“Captain!” The Private called, “Captain Parish!”
The Jeep halted, bucking as it stalled, a foot came off the clutch pedal a little too fast. Ben glanced sidelong at the strange face in the driver’s seat, he'd never met the Private, but the driver definitely knew him. Ben knew the young guys told stories about him. Even in the downpour, covered in an olive drab raincoat, there was no missing his ice-blue eyes and the silver-white crucifix on his piss-pot. Ben had earned his reputation the hard way, fighting the Huns and the fascists. He'd held dying men and sent them off peaceful. He'd Killed three times as many evil men. The soldiers called him “The Saint”, yet he gave the youngsters the heebie-jeebies. He didn't mind.
Captain Ben Parish took another long inhale on his cigarette and tossed it as he re-slung his Thompson and started for the vehicle.
Ben nodded and gave a quiet grunt as he stepped into the Jeep, water pouring from his long coat and helmet. The seat squealed in protest as he sat, his knees barely clearing the dash. Rain pounded the canvas top.
“Morning Sir!” the Private called over the rain;
“Take me to the church, Private.”
Ben could tell he gave the Private the heebie-jeebies too.
“What's your name, son?”
“Scott, sir. Private Jack Scott.” The Private fumbled with the keys and restarted the Jeep.
No doubt the young Private Jack Scott had heard stories about how the Captain had fought in the big one, of how he found God while he was knee-deep in blood and mud in the trenches of the Somme. Soldiers loved to wag tongues. The scuttlebutt was that he'd rejoined as a Chaplain after Japan stuck a few swords into Uncle Sam’s back in Hawaii.
Something he saw in Africa made him change his mind. Since then he's been killing his way across Africa and Europe.
The Jeep stalled again, the Private was nervous.
"Take your time Private.” Ben's voice was like cool crushed stone, “We're not in a hurry.”
“Sorry, Sir! Um… Any church in particular… sir?”
“The Cathedral of Maria SS Annunziata. You know it?” Ben's New England accent chewed awkwardly on the Italian.
“Think so, sir”
The Private mumbled as he started wiggling the shifter.
“So… uh… feeling the urge… sir?”
The Captain raised an eyebrow and dug for his tobacco pouch.
Private Scott fumbled with his keys and re-started the Jeep.
“Confession.” Parish said, “We’re all sinners, Private.”
The gearbox howled as the Private found first and with a lurch they set off. Most of the hardly-men in the platoon knew that Ben had been a minister or a priest, a man of God. He still did a mass on holidays for the troops, for whoever wanted to show. He wandered the mob afterwards questioning those who didn't.
One of the tall tales was that he personally thrashed any of his own squad who didn’t show, Jew or Christian, didn't matter. He liked that story. He eyed the private as he drove, the poor kid could barely keep the vehicle straight.
Parish struck a match off of the dash and lit a freshly rolled smoke. The private jerked his head, trying to make eye contact without taking his eyes off the road.
“You think so, sir? I mean, we’re fighting evil. Nazi’s and fascists and stuff.”
“Thou shalt not kill.”
Parish admired the boy’s naivete. The Private was all of eighteen if that, and Parish picked up on some country boy twang.
“Arkansas?” Ben said.
“Mississippi, Sir!” The Private answered.
“My second guess. Farming?”
“Kids in Mississippi know their way around a rifle?”
“Yes, Sir!” The private grinned.
“Ever shot anything other than a bird? Gator?”
“Yessir.” The Private's demeanour soured, “A few men what had it coming.”
Probably carrying a picture of his girl, Ben thought, Usually a homely young thing with two first names. Ben chuckled aloud.
“What’s funny sir? Pardon my asking.”
No doubt Private Scott had heard the Captain never smiles. He caught the boy looking out of the corner of his eye, it just made the Private more nervous.
Ben held his smoke with his left hand, he noticed that the Private's eyes had caught the set of Rosary beads and the wooden cross dangling at his wrist. The Private was quiet, contemplating the Captain’s rebuttal.
