Germany, 1942. An SAS unit is captured by the Germans… Pre-history for the 'Hogan and the General series, in an AU where Germany ultimately won the war.

DISCLAIMER

This story is a figment of my own warped imagination. Unfortunately, there are some historic characters portrayed herein; any and all misrepresentations are my own fault, because I never knew them personally, and are not meant maliciously. If other characters resemble someone you might have created, please understand that it is unintentional, or I would have asked your permission first. I do not own any rights to any one in this story, except for my own original characters… of which there are many. I do not make any money from this… et cetera. You all know the drill as well as I do.

Please understand that I do not personally agree with most of the negative attitudes and none of the prejudices contained herein, and am very grateful that our world is not so dark a place a this one… although something similar could happen if we are not vigilant.

'Sturmhünde', while comprised of nearly all original characters, is necessary to my "Hogan and the General" series, as it includes some prehistory and introduces a bunch of OCs that are encountered in later stories. There are brief encounters with some Canon characters later in this tale.

Appearances aside, it is NOT slash.

Jordre

June 2009.

Chapter 1

June 13th 1942

The woods were dark, silent; the limited light from the waning moon barely seeping through the canopy of trees. With great caution, the patrol followed as their Hauptmann led from one sentry post to the next. None dared make a sound, as tightly wound as their Offizier was now.

These men had been with the Hauptmann a long time; most were the survivors of his battalion of former Waffen-SS Panzers. After three consecutive tours of duty on the Eastern Front, however, they were now barely at company strength, despite replacements. The men didn't complain, though; it wasn't their Hauptmann's fault that he had an enemy, a powerful enemy, much higher up the chain of command. It just meant that his temper was especially bad right then, even though they were now back in uncontested territory for a rest and refit.

The fact that they were in the middle of nowhere, east Poland-style, didn't help any. There was no one around for miles; the area was relatively unpopulated, so there would be little for the troops to do to amuse themselves. Still, not having anyone shooting at them was a blessed relief.

They were between sentry posts when the Hauptmann held up one hand, halting the patrol. He'd thought he'd heard something, a bush rustling oddly, or perhaps a twig softly snapping. He wasn't sure just what he'd heard, but you didn't survive on the Russian Front by ignoring any small hint of danger. The men, well-trained veterans, froze in place immediately. No one even shuffled his feet. They waited, listening, trusting in their Hauptmann. He waited also, wondering if he'd finally snapped under the pressure, doubting his own senses. He began to think that perhaps he'd imagined the sound, but still he waited.

Then he saw it, a black shadow darting across a small gap in the surrounding brush. The man obviously hadn't seen or heard the patrol, for he was still headed in their direction. The young Hauptmann grinned to himself; he'd wondered where he'd find relief, here in supposedly safe territory. Prisoners would not be easy to find, here near the Fatherland. Not like the Eastern Front, where enemies were plentiful. But here, now, like a gift from the God he did not believe in, was one who was clearly an enemy of the Reich, and who was not known to the officials. He would not be protected by the Geneva Convention, either, for he was clearly a Kommando. He would be his keeper for as long as he liked.

Carefully the men positioned themselves, moving as silently as their quarry. They let him pass beyond their line, still keeping their presence hidden. He would be dangerous... With a rush, two of the German soldiers bore their quarry to earth, taking him completely by surprise. He struggled, nearly knifing one of the soldiers, but their Feldwebel grabbed his knife arm, forcing the hand to open and let fall the sharp blade. Only when the muzzles of two rifles pressed into his neck did the black-clad man finally yield, lying back on the leaf-covered ground in momentary defeat. Throughout the struggle, he'd said not a word, nor had his captors.

The Hauptmann watched this, silently approving his men's performance. They had needed no order from him to take their prisoner alive and relatively unharmed; they knew his habits, his needs, as well as he knew himself. His men were loyal, too; they would say nothing to his superiors. Again he felt regret that they were forced to wear mere Wehrmacht feldgräu , but at least they were all still alive and free to fight for the Reich. Too many of their fellow SS units had been split up or imprisoned for atrocities and abuses. His men had been spared that dishonor, simply because he had never let them get out of control.

The patrol had their prisoner restrained now, and up on his feet once more. Several of the soldiers started along the kommando's back-trail, although they would not go very far right then. A true search would wait for the morning and daylight. They just needed to be sure that there would be no nasty surprises during the night. After a short wait, the men returned, and the patrol continued on to their destination: the last sentry post.

They found the sentry alert, but reporting no unusual disturbances. Curious eyes examined the captive commando, but no one spoke of him. He would be adequately dealt with. They knew that, when their Hauptmann tired of him, or when he proved to be difficult or inconvenient, he would be shot, as all the others had been. No muss or fuss; just a quick bullet in his head. And then, in a few weeks, they would have to find him another, when the strain grew too much for him to bear again. But that was the way things were. It was not their Hauptmann's fault.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

He lay back on the forest floor, forcing his muscles to go limp. He had, truly, no choice: There were ten of them, plus their officer, and he had two rifles pressed to his throat. Oh, sure, he could force them to kill him, but that was so... final. Better to wait and see if some chance for escape would come his way, or could be made. He was puzzled, though. Usually the Krauts were rough with their prisoners, or so he'd heard. These used only enough force to subdue him. It was even odder that he hadn't even suspected that they were lying in wait for him. Jim Brewster knew that he was good; that was why he was the squad's forward scout. How these Krauts had snuck up on him, he hadn't the slightest idea.

That was another thing. There wasn't supposed to be any force of troops in this area, according to Intelligence. Just where had these come from? They were obviously veterans; they knew what they were doing... and had also had experience with prisoners, he noted with surprise, for none of these men got in the way of any of their comrades. No one spoke to give orders, but every one of them knew what to do next. He watched in growing concern as their Feldwebel, a fairly senior one, at that, walked over to the waiting officer.

«Herr Hauptmann?» the man asked, specifying nothing.

«Ja, this one will do,» the German captain replied, a very slight smile showing momentarily. «Secure him; we must finish this quickly.»

«Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann,» the sergeant responded, saluting, then turned to face his men and nodded.

To Jim's surprise, one of the soldiers pulled out a roll of bandaging and carefully wrapped both his wrists. This began to make sense when a second man pulled out a small roll of wire and bound the commando's wrists together with it. The bandaging would keep the wire from cutting into Jim's wrists, but he couldn't help wondering why they would bother. His hands secured, Jim was pulled to his feet, the surrounding soldiers watching him carefully the whole time. Any hopes he had were dashed when a loop of the wire was run through his bent elbows and secured behind his back. It didn't matter that he'd not been checked for weapons; with his hands and arms thus immobilized, he could reach and use none of them. The crowning blow came when they turned his balaclava around and rolled it down to cover his eyes. Despite the dim moonlight filtering through the trees, he was plunged into darkness. Several deft spins, and his sense of direction was destroyed. He was helpless in their hands.

They moved through the darkness for what felt like years, but was probably only fifteen minutes. A quiet challenge and equally hushed response from his captors told Jim that they'd reached a picket detail; just how big a group was this, anyway? A softly-spoken report was given, with no activity reported; then the group was on its way once more.

He still had no idea which way they took him, but they were surprisingly careful with him. Several times, low-voiced warnings for tricky footing were given him in heavily accented English, and he was steadied each time he slipped. Still, it was exhausting traveling in this manner, still carrying his heavy pack of gear. The group stopped once to rest; the balaclava was rolled up, and the Oberfeldwebel gave him a drink of water from his own canteen. Fifteen minutes of rest, the Hauptmann studying him thoughtfully, then he was blinded once more and led onward through the early night.

More challenges and responses marked the patrol's return to their main camp. Once they were inside their main perimeter, the makeshift blindfold was removed, allowing Jim to see the extent of the encampment. Supply trucks were parked to one side of a large barn, still in surprisingly good condition. Many large tents, ten- to twenty-man affairs, plus officers' individual tents, were centered on the large farmhouse. Fires still glowed near what must be the cook-tent. Surrounding everything were Panzers, Panther tanks at that, and halftracks.

Jim was stunned. Where had this come from?!! There was at least a large company's worth of men and machines, with all their support and supply equipment and personnel.

A gentle shove started Jim moving again toward one of the largest tents. Behind him he heard someone comment, «I would say that we are a Surprise, eh, Fritz?»

«Ja, mein Hauptmann,» came the laughing reply. «Even the Enemy thinks we have no Business here.»

«They think that wherever they find us.»

«That, too, is true, my Captain.» This engendered more laughter; then, «I will see to the Men, Herr Hauptmann. And to our Prisoner.»

«Very good, Oberfeldwebel; you may carry on.»

Jim, his head swiveling as he tried to estimate the Panzers' strength, saw the young captain pause, then start towards the farmhouse. A door opened, and a medium-sized brown dog came running out, softly barking, to greet its master. It dropped to roll belly-up before the officer, who chuckled and bent to pet the beast, talking softly to it. These Germans, it would seem, were full of surprises and contradictions.

Again a shove, this time not quite so gentle a reminder to keep moving. Jim went, wondering what they meant to do to soften him up for his coming interrogation. They brought him into one of the twenty-man tents, where he found himself the center of attention.

«A Kommando!» one young Gefreiter exclaimed. «Where did you find him?»

«Out between Posts nine and ten,» the Oberfeldwebel answered with easy companionability. «Get out the Gear; Hauptmann Dekker wants him.»

«At least this One doesn't stink like those Russian Peasants did,» the Gefreiter responded, then he paused, for he saw something in the captive's face. «Herr Oberfeldwebel,» he said, slowly and carefully, «I think he speaks, or at least understands, German.»

Both men turned to study closely the subject of their conversation. Jim shifted uneasily under their scrutiny, but kept his silence. They hadn't asked him anything yet, and he wasn't about to volunteer anything.

The Oberfeldwebel broke the silence. «It doesn't matter. Get him stripped and checked for Weapons, wash him, then bring him to Hauptmann Dekker at the House. We should have some Work Trousers that will fit him well enough. Just don't take any Chances with this One.»

«Yes, sir, Herr Oberfeldwebel. Come on, you; I want to get some Sleep tonight, even if you probably won't get any.»

They drew him over to the middle of the tent, forcing him down to the ground. He struggled, briefly, but the time for that to do any good was both long past, and yet to come. Besides, there were too many of them; all he'd do was get himself beat up for nothing. So he lay still and let them pull off his boots and socks, then his trousers. He couldn't help but feel relieved when they left him his shorts.

They removed the wire from around his arms, but pulled his jacket and shirt up over his head as well as they could, since the pack was still in the way. He nearly laughed when he heard the master sergeant cursing them for fools, for not removing the pack first.

Several other soldiers entered the tent at this point. Seeing what was going on, one shook his head and muttered, «Idioten,»then reached down and pulled Jim up onto his knees. "Cross your feet," this Obergefreiter instructed, then waited until he'd been obeyed before cutting the wire from Jim's wrists. One of the men who'd come in with him pulled the pack off and out of the commando's reach; another pulled jacket and shirt off over Jim's head. At no time did the rifles covering him waver from their target. Manacles were locked over the bandages on his wrists; only then was the prisoner allowed to regain his feet.

Jim shivered slightly, although the night was still warm, for it was early summer. This was crazy, he thought as the Germans pushed him out of the tent, a towel thrown over his shoulder. No one seemed to care in the least who he was, or what he'd been doing there. Instead, they brought him to their showers, locked a waiting chain onto his manacle-chains, and told him to strip and wash.

They left him alone, but he could hear them waiting just outside the shower area. He sighed and hung his towel over a nearby hook. There was soap, and the water was almost hot. Not knowing what lay in store for him, or when he would have such an opportunity again, he showered as instructed. It wasn't easy in handcuffs, but the chain between them was unusually long, as if made specifically for this use. He managed.

There were a clean pair of shorts and an undershirt from his pack waiting once he'd gotten as dry as he could with the scratchy towel he'd been given. Not his own uniform trousers, though, he saw, but a pair of German work trousers. He hesitated over putting those on, but one of his guards grinned. "It iz no trick; you vill not a spy be called. Bad enough to be kommando, ja?"

Jim just shook his head and pulled on the offered clothing. They could shoot him whenever they wanted, and no one could stop them. But they just brought him back to that first tent and offered him some bread and cheese, and a cup of ersatz coffee. They seemed to be in no hurry to bring him to their captain.

Finally, a last man entered the tent. «He will be ready for him soon, now,» he announced to the group. Apparently this was what two of the others had been waiting for; they brought their charge across the yard to the farmhouse, entering through the rear door and bringing him straight upstairs, to a bedroom.

There was a set of padded handcuffs waiting there, with the normal short length of chain between the cuffs, and a length of chain at the head of the bed. He nearly panicked then, at the thought of what he might be expected to tolerate at that German captain's hands, but he got a grip on himself. The Germans were really rough on homosexuals, having no tolerance for them. He wasn't sure just what was going on here, but he couldn't believe that all these men would quietly accept... no, make that actively aid any officer who blatantly exhibited those tendencies. He would have to wait and see if he hoped to survive, never mind have a chance for escape.

His escorts had felt him tense when he saw the setup there; he could feel their grip tighten on him as they anticipated a fight. They weren't any rougher, though, when he offered no resistance as they exchanged one set of manacles for the other and chained him to the head of the bed. They took the work trousers from him, leaving him to settle under the covers in just his undershirt and shorts. Then, dimming the lamp, they left him alone to wait for their captain.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Hauptmann Johann Dekker set his completed report aside and stretched, glancing at the mantle clock in the room he'd made his temporary office. Nearly 2300 hours, and time for him to call it a day. He was tired... No, be truthful with yourself, Johann, he admonished himself; he was nearly exhausted past bearing, for the nightmares had started again, precluding sleep. He hated this weakness in himself and hated the only solution that he'd found, but there it was. At least he had found a solution, of sorts. He reached down to pet the dog that leaned devotedly against his legs, looking up at him with liquid brown eyes. She was the latest in a long line of dogs: companions that had helped him retain what little sanity he had left. When under little to no stress, the dog was adequate to keep the nightmares at bay, but now...

This had been his third tour on the Eastern Front, and the worst of the lot. No furloughs save one, either, when his enemy had been on leave himself, and not there to deny him relief. But it had been a long time, and something had to be done. So he had tried... other means, and discovered a worse problem: He talked in his sleep.

He could not just let his night-companions walk away, carrying who-knew-what classified information divulged in his sleep, and he could not bring himself to slaughter relatively innocent women, women who'd not really wanted to sleep with him anyway. That left him even less choice, until he thought of captive enemies. He was no homosexual; all he needed was companionship, a warm body in the darkest hours of the night. Any body would do for that, he'd realized, and if an enemy heard something he shouldn't, or gave him too much trouble---well, that was what bullets were for, after all.

And so he had survived, after a fashion. It was hard, though; if that louse of a general learned of it, he would twist it to its worst interpretation, destroying him once and for all. His men, though, were loyal to him, and would not betray him. They knew the signs, when he needed relief, and had always managed to bring in some captive for him without undue comment. He, in turn, took care of his men, trying always to preserve their lives as much as possible, and obtain what comforts he could for them.

This farm, for example: they should have continued for another twenty miles, but that would have left them in rough, forested hills, without good water. By stopping here, they had defensible fields, adequate wood for their cookfires, and a small fordable river on the far side of the wood-lot. The farm itself had a deep well with sweet water. So he had stopped them here and had notified his superiors. To his surprise, they had concurred, leaving him in place. And just as well, or they would not have captured that enemy commando. Perhaps he would ask about their target, for there were bound to be more than just the one man. Or perhaps not. He would decide tomorrow, after he had seen what his men might catch in the light of day. Now, though, it was time for bed, and the comfort, and sleep, which he hoped to find tonight.

He climbed the stairs, the dog at his heels, walking softly so as not to wake his second-in-command. Oberleutnant Kimmich was fairly new to his command and did not approve of his "habits," as the man referred to his use of prisoners. Sigmund Kimmich did not understand how it was with him, but at least he'd held his tongue so far and had not reported Dekker to their superiors. Just as well, Dekker thought with a grim chuckle; the men would probably frag Kimmich, as the Americans put it, if he did anything against their beloved captain.

Dekker paused at the door to his room, hoping that this man would be quiet. His room was somewhat isolated, a later addition located over a newer, larger kitchen-wing that had been added to the house at some point, but sound could still carry embarrassingly. He didn't want trouble with Kimmich, but he needed at least several full nights of sleep. Gathering himself mentally for a fight, he opened his door and quietly eased inside.

As expected, his men had the Kommando, a sergeant, already inside and waiting for him. He studied the powerful frame: heavy-boned and well muscled, a wrestler rather than a runner, Dekker thought to himself. This man could be very dangerous, even chained as he was. But he lay there relaxed, seemingly not concerned over his situation. Very interesting, Dekker mused as he moved to the other side of the bed to ready himself for sleep.

On nights such as this, he used no orderly, so removing his tall boots was a bit of a struggle, but he was used to this. His 'companions' fought less when there were no witnesses to their shame, so the inconvenience was worth it. Undressing down to his underwear, he slipped beneath the blankets and eased his body toward the stranger. Extending one arm, he ordered the prisoner to come to him. To his surprise, after a brief hesitation, the man complied, shifting to allow Dekker to drape one arm over his chest, while the other slipped beneath the pillow on which his head rested. Dekker pulled him closer, pushing him over more towards his stomach and pinning him in place with his right leg. Then he sighed and let his own body relax. After a few minutes, when he made no attempt to do anything more, he heard the Kommando chuckle softly.

"What, I'm just a big teddy bear?" the man asked, laughter in his voice.

