(a short and shameless indulgence originally posted to the Purple Hearts website in July 2003 under the pen name Anzio Annie)
The steep hillside would have been treacherous enough. The morning rain had turned the ditch into a slick mudslide. Crouching low, the two figures clutched exposed tree roots to keep from sliding out of control as they made their perilous way down the slope.
In the end though, it was the oversized boots that gave them away.
Caje had scouted the watchtower, counted the guards within sight, and had calculated the best angle to approach the oil depot - the one that provided the most prolonged cover. Still, there was no way the squad could sneak onto the property unseen. Sarge was right; a diversion would be needed.
He nodded to his young guide and then led the way back toward the rendezvous point. Their route came to a sharp incline at the edge of the woods, and halfway up, a sudden sound stopped them in their tracks - a fallen branch snapping underfoot nearby.
Bijou whirled at the noise, and the man-sized boots tripped him up. With a whoop, his legs flew out from under him and he tumbled a dozen feet back down the slope.
The German's attention was riveted on the bundle of rags now struggling to stand. Caje pulled himself out of the ditch and slipped silently into the trees behind them.
"Wer sind Sie? Warum sind Sie hier?" The guttural German voice was harsh, and the soldier grabbed Bijou roughly by the arm, pulling him to his feet.
The boy tilted his face up and tried a friendly, innocent tone. "Wie gehts?"
The sentry was not amused. He waved his hand at the boy's attire – scrawny legs swallowed up in German-issue military black boots; threadbare shorts; and a khaki-colored sweater and knit cap that said all too plainly - American GI. The soldier's face reddened. "Wer sind Sie?!" he repeated.
For a moment Bijou looked perplexed - his German vocabulary was as limited as his English - and then he tried his most ingratiating smile. "Haben Sie chocolat?"
The Kraut exploded in anger, and backhanded the boy across the face. Bijou fell heavily.
And then the soldier was knocked into the mud, as Caje launched himself on top of him in a flying tackle. The American's helmet flew off as they wrestled for the German's weapon. His own M1 was on the ground – Caje knew he couldn't risk the sound of gunfire. He cringed as the Kraut rifle pinned between them in their struggle came to bear on Bijou lying stunned in the ditch.
"Bougez-vous! Allez!" Caje grunted at the boy, straining to re-direct the rifle. It went off suddenly with an explosion that hurt his ears and the ejected shell casing ricocheted off his cheekbone, white hot, but the shot went wide.
The sound, however, drew more Germans at a run, and the jig was up.
Caje felt hands pawing at the collar of his jacket as he was dragged off the sentry. A hobnailed boot connected with his ribs with a sickening thud and rolled him over onto his back. He looked up into the angry faces of three blond-haired, blue-eyed members of theWehrmacht.
"You. What are you doing here?" the tallest one demanded in heavily-accented English.
Their prisoner glared back sullenly. A thin trickle of blood oozed down his cheek. He didn't answer.
The one with a sergeant's insignia reached down and closed his hand around Caje's arm, to haul him to his feet in order to march him back to the depot. The German's face twisted in a grimace, and he let go to scrub his palm distastefully against his trousers. It was streaked with the American's blood.
Caje swayed unsteadily on his feet. He didn't need to see the sticky red stains to know that his forearm was bleeding again. The fight with the outpost guard must have re-opened the wound. It was only a scratch, not even worth having Doc bandage, he'd thought that morning, when the squad had finished clearing the smoking ruins of bombed-out French village. But if he could live the day over again, Caje thought, there were a lot of decisions he'd make differently.
Take the medical attention when it was offered? Yes, he reflected, with a grimace.
Befriend the French orphan? Well, yes … he'd do that again if he had the chance.
But turn back for the boy when the German spotted him?
Why, Sarge would have his head for risking his life, and risking the mission, for the sake of a foolish civilian refugee.
"You will tell us what we want to know," the German said, yanking his prisoner's arms painfully behind his back. Another soldier bound the wrists tightly together. When they were satisfied that he was no threat, the sergeant prodded him in the ribs again. "Where are your comrades?" he demanded.
Without turning his head, Caje could see Bijou out of the corner of his eye. They aren't watching you, he thought. Leave now. Follow the ditch, away from the depot. Away from the war.
Bijou blinked, as if he could read his friend's thoughts. He began to inch back toward the ditch.
One of the Germans started to turn toward the slight movement.
"Hey!" Caje said loudly, and the Kraut turned back. The three men drew menacingly closer to their prisoner.
"You want to tell us now what you are doing here?" their leader said.
"I want to tell you now to go to hell!" was the answer.
Caje smothered a cry as a rifle butt smashed into his ribs again and he fell to his knees. His vision grayed for a moment, and as it cleared he could tell that, behind the Krauts, Bijou had frozen in his tracks and was staring at him with wide and frightened eyes. Cajejerked his head infinitesimally toward the woods, and saw Bijou nod. Then a boot unerringly found the growing bruise on Caje's ribs again. The crack was audible. But Caje kept his face impassive, knowing that Bijou might see him flinch, might linger in dismay. Might react impulsively, as Caje had done in going to help Bijou, and lose the one opportunity to reach safety.
So Caje made himself remain still, breathing heavily, until the boy started to move back along the ditch and disappeared from his sight.
"Amerikaner!" the shortest of the Germans spat at him. He heaved the prisoner to his feet, where Caje tottered without the use of his arms to regain his balance. "You will answer our questions." The threat, though left unsaid, was no less real. Caje was roughly prodded back to their guardhouse.
Once there, they hurled him to the floor, where he landed on his injured arm and groaned. The boy was gone now - safe - on his way to another village, Caje hoped. No reason now to act tough any more, to pretend it didn't hurt.
It did hurt. His bleeding arm, his cracked rib, the searing gash on his cheek. And, by the look on his captors' faces, the hurt was just beginning.
He had screwed up big time, he thought, as the Krauts manhandled him onto a bench. Sarge would chew him out for sure. As his captors sneered down at him, Caje straightened defiantly, unable to hide the accompanying wince, and only hoped his NCO would get the chance.
~ The End ~