"All this sand and no ocean. It's just not right," said Hitch, looking out into the desert from the wrong side of a barbed wire fence.
Troy wondered if the kid was knocked in the head when they had gotten captured.
"No girls in bathing suits, no salt water taffy, and no boardwalk." Hitch shook his head. "I think that we got gipped, Sarge."
"Wouldn't be the first time that we'd gotten the wrong end of the stick.'' Troy looked over Hitch, who was steadily chomping his gum with a miserable expression on his face. "And it probably won't be the last.''
"Yeah, I figured that out a while ago. Like when I first joined the Army.''
Troy looked up and away, squinting right at the guard in the tower above them. He wondered if it was his imagination or if the guard looked just a little too eager to shoot them. From the guard's steady stare, Troy knew that it wasn't his imagination.
Turning his attention back to Hitch, Troy clapped him on the shoulder. "Don't worry, Hitch, we'll get out of here soon enough.''
"If you say so, Sarge," Hitch agreed, apparently accepting his fate based on Troy's guarantee that it would just be for a short duration. "You got a plan?"
"Well, Moffitt and Tully are still out there somewhere." Troy's eyes roamed out over the horizon as if looking for them.
"And?" Hitch blew a bubble in anticipation.
Troy shrugged and showed Hitch all of his even white teeth. "And what? I'm sure that they have a plan."
Hitch's bubble burst. "So, we're just going to do nothing but wait?"
"Yep, we're going to sit tight right here until the cavalry comes."
"So until then, we're in limbo, huh?"
Troy thought about what Hitch had just said. Until Moffitt and Tully cooked something up to get them out, Hitch and he were going to patiently wait at the edge of hell for whatever came next.
Yep, Troy thought, ''limbo'' just about summed it all up.
"So," said Moffitt, leaning over the hood of the jeep and pointing at a place on the map. "I am assuming that this is where they were taken after they were captured."
Tully moved closer for a better view. He frowned, not liking what he saw. "A POW camp?"
"Yes, I'm afraid so." Moffitt's expression looked grave. "Could be worse, I suppose. At least it's a Wehrmacht camp and not one run by the SS or the Gestapo."
To Tully, it didn't get much worse than a POW camp and it didn't matter who was running it. A stay in one was bound to be pretty awful. And though Tully didn't point it out to Moffitt, just because the SS or the Gestapo didn't own the place didn't mean that they couldn't or wouldn't stop by.
"A Hauptmann Greuber is the camp commandant from what I've been able to gather. Newly arrived from the desert from Berlin," Moffitt said. "So newly arrived, I doubt if he's had the opportunity to make the acquaintance of many of his fellow officers in Africa.''
Rocking back on his heels, Tully let a slow breath. He didn't care who was in charge of the place or how long the guy had been there. Tully waited for Moffitt to say something else. When it didn't happen, Tully decided to move the conversation along.
"So, we're going to bust Sarge and Hitch out, right?" Tully prompted.
"What's the plan?" Tully could tell by looking at Moffitt that he had one. Reaching into his pocket, Tully retrieved a fresh matchstick and patiently waited to hear how they were going to get Troy and Hitch out of this one.
Rolling up the map and replacing neatly back into the case, Moffitt grinned. Still grinning, he looked up at Tully. "Well, I was thinking that perhaps we should have Dietrich help us."
"Huh?" Tully stared at Moffitt. "Dietrich?''
"Yes, I'm sure that he'd be glad to assist. Once he finds out the situation.''
Now if that didn't beat all, thought Tully. He wondered if Moffitt was planning on calling up Dietrich and just asking out right for help or if he had something else in mind. He hoped that it was something else. If not, it might just be Moffitt's worst plan ever.
And even in the short time that Tully had known Moffitt that was saying something.
"Sounds odd, I know. But, I think it's pretty well known around the desert that Dietrich is just a tad obsessed with us. I don't think it would raise too many eyebrows if he showed up demanding that he be allowed to interrogate Troy and Hitch. Do you?"
"Not going to be Dietrich that shows up, though, is it?" Sometimes Tully thought Moffitt was a jinx. Sometimes he thought he was a genius.
"Not in the end, at any rate." Moffitt paused and frowned. "If all goes well, that is.''
"What is it, Bader?"
Dietrich looked up from his report and managed to look very irritated at his newest leutnant. In truth, he welcomed the interruption. As always, his paperwork bored him. He knew that if he was able to spend as much time chasing the Rat Patrol as he did filling out reports about the damage that they had caused, he would have been able to catch them long ago.
"Herr Hauptmann Dietrich, Herr Hauptmann Greuber has been in contact," Bader said.
Dietrich frowned. "Who?"
"Hauptmann Greuber is the new commandant of one of our POW camps."
"Oh, that's right."
Dietrich thought for a moment of what he heard about the man. It had not been much more than some seedy rumor that Greuber had fallen out of favor with the leadership in Berlin for an extremely ill advised action. Dietrich sincerely doubted the reliability of what he had heard around the nature of the transgression.
