“God damn, son of a bitch!” Corporal Chet Herbert usually watched his language when he was working with a jump class, but with no officers or ladies present, he felt free to express himself as the tiny figure suspended from its silken canopy drifted further away from his pursuing Jeep. Chet hadn’t expected all the trainees to hit the target zone on their first drop, but how the hell had Valenti managed to not only miss the field, but wind up miles away, in the only clump of trees downwind of the base?
On the other hand, it was a beautiful June day, and if he’d been given the choice of helping a bunch of green paratroopers recapture their chutes and stuff them into ditty bags or taking a quiet drive out into the countryside… he’d have chosen to be right where he was.
The chute went into the trees about a mile from the road—but it did not emerge on other other side. Chet downshifted, leaving the paved road for gravel, hoping the little bastard wasn’t caught too far up to get at.
Of all the men to jump today, it would be Valenti. PFC Eddie Valenti, small but tough, snapping black eyes and a ready grin, the only guy in the bunch who had the nerve to read poetry off-duty, a book he claimed his mother had sent with him. “Ma used to teach school,” Valenti said when another would-be paratrooper challenged him. “She says I should read some good books. You tellin’ me I shouldn’t listen to my mother?”
And the crazy thing was – Valenti pulled it off. “This guy Whitman, he was a real man. Listen to this:
‘An Army Corps on the March
With its cloud of skirmishers in advance,
With now the sound of a single shot snapping like a whip,
And now an irregular volley,
The swarming ranks press on and on, the dense brigades press on
Glittering dimly, toiling under the sun—the dust cover’d men
In columns rise and fall to the undulations of the ground
With artillery interspers’d—the wheels rumble, the horses sweat
As the army corps advances.”
Yeah, well… Chet knew that book, parts of it by heart. He knew there was a lot more in there besides military poems and “Oh Captain, My Captain.” There were love poems in there, love poems written from one man to another, and sometimes when Valenti caught Chet’s eye, he smiled as though they shared some kind of secret.
Eddie Valenti was handsome as the devil.
Eddie Valenti was dangerous.
But, Chet reminded himself, training wouldn’t last forever, and before too long, Eddie Valenti would be shipped off to Korea, while Chet, with his slightly crooked spine that would not stand up to a march with full pack, would stay here to help train young men to jump out of airplanes without killing themselves in the process. He would be lonely, but he was used to that. It was better than worrying about a court-martial.
His foot hit the clutch and he was braking almost before he recognized the flash of white that had to be the missing parachute.
A few minutes of plowing through underbrush brought Chet to the base of a bur oak tree, its massive branches reaching almost to the ground. He could see the fabric of the chute wrapped around a branch some twenty-odd feet up, but nothing else. “Hey, Valenti, you up there?”
“Herbie, that you?”
Chet hated being called Herbie. “You okay?”
“Yeah, but I’m stuck. Can you come up and give me a hand?”
“Yeah, hold on.” For a man who’d spent most of his boyhood climbing trees on the family farm, this old patriarch wasn’t even a challenge. The limbs were perfectly spaced for a climb, his boots dug into the rugged bark, and it was cool and pleasant up here in the breezy shade.
He spotted Valenti and had to laugh. Somehow or other, he was lying atop a limb nearly as wide as his own body, head-downward. His chute was caught on a dead branch just below him. “How the hell did you do that?”
“You got me, buddy. The tree snagged it and I got flipped up here –the damn harness is so tight I can’t get my hand into my pocket for my knife, and I think the quick-release is jammed.”
“Just as well. You’d drop straight down.”
“Yeah, I thought as much. Now you’ve had your laugh, how about you get me outta here?”
Chet made sure his own knife was where he could reach it, and inched out onto the limb. Studying the situation, he realized it wasn’t going to be as easy as he’d thought. “Look, Valenti, you have to roll over so you can hang on while I cut you loose, otherwise you’ll slide right off the limb and probably take us both down.”
“No can do. Can’t get hold of the tree. Can you brace me?”
“Guess I have to.” Chet crawled out farther and found himself staring straight into Valenti’s face, and found himself uncomfortably aware of the other man’s scent—sweat, and maybe a little fear—and had the brief thought that Eddie Valenti looked good enough to eat. “Okay—”
His words were cut off as Valenti grabbed his head and pulled him down into a kiss. Stupid, dangerous… but he couldn’t let go of the tree and he really didn’t want to push Valenti away. After a moment’s hesitation, he thought, the hell with it, and let his lips part, tasting the sharp mix of emotions on the other man’s mouth. Finally, with a shiver, he pulled back. “You crazy bastard.”
Without answering, Chet wrapped his legs around the tree limb and got a grip on Valenti’s shoulders. Even in a mild breeze, the chute was tugging at the jump harness. This could be tricky. “Okay, loverboy, I’m going to shift you to the side. You get hold of that branch and hang on, or we’ll be up here all day.”
“Suits me.” But he cooperated, inching around until he was lying face-down and holding on for dear life.
“Okay, now raise up a little so I can hit the quick-release.”
Valenti laughed. “Thought you’d never ask.”
Sliding his hand under Valenti’s body felt a lot more personal than Chet had intended. But, thank God, he felt the ‘click’ and the release of tension as the swaying of the tree pulled the riser lines away from the harness. It’d still be a pain in the ass to get that chute back, but at least he wouldn’t be hauling back a casualty.
“Now what?” Valenti asked.
“Now I back off, you follow me, and we report in that you need to repeat suspension training. You can’t steer for shit.”
Valenti looked up from his nose-down position, his grin back and as cocky as ever. “The hell I can’t.” He looked Chet up and down from a distance of about a foot. “I think I got exactly where I wanted to be.”