When the War Is Over: A Novel

When the War Is Over: A Novel

by Stephen Becker

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504026918
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 01/12/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 210
Sales rank: 383,766
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Stephen Becker (1927–1999) was an American author, translator, and teacher whose published works include eleven novels and the English translations of Elie Wiesel’s The Town Behind the Wall and André Malraux’s The Conquerors. He was born in Mount Vernon, New York, and after serving in World War II, he graduated from Harvard University and studied in Peking and Paris, where he was friends with the novelist Richard Wright and learned French in part by reading detective novels. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Becker taught at numerous schools throughout the United States, including the University of Iowa, Bennington College, and the University of Central Florida in Orlando. His best-known works include A Covenant with Death (1965), which was adapted into a Warner Brothers film starring Gene Hackman and George Maharis; When the War Is Over (1969), a Civil War novel based on the true story of a teenage Confederate soldier executed more than a month after Lee’s surrender; and the Far East trilogy of literary adventure novels: The Chinese Bandit (1975), The Last Mandarin (1979), and The Blue-Eyed Shan (1982).

Read an Excerpt

When the War Is Over

A Novel


By Stephen Becker

OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA

Copyright © 1969 Stephen Becker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-2691-8


CHAPTER 1

Once upon a time, God save us all, there was an orphan boy called Marius Catto who grew up to be a lieutenant of infantry in the Army of the United States. His platoon was a mixed bag of civilian soldiers who did their job with half the heart, dreaming usually of other matters: fishing or carpentry or a barrel of beer. Otherwise they did what soldiers have always done: followed orders and grumbled. They strolled through leafy woods in a long, lazy rank like so many nobs with fowling pieces, presumed to be rooting out stragglers and guerrillas but in truth squandering as much of the war as possible short of outright treason. Chewing on stalks, dreaming of fat women or great fortunes. Not that it was all palmy: in clearings the sun blistered, and cotton shirts clung. But armies did not wear silk, and they judged that they were all through killing and dying, so when a man complained he was soon rebuked, and reminded of his luck.

Catto sprang from flat country, out west of Chicago where the land lay endless and plain, and he enjoyed these wooded hills, redbud and hickory, and the musical streams that flowed clear and quick between cool, deep pools doubtless full of plump fish; and he liked the colorful birds of the forest, some so small they might have been thought butterflies: finches, and others that he could not name. The earth was hard after a hot summer, and a few leaves and needles had fallen to carpet their way; the men moved quietly. One fine morning Catto was holding down the north end of the string, with Haller at his left and then eight more. It was indeed a fine morning: a bright, perfect September morning full of good smells, forest and field and flower and bird glowing and whispering and crackling and rustling, one of those mornings when the senses were a divine gift and a man hesitated to light his pipe. Catto could see only Haller; every little while they nodded, like farmers working separate rows.

By the blue grass Catto halted: a sloping meadow, long and open and full of peace, and yonder a smokehouse or corn-crib; from here he could not be sure. Sergeant Haller knelt beside him, gray and wiry, a man who tried not to speak without cause. Catto was grateful for that, in part because it was a tradition that young lieutenants winced when old sergeants preached, in part because all old soldiers were deadly bores. Advice. Irrelevant memories. Mexico. "Send Routledge to me," Catto told him. "Take the others around there to the south. Keep to the woods. I'll go this way with Routledge. Meet us at that far stand of trees, birches, looks like. Don't fire until you see what you're killing."

Haller nodded and moved off.

Catto blinked away a slight haze, and yawned, and removed his cap to scratch his head of light brown hair, faintly reddish in some lights, which generally itched, being only a trifle less filthy than enlisted men's heads. Then he smoothed his mustache and inspected his Spencer, all in order, sights clean; also the Remington, six chambers full, which had not been fired for months. Most officers preferred the Colt. Catto was partial to the Remington because of that clever notch in the barrel; he could take aim. Ordinarily that made no difference because the enemy was upon him, point-blank, if it came to pistols. But he had killed a man once from a hundred feet with the Remington, at Stones River. He had been trapped until dusk in a ditch, nothing to do but squat hidden and hope. A fellow spotted him and started back for help, and died. Total stranger. A good shot. Then at dusk Catto jumped up and ran like the devil, and in the last light some sharpshooter sent a ball to crease his bottom. He laughed about it next day. "You'll be scarred," the surgeon told him, "but you won't be showing it off much." Catto was scarred, in truth: a perfect horizontal furrow. From behind he offered the sign of the cross. ("The true cross," Phelan said later. Phelan was another surgeon, and a better. "There will be statues of you in all the churches. You will be the patron saint of the backward."

