Purple Heart Squad~ by Crunch

~*~

They found the note pinned to the corkwood bulletin board outside of C barracks, squeezed in between the weekly lunch menu (Meatloaf surprise and canned snow peas, Monday through Friday. . .), the ongoing Company pool (how many weeks has it been since McGonagall washed his skivvies) and a lip smacking pinup of Betty Grable:

"He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat. He
is sifting through the hearts of men, before his judgment seat. Oh,
be swift, my soul, to answer him, be jubilant my feet; his day is
marching on."

- Battle hymn of the Republic

Men wanted for hazardous assignment- squad members voluntary.
Success vital, safe return doubtful. Honor and glory in case of
victory.

Request submitted by Captain Dunay

The keyed up murmuring that spread throughout the ranks of early risers, just a dim and distant rumble, gathered speed and strength as the sun rose blood red over the charred and rolling hillsides of Toulouse, like the approaching thunder of cannon fire.

In the metallic bowls of the make-shift kitchen, they whispered.

In the improvised infirmary, where the wounded lay like logs washed ashore on a freezing green surf (and many of them had been), they whispered.

News of the bulletin board letter seized the troupes like blitzkrieg. By the first squelch of sausage and oatmeal ladled onto the first plastic breakfast trey, everyone from the company clerk to the delinquent scrubbing our portable latrines with a bent and putrid toothbrush had heard.

The Purple Heart Squad was in town.

That morning, the mess tent bristled with one question, phrased and rephrased by hundreds of voices, voices in steel toed boots and rumpled camouflage slacks.

"Are you going to. . ."

"Do you know who. . ."

"Why are they. . ."

"What do they want. . ."

"Should we. . ."

"Should I. . ."

"You're not going to. . ."

If any man hadn't heard of the mystery squadron around a roaring trashcan fire, or in the smoky depths of a seedy English pub, then the knowing and ruddy soldiers- soldiers like Private Angelo Mellish- put to rest their questions.

"Damn awful squad, that one is. Tough soldiers, and tougher missions." Mellish pulled a cigarette from the pack that lay forgotten on a friend's breakfast tray, sucking in a noxious blue cloud of nicotine and watching it curl towards the jade canvas roof like a vaporous snake. "Some says it's cursed."

"I believe you got some bullshit on your boot there, Private."

Mellish shook his head. "Ask anyone. They might as well pin your purple heart on your jacket when you volunteer, cause boy, if you aint dead, your ass is gonna be KO'd in the infirmary within the week. S'why they call it what they do. Signing up for the Squad is like signing up for Omaha, seven days a week."

Not one set of shoulders didn't shake. Not one soul didn't shudder. Everyone remembered Omaha. Through the words and the screams of their pals, if they hadn't been there in person.

"And that aint bull shit."

Then the gateways opened, and rumors, whispered stories and I-have-a-friend- who-told-me-so's came flooding in from all corners of the mess tent, privates and colonels and captains tripping over themselves to tell their tales.

"My cousin knew someone in the Squad."

"I bet he did."

"Bet your ass he did too."

"I'm rather attached to my ass, Delaney."

"They say only one out of five come back alive."

"I heard one out of ten!"

"They say the Squad got a rule. You don't get caught alive- you save the last bullet for yourself." The tray-packed tables fell silent as each soldier stopped to think. About the rule, the feel of a gun in your hand, against your temple. . .

"Damn. That's fuckin brave for you."

"Now I've heard everything, kiddies." Mellish, with friends and fellow diners gathered around his table like children at the feet of their grandfather's wicker rocker, swiveled towards the flap entrance of the mess tent as a new speaker arose- this one distinctly Brooklynite. "That Squad aint cursed, and those dicks aint any different than da rest of us. Just a little stupider."

"Oh yeah? Ah don't see you rushing out ta join em."

The Brooklynite jacked his neck towards this latest kid, an earthily handsome, wide-eyed, warm coal-eyed youth. Something bitter quivered in his face as he stood framed against a white and rainy sky, bullets of drizzle dripping down his collar. After a moment, he hooked a bandaged thumb through his belt loop and cleared the splinters from his throat.

"Hey." he turned and tapped a soldier parked in front of an oatmeal and gruel platter in the small of his back. "Hey, you remember dat kid. . .kid in our company? Lodstein?"

"Kid with the biceps, right?"

"Yeah, that's da one. Me and him stormed Utah side by side. Good guy. Virgin, believe it a not. He died, shot up like Chicago lightning. Died without ever doin the deed. I didn't. Do that make him braver den me?" He cleared his throat and cast his eyes towards the earthen floor. "Nah. . . it just makes him dead."

Silence fell. The Brooklynite cleared his throat just once more, ran a callused palm over his face, and tapped the shoulder of the wide-eyed youth. A Private Jackson, his dog tags proclaimed.

"You do whatever da hell you want, son. Stroll into fuckin Gerry's back yard an lay down ya life with your brave ol' PH squad. Me, I intend ta go home at the end a this here fuckin war."

As the Brooklynite lowered himself into a nearby bench and fished a cigarette from his pocket with ragged, trembling hands, the nails torn and blackened (was it unwashed blood, Jackson wondered), the young soldier couldn't help but see the point. Couldn't help but believe this man, couldn't help but want to believe him. Oh, it wasn't that he was particularly fond of Germans. He hated them, and everything they stood for, with the fire passion of each and every squad member.

It was just that he wanted to live more than he wanted them to die.