Dekker felt a brief flash of annoyance, but the humor of the situation struck him too. "You vould vish me to do more?" he inquired, more to see what sort of response he'd get than anything else.

"Hell, no!" the Kommando laughed back. "This is bad enough."

"Go to sleep, then, zo I may sleep alzo," Dekker growled back at his companion, although he wasn't really irritated. This man could have been difficult, and he still could be, although Dekker was starting to doubt that. He could feel another quiet chuckle, although the man said nothing more. Shortly thereafter, the German could feel his breathing change slightly, causing him to wonder: The man had gone to sleep, held there in that vulnerable position! Amazing!

Slowly then, Dekker let himself relax, courting sleep himself. It would be a good night, after all.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Jim heard the footsteps hesitate just outside the door, but he forced himself to lie calm and loose. Whatever would happen, he could do little to prevent it. If he fought, he could well end up chained so tightly that he'd stand no chance of escape at all. He watched out the corner of one eye as the door opened and the Hauptmann entered.

The light in the room may have been dim, but it was brighter than the moonlight had been, and he could see that the man looked awful, his face exhausted and drawn, huge circles under his eyes. Didn't he ever sleep? But Jim kept silent, watching as the man sat on a bedside chair and struggled to remove his high boots unassisted. That done, he removed his shirt, brushed his teeth at a basin of water on a stand against the far wall, and blew out the kerosene lamp.

A rustle of cloth told of uniform trousers being shed, then the bed dipped as the German eased his weight onto it and slid beneath the covers. Jim fought his natural reaction to pull away as he felt the other man's body heat coming near.

"Come hier," the German ordered in a soft, almost gentle tone. Jim considered refusing, but only for a moment. This was a bad situation; resistance at this point would only make things worse. He shifted slightly on the bed, allowing his captor to slip one arm beneath his head. He did not fight as he was pulled closer to the other man, but allowed himself to be lightly pinned by one leg. Then nothing.

He hadn't been sure what to expect, but this… he couldn't prevent the chuckle that escaped him. It angered the German, but only briefly, for the man quickly relaxed again. After being reassured that this was all that had been intended, Jim let himself fall into an uneasy sleep.

The room was hot and stuffy, for the windows had been kept shut, no doubt to minimize any possible noise. But it made sleeping hard, and Jim found himself waking every time his companion moved. Apparently the German found the small room too hot also, for he soon kicked the covers off and rolled to the far side of the bed. Jim thought he'd get some sleep then, but the captain moaned and started to thrash about, clearly in the grip of some sort of nightmare. Jim was about to say something, in the hopes of bringing him out of it, when one of the German's flailing hands brushed against his shoulder. Immediately he rolled toward Jim, throwing his right arm around the sergeant's chest and clinging to him the way a drowning man would to a piece of flotsam. Slowly his breathing eased, his muscles relaxed, and Jim understood why he was there. He kept very still, careful not to wake the now-quietly sleeping German, until he, too, drifted off to sleep once more.

He woke again in the early morning, his back warm, but his front side chilled. The captain crowded against him, forced to one side by the brown dog, which now stretched out against its master's back. A German sandwich, Jim thought wryly as he tried to ease cramped leg muscles. He only succeeded in waking his captor, who stretched briefly, then renewed his grip on the Kommando, not speaking.

Jim lay quietly a moment longer, but… "Hey, how about a latrine break?" he asked, his voice pitched low. "It's been a long night." He looked over his shoulder, trying to judge how his companion was receiving that news.

"Hmmm, I suppoze you should be allowed that," the captain replied, his voice still relaxed as he released his grip on the other man. "You vill find a pot unter the side ovf the bed, ivf you feel vith your foot. That should help, ja?" He rolled onto his back, allowing Jim the illusion of privacy to relieve himself. "Und you slept vell?" the German inquired cautiously, glancing over as he felt Jim's weight settle back down onto the bed. He stretched his arm out again; Jim lay back against him, albeit somewhat reluctantly.

"Not too bad, once you quit thrashing. You have those nightmares often, sir?" He watched as the German stiffened, then snorted briefly in disgust.

"Zo, you know about that, now, do you? Vhat else do you t'ink you know?" he demanded in a deceptively casual tone.

Jim wasn't fooled; this was somehow dangerous ground, and he needed to tread very carefully indeed. "Well, I know you have nightmares. I also know that you settled back down again once you regained contact; you'd rolled away, to the far side of the bed. It was pretty warm in here, so…" Jim paused as a mildly disgusted look crossed the lean face of the German.

"It iz varmer here than in Ruzzia. I am not uzed to that yet. Ve are chust back, two dayz ago." The young offizier paused to see what his Kommando would make of that tidbit of information.

Jim just nodded. "That's why Intel didn't know you were here, then. That figures; my luck runs that way," he added with a dry chuckle, then sighed. "You need someone to sleep with to keep the nightmares away. What I can't figure is why you don't sleep with a girl. You're clearly not a homosexual; your men wouldn't tolerate that, and this is clearly an ongoing problem."

The explanation was a softly spoken bombshell. "I do not like to shoot vomen."

"Shoot…" Jim repeated involuntarily, then caught himself, still staring over his shoulder at the German.

"I vill keep you, until you givf me too much trouble, or bekome inconfenient. The longezt, to date, that I haf kept anyvon vas fife dayz. They tend to become difficult, vonce they get bored."

"Right." Jim paused, then tried a different tack. "Look, you don't have to shoot me when you get sick of me. You could just turn me in to the authorities. I swear I won't tell them anything, if that's what you're worried about."

"Be qviet, und lie still. If you lazt efen t'ree dayz I vill be surprized." He pulled Jim up close again and tried to relax, but he knew he had to get up. He had his men to see to, and everything else that went along with his command. He couldn't afford even a minor slip-up. With a regretful sigh, he pushed himself up in the bed and ran a hand across his companion's shoulders. «Zu Namen?»he asked, something he rarely did anymore, for he'd found it better not to know names when he had to dispose of one.

"Brewster, James Allen, Staff Sergeant, SAS, 5870469.

"Vell, Brewzter, Chamez Allen, I mus' start my day. Somevon vill be in für you in a bit, und you vill be fed if you givf them no trouble. Vehrsteh?"

«Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann, ich verstehen,» Jim replied without thinking, his accent better than passable. He caught himself, but it was clear that his slip had been noticed.

"So, you speak Cherman. Fery interezting. I vill haf to see vhat other surprizez you hide." He actually smiled then, a true smile that reached his pale eyes, not cold or cruel. "Behavf yourzelf, Sergeant, und I vill see you later." He rose and opened the bedroom door just wide enough for the dog to slip out, then closed it and pulled clean underwear from his pack. He left then, returning freshly shaven, in a clean, pressed uniform. He gathered up his papers and peaked cap, glanced once in Jim's direction, then turned and left the room without another word.

Jim half sat up, leaning against the head of the bed, his cuffed hands clasped behind his head. He pondered what he'd learned of his captor and what it might mean for him and the others.

That was a problem, for the rest of his squad would be following after him tonight. He hoped that they'd detect the Germans before they ran into them as he had. Obviously a number of units had shifted positions without Allied Intelligence knowing about it. Jim wondered how many other units like his had walked into troops that weren't where they were thought to be. Definitely shoddy work on Intel's part, he thought morosely.

The two guards made no attempt to be silent as they approached the Hauptmann's room. They had had long experience dealing with such and knew that it was best to give their charges time to register their approach. This one especially; he would not be one to take chances with, or to take by surprise.

They found him sitting up, looking relaxed and showing no signs of self-consciousness. And, even better, no bruises. Apparently this one had gotten along well with the Herr Hauptmann; that was clearly supported by the fact that their Offizier had looked rested for a change.

Jim watched them come in and wondered if the rough stuff and questioning would start now. There was no sense looking for trouble, though, so he stayed loose and easy, willing to wait and see.

One of the guards stood well back while the other carefully approached the side of the bed. Showing only reasonable caution, he reached over with key in hand and released Jim's right wrist from the manacles, holding onto the wrist itself until he was actually stepping back from the bed. He turned and retrieved the work trousers from the small table where they'd been left, neatly folded, the night before. These he passed to the captive Kommando and stepped back once more.

Jim eased off the bed, keeping a wary eye on the closer guard. Apparently this was allowed, so he quickly pulled the trousers on and fastened them. He looked at his guards for further instructions, if any. The German, a common Soldat --- No; he was a Panzershütze, no common soldier, that --- grinned at him in approval. «Gut. You will now face the Bed and kneel.»

Well, Jim thought, that made sense. He turned and was starting to go to his knees when he realized that he'd been instructed in German. He shook his head in disgust, but knelt there quietly, crossing his feet at the ankles as he'd been ordered the previous evening.

The Panzershütze, Günter Wenigmann, grinned at his companion. «It would seem that Gefreiter Hinkes was correct, Walther,» he said to the other guard. «He does speak German.»

«That would be useful in his Line of Work, Günter,» the second guard replied offhandedly. «Get him cuffed, will you? He's got to be hungry by now.»

«Jawohl, Herr Obergefreiter,»the first guard laughed, obviously good friends with his senior to take such liberties. But he wasted no more time in securing the prisoner's wrists once more, then helped him to rise to his feet and turned him towards the door.

They hustled him down the stairs, as if hoping to avoid someone, but luck was not with them that morning.

«What is this?» a stern voice called sharply, halting the group in its tracks. A stiff-looking Oberleutnant stalked toward them, and Jim saw unhappy looks pass between his two guards.

"Who is that?" he risked asking softly and was surprised actually to get an answer, hurriedly muttered before the Offizier could get close enough to hear.

"Herr Oberleutnant Kimmich, second-in-command," the Panzershütze told Jim, then fell silent as he and his companion snapped to attention.

«A Prisoner, Herr Oberleutnant,»the Obergefreiter responded, but he offered no further information.

«So, he continues his disgusting Habits,» the lieutenant said, contempt dripping from his tone. It was more than Jim could stand.

"He isn't, you know, sir." Jim looked the older officer straight in the eyes, ready to do verbal battle.

«Was?»the man gasped, taken by surprise at this unexpected defense.

"I said, sir, that he isn't." Jim paused to be certain that he had the other's undivided attention. "The captain is not a homosexual. I don't know quite what-all is going on, but I can tell you from experience what he's not." He intentionally used English, for there was something he didn't like or trust about this German. The man looked at him, shocked so thoroughly speechless that he didn't object when the two Panzersoldaten hustled their charge out the back door of the farmhouse and back toward the previous night's tent.

"You vould do bezt your head und foice down to keep around the Oberleutnant vor der next few dayz," the Obergefreiter advised. He carefully looked over his shoulder, to be certain that they were out of earshot.

"Yeah, well, I didn't like that lieutenant," Brewster answered, his voice hard and relentless. "I don't know what the captain's problem is, but he's no queer. You men know it, and so do I." He realized abruptly that he'd best shut up, and did.

The two Germans exchanged glances, then grinned.

«Hauptmann Dekker is a good Offizier,» the Obergefreiter, Eberbach, observed quietly. «Most in your Position do not appreciate him, unfortunately. They die sooner, rather than later. But they usually last long enough to do him some good, and the Dog works until we can get him another.»

Jim gave a soft laugh. «Yeah, well, I'd much rather be in the 'later' Category. How long has he been like this? If you don't mind me asking.»

«I have been with him since the Beginning, the Blitz into Poland.» Eberbach was solemn now. «He has always had some Trouble, but, since Russia, it is worse. The Dog was not enough in Russia. He tried Women, at first…»

«…But he doesn't like to shoot Women,» Jim finished with a nod. «He said that much this Morning.»

«No. He does not. But we do not discuss this further.» Eberbach threw a worried glance at the Kommando, but their prisoner gave a slight nod of acquiescence. They were nearing the tent now, and there was no knowing how many spies Generaloberst Lasch had here in their midst. He could only hope that the prisoner would hold his tongue.

"Vhat iz your name?" Eberbach asked, suddenly curious, even though he knew it was a bad idea to get to know any of Dekker's 'companions' well.

«His Identity Disks say he is called Brewster,» Oberfeldwebel Seidel called from the tent's entrance. «You had Trouble?»

«No, Herr Oberfeldwebel,» Eberbach answered, then paused. «Or, not with the Prisoner, anyway. His German is very good, did you know? Better, even, than Hauptmann Dekker's Englisch.»

«The trouble was with…?» Seidel cut in impatiently.

«OberleutnantKimmich. The usual, Herr Oberfeldwebel,» Wenigmann answered. «But Unterfeldwebel Brewster spoke up for Hauptmann Dekker against him. I think our Hauptmann likes this One; he looks better this Morning.»

Even Brewster looked surprised at the respect to be heard in the Panzershütze's voice. But Seidel shook his head in warning. «Careful what you say, Wenigmann. Tent Walls are thin, and unfriendly Ears are everywhere.

«Bring the Amerikaner to the Mess Tent, since he is no Trouble. Just be careful with him,» Oberfeldwebel Seidel admonished. «Do not take Chances with him, just because you've decided you like him.»

Wenigmann nodded and started to turn his prisoner, but paused, seeing Brewster shiver with the morning's chill. «One moment; have his Clothes been cleared? He looks cold,» the Panzershütze said to his sergeant.

Seidel looked at their prisoner and nodded. «Go on; I will have someone bring a Shirt for him to you at the Mess Tent. I do not want him unsecured any longer than absolutely necessary.»

«Jawohl, Herr Oberfeldwebel.» Jim's two guards answered in unison, then they led him away toward another large tent.

They fed him a good-size chunk of black bread with some sort of spread, some cheese, and more of the ersatz Kaffe from the previous night. He sat quietly and ate what he was given without complaint, although he'd had better. He'd also had worse, he acknowledged to himself, and they might not even have fed him at all. The mess tent wasn't much warmer than the outside, and he was cold until a regular infantry Soldat arrived with one of his spare shirts. The guards wouldn't unchain him; they only laid the shirt over his shoulders. Again he made no complaint, being grateful for even that much consideration.

He listened to the conversations around him, carefully not reacting to anything he heard. That lasted all of ten minutes, until he caught one of his guards watching him and grinning knowingly. He just grinned back and shrugged, then listened openly. And, truth to tell, there was no information of any importance being spread, unless you counted the number of times these men had been sent to fight on the Eastern Front. Jim couldn't help wondering if that was normal, but he wasn't going to ask about it in public like this.

They let him sit and savor the 'coffee,' and, as those things went, this brew wasn't bad. It was better than some of the acorn stuff they served in England.

Jim went with them when they urged him to his feet. He was still expecting to be knocked around, at the very least, but they kept him off balance with their care of him. He was finally brought to a small machine shed and locked to an old rusted truck body by a long chain with one shackle on his left leg. They gave him two warm blankets, for padding more than any chill, a canteen of water, and an old lidded paint can in the back corner for a urinal, then left him alone.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It had felt late as he had lain in bed, but a check of his watch had actually shown it to be a bit earlier than he usually rose. He felt good, he realized, with a bounce to his step that had been missing for the past three weeks. Usually it took more than one good night to re-energize him, but last night...

Dekker realized that he almost had an affinity for this American-born sergeant that had never been present before. He wondered about that, but kept on down the stairs and headed over to the mess tent.

He didn't have to go there for his meals; his orderly could have brought his food to the house for him, or he could have had someone cook especially for him and perhaps for some of his lieutenants. He'd used to do so, but since the arrival of Kimmich...

The man had been assigned to him to spy on him, he was nearly certain; it was the sort of thing that Generaloberst Lasch would do. He could only assume that Kimmich was still gathering evidence and wasn't ready to report his 'deviant' behavior yet. Eventually, he'd get sent to a death camp for it, if he wasn't outright executed. It wasn't fair, but then, life itself hadn't been fair ever since that long-ago night when he'd been eight---but it did no good to dwell on that; it wouldn't change the fact that he was stuck with the good Oberleutnant.

So he went to the mess tent for his meals. That meant that Kimmich had to do so also, which irritated the man greatly. It pleased the troops, though, and Dekker smiled at that thought. They didn't care for Kimmich, either, and the feeling seemed to be mutual. Kimmich wanted a staff position, preferably in Berlin or Paris. He'd hated this last tour in Russia. A pity the Bolshies hadn't managed to shoot the bas---

Nothing, it seemed, would ruffle his good mood this morning. He was actually smiling as he entered the mess tent and took salutes from two of his junior lieutenants. His smile faded a bit when he was approached by Kimmich's orderly, carrying a small serving tray with two cups and a pot containing coffee; the real thing, by the smell.

«Kaffe, Herr Hauptmann?» the Soldat asked politely. «It is from Oberleutnant Kimmich's personal Goods.»

«And have the Men been given this also?» Dekker demanded, irritated by this gesture. He ate what his men did, did not believe in elitist behavior. His men were all, or nearly all, former Waffen-SS and thus elite by definition. They deserved the good things in life and had been denied them. So he, too, did without, unless there happened to be enough to share with them. They knew this and loved him for it, for they also knew that he did not do this to curry favor with them.

«No, Herr Hauptmann. There's only this Pot, and a second for you.» The orderly looked uncomfortable, for he'd been with Dekker before Kimmich had joined them.

«Not your Fault, Hans. If you are asked, you may say that I took the Pot given me. Go see to him. Dismissed.»

«Danke, Herr Hauptmann,» the orderly responded, glad not to be blamed for his officer's baiting of the captain. He suspected, but would not tell, what the captain would do with that coffee, and he grinned to himself. But he left on his own duties and would not actually see, so he could not be blamed if Kimmich found out.

