The Beardless Warriors
By Matheson, Richard Tor Books Copyright © 2008 Matheson, Richard
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780765361196
DECEMBER 8, 1944
When Hackermeyer joined the second squad of the third
platoon of C Company, the first thing he heard was Sergeant Cooley blowing his top.
Hackermeyer had been sitting in a crowded truck all night and most of the morning and he ached. His legs and arms were stiff. His feet were almost numb. He hobbled to the tent of the company commander who passed him on to Assistant Platoon Sergeant Wadley. Wadley escorted him across the bivouac area, telling him what a rugged outfit he was joining.
“We’re fighting men,” said Wadley. “We ain’t got no room for yellowbellies, understand?”
’s our motto,” Sergeant Wadley said.
“Yeah,” said Hackermeyer. Wadley reminded him of his Uncle George; the pretentious authority, the unconvincing bluster.
“Another thing,” said Wadley, “I don’t want to see you dumping gear, understand? I see you dumping gear, I’ll put a bullet through your brain. Understand?”
Hackermeyer sniffed and limped along beside the barrel-chested, long-armed Wadley. Wadley’s newly shaven cheeks were red and puffy while Hackermeyer’s were colorless and flat. Wadley’s helmet liner sat too high onhis skull so that his head and helmet formed a giant egg shape. Hackermeyer’s helmet rode too low. His inanimate black eyes were shadowed by the rim. Wadley moved in short, swaggering paces, one hand gripping the machine pistol hanging at his side. His expression was alertly grim. Hackermeyer plodded, his right thumb hooked beneath the sling of his rifle, his lean face emptied of expression.
As they neared the hollow where the second squad was, they began to hear the raving voice of Sergeant Cooley, who was talking to another soldier. Cooley saw them approaching and came striding over.
“What’s this about leaving our overshoes behind?” he demanded.
Wadley bristled instantly.
“Orders, Cooley,” he said in a quietly dangerous voice.
“What idiot would give orders like that?” said Cooley. “Christ’s sake, ain’t we had enough trench foot? Take away our overshoes and every man in the outfit’ll be crawling back to the aid station!”
“I don’t give the orders, Cooley!” Wadley shouted. “I just see they get followed out and, by Christ, they’ll get followed out, understand?”
Cooley turned his head and spat tobacco juice.
“Watch it, Cooley,” said Wadley in a threatening voice.
“Watch it yourself!” raged Cooley. “They know damn well it rains two days out of three up here!”
“They know damn well we got to walk through water! They know damn well we got to sleep in foxholes filled with rain! They know damn well it’s going to snow soon!”
“Goddamn it, Cooley!” bellowed Wadley.
Hackermeyer stood by sleepily while Cooley and Wadley called each other names. He had slept an hour and twenty minutes on the truck and had been taken from the replacement depot two hours after arriving there from a three-day trip across France in a crowded boxcar. He was not interested in what the sergeants were arguing about. Sniffing, he watched them with heavy-lidded eyes.
Cooley appeared to be in his middle-forties. He was a man of medium height, chunky but not oversize. Wadley loomed gorilla-like next to him. Cooley’s features were undistinguished except for his eyes which were a livid blue in the grimy, sun- and wind-burned, beard-stubbled leather of his face. He was wearing a mud-spattered overcoat without stripes. The netting stretched across his helmet was torn and there was a single, dried-up leaf under it. Across Cooley’s right shoulder hung a carbine.
Suddenly, he turned from Wadley’s apoplectic bluster and looked at Hackermeyer.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“What do you think?” sneered Wadley. “A replacement.”
Cooley chewed his tobacco reflectively. “How old are you?” he asked.
“Eighteen,” said Hackermeyer.
Cooley spat. “Swell,” he said.
He turned to Wadley.
“I ain’t running a rifle squad,” he said. “I’m running a kindergarten.”
“T-S,” said Wadley through his protuberant teeth. He turned away, looking ominous.
