by Tom Sheehan
Compulsive excitement filled Sergeant Charlie Twohig, down to his toes. Ledo, at this end of the Burma Road, was not a scavenger’s post with a limited amount of personnel; it was an army metropolis burgeoning even in the darkness with a kind of stateside activity. The muffled sound of a laboring engine crawled out of a nearby valley, sounding as if it were under wraps, promising more engines up the line with the sometimes slow hum of war. From the edge of night he heard the tom-tom of a hammer beating on sheet metal. Night guards, bent on their watches and patrols, loomed as hulking giants working thick shadows. The heat, floating down out of another valley, at first did not seem to bother Charlie Twohig. Noise and activity meant people and people meant money and money meant gambling. The long haul from North Africa had been worth the trouble; the pigeons, his resolute mind said, were ready for the taking.
Into his bunk he crawled and felt a slight but not new discomfort. His throat was dry and he needed a drink and an itching sensation began to crawl on his hands with the purchase of a seven-day itch. His heart, he swore, was pumping faster than ever and he convinced himself it was more of the excitement. A strange heat was subtilely making way in his body.
Private Jake Breda twisted in the bunk above him. Twohig wanted to talk. “Hey, Jake, you awake?”
“You ever been really excited, Jake? I mean so bad you got sick from it.”
“Sure, when I got married.”
“Right at the altar?”
“Hell, no, Sarge. When I closed the door behind me at the motel. What have you got to be so excited about?”
“I’m in a streak, Jake. I never felt this way in my life. It ain’t I won so much, but I haven’t lost since that blackjack game in Ceylon.”
“What’s it feel like? I never felt really different when I was winning. Never parleyed much to begin with, so can’t tell by me.”
“Jake, I swear my hands are sweating for a deck of cards right now. Hell, I wished it was morning. I wish it was tomorrow already. I swear I’m going to win big, so big it’s burning a hole right through me.”
Breda dropped a hand down the side of the bunk. “Give me a smoke, will you, Sarge.” Twohig was for the moment a suddenly accessible sergeant.
“Sure, Jake, keep the deck. God, I’m burning with excitement. I wish I didn’t have to sleep at all. Tomorrow I’m going to line me up some real good ones. Blackjack, that’s what it’s going to be. Black jack. I can’t lose. I can’t lose. Tomorrow, all day, it’ll be twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one. I’m in the groove.”
He fell asleep dreaming of getting hit and hit and hit with aces and deuces and treys and coming up twenty-one every time out of the gate. He did not see a king or queen all night. Twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one.
Parts of the journey that brought him here to Ledo, at the end of the world in upheaval, clamor everywhere, came across his memory with unusual clarity, with unusual color. He didn’t think much about Ohio, and only knew the new uneasiness in him as irregular. Odds be damned!
Weeks earlier they had been at sea. Sergeant Charlie Twohig, long, lean and dark, with a mysterious ailment, as yet unknown to him, threatening to work its way into his consciousness, leaned against a metal bulkhead of a lead LST and felt the heat sinking into his back, blacksmith’s iron if anything. The perspiration falling off his brow he had long been aware of and continually tried to dismiss its presence by constantly shuffling a deck of cards, a veritable extension of his hands…fingers, hands, cards, money, they were partners forever.
Behind him where he gazed the uncoupled train of LSTs moved with a cumbersome plodding out of the Suez Canal and into the searing brightness of the Red Sea. The indignant, hot and worried cargo was a company of Graves Registration men that, already in the first flush of dawn, felt the slamming of solar heat, the huge and imponderable hammer of it. To a man they had heard and believed the waters before them boiled under an hour of sun. There was much evidence about them: with explosive quickness of a flare the sun had popped up over Asia and dark welts were maps on their fatigues. It was impossible to sit still and let sweat crawl a horde of ants over the skin, yet it was just as difficult to move about on the boats or find a piece of shade. And the worst was yet to come. It was like a sore throbbing elsewhere.
Behind them the flat oblique shadows of the LSTs lay on the waters of the Red Sea; ahead of them was half the company’s final target, India and Burma and the dead. The other two platoons, under Captain Redmond, were to continue on to China. At both ends of the Burma Road the dead needed to be buried.
Corporal Tally Biggs sat beside Charlie Twohig and eyed the deck of cards. He said, his head at a condescending angle, “You know, Twig, if I never saw you with a deck of cards I’d of thought you were naked.” Biggs pronounced naked as if it were nekid, and he had the ungracious habit of speaking with little lip movement, watching guard perhaps on any commitment. An inconsistent green in his eyes likewise operated under a controlled guise. Biggs was not easy to like, and found few fast friends, if any at all, in the ranks of comrades.
“Hell,” Twohig said with his Midwestern drawl, “if I didn’t have a deck of cards to fondle, you know I’d be bare ass. You wanna cut low card for a buck?” If it was not the sun lighting up his eyes, it was the thought of a gamble, of odds being folded up in someone’s camp and might as well be his.
