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Alaric's Gold

By John Caligiuri

Alaric's Gold

A fictitious adventure short story

"Sir," Private Baker threw a quick salute as he ran towards Captain McLain. "We ran into some old guy up the trail a bit. He started shouting and waving when he spotted us."

Captain Mark McLain pulled off his helmet, scratched his closely cropped hair and growled, "Well, what the hell do you think you should do about it? You know the orders. Our boys and the Brits are landing in Italy somewhere along the Amalfi coast in a few days. We can't take the chance that he'll tell the krauts there's a platoon of US Army Rangers roaming around Calabria, prepping for the invasion."

The private wilted under the hard glare of the captain's eyes. "But sir, he kept shouting and pointing up into the hills. I don't speak the lingo, but I made out the word Germans. He said it a lot."

"Germans," McLain's eyes narrowed. "Where's this guy now?"

"Kelly's keeping an eye on him." Private Jim Baker grinned. "Sir, he's really a nice old codger. He was carrying a basket of pastries and traded them with us for some cigarettes. I think he called the turnovers, Nipotitte."

This whole country's nuts. The captain shook his head as he gazed up at the azure sky and sun-baked hills. "Sergeant Ocuto, get over here."

A wiry soldier trotted up with a Thompson submachine gun slung over his shoulder.

"Sarge, you're a dago, right?" The captain noticed the sergeant's mouth tighten. "I mean Italian."

"Yes sir, In fact I was born not far from here." Ocuto scowled at the private who was grinning. "But my family moved to the US when I was six."

"Good enough. Go with Private Baker and find out what gives with the old man they caught."

"Sir, I haven't spoken Italian since I was a kid." Ocuto shook his head. "Besides, what I remember isn't even real Italian. It's a dialect."

"I don't care if it's pig Latin. Go talk to the guy and find out what he's trying to say about the Germans."

"Yes Sir," Ocuto sighed. "Let's go, Baker."

 "Sure thing, Muscles." The private took off, jogging up the hillside.

"And don't call me Muscles," Ocuto growled as he trotted at the private's side.

"Don't let it bother ya," the freckled faced private laughed. "Everyone calls you that. You're the strongest guy in the platoon."

They came around a bend in the narrow mountain trail and Ocuto froze. "Uncle Frank?"

The weathered Italian, the few wisps of gray hair left on his head blowing in the wind, looked up with suspicion. "Tu chi sei?"

"Vanni. Vanni Ocuto."

The old man leapt to his feet, hugged the sergeant and then pinched his cheek. "Ahh, Vanni, you've grown up so much."

"Hey Sarge, I thought your name was John." Baker's eyes squinted in confusion.

"When I came in at Ellis Island, they Americanized my name."  Ocuto's face reddened through his olive skin as he listened to his uncle's rapid flow of words.

Kelly shook his head. "So what's going on? What's all that gibberish about Germans?"

 "It seems we're near a God-forsaken village called Cortale. It's where my family migrated from." John pried himself out of the old man's bear hug. "As you can see, I still have some family here."

Baker smiled, "Any chance we can get some real food?

Ocuto waved his hand for quiet. He found he was able to catch most of the words.

Uncle Frank's reedy voice became louder and more strident.

"So, Sarge, what's he so excited about?" Kelly whispered as he fingered his M-1 and eyed the surrounding rocks.

Uncle Frank crossed his arms and went silent as he appraised the Baker and Kelly. He then tapped his nephew's chest and rasped "Soldi, Un sacco di soldi."

"I know, Uncle Frank, soldi," Ocuto squeezed the bridge of his nose and turned to other GIs. "It seems a lot has happened while we were wandering around these hills. The Italians have surrendered and Mussolini is in hiding."

"That's freaking great news," Baker whooped. "We've taken this country with hardly firing a shot."

"It's not quite that simple." Ocuto shook his head. "The krauts have apparently taken over. They're putting up defenses everywhere." He paused, "And it seems that one of the places they're digging in is on my uncle's farm."

"No defense," Uncle Frank barked, "Soldi."

"Why does the old guy keep saying, soldi." Kelly rubbed his jaw.