“We’re not through talking,” said Cooley.
Wadley glared across his shoulder. “Maybe you think we’re not through, but we’re through, understand?”
“You tell Captain Miller for me—”
“I ain’t telling nobody nothing!” Wadley raged. “And, by Christ, them overshoes better be stacked high before we leave this area! Understand?”
“Up yours,” said Cooley.
Wadley spun around, red cheeks mottling. He looked at Cooley with assassin’s eyes.
“Something on your mind?” asked Cooley.
Breath hissed out between Wadley’s clenching teeth.
“Watch your step, Cooley,” he warned. “Just watch your step, understand?”
Cooley spat tobacco juice. Wadley glared at him, fingers whitening on the handle of his machine pistol. Then he turned on his heel and stalked away. After two strides, he looked across his shoulder.
“Remember what I said!” he ordered. He glowered at Hackermeyer. “You too, soldier!”
Cooley turned to Hackermeyer. “What’d he tell you?”
“Don’t dump gear,” said Hackermeyer.
“That’s up to you,” said Cooley. “Just make sure you don’t dump that entrenching tool and maybe you’ll see Christmas. Where you from?”
“Brooklyn,” said Hackermeyer.
“When were you drafted?”
Cooley exhaled dispiritedly. “And here you are,” he said.
Cooley rubbed his face tiredly. “They must think this is a Boy Scout jamboree,” he mumbled, looking around. “Dave!” he called.
The soldier to whom he’d been talking looked up from a book. Cooley beckoned to him and the soldier stood and came walking over. He was tall and well built with a pleasantly handsome face.
“Replacement,” said Cooley. “What’s your name, son?”
“This is Corporal Lippincott,” said the sergeant. “My name’s Cooley.”
Hackermeyer nodded twice, his face impassive. Cooley sighed.
“Take him over to Wendt,” he said.
“All right.” Lippincott looked at Hackermeyer. “Let’s go,” he said.
“Take over in case anything comes up while I’m gone,” said Cooley.
“Where you going?” asked Lippincott.
“To see Miller. This overshoes crap has got to cease.”
“Why knock yourself out?” asked Lippincott.
“That dumbass of a colonel has got to see some light,” said Cooley, starting off. Lippincott shook his head and smiled without amusement.
“Let’s go,” he said again.
They started walking.
“Something wrong with your feet?” asked Lippincott, noticing Hackermeyer’s limp.
“Cold,” said Hackermeyer.
“Better warm them up,” said Lippincott.
“Try to keep your feet dry,” Lippincott told him. “Otherwise, you’ll wind up getting trench foot. I don’t suppose you’ve had any combat experience.”
“How old are you?”
Lippincott nodded gravely.
&ning a kindergarten.
Lippincott thought a moment. “Four including you,” he said.
“Out of twelve?”
“Ten,” said Lippincott. “We’re short.”
They walked up to a short soldier who was lying on a spread-out raincoat, head pillowed by his helmet. A cigarette jutted up from his chapped lips and his brown, woolen cap was pulled down over his eyes. His features were stubby, his beard a reddish-blond fuzz. He had a brown towel wrapped around his neck for a scarf.
“Wendt,” said Lippincott.
Wendt lifted the edge of his cap from one eye and looked up groggily. “Uh?” he muttered.
“This is Hackmeyer,” said Lippincott.
Lippincott nodded once. “Wendt can tell you most anything you want to know,” he said. “We expect to move out tomorrow morning.” He patted Hackermeyer’s shoulder. “Glad you’re with us,” he said.
Wendt watched sleepily while Hackermeyer unslung his rifle and pack and sank down with a tired sigh. Hackermeyer blew his nose, then started to take off his overshoes.
“Seen much combat?” asked Wendt.
“Oh.” Wendt blew out smoke which faded into the cold air.
While Hackermeyer rubbed his feet, he saw a bazooka and rocket shells beside Wendt. “You a bazooka man?” he asked.
