"Sir, can I join the army?” the skinny kid asked the seated officer.
“How old are you?” Lt. Brown asked, rolling an unlit cigar from one side of his mouth to the other. He took notice of the boy’s tattered trousers and pleading eyes.
“’Leven,” Jimmy replied.
“Can you drum?”
“No sir, but I learn quick.”
“Who’s the idiot there,” the lieutenant asked, indicating the boy’s companion.
“Tain’t no idiot. He’s my brother.”
“Then what’s wrong with him?”
“Nothin’. His brain just ain’t growed up, is all.”
“We’ll take you. We can always use drummers. But the army’s got no use for him.”
“Nothin’ doin’ sir.” The kid sucked in his underfed belly and jutted out his puny chest. “Johnny stays. Ever since our folks died, we look out after one ‘nother. He stays.”
The lieutenant’s gaze travelled over the brothers while he pondered the boy’s words.
“He works hard,” Jimmy added with the haste of a dog running from a bath. You won’t regret it, I promise.”
The officer pulled the cigar from his mouth and spat a bull’s eye between Jimmy’s dusty feet. “Okay, kid. You take full responsibility.” He stood and turned like a vane in the wind. “I’ll show you where to get your gear.”
Jimmy worked hard, learning the signals of drumming, while Johnny’s ready smile and willing hands soon made him a camp favorite.
“That George not nice,” Johnny said, squatting by the fire. His brows bled together in concentration.
“Why?” Jimmy asked, eyes fixed on his twirling drumsticks.
“He does this,” Johnny responded, balling a fist and sticking it under his brother’s nose.
“Just pay him no never mind,” Jimmy said, gently lowering Johnny’s fist with his own hand.
“An’ he sez I be ‘tupid. I ain’t ‘tupid,” Johnny continued.
“No, you’re not stupid, Johnny. Who took care of Ma and me when Pa got kilt? You did. You ain’t stupid.” Jimmy gave his brother’s arm a squeeze. “Be patient, Johnny. “He’ll tire of it soon enuf, and leave ya be.”
The brothers sensed rather than heard the nearing foe. Along with the rest of the soldiers, they held their breath and waited for orders.
“Jimmy,” Lt. Brown barked. “You and Johnny stand by as stretcher bearers.”
“Yes sir,” Jimmy replied with a salute. Johnny grinned.
The brothers watched the armies approach and engage with the intense silence of a silent film drama before shots, shouts and confusion rent the air. Smoke hovered over the fray like a thundercloud, pregnant with rain.
“Man down, man down,” a soldier screamed.
The boys dashed forward. Their knees threatened to pummel their faces as they ran hunched over. Enemy bullets wailed overhead. Four tender hands loaded the wounded onto the stretcher before the duo hurried to the rear, bowed over their bloodied burden.
The boys ran back and forth, back and forth, loading and unloading, offering water and empty comfort. Faceless, legless, armless men occupied the stretchers, their comingled blood saturating the litter.
The brothers raced to the latest casualty, bawling like a baby. Both recognized the ashen faced weeper—George the tormentor. Instantly Johnny knelt by his side and took his hand.
“George ok. George ok,” he soothed. He held a canteen against George’s lips, while the fallen soldier tried in vain to see through blood filled eyes. “We take care of George now.”
George grabbed Johnny’s hand. “Don’t leave me,” he begged. At that moment an explosion shattered Jimmy’s world. He stood transfixed as his brother’s lifeless body fell across George’s inert form.
“Can I join yer unit?” Jimmy’s aged face turned up to the fatigued sergeant, leaning on his rifle butt. “Mine got shot up. Been through three battles,” he added. “I know what to do.”
“Sure, kid, the sergeant nodded. “Who’s your buddy?”
“This be my brother, George.”
“Can’t use a cripple, son. He goes back.”
“Nope,” responded Jimmy. pulling his exhausted 12 year old body to its full height. “George watched the blue bellies kill our brother. He’s bummed up now, but got lotsa fight left in him when he’s healed. Don’t go without my brother.”
“As you wish, kid.” The sergeant waved a languid hand. “Let me show you where to store your gear.”
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