He stood in the darkened hallway listening, smelling the dry musty air. Nothing moved, not even the air. Outside, he knew there was a breeze, carrying cool night-scented air, air that was fresh, clean and alive with the sounds of the night. He couldn't breathe this air. It was dead and he had had enough. No air could get in here. The windows were nailed shut and the doors were locked and barred. There was no worry about intruders, the fear was of escapees.
Indian Residential Schools were here to lift up the savages and teach them the white man's ways. That way they could improve their lives but to do that they had to leave their homes, their parents and families behind. There were those who embraced this new life. Those who did not would not be allowed to leave. They were prisoners.
N'Kia was older than the children when he was brought here. He had lived free, free to roam the land, free to hunt and learn. Being imprisoned, forced to sit still for hours, forced to march endlessly was a hell that his soul could not tolerate. He had tried, though not very hard, but he could not do it. He had to get out. He had to breathe the fresh air, run with the wind; he had to be a free man again.
He was not the first to try to escape. He had seen others try. He watched and learned. The only way was to fight. Others had tried slipping away but the men on horseback always found them and brought them back. They were punished.
He would not be back. He would not be punished. Goyen had told him of the old ways. She told him the stories of the raids against the Mexicans and the white soldiers. He would live and die like the Apache warriors. To stay and live was to die slowly. To fight and kill as many as he could, was to live a warrior's life. To die fighting was to die a warriors' death. There would be no one to tell the tale but he would know. And in the end, if he escaped alive, then he was free. He would live free or he would die free.
He blended into the darkness of the hall. It matches his eyes and some say, his soul. His thoughts are dark right now. He looks around. He knew this place. He spent two years in this hell hole and though he resisted learning a lot of things he did learn which floor boards creaked and which doors squeaked. He could move around silently.
He listened for a moment. All was quiet. He reached over and turned the door handle just enough to make a sound, then stepped back into position. He waited and after a moment he was rewarded. The door opened slowly. From his position against the wall he could not see the face that peered out but he knew it well. A small wizened man in a long night shirt, his thinning white hair tousled from sleep. A whispered inquiry went unreturned so the figure stepped out to look. His arm snaked out and around the scrawny neck before he could react.
Pulling the thin body to his chest and twisting the head, he was rewarded with the sound of his neck breaking. He held still and listened. No sound, so he lifted the body clear of the floor and moved into the room.
The smell of old and decay was sickening. The smell of dead flowers lingered in the room but could not cover the decay. The man blanched. Memories of these smells would haunt him forever. But now the man associated with the smell would never hurt him again.
He lifted the body and dropped it on the bed, covering it with the bed clothes. It would not do to have him discovered by a night wanderer before he was done. Silently he moved back into the hall. The next room contained a man who was a sound sleeper. He would not awaken even as he slashed his throat. The blood would gush out over his hands but a quick wipe on the end of the man's robe hanging on the end of the bad would remove the worst. A quick dip in the wash basin and he was on to the next perpetrator. He was the killer but they were not innocent victims. They were killers, killers of souls and spirits, killers of childhood, killers of innocence and the innocents. He had made it his mission to put an end to their killing. The end justified the means. They would say he would burn in hell for what he was doing but that did not bother him. He was burning in Hell right here. His God did not condemn him. He was freeing the children for his God. They would no longer be ripped from him' no longer be forced to turn their backs on the God of their people, turn their backs on their parents. They would be free to choose the God they would follow, as he had chosen.
The third room, he passed by. He heard two people in there. As much as he wanted to interrupt, he wanted no witnesses. No one should have to witness what he was doing.
On through the dorm he moved.
The next sleeper awoke as he was about to end his life. A hand over his mouth prevented the scream but in the moon light he saw the look on the man's face. Terror. He had seen that same look on the children as they arrived at the school. He was frightened. Why was he frightened? Didn't their bible teach them they would not die but have eternal life? Did the man not believe what he had been teaching them? He paused, confused.
This was all the prone figure needed. His body went into motion as he prepared to fight off his attacker. Knowing the element of surprise was gone he raised his knife as the intended victim screamed. He plunged the knife into his victim and the cry changed. The thrust had not been true but it was enough to stop pursuit. He turned and ran. He had to leave now. He flew down the stairs and headed for the entrance. No, it was locked but the small chapel window would be easy to smash. Chief pushed the door open and ran down the aisle.