“Yeah,” said Wendt. “I got the only one left in the squad. You can lug the shells. I got a buddy did it but they’re using him for company messenger.” He yawned. “Old Foley,” he said.
“He’s old?” asked Hackermeyer.
Wendt snickered. “Eighteen,” he said. “How old are you?”
Wendt snickered cracklingly. “Cooley must have dropped his teeth,” he said. “That makes four of us now.”
“Why aren’t there twelve in the squad?” asked Hackermeyer.
“There was,” said Wendt.
“One was. One was wounded.” Wendt coughed. “Hell, we’re in good shape,” he said. “There’s a squad in the second platoon had only one man left.”
“What did they do with him?”
Wendt shrugged. “Probably shot him so it came out even,” he said.
“You a Jew?” asked Wendt.
“We got Goldmeyer in the squad and he’s a Jew. I thought maybe you were.”
“Uh-uh,” said Wendt, yawning. “Me, Foley, and Guthrie.”
“He’s from Los Angeles. He’s nuts. His old man writes movies.”
“You see that movie where the Marine kills off the whole Jap army practically?”
“Well, he wrote it, Guthrie’s old man.”
Wendt blew out smoke.
“What a life,” he said. “Screwing movie stars and raking in the loot. Boy.”
“Why doesn’t the sergeant like eighteen-year-olds?” Hackermeyer asked.
“He don’t like nineteen-year-olds either,” said Wendt.
“He thinks we don’t know what we’re doing.” Wendt yawned prodigiously.
“Who else is in the squad?” asked Hackermeyer.
“There’s Guthrie, me, Foley. Goldmeyer. Lazzo. Old Bill Riley—he’s really old—thirty-nine. Corporal Lippincott, Schumacher, and the Sarge.” “How old is he?”
“A hundred and twenty probably. I don’t know. Fifty, maybe. I suppose about thirty-eight.”
Wendt turned his head slowly and looked at Hackermeyer’s gear. “Might as well lighten up,” he said. “Huh?”
“Dump some of that crap. Cut your overcoat to officer length. Get rid of your gas mask—you could use the bag for carrying stuff. Toss out your blankets, shelter half, pegs, rope.”
“Sergeant Wadley said—”
“Screw him,” said Wendt.
Hackermeyer knew he wouldn’t be able to throw away any equipment. It had always been pounded into him by his uncle to take zealous care of everything given to him. Even though he’d hated his uncle, the habit was ingrained. Without thinking about it, he took spiritless care of all possessions and never wasted food.
He glanced at Wendt, who had pulled the woolen cap over his eyes again. Then he looked at the tree a few yards away, its dark twigs reaching upward like charred skeleton fingers. It reminded him of the tree in front of his uncle’s house. He thought about the letter he’d gotten from his Cousin Clara, two weeks before, demanding again that he have a monthly pay allotment sent to her and her mother. Clara was just the way Uncle George had been. No matter how poorly they’d treated Hackermeyer, they had always expected gratitude for taking him into their house.
Hackermeyer sniffed tiredly. Well—perhaps it was just as well he’d always been treated lousy. By now, he was used to things being rotten. Maybe combat wouldn’t bother him at all.
“What are you doing?” asked Wendt. He had just awakened.
“Changing my socks,” said Hackermeyer.
“Keep my feet dry,” said Hackermeyer.
Wendt made the snickering noise. It sounded as if he had a congestion in his sinuses.
“Another Schumacher,” he said, taking out a cigarette. “He’s always changing his socks too. He even changes his underwear.”
He shook his head and blew out smoke, tossing the match away.
“Cleans his Ml every day,” he said. “Cleans his bayonet. Polishes his mess kit. Even shaves! And you should see his foxholes—they’re like two-room apartments! Screwiest nut I ever saw.”
“How old is he?”
“Who knows? Thirty, forty.”
Hackermeyer put his shoes back on, tied the laces firmly and buckled the legging straps. He started tugging on his overshoes.
