“Atheists,” said Dave. “Cars are atheists. Without thought, they can’t have gods, right?”
He couldn’t read minds. I just had a habit of thinking out loud.
And anyway, “They stop at the darndest times. They get spooked by gremlins and won’t move. Brand new parts rust away overnight. I call that paganism, or rank superstition. They ain’t got no faith,” I said.
In some outfits, the fact that I wear five stripes and Dave has two would have ended the debate right there. But Recon puts a premium on brains, not deference. When I was a corporal, that seemed like a better idea than it did now.
We broke off twigs for our helmet covers. Brenner had a cloth sack for his helmet instead of a mesh of cord like we used. He used his knife to cut slits in it, then ran the branches through the slits. I asked him why the cloth cover, and he turned back one corner. It was white on the inside.
“For snow,” he said. “Half the year is winter, not so?”
Yeah. Just because the Krauts had been fighting old Franz the Austro for five years before America got interested, that was supposed to mean they knew it all. They did, in fact, know just about every trick about modern warfare. But they didn’t have to have the know-it-all attitude to go along with it.
I’d heard some Germans didn’t act like they knew it all. Back when the war started, there had been a lot more of that sort.
I unlimbered a wisecrack, something about New York winter camouflage being a slushy gray. Before I could let it go, though, the ground slid sideways under my boots.
The bang came an instant later.
Everybody froze but me. I was moving toward the sound of the explosion.
Line troops are supposed to scatter when they’re under artillery fire, seeking the nearest cover. But at night in the woods, movement attracts the eye. Recon troops are supposed to freeze until they locate the source of the threat.
Not that everyone who wears the Eye on his collar actually does what he’s supposed to do. I passed a couple of guys who were huddled in a puddle behind a fallen tree, their heads jerking every which way in terror. One of them, I was pretty sure, was Syzmkowiak. I loomed out of the black across their line of sight and headed on – there wasn’t time to deal with them now. At least they didn’t shoot me, thinking I was Franz, or some black monster leaping through the darkness. Well, I wasn't Franz, anyway.
In a little pine-filled swale, the branches were full of trapped smoke. I grabbed at the skinny trees, skidded to a stop.
Corporal Spencer was down at the bottom, minus most of his leg. His buddy, McNeill, was lying on his stomach at the lip, right where the ground started to slope down. He was about thirty yards from Spencer.
“Mines!” McNeill hissed.
My training kicked in and suppressed my urge to swear. Some of the cleanest mouths you’ll find come out of beast barracks.
I saw it all plain as print. Spencer was laboring up the rise, hitting rocks and scared to make noise. A streambed with pines would absorb the noise, feel soft underfoot, and get his head under cover for a little ways. It was the obvious choice.
So obvious, in fact, that the Austros thought of it too.
“Follow me,” I told McNeill. “Walk in my footprints.”
“What if it’s a Bouncing Betty?” he whispered. Those were nasty little devices which popped up about three feet in the air before they exploded, throwing shrapnel at about waist height, or a little lower. Guys were rightly terrified of them.
It was odd, though, for McNeill to be more worried about his privates than his corporal. I’d learned one more thing about one of my men tonight.
“Then you’ll have armor, woncha?” I said, and poked a thumb at my chest.
I added “C’mon,” which I wouldn’t have done a minute ago. I had pegged McNeill as one of the steady ones.
I took big steps, holding onto the pines for balance. Sap made sticky patterns on my hands. My boots crackled the dry needles just a little, but they were so quiet even McNeill, three steps back, probably didn’t hear ‘em.
Three steps, heck – he hadn’t taken more than one step down into the swale.
“Keep up,” I growled, “or you’ll forget where I stepped! There’s no mud to make footprints down here.”
“I can see ‘em,” he responded. “You brought your own mud with you.”
Even in the midnight blur, he was right. My bootprints were outlined with dark mud from further down the mountain.
“Close up anyway,” I said, and the tone was a threat. Are we going to have to do it this way?
He closed up. He didn’t grumble, but he didn’t grovel, either. His honor was preserved. So do men, if they are to stay men, go to war at each other’s side.
It’s still better than trying to make us into robots. That was the other side’s gag.
Spencer was a medic before joining Recon. He had his bandages out, and twisted around his upper leg, but he hadn’t tightened the windlass to make a proper tourniquet. He had his rosary in his hands, and he was whispering.
