Authors: Dean Ing
Tags: #juvenile fiction, #Action & Adventure, #General, #family
IT’S UP TO CHARLIE HARDIN – eARC
Advanced Reader Copy
by Dean Ing
The Chernobyl Syndrome
In Larry Niven’s
Man-Kzin Wars Series
IT’S UP TO CHARLIE HARDIN
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 by Dean Ing
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
A Baen Book
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Cover art by Daniel Dos Santos
First Baen printing, February 2015
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data: t/k
Printed in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Electronic Version by Baen Books
This is the sort of confession a man may indulge in if he is too lazy to commit the autobiography his grandkids asked for, and too self-absorbed to scribble the books his publishers wanted more of. It is also naked homage to Mark Twain, who in 1875 half-fictionalized the lively times he had enjoyed in his Missouri village thirty years earlier.
So Charlie Hardin is my Tom Sawyer, infesting my small Southwestern city during World War II. Charlie’s settings and tribe were chiefly as described, and many of our adventures too. Many locations still exist, though I have furnished everyone with camouflage. One, with his brilliant deceptions and a hair-raising addiction to risk, failed to survive his teens. Some of those risks were real.
Sixty-five years later, Austin’s capitol grounds have been robbed of that lily pond, and Shoal Creek has been choked into submission, but recently the castle and the dogapult park were still in place.
Nothing should go without saying, so let me say I lack the vanity to imagine that the following pages could stand comparison to
. The book inspired many a writer, yet no one else has written its equal.
ATTACK AND RETREAT
April 1944: “Blam, blam-blam!” Captain Charlie Hardin froze at the voice of the Nazi gun.
That must be the command post,
he decided. With infinite care, his blond thatch an inch below the enemy’s view, Hardin turned his head toward Sergeant Aaron Fischer, his second-in-command. Hardin twitched a gesture that drew a nod from Fischer, who hurried crabwise up the ravine in a flanking move.
Risking a careful glance through tufts of grass, young Hardin resumed his study of the terrain, the kind of broken country that floods could transform. Brush and saplings might change in a season while a few big hardwoods remained. Sergeant Fischer would need those trees for cover, or this commando raid would end in retreat with heavy casualties.
When he heard shouts from the command post, Hardin knew that Fischer had been spotted. A high-pitched hammering staccato erupted from a second Nazi, and Fischer, caught in the open, spun clutching at his breast. Moving at breakneck speed, he sprawled in a rolling dive, sliding to a stop in high grass. He lay unmoving, face up. With a thrill of gooseflesh the thought came:
now it was up to Charlie Hardin.
To his right, the ravine deepened to thirty feet with vertical sides, but near its top a gnarled root the thickness of his wrist looped from the turf. He decided it would hold him. If it didn’t, the fall could break his neck. Muscles straining, Hardin picked his way along the face of the embankment; footholds few, handholds fewer. A trickle of sweat moved down the bridge of his nose. It seemed that he could feel Fischer’s open eyes staring into his back, and this spurred him. Stamina and planning were the strengths of Captain Hardin, and now he used them both, grasping that python of root just as his footing crumbled.
Moments later the young commando pulled himself over the top and wormed between small boulders above the ravine, mouth open wide to quiet his breathing, and exulted. Nothing moved in the glade nearby, but the place held only one tangle of old brush against a slanting tree that might hide Nazis.
A blind rush across that exposed slope would be foolhardy. He was near enough to hear excited enemy voices and knew they must be expecting his attack, but by the rules of engagement he must not let his weapon speak until he could see the enemy. He discarded two plans before asking himself the trigger question, the one that so often pushed him beyond himself:
what would Uncle Wes have done?
It worked. Grinning despite desperate odds and the memory of Fischer’s sacrifice, Hardin slid behind the vee of boulders and lay between them among a scatter of smaller stones. The stone he hefted was flat as slate, the size of his fist and, again watching the stillness, he wondered if it would make enough noise. He brought his arm up quickly and released the stone without revealing himself, watched it arc over the concealing brush, and saw it scythe into grass near his fallen comrade.
Tufts of grass moved and, instantly, the command post spoke again, then fell ominously silent. Hardin smiled, knowing the enemy had now realized the ruse—but too late. He had seen an arm lance out from beneath a fallen hackberry limb to point toward that quaking grass. He could not move nearer without exposing himself, unless . . . He reached into a hip pocket and withdrew the weapon he had kept in reserve, had not even shared with Fischer. He flicked a thumb expertly under a projection on the oval mass, counted silently to four, and hurled the thing with all his might.
Fascinated, Hardin watched the eruption that followed. His little weapon dropped perfectly behind the slanting tree trunk, better aimed than he could have hoped, and the explosion he heard was one of anguish. A thin, sad-faced boy squirted into view on hands and knees and Hardin fired with telling effect: “Powpowpowpow!”