“Might as well leave ’em off,” said Wendt. “They ain’t going to let us keep them.”
“I know,” said Hackermeyer. He put the overshoes on anyway. He’d take them off when he was ordered.
“You know where we’re going?” he asked, after a while.
“Some city, I suppose,” said Wendt.
Hackermeyer blew his nose.
“We go alone?” he asked.
“We get tanks sometimes,” said Wendt.
“That’s good,” said Hackermeyer.
“Good, nothing,” said Wendt. “You can hear the bastards a mile away. You’re near a tank, you get shelled even if the Krauts can’t see you.”
Wendt stretched his legs, then winced and pressed at his side. “Lousy bellyache,” he said. He relaxed and rubbed gingerly at his side. Then he reached under his pants and scratched his groin.
“Lousy crabs,” he said.
“You have crabs?” asked Hackermeyer.
“I got everything,” said Wendt. He turned his head and looked at Hackermeyer. “You ever seen a crab?” he asked.
Hackermeyer shook his head.
“If I can find one,” said Wendt. His face took on an absorbed expression as he searched. “Wish I was a crab sometimes,” he said. “Nice and warm down here. Lots of places for houses too.”
Finally he sighed. “Aw, you can’t catch them,” he said. He grimaced and drew in a quick breath. “Look like real crabs though,” he said. “Nearly dropped my teeth the firsght, like sardines. It didn’t stop very much so Lazzo and Goldmeyer had to hold me out the door.” Wendt crossed his arms and shivered.
“Yeah, I got everything,” he said. “Probably got the clap too.”
He yawned and closed his eyes. Shortly after, bubbly snores began pulsing in his throat.
Hackermeyer took out his crossword puzzle book and started working on the puzzle he’d been doing since early November. He often thought how odd it was that he derived pleasure from crossword puzzles. He’d never cared much for taxing his brain. His report cards had been grotesque. If he hadn’t left high school when he did, he’d still be a sophomore. Damn stupid, inattentive bungler; that was what Uncle George had always called him. Well, he’d only gotten bad grades to make Uncle George angry. He wasn’t that stupid.
Hackermeyer’s eyes drifted out of focus. Not that stupid at all. Actually, sort of shrewd, possessing a cold, calculating sharpness. He imagined himself in combat, moving smoothly, cunningly. He saw himself fling downward on the ground, roll over fast, bullets spitting into the earth nearby, missing him completely. He came up, fast, eyes slitted, rifle barking. One German down, two, then three. They jolted under the impact of his deadly aimed bullets. They plunged over dead. He leaped up, sprinted, weaving, across the field, eluding bullets like an all-star quarterback eluding tacklers; fast and sure and clever. He flung down, jerked out a grenade pin with his teeth, reared up, fired it off like Bobby Feller—right down the gullet of a tank cannon. Boom
! One Nazi tank kaput. Shouts of flabbergasted surprise from the other members of the squad. The Congressional Medal of Honor is awarded to Everett Harold Hackermeyer for distinguished
The sneeze brought him back. Hackermeyer looked around the field, startled, his heart thudding. I’ll show them
, he thought. But he knew it wasn’t so. How could he be any good in combat? He’d never been good at anything else.
Hackermeyer sucked in at the cold, damp air. He tried to concentrate on his crossword puzzle but he couldn’t. After a while, his thoughts floated into a daydream about capturing a German village singlehanded and meeting a lovely, golden-haired Fräulein
who had been waiting for him all her lovely life.
* * *
“Oh, God, here it comes again,” said Wendt.
Raindrops started drumming on their helmets. Hackermeyer sneezed as he got up and unfolded his shelter half, covering himself and his gear. Wendt stared at him.
“Well, Jesus,” said Wendt finally. “How about letting a guy sit under there with you?”
“Oh.” Hackermeyer looked blank. “You want to?”
“Jesus, what do you think?” Wendt interrupted.