Biggs read him clearly. “No siree!” he said. “Not for three cuts to your one. I owe you up to my ass now and I ain’t getting in any deeper.” Always he’d worried about making some outward sign of the cowardice lodged within his thin frame. It made his voice soft and entreating as he said, “Twig, couldn’t we get torpedoed out here? Christ, but we’re moving slow, ain’t we? Couldn’t they up and stick a fish right in us?”
“Torpedoes is for boats, not for these little lake-crossing barges. What you really got to worry about is getting strafed by some Heinkel or Junkers or a Stuka, or maybe getting dive-bombed when you ain’t got your life belt on.” Twohig loved to pull the string that tied Biggs’ guts together. “Cut!” He held the deck out. The blue bicycles of the top card caught the sun.
Biggs, aware of Twohig’s constant taunts, had spent much of the night dwelling on the idea of swimming in the cauldron of the Red Sea. He hated fish and he hated blood and he didn’t know how to swim in the first place. “I ain’t cutting, Twig! Not three to one I ain’t cutting.” The deep green of his eyes had retreated to a thin, watery green and he moved his wrist to mop away sweat lingering at the edges of his eyes. “I don’t care how hot it gets, I ain’t getting nowhere out of this belt. All’s I can do is keep my head from going under if we was to get thrown in the drink.”
Twohig moved one shoulder away from the bulkhead and a wisp of air was sucked in behind his back. “Life belts are no good against sharks, Tally. They’re the real butchers of the sea. They tell me sharks can amputate a leg quicker’n a doctor can with an electric saw. Cut!” The blue bicycles again.
“Ain’t no sharks in these waters! Nothing lives in these waters, nothing at all!”
“Don’t be stupid, Biggs. I suppose you never heard of the balance of power. You must be pretty dumb not to know about that.”
“What the hell’s that got to do with sharks? That’s only about countries lining up against each other in bunches to keep out of war. And I ain’t cutting!” Slowly he shook his head at Twohig and smiled a treacherously deceptive smile.
“Yuh, and it’s all about little ones getting eaten by big ones. It keeps order in things like they don’t need traffic cops or anything. They just go on and anything small in the way of big ones gets eaten up. Maybe they do have traffic cops here. I’d guess that’s what you’d call sharks. They eat up their share of smaller fish and anything foreign that gets in the water, and you know what, Biggs?”
“If you was to fall in the water when we got dive bombed, you’d be foreign. Cut!” The bicycles were rolling.
The deck of cards was there in front of him, the rolling stock. “Trey of spades!” Sweat ran over Biggs’ face but he smiled that thin despicable smile of a caricatured rat.
“Deuce. You owe!” Upward in Twohig’s sweaty hand the two of hearts lay and a thin blotch of pink was evident on the white of the card.
Angrily, Biggs said, “You’re a lousy gambler, sergeant. I’m the only guy in the whole outfit you can beat.” Great desire to punch the sergeant rushed on him, but he knew he’d probably get thrown over the side if he hit him. “Someday I’ll beat your ass, but good,” and he could see his fists smashing away at Twohig’s face the way Henry Armstrong could, or the way Harry Greb used to throw them in the barrooms in New Orleans when he was training for fights. His father always said Harry Greb was a real, real tiger, standing in the middle of a bar and yelling out, “I’m Harry Greb and I can kick the crap out of any man in here,” and going ahead and doing it, his training routine.
Twohig tired of Biggs and wanted to move on to new entertainment. In front of him Captain Redmond’s big ears were fire red and sweat was a shadow that covered his whole shirt. Beneath the captain’s arms it seemed darker still, dark like patches on tire tubes. Twohig was willing to bet the captain was wearing a tie. With the deck clutched in his hand he moved his left shoulder and saw steam come up from behind his back. With his left foot he nudged the fruit crate Redmond was sitting on.
Redmond turned around and looked at him. The knot on his tie was still tied under the oversized larynx, his eyes were bulging as though the sockets had loosened their properties and the oversized lower lip was more a piece of extra flesh than an integral part of his mouth. Twohig did not like the captain, not from the outset; he was ugly and a phony to boot. Why didn’t the man wear his glasses outside the orderly room? If he only knew how much they improved his appearance.
“Sorry, Captain. Guess I need to stretch a bit.” Twohig loved to play games with him as much as with Tally Biggs. Biggs’ money he liked, but the captain was more fun and he relished the idea of toying with an officer. The idea of the India/Burma assignment caused him some minor dread, and it was lucky, he thought, that the captain was going on to China with the first two platoons.
Twohig the gambler knew what the captain would say, knew him like a book he did. Would he never get tired of mouthing the same pet phrases?
“That’s quite all right, sergeant. We all of us need some stretching, but the road ahead is a long one and we must make the best of it.”
It was Redmond clear as a phony bell. Just another echo. Christ, if that ain’t just like him, thought Twohig. He can’t talk without any of them damn sickening words…we all of us, as if he really belonged; the road ahead…make the best of it. Just another broken record from officer country.