An instant later he saw Aaron Fischer, wonderfully renewed, leap to his feet in a suicide charge on the command post, firing nonstop: “Dowdowdowdowdow,” until cut down by a single oddly muffled “Blam!” from the hollow tree.
Charlie saw Aaron get it again, this time in the belly. The charging commando flipped heels over head with one mortal scream and then rolled, writhing magnificently, to lie still again.
he’s the best durn dier in the business.
Aloud he cried, “Powpow, Jackie, you guys are both dead! I got you with my pine grenade, and I saw you real clear, Roy!”
Grown-up curses and a voice emerging from boyhood told him Jackie Rhett did not take defeat gracefully, for grace was not Jackie’s specialty. But as Charlie Hardin trotted downslope toward the other boys, he worried. Something very unNazilike quavered from behind the tree. It was a wail, and it was real.
Aaron hopped to his feet and moved toward their dead enemies, one now struggling from the hollow of that big tree trunk trailing a chain of curses potent enough to be worth keeping for future reference. This special language skill was a major reason why, among neighborhood mothers, Jackie Rhett was roughly as popular as measles. Charlie shook his head and marveled that Jackie could force his plumpness into such an opening. Jackie’s T-shirt hiked up to reveal welts down the length of his oversized stomach. Devil take the pain, if Jackie wanted into something he
get into it. That was one reason why Jackie was one fat kid in the sixth grade who didn’t get picked on. Another reason was that at thirteen, though no taller than Charlie or Aaron, Jackie was thirty pounds heavier and a year older.
And two years older than Roy Kinney, a fifth-grader they allowed to take part in games like Commando because, no matter how aggravating Roy managed to make himself, four was one more than three. Jackie wouldn’t compete if the odds were against him.
Charlie and Aaron knew without thinking about it that the wails weren’t Jackie’s; the very idea was foolish. Besides, half the time, Roy’s singsong “OW, ow, owowowowow” in a descending musical whine was the reliable siren that announced the end of many games.
Charlie sighed. Squatting, the three older boys watched Roy’s spindly calves thrash like a swimmer’s. The rest of him, all but the noise, had evidently taken root in the underbrush. “C’mon out,” Charlie begged, but was answered only by renewed drumming of Roy’s Cub Scout shoes.
Aaron pleaded with the same result, while arguing with Jackie that he’d stayed dead fair and square until an enemy had been killed to renew him, and finally Jackie, fists against his sides, growled, “Awright, longWord it, Roy, you’re makin’ me tired and it’s almost suppertime.” He kicked the sufferer’s shoe soles.
Roy lay still then, but the siren persisted. “Here, you chickenWords, help me,” said Jackie, and sneered when the others declined. Jackie’s persuasion was indirect. First he pulled Roy’s knickers off, no small task wrestling elastic cuffs over scout shoes. Next Jackie made a few opening remarks on the subject of nakedness in general, then got specific over Roy’s vile nudity even though Roy still wore his knit shorts. All without result. Once Roy got himself wound up this way you had to let him run all the way down.
Without pausing in expert cussing that held the others spellbound, Jackie took a small stick and, with each curse, began to switch a metronome beat on Roy’s legs, which soon caused the boy to scramble from the brush with his tears renewed. It was not the stick that exhumed Roy so much as the regularity of it. Jackie could have brought Roy out just by tapping on his rump with a fingertip, over and over again. The rhythm was the pain; almost any kind of regularity, kept up long enough, is agony to a boy of eleven. It is, at least, unless that same boy is creator of the rhythm, which can be heavenly music to him.
Believing himself safe behind his shelter of hackberry debris, Roy claimed, he had been struck painfully in the left cheek by some object both blunt and sharp—which Charlie knew was a small gray pine cone. He quickly explained it as his grenade. Charlie spied it in a clump of johnsongrass and displayed it to them. “It’s even the right size and everything,” he said proudly.
“Well, jayWord-ceeWord, no wonder,” Jackie burst out, noting tiny pinpricks of crimson on Roy’s face that matched a pattern on the pine cone.
“No fair throwing rocks or pinecones and no rubberguns, right? Nobody else had any Word grenades anyhow; you’re plain nuts about grenades. Where’d you get a longWord pinecone anyhow?”
It was a good question. None of the boys knew of any nearby trees that bore such warlike fruit. Austin, Texas, had its share of towering pecan trees, groves of elm, steel-barked hackberry and vast live oaks with limbs that seemed to spread half a county wide, but pines were rare.
Charlie explained that he’d found it rummaging through his mother’s Christmas decorations. It was hardly worth pointing out that any December debris packed away until April was treasure, and treasure was fair game. “And it’s not a rubber band or a rock,” he said, knowing he had tossed a hunk of slate too, but only as a diversion, so it shouldn’t count really.
