Read Rockets' Red Glare Online

Authors: Greg Dinallo

Rockets' Red Glare (24 page)

Churcher was laying motionless in the gutter when he caught Deschin’s look, and waggled his hand to indicate his condition. The Russian pointed up the street, and Churcher turned his head slightly to see the two Germans coming out of the bunker. He looked back to Deschin, who signaled how they should proceed.

The two Germans came down the hill, each with a weapon in firing position, cautiously scanning the street for signs of life. The sergeant looked to the granary. Deschin’s apparently lifeless body hung facedown over the rubble. The private pointed to Churcher on his belly. The Germans concluded both were either dead or badly wounded, and continued toward Rosenthal and Borsa in the center of the street.

The private pushed the toe of a muddy jackboot beneath Rosenthal’s chest, and rolled him over on his back. The young flier’s head flopped back and splashed in a puddle. His eyes stared unblinking into the rain that pelted his face. The Germans stepped over him to Borsa who was on his back, conscious, but in shock. He managed to raise his hands in a defensive gesture. The sergeant angrily knocked them aside with the barrel of his Luger pistol and placed the muzzle against his forehead. The Italian closed his eyes prepared to die.

But the sharp crack Borsa heard came from behind him. His eyes popped open to see the German sergeant pitching forward. The bullet
from Deschin’s carbine had cut in beneath his helmet, chipping the paint from the lower edge, and continued on an upward path through his neck, blowing pieces of bone, teeth, and tongue out through a large hole that had been his right cheek.

The second crack followed a microsecond after the first. Churcher had gradually pulled his .45 into firing position, and placed the bullet just in front of the left ear of the German private. He dropped like a marionette whose strings had been cut all in one snip.

Deschin ran to the bodies in the street. He grabbed Borsa beneath the arms, and dragged him across the wet cobblestones toward the granary.

Churcher climbed out of the gutter and, ignoring his own wound, did the same with Rosenthal’s body. “Bastards!” he said bitterly as they dragged the two down a short flight of steps into the basement of the bombed-out granary. “It’s the church, Gillette. You were right.”

A few miles away, on a broad plain that stretches beneath San Gimignano, an Allied Field Hospital had been set up. Rain drummed on the canvas tents. Water gushed in runoff trenches cut beneath the sagging overhangs. Tent flaps snapped noisily in the wind.

Sarah Winslow dashed between rows of wounded men on stretchers and entered a supply tent.

A doctor and nurse, in blood-spattered operating whites, were standing in two inches of water, working feverishly on a wounded GI. He lay on a stretcher set across two fifty-gallon fuel drums. A tray containing medical instruments lay atop a third. Light came from a bare bulb hung from the apex of the tent. A gust of wind followed Sarah inside and set the bulb swinging, creating moving shadows in the operational field.

“Dammit,” the doctor said. “Steady that light.”

Sarah grasped it and stopped the movement. “Sorry, I didn’t expect you’d be in here.”

“OR’s jammed up. He couldn’t wait,” the doctor replied, and indicating the soldier’s bloody abdominal cavity, added, “Pull back on that retractor.”

Sarah did it automatically. “I’ve got a kid out there,” she said, looking torn. “He’s bleeding to death.”

“So’s he,” the doctor replied curtly.

Sarah felt like she’d been punched. She’d been in the field almost a year, but the idea of young men dying because they couldn’t be treated in time still devastated her.

“Thanks, Sarah,” the doctor said when he had things under control. “Do what you can for your kid. I’ll come find you when I’m finished.”

On his first word, Sarah turned to the shelves behind her and filled her haversack with the medical supplies she’d come for originally.

She hurried from the tent into the downpour, and ran to a wounded GI. Her knees plopped into the mud next to the stretcher. Blood seeped from beneath it, mixing with the rainwater. Sarah gently peeled away the GI’s tattered shirt, exposing a massive chest wound. She took packets of sulfur from her haversack, tore off the tops, and dumped the yellow powder into the hole.

“What’s your name, soldier?”

The kid grimaced, holding off the pain. “Cochran, ma’am,” he answered. “Tommy Cochran.”

Sarah smiled. Despite lack of sleep and stress, her face still glowed with a special beauty. “Mine’s Sarah.” She made some gauze pads into a thick wad, pushed it into his chest, and held it there.