"Soldi means money. It's an obsession of my uncle's." Ocuto smirked. "I remember as a little boy, he took me for a walk the day before my family left for America. He sat me on a rock near the brook that runs through his property and pointed to the hillside and said that very word." He wiped his hands on his pants. "He's been talking about ancient treasure on his property since I was a baby. There's nothing there. The whole family thinks he's crazy."

"Why does he think there's buried treasure around here?" Kelly glanced around. "This is some of the poorest country, I've ever seen."

"I'll tell you the story." Ocuto reached into his shirt pocket at pulled out an old silver coin. "How good is your history?"

Baker grimaced.  "I flunked it twice in school."

Kelly rubbed his chin. "That coin looks real old. What is it? French?"

"No, it's far older than that. It's Roman." He glanced at his Uncle, who was watching the discussion with rapt attention. "Uncle Frank gave it to me the day we emigrated." He rolled the coin between his fingers. "In fact, it's the reason we're alive today."

"Say what?" Kelly scratched the back of his neck.

"A few weeks ago, back in Sicily, they were splitting up the battalion. Half was going to England and half was coming here. I was assigned to the colonel's staff that day." He gazed at the coin. "Anyway, they couldn't decide which units to send where so they flipped a coin. None of the officers had any change so they used my souvenir coin. That's why we're here."

"Damn," Baker groaned, "that coin's bad luck. We could've been sitting fat and happy in London right now."

Ocuto shook his head and pocketed the small piece of silver. "No we were the lucky ones. The other battalion was on a ship the Nazis torpedoed. Every man on board was lost at sea."

"Jesus, Sarge," Kelly crossed himself, "don't ever let go of that coin."

Baker nodded. "So tell us about this buried treasure."

"Back in the year 410AD, Rome was sacked by the Goths under a king named Alaric, and -"

"Uh, Sarge, what's a Goth?" Baker frowned.

"It's a kraut, you idiot," Kelly snapped. "Keep going. This sounds good."

"Well, after ransacking Rome for three days, the Goths marched south looking for more treasure."

"So Nazis were causing trouble way back then?" Baker furrowed his brow.

Kelly slapped the side of his head. "Lame-brain, there weren't any Nazis back then. They called themselves Goths."

"Goths, Nazis, sounds like the same assholes to me." Baker sneered back.

"Are you guys done?" Ocuto sighed. "Look, when the Goths were leaving Rome with their booty, the Pope, or somebody, put a curse on them. By the time the barbarians marched this far south, half were dead from dysentery and malaria, including Alaric. The ones still alive, believing the curse, buried the treasure somewhere down here in Calabria and went back home to Germany." He eyed the two privates. "That treasure's never been found."

Baker's eyes bulged. "Damn, Sarge, ya think that's the krauts are looking for the buried treasure?"

"That's a fools dream." He glanced as his uncle. "That treasure's been lost for centuries. The Nazis know an invasion's coming now that we control Sicily, and are preparing some surprises for us."

I was born just a couple of miles from here. The sergeant squinted at the sun sinking in the western sky. But I sure don't want to die here. "We'll check out what they're up to, and report back." He glanced at his uncle who was puffing on a cigarette and watching the soldiers' conversation with keen interest.

"It'll take us a couple of hours going around the town," Ocuto grated. "Kelly, go back and tell the Captain that the Germans are up to something and we're going to check it out." He noticed a sly smile creep across his uncle's face. "Uncle Frank, you stay with me. Capish?"

***

Baker peeked around the boulder. "Son-of-a-bitch," he whispered, "What do you think they're up to?"

"Whatever it is, it can't be good." Ocuto scratched his chin and shrugged. "Uncle Frank? He stared into the darkness behind him. "Where the hell did he go?"

"He was here a few minutes ago," Baker stuttered.

"Well, nothing we can do about it now." Ocuto turned his focus on the swale, a hundred feet below their concealed position among a jumble of rocks. The area was well lit by a couple klieg lights powered by a portable generator. "He probably got scared and took off for home as soon as we weren't looking."

"Sarge, there must be a dozen krauts down there," Baker hissed. "I'm scared too."

