rumbling comfortably.

“You’re a prince, Jones,” Hawkins exclaimed and the others pounded the driver’s back and head.

“It was nothing… Do it every day…” Jones disclaimed, but he was proud nonetheless.

After such exhausting work they quickly settled down. Tired as he was, Jake forgot to tie up the prisoner, so the German slept a lot more comfortably. All slept heavily and it took the warmth of the sun to wake them.

Jake again made fire, while Jones checked the Lady over. She had breathed in a lot of dust and her lungs needed to be cleared. That would take a while, leaving the others time to look around.

The German was talking to Jake. “I am most glad you managed to get out. I was about to go off to find your army and bring back some help. Do you think they would have believed me, a crazy German walking out of the desert? I would be lucky if they didn’t shoot me on the spot.”

“Well Fritz, I have to give you credit. You had your chance to walk away into freedom, but you stayed.”

“My name is Hans. Lieutenant Hans Kruger…”

“Yeah, yeah, Afrika Korps… second cousin to Rommel himself.”

“No, no! Rommel is no family. I am from Kassel. My family owns a mill. My brother died at Moscow. I have to survive to help the old folks run the business…”

Hawkins found a small cemetery and saw ancient signs of all the religions he was starting to be able to identify.

Simon, too, was puzzled by the place and wanted one more look at the collapse. The Professor went with him.

“What was this place?” Simon asked.

“In the old days, they sometimes kept the horses underground, out of the heat and secure from thieves. This could be one of those places. I see traces of Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Aramaic and Berber inscriptions. Looks to me like this complex was a frequented waypoint on a trade route that connected Tunis with Algiers and Morocco.”

“Yeah, I guess. That same route led us in here.”

Hicks went back down the trench they had made to collect the shovels that were left behind at the ramp. The place was in a shambles, with only the side walls still upright. There was a faded inscription and out of curiosity he walked up to it, trying to decipher it.

“We were sure lucky that we got out of here. Had the Sergeant not thought of blasting us a way, we’d still be in here,” Simon said, picking up a piece that appeared to be glazed pottery.

“Yes, our Sergeant is a very resourceful man.” Hicks’ eyes caught sight of an archway at the foot of the wall and a couple of steps leading down. It looked like all the blasting had opened up a walled-off side of the room. He knelt down and stuck his head into the hole. It was too dim to see anything. From his pocket he took a polished piece of metal he used as a mirror for shaving. With it he caught the sun and reflected its light into the side cavern.

“What is it?” Simon asked. He could see that the Professor was interested.

“Don’t quite know. It seems to be some type of bone yard. But I see something flashing down there.” He tried to illuminate it with his mirror but it wasn’t strong enough. “Go get the petroleum lamp from the tank.”

“Where is it?”

“Ask Jake. He’ll know.”

Simon ran off and returned with the Sergeant and the lamp. “What did you find?”

“I don’t know. A side tunnel or room. I think I see some artifacts that might be worth exploring.” He lit the lamp and cautiously slid down the rubble filled stairs.

“You’ve got maybe a half an hour until Jones finishes with the engine. Then we gotta go,” Hawkins called after the Professor.

“All right,” Hicks answered, his voice strangely muted by the room. Simon stayed by the entrance to make sure Hicks didn’t get into any trouble. Simon saw a pool of light cast by the petroleum lamp sway in the dimness below, but he couldn’t see much detail.

“Simon! Pass me down the shovel!” the Professor’s voice asked faintly.

Simon got the shovel and hollered into the hole. “Bring it down,” came from below.

Simon hesitated a second, then reluctantly started down. The place was spooky with a very musty smell. Just how long ago had the wall collapsed to bury all this? And if it did once, it could easily do so again. Stepping on something that cracked underfoot, he recognized bones, human bones perhaps. It was a shock and he wanted to get back out. But he was nearly at the lamp. “Here, Professor.” He handed over the shovel. “What is this place?” he asked, a shiver playing along his spine.

“At first I thought this was a burial crypt… which would explain all the bones. But they’re all over the place. No order to them. So, I figure these people were trapped in here when the stairs collapsed.”

“You mean like us?”

“Yes, somewhat like us.” He was sweeping away something that looked like an old chest that fell apart at a touch.

“Jesus Murphy! There’s stuff in here!” He fumbled around and Simon heard the clang of metal. “Here, hold this!” Hicks pressed the lamp into Simon’s hand.”

“What is it?”

“Don’t quite know.” He rummaged around in the dark, then his voice got excited. “Go back and get me an empty ammunition box. Go!”

Simon put the lamp on the ground and scrambled toward the light of the opening. Several times he stumbled over something and his imagination conjured up skeletons and corpses. The dread between his shoulders hurried him along. Getting to the tank, he extracted an empty box for the 30 caliber ammo and rushed back with it to Hicks. Hawkins followed just a step behind him.

At the steps, Simon slid down, while Hawkins just hollered, “The bus is leaving in five minutes…”

“Wait! Wait! You have to see this!”

“We’ve got no time to fool around. We’ve gotta leave…”

Hicks emerged from the hole, holding out the ammo box.

“What is it?” Hawkins asked. A glint caught his eyes, then many more. “That isn’t… I mean gold…is it?”

“Sure is. And there’s more down there.”

“How much more?”

“Don’t know. But I found that in one corner. There might be tons of it down there.” He scooped out a handful of coins and let them slip through his fingers, making an inviting sound as they hit the bottom of the ammo box. “So we can’t leave just yet. We’ve got to find everything. This is a goldmine!”

Hawkins screwed up his face, considering. He wanted to get going, but Hicks was right, this was a real treasure hunt. “OK, Professor. You’ve got two hours.”

Hicks turned back and disappeared down the passage.

“Wait! Wait for me…” Simon headed after Hicks.

Hawkins returned to the tank and found Jake, Jones and Hans taking down the net.

“Hold it, we’re staying another couple of hours, so put the net back.”

“What the hell for??!” Jake was pissed. “Take it down… put it up…” he grumbled under his breath.

“The Professor found some gold in a side tunnel…”

“Gold??!” Jake and Jones asked together.

“Yes, at least a couple of handfuls…” Jake dropped everything and hurried to the collapse.

“Real gold?” Jones asked, deploying the net again.

“That’s what it looked like to me. Old coins. He’s happy as a pig in shit. It’s a dream come true for him.”

The German looked interested too. “Gold money?”

“Yes, old coins.”

“This I got to see,” Jones said and hurried off, leaving Hawkins to struggle with the net alone.

It took three hours to search through the cavern. Triumphantly they came back, Hicks possessively holding onto the ammo box. “Wait until you see this!”

By the tank he dropped to his knees and opened the box. They all leaned over it to look; it was half full of coins.

“Mostly gold and silver and a few bronzes. A king’s ransom here. You ought to feel how heavy it is.” Hawkins lifted it experimentally and found it surprisingly heavy. “And that’s not all!” From his pocket he pulled out a handkerchief and opened it carefully. Wrapped up in it was a jewel, sparkling green.

“What is it?” Jake asked.

“That’s the biggest fucking emerald I ever saw…” Hicks was salivating. “It’s must be worth a fortune…”

“How much? Thousands?” Simon asked, his face shiny with the wonder of the find.

“I’m no expert, but it’s got to be nearer to hundreds of thousands!” Hicks couldn’t stop smiling.

“God Almighty,” Simon whispered. “We’re rich?”

“You??!… I found it! This all… belongs to me!” This had a chilling effect on the rest; they saw the treasure and they wanted it.

“You wouldn’t have found this if we hadn’t blown the fuck out of this place. So we have some rights here…” Jake bristled.

“Fuck you! You didn’t look. You didn’t go stepping on skeletons and get your hands dirty. I found it all and I mean to keep it all!” Hicks snarled and protectively moved closer to his prize.

“You’re a first class asshole!” Jake spat at him.

“Well, up yours, buddy!” Hicks fired back. “I didn’t see you down there, poking around in the shit.”

“I was there,” Simon said uncertainly. “I helped you search.”

“Only because I told you to come… ordered you. You were shitting bricks down there the whole time.”

“It was scary… but in spite of that I helped.”

“Screw you!”

“All right! Everyone just simmer down!” Hawkins stepped into the conflict. “It’s true that Hicks found this hoard but it’s also true that in some way we all had a hand in it and have some claim. What is also true is that we got to get out of here. So mount up — we’ll settle this later. Jones, are we ready to go?”

“More or less. The engine’s a bit rough and we’re low on gas. We’re also long overdue for an overhaul, but I’d say yes, we’re good to go.”

“All right then… mount up!”

Within minutes the tarp was stowed and the crew settled in their places while the engine was warmed up properly. Jones put it into gear and once again they were on the way.

“As the crow flies we’ve only got maybe six miles to the road. Given the terrain we should be there in about an hour,” Hawkins informed them over the intercom.

But he was wrong. They were in the hills and though they could already see the road and the occasional traffic moving on it, they could find no way down to it. The slopes were too steep to attempt a direct descent.

“What do we do now?” Jake asked,

“I guess we have to backtrack and find some other way. A while back we passed a narrow canyon that might be just the ticket. Anyway we have no choice, this here would be suicide.”

“Do you think we have enough gas for that?” A good question.

“I certainly hope so. I don’t fancy walking to the road for gas.”

They turned around and retraced their path. They found the canyon and at the head of it, Hawkins climbed some rocks to look over the descent. It looked doable.

“The only trouble is, it veers away before coming back again. We might run out of gas before we reach the road. But we have to get down,” Hawkins reported.

The tank started down, Jones keeping it in low gear. At times the Lady tilted dangerously to one side or the other, and they held their breaths until they righted again. Sometimes the ground slid under them and it was only the skill of the driver that kept them upright. Then they were down on the level but miles farther from the road, which they couldn’t even see anymore.

“All right folks, the coach line is happy to announce that we’re almost at our destination with just a smooth ride left to the road. Thank you for traveling with us and remember to book with us for your future travel.”

“That’s cruise ship garbage talk,” Jones told Simon who looked mildly bewildered. Jones shifted to higher gear and pushed down on the accelerator. The ground was sufficiently level that they hardly bounced anymore over the hard-packed ground. Then the engine skipped, coughed, and caught again.

“Oh, oh,” Jones muttered. “We’re almost out of gas.” In three minutes the engine coughed again, backfired and became silent. Jones didn’t bother to try starting her. “The fuel tank must be bone dry,” he reported on the intercom.

“Damn,” Hawkins muttered. “We’re a good eight miles from the road.” He got out and looked around at the rock walls that hemmed in the 80 foot wide canyon. “I guess we’re gonna have to hoof it for some gas,” he said, kicking one of the bogey wheels. He looked at his watch and continued. “But not today. It’s going to be dark soon.” The others got down and stretched out their backs. The German looked worse for the wear, from head to foot covered with dust. He was beating his uniform, raising up a cloud.

“All right men, I guess we’ll hole up here for the night and go for gas early tomorrow morning before it gets hot. Two men should be enough.” He looked at the crew, considering. Not the Professor: they couldn’t pry him loose from his treasure. “Jake it’s you and Simon. Between the two of you, you should be able to deal with one can.” Jake made a face but said nothing. “All right men, cover up the Lady and let us eat what little we have left.”

“Yeah, Jake, and be sure to bring back a burger with bacon and tomato slathered with ketchup and mustard…” Jones fantasized.

“No food talk… remember?”

“Sorry Skipper, I got carried away.”

They opened two cans of pork and beans, each taking a couple of spoonfuls. The German had to use his fingers to finish the can. It wasn’t nearly enough but killed their immediate hunger.

Jones sloshed the water can before half-filling the canteens. “We’re low on water too.”

Afterwards they sat around strangely quiet, the gold the elephant in the room. Silently, they all tried to figure out the meaning and implications of having such treasure in their midst.

“I’ve thought about it,” Hicks said into the quiet. He had the ammo box with him, safely between his legs. “We can share out the coins, but the emerald is all mine.”

“The emerald is worth ten times the coins,” Jake jumped in immediately.

“Take it or leave it, but please remember that I’m the one who found it all.”

“Seems reasonable to me,” Hawkins interposed before another argument could erupt. “Where do you figure it comes from? I mean who did it come from?”

“I think the caravanserai was attacked and the people hid in the crypt or whatever it was. The place burned down and collapsed and sealed them in. They either died by suffocation during the fire, or worse, of thirst and starvation. When they rebuilt, they must have overlooked the crypt and walled it off.”

“What makes you think the place was attacked?” Jones asked reasonably.

“Good question,” Professor Hicks said. “I think because of the money. There were rich people among the dead. Why would they be down there otherwise?”

“That takes care of the why; how about the when?” Jones asked again.

“I thought about that a lot. But believe it or not, the money’s from the time of the Third Punic war that erased Carthage and turned it into a Roman satellite.”

“Is this more of the Hannibal shit you’re always spouting off about? You’ve got to be crazy if you think I swallow that!” Jake contested.

“No later. Somewhat after Hannibal.”

“Why are you so sure?” Hawkins asked, mildly curious.

“The coins are from all over the Mediterranean. Some I can’t recognize and the Greek, the Egyptian, and the Phoenician I can’t read, but the Roman all predate the Punic War. So figure it out. If it wasn’t after the war, it was near enough to it.”

Simon just wanted to get into the money. “Can I see it?” With utmost reluctance Hicks surrendered the ammo box, and they all took a coin from it. Jones rubbed one on his sleeve.

“It’s real gold, all right. Just look at that shine!” He lifted it to his mouth and bit it.

“What are you doing?” Simon asked aghast. He had fished some out from between the bones and rotting cloth, and it struck him as if Jones were chewing on corpses, as the rats must have in the past.

“I’m testing its purity. See, it’s soft enough to show the bite mark. That means it has a decent gold content.”

“Shouldn’t we divvy it up now?” Jake asked. For a heartbeat the question hung in the air.

“No. Leave it in the ammo box. If anyone of us dies, well, the rest can have his share,” Hawkins decided.

“That’s pretty ghoulish,” Jones said. “But it makes good sense. It’s a survivor’s fund. The last man standing gets it all. I’m OK with that.”

“I think the emerald should be a part of it,” Jake objected.

“Forget it. The emerald is all mine. But if I die in battle, you’re welcome to it.”

“OK, that’s settled. Let’s have no more arguments.” Then to distract them, Hawkins added, “Think instead of what you would do with your share.”

“That’s easy. Put a down payment on a house, a car, get married and raise a family. The gold would set me up well for that,” Jones said, a dreamy look on his face.

“Funny, you don’t strike me as the type,” Jake said.

“And what type is that?” Jones asked, his tone suddenly with a bite to it.

“You know, the family and marital bliss,” Jake fired back, hardening his tone.

“You know fuck about me.” Jones bristled.

“Everyone simmer down,” Hawkins interposed. “Let’s get back to spending it.” For an instant there was quiet but the lure of the treasure was too strong.

“I’d sign up for Harvard or Princeton, become a lawyer or a doctor like my mother wants me to. It would save me from the drudgery of the garment industry,” Simon contributed.

“Me, I’d have a hell of a good time. Eat, drink and dive into the pleasure of girls, girls, girls,” Jake said.

“Isn’t that a little shortsighted and hedonistic?” Hicks asked with undisguised contempt in his voice.

“What does hedonistic mean?” Jake asked, tasting the word.

“Fun loving,” Hawkins supplied.

“Yes, that fits me to a t.”

“What would you do?” Simon asked the Sergeant.

“Me? Maybe buy a spread in Texas. It’s a hard life, but it’s something you can take pride in. Improve the stock, raise the best herd, and build a ranch worth owning.”

“What about dancing? Maybe open a studio, with beautiful instructors… that would be a true dream,” Jake offered.

“Don’t get me wrong, dancing was fun and the perks were great, but it’s a young man’s dream. Look at me now. I’ve grown old in this fucking war, with wrinkles around my eyes and sand behind my ears and dirt under my fingernails that I can’t wash out… What matron would pay good money to dance with a has-been?”

“What about you Professor?” Simon asked.

“Me? Buy myself a book shop, read all day, not even caring if I had a customer or not. That would be the life for me.”

“Is there room for a woman in there?” Jones asked, amused.

“Now that I think of it, no. Women are a distraction, wanting this or that, rarely satisfied. I think I’d be happier without one.”

“You gotta be kidding me??!” Jake challenged. “Turn into a dried up prune, lost in your shitty library. Women are the spice of life, I couldn’t live without them.”

“Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t forego the pleasure. I’d have the money to rent me one for a couple of hours whenever the mood struck me. That’s all I’d need.”

“That’s cold-hearted, but I have to admire you for it,” Jones said.

“For once I agree,” Jake added, most reluctant to share in the praise.

Hawkins thought of all the dreams expressed and thought they were already benefiting from the gold.

“I would use the money to rebuild the mill. It has been in the family for many generations. I can’t think of letting it go,” the German, who had been quiet throughout, now said suddenly.

The rest looked at him astonished. Was a fucking Kraut, a POW, laying a claim to their treasure?

“Hey, you’ve got no share in this!!!” both Hicks and Jake thundered at him. “You’re a fucking prisoner!”

“I know. But even prisoners can dream.” The German’s face turned hard.

“Yeah, Fritz, you can have as many wet dreams as you like, but you don’t get a penny of this.” Jake put the final nail in it.

That settled every one down. In silence they found places for themselves around the tank. As a cold chill was descended from the sky, they pulled the blankets tight around themselves. “What an unbelievable day,” Hawkins yet thought, before being overtaken by sleep.

He dreamed of cattle and a place of his own, just like he had said, and he tried to figure out how much gold it would cost him. He tried to add up the figures but they weren’t making any sense. He tried again, and then the figures took over, clicking through his head, displacing everything else.

The next thing he became aware of was that somebody was shaking him. Reluctantly he raised his head to find Jake over him. It was still dark. “What the hell, Jake. What is it?”

“The German’s gone. I heard him move about a half hour ago, thinking he was going to take a piss, but he hasn’t been back.”

“Maybe he’s having trouble digesting the pork and beans. They didn’t taste quite right to me.”

“No, he’s definitely gone. I went to get my carbine and that was gone too.”

Hawkins was instantly awake. A German with a gun was no POW. “Wake the others!”

Jake went about kicking people. In short order everyone was up to hear the news. Abruptly, Hicks squawked, “It’s gone! He fucking stole it!”

“Stole what?”

“The emerald… it’s gone! He must have taken it… to rebuild the family mill.”

“How can that be? He was on the outside…” Hawkins muttered.

“Because you didn’t tie him up!” Jake accused.

This was a giant shock. The German prisoner who they had fed and sheltered, had robbed them!

“Which way did he go?” Hawkins asked.

“I heard him go to the south. Which was strange as there aren’t any rocks there to take a crap.”

“He took two canteens with him,” Jones suddenly said from inside the tank.

“He means to walk all the way to the German lines, the bastard,” Jake hissed.

“All right, all right. Everybody simmer down. This is what we’ll do. Jones, Hicks and I will go after him and track him down.”

“What about me?” Jake asked, feeling left out.

“Someone has to guard the tank. What if he doubles back and takes it?”

“Why would he? It has no gas in it.”

“True, but it has a machine gun to mow us down when we return. It’s a good bet he might come back for the rest of the gold. With that he could build two mills.” Jake could see the reasoning in that.

“Why can’t Simon stay?” Jake asked.

“Because he’s a greenhorn that’s why. I don’t trust him to tie my shoes yet,” Hawkins said harshly. He looked around but did not see him. “Where the hell is he? Jake, go and wake him.” He stepped to the tank, reached in the turret and fished out the Thompson and two extra magazines.

“Jesus Christ!” Hawkins heard Jake swear with something bone-chilling in his tone.

“What is it?”

“I think he’s dead!”

“What??! What??!” Everybody rushed to the spot to find Simon all twisted, eyes bugging out, his back arched in final agony, his fingers turned into claws digging into the sand. There could be no question that he was dead.

“I think he was strangled,” Jake said, in full shock.

“That fuc…king Kraut…” Hicks sputtered, drew his 45, pulled back on the action and loaded the chamber. He peered into the darkness, wanting and ready to shoot at anything.

“OK, OK. As before.” Hawkins came out of his daze. “Jake stays, the rest will come with me. We’ll hunt the murdering bastard down.”

“And shoot him dead!” Hicks finished for him.

“But how will we find him?” Jones asked.

“We’re in the desert where every print will show. How hard can it be?” Hawkins asked. “I’m from Texas. In my youth, I learned to track from the best — the Comanche and the Kiowa. If I can’t see tracks then he’s a ghost.” Hawkins tied his boots. “Jake, bury poor Simon, but remember to collect his tags.”

They started off at a fast pace, following the rather obvious prints in the soft sand. It became harder as they reached firmer ground but the Indians had taught Hawkins well and he had little trouble reading the signs. They reached a rise but could find no sight of the German.

“See, he stopped here briefly to take a drink, and look, here’s where he pissed.”

“You can see all that?” Jones asked amazed.

“It’s all there.”

The sky brightened and soon the sun was up and they were heading straight into it. Hawkins worried; they could hardly see but Hans could see them clearly and he had a gun. The Sergeant worried. Why didn’t Hans take the Thompson? Because it was heavier and less accurate. Why did he kill Simon? Because Simon probably saw him steal the gem. Well so much for wanting to be a POW. If he wanted to keep the emerald, he’d have to reach the German lines.

Hawkins had the sense that they were gaining on their quarry. He had been forcing the pace, rushing ahead, mindful that the German could be anywhere, waiting in ambush. Ahead there were rugged hills full of fissures, rocks and dried out bushes to hide behind. He could be anywhere.

Hawkins stopped and took a shallow sip from his canteen. Jones did too, gulping it.

“Hey, take it easy, make it last.” Hawkins put out an arm to push the canteen away from Jones’ lips. He bent down to pick up a few pebbles. He put one in his mouth and gave one each to the other two. “It’s an old Indian trick. Roll it around in your mouth to keep it moist and it will help you not to feel so thirsty.”

“I’m going to plug that son of a bitch if it’s the last thing I do,” Jones said, the 45 ready in his hand. “Simon was a good guy who deserved better.”

They again stretched their legs. Half an hour later, rounding a rise, Hawkins had a sick feeling in his stomach. There were too many places to hide a shooter. He took stock of their situation. He was familiar with the rifle: M1 carbine, semi-automatic, firing a 30 caliber bullet at 1990 feet per second very effective at close range, weighing only about 6 pounds with a fully loaded box magazine holding 15 rounds. His Thompson was almost twice as heavy, firing at less than 1000 feet per second 45 caliber bullets from a 20 round stick magazine. It wasn’t all that accurate and had only a short range. If he had his choice, he would take the M1 any day. The others carried only 45 caliber side arms, peashooters, only good at a very close range. These thoughts weren’t very reassuring.

They were trudging up a slope still following a clear set of tracks when Hawkins slipped on a rock, and dropped to his knees. Just then a shot rang out. Hawkins heard the bullet whistle over his head and strike down Jones who was just behind.

“God damn it!” Hawkins swore, rolled left and crabbed forward. He had seen the muzzle flash in the periphery of his vision. He knew where the German was, uphill, low between a rock and a bush. He sent a short burst purposefully away from the German to lull him into a false sense of security that his position hadn’t been discovered yet. Bent double, he ran to the side to duck behind some rocks. A bullet whistled by him, too high and behind. He shot in a different direction, to make the German think he was firing aimlessly, hoping for a lucky hit. Hicks was crawling up the slope, and Hawkins signaled him to the take the right side. He sprinted and was missed again, before he dove into a shallow depression. Looking through dried grass in front of him he spotted the barrel of the M1, aiming to the left where Hicks was. Hawkins sighted along his barrel and waited. When the M1 fired, Hawkins pulled the trigger and held it, the gun bucking in his hands, the sand was exploding around the German from a hail of bullets. Then there was quiet. Hawkins waited, hardly breathing so he could hear better while his heart hammered deafeningly. He risked a short spurt to a new position and didn’t draw fire. Had he hit the German?

A little more confidently he crawled forward another 15 feet. He had some difficulty holding the gun above the sand, afraid the dirt would jam it. He settled in for a moment, waiting and listening. Suddenly, to his right, Hicks opened up with his Colt. Using this diversion, Hawkins sprinted forward and threw himself down at the lip of the rise. Cautiously peering over, he spotted the German trying to crawl up the next slope. He was obviously wounded and was only making feeble attempts to get away. The M1 was nowhere to be seen. Doubled over, in twelve strides, Hawkins closed the distance and looked down on the wounded man, his finger itchy on the trigger.

The man flipped over, a stain spreading on his shoulder and chest. Two of the Thompson’s bullets had caught him. “Nicht schiessen… Bitte… don’t shoot… I give up.” With each word there was blood bubbling from his lips.

Breathless, Hicks arrived, pointing his 45 at the German. “So you got him… Good!” He dropped down beside the man and searched through the pockets, uttering a cry of joy when he found what he was looking for. “My precious jewel… the key to my future.” He turned on the German and kicked him viciously. “That’s for betraying us… and that’s for killing… Simon…” And he kicked again; the man groaned.

“That’s enough!” Hawkins barked. “Go find the carbine and the canteens.” Reluctantly Hicks left, his eyes betraying how much he wanted to kill the German. But there was no need for that, he was dying already, trying to say something which Hawkins bent down to hear better. “Sorry… sorry…” The German’s last words were barely audible. His head dropped to the side and he was dead.

Hicks returned with the carbine and two canteens. One had a hole in it. “Good shooting Sarge.” He leaned over the German. “Dead as a doornail.” He sounded pleased.

“What about Jones? You were right behind him.”

“He’s dead too. Right through the head. That bullet was meant for you, but you ducked out of the way.”

“I slipped, I didn’t duck.”

“That makes you one lucky SOB. And Jones very unlucky, he walked right into it.”

Hawkins looked around, feeling frozen inside, yet very conscious that in one day, he had lost two of his crew. It was a cold realization that didn’t come with feelings… yet.

He grabbed the German by his legs and dragged him into the bottom of a shallow depression. He scooped out the sand using just his hands.

“What’re you doing?” Hicks asked, his voice puzzled.

“I’m not just going to leave him out here uncovered.” He rolled Hans into the hole. “Come on, help me!”

“Fuck that! The asshole tried to kill me… us. Let the vultures have him.”

“Get your ass down here and help. That’s an order, soldier!”

“Yes, Sarge.”

With the two of them working it didn’t take long to cover the body. Hawkins found a rock and placed it for a headstone. “May God have mercy on your soul.”

“Let the Devil take him and all his kind,” Hicks muttered in counterpoint. Hawkins dusted himself off and looked around. The scene had lost its threat and appeared oddly peaceful but Hawkins didn’t know how he really felt… yet.

They worked their way back to Jones. He lay sprawled back, his arms flung out, a bullet hole in the center of his forehead as if it had been meant for him by design. There was surprisingly little blood. His mouth was obscenely open, the teeth showing, the tongue curled back. A faint surprise overlaid his frozen expression. Hawkins sighed heavily but didn’t know what to feel… yet.

Hawkins dropped to his knees and went through the pockets, finding a jackknife, some crumpled up letters, a pencil stub and a faint photograph of Jones’ parents and his sister. There was a wad of useless Italian banknotes they had gotten off a prisoner after Kasserine Pass. Last he took the dog tags from around his neck and jammed it all into his pocket.

He moved aside and started scooping sand. Wordlessly Hicks joined in and soon they had dug it knee-deep. At the last Hawkins had to loosen the bottom with the butt of the M1. They lifted Jones — the slack body surprisingly heavy in their grasp — and laid him in the hole. Hawkins straightened him out, and folded his hands over his chest. He stood up but was most reluctant to fill the makeshift grave. Staring at the corpse, he remembered the bits and pieces of their association. He was numb. He should be feeling more than this!

“Sarge…”

“Yeah, yeah.” Hawkins kneeled down again, and from the top pocket he pulled the handkerchief that they all used to cover their mouths to filter out the dust, and placed it over the dead man’s face. Then he started shoveling the sand with his bare hands. Hicks helped and after they had filled the hole they raised a mound over it. Hawkins got a stone and placed it over the grave. Then he got another and another. He was reluctant to leave Jones there. Hicks pitched in to help, and soon the whole grave was covered with stones. No animal was going to dig that up!

Hawkins took off his helmet and ran his finger through his hair, brushing the dust out. “Good bye my friend. May God have mercy on your soul…”

The way back seemed much longer than the way there. At every step Hawkins puzzled why it had happened and whether he could have done anything to prevent it. They should have hogtied the German but it was that damned emerald… a curse really… that had cost him two of his crew.

They got back to the Lady Bug and found Jake waiting for them under the net.

“Where’s Jones?”

“Dead.” Hawkins said, still not feeling anything… yet.

“And the German?”

“Dead.”

“Did you get the emerald back?”

“Yes.”

For a while they stood around assessing their situation. Hawkins sighed then kicked himself into gear. “All right, it’s too late to go for the road now. We’ll try in the morning. We’ll ask for half a can and that should be enough to get us to the road and tank up.”

He was morose the rest of the evening. There was no food and only a little water. Nothing to do but sleep and that was what they did. Hawkins was listless, hardly bothering to brush the flies away. He couldn’t sleep, thinking of the two dead men. As a commander, he felt responsible for them. Then he thought of an earlier loss, but hoped that Jingle John was all right Stateside. He tried to close his mind off, but it wouldn’t let him. Finally he remembered the final words the German had whispered as he was dying, “I… did not… kill … S…simon…” With those words still on his lips, he died.

If he didn’t kill Simon then who did? Hicks? Jake? Even Jones was a possibility. And why? The treasure? Was it really worth a life? Someone thought so. But who?

Chapter 4

Next morning Hawkins and Jake took a can each and started for the road, Hawkins for fuel, Jake for water, which was also at its last. They set a brisk pace that felt good in the coolness of the morning but with each step it was getting warmer. They had another hour yet to go, but they could already see the road clearly and the sporadic traffic along it.

This morning Jake was quite talkative, speaking of what he would do once he got home. He talked of the gold and what a help it would be to restart his civilian life. He tried to draw Hawkins into the discussion but the Sergeant was having none of it. Instead he was listening closely to every nuance of Jake’s voice as he talked. Could he be the one? The killer had taken out Simon and who would be next? The ten little Indians were down to three and one of them was the killer… if the German didn’t lie. But why would he bother… he was dying and knew it. The police considered deathbed confessions to be true. Was it Jake? He had gotten along well with his second in command. Or more likely Hicks? He was very jealous about “his” emerald, not wanting to share it with anyone. Hawkins couldn’t see Jones doing it. The driver had been a quiet, watchful man who never gave Hawkins any reason to suspect him now. He chewed on these thoughts, chasing them around in circles. This treasure was a real curse, not the deliverance Jake saw in it. Until finding it, everything had been all right: they had been a close-knit family, willing to die for each other. That had all changed… The emerald and gold had seduced them… tempted the German to steal and someone to kill. Two steps further he was arguing the other way. The gold and the emerald guaranteed them a future, if they could survive the war. He would get that ranch, or was there something better that he would like to do? The treasure certainly gave him a windfall of options.

“What’s the matter with you?” Jake asked. “You haven’t said a word all morning.”

“I was thinking of Simon and Jones. It’s sad what happened to them.”

“Shit happens in war. You know it and I know it. We do our best, but it might not be enough. A friend of mine from school died, a paratrooper. He was dropped in before the landing to take out some coastal artillery but was blown to bits by mortar fire. It doesn’t pay to get close to people.”

“Do you feel that way about us, the crew?”

“No, the training at Iron Mountain Camp welded us together, before I learned the truth of things about life and death. I don’t think I can trust somebody new, and I wouldn’t have trusted Simon… and look, now he’s dead and I feel nothing. Jones was a different matter; he and I won a passel of money playing poker with some GI’s in Algiers before the shit hit us. We even talked of maybe going into partnership after the war. Shows you how silly it is to talk of a future, when your ass is on the line every day. War is that. A crap shoot, just like he used to say.”

They had reached the road but there was no traffic on it. They settled in the shade of some rocks and waited for something to happen. Something eventually did. An American P-40 flew over, not more than 150 feet above the road. They could see the pilot clearly but it was doubtful if he saw them at his speed.

Jake took a sip from the water can and a small handful to wet his face. The heat was getting unbearable again. Hawkins, who had slept little the previous night, dozed off, snoring softly. He didn’t wake until Jake elbowed him sharply, pointing down the road. There was a column of half ton trucks approaching, led by a Jeep.

Jake and Hawkins jumped up and stood in the middle of the roadway waving their arms. The column stopped and a Lieutenant jumped out of the covered Jeep.

“What’s the meaning of this?”

After they explained their need for gas and water, the officer waved the next truck over, then got back into his Jeep and led the convoy on.

Generously, a corporal filled their cans with gas. “Not so much, just half. We have to lug it back into the desert. Same with the water.”

“Who are you guys?”

“C Company, Third Battalion of 1st Armored. Do you know where they are?”

“Nope. We’re the 54th Transport Battalion. All we do is drive back and forth from Algiers. We’ve been doing that since the first days of Operation Torch.”

“Where are you going now?”

“I don’t ask questions, I just follow the truck ahead of me. He stops, I stop, he goes, I go.”

The private broke in, “The front is now through the last mountains near the town of Gafsa. Blood and Guts George has concentrated our forces there. Something big’s going to happen there for sure. A bitch of a battle’s shaping up.”

With the cans half full, the truck took off again, going hell for leather trying to catch up with the rest.

“I guess we’d better start hoofing it,” Hawkins said, grabbing his can and moving off the road, cutting across the land. Soon his hand started to feel the load and he had to switch to the other side. The farther they got the more often they had to change hands. After about five miles the cans became amazingly heavy and they had to put them down to rest a bit.

“I hope we got enough gas to make it to the road; I don’t fancy having to do this again,” Jake grumbled.

Under the full sun Hawkins felt the heat more than usual; abrasive dust collected in the folds of his skin; his eyes watered from the glare and his throat felt raw. The half can cut into the flesh of his hand. It was a mistake to sign up for this war. At the very least I should have waited for a call up from Uncle Sam. Why was I in such hurry to get myself killed? But who knew back then what the war was really about? The hurt, the fatigue, the bad food, the boredom and always have some asshole sitting on top of you ordering you around. Was there really a higher purpose? You shoot because someone’s shooting at you, as simple as that. Man, I didn’t know how good I had it back on the cruise ship… Each step became a protest, but no one was listening.

They finally got back to Lady Bug parked under the net with Hicks sitting in its shade.

“What took you so long? I was beginning to think you weren’t coming back.”

“And leave you with all that gold? Fat chance of that,” Jake muttered. While Hawkins poured the gas into the fuel tank, Hicks grabbed the water and drank greedily from it.

“Man, that tastes good. A little warm but clean. Not a drop of mud in it.”

“How’ll we do this?” Jake asked. “Who’s going to drive?”

“You are. You’re better at it. It’s not likely that we’ll need to use the 75.”

Once they mounted, Jake tried starting the engine. The starter motor whined but would not start the engine. Jake had to prime the thing three times and work the hell out of the choke before the engine caught. It missed a number of times before it settled into a steady roar. After a minute of warming up, Jake geared up and released the clutch without the finesse Jones had acquired over the hundreds of miles, making the Lady jerk ahead in a very unladylike manner. Jake manipulated the steering sticks clumsily but in about two miles got a better feel for them.

On top, Hawkins felt the difference in driving styles, and regretted losing such a good driver as Jones. Now he would have to find somebody to take his place. Hope not another freshly arrived greenhorn from the replacement pool. The Master Sergeant didn’t like him, so he would probably get the runt of the litter.

As they came around the hill, they saw the road in the slanting light of the sun. It was late afternoon when they finally pulled beside it and parked off to the side. Hawkins waited, leaning on the Lady and watching the road. After about twenty impatient minutes some trucks approached and he flagged one down. They didn’t have any gas, but some water to spare. Jake got his water can filled, plus several cans of chicken and rice. Right away they opened the cans and started eating.

“Man, that’s amazingly tasty,” Hicks said. He hadn’t eaten for the better part of two days…so of course it tasted good. They shared a can of pineapple, relishing its sweet flavor.

In the flow of trucks, they spotter a tanker and waved it down. They filled up the tank and the three extra cans on the rear rack.

“Thank you, man,” Hawkins said, relieved to have his gas.

“That’ll be twelve dollars and two bits,” the guy said, holding out his hands. Then he laughed. “My family runs a gas station back home and I was a gas jockey for a while growing up. Joined the Army and here I am, a jockey again,” he explained. He doffed his cap. “Thank you for your business, Ma’am, and be sure to come back for your next fill up.” He was still laughing as the truck pulled away.

Jake started the Lady and cautiously joined the flow on the road, making sure not to get too close to the truck in front. They “ate” dust for a good many miles and it was dark when they pulled into a collection point. They found space to park and shut the engine down. Hawkins unplugged, took off his helmet, and got off the tank more than just a little stiff. There was one spot on his hips where the hatch housing always chafed at him, leaving a ridge of dull pain. But then, that morning they had walked about six miles to the road and six miles back and he was feeling it.

Hawkins found an MP post to ask after his unit. The duty Sergeant consulted his map and gave him complicated directions that got him lost after the third turn. Asking again and again, he finally found the tank park and somewhere in the middle of it, his unit. He could tell as the tanks had the telltale silhouette of a galloping mustang.

It was dark, but in the HQ tent the light was still burning when he pushed inside. Lieutenant Stillwell looked up at him in surprise.

“Jesus, Sergeant, we gave you up for lost. What kept you?”

“We broke down, Sir, and got stranded in the desert.”

“Well it’s good to have you back. I need experienced troops. We’ve replaced the horrendous losses suffered at Kasserine, but most are untried men without any combat experience. The Captain will be glad to hear about you rising from the dead. We’re getting ready for a real fracas and we need every good man.”

“Anything big? Or just a skirmish?”

“Likely both. We’ve got a weak Italian Division in front, but the 10th Panzer is reportedly lurking in the neighborhood. You tell me.”

“We saw D Company mauled. I don’t think many made it out of there.”

“Most didn’t. The Germans surprised them with a flank attack intended to cut our supply line and they got the unfortunate D Company. I tell you it caused a hell of a panic here at HQ. I never saw so many Colonels and even Generals running to puke. But now we’ve got some Blood and Guts men, and they won’t blink. This is going to be a different affair from the last, I tell you.”

“I’m glad to hear it. Oh by the way, Sir, I lost two men who I need to replace. A driver and a co-driver. Got surprised by an air attack.”

“Well, see the Quartermaster in the morning. Get yourself restocked and report to your Section Commander.”

“Very good, Sir. We’re parked near the entrance, but we’ll find you in the morning.”

“All right, good night, Sergeant.”

“Good night, Sir,” Hawkins replied, snapping off a salute.

The Lieutenant smiled. “You don’t need to do that, not in the combat zone. That came down from Blood and Guts himself. In the rear areas yes, but not at the front.”

“Yes, Sir.” Hawkins left, feeling relief that he had located his unit. From now on he could stop thinking and let the officers have all the headaches. In the dark he had great difficulty finding his tank. Jake, glad to see him, exclaimed, “Man, I thought you got lost and you did, didn’t you?”

“Somewhat. But I found our unit and reported in. We’ll join them in the morning. Where’s Hicks?”

“He’s sleeping in the tank, hugging his treasure chest like a mother hen sitting on her eggs. I don’t think he’ll ever let the box out of his sight again.” Jake grimaced.

“Probably not. I guess we better turn in; the morning will be upon us before we’re ready for it.” He got his blanket, and crawled under the tank, choosing the right track. Jake took the other track.

Tired as he was from the long day, Hawkins just couldn’t settle down. He might be right next to a killer, who could snuff him out anytime. Stop it! Maybe he is and maybe he isn’t. You need your sleep. Somehow he managed to fall asleep.

Chapter 5

Early next morning an MP knocked loudly with his baton on the tank, waking Hawkins out of a deep sleep. “I need you to move your tank ASAP, so we can deploy a new unit just arriving.”

Hawkins roused the others and slowly they got out of the way. It was hard as the place was already crowded, and a truck or two often blocked their passage. It took nearly an hour to find the Quartermaster Depot, and another hour to wait their turn as there were three tanks in front of the Lady.

Then it was their turn to get loaded with AP and HE for the 75, half a belt for the 50, and a box of 30’s, plus ammo for the side arms. They also got some food and hygiene stuff, like razors, soap and shaving cream. To Hawkins’ surprise they were also issued a couple of towels, rolls of toilet paper, three new blankets, socks, t-shirts and underpants. “Compliments of General Patton,” the disbursing clerk joked.

From there they drove to the replacement pool and put in a requisition for a driver and a co-driver. Then they waited three hours until their request was processed. A corporal presented four men to choose from. Hawkins and Jake looked them over.

“God Almighty, they’re greener that Granny Smith apples,” Jake whispered in an aside.

“Where did you train, Son?” Hawkins asked the young man who looked to be most competent.

“Iron Mountain, Sir.”

“Really? Is Master Sergeant Dobbey still there?”

“He’s the same old SOB he ever was.”

“How much experience do you have driving a Sherman?”

“About 30 hours. But in civilian life I drove a bulldozer for the Department of Highways in Iowa.”

“We’re a long way from Iowa. But good, you’re hired. You’re my new driver and you’d better be as good as you say you are. What’s your name, Soldier?”

“Jude Lawson, Sir.” Hawkins and Jake exchanged quick looks.

They looked over the other men and chose Jeff Hobson, just because he was also a J.

“All right, grab your stuff and come along with us.” Jake was glad because they had five-of-a-kind again.

The four got back to the tank and the two new men looked it over.

“Jeez, Lady Bug, is that a joke?” Jeff asked, making big eyes at the tank. “Why not the Puny Ant or the Hungry Locust…?”

“This Lady’s been to the dance.” Hawkins pointed where an 88 went through the front. There was no hiding the patch work: the bit of paint slapped on the spot didn’t do it, only made it more obvious. They also discovered the gouge on the side of the turret. Jude climbed into the driver’s seat and stowed his gear. He tried the feel of the steering sticks and the action of the clutch.

Jeff climbed in the right hand seat and adjusted it to his height. “I wonder what happened to the previous occupants.”

“The way I heard, it was a plane that got them in the open…”

“Christ this starts well…”

“Quit bitching. We’re lucky to get in with an experienced crew.”

In the meantime, Hawkins, Jake and Hicks conferred. “Look you better take your treasure, wrap it up tightly and hide it in the cubby behind the ammo rack. It wouldn’t do to have these new guys discover it. Keep this close just among the three of us,” Hawkins suggested.

“Good idea. And never mention treasure, emerald or gold. If you want to say something, talk about my grandfather and I’ll know what you mean,” Hicks added, satisfied. The fewer people knew, the more he liked it.

In the afternoon Captain Boxall, Company C CO, collected all his tank commanders in a tent and briefed them. “Tomorrow, March 17th the 1st Infantry Division is ordered to move up and engage the Italians deployed near the town of Gafsa. Our battalion is assigned to provide support with the rest of the regiment to act as reserve in case the 10th Panzer, who are thought to be in the area, show up. Company C will secure the flank of our forward advance.” He knelt down and with a walking stick drew the general layout. “This is Gafsa, a fair sized city, the capital of this part of Tunisia. It’s thought to be lightly defended by Italians. Their tanks are shit, but they’ve acquired some German high velocity 75 anti-tank guns which, when well manned, can be deadly accurate. So watch out for them. And if you see the Germans mix in, be especially careful, they’re very experienced and know what they’re doing. According to plan, the Air Force will bomb the city prior to our arrival. We have mobile artillery set up in the rear and we can call on them for support. We move down this road, the Infantry on a parallel route.” He drew more lines in the sand. “That’s about it. It should be a cake walk. And if the Germans show up, we’ve just received a few of the new M10 tank destroyers that can duke it out with the best they have. We’ve heard much about Panthers and Tigers but Intel thinks they aren’t in this corner of the woods, at least not in numbers that would matter.” Captain Boxall stood up and dusted off his hand and sleeve. “I wish I could tell you more, but you know how it is. We start with a plan but the situation changes rapidly and we have to adjust to it. Keep your eyes open and good luck to you all. Lieutenant Harwood will lead off and the rest of you follow as directed.” He saluted them with his stick, and turned to climb onto his personal halftrack. The meeting dissolved and the crews returned to their units.

Hawkins climbed aboard the Lady and settling in his seat, put his helmet on and plugged into the intercom. All around, as the other tanks started up, the air resounded with their thunder. An MP stood in the middle making circles above his head. Hawkins flipped the switch and said into his throat mike, “All right, Jones, start her up … I mean, driver, get us started.” He leaned down to Jake and asked off the mike, “What’s his name?”

“Jude. Jude Lawson.”

The Lady started smoothly and settled into a steady rhythm, proving that the new man knew his way with the priming and the choke. All around them, tanks were stirring, and one after another moved off as the MPs directed. Hawkins would have preferred a little private time to check out the driver’s capabilities, but there had been no time. The MP waved at them.

“OK, ahead to the right and follow the rest,” Hawkins said.

“Roger.”

They turned onto the road already choked with traffic. They followed behind a halftrack towing a 76mm anti-tank gun. Ahead of them were two trucks loaded with infantry. Some of the engines were spewing out dark exhaust, making the air reek of unburned fuel. They were moving maybe at six miles an hour so Jude kept the Lady in third.

In the first mile, Hawkins counted 3 tanks and 4 trucks pulled off the road, having some sort of engine trouble. Great start, he thought. The road was single lane, hard packed dirt that didn’t throw up much dust, but after hundreds of vehicles the air thickened with so many very fine grains that Hawkins put on his goggles and the cloth filter to breathe through. As they hit the open road, the speed picked up a couple of notches. Ahead was a long line of vehicles and behind also, of mixed sorts. Two vehicles back, Hawkins recognized Sergeant Cole from his Company commanding the Warrior, gave him a half wave and got one back. He couldn’t understand why the tanks were mixed with infantry. He couldn’t see Lieutenant Brewster, his new section leader, anywhere.

The radio crackled with messages but not for his unit. Still it absorbed part of his attention to listen for his call sign. Suddenly the column ground to a halt, as a vehicle ahead stalled and it took four minutes to drag it out of the way. The line started up again and got back to speed. Hawkins was gratified that the Lady didn’t grind through the gears, but shifted smoothly through them. The new man is all right. He threw a look behind; strangely for an instant he expected the German to be on the back deck and was surprised he wasn’t. The man, what’s his name? Hans is dead, you fool, you shot him. He thought of Jones, laid out in a hole he had dug with his hands. Losses in war are to be expected… he dredged up the phrase from tank school in California. What they didn’t tell you is how to deal with the loss and sadness.

“Company C Armored, unit Mustangs, pull off the road into a tank park to reorganize… Company C…” the message repeated. That was them! In two miles he could see them bunching up on level ground beside the road.

“Driver, be ready to peel off to the right when you see a group of tanks with galloping Mustangs markings.”

“Roger.”

“Don’t answer each time. You are jamming the com with needless chatter.”

“Roger.”

Hawkins sighed. It would take time to evolve new habits to suit the latest crew configuration. If there was time. They had lost Simon before he could fully fit in. How many more new people…? Don’t think of that, stay on track!

They reached their unit and pulled off the road. The Lady snuggled up to Grizzly and Hawkins waved to his section commander, Lt. Brewster aboard the tank. Grizzly was a popular name among the tanks, as were Bear, Wolf and Dragon. Brewster looked over and gave him a nod.

It took about half an hour to collect all their tanks and service units. The Lady and the Warrior found the Grizzly and only Corporal Harrison on Shooting Star was missing. Lt. Brewster waved Hawkins over, who stepped from one tank to the other, bending down to hear the Lieutenant.

“Have you seen Harrison?”

“No. But we passed a few tanks off the road with engine trouble. Maybe he was one of them.”

“Probably. I hope we link up before any combat.”

“Is that likely soon?”

“Who knows? But the Italian line’s not far ahead. So be ready.”

“Yes, Sir.”

In twenty minutes the MPs stopped the advancing column and allowed the Mustangs and their service vehicles to rejoin the tide to the east. Hawkins felt much more comfortable in their midst, just behind the Grizzly.

It took three hours to reach the valley and the approaches to Gafsa. The Infantry was sent in first to probe the defenses while the armor was kept back to deal with any strong points discovered. But after some desultory firing and token resistance the forward units found that the Italians had withdrawn.

The US 1st Infantry moved past the town and set up defensive positions near El Guettar, where they expected resistance from a combined force of Italians and Germans.

There was activity to the front, sappers laying mines to protect the flanks and artillery digging in on the reverse slopes of any high ground.

The Lady found herself with her stable mates, Grizzly, Warrior as well as Shooting Star who indeed had experienced engine trouble but was now patched up.

Returning from a briefing Lt. Brewster informed his tank commanders of the latest. “That last bit was a cake walk, but now we face the battle hardened German 10th Panzer and Italian infantry. I don’t need to tell you that, if true, we can expect real trouble. Get yourselves refitted and be ready for anything.”

Hawkins had a quick exchange with his peers. “My engine’s shit. I need new spark plugs, filters and belts. My transmission drags and the clutch is slipping. I don’t know from one minute to the next if I can make the next mile. A couple times I had to pull off to jury-rig something,” Harrison complained.

“It’s your driver, Ed,” Cole said. “I can smell him burning the clutch and when he shifts, the transmission grinds like it’s being tortured.”

“Nah, Manuel’s all right. It’s the fucking machine, I tell you. It’s a real dud, I know because I owned a real lemon of a car in the 30’s. It spent more time in the garage than on the road. I finally had to ditch it.”

“You think that’s bad? Three of my guys have dysentery. We can’t go two miles before someone has to get off and find a bush,” Cole put in. That stunk, the other two shook their heads in sympathy.

“I lost two men, driver and co-driver,” Hawkins admitted, finding it surprisingly painful.

“Yeah we heard. Sorry man. Jones was a good man and a good driver. I didn’t know your other guy.”

“Simon, he was new. He died… after an aircraft strafed us.” That was the official fact now, written into Simon’s record. Hawkins had sweated over a letter to his parents, expressing his sorrow and grief. Jones’ letter was even harder. Aside from the fact that they had started in tank school together, he hadn’t really known the man. He loved engines, but what else?

“And now you have to break in a new driver… on the eve of a battle.”

“You think it’ll be something serious?” Hawkins asked.

“Who knows? Half the shit they tell us they make up, just a batch of wishful thinking.” Cole shrugged his shoulders.

Returning to his tank, Hawkins found Lawson and the co-driver over the engine compartment doing routine maintenance. From their talk Hawkins ascertained that the driver knew his way around the engine. Above, Jake was smoking, his legs draped over both sides of the barrel of the 75, talking with Hicks who was sitting on the rim of the hatch. They both looked at him as he scrambled up.

“Any good news?” Jake asked, blowing rings.

“Nothing worthwhile.”

“Any bad news?” Hicks asked, his hands on the new antenna.

“Sure and plenty of it. The 10th Panzer is out there, just waiting for us. God grant that it won’t turn into another Kasserine Pass,” Hawkins said in a sour mood. “Jake, check that we have all the ammo we need and anything else you can think of. Maybe change out some of the AP for HE as we’re going up mostly against infantry.”

“Shit, in one breath you tell us that we’re facing Panzers and in another that you want to trade away our AP’s? Screw that! Trade away some HE’s,” Hicks said.

“I can see how Warrior and the Star are stocked,” Jake suggested. “Maybe we can equalize what we all have.”

“Good idea,” Hawkins approved. “And take Hicks to help you.” From the turret Hawkins watched the two men walk away. One of them killed Simon. But which one?

Nothing much happened that day or the next. In the afternoon there was a brief flurry of panic when a German fighter bomber buzzed them, the bombs clearly visible beneath the wings, but it didn’t linger and soon after American fighters showed up, the sight of them reassuring everybody.

Early next morning, 0600 on the 23rd, the day started with a bang as 50 tanks of the 10th Panzer with motorized infantry moved on the Allied artillery position dug in on the heights. They quickly overran the front-line infantry and then in a vicious exchange, overran the entire artillery position.

Thinking to repeat their successes at Kasserine against inferior troops, the Germans pushed on, threatening to outflank the Americans and to push them back into the mountains, out of the coastal plain. Company C was alerted and sent to stop them. In fact the whole Battalion was scrambled.

“Lady stay on my right,” Brewster squawked on the radio. “Warrior on my left. Star, you bring up the rear. I don’t want you stalling in front of me. Don’t wander too far to the right and cross into our minefield.”

“OK Jude, bring us to the right of Grizzly,” Hawkins translated the orders to the driver.

“Roger.” And the Lady swung to the right of the lead tank.

There was another section in front of them and beyond, the ridge line that overlooked the advance of the Germans. They came to the top and saw a flood of German tanks, Panzer III’s and IV’s, but thankfully no Panthers or Tigers. When tracers flew by him, Hawkins dropped down to look through his periscope. “Jake! Targets! AP! Take your pick!”

Hawkins felt the turret swivel around and a second later heard the gun roar. The familiar, sweet smell of cordite filled his nose. He saw the shot strike a little to the right and a hair short of a Panzer IV. “Adjust!” he yelled into the com.

“I’m doing it, I’m doing it,” he heard Jake mutter. The gun roared again and this time it hit and broke the track. The Panzer swung sharply to the left when it ran off its track, the bogey wheels digging into the soil.

All around tanks were firing and Hawkins saw fountains of dirt fly into the air. A curtain of dark smoke drifted across the battle field, obscuring much of the view. He was sweating, nervously wiping his eyes and brows. His stomach was rock hard and he had difficulty breathing. Jake fired again but Hawkins did not see it hit as he was watching his right where another Sherman crept close, firing its guns. Suddenly there was a God awful noise beside them and sharp impacts on the outside hull as they were pelted with shrapnel. It wasn’t a direct hit, just some ricochet. He spun his periscope and found the Sherman next to them had been hit and was already spewing smoke. Ronson! Lights first time, every time!

“Jones! Full forward!” Obediently the tank surged ahead. Hawkins tracked his periscope back and found the damaged tank. Dazed by the concussion of the hit, the driver was struggling to get out. The co-driver made it only half-way; thick black smoke boiled past him, and he fell back inside. Hawkins felt sick.

Jake fired again, the recoil rocking the tank. With the smoke from the open breech thickening in the interior, Hawkins flicked the fan that was trying to vent the trapped air. Hicks slipped in another AP, Jake sighted, fired and swore, “Fuck! Missed again. Stop moving damn you!”

“Jones! Stop!” Hawkins yelled. The tank slid to a halt. Hawkins’ eyes were glued to the periscope, his forehead jammed against its frame. He could see little of the battle from the narrow view. The opposing tanks were closing on each other, most firing on the move. He saw a German go up in a huge explosion from a direct hit. Yeah! Take that you asshole! He heard something hit beside him and he spun his view that way, finding it wasn’t the Grizzly, but someone was burning. … the first time, every time… flashed through his head. The tank commander was scrambling from the hatch when an explosion tore him apart. Hawkins heard parts of him slap the Lady. He felt sick again.

“Oh my God…Oh my God… He fucking blew up…” Hawkins yelled, not aware he was the one doing it. Hicks reached up and painfully pinched his calf.

“Stop saying shit!” Hicks growled. Hawkins swallowed his bile and tried to focus again, spinning the periscope forward. What he saw was a small slice of the raging battle, the smoke of burning equipment hiding most of it. He felt almost blind and almost deaf from the roar of the engine that filled the interior.

“Move ten feet forward!” Hawkins didn’t want to be a sitting duck. The tank obeyed. The Lady was in the third line of the American tanks, the Germans only 300 yards away. This was a nose to nose slug fest. Jake fired and this time Hawkins saw the hit take out a Panzer III. The whole skyline was filled with burning columns of smoke. “Good shot, Jake! You got him!” Then he heard and felt a violent explosion close beside him… and he swung his periscope over and found a Sherman, still moving forward, but without a turret. Flames were erupting out of the engine compartment. …first time and every time. “Fuck! That has to be an 88!” Hawkins scanned the ridge about half a mile opposite and found the high profile of an 88 dug in on the crest. He was instantly filled with dread as he was sure they would be its next target.

“Jake! An 88! At 1:00 o’clock. HE! HE! Get on it!” He heard Hicks change out the round and felt the turret swing over to align onto the target. Jake fired, and tensely Hawkins waited to see the shot fall. It hit dead on! The gun toppled over and there was a secondary explosion as its ammo also went up.

“God bless you, Jake! You got the bastard!” He felt a burst of tremendous elation. All tankers hated 88’s. He wiped sweat from his eyes. Get a hold of yourself! This battle isn’t over yet! Concentrate! He has trying to bring himself back into focus. The air inside was hot, sticky with anxious sweat and nearly unbreathable. Hawkins cracked open the hatch to let the smoke out. But that was a mistake as somebody’s smoke trail filled the tank. Then suddenly machine gun fire raked the Lady. Five, six bullets hit, harmless but their sound was startling, and the co-driver squealed in fright. The radio rattled with shouts of orders and calls for help. Hawkins couldn’t understand and his mind refused to grapple with it. He had to piss but had no time to. Fuck it! He pissed in his pants.

Hawkins couldn’t get a sense of the battle. What’s the score? Who’s winning? There was smoke everywhere and it was getting hard to find intact tanks among all the destroyed and disabled vehicles. There was just too much confusion and his view was too narrow. It was like looking at the Milky Way through a pinhole. Jake fired, but Hawkins had no idea where he was aiming. He looked for the Grizzly but could not find it. Nor the Warrior. There was no sign of Shooting Star anywhere. Please God, let them be safe! Let us all be safe! Jake fired again and Hawkins tried to find the target in his view.

To the right the Germans got mired in the minefield, and one after another, they set off an explosion throwing tracks. Sometimes the tank would burn, or just lay akimbo, disabled. The dispossessed crew tried to make their way back to safety, but often stepped on a mine that ripped them apart. The fiasco in the minefield broke up the attack and any German tank that could, retreated in a hurry. The Americans fired after them gleefully. “Run, you bastards!” Jake shouted, on the verge of ecstasy. Jake fired two more times and hit a halftrack trying to make it up the opposite rise.

The firing died out. There was an artillery duel to the north, but along the front that had been the main German thrust, the firing ceased. Hawkins opened his hatch and climbed out onto the back deck, trying to take it all in. There were Shermans smoking everywhere, more destroyed than had survived. The whole hillside was littered with hulks. At least as many as the destroyed Germans below. Some had the crew scattered around them half burned. Hawkins looked but couldn’t, didn’t want to understand. Suddenly he was very, very tired. He looked down and saw that he had indeed pissed himself.

Jake emerged from the turret, the armpits of his shirt soaked with sweat. Hicks came out even worse, still dripping, his hair plastered to his skull. He tore off his shirt and threw it from him. Hawkins stepped down and with shaking legs walked to the front of the Lady, where the hatches were still down. When he knocked on them, the hatches opened and he saw the helmeted heads bob around like goldfish in a tank.

“Jude, you can shut the engine off.” The engine sputtered out. “Jeff, it’s safe to come out now.” Both men climbed out, and nearly folded as their knees buckled from nerves and the cramping. “You both did well.” Then he tried to remember if Jeff had done anything.

“You called me Jones,” Jude said, in a mildly disenfranchised tone.

“Sorry, I got carried away. Got too excited and forgot your name.” He turned to the ones on top and called, “Hey, Jake. Throw me down a canteen.” Jake did, and Hawkins took a long drink and splashed some water on his face. His throat felt raw from all the gunpowder smoke.

“Hawkins, glad to see you alive!” Hawkins turned to see Lt. Brewster coming toward him, the eyes counting the crew. “All of you. Congratulations.”

“How about the others, Sir?”

“I’m afraid the Warrior’s gone, burned up with all of its crew.”

“Sweet Jesus, I was talking with Cole only this morning. What about Harrison?”

“The Shooting Star stalled and that kept them out of action. They’re all OK. The Grizzly lost a track and a drive sprocket. My driver bashed his head when we got hit. He’ll be all right but will have a nice bit of scar to show for it. Did you get hit anywhere?”

“Nah, just a few ricochets. But we fired off a lot of ammunition.”

“So did we.”

They both stepped clear of the tank, more into the open to have a better view. The landscape was unreal, dotted with tanks both German and American. “Jesus, we lost a lot of guys, but we sure stopped the Germans. They’ll have to realize that this is not Kasserine,” Lt. Brewster said.

“Any news on what comes next?” Hawkins asked.

“No. But I don’t see us doing much. I’ve got to get the Grizzly back on its feet. Overall, we’re in no shape to fight. We have to replace our losses.” The Lieutenant took another look around. “Then again, you can never figure what Blood and Guts Patton will do. He loves to fight. A real pitbull.” The Lieutenant left to see what he could find of the command structure. C Company was mauled, but how badly?

Jake and Hicks jumped to the ground. They were both chain smoking and appeared to be giddy with the backwash of terror.

“I was sighting on a Panzer III and I got it centered in my sight, when it turned and I had to readjust and when I was about to fire it veered off again. As if the canny bastard knew I had him in my sights.”

“So, what happened?”

“I fired, but he moved again at the last moment and I hit a tank behind him that was already hit.” He pulled out a cigarette and lit it with the butt. “But I saw him get hit later. I recognized it ’cause it had a giraffe painted on its side. The bastard burned good and I saw nobody climb out.” He looked the new men over, and singled Jude out. “You’re called Jones from now on, to make it easy on the Skipper.” He guffawed loudly.

Eventually some tank recovery crews arrived and started to triage the tanks. Those that looked most repairable were taken first. They had the grisly task of removing human remains and cleaning out the tanks.

His stomach still reeling, Hawkins went aside thinking that if he had to throw up, it would not be in front of his crew. After about ten steps, he found himself among burned out tanks, two American and one German. Somewhere in the middle was a corpse, burned beyond recognition. The uniform was a charred mess, giving no clue if he was friend or foe. It was on its back, the hands frozen into blackened claws, the body twisted in final agony. A wisp of smoke still rose from his face and mouth. Hawkins had a surge of sympathy, for an instant not caring who he was. He was dead, dying in a most horrific way. Then he thought of the Warrior, and it mattered again. He looked for a dog tag, but couldn’t find any. German? Maybe not, someone could have collected it already. The eyes had burst— turning away, he threw up.

When Hawkins got his crew together, they mounted and started back to the tank park. They were stopped by an MP Lieutenant who fired off a whole list of questions.

Is anybody hurt? No. Is your tank damaged? No. Are you functional? What the hell did that mean? Do you need any fixing? No, just to restock. They were directed where all the “functionals” had collected. There a Master Sergeant assigned them to Lt. Holley temporarily.

“You’ll get your old unit back soon as we can patch them together.”

Looking around Sergeant Hawkins located Lt. Holley aboard the Puma.

“Glad to see you, Hawkins. Right now it’s only you and me, but we may still get one more, who knows? I got two tanks in repair.”

A little later a tanker truck came by and topped up the Lady’s fuel. A supply truck was next, giving them canned food and water, followed by the ammo truck.

“God Almighty you guys fired off a lot of shells. I hope to hell you hit something. I can only give you six AP and two HE. I have to ration what I got to make sure everybody gets some.” They passed in the shells which Hicks stacked into the ammo rack, and he handed out the expended casings. They would be rushed back to Algiers where they had a factory to clean and reload them.

Hawkins walked back to the Puma, intending to get to know the Lieutenant a little better. After all, it would help to know what the man was about, particularly if they were heading into combat. Lt. Holley wasn’t there, so he talked with the crew.

“That was a hell of a fight,” Hawkins opened up.

“Yeah, we lost a tank, and two more got damaged,” the gunner said, smoking a cigarette. His fingers were yellow from his habit.

“We lost nearly a third of our tanks, and I hear the infantry also got badly mauled,” the loader added.

“But we beat the bastards back,” Hawkins said.

“Want some coffee?” the driver asked and when Hawkins nodded, passed him a tin cup. It was bitter and strong, the way most tankers liked it, potent enough so you couldn’t even blink afterwards. Hawkins stayed and talked for about ten minutes, subconsciously comparing this crew with his own. It struck him that there was a relaxed sense among these men that his crew didn’t have. Why was that? But then one of his crew had killed one of its own. But who and why?

Lt. Holley came back with some news. “Good you’re here, Hawkins. Our section has been ordered to provide support for an infantry foray to probe the Italian defenses on hill 382.”

“Where’s that, Sir?”

“The hell if I know. It’s not marked on my map.” Holley frowned. “But I’m sure the infantry will know.” He was handed a cup of coffee. When he sipped it, Hawkins was gratified to see him wince at the taste. “Anyway, gather up your crew and we’ll start off in about half an hour.”

Hawkins returned to the Lady and climbed aboard. He called the men together and told them of the intended mission.

“Will we have to do a lot of firing?” Jake asked.

“We’re in support, so, more than likely.”

“Damn! I just got the smell of gunpowder out of my nose,” Hicks complained.

The two new men had nothing to say or ask. Jude was watchful, still assessing who was who and what was what.

Hawkins, Jake and Hicks were up on top, talking while the engine warmed up.

“If we get hit,” Hicks said, “You both know where I hid grandpa. If we have to bail out, someone better grab him.” The other two just nodded. They had just survived an intense firefight and didn’t want to think of another one.

They moved out, following the Puma and four other tanks. It took more than an hour to link up with the infantry at the jump off point. A Captain explained the mission, pointing to a hill about two miles away. “That’s our target, gentlemen. Looks peaceful enough, but Intel says there are Italians dug in there, but don’t know at what strength. They didn’t mention any artillery, but they might have some mortars. Our task is to take the position and hold it to protect the flank exposed by our current advance. The infantry is to go in a two-pronged attack from the south and the east, and the tanks are to provide mobile artillery support as needed. That’s about it. Good luck, gentlemen.”

Hawkins returned to the Lady and carefully examined the hill through his binoculars. There was a cluster of houses on top with brown tile roofs and low stone walls around orchards and gardens. There were plenty of places for rifle pits and machine gun nests with a good field of fire to cover all approaches. He hoped the place wasn’t heavily occupied. It now depended on the Italians: they could put up a stubborn defense or withdraw at the first shot.

Lt. Holley started up and advanced about a mile at the infantry’s pace. Then with gestures he directed the Lady and another tank to take up positions there and there. Hawkins directed Jude to the new spot, and told Hicks to load with HE. Then they waited as the infantry units began their advance up the slope.

At first nothing happened: the place basked in the warmth of the midday sun. “A picture postcard view,” Hawkins muttered to himself.

Suddenly a machine gun opened up and then two… three, then five more joined in, from all angles spraying bullets down the slope. The infantry dropped to the ground behind anything they could find.

“OK Jake, pick a spot and fire at will…” Hawkins was interrupted by the roar of the 75. He tracked the shot to a house that disappeared in an explosion. Another shot followed… then quickly on its heel, another. The other tanks were firing as well and the hilltop was blossoming with explosions. Houses were turned instantly into rubble.

About 150 yards to the front, mortar crews were sending 81 mm projectiles high into the air to rain down on the enemy. Their explosions were different, more colorful and with their high angle of impact they could reach the backsides of their targets.

“Jake, save your ammunition. Fire at muzzle flashes of the machine guns…” The gun roared again and the breech opened, ejecting the spent casing. Hicks slid in another round. “Ready!” he yelled and Jake fired again. Because the interior was so full of smoke, Hawkins opened the top hatch to help the smoke out. In spite of his helmet and headphones, his ears were ringing and there was the bite of burned gunpowder in his mouth. His eyes burned and he had to blink often to clear them. He took a quick sip of water but it didn’t clear his throat.

Hawkins studied the hill. Most houses had been turned into rubbish by now, but the Italians were still holding out and with strong suppressive fire kept the US infantry stuck on the slope. The 75 roared and kicked again, shaking the whole tank. Hawkins wondered how his new driver and co-driver were faring. They hadn’t had much to do.

Then he realized that the 75 had been silent for a while. “Hey, what gives, Jake?”

“We’re out of HE. Should we fire AP?”

“No, that’d be useless.” Hawkins thought hard, then directed Jude to a small knoll where he popped out of the hatch, released the 50 caliber machine gun and pulled the action back to load it. He swung the gun to bear on the hill, and squeezed off a short burst, shaken by the recoil. He saw the tracers go out and adjusted. He waited a second and again fired a burst. He used up half a belt, then stopped; the gun was hot and smoking.

One by one the tanks fell silent, out of HE. The mortars still pounded the target but didn’t seem to have much effect; the Italians were doggedly holding out. The infantry on the slope was pinned down, taking casualties. It seemed like a stalemate.

Jake pushed his way out, squinting at the hill. “This is no good. Our guys are pinned down and dying there! Can’t we do something?”

“Did you see the path? Zigzag all the way. A tank would easily flip over and roll down trying to get up there.”

“So we’re going to do nothing?”

Hawkins didn’t answer. They needed high arc howitzers, not straight trajectory cannons. Why hadn’t HQ thought of that?

Just then a heavy rumble rattled through the air as three Republic Thunderbolts roared by overhead and unleashed a barrage of air-to-ground rockets. The whole hillside exploded. The planes made another pass and fired another salvo. There wasn’t an intact corner left after that. Then for good measure the planes returned, one after the other raking the hilltop with eight 50’s each. It was a hail of steel that hammered at the Italians. Then, like vultures, the planes circled, waiting to see if the victim was quite dead or not.

There was no more return fire from the hilltop. Abandoning their positions, Italian defenders fled northeast. A white flag appeared among the ruins as the rest of the survivors surrendered. The American infantry moved in and secured the position.

Lt. Holley came by, slapped the side of the tank, and called out loudly, “Well done, men. Well done.”

“We done nothing,” Jake muttered. “The Air Force did all the heavy lifting.”

“True, but we softened them up. In any case, it’s time to go home and restock.”

With his binoculars Hawkins scanned the hilltop but there was no village there anymore, just collapsed buildings, upturned orchards, smoking piles of rubble. What about the civilians, had they been evacuated in time? It seemed that neither side had taken them into consideration.

The tanks made it back to the tank park. The Lady exchanged her spent shells and filled up the ammo rack. That night the crews had the luxury of eating warm beef stew, full of fresh ingredients, prepared by the mobile field kitchen.

“I’ve forgotten how good cooked food tastes,” Jude said, shoveling in his second helping. Hicks gave him a skeptical look, thinking, you’ve only been here a week, wait until you’ve put in some real time.

After the meal, Hawkins was surprised to see Lt. Brewster coming up to him.

“Good news, Hawkins. The Grizzly is good to go, and we’re being reconstituted. The Shooting Star is gone, sent back for a complete overhaul. But Charlie’s returned with a new tank he insists on calling the Neanderthal.”

Charlie? Hawkins was forced to think, oh, Corporal Harrison.

After the action of the day, it was hard to settle down. Nerves were still raw and the muscles still tense from the firefight. It had been a one-sided encounter for the tanks as they hadn’t drawn any fire, but all the same the fear had been there. Who was to say an 88 hadn’t been hiding in one of the vegetable gardens? Hawkins pulled his blanket tighter around himself. A glance at the luminous dial of his wristwatch told him that it was past 0300. It was cold whatever the season. The ground was hard under the tank, and seemed to be getting harder. He shifted around hoping to ease the discomfort of his present position. Something woke him, but he didn’t know what.