Hackermeyer thought: That’s what you get for ditching your shelter half. He grunted and moved over a little to make room.
The rain spattered off the slick surface above them. Wendt took a small book out of his coat pocket and looked at it intently. Hackermeyer, nibbling on half a D-bar, saw that it was a story-book about Mickey Mouse. All the dialogue was in French.
“What do you suppose Mickey’s saying?” Wendt asked. He kept looking at the book, confused, then put it away.
“Got any dirty pictures?” he asked.
“Shoot,” said Wendt. He sighed. “I had some good ones in my duffel bag.”
Wendt yawned widely, then took out a cigarette and lit it. It was beginning to get dark. Hackermeyer sneezed and blew his nose, wincing at the tenderness.
“You smoke?” asked Wendt.
“Not even beer?”
Wendt yawned. “Wish this lousy war was over,” he said. “I’m sick of sitting in the rain.”
“Are the Germans good fighters?” asked Hackermeyer.
“Bet your ass,” said Wendt. He bent over, squirming a little. “Lousy bellyache,” he muttered. He straightened up, exhaling smoke. “Yeah, I got everything,” he said.
The rain was falling more heavily now. Large drops struck the shelter half like hundreds of urgently tapping fingers. Hackermeyer wondered what else he should ask about combat.
“Where’d you get your last lay?” asked Wendt.
“Brooklyn,” said Hackermeyer after a few moments.
Wendt blew out a cloud of smoke. “Me, I haven’t had a thing since Metz,” he said.
Hackermeyer listened while Wendt described, in detail, his experience in Metz. When he’d finished, Wendt stared gloomily at the ground.
“Yeah, I been doing it since I was six,” he said.
“Six?” Hackermeyer sounded as surprised as he was capable of sounding.
“There was this Southern girl up the block,” said Wendt, brightening. “Twelve years old. I used to go to her house every day.”
“She did everything,” said Wendt. “It was a real education.” He massaged his stomach as he talked. After a while, he lost interest in the story and ended it in the middle of a sentence. “Damn, I wish this lousy rain would stop,” he said. “That’s all it does here is rain.”
Hackermeyer felt around in his pack and found his toothbrush case. He took out the brush and sprinkled some tooth powder on it.
“What are you doing?” asked Wendt.
“Brushing my teeth,” said Hackermeyer.
“I always do.”
“Shhh-oot.” Wendt looked confounded. “You and Schumacher ought to start a club.”
Hackermeyer brushed his teeth slowly and carefully and rinsed out his mouth. His canteen was almost empty.
“Where do you get water?” he asked.
“From a shell hole,” answered Wendt. “Stick a couple of chlorine tablets in and let it sit awhile.”
“Didn’t they give you any?”
“Oh, Christ.” Wendt felt around in his pockets and took out a small container. “Here,” he said. “Keep ’em. I got another.”
Hackermeyer grunted. He supposed he ought to thank Wendt but he couldn’t. He’d been forced to say thank you too many times for things that he hadn’t been thankful for.
“Wish I had a beer,” said Wendt. “You like beer?”
“No.” Hackermeyer couldn’t stand the smell. It reminded him of his uncle’s breath. His father’s too. Sweet and gagging.
After a while, he and Wendt lay down back to back. Hackermeyer made sure the shelter half was covering his rifle, then closed his eyes.
He wondered if Wendt had really done all those things with girls. It was hard to believe. But maybe that was because of his own situation. Maybe such things were inconceivable to him because he’d never had a sex experience in his life. He’d never told anyone, of course. He never would. It was easy enough to indicate that you knew more about sex than you did. No one ever asked for details. They were too anxious to tell you about their own experiences.