Dekker's irritation changed to an unusual mischievous glee as he headed for the serving counter. His own orderly, Oskar, had his breakfast dished out for him; the plate sat at his small table at one side of the tent. Dekker went and retrieved the unpoured pot of Real Coffee and carried it to the large urn of ersatz brew the men would be given. He handed it to one of the cooks; without a word, the man accepted the small pot and solemnly added it to the contents of the urn. Word would pass among the men, and all would get their share of this treat, diluted though it was. That was how it was in his battalion: All shared in the spoils, as well as in the dangers.

He sat at his table, accepting a cup of the augmented brew from his orderly with a smile. As he ate, he glanced around, nodding to one of his lieutenants. Not the one he wanted, though, for this morning's work.

Dekker was halfway through his breakfast when the man he wanted came in, Oberfeldwebel Seidel at his side. Dekker smiled warmly as the two men came over to his table and came to attention. They saluted, relaxing when he returned their salutes and told them to sit. It was out of character for him, this informality, and he wondered at himself, but today it just Felt Right.

«Karl, I will need you to get a large Patrol together; we must backtrack that Kommando we took last Night and find how many Others there are,» Dekker told the young Offizier before him, Leutnant Doebrich. «Take only experienced Men---Third Squad, I think might be best.

«I will need you to stay here and watch over my Kommando today, Fritz. Protect him as best you can from Kimmich.» Dekker grimaced slightly, but Oberfeldwebel Seidel nodded in understanding. He would have preferred to go along, but the squad had a good Feldwebel; he could be trusted to look out for Hauptmann Dekker.

«Eat your Breakfast, then get the Men together. We leave in thirty Minutes.»

Doebrich nodded, then rose and saluted. He would waste no time in carrying out his orders; he knew that Hauptmann Dekker wanted to be gone before Kimmich could finish his own breakfast and appear to plague his commanding Offizier.

The men were ready and on their way in twenty minutes. While they were a Panzer battalion, or the remains of one, they had been forced to function as infantry in Russia often enough that many of the men had become quite competent on foot. For the work at hand, it was mandatory, for their Panther tanks could be heard quite some distance away, not good for sneaking up on commandos. The men were all veterans, although several were new to Dekker's command, recently arrived replacements. Even the officers had become accustomed to operating on foot, and Dekker pushed the patrol hard.

The woods were easy to traverse in the light of day, so they quickly arrived at the site of the Kommando's capture. Here Dekker had his best scouts follow the trail back, to look for any spot where Brewster might have lingered and try to puzzle out why. Not far from where the Amerikaner had first been spotted was just such a place; a small patch of paint on a small peeled area of a tree trunk showed where he'd marked his trail. Dekker grinned, but he knew definitely, now, that someone would be following Brewster's trail, right into his waiting lap.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Private Lewis Carson sneered at the retreating back of Corporal Kevin McKeigh. He'd just relieved the corporal on sentry duty, but it was clearly a useless assignment. Yes, they were in German territory, well behind the front lines, but they had seen nothing all night and nothing the day before. Their forward scout had not called back to warn of any trouble ahead. Intelligence said this area was deserted. Carson saw no reason for this duty, except maybe that Lieutenant Markham was an old woman, afraid of his own shadow. Carson had not been with this commando squad very long, being a last-minute replacement for a man who'd pulled a hamstring in training. They had needed a radio operator, though, so he'd been pulled from his nice, safe teaching slot and thrown back out into the field. He deeply resented losing his comforts, so he sat at the base of a tree in the warming afternoon sun, with his mind on anything but his duty.

"'Talk to you, Lieutenant?" McKeigh called quietly as he entered the squad's bivouac area. He was very unhappy, and it showed.

"Sure thing; what's the problem?" Lieutenant Samuel Markham looked up from the rifle he was cleaning. It was a German weapon, a Mauser, the thought being that they could replenish their ammunition from captured stores more easily than they could carry too much of their own. He set the weapon down after seeing the look on his corporal's face.

"It's Carson, Lieutenant," McKeigh said reluctantly. "I'm beginning to think that Jimmy was right; we'd be better off a man short."

"Oh, come on, Kevin," Markham scoffed softly. "Just give him time. You know every new guy takes a while to work in, especially in a group like ours. He'll be fine in a week or so."

"I don't know, sir," McKeigh persisted, going formal to try to show the extent of his unease. "He acts like he don't want to fit, know what I mean? Like everything you ask him to do should be taken as a personal favor, never mind it's stuff we all gotta do. Like standing watch just now. You'd'a thought I'd told him to shovel out a barn, or something."

Markham just shook his head. "He's not Thomas, true. Give him a chance, Kevin. Look, you go get some sleep; I'll check on him myself in a little bit, okay? It's broad daylight; he'll see any Krauts coming 'way before they get near us. Perelli will have the watch at dusk; then we can get moving again. There's probably no one around; that's what Intelligence said. Besides, he's a veteran now; he won't goof off. Not in the middle of Indian-land."

"Yessir. If you say so." Kevin knew when he'd been beat. And, truth to tell, the lieutenant was probably right. He glanced over to where Perelli peacefully slept in the shade of a large beech tree, at Davidson curled up and snoring, at Connolly darning a fresh hole in one sock, and he prayed that the lieutenant was right as he went to settle himself for his own rest. He'd need the sleep tonight, and worrying now wouldn't help them then. Besides, worrying was what lieutenants got the big bucks for.

In the warmth of the early afternoon, the peace and quiet of the breeze soughing through the branches, he drifted off to sleep. So did Lt. Markham, in a small hollow, so that Connolly didn't realize that he was now the only one still awake.

Carson had gone to sleep long before.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Sheltering behind a clump of brush, the German soldier tapped his companion's arm and indicated that he would circle to the left. He would come in from behind his target, who sat against a small tree. The man had his head tilted back, snoring in the afternoon sun. There was no sign of any others in the immediate area; surely this wasn't a sentry! Sleeping on duty?!

The Oberschütze shook his head in disgust. That offense could get you shot in his army; the SS, especially, took a dim view of such dereliction of duty. While he might not be SS any longer, at least officially, that was how he still thought of himself and how he did his duty. He fully intended to see to it that this sleeping sentry would pay with his life. A few minutes more, six yards forward, then a sharp knife across that exposed throat...

He was new to Hauptmann Dekker's command, former SS infantry reassigned as replacement infantry support for the Panzers, who'd also been SS once. Things were different here; there was an unusual tension within the unit, seeming to be most prevalent when the second-in-command was around. The other men clearly did not like him for some reason, although nowhere was it said that you had to like your Offizieren. The others, though, were utterly devoted to their Hauptmann. He was beginning to understand why and to share in that regard for his commander. Dekker was unusual, to say the least, though, and had seemed to be under some great stress lately. Now, today, all seemed fine with his world.

Again Müller shook his head, then put those thoughts aside as he drew closer to his target. He crept up behind the tree, put one hand over the sleeper's mouth, and, with a quick swipe of his blade, put paid to one Amerikanischer Kommando. He grinned at the thought, but the grin quickly faded at the rebuke from his companion.

«What did you kill him for?» Schmidt, the Feldwebel, hissed in irritation. «We can't question a Dead Man. And Hauptmann Dekker may have wanted that One alive also.» Müller was about to respond when Schmidt shook his head, disgusted. «It's done, now. We go on. But try to take any Others alive. I'll explain later, since no one else has, obviously. Just know that it is Very Important. All right?»

Müller nodded, forcing his resentment to melt away. He would wait and hear this explanation; then he would decide. Now, though, there was still the job at hand to claim his concentration. Together they slipped on through the bushes on the gentle slope, silent as the breeze.

Others of their group also moved forward, checking carefully for any Allied soldiers. It was the sound of gentle snoring that tipped them off that they were getting close. There, finally, their quarry was in sight, four men spread across a small clearing. Three were clearly asleep, including the snorer; one was concentrating on some small task at hand...darning a sock? All was peaceful, quiet.

Carefully, the Germans moved in, until there was a team of two men nearly touching each of the sleepers. A team waited nearby to pounce on the final man.

They moved, taking the four men completely by surprise, although the one-striper had looked up, warned too late by some sixth sense that all was not right. There was a scuffle, short and fairly quiet, but it woke a fifth man who'd slept a short way off in a hollow at one side of the clearing. That one froze at the touch of Dekker's Mauser pistol at the back of his head, accompanied by a softly spoken warning to be still.

The area was carefully searched by the rest of the squad while the prisoners were restrained; then, there being no one else in the area, they headed back to the rest of the brigade. The body of the slain sentry was checked for papers, then wrapped in a blanket and carried back on a makeshift stretcher by two of his comrades, their hands and wrists bound to the stretcher-shafts with wire so they could not easily escape.

One of the men carrying the stretcher looked over at the captured Offizier, a leutnant, and scowled. "Still think Carson will work in, sir?" he asked, sarcastically emphasizing the honorific.

Apparently, Dekker thought, they had had words about this dead man earlier, for the lieutenant looked down and darkened slightly. He did not answer the corporal's question, though, and Dekker found that significant.

Those were the only words spoken by any of the captives all the way back to camp. They were pushed hard, allowed little time to rest, for Dekker wanted to be back before dark. He was worried for his Kommando, as he thought of Brewster, worried that Kimmich would shoot him, despite his orders. Worried, because the Kommandobefehl had never been repealed. That these new prisoners suffered was of little concern to him, for they were spares. He had made none of them his, yet. It had been a mistake to learn Brewster's name, but he had done it; now he would suffer if anything happened to the Amerikaner by another's hand.

So he pushed their return, arriving shortly after the evening meal. Oberfeldwebel Seidel had obviously been waiting for their return, for he met the patrol not far inside the inner perimeter. He came to attention and saluted, but his expression, or rather, lack of obvious concern, reassured Dekker that all was well.

Dekker nodded as he returned the salute; message received. «Take these and confine them... oh, in the Barn, I suppose. I will interview them after I've eaten. See that they do not talk among themselves.»

«Zu Befehl, Herr Hauptmann,» Seidel responded, saluting once more, then he took charge of the group and herded the prisoners to their indicated destination.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

They were shoved, stumbling, into what looked to have been a farm at one time. Now there were tanks, tents, and supply trucks everywhere. Kevin McKeigh shook his head in disgust. Intelligence sure blew this one, he thought morosely, and they would be the ones paying the price. He thought he'd heard the word for barn in German, but they'd been just far enough away that he'd not been sure. Now, as they approached the large structure, he knew he'd heard correctly. This had been a large prosperous farm at one time, he thought, if one could go by the size of that barn; it was easily three times the size of others he'd seen on earlier forays into Germany.

The two officers, a captain and a lieutenant, had left the patrol, heading toward a large farmhouse and the main part of the camp. Kevin and the others were left in the charge of a senior sergeant who'd met them shortly after crossing the camp boundaries. The man studied them thoughtfully, which McKeigh found odd and rather unsettling. But they went where they were directed, their only other choice being a fatal bullet. That was too likely to occur no matter what they did, but there was no need to rush matters.

McKeigh couldn't help wondering if Sergeant Brewster had walked into these Krauts also, and, if so, if he had survived the experience---unlike Carson, who had gotten nothing more than he had deserved.

The barn was already full of deep shadows with the fading light of the evening. Thick stone walls held winter's chill still, although the floor seemed dry enough. The place had once been set up for horses: the walls were lined with stalls, both of the loose-box and standing varieties. It was into the latter type that the captives were brought, one to a stall. Quick loops of wire secured their already bound wrists to the tether rings at the head of each stall, then they were searched with a thoroughness that let McKeigh know that these Krauts had long experience with prisoners. Several guards with rifles stood out in the broad aisle running between the two rows of stalls, clearly meaning business.

The sergeant in charge finally stood back, satisfied that his charges were adequately secured. He studied them, then frowned. "You vill talk nicht, oder... or you vill gaggèd be. Versteh't'?" he said, struggling with the English sentence. Still, he was clear enough in his meaning, so they stood and waited on the pleasure of their captors, and the barn grew darker as night fell.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Hauptmann Dekker pushed away from the table with a contented sigh. Yes, he'd missed dinner in the mess, but that meant that Kimmich had already eaten. His second-in-command would be in a decent mood tonight, for, with the CO gone, he'd been able to eat in the style to which he aspired. He'd had his orderly bring his supper into the old farmhouse's dining room, instead of going out to the mess tent himself. Dekker had done likewise, and admitted to himself that he would have liked to do this more often himself, but then he'd be forced to share his table with Kimmich.

«Herr Hauptmann? A Word, Sir?»

Dekker looked up, trying not to scowl. Served him right, thinking of the devil. «Certainly, Oberleutnant,» he managed to get out in a relatively civil tone. «What can I do for you tonight?»

Kimmich looked uncomfortable as he entered the room, closing the door behind himself. «Sir, I believe that I have behaved very poorly towards you,» he began, obviously struggling with his words. «I find that I have… jumped to faulty Conclusions, without trying to find the Truth behind Appearances. I have let myself be influenced by the… Ire… of another.» He was red-faced now, stopping only at Dekker's upraised hand.

«Enough, Oberleutnant Kimmich. It is best not to speak of Ire from that Direction, unless you wish it turned upon yourself also. Yes, I know that you have been assigned to me for a Purpose. That is not your Fault. As to the Other… call it a By-Product of that same Person's Ire. I have lived with that Fact for the Better Part of my Life, though what a Child could have done to draw such… but never mind.

«Your Apology is accepted. I am somewhat curious, though, to know what caused this Change of Mind.»

Kimmich actually grinned. «You have a very fierce and very unlikely Advocate. Not someone you could threaten to your Side, I think. A dangerous Man to have as an Enemy, nor one I would be brave enough to toy with.»

Dekker shrugged while trying to puzzle out who would have been bold enough to stand up to the Oberleutnant for him. Not even Oberfeldwebel Seidel would do such a thing, and he was as loyal a man as an Offizier could wish for. There was only one other possibility, so far outside the realms of likelihood that Dekker nearly dismissed the notion. But what was that saying? When all other possibilities have been ruled out, the unlikely must be the truth? He took the chance. «The Kommando is an intelligent Soldier; he could see when there was no need for, and nothing to be gained from, fighting. So his Night was only mildly embarrassing, not painful, and he suffered no Harm.»

A discreet knock at the closed door provided a welcome interruption for Dekker, who'd had enough of the conversation. «You will have to excuse me, Herr Kimmich; I have Prisoners I must question.» He rose and left the building, pretending not to see the look of surprise on the Oberleutnant's face at his chosen mode of address.

A bright moon was rising in the rapidly darkening sky as he reached the old barn. There were lanterns lit inside now, their yellow cast giving a peaceful glow to the place. But the captives, tethered each in his own stall, did not look very peaceful or comfortable. They looked very worried. Dekker grinned to himself; they should have had more than enough time for thought, standing there helpless under the watchful eyes of their guards. The blanket-shrouded body of their comrade, lying in the aisle, would not have calmed their nerves any.

Seidel approached, coming to attention and saluting smartly.

Dekker returned the salute and nodded pleasantly to one of his oldest friends. «Any Trouble with them, Fritz?» he asked, his voice casual as he scanned the prisoners.

«Nein, Herr Hauptmann; they are as gentle as Lambs.» Oberfeldwebel Seidel replied with a laugh. It was true, though; secured as they were, they could cause no trouble at all.

«Very good. We will start with that one, I think,» Dekker said, indicating one very nervous-looking man. «Bring him down to the farthest Box Stall; I would have a Lantern hung in the Rafters, and something for a Seat.» So saying, the captain turned and strolled casually in the direction of the indicating stall, while men scurried to arrange things as he'd indicated.

His seat was three boxes, stacked against the wall and draped with a blanket to form a backed chair of sorts. Dekker settled himself as comfortably as possible, then nodded to the sentry at the stall door. The Kommando was hustled in and forced to his knees, a loop of wire around his neck ensuring his compliance. Dekker held out his hand, and another Soldat dropped the commando's identity disk into it.

«Hmmm,» the German mused as he examined it. «Namen: Davidson, Benjamin, Private. Soldaten Numer… Blud…» He looked up suddenly, and over at the prisoner. "Vhat iz thiz H für?"

The man, Davidson, looked close to panic, but didn't answer. Dekker let the guard strike him once for disobedience, then held up a hand and looked to Seidel. «Was there anything else on him?»

The Oberfeldwebel grinned and held up a medallion---no; it was a Star of David, hanging on a chain. «He wore this, mein Hauptmann

«Ah! So that is what the 'H' is. And why he, in particular, is so frightened of us. He is Jüdische. Does he have any other Papers or Identifications?»

«Nothing unusual; just a Wallet, a few Photos…He is the only one with such a medal; the others all left all Personal Items back at their Base. Or we haven't found them yet.»

«No Matter,» Dekker observed lazily, although he was anything but inside. "So." He shifted his attention back to his prisoner. "You are a Jew. You vill do better to anzwer my qveztionz---do not prate to me about name, rank, und service numer. You are not a prizoner of var, you are my prizoner. It iz not the zame t'ing." Dekker had leaned forward as he spoke; now he settled back once more. "But, you vill know nothing ovf value," he continued, his voice scathing. "You are chuzt a private soldat. Vhat they say, 'cannon-fodder.' Und zo you vill guard your tongue und do vhat you are told. So you might liff a little longer." Then to his master sergeant, «Take him out. He has been thoroughly searched?» he added, though he knew it was an unnecessary question.

«Jawohl, mein Hauptmann,» Seidel replied, not insulted in the least. Such attention to detail had kept them alive through Russia. «We have checked all their Clothing and Personal Effects.» He grinned again. «None of them liked the Strip-search.»