This boy is no killer.
“Alright son, let’s see her.”
“See who, Sir?” The Private shifted, gears groaned their protest.
“Your girl, I know you guys all carry pictures, probably in your left shirt pocket.”
Private Scott smiled as he took one hand from the shifter and fished around, producing a colourized portrait about four by six.
Dark, styled hair, green eyes, rosy cheeks, Gorgeous; definitely not some homely farmgirl. Ben whistled. Handed the photo back.
“You steal that from a magazine, Private?”
“No, Sir! That’s my Lori Jane.”
Two first names. Parish chuckled.
“This mud is shit. Thought these Gee-Pees were made for this stuff!”
The First Infantry had been in Sicily for about five weeks, and any visions of sun-drenched rolling vineyards and exotic Italian beauties were beaten down by four days of torrential rain and a countryside turned into ankle-deep mud. Everyone was wet, tired and drunk on foul-smelling wine. The locals were hardened, weary, and soulless.
Many of the troops had cried foul, this wasn’t what they’d signed on for. Ben had read Scott's service record, and Private Scott, whether demoralized at the misrepresentation of the US Army’s travel brochures or not, had kept his objections to himself until now.
Ben didn't like complainers. There was work to do. He'd decided to request the Private for his squad. Scott was a bit young, and couldn’t drive for shit, but that was fine, he'd march.
The Jeep pulled up to an old cathedral, a beautifully designed building pockmarked by gunfire. Some sandbags were stacked, an old goat matted goat gnawed at discarded MRE tin, there was one else was in sight. A vibrant flash lit the grey, followed by the earth-shuddering clap of thunder, and the rain intensified. Scott wrapped his arms around his shoulders and shivered.
Ben tossed the inches of the cigarette he was puffing on out of the open side of the Jeep and stepped out into the mud, the wet squelch of the sludge was audible even over the rain. He turned to the Jeep and shouted, “This shouldn’t take too long.”
“I’ll be here Sir. Hope God’s in a listening mood.”
“Me too, Private.”
Captain Parish stopped at the foyer and took in the cathedral, he’d never seen anything like it. High, vaulted ceilings, a balcony overlooking the rest of the church, and intricate woodwork that was ancient and beautiful. Everything was polished to a mirrored shine. Gold relics lined the altar.
After two or three loud clomps from combat boots, Parish looked down to his feet at the line of muddy footprints on the intricately handcrafted parquet. He knelt and untied the boots, removing them before continuing on to the confessionals. Sliding back the velvet curtain, Parish stepped inside the booth. A minute, maybe less. An eternity of waiting, finally a figure coughed on the other side.
“Mi Benedica Padre, perche ho peccato.” Ben said.
“Americano?” a voice from behind the screen answered.
“English is fine, my son.”
“Father forgive me, for I have sinned.” Ben began, “I’ve never confessed before, I’m not Catholic you see, but I’m a fellow man of God. I was... I am a Preacher, Padre. I too had a flock, a church.”
Ben licked his lip, “You ever been to Massachusetts?”
The Priest shifted a little, “No my son, I have not.”
“It’s beautiful country Padre; green hills, cool springs, white winters, beautiful autumns. If anyone was to put that in danger, well, I know how I’d feel. That’s why I came over here. I think. The thought of some vile creature taking that from me, knowing that you folks were suffering that fate. I couldn’t abide by that.”
“I appreciate the gesture, my son. As I’m sure my people do. You are liberators? Heroes? Yet I sense conflict?”
Ben tapped his helmet as it sat next to him, he rubbed a finger over the crucifix and pondered before he spoke;
“Padre, I feel as though I’ve strayed from his path, I’ve taken lives. I've taken so many lives that I’ve lost count. The first of God’s Commandments, I’ve killed.”
“You have taken the lives of wicked men, evil men, no?”
“Judge not, lest ye be judged.”
“No my son. Sometimes the shepherd must slay the wolf to protect the sheep.”
“I have slain wolves, Padre. Here. Just three days ago.”
