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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBarbarians - Chapter 12. Fifty-Fifty
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Barbarians - Chapter 12. Fifty-Fifty Post by :rezell Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :2065

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Barbarians - Chapter 12. Fifty-Fifty

CHAPTER XII. FIFTY-FIFTY

Vail began:

Tyranny was purely a matter of business with this little moral shrimp about whom I'm going to tell you. I was standing between a communication trench and a crater left by a mine which was being "consolidated," as they have it in these days.... All around me soldiers of the third line swarmed and clambered over the debris, digging, hammering, shifting planks and sandbags from south to north, lugging new timbers, reels of barbed wire, ladders, cases of ammunition, machine guns, trench mortars.

The din of the guns was terrific; overhead our own shells passed with a deafening, clattering roar; the Huns continued to shell the town in front of us where our first and second lines were still fighting in the streets and houses while the third line were reconstructing a few yards of trenches and a few craters won.

Stretchers and bearers from my section had not yet returned from the emergency dressing station; the crater was now cleared up except of enemy dead, whose partly buried arms and legs still stuck out here and there. A company of the Third Foreign Legion had just come into the crater and had taken station at the loopholes under the parapet of sandbags.

As soon as the telephone wires were stretched as far as our crater a message came for me to remain where I was until further orders. I had just received this message and was walking along, slowly, behind the rank of soldiers, who stood leaning against the parapet with their rifles thrust through the loops, when somebody said in English--in East Side New York English I mean--"Ah, there, Doc!"

A soldier had turned toward me, both hands still grasping his resting rifle. In the "horizon blue" uniform and ugly, iron, shrapnel-proof helmet strapped to his bullet head I failed to recognize him.

"It's me, 'Duck' Werner," he said, as I stood hesitating.... You know who he is, political leader in the 50th Ward, here. I was astounded.

"What do you know about it?" he added. "Me in a tin derby potting Fritzies! And there's Heinie, too, and Pick-em-up Joe--the whole bunch sewed up in this here trench, oh my God!"

I went over to him and stood leaning against the parapet beside him.

"Duck," I said, amazed, "how did _you come to enlist in the Foreign Legion?"

"Aw," he replied with infinite disgust, "I got drunk."

"Where?"

"Me and Heinie and Joe was follerin' the races down to Boolong when this here war come and put everything on the blink. Aw, hell, sez I, come on back to Parus an' look 'em over before we skiddoo home--meanin' the dames an' all like that. Say, we done what I said; we come back to Parus, an' we got in wrong! Listen, Doc; them dames had went crazy over this here war graft. Veeve France, sez they. An' by God! we veeved.

"An' one of 'em at Maxeems got me soused, and others they fixed up Heinie an' Joe, an' we was all wavin' little American flags and yellin' 'To hell with the Hun!' Then there was a interval for which I can't account to nobody.

"All I seem to remember is my marchin' in the boolyvard along with a guy in baggy red pants, and my chewin' the rag in a big, hot room full o' soldiers; an' Heinie an' Joe they was shoutin', 'Wow! Lemme at 'em. Veeve la France!' Wha' d'ye know about me? Ain't I the mark from home?"

"You didn't realize that you were enlisting?"

"Aw, does it make any difference to these here guys what you reelize, or what you don't? I ask you, Doc?"

He spat disgustedly upon the sand, rolled his quid into the other cheek, wiped his thin lips with the back of his right hand, then his fingers mechanically sought the trigger guard again and he cast a perfunctory squint up at the parapet.

"Believe me," he said, "a guy can veeve himself into any kind of trouble if he yells loud enough. I'm getting mine."

"Well, Duck," I said, "it's a good game----"

"Aw," he retorted angrily, "it ain't my graft an' you know it. What do I care who veeves over here?--An' the 50th Ward goin' to hell an' all!"

I strove to readjust my mind to understand what he had said. I was, you know, that year, the Citizen's Anti-Graft leader in the 50th Ward.... I am, still, if I live; and if I ever can get anything into my head except the stupendous din of this war and the cataclysmic problems depending upon its outcome.... Well, it was odd to remember that petty political conflict as I stood there in the trenches under the gigantic shadow of world-wide disaster--to find myself there, talking with this sallow, wiry, shifty ward leader--this corrupt little local tyrant whom I had opposed in the 50th Ward--this ex-lightweight bruiser, ex-gunman--this dirty little political procurer who had been and was everything brutal, stealthy, and corrupt.