Suddenly his legs were smashed out from under him and he went flying before crashing into …
Chief awoke with a start, confused. He looked around, still confused and frightened. The room was dark, lit with only the moonlight that lay across the floor. He was lying on the floor in front of the cabinet in Garrison's office, his head hurt, his thighs and knees screamed. What was he doing here? He rolled over to get up when the lights flared to life. He turned to look to the door and saw Garrison standing, bare chested, with a gun pointed at him. He froze.
"What are you doing?" the armed man asked tensely.
"I, uh, I, I don't know."
"Get up." Garrison watched the play of emotions flicker across the other man's face. He had also gone through similar uncertainty. He had been asleep when something had woken him. He had no sooner put on his pants to check for an intruder when he heard the crash. It had to be one of the guys. Damn them. If they had enough energy to horse around at night then they had enough energy to do more calisthenics, or laps or something. When he had looked in the door of his office, he had seen the figure crumpled in front of the cabinet. The tray that had been on the corner of his desk was missing.
What was Chief doing in here? The cabinet had been left by the owner and contained nothing but some linens. He watched as Chief got up gingerly favouring his legs. Putting two and two together he figured that Chief had fallen over the corner of his desk. To do that he had to have been moving fast or he would have just bumped into it.
Suddenly remembering the dream, Chief raised his hands and looked. They were empty. He checked but there was no blood. A quick look on the floor and again, no knife. It had to have been all a dream, a nightmare. His heart was slowing back to normal.
Garrison watched and wondered. He had been prepared to blast the intruder but the look of confusion on Chief's face and his actions, had diffused his anger. There was also the fact that Chief was wearing only his shorts so he was not trying to escape. Besides he knew their escape route was out the window of their room. It was late and there was nothing here that couldn't wait to be discussed in the morning so he simply said, "go back to bed."
Trying not to limp, Chief left the room and headed for the stairs. He would have liked to go outside but he did not want to ask. Back in their room, he went to the window. It was small but it would do. He inhaled deeply, trying to dispel the lingering dream. Why? Why had he dreamed that now? He hadn't thought about that part of his life for a long time. And the killing… What did it mean? What if he had had a knife in his hand? Would he have killed someone? He looked to the other cots. They were all peacefully occupied by living, and in at least one case, snoring sleepers.
What had triggered the dream? Did it mean anything. Why kill his team? He didn't hate them. This was a good gig. So something had triggered it but what. Was it their last mission? He thought back.
A Resistance Cell had been discovered and several individuals, including the leader, had been arrested. The rest had dispersed. It was up to the gorillas to try to rescue any being held and try to unite the factions who were left. The cell had provided information about the movement of German ships in the area and the Allies did not want to lose that.
They had arrived in Holland by boat and made their way to Breskens. This was where the cell had been centred. Garrison made contact with the one surviving member that they knew of and he told them that the major Nazi Headquarters was across the channel in Vlissingen. He had been able to arrange passage on a fishing boat to take them there.
Uniforms were acquired in the usual manner and Actor and Garrison as his aide went to make inquiries. The German Officer in charge was crafty. Actor's rank, the highest he was able to find was not sufficient to cow the commander. Each time Actor steered the conversation around to his objective, the commander bolted off onto a new topic. Either the man was very good or he was determined not to lose his prisoner to anyone. Four hours and a bottle of Schnapps later, the two imposters took their leave empty handed.
Chief watched as Garrison paced. They had to find out where the men were being held but they were out of ideas. Several suggestions had been floated but each was found to be lacking. It was late and they finally decided to sleep on it. Casino returned to his station, on watch for the last of the rotation.
Later, Chief went out to relieve the safe cracker but instead of going back into the warehouse the safecracker headed out towards the city's edge. Chief knew Garrison wouldn't like it and he said so but Casino just smiled. He knew Chief would say nothing. He was not a rat.
Maybe an hour later, Chief heard the signal, Casino was returning.
"Give me a minute then come inside," he said cryptically as he passed.
Once inside Chief saw that Casino had woken their leader. Actor had heard and was sitting up as well. There were no lights but enough moonlight to show silhouettes.
"What does Ergriffen, um Vught mean?"
"I overheard two soldiers talking and…. they mentioned…"
"What soldiers?" asked Garrison.
"And where were they?" added Actor.
"That doesn't matter," started Casino.
"Yes, it does."