“Tell me.” The Priest clucked his tongue, “Tell me of these wolves.”
“We entered Troina on the fourth.” Ben began, “The damn Panzergrenadier and Aosta divisions were still lurking and had garrisoned a local hotel. About 25-30 troops left there who hadn’t caught wind of the retreat. We’d cut communication from Monte Basilio, and it was my squad that was clearing the neighbourhood. We went in quiet, stormed the inn. It was all over pretty quickly.”
Ben fished in his pocket and produced his tobacco pouch, he began rolling and continued to speak;
“I shot seven men that night, Some were Italian, some German. It was over in 20 minutes or so. We swept every room.”
Ben struck a match and lit his cigarette.
“It was in the basement we found them.”
“What did you find?” The priest leaned closer to the screen, Ben could see him in the shadows.
“It was horrible, Padre.” Ben continued, “I was furious. I was delirious with anger.”
Ben closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, sweet smoke filled his lungs.
“We’d captured a few stragglers, a German officer among them.” He continued, “I cornered the officer, he’d surrendered as soon as we kicked his door in. I guess he thought he was of some value. More than his men. Thought he was better. What I saw, the wickedness this bastard perpetrated, without a hint of grief or remorse. I questioned him.”
“Questioned?” The priest seemed uneasy.
“I hit him, Padre. I hit him twice, three times, I’m sure I felt ribs crack. It felt… It felt good, Padre. Every time my fists connected, I felt a wave of satisfaction.”
“But did you feel joy, my son? Did you take pleasure in the violence?”
Ben thought a moment. The thunder rolled.
“No. But as a man of God, this isn’t the way. I’m a man of peace. I fear that every step I walk in this bloody war, I stray further from his path. Or, what scares me more, is that I’m an instrument, and it’s his will that drives me. That all this hate, all this bloodshed is exactly what he wants, and I think I like that idea even less.”
“You’re a preacher, you say? Do you remember the book of the Ephesians, 6:10 to 13?”
“Yes, Padre.” Ben answered without hesitation, “Finally, let the mighty strength of the Lord make you strong. Put on all the armour that God gives, so you can defend yourself against the devil’s tricks. We are not fighting against humans. We are fighting against forces and authorities and against rulers of darkness and powers in the spiritual world. So put on all the armour that God gives. Then when that evil day comes, you will be able to defend yourself. And when the battle is over, you will still be standing firm.”
“It sounds less poetic in English.” The Priest smiled, “You’re fighting a righteous cause, against evil and wicked men. While these are indeed evil days, you fight in the name of the righteous. Keep your faith American, and you will stand firm. Put on all the armour that God gives.”
Ben grabbed his helmet and put it on. He reached for his Thompson. A flash of light illuminated the church, another jolt of thunder. The priest stirred.
“This weather, American, this isn’t much of a summer. I wish you could have seen our home in a better light. It truly is a beautiful thing.”
Ben rolled his tongue across his lips, licking moisture, and stood from the wooden bench.
“So do I, Padre. So do I.”
“One last question, my son,” The Priest asked, “What did you find at the Inn?”
“Girls, Padre. A dozen or so. Young girls sold off by a selfish town to a jack booting shitheel. The Alpha Wolf confided in me before I slid my knife between his ribs.”
Ben saw the flash of lightning again, he stepped from the booth. He walked three paces, turned, faced the confessional as the Priest’s curtain was opening. The thunder came, and the Thompson in Ben’s hand echoed its roar. All sound died, and all that was heard were spent brass casings rolling across the parquet floor. Ben spat.
“He told me a shepherd sold his sheep to the wolves to save his own skin.“
Private Scott cranked over the Jeep as Captain Parish emerged from the church. Parish was pulling the magazine from his submachine gun as he puffed on his cigarette. Gears shrieked as the Private dug for first.
“Pretty quick, Sir. Do you think he was listening?” Private Scott asked.
Ben looked at the church a moment, his frown said it all, “No son, there’s no God here, only men.”