A licorice sensation ran through Charlie Twohig, and a fluttering joy swam in his head. It was game time: “What is the road ahead, sir? We all of us heard some scuttlebutt back there,” he said, pointing over his shoulder back to the African horizon now a low cloud on the rim of the sea, “but I’m sure we could do with some reviewing.” It was not a successful attempt, though he had chosen his words carefully. The homely bastard had hardly blinked his eyes.
When the sergeant had kicked his box, Captain Redmond had been deep thought about his gambling non-com. Inside his shirt pocket, probably now soaked from the sweat, was a letter from Twohig’s wife. There would be no need of reading it again for he had memorized its contents. It was evident she was a more intelligent person than Twohig, though hardly as devious, and he had read between the lines the love she had for the mad gambler. As for himself, he had never had, owned or partaken of a woman for any extended period of time, though he knew how deep the hooks of a good, true love went. The thought that he might help this woman had built a new spirit in him, but he was destined to go to China after the split-up in Ceylon. A deep desire prompted him to do what he could. It would make him feel good inside, this call beyond duty.
“We break at Ceylon, Sergeant. First and second platoons go with me to China. Third and fourth go with Lieutenants Tozzi and Milano to Diamond Harbor at Calcutta.”
The Guinea Brigade, thought Twohig. If we could ever get to Rome or Naples, they might get something done for us. What the hell use are two damn Guineas out in India? They might as well be on the moon.
“What’s our course after Calcutta, sir?” Twohig was irritated. What the hell made Redmond think he was so damn smart. Anybody who ever read anything knows about Diamond Harbor. Damn the sweat! It was making him blink as it ran into his eyes and he’d be damned if he ever wanted an officer to think he was forced to blink when stared down.
Redmond, though he sweated profusely, did not mind the heat. For a long time he had conditioned himself to do without comfort and had forced himself into extreme exposures, both of the body and of the mind. For eighteen months he had been without a woman and he was still able to think of them with great sensitivity and imagination. Even among the married men of his command, no other could say the same. When his time came (he felt the slight rocking of the craft as a warning of a growing need), he would really enjoy his fling. Searching for a woman would be an adventure. Of course, his looks would hold off some women, but they would be arrogant and unworthy. A man had more to offer than looks.
When he looked at Twohig he wondered what his wife looked like. Somehow he had formed a picture of her; big of bust and hip, blonde hair, blue eyes, skin like buttermilk, and tremendously good in bed. That she was intelligent was unquestioned. That had been divined from her letter. Her use of negatives was clue enough, and the way she slid into comfortable alliterations made him think of her reading poetry on a morning porch by the sea or a wide lake, by herself.
The dark, brooding eyes of Twohig were focused on him. Realizing the contempt behind them, Redmond exerted his station. It would never do to let Twohig know he was either aware of his intentions or that he was reacting to an enlisted man’s barbs. “From Calcutta, the Black Hole, you’ll go to Dacca, Tripura, Silchar, bypass the Khasi Hills, to Sylhet and on to the far corner of Assam, ending up at Ledo. His eyes were locked onto Twohig’s eyes.
Smart-ass! I read Kipling, too. Does he think no one but him ever read? “Do we go near Cooch-Behar, sir?” That ought to stir his almighty ass.
“I don’t believe so, Sergeant. From my recollection of the map I think Cooch-Behar is in the western part of Assam.” Maybe the interrogating sergeant would take the hint and not push it any more. He’d be able to spell correctly more Indian names than Twohig could think of: Dibrugarh, Sadiya, Tinsukia, Sibsagar, Mahiganj, and he’d even throw in Saikoa-ghat for a plum. The map of Assam and Burma burned in his mind just as clearly as the letter from Twohig’s wife. At the moment he had the incredible feeling of being unable to separate them.
“Begging your pardon, sir.” Twohig said, as he felt an irking sensation swim through his body, “but I’m willing to bet that Cooch-Behar is…”
Redmond cut him off. “I’m not a betting man, Sergeant, as we all must know by this time.” His hand waved in the air as if brushing the whole episode away. “It really isn’t too all important.” The letter was important and he wanted to get his mind back to it. Introducing Tozzi and Milano to its contents was a thought that had not previously entered his mind. As the craft rocked the little wings of memory started to flutter in his groin, and he was aware of a slight sense of hopelessness for the whole situation. Neither Tozzi nor Milano, both seemingly good young officers though as yet untried, could hardly begin to understand the woman who had written the letter. She loved with a deep and abiding love. Well, maybe they could see that, but the rest would be a mystery to them and the fact that she could be good in bed would never enter their indecent young minds. It would only be time and chance that would force him to reveal the letter, to enlist their aid, but that bore on the unthinkable. Besides, it would deprive him of aiding her all by himself. She had written to him, the company commander. It was strictly his responsibility.