«Too bad for them,» Dekker replied coldly. «Put him back in his Stall; tether him there somehow. If he gives the Guards any Trouble, shoot him. Do not harm him unnecessarily; his Leutnant should try to protect him, and his other Men. We keep him for Leverage.

«Bring the next.»

This one was also dark-haired, though with brown eyes, not black ones. He stayed where he was put, unhappy, but not overly nervous. Dekker studied him for a long moment before looking at his identity disk. "Perelli, Anthony, Prifate." He paused, looking up. "Italiano?"

"American," the man answered in an even tone, but neglected all honorifics. "An' it's Tony, not Anthony. Sir," he added as he saw a blow from his guard prevented by a quick gesture from the officer before him. That much he'd give him, for that gesture.

Dekker grinned dryly and went back to his study of the disk. "Service number, blood type… Vhat iz 'C'?" he looked up again.

"Catholic," came the short reply, which, in turn, drew a nod from the German.

"Other letterz there vould mean… vhat?" Dekker asked. "I know that 'H' meanz Jüdische. Davidzon iz that."

"Never thought about it, sir. Just know mine."

It was minor defiance, and Dekker knew it. He let the guard strike this time.

"You do not amuze me. Take care bevfore you annoy me. You are not protekted by the Genevfa Convention, but are condemned under the Kommandobefehl. You liff only vhile you do not anger me and are uzeful. Remember that, pazt your aching head," Dekker snapped. "Next."

"Connolly, Larry, …PFC?" Dekker looked at the man before him, one eyebrow raised in question.

"Private First Class---American designation, sir," the wiry man replied, actually sounding respectful. "About like your Gefreiter, sir."

"And you are Irish?"

"No, sir; American." The blue eyes showed intelligence and caution. Dekker decided that perhaps he might like this one, also, if his chosen companion proved difficult. It might be a good idea to keep this Connolly as a spare, although he was slighter-framed than was preferred. But he nodded and waved the man out of the stall and waited for the next.

Two to go. So far, his men had brought the prisoners to him in ascending order of rank. They broke that pattern now, for it was the lieutenant that was brought in next.

Despite his bonds, the man moved with a stately grace, almost regal. He reminded Dekker of some of the aristocratic officers whom he'd met during his career: well bred, but somehow lacking in that special spark that would cause men to die willingly for him. This leutnant had, Dekker recalled, irritated his Unteroffizier, his "corporal," he corrected himself mentally. And none of his men had seemed overly concerned for his well-being while they were being brought back to camp. He couldn't help wondering if they felt the same way about the Unterfeldwebel… the sergeant he'd taken the night before. Somehow, he doubted it.

But he let none of this musing show as he coldly studied the man brought before him. Once more he accepted the identity disk, glancing at it briefly. He could read them easily now. "Markham, Samuel, lieutenant-2. He studied the man waiting on his knees. "Not ein Jude, but Samuel. Vhat iz 'P'?"

"Protestant." Very short answer; the man clearly didn't like him. Too bad. Dekker didn't particularly like him, either.

"You vill be held responzible for the condukt ovf your men. You had bezt hope that your men care vhat happenz to you, for I do not. You haff all fallen into a hole here; the Genevfa Convention does not apply to you, for you are all kommandoz. It amuzes me to hold you for now; you vill all be shot vhen I tire ovf you. Versteht?" Dekker used his coldest look on the man, wondering if he was getting through to him. With a shrug, he looked to the guards and jerked his head. They knew him well and pulled the prisoner up from the ground, dragging him from the stall before he could find his feet.

The last one, the corporal, actually tried to come to attention before the guards put him down on his knees. Another possible keeper, Dekker thought in amusement. He looked at the disk, puzzling over the man's name. "Mk'Kig'eh?" he ventured at last, looking at the prisoner, expecting to see derision in his eyes.

"No, sir," was the polite, correct response. "It's pronounced like 'Mack-Key.' The final 'gh' is silent, sir."

"And that iz vhat? Scotlander? Or Irish?" Dekker found that he was actually interested in the answer.

"The name is Irish, sir, but I'm an American." Still polite, still very militarily correct.

"You had vordz mit your Leutnant, about the vone called Carzon, nicht wahr? Vhat ovfer?"

"Sir, no disrespect intended, but I'd rather not discuss…" He fell silent as the German raised one hand in warning.

"Your objektion is noted, Corporal," Dekker interrupted, his voice sharp. "Now answer the qveztion."

McKeigh looked down briefly and sighed, then met his interrogator's eyes. "I told the lieutenant that I had doubts about Carson; I felt that he wasn't willing to do his share. I was particularly concerned that he wouldn't take sentry-duty seriously. My lieutenant disagreed. Sir."

That dragged a short laugh out of Dekker. "Oh, ja, he vas sleeping on sentry-duty---you vere correkt about that. So vas eferybody elze, but… Connolly, I t'ink. Und zo you all livfed, und he died. Fitting for vone not doing hiz duty.

"You, I approvf ovf. I think you, und Connolly, may livf longer than the rezt. Ve vill see. You vill kontrol the otherz, since I doubt your Offizier can. You vill not givf my men any trouble, or you vill be shot." Dekker rose and headed for the stall door. «Lock him up with the others; if they cause no Trouble, feed them. Otherwise, wait until Morning. They may talk tonight, but quietly only. Keep them in separate Stalls; set a Guard on the ends of the Aisle. They can bury the dead one in the Morning.»

«Yes, Sir,» The guards with McKeigh snapped in unison; then the young captain was gone.

Seidel waited for him just outside the barn. «You wish one of them tonight, sir?»

«No, Fritz,» Dekker answered quickly. «I need another good Night's Sleep, at least one more. I will stay with the Sergeant. He gave no Trouble today? He was fed tonight?»

«He was fed, sir,» Seidel answered with a grin. «He is no Trouble. I do not think that it is out of Fear, either. He is just waiting for his Chance, I think.»

«Oh, yes,» Dekker laughed. «And that one is truly dangerous. Not in the Night, though. I doubt he would attack while I slept. Not now, at least. He is, I think, a complicated Man. Before last Night… But this is now.

«Have someone bring him in; I will be up shortly. First I must see to Schatze.»

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Jim Brewster stretched and yawned. It felt like it was getting late; he wondered if he'd been relocated to this shed for the night, too. There had been a minor stir in the camp a bit earlier, but there had been little action after that. He had to laugh at himself at that flash of interest in the camp's life.

But, for now at least, he was a part of the camp, and what affected it, affected him as well, to some extent. He shifted, pulled the blankets around himself more closely, and settled in to see what would happen.

He'd nearly fallen asleep when he'd heard the excited, happy barking of a dog. What…? he wondered, then he remembered the captain's brown dog and grinned. So, the proud German was out playing with his dog.

The shed door opened, but Brewster couldn't make out the faces of the two men silhouetted against the dim light of the camp outside. One stayed in the doorway, probably holding a weapon on him, Jim thought. The other approached, turning on a torch as he came nearer.

«Guten Abend, Herr Unterfeldwebel. Are you ready to go in?»

Jim recognized the voice from the morning, the Panzershütze, Günter. Again he couldn't quite stop a smile from appearing. «Good Evening to you, too,» he called back. «You my personal Guardian Angel?»

«Guard, yes. Angel, definitely not,» Wenigmann retorted. «Only my Mutti thinks that of me. But come, it is better if you are ready before Hauptmann Dekker. His Temper may be uncertain tonight.»

«Sounds like… what's the Dog called, anyway?» Jim asked as he held his cuffed hands out toward his guard.

«Hauptmann Dekker calls her 'Schatze.' And, yes, he plays with her; he sees to the needs of all who look to him and serve him loyally.» Although he spoke casually, the young Soldat's attention never wavered from his charge. «Leave the Blankets here; you will probably be back Tomorrow.»

Jim nodded, but paused long enough to pick them up from the ground and hang them over part of the old truck's frame. Then he quietly went where he was directed. Off to one side, he could see the dog, Schatze, running madly after a thrown ball. She reached it and turned back towards Dekker, then paused. To everyone's surprise, she altered her course, bringing the ball over and placing it at Jim's feet. She stood back, expectantly eyeing the captive Kommando, her tail wagging.

He bent and picked up the ball; the dog tensed, ready to run after it. Carefully, he stepped clear of his guards, then threw for the dog. She took off with a joyous yip, making Jim chuckle and shake his head.

«She thinks well of you,» the Obergefreiter with them said. «She has never done that before. But raus now, or Hauptmann Dekker will be irritated with you. You do not want that.»

«No, I don't think I do,» Jim agreed, continuing in the direction of the latrines and bathhouse.

Twenty minutes saw him freshened up and heading for the farmhouse. Pale lamplight leaked through not-quite-closed blackout curtains in one of the upper rooms. Not, Jim noted, Dekker's bedroom. They headed up the back stairs once more, again trying to keep the noise down. Apparently, though, someone was actively listening, for one of the other doors opened as they reached the upper landing, and Oberleutnant Kimmich stuck his head out to see who was there. He nodded to himself, then silently withdrew and closed his door again.

«Scheiße!» Obergefreiter Eberbach muttered as they escorted their charge to Dekker's bedroom.

Jim waited until the door closed behind them. «He's spying on the Captain, isn't he? Why?»

The two Germans exchanged uneasy glances before Eberbach answered. «Hauptmann Dekker has an Enemy. We are nearly certain that the Oberleutnant was sent here by him.»

«Ohh, boy,» Jim muttered, dropping down onto the edge of the bed. «And now he's keeping me here, in here, at Night. Wonderful. No wonder he's trying so hard to 'catch him in deviant Behavior.' You guys haven't fragged him yet? How long's he been with your Unit?»

"Fragged?" Wenigmann repeated the English word as he locked the chain onto Brewster's manacle-links.

«Umm, 'accidentally' taken him out with 'friendly Fire.' Or doesn't he go near the fighting?»

«He fights, and leads, well enough. He is no Coward.» Eberbach was forced to defend the second-in-command. «And at least we know about him.

«The Trousers, also, if you would.»

Brewster thought about resisting, but he suddenly heard footsteps on the stairway. «He's coming,» he said as he shucked the trousers and tossed them to the private, then slipped under the covers.

Wenigmann caught them and quickly folded them, then he and the Obergefreiter turned to leave. The door opened just as they reached it, the brown dog bounding through to make a flying leap up onto the bed. Tail wagging furiously, she wriggled her way up the bed until she flopped down on top of Jim. With his hands chained, he was helpless to do anything but laugh.

«Here, now, are you supposed to be doing that?» he tried to berate her, but he was laughing too hard to sound serious.

Dekker had stopped in the doorway, shocked. This dog had never taken to any of his former 'companions;' he wondered what had gotten into her. Fortunately, this Amerikaner seemed to like dogs; at least he didn't mind this one. Still… «Schatze, down!» he called, knowing that discipline must be maintained. But Schatze had other ideas, for she merely turned belly up, hoping for a rub.

«She must be the only one here who can disobey and get away with it,» Jim laughed still. «Look at those Eyes!»

«Only sometimes, Sergeant,» Dekker answered, allowing himself a smile. «Come, now, Schatze. Down. He cannot pet you.»

Now-mournful eyes turned towards her master, the dog finally moved to the foot of the bed. Her theatrical sigh was sooo pitiful, even Dekker chuckled. He moved into the room and stepped to one side so the two soldiers could leave, but Brewster spoke before they could go. "Herr Hauptmann? A question, sir?" He continued at the captain's cocked eyebrow. "Sir, there's no reason for you to have to struggle with those boots. If your orderly can't be trusted to hold his Tongue, perhaps the Panzershütze would do you that Service? I mean, it's not like they don't know I'm here… Sir?"

"Lack ovf an audienze iz the only courtezy I can ovfer to my 'companionz,'" Dekker replied, his voice quiet and even, a danger sign to judge by the looks on the faces of Jim's escorts.

"Yes, sir, I understand that, and I truly appreciate the gesture. But what are they gonna see? You running around the room in your stocking feet? Last night, yeah, I'd probably have been more upset than I was. Tonight… Let's just say I'm a lot calmer. More tolerant, okay?"

The German was motionless, frozen as if getting himself under control. Then he sighed and nodded in understanding. "Fery vell. I believfe I see your point. You did not suffer from lazt night, zo you offer---vhat---a kindnezz für a kindnezz?"

"Uhm, yes, sir, I guess you could call it that. I think I don't have anything to worry about tonight, so why make it tougher on you when it doesn't have to be?" Jim was concerned, wondering if he should have kept his mouth shut.

But Dekker nodded once more, the glacial cold in his eyes thawing just a bit. "Fery vell, and I thank you for your thoughtfulnezz." He went to the bedside chair and sat, giving a sigh of relief as the tall boots were pulled off, one after the other, by Wenigmann. The Panzerschütze carried them out to the hallway and set them by the door so Oskar could clean and polish them for the following day. He left then, followed by Obergefreiter Eberbach, who quietly closed the door behind himself.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

There was a definite bounce in Dekker's step as he headed out to the mess tent the next morning. Apparently, Brewster had been awakened by the start of the usual nightmare and had re-established contact before he'd gotten more than slightly restless. The Amerikaner was definitely trying to please; he'd moved over against his captor without even an order last night. Yes, he felt good today; he'd slept even better than he had the night before.

A pensive look on his face, Kimmich watched his captain come into the mess tent. He definitely had a problem. General Lasch was expecting him to come up with something to use against Dekker, but the more he saw of his commanding officer, the less he wanted to comply. Dekker was a good CO: Caring deeply for his men, he still attained his objectives. He had waited and watched last night to see if the Amerikanischer Kommando would be brought into Dekker's room again, although he hadn't been sure of his motivation at the time. Later, he'd realized that he'd wanted to see how the prisoner had felt about it, before the fact.

But there had been no signs of stress or concern; the prisoner had moved with easy confidence. Most likely, therefore, the man had been telling the truth yesterday, and Dekker was not a homosexual. And, as he thought things through, Kimmich could remember nights when the whole camp had been roused by their CO's nightmares. They had been getting worse again lately, until the Kommando had been captured and forced into Dekker's bed. And now, today, Dekker looked ten years younger and well rested. There was a definite connection here, even if he didn't know or understand the reasons for it.

Kimmich found himself rather glad that he'd not written that report about 'deviant behavior' that he'd been trying to word so carefully. He had to send something… Maybe something about holding select prisoners for his personal amusement? On the surface that sounded bad, but subsequent inquiries could be easily diverted, especially since they were all commandos; he'd have to be sure to include that fact. His decision reached, he rose and, nodding politely to his captain, left the mess tent to write that report and start his day's paperwork.

Dekker wondered what was going through his second's mind. Brewster had told him about Kimmich watching to see if the Amerikaner would be brought to his room again last night, but Kimmich didn't have his usual sour look this morning. He could only hope for the best.

Oskar came over, the plate he carried still steaming in the cool morning air. «A Treat this Morning, Herr Hauptmann,» the orderly said as he set an aromatic mug down beside the plate. «You may drink it with a clear Conscience; Oberleutnant Kimmich gave the Cooks a whole Pound of real Kaffe for the Mess Today. Everyone is getting some.»

Dekker grinned, albeit a trifle sourly. «It is nice to have the right Connections, is it not? Ah, well; I shall not let it spoil this, nor shall I let it go to Waste.

«The Prisoners in the Barn may have the Ersatz Brew, but see that Brewster gets some of this. If, that is, he gets fed at all this Morning.»

«Somehow, my Captain, I doubt that he will be going hungry. He gives the Men no Trouble, I hear, and even talks pleasantly with them. He is an unusual Man, it would seem.» Oskar seemed perplexed by the prisoner, but shrugged it off. It was, after all, no business of his. He waited until he saw the delight in his captain's eyes at the first sip of the real coffee, then went to see to his own breakfast.

The camp was finally awake and active by the time Jim was brought out for his breakfast. Most of the activity was centered around the Panzers, where old, roughly repaired battle damage was being properly seen to at last. It was odd, Jim thought, that such was being done here in the middle of nowhere. Usually these troops were sent to some well-equipped Laager or other repair facility. It would be much more difficult to work on this equipment here.

He almost paused as it occurred to him to wonder if this job were being made more difficult intentionally, if Dekker were being set up for failure. «Obergefreiter,» he cautiously began, «I know it may be none of my Business, but is Somebody out to get Hauptmann Dekker? Someone higher up his Chain of Command?»

The two German guards escorting him exchanged worried glances. «Why do you ask that?» Eberbach demanded, probably more sharply than he'd intended.

«Just…» Jim paused, then sighed. «Look, we may be on opposite Sides, but you Guys caught me fairly, and you've treated me very well, all Things considered. So I don't have anything against any of you, personally. Not even the Hauptmann. You Guys shoot me, now, that might make me change my Mind.» He paused while they chuckled at that bit of gallows humor, then continued, «This whole Setup just isn't right. Your Group should be at a regular Repair Facility, where you Men can go on R&R, and they have all the Equipment to do this Work.» He nodded toward the sounds of repair work in progress. «Quickly and easily. Not stuck out here in the Middle of Nowhere.»

«At least we are not sniped at by Russkies,» Wenigmann returned, his voice slightly sour.

«There's also the Matter of his Nightmares.» Jim knew he was on very dangerous ground here. «I've already told the Hauptmann I won't say anything about that, away from here. But he should have seen Someone about them. Yeah, you need Men up on the Front, but you're winning this War. You don't need Battle-Fatigue Cases in Combat Zones…»

«It is not Combat Fatigue,» Eberbach started hotly, then suddenly stopped himself.