Hackermeyer sniffed and rubbed at his dripping nostrils. He wondered what it would really be like to get into bed with a naked girl. The only female he’d ever seen naked was his Cousin Clara when he was nine and had walked into the bathroom while she was drying herself. All he could recall was an impression of thick, white flesh and black hair. Hackermeyer made a face. If that was what all girls looked like…
He remembered his Uncle George taking him to the cellar that night and whipping him with the razor strop. He remembered crying and saying that it wasn’t his fault Clara hadn’t locked the bathroom door. Uncle George had beaten him a lot harder after he’d said that.
Hackermeyer opened his eyes and stared at the leaden sky, his chest swelling with breath. Well, that was past. His uncle was dead and no one could make him go back to that house anymore. He was on his own. They might kill him but they couldn’t hurt him.
It was strange, he thought. Here he was going into combat in the morning and he hadn’t thought about it very much. He supposed that asking Wendt where they were going and if the Germans were good fighters indicated that he was
thinking about it. Still, he felt no strong emotion. Maybe that wasn’t too odd. It had been a long time since he had felt emotional about anything. Even a war couldn’t change that. If he was killed, what of it? Nobody would miss him. On the contrary, Clara would be delighted. She and her mother would get a lot of money from his G.I. insurance.
Hackermeyer frowned. It had been stupid to name them as beneficiaries just for the pleasure of not naming his father. He could have chosen somebody more deserving.
Like Hitler, for instance.
* * *
Hackermeyer opened his eyes and sneezed. The rain had stopped and it was colder. He heard a sound he couldn’t identify. While he was listening to it, he raised his left arm and looked at the radium-lit face of his watch. It was almost ten o’clock.
The sounds grew louder. Suddenly he realized that it was Wendt making tiny vibrating noises in his throat. Hackermeyer pushed up on one elbow and twisted around. Wendt had rolled from under the shelter half and was curled up on the ground, shivering.
There was no response. Hackermeyer lay still for a few minutes. Then he struggled to his feet, his bone joints crackling, and shook the water off his shelter half. Lying down, he drew up the collar of his overcoat, pulled down his woolen cap. He felt around for his helmet and withdrew the liner. Putting it on, he lay down again.
Wendt kept making noises in his throat. After a while, he started groaning as if he were in pain. Hackermeyer lay motionless, listening to him. He wondered if Wendt was having a bad dream. Maybe the shock of combat hit you afterward instead of before.
Wendt sobbed. “Momma.”
Hackermeyer shuddered. He sat up and felt a cold wind blowing on his cheeks.
“Momma,” said Wendt in a pitiful voice.
Hackermeyer swallowed. “Wendt?” he said.
He twitched as Wendt began to cry. “What is it?” he asked.
Wendt kept crying and groaning. Hackermeyer stood up and squatted beside him. He put his hand on Wendt’s shoulder.
“Momma?” Wendt sounded as if he were begging. “Momma?”
“What’s wrong?” asked Hackermeyer, frowning.
Wendt shuddered violently and drew his legs up further. His teeth began to chatter. He started making short, breathless sounds of pain. Hackermeyer stood up to get help, then shrank back as a figure loomed from the darkness.
“What’s up?” asked Cooley.
“I don’t know.”
Cooley crouched hastily beside Wendt. “What is it, son?” he asked.
Wendt sobbed and whined. Hackermeyer could hear his shoes kicking fitfully at the ground. He saw Cooley reach down and, suddenly, a cry of agony tore from Wendt’s lips. It seemed to fill the night. Hackermeyer jumped.
Cooley straightened up. “Don’t let him move,” he ordered.
“What’s wrong with—”
Cooley was already gone. Hackermeyer turned back to Wendt and looked down blankly at him. Wendt sobbed and whimpered and kept asking for his mother.
Ten minutes later, Cooley returned with a medic and a stretcher. As they lifted the writhing Wendt onto the canvas he screamed in pain and tried to sit up. Cooley pressed his shoulders back.
“Take it easy, son,” he said.
Wendt started crying again. He sounded like a frightened little boy. Hackermeyer stood motionless, watching them carry him away. Before they disappeared, he heard the medic use the word “appendicitis.”