"Well, you're paid to be scared. Now shut up." Ocuto leaned forward and strained to catch snatches of an animated conversation between two older civilians speaking Italian to a silent German colonel. By the fine cut of their suits and their proper use of the language, they were obviously not local. They were pointing to a brass container the size of a shoe box resting on a table in front of them. The sergeant made out the words: Rome, Goths and looted, but couldn't decipher much else from their excited words. He saw several shirtless German soldiers leaning on picks and shovels in front of a man-sized opening they had obviously dug in the low hill behind them.

"What the hell," Ocuto gasped as the German officer snapped, "Danka, Herr Professors. Your job is done." The German upholstered his Lugar and fired point blank into the heads of the two civilians.

"Sarge, we gotta get outta here." Baker rasped, "That kraut's nuts."

"I think you're right. We've seen enough." Ocuto started easing his way backwards when he heard a crackle in the dry underbrush. He saw Baker leap to his feet and fire off a single round before the private was riddled with bullets. Ocuto saw three muzzles flash and ducked as sparks danced across the boulder that was between him and the Germans. I'm a sitting duck here. He glanced back at the mining site and the shouting Nazi Colonel. The soldiers dropped their digging gear and scrambled for their rifles. Shit. He saw the German infantrymen, backlit by the kliegs, working their way up the hill.

I'll be trapped in a second. The sergeant fired a burst from his Thompson at the three in front of him and dashed for the sanctuary of the empty darkness to his left. Angry reports of weapons fire followed him, and he felt a searing pain in his left arm. He collapsed to the ground, unconscious, when another round glanced off his helmet.

***

"American, wake up."

Ocuto tried to focus on the blur standing before him as he felt a stinging slap across his face. He winced at the jolt of pain. His left arm was wrapped in a crude bandage, soaked red. He glanced around. This can't be good. He was seated on a camp chair that was recently occupied by one of the Italian professors. One of the dead men was still crumpled in a pool of blood a couple feet away. They didn't even bother tying me up. He regarded the guns pointed at him. But I'm sure as hell not going anywhere.

"Sergeant, where is the rest of the American Army?"

Ocuto eyed the tall, stiff German colonel. "Haven't you heard? Italy's surrendered and we're already marching on Rome." He made a wry smile. "I'll accept your surrender now."

"Liar."

A sharp blow to his jaw made Ocuto's head spin, but he forced himself to hold a steady gaze on the Nazi leader.  That son-of-a-bitch is clinging to that fancy brass box like his life depends on it and is looking worried.

"Sure I'm lying. I just stopped here by myself for vacation."

The colonel stared at Ocuto for a long moment and then barked a series of orders in German. The soldiers, who had gathered around to watch the interrogation, dragged the dead professors into the mine entrance they had excavated.

"So American sergeant, would you like to join the esteemed University of Naples archeology professors?" A thin lipped smile crossed the colonel's face. "Now, how many American troops are in the area?"

"I know the Geneva Convention. You have to treat me as a prisoner of war." Beads of sweat dotted Ocuto's forehead as he stared at a Lugar muzzle pointed at his head.

The colonel sneered "I don't see any representatives of the Red Cross -"

The roar of gunfire erupted from the top of the hill. Three German solders twitched and fell, but the rest were soon returning fire. The colonel shouted orders. The klieg lights winked out and an explosion sealed the cave entrance with a cascade of dirt.

Shit. I'm going to get killed by my own guys. Ocuto dove to the ground and pulled the camp table on top of himself. He gritted his teeth as his arm protested the sudden movement. Something's not right. That doesn't sound like American small arms. He cocked his head.

Shots poured into the small valley from all sides.

Ocuto peeked out from under the plank table and found himself looking directly at the German officer's shiny black leather boots. The colonel crouched behind a mound of dirt, directing his men in a calm precise, manner. The German soldiers returned fire but lacked cover. One by one their guns went silent.

Gore splattered the sergeant's face as a bullet tore through the colonel's head. The dead man fell still clutching the small brass box to his chest.

Ocuto slid his hand out from his cover and snatched the Lugar from the dead man's hand.

The remaining Germans saw that their situation was hopeless and tried to surrender. It was not accepted. Single shots were the reply to their pleas for mercy.