Jake was stretched out by the opposite track. He groaned lightly and shifted about restlessly. He was clearly having a nightmare that had interrupted Hawkins’ sleep. The Sergeant reached out to wake his friend out of his troubles, but Jake exploded out of his covers, yelling, “Fire! God, I’m on fire! Put it out! Put it out!” He crabbed forward, rolling on the ground from side to side, beating at the flames that were absolutely real for him. Hawkins scurried after him, and threw his body to cover his friend, while slapping him repeatedly.

“It’s OK. You’re all right. The fire’s out.” Hicks appeared on the other side, doing likewise.

“You don’t understand… we were hit… an 88… the Lady… the Lady went up… and the flames … the flames…” His eyes rolled about, slowly coming to rest on Hawkins’ concerned face. “Shit! It was so real. I felt it, saw my skin blister in the heat and the explosion rip off my clothes. I was dying… and felt it.” Jake rolled to his knees, his hands still hugging his body tightly. “It was so real… so fucking real…” His voice broke, and silent, dry sobs rocked him.

“It’s OK Jake. We’re all having nightmares like that. It’s OK,” Hawkins muttered. The whole thing had scared him; it reminded him of his own fears of being burned alive. Hicks pressed a canteen into Jake’s hands. The gunner took two quick gulps, then wiped his sweaty face. “It was sooo god awful real.” He looked at Hawkins, his eyes filled with desperation. “If… If it ever happens … and you see me burning… you shoot me. I’m begging you, do not hesitate.”

“Sure… sure, Buddy. You do the same for me…”

Hicks lit two cigarettes and passed one to Jake, who took it between trembling fingers. They both sucked the smoke down greedily, Jake slowly calming down. Jude and Jeff emerged, watching the interplay with large, questioning eyes.

“Just a nightmare, boys,” Hawkins tried to reassure them.

“But he’s a veteran…” Jeff muttered.

“True, but veterans have it worse. They’ve been around long enough to know what can happen. You keep it pressed down tight, but at night…” He gestured the helplessness with a wave of his hand. More than anyone, Hawkins appreciated that they were a team, and that each had certain responsibilities, but it was up to Jake to deliver the knockout blow and save them from somebody shooting at them… as long as it wasn’t a Tiger, or a Panther or a fucking camouflaged 88.

Jude brewed some coffee and they gathered around with hot cups, slowly settling down. It was always upsetting to have someone erupt like this, especially at night, because all of them found echoes of their own fears in whatever was playing out.

To his surprise Hawkins noticed the light of dawn softening the sky. This is starting out as a hell-of-a-day, hope nothing worse happens.

Midmorning, the Lady Bug, along with seven other tanks of C Company, half a dozen halftracks filled with infantry, four motorized artillery units and a squad of armored cars were sent west to strengthen the flank of the Allied incursion into the coastal plain. They swung away from the fertile plain and once again faced the desert. The Afrika Korps was known for sweeping in from that side to attack the rear units and play havoc with the supply line.

Hawkins was sitting on top of his tank, feet dangling into the hatch, swaying with every movement of the tank over the rough road. He wasn’t feeling well. After last night, which left his stomach nervous, something he ate or drank didn’t agree with him. The jolting didn’t help his stomach any. He had goggles tight over his eyes, a cloth over his mouth and nose, but still felt as if he were breathing in the dust the vehicles in front churned into the air. He considered ducking down into the turret, but the interior was filled with the noise and smell of the engine that would add to his nausea.

Ahead he saw Lt. Brewster aboard the Grizzly, half in, half out of the turret, facing the same storm. They were under strict orders not to use the radio, so they would not give away their intentions to the Germans who were monitoring Allied radio frequencies. Hawkins kept his eyes on his superior, to be on the lookout for any hand signals. Peering through a narrow slit his driver saw even less than he, so he had to be ready to call down directions if needed.

It was about 1100 in the morning, the sun fully in the sky, but not yet warm enough to dispel the chill of a late spring day. He had no idea where they were — certainly off his map, with Wadi something on his left and the foothills of the Atlas Mountain chain behind.

“Watch what I’m doing,” Jude instructed Jeff over the intercom. “You have to double clutch when you shift up, but not if you shift down. And if you’re going from second into third, or into fourth, give gas or the engine will stall. It’s not like back in training. These tanks have been through a lot already and nothing’s as tight or smooth as it was first off the factory assembly line. You always have to think ahead and anticipate. The last thing you want is to let the engine die and hold up the whole column…”

Good advice, Hawkins thought, a little surprised as both the driver and co-driver were recent replacements but they had functioned well in the last action.

Ahead Lt. Brewster signaled with a broad hand motion and Sgt. Hawkins called out a warning. “Be ready to stop, we’re pulling off the road.” He heard the driver shift down and ease up on the accelerator. The whole column came to a halt. One by one the engines were shut off.

In the field ahead there were about eight huts to one side, near the reason for their being, a rare well. Camel herders were watering their beasts, paying no attention to the new arrivals. They drew water from the well to fill the trough lined with the camels drinking their fill. The animals took their time; Hawkins had to recall that they were drinking for the whole week ahead. The drovers didn’t hurry, but Hawkins intercepted a few resentful looks at the Americans. “Strange people, I wonder which side they’re really on?” Hawkins asked himself. “Not happy to see us and have us mess with their routines and traditions that have stayed unchanged since the time of Christ and Moses.” He noted that a few carried weapons, British Enfields, German Mausers, others probably Italian and French rifles. No doubt a few US Garands would be showing up soon.

The herders finished and led their beasts away, out of the Wadi to disappear into the hills.

The infantry dismounted and filled their canteens from the well, then the extra containers. Hawkins sent Hicks to top off their water can. Then Jake sat on top, smoking. His eyes were red rimmed from the fine dust and later he had trouble washing them out. “I’m sick and tired of the sand, the desert, cold and heat, sand fleas and lousy food…”

“Not like at the beach on Coney Island is it?” Hawkins couldn’t resist asking.

“Nothing like it.”

The congestion around the well eased as people climbed back on their vehicles. The column started up again. The Grizzly spewed out dark smoke, a sure sign that the engine needed an overhaul. Once again they were lost in a plume of dust as they headed west.

The road was in a bad shape. There were craters from a previous artillery bombardment that were only half filled. The Lady lurched heavily to the side as it crossed one of these.

“For Christ’s sake, Jones … uh, Jude. Warn us the next time!” Hicks called irritated, as he was thrown from his seat. “We can’t see a damned thing in here.”

“Sorry…” the driver muttered. “It’s hard to see with the churned-up dust from those ahead.”

Hawkins smiled to himself; so someone else had trouble remembering names.

Not much farther they pulled off the road again and a Captain walked along the line of vehicles, telling them where to park on both sides of the road. This was to be their position to defend.

Hawkins directed the Lady into a hull-down position facing west to north-west. He had a good line of fire to the cut in the hills from where an attack was most likely. He had the crew cover them with the netting. Hicks grumbled, “What the hell for? The tanks around us are not bothering, and besides we’ve got miles of tracks to show where we are.” A good point.

“Then for practice…” Sgt. Hawkins growled right back.

They got the camp stove going, warming up the contents of canned meatballs. Hicks was smoking as was Jeff. Hawkins washed his face, something that wasn’t easy as the fine dust turned into a stubborn paste when mixed with water. The crew got their blankets out and improvised nests for the night, either under or beside the tank. All around the men were doing the same, as well as going behind the dunes to relieve themselves.

Suddenly the Lieutenant appeared, saying urgently, “Don’t drink the water from the well. It’s been poisoned…”

“By whom?” Hicks asked pouring it out of his canteen.

“Who cares by whom? Most likely by a German agent among the camel drivers…”

“Are people dying?” Hawking asked in rising alarm.

“Don’t think so. Just feel sick to their stomachs.”

“That’s a relief,” Hicks said. “But it doesn’t make sense that they’d poison the only well around just to make us sick. What’ll the locals drink?”

“We think they poisoned the bucket, not the entire well,” Lieutenant said, then went on to warn the other units.

“Is anybody sick?” Hawkins asked, looking around him.

“Nah. I only topped off the can and we haven’t touched that yet,” Hicks replied.

“Good. Dump it,” Hawkins ordered tersely.

“Excuse me, Sarge,” Jude interposed. “We can use it as coolant. The engine won’t care.”

“Good. Do so. But for God’s sake don’t mix it up. I don’t relish shitting myself to death.” They resumed their cooking and eating.

The nearby infantry wasn’t so lucky. Many were affected and had to run for the dunes, groaning and holding onto their guts. Hicks came back from there, buttoning his fly. “Don’t go back there. It’s a real mess. People are shitting everywhere, and just kicking some sand over it, but it stinks to high heaven…” Then to settle himself he had another cigarette.

Corporal Colter, the newest addition to the unit, with a still pristine tank the Hornet, came over and hoped to reassure himself. “What a country. I’m from Arizona, used to the heat and cold of the desert, but not camels and Bedouins who would poison a well. Is it always like this?” He was asking a veteran. Hawkins thought somewhat sourly. Yet he had only been in the country less than five months, had lost his original tank at Kasserine and was in a patched up tank, envious of his junior’s brand new mount.

Lieutenant Brewster came around again, briefing his tank commanders. “Air reconnaissance indicates the possibility of a German attack on this side. Tank tracks have been noted in the desert and some mobile infantry. The size of the force could not be ascertained, so here we are as early warning if it should materialize in strength. So we’re to hold until reinforced or relieved.”

“What happens if it’s a major attack?” one of the commanders asked.

“It won’t be. But if it turns out to be, we have a whole battalion of combined forces to support us.”

The Lieutenant passed on. “Another snafu, if you ask me,” Cpl. Colter said, flicking his stub away. “Letting the Germans take potshots at our asses.” He said it in an offhand manner, trying to emulate a seasoned veteran.

“What bugs me the most is that we were here before, but allowed the Krauts to reorganize and push us back. If it wasn’t for Old Guts and Glory we’d be back in Algiers.”

“Rommel’s a cagey bastard. The Brits call him the Desert Fox with good reason. Twice he pushed them back through Libya all the way to Egypt. He was knocking on Cairo’s door before Montgomery finally kicked him out.”

“Like I said, he never met our George Patton.”

By nightfall, Hawkins was feeling better and even those “poisoned” had largely recovered. As the air was cold, the troops covered themselves with anything available. Jake and Hicks wrapped themselves into the camouflage net, trying to keep warm.

With a thin crescent moon that hardly gave off any light, the night was especially dark. The sentries saw little as they talked softly among themselves. Under the Lady, Jeff was snoring loudly and Jude had to elbow him several times to shut him up.

Hawkins was dreaming of home, rounding up cattle, driving them to the railhead. It was cold in the dream too, and he wished for a hot cup of strong coffee, Texas style. His horse Dusty under him didn’t want to go the way he wanted him to. He gave him a bit of spurs to get the horse to obey. Suddenly the ground exploded in front of him into a fountain of dirt, the horse bucked and he was rolling on the ground, scrambling for the Thompson submachine gun. The Germans were attacking out of the east, mortar shells landing around him.

Sprinting for his tank, he scrambled inside, pulled on his helmet and plugged in. The radio was screaming, “Attack alert! Attack alert!” Jake and Hicks squeezed by him. Gunner winched the turret around to bear on the enemy. German tanks were coming from the cut in the hills, spreading out and firing in the half light of dawn. A tank to their right suddenly exploded pelting the Lady with debris. For a moment dark smoke blotted out their view.

“God Almighty, driver, get us moving!” Hawkins yelled into the intercom. The engines groaned reluctantly, not having been primed properly, then caught on, spewing out exhaust full of unburned fuel.

“Pull back!” the Company Commander ordered on the radio. “Tanks form a rear guard. We’ll try to make a stand on the next ridge…”

The Lady backed out of its position, Hawkins calling out “…right … left… more left…” to guide her. Around them all the other tanks were scrambling to find a better position. Hawkins was twisting from one side to the other trying to keep everything in sight. He didn’t want to hit anybody, and he got hoarse yelling directions to Jude.

Jake was calling for AP. With a German Panzer IV in his sight, as soon as Hicks tapped him on the back he fired and an instant later saw the enemy hit. “Take that you Kraut whoreson! AP!!!” The breech clanked open, was loaded and shut… and the ammo was on its way… missing! “Damn you to hell!”

A tank was hit ahead of them and Hawkins yelled, “Hard fucking left!!!” The driver saw the hit and even felt the explosion rock the Lady back on her heels.

“Quick fire! The bastard’s tracking us…” came a panicked voice over the radio, swallowed by an explosion. One more C tank to the left was hit, a man was trying to climb out of it. He was on fire! He made it half out… then an explosion blew parts of him into the air.

“God in Heaven…” Hawkins sucked in air past his tight throat, but he could barely breathe. The view forward in his periscope was of confusion, everyone stampeding for the safety of the next rise.

“Artillery set up on the rise. Infantry dig in. Mortars fire as soon as ready. Move your asses people! This ain’t a picnic!” the Company Commander barked on the radio.

Hawkins looked behind them where the turret was pointed. The 75 fired again, but on the move it missed. It was a new Panther with an impossibly long lethal barrel, the first he’d ever seen this close.

“This is the fucking 10th Panzer!” Hawkins screamed, his voice flipping into falsetto. “Don’t waste ammo on his front, take out his tracks!” Hardly had he finished saying it, when the turret resounded with a horrific screech as an enemy shell grazed along the side, causing a piece of steel from the inside skin to splinter off and hit him on the chest. Then another hit that threw their track, making the tank spin to the right, wedging itself into a rock wall. The engine died and the turret was jammed.

“Bail! Bail!” Jake yelled, clawing his way to the hatch, practically ejecting Hawkins in his way. They all got out safely. Hawkins clutched his side, blood seeping through his fingers. Starting to feel the pain, he collapsed onto his knees, dizzy and disoriented.

Two more tanks roared by, firing back at the Germans. Then they were gone and the crew of the Lady was alone by their disabled tank.

“Grab him!” Jake yelled and pulled Hawkins to his feet, half dragging him. Doubled over, they ran as the German pursuit was gaining on them. A Panzer rumbled by them, then a halftrack. They just had time to get out of its way. Another tank clanked by and another, finally an awesome Panther, long and massive, the exhaust smelling of diesel. Unconsciously Hawkins crossed himself. Depart, you Satan’s Spawn… Suddenly a German airplane dove out of the sky and dropped a bomb someplace up ahead. Then there were five… no, six planes making their bomb runs. Dark explosions rose into the air making Hawkins doubt if they could make a stand on the rise. From where they were, everything was out of sight except for the columns of smoke, ahead and behind.

An infantry truck pulled up beside them and a bunch of Italian soldiers jumped off, pointing their rifles at the Americans. Jake threw his carbine down and raised his hands. The others followed suit, surrendering. Hawkins raised his hands, aware of the stabbing pain in his side.

An Italian officer jabbered something excitedly, directing his soldiers to prod the Americans up into the truck. They were prisoners! The truck started up again, and threw them from side to side. Hawkins passed out from a jolt of pain.

Chapter 6

It was later when Hawkins woke up, to find Jake sprinkling sulfa powder on the wound and pressing a wad firmly to stem the seepage, which didn’t seem all that bad. Hawkins felt mostly lightheaded.

“Where are we…?” he groaned.

“The Italians took us prisoners. They’re driving us back.”

“Italians?” Hawkins muttered, still confused.

“Yes. Fucking Italians,” Jake said half under his breath.

“Where are the other units?”

“We’re it. The others are dead or dying, getting the shit blasted out of them.”

There were four men and an officer, all holding rifles on them, the fingers on the trigger guard. “Shit, if we hit a pothole, that asshole will shoot me!”

The ground evened out as they made their way back to the rear. The German rear! We’re prisoners, it pounded through his brain. He almost forgot the pain. They were prisoners to these Italian Nazi bastards. Of course they were Nazis, all enemies were Nazis. He felt weak, and when he closed his eyes he passed out again. He must have, for when he became aware again they were at an enemy collection point, just getting off the truck. He jumped off, but wasn’t strong enough to stop himself from dropping to all fours. Jake and Hicks picked him up, and the officer led them to a first aid station. Hawkins collapsed onto a seat, hardly able to raise his head.

A medic came to look him over, peeling back the clothes and the blood soaked bandages. Hawkins hissed when the man pulled the caked on portion last, and watched the blood seep out again, but it was sluggish, the wound an unsightly black and blue.

“You’re lucky. It’s not deep. The pain’s from a busted rib. But you’ll be OK,” the medic said in a mix of Italian with a Brooklyn accent. He cleaned the wound, painted it with disinfectant and bandaged it expertly. “There’s a bit of metal in there, but I won’t touch that here. The hospital will take care of it.” He packed up his bag and rose. “Sorry, I don’t have painkillers to spare. I’m saving them for the critically wounded. But here, have a sip of this.” He held out a bottle with something strongly alcoholic, which burned its way down into Hawkins’ stomach. He nodded his appreciation.

He was taken back to rejoin the other prisoners. Two soldiers stood guard over them, watching them lazily. The driver and co-driver looked around uncomprehendingly: not two weeks in the country and they were prisoners of war, POW’s.

“I can’t believe it’s the Italians who bagged us. It was a German Panzer that got the Lady,” Jake complained, shaking his head. Would he be any happier if a German stood over them now? He patted his shirt pocket but swearing, found only an empty pack there. He showed the pack to the Italians and made some gestures, by which the Italian understood that he was asking for cigarettes. The guard pointed to the gunner’s wristwatch, offering to trade. Jake swore again, then showed three fingers, and the Italian put together three packs for the wristwatch.

Jake lit up, taking a long, luxurious drag. Hicks stuck out a hand, asking for one, but Jake shook his head. “Fuck you! Trade your own watch.” Jude looked beseechingly at the cigarette but didn’t ask and Jake didn’t offer.

Hicks seemed particularly dejected. Of course, he’s missing his grandfather! Hawkins thought.

Later in the afternoon they were piled into a truck and driven further into the coastal plain. With them were a couple of American flyboys and a British officer, all prisoners. In the back sat two Germans, all business, with submachine guns in their laps pointed at their prisoners. Both were sunburned, real veterans, and showed every sign of being bored.

“Fucking Nazis,” Hicks cursed.

“Hey, they’ll hear us…” Jude objected. He didn’t dare blink, afraid that the Germans would shoot him on the spot. The Allied propaganda painted them as brutish beasts without any feelings and sympathies, Nazis, every last one of them.

“They don’t speak any English,” the British officer said calmly. “All they know are ‘hands up’ and ‘take a piss?’ and of course, ‘cigarettes?’ They all know that.” For the most part, the flyboys kept to themselves.

They made a bathroom stop: everyone lined up and irrigated the roadside ditch. Afterwards, the truck driver rolled up the tarp to allow some airflow in the back. They started up again, driving past Axis checkpoints and camouflaged vehicle parks. Hawkins tried to estimate the German strength, as if he were on an intelligence mission. What he saw wasn’t encouraging. Everywhere the Germans were digging in, getting ready for a fight. A couple of times they passed some tanks, among them a rare Panther and a rarer Tiger. Even at rest these monsters looked menacing, and their long guns lethal. The crew of the Lady Bug stared with dread at these beasts.

The countryside was flat, the vegetation becoming greener the closer they got to the coast. Crops of grain grew in wide pastures, and animals grazed in fenced in fields. Olive groves were everywhere, orange and lemon trees abounded. The villages they passed through were more prosperous, the houses bigger, the walls evenly plastered and painted in bright colors. They often passed carts pulled by donkeys off to the sides, as the road itself belonged to the occupying armies. Among the civilians, few women were to be seen, and if, they were covered from head to foot.

The truck came to a halt. The prisoners were given water and allowed a bathroom break; they stood there, dicks in hand, pissing in full view of enemy troops bivouacked by the side of the road. Nearby was a Tiger, its engine cover up and a couple mechanics deep into it. The fucking thing might be invincible, but it must have its share of mechanical troubles, Hawkins gloated. The more troubles the better.

Back on board they were given some bread with what looked like a lump of native hard cheese. The British officer made a face but forced himself to eat, while one of the American airmen threw his share over the side. This pissed off their guards who waved their machine pistols at them and yelled obscenities in German.

Just before nightfall they pulled into a barbed wire compound and were led to a tent where a bored German underofficer asked them questions and made notes.

“Name?” he asked Jake.

“Under the Geneva Convention I need only to give my …”

The German interrupted him, “Name, rank and serial number. That’s all I want. So we can notify the Red Cross Society that you’re now prisoners and not dead.”

They gave the information; the German didn’t seem interested in anything else. They were released back into the prison population.

Outside, there was nothing but Allied prisoners standing or sitting around surrounded by rolls of barbed wire. No shelter, no nothing. People sorted themselves out according to nationality, branches of the service and comrades. It didn’t take long for some tank men to find them and lead them to the rest of their kind. All from the 1st US Armored.

“Where did they take you?”

“On the western edge, protecting the flank. And you?”

“On the open road after our Sherman stalled. They swept in from the desert, fired a few shots and took us prisoners.”

“So what’s the deal here?” Hawkins asked.

“This is just a collection point. Later on they’ll drive us to a real POW camp.”

“Will they feed us soon?” Jeff asked, his stomach growling.

“Who knows? But see that tent? There you can get water and in that trench you can piss it out. Nothing but the best.”

“The thing I want to know is if we’re winning this fucking war or losing it?” Jake asked. The Lieutenant smiled. “We’re winning here in Tunisia, losing it everywhere else.”

“Do you figure they’ll take us to Germany?” Jude asked, worried about the possibility.

“Oh no,” the Lieutenant replied. “Even they are not going anywhere. They’re trapped here in Tunisia. Our Navy and Air Force have them boxed in tight. Give us a month and they’ll be our prisoners.”

“What makes you so sure?” Jake asked, not happy with being talked down to.

“Jesus, figure it out. We’re hammering at them from the west, the Brits from the south. Where are they going to go? They can’t all swim back to Sicily. No they’re stuck here, like flies on shit. It’s rumored that Rommel was ordered back to Germany so that he wouldn’t be taken prisoner here.”

“You’re shitting me,” Jake said, unable to believe a word.

“You’re mighty certain of that,” Hawkins said.

“I’m certain of it. For us this is just a holiday from being shot at.”

Later on some flat bread and cheese was passed around with some olives. Not nearly enough, but it took the edge off their hunger for a while.

Hawkins, Jake and Hicks were sitting to the side away from the rest, feeling depressed. They had no blankets and the night chill was already starting.

“I wouldn’t have believed it… but I miss the Lady,” Hicks said, taking shallow puffs, rationing his cigarette.

“Me too,” Jake added.

“Jesus!” Hawkins sat bolt upright. “What about grandfather??!”

“Ease up, cowboy,” Hicks said. “I’ve got it. Not the gold but at least the emerald.”

“Where? Didn’t they search you?”

“They did. But I nearly killed myself swallowing it.”

“You swallowed it?” The information wouldn’t fit into Hawkins’ head.

“Yes, the whole fuck’n thing. It nearly choked me, but Jake pounded me on the back and that did the trick. I suppose it won’t be any fun passing it either.” Then his face darkened. “Had to leave the gold though. There was only time to grab the jewel. And after all that, the Lady didn’t burn. Just busted her tracks.”

“You couldn’t have swallowed the emerald and the gold,” Jake consoled him.

“Likely not. But that was a very special hoard. From antiquity. Think of it, from the Third Punic War. A priceless testament of history—”

“If you start up that Hannibal shit, I swear I’ll slug you,” Jake said, waving his fist.

“You stupid ass! The third war was 50 years later, the end of Carthage. Hannibal was long dead. If you’d listened with half an ear you’d know that by now.”

“Why? Does it help me survive? Put money in my pocket? Who gives a shit what happened two thousand years ago.”

“Tell that to an antique dealer. That gold’s worth almost as much as the emerald for its historic value…”

“You think I give a damn? I’d melt it down and make a bracelet for my girlfriend. You bet she’d deliver after that.”

“You fucking ignoramus! You deserve to die in your own shit!”

“Easy now,” Hawkins interrupted, trying to broker a peace. Still it occurred to him that Hicks had the zeal to kill and Jake had the drive and perseverance to do it. All it needed was the correct sequence of buttons to be pushed. So either could have killed Simon.

Someone came near and that stopped the discussion of “grandfather.”

When darkness fell, trucks came and loaded up the prisoners and drove them north along the coastal road. Somewhere near a blacked-out Tunis, they were downloaded into a walled compound. Here, a deathhead contingent of Nazis SS processed the prisoners. Name, rank and serial numbers were checked against the list and countersigned.

When Hawkins’ turn came the underofficer frowned at the paperwork. “Sergeant James Earl Hawkins or Sergeant James Hawkins? Which is it?”

“They’re both me. Earl’s my middle name.”

“You have to be precise or we’ll be looking for two of you…” He made the correction and looked over the prisoner. “You’re wounded, no?”

“Yes.”

“Take this.” The underofficer handed him a chit. “Go to the infirmary and have yourself looked after.”

Hawkins left, and every time he met a guard he showed the chit and was pointed in the right direction. The place was clean and antiseptic. After a medic took off his bandages and cleaned him up, a doctor came to have a look at him. “You have a piece of shrapnel in you, but I don’t have the proper supplies to take care of it. Sorry. The medic here will wrap you up. Please keep the bandages as dry as you can.” Then he was gone and the medic finished the job.

When Hawkins found the rest, Jake looked relieved. “I thought they threw you in a special jail for officers.”

“I’m a noncommissioned rating, not really an officer.”

“Then I don’t have to salute you?” Jake asked jokingly.

“When was the last time you bothered to salute me?” Hawkins asked.

“Probably Stateside.”

They were shown into a long, half-lit room, with straw-filled mattresses along the wall. “Find one,” the guard pointed and left. At the end of the row they found a few empty spots and settled into them. There were easily eighty men in the room, some snoring loudly, others talking in their sleep. Hawkins was sure he wouldn’t be able to fall asleep, but it had been a long day and he barely finished thinking it when he was asleep.

The morning started at 0530 with roll call. They were counted two times to make sure the numbers matched, then dismissed for a breakfast of thin coffee and a slice of hard toast with something on it that definitely wasn’t butter. Of the crew of the Lady, only the smokers were happy as they were each issued strong Moroccan cigarettes, five per person. They tasted bad and smelled worse, but Hicks would smoke horseshit to stave off withdrawal. By the end of the day he was ready to tear out his own lungs or someone’s hair.

The prisoners spent their time outside, walking in an endless circle or sitting at the tables, playing cards, chess or checkers. There were also dominoes and an Arab game that few knew how to play. A marine claimed to know, but it soon became clear that he was making up the rules to suit himself.

Hawkins sat in the corner with Jake, just talking. The Sergeant seemed preoccupied so Jake asked him about it. “I was thinking of Simon, wondering why the bastard Kraut killed him.”

“Can’t figure it out either, unless Simon caught him making his getaway.” Hawkins had listened closely to the tone but could find nothing but a vague interest. In his heart of hearts, he hoped it wasn’t Jake: they had always gotten along well. But he also had no trouble with Hicks beyond a mild irritation over the man’s wordiness. He just couldn’t make up his mind who could have done it. Maybe the German lied… but why should he? He knew he was dying and had absolutely nothing to gain.

A little later, out of boredom Hawkins joined the endless circle of people walking outside. After two turns, a Lieutenant caught up with him.

“Hey, I know you. I was right beside you at Kasserine when your tank went up. That was my first look at a hit close up. I was glad you guys all got out. Later that day, I lost two tanks to an 88, and they weren’t so lucky. Got the fucking bastard though, but it didn’t bring my tanks back.”

“When did they capture you, Sir?” Hawkins asked, not remembering ever having seen the man.

“That same day. We got isolated and antitank guns took us out one by one. The 88 is the Devil’s own weapon. But I was lucky and got hit by a smaller caliber and lost nobody. They rounded up the survivors and dumped us in here.”

“I must say I’m surprised. They seem to be treating us fairly decently.”

“Not back then. A bunch of arrogant bastards. Now they’re feeling the Allies closing in and know that shortly it’ll be their turn behind the barbed wire.”

“I keep hearing people say that but where’s the proof?”

“This morning I talked with a Captain who was just brought in fresh from the front, and he said that the Allied forces are only 40, 50 miles from here. The Germans are running out of men and supplies. They hardly have any tanks left or fuel for them.” As if to underscore the Lieutenant’s words a pair of American planes flew by overhead, heading for the harbor waterfront. Shortly faint bomb blasts could be heard and moments later, smoke rose in that quarter.

After lunch Hawkins tackled Hicks. The big man didn’t look comfortable and finally confessed in an aside, “Grandpa sits down there like a cork in a bottle and won’t let things pass. I can’t shit properly. I been drinking gallons of water to keep my stool loose and not blow up. But what can I do? It’s the only safe place I can keep it for now, but it’s playing hell with my guts.”

Jude had found someone from his hometown with whom he was spending time, and Jeff stuck with them.

The meals were sparse, just enough for them not to feel the hunger, but they had little taste or real nourishment. Hawkins noticed that he had to tighten his belt a notch. There wasn’t much to do. People talked, telling stories and lies to each other. The only consistent fact was that the situation couldn’t last much longer past April.

The day ended with roll call at 2030, and another headcount. Everyone prayed that the numbers matched, otherwise the Germans would count a third tine and once even went to a fourth round before it was discovered that the “missing” person was in the infirmary with appendicitis.

The days slipped by in humdrum monotony. There wasn’t enough to do. People played games, or refought the war, or joined the endless quarter mile of the “washing machine” as the circuit in the exercise yard was called. There was a stretch of fencing that gave a limited view of Tunis and the sea beyond, but one had to be truly bored to stand there for a half hour, gazing at houses a good two miles away. People who were lucky enough to come upon a scrap of writing read and reread every word.

They finally removed Hawkins’ piece of shrapnel and sutured him up. Every second day he lined up at the infirmary to have his wound checked and rebandaged. He was healing nicely but would have a scar there for life. His rib was mending as well and he could move his arm without discomfort. He felt a ridge in the knitting bone, but no adverse feelings with it.

Mostly the three of them kept together, watching each other. Sometimes Hawkins thought it was because of the shared secret of “grandfather.”

“You know, I still can’t quite believe it,” Jake said to Hawkins when there was just the two of them. “That he swallowed the thing, though I was there to see it. I can’t stop thinking that it’s there in his stomach… a fortune…”

“In his colon by now. The guy’s chronically constipated. That’s why he’s in the crapper all the time.”

“That’s more than I want to know,” Jake said, making a face.

Daily new prisoners arrived, bringing news of the Allied advance. “Two weeks at the most before we’re liberated,” was the consensus. But with each arrival, the place became so crowded that most beds had two occupants. Jake and Hawkins thus became bed-mates, if for no other reason than to keep a stranger out. They fought over the blanket all night. Rations were cut in half and for the first time people felt really hungry.

By the end of April, they could hear distant cannonading, and at night the flashes of artillery flickering on the horizon like far off lightning. There was also more activity in the sky and the air-raid sirens ripped into the day more and more often. Then all action would pause which led to people betting what the target was.

Hawkins watched the German guards, mostly made up of older men, not so suitable for the front. He thought they seemed happy enough not having to face combat. But as the front approached them they looked anxiously toward the south.

“Oh yeah, the bastards are feeling the coming storm,” Jake said. “No doubt they’d love to be somewhere else.”

“Not necessarily. If they become prisoners, they’ve survived the war. Remember Hans? He was looking forward to it,” Hicks commented. Hawkins pricked up his ears, listening to the nuances.

“Yeah. It was your emerald that killed him. Seduced him to steal and kill poor Simon.” Jake’s tone sounded sincere.

“Maybe so. I’d kill to defend what’s mine, but Hans had no rights to it. I think he killed Simon because after years of listening to Nazi indoctrination, he hated Jews, like most of them do.”

“Not most,” Hawkins protested. “Just the confirmed Nazis. The new world order needed a scapegoat and settled on the Jews.”

“I can’t believe you’re speaking up for the Germans,” Jake objected.

“Listen, I grew up in Texas, and found as many who hated Jews, blacks and Mexicans. If you weren’t lilywhite then you were trash. Bigotry is bigotry everywhere. No difference.”

“Hell, it’s not about the Jews or anyone else. The Nazis wanted to pluck them for their property, to lay the blame for the loss of the First War somewhere else, and believe me hate and fear are a great unifiers of opinion. But a nation built on bigotry, can’t stand…” Hicks was also passionate about his world view.

“What are you babbling about?” Jake fired back. “Near as I can tell, the Germans have been holding their own. I shudder to think what they’ll be like once they’re defending their homeland.”

“Spoken so eloquently by a POW,” Hicks added sarcastically. Hawkins wisely stayed out of this tug-of-war.

The officers formed a prisoners’ committee to decide what to do when the “end” came. It was thought best to stay put until liberated and not flood into the town aimlessly, possibly blundering into a crossfire.

“I can’t believe that I’m saying this,” Jake said among the three of them. “But I miss Professor Hicks with his lectures. He’s been so silent. If there ever was a time when we could use some entertainment it’s now.”

“I can’t stop thinking of the Lady. She didn’t burn, only lost her track but otherwise was intact. And the gold’s still there for some lucky asshole to find,” Hawkins mused.

“Except for the piece in me,” Hicks contributed, massaging his abdomen.

“I mean that it wasn’t really destroyed. Still, it’s an expensive coffin for grandfather.”

“I thought you have grandfather,” Jake said.

“Yes, the jewel part but not the gold. That’s still hidden in the Lady Bug.”

“Do you think it’s still there? What if someone has found it already?” Hawkins asked.

“Not likely. I stashed it in the hollow space under the turret ring and the radio well. No one’s likely to look in there.”

They were quiet considering this.

“How much is it all worth?” Jake asked.

“I’m no expert, but the jewel, maybe about 300,000 dollars1, but the gold close to half a million. You know… historic value.”

“Shit! Then you should’ve swallowed the gold!” Jake whistled.

“Do you know how much that would weigh?”

They lapsed into silence again, thinking about what they could have done with a third share. One of them has to be thinking about increasing his share, Hawkins thought. But who? Nothing he saw of the others’ expressions gave him a clue.

After a meager lunch Hawkins got into a conversation with an artillery man who turned out to be from the same county in Texas as he. For a while they compared notes and reminisced over their old neighborhood.

“You know, we sit here fat as bugs, but the rest of the world is still at war. My brother’s a marine, fighting the Japs in the Far East. I’ve had no news of him since we disembarked in Algiers. Just a quick note from my parents that in October he was all right. How many bullets have been fired since then? And what if one of them had his name on it?” Cory Taylor asked. “What’s today? April 28th?” He updated his arithmetic.

The thought gave Hawkins pause, realizing that he had lost any global sense of what was happening. There were battles in Russia, in China and the Philippines and he knew nothing of them. It had been ages since he had a look at a Stars and Stripes.

The next time Hawkins saw Hicks, the man looked jubilant.

“What gives?” Hawkins asked.

“I gave birth to grandpa,” Hicks said, putting on his shirt. “And let me tell you, I know full well how a chicken feels laying an egg.”

“How did you mange?”

“With some grease—”

“You know what? I don’t really want to know.”

Later Jake remarked that Hicks looked unnaturally “happy.”

“Yeah, he shit himself an emerald,” Hawkins informed him.

“Really, the thing’s out? Well I guess then he crapped for an hour to empty himself afterwards.”

“Yes, he probably did.”

Each day the firing got closer and they could now hear the chatter of machine guns and rifle shots. The fight was practically on their doorstep. They were trying to guess where the battle raged and what to do to stay out of the line of fire. Everyone was nervous, even the guards. They stood together in groups, perhaps expecting the prisoners encouraged by the nearness of friendly forces to rebel and take over the camp.

“The infirmary’s made of solid stone… that’d be a good place to hunker down,” Hawkins suggested.

“Yes and have the whole wall collapse on top of you with a single artillery shot,” was Jake’s opinion.

“Maybe dig a foxhole in the yard,” Hicks proposed.

But it didn’t come to that. The next morning the guards just vanished, leaving the place unguarded. The Prisoners’ Committee sprang into action and had everyone stay put except for a small scouting party to link up with the Allies, or failing that, to scrounge around for some food.

There was fighting a few streets over to the west, with a German MG42 sounding like ripping cloth. A Browning automatic rifle answered, joined by the unmistakable bark of a Thompson submachine gun. Then quiet.

Overhead Allied fighters and bombers crisscrossed the sky.

At 1410 in the afternoon a halftrack stopped before the gates and a squad of US infantry pushed cautiously inside. They were met by a rush of prisoners who grabbed them, kissed them, and swung them into a victory dance. The camp was finally liberated!

Hicks was among the soldiers begging for good US cigarettes. In ten minutes he had squirreled away two packs and was happily smoking two at a time. “Jesus, you don’t know how good this tastes,” he said to Hawkins, blowing enthusiastic rings into the air.

Two hours later a truck arrived, distributing food. Jake grabbed five cans of Spam and they all dug into it. Then Jude and Jeff returned uniting the crew of the Lady again.

Before evening a General arrived with a film crew and shook hands with the prisoners, smiling into the camera.

“That’ll be on the plane today, in Washington overnight and released to movie houses across the US. By the end of the week maybe your folks will see you shaking hands with the General, but you got to get close to him and be a camera hog,” said a Lieutenant next to Hawkins.

By the next day a troop of clerks showed up, registering everyone. Because they were an intact unit the crew of Lady Bug got accelerated treatment and were sent to a replacement pool. They were checked over again, catalogued anew, and finally arranged to be returned to their original unit, C Company.

Hawkins couldn’t be any happier. A truck took them to a service depot where they were told to find a refurbished tank. Hawkins and Jake went one way and Hicks, Jude and Jeff the opposite, examining a long line of tanks. Some had fire burns, others showed half-assed patch-up jobs.

“Why won’t they give us a new tank instead of these used shit boxes?” Jake complained. They were looking at a Sherman that looked quite good with the name of Popeye. There wasn’t any damage that Hawkins could see. A few pockmarks of machine gun bullets on the glacis plate, but not much else. Jake climbed up and leaned down into the turret.

“Shit!” He came bouncing up. “The inside’s still full of the smell of gore. We’ll never get that out.” He jumped down and kicked the tracks in disgust.

“What do you figure happened? Otherwise it looks near spotless,” Hawkins mused.

Jake frowned. “Near as I can figure, a machine gun cut the Skipper in half and the driver or co-driver maybe. Anyway it stinks to high heaven so bad that even the recovery crew couldn’t clean it up.”

“Jeez, too bad. Aside from that it’s in A-1 shape.

They checked out two more tanks before they came to one that was a good compromise. The engine started quite willingly with a confident roar.

“Well that’s a relief,” Hawkins said. “Do you smell anything?” he asked Jake who was checking out the 75.

“Not much. A little BO maybe.” Jake had a good nose which Hawkins trusted. “What do you think happened?”

“Maybe it ran out of gas in the middle of a battle and the crew abandoned it. I know I would have,” Hawkins guessed.

“Maybe. What’s her name?”

“I think I can make out Prima Donna.”

“Jeez, just who in our army gives such pansy names? Why couldn’t it be Raging Lion or the Angry Bear? We already took some ribbing for the Lady Bug. We’d be the laughing stock again. Where’s your tutu, darling? I can hear Berry on Dragonfire taunting us already.”

“Shut up and tell me if it’s good or not.” Hawkins was going through the gears, finding no fault. “Check the intercom and the radio.”

“Everything seems in working order,” Jake said from above.

“Good or no?”

“Let’s take a look outside,” Jake said, halfway resigned.

“Look, new tracks all properly tensioned. Yeah, this will do, we can hardly ask for anything better,” Hawkins said.

“Look, there’s some rust.” Jake pointed to the spindle of a bogey wheel.

“So, every tank has some rust there.”

“I’m just saying. Can’t we rename her?”

“Not once a name has been given. It’s just not done. Bad luck.”

Jake looked hopefully to the three tanks left, one named Wolverine, the second Iowa and the third Intrepid. But they all had something major wrong with them so he gave in reluctantly, “I suppose so.”

Hawkins jotted down the tank name and ID number and they headed back to find the rest of the crew. As they crossed a line of tanks, Hawkins had to pull Jake off one that didn’t look half bad, with the name “Mad Halcyon.”

“What do you think that means?”

“Halcyon? I have no idea. But I bet the Professor does. Let’s ask him.”

They found Hicks a little ways up, waving to them. “I found a tank,” he said.

“So did we, almost new,” Hawkins countered.

“What does Halcyon mean?”

“No, no! I really found our tank. Over here! This way!” With giant steps, Hicks led them. “And there she is. Voila!”

“Fuck me. Is that really what I think I see??!” Hawkins stood rooted to the spot, his eyes riveted on the Lady Bug.

“Refurbished, new tracks and all. Good as new,” Hicks enthused.

“Jesus!” was all Jake could manage.

They walked around the tank. Jude and Jeff were already sticking out of the hatches. The engine was purring smoothly. “They tuned her up and greased everything,” the driver declared, smiling widely.

Hawkins made a circuit of the tank, finding it clean, and the name Lady Bug refreshed.

“Well I guess we found our tank,” Hawkins said, strangely pleased. “What about grandfather?” he asked in an aside to Hicks.

“Snug as peas in a pod,” Hicks whispered back, glowing with satisfaction. To celebrate he lit up and took a deep drag.

“What does Halcyon mean?” Jake asked weakly.

“It means calm and peaceful. Why?”

“No reason,” Jake muttered, giving up on the almost perfect tank. Peaceful also wasn’t a good name for a weapon of war.

“All right you guys stay put. I’ll get us registered,” Hawkins said, striding for the administration tent.

“The Lady Bug?” The Duty Sergeant consulted his records. “I’ve already given her to a crew from A Company.”

“Bullshit! That’s our tank. No one’s gonna take it but us.”

“That’s not how it works, Soldier. I make the assignments.”

“Screw that! Unmake it then, that’s our tank and has been since Kasserine. The seat’s custom made for my ass.”

“That’s too bad, I’ve already promised her to this other crew…” The Sergeant was getting riled up and digging in. “I’m not redoing the paperwork.”

“Is there a problem Sergeant?” a Captain asked, coming over.

“No, Sir,” the Sergeant answered. “Just a slight misunderstanding.”

“Slight my eye!”

After it was explained, the Captain ruled in Hawkins favor. “Can’t argue with fate, Sergeant,” the Captain said walking away, leaving the two Sergeants guessing to whom he had said it.

Hawkins got the Lady registered and took possession of her.

“No hard feelings, Sarge, but the Lady really belongs to us.”

“Fuck you, Soldiers. The sooner you get out of my tent the better I’ll like it.”

“No really, Sergeant, I thank you. It’s a great relief to have her back. We’re married to her, don’t you know?” Before he pushed through the flap, he turned once more. “If the other crew wants a good tank, there’s Prima Donna at the end of the second row. She’s in good shape.” And he stepped outside.

“So, do we have her?” Hicks asked eagerly as soon as Hawkins came into view.

“We do indeed but I had to fight for her.” They all climbed aboard, and Jude jockeyed the tank out of the tight spot.

At the gate, Hawkins gave over the chit and was waved through. At the first MP stand he got directions and after two more questions they found C Company, bivouacked in an orchard.

“Do my eyes deceive me?” Lt. Brewster asked. “Sergeant Hawkins? Where the hell have you been all this time?”

Hawkins explained, leaving the Lieutenant shaking his head. “You came in good time. Beside the Grizzly I’m down to one tank. But the war in Africa’s as good as over. Tunis is 99 percent pacified. There’s a small holdout to the north that’ll fall soon. We’ve taken nearly 85,000 German and Italian prisoners.”

“If it’s over here, then what’s next for us?”

“Not hard to guess. Sicily, or Greece. Take your choice.”

A little later the Lady drove over to the Quartermaster trucks and was provisioned with fuel, ammo, food and water in that order, and then they had to scrounge for personals. For the first time in almost a month, Hawkins could shave and enjoy a haircut. He didn’t really feel clean until he got rid of all that hair.

“Why Sergeant, you look ten years younger,” Jake quipped on seeing him.

“Then how come I feel ten years older, tell me that.”

“It’s the war. Funny things happen in a war.”

Chapter 7

All through June of 1943 the Allied forces practiced amphibious landings. The target wasn’t known, but the possibilities were Sicily or Sardinia with Greece being a distant third.

Sicily was favored as it was the closest, just across the sea, but too obvious, which made Sardinia a good second choice. Greece was touted as an option, based on the supposition that the Germans would never expect an attack there as it was too far from the center mass of the Allied Forces. The intended target was discussed to death among the troops without any confirmation from the high command. The landing site was to be kept a closely guarded secret until the last possible moment.

Hawkins was tired of the second guesses and the constant buzz. Everybody claimed to have an unimpeachable inside source except him. He stopped listening to people going on and on. All he needed to know was that it was a sandy beach with coastal defenses somewhere. That’s what they were practicing. Embarking on large landing ships with cavernous holds, being ferried to a beach and dumped onto shore.

The Lady performed well, though after every landing, she had to be washed thoroughly to get the salt off the metal. As it was, more and more places showed evidence of rust which kept the driver and co-driver busy, cleaning and oiling.

The sections were given new names. C Company was now to be called the Blue Heron. The idea was to confuse the German spies and those monitoring Allied radio communications.

On July 3rd they were alerted again and this time it felt like the real thing, though they still didn’t know where the target was.

“This is it boys. This is for real,” Jake claimed, as he brought back razors, shaving cream and two packs of cigarettes for Hicks.

“And what makes you so sure?” Hawkins asked sourly. He was hoping it was true because he was tired of the constant guessing game and the practice runs. The way he figured, any landing was going to be a mess up anyway, and better to be over with sooner than later.

At 0400 the next morning Jude started the engine and they joined a line of vehicles disappearing inside the maw of a large landing craft. One of these conveyances could swallow the entire Company and more.

Carefully backing up they rattled aboard on the extended landing ramp and parked the tank midway into the ship’s cavernous interior. The thinking was, of course, that facing forward they would be able to exit a lot faster to engage the enemy on shore. It took a while to load all the boats and they watched it all from topside, Hicks smoking at the rails.

As the vessel’s main engine started, the vibrations rattled through the ship. The huge craft raised its ramp and backed away from land. It made an ungainly turn and eased into the swell. People were betting furiously, this was it, or maybe not? An hour later the ships turned east and everyone groaned; it was to be another practice run.

“What is it? The fourth or the fifth time?” Jake asked, disgusted: he had been ready to go for broke by the third round.

After three more hours, the armada converged on an inlet backed by low dunes. One after another, the ships nestled up to land to disgorge their cargo of troops and equipment. Once finished, they backed away to let other ships do the same.

Two hours later it was their turn to unload, and after waiting another half hour in the exhaust filled interior, the Lady finally started forward and roared over the ramp to hit the soft sand of the beach. Following the MPs hand signals they bore left, past the first dunes. There they joined a makeshift road marked with bright red markers to note it was clear of mines.

They passed a secondary line of dunes, then a more gravelly rise that took them into the arid wasteland of the African coast. So much for the real thing, Hawkins muttered, as he jammed himself in his hatch opening to protect his hips from being pounded by the erratic motions that the stiff suspension couldn’t mitigate. Ahead of him was the Grizzly, slipping on a bit of shale.

Suddenly machine guns rattled ahead surprising everyone. What the hell??! “It’s OK boys,” the Section Commander’s voice came over the radio. “Just a bit of stage dressing to make this seem a little more real.” After that the chatter lost its threat.

They were directed off the road to a small rise, where they assumed a hull-down position.

“OK folks. HQ tells me that’s it for today. We’re staying the night, then tomorrow we repeat this in reverse.”

Hawkins got out and walked a bit ahead to see how the tank showed from an enemies’ viewpoint. A hundred yards off all he could see was the turret and not much else. To his surprise the Grizzly hadn’t done anything to protect itself. “What you do in practice, you’ll do in a game,” Hawkins said, repeating his baseball coach’s words on the eve of a game. They had won the county championship three years running.

Jake greeted him with a bottle of red wine.

“Where did you get that?” Hawkins asked.

“I won it, betting this would also be a chicken run and not the real thing.”

“And what made you so sure?”

“Well it was a 50-50 guess, wasn’t it? It had to be one or the other.”

“Not actually,” Professor Hicks broke in. “With each dry run the odds increase that the next one’s the real thing.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Jake tilted the bottle back for a good slug. “The next time.” He passed the bottle on. By the time it got to the co-driver, the low man on the totem pole, there was disappointingly little left.

The next morning it all went in reverse and by the end of the day they were back home again.

“What was the use of that? You know how much fuel we burned for that practice run? Tons upon tons. Back home they’re rationing gas so we can burn it here, did you know that?” Jake asked.

“Not really, but it makes sense.” Hawkins wagged his head. “One way or other, we’ve got to knock Germany out of the war.”

“What about Italy? Have you forgotten it?”

“No, but alone Italy can’t stand.”

“Looks to me like we’ll be knocking out Italy first before we ever come to Germany.”

“Most likely. If we land in Sicily then it’s Italy first. If we land in Greece then it could be Germany. After all, they’re the senior partner of the Axis power structure.”

Two days later the Lieutenant called his tank commanders together.

“This is in the strictest confidence, not to be repeated. The next time we go, it’ll be the real thing. So don’t get sloppy, thinking it’s a rehearsal again. I want you to stay on top of things. To the letter, understand?”

“Yes Sir. Is it official then?” someone asked.

“Nothing’s official, but my source is good.”

Hawkins felt frustrated again but decided to take him at his word. He checked the tank thoroughly, had the driver clean the filter, and grease and oil parts that needed them.

He sent Hicks for more food and told him to buy extra cigarettes.

“Do you know something I don’t know?” The other cocked a questioning eye at Hawkins.

“Nothing official.”

Next day they were alerted for another run to start at 0600 in the morning. People cursed but made ready. The units were deployed on the beach for a quick loading. Midday a group of generals toured the staging area, and suddenly it became real again. It looked as if after two months of relative peace and quiet they’d be heading back into a shooting war.

After so many practices the loading went without a hitch, and the landing craft backed off the beach on schedule. They headed north and when they did not change course in the next two hours, it became absolutely clear that it was the real thing.

“The balloon’s going up,” was heard all over the ship. Jake won two bottles but one he had to give back for losing the bet the other way.

The fleet faced strong winds that raised whitecaps in the surf. Since the landing craft was designed to carry heavy loads, it wasn’t particularly seaworthy and it wallowed with an unpleasant sideways roll that made most of the soldiers on board seasick. Men were collecting at the side rails puking overboard. The crew of the Lady Bug, however, faired quite well, perhaps because they were more used to the often haphazard movement of their tank over rough terrain.

Aside from the waves things went smoothly enough and they arrived at their destination which looked very much like the beaches they had been practicing on, wide sandy coastline, deceptively peaceful. The surrounding waters were full of all kinds of ships, each trying to find elbow room. As the first wave of landing crafts went in, the rest lined up to be next.

When about midday it was finally their turn, the Lady Bug rolled off the container ship, and splashed through the fringe of sea before the beach. For a moment it looked as if they would get stuck in the soft sand, but the tracks grabbed and they were on dry land. There were a few sporadic obstacles but Jude had no trouble going around them. Since the lower beach wasn’t even mined, they were able to push on.

Above them the air was alive with aircraft, flying paratroopers to inland targets. The destroyers and cruisers were keeping up a heavy barrage at artillery positions further inland. At this point there was practically no return fire. On the beach there was a great congestion as soldiers were landed at the wrong places, or not at their appointed time. The beach masters were trying to sort things out and move people off the beach as quickly as possible.

The Lady pushed forward, as the MPs directed them. Behind the sand dunes, they faced the gentle rise of a hillside without any houses, or any sign of habitation. The Lady found herself alone, somehow separated from the rest of C Company. Hawkins was searching hard to link up with others of the unit but none were anywhere in sight. There were vehicles everywhere, fighting to get to the coastal road. Thinking that the C Company must have taken the road, Hawkins ordered Jude to intercept it. However when they got there, a steady stream of motorized infantry monopolized the roadway and would not let the lone tank proceed.

With his foot Hawkins nudged Jude and said into the intercom, “When you see a gap, move into it pronto.” He then unplugged, jumped down, and strode onto the road waving the next truck down.

“What the hell, Sergeant. Get the fuck out of my way!” the driver swore from the truck’s cab. The Lady roared into the gap and Hawkins had to run to catch her and clamber aboard. “All right men, keep your eyes peeled for our units.” Then he settled into the seat in the high position that allowed half his body to be out of the tank. He had his goggles on but thankfully, there wasn’t as much dust as in Africa.

The road, more of a cart track, wound back and forth heading into the hills, forcing Jude to shift constantly to find the proper gear. There was no opposition anywhere, just the salvos from the ships screaming by overhead and the distant explosions further inland where they landed. Hawkins was pleasantly surprised, as he had had nightmares of colliding with The Herman Goering Panzer Division that Intel had been warning about. They were known to have the heavy Tiger tanks that no Sherman could touch.

They passed a half ton off the road, with quad-mounted 50’s pointing into the sky, but there were no enemy planes anywhere, only American planes high above the outbound salvoes. Then, on a meadow, there was a grouping of hospital tents and ambulances with the customary brightly painted red crosses lined up. But it seemed there were no patients who needed their care.

They passed several fields, fenced in by stone walls. An orchard and the first house. It was small, with shutters but no glass in the windows. A man was running from the field bringing his goat to the protection of the walls.

In a bend of the track, there was a truck on its side in the ditch and a squad of soldiers trying to right it. By them an MP was waving the traffic on, “Move your ass, hurry. Other people need the road. Don’t even dare to stop!”

The whole column roared through a small town without even slowing down. The sounds of the engines bounced between the walls of the narrow street. The windows were shuttered, with no one in sight other than MPs waving them on. “Faster, faster, you gotta keep moving!”

Of course the tank was a little more awkward going around corners and a gap quickly developed that they had to close in the straight sections. The driver of the truck behind often honked irritably, afraid of losing contact with his unit. After five such honks, Hawkins gave him the finger.

They came to a bridge where Hawkins ordered a halt. He inspected the bridge, thinking it not strong enough to hold the 30 tons of the tank.

An MP came running, already shouting, “Keep it moving, damn you!”

“Fuck you! I’m not going to crash the bridge just to please you.” Hawkins ordered Jude to get off the road and drive along the river to find a spot to cross. Coming to level banks, he jumped off and waded into the water, finding it no deeper than his knees. From the other side he waved Jude over. The Lady splashed through the water stirring up bottom muck. As they rejoined the road, they saw another tank take the detour.

Soon after they came to a bit of open plain. Seeing a group of tanks, Hawkins had the driver pull over by them. It was elements of F Company, who said that C hadn’t moved through yet. So, Hawkins decided to wait and let C catch up.

Next to them was a house with a vegetable garden and a dog barking indoors. Taking the Thompson, Hawkins walked around, checking the place out. There was a half-full rain barrel at the corner of the house and a table with a bench. The door was closed, but he sensed movement behind the shutters. He thought he got a glimpse of a face with young eyes, but couldn’t tell whether it was a boy’s or girl’s. There was an apple tree in the yard, but the fruit was still unripe. A lean-to hugged the south wall, probably a place for the goat and there were about six chickens pecking at the ground. There was a clothes line in the back, a pair of overalls, a wide skirt and shirts hanging on it. “This is my first contact with Italian civilians,” Hawkins told himself, then slung the Thompson over his shoulder and headed back to the tank.

“See anything?” Hicks asked, with his head indicating the house.

“No, just clothes on the line.”

“No senoritas?” Jake asked, winking. Hawkins just shook his head. He joined them on top, and made himself comfortable on the grill of the engine housing.

“Wake me up if anything happens,” he said, pulling his cap over his eyes as he tried to relax.

“What should happen?” Jake asked.

“If our guys show up. Or a German Tiger.”

“I’d be too busy shooting at it,” Jake said, full of bravado.

Hawkins tried to ignore any further comments. A funny war. We landed and not a shot was fired. And now I’m trying to catch some shut eye. And we practiced for this?

Perhaps an hour later, Jake shook him awake. Hawkins rose and stretched. “What’s the matter? The Tigers arrive?”

“Don’t joke about them. No, some of our guys are here.” And sure enough a tank of E Company was parked off the road.

“Hey Hawkins, are you already asleep on the job?” Sergeant Dodds called loudly from atop his tank, the Alligator.

“What exactly is our job? I haven’t seen hide nor hair of the enemy. Shouldn’t there be at least a few Italians to shoot at?”

“Nah, everything’s quiet for miles. The paratroopers got into a fire fight but that was fifteen miles inland to secure a bridge we’ll need. Everything’s quiet again.”

“Then why the hell are the ships still firing? At what exactly?”

“Well you know the Navy types, they’re a law unto themselves. God made them to rule over us landlubbers.”

“Seriously now, what’s our next objective? We got off the beaches and that’s done. Are we just supposed to drive around until someone shoots at us?”

“I’m just a lowly Sergeant like you. I don’t know anything until the Lieutenant tells me what I know. And right now I don’t know where he is.”

They decided to wait around until someone else would show up. The two tanks stood comfortably head to tail. Just like horses back home, resting in the midday heat, Hawkins thought.

A little later, he heard not far off some Italians yelling, trying to unravel an empty parachute hanging from a tree. Sure, take the silk, make shirts out of it. What was a paratrooper doing here so far off his target? More than likely the whole thing was a royal snafu.

Two hours later another tank showed up. The guy wasn’t even in their division.

“They dropped us off at the wrong beach. We were supposed to land ten miles further up the coast. When the Commander figured that out he wanted the ship Captain to take us back on and find the proper beach, but the Captain refused. He had his orders he said. Now my map references aren’t any good.”

More and more of the traffic turned into supply convoys. Truck after truck passed by and there was still no sign of the tanks.

“Hey Dodds, did you see any of our guys back there?” Hawkins yelled across to the other tank.

“No, just a bunch of artillery.”

“Doesn’t seem right to me. Someone should have passed us by now.”

A line of infantry marched along the side of the road, plodding at a steady pace. The infantrymen threw curious glances at the tanks, no doubt envious that they had engines to do the moving for them. A few of the soldiers were smoking as they walked, the puffs of smoke timed to their strides. Then honking loudly, more trucks roared by, forcing the infantry off the road. There was very little traffic going the other way. An ambulance, most noticeably. Hawkins wondered who got wounded and where. He still couldn’t hear any shooting. Even the naval bombardment had finally ceased.

A Jeep went past, then jammed on the brakes and reversed.

“What in tarnation are you doing on my road?” a Captain in the Jeep demanded.

“Waiting for our unit to catch up, Sir,” Hawkins snapped off.

“Who you with, soldier?”

“Company C, 3rd Armored Brigade, 1st Division.”

The Captain consulted his list and shook his head. “You’re not on my list. You should probably be on the road to Palermo, not here.”

“Christ Almighty, we went where the MPs directed us,” Hawkins complained irritably. Snafu-ed again.

The Captain dismounted, unfolded a map and spread it out on the hood of the Jeep. Hawkins climbed down and looked over the officer’s shoulders.

“About 11 miles more, you can catch a side road to take you there.” The Captain tapped the map as Hawkins studied it in more detail.

“Has there been any fighting, Sir? Anywhere? We heard nothing.”

“Yes, by Gela, some ways east along the coast. We blasted the hell out of them.” The Captain folded the map, and climbed back into his Jeep. “So get going Soldier and get off my road.”

“Yes, Sir,” Hawkins said, gesturing to Jude to start up. The Jeep drove off to shepherd its flock. Mounting his tank, Hawkins yelled over to Dodds on the Alligator, “We’re on the wrong fucking road. Follow me.”

The two tanks pulled onto the road, forcing the infantry to step aside. A GI gave the tanks a finger. “The same to you, Joe,” Hawkins muttered.

“Did you say something?” Jake asked from below, trying to figure out who Joe was.

“Nothing Jake. Just more snafu.”

“I hear you,” came back the reply, then sang to a popular prewar tune, “Situation normal; all fucked up… situation normal…” he repeated the phrase and soon had Hicks singing along. Hawkins turned his volume down to block them out, but the tune lingered in his ears and wouldn’t leave even after the other two stopped. “Yeah, snafu…” he muttered sourly. They were miles inland, separated from their units, and hadn’t seen the enemy or fired a single shot. What kind of war was this? Yeah, snafu-ed.

Several miles up the road, the way narrowed between steep hills and around a bend they found the way blocked by a truck on its side. The driver and co-driver were unpacking the load to lighten the truck. There was no way around the blockage.

“Sorry Sergeant. A cow got in front of me, and I should have driven through her, but like a fool…” he shrugged his shoulders apologetically.

“That’s all right, Joe, we’ll have you out in a jiffy,” Hawkins said. He and Jake hooked a cable to the truck and righted the vehicle without much effort. To the driver’s relief the engine started on the first try and the truck didn’t seem any worse for the wear. Then they had to help repack the cargo. On parting the driver gave them tins of canned ham and to Hicks’ delight, dozens of cigarettes.

“Who says good works don’t pay?” Hicks rumbled into the intercom as he jammed the carton in between the ammo.

“If I call for AP, you get me AP,” Jake joked. “But if I call for a cigarette, you pass me one lit and ready…” and he brayed out his laughter, so that Hawkins had to tune him out again.

On cue, Jude called for a cigarette and refused to start until he got one. The two tanks squeezed past the truck and sped along the road, trying to make up for lost time.

“Easy now Jude,” Hawkins cautioned. “We don’t want to end up in the ditch.”

It wasn’t easy driving as the roadway snaked back and forth to get past rock outcrops and in places, the gravel beneath the tracks caused them to slip dangerously sideways. With its narrow tracks the Sherman wasn’t a particularly surefooted beast; it had the reputation of getting stuck in mud, snow and ice. More than once Hawkins had to call out a warning when they got too close to an edge. Behind them the Alligator learned what not to do from the trouble the Lady was having.

By nightfall they reached the crossroad, but had to pull off the road, not to risk it in the dark.

“Sarge, can I make fire?” the driver asked.

“If you do it behind those bushes; we’re still under blackout orders.”

They cooked the ham, and by courtesy of a grateful truck driver, had a delicious meal, followed by a can of sweet pineapple chunks.

“Now if we had some vino, this would be a god-damned feast.” Jake smacked his lips.

They started next morning at first light, driving past parked units just stirring to life. There were many foot soldiers camped along the road, forming into marching order, rifles on the shoulders and backpacks. Hawkins didn’t envy them the incessant walking. “Yeah, but they don’t have to go up against an 88, the lucky bastards.” Just the thought gave him a jolt of fear in the pit of his stomach.

Suddenly the engine burped and coughed a couple of times, and the tank jerked as the engine misfired.

“What the hell??” Hawkins said into the intercom, looking behind and seeing a dark plume of exhaust issuing from the back.

“It’s OK Sarge. Just a little condensation in the fuel. The Lady will soon burn it off,” Jude said, unconcerned. After coughing a few more times, the engine smoothed out and Hawkins tried to relax but his stomach was still in a knot. Where was his Company? He hated being alone.

By midday they reached the northbound Palermo road, but had a hard time convincing the MP controlling the intersection to let them onto it. Squeezed between a halftrack and an infantry truck, they drove along at breakneck speed. As it was, the halftrack was blowing its horns to hurry them along. After a while Hawkins was tempted to turn the turret around and threaten to blow the harassing halftrack off the road.

An hour or so later they were lucky enough to find a tanker truck for refueling.

“Just in time,” Jude said. “We were driving on fumes.”

“Where is the ’gator?” Jake asked, not seeing the other tank.

“I think they ran out of gas about three miles back. Couldn’t do a thing for them,” Hawkins replied, shrugging his shoulders. Then they drove on, weaving in and out of the traffic, often followed by curses from drivers caught up in a snarl of units trying to stay together.

To Hawkins’ relief, before nightfall they caught up with the rear echelon of the 3rd Armored Brigade.

“The 3rd is scattered from here to Kingdom Come, all mixed up with Joes on foot,” a Corporal reported to Hawkins. “We’re trying to gather up the stragglers…” More snafu, Hawkins thought, but he was very glad to have linked up.

It was quickly turning dark when they found C Company. Hawkins reported to his Section Commander.

“Hawkins! Where the hell have you been? We’re halfway to Palermo and I have only one tank left,” Lieutenant rounded on Hawkins.

“What happened to the others, Sir?”

“Jesse we lost on the beachhead. The fool sucked himself full of salt water and drowned his engine. Caleb dropped off miles ago, also with engine trouble. And that after just having a refit before Operation Husky got started.”

“Any action Sir?”

“Some. The paratroopers took a beating. Because of high winds only a third reached the intended drop zone. They had to shoot their way out of a death trap, but most made it. Otherwise the 5th Reconnaissance Armored Cars got into a fire fight with some Italian tanks, but did OK. We’re all right too… so far. No one’s fired a shot in anger. The bad news is we have the Herman Goering Panzers somewhere up front. If we run into them, guess who they’ll send against them? Piss poor us, that’s who.”

“We keep hearing about them, but so far haven’t met anybody who actually traded shots with them.”

“They’re out there for sure. The scuttlebutt is they have nothing but Panthers, Tigers and 88’s. The tanker’s worst nightmare. Why can’t Detroit give us decent tanks to fight them with instead of these Ronson barbecues?”

“What are our orders, Sir?”

“Push on to Palermo, pacify the west coast, then race to beat the British at Messina.”

“That’s a tall order…”

“Well, you know Patton. He wants to be first… even if it kills us all.”

It took some time next morning to form up. The 3rd was to assume lead of the US advance in this sector. By 1100 they were on the road, only the 7th Reconnaissance Armored Cars ahead of them. Mixed among the tanks were 105 mm Priest self-propelled howitzers, some mounted 75 mm antitank guns and 85 mm mortar units. In the air there were ground attack aircrafts they could call upon.

The terrain wasn’t very favorable to tanks, full of hills, a thousand places to hide 88’s and tanks. No tank commander scanned that landscape without fear in his heart. At times, Hawkins felt sick to his stomach, when he saw what greeted them around the next bend. They passed a scattering of villages, not more than twenty houses hugging a hilltop. The sun was bright and the summer heat atrocious, now that the storm had passed. The roads, were however, mostly dry, causing no great problems.

The Lady was about 20 tanks back from the lead with a halftrack of infantry just behind. In spite of the 20 tanks in front, Hawkins felt dangerously exposed. From the African campaign he knew of the German strategy of letting the front pass then hitting those following. Thus he felt as if he had a target on his back. Jake was sitting out of the hatch having a cigarette.

“What day is it?” Jake asked unexpectedly. “We landed on July 10th, so this must be, what? The 13th?”

“More than likely. But what the fuck does it matter?”

“It matters to me. The 15th is my birthday.”

“Really? Well congratulations. How old are you anyway?”

“24. Will be on the 15th.” If you don’t get killed by then, Hawkins thought, then chased the thought away. The point was, no one knew what waited up ahead… and it was good that way. For Christ’s sake, he himself could be dead by then, or in the next fifteen minutes… and it felt as if his chest were ready to explode.

There was a brief flurry when a German plane passed over them quite low. Hawkins had only time to unhitch the 50, but by then the plane was past without having shot a single round. Probably on recon, Hawkins concluded, securing the 50.

They were approaching a new ridge line when Hawkins felt an apprehensive tightness in his chest. A perfect place for an ambush.

“OK everybody, smarten up now.”

“What’s up, Sarge?” Jake asked, tension in his voice.

“Nothing… yet. But we’re coming up to something suspicious.” But nothing happened. They cleared the rise and looked across a broader valley backed by another ridge line. Fuck! Another perfect defensive position. But again nothing happened. Get a hold of yourself! he admonished himself.

There was a whole succession of perfect spots, one better than the last and Hawkins couldn’t get himself to relax.

For lunch, the advance ground to a halt as the tankers came up to refill the fuel tanks. It was the Lady’s turn; Hawkins smelled the fumes as the gas splashed into the tank. A few steps off, Hicks took the opportunity to light up.

“Are you crazy man??! Put that out or get the fuck away from here! Do you want to blow us up?” the tanker called out angrily. Hicks backed away to a safe distance. “Did someone drop him on his head?”

“Yes, when he was a baby,” Jake replied. “The SOB hasn’t been right since. Never stops smoking. Never stops talking.”

When they got started, C Company was in front with the Lady third in line. There was only an armored truck about a 100 yards ahead. They were approaching a new rise, but this time Hawkins promised himself that he wouldn’t worry.

They were halfway to the rise when the tank ahead exploded in a sheet of flame. Mines!

“Right! Right! Right!” Hawkins yelled into the intercom, the Lady narrowly missing the burning tank. That’s Hurley! God Almighty, that was Hurley! The tank was blazing furiously and there was no sign of the crew.

“Halt!” he yelled. He didn’t want to drive onto another mine! The Lady rocked to a stop, the engine revving up as the clutch was disengaged. Hawkins spun the telescope around and saw his Company scrambling to get off the road. Then he saw a fountain of dirt leap into the air. That was no mine! He spun the periscope up ahead. He saw a muzzle flash on top and heard the hit somewhere beside him. An 88!

“HE!” Hawkins yelled to Jake. He heard Hicks extract the AP already in the breech and slam an HE into it. The turret adjusted slightly to the right as Jake dialed in the target. The shot slammed into the berm shielding the 88, the explosion briefly hiding it from sight. By now there were flashes all along the ridge, tanks mixed in with antitank guns. A trap! A trap! Hawkins’ brain screamed. “Turn and back up! As fast as you can!” His voice sounded calm, at odds with how he felt. The engine growled and the tank started to turn. Jake swore as he tried to keep the turret and the gun on target. “HE!” he yelled adjusting the elevation. As soon as Hicks tapped him, he slammed his foot down on the trigger and the gun roared, rocking the tank. A miss!

“HE!” Jake yelled and Hawkins heard the spent shell eject and the live shell go in. He focused on the ridge line and saw the shot bounce off the front of a panzer. A Tiger! A fucking giant Tiger! The Devil’s own implement!

“AP!” Hawkins ordered, heard the shot go out and saw it hit and bounce off the Tiger’s thick skin. “Leave it! Use HE, take out the 88’s!” No use wasting ammo on a Tiger.

The tank was backing up half speed to the rear, trying to weave through the congestion there. A tank went up to the right, half the crew bailing out. Smoke came boiling from the hatches and the engine compartment was spewing flames into the air, dark smoke roiled into the sky.

“Left! … More left!” Hawkins guided them behind a low hillock that gave them hull-down protection. All around them were explosions as the Germans were having a field day at this shooting gallery. There were only about three hits on the ridge, but on the road at least a dozen vehicles were burning.

Scanning the ridge, Hawkins found a Panzer III and directed Jake to sight on it. “1:20, no more than 1:30.” He was gratified to see the shot hit the bottom of the turret, and after about half a minute it burst into flames. A minute later, it produced an explosion that blew the turret into Kingdom Come.

“Good, good… fucking good. HE to the right at 3 …15. Got it?” Hawkins was calling directions to another 88. The gun roared again, missed but hit some ammunition beside it that blew and toppled the gun.

“God awful great!!!”