The soldier’s lower lip was trembling like a child’s. “I’m not going to make it, am I?”

“Sure you are, Tommy,” she replied. “I’ve seen a lot of these. You’re going to be as good as new.”

She only half-lied, she thought. She
had
seen similar injuries—but seen few GIs survive them. Her mind drifted to Zachary, who was somewhere in the Pacific. And she hoped with all her heart that no one was doing for him what she was doing for Tommy Cochran right now. They had been married about a year when Zack enlisted in the Marines. And Sarah quickly knew she couldn’t sit home in Dunbarton waiting, wondering. She was working for a doctor in private practice, and the day he was drafted, she enlisted as an Army nurse.

She looked down and saw blood had soaked the gauze pads and was oozing in thick pools between her fingers.

“Got a cigarette?” Cochran asked weakly.

“Sure,” she said, hiding her concern. She slipped a cigarette from her pocket, lit it, and took several deep drags, then put it to Cochran’s lips. But he didn’t respond. All along she could feel his heart pushing beneath her palm—and now she felt it stop.

A muddy truck pulled to a stop nearby. Deschin jumped out and helped Churcher from the cab. He slung an arm over the Russian’s shoulders, and they started walking between the tents.

Sarah pulled Cochran’s pancho up over his face, and hurried after them. Churcher was stumbling in the ruts when she caught up and wrapped an arm around his waist to help support him.

“This way,” she said commandingly, leading them toward an aid
station. Another nurse met them at the entrance and directed them inside to a cubicle, where she went about tending to Churcher’s wound.

Sarah moistened some gauze pads with a disinfectant and brought it to the cuts on Deschin’s face.

“No time,” he said, pushing her hand aside. “I left a man in San Gimignano. He’s badly wounded.”

“I’ll go with you.”

Deschin shook his head no emphatically. “Too dangerous. It’s behind enemy lines.”

“They don’t shoot nurses,” Sarah replied.

“No, they rape them.”

“Not this one.”

Deschin studied her, taken by her spunk. “Hurry then,” he said, turning to leave.

“Aleksei!” Churcher’s voice rang out from where the nurse was working on his arm. “Don’t leave my copilot to the Krauts.”

“You have my word,” Deschin said.

Sarah grabbed a haversack of medical supplies, went back to the truck with Deschin, and got in next to Ettore. Deschin was about to follow when a motorcycle ground to a stop in the mud next to him. The courier had a dispatch addressed to:

Gillette Blue

Sector 43-N

By Courier

Deschin removed the dispatch which read:

STATIC MY ASS! SAFETY RAZOR.

Deschin laughed and got into the truck. It was soon sloshing through rivers of mud that had once been cow paths and back roads. Flashes of lightning flickered behind the mountains. The three drove through the rain in silence. Deschin’s hand clutched his carbine, eyes searching the terrain for German troops.

Sarah was leaning back studying the intense Russian out of the corner of her eye. He’d brought wounded partisans to the field hospital several times. And she was reflecting on how their eyes had met, and how she’d found his unique looks and fractured English appealing. But she was very much in love with Zachary.

The rain intensified as the truck pulled up behind the bombed-out
granary. Sarah slipped an arm through the strap of her haversack. Ettore took a stretcher from the truck, and they followed Deschin through the trees, over rubble that surrounded the granary, and down the staircase into the basement.

Borsa and Rosenthal lay amidst burlap sacks filled with flour and unmilled grain, where Deschin and Churcher had left them. Deschin had put one of the sacks beneath the Italian’s legs to keep them raised and minimize blood loss; it was stained crimson now, prompting Deschin to hurry to Borsa’s side.

“Giancarlo? Giancarlo, can you hear me?” Deschin asked intensely.

Borsa nodded slightly, and grimaced in pain.

The vacant stare of the dead American caught Sarah’s eye as she knelt next to Borsa. She bit a lip, prepared a syringe, pushed up Borsa’s sleeve, and shot the morphine into him. Deschin had already taken a bottle of plasma from her haversack, and Sarah pushed the needle into Borsa’s vein. The blood on his pants had congealed, and they’d become matted to his legs. She scissored the bullet-torn fabric loose, then cleansed, disinfected, and wrapped the wounds in temporary bandages.