From the frying pan to the fire. Ocuto gulped as he heard guttural voices speaking Italian. Who the hell are these guys? He rasped, "Americano, Americano." The table was flipped off of him and he rolled over waving his good hand in the inky darkness. "I'm an American soldier."

"Comrade Dannunzio, this one claims to be an American."

A gas lantern was lit and bobbed towards the sergeant being held by a tall, square jawed man with thick, wavy hair. "So you are American? What are you doing here with these fascist pigs?"

"I'm a scout for the vanguard of the American army and was captured. The liberation of Italy will start any day now." The sergeant saw a half-dozen shadowy forms moving through the dead Germans.

Dannunzio spit on the ground. "Liberation? American capitalists are as bad as the fascists. Our goal is to set up a People's Republic."

"Comrade Dannunzio, we lost six men in the battle." A shaky voice in the darkness called out.

"They are martyrs for the cause." He pointed a captured German Mauzer at Ocuto. His eyes gleamed with madness in the lantern's light. "The Communist revolution starts today."

The sound of a struggle arose from the ridge. It ended suddenly.

"Comrade?" Dannunzio called out with concern.

"No, not your comrade, it is Francisco Bruno." The declaration was followed by the sound of small stones rolling down the hill. A small, thin man with gray wispy hair entered the light at the base of the hill. His presence brought gasps of fear from the men standing there.

"You will let him go." Francisco snapped in a hard flat voice as he stepped into the light. He held an old revolver in his hand. "He's my nephew, Vanni."

"Fracisco Bruno, what are you doing here?" Dannunzio snarled as he swung his Mauzer towards the newcomer. "I thought you and your Mafioso lackeys were all in hiding."

"Uncle Frank, thank God you're here." Ocuto gasped. "Uh, Mafia?"

"I run a Grappa distillery that I keep away from the Government regulators." Bruno smiled and shrugged. "It is a very profitable export business."

"Who are you to demand anything of me?" Dannunzio shrieked. "You leeches on the people's society will be the first to be eliminated in the new world order."

"He is mia famiglia," Bruno's jaw tightened, "and I brought a few of my business associates to support me."

The sound of rifle bolts slamming shells into chambers echoed down from the hill in the darkness.

"Comrades, we fight for the glory of the people's revolution." Dannunzio fired two rounds into Bruno's chest before the firing pin clicked on an empty chamber.

"Uncle Frank," Ocuto cried as he pulled the Lugar he had stuffed in his belt and shot Dannuzio. He dove to the ground as bullets rained down from the hillside.

It was a one-sided fight and over in a minute.

When the shooting stopped, Ocuto crawled over to his uncle's side and was surprised to see that breath still rattled in the old man's chest. He flinched as he sensed several men gather round him.

Bruno's eyes cracked open and he wheezed. "Giuseppe Gentile, are you here?"

"Si, Don Bruno." A swarthy, scar-faced man pushed past the gathered men and crouched next to Francisco.

"Giuseppe, the export business is now yours." Bruno coughed and blood trickled from his mouth. "Nephew Vanni, I have no other family left. The farm," He paused and winked through his pain, "is yours." He swung his eyes to Gentile. "Giuseppe, you will ensure that the deed is transferred to my nephew without any problems."

"Si, Don Bruno, I swear by the Holy Mother."

"Grazie," Uncle Frank wheezed as his head lolled back. His breathing had stopped.

"He was a good man. Always true to his word." Gentile pursed his lips and glanced around. "I don't know why he insisted on hanging onto this useless piece of land. Nothing grows here except for a few twisted olive trees."

"Signore Gentile, soldiers are coming. They look like Americans," a voice called from the ridge above them.

  Gentile extended his hand to Ocuto. "Well, Signore, it looks like it's time for us to leave." He glanced around at the carnage. "Don't want to be shot by mistake. I will go into Cortale and see that Don Bruno's last wishes are adhered to. "Caio, mio amico."

The sergeant sat in silence as the shadowy figures slipped away. He then staggered to the dead German Colonel and kicked him over. The light of the lantern glistened off of the brass chest. Ocuto righted one of the camp chairs and sat there with the ornate box on his lap. He lifted the lid in curiosity and heard the contents clink. He pulled out a shiny disc and gasped. It was an ancient gold coin with the face of a Roman Emperor stamped on it. He shoved it in an old sack laying on the gound by the overturned table.