"I'm a Protestant," Catto said. He was naturally ruddy, and talk of religion deepened his blush.

"That's what I mean." Phelan considered this heretic with affection. "Where did you come by a name like Marius?" he asked, bush head cocked like a scholar's.

"I don't know. There's no family left. Nobody to explain. We were maybe once Catholic."

"Everybody was once Catholic," Phelan mourned. "In days of yore and back then. Anyway you were lucky. It's a clean scar, and better behind than before.")

He was, he reflected now, still lucky. Lucky to be here, waiting for Routledge, and not in Georgia, where the carnage was wholesale. Or was he? Where should a soldier be? And how should a soldier know?

Routledge approached, quietly enough for a big man who was not interested in war. Catto gave him orders. "And Routledge."

"What else, Lieutenant?" Resigned tones.

"Don't fall down, please. Or drop your rifle, or shoot Haller."

"All right," Routledge said, crestfallen. He was a Jonah, perversely reliable: every company seemed to harbor, or suffer, one natural catastrophe, outwardly human, normal in all respects save that he could be counted upon absolutely, even under fire when other men dug in, to topple a hot coffee-pot, stumble a tent flat, shoot himself in the foot, tip a sheaf of mail into the campfire or spill soup on a comrade.

Routledge shambled off. The men never bothered with "sir." Haller was an old-timer, longer in the army than Catto was on earth. Routledge was forty and had nine children, or so he said. Catto did not care about "sir." In his first year as a lieutenant he had lost two swords and been required to buy new ones for parade. Damned silly business, he thought. Secretly he liked ceremony. But at twenty-four he also liked being gruff and democratic.

It was time to rise from his knees and go to work, but he was once more distracted, this time by a shadow, a cloud, whiffling across the face of the sun in a thunderous whisper; he was confused by the windy roar and rustle, by the moment of fear and loss, by a message undelivered, and looked up first in dismay and sorrow and resentment, like a traveler in a cloudburst, and only a second later with a lightning smile of deep pleasure. The sky to the east was black with bird, the sun itself disguised. Thousands of passenger pigeons beat southward, a flying carpet of them. Catto held his breath. A hundred thousand, might be. They were free. Marveling up at them he felt pure, the innocence of dawn. He watched in welcome every spring, in godspeed every fall. The birds flew in a vast oval mass, no pairs, no skeins, no wedges, only the great mass of them, and the steady, fading rush across the face of the sun. A dark mass, the blushing breasts obscured, they dimmed the golden morning. Catto flew with them, broke away, soared. Lords of the sky. Catto one of them. He loved the birds and the beasts.

Soon the pigeons were gone, and Catto was staring into the sun. He glanced down into the forest before him, and panicked: he was blind. He saw wheels and hoops and waves of yellow light, the hollows beneath the trees black and purple and writhing, and as he knelt bunking life back into his eyes he thought he saw a boy. The boy was carrying a staff and rising out of the purple shade, all fair and golden-haired, with loops and circles of yellow and red all about him, and then green and blue. For one moment Catto thought he must be going mad, or receiving visions, this golden child in the wilderness like a fairy tale; and then he saw the boy raise the staff and point to him. Catto understood. He sprawled forward onto his belly, but a bit too late, and a red-hot hammer smashed his left shoulder. Damn! Wrong again!

He knew immediately that he had not been killed, not this time, though he felt gray with mortality. There was no pain but he had to fight for breath, as if someone had slammed him against a wall. And then he laughed. He would have a decent rest now, in a bed perhaps, in the city perhaps, and good food, and a fair friend perhaps. But Routledge was up and galloping, so Catto shouted "Careful!" That was silly. He released the rifle and pushed himself to his knees. Routledge was down again — hit? — and he saw Haller scuttling in a spidery crouch at the far end of the blue meadow. And after him Lowndes and Carlsbach. Catto drew the Remington and waited.