His hands and face glowed like the full moon when I got there. He’d lost too much blood.
I turned the windlass (a dowel included in the first-aid pack for just this reason) and tightened the bandage around his upper thigh, compressing his artery against his thighbone. I didn’t see that it made a lot of difference.
McNeill was there, and slit Spencer’s pant leg away so we could see what we were doing. I pulled my compass out from inside my shirt and opened the cover, so the saintelmo backing would light up Spencer’s wound. Down here in the trees, it didn’t risk the mission, just us.
“He’s cold,” said McNeill, holding Spencer’s arm. “Spence? You there, buddy?”
Spencer was trying to talk. There was nothing wrong with his throat or chest, but he couldn’t force the words up. He was weakening fast.
“Spencer,” I said, taking hold of his hand. The tourniquet loosened, but we were beyond that now.
“Spencer, listen to me. I’m not gonna let you die. You hear?”
He nodded, then gagged, like he’d swallowed something huge.
“You gotta help me. When you feel it coming, fight back, you hear me? Cuss, yell, spit, anything, just don’t go to sleep,” I said.
McNeill got out a rosary. He got up on his knees.
“McNeill, take two steps back,” I said sharply and clearly. It was the loudest thing we’d heard since the mine went off.
He obeyed automatically, his legs moving even while his face reproached me. Weren’t we going to give Spencer a proper sendoff?
As it happened, no. We weren’t.
Spencer pulled sharply on my hand. I almost lost him then. He let out a long, long breath and groaned. I slapped him.
“Fight, Spence! Fight! Eyes on me!” I barked.
Then he shuddered, and he was dying. He was trying as hard as anyone could ask, but there just wasn’t enough blood left in his body. The End was coming.
I got one foot under myself and heaved. I grabbed my wrist with my other hand, putting my back, my leg, both arms, even my neck into hauling Spencer back from the Pit.
It felt like he dropped about three feet. His whole weight was on my hand. There was a shocking lot of it, too – how’d he racked up so much guilt so young? Kids these days – but he was helping, pushing along with me. He wasn’t making a lot of difference, because it was his first time dying. He didn’t know what to do.
But me, I’d been around some.
I hauled for all I was worth. I leaned back, getting my weight into it. Yes, I cheated some – my other knee was in his armpit, acting like a pivot to lever him up out of the ground.
From the waist down, he was deep into the Pit. There was still dirt there, under the pine needles, but he was past all that now. Things brushed at his leg – legs! – knocking him this way and that.
He got his other hand up and grabbed hold of mine. He pulled. He was stronger than me – if we’d have been arm-wrestling, I’d have lost. But we were both on the same side tonight.
I dragged him up to his knees and stood up leaning backwards. If I fell now, he might drop right over the Edge. But his weight, and his strength, anchored me. I took a grinding step back, pulling up, and his legs slid up out of the ground, into view. One of them was solid mud and dirt down to his torn combat boot. The other was tan and new and utterly hairless, like the leg of a twenty-two-year-old newborn.
Something tugged at his heel one last time and retreated, beaten.
I panted, with exertion and relief. Spencer came to his senses with a visible click. He grinned.
“Thanks, Sarge,” he said. “Guess I shouldn’ta tried that shortcut, huh?”
“Well, you’ll remember it next time,” I said, too glad to remember my sergeant’s growl. I grinned at McNeill, too, who hadn’t seen it before. He was shocked.
Spencer nodded sideways at me, looking at his buddy.
“The Sarge’s pop was Elvish, straight off the boat,” he explained. “You know how they can’t die? Well, he got some of that from his old man.”
“They can die,” I said, shaking a little with reaction. “They just don’t get old. And when they do die, they don’t go to Heaven, or the other place. Don’t go much of anywhere. They’re air spirits, right? No air up there.”
“How bout you, Sarge? Can you die?” said Spencer, laughing. “Hate to lose you, after all this.”
“Sure I can,” I said. I put a little rasp in it, because Spencer was getting chummy. Much as every decent instinct demands that men get a little weepy when someone’s been pulled back from the brink of death, the Army frowns on it. Can get outta hand.
“Sure I can,” I said again. “I just get better, is all.”
I let go of his hand, but my arm didn’t drop. Our rosaries were entangled.
I had to admit, that was kinda funny.