Jackson himself was only seventeen. And Purple Heart or no, the plain and simple truth was that he didn't want to die. Not here. Let someone braver than he shoulder that load.

Because he had a home as well. He had a farm, and he had a girl. And god damn it, he was NOT going to off himself without doing the deed.

~*~

C Company launched a reconnaissance operation just outside of Sur-du-Mer the next day.

Just so happens that it was also the first day of an Indian summer, and the men felt it, as surely as they felt the eyes of the Germans upon them. When they weren't on guard or in formation, the younger soldiers moved about in paranoid, uneasy clumps, stroking their gun barrels lovingly. Those on guard were twice as nervous.

"Kraut sniper at ten o'clock. Watch your butt, Jackson." A whisper like the hiss of steam over hot coals pierced the stale summer air that swilled about the churchyard, thick with the smog and stench of exhaust fumes and rotting debris.

Crouching so low that his buttons pressed shallow graves into the parched earth, Oliver Jackson moved a hand to block the vengeful yellow eyeball of the sun, glaring from a sky the sickly color of bruised skin. The sun, for reasons known only to itself, seemed especially vicious today, singing everyone and everything in it's path. The soldier laid out on the haloed ground below was no exception. It burned through the dull gray camo and flash boiled the last dregs of water in his canteen. Scorched his coiled young back and plastered the shag of raven hair to his sweat-soaked forehead, momentarily blinding him.

Huffing with impatience, the boy brushed away the offending strands and kept a well-trained eye on the bell tower in front of him- fully alert since the whispered warnings of Mellish, groveling in the dust behind a nearby gravestone. From the rustle of black trash bags in the thin smelling breeze, to the glint of scattered shrapnel in the sunlight, to the distant crying of a lonely French child, nothing escaped his coffee- colored glare.

And holy Mary mother of God, but it was hot.

"Ah see 'em, Ah see 'em." The southern drawl spun of corn silk and Sunday afternoons was as out of place as it was impractical- a horrid contrast to the battle-ravaged graveyard in Toulouse. Jackson crawled forwards just an inch or so, whispering bible verse beneath his breath as he lined up for the shot.

"He is sifting through the hearts of men befoah his judgment seat. . ."

He hefted the scorching metal of his gun butt against his shoulder. Wiped the sweat from his fingers- long, tanned, strong fingers built for driving oxen and working the salt of the earth- on the mud-stained, blood-stained cloth of his vest. Rested a palm against the trigger.

"Oh, be swift, mah soul, to answer him. . ."

Lined up the bulls-eye sight, squinting to keep the sun and the sweat and the fear from his eyes.

"Be jubilant, mah feet. . ."

Brushed a hand against his helmet. Thought of his momma and poppa, and little Annie, his baby girl sister, and sucking on ice pops when he and Ephraim and Gideon were kids. Cocked the hammer.

"My god is marching on. . ."

Just then a bullet struck at the mud inches from his face, kicking up a trail of dust and grit as it went with a piercing whistle. "Shit!"

"He's on your side, Jackson! On your side!"

Another bullet skipped by his left ear. "I cain't see 'im, Mellish!"

A third bullet, this one wiggling into the torn fabric of his pants as it went, sending a hiss of smoke up his leg as it grazed his flesh.

"Your left side!"

Another bullet. God damn, they were all around him!

"Your other left, Jackson!"

There was nothing else for it. . . he had to move. He was in no position to return fire, and no, he wasn't supposed to go down. Not now. Not here, in this piss-pot trench in Sur-du-Mer, with a wooden rosary in one hand and a Ruger large frame shotgun in the other. He was supposed to be on the farm, by the light of a lazy summer brush fire in a barrel, with the fireflies dancing around his eyelids and an arm around his girl Evelyn, and a hand up her shirt. . .

He wasn't even supposed to be here.

Scrabbling to his elbows, to his knees, to his feet, he turned to run for better cover. For one moment, just a brief moment in between the gut liquefying fear and the thoughts of Evelyn's breasts, he wondered why he'd been so worried about signing up for the purple heart squad, and why it had never occurred to him that he might not live long enough to lay down his life.

How was that for funny.

Just then, a bullet ricochet off that gleaming shrapnel that his caught his eye before, and with an ear-piercing whistle and a bloody trail of flames, drove for his side.

"Ahh ... son of a. son of a ." Jackson hit the dirt like a lead weight, one hand clasped to his lower ribcage, the other to the Ruger lying dormant at his side. "Mellish! Mellish?"

No answer.

"Mellish?" God, it hurt. But still no answer from his buddy, only the dimmed and distant whiz of bullets across the haloed churchyard, and a voice in the back of his head.

They got one rule.

He knew it was stupid. A part of him did know that. The rule didn't apply to him, only to the Purple Heart Squad. Only to the brave and the selfless and the dumb. But another part of him- he really should be brave, shouldn't he?

Don't get caught alive.

But did he really need to die to be brave? Did he really? God damn, it hurt. God DAMN, it was hot.

Save the last bullet for yourself.

Half out of his mind from the pain, the other half from the heat, he lifted the gun. Why not? It's what the brave would do. . .yes, it surely was. . . Grimacing, doing his best to hold his stomach together as the tears carved trenches through the mud of his cheeks, Oliver pressed the gun to his temple and. . .

* * * * * * *

Trust me, there IS a point to the chapter cutting off here- I'm not doing it just for pleasure! SO. review? Criticize? Flame? The choice is YOURS. . .