«Whatever it is, he should be getting Professional Help somewhere. No one in the High Command should want to risk losing an Offizier of his obvious Caliber, needlessly. So that says Someone may be out to get him.

«What can I do to help?» The question, the offer, popped out before Jim realized it. But he meant it, despite everything; that was the true surprise.

His guards were silent, weighing him carefully. Then Eberbach sighed and shook his head. «You already do as much as can be done for him now. The longer you can keep from getting yourself shot, the better it will be for our Hauptmann. You… suit him, I would say. That may not save you, though. He may shoot you if he feels that he becomes too attached. You understand?»

«Yeah. Typical of my Luck: A no-win Situation, made to Order.» Jim fell silent then, as they approached the latrines and field bath-house. This was definitely not a safe topic to talk about where it could be overheard.

He eyed the long tether-chain-and-manacle setup waiting for him in the washroom distastefully. «I don't suppose there's any Way I could convince you two Gentlemen to leave that off? Parole, say, until, oh, half an Hour after Breakfast?"

Regretfully, Eberbach shook his head. «I would take your Word, but, as they say, Shit happens. Hauptmann Dekker would shoot me if I lost you. Only he can decide to take your Parole, and it might not be wise to bother him this Morning. He was in a good Mood, true, but there is no telling what Oberleutnant Kimmich may have said to him already. And, chained as you are, few can claim that you were trying to escape and just shoot you out of Hand.»

Another sigh, followed by a roguish grin. «Don't worry about it. Puts less Strain on me, this way; I don't have to fight off any Temptation.»

They chuckled with him, but tethered him securely before giving him some privacy to clean up.

Breakfast was… interesting. Speculation was rife in the eyes of the few men left in the mess tent as Jim was brought in. They couldn't help wondering about this prisoner who had wrought such a great change in their commanding officer. Jim could feel their eyes on him as he was brought in and placed at a table, much like the previous morning. He felt no animosity in their gaze.

He forgot all about them as his food was placed before him by one of the cook's assistants. There was the inevitable chunk of black bread, but beside that, two beautiful eggs stared up at him with their golden yolks against perfect whites. He glanced up at his escort in shock, only to see surprise on their faces also.

This had not been ordered… or, rather, they did not know about it ahead of time. The Obergefreiter swung a quick look at the head cook, who glared back defiantly. Slowly Eberbach nodded, knowing now the source of this bounty. The old man wasn't that good a cook, but there was no doubting his loyalty.

«Don't let them get cold, Unterfeldwebel,» the Panzerschütze said quietly. «You do not want old Heinz, the Cook, to think you reject his Gift.»

«No, definitely not,» Jim muttered as he fell to with a will, making very short work of this unexpected treat. He was nearly finished when he felt someone's presence at his elbow. He forced himself to move slowly; if anyone there meant him harm, they did not have to sneak up on him to carry out their intentions.

A young man stood there, a steaming cup of… coffee? Could that possibly be real coffee? Jim froze at the thought.

The young soldier grinned at him. «I am Oskar, Hauptman Dekker's Orderly. He said you should have this if you were fed this Morning. There is a little Sugar if you wish it, but, alas, no Milk.»

Jim watched, feeling shell-shocked as the cup---real ceramic, not tin---was set down on the table beside his now-empty plate. Slowly he reached for it, being so careful not to spill a single precious drop of the stuff. He sipped it slowly and carefully, for it was still quite hot. The look on his face told his escorts clearly that he was experiencing an event just short of Heaven; they smiled tolerantly.

«Oh, that's good!»he sighed as he set the cup down at last, reluctant to let go of that liquid brown gold. He glanced around himself, feeling as though he were alone. He wasn't, but his guards were not hovering at his back, either. No, he saw with a grin; they were seated at the table, cups of coffee in their hands also.

It was leisurely. No one rushed him, but Jim knew that all things must end. He only hoped that this hadn't been a "last meal," although the Germans didn't seem to have that tradition. He sighed and looked at the Obergefreiter. «I suppose…»

«Ja, it is past Time for you to be in Day-Quarters,» the German agreed with obvious regret. «Komm, then…»

Brewster went with his guard quietly, deep in thought, although later he couldn't recall what he'd been thinking about. Several soldiers, carrying kettles, caught his attention. It wasn't what they carried, but the fact that they were heading towards the old barn. He stopped dead in his tracks, turning towards Eberbach. «Obergefreiter, you have Someone locked up in the Barn? Prisoners?» His voice was strained, urgent.

«Move, Unterfeldwebel, before you are shot for resisting,» Eberbach advised as Wenigmann gave their charge a careful shove. «That is none of your Business.»

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It was cool in the barn, dim light filtering in around cracks in the main door and around the small shuttered windows spaced along the walls. The thick stone held the chill of night still, leaving the confined men grateful for the blankets which they'd been given.

They had been moved, one at a time, to one of the box-stalls. There each had been given a bucket of water and some soft brown soap to wash with, and one of their clean uniforms to change into. No shaving tackle was provided, of course, so they were all starting to look rather scraggly despite their cleanup. A second, covered bucket served as their latrine. Back at their stalls, shackles were applied, with a long tether-chain now locked to the stall-ring embedded in the stone wall beneath each manger. Most found little to complain about in this, for their manacles were removed now, giving them slightly more freedom of movement.

It was quiet in the barn. None of the captives seemed inclined to be the first to break the silence. They had been told the previous evening to be silent or be gagged; they had not heard the German Offizier giving permission for soft speech. They rode the thin edge now; no one wanted to anger their captors and be the one to cause their executions. Serious interrogation, they all knew, would come when the Germans saw fit. The only sounds within were the occasional rattle of chain when someone shifted, and the sporadic coughing of one of the commandos as dust from the straw in their stalls irritated his lungs. Even those small noises ceased at the sound of Germans entering the barn, joking with the guards on duty.

«…might as well be guarding a Graveyard,» one guard was saying as they came further into hearing range. «They have hardly stirred all Night, or spoken. They cleaned up easily this Morning, also.»

«Would you cause Trouble if you were in their Place? All that lies ahead for them is a Bullet, or a Rope, and they know it. They are not stupid; they do not want to hurry it any.»

«Oh, I know,» the first guard sighed. «And I know not to wish for Excitement---we've had too much of that. Still, we checked all the Chains. Where can they go? There is little Reason for us to be here like this.»

«You complain too much,» a new voice, full of authority, now cut in. «That is why you are here: Guard-Duty keeps you and your Mouth out of the Hauptmann's way, and so out of Trouble.

«Enough now. Get them fed and see that each has some Water for the Day. We have no Way of knowing if Hauptmann Dekker will want one of them instead of his current… Project. So you will do well to ensure that these remain in good Condition. Or you may find yourself replacing any lost through your Neglect. Versteht

«Jawohl, Herr Oberfeldwebel,» the unfortunate guard stammered; the prisoners could clearly hear him clicking his heels together as he snapped to attention.

«Idioten,» another voice could be heard to mutter with little care for being overheard. This man came within sight shortly afterward, carrying a number of water bottles. He grinned as he tossed one to the first prisoner in line, the corporal. "Here iss vater for du. Make it lasst the day, ja?" But he didn't wait for an answer; he just moved down the line, tossing each man a water bottle.

Two more guards followed, one with a stack of bowls and a handful of spoons, the other carrying a kettle. Some watery potato soup was ladled into a bowl, which was then handed to a prisoner, and the pair moved down the row. They went back down the line with pieces of black bread, and finally handed a tin cup of ersatz coffee, made from roasted barley, to each captive. The guards slowly stalked up and down the central aisle as the men ate, speaking softly to each other as they passed, joking, but never taking their eyes from their charges. The bowls, spoons, and tin cups were collected as each man finished his meal, then the extra guards withdrew, leaving just two men on duty, one at each end of the aisle as their Hauptmann had specified the night before.

"Well, that was… interesting," Connolly finally risked saying, carefully keeping his voice lowered.

"That's one way of putting it," Perelli replied. "I'd'a said that it was scary as all---"

"I wonder just what… or rather, who, this Hauptmann Dekker's 'current project' is," McKeigh cut in. It should have been the lieutenant's place to think about that, but they all knew that Markham's ability to deal with people was sadly lacking.

"You don't think it could be…" Markham began, then, remembering the presence of the guards, cut himself off.

"It's likely, sir," McKeigh replied, still not being specific. "I got the impression that they were looking for us. I'd say the Krauts didn't just stumble over us."

"He'd never rat us out!" Perelli objected, his voice rising in indignation.

"Keep down your foice, Schwein, or you vill the privilege looze," one of the guards warned, his voice sharp with inexplicable concern.

"Now I wonder what has him so worried?" McKeigh mused, his own voice a trifle louder than he'd intended. The guard at his end of the aisle came over and looked down at him where he sat, chained, against the side of his stall.

"Hauptmann Dekker vantss you qviet kept," the guard explained, his eyes grim. "He iss not an Offizier to… irritate. Not iff I vere you."

"Okay." McKeigh paused, studying the guard thoughtfully. The guard wore the patches of the PanzerKorps. Interesting. He'd thought that he'd heard, vaguely, sounds of heavy repairs and large engines that morning. "You able to tell me what your Hauptmann's 'current project' is? Or who it is?"

"You vant thiss soon to die?" the guard answered, but McKeigh could tell the man wasn't making a joke.

"No, I don't want to know that bad," the corporal admitted quickly.

"I did not think so," the guard said before turning and resuming his post by the barn's doors.

McKeigh sat silently for several minutes before speaking again. "I don't think anyone said anything. Just being here would have tipped them off. I mean, how often do you find just one of us somewhere? My guess is, if he is here, he's not to know that we were taken. I have no idea why, and I'm not about to ask, either. We'll just have to hope that he's okay."

Quiet murmurs greeted that statement. McKeigh couldn't help wondering what Markham thought about this. Not for the first time he regretted that Markham was their lieutenant and that Brewster was merely their sergeant.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Dekker was bouncing as he entered his room that evening. Oskar was there, quietly folding away one of the captain's uniforms; the Amerikaner was sitting quietly in bed, acting invisible. It made Dekker grin slightly, but this only made his pale eyes appear even colder than usual. They warmed somewhat when Oskar snapped to attention in his Offizier's presence. Dekker waved him to a casual "at ease" as he went to sit on the bedside chair. A slight, offhanded gesture had the orderly coming over to remove the captain's tall boots.

«Can I get you anything, Herr Hauptmann?» Oskar asked, wondering what might still be available at this hour.

«No, Oskar; that will be all,» he answered, waiting only for his orderly to leave with the boots before turning to Brewster. "I am told that you… saw zomething today and azked zome qveztionz. Do you think qveztionz are vize, in your pozition?"

"Sir, questions aren't the deadly things around here," Jim carefully replied. "It's the answers that will get me shot, and I didn't get any answers, except to mind my own business. Besides, Sir," he went on, his voice taking on a lighter tone, "it's my job to see things. You wouldn't want me to neglect my duty, would you?"

He'd meant it as a joke, but realized his mistake immediately. Dekker's face hardened like granite, for another part of the sergeant's job was to make every effort to escape.

"Oh, shit," Jim muttered softly, thinking frantically.

"Enough," the German said, his voice cold. "You dig your gravfe deep enough az it iz." He turned and readied himself for bed, the routine already familiar to Jim---familiar enough for him to realize that the routine was already off; something was missing.

"Where's Schatze?" he asked, his voice carefully neutral.

"She iz downstairz. Blood upzetz her." Dekker slid into the bed, wondering what sort of fight he'd have now, but the Kommando just slid over to him as if nothing unusual had been said this night.

"There doesn't have to be any blood, sir," Brewster offered carefully. "Your men are very careful to make sure that I'm not going anywhere you don't mean me to go. And I haven't really tried, either. The war's close to ending; it's not worth getting myself killed needlessly this late in the game."

"Ja; I vaz told that you offered parole thiz morning," Dekker agreed grudgingly. He was curious again, to see how the Amerikaner would respond to this knowledge.

"Yes, sir, I did. And that was before the coffee." Jim's voice went soft as he briefly remembered that cup of liquid bliss, but he quickly went back on track. "Your men didn't accept it; they said, quite correctly, that it was not their decision to make, but yours. I just thought it would make cleaning up, and breakfast, a lot easier."

"And the other izzue?"

"'Issue'?" Jim paused, puzzled at first, as he carefully thought back over their conversation. Cautiously, he asked, "Do you mean what I saw and asked about, sir? Or something else?"

"Go to sleep," Dekker growled, suddenly weary of playing games. He had a decision to make come morning. It would not be an easy one and could have painful personal repercussions.

"Sir, I find myself in a very hard place. I don't have enough information. Faulty info got me captured in the first place; I would prefer not to make a similar error, if possible," Jim explained, his voice carefully neutral.

Dekker sighed in resignation. His companion had a point, he acknowledged. He would not want to reveal the existence of his comrades if the enemy did not already know about them; human nature made him want to know how they were, if they had been captured. He already suspected that Brewster would be very loyal, much like his own SS troops.

"Ve found the rezt ovf your men yezterday, Sergeant," Dekker admitted slowly, feeling his companion tense beside him. He debated briefly with himself, then realized it would be cruel to withhold the rest. "Mozt are fine. They are konfined in the barn, az you zuspeckted. Vone (one) is dead, the vone called Carzon, I believfe. He vas sleeping on zentry---"

"The lazy idiot!" Brewster snapped in disgust, cutting the German off.

"I am told that your corporal had vordz mit your Leutnant about him, bevfore the fackt. Your Leutnant ignored him." Dekker waited to see what reaction that tidbit would bring. He could feel Brewster tense further, then force himself to relax.

"With all due respect, sir, I would prefer not to air the squad's dirty laundry with an outsider," Jim carefully said, hoping his captor would accept that.

Dekker was not so inclined. "I am not exacktly an 'outzider,' az you say. Or vould you prevfer that I juzt shoot the Leutnant, und rid you ovf the problem?"

"No, sir!" Brewster nearly panicked, forcing himself to relax again only by supreme effort. "Please. I… The lieutenant is a good guy, sir; only, he just wants to see his side of everyone. That's great in a priest, but deadly in an officer. Sir." It felt as if that had been dragged out of him with hooks, but it obviously had to be said.

"I suggezt, Sergeant, that you do not try to play gamez mit mir in the future; I guarantee that you the loser vill be." Dekker's voice was silky-smooth as he enjoyed his victory.

"Yes, Sir," was Brewster's only reply.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Brewster sighed as Dekker pulled the door closed behind himself. He'd heard his death in the German's voice last night; it would just be a matter of when, and fighting would only make it happen sooner. Just another of his typical no-win situations. He sat and mulled the night over, not even looking up when his morning escort tapped at the door and entered.

«Morgen, Herr Unterfeldwebel,» Wenigmann said as he approached.

Jim looked up at that and saw one of his own uniforms in the Panzerschütze's arms. "What's up?" he asked, even as he climbed out of bed, then turned and knelt, ankles crossed, beside it. He knew the routine by heart now.

«What did you do to anger Hauptmann Dekker last Night?» Wenigmann asked, his voice low as he released Jim's wrists. The commando said nothing as he changed his shirt, then held his right hand up for the cuff again. Only after it was re-attached did he rise from the floor to finish dressing. His uniform had been washed, he saw in surprise.

«I'm not really sure,» Jim admitted. «He asked all the Questions; I guess some of my Answers weren't the smartest.

«He's going to have me shot, you know.»

His escort stared at him, barely comprehending how he could make such a statement so calmly. Finally, Wenigmann seemed to shake his brain into action again. «Did he say that?» the young German demanded incredulously.

«Not in so many Words. Tell me, though: How did you know I'd made him angry?»

It was Eberbach who answered this time. «You go out to the Barn with the others Today; you will eat the same as they do.»

«Ah,» said Jim, grinning now. «Back to common Swill, is it? No more Goodies. Oh, well; it was too good to last.» He was still grinning as he rose and presented his left wrist for cuffing also.

Wenigmann shook his head. «Behind you, Unterfeldwebel. Orders.» Jim had held his wrists in front of himself; that was how he'd been restrained up until today. He looked at his guards and turned, presenting his wrists without comment.

Somehow, he managed not to wince as the steel locked shut.

They made it as far as the back door. That was where Kimmich was lying in wait for them. Jim could see the questions in his eyes and gave a mental sigh. Then he grinned; he couldn't make things that much worse, after all. "Good morning, Herr Oberleutnant," he said, straightening into a semblance of attention as their forward progress was halted.

"Vhat did you do lazt night?" Kimmich demanded. "I almozt my head lozt today, so black iz unser commander. Und his favorite I am not, az it iz."

"Oh, boy," Jim muttered, perplexed now, his brows creased. "I didn't do anything, sir. Nothing different, anyway. He's probably gonna have me shot soon, though."

Kimmich stared at the Amerikaner in shock. "But… but… vhy?!" he finally stammered, feeling gut-punched.

"Hell, sir," Jim blurted in agitation. "He's your countryman; you tell me!"

But it was Eberbach who answered. "He iz feelink too comfortable mit dir. I haff seen dis before. You did not haff to do anyt'ink." He switched his gaze to Kimmich. «But, Sir, excuse us, please. We must take the Prisoner out to the Barn, to join the Rest. Herr Hauptmann's Orders, Sir.»

«Ja; carry on. We don't want to cross Hauptmann Dekker, especially not Today.» Kimmich returned their salutes and retreated back to his office.

Curiouser and curiouser, Jim thought as he accompanied his guards across the farmyard to the big barn.