The train of squat craft were now riding easily over a sea of slow, even swells and the sexual impact of their motion made Redmond think about finding a girl among the Ceylonese before he headed off to China. Ceylon seemed much more romantic than China. He pictured a mysterious dark-eyed beauty standing above him. Her subtle undulations would match the motion of the sea.
Except for the oppressive heat and an occasional alarm when an aircraft came into sight over the flat, hot sea, the trip to Ceylon was routine. Neither submarine nor surface craft threatened them and Twohig managed to bite into Tally Biggs’ bankroll for thirty-two dollars. Captain Redmond fidgeted and sweat the whole way, as did his command, but he was frustrated in devising a plan to aid Sara Twohig. The woman was well worth assisting and he couldn’t help but think that her bed, in the privacy of darkness, was lonely and pathetic, and certainly bore amends.
The big excitement at the harbor on the northern tip of Ceylon was neither a big blackjack game for Twohig, nor Redmond’s seduction of a beautiful and young Ceylonese secretary on the second night. The excitement was Captain John Tracker who met them when they landed. He, and not Redmond, was to go on to China because headquarters found out that he had lived there for five years when a boy. Redmond could not have been more pleased. Even while he was making love to the olive secretary with hair as black as midnight and a scent about her that moved soft wings in his nostrils, he was thinking about Sara Twohig in that lonely bed in Ohio.
On the last day of June, with the monsoons in season, the –nth Graves Registration Company split into two sections of two platoons each, and the section headed for Ledo in Assam, with Redmond in command, left Ceylon at twilight and moved out into the Bay of Bengal. This side of Africa they had buried their first dead, one of their own, Corporal Eddie Akins, who had followed a girl away from the compound on the fourth day. The next day his body was discovered by a patrol, stripped, slashed, and impaled on a crude bamboo rack tied to a tree. Thousands of burials, and many of them much dirtier than Akins’, lay ahead of them, they knew to a man. Redmond struck Akins’ name from the company roster.
At dark the bright constant stars shone as fragmentary neon in the sky and occasionally a piece of that same substance shot across that black overhead in the slightest of arcs. Water slapped quietly at the craft, the tide rolled easily under them, and the whole night took on the pallor of mystery and injustice. Twohig thought about his big blackjack game, Biggs shivered in the heat as he remembered Akins hung up on the bamboo rack, and Redmond entertained pictures of Twohig’s wife alone in her bed, thinking of her not wasting any more time. The rest, Tozzi and Milano included, tried to envision a quiet retreat high in the mountains near Ledo where nobody died and nobody cared.
Diamond Harbor revealed little of eastern romance and Redmond thought it particularly dirty and mismanaged. Every conceivable size, shape and description of sea-going vessel was clustered in and around the harbor in immense confusion. Commercial and enterprising Calcutta was full of hunger and he had no idea how human bones with no flesh on them were able to stand together. The one night his command spent in Calcutta, and the one night Redmond dared not approach a woman for fear of disease, he stood under the arches of Chowringee.
The abominable pageant before his eyes turned his stomach. Starvation was all around him; destitution, ulcerous and malodorous, was everywhere in every eye he saw. It was a slice from an unbelievable movie come for the taking. The war, somehow, seemed cleaner and more just, and he found himself anxious to get to it, to its fragmentation and incendiaries, to its riotously free blood and its depths of concussion, to its burial plots and impermanent markers.
The long trip from Newport News to North Africa, across the Mediterranean, down the Canal, across the Red Sea (bypassing Bombay where originally they were to have debarked but which had been changed by some big shot sitting at a desk) to Ceylon, up the Bay of Bengal and into Calcutta, had taken two months. For a long time it had seemed as if he did not have a command. Anxiety to get to Ledo and set up his post worked on him and he was excited and grateful when they left Calcutta after such a brief stay.
By wide gauge and narrow gauge railway they traveled inland. The country was rugged, and moving out of Bengal and into Assam it became more rugged as were the people of Khasi, Naga and Lushai Hills, looking as if they could wage a war on their own. At any minute, the dark eyes, the dark faces, the ready scabbards!
Box-boarded and nearly vacuumed of breathable air the rickety trains moved on, perhaps to stay a day and a half in one place while repairs were being made, or stocking materials in another. It was a long journey and it brought them to the lap of the war with each unsure mile of travel. Biggs shivered. Twohig gambled. Redmond kept at a distant seduction, the blonde hair and flared hips and the white thighs at conjunction with his peripheral vision, the voice making itself heard in the deepest night beside the lake, the moon more than promise.
Twohig’s luck had suddenly and dramatically changed with the big blackjack game in Ceylon. He could not lose. And to those to whom he had previously lost much of his money could not keep themselves from playing. Only Biggs sat the games out, irritated by Twohig’s luck, hoping it would end suddenly in one cut for the whole pie. Little did he realize that Twohig, when he was taunting him and taking his money, was the only one in the whole command who paid any attention to him. The bastard, he hoped, would die or go broke. In one hand dead of cards. It would be worth the sight.