Throughout, Deschin watched admiringly at the efficient manner in which Sarah worked. Her eyes darting, evaluating, deciding; her hands moving with swift precision. When she finished, Deschin and Ettore slid Borsa onto the stretcher, carried it across the basement, and up the staircase into the rain.

Sarah crouched next to Rosenthal’s body, and closed his eyes. Then she wrapped a pancho around the flier’s horribly gutted torso to enable Deschin and Ettore to more easily carry him when they returned.

They were sliding the stretcher into the truck when a shot rang out. The round whistled between them, punching a hole in the sheet metal. They whirled to see three German soldiers moving along the side of the granary in the downpour. One raised his rifle and fired again. Deschin and Ettore scrambled behind the truck, rounds chipping into the trees behind them.

“I’m going back,” Deschin said.

Ettore nodded that he knew what to do and leaned out from behind the truck, firing bursts from his carbine, pinning down the German patrol.

Deschin took off between the trees. Despite Ettore’s cover, one of the Germans popped up firing. Deschin dove headlong into the entrance that led to the staircase as rounds powdered the stucco facade.

“Sarah? Sarah come on!” he shouted as he ran down the stairs into the basement of the granary.

“What about him?” she exclaimed, gesturing to Rosenthal’s body.

“German patrol!” Deschin interrupted. “Come on!”

Sarah hesitated momentarily. And in that instant, a blinding flash of lightning, followed by a primordial crack of thunder that sounded as if it split the earth, illuminated San Gimignano like a dozen noons. Traveling over one hundred million feet per second, the jagged bolt stabbed from billowing thunderheads ten miles up, and, like the wrath of an angry diety, struck the spired campanile of Cappella di Santa Fina.

The carillon’s bells glowed like huge Christmas tree ornaments as fifteen million volts of electrical current coursed through the bronze. Crackling blue fuzz zigzagged along cracks and licked at the edges of stone as the current raced down the church’s wet facade and surged into the porous rock beneath.

In the limestone catacombs, the German soldiers, working to cover the crates of ammunition and drums of fuel with tarpaulins, watched horrified as the current darted out of fissures and crevices, and crawled across the moist surfaces buzzing with high energy. For the briefest instant, the caverns glowed with an ultraviolet fluorescence. Then the bristling voltage discharged in angry sheets across the ankle-deep water and through the ammunition and fuel at temperatures close to 50,000°F. The entire cache exploded in a chain reaction that accelerated through the network of tunnels beneath San Gimignano.

The whole town shuddered as if struck by a devastating earthquake. Buildings crumbled. Streets buckled and collapsed. Church bells rang wildly. Flocks of ravens erupted from the towers, filling the air with their angled black shapes. Thousands of cats darted wildly through the streets. Townsfolk and German soldiers ran panicked into the heavy rain.

The German patrol, advancing along the side of the granary, was buried in an avalanche of rubble as the wall above them collapsed. Et-tore jumped into the truck and drove off with his badly wounded passenger.

Deschin had just grasped Sarah’s hand to drag her from the basement when the granary came crashing down around them. She screamed as a huge section of the concrete-and-stone slab overhead fell, knocking them to the ground in a shower of dust and grain. Tons of rubble cascaded down, mercifully burying Rosenthal’s body. Then the frightening roar and quaking gave way to an eerie silence, and the sounds of rain.

Sarah and Deschin were lying on the floor, a short distance apart. But neither could see the other through the dust-filled air and darkness.

“Sarah?” Deschin called out.

“Here,” she replied. “Over here.”

Deschin crawled in the direction of her voice. His fingers found her hand, and he kept going until they were face-to-face.

“Are you hurt?”

“No. I’m okay,” she replied. “You?”

“Okay,” he parroted.

“What happened?”

“The German supply depot must have blown,” Deschin replied, smiling and sniffing at the air that was thick with the pungent odor of cordite and fuel.

He worked himself into a sitting position, and helped Sarah do the same. His smile vanished when he saw they were encircled by a wall of rabble and grain sacks, capped by the slab above.

The falling concrete floor had slammed into the sacks, which had been stacked high around them. The uppermost bags burst, absorbing the impact; while those below supported the weight, keeping the slab from crushing them to death.

“We’re trapped,” Sarah exclaimed, a tremor in her voice. “We’re buried alive, Aleksei. There’s no way out of here.”

“I’ve already found two,” he said brightly.

“Two?” she wondered, with a puzzled look.

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