I looked at him curiously; turned and glanced along the line where, presently, I recognized his two familiars, Heinie Baum and Pick-em-up Joe Brady with whom he had started off to "Parus" on a month's summer junket, and with whom he had stumbled so ludicrously into the riff-raff ranks of the 3rd Foreign Legion. Doubtless the 1st and 2nd Legions couldn't stand him and his two friends, although in one company there were many Americans serving.

Thinking of these things, the thunder of the cannonade shaking sand from the parapet, I became conscious that the rat eyes of Duck Werner were furtively watching me.

"You can do me dirt, now, can't you, Doc?" he said with a leer.

"How do you mean?"

"Aw, as if I had to tell you. I got some sense left."

Suddenly his sallow visage under the iron helmet became distorted with helpless fury; he fairly snarled; his thin lips writhed as he spat out the suspicion which had seized him:

"By God, Doc, if you do that!--if you leave me here caged up an' go home an' raise hell in the 50th--with me an' Joe here----"

After a breathless pause: "Well," said I, "what will you do about it?"--for he was looking murder at me.

Neither of us spoke again for a few moments; an officer, smoking a cigarette, came up between Heinie and Pick-em-up Joe, adjusted a periscope and set his eye to it. Through the sky above us the shells raced as though hundreds of shaky express trains were rushing overhead on rickety aerial tracks, deafening the world with their outrageous clatter.

"Listen, Doc----"

I looked up into his altered face--a sallow, earnest face, fiercely intent. Every atom of the man's intelligence was alert, concentrated on me, on my expression, on my slightest movement.

"Doc," he said, "let's talk business. We're men, we are, you an' me. I've fought you plenty times. I _know_. An' I guess you are on to me, too. I ain't no squealer; you know that anyway. Perhaps I'm everything else you claim I am when you make parlor speeches to Gussie an' Reggie an' when you stand on a bar'l in Avenoo A an' say: 'my friends' to Billy an' Izzy an' Pete the Wop.

"All right. Go to it! I'm it. I got mine. That's what I'm there for. But--when I get mine, the guys that back me get theirs, too. My God, Doc, let's talk business! What's a little graft between friends?"

"Duck," I said, "you own the 50th Ward. You are no fool. Why is it not possible for you to understand that some men don't graft?"

"Aw, can it!" he retorted fiercely. "What else is there to chase except graft? What else is there, I ask you? Graft! Ain't there graft into everything God ever made? An' don't the smart guy get it an' take his an' divide the rest same as you an' me?"

"You can't comprehend that I don't graft, can you, Duck?"

"What do you call it what you get, then? The wages of Reeform? And what do you hand out to your lootenants an' your friends?"

"Service."

"Hey? Well, all right. But what's in it for you? Where do you get yours, Doc?"

"There's nothing in it for me except to give honest service to the people who trust me."

"Listen," he persisted with a sort of ferocious patience; "you ain't on no bar'l now; an' you ain't calling no Ginneys and no Kikes your friends. You're just talkin' to me like there wasn't nobody else onto this damn planet excep' us two guys. Get that?"

"I do."

"And I'm tellin' you that I get mine same as any one who ain't a loonatic. Get that?"

"Certainly."

"All right. Now I know you ain't no nut. Which means that you get yours, whatever you call it. And _now will you talk business?"

"What business do you want to talk, Duck?" I added; "I should say that you already have your hands rather full of business and Lebel rifles----"

"Aw' Gawd; _this_? This ain't business. I was a damn fool and I'm doin' time like any souse what the bulls pinch. Only I get more than thirty days, I do. That's what's killin' me, Doc!--Duck Werner in a tin lid, suckin' soup an' shootin' Fritzies when I oughter be in Noo York with me fren's lookin' after business. Can you beat it?" he ended fiercely.

He chewed hard on his quid for a few moments, staring blankly into space with the detached ferocity of a caged tiger.

"What are they a-doin' over there in the 50th?" he demanded. "How do I know whose knifin' me with the boys? I don't mean your party. You're here same as I am. I mean Mike the Kike, and the regular Reepublican nomination, I do.... And, how do I know when _you are going back?"

