Chapter Seventy-Four Joigny, France – August 15, 1945
“Whom the gods love dies young.” Menander (342 BC – 291 BC)
The single shot echoed loudly through the night. For a few seconds everything was quiet. Johnny screamed and fell to the ground while Jake shoved Tom English violently out of the way. Johnny was holding the barrel of the .45, still pointing toward his stomach, his thumb stuck in the slide.
Paratroopers came running over from all directions. Jake knelt down beside Johnny and pulled the slide back on the pistol, releasing his thumb. He felt for the wound around Johnny’s stomach and his hand came back covered in blood.
“I got ya buddy. You’re gonna be all right.” Jake took off his jacket and rolled it quickly into a pillow for Johnny’s head. He then applied pressure to the hole in Johnny’s jacket where he thought the wound would be. “Medic,” he instinctively yelled. “Somebody call a medic!”
“What the hell happened, Jake?” It was Sergeant Christian’s voice.
“That drunken dead-beat guard shot him.” Jake didn’t look up. He just nodded toward Tom English as he tried to stem the bleeding.
“He’s a dead man. We’re gonna fuck him up.” Christian and two other paratroopers began stomping English before they dragged him off kicking and screaming.
Corporal Leland Brewer ran up to the scene.
Jake looked up. “Beerman! Am I glad to see you!”
Brewer felt around the wound. “Aw shit, Jake. This is bad. I don’t have my stuff.”
“Go get it!”
“Be right back.” Beerman took off for the infirmary.
Johnny was breathing heavy, his eyes wide with anxiety. Suddenly he pounded the ground with his fist. “Shit! Goddamn it! I can’t believe this!”
“Calm down, buddy. You’re gonna be fine.”
“He pulled a pistol on us! I can’t believe he did that. That little shit pulled his weapon on us.”
“He pulled it on me, Johnny.” Jake closed his eyes and shook his head. “Why’d you get in the way?”
“Where is he?”
“Some of our guys took him. They’re kicking the shit out of him. I think they’re gonna kill him.” “Let me see,” Johnny tried to raise his head. Jake was not sure if he wanted to look at the wound or English being dragged toward the barracks.
“Stay down. Stay calm. Beerman is getting his stuff.”
“Beerman. Good man. Great medic. Wants to be a doctor when he gets home.” Johnny’s breathing was labored and shallow.
“I need a meat wagon here,” Jake yelled out. Some more troopers were gathering around. Someone dropped a towel and Jake used it as a compress.
“Oh, man. I almost made it. I almost made it home.”
“You’ll make it home. We’re gonna get you to the infirmary hubba-hubba and they’ll take care of you.”
Someone dropped to his knees alongside Jake. It was Captain Frank West. “What the hell happened?”
“Trigger happy sentry, sir. The boys took him to the barracks.”
West looked at Johnny. “Stay with us, son. Help is on the way.”
Johnny’s eyes calmed though his breathing remained rapid and strained. “Jake, brother.” Johnny forced a smile. “Can you get off my legs?”
Jake looked down and then at West. Neither of them was on Johnny’s legs.
“We have to roll him over,” ordered West. He looked at Johnny. “Hang tough, trooper.”
They rolled him partly on his side and West took out a flashlight. There was an exit wound on Johnny’s lower back near the spine. They gently rolled him to his back.
“What’s there?” Johnny asked anxiously. “What do you see?”
No one answered. Johnny took a deep breath and exhaled. “No one’s kneeling on my legs. It’s my spine right?”
“Don’t give up on me, buddy. Don’t quit. Hang on.”
Johnny punched the ground again with his fist. “Don’t rush, don’t hurry. I’m not going home like this.”
“Johnny, save your breath. Don’t give up!”
“That’s an order, son,” West added. He turned to look for some help. About a dozen troopers had gathered around. The call had been put out for an ambulance and Beerman was off getting his supplies and trying to round up a doctor. But West could not see anyone racing toward the scene. Johnny was bleeding out and help was not imminent.
“Jake, come closer.”
“I’ll take that,” West pointed to the towel. Jake took the pressure off. The towel was soaked blood red. Captain West began to apply pressure as Jake moved toward Johnny’s head. He cradled his head in his arms. There still was a chance to save him if he could only get Johnny to want to live.
“You have a wife and son, home. You have to fight!”
“Do you still have my letter?”
“Sure, I still got it. I was giving it back to you tonight!”
“Good, you bring it to Rose… in person… like you promised… right?”
“Don’t talk like that! Don’t give up, for her sake. You’re gonna make it!”
“I don’t want to make it. Not like this.”
“Look, buddy, don’t quit on me!”
“Jake, I don’t have a lot of time. I don’t want to spend what’s left arguing with you. I love you like a brother. I need you to promise me something.”
“I need to ask you to take care of my family. I need to know they’ll be in good hands.”
Jake blinked. Tears began streaming from his eyes. “Jeez, I would do anything for you, buddy. You know that. But how am I supposed to do that?”
“I don’t expect her to stay single forever. Bring her my letter. Use your charm!”
Jake looked at Captain West. His eyes asking what do I do now? How do I deal with this?
West nodded. His facial expression replied tell him what he wants to hear.
Johnny coughed. He was spitting up blood. He grabbed Jake’s collar and pulled him close to his face. “C’mon brother. You can do this. You have nothing to go home to anyway. I need to know my family is…in good hands. In your hands!”
Jake smiled slightly. He wanted to reassure his dying friend; make his last moments bearable. He wanted to say he would try his hardest but it would be up to Rose. He never got to share the news he had a letter in his pocket from Macie asking him to come back to her. And now, at this moment, he knew he never would. Looking into the pleading and desperate eyes of the friend he loved, he could not bring himself to excuses or explanations. “Of course, buddy. I’ll take care of them.”
Johnny smiled back. His face instantly became relieved. “Is that a blood pact?” Johnny weakly raised a fist.
Jake tapped it with his. “You have my word.”
“That’s all I needed to hear. There’s no one on this earth I would rather have raise my son and take care of my gal than you. No one!”
Johnny’s hand slipped from Jake’s collar. He leaned back on his makeshift pillow. He began to cry through labored breathing. “I feel cold…like Bastogne! It’s so damn cold!”
Jake was crying. He reached down and cradled Johnny’s head and shoulders in his arms. He hugged Johnny tightly to provide warmth, rocking him ever so slightly. Jake looked at West. All three men had tear-streaked faces. Jake held his friend tightly and gently rocked him until he expelled his last breath.