Lieutenant Robert Heller of the 88th Infantry Division stood outside the barracks and watched the sun’s glow on the crest of the neighboring mountains. He couldn’t help but feel irony that a hillbilly from West Virginia was, after over five years in the military, in the mountains of Europe. An orderly ran up to him, with a message from headquarter which he quickly read. “You will deliver to Outpost Charlie, two radios, two telephones, and four days’ rations. No reports received from Charlie for two days.”
Charlie sat right on the forward edge of the Morgan line which politicians had drawn on the map to keep the “Jugs” (Yugoslavians) out of the Italian city of Trieste. For the Jugs, Trieste was a spoil of war, justifiable retribution for the Italian’s mistake of aligning with Hitler’s Germany. But the Allies weren’t going to hand over the city to Communist partisans, so after the war ended, they moved quickly to occupy the area.
For some of the unfortunate citizens, they hadn’t arrived in time. Heller couldn’t scrub away the memory of finding sinkholes filled with corpses, bound and killed execution style. He swallowed hard. The two sides weren’t supposed to be shooting at each other, but someone forgot to tell the Jugs. Just my luck, after surviving three years of war, I’ll still manage to get killed by these vicious bastards.
The last time he ventured to Charlie, it involved a ten-mile jaunt up a steep, narrow trail in daylight and on foot. Jeeps were out of the question, they either got stuck or, God forbid, rolled off the poorly defined edges of the path. So, he had to do it with horses, in darkness and bad weather. Oh well, that’s what junior officers do.
He made his way to the quartermaster, collected his rifle and sidearm, ammunition, steel helmet, raincoat, then headed toward the barn where supplies for Charlie were being loaded.
Inside he found Sergeant Frank, pasty-faced and stooped over next to one of the pack horses.
“Hey, Sarge. You don’t look so good. Are you okay?”
Sarge looked up, his eyes red and face lined. “Oh, I’m fine, just suffering from a cold.”
A step closer, Heller caught a whiff of alcohol. “Seems you took quite a bit of medicine.”
“Um, yes sir.” Sarge cleared his throat. “Not to worry, I’ll have your horses ready.”
Scanning over the animals, he spied a monstrously large, reddish brown Belgian draft horse pawing at the straw. Oh, you have to be kidding me. “So, I get Big Boy?”
“Sorry sir, he’s next in the rotation.”
Heller let out a sigh. Meanest damned horse in the US Army. “Okay, just make sure– “
Sarge raised his hand. “Got it covered, sir.”
“You’d better. I don’t want him dumping me out of the saddle.”
“Oh, I know his tricks. A tap on his belly gets him to relax, then I can cinch the girth strap tight.”
Big Boy threw his head up and snorted. Heller pursed his lips. “You think he knows the war is over?”
Sarge shrugged. “Nah, he just hates soldiers, doesn’t matter who. Probably started when he was hauling artillery for the Krauts.”
“Maybe he’s pissed his side lost.”
“I think he’s on his own side,” Sarge answered. “How long you going to be at Charlie?”
“Just up and back.”
“Heard the weather is going to be bad. You might have to stay overnight.”
“That’s not my orders, but I guess I’d better be prepared.” Which might mean a lot of downtime, better get something to keep me occupied. “I need to get something from the barracks. Can you keep an eye on my equipment ‘til I get back?”
“Sure thing, Lieutenant.”
Heller jogged out of the barn.
Sarge lifted and tossed the saddle on Big Boy’s back. The massive horse sidestepped away, so he hastily grabbed the gear before it slipped off and pushed it back into place. Big Boy lurched toward him, and the beast’s bulk slammed into his face, knocking him flat on his back in the straw. He gritted his teeth and shook a fist. “Kraut bastard, you stop that.”
A massive hoof swiped at him. He dodged it and grabbed the girth straps hanging off Big Boy’s belly.
Using the straps for leverage, Sarge struggled to his feet. In seconds he began to cinch the straps, but the horse drew in a huge breath. “Oh, you’re not getting away with that this time.” He kneed Big Boy’s belly. As air rushed out of the animal, he yanked on the strap, tightening it.
But just then, bile-filled Sarge’s mouth as a wave of nausea passed through him. Last night’s party got its revenge. His guts clenched, and he spewed most of the morning’s breakfast on the side of the stall. A moment later, Sarge recovered enough to check his work, but his stomach continued to squirm. “Oh hell, that’s good enough.”
Heller trotted in with a paperback and held it up in front of Sarge. “A little light reading. Billy Shakespeare’s Richard the Third.” The noticeably paler Sarge nodded absently.
Heller grabbed his equipment and stepped toward Big Boy. A sour smell wafted up at him. “Holy Jesus, what’s that smell?”
“Dunno,” Sarge offered, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. He quickly sketched a salute. “You’re good to go, sir.”
Heller tried not to gag and returned the salute. “Thanks, Sarge. See you this evening.”
Snatching the reins, he walked Big Boy and the pack horses out of the barn into the fresh open air. As he climbed onto his mount, the Colonel’s aide, Captain Walker, materialized carrying a 3-foot square piece of wood wrapped in weatherproof canvas.
“Take this map table with you, per the Colonel’s orders.” He handed it to Heller.
The contraption was too big for the small pack horses, so he’d have to carry it. How in the hell am I to transport this, my weapons, hold the reins, and keep control of the other horses? He examined the board hoping a solution would magically appear.
“Oh for God’s sake,” the Captain said with annoyance. “There’s a strap on it, just loop it over your head and carry it on your back.”
“Yes, sir.” Within seconds, the board hung off him. He could only imagine what he must look like, a human bulls-eye, sitting atop a veritable mountain of a horse, and carrying more than half his weight in bulky gear. Yup, as inconspicuous as tits on a steer.
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