If it was the truth, it should have gotten the man shot.
If nothing else, Dietrich supposed that it was a commentary on the current state of the Afrika campaign itself. Herr General Rommel used to command only the best officers. Now, instead of the best officers, the Afrika Korps were apparently getting the castoffs from the European fronts.
"Herr Hauptmann?'' Bader prompted.
Dietrich refocused himself. "Well, Bader, tell me, what did the man want?"
It had better be good, thought Dietrich. Regardless of whether the rumor of Greuber's disgrace was true or not, he had no desire to deal with the man.
Bader was fairly beaming. "He wanted to inform you that he has half of the Rat Patrol in custody. He thought that you might be interested in interrogating them."
"Really?" Dietrich leaned back in his chair and tented his fingers. "Which half?"
"Sergeant Troy and Private Hitchcock."
"And what of the other two? Moffitt and Pettigrew?"
Bader shrugged. "He did not mention them. But Troy is the leader, no? Without him, they are useless, surely."
It was all that Dietrich could do not to laugh out loud at how wrong young Bader was. Well, Dietrich thought, Bader would learn, likely the hard way just as he had. He just hoped that the boy survived the lesson.
"I should like to see that for myself. I hope that he realizes what he has in his possession." Dietrich also wondered what defense mechanisms Greuber had in place to protect himself and his camp from Moffitt and Pettigrew. It was surely only a matter of time before they came to rescue their partners in crime.
"I have already had your car readied. We can be on our way immediately after you have finished your reports." Bader smiled. "After all, it is not as though they are going anywhere, is it?"
Dietrich raised an eyebrow. No, his reports would not be going anywhere, though he was certain that Bader hadn't been referring to them.
Dietrich grabbed his hat and shoved his chair away from his desk. "Let's be on our way. You are driving, Bader?" He pushed past the boy and out into the bright sunlight.
His reports would wait. However, it was unlikely that Moffitt's and Pettigrew's rescue efforts would. There was no time to waste if he wanted to catch Troy and Hitchcock while they were still interred.
Tully chewed on the end of his pencil. "Hey, Sarge?"
Moffitt was draped across his seat like a cat sunning itself. He looked up from his book, stretched, and then yawned. "Yes, Tully?"
"What's a nine letter word for `desert dweller'?" Moffitt was the desert expert, thought Tully. This should be a piece of cake for him.
Moffitt closed his book but held his place with a finger. "Interesting question." Leaning over, he nodded in understanding when he saw what was occupying Tully's interest. "Doing crossword puzzles?"
"That's a fine hobby. Very good exercise for the brain.''
Tully didn't know about all that, but he thought that they were fun. "Hitch's mom sent a whole book of them to him. He didn't want it." Tully shrugged. "Said they made his head hurt.''
Moffitt snorted with laughter.
Tully himself had found Hitch's reaction odd. With all of Hitch's fancy schooling he should have been able to rip right through the puzzles with hardly any effort at all. Tully frowned. Maybe Hitch had given him the book because they were too easy for him. Not that Tully really cared. It was good as a way to pass the time as any and it always seemed like they had a lot of time to pass. Some days they did more waiting than they did fighting.
"Well, considering that we're in the desert, let's think about this. Any letters filled in as of yet?" Moffitt asked.
"Fourth letter is an `m.'"
Moffitt concentrated and muttered possible choices under his breath, considering them and then discarding them. Finally, his face lit up. "Dromedary!" he said, triumphantly.
Tully looked at him.
Moffitt obligingly spelled the word.
"Camel, right?" asked Tully, filling it in. Not surprisingly, it fit. He nodded and filled in two more answers with a certain sense of satisfaction.
"Right," said Moffitt. He stretched again and put his own book aside. "I don't know about you, Tully, but I'm getting very tired of waiting. Surely, Dietrich should be along very soon." Moffitt suddenly grinned at Tully. "I wouldn't think that a herd of wild dromedaries would be able to keep him away.''
When Tully had first met Moffitt, he had just thought that he didn't get all of Moffitt's jokes on account of him being English. As he had gotten to know Moffitt, Tully had just realized that sometimes Moffitt was funny and sometimes he wasn't.
Tully did what he always did either way, and smiled. "Yeah. Can't imagine he'd waste any time."
"It's been quite a while since I contacted his camp. And from where we know his column to be, this would be the most logical route for him to take to get from point A to B. I doubt that we've missed him." Swinging his long legs out over the side of the jeep, Moffitt grabbed the pair of binoculars. "I'll leave you to your puzzles and I'll go keep a look out."
"Sounds good. Holler if you see anything." Tully filled in another word.
"Right." Moffitt winked at him. "Holler if you run across any other particularly knotty clues."
Tully went back to the puzzle and Moffitt scrambled up a dune.
In less than fifteen minutes, Moffitt was back at the jeep.
