Thank you, Marilyn!
Hogan bent down, slipped an arm about LeBeau's waist and pulled him to his feet. LeBeau groaned loudly and sagged toward the floor again, fighting pain, shaky legs, shock and the terrifying sight of his own blood. He kept his shattered arm close to his stomach. Blood slowly dripped off his sleeve to the floor. He tried putting his weight on his legs and gasped when they buckled. Hogan had been expecting such a possibility. He managed to set his feet, clenching his jaw as bolts of pain reminded him of his own wound. Ignoring the fresh blood he felt coursing from the wound, he looked down at LeBeau.
LeBeau's head bobbed once, weakly acknowledging the warning. Hogan propelled them forward, being careful to keep their legs from tangling. Niklas continued to cower against the wall; eyes squeezed shut. Hogan had no idea if he would be able to get both men to safety. But he was going to try.
He suddenly heard someone running toward them. Stopping, he took aim, ready to shoot the moment whoever it was cleared the corner. Satordi sped into view at a dead run. Hogan huffed out a breath and eased back on the trigger. At least one problem was solved.
He quickly transferred LeBeau into Satordi's care. LeBeau's arm got jostled and he loosed an agonized shout, his eyelids fluttering as he fought to maintain consciousness. Hogan feared it was a losing battle. Staring into Satordi's fierce eyes, he pointed in the direction of the entrance.
"Move! I'll be right behind you!"
Satordi turned to leave, hesitating as his gaze brushed across Hogan's wound. Concern laced his shouted question.
"Can you make it?"
"Don't worry about me!" Hogan spat back. "Get him OUT of here!" He wanted every one of his men clear of the bunker before that critical three-minute mark when Tiger would barricade the entrance. He and Niklas would either make it out, or they would not.
Refusing to waste more time arguing the point, Hogan ran to Niklas. Satordi followed and kept going, half-dragging, half-supporting LeBeau's semi-conscious body. Startled by their passing, Niklas cringed, clamped his arms protectively over his head and pressed his face hard to the wall. Hogan watched Satordi and LeBeau disappear around the corner, then turned to Niklas and touched him on the back. Niklas let out a shrill yelp.
"It's me!" Hogan yelled. "Come on, we're getting out of here!"
Niklas uncurled and lifted badly shaking hands up and out for guidance. Hogan hauled him to his feet, and locked the chilled fingers on his uniform sleeve. With his gun leading the way, he pulled Niklas toward the end of the main corridor, expressing the urgency of their situation to him in one, shouted word.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Carter spotted sunlight streaming into the corridor and from somewhere found the breath to run faster. Leon's thin body bounced and jounced in his arms with every stride.
Tiger and Varden saw them and waved encouragement. Chills swept down Carter's back as alarm flooded their expressions and they aimed their guns in his direction. Tiger slashed her open hand downward. Carter threw himself to the floor, curling onto his side to keep from crushing Leon. He landed hard on his ribs, shoulder and hip and slid several feet across the concrete.
Tiger and Varden fired. The trio of guards that had come up behind Carter and Leon jerked and twisted under the multiple impacts, their fingers convulsing upon the triggers of their guns. Their shots went wild, tattooing the walls and ceiling. Carter curled tighter around Leon, doing his best to protect him from the deadly barrage.
The gunfire abruptly ceased. Carter cautiously raised his head and saw Varden running toward them, Tiger maintaining vigilance on the corridor.
Varden offered him a hand up. He ignored it and peered down at Leon, lying limp and silent against him. Carter could not even see him breathing. Throat tight with fear, he touched Leon's cheek and called to him. There was no response at first, and then Leon slowly lifted his head and looked up at him. Carter let out a tiny whoop of relief and cuddled him close.
"Hurry!" Tiger called from the doorway, beckoning madly.
Carter cupped Leon's cheek, looked squarely into the wide, fright-filled eyes.
"We're almost there. Hold on tight."
Leon solemnly nodded, locked his arms about Carter's neck and pressed close to his chest. Carter wrapped one arm around him, looked up at Varden and locked their hands together.