Instead of meeting Jackie’s hard gaze, Charlie licked his thumb and rubbed it across Roy’s cheek, and the glance he shared with the older boy was full of silent understanding. Roy’s companions all saw that he carried tiny new war wounds on his cheek, yet it was best for all concerned if Roy did not know it. The other boys took a few scratches as the fortunes of war, but any time Roy discovered he was leaking in color the siren would begin anew. Roy was, at best, inferior war material, but of all the neighborhood boys he alone could be wheedled into such roles as quisling, Japanese spy, or Italian soldier. Every second-grader knew that nobody, not even real Italian soldiers, wanted to be an Italian soldier.
Leaning against the hackberry trunk, Aaron picked judiciously at his nose, inspected the result, and sided with Charlie. “You can rule it out next time ’til we find more pinecones. But this time it was Charlie’s secret weapon without a rule against it, so it was legal.”
Argument was in Jackie’s glare, but he shrugged because Aaron, by neighborhood consent, was the legal authority in these things. All the boys took it for granted that, if your dad specialized in something, you just naturally inherited that knowledge. Coleman Hardin was a city officer with the juvenile authorities whose badge gave him the status of a detective, so Charlie claimed imaginary knowledge of police matters. Raised by his grandmother, Jackie was the boys’ expert on wheeled vehicles, though he might never drive his gram’s school bus. Roy’s dad sold insurance, which made Roy a specialist in risk assessment. And Aaron’s dad was a lawyer. It was an article of faith that any boy who denied the logic of all this would throw their whole social system into chaos.
“Tell you what, Roy,” said Charlie, “you keep my grenade for next time and we’ll trade it back and forth.”
Roy’s face brightened, then fell. “So I get bunged only every other time?”
As Roy considered this risk, Jackie suddenly snatched the offending vegetable and ground it underfoot. “That settles that. No more throwin’
, and that’s my rule.” Jackie stood with fists on hips, waiting.
No one moved. It was not exactly Charlie’s cone; it was a family Christmas cone. To an Austin boy, personal injury was scarcely visible compared to the slightest insult to his family. Asked what he must do if a maniac took a step toward the boy’s sister, that boy was expected to leap at the fiend. Charlie’s problem was even worse because his distant uncle Wes Hardin had been a true paragon of violence half a century before, a historic real-life killer at age fifteen. And Charlie, at twelve, was still searching vainly for his killer instinct. He swallowed and wondered when he was going to develop the heart for it. His heart was thumping hard at the moment.
Charlie, alert to his dad’s conventional wisdom, had memorized several myths given with good intention. One of them was, “All bullies are cowards, son.”
Jackie Rhett was the exact image of a bully, so in the fourth grade Charlie had challenged Jackie to a prizefight, using pillowy boxing gloves some well-meaning ass had given him. Jackie had not needed to foul the smaller boy, and every kid in school learned the outcome—because Jackie told them, complete with sound effects and pantomime. Charlie wondered if Jackie’s gram had taught him how to punch. It was a neighborhood scandal that the old woman must be his diction coach.
Charlie knew Aaron was too honorable to help against the older boy. Pal or no pal, you didn’t fight two on one. Aaron might feel every blow to Charlie as a blow to himself, but Aaron knew the code. And Jackie knew that Aaron knew.
Now, after a long moment, Charlie shrugged as carelessly as his trembling shoulders would allow. “That ole pinecone was thrown away anyhow,” he lied and added with fuddled bravado, “I bet you couldn’t use a grenade, Jackie, you couldn’t hit the Word side of, uh . . .”
“The broad side of a Wordhouse,”Jackie smirked. “If you’re gonna say it, get it right.”
Charlie wheeled away, face burning. To dare one of the awful incantations and stumble on it was almost as bad as a whipping. Over his shoulder he said, “You coming, Aaron?”
Aaron came. The two boys trotted off along the creekside trail without conversation, goaded by the mocking laughter of Jackie Rhett, as Jackie intended. For a distance equal to a city block they quickened their pace, Charlie from shame, Aaron in camaraderie.
Their path snaked across thickets in soil that was replenished perhaps once a decade, each time Shoal Creek flooded. At one point, the boys were obliged to hop through a break in what they called the storm pipe, a concrete drain pipe four feet high that carried flood waters from suburban streets to this untamed creek, which led to the nearby river. The resulting jungle seemed a wilderness to the boys, though it meandered near the center of a city of low hills and a hundred thousand people—currently more in wartime, with its crowds of uniformed young men. Along the meadows near the creek a boy could organize a war or a pretend cattle drive without a glance at fine homes barely visible through trees that skirted the useless bottomland. One needed only to shinny up an elm to see the spire of the state capitol, a fifteen-minute walk away.