“Corporal Bowren!” Reisman called.
Bowren came up to him and saluted smartly. “Yes, sir!”
“How are you on close-order drill?”
“Pretty good, sir.”
“Then take over and run them through their paces.”
There was trouble from the first “Right face, forward march!” The rear ranks moved off okay, but one man in the front row stood his ground, upsetting the flow of the line.
“Platoon halt!” Bowren commanded, and he looked quizzically at Reisman.
“Fall them in and try again, Corporal.”
The same thing happened, and this time there was a scuffle. Bowren rushed in and separated the men.
“Son-of-a-bitch won’t move,” said Sawyer.
Reisman singled out the wiry, olive-skinned prisoner who stood his ground, glaring at them.
“Something the matter with you, Number Seven?” asked Reisman.
“Sure there is,” said Franko arrogantly.
“Sure there is, what?”
“Sure there is.”
“Sure there is, sir?” Reisman snapped.
“I don’t have to sir you or anybody else. Captain. And I don’t have to march if I don’t want to. Those are the rules, and you know it.”
“Why don’t you have to march, Number Seven?”
The rest of the platoon stood around staring and nervous, dumbfounded by the exchange. The beginning of a smug smile played on Sergeant Morgan’s lips. Corporal Bowren wanted to slam his fist into Franko’s yellow teeth. He had known the man was a troublemaker from way back, but it looked like the Captain was inviting trouble.
“Condemned men don’t have to drill,” Franko said.
Others in the front rank heard him and wondered. Reisman could see the struggle begin within each man and flow outward unspoken to test the group. A back door of trifling protest had been opened, and if they could believe it was true they still had rights, they would rally to them zealously.
“What did you do? Run over the Colonel’s dog?” Reisman mocked.
Now Franko wanted to say it, to scream of murder, and the rage of his thoughts made his fingers tremble to bury themselves in the Captain’s throat. But to cry out that he had murdered was to make confession and invite the retribution they had decreed, and that he would never do.
“That’s right, Captain,” he said.
“Do you refuse to march?” asked Reisman.
“What’s your name?”
“His name is Franko, Captain,” interjected Corporal Bowren.
“Come over here a minute, Franko. I want to talk to you,” Reisman said, his voice conciliatory.
Franko shrugged his shoulders and ambled out of line in the direction Reisman indicated. Reisman smiled, walked with him and put his arm around Franko’s shoulder. Height and weight, they were the same size. Reisman leaned close to Franko’s ear.
“Look, you wop bastard. You don’t march, I’m gonna beat the shit out of you,” he whispered matter-of-factly. Then he dropped his arm, turned on his heel and walked back toward the platoon.
He knew Franko was coming. He felt it as a rush of air behind them, and he dropped on one knee, tucked his head and reached up. Franko bounced on the hard-packed sod, his head next to Reisman’s knee, gasping for air. Bringing his hand across, as though to help the man up, Reisman chopped him viciously at the side of the jaw. Franko lay there unconscious, Corporal Bowren now leaning over him. The other guards had moved in on the platoon.
“What did the Corporal see?” asked Reisman.
“I saw the Captain attacked by this prisoner and forced to defend himself,” answered Bowren.
“Thank you, Corporal,” said Reisman. He called to Morgan. “Cart this man back to his cell, Sergeant. Take one of the guards.”
But if he had hoped for acquiescence on the part of the others, he was mistaken. There were mutterings in the ranks.
“Any of you others have anything to say, out with it,” said Reisman. “I’ll listen to you.”
“If what he say is true, ahm not gonna march either,” Maggot ventured tentatively. “Wha the hell should ah? They say they gonna hang me, anyhow.”
“All right, Johnny Reb,” ordered Reisman. “Step out of line.”
Maggot moved forward cautiously. “You doan try nothing lak that on me, Cap’m,” he said, indicating Franko’s limp form being carried away. “Thas grounds fo caught-moshall. You wind up heah with us, you gonna be in real trub’l.”
Reisman could see the alliance of the damned beginning. In a way it was good, in a way it made him look like a fool. “Any of you other jailhouse lawyers who don’t think they’re supposed to drill, step out of rank,” he challenged.
Odell didn’t really know what he should do, but if it was true about the condemned men not having to march, then why should he? Frank had talked to him, he was a nice guy, maybe he ought to protest too. Sawyer wanted to march. He wanted to put on a crisp new uniform and march and march and march, so he waited. Napoleon White stepped forward. It was no protest, but the less he had to take from any of them, the better he’d like it. Jimenez stepped forward. He’d march to the gallows; that would be enough. Odell stepped forward, feeling a new excitement. Sawyer stepped forward, finally. Samson Posey saw the man next to him move and he moved too.
Six of them stood out now, and the others in the first rank held their ground. He knew their records, but not the men who went with them, yet Reisman was certain they had split in ranks of life and death.
“Corporal Bowren!” Reisman called.