There was a guard stationed just inside the main door. He had been provided a chair, but Brewster doubted that he'd ever sleep on duty. There was something about all these men, a feel to them. They were first-class fighting men, and they knew it. Eberbach had stopped to speak to the man, but they were just far enough away that Jim couldn't hear what was said.

He took that time to look around. The barn was huge and very sturdily built. There were horse-stalls lining the aisle, straight tie stalls near the front and box stalls at the rear. A second guard sat in a chair midway down the aisle, about where the box stalls began. Every other slip stall had a small shuttered window; several of these were now open, providing a little light and some fresh air.

He turned at the sound of movement, but it was only the Obergefreiter. «Here,» he said, indicating the first stall on the left side of the aisle. «You will go into this one. You will be allowed to talk, but it must be quietly. Food will come Tonight. Questions?»

«No Questions, Obergefreiter,» Jim answered softly, then paused. «Our Guards; they speak English also?»

«No, but it is not a Concern anyway; they will be outside now.»

Jim moved to stand in the stall he'd been assigned, watching in resignation as a shackle on a long chain was brought in and locked onto his right ankle. He felt slightly better when "his" blankets were brought in from the machine shop. Turning at Eberbach's gesture, he then remained motionless as Wenigmann removed the handcuffs and stepped away from him.

«Here, Unterfeldwebel,» Wenigmann said, offering him a water bottle when he turned around again. «At least you will have Company Today, ja?» He left before Jim could think of a suitable reply, along with the two aisle-guards.

A cautious head slowly rose over the top of the stall divider to his left. "Jim. You okay?" It was McKeigh, a long-time friend, and Brewster smiled in greeting.

"Good to see you, Kevin. I'm doin' fine at the moment. Anyone hurt in here?" Sometimes, Jim reflected, it was hard not to be the one in charge.

"Everyone here is fine. We lost Carson."

"Dekker told me last night. Said he was sleeping on sentry duty."

"Probably," McKeigh growled. "He was on sentry duty and kept arguing that it made no sense. There were no Krauts around, after all; Intelligence said so."

Brewster gave a snort of disgust. "Yeah; well, you know what you can do with those idiots in Intel. We've got a short battalion of Panzers 'not here,' just back from Russia less than a week, according to their captain – that's Hauptmann Dekker; the SIC is Kimmich. He's spying on the good captain for someone higher up the food chain. Dekker…" He fell silent, and McKeigh realized that he'd decided to withhold whatever information he'd been about to disclose. "Where's the lieutenant?" Jim asked.

"Last stall down," McKeigh said. "Connolly's next, then Perelli, and Davidson," he added, filling in the blanks for the sergeant.

"Davidson okay?" Brewster was concerned; if the Germans found out he was Jewish, it could be bad.

"Yeah. Shaken and scared, but no one's hurt him, or even threatened him much." McKeigh paused a beat before saying, "They know he's Jewish, Jim. They found that bloody Star of David he insisted on wearing. Now they know how to read our identity disks."

"Can't be helped. At least Dekker seems to be decent, given half a chance. He leads by example; his men adore him."

"You seem to be well informed, Brewster," Markham's flat tone cut across the barn.

"Yes, sir," Jim replied, carefully concealing his dislike of the man. "I've been here going on three days now, sir. The guards have been… quite talkative about certain aspects of their unit. They're extremely well disciplined and seem to consider themselves a crack unit---and that's even considering the fact that they're a Panzer corps. They have Panthers, sir, plus two half-track companies and a full supply and repair convoy. Apparently they're back for repair and refit.

"You should be aware that Dekker has an Iron Cross First Class, Silver Wound and Panzer badges, and the badge for the Poland campaign. And two for Russia, that I saw. Sir." Jim made himself shut up before he said more than he should.

"I… see." Markham sat down without another word; Brewster and McKeigh exchanged worried looks.

"So now what, Jim?" McKeigh asked, his voice lowered.

"Now we wait, and eventually I'll be taken out and shot," Brewster answered, fighting to keep his voice level.

McKeigh stared at him, then swallowed. "Why?"

"My mouth. I reminded Dekker that I could be a problem, and he doesn't want, or need, any more problems than he already has. And he does have 'em. Can't talk about it, Kevin; I swore I wouldn't. Just know that, for a German, he's harmless. Deal honestly with him, and he's decent. Despite appearances. That's all I'm gonna say, though."

"Yeah; I'll give him that," McKeigh slowly agreed. "What's surprised me is, he hasn't had us shot yet." He watched his friend and saw something flicker in his eyes, although he couldn't tell what. "Or… is that something you won't talk about?" he finally asked.

"Leave it, Kevin," Brewster advised with a weary sigh. "Around here, ignorance leads to a longer life."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

«Herr Hauptmann? The Unterfeldwebel is not saying a Word. The Obergefreiter knows that Something is not being said, but he has no Hint what that could be.»

And Dekker smiled briefly, relieved and feeling vindicated.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Lanterns had been lit and hung in the dust-darkened barn. Supper had come and gone, leaving Brewster longing for past treatment. Thin soup and a small chunk of black bread made pretty meager fare, but that was what they all got, and he knew enough to be grateful for even that much. They had freshly refilled water bottles for the night and had each made the trip to the box stall that served as their latrine. Soon, he knew, the lanterns would be extinguished, and they would be left alone for the night.

He couldn't help wondering if Dekker meant to sleep alone tonight.

Time crawled by, feeling even longer than it had when he'd been secured in the machine shed. He must have dozed off then, for the next thing he knew, there was a warm, furry bundle climbing all over him, licking his face and ears. He had to laugh. «Schatze, what are you doing here? Where's your Master, eh? He'll have a Fit, seeing you jumping all over me.» He paused, looking up, for he could feel a presence.

Dekker stood in the aisle, watching his dog with the Amerikaner. Yes, he acknowledged a major flash of jealousy, for she would not go to anyone else, normally. But this Kommando… "Stay down, Sergeant," he ordered, his voice level, when he saw that Brewster was about to come to his feet. The dog had stopped fawning over the Amerikaner as soon as he'd spoken; now she crawled over, whining in distress.

«Hush, Schatze, Liebchen,» he murmured, stroking her gently. «You're a good Girl. What's wrong, eh?» He fussed over her a few moments longer, oddly at ease before his prisoner. This one actually seemed to understand him. He straightened at last and looked over at the guards who'd come in with him.

Jim grinned to see Eberbach and Wenigmann, but his grin quickly faded at Dekker's command.

"Bring out the one called Connolly," the captain ordered, watching Brewster carefully. He was not the one to worry about, though. The others were all on their feet, protesting loudly, and Dekker was starting to get a very ugly look on his face.

"Knock it off, you jerks!" Jim snapped, his own anger also rising. "They won't hurt him if he doesn't fight 'em.

"Connolly, keep your head. And keep your mouth shut, Perelli; I don't want to hear any of your trash tonight." Shit, Jim thought in disgust. What was wrong with Markham? He should have been the one trying to control the others.

Dekker just nodded thoughtfully, for this display proved his guess about this unit. The sergeant was the real power among them; they would do whatever he said. The Leutnant was a non-entity to his men, an empty authority-symbol. They would not die for him, but they would for Brewster.

And right then, Brewster was heartily kicking himself for not telling the others more about Dekker. It was too late now; they had Connolly halfway to the doors. Jim looked at the German officer in near-despair. «Herr Hauptmann, let me talk to him first. Please.» He expected to have to beg, but, to his surprise, Dekker held up a hand, stopping his guards in their tracks. A jerk of his head towards the first stall had the guards pulling Larry over to his sergeant.

"Listen, Connolly, it's not what you think. Just play along, and you'll be fine. I've been there, Larry, and I survived."

"Yeah, but I don't see you volunteering to take my place," the young PFC began, but Jim cut him off.

"I would if I thought it'd do any good. I pissed him off last night, and now I get punished."

"You get…?" Larry stopped himself, nodding slightly. Brewster always tried to look out for his men. This must be absolutely killing him. But the Kraut was letting him give this warning, at least. "Gotcha, Sarge. Calm it is."

"Thanks, kid. See you in the morning." Jim had to admit that he felt a little better about this, now that Connolly had had a bit of a warning.

«You are not being punished, Unterfeldwebel,» Dekker said softly, for Jim's ears alone, though McKeigh in the next stall could probably hear him also. «I am merely… exploring my Options, let us say.»

Jim understood all too clearly. «Checking out the Spares.»

Dekker nodded and turned for the barn doors, then paused and looked back at his commando. «See that I do not need them, ja?» Then they were gone, swallowed up by the night.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"You gonna tell us what this is all about now?" McKeigh's voice was soft, but there was an edge of steel to it.

Jim sighed; the cat was truly out of the bag now. "Dekker has nightmares unless there's someone with him. And he talks in his sleep; he doesn't know for sure that I know that. I suspect he's afraid he'll spill classified info, or something like that. Anyway, he doesn't want to have to shoot some girl whose only 'crime' was being forced to share his bed.

"So he uses prisoners. Doesn't do anything but turn you into a great big teddy bear. No groping hands; nothing like that. Most of his men know about the problem, so they catch…'companions' for him. And when he gets tired of them, or they give him trouble, or… well, he has them shot.

"You guys are supposed to be replacements for me."

"That's disgusting!"

Jim looked down the line of stalls and shook his head. Leave it to Mister Find-the-Best-in-Everyone. "No; that's desperation, Lieutenant. But now that you all know, he can't risk any of us getting away. I swore I wouldn't tell anyone, and I didn't---until he blew the cover off. I doubt you'd keep your mouth shut, though, would you, Lieutenant? Perelli would; he's got a sense of honor."

"Why, you…! You wait 'til we get back, Brewster," Markham snarled. "I'll see you broken for that!" He continued in the same vein for quite some time, interspersing his threats with curses, his voice rising as Brewster continued to ignore him.

Finally, the door-guard came in and knocked Markham out with the butt of his weapon, then looked at Jim as he headed back to his post. "You haff not removft (removed) that?" he asked incredulously.

Jim just grimaced. "I've been tempted. Very tempted. I think he's gonna do himself in here, though."

"Hauptmann Dekker vill not tolerate that für long." The guard grinned then, surprising Jim. "Get some sleep, Unterfeldwebel. Your men vill need you tomorrow."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Dekker headed back to the farmhouse, trailed by his men and this night's companion. Schatze crowded his heels, whining unhappily. Almost he sent Connolly back, but… No. He would see what this one was like. Inside, he headed to his office. Connolly would be in shortly; he would be brought to the wash-tent to clean up and would also go to the latrines before being brought up to the bedroom.

He settled in his office, not seeing the report before him. He would keep Brewster, he decided; the man was trying to do right by his men, yet not betray his word. It seemed to matter not at all that Dekker hadn't acknowledged that promise of silence. The young Hauptmann found himself almost smiling at that thought, but a frown quickly replaced that as he then thought about the lieutenant, Markham. The man was a fool, and thoughtless of his men. He would probably get them killed, and that could cause problems with his sergeant. No; Markham would have to be removed. He could see to that in the morning, though. The decision made, he turned back to his endless paperwork.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Larry Connolly didn't know whether to thank the sergeant for his cryptic reassurances, or curse him for his informal order not to fight these Krauts tonight. While they weren't roughing him up, their atypical behavior had him very spooked. They were being almost too careful with him.

A lean, shadowy figure waited for them at the back door of the farmhouse. Connolly heard one of his guards curse softly under his breath, but there would be no avoiding whoever this was. A darkly handsome lieutenant, he frowned when the two guards brought Connolly to a stop before him.

«Where is the Unterfeldwebel?» he asked in confusion. «Surely he did not…»

«No, Sir,» Eberbach cut him off. «He is just trying out some of the Others… who also seem to speak German,» he added as Connolly stiffened in their grip.

«Hmm. I had thought it odd… How many is he likely to retain, Obergefreiter

«He has never kept more than one before this, Herr Oberleutnant, but Prisoners will be hard to come by, here. I suspect that he will try to keep several, against future Need. He will, no Doubt, weed out any Troublemakers.»

Kimmich shook his head, not sure what he should think about that. This prisoner looked more panicked the longer he was kept standing there… and that was not good, the Offizier realized. «You had best do with him what is required, then. Dismissed.» With that, Kimmich was gone, back into the house and up to his quarters.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It was all he could do at first not to throw up. Slowly he settled as he figured out what Brewster had meant. Still, Larry was grateful when the German captain finally rolled away in his sleep. It wasn't long before the man started to moan and thrash about in the grip of a nightmare. How had Jim Brewster slept, with the Kraut like this? He kept as close to the edge of the bed as he could, trying to avoid contact with his captor as much as possible.

The dog that had been following the German jumped up on the bed as it was heading toward dawn, and spread herself out along her master's back; finally, the German stilled, although he was still somewhat restless.

And so Dekker was sluggish the next morning, without the bounce that had been there, and he was irritable, and tired. All in all, Dekker figured that he was in just the right frame of mind to deal with Markham.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"Raus! Raus!"

No, Jim thought as he blearily threw himself back in the stall to avoid heavy jackboots; these guards were definitely not at their best in the morning. He shook his head, trying to come more alert as hard hands grabbed his arms and jerked him to his feet, then pinned him against the side of the stall. He stayed as still as he could, hoping to spare himself some abuse, as manacles were locked onto his wrists.

He could hear the same routine being carried out in the other stalls, could hear Davidson's frightened breathing and Markham's curses. The idiot; what was he trying to do, get them all shot? And then he nearly lost it, for a guard came in and slipped a garrote wire around his neck.

«Easy, Unterfeldwebel. Do not fight me.»

Jim fought through his panic to recognize the guard; he was Wenigmann. Then he realized that the wire wasn't all that tight; it was for control, not to kill. So he stood still while the second guard released his shackle-cuff, then moved quietly out into the barn's aisle at the Panzerschütze's direction.

McKeigh saw him and calmed; as he was moved up the aisle, Perelli and even Davidson steadied down. Markham had to be choked nearly senseless before he could be moved. But move he finally did, out into the aisle; then the whole group of them were brought out into the yard.

Connolly was out there, white-faced and shaking, down on his knees with a wire around his neck like the rest of them. The others were lined up next to the young PFC and forced to their knees. Then they waited.

Eventually, Dekker came strolling up from the direction of the mess tent, Oberfeldwebel Seidel at his heels. He walked up the line of prisoners, oh, so casually, his eyes cold and hard. He ignored Jim's presence totally.

Brewster worried. The Hauptmann looked terrible this morning, shadows dark under his eyes. Had Connolly not slept with him? But he couldn't ask, not in that lineup. Jim just prayed that his men would keep their tempers; this was too much like an execution line.

Markham started to struggle and curse, albeit quietly, drawing Dekker's cold stare.

"You do not like your akkommodationz?" Dekker purred, his face hard. "Fery vell; you do not haff to stay here, then." And to everyone's horror, he drew his pistol with one smooth, practiced motion and shot Markham point-blank between the eyes. He looked up and down the line of the remaining prisoners, all now motionless in shock.

"Any other komplaintz?" He waited a moment, then nodded and switched to German. «Sehr gut. Have them brought to the Mess Tent and fed. They can bury that Carrion after that. Carry on, Oberfeldwebel

«Zu Befehl,» Seidel snapped, then motioned to the guards to get their charges back on their feet.

Dekker walked away, totally unconcerned. The dog Schatze slunk at his heels, her tail between her legs.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The mess tent was deserted when they arrived, save for the serving staff. Wenigmann kept Jim to one side, the garotte still in place, but the others were released and sent down the serving line. Only after the other four were settled at a table in the middle of the tent was Jim released to get his own breakfast. The implications were clear: He would be held hostage for the good behavior of his men. No doubt they would be held against his, too.

The food… well, it was edible, but that was all Jim would credit it with being. They were given enough to eat, at least. Some sort of mash, with shreds of meat---most likely pork---cooked into it. A thin slice of brown bread, spread with something, and a cup of that ersatz brew finished the meal. Jim noted that Davidson ate what he'd been given with no protest, despite his religious dietary prohibitions. Wise man, Brewster thought wryly.

They had been kept under careful guard during the meal and had carefully avoided any attempts at conversation. Those machine pistols in their guards' hands were real social dampers. Now Jim saw Connolly stiffen at something past Jim's shoulders.

«Steady, Unterfeldwebel,» Wenigmann cautioned, just before slipping the wire back over his head and bringing it snug around his neck once more.

«You know that's scary as all Hell, don't you?» Jim tried to make light of the situation, but he could feel a trickle of perspiration trace down his back.

«Ja, but… I'm sure that you can see the Necessity? Before, there was just you. Now…» Wenigmann sighed and looked at the other Kommandos. They were all frozen in place, scarcely daring to breathe.

«Don't worry; we know the Score.» Jim tried to project calm. The wire was a bit tighter this time.

«Just get up, carefully, and come with me. The Others will be brought along after we are clear.»

Brewster looked back at his men. They all nodded slightly: They would obey and cause no trouble. He rose, carefully keeping his balance. That wire could slice his neck if he fell. But he managed to get up and outside without incident. Behind him he could hear his men being herded out to join them. They stayed a safe distance away, not wanting to spook Jim's guard into a "regrettable accident."

There were four shovels stacked next to Markham's corpse, and that appeared to be their destination. Wenigmann slowed, putting more distance between his charge and the other Kommandos. Jim understood why when their manacles were removed; they were directed to bring the shovels and the body. They followed one guard to a spot well past the barn that seemed to have been the family's private cemetery. The raw earth of a recent grave marked Carson's final resting place; now Markham would join him. Without any comment or argument, Brewster's squad began to dig where their guards indicated.