I was silent.

"_Are you?"

"Perhaps."

"Doc, will you talk business, man to man?"

"Duck, to tell you the truth, the hell that is in full blast over here--this gigantic, world-wide battle of nations--leaves me, for the time, uninterested in ward politics."

"Stop your kiddin'."

"Can't you comprehend it?"

"Aw, what do you care about what Kink wins? If we was Kinks, you an' me, all right. But we ain't Doc. We're little fellows. Our graft ain't big like the Dutch Emperor's, but maybe it comes just as regular on pay day. Ich ka bibble."

"Duck," I said, "you explain your presence here by telling me that you enlisted while drunk. How do you explain my being here?"

"You're a Doc. I guess there must be big money into it," he returned with a wink.

"I draw no pay."

"I believe you," he remarked, leering. "Say, don't you do that to me, Doc. I may be unfortunit; I'm a poor damn fool an' I know it. But don't tell me you're here for your health."

"I won't repeat it, Duck," I said, smiling.

"Much obliged. Now for God's sake let's talk business. You think you've got me cinched. You think you can go home an' raise hell in the 50th while I'm doin' time into these here trenches. You sez to yourself, 'O there ain't nothin' to it!' An' then you tickles yourself under the ribs, Doc. You better make a deal with me, do you hear? Gimme mine, and you can have yours, too; and between us, if we work together, we can hand one to Mike the Kike that'll start every ambulance in the city after him. Get me?"

"There's no use discussing such things----"

"All right. I won't ask you to make it fifty-fifty. Gimme half what I oughter have. You can fix it with Curley Tim Brady----"

"Duck, this is no time----"

"Hell! It's all the time I've got! What do you expec' out here, a caffy dansong? I don't see no corner gin-mills around neither. Listen, Doc, quit up-stagin'! You an' me kick the block off'n this here Kike-Wop if we get together. All I ask of you is to talk business----"

I moved aside, and backward a little way, disgusted with the ratty soul of the man, and stood looking at the soldiers who were digging out bombproof burrows all along the trench and shoring up the holes with heavy, green planks.

Everybody was methodically busy in one way or another behind the long rank of Legionaries who stood at the loops, the butts of the Lebel rifles against their shoulders.

Some sawed planks to shore up dugouts; some were constructing short ladders out of the trunks of slender green saplings; some filled sacks with earth to fill the gaps on the parapet above; others sharpened pegs and drove them into the dirt facade of the trench, one above the other, as footholds for the men when a charge was ordered.

Behind me, above my head, wild flowers and long wild grasses drooped over the raw edge of the parados, and a few stalks of ripening wheat trailed there or stood out against the sky--an opaque, uncertain sky which had been so calmly blue, but which was now sickening with that whitish pallor which presages a storm.

Once or twice there came the smashing tinkle of glass as a periscope was struck and a vexed officer, still holding it, passed it to a rifleman to be laid aside.

Only one man was hit. He had been fitting a shutter to the tiny embrasure between sandbags where a machine gun was to be mounted; and the bullet came through and entered his head in the center of the triangle between nose and eyebrows.

A little later when I was returning from that job, walking slowly along the trench, Pick-em-up Joe hailed me cheerfully, and I glanced up to where he and Heinie stood with their rifles thrust between the sandbags and their grimy fists clutching barrel and butt.

"Hello, Heinie!" I said pleasantly. "How are you, Joe?"

"Commong ca va?" inquired Heinie, evidently mortified at his situation and condition, but putting on the careless front of a gunman in a strange ward.

Pick-em-up Joe added jauntily: "Well, Doc, what's the good word?"

"France," I replied, smiling; "Do you know a better word?"

"Yes," he said, "Noo York. Say, what's your little graft over here, Doc?"

"You and I reverse roles, Pick-em-up; you _stop bullets; _I pick 'em up--after you're through with 'em."

"The hell you say!" he retorted, grinning. "Well, grab it from me, if it wasn't for the Jack Johnsons and the gas, a gun fight in the old 50th would make this war look like Luna Park! It listens like it, too, only this here show is all fi-_nally_, with Bingle's Band playin' circus tunes an' the supes hollerin' like they seen real money."

He was a merry ruffian, and he controlled the "coke" graft in the 50th while Heinie was perpetual bondsman for local Magdalenes.

