Steve Pribish


Senior Private Orestius "Crawdad" Brown, 14th Regiment of Color, squeezed his lanky frame into his cubbyhole and with a deep sigh began what he knew to be his last meal. Reverently he dipped his chunk of stale French bread into the cold Mulligan and placed it in his mouth. Every so often Crawdad stirred the thin mixture, shifting through the bits of potato and cabbage searching for his elusive scrap of meat, which, according to U. S. Army regulations, was in every portion. In seven months at the front, Crawdad had yet to find a single morsel. Still, he relished the watery mixture, using his last scrap of crust to sop his tin. When he was finished, Crawdad licked his fingers, slumped against the mud wall, and relaxed. There was some comfort in dying with a full stomach.

Crawdad was convinced he would not survive the coming assault; just as he had been convinced he would not survive the previous three. This time, however, there was good reason to believe luck had run out. He had outlived two pair of boots, three rifles, a non-com, two foolish white looies, and hadn't had a winning poker hand in four nights.

Of the eight men who had marched from the bayous of Assumption Parish in 1917, Crawdad was the only one still in the line. The Dupre brothers were dead; both had copped it in the spring muck at Sain Michael. Chigger and Junebug were wounded at Feludec and never returned. In late fall, Cajun and Preacher fell from the camp fever and just last week, Gator got plinked by a sniper while answering nature's call. Tomorrow, Crawdad would be answering the devil's muster.

When Crawdad first arrived in France, death constantly haunted him; made him tremble and poisoned his thoughts. Now he accepted his inevitable rendezvous and just wanted to go quickly. He had heard too many tales of basket cases or men suffering for days before they finally died. Men like the trooper caught up in the no-man's-land wire. For three days the man hung there spread eagle. The Krauts wouldn't shoot him and his own couldn't rescue him. On the third day the man suffocated. "Can you imagine," Polly told Crawdad, "the poor sap comes all the way to France to be crucified." Crawdad did find some solace in the thought that his death would be painless in this hell-hole. A wounded man doesn't linger in the bitter cold.

* * *

"Hey, Buddy. Got the daily news," said Polly sliding into Crawdad's corner. "Straight from the top bow-wow in command section. Big show's tomorrow. We'll be hoppin' over Sain Mari Auglize. Goin' in the second wave, right behind the 10th. That's right, the 10th. Nothin' but Jack Johnsons and John Henrys in that regiment. Sergeant said they're regular army. Buffaloes from the west. Fought Geronimo and Poncho Villa, by God. Not a bunch of stick trained, gator bait, Jazz Boes like us. No, sir-rie." Crawdad remained still, his eyes closed. There was no stopping Polly once that pencil mustache started flapping. "Old Green Hornet said he wants Sain Mari captured at all cost."

That's right, Colonel Patton, thought Crawdad, our cost.

"Heard almost a thousand Frogs got killed tryin' to take Sain Mari in October. But with those John Henrys leadin' the way, we just might do it. You can count on the 10th."

Ya, count on them to die.

"And get this. Two hyphen regiments are in comin' behind us, but the Green Hornet doesn't want 'em moppin' up Fritz. Said those Polish-American boys can't even speak English. He wants us American troops to take the whole kettle."

Ya, good old George. He talks, we die. Crawdad hoped this time the fighting would be over by the time the white regiments arrived. Just once, Lord, let 'em come in silence. Let 'em see what us black troopers can do.

Polly rubbed Crawdad's head for luck, then moved down the line. "Hey, buddy. Daily news."

Polly didn't have to tell Crawdad the news; he already knew. Maybe not the particulars, but he knew. The same ritual was performed as a preamble to every assault. Early this morning the regiment assembled to hear their division colonel make a passionate speech. Colonel Patton reminded the ranks of their oaths before God to perform their duty. "This is a holy war against Satan's earthly forces," he told them. "To shirk one's duty will condemn you to an eternity of Hell." He then spoke of the brave colored soldiers in the War of Secession and of their magnificent record in some forgotten battle. "Men, I don't give a damn what color you are, just so you kill those sons-of-bitches in the green uniforms."

Later, Crawdad's regimental commander strutted forward and told the assembly they were a bunch of worthless dogs, unworthy to wear the uniform of the American Army. Towards noon, a minister came by and assured Crawdad's company God would bless their endeavors and guide them to victory. Crawdad stood at attention, listened to each, and kept his face and mind blank. The only speakers that made sense were the last to come around. The regimental cooks ambled through with large iron dixies of steaming stew and carts of bread. "Eat all you want," laughed the belly robber when he splashed the stew into Crawdad's bowl, "cause tomorrow there will be a whole lot fewer mouths to feed."