All around them was mass confusion. Tanks were trying to deploy, some retreating, burning or firing. Barnes aboard the Growler was firing his 50, the recoil shaking him like a leaf in the wind. His face was contorted and he was screaming in fury although his voice was lost in the riot of other sounds. Then Barnes was gone and the 50 was also gone, sawed off by an armor piercing shell. A second later the lower body followed as the gunner and loader pushed the messy remains out of the turret. Hawkins tried to wipe the sweat out of his eyes. Holy shit! This was all happening right in front of him. Something pinged off the turret. It was a nearby tank exploding into little bits.

Sucking in his breath against the tension in his diaphragm, Hawkins scanned the hilltop looking for a target. He counted eight muzzle flashes and picked out a 75 on the right.

“Target… a 75 right at 1:25… or 1:35…” he corrected.

Then suddenly a huge explosion rocked the hilltop. Naval guns? Impossible, they were too far inland for that. Then he saw more explosions crowning the hill, then peeking out the hatch he saw a flight of Republic Thunderbolts overhead, making their bomb runs. From one side to the other, the whole hill top was enveloped in a curtain of explosions. “Yes! Take that you assholes! Go flyboys, make hamburgers of them!” The pounding continued for five more minutes, after which a strange quiet descended on the battlefield, disturbed only by the popping sound of ammunition cooking off in one of the burning tanks.

Cautiously Hawkins opened the hatch and lifted himself out of it. He looked around confused. He got a lungful of dark oily smoke and he coughed, unable to get rid of it. Jake finally came and pounded on his back to ease him.

The Lady was surrounded by an unholy mess. Tanks were still burning, men blundering about in a daze. Some were dripping blood, some on the ground, mangled. There were charred bodies and heaps of unrecognizable flesh with protruding bones. It was hell on earth.

Those alive tried to locate the wounded and separate them from the dying. Hawkins dismounted and hurried to Hurley’s tank. The machine was a charred hulk with the blackened corpse of the driver hanging half out of the hatch. The smell, a mixture of oil and flesh, hit him, making him gag as his stomach lurched and bile flooded his mouth. He choked and tried to spit it out. Something hissed sharply to the left and Hawkins saw vapor stream out of an engine compartment as the heat boiled off the coolant.

Three steps further, Hawkins came across the ruins of the Grizzly, the turret missing, a big hole in the glacis plate. Where was Lieutenant Brewster, his section leader? Woodenly he looked around, found a turret, and inside it a mess of bones, the flesh blown off it. Good God, I only talked with him a few hours ago… He felt sick again, but his body was too numb to react and purge the feeling.

“Hawkins!” Captain Morello called to him. Dazed he turned. “I’m glad you survived. The only one of C who did. You still got your tank and crew?” Hawkins nodded, unable to speak. “Good. Find Harris. You’re now part of A. Everybody is now in A, you understand?” Hawkins nodded again. “It’s a mess, I know, but we’ve got to reorganize and get moving again.”

In about an hour Hawkins felt halfway together. He could think and issue the needed orders. “Hicks, see if you can find us some extra ammo. Driver check over the engine, make sure we’re in shape to go. Jeff, find us water and fill it up.” Jake beside him was pale, still green under the eyes. Do I look like that? Hawkins wondered: he certainly felt like it.

Six tanks gathered around Lt. Harris’ Hurricane. With an armored car in the lead, they started up the road, carefully topping the rise. On both sides, dug in were burned out wrecks of cannons and tanks or just pieces of them. No one was alive. Whoever could had left an hour ago.

Hawkins took his Thompson and walked over to the nearest Tiger, awed by its massive size. There was a bomb crater just behind it and doubtless the compression stove in the engine compartment, setting it on fire. The front of the tank was intact, with a few dents where Allied shots just bounced off the thick plate. Its 88 drooped low trying to shoot at the Americans below. Fuck! Had we gone forward instead of back, they couldn’t have depressed their guns to fire at us. War was a tragedy of errors, wasn’t that what Hicks was always spouting?

He walked along the line, skirting craters as he went, around charred remains that had been alive just an hour before. “You assholes!” he yelled, furious at all they had lost. In one of the last craters he noted a movement. A wounded German on the bottom was making feeble gestures with his hand, trying to lift them to surrender. Without any hesitation, Hawkins pulled the bolt back and fired a brief salvo into the German’s chest. He saw the cloth shred and churn with blood as the bullets hit. He relaxed his finger on the trigger and hissed, “Take that you bastard!” but he didn’t feel any better.

They remounted and proceeded cautiously up the road. The German survivors were up ahead somewhere, probably already digging in for the next fight. The Germans were experts at rearguard defense.

Hawkins kept the Hurricane in sight, trying not to think that he was the second target at the head of the column. As they approached a long incline, he held his breath, thinking, “If I were a German waiting on top, now would be the best time to open fire.” It was proving harder to block out such thoughts. Ever since the battle his stomach had been tied up in knots and he couldn’t relax it. He took a drink of tepid water, not easing the tension any.

When they came to a bridge over a ravine the column stopped while Lt. Harris had a good look at it. Taking the Thompson, Hawkins joined him to walk the bridge looking for mines or any sign of hidden explosives. It was a wonder that the Germans left anything intact. They found nothing, but still Hawkins held his breath as Harris and he crossed over it with their tanks. The rest showed more confidence and came roaring along.

Later in the afternoon on a bit of open stretch a Jeep came up and waved them down. “Establish a perimeter, this is where we’ll spend the night,” the Captain ordered, standing up front with his hands tight on the windshield. The Jeep then turned around and headed back.

“Fucking SOB,” Jake said half aloud. “Back is where they like it, keeping their asses nice and safe. When was the last time you saw a bona fide staff officer up front? Never, I tell you.” Hawkins didn’t bother to answer: most everybody felt that way. The only exception was Blood and Guts himself, General Patton. It was rumored that he believed that nothing could touch him and he took no care for himself. He walked tall, even on the battlefield when others were trying to burrow into the ground for safety.

Lt. Harris waved Hawkins over. “Take Hardy and go up that goat path of a road to be lookouts on that side. We don’t want to be surprised again. I’ll have Wilson cover the other side,” the LT said, pointing.

The Lady and Mighty Mouse drove along the eastern arm of the side road, taking up position by a farmhouse. From there they had an all-around view of the countryside. Everything looked peaceful at the moment, but after the morning action Hawkins wasn’t going to trust anything. He took the Thompson and said, “I’m going to check the farmhouse,” he said to Jake.

“Wait, I’ll go with you,” Jake said taking the M1 carbine with him. “Hicks, cover us with the 50,” he called over his shoulder.

Weapons ready they advanced on the stone farmhouse. It didn’t look like much, two rooms maybe, a kitchen and a bedroom perhaps, a lean-to on the side with two goats tied up inside, a chicken coop and a pigsty. Hawkins knocked on the door with the muzzle of the Thompson. He had to knock twice before the door opened a crack and a dark Sicilian face looked apprehensively at him.

“Open up!” Hawkins ordered in a gruff voice, motioning with his submachine gun. Reluctantly the door came ajar and Hawkins pushed inside to the dim interior. Jake followed tight on his heels with his carbine covering the other side of the room. There was an old woman in the corner, cringing at their intrusion.

“Any Germans here?” Hawkins asked, not surprised that the man just looked befuddled at him. “Where Germans? Dove Germania?” The man shook his head and pointed north, mumbling something like, “Molto lontano.”

“What’s he saying?” Jake asked, not taking his eyes off the door to the other room.

“Not here, I guess,” Hawkins said. “Cover me. I’ll check the bedroom.” He pushed aside the curtain and eased himself into the shadows there. There was a big bed and two smaller ones against the far wall. Nobody otherwise. Hawkins checked under the bed and saw a pair of frightened eyes looking at him. “Out,” he said, tapping the bed frame with the Thompson. A girl about fourteen and a boy who couldn’t have been more than twelve crawled out. Hawkins motioned with his submachine gun toward the other room, then followed after them.

“Well looka here. Hiding such a fresh little flower,” Jake said, his voice dripping honey.

“Leave off, we don’t have time for any tomfoolery.”

“Hey, I wasn’t going to rape her, just look at her. It’s nice to see something other than a bunch of unshaven faces.” He walked to the kitchen cabinet, took a piece of cheese from the sideboard and risked a bite. “Fucking goat cheese,” he said but kept chewing on it.

Hawkins threw a look above to the attic, wondering if anything else was up there. He decided it wasn’t worth the effort. “Let’s go,” he said easing his finger off the trigger guard.

“What’s your hurry, Sarge? We’re going to be here all night.” With a rosary wrapped around her shrunken fist, the old woman was muttering prayers. The girl was also crossing herself; the boy just looked scared.

“Yes, but outside.” He motioned toward the man and said, “Buonasera.” He backed out, pulling Jake after him.

“You had no cause to do that. I wasn’t going to hurt them or anything. I just wanted to taste the wine on the table that’s all. Maybe trade some cigarettes for it.” Hawkins just shook his head. “I didn’t know you knew Italian.”

“I don’t. Learned a few words on the cruise ship in six or seven languages. It just popped out. I don’t even know if it was correct.”

They walked back to the tank and told Hicks to stand down from the 50. “Nothing there but a scared peasant with his family,” Hawkins said.

They settled down around the tank, breaking open some tins, baked beans with pork. They ate it cold, washing it down with gulps of tepid water.

“Co-driver, take the canteens and fill them with water from the well,” Hawkins said and watched Jeff do as ordered. Below them more and more of the 3rd Brigade arrived and settled in the valley.

Before dark, Lt. Harris came by with a Major. “Anything?” Lt. Harris asked.

“Not a thing. All quiet on the eastern front,” Hawkins reported.

“Good, keep it that way.” The Major looked toward the farmhouse.

“Nothing there but a poor farmer with his family and goats.” The Major nodded, losing interest. After checking the east with their binoculars, finding more nothing, the Major and the LT left.

A bit later Hicks started for the farmhouse.

“Where you going, Hicks?” Hawkins asked. “There’s nothing there.”

“There’s some plums in the orchard that are nearly ripe. Just want to pick a few.”

“OK, but don’t stay long.” Hawkins, still jumpy from the morning ambush, wanted to keep everyone in sight.

Later Sergeant Hardy came across the road. “After a full day in the sun, the nights feel very cool.”

“Sure enough, but not as bad as in Africa. It can be 120 degrees in the shade, but freezing during the night. You been to Africa?”

“No, we arrived with transport USN Huron just for Operation Husky. When the ship got caught on a sandbar that wasn’t supposed to be there, we got dumped into deep water and barely made it to the beach. Two of our tanks got stuck in the surf and we lost two more this morning. We got added to you guys.” The man sounded cheerful about that and Hawkins had to wonder: maybe surviving a fire fight was a morale booster. That certainly was another way of looking at it.

With darkness the crews settled down, Hicks taking the first watch beside the 50.

“There’s an outhouse the family uses so don’t get trigger happy,” Hawkins warned.

“Aye aye, Sir,” Hicks snapped off, giving him a sardonic salute; after all he was a veteran who didn’t need to be told.

Hawkins couldn’t sleep. Every time he closed his eyes he saw smoking ruins of tanks and smelled burning flesh. How had they survived? They were right up front… sixth. The Lieutenant was gone, so was most everyone else he knew. Hurley he saw blow up with his own two eyes… Barney cut in two in front of him. The list of the fallen was long. How the hell did he survive?

You survived to die another day. You’re gonna die in this fucking war! Just have to take a few more Germans with you to hell. This is hell!

Then he recalled the German he had gunned down. Why did he do that? The man was wounded and trying to surrender, yet he pulled the trigger and watched the bullets chew up the man’s chest. He felt ashamed. Sweat poured from him, and he found himself crying. Why? For the others who died? No, for himself, for turning into what he had become… He didn’t know what that was, but it wasn’t the young man who had grown up working on his parents’ ranch in Texas.

To close his mind to all the ugly recollections of the day he tried recalling the innocent face of the young Sicilian girl. Perhaps Jake was right; they had to look at something other than the horrors of war. But even the memory of her face reflected reproach as she and her grandmother were praying to be freed from the American monsters.

Next morning they were on the road again heading north. Overlooking a crossroad, they saw Old George himself, pearl-grip pistol on his hip, waving them on to hurry. “You glory hound bastard,” Jake, who was on top with Hawkins, muttered as they roared past, the driver giving extra gas to make it look good. Hawkins saluted and the General saluted back, though not the staff officers with him. “What’s your damn hurry George? Aren’t we dying fast enough for you?” Jake said aloud, the roar of the engine masking his voice.

Hawkins just shook his head. It’s better to be aggressive sometimes to get it over with, rather than pussy foot around slowly bleeding to death. No one understood that better than Guts and Glory George. Hawkins consulted his map. Agrigento was 12 miles ahead. Or Agrigelato. He wasn’t sure; the fold in the map made the print unclear. San Stefano came after that, then Prizzi, Corleone and Palermo. Messina the final prize was way over to the east, not on his map.

Near a village also not on the map, someone took a shot at them from hiding. Hawkins dropped down into the turret but the column rushed on. In fact, except for a few skirmishes with Italian rearguard units nothing much happened as the main Axis forces yielded before the armored spearhead. The Germans were especially skillful in fighting delaying action without committing themselves to a set-piece battle. In a lot of ways it was like chasing ghosts. Just when they appeared to be pinned down, they vanished, to set up farther back and take a bite out of the tip of the spearhead. For now other units had taken over the lead, and A Company was quite comfortable riding in the middle of the pack.

As they rolled through Prizzi and Corleone, Hawkins barely noticed them. There was some bomb damage from air raids, but mostly the towns remained intact, from what Hawkins could see. There wasn’t any time for sightseeing as they made a mad dash toward the north coast.

On the 22nd of July, forward elements of the 3rd Brigade rolled into Palermo, a town heavily damaged by air raids, especially around the harbor and city center. On the 23rd, A Company was bivouacked on the outskirts of the town. Hicks couldn’t have been any happier. “This town was founded by the Phoenicians around 700 BC and became part of Carthage, then the Roman Empire absorbed them and when Rome fell to the barbarian onslaught, it became a Byzantine protectorate. Then the Arabs came and ruled it for 200 years around 800 AD or so. But it was the Phoenicians who laid its foundations and made it a trading center…”

“What is with you?” Jake asked half irritated. “You’ve got a real hard on for these Phony-cians.”

“That’s because history has ignored their contribution to western civilization. After winning the Punic wars, Rome took all the credit, but a lot of our laws and trade practices reflect Phoenician groundwork…”

“Do you ever ask yourself if anybody cares?” Jake retorted.

While the tanks were looked over by crews of mechanics, repaired and tuned, the crews were given two days off. They were told to stay out of the city’s core, but otherwise were free to sightsee. Hicks dragged Hawkins to several churches where he dissected all the influences reflected in the architecture. “Now, that mosaic is a fine example of Byzantine tradition. Look, much of the inscription is Greek. And there you can see some Islamic scripts…” It was interesting in its own way, but after a while Hawkins had to ask himself if he was truly impressed. Getting back to the tank park, he found the rest of the crew still gone and they didn’t return until much later.

Jake had a happy glow and the driver and co-driver were quite drunk. “Man, you should’ve come with us. We found a house of senoritas and they made us feel very welcome. They wanted dollars only and would do anything for them. So, you betcha we injected some hard cash into the soft local economy. You should’ve seen the stocks rise,” Jake brayed out with a dirty laugh. “Let’s see, there was Rosa or Rosita, Vittoria and Claudia. I didn’t have stamina for more. If we stay around another couple of days I want to revisit the place… but you gotta lend me some dollars…”

At the briefing, the news was that the Germans were retreating on the north front, fighting mostly on their own as the Italian units only put up token resistance before fleeing or surrendering. Daily truckloads of them were sent back to the rear areas. The Brits were bogged down by heavy fighting on the slopes of Mount Etna on the east coast and were making little progress against stubborn German resistance in well-prepared positions. Patton was given permission to move on Messina to relieve pressure on the beleaguered British. This started a mad dash along the northern coastal road as Patton was determined to reap the glory for himself and the US forces by liberating the city ahead of Montgomery — at any cost.

They were into the hills again, a constant up and down along the coastal road. On their left the sea glinted invitingly in hues of sparkling aquamarine. The sun was hot but the breeze gave a bit of relief from the midday heat. The Lady was in front, leading two other tanks. A little ways back they lost two hours waiting to be tanked up. Now they were hurrying to catch up with the lead units.

Approaching the rise, they found two burned-out half-ton trucks pushed into the ditch, probably victims of an air attack. Rounding the top, Hawkins had the driver stop while he scanned ahead but found no sign of their unit. Facing them was a valley and on the hilltop on the other side a picturesque village of plastered stone houses with brown tile roofs. A church spire towered over the rest. The place was surrounded by gardens and verdant orchards. The slopes were planted with rows upon rows of grapes and olive trees. Just like on a travel post card, couldn’t ask for anything better, Hawkins thought. Beautiful, or should be beautiful, but he had lost all appreciation of beauty — not when it could shoot and kill you.

Jake poked his head out. “What’s happening?”

“Nothing,” Hawkins muttered. “Just an empty road.” But something was moving down there and he focused on it. Three Jeeps were coming back, moving at fair speed. In the front seat of the first, he made out according to the markings a full Colonel. “Shit man, don’t you know to disguise your rank? A sniper’s looking for the likes of you in his crosshairs.”

“What’re you muttering?” Jake asked.

“Nothing.” There was an odd package across the hood of the first Jeep, something wrapped up. But what? The Jeeps disappeared in a hollow and reemerged shortly quite near. “Move to the side,” Hawkins told the driver and signaled to the next tank to move over. Just in time as the Jeeps arrived at speed. The package up front was a body, bleeding through the wrappings. Honking the lead Jeep squeezed by them on the left, then stopped suddenly and backed up. The Colonel stood up and tapped the Lady with a walking stick. Hawkins snapped off a salute.

“You up there! I want you to take your fucking tanks, and erase the ass-wipe village up there. I want nothing left standing! Understand?”

“But Sir…”

“No buts, Soldiers, that’s a direct order. Obliterate the bitch town.” And he rapped the tank smartly with his stick.

“Do it, Soldier,” the Captain in the next Jeep said. “That’s his son.” The dead guy is his son?

“But the Geneva Convention clearly states that civilian…”

“Fuck the Geneva Convention! That’s an enemy snake pit and I order you to turn it into rubble! Leave no brick standing. Now, Soldier!” The Colonel’s face was hard, under the rim of his helmet his eyes blazing with fury.

Hawkins plugged in his mike and said quietly. “Jake, you heard him. Send over some HE.” He lifted his glass and trained it on the village. He saw the first shell hit, and a wall collapsed into an explosion of dust. Soon all three tanks were firing and hit after hit demolished walls, roofs, everything. In ten minutes nothing was standing but the church; it was now a lone finger rising up from the rubble. All the tanks had avoided that.

“God damned it soldier, I said everything!”

Hawkins licked his parched lips but shook his head. “Respectfully Sir, I decline. I will not destroy a House of God.”

“Screw you Soldier. I’ll remember that you refused a direct order. I’ll have you court marshaled.” He got back into the Jeep and waved them on. The three Jeeps roared off, bouncing in the rut of many vehicles.

Jake stuck his head out again. “I didn’t know you were so religious.”

“I’m not. More like superstitious. If there’s a God, I don’t want to piss Him off by messing with His house.”

“Then you don’t even believe in God?”

“I used to. Less and less as I grew up. At Kasserine I lost whatever was left.”

“Damn, we need Simon to pray for us, he had an in with God,” Jack said surprisingly, then he looked toward where the village had stood and sucked in his breath. “We did a thorough job.” The dust was still settling among the ruins and smoke rose from behind. “You figure that was full of civilians?”

“God I hope not. But during the bombardment I saw a man running with a cow.”

A tanker came up from behind. “Are we going to stand here all day?”

“No Sergeant, we’re not,” Hawkins said, but thought bitterly, “Back to business as usual.”

The three tanks started and resumed their chase. As long as they were within sight, Hawkins couldn’t take his eyes off the smoking ruins. He felt dirty and guilty. A sniper had taken out the Colonel’s son, probably because he was showing his rank. He couldn’t have been more than a Captain on staff. Why didn’t the shooter kill the father, a full bird Colonel? Maybe the bullet did have his name on it and it was simple as that. But to erase a whole village in revenge? I was ordered, but it was me… no it was Jake who did the real shooting but we’re all guilty of it.

Over the next ten miles they passed several places where an ambush had been sprung. The wrecks lay scattered in nearby ditches. Then on the German side, a mangle of vehicles and torn corpses, just pushed aside to clear the road for traffic.

In a dip in the landscape they came across a detail extracting burned bodies from half a dozen wrecks. God, Hawkins hated the sight of them. That’ll be your fate, don’t kid yourself… you ain’t getting off this pile of shit in one piece. I just hope it’s a clean hit and I don’t burn. He tried to think of Texas, but it wouldn’t stay in focus. He tried the cruise ship… what was the name of that girl he dallied with… Valerie? But he couldn’t recall her face or anything about her.

By evening they came upon the rear units and in San Stefano, met up with the rest. Had they not passed through San Stefano before, somewhere else? But the whole odyssey, so far, was a confused mess of memories, without any real reference.

He reported to Regimental HQ and was directed to where his unit was stabled on the near side of town. After asking two more times, he finally found his unit. At first sight LT seemed irritated with him.

“Just how long does it take to fill up a tank, Hawkins?”

“Had a bunch of ambulances in front of me and they had priority, Sir.” He hit the “Sir” hard to let the LT know he wasn’t pleased with this reception.

“OK, OK, simmer down. We lost 6 tanks, and have to divvy up the remnants again. I can hardly remember the new people’s names and call them by names of people who have died. This is a fucking war!”

“If you say so, Sir.”

“Cut the Sir crap, Hawkins. You cover my back, I cover yours, that’s how it works out here, right?”

“Right as rain.”

“What did the LT chew you out for? We didn’t do anything,” Jake asked, having observed the exchange from the turret.

“For taking so long to fuel up. I should’ve told him not as long as erasing a whole village.”

“Ease up. We were following orders. That ass-wipe Colonel could have us up on charges for insubordination.”

“I’ll take a couple years at Leavenworth and say thank you for getting me out of here.”

“Dream on. It won’t happen. Shoot your toes off and maybe then they’ll send you home.”

“Not anymore. You have to shoot something more vital…”

Hicks stuck his head out. “Are we staying here then?”

“No, we have to get off this road,” Hawkins said mounting up.

They were looking for a place, and Hawkins was subconsciously searching for the Grizzly… when it hit him that Lt. Brewster was gone… the whole fucking C was gone and he was now a part of A. He started shaking, and even his boots rattled against the foot supports.

“Take it easy, Soldier,” Hicks passed him a bottle of rum he had been saving. “Take a swig— that’ll settle you.”

Jake lit up a smoke and passed it over to Hawkins, who without thinking took a drag before he realized he had given up smoking ages ago on the cruise ship, when the girl he was courting didn’t like the smell. Now the combined jolt of rum and nicotine did in fact get him out of his rut… into a new one.

The driver came back with a pot of beef stew. “Smell that. Real cooked food. Not out of any can.” The crew got out their messkits and divvied up the stew.

“Uh-um. This reminds me of a jambalaya I had in New Orleans…” Jake started up, but Hicks jumped down his throat. “Remember the Rule? No talking about food, girlfriends, family or what we’ll do after the war.”

“It’s a stupid rule!” Jake said hotly. They finished the stew, then sent the driver back to get some more. In half an hour he was back, empty handed. “The stew’s gone, but I got some of this.” He showed a bag of hard candy. Everybody dove into it, crunching away.

“Are you sure it isn’t Christmas?” Jake asked. “Sure reminds me of it…”

“No reminds,” Hicks rubbed it in.

“It’s a stupid rule,” Jake repeated sourly.

The next day at first light they were on the road at a clip. All along the MPs were waving them on. “Hurry! Move your ass!”

They hit the next big town and spent the night. The co-driver found them a couple of bottles of vino and they sat around passing the bottle back and forth.

“Fucking George Almighty,” Hicks muttered. “He wants to get to Messina first if it kills us all. When you consider that we’ve been three quarters around this island, and the British can’t manage a third?”

“Yeah, a tough third. Mount Etna is the perfect place to defend; you won’t dislodge the Germans from there very easily,” Hawkins pointed out.

“What? Are you saying we were on a cake walk thus far?” Hicks wouldn’t let it go.

“No. The Krauts yielded territory to gain time, but held firm on the slopes of Etna.”

“Gain time for what?”

“To evacuate. Save what they can of their men and equipment. They’ve been ferrying them to mainland Italy.”

“That’s the first time I hear of Rommel ceding ground so easily,” Jake said.

“Rommel? He ain’t here. It’s Kesserling who’s in command. Don’t you listen to the briefings?” By the sound of it, Hicks was genuinely shocked.

“Why should I? Why fill my ears with garbage. They talk about yesterday’s news anyway. Does it help me aim better? Not an inch. And it sure as hell don’t let me sleep better at night.”

“You’re a first class ignoramus.”

“And you’re a fucking bookworm. Does any of that learning actually do anything for you? Do you really masturbate to the drumbeat of history? To the glory of bygone civilizations? You can piss and shit literature all you like, it won’t get you any quicker to Rome or Berlin.”

Hawkins let them go at it. At least the constant bickering distracted them from the fact that any moment, an 88 shell could blow them all to hell. The driver and co-driver listened wide-eyed, but dared not say a word. This was a war within a war.

As far as the rest of the world was concerned, little of what was happening on the global scale filtered down. Next to nothing about the war in the Pacific and the German difficulties in Russia. There were rumors that Il Duce, Benito Mussolini, was kicked out of office, and Italy was on the verge of surrendering or had surrendered and the Germans had taken over complete control, creating mass confusion. One couldn’t conclude anything, encountering tenacious resistance from Italian troops said to be hardcore Nazis, now fighting for their lives.

On August 16th they rolled into Messina almost without a shot. The town was unoccupied as the last of the Germans, or those who still could, evacuated overnight. The city lay open and welcoming. The population was celebrating that it was now on the right side of the war and the front had moved past it without destroying the city. The joy they showed seemed genuine enough. More than once Jake got himself a handful of womanhood and a kiss. From pretty young girls to grandmothers, he didn’t much care which, all were welcome.

They spent some days refitting and eating cooked food from a field kitchen. Jude was a genius at scavenging and returned with luxuries, chocolates, beer, wine and fresh socks and undies, all worth their weight in gold, very rare items to find.

“I kiss you raw and thank your mother for birthing you,” Jake said and actually tried to lay a kiss on the driver. The holes in his old socks had their own holes.

Then to their surprise the mail caught up with them. Hawkins received three letters from his cousin, his only relative left. He read the first according to the date of postage. “Pastor Jones Twinton preached that if we have relatives fighting overseas, we should all write to them. I don’t know what to tell you, we are in the old house and the roof still leaks. Midge wants me to fix the sagging porch but I work double shift at (blacked out) and barely have time for a beer before I fall asleep. Hope you are well, Cousin Joel.”

The next letter wasn’t any better. “The Pastor is at it again, making us write once more. He has a son fighting in the Pacific, (blacked out) (blacked out) and is (blacked out) about him. My neighbor has a brother with you someplace, but they don’t tell them where. The censors (blacked out) out. We brought some war bonds to help with the war effort. They had some movie stars pitching at the bond drive. There was a gal with ash-blonde hair, quite famous, but I can’t remember her name. Things get scarce sometimes and there is (blacked out). My dog Rory had a litter of pups, so cute that I took a basketful to church and they were snapped up pronto. Well I hope you’re well, Joel.”

The last one was similar. “Dear James. This time I’m writing on my own. Not much to report. The roof is still leaking, and the porch still sags. One day I will get around to them but had to dig up the septic tank to clear a blockage. That was a dirty job but had to be done. Nature can’t wait, you know. I bought a new car, a 3 year old fire engine red Buick, and my oldest Joey got a job at a carpentry shop and is sweet on the owner’s daughter. I don’t know if you remember Aunt Edna on your mother’s side. She died and left us something. She bequeathed you some money that the lawyer invested in war bonds. At least you will have something to start back in civilian life. Not a huge amount, but I don’t remember how much. I guess that’s about it. We are sure praying for your safety. The whole church has a list in alphabetical order for that. Joel”

It was strange, Hawkins could barely remember Joel and nothing of any Aunt Edna. Of course mother was quiet about her family as she was estranged from them over her marriage. They didn’t approve, but he knew of no other details beyond that. Wonder how much money was there?

Of course, the mention of money made him think of the treasure and that led him back to who killed Simon? Jake or Hicks? Hicks or Jake? Either of them could have done it. If the war had taught him anything, it was how easy it was to kill. What bothered Hawkins the most, was that whoever did it could go on pretending to be so normal. Whenever Jake or Hicks spoke, Hawkins listened, trying to find clues in the tone of their voices. Then he worried if he was next. Strangely that bothered him less: he didn’t expect to survive this war anyway. What did it matter how he would die? Each minute he felt that his time was running out and it was only a question of time and place. He was a veteran and could do the arithmetic. Tanks and tank crews had low survival rates. So, in the end it didn’t matter how much Aunt Edna left him, it would likely end up in Joel’s pocket, so he could pay to have his roof and porch fixed.

Hicks, with nearly fifteen letters, sat leaning against the tank, reading them, chortling once in a while.

Jake had only two. “Listen to this…”

“No history please,” Hawkins said, reminding him of the Rule.

“No, it’s not about me. It’s a Dear John letter from a girl named Coralee, whom I’ve never met, from a town I’ve never been to. It’s addressed to me, but must be for another Jake O’Connor. How many O’Connors are in the Army, you figure?”

“Hundreds, maybe thousands…”

“No, get serious. What do I do with this? Send it back?”

“If the army mail service screwed it up getting it to you, they’ll screw it up passing it further on. If you want my advice, wipe your ass with it. Looks softer than the army issue.”

“Is that really your advice or are you shitting me?”

“Nah, it’s for real,” Hawkins affirmed. “You know maybe you should write back to the girl, pretending… Hell you don’t have to pretend, you’re Jake O’Connor and she wrote to you.”

“But what should I write? I don’t know the girl. Beside she might be a real dog.”

“I still think you should write, you know, to feed your fantasies. Then after the war, look her up, and if she’s a dog, just walk away. She won’t know who you are.”

“You’re fucking with me, aren’t you?”

“No, I mean it. Think of it, here you are, daily risking your life while they’re safe and warm in their beds. The way I figure, they owe this to you. This fucking war is stealing the best years of our lives. We should be back home, living, enjoying it instead of killing and getting maimed and killed.”

“I dunno. If I were still home I’d be working at my uncle’s feed mill or my brother’s gas station, doing the same things day in and day out. Instead here I am, in the forefront of history, making it. We got to stop Hitler and Tojo. I believe in that. Besides I wouldn’t have seen Africa and Italy and God willing, I’ll get to see Berlin.”

“That’s the spirit. But you know that sounded suspiciously like Hicks talking. Makes me think you’re listening to him after all.”

“Screw that! Don’t tell him that or I’ll never hear the end of it from that smug SOB.”

A little later Hawkins saw Jake leaning on the glacis plate, writing a letter.

The driver and the co-driver were sharing news of home. The driver caught Hawkins’ disapproving look and protested, “The rule doesn’t apply to us. We never agreed to it.”

“OK, gossip away, but don’t tell the rest of us, we ain’t interested, kapish?” The driver nodded then went back to his discussion.

It all left Hawkins thinking about what he should write back to Joel, and how much money he had inherited. It had to be less than what he stood to get from grandpa. If Hicks was right there was close to a million dollars in the emerald and the antique gold. He soon found himself back on the same track: who killed Simon? The German? Unlikely. It had to be Jake or Hicks. Which? Could he trust either of them? This nagged at him a good while. To the front he was already ducking bullets and didn’t relish always having to watch his back as well. In the end he decided that it didn’t matter how he died, he was a walking dead man already. He kept stumbling over this fact. There was no way he was going to survive the war. Not in a tank. He looked at the Lady Bug, with the name growing fainter by the day on the barrel. She was to be his coffin, his funeral pyre. The thing is, if you’re dead, you don’t have to be afraid, but there was a disconnect somewhere, for the body by instinct was afraid, no matter what the mind said, thought or knew.

They spent a week in refit, where the Lady was spruced up, cleaned, greased and oiled. New tracks were mounted on the starboard side and the radio was replaced with something more modern and supposedly better. The funny thing was, it still collected as much static as before.

After thinking about it a couple of days, Hawkins wrote to his cousin. “Dear Joel, Thank you for all the news. You don’t know how hungry we are to hear anything from home. We are OK, you know, moving on with the war. Can’t tell you anything about it as it will get blacked out. Can’t say I remember Aunt Edna any, but mom was closemouthed about her family. Looking forward to taking a ride in your new Buick when I get home. Give my regards to your wife. I still remember dancing with her at your wedding. Regards, Jim.” He lied about the dance, but it sounded good in the letter.

“So where to next, Boss?” Hawkins asked the LT.

“You’re kidding, right?” the LT raised his brows. “Italy, of course.”

Chapter 8

A service organization opened a booze tent next to the tank park. At first opportunity, Jake had them over there ordering a round of beer. The place was full so the crew of the Lady Bug had to share a table with GI’s from the 131st Infantry Division. The soldier boys were already ahead of the new arrivals by a couple of rounds and quite willing to trade insults.

“How’re you tin pan boys?” their Corporal queried, looking at them with one eye only so he wouldn’t see double.

“All right,” Jake answered sizing up the situation. “How about you mudhens?”

“If truth be told, a little jealous of you guys. You have a nice comfortable tank to drive you everywhere, while we have to slog through heat, rain, snow and mud.”

“Where the hell did you find snow in Sicily?”

“That’s not the point. We’ve got nothing but GI issue boots to take us anywhere, while you cruise around on your luxury limousine.”

“Not quite. It smells, it’s noisy and rattles your bones right out of you. Gets fucking hot in summer and cold as hell in winter. There’s a heater that doesn’t work and a fan that does nothing.”

“Really? Well let me tell you it has to be better than GI boots you haven’t taken off in a week because you’re afraid you can’t get’em back on your swollen feet. My socks rotted away by last Tuesday and I got trench foot to boot.”

“So, you think that’s bad? How about being hit by an 88 shell and if you’re lucky enough not to be hit, or if the concussion hasn’t knocked your brain into your ass, you have maybe a half a second to squeeze through a damned tight hatch with another guy trying to claw his way through you. Baby if you don’t make it, you’re barbecue.”

“At least you have a cannon to fire, we got pea shooters at best. You got three inches of armor to protect you.”

“You think? Have you seen what an 88 or even a long 75 can do to three inches? You might as well be naked…”

“See this shirt? It’s not even a sixteenth of an inch of fabric. How much protection do you think it gives us? Zero to none.”

“Maybe, but you can dig yourself a hole in the ground, while we’re stuck up there in full view of the enemy. That’s because Detroit hasn’t invented a tank that can bury itself. Besides, you guys got a tank killer in the bazooka.”

“You say that because you haven’t fired one. The damn thing just bounces off a Panther and is only a doorknocker for a Tiger.”

“On that you get no argument from me. See we can at least agree on something,” Jake said and ordered another round. The GI’s left, replaced by some Navy types.

“How goes it with you sailor?” Jake asked the one across from him.

“For Christ’s sake, Jake. Don’t start another argument,” Hawkins said, looking into his beer. It was the brand he used to drink back home, but it didn’t taste the same. Was he losing his sense of taste as well? His nose was already gone, not even smelling the rife interior of the Lady filled with body odors and oily engine smells. Or maybe his brain got tired of processing the same worn-out odors.

“Who’s arguing? Not me,” Jake complained, “I was agreeing with the guy. A soldier has it bad, no matter in what service he is.” They had had four rounds and were feeling it. The driver became even quieter, if that was possible, but the co-driver started in on his issues.

“Granted you guys been together from the start and we’re just a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies. But we’re no longer green horns, we’ve been in combat and deserve a little more respect than we’re getting.”

“You poor thing, we don’t mean to disrespect you, it’s just that…” Jake looked at Hicks who had been quiet the whole time. “Help me out Hicks, what’s the word I’m looking for?”

“How the hell should I know, you never make any sense.”

“Never. Isn’t that a little harsh? I must make sense sometimes. At least once in a hundred times. You got to give me that.”

“You’re a bullshitter—”

“That’s it! That’s the word I was looking for! Thank you Hicks. Bullshitter hits the nail right on the head.” The only trouble was that he had forgotten what to led it back to.

Hicks however hadn’t; he looked at Jeff and said, “Don’t take it so personally, Son. Maybe you’re not greenhorns any more but a veteran you’re also not and won’t be until you lose someone you got close to. You learn quickly not to let anyone get close after that. We’ve already lost Jingle John our driver, Jones and Simon the co-driver. They were all good men. So you see, we’re not likely to make friends anytime soon.”

In spite of all the beers in him, Hawkins listened intently. He focused in: Hicks was talking about Simon: did he kill him or not?

“Don’t get us wrong,” Jake said, trying hard not to slur his words. “Not everyone is nice. Not at all. James Dancer Hawkins here can be a real SOB all because he’s got Sergeant’s stripes. And Hicks here… I don’t even want to start on him. Simon was a religious zealot, praying all the time, and Jones… he was a good driver but had a nasty streak in him… and John, he was a whiner, complaining all the time. The point is… the point is… Hicks help me here, there’s a point, isn’t there?”

“Yes. That you’re a first class fuckup.”

“Well thank you, Professor. No one ever called me first class anything. That calls for another round.” And he waved to the server.

“Not for me boys,” Hawkins said. “My balls are floating already.” He rose and walked to the bar, wedging himself beside Sergeant Tillson. “How’s it going Ross? Got your Rhino fixed?”

“Nah. The thing’s jinxed. If it’s not one thing then it’s sure to be something else. I used to have a car like that, a real lemon. It spent more time in the garage than on the road. That’s my Rhino today. They opened the crankcase and bits and pieces of the gears came out with the oil. Granted my half-assed driver can’t shift, but that should have been built into the design. I mean thousands of drivers can’t drive, so it ought to have been a prime consideration.” He took a sip and belched. “The only good thing is, we always end up in the back of the pack, out of danger while you guys on the front get your balls shot off. How’s your Bug?”

“We call her the Lady and she’s well enough.”

“See, I can’t figure that. Your… Lady and my Rhino rolled off the same assembly line, probably only hours apart. Yet I’m having all this trouble while it’s smooth sailing for you. I just can’t digest it.”

“It makes no sense, I agree. But maybe it’s in the name. A Lady Bug is well behaved, while everybody knows that a Rhino’s an ill-mannered SOB.”

“You could have a point there.”

When they finally got back to the Lady, none of them could walk straight. But it had to be said that Jake could hold his drink. Hicks was just sober enough for one more cigarette before tumbling into his blanket and snoring in two minutes. The co-driver was puking his guts out, the driver helping him. Hawkins made a mental note not to step into the shit when he did his morning walk around. The driver settled his buddy in bed, and mumbled an apology for him. “The kid’s hardly out of high school.”

With his senses so dulled, Hawkins had no trouble sleeping that night. By morning, however, he had a massive headache and twice he had to tell Jake not to be so loud. He walked around the tank for the usual inspection and wouldn’t you know it, he stepped into the pig shit that Jeff left there the night before.

He was in no better mood for the briefing. Major Sutton, the new Adjutant of the 3rd Armored Battalion, addressed all Sections and Tank Commanders. “First off, I want to commend all of you for a job well done. Army HQ is pleased with the results we have achieved. Eisenhower himself extended his praise to all units in glowing terms, and it will be mentioned very favorably in the next issue of Stars and Stripes. We’ve landed, forced our way through the rugged interior of Sicily often against heavy opposition and liberated the island, forcing the Germans to evacuate.” The Major paused to take a sip of water before continuing. “I wish I could tell you that we achieved this with a minimum of losses, but you know very well that it cost us dearly. Unfortunately the latest tally shows that the 3rd Armored suffered nearly 30 percent casualties in material and men that has to be replaced in order to become an effective fighting force again. The whole Battalion is to be reconstituted. For this purpose we’ll be withdrawn to the seaside town of Milazzo for a bit of R and R until we can complete the rebuilding. There are new tanks, halftracks and self-propelled artillery on the way and fresh men from Stateside. It will mean work for us and reorganization but I have every expectation of returning quickly to proper fighting trim. Thank you Gentlemen and good morning to you.”

“What do you think it means?” Sgt. Wexter asked Hawkins.

“Sounds clear. We’ll be taken out of the front line and given a rest and be refitted,” Hawkins said, surprised how dejected he felt. The 30 percent stuck in his mind like an echo.

Over the next two days, the unit was withdrawn from Messina to Milazzo and housed in quarters occupied by the Germans a scant week ago. There were posters and instruction placards on the walls, and rooms labeled everywhere in German. These were quickly painted over and replaced with Allied material. One could not go far without reading “Loose talk sinks ships,” and the like. A few pictures of Hitler survived, liberally added to, making a caricature of him.

On the second night they were treated to a movie in the mess hall, Mrs. Miniver, about an English family caught up in the whirlwind of war. It had garnered six Academy Awards the previous year and was thought to be a morale booster. Hawkins sat through the showing but couldn’t hold the story together; all he could remember afterwards was that Greer Garson was a beautiful woman and an ideal wife and mother.

The next night they showed Road to Morocco, starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope and although his comrades were laughing all around him, Hawkins couldn’t even manage a smile. Don’t they know there’s a war on? People dying daily and they try to gloss over all that with such an inane comedy?

At night he couldn’t sleep well, often bothered by nightmares from what he had gone through and waking up drenched in sweat, afraid to go to sleep again. He was most bothered by the wounded German he mowed down with the Thompson and the hilltop village he helped to pulverize. He had visions of innocent blood bleeding through the fallen masonry. He tried to find the name of the village but it wasn’t on his map, and he couldn’t find it on the Regimental map because someone had written over the spot with a red grease pencil. Irrationally he thought that if he knew the name he could give the place a decent burial in his memory. As it was it grew into a ghost town, haunting him all the more because he couldn’t put a name to it.

The Lady Bug got her share of attention. She received new gaskets, had her carburetor cleaned, her filters and oil changed, had greased what had to be greased and received a set of new tracks. Hawkins managed to have some extra plates bolted on to beef up the front plate.

New equipment started arriving, offloaded at the docks. The latest series of Shermans were largely the same but with a few more crew comforts. The seats were cushioned, as were surfaces to soften banging into them. The ventilation system was improved and some even had a bigger heater inside.

Fresh from armored school, new crews arrived, and were quickly distributed. They were green as green could be, and looked with star-struck eyes at the veterans.

While the maintenance crews worked overtime to get the equipment ready, the crews were given refresher courses in the basics, shooting, map reading, radio protocol and not the least, proper hygiene. From the last, Jake got himself a pocketful of rubbers, which he then blew up into balloons to festoon the Lady with.

At the same time they were also given free time to spend as they wished. The town was off limits. HQ worried about allowing so many randy men to invade the hapless town, but there were outings and beach barbecues organized.

Hawkins stood waist deep in salt water and wondered at all the people splashing and carrying on around him.

“You gotta lighten up, Jim,” Jake admonished him, but Hawkins could not find it in him. Inside, it all felt dark.

Visiting the beach had one bad consequence: Jeff stubbed his toe under water on something that cut into him. By nightfall it was infected and next morning puffy and red, and so painful that he could hardly walk. “It’s nothing,” he claimed but by evening they had to take him to the infirmary. Visiting him next morning, to their shock they found that he had been operated on, had lost all his toes and was to be shipped back home.

“You lucky bastard,” Jude tried to cheer him up. “You’re going home, you’ll see your girl, have hot dogs and go to a baseball game. I’d gladly give an arm for that.”

Within days he was gone.

This incident further depressed Hawkins. Now he had a man to replace, but had no energy to do so.

“Hicks and I can find us a new co-driver,” Jake said, volunteering. Accordingly the two went off to look at the fresh batch of replacements arriving daily. In three hours they returned with a man who was partially bald even though he couldn’t have been more than 25.

“Here he is,” Jake said, presenting the new man with a flourish. “Ask me his name. Go on, ask me.”

“OK, I bite. What’s his name?” Jude took it on.

“Jeff Jackson,” Jake said importantly. “Get it? J-J. How lucky is that?” He was firmly convinced that an all J crew was like a charm to protect them from any evil. Given all that they had been through, the scrapes they had survived, it was difficult to argue with him. “Besides it saves us the trouble of having to learn a new name.”

“Can he drive?” Hawkins roused himself to ask.

“I didn’t ask him,” Jake replied.

“Can he shoot?”

“Who cares? What he doesn’t know, we can teach him. The most important thing is that he makes us complete again, all J’s.” Hawkins regarded him askance as Hicks just rolled his eyes in disdain, so Jake continued relentlessly. “We had an S, remember? Look what happened to him and to us, we were taken prisoner. I tell you, if we follow the Jack rule, we’ll be invincible.”

“What you are is a crazy bastard, that’s what,” Hawkins pronounced the final verdict.

“Certifiable,” Hicks agreed. “Still I don’t argue with a person’s politics, religion or superstitions, because there’s no use.”

Jake then showed Jeff around the Lady and Jude introduced him to his seat. “This is yours and only this. The turret’s off limits, we toil below and pay homage to those above…”

Later Jake lectured him about the Rule. “You mean you can’t talk about home…? Then what do you talk about?” Jeff asked, his face a mess of worry: where had he landed?

“We talk about today, only today, what’s in front of our noses. Nothing about tomorrow and nothing about yesterday. Understand?”

“But why?”

“We find it’s easier that way, and besides by concentrating on today, you get to do a better job… today.”

“What do you think of the new man?” Hawkins asked Hicks later.

“Too early to tell. We won’t know what he’s made of until we get into a firefight and see how he reacts.” He shrugged his shoulders. “One thing seems clear though, he’s got a bit of color in him.”

“If he does, it doesn’t show much. Is that going to be a problem?”

“Not with me or our crew. I’m thinking of Billy Bob in our section, he’s said to be KKK, and took a black man apart in Tunis.”

“Well, warn Jeff not to be… how shall I put it? So obvious about it.”

“From what little I’ve seen of him, he can act whiter than white.”

“Good.”

The whole Battalion spent a week breaking in the new men. Full formations of tanks drove around and maneuvered, carving up good agricultural land. The field kitchen served decent food. It felt like a holiday with trips to the beach or sitting in the mess hall enjoying a quiet beer, a limit of two per customer.

One afternoon Hawkins ended up beside a Brit liaison Sergeant, who was working on smoothing back-and-forth communication with British counterparts.

“How are you, Yank?” The Brit lifted his bottle in greeting.

“Well enough, Limey. How about you?”

“God, it’s been ages since we were called that.”

“Sorry. How are you Tommy?”

“Better since we kicked the Germans off the island. We had some tough fighting around Etna. We’d still be there I suppose if you Yanks hadn’t threatened to cut off their rear.”

“That was Patton’s doing, the hero of the day.”

“Not among the British. Monty was furious having Messina stolen from him. He really wasn’t supposed to do that.”

“Well you know how it is, Patton is our Rommel.”

“Rommel’s not so tough. I was at Tobruk in Libya back in ‘41 and held it for 241 days. We denied him the port though he badly wanted it to shorten his supply line. I was at El Alamein in the winter of last year, where we bled him to death and chased him back to Tunisia.”

“Because he was starved for supplies. In any case it’s Patton the Germans are afraid of.”

“True but he’s not very popular even with your own High Command. Look how they promoted Omar Bradley over his head. Look how much trouble he got in for slapping two shell shocked soldiers around. That’s what likely cost him the promotion.”

“All I know is if we trusted his leadership, it would shorten this war considerably and we could all go home.”

“If you survive it.”

“There you’re right. Let’s drink to that, survival.” Solemnly they clicked bottles.

Being away from the front was good for the crew of the Lady. They relaxed, forgetting for a moment the danger that was in their future. Hawkins, though, found that as he eased the tight hold on his emotions, he became victim of them, especially at night.

Hawkins woke up in a cold sweat, with a scream caught in his throat and fear in his heart. It was dark around him and the nightmare was still very real. The Lady had been hit; he had felt the compression wave throw him back against the metal and he was sure that his lower body was gone. Jake, or what was left of him, hit him across the face. I got to get out!!! But the flames were already embracing him. Please don’t let me burn!!! Please, please… Inexorably the flames were devouring him, his skin bubbling up from the searing heat. Don’t let me burn… He prayed for an explosion to put an end to this agony. Then the ammo went up, blowing him out of the turret into the cold darkness of night. He couldn’t breathe; his heart was hammering against his ribs. It was a nightmare, he realized, but he couldn’t understand why his skin still felt the heat of the flames.

After that he didn’t dare to close his eyes and return to the nightmare of being burnt alive. In the end, however, the dream proved to be cathartic, washing the most basic fear out of him. Somehow he was on the other side of the experience and could be more normal, not wound so tight.

Next day a truckful of oranges arrived and was distributed. Hawkins got a handful. He was surprised how tart-sweet the taste was, so full of flavor. Maybe he hadn’t lost his taste buds after all. The rest did him good and he started climbing out of the dark hole he had dug for himself. He recovered some of his sense of humor as well.

Jake came to him waving a letter.

“Jake, you know we don’t get into those issues…”

“No it’s not what you think. Remember that girl Coralee? The girl who wrote to me thinking I was some other O’Connor. Well I wrote her back and here’s her answer.” He handed the letter over.

Reluctantly, Hawkins read. “Sorry Jake. I guess it’s hard to keep track of everybody and mail must go awry every day. What you wrote moved me deeply, especially what you said about the loneliness of combat and the dangers you face so far from home. It must be very hard to persevere and you must be very brave to do so. You were so eloquent in your descriptions. I broke up with the other Jake because all he wrote was what he would do to me once he got back home. He was downright boorish. Yes, you can write to me and pretend I am your girlfriend if that helps to lessen your loneliness. We on the home front think a lot about you brave boys fighting against the evil over there. I will keep you in my prayers, Coralee.” Hawkins looked up at Jake. “What did you write to the girl?”

“Oh, mostly bullshit. You know: warriors away from home braving the dangers, just as she said. Mixed in a few references about homesickness and loneliness and now I have a pen pal. So what do you think?”

“Impressive, I must say. I didn’t know you had the words in you. What did she say? Eloquent. That’s a high praise. Why can’t you be eloquent around us instead of swearing all the time?”

“How can one be eloquent and erudite around Hicks? He has a copyright on all that shit. At least within his hearing. I just shut my mouth and grunt.”

“Or swear. And how you swear. But congratulations, this is good to masturbate to, dreaming about a girl pining for you back home.”

“Now why did you have to spoil it? I was feeling good, with the best intentions… almost pure.”

“Sorry, it’s rare I see you so lily white innocent.”

On September 3rd, the day Italy surrendered, British forces crossed the Strait of Messina and attacked Calabria with some early successes. On September 9th a mix of Allied army groups landed at Salerno and ran into stiff opposition from the Germans who were expecting them. It took some time to enlarge the beachhead, so they were not able to achieve a breakout until the 19th when they moved north toward Naples.

On the 22nd, the 3rd Battalion was also ferried across and held in reserve behind the lines. As the fighting progressed north, the Brigade followed to secure the rear areas. It wasn’t until the German defensive position along the Volturno River that units of the 3rd were finally allowed to join the battle on October 7th.

The Lady was sitting hull-down on the southern bank of the river, firing an occasional shot at suspected German positions. The Germans occupied the heights and had a commanding view and position to control the valley. The Allies had total air superiority and made German transportation and troop movements by day nigh impossible.

Due to the reorganization of C Company, Lt. Mendez aboard Armadillo became Section Commander, leading his four tanks. Hawkins was now second in command. They had seen little real action since Sicily, just distant cannonading.

The Germans were masters of rearguard action and yielded territory slowly with very effective delaying tactics. They destroyed bridges and roadways before falling back to prepared positions that they defended stubbornly until it was time again to retreat to a new line. The Allies were thus faced with uphill battles, having to go up against well-designed defenses.

In this time period, the section encountered a face to face confrontation only once when it ran into a squad of Panzer IIIs and IVs supported by motorized assault troops, just emerging from the ruins of a destroyed village. Both sides were surprised, finding themselves less than 200 yards apart and having to scramble to get into action.

“Driver hard left! Load AP! Jake, take the Panzer on the right,” Hawkins yelled into the intercom. The turret was already turning, trying to keep the target in sight as the Lady veered off. The German shot first and hit a neighboring tank. Jake missed too, but got off the next shot that caused some damage, yet the Germans were backing away, firing as they were retreating.

Everybody was busy with the action except the new man, Jeff, who had nothing to do. In his anxiety, he did the only thing he could and fired off a quarter belt of his 30, the bullets bouncing off the enemy armor.

“Stop it, Jeff!” everybody yelled at him. “Stop wasting ammo!”

Jeff stopped. “S-sorry, but I had to do something…”

The Germans disappeared as quickly as they had come, leaving behind a burning Panzer III, but taking the survivors. The Lady’s crew dismounted and Jeff staggered around on shaky legs.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me…” he muttered.

They gathered around the burning Sherman next to them. Chameleon, one of the new tanks. Everybody had gotten out except the co-driver who was stuck halfway out his hatch, his clothes smoldering still, filling the air with the unpleasant mixture of burning oil and human flesh.

“Christ! Harvey was stunned by the concussion and couldn’t react fast enough. He was caught by the blast of fire. Poor bugger, he was so looking forward to Rome and the Vatican,” Sgt. Brown said, shaking his head. They backed away and the whole thing went up in an explosion, catapulting the turret high into the air. Dark smoke billowed into the air and flames licked what had been left of the chassis. Nothing of Harvey was left to see among the wreck.

Jeff felt something on his face, wiped it and discovered blood on his hands. “I’m hurt…”

After a quick look Sgt. Brown reassured him, “You just got a bit of Harvey on you…”

Jeff bent over and threw up. His breakfast was backing up on him.

“Yes Mister, take a good look,” Hicks said without any sympathy. “That’s what happens when you hesitate.”

“Lost one, won one,” Lt. Mendez muttered. “Not a ratio I like.”

In ten minutes the recovery team arrived. The lead man took one look at the charred Chameleon and waved his hands. “There’s nothing left to salvage.”

On top of the Armadillo, Lt. Mendez was already writing the action report for the records; one tank and one man lost, no dog tags found; one German tank destroyed.

At suppertime Jeff was still very upset and didn’t want any food. He just shook his head every time someone offered something to him.

“You’ve got to eat, man,” Hawkins said to him. “You’re no use to us, empty and unnerved. Pull yourself together.” But nothing helped. Jeff still felt Harvey’s flesh on his face; he finally crawled into his bedding and pulled the cover over his head, trying to shut out the world.

“At least the guy didn’t suffer… long,” Jake said.

“We don’t know how long that last minute is,” Hicks said more philosophically. “It could last a lifetime.”

“I hope to God not,” Jude said, crossing himself.

That night Hawkins didn’t sleep well. He kept having the same nightmare of trying to get out of a burning tank. “Ronson Lighters” the Shermans were, prone to go up at the least damage. In the dream he was always trying to pull Jake out, but never Hicks. He woke in a sweat, and wondered about that. He realized he trusted Jake more than Hicks, but that still did not answer who killed Simon. He had ceased worrying about his own safety, reasoning that the perpetrator, whoever he was, needed him to help him survive. Besides, it was yet again clear to him that none of them was going to survive this war.

The Allies were making slow progress up the boot of Italy. The British and Canadians were slogging up the east coast, while the US Forces were pressuring the enemy on the west side. On October 12th, the Germans retreated to the Barbara Line and fought on tenaciously. The Lady was part of the move on a wide front that flooded into the vacated areas. Even so, they had to move carefully because the Germans booby trapped everything left behind. Everyone was warned not to pick up anything that looked halfway suspicious, but still people were lost to explosive devices cunningly disguised as something else.

The third Armored Brigade was facing the Germans firmly ensconced in the Barbara Line. It was a strong defensive position which was going to take superhuman efforts to dislodge.

The Lady was deployed on the west flank. As the crew settled down for the night, Lt. Mendez was making his rounds and stopped to have a few words with Hawkins.

“Have a good rest, Sergeant,” LT said. “Tomorrow we’ll put more pressure on the Germans. More artillery is arriving as we speak and within days we’ll be ready for a major assault. But don’t be surprised if the Germans try a spoiling attack anytime soon. What I’m saying is to sleep with one eye open and be instantly ready.”

“Yes, Sir,” Hawkins said. “Sleep but don’t rest. Rest but don’t relax. We’ve got nothing to worry about but should be ready. Have I got it right?”

“Exactly right, Soldier.”

Hawkins liked the new LT. He didn’t posture or ride shotgun on everything but let everyone do their best—and the payoff was that everybody did just that. Hawkins often worried if he was as good a tank commander as he could be. Were his crew at risk or suffering in any way because of his leadership? He was part of that crew, of course (how could he not be at such close quarters?), yet apart, sometimes having to decide life and death issues for them all. The upshot of this was that he thought more of his men’s needs than his own.

The next day they moved forward and faced the enemy less than 600 yards across an open field. But both sides were tolerant of each other for now, knowing well that it would come to a savage battle soon enough.

The Lady was hull-down dug in, and Hawkins was on the top deck, scanning the view with his binoculars. The other side was doing the same, just observing each other. It was strange to have this interlude.

Hicks passed around slices of ham he got somewhere. From where, he refused to say. “It’s better you don’t know,” was his laconic comment. Then perhaps to distract them, he launched himself and them in a new direction. “You know, an invading army is most vulnerable during the landings. It’s imperative to secure the beach head, then break out as we’ve done. For us this has been a close thing. It was fortuitous that Italy surrendered and put down its arms, which left the Germans by themselves to man the defenses. If you ask me they’re doing a darn good job of it. Field Marshall Kesselring is not Rommel, but he’s managing this well.” Not knowing the protocol, the new man Jeff wanted to break in, but Hicks just ignored him. “It seems to me the Germans are not interested in holding onto Southern Italy, but you can bet your bottom dollar that they’ll fight for Rome. Judging from the upcoming terrain, they’ll dig in around Cassino nestled in the Apennine Mountains. There’s no way around it and we’ll have to somehow punch through it. And it will double the casualties we’ve had up to now. And take heed, it’s not tank country.”

“But, surely the Air Force will bomb the living daylights out of them,” Jeff protested.

“And they most certainly will. They’ll reduce everything to rubble. But it’s a little known fact of war that rubble helps the defenders and hinders the attackers. For tanks, rubble makes streets impassable and gives shelter to dug-in troops…” And he continued on expounding his encyclopedic knowledge.

Afterwards Jake took Jeff aside to explain to him the Rule, adding, “If you ask Hicks a question, he’ll drown you with a flood. If you oppose him, you only prolong your own misery. It’s not possible to win against him, he’s read too much for one man and knows too much for anybody’s good. So if he says something, just nod your head and don’t give him an opening…”

During the next two days the strange waiting continued. However, in the afternoon a flight of Thunderbolts came in, dropping bombs and strafing the Germans. One of the planes got hit by AA and came down right smack in no man’s land between the opposing lines. By some miracle, the plane landed and the pilot made it out in one piece. Because of their losses in the bombing, the Germans were riled up and made short work of the plane, setting it on fire with an artillery salvo. The pilot went to the ground, finding a depression to lie in. The Krauts then tried to blast him with mortars, but thankfully, were not successful.

The American artillery joined the fray and took out some of the mortars.

“Aren’t we going to do something?” Jeff asked. They could all see the pilot looking their way wistfully, but running such a gauntlet was certain suicide.

“What do you want us to do?”

“Get in our tank and go and rescue him.”

“Does you credit, Son,” Hicks said. “But all we would accomplish would be to switch one target for another.”

By this time so many bullets were flying that Hawkins ordered a mount-up. They got in their seats and watched through their view ports.

“Christ Almighty, that’s a Tiger!” Hawkins could scarcely breathe as he watched the massive tank lumber forward. The King of Beasts was hunting and coming their way!

“Mount up! Section Sandpiper mount up!” Lt. Mendez’s voice came crackling over the radio. For this operation Sandpiper was their call sign!

The Tiger was halfway to the downed pilot when the American tanks moved into the open, challenging him. The 88 roared and a tank was already burning. The Americans replied with all they had, but the shells just bounced off the Tiger’s thick skin.

“Try to go around and catch him in the side or the rear!” Mendez ordered. Was he crazy? They were not going to survive long enough to get there!

“Jesus, Jude move us as fast as she can go, and pray… like you never have before.” The Tiger barked and another tank disappeared in a sheet of flames.

“Go, go, go! There’re eight of us against…” His voice was swallowed by the horrendous noise of an explosion that ripped the Armadillo apart. In an eye blink the LT was gone!

“Damn you Jude, get us there!” Rivers of sweat ran down Hawkins face and he had to wipe his eyes repeatedly to see through his periscope.

Jake fired, hitting the Tiger’s track, and it ran off it, turning drunkenly aside. This exposed the side and Jake put two rounds onto it, knocking out the engine. The German was now stuck, but he was still dangerous. He fired and another American tank went up. The Lizard was in flames!

Jake fired again putting a dent in the side but the shell just ricocheted off. The Tiger’s turret was coming around to line up on them. Two tanks made it around to the back and they each put a round into the engine compartment. Things were smoking but the turret was still turning.

“Fire Jake, for God sake, fire and spoil his aim.” Jake fired, rattling the German’s turret. The Tiger fired and the shot raked the side of the Lady.

“Fire again, damn it!”

“We’re out of AP,” Hicks said surprisingly calmly.

“Then use HE, for God’s sake. And be quick about it!”

When Jake fired this time, the explosion shook the Tiger and again upset its aim, this time missing the Lady entirely.

The two Shermans were pumping shots into the rear of the Tiger and the smoke was now turning seriously black. “For Christ’s sake, if the German were a Sherman, it would’ve gone up after the first shot,” Hawkins thought desperately. He wanted to throw up, and it took all his willpower to keep the churning mass in his stomach down.

Just then the Tiger’s hatches flew open and its crew scrambled out. Jeff fired his 30 and held onto the trigger, moving down the escaping crew. This time no one told Jeff to stop. He ran out of ammo, but the Germans were all dead, scattered around their burning tank.

Turning around, the Lady beheld the awful sight of six US tanks in flames, sending black columns into the sky. In the lee of one of the Shermans the downed pilot, having made it back in one piece, was shaking from all that had happened around him… and because of him. How many had died to save his life?

They returned to their spot and looked at the empty stations beside them. Lt. Mendez was gone with the Armadillo. Only the driver had gotten out but was badly burned. Cpl. Henniger on Polar Bear was also gone, as was Cpl. Saunders on Porcupine, with no survivors. Hawkins pressed all his emotions into a tight bundle and swallowed it. It was a tight fit, and he felt like he was going to explode.

Across the field the Tiger was still burning as were the ruined Shermans. A tense, uneasy quiet returned to the scene. Then one of the Shermans blew as its ammunition exploded. The sudden eruption caused a fresh exchange of artillery. The shells screamed by overhead, landing somewhere behind.

Once things settled down again, the crew of the Lady climbed out and Jude ran for the shitter. The Lady had taken 20 mm hits on the armor right in front of him and though they had bounced off harmlessly, the impacts had unnerved him. Jeff returned, all white and shaking, hugging himself, rocking back and forth.

“That’s all right Soldier, you did well,” Hawkins said, thinking they all did well, having come out of it in one piece. Once again they had cheated Death. He didn’t know whether to cry or cheer.

“Sergeant Hawkins?” an implausibly tall man asked.

“Yes?” Hawkins stepped forward; he didn’t recognize the man.

“I’m Lieutenant Shelby, I’m the one who got behind the Tiger and pumped some shots in him.”

“God bless you then. I thank you. You saved our bacon.” And Hawkins gladly shook the proffered hand.

“We could only knock on the back door, because you took all his attention. If it wasn’t for you, he would’ve turned on us. So I thank you.”

“Crew!” Hawkins yelled for his men. “Shake this man’s hand and thank him for saving our lives.” The men rushed the LT and shook hands warmly.

“What’s your name, Sir?” Jake asked.

“Dion Shelby from Tulsa, Oklahoma.”

“Dion?” Jake said. “If I survive this fucking war, and if I meet a woman crazy enough to marry me and we have children, then the first son I’ll name after you.” The LT left shortly.

In the meantime things had settled down somewhat around them, though the artillery duel continued for several more hours, but more sporadically, with the odd shell screaming by overhead.

They felt variously euphoric that they had survived and scared at how close to death they had come. Hicks had somehow found a bottle of wine and now opened it and passed it around.

“You know I could easily be dead by now,” Jake said quietly as he lifted his cup. “It was that close. When I saw him lining up on us, I thought this is it, but the Lady moved in time, thank you Jude.”

“We’re at war,” Hicks mused between sips. “It’s not likely any of us will survive. I just hope it’s quick and clean, that we’re not burned and die screaming days after. Friends, I drink to that.”

“You know Hicks, you’re a first rate SOB, so ready to piss on everything,” Jude said surprisingly forcefully for him.

“I’ve got to say he’s right,” Hawkins broke in. “We should be grateful that we’re alive and have tomorrow to look forward to.”

“Amen to that.” Jake lifted the bottle to his lips and finished it.

A little later, Captain Morley came by. “Hawkins, you’re Section Commander as of now!”

“There’s no Section to command, Sir.”

“There will be. I’m collapsing some of the other Sections into one that’s yours.”

“Yes Sir.” What else could he say? He’d be in command of a remnant of gun-shy men.

Next morning at briefing Captain Morley introduced the new Section. “I mean to say that yesterday we took a beating, losing six tanks for one Tiger. I hate such one sided tradeoffs.” He made a violent motion with his hand, then took a big breath and forced himself to continue. “The Air Force sends us their gratitude, and we’re assured of their cover. They promised to be thick on us like fleas on a dog. We need however to reorganize to fill some holes. We’re therefore creating Section Blue commanded by Sergeant Hawkins, second tank Corporal Howard, third tank Corporal Townsen, fourth tank Corporal Messier. Please get to know each other and work out your call signs.” He looked around at the situation map but didn’t move toward it. “Except for the fracas yesterday, the front is static. It won’t be for long, that I can promise you. Take a day and prepare, we’ll be going into action soon enough. That’s it gentlemen, dismissed.”

Hawkins collected the men assigned to him and had a brief discussion as to what they needed: fuel, ammo and food. They re-provisioned and tank after tank came to set up near the Lady Bug. They were all competent veterans but only Messier had landed with the Lady in Algiers. The crews mixed, getting to know each other. This was a quick exchange, as no one was looking for deep relationships. Buddy, you’re here today, but easily gone tomorrow. Why invest in such uncertainties?

Before nightfall Hawkins and Jake visited the field hospital to see if some of the old crew had survived. Gunner Croft had already been shipped out for evacuation. They were glad to hear that he had a good chance at full recovery. Driver Farrel was not so lucky. They found him unconscious, swathed in bandages. The male nurse sadly shook his head. “Two thirds of his body is badly burned and he’s not likely to survive overnight. We gave him morphine but can do little else. Was he a special friend of yours?”

Hawkins and Jake shook their heads. “Just somebody from our Section.”

“Sad anyway.” The nurse hurried to attend to someone else. The hospital tent was full of the wounded, some groaning, some motionless, maybe already dead. Everywhere one looked were cots, full of people covered with blood soaked bandages.

To relieve the congestion, ambulances took those well enough to be transported. To one side a group of doctors or nurses were smoking, their arms bloody to their elbows. They all had grim faces, frowning through the smoke. God bless nicotine and whatever else they took to deal with the pain they ministered to. But all knew they were running a butcher shop.

Dejected by the sight, Hawkins and Jake walked back. “That could easily be any one of us…” Jake said.

“Leave it Jake. Maybe we should institute a new rule. No guessing or predicting. And no more imagining.”

“Christ man, what’ll we talk about?”

“I didn’t say no complaining, but leave the future out of it. There’s only this moment. Now and nothing else.”

“That’s hard. We’ve all got fears. We can’t just swallow’em. We’re basket cases already. We gotta have an outlet.”

“Swear. Curse your head off. Let off steam but leave the what-if alone.”

They got back to the Lady and found the rest bedded down. In spite of what he had said the “what-if’s” bothered him all night.

The next morning Hawkins found Jude working in the engine compartment.

“Is something wrong?” he asked the driver.

“No, just trying to keep my hands busy so my mind has something other to do than remember.”

Hicks was ecstatic to discover that Jeff didn’t smoke and immediately claimed his allotment of cigarettes. Trying to ingratiate himself with the veteran crew, Jeff was eager to give it.

“You just gave it to him? Are you crazy?” Jude confronted him. “You could’ve traded it for new socks, underwear, chocolate, razor blades, soap… just about anything. Cigarettes are good as cash here. Go, ask for it back.”

“I… I can’t go back on my promise…” The exchange left Jude shaking his head.

Hawkins tried to get to know his tank commanders better. He treated them to beer, when the booze tent caught up with them.

“Why did you name your tank the Swordfish?” Townsen asked Howard. “We’re not in water.”

“Why did you name yours the Masher?” Howard countered. “As in potato masher.”

“Every good name we tried was already taken. It seemed the only choices that were left sounded like Chamber Pot, the Outhouse and the like. So Masher got the most votes from my crew.”

Cpl. Messier who commanded the Bullterrier felt justified in saying, “The name should reflect an essential quality of the crew…”

“That lets me out then,” Hawkins said half joking. “But then we inherited the name from a previous crew.”

“What happened to them?”

“Don’t rightly know. Some got killed and got plastered all over the inside.” Hawkins’ mood was darkening.

“Look at it this way,” Howard tried to cover up. “Maybe your tank’s got nine lives.”

“Then at least three are gone. We had a few shots bounce off us. But I feel comfortable with having six more left,” Hawkins said.

“Lost five tanks from my previous unit. All on one day. Ran into a nest of 88’s,” Townsen said.

“I lost count…” Messier muttered into his beer.

“I try not to think about it or remember,” Howard said.

“The odds aren’t good that any one of us will make it—” Townsen frowned.

“Wait now,” Hawkins tried to rescue the mood. “Don’t spoil the moment by thinking what could or couldn’t happen. All I know is that I’m glad to be here, now.”

“Then you don’t think about death?” Howard asked.

“As rarely as possible. But I don’t paint it on the wall either.”

They talked of other things but the tone was overshadowed by the odds they all feared. Hawkins perceived that Howard was the most task directed, Townsen the most outspoken, unafraid to say anything that occurred to him and Messier the most reticent.

“Where are you from?” Hawkins asked Messier, intrigued by his accent.

“From Lafayette, Louisiana. A town just inland from the Gulf.” No doubt he wished he was back there.

Returning to the Lady Bug, Hawkins found Jake reading the Stars and Stripes. “Is that new?” he asked eagerly.

“Nah. From last October, so it’s still quite fresh.”

“Read it,” Hawkins said, disappointed.

“Mauldin’s Willie and Joe cartoon’s really good. The man knows.”

“That’s because he marches and lives with the GIs in a fox hole. When you finish pass it on to me.”