"Let's go!" Carter cried, surging to his feet with Varden's help. Leon hung on tightly to Carter's neck, trusting the blue-eyed stranger with the soft voice and compassionate face to take him to safety.
Side by side, Carter and Varden raced by Tiger and out the door. Leon opened his eyes when the sun's warmth hit his face. He turned his head, squinted up at the cloudless blue sky and smiled.
Five minutes, six seconds.
"There it is!" Newkirk shouted in relief. Olsen did not bother to answer, just kept going. Hermann hung between them, head lolling, feet stumbling, barely conscious.
Tiger and Varden shifted to either side of the door, giving them a clear path out. Tiger's gaze flew from Hermann to Newkirk as they passed by.
"Have you seen any of the others?"
"No," Newkirk yelled back, his gaze riveted on the truck. To his eyes, it looked every bit as good as gold at the end of a rainbow.
Hermann's head came up as they approached the truck's open doors. His heavy-lidded eyes probed the shadowed cargo area. Carter sat on one of the benches, Leon on his lap. Leon took one look at the big, fierce-looking German staring at him and wailed. Carter quickly cuddled him close.
"It's okay," Carter told him, gently rocking from side to side. "He might look all big and mean, but he's a friend, just like me."
Leon peeked up at him, revealing a doubtful expression.
"Up we go, Hermann," Newkirk cajoled, gently prodding him to get in. Hermann's dazed, hazel eyes cut sideways to Olsen, moved past him to Jeoffroi.
"What's he looking for?" Olsen muttered, watching Hermann closely for signs he was about to pass out.
"Not 'what'," Newkirk sighed, looking back at the bunker. "'Who'."
Hermann suddenly jerked and twisted. Startled, they lost their grips on his arms. He backed away from the truck, did a wobbly about-face, and managed a step toward the bunker.
"No, you don't!" Olsen yelped. He leapt forward, snagged Hermann's arm again while Newkirk got the other. They steered him back to the truck, easily countering his attempts to escape again. He dropped heavily to his knees, only their grips keeping him upright. Newkirk crouched and rested a hand on his shoulder.
"Come on, mate. You know he'd want you safe."
Five minutes, five seconds.
Klaus double-checked the second bomb to be certain it was seated securely, darted a glance at his watch and felt the bottom drop out of his stomach. Staying calm, forcing himself to focus, he did some quick calculations, then set the clock and triggered the bomb.
The clock started its countdown.
Klaus bolted for the door.
Four minutes, fifty seconds.
"Jeoffroi," Olsen called, helping Newkirk lift Hermann to his feet. Hermann was trying to help as well, but his body was shutting down, his limbs unable to obey. "Get one of the blankets and spread it between the benches!"
The Frenchman scrambled into the truck and tugged a metal case from under the bench Carter and Leon were occupying. Within moments, Hermann was lying on the clean blanket, Olsen's folded jacket pillowing his head. Knowing the wounded man would be going into shock, Carter quickly shed his jacket and tossed it across the truck to Newkirk. He tucked it and his own around Hermann, covering him from shoulder to knees. Thumb stuck in his mouth, Leon watched every move, trembling from the close quarters and the growing number of strangers.
Leaving Newkirk with Hermann, Olsen went to the back of the truck and looked out at the bunker's entrance. Jeoffroi peered up at him from ground level, gauging his intent. He took a step closer, just in case. Tiger's orders before the mission had been adamant. No one went back in.
"Don't try it," Carter softly warned Olsen, knowing his impetuous nature.
Olsen bit his lower lip, clearly deciding whether to heed the warning. Newkirk stood, poised to intervene should he make the wrong choice.
"Don't tempt fate twice in one day, mate."
After a moment's pause, Olsen slowly turned, edged around Hermann's body and took a seat beside Carter. Leon cringed away, whimpering around his thumb. Carter shushed him and gently stroked the lank, oily hair. He caught Newkirk watching and offered his friend a thin smile, happy to see him safe and sound. Newkirk responded with a wan smile, which quickly disappeared when he glanced out the open doors.
Jeoffroi checked the time and raised a hand, catching Tiger's attention. She nodded. He trotted to the cab and started the truck. It rumbled to life with a cloud of exhaust. He hopped out of the cab, leaving the door open, and returned to the back of the truck.