When they were gone Hackermeyer lay back down on the shelter half. It seemed to be getting colder every minute. Hackermeyer got a blanket from his pack and pulled it over himself. He could feel the uneven surface of the ground beneath him, smell the cold, sour odor of the wet dirt. Far off, he heard a truck climbing a hill in low gear. The grinding of its engine
sounded like the howling of some angry beast. Close by, he heard the passing thud of boot falls, the faint, clinking rattle of equipment. He opened his eyes and looked off into the night-hooded distance.
Wendt was lucky to get appendicitis. Now he wouldn’t have to go into combat tomorrow. Of course, he’d already seen action. But he was lucky to miss seeing more of it. He might have gotten killed tomorrow.
Sergeant Cooley probably also thought that it was lucky Wendt had gotten sick. That meant there was one less eighteen-year-old in his squad. Hackermeyer wondered why Cooley objected to teenage soldiers. It seemed, offhand, that they’d be able to adjust to war better than older men. Not having a wife or kids back home, they had less to worry about. And they weren’t settled in their ways. They were used to being on the move a lot. They were more independent all the way around. Except, of course, most of them were tied to their mother’s apron strings. Like Wendt, for instance. For all his talk, it was his mother he’d cried for in the darkness and the pain. That’s where I’m better off, Hackermeyer thought.
He’d heard the voice for several minutes now repeating something. Only as he returned from his thoughts did he realize that what was being repeated was Wendt’s name. He pressed up on an elbow and looked around, waiting for the voice to speak again.
“Wendt?” it finally said.
“Over here,” said Hackermeyer.
There was a sound of stumbling. A second voice snarled, “Goddamn it, watch it!”
“Gee, I’m sorry,” said the first voice timidly. The footsteps drew closer. “Where are you, Artie?”
“I’m not—” Hackermeyer broke off as the figure emerged from the darkness.
“Hi, Artie,” said the voice.
“I’m not Wendt,” said Hackermeyer.
“Oh. Where is he?”
“He got appendicitis.”
“Oh, no,” said the voice.
“You Foley?” asked Hackermeyer.
“Yeah.” Foley coughed liquidly. “How did you know?”
“Wendt told me.”
“Wh-who are you?”
“I joined the squad today.”
“Oh.” Foley stood there without moving. “Well—did—did Wendt leave a—blanket or anything?”
“Oh. Gee. I haven’t got anything.”
Hackermeyer saw Foley’s left hand go to his mouth. He heard the faint sound of Foley gnawing on his glove. He closed his eyes for a few moments, then opened them again. Foley was still there. Hackermeyer frowned and pressed his teeth together.
“Well…you can—sit on my shelter half, I suppose,” he said.
“Gee, thanks.” Foley unslung his rifle and drove its bayonet into the ground. He took off his pack and sat down beside Hackermeyer.
“I’m glad to meet you,” he said. Hackermeyer felt something nudge against him and realized that it was Foley’s hand. He held it for a second, then let go.
“What’s your first name?” asked Foley, after Hackermeyer had told him his last.
Foley cleared his throat. “Mine’s John,” he said, taking out his handkerchief. He blew his nose.
“Just can’t get rid of this cold,” he said.
Hackermeyer lay down and crossed his arms over his chest. Foley undoubtedly meant he’d had the cold for a few weeks. Not months as it had been with him; and year after year in the wintertime.
“Appendicitis. Poor Artie.” Foley sounded unhappy.
Hackermeyer closed his eyes. If he was going into combat tomorrow morning, he’d better get some sleep.
“Did they—serve supper?” asked Foley.
Hackermeyer tried to go to sleep.
“I was—delivering a message and didn’t get any,” said Foley.
Hackermeyer grunted. Tough, he thought. Then, after a few moments, he exhaled irritably, reached into his pocket and drew out what remained of his D-bar. He pushed it against Foley’s hand.