Not much later Hawkins had a chance to leaf through the paper. It had been through many hands and had a few tears in it. He had read it before, but hungrily he read it again, perusing the headlines that caught his eyes.

In early October Germany had occupied Latvia and committed atrocities. The last seemed to be a stock phrase attached to all German advances. Was it true or just some Allied propaganda?

October 11, the Yankees won the World Series, beating the Cardinals 2-0. Hawkins was not a baseball fan, but the game was such an icon of American life that the eyes always paused over it.

October 13, Italy declared war on Germany. It was old news of course, but still Hawkins felt that he was somewhere between the lines.

October 17, an American submarine sank the German Merchant raider Michel, a cruiser that had sunk 17 Allied merchant ships. What about the Nazi submarine wolf packs that sank Allied ships?

Of course the news was shorn of all strategic information, reports on troop losses and the state of morale… but what Hawkins missed the most was the everyday feel of being back home, articles about local events.

The Section was lucky enough to be rotated out of the frontline and to spend Christmas in the relative safety and comfort of the rear area. They had a holiday dinner of stuffed turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy, followed by pumpkin pie.

“I can’t eat another bite,” Jude said, loosening his belt.

“Me neither,” Jeff said, still anxious to prove himself to be one of the crew.

Hicks lit up, drawing in a lungful of smoke. “Now this is the life, one could almost forget the war—”

“Don’t bring the war into this,” Jake jumped on him. “Let’s just enjoy the moment.”

“This reminds me so much of going to grandma—” Jeff started to say but the others jumped on him right away too. “The Rule. Remember the Rule!”

“But I was only going to say—”

“Nothing and it won’t get you into any trouble,” Jake said. Jeff looked crestfallen so Jake relented a bit. “Look here, Son, the Rule has helped us get through some hard times. It’s kept us from missing all that we’re missing.”

“But don’t you miss anything?”

“Of course I do. But I don’t miss Hick’s homesickness or yours… because I don’t have to listen to it.”

But memories were hard to suppress and Hawkins found himself thinking back on past Christmases with his family. Grandma made the best stuffing and shoo’fly pie, alone worth the holidays. She was gone and so were his parents. It made him sad.

The next morning, Hawkins went to check on the Lady in maintenance.

The mechanics checked the to-do list. “She’s a little on the sloppy side, both tracks are loose, the engine leaks and needs new gaskets, the main bearing is worn and needs replacement. Your turret ring’s rusted up and needs cleaning.”

“Yeah, it squeaks and is getting harder to turn. I’d hate to run into a Tiger and not be able to outturn his gun. So when will you be finished?”

“You have five tanks ahead of you, so it’ll be about two days more.”

“Shit! What if they order us back in line, tomorrow?”

“Then I guess you got to go. I can’t do anything about that.” Hawkins grimaced. “Look, soldier, I don’t make the rules. We’re undermanned, and every piece of the equipment needs work. Your machine isn’t the worst, be happy about that.”

Hawkins was pissed. The engine had been rough and the tracks were rattling, yet he could have lived with it, but once he was told what all was wrong, he wanted the Lady fixed.

He walked back to the school that was used to house them all.

“How’s the Lady?” Jude asked.

“In line for some work. But the mechanics are backed up and we have to wait our turn. The thing that I don’t understand, is that we had a refit in Milazzo so why do we need to fix so many things now?”

“We’ve clocked a few miles since,” Jude answered. “And because of their weight, tanks need a lot of servicing.”

“Then Tigers need a lot more. They nearly weigh the double of us.”

Surprisingly there was mail. Jeff had three letters, Jude two, Hicks seven, Jake three, and he …one. Who could have written him? He tore open the envelope and read.

“Dear Sergeant Hawkins: Thank you for writing to us about our son Simon. We are of course devastated by his loss but take comfort in the fact that he was among friends when he died. He wrote how lucky he was to be placed with such an experienced crew and how all of you took such good care of him. His letters tell of how much he looked up to you all. He had no brothers in real life but thought he had found some among you.

My wife and I thank you for all you did for our son. We wish you the very best and that you come home safely. Regards to you and the crew, Abraham and Gertha Steinhauer.

“Shit!” Hawkins kicked a chair out of his way. Took such good care of our son? He was feeling sick. One of us killed him! But who? Hicks or Jake? One of the two had to be the one.

“Trouble…?” Jake asked after the second chair flew. “Never mind. Forget that I asked.” Yeah, the Rule.

The letter upset Hawkins deeply. He felt guilty for hiding the true facts of Simon’s death, but he didn’t know where to point his finger. Did that make him an accessory? Who could have done it? Jake or Hicks? Hicks or Jake? All day the question nagged him. One of them was a murderer, but who? Then he thought they were all murderers; how many of the enemy had he killed? Was that any different? A life was a life. How was one killing sanctioned but not the other?

He read the letter again, then shoved it in his jacket pocket. Should he write back? Was it required? What should he say? More lies so the parents would hurt less? “He died for our country in performing his sworn duty… protecting our values, the flag … and the Constitution?” Shit! The fact was he was travelling with a cold blooded killer who murdered for gain. What if he was to be next? What was the difference? It was so easy to die in a shooting war. But this forced him to look forward and back, never knowing where the nearest danger lurked.

Supper was baked beans that was burned on the bottom, spoiling the whole pot.

“Fuck! I’m not eating this!” Jake spit his mouthful out.

“You’re right,” Hicks agreed, pushing his plate away too. “But we gotta eat something…”

“I found a small ristorante on the other side of the square that was open. They were cooking something that smelled absolutely delicious. Let’s go there,” Jude said. They quickly agreed and headed off.

By and large the town had escaped wholesale damage and was mostly intact. They found the restaurant and pushed inside where there were some MPs eating. The proprietor cleared off a table for the new arrivals. They settled in and ordered the one dish that was on the menu.

It came: spaghetti with a spicy meat and tomato-mushroom sauce served with a glass of red wine. The rich taste was such a symphony to their starved taste buds that they asked for seconds with another glass of wine.

“This was a great idea,” Jake said, wiping his mouth. “Maybe a little too much basil on top, but who cares, it tasted like a meal.” He ordered more wine all around.

“This reminds me of a little place in—” Jeff started but Hicks jumped on him with the Rule. Jeff already had three glasses and was in no mood to be accommodating. “Fuck the Rule! I never agreed to it!”

“Then get your ass out of here!” Jake said. “We live and die by the Rule.”

Jeff took his glass and moved to another table.

“Shit!” Jude said. “Now I have to babysit him.” And he joined the other.

This little interchange having dampened the festive mood, they sipped their wine in quiet, until Hicks suddenly asked Hawkins. “What? You’ve been staring at me all night. Do I have a rash on my face or something?”

“No, it’s nothing,” Hawkins muttered. “I got a letter from Simon’s parents thanking us for caring for their son and all that. Rather depressing when you think about it.”

“Yeah, Simon was a good kid,” Jake said. “At least what little we knew of him.”

“No he wasn’t! He was a snot-nosed kid. Always praying and being sanctimonious,” Hicks objected.

“What did you have against him?” Hawkins asked, trying to divine the tone.

“Nothing much. But in real life I wouldn’t have wasted a minute on him.”

“That’s a little harsh, don’t you think?” Jake asked. “The boy’s dead, let that be enough.”

“Dead or alive he was a fuckup! I’m glad that we didn’t have to test him in real combat.”

“Jake’s right, leave it alone,” Hawkins said with a growl in his voice. Hicks tossed off his wine and lit up a smoke, drawing it in aggressively.

The feeling of the meal was spoiled, but Jake tried to rescue it. “Jude was right about this being a good place. How about we three make a night of it? The Duty Sergeant told me there was a little bar that also served companionship.”

“You mean prostitutes?” Hicks asked, still belligerent.

“No need to be crass about it. Think of them as female comfort. Don’t you think we deserve some cheer to bolster us?”

“You’re right. Who knows if we’ll ever get another opportunity?” Hicks said, stubbing out his smoke.

Jake went to the front and paid. As they left, the proprietor waved to them cheerily, “Come again. Always good food, very good food.”

“I wonder where he learned his English?” Hicks asked deprecatingly, lighting up another cigarette.

“In New York. He was there two years but didn’t like it,” Jake said. He led them down the street, made a turn, then another and pushed open a door to a dimly lit room with a bar along one side backed by a mirror. They lined up at the bar and asked for whiskey.

“No whiskey,” the man and his reflection said, “Vino, Campari, Amaretto, birra…”

“I think he means beer,” Hicks said.

“The hell with it, let’s stay with red wine. At least we know what that is,” Jake said. “Vina rosa.” They were served a glass each which they took to a table and settled around it. There were two girls at the other end of the room and it took only two glances from Jake to invite them over.

“Me, Camilla,” the brunette with the flowing hair said. “She, Lucia.” She looked appraisingly at the three soldiers. Jake pulled up a chair for them and the girls quickly settled in. The bartender was over in a flash with glasses for them.

“Camilla, me Jake.” Jake pointed to himself. “Lucy, Hicks.” Then he artfully raised an eyebrow gesturing toward Hawkins. Camilla aimed a string of words at the bartender and a minute later a youngish looking girl appeared.

“Mia. You like?” Camilla asked Hawkins. He was about to refuse, but was caught by the hint of sadness on the girl’s face.

“Sure, I like,” he nodded and pulled out a chair for her.

Next they ordered a bottle of wine to ease the conversation that was transacted on the girls’ side in Italian, on the other in English, each pretending to understand. This was a conversation of eyes anyway. The girls pretended to have known them all their lives and the men played along.

They finished one bottle and started on another. Camilla took Jake’s hand and pulled him toward a staircase in the back. “Well, lucky me,” Jake leered, rising to follow.

“Enjoy her syphilis,” Hicks called after him, spitting on the mood.

“Fuck you, Hicks. I hope your dick drops off before mine.”

Hicks stood and pulled Lucia after him. “See you later,” he said, winking at Hawkins.

Hawkins took his time finishing his wine, regarding the girl carefully. He judged her to be 20, if that. She had a pleasant face with a straight nose in proportion to her features, not like some of the women he saw with big, prominent noses. Her eyebrows were plucked and delicately lined over sad eyes. She had no sparkle, not even a pretense of any. He didn’t want to do it, but did it anyway, thinking that both the situation and she expected it—after all, this was how she earned an income. Upstairs she steered him into a dingy room with just a bed, a chair and a dresser with a basin of water. It was cold and she quickly peeled out of her clothes and pulled the covers over her nakedness. He sat on the chair removing his boots, having trouble with the laces. He couldn’t understand why he didn’t want to do this. He’d had no difficulty in Algiers. But back then he was a different person. Someone who had not seen combat, who hadn’t yet understood war and the closeness of death.

“I don’t know if I feel comfortable doing this. Is it me or you, I wonder?” Hawkins talked to dispel his unease as he unbuttoned his shirt. “God knows I could use some pleasure, but it feels like I’m forcing it on you. You look like the sister I never had, or the girl next door. Yet I know nothing about you. Your country is vanquished and I, as the victor, claim its spoils. I don’t think it’s right. I’m sure that you have your story, just as I have mine, but we can’t share any of it as you don’t understand anything I say—”

“I do understand,” she said quietly.

Startled, he asked, “How?”

“My father was a teacher of English and French.”

“I’m sorry, Mia, that it’s come to this.” He paused in midst of unbuckling his belt and sat down on the chair. “I can feel you’re not right with this either.”

“It’s the war changing our lives, forcing choices on us we wouldn’t have normally make.”

“Is that it? Surely there are alternatives.”

“Maybe for someone else,” she said and started crying quietly.

“We… we don’t have to do this. I’m happy just to talk…”

“It doesn’t matter. If it’s not you, then it would be someone else.”

“But does it have to be this way?”

“Does it matter?” Her voice was so empty it hurt him to hear it.

“Yes. Even in midst of a war, things still matter.”

“Not for me.” Something stirred in her eyes, but she was fighting it. “My family all died. My brother in Africa and my parents in an air raid. My sister turned fascist and after Italy’s surrender the partisans killed her. I have… had a fiancé but he was taken by the Nazis to a work camp in Germany. Those they take never come back.” She was silent for a long moment and Hawkins didn’t want to break into the privacy of her thoughts. “God has forgotten me… or punishes me… but for what? I might have had a few girlish thoughts but was that enough to earn all this? I pray, I light candles in the church, go to confession and regret my sins… but Heaven doesn’t hear me…” She started to cry earnestly. “I’m sorry…”

He found himself beside her, holding her tightly in his arms, feeling the sobs rack through her body and he too wanted to cry but couldn’t. At first she resisted his embrace, then gradually relaxed into it and her crying slowly subsided. In a few moments she straightened, and he let her go. She smoothed down her hair, and let the cover fall away. “I’m sorry. I really didn’t meant to do this. What can I do for you?” She again had no expression on her face.

He swallowed. “I think I got what I needed. To step outside myself and forget the war for just a moment. I’m sorry for all the bad that’s happened to you. I wish I could change that and change the world. I… I… I just wish you could have a better life.” He pulled a wad of dollars out of his pocket and held it out to her.

“I… I can’t take it. I’ve done nothing to earn it.” Her face took on a sorrowful look.

“Yes, you have. You reminded me that I am human and I needed that more than sex,” he said, getting dressed. “I really wish you find yourself again. And God. Good bye Mia.” He put the cash on the chair and quietly left the room.

At the bar, Hawkins had a glass of wine, avoiding the inquisitive eye of the bartender. It took another drink and a half hour for Jake to appear with a wide grin on his face. He joined Hawkins at the bar and had a drink himself. In ten minutes Hicks appeared with Camilla on his arm. She was blowing in his ear and he was giggling ticklishly.

“Come again,” Camille said as they left.

Their breath smoked in the frigid air outside.

“I needed that,” Hicks said in a satisfied voice.

“You can say that again,” Jake added.

Hawkins said nothing, but looked up at the stars that had stayed the same in war and peace, mute witnesses of history. He felt he had gained something though he wasn’t sure what.

“How about you?” Jake elbowed him companionably.

“I? … It was OK.”

“Just OK?” Hicks asked. “My God, you didn’t do it! Did you?”

“You don’t always have to shoot off your balls to feel better.”

“Sometimes I worry about you…” Jake muttered.

“What a waste of opportunity. You’re seriously fucked up, you know,” Hicks said harshly. “I don’t know if I can trust you as my tank commander.”

“How so?”

“Your choices and decisions are suspect. Whoever screws up in little things will surely screw up in big ones, when it matters. I don’t even know if I want to be around you.”

“Damn it. Don’t you know I know the difference between my dick and the 75 millimeter? If you want to worry about something, worry about getting a sexual disease.”

“I wore protection. I have a pocketful of rubbers wherever I go. So worry about yourself.”

They got back to the school, past the disapproving glances of the Duty Officer, found a place in the straw piled against the wall and settled down for the night.

Early the next morning Hawkins visited maintenance and found them working on the Lady. The tracks were already adjusted, and they were deep into the engine cowling.

“Look Ralph, the Sergeant’s here to check on his girlfriend,” the mechanic joked. “The tracks and the turret rings are done; we’re still working on replacing the gaskets and grinding down the valves. You’ll have her by tomorrow.”

“Good. See you tomorrow then.” Hawkins walked away, feeling naked without his tank. What a fucked-up feeling that was. But he was part of that machine as the machine was also a part of him. He was the brains, the machine the brawn.

A few steps further, Hawkins came across Corporal Messier checking on his tank the Bullterrier.

“Just the cooling hose left to be replaced, then she’s as good as new.”

“How about the others? The Swordfish and the Masher?”

“The Swordfish was done yesterday. I haven’t seen Masher yet.”

“Good, report in when you’re finished.”

“Yes Sir.” Messier snapped off a playful salute.

Hawkins moved on, not getting very far before he was hailed. “Hey you! James Hawkins. Hold up.”

Hawkins turned to find a Sergeant who looked vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t place him.

“I’m George Barlow. We made the crossing together.”

“Oh yeah. How are you?”

“How do you think? I wish I had joined the artillery instead of armor. I got blown out of the turret in Tunis, lost my whole crew. Then I dragged my tail through the whole of Sicily and now I’m here. Lucky me.”

“Who’re you with?”

“F Company.”

“The F, I thought they cannibalized the unit.”

“They did. But we’re almost at full strength again. And you?”

“I command a section in C Company. We did the whole tour as well.”

“And how is… The Royal Flush, is it not?”

“It was. Got blown to bits at Kasserine Pass. I’m now on the Lady Bug.”

“Lady Bug? You’re kidding, right?”

“We inherited the name. But she’s OK. Got us through a lot of shit and tight squeezes.”

“Well, good to see you. Too many we came with are gone. Fucking too many. Makes you think, doesn’t it? But tell you what, if you survive this war, let’s meet at the Brass Rail in New York the day after and talk shit. And if I’m not there, lift one for me. OK?”

“You got a deal, George.” The chance meeting made Hawkins think again of a future, trying to imagine what it would be like to walk in the streets again, free, out of danger. Exchanging smiles with other passersby… Fuck! Remember the Rule! There’s no future, only now.

On the street he was accosted by a bevy of boys, all calling, “Hey, Joe, you want…?” They offered him things for sale: postcards, candy, dirty pictures, soap and candles.

“Get away!” he yelled, chasing them off.

It was hard to figure out the population. Some looked happy to have the foreign troops liberate them from fascism while others looked on with resentment. And the town wasn’t even very damaged. As the church bells rang, he counted eleven strokes. He didn’t want to go back to his unit, so he settled on a stone bench and had a rare cigarette. He was thinking of his problem, wondering if he had a problem at all. It was either Hicks or Jake. He hoped it wasn’t Jake but had no proof against Hicks. It had to be the fucking treasure. It changed people. It was hard, if not impossible to believe that they had been riding around with a million dollars hidden in a recess in the Lady. No wonder Hicks was so out of sorts with the mechanics going over her. He had welded the recess shut to avoid chance discovery, but if the tank went up… what then? A million dollars was a million dollars, if Hicks was right about its value. That was two hundred thousand for each of the original members who had found that treasure. Now it was up to three hundred and thirty three thousand a piece. That was quite a boost per share, certainly more than enough inducement for someone to kill somebody.

But then why wasn’t he dead already? That way the killer could have it all. Maybe… just maybe the killer needed a crew to get him through the war, but when peace came, two of the three had to die. The only thing Hawkins knew was that he was one of the two sheep slated for the slaughter. He swore; his suspicions were driving him crazy. He needed people he could trust, instead he heard someone sharpening a knife behind him but didn’t know who.

Given these thoughts he wasn’t in a mood to rejoin his crew so he went to attend the briefing at HQ. Using the pointer Major Blackwell led them over the map, sketching out the situation. “The Germans are here, in a defensive line that goes from coast to coast blocking any northward progress. They are dug in and determined to hold the line.” The major tapped the map for emphasis. “Up to now we’ve had it easy. They yielded willingly enough, ceding us southern Italy. With the Italian people out of the war they just don’t care.” He slapped the map again. “Make no mistake about it, they intend to hold here. Part of it is called the Hitler Line, which should tell you how determined they are. It’s full of gun emplacements, concrete bunkers, machine guns, barbed wire and minefields. Almost like trench warfare in the Great War. The terrain suits them. We’ll be fighting uphill again against well prepared positions. Allied High Command is working on a plan to crack this hard nut, but I fear this’ll cost us, whatever we do. We have complete air superiority and that’s certainly in our favor. And we have more artillery than positions to put them into. We’ll blow the living daylights out of them, that you can believe. But… But the Germans are very good at fighting this kind of war…”

The news wasn’t reassuring. The Hitler Line got stuck in Hawkins’ head, as he knew of Hitler’s customary orders to fight to the last bullet and the last man, all the more so to defend something with his name on it. Yes it would cost the Allies dearly to dislodge them from there.

Chapter 9

They were in the frontline again, hidden in the bottomland facing the hills that were held by the Germans. The enemy was dug in high, secure in artfully camouflaged positions, able to rain down artillery on anything that moved below. They controlled the northbound road and valley. It would take an act of God to dislodge them.

The Air Force tried, flying sorties day after day, the bombs targeting the hillsides, veiling them with mushrooms of exploding rock and dirt. But the position was well prepared and no amount of artillery or bombing seemed to make any difference.

There was one soft spot in the geography, an arm of the valley that flanked the German line. Here infantry was deployed in trenches, concrete strong points and gun positions. The access was blocked by extensive mine fields.

“Just like in World War One,” Colonel Sandusky said. He was old enough to have been in it and remember it. “We’re not going to throw away lives attacking it head on…” Then how?

The artillery and mortar units tried to clear the fields, churning up the soil, making it nearly impassable for vehicles, slowing them to a crawl.

During the night the Allies sent in sappers to nibble at the minefields, clearing them one by one. It was dangerous work in the dark, and a tenth of the engineers sent out got themselves blown up—so it was rumored.

Tanks were also sent in to provide covering fire or at least to draw the enemy’s aim away from the sappers. The night often turned into a bright display of inbound and outbound tracers and explosions.

One night it was the Lady Bug’s turn to provide cover and fire at anything coming at them. The Germans reacted aggressively, sending out patrols to ambush the engineers and the supportive forces.

Hawkins was in the turret, scanning with his night glasses. A carbine in hand, Hicks was beside him, peering into the darkness. There was an active firefight about a half mile to the east, but the field in the front was quiet. Somewhere in the dark, sappers were inching their way ahead, probing for mines. Hawkins teeth were on edge; any moment an explosion could burst open the night, where an engineer had just died.

A flare arced into the sky, illuminating the landscape briefly. For an instant, the view flickered in a treacherous display that suggested more than it revealed.

“Fuck!” Hawkins spat, his teeth grinding with tension.

“What?” Hicks asked, clicking the safety off the carbine.

“I think I saw people moving on the left. It could be a German patrol trying to surprise us.”

“They could be ours—”

“No. Our people were told to keep to the safe path on the right.” Hawkins started sweating; did he or did he not see something real? The night glasses couldn’t tell him.

“Let’s give it a burst with the 50.”

“No. I’m not anxious to reveal our position and draw fire on us.”

“Then what?”

“Don’t know. I keep thinking some German is lining us up with a Panzerfaust.”

“With a what…?”

“German bazooka. It can take us out with one shot.”

“Shit! I wish you hadn’t said that. It’s hard enough to sit here without conjuring up phantoms in the dark…” Hicks rubbed his eyes to force them to see better. “What’re we going to do?”

“Hand me the Thompson. I’ll go ahead into that clump of bushes and take out whoever’s trying to sneak up on us.”

With the Thompson in hand, bent over, Hawkins sprinted into the darkness, stumbling over rough ground. He almost reached the clump of bushes as an explosion broke into the night. A tank further left fired; suddenly flares went up on both sides and a machine gun opened up, spraying bright tracers into the night.

Hawkins ducked, his eyes blinded by muzzle flashes that erupted from everywhere. In an answering salvo, the Germans shells screamed past overhead. Flat on the ground, he crawled toward a rock, hiding behind it with a tree on his left. Bullets rattled through the branches above. He tried to still his pounding heart, and swept the area in front with the Thompson, his fingers itching on the trigger… but he saw nothing. The shadows jumped all around him as the muzzle flashes from all sides confused the blackness.

There was a lull, then the firing started up again, more intense and methodical. Hawkins pulled in his neck as bits and pieces of branches rained down on him. He peered over the rock, his eyes drawn to the multitude of bright bursts coming from the far tree line. He seemed unable to pull his eyes away to look closer at the shadows jumping in the firefight.

He felt a shell pass above before he heard it scream by. It hit and exploded not fifty yards behind him. The concussion threw him against a rock, bruising his chin. His finger jerked in response and the Thompson bucked in his hand, firing off a string of shots. Cursing he eased up on the trigger. Then two quick shots hit the tree trunk beside him, with bits of bark and wood stinging his cheeks. He ducked and went flat on the ground, heart in his throat. Too close! Missing him only by inches. But the shot came from the wrong side! What the hell??!

He tried to shrink into the ground, willing it to swallow him. He tried to breathe evenly but couldn’t as he listened for the bullet that would kill him. Another shell landed near making the ground tremble beneath him and soil rain down on him. A red hot piece of shrapnel fell just a foot or two away, setting fire to a clump of grass. The flames died quickly, suffocated by the dew.

The firing continued from both sides, dying out slowly, returning the world to darkness. Hawkins raised his head, listening. Hearing nothing, he rose and bent double, he zigzagged back to his tank. He climbed on top and clambered down the hatch, closing it. He let out a sigh of relief and felt safe.

“Jesus man, where have you been?” Jake demanded. “The world went loco out there.”

“Is anyone hurt?”

“No. We got pinged a couple of times and we fired back, but no, we’re all right. How about you?”

“I’m OK, within a hair’s breadth,” Hawkins replied. He still felt as if he couldn’t breathe and his body felt starved for air. “What were you firing at?”

“Don’t really know. The other side. At least I hope it was the other side…”

Hicks was securing the M1 carbine, pulling the breech back and pushing the bullets from the chamber back down into the magazine. “A hell of a time to be out with bullets zinging by. In moments like this, it feels good to be behind three inches of armor.”

“Yeah, a nice steel coffin,” Hawkins said, the fear still in his guts. It had been so close.

“Piss on that! Get a hold of yourself,” Jake said, reaching a hand over and shaking Hawkins.

“All right, all right. I’m OK. Just had the shit scared out of me.” He swallowed the bile that was burning the back of his throat. He drew his legs up into a fetal position on his seat.

“God, what I would do for a cigarette,” Hicks said, his voice full of need.

“All right. This once. Go ahead and light up,” Hawkins replied; the danger he had survived filled him with something to calm him. Hicks lit up, and exhaled loudly with a sigh of relief.

“Can I also light up? Please?” Jude asked from the front.

“Sure go ahead. This once…”

Hawkins finally felt calm enough to look through his periscope and do a quick sweep around. He saw little, certainly nothing suspicious, and he opened the hatch and stuck his head out, listening into the quiet. Somewhere on his right, he heard indistinct discussion from a sentry post. Somewhere farther back a tank engine coughed to life and backfired several times, sending a jolt of blood pressure through him at the explosive sound. He waited anxiously to see if it would unleash a fresh round of firing— but it didn’t. The tank engine died and the silence returned.

As his anxiety slowly receded, Hawkins settled back in his seat, just his head out of the hatch. That was close, he thought, but was calm enough to revisit his brush with death. The shrapnel could have killed him, but the explosion was blind, not directed at him, whereas the two rifle shots coming so close had to have been aimed. But they came from the wrong side, from behind him. He closed his eyes and tried to remember exactly where he was, where the bullets had hit and concluded that the shots had come from his side—maybe even from his tank! Hicks! He had the M1 in his hand. Maybe it was he who had fired. But Hicks knew he was out there in the dark, why would he fire that way? Grandpa! Because of the treasure! One less to share with. It made sense. He had already killed once. And the night action gave him perfect cover. And it had almost succeeded. Those bullets had missed him only by inches. Those were no random shots… but deliberate and aimed. It made perfect sense. So it was Hicks who killed Simon. And now he would be next and after him Jake!

Hawkins started sweating. Someone he trusted tried to kill him and darn near succeeded. Trusted? Had he really trusted Hicks, ever? Maybe just because they were forced to live so close together that there was a feeling of family… a false feeling apparently. He took a deep breath and started again, to rethink the stream of events. He came to the same conclusion, but this time with a hint of doubt. He had no concrete evidence, just suppositions. The third time through he was even less sure. Still, there was the nagging feeling that his life depended on such guesswork.

Next morning was bright, with no sign of the fire fight of the previous night. Hawkins sent Hicks to get their breakfast of hot porridge with brown sugar served by the field kitchen. Hawkins got the M1 out and counted the shells in the magazine. Three were missing and gun smelled as if it had been fired recently! So it was Hicks! Wait a minute…maybe he did fire but at something else. How could he rule it out? Still—this was a step closer to the evidence he was looking for.

Hicks arrived back with a pot of hot porridge which they quickly divided and ate, enjoying something at least halfway hot.

After, Hawkins visited his other tanks, Bullterrier the nearest, just a little ways back.

“What was all the shooting about last night? We had some shells land near us and took a couple of bullets off the turret… but why? Was there an attack?” Cpl. Messier asked.

“Nah. People just got a little spooked in the dark and started shooting, that’s all.”

“God Almighty! We were sitting here praying the whole time, not hearing anything on the radio.”

“It was nothing. Just exchanging greeting cards.”

At Masher, people were less concerned. “We spent the night cooped up inside, listening to the bullets zinging by. But nothing big came close enough to hurt us.”

The Swordfish was the farthest back, but complained that mortar fire had been looking for them. “See that tree trunk? That’s how close they came. Hell I could have leaned from my tank and lit a cigarette from the burning branches,” Howard exclaimed, pointing at the stub of a tree not ten steps away.

“You know what they say? A miss is as good as a mile. Stay calm. Nothing’s planned for today.” He took a quick look around the tank and found them a bit exposed. “Hey, get some branches to hide yourselves better.”

Returning to his tank, he also found their camouflage inadequate and sent Hicks and Jeff to cut some branches to cover them more completely. While the two men were out, firing burst out to the left and quickly spread to their neighbors. Soon the whole line was firing… but firing at what? Hawkins couldn’t make out. Why’s everybody so trigger happy today? Still he reached down and scooped up the M1. Looking back he saw Hicks and Jeff, flat on the ground pulling the branches over themselves. Hawkins had a flash of thought; this is your chance, take it, just like he did last night. He sighted along the barrel, bringing the sight on Hicks, flat and motionless on the ground. Do it! His fingers slipped inside the trigger guard and squeezed lightly. It’s him or you! His finger trembled on the trigger. What if you’re wrong? Maybe it was someone else… His finger relaxed and he lowered his sight. I hope I don’t have cause to regret this.

After a while the shooting stopped and things settled down again. They packed the branches around the tank, covering it completely. Now if Hawkins had to look, he would have to move branches out of the way.

Little after noon the first wave of bombers came, a line of B-25 Mitchells dropping bombs on the commanding heights. Hawkins and crew watched as bomb after bomb fell, and flowers of explosions enveloped the line of hills. Nothing could survive that, one thought seeing the damage, but knew better. The Germans had dug deep into the hills and were doubtless safe underground.

There was a lull, filled with artillery that pounded the hills continuously, until the next wave of bombers arrived. Altogether there were five waves, a sum total of 150 aircrafts that unloaded their bombs, and tomorrow was going to be the same again. How could the Germans hold out after such a pounding?

A half hour after the last, a single engine plane came by, obviously to assess the damage. It made several passes and was heading back as a quad 40 ripped into the sky, the tracers reaching for the plane. A salvo caught it and a stream of lead sawed through the left wing severing it, and the plane tipped that way, corkscrewing sharply toward the ground. Before it hit, it exploded into a ball of fire and metal parts rained down. There was no sign of a parachute.

That started up the artillery again, and one after another the tanks opened up, sending salvoes into the hills barely within their range.

“Cease fire, God damn it! Don’t waste your ammunition,” came over the radio, breaking radio silence. The tanks stopped, but the artillery continued for another hour.

The next day B-17 Flying Fortresses showed up, dropping bombs from a high altitude, pummeling the German positions. The hillsides were again veiled by a cloud of dust and debris. At times it looked like volcanic explosions ripping the hills apart.

The Lady and the whole section were pulled back to refuel and restock ammunition. They watched the bombing going on hour after hour.

“It hardly seems possible that anything could survive that,” Jeff said, his eyes riveted on the deadly maelstrom.

“You’d be surprised. I lived through the landings in Algiers, Sicily, and on the shores of Italy. I saw salvo after salvo fired from the battleships and cruisers for days on end and still something survived to shoot at us. We have too much faith in bombs and large caliber guns. It’s always decided on land by grunts like us, whether on foot or in steel coffins on tracks,” Jake said with an edge of bitterness in his voice.

The bombing ceased and for a moment, everything was quiet. Then an explosion rocked through the hills again.

“What the hell? The planes are long gone…” Jeff was astounded.

“Time delayed fuses. They’ll keep on popping for the next hour or so,” Hicks said, not even bothering to look.

Hawkins unfolded the map and they gathered around it.

“Here we are, on this side of the river. To the east is the town of Cassino. And here is Route 6 to Rome, a real bottleneck and a deathtrap, perfect for the style of defense the Germans are experts at. Route 7, nearer the coast was flooded by the enemy and is now impassable.” Hawkins tapped the map.

“That’s the old Appian Way the Romans built in ancient times. The Emperors’ highway. Never figured I’d ever get to see it, much less battle through it,” Hicks said, taking the cigarette from his mouth.

“It seems like a long way to Rome if we have to fight for every step,” Jude said.

“Especially if the enemy commands the heights. What’s that building on top?” Jake asked, pointing.

“That, my friend, is Monte Cassino, a famous abbey founded by none other than Benedict of Nursia back in 529 AD,” Hicks supplied with the glow in his voice he reserved for historical footnotes.

“Who was he?” Jake asked, knowing full well that it would set Hicks off.

“He was the founder of the Benedictine Order… you ignoramus. Get your head out of your ass and learn something!”

“Really? It seems like a prime target to me, sitting on that hilltop, just begging to be bombed.”

“It’s a historical heritage site. Nothing military. Even the Germans respect that.”

“I don’t think Germans respect anything,” Jeff threw in.

An MP waved at them. It was their turn to be provisioned. The crew mounted quickly and they lurched forward. In short order they were refueled and the ammo restocked. They also received their allotment of food. Jeff, who still had illusions about army food, went through the stack, but was disappointed. “K rations, C rations, the whole fucking alphabet is here, but nothing decent. Who wants powdered eggs and more Spam? Baked beans with or without pork, peas and corn. How about some ham, yams and peas for a change?”

“You’re lucky you’re not in the Russian army; they’re lucky to have horse meat at best,” Hicks said, amused.

“Who cares about the Russian army?”

“Personally when it comes to food I’d join the Italians,” Jake said, smacking his lips. “They have cheeses, prosciutto, fresh bread and wine with their meals.”

“People, we’re coming dangerously close to violating the Rule,” Hawkins warned. “No talk of food or home or what comes after. We give thanks to God for what we have and do not talk about the rest. Talking brings us nothing but hunger.” A dissatisfied silence grew out of the ruling.

That night, curled up under the tank, Hawkins returned to his obsessing; someone lying beside him was trying to kill him. Most likely Hicks but he couldn’t be sure. If it was Hicks, should he not warn Jake? Or maybe the other way around. Someone’s life was in danger. There were only three people alive on this earth who knew anything about the treasure and two of them were going to be killed for the knowledge. Maybe he ought to kill the other two and be done with it. But that wasn’t an option; he was not the kind of person to kill at will. It was frustrating, especially as he didn’t care about the treasure. Maybe he should renounce his claim and buy his life that way. You fool! You could get killed tomorrow. There’s a whole German army looking to do just that. And maybe they’ll kill Hicks and take care of your little problem. There’s just no use in worrying needlessly. On that uncertain note, he fell asleep, the cold seeping under his covers.

Next morning at a general briefing, Major Blackstone from divisional HQ addressed the Section Commanders. “The situation in Italy is critical. The Brits and the Canadians are stuck on the east coast as we’re stuck here on the west. To bypass Cassino we leapfrogged up the coast and landed at Anzio but can barely hold onto the beachhead. There’s a real danger that troops there will get pushed back into the sea, and our forces will be captured. To relieve the pressure on them, it has been decided to cross the river and push up the Liri valley. I don’t need to tell you how risky that is. You’ve been sitting here well over a week and can see how tenaciously the Germans hold their high ground. But we have no choice. We must divert forces away from Anzio before the beachhead collapses.” The Major referred to a map with an unspecific gesture. “The brunt of the attack against the hills will be done by infantry, of course, but the armor has to hold the level ground and protect the flanks. We know there are German tanks out there, but don’t know how many. So be careful. Captain Horton will now tell you the specifics.”

The Captain was a thin man in a clean, ironed uniform, perfect staff material. He spoke in a raspy voice. “Overnight the engineers will construct several pontoon bridges and the assigned units will cross at appointed times. I can’t stress enough to keep to the time table as we have to be across before the Germans become fully aware of it. This is a whole scale attack, involving entire army groups and it must go smoothly,” said the man with a perfect crease in his pants and the tie that was regulation flawless. “Once across, we spread out and proceed to our objectives as delegated by unit commanders. HQ feels that the enemy has been softened up sufficiently by aerial bombing and artillery around the clock, so that they won’t put up much of a resistance. However they have to be encouraged to move along…” The Captain talked for another hour outlining the great plan and at every opportunity assured them of success. “As you can see, HQ has done a wonderful job in planning this, down to the minutest detail. All you have to do is to follow it precisely and we can’t fail. Good luck to you gentlemen. I’ll see you up the valley on the way to Rome.”

Lower level commands had their specific instructions. “Don’t get stuck on the bridge or I swear to God, I’ll personally push you into the river. Don’t stop, don’t help anybody. Your job is to push on into enemy territory…”

Finally at the end of all this, Hawkins had a chance to talk with his tank commanders. “You heard it. By all predictions it’s a Sunday drive in the country; all we have to do is show up.”

“Sarge, don’t think me impertinent for asking but what do you think?” Townsen asked, his face etched by worry lines.

“I think it’s a fine plan that’ll be good for five minutes and then will go all to hell. And I’m talking from experience. I hope to get across the bridge in one piece, but after that it’s every man for himself. Stay alert and take care of your crews. That’s my best advice. The rest will go snafu.”

“Situation normal, all fucked up!” they all chanted in unison. “God save us from Generals whose assess are not at risk.”

It was harder to explain the briefing to the Lady’s crew. “Our mission is…”

“Fuck that,” Jake interrupted. “My mission is to impregnate every Italian woman from here to the border. Then fuck my way to Berlin.”

“You’re an ignorant SOB,” Hicks muttered. “We’re going into battle tomorrow and all you can think of is your dick.”

“At least there I have some influence and it gives me pleasure. Can you say that about your vaunted plans?”

At 0406 in the morning the tanks began crossing, already 42 minutes behind schedule. Jude was swearing continuously as he worked the gears trying to stay close to the tank in front of him. All in the palest of starlight as no lights were allowed. At 0435 it was the Lady’s turn to ease herself onto the bridge and retain her balance over the swaying contraption. A third of the way the line ground to a halt and they all swore, feeling very exposed. German artillery was sighting in on the bridge with each shot coming closer.

“Fuck! Fuck! Get us off here,” Jeff yelled into the intercom.

“And where would you have me drive?” Jude asked acidly. They were shoehorn tight, a tank ahead and the Swordfish right behind. A fountain of water not 20 yards off sprouted into the air, then close behind it another.

“We’re sitting ducks here,” Jake swore, looking through his sight. He was itching to blow themselves free of whatever stood in their way.

Then a tremor ran through the bridge and tank after tank inched forward, with every foot picking up speed. The next German shot came close enough to splash them with water, and the engine coughed as it ingested some making them afraid that it would stall, but Jude nursed it back to full power.

It was an immense relief to roll off onto the other side and take a sharp turn right to avoid the congestion ahead. The four tanks of the Yellow section, as they were designated for the operation, took aim towards San Angelo to the west. They were cutting through plowed fields of cultivated land, the tracks slipping on the carved-up soil. There was a biting smell of manure that became stronger as the tracks ground it into mash, jamming the tracks.

“Keep more right,” Hawkins advised. “The way looks firmer there.” Jude complied, finding the going better. They burst through a hedge into an orange orchard, Jude not troubling to avoid the trees but running through them.

“OK, I see some houses coming up on our right. Jake keep your sight on it. Hicks, be ready for what I call for, HE or AP.”

“Roger.”

The turret kept turning on the cluster of houses. They crashed through a fence onto a roadway.

“Jude, cross over to the other side and turn right toward the village coming up.” The tank obeyed and the other tanks followed.

“Oh, oh. I see other tanks to the left,” Jake called out, his voice very tight.

“They’re probably ours,” Hawkins said and spun his telescope that way. There was a group of tanks there, going in the same general direction as they. “I got them. Keep your sight on them, but for God’s sake don’t fire. I’m almost certain they’re ours.”

“Looks like. They got the Sherman’s high silhouette,” Jake said, the relief unmistakable in his voice.

Hawkins turned his periscope back toward the village and was surprised to see small arms fire winking in the darkness. Then something big flashed.

“An anti tank gun! At two o’clock! About fifteen feet right of the barn just behind the stone fence…”

“I see it! The bastard’s loading and looking our way. HE! Hicks get a move on—”

“You’re loaded!” Hicks tapped him on the helmet. Hardly were the words out when the 75 roared and rocked the tank to the side.

“You got him!” Nothing but the upturned gun carriage was left, with no sign of its crew. Something flashed again on the other side of the barn, they heard it hit the tank beside them. Was that the Masher or the Bullterrier? Hawkins had no time to look. He was yelling, “That’s a tank. A big fucking German tank. At three o’clock…”

“I see him… I see him…” Jake was desperately winching the turret to the new target.

“Jude, soon as he fires, take a hard right—” The 75 barked, missing but hitting the barn and collapsing the wall onto the tank. The Lady whipped around and lurched toward a depression.

“Hit it with everything you got!” Hawkins yelled, not realizing that he was yelling.

The 75 roared and hit the tank right up front. The way the impact flashed told Hawkins that they had pierced the armor and the shot had spewed hot metal into the interior. A hatch popped open on the driver’s side and a man was climbing out.

“Jeff, spray him! Spray the bastard!” The front 30 chattered and Hawkins saw the hits sparkle on the tank and the driver go down, to sprawl in the grass in front. In a bright explosion the turret flew into the air and came down upside down.

“Had to be a Panzer III. The kill was too easy,” Jake muttered into the intercom.

Hawkins tore his eyes from the view of the burning tank and spun his telescope to the side to see one of his own tanks similarly burning, a dark oily column roiling into the sky. “Jesus, it’s the Swordfish. I don’t see Howard or any of his crew.”

He popped out of the hatch and waved his other two tanks to follow. “Jude get us to that outbuilding, the one that’s three stories high.”

“Wilco.” The Lady adjusted to the new direction and carefully picked her way around some craters from the bombardment some days before.

A gray stole into the darkness making it harder to see as everything was washed out in the rising light. A machine gun chattered somewhere near, but they saw nothing of it. The three tanks hid in the shadow of the large grain barn, only the Lady peeking around the corner to keep a lookout toward the rest of the village.

Further east a battle was raging, with a dozen columns of dark smoke reaching high into the sky. From the hills a barrage of artillery rained down on the flatlands and likewise the artillery from below answered them. Somewhere a building was burning, sending up lighter smoke.

The radio was babbling away but not with their call signs. Then cutting through the chatter, there was a scream as someone died on air. Hawkins shuddered, trying to shut it out, struggling to concentrate on what was ahead of him. A group of tanks approached and in the rising light it was easy to see they were Shermans. The lead tank was the new Sherman Firefly equipped with the long 76 mm cannon capable of taking on any of the German tanks on equal footing.

The Firefly drove up to them, the hatch opened and the commander called over to Hawkins, “What’s the deal here?”

“We destroyed a tank here and an antitank gun but lost one of our own. We’re waiting for some infantry to push further into the village. The enemy has some machine guns and mortars and maybe a tank or two,” Hawkins said, looking enviously at the other’s 76 mm gun.

“Well, follow us then. We’ll soon clear out the place,” the Lieutenant said with bravado. Sure, easy for you. You’ve got a real gun, we have only BB toys, Hawkins thought. But he made the sign to his two remaining tanks and they joined the flow, seven tanks making a formidable fighting force— at least on paper back at HQ somewhere.

They reached the main square across from the church and what looked to be the town hall. They spread out and covered all four directions. Suddenly one of the new tanks went up in an explosion from a Panzerfaust launched from a garden. Smoke filled the air and the hull machine guns ripped into the silence, spraying bullets every which way. Jeff joined in, raking along the street.

“Stop that!” Hawkins yelled. “Save your bullets. Good damned Panzerfaust,” He muttered. “Keep a lookout for infantry with bazookas. Jake, watch to the right, everyone else look front and center.” He spun his periscope around desperate to find something before it found him.

Suddenly on the northbound street, a Panther rolled into view, fired and another Sherman went up in a blaze. The Panther revved up, spewing dark diesel exhaust into the air. The turret scanned left looking for a new target. Trapped in the congestion of too many tanks in too tight a place, the Lady couldn’t move. But Firefly answered, and its shot raked along the side of the German’s turret. The Panther lurched to a halt and backtracked, realizing from the force of the hit that it was facing a new, more dangerous animal. The Firefly hit it again, penetrating on the driver’s side, probably right through the driver to the back wall of the turret, sending a shower of melted metal through the interior. The Panther wasn’t a Sherman and didn’t light up immediately. All the Shermans were firing now, the shots hammering on the Panther but only the Firefly got through. The Panther was dead, the people inside were dead, likely killed by the concussion. Still the Shermans fired in a frenzy of glee, intoxicated at winning against the much-feared beast. But two more Shermans had burned and only a few of the crews escaped.

Hawkins was signaling to Messier to get his body down into the turret, when a shot rang out and Messier dropped inside his tank, half his head blown away. Hawkins had seen the muzzle flash high in the church bell tower. He grabbed the 50, swung the barrel over and let off a stream. The bullets hit the masonry, chewed right through the wall, killed the sniper, or ricocheted off the bell. The full brace of bells kept ringing oddly from the hail of bullets that had hit them. Hawkins eased up on the trigger and the shaking that had rattled his teeth stopped. He glanced over at the Bullterrier and saw the gunner and loader lift the body of Messier out, wrap him in canvas and tie the bloody bundle onto the back deck of the tank. They scurried back inside, feeling safe from machine guns and rifles but in the crosshair of any German 75’s, or worse, the deadly 88’s. Two minutes later, when Hawkins looked again, the Bullterrier was burning, spewing dark smoke into the air. Fuck! Who’s firing? And from where?

They pushed through the village without further incidents. Fired a few HE shells after the retreating German infantry, making a beeline for the hills and the high ground. When they reached their objective, Route 6, they pulled off the road and waited for someone to tell them what to do next.

Hawkins got his tanks into hull down position, but high angle howitzers were ranging on the road and the line of explosions was coming closer. Then a flight of B-17 Flying Fortresses appeared in the sky and unloaded their bombs right over the Germans, distracting them completely. After that their firing was sparse and inconsistent.

Hawkins went over to Townsen on Masher. “Did you see what happened to poor Messier?” he asked.

“Yeah, took it right in the front. It went through it as if the 3 inches wasn’t even there.”

“I didn’t see anyone get out, did you?”

“No, it went up too quickly. We’re just gasoline cans, begging to be set on fire. I wish to hell I had joined the Navy.”

“And somewhere there’s a Navy guy in the cold North Atlantic wishing he were warm and cozy inside a Sherman tank.” Hawkins tried a little humor to ease the situation but it fell flat. What they were both thinking was, better Messier than themselves, but they would never say it.

Hawkins climbed back on the Lady and settled in his seat. He felt cold and was shivering. He had lost two tanks and had come within a hair’s breadth of being hit himself. How long could they continue to be lucky like that? Given the odds, they were long overdue… Was Death toying with them?

Jeff filled a gallon can with sand, poured a little gas into it and lit it. He warmed up some Spam and baked beans, eating them lukewarm. The others didn’t bother; they ate their food cold, not even tasting it.

Hawkins went over to the Firefly and introduced himself.

“I’m Lieutenant Henry Carver, landed with my crew only three days ago and was rushed to the front. First day in combat and lost two tanks already.”

“That’s the way it is out here, Lieutenant. The Shermans are coffins on bogey wheels. I’ve been with the First Armored since Algiers, and I’m surprised I’m still here to talk to you.”

“Yeah well back in Armored School they praised the hell out of these machines, fast and reliable they said and tough as grizzly bears.”

“They’re reliable all right. They go up at the first scratch.” Hawkins shrugged his shoulders. “At least you have something to shoot with.”

Another tank man came up and asked, “Do we have any other orders?”

“No. Just to occupy Route 6 and not let the Germans escape from San Angelo.”

“Should there be any infantry with us, Sir?” the other asked.

“Yes there should be. A whole regiment. That’s what the plan called for.” The Lieutenant looked puzzled.

Later on they were joined by two stray tanks who identified themselves as the remnant of F Company. “We’re all that’s left. We ran into a nest of 88’s and the bastards made short work of us. It was a great pleasure to squash the assholes under the tracks and grind them to a pulp.” Hawkins didn’t miss the residual terror in the eyes, in sharp contrast with the tone. He tried to remember the name of the Sergeant from F he had talked with not so long ago. George something: they had made a date to meet in the Brass Rail after the war.

“Well, dig in, make yourself at home. We’re waiting for new orders.”

The tanks settled, in covering every approach. They were afraid of Tigers, Panthers and 88’s, not to mention a lone soldier with a Panzerfaust. Hawkins returned to the Lady and made sure that the 50 was ready on top.

“What’s the name of the Firefly? Nightwish? Hell, it’d be my wetdream to have a gun like that. They fire at twice our speed and punch four times harder… and have twice our range.”

Hicks poked his head out the hatch. “I can’t believe how long that gun is. It would have to be hinged to get it around a tight corner. At least as long as any of the Germans.’”

“The LT said there was a whole batch of Fireflys downloading and coming north. As well as a new crop of tank destroyers, the M10 Wolverine and the M18 Hellcat which has no armor to speak of but can move at 60 miles per hour and outrun any German shell,” Hawkins said.

“You wish. But I’m glad they’re here. I thought they were just fairy tales to make us sleep better. It’s high time they give us something to take on the Germans,” Jake said.

Jude and Jeff kept mostly to themselves, knowing that they weren’t part of the original crew and not the veterans the others were. Jeff started smoking to calm his nerves so Hicks lost a free source and had to ration his allotment of cigarettes more parsimoniously, even though he also got Hawkins’ share.

There was a huge explosion about 200 yards to their right that hit a big stone barn. A hilltopful of dirt and stones was thrown into the air, and when the dust settled there was no sign of the barn.

“A big howitzer up in the hills,” Jake said, disinterested.

“It’s a wonder they survived all the bombings,” Hicks said.

“They’re dug in deep, and poke their noses out for a shot and go right back in to reload. They must fire off a hundredweight of gunpowder each time and I bet it takes them forever to cool down the breech and barrel,” Hawkins said.

Later on, Jake and Hawkins walked over to the twelve foot deep crater where the barn had been. There were stones scattered around, some painted red with the blood of livestock that had been inside.

“War is hell,” Jake said, lighting up a cigarette.

Miles away to the east a whole section of Cassino was burning, a veil of smoke reaching high into the sky. Above, a flight of P38 Lightning ground attack aircrafts were cruising like vultures searching for things to pounce on. They would dive bomb or strafe, then swoop back up. They were in and out of the clouds and through the curtains of smoke.

“Can you imagine what this would be like if we didn’t have air superiority?” Jake asked, throwing his cigarette away. Hawkins followed it and pointedly stomped on the butt before it could set fire to the sun-dried grass.

A little later the crew spread out to look for a well to replenish their water. Hawkins was aiming himself toward a nearby cottage, the Thompson ready in his hands. He was halfway there, when the ground exploded not thirty yards in front of him. The concussion wave hit and threw him ten feet back. He felt unable to breathe and it felt as if his chest were crushed in. For a moment he didn’t know where he was or what he was doing on the ground. Jake ran over and screamed at him, but he heard nothing beyond the roar in his ears.

“What…? What…?” Hawkins mumbled as the others gathered around him. Jake patted him down, looking for anything that appeared broken. Hawkins still couldn’t breathe and his view swam uncertainly in front of him. “What…?”

“You’re OK. Just a little shell shocked,” Jake tried to reassure him but Hawkins still couldn’t hear or understand anything. They got him to his feet and started walking him back to the Lady.

With each step his mind cleared a little. “Wait… wait… go back… for my Thompson,” he got out with some difficulty. His tongue felt like it didn’t belong to him and if Hicks had not held him up he would have folded like wet laundry.

Returning to the tank, they set him down against a bogey wheel. Trembling, he asked for a cigarette which Jake lit and inserted between his lips. He was still so confused he couldn’t figure how to draw the smoke into his lungs. But the nicotine helped and his mind cleared a little more. “Shit,” he said, able to grasp the cigarette with his fingers to flick the ashes off. “That damn near killed me…”

“Any explosion you can walk away from is a good explosion…” Jake tried to encourage him.

“No fuckin’ explosion is ever good,” Hawkins muttered and saw his fingers still shaking. “What’s wrong with me…?”

“Nothing much,” Jake replied. “You’re just a little spooked. It’ll all come back in focus.”

“Here,” Jude offered Hawkins a cold cup of coffee. The nicotine and caffeine did the trick, giving his mind a grip. He stretched experimentally, grimacing. “That’ll hurt tonight,” he groaned. “Hell it’s hurting already. It felt like someone slugged me with a baseball bat and hit a home run with me.” He stretched again, testing the limits of his pain tolerance.

“You flew twenty feet,” Jake said.

“Ouch,” Hawkins yelped, looking at his finger burned by the stub of the cigarette he had forgotten about. He shook it free and sucked on the burn. Little by little he won his senses back and staggered to his feet, testing if he could still stand and walk again. He did both, but lurched about as if drunk. Gradually he recovered his balance, but winced at every step.

It took him until evening to fully recover his sense of reality. “You know what’s so odd? I don’t remember the explosion, just … coming to on the ground, confused. Nothing made any sense and at first I didn’t recognize any of you. Hicks, give me a cigarette.” He was determined to smoke himself back into sanity.

“Man, I saw you flying and drop like a wet rag. Thought you were gone, ripped to pieces. I was very glad to find you whole, just a little confused,” Jake said, the relief flushing from him.

“Like a bird you flew, like a fucking bird,” Hicks added, chuckling.

“What was it like?” Jeff asked timidly.

“What do you think?” Hawkins asked irritated. “I just told you I can’t remember a thing…”

“Well I’m glad you’re OK,” Hicks said, and his tone sounded genuine.

“You are?” This was from a man who shot at him just a day ago? Or was it Jake after all?

“Sure as hell. I need you to keep me alive for my grandfather,” Hicks said with conviction. More and more it sounded like it was Jake whom Hawkins had to watch. He scratched his face, grumbling. “Why the hell am I itching so much?”

“You got a face full of dirt and dust. It’s a miracle that a stone or a shrapnel didn’t get you,” Hicks said, passing over a canteen so Hawkins could wash some of the grime off his face.

That night Hawkins repeatedly woke covered with sweat and wanting a cigarette to calm himself. But as he was determined not to get into the habit, he suppressed his longing. Like a cat he had survived once more but had used up another life. How many had it been already? Four or five? But maybe the next one would get him. You stupid fool! You’re in Italy, a hell of a long way from Berlin and the end of the war. You’re not going to survive, unless the gods are toying with you and will kill you out of perversity on the last day of the war. Consider yourself dead already, it will at least stop the worrying. Try to help your crew survive, let that be your task.

In the morning another Sherman appeared out of the morning mist. “We lost contact with our unit a while back. Do you have some gas, I’m running low.”

“No, but a tanker’s expected, or so we were told.”

“If you don’t mind, we’ll stick with you until we can fill up. Who’s in command?”

“Lieutenant Carver’s the senior, but he’s fresh off the boat,” Hicks said, through a cloud of smoke. “Sergeant Hawkins here’s the real veteran. I would ask him first if I had any concerns.”

“I have just one question. What the fuck are we doing here?”

“The short answer: trying to win this war we didn’t start. Beyond that I don’t think even Eisenhower knows any better,” Jake replied.

“It’s kill or be killed, the only philosophy that keeps you alive,” Hicks said unsympathetically. Strange maxim for a learned man.

Finally truckloads of infantry showed up and they all started north along Route 6. They moved about three miles before coming to a bridge that was in all certainty mined. The infantry commander sent a Jeep back for some sappers to clear the bridge.

An hour later a tanker showed up and caused quite a commotion as they all argued for a share of gas. The tanker said he would ration out his load, but ran out before everybody got a share. The tanks that were lucky got at least a half a tankful.

The sappers still didn’t arrive so the infantry dug in. There was a squad just upwind of the Lady, and one of them called over, “Bet you’d like to hide your tank in a nice deep foxhole. I’d much rather be in the infantry than in a tank.”

“Me too Buddy, me too,” Hicks muttered, flicking his butt away.

“Hey watch it. Stub the damned thing out before you ditch it. Some of the tanks are dripping oil and gas, and any spark can set that off. It’s bad enough that the Germans can cook us off, let’s not do it to ourselves.”

“Yes, Sir, Sergeant Sir.” Hicks saluted, not caring a fig about anything.

“You might even cremate your grandpa,” Hawkins growled back and that shut up Hicks pronto.

“You’ve got a grandpa?” Jeff asked. Hicks flashed Hawkins a dangerous grimace and replied reluctantly, “Grandpa is old and can go any day.” Hawkins pricked up his ears. Was that a threat?

The infantry went up the nearest hill and flushed out a German observation post calling in the artillery. They shot two and left them there but brought back three prisoners. The Germans looked grim, hardened men, their Sergeant wearing the Iron Cross, Second Class. One of the GI’s snatched it from him, considering it a worthwhile memento to take home and brag about.

Sappers arrived and after two hours they certified the bridge safe to use. They had pulled something like three hundred pounds of explosives from beneath the central span. The tanks rumbled over with Hawkins holding his breath all the way across. Who knew if there wasn’t another device hidden someplace on a delayed fuse?

They came to another small village but encountered no opposition. The infantry combed through the houses and found nothing, but lost a soldier who had picked up a booby trapped wheel of cheese. Three miles further up the road, the valley funneled into a narrowing between the hills; the Colonel thought it wise not to enter such an obvious vise.

The Lady pulled off the road and parked among the bushes. Hicks got off and stood to the side, relieving himself. It was such a common thing to see soldiers peeing where they stood that no one paid any attention to it. Only the civilians looked surprised at the uncouth Americans doing so in full view. Coming back, Hicks stumbled over a stone covered with winter-dried weeds. He uncovered it and called out jubilantly, “Look, an old Roman mile stone. It says we’re 23 miles from someplace.”

“Are we that close to Rome?” Jeff asked, interested in spite of himself.

“Nah, from some old administrative center. Rome’s got to be a hundred miles away. Besides, the old Roman mile’s not the same as the mile today. The Roman mile consisted of a 1000 average paces, just about 400 feet short of our mile.”

“Fuck, Hicks. Don’t clutter my mind with useless shit,” Jake broke in, irritated by Hicks’ constant lecturing. “Why the hell do you have to make history out of everything? A mile back I took a dump, make history of that.”

“I can. Your stool sample shows that you’re undernourished and underfed. It also proves what an idiot you are!”

“Kiss my ass, Hicks.”

Used to such exchanges, Hawkins nonetheless wondered how two such antagonists worked so well together firing the 75. Maybe they needed a common enemy to pull together. He looked from one to the other; which one of them was trying to kill me?

More infantry arrived, and some mortar units. A patrol was sent out to probe the foothills. No real fight was expected as the Germans were unlikely to tip their hands and show where they were deployed. It would be a tremendous stroke of luck if the patrol stumbled over anything.

Hawkins and Jake took a walk through a cemetery, reading the weathered headstones. There was a host of Rossinis buried there; some stones were from the 17th century.

They came to a small farm cottage with a few chickens pecking in the yard. With the Thompson ready Hawkins pushed open the door and stepped inside. He nearly shot the cat that jumped down from the windowsill. He looked around, finding it sparse, just a poor man’s hut.

Jake reached for a bottle on a shelf.

“Careful! It could be booby trapped.”

“Nah, I looked it over carefully, around it and thru it. It’s just a bottle, hopefully with some wine in it.” He took it down, uncorked it, and spilled some red liquid on the ground. He took a cautious sip, then spat it out. “Vinegar.” He threw the bottle in the corner.

There was not much to the cottage, a bed, a table with two chairs and an iron stove. There were pegs in the beam, but nothing hanging from them. The table had an Italian newspaper from some months ago, with Mussolini’s picture prominently on the front from the good old days of Fascism. As they left the hut, Hawkins clicked the safety on.

The road was moving again, a line of trucks rushing by necessitating that they wait for a break to rejoin it. Some of the infantry men were waving at them and Hawkins waved back.

“Watch out!” Jake called loudly and violently jerked Hawkins out of the way of a Jeep that careened around the trucks. They ended up rolling on the ground, away from danger.

“Asshole!” Jake called after the officer in the Jeep. They picked themselves up and brushed the dust out of their clothes. “A real asshole.”

Hawkins tried to settle his breathing, aware that he had used up another life. It took a little while longer to realize that Jake had saved him. So then it made no more sense to think that Jake had tried to shoot him. This would have been the perfect opportunity to get rid of him if that was the plan. The accusing finger again pointed to Hicks.

Hawkins was unsettled. He liked both men… if it wasn’t for one of them trying to kill him and not knowing who to trust and who not to. As if he didn’t have enough already on his plate, trying to make sure that they all survived.

Getting back to the Lady, Hawkins snapped irritably at the men.

“What’s bugging him?” Hicks asked in Hawkins’ hearing.

“Oh, he nearly got run over by a Jeep,” Jake replied.

“Yeah, you got to be careful. Your friends can kill you just as fast as the enemy,” Hicks said.

Hawkins latched onto the words, puzzling if that was again a veiled reference.

That afternoon a flight of B17 Flying Fortresses unloaded on the monastery on top of the hill. Bomb load after bomb load fell and blasted the ancient walls to dust.

“Yeah! Go to it flyboys. Bomb the hell out of them!” Jake rejoiced, waving to the planes half a mile above.

“You stupid ass! Do you know what irreplaceable treasures are being destroyed? Manuscripts, illuminated scripts, books, paintings. In that abbey Benedict wrote the rules that became the basis of western monasticism…”

“And I should care? I value my skin more than anything they have up there. So bomb them flat. Erase them. Flush the rats out of their nests.”

Hicks couldn’t even speak he was so outraged.

A fresh wave of bombers had arrived and started unloading. It was strange to see the explosions and an instant later hear their sounds. Thump, thump, thump. Like a distant drum roll.

When the bombings finally stopped the artillery took over, the bombardment stirring up the rubble even more. When the guns ceased the infantry was sent in, which after a vicious firefight had to retreat. And the cycle began again, bombing, cannonading followed by an attack on foot. Out of the rubble, the German paratroopers resisted and drove attack after attack back. It seemed nothing could dislodge them from that viper’s nest.

In the meantime, the troops in the valley waited for the hills to be secured before pushing any deeper up the Liri valley toward Rome, about a hundred miles to the north. If they could get through these hills and mountains, the coastal plain might be easier.

The news that filtered through from Anzio was bad: the Allied forces were hemmed into a narrow beachhead unable to break out.

Chapter 10

Hawkins couldn’t remember the date and neither could Jake. Even Hicks hesitated before hazarding a guess, sometime in early May.

“Just like him to know all kinds of useless shit, but not something important,” Jake complained.

“Like you really care what the date is,” Hicks fired back.

“Of course I care. I was born on May 16th, 22 or 23 years ago depending.”

“Well it hasn’t made you any wiser,” Hicks snapped.

“All right both of you. I’ve just about had enough of the two of you constantly sniping at each other. I want you guys to bury the hatchet and not in each other. I want you to make peace and respect each other’s views.”

“But…” Jake protested.

“But…” Hicks protested. “It’s him. He’s flaunting his ignorance just to irritate me.”

“And him, piss on his know-it-all attitude…”

“He infuriates me—”

“I don’t care. Hicks, you can be as learned as you like and Jake, you can be as ignorant as you like. I just want you two to stop fighting each other. I’ve had it with you both and if it goes on any longer, I swear I’ll have you both transferred to other units.”

“You can’t do that—” Jake muttered.

“What about grandpa? Have you thought of that?” Hicks asked.

“If grandpa doesn’t help us to survive then piss on him too. I don’t care. Grandpa’s of no use to me if I’m dead.”

Jeff had overheard some of the argument and wanted to know who grandpa was.

“He’s Hicks’ grandpa who made him promise he’d come back alive,” Hawkins improvised.

Jude, who was smoking nearby, said dryly, “Seems like grandpa has a whole lot to say about that.”

“See what you’ve done?” Hawkins accosted Jake and Hicks in private. “Now you have Jeff and Jude wondering. I tell you, I won’t put up with any more bickering.”

That did secure a truce of sorts but it wasn’t a friendly truce; the war had simply gone underground. So instead of abusing each other loudly they exchanged angry looks and deprecating expressions and gestures which they tried hard to hide from Hawkins’ view.

On the surface Hicks stopped lecturing, instead swallowing his pearls of wisdom. Jake stopped provoking the Loader at every turn and rubbing him the wrong way. But both found fault with everything else. The food, the Army, the war, the world, the universe… and God and all his Saints. This went on until Hawkins warned them again that he had prepared the transfer papers and needed just one more push to hand them in. Reluctantly the peace held and a degree of stifled silence continued.

They got one of the needed replacement tanks, Tarantula commanded by Corporal Ramirez. “Where’re you from, Corporal?”

“From Mexico. My parents came into the US illegally and settled in California. I joined the Army because they promised me citizenship. They put me in a Sherman and the next thing I know I was made a Corporal.”

“I see they gave you an old Sherman, not the new one.”

“The new ones are for Gringos not wetbacks,” Ramirez said, smiling stiffly, showing the gap in his front teeth.

“I don’t much care what goes on back home, but here we have no gringos or wetbacks. We only have soldiers at war who help and support each other, understand?”

“Perfectly,” Ramirez said fluidly, but his tone sounded skeptical.

“I’m from Texas and I grew up with Mexicans who were the best horsemen in the valley. Los mejores vaqueros, entienden?

Si, entiendo.”

Bueno.”

Captain Harrison, the new Company Commander, briefed his sections. “As you can see the abbey’s stubbornly holding out. The Poles will have another go at it, but it’s doubtful they’ll achieve anything. You have to be darn near a mountain goat just to get up there. So it’s been decided to push up the valley and threaten their lines of communication. Maybe that’ll get them out.” He then drew lines on the map to show where everyone was to go. It was easy, north, straight up the valley.

“Hey Hawkins! Wait up.”

Hawkins turned to see the Company Adjutant waving to him. He came straight to the point. “Hawkins, we’re sort of Officers. The new ones they send us are still wet behind the ears and crap their pants at the first shot. We need veterans like you.” He paused, giving Hawkins a significant look. “HQ therefore decided to give you a field promotion to the rank of Second Lieutenant.” Hawkins was stunned. He had never expected anything of the sort. “So keep up the good work, Son. You’re third in line for Company Command.” The adjutant laughed at Hawkins’ stunned expression. “A hard mouthful to swallow, eh? But you deserve it. So stop by HQ and pick up your bar to pin on.”

“Yes, Sir,” Hawkins said, saluting. The adjutant just laughed and turned away.

Shortly Hawkins presented himself at HQ. The company clerk there had a hard time finding the box he kept the ranks in, but finally produced two bars to pin on Hawkins’ collar. “We have no shirts at the present, but unstitch your stripes and that should hold you until the shirts catch up.”

“Yes, thank you,” Hawkins said, not knowing if he was to salute or not. He stood in front of the mirror and tried to pin the bars on.

“Let me help you, Sir,” the Duty Sergeant offered, making short work of it.

In a daze, Hawkins got back to the Lady and joined his crew at their meal. He took some hardtack and little sausages that came from a can and ate mechanically.

“Are you all right?” Jake asked, examining his face.

“Yeah, mostly.”

“You’re acting so funny—”

“That’s because he’s been promoted to Second Lieutenant,” Jude broke in, amazement in his voice.

“That’s right. Look at those bars shining,” Hicks said, grinning widely.

“Well if that doesn’t knock me over with a feather then nothing else will…” Jake said, his mouth hanging open.

Hicks stood up, snapped to attention, and gave a crisp salute. “Private First Class Hicks reporting for duty, Sir!”

The others jumped to their feet and saluted likewise and reported themselves ready to serve. Hawkins didn’t know whether to laugh or curse.

“Jesus, how did that happen?” Jake asked, in more normal tones.

“I don’t know. The adjutant hailed me after the briefing and the next thing I knew I was a Second Lieutenant.”

“Does this mean we have to salute you all the time?” Jeff asked uncertainly.

“You don’t have to salute in a combat zone at all. Just on parades and reviews. I don’t hold with that monkey business anyway, but I’m also not about to change Army protocol.”

A little later Townsen and Ramirez lined up to congratulate him.

“So what’s the plan, Sir?” Townsen asked.

“Tomorrow we’re moving north in force, gentlemen. Hope to cut the German communication to their rear areas. If that doesn’t move them off the monastery, then the Air Force will bomb them with Exlax and that’ll move them I promise.”

“Very funny, Sir,” Townsen returned deadpan.

“It was just a stupid joke I heard during the briefing.”

“We’re obliged to laugh at any joke our superior officer cares to pitch at us, Sir.” And Townsen even kicked his heels together.

“All right, knock it off. I’ve been promoted, but I didn’t ask for it. The more I think about it the more I’m sure I should have turned it down. But they caught me by surprise, and before I knew it I was a Lieutenant. But it’s business as usual. There’ll be no nonsense as there wasn’t any before. I hope I make myself clear?”

“Yes, Sir, absolutely.”

“What’s with you Townsen? What’s really bugging you?”

“It’s not you, Sir. Back in training camp, this Lieutenant rode me hard because I was from Wisconsin. That soured me on all Lieutenants, just throwing their weight around.”

“That’s because it’s the lowest rank among officers, and he was probably passing on the pain he was getting from above.”

“Whatever the case, I don’t like officers in general, but Lieutenants in particular.”

“Well, you’d better learn to like me. In this section we stick together. We’re conjoined twins, you and I. My life’s in your hands, and yours is in mine. If you want to be angry, be angry at the enemy.”

“Yes, Sir.” But there was little give in the stony expression.

Hawkins looked around once more at his tank commanders. “Make sure you have everything and that you, your crew and tank are ready.” They all returned to their respective tanks.

Hawkins looked long and hard at the Lady. She was his home and had been since Kasserine Pass. She was dirty and showed her age. There were dents and scratches and a deep score mark along the turret where a shot had glanced off. There were spots of rust here and there but the engine was sound and the cannon was true. If only he had a high velocity 76 mm instead of the short barrel 75 mm, he would be happy. But that was only half the story. The other half was the crew who shared the tank with him. The Lady wasn’t the Lady without Jake or Hicks. Jeff and Jude were latecomers, and not yet a real part of the mix. And hidden in the Lady’s recess was grandfather who fused the three of them firmly together.

“Jude, look to your engine. We’re moving tomorrow. Jake, clean your sight; we went through some mud the other day. Hicks, get rid of any garbage that’s accumulated inside. Make sure the fire extinguisher is fully charged.” He pulled out his map and spread it over the engine cowling to study it. They were nearly off the map, but no one had come around with a new one yet. They had better do so soon as they had less than ten miles of the map left. All he knew is what he had seen on the situation map during the briefing.

They were to push north along the river, keeping to the broader side of the valley, away from the overlooking hills as far as possible.