And inspected his shoulder, to pass the time. A little blood, and a hole in the shirt just below the collarbone. Somewhere in there a lead ball. Phelan would find it and extract it. That would hurt. Whiskey, and perhaps an opium pill, and Phelan would say, "That's the hell of it, boy. You lie around drinking good whiskey while I work myself to death."

Catto's left arm hung loose, like a spare part, as if he were a wooden soldier in need of repair; but there was still no pain. He thanked God, deeply, fervently (caring not at all who, or whether, God was), that it was not the spine. Or the private parts.

At halloos and alarms he raised the pistol; but it was Routledge racing back. "I'm all right," Catto called out. "What happened?"

"Got him," Routledge said, and helped his officer to stand.

"Dead?"

"No."

"Take the Spencer."

Haller too came trotting. "You hurt, Lieutenant?"

"A ball in the shoulder." He knew an impulse to giggle, and choked it back. "Who did it?"

"A boy," Haller said. "He give up."

"Any more?"

"Only the one."

"Maybe. Pickets out?"

Haller's yes was infinitely dry; now Catto tittered. They were into the redbuds and he heard voices.

"That was a good shot. Couple of hundred yards, must be."

"Hurt much?"

"Just beginning. I'm all right." Among the trees he saw his men, and a stranger. That one. Cut his throat, I will. Marius the wolf-man.

It was a boy, all right. With white-blond hair. Corporal Godwinson slapped him backhand. Ah, valor.

"Godwinson," Catto said, "leave him be. It was me he shot, and I rather a gang of armed men go easy on a child. If you take my meaning."

The boy was skinny, ragged, his eyes a shiny bright blue. No one spoke for a time. The soldiers rested in the shade of the redbuds and examined their prize. Catto was tired; he glanced down at the pistol, frowned, restored it to its holster. He sniffed: they all smelled bad. Not like the woods or the blue grass, not aromatic, only stinking soldiers. In all wars, he supposed, in all centuries, the same smell. Catto too. "You smell like livestock," he said. "Don't you ever wash? How the Christ can you share a tent?" Godwinson shied, blinking.

The boy was barefoot. Tattered brown trousers, too short, a homespun shirt, collarless. Powder horn, pouch, knife.

"Somebody take that knife. Where's his rifle?"

"Here."

"God's sake," Catto said. "A Kentucky rifle."

"This is Kentucky," Carlsbach said.

"Yeh." He hefted the rifle. Long barrel, fine balance. "This piece was made before the oldest man here." On the stock in small neat curly letters, was incised WILLIAM MARTIN. "William Martin," he said. "That you?"

The boy stood sullen.

"Speak up, boy. Or I'll give you back to that corporal."

"My father," the boy said.

"Voice is hardly changed," Godwinson said.

The boy was tanned, and his face was round, with a modest natural pout to the lower lip. His hair was almost chalk-white, and he had no whiskers, just a fair down on the upper lip, and more on the cheekbones. Maybe one of those albino people, Catto hazarded to himself; but they were said to have pink eyes or ears or some such thing. "He can shoot, though. What's your name?"

"Thomas Martin," the boy said.

"Where you from?"

"Over east."

"Over east. What are you doing here?"

The boy only glared.

So Catto sighed and said, "Maybe we ought to just shoot him now."

They all stood staring at the boy.

"You realize you just shot an officer in the United States Army," Catto said. That too sounded silly

"I'm a soldier," the boy said. "That's what I signed on to do. Made my mark, anyway."

"Ah. What army you in?"

"Confederate States of America."

"Where's your uniform?"

"They didn't have none."

"Not even shoes." Godwinson snorted. It occurred to Catto, that was the kind of man Godwinson was: the kind of man who knows how to snort.

"They take them young," Catto said. "It's all they have left. How old are you?"

"About sixteen," the boy said. Catto felt old.

"Bottom of the keg," Carlsbach said.

"Shut up," Catto told him. "He shoots better than you."

"A damn guerrilla," Godwinson said.

"I ain't a guerrilla," the boy said, in the firm, admonitory tones of a schoolmaster. "I signed on with Colonel Jessee."