"Do you wanna hear this or not?" demanded Casino. He had had enough and they knew it. No one spoke and Casino calmed a bit. "Now you made me forget what he said. If you had just…"
"Calm down and think back to where you were when …"
"Yeah, yeah," interjected the safecracker raising his hand as if to wave their suggestions away. " I heard the guy's name."
"Yeah. So I started listening. The one said, what sounded like, what happened? The other said," and he paused looking up to the ceiling as he ran it through his head, "Ergriffen, um Vught." He looked to Garrison, then Actor to see what their reactions would be.
"Taken to Vught," the two men said in unison as the leader pulled out his map. In their excitement they forgot about where the soldiers were that Casino overheard but Chief didn't. He also smelled the alcohol when he had passed him outside on the way in.
The Indian waited until the two were engrossed in their map. He would have liked to see where they were going but he was curious about where Casino got the booze and the information. He caught Casino's eye and motioned him outside. Casino looked to be unsure so he cocked his head and gave him the 'you owe me' eye. The two men slipped outside.
"So where'd ya get the booze?"
"There's a little place that stays open for the soldiers down that road and to the left."
"An' you went in when it was open?" Chief asked with a tone that said he thought the guy was stupid.
"Yeah," he answered, with his usual sneer. "I was thirsty. All I did was put my money down and point."
Goniff arrived before they could continue. "Casino, Warden says to come in." The two left and Chief remained on watch.
Later, when Chief woke up he heard Garrison, who had relieved him, waking the others. "Chief, once you've eaten, we need transport. It's about a hundred miles so make sure you got gas."
To prevent fatigue, Chief and Garrison took turns on the long drive. The country was flat and so different from the country Chief was used to. So too were the many canals they crossed. What he did find somewhat familiar were the stone buildings and the massive cathedrals. The one in Breda was so large that he could see it over the rooftops. France was like that too. He couldn't imagine how they were built. Someday he was going to go see inside one in the daylight.
Finally they neared their destination. The first thing they noticed was the increase in military traffic. Fortunately there were no check points to slow them down. Even so, it took them a while to locate a safe place to stay. Chief hid the truck, though they did not think the news that it had been stolen would have reached this far. Better safe than sorry.
"Actor, you're on me. We'll go into town and see what we can find out." Garrison then turned and glared at his safe cracker. "You three stay here." Casino put on his innocent face but it was just for show. "Chief, you rest up. Casino, you take the watch, then Goniff."
Chief rounded on his betrayer. "What's goin' on? Why do I gotta rest?" Were they planning something for later that they hadn't told him? Or did he think he was tired from driving. As soon as he spoke he saw Garrison's reaction. Damn, why did he shoot his mouth off. He knew Garrison had a reason. He always did. Chief was embarrassed.
"Because while you and I were wrestling that crate, that needs an alignment, they were in the back sleeping. Now it is your turn to rest and theirs to work."
Chief turned away and tried to look busy. He did not want anyone to see how foolish he felt. He was tired a bit but not enough to sleep so he went to the window and looked out. Later, he would find a place to stretch out and relax for a bit. The others would be gone a couple hours, he had time.
He did not. Within fifteen minutes Casino pulled open the door and whispered, "We got company. Come on."
Chief and Goniff ran to the door and the three ran. Finally they felt safe enough to stop. "'Oo was it, Krauts?" asked Goniff between gasps.
"No." Casino was winded too. They had not gone far but they had travelled fast. "Three old guys."
"Resistance?" asked Chief. "Maybe the Warden sent 'em."
"I don't know." He took a deep breath and released it. "I wasn't about to ask. We'll go back and see what they're doing."
The three men moved cautiously until they could see the building they had recently occupied, then stopped. There was no sign of anyone. Automatically, Chief moved forward. He made his way to the side of the building and inched closer to the window. A quick look and he ran back to the others leading them a safe distance away. "They're torchin' it."
"Arson?" queried Goniff.
"Or could be a diversion," suggested Casino. "If we follow 'em, maybe we'll find out."
"Yeah, but the Warden's expecting us to be here. You heard what he said." This last was for Casino's benefit. He ignored it as Chief knew he would.
"We could split up. Chiefie, you follow'm and Casino an' I'll stay 'ere, let the Warden know. But whatever you decide ya better make it quick. 'Ere they come."