"Sorry, Tully, I'm afraid that the crosswords will have to wait. I see a Kubelwagon coming at us. I'm relatively certain that it's Dietrich."
Nodding, Tully threw the book into the back of the jeep. He was ready for some action.
The puzzles were fun enough, but not nearly as much fun as getting the best of Dietrich.
Dietrich, expertly hog tied most likely by Pettigrew, looked up from the sand at the two members of the Rat Patrol who were regrettably still menacing the desert unfettered.
He was not happy, and his state of mind was not being helped by the fact that he was lying in the coarse hot sand in only his undergarments. His anger only increased as he looked at Moffitt, who was now wearing his uniform.
"You do know Sergeant Moffitt, that being caught in a German officer's uniform is considered espionage. A crime that is punishable by death,'' Dietrich warned.
Moffitt gave Dietrich a strange look. "I am very aware of that, Captain. You see, I almost met my end not once, but twice, before for that very reason. Not an experience I wish to repeat, I assure you."
Pettigrew nodded. "That last one was a close one, Sarge."
"Yes," Moffitt said with a sigh. "It was. But, it is a chance I'm willing to take again. Can't be avoided, I'm afraid. I'll just have to be more careful this time."
Dietrich growled in frustration and looked at Bader who was lying beside of him, similarly tied, but still unconscious. Dietrich's irritation was taken new heights when realized that the junior officer was still clothed.
"It really is quite unorthodox to waylay us, Sergeant, only to steal only my clothing."
Looking at Bader, Pettigrew snorted. "Would have taken his uniform, too, but he's just a runt. Not my size." He jerked his head at Moffitt. "On the other hand, Captain, you look like you're a perfect fit for Moffitt."
Moffitt looked down at his newly acquired uniform. "Well, the trousers could be an inch or so longer. But really, for off the peg, not bad at all. How do I look, Tully?''
Pettigrew looked amused as Moffitt did a little half turn. "Good enough to shoot, Sarge.''
"Excellent, exactly the look for which I was going!" Moffitt continued to grin at Dietrich. "And besides, it wasn't really just only the uniform that I wanted to borrow, Captain. I needed your identification tag, a German sidearm, and your papers. The Kubelwagon also was a consideration."
"Very convenient that you, erm, happened along, Captain."
"Convenient." Narrowing his eyes, Dietrich looked from man to man. "Let me guess, Sergeant. You are on your way to attempt to rescue Troy and Hitchcock."
"Now whatever gave you that idea, Captain?" Pettigrew asked in his odd drawl.
Dietrich looked accusingly at Moffitt. "It was you that contacted my camp, wasn't it? Pretending to be a German officer to say that you had Troy and Hitchcock in custody."
The Englishman said nothing but managed to convey volumes with a smug look.
"And I would say that they are most likely actually imprisoned as they are not with you." Dietrich looked over at Bader who was beginning to stir. "Idiot," he spat at him.
Bader's eyelids fluttered. "What, Herr Hauptmann?"
"You spoke to this Englander and believed that he was a German officer. That makes you an idiot, Bader."
"What? I don't understand. I have never ever seen these men before." Bader still confused, tried to focus his eyes on Moffitt. Then he looked at Dietrich, lying nearly naked in the sand beside of him. "Herr Hauptmann Dietrich, where is your clothing?"
Dietrich groaned. Moffitt and Pettigrew started laughing so hard that Dietrich thought that they might actually cry.
"This man, in front of you, is Sergeant Moffitt of the Rat Patrol. You may notice that he is wearing my clothing as I am not. Because you let him walk us right into an ambush, Bader!" Dietrich had tried to keep his tone calm and patient and he had failed miserably. By the end of the last sentence, his voice had almost risen to a roar.
"I don't understand." Bader looked at Moffitt again.
Moffitt gave him a little wave. "Ich bin Herr Hauptmann Greuber. Wie geht's, Leutnant Bader?"
"Oh,'' was all that Bader said, seeming to finally realize exactly where he had gone wrong.
At that point, Dietrich felt his anger ebbing away. He did not even have the energy to be embarrassed any longer. "His German is good, but not that good," he told Bader wearily.
Bader looked mortified. "I thought that perhaps he was from Bavaria, Herr Hauptmann?"
That comment alone earned Bader another round of side splitting laughter from their Allied captors.
"Gott in Himmel," said Dietrich finally, turning his face away from the two men who were still laughing like hyenas. He could not bear to look at them anymore, though the sounds of their amusement still rang in his ears.
Dietrich found that he had the sudden urge to bury his head in the sand until the war was over.
"Good help is apparently hard to find," said Moffitt, a wicked tone in his voice. "But, not to worry, Captain. We'll be back for you. Tonight, if all goes well. And at that time, upon my honor, I do solemnly promise to return everything that we've taken from you."
Bitterly, Dietrich wondered how Moffitt was planning on returning his dignity.