The intolerable heat of July in northern India sat in the cars of the old train like a curse and some of the troops slowly realized that the Red Sea really had not been too bad. What they did not know, of course, was that a march was in front of them, A long, back-breaking march when the tracks disappeared at the foot of a hill, an omen of the end of civilization.
Redmond spent his time talking to Tozzi and Milano, instructing them about Hindus and Moslems and the hill tribesmen they would be posted among. He wanted his command to work without incident among the native populace. Slowly blossoming in him was an inveterate fear of the wild and unspoiled hill tribesmen, some of whom he might have to exert authority over. That in such a diverse command of nearly one hundred men two people should have the same basic fear was not implausible. Biggs hated Negroes, Indians, foreigners, immigrants, mulattos, Catholics and Jews. He hated them and he feared them, and in the eyes of the natives along their route of travel he suspected, with some cause, a smoldering hatred of himself. Even against the most decrepit looking amongst them, Biggs feared he might not be able to protect himself.
The –nth Graves Registration Company, cut in half, walked the last sixty-two miles to Ledo, the beginning of the Burma Road. During the long, agonizing march, Twohig continued to bet and continued to win. He flipped coins, he bet on the most ludicrous things that only chance governed, and he won. A provincial legend was growing in the ranks. He was becoming as big as the war.
All the while Redmond wanted to read Sara Twohig’s letter again and again but he was afraid to take it from his pocket, afraid it might fall into the gambler’s hands. The return address on the top of the letter was burned into his brain: 8017 River Drive, Conneaut, Ohio. For a moment he could not recall if the address was really on the face of the envelope. That thought upset him. Surely the mail clerk would have noticed it. Redmond suddenly realized he knew Sara Twohig as well as any man and she could never be so stupid. So elated was he with this declaration that he was tempted sorely to pull out the letter and read it. But caution again denied him the opportunity. And Charlie Twohig continued to move among the ranks looking for something to gamble on, letting the legend grow.
From the time they left the train, Ledo proved to be four days away. They pitched camp at the first call of dusk each day and many of them fell exhausted to their sleep. Most slept, but Twohig dwelled in the luxury of his changed luck, Biggs thought about dying and getting stuck like Akins was, and Redmond went through a ritual of promising Sara Twohig all the help she needed. When he did sleep, the ugly, toadish-looking commander dreamed often about Ohio, a little town against the side of the lake, a voice smoldering in the darkness.
The nights were wide and black without any light on the horizon and legions of stars moved majestically overhead. No less than the insensitive Biggs, who twice volunteered for interior guard duty because he was afraid of getting stabbed in his sleep, moaned under the imperial beauty.
It was in the midst of the tall darkness of the third night, when the company was pitched in the foothills of the Naga Hills, that Redmond found his answer for Sara’s letter. It would take some doing on his part to set it up and it would also take, as the main ingredient of his scheme, a particular type of individual he had no doubt was on the roster of every outfit in this man’s army. The next move was to find that man. Surely, without telling Tozzi and Milano any details, he could enlist them in this pursuit. Strangely, as if he had succeeded already, a surge of joy swam in his blood and he leaned back against a tree on the side of a hill and lit a cigarette. The night, with ease, he found particularly beautiful. It was high and wide and quiet, and he was alone. A fragrance of Ceylon twisted in his nostrils. The girl who had cried Tai! Tai! in his ear had been well worth the wait. Against the tree he slept without dreaming about Ohio.
They arrived at the bamboo city of Ledo near dusk on the fourth day of hiking. Twohig was seven hundred and twenty dollars richer than when they had hit Ceylon. Biggs was near complete exhaustion. His changeable green eyes were red and burning and he was thankful the sun had disappeared behind a hill. Tozzi and Milano, both whose feet were raw and blistered and who listened with odd attention to the captain’s strange request, had special missions to perform. Redmond could hardly wait to have his command post set up. He hadn’t worn his glasses since the company had left North Africa, except to sneak secret looks at Sara’s letter.
Business as usual, he thought, was at hand.
That business was burials. Several times a day formality would be the key word, a touch of the civilized world that was otherwise non-existent about them. Formality meant full dress uniforms, bearers, firing squads and Taps. It was the saddest part of war, the departure, but, like the fighting and the dying, Redmond knew it would become routine. Familiarity, he thought, bred callousness, not contempt. Anyway, you hardly knew the man you had to bury.
At Ledo the accommodations were just as Redmond envisioned. They were assigned to a small compound of bamboo huts; one for the orderly room, one for officer’s quarters, three for the men, and one for himself. Though there was no tap water and no air conditioning, he had read enough about India and the northern heat to have installed on his hut the thick mesh screens that were called khus-khus tattie. Woven from the fragrant khus-khus grass the screens were placed over both door and window and kept moist by having water thrown over them. When the wind blew through the mesh, it would carry moisture into the room and sometimes reduce the temperature inside by as much as ten degrees. To perform the wetting-down operation Redmond hired a small native boy, Azard Phanitar, who looked strangely Mongolian and not unlike some American Indians he had seen. Azard was a scrawny but faithful twelve-year old who performed similar duties for other officers. He liked the particularly ugly officer who had approached him and did not look as American as the others.