Fifteen minutes later, the sergeant heard rustling noise on the ridgeline. "God-damn it, don't shoot. It's me, Sergeant Ocuto. All the krauts are dead. Get a medic down here before I bleed to death."

"Good to hear your voice, Ocuto. Where's Baker?" The sound of loose stones and scrambling feet followed.

"Baker didn't make it." The sergeant felt light-headed as a medic started to pull off the blood soaked bandage.

"Jesus, Sarge, what happened here." Captain McLain stepped into the light and looked around.

"Some partisans came to my rescue after I was captured." Ocuto winced as the medic probed his wound. "They took off when they heard you coming."

McLain bent to examine the dead German officer. "We just got word that our troops hit the beach up on the Amalfi coast. The krauts only had a single regiment here in Calabria." He grunted, "They all fled except for these guys."

"They probably missed the memo." The sergeant mumbled.

"Well we're moving out to sync up with the main force." The Captain stood and wiped his hands on his pant legs. "But it doesn't look like you'll be coming with us. You just picked up your ticket home." He glanced at the canvas bag resting at the sergeant's feet. "What do you got in there?"

"A couple of souvenirs I took off that kraut bastard who wanted to kill me." Ocuto replied in a soft voice.

The Captain chuckled. "Well, it'll give you something to show your grandkids.

***

"Signore Ocuto, congratulations." Giuseppe Gentile slid next to John Ocuto at the hospital nursery window. "Your first born and it's a son. What will you name him?"

"Frank." Ocuto eyed the swarthy, scar-faced man at his side.

"It is a good name. Francisco was a noble man." Gentile sighed. "I'm glad I did not kill you that night. I thought about it, you know."

"I guessed as much." Ocuto smiled. "That is why I had my Lugar pointed at that oversized belly of yours."

"You were thinking ahead, even back then." Gentile's brows shot up. "I am glad we did not kill each other then."

"So what brings you to America?" Ocuto looked sidelong at the man.

"Vacation. This country has so many wonderful sights." Gentile chortled and patted his girth, "and I've done quite well handling the export of your products."

"Shh, someone could overhear us." Ocuto cast a wary eye at the white clad nurses moving through the hallway.

"And what would they hear?" Gentile smiled showing his contentment. "We both run respectable businesses that deal with each other." He leaned close to Ocuto's ear. "By the way your last, not so respectable shipment, brought in one million US dollars." He grunted. "Your share has been deposited in the appropriate Swiss bank account."

"Hard to believe I picked up my uncle's farm just eight years ago." Ocuto wiggled his fingers at the sleeping baby and grinned.

***

 "Grandpa, tell us another story."  Joey piped up.

Ocuto rolled the marshmallow burning at the end of his long stick. "Not tonight. I have a long flight tomorrow, and I don't travel as well as I used to." He handed the rod to the servant standing patiently behind him. "Besides, the campfire's burning low."

 "Dad," Paula scolded, "You're ninety-three years old. These annual trips to Italy are insane. All you do is visit your uncle's mausoleum on that worn out old farm. Then you cruise to Malta on your private yacht and work in your business's trading office for a few days."

"She's right," Terry scowled, "You have this beautiful family compound covering half of Rushford Lake and you only use it ten weeks of the year."

"Yeah, Dad, I could handle the office in Malta for you," Frank chided. "I know that place has made you a fortune trading ancient artifacts, but it pretty much runs itself." He wagged his finger as his father. "Besides, the staff you have working there look like very unsavory characters."

"Oh, I expect you'll be managing them soon enough." He winked at his wife, Angela. "Everything you need to know is written in my will."

Angela sighed and looked back at the three story manor house. "Come on. I think we can get a few hands of pinochle in before we go to bed."

"Grandma's my partner." Tina blurted.

"No, I got Grandma as my partner." Michael bolted to his feet.

"I got Grandpa." Tommy and Frank Junior yelled in unison.

Leah rolled her eyes at Gabrielle. "Yuck, I hate pinochle."

"I don't know why I play. All I get is nines." Ocuto patted his shirt pocket where a small silver coin was nestled, and took his wife's hand. "Okay, but just one game."

 

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