Just days after the advance, to avoid being cut off, the German forces evacuated Monte Cassino, leaving behind only their wounded. The Poles finally took possession of the ruins of the abbey. At about the same time the cooped up Allied Army managed to break out of the Anzio beachhead. As a result, there was a good chance of trapping the withdrawing German Forces, but the Allied commander, General Clark, taking a page from Patton’s playbook, opted to race for Rome, which had been declared an open city by the Germans.

On June 4th, the Americans rolled into Rome. On the 5th, The Lady Bug drove down the Via Pontina, the crew riding on top, enjoying the view. People lined the streets and watched the Allied Army drive by. Most waved cheerfully at the soldiers; their presence was proof that they had survived the war and put an end to a repressive government.

Hawkins looked back, and saw Ramirez and crew similarly on top of Tarantula. Behind was his other tank, Masher. It was a warm, sunny day, perfect for the parade. The tank clattered on the paving stones and screeched when Jude slowed one track or the other.

The column came to a stop, and the spectators mobbed the tanks, reaching up flowers and bottles of wine. Jake jumped down, grabbed one of the willing girls and gave her a long kiss. People around were cheering the display, until an MP came along and broke it up.

“Stay on top and move as soon as you can!” The MP was red from yelling to keep the line of vehicles on track.

The procession started up again, and the pedestrians scattered out of the way. Hicks stashed away another bottle of red wine with the five other bottles he had already collected. Jeff was smoking a cigar that someone pressed in his hand. Jude, wearing a silly grin, had a garland of flowers around his neck.

Jake was dangling his feet on either side of the 75, throwing kisses at the women and girls. “Donne, donne, amo, amare…”

“What’s he saying?” Hawkins asked.

“That he’s horny and ready to screw all the women in Rome,” Hicks said. He lit up, squinting at the crowds through his smoke. “I wonder how many of those waving were black-shirted fascists. I’d better be careful with the wine we got; maybe a few bottles … could be poisoned.”

“You’re a dark cloud on a sunny day. Can’t you just enjoy it?”

“I do, I do. Probably more than you. We’re making history. We’re the new barbarian horde about to sack Rome again, like the Visigoth Alaric back in 410 AD. They pillaged and raped and now it’s our turn.”

“Surely we won’t do all that.”

“Think not? Look at Jake; he’s got a hard on the size of our 75. You better keep your eyes on him.”

“Relax. Take a breath.”

Hicks did. “You’re right, even over the gasoline fumes, I can smell the ripe odor of history. Julius Caesar marching with his victorious legions back from Gaul along these same roads; the smoke from Nero burning Rome so he could rebuild it according to his grandiose schemes; I can hear the roar of the plebian mob demanding blood in the Coliseum; Cicero orating in the Forum; Marc Antony humping Cleopatra; Brutus whispering with fellow conspirators against Caesar. The stories I could tell you about the perversions of Caligula…”

“Enough already!”

“You don’t understand. You’ll never understand. I read about this. To me history is still alive, and today I see concrete proof of it. Everywhere you look in Rome reminds us of what was.”

Later Jake had his own advice for Hawkins. “Watch Hicks. He has a hard-on for all this stuff.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just don’t be surprised if he steals one of these statues or a fresco from a basilica. The man has no self-control when it comes to the past.”

The column turned into a broad avenue with lush gardens to either side and stone walls surrounding the villas and palaces of the rich. Along this stretch there were fewer people on the sidewalks and fewer smiles and waving. In places the walls were marred by sloppily painted slogans of support or protest.

They rolled by a square with a classical building in the middle.

“What’s that?” Jake asked.

“A basilica. Rome’s full of them.”

“Where’s the Vatican?”

“What do you care? You’re not Catholic.”

“Me, no. But I went to school with a lot of Catholics. They would piss themselves if they could get this close to the Pope and the Vatican.”

“The Vatican’s on Vatican Hill, one of the seven hills of Rome. The center is St. Peter’s Basilica, and though it’s within Rome, it’s a state onto itself. Yet the Pope lives outside it, in the Basilica San Giovanni in Laterano that’s linked to the Vatican.”

“Why in hell do you bother with useless shit no one’s interested in?” Jake asked, looking with quizzical eyes at Hicks.

“It’s only useless to dumbbells like you.”

“How so? It doesn’t feed you and doesn’t get you laid. Or am I wrong on that?”

“You’re wrong on most things you think or say,” Hicks fired back morosely.

They came to a wide crossroad and got diverted onto it.

“Damn! We’ll bypass the old city,” Hicks muttered.

They drove through a less prosperous part with narrow streets subdividing crowded tenement blocks. The poorer the quarter was, the less welcoming the people appeared. They were interested in survival; whether under fascist or Allied occupiers made little difference.

They had to leave the city behind before they could find enough space to house all the vehicles. The Lady pulled off the road, and Jude turned off the machine, the engine backfiring five times.

“Is that going to be a problem?” Hawkins asked Jude.

“We need an overhaul, but so does everyone else, so we’re not likely to get one. There’s too much carbon buildup somewhere,” the driver said. “I can change filters and clean electrical contacts, but can’t get into the engine. They won’t do anything until the engine refuses to turn over.”

For supper they got meat stew served with fresh Italian bread. There were also apples and hard candy. They ate heartily, starved for new tastes. Afterwards Hicks opened one of the bottles he was given, and poured everyone a cupful. Jake tossed it down as if it were water and held out his cup for more.

“Is this the poisoned one?” Hawkins asked.

“No, otherwise Jake would already be on the floor puking out his guts.”

“Poisoned? Did you give me poisoned wine?”

“Apparently not,” Hicks replied. “But thank you for being our taster.”

In two winks of an eye, the first bottle was gone, but no one wanted to start on the second, which might be poisoned.

Jeff, the first drink having already gone to his head, now volunteered. “What the hell, we only live once.” And he held out his cup to be filled. He sipped gingerly, ready to spit it out if need be. The others watched him for several minutes before feeling safe enough to allow themselves a cup.

The tanker truck came by and filled them up, not all the way as the fuel was rationed. Jude asked for some oil as the Lady was burning more than usual. Afterwards the crew attacked the third bottle.

“You know, Clark is not Patton. General Blood and Guts would’ve trapped and captured all the Germans instead of letting them get away,” Jake complained.

“Clark wanted to go down as the liberator of Rome. He was afraid that someone else would snatch the laurel.”

“Yeah? Well George would’ve bagged the Germans and would’ve been first, much like in Sicily, where he took the long way around but got to Messina first. Why did they transfer him out of command?”

“He made the mistake of slapping a couple shell shocked soldiers and calling them cowards. That didn’t play well in the newspapers back home and Eisenhower ordered him back to England for punishment.”

“Big mistake. Had he stayed in command we’d be knocking on Germany’s borders by now.”

“Maybe, maybe not. It could be he’s preparing for a landing in France.”

“They’ve been talking about that for over a year. I say it won’t happen until 1945 the earliest.”

“Sooner,” Hawkins said. “The Russians are threatening to make peace if there isn’t a second front.”

“What are we? We’re the second front!” Jake said indignantly.

“I hate to say it, but in the larger scheme of things, we’re only a sideshow,” Hicks said, reaching for a cigarette. Hawkins had a queer thought. Maybe it was the cigarettes that made him learn so much.

When it got a little darker, Jake, Jude and Jeff decided to risk going back to town.

“Whatever for?” Hicks asked condescendingly.

“Well seeing all those women folk waving and throwing kisses at us made me right antsy. I want to see if we can round up a couple of senoritas.” After three drinks, Jude nodded enthusiastically.

“You’re in Italy, not in Spain. You don’t even know how to ask for it.”

“I know the international sign for it,” Jake retorted, making an o with his finger and thrusting his other finger in and out of it. Jake was leering, Jeff and Jude along with him.

“Well, use protection,” Hawkins said. Jake grinned, pulling a handful of rubbers from his pocket. The three of them disappeared, making good use of the darkness.

“You think they’ll be all right?” Hicks asked.

“Jake’s an SOB who knows his way around. I’m less sure of Jeff and Jude, but Jake will take care of them.”

Hawkins and Hicks had another glass. Hawkins’ head was buzzing as he started trying again to figure out if Hicks was the one who killed Simon. In his relaxed state, he almost blurted out the question, asking Hicks on the spot: did you or didn’t you? He managed to bite his tongue before the words slipped out.

It was way past midnight when the three adventurers returned. Jake was in high good humor, Jude was on the verge of singing and Jeff was throwing up.

“How did it go?” Hawkins muttered sleepily.

“Famously,” Jake replied. “They do it the same as back home. Maybe louder, that’s all. The filly I had pretty near wore me out, and I won’t be able to use my tool for a week at least…”

It took all of them time to settle down and sleep until the warmth of the sun woke them next morning. Jake was more subdued, nursing a hangover. Jude was OK, but Jeff was still sick, running often for the bushes.

Midmorning they got the word to start up. They were to move north to engage the retreating enemy again.

“You’d think command would let us have a day or two of rest for taking Rome,” Jake muttered, the excesses of the night before ganging up on him.

“Whatever for? The Germans gave us the city and we took it without firing a single shot,” Hicks retorted, enjoying Jake’s discomfort.

“Why do you figure the Germans let us have it? You’d think that Hitler would insist on holding it to the last man. He’s not religious.”

“No, he’s preaching a new religion, National Socialism. But there’s a streak of superstition in him. Maybe he doesn’t want to upset the Vatican and the Catholics in Germany… maybe even God.”

“How the fuck would you know what Hitler thinks?”

“I read his book, Mein Kampf, My Struggle. When you’ve survived the carnage of the Great War you’re bound to be a bit superstitious.”

“Do you suppose they’ll call this the Great War when it’s all over?”

“If we win, probably. If we lose, Hitler will call it whatever he likes.”

“Are you saying we could lose this war?” Jake was astounded.

“It’s possible. The Germans are bragging about developing super weapons of great power. If it’s true, then it could change history.”

“And you believe their propaganda?”

“No, not entirely. But if true, it could affect the outcome.”

“You’re a piece of work, you’ve got your head up your ass. Just because it’s written or said on the radio, doesn’t make it true.”

“And you’re a numbskull. Impossible to have an intelligent discussion with you.”

“Who’re you calling a numbskull?”

“All right children, knock it off! There are other people living in this tank who aren’t interested in your squabbles,” Hawkins intervened. He called to the driver, “All right Jude, start her up.”

Jude turned his switches, primed the fuel pump, flipped the starter switch and held it. The engine coughed and coughed but wouldn’t catch, spewing plumes of blue smoke out of the back interrupted by flashes of backfiring. The engine struggled to turn over, growling, but died as soon as Jude released the starter switch. Six times he tried and stopped, afraid to burn out his circuitry. On the seventh attempt it started, but its roar was repeatedly interrupted by misfires. Finally it settled into a steady growl as Jude adjusted the choke and the blue smoke turned lighter.

The crew climbed aboard and Hawkins settled into his nest on top. He put his helmet on and plugged into the intercom.

“Hey Jude, what was that about?” Hawkins asked.

“Like I said, she needs an overhaul badly. I almost had to use up all the battery power to get her to catch. I was afraid of burning out my starter motor as well, that’s why I had to stop and let it cool down. One of these days she’ll refuse to start and leave us stranded probably miles from anywhere.”

“Hope it’s not today,” Hawkins said.

Lieutenant Stokley suddenly appeared, climbed up the tank and shouted into Hawkins’ ear over the engine noise. “Have you heard? We’ve landed in Northern France…”

“You’re kidding!” Hawkins took off his helmet to hear better.

“The word is that we’ve landed on a Normandy beach someplace. It’s not official yet, but a very persistent rumor.”

“And how’s it going?”

“No one knows anything, but you know how it is. They’ve probably hit the beaches and are fighting not to be pushed back into the sea.”

“Good grief. The Germans had years to prepare the defenses of the Continent. It’s got to be a death trap.”

“Aren’t you glad you’re here?” Stokley smiled widely.

“Any chance it’s just another raid like Dieppe in ’42?”

“Too much scuttlebutt for just a raid. It’s got to be the real thing.” Stokley jumped off.

Hawkins put on his helmet, and told the news to his crew, ending with, “… this isn’t official yet, just a rumor.”

“God be praised. Now we’ll kick Hitler in the nuts,” Jake rejoiced.

“And what have we been doing?” Hicks asked.

“We? We’re trying to kick his rear, without much success.”

If Jeff and Jude had opinions they kept them between themselves.

For Hicks, it meant a smoke to celebrate and he squeezed past Hawkins to get on the back deck. He stood there puffing, his face screwed up, digesting the news.

“Jesus, that means they’ll divert all manpower and material and we’ll become the stepchild of the war effort,” Hicks said, lighting up another cigarette from the butt of the last.

“It also means that the Germans will have to reinforce France and not Italy. And that’s good for us too.”

“I hope so.” Hicks got into the tank again and settled on the loader’s seat.

Just then the tanks ahead started moving. The Lady with the two tanks of Yellow Section joined the flow, soon doing over 15 miles an hour, a good clip for an entire column of vehicles.

As they got farther from Rome the road became rougher. Obviously in the chaos of war, with the front moving past like a rip tide, the roadwork had been neglected, and the rains had carved rivulets into the surface. Hawkins braced himself as the tank tipped to one side and then the other.

By midday they heard artillery up ahead, which told them they were nearing the front again. At least at this point the hills were not as high or steep as those before. Still, the Germans once more were ensconced on the high ground that controlled the surrounding approaches.

Major Blackwell instructed his troops, “We’ll be cautiously pushing north, closing with the enemy again. As usual they’re dug in deep but over the last days the Air Force have softened them up for us. They can’t move an inch without us looking up their asses. Your Company Commanders have their individual instructions which they’ll communicate to you. Good luck gentlemen and stay safe.”

“Sir… Sir,” someone called from the assembled.

“Yes, what is it Atwell?”

“Is there any truth to the rumor that we’ve landed in France?”

“A rumor is a rumor. HQ knows nothing of it. But if there were such a landing, secrecy would be essential. So until we hear from High Command, we know nothing and say less.” With that the briefing was over.

Later Captain Harrison instructed his section commanders. “We’ll advance cautiously always with heavy infantry support. The bulk of the German forces are in the hills, but watch out, as they can’t take their heavy tanks up there. So expect to run into tanks and antitank guns. Be cautious, be attentive and be aware.”

The rest of the day was spent in preparation. They were refueled. The Sherman had a 175 gallon fuel tank but they rarely got topped off. They had an operational range of 120 miles, but that was under favorable conditions. The start and stop driving in a column, the idling, the prolonged standing by, reduced it to 80 miles at best and that with a full tank. And with her worn engines, the Lady burned extra oil and fuel, obvious from her dark exhaust.

Hawkins checked with his section. Townsen and Ramirez. “We’re code named Butterfly,” he told them.

“Why Butterfly? Couldn’t they give us something more appropriate like War Hammer?” Townsen complained.

“I’m afraid it’s my fault. What else can you name a section led by Lady Bug?” Hawkins shrugged. Everyone knew he had inherited the name, and not for the first time had to wonder about the original crew who had named her. Had anyone of them survived? Maybe. There was a patched-up hole in the Lady, but she hadn’t burned. “Maybe some asshole at HQ had a flash of sick humor and stuck the name on us.”

For the most part the Germans were content to wait for the Allies to come at them in their strongholds, but occasionally they sallied forth in strength to keep the US forces off balance. One such attack broke through the picket line and penetrated deep enough to overrun a forward Regimental HQ and take its staff prisoners. This led to a change in policy and the front line was significantly reinforced. In rotation, Hawkins was assigned to guard duty.

Hawkins deployed his tanks over about a mile in support of infantry outposts. The Lady took up a position near the middle. On the right was a squad of infantry dug in, on the left a machine gun nest in cover. Ahead was a broad farmer’s field with facing woods about a mile or so away. Hawkins felt exposed in the open and found a drainage ditch to hide the Lady in so only the turret showed. He had a good field of fire and could support his tanks on either side less than a quarter mile away.

Hawkins sat in his hatch, from time to time scanning the opposing tree line with his binoculars. He felt fairly confident that in his present position he wouldn’t be surprised. The only weak point was the ditch that the Lady was hiding in. About four/five feet deep, it snaked across the field and potentially provided cover for an enemy sortie. He kept a close eye on it, but saw nothing moving there.

Jake popped up and asked for a smoke break. He sat on the engine deck, puffing away. It was tending toward evening, with the sun settling in the west, shining in their eyes obscuring the view of the enemy’s position. Hawkins swept the front again, having to shade his binoculars from the glare. After Jake finished smoking, Hicks emerged wanting his turn. Hawkins had to move out the way to let him by. Puffing greedily, Hicks sucked down two cigarettes, back to back. Of course Jude also wanted his nicotine time and complained bitterly that Jake had left the barrel of the 75 right over his hatch forcing him to squeeze through the narrow floor escape hatch.

“What’re you bitching about? The practice one day could save your life,” Jake retorted unfeelingly. Jude didn’t stay long, but then Jeff asked for a piss break. He had to go back in the bushes to stay out of sight of the infantry squad on their right. Then everyone was back in the Lady, snug as a bug, Jude and Jeff talking quietly, Hicks and Jake exchanging insults in spite of the ban. Hawkins sniffed the air wondering if it was his own BO he was smelling. They all needed baths. He lifted his glasses and scanned the view. Still nothing. He was about to tell the crew to break for supper, when something flashed in front and a rocket whizzed by, narrowly missing the tank.

“Holy shit! Panzerfaust!” Hawkins yelled, dropping down into the turret.

“Where??! For Christ’s sake, tell me where??” Jake was already winching the turret around.

“Straight ahead about … forty yards in the ditch…” Hawkins’ throat was tense, but his mind was sharply focused. The German had fired too early, that’s why he missed: the Panzerfaust was awkward to aim anyway. Still they couldn’t afford to allow a second shot. The machine gun on the left opened up, a stream of bullets chewing through the bushes lining the ditch. “Jude, back away! Let’s put some distance between ourselves and the Krauts…” A second rocket whizzed by, inches away to explode in the trees behind. “Fuck, Jude, step on it!”

The 75 barked and an HE exploded among the bushes, throwing up a fountain of dirt. A second shot followed and a third, but Jake was firing blind, just guessing. The Lady backed away, the engine roaring, the tracks slipping on the wet bottom. Hawkins glanced right and left, seeing his other tanks opening up with their 30’s. On the right the infantry was pulling back, running for the woods to the rear.

Small caliber bullets pinged off the tank’s turret to hurry them. They were nothing, just harassing fire; it was the German bazooka he feared. “Move it, damn you,” he growled into the intercom. The Lady found some traction, and sped for the woods. “Two degrees right…” Hawkins called. “More right… a shade left…” Hawkins eased the Lady into position.

“Gimme a target…” Jake begged, sweating profusely, his eyes glued to his eyepiece.

“All I can tell you is that they’re somewhere in that fucking ditch we just left.”

“Shit, they’ll fire a bazooka right up our ass point blank,” Jake hissed.

Hawkins couldn’t see any infantry around them. Fuck! They were supposed to protect us from just such an attack. He had a decision to make: he couldn’t allow the bazooka man any closer. He thought lightning quick. “All right Jude, park us here.” He reached for the Thompson and opened the hatch. “Hicks, grab the carbine and come with me. We’ll take out the bazooka and then run over the rest.” Next he was on the ground with Hicks crouching beside him. They zigzagged and dropped into the ditch, slipping over the soft muck the Lady chewed up. They crawled along the ditch, pausing at the bend. Hawkins signaled to Hicks for quiet. He could hear the Germans whispering just steps around the corner. Quickly he checked the Thompson, making sure the safety was off and there was a round chambered. Taking a breath, he poked around the corner, firing, spraying along the ditch. He saw three Germans go down, one with half his head shot away. “Die you bastards!!!” He squeezed off more rounds, aiming for the next bend. Behind him Hicks was also putting down suppressing fire. Hawkins stumbled over a German corpse, put a hand down to steady himself, and found his palm covered with blood. “Fucking hell…”

“Down!!!” Hicks yelled, his voice turned soprano. “Grenade!” At their feet was a typical potato masher grenade with a wooden handle. Hicks threw himself at it, grabbed it and threw it over the side. Hardly had it cleared the ditch when it exploded, and Hawkins felt its flash of heat.

“You fucking bastards…” Hawkins, furious with terror, charged around the bend firing, mowing down two more men. He and Hicks scrambled for the next bend, hoping to beat another grenade. But it didn’t come: a white faced soldier rose, hands up, yelling, “Nicht schiessen, nicht schiessen… Ich gebe auf…” His hands were shaking and terror etched his face. Breathing heavily, Hawkins was tempted to shoot, but he eased his fingers off the trigger. Hicks pressed past him and shoved the barrel of the carbine into the German’s gut.

“Wanna kill me? You Hitler loving ass wipe. Think again,” Hicks fumed.

“Bitte… please.”

“Hicks, ease up. He’s a prisoner surrendering…”

“Surrendering my ass. He’s the bazooka man. Do you think he’d hesitate a second if he had a drop on us? I don’t think so. Well, eat this!” and he pulled the trigger. The man was thrown back, falling headlong into the ditch.

“Bitte…” Blood bubbled from his lips.

Hicks pulled the trigger again, the bullet making an unholy mess of the man’s face. He fired again, looking for the heart. Hawkins, spattered by spray, wiped his cheek in revulsion.

“You’re a fucking maniac. You had no call to do that. He was surrendering.”

“Have you forgotten how he tried to kill you? Don’t go soft on me now. We were just a second away from being turned into hamburgers. The grenade, remember?” And he kicked the German.

“Yes, I haven’t forgotten,” Hawkins said, lowering the barrel of the Thompson. He wiped the gore off his face. “You saved my life back there… I guess I owe you a thank you…”

“You guess?” Hicks asked bitterly. He looked toward the German side, ready to charge them.

“I definitely owe you my life. Thank you, but now… simmer down and let’s get back to the Lady.” The two backtracked the water run and climbed over the side. Trigger happy, Jeff fired off a short burst as the two emerged from the ditch.

“God damn you Jeff. Didn’t you see it was us? You pretty nearly fucked us up,” Hawkins yelled as he slipped into his seat in the turret.

“That’s the second time today someone nearly killed us. I tell you I’m tempted to put a few slugs into this piss boy,” Hicks grumbled, slamming the carbine into its rack.

“All right… everyone breathe. Just breathe. We survived an attack. We should give thanks to somebody…”

“How about me?” Hicks was still disgruntled.

“I was thinking of someone higher, but true enough, thank you Hicks, you’re a hero.”

“You better believe it.”

There was a knock on the outside, and Hawkins stuck his head out to find an infantry Lieutenant glowering at him.

“What the fuck were you cowards thinking, leaving my guys alone just when they needed you?”

“Needed us? We needed them to take care of the bazooka coming for us. Not for them, for us. Sure we pulled back, then we had to do your men’s job ourselves and take care of the threat. I don’t need some fucking backbencher lieutenant come making accusations to me and my crew.”

“Watch who you’re talking to, Soldier. I outrank you and can have you up on charges.”

“Go ahead. I’ll be glad to tell them how your men valiantly left us in the lurch…”

“Ease up Jim.” Jake pulled him back into the Lady, leaving the Lieutenant staring at the tank. In frustration he kicked the track and stomped off.

“The nerve of the guy,” Hawkins was muttering, still seething inside. Hicks lit up a cigarette and passed it over to him.

“Take a drag, it’ll calm you.”

An hour later when their relief arrived, they pulled back and settled down for the night. After having something to eat, Hawkins felt marginally better. Wrapped in his blanket he lay under the tank but couldn’t sleep. Too much had happened on this day. He could still see the German’s face disintegrate at Hicks’ shot. Hicks was one cold blooded bastard. But the man saved him today, no arguing that. Yeah, saved himself too. The question that remained, did he kill Simon?

His mind didn’t slow down. War consisted mostly of boredom filled with persistent anxiety. Only when the shooting started was there any life in it. Hawkins couldn’t decide if the Lady was lucky or unlucky. She had lost or misplaced the first crew; lost a driver to parasites; and Simon, of course. Unlucky. On the other hand she had survived a year and a half and thousands of miles in hostile territory. That made her lucky. But it mattered little what lay behind them, that was history and done with, the future was rife with dangers and Berlin was yet a long way off. Would the landings in France, if true, shorten the war? He hoped so. Would he survive? He very much doubted it. The Sherman made an easy target with its high silhouette and thin skin.

But if his death was certain, why was he serving? Patriotism? In defense of the Constitution? The flag? No, it was fear of being labeled a coward, a shirker, a 4F. What was a 4F, anyway? Unfit for military duty. Why didn’t he have flat feet, asthma, poor vision, or some other physical disability? Or face the selection board with a psychological or moral impediment? What exactly was considered immoral? Homosexuality, of course. So here he was, in a war he didn’t ask for or want to be in. m, At the time he was too naïve to know what he was getting into, and now he was trapped in it.

Chapter 11

Two days later, the landing in Normandy was officially confirmed. The long-awaited second front had been opened! Was the landing successful? So far, though the Allies had enlarged the beachheads, they hadn’t broken out yet. It was still not known where the SS Panzer Divisions were and why had they not counterattacked yet.

During the next week the news from the north improved; the combined Allied forces, US, British and the Canadians were pressing into the interior. The operation was behind schedule but was nonetheless making progress.

In Italy, General Clark pushed his Army units toward Florence, the next objective. The Germans resisted with practiced skill and yielded ground slowly. The tanks had a hard time negotiating hills and forests, or flooded lowlands. But the Germans had their troubles too. Italian partisans were harassing them wherever they could.

C Company was on the eastern flank of the advance, with the Butterfly Section about halfway in the line that was spread east to west approaching a low rise, screened by a tree line on the edge of some farmlands.

“Take the right side, Butterfly,” Lt. Holley commanded over the radio. In the background someone snickered at the name.

“That’s a Roger from Lady Bug,” Hawkins said, flaunting the name in their ears. With his toe Hawkins tapped Jude on the right shoulder, not bothering with the intercom. The Lady veered right, Masher and Tarantula following, then coming abreast to form a line.

Not liking the restricted view through his periscope, Hawkins popped his hatch and stuck his head out to see better. With the tree line so dense, filled in with bushes, Hawkins had a bad feeling. “Jake, keep a sharp look out,” he warned.

Halfway there, there was an explosion of gun exhaust in front, and the tank next to the Lady exploded. “11 o’clock Jake! Get the bastard!” Hawkins yelled.

The turret swung over and the 75 roared, probably a hairbreadth ahead of the 88 in hiding. The hit stripped away the foliage and turned the gun over. To the left, another 88 barked, and the next section to the left took a hit. A machine gun in front opened up sending a bullet that deflected off the half open hatch cover, hitting Hawkins on the shoulder, but as the cover had absorbed the bullet’s energy, the hit was merely painful. He ducked down swearing. Jake’s next shot took out the machine gun with an HE round.

“Jeff, spray the fucking tree line!”

The hull machine gun opened up and sprayed as ordered, the bullets breaking branches and stripping leaves. Jeff ranged from left to right and back again. From low on the ground, a Panzerfaust rocket howled by, missing only by a couple of feet. Jeff concentrated on that spot and turned whatever was there into Swiss cheese.

The Lady reached the trees and burst through their line. After a depth of three/four trees, the view opened up again to more farm fields. Several hundred yards away, a truck was trying to get away. Jake sighted and shot, and watched as the truck exploded, flinging metal and body parts in a wide circle. Jeff squeezed off a short burst just to make sure no one survived.

The Masher also burst through the fringe of trees. Hawkins waited, fearing the worst, but Tarantula didn’t show.

“Jude, back up, right through the trees.”

Jude turned the tank around and accelerated through the tree line again, smashing down saplings and half-grown trees in its way. They emerged into the open and saw Tarantula burning angrily, dark smoke rising from its ruins.

“Go nearer,” Hawkins commanded, and obediently the Lady moved ahead, stopping about twenty yards from the burning tank. “Ramirez. Corporal Ramirez. I hardly knew the man. And even less about the rest of the crew.”

The tank blew, sending the turret off to the side, fierce fire blazing up through the open hatches and the empty turret ring.

“Fuck!” Jake said quietly, watching through his sights. Jude and Jeff had their view; only Hicks couldn’t see. “What is it?” he asked.

“The Tarantula’s gone. And so are three other tanks from other units,” Hawkins said in a choked voice.

“Ramirez? Did anybody make it out?’

“No,” Hawkins said, but as he said it he saw someone rise from the ground. It was the machine gunner, only he had that bushy hair. Hawkins jumped out and ran to the man, trying to remember the name. Henry, Henry somebody.

“Are you all right?” Hawkins asked, alarmed at the other’s chalk white face. Henry’s hair was singed as was his shirt.

“I think so. I don’t feel anything. I don’t remember anything… just running… in case it exploded…” He patted himself down to see if he was wounded anywhere. “Did anybody make it out?” he asked, begging for reassurance.

“No. I’m sorry.” About eight steps away was a charred torso, unrecognizable.

Jake joined them, then Hicks. Jake took Henry by the shoulders and led him back to the Lady.

Hicks walked over to the smoking corpse, and with his face screwed up in revulsion, somehow found the dog tags among the burned clothing. The tank was still burning, but less so.

Lieutenant Holley came over. “Lost one tank?” he asked looking for the others.

“Yes, Sir. Just one. The other is on the other side of the trees already.” Just then Townsen came walking through the trees, looking with a stricken face at the destroyed tanks.

“All right, all right.” Lt. Holley tried to concentrate. “Take your wounded man to the truck, they’ll drive him back to the field station.”

“I don’t think he’s wounded Sir, but certainly in shock.”

“Well, send him back in any case. He won’t be much use for weeks, if…” The LT walked away to have a look at the other losses.

On top of the Lady, Hawkins found the deformed machine gun bullet that nearly got him. He looked to see if his name was really on it or not. For a half second it seemed reasonable. It had been an unreal, cruel day.

With some difficulty, the tank force formed up and much more cautiously resumed its advance.

They spent the night by an abandoned farm house. “Watch out for booby traps,” Hawkins warned as they looked through the place. They found it empty and a cursory examination revealed nothing suspicious.

They made fire in the stove and had something to eat. Although the inside looked hastily abandoned, they found little food of interest. On the mantle was a photo of a family: husband and wife and two boys, smiling, in better days. The barn was empty, only two chickens scratching in the yard. The crew was so demoralized that none of them bothered to chase them down for a meal.

Hawkins trimmed the wick of a petroleum lamp and in its smoking flicker, tried to write something to the parents of the Tarantula crew.

“I hardly knew them. Yet I have to write four letters that are going to devastate four families. What the hell do I say? Whatever I say is a lie. They didn’t die bravely, they died. And if they knew that they were dying, they were dying trembling and afraid. Should I write that?”

“No. Just tell them they died in action. Don’t sugarcoat it. I think the less you say the better.”

Hawkins took Hicks’ advice and wrote a terse note, ending it with, “we deeply regret your son’s death.”

“Shit. It tears me up to think what that will do to their families,” Hawkins said.

“You know, if I die, write nothing,” Jake said thoughtfully. “The War Office would eventually notify my folks. My dad’s pretty pragmatic and would be able to accept it. My mom? She’d cry a lot, I suppose. Couldn’t be helped.”

“You know… I think this is one instance when we should observe the Rule and not talk so much,” Hicks said, for once not unkindly.

“What’s the use, I think it. Night after night I think it,” Jake said, confessing his nightmares. “And I think I’m OK with it. If I die, I die. I’ve seen more of the world than if I’d stayed home. With the dangers surrounding us, we squeeze two lives into one. I think it’ll be much harder to survive this war and deal with the leftover trauma day after day.”

“You know, Jake? That’s the first smart and deep thing I’ve ever heard you say. It proves you’re not as dumb as you sometimes pretend to be,” Hicks said with rare sincerity.

“And today, you egghead, I won’t take offence. We’ve lost some crew members, let that be enough for one day.” He got his blanket and crawled under the tank to escape the expected dew.

“He’s right, you know,” Hicks said. “But it’s a darn shame that we’re wasting the best years of our lives in this misery. Learn to kill, learn not to feel, learn cruelty. What do we take home with us if we survive? Sure, I’ve seen Africa, Tunis, Italy and Rome and maybe will even reach Florence of the Renaissance. If I die that will be enough. But if I somehow survive? What’ll I remember? And what use will I be to my country, coming home a mental wreck?”

Hawkins just shrugged. He felt old. Perhaps Jake was right. They had already squeezed two lives into one.

Next day the front of the advance reached a broad valley that spread out to either side. They weren’t really expecting any trouble, but as veterans they knew that that was when they had to be the most cautious. There could be an 88 hidden anywhere, a Tiger tank dug in like a pillbox, or prowling Panthers at any turn of the road.

The Lady was missing quite often, occasioning Jude to have to ease her through many coughing fits. “It’s definitely getting worse. We’d better have her looked after soon or I can’t guarantee anything.”

“You heard the Lieutenant,” Hawkins replied. “All units are in need of maintenance. We drive until we get stuck, then maintenance has to look after us.”

“The trouble with that is that we can seize, bust the transmission, or blow the engine… all of that could be avoided with preventive maintenance.”

“Son, I wish I could wave my magic wand and give you what you want… but I didn’t write these rules. Snafu is the maxim we all live by.”

They spent the night in the open. Lieutenant Holley stood on his tank, scanning the foreground with his binoculars. His tank commanders were ranged around his tank awaiting instructions. “There’s a good sized village ahead. About forty, fifty houses, a church and that’s all I can make out from here. We don’t have any intelligence on it, or any recommendation for that matter. We’re pretty much on our own. There’s a cross road which is not on my map and not on yours. Tomorrow we take the road straight through. We’re getting close to Florence.” Holley jumped off the tank and looked around at the faces. “Hawkins you take the lead with your section.”

“LT, my tank’s smoking badly and I don’t know when it’s going to quit on me. Perhaps you’d better put someone else in front.”

“Sure. Horowitz, you take lead. Hawkins you follow and then the rest. We’ve been making good progress thus far, not giving the Germans much time to dig in. But watch yourselves, they’re slippery bastards.”

Hawkins returned to the Lady and passed along the instructions for the morrow. When they sat down to eat, Hicks pulled out a bottle and the three of them passed it around, talking softly.

“You know this country’s probably the most fought over place in the world. From time immemorial armies marched and fought each other. The cradle of civilization was along the Euphrates, granted, but this here was the parlor of Western Civilization. Engineering, architecture, sanitation, language, law, ideals all originated here. Though the Romans borrowed from other cultures freely, they put it together like no one else. They ruled longer than anyone else in history.” He took a slug and frowned at Jake who appeared preoccupied. “So, what’re you thinking about?” Hicks asked, just a little irritated that his history lesson was being ignored. He was aching for a good discussion on history, philosophy, just about anything not to do with this war.

Jake frowned. “I know you like to talk history, but right now I was thinking about the mathematics of survival.”

“The mathematics of what?” Hicks asked, in spite of himself intrigued. Hawkins also pricked up his ears.

“OK, see if you can follow this. A Sherman moves at the top speed of 30 miles an hour. But in a convoy of vehicles we’re lucky if we hit about 15 to 18 miles per hour. Now consider the Tiger. It has a top speed of about 24 miles per hour under optimum conditions. But in reality it can hardly manage more than 12 miles per hour, without tearing out its transmission. Because of its heavy weight it can’t cross bridges but must find a fording opportunity, slowing it further, say to about 10 miles an hour. So here we are going about 5 mph faster than them.”

“So?” Hawkins asked.

“So, it all comes down to the fact that we’re gaining on the heavy tanks five miles every hour. That means they can’t outrun us, and sooner or later we’ll have to run into them. Hell they can’t even keep up with the speed of their own withdrawal. In the past they managed by being the first units to retreat from the battlefield to get a head start. But we’ve closed the gap and we’re right on their heels.”

“You raise a good point and I’m starting to suspect where you’re going with this,” Hawkins said.

“It means that they’ll be left behind to fight rearguard, or forced to be abandoned.” Jake was getting excited about this. “The White Knights section ran into a passel of them, and lost a huge number of tanks, but got the Tigers in the end. I even heard of them being used as stationary pillboxes.”

“OK, but where’re you going with this?” Hicks asked.

“By my calculations, of where we are and where the Germans were and are, we should run into them wholesale tomorrow. And that goes double for the King Tigers; they can barely manage 12 mph.”

“So you predict that we’re going to run into Tigers tomorrow?” Hawkins asked, wanting to be sure he understood.

“Maybe not us, but somebody sure as hell will.”

They were silent for a while, the bottle empty. “OK then, tomorrow we’ll be doubly on our guard,” Hawkins said.

“You know Jake, you’re one clever bastard, you are.” A rare praise from Hicks.

“Thanks.”

Hawkins had trouble falling asleep. He was thinking about the dangers they would be facing tomorrow, the human cost of war, all the tanks he had lost, all the crew members killed. To stop his mind from obsessing he escaped back into his past, riding herd in Texas, dancing on the cruise ships. It now struck him as highly incongruous to have those activities side by side. Driving cattle was dusty, hard work, whereas dancing was almost artificial, frivolous in contrast. He tried to remember some of the ladies he danced with, desperately wanting to feel them again in his arms. That memory was even more unreal.

Next morning they started up, the engine coughing and spitting, spewing dark smoke. On the fifth try it finally caught and started up as Hawkins held his breath. He didn’t want to be left behind. Various units, right and left, were using other roads to converge on the access to Florence. But on this road, who knew when maintenance would drive by.

Holley had a quick council again. “The way I hear the invasion of France is proceeding nicely if slowly. The bad news for us is that they withdrew seven veteran divisions from us, to invade southern France.”

“Fuck! What’re we supposed to fight the Germans with here if they strip us of men and equipment?” someone asked.

“You fight with your dick in one hand and with the other you try to protect your testicles,” Lt. Hawson, the joker, replied causing a twitter.

“Believe me, I understand and share your concerns, but there’s nothing any of us can do about it. The higher ups, in their infinite wisdom, decided on this course, and it’s up to us to do or die on cue. OK, enough said, mount up!”

Hawkins climbed aboard his tank and waited for his turn to join the flow. It was a fair June day, the air very pleasant with a slight breeze tugging at his hair. It would have been ideal, except for the dust stirred up by the other vehicles and the smell of exhaust on everything.

There were 18 tanks, three tank destroyers, an armored reconnaissance car, nine halftracks of infantry, four mortar units and four machine gun units on motorcycles. There was a Jeep where an air force coordinator manned the radio to call in air support if needed.

As they approached the village that wasn’t on Hawkins’ map, he wondered what reception they were likely to meet. At this distance the village looked picture perfect in the flood of sunshine. The fields surrounding it were full of crops, ripening.

They passed a signpost giving distances, but you could not trust it, since the Germans removed and exchanged signs to confuse the invaders. They made a slight turn onto a bit of uphill stretch and the Lady complained, backfiring repeatedly. Hawkins waved his other tanks on, as he slipped to the back of the procession, the Lady resenting the incline. They leveled out again and the Lady regained her composure, but still arrived at the houses last. Up close the village looked less picturesque but more real. This was a hard working agricultural community. There were horse droppings on the street, a few dogs wandering around, but no sign of people anywhere. Hopefully the inhabitants were hiding in the forest, waiting for the leading edge of the war to pass them by.

The column of vehicles paused in the main square, the infantry quickly reconnoitering but finding no sign of the enemy or inhabitants. The line started up again and one by one disappeared around a sharp corner. The Lady made the turn and had a fit of coughing, but Jude nursed her through the difficulties. The engine settled down again and they were able to close the widening gap a bit.

They had passed the middle of town when the engine backfired loudly and ground to a shuddering stop. Jude tried to coax the engine back to life, but all he produced was volumes of black smoke. Hawkins swore as the line of vehicles disappeared from sight. Why did it stall in the middle of town where he felt vulnerable, hemmed in on all sides? Had it been on the open road at least he would see anyone coming at him. As it was, he found them beside a two storey municipal building within twenty feet of a cross road.

The engine wheezed and backfired but did not start. Jude had turned her over so many times that the battery ran out of power. Jude started the small auxiliary generator to recharge the battery but it was no good, the engine refused to start. Finally Jude switched everything off and put it into park.

“That’s it. I warned you this could happen.”

“You did,” Hawkins said drily. They sat there a while, looking at the houses lining the street. All was eerily quiet around them. It was strange not to see people, not to hear any activity. Where were the inhabitants hiding? And why? It was astonishing that they just up and took their animals with them into the forest. A place better prepared than many they had already seen, people running from falling buildings as the fight had raged around them.

A dog barked nearby and roused Hawkins from his doziness as he sat in the turret, lulled by the warm sunshine. Somewhere a cock crowed, some bird answered, and the breeze rustled the foliage of the hawthorn near them. Hawkins cradled the Thompson in his lap, just in case.

“Hey, can we come up? It’s getting quite hot in here,” Jake called from below.

“Sure, come on up. But bring the M1 with you.”

“Why? Are you expecting trouble?”

“No but it pays to be cautious.”

They sat on top, the driver and the co-driver half out of their hatches.

“A nice place,” Jake said, looking around.

“Reminds you of home, does it?” Hicks asked, trying to work up some energy.

“Not really. Here everything is stone and tile roofs. At home it’s mostly wood and shingles. Italy’s way more mountainous than I expected; where I live is as flat as a pancake.”

“Shouldn’t we call somebody on the radio and ask for help?” Jude asked.

“I don’t want to advertise that we’re sitting here disabled,” Hawkins said. “Someone will be along.”

“But we’re off to the side, not with the main thrust of our forces,” Jake said.

“True, but someone will come by in time.”

“Do we even know where we are?” Jake persisted.

“We’re somewhere off the map. Same as the last time, the maps haven’t kept up with us. We’ll be halfway through the map before we even get to see it.”

“What a system. No maintenance until you break down completely. No maps. It’s like we’re stumbling blind through the countryside,” Jake complained, fully out of sorts. “How’re we supposed to win the war?”

“Who says we’re winning?” Hicks asked, glad to have something to take issue with.

“Stars and Stripes. You see I do read.”

“And how old was the paper you read?”

“I don’t know. Maybe February, March of this year.”

“Really? We were still stuck in front of Cassino and Anzio at the time. It didn’t quite look like we were winning back then.”

“Yeah, well we’ve landed in France and are giving it to the Krauts. I think we’re definitely winning.”

“You know, it’d be nice if we could find something to eat and drink. Maybe even some fresh fruit,” Hawkins said to distract them from arguing.

“Hey that’s a good thought.” Hicks cheered up immediately.

“I second that. This area is famous for its cheeses and hams,” Jude added.

“Now you’re talking.” Jake got ready to go.

“No, no. You guys stay and mind the store. Jake, you on the 75 mm, Hicks, you on the topside 50. I’ll go and see if I can find us something.” He jumped down, went to the front of the tank and addressed Jude. “In the meantime, see if you can start the engine. On the off chance that whatever caused the problem could have cleared up by now.”

Jude dropped down into his place and soon they heard the engine sputter with more enthusiasm than before. It backfired a couple of times but it definitely had more spunk. Hawkins turned and headed toward the entrance of the nearest building that looked to be the administrative center of the town. Maybe I should look for a store or even a private house, where I’d be more likely to find food and such, he thought, but then decided to check out the place anyway. He pushed through the door and found himself in a large reception hall with desks and cabinets full of files and maps. There was a whitish place on the wall, where Mussolini’s portrait must have hung. Next to it a photo of King Victor Emmanuel III, looking tiredly out of the gilded frame. There were placards and coats of arms painted above the wainscot. Petroleum lamps were on the desks with no sign of electricity or a telephone.

Outside the engine sputtered and ran a short time before choking. “Damn,” Hawkins muttered; he sure would have liked to get out of this place under their own power. The engine whined and coughed, coughed and whined, but wouldn’t settle into its customary growl. Jude tried again. Hawkins looked through a cabinet and behind some files found a boxful of cigars, some chocolate and a bottle of what looked to be cognac. He reached for it eagerly, then froze. What if it’s booby trapped? On closer inspection he found no trip wires, judged it safe enough and grabbed up the items.

Outside, after some uncertainty the engine settled into a decent roar, Jude keeping the revs high to cough out whatever was obstructing the machine. Inside, the windows rattled from the noise. Hawkins was encouraged; the beast had power, he decided. Then he thought he would explore a few more cabinets to see if he could add to his haul. He was now in the far corner of the room, along the wall that looked onto the cross street, still searching through the last cabinet in the row, finding just more file boxes.

Pinned up on the wall was a map of the precinct that encompassed the village. Hawkins tore it off the wall, glad to have something to orient them. It was in Italian, but what did that matter? It showed clearly the road network and the neighboring communities.

Then he paused; his stomach felt funny, all of a sudden nervous. Why? The noise from outside was now a healthy roar. Jude’s a good driver, able to coax the machinery to life like that, he thought. But something was wrong, his senses warned him, what? The engine sounded too healthy, too strong!

He jumped to the side window, looked out and to his horror saw two Tiger tanks coming down the cross street. “God Almighty help us!” he whispered fervently, suddenly remembering God and all the Sunday sermons he had listened to growing up. What to do? What the hell to do?

If those tanks come around the corner, they would make short work of the Lady—even if the engines worked perfectly, they couldn’t outrun the Tigers’ 88’s. Desperately he looked around the room, trying to find something… anything that would help him. At first glance, there was nothing. He started sprinting for the door, at least to warn his crew to bail out, to leave the Lady to her fate. But even that was questionable as he was running out of time. He slipped and bumped into a table, scattering things on its top. Out of instinct he grabbed the tumbling lamp, but the glass chimney fell to the floor and shattered. The sweet smell of petroleum hit his nose. Yes, petroleum! He ran to the next table, grabbed up another lamp and ran with them to the window. He set the two down on the windowsill and ran for two more. He also snatched up a box of matches that were conveniently close to the last lamp. Running to the window, he saw a Tiger right below and the second one right behind it. With shaking hands he struck a match but it went out before he could light the lamp. The second was more successful and he lit one, two of the lamps. Holding the match in the smoking flame, he lit the two others. Then he turned up the wicks, producing aggressive tongues of flame. He flung open the window, leaned out and with a short prayer on his lips, cast one of the lamps onto the back deck of the leading Tiger just short of the corner. The lamp hit, the glass shattered and the petroleum erupted in a bright whoosh of flames. He threw the second lamp and that broke too, adding to the blazing bonfire. The Tiger’s engine sucked in the flaming air and the engine choked on it. The oil spray inside the compartment caught fire, instantly adding a dark tone to the rising smoke.

Hawkins jumped again and picking up the remaining two lamps, he threw them hard at the backside of the second Tiger that was veering away. Instantly the back deck erupted in roaring flames. In a few short feet that Tiger also ground to a halt.

The first Tiger tried to swing its cannon over to the building, but the long barrel hit the wall and the turret couldn’t turn, obstructed by the stone wall it was jammed up against. The Tiger was burning furiously now, like a blowtorch. The top hatch opened, but Hawkins was ready for it and fired a short burst with the Thompson. The commander of the Tiger fell back inside with three or four bullets in him.

The second Tiger farther from the building was winching the turret around, lining up for a kill shot. Hawkins jumped back, away from the window and started running for the door. He hardly had a chance to hear the bark of the 88, before the wall opposite him and a good part of the ceiling disintegrated, the concussion throwing him hard against one of the desks. Paralyzed by the roar in his head and the pressure on his chest from debris, he struggled to breathe. An explosion from the street blew in all the windows as the first Tiger cooked off, and shards were flying though the room. Hawkins didn’t feel anything, not the pieces piercing him. Shit! I’m dead, that’s why I can’t feel…

The second Tiger fired again, and what remained of the ceiling collapsed, covering Hawkins with another layer of debris. That’s OK, I’m already dead…

Then with a roar the second Tiger also went up, bringing more of the facing wall down. Hawkins couldn’t see anything through the swirl of plaster dust, and he was coughing, which didn’t make sense to him because he was surely dead. Then he felt a sharp pain in his left shoulder. His fumbling fingers found the spot, a shard of glass sticking in him. He ground his teeth together and jerked the glass out. God damn that hurt! Which still made no sense if he was dead.

He was still trying to figure things out when he passed out.

When he became aware again, he heard voices from afar. Somebody was calling his name. “Hawkins! Jim Hawkins! Wake up!” He felt hands on him, lifting heavy pieces of rubble off him. It became easier to breathe.

“Is he dead?” he heard Jake ask. He groaned.

“I guess not. Jude, help me lift this fucking table off him… but be careful not to jar him.”

“Jeff, get some water.” Jake took control.

They were picking bits and pieces of the ceiling off him.

“Shit! I see blood,” Jake said, sucking his breath through his teeth.

“How bad?” Hicks asked.

“Don’t know. And there are glass fragments sticking in him all over. Be careful not to disturb them.” Cautiously he picked off debris, and with his combat knife he set to cutting pieces of Hawkins’ fatigues away.

“OK, Hicks get a blanket. We’ll put him in it and take him outside so he can breathe,” Jake directed.

Jude was carefully washing Hawkins’ face with a wet cloth. Hawkins opened his eyes and groaned.

“Are you all right?” Jake asked.

“No… ” His voice tailed off.

“What hurts?” Good question, did anything hurt? Damn well everything, but it was so overwhelming that it didn’t seem to hurt at all. His mind couldn’t process the level of pain.

“How about your legs?” Jake asked, his voice constrained.

“My legs…? I don’t …feel them at all.” That was strange.

“All right, all right. We’ll take care of you,” Hicks said more to himself. “We have to call this in on the radio and ask for an ambulance.” Hawkins’ hands twitched; I don’t need an ambulance. This is not that bad. Then a spike of pain shot through him and he hissed. What was wrong with his left hand?

Hicks returned with a blanket and spread it on the floor beside Hawkins. Jake took off his shirt, carefully wrapped it around the injured left leg, and together they lifted Hawkins onto the blanket with Jake supporting that leg throughout the move. Then taking a corner each, they carried Hawkins outside and laid him down beside the tank. The fresh air felt good, and Hawkins took deep breaths to clear the dust from his nose and throat.

“Just try to make him comfortable,” Hicks said. “And keep him awake. Don’t let him slip into shock. Talk to him.” Jake tucked something behind Hawkins’ head, and folded the edges of the blanket over him.

“You’re gonna be all right,” Jake said. Of course I’m gonna be all right! What’s the fuss about?

“The Tigers…?” Hawkins was surprised how weak his voice sounded.

“You took care of them, Jim. How you did it is a mystery, but both tanks are burned to a crisp.”

“The Germans…?”

“There was only one and Hicks cut him in half with the 50.” Good!

“Anybody hurt?”

“No, thanks to you. We’d be dead now had you not barbequed the tanks. How did you do it?”

“Lamps… petroleum… burn… the engines… shoot commander…”

“Well you saved us that’s for sure,” Jake said brightly, all the while thinking, gotta keep him talking. “They ought to give you a medal for this.”

“Fuck the… medal!” Hawkins said, irritated by the idea.

“But you deserve it…” Talk, talk. “From now on Tigers will haunt my nightmares, but when I wake I can say you killed them all. Thank you, Buddy. I mean that.”

Hawkins closed his eyes, but Jake shook him awake.

“I called it in,” Hicks’ voice said. “They promised to send somebody but couldn’t tell me when. How’s he doing?”

“Hard to tell. He mutters he’s OK, but then winces in pain. Do we have anything in the first-aid kit?”

“Not for that kind of pain. But it’s better not to anesthetize him now. If he loses consciousness, we might lose him.”

“So, what can we do for him?”

“Keep him warm and comfortable. I don’t think his guts are injured, so give him water. Wish we had a bit of cognac…”

“Cognac… inside… chocolate.”

“Is he hallucinating?” Jake asked.

“I don’t think so. Maybe he found some cognac inside. Jude, go take a look. There might even be some chocolate around,” Hicks said, lighting up. “Do you suppose he would want a drag? I sure would.”

“Better not. He still has dust in his lungs.”

It took a while for Jude to return. “The place is in a real shambles, but I found the bottle sticking out of some plaster dust, miraculously unbroken. There was no sign of any chocolate.” He passed the bottle to Jake who uncorked it and took a sniff. “Cognac all right.”

“Give him just a sip. It’ll stimulate him a bit,” Hicks instructed. “Then maybe we should pull some of the glass out of him.” His voice became surer. “Jeff, go get the first aid kit. There’s some iodine in there and cotton pads to clean him up with.”

Jeff, glad to be doing something, jumped onto the tank and was back in a jiffy with the kit.

“OK Jake, take the tweezers and extract the shards and I’ll paint the spots with iodine to sanitize the area. It will also help stem bleeding if any.”

Jake uncovered Hawkins’ chest, and leaning over him, pinched a glass splinter with the tweezers. “Jim, this might hurt a bit… but…” He didn’t know how to finish it.

“OK.” Hawkins couldn’t understand why they were fussing over him so. He was wounded, but not all that badly.

“God, there must be dozens in him…” Jake said, sweating at his task.

“Stay positive, for your sake and his,” Hicks muttered.

“Sorry. Yes of course.”

It took a while to remove the worst of the glass. Hawkins’ chest and arms looked a sickly yellow-orange from the iodine. Hawkins drifted off, and fell into his obsessions. Jake or Hicks? One of them had to have killed Simon. For that fucking grandfather! And I’m the next on the list. Wounded, I can’t even defend myself. It would be the perfect opportunity for someone to finish me off while I’m helpless… and claim afterwards that I died of my wounds… internal bleeding or such. Mustn’t let it happen… Someone was shaking him.

“Jim! Jim! Stay with us. It’s important to stay awake. Talk to me,” Jake insisted.

“About what?” Hawkins asked, more than just a little irritated. Why wouldn’t they let him just sleep this off? He’d be good as new tomorrow.

“What’re you going to do when you get back home?”

“The Rule…”

“Fuck the Rule! This is more important.”

“I’m… I’m not going home. None of us will survive… this fucking war. We all know that. And if you think different, then you’re a dreamer…” It was strange how his voice gained strength as he confessed his worst fears. “We’re tankmen, sent into battle to die. The higher ups don’t care. The Army won’t care. Make more tanks is their answer. Stuff them with gullible idiots like us, lie to us about how good the equipment is… and send us poor fools into battle to be sacrificed. Detroit will make more tanks…”

“Yeah, yeah. We know. It’s criminal that they send us into war in tin cans they call tanks,” Hicks agreed.

“Do you think it’s good to make him so upset?” Jake asked.

“I think his anger may yet keep him alive,” Hicks declared with grating self-assurance. “Jude, see if you can start the Lady up.”

“Hey, I’m second in command here. I give the orders here,” Jake protested.

“Then give them,” Hicks said coldly. “It’s better than sitting here doing nothing.”

“OK, Jude. Do as he says,” Jake sanctioned.

Jude turned the ignition and the engine coughed to life. The sound, however, had no confidence and the engine soon died. After the third time Jude gave up. “It’s no use. Something’s blocked. If we’re lucky it’s just the carburetor needs a thorough cleaning. If we’re not, the whole engine needs to be rebuilt.”

“Thanks for the good news,” Hicks said, lighting up. That caused Jude to light up too.

The sun was growing weaker and Hawkins, soon feeling the difference, started to shiver so they covered him with more blankets. They boiled some Spam in water, stirring it into a soup-like consistency then took turns feeding him a spoon at a time, often begging him to swallow just once more.

Darkness followed. Hicks stood guard in the turret with the 50, while Jake kept Hawkins company.

Hawkins drifted back into his dilemma. Half asleep, he tried to figure out who would kill him for the treasure. Jake or Hicks? What if they had made a deal and were in this together? In his feverish state, it made perfect sense to him. But how was he going to protect himself? He kicked himself awake.

“Jake? Jake…” he croaked.

“Yeah, what is it, Buddy?”

“Give me your knife…”

“My knife? Whatever for?”

“The Germans are coming…”

“No they’re not!” Jake said very definitely.

“But if they are, I want something to protect myself with.” The pain was closer now and sometimes it was hard to breathe against it.

“Hicks is on the 50, he’ll protect all of us.”

“But I need something. I feel helpless…”

“OK, OK. Take it, but don’t stab me by mistake.” Jake handed over the knife and Hawkins slipped it under the blanket, feeling smug at how he had finessed it. Now at least he had a chance.

The night passed slowly and from time to time Hawkins came awake with a start. He patted the knife for reassurance and slipped back into sleep.

Chapter 12

Waking next morning, Hawkins felt as if a tank had rolled over him. His body hurt and he could not decide what hurt the most. There was something wrong with his left leg; it was throbbing, and his left hand seemed to pulse with pain. Groaning, he decided the leg won the contest.

“You awake?” Jake asked, leaning over him, filling his vision with a blurry outline of his face.

“Sort of. I’m in fucking pain…”

“Give him a sip of cognac,” Hicks’ voice advised. “It’s all right, Jim. We talked with the medics and they promised to be here within a half an hour. They’ll drive you to an aid station where they’ll fix you up. They might even send you home Stateside.”

“Maybe…” Hawkins groaned. The volume of pain told him that things were seriously wrong. “Maybe…” Jake lifted a cup to Hawkins’ lips. As he felt the warmth of the liquid go down, it helped and roused him a bit.

“Jake, you’re in command until they assign someone else.” Then he looked at the rest of them and said briskly, “You take care of each other and the Lady. She got us safely this far and deserves care and attention.” He thought hard, was there something else? “I don’t know what will happen to me or where I’ll end up. Maybe they’ll return me or maybe not. So I wish you all the best.”

Jake got choked up. “I never thought I’d say this to an officer, but I’ll miss you. A whole lot. We’ve been together since the beginning…”

“Same here, Jim,” Hicks said. “Get well and come back. Life won’t be the same without you.”

Jude stooped down and shook Hawkins’ hands. “It was an honor to serve with you, Sir,” he said formally.

Jeff followed suit, but stayed with just shaking hands.

Hawkins motioned to Jake, who gave him anther sip of cognac. As the drink hit bottom and spread through his middle, the pain receded a little. Just then an ambulance arrived and a couple of attendants got out and walked over.

“Is this the only patient?” the Sergeant asked, looking around to see if there were more.

“It is,” Jake said. “He’s injured, left leg and left hand. He’s still got some glass pieces in him.” The Sergeant nodded, lifted the blanket and quickly checked Hawkins over. When he got to the leg he just shook his head. Another man arrived with a stretcher and carefully they lifted Hawkins onto it, blanket and all. They got ready to lift Hawkins, but he waved them off. “Give me a second.” He turned to the crew and said, “Hicks, I wish you all the history you can handle. Jake I hope you fuck your way to Berlin. Jude, I hope you get the Lady back, fixed as good as new. Jeff, I don’t really know what to wish for you, perhaps just a ton of luck.”

The crew of the Lady stood around awkwardly and watched as Hawkins was loaded into the ambulance. The Sergeant came to sit beside him. “Are you in pain?”

“Some…”

“How would you rate it from 1 to 10?”

“Maybe 7… definitely 8.”

“I can give you something to take the edge off, but it’s better if I don’t. However I’ll leave it up to you.”

Hawkins swallowed. His injuries hurt, sometimes less, sometimes more. But the pain kept him from worrying about his leg and hand. “I’m OK.”

It was a bumpy ride lasting about an hour before they arrived at the field hospital set up in a tent complex. They took him inside and laid him on a table. Undressed him and cleaned him up. An orderly swabbed his wounds with a tincture that stung and Hawkins hissed each time. In spite of his pain, Hawkins felt very uncomfortable being so exposed. A nurse came, briefly put a mask over his face and Hawkins breathed in a sweet smell that bit the back of his throat. The pain receded some, but the nurse took the mask off before all the pain could disappear. A doctor came to look at him, probing here and there, awakening a flash of pain, all the while talking constantly with the orderly who was reading to him the information he had on the patient.

After the examination the doctor washed his hands, and stood by Hawkins, still flat on the table. “Son, you’re lucky in a lot of ways. You got some bruises from objects that hit you and lacerations from the glass, but we can easily take care of that. You lost the little finger on your left hand, but the rest is all right. Your biggest problem is your left leg. The bone is shattered in many places. It’ll be nearly impossible to put it together again. If your leg gets infected you might lose it entirely.”

“You’re going to amputate…??!”

“Not unless I’m forced to. Just as a last resort, I promise you that,” the doctor said, his demeanor kind but professional. “The good thing is that your knees and ankles are OK. They hurt a bit I know, but it’s only bruising and will soon heal. We have most things under control. Here we’ll patch you up and send you to Naples where there’s a hospital ship in the harbor with the best people and equipment to take care of you. The best news is after that, you’ll be going home.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

It took three operations to clean up his left leg, extracting bits and pieces of the bone. Then they put his leg into a cast to immobilize it. When his head cleared the doctor came to debrief him.

“We’ve taken out all the small pieces that don’t fit anywhere anymore. Your femur, your thigh bone, is broken in one place but it’s a clean break that will heal readily. Your fibula, that’s the smaller bone in your lower leg, is broken in four places, but cleanly and can be reset. It looks like your tibia, the larger bone, bore the brunt of whatever hit you. It’s broken in too many places to count. There are six segments that are still recoverable, but about 6 percent of the bone is gone because of the small fragments we had to take out. Some of the muscle fibers were torn and we have to suture them, but except for some stiffness they should heal well.”

“Does that mean I’ll be … a cripple?” Hawkins had difficulty saying the word.

“Too early to tell. Some sections of the bone might fuse, but we have too much bone mass missing to restore the whole. However we’ve learned a lot during this war, and we’re developing new techniques. We’ll be sending you to Naples for aftercare. They have world renowned surgeons and staff there who might be able to help you. However, you should expect some degree of handicap. How much, we can’t tell yet. Anyway the biggest immediate problem is to keep any infections out. We have some new drugs, but unfortunately no guarantees.” The doctor stood up to go.

“Thank you, Doctor.”

“You’re welcome, Soldier.”

There was some infection and some fever, but the drugs they gave Hawkins soon got rid of them. And there was pain. Enough to keep him up at night, and when he would finally drop off for a short time during the day, they would awaken him for treatment. But they had drugs for that too. Pills to lessen the pain; pills to help him sleep.

“What’s this one?” Hawkins asked the orderly.

“That one’s an opiate, to control the pain.” Opiate! No wonder he’d been feeling fuzzy and feathery and had so many strange dreams. Most times, all he wanted to do was sleep. Another time, when they gave him something to pick him up, he found his mind racing, unable to shut it off.

On the whole, with all the drugs in him, Hawkins felt reasonably comfortable. His left leg, encased in plaster, was suspended from a rack cantilevered above the bed. He was bothered by some itching under his cast and at times it nearly drove him crazy, but there wasn’t anything he could do about it.

A male nurse came daily, to exercise his right leg, lifting, bending the knee, moving the ankle around. Then he would give a vigorous massage. The first time, to Hawkins’ utter horror, he got an erection when the massage got too close to his privates.

“That’s all right, Lieutenant. It happens, and you should be thankful that your equipment is OK. We’ve got some poor bastards in here who lost everything, and I mean everything,” the nurse said.

Also, every second day Hawkins got a thorough wipe down with a wet cloth by a Philippino man who never spoke and whose face never changed. He cleaned quickly and silently and moved on to the next patient.

The food was bland, mostly lukewarm, but better than what Hawkins had on the road. They gave him tangy orange juice and foods full of sugar.

He couldn’t remember much about his stay. They kept him medicated with painkillers and sedatives. No wonder he felt out of focus and lost track of time. He was aware that people fussed over him, brought and took things away, and wheeled him to endless rounds of treatments. Most of the time he was on his bed, his cast suspended so he couldn’t move it, with nothing to do but be lost in the haze of drugs.

From time to time the doctor came to inform Hawkins of the progress. “Things look good. The femur’s knitting nicely and will be good as new. And so’s the fibula. The problem remains your tibia. We’ve rejoined some of the pieces which are setting nicely, but there still remain two gaps. But let me assure you, we are pleased with your progress. We will be sending you to Naples soon and have started cutting back on your pain medication.” That explained why Hawkins had felt progressively irritable and strangely empty. The floating sensation was gone, and he felt the worries rushing in.

“Doctor, will I walk again?”

“Certainly, in a year or two. Initially you might need crutches, but in the end, you will be walking with a limp. But walking.”

So there was good and bad news in the information. He would walk, but not with vigor and grace. Not likely to dance again.

It took a while for Hawkins to realize that he had somehow survived the war. Not entirely scot-free, but alive. The Germans hadn’t killed him and neither had Hicks or Jake, whichever. However, in the aftermath of drugs, it seemed to matter little. What did matter was getting back into the hazy comfort of drugs. His life, body lying motionless, leg suspended, felt drab and useless. They gave him old magazines to read, but he would sit there staring at a page not seeing it.

Every four, five days a nun came and offered to write a letter for him, so he roused himself and dictated a short letter to Jake for the crew. “I’m all right. They are taking good care of me. The nurses are men, not the females they show in the movies…” he only said that to see if he could get a rise out of the nun, but she remained stoic throughout. When she finished, she didn’t seal the envelope (the censors would open it anyway) and left with a “God bless you, Soldier. Get well.”

An officer came by, introducing himself as Lieutenant Weston from the Records Office.

“You’re being considered for a citation for bravery and meritorious conduct. We’ve interviewed your men and superiors and they all deposed that you acted courageously against considerable odds. You’re already in line for a Purple Heart for your injuries, but it was felt you were deserving of more.” He opened a file and continued. “We already have the facts; we need your statements regarding your motives.” He glanced expectantly at Hawkins, his pencil poised.

“My motives? I wanted to survive… and save my crew. I hate the Tiger bastards anyway and it came easy to kill them.” Hawkins shrugged his shoulders, wincing as pain flashed through the many cuts and piercings from glass shards. They had taken 43 fragments out of him, some bigger, some smaller. The spots were itching now, driving him crazy.

“Your gunner said you did it alone and succeeded in killing both Tigers. Were you afraid?”

“Of course I was afraid! I was afraid the Tiger would go around the corner and discover the Lady… my tank and blow the hell out of her.”

“Corporal Jake O’Connor said you acted heroically without regard to your own self, I quote. What do you say to that?” So they promoted Jake and gave him the Lady. Good! He knew the tank inside out.

“What do I say? I did what I did because I felt I had to, I couldn’t think of anything else to do.” He looked at the officer in a nice, crisp uniform fighting this war with pencil and paper. “We’re a crew, closer than brothers, comrades at arms. Any one of us would’ve done the same.”

“Good, that’s good. I like that.” And he was writing furiously, winning his war of words.

“Jordan Hicks, the gunner, said you’re an inspiration to the crew, the best the Army has to offer. Any comment on that?”

“Jordan Hicks is a very learned person; that I inspire him in any way is in itself an inspiration for me.”

“Good, good. Your driver Jude Lawson says you’re a shining example of bravery he tries to emulate and live up to. Any comment there?” Hawkins had nearly forgotten Jude’s last name and where the hell had he learned “emulate”—probably from Hicks, they often liked to take a smoke break together.

“Jude is a very capable individual who knows what he has to do and does it without asking. I try to emulate him in that regard.” The pencil moved furiously over the page.

“Jeff Jackson considers you the best officer he ever served under.” More than likely the only officer…

“Jeff was new to the crew, but fit very quickly into his role. I found his conduct exemplary in all respects.” Hawkins wondered if he was laying on the BS too thickly.

“Good, good. That about does it for me. Have you anything to add?”

“What can I say? I’m wounded and going home. I feel guilty for leaving my crew behind. I wish that I could go back to my tank and finish this war in Berlin.” Lt. Weston scribbled down the words, than snapped the folder shut. He stood up, straightened the crease in his pants and snapped off a salute.

“Lieutenant Hawkins, it has been an honor and a pleasure to talk with you. We need more men like you in the Armed Forces.” Good grief, what have I done? I bullshitted my way to getting a medal. What a fake you are, James Hawkins. The fact was he didn’t feel worthy of a medal. But it seemed the easiest way to get rid of Weston, by giving him what he wanted.

Later on attendants came and wheeled him into the operating room. There was a doctor and two nurses putting on gowns and gloves. “What’s going on?” he asked nervously.

“Relax, Soldier. We’re just changing your cast. The swelling’s down, and since the muscles have shrunk from inactivity, the old cast has become too loose. We’ll just give you a better fit.” Hawkins was surprised, for she was an attractive young woman with a nice voice. “Do you have any complaints?”

“Just one. My legs itches and I can’t do a thing about it. Sometimes I feel like smashing it to reach the spot.”

“That’s a common complaint. We’ll use some ointment that will ease the irritation.”

With a small electric saw they cut through the plaster of the old cast. The doctor inspected the leg, nodding encouragingly. “Everything looks good thus far. Don’t be shocked by the paleness, it comes from being covered so long.”

The two nurses wound gauze around the leg and slopped on wet plaster. “Please don’t move until it sets,” the woman said kindly. He was hugely embarrassed for having an erection again, but she didn’t seem to notice it. The plaster set quickly and he was wheeled into the large common room with about 40 beds along the wall. They transferred him into a bed and suspended his leg again.

The man in the bed on his right was reading a paper, but on Hawkins’ arrival, closed it and put it down. “Welcome to convalescence,” he said cheerily. “I’m Lieutenant Dobson, 15th Regimental Engineers.”

“Lieutenant Hawkins, 1st Armored.” He tried to nestle into the pillow stiff from starch and disinfectants.

“Welcome to Officers’ Ward. I’m glad to have you, as my other neighbor hasn’t spoken a word since he got here.”

“What’s wrong with him?”

“Well, they either shot his tongue away, or more likely, he’s depressed like most here.”

“But you’re not?”

“Hell no! I survived the war. It cost me a leg but I survived and am going home. What’s wrong with you?”

“Leg too. Lost a part of my tibia they tell me.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad. It’s your ticket home. What you going to do when you get back?”

“I haven’t thought about it.”

“Not at all?” the other sounded astonished.

“No. In my unit we had a Rule. We had no past, no future, only the present. We didn’t talk about families and friends, or about any of the things we didn’t have. It seemed easier that way.”

“Not me. Sometimes only the memories kept me alive. We engineers are the first in, blowing up obstacles before the main landings. Or clearing minefields, blowing up pillboxes and opening fields of barbed wire. Bloody dangerous work. Always up front, always exposed.”

“Same in tanks. People think we’re invincible, but we’re just a big moving target begging to be shot at.”

“Well we’re out of it now. Spectators watching from the sidelines.” He pointed to the newspaper. “We just took Florence. The Germans gave it to us. In France we’ve broken out of Normandy and cornered an army somewhere near Falaise and annihilated it. We’re island hopping in the Pacific, getting close to Japan. The tide of war has definitely turned in our favor. What did Churchill say? ‘It’s the beginning of the end.’ Well said.” He appeared exceedingly cheerful.

“What are you on? Because I want some…”

Dobson laughed. “I’m high on life. I came back from the dead. Only we soldiers know how that feels.”

“Right, I’ve been there and back.”

Hawkins stayed in the officers’ ward for two weeks, suffering the effects of withdrawal. He had no appetite, was plagued with headaches and cramps and often woke sweating, always unsatisfied, longing for that feathery feeling again.