Lt. Peter Milano returned an hour after their arrival in Ledo. The man the captain wanted was in a nearby outfit. No contact had been made by Milano, but of the man’s qualification there was no dispute. All along Redmond had known that Milano would find his man sooner than Tozzi. Hadn’t Milano taken nine years to get his college degree? It was one of the reasons that Redmond liked Milano the better of the two. He was a plodder, not a flash in the pan as was Tozzi, and not a ninety-day wonder at that. Redmond knew he could trust him without question.
Redmond had his glasses on. He looked different and talked differently. “You’re sure, aren’t you, Pete?” It was the first time he had ever called the lieutenant Pete.
“No question about it, captain. He’s the kind of guy you’re looking for. I could have checked him out more, sir, if I knew what you had in mind.”
“Now, now, Pete, time enough for that. How about having a drink with me. I have a bottle right here. The office looks quite proper, doesn’t it? It’s about time we had a sense of uniformity around us. Kind of nice to get back to work, wouldn’t you say?” His smile came over the full lips. The bottle was Ballantine Scotch.
While they talked the rest of the company was getting situated. Twohig, having dumped his gear in the farthest corner of a hut most distant from the orderly room, and escaping Biggs by doing so, set out to increase his capital. Lady Luck sat on his shoulder and he wanted her there for the long ride, trying not to let her change her fickle mind. Biggs, having lost his chance to bunk near the only man in the outfit who paid him any mind, sought out the newest man, Private Kranske, and bunked beside him. Kranske only nodded when Biggs said, “Mind?” when he dropped his gear. Kranske only nodded. Biggs had no talent at all in wearing his corporal stripes. The outfit, down to the last man, often wondered in what kind of outfit Biggs’ stripes had been earned.
Dawn kicked open the door of a furnace, but Twohig, as soon as he had set his section in motion, sat down to his first blackjack game since Ceylon. He won and he won big. No one could touch him. The aces fell on kings and queens, on tens and jacks; treys fell on nines paired. Invincible he felt and took great risks. But he continued to win. Even when his eyes became blurry and he was not sure sometimes what cards lay face down in front of him, he could not lose. Pain, the sole intruder, came like slivers or small arrows in the back of his neck. He thought it was anxiety and believed it to be a sign of the big streak. Fate or Lady Luck had kissed him a big French kiss and he dare not put it aside.
“Hit me again.” A five to make it three of a kind. “Kick it once more.” There couldn’t be a face card in the whole deck. Trey for eighteen. “Again.” The big one for nineteen. Not enough. “Kick.” Big deuce. “All mine, man. All mine.”
On and on he went for a whole week and walked like a banker from one game to the next. Redmond had tabs on him the whole time and even had an idea that Twohig’s winnings were as astronomical as reputed to be. But Redmond, with incredible foresight and the great deal of knowledge gleaned from Sara’s letter, sat and waited.
The one thing he did not know was Charlie Twohig was seriously ill. But not even Charlie Twohig knew that. Luck and hot blood, Twohig believed, went together like two fat people dancing, uncomfortable but together.
When at the end of the brutal days, Twohig lay soaking in his bunk and strange formations were working in his blood, Captain Redmond thought about Sara Twohig and how her mail would soon improve. Those first nights, when the demon of heat struck at him in wholesale measure, Redmond dreamed he stood over Sara Twohig and smiled down at her. There was no end to the good that a man could do for a woman.
Business came. The dead and the dying, like lost legions in a forest of night, called with frightening rapidity. The range of the –nth Graves Registration Company was far and wide and it was not uncommon to see one of their number climb into a jeep with a rubber bag, a shovel and a record book and set off for a long trip. At times it was a fighter pilot that had flown his craft into the side of a mountain. Other times it was the pilot and co-pilot of a larger craft that had crashed with a planeload of coolies when the engines failed over the hot Indian hills. The company dressed and undressed daily, served as bearers, marked records in triplicate, played Taps, lowered chilled bodies into permanent and semi-permanent graves, and otherwise found their roles in the global war that raged wildly around them.
But Charlie Twohig goldbricked.
“Captain,” Lt. Tozzi said, his voice hardly masking his hatred of Twohig, “it’s a friggin’ shame if we let Twohig continue the way he is. Hasn’t done a day’s work since we hit this place. Everybody thinks he’s got it made and we’re a bunch of dummies.”
Redmond sat back in his chair, heard the splash of water on the khus-khus tattie, waved his hand as if he were brushing off flies. “He’s all mine, Lieutenant. Twohig’s all mine! He’s one problem in this company that I’ll deal with in my own way.” The mysterious grin was again on the ugly face and Tozzi thought he looked more like a sneak thief each day. Redmond was hiding something from him and it was not right. He was, after all, his right hand man, as he considered himself.