"Klaus," Hermann suddenly whispered, struggling to lift his head. He weakly reached out, sending the coat draped over his upper body sliding to one side. Olsen leaned down and gently covered him again. Newkirk captured Hermann's hand between his own, saying the words he needed to hear.
"He's coming, mate. He's coming."
Four minutes, fifty seconds.
"Where are they?" Kurt wondered aloud, clenching and unclenching his hands. He paced, turned and stared up the road toward the bunker. "They should have been here by now."
O'Malley silently agreed. He shifted his gaze from the empty road to his watch and swallowed hard.
"We must have faith," Zoellner said, utterly calm. It was the first he had spoken since returning from dropping Tiger and her men off near the bunker. His truck waited close by at the side of the road, motor running, doors flung wide open.
"Faith," Kurt whispered to himself, thinking back to a conversation with Hogan. Faith, his friend had once claimed, had not kept his beloved brother Jim alive when his ship had been torpedoed and gone down. For a time, Hogan had rejected his faith, and only recently had found it again.
"Faith," Kurt whispered again. Closing his eyes, he let his chin drop to his chest and prayed hard for the oldest Hogan son and the rest of his extended family.
Four minutes, fifty seconds.
"I can run no further," Niklas gasped, releasing Hogan's sleeve and falling to the floor. Hogan slid to a stop, and shoved his gun into its holster. Fisting both hands in Niklas' shirt, he yanked him up again. Niklas gasped, his hands coming up to wrap around Hogan's wrists. Hogan easily broke the hold.
Not wasting breath on a warning, he pulled Niklas onto his good shoulder. A tremor raced the length of his body, a warning he was pushing it to its limits. He mentally shrugged. No choice. Do or die.
Niklas squirmed, feet kicking, hands flailing for something to hold onto. Hogan staggered sideways, his wounded shoulder colliding with the wall. Cursing and seeing stars, he used his hip to straighten away from it, leaving a large smear of blood behind.
Sobbing, Niklas went limp. His quavering voice somehow reached Hogan over the wails of the alarm.
"I am frightened!"
Empathy momentarily stole Hogan's voice as he put himself in Niklas' place. The sudden image of a ticking clock kicked him right back out of it.
"All you have to do is hang on!"
Niklas' body bounced slightly from what Hogan guessed was a nod. Taking a deep breath and focusing his sights ahead again, he took off as fast as his weakening legs would carry him.
Four minutes, forty-nine seconds.
Olsen shot to his feet as Batiste and Kinch stumbled out the door. Kinch was leaning heavily upon the Frenchman, a large bloodstain upon his jacket. Jeoffroi ran to help, but Kinch pushed him away, his head turning to look behind them. Benson walked out fast, an elderly woman clasped in his arms. She blinked and squinted in the bright daylight, lifted a withered hand to shield her tearing eyes. Olsen's gaze returned to the doorway when Satordi appeared, LeBeau slung over one shoulder. Blood dripped from the fingertips of dangling arm.
"Oh, no," Olsen breathed in anguish and jumped out of the truck.
Four minutes, forty-eight seconds.
Klaus skidded and nearly went down, feeling something pull deep inside his right thigh. Regaining his balance, he pushed on, limping but still covering ground.
Four minutes, forty-five seconds.
"Please don't let him be dead," Carter whispered, watching Olsen help Satordi with LeBeau. Kinch tugged away from Batiste, nearly toppling over from the effort. Newkirk bit out a curse, leapt from the truck and ran to them. Kinch saw him coming.
"Get me over there!" he demanded of Newkirk, indicating LeBeau, Olsen and Satordi. Olsen had stripped out of his shirt and was rolling it into a long bundle. Tiger flew out of the bunker like a petite tornado, her brown eyes fastened upon Kinch.
"In the truck! That is an order!"
Newkirk and Batiste pulled Kinch toward the truck. He twisted between them, struggling to keep his eyes on LeBeau. Olsen had wrapped the wounded arm with his shirt and was tying it off. Kinch found strength to dig in his heels, slowing Newkirk and Batiste.