“I know how you feel. They pumped me full of morphine so that I could barely focus. Then they weaned me off the stuff much too quick. I sweated through withdrawal, and now they give me something milder but equally addictive. I don’t know how I’m going to deal with being turned loose back home,” Dobson said. “It’s a sure thing they won’t take me back into the Army again. I spent four years at West Point, spent two years in the regular Army before the war, then the rest in a theater of war. I was in Africa, Sicily, Italy and Anzio, where I got wounded. And want to hear a funny story, it wasn’t in a mine field or blowing up obstacles. We were sent to neutralize an enemy pillbox but found it abandoned. We went inside and took possession of it. I found some maps on the table marking the German positions and thinking it a windfall, I picked it up. It was booby trapped and exploded. It took most of my right leg off and killed one other in my unit. I should’ve bled to death right there, but the flame and heat of the blast also seared my wounds. So here I am.” He didn’t sound so cheerful any more. “I used to lecture my troops to watch out for booby traps and then I go and… Shit!” He punched his pillow hard and buried his face in it. He didn’t speak for the rest of the afternoon.

Hawkins got a letter from Hicks. “Well James, we took Florence, that is, made a triumphant entry into it as the Germans declared it an open city and left it untouched. I visited the Basilica and the Renaissance Library, and Jake found a whorehouse somewhere. He and Jeff had a good time, at least Jake did. Jeff was a virgin before and he came back a bit shell shocked. But when he thought about it, he wanted to do it again. Jude is happy, as the Lady has been overhauled and runs smoothly as a Swiss watch. In the hills above the city, I found a wine cellar and we now have 22 bottles stashed in the back. And now I yell to Bill, the new loader, AP, HE or Chianti and he gets it for me.

“It’s good to hear you’re getting better and being sent home. If we all survive, let’s meet in Times Square after the war. Good luck to you from all of us, Jordan Logan Hicks.”

“P.S. Did you know about Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon? Now I can also claim to have crossed the river myself.”

Hawkins folded the letter and put it away. He thought of the crew and the new man Bill. Then of Simon and who killed him. Jake or Hicks? And why had one of them not killed him when they had the perfect chance? They saved his life instead. How did that figure?

After much brooding, he decided to dispense with the problem. Leave what happened in Africa, in Africa and think no more about it. Maybe the German did it after all. It eased him to have that thorny puzzle set to rest. He was feeling better now, as the drug effects were leeched from his system.

The hospital staff was constantly moving patients out who were well enough to travel. On one Thursday he was wheeled into OR, where a doctor examined him and certified him fit for transport; he was told that he would be leaving the next day.

“Good for you, Jim,” Dobson said cheerfully.

A few of the male nurses came by to say good-bye and wish him well. Even the Philippino gave him a complete wash and broke into a smile. “Your family will be happy to have you back,” he said.

“Yes,” Hawkins said, keeping quiet that he had no family left, because he didn’t want to spoil the man’s feelings for his own family.

They took him on a stretcher next morning and loaded him into an ambulance. They drove two hours into Florence to the quay where he was taken aboard USAHS Marigold. With great efficiency he was processed and tucked into a bed. Within an hour an Orderly came by with some paperwork to confirm his details.

Next day he was given a thorough examination, and the cast again reset. Afterward the doctor debriefed him. “Everything looks as good as can be expected. Your thigh bone has healed well and the cast can come off that. Your lower bone is more of a problem. We’ll fly you back to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington DC. There’s a technique of inserting a steel plate and screwing it to the existing bone and doubtless they’ll do that. Your muscles have also healed well, though you might find a hard ridge in the muscle mass. Nothing to worry about, it’s part of the healing process. There’s some nerve damage but it’s minimal.”

“Will I be able to walk, Sir?”

“Walk yes, but maybe with a slight limp. Good luck to you, Soldier.”

“Thank you, Sir.” Hawkins was grateful. He had been healthy most of his life and this extended stay gave him a new respect for doctors, nurses and technicians.

Two days later he was flown out, landing in Algiers, then Azores and onto New York and Washington. They gave him some sedatives so he slept through most of the trip. When they entered US airspace, the crew roused him and he watched mesmerized through the small porthole he was lucky to be next to, as the homeland flew by beneath. They landed, unloaded, and Hawkins was stashed into a waiting ambulance that in 40 minutes drove him to the Walter Reed Memorial Hospital on 115 acres in middle of Washington, D.C.

Since the ambulance had no windows in the back, Hawkins didn’t see anything of the city. Instead he listened to the inane talk of the driver and the attendant about baseball. For Hawkins, with one foot still back in the war, such normalcy was jarring. There was another patient beside him, but he didn’t invite any conversation.

They arrived at their destination and were unloaded with great efficiency. He soon found himself in a fair sized room with 20 beds facing large windows letting in the sunshine. He was stashed in one of the beds, an orderly already waiting for him with the paperwork. First he checked the dog tag, then cross-referenced his forms. It took a quarter hour to sail through the routine questions. Then he was left alone.

The bed on his left was empty, but on the right was a tall person who barely fit into the bed.

“Hi. My name’s Amos Huckleby. Captain in the artillery. Got wounded on the third day of the invasion, off Omaha Beach.”

“Lieutenant James Hawkins, 1st Armored. Got wounded in Northern Italy. My leg… my left leg is shattered.”

“Me, I don’t have a right hip anymore. Got shot away by a machine gun. Usually I’m with the 105 Howitzers, but this time I was in a forward observation post, radioing back target coordinates. We were just changing position when a burst caught me and that was it. I spent a month in England where they glued me together. The English are nice people, but they were driving me crazy with their tea and biscuits, when I wanted good, strong coffee. And now here I am.”

“How’s the staff and the service?”

“The docs are all right. They know their stuff. There are a lot of male orderlies about but a fair number of female nurses and some of them are real knockouts. Wait till you see Clarissa and Irene. Real beauts. The patients here are falling over themselves trying to catch their eye. Some would gladly sell their souls to get a smile from them. Me too, but the way I figure, I’ve already paid my dues.”

“Me too, I guess.”

“Will you be able to walk?”

“They say yes, after a fashion. Maybe limp a bit. At least I hope so.”

“Don’t be so glum about it. I’d give thousands to have your injuries. I’ll never walk again. It’s the wheelchair for me.”

A nurse came by, dispensing pills. Judging by her looks Hawkins guessed she wasn’t either Clarissa or Irene. She checked her list and gave Hawkins three pills. “What are they?” he asked.

“It’s what your doctor ordered.” Hawkins found that odd, as he hadn’t seen a doctor here yet. But dutifully he swallowed them.

When she left, Amos said, “One pill is a restorative, one a mild sedative and the third is saltpeter to keep us from getting horny around the nurses and the women staff.”

“You’re kidding?”

“I wish I were, that’s God’s honest truth. The downstairs pharmacist told me that. And it does make sense. Most here come from the front lines where they haven’t seen a real, live woman in ages. They’re drugged up and all their inhibitions are dulled. Any female within reach is in danger of being goosed or fondled.”

A trolley of food started down the row of beds, but being so far down, the food arrived cold. “Otherwise the food’s quite good. Not like in England, where everything’s rationed. The troops ate better than the population at large. Even the restaurants had to make do with pomp and service, the food was only so-so, nothing culinary. Here we’re eating incomparably better.”

“Good to know. You sound like you’ve been all over London.”

“Yes. But the Blitz has made a mess of the place. When the sirens sound you run for the air raid shelter. But we were young and if we were lucky to have a girl on our arm we took our chances. It was unnerving though. The Germans have been firing these buzz bombs. You hear them coming, then suddenly the noise stops and you’re waiting for the damn things to hit the ground and explode. It’s enough to give you ulcers.” Amos shuddered. “What was your experience like?”

“We saw Africa, Sicily and a good bit of Italy going up the boot. We drove through Naples and Rome. Then I got wounded and here I am.”

“How are the Italian girls?”

“I never got a real chance to find out. One of my crew, however, claimed they were the same as American girls, but more vocal, ready to shout the house down.”

“That could be awkward.”

“My guy found it arousing. But he was the type to let the world know that he was getting laid.”

“Yeah, I know the type. One in my crowd too. He wasn’t satisfied with one but had to have two at the same time. And good old me, I was satisfied with a dance, and how we danced! The music was alive in us; the orchestra was playing as if possessed. The war, you know. It magnified everything. But I guess I won’t be doing that anymore.” He was silent a good while after that.

Hawkins had an examination again with X-rays and was told the latest.

“Well all in all, you’re in fairly good shape. Everything’s healed as well as can be expected. The cast can come off soon for the upper part. We’re thinking of operating to install steel trusses to hold the three lower leg bones together.”

“But won’t the steel rust, Sir?”

“No, it’s plated with silver to keep it from rusting.”

“And these trusses will make it whole again?”

“Not entirely. Your left leg will be shorter a bit, given how much of the bone is missing.”

“How much shorter, Sir?”

“We’re going to try to keep it under an inch. You can wear orthopedic shoes to make up the difference. But there could be some muscular stiffness that would show in your walk. I hope you’re OK with that.”

“I have to be. I expected to die and come home in a box. So I have no reason to complain.” Hawkins thought a minute, was there anything else he could ask? “Is there any chance of evening my feet?”

“There is, but I don’t recommend it. We’d take your good foot, break the bone and cut out the matching bit. It’s painful and prone to infection. Is that what you’d want?”

“No, that sounds risky. But once I heal up, I can have it done later if I can’t live with what I end up with, right?”

“Yes, I guess you could, but I still don’t recommend it.” The doctor consulted his chart. “So I think we can start next week. I’ll take measurements from the X-rays, order the parts, and operate to screw you back together, if that’s agreeable to you.”

“Yes, Sir. Very agreeable. Anything to get out of bed.”

Hawkins was taken back to his bed and reattached.

“Everything OK?” Amos asked from the next bed.

“Yes, they’re thinking of starting on me soon.”

“Good.”

Over the next hour Hawkins found Amos singularly quiet, quite unlike him. “Amos, you all right?”

“Yeah, sort of. I got a letter from home that’s got me down. It’s my mom, bemoaning the fact that now I can’t have children. She’s been dreaming of grandchildren.”

“But they got your hip not your balls.”

“True, but wouldn’t I need my hip for thrusting?” I’ve been trying but with my side in a cast, I can’t do it. Can you?”

“Can I what?”

“Thrust with one hip… Could you try it for me?”

“I… got a cast on.”

“That’s OK. It’s the hips I’m interested in.”

Hawkins tried his best and bucked with one hip, holding the other back. The results were inconclusive but kept the door open for some hope.

Later Hawkins was napping when he was awakened by Amos reaching over and tugging on his arms.

“What is it?” Hawkins asked, yawning.

“Red alert, my friend. We have a friendly on our right. As an artillery observer I call it a perfect 34, 22, 36, bull’s eye.”

Puzzled Hawkins looked around. A blonde nurse was coming along the line of beds, checking on the charts. “Clarissa,” Amos uttered in a stage whisper. The room had become electric, with all the patients alert and posturing, trying to catch her attention. “Hello, Clarissa,” followed her progress. She sailed from bed to bed, checking on the charts.

“You look nice today Clarissa,” Amos said, fawning. Clarissa gave a small smile, used to such homage, but by now probably unwelcome.

She paused at Hawkins’ bed. “Ah, you’re the new one.” Her blue eyes mustered him with the intensity of an X-ray.

“I am,” he said, keeping his face and voice very neutral. It was a shock to look into those eyes and classically hewn face.

“Good. I was told to tell you that we’ll be prepping you for an operation tomorrow.” She walked over and took hold of his wrist, taking his pulse.

“You’re a little fast.”

“Really?” With you holding my hand of course I’m fast. You’re the most gorgeous thing I’ve seen this side of creation. I’m trying hard not to get an erection. He winked at Amos, who winked right back.

She walked away, her body floating along. The door closed behind her and the sunshine left the room. Hawkins could hear the patients deflating, falling back into themselves.

“See what I mean?” Amos said in a half tone. “What would you give to have a piece of that?”

“I’m not in the habit of wishing for things I can’t have. She’s looking for a movie star, or a millionaire, whichever comes first.”

“I don’t know. She might not show it much but she thrives on our attention. We’re a captive audience that lives and dies to see her pass.”

“Well, she’s like Venus in the summer sky, scintillating in her beauty.”

After lunch a Captain Bonnard came looking for Lieutenant James Earl Hawkins. People pointed the way and the man arrived at Hawkins’ bed. He asked to see the dog tags before he would speak. After checking the number, he pulled a chair close to the bed and kept his voice low and confidential. “I’m Captain Hugh Bonnard from the Awards Division of the War Office. It has been decided to bestow you the Silver Star for meritorious conduct against the enemy. In general for consistent meritorious service in the African and the Italian Campaigns, but more specifically, for singlehandedly destroying two Tiger Tanks with its crew, to save your tank and comrades. Your action shows courage and fortitude above and beyond the call of duty. I have here the citation that goes along with the award. I want you to read it and ensure that it is correct in all respects.”

Hawkins took the page and quickly read it. It was pompous but accurate in the essentials. “That’s how it was.”

“Good. Now do you have any moral or religious reasons for not accepting such an award?”

The question surprised Hawkins, who stuttered, “No-o.”

“Good. The award will be presented later on, when you’re more able to receive it. Congratulations Lieutenant Hawkins, your country is proud of you.” The Captain stood up, pulled himself erect and saluted, again surprising Hawkins. He hurried to return it. The Captain then left, his steps sure and energetic.

“My God, James. You’re a real war hero. Why didn’t you say something?”

“Because I’m nothing like a war hero! Sure I did what I had to, but I was scared shitless while doing it. I’ve been thinking about the poor bastards I burned, and my guts tighten every time. I know they were Germans and the enemy who wouldn’t hesitate to kill me, but I still wish I hadn’t had to do it. But at that time, at that place, I had no other choice. Besides, I was driven by sheer panic.”

“Did you… or would you have given your life to save your crew?”

“Certainly.”

“And that makes you a hero in anybody’s estimation. Case closed,” Amos said with unassailable conviction.

Hawkins was perplexed. First they had made him a Corporal in boot camp, without his asking. Then a Sergeant before embarking for Africa. Then a Second Lieutenant in Italy. Now they wanted to give him an award: the Silver Star, his nation’s third highest honor and turn him into a paper hero. Maybe he should have refused or protested, but it was too late now; the paperwork was being set in concrete in the archives of the Pentagon. Had they no other heroes with more legitimate claims? Why did they want him? He wasn’t even a real officer, just a field promotion. Soon as the war was over they would demote him again.

Hawkins woke into semidarkness. For a good five minutes he didn’t know where he was. For half a second he even thought he might be dead and on the “other side.” But no—he was safe in a hospital bed… at Walter Reed Military Hospital in Washington DC. But in his present circumstance safe was not a concept he understood well. For over a year he had convinced himself that he wouldn’t survive, and now here he was, against all expectation, still alive! However the war still loomed over him, and inside he was shriveled up, waiting for death to claim him. Beyond that feeling was a darkness. He had no home to go back to, no relatives except for a distant cousin on the other side of the country, and no plans for a future. The Rule was still in effect and Hawkins was afraid to let go of it. Sure his mind could understand but his feelings couldn’t and often ran contrary to what his reasoning told him. So when the mind spoke it was as if some other person was talking; his emotions, however, stubbornly resisted it. He could see no future and that was the heart of the darkness. He felt exhausted, unable to look ahead to set some goals for himself. For the moment it was enough that little was expected of him. He wanted to feel nothing, decide nothing and bury himself in the moment.

Later in the morning an orderly came for him and wheeled him into an office near the OR. A beautiful dark-haired woman came over and introduced herself. “I’m Irene Georges and I’m one of the team that will operate on you later on this afternoon and provide aftercare. I want to tell you exactly what we’re going to do.” She put an X-ray in front of him and showed him a picture of his lower left leg. “See here and here, the leg is broken. But by using the trusses we’ll bridge the bones again. And here are the two pieces of metal that will do it and the 12 screws. Any questions so far?” Hawkins just shook his head, afraid even to look at her beauty. “Afterwards your leg will be three times as strong as before in terms of skeletal strength. Of course your muscles will have to be retrained to adjust but that should not be much of a problem.” She looked questioningly at him, and he tried to unfreeze himself to find something to ask.

“If… if you’re using the metal this way, why can’t my left leg be made to match my right?”

“A good question. It’s not the height that’s the real issue. We’ll get that fairly close. It’s the fact that your nerves leading to some of the muscles have been damaged, making those muscles useless. They can’t expand and contract and help you walk. I’m afraid that some limp will result from that, but on the whole you’ll be able to walk and move about. Running might be a challenge.” Her voice was crisp, clear and articulate. He enjoyed being near her, near the sweet smell of her hair and skin, even though she wore no cologne.

Coming to the end, she looked at him so steadily that he couldn’t turn his eyes away. “The question is about consent. Are you agreeable to what has been proposed?”

He took a breath and fought free of the darkness within; she was asking for a decision. “Yes… yes, of course.” He cringed as he heard his voice so hesitant. “By all means,” he said, hardening the tone.

“Good, then I’ll see you in a couple of hours in the OR.” She smiled at him encouragingly, and he felt his temperature rise.

“What do you do in there?” Hawkins asked to cover his confusion. She had such soulful eyes.

She smiled. “I’m the chief operating nurse. I do most everything a surgeon does for a third of the price. Dr. Mueller is the lead surgeon, German but very good. We have done 87 cases together.”

“Any of them give you trouble?” He had to fight through his lethargy to show some interest.

“Not trouble, but a few challenges.”

“And what was your success rate?”

Her face clouded over. “All but one.” He kept looking at her. “He died of septic shock afterwards, but the surgery was successful.”

“Then 86 out of 87; I like those odds.” Having glimpsed her vulnerability, he smiled more confidently.

“OK, I’m calling an orderly who’s going to wash you up and shave you.”

“Whatever you say,” Hawkins said, lying back on the gurney. He was glad that a decision had been made and he didn’t have to think too much about it. Soon a man came, wheeled him along the corridor and parked him by a door.

“Jim.” Hawkins turned to see Amos on a gurney farther back.

“What’re you doing here?”

“They are resetting my cast. Wish me good luck.”

“Come on, it’s only a new cast.”

“With me, it’s never just only anything.”

“Oh. I met Irene. A really beautiful woman.”

“I told you so. If you had a chance who would you choose, Clarissa or Irene?”

“It would never happen, but if it did, hands down Irene.” He was surprised; unlike other things around him, he could feel that, like a spark in the darkness.

“All right, why?”

“She has soul. A deep, deep sensitivity. Clarissa is a brittle beauty too wrapped up in herself.”

“Well put, but I’d still go for the glamour. Makes you think of dating a movie star.”

An orderly came and got Hawkins. He wheeled him into a room, undressed him, wrapped his cast tightly and washed him thoroughly with a mild disinfectant soap. Then he toweled him down. Soon Hawkins was on his way to OR 3. He waited about ten minutes in the corridor, then a gowned nurse came and pushed him into the OR flooded with bright lights.

There were gowned and masked figures, getting prepared. “Ah, Lieutenant Hawkins, nice to see you again.” Hawkins looked up into the most expressive eyes he had ever seen and became tongue tied. Only her eyes were showing above the mask. “Are you ready?”

“I think so,” he said hesitantly. Why did they even bother to ask? He was just inert flesh at their disposal.

“No need to worry. We’ll give you a shot and you won’t feel a thing, I promise. Just tell me when you’re ready.” She was preparing a syringe. Hawkins wasn’t ready. “Are you afraid?”

“I’m not afraid of dying, but I’m afraid of the needle.” He suddenly remembered his first inoculation as a child.

“It’s quite common, I assure you,” she said kindly. “I’ll be extra careful.” Then she leaned close to his ear and whispered, “Dear God, I ask for your protection of James, that you keep him safe from harm and that you guide the surgeon’s hand as he uses his knife. I thank you that the operation will be successful and James is free of worry and fear. He will wake, and his leg will be better and healing. In the name of your son, Jesus Christ. Amen.” She straightened and Hawkins was deeply touched and no longer worried.

He closed his eyes but hissed as the needle went in. “There,” she said, “that wasn’t that bad.” She waited a minute and said, “You’ll feel yourself go fuzzy, but that’s normal with this drug. I want you to count backward from 100…” Her voice already sounded distant.

“100… 99… 98…” The world went first grey, then black, and Hawkins slipped into a strange twilight world of rapid dream sequences. Nothing made sense. Nothing stayed constant, until the Lady Bug suddenly materialized and claimed all his attention. There was Jake sighting through his vision scope; Hicks ready to load AP, HE, or Chianti as asked for; Jude or Jones were driving and Simon was praying in a sing-song voice. Hawkins knew there was something not right with this picture, but he was immensely relieved to see Simon alive. It had been a huge mistake to think him dead. Then who was buried in the desert? The German, of course. And the other? It had to be Jones. And what about grandfather? What was he doing there? Whose grandfather was he anyway? Why wasn’t the Lady starting? Jude, don’t burn the starter motor out.

“James. James Hawkins. Can you hear me James…?” the voice insisted. Painfully Hawkins awoke and struggled feebly, unsure of where he was or why. He saw Irene and felt her breath on his face, her eyes smiling at him above the mask and her hand rubbing his wrist. “We’re all finished, everything went smoothly without a hitch. You’re a little confused at the moment, but that’s normal and will pass soon.” She rubbed his hand for a moment longer, then inserted herself into his vision again. “Do you know where you are?” He nodded weakly. “Can you tell me what day of the week it is?”

“Thursday,” he croaked, his throat feeling quite raw.

“I’ll be up to see you later, to check on you.” The gurney began to move and Hawkins found himself in a quiet room with a few others who had recent surgery. For a good two hours he drifted in and out of sleeps, full of restless dreams, hardly aware of a nurse repeatedly taking his pulse. Then he was awakened, vitals checked and sent on back to his room. Amos was in the neighboring bed, watching as two orderlies transferred Hawkins onto his bed. They tucked him in and left.

“Good to see you back, Buddy. They kept you quite long.”

“Really…?”

“I bet you feel a little woozy right now, but it’ll pass.”

As Hawkins’s eyes felt really heavy, he closed them and the world outside disappeared. He was back in Texas, learning to ride his pony. What was his name? Bear? No, Tully. Who would call a pony Bear?

“James… James… Jim…” With great difficulty Hawkins opened his eye to find Irene bending over him. She was gently tapping his cheek to rouse him. He couldn’t help it, he smiled up at her. “Ah, good. And how do you feel?”

Good question. How should he feel? For her, he was ready to feel anything she wanted. “I’m OK,” he croaked out.

“Feel any pain… anywhere?”

Pain? He felt tenderly swaddled in the softest cotton. Why should there be any pain? But yes, just a tingle in his leg. “A little… my leg.”

“Right or left?” But the question was too difficult to process and he pointed indecisively.

“Good. We gave you an IV and some drugs that will make you sleep. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Hawkins closed his eyes gratefully, and yet heard her say to Amos, “Keep an eye on him, and if he seems overly restless or groans in pain, ring for the orderly.”

Hawkins slipped away again, glad that people had finally stopped bothering him with questions. He would do anything for Irene, but so many questions…

Chapter 13

Next morning Hawkins felt very sluggish. He found his tongue thick and he badly wanted a drink. The bank of windows across the room was spilling in the light of the rising sun, dazzling him with its painful intensity. Amos was still sleeping, but someone further down was getting up awkwardly, hobbling to the bathroom. That will be me if the operation turns out right, he thought. The operation had been a success, Irene had said… shouldn’t he fell glad? The question irritated him, knowing that he should have a response, but he just couldn’t find the energy.

He lay there still, eyes half open, ignoring whatever was happening around him. He even ignored Amos who tried to engage him. Leave me be, let me not think, not worry, not pretend to be all right.

A nurse came along the beds, checking on people. She stopped by Hawkins and took his pulse.

“Very good.” She gave him a matronly smile. “Have you voided? Oh… never mind I can see you have.” She had peeked into the bed pan. “Good, your system’s working again…” She left shortly.

Amos stirred and threw a look at Hawkins. “You all right? Did everything go well?”

“Sure. I was operated on by an angel. Have you noticed how beautifully her eyes shine?”

“Everyone noticed and knows. And everyone dreams of her or Clarissa. I dream of them both, alone and together,” he chortled.

Then things got busy. Orderlies came, emptying bed pans, giving ambulatory people sponge baths, and then breakfast.

“I’m tired of this,” Amos confessed. “I’ve somehow survived the war and want to start my life again. But what can I do without a hip?” He seemed depressed by the thought. “What are you going to do?”

“Haven’t thought about it. I… I seem to be still back in the war, with one foot at least. I wake and expect one of my crew to be wanting something. Drink that horrible coffee we drank, tasting vaguely of fuel. We used to boil a kettle on top of the engine, you know.” He paused, frowning. “I hope they’re all right.”

“They probably are. But you… you’ve got to focus on your future, my boy. What are you going to do with the rest of your life?”

“Throughout the war, I haven’t given it a single thought…”

“Yeah, yeah. Your stupid rule.”

“It wasn’t stupid. It saved us from wishing for things we couldn’t have and bemoaning the fact. It made life easier not to think or speak about it. If we dreamt of something, it was of a warm meal and good weather. And it worked.”

“No, but seriously, what will you start now?”

“What can I start? I’m half a cripple.”

“My foot! You’re a war hero and that’ll open many doors for you. Soon as you heal they’ll discharge you and return you to civilian life. Luckily you’ve gotten back before the war ends, when things are still humming and there are lots of jobs around. When the war stops and all the soldiers have returned and been dumped on a shrinking economy, I pity them. Where’ll they find a job?”

“You make it sound as if it was a lucky thing that I got wounded.”

“That not, but you got a head start on the people still overseas.”

For the most part, Hawkins’ days slipped by in a slow lethargic daze. He tried not to think or do anything, just let the time tick off. The nights were not like that. Soon as he fell asleep it was if a door opened to things inside, something he had no control over.

Hawkins came awake with a start into suffocating darkness. He couldn’t breathe; his chest was paralyzed with tension. He still heard the echo of a stifled scream that had awakened him. There were just dim lights on either end of the long room, and he recognized D ward, where he was in bed 14. He tried to relax but there was a ball of tension in his stomach and his face was flushed with sweat. What was wrong?

From the next bed, Amos’ voice whispered to him, “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know. I was… I was dreaming, I guess…”

“You were having a nightmare, groaning and thrashing around. So I threw my pillow at you to wake you out of it.” Nightmare? Yes, it had to be. “Can I have my pillow back?”

“Sure.” Hawkins found it and threw it back.

“What was it about? Do you remember?”

“No…” But that wasn’t true. “I mean yes… sort of. It was a Stuka diving at my tank, trying hard to kill us. He let go of his bomb but it missed, but not by much. I felt the shockwave and the heat of the blast flash my face. I tried to shoot at it with the topside 50, but the machine gun jammed and I couldn’t clear it. Jake was screaming instructions at me and Jeff was blubbering on the intercom. And… and the Stuka was coming back, lining up on us, his engines screaming. I saw the bomb separate from the underbelly of the plane, plummet down, growing larger and larger until it seemed to fill the sky. I thought he had us for sure… I tried to clear the 50, but nothing worked as it should. The bomb exploded, and picked us up and turned us upside down and we rattled around inside like jelly beans in a washing machine. I mean I was dying and my life flashed before me… just the war part of it, nothing from peacetime. I think I screamed and that’s when… when I woke in terror…” Hawkins was shaking with silent sobs.

“It’s OK, we all have dreams like that. The nightmare’s releasing all the anxieties we stored up in combat.”

“I think it was the helplessness… and the hopelessness that was the worst. The thing was so inevitable and I couldn’t get out of its way. I was paralyzed.”

“Yeah. In action we’ve got no time to think and process, we have to keep it together. We do what we can, fight or flee, but in a nightmare you’re stuck in the molasses of fright and terror.”

“That sounds about right. The strange thing is in the dream it’s ten times worse than in real life. Everything’s in your face and you can’t avoid it.”

“The nightmare is a way to deal with the feelings you didn’t have time for before.”

“Are you saying these nightmares are, what’s the correct term they use? … therapeutic?”

“I would say necessary. You have lots of history bottled up inside you. It all has to come out one way or another.”

“How do you know all this?”

“I’ve been stuck here for over a month, with 20 other shell-shocked people. I’ve been listening to their nightmares and my own and thinking about them. I’m afraid we brought the war home with us. In the daytime we don’t want to face it … we’re ashamed of our fear. But at night it all comes out.”

The talking eased Hawkins, who felt the hard ball in his guts unwinding slowly. But the counter reaction soon set in, the soft feelings hardening, and soon he was berating himself for chickening out.

Later in the morning, Horton, two beds over with only half a face, called to Hawkins, “It’s OK LT, we all have dreams like that.”

“Yeah, right,” Hawkins muttered, feeling mortified.

“I just hope in time they’ll stop. I hate to think that I’d wake up beside my wife blubbering. A buddy of mine, a lung shot, came home with venereal disease, but all of us came home with memories to haunt us for the rest of our lives,” Horton said. With just half a face, how’re you going to find a wife?

But it made Hawkins think. They were all damaged goods; what use would they be to their country if they couldn’t get over the trauma?

In contrast the days were easier to handle. Hawkins lay in bed, his leg suspended, and looked out at the well-kept grounds outside, at the trees and the flower beds, the gravel path that the ambulatory patients used to keep fit, the staff hurrying from one post to the next, or visiting families trying to put the best picture on what they felt. It was such a contrast to the countryside moving by in Africa or Italy, each turn hiding a threat. He couldn’t get rid of the feeling that around the next building for outpatients an 88 was loading and looking for a target. Instinctively he shrank to make himself less visible.

In the daylight, his mind wandered from one set of worries to another, but he could ignore them, and even shut his mind down and hide in a catatonic freeze. However, what he feared were the nights when he was unable to defend himself.

With a jerk Hawkins came awake, a strangled cry stuck in his throat. His guts churned as terror filled the hollows of his eyes. Drenched in sweat, the hospital smock plastered to his skin, he couldn’t breathe, his chest constricted by panic. He gasped, desperate to draw in some air. He didn’t know why; he only had a sensation of fleeing some horror. It was still there, unseen and unrecognized, and frantically he looked around for safety.

Tearing at the covers clammy with his fear, he found himself in his hospital bed, in the semidarkness of the ward. There were only the fire exit signs glowing red at either end and a weak light filtering in from the outside street lamps through the half-shuttered windows.

His hands, still clutching the covers, now shook uncontrollably.

“It’s OK…” he whispered to himself, “You’re safe…” Then why do I feel so frightened? Of what? He dared not look back on what was on the other side of awareness. “You’re safe,” he repeated, “let that be enough.” The throbbing of his temples eased a little and his heart stopped fluttering like a captive bird.

Damn! This is happening too often, disrupting my sleep. It has to be something from the war, but what? It doesn’t come labeled… perhaps just some feelings, stripped of context, unresolved emotions breaking to the surface.

Around him the room was mostly quiet, just small noises of twenty patients sleeping, trying to get through the night. Someone to the left mumbled a few words and farther on, someone snored.

Muscle by muscle Hawkins tried to relax, letting go of the terror, but his stomach stayed jumpy and he forced himself to swallow to keep the bile from backing up on him. With the corner of the pillow case he wiped his face and tried to breathe normally. He was settled enough and his mind sought explanation.

“Fucking 88’s… It had to be that… everybody’s nightmare…” There were hundreds of reasons, of course, he shuddered, remembering driving off the Landing Craft in Sicily into surging surf, fearing that they were going to drown. Then there was… Stop it! Try not to think back and bring the past into the present! But the human brain wasn’t built that way; the more he tried to suppress it the more the memories wanted out.

Hawkins tried to concentrate on things around him, listening to Amos take a breath then pause before exhaling. It seemed that there were minutes between the ins and the outs. He grew concerned and considered waking his roommate. With some difficulty he resisted, and counted off the time, trying to figure what was normal.

Light was freshening in the east when he finally slipped off to sleep, only to be wakened an hour later by orderlies getting them ready for the morning ritual. All the rest of the day Hawkins felt heavy with fatigue, his eyes dry and bothered by the light.

“Hey,” Amos called to him after breakfast. “You’ve bloodshot eyes. What gives?”

“I… couldn’t sleep. Had some more nightmares.”

“Yeah, I hear you tossing and turning and groaning. Ask them for some sleeping pills.”

But Hawkins didn’t. Not at first.

An intern in his narrow cubicle went over his list. “…And how have you been sleeping?”

“Not well,” Hawkins admitted. “I wake from a nightmare I can’t remember… then I’m afraid to go back to sleep into more of the same…”

The Intern looked up, frowning. “How often?” The pencil paused over the paper.

“At least two… three times a week. Sometimes more.”

“Is it something specific?” The pencil scribbled down something.

“That’s just it. Nothing I can remember. Just a blackness… but on the other side waits fear and terror…”

“So, unspecific…” The intern wrote. He focused on Hawkins and spoke, as he must have many times. “We can give you some tranquillizers to ease the anxiety.”

“No. No thanks. I’ll get through this somehow.”

A week later, Hawkins requested anything to help him sleep.

“Good thing too,” a new Intern said. “You got dark shadows under your eyes and even your voice sounds week and reedy.”

The meds helped. He slept through the night, without any interruption, but it took most of the morning to slough off the heaviness that was left over.

Each morning he was given four pills to gulp down with tepid water. The matron watched him closely to make sure he swallowed it all. He asked her what they were for, but she answered tersely, “Ask your doctor.” But Hawkins never did. He figured he had enough to worry about without adding to them.

It was enough that he slept better and worried less. Still, he didn’t feel quite like himself, which he attributed to the pills. Often he had difficulty attending to things and could easily drift off in the middle of a conversation. Information slipped by him making him have to ask what was just said, and he forgot bits and pieces of what he heard. It took real effort to stay on track.

Luckily Amos kept him on his schedule, reminded him of what was due, an examination, routine or otherwise, an exercise period. When the library cart came by he took a book and stared at the page for a good hour without any motivation to find out what it said. Nothing interested him or caught his attention.

On the one hand it was a comfortable place, cocooned from the rest of the world as time ticked off without him feeling any need to do something, but on the other hand, he didn’t feel himself: it felt like he was cohabiting his body with someone else, leaving him lethargic.

“That’s it Buddy,” Amos said from the other bed. “Let yourself float along, have no care in the world.”

Around him people left and were replaced but Hawkins barely noticed. Aside from Amos he hardly knew anybody to speak to, and no one really engaged him. People were caught up in their own web of concerns, trying to change from war back into peacetime, so there were plenty of others similarly “floating” around.

Then one morning he awoke, and immediately felt oppressed by something. Mornings, as the meds were wearing off, he tended to be the most alert. Amos was agitated, Hawkins could tell. “What is it?” he asked groggily.

“It’s Jennings,” Amos muttered. “He checked out.”

“Who checked out?”

“Jennings. He slit his wrist.” Hawkins suddenly noticed a flock of orderlies busy halfway up the room. Four men were wheeling out the bed, the covers soaked with blood, a trail dripping on the floor all the way out of the room. Hawkins couldn’t remember who Jennings was.

“What happened?”

“Who knows? Ironic isn’t it? In war we fight to stay alive, but can’t deal with peace,” Amos said. “He probably had nobody and couldn’t think for himself anymore. There are many like him in here.” Yes… me.

Custodial staff arrived with mops and disinfectant and cleaned up the blood trail, leaving behind a sharp smell of chemicals. The room was tense.

When the matron came dispensing her load of medications, Hawkins palmed his pills pretending to swallow them. The matron didn’t notice and passed on, but Amos did; “You’re back, but prickly as hell.” Hawkins swallowed a retort.

That day the breakfast served was extra special, strawberries with whipped cream and fresh donuts. Obviously the powers that be wanted to lift the mood somewhat.

“Psst,” Amos hissed. “Did you notice? There was an extra little pill to calm us down after the trauma. Every time that happens, it upsets everybody. If Jennings could do it, maybe I will too, they’re thinking.”

“I wonder why he did it?” Hawkins asked, aware that he was surfacing.

“I doubt we’ll ever know.”

But that turned out not to be true. In the afternoon, Amos was wheeled back from physio brimming with news.

“Jennings fought at Anzio. His unit got separated and trapped in a farmhouse for five days, fighting the Germans by themselves. One by one his men died and when the marines retook the position he was the only man left, with broken ribs and clavicle and only half an arm. But they fixed him up here and he was about to be discharged. Then he took his life. Crazy huh? Sure he was depressed, who wouldn’t be?”

“Still doesn’t tell us why he did it,” Hawkins said, feeling itchy and irritated, wanting his meds.

“The fact is he had reasons other than his injuries. He was a Lieutenant and one of the men he commanded was his own younger brother and he watched him die on his watch. He couldn’t bring himself to go home and have to tell his parents about their loss.”

“So now his parents have to deal with his loss as well.”

“Yes. It’s sad. No, tragic. But there’re often no reasons why depressed people do what they do.”

The traumatic incident scared Hawkins, because he was depressed himself, and maybe capable of doing harm to himself.

“How did you find out?”

“From his neighbors. An Air Force Captain. He knew some of it. The rest I overheard from the orderlies talking. You know it’s funny; they talk quite openly as if I wasn’t there, just an invisible patient. The stuff’s supposed to be confidential.”

After the incident the mood of D ward was dozy as the sedatives blunted the trauma. Of course all the patients had experienced death and for the most part had become inured to it… but this had happened not on the battle field but in the supposed safety of a hospital. Quite a few asked themselves if they were close to the tipping point as Jennings had been.

For days the temper of the room remained dejected. There was the usual murmur of conversations, people playing cards or checkers at the long table, or the sound of turning pages, but no one seemed particularly animated by anything. An occasional visit by an orderly sometimes stirred things up a bit, but not for long. Hawkins, who hadn’t taken his pills, was more aware of what was or wasn’t happening around him. Of course the price he paid was that the irritation and the blackness returned. He tried to refrain from feeding his pessimism but was often unsuccessful. Next morning he resumed his diet of pills.

Then suddenly one could feel the mood of the whole ward change. Hawkins looked up to see Irene coming down the room toward his end. She was already giving him that calm, professional smile, but her eyes were sparkling with mystery.

“Good morning Lieutenant. How’re you feeling?” She checked his chart, then stepped closer, taking his wrist. “You’re heart rate is rapid.” Really? She took her stethoscope and listened to his chest. He was very aware of her fingers on his skin. “Good, good. Things are looking up. We gave you a light cast, and you’ll be able to move around soon in a wheelchair. But you’ve got to keep the weight off your left foot until the incisions heal and the bone fuses around the screws. After that you’ll be dancing.”

“Thank y-ou,” he stammered, kicking himself for not having something witty to say.

Nevertheless she smiled, draping the stethoscope around her neck. Then every eye in the room watched her make the long walk back to the exit. A collective sigh escaped as the door closed behind her.

“A real dreamboat,” Amos said wistfully. Hawkins felt privileged. She had touched him and ministered to him. He was the envy of every guy in the room. He refused to think sexually about her. She was an angel of mercy, a source of solace and caring… a Botticelli beauty.

Every sight of her gave him a boost. He wanted to move around and not be anchored to the bed. He wanted to start living again and chafed at the inactivity he was forced to endure. His bedsores had their own bedsores, though he was getting a salve for them. His body craved movement, but strangely his mind remained cocooned. It was comfortable not having to think or worry, no plans to make, just be.

After about three days, as they progressively cut back on the medication, Hawkins felt his injuries more and more. Now and then, pain shot through him, freezing him up for half a second. Worse, the itching started, and he felt like banging his leg against something solid to make it stop. With the feeling of comfort gone, he found himself irritable and frustrated.

“It’s just the drug after-effects,” the orderly told him as he wheeled Hawkins down a long corridor. “… the withdrawal.” Hawkins hissed in pain as the gurney brushed against a corner, jarring his injured leg.

Daily the physiotherapist spent more time with him, working his muscles, limbering up his joints. Afterwards it was back to bed again, his leg suspended. Hawkins was heartily sick of being nailed to his bed, unable to range about. The bed felt grimy with his sweat and sloughed off skin cells. A man came to wash him every day, but Hawkins didn’t feel clean. The overcooked food didn’t have much taste to it. Though he had no reason to be dissatisfied with his progress, he felt taut as a drawn wire, ready to snap any moment.

Things were heading for a crisis, but just in time, an orderly came with a wheelchair and showed him how to get in and out of it without stressing his injured leg. As soon as he could, he took a turn up and down the room, shocked by how weak he was and how quickly he tired. Afterward, it was a relief to get back to bed.

Hawkins tried to read the Washington Post, but couldn’t keep his mind on the article long enough to finish it. It said nothing to him. He did a little better with Life Magazine, looking at the pictures, occasionally enticed by a photograph to read the caption. The library cart brought him a book but he never got past the first page. He sat there with it open, the letters swimming around aimlessly. Yet, he scanned the newspapers looking for any reference to the war. He got a general sense of what was happening worldwide, but remained dissatisfied. What they wrote in the papers had no relevance to the war as he knew it. They talked about advances, territories gained, victories won. There was no blood and deaths mentioned; casualty figures were glossed over or suppressed. The articles highlighted heroism, duty and noble self-sacrifice. Sure, they were human interest stories, for instance “Life in a foxhole,” presented as if it were a fun time camping, the misery hidden or ignored. The papers fought a different war than the one he knew.

“Are you finally going to get your head out of your ass?” Amos called over from the other bed. He was an avid reader who tried to engage Hawkins in serious conversations without much success. Hawkins only showed interest in the progress of the war. “For you, the war’s over. You’ve got to get some focus and make plans. You’re no longer doped up, so start living again.”

After so many days being stuck in bed, it felt good to be in a lighter cast and moving about in a wheelchair. He felt himself growing stronger by the day. He wheeled himself to the exercise room for his scheduled session. Alfred, the physiotherapist was still working with the previous patient, a man who had lost both his legs from the knees down and was moving about awkwardly on prosthetics. It was hard work and even Alfred was sweating.

“Come on Larry, try a little harder. We’ve done this before.”

Larry moved reluctantly, holding onto the parallel bars on either side for support. It was obvious that his heart wasn’t in it. He had the slack face of many of the overmedicated and moved with exaggerated slowness. Reaching the end of the runway, Alfred helped him back into his chair. Without a word of thanks, Larry wheeled himself out, moving just as awkwardly.

“Poor man,” Alfred said, looking with concern after the patient. “I guess, in his place I’d be depressed too.” He turned his eyes to Hawkins, obviously trying to assess his next client. “And how’re we feeling today?”

“I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling reasonably fine.”

“Well let’s get to work then…”

They did some light exercise, Hawkins in his chair, just moving his arms and his good leg, bending and unbending. Then with Alfred’s help he moved between the parallel bars and supporting himself, he hobbled along, keeping his weight off his left foot. In five minutes he was exhausted and had to take a breather.

“Don’t be discouraged, it’s always hard the first time.”

And indeed the next time it was easier. By the third time he lasted four turns on the bars and felt much stronger. Again he saw Larry there, still with a hangdog expression. Hawkins introduced himself and got a minimum reply in return. They sat in their wheelchairs side by side, watching a man exercise adroitly with his crutches following Alfred’s directions. With a smooth flow he switched from crutches right into his wheelchair and gave Hawkins and Larry an elated smile. Hawkins gave him the thumbs up, but Larry just muttered, “Asshole.”

After something similar happened the next time Hawkins turned on Larry and snapped out,. “Go easy, man. You want to be sour, be sour to yourself.”

“Not everyone’s going to get a medal,” Larry retorted sullenly. Hawkins was floored. How had the news of that gotten around? Did everybody in the hospital know about it? He felt a flash of sympathy for the man who had such a handicap to overcome.

“Look man, set yourself a goal and stick to it. Bitterness will only get you more bitterness,” Hawkins advised but didn’t know if what he said had any effect. Still, the next time he saw Larry, the man was working hard and was visibly improving.

“Good job,” Hawkins praised as the other toweled the sweat off his face after the workout.

“Yeah… well,” Larry muttered, but said no more.

In his light cast, Hawkins was improving each time; he was more nimble and generally more active. Easily he swung from the wheelchair into his bed, causing Amos to comment, “I wish I could do that. I’ve been here a month longer than you, but still have to struggle in or out of the bed.”

Next time in physiotherapy, Larry was much improved, even earning praise from Alfred. “Keep that up and we’ll have you out of here in a jiffy.”

“Yeah, you’re turning into an inspiration,” Hawkins added.

“Set a goal, you said,” Larry said with pronounced intensity, surprising Hawkins with a dark, hostile look that made him uneasy. What was that about?

Most times Hawkins was feeling reasonably well. The darkness had lifted but it still hovered in the background. However his mood plummeted when a fresh batch of wounded arrived from a battle in France at a place no one had heard of. He had the feeling that this war was chewing up his generation and spitting them out dead or maimed. Two of the recent arrivals had to be moved out because in spite of heavy medication their persistent moaning upset the rest.

Going to physio also didn’t help. “Where’s Larry?” Hawkins asked not finding him there.

Alfred made a face. “I guess you haven’t heard. Earlier today, Larry dressed himself in street clothes, wheeled himself off the hospital compound. He managed to get on the bus and take it down to the Potomac. He got himself onto the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge, climbed over the parapet and jumped. The police said they fished out his body miles downstream.”

“Fuck, no! I thought he was getting better…”

“So did I. But he was pulling the wool over our eyes. I think he trained so he could make that jump.” Albert swallowed hard. “And I helped him to become fit for it.”

The news depressed Hawkins even more. Make a goal, he had advised. Maybe that was it all along. He just didn’t want to live as a cripple. Maybe there was no one waiting for him at home. Or maybe there was no home to return to at all. After not sleeping for a couple of nights, the next morning he fished out the sedative from the batch he palmed, breaking it in half and swallowing it. It took him a week to return to normal, whatever normal was… he wasn’t so sure anymore. He still felt depressed, the incident eating at him.

“I don’t understand it. I really thought he was getting better and I even took some credit for it. But no. He went and jumped. Why? And why him? There are plenty of others with similar injuries and they’re still alive.”

“Hard to figure,” Amos said. “In my unit there was a Jew who got badly shot up. By all rights he should have died, but he pulled through. Near as I can figure, he survived because he was a Jew, perhaps believing that half the world wanted to eradicate his race, so it was his duty to survive. Same with Catholics. It’s a mortal sin for them to commit suicide. Did Larry have a religion?”

“I don’t know. My church believes that life is God’s gift and should not be thrown back in His face. Would I ever commit suicide? I don’t think so, but who knows, maybe if things become so unbearable…”

“Stop it right there! Don’t go down that road!” Amos said. “I’d heard people talk themselves into a corner that was difficult to get out of. Focus on the positives.”

“I am. I’m alive. Not even hurt as bad as I had feared. But… the future is still a mystery. Only now I’m starting to look beyond the here and now.”

“That’s good. You don’t want to be trapped into something obsessive.” Good advice. But there was something that held Hawkins’ attention disproportionately, the missing finger of his left hand. Somehow it symbolized all he had been through. Strangely he felt incomplete without it and as much as he could he hid it from view. He got very good at doing things with his right hand only, so much so that a tablemate at lunch asked if his left was paralyzed.

Days passed with a dark cloud over them. The only thing Hawkins was truly aware of was Irene. She came daily to check on him and even saw him in a consultation room, where they cut off the cast to have a good look at the result of the operation. She was pleased with the healing and praised him as if he’d had anything to do with it. But still he took a childlike pleasure in her words. Amos noticed.

“You’re falling in love with her.”

“Me? You’re crazy. What would she want with me? I have no money, no home, no future and parts of me are missing. And I probably won’t be able to walk straight again. She’s a surgical nurse with a great reputation.”

“Hey, it’s all right, everyone in this room is in love with her… and Clarissa. With the exception of Gus who has no use for women. You’re just one of many who worship her.”

“I … I’m grateful for her kindness and her care of me, that’s all.”

“You know, you’re becoming a professional denier… or maybe you always were. You’ve got to reward yourself, be kind to yourself and dare to dream.”

“Sure, next thing you’ll have us married and raising a family.”

“That not, but you should risk taking a chance.”

As much as possible Hawkins rolled around in the wheelchair. First just up and down in the room, then as his upper body got stronger, in the halls and the common room, pretending to read or work on puzzles. His mind still didn’t want to concentrate. He was free of the war, yet always wary and watchful, always listening for the bullet with his name on it.

When he was allowed outside, he had a good time wheeling through the parklands that surrounded the many buildings of the complex. There were flower beds and park benches where visiting family members met their wounded relatives. It was good to see kids running around noisily, chasing each other, just being kids.

He saw Irene less often now, every second day, then it became just twice a week which made him sad. “I’m not in love with her. I’m not I love with her…” he repeated, trying to buy himself some distance from her beauty and influence.

In his exploration, Hawkins had found a greenhouse right next to his building where the smokers collected to enjoy a cigarette without anyone frowning at them. He liked to park his chair inside, and watch the rain splatter on the glass. You didn’t have to think, just enjoy the drumbeat of the drops spattering on the glass. It soothed him. Most often the place was empty.

One day, maybe three weeks after his operation, he was outside pushing his wheelchair across the gravel strewn path, when it started to drizzle. He turned into Smokers’ Haven, thinking he was there alone. He watched the raindrops collect and trace a way downward.

“I’m glad to see you out and about,” a voice said and he snapped around, finding Irene there, half-hidden behind a potted plant.

“I thought I was alone…” he mumbled. She was smoking and offered him one. He took it to hide his surprise.

“I like to come here to get away from the pressure of the OR. And occasionally to smoke a cigarette to give me an excuse to be here.” She exhaled smoke and he did likewise.

“I don’t really smoke, but used to sometimes in the war.”

“Was it hard, the war?”

“At times. Mostly it was boring and uncomfortable, learning to make do without things.”

“Yes. My brother wrote that too.”

“Your brother’s in the Service?”

“In the Infantry, a regular GI. He died at St. Lo somewhere in Normandy,” she said stubbing her cigarette out. “I’m still not used to it. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.”

“I’m so sorry. War is cruel.” He bit his lip to stop himself from saying more.

“We were twins you know. I was first, he came four minutes later, so I’m the older, always the big sister. Was the older.” She lowered her head, tears sparkling in her eyes. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I never talk about it.”

“I have nobody to miss me if I die. I was an only child and my parents are gone.”

“We can fix wounds and broken bones here, patch injured soldiers up and put them back together, but we don’t fix their minds and souls very well. And every loss creates a circle of pain that touches many people, extended families and friends. I’m not alone in grieving, but it sure feels like it.” She lowered her head and stared at the floor. Outside, as the rain pelted harder against the glass, neither felt like leaving.

“I’m sorry about your brother, sorry for the people I’ve lost. Sometimes I feel sorry for the enemies I killed. War is insanity… but Hitler has to be stopped, Japan has to be stopped. And the task fell to our generation to do it.” He thought a while. “Ever think of what it would’ve been like if this war had never happened? If diplomats could have settled all the issues peacefully?”

“Constantly. But it’s the burden of this generation and their sacrifice to fix this world. Our parents fought in the Great War and that was their burden. Can we do any less?”

“I don’t know. Duty often gets so confused. I owe it to myself to survive, yet my government demands sacrifices from me… that I sometimes don’t think are fair. All the GI’s in the foxholes think they should send the politicians to fight this war and see if they’d be so ready to send more young men to get killed or maimed.”

“We didn’t make this war but we have to fight it. My brother said that and believed it. His last letter said he wasn’t afraid to die. No, that worry was left up to me. And every day I was afraid of getting a telegram from the War Office expressing their condolences. And when it came, I could stop worrying and start grieving. The trouble is that grieving also doesn’t stop, but persists and persecutes me.”

“With me it’s the other way around. I can stop being afraid and have to start worrying about my future.”

“You’ll be all right. You are… will be healthy soon enough. You’ll find a job, a girl and get married.”

“You know I fear that more than bullets flying. How can I take a wife and promise her a better future? Raise a kid in a world gone mad? Sometimes I don’t want to wake up and get out of bed.”

“But you will. You don’t strike me as a quitter. I understand they’re awarding you the Silver Star. You have to find the same courage that earned you that.”

“It wasn’t courage, it was fear.”

“Sometimes we can’t see the difference but it’s there. As there’s a line that separates good from evil that we all recognize. It was that evil my brother went to fight against.”

“May his sacrifice not be in vain,” Hawkins muttered as if in prayer. They both were silent for long moments. The rain stopped as the clouds moved off and sunshine again filled the sky. Irene stood up slowly, smoothing down her smock. “I guess I better go back.” At the door she paused and turned back. “Thank you, James, for listening to me.” Then she left. Hawkins stayed seated, thinking he could still smell her and feel her presence. “This is better than any drug,” he thought and wheeled himself back inside, then into the elevator and into his room.

“Had a nice walk?” Amos asked.

“Sort of.”

“You just missed Clarissa. She was in here a good half hour, settling in a new patient. You should’ve seen this room. The air was heavy with testosterone and echoed with people panting. She’s an absolute knockout, her every step, her every motion as if choreographed. I hear a chorus of angels singing as long as she’s in the room. You really should’ve been here.”

“Maybe I should have,” he lied, treasuring the memory of his talk in the rain.

His health improved and he saw less and less of Irene. He was saddened, but thought it was only to be expected: what chance did he have with the girl? She isn’t a girl, but a real, vibrant woman. Yes, she’s alive and you’re half dead… or asleep. Wake up! Open your eyes! Do…something!

A Captain so-and-so came from the awards committee to let him know that the Silver Star had been approved and Vice President Truman would be pleased to present it himself… as soon as Hawkins was able.

“How long until you can get on your feet? It would look better on the photographs and film.”

“Soon, I’m told. I’ll be starting a new phase of physiotherapy. But I’ll have a limp and have to walk with a walking stick.”

“That’s good, an injured war hero works the best. The wheelchair would be too much like the president… you know.”

Hawkins knew, the President stricken with polio lived in a wheelchair, making heroic efforts at times to stand in public, to look strong and confident for the American public.

As often as he could, Hawkins stopped off at the Smokers’ Haven hoping to run into Irene again. One day, tired after trying to walk along parallel bars for support, he wheeled himself outside and into the glass enclosure. He tried to relax his tired muscles, but a few were jerking around randomly. He’d have to learn to walk again. His prolonged stay in bed had weakened him but he was working hard to get back into shape. He wasn’t depressed by it: the difficulty gave him a goal, something to overcome, something to aim beyond.

He was alone, watching the breeze make the foliage dance. The door opened and Irene was suddenly there.

“Oh, it’s you. I… I like to sit here alone and relax. The OR tends to be so hectic. Too much to do, have to think and react fast. In between a cigarette is welcome. This is the only place I smoke.”

“I can leave,” Hawkins said, hoping he wouldn’t have to.

“No, no. It’s all right. You don’t undress me with your eyes like a lot of men around here do. I can talk to you.”

He laughed nervously. “I hate to disillusion you, but I do think about that, about what is… you know, underneath.”

“I suppose I should be used to that by now, and I don’t mind much, really. It’s therapeutic for a patient to think of something other than his injuries. But you… you’re different somehow.”

“I… I feel that I don’t have a chance with you, so I don’t try, maybe that’s what you sense.”

“Why? You’re better looking than most guys, and you can talk and not salivate at the same time. So why not at least try?”

“I don’t know. I don’t feel like a whole person. I’m damaged. And you’re healthy, in the prime of your life. You should enjoy and celebrate that.”

“Really? Would you guess that I’ve had no relationships since this war started and I began working here? I go home, eat something and go to bed. That’s my perfect life. Sometimes I cry myself to sleep thinking about my brother.”

“I’m sorry about that. Strange how I can feel sorry for you but not for myself. Sometimes I feel nothing and think nothing, it’s easier that way. Because when I think too much, I feel I ought to do something. Work on a future. But all I do is fear the future.”

“I guess that’s the same with me. I can’t see myself getting married and having a family. I keep myself busy so I don’t have to think of those things. I’m too tired after work, and that’s my excuse, my anesthetic.”

“But you do much good around you. You help heal people. I’m just sticking my head in the sand not to see, not to hear.”

She glanced down at her watch and jumped up. “Oh, I must go now. We’re prepping someone for the OR.” Again she turned back at the door and said, “It was nice talking with you, James.” This time, for the first time, his name sounded real from her lips. He sighed, then realized that she hadn’t had a smoke.

Thinking back on their talk, Hawkins was inspired to do more. As first he decided to concentrate on building up his strength. Come morning, he was in his chair, wheeling along the four-square corridor that went around the whole building. There were some fire doors in the way, but mostly they were open. The first day he put in a mile, and by the third day stretched it to three miles. His arm muscles started bulking up and he started feeling stronger. He also made progress with walking, holding onto the parallel bars. The therapist had to caution him not to overexert himself and risk a relapse.

“Healing comes in steady, easy stages. Forcing it might can cause you harm and slow your progress. Let your muscles rest and recover after each effort.” Easier said than done, when he had so much impatience driving him. At nights he tried to decide if he was doing it for himself or for her? Did it matter as long as he improved?

Next morning, returning from his rounds, he was hugely surprised to see Irene sitting on his bed and talking with Amos. “Hi.” She rose. “I just came by to see how you were making out. I’m glad to find you so active.” She had her professional face on, but her eyes were searching his.

“Yes, thank you. I’m doing well. A paraplegic from the 4th floor is organizing a wheelchair race and I’m training for it. Contrary to all expectations the administration approved it.”

“Yes, they want to motivate people to strive. And will you win?”

“Not likely. Hollis is a bear, with muscles twice the size of mine. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t win.” She took his wrist to check his pulse.

“Good strong beat. Keep it up.” Then she left, a roomful of eyes following her. Hawkins got himself from the chair into his bed. He felt tired but elated.

“Jimmy boy, she’s sweet on you,” Amos said.

“Irene? You’re crazy! Off your rocker.”

“Not a bit. She asked about you. If I found you focused, content or interested in things. And of course, I painted the best picture of you for sure.”

“They must’ve upped your medication and you’re hallucinating. That’s the only explanation.”

“Not a bit. She stayed here a full 10 minutes, talking to me while waiting for you. How do you explain THAT?”

Hawkins couldn’t, but refused to believe it.

In the afternoon they brought in a new patient and set him up in the next bed. He had bandages holding a cast on his left arm.

“I’m Captain Bolan from 135th Infantry,” he said by way of introduction. The statement caught Hawkins’ ears.

“The last I heard, the 135th was deployed in Italy.”

“It still is. We reached the foothills of the Alps but there’s no way we’ll be able to dislodge the Germans from there. By now even the High Command has given up and is transferring forces to the Ardennes where there’s a major battle going on. But they left the 135th to keep the Germans boxed in.”

“What about the 1st Armored, my unit?”

“I think they were ordered north.”

“What’s happening in Italy?”

“The Germans are playing a cat and mouse game. They let us gain some ground then they counter attack. Often you don’t know if you’re coming or going.” Bolan looked up and down the room and raised an eyebrow. “What the scoop here?”

“Walter Reed is a huge complex. This building’s for bones. I’m here for my leg. Amos for his hip and you for your arm. Every building has a specialty. Internals, head trauma, psychiatric, rehabilitation… you name it they got it. Some of the best people work here.”

“What about the nurses?”

“What about them?”

“Are they good looking? Approachable? You know, bring some zest to the place?” Hawkins shrugged.

Amos answered. “Some are real dogs, same as everywhere. Some want to mother you, others are strict school marms and are constantly scolding you for one thing or another. Then there are some battleaxes, bullying everybody. There are a few passable looking gals, who will give your pills and the time of day but not much else. Then there are two bright stars in the constellation. Heavenly and I mean hea-ven-ly. The sun rises and sets on them.”

“That sounds good to me,” Bolan said.

“But don’t bother. One’s a beautiful blonde but cold as ice, the other’s a mysterious dark beauty who’s sweet on my buddy here.”

“She is not! Stop putting that in people’s heads!”

“I’m not. I’m trying to put it into yours.” He looked over at Bolan. “Can you imagine that, he’s the only one who doesn’t know it. Refuses to admit it.”

Hawkins escaped such talk by burying his head in the pillow and going to sleep.

In mid-afternoon he was wakened for tea and cookies. Amos was still talking to the new arrival.

“You know in England I hated tea, always wanting coffee. But here I quite miss it and look forward to it every afternoon.”

“I prefer coffee as well,” Bolan said, slurping at his cup. “But it’s at least warm. What about you James, what do you like?”

“I like the beach, sunshine and pretty girls dancing. A warm moonlit night with crickets chirping and fireflies dancing in the air. The market to soar, prices to drop, and everybody hiring. Politicians agreeing and not calling each other names. Let’s see have I left anything out? Yes, a cure for the common cold, a hotdog on Sunday in the baseball park, cotton candy at the fair, a cool beer in the heat of summer and a girl on my arm. That about covers it, but it’s not the complete list. Ask me tomorrow.”

“Is he always like that?”

“Oh you have to excuse him. He’s a real war hero… slated for the Silver Star. Although I don’t know what got into him today.”

Suddenly the room went quiet, and Clarissa appeared, walking along the row of beds.

“Here she comes, my sunshine,” Amos whispered.

Clarissa looked neither right nor left, but stopped at Hawkins’ bed.

“Lieutenant Hawkins, is it not? You’re due for another X-ray. Someone will be along shortly.” She batted her lashes and Amos nearly fainted. “Is it true they’re going to give you the Congressional medal?”

“No, no. Just the Silver Star.”

“Silver is good,” she said, bending over him to fluff up his pillow. She gave him a sweet smile and walked away, swaying slightly, synchronized like a Swiss watch. Halfway to the door, she looked back to see if he was watching her. Once she was gone, everyone’s eyes swung around to Hawkins accusingly, wondering who the hell he was.

“If that doesn’t beat all,” Amos said. “Two of the hottest girls in the world sweet on you.”

“You’re nuts!”

“How does he rate?” Bolan wanted to know.

“Actually he doesn’t. Not really. You see, there’s a competition, at least from Clarissa’s side, wanting to be queen bee of this hive. And if she thinks Irene has turned his head, she will move heaven and earth to give her a run for the money. She’s playing the spoiler here.”

Hawkins had to think that Amos was at least halfway right. But he was dead wrong about Irene. She was only interested in his welfare, nothing else.

Next morning he asked Amos for the newspaper.

“But you don’t read,” he said, handing over the Washington Post.

“But I have to. I have to find myself a job.” And he turned to the small ads.

“Well that’s a good step forward. Look for something that has nothing to do with the war effort, because when the war’s over those jobs will disappear. Same with manufacturing. Look at the construction industry or the civil service. With your handicap, I wouldn’t recommend policing. Teaching maybe, if you have the credentials.”

“I thought I’d try something in government where my Silver Star would be a door opener.”

“Now that’s a good idea. Which department are you thinking of?”

“I haven’t decided yet. I don’t know how much stress I can put on my leg. I suspect it would have to be an office job. It’s a given that I’m not going back to driving cattle or dancing on a cruise ship. Right now, I just want to see what’s out there.” He looked through the paper, but nothing listed appealed to him. He put the paper away, deciding to make it a regular part of his daily routine.

When he wasn’t exercising or in physio, he spent his time talking with Amos or Bolan. The latter brought him up to date on the news from Italy. “You know how Mussolini was deposed, then arrested. Well German paratroopers rescued him and set him up in Northern Italy where he ran a puppet government. But when the Germans withdrew, Italian partisans captured him, killed him and hung him by his feet, along with his mistress and some of his cronies.”

“Yeah we read about it. It was in every paper,” Amos said.

“What they didn’t write about was how active the partisans are, and how likely it is that Italy will turn communist after the war. Can you picture that? Going from fascism to communism?”

“That’s how it goes. The pendulum swings one way, then the opposite.”

Hawkins tried to read a book again, but still found the words not sinking in. He put the book away and decided to write a letter to Jake and the crew.

“Dear Jake and all of you. I hope and pray that you are all well and that soon this war will end and you can come home. I’m healing, they glued my leg together and tell me I will walk with a slight limp. I hope so. I’m still in hospital, but finally out of bed and speeding about in my wheelchair. Another couple of weeks and I’ll be able to walk again. Wish me luck.

“I think of you often. You are certainly in my dreams, and I still find myself in the turret of the Lady, calling the shots. I suppose that’s normal and will be with me the rest of my life.

“Good news. I met a woman who I really like. She’s almost a doctor and very beautiful. I have less of a chance with her than a snowflake in hell, but it is nice to know she is there. She makes me want to live again.

“Now, you know the Rule, don’t speak of the past or the future. Throw it out! Think of the future, make your plans. I’m home now with no idea of how to get back into civilian life. Sometimes it feels as if that part of my brain was excised. What I’m advising is to dare to dream and plan ahead.

“I really hope this finds you all well. Your friend, James Hawkins.”

He read it and reread it, but thinking it was stilted, crumpled it up and threw it away. It took three tries to write something he and the censors could live with. He gave it to an orderly to post in the military mail.

He went for a roll outside and spent a half hour in the Smokers’ Haven, but Irene didn’t come, only a couple of orderlies. When he returned to his room, he found Bolan gone and Amos leering at him.

“I knew it. You’re in love with her!”

“With Irene? I’m not!”

“Don’t bother to deny it, I read it in your letter.” He pulled out one of the versions that Hawkins had thrown away.

“You have no business doing that. It’s private.”

“Nothing in a publicly accessible garbage can is private,” Amos retorted with spirit. “What gets me is how you’re lying about it. She’s sweet on you and you love her, so where’s the problem?”

“She deserves better. Do I look like a knight in shining armor, someone suitable for her?”

“James, oh my dear deluded friend James. We get few opportunities in life, don’t mess up yours.”

“But don’t you understand? I’m not even an officer. It was a field promotion which will be rescinded in peace time.”

“Who cares? She isn’t in the Army.”

“She isn’t?”

“No. She’s a civilian under contract to the military to fill a war need. She’s a nurse, a competent nurse, who can work in any hospital in the country. Do you really think she’d care if you’re a real Lieutenant or not? Beside as a medal winner, they may let you keep your rank and more importantly, your pay grade. You’ll be cashed out, paid an officer level veteran’s pension as well as a disability allotment. You’re sitting pretty my friend and you don’t even realize it.”

“I don’t know. My life was easy before the war. I had no direction back then, but it didn’t matter. I was young and everything was an adventure. I’ve grown old in this war. I can’t stop worrying about everything, little or big. I can’t seem to get myself started. We had… or have a tank back there, and if it didn’t want to start, it didn’t. You could crank it until the battery ran dry. That’s how I feel today, cranking but not going anywhere.”

“It’s the war. A lot of us feel that way. Back there, whatever you did could get you killed, but whatever you didn’t do could too. Don’t you think that living between those two extremes would wear you down and teach you the wrong things about life and paralyze you?”

“Amos, you’re a pretty smart guy to see it so clearly. I really must compliment you.”

“It’s easy to see what’s wrong with someone else, but not so easy when you look at yourself in a mirror.”

Each day Hawkins went through the Post, circling job possibilities. There were lots of listings but nothing that caught his eye. Without even thinking about it, he knew he would stay in Washington. Because of her? You know it’s because of her. He circled something and tried to imagine himself doing it. Lot of jobs dropped by the wayside, some as too physically demanding, some as boring and some for lack of a formal education in the area.

After a while he started reading more than just the want ads. He started paying more attention to the war news, especially the European theater of operations. It was clear that Germany was losing, pressed on both sides, east and west, but it was still dangerous as the Battle of the Bulge showed. He took some pride that it was Blood and Guts George who had broken the siege of Bastogne with his tanks. He wondered if the Lady was reassigned to his command.

In his readings he also came across an article that explained in detail the GI Bill that had been passed last June, designed to give a head start to returning soldiers. The more he read the more he liked it. He showed it to Amos. “It says here that as veterans, we’re entitled to benefits. The government will pay for your education, help with the mortgage, or provide low cost loans to start up a business. We’d be fools not to take advantage of the opportunity.”

“You know, my father runs a print shop back home and I worked for him during the summers. I know the business; maybe that’s what I should do, apply for a loan and start up a printing business of my own. With a little help, I can do that even from a wheelchair. What do you want to do?”

“Education, I think. College. Maybe study history. My loader… in the tank… always talked about history and often it was quite fascinating. He could look at anything and find its history and its significance today. I’d be interested to learn all the facts that led to this war, how it started, and how to stop it from happening again. I think that would interest me. I’ll see if I can pick up a grant application from Government Services.”

“Pick one up for me too,” Amos said.

Hawkins’ physiotherapy was going well. He could walk respectable distances without support, and even better after they removed his cast. Taking a good look at his leg, he found it skinny but the scarring not overly marked. When he walked, he only had a slight limp. Much better than he could have hoped for. He was disappointed that Irene wasn’t there to witness it.

However the next day he was summoned for an examination and his heart started beating furiously when it turned out to be Irene waiting for him.

“Well, James, you look quite good without a cast. Take a turn around the room and let me see you walk,” she said in a modulated professional voice. “Hardly any limp at all. I know you’re showing off for me. I want you to do it again, but this time I want you to relax and let it come naturally.” He took a turn, trying to stay relaxed as she had asked. “Yes, that’s better. There’s slightly more limp, but less stress on your muscles and bones. Try not to think about it, simply let the motion flow.” He did more walking for her as she smiled at him encouragingly. Then she got him up on the table, pulled up the left pant leg and methodically examined the scar. “Really very good. In a year you’ll hardly see it at all.” She prodded his muscles, expressing satisfaction. “I can see you’ve been exercising. Your muscles are already stronger. There are fibers that will never work again properly, but thankfully they’re less than 5 percent. As far as I can see, you’ll do quite well. Do you have any complaints?”

“Sometimes I get an unexplained flash of pain for no reason. Or I might not be doing anything and still feel it.”

“That I fear is your severed nerves complaining. You see they’re no longer connected to your muscles and have nothing much to do. So they fire sometimes spontaneously which your brain interprets as pain. It’s not real, but your brain doesn’t know that because the pain feels quite real. Through prolonged disuse, the circuit connecting these fibers might shrink and atrophy, and it will stop pulling the trigger, let’s hope. Overall I’m really pleased with your progress. Now sit down on the chair and tell me how you’re doing otherwise.” He moved over to the chair and faced her. She looked interested, her eyes focused on him, but there was no connection there. He felt somehow cheated.

“What do you mean?”

“Well you were seriously injured, and we fixed the physical part, but what about the mental side. How do you feel, what are you thinking, what are your plans once you get out of here? That could happen as early as next week after a doctor has a look at you and signs you out. The army will also process you for discharge and arrange some support for you. So what do you intend to do for the short term and the long term? It’s often not easy to slip back into civilian life.” She looked at him expectantly, appearing very different from the Irene he met in the Smokers’ Haven.

“For the short term, I intend to stay in Washington. I know the Veterans Administration will help me find lodging and a temporary job. I intend to enroll in a college on the GI Bill.”

“Good for you. Do you know what you want to study?”

“Yes, geopolitical history, the root causes of war and how to stop it. Never again should we sacrifice a generation because we haven’t tried hard enough to solve problems through diplomatic means. I want to study the long term effects of war, in terms of personal trauma propagating through the whole of society, the economic implications and how war changes the world. And once I know all that, I’d like to teach it.” The longer he spoke, the more sure he felt and more passionate his voice sounded.

“I see you’ve thought this through. It’s good to hear, because so many of the wounded are lost and can’t fit back into civilian life. It does my heart good to hear that you’ve found your way.”