Redmond saw the hurt-puppy look on Tozzi’s face. “Rest easy, Lieutenant, Twohig’s in the best possible hands,” and his sly grin further agitated the young officer. All the young lieutenant needed was a parting word.
“Luck, Lieutenant, is not what makes the world go round. You remember that. Luck is for the birds, as they say.” His large over-exposed eyes stared into his empty glass and a malicious joy swam in them. Again Tozzi thought Redmond the ugliest man in the world. On quick heels the young officer turned and left the orderly room.
Luck! Luck! Luck! Redmond could not hate any other word in the language as much as Luck. Luck did not bring the good pilots over the Hump. It was guts and ingenuity. And Luck did not bring his women to him. Far more important was his ability to discover what they really wanted from a man. What they wanted, he gave them, and he patted the letter in his breast pocket. Without ever meeting Sara Twohig, he knew what she wanted. He reminded himself to make a note that Tozzi should never be recommended for a command of his own.
In the middle of their third week in Ledo and when the heat was fiercer than ever before, Charlie Twohig’s streak was still intact. GIs from all over came to see him play and went away with awe and disbelief riding on their faces. None of them noticed that the big winner Charlie Twohig was a pathological museum operating on the compulsion of sheer distress because time might be running out on him. None of them, or Charlie, knew the germs and microbes gathering force in him were bent on his annihilation. Infantrymen passing to or from the front lines through Ledo envied him and believed he of all men had it made. A legend was continuing to build and they carried it to the lap of the war with the usual hyperbolic descriptions. Neither did the nights and the impenetrable darkness swimming like dark thick webs cramp his style or his luck.
Merrill’s Marauders, henchmen of intrigue and sudden hits and compelling bravery, had passed between the tea plantations where the company was located (in the darkness like Sicilian vespers being replayed). They had their own challenger who dropped half his platoon’s money into Twohig’s hands, then passed silently on to a Burmese destiny.
And Redmond waited. Little disturbed him. The war floated around like a host of discernible balloons in a wind that did not touch him directly. Sara Twohig was in his blood as strong as the unseen enemies were in her husband’s blood. Even the appearance of the legendary Doctor Gordon Seagraves, with his corps of nurses and native doctors, failed to attract his attention. Redmond just knew that the war was cleaner and more just than it appeared to eyes other than his.
In their sixth week in Ledo, Twohig lost his first game. The tall sergeant, a stranger to Graves Registration, announced himself to the gambler at dusk of the eventful day. His name was Paul Cask and he was thin as a weed with a potential of fibrous energy latent about him. He had a high forehead and the thin lines of his eyes almost merged above a sharp nose. Those who watched him play swore he hardly drew a breath, saw his lack of expression, saw the steady, quick hands at the cards.
Now it was that goldbricking Charlie Twohig, fully aware of the aliens in his body, did not allow himself a visit to the aid station. Fate needed such small impetus to alter her choices.
“How come you ain’t been by before, Cask?”
“Busy.” Cask had Biggs’ habit, barely moving his lips when he spoke. Twohig had not liked him from the start.
“Some. We have turns.” Cask was cold and emotionless. Twohig knew the contrast, for the fever was on him once more. The pain of it was in little digs at the back of his neck and thousands of pygmy spears pierced his kin. For the first time in a long while he thought about Ohio and being captured in Sara’s arms. It all seemed so far away, so unreal, as if it had never existed at all. Azard Phanitar, the scrawny little houseboy, sat in a far corner and stared at him. In his young but knowing mind he was aware that
Twohig was a battleground of unseen but powerful forces. Too often he had seen the eyes of the foreigners when the sickness came. He did not know how to tell the big money man. He was only a boy, after all, and this was a man’s war.
Cask won steadily and a violent hatred toward him built in Twohig. “What’s your job, Cask?”
“I’m in the motor pool.”
“Know what my job is?” Twohig’s eyes were burning and he thought he was back on the Red Sea.
“G.R., that’s Graves registration. We bury guys. Sometimes in just a raincoat when a bunch of guys get hit in one place and we can’t get them to a cemetery in the rear. Know how we identify the bodies?”
“Dogtags.” Cask’s eyes had not even moved. He looked like an Aztec statue.
“How we use them is the trick. Know the one with the groove in the edge?”
“Yuh. Know it.”
Twohig’s eyes were redder and far more irritating. “That one’s the clincher.” He laughed forcibly. “We stick the groove between two of the top teeth, and then know what?…we kick his damn jaw shut!”
Cask stood up. “I’ll be back tomorrow when you feel like playing instead of talking.” Spinning on his heels, he left quickly.
Twohig kicked the table over after he had gone. “Just who in the hell does he think he is!”
Biggs, on the sidelines, knew a moment of joy. “Tall and mean, Twig. Just tall and mean and cool as hell, all’s he is.”
“Just keep your damn mouth shut, Biggs. I’m going to spend the night planning your day tomorrow.” Azard Phanitar, in the far corner, knew only too well how Twohig was going to spend his night.