They watched as one of the men emerged, looked around, then moved off. The other two followed. Unseen, Chief moved into position. The warehouse they had chosen was at the edge of the commercial section of town and did not look well used. Inside were a few boxes and crates. It had a look of abandonment. The old dry timber was going to burn hot and fast.
All went well for Chief until the three men split up. They had walked several blocks to the retail section then the leader picked up a bicycle, left at the side of a building, and peddled off. The two remaining men continued to the next block where the next man entered a store and the last one turned down a side street. He walked to a narrow doorway and entered. Chief noted where each man had gone and returned to warehouse which was now spouting black smoke. There were no sirens and no one seemed to have noticed. Chief found the others and they moved away far enough not to be noticed but within sight in case their team mates returned.
It did not take long for the siren and fire brigade to arrive. With the place fully engulfed, there was nothing they could do. Also arriving, were two more civilians. Three other civilians materialized nearby and then they all slipped away. Once they were far enough, Chief reported what had happened.
"Think it's a diversion?" asked Casino.
Garrison looked at the fire brigade, the fire then to the town. "If it is, what for?"
"Maybe we can use it," suggested Actor.
"Let's go. Chief, where's the truck?" Without answering, the Indian moved off followed by the others.
Following Garrison's directions, Chief drove the truck to the main road then southwest outside the city. From there they turned northwest. Less than a mile later, Garrison signalled a turn. They had not gone very far when a German Light Armoured Vehicle approached from the other direction. It pulled across the road blocking their approach.
Chief watched as the door opened and a soldier stepped out. As he approached his window, Chief's heart rate increased. If he had been on his own he would be dead. He leaned back and tried to relax. The Warden would take care of it. The soldier approached with hand gun drawn. Words were exchanged as Chief tried to look uninterested. The soldier yelled something at Chief and glared. This time he did not have to pretend fear. Finally Garrison said, "Danke." Then he waved his hand signalling to back up while he said "Zuruckfahren," to Chief. He nodded and prepared to shift gears as he waited for the soldier to step back.
The Armoured car followed them all the way back to the other road then waited until they were out of sight. At Garrison's request, Chief pulled over. "So what's going on?"
Garrison got out and moved around to the back. Chief followed. Once inside, Garrison explained. The Nazi's had built a camp down the road they had tried to travel. Political prisoners were being held there.
"So that's where our guys are being held?" asked Casino.
"That would be a safe bet," answered Actor.
"An' we're supposed to break'm out. Just remember the last time we tried that. Guy's died an' it coulda been us." Goniff wanted to make sure Garrison was not thinking of doing that again. They all saw that he was.
"We need a closer look." He pulled out his map. Chief leaned in to see. "Chief?" That was all it took. The two men slipped into the trees and made their way into the woods.
It was quite the hike, though at least the ground was level. Less than a mile in, they saw the watch tower through the trees. They moved in closer. In front of the tower, were a barbed wire fence, then a wide ditch of water and another fence. Along the outer fence they saw more towers. This was not going to be easy.
Beyond the outer defences they could see rows of long low buildings. A few people dressed in black and white striped uniforms were moving about slowly. The two men watched for a time then at the leader's signal they pulled back and began moving along parallel to the camp. Garrison wanted a view from another angle.
It took them several hours before they started back. As they walked parallel to the fence, the two Allied intruders froze as gunfire erupted to their left. Shades of the first time they tried breaking into a prison. Was an escape plan going into motion? No, that would have gunfire from inside the camp, on their right. This was definitely outside. Was someone else trying to break in to free the prisoners? They carefully lowered themselves down into a crouch to make themselves a smaller target them worked their way back the way they had come. There was a pause in the gunfire then shouted orders. They sounded German but too muffled to understand. They moved in that direction.
As they got closer they came to a large ditch filled with water. On the other side they saw German soldiers guarding prisoners. They were digging. Graves? The soldiers must have killed some of the prisoners and the others were digging the graves.
Chief felt sick. He had been a prisoner and had been threatened by the guards but he had never had to dig another prisoner's grave after watching him being shot. Then it got worse. Once the graves had been dug and the bodies hauled into them the diggers were rounded up and shot as well. Garrison turned away as the shots were fired. Chief made himself watch. He knew the image would remain. It paid to hate the enemy. That hatred kept you from flinching and prevented you from feeling sorry for them. It made it easier to kill them.
The watchers in the wood turned away as the German soldiers finished the burial and returned to the camp. This was not war, it was murder. With heavy hearts they returned to their teammates.
