Chapter 10

1st of Fourthmoon, Saintclair 12
E27, Elsanto Mountains, Neveland

Naval protocol dictated that officers take their meals in the wardroom. Root, however, wasn't in the Navy and preferred to eat with the rest of the crew. Some of the younger sailors seemed a little on edge having an officer in the mess with them, but people from Berenice thought nothing of it. This was his first meal out of Sickbay. A bowl of borscht wasn't the most appetizing meal he could think of, but it was warm and warmth counted for more than taste out here.
The relative silence in the mess was shattered by the booming voice of Sergeant Hight.
"We-he-hell, if'n it ain't th' LT back frum the deed! Let me look at ye, sah! All in one piece, is ye?"
Root held up his free hand to show off his still intact fingers and said, "Not for lack a' tryin', Sergeant."
"Mind if me 'n me boys heyah take a seat wi' ye, sah?"
Root gestures to the open seats at the table.
"Be my guest."
"By yer leave, sah, by yer leave," Hight said as he squeezed into the seat across from Root.
The rest of his squad quietly filled the other seats. It was Private Schooner, their driver, who was the only one of them to speak up.
"Glad to see you're alright, sir," he said. "Bad luck about Fourth Squad, though."
Sergeant Hight's usual joviality was gone as he asked Root gravely, "It was bad, warn't it? Dem damn Palatinnies."
Root sighed.
"Top Blacky's got me buttoned up for now, Sergeant. I don't want you or your boys gettin' your ass in a sling 'cause a' my loose lips."
Sergeant Hight gave him an understanding nod.
"Ah 'ears ye, sah."
A 20-year man like the Sergeant knew when to stop asking questions. He looked to his squadmates and told them, "No moh questions fer th' LT. 'E'll tell us what 'e kin tell us whin 'e kin tell us, roit?"
"Right, Sarge," the men replied.
Sergeant Hight slapped his belly and said, "Olroit, boys, let's tuck in."
He and his men took up their spoons and dug into their borscht.
"Mmm," Corporal Goluff said appreciatively. "Pretty good. Not as good as Mama's, but pretty good."
There was a fan for everything if you looked hard enough. Usually the squaddies would shoot the shit during chow, but Root had a feeling his presence was putting a damper on that. He was a reminder of all the people who didn't make it back. They had a right to know what they were up against, but until Tofels gave him the clear, he had to keep quiet. So long as no one else was being sent out there, he could play along, but it was just a matter of time before the Blackamoor sent out another team.
Root went back to quietly eating his borscht. He couldn't see what Goluff saw in the stuff, but he didn't have the formative experience with Mrs. Goluff's cooking.
"You son of a bitch!"
Root reflexively leaned out of the way, missing a wild haymaker that would have damn near taken his head off if it had connected. Because it didn't connect, the thrower of the punch was flung headlong by momentum, clipping the table and upsetting the bowls of borscht as he hit the deck.
The thrower of the punch was Cale Russo. With surprising speed for a man his size, Sergeant Hight got him in a full nelson while he was trying to get back on his feet. Cale thrashed about violently in a vain effort to get loose, screaming, "Lemme go! Lemme go, goddammit!"
When Sergeant Hight wouldn't let him go, he turned his attention back to Root.
"You bastard! Why the hell're you here!? Why are you here when Tony's dead!? I'll kill you! I'll fuckin' kill you!"
"Ain't gonna let ye do that, Russo," Sergeant Hight told him. "Now ye bess settle on down afore Ah wallop ye."
Full of venom, Cale seethed, "Lemme go, you goddamned pig, or I'm gonna tear your fuckin' guts out!"
"Now that ain't kindness, is it?"
Sergeant Hight started pushing down on Cale's neck, forcing him down on one knew.
"Owowow! Dammit, stop!"
"Let him go, Sergeant," Root said, getting up from his chair.
"But, sah..."
"Let him go."
Sergeant Hight did so. He managed to put enough hurt on Cale to quiet him down for a moment. With one hand he was rubbing his neck and his shoulder with the other. He looked up at Root, beaten but still full of hate.
"Get up, Cale," Root told him. Normally, he would've offered a hand, but he knew this wasn't the time for it.
Cale got up slowly. He was so angry that his hands were shaking, all keyed up with furious energy that he could barely contain. It wouldn't take much for him to make another go at Root even with Sergeant Hight right there behind him.
"I want you to tell me, Root," he said. "I want you to tell me why my brother's dead and you're not."
Root was brought back to that moment in the snow when Tony was shot, then to him going over to the body thinking there might be a chance to save him, only he was already gone. All of it was coming back to him and Tofels' gag order didn't seem to matter much.
"We were ambushed by a sniper," Root said, "damn good one. Even in wind and snow at 500 meters, he didn't miss. Took out Smitty first, then hit me--grazed me, and then Tony went down. Lungshot. By the time the area was clear, he was gone."
"Did you at least get the bastard?" Cale asked.
"I don't know. I don't think so."
"Then why are you still here?"
"He did his damage and he left. Sicced some sort of big wolf on us to finish the job and when that didn't do the trick, they sent a squad of Alpini. If it wasn't for Azuki--Miss Anju, I'd be out there with the others."
His anger outweighed by his grief, Cale broke down, covering his face to hide his tears. All Root could do was just stand there numbly. There eyes of the other people in the mess were on him and it was tempting to just walk out, but he stayed where he was.
"Alpini..." Sergeant Hight muttered. "Ah'll be buggered."
"Is that bad, Sergeant?" Private Helms asked.
"Summa th' bess the damn Palatinnies got," Sergeant Hight replied. "Snow 'n moontins like this is they's playgroon'. Ye's lucky ye's made it back, LT."
By then, Cale managed to regain some of his composure. The anger was gone or at least it had gotten turned down to a low simmer. He looked all hollowed out. Without saying a word, he sluggishly walked out of the mess like he was in a daze. Sergeant Hight started to follow, but Root held up his hand to stop him.
"Let him go. Just put the word out for people to keep an eye on him."
Once Cale was out the door, Root turned back to the table. Some of the borscht was puddled around the bowls, but most of it was still there. Root sat back down and finished eating. There wasn't much else he could do.