"Well. One of Colonel Jessee's riflemen. Where's the colonel now?"

"Don't know. The orders was just to do all the damage we could on our own."

"That's pretty close to a guerrilla," Catto said thoughtfully. "Anyway you did some damage. Give me your horn and pouch."

"They were my father's."

"Look, boy, you're a prisoner now. Count yourself lucky we don't just save ourselves the trouble of taking you in."

"They said you'd kill me," the boy muttered.

"Well, they were wrong. Give me the horn and pouch."

The boy handed them over. Catto passed them to Haller. "Save these for me."

"What do we do with him?"

"Take him in," Catto said. "What else? Tie his hands and let's go. My day's work is done."

"How is it now?" Haller asked.

"Hurts like hell itself," said Catto.


"Lie down there," Phelan said. "What will they do to him?" Phelan was a tall black Irishman with a face like the man in the moon, round, pocked and pitted and pored by ancient acnes, but lent a scowling force by the belligerent black handlebar mustache. The first surgeon to repair Catto was called Swartz, a pale Dutchman with glasses; that was at Stones River, which they sometimes called Murfreesboro. Then they acquired Phelan, and never saw Swartz again. Phelan talked a good deal. He had hazel eyes, almost yellow with little flecks of brown. They were mild eyes and when you came to know him, sad.

"Court-martial," Catto said. "Never mind about him. Relieve my pain."

"You are only a lieutenant," Phelan said, "who has allowed himself to be half killed by a child. I remind you that I am a captain and entitled to exquisite courtesies." He was cutting away Catto's shirt. "Threads. Damn threads ground right into you. Easy now. Let me slip it off you."

"You butcher," Catto moaned.

"A butcher is all you deserve. What were you doing? Dreaming of women? Fat white bottoms waggling at you?"

"Now there is a subject I would much enjoy discussing someday. The fact is I was watching some pigeons." Catto was lying nervously on his own cot with blankets heaped up under his head and shoulders, while Phelan snipped. Outside the tent men were laughing and cursing, and he heard a mule clop. "A big flight of passenger pigeons. They darkened the sun. Pretty."

"Ah, the poet in you," Phelan said. The shirt was off. "All right. Simple. An inch lower and it had your lung. But with the luck of fools it's nothing. Phelan can do this with one hand."

"It hurts now. At first there was no pain at all."

"No. You poor lad. You bird-fancier. What you need is warm milk and a few drops of hartshorn. But you will have to settle for a swallow of Saint Kentigern's tears, also called Uncle Mungo's bone solvent. I happen to have about me a quart or more of that sovereign remedy. Spermaceti, spermaceti."

"Why don't you shut up and just do your job."

"Well, now," Phelan beamed, "part of my job is to comfort the afflicted. Like a priest at home. When asked what was best for the barrenness, he said knightly attentions from a baron. This will leave you a pretty scar."

"What's one more?"

"Right you are. Now when you have finished showing off your hot cross bum you will have to give the ladies a look at the front of you. That is if they can get close enough."

Catto sucked long at the bottle. "You are a filthy man and a disgrace to your profession. A barber. When you have finished with that you may give me a trim. Not too short on the sides, please."

"A wiseacre," Phelan murmured. "An infinitely amusing young man. Be careful or I will dock you while I am about it."

"You could do that by accident," Catto said. "You know where the shoulder is, I trust."

"I hear the boy is only fifteen," Phelan said. "I will assume that you have been holding your own with little girls."

"It was a pretty shot." Catto drank deep again. "If I hadn't started to drop he'd have had my heart sure." The whiskey generated a rich heat; fumes rose within him. He drank little in the field and this was blurring him quickly. It was, he imagined, a bit like drowning.

"They're better shots than we are," Phelan said. "Hunters. I mind my uncle Fabricius, out fowling when he came upon Howie O'Toole and Mary Spain, at it like great pink pigs —"

"For God's sake. Will you put your mind to the work at hand."

"Just lie back, now," Phelan said, soothing, "and get more of that into you."

"Where you off to?"


(Continues...)

Excerpted from When the War Is Over by Stephen Becker. Copyright © 1969 Stephen Becker. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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