It was a quiet group who made their way to the edge of town. Finding a place to park out of sight, they crawled in the back and sat. No one looked, no eye contact was made as they sat lost in thought. Each wished they were anyplace but here. Casino thought even Levenworth was better than this. It was worst for Chief and Garrison. They had been there. Each imagined how the poor prisoners felt, having to dig the graves knowing they were next or did they think they were going to be spared. To not be selected for the first round meant living a little longer but then you had to witness the execution. Probably better to be in the first round.
Chief knew Garrison would not leave. He would come up with something to get inside that camp. The last time they had kidnapped the Commandant's son and traded for the man they wanted. That was unlikely to work here. Even capturing the soldiers who had to carry out the murders were unlikely to be worthy of a trade. He had seen the shoulder patches. They were SS. They weren't known for their compassion. All he could do was watch and wait.
The night was cool and damp as Chief took the watch. He crouched about forty yards from the back of the truck. In the dark he kept seeing the prisoners beyond the fence that surrounded the camp. He could not see individual faces but they looked dispirited. He knew that look, had seen it in prison. As much as he tried to push that image away he could not. It haunted him.
Four hours later Garrison came out to relieve him and he returned to the truck. He had a few hours before dawn but sleep would not come. He finally gave up and climbed up on top of the truck. He would have liked to watch the sun rise but the sky was overcast. Within ten minutes he felt the first drops. He waited as long as he could then gave up and returned to the cramped interior as the drizzle continued to soak the land.
The next day dawned cool and cloudy. Garrison checked his watch. Allowing for the elapsed time, he would return again to see if he could force something. The rest followed, spreading out as they approached. The site was vacant. They would wait.
"What if we dug up the grave," started Goniff, "ta see if our, you know…." He looked uncomfortable as his voice petered out.
No one looked pleased. "No," said Garrison quietly. "We don't want them to know we've been here." They all looked relieved.
The men waited for half an hour for the returning soldiers but there was no sign of them. Chief was unnerved. The whole area here made him tense. He could not put his finger on it but it bothered him. He tried to tell himself that it was because prisoners had been murdered here but there was more to it. Finally he had had enough.
"Warden? How about I head over toward the camp, maybe see 'm comin'"
"All right, Chief. Be careful."
Chief felt better as soon as he was clear of that open space. It was not to last. As he approached the clearing around the camp he saw the watch towers. That was to be expected but from his position he could see one of the barracks and his unease returned as he watched several prisoners in their stripped uniforms being marched off into the distance. They disappeared around the corner of a building.
Chief took a deep breath and held it before releasing it quietly. He was drawn to the camp but it bothered him. Why? He settled into the underbrush and waited. Life in the camp carried on but no one left through the gate. He waited until late afternoon before returning to where Garrison had remained. They all returned to the edge of town where they found another abandoned building to sleep in.
The next day was a repeat with the same results until just before noon. Chief heard them before he saw them. Two large troop carriers rumbled down the road and entered the camp. Chief moved to a position where he could see where they were parked. The prisoners were assembled and those with a yellow badge were herded into the trucks. Once they were loaded they remained sitting under guard. Chief crept back and reported to his leader The two then returned to Chief's lookout and waited. The trucks sat for close to an hour before the gates opened they rumbled back out.
Neither spoke but both wondered about the fate of those in the trucks. The yellow badges meant something, they did not know what. That would come later. Being so far from their own vehicle meant they would have no hope of following them. They just hoped their men were not amongst those being transported.
Day three saw five frustrated men. Chief and Garrison would return to the camp and Actor, with the other two in tow, would go into town and listen. Garrison had already determined that the camp was run by the SS so they could not bluff their way in to carry out the rescue. There had to be a way and it was up to them to find out that way and use it.
The three cons were dressed as labourers. They thought this was safe, but they had not counted on the Nazi crackdown. They had not gone far when Actor decided to purchase some food. The shop was small so he had the other two wait outside. He was paying for his goods when he saw three soldiers approach his team mates. They demanded and, of course, got no response. This made them suspicious and before Actor could get outside they were marched off down the street. Actor, trying to look uninvolved, paid and casually moved outside in time to see the detainees put into a truck and driven away. He asked a fellow shopped what was going on and was told that all the young men had been rounded up and taken away. She had heard it was to labour camps in Germany.