“What is it? Oh—gee, I don’t want to—”Foley coughed. “You” sure you don’t want it?”
“No,” muttered Hackermeyer. He felt stupid for giving food away.
“Well…gee, thanks, Everett.”
Hackermeyer heard the crunching sound of Foley eating the hard chocolate. He twisted onto his side with a grunt.
“Boy, this is good,” said Foley.
Hackermeyer tried to sleep.
“I sure do thank you,” said Foley.
Hackermeyer tensed. Just shut up, he thought.
“Have you been in combat?” Foley asked.
“No,” said Hackermeyer curtly.
Foley coughed. “Well,” he said awkwardly. “Combat isn’t—too bad.”
“It isn’t?” Hackermeyer opened his eyes in surprise.
“Well, I haven’t—really seen much, I guess,” amended Foley. “I spend most of my time delivering messages. So—outside of eighty-eights and screaming meemies, I don’t see much.”
“What’s screaming meemies?” asked Hackermeyer.
“German mortar shells,” said Foley. “They sound like—banshees or something. I hate them.”
“Then there’s flak.”
“Antiaircraft shells,” said Foley.
Hackermeyer opened his eyes again. “For us
?” he asked.
“They explode in the air,” said Foley. “An air burst can get you in a foxhole.”
Hackermeyer swallowed. “You know where we’re going?” he asked.
“Some town,” said Foley. “It’s about—six miles from here, I think they said.”
“What’s it called?”
“Are we in Germany?” asked Hackermeyer.
“Just inside,” said Foley.
Hackermeyer felt his fingers twitch.
“Is it a—big town?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” said Foley. “I really don’t know anything about it, Everett.”
It was strange hearing his first name. When he was in school, the other boys had always called him Hack. Or Horseface.
Foley finished the D-bar and licked his fingers. “That was sure good,” he said. “I thank you again.”Germany
, Hackermeyer thought. He’d thought they were somewhere in eastern France.
“Well, I guess we better get some rest,” said Foley. He made a sound of rueful amusement. “Big day tomorrow,” he said.
Hackermeyer grunted. Germany
Foley lay down beside him on the shelter half and, in a few minutes, began to snore quietly. Hackermeyer lay on his back looking up at the ice-blue stars and thinking about the next day.
After a while he thought again about Wendt crying for his mother. He started to remember the last time he’d cried. It had been over three years before. Uncle George had been so ill that his father—who was Uncle George’s brother—had come to stay at the house for a few days. Hackermeyer had been disrespectful to him, avoiding his presence, rarely answering when his father spoke to him and making constant reference to his father’s and uncle’s drinking.
One afternoon—it had been a Wednesday, Hackermeyer recalled—as he’d risen from the kitchen table without asking to be excused, his father had lost his temper and told him to sit down until they were all finished eating. He’d refused, walking out of the kitchen without a word. Behind, he’d heard the sudden scrape of his father’s chair and he’d walked quickly to the front hall stairs. He’d started up the steps, planning to lock himself in his room.
His father had caught him at the head of the staircase and tried to spank him. Hackermeyer had resisted fiercely, kicking and scratching, saliva running down his jaw. Then his father had started slapping him across the face, and he’d lost all fight and slumped to the floor, crying breathlessly. His father had stood over him, breathing hard, glaring down at him. Hackermeyer remembered how his father’s lank black hair had hung in threads across his forehead. You’ll never come to anything
, his father had said. You’ll never come to anything at all. There’s nothing but meanness in you
Then his father had gone back to the kitchen and finished having lunch with Aunt Alice and Cousin Clara. For a long time, Hackermeyer had lain curled up on the cold linoleum-covered floor, unable to stop crying.
He had never cried since. And never would again. There was nothing in this world worth crying for.
Copyright © 1960, renewed 1988 by RXR, Inc. Continues...
Excerpted from The Beardless Warriors by Matheson, Richard Copyright © 2008 by Matheson, Richard. Excerpted by permission.
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