Do it! his mind screamed, say something! He swallowed. “I can thank you for that.”

“How so?” Her eyebrows went up in surprise.

“You made me want to live again.”

“Me? How?”

“By taking care of me medically and treating me as a real human being. Then most importantly, sharing something of yourself. I can’t say enough how much that has helped me. So I thank you with all my heart and I’m not ashamed to confess it.”

She looked stunned. “James, when you’re sick, it’s natural to fall in—shall I say—in love with the people who take care of you and try to make you healthy. It happens almost a hundred percent of the time. And yes, even the caregiver grows to feel deeply for the patient. But it’s like falling in love on a cruise, the love lasts for the voyage, but afterwards, it’s awkward and doesn’t feel natural.”

“I guess I know that. You think I mistake gratitude for love, don’t you? I don’t. I love you.” His heart raced with his daring. “There I said it. I didn’t think I could. I didn’t think I’d have the courage. They should award me another Star.” Then he got scared again. “I know I’m not much now, that I’m damaged. But I’m healing and intend to mend some more until I’m wholly back on my feet. I know that you could do better but I had to risk telling you and not miss my chance.”

“James. I don’t know what to say. It’s obvious that you’ve touched my heart. But you don’t understand how little I feel at times. I see pain around me and it rouses me to help and to give and give and give, until I feel that I’ve got nothing more left. See, I’m damaged too. It’s this war, the pain I’m surrounded with, my brother… Sometimes I work to exhaustion so I can sleep. I don’t dare medicate myself and became a slave to it. I just don’t know what I feel or even what I should feel.” She stopped and looked away from him to avoid seeing him and feeling his need.

Hawkins didn’t try to speak; he understood all too well the confusion she was confessing. She made no move to dismiss him and he made no move to go. The big round clock ticked on the wall a second at a time.

Finally she roused herself. “Thank you for hearing me. I haven’t talked to anybody else about any of this. I don’t know why… so please don’t make too much of it.”

“I fear I already have. I… I was going to ask you to go to a dance with me and I would step on your feet and that would be the measure of our reality.” It was humorously intended to ease the strain they were both feeling.

“If I see you in a dance hall you may ask me for a dance.” She stood and reluctantly he stood and turned toward the door. As he stepped out of the room, he bounced his hip off the door jamb and hissed.

“Are you all right?” she called after him.

“Of course. Of course I’m all right,” he kept muttering all the way to his room.

He went to the library and filled out an application to George Washington University for the next term in undergraduate studies. He also filled out an application for the local postal service as a mail sorter, explaining that he was a wounded veteran who needed lighter duties. He felt good. He had taken positive steps to reclaim his life. He didn’t know how he stood with Irene, but he didn’t feet discouraged by the intense discussion they had exchanged.

When he got back in his bed he felt tired but satisfied. He had mailed the applications, giving the local army postal station as his address. Wherever he lived, he could always pick up his mail there or have it forwarded to him. He had contacted the office of Citation and Awards, informing them that he was shortly to be medically discharged from Walter Reed and would thus be available for any of the proposed ceremony. He had also indicated that he would be asking for a discharge from the army on medical grounds, so any presentation ought to take place while he was still an active member of the army.

Amos immediately noticed his changed demeanor and asked about it. “I’m starting my life again,” Hawkins said more cheerfully than he really felt.

The next day Hawkins saw a doctor who leafed through the file, studied the X-rays and eventually signed the discharge papers. He was passed along to an intern who went through a long questionnaire that documented his current physical and mental state. The intern, bored at having to process many such requests, hurried through the protocol. He finally reached the end of the forms and sighed in relief.

“This is it. This’ll go into your records and get passed along to the Military Discharge Office. More than likely, they’ll discharge you with a disability rating. They should contact you in a week or two, but don’t be too impatient as they have a lot to do.”

The intern looked Hawkins up and down and added rather condescendingly, “Your country’s invested a lot of time and effort in fixing you up and making you into a useful citizen again. Don’t waste all this good work by drinking too much and getting into trouble as many of our veterans have.” He snapped the file shut and placed it into the out stack that would go through the labyrinth of the system.

Another thing completed, Hawkins rejoiced. He was amazed by the massive administrative machine that was at work. He would also have to track down his back pay.

The next day with deep snow outside, Hawkins was walking the four corner hall, practicing with a walking stick, trying to find the proper rhythm. Occasionally he had to step out of the way of a gurney pushed by an orderly conveying a patient from point A to point B. Sometimes he made way for a phalanx of nurses, going on or off shifts. One or two of the older ones smiled at him boldly, attracted by his good looks and jaunty stride, the younger ones more shyly. He started to feel quite human again, with one foot out the door, almost into civilian life.

By every office door there were chairs and often had patients waiting in them. Ducking around a service trolley, Hawkins nearly ran into a patient with a bandaged face who looked oddly familiar. Sure, half the face was bandaged, but the eyes and the hairline— “My God, Jeff!” he said, disbelieving.

“Lieutenant Hawkins??!” Jeff mumbled, thunderstruck. “What are you doing here?” both asked simultaneously.

“I’m here where they fixed up my leg. What about you?”

“I broke my jaw bone and lost my front teeth.”

“And how did you manage that?” As if he could not guess.

“Jude drove into a ditch, and I wasn’t watching and I got thrown against the hatch mount. Broke my lower jaw in six places, my upper in three, and I lost five teeth. They flew me first to London, where they wired my jaw and sent me back here to fix the rest. This is my second day here but I had no idea you would be here.” His voice was different from what Hawkins recalled, no doubt affected by the medical procedures he had undergone.

“The doctors are ready to discharge me and the army will cashier me out soon on medical disability. But tell me how are the others?”

“Fine, everyone’s fine. Jake’s been promoted to Master Sergeant. Hicks is same as ever. He never stops lecturing and keeps buying books so that there’s hardly any room left for the ammunition. Jude’s just the same, worried about the Lady, due again for an overhaul. Bill’s the new loader and he’s all right. A hillbilly from Tennessee and he plays the part, pretending to be dumb but is quite shrewd.”

“Did you get my letter?”

“One, where you said you’ve fallen in love or something. You should’ve heard Jake go on about that. He said he was so relieved to read that, afraid that maybe you were of some other persuasion.” Jeff chuckled, then winced as something in his mouth hurt.

“Where are you housed?”

“On Ward C, the 4th floor, mouth and nose trauma. When they finish with me they’ll send me onto orthodontics.”

“Yes, that’s in another building. I’m in Ward D on the second floor east. Come and see me anytime.” Jeff couldn’t smile, so he nodded. “Anyway, you’re out of the war for now.”

“Oh yes. This’ll keep me home, I was told.”

“Good. Then you’re safe. Now if only the others…” he tailed off. Yes, the others.

An orderly came out of the office and beckoned to Jeff, who rose, undecided if he should salute Hawkins or not.

“Meet you for lunch in the cafeteria today or tomorrow so we can have a longer talk,” Hawkins called as Jeff disappeared. He stared at the door, still not quite believing what just happened.

Checking the cafeteria at lunch, Hawkins couldn’t find Jeff anywhere. Some medical procedure must be holding him up. However, the next day, Jeff was there waiting for him, drinking some concoction through a straw.

“Sort of a pork sausage-potato milk shake. I don’t recommend it, but better than being fed through an IV.”

“So, what do they say? What do they still need to do?”

“They got the lower jaw set and now are working on the upper. It’ll take about 6 months or so and by then the war could be over.”

“Let’s hope so. Now tell me what’s happened with the Lady.”

“Well soon after you left, they sent us north through France to join up with Patton again. We were tail-end Charlie on the push to break the siege of Bastogne that started the German withdrawal. They never stopped running after that. But you should’ve seen it. They ran out of fuel and had to abandon their armor and walk back to Germany. We saw brand new Tigers, Panthers and self-propelled assault guns. They had tank-destroyers like you never saw. Thick, sloped armor up front with an 88 cannon. Every tanker’s nightmare. But God cleared the way for us, because they ran out of gas and had to leave them where they stopped. Hundreds of tanks, standing nose-to-tail as in a parking lot. An unbelievable sight. If I remember anything of the war I’ll remember that.” Then he hastily added, “And the two Tigers you knocked out, of course.”

He finished his shake, while Hawkins struggled with a tough piece of beef. “We crossed the Rhine at Remagen and the Germans had no fight left in them after that. There were isolated pockets of resistance, but without heavy equipment. The thing we had to fear were 15, 17 year old kids with a Panzerfaust. They could easily kill a tank. They also had a new kind of aircraft, jet propelled people said, that was very fast, but there were so few that we hardly saw any. So we crossed the bridge, and Jude went into a ditch and I got hurt and that was that.”

“OK, that was the war. What about my crew?”

“You know, just the same. In Marseilles, Jake found the best bordello in town, and I had the best time of my life there. I was hung over the next day, but Hicks dragged me off to sightsee, churches and a museum. When I got back, Jude got me to help him change a link in the track, and help Bill clean the interior.” He shrugged his shoulders. “In Lyon, pretty much the same. Bill and I got drunk and got laid while Hicks played the piano like a pro. Have you heard him play?”

“Yes, back in training in California.”

“Well you should’ve seen it. All the girls gathered around to listen and afterward fought among themselves to do him honor. That was one hell of a night. I had the best meal of my life there.” He looked with jaundiced eyes at his sausage-potato shake. “Anyway, once we hooked up with Patton, we had time for nothing else but drive, drive, drive. He wanted to be first in Berlin, and I bet he will be.”

“Yeah that’s George for you. Nothing’s fast enough for him. How was Germany?”

“Germany’s a heap of ruins. Their cities and towns bombed to rubble. The people are freezing and starving. There’s nothing left in the stores, no food, the shelves are empty. Believe it or not, I started feeling sorry for them. If you could see the kids… begging for food, and cigarettes which they used for money ’cuz their currency was worth shit. There was nothing to buy anyway. The factories were smoking ruins, the trains weren’t running, tracks and bridges were destroyed. Roads were full of bomb craters and we had a hell of a time driving them. That’s what got the Lady, trying to get around an unexploded bomb. And there’s no work being done. No water, no sewers, no electricity. In the coldest winter in memory, can you imagine that? My injuries notwithstanding, I was glad to get out of there. It’s like we’re better off bulldozing the whole country and erecting a tombstone… casualty of war.”

“They started it. I suppose this is payback.”

“Yes, with a vengeance. Oh yes, and there’s a lot of talk about death camps. Thousands of Jews slaughtered, maybe millions. I’ve talked with people who’ve seen it and swear it’s true. Mountain of bodies, mountain of bones. It makes you want to puke… and kill’em all.” There was a prolonged silence after that.

“How’s Jake? And Hicks and Jude?”

“All right the last I saw them. Jake got some foot rot that kept him in the hospital tent, but he quickly got over that.”

“What about Townsen and… Jesus! I can’t remember who else was left.”

“Stewart with his whole crew drowned, when they fell into a river from a pontoon bridge. Townsen is also dead. Got run over by his own tank that backed right over him. The Lady, she’s been rechristened the Lucky Lady. I hope nothing happens to them.”

“Amen to that.”

The next day, Hawkins was discharged. Irene came to say good-bye personally but only shook his hand and wished him luck. He was disappointed, having hoped for something warmer, but she wrapped herself in her professionalism again, safe from emotions. He went upstairs to the 4th floor, gave his address to Jeff and promised to visit him.

Packing up his few belongings he said good-bye to Amos, promising to visit him.

“See you later Buddy. I’m glad you’re getting out of here. I have maybe a month left here before they’ll let me go home. I wonder what I’ll find there,” Amos said, frowning. “But I wish you luck. Lots of luck. Stay in touch, you have my address.”

Hawkins left the building, heading over to Administration where he signed more papers and was directed further down the “assembly line.” He was given a haircut and shave; the barber swore it was in the latest of the “smart” styles. At the Quartermaster, he was issued a new uniform, new shoes and a hygiene kit. At the Payroll Office, he received his back pay in crisp new bills and for the moment he almost felt rich.

The Housing Office found him a spot in an army barrack within walking distance of the hospital but not being sure of the location, Hawkins took a taxi to it. The driver was quite irritated about being hailed for such a short ride. Hawkins presented himself at the office and was assigned to a cot. The room had ten beds, but only four were occupied. He had only a duffel bag with a change of uniform and some toiletries, which he stowed away in the footlocker. Then he enjoyed a long hot shower and the excellent food in the mess hall.

On the third day there, he received a letter informing him that he had been accepted into George Washington University. They recommended that he come in as soon as possible to receive tutoring in the basics to ready him for university courses. They also confirmed his status as a veteran using the GI Bill allotment. The University was excited about it as he was among the first batch to apply to the program. Next day, he visited the campus, the Office of the Registrar and afterwards talked with the person in charge of the veterans’ curriculum. Together they sketched out the tutoring, and what needed to be refreshed.

“So when the summer term starts you’ll be ready to cope with the material,” Mr. Harrison said. “Welcome to George Washington, you’ll find us grateful for what you did for our country.” They shook hands and parted. Outside were three vets waiting their turns.

Hawkins was alone in the room, sitting on his bed, polishing his boots, when a Major was shown in by one of the front desk staff. He quickly stood up and snapped off a salute.

“At ease, Lieutenant. Have a seat.” He pulled up a chair and settled on it facing Hawkins and opened his attaché case. “I’m Major Rutledge from the Office of Citation and Awards. I’m here to prepare you for your presentation on March 20 by Vice-President Truman at the White House. We have a lot to do until then. First off, you’ve been promoted to First Lieutenant. It was felt that it would look better in print and the film that will document the event. It’s the rank you’ll be allowed to take into civilian life, as I understand you’ll be shortly discharged. Second, you’ll get a new, tailored dress uniform for the occasion. A Lieutenant Skyler will be by to work with you on that. Also someone will track through your record so that you have all campaign medals and ribbons. Understand?”

“Yes, Sir.” Hawkins nodded. All this for two Tiger tanks? What had he let himself in for?

“After the award ceremony, and don’t worry a PR officer will walk you through the entire protocol, you and a guest will be invited to a celebratory dinner and dance at the White House. So please provide the name of your guest as soon as possible.” The Major then shuffled through his papers. “Oh, yes. There will be 4 awardees. Two unfortunately posthumously, a marine in a wheelchair and you.” He looked up at Hawkins. “I understand you have a bit of a limp and walk with a cane, is that correct?”

“Yes, but I don’t have to. For a short period I can walk normally, Sir.”

“No, no. Use the cane, limp a bit. We need to show the public that you’ve paid a price for your bravery.” He seemed to consult a mental checklist, and said, “That’s it for now. Don’t worry, all details will be worked out well beforehand. Congratulations on your award, you’ve earned it. And after the ceremony you’ll be processed for discharge. Good luck, Lieutenant.”

“Thank you, Sir.” Hawkins saluted smartly, aware that he had to do it letter perfect.

It amazed him how much effort went into this thing. It wouldn’t be a simple “Here, take this and thank you,” but a choreographed event. A photo opportunity for the Vice-President and the dignitaries. Yes, the war was being fought on the front, behind it with supplies and transport, and of course in newspapers and news reels across the country. He had unwittingly become an actor in the production.

Next day Hawkins reported for a scheduled check up at the hospital. He was immensely glad to see that it was Irene performing the examination and follow up.

She did a quick check on his vitals, carefully examined the scars from the operation, prodded here and there, and studied the latest X-rays.

“It all looks very good, James. The bone has accepted the screws and the muscles have responded well. I’m very glad to see it doing so well. Any pain, anywhere?”

“Sometimes a mild discomfort, but it doesn’t last long. Most often it seems weather related. I’ve adjusted to walking and I’m not having any problems.”

“Very good,” she smiled warmly and he started feeling soft inside. “I think we’ll schedule you for a checkup in three months, but if you experience any trouble whatsoever, don’t hesitate to come in.” She stood up and stuck out her hand. He took it, the contact jolting him. Then she turned away to attend to other files on her desk. With the doorknob in his hand he paused and she looked up at him puzzled.

“What is it?” she asked.

“I have one more favor to ask. As you know I’m going to be awarded the Silver Star.” She nodded. “The Vice-President is going to present it on March 20. Afterwards there will be dinner and a dance at the White House and I was asked to bring along a guest. I’d very much like it to be you.” She looked flabbergasted.

“Me???”

“Yes, I owe you a lot and this would show my appreciation.” He waited hardly daring to breathe.

“James, would this be a date?”

“Yes and no. Yes, because you’d be spending the evening with me; no, because there are no strings attached.”

“I don’t know—”

“Please consider it. How often are you invited to the White House? Besides, you promised me a dance.”

“When did I do that?”

“Don’t you remember? You said if I recovered enough, you’d have a dance with me.”

“I don’t remember that at all.” Her face however was flushed.

“That’s funny. It’s burned into my memory.” Would she or wouldn’t she? He waited on tenterhooks.

“I… I have nothing to wear. I don’t even know what to wear to such a formal event.”

“Don’t worry. They gave me an advisor to deal with all that detail. I have a new uniform being prepared and they’ll also fit you out with evening wear.”

“I don’t know, James. I’m not good at these things.”

“Neither am I. They’re making me face the Vice-President. I need support, so I’m asking you, please.”

“Are you sure this isn’t romantic? That would be unethical.”

“No, no. It’d be part of my medical readjustment to deal with everyday problems.”

“A formal evening in the White House is hardly an everyday problem,” she muttered and closed her eyes to think better. He watched her face for any clues, his mind working furiously. She had buried herself in her work so deeply that she might be beyond his reach. But there had to be a spark of adventure left, wanting to be Cinderella for one night, putting on the glass slippers to attend the royal ball. She opened her eyes and said softly, “All right, James, I’ll do it. But I hope you’re not hoping for anything else.”

“No, just your company. We can go as friends and part as friends.”

“See, there you are, already stretching it. You don’t know me. And yes, I know every bone in your body and even some of your thoughts, but not the real stuff inside that makes you you.”

“Sorry, I really meant friendly. We go friendly and leave friendly.”

“OK, OK, given that assurance you’ve talked me into it. I always wondered about the White House, even as a child, but I never expected to be invited. Thank you, it’ll be an experience.”

Hawkins headed for the door before she could change her mind, but she stopped him. “James, what day is the 20th?”

“A Thursday.”

“Good,” she said, making a note for herself. He left, closing the door quietly behind him. He was bursting with joy and afraid he would break into a song in her hearing and spoil the platonic nature of their “date.”

He visited Amos. “You’re going to see the President??!”

“No, the Vice-President.”

“As good as. And are you taking somebody?” Hawkins was prepared for the question and vacillated.

“I’ve been thinking about it…”

“I know! Take Clarissa. She’d jump at the chance to be invited to the White House. She’s such a social climber. Can you see it? She’d knock out their eyes with her beauty.”

“Are you actually willing to loan your Clarissa to me? I’m astounded and flattered.”

“I know, I have mixed feelings about it, but she’d so enjoy the experience which I had a hand in arranging.”

“I don’t know, Amos. She’s so beautiful that she makes me feel ugly. I can’t have that. I’m meeting the Vice-President.”

“That’s too bad for you Buddy. Nothing much else will get her to go out with you.”

“Yeah, that’s too bad.”

Afterward he went to the 4th floor and found Jeff there reading Life Magazine.

He was overjoyed to hear about the medal presentation. “I wish I could see it.”

“You can in a movie theater. They’re sure to have it on the weekly newsreel. The whole thing is a PR gig. Politician seen in public rewarding returning heroes.”

“And do you feel like a hero?”

“No, never did. I’m glad I did what I did, but I don’t know if I’d do it again.”

“I feel that way about the war. I signed up full of patriotism and naiveté. The shine wore off pretty quickly, leaving me wondering what the hell was I doing there.”

“I know how you feel.”

Hawkins had a hectic week, going for fittings of his new dress uniform and walking through the ceremony several times. They had stand-ins for all the principals, except for himself and the wheelchair bound marine who was also to receive the Silver Star.

“A real circus,” the marine whispered to Hawkins during a rest period. “I’m tempted to give the medal back and get the hell out of here. But it means about $200 more on my disability pay and me and the wife could sure use that.”

Hawkins later found out that the Marine Sergeant had defused a mine that had gotten caught in the prop, threatening to sink his troop ship, thereby saving close to 500 lives. That made Hawkins think: he had saved only 5 lives counting his own, yet he was also getting the Silver Star. Go figure.

He walked to Walter Reed and asked for Irene. The receptionist gave him a long look before she announced him on the intercom.

“James, what brings you here?”

“I’m here to give you this voucher for an exclusive dress shop which will fix you up with exactly what you need at the government’s expense. Dress shoes and accessories, even underthings.” He bit his lips: he shouldn’t have said the last.

“Well I’ve been wondering how I was going to deal with that. I have a nice cocktail dress but hardly adequate for the White House.”

“Also,” he hurried before he could lose his nerve. “I have here another voucher to Arthur Maxwell Dance Studio to polish our dance steps.”

She frowned. “How many sessions?”

“Only three. I guess I need it, so I asked for it.”

“This is turning into quite a production.”

“Yes and it’s scaring me. I’m starting to have nightmares, imagining falling on the dance floor.”

“OK, OK, I’ll do it, but it’s pushing it, I have to warn you.”

“If you change your mind, I understand. I’ve been alone before,” he said artfully, holding his breath.

“No, I won’t go back on my promise. I suppose we’ll have to grit our teeth and somehow get through it.”

“That’s how I feel,” he said in a rush of relief.

The first time at the Dance Studio he was in a daze. His left hand held Irene’s hand, his right high on her back. He dared no more than the lightest touch. She too was stiff and formal, causing the instructor to break into passionate rhetoric. “No, no, no! You’re butchering it. First of all relax. Then think, she’s the flower you’ve dreamed about, to sweep her off her feet, to show the brightness of a summer day. And you, dear lady, it’s not enough just to look good, you must feel it and make him feel it. He’s the man you want, even if you don’t. You have to be aware of each other, as if there were only the two of you in the world. You must communicate with each other with tender touches and looks…” Irene started giggling which turned the instructor purple.

“Sorry, it just reminds me of the gym teacher in high school prepping us girls for the prom—”

“Madam! We are a world class institution. We have taught the most famous, the most deserving…” He looked like he was going to have a stroke.

“We’re sorry, Master Philip. You must understand we’re very nervous about this. And we have less than a week to prepare. Please forgive our crass missteps. We trust ourselves into your creative hands.” Hawkins piled it on, as he had learned from Jake and Hicks. The instructor was sufficiently mollified to continue. The giggling had helped; both were more relaxed and the dance steps flowed more naturally.

By the end of the hour they had earned a few “good’s” from the teacher.

Afterwards, exiting, Hawkins suggested coffee and steered Irene into a pleasant coffee shop, where they chuckled over the artistic sensibilities of their instructor.

“I suppose it’s difficult to be him, dealing with people who don’t know their right foot from their left.”

“We were better than that. I thought by the end we were quite good. Feel it, communicate it,” she imitated the rise and fall of the instructor’s tone and both of them burst out laughing. “You know, I haven’t danced since my graduation from nursing school. I’ve forgotten how much fun it is.”

“Me too. I haven’t held a woman in my arms since forever. It felt good and right. Thank you for agreeing to do this for me. It’s better than any medicine.”

“James, I had more fun than I deserve,” she said, suddenly serious. He waited but she said no more.

As they left the coffee shop, he hailed a cab to take them home; she first to a brownstone house in a nice neighborhood close to Walter Reed, and then onto his barracks, at least to the gate, through which the cab wasn’t allowed.

After the excitement of the day, Hawkins couldn’t settle down. Not to disturb his roommates he went outside to pace around the barrack, cooling his restlessness in the night air. It had been exhilarating to hold her and match steps with her. Luckily his days on the cruise ship helped him to smooth out his steps now and hide his limp in the flow of music and movement.

“She’s the medication I need. Life seems pointless without her. You poor bugger, you’re hopelessly in love,” he talked to himself as he took larger and larger strides. “What are you going to do if she doesn’t feel the same? She was very kind… but that means nothing. She only agreed reluctantly. Be careful James, you’ve got to go very lightly with her.”

Two days later, the dancing went well, relaxed and flowing, each very aware of the other which helped their timing and anticipation. “Now, that was quite good. You’re starting to dance as a couple. The next step is to become one. No need to think, just float on the music wherever it takes you.”

They had coffee again and talked very naturally. She confessed, “You know James, you remind me of my brother. You don’t look anything like him, but you feel the same. I felt that at the first sight of you when they wheeled you into my examination room. That’s why I kept you as my patient and didn’t pass you on to one of the others. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s because I feel safe around you. I don’t know, but something underneath does.” She stirred her coffee thoughtfully.

“I feel the same. It’s your eyes. The first time I saw you, you had a mask on, and from then on I mostly saw your eyes.”

“And not my body? I’m disappointed.”

“Oh the rest of me noticed, 100 percent. But my eyes always looked into your eyes first.”

“I don’t know what to think. As a nurse, I see trauma and pain and feel sympathy. But what I feel for you now is more than just sympathy. So… I can’t continue to be your service provider and will have to pass you on. Sorry.”

“Whoa! Can’t we backtrack here a minute? Forget the White House, but don’t turn me over to someone else.”

“I have to,” she said firmly, but then her voice softened. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t see you privately. I’ve enjoyed this… whatever this is. I…I feel more alive than I have for years. I walled myself off after my brother’s death, but you… opened the door for me. Thank you.”

Hawkins was speechless. This was happening too fast… faster than even in his daydreams. He wanted to turn back to see if fate was rushing at him.

“I feel too much for you and as a professional, I must withdraw myself for ethical reasons and pass you on.”

“But… but…” His chest was ready to burst with tension and her face too. “OK then, can you transfer me to Clarissa please?”

She laughed. “I knew you were going to say that. It’s uncanny, but that’s what my brother would have said to break the tension. Sure I can do that.”

“No, I can’t possibly. Amos would kill me.”

“Amos? Your roommate?”

“Yes, he dreams about her all the time. I think it’s what keeps his heart beating. As sharing the same air with you keeps me alive.” The electric tension was back, and the spark was back in her eyes.

The third hour, they forgot all about the instructor and danced for each other, doing what flowed from the music. He led and she followed as if by instinct. At times his foot felt awkward, but it didn’t affect their motion. They glided over the floor in perfect harmony, holding a nearly flawless form. “Now that’s what I’m talking about. When I first looked at you I wasn’t sure I could do it. But I’m such a genius, I could teach a stone statue to dance.”

They had coffee again. “We were real good James. At the end I felt as if I was floating an inch off the floor. You do know how to dance.”

“I do. That is I used to. For two years I did ballroom dancing on a cruise ship, but after my injury I wasn’t so sure. I thank you for letting me practice.”

“I needed the practice myself. I enjoyed dancing as a girl, but mostly with other girls as the guys were so… so randy.”

Hawkins sipped his coffee, not tasting it. He was filled with the desire to go back in time, to meet her as a girl, and fill her life and his. His eyes must have communicated something of his feelings, because she reacted.

“You know I really shouldn’t have coffee this late. It keeps me up at night… but then I’m thinking of you. I wonder how you slipped through my defenses. I had a safe, maybe a little staid and predictable life, but now… I feel in danger, as if needing to flee, but my legs don’t want to move. I don’t understand what’s happening.”

“Neither do I. Sure I dreamed of this, wished for this, but never thought I could achieve it.” He looked in his cup, sloshing the last of the coffee around in the bottom. “But what is ‘it’? Is it love? Dare I call it that? Is that what you feel?”

“Love? I don’t know. I’m not experienced in this. It feels as if I’ve just woken up from a long sleep, and don’t know what time it is. But I’m willing to explore it.”

“Me too,” he said, but then feeling those words were too sparse for such a momentous event, he hurriedly added, “When you said in the beginning that I would walk and dance, I didn’t know it would be with you. All I know is that it feels right.” Did he say it right? She smiled, her eyes answering him.

That night he couldn’t sleep, and it wasn’t the coffee. He was thinking of Irene. What she felt, what she thought and what she could be hoping for. What could he do to prove to her how much he loved her? Could this be just an infatuation? He tried to imagine his life with her, ten years down the road, then twenty. He tried conceiving of that without her, and he felt empty, lost for inspiration. No, no, what he felt was real and he had to work for it. Still he was worried. In the beginning she had been so adamant about keeping this from becoming personal… and it had. Maybe a little too quickly. Could he trust it? Maybe tomorrow she would turn around and say she hadn’t meant it. And maybe he was dreaming again, like he used to as a boy back on a Texas ranch, wanting to have adventures and see the world. Now he just wanted inner peace and her.

Then he wondered why he felt so vulnerable. In his estimation she held all the cards and he was just a humble supplicant. Now if he were Jake… he would take charge and wouldn’t worry about her but simply take things for granted. Jake knew how to sweep a girl off her feet… But then, he might also have killed Simon… Let’s not start that up again…

On March 20, around 1500 hours, a government limousine pulled up at the barracks. In formal, parade ground best, with all his campaign ribbons on his chest, Hawkins looked impeccably dressed, his hair cut in a sharp military style. His roommates clapped and cheered as he walked by and entered the limousine that the driver was holding open for him. He sat erect in back, as they drove through the base. The guards at the entrance stood stiff holding their salute as the limousine drove by. After a short while they pulled up in front of Irene’s brownstone. The driver opened the door for him and Hawkins climbed the steps to open the door for her, already waiting in the vestibule. She looked stunning with a tiara in her hair, fashionably styled. She wore a pale blue dress of some expensive material that fell softly to the floor just over her velvet lined leather shoes, a formal demi-cape over her shoulders, and had a small purse in hand. She looked beautiful but apprehensive. Feeling like a Prince in some fairy tale gone mad, he took her gloved hand and kissed it, gallantly offering his arm. Somehow they made it down the stairs in view of the entire neighborhood that had suddenly collected. He passed her into the limousine and climbed in after her. They started off, at the corner picking up two motorcycle police with flashing lights that led them through the traffic, through red lights and intersections. Then a stretch along Pennsylvania Avenue, to finally turn into the White House grounds. The security at the gate looked in and waved them on, the honor guard saluting as they passed. Ahead of them was the familiar edifice of the White House. Irene sucked in her breath, reached over and grabbed his hand; he squeezed back.

The limousine stopped under the portico, a marine in dress uniform opened the door and Hawkins got out, straightened his uniform, turned and helped Irene out. For a second they stood and posed for the official photographer. Beyond a metal barrier, there was room for the public to stand and observe the red carpet event.

Charles, the protocol officer, formally attired as well, came and shepherded Hawkins and Irene through the entrance door down the main hallway into the East Room brilliantly lit by the crystal chandeliers, and filled with tables set up for a formal banquet and dancing. In one corner a group of strings played classical selections. The effect was overwhelming; Hawkins could more easily have faced a machine gun nest than make the long way to the seat assigned them. When they arrived at the table, Charles helped Irene sit, then Hawkins. He leaned close to Hawkins and explained, “I’ll come and get you before the presentation starts.” He then bowed right and left, and retreated.

Under the table, Irene’s hand found his. She looked a little pale and ethereal in the glow of all the bulbs. Hawkins looked at the table setting, picked up a glass of ice water and reached it over to her. She took a sip and set the glass down. There was no one else at their table yet, but the other tables were occupied by dignitaries in hundred dollar suits and dresses. Jewels sparkled everywhere.

“You look absolutely lovely,” he said, leaning over to Irene, and she gave him a wan smile. He felt totally stiff and inhibited, worried about the crease in his uniform. There was a podium against one wall where, he had been told, the presentation would take place. He replayed the instructions in his head. Stand straight and tall, but don’t forget to limp a little, use your cane (“We can milk the audience for a little sympathy,” Charles had said. “Remember, you’ll have a Marine in a wheelchair beside you”). Don’t smile, try to look sincere (how exactly do you do that?). Look the Vice President in the eye, all you need to say afterward is “Thank you, Sir.”

More people came and several sat at their table, nodding and smiling at them. Hawkins envied how easily it came to them, smiling, talking in undertones, while he and Irene sat as stiff as frozen turkeys before the Thanksgiving Dinner. He smiled at her and gave her a small wink. Her mouth twitched a little, but her face retained a patrician calm.

The Master of Ceremonies announced the Vice-President and everyone stood and clapped as Truman walked in with his retinue. He nodded to familiar faces, took his seat and everybody sat down again.

There followed speeches, but Hawkins couldn’t hear a word of them as he was suspended in another world. Irena reached over and squeezed his hand hard, and he would hear a couple of words, then he would slip away again. There was clapping and he clapped. At times people laughed and he grimaced. People stood and he scrambled to his feet.

Suddenly Charles was beside him and tapped him on a shoulder. Hawkins followed him out into the hall where the Marine in the wheelchair was waiting. There was an older man and an older woman to accept the posthumous medals for their sons. The woman was crying softly while the man stood stiff faced, nervously fingering his sleeve.

“What a great crock of hullabaloo,” the Marine whispered to Hawkins who nodded in agreement.

A speech ended and there was general applause. Suddenly Charles appeared and motioned. The woman looked frightened so Hawkins smiled reassuringly and offered her his arm. She grabbed onto him and hung on like a drowning soul. Inside people were standing and clapping. For an instant Hawkins saw Irene’s face, then she melted back into the sea of faces.

“Ladies and gentlemen, let us welcome our recipients for their heroic actions in face of great danger and peril. (long applause) A grateful nation awards the Congressional Medal of Honor for valiant action to the first recipient, Alfonso Rodrigues, who in the heat of battle on D-Day rescued six of his comrades-in-arms without any thought to his own safety and sadly perished of his wounds. (A Major then read an abridged report of the action.) Here to receive the highest medal our country has to offer, is his widowed mother Maria Rodrigues. Please receive our heartfelt thanks and our deepest condolences.”

Hawkins drew the tearful mother toward the Vice-President, who, stepping forward, pressed the black velvet-covered box containing the medal into her trembling hand. “Gracias, gracias…” In her moment of need her English deserted her. Hawkins gently backed her away and Charles took over, steadying her.

“Our second recipient is Hugh Connaught who on Utah Beach blew a path through the barbed wire and with a satchel charge then blew up a concrete pill box that had our soldiers pinned down on the beach. Sadly he lost his life to a sniper soon afterward. (The Major again read the text of the action report that was included in the accompanying citation.) Accepting the Congressional Medal of Honor is his father, Richard Connaught. Please be assured of our deepest sympathies.” The father also received the black box and mumbled his thanks.

“Our third recipient, who is to receive the Silver Star, is Master Sergeant Samuel Tidwell, a navy diver serving in the Pacific, who defused a mine that was caught by his ship’s propellers. Risking his life he accomplished the daunting task and saved over 520 men on the ship. Unfortunately, in a later action he lost the use of his legs. (The Major again read the particulars.) We are exceedingly glad that Sergeant Major Tidwell is here to receive the medal in person.”

Tidwell wheeled himself to the Vice President who pinned the medal on his chest. A long applause followed as the Sergeant backed his wheelchair to the others.

“Our final recipient this evening, here to receive the Silver Star, is First Lieutenant James Earl Hawkins who, by himself, destroyed two heavy Tiger tanks, using only petroleum lamps. All to save the crew of his Sherman tank, called the Lady Bug. He was badly injured in the encounter and only our excellent medical services saved his leg. (The Major again read the action report.) Please join me in thanking Lieutenant Hawkins for his brave, unselfish act of valor.”

Hawkins stepped forward, remembering to limp, and faced the Vice-President who pinned the medal on him and shook his hand. Flashbulbs popped and he was blinded for an instant. “Thank you, Sir,” he said, saluted and stepped back—all in a dream.

There was a long applause and the recipients nodded awkwardly. On cue, Charles led them back to the hall to compose themselves. The mother wiped her eyes and worried about her eye makeup. “Did it run?” she asked anxiously. It did, but Charles wiped away the worst of it.

“I’m glad that’s over,” Tidwell muttered. “Now let’s eat.”

Somehow Hawkins found his way to his table and slipped into his chair. Irene reached over and patted his hand. He smiled at her woodenly. He felt as if he had shellshock. Servants ran around the tables distributing plates of food. A plate with chicken and asparagus in cream sauce ended up in front of him. He waved the wine server away and picked at the chicken, not tasting it. Irene was doing better now, talking animatedly with a tablemate.

“Is your tank really called the Lady Bug?” A Senator from Wyoming asked.

“Yes, Sir. It wasn’t my choice; we inherited the tank.”

“What happened to the first crew then?”

“They died as far as we know.” He had been instructed not to talk of losses, but this was a direct question he couldn’t avoid.

“It’s a funny name, whoever named her.”

“We took quite a ribbing, Sir, but she made it from Algiers into Germany. Believe me that’s quite an accomplishment.”

“When a Silver Medal recipient tells me something, I believe it.”

“Thank you, Sir.” That exhausted the conversation and the Senator never said another word to him.

“You didn’t tell me about singlehandedly destroying two Tiger tanks,” Irene said to him in an aside.

“What did you think I was getting the medal for?”

“I don’t know. Over the years I’ve taken care of patients who woke up screaming about Tigers and 88’s.”

“Yes, that was … is in all our nightmares.”

Somehow Hawkins finished his plate without tasting any of it. Then he watched Irene eat tiny bites, in between talking with the woman next to her. He could still not believe she was there with him. This was a dream, the White House, the Vice-President, the dignitaries, the East Room, the chandeliers and the band playing dinner music. It occurred to him that he was Cinderella wearing his glass soul, afraid of losing it. He looked at his watch to see if it was midnight yet. It was 8:12, or 2012 military time.

The waiters started clearing the tables, and bringing dessert and coffee or tea. Looking at Hawkins, sitting straight and stiff, Irene leaned over to him and asked, “Are you all right?”

“I don’t know. This feels very unreal. I’m expecting to wake up any moment, yet I find myself sipping coffee out of china decorated with the Presidential Seal.”

“Find something in the room that looks real to you and focus on that.”

For the first time that evening he smiled. “That would be you.” She blushed and lowered her eyes.

Looking at her in profile, he was struck by her beauty. Strangely he tended to forget that in favor of how he felt about her, a deep sense of longing and desire to belong. He didn’t know if he really had her; maybe it was just a passing fantasy. He felt like he was back in the Cinderella dream again, his heart made of glass, fragile and vulnerable.

The string band energetically struck up a waltz tune. “Ladies and gentlemen, the dance floor is now open,” the Master of Ceremonies intoned.

A young couple took the floor and let themselves be carried away with the music. More of the younger set joined in, while the older people watched from their tables.

“Come,” Irene said, “I promised you a dance and dance we shall.” She laid her napkin down and got to her feet, holding out her hand to him. Slowly he rose, and feeling very out of place, he followed her to the dance floor. He grasped her right hand, put his right hand on her back, and they joined the whirling mass of couples. He felt very clumsy and stiff. On the dance floor the music seemed so alive that it became part of one’s heartbeat, and one fitted into it. “Be light as a breath of air, be carried by the pulse of the music, flow with grace and expression…” he heard Master Philip’s voice in his head. “Be the air, be the water flowing, be the flame dancing with exuberance…” he repeated to himself. And it worked. He became those things as the music took over, and he swung her through the swirl with ease and confidence. He thought of nothing but her, two souls on a prescribed path of perfection. He forgot where he was, it was just he and her. They ended up near the centre of the dance floor, locked into themselves. One by one, the older couples dropped out, yielding the floor to the younger set, in the midst of them the decorated war hero and the shining beauty, both lost in a Cinderella dream.

The music was nearing its end, but seeing the magic on the floor, the conductor prolonged the piece through two more movements. Hawkins saw nothing but her, felt nothing but her. There were no doubts, no self consciousness, but a perfect mesh of him and her as they twirled around the floor. He didn’t notice that they were nearly dancing alone, while people looked at them with a mixture of envy and admiration.

The conductor, as if aware of what they were going through, eased the music down, slowly fading it to a whisper, giving them time to come out of the strange trance that seemed to have captured them. Then the music ended, the last revolution glided to a halt, and the conjoint twins looked amazed at each other, surprised that they were one of few left on the floor, surprised by the applause that broke out spontaneously. She blushed, and he fell back into himself again.

He led her back to the table, seated her and slid into his chair, wondering what had just happened. His heartbeat slowed, and his eyes filled with wonder at the receding feelings. It wasn’t him on the floor, it was the youth in him who had found what he was so desperately longing for. He looked at Irene and saw her eyes alive with excitement. She reached over and gave his hand a squeeze.

The rest of the evening they were content just to sit, watching the activity around them. People were dancing, or talking softly around the tables.

It was past 10:00 when the Master of Ceremonies closed out the evening by thanking everyone for taking part. People stood and applauded politely as the Vice President left the room. Then there was a surge of movement toward the entrance and slowly the hall emptied.

Hawkins and Irene got their coats at the cloakroom and stepped into the fresh air outside. A white-gloved Marine passed them down the steps where the guests waited for their cars to pick them up. Flashbulbs popped as the press took their photos. On the other side of the barrier there was a small crowd admiring the red carpet exit. Some clamored for autographs and Hawkins found himself signing whatever was thrust into his hands. “Congratulations,” people often said.

“Lieutenant Hawkins,” someone called and he turned to see an older couple behind the barrier. He stepped to them ready to sign whatever they wanted. To his surprise the man grabbed his hand and shook it.

“I’m Abraham Steinhauer and this is my wife Gertha. We came to express our thanks for what you did for our son Simon. He was a great admirer of yours and wrote glowing letters about you and the crew. We thank you so much.”

“Simon… Simon was a good boy… a friend,” Hawkins mumbled awkwardly, suddenly losing the magic of the night. Mr. Steinhauer was slow to release his hand but the pressure of people leaving pushed them apart. Hawkins waved to them guiltily as they were swallowed by the crowd.

“Who were they?” Irene asked.

“The parents of one of my crew who got killed…” Hawkins said in a choked voice, stirred up by the unexpected encounter. When their limousine pulled up, he helped her in and climbed in himself. There was a spattering of applause from those still waiting for their transportation.

“What a night,” Irene said as the car pulled away. “I still can’t believe it. It felt as if I was Cinderella trespassing in the royal palace.”

“That’s strange… at times I felt like Cinderella too. Me? Can you believe that?”

“Yes. We had a glimpse of a very different life, of fame, power and ostentatious elegance. None of which I want to be a part of. But… it was fun. Wait until I tell people that I was a guest at the White House. Thank you, Jim. I’ll never forget it.”

“That sounds like the end of the road for us. I hope not. I want to see you again.”

“Jim, I hope I didn’t give you a false impression. One fabulous night doesn’t make a whole life. I don’t know you and you don’t know me. At least, not well enough.”

“I’m very willing to learn,” he said, panic rising in him. “Please don’t close the door.”

“We’ll see.”

The limousine pulled up to Irene’s apartment house and they got out, thanking the driver. At the steps, Irene paused. “This is where I’m supposed to invite you up for a nightcap, but I’m not that kind of a person. Still, I’m not ready for the night to end.”

“There’s an all-night coffee house on the corner,” he said with alacrity.

“Yes. Enrique’s. I have coffee there quite often after my shift.” She took his arm and they walked about 200 steps to the coffee shop. There was hardly anyone there, and they slid into a booth that gave them privacy. The other patrons and the staff looked at their finery in amazement. They ordered coffee with croissants.

“I can’t believe I’m hungry after the dinner we had,” she said, biting into a croissant.

“Here have mine.” He pushed his plate to her. “Irene what is it you want out of life?”

“Whoa, that’s a serious question. Are you sure you want to start with that?”

“I feel… I must move fast… not to lose you.”

“What if I want to know about you first?”

“Then … ask away, I’ll try my best to answer.”

“OK then, what do you want out of life?”

“I… I still can’t believe I’ve survived. I was sure I was going to die so all this seems like some kind of dream. While I was overseas, we had this rule in my crew, don’t talk, don’t think of the past or future, live wholly in the present. It made the day easier somehow, you know, unburdened by things from the past and hopes for a future. I think it worked quite well at the time. Now I’m not so sure. I don’t feel equipped to face my future head on. In the army you learn to let higherups do the thinking for you.” He paused and took a sip, thinking of what he should say next. “The point is, I came back still living that rule. It was hard to break away and deal with a future none of us thought we would survive for.”

“Well what’re you going to do now that you’re healed?”

“Get discharged from the army; on Monday, I’m starting work at the Post Office, and beginning a catch-up tutorial at George Washington University so that I can attend there on the GI Bill. After that I don’t know.”

“What are you going to study?”

“As I said before, humanities, languages and history. International relations, politics and government. Eventually I want to teach history, warn against conflicts and hostilities that slip into wars, somehow find ways to prevent the massacres and butchering this war caused. Look how by the end we were killing civilians as easily as soldiers. There has to be a way to stop all that.”

“A man with a sense of mission. But what about your private life?”

“My parents loved each other, right up to the end and that’s what I’m looking for. Someone to raise a family with, someone to grow old with.”

“You were lucky then. My family was anything but that. My parents fought constantly. My father gambled and my mother drank. If it wasn’t for my brother, I don’t think I would have survived.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“The point is, I have no great expectations about marriage. People rush into it and things soon sour and go downhill quickly. What I saw and learned as normal, was hell. There are no pills against that kind of damage. I suppose that sounds strange coming from a nurse.”

“No, but sad. Not every marriage is like that. My folks for instance.”

“But don’t you see? I would always be looking for the least sign of it. And any hint would stampede me into anger and condemnation. Is that the kind of wife you want?”

“No,” he said quietly. He thought hard, while she waited, watching the clouds pass over his face. “You know, you healed me… well let me heal you now. I’d think of you first and always and never hurt you…”

“You… you’ve wounded me already…”

“How? In what way?” he asked, staggered.

“You’ve softened my protective shell so I’m starting to feel again. But every good thought is killed by something from the past. And changes every word you say into a lie, every promise into a betrayal.” She shook her head. “I had a good time tonight, but I’m hurting underneath.”

“Let me help you learn differently. They say love heals, then let it. I want nothing more and nothing less.”

“You don’t understand how damaged I am. I can’t see the bright side of anything. And if there’s something pure, then I destroy it by not trusting it. When you show me love, I look for hate and wouldn’t be satisfied until I find it. Don’t you see how impossible that makes things around me? So I turn myself into a statue, and don’t feel good or bad.”

“But you’ve achieved so much. You’re a first rate nurse… taking care of people.”

“Yes I know the mechanics. How people’s bodies work and how to fix them. But it’s driven by guilt and shame for being what I am.”

“The picture can’t be as dark as you paint it.”

“But it is. When my brother was alive he was my shield and balance. I could trust him… love him. But he’s gone.”

“Then let me be that person. You’ve said I remind you of your brother. Let me be your shield.”

“You’re deluding yourself. Maybe you’re dazzled by the package, but don’t want to see the rottenness inside. At the very least we’re totally out of rhythm. You see the bottle, it’s potential, whereas I see only that it’s empty, or worse, filled with some kind of poison.”

He stopped talking, concluding that the more good he tried to reflect, the more it seemed to compel her to tear it down. He furrowed his brows, not knowing what to say. She reached over to touch his hand. “I’m sorry for spoiling your evening. It was your day to shine but I stole it. See, that’s how I operate.”

“I still want to see you and prove you wrong. I know I haven’t much to offer now, but I will in the future.”

“I said you don’t know me and you don’t. My father was a gambler who ran up a great debt which I inherited. Then my mother needed costly treatment and that added to the burden. I earn good money, but it goes for paying down the debt.”

“How much?”

“What does it matter? It’ll take me decades. See how I’m damaged whichever way you look? On the other hand it gives me a reason to work and exist.”

They finished their coffee and looked warily at each other. “I don’t know how we got here,” she said. “It wasn’t my intention.”

“It’s my fault, for pushing you too hard. You’re not ready, I can accept that. But I’m a patient man, if you give me a half a chance… That’s all I ask for.”

“You have half of a half chance,” she said, rising. They didn’t say another world until they reached her door. He wanted to say something, but she put her finger to his lips to silence him. So instead he lifted her hand and kissed her fingers.

He walked a good distance in the night, just arguing with himself, looking for reasons he could have used. When he came out of it, he didn’t know where he was. Finally he hailed a taxi that dropped him off at the base.

This time too, the guards saluted him. In his room, he found his three other roommates already sleeping. He undressed, got a towel and had a long hot shower wishing to wash away all the disappointments of the day.

Lying down on the bed was easy, but not falling asleep. Finally he forced Irene from his mind, but still couldn’t sleep. It had been an unbelievable night for good and bad. He remembered the dance and how they had been as one, working in symmetry… again he had to stop himself. Meeting the Steinhauers was a shock. Simon had not been on his mind for some time. But that was another thing left unfinished. Someone, Jake or Hicks, had killed Simon for his share of the treasure, and he was sitting on the information. He should have reported it a long time ago to somebody. But did the Army really care? One more or one less casualty, what did it matter as long as the record was complete and closed? The police? It was outside their jurisdiction. But what about himself? Could he live with the guilty knowledge? Wasn’t he an accessory after the fact? He liked both Jake and Hicks, and neither had tried to kill him when they had the chance—in fact, they did everything to save him. How did that figure in the equation? Would he get a share of the treasure? Would he accept the bribe for his silence? He struggled with these questions, depending on them to keep a more pressing question out.

Chapter 14

Early next morning he carefully folded his dress uniform. To his chagrin he found a food stain on the front of his tunic and spent a half-hour cleaning it. It had been that kind of a night, the magic mixed with the unsolicited.

He presented himself at the main sorting station of the U.S. Mail in Washington, was given a coverall, and was shown what to do. He stood by a conveyor belt that brought him envelopes; he had to select only those addressed to the District of Columbia. The next person down the line took the ones he missed, and the next after that all the A states; Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona… and so on. Each owned a letter of the alphabet. In fact in the breaks they often called each other by those letters they were responsible for.

The task was easy enough, requiring little effort only concentration. In a very short time he found his mind wandering and he snapped back into focus. But then it somehow became so automatic that he had little need to pay attention to it. The more he relaxed the better he performed, able to work and think of something else at the same time: trying to solve the problems of his life. He didn’t really have to work; the Army was giving him an allowance while he waited for his discharge, but he thought by working he would get back into civilian life faster.

After work he took the bus to the University, found his tutor and got down to studying. They tried to figure out where he stood academically. English and mathematics were OK in general, but not some of the sciences and history. He could excel in the practical sense, and could work problems in logic, but not those grounded in facts, facts which he had let slip by in high school as unimportant. By the end of the three hours they charted a course to improve on his weaknesses. It seemed daunting, but he felt good, having thought himself so much worse. The tutor gave him four books and on returning home he dove into them hungrily.

Things got busy as he performed double duty, working at the Sorting Center and studying in the evenings, doing homework that the tutor assigned.

On Saturday as he read, he was encouraged by his progress. It amazed him how quickly he was able to assimilate facts that had seemed so elusive in high school. He was hungry to learn, realizing it was the key to his future. After a while, as it even became a pleasure, he started to understand what Hicks was always talking about: knowledge being its own reward. He even started reading collateral material that wasn’t assigned but gave him deeper understanding of the subject. This time around he found history fascinating and was interested in how other nations solved their problems. His tutor praised his progress, pleasantly surprised as he had to drag some of his other students through the upgrade.

On Sunday Hawkins went to church, not for religious reasons, but somehow to recapture that feeling he had as a boy, trusting in God. Of course a church in DC was a much different place than the small community church in Texas. Still he enjoyed the quiet when he was alone, or the singing during a service.

In the afternoon he visited Jeff and Amos in the hospital, finding both improving. Amos, soon to be discharged, was making plans to return to Wyoming or Indiana (Hawkins had lost track of where he was from).

Jeff, too, looked better with the bandages off. He said his jaw had been completely rebuilt and they would soon send him to orthodontics. Hawkins found Jeff’s looks only slightly changed from what he remembered, but his voice was somewhat different. Jeff then said that he had received a letter from Jude, which he showed to Hawkins.

“Dear Jeff: by the time you read this we probably have taken Hamburg. First off, we are all well. Jake has been promoted to Second Lieutenant and made section leader. Hicks was offered a command of his own tank but refused. Bill who is running a business, trading in everything, has crammed the Lady full of merchandise. Between his stuff and Hicks’ books we hardly have room for anything else. Me? You know me, I like to tinker with the Lady. Your replacement is Shawn an Irishman from New York, who doesn’t know a thing about tanks but he can sing. The Lady is running as well as ever. We are now the only old Sherman left in the whole Company. They offered us the newer model with the longer gun but Jake refused it, thinking it would be unlucky to change. In fact after taking Bremen and getting through a hairy episode we started to call her Lucky Lady but changed back to Lady Bug not to somehow tempt fate. We are starting to think we might yet survive this war. The opposition is very disorganized, we hardly see any tanks anymore and only the odd anti-tank gun. What’s out there is those cursed Panzerfausts that even a kid can use. We capture many old and young soldiers, as young as 14. Germany is really scraping the bottom of the barrel.

“We can’t believe the degree of destruction. The bombing raids have reduced the cities to rubble, not a building left intact. The good news is, the debris keeps us out of the cities until they are taken by foot soldiers, as the tanks are not good in the ruins. Glad to hear you are better. Jude”

“Well that’s a relief. I was worried about how they were. Wouldn’t it be something if we all survived the war?” Hawkins said.

Hawkins even caught a glimpse of Irene from afar; she saw him but ducked out of the way. Hawkins swore all the way home, kicking himself for expecting too much.

Next Tuesday he got a notification from the War Office that he had been given an Honorable Discharge with medical disability. The Office of Financial Services would contact him in the near future with exact particulars of the VA Pension Allowance and Disability Disbursement. One more thing done. He was given three months to find new lodging for himself off-base.

His life got into a routine of sorting mail and studying. Two weeks after his discharge he opened a bank account in which he deposited his first government check. The week after he found a room in a boarding house on a quiet street. He had a soft bed, a table and chairs, and a large old fashioned wardrobe that reached nearly to the ceiling. The landlady was a pleasant matronly lady who looked like she had stepped out of a printed commercial for domesticity. Her breakfasts were warm, serving fresh bread or toast. On Sundays there would be pancakes and for dinner, pot roast with baked potatoes and greens.

One month after the presentation ceremony Hawkins rang Irene’s doorbell. She opened the door and looked at him long before letting him in. Her place was small and tidy. There were medical charts on the walls but no pictures, except for two, which Hawkins guessed were an old photo of her parents, and another of her brother smiling. The similarity between the twins was uncanny.

“I was thinking of you just the other day. I saw you in the hospital once.”

“Yes, I was visiting my friends there.”

“And you didn’t look in on me?” she asked archly.

“You told me in no uncertain terms to stay away.”

“So, what are you doing here then?”

“I wasn’t going to stay away forever.”

She looked at him with great intensity. “Do you want coffee?” She moved to make some before he even answered, “Yes. I would love some.” She made a pot, pouring him a mug, then sat down opposite him.

“The thing is I’ve had a lot of time to think. About you and me.” His heart stopped, waiting. “I was too quick and harsh with you the last time and for that I apologize.” She again gave him a look and he sensed that something was coming, like a Tiger loading its cannon. “I think that … maybe we can make it work, if we move very, very slowly. Make no great demands on each other, not spoil it with dreams and promises. Just spend time with each other, doing things. I can certainly do with some diversion. I’ve been living like a hermit crab, almost afraid to leave my place.” She again gave him an appraising look. “Do you think you can do that?”

He didn’t hurry his answer. “I think so. No! I know so. We’ll just be friends. ”

“OK. Friends.” She smiled but he could see it was hard for her. “So what have you been up to?”

Hawkins reported on his activities. Working and studying; studying and working.

“Sounds a bit boring,” she said trying to find a safe topic, so as not to disturb what Hawkins sensed was a sort of truce. He would have to be careful not to trigger her automatic reactions, to flee or lash out.

“Why do you work anyway? With a pension and GI Bill allowance, you don’t need to.”

“True, but it helps me to return to civilian life. I’ve got too much time otherwise that I wouldn’t know what to do with. I have to relearn thinking for myself again. You know… make decisions and such.”

“I know how you feel. I bury myself in work. Then I don’t feel so lonely.” He wanted to rush to her rescue, but swallowed it, knowing it to be the wrong thing.

“Well anyway. I’m out of the Army now. Think of that, my own person again. It’s a bit unnerving not having someone tell me what to do next.”

“The hospital’s run like the Army. I have to wear a special uniform so people know I’m a civilian on contract and not one of them. Still, when I pass the Colonel, I want to salute. The protocol rubs off on you.”

“In the combat zone we’ve done away with all that.”

“How are your studies coming along?”

“Quite good. English and math are not my problem. I’m catching up in sciences and history. I’m learning Spanish and that’s a lot slower as my tutor isn’t fluent in it. To my surprise I find that I like studying. I’ve realized that filling my brains with facts is not learning, it’s using those facts to think and come to some reasonable conclusion, that’s where real learning lies. There’s a huge difference between studying, passively acquiring facts, and the knowledge of applying them .”

“It’s the same in Nursing School, they fill your head with facts, but in real life you have to find and apply those facts properly to achieve what’s needed. I wanted to become a doctor, but with what I owe that’s not going to happen.”

“What kind of doctor?”

“Pediatric. Heal children, give them a chance at life.”

“That’s a fine aspiration.”

They spent the next hour exchanging facts about each other, being exploratory but careful not to hit a nerve. To both their surprise it went without any hitch. Then Hawkins stood up and prepared to leave, not wanting to risk the precarious balance they had achieved.

“How about going to the movies next Sunday? We also have the National Art Gallery, the Museum and the theaters.”

“Can you afford me? My money’s spoken for,” she said apologetically.

“Sure. No problem.”

“Let’s see how the week goes. We’re getting a fresh load of wounded from England. They’re bringing the boys home.”

He walked a good way home, before hailing a cab, jubilant at the understanding they had negotiated. It had been good just to talk, though he was very aware of the vigilance they both exercised. But so much better than the rejection before.

At the Sorting Station he was called in to the supervisor of his supervisor. “Have a seat Mr. Hawkins.” It felt good to be just mister again. “I hear that you’re a decorated veteran and an officer. It seems to me that your job on the sorting line is below your standing. We could certainly use you among the supervisors.”

“I thank you Sir for the offer. But I’m newly back from the war and a little gun shy. Working on the line gives me a soft entry back into civilian life. No doubt later on I’ll be looking for other opportunities, but not yet. For now the sorting job suits me just fine.”

“Very well. That makes sense. My brother-in-law returned from the Pacific minus a hand and is now a confirmed smoker and alcoholic. We can’t get him to do anything. But lately, he’s been going to a VA Center and it seems to be helping. At least I hope so. My sister’s very upset over it. So you see, I understand that it takes time to readjust. So when you’re ready for something more challenging, please come and see me.”

The thought of the brother-in-law stayed with Hawkins, and suddenly he felt the loss of his little finger acutely. He had developed the unconscious habit of hiding it by curving it into a fist or sticking his left hand in his pocket. It took him a couple of days to get over that. His tutor gave him a sample test and fed back the results. “You’ve done excellently. Your answers show not just familiarity with the topic but a genuine understanding of it. If I were to score it I would give you A+ in everything but chemistry where you were a high B. Keep up the good work. You’re already working at a college level.” The assessment gave Hawkins a tremendous boost and he dove into the material with even more resolve.

On Sunday he took Irene to a theater playing a rather inane comedy, but it made Irene laugh heartily, very much to her surprise. “It was silly, but such a welcome change from work. The more seriously wounded have started arriving. I took in a quadruple amputee and it was excruciating to see him suffer, not allowing even his family to come and visit him.”

“I lost a single finger and feel disproportionally aware of it, as if I’ve lost a whole arm. I can’t imagine losing everything. The poor man, what’ll happen to him?”

“Medically nothing more. We’ve done all we can. He’s terribly depressed. Who wouldn’t be? More than likely he’ll die, maybe of suicide, maybe because he can’t move around enough, leading to organ failure.”

“What are you doing with him? You’re bones.”

“Yes. But he’s got a four inch stump, so not knowing what else to do with him, the Administration gave him to us.”

“But what can you do for him?”

“Very little, I’m afraid. Medicate him so he doesn’t feel the pain. Sedate him a little. But it’s enough to break your heart. His mother and wife come nearly every day, but he refuses to see them. So when I think I have problems I try to remember him. We saw a comedy and I laughed. And now I feel like a traitor to him. Crazy, right?”

“Not crazy. Laughing is the last thing I would want to lose, but it’s often the first to go anyway.”

On April 15, 1945, President Roosevelt died and Harry Truman was sworn in as the 33rd President. Having seen Roosevelt so long in office, Hawkins was shocked. Not so Irene. “He hadn’t looked good for quite some time. He had all the signs. Undoubtedly the tension of his job contributed to his decline. The burdens of the Presidency are too much even for a healthy man.”

On April 17, Hawkins and Irene stood along with a huge crowd on Pennsylvania Avenue to watch the flag draped coffin in the President’s funeral cortege go by. Many people cried openly for the man who had led them for 12 years, through the Great Depression and the crucial war years.

It was impossible not to feel the shock and grief of the loss. At the Sorting Station work almost came to a standstill as people commiserated with each other in the lunch room and at the water cooler.

“What’ll happen to us now?” Noah asked.

“President Truman will take over to finish what President Roosevelt started.”

“He didn’t start the war and tried to keep us out of it, but once we were in it, he wanted to win it. Now Truman will have to do that.”

“Who is this Truman guy? All I know is that he was the Vice President, but who the hell is he?”

It was a great shock that unnerved the whole nation. But in the meantime the war in Europe was grinding down. The Russians were attacking Berlin and the Allies were pushing from the west.

Hawkins received a letter from Hicks, written for the crew.

“To James Hawkins: We were glad to receive your letter, informing us of your improved state. We also heard from Jeff, and find it miraculous that you stumbled across each other. All of us are reasonably well. There is a real sense that the war is finally winding down. The Germans are squeezed into a narrow corridor that could collapse any day. Our biggest worry, that is, everybody’s worry, is that one could still get killed in the last hours of the war. We walk around with necks pulled in to present a smaller target. There is no organized resistance left, just pockets of fanatics holding out. We often drive through villages with every building flying white sheets from the windows. Even the German civilians are glad that it’s almost over. The cities are in ruins. Cathedrals and historic buildings all destroyed. Nothing works and the people are starving. Our Army is rushing in supplies to avoid losing the entire population. I say let them starve because they brought this misery on the world and I don’t want to fight this same war twenty years hence.

“Anyway, we are thinking of coming home and getting the old crew together. Pray for us that a stray bullet doesn’t find us. Still if we survive, it’s because you erased two Tigers. We applaud that you were given the Silver Star. Jordan Hicks and the crew of the Lady Bug.” It was postmarked late March.

It gave Hawkins pause. The war could soon be over, the men would be coming home. Some damaged beyond repair, some angry, and a whole lot who would not be able to readjust to peace. He had experienced how hard it was. He realized how much he owed Irene for reigniting his sense of wanting a future… with her. The big question was what would happen if, in the end, she would turn him down.

On April 30, there were unconfirmed reports that Hitler was dead having committed suicide. Within days it was confirmed by Nazi Radio. Many thought this was just a story to cover his escape. But whatever the truth, Hitler, the architect of the war, was dead or fleeing. It was ironic that two of the main antagonists were dead within days of each other, having left behind such different legacies.

“If Hitler’s dead, why doesn’t Germany surrender?” many asked, not understanding. Days followed, and again little work got done on the sorting line.

Then on May 8th, the news flashed around the world that Germany had surrendered unconditionally! The cities and towns across America burst into spontaneous celebration of this event. People flooded the streets, hugging and dancing with each other. Every building flew the Stars and Stripes. And the feelings of the crowd were electric. The people had so looked forward to this day, the complete defeat of the enemy, that nothing could hold them back.

The commotion drew Hawkins and Irene into the street. The crowds were unbelievable. It seemed every house in America had emptied, everyone was in the streets, not knowing what to do in the near hysteria of celebration. Someone gave them a bottle of wine and they stayed to the side, not to be trampled by the mayhem on the street.

For a while they sat on a retaining wall looking on in astonishment. Irene took a sip and passed the bottle to Hawkins.

“I can’t believe it. It’s finally over— really over,” Irene said, her voice husky with wonder. “For a while… especially after D-Day, I thought it would go on forever. After every battle we’d get a new wave of wounded arriving at the hospital. Endless streams of young men, maimed and ruined by the war, with little hope of returning to a normal life.”

“I was like that. I thought I would lose my leg… and my life would be in the crapper. No wife, no family… no children… no prospects. I didn’t know how much I wanted children until it looked as if I wouldn’t have any.”

“And you weren’t even that bad. Sure you’ll limp a little. But you’re wrong. There are plenty of women out there compassionate enough to embrace the returning wounded. I believe that and pray that my patients find them.”

“Maybe. But they’d always feel damaged and inadequate. That could sour any relationship.”

“Now you’re thinking with your fears and anxieties. I have to believe better. I have to have hope for my patients, otherwise why do the things we do—it would be just a lot of wasted effort. I know that some will fail, grow bitter and be rejected by society, and maybe die alone, but I have to have a vision for them and believe even if they can’t.” Irene’s face was pained as she contrasted the celebration around her with the volume of hurt waiting for her at work. “But today, let’s just rejoice that the butchery is over… in Europe, at least.” She lifted the bottle and took a deeper drink. “You don’t know how liberating it is to know that there’ll be an end to the wounded being brought back. That there’s a day coming when we do normal hospital things. God knows we’ve already treated enough to last a lifetime.” She tipped the bottle again.

A marching band passed by, playing something festive. Their formation was broken up by the press of the crowds, and they lost members who couldn’t wade through the multitudes.

When the band moved down the street, taking the music with them, Irene could talk again. “I know people think I’m pretty… even if I don’t feel it. Many of my patients look to me as some guardian angel capable of miracles…”

“You were to me—”

“Today… this minute… I don’t want to look back, not be held by the past… but look forward to something brighter for all of us. Let me pretend… that today I have wings and that I’m that angel everyone sees in me. Today I want to be free of all the impossible things people ask of me…free of all burdens holding me back. Let me forget that my brother is dead and won’t be returning to me. Today I want to be reborn—if only for one day.” She took another drink and laid the empty bottle aside. Her eyes were brilliant with excitement.

Hawkins was concerned that she was becoming high and apt to do something she wouldn’t be able to forgive herself for the next day. But her excitement inflamed him too, and suddenly he saw her as a young girl, just as she wanted to be, not troubled by the duties and responsibilities awaiting her. Yet he was afraid that when the euphoria faded… when the clock struck 12, Cinderella would have to face the everyday. With good reasons—he remembered how she reacted after the White House soiree, how Cinderella reverted into her polar opposite, her own stepsister persecuting her and rejecting him, erasing all the gains he thought he had made. Could he face such disappointment again? Let me hope… for today.

He stood up and led her into the street, braving the mayhem there, a storm that was sweeping through the population. There were free drinks being handed out, with people toasting the victory. Irene was caught up in this overcharged atmosphere, her eyes shining without her usual reserve and inhibition.

On one corner they had two drinks each of aged whiskey that went straight to their heads. They sang the National Anthem and other patriotic songs along with the rest. Afterwards they had another drink. They passed a young couple unabashedly kissing in the street, not caring who saw them. Two steps further, another couple was pawing at each other. Irene laughed, threw herself at a surprised Hawkins and gave him a passionate kiss. Her tongue found his as she hugged him with fierce urgency. She laughed freely, like he had never heard her do. She clung to him as they moved through the crowd. They passed a tavern, the owner standing outside, pouring free drinks. Irene grabbed up a glass and tossed it down and so did Hawkins, feeling the liquid burning down into his stomach. They had another, being more careful this time. She was feeling it and so was he. A car tried to get through the throng, honking its horn uselessly. People pounded on its side in exhilaration. USA, USA! they chanted.

In front of a midtown church, a whole choir stood on the steps singing “Hallelujah” and the National Anthem and the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

It was all a riot of motion and sound. A fire truck was parked on the sidewalk, its lights flashing and sirens blaring, the fireman banging hand-held drums. Within minutes newspaper vendors were selling out the latest edition with screaming headlines VE DAY! From office buildings confetti fell like a snow storm, the strips being blown along the streets. People were drunk with joy. Of course, some were just drunk.

A car came along slowly, the seats full to capacity, people lounging on the fenders and full upon the running boards. Someone had pushed a piano onto the street and was playing it as couples danced in mad abandon, a girl showing more of her legs and underthings than she should. But who cared in this madcap mayhem? The streets were totally blocked with hundreds of thousands of people, everywhere one looked.

“The war is over! Finally over!” It rolled through Hawkins’ head, and he yelled and laughed with the rest of them. Beside him Irene could scarcely contain her elation. Time and again she grabbed him and squeezed him and pounded on his arms. Then she buried her head in his shoulder. “Tell me I’m not dreaming,” she said.

“Who could dream all this?” he yelled back at her. “This is true. We’ve won!”

A young kid climbed up on a lamp pole, standing precariously about ten feet up; he slipped and fell, but the crowd was so dense that they caught him and set him on his feet. People filled the windows of buildings, waving flags and throwing down confetti by the bucketful. People waved the newspapers like banners. Germany Surrenders; the War is Finally Over; The Nazis Quit, the headlines proclaimed in bold print. Those who had uniforms wore them and people patted them, congratulating and praising them. Among them, not a few were veterans of the First Great War.

A transit bus got stranded in the crowd, unable to go anywhere. People stood upon its roof and leaned out the windows, yelling, clapping, whistling, making any kind of noise. Kids must have thought that the world had turned crazy, not understanding the pandemonium.

Someone gave Hawkins a bottle of beer which he shared with Irene, watching her take huge gulps to quench her thirst. He grabbed up another bottle, but found it was red wine and they drank that as they walked along, at every step jostled by the throng. A line of people was dancing, more and more people joining in, hundreds of them, until it grew too long and broke apart to create another line that snaked though the crowds. Irene joined one line and unable to keep up, he lost her in the throng. He looked for her, but couldn’t see her anywhere. His happiness quickly evaporated. He saw hundreds of faces around him, but not hers.

A woman grabbed him and pulled him into a dance. He twirled with her a few times before passing her on to other eager hands. The beer and liquor he had drunk was uneasy in his stomach so he stopped by the pushcart of a street vendor, but he had sold all his hot dogs ages ago. Now he was stuck, not able to move forward or back, but he looked happy. “My nephew’s in the Pacific, the war will be over there too… soon, I hope.”

Beside Hawkins an older man was crying, tears cascading down his face. “For a year the newspapers and the politicians have been telling us that we’re winning this war… until I didn’t believe them anymore. But today it’s true… an answer to prayers of thousands of families with boys fighting overseas. God has bared His mighty arm to uphold righteousness and to bring down the evil… We now only have the task of stopping the yellow menace…” The pressure of the crowd separated them and Hawkins drifted along, his senses overwhelmed. Where is Irene?

He got tangled by a high school cheerleading squad, animating the crowd with their dance routines. A girl kissed him on the cheek, laughed and ran away. A young man pounded on his back, thinking he was someone else then apologizing. Hawkins was winding his way through a square, skirting a fountain, when he saw Irene standing in the calf deep water holding her skirt above her knees to keep it from getting wet.