* *  *

For the next five hours the ground beyond Crawdad's bombproof shook and rolled like ocean swells in a late summer hurricane. The French cannons miles behind Crawdad's trench pounded the stronged points at Sain Mari Auglize, enveloping it in a curtain of fire and smoke. Once, in a gentler life, Crawdad would have been awestruck by the explosions and confident that no man could survive such punishment. But in this life he knew better. The enemy was as aware of the coming attack as he; Fritz was no longer in the front firing trenches, but was safely hidden in bombproofs much stronger and comfortable than his. When the bombardment was over, the Germans would swarm out of hiding and rush forward to slaughter the attackers.

Still, Crawdad relaxed, confident the attack would not start till dawn. He saw no need to squander his last precious hours in frantic preparation. Not so the greenhorns. Crawdad watched through narrowed eyes as the rookies nervously checked their rifles, bayonets and counted out bullets for cartridge belts. By regulation each was allotted 120 rounds of ammunition, but the second wave was given only ten rounds. Ten bullets, just in case they lived to reach the German positions.

Crawdad pulled off his boots and peeled off his socks. His feet were covered with cootie bites and discolored from the wet and cold. Last week, Polly told him so long as you had cooties, you wouldn't die. Polly claimed the lice knew when your time was up and would abandon you to find another host.

Ya, Polly says a lot of things; some of them might even be true. But Crawdad had seen too many lice infested corpses to believe this tale.

"Should I change my foot socks, too, Senior Private?" a nervous voice asked. Crawdad look up into the face of a very young, very scared soldier.

"May as well, Cricket. No sense leaving perfectly dry socks for your replacement."

Crawdad's remark struck the youngster like a slap across the face.

"Just funning, Cricket," laughed Crawdad, trying to smooth over his statement. "Take your socks with you. There is no telling how far this assault may carry and when our baggage will catch up. Warm, dry feet will be our only luxury."

Cricket was the newest replacement in Company D, a real "eighteen-pounder," just old enough for the draft. Crawdad never learned the Georgian's real name, just called him Cricket. The name seemed natural for the chirping, ebony skinned newcomer who was constantly springing through the trenches. Crawdad considered him an able, if inexperienced soldier. On a normal day Crawdad wouldn't have felt any remorse for slapping Cricket with smart words, but on battle's eve attitudes softened. Cricket noted Crawdad's change and ventured questions never before possible.

"Senior Private, will the assault be as bad as Polly says?"

"All assaults are bad when somebody's trying to plink you," Crawdad replied resting his head against the wall.

"Are you afraid?"

Crawdad looked at Cricket with old eyes buried in a twenty year old face. "Everyone's afraid. Even the bravest will need clean woollies before the day is over. And if a man tells you he is not afraid, then he has never been in an assault - just popping off like Polly." Crawdad's answer caused Cricket to shake.

"Settle down, soldier." Crawdad stood up and put his hands on Cricket's shoulders. "You'll be all right, Cricket. You're in my squad, one of my men. When the time comes, you just mind your eye and stand next to me. We'll attack together. I'll keep you from Fritz."

Cricket nodded, but kept shaking. "Yes, Senior Private, but what about the ghosts."


"The white ghosts. Private Polly said the dead men walk the battlefield during the dark and attack the living. I hear we'll be attacking in the dark and I'm feared of ghosts."

"No. There will be no ghosts. Only man traps, machine guns, rifles, mortar shells, and maybe trip bombs, but no ghosts."

"You sure? No ghosts?"

"Certain. No ghosts."

"Oh, what's wrong Cricket? A-scared of little ghosts?" Polly heard Crawdad's words and now Cricket would pay. "You should be like Crawdad. Old Crawdad ain't a-scared of any ghosts, are you, Crawdad? And you know why? 'Cause Crawdad got himself a powerful ju-ju. That's what you need Cricket, a powerful ju-ju."

"It's not a ju-ju, your ignorant fool. It's a miraculous medal." Crawdad pulled a gold chain from beneath his tunic. At the end of the chain was a solid gold medal embossed with a cross carved from sky blue stone. "Ju-ju is make-believe, chicken bone magic. This medal is real. Blessed by the bishop himself during a high mass at Saint Louie Cathedral." Crawdad was getting so he could hardly abide Polly. Just because Polly is light skinned and some greenhorns saluted him once, he thinks he knows everything.

"Fool." Crawdad kissed the cross and put the medal back.

Polly just grinned. "The man knows ju-ju, Cricket. That's powerful magic. You just stay with Crawdad. He'll see you right." Polly feigned leaving, then turned. "Oh, by the way Crawdad. Did you ever tell the kid how you got your name? And I don't mean that gumbo story you was poppin' those New York Rattlesnakes from the 369th."

"Is it 'cause you like crawfish gumbo?" Cricket asked.

Crawdad just stood there, his hands balling.