"Is he alive?"
Olsen nodded. Kinch sagged in relief and gave Newkirk and Batiste no more trouble.
Carter doled out blankets from the metal chest as the wounded were brought into the truck. Beside him, Freda sat upon Benson's lap, bundled in one of the blankets, his arms about her for additional warmth. She curled trustingly against his chest, her head on his shoulder, only her wizened face and matted hair showing above the blanket's folds. Feeling braver with a familiar face nearby, Leon's whimpers faded, and his eyes latched onto Freda's. He plucked his thumb from his mouth, wiggled his fingers in a wave. Her eyes crinkled, a smile revealing several missing teeth.
Four minutes, two seconds.
Tiger suddenly slapped a palm to her forehead. Whirling to Varden, she gripped him by the arm and yelled for Jeoffroi.
"The guards! Get them inside!"
She pointed into the underbrush, where Olsen and Benson had bound and dumped the Germans. Varden and Jeoffroi ran to follow the order. The guards soon lay in a heap against the wall, just inside the door.
Tiger glanced at her watch, briefly put a hand over her mouth. Feeling an icy chill forming around her heart, she gathered her resolve and signaled Jeoffroi. He ran back to the truck's cab and jumped into the driver's seat, clutching the steering wheel with white-knuckled hands. Batiste and Satordi waited at the rear bumper, their eyes flicking back and forth from the entrance to their watches.
Inside the crowded cargo area, Newkirk and Olsen sat on the floor with their backs to the cab, LeBeau's unconscious body propped between them. Kinch and Hermann lay side by side under a heap of blankets. Only Kinch remained conscious, his wound bound by a pressure bandage of torn blanket strips.
Carter stared out the doors, haggard with worry for the three people still inside. "Where are they?" he wondered aloud, voice cracking.
Three minutes, thirteen seconds.
Hogan swerved and dodged the bodies and blood of three slain guards, demanding even more from his burning legs and lungs. Through the spots dancing across his vision, he saw the entrance directly ahead and felt a welcome surge of adrenaline.
They had made it.
He crossed the threshold, staggered, and crashed to his knees. Tiger was at his side in a moment, her hand coming to rest just above his wound. He heard her call out to Batiste and moments later, felt Niklas' weight leave him. He sagged forward and braced his hands on his thighs, gulping clean, fresh air. Tiger's fingers brushed across his cheek, and then she, too, was gone.
Hogan pushed to his feet and fighting wobbly legs, aimed himself at the truck.
Tiger looked inside the bunker. All she saw were dead or unconscious guards. All she heard was the wail of the alarm. She checked her watch, confirmed the time.
Shoving down regret and the first pangs of grief, she turned to Varden.
Varden grasped the door and slammed it home in its frame. Snatching up the length of pipe they had brought with them, he rammed one end under the handle and wedged the other into the hard-packed earth, then grasped the handle and yanked with all his strength. It did not move.
No one would get out now.
Hogan swept his gaze over the crowd in the truck, counting. He wheeled way from the truck, finding Tiger, Varden, Batiste and Satordi blocking his path, sympathy etched on their faces.
He shot a look over their shoulders at the barricaded entrance, turned, and climbed into the truck. Tiger and Varden closed and latched the doors, then raced to the cab and jumped in. Batiste and Satordi hopped onto the running boards and locked their hands into improvised handholds. Jeoffroi threw the truck into gear and pushed the pedal toward the floor. The truck lurched forward, rapidly gaining speed, leaving the bunker behind.
One minute, 49 seconds.
Hearing the truck coming, Moreau and Durand ran from their hiding places and down to the road. Jeoffroi slowed the truck to a crawl, and Tiger leaned out the open window, beckoning to them. Moreau and Durand ran alongside the truck, leaped onto the running boards and grabbed for handholds.
The truck rolled on, picking up speed again, adding distance between them and the coming explosion.
O'Malley stared at his watch as if he could lengthen the time to detonation by sheer force of will. The sound of a heavy engine and Kurt's triumphant cry jerked his gaze back to the road. The black panel truck roared into view, a cloud of dust spewing from under its tires. O'Malley's smile quickly died. They would soon know if everyone had made it back.