"Well, ain't we in Dutch--us three guys!" he remarked with forced carelessness. "We sure done it that time."

"Did you do business with Duck?" inquired Pick-em-up, curiously.

"Not so he noticed it. Joe, can't you and Heinie rise to your opportunities? This is the first time in your lives you've ever been decent, ever done a respectable thing. Can't you start in and live straight--think straight? You're wearing the uniform of God's own soldiers; you're standing shoulder to shoulder with men who are fighting God's own battle. The fate of every woman, every child, every unborn baby in Europe--and in America, too--depends on your bravery. If you don't win out, it will be our turn next. If you don't stop the Huns--if you don't come back at them and wipe them out, the world will not be worth inhabiting."

I stepped nearer: "Heinie," I said, "you know what your trade has been, and what it is called. Here's your chance to clean yourself. Joe--you've dealt out misery, insanity, death, to women and children. You're called the Coke King of the East Side. Joe, we'll get you sooner or later. Don't take the trouble to doubt it. Why not order a new pack and a fresh deal? Why not resolve to live straight from this moment--here where you have taken your place in the ranks among real men--here where this army stands for liberty, for the right to live! You've got your chance to become a real man; so has Heinie. And when you come back, we'll stand by you----"

"An' gimme a job choppin' tickets in the subway!" snarled Heinie. "Expec' me to squeal f'r that? Reeform, hey? Show me a livin' in it an' I carry a banner. But there ain't nothing into it. How's a guy to live if there ain't no graft into nothin'?"

Joe touched his gas-mask with a sneer: "He's pushin' the yellow stuff at us, Heinie," he said; and to me: "You get _yours all right. I don't know what it is, but you get it, same as me an' Heinie an' Duck. _I don't know what it is," he repeated impatiently; "maybe it's dough; maybe it's them suffragettes with their silk feet an' white gloves what clap their hands at you. _I ain't saying nothin' to _you_, am I? Then lemme alone an' go an' talk business with Duck over there----"

Officers passed rapidly between the speaker and me and continued east and west along the ranks of riflemen, repeating in calm, steady voices:

"Fix bayonets, _mes enfants_; make as little noise as possible. Everybody ready in ten minutes. Ladders will be distributed. Take them with you. The bomb-throwers will leave the trench first. Put on goggles and respirators. Fix bayonets and set one foot on the pegs and ladders ... all ready in seven minutes. Three mines will be exploded. Take and hold the craters.... Five minutes!... When the mines explode that is your signal. Bombers lead. Give them a leg up and follow.... Three minutes...."

From a communication trench a long file of masked bomb-throwers appeared, loaded sacks slung under their left arms, bombs clutched in their right hands; and took stations at every ladder and row of freshly driven pegs.

"One minute!" repeated the officers, selecting their own ladders and drawing their long knives and automatics.

As I finished adjusting my respirator and goggles a muffled voice at my elbow began: "Be a sport, Doc! Gimme a chanst! Make it fifty-fifty----"

"_Allez!_" shouted an officer through his respirator.

Against the sky all along the parapet's edge hundreds of bayonets wavered for a second; then dark figures leaped up, scrambled, crawled forward, rose, ran out into the sunless, pallid light.

Like surf bursting along a coast a curtain of exploding shells stretched straight across the debris of what had been a meadow--a long line of livid obscurity split with flame and storms of driving sand and gravel. Shrapnel leisurely unfolded its cottony coils overhead and the iron helmets rang under the hail.

Men fell forward, backward, sideways, remaining motionless, or rolling about, or rising to limp on again. There was smoke, now, and mire, and the unbroken rattle of machine guns.

Ahead, men were fishing in their sacks and throwing bombs like a pack of boys stoning a snake; I caught glimpses of them furiously at work from where I knelt beside one fallen man after another, desperately busy with my own business.

Bearers ran out where I was at work, not my own company but some French ambulance sections who served me as well as their own surgeons where, in a shell crater partly full of water, we found some shelter for the wounded.

Over us black smoke from the Jack Johnsons rolled as it rolls out of the stacks of soft-coal burning locomotives; the outrageous din never slackened, but our deafened ears had become insensible under the repeated blows of sound, yet not paralyzed. For I remember, squatting there in that shell crater, hearing a cricket tranquilly tuning up between the thunderclaps which shook earth and sods down on us and wrinkled the pool of water at our feet.