"Tell him, Crawdad." Nothing. "Then I'll tell him. Ever try to catch a crawdad, kid? Ain't easy, is it? Why they put their little head down and scoot backwards in the water slick as a whistle. Fast goin' backwards, ain't they? Well, Crawdad is just as fast. I mean when Crawdad attacks, he goes. But when the looie gives three sharp ones on the whistle, Old Crawdad, he crawdads quick. Feet first, head down, rump up, all the way back to our line. Of course," Polly winked, "sometimes old Crawdad, he forgets to bring his rifle."

* * *

Crawdad woke after the second nudge. The cannons were silent, the ground still. "Time to push," Polly whispered. Crawdad then elbowed Cricket. "Time to push. Pass it on."

In the frigid pre-dawn ink, the 10th and 14th Regiments filed through the trench labyrinth and took up their positions. Before them lay the three hundred yards of tortured ground known as no-man's land, a frozen expanse of snow and ice scarred by great clods of frozen, blackened earth. The once smooth face of Flemish countryside had been sculptured by heavy handed artillery into the image of Gehenna. In a few places fires burned, casting eerie lights that silhouetted the thick posts marking the beginning of the entanglements. Beyond, waiting in the darkness, were the German defenses - a series of armored gun cupolas from whose opening would pour a steady torrent of death.

"There go the John Henrys," whispered Polly. Crawdad heard snow squeak beneath a thousand boots as the regulars climbed out of their attack trenches. There were no cheers, no rallying cries or curses from the white officers, just the determined tread of hob-nailed boots going steadily forward.

Then the 14th moved. Quickly Polly and Crawdad slipped through the cramped communication trench to the position just vacated by the 10th. Cricket stayed glued to Crawdad's back as they pushed continuously forward. When they stopped, several hundred of the 14th were packed into the trench's narrow confine.

Polly peered over the top of the rampart and saw the twinkling rifle fire. "Looks like a humdinger. There will crosses for us today, eh, Crawdad?"

"Ya, Polly. Either hanging from ribbons or sitting on our graves," Behind him, Crawdad felt Cricket tremble.

"Here, kid. Hold my rifle," Crawdad told Cricket. Crawdad undid his gold chain and tried to place it on the young soldier. "This is strong magic. Wear the cross, it will keep you alive."

Cricket protested, but Crawdad persisted. "Wear the cross and when the whistle blows, we go over the top together. Just point your pig sticker towards the fireflies. That's where home is and where it's warm. On the other side of those fireflies, it's a sweet, warm Georgia summer and just past that, a hot, sticky day in Louisiana. You hear those bees buzzing and those birds chirping? That's home calling us, Cricket. We're going home and this time nothing's going to stop us. Just you and me, Cricket, we're going all the way."

* * *

Her clear blue eyes no longer saw as when she was young, but they were sharp enough to see the tantalizing glint of gold in the sunlight. Throughout the morning, the glitter beckoned to her as she stacked the corpses. She and ten other conscripted Flemish peasants followed the orders of their new conquerors to gather and bury the dead. By the end of the first day she had already grown calloused to her harpy chore. She no longer saw the faces of her husband and two sons in each corpse, just dead Germans and Americans. For three days she harvested and watched the carts carry the foreign men to their final rest in a mass grave. Today's crop would be the last and most difficult to harvest, for it was here the last Germans surrendered. The fighting had been close quarter and the bodies of the Leggion de Afrique were locked in a macabre tangle with those of le boche.

The American officers escorting the women had been very specific about the penalty for robbing the dead, but the woman's hunger was even more specific. After an hour of steadily moving towards her precious prize, she still could not see it clearly. She could, however, discern the large black bird that repeatedly pecked and pulled the glitter.

By noon, the old woman was close enough to make her move. She scanned the field once more for the mounted officers, then cried out as loudly as she dared. "Shoo. Shoo." The bird looked at the woman, judged the distance, and continued to peck. As the distance between the two closed, the bird ceased its pecking and cocked its head toward the old woman. Its coal black eye now reflected indecision. What was more important, the bird tried to decide, the threatening creature that moved so awkwardly through the snow or the glittering object that had held its attention throughout the morning.

"Shoo, shoo. C'most de aviori." The rook remained. Once more the old woman called out the words, this time punctuating them with the toss of a frozen clump of earth. For a few seconds the rook held its ground, then, as if obeying her command, silently leapt skyward in a dazzling iridescent display.


The soldier lay on his back, his mouth open, his empty eyes searching a sky that lay forever beyond the reach of his frozen outstretched arms. Both hands were clinched and from the right dangled the little gold chain that had beckoned all morning. Quickly the woman knelt beside the body, grasped the chain and pulled. The hand's death grip would not yield. Next she tried to pry the fist open. The bronze fingers would not surrender. Still, she persisted for the treasure clutched at the end of such a lovely chain. During the last two days she had seen many crosses, German and American, it didn't matter. God did not take sides.

At last the fingers loosened and the blue cross tumbled free. The amount of gold was small. Small, but enough to buy her a few kilos of food - a few more days of life.

* * *