“James!” she yelled, waving, splashing over to him. “I thought I’d lost you for good. This has turned into a real madhouse.” It was obvious that she’d had a few more drinks someplace. Her eyes were alight with wildness and her face was flushed.

“That it has.” He helped her over the edge of the fountain, and together, hand firmly in hand, they moved through the crowd. So linked it was hard to make any progress beyond the slow shuffling as the multitude drifted along. A hole would open but close just as quickly.

Ahead of them someone lit a string of firecrackers and threw them under peoples’ feet, causing a mad dance all around. A tree they passed was loaded with fifteen kids, hanging onto branches like ripe fruit. A kid was running with a handful of balloons, chased by another kid trying to pop them. The crowd swallowed them, but the balloons were visible for a while. Streamers drifted down from above.

Someplace a marching band was playing popular music. One could not see them, only hear them a long time as they shuffled along. A motorcycle policeman sat helpless by the sidewalk, stuck there in the logjam of people shuffling past. Hawkins had never seen so many people.

Somehow, in all their aimless wanderings, they ended up in front of Irene’s apartment. Struggling around and between people, they managed to reach the edge of the flow. She grabbed Hawkins’ hand and pulled him up the crowded steps. Then up to her apartment. With a sigh of relief, she closed the door. “What an incredible day…” she said, her tone still excited.

They collapsed on the sofa, laughing for no reason, then suddenly she grabbed his head, turned his face towards hers and kissed it furiously. Then she found his lips and invaded his mouth. They kissed for a breathless moment, then she pulled away, whispering, “Happy VE Day, Jim.” She tousled his hair, pushing her body against his. “It’s quite intoxicating…” she muttered huskily, grabbing him again. He smelled a strong odor of alcohol on her breath.

“We’ve drunk a little too much…” he said trying to pull away and not take advantage of her state. Remember the new Rule, just be friends, don’t risk that, but she would not let him get away.

“Yes, drunk with joy…” she threw herself at him and found his mouth again. They kissed a long time, his restraint melting quickly. He fell back and she climbed on top of him. Then they were tearing at each others’ clothes and before he knew it he was inside her. They thrust against each other with desperation, desires long repressed suddenly set free. Somehow he managed to turn them around so that he was on top, and drove his full weight into her. It was a violent confrontation, painful in its intensity and didn’t last long. He groaned through the climax and collapsed on her. She kissed him again trying to rouse him for she was stalled and wanted resolution. It didn’t take long and they were into the rhythm again, slower, more deliberate. “Be the flame, burn…” Hawkins remembered their dance instructor saying. This time it was insanely pleasurable and he held on until she collapsed under him with a piercing cry, then he let himself go with a few more thrusts and he was done too. They went slack and lay side by side, arms around each other.

Hawkins had experienced sexual relations before, but never like this. This was an earthquake, and each breath an aftershock. He couldn’t stop smiling.

From outside the sound of the crowd reached in, and they became aware of it. He struggled to sit up and looked around. “I don’t suppose you have a cigarette?”

“But you don’t smoke,” she pointed out.

“Not normally, but on special occasions, you know…”

She laughed without reservation. “There’s a pack in the drawer of my desk that I offer visitors. Get us two. You’ll find matches there too.”

Soon they were sitting on the sofa, smoking, and grinning at each other. She was clutching a piece of her dress to her front.

“I haven’t done that for years,” she said very softly, exhaling the smoke.

“Me neither.” He looked around the apartment again. “I don’t suppose you have something to drink?”

“There’s orange juice in the fridge, that’s all. But there’s ice, if you want ice water.” He opted for the orange juice and came back with two glasses, finding her lying back on the sofa again.

He wanted to whisper “I love you…” but the Rule stopped him in time. He sat down on the edge, stroking her hair. Then his hand wandered along the curve of her neck, to her back and hips. She murmured her satisfaction, closing her eyes.

“What a magic day… today I feel alive. The planets must be coming into a new alignment.” She raised herself enough to drink her juice. She carefully put the glass on the floor and reached up her arms drawing him down to her. “James, this night I belong to you.”

Next thing he knew they were grabbing at each other again. “Wait, wait…” she was breathing hard. “This time let’s do it right.” She drew him to the bedroom and they fell into bed, giggling and caressing each other. This time it was nicer as each sought to please the other and in that quest found heights neither had experienced before. They took time to savor each sensation. The pleasure also lasted longer, until she screamed and he groaned in satisfaction. He rolled off her, utterly spent. She reached over and caressed his face and eyelids. As they had another cigarette, she laughed, “You know why we do this?” He shook his head, blowing out the smoke. “Because every time we see actors in bed smoking, it really means they just had sex. When he exhales in great satisfaction, then the experience was great. If he puffs it out impatiently, then it wasn’t any good. The movie industry has trained us well.” He tried to smile to reflect his pleasure, and had a random thought intruding, could he do all this with just one hip? But he was too tired and soon fell asleep.

When he woke she was dressing. “I have forty minutes before my shift starts,” she said very matter-of-factly.

He glanced at his watch and rolled out of bed. “Me too. I’m due at the sorting station in an hour.” He looked around for his clothes, finding them neatly stacked on the chair.

Quickly he slipped on his underwear feeling more secure. “Irene…” She quickly stepped to him and sealed his lips with her fingers. “Let it be James. It was what it was, let’s not make more of it.” Somehow he felt cheated; after last night, he thought he had earned the right to say something tender. But this was a new day, she was fully sober, and far from the excitement of yesterday’s crowd.

“You can wash off. I left you a towel. You can let yourself out, but lock the door. I’ll call you…” she said at the door and then she was gone.

Hawkins washed up, had some orange juice, pulled his clothes right and left. The street was in a shambles, everywhere paper streamers and confetti, and other signs of celebration. And everything was quiet, as the entire city had decided to sleep in. However the buses were running and he caught a ride back to his place using his VA pass. As the bus drove along the street, it stirred up the confetti and streamers and the driver had to put on his windshield wipers to clear his view.

Hawkins just had time to change into his overalls and get to the station only twelve minutes late. About half the crew was there; the rest came drifting in over the next hours. A few were showing signs of a hangover.

During the day, someone would shout something like, “The war’s over,” and the rest would chant “VE Day! VE Day!”

Of course in these tumultuous times his studies suffered. He did his assignments, but little else. He tried to get back into the rhythm, but how could he when the rest of the world was changing so rapidly around him? But his tutor, who was also distracted by the rush of events, said nothing. Hawkins tried to read more each day, only slowly gathering momentum.

Irene didn’t call him for four days, which worried him. Eventually she called his landlady, who came up to get him. Irene sounded distant, almost businesslike. “Meet you for supper at Sortino’s at seven.” He promised to be there.

Fifteen minutes early, he got them a booth in a corner and waited for her. Irene came exactly on time and slid in across from him. Her face was calm, her eyes shuttered.

“How are you?” she asked. He felt vaguely disappointed: that was what you asked a stranger. He had expected her to take a couple of steps back, but not this far.

“Well enough, thank you,” came the automatic reply. The waiter came and they ordered something Italian.

“Irene…” he started when they were alone again.

“James, please be careful. Today is today, not VE Day. We’re still friends, good friends, but don’t imagine it’s more.”

“No, of course not.” Would he ever get used to this dance: one step forward, one step back and sometimes sideways? So he talked about his studies and his work. The evening was half over before it became somewhat personal again.

“I envy your freedom. You’re starting fresh again, with so many possibilities in front of you,” she said wistfully.

“You could go back to school and study to become a doctor.”

“Not really. I don’t have the money for it, just a crushing debt that I have to pay back to the government. My father never paid any taxes. So when he died, I inherited the house but not much else, and then the tax people came after me. As the inheritor I could not escape it. They took everything and even garnisheed my pay, until I proved my willingness to pay and negotiated a more convenient payback schedule.”

“Seems very unfair. Just how much do you owe?”

“About eight, nine years’ worth and after that I probably won’t have the desire to study anymore.”

“I…” He was about to say, I could help, but he swallowed it, knowing that the Rule didn’t allow him to cross a certain line. “I find that sad for you certainly have the potential.” She smiled wanly.

After they finished their food, he walked her back to her place, but she didn’t invite him up. She parted with, “Thank you, James, you’ve been a dear.”

“I enjoyed it,” he lied. “Maybe we can do this again next Thursday. Trying a different place.”

“Maybe. I’ll call you.” And she disappeared.

Hawkins walked all the way home trying to figure out where he stood with her. She had reverted to a previous stance, but not all the way back. He took courage that she had tried to stop him crossing the limits of their relationship, protecting the balance they had achieved. He would have to pay closer attention to that. But it was such a long way from that wonderful interlude on VE Day. It hadn’t quite seemed real then, and certainly less now.

At home he found a letter forwarded to him from Jake. “James: Believe it or not, we have been to Berlin, if you can call a great pile of rubble that. Nothing remained intact, just miles upon miles of ruins, collapsed walls and empty shells of masonry. People live in basement hovels like rats, trying just to survive. The Russians are very rough with the civilians, I guess, exacting revenge for the damage the German Army did to their country. No one here is safe from them. Women, from young girls to old, are raped mercilessly. I feel sorry for them, and I do certainly for the children. They had no hand in this war. But I saw a death camp, and my heart turned to stone. You can’t believe the horrors of that place, hundreds of thousands murdered or worked to death. There were mountains of emaciated bodies and furnaces still full of human remains. And there are dozens of camps throughout Europe like that. Everything you heard about them is true, not just propaganda. In fact nothing you’ve heard comes even close to the truth. Here, everyone is hunting Nazis, and you suspect everybody. There are German soldiers on the road, all trying to get home. A whole nation is wandering on those roads. Many are fleeing the Russian sectors, hoping to find a better life on our side.

“We are all well, amazed that we survived this war. You still have to be careful as there are so many unexploded bombs and ammunition around, sometimes just a few feet underground. You remember Sergeant Dillon? He got blown up by a bomb when he went among the ruins to take a piss. You have to watch your every step.

“It is said we will be shortly decommissioned and sent home. For now they are keeping the armor around to impress the Russians as they think they own all of Berlin. It cost them a million lives to take the city and while we watched. I guess they have a right to it. Anyway I don’t know how it will go. I certainly don’t want war with Russia. They are uncouth but tough fighters, and cocky from this victory.

“The Lady is all right. One of the oldest tanks around but still going strong. They say they will be scrapping her once all this is over. I know she is just a hunk of metal, but I have grown fond of her. She got us safely through the war. By the way, they are awarding me a Good Conduct medal, I don’t really know for what. Half the Army, certainly the Armor deserves one. When you think that day after day we climbed inside, knowing it was a death trap, a steel coffin, I wonder how we ever did it. Jake”

This was a long letter which Hawkins reread several times, heartened that the boys would be coming home soon, but to what? An economy that was already slowing down and a population tired of war. He also felt guilty as if he had abandoned his friends and had shirked his duty to bring the enemy to his knees. Yet he was given a medal, leaving him feeling like a fake. He knew better, of course, but still the feelings persisted.

Overall Hawkins thought that he had settled in well to being a private person, but when someone near him on the sorting line dropped a box that made a loud bang when it hit the floor, he found himself on the ground shaking, covered in sweat.

Alfonso next to him consoled, “It’s all right, Jim, I know how it is. I’ve got an uncle who served in the Great War, any loud noise would send him hugging the floor, even twenty years after.”

At work Hawkins found that the sorting task was becoming tedious, and caught himself looking at the clock to see how close he was to quitting time. Whereas initially the simplicity was welcome as he adjusted to being out of the Army, it now started to drag on him. He went to his supervisor and told him he was ready for something more challenging.

“Great, James. A new position’s opened up, handling workers’ issues that require compassion and tact. Workers don’t want to see a supervisor, afraid of getting something on their record, but might be willing to talk to a person at arm’s length from the administration. As tank commander, you must have dealt with such problems among your crew. Anyway Head Office wants to try this out and see if it can reduce tensions among the workers.” Hawkins just nodded. “It also comes with a substantial pay raise.”

Hawkins was given a small office and promised a secretary once things got on track.

By the end of the week, as people came to him, he mostly listened and took notes of their grievances. He then reframed their concerns into something palatable for the higher ups.

At the college his tutor surprised Hawkins, announcing that he was ready to take on his freshman year. “You’re already into college level. There’s not much I can add to it. You’re a self-starter and will do well on your own. I can get you the list of textbooks the curriculum requires, so you get almost three months for a head start. I think you’ll do very well.” Hawkins thanked him, genuinely grateful for being steered through the material. He wasn’t sure if he could have done it by himself, certainly not in such a short time.

The next day, after the tutor gave him the book list, Hawkins picked up an armful in the university book store. By the end of the week he was halfway through the history textbook. He had no trouble with mathematics, liking its clear rules and procedures. He was less eager about chemistry, where things were always in flux, depending on a host of variables. Physics was more akin to math and posed few problems for him.

On Sunday, Irene let Hawkins take her to see Saratoga Trunk starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. Before the show, the newsreel ran through the most prominent news stories of the week. The focus now had shifted to the Pacific, with footage of Marines moving through the jungle, fighting the Japanese. Later there was a segment showing a plane flying low over the destruction in Berlin: unending acres of half-standing shells of buildings and people working to clear the street for traffic. Apartment blocks, churches and public buildings, all on the ground. It was depressing to see all that. How could a nation survive such destruction? Maybe the world didn’t want them to survive.

The movie itself was a romantic drama (he could tell from the music) but he barely paid any attention to it, engrossed with having Irene so close beside him. On the way home he bought them ice cream and they sat under the cherry trees, the ground around them littered with fallen blooms. He wanted to call a cab, but she preferred to walk, and gave him her hand. On the doorstop, she even let him kiss her, just a small peck on the cheek.

The next week they went roller skating and had a rollicking good time. “I’ve forgotten how much fun this is,” she said then bolted, calling to him, “Catch me if you can.” He couldn’t as she was a lot better at it than he.

“If we have to wrestle cattle, that I’ll win,” Hawkins said afterwards.

“I can’t really picture you riding herd as John Wayne in the west.”

“Well then can you picture me dancing on a cruise ship like Arthur Murray?”

“Did you really?”

They shared a large soda and walked home. Reaching his place, he invited her up to see his small apartment.

“But no funny business, you promise?”

“I promise.” Upstairs the apartment was neat. On the mantle of the fake fireplace, prominently displayed was a photo of them leaving the White House after the Awards ceremony, taken by a White House photographer. During the week he’d had it framed.

“I want to give you that for your birthday, to prove to your grandchildren that you were at the White House.”

“Wouldn’t I need to find a husband first, before having grandchildren?”

“Husbands come a dime a dozen, to be gotten wholesale,” he quipped, trying to joke it off, so she would accept the gift and not think it an imposition.

“Thank you, it’s a very beautiful picture.” She walked over to a pile of books on his table and leafed through an open one. “How’s your studying going?”

“Quite well, thank you.”

“Maybe next week we should get together at my place and just study. I’m working through an internal medicine book that’s 2000 pages long and I sure could use some encouragement to stay with it.”

“Good idea. I like studying, but it’ll go easier together.”

And it did. From time to time they glanced at each other and smiled and returned to reading and making notes. She cooked them spaghetti with meatballs in a thick tomato sauce. Then it was back to studying.

He received a letter from Jake. “James, we got our marching orders. In two weeks we will board a passenger liner in Bremerhaven and sail for New York that same week. Who knows, we might be there even before you get this letter.

“Hicks said don’t try to meet the ship as it is going to be a madhouse. We are told that it will take another week or so to get a medical, fill out all the paperwork and receive our travel vouchers. We have your address and Hicks and I will find you. It will be good to get together and finish our transaction regarding grandfather.

“The Lady is gone. We left her in a large park with other vehicles, most old and worn out, not worthwhile to ship home. I said goodbye to her for you, and left a note wishing her the best from us. Hope to see you soon. Jake”

There was a PS, “I will be very glad to leave this destruction and immense need behind.”

Hawkins was exceedingly glad that his crew had survived. At least most of them, not Jones and not Simon. What was he going to do about Simon? It seemed so unjust just to leave him in an unmarked grave in the desert. He remembered the pain etched into the faces of his parents, Abraham and Gertha Steinhauer. Did he owe them something? But who to serve up, Jake or Hicks? One of them had to be the killer. Maybe it was kinder just to forget, pretend that it had never happened.

He didn’t sleep well that night. According to the postmarks and the timetable Jake had described, they should be at his door in about two weeks. By then he had to have an answer for his conscience. He liked both Jake and Hicks; were they not worth more than an unfeeling justice system? He had to somehow find out.

On Sunday, he and Irene saw a movie again. Of all things the war movie Dragon Seed with Katherine Hepburn, a drama set during the Sino-Japanese war. It was well made, but the battle scenes were sanitized, replaced by only suggestions of blood and suffering. Still it stirred Hawkins up, and on the way home he couldn’t stop talking about it.

“The public has no idea what war is really like. Most think it’s like in the movies and prefer it that way. But it’s not. It’s messy, ugly and stinks. Most people haven’t seen a dead body… and I don’t wish it on them, but the movies shouldn’t gloss over all that. Maybe two million men will be returning with horrific memories and people won’t understand them. And the soldiers won’t understand what they’ve been through, the nightmares they’ll bring home with them.”

Irene remained quiet throughout, explaining that it had been a very hard week dealing with the overload of returning wounded soldiers. When they had dinner at a restaurant, she was still very quiet.

“Irene, you haven’t said two words.”

She put down her silverware and gazed at him. Something tightened in his stomach. “You might not like what I have to tell you.”

“Please try me.”

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m pregnant…”

“What…??” Had he heard right?

“I’m six weeks into my pregnancy.” She waited, looking at him.

It took a minute more before the reaction hit him in the stomach, but at the same time he was elated. “I guess it was on VE Day.”

“Yes it was. Now don’t think I engineered this to snare you for a husband. But I’m telling you because you, as the father, have the right to know.”

“But I’m happy to marry you. What’s the problem? I just won’t go to college but will look around for a better paying job.”

“James, I won’t do that to you. I don’t want to marry you. My mother entrapped my father that way, but I won’t. I’ll be all right, you’ll see.”

“I don’t want to see. I want to be part of your life and raise our child together. Nothing else really matters.”

“Sorry James, I’ve quite made up my mind and if you keep insisting I’ll get up and leave now, and never see you again.” He looked at his half-empty plate and hers hardly touched. He sipped his coffee, playing for time. Soon after they got up to leave.

The owner/waiter came over anxiously. “Was anything the matter with the food?”

“No, nothing. She had some unsettling news,” he said, paying their bill.

He walked her home in silence, knowing better than to try anything now. At her apartment house door they parted after she presented her cheek for a quick, brush-on kiss. “Thank you for understanding.” She disappeared quickly.

All the way home he thought of things he would have said if allowed. He was both angry and elated. He fathered a child… with her. How wonderful was that? It was predestined in his dreams. The child was… or would be a link between them that she couldn’t deny. Married or unmarried, a father, a mother and a child was a family. The anger came because she couldn’t see it.

That night he poured himself a glass of whiskey and looking into the mirror he toasted himself, celebrating becoming a father. The reflection smiled back at him even though he was still angry inside.

When he thought about it more calmly he realized that somehow it had to do with money. But how was she going to work while pregnant, and how was she to keep paying off her debt? In any case she would need money.

Then grandfather occurred to him. If he was to have a share of it then he had to let the justice go and bury it. Not talk about, not think about it. He knew he couldn’t silence his conscience. Not entirely. But Simon would become the sacrificial lamb to assure his dream.

He had another drink and strode up and down the small living room. There was no way of solving this problem equitably. If he wanted money, Simon had to stay buried; if he insisted on justice, the money would be gone, confiscated by the government.

It took him until nightfall to reconcile the conflict somewhat. As far as he could figure, the needs of the living superseded the needs of the dead. Simon would have to be the blood price for their future.

Further troubles occurred to him. What if the treasure was gone, stolen or confiscated? Then all this was a pipe dream anyway. Then he would have to do what he said he would do, find a job and work for pay.

Coming home from work, the landlady met him at the door. “James, a gentleman is here to see you.”

A man dressed in a tweed coat and dark pants came out of the foyer where he had obviously been waiting. “I’m Pemberton McKee of the Boston Police.” He flashed a badge but tucked it away before Hawkins could really look at it. “I have some private concern I need to talk to you about.”

“Well then please, come this way,” Hawkins said, leading the man upstairs to his small suite. “Please have a seat,” he said pointing to the sofa. “Can I get you something to drink? I have ice water and orange juice.”

“Very kind but no thank you.” He waited until Hawkins sat down in the easy chair. “Well Lieutenant Hawkins, it was quite a job to find you.”

“Now I’m just a simple mister, returned to civilian life. What’s this all about?”

“It’s as Lieutenant that I need to ask you these things. I’m Inspector McKee from Boston and need to find out about your tank crew. I have some of the particulars but I need to know more.”

“Which crew members are we talking about then?”

“At this stage I’d prefer not to say. I wouldn’t want to prejudice your answers.”

“And what if I’d prefer not to tell you anything?”

“You could. But the matter is quite serious and criminal. You could be charged with obstruction of justice.”

“Surely not. What are your questions?”

“As I understand from the Army records, you were the commander of the Royal Flush and when that was destroyed, the Lady Bug. Is that correct?”

“Yes. It’s all in the records,” he replied, pointing to the file the Inspector was balancing on his knees.

“Could you fill me in on your crew?”

“Which one?”

“At this point, all of them, please.”

“OK, there was Jake O’Connor, my gunner, Jordan Hicks the loader, Jude Lawson the driver and Jeff Hobson the machine gunner. Bill what’s-his-name and the other came after me.”

“Was that the original crew from the very beginning?”

“No, there was Jones Blakely the driver after Kasserine, but we lost him, and John Terrace, the machine gunner; we lost him too.”

“What can you tell me about your original crew?”

“More than what’s on record?” The Inspector nodded. “Very little. They were good men who did what their nation asked them to do.”

“Surely they had some characteristics you could describe.”

“Yes, of course. But please understand, we had this rule, don’t talk of the past or the future, focus on the present to stay alive. It worked well I must say, and my crew will be coming home shortly.”

“I would need more than that.”

“OK then, but I know nothing of their pasts and little beyond what I, as their commander, needed to know.” Hawkins scrutinized his visitor’s face, wondering what he was really after. “Jake liked girls and whenever he could, visited the nearest whorehouse. Hicks smoked at least two packs a day, and took my share. He liked reading books and lecturing on history. Jones was not a man of many words, kept to himself mostly, but knew his way around the engine. John was a complainer, taking issue with everything: food, equipment, whatever. I was quite glad when he was taken away by ambulance. And me? I was the mother-hen to my crew and shit bricks worrying about them. In that I wasn’t alone, every tank commander was the same.”

“OK, that seems clear. But let me see if I understand this. You never talked about your civilian life, families or what you would do when you returned home?”

“No, it seemed easier that way. None of us was burdened by each others’ baggage.”

“Let’s try some other way. And I want you to be frank about this. Which one of your crew would you consider to have criminal tendencies?”

“Criminal what?”

“OK, someone who liked to bend the rules for instance, was a chronic liar, who was overly aggressive and demanded more than his share. You know, cheat if he could get away with it, steal something if he had the opportunity…”

“That pretty well describes all of us. We all bent the rules. Have you seen the conduct guidelines the Army demands of its soldiers? It’s bigger than the New York City telephone book. We all lied and stretched the truth, demanded more than our rightful share. In the tank there was nothing to steal, and if someone stepped on my toes, then I would clock him. Is that what you mean by aggressive?”

“Who would you consider the most capable in your crew to committing murder?”

Hawkins hit the roof. “We all were. We were at war and were ordered to kill. Believe me, we had no trouble killing Germans who were equally eager to kill us. It all came down to who did it first.”

“Yes, that in war, but in real life?”

“Real life? War was much too real. It couldn’t be any more real. There was danger everywhere and nowhere to hide. So unless you can name who you’re interested in I can’t help you.”

“All right, no need to get riled up about it. This will do for now. I’ll cross-reference what you told me and try again some other time.” He stuffed his file into an attaché case, and made for the door, turning at the last moment. “Lieutenant, let me say I greatly respect what you did over there and I don’t mean to be a nuisance. However, I have a job to do, and I must do it. Good evening, Sir.”

What the hell was all this about? What did the city of Boston have to do with one of his crew? He tried to remember if anyone had mentioned Boston but no one had, that he could remember. Who was the inspector looking for? Jake? Hicks? Had one of them priors? Whatever it was, it had to be serious to bring Boston to Washington. He had a bad sleep that night, waking often into the problem, asking himself did this somehow have anything to do with Simon? What did the inspector really know? And why was he holding his cards so close?

All next day he was on edge. He processed two job related complaints but had a hard time keeping his mind on them. He was beset by doubts. About the Boston Police, his crew, vacillating about his own future, and above all, Irene. Why was she so adamant in keeping him out of her life? He realized that she was damaged by her upbringing, her family constantly fighting and making the wrong decisions. It was clear that she was afraid of falling into the same pattern and was fighting it.

The next day went easier, with enough to keep him busy and away from worrying. After work however, the troubles returned. He tried to study but couldn’t focus. He read a page but couldn’t remember what he had just read. Finally he closed the books and went for a long walk, trying to sort things out.

His crew was coming home, the inspector ready to ambush one of them, but who? Where was he anyway, had he returned to Boston? But mostly, what to do about Irene? How to convince her that he loved her, and wanted to help her in any way he could, on her terms? He also wanted to make clear to her that he wanted to be a vital, active part of his child’s life. Somehow he would have to break through her defenses and overcome her anxieties instilled from childhood. He could not accept that for all her intelligence, she was ruled by her fears and sense of shame.

He walked, turning here and there, not watching where he was going. Crossing the street, he looked neither left nor right; a taxi screeched to a stop barely avoiding running him down, the driver honking at him angrily. For a moment he was shocked awake, but a block further he was lost in his worries again.

He found himself in front of Irene’s apartment house and already halfway up the steps. He realized that all the worry aside, this was what he wanted, to fix it with her. He went upstairs to her apartment and knocked. She opened the door cautiously, peering at him through the crack.

“James? What do you want?” she was surprised into asking.

“To talk to you.”

“There is nothing to talk about,” she denied, her voice firming up.

“No, quite the opposite, there’s lots to talk about. About you and me and our child.”

“I shouldn’t have told you. I knew it was a mistake.”

“No, it wasn’t. Please let me in and let us talk this out.”

“And if I don’t want to talk, and don’t want to open the door, what then?”

“Then I would sit here, beside your door, until you did.”

There was a long, tense silence as she considered the situation. “All right, come in. But as I told you before, I won’t change my mind.”

“I still want the chance to try.”

She let him in, motioned him to the sofa, and sat in a chair opposite him. “So talk.”

“First I want to say that I’m not your father, I’ll never leave you in the lurch as he did. I want to help you… and our child. Nothing else really matters. I see that now.”

“What if I don’t need your help?”

“That’s not true. You need my help. And if we’re having this discussion then we’ll have to be honest with each other.”

“All right. I don’t want your help. I don’t want to be obligated to you or anyone else. No one owns me or tells me what to do. If you know me at all, you should know that by now.”

“I won’t pretend to understand you, because I don’t. But I’m not arguing against your case, as much as I’m arguing for mine… and our child’s. I don’t want to own you, blackmail you or coerce you.”

“Really, what do you call this? Here you are, uninvited, trying to sell me something that I don’t want.”

“Irene, I’m not your father and you’re not your mother…” He realized his mistake as soon as he said it.

“Really? We already sound like them, arguing in opposite directions. This is definitely not what I want.”

“All right, let’s back up a little and try again.” He was desperately looking for something to open up her fortress of isolation. “Let’s not talk about me, leave me out of the equation. Let’s talk about our son or daughter. Think of the child. What would be fair to him or her? You wouldn’t deny them the opportunity of having a comfortable home and a degree of affluence, would you? Ask yourself honestly, is that what you want? Really? To let him or her experience want and lack, when they could have better?” He waited a second; she didn’t reply but turned her head away. It left him thinking how beautiful she looked and he felt his heart ache.

“Although you know I love you, I won’t lay any claim on you… if that’s what you want. But let me help with the child… please. It’s the father who’s asking… begging you to reconsider.” She remained silent, her face drawn taut. He took a risky gamble. “Ask yourself, if your brother were alive, what would he advise you? Would he also send me away?”

“Don’t talk about him! I’m angry at him…” she retorted with unexpected harshness. “For dying and leaving me alone in an unfriendly world. He deserted me. We were to be together for the rest of our lives. You don’t understand how it is with twins. We were so alike, part of each other. And the better part of me died with him.”

“I’m sorry…” He could find no other words, or reasons to offset her loss.

She started crying, trying to talk between sobs. “You must… think that I’m… a horrible person, and maybe I am. But you have to understand, I was that child… caught between my parents… always fighting, yelling… and they were using me to hurt each other. And now you… are doing the same, using our child as some sort of weapon to win your case…” She lifted the hem of her shirt and wiped her eyes with it. “Well, what about my case? Don’t I get to vote? I’m pregnant and will have a child. Let me deal with it. It’s my future, my life.”

“Yes it is. But the future you choose will also be his or hers. I just want to be a part of that.” He said it as softly as he could, hoping to calm the emotional storm she was feeling.

“Yes, reason tells me to let you, but my emotions say no. I won’t let that be the thin edge of the wedge to force your way inside.” She wiped her eyes again. “And if you go to Court to press your claim, I will abort her…”

“No, no! You don’t know what you’re saying. You wouldn’t do that, you know you wouldn’t.”

“I might if I’m pressed.” But he could see she was shocked that she had said it. What could he do to fix this? He had tried to repair the house and now it was collapsing around him.

“Irene, I’ll go now and leave you in peace. But please think of my offer to help. I’ll ask for nothing in return, but that you let me help…” He got up very slowly so as not to startle her, and let himself out the door. His last view of her was of her legs drawn up, hugged desperately by both arms, her head resting on her knees, her shoulders shaking with suppressed sobs. He felt in danger of a heart attack.

The cool air of the night was like a cold shower on his hot face. He felt it and he didn’t. He had seen a glimpse of the darkness in her soul. Her parents had done this. What kind of monsters were they to torment a child that way? Look at the damage, a life not given a chance to flourish. She had shut her feelings out so she could accomplish what she had become, a very competent nurse, helping others heal… but not herself. The only person who could have helped her died, deserting her. What was left felt worthless to her. Was it all somehow shame driven? Or by healing others, was she by proxy trying desperately to heal herself? Or was it a self-imposed penance? Why couldn’t she see that the guilt was not hers but theirs?

Hawkins felt himself back in the war, but fighting a much different battle. In war, he could choose his ammunition, AP for bursting through the hard stuff, HE for increasing the range of destruction, the kill radius. Now he was using feelings, promises and emotions, some sharp as AP, or far-reaching as HE. She was badly hurt, that was clear. But how much and how deep? He tried a damage assessment, weighing factors, calculating effects… ending up with nonsense. Discouraged, he arrived home with nothing resolved, possibly with things made worse.

Hawkins didn’t sleep well, tossing and turning throughout the night, vainly trying to think of something else. When sleep came, it was full of nightmares, reflecting how his day had gone. Work next day wasn’t much better as he stumbled over thoughts of her. He watched the clock that didn’t seemed to move. On the way home he stopped at a tavern and gulped down some whiskey on ice, to pick himself up or to calm himself down, he wasn’t sure which.

He walked, taking huge strides to burn off the load he was struggling with. By the time he turned onto his street he was tired but had a sense that he had outrun his worries. On the steps to his house sat two men whom he nearly moved past.

“Jim,” one of them said.

“My God! Jake! Hicks! You’re here.” He shook hands, then embraced them each, dusting their backs. “I can’t believe it. I knew you were coming, but it’s still so unreal.” He laughed for the first time in many days. “Come, come inside. It’s a small place, but it’s what I need for now.”

They trooped upstairs and settled on the sofa and chairs. “I wish I could offer you something other than ice water. I don’t keep alcohol in the house. How are you both? It’s so good to see you.”

“Good to see you too,” Jake said. “I’m glad to see how well you move, hardly any limp at all. You don’t know how much I prayed about that leg and you know I’m not a praying man. They did a good job on you.” He had a huge grin on his face.

“Can you believe it? There were times when I was sure that none of us would survive, but the war’s over and here we all are.”

“Yes, hard to believe we survived the lottery of war,” Hicks said, looking around, immediately noticing the textbooks on the table.

“I’m starting college next month. Been accepted and enrolled in George Washington. I’m looking forward to it.”

“Good school and good for you, James,” Hicks said smiling.

“Jesus, I’m Second Lieutenant now, but still want to salute you. Isn’t that crazy?” Jake asked in a puzzled tone.

“And so you should, I outrank you now. They made me First Lieutenant, so my Silver Star could shine brighter. The world’s gone crazy, I tell you.”

“It sure has,” Jake said suddenly turning dark and serious. “We witnessed the ruin of nations and visited a death camp. You can’t imagine the horror of it…”

“Hey, don’t spoil our reunion,” Hicks said, cutting in.

“You’re right, sorry. But… it’s strange to walk around in intact cities untouched by war. The American public doesn’t know how lucky they are.”

“What did you do with Jude?”

“Oh he’s back at the VA barracks, where we’re billeted for the time being, but we’ll all get together soon. We saw Jeff already and he’s looking good too. His new teeth are different, more regular and he smiles a lot more to show them off.”

“But Jake and I wanted to talk to you privately before that.” Hicks reached into his duffel bag, pulled out a stack of bills and put it on the coffee table. “This is yours.” And he put down four more bundles beside it.

“86 thousand dollars to a penny,” Jake declared, smiling broadly. “We sold some of the gold, but not all of it. The emerald will be trickier as Hicks is trying to do it under the table, not to call the taxman’s attention to it.”

“Yes, so be careful how you spend this,” Hicks said. “We don’t want the government in on it. We gave three years to the nation unpaid, so I figure they owe us something.”

Hawkins eyed the neat pile of cash, trying to come to terms with it. Was it really real? He was used to bills lying discreetly in his wallet, not as stand-alone three dimensional entities taking up room on his table. He reached out, but hesitated to touch it. “I don’t know… what to say…” he stammered.

“Come, it shouldn’t be such a surprise,” Jake said, pleased with Hawkins’ reaction. “We all knew about it.”

“Yes. But all that was on the other side of the ocean… in a shooting war. I didn’t think we would survive… and… and I couldn’t bring myself to believe that grandfather was real…”

“Take it from me, this is real. Every bill of it,” Hicks said matter-of-factly.

“I see it… it just hasn’t registered in my brain yet.” Hawkins looked from one to the other, his mouth dry. “I can sure use it, no doubt about that, and… I promise to be careful about spending it.”

“Yes, it’s a bit of a problem,” Hicks said. “We need some sort of cover to launder the money. I know I want my bookstore but it won’t have enough cash flow to hide the extra money. That’s why we thought of buying a car dealership that could handle a lot more. Jake’s interested in doing that, running sales, and so is Jude, who’s pretty good with tools and mechanics and would run parts and service. Of course he doesn’t know about grandfather, but all the same is interested enough to want to join in.”

“You seem to have it all worked out,” Hawkins said, rubbing his chin. Holy Cow! 86,000 dollars! And that’s only a down payment.

“Pretty well. And if you’re in, we’ll take your share of the rest and invest it in the dealership,” Jake said.

“Do you want the 86,000 back?” Hawkins asked, indicating the money on the table.

“That no, but spend it wisely. We’re now talking about what’s left, the emerald and the rest of the gold. But again we have to be careful.”

“And you know how to do all this?” Hawkins asked Hicks.

“Yes. I’ve read up on it, and know people who know other people.”

“What are the risks?” Hawkins asked.

“Hiding the money and laundering it. Not paying taxes on it. The Government would love a chunk of this,” Hicks said.

“Yeah, fifty, sixty percent,” Jake added.

Hawkins thought hard for a moment, looking at the other two before finally saying, “OK, count me in.” He put the cash away in a drawer, then got three glasses of ice water. “Hardly festive enough to launch a new business, but I raise my glass to it.” They clicked glasses and drank.

Hawkins felt dazed. This morning he had problems and now…? He had Jake back and Hicks… his whole crew and grandfather beside. He was suddenly rich. How did his life turn around so quickly?

“Guys…?” Hawkins started. “I… I don’t know how to thank you. This is so unexpected. Sure I knew about the treasure… but couldn’t quite believe having it here and turning it into useable cash. You did all the work. I feel as if I haven’t earned it.”

“But you did,” Jake said with quiet intensity. “Without you none of us would be here enjoying this opportunity. To turn grandfather into a viable business that would give us a steady income.”

“True enough,” Hicks said. “Archimedes once said that without a father there’s no son, I suppose meaning in our case, that without what you did we wouldn’t be doing this. There’s enough gratitude to go around.”

“So…,” Jake said. “We each did our part, and against all odds it worked. We have reason to celebrate and enjoy the fruit of all it took to get us here. So, let’s not talk about thanks and gratitude. We’ve all earned it.”

With business done they got to reminiscing. All the way back to training camp. They recalled the crowding in the transport ship that brought them across the Atlantic, landing in Algiers and the rest of the African campaign.

“You know Jones and Simon would’ve been a part of this,” Jakes said.

“Simon yes, but Jones was a pain in the ass. He wanted it then and thought we were holding out on him. We’d have trouble with him today, but that fucking German killed them both, but in Jones’ case I applaud it,” Hicks said, lighting up, looking for an ashtray. Hawkins pushed a coffee cup in front of him to flick the ashes into.

They talked long into the night and in the end, near 3:00 a.m., Jake ended up in Hawkins’ bed, Hicks on the sofa and Hawkins as the good host on the floor.

When he got up, he moved sluggishly getting ready for work, with time just for two mugs of coffee and a slice of toast. The others were still snoring and so he left them a note. They had decided last night that the two would spend the next two days getting haircuts, buying decent clothes and orienting themselves around the capital. They would meet again later in the week.

The work dragged on, but Hawkins got through it, fuelled by many cups of coffee and worry. He had dumped the cash in the drawer and was now afraid that someone could walk in and take it. It was a baseless worry or so he told himself. He started toward home, just thinking of all he was facing. About halfway he changed course and went to Irene’s apartment.

She opened the door and reluctantly let him in. “I suppose we have to come to some understanding. No use putting it off. So here’s my deal. You’re the father of my baby and so shall it be entered on the birth certificate. But I won’t marry you, or live with you. We’re strictly speaking his or her parents and nothing else. Is that understood?”

“Perfectly,” he said, relieved that the first hurdle had been cleared so easily. “But I have a few more alterations. I’ve come into some money, part of which I’ll invest in a business, but let me tell you how I’d like to use the other part. First off we’ll find you a new apartment, larger and closer to the hospital. I’ll find myself something better and closer to the university that I’m starting in a couple of months. We’ll await the birth of our baby and afterwards, I hope, you’ll be willing to stay home and take care of the baby. I have the money to support you and more.” He took a breath, undecided if he should risk pushing it any further. He decided to reach for the top. “Then, in a year or two, I would like you to go to medical school and become the doctor you always wanted to be.” She looked a bit confused so he hurried on, “I won’t ask you for anything, other than to see and spend some time with our child.”

She was silent as she worked through his proposition. “It sounds like you want to buy me.” Her face suddenly turned suspicious. “Where did you get the money anyway?”

“An inheritance. An aunt died and left me a tidy sum… enough to do everything I proposed.”

“I thought you didn’t have any family left.”

“Nothing immediate, but a few cousins. The point is, I can afford it.”

“But I have a debt I have to pay off.”

“How much?”

“Almost 34,000 dollars.” He was relieved; he had the impression that it was into the hundreds of thousands.

“That’s no problem, but we have to continue paying it in installments. I don’t want to invite the taxman into my life by paying it off too quickly.”

“This isn’t something shady, is it?”

“Of course not. The money’s invested and I can get out what we need without incurring a greater tax burden.” They regarded each other silently.

“It still sounds like you’re trying to bribe your way into my life…”

“Call it what you like. I… like you and you know that, and I’m already loving my child and he or she isn’t even born. Yes I definitely want to buy my way into being a father.”

“I suppose it would solve a lot of problems for me… but are you telling me the truth? This sounds like a scam my father would put together.”

“Once again, I’m not your father. Tomorrow I’ll give you $1,500 cash as a down payment for the future. What do you say?”

“I’ll have to think about it.” A confusion of feelings played upon her face.

“Good enough. I’ll leave now, as I know I wasn’t invited, but I’ll see you tomorrow with the cash.” He left her speechless. It felt good inside; he had accomplished a lot and hadn’t gotten into any destructive arguments. His daylong tiredness forgotten, he walked home.

In the hallway he stumbled into Inspector McKee. “I thought we could finish our discussion.”

“Sure, come inside.” He had already decided not to give up Jake or Hicks; they were his friends and he realized he trusted them. They certainly delivered on grandfather. In the apartment, he took a quick look in the drawer and to his relief, found the cash still there. They sat down and he asked simply, “So?”

“So, I’ve checked on the facts you gave me last time and they seem to line up with the records. I have only a few more questions I need clarified.”

“Before we get any further into this, I need some proof that you are who you say you are,” Hawkins said, putting on a determined tone. Without a word, McKee pulled out his badge and passed it over to him. The shield of the Boston Police Department looked genuine. “So, I ask again, what is this all about?” He handed the badge back.

McKee pretended to study his file on his knees before saying, “As I asked the last time, who in your crew has a criminal bent?”

“That won’t work this time. If you don’t name the person then I have nothing to say.” They traded looks, measuring each other. Finally the detective put his papers away and said outright, “Very well then. What can you tell me about Jones Blakely?”

“Jones?” This was a surprise. “Nothing much to add to what I told you before; he was a good driver.”

“Did you know that he was a suspect in two homicides and arrested for criminal activities?”

“No, I didn’t know that. How did he get into the Army then? They don’t typically allow felons to sign up.”

“Because he was a slippery bastard. On a lesser charge, he convinced the judge to give him this chance, a sort of conditional discharge, and he promised to join up to show his sincerity to go straight. Nothing went into the record.”

“Well none of us knew a thing about it. He certainly didn’t talk and we didn’t ask. But why is this an issue anyway? He’s dead.”

“We’ve come across strong evidence against him in two killings. His brother was shot dead after a hold up and we know he was a part of that but couldn’t prove it. We know he was engaged in other criminal activities, but again couldn’t prove it. And now we have some new evidence that implicates him, but we lost track of him in this war. So we have to make sure he’s dead. No one but you and your crew saw his body. Maybe it’s his ruse to duck the law. I have to make sure he’s dead before I close the case.”

“As to his guilt or innocence, I can’t say anything. But as to his death, I can tell you plenty. My crew helped me bury him in the desert. I can give you a map reference but that’s all.”

“Well I guess that has to be good enough,” the inspector said wearily. “I’d appreciate if you could contact your crew and have them sign an affidavit to that effect. Here’s my card, please send them to me.”

“Of course.” He put the card away and saw the Inspector to the door.

To his surprise he found himself trembling. Jones Blakely, a criminal, suspected of murder! He would be the one that killed Simon, not the German, not Jake, and not Hicks! An immense sense of relief rushed through him. It all made sense now. He’d never considered Jones because he got killed so soon after Simon’s death, and certainly had nothing left to gain. Death had made him seem like a victim not the perpetrator. Strange arithmetic, subtract one, cancel out something else. But this let Jake and Hicks off the hook. They were or had to be innocent. He felt a tinge of guilt for suspecting them. He remembered how after he was injured, he’d asked for a knife so he could protect himself. He wanted to have a drink to celebrate and to calm his nerves.

He walked down the street to the nearest tavern and ordered a double whiskey on ice. He sipped quietly, trying to avoid looking at the lady of the night further down the bar who was sizing him up. He finished his drink and walked into the gathering evening. He felt as he were floating, so light and unburdened. Things were working out better than he could have hoped.

The next day after work, he knocked on Irene’s door and when she opened it, he put an envelope with $1500 into her hand, then turned and left without saying a word. He figured that said more than anything he could have come up with.

Chapter 15

The crew of the Lady met again in a small pub on 14th Street. There was Jake, feeling very good with three beers in him and Hicks with a smoke between his lips, sharing a light with Jude. And Jeff, his jaw put back together, looking good with only the skin of his face a little stiff.

They ordered roasted chicken, spare ribs and more beer. Jake stood up and lifted his bottle. “So here we are together at last, safe and sound as I promised you. But we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for James here killing two Tigers that could easily have killed us. I lift my drink to him and thank him now and forever. Jim, cheers to you.” They all lifted their drinks and took a sip.

Hicks stood next. “I know you’re afraid I’ll lecture you, but today I won’t. I’ll only call attention to how lucky we are to have beaten the odds. Of all the services in the Army, Navy and the Air Force, we’ve suffered worse casualties than anybody. How many of those we started with are alive today? Very few, I tell you. We were lucky sure, but one thing that really helped, was that James was a cautious, resourceful commander, and after him Jake the same, having learned from the best. Thank you both.”

Hawkins stood. “Yes we were lucky and one reason for that was the Lady herself. Lady Bug, I say it now with pride, she was a good tank that saw us through good times and bad and brought us safely home.” They all stood clicking glasses.

“So it’s my turn,” Jude said. “I never met a finer bunch of men than the ones I served with. It’s true I drove exactly as you told me. Yes, I too thank you all for bringing us safely home.”

Then they all looked at Jeff. He blushed and stammered, “I know that I came late to the crew and was a bit of a fifth wheel, but I can’t tell you how much I respect you guys. And if I’m alive it’s because of you.”

The food arrived and they dug in. The meat had a strong taste, rich with spices. They had more to drink and talked animatedly with each other.

Hicks reported on their progress in an aside to Hawkins. “We’ve decided to set up here in Washington, in one of the newer suburbs. The city’s growing, needing more cars and services. We applied for a dealership, and are waiting for completion of the paperwork. Our lawyer says we should have the incorporation done by the end of the month. Jake and I looked around and found three places that look good. We don’t intend to be the biggest, but not the smallest either. We figure that if the three of us chip in like $6,000 each, that would get us started. That will be for the building and the real estate. Later of course, more will be needed for the inventory. Both Jude and Jeff agreed to sign on as managers. Jake will be the head of it all, while I run my bookstore and you complete your studies, coming in only when needed.”

“When would I be needed?”

“For decisions, like the meeting of the Board of Directors, and maybe over holidays or peak seasons getting involved in selling. Jake’s looking forward to taking on the role, and Jeff and Jude are happy to have jobs and careers.”

“Good, that’s seems settled then.”

A little later, Jude broke into an ongoing conversation. “One thing still puzzles me: who is this grandfather I overhear you talk about so often?” A surprised silence that settled on the table.

Hawkins laughed. “That was a code word we used to talk about our superiors, so we wouldn’t get into trouble if we were overheard. Seems like it worked very well if you couldn’t figure it out.”

“Yes, and we had some lulus. Remember Captain Benedict? He was a first-class asshole from the toes up,” Hicks said laughing.

“My personal favorite was Major Fairweather. He had us saluting even in the combat zone and lectured us about the state of our uniforms as if anybody else gave a shit. I was glad when they booted him up to headquarters.”

“I don’t think I knew him,” Hawkins said.

“He came after you, before Bastogne and left shortly after it,” Hicks added.

The evening passed very pleasantly, full of good fellowship and humor. Hawkins realized how much he had missed these guys and had enough beer in him to confess it openly. Then they all got choked up.

When he had a chance, Hawkins reported to Jake and Hicks that he had sent his and their deposition to Inspector McKee in Boston. “I still can’t figure it, Jones looked OK to me.”

“He definitely had a nasty streak in him. Once I saw him beat a man badly in a brawl, and was surprised they didn’t charge him with anything,” Jake said.

“And he was a liar, I caught him often at it. He didn’t like me because I called him on it. But I’m surprised about him killing Simon because I was sure the German did it,” Hicks said.

“The German was dying and confessed to me that he didn’t kill Simon and I believed him; why should a dying man lie about anything?”

“So then you knew, but you said you didn’t suspect Jones,” Hicks stated.

“No because he died so soon after that. Strange as it may sound, somehow his death erased my suspicions. I never once thought of him as a killer.”

“Then who did you suspect?” Hicks asked again. Hawkins lowered his eyes to hide his shame. “Jake and me, then. You thought one of us did it, right?”

“But I couldn’t decide which one of you two,” Hawkins admitted. The three of them were quiet as they revised their histories.

“With your puritanical background that must have been quite a struggle,” Hicks mused.

“Some of the time, but I’m not puritanical.”

“Come, come, you’re straight as an arrow. But it’s significant you didn’t turn us in,” Jake said.

“How could I? You’re my closest friends.”

“And so we are,” Jake said, putting an end to a painful topic.

Jeff also had a few words for Hawkins. “Hey, I understand that you’re seeing Miss Georges. She’s a real knockout, I envy you or any man who can catch her.”

“It’s not quite what you think. I was her patient and she fixed me up. And now we’re friends. I take her to the movies or a restaurant once in a while, but that’s all.”

“She did a good job on you. You hardly even limp. Man you should’ve seen what a mess you were after you got wounded. I nearly passed out when Jake uncovered your leg. It was totally mangled with bones poking out everywhere. I was sure you’d lose it.”

“So was I. But people did good by me. They worked very hard to save my leg and I wrote to thank many of them.”

“And have you heard back from anyone?”

“No. But I expect they get hundreds of letters like that from grateful ex-patients.”

In the end they all piled into a taxi and dropped Hawkins off first as they headed back to the VA House.

Two days later Hawkins went to see Irene. He had stayed away for nearly a month to avoid crowding her and to give her time to adjust. It worked, for she smiled at him when she opened the door. “Come on in. Make yourself comfortable,” she invited.

He took a seat and came straight to the point. “I’ve been looking at apartments for you and the child. I’ve found four, two within walking distance of the hospital, the other two an easy bus ride away. I thought perhaps on the weekend we could have a look at them and decide which you like best.”

“Are you absolutely sure you can afford this?”

“Absolutely.”

“I just don’t feel right using up your inheritance.”

“My Army buddies are back, safe and sound. Between us we have enough to buy into an auto dealership. That way the money will earn us an income. So please don’t worry about personal finances.”

“But I feel like I’m a bought woman with a sugar daddy.”

He laughed. “That’s the first time you’ve called me sweet.” She got a little red at the rejoinder. “But seriously, I think it’s time that something good happens to you. I’m investing in my child’s future.”

“Thank you for stating it that way.”

They agreed to meet on Sunday and look at the apartments.

Hawkins left feeling good about the evening.

Two days later Hawkins picked Irene up in a cab and they visited all four places. She liked the third one best, as it was on a quiet street close to Walter Reed and to a bus route with a good connection to the hub of downtown. It had a spacious living room, a so-so dining room, a kitchen with newer appliances, and two bedrooms. The second bedroom was smaller but would serve well as the baby’s room. The bathroom had a full tub, but no shower. The apartment was on the second floor, overlooking a row of quaint shops on the other side of the street. All the same, she hesitated before committing herself.

“I feel like I’m selling my soul and independence, and it doesn’t feel right.”

“I thought we settled this. It’s not for you, it’s for the child.”

“I wish I could believe that.” After she decided, he paid for first and last months’ rent. The apartment house was owned by some rich people, but the super seemed nice enough.

They walked around in the neighborhood, getting to know the area. “I should be happy, why am I not?”

“Because when you are, you start to feel guilty. You don’t often let yourself feel good.”

“Well, what do you feel?” she demanded.

“I’m content that this is settled. Looking forward to moving on. I’m starting school in a week and I’m excited by the prospects.”

“I suppose I envy you.”

“After a while you’ll get to go too, if you want. We have the money to do it.”

“You have the money, I’m freeloading on it.”

“Please let’s not argue about it. Not today.” After that they walked together in silence. Suddenly she grabbed his arm and hid her face on his shoulder.

Then a whirlwind of news shook the world.

On August 6th Hiroshima was hit by an atom bomb. The city was destroyed. It took a couple of days for the news media to start to make sense of the event, describing the extent of damage and the horrific number of casualties. We had this bomb? Why didn’t we use it against Germany?

For the first time it seemed clear that Japan had lost the war. As if to confirm it, Russia opportunistically declared war on Japan and marched into Manchuria.

On August 11th Nagasaki was destroyed by a second atom bomb. More destruction, more casualties. They were talking about 20,000 tons of TNT. What was that in horsepower, something that people might understand better?

On August 15th Emperor Hirohito broadcast the famous speech of Japan’s surrender, the day declared VJ Day. Incredibly the long war was over. People rushed into the streets again, celebrating. It was impossible to cross the street, stuck in the middle of this incredible press of people.

The war which had seemed interminable a few short months ago was over. Once again, the elation verged on ecstasy, as people found ways to celebrate. The nation went crazy, in big cities, in small towns all across the land. The War’s over! God be thanked, Hallelujah! America is victorious! The boys would be coming home. Glory Hallelujah. A nation that had been holding its breath for so long could breathe again.

With great difficulty on account of the madcap congestion, Hawkins made his way over to Irene, and the two of them shared a bottle of wine.

“I wish my brother could have seen this,” Irene said, her eyes awash in tears. “He fought for it, and he died for it. My baby will never know him and the world will forget that he ever lived.”

Hawkins didn’t know what to feel. Relief certainly, but the war against Japan had never felt quite real to him. He had lived in the shadow of war so long that the fruits of sudden victory seemed quite surreal.

With glass in hand he stood at the window looking down on the people in the neighborhood celebrating. Everyone was there, the young, the old, people from next door. A girl kissed a boy, reminding Hawkins of VE Day, the excitement that had filled him and how Irene had allowed herself the joy everyone was feeling. And now they were expecting. That was joy itself, he smiled, remembering her touch, her passion and his own. It was both sweet and bitter. It had been incredible in its intensity, but it had also put a huge distance between them. No matter, he had to believe that time would heal all wounds and find a resolution.

“I wish I could have met you in peace time,” he said. “I wouldn’t be so pessimistic and you… you wouldn’t have seen and dealt with so much hurt. The war changed us both.”

“Yes, but without the war we wouldn’t have met. I started residency just before Pearl Harbor. Where were you?”

“On the Princess cruising in the Caribbean, dancing for my living. Now, if I pass my courses and graduate, I’ll likely become a history teacher.”

“You took part in shaping history.”

“In a minimal way. I signed up because I heard the call of patriotism that swept America. All on emotions but not really on any principle. I believed we had to fight evil, and we did and destroyed it, left the world in shambles. All in all, America got off cheaply. But we lost a lot of boys, and the pain of their loss won’t ever go away.”

“You sound very sad.”

“I am. Sad for the people we lost, glad that it’s over, joyful that our men will be coming home. That is what’s real for me.”

“And you have your crew back… together.”

“That’s the icing on the cake,” Hawkins smiled. “They’re now my family.”

“How’s the business you’re partnering together?”

“Partners? That’s Jake, Hicks and I, we have the seed money. Jude and Jeff are employees we’re glad to have.” He looked at her, struck again by her beauty. Sometimes he forgot that because of the doubt overshadowing their relationship. Sometimes it took another person’s reaction on seeing her that reminded him how lucky he was. “How’s your reading?”

“I’m still reading the Manual of Internal Medicine, taking notes. It’ll take me years to get through it. Also reading new drug information. One thing this war has done for my profession is that we have new medicines to fight diseases with.”

“Same in sciences, aviation and engineering. We’ve created better machines, better weapons and an all-destructive bomb. But there are also better telephones and radios, better baby buggies…” He threw a quick glance at her; yes, they would need one soon.

The newspapers gloated over the victory, but tried to make sense of the enormity: the end of war, a peace bought with atom bombs. The world was on the threshold of a new age, when entire cities could disappear, wiped out by a single bomb. Some shuddered in horror, a few felt the guilt, but most just shrugged: served them right.

September 2nd Japan signed the instrument of surrender, formally ending the war.

Next day, Hawkins gave notice at the Postal Station. The supervisor regretted losing him, but said, “You’re doing it right Jim. Learn all you can and become somebody. The war’s ended, but I believe the new world will need education.”

Hawkins was nervous about attending his first class at George Washington University. The campus was big and intimidating, with clusters of large buildings housing the various faculties and different disciplines, all dedicated to learning. Yet it wasn’t the size that concerned him, as much as the implied store of knowledge he was confronted with. He felt as if he had to learn and know it all. It was a concept that was hard to face on the first day.

The buildings themselves were impressive, clusters of stately architecture, proud of their pedigree. The manicured grounds, flowerbeds and open spaces, sculpted trees and tended walkways were so different from the destruction he had seen and experienced overseas. The contrast was jarring.

Then well advertised were the famous alumni, people who had succeeded in the arts, in politics and government, in sciences and business… in all walks of life. Was he really expected to match their accomplishments?

There was also a flood of students, thousands of them, fresh-faced kids, making him feel very old although he had only four, five years on them. These boys and girls knew little of life, nothing of death and the consequences of a war that ravaged continents. Now that the war had wound down they didn’t have to fear being called up and could revert to a carefree existence. To them the campus was a special playground.

Tracking through his schedule and the campus map, he attended the first lecture, and after the welcome speech Hawkins heard the professor talk about study habits, time management and the need to stay focused. He relaxed some more: he had already finished reading the textbook and was researching suggested collateral material. At the end of the lecture the professor was still trying to inspire his listeners to apply themselves to the task ahead of them.

The second, third and fourth classes were just the same, laying the groundwork for the course: required books, an overview of the course, assignments and assessment criteria. Hawkins took notes.

In the free period, Hawkins grabbed something to eat in the cafeteria then explored the campus centre, milling with students engaging one another. A few pretty girls among them caught his eye, with their fresh looks just coming into their own. Most, though, seemed to enjoy themselves in what looked to be a frivolous pursuit of higher education.

He saw a young man standing by himself to the side, reading through the bulletin board. He was different, the way he stood and carried himself, the way his eyes tracked through the room. Hawkins walked over to him and extended a hand. “Hawkins, Lieutenant James Hawkins 1st Armored.”

The man smiled and shook the proffered hand. “Sergeant Thomas Hodgkin, bombardier.”

“Glad to meet you, Sergeant.”

“Same here. Felt a little lost among these adolescents. But what’re you doing here? You been to West Point?”

“No, it was a battlefield promotion, and now I’m here cashing in on my GI Bill.”

“Yeah, there are a few of us and we should form a club of sorts. It’s a cinch we aren’t fitting so well into the round holes around us. At least not easily.”

“You might be right about that. Where did you serve?”

“Mostly in England. Flew 28 bombing missions over France and Germany. Frankly I’m surprised that I’m here.”

“Me too. A tank is a tempting target, less of a protection.”

“I hear you, brother. What’re you studying?”

“Humanities with a focus on history. I want to find out how wars come about and how to stop them.”

“Amen to that. I’m in engineering. This place is a madhouse. I was here for orientation and it was one party after another. I find it hard to fit in. It’s as if my kid brother were asking me to come out and play.”

“And how about the girls?”

“Mostly nice, but scared of us veterans. I don’t know, we must smell of gunpowder and blood. I went to a dance and only danced once and it wasn’t for lack of trying. But they see me coming and they run. I don’t know how I’ll survive the four years.”

“Probably it’s your intensity they can’t understand. You know, waiting for a bullet from somewhere. But we’ll adapt. The thing to remind ourselves is to relax, the war is over and we’re safe.”

They parted soon after, promising to meet up again.

Hawkins found it easy to say the words, “Relax and all will be well.” It was much harder to live up to them. In the midst of something mundane, in a flash he would feel back in the war, filled with a surge of anxiety, looking around desperately to find the source of danger. Of course there wasn’t any, but the feeling persisted and for the next hour he would walk around as if in a minefield. Anything could set it off, a loud, unexpected noise, a quick shadow overhead or something coming at him too quickly. He could be in a crowd and still be attacked by these feelings. One time he was walking across the main quadrangle between the buildings, when he had the feeling of something or someone zeroing in on him. The feeling was so strong that his stomach instantly tightened and he ducked behind an elm tree for protection. Strangely the premonition came with a bearing though nothing was there. It took him a good ten minutes before he could leave the safety of the tree, walking on shaky legs.

There was no predicting the onset of these episodes. They could happen anytime; it was as if some repressed memories would seep through his guard. And often they were powerful enough to put a hole in whatever he was doing. For the duration, he would lose focus, his eyes would become glassy with fear and he would break into sweat. “They will pass,” he told himself afterward, “in time.”

The day came to move Irene into her new apartment; Jake had volunteered to help.

“Man, she’s a knockout. She looks good enough to star in movies. Are you two going together?”

“I wish. We’re friends. She’s the nurse who got me walking again. I’m very grateful to her.”

“Well, she’s certainly something.” Though Hawkins denied a closer connection, Jake sensed the undercurrents and stayed perfectly polite in her presence, not flipping into the ladies’ man routine as he was prone to do in other circumstances.

It took them two trips with the rented truck to move everything. Irene had packed well so the whole thing went quickly, without a hitch. She even had spaghetti and meatballs to feed them afterwards.

“I’m really grateful to you both. With your help it went very smoothly, don’t you think?” She opened bottles of beer and passed them around. “I suppose I should have a house warming party to christen this place properly. You’re both invited, of course.”

Sitting on the sofa full of boxes all around, they had a lighthearted conversation, trying out jokes on each other. Jake looked from one to the other and decided it was time for him to go. “I’ve got things to do,” he lied.

Alone, Irene thanked Hawkins again. “James, you’ve been a great help and I thank you. I can see you deliver on what you promise. In all aspects. Not like my father.” This referred back to their previous conversation, to let him know that she now thought of him differently. He smiled wryly to himself; not being a specific somebody was a long way from being the somebody he wanted to be.

“I really meant it about the house party, bring your crew, all of them.”

He left a class pleased with the lecture; they were covering content he had already read about in his text. But the discussion afterwards was good. To his surprise, at least some of the “kids” showed insight and understanding. Though he kept his views and opinions mostly to himself, his contributions were well thought out, and he soon gained the reputation of “being in the know.” People started coming to him for help in understanding the material, which he did, as much as his time allowed. Usually he was in the library deep into ancillary readings.

Once in the while he met with other vets in the campus center. Tom Hodgkin introduced him to the others: Sam Gordon, an ex-Seabee, Charlie Thompson, ex-paratrooper, Phil Buck, a GI, as he liked to refer to himself.

“Hey, I know you,” Charlie said. “You were awarded the Silver Star. I read it in the Post and saw your picture.” He turned to the others. “The President pinned the medal on his chest.”

“He was still the Vice President then,” Hawkins corrected.

“The thing that I really want to know is how did you talk that movie star into going with you?” Charlie asked.

“She isn’t a movie star. She was my nurse at Walter Reed. But as far as coming with me, who could refuse an invitation to the White House?”

“I had a friend die at Walter Reed,” Phil said. “He stepped on a mine in Rhineland. Took both his legs off. They airlifted him to England and from there to Walter Reed. When I got back Stateside he was still alive, but died two days later. He and I used to share foxholes.”

“Tough, man,” Sam said. “I soon stopped counting the number of friends I lost. Pretty depressing. Sometimes I still dream about them, then wake up, knowing they’re gone.”

“Piss on the war,” Tom said. “Now we have to learn to live again. It’s strange to wake up in a new world where no one’s shooting at you, or telling you what to do. It’s also a bit scary. In the Air Force I didn’t have to worry about a career, but now I do. I’m at the steering wheel again, but don’t quite know in what direction to drive.”

“You’re doing a good thing, getting an education,” Hawkins pointed out.

“How could I not? The government’s paying for it. Only a fool would pass up the opportunity.”

“Speaking of plusses, have you noticed that they’re way more girls on this campus than boys? They say it’s because a lot of us went to war and women took over in the offices and factories. And yes, even in colleges. This war’s changed more than borders my friends,” Phil said. “Which all means that this is prime hunting grounds to find a date. I have this long-legged blonde picked out in my physics class. I give you five to one that I bed her before the end of the semester.”

“Just remember you don’t get credits for dating, dancing and drinking… the three d’s of miss-education,” Tom said.

“You forgot drugs. The kids today take drugs,” Sam chimed in.

“What kind of drugs?” Charlie asked.

“All kinds. Drugs to stay awake, drugs to sleep, drugs to change what you don’t like about yourself. The way I hear, it’s all coming down from New York.”

“How about drugs for medication? We’re next to one of the largest hospitals in the country,” Hawkins reminded them.

“True enough,” Tom said, turning to him. “And will you introduce us to your movie star?”

“Are you kidding? Of course not. I’m not inviting wolves to the feast.”

Three weeks into the term he had his first exam in history. Written in the margin of one of his essays, the professor wrote, “Come and see me.” Hawkins didn’t know what to make of the notation and was somewhat apprehensive when he knocked on Professor Harriman’s door.

“Yes?” the Professor, a wiry haired man asked from behind the desk.

“I’m James Hawkins in your 2:00 o’clock history class. You wrote on my essay paper to come and see you.”

“Yes I did.” The professor flashed his eyes up and down Hawkins. “I wanted to see who wrote such original answers. It showed a lot of thought and good reasoning. I can’t agree with the whole of your conclusions, but it was a refreshing change from paraphrasing what the textbook said. You got an A+ on that.”

It surprised Hawkins how relieved he felt. Why should that be? He had commanded men in battle, killed the enemy, yet was afraid of a professor’s marking pen? It made no sense.

The car dealership was nearing its grand opening. The premises were ready, the showroom all set up, the service center operational and the first load of cars had already arrived. Hawkins walked through it with Jake, liking very much what he saw.

“We’ll try to maintain a steady stock of about 60 cars, mostly in the mid price range, keeping the low and the high end models to a minimum. We want to cater to the working man, who’s ready to buy reliability, but not splurge heedlessly. We want to give the public what they need, not squeeze them dry,” Jake said.

“Good to hear. I have some time and would gladly help out.”

“You don’t need to, but what would you like to do?”

“Everything. From cleaning cars to fixing and selling them. Can even do some office work.”

“That’s like you, wanting to learn everything.” Jake stopped by a car in the show room to wipe off a handprint on the gleaming wax job.

Hawkins looked around in the service bays and saw Jude laying out tools on the workbench, like a nurse preparing for surgery in the OR. “Who’s got the number four wrench?” Jude yelled toward the back.

“I’m using it,” Jeff’s voice answered from the parts section.

In the front office Hawkins met Miss Dalton, a matronly woman of about fifty, working the phone and in charge of the books. There was also a youngish stock clerk, to juggle deliveries.

In the inner office, Jake was leafing through the invoices. He motioned to Hawkins to take a seat. “One of our challenges will be to get deliveries on time from the factories. We’re too small to have preferred status, so we’ll be lower on the list. However, we’re not overstocked, not too much money tied up in inventory.”

“How about trade-ins and used cars?”

“We’ll accept trade-ins, of course, as everybody does. But we’ll pass them on to a used car dealer. All in all we should do well with our mid-sized operation,” Jake said, sounding pleased.

After the tour Hawkins went home to study. More exams were coming up, and he felt a little unsure about calculus.

On Sunday, Hawkins visited Irene. Her apartment looked welcoming with everything unpacked, the boxes put away. It was interesting to see where things had ended up, comparing the new place with the old.

“What do you think?” she asked.

“I like it. There’s a sense of more space and less crowding. One can breathe in here.”

“Yes, it’s true. I hadn’t realized before how cramped I was in the old place. And I certainly will need more space. Come, let me show you.” She took his hand and led him to the small bedroom. Inside was a crib, a change table, a set of drawers and a chair. The walls were freshly painted beige, and the room bright with the south facing window.

“Very nice. How about decorations?” Hawkins asked looking at the bare walls.

“I’m waiting to find out if it’s a boy or a girl.”

“Do we have names yet?”

“Nothing firm yet. How about Amelia if a girl, and Jonathan if a boy? What do you think?”

“Amelia’s nice, but Jonathan, I don’t know. We had a boy in my class and they called him John-O or Johnny-on-the-Spot.”

“Well we still have time to think about it.”

“How’re you going to have the last name?” he asked tersely what he really wanted to know.

“Hawkins. How does it sound to you?”

“Amelia Hawkins?” He tried it out. “Sounds about perfect.”

She looked a bit shyly at him. “Would you like a girl or prefer a boy?”

“I admit I’m conflicted. I’d like a girl to remind me of her mother, but it’d be nice to catch a ball with a boy.” She laughed.

Before he left, he passed over an envelope. “Money to help with the rent and paying off the debt. I’ll contribute every month as promised.”

She looked inside to a flash of green and frowned. “Thank you, I can use it. But it makes me feel I should sleep with you.”

“Heavens, no! I’m just practicing being a good father.”

“Oh. Then you’ve fallen out of love with me?” she asked archly.

Her question, however lightly intended, rocked him. “No, I mean… no.”

“Good, because I wouldn’t like to be cast aside so soon.”

On the way home, Hawkins was excited by the last exchange. He had just about given up on ever winning her, and forced himself to think of being just a friend with a child in common, but now found the door open just a crack. How open? And what should he do? He wanted to rush in, of course, but knew better. He decided to continue cautiously, testing the waters as he moved along.

The next Sunday was Irene’s open house. There was his crew and a few of Irene’s friends from work.

“This is nice,” Jake approved after a tour of the apartment.

“A very pleasant neighborhood, quiet, off the main routes,” was Hick’s opinion.

“Facing south into sunlight,” Jude said. Jeff said nothing but eyed Nicole, a nurse from Intake at Walter Reed.

The guys all made big eyes at Irene, awed by her calm beauty. It wasn’t as if she had the most beautiful eyes, nose or lips; it was the perfect proportions of all parts. She had a quiet manner and grace of movement.

“Congratulations Buddy Boy,” Jake said in an aside to Hawkins. “She’s definitely a keeper.”

“We’re not that far yet,” Hawkins replied.

“Then get busy and get there.” Hawkins thought it had taken VE Day to get there, but how often did such days come around? Next to never.

Hicks was lecturing something historical to two of the nurses who seemed interested enough, focusing on his moving lips. After he was finished, one of them blinked and said, “You have very nice lips.”

Jude was talking to the other nurse, laughing a little too loudly. Jeff sipped the punch and stared at the ladies from a safe distance.

Jake was inspecting a painting on the wall, checking the artist’s signature.

“It’s not like you not to play the field,” Hawkins said to him.

“Oh I would,” Jake said, “but I have a girl coming to visit me tomorrow and I don’t want to complicate things. You know, have them pass in the hall, eyeballing each other.”

“Who’s the lucky girl?”

“Coralee, remember her? She’s the one who sent me a Dear John letter in Sicily. We’ve corresponded ever since. After about ten letters she got curious about me and is coming from Delaware to see me.”

“Wow! But isn’t that a little chancy?”

“A whole lot chancy. She sent a photograph, but who believes in photographs anymore? It could have been taken ages ago and she could have grown old and ugly by now.” He swished around his drink. “But know something funny, because of her letters I know more about her than any other girl I’ve dated. She’s kind, smart and has a great sense of humor.”

“What does she do?”

“Office work at a real estate company. Keeps the books. You know something funny? I’m looking forward to the meeting and hope that it will work. But I’m a bit nervous about it.”

“Good for you. Believe me, wanting is the best guarantee of it working. She must want it too, if she’s comi