They were nearly done digging when a young Leutnant joined them. Jim wondered at first about the Offizier's lack of a personal weapon until he noticed the collar flashes. This man was in the chaplain corps. It surprised him that the Germans would bother with any type of service for mere prisoners. It was simple, and in German, but Brewster found himself feeling extremely grateful nonetheless.

Finally, the grave was filled in, and they were brought back around to the front of the barn. Brewster could feel their tension levels soar as they found the Oberfeldwebel, Seidel, waiting for them.

«Take these two,» here he indicated Davidson and Perelli. «Put them to Work; they can help the Cook and his Men. The Rest will be surety for them.» The look he turned on Jim's men was glacial, but thawed the tiniest bit when the Kommandos nodded their understanding and acceptance. The two privates were hustled away and the others brought back into the barn and chained in their stalls once more.

Wenigmann looked at Jim and frowned momentarily. «Your Men will be safe enough, Unterfeldwebel," he tried to reassure Jim. The Kommando just looked at his guard with troubled eyes, but said nothing until well after they'd all been left alone again at last.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Jim settled back against the head of his stall. They'd managed to survive the day with no further losses to the squad, he mused. Both Davidson and Perelli had been returned to the barn unharmed after dinner at noon; they had taken Connolly and McKeigh for KP for supper. That just left him.

He heard the scuff of the guard's boots at the door, the click of his heels as he came to attention. Then Dekker's voice, telling the guard to stand easy. He looked up to see Dekker studying him, an enigmatic look on his face. Slowly then, the German paced down the aisle, studying the men held there. Finally, he returned to stand looking down at Jim once more. At last he reached into his left breast pocket and removed something, which he flipped to his prisoner.

Brewster caught it out of reflex, only then seeing that it was a key.

"Komm' mit, Sergeant," he said, watching his commando carefully.

Jim nodded slowly, then reached down to unlock his shackle-cuff. He rose to his feet, careful to be as unthreatening as possible. He'd seen the Hauptmann's reflexes with that pistol; he had no desire to be shot by mistake… or for any other reason.

"Jimmy?" McKeigh called from the next stall, worry in his voice.

Jim didn't take his eyes off Dekker. "It's okay, Kev; I'll be fine. You guys get some sleep and keep outta trouble." He grinned momentarily, then continued, "I don't know if the guards are current on their shots, so don't antagonize 'em."

To Brewster's surprise, even Dekker grinned slightly at that.

"Komm'," he repeated, his voice a touch softer. "Schatze mizzez you." He waved Brewster ahead of him as they left the barn to head for the house.

Jim's back was crawling; he could sense the German studying him as they walked. He felt strange; this was the first time that he'd been off that chain with no handcuffs. Still, he wasn't tempted to run in the slightest. He couldn't desert his men… and Dekker knew it, damn him.

He paused at the foot of the steps; Dekker grinned. «Go in, and up the stairs… 'Jimmy.'» His grin widened as he saw the Amerikaner's shoulders stiffen briefly, then relax again as he climbed the steps and entered the back hallway of the house.

"Only my friends call me that." Brewster's voice was strained as he tried to keep his temper.

«And you had best hope that you remain a…Friend…or would you and your Men like to argue that with me?» Dekker's voice was smooth as silk, but the threat wasn't even partially veiled.

"No, sir." Outrage could still be heard, although he tried to control it.

Dekker snorted in amusement. «Bathroom is to the left, first Door at the top of the Stairs. You know where my Room is. Be there, chained, when I get there.» His voice hardened as he spoke, indicating that he would tolerate no deviation from his orders.

Brewster couldn't help himself. "Why, you…" he began as he spun to face the German, bristling at the insult, but got no further. Dekker's pistol slammed across his face, knocking him, dazed, to the floor. He glared up at his captor, but the German just calmly watched him.

«Tell me, 'Jimmy,' how many of your Men will I have to shoot before you learn Obedience? Or perhaps I should just have some… Special Treatment given to your little Jude?» His voice was calm, as if this was just an item of passing curiosity, but the Mauser never wavered from its aimpoint between the commando's eyes.

The Amerikaner shivered as if someone had walked over his grave. He lowered his eyes, knowing that Dekker held all the cards, and could only wonder why his flash of defiance hadn't gotten him shot.

«Get upstairs. Now.» He would not tell the man again… but he would not have to, he saw. Very carefully, the commando was picking himself up, then heading up the stairs. Schatze whined, looking from her master to her new friend, upset by the tension she felt between the two.

Dekker sighed, then bent to pet the dog. He would give…"Jimmy"…twenty minutes; then he would see. He could only hope.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Kimmich's door opened as Brewster reached the top of the stairs. Whatever the Oberleutnant had meant to say was forgotten in his surprise. The Kommando Unterfeldwebel looked beaten; his eyes had no spark tonight. What had happened, the German wondered. But the man halted, waiting to see what more was to be demanded of him. Blood trickled down the left side of his face, yet he was unrestrained. Or was he? Kimmich had to wonder about that as the moments stretched out. Still the Kommando kept his silence, his eyes lowered. Finally the Offizier shook himself back into awareness. «Get yourself cleaned up and follow your Orders.» He watched, concerned, as this enemy Soldat took a long breath, then straightened himself.

"Yessir," he murmured, so softly it could barely be heard. Then he turned for the bathroom, shutting the door behind himself.

He leaned against the closed door, fighting the trembling of his muscles. Oh, God, what was he going to do? If he tried to save his own sense of honor, that Kraut bastard would torture and kill his men. Hell, he might anyway… but he'd have to try to save them. He'd have to play along, for however long Dekker chose to toy with him. Decision reached, Brewster took a deep breath to collect himself, then ran some warm water into the basin. Time to see what the damage to his face was, then get himself cleaned up. There was no telling how long he would be given, but Jim knew that he'd best be where Dekker expected him to be, or his men would pay for his lapse.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Dekker entered his room, followed by his orderly. These men were not like the peasants he'd had to use in Russia; they seemed to understand that he meant them no dishonor. And it was so much easier to have his orderly pull his boots off for him. As Oskar pulled the door closed behind himself as he left, Dekker looked over at the other side of the bed at last.

Brewster looked much as he had the previous nights, not much worse for wear. A quick glance at the far wall showed the commando's clothes neatly folded on the chair where they were routinely left. The cuffs seemed to be properly in place.

«Do I need to check the Cuffs?» Dekker asked, as if he were inquiring whether his companion wanted a drink.

«No, Sir. They're locked, and tight enough that I can't slip 'em.» Brewster managed to control his voice long enough to get those words out. It was true; he fully expected the German to verify that for himself, so there was no point in lying about it.

But, to his surprise, the German reached for his face instead. «Let me see the Damage,» he said as he turned Jim's head. There was no resistance, so he was able to keep his touch light. There was a look of wary surprise in the American's eyes that he carefully said nothing about; instead, he just nodded. «It will swell and bruise, but I think that it will not scar. You will not need Stitches, either. That is good. It would be best not to try me again; you might not be so lucky next Time.»

«No; I don't think that would be really smart, either. Sir.» Jim kept his eyes down. He couldn't figure Dekker out tonight, and that worried him.

«Ah, Jimmy. You would not have been hurt if you had not tried to defy me. I cannot allow that, you see. You do know about Oberleutnant Kimmich?» Dekker wondered what sort of response that would bring. He had felt him tense, briefly, at the use of the familiar form of his name, but no explosion or protest came.

His answer was soft. «Yes, Sir. I know he's spying on you. He was waiting for you to come up Tonight; he was rather shocked to see me all by myself.» Despite himself, Brewster had a tiny grin at that memory. It vanished as quickly as it appeared, but Dekker was pleased nonetheless.

«Then I do not insult you by stating the Obvious.» Dekker rose then and began his nightly routine. Schatze watched him from her spot by the wall, an old blanket for her bed. A soft thumping could be heard from her direction, her tail against the floor. By morning, she would be up on the bed, too, but…

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Wenigmann was waiting for him at the foot of the stairs, to bring him back out to the barn. The young Panzerschütze's eyes widened at the now-purple side of Brewster's face, but he kept his questions to himself. Jim just sighed and moved along in front of his escort. Yeah, he could have tried for the rifle, but there were plenty of other men around, surreptitiously watching him. The price of freedom from his chains, however fleeting… He had his orders from Dekker and knew he would follow them, for the sake of his men.

They were awake and watching for him, nervous after the lineup of the previous morning.

McKeigh saw him first. "Jeeze, Sarge, what happened to you?!" he cried in shock.

Brewster just shook his head. "My brain shut down and let my smart mouth walk me into a Mauser, courtesy of the Hauptmann. Don't worry; it looks worse than it is.

"Everyone okay?"

"They came and took Perelli and Davidson about half an hour ago, I'd guess. Said they had KP again." McKeigh sounded as if he were trying to convince himself even as he answered his sergeant.

"Probably the truth. One thing I've noticed," Jim said reflectively, "he doesn't hide what he's going to do. If he meant to kill them, he'd probably blow them away in front of us all, just like he did the lieutenant."

"Somehow, Sarge, that's not very reassuring. So, what do we do now?" Connolly called across, looking concerned.

"Now? Now I do whatever I have to, to try to keep you guys alive and healthy as long as I can."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

They fell into a routine. Each morning, Perelli and Davidson went to work in the mess, returning to the barn after the noon meal. Then it was McKeigh and Connolly's turn until after supper. In the late evening, Brewster was released from his shackle and sent to the farmhouse, and Hauptmann Dekker. He had no escort these days, although no one was fooled by this seeming lapse. There were soldiers with guns watching from a distance, and no real opportunity for escape. In the mornings he returned to the barn, only to tether himself back in his stall. He wondered how long this could go on.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Dekker hadn't felt this good in years. He was sleeping through the nights now, even if this was only due to the presence of the Amerikaner. He frowned at that thought. He'd had Brewster for two weeks now; what had the man heard? He had no idea, for the Kommando brought him out of his nightmares before they truly started. Did he still talk in his sleep?

Perhaps it was time, most unfortunately, to remove Brewster and replace him with one of the others.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Changes in routine were never good, especially here. The Kommando squad fought to control their panic when the guards came in that morning, garrote wires dangling from gloved hands. They knew better than to fight the guards now, though, so they all allowed themselves to be restrained and moved out into the main aisle. They were in a line, kneeling, when Dekker came in. Schatze was not with him; she could be heard howling from the house.

Dekker paused by Jim, running a hand lightly over his head. The Kommando was motionless, for he'd seen his death in those pale blue eyes. Slowly the German moved down the line, looking at the others. Davidson was white and looked like he was about to pass out.

"Hush, little Jude. You are safe enough, for now. I haf been told you vork vell; you are uzeful, und zo you vill be kept." Dekker looked up at his guard. «Put him back, before he blacks out and cuts his own fool Throat. Has anyone been… playing… with him? He should be calmer than this by now.»

«No, Herr Hauptmann; none have molested him, for he does his Work with attention to Detail. Cook is pleased with him…»

«…and no one wants Cook mad at him. I see; it is just being held by us.» Dekker clearly put Davidson out of his mind. Once more he looked over the row of kneeling captives, then went to stand before Brewster. He really regretted this, but the longer he kept him, the harder it would be in the end. It didn't help that the Kommando knew what was about to happen. Slowly, he reached to unsnap his holster-flap, his eyes dark with pain.

«Herr Hauptmann? A Staff Car and Truck have just entered Camp.» The private who brought that news very carefully ignored what was going on in the barn. When he had joined this unit, it had been explained to him, in great detail, that there were certain things that he was not to have seen---even if he did see them happening. And this definitely fell into that category, the young private thought, as he waited for his Hauptmann.

Dekker looked over at the boy, anger in his eyes. He'd had enough trouble steeling himself to do this once; it would be so easy to let this wait… and wait… and wait… He turned and stalked towards the doorway; perhaps this could be cleared up quickly. And so he left everyone where they were.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Wenigmann and Eberbach exchanged troubled looks. The Hauptmann had been looking good these last few days. He had been sleeping; obviously the Unterfeldwebel had been looking after him properly. To see the man thrown away like this now hurt. And it hurt Hauptmann Dekker. He would regret this terribly, even if one of the others could be made to do the job properly. That was why he was doing it, though; he had felt an attachment growing for the Amerikaner. And he could not let himself care for anyone, for it was not safe. But it still did not seem right.

Suddenly Wenigmann felt his charge begin to sway. He looked down; the Unterfeldwebel looked like he was about to throw up. He could understand that; a look brought one of the other Soldaten to his side, and they carefully moved Brewster to the side of his stall so he'd have something to lean against.

«Unterfeldwebel, I am sorry,» the young Panzerschütze found himself saying to his prisoner.

Jim just nodded weakly. He felt… shocky was the only way to put it. This was no reprieve, he knew; it only postponed the inevitable. And it would do no good to beg or plead, so he tried to grasp what was left his courage and honor and die like a man. That would be best for all of them, his men and Dekker. To his surprise, he found that he didn't even blame the German, although he still didn't quite know why he felt he had to do that.

He could still hear the dog howling from the house.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Dekker stalked out of the barn, fury apparent in every move he made. He tried to rein it in, for there was a major standing by the staff car, looking around himself curiously. A Leutnant stood behind the car; two guards stood near the rear of the truck, as if it contained… Prisoners? Was?

«Hauptmann Dekker?» The major had spotted him coming; now he focused on his advance.

Dekker stopped and came to attention before the man, giving a crisp salute, which was casually returned. «I am Hauptmann Dekker; how can I assist you, Herr Major…?» He eyed the staffer's tabs on the major's collar, a sinking feeling in his gut. Briefly he could have sworn that he felt eyes on his back, watching, but the sensation was quickly gone.

«Major Cappel. I have been sent with a … Gift… for you, Hauptmann. It has come to our Attention that you have a penchant for keeping …unusual… Pets. It was felt that you would be able to contain these with no Trouble. My Aide has their Paperwork; where would you like them?»

The major turned and nodded at one of the guards by the truck; within moments, eight men, securely chained, had been pushed out to land heavily on the ground. They had no way to break their fall, and no one helped them. Dekker scowled darkly, then looked back at the major.

«I have no Need of these. This is a fighting Unit, not a Prison Detachment.»

«Yet you keep Prisoners, we are told.» Now the major looked slightly confused. Had they been misinformed?

Dekker sighed; he'd known this would catch up with him eventually. Why now? «I only have my Hounds; they help with the Mess and other necessary Labor. They are not even Official; they have not been reported as taken to the Protecting Powers, so they might be readily disposed of if necessary.»

«I… see,» Cappel said slowly. Not official, yet he had been sent here with prisoners? What was going on? «Can you take these? If not, I suppose that they could be 'shot while trying to escape.'»

«No,» sighed Dekker with a shake of his head. «I'll take them, at least until other Arrangements can be made. I am not a Butcher, despite what some may think. Have them brought into the Barn, if you would, Sir.» He turned and led the way. This really complicated matters.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

«Scheiße!» Gefreiter Hinkes muttered, moving away from the barn door. «It's some Major from Headquarters; he's got a Truck with Prisoners. They look like more Kommandos, too.»

«That's Kimmich's Fault; he must have reported to the General that we had these,» Eberbach replied, thinking furiously. «Anything else?»

«Hauptmann Dekker called these his 'Hounds'…» Hinkes said slowly, then he and Eberbach grinned.

«Get the Unterfeldwebel back over here; take all their Chains off. Put those Wires away, out of Sight,» Eberbach ordered, his voice carefully lowered. «Play along, 'Hünde', and we may all survive this. Klein Jude, no one will hurt you. Get back with the Rest and be still. These Visitors do not know what you are, and we're not going to tell them. Now play tamed, all of you, if you hope to survive.»

He fell silent just before the approaching party reached the doors.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Dekker led the way in, managing not to stop when he saw the new arrangements. Just as well; Cappel was right on his heels and would have walked into him. The commandos were all still kneeling in a line, but they were now unrestrained. Davidson had rejoined them, still at the end of the line in his usual place. None of them moved a muscle as Dekker re-entered; they were already at a kneeling "attention." Their guards, though… The Soldaten had been lounging against the stall-ends at their ease, although still carefully watching their charges. Now they, too, snapped to attention in the face of these visiting Offiziere.

Hoping desperately that he was reading the situation correctly, Dekker waved a hand negligently in their direction. «My Hounds, Herr Major

Cappel looked the kneeling men over carefully. This looked for all the world like a common inspection-line… or as common as such a thing could be. The five men were motionless, eyes fixed straight ahead. The one at the near end was slightly pale; sick, perhaps? That one had a sergeant's rank stripes. He looked at the men again and saw that they were placed in descending order of rank. «And they are tamed? Safe to run loose like this?» he asked in amazement, looking at Dekker with new respect.

«They are chained at Night, to keep them safe in their Kennels.» Dekker was sweating now. How long would they tolerate this? He turned, distracted, as the new men were literally dragged in. He could feel his Hounds' ripple of interest, but none of them moved so much as a muscle. «Put your Prisoners in those Stalls,» he ordered, waving a hand at the straight stalls across from those of the commandos. «My Men will sort them out later. You will have to leave their Restraints with them; we do not keep a limitless Supply of such Things here. As I said before, we are a Fighting Unit.»

«Not a Problem.» Major Cappel was intrigued. These were definitely commandos. «You can order them? They will obey?» He looked at them, up and down the line, then settled his gaze on the ranking one at the end. «You, come here!» he snapped at Brewster. When the man didn't move, he looked at Dekker. «They do not speak German?»