A half dozen times Cask came back and he continued to win. The games went from blackjack to five-card draw to stud poker. Twohig went into a panic and the word spread and the infantry grinned and said, “When your number’s up, you can’t do much about it.” Twohig was but another fatality of the war. His bankroll was being tapped by Cask. When he could, he got into other games and won, but Cask alone had the evil eye on him. Twohig was unable to refuse him a game.
Cask became the fulcrum, the point of balance, and when Twohig won, there came Cask quietly and coolly to take his money.
The sicker Twohig became, the harder he fought the disease. And the more he won from other hands, the more Cask took from him. Never a fist was raised at their table, but Twohig would scream at his opponent. “If you ever die out there, you son of a bitch, I hope you rot and never get a grave.”
“Don’t you want to kick my jaw shut, Twig?” The cold face without expression looked back at Twohig with complete disregard.
For nearly two months Twohig fought his disease and Cask. At times he had no knowledge of how he fared, so immense his hatred and the compulsion to win. Around him war was a great unknown that did not involve him, and Sara had long ceased to be. She had never been real. It was only a dream. Reality was a deck of cards and a man named Cask who never flinched and never held back.
And one night the war came for real. Lt. Tozzi, so often on the sidelines talking to Corporal Biggs, came into Twohig’s hut and said, “Sergeant, we just got a call. A man went over the rim in a jeep at Ketchi. I think it’s about time you had a mission. You’ve been goldbricking enough.”
“Hell, Lieutenant, I ain’t feeling too good. I think I’ll have to go on Sick Call in the morning.”
“You’ll take this trip, Sergeant, and that’s an order.” Tozzi was unable to mask his hatred of the sergeant.
“I’m sick, I tell you! I ought to go on Sick Call right now.” Now it was he knew the pain as a fierce and frightening enemy.
Tozzi could not hold it back. “You go out there and get him, Twohig, and bring him in. It’s your friend Cask.”
The gambler leaped from his bunk. “I ain’t going nowhere on the face of this earth to get that bastard! He can rot for all I care.” His face was in Tozzi’s face and colored with hate. No one could make him go out there and bring in that rotten bastard.
Biggs broke the game wide open as he leaped off his bunk. Tozzi could not hold him back. The rat began to scream. “Big gambler! Big stupid gambler! Don’t you now who the hell Cask is? He’s a real pro. The old man sicced him on you! Your old lady’s broke and the old man sicced him on you.”
“Shut up, Biggs, before I kill you!” Now the pain came with weird intensities and fully known in his head. The needles behind his eyes began to jab!… jab!… jab!
Biggs had been target long enough, Hadn’t he been played for a sucker as long as he could remember. “You got taken, big gambler. You got taken! Can’t you see it? You got taken. Cask’s all pro. The old man picked him out. Your old lady wrote to him.”
Who wrote to who? What was he talking about? “Who wrote?”
“Your old lady. She wrote to Redmond.” His old lady? Sara? How long ago was she…how far away? What was Biggs saying? Sara, Sara so good in bed, what’s happening? His eyes were killing him and the rat Biggs stood in front of him staring into his eyes. The pain was shattering behind his eyes.
“She wouldn’t do that to me…she wouldn’t. I don‘t believe you. So help me, Biggs, I’m going to kill you.” He stepped toward him and Tozzi saw murder in Twohig’s eyes.
“It’s true, Twohig. Your wife wrote to the captain and he arranged the whole thing. He knew you couldn’t beat Cask all the time. He’s been sending the money home to your wife, every dime that Cask won.”
Charlie Twohig lay down in his bunk and the fever and the pain leaped at him and he thought he could never stand it through another night.
After midnight, with an insane idea in his mind, Charlie Twohig the gambler took a rubber bag and a shovel and climbed into a jeep. Next day a patrol found them, Cask and his retriever, on the side of a hill. Twohig had gotten the body halfway up the hill. The entrenching shovel was stuck in the ground and Cask’s body was pushed against it so it couldn’t roll down the hill. Twohig lay on top of the body and the fever and the dreams were gone.
Redmond at first was disturbed. He had no idea that Twohig was sick. Then he realized: it was his piece de resistance. He had helped. She would be grateful and receive him properly. He went to sleep dreaming about Ohio, the lake, the smoldering voice, only after he realized luck truly did exist.
Editor’s Note on Aces & Eights:
Aces & Eights is not the first piece of Tom Sheehan’s work published by Eastlit. His previous work includes:
- Old Man With a Broken Walking Stick in the January 2013 issue of Eastlit.
- The Pearl Necklace published in the March 2013 issue of Eastlit.
- At the Lake published in the May 2013 issue of Eastlit.
- The Soul of Shiloh 2 published in the July issue of Eastlit.
- Born to Wear the Rags of War was featured in the September 2013 issue of Eastlit.
- The Boy with the Golden Ring appeared in Eastlit February 2014.