Zoellner clapped a beefy hand on Kurt's back, almost pitching the slighter man to the ground. With a chuckled apology, Zoellner steadied him, sharing a smile.
The black panel truck skidded to a stop beside Zoellner's, throwing plumes of dirt and gravel. Kurt and O'Malley ran to the back doors and flung them open. Their smiles of greeting fell away when the unmistakable smell of blood drifted to their practiced noses. They stared at the people crowded inside, assessing their conditions.
Kurt's anxious gaze drifted to Hogan's expressionless face and stopped.
"Where is Klaus?"
The bombs detonated, the powerful, combined force of Carter's explosives sounding as a deep 'crump' within the hill that held the bunker. The ground shuddered and rolled, sending birds and other wildlife scattering in panic.
The hill above the bunker appeared to heave upward. In the next instant, it caved in on itself with a thick cloud of dust and a rolling sound like thunder.
Slowly, the dust started drifting back to earth, coating everything in a fine layer of grit. The air gradually cleared, revealing a new crater where the hill had once stood, unblemished. Birds twittered nervously, then took up their songs again. The wildlife slowed their mad rush, then stopped and waited to see if all remained quiet. They eventually resumed feeding, the frightening interruption already forgotten.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
"It was probably a practice firing of one our weapons, my dear. Impressive, wasn't it? But surely nothing to be alarmed about."
Risa barely registered Klink's comments. Her eyes held fast to the horizon, where the faintest hint of an unusual cloud could be seen. It was tan in color, and to her eyes, ominous-looking. The sun still shone down on their picnic spot, but unaccountably, she felt as if the light had suddenly gone out of the day. She hugged herself, shivering.
The weight of Klink's jacket fell upon her shoulders, startling her. Klink crouched beside her, brow furrowed by concern.
"You're very pale, my dear. Did the food not settle well?"
Risa glanced down at the remains of their picnic lunch laid out on the soft, red blanket. Brown bread, cheese, wine and a game hen had all - under the circumstances - been tasty. But the very sight of it now made her nauseous. Clutching herself tighter, she looked back at the distant, fading cloud.
She shivered again. Despite Klink's presence, she suddenly felt very much alone.
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Miles from the bunker, Hogan and Tiger stood side by side, peering through field glasses at the distant skyline. Hogan's left arm was cradled in a sling, a blood-stained bandage wrapped around his upper arm.
The outline of one of the hills appeared distorted, oddly crumpled, as if poked by a giant finger. A faint, tan haze of dust hung low over it, dissipating on the breeze as they watched. After several minutes, they lowered the field glasses and turned toward each other. Hogan glanced at the trucks where their men waited, silent and subdued despite the success of their mission. Klaus was dead. Hermann and LeBeau needed surgery, and their surgeon was glassy-eyed with grief.
Hogan looked down into Tiger's eyes, seeing his own sadness mirrored in their depths. She reached up, lightly rested her hand over his heart.
"Let us go."
Turning their backs to the skyline, they slowly walked away.
A/N: Many questions have been left unanswered, but we felt this the best place to end what had become a very long story. A sequel is planned, "Blood Brothers", which will begin immediately from this point and in due time, address them all.
I'd like to thank Marilyn Penner, my faithful beta-reader and friend, who stuck with me through the entire ride. Without her skill and advice, this story would have been so very much less than what it is now.
Errors of any kind are due to my playing with the chapters after beta-ing!
The following poem provided the inspiration for this story:
Brothers in Arms, by Mark Knopfler
These mist covered mountains
Are a home now for me
But my home is the lowlands
And always will be
Some day you'll return to
Your valleys and your farms
And you'll no longer burn
To be brothers in arms
Through these fields of destruction
Baptism of fire
I've watched all your suffering As the battles raged higher
And though they did hurt me so bad
In the fear and alarm
You did not desert me
My brothers in arms
There's so many different worlds
So many different suns
And we have just one world
But we live in different ones
Now the sun's gone to hell
And the moon's riding high
Let me bid you farewell
Every man has to die
But it's written in the starlight
And every line on your palm
We're fools to make war
On our brothers in arms.