The Legion had taken the trench; but the place was a rabbit warren where hundreds of holes and burrows and ditches and communicating runways made a bewildering maze.

And everywhere in the dull, flame-shot obscurity, the Legionaries ran about like ghouls in their hoods and round, hollow eye-holes; masked faces, indistinct in the smoke, loomed grotesque and horrible as Ku-Klux where the bayonets were at work digging out the enemy from blind burrows, turning them up from their bloody forms.

Rifles blazed down into bomb-proofs, cracked steadily over the heads of comrades who piled up sandbags to block communication trenches; grenade-bombs rained down through the smoke into trenches, blowing bloody gaps in huddling masses of struggling Teutons until they flattened back against the parados and lifted arms and gun-butts stammering out, "Comrades! Comrades!"--in the ghastly irony of surrender.

A man whose entire helmet, gas-mask, and face had been blown off, and who was still alive and trying to speak, stiffened, relaxed, and died in my arms. As I rolled him aside and turned to the next man whom the bearers were lowering into the crater, his respirator and goggles fell apart, and I found myself looking into the ashy face of Duck Werner.

As we laid him out and stripped away iron helmet and tunic, he said in a natural and distinct voice.

"Through the belly, Doc. Gimme a drink."

There was no more water or stimulant at the moment and the puddle in the crater was bloody. He said, patiently, "All right; I can wait.... It's in the belly.... It ain't nothin', is it?"

I said something reassuring, something about the percentage of recovery I believe, for I was exceedingly busy with Duck's anatomy.

"Pull me through, Doc?" he inquired calmly.

"Sure...."

"Aw, listen, Doc. Don't hand me no cones of hokey-pokey. Gimme a deck of the stuff. Dope out the coke. Do I get mine this trip?"

I looked at him, hesitating.

"Listen, Doc, am I hurted bad? Gimme a hones' deal. Do I croak?"

"Don't talk, Duck----"

"Dope it straight. _Do I?"

"Yes."

"I thought you'd say that," he returned serenely. "Now I'm goin' to fool you, same as I fooled them guys at Bellevue the night that Mike the Kike shot me up in the subway."

A pallid sneer stretched his thin and burning lips; in his ratty eyes triumph gleamed.

"I've went through worse than this. I ain't hurted bad. I ain't got mine just yet, old scout! Would I leave meself croak--an' that bum, Mike the Kike, handin' me fren's the ha-ha! Gawd," he muttered hazily, as though his mind was beginning to cloud, "just f'r that I'll get up an'--an' go--home--" His voice flattened out and he lay silent.

Working over the next man beyond him and glancing around now and then to discover a _brancardier who might take Duck to the rear, I presently caught his eyes fixed on me.

"Say, Doc, will you talk--business?" he asked in a dull voice.

"Be quiet, Duck, the bearers will be here in a minute or two----"

"T'hell wit them guys! I'm askin' you will you make it fifty-fifty--'r' somethin'--" Again his voice trailed away, but his bright ratty eyes were indomitable.

I was bloodily occupied with another patient when something struck me on the shoulder--a human hand, clutching it. Duck was sitting upright, eyes a-glitter, the other hand pressed heavily over his abdomen.

"Fifty-fifty!" he cried in a shrill voice. "F'r Christ's sake, Doc, talk business--" And life went out inside him--like the flame of a suddenly snuffed candle--while he still sat there....

I heard the air escaping from his lungs before he toppled over.... I swear to you it sounded like a whispered word--"business."

------------------

"Then came their gas--a great, thick, yellow billow of it pouring into our shell hole.... I couldn't get my mask on fast enough ... and here I am, Gray, wondering, but really knowing.... Are you stopping at the Club tonight?"

"Yes."

Vail got to his feet unsteadily: "I'm feeling rather done in.... Won't sit up any longer, I guess.... See you in the morning?"

"Yes," said Gray.

"Good-night, then. Look in on me if you leave before I'm up."

------------------

And that is how Gray saw him before he sailed--stopped at his door, knocked, and, receiving no response, opened and looked in. After a few moments' silence he understood that the "Seed of Death" had sprouted.

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