«They speak German,» Dekker said, very worried now. If they did not obey… "Jimmy, komm' hier," he said, voice quiet and calm. To his great relief, Brewster rose smoothly and walked over to him, then settled back down on his knees before him. His face was impassive, but his body was relaxed despite the upright posture.

Dekker looked over to see his visitors' surprised looks and decided to press the point. «They obey my Men also, Herr Major. But they are my Hounds, not yours.»

«So I see. I am impressed, Hauptmann Dekker. And I think it safe to say that if anyone can hold these Men—» he waved a hand at Dekker's newest charges—«you will be the one to manage it.

«We must go now; here are the Papers for… your new Pack, shall we say? Unfortunately, these have been registered with the Swiss; they will not be so easy to dispose of.» Cappel watched as his aide handed a stack of folders over to one of Dekker's Obergefreiter, then accepted Dekker's salute and left.

Dekker just stood there, looking down at Brewster numbly. He had almost killed this man, yet Jimmy still did his best to make his captor look good. Slowly he reached out one hand and laid it on Brewster's head. He knew that it trembled, yet he could do nothing to stop it. He looked up at Eberbach. «See that they are fed, Obergefreiter. If there is Kaffe, give them some. And have those new ones sorted and tethered. I will be in my Office; you can bring me their Papers there.»

«Zu Befehl, mein Hauptmann,» Eberbach replied, straightening and clicking his heels. He watched as his captain took a deep breath, then left for the farmhouse.

«Go, Unterfeldwebel, back to your 'Kennel',» he told Brewster, but his voice was kind. He watched as the man slowly nodded and rose to his feet even more slowly, but he moved at a more normal speed after that. «The rest of you, back also.» Then Eberbach turned his attention to the new men, mentally cursing Kimmich and, more to the point, General Lasch, for putting his captain through this.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Brewster went back to his stall feeling like he was walking through a dream. More like a nightmare, he corrected himself. Dekker had been that close to pulling out his pistol and putting a bullet right between… He squeezed his eyes closed, trying not to think about it. He remembered the concern and sorrow in his guards' voices, then the rush to get all of them in place again.

He'd known what was going on again by that point. He had even considered, very briefly, raising a fuss, anything to ruin Dekker for what he had nearly done. That lasted only until he'd realized that this whole mess was just more of the same setup that was making the German think that he had to…

Jim shook his head again; this convoluted thinking was making his head hurt. He'd realized in time that Dekker had to look good if his men were to have any chance at all. At this point, it looked like Davidson was the likeliest to survive. What a crazy war.

His musings were interrupted by the sounds of a major struggle across the main aisle. A British sergeant-major was objecting strenuously to being tethered in one of the stalls. Three guards were wrestling with him, trying not to bang him up too much… then Jim realized that he was still loose. On a whim, he rose and strolled across the way and looked down at the tangle reflectively. "Y'know, Sar-Major, you'd do a lot better to let them just chain you up," he quietly commented, drawing startled eyes up at him. He was still just long enough for Wenigmann to lock the shackle-cuff around his right ankle, just before the man jerked again. The Germans pulled away, leaving the Englander to curse out the other commando.

«Thank you, Unterfeldwebel,» Wenigmann murmured with feeling as he moved out past Brewster. He went to see if his help would be needed with any of the others, glad that the worst was done.

"What th' bloody 'ell d'you think you're doin', 'elpin' th' bloody Krauts?!" the sergeant-major snarled when he finally calmed down a bit.

"I'm trying to save your ungrateful neck," Jim returned, his voice harsh but soft. "These Germans won't tolerate that kind of behavior for very long. Keep it up, and you'll only get your men killed. That's after their captain puts a bullet in your head, personally. You doubt me, ask any of my men. Dekker—that's the CO here—he blew away our lieutenant because the guy was a jerk who couldn't read the writing on the wall. You sound a lot like him right now."

The man fell silent at that and looked at Jim more closely. "You feelin' all right, Sergeant?"

Now he smiled, rather grimly. "Sar-Major, I feel great, because I'm still alive. Dekker was about to put a bullet between my eyes when you guys got here. So, yeah, I'm fine."

"An' you can still 'elp the sods?"

"Look, Sarge, I know why he was gonna do it. I don't have to like the reasons, or the fact that he almost killed me, but I do understand why. And that makes a hell of a lot of difference. You and your men being here just made matters a lot worse. So calm down. The Swiss know about you and your men, but we're not on their lists. We're Dekker's… private property, I guess you'd say. And he is one Kraut that is not to be messed with. Not if you hope to survive this war." Brewster paused, looking over his shoulder. Eberbach stood there, the others grouped behind him, surrounded by their guards.

«Come, Unterfeldwebel; you must eat. Herr Hauptmann's Orders,» the German said.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

They had been walked across the yard without restraints, their guards loosely clustered around them. His men would have enfolded him in their midst if he had allowed it, but he would stand on his own two feet; Jim followed just behind Eberbach. There were still Soldaten in the mess tent when they arrived; Jim could feel their eyes on them. But he heard no derogatory comments, did not feel any hostility directed towards himself or his men. If anything, he felt approval… acceptance.

They were allowed to go through the line together instead of with Jim being held out against the others' behavior, and the guards stayed well back from where they settled to eat. But there was no conversation; that habit had been established by the earlier routine. Still, Jim almost grinned. It was like before the rest came: The food was ample, if not fantastic. At least the ersatz brew was hot here—it was more bearable that way.

They did not linger over the meal; that was not their way. Perelli and Davidson's eyes met, and they grinned. They'd noticed the anxious looks that Cook was sending their way; he didn't want to lose his kitchen help.

"Sarge, we'd better get to work, or Cook's gonna have a fit. He's spoiled now." That was Davidson, of all people, Brewster marveled.

The two got up slowly, watching their guards with care. Cook could be seen to grin when they headed his way; the guards made no attempt to stop them.

"Well, I guess we go back to our 'kennels' until it's our turn," McKeigh said, his voice light.

"No one's said, so you're probably right," Jim agreed. "I'll bet everyone's still in shock and haven't been told what to do with us. Best you guys keep your heads down and stick to routine as much as possible."

Slowly and carefully, the three commandos rose from their seats and headed for the tent's entrance. They watched their guards for any indication that this would not be allowed, but the Germans made no move; they just watched their charges more closely. Jim felt like he had a huge target painted on his back as they started to cross the open ground between the tent and the barn.

They were halfway across when Jim paused. "You guys go on back," he told them. "There's someone I need to talk to." Without waiting for a reply, Brewster turned and headed for the old farmhouse. He wondered if anyone would try to stop him.

No one did, although Jim could see Wenigmann following at a discreet distance.

The front parlor had been converted into an office, occupied by a young Gefreiter. He stared at Jim as if the Amerikaner had two heads. Jim didn't let that stop him. «Where is Hauptmann Dekker's Office?» he asked, keeping his voice soft and trying for a pleasant tone. He stopped and turned suddenly, for off to his left he could hear quite a loud argument. He glanced at the young man on duty and raised one eyebrow; the Gefreiter nodded unhappily.

«Wait! You can't go in there now! Oberleutnant Kimm—»

But Jim ignored him and headed that way at speed.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The 'discussion' had been going downhill rapidly. Dekker couldn't decide just what Kimmich had wanted to talk to him about; it had turned into a shouting match in short order and seemed about to turn violent.

Kimmich had just yelled, «Damn you, I had to give him Something!» when a stocky form came barreling in and jumped him.

«You Boot-licking Son of a Bitch!» Brewster snarled, drawing back one meaty fist, ready to strike.

«Jimmy, NO!» Dekker shouted in his turn, his voice strongly in command mode. To his amazement, the Amerikaner froze. If he had actually hit the Offizier… Dekker shuddered; there would have been no avoiding shooting him then. He looked at his second-in-command. «It would seem to be a Bad Idea to raise your Voice to me, Oberleutnant.» His dry tone drew Kimmich's eyes to his face.

«Herr Hauptmann… I…» Kimmich tried to speak, but couldn't find the words at first. Then he smiled. «I said that he was dangerous and that I had not the Courage to try him. It would seem that I was right again. He reminds me of a Rottweiler my Uncle had when I was a Boy. That Dog was frightening, also.»

«All Dogs have Teeth; that is something that one must always remember,» Dekker observed. «But enough. You are on Report for the next two Weeks. I require Copies of all your Reports to him, so I am not caught out like this again. Or next Time I will not try to stop my Dog, nor will I punish him. Is that clearly understood, Oberleutnant

«Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann.» What else could he say? Kimmich gathered the shreds of his dignity around himself as he found his feet once more, and left the office as rapidly as was wise.

Jimmy glared at his retreating back as he climbed to his own feet.

«What did you think you were doing, Hund

Jimmy stiffened at the coldly spoken words, then forced himself to relax. He turned to look at his captor. «Truthfully, sir? I don't really remember thinking at all, and that's… not normal for me. I just heard him yelling, and something snapped. You do too much for your Men to be stabbed in the Back that Way.» He could see Dekker shifting slightly, looking uncomfortable. «If you prefer, I can always fall back on 'no Excuse, Sir,'» he added with a grin.

Dekker looked up sharply at that. «No; that would not be a wise Course for you. That would truly get you shot, and you've come too close already.

«What were you doing here, Jimmy?»

The Kommando looked at Dekker briefly, then snorted softly in disgust. «That's something else I don't really remember. I wanted to talk to you, but… I suppose I wanted to try to understand why you felt that you had to kill me. Besides the obvious your-Side/my-Side sort of Thing, I mean.»

Dekker looked at him long and hard, then sighed. «Go back to your Kennel, Hund, and be grateful for your Life. Just… know that I have less Reason to shoot you, so long as those Others are here also. Now go.»

«Sir.» He snapped, drawing himself up to attention, although he did not salute. He turned and left, thinking about the austerity of that office, decorated only with a furled flag in one corner. That had looked like an old unit pennon… it was something else to consider.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

He made no detours, but went straight to the barn and his stall.

"You okay?" McKeigh asked, his curiosity aroused by the disheveled appearance of his squad sergeant.

"Huh? Oh, yeah. I'm fine." Brewster looked down at himself and grinned. "The SIC says that I remind him of a dog he knew as a kid."

"A dog?!"

"Yeah. A Rottweiler. That was after I jumped him for yelling at Dekker." Brewster was chuckling now, as much at the disbelief on his listeners' faces as at the memory. "Don't know what came over me. Dekker told the Oberleutnant that it wasn't a good idea to yell at him. And, yeah, Kimmich's to blame for our new buddies' being here. He sent some sort of report in. Now the SOB's under orders to show Dekker all his reports so he doesn't get caught by surprise again."

"Well, we knew Kimmich was trouble," Connolly agreed, then shook his head. "But, a dog?"

"Didn't sound like he meant it as an insult, Connolly. Dekker actually looked pleased by the notion. But I think we need to find out more about this unit. Something's fishy. He's got an old unit pennon furled in his office; the only thing in the whole place that's not strictly necessary. I'd say it's seen action, too."

"Itt haz."

Brewster turned to look at Wenigmann, who looked away for a moment, then sighed. He looked back at his prisoner. «It was our Division Banner, from the old Days. Back when we still had our Honors. We were special, Unterfeldwebel. We were proud; we were Warriors, once. Such Banners are all that is left, for us and those like us.» He paused for so long that they thought he'd finished, but he looked up and down their line once again. "We were Waffen-SS.»

"The SS was disbanded when Hitler and Company were taken out," McKeigh protested, then repeated himself in German when the Panzerschütze looked uncertain.

«Yes, it was. But many of the Waffen-SS Units were left in functional Groups. You must not confuse us with the SA or SD. We were the Elite Fighting Arm of the SS, not their Prison Guards or Interrogators. Not the Scum that got seconded by the Gestapo. The Units guilty of Atrocities, those were disbanded, their Members tried and the guilty imprisoned or executed. But that was not all of us.» Wenigmann was trying hard to convince his listeners; this was important, and they had to understand.

Brewster nodded slowly. «I'd heard that you were used as Shock-Troops.»

Now Wenigmann nodded, his eyes gleaming. «We were sent in when the Fighting was heaviest. When Command was afraid that the Heer would break and run. The only regular Troops that even came close to us were Rommel's Afrika Korps. That Fighting is nearly done now, I've heard. Most of the Fighting is. Only Russia is left, really, and we don't want that Territory.»

«Someone did, or you wouldn't have been fighting there.» McKeigh's tone was dry, and Wenigmann looked at him carefully before answering.

«That was Hitler. He wanted the Ukraine, I've heard. It was one of the Reasons… We had started fighting there before he could be removed, so now we are stuck with his Final Mistake.»

«Hey, Kraut.» It was the sergeant-major across the aisle. «I thought you swore Allegiance to him, or something.»

«To him, yes. And to Germany. My Loyalty—our Loyalty to Germanydid not die with Hitler.» Wenigmann's eyes flashed fire now; his voice was arctic.

«Hey, easy there, Panzerschütze.» Brewster knew that he needed to defuse this situation fast. «He hasn't learned not to snarl yet. Don't let his Snapping get to you, okay?» He looked across the aisle. "Sar-Major, you may outrank me, but you'd better get this straight. You don't want to antagonize these guards. They've been decent to us so far, and we'd like to keep it that way. They could shoot all of us out of hand; the Kommandobefehl was never repealed. That covers you and your men too—Never mind that you've been listed with the Swiss. So lay off, got it?"

"You sound awfully close to th' line there, mate," the sergeant-major growled darkly. "You're not a Jerry-lover, are you?"

Brewster glared at the man. It took all his willpower not to cross over that aisle… But the Brit was shackled; he was not. Not only would it not be a fair fight, but what was he to think, with them all unchained? And besides… "You know, this war is almost over," Jim said, his voice gone calm and thoughtful. "Your side is losing. We came to fight with you, and I've found that, while you're really glad to have us bleed and die for you, we're not welcome in England. Funny, huh? We came to help, knowing we wouldn't be able to go home again. It was worth it, we said; anything to stop Hitler and the Nazis. Well, he's been stopped. And we still can't go home. So where does that leave us?

"When they finish whipping your tails, you'll process out and go back to Merry Ol' England. So you can just shut your mouth if we have to find our own solution. Got it?" He was snarling by this point, his voice low and harsh. He was shaking from the effort of controlling himself.

Wenigmann watched him, his mouth half-open in shock. Some of that tirade he'd missed, for his English was spotty, but he'd gotten the gist of it. Wisely, he kept his hands to himself, for the Amerikaner was barely in control. He looked at Otto, on door duty; that guard looked as shocked as Günter himself felt.

Wenigmann looked over at the Engländer. He seemed about to say something further, so he pointed his Mauser at him. It wouldn't take much more to provoke Brewster past the point of reason, he saw; better to shoot the Engländer than to risk losing Hauptmann Dekker's sanity-saver. Otto would watch his back, although he doubted that Brewster would try to jump him. The others… they actually seemed to agree with their leader. But, more importantly right then, the big English sergeant-major was backing down, his hands half-raised placatingly. He backed up into his stall and sat down under the manger-ring, his shackle chain a puddle of metal links beside him.

Wenigmann turned to face the Amerikaner. «Herr Unterfeldwebel…»

But Brewster cut him off. «No. Let that go, Panzerschütze. Just call me Jimmy. He does. Let the Rest go, all right?» Then he turned and retreated into his stall and curled up on his blankets, shutting out the world.

Wenigmann looked over at McKeigh, who shrugged and grinned. «He's right, you know. 'For uz, ze var iz ovfer.'» His grin widened at the young German's grimace. «It's true, though. We got nowhere to go after the Shooting stops. We're out of it, no matter what. And we never had the same Stake in it that the English and French did. Our Country never got into it, never got bombed. They're in their own little World— smartest thing Hitler ever did was not declaring War on us, although he probably would have eventually.

«But now, we just gotta wait and see what your Side plans to do with us. I know that I never thought past the Fighting. And who in his right Mind expects his Side to lose? Anyway, as long as I don't get slapped around much, I'm done fightin' you Guys. It ain't worth getting' killed now, just to give you Grief. It sure won't change anything else. I think the rest o' the Guys feel about the same— I know Davidson don't want any Trouble; he just wants to survive this. So, you Guys treat us good, and we'll play nice with you. Fair? It's what the Sarge was sayin'.»

«Jimmy,» Wenigmann corrected with a grin of his own. «And you are…?»

It took him aback for a moment, then McKeigh grinned also. "I'm Kevin. Or McKeigh, but… Kevin, I think. How 'bout you, Connolly?"

The PFC actually stopped to think about that. Finally, he sighed. "Better make it Connolly in public, or formally. But it's Larry among Friends." His grin slipped as he glared across the aisle at the sergeant-major. "He's not included among 'Friends'. The Jury's not in on the rest, yet; they've kept really quiet."

Wenigmann looked at McKeigh. «Kevin,» he corrected himself. «He is Connolly, yes?»

«Yeah. An' Larry to a select Few. You might be included in that,» Kevin started to translate, but was cut off.

«Yes, he's included. Most of our Guards, probably; at least just in here, among ourselves. I think the Hauptmann will be happier with 'Connolly', though. He hasn't noticed me much, and we didn't get on all that well…» He let the rest of this thought go unsaid, due to the presence of the English commandos across the aisle. «Better for us lower Ranks to stick with our last Names.»

«You have a Point,» the young German agreed. He paused, then nodded, his decision reached. «Among us, I am Günter. Since I am, apparently, one of your Keepers.»

Connolly choked as he tried to swallow a snicker. At the German's cocked eyebrow, he gave up. «One of our Kennel-Men. At least you don't have to clean our Runs; we're Housebroken.»

Even Jimmy had to join in the laughter over that.